During this week, ten events occurred in the world. Most were mundane or not immediately consequential in the grand scheme of things. They were just—details. First steps that only made sense after the spinning ball of destiny was crashing downhill towards the pins of fate.
These ten occurrences were: a convening of ships at sea. An execution. A boxing match. An accusation in scarlet. A hiring of an employee. An assassination. A fine. A duel. A delivery service opening. And a crossing of borders.
As it so happened, two individuals would both interfere or witness or be tied to these events in some way, despite their occurrences across Izril and, in one case, overseas. These two individuals were, predictably, an Archmage and a Dragon.
The thing about getting older was that you never actually felt old. Your body and the face in the mirror might change, but at least, for her, the realization that she had white hair had come as a shock. She’d spent two months wondering if some magical accident had dyed her hair white and kept expecting to see the normal shade of blue return. Blue worked among brown…the results of magical heritage.
Valeterisa Imarris felt younger in the inn. The Haven made her forget she wasn’t ‘Valley’, a [Mage] who was newly-graduated from Wistram Academy or here on vacation during the winter and summer for the free bread.
It made her forget who she was—until someone stared at her stealing bread from baskets. But the smack on the hand was familiar.
“Archmage Valley, stop stealing bread from the free baskets.”
“I was hungry.”
Larracel looked older, too. Shorter, or perhaps it was because she didn’t have a pointed wizard’s hat or stride around with her team. She wore a servant’s outfit. But her warning scowl was the same.
Valeterisa reluctantly stopped stealing breadsticks out of the basket sitting on the table in front of the Gnoll family. A Gnoll boy was staring up at her, open-mouthed, and his parents looked nervous. Why?
Thought-Process #8 (Allegedly ‘Common’ Sense): It might be that stealing breadsticks is unwelcome at this moment.
Thought-Process #2-5 (Main Valeterisa): But I’m a fun young woman with an impish personality.
Thought-Process #8 (Allegedly ‘Common’ Sense): This is no longer true. You are 65 years old.
Thought-Process #22 (Miscellaneous): You have an obligation in 7 minutes. Don’t forget.
Thought-Process #1 (Life Support): Am I still breathing?
Valeterisa inhaled after a worryingly long pause. What came out of her mouth was not her internal stream of thoughts and the 22 different processes thanks to [Parallel Thoughts], her Skill that allowed her to divide up her intellect. It was simply the conclusion of all this background thought.
“I dislike being old, Larracel.”
The [Innkeeper] of the Adventurer’s Haven gave Valeterisa an unusually sympathetic look. Then she snagged Valeterisa’s ear before Thought-Process #9, Reflexes, could get Valeterisa’s head out of the way.
“Come with me. Where’s your apprentice? I have breakfast right here.”
“Do I have to pay for it?”
“Valeterisa, you are rich.”
“Oh. Yes. So I am. Could you waive the fee anyways? Your inn is expensive.”
In short order, Valeterisa was at a table under the morning’s sun, and she blinked at the snowy mountains around her and then shivered.
It was winter. When had that happened? She stared up blankly at the clouds and the falling snow. Larracel, who was delivering a replacement basket of bread and some honey to the Gnoll family, turned and gave Valeterisa a suspicious look.
As if she didn’t believe Valeterisa had missed the onset of winter. Yet it felt to Valeterisa as if she’d woken up and the season had changed.
It reminded her of when Ryoka Griffin had woken her from her long imprisonment in her mind. And she had lost almost a decade.
That thought made all of Valeterisa’s other thoughts screech to a halt. And she decided in that moment she did not like her new organizational system.
“Thought-Processes. All halt. All halt.”
Twenty-two different thoughts all stopped running at the same time. Valeterisa blinked—
Then she was herself again. No longer running twenty-two ways at once—but focused. She looked up and realized she was cold because she was shivering. She wore the enchanted robes that marked her as Archmage of Izril. Someone had given them to her a long time ago, and she’d had ‘Archmage of Izril — Valeterisa Imarris’ embroidered on them because it helped when meeting new people.
She was aware, though, that the cloth was cold because heating spells were not in the fabric. And the temperature made her shiver. In fact, she was shaking so badly that her hand wouldn’t lift the spoon of hot soup—pumpkin with spices floating on top?—to her mouth.
She was back. Like Fissival, Valeterisa was focused.
Part of her instantly disliked the feeling of being ‘present’ because some of these feelings were useless. Divided, she could do multiple things like handle [Messages] sent to her, work on magical spells, and more. But she had to admit—her Skill had its dangers.
Considerable dangers. She felt like she might have almost just fallen into the same trap as last time.
No more using that Skill—for now. Valeterisa looked around and focused on the people around her. Some were staring at her out of the corners of their eyes, at the Archmage of Izril. She blinked like an owl behind her spectacles as she stared right back and they pretended to be focused on their meal.
Then Valeterisa swiveled and heard Larracel speaking to the family she’d been stealing bread from.
“I’m so sorry for the trouble. Hello, young football player.”
Football? Did she know…? Valeterisa whispered a custom spell she’d implemented long ago.
“[Display Memories: Factoid].”
A variation on the [Recall Memory] spell. She might not deserve the class of [Archmage], but she was still a well-trained fundamentalist. She could alter spells, scribe them to scrolls, link spells, and convert mana between types.
All things any basic [Mage] of real Wistram would be able to do. But apparently, just being able to alter a spell at will from its basic functionality already put you at ‘high magus’ level. Which was stupid.
Anyways. The spell she’d altered popped up her own organized memories into a readable series of text over people’s heads. Anything she knew about them.
For instance, as Barnethei hurried past Larracel, she saw a popup.
Barnethei, age 17 age 34. Level 42 [Vice Innkeeper]. Most recent levelup—encounter with Erin Solstice, possibly Trials of Zeladona. A huge fan of eating oranges. Can be bribed with Balerosian oranges. No longer the case; he can buy his own. Crush on Chierice. She’s dead. Enamored with Mihaela? Taken sword-lessons from Eld, Deni.
Wants to start his own inn. Can duplicate himself.
More facts popped up the longer she stared, but her realization that so much had changed was…
This was why she disliked feeling this way. Valeterisa raised a finger.
She hesitated. This felt like another trap. She wanted to do it, but she vividly recalled not casting the spell much while she visited Fissival.
That had resulted, however unpleasantly, in her first levels in eight years. In great achievement—and yes, considerable emotional damage.
But if you were going to put the possibility of levels and thus new spells and opportunity on a scale, Valeterisa would sacrifice almost anything for that. So—she didn’t cast the spell and felt unhappy.
Chierice the Gold-ish. A ‘Gold-rank’ adventurer. That was the joke. Her motif as a [Merchant]’s daughter had been to use cheap pyrite and gold paint to give herself an aesthetic. It had certainly earned her the name, and she had adventured, using the Haven as a base.
It had been fifteen years ago when she died. Who would remember her? Valeterisa distinctly recalled a younger man, new to working under Larracel, trying to flirt with her.
She looked around, and it didn’t feel that long ago. Then Valeterisa focused on the Gnolls. She didn’t know the older ones, but the younger one actually did have a memory text line.
Ekirra, Level ?? [Kicker]. 8 years old. Inquisitive. New class? Prone to stealing food with Mrsha.
Oh, so the boy was here for his first visit to the Haven. He was peering at her as Larracel smiled. Valeterisa shivered—then took a quiet bite of soup.
“Mm. I’m cold.”
She was cold. Drat. Barnethei had clearly been ordered to give her a coat, hence his approach. Although he was taking his time because everyone wanted to talk to the ‘Innkeeper of the Haven’.
This was the kind of understanding full-Valeterisa was afforded. Did it matter? No. Not really. Hence her often spooling off parts of her she didn’t need, like the processing of smell, into working on other spells.
Alas. History does teach me that [Parallel Thoughts] has been the end of better [Mages] than I. Lost in their intelligence. Maybe I’ll not use it for a while.
Which meant she was resigned to shivering. Valeterisa sighed and then had another thought worthy of an Archmage.
Wait a second. I’m no longer Valley, a girl-student of Wistram. Right?
Right. I’m old.
But with age came certain privileges. Like, for instance…Valeterisa craned her head up and peered at the falling snow. It came out of a grey sky—the High Passes north of her, towering, but receding into the distance.
“Hmm. Where are we?”
She had no idea. Valeterisa liked the look of the snow—but not the cold. The Haven’s upper floor with the outdoor seating had a lot of people bundled up—or Gnolls with their handy fur—but they had put out several braziers in an attempt to beat the cold.
Valeterisa could do one better. She aimed a finger straight up, and Barnethei broke off talking with a young boy demanding to know why he couldn’t access the Pub of Best Moments. He strode over—too late.
“Let’s see. [Fixed Spell]. [Empowered Casting]. [Dome of Heat].”
It was just a Tier 3 spell. [Dome of Heat] normally had a radius of ten feet around you and about five feet over your head. Valeterisa pumped mana into it and realized two things.
Firstly—her magic felt more powerful than it used to. As if it were doing more with less.
[My Mana Runs Thick as Blood]. It felt—viscous. Like the difference between oil and water—a denser and thus more efficacious mana pool.
Second—as the [Dome of Heat] rose, a shimmering orange light cast by the glowing barrier that made the guests recoil and gasp—the air warmed up in a moment. From the biting cold, it became pleasant, even warm! It enveloped the entire upper floor of the inn, melting snow on the railing and making the little boy, Sammial Veltras, nearly leap out of his seat in shock.
It also had one side-effect Valeterisa’s more limited mind hadn’t come up with. Which was…if it was snowing and it was suddenly warm—the snow underwent a change.
It began raining. Drops splattered down, and the cries of awe became dismay. Valeterisa got a fat droplet in her eye. She pointed up again.
“Drat. [Dome of Air]!”
A second dome rose, catching the shower as it fell, and the water streamed away, rolling off the dome and onto the ground where it re-froze. The bulls pulling the floating inn below grunted in surprise, and some raised their heads to lick the water streaming down around them.
Valeterisa went back, saw her soup was cold, and warmed it up with a touch. She smiled. Right up until someone smacked her on the back of the head.
“Valley. Are you trying to ruin my business?”
Larracel glared, and Valley hunched her shoulders.
“No. It was cold.”
“I had a coat for you. Barnethei. How many times have I told you to see to Valeterisa first?”
The scolding was familiar as the [Vice Innkeeper] hurried over, mortified, and he and Valeterisa were once again children in trouble. Then Valeterisa peered up at Larracel.
“I’m…I’m an Archmage of Wistram now, Larra. You can’t talk to me like that.”
Larracel eyed Valeterisa. She said nothing, but Valeterisa quickly put down her spoon and put her hands in her lap.
“—I’m very sorry, Larra. It won’t happen again.”
“See that it does not or I will confine you to your room. At least you anchored the spell to the inn.”
The bubble of warmth and umbrella were moving along with the inn so they wouldn’t lose them in a moment. Valeterisa peeked up and then stared around.
“Where are we?”
Larracel sighed, but the rolling hills and valleys…she pointed back tiredly.
“Past Liscor. There’s the city. We met The Wandering Inn yesterday. We’re headed to the Bloodfields next. A journey I don’t envy. Don’t you remember?”
“No. We passed the other inn? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Larracel’s head-slapping hand twitched. Barnethei just shook his head in amazement.
“Archmage Valeterisa, there was a party. You were there. Albeit reading a book.”
“I must have forgotten. [Recall Memories]. Ah. So there was.”
Now she vaguely recalled a party. Mostly a book she’d been reading. But the peripherals in her memory did indicate Larracel had been hosting thousands of Liscorians in her inn, speeches from the Council, and Erin Solstice’s own inn meeting this one.
“Oh. So that is why my apprentice hasn’t shown herself. She must be hungover.”
“Doubtless. Though I think she’s noticed you casting magic.”
Larracel’s voice was dry—and she pointed to a red-haired young woman running across the deck towards her. Montressa du Valeross’ face was pale with the fear of an [Apprentice]-[Aegiscaster] who suspected her master had, once again, caused a scene.
“Archmage Valeterisa! Master!”
“I only cast a warming spell, Montressa. Hello. I’m awake. I am not mad you were having fun yesterday. Also—I like the pumpkin soup.”
Valeterisa even managed a faint smile. Look at her. She was peopling so well today. She was, in fact, a person. Even Larracel managed an exasperated smile of fondness. Montressa was messy; she looked disheveled, and her hair resembled a squirrel’s nest in motion.
“Archmage! Not that! You’re late! I told you and told you—didn’t you set an alarm?”
Valeterisa paused with another spoon dipped in the pumpkin soup.
“Told me what? I turned off my parallel thoughts.”
It occurred to her that this might have had consequences. Montressa turned white—then she seized something out of her belt pouch and thrust it at Valeterisa. Then—and only then did Valeterisa realize a bunch of [Message] spells were piling up in her magical inbox. Larracel stared at the [Message] scroll.
“Oh no. Barnethei—where’s the scrying mirror?”
He pointed, and everyone turned to a scrying mirror set to one side for the audience’s enjoyment. It was tuned low so people could eat without being forced to watch, but Ekirra’s family and the Veltras family were both watching a broadcast.
A broadcast of…ships. Lots of them. They had a familiar sigil on them of a crown-like bastion wall rising out of rot and hovering over a cracked, broken wasteland. Like a chess piece, perhaps. A mark of strength, a wall.
The symbol of the Blighted Kingdom. Now…Valeterisa began to remember, and she felt a pit in her stomach. Especially when she heard the muted broadcast Barnethei turned up.
“—to mark the expedition of the Blighted Kingdom to the new lands of Izril! His Majesty, Othius IV will now give a speech in honor of the moment!”
Applause. The cheering crews of what seemed like no less than forty ships—not all warships, but many just as large. Many were massive cargo-ships that were used to ferry goods to Rhir—all preparing to set forth in a grand cavalcade.
Every species in the world was present—and numerous dignitaries were there in person. Not just them, though; the changing nature of the world meant that there were now world leaders ‘present’ via hanging mirrors that showed their faces.
King Fetohep of Khelt, for instance, sat, golden eyes flashing next to an image of the Bannermare and the leader of Maelstrom’s Howling floating in the air. Just getting an appearance in this grand moment had probably been the result of political relevancy and/or negotiations behind the scenes.
And of course, if you were naming world powers, you had to have Wistram, right? The Archmages of Wistram were all hovering in the air.
Even the Archmage of Chandrar, Amerys. She looked sardonically pleased to be included with old Verdan Blackwood, Viltach, who looked recovered from losing his arm—though his limbs were conspicuously out of sight in his frame—and Archmage Eldavin, front and center. Archmage Feor was to his left, looking semi-radiant with his silver hair glistening, the result of a superior illusion spell or actual alchemical makeup.
Every recognized Archmage in the world. Even the two who refused to return to Wistram—Archmage Uenoix of Baleros and Archmage Toerika of Terandria.
Seven Archmages. None really worthy of the name; it was a political title. But they hung in a kind of semi-circle, three on Eldavin’s left, three on his right. The symbolism was apparent; one stood above all and had control of Wistram.
Amerys, Viltach, Feor, Eldavin, Verdan, Uenoix, Toerika—and one blank mirror. The gilded letters beneath the hand-crafted mirror read…
Archmage Valeterisa of Izril. The one Archmage to represent the continent of Drakes had no image present. Valeterisa stared at her mirror. Larracel, Barnethei, and the horrified Montressa all gazed ahead without a word.
The broadcast was on a ten minute delay. So just before the applause winked out and Othius began to speak, Archmage Valeterisa did appear.
She, unlike the other Archmages sitting in their studies or rather impressively arrayed with illusory backgrounds, was sitting at a table with a breadstick in hand. A young boy—Ekirra—was turning his head from the mirror to Valeterisa. Barnethei, Larracel, and Montressa realized they were in frame and ran for it.
She was just a small part of the moment. Obviously. But still. They had to smile and look good, but illusion spells could cover a world of motion, and they were all at least capable of writing and reading [Messages] in their heads.
Toerika: Dead gods, the gall of it. She’s late! She’s just lucky none of the television [Commentators] noticed! Is she eating?
Feor: Valeterisa is one of Eldavin’s. I can almost hear the [Messages] he’s sending her. See her flinching?
Uenoix: She hasn’t changed since Wistram.
Viltach: At least she appeared. Worse still, she’ll get away with it. She is one of Eldavin’s allies.
Verdan: It’s disgraceful to her position, but at least the Blighted Kingdom is reasonable. Besides—she demonstrated that amazing feat at Fissival. So there is some providence here.
Toerika: It wasn’t that impressive. She had a Djinni and the entire city backing her up.
Viltach: …Is that an indication you could do that, Toerika?
Toerika: I know my capabilities full well, Viltach. Fissival was designed to fly. I don’t swing swords or try to haul a million pounds of stone into the air.
Feor: Unbecoming of you, Toerika.
Uenoix: How is the arm? I know several good prosthetics dealers in Baleros if you need an introduction.
Viltach: I shall build my own arm. I am recovering.
Amerys: Better make one that can fight for you, Viltach. I am coming for you and Feor.
Uenoix: Oh, Amerys. How did you find this message grouping?
Feor: Fortunes change, Amerys. Shall we be amicable in this moment at least?
Amerys: Very well. Let’s meet and have tea and discuss our past grievances like adults. Name a place. I’ll be waiting. If you go travelling abroad, keep an eye on the weather.
Toerika: You always were full of threats, Amerys.
Amerys: And you’re hiding in your estate again. The King of Destruction is back, Archmage Toerika. Will Terandrian’s kingdoms ask you to battle me? Let’s meet. If you wait long enough, I’ll come to you.
Uenoix: Well, Feor, Viltach, and Toerika have all fled. I suppose I shall greet Valeterisa privately since this conversation has ended. Congratulations on your escape, Amerys. Zalthia asked me to mention her to you if I got in contact with you first. Her company is quite the fan of the King of Destruction. They were also following Valeterisa’s return with interest.
Amerys: Thank you, Uenoix. How are the Centaurs?
Uenoix: The Titan’s stomping around. But—oh, wait. I think the Death of Magic is coming. This should be fun.
The launch of ships from Rhir’s shores to the new lands of Izril was symbolic.
The truth was that the Blighted Kingdom had sent a wave of ships already—the second wave was their public front. It was still important, and because it was televised and because it was Rhir—
The Death of Magic came calling.
Did you think she wouldn’t? Ships at sea were a huge target. The Blighted Kingdom had known she would make her move, or all three Deaths, and they were ready. The ships were six minutes at sea when the first meteors began raining down.
“The Death of Magic!”
Valeterisa was glued to the scrying orb. She watched in a kind of awe and envy, trying to catalog each spell as it rained down. The other guests were watching with far less academic interest—but Larracel could at least keep up on the magical front.
“[Meteor Swarm]? [Meteor Shower]? No—the diameter of each falling stone is at least thirty feet across! Actual dirt? No again—it’s a magical construction, but it must be [Meteor] the base spell being flung at range by the Death of Magic. And they are firing Death Arrows at her!”
It was a long-range war as four of the five walls of Rhir lit up, returning spells and arrows across the sea at a single woman trying to sink the ships as they activated barriers and sailed fast, trying to escape her.
A meteor cracked one of the warships’ barriers, but the truth was that the lightning bolts and other spells Silvenia was throwing were coming from miles away and there was plenty of time to dispel, counter, or just shield from them. By contrast, the famous traitor-[Archmage] had minutes at best.
“They’re unleashing one of the Blighted Kingdom’s great spells. The [Golden Rays of Rhir].”
Larracel whispered. She saw a ray of gold burn into the ocean after the Death of Magic, and she wondered if even the water was turned to gold. The cost to use that spell a moment would have bankrupted the Haven and all she had ever earned.
“A Skill. Not a spell. How is she surviving the effects? Perhaps she’s creating physical barriers, a clone spell—oh!”
The ‘oh’ was the Death of Magic’s parting gift. Her brief rain of spells had torn up the sea. Geysers from the falling meteorites turned into steam as a rainstorm of fire splashed over the magical barriers over each ship. The few lightning bolts that hit the barriers had glanced off, and the one warship with a cracked shield was already repairing. It seemed like the forty ships would make it out of Rhir’s harbors without trouble.
—Right up until one of the glowing barrier-stones in the lead-most ship began to glow too bright. It was bright green, protective jade-emerald, probably ten feet tall and shaped like an oval. The brilliant glow turned harsh—then white or ultraviolet if you were a species capable of seeing it. It whined and became a scream—
Then it exploded. The barrier around the ship didn’t dissipate, though. As the spell of protection failed, the barrier shimmered—then drew back in on itself. Just as it had expanded, it contracted. Unfortunately—that meant the solid wall of magic contracted around the ship—and people within.
Silvenia was laughing. She had to retreat before the Blighted Kingdom burned through her barriers—her skin was already burning from their attempts to turn her into gold.
But she had sullied Othius’ grand ceremony. One ship out of forty was gone—and she could have destroyed any one of the forty ships at sea.
She had chosen that one because she had sensed a number of clandestine classes in the holds. Not [Heroes].
The [Heroes] were not part of this cavalcade. Doubtless they’d be shipped under heavy guard rather than let her take a shot at them like this. Richard, Emily, and the lucky [Heroes] who would be allowed to join the New Lands expeditions were watching pale-faced from the harbor.
Only one of their number was at sea. The Blighted King had risked him…possibly because he was not going to the new lands.
Out of the forty ships, seven were bound for Baleros. A meager number, perhaps. But seven warships from the Blighted Kingdom was still a sizable force and a very handsome gesture in combating the Dyed Lands.
Why, they had even sent one of their champions. The [Clown] had been standing on deck the entire time Silvenia kept up her firefight with the ships.
Laughing. Laughing and laughing and waiting for her to choose his ship to sink. But she didn’t. She blew him a kiss—and thought that of all the things she could have done, not destroying Tom’s ship might be the better blow.
The [Clown] sailed for Baleros in the company of the Blighted Kingdom as one of the ships slowly sank beneath the waves.
The broadcast cut out for a minute, leaving only blackness. When it reappeared, the ship was gone. Valeterisa and Larracel looked at each other.
“It must have been compacted. That spell’s based on Drowned Folk magic. If it contracted back to its original size—”
An entire warship had just been compressed into a ten-foot sphere. Larracel was horrified. Valeterisa? Her eyes shone.
“Yes. I wonder how she did it! If I was only there—she must have been altering the spell at range. Miles away! Did she have an agent on board or was she capable of infiltrating a sealed magical network? A Skill? A…”
She beamed and beamed until she realized everyone else was staring at her—and she was still on the broadcast. Then she sat up guiltily.
“Ah, yes. The morality of it. Very sad.”
But the magic of it. Her eyes were so longing as they stared after the fleeing Death of Magic. There went a real [Archmage]. Everything she had aspired to be.
Every other Archmage, including Eldavin, glanced Valeterisa’s way. The Archmage of Memory himself was grimacing while the others rolled their eyes, covered them, or tried to pretend they didn’t know her.
She didn’t quite realize it—but in a sea of horrified faces, grim defiance from Rhirians, impassive calculation or analysis by world leaders like Fetohep—
Valeterisa was the only one wearing a pleasant parade-smile.
The blowback to Valeterisa’s reputation after the ships set sail was minor. There was disapproval, but it was mostly a public interest kind of thing.
And in fairness, she was insane. If you had a reputation for being upstanding, or even a good, caring Archmage like, say, Feor, the backlash would have been far worse.
Valeterisa hadn’t even been in public for more than a decade. Even before that—it was hard to accuse her of hypocrisy. Being insensitive? Careless to life? Tactless? Incapable of keeping time?
All very valid. But she had always been…like this.
Archmage Toerika was one of three Archmages of Terandria. Viltach and Feor were the ones who were well-known and often spent time at Wistram.
She…was more of the [Mage] who leaned on her reputation and used it to gain a position of comfortable wealth and opportunity in the nation she had chosen to support—which was her homeland. And yes, this was a standard Archmage move from the days before Zelkyr.
After all, what nation would turn down a helpful, powerful [Mage] who paid a decent amount of taxes and provided magical assistance from time to time? It did depend on the personality. But Toerika was Taimaguros’ Archmage of Moment.
She was also, to put a fine point on it, a contemporary of Valeterisa. As was Archmage Uenoix. They had all been students and graduates living in Wistram around the same time.
Toerika considered Valeterisa to be her rival and had been quite pleased by Valeterisa’s disappearance and presumed death. Valeterisa—sometimes remembered who Toerika was.
“Archmage Valeterisa, you have an Archmage Toerika who wishes to speak to you! Toerika of the Oreanius faction?”
“Who? Oh, yes. Toerika. I don’t want to speak to her. Ignore her [Messages].”
“Nothing good comes of speaking to Toerika. Except for her.”
That was a sample conversation often repeated between Valeterisa and Montressa. And that had puzzled Montressa du Valeross greatly until she’d prevailed on her Pheislant friends to find out more about this reclusive Archmage.
In the doing, she’d uncovered some stories of Archmage Valeterisa’s past—from the woman herself—and about Archmage Uenoix’s specialty as well.
Archmage Toerika had a suitor come to call in the Taima-side of Taimaguros. It did not go well. She was a rather strange [Mage] and greeted him warmly despite three rather sub-par dates in his experience.
The [Duke] of one of Taima’s houses was rather impressed by the powerful light magic that was the hallmark of the Oreanius faction; mood lighting covered her estates and gave everything an appropriate glow.
But he had to own, the night had its bumps. A servant spilled some wine on Toerika’s robes during a minor quake at the capital. He made a comment on Archmage Valeterisa that completely ruined the mood. But he noticed that despite her face going flat when Toerika heard Valeterisa’s name, or the spill on the dress, the Archmage of Moment was very forgiving of everything.
In fact, she seemed more enamored of him than he was of her from the somewhat lame encounters, which was flattering. But, er—things went most poorly that night.
He had heard a gentleman of some necessity might need an alchemical aid for marital (or unmarital but related) affairs, as it were. Bedtime pursuits. Pride meant that he had not availed himself of anything like this, but it had been some time since he’d found himself in lucky company.
It was quite a lot of fun. For twenty-one seconds. Then, as it sometimes happened, things were over far too quickly. And that, the poor [Duke] felt, had to be the biggest letdown of the night. Especially because he felt like he’d had all the limited fun.
He distinctly recalled seeing Toerika’s vague look of disappointment in the intimate bedchambers with the bed of glowing sheets—even the fabric had its own light. And yet—then she smiled, thanked him, and seemed genuinely fine.
He had known partners to act and pretend he had done better than he had, but even the best of them surely would have had a comment to make for that performance. The [Duke] was so ashamed he scuttled out of the estate anyways and refused to come out of his rooms for two days. But it hadn’t gone that poorly.
After all, Toerika quite remembered it differently. She spent the rest of the night after the Duke’s rather short and one-sided, one-time fun at work in her laboratory. She worked that night and the rest of the next day, and by the time he emerged from his rooms, she had sent him a little crystal which she claimed would ‘illuminate him’.
For as she recalled that night, it had been the most splendid conversation with an elegant suitor wherein no wine was spilled. After being thanked personally by King Othius IV, she had spent the rest of the evening being delighted whereupon in turn the performance by nightfall did not disappoint and lasted quite a long time and had a number of titillating twists and turns.
It was her talent. A talent that many people sometimes called upon her for. A wedding gone wrong, a mistake made—she didn’t ask questions. It was a dangerous game, and she had the habit of misremembering some occasions to even close friends.
For instance, her rivalry with Valeterisa had been the stuff of legends—only, Valeterisa didn’t remember any of it, despite both taking the same classes in memory magic by an older [Mage] of Wistram. And even the Archmage of Izril knew better than to call or prevail upon Toerika.
“Anything you say to her doesn’t matter. She remembers winning the argument. She’s very good at memory magic. She even knows a bit of time magic. Time lasts longer in her estates. She has a lot of time.”
A lot of time—but she had not the breadth of spellcasting ability Valeterisa possessed. That was the fact that had resulted in Toerika’s rivalry with Valeterisa. She could not remember things that she could not conceive of. Hence her grudge against Valeterisa and, to some extent, Eldavin, for taking her other motif. But the Archmage of Moment was no great politicker of Wistram, nor was she a warmage like Amerys.
Baleros, now, had [Mages] who were known to war. Even though Archmage Uenoix was no battlemage, both he and Magus Zalthia Werskiv, known as the ‘Firebringer’, one mage of three in the Tripartite Law company, were both graduates of Wistram.
Ironically, of the two, Zalthia was no Archmage, but she had been in Wistram before Valeterisa left. She had been younger than the Archmage of Izril but bullied Valeterisa several times before Valeterisa had struck out alone.
“I don’t like her.”
Valeterisa scowled over her pumpkin soup after the dramatic breakfast. The Haven was abuzz with chatter.
Fancy hats and glossy heads of hair swiveled to turn to the Archmage, sitting at a table with Larracel and Montressa. Barnethei was flitting back and forth, often blocking people from interrupting them. She was positioned so that everyone had a view of her on the deck above.
The heat shield that she had erected had drawn out all the guests into the now-warm deck. Flying familiars buzzed around overhead as the staff of the Haven circulated in their bright blue uniforms, matching the nobility of Izril for brightness of color.
Yet they were the hangers-on. Valeterisa sat there as Larra’s plain wand flicked, and a floating platform rose so that it was all on the same level as the deck.
They were floating past the Bloodfields, and the snow looked reddish in the distance—but there was no immediate movement. It was still a sight to draw half the eyes to it, that uneasy Death Zone.
Soon, the nobles would have to leave or be out of range of Erin’s door and, thus, Invrisil. But they were hanging on, and even the famous guests like Mihaela Godfrey were still here.
Savoring the Haven.
The flying platform that had risen, incidentally, was the gardens. A cow gently mooed as Ekirra stared at it from the railing. Cows who lived in the Haven had to be used to the change in altitude and not be afraid of heights. This one had lovely red fur, and even the milk it produced had the faintest ochre tinge to it. The milk tasted like chestnuts, for some reason, which gave the breed its name.
As a magical breed of cow, the Chestnut Heifer’s milk was in high demand among the Haven’s guests. And right now, the milk, which would go into bread, cups, and be a lovely literal cash cow product, was being stolen.
“Mihaela. Unless you’re putting on an apron, leave my cows alone.”
The Guildmistress had been milking a cow. She had stolen an entire bucket—she had an obsession with the milk, especially with coffee of late. Larra glared at her and pointed, and Mihaela picked up the bucket.
“The milk stays.”
Mihaela tried to run for it, but as she blurred off the dais and leapt down to one of the walkways towards the residential part of the Haven, her bucket came up—empty.
The faintly red milk was floating in a blob. Larracel levitated it over to a second bucket a familiar carried over and called out.
“If anyone would like a cup of Chestnut milk, the price is listed on the board! Valley, have a cup.”
She deliberately caused a rush to try the drink, and even gave out little ‘free cups’ to children like Ekirra, who greedily guzzled his. Mihaela’s glower could have split rocks, and Larra’s face was cool.
“Don’t bother Larra, Apprentice. Mihaela always butts heads, and Larra wins in her inn.”
Valeterisa gave Montressa some unnecessary advice. The [Apprentice] was very respectful of Larracel. The [Innkeeper]-[Wizard], funnily enough, seemed to rather like Montressa’s politeness.
“Montressa, have you tried Chestnut Milk? I doubt they have any in Wistram. Have a sip. Valley, you should treat your apprentice better.”
“You were never this nice to me.”
Valeterisa complained mildly, but two cups appeared as Larracel snapped her fingers, and Montressa savored the taste of the milk. Sweet, too! The [Innkeeper] snorted.
“You paid me nothing and ate my bread when my inn was just starting. I’ll put your apprentice’s food on your tab. Don’t scowl, Valley. You’re rich. Indulge this bright, respectful girl. I have had too many decades of wild children who don’t listen to me. Deni, you when you get magic in your head, Mihaela never stopped, and even Eld could be as stubborn as a rock when he made his mind up. I’ve been showing Montressa a few wand-forms.”
She flicked her wand for demonstration. Montressa hadn’t even known there were wand dueling styles or that how you held or used your wand could influence the nuances of a spell. You could point a wand straight and cast a spell on target, but Larracel had revealed to her that with some practice, you could spin a [Fireball] in an arc at a target like a spiral. It was all in the wrist.
Valeterisa, a student of these lessons, grumbled into her cup of milk.
“I wish you were at Wistram. Zalthia wouldn’t have dumped buckets of chalk dust on you.”
Montressa, who was taking notes on Valeterisa’s past thanks to the more talkative and focused Archmage, gulped.
“She, um—bullied you, Archmage? But you were a teacher then. She was at least eight years younger than you…”
“Sixteen. She was a bad student and aggressive. I don’t like her. Or Toerika. Or Uenoix. Why are you bringing up my past?”
Montressa traded looks with Larracel, and the [Innkeeper] of the Haven exhaled.
“Valley, give your apprentice something. She’s curious about her master. Why did you let a student bully you?”
“I was a teacher, and teaching was hard. They always make new graduates take some classes, and the students would pull pranks.”
Valeterisa grumbled. Montressa could just imagine the problem—a shyer, and still sometimes absent, Valeterisa trying to control a class of students? Even Pisces and Ceria might have been issues for her.
She felt bad for her master, which was strange. They had had—similar experiences in Wistram.
“Did you have any friends, Archmage Valeterisa? What about Archmage Uenoix?”
“Not him. He never shared his notes with me. He’s the Archmage of Ichor…or was. He works for Maelstrom’s Howling in some capacity.”
“Archmage of…he knows blood magic?”
Valeterisa’s scowl deepened.
“Apparently. He never shared it with me.”
Most of Valeterisa’s grudges and friendships apparently stemmed from who had enabled her pursuit of magic. She seemed to recall Archmage Feor more as a teacher than the Archmage he now was—and Viltach had also been around her age, if younger.
“Viltach was a good student. He helped make me one of my wands. I liked him. Archmage Feor’s advanced classes were fun. I recall he tried to make an entry test to get out of having to teach one year. It had forty pages, and it would automatically grade you every answer you made, so most students failed before page six. He had only five students. I was one of them.”
That sounded really familiar. Montressa had a sudden image of Illphres sealing off a classroom. She heard a snort and looked at Larracel. The former [Wizard] rolled her eyes as an Arcane Familiar floated over with a trio of cups of coffee for the group.
“I took a year-long course in Wistram to improve my Skills. I was never a full [Mage]…it seems nothing in the academy changes.”
“Not true. They got rid of the adventurer-courses. Not enough [Mages] with combat experience. They argued too much with adventurers like you, Larra.”
The two older women were sitting around a table in the Haven with Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] was slowly coming down off the panic and guilt of failing to get Valeterisa to her appointment. The Archmage had claimed it was her fault for ‘turning off her thoughts’, but Montressa had been worried Valeterisa would snap at her.
She might have been about to, but Larracel had promptly scolded Valeterisa for relying on an apprentice. Larracel the Haven was a kind, terrifying woman to Montressa, and the younger [Mage] nervously dipped some bread in the pumpkin soup as she sipped on the coffee.
She knew magic and business and adventuring—she had done it all. She was reminiscing with Valeterisa sternly, for she was older than even the Archmage of Izril and had been a Gold-rank when Valeterisa was still a student.
“You must have had some friends, Valley. You would come back every winter bubbling with spells and ask me to check your homework and projects. Sometimes you’d be in tears, but half the time you were happy as a clam.”
“Clams don’t feel that happy. I had to do a project about [Sense Emotions] on them one time. They’re mostly content at best.”
Valeterisa mumbled back as she sipped at her coffee. Larracel’s hand twitched, and Valley leaned back. She thought for a long moment.
“I had friends. A friend. I had two. I wonder if they’re alive.”
“Maybe you should reach out to them?”
The woman frowned.
“I think they both sent me [Messages] when I was trapped in my mansion. Lots, and when I left. Oh. The latest one was today. Should I reply? But it’s been so long—”
She looked guilty, and Montressa tried not to make a face as Valeterisa glanced at her. Larracel had no such compunctions.
“If they’re still sending you [Messages]—Valley, answer them today or I will make you sleep under the wagons.”
“Fine. Apprentice Montressa, make sure I don’t forget.”
Valeterisa instantly turned to Montressa, but it was something. And she did remember Montressa’s name.
Some things had changed since Fissival for the better. Montressa’s levels and their relationship, for one. Montressa scribbled down the note on a floating spell that carried the magical words just above one wrist. Larracel eyed it approvingly.
“I can’t read that. Do you encrypt the words?”
To her, the words looked like gibberish, but Montressa could clearly read ‘by tonight: Archmage Valeterisa messages her two friends’ in bright gold lettering.
“Yes, Miss Larra. Archmage Valeterisa taught me how.”
“Eldavin taught me. Encryption of spells…he told me every Mage’s Guild and their [Messages] are far too open. Powerful [Mages] have probably been harvesting every correspondence sent publically and been stealing information for decades. He’s changing it, but slowly.”
Neither Larracel nor Montressa were surprised by this, but both inhaled sharply. Valeterisa glanced up.
“…Don’t mention that. It’ll cause a scandal.”
They were very lucky that Montressa always put up privacy wards as a force of habit from her Wistram days. Larracel’s exasperated exhalation sounded practiced.
“Valley—alright, who were your friends?”
“Um. Um…oh, they were in the Terras faction? I should have said hello. Maybe. I was busy learning about E—things. And chasing a boy around.”
She nibbled on her bread as Mons and Larra stared at her. Valeterisa clarified.
“He was sixteen or seventeen.”
She kept eating and then clarified again as the stares ramped up in intensity.
“I was trying to steal his sand golem. That’s what I meant. My two friends? It was Sa’la. She’s an [Herbalist]. And Telim. Oh! I remember! They had a nickname for him, too. The ‘Thief of Tables’.”
Montressa covered her mouth. She had heard that! It was a minor secret in Wistram, and Larracel laughed.
“I think I remember! Even I heard about him. Didn’t he use a bag of holding?”
Valeterisa nodded with a smile. And she looked so nostalgic and even fondly happy that Montressa realized she really was here today. She had begun sliding back since coming to the Haven, and Montressa had feared having all her needs cared for had begun to make Valeterisa lose focus.
Larracel seemed relieved too. She poked Valeterisa, and the Archmage jumped.
“I’m just testing you. Well, now you’ve caused a minor diplomatic incident, I will leave you in your capable apprentice’s hands. I know you have quite a lot of work to do.”
Valeterisa’s eyes slowly lifted, and they lit up as she remembered, to Montressa’s relief. She looked around, then smiled at Montressa.
“That’s right. We’re going to make money. Apprentice, what are we doing first?”
“Um—House Sanito, Archmage. And your niece, Lady Ieka, wants some of your time, and I had a few thoughts on your teleportation network project. I know a few good [Mages]. Oh, and today’s your day of [Arcane Discovery].”
Valeterisa beamed. Things were looking up.
Even in her absent-minded state, Archmage Valeterisa had a plan. And that plan was to become a better [Mage] and uncover spells lost to time. To surpass Zelkyr and to be worthy of becoming a great [Archmage] in truth.
That was her overall goal. Everything was therefore in service to that goal. And one of the things Valeterisa had realized was that to research magic, she needed gold.
Gold bought you ingredients for spells. Gold bought you materials for spellcasting, like gems. Gold bought you artifacts and spellbooks and wands.
Gold…was essential. She had often engaged in projects to gain more gold. She was no adventurer and had seen how dangerous that occupation was thanks to Larracel—so her methods had been largely peaceful.
She had traded on her spellcasting by enchanting artifacts, then had engaged in ventures like causing rainstorms or casting powerful spells for a fee.
But every [Mage] did that, so Valeterisa always hunted for the real income sources—preferably things she could do that would generate gold for her research for the rest of her life.
This had led to her partnership with the late Maviola El…and Valeterisa had collaborated on a number of projects, the latest of which had been the Kaalblades. Every single venture had been either a lukewarm success at best or a failure, though she had been paid.
Even so, by the time she’d vanished, she had owned a mansion and had poured a lot of her gold into the elaborate security system and traps. The windfall of the Kaalblades had replenished mostly empty coffers, but Valeterisa had been dreaming of the next big income source.
Fissival had been a let down. If they had bought her teleportation network and welcomed her into their arms, she would have solved her entire crisis of economy in one fell swoop. Their funding would have meant she could throw herself into magical studies—especially given their patents.
In lieu of that, Valeterisa had hatched a surprisingly ambitious plan. If Fissival would not have her…she would replace Fissival.
“Lord Alman Sanito. You have sent goods to Invrisil via The Wandering Inn, but regrettably, Miss Erin Solstice can no longer facilitate the transit of goods across Izril. There are roads, the Driver’s Guild, and other ways to transport goods, including even Couriers at a pinch. But Magnolia Reinhart has her tariffs. House Sanito is at the mercy of [Traders] and [Merchants] who take their cut of the profits for the destination. What if…you could sell to people who want Sanito’s goods without any of those costs?”
Montressa was giving them a pitch as Valeterisa put on her best ‘I am present’ smile. She felt it might be unnerving the Sanitos and two other noble [Lords] who were listening to the pitch, but Edere Sanito, a [Merchant]’s daughter in her own right, was listening intently.
“You mean via teleportation like Fissival. Archmage Valeterisa did teleport our goods straight to Invrisil.”
Lord Alman was nervous, but he ran a hand through the bags of soft wool that Montressa had set up as an example on the table in front of him.
House Sanito exported three main goods: wool, coal, and copper. They had a mine that produced both materials, one good for a number of metals or alloys, and the other good for heating and many purposes.
Everyone needed wool, and Sanito’s herds produced a lot. It was not magical, though, and some people liked cotton a lot more, despite the pain it was to process the stuff.
All this meant that House Sanito could sustain itself—but often was in danger of other economic forces. If the Terlands in the north had their Golems produce lots of cotton from their damn fields or copper was in high supply…or Magnolia Reinhart placed a tariff on the bulk goods, they suffered.
Part of the issue was simply logistics. House Sanito was, unfortunately, in competition with other groups. House Ulta could produce both lumber and charcoal for heating. As Sanito was along the eastern foothills that housed Ogres as well as a number of mines, their copper was sometimes worth less than they wanted.
It would be wonderful if we could sell to someone who really wanted what we have. Like, say, Riverfarm, who rather wanted copper, wool, and coal for various reasons.
“Sheared Sariants, Alman. Even if we could but sell to House Veltras directly, I’m sure they’d want our coal! I know for a fact that many of the families aren’t allowed to cut down more than a certain number of trees per year, and winters get cold!”
Edere remarked softly to Alman. Another [Lord], Lord Ranga, was nodding swiftly.
“The trading via The Wandering Inn’s portal door did my people very fine. Very fine. We were making gold over silvers on our steaks, and the restaurants and eateries of Invrisil were buying them up. Why, when I came to Liscor, I saw Drakes dining on our very cows!”
Ranga’s house owned a number of fine cattle who produced meat in high demand—but the issues of transportation often meant that he had to deal with [Merchants] capable of preserving the meat. He turned to the last [Lord], who grimaced.
“I don’t much like the idea of our goods going to Drakes. Your boy Mel wasn’t happy about it, Ranga.”
Lord Andel was reluctant, but Lord Ranga’s lips pursed only a second as Valeterisa’s patient ‘I am being friendly’ smile widened at his comment. Her lips hurt. She dearly wished to speed up the conversation, but Montressa had insisted she take the lead.
“You say that, Andel, but have you counted your profits? Mel has his feelings—but I saw how much gold we pulled in.”
Andel scratched at his chin.
“I have an [Abacus Counter] who does my trade sums. I meet with the man four times a year, and I hadn’t counted the last quarter’s change. Is it that profitable…?”
He looked doubtful, and Alman, Edere, and Ranga hurried to assure him that it would be very noticeable if he inquired.
The lack of the [Lord]’s acumen in economics was notable even to Valeterisa. She knew for a fact that Lady Ieka personally checked the sums going through House Imarris’ coffers. But then—perhaps Andel was not a counting man.
House Imarris had employed tutors in mathematics as well as magic for Ieka, but the two were often conflated as ‘mage knowledge’. Either someone like Edere married into the family or you learned to take over the family business like Lord Ranga.
This variance, incidentally, accounted for the reasons why you had [Ladies] as successful as Lady Magnolia Reinhart and [Lords] like…Andel. But Montressa was only too happy to explain.
“Lord Andel, your phosphate powder and the weftreeds that come from your lands are in high demand among [Alchemists] across the world. What if you sold those from your lands straight to Pallass, the City of Inventions?”
“Straight to Drakes? Gah. The thought of it—what do you mean, those are in high demand? We have [Smiths] who make excellent weapons!”
Andel looked annoyed by her examples. Montressa hesitated.
“Yes, Lord Andel…but they’re not what makes up your land’s profits, as I understand it.”
“Really? I heard my [Counter] telling me that our tax on the alchemical stuff does well—but more than good steel?”
“Andel, I vouch on my daughter’s hair that it’s making more than all your weapons combined.”
Edere broke in gently as the [Lord] looked more and more out of his depth. Montressa kept smiling, but she looked a bit perturbed. And it was here that Valeterisa, whose face had really begun to hurt, decided to break in.
“Lord Andel of House Ikis. If you sell directly to Pallass, even with their 6% income tax on incoming goods from Human lands, I have personally estimated that your house might make a profit no less than 168% of its current value—and that is a conservative estimate! You may find your profits are two hundred or three hundred percent higher!”
His stone-beige eyes were as blank as river stones as he stared at her. Then the [Lord] smiled.
“I—see, Archmage Valeterisa. That would be profitable. As much as a hundred and sixty-eight?”
He had no idea what she was talking about. Valeterisa’s own blank look of astonishment matched Andel’s.
Montressa snapped her fingers, and her eyes lit up. Valeterisa saw her turn—and the Secret Broker of Wistram had something Valeterisa lacked. Which was insight.
“Lord Andel. Let us put aside numbers for a second. Have you enjoyed your visit to Liscor?”
“Mildly. It’s been an honor to visit the Haven on its passage south, of course.”
“Have you had the time to visit…Esthelm, perchance? You know Master Pelt, one of the greatest [Smiths] in the world, works from there.”
Montressa slyly remarked, and Andel, Alman, and Ranga’s eyes all lit up. Edere sighed, but patiently. Andel nodded quickly and with far more familiarity.
“Master Pelt? I saw him working. The Dwarf’s as rude as I heard, but I saw his swords—I wanted to place an order, but he’s booked. And this was my chance to have a Pelt-crafted blade!”
He scowled hugely. Montressa’s smile widened.
“Well, consider this, Lord Andel. If we developed a teleportation network, you could visit Esthelm at your leisure. Master Pelt is infamously temperamental and busy, believe me, but consider—you are bound to have the chance to have your order fulfilled if you have constant access to him. You could have a blade forged by a master within a year’s time at most—and one for your trusted retainers and family.”
Andel’s eyes lit up. Now, he looked alive with curiosity—and Valeterisa was the one getting bored. But she watched Montressa with relief as Andel nodded.
“My father’s too old to but swing a sword, but if he had a Pelt-blade, he’d rouse himself for at least a few swings. Now there’s a good thought. So this teleportation thing would let me do this? Just like the door?”
“We’d do goods first, Lord Andel. To make sure the system is perfect. But you can send a sword via magic—all it requires is the cost of creation and, of course, an accord with your house to allow us to transit the goods.”
Valeterisa watched the faces of the [Lords]. She might not be the best at selling things, but she had survived Wistram.
They did not like the idea of the cost. But they were hungry enough to want to leap at this idea.
“A…fee…would doubtless be steep, Mage Montressa. House Sanito is not without its means, but hiring such a famous Archmage might be difficult.”
Edere spoke carefully as she glanced at Valeterisa. All three nobles were the ones who had protested Magnolia’s trade war with them. They were not well-to-do families.
Which was why they were the first clients.
Montressa rested a hand on the wool Valeterisa had transported from House Sanito. It had actually been something of a trick. Valeterisa hadn’t performed a long-range teleport on the goods themselves. She had, instead, used the teleportation network to teleport herself and the goods all the way to Invrisil.
It was tiring and took her personal involvement, but it had arrived within half a day. If they could build a similar network that any [Mage] could operate…
Fissival was rich off its teleportation services. Valeterisa had a vision of that richness, but she needed a start. And so Montressa spoke very carefully.
“Archmage Valeterisa is not without means, Lady Edere. She would be willing to take on the cost of building this teleportation service and, indeed, offer it to your [Farmers], [Herders]—even the Merchant’s Guild and whoever wants to use it. Instead of an upfront deposit—would your house be willing to offer her certain rights?”
Edere’s eyes sharpened. Lord Alman looked relieved. Andel looked at Ranga, and the other [Lord] shrugged.
“That—may work. What would that entail?”
“A fee for teleportation—and in the case of trade goods, a small, tiny fee on any teleportation! We aim to make the costs of sending goods virtually only as expensive as the mana to power the spell. But if your Houses agree to this contract…”
Montressa fussed out a simple contract, which she passed around to the [Lords]. Edere produced some reading glasses, and Ranga squinted at the words, but Andel gave up after half a page. Montressa and Valeterisa watched with bated breaths.
The reason they were approaching these three houses was threefold. One—they were used to the teleportation with Erin Solstice and knew they had something to gain. Two—they needed the income and were likely to agree to this contract because it would enrich them.
And three—they were not Magnolia Reinhart. Edere was pursing her lips, but she was glancing at Ranga and Andel and Valeterisa.
If it was Magnolia Reinhart that Valeterisa approached with her Fissival-teleportation plan, the [Lady] of House Reinhart would have probably said, ‘what a splendid idea, Valeterisa! I certainly do not hold a grudge for any previous incidents where I tried to employ you or when you caused trouble on my lands. Let us work together!’
And then she would, in her competent way, organize a northern teleportation network. But she would not offer Valeterisa what the Archmage wanted—which was a lot of gold. She would probably run the entire network, make sure it was organized like a Mage’s Guild—or probably through the Mage’s Guild—and take a tidy sum or dictate the profits go mostly to the [Lords].
But Valeterisa wanted money. She wanted…1%. Less than 1%, even. Fissival did offer its teleportation services rather cheaply to each city. They took 2% of what every Drake settlement in their aegis bought and sold. But that was 2% of everything teleported. That sum alone made up much of the City of Incantion’s budget.
This? This was the start of it all. Montressa and Valeterisa held their breaths as they watched the three noble families consider their offer. If they made this work, proved the system was enriching three small families—they had the market.
Only the Terras faction had this teleportation spell from Eldavin, and only Valeterisa among a few [Mages] was capable of casting it. Eldavin had his own Wistram teleportation network he was working on, but as a sign of goodwill, he had given Valeterisa Izril’s infrastructure if she could develop it. She was his staunchest ally among the Archmages, and this was either a reward or a bribe for her help.
Valeterisa watched as Alman whispered with his wife, and Ranga spoke to Andel. When they looked up, she knew what they would say. Mostly because she had cast [Bat’s Ears] on herself, but also because she saw the conviction and hope in their eyes.
“Archmage Valeterisa? We agree.”
The Adventurer’s Haven was crossing into the Bloodfields, into the south of Liscor. The crossing from North to South took place as guards and the Haven’s staff lined the edges of their floating home.
Warily. They were watching the Bloodfields, despite the cold, but it was inactive. Safe—as long as it was cold, the red Death Zone was safe.
Montressa and Valeterisa were celebrating as the crossing happened.
“We’re going to be rich! That is—you’re going to be rich, Archmage! I’m sorry.”
“I’m going to be rich! But I will pay you, Apprentice.”
Valeterisa was ebullient. She felt excited and was reminded of every time she talked to Maviola El and the [Lady] convinced her to work on another artifact for House El.
Part of her wondered if this was going to fail too. No. No, how could it? The concept was flawless. Besides—she turned to Montressa.
“The costs in laying down the teleportation circles will be…painful, Apprentice. I have started a budget. We are at, um—30,000 gold pieces.”
Budget: 30,000 Gold Pieces. Kaalblade profits.
Montressa’s eyes widened.
“That’s a lot. Even adventurers would call that a lot.”
“I am due more from Deilan El once his sales finish. We will buy magicore and gemstones and lay down a spot for the teleportation to take place. But then we will need [Mages] to operate the spell and fuel the magic. On both ends.”
“There are good [Mages] in Invrisil. House Sanito…well, it’s not the hardest spell. They just have to fuel it, right, Archmage?”
“Yes, and I have other spells I would like to implement. In time…if you help me, Apprentice, I will guarantee you some of the profits. Do you know any good [Mages]? I can do more than teleport. I have thought about opening a healer’s clinic. And there are more magics that Archmage Eldavin taught me.”
Montressa’s eyes went round, and she realized Valeterisa was referring to the magics she’d shown. [Restoration], among others.
“Are you trying to create a magical renaissance in Izril’s north, Archmage?”
“If I am not Fissival’s daughter—then I will offer my services here. For a fee. But I will need you to deal with the mundanities of…this. So. Teleportation and the rest. We must first operate the new network on both ends. We will have to teleport to each of the [Lord]’s lands—but I have placed a marker down in House Sanito, and we may fly to the others. But first—Invrisil.”
Montressa was nodding rapidly, and her eyes lit up.
“Happily, Archmage, I know just the [Mage] who might operate it. She’s my friend, remember her? Bezale?”
Archmage Valeterisa kept smiling—then she frowned.
“The—the Minotauress [Spellscribe], Archmage. Bezale of Maweil? Scriptels?”
“Who? Have I met her?”
The sight of an excited Archmage and her apprentice hurrying through The Wandering Inn was so commonplace it was boring. These things happened.
Create a teleportation network? Pshaw. Come back when you had something original. Erin had been doing that for ages.
Oh, some people were excited. A Vampire sat up as a Minotaur bowed repeatedly to Valeterisa, and a Centaur poked his head out of the kitchen where he and his darling [Chef] were helping Erin make scones.
“Erin. Erin. You can’t put cement in the scones.”
“They’re gonna be super scones! Rock scones! Forget the Scaleguard Sandwich! We have to make food even tougher! Even harder to eat!”
“No! You’ll ruin the mixing bowl! Palt, help me—Palt?”
The Centaur edged out of the kitchen towards the [Mages], because he really was fascinated. Lady Ieka Imarris watched her aunt in an actual passion with delight—and all these things were well and good and boring. Because of the mundanity.
You know what wasn’t boring? What was new, fresh, and never generic and overdone?
Teriarch, the Lord of Flames, sat at a table with a young Drake lady. He looked like a somewhat rotund Human man with a white-grey beard and rosy cheeks, but also an older dignity about him at times.
She looked like an azure comet, scales flashing bright blue bordering on white to dark navy blue, and her mismatched eyes—and her wings—and the sparks that sometimes came out of her mouth—made her unique even among her old kind. An Oldblood Drake with heterochromia, just like him, eyes mismatched as well.
…They were the most obviously odd duo in the inn if you were looking right. And that included the Ant-man and Drake seeing who could eat more spaghetti in one sitting at the table next to theirs.
“Ah, it feels like a cycle, young one. A cycle.”
“What does, um—Master—? Elder—?”
He harrumphed gently.
“My name will do. We don’t stand on titles. You have much to learn. Among other things—how to fight. How to cast magic. But also how to be. Our culture. Did they really teach you none of it?”
She bit her lip, and a flash of annoyance crossed Wall Lady Rafaema’s face. She tried to ignore the sounds of snarfing next to her.
“Klb. Are noodles coming out my nothtrils?”
“Yes, Relc. I may soon expectorate mine.”
“Don’t do it on my plate. I’m winning.”
This was not the moment she had envisioned where she and that great Brass Dragon would sit, trading words of wisdom. Instead, she was watching Klbkch the Slayer choking to death on a mouthful of red spaghetti.
Red, because of the spices Calescent had put in. And yet—Teriarch was here, and his eyes—focused on Valeterisa talking with the eager [Mages]—were nostalgic.
“Mage empires rise and fall. To me, this has that familiar tune to it. May it be done better this time. I saw that child lifting Fissival. With help, yes—but I believe her origin may be pure, may be righteous. But it is a cycle. Rihal was fourteen thousand years past, and it collapsed. What say you about all this?”
He turned—and Rafaema looked away from Relc trying to yank a spaghetti noodle out of his nostril. She gave Teriarch a guilty look.
He stared at her, then at the Drakes.
“—Perhaps this is the wrong venue. I can see you are distracted.”
“I’m not! I’ve noticed the—the circular nature of the Walled Cities. My Walled City. I saw the Antinium Wars begin, but we were back to fighting each other, fighting the Gnolls in a heartbeat. We had General Zel Shivertail, and we tossed him aside due to politics. I understand.”
She tried to focus, tried to make him understand how old she was and how ready she was to learn—especially because she wasn’t even an ‘adult’ as Dragons reckoned it.
She stared into heliotrope and cerulean, and her eyes were topaz and amethyst, like the color of lightning and the hue of the sky before the advent of the storm.
But his eyes were ancient. The color of magic. He blinked—and then nodded. He stretched—then turned his head.
“Perhaps, then, Rafaema—it is time I went for a walk. I have much to do, and I have been lazy. Will you…walk with me across Izril? I have a great charge, but I could use the company.”
He smiled—and no force in the world would have stopped her from springing to her feet. A Gnoll—a pair of Gnolls got up, Ferris and Lulv. But one look from her and Demsleth made them hesitate.
“Wall Lady Rafaema? Are you going somewhere?”
Lulv moved despite Ferris’ paw on his arm. He strode forwards; he couldn’t know what they had said because their words were cloaked by magic. But he saw Demsleth walking towards the door and wanted to follow.
“Lulv. Just wait here. I’m going alone.”
Rafaema hissed at him, but the [Spearmaster] was insistent. Demsleth? He raised his eyebrows, looking amused.
“Let him come if you wish. He can follow us anywhere he is capable.”
Rafaema bit her lip, but she didn’t dare protest or give orders as they filed out the door. Klbkch gave up as he coughed out noodles he was unable to physically cram down his windpipe. Relc raised his arms—and then began to hurl.
Lulv wrinkled his nose as he shoved past the spectators, and Mrsha tossed down her coins, and Numbtongue scooped up his winnings. Laughter from the kitchens, eager [Mages]—too many spices in the air. He shoved after Demsleth and Rafaema as they opened the door to the front of the inn. They were a step ahead of him, and the Gnoll growled as the door began to slam shut.
“Oh no you don’t.”
He seized the door, threw it open, and put a paw on Demsleth’s shoulder to demand a route and time to get his men. Lulv stumbled—and his paw went straight through the—
Illusion! He grabbed at Rafaema, and his paw went through her face. Horrified—he could smell them both—Lulv swung around.
Ferris skidded into his back, and Lulv raced out, looking around wildly. It only occurred to him what was happening when he felt the slightest wind pressure on his fur from above. He howled at the sky, but by that point—
It was far too late.
Two Dragons cloaked by invisibility flew off as the angry Gnoll ran around, howling and searching for a trace of them. Rafaema was laughing in giddy delight.
“I’ve never—you tricked him! How did you do that?”
The Brass Dragon’s chuckle in his real form was far deeper and had a metallic ring to it.
“Smell, sound, and visual elements can fool many—but even a cat can see through that. Mimicking an aura and other elements is far harder. With experience—ah, but I feel that was slightly unkind.”
“Don’t. I’ve never gone anywhere without my bodyguards.”
The Lightning Dragon flew fast, and despite Teriarch’s slower wingbeats, they were moving at the same speed. They were flying at the speed of a hawk. Raefaema kept up easily to Teriarch’s pace. She could go faster, especially in a dive, but they were also gaining altitude fast.
The Dragon was there. He was real—even if only she could see him. His scales flowed like a copper river, and he was gigantic.
Three times her size. In motion, not the corpse she had found in the cave, he looked like something not meant to be in this era. In a world where half-Giants were rare—a Dragon was scarier than any other monster you could meet. More glorious.
Slightly fat. She tried not to focus on that part, but he seemed to have something of a gut, especially in the air. He also sounded out of breath despite them flying for about half a minute. She only had Cire to go off of, but he was smaller than she was and annoyingly thin no matter how much he ate.
“The—trick is simple. You keep your real body in an illusion. I find it is easier…to send fake bodies abroad. Then, if need be, I will fly to the location. I flew out of the High Passes and met you here. Nothing to it. It’s, er—a longer journey than I thought. Especially summiting a damn mountain.”
“Of course, T-Teriarch.”
One eye winked at her, and he smiled. Then he frowned.
“Wait a second, how did—dodge—”
He glanced down, and Rafaema twisted. Before they cleared the Floodplains, a single tiny object came streaking up at them. Both Dragons twisted—and here a difference revealed itself.
As the arrow twisted after them, Rafaema juked left with a flap of her wings. Much like a surprised bird in the air would flap left. She did it fast with a younger Dragon’s reflexes.
Teriarch? Teriarch folded his wings, snaprolled right, and unfurled them as he twisted around to face the direction the arrow had come from. It zoomed between both, and the other Dragon hovered.
Rafaema’s jaw dropped. You could do that in midair? Teriarch’s wings burned with a purple flame, negating gravity, and he stared down.
“It’s that annoying archer in the tower!”
“Who? Bird the Hunter? How did he spot us?”
“A Skill. Nevermind. Keep flying. It was only one arrow.”
Indeed, at their altitude, only a Skill-propelled arrow had a chance of coming at them. Either the archer had given up or they couldn’t launch another. Teriarch grumbled as he flew.
“I could have sworn he keeps noticing me despite the impossibility of it. Some mortals are like that. Surpassing of all expectations. That is a lesson to learn, Rafaema Manusara Coloseuvia. They will always surprise and surpass you.”
The Lightning Dragon winced and nodded at the same time. She bit her lip—then spoke.
“I hate that name.”
He gave her a blank look. His name was Teriarch, but he had given her his real name. Terrium Archelis Dorishe.
“They gave it to me. The Drakes. Rafaema Manusara? Coloseuvia is one of the names of the older Dragons.”
“Yes. A proud Lightning Dragon name. I was surprised they were so accurate. Manusara is…pointed. But it falls in line with how we name ourselves. Do you resent the City of War?”
“I’m grateful. They raised me when they found me, and I think a lot of them do care about my wellbeing. But they’re not—Dragons. They have no idea what it’s like to be me, and the expectations—I’m glad I met you.”
“I, myself, did not think I would meet young Dragons like you in my life. I knew some might live…but our species is bygone. That two Dragon eggs were hidden in the Walled Cities…no matter how hard I think, I cannot understand the logic of it.”
“Doesn’t it make sense?”
Here she was, flying with a living legend—the Dragonlord of Flame himself. Rafaema had dreamed of this. She had all the answers she could ever want, so she asked one she and Cire had long pondered. She just had to hear him speak them.
“It makes sense to hide us in the Walled Cities, though. Cire was in a secret place in the great tree; they found me deep in the citadel, in a hidden vault. The Dragonspeaker who found me thought it was timed to open hundreds, maybe thousands of years later. It kept us safe. Maybe our—our mothers and sires even timed our discoveries.”
He had unpleasant suppositions as to why a single Dragon’s egg might be hidden in a Walled City. The very least that Teriarch might guess was that Rafaema’s parents had not been part of the decision.
There had been grave crimes committed by Dragons. And their descendants, the Drakes, had learned to copy from their Ancestors. Part of him longed to tell Rafaema that, but the knowledge and suspicions might break her.
He was burdened by knowledge of what might and what had been. The Dragon’s eyes clouded with cynicism and worry—then he glanced down, and his eyes, keener than any eagle’s, saw something.
That cloud over his face passed. And he chuckled. Not in complete forgiveness—but he looked down, and Rafaema peered her head. She could see very little from as high up as they were; the Floodplains were a great basin and receding below them, white and snowy.
But if she looked down…she saw a tiny dot cutting across the Floodplains.
“That Gnoll is still running after you, Rafaema Manusara. It seems, at least, your city sent someone who cares.”
She peered down at the Gnoll racing as fast as he could across the snow. There was no way he’d catch them, especially once they rose too high for him to follow. How was he even seeing them, cloaked as they were? Smell? Or was he just guessing?
It made the Brass Dragon smile. Rafaema tossed her head, and her mane crackled with static.
“He’s annoying. Tactless. Makhir is almost as bad. One tracks me down, the other follows me around.”
“Gnolls. Not Drakes?”
“They—hope I’ll be kinder to their people once I take charge. I told you, it’s not what I want.”
She muttered, looking embarrassed. Teriarch glanced down and chose his words carefully as they flew higher, leaving the Gnoll behind. And he was still running.
“No. And they have such expectations. But perhaps, in your long childhood, Rafaema—such people made it worth it if they were true.”
To that, the girl had little to say. She just looked back, troubled, and muttered.
“He’s just annoying. He had better not run to Esthelm, or he’ll cause another diplomatic incident.”
She peeked sideways at Teriarch, wondering, perhaps, if he was grinning, but she couldn’t quite tell. His face was staring ahead, and if there was the tiniest smile…she saw his gaze seeking the sky ahead, plotting their route.
They were flying above the first layer of clouds now, and he seemed less weary—although Rafaema was still flapping hard. Then she realized flames were propelling Teriarch along. He only flapped his wings every half minute or so for the show of it.
Was this how Dragons flew?
“What’s so inconceivable about me being found in Manus, Teriarch?”
The Dragonlord hesitated a long moment. Then he muttered.
“I—cannot believe any Dragon after the Creler Wars—no, predating that. I cannot believe any Dragon born or who has lived since—since the exodus of our people from Izril would be that unkind. To leave two children alone, to be found parentless. If a nursery of the future were envisioned—and it has been done—it would be dozens or hundreds of eggs. Not two.”
Rafaema’s wings faltered a bit. She stared at Teriarch from the side.
“It’s been done before?”
“Oh, yes. And if it were some insurance for the future—and we have long since been past that as a species—I would have known. I did not. Perhaps it was the act of Dragons born after our communities fell to ruins. Naively hoping for a new generation to be born of one or two. Perhaps…”
His eyes flickered. He looked at Rafaema a second and then smiled.
“Well, I am glad to meet you and that Manus raised you with the best of their abilities. They have flaws, but here we are. A wonder in this era.”
Rafaema smiled back, but she felt the first lurch in her stomach since the daydream of meeting Teriarch as Demsleth and being in his company. Because she realized something in that exact moment.
For the first time—he had just lied to her. Or rather, not said something. It was something she had long since learned to spot from her caretakers. She craned her head around—then frowned.
“Wait, where are we going?”
“North. I hope to catch a powerful wind jet to carry us far. Perhaps as far as Izril’s coast? Ah, I’m tired—but I have a job to do. And you have questions you cannot ask easily even in the inn. Speak them, Rafaema.”
He smiled invitingly as he flapped his wings a few more times. She blinked at him—then burst out.
“Okay. What are we doing? If I’m going to be helping you on your great task, I might as well know. And should I send something to Lulv? He’ll never give up, and he and Ferris will be court-martialed for losing me.”
Teriarch blinked at her. He craned his neck backwards and snorted.
“Ah, Manus. Never change. I suppose you can save them by sending them a little [Message] to tell them not to worry.”
“I—do you have a [Message] scroll?”
“You can’t cast…? Or not encrypted spells?”
He looked puzzled, and Rafaema flushed. She could cast a number of spells, but [Message] wasn’t one she had learned, and she couldn’t write on her scroll while flying. Teriarch shrugged.
“I shall tell him you will be back by tonight.”
The sound in her voice made him look back. The Dragonlord frowned at her, and the Lightning Dragon faltered, then had to flap to keep up.
“I’m going back to the inn? I thought I’d stay at your cave or accompany you?”
“You are still Manus’ ward.”
He spoke slowly. Rafaema’s mouth fell open. Teriarch clarified.
“It is your decision and Manus’, but I will not have a Walled City in arms and hunting for you.”
“But you’re not taking me with you? As an apprentice or—I thought I was going with you.”
Her voice sounded small and far away as the rushing of wind past them suddenly picked up in volume. Teriarch stared at her. Then—shook his head.
“I cannot raise…I will teach you what I can. But I will not make an enemy of the City of War lightly. And you are young. Too young.”
He abruptly turned his wings and angled down.
“Come—we are hunting for someone. I will have to detect them closer down. I also wanted to see what became of House Byres. An…acquaintance used to call it home.”
Rafaema followed, clumsily, and she heard him panting a bit as he descended. The magic that enveloped them was powerful, but—
He wasn’t taking her with him? She was still Manus’ ward?
The trouble was—dreams and reality were painful when they collided.
The effort of taking off and landing was far greater than that of just gliding or maintaining altitude. Thus, the wind blew heavily, almost like the panting of great lungs, as Ylawes Byres halted.
His face was grim. He still smelled of smoke—and it still hung over House Byres’ lands. But the most fundamental thing about him was his expression. It looked—uncomprehending.
The pain of watching his home burn, seeing the mines collapsed, the fields set ablaze was a kind of pain that was reflected in Lord Yitton’s face, in that of Shallel’s and Ysara’s.
It was loss, and the immediate grief and anger towards the figures who had burned his home was there. But most of all—it was the uncomprehending stare that stood out on the [Knight]’s features.
That marked him apart from his family as Laken Godart met him with a full company of Riverfarm’s folk. The [Emperor] had asked for the description from Gamel, who had learned how to talk of people’s faces.
Laken was patently uncomfortable outside of his realm, but he had arrived along with Gralton Radivaek, bearing as many supplies as he could afford.
“Your Majesty. You are overkind.”
After the introductions were done, a weary Yitton took charge of the food and tools. They were needed—House Byres was trying to rebuild, but they had also asked for more than objects.
“I have as many [Soldiers] as Wiskeria can spare. But I fear we never caught the people moving through my lands. I suspect they realized I was tracking them. They outpaced horses on foot.”
“[Assassins]? Is this the Circle of Thorns taking vengeance?”
“Why on House Byres?”
Yitton was weary as Shallel looked from face to face. Gralton sniffed the air and sneezed—and several dogs whined as they strained at the leashes.
“I’ve brought [Soldiers] too. Not as many—I’m watching my borders too. You caught none of the bastards? Not even a scrap for a bloodhound?”
“Nothing, sir. Thank you for coming. I can leave my family in good hands. I…I may trespass on the Unseen Empire’s hospitality briefly, Your Majesty.”
“You are headed south? To the inn?”
Laken was surprised as Ylawes bowed to him. It was the first thing the [Knight] had said. Ysara Byres, who had been standing apart from her family, but close enough, also bowed.
“I as well, Your Majesty. We have work to do. And I fear we can do little more here.”
“Ah. I see.”
He did. The turn of phrase might be ironic coming from him, but Laken had asked Gamel to describe the Byres family.
Ysara Byres, of all her family, was still apart. She stood in the ashes of her home, and the grief that Gamel described on her face was appropriate to her memories. But—
She was not with Shallel or Yitton. Her father would occasionally glance at her tattoos and her hair. Her mother, still pale and worn from everything, did not lean on her daughter. Ysara stood back, while Ylawes supported his parents, hands on their shoulders.
Her face was a [Merchant]’s, trained to be polite or to show appropriate feelings, but it was also telling that it looked that way. Distant.
If Laken Godart could have seen her face with his eyes, he would have confirmed the feeling he got from her tone and the way she interacted with her family. And that was that behind the grief of a girl watching her memories vanish, seeing the plight of the people who were not involved, and the shock of this destruction—
There was Ysara Byres’ calm…acceptance.
She had found nothing here to bind her home. No reason to stay. Even with their manor in ash—she was somehow more lost than anyone else here. So the Silver Merchant turned away and said nothing more.
Ylawes had his own reasons for going. His head was heavy, his shoulders overburdened. Laken Godart realized the other factor that was pulling the two members of the family away. And that was coin.
House Byres had lost more than the manor and the mines. Laken was told that they had been collapsed inwards by a series of charges; digging out the silver mines would be less work than placing a new shaft. The farms were torched, and winter was upon them.
House Byres had never been the richest, despite the silver mines. Now? It was in such dire need that the only reason Archmage Valeterisa hadn’t lumped them with House Sanito and the others was that Yitton Byres was too far removed from Liscor. And they had even less to offer.
“Does he still look like that, Gamel?”
Once they had stood back, Laken asked Gamel to once again describe Ylawes’ face. The other [Knight], younger and lower-level than Ylawes Byres, agreed that Ylawes hadn’t changed markedly.
“His face is set just like that, Emperor Laken. Like Durene’s. Hurt and wrathful and…”
He searched for words.
“…If you’ll beg my pardon for how I describe him? I mean no disrespect.”
Gamel spoke slowly, staring at Ylawes.
“—It looks like a good and faithful hound of Lord Gralton’s. As noble and brave a hunting dog as you could ask for, sire. Imagine that—then imagine if someone burned down his home and kicked him in the face. For no reason. That’s how he looks.”
“Ah. I can picture it now.”
The Captain of the Silver Swords was heading south. To find some way to supplement his family’s income. Laken Godart patted Gamel on the arm—then had a thought. He touched the arm again, and Gamel leaned over.
“You describe Ylawes Byres’ face well. One question. You said he looked like he had been kicked ‘for no reason’. Does that mean he has no idea who did this? What about his family?”
Gamel was silent for a good measure before he responded.
“—At times it seems like they’re thinking of something, sire. But none of them want to give it a voice.”
The [Emperor] didn’t have facial cues like narrowing his eyes, but he would grimace faintly when he was suspicious. As luck had it—he did not need to think overlong.
For two things of note were happening here, if you were an impartial observer catching your breath and watching from a handy hilltop a quarter of a mile distant via magic.
The first was that someone came riding towards Gralton, Laken, and Yitton’s people. Well, half a dozen riders. And one person on foot. The last person was running, though he could ride if need be.
But running befitted a Runner, even a specialized one.
The flashiest Emergency Runner in Izril slowed, and he raised a gloved hand to wipe sweat from his brow despite the cold. Not that he was that cold: a crimson trench coat. Dark red leggings. A silver scarf like metal wrapped around his neck. Crossbow hanging at his side, rapier on the other side.
Delanay d’Artien spoke only one word as the [Emperor] and company turned to him. He did not greet anyone. He and the other members of his house, all of whom wore that unique style—red and white and silver—were marked by the emblem of their house. A crossbow, loaded with a peculiar kind of bolt. More like a peg of wood.
Delanay’s wake and the horse’s hooves left a black stain on the snow. Ash. They had investigated the burned manor before coming here. And Delanay’s conclusion was one he spoke into the air.
An accusation in scarlet. It had no merit, no basis—but the [Emperor]’s head snapped up, and Lady Rie, who had accompanied this group, turned slightly, then stood very still.
A flush ran across a man on horseback’s face, and he swung himself down.
“Delanay! Control yourself! Lord Yitton, Your—Your Majesty, Lord Gralton, my son is mad.”
Yitton looked up.
“Zore d’Artien. House Artien is welcome here. What—brings you here?”
“I had to see House Byres’ destruction myself. We have brought little; we rode the last five days to get here, Yitton, and I was already on the road. But I have a note to the Merchant’s Guild, and I hope you will avail yourself of all of it. I have ordered our stores broken open, and we will send what we can spare.”
Delanay’s father didn’t have that scarf, but he had the same style that had come from Noelictus where his family had first originated. But Delanay had no time for niceties.
“Who else but Vampires? Enough. I say enough hiding and dancing around what we suspect! First House Byres burns—are we to wait until they are around every corner? If the Circle of Thorns could live in shadows, why not our enemy? Ylawes, you saw them. How fast did they move? They struck under night and hit the silver mines. Who else but them?”
“Delanay! Silence or I shall have you gagged!”
His father barked, crimson-faced. Yitton accepted his apologies—but he did not look affronted. Ylawes…was busy saddling a horse as Delanay strode over.
“Ylawes, where are you going? I need to have your account of what happened!”
“I have to find enough gold or we’ll suffer the winter. We are buying food at cost, Delanay. I’ve put all the funds I can from the Silver Swords into it and borrowed against Dawil’s and Falene’s funds. Yvlon is away from a Merchant’s Guild, but she agreed to send a lot of gold, and so has Ysara. If you want details, ask Father.”
Delanay seized Ylawes’ arm with a gloved hand.
“Are you mad? You must suspect them. This is not the time to chase gold—dig out those mines and find the armory! But they torched that too. We need silver. Every blade we can dig up and forge!”
Ylawes rounded on his old friend. He was angry—and Laken Godart, eavesdropping, heard his voice rise.
“You would rather have my people starve? They are penniless, some of them. Entire livelihoods went up in flames, Delanay! They torched warehouses full of all the food for winter…I spent enough for two artifacts on food, and it will not last more than two months.”
Delanay paused, and his blazing eyes faded slightly.
“That bad? I thought this [Emperor]—”
He glanced towards Laken, who pretended to stare ahead, smiling at the d’Artien folk. Ylawes growled a response as he continued saddling the horse.
“He’ll be why not all of them starve. But the coin! Farms, Delanay. They burned it all. This was coordinated. There were…at least a hundred. And they moved so fast.”
“Faster than anyone but someone Level 30 and over could move? By night? Fearless of anything but the fires they set and silver? Ylawes.”
“No one died. Even the servants were knocked unconscious or drugged and pulled outside.”
“Except your parents?”
Ylawes’ fingers creaked on the leather harness, and the horse shied away. But he forced himself to turn to Delanay.
“They were trying to recover as much as possible. They were not set up to be murdered…just our mansion burned down. That is a crime and an attack on House Byres…but that is not how the stories go of them, Delanay.”
“New enemies. New times. Did you test them in your hot springs? Your parents. The servants.”
The Emergency Runner grabbed Ylawes’ arm with a crushing grip.
“Did. You. Test. Them?”
The [Knight] responded very quietly.
“I made sure there was silver in their presence. All of them, from servants to my parents.”
“Then we rule them out. Who’s the family you suspected?”
“Delanay, I shook hands with the father. Don’t start—”
“Give me their names, Ylawes. I won’t be quick, but I am going to find out who this is. Even if it wasn’t Vampires, someone burned your estates down. I will have my family’s help even if my father’s blind—and I will have more than them. A member of Izril’s nobility was attacked. You have support. Give me a clue.”
Delanay hissed as the Silver Swords prepared to mount up. Ylawes Byres looked at him as Dawil turned his head. Falene was biting her lip, and Vuliel Drae were trying not to look like they were obviously listening in.
Ironically, Rasktooth and Infinitypear, the most contentious duo, were almost overlooked in the light of House Byres’ burning. The two were very sad. The nice place they had heard stories about was all ash. But what was this about…
Delanay glanced at Rasktooth’s pointed grin and his red eyes. Almost. Almost…he listened as Ylawes muttered a name.
“Lischelle-Drakle. But mark me, Delanay. If you offend them—”
“I won’t appear on their doorstep. But I’ll ask. I heard a strange rumor, Ylawes. Byres’ name was being cursed up and down one village a [Merchant] came across one day. Practically screamed from the rooftops until they heard him listening. Go if you have to. But don’t go far.”
Delanay’s eyes were burning. He stood there with the aegis of a class dawning across him. It was not there yet. But if you saw patterns, it was there. Waiting for him to realize it once more. The calling of d’Artien and Byres.
The hunt was beginning in the ashes of House Byres. Fools. If an unseen Dragon of old, older than even the Silver Dragon, could have spoken, he would have said that to Vampires.
Just like the older ones would have shouted and done all in their power to halt. If they could have prevented this.
Fools. You have begun a hunt. You could never kill them all. You should have hid. Like us.
They will never stop. Delanay’s brown hair had strands of silver crossing it. He looked, in part, more the heir to House Byres than Ylawes himself. And in his eyes burned a hatred that had lasted hundreds of years with no visible foe. A bright light in the darkness, searching.
There was more than just Delanay’s passion at work here, or his convictions that a long-lost foe was plotting against him. His bright stare was almost—relieved. Ylawes had known it of old, growing up with one of the families with ancient ties to Byres.
A frustration upon a boy that the age of his house’s glories, his purpose—was gone. Now, he sensed it. A long-lost glory and a purpose far beyond the empty causes he had pursued. A feud that had marked the bones of his family, oaths written in the dying hands of countless generations of his family.
That hatred was born out of blood in ages past. An ancient grudge. And that kind of hatred—
It was wrong to say there was no morality in monsters who were people. They knew morality. It was a rare, rare person who had nothing at all for a guiding light.
But sometimes you hated something or someone so much that you did exactly what the little voice screamed at you not to do. And you did it because you knew it was more terrible. The reason didn’t matter.
If you were honest, you made no excuses. But it still took a special kind of hatred to smile while doing it.
Not to rage or scream or work yourself into a fury—but to tell a joke and chuckle and make it mundane. That was a level beyond what even casual monsters did. It spoke of practice.
That kind of monster stood in House Byres’ lands and listened to—coughing. Wet, phlegmy. This was the other thing happening in House Byres’ lands, albeit far from the border where the [Emperor] stood.
A mother ushered a wheezing boy back. He had a head cold, and she, with some vague sense of germ theory or politeness, kept him back from the guest.
“I’m terribly sorry, Merchant Estvallos. He caught sick just last night.”
“Not at all. Not at all, good Missus. You have a lovely family, Farmer Dolven.”
The [Farmer] was subdued as any man who had watched most of his home burning might be. But he managed a slight smile for two reasons: his farm on the borders of House Byres had been spared the worst. It was closer to House Veltras lands, and so the arsonists might have decided it was too far away.
His wheat fields were unscorched aside from some ash that had fallen. But he shook the beaming half-Elf’s hand. Bare-handed.
A half-Elf with swept back hair, dyed dark as the void and bare-chested, in robes lined by a red lining like blood, open to the cold air. He didn’t shiver, but he was friendly and probably had a magic ring. They stood just outside the farm where he could inspect the fallow fields—planted hurriedly with winter greens.
Only a few plants could grow in winter, but Dolven had planted all the seeds he could buy when he heard of Byres’ crisis. He had the silo of grain; Estvallos had inspected it just this morning.
Dolven had feared the half-Elf would make him an offer he would have to refuse to help Lord Yitton—but the half-Elf had just run his hands through the golden grain before standing and making an incredible offer.
“Wonderful grain. And you are charitable, Farmer Dolven. I salute you, Sah. And Missus—your son is quite wonderful. So I hope you will take this grain—and send it to all the folk of House Byres as soon as can be.”
“Merchant Estvallos, will you not meet Lord Yitton? You’ve paid for delivery—he should want to thank you himself for donating so much.”
The half-Elf had just bought the entire silo—but not for himself. He had asked Dolven to distribute it to House Byres.
It was an act of charity beyond the [Farmer]’s ability to keep dry-eyed. The half-Elf went over to shake Dolven’s son’s hand. The boy tried not to cough.
“And you are?”
“Tolei, Merchant Estvallos.”
“Young Tolei, I hope you get over your cold soon enough. A pleasure to meet you. And you, good Missus.”
He shook the boy’s hand and the mother’s with a huge smile on his face. Tolei’s mother smiled at him despite the oddities of Estvallos’ speaking.
He said ‘sah’ and ‘missus’ instead of…sir and miss. But he was very friendly. And that smile was so good as to almost be convincing.
Certainly, the farmhands who had come out to load grain and the local villagers wanting to applaud this half-Elf were fooled. They had lined up, and the [Mayor] was shaking his head.
“Those d’Artien folk just rode on past with nary a glance. Look, there’s another silver-haired bugger poking around, and a half-Elf is putting coin for House Byres. That’s honor.”
Indeed, Estvallos was shaking hand after hand with a huge smile and even went as far as to pat the loaded sacks of grain.
“Meet Lord Yitton? I wouldn’t want to take up his precious time. He should see to his people first.”
“He would want to meet you in person. His son’s there and one of his daughters. Only Lady Yvlon’s not here—it would be the least you deserve.”
Estvallos stopped and put a finger to his lips.
“Well…if you insist, why not? Maybe I shall go to Lord Yitton now and take his hand. Coincidence happens like that, but some things go faster than others, eh?”
An odd way of putting it, but Farmer Dolven was about to offer he introduce Estvallos to Yitton himself with the first delivery of grain when his son’s coughing started again. Only this time…the coughing didn’t stop after a few seconds.
It kept going and going. Dolven turned with casual alarm—then serious alarm as his wife bent over the boy.
“Tolei? Tolei, what’s wrong? Drink something.”
She tried to offer him water, but the boy’s face turned red, and the coughing grew deeper, hacking. Estvallos stood back as his parents stood around him.
“My—does anyone have a healing potion perhaps? A good one? Call for the [Healer]!”
He raised his voice, and the villagers looked about as the boy kept coughing. Estvallos stood there with the face of someone who didn’t know what to do. But privately, he hoped this wouldn’t derail Farmer Dolven’s departure.
He had a schedule to keep. And he smiled in relief as the limp Tolei stopped coughing at last and lay weak in his mother’s arms.
“I shouldn’t want to make you drive off like this, Farmer Dolven. Perhaps someone else can take the wagon?”
“No—no—I can make the trip. If only to talk to a [Healer]. He was alright this morning, Mela…”
His wife was checking on the boy’s temperature, which was already higher. Estvallos tapped Dolven on the shoulder.
“If I may, Sah. Is there a good [Healer] about? You may want to send for the very best. The absolute best, Sah.”
“You’re right. And you’ve paid me enough to—thank you, Merchant.”
The man tried to smile with a father’s concern. Then the [Mayor] pushed forwards.
“Dolven. You don’t have to drive the wagons. We’ll take someone else and send for a healer if one can be spared.”
“I’m fine, Father. Go see Lord Yitton.”
Tolei panted. The boy felt better after coughing. He tried to stand up tall to show he was fine. He had a silver sword—a painted piece of wood—just like Ylawes Byres and Yvlon Byres. He would be a [Knight] some day and serve House Byres.
The [Merchant] smiled as the [Farmer] dithered in front of his son’s bravery. And the flushed boy’s cheeks looked bright and vigorous in the cold. A mule began to sneeze. The loaded grain was ready to go, and the Dragon did nothing. If he had even noticed Tolveilouka’s disguise, he was miles and miles away.
“I may ride with you to Lord Yitton, Sah. Just tell me if I can help load some wheat. Would a gift be appropriate?”
Estvallos put his hand on his chin. The farmers and folk of the village, reminded of their task, got back to work. They broke up, and someone in the queue put their hand on Tolve’s shoulder.
Tolei saw the aforementioned man with silver hair smile at him. He stopped feeling the building need to cough and thought this man was nicer, even if d’Artiens were haughty. His hair was pure silver, anyways, not brown or blonde crossed with silver. It blew in the cold winter air as Merchant Estvallos blinked and his brows crossed.
Then the tip of the silver sword exploded straight through his chest as the man with silver hair rammed it straight through the half-Elf’s spine and through his ribcage. The blade came out red and bloody, and Tolei blinked at it.
Estvallos’ mouth opened wide, and his eyes bulged. The second blade was shorter—a wicked dagger—and went halfway through his neck before he grabbed it.
Blade lodged in his neck, straight in his windpipe, blood running down his open robes, the half-Elf staggered and turned. Tolei’s father was standing there, stunned. The [Mayor]’s mouth was open in a shout not yet formed when a hand tried to yank the sword blade straight up through Tolveilouka’s spine.
It hurt. It shouldn’t have hurt like that. Magic artifacts hurt less. This burned worse than silver. This burned like—
The scream that came out of the ruined windpipe was followed by a red spray as Tolveilouka swung a hand wildly. But the sword that exited his spine ran him through twice more before he drew his sword.
A man with silver hair brought the longsword down towards Tolveilouka’s head. The undead creation of the Putrid One blocked it with a curved sword he had torn from his side.
He had never had to use it so far, but it was the blade he had borne before his long wait. A curved weapon; an elegant tachi sword looted from the lands of Drath. It had been enchanted by the Putrid One’s own hands and wounded Dragon scales.
It clashed with that longsword made of silver. Brighter and tougher than mithril. Almost like—horn?
Then Tolveilouka kicked the other figure backwards. He ripped the silver dagger from his throat, tossed it aside, and watched it vanish.
A fake blade? What kind of fake blade hurts like—
The Humans were doing things they always did when the unbelievable happened. Scream, hide, stand there like animals—the little boy that Tolveilouka had just infected should have been on the ground with a fever.
But he was upright. His eyes wide as he stared at the silver-haired man. He had produced a second shortsword to go with the longsword, and Tolveilouka snarled as he lifted the tachi with its green blade, like a shade of flesh rotting that few seldom saw overhead.
“Who are you?”
The wounds in his chest and throat had already closed. His ambusher said nothing. But he advanced, and the two began to fight a duel. A duel within range of the Vale Forest, that great expanse of trees that stretched across the northwestern half of the continent. A place Tolveilouka had not yet troubled simply because the Village of the Dead lay far to the east. If he had earlier, he would have realized to his cost—
It still had a protector.
Pekona of Vuliel Drae had been feeling useless since coming north. In fact, she had quarreled long with Anith and had been considering resigning her part in the team.
She had already lost an arm. Now—after meeting Zeladona and being blessed by the greatest blade mistress, she had thought she needed to return to the blade. Perhaps to go home.
She felt bad for the people of House Byres, but a one-armed [Blade Dancer] was little use here. She was glad she stayed.
Forty three minutes had passed since a villager from House Byres’ border had sent a [Message] to Ylawes that two strangers had begun a duel in blood at a farmstead. Ylawes had agreed to pass by this way, but he had assumed the duel would be over, quite reasonably.
He had not expected it to still be going when he got there. Nor did the son of House Byres rush into the battle when he saw the two combatants.
The villagers clearly expected him to—but the [Knight] didn’t for the same reason Pekona stopped and her heart leapt.
“Oh dead gods. We’re outlevelled. Back up. Get everyone clear.”
Dawil took one look at the fighting and gave orders. Insill rubbed his eyes.
“I can’t—I can barely see them moving.”
The air hurt. It sounded like the ringing of bells but higher-pitched, and what remained of a snowy field was torn up, grass and dirt uncovered and flying with each step and cut. But for all that—
Pekona sat in the snow with her blade on her lap. She didn’t move as the Silver Swords debated what to do and her team milled about. If she died—she was fairly certain she wouldn’t be able to stop it.
And she had to see. What she saw, once her eyes adjusted to the different speed, was two men.
Only, neither was a man. One looked like a half-Elf with pale, even jaundiced features. His dyed black hair was revealing itself to be golden flax in color. He had a pale white robe on, pale like ivory, subtly different from the snow, lined with red, and was bare-chest as he whirled and stepped.
He had an extraordinarily long blade in one hand she recognized as a tachi, overlong compared to even a katana’s reach. In theory, it slowed you down dangerously—but he swung the sword so fast that the extra length was purely an advantage.
One-handed, almost like he too was missing an arm. But she realized that was due to how he fought. He would turn, spinning like a top, and lash out with a sandaled foot. Swing his sword, then dart in and throw a punch.
Like an ever-changing breeze of violence in a forest. Just like the half-Elves who had learned how to fight—he moved from form to form with a natural grace, combining them with that dancing, hand-to-hand martial art that would let him spin, even rotate around on one hand to surprise a foe.
Perfect for fighting in open spaces. In this field, against his opponent armed with blades, it seemed disadvantaged—but while she could make no sense of it, Pekona saw his hand lashing out, his foot kicking—
Trying to touch his opponent. Just touch…as if that would settle everything. She had the instinct that one touch would mean her end. And the wild attacks of the half-Elf that sometimes disregarded his safety were being countered by another strange style.
Longsword, shortsword—a man with silver hair, ostensibly Human, lunged under a wide slash that cleaved through the air overhead. He ducked down, lunged—then came up with both blades. Like the thrust of a lance or…a bull’s horns?
It came straight up and nearly impaled the half-Elf, who parried in mid-air, landed, and thrust the tachi out.
Tolveilouka tilted his neck left and nearly lost his head. He yelped as a blade pierced the place where his face had been—a charging stab so fast that it made his own attack seem lame by comparison. He stepped back—and the second blade tore a chunk out of his stomach.
His opponent had two blades. And unlike the half-Elf, Taletevirion did not leap or pirouette in the air. He advanced on his opponent, holding his longsword and shortsword by his side and executed another lancing thrust.
He never stopped! He was pressing in so fast that the half-Elf was constantly dodging backwards, only forcing the constant charge and lance-like thrusts off with punches and kicks. And half the time—a blade slashed across Tolveilouka’s face, and he snarled.
Blood splattered the ground and snow—his skin mended, but slower than it should have. Something in those blades was emitting a painful cleansing power that matched Tolveilouka’s dreadful regeneration. He could have been hit by a [Siege Fireball] and healed in a flash. But those blades…
“Die, you miserable pest!”
Tolveilouka lifted his sword overhead and brought it down. He stabbed the earth with the curved blade—and the field of plants rotted. The seeds in the ground sprouted upwards with foul pustules of rotten toadstools, yellow, sickly leaves, and the ground turned ominously pale, like sickness had invaded the earth.
A deadly plague upon even the earth! Tolveilouka smiled as the silver-haired man came to a halt. He had leapt out of range of the radius of the deadly attack, and the plagued ground was now Tolveilouka’s domain. The half-Elf would force him into it and—
The tip of the longsword kissed a rib before Tolveilouka twisted out of the way. It raked his ribs, and the Revenant saw two burning silver eyes staring at him. The shortsword came up—but Tolveilouka dodged back.
He’d jumped right into the putrefied land! He was dead! The half-Elf waited for the man to keel over—and he did not.
Taletevirion lifted the longsword to the sky and thrust the shortsword into the earth. Two-handed, he aimed the tip of the sword at Tolveilouka’s chest. And the shortsword—glowed—
The earth flashed, and the rotted plants turned to ash. Then withered and rebloomed. The earth turned brown—then green and grass and other plants, even flowers, bloomed underfoot.
Tolveilouka’s oath was dismayed. He stepped back from the second thrust—then locked the tachi against the third stab of the longsword.
This time, his opponent made the mistake of trying to overpower Tolveilouka. The half-Elf’s arm bulged, and he threw his opponent back.
The adventures watching ducked and scattered. Falene Skystrall was right in the path of the man who flew like an arrow, launched by his opponent. He slid across the ground, and a shower of dirt knocked Infinitypear off his feet.
A furrow thirty feet long—and the Human halted, a foot in front of Falene. His teeth were clenched, and Falene heard a groan from the effort it had taken to halt himself. But then—he lifted his longsword as Tolveilouka set himself uneasily.
The Human touched the ground with one foot—and appeared where his shortsword had undone Tolveilouka’s rot. He lifted both blades—and performed a salute with them.
It looked almost like the hands of a clock, flashing as he lifted the shortsword upright and flicked the longsword left. A [Knight]’s salute? A [Duelist]’s en-garde.
But the smile was mocking. Taletevirion was bouncing on the balls of his feet. He dodged left, right, feinting as if he were about to spring in either direction, and Tolveilouka followed the movements, face patently uncertain.
Taletevirion’s stance lowered into a lunge, and the Revenant recoiled from the strike. But it never came. The other man halted, mid-lunge, straightened, and whirled one sword up. He saluted Tolveilouka this time, ostentatiously, with the silver shortsword.
And this time he sneered. He was taunting Tolveilouka! The half-Elf’s eyes bulged—then he raised his tachi with two hands, snarling—
The tip of that longsword nearly stabbed out his eyes. Taletevirion leapt into the gap caused by the Revenant’s fury. And he was advancing again! A thrust cleared the snow behind Tolveilouka for a dozen feet from the force of the wind alone as the Revenant deflected the shortsword’s followup—then Taletevirion kicked him into the wall of the barn. The Revenant emerged from the hole and splintered wood with a roar.
That was what Ylawes and the adventurers saw in the minute of fighting. The [Knight] saw part of the barn collapsing. Wood and beams were showering down, but the same blow that would have crushed his bones barely slowed Tolveilouka down as he came out, screaming curses in a language only Falene knew. The [Knight] shakily adjusted his shield and realized he was frozen in place. He turned his head and croaked at one of the watching villagers.
“Who are these two?”
“I don’t know, sir! One was a [Merchant]—so we thought—but the other ran him through and took half his head off, and he healed! Just like that!”
Ylawes’ head whirled, and a Runner who had come with him swore.
“Vamp—wait, that blade looks silver. And it’s broad daylight. How can he…?”
There were more monsters in this world than Delanay d’Artien could comprehend. But what was clear was…the young man lifted the crossbow, eyed the fighting, and lowered it.
If he shot a bolt at a target, neither one would be there by the time it reached its destination. They were both using…something.
Magic? The half-Elf leapt back, frustrated, and both he and his opponent seemed to realize they were stalemated. So they switched styles so fast only Pekona, Dawil, and Ylawes even saw it.
Dawil recognized the spell that carried the silver-haired man forwards. [Flash Step]. It had to be! He had seen Pisces fighting enough times to recognize the spell. Only this one seemed—faster. One step carried the silver-haired fighter eighteen feet in a blur—and suddenly he had a pair of long daggers, not swords, in hand.
And still, the half-Elf dodged. He leaned back under the blow and thrust an elbow out. Taletevirion stepped back half a foot with [Flash Step], just out of range, and the dagger thrust forwards as he stepped forwards.
Dodged again. Tolveilouka grinned as he pirouetted left. His longer sword came for Taletevirion’s neck, and the transformed Unicorn stepped forwards—
The sword flashed where his head had been as the spell carried him out of range. If he had tried to retreat, he would have killed himself on that blade.
But the half-Elf was not impressed. He had seen [Flash Step] used a hundred thousand times by [Fencers]. If you watched the feet, you could tell exactly where it was going. He flicked something out of his bag of holding, and Pekona stared.
“That’s a fan.”
Dasha observed in the silence. It was indeed the largest hand-fan that anyone had ever seen. Four feet long, and when it snapped open, the lacquered, blue fan had the faintest design like a river on it. Then Tolveilouka leapt.
He must have cleared twenty feet with one jump. Taletevirion waited for him to come down as the impossibly long leap carried Tolveilouka at him. But the Unicorn had side-stepped and was contemptuous of a foe in the air.
…right up until he saw the enchanted fan flick—and the undead half-Elf’s trajectory changed. His slash made Taletevirion duck—and that fan twisted up—
Tolveilouka came down, swinging his sword one-handed as he leapt, changing his course with the enchanted fan. From a wild dancer in the forests, he descended like some great bird, sword tracing a constant, chasing pattern as he tried to cut Taletevirion down. And he had all the mobility in the air he wanted; the fan could arrest his fall, send him hurtling down faster—
What did the Unicorn do in return? At this unfamiliar style—he began stomping his feet. As if they were hooves.
Stomp. Stomp. Stompstompstompstompstompstomp—
Tolveilouka sneered at the most disgraceful sight he’d seen yet—like a child stomping on the ground. Until he realized how fast the Unicorn was touching the ground. And the steps were growing lighter.
Like a tap dancer—only the Unicorn had earth instead of a stage. Each step could touch at any angle of his foot. A soft patter now.
Then he came at the half-Elf, and Tolveilouka recalled too late. He’d seen this before. It was—
[Flash Steps]! The Unicorn was throwing out over ten steps a second. Each one changing his trajectory. Forwards—back—he accelerated.
If he and Tolveilouka had been going the same speed before, which would have matched Colth’s fastest movement, the acceleration of this spell and style passed the undead’s ability to keep up. Tolveilouka threw himself up into the air with a scream as a silver blur passed under him. When he landed—the Unicorn came for him.
From every angle! The other duelist stepped past Tolveilouka, into his back, and reversed with a backstep, sword trying to impale the undead.
Flicker. He vanished under Tolveilouka’s arm, and his feet executed a turn. Step left, turning, rotate backwards with a backstep, step forwards—and he had completely done a one-eighty even as the Revenant was whirling. And that blade was trying to run Tolveilouka all the way through as the fan barely interposed itself between Tolveilouka’s skin and the silver blade.
Taletevirion recoiled—stepped sideways, out of range of the counter slash, and circled. Stepstepstepstepstep—eight steps and he was lunging in on Tolveilouka’s right. He was moving too fast!
The Unicorn’s only defense was mobility. Instead of parrying a blow, Taletevirion ducked past it and came at you from the other side.
Tolveilouka’s mind whirled even as he desperately tried to keep the blades from impaling him. His thoughts were a wild snarl of sudden realization.
This mobility! This insane attack—as if he has only one blade to use and no shield! I’ve seen it before!
The undead half-Elf finally placed his opponent and swung his sword with a scream as the blur surrounded him. His fan kicked up a foul cloud of dust that made all the watchers shield their faces and try to flee. But before it could fall over them—the foul mist seemed to glimmer. Then it vanished.
Forty-three minutes. They had both tagged each other several times, but neither one bore so much as a scratch. Tolveilouka had known how he healed—but he had assumed his foe had some kind of enhanced regeneration or a Skill or potion.
Now he understood. He drew his blade back and waited. Those swords were the horn. The undead Revenant felt it burning, trying to unmake him as it pierced his chest. But he thrust that sword straight back as the daggers twisted into his chest. Taletevirion tried to withdraw them and dance back—but he was unprepared for Tolveilouka’s flesh to constrict around the blades.
Tolveilouka ran Taletevirion through one leg as the blades burned his chest. The ultimate putrefaction and purest cleansing force clashed—then the screaming half-Elf stumbled back and clawed at the wound in his chest.
It was seared black and wouldn’t close. Taletevirion stumbled—and a rotten wound spread over one leg—then halted.
Panting, both men looked at each other. Both seemed—shocked that they hadn’t killed the other.
“I’ve killed your kind before. You…do I know you? I’ve humbled the Silver Dragon.”
Tolveilouka spat. He felt—who was this Unicorn? He had been alive this long? Had their forest produced a blademaster? Tolveilouka had seen their haughty looks before, in every shape. Tossing head and braying challenges. Arrogance and magic. Immortal guardians of a forest.
But they always looked frightened when they realized their foe was as deadly as they were. They were clumsier off the charge. Yet he had never seen this snarl.
It was closer to fighting those Gnolls and the Beastfolk. A blazing mane of silver hair, and eyes that held no fear of death. His racing heartbeat felt like drums. The Unicorn refused to yield or back down, even knowing a single touch could turn his flesh to rot. What battlefield had made him? The arrogance of the Unicorns riding along with their allies—was a far cry from the sound Tolveilouka heard in their clash of blades.
Taletevirion was no triumphal ringing of horns in the forest and the galloping of a thousand hooves. He was a single breeze, and he howled out of his forest like a hurricane of his own, louder than his kindred.
I will kill you with this sword alone. He reminded Tolveilouka of a great foe. The Unicorn was panting as he spoke.
“Good thing I never learned from the Silver Dragon. Eat shit and die you plebh—”
Taletevirion puked. A stream of bile came out his mouth, and he wiped it away. Tolveilouka hesitated. That should have given him a tiny opening. But even when vomiting the contents of his stomach—the Unicorn had been waiting for him to attack. Not like his kind at all.
But if the Revenant was made uneasy by this familiar-unfamiliar foe, Taletevirion was just as unsettled. He stared at the being of rot. Tolveilouka had been cut over two dozen times and yet—only the most significant wounds remained. He healed. Pain was pain, and the undead clearly felt pain from being stabbed. But the only thing Tolveilouka showed as Taletevirion stared through a hole in Tolveilouka’s chest was a bared, wild grin.
Stab me. Cut me. Burn me. Melt me to ash and I will emerge through it and tear your intestines from your flesh with my teeth. He hadn’t even revealed his real body. The Unicorn spat, trying to clear his mouth.
“What are you made of?”
“Love and loyalty. And flesh.”
The Revenant enjoyed the look of disgust on the Unicorn’s face. But he was concerned. He wasn’t healing from his primary wounds. The Unicorn had halted his plague mid-infection. Tolveilouka backed up.
“Let’s do this again. You have an audience.”
Taletevirion glanced sideways, saw the watching adventurers and mortals, and hesitated. Tolveilouka whirled. He muttered.
That horn rammed straight through his back! He screamed as the Unicorn stabbed him—and kept stabbing him! They were supposed to be honorab—
Tolveilouka vanished. He popped out of the air, and the burning pain in his back trying to unmake him turned to a lesser pain as he appeared in a safe spot he’d chosen miles distant.
“That damned Unicorn! When did that forest—I thought it was dying. I thought the Treants had left for the sea since my master went to sleep!”
One Unicorn was more dangerous than an entire squad of [Unicorn Knights], half-Elves on their stupid haughty steeds. He must be old for their kind. You didn’t get a horn that powerful after a hundred years. How old was he? A thousand years? Three thousand? And he fought like a duelist even in a Human form.
“I need minions to die for me. This is what that damn [Sword Legend] was for.”
Tolveilouka was very good with the sword, but this was the entire point of having an army of minions. He got up; he had chosen a glade where the Vale Forest began for his escape point.
That damn Unicorn healed the boy. Probably purified the grain too. How did he realize I was here? He must be able to sense the rot. This will make everything harder. If I could kill him…
Tolveilouka hobbled along as he tried to think. Then he halted.
Wait a second. Unicorn.
The wind was blowing across his face. It blew like snow, through the trees—Tolveilouka looked up. He began running.
“[Teleport]. [Teleport]. You—”
He saw the Unicorn coming through the trees like a silver wind. The screaming undead ran for it. The teleportation spell meant to send him back to his master’s domain had to focus for such a long range. It took him four minutes to teleport hundreds of miles. Quite good in a battlefield; great spellcasters would struggle to match it.
The Unicorn ran him through four times before he managed to get out. Then Taletevirion keeled over and lay on the grass.
The two Dragons found the Unicorn lying on his side in a glade as butterflies flew around him. Aside from the green-brown wound on his leg, it looked picturesque. A Unicorn in repose.
His commentary took away from the moment.
“Shoo. Shoo, you stupid bugs. You’re not helping. I’ll eat you.”
“Look who’s here. Mister Uninvolved and the brat. Did you have fun watching?”
The Unicorn was covered in sweat. Rafaema gagged at the smell, but Teriarch just folded his wings.
“I was wondering why you were hiding around here. I didn’t realize there was a—pest.”
“Some pest. Did you see? I had him dead to rights.”
The Brass Dragon coughed into one wing.
“…It looked more like a stalemate to me. You’ve hurt him badly. But a few more wounds and you might not out-heal it.”
“Shut up. Get me a drink and something to eat.”
Silently, Teriarch muttered a few words and slapped the ground with his tail. A barrel dropped out of the sky from his hoard along with a pile of glowing red plants.
“That’ll do. What am I drinking?”
“Fuck you. That’s water. Give me something with bones in it. Rxlvn. I might be here a while.”
He knelt on his good legs, wincing, as he grabbed a mouthful of glowing grass and began to chew. Teriarch produced three more barrels and then spoke.
“—If I had joined in, I might have hit you both with Dragonfire. Besides, you were surrounded by mortals.”
“I know. I thought one hit from the horn would get him. Who made that one?”
“The Putrid One.”
“Argh. That’s your responsibility. I’m not supposed to fight things older than me.”
Taletevirion lay on his side, panting. He looked up at Teriarch and seemed about to snap something—then bit it back.
“—That girl would have jumped in there, and he’d have torn her apart. Fine. Teach her some tricks. But next time—I need you to be ready. Tell me his master’s dead.”
“Good. I’m gonna pass out now. I kept the forest safe, right?”
“I checked the grain and people. They were cured.”
The Unicorn’s eyes rolled up in his head. He passed out on his back. The first time Rafaema had ever seen a horse do that. She looked at Teriarch, and the Brass Dragon conjured a blanket out of the air to push over his friend. Then he looked at her.
“—I might have slowed him down or been a hindrance. If we fought with our true forms, I’d have been more of an assistance. But he has been acclaimed by every duelist he’s ever crossed blades with. Yet that half-Elf matched him step for step. Those with levels will surpass us given time. Even if that one threw away his levels in the name of something else.”
He shook his head. Rafaema opened and closed her wings. She wanted to claim she could have helped—but at the very least—!
“You could have beaten that thing yourself, right?”
The Brass Dragon stared silently at the butterflies without agreeing or disagreeing. Then he turned.
“Come. My great task is to prepare this world for worse.”
Something was haunting the Dragonlord of Flame. It was a vision. No—it was a person.
That person was…Magnolia Reinhart. As he flew, trying not to visibly wince or pant, he was keenly aware of the younger Dragon easily keeping pace with him. She had to fly harder given her size, and she hadn’t even learned how to use magic in a conscious way to speed her flight.
But he was already flagging.
Have my wings still not healed from fighting that damn Wyrm? It had been months! Unfortunately, the burning of unused muscles was also adding to the aching pain of his body.
He was…tired. Being outside his cave so long had tired him out on his journey to Terandria. This was worse because he kept trying to move at the pace of a young Lightning Dragon.
“You can fly faster, Lord Teriarch. I can keep up.”
After nearly an hour of flying, Rafaema ventured this comment. She had clearly been mulling it over for nearly twenty minutes. Teriarch bit back a snappish comment as he tried to massage his wing muscles with a [Claw of Volke] spell. Where was his joint?
Aaah. A spectral, orange claw kneaded the muscles, and Teriarch winced, then barked a reply.
“I may be advanced in years, young one. But I must point out that we are different kinds of Dragons. Let’s not feather-hop our way to our destination, eh?”
“What does our nature have to do with things?”
She gave him such a puzzled look…he forgot she knew nothing.
“Manus really doesn’t differentiate between elements? Even in their Oldbloods it matters.”
“What matters? You mean my species? Cire’s an Earth Dragon, and I’m a Lightning Dragon. I know that.”
She looked incredibly nervous suddenly, as if this were a test. Perhaps it was his face. He wasn’t judging her. He was just—morose. The Dragon decided to explain.
How strange. Magnolia Reinhart seemed to be this world’s foremost Dragon expert. She had certainly known all the old Dragonlords, but then, she claimed he had told her most of what she knew and had studied tomes he’d given her himself.
She was…well, they had another meeting scheduled tonight. So Teriarch elaborated for Rafaema’s sake.
“To call all of Dragonkind one species is as great an error as to say…Wyrms and Wyverns are exactly like Dragons. It is rather like calling half-Elves, Humans, and, er, Dwarfs all the same species. Because our natures are so magical, each Weyr of Dragons—each element is unique and possesses qualities the others lack. Not just Dragonfire.”
She blinked at him. Her eyes lit up.
“So Cire and I are different? I thought it was just because we were decades apart and he…”
She had no frame of reference. Teriarch flew higher through a cloud and swore; it was charged. Probably a storm coming. The static was unpleasant, but Rafaema cut through the cloud gleefully, and sparks played off her azure scales.
“That is exactly what I mean. Your nature, Rafaema Manusara, is lightning. If you were born in another age, you would be called a ‘Lightning Dragon’ by non-Dragons. But I think you would probably belong to the Stormheight Dragons. Even among Lightning Dragons, there are differentiations. Your friend is curious to me as well. I wonder which type of Earth Dragon he is. You don’t spit storm clouds…does he spit earth?”
“What, like soil? No, he spits acid.”
“Ah. Marsh Dragons, probably.”
Teriarch tried to smile. Dead gods, he remembered some bad fights with Marsh Dragons. Insular bastards taking potshots at him as he flew over ‘their’ swamps. But he kept talking, feeling an odd satisfaction in telling someone this. It had not been—fun talking to Magnolia Reinhart. Oddly, after so long of her trying to talk to him, their first conversation of thirty minutes had mostly been her hurting his feelings.
She’d called him an old man. Really, now. Was this his previous relationship with her?
“Storm Dragons fly fast. They have boundless energy—more than any Dragon in the world. They fly fast, fight with whirlwinds or energy—”
Rafaema cut the air around him, flying excitedly as she listened, unable to stop from juking left and right in the air, like she was charged up from the inside. Her head craned towards him, and Teriarch sighed.
“—They have short attention spans in general—but they also burn out fast in a fight. If we flew at your pace, we’d be going faster, but rest every few hours.”
She seemed to accept this explanation. The Lightning Dragon ducked her head, flushing.
“These are only generalizations, right, Lord Teriarch? I might have had—issues with discipline in the past. But I know Dragonspeaker Luciva, and she breathes lightning. She’s hardly flighty.”
“They’re broad traits that hold true. Anyone can master their mind. But Oldbloods would follow after their ancestry.”
“What are…other Dragons like? Are there Water Dragons?”
“Do you mean Sea Dragons or Water-elemental Dragons?”
Her eyes shone with longing, and Teriarch relented. He hmmed.
“Patience would be a stereotype of them. A sea of it—then a wrath that does not abate. They tend to dry easily regardless of whether or not they breathe water. Most of the ones I knew carried surpluses of water onto land. As you must realize, we do better in our element. You would fight best in a storm; they would do far better in water. Your friend would probably enjoy fighting in a forest or marsh or anywhere with animals.”
“Cire mentioned that a bunch of animals followed his orders during the war with the Gnoll tribes.”
“He can wildspeak? That’s fascinating. Maybe he’s a Dragon of the forests then…how old is he? A hundred? I would call that talented.”
Maybe growing up in the City of Growth did that for him. Rafaema’s head craned back towards him, then she flapped her wings harder.
“I…I’ve also shot a lightning bolt straight into the sky. I think my powers are increasing. I dueled a Wyvern Lord, trying to reach you.”
Teriarch was checking their location and trying to figure out where to go. He had a map…where had he picked up on the rumor? There. He angled downwards.
“That brat? Oh, I hope he didn’t give you any trouble. His entire Weyr in a fight could kill most adult Dragons. If you took them all on, that’s impressive. His own Dragonbreath falls short of a real Dragon, but he’s probably a prodigy. For a Wyvern. I would bet he’s eighty years old.”
Rafaema’s wingbeats faltered slightly.
“I—he’s only eighty?”
“Wyverns age faster. They’re less inherently magical and less powerful by and large. Wyvern Lords are their species blessed by growth. He probably found a highly magical food source and ate it for a decade or two in the High Passes. The Wyvern Queen that his Weyr had was a real danger, though. Here we are.”
The conversation had made him forget his aches. The Dragons landed, invisible, and Teriarch had never been gladder for Demsleth to reappear.
Although—the fake man still rubbed his shoulders with considerable pain as Rafaema transformed into her Drake form. He looked around and took a huge breath.
“This looks about right.”
“Where are we, Lord Ter—Demsleth?”
Only now did Rafaema seem curious about their destinations as opposed to the company. She peered around what looked like a busy city—then recoiled.
“Wait a second—this place is filled with monsters!”
She pointed, and an offended woman turned as an angry ‘monster’ bobbed up and down in the center of her hat.
She had one of those wide-brimmed hats with a curious bowl-like depression in the center. Not standard to fashion—but this city was as weird as Teriarch remembered. The center of her hat was for a slime, by the by. The slime was orange, had a little leaf and stem sticking out of its ‘head’, and bounced up and down angrily.
“Citrus Slime. Lower your voice, Rafaema. I’m terribly sorry, Miss. She’s new. Ooze on in peace.”
The Human woman gave Demsleth almost as affronted a look as Rafaema, and he suspected that expression had been lost to time. But she nodded.
“You’re forgiven. It’s all slimes under the bridge.”
She marched off in a huff, and Demsleth muttered to himself.
“Slimes under the bridge? What a stupid—this is Onononno, Rafaema. Or some variation of the name. The City of Slimes.”
“The—I thought Humans made that up. They live with those filthy things?”
Rafaema was horrified. But then, she probably associated slimes with the Sewer Slimes, Sludge Slimes, Mud Slimes, and other variants you could encounter in the wild. Teriarch suspected that Onononno employed a number in cleaning duties, but you wouldn’t see those base slimes in the street.
Oh no. Ohnononono. He pointed to someone taking their slime for a ‘walk’. It was hard to walk a slime, hence many having containers like the woman with the slime-hat. A leash would not do; a net would just make the slime ooze through it.
Still, you could train a slime to ‘hold’ onto a lead, and so a slime glowing with a deep blue light rolled past the bewildered Drake and the Human man as someone tipped a bowler hat.
“Good morning. New to Onononno? You should buy some of our products.”
“Returning visitor, myself. What slimes are in fashion this year?”
Demsleth peered at the slime, impressed. They must have kept this breed alive for ages. It was a Deepwater Slime, dense and so heavy it could sink through regular water. The man had jars of water as ‘snacks’. He offered one to Rafaema, and the Dragon gingerly poured the water on the slime, which absorbed it.
“It’s all fruit this year. Citrus Slimes. Lemondrop Slimes. Wine Slimes, even, and some children kept drinking from them.”
“You eat slimes?”
This time, Demsleth stepped on Rafaema’s foot.
“Slimes can produce goods, much like a cow. Slime Jelly only occurs when they’re happy and fed. They can be rather symbiotic.”
“Ah, someone who understands! [Alchemists] love us, and we have some fine [Chefs]. One went to Invrisil, in fact. Someday, everyone will be enjoying Slime Jelly.”
“I cannot wait to see the day. I’m just taking this young one around—”
Demsleth smiled at the man and forbade mentioning that Onononno’s boast of universal love had been in progress for hundreds of years. As far as he could tell—no one was rushing to join the fad.
However, the meeting with this slime-lover was fortuitous. Demsleth pretended to be going ahead, then swung around and stopped the man.
“I’m terribly sorry—but I did hear of one interesting thing. Perchance, did you hear the oddest thing happening, oh, during the war with the Meeting of Tribes? Some lucky or unlucky person accosted by a…”
He hesitated in an exaggerated sense and gave the man a rueful grin.
Rafaema turned from staring at a patrolling Fur Slime with a [Guardswoman]. The [Slime Tamer] hesitated.
“You’re well informed. Slime Master Culivan has been raving about that for months. He’s put half the community against him—the other half is supporting his madness.”
“Do you know where I could find him?”
The reluctant man gave directions. Demsleth thanked him and set off for one of the districts that housed this city’s version of [Beast Tamers] and so on. But the class was also close to [Alchemist]—and as Rafaema caught up, she whispered to him.
“This city is so weird, Demsleth! It’s like a caricature of Human cities. Slimes instead of cats or dogs?”
“I imagine they would say the same thing of Yolden, Rafaema.”
“That’s not a regular Drake city!”
She bristled. He sighed.
“No? It was once the domain of Earth Dragons. Gravity Dragons, in fact. They might be more ‘Drake’ than most cities.”
Her mouth fell open. Then Rafaema had a terrible thought. As she followed him into a well-to-do district being protested by nearly a hundred slime-loving fans arguing with Master Culivan’s supporters, she whispered.
“Demsleth…are there Slime Dragons?”
He stopped and turned to her. Demsleth gave Rafaema a serious look.
Slime Master Culivan was at the heart of controversy in Onononno. His heresy was deep—and it was because, depending on how you looked at it, he was killing slimes by the hundred.
Or rather, he was taking Slime Jelly, the byproduct of fat slimes and the basis for new slime development, and trying to ‘create’ a breed of slime.
That happened quite often. Depending on your Skills, you could essentially mix up a new slime. [Alchemists] who came to Onononno found they could parlay their Skills into new slimes.
Citrus Slimes, for instance, came from creating a slime purely from orange juice. Of course, you needed to add some gelatin, and the resultant slime might not be a survivable breed.
Citrus Slimes wouldn’t fare well in the wild. They might survive around orchards—but they were edible, and it was a pet-breed. Because they were citrus, they could only survive on a very select number of fruits.
Anyone who cared about slimes would be wary of making a slime that would suffer or not survive. It reminded Demsleth of Sariants, really. And Onononno was more passionate about the wellbeing of slimes.
However, this respected Slime Master had gone crazy about four months ago. When Demsleth managed to get into the house being protested—which had stains from the eggs and other produce hurled against the walls and windows—he found a muttering man tending to hundreds of slime incubation batches.
“No, no, it’s not working. They’re not germinating the mana stones. I’m doing it right. I have to be. Who are you? Who let you in—if you’re trying to protest, get out! Rouble, get them!”
An angry slime zapping the stone floor rolled towards Rafaema. It was a big one, four feet tall and filled with charged jelly. An Electric Slime. Rafaema stuck out one foot, and it swarmed her leg. It zapped her four times, and she glared at it.
The Slime, Rouble, let go of her leg after a second and, like a little dog suddenly meeting a Dire Wolf, hid behind a table.
“I’m a friend, Master Culivan. May I ask what you’re trying to create? You appear to be trying to make…a Mithril Slime. Oh. My.”
Demsleth’s eyes fell on the first failed slime. Jelly was crammed into a vat with a mana stone and a lot of mithril dust. Culivan strode over to the vat, stared down at it, and up at Demsleth.
“Yes. But it’s failed. It’s just—there’s no spark of life. Damn it. I have to discard this batch too.”
He slapped a label on it, a red one to mark the entire batch as useless. Then he scrubbed his face with his fingers.
He was a man with wavy, black hair, probably a fashionable trendsetter with his high collar and cape, reminiscent of a wizard in blue—if [Wizards] had any fashion aside from their hats. He probably took care with his appearance normally. He had a monocle enchanted with [Appraisal]—and even the hints of some makeup.
It was over a week old, he had rings under his eyes, and they were bloodshot to boot. He looked unwell, and Demsleth, ever sympathetic to a man needing sleep, looked around.
“Rafaema. Would you run and find us something to eat from a café? Have a seat, Master Culivan. I heard you had been visited by an…apparition. Would you tell me about it?”
The man wavered. Strangers just walking into your house were not generally welcome, even in friendly Onononno. Yet Demsleth’s words made him sag.
“You believe? You’ve come here to laugh at me or investigate.”
“No. I quite believe. In fact…I’m looking for men and women like you.”
The mismatched eyes flashed. Culivan’s head rose, and the keen eyes of the old man followed him. Demsleth gestured to a chair that Culivan swore hadn’t been there a second ago—he didn’t own chairs that looked like that. The rosewood chair with the padded seat was comfortable, though, and he sat. Perhaps he was dreaming.
“I…don’t believe it was real. I still do not—but I am compelled by a man in a vision. Some of my neighbors and friends call me mad. They say I’ve killed thousands of potential slimes, using all this Slime Jelly. But I swear the recipes work.”
Demsleth looked around the room. Hundreds of slimes were in the process of creation. All failed attempts. And they were all…far more exotic than even the Deepwater Slime he’d seen rolling about the city.
Magma Slime. The lava was boiling in an enchanted container. Sage Slime, sitting in Sage’s Water. Even a Blood Slime.
Or rather, the components of each. It was clear Culivan hadn’t managed to create a single Slime, and he looked wracked with guilt.
“Tell me what you saw.”
The [Slime Master] was pale.
“Don’t laugh at me. I have had enough of laughter. I saw the founder of my city. I swear it was him. It was when the Gnolls were under attack. When Ailendamus was battling the Dawn Concordat. On that day of days—as evening fell, a figure came to my shop. He entered through the door, and Rouble didn’t attack but screamed as I have never heard a slime scream. I came down, fearing I was being robbed, and saw him.”
Demsleth’s eyes burned. His heart hurt—Culivan accepted a cup of coffee and a biscuit Rafaema brought without seeming to realize he was eating.
“I have never been more afraid in my life. It was him—the same man who adorns our statues. Onell the Slime Hero. Or rather, most of him was. He looked as if someone or something had torn him apart.”
“Torn him apart?”
Rafaema shivered, and her neck spines rose much like hair. Culivan looked up.
“He had holes in his face. Wounds as if he had been savaged by some great beast—though he had no flesh. He was a ghost, and he—it was hard to understand. He claimed to have come from some great war in the lands of the dead. A war lost. He had fled six…somethings, then returned here and fought across Izril to find someone in his city. Me, it seemed.”
As Demsleth, Teriarch, understood it, Izril had been lost until the Seamwalkers appeared. Any ghost strong enough to reach this city would have had to fight here. At any rate, Culivan had listened.
“He told me to arm the city. Spoke recipes—his knowledge of how to create slimes. He was dying. I tried to hold him in my arms, but he charged me to create. Then he was gone. I have been trying for four months, four months to recreate what he said. I’ve had some success. Rouble was the size of a potion jar before I found out how to harness lightning. Even then, he was dangerous enough to jolt a Bronze-rank off their feet. How did you…?”
He stared at Rafaema. Demsleth leaned forwards.
“So you were told secrets by Onell. But it seems like they were incomplete.”
“He kept mentioning seithbone or ‘seith crystal’. I don’t know what it is. And no slimes will germinate without it. I have tried! If it was just that, I’d call him mad. But—he was right about how to feed a slime made of lightning.”
“How do you do it?”
Rafaema was patently curious. Even creating a slime charged with lightning spoke to Culivan’s previous talents. The man smiled wanly.
“I created Rouble out of a lake hit by a bolt of lightning. That was by chance. I didn’t think to build a giant rod of metal and wait for a storm! Onell told me to do that—now each time a cloud falls over Onononno, all the Charged Slimes gather around. There are eight, all almost as large as Rouble, in the city, and woe to any [Burglars] or [Thieves] or [Thugs] who go up against them. So I am not mad. I just—”
He looked haunted, and Demsleth leaned forwards.
“What do you fear, Master Culivan? Why are you making such dangerous slimes?”
The man sat there, swaying a bit in his stool, looking sick and tired—and terribly afraid. When his clear blue eyes rose, they met Demsleth’s cerulean and heliotrope ones.
“I was told worse is coming. I was told it by the hero of my city, who was real and dying and told me a day would come when his foes crossed over to the lands of the living. Why would I not believe that?”
Demsleth held the gaze as Rafaema looked between him and Culivan—sensing something that went beyond even her quest to know herself. And at last, Demsleth spoke.
“I think—that without this ‘seith crystal’ or ‘seithbone’, all you are doing is wasting a resource that is best used elsewhere, Master Culivan.”
“You’re right. But I can’t just stop, stranger. I have the support of my friends and the governor. Should I renounce what I saw?”
Culivan bristled, but Demsleth lifted a finger. He licked his lips, hesitated—and glanced at Rafaema. She was watching him, and the old man hesitated.
“I am on a journey to meet folk like yourself, Master Culivan. I would like to help if I can.”
“If you have any—insight, I welcome it! Any way to replace the seithbone.”
Frustrated, the [Slime Master] rose. Demsleth followed him as he stalked around, discarding the failed experiments.
“Perhaps the seithbone is an unmitigable requirement of creation?”
“I don’t see how that helps!”
The man snapped back. Demsleth frowned.
“Yes, but if we assume it’s something missing—what unites all these slimes you have hitherto failed to create?”
He was trying to get the man’s attention, standing next to the failed Sage Slime. Culivan turned—and went over. He slapped a red label on the container.
“They’re expensive! And if I made but one, they’d be the kind of pets even a Gold-rank adventurer craves! And I’d have the city on my side.”
“Yes. But maybe they’re united by this lack of seithbone?”
“Surely. I don’t have the seith-whatever, I can’t make them. I have faithfully. Tried. To answer. Onell’s! Request!”
Culivan went back to kicking over the vats and spilling the slime jelly and mana crystals to the floor. Demsleth went to stop him.
“Master Culivan, think clearly for a moment. What is the component of seithbone that is missing here?”
“How would I know? I’m not an [Alchemist]! I’ve practically beggared myself to try this, and I don’t see a solution!”
The man rounded on Demsleth and snapped back. Some of the flying spit from his mouth hit Demsleth in the face, and the old man raised his voice.
“Well, throwing yourself at the issue for four months is clearly a failure! I have places to be, Master Culivan! Let me have a moment of your attention at full faculties!”
“You come into my home, demand my story then—what is this, a game of riddles? Speak plainly! I don’t breed slimes for a living!”
Rafaema looked between Demsleth and Culivan. The old man had been smiling at first, but the distracted [Slime Master] refusing to engage had clearly annoyed him. And he was looking towards the position of the sun through a window, hurried. The spit in his face made Demsleth scowl. Culivan jabbed Demsleth in the chest—and then got a finger that jabbed him so hard in his collarbone it nearly knocked him into a table.
“Well, perhaps you should consult with an expert! Maybe you don’t have enough magic to germinate a new slime! Maybe that’s what seith crystal is! Magic incarnate, fool! You need—”
Demsleth caught himself, and his eyes widened. But that was nothing compared to Culivan’s lolling head, which shot up suddenly.
“Not enough magic? You mean even the Sage’s Grass wasn’t enough? Is that what seith crystal is? But how much magic—how do you know that, stranger?”
He sat up. Demsleth suddenly backed up to the door.
“That’s just a guess.”
“No, no. That’s exactly it. What’s ‘seith crystal’? Where do I get it? Who are you? Are you—?”
“I can see you’re feeling better. Rafaema, I believe we’ve taken this [Slime Master]’s time up. Time to go.”
Demsleth was suddenly in full retreat. His rosy cheeks were red, and his eyes swiveled with alarm. He practically dashed to the door—and Culivan staggered after him.
“Wait! Wait, I need more details!”
Rafaema held the door open and then slammed it on the man’s foot. She and Demsleth hurried down the steps. By the time Culivan yanked the door open, they were running for it.
“That—didn’t quite work! Around the corner. Now—[Lesser Teleport]!”
Demsleth snapped his fingers as they rounded an alley. Culivan was running after them with his supporters and opponents in full pursuit. Rafaema heard a pop—
And she appeared outside the city. Demsleth vanished, and Teriarch fanned his wings.
“Damn. I don’t believe he’ll level from that.”
“You were trying to tell him what seith crystal was and teach him what he was missing? You were helping him—why?”
The Dragon exhaled tiredly. Rafaema could hear something of a furor in the city, and the Dragon spread his wings.
“There are hundreds, possibly thousands of children like this on Izril alone. I was hurrying the man to a conclusion inelegantly. I should have—nevermind. He has a clue, even if I’ve pushed him too far. Tact. Nuance. Let’s keep flying. I have heard more rumors. There is a woman with a dagger we must next find. Chosen by a hero of old. The city of Lanbasque has her.”
Rafaema’s eyes widened. The Dragon was already fanning his wings and cursing. He flew higher, and she followed easily. The Dragonlord was already leaving Onononno and the fuss he’d left behind. But he turned his head back slightly.
“Damn. That idiot might try to replace seith crystal just by pure magic alone. It might work, but there’s really no replacement. If he wastes another four months…”
He hissed, annoyed.
“It would be better if he went after the source of seith crystal. Maybe I should—”
He banked towards the city—then shook his head.
“I have fourteen more places to be. Onwards.”
Rafaema nearly slammed into him as he turned back around. She followed, backing up, as the Dragonlord flew onwards. And he was still majestic. Seith crystal? She saw all the knowledge in his eyes even [Archmages] had forgotten. Knowledge of relics and swords and her people.
This was all true. But why did it feel—
“This is Palt, the [Illusionist] I spoke to you about, Archmage. I think he would be perfect to lead any teleportation efforts in Liscor.”
“Oh. Hello. You’re a Centaur. Ullsinoi. I recognize the tattoo.”
Valeterisa peered at Palt’s right hindquarter, and he shifted uncomfortably. Bezale and Montressa both stared at the fur that looked completely normal there, and the Centaur coughed.
“Archmage, you are never to be underestimated. It’s an honor—and if I can help with your project in any way, say the word!”
“Oh. Good. Good…so you know how to write runecraft?”
“I passed all my classes in enchanting and runecraft with high marks. I might not be Beatrice, who went through her Master-level courses, but I can do anything you need. Er, within my humble capabilities, of course!”
The Centaur seemed very friendly. Valeterisa pursed her lips.
“I’d prefer a [Mage] who passed Master-level Enchanting. Do you have another, Montressa?”
She turned, and the [Aegiscaster] flushed.
“Archmage! Palt is probably the best [Mage] in Liscor. You’ll find no one who can do magic on Wistram’s level. Believe me—he can do the job, right, Palt?”
“Absolutely! If it’s just recreating a spell circle, I can do that. I would dearly love to learn this spell myself.”
Valeterisa tapped her lips, but she liked Montressa’s reassurances, so she shook Palt’s hand absently and offered him one of the designs.
“We need you to draw this. You’ll need a warehouse and gemstones of the right quality. 4% imperfections at most, and sieve the result through a purification spell. Melt them down and inscribe this circle; magicore would do, but the impurities will burn out in about six attempts. Then I will link both circles. After that, it is simply a matter of placing an object on one end and powering the spell with mana.”
She had to calibrate each open-ended spell circle to ‘pair’ with another. But if it worked, Palt would effectively be able to perform her [Long Range Teleport] all by himself just by powering the circle.
It required magical power on both ends of the two-way link, had an effective range of fifty miles, and the cost in mana would be high.
However—Valeterisa guessed Palt could activate the spell at least four times with his mana pool comfortably, and all he had to do was port the materials to the closest city.
Esthelm. Then it could jump to Celum—and leapfrog its way from Invrisil to House Sanito. She had a map and everything and had plotted out acceptable ranges for her new spell. The [Aegiscaster] turned to her friends.
“A network of spell circles teleporting with each other. It’ll be like a Mage’s Guild only—we’ll call it the Teleportation Guild or something, Palt!”
He winced at the name.
“Maybe a better name would do, Montressa. But it’s certainly ambitious. Imagine the ability to have something from Invrisil in…this will change the Merchant’s Guild and the Runner’s Guild forever! You’d better watch out for [Assassins]!”
He laughed nervously. Valeterisa threw back her head.
The Archmage looked around at Bezale, Palt, and Montressa’s faces.
“That was a funny joke. I was laughing.”
“Er—right, Archmage! And Bezale is an expert at writing spells. She has passed her Master-level courses, and she’s a [Spellscribe].”
“I’d be honored to manage Invrisil’s location for you, Archmage.”
“Oh. Your mana pool is a bit smaller than Palt’s…but you do seem competent. Hello. Pleasure to be working with you. We need more [Mages], Apprentice Montressa. Liscor and Invrisil are set, but there are eight locations between here and Invrisil. Three between Invrisil and House Sanito.”
Sanito’s house was their first testing ground, and they had promised to do a delivery of coal and copper—no less than four hundred pounds of the stuff, quite a lot for any regular [Merchant]—by the end of the week.
They had eight days, including today. Plenty of time, and Montressa had a list, which she proudly showed Valeterisa.
“I have the best [Mages] in every city and town waiting to meet you, Archmage. We’ll show each one the design and have them copy it out. All they need is an appropriate venue and maybe the materials, and then we’ll send a trial item across the network. Once that’s done—we’ll connect the other two houses. Happily, they’re very close by.”
And once that was done, a new trade route would go from Liscor all the way to the north. Over five hundred miles you could span in less than an hour! Valeterisa’s eyes lit up with the vision of it.
Fissival’s Teleportarium had competition! She beamed and nodded.
“Then you two will begin creating your magical circles. I will come by to inspect them—tomorrow?”
“We might need two days to work on it. Is this…a five-layered spell circle?”
Palt was whistling at the complicated [Long Range Teleport] spell. Montressa nodded.
“Don’t mess it up, Palt! The instructions are very clear—”
“Yes, yes. I’ll be nervous drawing this in, what, pure melted rubies? Expensive! At least Pallass gets gems from Salazsar. Plus, I know a Hobgoblin.”
Palt looked nervous, but Bezale was confident.
“Call me over if you have trouble, Palt. It’s a very elegant design. Would you mind if I copied this spell onto my scrolls, Archmage…?”
She looked slyly at Valeterisa, and the Archmage replied steadily.
“It will only work as a connector to another spell circle and requires calibration. But if you would like to copy this, go ahead.”
Part of her took some pleasure from seeing the Minotauress floundering. Keeping people from stealing her magic was always a consideration, and she knew Fissival would try.
“I will teach you the full spell. Later. For now, we must go to Esthelm and find the [Mage] there.”
“The Guildmaster will meet us at Erin’s door, Archmage. Palt, Bezale—the gang is back! Except for Ulinde, but maybe she can do Pallass if her team is there?”
Montressa was beaming, and Palt and Bezale were palpably excited. Valeterisa headed to the door, but a worried hand stopped her.
“Oh! Oh, one thing, Archmage—where am I putting this rune down?”
Palt was struck by a thought. He gestured at the inn.
“Miss Erin hasn’t agreed to this—and frankly, I think she needs most of the mana in her inn. I could ask Imani to let me put the rune down in Barehooves…”
“No, Palt. This is permanent, you donkey! Get a warehouse! You’ll be moving bulk items!”
Montressa threw up her hands, and he backed up, hands raised. He puffed on a cigar defensively.
“I was just asking! Okay, a warehouse. That’s Liscor’s new district then, for sure. I’m glad we have the space. Should I rent it? Buy it outright? I’ll need funds for that.”
“Hmm. Archmage, can we use our budget to buy a warehouse? Bezale will need the same thing.”
Montressa jotted down the expenses, and Valeterisa frowned.
“It will be necessary. Very well. How much do you two need?”
“Uh…if it’s just renting a lease for a year, the city will probably let me have it at eight hundred gold pieces? And that’s a big warehouse.”
Bezale raised a hand after thinking for a moment.
“Can I get—two thousand?”
Montressa was aghast. Bezale crossed her arms.
“Space in Invrisil’s expensive. It’ll be the hardest city to buy a warehouse in.”
Valeterisa sighed, but she agreed after only a moment. She had her budget, and this entire project would pay off.
Budget: 27,200 gold.
It all worked out, and the two [Mages] needed nothing more. They hurried off, and Montressa led Valeterisa towards Esthelm to meet with the next [Mage] on their teleportation network. They’d have to use Valeterisa’s spells once they passed Celum, but this was it. And each [Mage] they talked to was eager and on-board.
After all, they were working with Valeterisa, the Archmage of Izril, and rather to her embarrassed surprise—they seemed to hold her in some esteem. That alone made the somewhat boring task of introducing and explaining the project worth it.
The Archmage of Izril arrived in Esthelm just in time to witness a fine. Well, a certain Vampire skulking after her and taking copious notes on this entire grand endeavor witnessed it too.
As well as a [Lady] and her [Maids]—Ieka Imarris, not Magnolia Reinhart, who was sipping tea and watching a [Scrying] spell in her mansion rather than using an [Invisibility] spell on the ground.
So four different groups had a wonderful view of Kevin trialing one of his new, top-end Solar Bikes.
“It’s fast! It’s almost as light as a feather—and it’s got traction spells and gravity spells on the pedals!”
He was doing a wheelie with it, and he actually made the bicycle hop nearly four feet. Then he nearly wiped out. But the [Engineer] was laughing with delight, and Master Pelt, the Dwarf, and Hedault and Selys were all watching with approval.
Well, Selys and Pelt were approving. Hedault was still mad.
“You painted it.”
“The chrome finish looked terrible, Hedault. No one wants a stainless steel bike. This is one of the ones we have to send to Khelt first. See?”
The [Enchanter] glowered at the gold paint on the metal of the bike and the flashy spokes that glittered.
“It’s an affront to the effort I put in.”
“Bah, it’s a showpiece that will make even that damn undead ruler smile. Why are you bouncing on one wheel?”
Kevin grinned. This bicycle’s wheels would ‘stick’ to the ground, so he could balance it upright. He kicked one pedal, and the acceleration did knock him on his back.
“Whoa! Fuck. This thing is powerful! It’s more like a motorcycle than a bicycle.”
“It is enchanted with my best spells. I personally stress-tested it, and it has passed every City Runner I encountered. Even Runner Garia and Fals.”
Hedault looked exorbitantly proud of his creation. And why not? This was not one of the regular bicycles that Solar Cycles was offering. This was a high-end model, the result of all the magic Kevin and Hedault could brainstorm in to make a bicycle even more powerful than anything Earth could come up with.
“Even electric bikes don’t have that kind of kick. I didn’t damage the paint, did I?”
“It’s enchanted not to. Despite the odious gold.”
Hedault smirked as Kevin saw the finish had no issues. Even Valeterisa, passing by, nodded in appreciation of the spellcasting.
“Nine different enchantments on a single object with no magical overlap. Apprentice, this is good [Enchanter]’s work. We could hire him to make a teleportation circle. You there. Would you like to move to Esthelm? Or House Sanito? Or…”
“Archmage, Master Hedault has work, and he lives in Invrisil. The Mage’s Guildmaster here is waiting—”
Montressa dragged her master on as Kevin, ebullient, kept riding the bicycle around.
“This is so great. I want one as soon as we fulfill all the rush orders, Hedault. Although—the brakes are a bit weak. I think it’s because this is so much more powerful than we thought. It’s nothing on the brakes themselves. Can we add a spell that helps stop this thing?”
He demonstrated the issue, skidding several feet with sheer momentum even when he locked the tires. Hedault frowned.
“A deployable [Halt Momentum] spell triggered by the brakes that also affects the rider? That is not easy.”
“Well, let’s workshop the issue. But let me just take this for a spin—”
He had to see how fast this could go. Kevin took off down the street as Pelt, shaking his head, went back to work. He had no desire to zoom around like that—and in that sense, the Dwarf was far wiser than Selys and Hedault, who both wanted a turn.
The problem was that Esthelm, and Liscor, and most cities were not used to bikes, which were neither wagon nor pedestrian. Kevin realized the tighter streets were not as easy for him to navigate, and Esthelm, a city with walls, was not sprawling enough.
“I guess I need open ground. Damn—”
He braked, sighing, as he shot along the street. Once again, the bike skidded with the sheer momentum the wheels produced. Kevin shot forwards eight feet—
—And ran over Watch Captain Zevara’s tail.
It was really unfortunate. Kevin would have realized this far sooner if he were in Liscor rather than Esthelm, but bicycles would have a negative interaction with the Drake species as a whole.
Because their tails were long and dragged behind them—and a bicycle was the perfect object to come speeding along and smash someone’s tail.
Especially on her day off. Watch Captain Zevara’s shout of agony attracted everyone’s attention.
“My tail! Who ran over—you! A damn bicycle-thing? And you…I know you! You’re one of Erin Solstice’s guests! You’re under arrest for—you’re—”
She realized she was out of her jurisdiction, but the furious Drake holding an ice cream cone was not above making a citizen’s arrest. She had a dent in her tail!
“Ancestors! Zevara, I am so sorry—Kevin!”
Selys was horrified, and the Watch Captain’s furious tirade only increased as one of Esthelm’s guards came over. This wasn’t a jailable offense, but Kevin was issued the first bicycle-related fine in the history of this world.
The Esthelm [Guard] was very respectful of Zevara, but her heart wasn’t in the moment. After he had apologized profusely and turned over four silver coins, three of which went to her, she just swished her tail and glowered.
“Some day off.”
“Let me join you. You shouldn’t be wasting your day off. And Kevin will have to repair his brakes. Why didn’t you tell me you had time off?”
Selys glared at Kevin as he meekly fiddled with his bike, and Hedault muttered about experimenting with brake systems. Zevara brushed it off.
“I don’t need a parade, Selys. Dressing up and attending some restaurant in Invrisil or Pallass is the last thing I need. I was having a snack and looking around Esthelm. And—thinking. I might have more time off in the future, anyways.”
“Oh! Is the Watch large enough to let you have more days off? That would be good for your health. I never see you except on-duty.”
Zevara ignored that comment like any person married to their job. But she was oddly pensive today, and even the bicycle thing hadn’t lit a fire under her.
“I’m just—well, yes. Maybe I will have more time to myself. I wonder what I’ll do.”
Kevin and Selys looked at Zevara, interested. Hedault had taken Kevin’s bike for a turn, and Pelt cared exactly 0% about all of this, so he’d gone back to his forge.
“Er—something up, Watch Captain? Is everything all right with the law?”
Kevin wasn’t the chummiest with Relc and Zevara’s crew, but he respected her job. Zevara shrugged.
“Hm? Oh, we’re not in danger of being attacked by a foreign army, the dungeon’s safer with Facestealer allegedly ‘dead’, and Erin Solstice is a known variable. No, no. It’s actually that things are going so well—we’ve been upgraded. Liscor was always around a hundred thousand people, but we might be a third larger already, and we’re doing a census. But the writing’s up.”
“Wow, that’s growth.”
Liscor might be a third bigger already? Zevara nodded absently. She didn’t look pleased by the…added difficulties of more species? But the Watch was larger. She explained the reason at last.
“We’ve been upgraded by the Walled Cities. They tend to rule on this sort of thing. We could obviously do it ourselves, but Manus sent us a note just this morning. The Council will receive an appropriate stipend—and we are now able to appoint a Watch Commander and multiple Watch Captains. We’ll need at least two given the new size of the city and all the newcomers.”
Selys and Kevin’s mouths fell open. Watch Commander?
“This is great news, Zevara!”
It was Kevin who realized why the Drake was so pensive.
“That Watch Commander’s going to be you, right, um, Captain Zevara?”
Selys blinked. Zevara absently chewed on a stick of meat she’d bought from a vendor.
“I don’t know. The Council’s offered me the position, but I think I’ll turn it down. I don’t know if I’m Watch Commander material. I’ve had several blunders and—well, that’s why you’ve seen Watch Captain Venim about Liscor more. We’re thinking of offering him the position. I’ve earmarked Beilmark as a Watch Captain if things go through.”
“You can’t do that! Liscor’s first Watch Commander should be you, Zevara!”
Selys was outraged and began to talk Zevara out of it, but the Watch Captain was just muttering about ‘different specialties’. After all, a Watch Commander was almost never ‘on the ground’, and they were supervisorial. She didn’t know if she wanted that, but of course, if she was one of two or three Watch Captains that had rotations, she’d have less work.
Things changed. But if Liscor didn’t have Watch Captain Zevara leading the entire Watch…was nothing constant?
Lady Ieka would have dearly loved to know exactly how the bicycle was made and to steal Kevin and Hedault and all of Solar Cycles if she had time.
But amazingly, it wasn’t important to her right now. Lady Ieka Imarris was following her aunt around with great concern. Invisible, yes, but she was aware Valeterisa could see her. The Archmage of Izril was a far more talented spellcaster than her niece. Besides, she kept absently waving at Ieka and her bodyguards every few minutes.
“Lady Imarris? There’s a young woman spying on the Archmage.”
One of Ieka’s bodyguards, the all-female unit styled after Bethal’s Rose Knights, murmured. Ieka glanced at the young woman with pale skin and black hair impatiently.
“One of the inn’s many spies, no doubt. Let’s not cause a scene. Show me the dossier on this [Mage]? Esthelm’s Guildmaster, I think.”
She waited with growing impatience as one of her [Maids] fussed with a briefcase, nearly dropped half the files, and took six minutes to find the file. Six minutes. By that time, Valeterisa was already discussing buying a place to set up the teleportation network.
Ieka Imarris bit back a scathing comment as she snatched the report on the [Guildmaster]…which turned out to be little more than their name, a note saying they’d survived the Goblin Lord’s attack on Esthelm, and a guess at their level.
‘Likely over Level 20’.
She stared at the note. Likely over Level 20. That was the best intelligence she had on Esthelm’s [Guildmaster].
“I am sure…we can do better than this, Estvie?”
She turned to her [Head Maid], and the young woman blushed. She was twenty-three, had amazingly brilliant blonde-sapphire hair, and had been handpicked by Ieka to act as her assistant in all ways. She even knew [Power Strike] and had worked as a Bronze-rank adventurer for a year and a half.
And this was all splendid. Grand…Ieka’s bodyguards said nothing as Estvie curtsied slightly.
“I’ll amend our files on Esthelm very soon, Lady Ieka.”
“I meant in general—it’s fine. It’s fine.”
Ieka bit her lip. Here was the thing. Estvie was an exceptionally attractive young woman. Fashionable. She could manage the other [Maids] who worked for Ieka and followed the [Lady] of House Imarris around with minimal infighting, and could coordinate with the [Bodyguards], who were former [Mercenaries] and good women.
Ieka had an all-female staff. But she had to admit—Estvie may have risen to her current position because she was the best candidate Ieka had. Not because she was perfect for the job.
Ideally, Ieka had wanted her [Head Maid] to be at least a former Silver-rank adventurer, but not a lot of women wanted to be [Maids]—and had Estvie’s hair—and could do the job. It was a limited pool, and that was fine in a vacuum. The [Bodyguards] had just told Ieka, privately, that they would not be counting on Estvie for support in a battle. The sword the [Head Maid] carried was ornamental.
This would all be acceptable to Ieka—if not for the ghost that haunted her. Like a certain Dragon, she was plagued by a face. A woman. Tall, eyes sometimes flashing like a grey knife, hair cropped short, lithe, a professional who only changed out of her maid’s outfit for a killer’s dress.
No, wait. Ieka was haunted by Magnolia Reinhart. The [Lady] she could never seem to surpass, who had Ressa, a staff that was annoyingly competent, and a perfect information network—all things Ieka lacked.
Ressa did not haunt Ieka’s dreams. The [Lady]’s dreams involving Ressa were decidedly more pleasant. If Ieka could have hired Ressa, she would have. But no sum she had offered had ever made the [Head Maid] of the Reinharts even blink twice.
Alas. Ieka handed back the file and sighed as she watched it being fumbled back into the Endless Briefcase, a variation on a bag of holding that carried any number of documents and information. The trouble was—
Lady Ieka Imarris was not incompetent. She made…choices sometimes regarding her staff, and her personal affairs had a lot of fan-waving and sighing, but House Imarris was one of the more successful noble houses.
When Tyrion Veltras had called for allies against the Goblin Lord, she had been alongside Gralton and the [Emperor], Laken Godart, for ranking. She was no Magnolia—or that damned lucky Bethal—but she could elbow with the second-best of Izril.
What bothered Ieka was the lack of womanpower she sometimes faced—in that Magnolia Reinhart would happily poach any talent for her staff in a heartbeat. But her rivalry with Magnolia was ongoing. If Ieka was sometimes acutely aware of the failings of her staff…they did their best, and she knew their capabilities.
She was more worried about her aunt right now.
Ieka was aware that Valeterisa was scattered. She was acutely aware of it, being Valeterisa’s only family-member who could even get in contact with the Archmage of Izril. She loved Valeterisa for it; in Wistram and growing up, Valeterisa had been the one aunt who supported Ieka’s magical aspirations without question, if sometimes absently. She had helped Ieka take over House Imarris…
And Ieka had helped her aunt in her own ways. Sometimes it was smoothing over an incident or simply paying a fine for a book that never got returned. Making much of Valeterisa’s reputation was never hard—she was a genius at spellcraft.
But this latest project really did worry Ieka because it smacked of Maviola El. Ieka admired the former matriarch of the House of El, she really did—
But that woman had managed to fail at a lot of projects, the Kaalblades being the one exception. And she had talked Valeterisa into all of it. Maviola El was a passionate, engaging speaker with a vision. She just didn’t always deliver.
Ieka had heard the pitch that her aunt had made to Lord Alman, Lord Ranga, and Lord Andel. Lord Ranga was not a quiet man and had told his son all about it. She had grave concerns, not least because she was a bit worried about the scope of this project.
Ieka was no Andel, who could barely keep track of his finances and needed help just figuring out how much money he had. She had a basic test of competence she would use to assess a [Lord] or [Lady]’s ability to govern, which was as crucial as their ability to socialize or lead.
Test 1. Can you keep up with a receptionist in a Merchant’s Guild for a day?
If you couldn’t do that, you didn’t have any head for numbers. They had a lot of ledgers, but it was just noting down sums and making sure you could follow goods bought and sold. If a noble didn’t have a head for numbers on that basic level, that was a problem.
Test 2. Knowing when someone who smiles at you is lying.
Everyone smiled at a [Lady] when they wanted something. Take everyone at face value and you’d be tricked in a second. More than once, Ieka had tested a [Lord] or [Lady] and seen them completely ripped off by a [Merchant] claiming this brooch was ‘only sixty gold coins’ when it was worth less than two. It usually wasn’t even a good lie, just a basic Skill that relied on someone’s arrogance or assumption they were being told the truth.
But the third test of basic competence was one about organization, and it was one that Ieka feared her aunt was falling prey to. Most [Lords] or [Ladies] of an inquiring mind could solve it given the time and learned something from it. But Valeterisa…
Test 3. How do you turn water into wine?
She vividly recalled Lord Ranga laughing about it at a party when she revealed her three tests one time. That man hadn’t gotten the point at all.
She had learned this trick from Lord Pellmia, in fact. Ieka recalled, as a young woman, how she had toured Quellae’s orchards and vineyards and he had talked over the process.
Wine was free. All you had to do was water the right seeds.
Well, of course, that was oversimplification. First you found a spot that was fertile enough to grow grapes. You had to clear the land, make sure the pests were out, fence it off, hire workers or do the work yourself. Buy the right seeds, build trellises to support the vines as they grew, check them for pests, and keep away everything that wanted to eat the grapes. Process them after letting them dry, let the mixture ferment—experiment with the quality and so on.
But all Pellmia claimed you needed was water. Water was essential for the crops and workers. You couldn’t pull water out of nothing. You could, in time, pay the workers harvesting the grapes with the proceeds from the wine. You could use the grapes you grew to sow more vineyards. The system of making wine, in theory, paid for itself. Barrels came from wine sales. Wine came from the industry supporting itself.
Only the water was a stopgap. Even in dry Chandrar, he claimed that you could found a vineyard—but you had to have the water.
It was one of those thought-experiments that proved whether or not you could logic your way to understanding the process of making wine. Even Lord Ranga could follow that kind of thing; he could tell you how his [Herders] cared for the damn cattle in minute detail. A [Lord] or [Lady] who could do that could at least understand the industry they cared for.
But her aunt…when Ieka had floated the riddle to Valeterisa, the renowned Archmage of Izril, the genius who had lifted Fissival and spellcaster supreme, Valeterisa had thought about it for two seconds.
‘Cast a transfiguration spell, Ieka. Next riddle?’
Which was fair for a [Mage] to say. But even when Ieka had explained the premise, Valeterisa…had never quite bothered to figure out how wine was made. She was entirely uninterested in wine, which was fine for a spellcaster. Only this enterprise?
This wasn’t about magic alone. Ieka had grave concerns.
There were eight stops between Liscor and Invrisil. Adding in Bezale and Palt, that made ten. Three more to House Sanito meant thirteen teleportation spots to teleport the goods.
But Montressa had found thirteen [Mages]. Each one was enthusiastic, took Valeterisa’s blueprints for the spell circle…and her gold.
Quite a lot of it, in fact. Valeterisa had known she’d have to pay for a warehouse to teleport from. Some of the [Mages] had backups, though.
“I’ll use the basement of the Mage’s Guild, Archmage. It’s spacious enough. I’d only charge…let’s call it a hundred and fifty gold for the year? If we’re using this service as much as I think, it will be simple.”
The Esthelm [Guildmaster of Magic] had his solution. One town along the way had no free warehouse, so the [Mage] volunteered their house.
“We’ll just have to teleport through it. The room’s large enough to hold most shipments. We can pay for a warehouse later. But we do need to buy gemstones.”
Gemstones. Valeterisa hadn’t realized this, but few [Mages] besides Palt or Bezale had access to the right quality gemstones to lay down a proper spell circle. Most used magicore—so she had to give them what she had and buy all the stocks she could find. Pallass had enough gems from Salazsar, which exported a good amount of the world’s supply, but it was dear.
Cost of all the storage spots for the teleportation grid? 4,521 gold pieces.
Cost of the gemstones to write the spell circles? 1,775 gold pieces.
Budget: 20,904 gold pieces.
A third of the budget was used up, but that was fine. The teleportation network would be up, running, and in a few days, they’d send through a piece of copper ore to prove it was working, then port the rest. And once it was running, the network would pay for itself and need no further outlays of coin.
Valeterisa was tired after having to talk to so many people. She went to sleep that night, still excited by the vision of the Teleportarium 2.0. Goods were just the beginning. When she could transfer people—she’d convince Pallass to let her set up a network. It was a long way from here to Fissival, but if she wanted people she knew to ever visit her—
Connect Izril via magic. Much like the Crossroads of Izril quest. Part of Valeterisa wondered why Erin Solstice was so obsessed with that. Her magic could do it simpler.
The next morning, two problems occurred. Montressa found Valeterisa in the Haven and knocked on the door. The Archmage had been dozing as she waited for her morning cup of coffee.
Her apprentice delivered it. And fresh underwear and other things. Valeterisa was reading a book about the Lightning Thief in bed, and she heard a muted conversation from outside.
“—up early. Didn’t I see you two hours ago?”
“Oh—yes, Guildmistress Godfrey.”
“Mihaela. This project Valley is on about. Is it going to work?”
Montressa’s voice was nervous.
“I-I hope so! I’ve chosen good [Mages].”
“Running a network isn’t easy. Valley’s as coordinated as a frog in a slicked oil well wearing a suit of plate armor.”
Mihaela was always rude. Valeterisa huffed slightly as Montressa spoke up. The door was slightly ajar, which was why Larra’s privacy spells weren’t working.
“I am most assuredly going to help her to the best of my abilities, Guildmistress! I looked up each [Mage] via the local Mage’s Guilds, and they’re the best in each town. I know Bezale and Palt personally. I won’t let her down.”
“Mhm. Good. I’m getting to work. I have to torment a few upshot City Runners. Does she really make you buy underwear? Nevermind, don’t answer that.”
Mihaela tromped off just as Valeterisa closed her book, vaguely annoyed. But then there was a rap at the door, and Montressa was there, pushing into the room and waving a nervous hand.
“Archmage? Can you look over Bezale’s work? She’s stressing a bit that she’s messed something up. And—you have an angry [Merchant] waiting for you.”
“…How angry is angry?”
The leader of the Merchant’s Guild in Invrisil was very angry. And he had two [Bodyguards] and would have loved to summon Valeterisa into his office in Invrisil to scream at her.
But one did not summon Valeterisa anywhere. In fact, she ignored him so completely he had to find her on the streets of Invrisil as she followed Bezale to her spell circle in progress. The two [Bodyguards] mostly tried to hide behind the [Merchant] as he shouted.
“You are trying to destroy our trade, and we will not have it, Archmage! If you had approached us in good faith—the Driver’s Guild and Runner’s Guilds are both aware of what you are doing!”
“I have every right to do this. Thank you. [Silence].”
Valeterisa waved her wand. Montressa was aghast.
“Archmage, you can’t do that!”
“Oh, very well. [Dispel Magic].”
“This is assault on a citizen of Invrisil! You two, arrest her! Call the Watch!”
The incandescent [Merchant] didn’t get to arrest Valeterisa. The [Bodyguards] were not about to try. Both were over Level 30 and very competent and dangerous with their pointy sticks. But they were also fans of the news. They had seen her lift Fissival over her head.
“How did he find out about our project?”
Montressa grimaced when Valeterisa finally got out of range of the [Merchant] throwing a tantrum.
“I think someone informed him. Either one of our [Mages] or…someone sold the information. Information brokers are strong. Bezale, do you know who did it?”
The Minotauress ran a kind of information broker’s service along with her magical connections to Liscor. She grunted.
“It was the new broker in Invrisil. ‘Bloody Secrets’.”
“Some upshot seller of info from Reizmelt. She stays at the inn, Montressa. And don’t look at me about the name. I didn’t choose it. She did. It’s so pretentious.”
“How well is she doing?”
“Not as well as me. She’s new. She’s got a Steel Golem bodyguard, and she’s rich, but she’s new. She opened her business, ran off for months, and came back. You have to prove you’re something in Invrisil. Give her two years and maybe she’ll be more than a pest, but she did get the scoop on us. Here’s my spell circle, Archmage. Is it…?”
Valeterisa saw that Bezale had bought out a large warehouse to store goods in just as promised. It had a steel bolt lock, and the Minotauress had sealed the windows with basic wards. In the center of the room, which she had swept, she had begun to trace the spell circle in melted gemstone lines of magic.
“Hmm. You did three layers in one night. Good!”
Three out of five were done, and Valeterisa was happy. She could have done this herself, but it would have taken her four hours, and her back hurt for bending over so long. Montressa hurried around, peering at the circle.
“It’s very well done. A perfect copy. You didn’t have to worry, Bezale!”
The Minotauress exhaled in a rush.
“Good! It’s just the most complex thing I’ve done—I wanted to be sure. I am sorry, Archmage.”
“It’s fine. This is good. You’ll be done today, then. Perhaps we can teleport the goods from House Sanito today!”
The Archmage perked up, but Montressa raised a hand.
“If Bezale is only on three layers out of five by today—we need to wait at least another one. Thank you, Bezale—oh, your niece would like to talk.”
“Aunt Valeterisa, you’re going everywhere. Are you alright? You’re not being harassed by the Merchant’s Guild about your project, are you? I tried to put a lid on it, but they really don’t like your project, so they bought all the information up.”
Ieka was, as ever, surprising to Valeterisa. The Archmage had some tea with her niece in Ieka’s rooms in the Haven. She was always so…
“You are so informed, Ieka. How did you know about my project?”
“You talk, Aunt.”
Ieka sounded peeved, and Valeterisa blinked at her.
“But I use privacy spells.”
“Yes, but not perfectly. Are you…forgive me. Let’s start from the beginning. I’m glad you didn’t decide to work for the Drakes. I was inspired, seeing you at Fissival.”
The girl put down her cup and looked at Valeterisa, and she seemed so much older than Valeterisa remembered. She had grown up from the girl who would beg for Valeterisa to show her spells.
But the look hadn’t changed. Her eyes were bright violet, like distant stars, and when they looked at Valeterisa, they shone like the first time the [Mage] had cast [Illumination] in an empty field for her.
Valeterisa liked that look. But Ieka’s look of admiration was tinged with—anger.
“They never respected you. You shouldn’t have given them the time of day.”
“I grew up there, Ieka. I like Fissival. I still do. They do not like me.”
She didn’t want to talk about Fissival. Valeterisa peered at Ieka.
“Have you gotten engaged yet? Your mother sometimes asks me about your prospects.”
“I’ve grown far past listening to my parents’ wishes in that regard, Aunt. You know how it is. I’m more concerned in—the new lands. Personnel. Have you any interest in going there?”
Valeterisa thought about it.
“I am interested in whatever is being found, but no. I don’t want to go ahead like Deniusth or Colth. Adventurers tend to die.”
“Even the Archmage of Izril?”
Valeterisa smiled at the comment, and Ieka turned red. But Valeterisa just thought for a second.
“—Colth can be scarier than I am. I helped them fight in the dungeon against Facestealer. I remembered why I don’t adventure. And Colth is not rushing to the new lands. Therefore it is too dangerous for me.”
“Even for you. Aunt…what is Eldavin like? Is he really that far above all the old Archmages in magic? You?”
“Yes. Most definitely.”
Her niece didn’t like that. She had some kind of odd pride about Valeterisa, but the Archmage explained how Eldavin had come to Wistram, and Ieka listened attentively. Her face was wistful and pained.
“It feels like there is always an insurmountable mountain of talent, Aunt. If you—I’ve seen you put your life into studying, and this Eldavin swoops in and teaches you all like students. For myself? I cannot get out of Magnolia Reinhart’s shadow.”
Valeterisa pursed her lips. This was a familiar conversation.
“She inherited one of the Five Families. It is not exactly fair to compare, Ieka. Besides, if Eldavin can take Wistram forwards, I will follow him. I only wish—”
She paused, and Ieka glanced up. Valeterisa’s lips moved.
I only wish he hadn’t changed.
Something about him had shifted—but she didn’t tell even her niece that. Lacking any other conversation points, Valeterisa leaned forwards.
“How have your magical studies gone?”
Ieka sighed, but fondly.
“I don’t have time to study magic as often as you, Aunt. Frankly, I’m surprised you even took the time to visit the Haven.”
“It has free bread. And Larra told me to come. I will wish to return to my mansion soon to research, but I have opportunities here such as the teleportation network.”
Ieka was fiddling with one of her rings.
“Yes, well, on that topic—are you quite certain you want to take on this entire affair yourself, Aunt? It is a great task, and I fear it will divide your attention.”
Valeterisa waved a hand as if trying to limply strike a moth.
“I considered offering it to Magnolia Reinhart or letting Eldavin do it. But the profit to be made is appealing. We have already mostly finished Invrisil’s magical circuit and will test the network tomorrow, probably.”
Something in Ieka’s tone made Valeterisa glance up. She would have entirely missed it if her attention was divided and she only had one thought-process on ‘talk to niece’, but right now…
“You are skeptical? The magic is sound.”
“Your magic always is. But Aunt—people are not that reliable, in my experience. If you need a bit of help, you need only say the word. I am tied up in my affairs in the new lands—my people are at the furthest most Drake cities in the west, you know, although there are complications.”
Ieka grimaced, and Valeterisa’s interest waned.
“I see. I believe we are quite set, niece. Thank you for the tea. I’msorryImissedeightbirthdays. Here is a present from me.”
She offered Ieka a box, and the [Lady] smiled.
“Aunt, you didn’t have to. Really. Is it a potion? A note to the Merchant’s Guild? A—oh.”
Her hands stopped as she opened the box. She had, Ieka had to own, low expectations. In the past, her aunt may have literally poured gold into a bag of holding. This time, Ieka slowly lifted a long wand out of a case. Its insides ran with liquid metal, carefully, carefully contained within.
“Mercury. An alchemical wand sealed within lattice crystal rated for a Level 40 spellcaster.”
“Aunt! It’s beautiful. Did you say Level 40? My wand isn’t this strong!”
It was probably the most powerful wand you could buy on the open market—assuming there were wands for sale on the open market of this quality. Valeterisa smiled absently.
“Did you make it?”
Ieka couldn’t understand where it had come from. Valeterisa shook her head.
“I…asked a fellow Archmage, Viltach, to craft it for me. I was worried since he lost his arm, but he seems to have managed.”
Or rather, Montressa, after a lot of pondering, had vouchsafed only this kind of gift would do. She had personally arranged the favor, and the look on Ieka’s face made even Valeterisa smile.
“It’s beautiful, Aunt. Thank you.”
The [Lady] hugged her aunt gently, and Valeterisa smiled. She kept smiling for the rest of the day as she introduced herself to people interested in her new services and mentioned the delivery with House Sanito at the end of the week. The execution made her sad when she heard of it. But even she could not just fly across Izril, had she even been inclined to do something.
As promised, Teriarch had returned Rafaema to the inn after a day of flying. There had been a tiny scene when she returned—her guardian, the [Spearmaster], had a lot to complain about.
He had brandished his spear at ‘Demsleth’, even, until he was reminded that Erin Solstice could ban him from the inn.
“Listen, pal. The only reason I’m letting you in is because I’m tired of spies and your [Soldiers] lurking around the grass. Plus, it’s funny watching Demsleth mess with you. But cause trouble and I’ll have Mrsha kick you out!”
An exasperated Rafaema had smoothed things over with a promise to return nightly, but she had to call on her Dragonspeaker to give Lulv marching orders. Teriarch had watched the one called Ferris and Lulv and her [Soldiers] and thought they did care.
Spells were a poor way to check on the validity of true emotion—but there was something funnier than offensive when Lulv asked quietly if Rafaema had been the subject of untoward advances in any way. When Rafaema figured out what he meant, she almost tossed him out a window. But a bad protector wouldn’t ask.
It was so entirely depressing what Manus wanted Rafaema to be—mother of an entire species—that Teriarch didn’t have the heart to bring that up to her. Though it was an inevitable conversation. He focused on his job. That was hard enough.
Demsleth didn’t stay overnight at The Wandering Inn, but he certainly indulged in its services enough to justify Erin’s goodwill towards him. Aside from talking to Ryoka, Rafaema, and Magnolia…
He had been in his cups that night, brooding over the failed Slime Master Culivan. Trying to figure out if he should send a [Message] or keep well enough alone.
He feared…he had not changed the man’s trajectory away from his wasteful experiments. If anything, he might have added to the danger. Culivan would now be looking for the word ‘seith’ in everything, and if he looked hard enough…
Maybe it was just as well. A jumpstart to inevitable progress? They needed building blocks, and short of finding a substitute or another material like Sage’s Grass, this was a natural progression. The [Alchemist] who visited the inn, Culivan, and any number of experts needed to rediscover what previous eras had found to advance to the next tier of accomplishment.
He decided not to try another interference point. Leave well enough alone and come back later in a month. He’d do a better job next time. There were a lot of next times. Besides, Rafaema was already bouncing to get to the next location.
When Teriarch picked her up the next day to continue hunting down people who had met with ghosts, he was noticeably slower in the air.
“Do your wings hurt, Lord Teriarch? We could take a break.”
“Nonsense. I’m quite fine.”
He was a bit snappish—but perhaps that was because they had visited three different spots and found no more people actually chosen by ghosts. One had claimed to have met a spirit—but a [Detect Truth] spell had established the lie at once.
They had better luck halfway through the day, though. Teriarch landed amidst a field of snow and flowers gently—and Demsleth strode into a village that cultivated dyes.
Flower dyes. They had, therefore, a beautiful field of flowers still blooming amidst the snow. It seemed someone had a Skill.
“[Fields: Permafrost Resistance] or [Untouched by Weather]. I wonder if the [Farmer] or whoever has the class is the target of the spell.”
Demsleth remarked as he strode up to a brightly decorated house, proof that the dyes and paints made from the flowers were good quality.
As it turned out—the [Gardener] who cultivated so many flowers was not the person chosen by a ghost. It was her son.
The boy was fifteen and not hard to find. Everyone in the village knew Horre’s name and what had happened. They were also highly suspicious of Demsleth and Rafaema—even when he explained he was simply here to listen and perhaps help.
“You won’t be the first to bother him. There’ve been fifteen [Merchants] so far—and eight adventurers and a bunch of shady folk. Thieves, no less. Some in broad daylight! They broke into Costere’s cottage, so any suspicious moves and we will have you out of the village, sir.”
Costere was a widow, and her son had grown up helping till the fields. There was something poetic about it that stirred Rafaema’s sense of stories.
A gardener’s son, strong and hale, in a simple village who one day was visited by a ghost. The boy had hair in three colors, which amused her greatly. Green, yellow, and blue in three stripes across his hair. It seemed it was a tradition in this village to dye anything since they had such access.
“I can’t sell you this sword, Mister Demsleth. If you’re here on behalf of anyone—even a famous Named-rank, I can’t. The man who gave it to me told me I had to carry it. I swore an oath.”
He looked—nervous. Nervous and less than happy for a boy who had the mark of stories on him. But perhaps that had to do with a boarded up window and the wary villagers.
“This place used to love travellers. Now, after he’s nearly been mugged twice—a sword from a ghost.”
“Can you tell me how it happened?”
Demsleth had won some warmth by offering some pipes and ash around to smoke as well as a cake that Rafaema suspected came straight from The Wandering Inn. Costere sat there, looking—anxious as Horre repeated the story with clear practice.
Four months ago, he had been in the fields when a stranger walked across the flowerbeds. Annoyed, Horre had shouted for the man to stop trampling the shoots—until he realized the stranger left no footprints in their wake.
A warrior pointed down, down into the dirt and told Horre something lay buried under his feet. A precious blade and his bones. If he was worthy to claim it. But the ghost demanded a vow.
“‘Forsake your farm and heritage. If you pick up this sword, you are now a warrior of a long legacy. Reclaimer, rebuilder of Giryal’s Champions. Mercenary company of old.’ So I promised him to do it. He told me he was going to ‘fight at the end of this world’. I dug up the sword, and here it is.”
Horre held up the blade, and Rafaema whistled. She stared at the weapon, and her training in Manus told her what it was. Not a longsword or a greatsword, which were classical and, you had to admit, sort of boring.
He had a falchion, a single-edged blade with a guard and slanted or curved tip to the edge. Even without oil or polishing more than the buffing of his sleeve, it gleamed in the cold winter air. But that wasn’t what made it special.
“Put the sword down, lad! It’s doing it again—”
Everyone in the village winced as the wind blew, and Rafaema’s earholes caught the shriek as the blade cut the air. It grew louder and louder and then suddenly silent—as if the blade were so sharp as to create a vortex of sound.
She thought she saw it too—the wind dividing in a long gash across the ground past Horre. And that was what happened when he held it up.
“Giryal’s Champions. I…don’t know that company. Yet that blade is fine, young man.”
“Fine enough for everyone to want it. We’re lucky House Quellae is the only noble with land near ours. Lord Pellmia didn’t demand it, but he’s already offered young Horre a position in his guard.”
“I can’t take it. I have to start a company.”
The question came from Costere, and while his mother, the [Gardener], sounded gentle, the boy hunched his shoulders.
He was fifteen…and looked almost full-grown for his age, over six foot two and broad-shouldered, but Rafaema had a terrible kinship with him. Horre spoke slowly and deliberately, trying not to glance at his mother’s expression.
“I don’t know. But I’ve made a promise. A vow. I levelled up. I am a [Mercenary Captain], and I should start somewhere. Perhaps it’s like an adventurer.”
“We’ll be going with you, Horre!”
Half the village lads and some of the girls were ready to start roving around already. But the older villagers looked—nervous.
“We don’t fear Horre would do poorly against a pack of monsters, Mister Demsleth. He’s chased off those thieves, and when one grabbed the sword and ran, it flew all the way back into his hand. But there are…folk who would do anything for a blade like that.”
“It’s not even a Relic. It’s decent but…ahem. I quite agree, Master Roisel. Do you have a plan?”
The villagers did not. Costere looked at Demsleth with a surprising amount of trust. But perhaps she sensed he was more than he seemed.
“Do you, Mister Demsleth?”
The old man made a show of stroking his beard. He spoke carefully.
“If I were young Horre, I would take my vow seriously. A class is a class. But perhaps I should take the view that one does not need to lead a company overnight. A promise is a promise, but the duration is important.”
Horre’s troubled head rose hopefully, and Costere smiled as her eyes lit up.
“Oh, I see!”
Teriarch hmmed. And Rafaema began to smile as he nodded.
“Mercenaries are not common on Izril. But there is surely one of Baleros—or perhaps Izril has the right one—who could teach Horre the job. Giryal’s Champions might not appear overnight, but with someone to teach him the blade and basics, Horre might well level.”
“It beats him cutting grass all day. He’s only gotten to Level 3 by practice—you speak wisdom, Mister Demsleth.”
Some of the other villagers were nodding. Demsleth was smiling wider, and Rafaema’s heart leapt—right until he kept speaking.
“Naturally, the first thing the lad should do is plant a fake story about the village he’s from. Someone always comes by to take the mother or village hostage when an artifact is about.”
The smiling villagers hesitated. Horre’s expression grew worried.
“Take my mother hostage?”
Demsleth took a deep draft of the pipe and exhaled in a plume. He looked up at the sky.
“It’s already begun. I suggest you come up with a good name. Flowershome—let’s say it’s eighty miles south of here. You need to have a few convincing anecdotes to throw people off, and this village might consider changing its name. You can even register the name in the Merchant’s Guild.”
“I—we could try that. Have a whipround for the fee?”
Demsleth waved this off. He was frowning now. He produced ten gold coins and placed them on the ground. Costere frowned at them, and Horre blinked and his mouth fell open at the sight of the gold.
“Allow me. Consider it a donation to a young man’s talents. But let’s consider who you want to apprentice him to. A bad [Mercenary] might lead young Horre down the wrong path. He might find he is working with naught but [Brigands]—even if he is of good character. You want the upstanding sort of mercenary. One vetted properly. I suggest a proper lure for some former soldier-of-fortune who wants to do things again. Does anyone here have [Detect Intention]? [Greater Appraisal]? [Detect Guilt]?”
No one nodded. Demsleth puffed harder, frowning, then pulled something out of his bag of holding.
“Very well. Here is a scroll of [Detect Intention]. Brighter colors mean purer intention—I didn’t choose the gradient. It will work six times, and perhaps you had better weigh your options and interview all six before you choose, young man, but the quality of your company will also matter. Now, I don’t need to tell you that all sorts of attractive young women or men or both will be drawn to success. Childhood sweethearts—you don’t have any of them, do you?”
“A friend—do you mean someone I’d fall in love with?”
“A romantic interest. I suggest you get it out of your system. I am not suggesting now, but just be careful about the aforementioned hangers-on. Or love triangles. Speaking of which, it’s good that your sword returns to you. But what you are going to need if you start a mercenary company is the most essential thing for a roving warrior.”
Someone finally broke into Demsleth’s deep thinking. The old man snorted. Rafaema raised a claw.
“Er, Demsleth, a word?”
“Not a word, nor courage. Did you just say ‘numbers’, young woman? Hah! I like that!”
He chuckled to one side, then reached into his bag of holding.
“No, it’s a lockbox. And I happen to, er, have one right here. Your coin needs to be backed, and every [Thief] is going to be after it. Now, some [Mercenaries] use magical contracts, but most are informal. I suggest you study [Pirates], young Horre, and see how they divide their shares of treasure up. It’s actually quite scientific—nothing kills a company more than accusations the division of spoils is not fair.”
Horre had grabbed a sheet of paper, and he looked like he was desperately taking notes. Costere’s smile had turned to concern, and the villagers were staring. Demsleth kept pulling objects out of his ‘bag of holding’.
“I think within a year we can get you to Level 20. Maybe even Level 30—”
“If he throws himself into a war or two. He may die…but your [Mercenary] commander knows what battles to take. I suggest not opposing one of the Five Families and be very careful about lucrative contracts. Ah, but the boy’s only fifteen. He’ll have to have his moment when he stands up to authority—and then he’ll know if he’s leadership material. Oh! Socks!”
He almost bellowed it as he shoved a pile of objects forwards, and Horre nearly threw up.
“Countless warriors die of gangrene or infection on their feet! Enchanted socks. Let me just make a pair—of all the things I think I can leave you with, enchanted socks might save your life. I can’t stop a Creler or hold your hand, young Horre. I am just a traveller…but here.”
He produced two bright blue socks and handed them to Horre. And at this point, even Demsleth seemed to realize he had gone too far. He stepped back—and coughed.
“Er…I’m just thinking ahead. Forewarned is forearmed, after all.”
He looked around, and the village was silent. Rafaema was trying not to meet Demsleth’s eyes.
The Dragon had been on the right track. He really had. The feeling in the air when he had suggested that first part had been good. But now? Horre was still writing, trying to note down all the things Demsleth had talked about. And he seemed…
He seemed to suddenly get exactly what his promise to the ghost meant. His mother seemed happier about that because the boy with a quest suddenly was being told he might die with his feet rotting off before he ever got to the battlefield and that he should really adopt a share-based system for dividing treasure.
The Dragon hesitated, looked around, and backed up.
“I must go. I, um…I hope you take my words to heart. It’s not perfect, but—”
He backed up as Rafaema slowly got to her feet and edged off after him. The two hurried away as the village of flowers sat silent. Demsleth strode off into the distance, and no one really said a word.
Then…he stopped a hundred paces outside the village, turned, hurried back, and threw something on the ground.
“Encrypted [Message] scroll. It’s the death of anyone, really. And don’t forget a good banner! Do not make it racist or speciesist! It always comes back to bite you! Farewell!”
He ran off. Demsleth vanished when he was out of sight in the village. Rafaema transformed into a Dragon and flew off after the Dragonlord of Flame.
He…didn’t meet her eye for a long time. After a while, he muttered.
“It’s been a while since I did something like that. Prophecies and whatnot. [Heroes] are trickier, you know. Everyone goes for the farmhands. Next time, I’ll do better. One can overshare information, I suppose.”
“O-oh? Farmhands are boring?”
She managed weakly. Teriarch tried to chuckle as they rose into the air and flew south.
“It is a cliché. Dragons, ghosts, dying [Knights], damsels in dubious distress—they all have chosen champions throughout the eras. A lot—and I do mean perhaps a third—choose farmhands or rural folk. There’s a logic to it. You know…clean air, honest work? It makes one assume that leads to good character.”
The Dragon paused. And his face grew sad and suddenly weary. He glanced back, and she realized Horre had been judged even as Demsleth overexplained his future.
“No. I imagine this ghost had little time to choose, especially given his blade was location-based. The character of a…a chosen hero is nigh impossible to ascertain. Some have styles. I myself have been accused by certain Unicorns of choosing certain types of people to place my trust in.”
“Er—young women. Young men tend to get led astray. Some choose caregivers, you know. Orphans of war or those trying to tend to the lost. In my experience, that kind of hero can become jaded and bitter.”
Teriarch looked over his shoulder and sighed.
“I didn’t do that properly. It’s just—he doesn’t have twenty years to make a name for himself and fail and succeed. He might not even have ten. I’m…”
For a second, he seemed uncertain, guilty, and glanced at Rafaema—but before he could say what was on his mind, Rafaema heard him swear under his breath.
“Oh no. It’s begun.”
“The news. Hold on. Ah, no one’s covering it on the damned television. But they should—maybe it would stop—do you have access to Manus? Stop here a second.”
They flew onto a cliff. A bunch of mountain goats startled as two giant, invisible forms started talking, and they promptly ran for it. Rafaema’s stomach growled, but then she decided there was no point to even teasing the goats. What would she do, gulp down one wholesale without even removing the guts? Without washing or cooking it?
“I could—query Manus via [Message] spell.”
“Do that. And ask them about the port city of Covieke.”
Covieke? It might be a Drake name, and Rafaema vaguely recognized it. She sent a hurried [Message] off with her scroll—it connected to Luciva herself. It was not the kind of thing she was supposed to use for casual [Messages], but this sounded urgent.
“Covieke is a port city of Drakes. I don’t know it—but I have been reading Drowned Folk [Messages]. They are abuzz with the name of the city. I fear…Nombernaught’s surfacing has led to a pattern resurfacing.”
Teriarch’s eyes were flickering as he read invisible [Messages]. He spat a plume of violet.
“Those fools. It seems Drowned Folk have been appearing in more cities.”
Rafaema had heard that too. In Invrisil, even, and across Izril, the Drowned Folk had begun to migrate around. They had ships—but they were a rare sight such that you might have only one in a city, like that Seborn.
Now, though, they were coming out of the depths of the sea. And it seemed—getting into trouble.
“Three Drowned Folk [Sailors]. No description. Love affair with a Landfolk Drake…flights of Tempest Dragons, it’s all so familiar. Did they even kill anyone?”
Teriarch’s voice rose. He was reading a story via [Messages]—but Rafaema got the full picture as Luciva made an inquiry and stated it simply.
Dragonspeaker: Covieke’s [Strategist] reports an altercation within the city. A Drowned Folk ship docked three weeks ago. At least one member of the crew engaged in a relationship with locals. A fiancée was allegedly convinced to ‘run off to sea’. I have four reports of disorderly conduct following the final incident involving the attempted abduction of a Drake citizen. Eighteen wounded, including members of the Watch and civilians. The local Council apprehended three Drowned Folk who did not flee to sea. Sentence: execution by hanging. What is your source of information, Rafaema?
Rafaema: Can you halt the execution?
Dragonspeaker: Covieke’s Council is under tremendous local pressure. How critical is this?
The Lightning Dragon didn’t know. It sounded like a huge skirmish had taken place if eighteen people were wounded. But Teriarch was peering over her shoulder.
“We have to stop it. Can you tell the Dragonspeaker to pressure Covieke?”
“Me? I—I can ask. But Manus tries not to lean on cities so explicitly. It’s a bad look, and this is a Zeres-aligned city.”
“Then go through Zeres.”
Teriarch’s eyes were blazing with alarm. He raised his voice as he fanned his wings, cursing.
“Lean on the Serpentine Matriarch or Patriarch as hard as you can! Tell the Dragonspeaker she does not want this to escalate. A love story? Three Drowned Folk do not need to hang for that. Damn the Drake laws! Come on, we might be able to fly there.”
They were in the north! But the Dragon was muttering an incantation, and Rafaema tried to write faster in her Drake form. She looked around, and Teriarch growled.
“Jump on my back if you need to write!”
She did, and he took off. The air twisted as he flew higher, cursing.
“I don’t have coordinates on Covieke! Zeres? I’ll set off every ward—I’ll have to do it from the Great Plains and hope I can fly—”
The feeling of teleporting across a continent almost made Rafaema throw up. It certainly made Teriarch swerve in the air, and he was gasping as they levelled out over the expansive great plains. They scared the hell out of a flock of geese before they vanished again.
“Tell the Dragonspeaker to stop the execution.”
“Luciva’s saying it’d be a really difficult thing to do, Teriarch. Do I—how important is it? She’s trying to talk to the local [Strategist].”
“Order her to get to the Council!”
A moment of terror gripped Rafaema’s claw as her quill hovered over the [Message] scroll. Teriarch craned his head around as his wings beat. They were accelerating—flames sprouted from his wings, and he was angling himself south, along the coast. He flapped harder, panting in his voice.
“You—have to give her orders! This matters! Three lives matter! An entire species is coming to Izril, and if the first thing they encounter is wrath and rope—the Drowned Folk will follow Gnolls and Humans, and it can be stopped! Tell your Dragonsp—argh!”
She heard the snap of air before she felt Teriarch lurch. What she saw was his wings, trying to handle the pressures of extreme speed, give. A muscle failed, and the wind slammed the wing open. That overbalanced the Brass Dragon.
And he went down.
Tons of metallic Dragon fell out of the sky as his good wing flailed, trying to catch himself. He had magic—he slowed before he hit the ground.
Rafaema changed shape midway down and caught herself. She nearly slammed into the earth after him, and her own wings strained as she caught herself twenty feet off the ground.
“Teriarch! Lord Teriarch! Are you—”
He lay there on his side, having left a trench of dirt through the grass. A terrified Waisrabbit teleported away as Teriarch’s head slowly rose.
“My wings—can’t support that speed. I’m…”
He looked at her, then tried to heave himself up. Slowly, Teriarch got to his feet, but he winced as he unfurled his good wing. Then he stared ahead blankly. Rafaema gazed at his bleak face—then she realized the [Message] scroll was flashing. She unfurled it as she turned back into an Oldblood Drake.
They were too late.
Covieke’s harbor was filled with jeering. Drakes shouting as they raised their claws into the air. Angry screams—louder than the seagulls screeching.
Part of the docks were still smoldering from the fighting. The others had made it.
Three Drowned Folk [Depth Sailors] stood on a platform on the docks, under nooses. A [Strategist] was arguing with the Council—but the Council was enmeshed in their town hall. They heard no arguments.
This was a port city. Justice was swift; the gallows were there for a reason. Troublemaking sailors and visitors saw the ultimate penalty. It was not always employed. Months could go by without it being used. But now, a crowd had gathered.
A Watch Captain stood by the gallows, keeping the crowds back with the [Guards] as he pondered his class. Watch Captain Zoreik had his orders. Crimes certainly had been committed.
Many Drakes were wounded, and a sovereign citizen of Covieke had almost been kidnapped to sea. These were facts—and it looked like one thing on his report.
Another, to see a Drowned Man, more a boy, with his face half-shrimp, claw bound up behind his back.
What a terrifying, un-Drake visage. How could anyone look at that and not see something as monstrous as a Selphid? Let alone fall in love enough to run from their engagement?
It had to be a seduction spell. Trickery. That was what the groom was shouting—or would be, if he wasn’t in a [Healer]’s care. Both families were here. And they were united as the [Executioner] waited.
A Drowned Man. More a boy. Zoreik heard him call out as the tide lapped at the docks. He shouted above the sentencing being read out. His voice was half-lost by the crowd. But his companions joined in.
Another Drowned Boy and a Drowned Girl. Visitors to the Drake city. They had quarreled at the docks, gone around town—and one of them had met a Drake and told her he could take her to sea. The crew had probably known it would come to grief—but young love was young love. When they came to swords, Drowned Folk had supported their own.
And the Drake city had passed down their sentence. The [Sailor] spoke to the crowd—but his eyes were on the sea. The sun was setting as a Dragon watched, as scrying spells captured his bloodied face. His wavering voice.
But the words he knew. The Drowned Man shouted to the crowd.
“Is this justice you’ll give us today, landfolk? Hear my words and listen well!”
His companions joined in as the voices rose—then fell quiet, listening.
“I took not a life while we stood on your land.
Nor pulled my rank or gave a single command.”
The Drowned [Sailors] looked at the Drake girl, her scales flashing pale like pearl. An Oldblood of the winds. He met her eyes as hers ran, her arms held by her minders.
“I ne’er made a promise I would not keep.
Nor did anything to make my shipmates weep.”
He took a breath as the noose around his neck hung there, filthy and black. The Watch Captain covered his eyes with a claw.
The boy was being watched. By the Drakes of this city. Even if Zoreik was too ashamed to look at him—a Dragonlord’s eyes burned as he roared at the sky.
But not just his. A crew at sea, barely out of the harbor, turned and saw three figures at the docks. They were drinking, with naught but seawater in their cups as they had left everything behind.
No one could make it. No other ships close by, and no one was listening.
So a dozen dozen [Captains] and their crews watched. Nombernaught was filled with that song, word for word. Drowned Folk gathered on decks of ships weighing anchor at sea, sailing under the surface.
Watching. Tears fell from half of a face. The other side’s tears belonged only to the sea. In this moment, Seborn Sailwinds whispered the same words as his father, Therrium. The Drowned Rogue watched the same sight as a Dragon and all his people.
Something only the sea knew. The [Rogue] listened, and he heard that voice continue. No beautiful singer, but it chilled his bones.
“If you call this justice on land, hear the plea of the surf!
Think long on your deeds before you lay me in the earth!
The click cut it all off as the [Executioner] threw a lever. Then there was naught but cheering, screams, gasps, and silence.
Yet the song continued on.
“Drake justice moves fast.”
That was all the Brass Dragon said. He picked himself up, shaking dirt off his scales, which still gleamed. They still gleamed like molten copper. But then he looked at her.
“There’s at least one more person in the north I wish to visit today. I will teleport us back where we were. Stand close, please.”
He began to mutter the teleport back, pausing wearily to let his mana accumulate. He was tired—and Rafaema stood there. He didn’t utter a word of recrimination. He just looked—
This is part one of two. So read on…if you haven’t read enough after 30,000+ words. I wrote this half when I decided the chapter wasn’t working in the time I had.
I’ve polished up some sections, but the issue I had among other things was that this is an ‘incomplete’ story. And sometimes that’s fine. Orjin’s tale is an ongoing one you can tell in pieces.
This was not, to me. The second part awaits and it is just as long. Let’s see if the story comes together as a whole.
Mrsha Speedink and Erin Speedink by Darndesthings!
Erin playing chess in her garden by Pellichi, commissioned by [Author] AxelTerizaki!
Pellichi’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/pelli_chi/
Axel’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/axelterizaki?lang=en
Taletevirion Laugh and Niers by Vescar!
Scooby Inn by Miguel!