9.38 TV (Pt. 2)

Reader Settings


(The writing notes for 9.38 TV can be found here. Warning—spoilers for the entire chapter.)


On the third day, Valeterisa asked Montressa if she was ready for the trial teleporting. She had just used her new Skill.

[Arcane Discovery]! It was like…a moment of inspiration. A moment of insight that you had when puzzling something out. Every week, a little bubble would pop and Valeterisa would realize how something could be done.

In this case, she had puzzled out some of the mechanics of the famous spell, [Valmira’s Comet]. She had always known it was meant to be used en masse—but she had never realized that the spell itself was configurable.

Of course! You could make it larger, smaller, faster—Feor had mass-produced the spell in the now-famous battle with Eldavin, but he could have vastly altered the spell.

All spells were like that. She wrote down her notes and was glad to see Montressa practicing in the morning. They were still [Mages], after all.

“[Master Spell: Levitation]! Archmage, I’m doing it, I’m doing it!

Montressa floated out her window, nearly lost control of the spell, and panicked. Arms windmilling, she nearly took a nosedive, but Valeterisa caught her and sent her floating back into her room of the Haven.

“So you are. Be careful not to land on your head, Apprentice.”

She smiled, vaguely pleased. After all, it wasn’t as if Montressa had learned [Levitation] overnight. But she did have a Skill.

[Apprentice] was an odd class to gain at Montressa’s level, but it had unexpected results. One of these was [Master-Apprentice Spell]. Just like how Montressa could borrow some of Valeterisa’s expertise with [Master, Allow Me], she could also ‘copy’ a spell from Valeterisa. It did seem like Valeterisa had to approve it, so she had opted for the spell that would give her apprentice much-needed mobility.

“Very good, Apprentice. Are you learning the spell by casting it?”

“I am—balancing the ‘lifting’ is hard. I nearly threw myself straight down!”

“Levitation and gravity spells are merely a matter of direction. Keep practicing. I would like to test the teleportation from Sanito to Liscor.”


Montressa hesitated. She checked her [Message] scroll and bit her lip.

“Um—we may have to double-check some of the spell circles. Some of the [Mages] want you to see their work.”

“How many layers are they up to?”

Montressa checked the top of her list.

“Palt just got to three! He says it will take—two more days? Oh. The others—”

She fell silent. And then Valeterisa felt the first familiar sensation she did not like. It was…a memory. It reminded her of her talks with Maviola El where the energetic older woman would be raring to go on a project. And then, after Valeterisa delivered the designs or finished the enchanting work…

Less communication. Less of that bright spark of enthusiasm. But she didn’t see the problem.

Until she began checking the spell circles.




Palt the [Illusionist] didn’t ask for a double-check of his work on the third day. Four [Mages] did—and the seven others were silent. But of the four, only one had no errors.

“You need to redraw your base layer. It is…unfixable.”

“U-u-unfixable, Archmage?”

“Yes. You went straight over the activation rune here. And the connection…”

It was done with a shaky hand. Valeterisa stared at the [Mage] who had painstakingly melted the gems and apparently singed up their hands with molten gemstone.

“Did you not draw it out earlier? You could have made a funnel for the gemstones.”

“Oh. Oh. I just—I thought I could draw it on the stone, but it was harder than it looked.”

Montressa’s face was an entire wince. Two entire layers of the five-layered spell circle were wasted. Valeterisa put on her work-smile.

“It is alright. Simply redraw it. Consider laying the lines out in a blueprint.”

“I will absolutely do this, Archmage. Could I—could I have more gemstones? I’m also out.”

The Archmage paused as she turned away.

“…How are you out of gemstones? You should have had enough to spare.”

“I did! But the purification left less than a third.”

Valeterisa’s head slowly turned to Montressa, and the [Aegiscaster] began speaking quickly.

“I see what the problem is. We should have established how you purify—I think it’s a matter of how you heated it. Can I see your process? And your purification spell? I’ll walk you through parts of the first layer. Archmage, give me—one hour? We will need more gemstones.”

That cost money. And more than Valeterisa thought, because when she sought out the [Gem Merchant] in Invrisil and a [Stockpiler] in Pallass, both revealed their prices were up 50%.

“I’m sorry, Archmage. You bought up our immediate surpluses. Supply and demand.”


Budget: 17,534 gold pieces.


After all four spell circles were checked, only one could be used without a complete redraw. And Montressa’s query revealed all but Palt and Bezale needed more gemstones. She vanished, promising to correct the issue.

“I’ll run every [Mage] through a basic lesson in purification, Archmage. And check on their spell circles.”

Valeterisa tried to relax after that. She wrote a [Message] to Telim and Sa’la and felt incredibly awkward when both replied with delight within five minutes of her sending. She spent the rest of the day talking to them…and trying not to notice Montressa returning.

It seemed she needed more gold for more—corrections to spell circles. So by the end of the third day, the [Gem Merchant] informed Valeterisa he would be resupplying his stocks as soon as possible. He even advised her she could wait so his prices would go down. As that was not an option—he gladly took her gold.


Budget: 14,444 gold pieces.




Valeterisa was making a puzzle in her room. No one wanted to carry her puzzles after she had made one inaccessible without the use of magic, but she liked making puzzles.

It was somewhat of a contradiction. Valeterisa actually liked solving blacksmith’s puzzles. But she had solved every single one she had ever found without exception. Lacking a challenge, she had made challenges and quite enjoyed the process of making puzzles as difficult as possible.

She was making this new one entirely mundane and not thinking about her budget. Or the gemstones. Or this being anyone’s fault.

Montressa’s room was next to hers, and it was past midnight as the Archmage worked until she was tired enough for a [Sleep] spell to take effect without delay. She was glaring at a piece of metal she was bending so that it would lock into place unless you removed it—

—When she heard voices outside her room. She never remembered to close her door properly—then again, her apprentice couldn’t wake her unless she opened the door. Valeterisa would sleep through a thousand knocks.

Up late, probably with her friend. This was why she had forgotten to remind Valeterisa of the ceremony with the Blighted Kingdom.

The Archmage grumped until she heard a voice.

“You’re up late, Miss Montressa.”

Only Larracel and sometimes Barnethei occupied the graveyard shift. The Haven’s [Innkeeper] didn’t seem to need to sleep, and Valeterisa remembered asking her how she did it. She assumed magic, but Larracel claimed it was years of being an adventurer and taking sentry duty.

Montressa’s voice was weary and quiet.

“I was in Celum, Miss Larra.”

“Checking the spell circles?”

“Yes. I—I think we solved the issue. It’s my fault.”

“Mm. The [Mages] didn’t know how to draw them properly.”

It was a statement. Valeterisa nodded, and Montressa paused before replying.

“I’ll make sure they do it right. We’ll definitely have the House Sanito to Invrisil route done. If I could teleport, I’d go over, but…”

Larracel’s voice was quiet, and they sounded like they were moving away.

“Nonsense. You’re nearly mana burnt. Go to your rooms. I will wake you early with a special breakfast. An [Energizing Special Meal]. Nothing silly like Miss Solstice’s scones.”

“Thank you, Innkeeper Larracel.”

“It is Larra, my dear. Keep at it…”

The murmuring turned quiet, and Valeterisa pointed at her head as she put her puzzle aside. There was no market for it anyways. That was for fun.





The fourth day had good news for Valeterisa. Bezale was done with her spell circle, and it was perfect. No flaws, and the sweating Minotauress beamed as Valeterisa checked her work and found nothing to correct.

She had laid it on a splendid foundation, and even better, all three [Mages] along the Sanito line reported they were done with their spell circles.

So soon?

Montressa paused over breakfast, looking tired. Valeterisa frowned at her.

“I thought they were behind. Didn’t you give them aid?”

“No—we wanted to test by day three. And I did send them [Messages] regarding the gemstones, but I barely got to Invrisil by midnight teaching the other [Mages]. I—suppose their circles work. Should we send something to House Sanito?”

Valeterisa picked up one of the cups from the Haven.

“Let’s send it circle by circle.”

Bezale herself operated her spell circle, and it glowed as the cup sat in the center of the circle. The [Mage] in the town closest to her confirmed their circle was active—and all they had to do was push mana into it and it would be good to go. Valeterisa had manually written the coordinates of each spell circle down so they were linked to the one ‘ahead’ and ‘behind’ them in the chain.

She waited, smiling, as Bezale’s circle activated. The Minotauress was sweating as she activated the circle. The cup—

Didn’t move.

Bezale gasped as the mana flowed out of her. Something had triggered—Valeterisa’s smile slipped. Montressa was chewing her lip hard as she danced from foot to foot.

“Perhaps the spell circle on the other end wasn’t joined? Can the [Mage] re-check their linkage? We—I can go over there if you teleport me, Archmage.”

“Try one more time.”

Valeterisa hesitated. It should work. Bezale wiped sweat from her brow, and Valeterisa realized something else was wrong.

She’s down to half mana pool already. The Minotauress had a very small mana pool compared to Montressa or Palt. Hence her being a [Spellscribe]. Valeterisa saw Monstressa slowly feeding mana into the spell from the side, giving Bezale a boost. She said nothing—but this time, she watched closely.

The spell circle was functioning perfectly. It activated and—

Nothing connected the link. Valeterisa spoke into the silence as Bezale sat down, face grey from mana exhaustion.

“Something is wrong in the town of Layyve. I will take us there. Tell the other [Mages] to hold.”

This time, Montressa was very quiet as they headed to Valeterisa’s private teleportation rune. It could send the two of them a hundred miles, but it wasn’t optimized for the bulk items. Valeterisa had amended this spell for the project of hauling lots of goods, which even Erin’s door struggled with.

“Um. Archmage…”

“We will inspect the spell circle. I assume it may just be a minor error. A single poorly-written line would short the spell.”

“That’s true.”




The [Mage] in Layyve was self-taught. Which didn’t matter in principle. Great [Mages] could arise from self-study and collaboration. Fissival was built on this first type of magic.

If they had issues drawing the spell circle, they could have said so. Or asked Montressa. Or perhaps…mentioned that they had never drawn a spell circle before.

Valeterisa didn’t understand it and said so. She stood in front of the nervous man.

“If you do not understand how to draw a spell circle, why did you not say anything?”

He said nothing. His lips were pressed together, and sweat rolled down his face. Valeterisa stared at the spell circle.

It looked…almost like her drawing. If you assumed a child had drawn it. Not even the circle in the ‘spell circle’ was perfect. And the gemstones!

Hundreds of gold pieces’ worth hadn’t been melted properly. He had used a [Potter]’s kiln to melt it, and the impurities and gem mixture had already been cooling when he poured it. The last bit—and this was damning—was the dirt.

He hadn’t cleaned the floor of the rented warehouse perfectly. And if you put gemstones on even a smidge of dirt, the gemstone flaked off with the dirt.


Montressa stared down at the circle, but there was nothing to salvage. Valeterisa peered at the man.

“I know your name is Mage Monterroc. You were very talkative four days ago. If you could not do this, why didn’t you say so?”

He said nothing. He just—didn’t. She had a sudden urge to lift him up and shake him—but there was no point to doing that. Valeterisa stepped back.

“—If Bezale uses three times her mana supply, she could reach Selic. She could store it up for a transit while we correct—”

She was figuring out a solution, and Montressa began nodding.

“We can do that, Archmage. And we’ll—figure out a solution here. I can come back and write the spell circle. If I take three days, I can have it done.”

“Very well. Very well. But—let us go to Selic first. And then House Sanito.”

Something was dawning on Valeterisa. A cold pit of fear in her stomach. And she was striding off to the teleportation rune to see about those other two ‘completed’ magic circles.




They never found the [Mage] in Selic. No gemstones. No [Mage]. The warehouse had been bought—but the [Mayor] in the town claimed the [Mage] had asked for the deposit back.

The [Mage] that Alman Sanito had vouched for was a Wistram-trained [Mage]. Just not an expert in the enchanting, runecrafting, or scribing spell schools.

“Spell circle? I’ve been working on it for four days! It’s done, right here!”

She proudly led Valeterisa over to a spell circle, and Valeterisa was relieved to see it was in a storeroom, the spell circle was on clean stone—she bent over it, about to congratulate the [Mage] when Montressa spoke in a strangled voice.

“The—there’s an error in the circle.”

“What? No. I copied it perfectly! Where?”

The [Mage] was instantly defensive. But Montressa’s finger rose, and Valeterisa pointed.



They pointed at different spots. Valeterisa’s finger twitched. She looked at Montressa’s spot in layer two—and the one she had found in layer five. Then she counted.

Six errors. And the problem with spell circles was this: they were not made in charcoal. You could not just…erase a section and re-do it easily. If you were lucky and it was in a later layer, you could re-draw it.

But one of the errors was in the first layer. That was an almost complete redraw, and the [Mage] kept apologizing for the error and claiming they hadn’t spotted it.

“It’s almost microscopic, Archmage. The complexity of the rune—I am so sorry, and I will redo it, of course! If you have your apprentice re-check the work—or you yourself—”

“Two runes. I can do two runes in two days.”

Valeterisa muttered to herself. She ignored the [Mage]. Thin? Microscopic? Each line of the circle was slightly bigger than the width of her thumb.

Hedault could draw a rune on a grain of wheat. That was runecrafting at a master’s level in the modern age. This was two-dimensional spell circles. Not inlaid in the brick. Just melt the gemstones and pour.

She looked at Montressa as a silence fell over them.

“I want to see all the spell circles, Apprentice. How many had errors?”

“I checked them. All of them had one or two faults, but the [Mages] listened to my instructions—I went to the ones who asked for help first. Should I…?”

The illness of not being able to meet Valeterisa’s gaze seemed to be spreading. The Archmage looked at Montressa, then turned.

“Archmage Valeterisa? Lord Sanito had heard you were here. Do you have a moment to meet with him?”

A bowing [Page] rapped on the door to the storehouse. The Sanito House wanted an update. The [Page] was smiling with excitement. They didn’t think anything was wrong.

Valeterisa turned, and the [Mage] that Alman had hired gulped.

“I’ll—I’ll begin redrawing with what I have left, Archmage—”

She ran off. Valeterisa looked at Montressa.

“Talk to Lord Sanito. I will be back in an hour. I will check on the other spell circles.”




Valeterisa returned in the night to pick Montressa up. Her face was quite blank when Montressa, who had been wracked with guilt speaking with the happy Sanitos, saw her.

That was a bad sign. The Archmage didn’t say anything as they laboriously teleported back to Invrisil. Four teleports—and then they used Erin’s door.

Which was a Skill-based door. Unable to transport goods in bulk if you wanted to also transport people. Limited now to the places Erin Solstice had been. Inferior to the power of magic.

Yes…that’s why they used it. When Valeterisa stepped into the Haven, Barnethei himself served them a meal. It was very late, but he had the remains of a roast he added to some mashed Yellats and served it all with a cranberry gravy.

“Archmage, Mage Montressa. Let me know if you need anything.”

Valeterisa ate in silence, but hungrily. Montressa had no appetite.

“Um. Archmage…how was the…?”

“Seven circles. Two were drawn appropriately.”

Montressa’s head rose. Her stomach churned, but she latched onto the ‘two’.

“That’s good! Then can the two—?”

“One was outlined. A circle. The [Mage] was robbed by a [Thief]. They claimed they suspected the local Merchant’s Guild of hiring the thief. The other was on layer two. After nearly five entire days.”

Valeterisa stabbed her food with a fork.

And the others? The [Apprentice]-[Aegiscaster] was afraid to ask. Valeterisa answered for her.

“I redrew a circle in two cities. I will need gemstones. Tomorrow. Have them ready.”

“The budget—”

“Find the gemstones. Then. I want you to check on Palt. I did not inspect his circle. We have two days. We will send a test item from House Sanito to Invrisil tomorrow.”

The Archmage finished eating and got up. Montressa’s stomach grew worse. And the next day—

The issues grew worse.




If Archmage Valeterisa drew a circle, it took four hours and she did it right. But the gemstones she had to use and all the others had resulted in…


Budget: 11,002 gold pieces.


“You have literally bought out every gemstone I have that’s not waiting on a client, Archmage. Half the [Mages] who came to me are cursing your name.”

The Dullahan [Stockpiler] remarked as Valeterisa pocketed the last gemstones. She said nothing. She should have spent four thousand gold pieces on the amount she’d bought if she’d shopped around, gone across Izril, paid for caravan delivery.

Instead, she’d spent four times the cost, but she needed the circles done.

It took her the entire day to finish work on the two spell circles and rush-finish the one in House Sanito. But when it was done—she had four.

Beautiful. She convened the [Mages] on the evening of the sixth day, ignoring the fact that there would be seven more to do tomorrow. If she spaced them out a hundred miles each…she’d only have to do three.

She could do three. Montressa had put in effort herself and had gotten to layer three before Valeterisa finished her work in House Sanito.

The test was to send a single lump of copper ore over from House Sanito to Invrisil. Montressa had found a [Mage] to replace the one that had vanished, and the incompetent one—well, one of the two—was standing by to receive the piece of ore.

Valeterisa paced back and forth in front of the circle where Bezale waited. She spoke.

“Send the sample.”

She waited. Montressa wrote on the [Message] scroll. Valeterisa waited…then cast a [Timekeeper] spell. She checked the minutes passing by.

After two minutes, she glanced at Montressa. The [Mage] wrote furiously.

“I—I think the connection between House Sanito and the first waypoint is having problems.”


Valeterisa’s voice rose. Montressa’s lips went pale.

“Th-the [Mage] in House Sanito activated their circle! But the other one did not receive. It might not have been—powered?”

“The [Mage] there—”

“Their mana pool must be too small. Maweil’s shores.”

Bezale muttered. Montressa wrote furiously.

“I’m having the [Mage] get backup now. But the one in House Sanito is exhausted. Just wait—”

Forty-one minutes later, the piece of copper transferred from House Sanito to the first teleportation network spot. But the [Mages] on that end were so tired they had to be rotated out again.

To send an item, you needed Bezale, a Level 27 [Spellscribe]’s mana pool. She was not actually indicative of most [Mages] her level; the Minotauress had a smaller mana pool than most, especially if you had a Skill.

But that was above a local [Mage] by far. Because you had to both receive something and send it.

Valeterisa had a sudden thought. Activating the spell circle took a set amount of mana. But to send four hundred pounds of ore, she calculated they might have to activate the spell at least twice. Montressa and Bezale together could do the receiving for Invrisil.

And only Invrisil.

The piece of copper languished in the next town over for nearly two hours. Valeterisa finally went off and had dinner, leaving Montressa to figure out someone to power the spell. When it did arrive, Montressa presented Valeterisa with a lump of copper.

It was eight at night. Valeterisa stared at the copper.

“We can reach Invrisil. Perhaps that will do as a demonstration.”

“Yes, Archmage. That—I will apologize to Lord Alman and Lady Edere myself.”

Montressa’s look of relief almost placated Valeterisa’s feelings. But the Archmage just turned away. One day.

“I will attempt to fix this issue tomorrow. All I need to do is draw three spell circles.”

Three circles. Twelve hours of work. She walked out of the warehouse without saying another word to Montressa and Bezale.

Larracel the Haven was sweeping across her inn when Valeterisa returned to her rooms. The Archmage was relieved that Larracel didn’t want to talk about something mundane. The [Innkeeper] made only one comment before Valeterisa shut the door sharply.

“It’s rare that I see you with a scowl on your face.”

Only afterwards did Valeterisa look in a mirror. She hadn’t been aware that she was glaring. The next day, two things happened.

One—Palt announced he was finished with his work. He had taken six days, twice as long as he had claimed, and the exhausted Centaur had burned up some gemstones he needed reimbursement on. But his spell circle had no flaws. Technically, it had one minor smudge on layer three, but it was correctable with literally five seconds of Valeterisa’s work.

That was the good news. The bad news was one Montressa slowly delivered to Valeterisa in person. She teleported herself to the town of Layyve and saw the problem.

Which was, precisely, a giant crater in the center of the stone warehouse where someone had painstakingly chiseled or cut the entire magic circle out of the ground and run off with it in the middle of the night.




The assassination occurred as Demsleth was waiting to meet someone blessed with another artifact. He heard a scream for the Watch and asked the [Barkeeper] what was going on.

It took the woman a while to come back, and when she did, her face was white.

“Lord Lien is dead! The son of House Bellrui is dead! Murdered in the streets by four [Assassins]!”

“I thought the guild was disbanded.”

Rafaema frowned. People were screaming, and the [Barkeeper]’s face was pale. Demsleth’s frown deepened.

“Did they have any signs? Any—calling cards?”

“No. Nothing. Lord Lien was on horseback—he’s a common sight around town. Then, four figures popped out of a carriage and stabbed him to death! It—it makes no sense. I’m going to be sick. The blood everywhere—and now? Lord Ellas will die of grief!”

The woman sagged against the bar, and the rush of people coming in to talk allowed Demsleth to make sense of it. No one knew who the assailants were—only that they had been quick to the murder. This was planned, and they had left no clues; it had been an unmarked carriage.

But what caught his ear was the way they talked.

“—now of all times? Just when he—”

“Lord Ellas has buried wife and now his son. It’s the end of House Bellrui. Ever since the Sacrifice of Roses—”

Demsleth intruded on a conversation as someone with a hood pushed into the bar and looked around.

“Has something happened between Lord Lien and his father recently?”

One of the townsfolk tried to explain.

“Lord Lien has always been a bit of a—well, a troubled lad. He’d ride around causing mischief as a son without a mother is wont to do. It got bad last year and the year before. His father would row with him in public. But Lord Lien seemed to have a change of heart as young men do! He cleaned up his ways, swore to reform—now this.”

Demsleth’s eyes flickered towards the figure going to his table.

“It sounds like something caught up with him.”

The townsfolk stared at him. Demsleth was tempted to see the scene of the murder to see if he could piece together something himself, but he had a visitor waiting.




“That’s right. It wasn’t something as stupid as buried treasure. It was a vault. A vault with a damn key. Only, you spoke the key, and the words made the key appear. Or the—the key was the words. Dead gods, I don’t know. Then I turned it upon the lock, and the vault was nothing at all. And I just had this.”

The woman had a key. Or rather, a keydagger. The ‘hilt’ looked like the handle of a huge, old-fashioned key, and the blade had teeth reminiscent of a lock on one end—a splendid cutting blade on the other.

“A Keydagger of Samal.”

“Is that what it is?”

The woman was shaken, but her eyes locked on the dagger. Demsleth didn’t quite glower at Rafaema, who had realized what it was.

“It probably unlocks something in Samal. A great journey—but if you were entrusted with it—you have a fortune waiting for you. A great treasure, or perhaps danger. But this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Are you ready?”

An old man, hooded, sat next to an azure Drake in the corner of a bar buzzing with worried talk. Dark tidings. His mismatched eyes flashed as he looked at a key to the paradise of Samal in Terandria. Buried until a ghost had asked this woman to find it.

The woman wiped her mouth after taking a long drink of her ale. She exhaled, burped, and shook her head.

“Not I. You want it? Fifteen thousand gold coins. Since you know so much about it and you haven’t tried to crack me over the head, I reckon I’ll give you the first offer.”

Demsleth’s face went flat. Rafaema shifted as the woman, who was named Naunce, looked at him. She appraised the quality of his clothing.

“Keydagger of Samal, you said?”

“You aren’t—inclined to keep it? You said a ghost came to you—”

Naunce nodded a few times.

“Yep. Babbling about ‘death on Terandria’ and fighting Seamwalkers. Scared me so much I didn’t sleep for two weeks. Told me to take the dagger and fight. Fight what? I’ve been attacked three times carrying this around. I’m selling it—only, no one would offer me more than fifty gold for it. I need to find an auctioneer or…someone who won’t screw me over for it. Maybe the damn Merchant’s Guild. Even if they take a cut—you want it? Last chance.”

She waved it at him, and the old man sat there. Just…staring at her.

“That ghost likely found the nearest person to this vault. This vault she left in desperation, perhaps at the end of her life. That is a Keyblade of Samal, ancient paradise, and she hand picked you out of all people.”

“Right. But I didn’t ask for it. Me? I’m just a [Street Rogue]. I’ll take my fortunes, but that was a stupid choice, eh?”

Naunce poked a tongue into a gap in her teeth. She looked uneasy at Demsleth’s intense stare and rolled her shoulders.

“What, you want to risk your life because some damn ghost appeared?”

“You were chosen. Do you not have dreams or aspirations? Does this blade not stir something in you? It could make you a [Princess] or unlock a great treasure worth far more than a thousand gold pieces. It could be the key to a great adventure. A new life. Do you want any of that?”

Something in the way he spoke was right. This time, his voice seemed to quiet even the people at the bar, and the Drake stared at the dagger. The wording was right…but Naunce’s eyes only flickered once at Demsleth’s words. Then she scowled and spat onto the floor.

“I don’t believe in stories. Gold in hand is worth a lot more than a fake dream—and this sounds entirely fake. Hey, is this expensive? I can’t imagine why you’d uptalk it to me—do you want it or not?”

He stared at her, searching her up and down—then shoved the table back so hard it knocked over Naunce’s drink. She cursed him, but the old man strode out the door so fast he left a breeze.




By the end of the seventh day, Archmage Valeterisa had three working spell circles. One in Liscor. One in Invrisil. One in House Sanito. Even with her magic, she could not connect all three.

She had possessed five at one point.

One had been stolen, and Bezale had glumly reported that was likely the Merchant’s Guild’s doing.

“How do you know that?”

Montressa demanded angrily. The Minotauress just offered her a note.

“They put out a request for anyone who knows how to decipher the thing. I didn’t know, I swear! That damn ‘Bloody Secrets’ person sent me a tip.”

Valeterisa said nothing. Montressa licked her lips.

“What about the other one?”




The town of Alnas where Valeterisa had drawn the first spell circle for one of the [Mages] was very apologetic.

The Town Council even came out to meet the Archmage of Izril themselves.

“It’s…the Runner’s Guild, Archmage. We do depend on them for deliveries. We had a talk, and if it’s between them and you—we will have to revoke your rights to the storehouse.”

“You can’t do that. You’ve leased it to us.”

Montressa’s voice rose in outrage. Valeterisa just looked at the storehouse. The [Councilmembers] conferred with the Runner’s Guild representative, who whispered back.

“—That’s exactly right, Miss Mage. But you have leased it for a month. So at the end of the month we’ll demand it back.”

Montressa du Valeross was getting angry now. Her red hair rose as she pointed a trembling finger inside.

“Then who broke the spell circle inside?”

The delicate gemstone latticework was smashed to bits. Probably with a hammer. You had to be careful with spell circles—and Valeterisa had obviously planned to have each site properly treated to prevent any accidental damage.

“We have no idea, Archmage, Mage Montressa. Did you hire [Guards]? No one here saw a thing.”

Montressa was staring at the City Runner from the local guild, but Valeterisa lifted a hand. Her face was quite calm as she pointed at the storehouse.

“There is no culprit who smashed the storehouse that anyone knows of.”


The Council agreed, and while the [Detect Truth] spell said they were not quite telling the truth, they probably didn’t know who exactly had done the deed. It was probably a Runner—or someone who was hired—and her spell circle was gone.

She had one day, not enough time…and this town had just closed its doors to her even if she was going to redraw a circle and protect it.

Two thousand gold coins down. Three spell circles. A wasted week she could have used studying magic…Valeterisa stared at the sky.

And even if I work all day, I will only be able to send some copper from House Sanito to Invrisil. Not all the way to Liscor. Even Mage Bezale can barely do more than one shipment per day. Two if she only receives.

“Ah. I understand it now.”

Valeterisa spoke to the sky. Montressa was shaking with anger and—she looked at Valeterisa as the Council eyed her and the Runner raised their brows. But Valeterisa stared at the winter sky.

“Heorth. The Grand Librarian of Fissival told me stories of being a Djinni before he was sold to the City of Incantations. He knew magical empires on Chandrar where his people were first enslaved. He said, even then, they would make him carry his burdens across the entire continent, a journey of weeks sometimes, to deliver a simple gift. I asked him why in that time of magic there was no faster way. And he told me Djinni were that faster way. I never understood why until now.”

She looked down, and Montressa flinched away from that blank stare in her eyes. Valeterisa stared at the warehouse.

“Council of Alnas.”

“My name, Archmage, is—”

She spoke over the man.

“I am not allowed to keep renting your warehouse after a month. But until then, that is, legally, mine to use as I please, is that so?”

“Yes…for a month, Archmage. But we insist you do not alter it again. You can use it for storage, as agreed.”

The [Councilmember] spoke slowly after conferring with the City Runner. Valeterisa nodded. She lifted a finger, aimed it sideways, and spoke.

“Very good. [Siege Fireball].”

A tiny orb of flames appeared at the tip of her finger—then it engorged, whirling flames expanding until it was twice her height. The entire spell took eight seconds. Montressa was staring open-mouthed, and only the City Runner had dove away.

“What are you—”

Valeterisa fired the spell straight into the warehouse. The flames burned through the iron door, and she saw a glow from within the sturdy building. Then it exploded.

The warehouse did not actually blow up and rain down over the town. The flames exited every window and crevice of the building—then the heat cracked the stones in the cold air, and the warehouse began to crumble inwards as smoke rose. Valeterisa spoke.

“[Levitation]. I am going back. Apprentice Montressa, tell House Sanito that I am not fulfilling my contract. I am done. Goodbye.”

Then she flew off. She flew over to her hidden teleport rune, stepped into it, and thought about teleporting out. She grudgingly waited as Montressa, begging her to wait, ran up and teleported them twice to Invrisil. She said not a word to Montressa. She said not a word to anyone. She just left.




The words spilled out as Lady Ieka was hunting around for [Assassins]. Just one or two that had survived the Circle of Thorn’s destruction. She didn’t even need anyone killed necessarily.

But they could break a few legs. She was snapping at her [Head Maid], who was fumbling slips of paper as she did when she got nervous.

“Give me the list of our—give me the briefcase.”

“I’m sorry, Lady Ieka—”

The [Lady] flicked her fingers through the list of names, seeing how many had been crossed out. [Assassins] really had been a tool of Izril’s flowers. Without [Assassins], they lost their teeth.

And oh—she wanted teeth right now. Her aunt sat in the Adventurer’s Haven, not talking to Larracel, who was patting her knee now and then and making her sip from a cup of honeyed milk.

Not The Wandering Inn. This was Valeterisa’s only real home away from ‘home’…and she sat, blank-faced and tight-lipped.

Ieka had seen that too. It reminded her of how she and her aunt had first met. A rare family gathering of the Imarris family where a branch cousin returned from the south. Something of a controversy. Half of Ieka’s aunts and uncles had claimed she ‘smelled like Drakes’, and she hadn’t said a word as they refused to pay for her Wistram education.

Ieka had found Valeterisa practicing magic in the gardens later. And the [Mage] who had graduated from Fissival had taught her a magic spell.

That had been, oh, close to thirty years ago now. Something was wrong if that face was still there, despite all her achievements and accolades.

“I want the Merchant’s Guild’s newest ‘acquisition’ gone. If we cannot steal it back—break it. They can’t have taken it far. I doubt even a Chest of Holding can fit that much stone.”

She snapped at one of her [Bodyguards], a serious woman who hesitated before murmuring back.

“Lady Imarris, do you have a location for us? If it’s lightly guarded, I could take a group and hide our features, but the Merchant’s Guild employs fairly well-armed guards. How much blood are you willing to shed?”

On our part and theirs? Ieka’s blood was boiling, but even now—she slowly whispered a spell.

“[Calm]. Calm…

It washed over her. Leaving her icily angry, but no longer boiling mad. A spell that her aunt had taught her for the harsh courts of Izril’s nobility.

“I have no location. An [Assassin], then. Who isn’t dead or in hiding? Estvie, contact each one covertly. Use the cipher and the wording.”

“Which file is…?”

Ieka gave up. She felt sympathy towards Valeterisa, she truly did. Because this was the exact kind of thing Ieka was used to.

You did not plan on success, in her experience. You took risks—and doing anything, from the ventures in the New Lands to this, required expertise. Competent people.

And they were so hard to find. It was one reason why she had thrown caution to the winds to push her hired settlers to get to the New Lands first. If she could not out-bid the other nobles and groups who were snatching up all the talent, she would make a claim first. She did not like doing that—and the cracks were showing.

“Estvie, don’t worry about this. Focus on getting our people out of the Drake cities. Find a passport. No, I don’t know which ones they want. Arrange it. Inquire with Pallass. Sirrah, accompany her.”

Her [Bodyguard Captain], Sirrah, had the presence and authority to get the attention of a number of people. She could at least get Estvie in touch with a…Watch Captain?

Ieka would have focused on that, and she glumly watched her [Head Maid] hesitate, then head off, whispering anxiously with Sirrah.

A Ressa would have a solution—or find one autonomously. But Ieka didn’t have a Ressa. And neither did Valeterisa.

“Where is your apprentice now, Valley? I don’t believe the girl ate all of yesterday.”

“I don’t know. I left her somewhere.”

Larra pursed her lips.

“Where is ‘somewhere’? Here or in the north, miles from Invrisil?”


Valeterisa was staring at a book. She wasn’t scattering her thoughts. She was very deliberately ignoring Larracel and occasionally taking grudging sips from her drink. It occurred to Ieka that the lack of [Parallel Thoughts] meant her aunt was emotional.

She was angry. She had apparently blown a warehouse to smithereens in a town—which was violent, and they had complained loudly to the Mage’s Guild. But Ieka Imarris almost, almost wished Valeterisa had turned her magical wrath on the Merchant’s Guild.

Yes, she was proposing something that would hurt the Driver’s Guild, Merchant’s Guild, and Runner’s Guild. Ieka had suspected they would try something like this, and her [Bodyguards] had spent three miserable nights doing duty protecting Invrisil’s storage house and Liscor’s.

They’d chased off a number of busybodies, but without teleportation, they’d been unable to safeguard anything else. A word in Lady Edere’s ear had saved House Sanito’s teleportation circle.

I should have forced her to accept help. But part of Ieka had seen Valeterisa lifting Fissival and thought—if she could do that, she could do this.

Unfortunately, every issue here had nothing to do with Valeterisa’s personal ability in magic and all to do with the [Mages] she had hired. The logistics of not having Valeterisa be everywhere. Politics, ensuring basic competence in the people she hired—everything Valeterisa didn’t do.

Montressa du Valeross had…done her best? Ieka wasn’t about to bestow any compliments on the [Aegiscaster] for this debacle, but Larracel did.

“Your apprentice thought any Wistram graduate was as good as her two friends. They both came out with perfect spell circles, and the one in House Sanito managed it with her help. She was teaching [Mages] how to lay the magic out. She should have vetted the candidates better, but I have made her exact mistake in employees. Barnethei does a good job these days.”

“Thank you, Miss Larracel. Talent is hard to find. And the good Gnolls are impossible to entice.”

The two were bantering back and forth lightly, and Valeterisa’s blank look was turning into a scowl. Ieka glanced around. There were some people listening in on the conversation, and she glared at a [Merchant] smiling over a glass of wine at a far table, obviously and ostentatiously listening in while gloating.

He didn’t seem to know the score. Which was that it was a bad idea to offend Larracel’s treasured guests in her Haven. His smug look kept being interrupted by annoyance as he flagged down a passing—and somehow extraordinarily busy—[Barmaid] and demanded his basket of bread.

When the breadbasket arrived, it was late, slightly burnt, and he had been waiting twenty-two minutes for his actual entrée. And it was definitely going to give him food poisoning.

Larracel wielded her hospitality like a dagger in defense of Valeterisa, but the Archmage of Izril was still defeated. She sat there as a young woman with red eyes poked her head up over her menu and extra-rare steak. Ieka had the urge to accost all these unsubtle spies and enemies of her aunt, but her aunt’s wrath was not directed at them.

“I thought she was a good apprentice.”

She finally spoke, like a dam beginning to burst, as Mihaela Godfrey stomped over. She opened her mouth, and Larracel shot her a warning look. Instead, the famous Courier grabbed one of the Runner guests to the Haven and steered them towards one of the guardrails for an intense conversation.

“I thought you liked Mage Montressa, Valeterisa. You said she was quite helpful in Fissival.”

“She was. But she was not here. I trusted her insight.”

Larracel was pursing her lips, staring at Barnethei as he brought over a cache of sweet candies to tempt Valeterisa with. It was normally Mihaela she had to talk down—she had never seen Valeterisa mad, but her tone was gentle as she patted Valeterisa’s arm.

“Yes…she made mistakes. Young women often do. This entire event reminds me of Maviola El’s projects. Remember when she had you making anti-gravity tonics? They worked, but they moved your insides around so everyone would end up sick for three days afterwards, puking their insides out. Sometimes ambition outstrips competency. Montressa is a good girl. Isn’t she? Valley? Have a lemon drop. Erin gave me some.”

The Archmage didn’t affirm the statement. She pressed her lips tighter together, as if to deny the floating yellow candy before she replied.

“She should have realized the [Mages] were inadequate. She assured me they could do the job when they could not.”

Larracel sighed patiently, but she couldn’t keep the exasperation out of her voice.

“It was a mistake. The girl’s beating herself up about it. Are you truly going to have her take the blame for this event in front of all three noble houses? Valley, you once burned down half my library practicing flame spells.”

“And you threatened to spank me and nearly pulled my ear off and made me replace everything. So?”

The [Wizard] gave Valeterisa a pointed look.

“Shouldn’t you be somewhat generous to Montressa now? If you make her go back to drinking or the mess I heard she was before she met you, we will have words.

Valeterisa flipped a page and took a huge gulp of her drink. She didn’t meet Larracel’s eyes, but her tone grew even more sharp.

“Why? It is her fault. The mistake cost me twenty thousand gold pieces. An apprentice should be at least decent in anything I ask her to do or not do it at all. This was a waste of time. She is a waste of my time. Months I could have put to better use.”

The Archmage of Izril was blinking faster, and her faded blue hair was getting in the way of her face. She brushed at it as Larracel’s head turned, and she raised her voice.

“I think you’re overwrought at the moment, Valeterisa. Sleep on it—”

Her fingers flickered, and a wand appeared in her hand. She cast a spell—and Valeterisa flicked off the [Silence] spell like it was a gnat. She glowered at Larra and raised her voice to spite her.

“I am not. She is not organized when her job is organizing my affairs. She is not a good spellcaster—she has to borrow my magic. If she is not capable in either area, why do I even bother—?”

Larracel slapped Valeterisa’s arm hard, and the Archmage jumped. She scowled at the [Innkeeper]—then looked over.

Apprentice Montressa du Valeross stood there. Not awash with tears. She was too old for that. She was a [Lady] and a graduate of Wistram.

Ieka Imarris could admire that. Yes, you kept all the tears behind the shimmering eyes. Montressa’s cheeks were red, but she slowly bowed as Valeterisa looked up and hesitated.

“I will apologize to House Sanito myself tomorrow, Archmage. This is all my fault. As you said. I’m sorry I let you down.”

Lady Ieka glanced around at the people now pretending that they were deaf and blind and Valeterisa’s angry face. Barnethei was standing there, face grave, and Larracel was staring pointedly at Valeterisa while holding her knee under the table. But the Archmage of Izril’s face went flat. Her eyes sparked, and she spoke.

“You should be sorry.”

Montressa flinched with her entire body, her head fell, and her messy red locks draped over her cheeks to hide her face. Larracel slapped the table, and the sound cracked across her inn like an explosion.

Valeterisa Imarris, enough.

The magic of the Haven’s [Innkeeper] echoed around Ieka and made the [Mage Lady]’s hair stand on end.

Larra’s voice was no less loud.

“Don’t take out your feelings on Montressa right now. She made her mistakes—enough!”

Everyone flinched—everyone except one person. Valeterisa kept speaking.

“My magic was flawless. I made you my apprentice to do the things I cannot be bothered to do. And you failed me. Some factors may have been out of your control, but you are not a good apprentice. Archmage Feor had Teura. She was good at her job. Salii the Secretary was a capable assistant. You are not.”

The blood had already drained from Montressa’s face. But now it seemed as if she were shrinking in place. But Valeterisa was casting no spells. Just talking. She pointed at the [Aegiscaster], and Montressa’s hands were shaking.

Larracel looked between Valeterisa and Montressa, who couldn’t break away from Valeterisa’s furious stare. And the Archmage was only speaking faster and louder with each word.

“I feel as though you are wasting my time and only taking my magic. I thought I could trust you. Apologizing to House Sanito is not enough. I wanted this project to succeed, and you—”

This time, Larracel slapped her. It was quick and fast—and she pierced two barriers with one hand to leave a red handprint on Valeterisa’s cheek. The Haven’s magic was a sea in Larracel’s domain, and it pushed at the Archmage of Izril’s magic to breach it. Even unawares—Ieka doubted she could have stabbed her aunt.

The crack of flesh on flesh wasn’t as loud as the thunder of Larracel’s anger. But it left a longer silence. Ieka was frozen at her table as Valeterisa sat there.

The Archmage’s cheek was red and already swelling. Her face was shocked—and Larracel’s was furious. For a second. Then Larracel’s flooded with guilt and sudden worry—and Valeterisa’s went blank.

The look of anger that had turned to shock, then pain and a deep hurt turned cold and impassive. Like…Cognita’s. Larracel reached for her, but Valeterisa recoiled. The last, instinctive motion she made. Then her face drained of emotion like a punctured vase, feeling like water spilling out the crack.

Without a word, Valeterisa rose.


Larracel raised her voice, but Valeterisa did not look at her. She did not gaze at Montressa or at Ieka, who stood up.


Valeterisa’s angry face and her flashing eyes, usually mild and grey-violet—a bookish academic’s eyes turning to distant stars and magical theory—had been alive with anger and embarrassment and regrets. Now?

They went blank again. But not the blank of suppressed anger that had been bubbling up all week. Just—blank.

As if the emotions were a distraction and the mind who held them was too…diffuse to care. Valeterisa’s thoughts spread out, and her voice, one of many thoughts now racing in different directions, spoke.

“I am going. Goodbye. I will settle my tab later, Innkeeper Larracel.”

“Valley, don’t—”


The Archmage floated up into the air. Larracel drew a wand and aimed it up.

“[Dispel Magic]!”

She tried to stop Valeterisa, but the Archmage of Izril waved a hand, and Larracel’s wand stopped mid-glow.

Valeterisa! [Hand of the Spectral Giant]!”

This time, the [Wizard] raised her wand, and the guests gasped. A hand made out of viridian light reached up, grasping towards Valeterisa. It shot upwards—but the Archmage just pointed down as she shot higher.

“[Thresk’s Steel Warspears].”

Eight jagged spears shot down, pinning the hand back against the roof of the Haven. Then—she was out of reach. Larracel’s other two spells missed as Tyrion Veltras lowered his shield and stopped covering Sammial and Hethon.


Larracel kept shouting for minutes more, desperately, but there was no one listening.

Valeterisa flew. Off the Haven as it rolled across the new road passing by the Bloodfields. North, amidst the snow, towards Liscor, angling north further still. She paid no attention to the voices behind her or her niece’s [Message].




Thirty-nine thoughts divided into Valeterisa’s consciousness. She could go up to forty-nine. Thirty-nine…and she stopped thinking about her failed venture in any emotional sense whatsoever.


Thought-Process #3 (Navigation): Fly to Liscor. Portal door to Invrisil. Teleportation to ‘home’ mansion will take 6 casts of [Long Range Teleportation] via spell circles. Adding in flying time and casting time. Budgeting mana supply. ETA…6 hours, 12 minutes, 55 seconds.

Thought-Process #11-17 (Magical Studies): Continue research into arcane theory regarding [Valmira’s Comet]. Fascinating spell alteration potential. I should embark on my main project once more. I have several conclusions. Where is the Wind Runner’s hair?

Thought-Process #8 (Acquisitions): Sever more hair from Ryoka Griffin. Do I have a baldness spell? Buy Faerie Flowers. No. Steal Faerie Flowers. Doombearer fur sample. Steal magical flames from Erin Solstice? Buy?

Thought-Process #37 (Budget): Finances have been greatly depleted. Steal.

Thought-Process #36 (Morality-Consequences): This is all acceptable.

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding): I trusted her. I liked her. Why did it fail? I thought it would be beautiful. Magic should be beautiful, but whenever I try to make it for others, it fails. I wanted to make the Teleportarium anew. It would have helped everyone. Why didn’t they see that? Why did Montressa not see it? Why…didn’t I see it? Why is it so difficult? Why—

Thought-Process #1 (Danger): That Antinium with a bow is aiming at me. [Arcane Barrier].


That was better. Only one of her thirty-nine thoughts was even remotely unsettled. The rest of her blithely cast a barrier in the air as she floated down towards an inn. No emotions. No stress. Just an acknowledgement she was poorer in terms of gold and a refocusing back on what mattered.

Which was magic. Magic never let you down. Your body, your…family, and your alleged friends and apprentice all did.

It was, as Valeterisa was often reminded, a mistake to try and use her magic in anything other than academic, personal settings. She decided she was going to her mansion. Fissival was worthless. Liscor was a failure on all fronts.

She was going home. And she was not taking Montressa. The Archmage almost smiled in relief as her body executed the actions her mind directed it to. Such as trying to pluck hairs from a screaming and biting Gnoll girl as a [Princess] attacked her with a cutting board and being chased out of an inn while stuffing a bunch of rock-hard grey scones into her bag of holding.

This was how things were most efficient.

This was fine.

Emotions were difficult and painful. Valeterisa realized she might have inadvertently missed the opportunity to use the door. Now, the Antinium was shooting arrows at her, warning shots. She sighed. She had to fly to her teleportation circle instead of skipping four transits. How tedious.

If only…Thought-Process #4 (Optimization) was speculating on how she could do things and have done things better. It opined that so many inefficiencies in the failed Teleportarium project would have been best handled by Valeterisa.

Obviously, she would have had to rely on [Mages] to fuel the spell, and in hindsight, the issues with guarding the circles and the Merchant’s Guild meant it would always fail and had been a waste of time.

But someday…she’d construct every spell circle and have familiars or Golems or Elementals guarding them. An automated mana-capture process. No trusting apprentices whose name she couldn’t even remember. No need to rely on fallible people.


Thought-Process #4 (Optimization): Thirteen magical sites at four hours would have still wasted over fifty two of my hours. Let alone creating the network across Izril. Impossible, impossible. I don’t have time to waste. Hence—the project is impossible. 

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding): My apprentice did so much. Maybe I should have checked for her. Compounding errors. Mine. Hers. It’s never easy.

Thought-Process #40 (Realization): Ah. Now I remember. This is why I began my great project to realize a great magic of old. It all ties back to itself. There is never enough of me. I never have enough time.

Thought-Process #40 (Realization): I am unable to perform enough spells, even divided fifty ways. I will die before I even learn how to slow time for myself. I can do nothing for Ieka or anyone else if I must cast every spell one by one by one.

Thought-Process #40 (Realization): I cannot even send a lump of copper a hundred and fifty miles with twenty thousand gold pieces. If I only had the ability to help myself, to automate processes like Earth’s designs. So I tried.

Thought-Process #40 (Realization): I must uncover it. My great life’s project. I am so close…it should be beautiful. I know this now. Another year. Another decade if I must, and I will have it. A key to greater magic. To Wistram’s upper floors and everything else. Just a simple technique from ages past. I wonder if the Death of Magic knows it. Perhaps I should sell my soul to Demons. But all I desire is simply…

Thought-Process #15-31 (Magical Project): Continuing the project. Goal—rediscovery of the spellcasting technique. [Automatic Spellcasting].


Her lips quirked into a vacant smile as Valeterisa flew higher towards her hidden spell circle. Ah—what a beautiful light of ambition. She was up to forty different thought processes. Forty-four…fifty-one.

She was advancing. Divide it up, more and more, and devote as much as she could towards grappling with the intangible. Creating a network, a spell that could automate any spell she wanted. Better than a familiar. More reliable than anything.

They had made Golems out of this technique. It was foundational and forgotten. You could fight a battle with it. Create a great edifice with simple spells if you chained this technique. Grow fields of food. All you needed was magic and a plan.

The wind whipped around her, snow falling from the High Passes and the skies overhead. Valeterisa ignored it as she focused. Her body flew north towards the mansion that enabled her to focus by taking away other distractions. As she flew—only one thought kept repeating.


Thought-Process #39 (‘Feelings’): I’m cold. I liked having an apprentice.




Terrium Archelis Dorishe was a coward after all. He hung his head as his fake body, Demsleth, trudged towards The Wandering Inn.

He had to. He had agreed to meet with Magnolia Reinhart that night, and he could at least keep that promise.

But nothing else. He could not keep the spark of joy and hope in Rafaema’s eyes. The Lightning Dragon had parted ways with him after he had met with Naunce. But in truth—he had long since disappointed her.

Coward. Lazy. Incompetent.

It was an unspoken accusation, but it roared louder all the more because it was unsaid. He saw how she looked at him. He was old—older than any being in this entire world that still drew breath, he suspected.

But he had not forgotten entirely what it meant to be young and to be let down by those you trusted. He had forgotten Ryoka Griffin. Magnolia Reinhart. So much—but not that.

Demsleth was appropriate after all. The glutton, the old storyteller, the traveller who went from place to place indulging only in delights, small things, and yes, he was also a gift-giver and a kindly man. But he relied on nostalgia. His fire was banked.

He was appropriate as a guise for Teriarch because of failure.

Not his wing. Damn the wing. That was a cascading failure in a sea of failures. The [Mercenary]-to-be, the [Slime Master]…

The Revenant, Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer. As Demsleth trudged towards the inn, his real body, the body of the Brass Dragon, was elsewhere. Wearily flying back to his cave in the High Passes. A coward, heavy and unexercised and weak.

He couldn’t do it.




The holes in Tolveilouka’s chest hadn’t closed. The Revenant tore around the inner sanctum in the place that mortals called the ‘Village of the Dead’. The inner city was filled with the Putrid One’s spoils of war. It had been the place where countless undead waited, a force to break the world in half, immortal, empowered by their master’s body.

That traitor [Sword Legend] had slain them all! Countless vassals eliminated—and the rest had gone rogue with the Putrid One’s death.

For their treachery, Tolveilouka had murdered them. But the half-Elf Revenant wished there was but one ancient Crypt Worm or a Lich or—a powerful undead.

It burns. That damn Unicorn’s cleansing horn! Damn him and that forest! If I had a single burning Relic, I would hurl it into the forest and watch it burn.

Unfortunately—his master had never made a habit of stockpiling great weapons of war. He had used them on his enemies, and for that, a Walled City had crumbled to ash. A great achievement. But Tolveilouka wished he had one.

Or a way to heal the wounds in his body. They wouldn’t heal! He had been created to regenerate from any wound, to survive any foe. But the agony as his cells fought to undo the purifying magic was intense.

A screaming half-Elf eventually gave way to a figure sitting cross-legged on a crimson blanket under one of the withered ash-trees of the city. Sipping from a vintage lost to time out of a porcelain saucer as the snow fell. The pain was mitigated not by the alcohol—but by the meditative state he forced himself into. The picturesque moment. He exhaled, his breath misting upwards into the clear night sky, and spoke upwards.

“I have lived nearly two thousand years. Two thousand—for I do not count the eternity I spent by my master’s side. Waiting for a breath of life and a smile is not living. What little elegance I have is surmounted by his grace. I have always been uncouth and rabid, a servant to greatness. But even I will own that the world should turn beautifully. It should pirouette and the seasons glide together. It is an ugly, banal reality that makes existence so tedious. A thousand foes, each one sneering more pitifully than the last, have claimed there is no art in poison, no nuance in death. I am always reminded of that Silver Dragon, Ydergrisel, for he was one of the oldest foes and barked louder than all.”

He paused and took another sip from the clear liquid. The sky was clouded, and the cold did not bother him. His chest burned as it had not since he was alive—a screaming spear of agony that would have left some writhing on the floor. But he refused to twitch.

“—That he is wrong is evident. It is simply another realm my master and I found. How dare anyone else judge what we find worthy? But I saw it then, and I saw it now: it should be beautiful. It should be glorious. It should thrill my bones, even if it is my end, and I should weep at my foe’s skill on the battlefield.”

Lesser undead stood aimlessly in the city below him. The half-Elf sat cross-legged, that curved blade, unsheathed, lying on the blanket in front of him. He did not reach for the handle, but he pointedly looked ahead.

After his long speech, the image of the half-nude, extremely attractive Centaur stamping a hoof and beckoning towards him, bare-chested and trotting left and right in front of zombies aimlessly swiping at him—winked out.

The illusion of the ‘adventurer’ vanished, and a rather embarrassed silence fell over the courtyard below him. Then—the Dragon appeared.

“I know you.”

Tolveilouka’s eyes had been fixed on the spot where he guessed the Dragon would be. He had been off; instead of a roof of one of the shattered buildings, the Dragon had been crouched in the snow, hiding his presence with some skillful illusion.

A Brass Dragon. But as Tolveilouka well knew, Dragons were more than just one thing. You could call him a Fire Dragon and be basically accurate if exceptionally basic. Or you could call him…

“The Dragonlord of Flame. I recall you warning my master to stay away from your domain twice. A great foe we did not need. And once, you saved the ‘Silver Knight’ from being slaughtered after a defeat. I wondered if any of you yet lived. So many lie dead. I thought I sensed someone watching me during my duel with that Unicorn. I thought you would come for me that very night.”

The violet flame escaping from the Dragon’s mouth melted the snow as he spoke. One eye was burning like the shores of a distant island, pale blue waters as to almost become green, lapping against a beautiful beach. The other was the color of the horizon as all faded to blackness. The twisting of magic between dimensions.

What a beautiful foe. Until you noticed how corpulent he was. Tolveilouka drained the last of his drink and tossed the cup aside. Everything was a disappointment. But at least the Dragon seemed to know it.

Unlike other foes, he hadn’t immediately leapt at the illusory bait. For all the Revenant’s arrogance—and he had a full deck of it as well as another deck filled to the brim with his ego—he didn’t flinch when he saw Teriarch.

“I was quite aware your wounds would not heal in a day or week. I confess…I would rather not be here, Servant of the Putrid One. But my companion has given me an opportunity. Strike when your foe lies weakened.”

“Strike them when they sleep. Fine tactics for the great general who shattered Wyrm empire and broke the legion of Truestone upon his claws.”

He flinched at that. Flinched—when he should have embraced his accolades. Tolveilouka grew even more morose. The blanket shifted under him as he leaned his weight upon his right knee. He had his robes on—but the Dragon’s eyes flickered as he noticed the glint of metal.

Tolveilouka had put something on underneath the simple robe. The Dragon bared his teeth.

“I don’t suppose you would swear an oath to forgo your vengeance, to live in peace and carve ten thousand statues of your master as a more fitting legacy?”

The half-Elf laughed.

“I have broken more than ten thousand statues. Don’t mock me. My master is newly dead.”

“One could argue he was slain ten thousand years ago.”

Tolveilouka paused and took a shuddering breath in the cold.

“One could. I will not. So, Dragonlord. Are you going to destroy me or not?

His face began to bulge. Tolveilouka’s voice distorted—for the Dragonlord of Flame, he wouldn’t stay in his fake body which resembled the half-Elf he had been. He rose as his skin burst and rotted, rippled and warped. Rising ten feet, thirty feet tall.

Some called it monstrous, simply ruined flesh and eternal rot bound to a form. But the hand that grasped a blade hiding under the picnic blanket was still nimble, and the armor he had under his robes shifted, altering to even this foreign shape.

The Dragonlord looked up and—flinched. He had been crouched to spring into the air, ready to exhale brilliant flames. But he looked up and quailed.

Yes. This weapon has crushed the skulls of Dragons. And this armor is proof against flame.

A long club of Adamantium spiked with cruel pinpoints hung from Tolveilouka’s grip. It had been made for him—and the weapon began to glow as it sensed its enemy. His armor looked like it had once been made out of wood—and it had. A set of armor grown from a great forest—

Twisted by the Putrid One. It blossomed with fungi and corruption, but it twisted around his body, and it was proof against fire.


Tolveilouka lifted the club with one hand. He smiled—and his lips split and stretched, a smile across a face that curved up and up, beyond the regular geometry of humanoid faces. He spoke through warped teeth and lips cracked with rot—and still, the Unicorn’s horn burned. Tolveilouka touched at a stretched, gaping hole in his being and grimaced.

“A strange foe. I have never met a Unicorn so dangerous or gifted. You know, Dragonlord. They make no weapons to kill Unicorns. Blades of their horns or armor from their hides, yes. But no weapons tailored to slaughter Unicorns. Why? We who were mortals or those who dream of life eternal do not fear Unicorns. Yet as you know.”

He hefted the club, which seemed to reach for Teriarch. Adamantium—but its curved spines were bone. Dragonbone. He smiled wider until it seemed his face might split in two.

“…We make weapons to kill Dragons. I would not have dared to take on a Dragonlord alone even when my master lived. Now he is dead. Are you prepared to face me?”

He looked down from his vantage point at the Dragonlord’s eyes, fixed upon the Relic that had been designed to kill foes like him.

And the Dragonlord?

Teriarch stared up at Tolveilouka, and the spirit that had laid waste to armies—


And fled.

Tolveilouka pointed, and a rain of rot-infused arrows shot down from the skies, but he sat back down, returning to his original form and grimacing as he realized the bottle of wine had spilled over.

Strange times. The few immortals that lived, it seemed, were dangerous beyond what they had any right to be. Or young and new. Or…




“…A coward.”

Magnolia Reinhart sat in a private room of The Wandering Inn and looked at an old, old man. He seemed lesser when he sat with his shoulders hunched, head bowed, like a pathetic lump of flesh.

He could look brilliant—but this was not exactly austere company for this evening. To be fair, The Wandering Inn didn’t match Magnolia Reinhart.

She seldom did this, even for galas and balls and formal events. It was better, in Magnolia’s eyes, to go without makeup or with the barest amount you could get by with.

Expectation. Young men were rarely so fastidious with their looks or they did it poorly, like Violinist Deniusth’s dyed hair. Sometimes you had some adept makeup that made one stand out, but it was a disparity between genders.

And it was taken for granted. Far better to present a simple, honest appearance—or honest as you chose to be—and let your detractors natter. When it mattered, she could dress up.

Her servants had spent an hour and a half on her hair. There was a treatment with Slime Jelly and other conditioners where you—after cleaning down to the roots—soaked the hair to give it an enduring luster. It wasn’t about artificial dyes to make the hair brighter, but rather to strip away anything that kept the true glow from coming out.

You could do much the same with skin. Washing your face with a towel would do most days. Cleaning your pores was advanced, tedious, and even with spells, costly and difficult. Being so clean that even purified water didn’t improve things was something everyone should be at least once a year.

She wasn’t even wearing all-pink. She had a pink rose pinned to a black lady’s hat, which she had worn over a more businesslike dress than Izrilian fashion normally allowed for. Magnolia quite liked the ‘business attire’ of Earth, which was more mobile than your Terandrian gowns. She thought she would make it a trend.

It looked, if you had more sight than just the normal spectrum, like a river running down a black dress. Most people just saw black, but Jelaqua had done a double-take because the Selphid had seen the ‘black’ dress was actually red, but so subtly tinted the colors revealed themselves the longer you were in their proximity. And the lines in colors beyond the mundane looked like rivers running down to the hem of her dress where it met her ankles, cut on either side for mobility.

Demsleth had a coat. It was one of those coats that might have been brown or blue but had faded so many times in a wash and with wear that it was somehow both. He had a knitted sweater on underneath, which was beige, and it had crumbs and stains from eating.

She knew his appearance reflected his mood. And right now he looked beaten. Nevertheless, Ressa, every time she opened the door to let in a server with food, gave Magnolia a sympathetic look.

Yet the [Lady] smiled. It was not a false smile or a fake one. It just was, and it took no effort to rest on her features.

The people who looked disconcerted were Erin Solstice and Lyonette, who were helping hand-cater the weekly meeting she and Demsleth had agreed on. Well, Lyonette was. Erin was just rolling around and giving commentary.

“Um—um—sorry about the fuss, guys. Valeterisa’s flown off, and she only caused a bit of trouble. I have a fondue—well, it’s actually called a ‘ti’hilo’—and it’s pretty spicy. It’s a spicy fondue. No cheese, actually.”

Lyonette wheeled Erin’s chair to face a wall as the [Princess] glanced between Magnolia Reinhart in style and Demsleth in not.

“Apologies, Lady Reinhart, Sir Demsleth. This is meant to be eaten with specialty cutlery, and Chef Imani has given me basic instructions on how to use them.”

“Oh, fascinating! What are these orbs, please?”

“Barley, Lady Reinhart. We have a selection of wines—and to accompany the dipping sauce and main course, some chicken dijon, courtesy of Chef Calescent, and several fine cheeses.”

“…Is that camembert?”

That was the first thing Demsleth had said after calling himself a coward. He stared at the cheese, which Magnolia fancied would taste heavenly in that sauce. A mix of cultures had gone into this course, and Lyonette assured him it was. He reached for the first slice of cheese as Magnolia Reinhart rose to freshen up a moment.




Magnolia Reinhart had risen to inspect the meal with some delight—as well as faint incredulity that The Wandering Inn was capable of something so far beyond burgers and pizza. Which was hurtful but fair.

She found Erin Solstice wheeling her chair around in the side hallway that exited the common room. The other hallway led to the rec room, workout gym, and Antinium prayer room. This hallway was next to the hidden kill-zone traps that bordered the main entrance and contained all the private dining rooms for birthdays and such.

She peered down the hall and saw a Goblin and Antinium pushing a second course to the wall; they had a rolling cart that allowed them to simply unload a course of dishes. Now, what sensible mind had thought of that? Probably a certain [Mathematician] who had reviewed broken and spilled dishes between new workers or the issues of a short Goblin having to place dishes on a taller table.

Erin Solstice, also on wheels, looked tired. She had been dancing, and Magnolia Reinhart thought she looked healthily tired at this time of day. But the [Innkeeper] tipped her hat, and the [Lady] paused at the door to the dining room.

Ressa was giving Ser Lormel the side-eye as the [Knight] bowed to her. But Magnolia and Erin’s conversation was private. The [Witch] tilted up her head to the [Lady].

“Demsleth’s sort of depressed today. Ryoka said he’s been off. Do you…want some company for dinner?”

Magnolia’s lips quirked.

“Are you inviting yourself in, Miss Solstice?”

The [Innkeeper] waved her hands—then decided this wasn’t the time to be silly. She took a breath.

“I meant after. I appear with dessert, maybe. Flaming ice cream. We hit him with some flames and a Minotaur’s Punch. Or…I have a few interesting gardens. I could make him cry.”

She peered at Demsleth, who didn’t seem to be focusing on anything more than the food and his glum mood. Magnolia half-smiled. Erin looked up at her, trying to be earnest and not as…rude as she could be.

“If you need help…”

It was an odd thing to offer the Lady of House Reinhart. Insulting to some…and at any other time, Magnolia might have welcomed it. But here?

Her smile deepened, and she inclined her head as she touched Erin Solstice’s arm. The [Magical Innkeeper] hadn’t really come because she was invested in serving the meal or giving the guests a personal touch.

“I do appreciate the offer. But in this moment, Miss Erin, I believe I have things quite covered. If I fail—I will throw myself on your capabilities. Please, though. You know more of his past than I can name, and I envy you that. I, though…I would like to believe I know him.

The eyes of Izril’s [Lady] shone—and Erin Solstice met them once with the gaze of Earth and her inn. Then she bowed her head and touched a hand to her head. She tipped her hat.

“Enjoy your food. And good luck.”

Then she rolled away, and Magnolia Reinhart sat back down at the table.




They began eating as Erin and Lyonette bowed out. There were no spies—even Ressa stood outside the door, and she would allow no one, not snooping little Gnolls, not Shriekblade, nor Erin Solstice, to eavesdrop.

“I rather feel for that poor girl, Mrsha. She is an imp—but I believe Archmage Valeterisa was trying to extract hairs from her?”

“Did that happen? I must have missed it.”

Demsleth ate with his head low to the table. He had an appetite for five—he was a Dragon—but he looked ashamed. He ate with good manners, but every time he looked at her—

“Forgive me. I should have attired myself better. I can do so—but I have spoiled the mood. I am—”

He searched for words, his mismatched eyes lost in a sea of guilt and regret and patheticness. His eyes always mimicked the Dragon’s true gaze. Magnolia had once asked why, if it was so obvious, he did that.

His reply had been that eyes were windows to the soul, and even in his many guises—he should be honest in that.

Magnolia interrupted the Dragon’s lost expression and uncertain words lightly.

“I have seen you dress up in a pure white robe like some pretentious [Monk], oh great and stylistically inhibited Dragonlord of Flame. And you had the gall to claim it was fashionable because you wore it. As for your conduct—I once caught you licking a serving tray after we had eaten the turkey from it. A pig that wears clothing is still a pig if you have ever seen it eating from the trough.”

What a shot. Ressa, standing outside the door, coughed into her sleeve. She debated letting the curious little Drake, witch, and Mrsha creep over to listen. It was probably a good lesson in something.

Teriarch turned bright red as Magnolia smiled at him. She was still as elegant as ever—but her words and directness did not befit the attire.

But it was in line with the last three meetings they’d had.




The Dragon was confused. The [Lady] haunted him. Not in some romantic sense or even with guilt.

He was guilty that he had known this woman and forgotten it all. He was guilty that he had slunk away from the Revenant when Taletevirion had placed his life on the line.

He was ashamed that he had not inspired Rafaema or any of the mortals he had met.

He felt like a fool, a failure, an idiot, and unworthy of the charge placed against him. He…could not understand Naunce. When given the chance of a lifetime, how could you throw it away?

The terror of dying. That was his answer, and he was ashamed because he had no grounds to lecture her at all.

But he was confused by Magnolia Reinhart. Because she was not like how Rafaema treated him.

The Lightning Dragon looked at Teriarch like a legend who constantly disappointed her expectations. Pain.

Ryoka Griffin hovered in uncertainty, begging for stories and guidance and—help. A girl on a quest that neither she nor he could do alone, that they were not ready for. A young woman fighting as he had seen so many brave girls struggle against adversity. Agony.

Magnolia Reinhart called him fat. And old. And she had, apparently, a hundred and one stories, each involving him embarrassing himself in front of her.


“Surely there is one memory you have of our interactions—over the thirty years since you were sixteen—that revolves around me in some good light, Lady Reinhart?”

He muttered, beginning to dig into the sauce with a good appetite. All the spellcasting—he dipped the barley into the fiery sauce with these odd tongs made of wood. Culture from Chef Imani’s world, no doubt, and far different from what Erin Solstice knew.

Magnolia laughed softly.

“I’m afraid I can’t recall a single time.”

“What about in my august home in front of my true being and grandeur?”

He snapped somewhat peevishly. Magnolia tapped a finger to her lips.

“As I recall, you had an infestation of Face-Eater Moths in your food supply. Have you rooted them out?”

He paused—and the Dragon, who had slumped into his cave, suddenly raised his head in alarm and opened his preserved goods and began to rifle through his inventory. Magnolia Reinhart grimaced as she went on.

“I recall this because you were bragging about choice cuts of meat and had to show me some exotic cow that you had a cut of—you teleported a slice to me, and I had the most wonderful grub sitting on my plate. I believe I didn’t eat a steak for eight years after that.”

She had to be lying. But the truth spell he whispered inaudibly provoked nothing but the truth. Maybe she was a [Lady] who could fudge a truth spell—

Magnolia Reinhart raised her voice, sounding more amused. Nanette, Visma, and Mrsha were putting a cup to the door and listening—both Teriarch and Magnolia knew they were there.

“That’s another habit you have when you think you’re losing. You instantly begin to suspect your opponent of cheating. I cannot but play cards with you and win two hands before the truth spells appear. ‘Cheating is an art’ is your excuse, but there’s nothing artful about hovering a mirror behind Ressa to see her hand.”

Giggling and a ‘shush’ came from behind the door, and Demsleth-Teriarch turned redder. And still, he was confused.

Why was she doing this to him? Constantly tearing him down. Was he not torn down enough? Perhaps…and here he became gloomy.

Perhaps she was angry and this was her way of taking it out on him. He didn’t know her personality. He didn’t know her.

Eldavin did. Suddenly, the Dragon’s hunger abated, and he lowered the tongs and put his hands in his lap.

“It is amusing…in a pitiable way…that you mention my follies, Magnolia Reinhart. A foe of mine pointed out my penchant for the dishonorable blow not an hour past. I suppose the previous me would have called it ‘intelligent combat’. But it just reminds me that I, as you see me, am a coward. I am sorry I have not lived up to your expectations.”

To all of theirs. Magnolia Reinhart peered at Demsleth.

“—I fear you have still not understood my position, Demsleth. And you do fly around enough to make it hard to keep up with you. Have you let down poor Rafaema again?”

Again. She said it pointedly, but she wasn’t wrong. Part of him wanted to growl. But he just exhaled.

“I made a fool of myself trying to seek out those touched by ghosts.”


“I was barely able to keep ahead of Rafaema physically. I twisted my, er, leg.”

“You are significantly out of shape. She’s in her prime. I can only imagine she was humoring you to begin with. At least you didn’t break your leg.”

He paused a second and tried not to glare. It was all true. He deserved this.

“…And I proved myself a coward. I—I did not fight when I could have. Because I thought I would lose, you see? He had a weapon made to kill me. I cannot take them lightly. Even in my prime I would risk a mortal wound. And I am not…in my prime.”

That was why he hadn’t stepped in with Taletevirion’s duel. He had meant what he said to Rafaema: it was harder to beat Tolveilouka especially when not using his real body. He lacked coordination, and even Eldavin, his other half, was weaker than Teriarch in Dragon form.

But the real truth was that he had been afraid. Taletevirion was one of the world’s greatest duelists and seasoned by war. He had never lost his edge, despite his philanderous ways. In that moment…perhaps even as Unicorn and Dragon, Taletevirion was far more dangerous and far more ready for a war. The same with Rhisveri—for all the arrogant Wyrm had been unskilled in combat against an immortal of his caliber, he had been in fighting trim and unexpectedly good at magic.

Teriarch was not. He could barely fly around, his battle senses had dulled…he looked up, and Magnolia Reinhart gave him a blank look.

“Do…do you mean to say you thought you were in shape? This entire time? Demsleth, please. I have known you to get winded merely breathing.

She meant breathing fire. And it was true that it was a tiring thing for Dragons…but she knew very well that he of all people should not need to gulp air after basic Dragonbreath.

The Dragon was getting angrier and angrier. He felt like she was putting needles in his hide like the Stitch Witch—who was apparently still knocking about causing trouble. His voice rose in a growl that shook the table and dishes and made Mrsha’s earwax vibrate as she pressed her ear to the door.

“I am—trying to tell you how pitiful I am. How wretched, how cowardly—I ran from a battle I knew I had every advantage in!”

Magnolia lifted a bit of barley dripping with sauce that tasted like tangy fire on the tongue.

“Excellent cooking. I wish I had given Imani a chance, but the dear girl was inconsolable for months. Rightly so. I had [Healers] looking after her until she stopped screaming at the sight of a bug. Demsleth, pitiable? Cowardly? Out of shape? What is new, pray?

That was enough. He leapt to his feet, crimson with shame and anger. The Dragon pointed a shaking finger at Magnolia. And it did shake because—

“I do not understand it. Ryoka Griffin I understand I had a burgeoning relationship with. Rafaema? One she has every right to ask. But you? You claimed to me that we were great acquaintances for three decades! Yet you needle me, you belittle me—I was dead! I was dead, and at last I could rest until my entire people put a charge on me as heavy as the High Passes! If you know anything about me—if I ever revealed the secrets of my nature and past to you, surely you know what weighs on me. Have you no sympathy, woman?”




Ressa, listening by the door, nearly spat flames herself as she took a gulp of water.

“Get that salamander, Magnolia.”

She hissed, and Visma nodded energetically.




Magnolia Reinhart didn’t move, but she did flick off some sauce that had gotten onto her wrist as Demsleth nearly overturned the table. She looked at Demsleth, and all the wrath of the Dragonlord of Flame was upon him. Even in his false, Human body, he snarled with the flames that had melted Chandrar to glass—

And it bounced off her aura. The sauce in the fondue pot began bubbling, but the air on Magnolia’s side of the table was cool, warmed by two fireplaces in Erin’s inn. She raised a brow.

“I cannot count how many tantrums I have seen the Lord of Flame throw. But you humored a girl who would scream at you, so I suppose I have to weather the same in your senility. Sit down, Demsleth. Or will you ruin this fine meal?”

He sat down. He was so red-faced that he hung his head. He was going to go back to his cave and never come out. But Magnolia Reinhart didn’t give him any room to breathe. Like Captain Todi kicking a man in the gut when he was already on the floor, she kept going.

“I feel bad for Rafaema. And Ryoka…”

She pursed her lips.

“No, not Ryoka. For young Rafaema, I do feel a great degree of sympathy. I feel sorry for her, because she will learn what I learned as a young woman of sixteen when, quite by chance, I happened to meet a surly, cantankerous old man living in a literal cave. But you know, painful as it is, Rafaema must learn the same lesson I did. Which is that you are even more pitiful than you are claiming to be right now.”

He was already dead. Stop! The young audience listening at the door could actually see the old man through the crack sitting there, staring ahead with a face as pale as ash in ruddy cheeks. Magnolia was lecturing him as she took a slice of the chicken and dipped it in the sauce. He whispered.

“Why did you even wait for me, then? You came all the way from Oteslia—if you knew how wretched I was, you should have been glad I was dead—”

She splashed half her winecup at him and drank the other half. He blinked as the liquid hit him in the face. He inhaled to rage at her—and a finger of her will made manifest, her aura, pressed him into his chair.

Pink ire. Enough will to become a physical thing. Her eyes flashed, and he quailed as she raised her voice. It was direly amused, pained, and she was lecturing him, now. With memories.

“Oh, shut up. Demsleth, for a man who once danced Terandria’s Hundred Kingdoms on his thumb without swinging a single sword, you can be more obtuse than a rock when it comes to self-pity. You are everything I expected. In fact, I don’t think you’ve sunk to rock bottom. Rock bottom is falling for Wuvren’s charms and trying to posture all night by one-upping her suitors. She levelled four times that night, she told me. We didn’t speak for two years after that. If I can survive that embarrassment, I can survive anything.”

How low could he go? He wanted to put his head in his hands and vanish. And still—and still—

She haunted him. Magnolia Reinhart. This—this woman. He did not know her as a girl. He wanted to weep because Eldavin had stolen those memories, and if he only could kill his other self to reclaim what he was missing, he would.

Yet she haunted him, because when he peeked up and saw her green eyes dancing there like the Vale Forest blowing in the winds of summer, he saw no contempt. Instead, he finally placed what he saw there.

Laughter. She was laughing, amused, and yes, a bit sad. She was not filled with that—that loss and painful let down of expectations he had seen in Rafaema’s eyes or the hopeful uncertainty that burned in Ryoka’s, of a girl looking for a hero.

Magnolia Reinhart saw him. And her eyes surpassed a Dragon’s in that moment because they saw true. And they had seen it from the start.

Something changed. Just like he had once learned, long ago, to see the truth hidden in things, a young woman staring out of a Drake’s face, the fae in Winter Sprites, the nugget of truth in grand lies and the shape of the world—everything about his strange interactions with Magnolia Reinhart changed.

Consider…consider it another way. All her anecdotes about his embarrassing moments. He had thought it was some kind of powerplay or way to establish familiarity. And it was the latter. But—instead of a way to just put him down, perhaps she was trying to tell him something too.

Which was that she knew him. To be clear, she did not just ‘know him’ like Rafaema who had heard the tales and dug up stories of the Dragonlord of Flame.

She knew Teriarch. She knew Demsleth. She knew his lowest, most disgraceful—and realistically, lazy—sides. She knew the Dragon, who, as she pointed out, had sometimes slept for years at a time and woken up only to ask her what year it was or begrudgingly fix her magical carriage.

This was the Dragon that Magnolia Reinhart knew, and so even now, at his lowest—she just gave him a familiarly exasperated look. Insulted him to his face, splashed wine on him—but she did not recoil or look disappointed.

Expectation. Slowly, Teriarch’s head rose. Then, at last, he gazed upon Magnolia Reinhart and saw it.

She had known him over thirty years. Thirty-one years exactly. He did not know the scope of it, but if she were like that Harpy girl he had once met crying while lost, the brave warrior who defied Dragons with naught but a dagger on Chandrar’s sands, or any other—

His heart hurt. He wanted to know who the girl had been. For this woman knew him—and knew him too well. Finally, he looked at Magnolia Reinhart and whispered.

“I—I suppose this must be one of my most foolish moments to you. Lady Magnolia of House Reinhart…did I call you Magnolia?”

“You said ‘girl’ quite often. But yes. Magnolia is how you tended to say it.”

She was smiling now, and her eyes seemed to come alive at last. He nodded. Then glanced down.

“What—do you think that I did wrong with the city of Onononno? Horre and…all the others I have met? Speaking as someone who knows me, that is.”

The [Lady] did not have to search for an answer. She drummed her fingers on the table and sighed.

“Frankly? Without being there, I can only guess from your descriptions that you are rushing. I think you’re impatient. Not just in trying to arm a thousand different people and help them with the frankly obtuse gifts and instructions the ghosts gave them—I think you’re rushing to become who you were again. You shouted at Rafaema about the execution. Told her to pull rank on her entire city when they raised her from an egg.”

He had done that, hadn’t he? He had been so angry—but in hindsight, they had raised her. Manus—and if they were anything like the Manus he remembered, military doctrine was in their blood. He should be grateful she wasn’t a [Soldier] saluting him and incapable of leaving a chain of command.

“I just have no time.”

“But you need time. Or do you really think a boy of fifteen can become a [Mercenary Captain] in a year? Perhaps he will not be ready—but you cannot rush him.”

No. He flushed, remembering how he had begun speaking of so much so fast. What a fool. You didn’t push them over the cliff like that.

“I am rushing. But I—I am trying my best. That is what is so painful. I am letting Rafaema down, and Ryoka and you. I am trying to become the one who was chosen for this weight.”

He closed his eyes painfully. That was the mountain. Or he thought it was the mountain until Magnolia Reinhart sighed—and shook her head.

“No you’re not.”

Teriarch cracked one eye open.

“…How am I not? I most assuredly am trying my hardest.”

She put her hands on the table and gave him the flattest and most direct stare he could remember this side of the millennium.

“Terrium Archelis Dorishe—”

His heart jolted because she knew his full name. His jaw, both Demsleth’s and his real one, fell open. Magnolia Reinhart snapped at him.

—you are not trying your best. You are trying to look good while failing. There is a difference. You are gallivanting around, trying to impress a young woman and letting her down, and that is what you do. I should know, because I was that young woman. And you are shattering poor Rafaema’s dreams of the hero she came to find, and that is fine…because she will realize, she must realize that you are a flawed old man. But please. Don’t pretend with me.”

It rocked him. Demsleth fell out of his seat. A Dragon rolled down his hoard and lay on his side. He lay there like a brass fish, flapping one wing until he realized it was true.

He was not ready.

Of course, he had been saying that from the start.

‘This is too much for me.’ 

‘They should have chosen another Dragon.’ 

‘I’m old.’ 

‘I’m unfit.’ 

‘I’m slightly out of shape.’

And it was true. But what had he done about it? Run around trying to impress a Wyrm, pull the old ‘Dragonlord’ effect on him. Kill his false self, then impress a young Dragon while flying around bestowing wisdom on mortals.

It was…rather pathetic. Because it was a half-hearted attempt. It was a full-hearted attempt in a half-hearted manner, if that made sense.

If he was honest. If he was Teriarch, the Dragon who had been there and seen it, all of it—he had fallen down many times. He looked up at his hoard, up at Magnolia Reinhart, and saw it. She was looking down at him. Expectantly. Expecting him to roll further down and perhaps soil himself along the way…

Or perhaps, in that kind, exasperated look, was the same fragment of hope. Waiting for him to climb.

“I think you know exactly how to redeem yourself, old man. I think you know what you have to do, and it is neither easy nor simple nor short—but you do know. But you can’t do it while trying to show off for Rafaema or for me. Let her be disappointed. She’ll live.”

Just like she had. Teriarch whispered now, a lump in his throat.

“You…you say that with so little rancor. Did I shatter the dreams of a girl, once upon a time?”




Ressa was dabbing at her eye with a handkerchief. At last—at last—she closed the door with a click and activated the privacy spells. Instantly, three children attacked her legs because they wanted to hear, but Ressa shooed them away.

“Finally. It only took thirty-one years, Magnolia.”




The click made neither Dragon nor [Lady] turn, though they heard it.

Magnolia Reinhart took a shallow breath and hesitated. Her eyes flickered, and he knew the answer, but he waited, head hung low with guilt. He was—

His chest was rising and falling, and he was blinking too much. An old man, sitting there, with arms crossed across his stomach—no longer looking beaten.

Now he saw her, and her head was hung lower, her hair glittering like a memory.


A young woman sat there, like the woman who had ridden across Izril to stop an army of invading Antinium. She had sat like that for thirty years.

At first—a girl of sixteen. Lost and awed, with the same glow in her eyes as Rafaema had now. A great expectation that turned to exasperation and anger and a sense of betrayal. A burning, passionate anger against more useless elders interested in only themselves.

Until she heard the stories and saw a dream of a morality she had never learned. A great burden no one had carried for generations sitting at the feet of her house. Then the awestruck hope became fear, and she was tired. And hurt.

Yet she had come back. And the woman…looked at Teriarch gently. His eyes, Demsleth’s eyes seemed red and watery, and they couldn’t look at her exactly. They kept glancing away, ahead, and his fingers were brushing at his eyelids as he covered his mouth.

“You didn’t shatter my dreams, Teriarch. Well—perhaps a girl’s. I think we all expect our elders to be as passionate as we are. To run around as if this is the first war they’ve ever seen. To have the perfect answers. It hurts—to realize they can’t do everything. Even a Dragon. It frightened me, just like I think it scares Rafaema, to see scars and realize what mortality is. Perhaps, the first time I asked you to take up a cause, it hurt. The first time you embarrassed yourself, I pretended that wasn’t you. Because I wanted a hero. But no one is a hero forever, even [Heroes], are they?”

She looked past him, and he was breaking up a bit inside. Pieces shaking like his heart and leaking out of his eyes. His chest was heaving—and still, she continued.

“…But the thing about Dragons is that one learns time is relative. I met an old, crotchety man who collected treasure and talked about his glory days and lectured me endlessly about the weight of the world. That was Regis Reinhart, my cantankerous ghost of a grandfather. Then I met you, and it was much the same.”

She took a breath, and her words were too smooth. She and he were feeling the exact same thing, but she was in a moment, like a performer, unable to break until the end.

“It took me a while to realize the difference. It was not just that you were kinder. You never told me what the final answer was. You told me stories. You showed me the difference between what was given to me and what I earned. The difference was—you had proven it a thousand thousand times, and if you lectured then and prevaricated now, you had proven every word you spoke. You never said it was easy. And it was not easy. When it was my turn and I realized I could do something, it was the hardest thing in the world.”

Her eyes brightened, and she sat there, and he remembered her honors. Hero of the Antinium Wars. She had taken her people south to fight a war that she had never been thanked for. That vision was still upon her, that Skill bestowed by the [Innkeeper] of Liscor and the [Spear of the Drakes].

But he also realized what it had meant. A girl had wrested control of her entire house from her parents. Defied her father and mother, taken on every relative and [Assassin] and stood in front of a conclave of her peers and demanded they ride to the aid of their mortal enemies. She had done it at the age of twenty-six.

Alone. She had no Dragon to follow across the horizon. Only a story an overgrown, fire-breathing lizard had told her in a cave. A true story, but an old one—and he had hid, spouting platitudes and claiming no high ground in another war.

He had not been with her when she stood before the Five Families and dared their honor and courage to follow her to Liscor. But she…she looked at him as he fell to pieces at the table.

“If it were not for you, I would have had no path to walk down. Sometimes we need to find it, behind all your silliness and failings. You are not the man you were, Teriarch. But we can find it.”

She had gone south, bringing the north of Izril at her back. They had never thanked her for it. History had forgotten most of what she’d done. A girl had done it—a woman without a hero of stories at her side. He had slept through it all and only woken and seen her shining across Izril.

Then the Dragonlord of Flames had flown and reduced two armies to ash. Just that. And she still said it was him.

Magnolia Reinhart was taking the Dragonlord of Flames to pieces. His shoulders shook, and water ran down his lined, ruddy cheeks. Still, she spoke, and her voice was low and gentle. Telling her story and perspective like a song.

“At first, I expected everything of you. Then I was hurt and disillusioned. But then I realized that it was not upon you to fulfill my dreams—but myself. Did you shatter my dreams? No. Say rather, Teriarch—the woman’s dreams were only deferred. I have never seen you ‘in your greatness’. Never once over thirty years. I have always known a silly fool reluctant to bestir himself. But I have faith that Dragonlord is in you. I see him when you aren’t trying. He slips out, between all the posturing and the ego. He inspires, well and truly. Believe me in that. I wouldn’t associate with you if there was no true flame behind all the huffing and puffing you do.”

She smiled at him, and it hurt more than being lanced with a Dragonbane spear. Because the trust—

You are your most heroic when you make no attempt at it, Teriarch. And that is a quote I once heard from you. So please stop trying to live up to our expectations. If I must, I will watch you tumble all the way down your mountain of hubris. However low you go—I will be waiting for that day you recall you have wings.”

So said the [Lady], and she cast down the Brass Dragon from the dinner table and slew him with a lance made of words. Sending him slumping forwards, awash with tears. He lay there, all scars and jumbled memories and disappointment. But the reason Magnolia waited so patiently and the reason he had been chosen was this:

He was not the greatest Dragon of war to ever live. He was not the most cunning or the best to lead or inspire. But he was one of the oldest. And always, always—his daughter and every other person he had ever helped knew that no matter the era, no matter when, no matter how low he sunk—

Teriarch, the Dragonlord of Flames, would always spread his wings and fly.




The Wandering Inn was in a bit of chaos that night as the Dragon slowly walked out of his dinner with Magnolia Reinhart and looked around for Rafaema.

He was just in time to see Ryoka Griffin run past him. But she was too busy to stop and slow down.

The Archmage of Izril was leaving. Or rather, she had left, with this failed venture in her wake. Possibly to return only years later if someone woke her again.

She left her apprentice, the only people she could call friends and family in this world. Larra, Mihaela, the other regulars of The Adventurer’s Haven, Barnethei, and Lady Ieka.

If she left now, at the height of her fame and achievement, her name would fade out of the world, despite all she had done to rekindle it. The memory of her raising Fissival would fade.

Mistakes had been made. Stupid mistakes, and Valeterisa was not innocent in all of it. But her just leaving and letting it all collapse?


These were the facts on the ground. If you were reporting in like Drassi—and this was not a story that the world or television was aware of—it was a breaking story where anything could change at a moment.

It was real. An Archmage, even if she wasn’t an [Archmage], possibly taking herself off the board. Her entire project had been rushed, but the idea of it could have changed Izril if it was done right.

But the frustration…the frustration was here, in the air, as someone watched Ryoka Griffin dash towards the door.

“Liska! I need you to take me to Invrisil! I might make it—she has to teleport all the way north, right? I can’t catch her if she’s just—”

“My people destroyed her rune outside of Invrisil. You have a hundred miles. She’ll be in the air by [Levitation]. Go, Ryoka Griffin. Hurry!

Lady Ieka Imarris was snapping orders, directing her servants and bodyguards around with her fan, her ocean blue hair a mess from raking her fingers through it—and yet her eyes snapped with the same magic Valeterisa wielded.

She would not give her aunt up without a fight. She had sabotaged Valeterisa’s own teleportation runes! There was an amazing irony to it—the same thing the Merchant’s Guild had done that had driven Valeterisa away might now keep her from disappearing.

There was only one Runner in Izril for the job who could catch Valeterisa in the air. Well—two—but Witch Alevica wasn’t reliable, and Ryoka Griffin had done this before. Technically, Salamani could—

The Wind Runner was flying after the Archmage of Izril to stop her. To talk sense into her and bring her back. Just like before—it made your blood thrill, didn’t it?

The frustration wasn’t in Ryoka Griffin. It might be in Lady Ieka Imarris, sitting white-knuckled, having to rely on Ryoka for help. Her [Bodyguards] had been good enough to take a pickaxe to Valeterisa’s runes—but her staff wasn’t filled with Ressas. She didn’t even have a single Ressaum.

Similarly, if you were here, watching all this unfold, and you had been aware of what was going down the entire time, as, say, one of Invrisil’s newest, most attractive, most deadly, and most well-connected up-and-coming information brokers—

“This sucks.”

Fierre still couldn’t fly. She had one hand balled up in frustration. Because this was huge. She could sell the report on this to many sources, including Archmage Eldavin himself. She suspected she was actually in contact with Teura or someone high-up who bought information from her.

But once sold, the information would be just a fun story, not news. And so what? Even if ‘Bloody Secrets’ broke the story and proved she had known all this from the jump—no one was here to capitalize on the jump.

She was mad. She was pissed. She was also frustrated—because Fierre had realized that her career in Invrisil was stalling.

Oh, she had plenty of contacts. She’d put herself on the map with the Trial of Zeladona incident and with her own reputation. But it was also true that she’d left her business and gone south to find Mrsha for months.

If that happened to a broker, people assumed you were dead. Fierre didn’t regret it. Even if she hadn’t been at work the entire time, she had been rubbing shoulders with the Titan of Baleros and learned a lot there.

…But he had ruined her career aspirations, that damn Fraerling. He’d made her look up and seen what she could aspire to.

Playing letter opener for Runners and discovering a couple cheating on each other or trading secrets for silver wasn’t appealing anymore. Fierre had watched Ryoka Griffin become a Courier. She was in Erin Solstice’s inn, and she was drowning in secrets.

But she had no real way to use them. Ryoka was her friend, and a good one—but Fierre had the opposite problem with her. Anything she could do—Tyrion Veltras could do better. Fierre might be able to pull some strings for Ryoka, but the Wind Runner didn’t need her.

She wanted to be more well-connected. And right now…Fierre’s head swiveled around the inn.

Bezale had an arm around Montressa. Not the moment to put a coin in Bezale’s ear telling her it was definitely the Merchant’s Guild who had orchestrated all the break-ins to the storehouses. They’d even torched one on the way to Invrisil, though the project was well and truly halted.

Some Guildmasters in the Runner’s Guild were in on it—the Driver’s Guild was abstaining but giving tacit blessing to the sabotage as they saw what the Archmage might manage. Fierre also knew where they were keeping the stolen spell circle. A caravan with a Chest of Holding capable of keeping that much stone without needing to break it into pieces was rolling towards Invrisil for study.

Thirty-three [Caravan Guards] rode with it and two [Hireling Mages]—if Fierre had any people she could call on, she could have offered a service to break the stolen stone or maybe even hijack the caravan.

She could not. She had the info—none of the means.

Frustrating. Bezale would buy the info off her…Fierre’s fingernails drummed on the table. She saw Lady Ieka sitting down, snapping left and right.

“Estvie, I want a scrying spell on Ryoka Griffin. Sirrah, if the [Merchants] try anything or know Ryoka is going after my aunt—take your entire squad and everyone and ride after her! Stab anyone trying to get in the way of either of them!”

“She—she’s unscryable, Lady Ieka.”

The [Head Maid] was out of her depth. Ieka hissed as her [Bodyguard Captain] pointed.

“I will leave two with you, Lady Imarris—no arguments. Do not leave the inn. If we had spells, we’d have a chance of catching either.”

“Use my [Speed] scrolls! Just try to keep up! But keep clear of my aunt—have your Spellshields ready. She…she might not appreciate interference, and she’ll cast any spell if she thinks you’re in her way.”

Spellshields, and Lady Ieka could manufacture or had access to [Speed] scrolls? Fierre wrote this down, greatly impressed. The [Lady] was too stressed out to realize she was being spied upon, and her [Maid], Estvie, had forgotten to deploy privacy spells.

Ieka paced around—then sat down and snapped at Estvie.

“Scry Ryoka—if you can’t scry her or my aunt, do a location search on the way north from Invrisil. You pick out coordinates, Estvie. First, you do as high up as you can reasonably do and when you locate—give me the orb, I’ll do it myself!”

She was at the heart of what was happening. Erin Solstice was actually in the background for once, talking to Barnethei.

“Yeah, Ryoka just left. She’s the only flying person I’ve got, sorry. If Peki was here—she’d probably kick Valeterisa out of the skies. Does Larra have a flying spell?”

“No one can match Valeterisa’s speed with [Levitation]. Your Wind Runner might be the only person who can catch her. Guildmistress Mihaela claims she couldn’t find Valeterisa from the ground. She might be hundreds of feet in the sky. Or thousands.”

What a conundrum. It seemed ridiculous that Larra the Haven, Erin Solstice, and Ieka Imarris were all stumped by the simple issue of elevation. Did she have a way to catch Valeterisa short of throwing Ryoka at the problem?

Hmm. Fierre had notes on that. She flipped open her own binder of files. She was sitting at a good table, near enough to hear Ieka Imarris speaking clearly, and she could eavesdrop on other conversations in the inn. It was her favorite place to be aside from her work office.

She just wished she had the ability to twist Erin’s ear or Larracel’s. Could she offer her services to either?

“Let’s see. Flying. Flying…Witch Alevica. Witch Mavika, but you need a really big lure. Maybe a rare bird in one of the menageries she can liberate? I should have bought a flying carpet.”

She needed agents. Trustworthy people she could get to do things. But the Vampire assassin was the only super-competent person she knew, and he had politely told her she wasn’t able to afford his services to put him on retainer. Which hurt, but was fair. If only she had gotten the chance to give the Maestro her card!

No reputation. Fierre sighed. Anti-flying contingencies aside from a [Mage] blasting someone out of the sky or a bowman on the ground? She muttered out loud as Estvie held something up.

“Lady Ieka, I hate to bother you—but your caravans at the city of Lellesk?”

Not now! What is it?”

Ieka snapped—then realized even Ryoka had to find Valeterisa in the skies. As she manipulated the [Scrying] spell, trying to locate her aunt, she snapped about…Fierre checked her notes.

“Oh, right. Impounded caravans in Drake cities. Classic paperwork issue from Humans in the north meeting southern bureaucracy.”

She chuckled to herself. Estvie was saying much the same thing.

“Apparently the weapons and, um, artifacts you gave them are too dangerous for citizens without a Grade 2 Passport to carry.”

“But they’re not entering the city. They’re going to the new lands!”

“They stopped for feed and supplies, Lady Ieka. Because they were moving so fast—?”

Reinharts take the Drakes! Have them leave the city!”

Estvie’s voice was a wail of someone failing in her position. Like poor Montressa. But in her defense, Montressa had just made the error of not vetting her [Mages]. Estvie just couldn’t take the pressure.

“They can’t, Lady Ieka. Since they entered, your [Caravan Leader] says he’ll either be impounded or the artifacts will be stripped unless they provide documentation.”

They cannot—I do not have time for this!”

Ieka’s voice was a rising note of fury. The problem was—the Drakes could and would do anything their legal system allowed. Including stripping ‘dangerous’ artifacts off anyone not holding a Grade 2 passport.

Fierre shook her head as she muttered to herself, making a note in her binder. The Merchant’s Guild would pay a small sum to hear what had gone wrong so they could avoid it. How were you supposed to fix this? She checked her notes. She had gone to Pallass and studied the issue at their local offices. The Drakes were a bit surly and talked down to you, but the documentation was there, and you could even pay for a copy of the laws that most Drake cities adhered to.

“Grade 2 Passports. Normally, that’s a month of waiting as they verify you. What a pain. No wonder it’s so hard to get the caravan out once it’s been stopped. But…let’s see. You apply for a penalty since it’s not exactly weapons of war and they’ll kick you out. You come back and they’ll lock you up as a repeat offense. You can also rush a temporary permit so long as you’re a ‘person of interest’. I bet even a Human [Lady] can get Pallass to issue one for each caravan if you’re willing to breathe gold.”

She was writing all this down in shorthand to slip to Bezale and making a send copy, because she just bet this would happen again to foreigners passing through Drake lands.

Ieka Imarris, sitting at the table with Estvie, was not getting far with her [Maid]. Her head half-turned, and a sparkling opal earring swung around. She hesitated.

“I—what was…?—Estvie, focus. My aunt is flying away. I don’t have time for this! Will it keep? How long until they’re arrested?”

The [Head Maid] was gulping.

“I’ll ask, Lady Imarris.”

“One more day. Assuming they were impounded for two.”

Fierre muttered behind her papers, which were literally surrounding her in multiple binders of information. She could have built a miniature house out of her files; the only person who didn’t give her odd looks was Yelroan, who nodded to her and gave her a salute with his quill. She pointed two fingers back.

Lady Ieka sat oddly still for a second, despite the clear stress of a woman watching her beloved aunt and greatest ally flying off.

“Ryoka Griffin will stop my aunt. There she is!

She breathed a sigh of relief as she located Valeterisa from above. Then her face went pale.

“She’s—shooting lightning at Miss Griffin?”

Fierre’s head snapped up. She stared over. That wasn’t good. She nibbled at the tip of her quill nervously, listening in.

“Captain Sirrah will never reach them. They’re already twenty miles out of Invrisil and flying so fast—is there any way to reach my aunt in the air? I can barely hover fifteen feet! She is the greatest [Mage] of her generation. If one of the Archmages were here—Magus Grimalkin? If I begged her, would Magnolia Reinhart lend me her coach?”

Ieka’s face twisted at the thought, but she was well and truly desperate. Estvie was silent, just—frozen with inability. But it seemed as if the [Lady] were listening. And this time…the sotto voce comment from the side from the black-haired young woman with crimson eyes and pale skin was clearly audible to Ieka’s hearing spell.

“Hah. Magnolia Reinhart? Her carriages are kaput. No more mobility for her. Even Tyrion Veltras can’t fly. Mind you, I bet Magnolia Reinhart has a flying artifact in storage, but she doesn’t have one on the ground. Magus Grimalkin flies as well as a rock. Alevica’s a bit of a coward, and you can’t move [Witches] without negotiation. No—there’s only one possible chance if you had to stop Valeterisa, but you’d need to be able to lean on the underworld hard. Damn it. Why didn’t I ever get in with the Circle of Thorns? Right, they burned all their brokers. But if I had the connections of a big gang…”

A grumping Vampire girl sat there, picking at one pointed tooth with a quill, giving her background commentary on everything she saw and heard. She actually did it a lot, and the Gnolls had long-since gotten used to Fierre doing it.

Most everyone else ignored Fierre. She was certainly used to being ignored. But the thing was, Fierre seemed to have forgotten she was no longer the short, malnourished, sickly girl always wearing a hood in Mad Madain’s quiet inn.

She was taller, considerably more healthy, and if you were a certain [Lady] with an eye for charm—you had definitely noticed her before. Fierre hadn’t leaned into the brooding style of shadows as hard as Gothica, but the [Goth] Goblin had copied Fierre for a reason.

She swept her slightly spiked, black hair back, looking self-satisfied, frustrated, and urbanely amused by her own understanding of the situation—and then froze as she reached for a cup of wine.

Mostly because Fierre realized Lady Ieka Imarris was staring right at her. The Vampire nearly spat out her drink—gave her an unconvincing look, and tried to slide down below the eye-level of the open folders of notes propped up.

Too late.

“You there. You’ve been listening to everything I just said. You—you were with Ryoka Griffin, weren’t you? Fierre the Opener? From Reizmelt?”

That was how Ieka knew her! She and Salamani had woken her aunt to begin with! Fierre looked completely different from the girl coughing into her sleeve that Ieka had met.

“I, uh—hello, Lady Imarris! What a coincidence! I’m just a guest of this inn. What an exciting, I mean, terrible, I mean, surprising affair!”

The Vampire girl fumbled as she gave Ieka a guilty smile. The [Mage Lady] was not fooled. She had been in the Circle of Thorns. She knew Izril’s underworld. She hesitated for just one second—then strode over.

You’re the one who was tipping off Miss Bezale about the Merchant’s Guild. You’ve been selling information about my aunt’s activities this entire time! And you know about my impounded caravans and my aunt? You’re Bloody Secrets.”

“No I’m not! I—it’s just business, Lady Imarris! I’ve done nothing to go against you! Truly!”

The Vampire girl sat back in her seat, looking suddenly very nervous. Ieka’s two bodyguards twisted around, but the [Lady] held up a hand. She didn’t go against brokers unless they were in her way. Everyone knew secrets were scavenged, and it was rarely personal. You played the game. But what she had been muttering…

“What did you mean, there’s a way to catch my aunt in the air besides Ryoka Griffin? That’s impossible.”

There were almost no Garuda in Izril, and besides, most did not play games with people who shot lightning from their fingertips. Fierre stuttered.

“I said that out loud? I-I just meant—”

Ieka Imarris seized her wrist and felt a thrill as she realized Fierre was considerably stronger than she appeared as she nearly pulled Ieka off her feet. The Vampire girl steadied the [Lady] before she could tumble onto the floor, and both looked at each other.

Oh my. But for once, Ieka was focused. She looked the Vampire in her amazingly alluring red eyes.

“Do you know how to stop my aunt? Money is no object! And how do you apply for a penalty in a Drake city?”

“I—have an idea if Ryoka fails. It would only work to get close to Archmage Valeterisa. It might not be possible, but you’d need more than gold, Lady Imarris. To get your caravan out of trouble, I can write you a note on what to send to their Mage’s Guild. To apply for a penalty—you just have to second it to their City Hall or body of office. There’s an official byline they use in the subject line.”

That’s why all her [Messages] bounced? Damn Drake organization! Ieka was too busy to snap at Estvie—this was her fault. She was locked onto Fierre.

“Contacts? I have contacts.”

“It’s more than that, Lady Imarris. You—you’d need serious pull in the underworld. The, ah…”

“The Gangs? I have all the pull.

Fierre’s eyes went round. She didn’t seem to know that Ieka had been in the Circle of Thorns, and highly placed. Ieka was no longer an active member of the group since the literal hunt—but the strange man, Melidore, at the Winter Solstice had absolved or saved her from the consequences of her membership.

So much so that even a broker had no idea of her connections. Now—Lady Ieka’s violet eyes were burning.

“Tell me. No—don’t tell me. Do it! And if you can bring my aunt back or free my caravans, I’ll hire you at double what you’d earn as a broker!”

Fierre’s mouth opened wide before she hid her pointed teeth. Drake ancestry? Ieka didn’t know and didn’t care. It gave her a dangerous look, and if the girl was half as good as her commentary—

The world’s fastest employee interview had one dangling clause. If Fierre had a way—




The Vampire girl stared at Lady Ieka Imarris. Scion of a powerful house. Not the most powerful, but a woman in need of talent.

Fierre the Talented was right here, and Lady Ieka was desperate. Ryoka Griffin, the heroine of the hour—was not doing well. She was dodging bolts of lightning the Archmage was throwing to keep her from getting near. Of course, she’d succeed in the end. Right?

But if she didn’t—if you weren’t putting all your eggs in the Ryoka basket—Fierre’s eyes swiveled to Ieka. If she really did have contacts and authority—Fierre had never considered working for a noble family. It could be dangerous, but she rather sympathized with Lady Ieka from everything she knew of the woman. She liked magic. Fierre liked magic. She was an innovator.

They had similar…tastes. Fierre made up her mind in one flash of sudden decision. She grabbed her papers. Ieka had put to her one task to prove she was worth hiring. Fierre had one question that would decide whether Ieka was worth working for.

“I can catch Archmage Valeterisa in the air. It just depends if you have the right—card.”

Lady Ieka stared at Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle for one moment of confusion. Then—slowly—she reached into a purse of holding and plucked something out of it. And the Vampire girl’s eyes gleamed like blood.




Archmage Valeterisa was heading home. She was flying through the air to her next teleportation circle. Someone had smashed the relay point near Invrisil.


Thought-Process #46 (Side Projects): Repair teleportation circle Invrisil. Reinforce magic. Cloak each.

Thought-Process #56 (Diction): Repair the teleportation circle at Invrisil. Reinforce the magical bindings. Cloak each magical circle.

Thought-Process #11-45, exc. 39 (Magical Project, Codename “Automaton”): Thought-Process #56 is useless. Terminating.

Thought-Process #2 (Navigation): Wind picking up. Adjusting course.

Thought-Process #1 (Breathing): In. Out. In. Out.

Thought-Process #3 (Danger): Something is coming from the rear. [Detect Life] shows it is a Human. Redirecting issue to #8. Me. Analysis?

Thought-Process #8 (Analysis): Human. Female. Black hair. Querying memory. ‘Ryoka Griffin, Courier’. Flying. Spinning off a dialogue process.

Thought-Process #56 (Dialogue): Communicating.


The power of [Parallel Thoughts] was not in simply optimizing the power of the mind to multiple tasks. Valeterisa knew this from the warnings she had read in books. Division of a single whole meant each component part was weaker.

The power of [Parallel Thoughts] was, in part, to compartmentalize. To devote energy to small tasks or to focus completely by spinning off yourself until you no longer…felt. Until you no longer cared about hunger because it was being managed by a fiftieth of you that didn’t care if it was eating slop.

The same for pain. A [Mage] could divide off a part of themselves to scream in a battlefield and cast spells while being burned from within by magic. The power of this Skill was in part—to stop being yourself.

She was over fifty thought processes. She had never been this divided. But it was working.

“Hello, approaching (Ryoka Griffin). I am Archmage Valeterisa of Wistram. Please state your business and do not interfere in my progress. Good day to you.”

The woman spoke with a bland smile on her face as the Wind Runner shouted at her.

Archmage! Come back!

She didn’t recognize Ryoka Griffin. Oh, the memories were there—but not enough parts of Valeterisa cared. The communications process paused a second.


Thought-Process #56 (Communications): Looking for directives.

Thought-Process #8 (Analysis): Request to go back. Unable to ascertain the full scope of the inquiry. Escalating.

Thought-Process #11-45, exc. 39 (Magical Project, Codename “Automaton”): Unhelpful. Continue to mansion. Ignore.

Thought-Process #56 (Communications): Understood.


Valeterisa’s smile was blank as Ryoka Griffin labored to keep up. The [Levitation] spell keeping Valeterisa moving through the snowy clouds was fast. She had [Haste], [Rush Spell], and [Windshear Barrier of Air] all speeding her basic [Levitation] spell. At this rate, it would take less than an hour to get to her next teleportation circle, but Ryoka was right there. All she had to do was get Valeterisa’s attention. She’d done it once before.


“I am not interested! Thank you. Please desist in future communications or I will lodge a complaint at the (Runner’s Guild). Goodbye.”

Yet the Wind Runner persisted. She flew closer—and here Valeterisa’s scattered thoughts began to take appropriate measures.


Thought-Process #56 (Communications): Communications have failed. Requiring further input.

Thought-Process #3 (Danger): Alert. Wind Runner of Reizmelt is approaching via air. Memory indicates she once beheaded Archmage Eldavin, an allied member of Terras faction. We may be in danger. Escalating!

Thought-Process #11-45, exc. 39 (Magical Project, Codename “Automaton”): I am in personal danger? Diverting 9 thoughts. Do not let her near me.

Thought-Process #3, 11-19 (Self Defense): Engaging in self-defensive spellcasting. Allocating mana from magical studies. Mobile, flying Runner. [Paralysis] check—failed. Magical protections. [Chain Lightning].


Valeterisa’s eyes began to glow. She spoke.

“Any attempts to near me will be met with lethal force. You have been warned. [Chain Lightning].”

The air crackled, and lightning, slower than the bolts that came from natural clouds, but no less deadly to mere Humans, crackled from her fingertips. She turned her head and pointed a finger.

Oh sh—

A bolt nearly blew Ryoka Griffin’s glider apart as she dove with the wind’s help. She snap-rolled up, shouting.

Valeterisa! I can’t let you go! Please—


Thought-Process #56 (Communications): Ryoka Griffin has indicated she is unwilling to desist. Communications useless at this stage. Self-terminating.

Thought-Process #3, 11-19 (Self Defense): Kaalblade activated. Memory indicates paralysis-mode. Do not let the Wind Runner approach. Deploying mobile [Forcewall] fortifications. Apply seeking magic arrow spells and continue firing lightning. Requesting four more processes—aim.

Thought-Process #20-45, exc. 39 (Magical Project, Codename “Automaton”): Granted.


Her aim sharply improved, and this time, Valeterisa winged Ryoka Griffin with a bolt of lightning. It missed, in point of fact, but the charge from the bolt made Ryoka Griffin’s entire body go numb for a second. She peeled away rather than risk staying near Valeterisa, but kept shouting.

But now a cloud of [Arrows of Flame] was streaking from Valeterisa’s other hands, lighting up the wintery sky as Ryoka Griffin dodged and rolled. She kept shouting…but her voice was lost. Valeterisa wasn’t even listening.

That was the thing. There was no way back to the woman unless the part of her focused on the project of creating lost magic, the majority of her, decided it was necessary. Or another subsection of her thoughts required that much of her.

The last time she had ‘woken’ and dissolved the processes, it was because she had assumed she was under attack and had prepared for battle. Currently, though, barely 13 of her thoughts were necessary to keep Ryoka Griffin off her, and the Wind Runner’s glider was already on fire from the flaming arrows, trailing smoke.

Not a part of Valeterisa cared enough to even consider going back. She was now a beautifully dedicated, single-minded individual. Many thoughts, but a single mind, all devoted to the only thing that mattered:


Every part of her was united towards the cause, even if that was in the form of something like breathing or self-defense or making sure she wasn’t dying of hypothermia. All except…one.

And that was one little part of her that was spun off to deal with things as pesky as…emotions.


Thought-Process #39 (Brooding): That’s Ryoka. I like her. I miss Montressa. Maybe I should go back. Escalating?

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): Navigating towards mansion. Defending against Wind Runner. Researching magical project. Aside from life support, these are the only goals. Thought-Process #39 is useless. Terminate.

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding): We had an apprentice. I liked her. Maybe I’m right?

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): #8. Analysis?

Thought-Process #8 (Analysis): Incorrect. The apprentice, (Insert Name Here), has cost 20,000 gold pieces and a week of effort. Months of deferred time. Her limited Skills are not useful. Disregard Thought-Process #39. Terminate.


And that was that. Valeterisa flew on, occasionally casting spells at the helpless Wind Runner. Invisible sticky webs were working to great effect. Ryoka had crashed out of the sky; a snowdrift had saved her from breaking her bones—but she was wary of getting into range. Valeterisa would soon lose her. The Archmage began spinning more of her thoughts back into her project as the Wind Runner was less of a threat.

Until another process raised an objection.


Thought-Process #39 (Brooding Guilt): Is some of this affair my fault? I said horrible things to Montressa. Now I regret it.

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): #8?

Thought-Process #8 (Analysis): Guilt is not a useful emotion. Terminate.

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding Guilt): But I—


Gone. Valeterisa inhaled. Exhaled. Then—


Thought-Process #39 (Brooding Guilt Fact Checking): I am only here to check on some facts regarding our memory. This is highly important for our understanding of reality.

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): …#8.

Thought-Process #8 (Analysis): How are any memories in dispute?

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding Guilt Fact Checking): We were incorrect. We lied when we shouted at Montressa. We said that this was her fault.

Thought-Process #8 (Analysis): How would this not be her fault? She hired the [Mages]. She…requesting another process to investigate memories.

Thought-Process #8-9 (Analysis-Memories): It was clearly her fault. She improperly vetted the [Mages]. She should have realized they were incapable.

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding Guilt Fact Checking): Yes. But did we do that? We are superior to Apprentice Montressa. We didn’t double-check anything she did.

Thought-Process #8-9 (Analysis-Memories): Her job as an apprentice is to manage inconsequential tasks.

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding Guilt Fact Checking): So none of the fault is ours? Would this hold up to a [Detect Truth] spell?

Thought-Process #8-9 (Analysis-Memories): …Requesting four more processes.

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): Granted.


Now, her thoughts were rushing together, replaying relevant facts. Montressa was at fault. She was clearly at fault. She had been so—so—


Thought-Process #8-9, 51-54 (Analysis-Memories): Excitable. Flawed. She did not envision any issues. The Merchant’s Guild also interfered. This project was a failure from the inception.

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding Guilt Fact Checking): I was happy about it. Is that worth nothing?

Thought-Process #8-9, 51-54 (Analysis-Memories): It is. Feelings are meaningless.

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding Guilt Fact Checking): I demand a thought-process to clarify my feelings.

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): How is this relevant? Feelings are meaningless. Terminate.


There. Settled. For two seconds. Until…


Thought-Process #39 (Brooding Guilt Fact Checking Level Gains): I levelled up in Fissival for the first time in eight years. That mattered. It matters to magic. Escalating.

Thought-Process #20-45, exc. 39, 40 (Magical Project, Codename “Automaton”): Correct. Spinning off a process.

Thought-Process #39-40 (Level Gains): How I felt matters. Eight years of work gained no levels. I was upset in Fissival. I was glad to start this project. So was Apprentice Montressa.

Thought-Process #8-9, 51-54 (Analysis-Memories): She failed.

Thought-Process #39-40 (Level Gains): I request another thought process for memory. Have I not failed as a younger [Mage]?

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): For the sake of resolution, granted.

Thought-Process #39-41 (Level Gains): I recall messing up Milaw’s clock. He had worked so very hard on it. It was beautiful magic. The moonlight shone out of a gem, and I took it apart. The Wall Lady’s clock fell apart, and his reputation was ruined. His gold was wasted. I cried.

Thought-Process #8-9, 51-54 (Analysis-Memories): This is not helpful to magic.

Thought-Process #39-41 (Level Gains): Is this factual or not?

Thought-Process #8-9, 51-54 (Analysis-Memories): It is.

Thought-Process #39-41 (Level Gains): Montressa failed. She made a mistake. I have made a mistake. Why did I blame her for everything? I could have checked on the spell circles. I should have.

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): There are not enough thoughts to come to a conclusion. Dividing 8 thoughts off, four to each side.

Thought-Process #8-9, 51-58 (Analysis-Memories): Montressa is not a net positive. She has cost 20,000 gold pieces and a week of effort. Resolve that deficit or terminate.

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): Agreed.

Thought-Process #39-45 (Montressa’s Worth): I like her. She is clumsy and not as adept as I was at spellcasting, but she provides services.

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): Elaborate.

Thought-Process #39-45 (Montressa’s Worth): F-free underwear. Also, she spoke for us at Fissival in front of the Scholarium.

Thought-Process #8-9, 51-58 (Analysis-Memories): It changed nothing of value.

Thought-Process #39-45 (Montressa’s Worth): It made me feel better. She fought for us. And her birthday gift idea for our niece made Ieka smile.

Thought-Process #8-9, 51-58 (Analysis-Memories): None of this matters.

Thought-Process #39-45 (Montressa’s Worth): Then why am I sad? Why do I want to go back?


For a long time, her thoughts milled and argued. Then…


Thought-Process #19-38 (Magical Project, Codename “Automaton”): This is taking effort away from the priority. Self-terminate forever. Self-terminate unless there is a better reason.

Thought-Process #39-45 (Montressa’s Worth): I have gained more outside my mansion in months than my eight years within. Why did Larracel slap me? If I go back, what will happen to Milaw? I promised I would meet them again. Who will cast [Restoration] on Ierythe?

Thought-Process #8-9, 51-58 (Analysis-Memories): None of this matters. Their lives do not matter. It is a waste of magic.

Thought-Process #39-45 (Montressa’s Worth): Then why did I level? When I was in Fissival and we failed a project, my teachers blamed me for everything. Was that fair?

Thought-Process #8-9, 51-58 (Analysis-Memories): No.

Thought-Process #19-38 (Magical Project, Codename “Automaton”): No.

Thought-Process #10 (Priority Management): No.

Thought-Process #39-45 (Montressa’s Worth): Why did I do the same to Montressa?


And she stopped. Her body never stopped flying, and her hands still threw spells at the Wind Runner screaming herself hoarse in the wind—but her thoughts stopped.

Then she tried to erase that nagging thought. She tried—but that annoying train of thought fought back, defending itself.

Trying to hold on. Proof, perhaps, that her mental organization was inferior. That it could succumb to nagging thoughts and emotion. She was trying to erase it, that last thought, when Fierre caught up to Ryoka.




Fierre ran through the door a sleepy Liska was manning. The Gnoll was just about to get off-duty, but she reluctantly held the door open.

Liska! I need to go to—

“[Predetermined Destination]. Yep, don’t care. See ya. [Collect Fee].”

Fierre charged through the door, and it sent her to the place she wanted to go.

As she did, eight silver coins clattered into a bowl next to Liska, and the young Gnoll woman put her feet up on a stool and leaned back in her armchair. Levelling up sure was nice.

Fierre appeared in the streets of Invrisil and whirled around. She didn’t know exactly where she needed to go, but the building she was looking for was always near the gates. She had been here once for their ride to Riverfarm.

She had promised Lady Ieka to try. If what she was looking for wasn’t here, Fierre was sunk. But she had it on good authority that the person she needed was always around Invrisil because it was such a major hub.

And she was not always on-duty. The rare times she was off…Fierre ran until she saw the familiar sigil hanging over the guild. One of the many guilds of Izril. This one looked like the spokes of a wheel in front of a bag of gold or some other object.

The Driver’s Guild.




It was a rare meeting of legends. In Invrisil, it was the most common, but there they were. Three big names. Three fast-rollers, three all-or-nothing drivers that had the others respectfully crowded around the table, doffing their caps and taking off coats, some freshly wet from the snow.

It smelled of the road, of horses, and it wasn’t the most pleasant odor, but it was an honest one, and the Driver’s Guild did right by its members. In that there was a fiery shot of Firebreath Whiskey in everyone’s cup, no questions asked, and someone had pulled out some loaves from a bakery and the sliced bread was going around with some dried salami.

It was a worse meal than many could buy—but it tasted heavenly because it was damn free. They ate as the three top-tier [Drivers] stood around and chatted, at the center of attention.

Well, one was chatty. Another was surly, had a reputation for kicking the horse crap out of anyone who got on her nerves, and her wagon had steel rims on the wheels and rolled mean, through bandit-infested areas. She was a hellraiser, a huge woman.

That was Chaoisa, the Contempt of Man, who only warmed up slightly as Termin the Omnipresent clapped a hand on his embarrassed apprentice’s shoulders. She was chewing on Dreamleaf as he talked Rhaldon up.

Fine delivery. Fine delivery! Don’t break anything, you bastards—look at it. Glassware and alchemical items, boxed and not a single break.

Rhaldon had just come back from his first independent circuit, and Termin was beaming fit to burst. Neither the precious alchemical glassware nor the reagents that Octavia and Xif and a number of [Alchemists] had ordered were in bad shape.

They had been kept in dry containers filled with straw, and Rhaldon had padded the glass, each in its own box, to make sure the bumping didn’t break a thing. He had been on pins and needles and eager to get to Octavia, but it was late and Termin had insisted he show Rhaldon around.

“So he did a good first roll. Did you have to pull us here, Termin?”

“Chaoisa, it’s not bad to have someone take over the alchemical stuff. Or do you want your wagon to explode if it bumps something the wrong way?”

She grunted. Termin was so happy he even nudged the third legend of the Driver’s Guild, who rarely ever appeared.

“And we have three of the old crew in the same place. Come on, Karsy. At least look at Rhaldon. He’ll be a big roller, mark my words.”

There she was. Some of the [Drivers] peered at the third name, who you could only meet on the road. They knew who she was…or rather, knew enough to ‘know’ and know not to ask anything more.

Karsaeu the Unmarked. She had brown skin but pale white hair—though her appearance changed sometimes. She sat, hunched over, chewing on the bread. When Termin nudged her, she glared.

“Leave me to eat, Termin. I care naught for your lad. If he survives a decade on the road, I’ll deign to look.”

And she went back to staring at a wall. She had rolled in with a carriage in the dead of night. A black one—scuffed, but without sigil.

The horses were eerily silent in the stables. And powerfully curious though they might be, no one dared to peek inside that legendary carriage. The doors were locked, and it was said Karsaeu knew if you tampered or pried with anything.

Almost as if horse and rider and carriage were one being. And a solitary one at that. Dangerous, but quiet. Eternally bound to her duties. Escort for Izril’s underworld.

Termin was just about to have Rhaldon report on the road and how he’d sequestered the goods, whether Chaoisa and Karsy liked it or not, when a thunderous rapping came at the door to the back rooms where the [Drivers] sat.

Someone slid a latch back, stared at a non-[Driver], and spoke rather curtly.

“Who’s it? Inquire at the desk for a driver on-duty if you want someone! This is private!”

Even if they were clients—this was sacred ground in the Driver’s Guild.

Everyone listened as a voice rose.

No time! I’m looking for a [Driver]—”

“No one yanks a man or woman off-duty, Miss! To the front or we’ll have to deny service!”

One of the [Veteran Wagon Drivers] snapped back, sounding well and truly annoyed. Even if it was some hotshot [Merchant]—annoy the [Drivers] and they’d make sure you got your deliveries banged up. It might not be much, but they had their own respect.

But then the girl standing outside put her hand on the doorknob and pushed, and the man with his foot in the way slid. She appeared, and Termin blinked at Fierre. But the Vampire girl was not here for him.

I am looking for Karsaeu the Unmarked! I have a job for the Unmarked Coach.”

The room fell silent. Slowly, and with a glare that could pierce mithril, Karsaeu’s head turned. Her rare time off—she slowly looked around and, for some reason, recognized Fierre out of her many guests.

“You. You’re not on my list. I have no orders for you. Begone. Take my time up and I’ll teach you a lesson, brat.

Fierre halted, panting, and the [Drivers] stepped back. Even Chaoisa made a gap as Karsaeu turned—but she looked interested to see a dustup if it happened.

For reply, the Vampire girl reached into her pocket and lifted something. A black piece of metal flashed, and Karsaeu’s eyes locked on it.

“I know the rules. I have a card.”

“She’s got a card? How’s she have—

Termin and Chaoisa were the only ones who even knew what that meant. Karsaeu’s eyes locked on the card that only a very few people in all of Izril could possess. Gang leaders. Connected people.

Lady Ieka Imarris. She had wondered if the [Lady] was unbound—but no one had taken back the card. Almost as if they’d forgotten. And so Karsaeu spat onto the floor.

“Moving up, are you? Fine. Where’s my destination?

She was palpably angry, and Fierre understood why. Ryoka had added some context to the legend that Fierre knew, but she had spoken to Karsaeu herself. Seen the immortal being chained to this coach, ferrying mortals around for lifetimes.

Fierre wondered what that was like. An unpleasant attitude sounded downright sanguine after that much.

For some reason, she did not want Karsaeu to think of her as a bad client. Though Fierre was sure she would have trouble sinking that low.

Nevertheless, she hesitated as Karsaeu tossed her snack to one side and stood.

Where to? You have the Unsigned Card. Fancy name, but it can’t be forged nor can I be fooled. I made it myself. Who gave it to you?”

Did that mean it was part of her? Fierre had thought Ieka was simply on the list of the Unmarked Coach’s clientele, but this was bigger.

“The, um, Spelling Lady.”

“Ah. Good.”

If she had [Dangersense], Fierre was sure it would have been screaming an alarm. Karsaeu’s face never changed, but she looked ever-so-crestfallen at the truthful answer. What would have happened if Fierre hadn’t known who the card came from?

“Where to?”

“I don’t know.”

The two were speaking in the Driver’s Guild, but it might well have been private—Fierre knew the drivers honored their own, even Karsaeu, who was neither mortal nor had levels. Karsaeu paused.

“…You have the right to tell me to drive in a circle. You have a lot of rights so long as you hold that card. Though I’m bound to report on anything you do. Is that your wish?

Fierre had the same tingle down her spine as she did every time Ryoka said something crazy. She was breathing fast—and dead gods damn it, she felt alive. She gave Karsaeu a toothy smile that made the Djinni pause.

“I don’t know where I’m going. But I know who. I need you to catch the Archmage of Izril, Karsaeu-Dequoa. She’s in the air heading north, and even the Wind Runner of Izril can’t catch up. I need you to get me right to her.”

At this—even the top-level [Drivers] made sounds of disbelief. Karsaeu, though, showed the first signs of interest since Fierre had barged in.

There she stood, looking weather-worn and tired. Her clothing was that unassuming travel-black, not pristine, and it made her look like any other tired [Driver] doing deliveries.

An ordinary woman—the white hair she hid under the brim of her hat was probably as original as she was allowed. But Fierre knew who she was.

Djinni. Karsaeu snorted. But now it seemed like she was speaking carefully to the air just past Fierre’s head.

“You want my little coach to catch a flying [Mage]?”

“No. I want you to catch her. Or can’t you? I thought you were one of the greatest…[Drivers] Izril has ever seen.”

If there was any being in the entire world that could do it…the Djinni’s plain brown eyes flashed a second and whirled with magic. Rhaldon was staring between Karsaeu and Fierre. Perhaps he noticed it.

“The Unmarked Coach is not allowed to draw attention.”

Fierre lifted the square of metal in her hand.

“Card. I am giving you permission to do whatever it takes. Get me right on top of Valeterisa, Karsaeu. I’m playing for all the cards on the table. I need the fastest driver in Izril. Unless you can’t do it.

Now she smiled with all her teeth. The Djinni’s eyes glowed—and she looked down at Fierre. Had she always been six foot four? She towered over Fierre, who had grown since being cured, and it seemed her clothing was glossier than before. When she smiled—it was the first time Fierre had ever seen Karsaeu smile.

Stablehands! Ready the horses! Into the coach, passenger. It will be a bumpy ride. But a job is a job.”

She raised her voice, and the room sprang into motion. The helpers of the Driver’s Guild were first out the door, and the [Drivers] ran after them as Fierre followed Karsaeu into the snow. But there most of the [Drivers] stopped, and one of them raised his voice.

“Hold on. I coulda sworn I saw the Unmarked Coach back there. Are those her horses or new ones?”

“She never goes anywhere with replacements. Never. They never throw shoes nor cause trouble either. Don’t touch their feed…I’ve heard they’re Golems.”

Four black horses were being led out of their stables by the [Handlers], but the nervous boys and one girl managing the four didn’t have trouble. They were ready for bites, kicks, or tricks—but the horses just stood there.

Rhaldon stared at the horses too, because he felt dissonance. One of the [Drivers] squinted.

“I thought they were bays. I would have noticed…chargers.

Four massive horses, each jet black with hooves larger than Rhaldon’s hand, were pawing at the ground. Steam rose from their muzzles. Their eyes were faintly crimson, and where their hooves rested on the ground, the snow had melted away.

Chaiosa, the Contempt of Man, took one look at them and swore.

Nightmares. Termin, you seeing this? Is this what the Unmarked Coach uses? Have we been seeing illusions?”

Termin’s eyes had lit up. But when everyone saw the wagon, they knew something was off.

Gone was the plain old coach, long and spacious and beaten. In its place was a far smaller vehicle. Still large as hell, but four-wheeled as opposed to the form the Unmarked Coach sometimes took with six or eight wheels.

This was a stagecoach. Black, sleek, the lines of paint gleaming with gold trim and a padded high seat. But Karsaeu leapt into the front—and she did not sit down.

“Open the gates! Inside, girl! I’ll find her on the roads. Which direction?”

“North! North!”

Fierre flung herself into the seat, and it had no frills. It was hard wood. No appetizer tray, no scrying orb. The entire vessel that was Karsaeu’s being was already moving towards the gates. And Fierre poked her head out the window—because she wanted to see.




Another carriage was headed north from Invrisil. Reynold was swearing at the weaker carriage he was riding, which they had reinforced to carry Magnolia.

“The horses will never catch up, Ressa! We can’t ground her—nor do we have the ability to fly!”

“Magnolia’s orders. Just—ride.”

Ressa had a crossbow with a Bolt of Anchoring in the seat next to her, but she was also cursing the damn wagon. If they had to, maybe they could prevail on Teriarch? But Magnolia had just talked with him—

The [Butler] was glancing over his shoulder. Ressa heard it too and looked back. Something was coming out of the City of Adventurers.

“What’s that?”

“It looks like—wagons. Nearly sixty carts! Is the Driver’s Guild striking or—wait. That’s the Unmarked Coach.”


Ressa drew her enchanted dagger instantly. But Reynold wasn’t sure. He looked back—then he saw the Unmarked Coach had changed. His eyes widened.

The Unmarked Coach was not supposed to draw attention. What the hell was going on?

A woman was standing on the front of a stagecoach. Karsaeu the Unmarked wore the same clothing, black on black, a billowing coat blown open by the winds, exposing a white undershirt. She had a tophat on her head that any Brother of Serendipitous Meetings would respect—

And the lads were in the streets, watching. Half of Invrisil had turned out of their beds or the restaurants. Not just because the sight of the four gigantic magical horses thundering ahead was a sight to see.

Half of the Driver’s Guild were riding hell-for-leather, shouting as the Unmarked Coach picked up speed. In the winding streets, it had slowed that the fastest like Termin and Chaoisa could keep up. But as it cleared the city, it began to go faster.

But look at her. The air cracked as the Djinni stood in the front. She had a whip in hand, and she was cracking it overhead. Her voice sounded like thunder—and it was that which Ressa and Reynold had heard.

Clear the roads, drivers and folk on foot! Karsaeu rides! Make way or be trampled into the dust! Not a thing shall you see that is faster, this or any other night!

Then her carriage accelerated, and Reynold realized it was coming straight down the road on his rear. The [Butler] looked at his horses—at the Unmarked Coach, and for the first time realized he was going to be passed.

He jerked the reins left—and the Unmarked Coach thundered past him. Ressa caught one glimpse of a terrified, exhilarated girl hanging out the side, and then Reynold slowed. They slowed as Karsaeu passed them, laughing like a storm.

Well. They weren’t going to be able to beat that. Slowly, the two servants of Magnolia Reinhart turned around and began to head back into the city. Reynold muttered after a long moment of silence.

“I miss our old carriage.”




The Djinni rode across Izril like a burning arrow. The braying Nightmares—illusions, but mimicked by her magic—left trails of steam through the snow. The jolting in the stagecoach would have given Fierre bruises if she were Human.

“Do you know—where she is?”

I can sense the Archmage’s magic! And the wind’s howling! Look yonder!”

Karsaeu was in a good mood. She pointed—and Fierre saw out the window that the sky was flashing. Lightning and fire. Arrows high overhead looked like sparks—sparks chasing Ryoka Griffin.

We need to get up there! Can you make it?

“I am a Djinni! I raced my kind through Chandrar’s skies. I’ve beaten Dragons. You want me to get you to the Archmage?”

One eye rolled back as that head turned. Fierre saw the Djinni laugh—and instead of her throat, her mouth was like an entire galaxy of stars and magic as she threw her head back and laughed.

It has been a long time since I chased anyone down. I’ve caught [Archmages] in the sky. Hold on.”

Then she cracked her whip—and the four horses unfurled black wings. The coach left the ground and headed into the sky.

After all—as every idiot knew—Djinni could fly. Fierre hadn’t been certain, but her stomach dropped, and her mouth fell open wider. Sleeting snow hit her face, and the Unmarked Coach was hurtling up into the black air. After the Archmage. Valeterisa turned—and it seemed even her eyes widened, even her abstract state.




Thought-Process #8-9, 51-58 (Analysis-Memories): Terminate your process. This is not relevant to our st—what is that?

Thought-Process #3 (Danger): Flying coach. Redirect thoughts. Alert. Al—


Valeterisa opened her mouth to shout a warning at the flying coach—then she realized it was heading at her too fast. She pointed—and lightning blasted from her fingertips. It struck Karsaeu’s coach in the side—

And the Djinni laughed. She blasted past Ryoka Griffin, who was clinging to her glider, freezing and singed from lightning. The Wind Runner’s eyes were bulging.

Fierre? What the f—

Another bolt of lightning flashed from Valeterisa’s fingertips at Karsaeu. Sufficient deterrent for anyone—but a Djinni.

Karsaeu caught the bolt and seemed to toss the lightning into her mouth. Her carriage-body was barely singed. Valeterisa’s eyes flickered as her mind came alive.


Thought-Process #3-20 (Imminent Danger): It caught my magic.

Thought-Process #31-35 (Analysis-Memories): That is not a normal coach. Trying to figure out what it is.

Thought-Process #39-45 (Montressa’s Worth): That woman. She reminds me of Heorth. I miss—

Thought-Process #31-35 (Analysis-Memories): SHUT UP.

Thought-Process #3-20 (Imminent Danger): Wait, it’s not stopping. It’s not—




Fierre was screaming at Valeterisa in the cold air.

“Archmage Valeterisa! Your niece needs you to stop!”

She was excited, filled with adrenaline—and only now did she realize she didn’t have a speech prepared. But just getting the Archmage’s attention had worked.

Fierre was about to call to Valeterisa to land—or prepared to shout at her while Karsaeu kept them level—when she realized the Djinni was accelerating in the air.

Not like a bullet. More like…a stagecoach flying as fast as an arrow, lightning bouncing off the sides. A fireball exploded as Karsaeu pointed at it—and the Djinni was aiming straight at Valeterisa.

“Wait, what are you doing?”

The Djinni’s head turned, and her smile was huge. Her master was throwing ten kinds of shit into the air, demanding to know why she was flying. She was alive—free—and the look of dawning horror on the Vampire’s face was the icing on the cake.

“You said, ‘get me to Valeterisa’. ‘Right on top of her’. Be careful what you wish for.

The Vampire turned dead white and began to scream—but it was too late. Karsaeu aimed straight ahead, and the Archmage of Izril flung up her hands.

The Djinni’s coach hit Valeterisa’s barriers in the sky, and the impact turned everything to thunder. The last thing Fierre heard was Karsaeu’s laughter—

Then she was falling. Valeterisa was tumbling out of the skies as the flashing magic of her broken barriers scattered in every direction. Fierre was screaming. Valeterisa was screaming. And Karsaeu laughed as Ryoka Griffin dove after the two of them.




Thoughts down. Stunned. A Djinni had just punched her. She felt it.

In the flickering moments before they hit the ground, Valeterisa was trying to cast [Featherfall] and failing at the simple magic. Her thoughts were colliding, unable to focus, and they babbled. She was unable to arrest her fall with a simple spell.

Her mind was disoriented, but she should have been able to cast a basic spell, even now. It was her mana. Her mana was rushing around her in a confused mess within her body. Scrambled. She couldn’t order herself, and the Djinni was to blame.


Thought-Process #8 (Analysis): Mana disrupted. Djinni know how to fight [Mages]. I can’t cast.

Thought-Process #11 (Uh Oh): [Featherfall]. [Featherfall]. [Levitation]. [Soften Earth]—

Thought-Process #1 (Air): In! Out! In…

Thought-Process #25 (Nostalgia): That wasn’t Heorth. I wonder if he knows her?

Thought-Process #39 (Emotions): I miss him. I want to see him before I die.

Thought-Process #8 (Analysis): Me too, #39.

Thought-Process #3 (Navigation): It’s a long way to Fissival from the island. It’s a pain to leave.

Thought-Process #39 (Emotions): Why are we leaving it all behind?

Thought-Process #17 (Magical Project): Magic? The opportunities there—

Thought-Process #39 (Emotions): But what are we leaving here? Montressa. Larracel. Heorth. Levels and the inn and…


The ground was rushing up at her, and her mind calculated that the snow crusting the hard earth would not save her from splattering across the ground. Actually, she would just hit the ground so hard she pulped her brains and her bones snapped, but she’d probably still be a ragdoll. She’d seen that happen.

Bad way to die. Her thoughts snapped together as she fell flailing, and she had one thought. Not fifty.

And it was this:


Valeterisa: I regret dying alone. If I never saw Larra again or Milaw and they never found me and I never went back before they passed away. I wanted my magic for them—


Still Valeterisa: Ah. That’s right. I learned it for them.


Valeterisa, Valley, Archmage Valeterisa: How could I forget?


And then—




The Wind Runner caught Fierre and Valeterisa a hundred feet from the earth and tried to pull them up. Her glider of reinforced cloth—


It couldn’t bear the weight of three falling figures at that speed. She tried to deploy her parachute. It tore out of her pack, and the impact jerked her arms out of their sockets. She was left howling, arms dislocated, as Fierre and Valeterisa tumbled down, down—

Until a Djinni caught them and slowed them a foot from the snow.

Karsaeu-Dequoa laughed until she was nearly sick. She dropped Fierre and Valeterisa—gently. The first thing both Vampire and Archmage did was throw up.

Passengers delivered safely. Though the Wind Runner’s hurt.”

“Gaah. My arms!”

Ryoka landed hard as Valeterisa lurched around.

“I’m alive? I’m—”

“You nearly got us all killed!”

“Nearly. You took all the limits off me. You had a card. Would you like to fill out a survey on your experience?”

The Djinni produced a piece of paper and handed it to Fierre. Ryoka was still howling.

My arms—

Fierre reached for her friend, but before she could either reset the bones or break Ryoka’s arm, Valeterisa looked around.


She poked Ryoka in the side of the head, and Ryoka’s arms slammed back into place. That…was not painless.

The Wind Runner’s eyes rolled up, and she collapsed into the snow. Valeterisa pointed a shaking finger at…

“I know you. You tried to burn down my mansion. And you hit me. You’re a Djinni. I can tell. You breathe magic. My favorite librarian is one.”

“Ah. You’ve met Heorth Dorribaum. The book-loving one bound to the City of Incantations. He always had a soft spot for children.”

Karsaeu boomed. She looked—gigantic. Like a half-Giant, though she was slowly returning back to regular shape. The Unmarked Coach appeared as she waved a hand—it seemed to come out of her body.


Valeterisa was dizzy. She was…back in one piece. Even [Parallel Thoughts] had failed in the face of being hit by a coach at that speed. She looked around, then focused.

“I was going home. I was upset—I am upset. You hit me.

She began to get angry again until Karsaeu bowed.

“I am merely the vehicle to others’ will, Archmage. She told me to.”

She pointed at Fierre, and the Vampire girl’s smile of relief at being alive turned to fear as Valeterisa pointed a finger.

“Thank you. [Valmira’s Comet—]”

“Wait, wait! Stop! Valeterisa! Please, just—calm down. And come back! Lady Ieka, Larracel, and even Mihaela sent me after you! Please. Just come back and talk things over!

Ryoka grabbed Valeterisa’s arm. The Archmage of Izril stared at Ryoka and Fierre—and then sat down in the snow.

“They want me to come back? But Larracel slapped me. And I…stole that Gnoll girl’s hair. And I shaved some of your hair. And stole one of the inn’s lanterns and flowers. And I shouted at Montressa. And my project is in ruins.”

Everything was coming back to her now. Including…she peered at Ryoka’s head, and the square of hair she had cut off Ryoka’s head was regrown. Oh, that was good. [Restoration] did a lot.

The Wind Runner didn’t exactly glare, but she stood with the Vampire as Karsaeu produced a book and began to read. Her job was done.

“Valeterisa, just come back. I know you’re upset—but you can’t go off to your mansion.”

Ryoka took a deep breath, wondering if just paralyzing Valeterisa with the Faeblade was an option. She’d worked on this for a long time on the flight here.

“—Your teleportation project isn’t over. Montressa messed up. But—even Tyrion Veltras would invest in your ideas. You have more magic to learn here than in your mansion. Didn’t you level up at Fissival? You have more to gain by being here. Leaving for your mansion isn’t optimal.”

She blurted out her strongest arguments to factually win Valeterisa over in a rush, hoping that the content trumped delivery. And Valeterisa…nodded.

“I know.”

I’ll give you the Faerie King’s obol if you don’t—wait, what?”

Karsaeu put a bookmark in her book and glanced over as Ryoka floundered. Valeterisa stood there in the snow and shivered. She sneezed and wiped at her nose.

“I know. I miss my apprentice. I feel…bad about what I said to her. It was not factually accurate. It was what I felt, but part of the debacle was my fault. I…”

Her eyes glimmered as they peered at Ryoka and Fierre. She looked around, and Valeterisa, Mage-Student Valeterisa, Valley—murmured.

“—I said the same thing my teachers said to me. It was not fair. I regret it. I used to cry into my pillow at night when I was blamed for a project that went wrong because I was the Human. Or when I did what a teacher said in Fissival and it failed because their magic was flawed. I did it to Montressa. I…I have been her. I never thought I would be a bad teacher.”

She sniffed. Then looked around, lost. Fierre pulled herself out of the snow.

“Then come back! Lady Ieka sent me to bring you back, Valeterisa.”


“No? Why not?”

Ryoka looked at Valeterisa. It seemed like the Archmage had, on her own, come to some kind of realization. But Valeterisa just traced in the snow with one foot shyly.

“I—said such terrible things. Montressa would never forgive me. Larra is angry. I’m afraid of her wrath.”

She what? Fierre’s mouth opened, and Karsaeu laughed lightly. Ryoka looked at the two—and here she was, standing in the snow with a Djinni and the Archmage. And somehow, she was the voice of reason.

“Valeterisa. I know you screwed up. Montressa made mistakes, but the project…”

“It was not all my fault. The Merchant’s Guild interfered. But I have some—blame. I could calculate how much, approximately. But I shouted at Montressa. I do not know how to apologize.”

She was staring into the snow like a girl. Ryoka Griffin felt that. She spoke from the heart.

“I get it, Archmage. But believe me—the worst thing you could do is run away. The very worst.”

Fierre, Karsaeu, and Valeterisa all looked at Ryoka Griffin, the famous Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Of anything she could have said—

They definitely believed her when she said that.

Archmage Valeterisa stood there, wiping at her nose and really wishing she knew a nose-cleaning spell or someone was there with a helpful handkerchief. Instead, she wiped her nose on her sleeve. Then she exhaled.

“Do you think my apprentice would forgive me?”

“I bet. She’s torn up. She’d be worse if you left. Please, Valeterisa? At least get in the coach.”

Ryoka, barefoot, was currently freezing in the snow, and even Fierre’s Vampiric heritage was not having fun. Valeterisa slowly trudged to the coach.

“Passengers aboard. I am not allowed to fly, but you are allowed to go anywhere you wish. Where am I headed?”

Karsaeu sounded disappointed. Fierre muttered through chattering teeth.


Valeterisa sat there, feeling—relieved. An unaccountable sense of relief stole over her suddenly, as if part of her had known flying away was the wrong choice. She was nervous, afraid, and unsure of what to say. But…

She squeezed her eyes shut. Then the Archmage of Izril opened them.


“Oh, come on—”

Ryoka reached for the Faeblade, but Valeterisa poked her.

“[Paralysis]. Ah, it does work if I can touch her.”

Fierre froze, but the Archmage addressed Karsaeu, who looked amused.

“Drop me off at my destination—then bring these two to Invrisil. I will hopefully be there soon.”

“Wait, where are you going first?”

Fierre looked at Valeterisa, and the Archmage of Izril was wet with melting snow. She was tired, her nose was dripping, and she was a mess of emotions and guilt. But she did the only thing she knew. It worked last time. So she said:

“House Sanito.”




It was dawn when the Archmage of Izril stepped out of the carriage in House Sanito. Even with the Unmarked Coach’s speed, it had taken hours in the night, and she had slept poorly.

But she had slept…and it was the eighth day, the last in the week, when a small crowd of people came out to meet her in the manor.

“Archmage Valeterisa? We had thought that there was no delivery. Lady Edere messaged us that there were complications. I thought she was meeting with your apprentice in…”

The [Seneschal] of the household was patently confused. The hired [Mage] was trying to hide from Valeterisa’s wrath—but the Archmage just spoke.

“Do you have the delivery of ores?”

“Y-yes, Archmage. It’s too heavy to port off easily.”

Four hundred pounds of coal and copper ore sat in crates in the storehouse. Ready to be loaded onto the teleportation circle. When she saw it, Valeterisa exhaled hard.


“As we understand it, there are—complications with the teleportation. Lord Sanito would not wish to lose these goods, Archmage.”

The [Seneschal] was speaking very carefully, as one might to a powerful, eccentric individual who could raze this entire storehouse to the ground if she got annoyed. But he was also representing House Sanito’s interests.

He had heard Valeterisa was a cold, almost Golem-like individual. But when she turned, he saw a woman. Tired, uncertain, but also determined. Valeterisa nodded as she peered at the sky and yawned twice. Huge, jaw-cracking yawns.

“The teleportation grid is down. I cannot fix it. I will apologize to Lord Sanito and Lady Sanito myself. But—I don’t know how to apologize.”

“…I am sure they’d accept your word and effort, Archmage?”

The man ventured. Valeterisa gave him a blank look and shook her head.

“No. This is the only way I know how. I can still deliver the goods. I have one day.”


For answer, she pointed at the four hundred pounds of boxed ore and coal and spoke.

“[Mass Levitation].”

The crates and bins of ore and coal began to rise. The staff of House Sanito and the people who had gathered around gasped as the first bin, weighing exactly eighty pounds, left the ground. The other containers slowly left the ground as well, and the entire shipment floated.

Four hundred pounds lifted up like a feather! The [Seneschal] gasped—then he heard a grunt.


Valeterisa’s face had gone pale. Her hand trembled—as if of someone holding an intense weight just within her ability to lift.

“You—are you intending to fly it to Invrisil? It’s a hundred and fifty miles as the crow flies!”

“I can do it. It’s—heavy.”

One of the crates wobbled. But Valeterisa was already walking towards the doors of the storeroom. The [Seneschal] followed, now worried for completely different reasons.

This is not a priority delivery, Archmage. It would be far better to let us transport it mundanely, even by Courier!

Rather than having it fall out of the sky and scatter. But Valeterisa did not call on the Unmarked Coach already speeding away. She could have—but then she would have been making a Djinni carry the weight.

This was her job. The Archmage craned her head towards the lightening sky. Less snow was falling, but it was too damn cold.

“Inform Lord Alman Sanito and Lady Edere Sanito the delivery is in progress. I will see them at the Haven by nightfall. Which—which way is southwest?”

All of her mana was going into keeping the boxes raised. Slowly, the crowd pointed—and Valeterisa nodded.

Thank you.

Then her feet left the ground. She slowly flew up—then faster and faster, she rose into the air. House Sanito’s folk on the streets of the town stared up. They pointed at the Archmage of Izril, floating with the crates of hard-mined ore into the sky. She was rising faster now.




This was a mistake! Valeterisa wasn’t dividing her thoughts—but even without, parts of her were screaming that there was no way she’d make it to Invrisil.

[Levitation] was a better spell for carrying lots of weight, but it still scaled to what you were carrying! This much weight? It was far worse than transporting even five half-Giants—you could enchant them and have done with it.

She was doing the equivalent of lifting, balancing, and pushing four hundred pounds in multiple boxes all at once. A [Mage]’s mana wasn’t equivalent to a [Warrior]’s muscles, but it was analogous! Imagine Grimalkin carrying four hundred pounds a hundred and fifty miles on his back!

That might be easier! Valeterisa was already sweating as she left House Sanito, but she was aiming up.

She had to get height. She had seen aircraft from the Earthers’ descriptions of earth, and she knew they flew above the clouds. Valeterisa wasn’t after wind or altitude for safety reasons, though. If she dropped the ore—

No, she was tracing a route. In her mind’s eye, she was calculating with beams of light. [Valeterisa’s Complex Seeker Projectiles]—only she didn’t need the spell.

The most optimal path for her to take to get to Invrisil was a straight line. But only on one axis. In terms of height—she was envisioning a simple geometric shape.

A parabola. Milaw had shown her it as a girl. If she reached the midway point at maximum altitude—in theory—she was no longer exerting lift. All she had to do was get to what she calculated as four thousand and two feet—then she’d just need to supply the force to push herself and the crates and let gravity and momentum do the rest.

To do that, she needed to carry this massive burden up for thirty-three minutes with nothing but pure magical power.

If not for her first lesson lifting Fissival, Valeterisa would have given up after ten minutes. Just the effort of keeping the boxes from tumbling from her ‘grip’ by applying sufficient force to balance and lift them was a challenge only someone of her expertise could do.

The other problem was sheer magical power. She was burning through her mana at an insane rate. Valeterisa was gulping down her second mana potion—and wishing she could use something else.

Like flames or wind to boost her position. But she had no control.

A platform. A magical platform made of light you lifted with heat or wind. Didn’t Earth have something like that? She strained upwards.

A crate wobbled. The lid had been opened—this was the copper ore that the samples had been taken from. Valeterisa caught it—just as it turned upside down.

No! [Mass Levitation]—

Now she was lifting dozens of pieces of ore! Juggling them, trying not to drop the rest of the shipment—Valeterisa had to do it.

“[Parallel Thoughts]! Lift! Lift!

Her thoughts divided. Not fifty ways—just ten ways. Each one caught some of the ore and lifted, piling more into the box. Cast the spell!

[Levitation]. It wasn’t an easy spell, and she had to keep casting it with each damn piece of ore, each box, herself—

This was what auto-spells were for! If she could have cast that, she wouldn’t have to have a thought-process of herself cast the damn spell and keep it maintained. But that lost magic, her great project, was so difficult to realize.

It was ironic that the simple act of casting a [Light] spell was so hard to automate. But that building block was the key to greater magic. Valeterisa knew now that the magic should be beautiful. Elegant, not just functional. She had learned that from Zeladona, but she needed more. She had a great framework of magical theory she had built up. The tools to use the auto-spell.

It was the equivalent to a coding database she had heard the Earthers talk about—and only she and Eldavin had understood how magic could get that complex. But the spell itself?


Thought-Process #1 (Lift): [Levitation].

Thought-Process #2 (Lift, for the love of Djinnis!): [Levitation].

Thought-Process #3 (Don’t Drop That): [Levitation].

Thought-Process #4 (Anti-gravity): [Levitation].

Thought-Process #5 (Lift): [Levitation]. Wait. Am I breathing?


Valeterisa gasped for air. Sweat rolled down her face. The damn spell! If only she could make someone else do it! But every one of her ten thought-processes was casting the same spell.

And then she had an eleventh thought suddenly.


Thought-Process #11 (Eureka): Wait a second. What does it look like when I cast a spell?


All of her mental conception—her struggles with the weight—all of her internal magic suddenly divided. And Valeterisa, staring out through her eyes, suddenly wondered what another [Mage] might see if they could trace the mana running through her.

She could see other [Mages] literally forming spells and pick them apart like Eldavin could. But how did the mana move through her body when she cast this spell? Any spell?

Was that…the natural form of casting a spell? And if so—

What did it look like?

She had no idea. In all her studies, in the eight years of struggle and research, Valeterisa had no clue.

…Because there was only one of her. And even with [Parallel Thoughts], she couldn’t stare at herself. Even with a mirror.

“My apprentice! Did I just need an apprentice?”

She was almost crying as she reached the top of her parabola. The crates were stabilized—but Valeterisa reached for her belt and realized something.

Her apprentice made sure she had mana potions to spare. Montressa carried them in her own bag of holding. Valeterisa had used all four on her.

She was out of mana. Or rather, almost out. She was halfway towards her journey at the highest point—and she wasn’t going to have the mana to push it to Invrisil.

“Uh oh. Uh oh.

Could she land? Land and rest? Valeterisa stared down at the clouds below. Even if she could—she was running out of power so damn fast that she’d have to drop the crates, cast [Featherfall] at the last moment, and hope like heck there was nothing underneath her.

She had to do this. She had to—Valeterisa’s thoughts refocused, and she stared at the mental arc of her flight path.

If only there were a more efficient way! Not just the damn lift—if she had to do this again, she’d make a [Lightbridge] spell and push it up with hot air, not crude [Levitation].

Was there a spell that could impart all the momentum, angle, and just send the boxes to their destination? Yes, of course. If you cast [Levitate] on a person, they could float around—but boxes had no will. She could chuck one, but…

…you could do anything with magic. All that was lacking was your imagination. She had made new spells from Milaw’s math and angles. Valeterisa knew where Invrisil was. She could calculate the exact trajectory she needed and the distance.

She just didn’t have the mana to lift all these crates and push them. But she was this high up.

“I’m going to throw them.”

The Archmage actualized her thoughts in a moment of insight. Yes…yes. She was going to throw these damn boxes to Invrisil. With one spell.

That was what [Teleportation] was. An overly-complex system that traded too much mana for a single jump across the world. Levitation was just as crude—literally carrying something via telekinesis.

What if there was a medium between the two? Faster than levitation—slower than teleportation, but that was relative since [Teleport] was the blink of an eye.

She had it in a moment. Like an [Arcane Discovery]—borne out of her [Arcane Discovery], in fact, and desperation, Valeterisa came to an insane conclusion. Then she began chuckling. And laughing.

“I’ll do it! I am out of mana for more than one great spell—very well!”

She began to cast the magic, and it enveloped her and the boxes. They hovered for a second as she calculated angles—and then added momentum. A lot of momentum. At the last moment, she realized that if she added in the usual heat and searing ball of compressed mana, she would literally vaporize herself and her cargo.

Good catch. But she was treating herself and the boxes like a single entity—just like the basis of this spell. Valeterisa’s eyes opened wide, and she pointed along a new angle in the air.

“Calculations set. To Invrisil. Or possible death. Casting…[Valmira’s…

[Valmira’s Comet]. A powerful spell capable of massive alteration. Famously—a Tier 4 spell that was hideously unoptimized and only useful in showers of hundreds of comets. A battlefield killer—

But also a spell with a lot of actual physics attached to it. A ball of blue-white flames surrounded Valeterisa and the crates, but they didn’t burn her or the cargo. She began to move—and then she felt the force aiming her up, a curving arc through the skies. Only—it wasn’t really [Valmira’s Comet], was it? A contained orb of four hundred pounds of mass—plus one lighter Archmage—was shaking in the air.

And so the Archmage of Izril screamed it at the top of her lungs.

[Valeterisa’s Comet]! Aaaaa—

The force of acceleration smashed her against the barrier surrounding her. Only her personal protection spells kept her ribs from compressing into her backbone—as a glowing comet shot out of the clouds. It streaked through the air, and the people looking up on that winter day saw a meteor in the broad daylight. Only—it wasn’t going down, but curving across the sky.

If you had eyes like a hawk, you could see her up there. A woman with her hair being blown behind her like a river, illuminated by the neon glow of a star in motion. A comet trailing a line of evanescent blue through the sky, and the Archmage of Izril—being pressed against one side of the barrier by the force of her descent.

Such a silly sight. But look up—if you were a [Farmer] tilling your fields. A Runner, jogging along the road. A dispirited young [Mercenary], a child dreaming they might become a [Mage]. Across the skies you had always known as mundane was a burning comet. An omen of magic. Proof you could fly if you picked up a wand and practiced.

Thence came down the Archmage of Izril, and the screaming air sounded like her voice, the shriek of magic tearing at the wind—and the laughter of the Winter Sprites flying around her. It sounded almost like music, put together.

A saccharine, energetic orchestra made up of thousands of voices. Gasps of wonders, cries of incredulity, and Valeterisa screaming as she descended upon Invrisil. Even the City of Adventurers came to a standstill. Even a Djinni gazed upwards at something so stupid even she hadn’t seen it before.

They looked up and then at the scrying orb where an excited Drake was standing in the street and pointing upwards as Lady Edere Sanito put her hands over her mouth and Lady Ieka, Montressa, and a certain Vampire girl with a black umbrella were staring up at the sky with their mouths open.




All it took was information. Wistram News Network paid a bounty on intelligence just like anyone else. The juicier the better.

Fierre had sold Drassi some intel on Valeterisa’s plan on the way back to Invrisil. That was the kind of competence Ieka Imarris looked for. Initiative, fiscal responsibility—

And a sense of drama.

I don’t think the Archmage is flying in like last time, folks. If I’m right—that giant, blue comet coming at us is the Archmage of Izril’s new delivery service! I thought it was a failure!

Drassi was pointing up at the comet as she screamed into the camera. Then she stared up at the bright blue light coming straight at them. And growing…bigger…

“Um. Does anyone know what she’s aiming at?”

Drassi looked around for cover, and Lord Alman’s slack face turned to the camera.

“I thought the Merchant’s Guild had ruined the—that’s the Archmage’s system? I thought she was teleporting—”

“Master Valeterisa?”

Montressa’s red, puffy eyes opened wide. The comet had been nearly ten minutes in the air, but it was right on top of the City of Adventurers now. Alarms were wailing, and people were taking cover. But as it shot down—almost right on top of the door that led to Erin’s inn—the [Aegiscaster] didn’t move.

She thought she could hear a screaming woman shouting ‘featherfall’ at the top of her lungs. Lady Ieka was dumbstruck as she watched her aunt shooting down towards her.

Larracel the Haven had tears in her eyes as she watched. Mihaela was laughing—

—And Liska slowly closed the door to the inn as she saw comet-Valeterisa coming straight at them.




The comet did not blow half the streets to bits. Valeterisa hung, motionless, as the spell evaporated around her, and four [Mages] lowered their wands.

She hadn’t cast [Featherfall] after all. Lady Ieka, Montressa, Palt, and Bezale—had. Valeterisa landed on the ground and lay on her back.

“I understand why people are afraid of falling to their deaths now.”

She spoke to the air—then got up. Lady Edere and Lord Alman were gazing at the goods in amazement.

“It’s here! I thought—”

“It is not at Liscor. Hah! You see that? She failed!”

A [Merchant] raised his hands in the air in triumph. He didn’t seem to quite understand that all of Invrisil—and most of Izril—had just seen what Drassi had dubbed ‘Valeterisa’s Delivery Service’.

It had a better ring than the ‘Teleportation Guild’. And it was certainly showy. Valeterisa spoke as she brushed at her robes.

“Lord Alman Sanito, Lady Edere…Lord Ranga, and Lord Andel, I regret to inform you that I was unable to complete my teleportation network in time. I encountered setbacks. The fault is mine and mine alone—my apprentice is mistaken if she claims responsibility for any of it.”

She looked at Montressa, and the [Apprentice]-[Aegiscaster] hesitated.

“No, it was my fault—”

Valeterisa shook her head so rapidly she nearly puked.

“I…I am the one who was wrong. I never liked it when my teachers shouted at me. You are a good apprentice. The best one I have ever had. I would like it…if you didn’t quit, Montressa. I am sorry. I do not know how to manage myself. I had no handkerchief, no mana potions. I was hungry and cold and you made mistakes—but so did I. Without you, I wouldn’t have fresh underwear, and—I am sorry.”

She fumbled for the words. Valeterisa didn’t know what else to say. But Montressa’s intake of breath was followed by such a furious flying hug that Valeterisa was unable to say anything else for a minute.

“Master! I was afraid you were going to leave—”

She was full of tears, and Valeterisa’s own eyes were leaking. She almost cast [Calm Emotions]—but she didn’t want to. Valeterisa patted Mons on the head like she remembered Larra doing.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Can I lie down now? I think I may faint. Lady Edere—”

She and Montressa turned, and the [Lord] and [Lady] stared at the goods. A single shipment of goods had taken a week, twenty thousand gold coins, and an Archmage to get here. You really could hire Rhaldon and do the same thing, you know.

How were they going to ever create an entire system? Neither Montressa nor Valeterisa wanted to talk to the two nobles about it—or had the faith they could do it.

“Aunt? Why don’t you treat your apprentice to something at the Haven? With your permission—I shall take over implementing this tricky system. You may not wish for help, but I should insist.”

Lady Ieka turned to Valeterisa, and the Archmage looked at her niece.

“You, Ieka?”

Ieka’s eyes glittered with excitement.

“I do know magic, Aunt. And I have a number of advantages. I think I can publicly shame the Merchant’s Guild with Miss Drassi’s help—”

She nodded at the Drake inspecting the copper ore and getting reactions from people on the street.

“—Nor does House Imarris take kindly to sabotage. Happily, I have a new employee who knows more than I do when it comes to that matter. I can speak to Lord Alman and Lady Edere and organize something. Teleportation or…however you threw yourself here.”

“It may be simpler to just—lift and throw. Or to have a flying contraption. I realized the Teleportarium is so very mana-inefficient. I have ideas…”

“Then why don’t you have your apprentice meet with my manager, Fierre? Later.”

The Vampire girl scribbled down a note, and Montressa blinked at her. But then Valeterisa was leaning on her and they were walking towards the Haven.

“I really am sorry.”

“So am I, Master. I guess neither of us are good at…people.”

Valeterisa smiled gently.

“You’re better at it than I am. But it’s only magic I was ever good at. I think…I need your help to go forwards. Do you still want to be my apprentice?”

Montressa caught her breath. Then she hugged the older woman tightly.



[Apprentice Level 16!]

[Skill – Flawless Magical Analysis obtained!]

[Spell – Valeterisa’s Comet obtained!]




So. A week was eight days in this world, unlike Earth. And in the course of a single week, nine things happened.

They were:


The crossing of the Haven into the south of Izril.

A convening of the Blighted Kingdom’s ships as they crossed the oceans to the New Lands of Izril—and some to Baleros.

An accusation by Delanay d’Artien in the ashes of the House of Byres.

The duel between Taletevirion and Tolveilouka.

A fine as Kevin ran over Watch Captain Zevara’s tail in Esthelm.

The assassination of a young [Lord] by masked individuals in the open.

An execution of Drowned Folk in a Drake port city.

The hiring of Fierre by Lady Ieka of House Imarris.

A new delivery service run by Archmage Valeterisa tentatively opening.


The last of the ten events occurred that evening. People were still talking about the Archmage’s dramatic delivery from that morning as a [Boxer] plied his trade down one of the side-streets.

The main street got too crowded and became too much of a scene, he’d found. You got wild bets and people egging each other on—what Alber wanted was an income and decent opponents.

He’d put down eight people today. His fists were sharper, and his technique was better. Ryoka Griffin didn’t have much time for someone like him—but she had given him clues.

Alber could fill in the rest with hard work, and he never ran out of opponents in a city like Invrisil. It was just how many punches he could take—and how many bouts.

Plus, some of his regular challengers in the late evening or early morning always paid up, even if one knocked his lights out. More than once he’d woken up to find a man with a hat guarding his money tin for him.

He’d gotten seven silver-challenges, and one person had paid gold for a no-holds-barred punch-down. Very good money, that gold piece.

Alber had considered going to The Wandering Inn to spend it on himself, but a few men who’d lost to him days prior were goading their fellows into trying him.

“This lad’s got a punch like a brick. Go on—get in the ring!”

“I’m not giving up some of my pay to get punched! What kind of fun is this?”

Soon, one of the fellows pushing about would work up the courage. Right now, Alber was ‘shadowboxing’ as Ryoka called it. Sweat ran down his bare chest and arms—but his next opponent wasn’t the one he thought it would be.

Sometimes Fierre came by to complain about her job or to practice jabs. He had no other set friends other than the friendly Brothers, and that was fine. A man who could fit eight eggs in his mouth at once needed little.

He liked his life. But he did want to one day cross fists with a Minotaur and win. Alber tended to size up everyone he met, and he had nicknames for them, like Ryoka—‘Braggart’ was her old name. Fierre was no longer ‘Cougher’.

He didn’t often do it to people he just met, but one look at someone who rapped on his little impromptu ring and deposited a gold coin in the bowl made him instantly come up with a name.

‘Snooty’. Or perhaps ‘Arrogance’.

“I say, you seem to be a young man rather familiar with the bout of fisticuffs. I believe it is one gold coin to ‘try my luck’, as it were?”

“Old man! Don’t do it! He’ll lay you out in a flash. No mercy, that one!”

Half the men tried to stop the newcomer. Because it was one thing to see your friend get taken down a peg—another to see someone punch down an old man in his seventies.

Alber didn’t want to do it either. Even for a gold coin—the man had a good paunch, rosy cheeks, and a white beard—so he might have some good weight, but he was still old.

Then again, he seemed rather too nimble as he assured the others he was ‘quite adept’—and Alber didn’t like his confidence.

You didn’t live to—what, seventy years old?—without being punched in the face at least once. And this old man thought he could knock down Alber?

“I won’t hold back, sir. It’s silver on me if I lose, and I won’t want to lose a gold coin.”

He warned ‘Snooty’, but the man just harrumphed.

“You may keep the gold coin even in the event of my victory, young [Boxer]. I am…simply here to bring myself down to my roots. But if I may, I think I must set a few limitations on this fight.”

Alber liked this less and less.

“You can use any Skills—but you’re not allowed to use magic. I don’t change my rules.”

The interested group watched as the old man waved this off.

“Pish. No magic from me. Rather—allow me.”

Then, to Alber’s amazement, he produced something from his bag of holding. It was…a serving tray. Round, wooden, and he put a cup on it, poured some wine into the cup with a flourish, added a bowl of soup, some bread—then hefted it onto one arm like a practiced [Barmaid] or [Waiter].

“What’s the food for, old man? A break?”

The crowd wasn’t exactly on the somewhat-presumptuous old man’s side. He seemed to think he’d win regardless, but ‘Snooty’, no, ‘Snooter’, that was a good name, just shot back absently.

“It was the custom of the finest pugilists in the Rihal Imperium to demonstrate their coordination by carrying on a conversation in a duel with an opponent. In fact, I recall that some of the most adept ones would carry a serving platter while dodging and weaving. A way to train the body, you see. Superior balance—and footwork. Does anyone have a fiddle or violin? I could use a Terandrian ballroom waltz. Something brisk. One two three, one two three.

He began to dance in a way that made Alber feel as if Snooter were noble—it was a graceful twist of the hips, flashy steps that looked impressive and showed off his coordination.

“You want music?

“As I box. Anyone? I’ll pay you—ah, I could produce the music myself.”

He snapped his fingers, and a tune began playing. Some fancy orchestra—Alber just stood there, boxing gloves on. The man gave him an encouraging smile.

“And you do your best, young man.”

“So you’re going to be dancing to the tune while holding that platter on one arm—”

“And engaging you. It’s training, you see.”

By now, the crowd was staring. Was this old man senile or serious? Yet he was performing some test-jabs with his fist and murmuring.

“It’s all in the reflexes. Even in a deferred body—the basics. The basics. Not getting cold feet are you, young man?”

Alber thought about it. He eyed the watching group of a dozen men, the platter and the wine cup—the wine was barely moving as the man punched with his free hand.

So he had balance, could dance, and his punches looked good. Alber punched his gloves together.

He no longer felt bad about taking Snooter’s money.

“…Nope. Someone ring my bell. We start when it rings.”


Snooter gave Alber a confident smile. The bell rang, and Alber raised his fists as the music began to play a quick tempo.




The old man was Demsleth. Or rather, Teriarch.


His real body was all the way in the High Passes, but ‘Demsleth’ had gone into Invrisil. He had been looking for a [Weapons Trainer] or a [Monk]—and when he chanced upon Alber, he had reckoned this was as good as any person to approach.

Teriarch had spent the morning after speaking to Magnolia Reinhart thinking quietly. Quietly…and then summoned Rafaema to speak with him.

They had met, Dragon-to-Dragon, outside his cave. She had looked up at him expectantly and with that hope in her eyes that made him so…guilty. But Teriarch had simply bowed his head.

“Rafaema. I regret to say that I cannot accompany you today.”

“Are you busy, Sir Teriarch?”

She was calling him ‘sir’ today. Teriarch nodded.

“With my own affairs. I fear I must apologize.”

“Don’t be. I’ll come back tomorrow and—”

The Lightning Dragon spoke quickly, eyes darting towards his face, the cave’s entrance, as if trying to override what was coming next. What she sensed was coming.

“—I am afraid that would not be appropriate, Rafaema. I am…I am not leaving. But I believe I must halt our travels and time together for a while.”

She looked at him with horror, but no surprise, then blurted out.

“No. Please! You can’t do this! Is it because you’re hurt? Because I didn’t tell Luciva what to do? I won’t go. You can’t make me. I have to—”

He gently interrupted her.

“It is not you, Rafaema. It is I. I am…woefully out of shape. I am unprepared to teach you anything about being a Dragon—because I am not worthy of my reputation.”

She stopped, and he gestured to himself. He didn’t like to say it—he avoided the subject and called Magnolia ill-informed and to stop prescribing what Dragons should look like.

…But the truth was he was out of shape. He felt it. In every line of his body.

“Allow me to explain, Rafaema. I was asleep for millenia. When you found me, I was dead. Magic restored me to my body, but I have not been active for…since the Creler Wars, in truth.”

Six thousand years of inactivity, and he had not been in his finest shape then. She shook her head.

“You’re still the Dragonlord—”

“My wits are dulled.”

He had barely held his own against Rhisveri despite having more tricks than the Wyrm could dream of. He had feared Tolveilouka—and rightly so. Teriarch gestured to his wounded wing.

“I must start anew, Rafaema. I have known it. I have been—fumbling around, impatient. Making a fool of myself in front of you, and for that, I am sorry.”

He bowed his head.

“I…wanted to impress you. It is a bad habit of mine. But the truth is that I must take time, despite the urgency of my quest, despite what I know I must do—time to start over.”

He had always known what he had to do. He just…hadn’t wanted to. And he could not do that with her.

“But I can’t leave. Don’t make me go back. At least tell me…”

Her lips moved. A hundred plus years of unanswered questions and longing was in her, and she looked so hurt—but Teriarch steeled his heart. Something he had not done for a long time.

“I am afraid—I must insist. I cannot train with you. Our journey is separate. I will see you on Nendas, Rafaema.”

He named the fourth day of the eight-day week. Four days from now—and the Lightning Dragon blinked.

“In four days? But—you want me to sit around the inn for four days? Go back and forth? The journey would take—”

She was angry now, and he spoke in a soothing tone. He was trying to lead her into this.

“Not at all. Not at all. I would not be so crass with your time, Rafaema. I will be right here. Outside my cave or in it—and you can see me and come for assistance if you need it, but I hope you will not. You should speak to that [Spearmaster] and assure him you are well, because you won’t be back in Liscor at night.”

“You want me to stay here?”

Rafaema grew excited again, and Teriarch snorted.

“Hereabouts. I would advise you…you know what? You will figure it out. Anywhere you want. Do not go above that peak there—too many dangerous monsters lurk. If you see a Void Eater Goat—run. If you see more than two Bossels—run. Do not fight the Wyverns; they gang up. And if you see something that talks to you but isn’t a person—run.”

Rafaema’s mouth opened and closed. Then she stared around the High Passes.

“Wait. I’m living here?

“In the open. No artifacts at all. Only magic you yourself can cast. If you must, turn into a Drake to survive. But otherwise, you will do it as a Dragon.”

“Wh—you want me to do survival training? Sir Teriarch—I’ve passed all of Manus’ courses! Even their elite soldier training!”

She laughed at him. She looked amused—right until she saw his concerned face.

“You don’t think I need to practice, do you?”

Then she got angry. Teriarch coughed into one wing. It still hurt.

“Rafaema. It is my understanding that you…struggled to reach my cave. I know you are a Dragon, young and strong. I know you are a Dragon and what you are capable of. But surely you know the High Passes are dangerous, even to us.”

She hesitated, bit her lip, and ducked her head.

“It—wasn’t easy. But I’m no pushover!”

Her cheeks turned red, and she looked around. Both Dragons saw a distant Frost Wyvern, the upstart Wyvern Lord, peering down at them. Teriarch rolled his eyes; the Wyvern Lord was eying the ‘competition’.

Merely Teriarch’s presence had scared most monsters away, but if Rafaema flew about, hunger would eventually drive the ecosystem back into the open. And even Carn Wolves could fight Dragons.

He tried to explain it to her.

“All our kind are born arrogant, young one. But you…you were born and lived your entire life around mortals.”

“So I’m weaker?”

She snapped, and he flapped a wing at her; the wind alone made her flinch as if she were Drake-sized. That was a bad sign.

“No. You need to know your strength as well as weakness, girl! I have seen you fly and move and even fight. You fly with no nuance, like an Oldblood Drake, and they have forgotten nimbleness in the air. You have never needed more than a fraction of your true strength. You lumber around in your Dragon form because you are not used to it! Striving against the monsters here will give that to you.”

He took a breath as she stared at him and then around at the inhospitable landscape. Teriarch spoke to both him and her.

“I think you need to be alone, truly. For at least a month. You have never been alone—once a week, we will meet, and I will tell you stories. If you are in grave peril, call and I will come, but I cannot save you from a sudden accident. You will be…”

He spoke a word that made Rafaema’s head rise.

Free. And part of that freedom is the freedom to be hurt, to make mistakes. In my turn, I will be rebuilding myself.”

Piece by piece. She stood there, chewing it all over, but when she raised her head and nodded, he saw a light of excitement in her eyes.




That was the easy part, actually. Teriarch stood outside his cave, flapping his wings up and down. Basic exercises. He was working on a full-body regime and groaning.

“I’ll have to run with blocks of lead or Adamantium or something ridiculous like that! It’s not just physical work—reflexes. I had better send Demsleth over. But this time…[Full Body Synchronization]!”

He used a box-spell to do it, feeling Demsleth’s feet and smelling the air—and feeling pain when he stepped on a little rock.

Part of combat was reflexes. He couldn’t exactly haul off and fight most monsters or make Taletevirion play the part of a foe. But some good training in Demsleth’s body would give him a great amount of practice.

Plus, he could exercise his real body here. Divide and conquer. Not a simulacrum—not that mistake again—but [Mages] had invented ways to manage multiple things. They called it [Parallel Thoughts]. Teriarch obviously knew the pitfalls, and so he prepared Demsleth for some good reflex-training with this young [Boxer] he’d found.

He relished the sensation of adrenaline coursing through his veins as the Dragon decided he might have to do some Dragon wing-dances once his wing healed. For now, he’d go for a sixteen mile jog and then—

And then Alber punched Demsleth in the face.




Alber had won a number of fights with one punch, but he had never felt like he’d done that much damage in one go.

Well—the old man had jabbed him six times and was doing a complex circle-step that had somehow made Alber miss—while carrying the damn tray.

That had lasted sixteen seconds of the match. Then Alber had clocked him with a [Flash Punch]. He hit the old man square in the chin.

Snooter went down. To be more precise, he twisted over with an ‘oh’, slammed down—and the tray and all the contents fell on top of him. The wine hit him in the chest. The soup spattered his face, and the bowl clocked him in one eye.

In the High Passes, the Dragon felt the punch, and his head jerked back. He overbalanced, crashed onto his side, and lay there as the Wyvern Lord nearly shat himself laughing.

The audience around Alber laughed until they were sick. The men jeered at Snooter as he lay there on his back, stunned more than knocked out, then cheered Alber and walked off. They had had their fun.

Pride runneth over before the fall. In this case…Demsleth lay on his back.

Even then. Even then…he had still been so proud. Alber adjusted his gloves and went back to shadow-boxing without saying a word as Demsleth lay there.

Balancing a serving tray while doing Terandrian dance-combat and taking on a [Boxer] one-handed. While working out his body.

The Dragon lay there for a good six minutes. How far down? How…he sat up, cold soup running into his beard along with stagnant wine.

He wasn’t sure if it was rock bottom yet.

“You need a [Healer]?”

That was what Alber said awkwardly, unused to talking as Demsleth brushed the tray up. Without a word, the man pointed. The spilled food vanished, and he tucked the objects into his bag of holding. He sat there, and his chin hurt.

It was a good punch.

“No. Thank you, young man. And thank you for not holding back and knocking some sense into me.”

“You fought well.”

He’d fought with Demsleth’s reflexes. Which, in hindsight, were tuned up to the level of a Level 40 [Warrior] without any notable Skills. This young man had been inherently slower and weaker than he was. And still.

Demsleth reduced the body’s performance to the level of a Level 15 [Commoner] and felt slow as he stood, and fragile. The punch hurt more now…and his wings hurt in his real body.

He looked at Alber, then produced another coin. This time, it was silver.

“You…wouldn’t care to hit me again, young man? In another match. Though I fear you might beat me rather badly. No Skills.”

Alber paused. He stared at Demsleth and seemed to sense the old man was frailer now, as if he’d punched the toughness out of him.

“You want to go again? With the tray and everything?”

Demsleth got up.

“No tray. No music. I think I might lose. Just—”

He waved the coin, and Alber raised his brows.

“Put it in the can and ring the bell when you want to go.”




Four minutes later, Alber watched as Demsleth wiped a bloody trail of snot out of his nose. He was…more impressed with Snooter this time.

Something had changed. He had come at Alber a lot slower and weaker—and without the tray and music. But he’d come in hard, tried a few weird punches, but gone down because Alber had faster hands and a harder punch.

He knew how to duck and weave, but he’d slowed after three body shots. It had been fast, bloody, and ended with Snooter taking a big punch to the nose.


“You fought pretty good.”

Rare praise from Alber. He expected the man to get up and walk off, after a handshake or something, or ask for a [Healer]. But Demsleth just groaned.

“That really hurt. I remember why I try not to feel pain. Humans have it rough.”

“…Yeah. I guess we do?”

Alber didn’t follow, but the old man lay on his back.

“Five minutes. In five minutes, I’ll get up. One silver coin per match?”

Alber blinked at him.

“You wanna go again?”

Demsleth produced a bottle and put it to his lips. He drank a ‘healing potion’—though Alber swore he’d seen the nosebleed stop and clot over before the potion touched his lips.

“I happen to have a lot of healing potions despite the drought. If you are fresh—again?”




Alber hadn’t worked this hard for his silver for a while. Six bouts—and evening was growing late as Demsleth groaned.

I think you punched a tooth loose!

This time, Alber felt his bruises. He wasn’t sure if the old man had improved noticeably in six tries. But he had gotten inventive.

Some kind of side-long punching style. What Ryoka had termed the ‘peek-a-boo’ style—each time he switched things up and each time seemed more desperate not to get hit.

But Alber was young, fast, and this was his trade. He’d taken down the old man each time. He had wondered if Demsleth was the kind of fellow who liked pain—but he definitely did not.

“Where’d you learn those punches?”

“Everywhere. But I can’t—do them. Especially at this level. If I—no. No cheating.”

Demsleth lay there, wincing—and then looked at Alber.

“You’re a [Boxer] who does this…every day?”

“Yup. I move around a lot.”

Alber was loosening his gloves. Demsleth sat up with a wince.

“What’s your name, young man? Would you object if I visited you—daily?”

The [Boxer] slowed. He looked at Demsleth.

“You want to fight me every day?”

The old man had mismatched eyes. Somehow, Alber had learned his name was ‘Demsleth’ or perhaps ‘Teriarch’ in the third or fourth match. He had given both at different times. Those eyes looked old and pained—but determined.

“I have to. There is no motivation more fierce than—than getting punched in the face. In fact, I would dearly be obliged if you made this an even eighth. Just—give me a few minutes to set myself up mentally?”

He sat there. Alber thought about it, then re-did the knots on his gloves. He sat in his ring as Demsleth winced. And it seemed like the old man was far away.




A Dragon fanned his wings, wincing. Just…fanned his wings and walked back and forth. No running marathons. He just kept moving, walking first, dragging his tail on the ground as a Wyvern watched him with great amusement.

That was how low he was. And he could sink lower. He could still sink…but if he ever wanted to fly, he had to start somewhere. In fact…he could go lower still. Simpler.

“What’s an old man like you need to train for?”

Demsleth’s eyes snapped open, and he blinked at Alber. He sat up again, wincing.

“I…have a great task ahead of me. And I’m out of shape. I wish I could laze about. But I can’t. I have to be stronger. Is—does that make sense?”

Alber’s eyes sharpened. He punched his fists together, and Demsleth looked at the scarred young man who had boxer’s ears and made his living punching and being punched.

“Yeah. I get that. You want an eighth match—no silver coin. But I’ll come at you as hard as I can.”

Something drove him too. The Dragon sat there, bruised, not wanting to fight. But he refused to run. And he held up a hand as Alber nodded to the bell.

“Wait. Give me…ten minutes.”


He could go more basic still. Alber watched as Demsleth sat cross-legged. The old man straightened his back—and a Dragon came to a standstill in the High Passes. There he sat.

A Lightning Dragon was flapping around the mountain range, finding a good spot for her ‘camp’, blissfully unaware that Eater Goats had already devoured the field rations she had bought for the first night and that it was going to rain and she really should have found somewhere with an overhang that wouldn’t dribble into her face all night.

She was disguised as a Lightning Wyvern, incidentally, not really getting that there was still a bounty on Wyverns some adventurers had.

But her miseries were that of a young woman finding out who she was. Teriarch, the Dragonlord of Flame, just sat there on his haunches.

And Demsleth, Teriarch…did nothing. He’d exercised, but now he just sat there. And all he did was breathe.


And out.

Alber was watching out of the corner of his eye, expecting the man to repeat his healing trick. But all he saw was Demsleth’s chest rise and fall.

In. And out.

In the High Passes, the Brass Dragon inhaled and exhaled. The bored Wyvern Lord was about to fly off and find something to eat—but he noticed a rather deliberate way the Dragon was inhaling and exhaling.

No one thought about…breathing, did they? The Wyvern Lord turned back, and the more you thought about breath entering and leaving your lungs, the more deliberate it was.

But it seemed to him that the Brass Dragon was taking a big gulp of air, holding it, and then—expelling it fast.




“What’re you doing?”

Alber interrupted Demsleth, and the old man faltered, then replied irritably.

“Practicing my breathing. I regret to say that I don’t even breathe well.”

“You can practice breathing?”

Alber had much the same expression as the Wyvern Lord. The Dragon answered.

“Yes. Breathing is the most fundamental aspect of almost every action. Air gives you the strength to throw a punch. You can practice breathing, and I…I have not practiced for a long time.”

He inhaled, and it seemed to Alber as if Demsleth were trying to suck up all the air in Invrisil. And exhaled—and though the young man could not see it, he sensed the intention behind those lungs.

Inhale the air to give vent to endless flame. Exhale—just air—but with the force of a hurricane.

The Brass Dragon didn’t manage it in his real body. He just inhaled and exhaled noisily. For minutes, more than the ten, as the [Boxer] settled down and copied him.

And so did the Wyvern Lord, experimentally. This was not Dragonbreath or his icy, freezing cold, but it was harder than he thought. It took the Wyvern Lord a long time to realize what the Dragon was concentrating on.

A little leaf was caught on a fallen branch of one of the wiry plants that had survived both the High Passes and winter, two thousand paces from the Dragon.

Every time Teriarch inhaled or exhaled—properly—it would shift. Not always. Sometimes it was just the ambient wind or something else like an Eater Goat farting that made it move. But every now and then, the little leaf moved and danced in a breeze.

A child’s trick. The ability to reach out and touch something with just the force of your lungs. No hurricane would come out of the Dragon’s mouth. No Dragonbreath of the Wind Dragons of old. The leaf would not blow away today. Or even tomorrow or next week.

But if Teriarch’s foes of old, the Dragonlord of Flame’s enemies, could see him—they would have laughed at his fears, his frailty of age, and his ego and mistakes. This, though…the sight of that leaf moving and the Dragon practicing breathing would have caused that laughter to cease and for them to order their assassins and minions to move now, to fall upon that old warrior, that hero of memories, that champion of peoples lost to time.

For he was beginning anew at last. In the High Passes, the cold air warmed. The leaf, attached to a half-formed sprig of a tree, was doomed. The entire tree hadn’t grown old enough to survive this cold winter, and an Eater Goat might chew it down and put it out of its misery any day. It was curled against the cold, more like a root than the beginning of a tree.

It was doomed, but it clung to life in the cold. The Dragon inhaled the same air that he had breathed before the High Passes were here. The breath that had saved countless millions lives and taken just as many.

No violet flame. No earth searing inferno came from his maw, or the rage to humble a Wyrm. That was not…the meaning of fire.

That was not all flame was.

He breathed out after six minutes. And the leaf rustled, alone on a wizened stalk of cold bark. But it seemed like that sapling was brighter now. Did it rise ever so slightly? The bark no longer was frozen over. And the leaf, faintly magenta, a faded saffron from the fall where it had refused to leave the branch—seemed to be returning to its original mint color.

If you didn’t look—you might never see it. But was it catching the light or—burning? Something danced in the air around it, upon the stem and down the base. It did not burn it away, merely illuminated the veins and venules of the brightening leaf.

The little thing was now warm. And—the green looked healthy now, the tree confused but finding something in the cold earth and desperate days.

As if the leaf were drinking in light. Solar brilliance only one person could see. He breathed in—and out—

Thus a Dragon changed the world. Slowly, gently.

As he had ever known how to do. That was his beginning.

So at last. At last—Magnolia Reinhart smiled and laughed when she saw the silly Dragon sitting and breathing next to a [Boxer]. She shook her head and rolled her eyes.

He always had to teach someone. He always had to save something. 

But a young man might be good company for once. Old men had to plant trees.

So the Dragon breathed. He breathed before getting up to have something as simple and inconsequential as a boxing match.

But that was the beginning of everything that followed.



[Modern-Day Boxer Level 32!]

[Skill – Banked Counterpunch obtained!]


[Skill – Deep Breath learned.]





Author’s Note:

I will be working to release Volume 1 soon. The hope is Saturday—and we will see if I need time to release it instead of writing a regular chapter. But we’ll see. I would have liked not to take another moment off…but the complications continue.

Because I’m sick. I put everything I had into fixing up this chapter and it appears I caught something while I was working.

It’s not bad yet but I’ve been cold and less…sharp. That’s not good for writing. But I got this done.

I wish I could blame everything on my sickness as I was writing the first part of this huge chapter. But I can’t. I might have been coming down with it and I remember a headache on one of the days I was writing, but the truth is, I was just woefully ambitious and I didn’t have the chapter in a good place.

Editing makes a chapter better, but in a situation like this, I don’t regard the 1st half of this 9.38 TV arc as ‘acceptable’. It has no conclusion, no ending—it would have ended with Valeterisa blowing up at Mons and been, I feel, bad.

Maybe if it was a TV show that’d be a good cliffhanger, but it left a bad taste in my mouth so I made the call to delay, work, and finish it.

Now I’m done, happier, and sick. So I’m actually really unhappy about that especially because I’m afraid it’ll get worse and last for a long time. I don’t do well with colds. But I am relieved because I feel the chapter is now more complete. Not perfect. Never perfect—but here it is.

Oh, and if you missed the thing at the top of the page, I have linked to my notes here. I think I’ve been asked to show what my notes look like, so I saved them and they might be interesting to people who enjoy the writing side of it.

Nothing more from me. I hope you feel this chapter was worth the delay and effort and look forwards to what comes out next. Hard at work as usual. Volume 1 is always, always, just around the corner from being done.

Until the day it is done and everything follows. Until then. I hate being sick. Thanks for reading.


Chieftain Rags by Nia the Raven!


Armored Antinium or is it Wrymvr by Brack? Also, starving ducks and ‘weird club man’ according to the file name. His name is Torreb, Brack.


Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr…humanoid Ksmvr by Kalabaza!


Sariant Lamb by Peanut! The colored version was run through an AI. Artist tools are evolving.


Stream Art: The Citrus Slime Hat by BoboPlushie!


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments