[Pale Lights, a new story by the author of A Practical Guide to Evil, is out on Royalroad! Consider giving it a read!]
(I am on break next update to write Gravesong: Book 2! This is an ongoing project. More details in the Author’s Notes at the bottom. Back on the 8th.)
<I am no longer taking chem-reader submissions. Please stop sending them in. There are over 40+ already and too many of you are experts! I will begin reviewing them and preparing for a chemistry-focused chapter, but like last time, it may be a long process. We’ll send you a note in the coming week whether or not you’ll be added to a beta-reading group. Thank you for the enthusiasm!>
The air should have been freezing when it blew through the window. The snowflakes were thick, like fat marshmallows they were so big. They flurried down and made travel miserable.
Unless you had a magic door. But even if you did, when it blew and the wind howled against the side of the inn, it felt like the ages of ice before Humans had emerged out of the many species of Earth.
There was something primordial about it, a desire not to be out there when the wind hit you. That was death and isolation and, perhaps—if you stared into that blizzard—one final great journey into the snow. But that was only if you had nothing to stay for.
That might be a better land of death and a better way to go than the one the young woman sitting in her cozy room had seen. Erin Solstice’s blanket was checkered, squares of color cut and stitched together to make a quilted cover…on top of four other sheets.
The inn’s fires were still stoked at night, but it could get cold by the time you woke, so everyone bundled up. Across from her bed was a writing desk with a chessboard, all magic, glowing and ready to play.
There were, in fact, two desks in Erin’s room to hold her chess set, go board, and actual writing implements for letters and her possessions.
A twisted lump of blackened mithril was a paperweight. An acid jar labeled ‘not ink’ sat on one corner of her desk, and she had two books she’d been meaning to read propped up there. At this moment, Erin Solstice sat in a wheelchair across from a third table with no chair on the other end. But there was a third chessboard sitting on it.
Erin had all this space because she’d done away with the wardrobe and vanity that Lyonette insisted upon having in her room. A dresser did fine for Erin, and she had a hand-mirror. Plus, even Lyonette couldn’t fit all her things and Mrsha’s gifts and possessions without some strife.
Of late, Erin had heard the mother-daughter duo was having…difficulties sharing the room. Mrsha having to put away her things and the two having their own space and sharing one bed was getting tougher. Mrsha sometimes resented having a mother telling her what to do in her room. Her mother sometimes regretted a little Gnoll girl rolling over and axe-kicking her in the face in her sleep.
“Is it time for Mrsha to get a new room?”
Snow blew through that window, the only open window in the entire inn. It swirled in—but before it touched the floorboards, the snow vanished.
And what the air smelled like was the earth of her mother’s garden, the scent of flowers. Erin looked down at the petals and pollen scattered on the floor of her room.
She sneezed. Hayfever instead of freezing cold…well, she wasn’t allergic exactly, but sometimes the changing of seasons got her a tiny bit stuffy. And yet, she made no move to close the window.
Slowly, Erin Solstice moved a rook across the board and frowned as her opponent laughed.
“Is that all you have to ask me?”
Shaestrel of the fae sat cross-legged on the chess board. When she moved a piece, it was with a finger, and a tiny jet of wind slid a piece exactly where she wanted. Erin frowned as a queen went a-hunting and stole a pawn. Then she saw the trap and moved a knight into position.
“I dunno. Rooms aren’t free. The inn either needs to get upgraded or some other guest loses a room. But it’s better than the two fighting. Do fae have roommates?”
The Spring Fae gave Erin a blank look.
“Y’know, I think ye art the exact opposite from Ryoka Griffin. She expects us to be all things and nothing, ideas and concepts and tangential to the divine. Fated and fatesayers who bind with a word, and she’s right to think it, but she overthinks things.”
“She’s sorta like that.”
“Aye. And ye think we’re a bit too mundane. You think I…pay for rent? Wait, what even is the term?”
“That sounds like a proper stupid term, thank ye. No, I do not have roommates. But I can admit that sharing the lands of our realm with all our—guests—can get tiresome.”
“That sounds like a roommate to me. So I was right.”
Shaestrel slowly narrowed her eyes. But she went back to playing without a word, and this time, when Erin moved a bishop, Shaestrel pointed and a pawn shot up the board without her even pausing to think. Erin…correspondingly took longer. She bit her lip, moved a knight, and cursed.
“Check and the mate.”
Erin lost. Erin Solstice lost. Which was not unheard of. Indeed, it was a normal thing for even the best player of the game to lose. Especially if they went up against a computer.
But as the [Innkeeper] pushed her board back and looked at Shaestrel, who was smirking—she couldn’t help but feel slightly tilted. She couldn’t help but be rattled. And mad. And certain that she was being tricked or, quite possibly, bamboozled.
“Are you cheating?”
“No. Not as ye’d call it. As I told ye when I challenged you, Erin Solstice. I am the best at this game.”
The Faerie’s smile was huge and mocking. And Erin Solstice? She slowly tilted her king over on her board. The little Drake figure lay on his face, and Erin Solstice exhaled.
“That’s sixteen losses for me. Zero wins.”
On game seventeen, Erin cheated for the first time in her life. Not by stealing pieces or moving them around or doing something as drastic as using Kevin’s laptop. How would she even read the laptop without it being obvious? Magic? A concealable speaking stone in her ear? Vibrating underwear?
No, no. That was stupid. Erin just used a Skill.
It wasn’t as good as when it came upon her naturally, but time slowed between the moves. In this case, for the first time—Erin Solstice got sort of annoyed by the Skill.
It was one thing to feel immortality in the moments when you sang or stood in grief, trying to cling to time. Another when you were trying to figure out a move, sweating without sweating, and trying to concentrate.
The Skill prolonged the agony, but Erin used it anyways to get her advantage. She felt guilty about it, but her opponent didn’t seem to care.
And Erin lost anyways.
“A fine game. Ye danced me quicker to the point of no return this round. Yer ‘Skills’ are funny to watch.”
A third of the way through the game, Shaestrel said that as Erin took a pawn with one of her knights. The [Innkeeper] looked up, frowning—and Shaestrel rotated one arm and flexed her tiny green muscles.
“—But I do not take it easy on any foe. So. ‘Tis time for me to use 1% of my real power.”
She grinned like a Goblin, and Erin Solstice’s eyes narrowed.
“Who told you to say that?”
“The one called Troydel. Why? Does it make ye mad? Yer scowling. Oh, check.”
Checkmate in 7.
Erin Solstice’s twenty-first game with Shaestrel was the nastiest yet. She went into it throwing her pieces into risky gambits, varying her tack. She had just come out of a game with Niers and won that one.
She wasn’t getting worse. If anything, Erin suspected she was far, far better than she had been on Earth as a player. And she was analyzing Shaestrel too.
“Fifteen and twenty-two eight. Are we chanting numbers at each other?”
The Spring Faerie raised her brow. Erin shook her head.
“No, I’m guessing your ELO score. That’s a chess number to determine how good you are. You…you’re one of the best chess players in the world. Not at the top, but you have enough experience, and you know how to play really well when you concentrate. You would have beaten me most of the time if we played before I came to this world.”
Shaestrel waved a hand modestly.
“Well, ye pick up games if you live as long as I do. I never but played now and then, you know. One game when I visited a mortal world adds up.”
How many games was that, then? She wasn’t a chess fan? Shaestrel clearly thought she was good at some game—but Erin Solstice’s frown persisted.
“Yeah, but that’s my problem. You’re very good from being immortal, I guess, and just having experience. But I play this game every day. I can see it. Whenever you start losing…something changes, and you wipe the board with me. Then you start playing like Stockfish. Or better.”
“I play like a what-fish? I thought your world was boring as shite. You have fish that play chess?”
Shaestrel put her chin in her hands, looking fascinated. Erin had to explain.
“No, it’s an AI program that’s named Stockfish.”
“Oh, boring. Does it tell ye what to do? Does it do more than play chess?”
“Nope. I betcha we’re working on it, though.”
Erin knew time was passing in her world, but the idea of artificial intelligence, real sentient computers, felt a long way away. Shaestrel nodded reasonably.
“Well, then. Tell me when it does, and I’ll take a look. That’s always funny to see.”
Concerning statements like that aside…Erin Solstice went back to playing, stumped. She had no idea why she was losing other than Shaestrel was definitely cheating or…doing something Erin couldn’t stop.
Here was the problem. Twenty games of pure defeat lay behind her, and it looked like twenty-one was going that way, too. Although it was taking a lot longer and Shaestrel seemed to be on the back-foot, she had begun doing her ‘trick’.
Erin felt it. It felt like defeat sneaking up on her, even as their pieces tangled up and took each other off. Here was the thing—even if she couldn’t win, even if she was theoretically below, say, an ELO 3000 player that Shaestrel might be if she used her ‘real power’—
Erin should have drawn a lot of games. High-level chess games ended in draws. But pure defeat?
The twenty-first loss was a bad one. Erin saw it in the shape of the board, stopped—put her hands over her face, and then snapped.
“How are you doing that?”
Shaestrel laughed until she nearly threw up. She rolled around on the table, and Erin nearly flipped the chessboard over for the first time in her life. She actually stood up, weak legs and all, and strode around, punching the air. When she came back to the board, reality was reality.
It was crude, it was lopsided—but even so. She stared down at her last remaining chess piece, cornered in the upper left corner of the board. And spread out around it, as if her white piece were the eye, was the vaguest outline of…
The game was about more than the game with Shaestrel. Part of it was probably humility. And Erin was definitely humbled by losing like that, even if she suspected the fae was cheating in some way.
The problem was that Shaestrel’s moves were good. Perfect. Perhaps…beyond perfect. But the faerie had thrown down the gauntlet, and Erin had to figure out why she was losing.
After that game, she went to the only master she could think of.
“Shaestrel has learned the art of bird-chess? She must be a true master.”
“I have never stopped, Erin.”
He sat in his tower with a big, white coat on, lined with wool fur, and looked like an adorable poofball in his snowy lookout. Even now, he was on the hunt for birds, but he complained.
“We must all eat the humbleness of pie, Erin. Losing is good for you. I, myself, must shoot Snow Golems. See?”
He drew an arrow, loosed it, and Erin saw a roaming Snow Golem fall over as Bird shot its head clean off. She felt a bit bad about that…but the naturally occuring, magical monsters were a hazard to the new farmers in Liscor.
“I had no idea you were so helpful, Bird.”
The Antinium sighed.
“I was told I would receive some money for helping, Miss Erin. The Watch wanted me to hunt Golems. So I do this. We must all do responsible things now and then. I hunt Golems. You lose to faeries. We are alike.”
“…Bird. How do you make those bird games in chess? I think it was a clue. Either that or she’s messing with me, but I need to know your secrets.”
“Aha. So the apprentice comes to the master.”
“Has Troy been talking to you about stupid catchphrases too?”
Bird looked somewhat insulted.
“No. I am just stating facts. I am the master of birds, Erin. You are a master of chess. I take it back. Now, we are not the same. I make bird-games in chess when I can. It is not easy.”
In fact, he couldn’t do it with Erin that much anymore since she’d just trounce him and take his pieces. Against a new foe like Venaz, Bird could manage it, but it wasn’t common. It might be as low as four percent of all his games that turned into the actual shape of a bird. Nevertheless, it was fairly amazing.
“I can see knowing the shape you want to make, but how do you get your opponent to do it? I’d have to smash their pieces and move mine into place and hope I could maneuver them like that.”
Erin was trying to imagine how to even conceptualize the outcome Bird seemed to aim at. The Antinium sipped from a mug of hot milk as he chattered away to Erin.
“This is simple, Erin. You are thinking about it wrong. When you play me, you play to win.”
“But I am playing to make a bird.”
“Right. So where’s my error in logic?”
Bird tapped one of his twitching antennae.
“You think we are competing. But I know we are not. Your goal is not my goal. So I can win or lose. It does not matter. But you are not defending against me, and therefore, I can win in my goal.”
“…I definitely defend against you, Bird. I eat your bishops every time they come out.”
The merry Worker waggled a finger in front of Erin’s face and smiled with his mandibles.
“No, Erin. You are just winning in your silly game of chess. You are not defending against my goals. I am trying to make a bird. Win or lose, you are not defending against the bird. It emerges from the board like…”
He snapped his fingers.
“…A chick out of an egg. Does that help you?”
Erin put her chin in her hands. She sneezed a bit in the cold and wondered if she had the energy to go down the stairs back to her chair.
“Bird, I think it does, but now I have a headache.”
“I am known for that, too. You did not defend against my headache either. You are defenseless, Erin. See?”
Then he began to tickle her through her jacket. Erin laughed.
“Bird! You silly kid! Stop it! Stop it! I’ll tickle you!”
“You cannot tickle me, I have no tickle sp—not the antennae! Hahahahaha! Stop! Enough! I will throw you out of my tower!”
The Bird talk made Erin feel like she had a bit of the puzzle, but she was no expert in solving riddles or…confusing fae shenanigans.
For that, Erin had to go to a real expert, and she knew just who to ask.
But first, she had to fall.
An [Innkeeper] rolled down the roof of her inn, plummeting past a window where Lyonette was having lunch. The [Princess] spat out all her food, and the guests raced outside.
They found Erin half-buried in a huge snowdrift. Bird was ducking beneath the ledge of his tower, and once they excavated Erin, the [Innkeeper] shook her fist up at him.
“Bird! I could have died!”
“But you didn’t! Another victory for me! I’m very sorry.”
Even by the standards of The Wandering Inn, that was surprising. Fortunately, there was a precedent; Erin could have sworn she’d sensed Goblins and Antinium sneaking onto the roof to go skating into the snow, so Bird had probably known she’d be fine. A Worker using their backshell to slide down the roof got a lot more velocity than she did.
Ryoka Griffin was just coming down off her heart-attack as she helped Erin get inside, and the snow was dusted off the [Innkeeper] and she was unfrozen near a fire. Ishkr brought her wheelchair down as Erin relaxed.
“Bird threw you out of his tower, Erin? Seriously?”
“I kept tickling him. That’s consequences for you. Plus, I’m fine. Just wet. Jeeze, it’s cold out there. And I need to talk to you now.”
Erin shivered. Ryoka opened her mouth, then craned her neck to one side.
“Oh no. Someone stop Sammial. No sledding off the roof!”
“You can’t stop me! Hethon. Let’s go. H—”
Hethon grabbed his brother, and the two boys only stopped fighting when Erin looked their way. They froze, and she narrowed her eyes, but the [Innkeeper] quite deliberately pretended she didn’t notice the two Veltras boys.
“They’re seeing Goblins and Antinium, Erin. Trust me, that’s good for the future of both races.”
Ryoka, predictably, made all her arguments in advance. Erin glared at her friend.
“I didn’t say anything. And you don’t have to bring stuff up.”
The two sat there awkwardly for a moment before Erin looked up and smiled in relief.
“Aha! Eggnog! See, this is the stuff Imani doesn’t sell. Want some?”
She offered a mug to Ryoka, and the Wind Runner eyed it.
“Is it genuine eggnog?”
“Yep. Cinnamon, eggs, custard…”
For the second time that day, the Wind Runner made the [Innkeeper]’s eyes narrow dangerously. Erin shook her head slowly and sadly.
“I don’t understand how you live, Ryoka. It’s eggnog. It’s winter, and Christmas is, uh…premature in some parts of the world, but we did that too! How do you have no Christmas spirit?”
“I want to live longer than you will, Erin.”
“Pssh. You just don’t enjoy things. See? Nanette and Mrsha love it! Right, kids?”
Nanette and Mrsha were sipping the eggnog greedily around a table. Ryoka scoffed.
“They just like sweet things. You could feed them burnt sugar and kids would eat it. You’ve got to realize some of our traditional foods are literally killing us, Erin. Marshmallows? Eggnog? It’s sugar and fat.”
“Oh, look at Miss Dietary here. Desserts are great!”
Erin pounded a fist on the table in outrage. Ryoka held up her hands.
“Whoa, whoa. I agree desserts are great. I’m all for dessert. I’ll take some viennetta. That’s classy and tasty.”
She made a show of looking around as if expecting her order to show up. Erin Solstice sat back in her chair and stared up at the ceiling, defeated.
Now that she was back, Ryoka Griffin was throwing some proverbial hands. Which, in fairness, tended to be where she excelled as opposed to actual fisticuffs.
“Ryoka. I hold a grudge, you know. I’ve had a bad day. You don’t wanna get on my bad side.”
The [Innkeeper]’s warning didn’t notably faze Ryoka. The Wind Runner raised her brows.
“Spoken like a real [Tyrant]. Ever thought about visiting Chandrar? Nerrhavia’s Fallen would love to meet you.”
Twice. Twice she went for the low blow! Erin closed her eyes for a moment. But the reminder of one of the people she knew, Nerrhavia—who would probably have put a scorpion in Ryoka’s bed for half the insults—made Erin refocus.
“I hear Nerrhavia loves its war crimes. You should take Tyrion to visit. I’m sure you’ll love General Pellican or whatever his name is too. But I didn’t want to talk about that.”
The Wind Runner exhaled. She and Erin looked at each other, then relaxed. Ryoka spread her hands with a rueful smile and accepted a cup of tea.
“Alright. Alright, how can I help you? Is it about Shaestrel? She came down bragging about beating you.”
“She brags? I know she’s cheating!”
Erin was outraged, but Ryoka shook her head.
“She seems to think it’s an honest victory. Mind you, she might just be doing it to piss you off. How can I help?”
“She’s winning when she should be drawing, at least. And every time I get to an…‘inflection point’, she starts playing perfect games. I think it’s whenever I push her to the point where another lost piece of sub-optimal play would lose her the game. But I can’t tell how she knows. Bird said—well, Shaestrel seems to be playing a game different from the one I’m playing. Or…doing something weird. Do you know what I’m talking about? You went to the lands of the fae, so I need your insight.”
Ryoka Griffin frowned, resting her hand with the missing two fingers on the table and drumming her good fingers as Nanette peeked over with sudden interest.
“I told you about perspective, didn’t I? It sounds like that’s what Shaestrel wants you to learn. Or something like it. But I’m not better at chess after learning that trick. It’s close, though.”
“…Perspective? You didn’t tell me all about—oh, you mean turning them aliens into guys with toy nerf guns? I thought that was magic.”
The Courier held up a hand.
“No, no. It’s the way the entire land of the fae works. It’s—well, it’s the way any world works. Layers of perspective. It’s more literal over there, but I’ve seen through magic here. Like invisible Centaurs and stuff.”
She stared past the [Innkeeper]’s shoulder, and Erin’s head didn’t move.
“Yeah, I’ve sensed Palt doing that. My inn, my rules. He’s just slipping my staff his stupid cigars. I’ll have someone break his legs later.”
A shamefaced Centaur reappeared and trotted away quickly. Ryoka shook her head.
“—But that’s what I mean. I saw through that without a Skill.”
Erin scooched up to the table with sudden interest.
“Explain it to me again how you did it. Maybe I can learn from it. You told me the story in the garden, but we were a bit distracted by everything.”
“Um…all of it. Do it from the beginning.”
Ryoka did a double-take.
“Wh—all of it? Erin, that’s like a huge tale.”
“Well, we’ve got time. Or are you busy today?”
Ryoka Griffin had actually sort of been wanting to go for a run and then maybe tour Pallass and—she decided that Erin had a point. It wouldn’t hurt to tell the story again. And from the way a little witch was moving her chair over and Mrsha was looking around—
Well, why not? And here was the curious thing. Even if some of the inn knew what Ryoka had gone through, they had only the facts.
Just the facts about her land of the fae visit without the details like the Faerie King or the big reveals. Erin and Ryoka had kept a lot secret, but the guests had never heard…
How Ryoka Griffin told her own story. And suddenly, the Wind Runner was sitting there, trying to tell them how she had gone to a world beyond.
How did Ryoka Griffin see those events? She sat with her raven-black hair being braided by Nanette and Mrsha to have something to do, sipping from a cup of tea, looking uncomfortable and embarrassed by turns. That awkward self-reflection never entirely left her until she got into the story. Then she spoke with an odd confidence that made you believe what she said was true—because she was certain of this when she sounded doubtful about everything else in the world.
“I…it was a mistake, a kind of disaster and accident combined. It generally is with me. I don’t mean for it to go like that, but when I realized Erin needed help, I convinced myself my way was the only one that would work, and I ran around getting the pieces in order. But it was luck that brought it together. You know about how I found the portal to the lands of the fae, right?”
That was more known as many of the inn’s guests had been there or heard the story. They nodded or whispered for clarification as Ryoka took a breath.
“Well—when I actually got to the Lands of the Fae, they were empty. I stumbled through that portal into a field of flowers. And like an idiot, I never noticed—no, wait. Let me back up. When I exited the portal, I was on a hilltop with flowers. And there were thousands, maybe millions of hills, each with a stone portal. Like a Stonehenge, or more formal doors in some. It felt like a vast crossroads—only, most of the doors were locked. Including the one I came through.”
This was not how she’d told the story to Erin, with the details. The [Innkeeper] put her chin in her hands and listened as Mrsha scrunched her face up, trying to imagine it.
How big was this hilly place? Bigger than the Floodplains by a little? A lot?
Ryoka blinked at the question.
“Endless, Mrsha. Whatever you could imagine—it was bigger. Look up at the High Passes just outside, you see? When I…the first thing I saw when I began to look around for life, any life, was a forest. It seemed small, at first. But the closer I got—you move fast and slow in that place. Fast, between each realm. One second you’re running and the next you’re in the forest. But then you move slow, until you find the exit. So I was jogging toward the forest. Then I looked up, and the trees were taller than the High Passes. Each one like the tree of Oteslia. World trees. Countless years old.”
Her breath caught as she stared up, as if seeing them again. Until a voice brought her down to earth.
“Impossible. That has to be some exaggeration, Ryoka.”
Lyonette scoffed mildly. She gave Ryoka a look of frank disbelief. The Wind Runner gave her a look of actual annoyance.
“It’s only impossible until you see it, Lyonette. If what I’m saying sounds inconceivable to you—well, it is. But it’s true. When you hear it, you’ll think I’m exaggerating, and that’s fine. If you ever see it—then you’ll know it’s true. That land is the land of stories. It is the heart of every tale about gold at the end of a rainbow. In our worlds, there is no gold. There’s no tooth faerie, and there’s no Santa Cl—”
Erin kicked Ryoka so hard the Wind Runner’s eyes watered. Ryoka caught herself.
“—But it’s all true there. When you say ‘the forests are gone and the Treants dead, the Dryads extinct’, it’s true. When you talk about species gone from any world, it’s true. But over there—it’s the heartland of stories. Fables and myths walk there. I felt small as a gnat, running through that forest. And I came across legends with every second and hour.”
“Like the dudes with the sword?”
Kevin’s eyes went round as he looked at Erin. She had a way of un-exaggerating everything, and Ryoka was exceptionally narked to hear how Erin described the King Arthurs three. She had a solemn awe about her, like someone who had witnessed a revelation.
“Not yet. Shush, Erin.”
“Aw, but you only learn the perception trick later. I changed my mind. Skip to—”
Erin was shushed by half a dozen hands, claws, and paws at once. The [Innkeeper] sighed and folded her arms, but then began listening again. Because Ryoka was talking about fascinating things.
“One of the things I saw was a spider. Or rather…an egg with a spider. I can’t believe I forgot it. It was in the center of a faerie ring—that’s a circle of mushrooms—in a clearing in the forest. I looked into the center, and there it sat. A beautiful, translucent spider egg with a little spider inside. It looked like a jewel, waiting to hatch.”
“Spiders don’t sound that fascinating, Miss Ryoka.”
Nanette shuddered, and Ryoka hesitated.
“No, I know it doesn’t. But this one…argh. I can’t describe it, and I never could. But this one was like the archetype of all spiders. If it hatched, it would be a king or leader among spiders. Maybe it would become a giant, or else the primogenitor of a new kind of spider that would be better than any before it. Maybe it would be a terrible destroyer, a pest upon worlds. But there it was, in a little egg. Dangerous. Magical. Do you see what that place was?”
She talked about the lands of the fae like everything there was realer, more magical, and better than this world. Not to deride this one. Sammial and Hethon, pulling chairs up, looked at each other.
Ryoka quite liked this world, with all its faults and foibles. She spoke of the lands of the fae like she didn’t belong. Like someone honored with a visit. Like everything there was something to dream of on mundane nights, to aspire to.
Her eyes were wistful as she described Nama, the mysterious and friendly furry woman, guardian of one of the world trees. And the sudden feeling of being an intruder, of the Wild Hunt bearing down on her.
“—Then I met three men, standing around a great piece of weathered stone in the forest. Just like before, I stumbled upon it, a sacred place. Erin might describe them as ‘three guys’, but they weren’t. You all—aside from Kevin, Imani, and Erin—have no context for them. So let me tell it to you like this. One man stood there in three ages. As a boy before he found his destiny, as a young man in his prime and glory, and as an elderly man at the end of his life, wounded and dying. They were all captured at a great moment in their life, and there they stand forever. For what lies in front of them is an ancient stone, and embedded in it is a sword. A magical sword.”
Menolit was trying to parse this. Ryoka shook her head.
“Beyond a Relic. In that stone sits what they call the Sword in the Stone that only a true [King] can draw, Menolit. It has many names. It’s said whoever holds it can never lose a battle. He who draws that blade would become King of Britain, and the man who stands there is King Arthur. The King of Chivalry, the King of Knights. There is no one who can match him. Not the King of Destruction, not…anyone.”
Oh, the burning ears of monarchs across the world. But Ryoka told that story straight-faced now, and Mrsha slowly wrote this all down to her best penpal friend, who was suddenly very interested in what she had to say. Kevin was purely open-mouthed, but Ryoka kept going.
“That’s right. Him. You may not know him, but he was right there. Boy, King, and dying man. Each one was there, frozen in time. Like—like Erin’s [Immortal Moments]. You see, this is the moment before each one picks up the sword again. The boy will draw it and become king. The young man will be granted another blade by the Lady of the Lake—or perhaps Excalibur will be reforged. I don’t recall that part. But the old man…at the end of his life, with his kingdom in ruins, dying, he will return that blade to the lake. And each one knows his fate, how he will die, and he can choose not to fulfill his destiny. But he will take that sword. He always will.”
She raised her head, eyes sparkling with tears and rubbed at her face angrily.
“I’m butchering this tale completely. I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to say it.”
The emotion was there. Ryoka clarified again as her guests sat, spellbound for all Ryoka was no [Bard]. Numbtongue sat there, demanding to know more along with the rest.
“So a boy, a man, and an old man stand there. Can they move?”
“Oh, yes. They can move. They’re…it’s like they’re sort of immortal. The man himself died long ago, I think. In another world. But Arthur’s legend remains. You see? His story is there, and all three met me. I was…well, I escaped the Wild Hunt. I was never colder, but the moment I entered that glade, the pursuit stopped. I don’t think they wanted to anger him, or perhaps it was respect. And the Arthurs were quite confused. But gracious. They said someone had been touching their sword.”
Erin gulped as Ryoka’s head swung towards her. Kevin was currently chewing a handkerchief to pieces.
“You what? This is a joke, right?”
“No, it’s not, Kevin. And trust me, Erin’s just a sword-touching thief in the night. She took nothing but a memory, if that. The real thing…when they heard my story, the Arthurs three decided to help me. I think they were sort of bored, you know. They were all telling each other tales of what would happen or reminiscing about the good and the bad.”
“You would think they would share notes on how to do it better rather than leave their kingdom to fall to ruin.”
Lyonette was mildly appalled by their lack of foresight. Ryoka rolled her eyes.
“That’s not how it works, Lyonette. It’s fate. The instant one takes the sword, they vanish and don’t remember this. Only in this place do they choose. You see? They know what will happen, and they still choose their fate for the good of their land. That’s…the heart of nobility. That is the King of Knights.”
She was pulling something out of her pocket. And it had a glow, for all it was a scrawl written on a scrap of parchment. But already, some of her audience were scoffing, like the practical Goblins who wouldn’t pull a sword out of a stone because it was stuck in there good—and probably cursed by the sounds of it.
But the [Knights]? Normen, Ser Dalimont, Ser Sest, Ser Lormel, Dame Ushar? Awash. Awash with tears. Some of them could not have even said why, only that it spoke to their class.
And when they saw that name—Normen’s heart leapt so hard he thought it would burst.
An autograph for a great fan. Ryoka Griffin shyly showed it around as Erin, professional sword-toucher and Grandmaster of Scales, Gnome laugher and meeter and greeter and hamburger server of legends—felt the first moment of true jealousy.
The Wind Runner looked as proud as could be. She leaned forwards now confidentially.
“Between you and me—of the three, I liked the young Arthur the most.”
“The boy? Why? Wasn’t the young man the best?”
Kevin was incredulous, but Ryoka hesitated.
“…He was sort of full of himself, if I’m honest. I imagine you would be if you were the greatest king of your time with the most legendary knights at your beck and call. The old one? He—was sad and noble, but he was encouraging the boy to do it all again, even though he knew the pain that was coming to him. He thought it was all worth it, despite the cost and his kingdom burning. His own son killed him, and he didn’t seem to regret raising his own child like that. No. I didn’t like the older Arthurs. But the younger one looked at them. He saw their mistakes, and all he wanted to know was whether he’d do more good than harm. Whether he’d save his kingdom. That’s the one I liked.”
She looked fondly at that signature from the boy who would be king and then cleared her throat.
“Right. Where was I? I think they were bored, but perhaps…maybe they were doing it because I was someone who needed help. And that is who Arthur was. A king who went on quests and adventures, just like his kingdom. So guess what he did? He drew the sword from the stone. Then—he challenged the entire Wild Hunt to buy me time to keep going.”
The story continued, and even Erin Solstice was drawn into it. She listened as Ryoka kept speaking and noticed something. In her long tale, as Ryoka met a child with a stick in a dangerous city full of tricks and broken glory, as she travelled across a great refugee camp and made bargains, stole a handbag, and met other lost souls—she talked about them like that.
Each one, from the silly aliens to kind Nama, to the glorious king waiting for her, like they were all alive and vibrant, each one unique and special. And she was the careless, lost observer blundering around and needing help.
Perhaps that was how she saw herself.
Stories. Stories were interesting because, as any great storyteller knew, how you told the story was as important as the details themselves. And there was no truer test of a person than…how they told their own story.
Whether they did it humbly or if they lied. How they focused on some details or left out important elements. What they thought mattered—that was the fascination of autobiographies, especially when contrasted with other perspectives.
History was far more entertaining when it was told from a first-hand account. The great overview was important, but everyone was the hero of their own story.
Erin would get her lesson on perspective in the end, but as Ryoka Griffin told her story, someone else was telling a story…that related to the inn, but from the perspective of people who weren’t Erin. As they saw it.
“Some have called her the ‘sky’. And I agree she is. But she was never a sky to me. She was a door.”
“You what now?”
Anand of the Free Antinium turned his head left as he tried to nail another board into place. The framework of the boat was done; the keel that was apparently so essential had finally been produced according to the standards of the person listening to him.
A Drowned Woman. She sat on a rock, shivering now and then, but her fear of the Antinium was abated. Her name was Torthe Suorloks, and she was a captive of the Hives.
He felt bad about that, but Wrymvr had said he would personally eat her or melt her if she ran away or Anand let her go. But if she made a working boat…she got to live.
It was a deal Torthe clung to, and Anand had been the one who gave her food and realized she was sleeping in a dirt hole rather than a bed. She hadn’t warmed to him, exactly, but she was listening to stories.
One of them was about the [Innkeeper]. Even the Drowned Folk had heard of Erin Solstice, and Torthe, who clung to any scrying orb recordings of the outside world, had wanted to know more about Erin the moment she knew that Anand had met her from the start.
He had been there. But Anand did not tell the story like Pawn did.
Pawn told the story from his pulpit, eyes shining like his faith, to the other Antinium. He brought the vision of a sky down into the Hives.
Anand told the story methodically, like the nails he and other Workers were hammering into the ship, checking his work. Logically, piece by piece.
Tok, tok, tok.
“When I was but a Worker with no name, I did not understand what the Free Queen was doing. Defending her Hive, trying to expand and improve us. I was just a Worker. I fought, I watched other Workers and Soldiers die, and sometimes I went above. The first time I saw the sky, I was frozen. I could not move for…half an hour, perhaps.”
“Because it was foreign? And you felt you might fall into the sky? It was like that for me when I was a girl. I’d walk around on deck with a rope around my waist because I thought I’d fly up.”
Torthe looked hugely embarrassed at the admission and glared at him twice as hard as if to make sure he wouldn’t laugh. She had a curiously slick body and webbed skin between arm and chest and along her legs.
Half stingray. Her voice had that resonant tone. As for the stinger…well, it seemed like the Drowned Folk adaptation had struggled with the stingray body. She had several spines on her back that made walking behind her dangerous.
“No. I understood the sky would not do that to me. I was just amazed because it was beautiful, and I have lived my entire life underground. You see? I was stunned, as my people are, because the tunnels do not change and have little color—and Liscor and the world beyond is filled with sun and moons, light and smells and shapes. But when I thought about it—of course this world existed. I just did not realize it.”
Torthe frowned as she sat forwards a bit. Anand plucked another nail from the bucket one of his hands held.
“Erin was like that. A door. When I met her, I thought I would die. Klbkch had already made us do a dangerous job unearthing Liscor’s crypts. I had seen Workers die, and I had no great expectations for my life. But the first time she met us, she offered us food.”
“…So? You were charmed by a woman’s smile?”
The tone Torthe was using was slightly offensive, but Anand knew he had to clarify. She had been very worried about how she would be treated in captivity, but had been reassured by the fact that Antinium had no desire to mistreat their prisoners. Or genitalia.
“No, Torthe. I thought her lips looked weird, actually. But no one had ever offered me food before. Let alone good food. No one had ever been kind to me, and like seeing the sky, I was stunned. Then I realized something. I thought, ‘oh, of course. This can happen.’ No one had ever been kind. No one had ever taught us a game. But it could happen. And once we realized that, we Workers…that was how we became Individual. Do you understand?”
Then the Drowned Woman fell silent, and her eyes looked begrudgingly sympathetic. The Workers around Anand were listening in. They were volunteers from every Hive save the Twisted Hive, but mostly from the Armored Queen, who liked Anand. They listened so hard to the [Strategist]’s calm explanation.
“When I realized what could be done, it was as if the world became full of doors. And I asked myself whether any of the things I thought were ‘real’ were true. Belgrade was another door. He saw a world in which our Hive would not have to sacrifice thousands of lives each month against monsters. Erin Solstice is a grand door. A terrifying one.”
“How’s a door fucking scary?”
Anand lifted another board up and held it in place as two Workers nailed one side, then began his side.
“It is scary because you can fall through a door. And once you open it, you can never go back. She is frightening, I think, because she can turn a wall you lean on or the ground into a door. And then you realize nothing is permanent. Nothing has to be how it is. Klbkch can be removed as Revalantor. A Queen could die. I could be more than a Worker, and I have no excuse not to try. But if you don’t open the door, you can pretend that’s all. Erin is like that. We wanted to be something more, and she helped us. But if you do not go to her wanting that, she’ll leave you alone.”
“Unless you get in her way. Then she stomps on you.”
The Drowned Woman looked uneasy about ever meeting Erin, but Anand carefully hammered the board into place.
“We are nearly done with the Sinkity Ship v.34.”
“Don’t call it that. That’s bad luck. You have to respect a good ship. Treat her well and she’ll help you level and sail. Mock her and she’ll fall to pieces like the rest of your ships.”
Anand looked at Torthe.
“…The Unsinkable Ship?”
“Too much bad luck. That one’s doomed to fail.”
“Ah, I was told the ‘Titanic’ was also a bad idea. These names are difficult. Let us think them over while we apply this coating.”
The Workers buzzed around to their next task as Torthe began to spitball ideas. But then she paused and grudgingly coughed.
“You didn’t tell me what happened. Only what it’s like.”
Anand smiled. He had left that out, hadn’t he? But like a good [Strategist], he’d baited her into asking. Casually, he turned to the ship and kept speaking.
“Oh. Then let me tell it properly now you understand what it was like. When I first met her, I saw her do what every non-Antinium species does. They freeze. They look nervous or uncertain. It is a facial motion, sometimes, or a bodily one. Sometimes subtle. And not even Erin was immune. But she didn’t react with hostility. She was just…uncertain. Curious. And kind. She did not have to be. But she decided she could be. So the first thing she gave me was a cup of blue juice. It was very sweet. Then, as I was sitting and she was talking, she asked if we wished to play chess. And you see—that was the first thing in the world I understood. It has rules, logic. It makes sense. That was how it started. We must have played games for hours…”
They told stories, each person and group and people, because no one had a perfect, impartial rendering of how it had gone down. The story, sometimes, was difficult because it was the first time someone had to explain how their life had gone, and they weren’t quite certain themselves.
It was important to listen. There were some stories that would shatter a world in half if told. There were stories that cut to the heart of everything.
This…was not that grand a story. It was pathetic and urbane in places. The teller told it like that to the young men and women from another world.
She did it by admitting this was a persuasive tale meant to get them on her side. She did not make much of anyone, including herself.
They were all flawed, selfish people, and the only thing that saved this cynical tale from being too banal and jaded was the teller herself. For she was everything her tale was not, and the truth leaked in, sometimes, between the words.
Flashes of wild magic. Eyes that had seen more time than even most of her people could dream of. She sat in the air, and despite the cold, water ran from her fingers. Or rather…liquid mana, crystallizing and falling into baskets.
Mana stones. For even sitting and telling a story, the Death of Magic was busy. Silvenia of Demons spoke a name so old that few even knew it.
“They called it the Infernal Court, I think.”
“The Infernal Court? I thought it was the Burnished Court in the Blighted Kingdom.”
One of the new Earthers raised a hand. Silvenia grinned.
“That’s just naming conventions. There’s multiple ships with Pride in the name. Even a Lady Pryde. Words are repeated, and no one has a dictionary. King of Destruction is accurate but so…basic. So you understand it, the Infernal Court was gone before the Blighted Kingdom ever rose. Nor was it some inner circle of nobility in a nation. It was the nation. That was what they called it, or so my studies indicated. They held sway on Rhir before the Blighted Kingdom. Over six thousand years ago, before the Creler Wars. Far before it, I suspect, because Rhir was abandoned for quite some time before Crelers emerged and it was resettled as a garrison. The last masters of this land were the Infernal Court.”
“But the books we read make it sound like Rhir’s been the Blighted Kingdom forever.”
And to that, Silvenia laughed. She threw her head back.
“They lied. It’s quite easy to do with a little history book and a quill. The Blighted Kingdom would have you think they’ve been around since the dawn of time. But they’re only six thousand years old. Rhir was resettled to safeguard against more threats like the Crelers. Demons. Blighted Kingdom. We’re both young. That is the first lie they tell. Neither group is what you think it is. Demons are a name. Or do you think Harpies were always called Demons? Once—they ruled Izril.”
She pointed at a Harpy wheeling overhead, the last of a species gone from every other part of the world. Silvenia rotated one shoulder, and her mending bones clicked together. She winced.
“Truth and lies. That’s what Othius is so good at. Some groups know the truth. Others…well, it is convenient to have the Blighted Kingdom defending Rhir. There is a threat. But if Demons overran the Blighted Kingdom tomorrow, the threat would remain. The Antinium know it. We are just two factions fighting over a continent. And the Demons are the ones the world knows as evil.”
From her mouth, it sounded so petty, so banal. Until you remembered that she had sent more souls into their graves than any mortal army. Until you saw Silvenia smile with that ruined face.
“Just so you know—that is fine with me. I live for war and strife. I was shattered long ago when I came to Rhir as a young [High Mage]. I learned the truth of Demons and the lies I was fed, and when I broke Wistram and joined the Demons, I did it because I found this cause worthier than the Blighted Kingdom’s. But don’t mistake me. Czautha has nobler goals. Serinpotva has every right to her vengeance. I am just war, a hungry beast to point at Rhir. I only crave levels and strife.”
She was truly mad. And in her eyes lay an unending conflict that Lord Hayvon stood on the other side of. The two could grind each other and entire armies and walls and nations to dust between those single-minded wills.
For a moment, the Earthers shuddered. Flora, the first girl to come here, the girl with a gun—felt a chill despite knowing Silvenia longest. But then the Death’s vibrant stare faded, and she became, briefly, that scholar, if a bitter one.
“But so you know—the Infernal Court predated the Blighted Kingdom, and if any of you ever learn more of it, I would dearly love to know and reward you for it. They were no better than Othius’ lot, by the way. Rhir corrupts. Or perhaps those that come to it are rotten and broken themselves. What I know of them was that the Infernal Court grew in power until, like so many stories, their excesses came back to haunt them. My line of history, recovered by a [Historian] who could pull destroyed texts, read thusly: ‘They were destroyed, both from within and externally, for their sins outnumbered all decency.’”
“Who were they? What did they do?”
“I have a name—where ‘Demon’ came from, actually. They may have been…a species, but I don’t want to taint your conclusions. Wait…why are you doing that head thing?”
The Earthers were exchanging significant looks, and as anyone familiar with them knew—Silvenia teleported a foot forwards and seized a boy’s arm. He was barely fourteen and jumped, but she was gentle.
“You know something?”
“Silvenia. Peace, please.”
General Bazeth interposed himself, and the Death of Magic backed off. Flora answered for Silvenia.
“It’s just a name, Silvenia. But…infernal? Rhir’s called ‘hell’, and Demons—were this group of people called…Devils?”
Silvenia’s look of excitement turned to disappointment as the Earthers held their breaths with a considerable degree of nerves. Her explanation about the Demons’ false name was very reassuring to anyone with a certain religious background.
Devils now…she exhaled.
“No. No…alas. It would have been too much to ask for, I suppose. If only I had a Level 50 [Historian] again. I was so close. That new Gnoll girl might do, but it’ll be decades until she can pull from that far back. And abducting people is always harder than it looks.”
She punched a hand into her thigh. Then she remembered herself.
“Come, come. Back to my story. Are you fed? Do you want more popped corn? [Finger of Gigantism]. Have some.”
She pointed, and a popcorn kernel grew until it was taller than the children. Silvenia inspected a gigantic flake of nutritional yeast and the butter and salt. She broke off a bit, took a bite, and nearly threw up.
“I don’t see what that [Innkeeper] was talking about. This is disgusting. Crazy is right. I’d rather eat carrion again.”
One of the new Earthers raised a hand.
“Why…why didn’t the [Historian] find out all the rest of the information, Silvenia?”
She gave the group from Bangladesh a thumbs-up. The [Translation] spell was mostly working, although it was adding unnecessary bloat to their statements. It was still good for a spell she’d had to apply to stones the Earthers not fluent in English carried around. She doubted many [Mages], even Wistram, would have access to it. Let alone [True Translation].
“Funny you should ask. It was my fault. The first time is always a surprise, but I didn’t think to give him magical wards. I should have. He pulled the wrong piece of text with his recovery Skill. When I checked on him the next day, there was only a crater of scorched earth where his house had been. Some things are really meant to stay hidden.”
The Earthers shuddered. Silvenia shook her head sadly, grimacing.
“Even [Historian] is a dangerous class to have. [Librarian], definitely. Ever heard of giant Silverfish that cast [Disintegrate]? I had to wipe out an entire colony. Well, ‘someone’ had to negotiate with them, and then they joined us. Then the Blighted Kingdom hit us with a plague spell, and the poor things died out. So I sent it right back at them and invented Vorepillars.”
She made air quotes when she said ‘someone’ and pointed to Serinpotva. The great Death of Wings was holding her own kind of court as Harpies flocked around her, and she was organizing the Demons. Even in her wounded state, there was a sharpness to this place that had been lacking in her absence.
A ruler was different from the endless well of power that was Silvenia. One organized, the other created or produced. General Bazeth had already gained three peers of his class, and there were classes beyond merely ‘[General]’.
“Out of curiosity, Silvenia, what were the rulers of the Infernal Court called? Just so we know? Otherwise, we might miss the facts you want us to find.”
Silvenia sighed as she acknowledged it might be worth sharing this tidbit. She exhaled, then whispered a word as a basket full of mana gems floated away and another set down next to her.
“They were called Lucifen. But th—”
Half the Earthers shouted. The other half looked bewildered as the very familiar name rang across the ones who knew some variant of Christianity. Silvenia’s eyes lit up.
“Well, well, well. Tell me everything.”
There was an irony that the most dangerous woman in the entire world didn’t know all the world’s sins.
But the world had been bigger five thousand and six hundred years ago, when the Creler Wars had still been ongoing. Silvenia had been born when the threat facing the world led to the rise of legends and heroes. She had been born in the ages when Dragons were still dying.
Now, all but one was dead. Perhaps there were more. If there were, they were hidden as well as the Lucifen. And the Lucifen would remain hidden, thank you.
She was employing search-spells again. You could tell. He’d had to head down to the library when the ward-spells went off.
The tomes were glowing. A sign they were resisting the Death of Magic’s searching spells. That allowed him a slight smirk as he returned ‘upstairs’ to his waiting audience. It was nice to know they were able to match the Death of Magic in some small way.
Yet hubris and Silvenia was a reminder of how far they had fallen. So Viscount Visophecin told his story like this:
“My forebears are dead. They were not weak.”
He gave this speech to House Shoel every decade. It was a tradition as he understood it. Once, it had been a far grander convocation where, like the Meeting of Tribes, his kind would come under threat and with flattery and politicking and the head or heads of the Lucifen would speak their will to be debated and challenged. It would inform their people’s deeds, and it was a centennial event.
Then, as these things happened, the Lucifen found themselves speaking to the Agelum and sharing the podium. After the disaster of Rhir when they went into hiding, for ten thousand years, Agelum and Lucifen had shared words here.
Those days, as the Library of Infernus clearly indicated, had been filled with strife between the races. It was not easy for proud Lucifen to hide. They had always been secret ‘Humans’, or taken the appearance of half-Elves, Beastfolk, and so on to gain influence, but being in hiding was different.
It took the Creler Wars to unite them and force both Agelum and Lucifen to the edge. Izril, gone. Chandrar, abandoned. Baleros…
Their enemies had never forgotten them. The Infernal Court had been the first in a series of deaths. The height of their strength had turned into routs as Naga drove them from Baleros, the blood of Izril warred with infernal might and won—and Chandrar’s Immortal Tyrant hounded them from her domain.
It was some small pleasure to see each group fail in its turn. Hunting Vampires in turn became the hunted. The Immortal Tyrant died, and the Eyes of Baleros were lost. But at the same time, Visophecin was aware of how reductive it was.
Hence his speech. It was Paxere’s turn this time. She and the older of the Lucifen young were considered ‘worthy’ of the speech.
Eight young adults, each decades into their maturity as the Lucifen regarded such things, Paxere being thirty-eight, and the youngest, Oelvix, merely twenty-two. They did not fidget and had the appearance of being attentive.
Failure to at least put up the front might mean years of having your hand held and your actions critiqued. Autonomy was a hard-won thing in Lucifen these days. Paxere had listened to this same speech or variations thereof twice already. She might be forty-eight when she finally was accorded more rights as a functional adult and could skip listening to this speech. Of course, what she didn’t realize was that the adults had to listen to Visophecin too—just at a different time.
She rebelled, of course. It was not like any Lucifen to accept shackles easily. But Visophecin’s kin had learned to watch their young, and they had to be far more careful than ages past. It was rumored to be harder to watch a young Agelum.
Having known Uziel and the other Agelum for all his life, Visophecin could well imagine how bad it would be. An Agelum whose strength had yet to wane could probably literally outrun most pursuit, and they would be peerless fighters, even if young.
At least Paxere wasn’t as insubordinate as Visophen had been when he was young. Visophecin had learned to gate-walk when he was thirteen. Chasing him down had nearly driven his forebears insane.
And anyways, of the eight Lucifen, Paxere was probably the closest to full maturity. She was cradling her damaged hand, her fingers missing. A rare wound among immortal Lucifen. She could have requested a regeneration potion, but such things were rare even among House Shoel. Accepting her injuries without long complaint was one reason why she was being considered for full autonomy.
She has been humbled. Perhaps she understands this lesson in more than words, now.
“My forebears are dead.”
Visophecin repeated himself slowly, and the listening Lucifen stirred. Their eyes focused on him, and the faint scent of oil and metal, the tang of brimstone—an infernal scent, as Ryoka Griffin called it—grew.
She had a way with flattery. She was not always elegant, but she had captivated Lucifen’s desire for admiration with genuine approbation and awe—and fear. After centuries of hiding, small wonder they had been obsessed with her.
But what she had observed was what Visophecin had always known.
“Curulac of a Hundred Days slaughtered the last of the Lucifen and Agelum who could remember the Creler Wars. In the past, you would sit with Agelum as your peers. No longer. Uzine’s generation is the last unless something changes. This…breaking of our species was the formation of House Shoel, the last alliance of Lucifen and Agelum. Our negotiations with Ailendamus, our seclusion here was not cunning. It was desperation.”
They barely blinked, but he could read their distaste for the speech by the minutiae of their eyes, the flicker of their auras. Visophecin was starting bleaker than previous invocations—and still, the Lucifen held his course.
“My forebearers are dead. And they were not weak. You are all aware that I have access to our warform. I am considered to be the most dangerous of House Shoel without exception among the Lucifen.”
Slow nods. This could not be doubted. When Rhisveri had first been contentious, Visophecin had dueled him. The Wyrm was mighty, but Visophecin was a powerful spellcaster, and he had seen war.
“When Lucifen and Agelum died, the Goblin King killed them, even in their warforms. An alliance of both Agelum and Lucifen died on Curulac’s blades. I have seen it. If you wish for recollections, visit the Library of Inferus. The records are clear.”
Those records are clear. However, even Visophecin didn’t have a clear picture of the Infernal Court’s downfall. He had a lot of accounts and personal reminiscences that painted a fairly clear picture of arrogance and complacency and excess, the traditional death of great empire.
However, the rest was gone. The last Archfiend, Cormelex, had seen to that.
“This is not a lesson in history, but hubris. Lucifen are immortal, not invincible. Silvenia, the Death of Magic, far exceeds our kind. Dioname, the Great General of Ailendamus, could be said to exceed my power, especially with her ability to empower an army. We may lead Ailendamus, but mortals have the capacity to exceed her. And you are all aware of a visitor that challenges even Rhisveri’s strength.”
Another reminder. The Lucifen knew about Teriarch, although how much probably depended on how much they had gotten from their elders. If they didn’t know, none were foolish enough to let it show.
“Viscount, what is the purpose of this lecture? Humility? We are all familiar with history. The death of Fithea is not lost on anyone. Tragic as it is.”
Oelvix. He probably thought he was anticipating Visophecin’s speech—and like a young wit, a singular wit at best—he probably thought he was being clever.
The silence made the young Lucifen flush, and then Visophecin continued speaking as if nothing had happened.
“The Dragons are dead. The lesson we have learned is simple. Each immortal species is simply incapable of maintaining itself. Reproduction, however crude, is more viable for a species’ survival than the power of individuals. Once more. The Lucifen who came before you and I were not weak. And yet they are dead, and we have been shattered again and again. We are the last. And mark my words, cousins. As I lead House Shoel, even as we control Ailendamus from shadows—I do not think we will return to our glory.”
Then their eyes were on him. Visophecin said it calmly, and that flower in his chest that thought they might rebuild still refused to wither. Hope was that twisting vine that grew even amidst despair. But the intellectual, logical side of him…
“Even if every single one of us were to commit to reproducing, even if we all avoided natural death, lived a thousand years, our people will not recover. The Agelum are dying. We hide from our enemies, who might remember our deeds and come against us. None of this is any one individual’s fault. Even Cormelex. It is the same thing that had laid low Dragonlords and the path of this world.”
He faced them calmly. They were drawn into his speech despite some having heard variations of it before. After all, Visophecin did not ever tell it the same way. He had some small gift of oration, nothing like his maternal siress. But Visophecin employed it now. He ran his eyes across each of the eight’s faces, let them stare into his gaze and see his lack of fear. His resolve. And his will, for this was not despair. This was how Visophecin told their story, Agelum and Lucifen both.
“You are bound to House Shoel’s rules. We are a community, and you have a responsibility to your peers. But there will come a time when you are accorded the respect of fully-fledged individuals. Then, you will make the decision that each of us does. And that is how we end. Lucifen. The Agelum have made their choice. But we are all entitled to inform this world upon how the last of the Lucifen shall meet their end. With dignity, with strife or vengeance…”
“…This age may be the last of all of us. Or it may be said that this is an hour like the Infernal Courts. If you would take part in it, then learn maturity.”
He glanced pointedly around, and each of the Lucifen fidgeted as they remembered recent indiscretions for which they had been upbraided.
But Visophecin just looked back in time to when he had been young. And Silvenia was older than him, but even she had not known Lucifen.
She had been born in an age filled with great magic and seen Walled Cities die. She had lived in the half-Elven villages for countless centuries in time immemorial, come out of her hiding to become a great [Mage] of Wistram, seen the Blighted Kingdom founded and rise and betrayed it.
How must she view the changing world? Visophecin had been brought into this world less than a thousand years ago. He had been young when Curulac came to Terandria and made to end a species once and for all.
Sadness. Dignity. The two comingled into a feeling he had no word for. That word defined the Lucifen. Defined immortality. Perhaps he would come up with a name for it.
He ended the little convocation with that. It was not the best speech he had ever given, and not the worst. Paxere bowed to him slightly.
“Was the warning to avoid Wistram’s eyes, Visophecin? That is a lesson I have taken to heart.”
“Not directly, no. Call it…self-reflection, Paxere. Projection as much as analysis. I do not doubt you will have your autonomy in time. What will you do with it?”
That surprised her, but she masked her reaction and smiled.
“Perhaps go on a long journey, Viscount. Though that might earn me the condemnation of my peers or delay my autonomy. I think it would still be for the best.”
What a strange thing. Especially telling him—though perhaps her own custodians, Azemith and Igolze, were aware of this, and so Paxere felt like telling him was no loss. But it was strange because the Viscount…he smiled as he adjusted his suit.
He had been thinking the exact same thing, recently.
Visophecin walked through the halls of his kind, plotting how to evade Rhisveri’s scrying spells that were doubtless meant to see if anyone was breaking his injunction against helping Ryoka Griffin and reviewed a report from Azemith. She had not found Gadrea, and it had been weeks since she had been discovered as having left.
The Devil was waiting for something, he realized. Perhaps…a great challenge. A single foe to set himself against, so he could say it was that he had lost against. Meaning to the end of his people.
He murmured the end to his speech as he walked House Shoel’s halls. Quietly, under his breath, the unspoken question.
“My forebearers were not weak. Was I?”
He asked for the simple reason that like the Agelum, the Lucifen had waned. Just like their kin, they had lost power, and sometimes Visophecin attributed that to a…weakening of the harshness that his kind had always held.
Visophecin judged himself no less vicious or intelligent or deadly in capability than those who had come before him. But never had Lucifen and Agelum been—more than allies of convenience at best. Yet here he was, caring for the last of them when Lucifen of ages past would have held their heads under the water and laughed in the doing.
Did that make him weaker? Logic said that the Lucifen’s own dwindling power, less pronounced than Agelum’s, was not based on anything as qualitative as their own brand of morality and feeling. But sometimes he wondered if he had taken the wrong tack with Ryoka Griffin. The trouble with a conscience—or a set of conduct so alien to humanity and many species—was that he had no moral compass.
And the only beings older than he, from Fithea to Rhisveri to even the Dragonlord, were also strangers. Visophecin was the oldest of the Lucifen. And as he had spoken—that was too young.
He had attained his warform by practice and effort, but the great powers of Lucifen started at the warform. At least some remained. Like…
He did not have to say it. The magic that opened into a realm that only the Lucifen could navigate with ease was intrinsic to their kind.
It looked like blackness, and the platform that he could walk on, or road, was important not to stray from. There was a ‘down’, and you could fall straight into somewhere you would rather not be.
Although this is a contained dimension with finite limits. He had clocked the landmass at about half of Ailendamus—and it contained the labyrinth that Ryoka Griffin had escaped from, the battleground that Eldavin had fought in, and more. A kind of travelling dimension as well.
With it, he could conceivably travel across Ailendamus in a breath. House Shoel had to anchor it to a point in reality, so there were limits to Visophecin’s ability to teleport. He could not, say, appear in Invrisil in a moment’s notice.
At least, not with this particular spell. In the past, Lucifen had been able to use far more abilities. Not teleportation necessarily…but they had possessed the powers of law and judgment in more than just titles.
Why had they lost those? Like the Agelum, it was the question Visophecin was dying to know. Perhaps literally dying. While Ryoka did not have a definitive answer, it rankled him that he could not ask or have her working on this issue because of mere…pride.
He appeared in the palace of Ailendamus and proceeded through the private chambers of Rhisveri. There was no one there, but Visophecin kept silent and walked swiftly, masking his presence with magic.
One thing Rhisveri had access to was long-range teleportation magic. He even had glyphs, the kind he’d used to cast [Greater Teleport]. There were dangers as the late Dame Eclizza had proved, but that had been the Death of Magic.
The odds were…remote that he would be in that kind of danger. And Rhisveri was not always attentive. If Visophecin just teleported to Izril and made a pretext of an excuse later, what would Rhisveri do?
“At the very least, I could attach a permanent locator spell to Ryoka Griffin. If I had access to that, I could conceivably use [Long-Range Teleport] by hoarding mana. It would be an unpleasant way to travel across continents and take days per trip…but it could be done.”
Visophecin slowly walked into the chamber with the teleportation rune. He glanced around, but Rhisveri was doubtless napping, counting treasure, or something else because the Wyrm’s breathing wasn’t even audible.
Visophecin turned back to his task, and a giant blue sock puppet wearing a black hood bobbed its head up and down. The Lucifen froze—then swung around and pretended to be walking on. The sock puppet followed.
“It would be really convenient to teleport to—I’m sorry, did you say Ryoka Griffin? I must have misheard you. No ears. I’m Rhissy, by the way. Nice to meet you, Viscount.”
Visophecin didn’t say anything. He kept on walking, trying not to obviously look around for the Wyrm. Was he camouflaged? Invisible? The sock puppet floated behind him.
“I know you couldn’t have been thinking of leaving via Rhisveri’s teleportation runes. Because that would be close to treason, and boy oh boy would the Duke be unhappy. We’ll keep this between us, agreed?”
“Not at all—Rhissy. And it would be paranoid for Rhisveri to monitor his teleportation runes.”
“You’d think so. Right? But—and this is so funny you’re going to laugh. Ha. Hahahahaha.”
The sock puppet threw his head back and laughed like a maniac. Visophecin wondered if any of the immortals were good at dealing with mental…strife.
That had been Fithea.
“Hahaha. Anyways. The funny thing is—Sophridel was just here the other day. I wonder why? He wasn’t that stealthy. Nor was Menorkel. One was trying to get to Izril, the other to the Singer of Terandria.”
So that was why he’d noticed Visophecin. Those fools. They weren’t half as stealthy.
“Perish the thought. I was merely looking for Sariant Lambs.”
“Oh, those pests? Ryoka’s got one attached to her. She even carries it around. I tell you, mortals. They’re just gullible fools.”
Rhissy scoffed. Visophecin, who had been on the back-foot and as close to sweating as he got, pounced in a second.
“Intriguing that you know that, Rhissy. You would not be going behind Rhisveri’s back and back upon the Duke’s word by scrying or…dare I suggest, visiting Ryoka Griffin?”
“W-who, me? Perish the thought!”
“Indeed. Why don’t we keep this from the Duke? We wouldn’t want you to annoy him.”
Rhissy’s mouth opened and closed as Visophecin gave him a sliver of a smile. There was a muffled, far deeper voice.
“You repugnant sliver of Garbichug sphincter—ahem. How kind of you, Viscount! Did you want me to get the Duke for anything?”
“You may tell him I was merely conducting routine surveillance.”
Visophecin sighed as Rhissy bobbed his stupid head up and down. The sock puppet smiled.
“Very good! I hope you’re doing well, Visophecin! Get out.”
The Lucifen gated immediately out of the palace. On his short walk back to House Shoel, he fumed quietly. Rhisveri had access to abilities the Lucifen didn’t. That was how power was maintained, but it chafed Visophecin to not be able to interact with the critical events as he saw them.
He had long been a shadowy figure in Ailendamus. But now, as he desired to take an active role, it eluded him. But he needed to join in these events if what she said was true. He was not ready for what was coming. Eldavin had been one of the greatest challenges of his life. More were coming.
My forebears. What have I lost that they possessed?
They’d had it all and still fallen to ruin. He needed to know—why. And for that knowledge, he would give almost anything. He thought of Ryoka Griffin…then the man who had stood behind the [Innkeeper]. There were no pictures left of him. But Visophecin’s blood still chilled when he wondered who that had been. He dearly wanted to go on a trip of his own.
And besides, with all due respect to Ryoka’s ability to attract immortal attention, he doubted she could truly pull a Dryad out of thin air.
Ailendamus had truly changed Ryoka. Not all the way, but she was a bit more thoughtful after coming back. Even more mysterious, and to Hethon at least, she looked calmer.
As if, despite all her failings and floundering, she had helped to bring her friend back in some way. And that made it all worth it.
Hethon didn’t begrudge her leaving. She’d been kidnapped after all. He didn’t really hold it against his father either. Tyrion had gone to save Sammial and Ryoka. Of course, Hethon was too young to fight in a war. He’d had…fun with Buscrei’s relatives in Oswen and even visited some of the other family.
But he’d been glued to the scrying orb and listening to reports from Jericha every day. He’d stayed up night after night until Lord Oswen gave him a tot to drink if he promised not to tell his father, and he stayed up with cousins on late-night hunts.
He could even shoot a bow decently, now, and Sammial was jealous of his sword lessons. Hethon’s little brother was jealous—as if he hadn’t met a [Princess].
She’d sent him a letter. Princess Oesca of Ailendamus liked Sammial. Sammial had been in Ailendamus and, to hear of it, had gone flying, seen [Knights] and great magic, gotten to know two Couriers, and walked in on Ryoka Griffin in flagrante delicto at least once.
Hethon envied all of that. He’d told Ryoka, privately, that sometimes it did feel like the world revolved around Sammial. When Hethon thought of his family, it was of his father, then his brother, then him.
His mother he tried not to think about. Ryoka had entered House Veltras’ tiny main family, and she was not a mother. She wasn’t a Jericha, either. Perhaps…she filled the role that Jericha and Ullim had tried to occupy. And if you added Tyrion, a younger Tyrion doing his best, things added up.
Ryoka’s stories of the lands of the fae were still making Hethon’s heart race. He was walking about The Wandering Inn to calm down. Sammial was busy trying to make Mrsha and Visma turn into giants with his mind.
Hethon…Hethon had tried the perspective thing Ryoka mentioned. It sounded fascinating. He stared out the window at the High Passes and tried to make it as small as a foothill.
No good. He was willing it, and Ryoka had described it more like seeing the truth. But still…Hethon loved seeing the High Passes up close. From the Vale Forest and beyond, it was tiny, but here?
He could see where it met the cloud layer. See the wrinkles of the clouds fold over, surround the peaks. Hethon loved clouds. He loved lying on his belly staring across a field of grass and seeing crickets hopping about or ladybugs flying.
Mind you, he wasn’t always happy to run in said grass, which was why Sammial was the active, energetic [Lordling]. Hethon knew what was in the grass or a pile of leaves, and he just…didn’t like bugs.
He knew that made him a bad Veltras, who were supposed to love nature. Ryoka got it. His father was hard to talk to, and Ullim was too understanding. Jericha kept trying to let him ‘prove himself’ by offering him to do a forced march or camp out without a sleeping tent.
Hethon didn’t really want to prove himself that way. He had been a very unhappy young man, even before he was poisoned. Ryoka had made it better.
Exploring Liscor and Invrisil, having a father that took him on rides or tilting…had it begun that day he’d hit the ring target? Ryoka hadn’t been responsible for that, but it had felt like that was the beginning of days getting better.
When Hethon Veltras spoke of his family, he spoke of his father who could not be assailed. Or Sammial, the talented, wild child. When Ryoka had asked him about himself, Hethon had been surprised.
“I’m just sort of normal, Ryoka. I don’t have any special abilities.”
“Not your eyes?”
She had teased him, and he grew shy. He had inherited his father’s vision, though Jericha said Hethon might have even better eyes. He knew that was an exaggeration, and Ryoka made too much of it.
“They’re just sharper than normal. That’s all. I can’t impress people by looking at them. I wish I had Sammial’s ability to shout or—I wish it were something noticeable.”
Right now, Hethon was staring up at the High Passes, watching a Goblin—or what he thought was a Goblin—descending the mountain. It was moving fast, which was why Hethon had picked it out even at that range. The slightest blob of green, about the size of a mote of dust…he wondered if it was falling or something to go so quickly.
It was only when Hethon heard the faint scuffle of boots on floorboards that he realized someone was watching him.
“You stand still very well. Hello. Are you with Ryoka? I’ve seen you around but we’ve never met.”
A young girl—well, his age—was staring at him. Nanette had pigtails, no hat, but she looked sure of herself. Hethon was instantly unsure. He was on the second floor of the inn and wondered if he were in her way or in trouble.
“I’m sorry! I was just—I’m just visiting. With Sammial. Has he done anything wrong? I’m his older brother. Hethon.”
She laughed, and he instantly felt younger than she was, for all he was taller by a good bit.
“You’re Hethon Veltras. I’m Nanette Weishart. A witch. Pleasure to meet you.”
“A pleasure to meet…”
He tried to bow and take her hand and nearly yanked her down. Flushing, Hethon stood, and Nanette dipped a curtsy.
“Are you lost? Looking for Ryoka’s room?”
“I—yes. I was just going to wait for her and ask her something. But I know she’s with Sammial.”
“Her room is right there.”
“Oh, thank you—”
It had her nameplate on it. Instantly, Hethon felt stupid and stupider because he didn’t really want to go in there and wait. Nanette seemed to sense it and gave him another smile.
“How do you like The Wandering Inn? I know your father’s banned, but you must be grateful to Miss Erin.”
“I am? I am, for letting me stay!”
Again, the young witch gave him a puzzled frown.
“And for saving your life.”
“For saving my life?”
He felt stupid. This time, Nanette frowned mightily.
“She helped deliver the cure to you, you know. But for her, Ryoka would never have left Invrisil. Erin Solstice fought the Assassin’s Guild and persuaded Saliss to help, I should imagine. It’s not a fact your father might acknowledge, but I should think you’d be grateful!”
“I didn’t know.”
“And Miss Ryoka didn’t mention it? That sounds like her.”
Nanette tossed her head, and Hethon grew a bit angry and defensive.
“She probably did and I forgot. But she was the one who risked the wrath of the Circle of Thorns herself. I’m grateful to everyone who helped save my life and Sammial’s—Miss Solstice too. But Ryoka Griffin’s the one who travelled thousands of miles alone.”
“You mean with Lady Maviola and Saliss of Lights. She only flew the final distance alone, and the Couriers of Izril defended her.”
“Well, she went the entire way. I don’t think diminishing her deeds is fair.”
For some reason, they were quarreling before Hethon quite realized what he was doing. Nanette stamped one foot, looking vexed.
“I’m not diminishing it. But it is like a [Lord] not to notice that every deed comes from more than one person. A [General] is supported by thousands of [Soldiers]. Ryoka Griffin is a very brave woman, but she would admit she relies on her many friends. And Erin Solstice is many of those friends.”
Hethon had the unpleasant feeling he often got when he was in a conversation and didn’t know what to say. He ducked his head and muttered.
“I didn’t—I apologize if I’ve offended you, Miss Nanette.”
“Witch Nanette. And I’m glad if you reflect on your mistakes. Good day to you.”
She turned on her heel and marched off, back straight. Hethon stared at her, aghast and annoyed by how quickly they had gone from introductions to her being offended. Flouncing off. He had never seen someone more appropriately flouncing in his life.
Hethon stuck out his tongue at her back, which was childish for a fourteen-year-old. But it beat cursing her. He turned beet red as she turned her head around and gave him an arch sniff.
To save himself from further defeat, Hethon retreated into Ryoka Griffin’s room like a routed soldier. There he sat on one of her chairs, adding this to the list of moments he’d scream into the wind about.
Why couldn’t he be like Sammial? He was downstairs, already making friends with the white Gnoll Doombearer. Hethon had been too awed and intimidated by Mrsha to try.
He had a terrible urge to snoop through Ryoka’s room as he sat there. But he had a feeling he’d be caught rifling through a drawer that held undergarments right as Ryoka, Nanette, Sammial, or all three walked in, and then Hethon would just have to jump out the window. So he confined himself to looking instead.
The room was messy. Her sheets were messy, there was Sariant Lamb fur under Ryoka’s bed and scraps of parchment too. Ryoka’s room was like…a potential garden of wonders combined with just pure sloth.
She had a pair of pants crumpled up…on top of three other pairs of pants she had probably been meaning to wash. Hethon averted his eyes from that and stared at a miniature bathtub on the windowsill. Did that green blob, the ‘Winter Sprite’, use it? It was a tiny brass tub filled with cold tea.
And there—there was a map of Izril and pins in places Ryoka had been. It was right next to a toothbrush in a cup and five tins of toothpaste gel from the [Alchemists], not a single one used up. And next to that was a defensive wand with a tag.
For Nerry? [Light Arrow]. Too weak.
The lamb? Ryoka had notes like that everywhere, actually. There was even one pinned to her pillow.
Don’t forget to do your laundry.
And another line further down.
Seriously, do your laundry. You’ve used every shirt at least once.
The final scribble was ominous.
You’ll regret this.
There was something so funny about how Ryoka even dealt with her personal possessions that Hethon smiled. He looked around, but the Faeblade wasn’t there. Not that he’d have touched it…
Because he was bored, Hethon got up and wondered if he should help her tidy up. He was stacking the toothpaste containers to create one full container when it also occurred to him a [Lord] did not touch a lady’s things without her consent. However, Hethon was also getting slightly appalled by the mess.
He wavered, then decided he’d better go find Ryoka. Hethon turned away and then winced.
His head hurt. And his chest twinged. For a second, Hethon thought he was getting Sammial’s bad breathing, which Ryoka called ‘asthma’. But his eyes stung with tears, and he swiped at them, bewildered.
“What? Elk’s oath—what’s—”
It was coming from Ryoka’s desk. There—on top of it was something that drew Hethon’s gaze. A wand.
Only, it wasn’t the [Light Arrow] wand. This one was dark and looked metallic. It was like a piece of a branch, not the smooth and manufactured wands some [Mages] liked. It—
Hethon was touching it before he knew what had come over him. He held it in his hand, and his eyes stung, his head swam, and his heart hurt.
“Ow. Ow. What’s—”
He began to put the wand back on the dresser almost as fast as he’d picked it up. Stupid! Hethon knew better than to touch random wands from Jericha. But it had almost been like a compulsion. He turned, meaning to let go of the wand.
Then…Hethon stared. He turned—froze—and stood there a good minute, mouth open. His heart, which had been painfully beating, suddenly picked up the pace.
Hethon stared out the window—and rubbed one eye. They stung. Hethon stared—then clapped his hands to his eyes.
“It hurts! It—stop, stop!”
He let go of the wand, placed it on the dresser, and when he looked again, it was gone. But the pain in his eyes was real, and when he raced over to Ryoka’s mirror, they were bloodshot—spots of blood appearing like when you hadn’t slept in ages.
What was going on? Was he cursed? Frightened, now, Hethon backed away and left Ryoka’s room fast. He hurried down the hallway, telling himself that it wasn’t a spell or curse—just backlash from what was probably a high-grade spell. But he froze as he passed one of the hallway windows. He stared out of it and…
Nanette was walking back down the hallway when the thoughtless [Lord] caught her eye again. He was staring out the window, and she wondered if he just liked staring at mountains. She peered out the window, at his face, and decided not to bother him. But as she passed—Nanette traced the place his eyes were moving and then stared out the window again. She narrowed her eyes—and tried to see what he was looking at. Then gave up.
Mystified, she continued on her way. For there was no way she could have seen what Hethon Veltras saw. The [Lord] looked back at Ryoka’s room, but he wasn’t holding the wand. Yet suddenly—he stared out the window, and the High Passes were there. Looming into the clouds. The sky that was visible between those great peaks was dark and cloudy, filled with winter.
Yet the longer he stared—the more he thought he was growing mad. For he saw it. In the flickering of shadows in the clouds, in the distant flakes of snow—in every shadow of ice, in the blowing of the wind that moved the Floodplains beyond—
He saw a great forest with trees that had no end to them. Tall and wild, without end, in the distance, just on the horizon. A forest he knew oh, so well. But—
The Vale Forest was hundreds of miles northwest of here. And he had never seen these trees. They looked so tall and wild.
He thought he was seeing the lands of the fae. Then he blinked—and it was just clouds, just the horizon. Hethon tried to laugh it off. But when he turned his head and stared again, just right—
The forest was still there. Hethon hesitated—but he didn’t know if he wanted to tell Ryoka what he’d done. Maybe it was temporary? Maybe it was a hallucination brought on by the wand doing something and her story. And he was afraid of upsetting his father. So he held his tongue. Besides.
It was his first real secret.
“Tell me about your parents, Numbtongue.”
“Why? I don’t remember them well. I wasn’t sure which ones were which.”
That tickled the Drake with onyx scales to no end. She rolled over in his bed, watching the Hobgoblin tune his guitar. Salkis, or Lady Salkis, the odd Wall Lady of Pallass and talented knife-fighter, Bloodfeast Raider, had been showing up in The Wandering Inn more and more of late.
In secret. Usually at night. She wasn’t exactly a stranger, and Erin was certainly friendly to anyone who had helped rescue Mrsha, but Salkis had a remove that the others from the Fellowship of the Inn did not.
She was an enduring enigma, although she was just as curious about the rest of the inn. Numbtongue…well, the [Bard] was open-minded, and Salkis was intrigued.
He was the strangest Goblin she’d met. And she thought she ‘knew’ Goblins, at least, more than most people. But he really was a [Bard]. He could cut down an enemy in battle, sing a song, and order a plate of spaghetti for lunch, all like a real person.
Numbtongue was, in fact, more normal than Salkis herself, and she wasn’t sure whether that was attracting her or dismaying her. He seemed to take pleasure in things like that, whereas it was tedium to her.
“You really didn’t know your parents?”
“Nah. Goblins in the sewers were too busy doing things. Everyone there was like…a parent. But not. It’s hard to explain without being a Goblin. We were a tribe. Everyone took care of everyone.”
“You were a group. I get it. Like the Fellowship of the Inn.”
“Mm. But stronger.”
“We were in each other’s company for months. How is there a stronger than that?”
Numbtongue grinned and began to pluck at his guitar strings.
“Goblins know everything about each other. We were good friends. A tribe…a tribe knows each other’s thoughts. If you and I were in the same tribe, I could toss something at you at any moment and you’d catch it.”
“Try it w—motherfucker.”
The guitar pick bounced off her face, and Salkis caught it in the air irritably. Numbtongue laughed. She had the briefest urge to kick him, but it wasn’t like her own comrades in arm. That trick would have gotten one of them stabbed, but Numbtongue…
He didn’t seem to be testing her. Again, it wasn’t what she had been looking for, but it was why she stayed. That and—
“Hey, Numbtongue. Are you around? I was going to—oh. Sorry.”
The door opened, and Garia Strongheart strode in. She took one look at Salkis lazing there, stopped, and the Drake grinned.
“You want to stay? We’re just talking.”
Numbtongue looked up, but Garia was already retreating, red-faced. Her eyes lingered on Salkis until the door closed.
“No, I was just—I’ll catch you later—”
Numbtongue settled back down, looking vaguely disappointed. Either he didn’t get it or he did and he didn’t understand the problem. But Salkis rather enjoyed spoiling Garia and Octavia’s day.
But curiosity…there was a reason why Salkis asked Numbtongue that question. It was a kind of question she tended to ask people she met. Her comrades among the Raiders and anyone she hung out with, be it friends or lovers who knew her identity.
She herself didn’t always realize she was asking. Numbtongue’s answer fascinated her, but when he turned it around, she clammed up.
“What’s having parents in Pallass like? A Wall Lord?”
“He’s not really a Wall Lord. The title is depreciated. It’s ornamental; in Salazsar or even Manus, it’d be worth a lot more than it is in Pallass. His real job is just a businessman. We have a lot of properties in Pallass. Blackwing Family. It’s not interesting.”
Salkis’ shoulders hunched, and she sat up, speaking dismissively. Numbtongue raised his brows.
“Sounds interesting to me. What about your mother? What’s it like having a Garuda mother?”
“I don’t care. She’s not my mother. She’s my stepmother.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. She and I don’t talk. She literally married into the family because she wanted the prestige. My father gets a pretty bird to hang on his arm at functions and other benefits—and she’s part of a Drake Oldblood family. Win-win.”
“…Is she nice?”
The question provoked such a blank look in Salkis that Numbtongue played through an entire chord before she just shrugged and lay back on her bed. She was about to leave the room when she decided she wasn’t done asking him questions.
“Forget my family for a second. If you had no parents—tell me again about how you got here. To the inn. Tell me about…Garen Redfang. About being one of the Goblins sent to kill Erin Solstice. You never finished the story of Esthelm.”
She sat up excitedly, because Numbtongue was good at telling stories. The [Bard] produced his guitar.
“Want the ballad?”
His hopeful look turned to disappointment, but then the Hobgoblin perked up.
“I’ll tell you…if you fix my hair.”
He pointed at his black hair, and Salkis rolled her eyes. It was one of his latest obsessions. Goblins did not normally worry about their hair, and some didn’t even have hair. But Numbtongue had discovered the joys of combing his hair—or having someone else who knew what they were doing comb his hair and apply the shampoo or hair treatments.
Octavia had mixed him up a bunch of tonics, and even if Salkis was a Drake, she knew her way around a comb better than Numbtongue, who had really not known what the heck it was for the longest time.
She fussed with his hair behind him as he spoke. And this was how Numbtongue told it.
“There were thirteen ordinary Goblins. Good warriors. Elites of Redfang’s tribe. But ordinary Goblins that Garen Redfang gave orders to. He said, ‘go kill the [Innkeeper]’, and so the silly Goblins tried, but they didn’t know where she was. So. They got lost. They were hiding from the Goblin Lord’s army in a city that had just been sacked, filled with undead, an annoying skeleton, a really annoying [Knight], and a lot of suffering Humans when our story stopped last time. Let’s see. What happened next?”
He closed his eyes as Salkis’ claws gingerly massaged his scalp. It was the most boring thing she’d done, the kind of thing her ‘friends’ in Pallass would do with her, fuss over their neck-spines. But since it was Numbtongue…
The one thing she objected to was how he told his story.
“You keep saying ‘ordinary Goblins’. Don’t do that. You were Redfang Elites. Trained killers.”
“Ordinary seasoned warriors. Ow. Don’t pull my ears.”
He swatted at her, but the Drake was genuinely annoyed.
“I know how this story ends and what you all did. Look at you. Even if you weren’t back then—you’re a Hob. You’re the highest-levelled Goblin in…what you and the other twelve Goblins did wasn’t normal.”
“Mhm. We were pretty great. So?”
Salkis drew out her words exasperatedly, as if trying to leak the truth into his brain.
“So…you weren’t ordinary.”
Then she saw his pointed grin spread across his face. Salkis almost dug her claws into his scalp, but Numbtongue replied slowly.
“But we were. Why does this annoy you so much?”
“Because you’re not proud of yourself! If you do something amazing, you should admit it. Or what’s the point? I thought you were proud of your dead brothers. Doesn’t it—diminish them to call them ordinary?”
The [Bard] developed a deep, thoughtful frown. Salkis expected him to be offended, but he wasn’t. And even then, after a long moment, he shook his head. He laid his head back against her chest and spoke dreamily as she continued working with the hair, adding a scented soap.
“Nope. We were ordinary Goblins. That’s the best part. Think about it, Salkis. Thirteen normal Goblins, twelve small ones and a Hob, did all that. We went to Esthelm and held off a Goblin Lord’s army. We fought a Gold-rank adventurer. And we saved a young woman from being a monster, and she saved us. Then…six Goblins found an [Innkeeper] in trouble. Five stayed at her inn and did great things. Five fought a Goblin Lord and won. Ordinary Goblins. You see? Anyone could do it.”
“No. Not just anyone.”
“Anyone could. But we did. That’s the difference.”
Earnestly, he sat up and insisted. It was that confusing humility she didn’t like. He was endlessly proud…but Salkis changed the subject.
“You’re special, Numbtongue. We’re different. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Goblin or Drake. Trust me, I know a bunch of people who’re the most influential in Pallass. And you know what? They’re boring. My father’s just a rich Drake. He’s…maybe you were lucky, growing up in the sewers.”
“Huh. That’s the first time anyone ever said that to me.”
Salkis just shook her head, and more words spilled out angrily, as they always did.
“Well, you might not have known your parents but yours are fine. All of my—all the people I know can tell you stories about theirs. My father…do you know what it’s like to know you were only born so you could make him look good? Like Melika—that’s my Garuda ‘stepmother’. He really doesn’t notice me sneaking out of the house. He’s just annoyed when I get him in trouble or stain the family reputation. You’d think the Blackwing family is better—but there’s nothing special about Edellein, one of Pallass’ [Generals]. I could do the job better. Or you could.”
“Generaling is hard work. You sure he’s just talk?”
Numbtongue had his eyes closed, but he was listening. Salkis produced a lather with the soap, scrubbing his hair furiously.
“Please. There’s no point to any of it. Walled Cities…that’s why I like this inn. And Goblins. You don’t obey stupid traditions. You don’t have the stupid traditions. Things are fun here.”
She meant it too. Salkis only wished she could shake Ryoka Griffin and get all the answers from her about the phone—but she was too wary of being found out. That couldn’t happen, and even Numbtongue…even he was a risk she was unwilling to take.
With that said, the Goblin grinned up at her.
“You’re pretty fun, too.”
She felt her heart leap, and this was as fun as being called to a feast—and far more convenient. Salkis pushed his head up and looked around for a washbasin.
“Well, keep me entertained and I’ll stick around. Got a plan for today?”
“…Want to see a room where you can fight all you want?”
And she left her tale at that. She could have gone on, about loneliness, or perhaps apathy and respect and feeling alive when she held a blade and no one knew her face. But that great desire had died down somewhat after being on an adventure. Yet still…
Salkis’ story was not unique to her.
His name among the Raiders was not Gilam Quellae. Many probably knew it, because he was not the best at keeping secrets, but the Bloodfeast Raiders enforced their secrecy in more ways than just oaths.
It was dangerous to be one of them, and while they were chaotic, unpredictable, and quarreled even amongst themselves as this hidden bar could attest—there was often blood on the floor every day—there were rules.
Break them and you died. No exceptions. Lord Lien of House Bellrui had been an example of what happened when you broke with them. The boss was also not someone you questioned.
There were two kinds of Raider. One was the criminal element, the permanent Raiders who had no life beyond this one. The other kind was Lord Gilam’s kind, the numerous Bloodfeast Raiders who came when called.
Or in this case, to blow off steam between feasts. It was hard to organize a feast, and they had to choose their targets well. Between events, you paid your dues, maybe had a smaller ‘outing’—and you complained.
“What’s wrong with your old man, Gilam? Or is it your mother?”
That got a glare from one of the other [Raiders]. But the asker had a mask, a spear, and was, in fact, their deadliest spearfighter and high on confidence. Low on caution. He’d murdered a [Spearmaster] when they’d raided a city in the south. After all, the Raiders were filled from both sides of Izril.
They were the most unified group of Izril in that sense. They were filled with contempt for their noble families or cities, and so Gilam had a sympathetic audience.
Like Salkis, his story was common among the Raiders, but his way of telling it was different.
“It’s that old man. Any of you met him?”
The more cautious members of the group were noncommittal, but the spearmaster shrugged.
“I remember visiting for some reason or other. I thought he was fine. What, does he get out a belt when the doors close? Does he have a basement?”
They had a basement, and a few members shifted slightly, but Gilam just sneered.
“No. But you’ll never meet such a lickspittle in all of Izril. Have you seen him following around high-and-mighty Lord Veltras or trotting along to every gathering? He’ll usher in common folk as if they own the manor and go pay a visit to his [Farmers] or [Vinters] with hat in hand.”
“Ah, a coward?”
Gilam nodded, rising to the question as he took more gulps of wine from a cup.
“Sanctimonious coward. He’s lectured me more times on ‘humility for my class’ than I can count. He does nothing with his gold and influence aside from toadying up to the others at every ball he can invite himself to. Oh, and he’ll probably remarry once his current wife dies.”
Some of the other Raiders raised their brows. Another of their number, Bein, leaned over. He and Gilam were close.
“Oho. So they don’t live long around Lord Pellmia, eh? Does he get tired of them or is it something else?”
And again, Gilam gave his friend a deep and confused frown.
“Neither. It’s poor health or something which did in—he’s just unfaithful. He’ll mourn a few years, then bounce to his next wife once Betta’s mother dies. He’s just a sad shell of a man pretending to be a beloved [Lord].”
Bein nodded agreeably, having no real interest in this conversation other than humoring Gilam. He had heard it all before, but at this, one of the [Spellscourges], a Raider with wands and who liked [Fireballs], a staple of their fighting, leaned over with a huge frown.
“Wait. So does he beat his wife?”
“Not that I know of.”
Gilam was looking annoyed by the lack of a resounding affirmation. The Raider, who had a mask on like a snarling dog, adjusted it.
“No basement? No private manor or shed? You’ve got to know. Come on, no holding out on us. We all share the secret stuff like the Circle of Thorns.”
More fidgets. That culling of the Circle had, ironically, brought more of their number into this group. But Bein just waved that off.
“Gilam’s never said anything like that. Pellmia’s an old codger boring as brass. He’ll sit in his manor sipping orange juice and act just like he did on the scrying orb as behind closed doors. Unless he’s actually a bastard?”
“I told you, he’s worthless.”
Gilam growled, annoyed now, and a hand on his sword hilt. But there were a lot of weapons here, and so no one stiffened too much. The masked dog Raider sniffed behind their guise.
“A coward who rode against Ailendamus. Sounds like you just hate his guts. You call that a bad father?”
“You think he’s all that? I’d trade places with anyone here in a heartbeat.”
Gilam laughed derisively, and the other Raider’s voice turned dangerous.
“If Pellmia had a hidden shack in the woods he visited every weekend, you’d know what bad looks like. Mine has a riding crop they bring out when they’re mad. I bet you don’t even have a single scar from your parents. What a crock. You don’t need to be in the Raiders.”
He turned away as a kind of silence fell, then mocking laughs made Gilam sit up in his seat. His face went blank—and Bein stepped back. The dog-mask Raider had only a warning note from his [Dangersense]. He turned, wand raised—and Gilam was on top of him, sword drawn.
Blood, laughter, and cheers erupted in the bar before their leader drew a blade, shouted, and one of the older Raiders struck both grappling [Lords] with a blast of pain magic that forced the two apart. Gilam rolled with a sword in his hands, roaring a challenge—but stopped when he saw who it was.
“I can’t leave you for five minutes without you breaking the rules. I should cut an ear off both of you. Or keep you from the feast.”
The threat was not a joke, and Gilam and the newer Raider froze as they imagined trying to explain that—or the loss of an ear. But the coldly furious leader of the Raiders just tossed something down on the table.
“There’s a feast. Everyone here, get ready. If you can’t make it—too bad.”
At last! The excitement turned into a fever’s pitch, and everyone scrambled to get ready or see where it was.
“Oh. Are we inviting our prodigal daughter?”
One of the veteran Raiders murmured to the [Raidleader of Slaughter]. The leader of the Bloodfeast Raiders let his eyes flash warningly in reply as the two watched the nobility gather up.
“We’ll see if she arrives. It’s close enough that she has no excuse. You make contact.”
“Got it. Why so close? That damn door covers too much ground…and with Veltras about…”
“I want to see what the [Innkeeper] can do. This lot will go mad if we have to avoid a third of Izril. Besides—I need more levels. Time to take some risks.”
That was a good reason. So the Raiders began to move out. And if there was a story there, and if the leader of the Bloodfeast Raiders wanted to tell it, it was a simple one.
Look at the oldest man in that room of young bucks and does, fighting and squabbling and doing what they pleased. He alone in a room of killers commanded respect and fear and wariness. His hair was white. He was a [Bandit Lord], oldest of the living.
Korizan Reeles had been a [Raider Chief] a long time ago when he ran into the first nobles going out covertly to do all the things that they wanted—but couldn’t dream of. But they played at breaking the law when he knew how filthy you could get when you soaked in blood or indulged everything Izril’s underworld had to offer.
It wasn’t hard to be a facilitator to the whims of the nobility. But making a club—making a gang, making the most fearsome group to haunt Izril? That drew them in, and many had a surprising gift for levelling in their real classes. But any fool could point a Wand of [Fireball]. And once he had their support—and they were rich and influential—
Well. It had taken decades for him to make the Bloodfeast Raiders as they were. Korizan could keep doing this and be rich off their killing sprees and self-indulgent whining, but even Korizan had something greater to aspire to. He had become a [Bandit Lord] and reaped the power of that class. And now?
The world was changing. Everyone was saying it, from the [Pirates] to the gangs. What was old was coming back around, and there were ghosts of real bastards as well as heroes. The call was coming.
Twelve [Bandit Lords] across the world. Twelve, both on land and sea. Once they filled each and every seat—
The [Bandit King] could emerge. And then they would see a contest and a class that could set a blaze that only the Goblin Kings could match. Everyone wanted a crown.
Korizan smiled as he looked past the raiders. But he had wayward members to get into line, and he had to win his seat. He didn’t really care for Gilam or any of their reasons. The Raiders all thought of this as a grand rebellion, a secret, their true nature.
Izril’s underworld drank in the excesses of the nobility and bloomed well with all the blood and gold and carrion they fed it. But it was all in service to him.
Numbers mattered. Twelve [Bandit Lords] would rise. Three Deaths held the world in sway. Six Walled Cities remained. Someone was counting.
“Twelve. Three. Six. Five families of Izril, as there ever were. Some numbers change. Many remain the same. There is auspiciousness in all. The Deaths have dwindled. Once, there were twelve. Before my time. Then there were eight as I lived. Now three. Does that make them stronger?”
A hand, young and supple flesh, was rolling around a series of bone-dice. Painted pips of color ran from one to six on one die—numbers on another, one to twenty. Another die so finely cut as to be almost spherical?
One to a thousand.
Odd trinkets, and the hand began to fiddle with an abacus next. Then jot down the numbers in series of magnitude. It was not like how a [Scribe] or [Mathematician] dealt with numbers. They had a certain respect for numbers, but Yelroan, the great [Mathematician] of his age, used numbers like a tool to calculate the world.
This person treated numbers like they were powerful in their own right. Four mattered more than fourteen. Seven was auspicious.
It was…an exceptionally annoying methodology to take towards life. And it annoyed one of the listeners beyond belief. The rest of the room was silent, almost bordering upon reverent. And the speaker continued.
“The numbers change—but see how primary they are. Four Shield Kingdoms. Four Great Companies. Not a single one above ten. The Great Tribes diminished. Their own number has dipped below ten for this coming era.”
At this, the annoyed listener couldn’t help but break in, his tone sarcastic.
“One would assume cause and effect would surely be the cause rather than the self-selection of numerology.”
Ordinarily, that would have won him wholehearted support and laughter, even if sycophantic. But today? Even his bodyguard looked slightly askance at him—and two eyes that seemed to be numbers in themselves, curved pupils and twisted irises to form a ‘2’ in their unsettling gaze—they focused on the speaker, and he hesitated.
Those eyes had not been like that months ago. They had slowly twisted into their current configuration. A mark of power.
Similarly—though the body was young—the voice was old. And the smile…the smile made the speaker hesitate. The hands flicking the abacus paused.
Then the [Patternlord of Graven Icons] raised his head. And his smile never wavered as he flicked that thousand-piece die across the table. It rolled and rolled, like a marble, and when it slowed…
“You say so, Emir Yazdil? Numbers have weight. Numbers distort our reality. For proof, look no further than here.”
The die stopped dead as it ran into a cup of water. It halted—and the number ‘five’ showed on it.
“Five have survived a scourging. Six, then. For the great Emir of Roshal cannot be discounted. Six have emerged where one held sway. But we are allies, so I hope you will forgive me foibles.”
The Emir Yazdil was not happy as he stared across the table. But he bowed, ever-so-slowly, at the waist.
“We belong to different ages, Lord Thatalocian.”
He received that smile again. But Yazdil held his tongue because the speaker was a [Lord]. Not an [Emir]. He had come from Terandria in a time when Roshal had embodied more than one port. He was…
What was his level? Higher? Lower? Yazdil thought they were approximates, and he had concluded immediately that despite the levels, Thatalocian could be killed. He was without resource. He had been helpless when he had first been found. If he had been…managed, he would have been an invaluable asset.
Giving him flesh was a mistake. To be clear, Yazdil had not been the one to do it and would have prevented it if he could. Roshal had too many sycophants and fools. Now, it was too late. Four other figures sat, letting Thatalocian speak. And while any one could die—all four were united in purpose.
Roshal had always had leaders. They rose and fell, and some were twisted, and some were mighty. Riqre had been one such. His death had not deprived the Slavers of Roshal of undue talent. Just another voice. Emir Yazdil had sat upon a throne of power.
Now he was sharing it, and he did not enjoy the feeling. The newcomers…had dangerous powers. For instance—the numbers that Thatalocian was so casually spouting?
“Aaah. Aah. Thatalocian. You made a mistake.”
A voice spoke from another pair of ‘lips’, a whispering reed of a ghost’s true body. Yazdil’s lip curled as he stared at not a person…but a flickering man. He stood with a hundred faces, shifting, his form never constant even as a ghost. For he had never had one body. A Jinn sat there, lounging, and even the [Slavers] and other Djinni looked on him with a kind of awe. Yazdil? Yazdil bared his teeth as his scales prickled.
He did not like this at all. And they were not even the…most famous names of Roshal. They had claimed most were lost to vengeance. The Rebel of Strings and Seamwalkers and something worse still. They had refused to tell him what, exactly, it was. He was almost certain he knew thanks to Erin Solstice, but their details were invaluable and they were withholding them all. So Roshal danced in uncertainty and upon their whims.
They had also claimed that Riqre and the most…infamous figures had never been among them to begin with. Was that a lie? It sounded too true to be a lie. Even so—the survivors had all been remarkable.
“The mistake reveals itself, Pazeral. Look. You see, Emir? Knowledge.”
One of the numbers that had been so carefully written down by Thatalocian was…glowing. The [Patternlord] looked at it covetously and with great delight. And Yazdil had to stare.
A number melted off the old piece of parchment. Dripped and ran, and the ink fell away. As if it did not fit. As if the page…slowly, the [Patternlord] wrote another number.
“Oh, oh. See how it shines? It makes so much more sense. Four, and four! And four.”
He cackled to himself as if there were something so beautiful about it. Yazdil’s breath caught. Because if this was true…
“No. No, they should all be dead. We confirmed they were dead. No!”
One of the lesser [Emirs] was holding her head. Moaning in abject terror. The others shivered, andThatalocian?
He laughed without a care in the world. He re-wrote the number, and now it gleamed.
Deaths of Rhir: 4.
“Who, I wonder? And how? Are they wounded? Will they emerge? I do not know. You see, I only know the shape of things. Not the reason. But do not discount my methods, Naga. Nor fret. We have come to balance the numbers. But let us then speak of little gifts to restart what we have lost. We shall repay it all in time.”
Secrets revealing themselves. Yazdil did not doubt Thatalocian’s Skills. But he fidgeted and plotted, desperately, while knowing that the other five would be rising like great edifices in Roshal. His authority was no longer in sway. He hated it.
What had become of his Roshal? He had sworn to defend it against outside threats to the last. Now…it had slipped away before anyone had come to burn it down.
My city. His eyes rose and the other five stared at him. They had to know his displeasure and they smiled.
Great ghosts were never meant to be given flesh. But Roshal broke every rule. And Thatalocian whispered.
“…But there is only one [Innkeeper] who matters at this moment. So let us discuss that, too. Have a care to listen well, Emirs all. We have much to do. We are all allies of convenience for now. Until we redraw the lines of the board—the time of Roshal’s great friendship should begin again.”
There was great evil, if you choose to call it that. Splendid good fighting it. A lot of people in between who were capable of reaching either side or bouncing between both.
In the end—it didn’t really matter, did it? The thing was, if you knew how the world worked, there was always great good and evil out there.
And the [Thief of Inheritance], Bviora, claimed that she knew all the stories. Or all the ones that mattered. She was simultaneously world-weary and green and new to all her pretense.
For instance, she drank a solid Firebreath Whiskey on the rocks like the hardest Drake [Soldier] or someone looking just to get drunk. She ordered like a pro.
The flush in her cheeks said quite clearly she could talk the talk but not walk the walk. Vetn was sipping from some far lighter Velrusk’s Claw. The thick, purple ooze was admittedly an acquired taste, but he thought it fit.
“Let me tell you something, Vetn. You’re playing on the world’s stage now. We are, I mean. If you screw up, we both die. You’re a Face—so I don’t think you need reminding, but you know who we’re stealing from.”
“The Slayer himself. I know.”
They were speaking openly, but even here, Vetn felt a prickle on his back. However, the safe-room was in Pallass, and they had half a day rented in it.
Safe-rooms were one of the best places to conduct clandestine meetings. They were neutral ground to almost all gangs and enchanted to keep you hidden, and listening spells were rarely put there. Oh, you could spy on people in one, but if anyone found out, the safe-room owner was going to be dead.
No questions asked. You couldn’t meddle with something like that. It wasn’t the ‘honor’ of thieves that kept this place safe. It was cold practicality.
Something that Vetn feared Bviora was lacking. He wouldn’t have even heard her out if not for that token that she had flashed at him. With it, he might be able to buy the criminal underworld off killing Tesy.
His friend was hiding in The Wandering Inn, sneaking out only to paint a few walls. Vetn had shouted at Tesy for doing it once, but it was like a compulsion, and the [Magical Painter] was barely eating, anyways.
Something had to be done, and Vetn had grown up helping Tesy get out of mistakes with Qwera. Despite this being Tesy’s fault…there was no question for Vetn whether he should do something. If Tesy was facing down all of the Walled Cities, not just Salazsar, Vetn would have to steal him away to another continent.
That was what it meant to care about someone. It was just that Vetn also didn’t want to die.
So he carefully weighed trying to steal from Bviora against helping her with her plans. He got paid for the attempt, of course, but as she pointed out—you didn’t get a second chance.
“The target is Klbkch the Slayer’s swords. They’re among the most valuable items the Antinium have…and the only thing I need. If they actually had any other Relics, this would be easier. But unfortunately, they don’t prize much, and kidnapping would only work for their Free Queen or the Slayer—and it’s too hard to do that to either. Forget the Small Queen or her staff. I thought about the new Antinium, but I can’t tell what they’re worth.”
Bviora laid out her reasoning quite openly, which surprised Vetn. But then—she talked like a pro.
She’d invited him to get a drink before they adjourned to the safe-room, took down a shot of Firebreath Whiskey, and she was—chatty. Like a [Mastermind] or an underworld veteran. Only the flush in her cheeks and the slight sense of nerves let Vetn know she was scared.
Oh, and her age. She couldn’t have been twenty yet…and that crystal hand. It was an odd feature for any [Thief] to have, and he suspected she’d gotten the old-fashioned punishment of the old choppity-chop for stealing in some city.
But she was quick with it. He’d seen her use a Skill, and she’d nearly stolen Qwera’s goods with him watching her. In fact, he had the distinct impression the hand was more than a mere artifact.
It made every sense in his body tell him it was valuable. Bviora noticed his look and twitched her hand.
“You paying attention, Vetn?”
“Just wondering why you need me to steal from the Slayer. That hand’s good enough to make an attempt.”
She grimaced and massaged her crystal hand with her flesh-and-blood hand.
“You stopped me. I’m not as fast with it as I should be. Besides, even if I get the Slayer’s swords, you know that’s not the problem. How much do you know on the thieving history of the swords?”
Thieving history was an odd concept. Some items were so rare there were records of attempts made that any good [Thief] studied. The Heartflame Breastplate, for instance, was getting a bit of a reputation. Although since it was mainly worn by Keldrass, or other recipients, it was hard to get at.
“Let’s see. I never paid attention to the Antinium…I was too young to remember the first war. Didn’t I hear something about the swords?”
“Right. They’re not worth much to non-Antinium. They’re not enchanted, but they’ve been recovered after several battles where the Slayer ‘died’. Thing is…I heard the Antinium always got them back. Even when the Assassin’s Guild went after the Slayer and someone stole the swords—the Antinium always get them back.”
Vetn didn’t like where this was going. Bviora smiled tightly.
“Want to guess how?”
“They hired someone to steal it back? Ransom?”
“Back when all of Izril was united against the Hives? Please. The Antinium probably didn’t even know to ransom it even if they had gold. No—whoever had the blades was murdered. Silent Antinium came for them. Snuck into cities—one time, the Flying Antinium literally slaughtered a city to get them back.”
“Ah. Small wonder no one goes for them. And they’re not Relics?”
“No magical signature, which is convenient for hiding them…but somehow, the Antinium always figure out where they are. I think they have their own means of—hearing? I dug up records claiming they have something called ‘Listeners’. Which is why we’re not talking about it anywhere close to Liscor. We’re also going silent on this mission.”
“To steal a bunch of blades that will get all the Antinium after us.”
Now came the hook. And sure enough, Bviora flashed that token at him with a cocky smile that was meant for him to both be allured by her open cleavage and/or the thrill of the mission and/or her confidence.
She got a 0 for 3 on all counts. But Vetn humored her as Bviora went on.
“It’s a standard hostage situation, only we trade the swords for something else, Vetn. The Antinium will play ball. They have to.”
“…Why don’t they just kill us and steal the swords?”
“Well, we hide them. And if they don’t answer my request, I’ll hurl them into the sea. No one’s tried disposing of the swords, you see. My notes on the Antinium say they don’t value much. Your job is just to help me pull the theft off, then run interference while we negotiate. You do that—the token is yours.”
She gave him another confident smile, and Vetn tried to count on his paws. He was counting how many ways this was going to go wrong.
Klbkch kills me. Erin kills me. The Antinium hold a grudge. We fail to hide the blades. They assassinate us. The deal falls through. I get such a huge bounty I have to flee Liscor. Erin puts a <Quest> on my head…
“This is looking worse and worse the more you speak.”
“Oh, come on. I thought you were a good [Thief]. Where’s your sense of adventure, man?”
She slapped him on the back, and Vetn lost his patience. He tried to grab her hand, but she twisted away with a grin. Yet his glare was serious.
“Alright, enough. Stop playing the old man at this. I have a few demands. One—I want the token with an impartial broker, not in your hands. If you get killed—I get paid for the attempt.”
“Hey, that’s standard, kid. Don’t act like this is my first heist.”
She scoffed, but she was getting nervous. Vetn growled in the back of his throat. She flashed him a grin with all her teeth, and his sense of—oddity heightened.
“Second—you stop doing that. And you tell me why I’m stealing the swords and who you are. How do you have that token?”
This time, Bviora’s smile flickered out, and she snapped back.
“You don’t get twenty questions. Do you always ask this much of a client on a job?”
Vetn’s growl grew deeper.
“I do when they flash things they should not have. That token is older than you, and it’s worth more than…if it’s fake, we have a problem.”
“It’s not fake. We’ll get it appraised and guaranteed. Believe me. Orchestra? Off Sellme’s back. It might not get the bounty from the Walled City off him, but the underworld will listen.”
Bviora insisted, rolling the token over her knuckles. Vetn just stared at the symbol that had been emblazoned on the metal. It was an old-fashioned coin, minted in a limited run and enchanted—like a Runner’s Seal, but this token was a currency only known to a few people.
This one? It had been cast out of Orichalcum, the purple metal that stood between Mithril and Adamantium in rarity. Vetn hadn’t seen more than a few things made of the rare metal, and he was a [Thief] who’d handled more artifacts than most Archmages.
But the sigil was what tipped him off.
“Tell me how you got it and what’s up with the hand. Or I walk, Bviora. You’re too suspicious. Some hotshot [Thief] comes into Liscor, throws around a lot of value, and acts like they’ve seen and done it all? And wants to bother the Antinium, who no one steals from? You’re decent at stealing….but you can’t be over Level 40. You’re below that, and so I’m the better [Thief].”
“You’ve seen me move. I was as fast as you!”
She bristled, and Vetn hesitated.
“Yes…but that was your hand, wasn’t it? Tell me. I’m serious. I don’t like this, and I think the odds are 80% we die. Even if it’s for Tesy, there are better ways for me to do it.”
Bviora folded her arms.
“You say that, but you have no good options but me. Gold won’t pay off Salazsar. Sit down, drink some milk, kid, and I’ll clue you in if you’re trustworthy.”
Again, it was the right lines…maybe the right lines if Vetn was speaking to a veteran [Thief]…delivered too fast, breathily, and by the wrong girl. He got up without even finishing the Velrusk Claw. Vetn spread his paws and walked out.
“You’ll be back!”
Bviora called out at his back. Vetn walked out the safe room door, and it magically sealed after him.
Three and a half hours later, he was in his rooms in Liscor when Bviora knocked on his door. When he didn’t answer, she hammered on it until he yanked the door open.
She was panting and looked like she’d been running.
“I ran over half of Pallass to find you!”
“I left. We’re done. See you.”
“Wait! Fine! I’ll tell you! Just not here!”
She dragged him back to the safehouse, looking a lot less confident. Vetn had called her bluff, and Bviora was muttering as she locked the saferoom door.
“But that should have worked! I know it works.”
“It works if I don’t think you’ll crack first. And it works if you’ve actually pulled that stunt off personally. I’ll grant you—you sound good, but you’re an amateur. Who are you?”
Vetn folded his arms, and Bviora turned beet red. She stammered for a second.
“I—I—oh, fine! I’ll tell you, but if you leak the information you’re dead, got it? It’s not me that’ll kill you. It’s all the others.”
“Yeah, yeah. What, are you part of some new [Thief] gang? Is the hand a gift from your employer?”
Vetn’s real guess was that Bviora was an agent of some other power, though why they’d sent a kid, he had no idea. But the truth…for the first time, he heard the entire part of the story, and not the mysteries. Bviora drew herself up, raised her hand, and he focused on it.
Jade crystal, shaped to mimic a real hand perfectly. It was one of the most high-level prostheses he’d ever seen, and he had suspected it had made her a better [Thief] than her level should be. Bviora flexed her hand—then spoke quietly.
“You’re right that I don’t deserve this hand, or the attitude. I cut my eyeteeth on stories of thieving. Good and evil—everyone’s got an agenda, you know. There’s people you can trust, wars, sides…it doesn’t matter to me. I mean, maybe I’d have fallen in love with someone or decided to support the King of Destruction if I’d been able to choose. But I’m here, in this back end of Izril’s stomach, by myself on a mission, Vetn. And I need the Thief of Clouds because…my rivals are getting the march on me.”
He raised his brows, and Bviora clarified.
“In the game. I have a sister who’s already stolen a march on me. Well, I’ve never met her, but she was behind the heist in Calanfer. Half-brothers, half-sisters, not all of ‘em Human—and we’re all after the same thing. Winner takes all. Literally, I’m afraid.”
She looked sad and distraught and determined all at once. And Vetn was scratching his head. Again, Bviora brandished the hand at him.
“I thought once you’d seen the coin and saw my hand you’d put it all together. But the stories ain’t what you think, are they? Believe me…they never wrote about the injuries. You have to know. Come on, now.”
The tone annoyed him, but he had to admit—there was something odd about the hand. Vetn glanced at the coin, and his brows snapped together. He knew what the coin was. It was one of a hundred favor-tokens, most redeemed, and anyone who had one would honor the request made.
There were few things more prestigious in the underground world. They had belonged to a living legend whose name echoed in this world still. But—he looked at Bviora, then the coin, then shook his head politely.
“No. No way.”
“Look at my hand.”
“This hand can steal anything. I don’t even know how to use it, but I inherited it. Not all my half-siblings have a limb. The best of us do. Two legs, a hand, an eye, an ear—I heard good old Dad lost the top half of his genitals too, but I really hope no one got that.”
Vetn’s mouth opened. And it stayed open as he stared at the coin in her hands. And the sigil engraved there.
It was…the mark of a bolt of lightning being caught by a hand. The iconic moment that had given a certain [Thief], the [Thief] who had the world’s most popular book series, the one that Vetn and all the others were styled after, his name.
Thivian Stormless. Bviora raised her crystal hand, and her hair, which was faintly red when undyed, the mark of Terandrian royal blood, was semi-transparent under the dim light of the safehouse. Her eyes were deadly serious. That hand flexed, and Vetn felt like he could hear the roar of waves and see the smile of that famous man.
“I am Bviora Stormless. The Lightning Thief’s daughter. And I’ll be the one to settle this…game. To do it, I need to steal more than anyone else. And one of the things that’ll win me everything is in the Antinium’s clutches. No one else knows it, but I did my research, and while everyone is running around collecting artifacts and Relics, I’m after the real goal. If I obtain both Eyes of Baleros that my father took from the jungles—I will inherit everything.”
Desperate eyes. Determined eyes. Vetn stared into Bviora’s gaze and sensed a wild will and the daring to take on the Hives. He held his breath—then nodded.
“Okay. You nearly got me that time. But The Lightning Thief’s daughter part was too big a lie. Alright. See you.”
He turned and began to jog out of the safehouse. Bviora’s face turned pale.
“Wh—but I was telling the truth!”
“Sure you were. No second chances. See you.”
Vetn hurried out the door. Bviora strode after him—then saw him break into a run. And then she glanced at her hand and realized—he’d just stolen the Lightning Thief’s mark.
She almost got him. But Vetn had decided two things when Bviora told him who she ‘was’. She was probably telling the truth about the game and whatnot. But the Lightning Thief’s daughter? Please. Even if he believed her—he’d rather just take the token and go.
He was one of the fastest Gnolls in existence. Before Bviora had even realized she had been stolen from, he was down the entire street and rounding the bend. Vetn could beat your average Courier in a short footrace. He had also plotted his escape vector.
“—wait! You can’t—”
She was quick! The safehouse was five streets away from the main railing of the 6th Floor, which overlooked Pallass’s lower floors. Vetn saw her emerge from a long thoroughfare just as he was at the railing.
Heads turned—but Vetn didn’t slow as he reached the railing. He just leapt—straight over the railing of the 6th Floor and dropped. Some people cried out, but most probably assumed he was either copying the now-famous Flying Gnoll of Pallass or he was a Street Runner.
Vetn flew, heading straight for the center of Pallass. The bazaar—and then he’d race out Pallass. He’d literally run to Salazsar and turn in the Lightning Mark if he had to. Bviora was out of luck.
Vetn was passing the third floor and preparing for landing. [Feathercatch Roll]! It worked if he timed it right. If he did it wrong, he broke something. But he’d fallen from greater heights without—
The Thief of Clouds sensed something. It came behind him like a storm. It reached for him, and he twisted in midair. A Garuda was diving past him, shouting and asking if he was okay. But the Garuda’s laughing-concerned face froze as Vetn entered a world of extreme speed.
[Enhanced Reactions: Stolen Seconds of Theft]! One of his great Skills activated. The Level 43 [Renowned Masterthief of Treasures] looked back—
And something was coming. It snaked across the streets of the 6th Floor, over the railing, and down through the air after him.
There was water on his fur. No—a storm. Vetn’s eyes went round as he tried to dodge in midair.
Was that a hand? It glowed. It came at him so fast—he went to block it, but the Skill activated, and a hand of jade grabbed his shoulder—and he heard a voice.
It sounded like Bviora’s, but laced with thunder. And a man’s voice. Vetn flashed—
—And he was sitting in the safehouse. The Lightning Mark was in Bviora’s hand, and she was panting and clutching her crystal hand in the other. Sweat streamed down her face, and the hand was glowing—
Vetn stared around. Then he strode towards the door. He opened it—ran outside, and looked around. Then he saw a Garuda flapping lazily up through the skies, unconcerned.
The same Garuda who’d been diving next to him not a moment before. The Garuda waved as he spotted Vetn staring up at him!
“Hey, get a flying pair of wings and join me!”
He didn’t recognize Vetn. The Thief of Clouds had gone back in—
“[I Stole a Better Tomorrow]. His great Skill. You’d think I could use it on the Slayer, couldn’t you?”
Vetn whirled. Bviora was on her knees. She looked up at him, pale-faced, then collapsed onto her back. She was breathing shallowly, and he knelt next to her.
“Told you. Hey. I’m gonna—just take care of—”
Her eyes rolled up in her head. Bviora passed out as Vetn grabbed her. He stared down at that hand—and then he heard it.
That great story began to blow across his fur. And now he was part of it.
“Hola, Vetn. How’s it hanging? Cómo estás? That’s Spanish, Mrsha.”
Erin whispered out of the side of her mouth to Mrsha as Vetn and a young woman entered the inn. He had her arm slung around his shoulder, and he looked completely shocked.
“Everything alright, Vetn? Who’s your friend?”
Lyonette instantly took notice of the almost-unconscious Bviora. Her head was lolling, and they both smelled a bit of sweat and drinks.
“This? Um. A friend! She had too much to drink, and I’m letting her lie in my room. I hope that’s alright?”
“Hmm. Why don’t you…let her rest in a spare guest-room? That’s quite alright. Dame Ushar can help you.”
Lyonette looked slightly askance at the idea of Vetn putting Bviora in his bed and being unaccompanied. He didn’t even seem to get the implication. Not that Lyonette probably thought he was a bad guy.
“Absolutely. Thank you, Erin. Did you, uh—how’s things? Have you been doing any witchcraft recently? Post any <Quests>? Or is it just—the Solstice effect?”
Vetn gave Erin a strange look, and the [Innkeeper] put her hands on her hips.
“I’ll have you know not everything is my fault! Um. What did I do?”
Vetn hurried upstairs with Dame Ushar helping Bviora. Erin turned to Mrsha, who was writing her homework, an essay on the merits of growing wheat over Yellats given Izril’s biome, on a piece of paper. Mrsha looked up.
…the inferior Yellat does not fare well in the humidity of Izril’s climes. And while one must admire the industrious way in which the plant goes, forsaken of much tending, the propensity to rot, I feel, means the good folk of Izril must turn to hardier plants such as the auspicious wheat stalk.
Is it not nobler to see gold rise from the field rather than see an orange Yellat toil in the dirt? I could go on about the difference in the two plants from a purely aesthetic point of view, but my most excellent friend and penpal, Fetohep of Khelt, might take umbrage, so I will conclude by saying…
She scribbled on a notecard and held it up.
He’s a suspicious guy. Thieves are. Maybe he stole something?
Erin scowled and put her hands on her hips.
“He better not have. Tesy is already in huge trouble, and if Vetn’s stealing, he’s in huge hot water. But he’s always out of the inn doing…suspicious stuff. You’re right, Mrsha. And he didn’t even notice I was on my feet!”
Erin gestured at her standing, upright position, looking indignant. True, she was leaning on the table, but she was upright! A month of rest had done her good, and Mrsha smiled approvingly.
I have already tendered my congratulations. But perhaps some fine vittles in the sugary way would do for tonight’s celebrations?
“Oh, you—fine, a milkshake!”
Erin tickled Mrsha until the Gnoll girl giggled. Then Mrsha ran over and presented her essay to Lyonette.
“Are you done? So fast, Mrsha! And so eloquent! Erin, look at her essay!”
The [Innkeeper]’s own good mood turned to slight hesitation as she read the most advanced essay for a kid Mrsha’s age in school she’d ever seen. But Lyonette was delighted, and Mrsha was done with her homework, so the girl got a snack.
“How about a banana smoothie and…some crackers? And what do you want to do?”
I want the Lightning Thief stories!
Mrsha immediately dragged Lyonette over to the fireplace and plomped herself in her mother’s lap. A smoothie and some sweet crackers from Ishkr and Mrsha bounced up and down as one of her favorite books came over.
Nanette instantly appeared, and Lyonette winced as her growing girl ground her bones against the table chair.
“Oof! Don’t jump, sweetie. You’re getting, uh, slightly heavy! Alright. I suppose I should have our smoothies too. I think they’re going to sell, Erin, so long as we can get fresh fruit from Oteslia. Where’s the book?”
“Are you reading the first adventures, Mrsha? Can I join in?”
Mrsha almost slapped Nanette’s hand away from the cracker bowl—but after a moment let her. The two had made up, so Lyonette smiled encouragingly and called out.
“More crackers, Ishkr? And another smoothie for Nanette and me since Mrsha’s so generous. Where’s the book? Oh, thank you, Ser Sest!”
The [Knight] had gone up to the rooms to get it. Everything was just right for a good story session, and Lyonette was reaching for it when Mrsha and Nanette interjected.
Wait! Ser Sest must read the book! His mellifluous voice is essential!
“That’s right! Can Ser Sest read, please? He has [Excellent Diction] and [Engaging Discourse]! And he can do the voices and parts better than anyone, Miss Lyonette!”
The [Princess]’ face fell, and Ser Sest coughed and turned red as the children begged for the superior reader to take over. Only Numbtongue was better—and he would often just start reading the book since he’d never heard the story himself.
“I, er, would be delighted to let you and Miss Mrsha relax, Your Highness.”
“I suppose we could let that happen. I think I do a perfectly wonderful Captain He’re, myself.”
Lyonette sniffed, but Ser Sest had opened the book to the bookmark, and he began to read aloud as Erin smiled in the corner—and began staring at her assignment.
She was training to beat Shaestrel. And one of her attempts to ‘train’ was staring at a picture. It was one of those changing pictures that was either a person’s face or something else if you looked at it from the right…perspective.
But she listened, and upstairs, a young woman began to wake after a half-hour to a story she knew by heart.
…the Lightning Thief strode into the bar and sat down at the table. “You must be Captain He’re. Nice to meet you, kid,” he said. She looked up with the most offended expression any Dullahan had ever worn. “Kid? And you must be my contact. It is not ‘Captain’—I am a [Mercenary] and I’ve left my company. One more word of disrespect and I am leaving.”
He sat back in a chair, put his feet up, and she rose to her feet so fast she nearly knocked the table over. Her armor was bright steel, good quality for a warrior, but hardly a sign of wealth or achievement. And he was not yet the Lightning Thief, just a young [Thief] who had made his mark stealing from Archmage Zelkyr’s Golems. But he smiled as quick as his hands, which had already poured himself a drink from her pitcher.
“Go ahead and leave if you want. You’ll be back.”
He’re stormed out of the bar. But she was back six minutes later and halted in front of his table.
“Give me my money pouch back.”
She slammed an armored fist down, and Thivian Stormless laughed. A [Bard] was tuning his guitar at the back of the tavern, and a few heads turned as the young man threw back his head. He’re seized his collar, but before she could headbutt him—
Vetn sat upstairs in his room, lost for words. Bviora, by contrast, had all of them, but little energy. She could barely sit upright.
“See? I…pushed too hard. Convinced you, didn’t I? Got anything to drink? And eat?”
“Let me get some.”
When he hurried back into the room, Bviora was checking her hand.
“I picked my mark, too. You didn’t try to cut my hand off. Not that it’d…do you much good. I inherited this. Cut it off and it’s just a magical artifact.”
“Has anyone tried?”
She gave him a tight smile that told him his answer.
“Most don’t guess, like you. But a few people have—and some just want the magic itself. Unfortunately, it’s hard to use the power.”
“Hard? You just used a Level 60 Skill. Or was it Level 70? Was he actually Level 71 when he died? This is unbelievable. How—”
Bviora raised a hand, panting.
“You’re in with me now. No turning back. And I can’t answer all the questions. Not yet. Just—just know I got all his hand-Skills. Or a lot of them. But I can’t just fire them off.”
“Do you only get a few per day? Per week, then?”
The young woman gulped for air, but she was rallying. As she took a bite of some crackers and smoothie, looking intrigued but happy with the food, she explained.
“I won’t be able to use Skills for an entire day at least. The higher I pull, the more energy it takes. And it locks my own Skills down…it’s a kind of tradeoff.”
“I’ve never heard of something like this before.”’
“Yeah, well. How many people do you know who have an actual limb? I’ve had this since I was twelve.”
“Did you have to lose…?”
Vetn saw Bviora freeze, and her face went cold. She spoke without looking at him.
“There’s a lot the books don’t tell you about the Lightning Thief. Read them first, then ask me. Although the series isn’t done—he must be close to sixty in the books. Believe me, he lived a lot longer than whenever they’ll end. And left a lot of kids behind.”
Bviora gave Vetn a tight smile.
“One of his many children. Great grandchildren, in my case.”
“Whoa. That seems…”
The Lightning Thief had stolen from Zelkyr near the end of the Archmage of Golem’s lifespan, but he wasn’t that old. He was the oldest living legend still in popular circulation. Bviora grimaced.
“Listen, he fathered his first children before he was sixteen. There’s plenty of time for him to create a huge family—and they all lived like he did. I’m one of dozens competing for his inheritance.”
The Lightning Thief’s inheritance? Vetn’s head was spinning.
“You mean, more than his hand?”
Another sad look crossed Bviora’s face, but she was determined now, eating fast and speaking faster.
“There’s more at stake than you know, Vetn. We’re all working at cross-purposes. Some love him, some hate his guts. Most are good at stealing or just fast. I was lucky to get the hand—not so lucky in having a crew. You know He’re? Her daughter had an entire team helping her do her heists.”
“Wait…the Dullahan [Mercenary] had a child with—”
“Oh, dead gods. Read the books. It’s pretty obvious they had kids. Why do you think he always appears with a new woman every book? Half the ones are having a child as he’s sailing across the seas or—I don’t have time to tell you everything. Just help me steal the blades and you’ll see the rest. There’s more than just that mark if you help me. Thief’s honor. Lightning Thief’s honor.”
There was no greater vow—or had been. Vetn sat there, aghast, as Bviora looked at him. Now that she had his help, there was no question of that, and she looked triumphant as she sat up.
“Like I said, you’re part of history now, Vetn. Everything you thought you were doing? Your friend, your thefts—it’s time to leave your mark on history.”
She said that as she sat in The Wandering Inn, right above an [Innkeeper] staring at a piece of paper and trying to beat a faerie at chess. But that was the thing. Bviora said all that while knowing about Erin Solstice, without a hint of joking or irony in her voice.
Because she believed it.
Stories, tales, and reasons. Good and bad. They made up this world and informed everything that came next. How they were told mattered. Some were grand, others humble.
But they all went together because characters met and had lives. So, as Bloodfeast moved and the Lightning Thief’s granddaughter plotted, amidst it all, as winter began to reach its zenith, a man polished a helmet, nervously, but thoroughly.
His name was Normen. He was untested, unsure of the armor he wore or the new blades he carried, and least of all of his class. Yet he was a [Knight] in the Order of Solstice. He had been told that the only other living [Knight], Rabbiteater, was soon to depart Terandria for Izril, and he was wondering…wondering when he would be called upon.
For he had no quest, no vows, nor deeds to accomplish. He was a [Knight], but one without purpose. And perhaps he was not ready, but he wondered if it was time. So he slowly donned the helmet, and from that…
The Order of Solstice began to write their own story.
If this chapter seems short, or off, and if it is a lead-in to the poll chapter, well, there are reasons for this.
I had not planned to do an Interlude after all the ones that came behind it. I said ‘I did the ones I wanted, and now comes good old writing’. I had my break. All was going well, and I was going to spend some time this month working on Gravesong Book 2 during regular updates. I am still going to do that because I owe Book 2 in like…four months. So I’ll be writing Volume 9 and a new book! Well…it might be easier than writing Volume 1, but I will let you know when I’m taking breaks to write that.
The point was, I was ready for the struggle. And then my computer died. It started as random shut-offs at first. Then it grew more frequent. I was in denial at first, and then I spent nine hours on Thursday trying to fix it. As of today, it has crashed so thoroughly that I can’t even boot it up without it going into startup repair.
This is not a cry for help—I’m looking into repairs, and I’ve ordered a new PC so I can use that. Funny thing though—I had hoped it might get here next week. It says it may ship by 4/30/2023.
So right now I have…a small Chromebook laptop. And a lot of frustration. It’s thrown off my writing this chapter, and I cannot stream myself writing. I may be a month like this, and so I hope you understand if I say it’s really annoying. Of all the things to interfere with my work, technical difficulties is a really stupid reason but here it is.
Yes, this entire chapter or half of it was written on a Chromebook. Writing is, mercifully, a low-intensity process, but I’d love to have my setup that has two monitors so I can use notes—argh. It just sucks. I have workarounds, and I’ll get back to it, but it just sucks sometimes. Not like ‘I broke my leg’, or ‘my house burned down’, or ‘war’s in my literal country’, but it sucks. Let’s not push luck though, eh?
Apologies about the weaker chapter and hope you continue to enjoy. Now, if you’ll excuse me…I have nothing to do with this stupid laptop. Maybe I’ll read a book. pirateaba out.
PS: Wait, I realized this is coming out on April 1st. Well, it’s not a joke. The trick was on me! And it’s about as funny as a Tom joke or the Elusive Lot’s pranks.
A month of March from the talented butts!