The day after Colth and Pisces destroyed an entire caravan from Roshal, it seemed like everyone had heard of it. At least, in the Meeting of Tribes.
Gnolls talked and listened. Even if it was a ‘secret’, keeping stuff like the Earther tent hidden was hard when everyone had the ability to hear someone talk from a hundred paces away.
Well, that wasn’t the only reason Pisces kept getting stares and people sniffing the blood on him. Despite washing, he felt like all the children were peeking at him, and the adults were giving him wary glances.
Colth? Colth affected not to notice too much, but he was working extra hard on ingratiating himself. But the other reason the two’s escapades had been leaked was…
Gamur the Axe.
A Named-rank among the tribes. He was a wanderer, like most Named-ranks, but well-respected and, Pisces realized, something of an atypical adventurer.
…In that he wasn’t noticeably or obviously insane. He was a skilled warrior, a risk-taker certainly with his lack of armor and battle technique, which involved him hurting his enemies so badly that he recovered. But along with the Champions of the Coast, he wasn’t visibly quirky like the others.
Then again, he did gossip for such a big and imposing Gnoll.
“…And there I was, listening to him talk with the [Slavers] like they were best friends of his. Then one took a swing at him, and he ran them through—cut the other’s head off, and spat flames all over the rest. Burned them to death. Then he called me an idiot for helping fight.”
“Wait, there he is. Hey, stop telling everyone what happened!”
Colth and Pisces finally caught up with Gamur in one of the tents. He was…complaining loudly to a bunch of Gnolls, mostly older women. The [Necromancer] slowed as he wondered where they actually had barged into, but he spoke quickly and urgently.
“Gamur! What are you doing?”
The huge Gnoll glanced up as he sat cross-legged, idly plucking at some pieces of wood. No, wait a second, he was knitting! And apparently, whining to a Gnoll who was picking apart a familiar fabric…
Honored Deskie was half sympathizing with Gamur, half inspecting the dress that Erin had sent from the inn. She glanced up as Colth and Pisces approached.
“Oh, and there the two troublemakers are. No more fighting in my tent or tribe, Honored Colth, Honored Pisces. Understood?”
“Never, Honored Deskie. But someone’s been slandering us across the Meeting of Tribes…a private affair. Gamur the Axe, what are you doing?”
Pisces stared at the Gnoll using the needles to move some colored yarn together. He blinked.
It seemed the Named-rank had a multitude of aptitudes, even if his knitting looked a lot less focused than the other experts in the tent. Deskie poked Gamur and pointed.
“Run and get me some magical scissors. They’re in my tent. This dress…is atrocious, but the [Innkeeper] is right. The thread is magic, and highly so. I don’t know who made this, but they used something rare and beautiful in this trash.”
“Yes, Honored Deskie.”
Gamur got up instantly and trotted out of the tent. Colth and Pisces followed him.
“Gamur, why are you telling everyone about the inn? That’s private. If the Drakes investigate—”
“You think Gnolls will tell Drake soldiers or their Watch anything? The tribes deserve to know there’s a crazy Human on the loose. Besides, this is our ground. You cause trouble, and I’ll hit you.”
Gamur stared at Pisces, who was still stuck on that part. This time, Colth elbowed Pisces.
“I knit, Pisces. You’re the only one who can’t, apparently. Hey, Ceria. You knit?”
“I what? No!”
Ceria had spotted them, and she trotted over with Yvlon and Ksmvr. Gamur and Colth exchanged a look.
“Hrr. They’re just thug-adventurers. I expected more out of you though, Colth the Supporter. Less of blood-madness, more thought.”
“Everyone has someone they hate. How do you deal with Crelers?”
Gamur sighed as he found Deskie’s tent and ducked into it. He re-emerged a second later with some magical scissors.
“So that’s your weird thing. Named-ranks are all so insane. Someday I will meet one who doesn’t make my fur stand on end. Gadiekh and you both seem normal. So does Mivifa…you’re all crazy.”
This was one way to start a day. Pisces rubbed at his eyes, realizing they’d gotten off-track from the part where Gamur didn’t leak that they’d killed a bunch of [Slavers] of Roshal.
Then again, the Gnolls really didn’t seem bothered. Even Liscor would weigh the diplomatic consequences of that kind of thing, but Gnolls seemed pretty staunchly unmoved. That was a good thing for Pisces.
The argument was, apparently, not so much about Colth’s actions, but who was crazy or not. For breakfast, Honored Deskie fed the Horns, Colth, and Gamur on hot rice and some delightful slabs of meat.
“What’s this, Honored Deskie?”
Yvlon was eating hungrily as Ksmvr tried to learn how to knit, and Colth and Gamur both showed him how. Deskie smiled as Inkar put down some more food and hugged the old Gnoll.
“Horse, I think.”
Yvlon stopped eating with a look of vague horror, but Ceria brightened up.
“Oh, that’s on my list of things to eat! It’s pretty good!”
It was not the kind of thing Humans like Pisces and Yvlon were used to, but Deskie rolled her eyes at their hesitance.
“We have thousands of horses across the tribes, and they die or go lame and need to be put down, even with the best Skills. What would you do? Humans.”
Inkar nodded, seemingly unmoved by the horror of eating horses as opposed to pigs or cows or other acceptable animals. She hadn’t come back with the Horns; rather, she’d surprised the heck out of them when they’d seen her walking around. But the Silverfangs were still maintaining a presence in both Liscor and the Meeting of Tribes, so Inkar had gone back with them.
So had Tkrn. The former [Guardsman] was still a City Gnoll in many ways, but his fortunes seemed to have led him here. He was carrying in more food from Earth as the [Spinners], [Weavers], [Knitters], and other thread-experts gave him orders and people to find.
They had no problems bossing Gamur around too, as if he were any other young Gnoll they knew, and for some reason, it struck Pisces as odd.
It struck Gamur as healthy.
“If I was too good to listen to Honored Deskie, who wove my first piece of armor when I was an idiot, who would I be? Fame gets to your head.”
“That’s what got Deni. Mihaela’s immune to it more or less, but hold on, is there no one sane in the south? Named-ranks, that is. I don’t know the southern counterparts as well. Let’s think.”
Gamur and Colth began tossing out names. And all the Horns listened with great fascination, as did the rest of the people in the tent. Colth ate from his bowl as he frowned at Gamur.
The huge Gnoll was on his third bowl, and Deskie kept poking him and telling him to ‘stop eating like a Wild Wastes Gnoll’.
“Something’s wrong with her. I don’t know what, but she’s not normal. She likes Saliss.”
“I’ll take your word for it. And yeah, that’s proof enough. Gadiekh?”
Half the tent shifted, and Gamur growled.
“Famous traveller. He’s like Deniusth from what I’ve heard. He went to Liscor expecting to make a splash, and some Goblin kicked him around. That was funny.”
He grinned, and at this point, Ceria leaned in. Gamur was intimidating as any Named-rank would be, but Ceria made the plunge.
“Did you want to go to the Trial of Blades, Gamur?”
He just snorted.
“Me? I’m not fancy enough with the axe. Besides, I was hunting down Plain’s Eye traitors. They weren’t all at the Meeting of Tribes, and some of their sub-tribes were still crazy with revenge. Most of their Doomslayers gave up after Xherw died. Not all.”
The tent fell silent, and Ceria blinked.
“I had no idea. No one talked about that.”
Gamur grunted shortly.
“That’s because it’s no one’s business but ours. Garsine, me, and some others dealt with it. Garsine’s crazy.”
“I bet she is. Very impressive—but self-sacrificial? Reminds me of Eld. Eldertuin? Have you met him?”
“Once. Terland? Big shield?”
“That’s Eld. Anyone else?”
Colth drummed his fingers on his side as he knit one-handed, keeping the thread and other knitting needle suspended in the air with some Skill.
“There were a few that I thought were normal-ish. Ever heard of…Joriac Wavebreaker? He was an old man I had the privilege of meeting.”
Even Gamur looked impressed by the name-drop.
“Didn’t he journey with the Lightning Thief?”
“Yep. An old legend. He was an old, decent man. But whether he was normal? He certainly seemed haunted by something, despite being one of those lovable types. I think Deniusth copied him—you know, throwing money around, always flirting or living high?”
“Hrr. It’s different in the south. You know Zeter, the Swordsman of Six?”
“Normal? He’s married, so that might indicate it.”
“He’s an ass. Arrogant, one of Manus’ soldier-types.”
“Ah, one of them. Got it. I thought he was just bad at the Trial of Blades, but he’s always like that. Wonderful.”
Colth flicked his hand dismissively as Gamur growled, clearly not a fan of the Swordsman of Six either. But he went on.
“That’s how a lot of Drake adventurers go. Loyal to their cities. The ones from small cities are either loyal to their homes or get ‘absorbed’ into a bigger city, who court them. Tribes do the same, but some of the good adventurers become more neutral. Lehra’s like that. She’s not normal, though.”
“She’s a kid. Bigheaded—but I think the war took her down. She might even survive a decade. Okay. You?”
Gamur scratched at his chest, unbothered by the quick question. He indicated his bare fur and the axe he still had on his back.
“I go into battle without armor. And apparently, I knit, so I’m not a tough warrior. What do you think?”
Colth shook his head as Pisces turned red, and half the tent stared at him disapprovingly.
“Well, I’ll take your word for it. You know what? I’ve got a name. Cosmenaut. The Duelist of First Landing. He’s just a fancy [Duelist] who thinks you can honor-duel your way to victory in any circumstance. Pompous, doesn’t actually do monster-slaying as much, but wickedly fast with the sword.”
Gamur thought about it and growled to himself.
“…Huh. That’s so boring. Is he actually Named-rank?”
Colth thought about it for a while.
“He’s…good enough with a blade that he’s the best duelist in First Landing. But again, he got to that rank without slaying monsters. He’s a Named-rank against [Bandits]. He could probably beat you or me or most Named-ranks in anything but a deathmatch. But you heard about that fight in the north, right? One look at a mace covered in acid and he folded up.”
The Named-rank Gnoll shook his head sadly.
“What’s happening to Named-ranks these days? I still remember looking up to the legends in my day, and I feel like a Silver-rank. I’m not sure I could chew my way out of an Adult Creler’s stomach like the Fangmaster. Let alone survive the Crelers trying to hatch in my fur afterwards.”
Even Yvlon blanched at the notion. Colth just nodded and sighed.
“Old legends. How about that drink after all? I always wanted to meet the Fangmaster, you know.”
They were burying the hatchet from yesterday, or so it seemed. Gamur nodded, then glanced at Colth.
“While I have you honestly—there are two I wanted to know about. The Favor of the North? And the Champions of the Coast. Normal?”
“You mean Caleis Berkesson? His face is a handkerchief. He’s fairly stable given that—you can definitely trust his word. And he’s not actually as arrogant as Cosmenaut would be. He’s definitely a loyalist, though, but the north doesn’t hate Gnolls as much as Drakes.”
“Good to know. And the Champions? They’re married.”
Colth hesitated for a long moment, and the silence was telling.
“Teithde and Rasen Verithe. I’ve journeyed with the two of them, and I don’t actually know what makes Rasen crazy. Probably hanging out with his wife? She’s a piece of work, but something about the two of them rubs me the wrong way. I don’t know what it is, but I have a feeling even Saliss would back away.”
That was just his intuition, but it made Pisces’ ears perk up. All these names might be people he’d meet one day or another, and Gamur seemed to nod and commit it all to memory.
“None of them are hostile, though? Shriekblade is. Zeter will go for you if he thinks you’re a danger. He’s tried to kill me more than once.”
Colth’s brows rose, and his expression grew serious.
“Deni has a bad temper, and he’s on the warpath after getting stolen from. Watch out for him. Viecel the Gambler…is the unpredictable one compared to Eld. They’re fine when Eld’s around. The Champions, the Favor—all decent as far as I know. Anyone in the south to watch out for?”
Gamur just grunted.
“Anyone from a Walled City’s dangerous if you cross their home. There are a few of my peers who go wild. Mivifa is the most trustworthy, Saliss, Gadiekh…”
He rattled off a few more names, and Colth nodded. Then he stretched.
“If we run into anyone we know, we’ll drop your name. Hopefully we’ll make new friends in the New Lands. But I sort of feel like we’ll run into competition from overseas. I’m going to hate fighting our counterparts.”
Fighting our counterparts? All the Horns looked up in alarm, but Gamur just nodded, sighed, and put away his knitting. The two seemed to take it as a fact.
Named-ranks would come to the New Lands. And whether or not they were sane or friendly—they would definitely clash.
A lot of little projects were underway. Well, ‘little’ was like Honored Deskie’s inspection of seith-thread. It wasn’t showing results—yet.
Chieftain Feshi’s project was more eye-catching. The Gnoll Chieftain was excavating the very earth where the Meeting of Tribes stood.
It actually reminded Pisces, disconcertingly, of the dungeon of Liscor and how the Antinium had first dug the tunnel that led to the main entrance. Only, this time, Feshi and her tribe knew what they were searching for.
The Kingdom of Gnolls. Accordingly, they didn’t just set about a tunnel.
They were building from the dirt too. It was almost like a Giant had begun making dirt forts; Feshi had a Skill that allowed Gnolls to move dirt at a prodigious rate, but as she pointed out to the Horns…
“It’s just dirt. I will need stone soon. Lots of it. We know it’s down there; we’ve already hit large pockets. We’ll have to mine it up, but we’ll put all of it to good use. It will be months before we’re even halfway to our target, but hopefully we will find a path down soon. Honestly, I would like to have to mine through the stone for at least a year, first.”
“Why’s that, Chieftain Feshi?”
She stood there, her fur painted with colors, smiling as she pointed to a fort of dirt, where Gnolls were busy building new ramparts—the ones not keeping watch with bows, that was. Then she turned to look at Ceria, and her eyes glinted.
“Well, because the Raskghar are down there, obviously. I imagine they can dig far better than even my Skill allows my people to do. Before we meet them, I will need a fortress of stone. This entire area will have to turn into a great killzone. I’ve asked my mentor, the Professor—the Titan of Baleros—for help. I may reach out to that famous [Architect] in Liscor, too.”
Pisces shivered, because her stare was intent, and Feshi had broken away from looking at Ceria. Then the Gnoll stared down at the ground as she spoke. Here was someone else planning a war, but Feshi seemed keenly aware that her tribe and Gnolls were not ready for another battle. She looked up from the ground and smiled.
“I hope, Horns, you will continue thinking of us as allies. We have been reduced by all the treachery and strife, but you will find no truer friends—and we need forces, both high-level and numerous, to support us. The Drakes have not vanished, and frankly, if that Goblin tribe were here, I would think of offering them safety in the Great Plains were it not for the reprisals.”
They really did need a third outside force to join hands with them, and it was either Humans or Antinium…and neither was very appealing. So, to the New Lands everyone turned.
“I wonder if we could join a tribe moving west. Plain’s Eye went that way, and the survivors are apparently in need of help. We could catch up with them. Colth, would you go west?”
Yvlon floated the idea later as Colth yawned and transcribed words Ceria was muttering. He was acting as her [Scribe] as she kept deciphering Silvenia’s hidden message. She’d had to take a break last night. Secret and exciting as it was—it was also a pain in the butt because the half-Elf had to tilt the crystal just right to get the right magnification and angle to read the text, which curved around the tiny shard of ice.
Colth’s Skills helped, and the two had traded off the last hour with Satar Silverfang, who was dancing to write this all down as a famous moment in her book of history. Colth glanced up.
“I’m with you Horns for a bit. If it leads to the New Lands—that’s my destination, anyways. Something tells me this missive might be more important, though.”
He nodded to the sheet of paper, and Yvlon glanced over.
“Is it almost done?”
Ceria shook her head.
“Almost. And it’s crazy. I can’t tell if she’s bragging or threatening us or both. But I think I know what we have to do next, with respect to the Winter Solstice. We can still do this and go there. I think. But how did she know?”
“She’s the Death of Magic. How doesn’t she know? I think you should be flattered she’s threatening you. It means she probably thinks you can succeed.”
The [Supporter] cheerfully patted Ceria on the back, and the half-Elf gave him a dark glower.
“Thanks. I think we’re done. Boys and girls, gather around. Who wants to show Shaman Theikha this?”
She held up the letter, and Pisces, heart palpitating slightly, stared at what Silvenia had left.
To the Horns of Hammerad:
I am Silvenia, the Death of Magic, and I remember the Crossroads of Izril. I was born during the Creler Wars, nearly three hundred years after Rhir was lost, as they poured across our world and each nation began to falter.
I remember the coasts falling, cities dying, and each continent—each—calling for aid and hearing only each other’s pleas. In those days, I was a girl and thought it so terrifying. I dream of those days and wish I had the power to go back and fight alongside real legends.
The ‘Deaths’ of the modern age would have been counted well among the many heroes of that time who held the line. A thin line drawn by sheer defiance in the face of horrors who laughed and drank the blood of Archmages like water and thought loud enough to kill even Minds.
I wish you or anyone else could remember it with me. The kingdoms you call glorious today? They are wrecked shadows of the ones who fought in the last great calamity to tear this world asunder. It comes, again and again, you see. Not silly imperiums like Selphids or half-Elves or every species. World-ending disasters. Before Crelers? The end of magic. And before that…
I remember Walled Cities falling. I remember the Crossroads of Izril closing. I was a girl, then a soldier fighting across three continents before the war ended, and I returned to peace before Demons and a ‘Blighted Kingdom’ emerged.
Once, the Crossroads connected all of Izril. And now someone else recalls them. But they’ve always been there. I wonder why no one’s opened them before that? It’s so delightfully interesting, Horns of Hammerad, and you are very, very close to one of the keys, or so I’ve been told by a certain [Empress]. You could step into them tomorrow or today.
Yet even she and I do not risk it to travel by, which speaks to the danger. Well, I would, but she won’t let me. And I cannot be everywhere at once; the danger is too great on multiple fronts, even if it is my absence. I could only leave for a short while, for something I knew was worthwhile. Or for a worthy challenge.
So here’s my delightful offer: you’ll find more in the Crossroads than you bargained for, I’m sure. Horrible monsters. Secrets.
Locked gates. Almost no one has a key, not even the [Innkeeper], but I make keys and magic. Just call for me, and I’ll open you a door if you find it.
But I want half. It’s a special offer because I like you, sister, and because I think your lot is a funny group that reminds me of adventurers I’ve seen who’ve lived. Take me up on it, please. And if you try to trap me, I’ll regretfully murder you and every army of the Blighted Kingdom they bring.
—Silvenia, Death of Magic
It was fascinating, horrifying, and Pisces wondered if it were serious.
“I don’t mean serious, more in that perhaps she’s offered this to a number of adventurers. We are not special enough to warrant her full attention.”
Ceria nodded as they sat around, eying the missive. Satar was trembling with excitement, but Colth caught her paw.
“Don’t write that down, Miss Silverfang. Not yet, at any rate. The Blighted Kingdom is everywhere. With respect to secrets—even Gamur would know better than to talk. This gets sealed, or we all die. The only other person who should hear about this is Shaman Theikha.”
Even Satar blanched at the injunction, and she nodded and ran to find the old [Shaman].
Theikha sighed tiredly, but she didn’t look old. The heart that had been given to her by the Earth Elemental beat like the trembling earth in her personal tent, and she felt youthful.
Not young, but like spring grass after deep winter. Pisces looked at Theikha as if she were a sign that age was just an idea. Certainly, the Gnoll had both age in her—and wisdom and newfound life.
All of that translated to a smack on Colth’s head.
“You do not stop bringing me trouble, Colth!”
“Ow! Shaman! I’m not trying to do it! This one is the Horns’ fault!”
Theikha turned the paws of wrath on the Horns, and everyone stepped back, but she pinched Ceria’s ear gently.
“True. I see one mischief-maker here, and I am glad she is smart enough not to rile up my people. But what a headache. I suspect the offer is genuine, even if it is dangerous. As for the key…I suppose it cannot be helped. Colth, you little brat—”
She grabbed his ear too, and Pisces saw a Named-rank adventurer and Ceria yelping. Ceria was either braver or dumber than Colth and tried to break Theikha’s grip with a frost-hand. The [Shaman]’s arm glowed and heated up, negating the cold, then she twisted.
“Aah! I give! I give! Stop, Shaman Theikha, it’s coming off!”
“She asserts dominance so well.”
Ksmvr observed Ceria pleading with Theikha to stop, deeply impressed. Silly as it might be—it did work. Even the Horns were very respectful as Theikha glared at Colth.
“You win, Colth. It seems prudence must be replaced with cautious speed. Satar, run and find me Wer. Colth is about to get his wish.”
Colth beamed as she let go. The Horns looked at each other and then remembered one of the last famous Gnolls.
Wer the Wanderer had white fur, a traveller’s longcoat, and his quarterstaff, and he was a Doombearer. He never spoke of where he hailed from—Theikha might know, but he was still private, despite the revelations of the Meeting of Tribes.
Other Gnolls treated him almost like the legend of Doomslayers that had preceded him; he had revealed the truth, but the truth had cost them greatly.
He was still a pariah in many senses, but Theikha treated him like a wayward son, and it seemed Wer was gratified by it.
Well—that and reminded why having family among Gnolls was a problem, because Theikha bossed him about like everyone else, and he clearly resented it.
“Shaman, I do have work back amongst my people. I cannot forsake all that—much less reveal all my knowledge to outsiders.”
“The time is past for secrets, Wer the Wanderer! Or do you think that the Doombearers get to have all of them? They would be another Plain’s Eye, then.”
Theikha and Wer had a loud, spirited argument, which Wer was definitely not going to win against the oldest [Shaman] of the tribes. He looked greatly offended by the suggestion.
“But my Skill—it’s not trivial. In fact, it’s so dangerous that as I said, even Gadiekh, Colth—the Horns and Gamur—and Garsine and you—would still be in grave peril! You do not know the risks!”
She swatted at him.
“Then we shall not risk all of us, Wer. I am asking you to trust only Colth and the Horns, and only as far as you care. But if it is inevitable others will find doors in—is it not wisdom to begin exploring the Crossroads of Izril first?”
Every head swung to Wer, and the Gnoll glared as Yvlon stared. He hung his head, muttering.
“It’s too dangerous. Let the Drakes and Humans and other idiots die by the thousands. You don’t know what you’re asking. I may not be Named-rank, but I’d put myself against a Gold-rank any day, and I know how dangerous it is.”
“Hold on. Hold on—you know how to get to the Crossroads of Izril?”
Wer, Colth, and Theikha turned to Yvlon. Colth raised one eyebrow.
“Yes. He’s got a Skill that lets him access it. That’s how he gets around so fast. Keep up, Yvlon.”
She nearly punched him, but Pisces, Ksmvr, and Ceria held her back. Wer raised his brows, and Theikha smiled.
“You see, Wer? We do not reveal all your secrets instantly. Will you tell them?”
Wer heaved a huge sigh.
“Since they know Mrsha—I thought she was the one who told everyone. For a child who can’t talk, she has the biggest mouth in the world. Very well, Shaman. Horns, this is sworn to secrecy. Satar Silverfang, Colth, Shaman Theikha, and a handful of others like Chieftain Feshi know this, but one of the powers I gained from my class is the ability to access the Crossroads of Izril.”
The Horns of Hammerad looked at one another. Then all four raised their hands. Ceria turned to Theikha.
“Do we get to ask questions?”
They had lunch in the Earth-simulation because it was both secure and fun. Wer looked like an albino man and poked several times at a piece of jello in his boba tea.
“This is horse bone. I don’t object to eating horse, but this is disgusting.”
“It certainly may not be healthy. I have been arguing with my people about how much sugar Earth eats. We do not need everything they make.”
Shaman Theikha lowered her sunglasses as they ate outside. Pisces basked in the sun as Colth, looking exactly like he did normally, fed a bunch of pigeons in a big park with Ksmvr. Everyone was listening to Wer, though. He ate, then hunched his shoulders as he sat on a bench and spoke, face dark and troubled.
“I levelled quickly after becoming a Doombearer. We all do, or die. Even Mrsha. My luck powers…I learned from someone else how to control them, and I decided it was my purpose to try and save as many ‘Doombringers’ as possible. I failed too many times. Far too many. But my class evolved around that. I needed to be good at fighting, but also—fast enough to get to those in need, able to slip through a wall or bypass a tribe.”
Theikha patted his hand gently.
“You have succeeded, Wer. The truth is revealed.”
“…Yes. But whether or not the others are safe? They aren’t ready to come out of hiding. I wouldn’t advise them to anyways.”
Wer’s face was dark. Then he sighed and went on.
“—The day I hit Level 40, I gained a Skill. [I Walked the Crossroads of Izril].”
Pisces’ head snapped up, and Ceria stopped fighting with Yvlon over a grilled cheese sandwich. Satar scratched at her head.
“Wait. But that’s not the Skill or—key that Miss Solstice mentioned in her quest.”
Wer agreed, nodding.
“No. I think there must be a more permanent way. I just got the Skill. In fact, I’ve met a traveller on that road. Just one. Recently.”
“The Witch of Webs. She was coming with someone else, and she scared me almost to death.”
Everyone fell silent, and Theikha exhaled slowly.
“Many paths to the same place. What else should a crossroads be? You gained it with Skills because you had the need. The [Witch] knows the old ways. Why don’t you use it all the time?”
“Come to that, why didn’t you use it to get Mrsha around? You could have gone back to the inn, gotten all the way to the Meeting of Tribes, without even needing to hide from the Doomslayers!”
Yvlon frowned darkly, annoyed by this omission of logic as she saw it. Wer just glared back.
“Because it’s not safe! I would have rather dodged arrows with Mrsha in my arms than taken her to the Crossroads. Especially a child who doesn’t follow orders. The Crossroads are so damn dangerous around Liscor that I could barely use them to travel more than a few feet without risking my life. There are safe…areas…especially around the Great Plains. But around Liscor? It’s even more dangerous.”
Ksmvr raised an urgent hand.
“I feel the need to clarify now, please. How dangerous are we talking? Can we quantify this danger? I often feel ‘danger’ is insubstantial.”
“He has a good point. We’re a Gold-rank team, Colth is a Named-rank. Is it so dangerous that we can’t even explore a bit?”
Ceria chewed on her sandwich, and Wer gave her a mirthless grin.
“Good question. I thought the same thing when I first discovered it. And you know what? I’ve come close to death many times. I’ve fought Doomslayers and been hunted. That first month I gained my Skill at Level 40? I was cautious, I brought potions, supplies, and even hired [Mercenaries] one time. I nearly died twelve times. Look.”
He brushed at his shirt, realized it wasn’t fur, then pulled it up and revealed a huge, ropey scar on his chest and then another one down his arm. Part of his stomach looked slightly melted by…acid?
Pisces blanched and put down his meal. Colth inspected the wounds seriously as Satar turned pale.
“Those aren’t blade-wounds.”
Wer bared his teeth.
“No. There’s a thousand threats there, but I learned one invaluable lesson: stay on the road. It’s almost safe if you’re on the road and not in a dangerous region. The problem is—the road’s gone in a lot of places. The crossroads are in disrepair. But the instant you step off the road…it’s dangerous. It’s deadly. I hired Gold-rank [Mercenaries], and they went off exploring for an hour. I never saw them again. It’s a vast, dangerous land, and I think all these explorers that [Innkeeper]’s galvanized? If they find the crossroads, they’re going to die like flies.”
Did Erin know this? Pisces thought of Erin and shivered. Perhaps she did. She had challenged the world to her quest…and she had told them they needed to level.
“Hold on, though. Hold on. We have a door. Even if it’s dangerous, Wer, you already have the door. We could complete the quest—carefully—or get the jump on everyone. If you help—”
Ceria was feeling her way forwards, and Wer folded his arms.
“This is why I didn’t want to do it! You’re talking like I did, like Colth does. You think you can be cautious. Listen to me. I survived being hunted by Xherw for decades. I’m over Level 40, which is Named-rank by some standards. Do you think I was incautious? I’m willing to bet I was more cautious, more prepared than you can be, and I still got out by sheer luck. It. Is. Dangerous.”
He slammed a hand onto the bench and collapsed the entire thing to the ground with the force. Theikha picked herself up with a sigh as Wer groaned—the boba tea was all over his clothes.
“I think you should listen to Honored Wer, Horns, Colth. But Wer, I think you must try again.”
Wer ducked his head as Ceria bowed to Theikha, and he muttered.
“You may be right, [Shaman]. But I fear it. Not every place is utter death, instantly, but it is a strange, unknown world. I walk it only because I must. I fear not just that we’ll die…”
He looked at her and the others bleakly.
“I fear what we might wake up.”
Everyone looked at him seriously, and Ceria tried to smile.
“Hey. I’m aware of the risks, and I don’t want to lose anyone else on my team. But there is a chance we could find the Walled City of Stars, right? It’s supposed to be there. There might be other treasures. Lost cities.”
Wer just gave Ceria a flat look.
“Oh, there are. I don’t know about Mershi—but Imlerith is called the ‘City of Crossroads’. They might have founded the entire place or been one of the first cities to be built there. There’s also Lesegoth.”
“The City of Shields? Wait? The City of Shields is there?”
Colth sat up with a wild cry. Pisces himself stared, and Wer’s smile turned even more twisted, even more afraid. He bared his teeth and hackles.
“Yes. I have seen two cities in the Crossroads of Izril. Imlerith and Lesegoth. Or what remains of Lesegoth. Perhaps when you see what they did to the City of Shields, you’ll understand. Imlerith is a city I fear to enter. Lesegoth? I found a gate that welcomes you to the city. The ‘city’? It’s hundreds of miles of blasted, buried rubble and broken tunnels. A broken mountain across what they call the Hivelands, stretching all the way past Pallass. Perhaps a thousand miles of rubble you have to pass through—not that I ever dared. Whoever killed them blasted them with a volcano—and then I think they threw a mountain at it.”
Pisces swallowed. He had heard the stories of how the City of Shields fell. But a thousand miles of destruction? He began to feel that prickle of nerves down his spine, but realized—realized only now, somehow—that he really was insane.
That he might be a candidate for a Named-rank after all, because despite hearing this, despite hearing Wer’s fear and understanding it—Pisces looked at Colth, Ceria, and felt it in himself.
A desire, a burning desire to see that, be it horror or terror or ancient lands, no matter the risk. Satar stared at the wild grin on Colth’s face, Ceria’s smile, Pisces’ trembling lips trying to hold back the same, and Yvlon’s intent look as Ksmvr held a pigeon in his hands. Theikha nodded at Satar and sighed as Wer gave them an incredulous look.
Suddenly, the Horns had a target, and it was immediately accessible—but oh, they had to be careful.
Ceria kept saying it, as if to remind them all, and Yvlon took it up.
“We can’t be stupid, everyone. Remember Liscor’s crypt? Never a second time.”
Pisces agreed. Ceria folded her arms.
“If we need to, we get allies. We bail the moment we even sense a boss monster or a trap.”
Ksmvr nodded repeatedly as they stood around, talking about entry. Colth steepled his fingers, looking serious.
“We go in full of preparations, even more than when we fought Facestealer. So…what were we going to do to prepare, oh great and mighty Captain?”
Ceria paused as everyone stared at her.
“…Well, that’s up to you, Colth. We’re teaming up, so what did you have in mind?”
He grinned. Aside from talking to Wer, the truth was that all the Horns had was Silvenia’s missive—and the knowledge that at least two Walled Cities had been abandoned in the Crossroads. Colth was making notes on a piece of paper.
“From what Wer says, there are multiple biomes in the Crossroads of Izril, and we’re actually close to one of the safest…not that he explores. I suggest we gather all the traditional supplies and load up—as well as prepare for all contingencies. I’m talking emergency house spells, potions, gear—”
Ceria nodded as she frowned, thinking about what they needed and raised a hand.
“Right, right. Not everything works there, though. You can’t teleport out.”
Their only way in and out would be Wer, which already told the Horns the danger was real. If he died…they might be stuck. Not that Wer wanted to risk it. He was willing to teleport them in and wait for them to come out, but he refused to go with them.
Fair. But the lack of intelligence meant that even an expert like Colth didn’t have much to offer, right? They had to prepare for everything and anything—
He chopped Yvlon on the head when she said that, and she glared.
“Are you testing my anger management?”
Colth smiled as her eyes flashed.
“Yep. But also—you’re working with me, Horns. I’m a bit better at this ‘preparation’ stuff than you are. We’re not going in totally blind. I have a solution.”
Yvlon was unimpressed, but Colth was clearly trying to show his value. He folded his arms.
“Which is…teammate Colth, I think you wanted to say? Comrade Colth? Oh, great and mighty Colthei?”
“I think he’s fitting in pretty well.”
Ceria muttered to Pisces and Ksmvr as Yvlon turned red and raised a fist. The other two nodded in agreement. Colth winked at them.
“The key to old places like this is that someone always remembers them.”
“Even Satar and Theikha don’t. Then again, Plain’s Eye messed with their history, but if not them, then who?”
Yvlon was exasperated, and Colth winked.
“Oh, Yvlon. Think about it. If Silvenia remembers the Crossroads of Izril…I can think of at least two people to ask who might remember! Both living…well, one living. Can’t you?”
He had a great memory, and Pisces thought of Azam or Czautha—then his eyes lit up. Yvlon blinked, and Ceria started laughing, then looked at Ksmvr.
“No. Really? You think…?”
Ksmvr scratched at his head.
“Well. Miss Erin could ask.”
Erin Solstice was at the beach. She was indulging in some fun times, floating in an inner tube on the water, staring up at a false sun and relaxing. In the distance, she could see the resorts with their guests. People were playing on the beach. The inn was making money.
Life was good. Erin Solstice lay there until a shark passed by her, following a bunch of screaming people and Relc. She cracked one eye open.
“…Did Valeterisa summon a shark?”
The Archmage of Izril was playing ‘sharks and minnows’, but she didn’t know how to play properly. So she had summoned a magical shark. Erin was watching Relc throw down with the shark in the water—and lose—until Seborn came to the rescue.
Apparently, the Drowned Man knew a technique where he could literally grab the shark by the head as it came at you and flip it around in the water, rendering it harmless. Even a child could do it. Erin was watching everyone learn shark-fu when someone coughed.
“Erin? The Horns are asking if you can chat.”
Erin nearly fell out of her inner tube and saw Ishkr had opened up a door in the air.
“Ishkr! The Horns? I’ll be right there. Pull me up, please!”
He yanked her up, and she crawled into her inn, then got up.
“Whew. Beach life is great. I dunno how I’ll go back to winter after this.”
Her inn was pleasant, but felt cold and dark compared to the beach. Erin Solstice strolled through her common room and peeked out a window at a bunch of miserable people staring into the inn and demanding tickets to the beach. One waved a gold coin in her face.
“Let us in! Please? Don’t be stingy, you damn Human! We know you have room! This is preferential treatment! This is speciesism! You have to share—”
Erin closed the shutters on the angry Drake’s face. Then she turned to Ishkr with a frown.
“Do they stand in the cold all day?”
“They tend to leave, but more people come by now and then. The Horns are waiting, Miss Erin.”
“Ceria, Pisces, Ksmvr, Yvlon! Oh, and hey, Colth. You guys look great! How’s it going?”
Erin saw them all vividly in some hut in the Great Plains. They looked cold, bundled up, and Ceria squinted at Erin.
“…Do you have a tan, Erin?”
“Who, me? Nah. It’s just the magical effect. I’m blue on your side, right?”
The Horns gave Erin a dour look, and Pisces held up his arm for contrast.
“It seems sunlight and warmth agree with you, Erin? We do miss your inn. Hospitable as the Gnolls are, your inn is a constant source of entertainment and enjoyment.”
Erin’s face softened, and she smiled at him.
He sniffed heartily and smiled.
“On the other hand, I had a fine plate of actual quality spaghetti the other day. Truffles, grated onto what I believe was a fromage blanc sauce, with actual presentation, and might I add—”
Yvlon elbowed Pisces hard as Erin began to glare, but the smile reappeared on Erin’s face despite Pisces’ mockery. She missed them.
“Erin, Pisces aside, we have a request. We, uh—actually found something that might be a shortcut to your quest. Could you ask Fetohep and Klbkch if they remember…the Crossroads of Izril?”
Erin’s jaw dropped. She spluttered as they revealed that not only did they know where it was—someone had been using it for years!
“You have—well, the <Quest> isn’t done, so it’s not the key! But you can get there? Be careful! Ask Fetohep and Klbkch? Of course! I’ll get it out of them and tell you right away! Let me just call Fetohep up, now. Actually—I’ll get Klbkch and summon the gang, because all the Antinium will riot if they miss story-time. Give me half a day?”
“Of course. We have to buy supplies and make preparations too, Erin. Thanks.”
They waved at her, and Erin beamed at them and gave Colth some finger-guns, which he returned.
“Good to see you too, Colth. Oh, and Pisces? I’m sorry I can’t make your fancy spaghetti, but if you come back, I’ll try.”
He gave her an arch, fond smile.
“I shall condescend to whatever you make, Erin.”
She waited a beat, smiling, as he wavered between keeping up his false pretense and a heartfelt response. Then Erin’s eyes twinkled.
“Good, because you know—‘fromage blanc’ is just white cheese, right? Just because it’s in French doesn’t mean it’s fancy.”
Pisces’ face went slack, and the Horns and Colth began laughing at him like Gnomes as Erin vanished.
When Erin went to fetch Mrsha, the Gnoll was busy waiting to prove she too could rotate a shark in the water. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could be more important than this, and if Erin had a <Quest> or job, she could stuff it where the sun didn’t shine, because Mrsha was on vac—
“Okay, so you don’t want to go ask Fetohep for his knowledge? I guess I’ll have to do it. And Klbkch story-time doesn’t need Mrsha.”
Hold on, I’ve changed my mind. Fetohep, you say? Nanette! We get to talk to Fetohep in the theatre! Bring everyone we want to impress! Where are Silverstache’s spare mustaches? And Yelroan’s glasses?
Mrsha began to race around, proving that some things were more important than shark-flipping. Erin just laughed and thought that another exciting thing had come to her, for once.
This surely would have no consequences for her beach time.
And when she thought that, Erin decided she needed backup. Intelligent backup that could ask perspicacious questions. Who did she know who fit that bill?
“Hey, Erin, what’s this about you meeting a [King] and talking to Klb? Want me to get Klbkch? I wouldn’t mind meeting this guy in your theatre, too.”
Erin waved at Relc and Valeterisa.
“Oh, uh—getting Klbkch would help a lot, Relc. Thanks.”
“Do you need my help, Innkeeper Solstice?”
“No…thanks, Valeterisa. It’s not an interesting chat. Just little stuff.”
The Archmage and Relc gave Erin a long stare as she edged back, retreating. Ryoka Griffin jogged over, followed by Sammial and Hethon.
“Hey, Erin, are you talking to Fetohep of Khelt? I haven’t actually been introduced to him, which I think I should—”
“Gaah. Stop listening to me with the wind! How are people finding out already?”
Ryoka looked genuinely hurt.
“I didn’t do that. Shaestrel and Nerry both told me.”
Erin gave the duo a baleful look as a smug Sariant Lamb and Spring Faerie, the two most nosy beings on Ryoka’s side, gave her smirks. She backed away.
“I’ve got it handled, thanks.”
Intelligent. Thoughtful. Perhaps even wise counsel. She had to fend Relc and Valeterisa off onto finding Klbkch. Ryoka was harder, but Erin had a trump card.
“At least let me introduce myself. I promise, I won’t make a fool of myself. We’re on the same side, right?”
Erin pointed a finger at Ryoka.
“He’s an immortal undead king. I know why you wanna talk to him. You stay back.”
Ryoka turned red and stopped long enough for Erin to leap through a door in her garden. That was a low blow, even by Erin standards.
But the truth was that the kids were bad enough, and a crowd meant you couldn’t get a good conversation going effectively. Erin had only sicced Mrsha and Nanette on Fetohep because he insisted on about thirty minutes of recap on how things were, latest projects, and showing off the new developments in Khelt. She figured the kids and the undead king would tire each other out enough for her to get down to business.
Fetohep, sometimes, had the same energy as Ekirra showing Erin a new ball—only he did it with buildings and art pieces, rather than toys.
Anyways, Erin’s ruthless assessment of her friends aside, she did know how to get their attention. Klbkch loved telling stories to Antinium, so summoning him to story-time was easier than asking him to meet solo. If he had a sit with her, he’d start complaining about Xrn bullying him or the lack of respect he got from Antinium.
Strategy. Now, intelligent people to bring with her? Erin had just the person in mind. Unfortunately…she was let down.
“Come on, Ulvama. I need your sage wisdom! We’re helping the Horns with the New Lands. And talking to Fetohep and Klbkch!”
Crunch, crunch. Ulvama stuffed another handful of baked chips into her mouth as she watched the television on the scrying orb.
“Latest fashions are still lace in Terandria, but there’s this entirely new style coming from Izril that’s being called ‘modernistic’. Trousers and leggings…on [Ladies]? I am [Countess of the Court] Fimila Merrimorn, fulfilling my role as your host for fashion commentary today. We have the honor of presenting Fashion Talks, Wistram News Network Channel 6.”
She was watching a fashion channel, balancing a bowl of chips on her stomach as Apista and Ulvama occasionally dipped the chips into a barrage of side-dishes in the rec room. Because everyone was at the beach, Ulvama had hogged the scrying mirror.
The dips, incidentally, included your standard salsa. It had guacamole made out of expensive avocados imported from Oteslia. Gnollish fish sauce, the pungent local Liscorian dish. Spicy chili oil from the north. Syrup. Mayonnaise. Ketchup, mustard…
The huge spread of dip bowls and giant chip bowl did not budge. Ulvama lay there, staring at the scrying orb.
Erin tried to block the screen, and the [Shaman] kicked her.
“Go away. Ask your questions yourself. Be smart without me.”
“Ulvama. It’s important!”
“I’m tired. Shoo.”
The helpful, bullying [Shaman] all too willing to dye Erin’s hair and give her sage advice…was in a lazy mood today. This was the duality of Ulvama that Mrsha knew well. Erin was aware of Ulvama’s penchant for enjoying food, but she was dismayed by this.
“Come on, don’t you want to know—ow!”
The ow was Ulvama throwing a bee and clocking Erin in the face. Apista’s legs were sharp as she launched off Erin’s face. Erin debated kicking Ulvama, but the [Shaman] just waved one claw.
“I won’t be smart for you. Go use your head.”
“You’re not busy! It’s just fashion—”
“Yah. Which I understand and appreciate. You watch chess. I watch this. Don’t lecture me, hypocrite. Get lost.”
For once, Erin Solstice was both giving insults and taking them. This balanced lifestyle did not agree with Erin one bit, but after three more minutes of trying to get Ulvama to talk, she stomped away, wiping salsa from her cheek.
The truth was that Ulvama’s bad side was…her bad side. Everyone had one. It wasn’t always ‘one good side, one bad side’. Sometimes you were all bad sides with a few redeeming traits, or vice-versa, or a nuanced individual.
Like Saliss. He was all annoying unless he wasn’t. Unless it was dangerous, when he revealed that his annoying elements were largely manufactured. But the truth was that the part where he annoyed you was also genuine because he really didn’t respect you, especially if you were a Watch Captain or Chaldion or all of Pallass.
Good side, bad side. Or perhaps ‘objectionable personality traits’ was a better summation. Some people appreciated Ulvama’s sass or Saliss’ lack of respect for convention. Erin did, when she wasn’t on the receiving end of either.
Similarly, Fetohep of Khelt was a pontificator, a showoff—haughty, arrogant, and egotistical—petty, and filled with too much munificent largesse at times, and condescending—and that was when he was in a good mood.
He was also King of Khelt. So the instant he realized that the annoying white Gnoll girl who’d appeared in his throne room was not alone, he stood straighter and regarded the cluster of children.
“—you insolent albino rat plaguing Khelt’s sands—ahem. Ah. I see you have guests, Mrsha du Marquin.”
The King of Khelt sat upon his throne, and his golden gaze found Nanette and Mrsha, both wearing sunglasses and beach-clothes. And huge silver mustaches.
It was a…look. An incredibly silly one that only Mrsha would come up with. Indeed, Visma, Ekirra, and Kenva, Watch Captain Venim’s daughter, were all crowding into frame behind Mrsha, and they had been giggling and laughing a second ago.
Why, even Sammial and Hethon were there, having raced with the gaggle of kids to meet the King of Khelt. Mrsha was busy writing insults back to Fetohep—and introductions of her friends—but she paused when she realized no one was shouting.
“Your Eternal Majesty of Khelt. T-thank you for receiving my humble letter. I apologize for disturbing you.”
Nanette bowed and reached for a hat she didn’t have, snatching the mustache and glasses off her face. Mrsha looked around and realized the rest of her friends were hiding behind her.
Or trembling. Visma looked at Hethon, who managed a bow, and even Sammial copied it awkwardly. Ekirra’s hair was on end, and he was holding Visma’s claw tightly in one paw and Kenva’s in his other.
They were…petrified. Even the [Lords] barely remembered their manners, and Nanette!
He’s just a silly old man! Mrsha nudged Nanette—and got a stomp on her foot so hard that it sent tears to her eyes. Fetohep lifted a hand.
“Greetings, children of Mrsha’s acquaintance. Be at ease. I am Fetohep of Khelt. Mrsha. Is this a social call or a matter of greater importance? I do have the affairs of my kingdom to tend to.”
His eyes flashed, and Nanette blurted out.
“Your Majesty, Miss Erin Solstice asked us to talk to you! She—she has a question to you about the Crossroads of Izril! She asked us to speak to someone who would remember it—she’s coming. We’re deeply sorry for disturbing you without asking first.”
Fetohep relaxed instantly.
“Ah. This is well. Be at ease, children. We are acquainted well with Erin Solstice and take little offense. Prithee, whom do we address? We of Khelt know Witch Nanette and Miss Mrsha, but the others? You. Bring the Visage of Fetohep.”
He was even adopting the royal ‘we’! Mrsha raised a notecard full of insults—and Visma slapped it down!
The children were not reacting to Fetohep like Mrsha was hoping. They treated the foreign king like, well, a king. And that was because they were not Mrsha. Mrsha, who had grown up in the inn with a [Princess] for a mother and Erin for a mentor, had inherited some of their worst traits. Then again, she had eaten breakfast with Zel Shivertail and other living legends. She’d stolen food from the best.
Children who didn’t have that history saw Fetohep as both an undead and foreign monarch garbed in power. Indeed, Fetohep didn’t help as he lifted something from a pillow.
“We had forgotten this. But in light of our newfound publicity…ah. There. This is what our predecessors wore, that their decayed features might not scare children.”
He put on a golden death mask shaped like his face before he had died, and at this point, Kenva burst into tears and ran off. Mrsha slapped her face with one paw. Two burning ‘eyes’ shining gold through the cut pupils stared out at Mrsha through a smiling face made of gold, like the face of some Golem twisted into a stiff smile.
Yep. She was going to have nightmares about that tonight. She scribbled a note to tell Fetohep to take the mask off as Hethon introduced himself, voice shaking.
For once, Mrsha couldn’t wait for Erin to get here.
Klbkch the Slayer was still in Liscor. He had quit the Watch, and in his new body, he had regained some of his strength of legends.
The hour was now that once more Klbkchhezeim of the Free Antinium returned to his oldest roots as the adventurer. To the New Lands he would go, seeking the oldest mysteries of the world and hope for the Antinium.
Defiance against the eternal foe. Hope for The Wandering Inn and mortals. Redemption for the failure of even Centenium. A great change in how he had lived for the last decade.
…He hadn’t left for about two months. In fact, Klbkch was currently standing at a stall in Liscor, harassing a poor shopkeeper.
“I believe I requested ladybugs in my pumpernickel bread, Garry.”
“I know, Klbkch—”
Garry paused, and even the friendly [Baker] had a decidedly narked tone.
“Revalantor Klbkch. Yes. We are out of ladybugs. I thought I had some in store, but it is winter, and they were eaten.”
“Who ate them? This is consumption of materials meant for a Revalantor. I was going to share some with the Free Queen, and therefore it is also denial of resources meant for the Queen. Who ate the ladybugs I wanted?”
“Someone. I have prepared a fine bread with centipedes in it. Large ones. You claimed to enjoy them last time.”
Klbkch opened and closed his mandibles.
“Whether or not I am partial to them, the fact remains that I ordered ladybug bread. As a [Shopkeeper], Garry, you might not be aware of this, but satisfying the customer’s orders—that is me—is tantamount to facilitating fair and honest transactions. I could refuse to pay or, worse, complain to the Watch about your lack of authenticity in our dealings.”
Garry stared at Klbkch. Even a few passersby were giving Klbkch odd looks. The Watch did get called on for matters like that…but who would have guessed Klbkch in his civilian life would act like that?
“Are you going to refuse to pay me or report me to the Watch, Klbkch?”
“Revalantor Klbkch, Garry. I will not, but that is because I am an upstanding citizen and a good person in general. I will take the bread. Here is your payment. Note the lack of a tip.”
Garry slowly handed over the wrapped bread, and Klbkch pushed the exact change over the counter. The [Baker] watched Klbkch open the bread and break off a piece before theatrically making a coughing sound.
“…This is the twenty-ninth set of provisions you’ve had me create for your expedition, Revalantor Klbkch. When will you be leaving?”
Klbkch paused and glanced up.
“In my own time. Proper preparation is essential, Garry. As a non-adventuring Antinium, you might not be aware of how important proper sustenance is on great journeys. I would not want to disrupt my stomach. Plus, Relc and Valeterisa are now dating, and I must thoroughly vet her for proper partnership with Relc.”
“They’re what? Partners?”
“Yes…it’s very displeasing, and Relc has yet to elaborate on the full details, but if he is going to become someone else’s partner, I must make sure Valeterisa is able to watch his back. And there is the beach to consider, and Erin Solstice and I haven’t talked as much. Perhaps after the Winter Solstice I will head out. The spring is ideal, you know. Though the spring rains would be an issue. Whenever I leave, I will be fully prepared, but tonight is movie-night, and I am told it is about ‘Ants’. With a ‘z’.”
Garry knew about movie-night as well, but he just stood in his warm shop, staring at Klbkch before he realized a pie was burning in the oven. He hurried over to get it, then came back.
“I…there are a lot of things I would like to say, Klbkch. The first is that I do not believe you understand what a partner is in the sense of Relc and Valeterisa. I wrote a book on the subject. Would you like to read it?”
Klbkch made a pskching sound.
“Garry. I am an expert partner. Someone needs to watch Relc’s back, and I was glad he found an Archmage who might be able to partly replace me.”
“That’s not what Valeterisa is watching.”
The [Baker] muttered. It was strange how Klbkch, the Slayer, had changed this much. And yet, somehow, this had always been a part of his personality. It seemed like his lack of focus was bringing out the worst parts, though.
This. This was the Slayer of the Antinium Wars? Visitors to Liscor who might see Klbkch like this would stop and stare and listen incredulously. Perhaps it made him more of a person and did wonders for the Antinium’s image as a species. It made it harder to imagine him as being a pure weapon of war without feeling or nuance.
In fact, Klbkch had several clandestine observers. Two Drakes from Pallass were just staring at him, eating Prelons. A [Lord] was slowly sipping from a smoothie he’d bought. Lord Xitegen’s stare was frankly incredulous, especially because he’d heard the entire exchange.
“If you wouldn’t mind moving, Klbkch? I believe I have customers.”
Klbkch stepped to the side as more people lined up for Garry’s food, but he refused to go.
“I am one of your best customers, Garry. I should not be treated this way. Why do you keep asking when I will go?”
“…Because you have to? You told everyone you were going.”
“Yes…but I also have to leave properly.”
“Everyone threw you a going-away party.”
“And I should thank them for that. I have hundreds of colleagues I know in the Watch. And Erin’s inn is here. And Relc. My Hive is here…and I may be gone for years. I am not saying I will be lonely or miss them. I would not, because I am used to solitude. I’ll take that pumpkin pie, incidentally. I will share it around the Watch House.”
Garry packed up the pie without a word. Klbkch had been visiting the Watch House almost every day. Zevara had been meaning to have a word with Klbkch about it, but she’d asked Garry to try in her stead.
Garry was about to ask Klbkch to his face whether or not he was going to leave before winter ended. But first—
“Oh, Vetn. Can I help you?”
The Gnoll [Thief] was next in line. Vetn looked a bit sleep-deprived, stressed, and he smiled a bit widely.
“Garry! I, uh—I’d like something to go. Four cookies?”
“That will be six coppers. They are very cheap. Can I interest you in a full bag of twelve for one silver? It is a deal.”
Klbkch stood back, clearly waiting to get a word in as Vetn choose a bunch of cookie flavors seemingly at random. At least, Garry thought so. He was very impressed. No non-Antinium had ever chosen stinkbug cookies.
Klbkch was looking around, idly eying Xitegen, the Pallassian Drakes—who began to stroll off the moment he stared at them—and the young woman with the crystal hand watching him from the side.
“Here are your cookies. Thank you, and please come again. Klbkch, do you want anything else?”
Garry turned to Klbkch, annoyed, and the Revalantor saw no one else was in line. So he strolled back over.
“Do you think I should visit the Hives before I go? The Silent Queen always invites me. I could check back on Anand and bring any correspondence between here and there. Do you think Erin would like a souvenir from the Hivelands? Perhaps she could be a penpal with one of the Queens.”
Fascinating as these ideas were…Garry gave Klbkch a long stare.
“Anand coming back would be welcome. But Klbkch. You have to leave Liscor someday. Being scared of change is a very funny thing to me, and all the Painted Antinium have been laughing about it. But please, even for the sake of my business, you have to go eventually, and this is getting pathetic.”
He dropped the Tier 9 spell on Klbkch’s face, and the Antinium rocked slightly. Xitegen and a few of the Soldiers standing guard at the entrance to the Hive pretended to look elsewhere.
“How dare you. Me? Afraid of leaving? This is scurrilous slander, Garry. This is badmouthing a former Senior Guardsman of Liscor and an official of the Hive. I could report you to the Watch for—”
Klbkch slammed his hands on the table, and the thieves moved. Vetn had been pretending to walk away from Klbkch, hoping the Antinium would give him an opening. Klbkch came to Garry’s shop every single day in the morning. For such a dangerous person, he was predictable. It was here or the beach—and Vetn feared Erin messing things up, so the instant he saw Klbkch’s hands rise, he went for it.He was closest. That was the deal with Bviora. Vetn was faster, higher-level, and she was the one paying him.
Steal from the Antinium. A suicide-theft to buy Tesy’s safety. The token of the Lightning Thief was already making its way to Salazsar to call the underworld bounty off.
All that remained was death or glory. They’d been prepared for over a week now. Planning their route, scouting Klbkch’s routine, that was easy.
They had a plan and had even gone to Raekea, a local smith, for part of the plan. They’d debated Pelt, but the touchy Dwarf might ask too many questions, and Bviora said they only had to be close enough to buy time.
If this worked. If it failed, she’d have to use her arm—the arm of the Lightning Thief himself—to buy time for them to escape. Bviora could use one Skill, just one, before the backlash hit her.
So it rested on him. Vetn had time to feel all the terror he’d had the last week every time he saw an opening. He could still abort as he turned in the snowy street and dropped the bag of cookies.
[Enhanced Reactions: Stolen Seconds of Theft]. He moved in a time out of time. The street froze, and even the Slayer had his back to Vetn, guard-down. Bviora could move as fast, but—
Now or never. Vetn began running. He was one of the fastest Gnolls at the Meeting of Tribes. He could outrun some Couriers.
He actually gave himself a sprinter’s pose and took off. He needed speed. His targets? Two swords. One on each hip, hanging from the Slayer’s belt.
Each one was made of an unknown metal of some kind. Impossible to break, or so it seemed. Unenchanted, but sturdy beyond belief.
The only treasures the Antinium respected. Hence the theft. The only other thing that would conceivably be worthwhile as ransom would be one of their Individuals or their Queen, and neither Vetn nor Bviora stole people.
About thirty paces to Klbkch and Garry’s shop. Vetn launched into the sprint, and his first few strides took him halfway there. He was speeding up already—
[Whirlwind Sprint]. [Quicksilver Paws]. [Assassin’s Presence].
[Thief] Skills were all based around one act. Some were pickpockets or lock-masters. Vetn? He was a [Renowned Masterthief of Treasures]. He could pick locks, scale walls, or hide in shadows, but he was known for his speed.
He had once stolen treasures under the noses of guards in the time it took for some clouds to cover the sun—and been away before they realized their valuables were gone. That was what had earned him his name:
Thief of Clouds. He felt like time was crawling so slow only Erin’s [Immortal Moment] was stronger. His entire body was transitioning from step to step, and his paws were moving as he sprang, hidden, reaching for the swords. A perfect ambush.
In his last ten feet to Klbkch’s back, the Thief of Clouds vanished. He entered into a world of blackness, a rushing torrent like being engulfed in shadows. His entire body was gone, and Vetn’s consciousness in that singular moment became a pair of hands, grasping. It was a kind of teleportation, virtually impossible to catch. He reached out, in the hours between each heartbeat, in a single flash of consciousness, and grabbed the hilts of both swords.
Momentum carried him past Klbkch, into Garry’s stall—but Vetn didn’t crash into the wood. He was ready.
[Redirect Momentum]. [Right-Angle Turn].
Two Skills, one high-level, the other low-level, a Level 10 [Thief]’s Skill. But they translated into a perfect turn, and Vetn was running left as he reappeared five steps away from Klbkch and Garry.
All in a moment. He had the blades! Vetn knew Bviora was right behind him.
Put them in the bag of holding and go! G—
He was fifteen steps away from Garry’s stall, still within his [Stolen Seconds of Theft] Skill, sprinting down the snowy street, when a hand grabbed his shoulder. Vetn’s head turned—
And Klbkch the Slayer was staring into his eyes.
That was the only sound Vetn heard. He shouldn’t have heard it within the [Stolen Seconds of Theft]. And he didn’t. He was moving too fast for sound to catch up properly.
He heard that sound after he landed. After he hit the brick wall Klbkch threw him into and landed on snowy cobblestones, bones cracking, body screaming a thousand alarms. He lay there, and Klbkch repeated the word.
“Curious. Why would you do that?”
The swords. Vetn was still holding onto them. He tried to stand, place them in his bag of holding, but he barely sat up before Klbkch stomped on his chest. He pinned Vetn in place as Garry blinked.
He was so fast that it seemed like Klbkch had vanished from being in front of Garry. The [Baker] looked around—and saw Klbkch standing on Vetn three dozen paces away.
“What—? Vetn? What are you doing?”
“I ignored you because you were Erin’s guest. Once a [Thief], always. Why did you steal my swords? They have little value. Did a Walled City put you up to it?”
The Gnoll couldn’t breathe. The air was flashing in agony as it finally caught him, tapped him on the shoulder, and told him he had a bill to pay. It was only getting longer as Klbkch pressed down on his chest, but the Antinium wasn’t grinding Vetn down. Not yet.
Klbkch reached down and grabbed one of his swords. Vetn tried to hang on—but the strength tore one blade straight from his grip. Klbkch reached for the other, and this time, Vetn locked his fingers around the hilt.
“Stop that. What an issue. I am a civilian performing an act of self-defense. You are Erin’s guest…should I sort this out unofficially or arrest you? Then she will be angry. Perhaps I shall sort it out at the inn.”
Klbkch mused, then realized he was dragging Vetn up. The Gnoll was clinging to the blade—Klbkch tsked.
“Stop that. Give me my swords. I will not kill you, but you will regret trying to steal from me if you persist.”
He shook the arm—Vetn refused to let go. Klbkch sighed. Then he grabbed a finger and pulled.
It cracked. Vetn twitched, but the hand refused to let go. Pain was banging on the door to his mind, presenting a growing list of its demands. But he ignored it.
Where was Bviora? Had she run? Had she—
Klbkch reached for another finger, then stopped. His head turned.
“Ah. So it’s a conspir—”
He twisted, and Vetn, taken out of his own speed Skill, saw Bviora leap at Klbkch so fast that it was a blur of motion. Klbkch let go and parried the flying dagger slashing at his chest. He took aim at her—then the dagger slashed again and nearly took his antennae off.
He ducked it as Vetn rolled away, and Bviora backed up. She had a dagger in both hands, and the one she’d thrown floated in the air. Klbkch had parried it, but it hovered there.
Dancing Dagger. An artifact. The Slayer saw Bviora lunge—and her right arm, the one with the gemstone hand, flashed at his side as the dagger cut at his head. Vetn was rolling to his feet—
Klbkch parried Bviora’s cut with his sword, caught the flying dagger with his other hand, and threw it through her thigh as she tried to back up. Then he whirled.
The sword cut open Vetn’s side, passing through his stomach, and then Klbkch had the blade half through Vetn’s left shoulder. The Gnoll screamed, then, and Klbkch held the blade as blood ran down the Thief of Cloud’s back.
“[Recaptured Sublimity]. You were very quick. I used to be quicker.”
The Skill was burning through Klbkch as Bviora gagged on the pain and tried to remove her own quivering dagger from her leg. Klbkch looked at Vetn, whose eyes were closed, and one of Klbkch’s blades was still in Vetn’s hand.
The other was in his back. Klbkch spoke calmly to the Gnoll.
“Drop it. I will wound you to the point where you can no longer move if you try to escape again. You have failed. Drop it.”
Vetn said not a word. He just turned his head, and Bviora gazed up.
“I know both your faces. I am a former Guardsman, and the Antinium will never let you steal my blades. I am being very nice. What were you thinking? There is nowhere you can run that I cannot find you.”
Klbkch spoke to Vetn like he was an idiot. The Gnoll’s brow was covered in sweat, and Xitegen shouted.
“You! What are you doing—?”
So fast. Garry wasn’t even out from behind his shop’s counter. Klbkch felt Vetn tensing through the sword’s tip buried in the [Thief]’s shoulder. He spoke slowly, wondering why the Gnoll was so desperate. He wasn’t giving up. What drove that level of bravery?
“You will regret trying to steal from me, Vetn.”
The Thief of Cloud’s bloody mouth moved as he bared his teeth.
“I know. [Impossible Dodge].”
For a second, despite himself and the incredible annoyance he felt—the Slayer’s mandibles rose in a smile. He admired insane courage.
Xitegen’s hand was raised, and his Golem servants were baring their blades as they focused on the Slayer. But they were at the edge of the range of the Golems in Celum, so his [Covering Fire] Skill wasn’t effective—and he wasn’t sure what was happening either.
Garry had his rolling pin, and his thought was to save Vetn. But he was just running down the street. Besides, the onlookers, from the Soldiers running to help Klbkch to the pedestrians?
They were just bystanders. This world of speed belonged to two [Thieves] and Klbkch.
The Thief of Clouds dodged. Or tried to. A sword was in his shoulder, but the dodge was, by definition, impossible. He twisted out of the blade, and Klbkch’s sword whirled up, flicked out in a crescent cut at chest-height, rotated, flicked down, and he leapt forwards and spun, deflecting the stab to his back.
If he’d had his second sword, Bviora would have died then and there. As it was, he just kicked her in the chin so hard her head snapped back and she went crashing to the ground.
A spray of blood landed on the ground, and Klbkch wiped some from his armor in distaste. Vetn landed as red rained down around him. He was already trying to drink a potion, but Klbkch saw him faltering and doubted the Gnoll had a potion good enough to take all the damage away.
Now the two [Thieves] were crouching there, and Klbkch turned lazily. His Skill’s timer was running out, but they had used theirs. He aimed at the [Thief] he didn’t know, the young woman with the crystal hand.
Run her through at least one leg. Vetn can’t run far with that much damage, even if he drinks a potion. Vetn tucked Klbkch’s other sword away in his bag of holding, and the Slayer sighed.
“What difference did that make?”
He was genuinely curious. He’d catch them. They had his sword, and he would have it back. The Antinium had lost the swords before, and they were always reclaimed.
That question was the one mistake the Slayer made. He was ready to attack, and he was faster than the other two, even if they had been able to reactivate their Skills. But it was still a mistake—because like how Xrn had never fought a [Witch]—
Not one of the hundred Centenium ever made by the First Queen had ever been a [Thief]. Of all the classes they had possessed, stealing was an alien concept to them. So Klbkch was surprised when Bviora smiled.
The Lightning Thief’s daughter was drinking a potion with her normal hand. But the other one? The one made of crystal glowed. A bright light, like a flash of lightning in the depths of night.
A glow that made Klbkch move, lunge with his sword aiming at her arm, not her leg. Across the street, a step and stab that should have struck home between the beats of a dragonfly’s wing.
The speed of the Slayer when he had been at his utmost zenith.
The light from that hand flashed across the street, and Klbkch’s sword halted before it could pierce Bviora’s shoulder and cleave the arm straight from her torso. For a second, the Slayer saw it, the thing that even Vetn and Bviora missed when she used those Skills.
It looked to the Slayer like a man trapped in the light. A hand, holding the tip of his blade in a shining grip. A smile—and Bviora’s voice.
“[The Perfect Thief: A Successful Theft, An Hour of Repose].”
Klbkch tried to yank the tip of his sword back. He pulled—the Lightning Thief’s image laughed—and he felt someone, something hold the world in place. Then reverse everything back to where it was.
Bviora watched Vetn return to place, Klbkch and Garry return to the shop, and Xitegen’s hand lower as time…it didn’t rewind. But the people did.
They forgot. All but Bviora and Vetn. He stood where he had been—and then it resumed. But his wounds were still there.
So was the blade. The blade…she saw him look at her for one second, eyes wild with wonder and pain and desperation.
The easy part was done. Now they ran. The light from her hand faded, and she struggled not to black out. They had…one…hour…
Then the Skill ended.
Klbkch slammed his hands on Garry’s counter, making the shop rock slightly, then paused. Garry had retreated back for his rolling pin in case he had to fight for his life against an aggrieved customer—a danger that had never occurred to him before—when both paused.
Someone had fallen over in the street behind Klbkch. The Antinium turned, and all of the fresh cookies spilled out of a bag as Vetn sagged onto the ground.
The slim Gnoll had just keeled over. Klbkch turned as Garry’s antennae waved.
He was clutching at his side, and Klbkch strode over along with Xitegen. The [Lord] hesitated, then offered Vetn a hand.
“Are you alright, fellow?”
Vetn’s face was white under his fur, and he flinched—then Klbkch hauled him up with Xitegen.
“Be careful on icy roads, Mister Vetn. There you are. A shame about your cookies—”
“Th-thanks. I’m fine—”
Vetn backed away and nearly fell over again. Klbkch instantly went to steady him.
“Are you well? Sick? I could take you to the inn—”
“No, I’m—I’ll be fine.”
Vetn held himself against a wall and then began to walk off. He moved faster and was striding down the snowy street in moments. Klbkch paused, tilted his head, and went back to Garry.
“You see, Garry? That is a lack of proper gratitude for my concern. Which I feel like is similar to your attitude. If you recall, I helped you become an Individual, and some deference and support in my trying times would be appreciated—”
Garry put his head in his hands. All four of them.
By the time Relc and Valeterisa found Klbkch, Erin was speaking to Fetohep of Khelt. The bad qualities about both old men was that they loved telling stories.
“Ah, the Crossroads of Izril. Of course, Khelt knows of them. We predate the Creler Wars, after all. And since you have reminded me, it is within my authority and knowledge to speak of both the Crossroads and the Death of Magic. If you require more detailed texts, I shall convene my [Historians] to peruse our libraries. They have survived most cataclysmic events and should be replete with knowledge.”
“Right. So do you know anything?”
Fetohep hesitated as Erin Solstice stood in her [World’s Eye Theatre]. To the audience, sitting in the seats, he was reflected in the dome overhead, standing, adorned today in his customary robes of state.
Ulvama had appeared after all, but only because her broadcast had ended. And despite Erin’s best efforts, there were a bunch of Antinium in the seats, Mrsha and all her friends—and now Relc and Valeterisa.
Only trusted guests of the inn, but still. Fetohep was aware he had an audience and was displeased by Erin’s attitude.
“I remind you, Innkeeper Solstice, that you come to Exalted Khelt for a favor. Courtesy is not insisted upon, but requested.”
She gave him a bright smile that he really should have recognized. Erin still had some salsa on her, and she was worried about her friends, the Horns, going into a dangerous place. The insistence on decorum…Erin stared at the ceiling for a good twenty seconds as her lips moved. Then she fixed Fetohep with a polite, half-smile and inclined her head two inches in the barest nod. Ulvama noticed Erin’s back straighten and adopt a rigid posture, as if being hung from above.
Ooh. Interesting. Who had taught her that? Even her tone sounded suddenly more lugubrious and poised, precise.
“Your Majesty of Khelt, we apologize for our lack of decorum. Ere it be said less plainly: we are about the great business of boon companions in jeopardy of life and limb, as adventurers often are. We would consider it a fair boon between seats of power for you to indulge all and sundry of your great wisdom. A favor that shall be remembered, by the Flame of Memory!”
He hesitated as Lyonette sat up with great interest and Hethon and Sammial tilted their heads. Wait a second…Fetohep’s eyes dimmed a moment.
That was more formal, but she was addressing him in a stylistic tone befitting two monarchs talking! Erin gave Fetohep a dangerous look.
You want to play this game? I can play this game. Admittedly, Khelta would have given it a mere 6/10 and only for the surprise factor, but it worked.
Then again, the Eternal King of Khelt, Protector of Jecrass, Fetohep of Khelt who’d earned a 4/10 himself…backed down instantly. Fetohep retreated to his throne, sat down, and lifted an empty goblet theatrically.
“I have often said that an [Innkeeper] is a monarch unto their own domain. Often said. For an exalted heroine of Khelt, we should not stand on such time-wasting addresses, Erin. What do I know, directly? Well, this may be slightly tangential, but I can confirm Silvenia of the Demons would have knowledge of the Crossroads. She was born, as you say, during the last great conflict. And she had visited each continent in the world before turning fifty, an astonishing feat for a half-Elf of her time.”
“Oh, so she was telling the truth?”
Erin had gotten an abridged version of the letter, and her guests stirred at Silvenia’s name, but Fetohep didn’t find the Death of Magic as immediately terrifying as most. If anything, his eyes lit up in genuine pleasure.
“Indeed. That is not even mere supposition based on history, you know. She would have come during the era of Razzimir, who—”
“Pioneered his famous arrows after refusing to help. Yes, yes. He was very guilty about it. He wore bramble shawls with the names of the dead in penance for decades. I know, I know.”
Erin looked exasperated, and Fetohep paused.
“Isn’t that in the history books? Khelt’s rulers love to talk about their history. Bramble shawls, pilgrimages to every nation where he asked people to throw things at him or take out their grief—it sort of feels like he overplayed things a bit, you know? What’s this got to do with Silvenia?”
It occurred to Fetohep that he really needed Satar or a [Historian] to get Erin’s own first-hand accounts of the rulers’ histories down in writing—and that he also might need to seal off the embarrassing parts. He cleared his throat after a second as Relc and Valeterisa sat down. She was taking notes. Klbkch just stopped outside of the center of the theatre, listening, as Fetohep went on.
“Ah, well. Without delving into the particulars of Razzimir’s long history, which, I confess, is so many tomes of knowledge that even my memory cannot contain them all to precise details…Silvenia did come to Chandrar as one of the many soldiers who went from nation to nation, fighting Crelers during the war.”
“She did? Wait, is it written down?”
“Better. Her very handprint is in the Walk of Defiance, a corridor three floors down wherein every single [Soldier] who fought in the final battle to push Crelers off Chandrar was honored with a handprint or footprint in stone.”
They had her handprint? Fetohep looked exceedingly pleased and actually walked through his palace to show everyone.
The Walk of Defiance was, like Marquin’s tribute in Calanfer, a long path with the handprints and footprints—or hoofprints, in the cases of Centaurs and such—lined up on either side with a long written account of the war and the Crelers eventual destruction.
It had been a long war. Fetohep pointed to a small handprint with pride and tiny writing in silver.
Silvenia, [Prodigy Mage], ████.
“Wh—you have her handprint?”
Lyonette was horrified. Erin was confused.
“Why’s that part scratched out?”
Where she assumed the name of the kingdom should be, there was only neatly erased stone, whereas other names clearly showed the kingdom of origin. Fetohep looked displeased at that.
“When Silvenia became the Archmage of Wistram, this was a mark of pride. During the Death of Magic’s turn against the Blighted Kingdom, all statues, written works, and other tributes to her were destroyed. Even in Khelt, it was not…acceptable to even have such tokens. This walkway was not defiled; King Izimire made it clear any attempt would be met with harsh punishments, but he acceded to removing her kingdom of origin. A very controversial decision for later rulers. I, personally, believe it was giving too much sway to outside influence, but the tribute remains. At any rate, it is proof she truly was here, is it not?”
He returned to his throne room, looking pleased at being able to show off proof that Khelt had hosted a legend before she became famous, even if it was controversial.
He really was a showoff. Erin neglected to mention one salient fact: based on the length of the redacted word and the other names around Silvenia’s handprint, she could guess which kingdom had been Silvenia’s. Given that it was still around—she understood why it wasn’t something they advertised.
What a shock, eh?
“The Crossroads of Izril were already said to be, and I quote, ‘dangerous to regular travel’ before the Creler Wars occurred. My understanding is that the Crelers only exacerbated the issue by destroying ‘entrances’, but the Crossroads were functionally closed before the Creler Wars began.”
Fetohep’s knowledge of the Crossroads was, unfortunately, weak when you boiled it down to golden tacks, but he did have some salient information.
“The Crossroads had rules unto themselves, Erin. Inform the Horns that aside from the road tax levied by the City of Crossroads, they were considered perilous for some reason even before the City of Shields was destroyed.”
Fetohep was perusing a script so old that he had to use magic to move the ‘book’, which was keeping ancient pieces of text suspended in magic and preservation spells. He sighed as he put it aside and reviewed the transcribed notes.
“This book is so old that even preservation spells failed on it. And the book was based on recovered writings a [Ruinseeker Historian] had gleaned via Skills…[Librarian]?”
He turned to one of his experts, and a man fussily read out his selection of knowledge.
“Your Majesties, my brief fact-finding mission indicates the Crossroads may be dangerous in themselves. The notes refer to ‘waystations of safety wherein the effects of the Crossroads are mitigated’, indicating that the Walled Cities and other zones were considered ‘safe’. ‘Travellers did not stay long in the Crossroads, but could reach one end of Izril to another in record time even lacking teleportation magic.’ It seems the Crossroads were another dimension entirely.”
“Then they share the same qualities as locations such as the Port Isle. Perhaps that is part of the Crossroads—at any rate, I would advise the Horns to note the following: the Crossroads may well extend to the New Lands.”
Erin’s head snapped up as she noted this down.
“How? The New Lands are…new, Fetohep.”
The [King] raised one finger.
“New, but the Crossroads ‘stretched the length and breadth of Izril as they were made, despite the destruction and corruption of many sections. They are bound to the continent, and where wave meets land, the Crossroads end and the world grows treacherously thin—’, which suggests it is bound to the continent itself. Whether or not this makes the new part safer is anyone’s guess.”
The [Librarian] waved an urgent hand until Fetohep acknowledged him, then bowed to the [King] and Erin.
“Safer, Your Majesties, aside from whatever endemic effects are native to the Crossroads. That is my supposition. You see, the Crossroads were both affected by the referenced ‘corruption’ of the north, which actually has references to the ‘Reign of Blood’, whatever that event was, and the destruction of the City of Shields. Both events introduced great, great dangers, along with the fallen Walled Cities. So those are the loci of true peril.”
Reign of Blood? Wait, why was he saying ‘Your Majesties’? Erin eyed Fetohep, who coughed into one fist.
“These texts come from areas proscribed even to many of my trusted servants, Erin. If need be, I will have it researched…but secrets become dangerous. That is your information as it stands.”
“Thanks, Fetohep. Did the Crossroads have any artifacts or things you needed to bring?”
Fetohep turned to the [Librarian], who couldn’t be as helpful.
“Lanterns. Not magical ones, but apparently they lack for the same natural sunlight. And ‘preparations’ meant adequate provisioning, but again…”
“It’s a mystery. So keep away from the Walled Cities and whatever the heck the corruption and City of Shields’ death place is. New Lands might be safer. I’ll tell them right away!”
Erin was relieved to tell the Horns something of value, and Fetohep smiled as he sat on his throne.
“I shall continue searching for information, that it might help all those whom Khelt trusts, Erin Solstice. You do well to ask for knowledge where it is remembered.”
She gave him that one, though it occurred to Erin that if she was on buddy-buddy terms….she really should have asked the Quarass. But the woman had been described as dangerous and unpredictable to her by even Nerrhavia, and that was generally a bad sign in Erin’s mind.
At any rate, Fetohep’s smug superiority lasted about as long as it took someone to make a weird snickering sound.
“Knowledge where it is remembered…? For such a young kingdom, Khelt seems to make much of second-hand information.”
Erin’s head turned with actual astonishment—and Fetohep sat up as someone else walked into the projection.
“Who speaks so glibly about Khelt?”
“Someone older than Khelt’s eternities. I believe I can give Erin Solstice a true perspective from someone who remembers the Creler Wars.”
Klbkch folded his arms, and Erin stared at him as Fetohep laid eyes on the first Antinium to ever set ‘foot’ in his throne room.
“Uh, Klb, buddy? Whatcha doing?”
Relc cleared his throat nervously, but Klbkch was in a bad mood for reasons that probably related to Garry’s insubordinate attitude. He’d come at once to the inn only to see a bunch of his Antinium listening to Fetohep’s over-smug stories of Khelt as if they were attending his patented storytime.
Erin Solstice closed her eyes as she realized she was going to have a problem. Ulvama just handed a bucket of popcorn to Ishkr to fill as she cackled in delight.
“Old angry men swinging egos around like penises is funny. Especially when they no longer have them. Where that Teriarch? Someone get him, and we get all three!”
She cackled as Shaestrel started rolling around laughing. Below, Erin tried to stop an unstoppable force meeting the metaphorical immovable rock of ego.
“I see the Slayer of the Antinium has emerged once again to bring wisdom and grace unto the world…or at least as much of it as he can muster. Greetings, Klbkchhezeim of the Free Antinium, Revalantor of the Free Hive. I would offer you Khelt’s largesse, if you had the decorum to accept.”
Fetohep might give way to Erin, but not to someone who questioned Khelt’s age. Klbkch, just tilted his head slightly.
“Good day to you, Your Majesty of Khelt. Are you a Revenant Undead? I confess to being fascinated to be meeting you.”
Fetohep’s eyes flashed as the [Librarian] gasped in outrage.
“You may address me as such, crude as it would be to say. As I would label you ‘Antinium’ or ‘insect species’, such broad categories exist.”
Klbkch tilted his head right and left, unimpressed by the tone as Erin tried to push him off frame.
“Klbkch clearly got up on the wrong side of the bed. Fetohep, he’s a friend of mine…and normally…nice.”
She failed to move him one whit, and Klbkch had locked eyes with Fetohep.
“As I said: fascinating. You might be the sixth Revenant I’ve ever met, then. Terminology is so difficult, and the Antinium have no large view of undead as it’s difficult to raise our bodies with death magic. But I believe I have met five sentient undead with Skills, then. When I ventured out as an adventurer. I killed three of them myself.”
Oooh. All the Antinium stared and sat forwards as story-time progressed. Forget the beach! This was the real stuff!
Even Fetohep hesitated at that, but he was used to swinging egos, including his own, and sneered politely.
“A Revenant is no equivalent to a King of Khelt.”
Klbkch brushed at one arm with his fingers.
“Perhaps. But I do recall one had a crown, so the difference is lost upon me. It was, as I personally recall, a strange kingdom of undead bodies—I took them for another species at first, though communication was impossible even with the ‘king’ because we had no commonality of language. They did have Skills, though. A shame, or perhaps your ancient histories of greater kingdoms would let you recall who they had been.”
Oh snap. Erin gave up on the call and just stomped off to the side, grumbling about idiots. Fetohep’s golden flames reduced, the equivalent of him narrowing his eyes. He paused, then returned.
“Then I count upon you, Slayer, for a full and complete accounting of the Crossroads of Izril. Royal Librarian, take note. Nay, convene our [Scribes]! Let us write a more complete history now, based on the truest source and finest and most accurate mind. Enlighten us all as to the true nature of the Crossroads of Izril, Slayer!”
He stood, gesturing for his servants, and Klbkch—hesitated. He raised a hand as servants rushed about.
“The Crossroads of Izril are on Izril. I was on Rhir.”
“Ah, a learned scholar who knew much of the world. You, who predate the Creler Wars, surely know about some aspect of Izril we have forgotten to note. Tell me about the last Dragonlords and their politics that danced Walled Cities to their dooms. How did the Five Families first arrive on Izril?”
Klbkch’s authority within the Hive was waning and Fetohep’s beginning to wax as the balance of power shifted. Who had better stories? The Antinium were growing restless, and yet…
Could Klbkch rally? He was thinking hard and fast, and Erin was watching him while stealing jerky from Mrsha, to the Gnoll’s stupefied outrage. But Klbkch did brighten up. He theatrically found a chair and took a seat, crossing his legs and regarding Fetohep with the Antinium version of a smile.
“I may not have ever gone to Izril, but I am well familiar with dimensional travel. For instance, the Horns of Hammerad surely know, as do you, that casting [Teleport] within the Crossroads would be highly destabilizing if they even managed it. Which is why you certainly included that in your list of precautions?”
“…Indeed, it must have slipped my mind.”
Klbkch stretched his arms.
“Oh, of course. But as I remember, when I was taking Xrn through our own dimensional tunnel that was filled with damn eggs, they began to hatch. Whether or not they were ‘Face Eater Moths’, I doubt—these ones were more like dimensional moth-spawn. She attempted to use [Lesser Teleport], and the rift it caused began to suck everything into oblivion. Not to another place, you understand; she collapsed the entire dimension. Granted, it was a small one, contained in a single cube, hence the spawn flooding out from their safe haven, but doubtless imploding dimensions is an everyday threat. Which is why it slipped your mind.”
Fetohep drummed his fingers on his throne.
“Your concern, Slayer, is well noted. And your anecdotal accounts of another dimension are doubtless helpful…if anyone wanted to contrast wildly different experiences.”
Klbkch pretended to look shocked. Then his antennae began to twitch, and he laughed.
“Well, I suppose it is. Though it occurs to me just now—some of the bodies we discovered were definitely from other nations. So I suppose I know nothing of the world after all, King of Khelt. And that giant flying lizard’s corpse was just some strange Wyvern. Not anything else.”
The room went quiet. Fetohep paused, and Klbkch folded his hands behind his head.
“Strange. If I recall correctly, it did have something like a key in its possession. A crest, though it was so old and it was so foreign I never connected it to the living Walled Cities. But perhaps that’s what a key looks like? It certainly unlocked the Dragon’s possessions.”
His head slowly turned, and Erin Solstice stared at Klbkch as everyone in the room turned to her. And Klbkch leaned forwards so far he nearly fell out of his seat, but theatrically.
“I’m sure the Horns shouldn’t look for a crest as opposed to, say, a physical ‘key’. Or a divot where it would rest and therein activate what is lost. This is all useless information, isn’t it, Your Majesty?”
Fetohep was darkly silent. Even he knew when he was taking horrific losses in battle, and Klbkch was only getting warmed up.
“Klbkch. You mean you actually saw a Dragon…?”
Relc’s voice was trembling, but Klbkch affected not to notice. He did turn and look at his audience.
“…I cannot say how old it was. For some corpses never decay beyond a certain point. What I can say is this: when we dug, we found layers. Layers and layers, as if civilizations had been buried and we were tunneling through them. Unsystematically, you understand. Since we had no conception of up or down, having never seen the sky, we went through some areas diagonal to their construction, so we would run across one corridor and then another that were from different eras or periods in time—we could have searched more organically.”
At this point, Fetohep sensed an opening and remarked in a snide comment, forgetting his authority rested on his regality. Like an overeager [Pikeman] charging into the fray for the first time, disgraceful, really.
“One would assume gravity would have provided a basis for direction. But far be it from me to lecture the Antinium on basic physics.”
Klbkch paused and turned as the Antinium oohed and looked at him. But rather than take offense, he just smiled.
“Gravity? The further down you go, the less your so-called gravity exists. I would expect nothing less from a mere king of six hundred years who has never delved more than a thousand feet underground.”
Oooooh! Valeterisa was almost falling out of her seat! How? Why? What was he talking about? Fetohep didn’t react visibly, but Erin could tell that one had landed. Klbkch paused, theatrically, then went on.
“That is not an ignorance of gravity, incidentally. Some of the Centenium mastered gravity-attacks, but Galuc once suspected the world would implode from the inside-out were it not for the reduced pressure. Too much damn water flowing down there. It certainly meant that we had less conception of direction at times—consider that if we believed gravity was lessening, we considered that ‘up’ and went the wrong way for centuries. Physics make more sense on the surface. The First Queen was quite put out when she realized we were in an exception. But I digress.”
He stood up and began to pace back and forth as everyone listened, enjoying his moment.
“Corruption? Simple decay or other species inhabiting the remnants of civilization is not unknown to me, an adventurer. The sentient Silverfish are a good example of what ignorants term ‘corruption’ overtaking areas. I would go as far as to say that Antinium are a new species born out of old ruins. It also made identifying what a place had been difficult. But that was how I found the corpse that might have been a Dragon’s, yes. Let me set the stage.”
He turned and produced a water flask, now speaking to the Antinium.
“Water. At that point in our history—millenia, perhaps, before the Creler Wars and Khelt’s founding—Galuc had just been created for the first true Grand Hive of the First Queen. We had encountered foes of such magnitude that it was clear mere stone, dirt, or chitin as we employed was no longer strong enough, and true armies of Antinium were being founded who could do a Centenium’s job. However, the issue of imperium became less about safety—but continued growth and maintaining so many numbers. And the thing that plagued us most was…”
His audience chorused, and Fetohep rolled his eyes, annoyed. Klbkch nodded.
“Unlike the leaks in my last story, which ended with me sinking through the sea before being rescued—”
“As unto an amateur adventurer.”
Fetohep muttered, and Klbkch raised his voice.
“—I was selected to take Galuc and other experts to source a precious, if later mundane, resource for the Antinium: purified water. I am sure Khelt also had access to an infinite supply of the stuff?”
He turned, and Fetohep stared at him as Nanette clapped her hands in wonder.
Klbkch smiled at the witch.
“Well, obviously, we found something that purifies water. We had long since found a stream that monsters fought over, but I was tasked with following it to the source. This was a dangerous journey; the other monsters and even not-Antinium of older ages fought over such resources, and so six Centenium and a thousand of our finest warforms were selected to back me up. But Antinium prefer to clear the way with elites, rather than, say, an undead kingdom that can only send armies of undead ahead and overwhelm via numbers.”
At this point, Fetohep was seriously mulling over local [Assassins] and bounty-standards in the area. Erin had a headache, and Klbkch was getting into it.
“The purified water flowed past a tribe of semi-peaceful moss folk. Perhaps Moss Elementals? Certainly, they were more powerful than just…Moss Golems if such a thing existed. But any step into their territory they regarded as an attack. Yet, I had made contact with them before and knew the way. So as they gathered, wary of such an army, I decided to offer peace; they did not pollute the water, and it could be shared, if we secured the source itself. So I took this very blade, which is older than Khelt’s entire kingdom many times over, and raised it over my head like so.”
Klbkch unsheathed his sword dramatically and lifted it over his head. Then he paused.
His audience had been watching Klbkch, spellbound, and Klbkch hesitated because…
The weight was mostly right. It was balanced well, as any good sword would be, but he knew his swords by heart. His blade was lighter. And the gleam of the metal was wrong. His blade was silver.
This one was steel. It had a gradient to it down both sides, unlike his perfectly flat blades, which curved near the tip, and it was less sharp.
How had he…? Klbkch stared at the blade, and an hour had already passed. The Skill’s window of effect was over, and he had just noticed the theft.
Memory flooded back, and Klbkch stared at the fake sword by his side—yanked out the one on his left, and saw his sword.
The other was missing. It had been stolen. He remembered what they had done.
Most of the audience didn’t even understand why Klbkch had frozen. Even Erin just frowned and wondered why his sword looked less shiny. But Fetohep of Khelt knew. He stared at the sword Klbkch was holding—and raised his goblet. Fetohep took a drink of his ethereal liquor and remarked in a carrying tone.
“My, that exact blade? I feel, even for a young king of a newborn nation, that must be inaccurate. That looks like an ordinary steel sword to me. Slayer, have your eyes grown weak with age? Pray tell—have you misplaced your sword?”
Klbkch slowly looked up and tried to smile.
“Aha. Will you excuse me? I just remembered I have someone to kill.”
He turned and spoke.
“Erin? Your friend Vetn stole my sword. I am going to, with respect to your guests—murder him.”
Then he began running, and Erin shot out of her chair. She had expected something—but this?
“He did what? Vetn did—wait, Klbkch! He stole your—? Wait!”
The room erupted into chaos as Klbkch took off running, and Fetohep sat on his throne as someone shot from his chair and shouted.
Tesy had been looking happier since the beach and his chance to show off his art skills. But he realized he hadn’t seen Vetn at the beach since—he got up and ran, and Fetohep, removed from it all, crooked a finger.
“Have the [Spies] report to me in real time what is going on. Fire any of the ones who are not aware something is occurring. Oh, and note the Slayer’s great lesson of history and this moment down. It would not do for his history to be lost. Publish a book once we have the full story on the theft of his sword. I am sure the Thief of Clouds might well be as popular as the Lightning Thief.”
One hour was a long time. Not long for some tasks, true, but for a [Thief]?
One free hour to escape in was…a high-level Skill that most would trade a fortune for, or a hand. It was everything.
In one hour, Vetn and Bviora had used every second of it well. By the time Klbkch came tearing out of Liscor and went to track them down, he was too late.
They were well out of Liscor. Not via any gate; they had gone straight to The Wandering Inn, and from there?
“Pallass? Are you sure?”
Liska nervously checked her list.
“Yep. They’ve been going every day. W-why? You, uh, okay, Guardsman Klbkch?”
He stared at the door, and the wary [Guards] in the checkpoint eyed the Slayer. Erin, who was clutching at her side and back, having run after Klbkch, gasped.
“Don’t go through there. Kel! Lock down! Klbkch’s pissed!”
“Lock down! Lock the—”
Klbkch spun on Erin, but the [Guards] instantly panicked. The gates slammed, and Erin pointed at Klbkch.
“You’re not going through. You want a war with Pallass? That’s how it starts. Now, explain what’s going on!”
“I don’t know. They stole my swords—my sword, I got one back—and then used a Skill on me. Do not obstruct me, Erin.”
“I’m not obstructing you, I’m keeping you from entering Pallass and starting an international incident!”
Erin shouted back, and she meant it. Vetn and Bviora had a method that Erin was seeing now.
They could have gone to several places to escape Klbkch. Celum, Invrisil…but only one would actively stifle his pursuit.
Pallass. Klbkch couldn’t go through there, and Drake lands were actively hostile to a roving Antinium. But what was their plan?
“They have my sword. I want it back, Erin. It is…my sword. The First Queen made it for me.”
Klbkch’s voice was flat, dangerous. His hand opened and closed, and Erin looked at him.
“I know. I don’t know why Vetn did that—but I didn’t know. Don’t kill him.”
“I want my sword. I am going to get it back. I need…the Listeners will not be much use unless they heard a conversation. Excuse me. I need to talk to someone.”
Klbkch spun, and Erin wondered if Vetn and his friend were in Pallass…or if they’d kept running. For their sakes, she hoped they’d gone further.
This might be really, really bad. Erin had no idea what Vetn’s plan was, but even if you assumed he knew the risks, he clearly thought there was something he’d get out of this.
Here was the thing: he might think he knew the risks, but he didn’t know Antinium like Erin did. Klbkch’s sword was one of the few things they valued. Vetn hadn’t just made an enemy of Klbkch.
He’d made an enemy out of all the Antinium, and they didn’t escalate things. They started at maximum and pushed things from there.
The incident of Klbkch’s stolen sword would later be noted as a part of history because of what happened as a result. But in the moment, it wasn’t something that grabbed much attention.
“Hey, guys, guess what? Someone just stole Klbkch’s sword.”
Ceria Springwalker went hurrying to find the Horns after a very brief, frantic call with Erin, who was looking stressed again. She found absolutely zero of her companions in their tent where they were preparing for their journey. Just Wer.
“Where’s my team?”
“They ran off since you’re done preparing. You tell me.”
Here was the thing about objectionable personality traits. Everyone had them. Absolutely everyone. Erin was almost all traits that you could love—if you weren’t on the receiving end of them.
For instance, she didn’t respect authority. People thought Ryoka was a rebel? Erin was uprising incarnate sometimes. In the same way, you had to admit that the Horns of Hammerad…had some annoying personalities.
Case in point, Ceria Springwalker. She was a [Prankster], a trickster, ate bugs, wore a circlet of dubious morality, and she was the person her team agreed was the best to be their captain.
Ceria’s issues were well-documented. But the Horns plus Colth had more issues still.
For instance, Pisces hadn’t actually gone off right away. Rather, he had been talking with Chieftain Feshi about buying gear when she’d, unprompted, asked if he’d toured the entire Meeting of Tribes.
“Many of the old tents and tribes are gone, but we have been working on a permanent set of buildings. Whether or not we will one day make them in stone—have you seen them all, Pisces?”
“I—cannot say I’ve toured them extensively, Chieftain Feshi.”
She grinned and pointed to one series of tents that Pisces saw had steam rising nonstop in the winter.
“Ah, then, we have been remiss hosts! You should try that tent—Gaarh Marsh set up a wonderful bathing spot. A natural hot spring, no less. We should have offered all the Horns a chance to use it.”
“Oh, how lovely.”
Pisces eyed the tent, then nodded politely at Feshi.
“I am sure we could use it soon. Perhaps before we go? Or after.”
“…We could offer you a moment now, Pisces. In fact, I think it’s been recently cleaned. A hot bath sounds delightful while you wait for your reply, yes?”
It did…but Pisces thought about it for a second.
“I don’t know if this is the moment, but certainly soon, Chieftain Feshi.”
She hesitated, and only then did Pisces realize Feshi wasn’t just making small-talk. The Chieftain inhaled, sneezed, and then gave Pisces a serious look.
“—Would it be hurtful if I insisted you use our services? I have not said much on…whatever happened last night, Adventurer Pisces, as Theikha assures me it is well. But I will say that it might help the tribes…”
And then Pisces realized that she was referring to his smell and turned beet red.
“I, er—I use [Cleanse]—and I assure you, Feshi—”
She gave him a big smile.
“I am sure you do! But perhaps cleansing oneself in a more thorough manner would help? We have soap and towels.”
“But I washed! Colth was there—and Gamur—”
Feshi gave Pisces a longer stare.
“Hrr. Indeed? How fascinating. I think only one person need use the bathing tents, though perhaps they could give you tips?”
Pisces’ face went slack, then crimson. That was, perhaps, the first time in his life that he learned that he didn’t know how to wash himself. At least, enough to fool a Gnoll’s nose.
The [Necromancer] practically ran to the bathing tent, which was how he and Yvlon ended up being missing. Yvlon decided she needed a bath in the female’s tent, because Berr wasn’t ready to train her, and Ksmvr was doing something Yvlon regarded as too boring to endure.
So, lacking the ability to train and without anything else to do, she decided bathing was as good a use of her time as any.
Aside from her issues in managing her temper, Yvlon Byres’ issue was that Gnolls did not immediately approach her with offers to do something if she was alone. And her problem, as Nailren had learned on their journey, was that Yvlon Byres was somehow…boring.
It was strange. But here was an example. When Yvlon, a seasoned Gold-rank adventurer with metal arms who’d murdered an Adult Creler with a broken sword—talked to, say, Chieftain Adetr Steelfur, she was polite and cordial. Then she asked, ‘if I’m not being offensive, how do you think the Steelfur tribe will do without your late Chieftain’s Skills?’
Which was…reasonable. But then she’d turn to Rose, who was right there ready to discuss the future of Gnolls, the power of technology, Krshia’s upgrade Skill, the inn, and say, ‘Rose, how have you found living among the Gnoll tribes? Is it different from living in Liscor?’
And the eyes of her fellow conversationalists would glaze over, and they would long for death.
It was actually amazing. Colth, when observing Yvlon’s actions, had decided to assign her a negative charisma score.
It was part of his system of numbers and values. He’d thought long and hard about it, but his conclusion was that Yvlon’s ‘charisma’, her personality as it influenced how people perceived her, was made up of multiple factors.
You could argue her level and status as a [Lady] offered her tangential benefits, but they were outside influences to ‘Yvlon’ herself, so he counted it as bonus modifiers. Yvlon Byres, as a woman, if you didn’t have the knowledge of why her class mattered, was one thing.
If you were a northern Izrilian, the [Lady] part mattered, but since it was down to cultural knowledge and individual preference, it was therefore a bonus.
He liked that logic. Yvlon, therefore, had a charisma derived from several values. Appearance was one thing. It was, despite what people liked to say. She was well-spoken, polite—
But she sometimes said the dumbest things imaginable. No, not dumb—boring. And she alternated between mind-numbingly bad questions or her temper. So he gave her a -2 score and left it at that.
It was almost as if Yvlon was afraid to be personable or she didn’t know how. She was quite charming if you got to know her, but that was one of her flaws.
Anyways, Colth was working on revising his system of numbers and variables because he and Rose had met, and she was telling him all about this fascinating system.
“So a score of ‘10’ is equal to 0. But 12 would be…”
“+1. I think. I only played a few games, but I think it’s because you have a range of numbers so it’s not just increasing with every single value.”
“Ah, I see. No, it makes sense. But explain to me why Wisdom and Intellect are there. What about creativity? Bravery?”
“I mean, it’s a game. How complex do you want it to be?”
Rose and Colth were wandering around the Meeting of Tribes, and the [Supporter] glanced up from taking notes.
That wasn’t his bad personality, by the way. The numbers thing that Colth preached was not the most annoying thing about him. It was…his crowd-pleaser aspect.
Unlike Pisces, Colth could properly wash himself. So the smell wasn’t an issue. But even then, he had noticed his bar-encounter had made Gnolls warier of him, reminded of who the Named-rank adventurer was.
The problem was that Colth liked being liked. It was an obsession with him. So, after sensing his social credit score had fallen—he had hurried over and asked to use a cooking tent and come out with a bunch of baked goods from Liscor.
Cookies. A banana cream pie. Milkshakes…all the stuff that he’d picked up from Erin’s inn.
All the sugary, highly addictive foods including burgers.
He had then proceeded to hand the food out to every Gnoll he met. Why was this an issue? Well, possibly because the Meeting of Tribes was still a place where you had work and lunch—and so a bunch of annoyed Gnoll [Cooks] found people weren’t hungry for the food they’d worked so hard on.
And a bunch of adult Gnolls were currently dealing with Gnollish cubs on their first sugar-high, causing havoc.
Theikha had sent Gamur to go hit Colth a few times.
The last member of the Horns was Ksmvr. He was currently returning to Honored Deskie’s tent with lunch. The [Magical Spinner] was surprised.
“Ksmvr, you do not have to keep knitting here, much less keep running errands for us. Your team is elsewhere, is it not?”
Ksmvr put down the huge basket of food and, after passing it out, sat down with his first project. He answered as he sat next to Deskie’s rocking chair.
“This is very true, Honored Deskie. But if Gamur, a Named-rank adventurer, did things for you, so should I because I am a mere Gold-rank novice and should learn from his example. Respecting your elders is a Gnollish idea I am new to. I do not respect my elders in Liscor. Mostly because it was only Klbkch, and I don’t like him anymore. I used to.”
The Gnolls eyed each other as Ksmvr bent over his task. He could eat and knit with his four hands as he chattered, an enviable ability.
“Therefore I do not have an elder to respect except Ceria, and she gets annoyed if I call her old. May I respect you, Honored Deskie?”
“Hrr. Mm. Yes, I believe so.”
She turned faintly red under her fur, then eyed Ksmvr’s work.
“You are learning quite well. But do you truly wish to learn to knit with your time?”
Ksmvr nodded happily.
“Knitting can make clothing or other textiles. Therefore it is a valuable skill to learn. Am I correct? Please let me know if I am incorrect.”
For a response, Deskie patted him affectionately on the head.
“What a good child. Are all Antinium like you?”
Ksmvr tilted his head.
“I do not know. But perhaps they could be.”
The Antinium had plenty of bad qualities, like his self-effacing behavior. His obsession to collect trees. His…
By the time Ceria picked up her team, the Gnolls seemed happy to be rid of the Horns for the moment. Except for Ksmvr, who was wearing a new knitted beanie with two holes for his antennae and was returned to her with strict injunctions that he come back safely. Or else.
The half-Elf regarded her shamefaced team and sighed.
“Okay. Are we done wandering around? Or are we ready to check out the Crossroads?”
The Horns looked at each other, and Yvlon hefted a pack, Pisces swept back washed hair, and Ksmvr nodded. Colth grimaced as he pointed to Shedrkh’s tent.
“Shame the armor isn’t fully done, but I’ve got the helmet, and we’ll take it slow, in waves. Let’s go.”
He nodded at Ceria, and they went to find Wer. Here was the thing about adventurers: they tended to have at least one bad character trait. Named-ranks had multiple flaws. But adventurers could put it all aside—at least, the ones that lived could—in order to do what they did best:
The Horns of Hammerad and Colth the Supporter entered the Crossroads of Izril first.
It was no advantage.
The Horns of Hammerad vanished into the air. At the same time, Vetn and Bviora put themselves on the map.
Someone had stolen the Slayer’s blade.
That was the kind of news every single [Spy] clustering around The Wandering Inn was glad for. Finally, some actual damn news. Not the beach. Not reporting on whatever a boba tea was and having to take a cup to a local [Confectioner] and getting the recipe down for some hungry, trendy court nobles.
Theft and political drama. Thank you!
In fact, their reports actually preceded the Antinium’s awareness of the situation. That was because the Free Queen had to communicate via mirror whereas the [Spies] could just dash off a [Message]. Worse, the Free Queen had to endure the Grand Queen’s pettiness and break off her actually important research.
“They stole your sword?”
Xevccha tried her best. But the problem with mental communications was that sometimes your feelings leaked. It was more efficient and dangerous for the same reason because if you wanted to keep secrets, it was difficult.
So in this case, along with the facts she was getting from a very angry/upset/slightly betrayed Klbkch was the nuance that he felt like Erin was not supporting him, he was insecure about Fetohep replacing him as a wise old legend—which he seemed to believe was his image with Erin and the inn—and he was worried Xrn was going to make fun of him.
In the Free Queen’s case, she tried to be supportive. But she accidentally leaked…again? Really? This is rather inconvenient for me at the moment.
Which hurt his feelings. Sometimes, Xevccha reflected, it would have been better not to know Klbkch’s foibles and thoughts. Better to worship him as the Slayer beyond reproof or question, that silver blade of the Antinium.
Then again, these shifts in moods were new. There had been a time when making contact with Klbkch was like touching ice. A focused razor of intent.
“I shall inform the Grand Queen at once, Klbkchhezeim. Is it your intention to pursue?”
“I cannot. They are in Pallass. I must locate my sword—I am going to speak with Xrn.”
“That is wise. Should I avoid telling the Grand Queen, then?”
This time, Klbkch realized that Xevccha didn’t want to actually talk to the Grand Queen and hesitated.
“…I believe she will be upset if we do not. Tell her.”
“Oh, very well.”
That was not quite how they thought-spoke, of course. The Antinium were actually thinking in more nuanced dialogue than that, and if you had to translate it verbally, it would have come out in their native language. These days, a word would sometimes appear in the language of other species because they had no native translation for it, and they were beginning to think in other languages.
It was another distressing reminder that they had changed from being True Antinium. The Free Queen dwelled on the notion. Klbkch did not. He was genuinely furious. And, she had sensed, worried.
Someone had caught him even with [Recaptured Sublimity]. To her that was…nigh impossible.
Klbkch had not ‘mastered’ the Skill that gave him the old power of his body. Rather, he had described it as a kind of tradeoff.
If he needed to, he could regain his full combat prowess, but not perfectly. Rather, it was like remembering part of a painting, or the entire thing, but vaguely.
Klbkch could make himself faster, stronger, and tougher—or focus on one aspect of his old form, like the strength that had made Facestealer’s bones crack. Or the speed to catch Vetn. He couldn’t recapture it all. Not yet.
And still, the Lightning Thief had been faster. Of course, Klbkch lacked his Skills and old body’s perfection and tricks. Even so, it had rattled him.
It should have made Xevccha panic, that one of the three remaining Centenium had been bested in any way. But she was older than the new Queen who had seen her people sink at sea and washed up, alone and unable to hear her people, afraid they had lost everything.
She had experienced defeat. When you had fallen to the bottom, something like this didn’t hurt much.
And as for fear they would be outmatched—life had thrown her a boon at last in that pit. A shining ray of hope.
“I will need to speak to the Grand Queen momentarily. Continue the experiment.”
Xevccha turned back, and the Workers and Soldiers returned to their work. They were doing the impossible, or trying to. A singing Antinium was swaying back and forth on a huge perch, holding a handful of feathers. She’d made a huge, branch-like protrusion of a balcony because he liked it so much.
Anything to lure Bird down. He was not always in his tower, and despite being exiled and renouncing the Free Hive—he came by surprisingly often.
For a few reasons. First, because he was welcome in the Free Queen’s quarters. Second, because he sang and she enjoyed it. And third, because she bribed him and had need of him.
Right now—Bird was singing.
“I am Bird, and Bird am I. I sing and you hear my voice. And now you say…”
He looked down at the Workers and Soldiers and paused. And they said:
Or rather, only two Workers said that. There were seven Soldiers, eleven Workers, and a few of the Soldiers tried to click loudly. One Worker waved.
The Free Queen rubbed at her body with her palps, tired. She reached for a huge ice cream milkshake one of Garry’s helpers had carted out for her.
“No, no. Bird. Please, stop singing. That is too complex.”
He stopped and turned to her as she sipped through a huge wooden straw.
“But you said singing was the most basic thing of all.”
She corrected him gently. You had to be gentle with Bird. He was a silly creature, sometimes on purpose, and she humored him. Because she liked the Worker. And because he was so valuable.
“Singing in the mind, Bird. Singing as Antinium do. You sing in ways Soldiers cannot. If they knew the song and joined in, it would be easier. Please…try something easier. What was the word you wished them to say?”
Oh. The Workers and Soldiers below waved their antennae and nodded. So that was what he’d been thinking. Some had gotten ‘hello’ or the vague sentiment. But how had they gotten it?
The Free Queen watched, half-despondent, half-elated. It was so entirely frustrating. She’d sensed everything Bird was singing, but the other Workers and Soldiers had not.
And yet, they’d picked something up. Now, Bird tried to concentrate. Or pretended to.
“Unitasis…unitasis…[Unitasis Network]! I am thinking of a color. Which one is it?”
The Workers and Soldiers milled below as Xevccha leaned over excitedly. This was the foundation of True Antinium! This was how they rebuilt all! Minds in unison! Armies fighting as one! Intellect shared, willpower a sea of togetherness! Bird was the first Antinium to learn the Unitasis Network—as a Skill no less!
This was a day of great celebration, ever since the Meeting of Tribes had ended. It was—except for one thing.
The Workers and Soldiers argued and came back with a color. The Free Queen took a huge gulp of her milkshake and summoned a cow-sized steak. She was eating her feelings.
Ooooh. The Workers and Soldiers lowered their heads as the Free Queen sighed. Their reactions were telling. Some had said ‘green’ or ‘blue’.
It was like they were poorly tuned to Bird’s thoughts. They were getting some of what he thought, but it was distorted. She blamed Bird, honestly. He came up with difficult concepts—and he was also Bird.
It was entirely possible that his unique personality made forming a Unitasis Network harder. But it had to be taught. If Bird could teach the Unitasis Network to one Soldier or Worker, just one—it proved the others could learn. And then the Free Queen could expand it, one by one if she had to, or more likely, learn what was needed and mass-transmit the knowledge across the Hives.
That was the plan. It had been the plan for about three months. They’d done this five times a week, every night except weekends, which Bird claimed he got off.
She had a headache. And so, apparently, did Bird.
“Free Queen, my head hurts. I’ve been doing this for an hour. May I go?”
“Please try one more time, Bird. One more color? Something simple, like red?”
Bird tilted his head.
“Okay. I will think red, then.”
“No…that wouldn’t help, Bird.”
Xevccha didn’t have actions like putting one’s head in her hands, but she did have existential despair. She clicked her mandibles, resisting the urge to poke him hard.
“Okay. What am I thinking of? One plus one is…?”
“That’s math, Bird. Think of a number, don’t ask them an equation.”
As one, the Antinium flinched. The Free Queen’s peeved snap was more familiar to them than anything else, and she caught herself as Bird’s happy smile turned downwards.
“I am…sorry, Bird. It is just frustrating.”
“I am sorry I am frustrating, Xevccha. Erin sometimes tells me I am too silly. But you should also apologize to your Workers and Soldiers.”
Apologize to them? The Free Queen stared at the group below.
It came out with difficulty, even for her. But it cheered Bird up, and the Free Queen did regard the Workers and Soldiers as more than expendable parts. Each one could, with luck or chance, become a valuable Individual.
But oh, how tiring it was compared to True Antinium where even Queens could die if need be. Rather than all being sacrificial pieces in an endless war, they had all become precious little gemstones, nay, seedlings to be nurtured and agonized over!
The nature of Antinium was sacrifice. Only the Centenium and the First Queen had ever mattered. This ran against the Free Queen’s wishes. In a way, it explained why it had taken a decade to get to this point.
She was realizing it. The Free Queen took a break to tell the Grand Queen about the sword. The Antinium had a new issue to deal with, and frankly, this was getting nowhere.
It was just so frustrating because according to Bird, he’d never needed [Unitasis Network] as a Skill at all. He had claimed the Free Antinium had spontaneously generated versions of the Unitasis Network while playing chess against Erin and again when they’d defended the inn.
When the Free Queen had heard that, she’d nearly flipped the Hive, and she had tried to reproduce the phenomenon because it meant that the Antinium had always had the power to form a Unitasis Network. But for some reason, while she could communicate with them thanks to her abilities, they were unable to communicate with each other.
The analogy Bird had made was something about ‘radio towers’ and ‘poor connection’. He was watching something called movies, and apparently there were analogies in Human culture, which fascinated and disturbed Xevccha. She hadn’t realized any other species was so advanced.
And yet…even Erin couldn’t reproduce that ability at random in her inn. Even Bird could barely transmit a color at close-range to a group of Workers and Soldiers thinking hard.
Why? The Free Queen listened to the Grand Queen berate her for ‘losing’ one of the swords until she pretended her mirror was malfunctioning and cut the call. She ignored the squawk of rage and decided today was an unpleasant day.
“We shall conclude the training. Bird, thank you. You are free to return to your inn.”
“Yay. Thank you, Free Queen. May I be paid for my work?”
Bird was getting a paycheck for helping rediscover the nature of the True Antinium. The Free Queen hesitated, because she felt like he had done this part on purpose.
Bird had argued that, since he’d renounced his Hive, he was no longer Free Antinium. But since she needed his help, he would happily work with her as a paid contractor. And at that point, Xevccha had realized he might be more cunning than he let on.
“I shall have some coins prepared, Bird. In fact, you should sit here. Klbkchhezeim is upon his warpath, and the inn is frantic. Sit, and eat with me.”
“I will take my payment in boiled eggs, then. Thank you! No, wait. I would like my eggs profane.”
Bird sat happily as the Free Queen, sighing, gestured for Runel, one of the two flying Antinium, to bring over a tray of deviled eggs.
The Workers and Soldiers watched as Bird trundled over and sat with the Free Queen, who lifted up her steak—and a huge, scurrying thing emerged from a hole in her room.
“Deferred Sustenance, there you are. Did you come out for my steak? You silly Rock Crab. Here.”
She broke off a piece, and the little Rock Crab snatched at it, then retreated into its hole after she patted it. A pet, a singing Bird, an easier Hive with all the traps…life wasn’t that bad, Xevccha reflected. Indeed, she thought of the Workers and Soldiers standing there, and such was her largesse, she came to an impulsive decision.
“Pisca. Runel. Bring out more food. In fact, select…yes, select a portion of Acid Fly lasagna that Garry made. All of it. I shall allow the Workers and Soldiers to eat with Bird and I in recognition of their labors.”
Whaaat? Even Pisca and Runel hesitated, then rushed into the kitchen and opened the magical walk-in refrigerator and began to heat up some of Garry’s pre-made food. Bird happily bounced up and down.
“Food for everyone? Huzzah! That is so kind and generous, Xevccha.”
“Isn’t it? Give some to the Soldiers on duty as well.”
She was feeling good about her generosity. The Soldiers and Workers felt…stunned. Awed. And hungry. These were not Painted Antinium or Individuals, just random ones she’d selected out of multiple groups to test whether there was some factor in learning the Unitasis Network from Bird.
The Soldiers guarding her at all times glanced up, and the smell of hot, delicious food wafted into the room. Deferred Sustenance scuttled back out of its hole, and the Free Queen smiled.
Then—she heard something. No, she thought-heard something. It was loud and came to her from nearly two dozen ‘voices’, each one faint, untrained, wild and young and naïve and precious—
It struck her, and she actually rocked in place as Bird sat up. His antennae went still, then they waved as crazily as the Free Queen’s.
Because they had both heard it. They had both just heard, unprompted, a single thought coming, not from them, not from Klbkch—but from the gathered Antinium. Workers, Soldiers, all thinking in unison. So loudly the thought connected each and every mind and reached the Free Queen.
A proto-Unitasis Network. And what was the first thought to come from the linked minds? It was:
‘Acid Fly lasagna. Yum!’
The Workers and Soldiers smiled as one, and each imagined a different version of the dish, trying to think of what it must taste like from their limited imagination of the world. Each single thought and idea overlapped, and then all the imaginations blended into the most beautiful thing in their heads, a combination of all the ideas of what it might be, might look like, and they realized that the other Antinium around them were thinking like them and happy.
They felt each other’s happiness—felt the wound on one of the Soldier’s feet he was hiding, afraid of telling anyone about in case he was killed for being useless. Felt the others’ worries and thoughts and realized they were not alone.
Then—two minds joined that hubbub of untrained voices, colliding thoughts. One was a silly, laughing mind that had sharp insights, joy, and song. Filled with images of birds and a world above and a resolve to protect his place and family.
The other was older, vaster, and carried with it the will and despair of a people a world away. It was not just one mind—it was like touching a falling nation, hearing a million dead voices and a flash of light.
The Free Queen, Xevccha’s mind, was filled with echoes of Antinium she had known. It was old, despairing, tired, and pained—with more pain that she had forgotten existed, from her bloated body ruined by having to bear the first generation of Antinium. With fears and intent—and yet the mind was honed, trained, and so powerful they learned something just from touching it.
Could you order your thoughts like someone ordered papers on a desk? Yes! Could you learn to think harder? Yes! She was a lesson, and yet her mind opened like a blooming flower, like dawn, with hope and excitement as it touched theirs, and she gave voice to what was happening.
Unitasis Network. It had formed.
They were connected. The Free Queen felt elation, awe, triumph, and the Antinium smiled and thought as one. Through it all, though, one thought bubbled up in their combined consciousness.
Lasagna? Food? That was the key? Xelchidrech kelc! What the f—
The Grand Queen was getting tired of the Free Queen’s mess ups. No one appreciated how hard she, the Grand Queen, had to work.
She ended the call with the Free Queen, then had to summon the other four Queens to an emergency meeting.
“My Queens, the sword of Klbkchhezeim has been stolen by a…[Thief]. He is currently investigating the matter, but it seems the Free Queen is unable to pursue.”
One of the great Antinium artifacts—the only one, really—was gone. Four Queens listened to the Grand Queen respectfully—well, sort of.
The Twisted Queen was half-turned, clearly busy on a project. The Silent Queen was working in her laboratory, which was acceptable, but the Armored Queen was literally reading a book, and the Flying Queen was eating! Their reaction to this event was…
“One sword has been stolen? Again? Very well, very well. We appreciate the update, Grand Queen.”
The Armored Queen looked up from her book and saluted with an antenna. The Twisted Queen muttered.
“Wrymvr will. Be told. Understood. Send him?”
“I stand ready to retrieve Klbkchhezeim’s sword, Grand Queen! Should I dispatch my Silent Antinium now? To which area?”
The Silent Queen looked agitated, as she always did when Klbkch lost his swords. The Flying Queen rubbed her feelers together.
“Yes, yes. I, as well. I could send a thousand flier-jumpers this moment. Of course, it’s not war yet, but we must have the sword back. When was the last time they stole them? Eleven years ago?”
The Grand Queen mused a moment, keeping them all in suspense of her wisdom. She got annoyed when none of them were hanging on her words.
“Prepare sixty Silent Antinium, Silent Queen, and if the area is acceptable, the Flying Queen shall unleash a mere two hundred of her subjects. We will not provoke the Drakes unduly, but the sword shall be recovered. The Free Queen will have the location from Klbkchhezeim shortly.”
“Yes, my Queen.”
They chorused, and the Grand Queen lifted a feeler.
“On that subject, I have been thinking of improvements to each Hive of late, and I believe another census should be taken. Let us, in this moment, have an impromptu inspection of each Hive’s readiness. Flying Queen, report the changes to your Hive in this last week.”
All four other Queens paused. It was not as if this were unusual, for they had to stay in contact to work together. But the mirrors that let them chat meant the Grand Queen could—and had—been checking on them more and more often.
Mental communication from Hive-to-Hive was harder, so she didn’t do it as much. The mirror made things easier, and so the monthly, and sometimes weekly or daily, meetings for hours on end had become regular. The Flying Queen hesitated a good ten seconds, then flicked her gaze to the right.
“Oh. I, uh—I’ve suddenly been attacked by monsters. Horrible ones. Hundreds.”
“What an issue. Should I send reinforcements? The Hives stand ready to assist.”
The Grand Queen sat up importantly, but the Flying Queen waved her feelers.
“I have it all under control, my Queen. I will just need to go—excuse me!”
“Oh. Well then, the Armored Queen—”
“I have an engagement with Anand, my Queen. Excuse me.”
“Then the Silent Queen—”
“I should prepare my Silent Antinium for battle. They require my exacting orders as this is an important matter, Grand Queen.”
The Silent Queen and Armored Queen vanished, and at this point, the Grand Queen began to catch on that they were doing it on purpose. She felt embarrassment, indignation, anger, and wished she could share it with them mentally. But to save face, she spoke quickly.
“This is understandable and I release you two to go about your business.”
Both Queens bowed their heads and vanished. The Grand Queen was left alone with a final Queen. The Twisted Queen, who unsettled even her. The two regarded each other, and to her credit…the Twisted Queen made no excuses.
She just cut the connection.
Insubordination. The Grand Queen fumed for an hour afterwards, dragging herself around her chambers and wondering if she should require weekly meetings from now on. The Free Queen was the worst of the lot. It was her rebellious attitude that had clearly leaked back to the Hivelands once they’d graciously made contact with her.
Was she talking with the other Queens behind the Grand Queen’s back? It would be just like her. So un-Antinium.
As for Klbkchhezeim’s sword…well, even the Grand Queen couldn’t muster that much indignation about the issue.
Klbkch lost his swords. The Antinium got them back. It was inconvenient, but even the Silent Queen was more just morally outraged that it had happened. Someone stole the swords, the Antinium killed them.
Wrymvr arrived with a single thought-word, landing like an explosion above the Grand Queen’s Hive. She thought-spoke brightly to him, proud he no longer intimidated her as he once had. The greatest defender of Queens was at her beck and call, even if he was largely with the Twisted Queen.
It was good to know he was still loyal.
“Ah, Wrymvr. Klbkchhezeim has lost his swords.”
“Yes! They require recovery. Prepare to recover them. They may be around Pallass.”
Wrymvr acknowledged the orders with a subtle flick of his mind. He held still a moment, ruminating, and then asked one more question.
“Attack the Walled City?”
Here was the thing Vetn and Bviora might not have anticipated. The Antinium didn’t do escalation. As Erin Solstice well knew…the Grand Queen thought judiciously.
“Not…yet. But if they are outside of the city, go ahead and slaughter anything in your way. Try to avoid their soldiers. I have sixty Silent Antinium and two hundred Flying Antinium to support you. Just get the sword back.”
He took off. And the Grand Queen thought that, once again, she had proven her political intrigue and decisiveness that showed why she led the Antinium.
It wasn’t even an ill-thought-out order, either. She was just working off her knowledge of how other species’ politics worked.
Here was how the Grand Queen viewed the issue based on her understanding of Izril:
1. Klbkchhezeim’s sword was stolen. This was an act of aggression against the Antinium. It had happened in a Drake city. Drakes were likely responsible as they had been all the other times.
2. Any act the Antinium committed to regain the sword was acceptable because it was his sword. Attacking Pallass was too much direct escalation, and Wrymvr alone would not manage it, so they would avoid direct confrontation.
3. This all fell in line with previous thefts and reclamations of the sword, so it was unlikely to cause a fuss.
Where her logic fell apart from a non-Antinium perspective was this:
1. Not all non-Antinium were alike. In this case, a Gnoll and Human had stolen the sword.
2. It wasn’t war, so this would be seen as an unprovoked attack, especially if Wrymvr went after a Drake city.
3. No one had any idea the sword was stolen, for the general populace at least.
The Grand Queen was oblivious to these salient facts that only the Free Queen might understand and conceivably communicate. Well, her and Xrn.
It was one of the reasons why the Antinium were so difficult for the Drakes to deal with. Their regard for the Drakes often lacked nuance. What one Walled City did, they all did, which was either Antinium ignorance…or surprising prescience on their part.
At any rate, things wouldn’t escalate further if they had no idea where the sword was. The problem was that the Antinium had means and that the sword’s theft involved more than just the fate of Klbkch’s armaments.
The Grand Queen received a [Message] addressed specifically to her, and she read it in her quarters.
To the Antinium. I am the Thief of Clouds, and I have stolen the sword of the Slayer. I intend to cast it into the sea where it will be lost forever unless my simple demand is met:
Trade me the Eye of Baleros, and I swear I will return the sword. A relic for a relic.
Otherwise, the blade of the Slayer will be lost forever.
The Custodium who had delivered the [Message] was made in Klbkch’s image and bore replicas of his blades, albeit plain steel rather than the chitin of his blades. The Grand Queen’s sense of urgency heightened markedly after receiving the [Message].
“This is not appropriate. This is not good. Losing a blade is unacceptable; they can no longer be remade outside of Rhir. Wrymvr, prepare to attack as soon as we find the location of the thieves. My Queens, to me!”
She summoned them again, and all four reappeared reluctantly.
“My Queen? I am still fighting monsters—”
“I am. Busy.”
They began to make excuses, but the Grand Queen snapped.
“Be silent. This situation has escalated. I have just been threatened by the thief. They plan on tossing the sword into the sea unless we trade them some object in return.”
All the Queens grew alarmed at that. Stealing the swords had always been a Drake idea, but they’d stolen the blades to research or just lock them up or use them. Losing one of Klbkchhezeim’s swords?
That was a problem. Instantly, she had their focus, and the Grand Queen was happy about that.
“I shall send Anand over at once for strategic input, my Queen. Who is this ‘Thief of Clouds’?”
“Researching…my records indicate a Gnoll.”
“Hired by the Drakes? How many armies should we send, Grand Queen?”
She held up a feeler, thinking fast.
“Armies are slow. If this is analogous to the Courier of Izril situation, Wrymvr and a strike-force is mandatory. I will prepare a dozen Custodium to engage with as many Silent Antinium and Flying Antinium as can be mustered. Prepare ten thousand to swarm and your finest to accompany Wrymvr directly, Flying Queen. Your soldiers are too slow, Armored Queen.”
They acknowledged. At this point, the Twisted Queen could offer whatever unique forces she had, but she clearly felt like Wrymvr alone was the best option from her Hive. The Grand Queen nodded as she reassessed the situation.
“If need be, we will strike Pallass, but the odds are this ‘Thief of Clouds’ will head to the sea to effect the displacement of the blade. We will attack whenever they are located. I have sent a missive to the Free Queen apprising her the situation has now changed.”
The Queens agreed this was very good. But then the Armored Queen raised a feeler.
“What did the Thief of Clouds want in return, Grand Queen? Is it more effective to trade for the object requested?”
The Grand Queen clacked her mandibles, annoyed.
“Some object. An ‘Eye of Baleros’? I do not know what it is. I have asked if Xrn recalls. If we have it, I will trade it…consult your own treasuries. Perhaps we have it?”
She had no idea. The Queens began to ask what the heck this ‘Eye’ was anyways, and at this point, the Grand Queen was glad Anand was being sent. He might know.
She regarded all of her actions thus far as logical, measured, calm given the circumstances, and entirely justifiable given what was being threatened. So did the other Queens.
Anand was currently, right now, running and screaming at the Free Queen via a speaking stone, because the two had definite and serious understandings of what might happen if the Grand Queen’s plan went through. That screaming only got louder when it turned out that the Antinium knew exactly where Bviora and Vetn were.
The Lightning Thief’s daughter may have understood something of the Antinium, but she did not expect they were both more intelligent and more different than she could imagine.
In Liscor, Klbkch was wildly unaware of how far the Grand Queen was preparing to go. And unfortunately, he might not have cared if he knew.
He really wanted his sword back. It was the blade that defined him, which the First Queen had made. If you asked him whether war with the Drakes was an acceptable cost for getting his sword back? He might say, ‘how many Walled Cities’?
He was so furious that when he strode into the room where a blue Centenium was teaching her apprentices magic, even Xrn didn’t first lance him with a scathing remark.
“Klbkch. What is wrong?”
She turned, and a flickering light of many colors illuminated the room. The rock and dirt was stained with her magic, and her wound, the tear across her head that Facestealer had caused, leaked her magic.
Yet she was still Xrn. And she still had most of her old body.
“My sword has been stolen. By a [Thief] I have to assume was at least Level 50. No…two thieves. Both seemed weaker, but one was faster than I was with my [Recaptured Sublimity] Skill.”
Xrn, the Small Queen, processed the information. Then shrugged.
“Again? Klbkchhezeim, you should have let me enchant them to return to you.”
“Magic is visible. Your enchantments are not good enough. My blades deserve better.”
He was in no mood for the old argument. Xrn raised her staff to hit him, then took pity. He was having a bad day. She exhaled.
“I will find them. Give me a few minutes…do you think the Grand Queen will send an attack force?”
Klbkch shrugged moodily.
“I will go myself if I can. They escaped to Pallass. But I will use the tunnels if I must. Or perhaps Erin can move her teleportation door outside of the Walled City.”
“Are you going to cause an international incident, Klbkch?”
“They. Stole. My Sword.”
Fair enough. Xrn lifted her staff, and the Antinium watching her expected her to cast some great magic. A [Thaumaturge]’s weird power, a spell long lost. But Xrn did not do these things.
Part of the reason why Drakes had never managed to keep the Slayer’s swords and given up was because they were always located. Entrenched vaults had been broken into and looted during the Antinium Wars, and the Drakes had realized stealing the blades was more trouble than it was worth.
They had thought—like Bviora—that it was the Antinium’s Listeners that did the job. And Bviora and Vetn were not speaking about the swords, or Antinium, and keeping very careful to not even speak much if possible in case their voices could be monitored.
They didn’t realize Listeners weren’t good at focusing on a single voice in an entire city and that they couldn’t even ‘hear’ Pallass from here. Rather, Xrn took a far easier approach. She lifted her staff and began to expand her magical radius. That was what took most of her power. The spell?
The spell was easy.
“[Resonance: Chitrx Metal]. Searching…it may take me half an hour to scour the continent.”
“Very well. Thank you, Xrn.”
She smiled. Klbkch’s blade at his side began to hum, a sound that was faint, then grew until it filled the room. Its twin, across the continent, also began to resonate, and at that point, two [Thieves] began to get very, very worried.
“Are you going to kill them when you find them?”
While she tracked down the source of the other humming, Xrn made small-talk with Klbkch.
“One of them is Erin’s guest. She gets petty about her guests getting killed. I may chop the hand off the other one. She had a crystal hand which used the Skill.”
“Oh. How interesting. May I have it?”
“I suppose I could bring it back as thanks. Do you—do you think Wrymvr was told my blade was stolen?”
Xrn gave him a long sigh.
“Klbkchhezeim, you must stop caring what other Antinium think. You have grown faintly pathetic. If you had left about your task, you wouldn’t have lost your sword.”
He glowered at her as the Antinium apprentices bent over their spellbooks, pretending not to be listening in.
“I will have you know that I am an enduringly popular figure here. My stories are fascinating to the Antinium, and they would be very sad if I left. Very sad. I was just telling them about one of my great feats, you know. The ones I performed before you were even created?”
“Which one was that?”
Xrn was trying not to say what was truly on her mind, but her leaking light-presence was painting swirls on the far wall, like someone rolling their eyes. Klbkch grew even more annoyed.
“The story of how I gained purified water for the entire Hive? Which helped create you. You know the tale. It’s the one where I found the Dragon corpse—before we knew it was a Dragon.”
Xrn did know the details, and she paused delicately.
“You’re telling that story to the guests of The Wandering Inn? Isn’t your partner a Drake?”
“Yes. And so is his daughter. Relc Grasstongue.”
“And you’re telling that story?”
Klbkch wondered if Xrn was having memory problems from her injury. He spoke slowly.
“Yes. Why is that a problem?”
The Small Queen clacked her mandibles a few times.
“…So you’re telling a Drake a story about the time our people looted a Water Dragon’s corpse to purify our water?”
Klbkch paused for a moment as the Antinium looked up at him. He uncrossed his arms and rubbed at his eyes tiredly.
“Xrn, Xrn. You don’t understand how to tell stories clearly. That is the most uncharitable way of saying it.”
She gave him a slow nod.
“I see I do not know how to tell ‘stories’. It appears to involve a lot of selective editing and lying.”
The two coolly regarded each other as Xrn kept casting her spell, and after a moment, Xrn coughed into one fist.
“You know, I hear Wrymvr has a scroll of Greater Teleportation. Couldn’t he just teleport you over to get the blade? I sense…they’re south of Pallass. Get me a map, and I’ll approximate the location.”
Klbkch hurried to get one and tried to sound casual as he came back.
“He doesn’t have to waste it on a pure recovery mission when he can just fly. You, uh, know about the scroll?”
Xrn gave him a long look.
“If you and Wrymvr cause trouble, I will disintegrate both of you. How much did the Twisted Queen pay for…? You know what? I don’t want to know. I’ll tell the Grand Queen where the sword is. Now, wrap this up without causing an incident, would you? And tie those swords to your wrist or something. What kind of a Centenium keeps losing his weapons? I have my staff, and I’ve never lost it.”
Klbkch didn’t dignify that with an answer. He just took the location and began to plan how to get his damn sword back. The Grand Queen had sent him a [Message] saying she might trade for the sword, which was just…humiliating. But at least it wouldn’t cause much of a ruckus, right?
“They’re going to attack Pallass! We’re going to go to war! Run, ruuunn!”
Anand was screaming and running towards the Grand Hive as fast as he could with every Painted Antinium running after him.
Goat was frantically holding a speaking stone up, and Anand was screeching into it. He was the only person in the Hivelands who had a complete view of how bad this was.
In fact, he was so terrified he decided the most strategic and intelligent move was to give other people stomach ulcers and heart attacks.
“Hey, Anand. What’s up? I’m so glad you called. Did you hear about Klbkch’s sword being stolen? Actually, one of my guests, Vetn, did it, and I don’t know wh—”
Erin Solstice picked up the speaking stone he sometimes used to talk with her, and her voice filled Anand with relief. He shouted at it as he ran.
“Erin! The Grand Queen is preparing to strike Pallass to get Klbkch’s sword back!”
The silence on the other end of the stone was long.
“H-hello? Did I hear that right? Um, is this Anand?”
He screamed louder.
“We’re about to go to war! Get me Chaldion!”
If it seemed like a bad move to ask for the Grand Strategist of the Drakes, well, Anand had a good reason. And that was that someone had to know why the Antinium might attack.
“The Grand Queen is about to attack your city because someone stole the Slayer’s sword! Get it back! Get it back! She’ll burn down a Drake city because she thinks this is an act of war! Some idiot is threatening to throw it into the sea! That’s like—threatening to kill a Queen!”
Unlike Erin, Chaldion of Pallass only took a beat before he responded.
“Strategist Anand. Pallass did not authorize the theft of the swords. I can confirm for you within ten minutes whether or not it was authorized. The odds are it was an independent theft—”
“She doesn’t care! I’m trying to talk her down, but get the damn sword back or we’re all dead! Or get ready for Wrymvr himself!”
Anand’s approach to diplomacy was spreading panic. But he was still a [Strategist]. Telling the Drakes that Wrymvr might soon attack could be seen as treasonous to the Antinium.
But only from a Drake perspective. The Queens didn’t care. Wrymvr probably didn’t care. It was unlikely they could anticipate where he’d appear or stop him.
And everything Anand could do to avoid the rampage of Wrymvr the Deathless becoming a war was essential. If that meant telling Chaldion why the attack was coming—
“You must prevent this, Strategist Anand.”
“I am trying. Get the sword!”
“I will issue an alert. Stay in contact—can you convince the Grand Queen to delay any actions?”
“I’ll let you know! Running! Oh, hello, Erin. Please do not panic more than necessary. Which is to say, screaming and running around. Goodbye!”
He wished they’d call more often. Then Anand began running faster.
The one person not currently having a conniption across all the Walled Cities and Liscor was the Grand Queen. She was snacking on a giant sandwich when Anand rushed in.
“Oh. Strategist Anand. Hello. You have arrived quickly. I do not need you quite yet—Wrymvr is not in place for an attack yet. We know where the blades are. A smaller Drake city. I may ask for you to use your Skills once we begin the—”
“Don’t attack! The Drakes will take it as an act of war! Don’t—”
Anand nearly fell over as the Painted Antinium skidded into the Grand Queen’s room. She paused.
“They will? Why?”
The Grand Queen was not an idiot. At least, in matters of actual war. She listened to Anand’s desperate plea and explanation and tapped her feelers together.
“Ah, so they regard this as ‘unsanctioned’ despite it happening in their lands? But the Antinium are responsible for everything that occurs in the Hivelands. How…hypocritical, the word is.”
“That—may be so, Grand Queen, but it will be war if you attack!”
The problem was that the Grand Queen was also intelligent. She rubbed at her head with a feeler.
“You are in communication with this Grand Strategist, are you not? And you have communicated that this is an intolerable act of aggression against us? The Antinium must maintain our reputation. If he is aware this is not an act of war, then Wrymvr is free to attack the city. It ‘may’ be war, but his awareness that it is not intended to be so actually gives me more inclination to strike.”
That—was the kind of logic Anand hadn’t anticipated. Worse, it made sense from one perspective. He understood the strategy the Grand Queen was employing.
Erasing a Drake city and getting the sword back? That was two positives, not one. He understood that strategy—it was like someone who played chess and thought of the pieces as just pieces.
But Anand had been a chess piece, and there was more to life than just numbers. More to strategy than just ‘hurt the enemy’. But the Grand Queen was literally playing a different game—diplomacy with alliances and trade and opportunity in positive relationships had never occurred to her because it had never been offered. True, the Antinium hadn’t reached out in friendship at the start either, but he could not allow this.
“My Queen—what if Wrymvr is hurt? What if the sword is lost? It would be safer, strategically, to give this Thief of Clouds what he wants. Plus, the Free Hive benefits from a peaceful relationship with Drakes!”
She was very put out by his comments.
“If this is the advice of my [Strategist], I am reluctantly listening. And the Free Hive…I suppose this is in the best interests of the Antinium as a whole. The loss of Klbkch’s blade would be unacceptable, but their demands are just…impossible.”
“Why? What do they want?”
The Grand Queen spread her antennae in a shrug.
“Some Eye of Baleros. Which I do not know if we have. I have been checking our vaults, but we have no idea what it is. And I am loath to inquire and risk presenting our ignorance. My Custodium have been checking our vault of artifacts for labels, but I doubt one is affixed. Do you know what that is?”
The name…rang a bell, actually. When had he heard of it? Anand was surprised he knew of many artifacts, but for some reason…
“I—do not, my Queen. But may I ask you to hold off on an attack while I investigate? We may deal with this very simply!”
“I would prefer to attack. It costs nothing more than a few Antinium and shows our strength. Whereas we have plenty of artifacts, but giving one up for a theft seems weak to me.”
“Please, Grand Queen? At the very least I could…find out whether this artifact is valuable! If we actually have it, we could identify another potential war asset for the Hives!”
You had to learn how to speak to the Grand Queen. The thought of identifying an artifact made the Grand Queen perk up.
“That is a good thought. Very well, Strategist Anand. I will tell Wrymvr to hold. Please investigate. Oh—but do not tell this Grand Strategist about the artifact. As far as I understand, the [Message] came in from the thief alone. I am not willing to inform them of the contents of our treasuries.”
Anand was dismayed by the order. It made sense—but how was he going to figure out what the damn thing was? Antinium had no knowledge of the outside world. If Xrn or Klbkch didn’t know what it did—
“Okay. Painted Antinium, huddle up!”
His followers made a big circle as the Grand Queen watched indulgently. Anand turned to Goat, his second-in-command, and the other archers, lesser [Tacticians], and Painted Antinium present. They were celebrities in the Hives, Individuals on par with Prognugators. Anand missed home, but he understood he was useful here, showing the Queens what they could be. A few Individuals were appearing thanks to the cultural exchange, and this?
Preventing a war justified his presence. As well as his shipbuilding project. Though Anand would have frankly rather just left and given up.
He had never failed at anything before, but those ships…
Those damn ships were cursed. Those soggy, ill-made pieces of flotsam that kept damn breaking even after a thousand iterations—
Ship making was too hard. Anand hated the water now. He hated the sea. He hated keels and tar and blueprints and rigging.
But he digressed.
“Goat, run and get every book you can on artifacts from the Armored Queen. Archer G11, if we can’t ask for outside help, go and ask the Silent Queen about the most valuable artifacts the Antinium stole during the wars. She knows all that stuff. You—go to the Grand Queen’s vaults. You three, the Flying Queen’s. I want you two to go to the Silent Antinium’s vaults, and you to the Armored Queen’s. I’ll go personally to the Twisted Queen if I have to.”
No one wanted to go to that scary Queen. But the real issue was…
“What are we looking for, Anand?”
“I don’t…look for an eye? If only we had someone who knew…Baleros. Baleros. Wait—belay the vault search. Goat, get the books. Everyone else—with me!”
There was only one person that Anand could turn to in his hour of need within the Hives. The Grand Queen indulgently watched as he led the Painted Antinium in a charge back towards the Armored Hive. Down and down…
Towards the underground lake with the boat trials and Anand’s only non-Izrilian friend.
Torthe Suorloks was half-stingray, and it gave her an odd, cape-like look to her back and skin, as if she had on a shawl or cloak of dark blue. Until you realized it was skin that hung down over one arm. She also had a hand, unlike some Drowned Folk who had a claw, wet tendril, or other appendage.
Her fingers were long and thin, and they were mini-stingers. It was an odd way the stingray had manifested, but Drowned Folk were seldom alike.
She was, at this moment, working on a steering wheel, the last having broken, and sanding a wooden peg. She was scowling and scowled more when Anand ran over.
“What now, boyo? It’s not time for another ship, is it? I’m tired from the last one.”
She was prickly at the best of times and upset, possibly because her arrival into the Antinium Hivelands had been when Wrymvr attacked a ship at sea and abducted her to teach the Antinium how to make boats.
Anand was possibly one of her only friends. It would have been fair for her to blame all Antinium as monsters, and she certainly feared Wrymvr, but he was the one trying to correct the image of his people.
Part of that correction was in her clothing. She was dressed like some [Lady] with silk clothing, all enchanted, and had on a huge cavalier’s hat. Torthe also had a chest of gold and jewels, which he’d promised she could take back to sea.
The treasure did mollify the [Pirate] a lot. The Armored Queen was only too happy to fork over the largely useless treasures of the Antinium. The only use they had for them were as weapons or valuable artifacts or to buy with.
Torthe was someone used to living the hard life, which was how Wrymvr had found her; she’d been part of a band of Drowned Folk [Pirates] raiding from a small schooner off the coast. She had been unlucky enough to take shelter rather than flee when he split the ship and grabbed half of it.
Anyways, she and Anand were friends, which was to say she told him stories about other continents and taught him to gamble, swear, and drink, and he helped get her what she needed from the Antinium to be comfortable while they tried to make a workable ship.
It was a long, discouraging process, though, and aside from a few attempts that had gotten them to sea—like when they’d run into the Alchemist Irurx—their ships still sank. Even if they lasted one or two voyages, they were just not well-made enough to hold together for multiple trips, much less a full sea voyage.
So Torthe was allowed to be sad and gloomy, and Anand was hoping he’d be able to let her go soon. He wanted her to sail off and find her crew.
Then again, Torthe hadn’t been exactly jumping for joy when he talked about that. She often said that she’d rather never meet them again, especially with all her riches in tow, because they’d just take them from her. He’d asked about her family, and she’d remarked that they’d rob her naked in the night.
She…didn’t have many people she trusted. Or anyone. If anything, Torthe seemed to believe that getting rich by helping the Antinium make a ship might be her ticket to fame and fortune. Or at least, the latter.
At any rate, right now, he was hoping she could help avoid a war, and Torthe grew increasingly alarmed as he half-screamed the story at her.
“Whoa, whoa. What was that about a war? The Slayer’s blade? The Thief of Clouds? Isn’t he some Gnoll?”
“Yes! And the Grand Queen is going to burn down half of Izril to get it back unless I find whatever he wants to trade it for!”
“Half-assed shrimp. You never have it easy, huh? And I thought Antinium didn’t worry about things!”
She swore, but the thing about Torthe was that she never actually used ‘fuck’ or ‘damn’. Her swearing, which the Painted Antinium had learned, was a bit…funny.
“I need to find an artifact he says we have! Do you know what an Eye of Baleros looks like?”
Torthe was nervous and sweating, but when he said that, she gave him a wall-eyed look, then barked a laugh.
“Singing crawdads, that’s a joke, right? Did he ask for that? Then we’re all doomed like a whale on his land hand playing cards.”
“…Is that bad?”
Torthe had hurried over to her room and was checking her chest of valuables. She glanced up nervously.
“That’s bad. There ain’t no way in all the seas and underseas and Kraken’s underthings that you’d have one of them. The Eyes of Baleros? That’s not an artifact, Anand. That’s a legend.”
“Oh no. Swivel my gunnels.”
He tried one of her weird oaths, and she gave him a puzzled look.
“Stick to landfolk oaths, Anand. You don’t know how to talk like a searat yet. Tell that Grand Queen of yours that we’re becalmed in poop sea and full to the oars.”
“Tell her yourself! Please?”
“Me? No way. I’m not—wait, wait!”
The Grand Queen had no idea Drowned Folk shook so badly. She watched as Torthe tried to hide behind Anand and whispered to him. He translated her comments to the Grand Queen.
“Grand Queen, we don’t necessarily have this Eye of Baleros. Apparently, it is a highly-valuable Relic!”
“Ah, it makes sense they would demand that in exchange for the Slayer’s blade. If we do not have it, then we must recover the blade by force.”
She was happy about that, but Anand protested.
“No! Perhaps they’ll take something else, my Queen?”
She tilted her head, sighing.
“Negotiations. How tiresome. We could substitute the cost. Tell me what they look like, these Eyes.”
At this point, Torthe whispered loudly enough for both Anand and the Grand Queen to hear.
“If you had ‘em—and you don’t—you’d surely know. Each one’s a beautiful gemstone half as large as I am and round as can be! It’s an opal, some gemstone so magic that the whorls of it look like an eye, see? It’d have enough magic in it to power fifteen Drowned Ships’ barriers!”
“Oh. That does sound amazing. Grand Queen—”
“Yes, yes. I will ask.”
The Grand Queen forwarded the knowledge to the other Queens, then turned back to Torthe. Anand was curious now, about them.
“Why would we not have one? And why is it valuable?”
The Drowned Woman gulped. But the Grand Queen was eating, and she seemed to lose interest in Anand and Torthe, so the [Pirate] talked to Anand and the other Antinium.
“Because there are only two, Anand. Only two ever made—if they were made. If you had ‘em—hah! If you had ‘em, you could sell them to anyone for an entire armada and hang building it yourself! The Nagas would trade you any five Relics in the world for them, and every other nation’d trade you ten to not give them back!”
Anand was wide-eyed, and the Grand Queen looked over with sudden interest. Torthe gave him one of her incredulous looks. She often was surprised by their ignorance.
“Swab my decks with maple syrup. Do you really not know even that story? I suppose’s it’s older, what with them being lost a generation, but it’s the tale o’ tales. One of the most famous!”
“I thought you said that the King of Destruction was a famous tale. And that I was silly for not knowing that. And the Blighted Kingdom. And the Titan.”
“Well, it’s another famous tale every child’d know in Baleros. Maybe not here, but surely—you’ve heard of The Lightning Thief?”
Oh! That was how he knew it! Anand knew the books—even the Armored Queen had the book series! Torthe tried to figure out how to distill the information simply and took a breath.
“Okay. Here’s what you’ve gotta know. The Eyes of Baleros—not the Great Company—the Eyes are two ancient Relics that belong to the Nagas, to the Lizardfolk of Baleros. They often go back to the Lizardfolk, and then someone steals them or they’re taken away. You could call ‘em one of the legendary treasures of the world. Because whenever they show up—wars start.”
Anand was greatly impressed.
“Really? So they’re more valuable than even the Helm of Fire?”
“They’re more valuable than a dozen Helms of Fire!”
Torthe pulled at her wet strands of grey-blue hair, trying to explain. She snapped her fingers.
“Anyone got them books of The Lightning Thief? Half of them are about him keeping away from the people trying to get The Eyes of Baleros back. That’s the overarching theme of the stories. He stole both to stop the Nagatine Empire returning and the pyramids awakening. But for him—and it’s a true story, mind you—we’d have seen the Lizardfolk going to war once more and sweeping the continent.”
One of the Antinium went to get the books, and Anand was puzzled.
“Really? But they lost against the Titan of Baleros. They are one of numerous species in Baleros, you know.”
The Grand Queen was listening to one of her Custodium with great interest, and she turned to Torthe with her full attention now. The Drowned Woman just laughed.
“Lost to—oh, sure, no tar on the Titan’s name! Him and Three-Color Stalker are legends, and the Forgotten Wing Company’s every bit the monster of Baleros too. But you think he could’ve toppled a Great Company of Baleros in a single generation? It’d take a hundred years of fighting, normally! It should have been a war to split the continent in half to topple one of the Great Companies. They were already weakened, and them not even being able to take him down with an ambush shows you that. Lizardfolk rise and fall, and those eyes make them stronger. When both are in their temples—that’s when you get Nagas landing on Izril’s shores.”
Oh, the Naga Incursions? That was during Az’kerash and Zelkyr’s time. Now, Anand was fascinated. In fact, he was more fascinated as Goat ran back with some books, and Torthe snatched one.
“You think these are all old legends? Look! The Titan’s part of the story! The Titan was a boy when the Lightning Thief stole the eyes—I wasn’t born when The Lightning Thief was a legend, but the story’s not that old. If Thivian Stormless had lived, he’d be some old man stealing from the King of Destruction! They say he might be, but no one’s heard from him in ages.”
She held up a book—and Anand blinked. He slowly picked up the tome and read the title.
The Lightning Thief and the Fraerling’s Treasure. A book written by Krsysl Wordsmith, one of the many authors who’d contributed to the apparently-factual accounts of the [Thief]’s adventures.
He skimmed the book’s summary and realized this was a story in which the famous Thivian Stormless attempted to steal a fabled treasure from the smallest folk in the world. Some ‘box’ that contained the world’s knowledge.
He failed, but in the ending, Anand saw a reference to a certain Fraerling [Strategist] who’d kept trying to capture Thivian then teamed up with him.
So this tale was contemporaneous of the modern day. Torthe ran commentary as Anand skimmed the book.
“Y’see, the Eyes had already been lost before Thivian was around. He just prevented them from being brought back. Stole ‘em right from under the Nagas’ noses as they were completing their ritual, and they hounded him across every continent. Great books. My ma has a signed copy by the man himself worth more than the entire ship. So you see, if you had even one Eye of Baleros, it’d be the biggest talk of the world. No one knows where Thivian hid them. He did it to safeguard the world from the Nagatine Empire.”
She looked proud and invested, like a girl who’d grown up with the stories. After all—Thivian had met every people. He’d had adventures with Drowned Folk, Gnolls, dueled in First Landing, and even broken into Samal on his escapades.
What a grand story. The age of heroes—at least, Thivian and the King of Destruction were cut from the cloth of that time. Thivian had strolled through the Waning World like a legend of yesteryear, capturing the imaginations of millions. Even the Grand Queen was mildly impressed.
“How interesting. No wonder it is equivalent to one of Klbkchhezeim’s blades. And it seems this Lightning Thief did try to hide the Eyes of Baleros well. It was buried deep in a vault guarded by Manus’ best. I believe Devrkr himself had to melt it.”
“Right, you see, that makes sense. He might’ve entrusted it to the City of W…what did you say?”
The Grand Queen smiled as Anand and Torthe paused. She rubbed her palps together.
“We have it. One of them. I remember it now. A very pretty stone. I do not think it looks like an eye at all, but then—I forget how non-Antinium eyes are, and it is quite large. Strategist Anand, you did well to bring your informant here. Another very intelligent move.”
Anand and Torthe stared up at the Grand Queen. Then the Drowned Woman began to panic.
“Y-you have—Krakens. Someone’s stealing a Kraken’s baby rattle. You’re joking with me. You’re tickling me with starfish. You don’t have it!”
“Yes. We do. If that is the cost to replace the Slayer’s blade—it seems steep. But I suppose we could trade it. It turns out Xrn was using it to power a lot of our [Preservation] wards, but we will be able to do without.”
The Grand Queen heaved a sigh. But Torthe began shouting.
“You can’t! You can’t! It’s never meant to go back! Nations have stolen them for great magic! And you—you can’t give it back! It’d throw Baleros into chaos! If the books are true—it’ll make the Nagas so powerful they’ll destroy all their foes! The last time, they fought onto Izril and nearly took a Walled City!”
The Grand Queen nodded.
“If I recall my learned history of the continents correctly, they also invaded Terandria. This ‘Nagatine Empire’ seems analogous to a lesser version of the True Antinium’s might. Giving it to this Thief of Clouds may well land it in the Nagas’ hands, correct?”
“If he’s a bastard, that’s probably what he’ll do. At the least—once it’s out there, the Nagas will do anything to get it back! You can’t do it! Aren’t they your enemies?”
Torthe seemed to realize who she was speaking to and flinched as the Grand Queen loomed over her. But the Queen just smiled as Anand felt his first sense of trepidation.
“Your logical argument is sound, Drowned Woman Torthe. But mine is sounder. The Lizardfolk are theoretical enemies of the Antinium. But we have never made war. At this moment, what is true is that Baleros is stable. Disrupting one continent may well lead to a lack of overseas support. Moreover, Lizardfolk and Drakes are longtime enemies. If one were to make war with the other or invade Izril…now I am minded to give the Eyes to this Thief anyways.”
Again, it was the logic of someone who had naught but enemies, and Anand understood it. Yet he held up his hands.
“My Queen, we have friends—Erin has—the unrest this will cause might kill many.”
“Many non-Antinium, Anand. If not for the thief, trading it for ten Relics is appropriate. That is the value, is it not, Torthe?”
“I—I was exaggerating.”
The Grand Queen smiled. Anand waved his hands as he realized he had jumped out of one problem and straight into a bigger one.
“My Queen. I must insist we think this through. I cannot accept the risk of handing the Eye of Baleros over to a Thief if it might go to the Lizardfolk. As a [Strategist] of the Antinium—I insist we take time to deliberate any actions.”
She paused as he raised his voice. That was as close as he had ever been to giving her an all-out order, and the Grand Queen…stared down at Anand.
“You insist? I rule the Hives. The authority to decide matters of treasury and war is vested in me. You tell me I cannot do this? Curious. Is it…treason? Is this treachery?”
Torthe froze, eyes wide, as the Grand Queen loomed over Anand. He stared up at her as the Custodium stirred, and the [Strategist]…the [Strategist] spread his hands and spoke up, confused.
“Treason, Grand Queen? Why would it be treason? We are Antinium. There is no one to rebel against, is there?”
She paused. The Grand Queen stared down at Anand, and the [Strategist] was genuinely confused. After a second, she sat back.
“Ah. Oh. I thought…hmm. Well, not yet, then. Nevermind. I shall consider your opinions, then, Anand. Very well, very well. But I remind you all that retrieving Klbkch’s blade is of paramount importance.”
Anand nodded, confused, but began assessing what could be done if war and giving the Eye were both bad ideas. Torthe breathed out and retreated a few steps, looking at the Grand Queen.
Anand hadn’t noticed the Grand Queen’s odd wording then, but it occurred to him, later, that something the Grand Queen had said was odd.
‘I rule the Hives.’ That was technically true. The Grand Queen had used to use ‘we’, imitating how she had thought a queen was supposed to rule. Yet she had never really said it that way, never intimated that she alone ruled the Queens, rather than being a first among equals, before.
Where had she gotten that idea? Much less—treachery? A book? Perhaps. But if not a book—
Who had the Grand Queen been speaking to?
“He did what? Why?”
Erin Solstice peered into the white-scaled Drake’s eyes. She looked at him with all the authority she had. Her hat was burning.
“I don’t know. Do you?”
When she turned that gaze on him, Tesy flinched and looked away.
“N-no. He didn’t tell me anything.”
Erin held that look a moment, then relented. Tesy was lying. But he wasn’t totally lying. Vetn had told the Drake something—Tesy just hadn’t known what.
Guilt and confusion were written all over his face as Erin tried to get to the bottom of what was going on. The problem was that she hadn’t spotted Bviora ahead of time. In hindsight, Ishkr had apologized and mentioned the moment when he’d noticed the girl with the crystal hand approaching Vetn at the bar.
He had an eye for such things, but he had assumed that Bviora would run into Erin in some hilarious, Jewel-like manner or something. He was clearly ashamed, but Erin had told him he couldn’t know.
Well, that was a lie, too. Erin shook her head as she investigated Vetn’s room.
Complacency. She had promised Qwera to look after her two wards and forgotten that they were the Golden Gnoll’s charges. Erin had assumed Qwera was exaggerating when she said they got into trouble.
Now, she was wondering if she had underestimated how much trouble the two had given Qwera. What was true was this: Vetn was gone, and he had been ready to leave.
His room was neat and tidy, unlike Tesy’s. He had left possessions like a toothbrush, some clothing, and other items around, but everything valuable had been on him. Like a good [Thief], he had been ready at any moment.
“I need to find him. Tesy. Stay there and don’t do anything stupid, got it?”
“But is Vetn alright? He—did he do it for me? Why’s stealing Klbkch’s blades—is he selling them to Salazsar? He said…he said he was trying to help me. But how does this do that?”
Tesy really was bad with secrets, at least when he was talking to you and not hiding as ‘Sellme’. Erin turned to face him.
“What else did he say, Tesy? Who’s Bviora?”
“I don’t know! Some [Thief]? I’ve never met her!”
That was honest. Erin narrowed her eyes. Then she went striding through her inn, leaving Tesy behind.
“[World’s Eye Theatre]. Get me Vetn, now.”
Erin emerged into the center of her theatre, and it activated, the glass eye searching the skies as she appeared in the heart of it. Her great Skill was so powerful that it could find the King of Destruction, Silvenia, anyone in the world.
Admittedly, it wasn’t perfect. Erin had tried to contact Nereshal, or at least spy on him, and then Silvenia again, and gotten only…static. It seemed that if you were prepared for it, you could defeat the Skill. The Quarass was also hard to reach for that reason; she had indicated that Erin could contact an associate of hers before being granted an audience. Fetohep let Erin contact him on purpose, as did Niers and her other friends.
It was not the first time that Erin had tried to contact him today. She’d done it the moment Anand had begun screaming at her. But just like last time—
Something odd was happening. Erin felt a lurch of vertigo, then nausea as the world changed around her. Erin could only see a huge landscape below—a city?
Then Erin was falling, the world rushing around her, as the ‘place’ the [World’s Eye Theatre] was homing down on widened. It felt like she was falling to her death, and Erin had to concentrate not to try to hold onto the ground or leap out of the projection. She heard a flurry of voices.
“She’s trying again—”
“[The Perfect Thief: Unscryable, Unfindable, Come Catch Me]!”
And the Skill—missed. Erin caught a flash of what she might have thought were the two, and then the Skill was staring at only blackness. She shouted.
“Vetn! What are you doing?”
She shouted, hoping he could hear her. Erin heard nothing, but she shouted.
“Vetn! Let me help you! I promised Qwera I would! Why are you doing this? Can’t you hear me? Vetn—”
“—do you know what you’re doing?”
Erin Solstice really was terrifying. Vetn and Bviora flinched as she shouted. She was right there.
Or rather…her image was. A blue young woman, flickering, filled with static—not that Vetn had the same reference for it.
They had used their Skills against her, but even Bviora’s Skill was incomplete. Vetn had literally dodged the Skill as it came down, but the trick about [Thief] Skills was that they were not the might of [Kings]. They were—well, tricky.
If Erin had known how she looked right now, she might have understood just how terrifying her new Skill was. Because it was standing in the safe room, next to the vibrating sword of the Slayer.
Vetn and Bviora were tensed, terrified, ready for the Antinium to come after them, waiting for the Grand Queen’s response. They were made. The Slayer had to know where his sword was.
But they had been told the Grand Queen was ‘considering their offer’. So now it might be less of hide-and-seek…and more a game of tag.
Against someone faster than he was. The Gnoll still felt that silver blade slicing through his body. He was shaking—and Erin wasn’t helping.
She stood with a blindfold of lightning over her eyes. The Lightning Thief’s Skill, hiding them from her as she stood, shouting, turning her head right and left. He hoped she’d give up and stop trying to find him. It seemed her Skill had a cooldown once you ‘dodged’ it, but even so…
It wasn’t that which hurt.
“Vetn. Tesy’s worried about you. Klbkch is coming after you. I can’t stop him or the Antinium. Tell me why you’re doing this.”
Bviora stared at Vetn as the Thief of Clouds twitched. She widened her eyes as he got up. Vetn walked quietly behind Erin’s projection. He hesitated.
Was Tesy there? Was he listening? Vetn could have left, having helped steal the blades. Bviora had arranged for the token to go to Salazsar. He could double-cross her and conceivably get away. But there was something else keeping him in this.
“I’m a [Thief], Erin. A miserable [Thief]. I have only three friends in this world. And this is for him, that thoughtless idiot. And for me. I want to steal part of a legend. Sorry. You shouldn’t have trusted me. Tell the Slayer to give Bviora what she wants. He’ll never catch me twice.”
He whispered in the ear of the spectral [Innkeeper], and she swung around. Vetn thought he heard a voice.
“Vetn! Wait! Why—”
His friend rushed into being, and Vetn moved. He carried no blade for murder. He didn’t kill. But he still swung the dagger Bviora had lent him.
A Skillcutter’s blade. It passed through Erin’s back, and she gasped—and wavered out of existence. Vetn stood there, shaking, and then turned to Bviora.
“We’ve got to keep running. Come on. Just tell me the Eye of Baleros will win you your heritage.”
She gave him a long look. He was with her, now, and the girl, the young [Thief] with her father’s hand, flexed it.
“It’ll do more than that. It’s not just a game, Vetn. Some of them think it is. This…is everything.”
He nodded, and his fur stood on end.
“Let’s go, then.”
He strode for the door of the safe room as she snatched up the Slayer’s sword. And Vetn had only one glance back. He just wished—no, nevermind.
At least his silly [Painter] would be safe.
Gone. Erin Solstice wasn’t harmed by the blade, but her theater went dark. She had never experienced it being thwarted like this and stood there in silence as Tesy called out.
“He’s gone, Tesy. I have to think. I’m going to talk to Klbkch and Anand and Chaldion, again. You just—stay there. Don’t cause trouble.”
Don’t cause any more trouble, she meant. The [Magical Painter] flinched, but he really hadn’t done anything in this case. He was hurt.
Vetn normally told him about all his heists. Heck, Tesy helped with a lot of them. They were partners in crime. A team.
Why had Vetn done this? Tesy kicked around the [World’s Eye Theatre], hoping it would reactivate so he could try again. Vetn would talk to him.
After fifteen minutes, when it was clear nothing was going to happen anytime soon, Tesy went back to the common room of the inn. He sat there as people continued going to the beach, as Erin kept reappearing, arguing with Chaldion, and didn’t know what to do.
Was he really safe? What did he do?
Why had Vetn let him down and abandoned him?
That was how Tesy thought of it. He sat there, getting angrier now, hurt. Was Vetn still mad at him for making that mistake? Why didn’t he tell his best friend anything? Why did he act like he was hurt?
Tesy really didn’t understand it. If Qwera were here, there would be violence, or at least, shouting. But Tesy just sat there, sinking into a swamp of discontent.
And Vetn knew Sellme well. So Tesy was drinking by the time a man slipped into The Wandering Inn, having flashed Liska a sign that gave him access.
Erin had a deal with the Ullsinoi through Palt, and more importantly, she had one with one gang in Izril. She didn’t talk about it much, and they didn’t move in the open—usually.
In this case, a man tipped his hat as Tesy looked up and jumped.
“Wh-who are you?”
He recognized a Brother of Serendipitous Meetings at once, but not the face. Tesy panicked, but the man just held out a hand with something held in it.
“This is for you, sir. Don’t mind me. I’m doing my job and just that. No need for concern.”
He raised his voice, and he looked a bit tense as he adjusted a bowler hat. Tesy glanced around—and a shadow moved in the corner of the inn.
Shriekblade. No wonder no one wanted to cause trouble here. The Brother bowed, smartly, and held the letter out to Tesy.
“This is for you, sir. Today’s the day I deliver it. Can’t say I was disappointed for the wait.”
“A letter? For me? Who’s it from?”
“Vetn? He wrote me a letter? Today? And he didn’t just talk to me?”
Tesy snatched the letter greedily, but got angry and almost tore it up. The Brother just coughed and cleared his throat.
“Not as of such, sir. Let’s spare the names. I’m just a fellow for hire that Vetn contacted. My job was to hold onto that letter. He gave it to me, oh, weeks back. And my orders were to give it to you and no one else if a criteria was met. In this case being a hullabaloo or his leaving Liscor. It wasn’t hard to figure out when the moment was.”
He gave the inn an appreciative look, then lowered his voice.
“A real treat it is, coming in here, too. You think I could nip into the beach just to see it? A brother’s honor I wouldn’t cause trouble.”
Shriekblade hissed at him, and he retreated towards the door, raising his gloved hands and tipping his hat. But Tesy lurched to his feet.
“Wait, so Vetn planned this?”
“Perhaps, sir. Not my business to ask or know, but it’s a standard thing for a fellow who’s uncertain about the timing, but not the deed. Don’t you fret, I didn’t look inside the letter. It was a standard Deadman’s Drop, and we do follow the rules. It’d be a stabbing shame to be untrustworthy in our business.”
The Brother gave Tesy a tip of the hat as he retreated to the entrance corridor. Tesy’s claws clutched the letter.
The man saw Tesy’s face and smiled, but tightly. In that way of a man who knew hats had fallen to the ground and might not be picked up. But he tried.
“That’s just a turn of phrase, sir. It doesn’t mean…well, sometimes it does mean that. Were I you, I’d read whatever your friend sent you and count myself lucky. Few men in this world can get a clean slate, especially with a Walled City’s bounty on you. But the word is, it’s been called off. That was some favor.”
He spoke gently, but the look he gave Tesy…the [Painter] stared at him, then the letter, and then thought of what Vetn had said.
As he slowly opened the letter, things finally came together. Sellme looked down…and a [Painter]’s hurt feelings and wrath became tears like falling paint drops. He turned—
But the Thief of Clouds was long gone.
Today, as the snow fell, a few things happened. The Horns of Hammerad stepped into the Crossroads of Izril.
One of the Eyes of Baleros was discovered.
Someone stole the Slayer’s sword.
And Klbkchhezeim of the True Antinium left Liscor.
He did it to no fanfare, and indeed, he kept telling Erin and Lyonette and the few others that he did not want a party.
“I will not be gone long. I am simply going to pick up my sword. I will be back.”
Are you gonna start a war, Klbkch?
He patted Mrsha on the head.
“Aha. Silly Mrsha. Probably not. I am just going to violently attack a [Thief]. That’s all.”
“Klbkch…don’t go. Just let the Grand Queen trade for the sword.”
Erin looked at Klbkch as Relc waited to fist-bump his friend. The Drake looked worried, but Klbkch simply took Erin’s hands and shook his head.
“I doubt she has what is needed. To prevent her doing anything rash—I will just go in secret. Thank you for opening your door outside of Pallass.”
Erin chewed her lip. She’d opened the door in the place where she’d gone camping, outside of the City of Inventions, ages ago. Klbkch had a cloak on, and he might pass for someone else from afar—but this was crazy.
And yet, if it beat war with the Antinium—
There were no good solutions. Erin had no concept of what the Grand Queen was thinking of, and if she had, she would have realized that Klbkch trying to get his sword back was the best option.
And yet she felt it. Her senses as a [Witch] and [Innkeeper] both felt the precious days at the beach fading. Like a chain of dominos…things were unfolding, and she couldn’t tell where they’d land.
If she could have, she would have stopped the slim, white-scaled Drake who slipped through the door ahead of Liska, who was taking a nap while she waited for the goodbyes to finish. If she could have, she would have asked Vetn what he was doing.
She’d tried to use the [World’s Eye Theatre] to find him, but either he had a Skill or Bviora did, or they were using underworld tactics such that even she couldn’t locate the Thief of Clouds. At least she’d be able to follow Klbkch most places.
But then again…she’d tried to talk to the Horns, and the theatre had turned to static. Wherever they were, it was beyond her power as well.
Relc, for his part, just fist-bumped Klbkch.
“Hey, partner. You’d better come back with your sword so we can keep practicing in the morning. Alright? Don’t start the Third Antinium War.”
“I won’t. Relc, what must you think of me? I’ll be back. I am not going on my adventure! Yet!”
Klbkch raised a hand and walked through the door with his one good sword, the fake steel one, and just a bit of gold and provisions for a week. In that sense, he really had fallen off, lost his touch.
He really did think this wasn’t going to be an adventure. That was how the Slayer left, and Erin Solstice stood there a moment and wondered if he’d be back in time for the Winter Solstice.
The wind blew chill a moment, and she stood there, waving at him as he walked into the trees, and then Erin Solstice fled back towards her beach. To warmth and to cling to the remaining time before the winter grew its darkest.
The Eyes of Baleros.
The Lightning Thief.
It was old stories, unfinished stories coming back and meeting each other in this new age. They were drawn out by the changing world, by chance, or perhaps fate itself.
The Winter Solstice, the dead gods, all of it was part of one of the oldest of stories that only the Gnomes and Elves had remembered. Well, them and a few others.
Soon, very soon, these stories might come to their right and proper conclusion. At least, according to the Goddess of Death.
The Three-in-One stood in her domain, and it was hers, now. She had mastery of it, and with each death, she grew in strength.
Not enough. If she could have just eaten souls to close the wound in her self, she and the others would not have rotted eternities away. That was not how it worked.
But she was preparing for a zenith of power that both she and her enemies knew well. At that time, she intended to strike a blow across multiple locations that would put her ahead of her opponents.
Tamaroth, Norechl, Cauwine…whether or not Emerrhain and Laedonius Deviy were even in the running was unclear.
Kasigna didn’t even think of mortal irritants. They would be swept aside by a decisive move. Before the next stage of the game could begin, she would claim victory. She was preparing, preparing…but one thing bothered her more than the laughter that haunted her or the critiques of a single mortal architect.
Left. Right. She paced through oblivion, and there was not even space anymore. The ‘deadlands’ had been a perfect copy of the world before. Now, they were nothing. It was her, she was it. There were, of course, other domains, and if she had more strength, a body—she craved a body—she could enter places like the physical world or the Crossroads.
The rules bound her for now, so only here was Kasigna even powerful. She had no body, so she could walk what did not exist, peer through a veil and see the living world. Even try to reach out at the right times, weak though she was. Frustrating though it was to have to act through proxies, it wouldn’t be long…
One thing bothered her. More than the faeries trying to play games. The Faerie King was an old opponent, but he had lost his queen…his nation had suffered for their war of errantry on the wrong side, and his wounds had persisted, too.
No, she did not fear outside players at this moment. Every major door was as of yet sealed. She did not fear Emerrhain, who had fallen victim to his conceit; if he could have altered things and cheated reality itself, he would have. She did not even fear Isthekenous’ work. It was merely incomplete. Once she had her full strength, redesigning it would be her first priority.
Kasigna was bothered only by one thing. And it was not even her daughter, that eternal dissident. If the two fought, right now, Kasigna would triumph. She was made of old ways and pantheons. She had practiced sororicide. Familicide was unto godliness, the oldest of ways. If her daughter faced her, she would die.
No. One thing bothered her. And it was a thing and a place.
Rhir. Even now, she walked around the chunk of blasted land at the edge of the world, unable to set foot even in the dead version of it. It bothered her greatly.
“Are you there? Do you hear me?”
She whispered, unwilling to give name to the presence she suspected had fallen there. Countless dead…but there were only a few who might have fallen from the skies and landed in the earth.
She worried. Kasigna, the Three-in-One worried. For she sensed someone dreaming there. Someone with more force, with a body, weak and broken though it must be, lying in the dirt, refusing to rot, resting and gathering their strength. What Kasigna sensed, and worried over, was that the dream was changing.
Kasigna worried because the sleeping god lay there. And unlike the dead, this one dreamed. One long…long dream.
It had begun during a waking that was more terrible and fearsome than imagining. The twilight of divinity. The death of gods. A blow had shattered waking and thrown them down, down into the earth where they had been overlooked by the laughing folk, by their opponents wielding weapons of war.
When the world was torn by one of the final blows, it had barely missed them, and they might have risen, remade in strength—but for the Gnomes’ final trick. That gambit had killed them all—and the dream had been long and painful.
Yet it had flesh. The dreamer. So, unlike everyone else, it was trapped in a dream. And that dream became…a nightmare.
A pleasant nightmare, at first. At first, it was just thoughts. Random ideas. Then the sleeper had put effort into it, and the seeds of unreality had come together and formed a terrible thought.
Just a thought. Just a buried dream, so deep underground no one had found it. But the thought…leaked into the waking world.
And there the dreamer realized there was a chance. So it had begun many dreams, failed ideas, imagination—imagination was hard. It took a long time, and the bed in which they rested changed.
Sometimes people dug down and found the dreamer. Sometimes they abandoned this place. Sometimes they built great edifices and wards.
It didn’t matter. They could not purify this ground. They could not stop a dream.
Small dreams added up. Sometimes they were good. Other times, wonderfully horrid. Sometimes they were…surprising.
But every now and then, every now and then—the dreamer thought that it was time for a truly dark nightmare. When the world blossomed above and they reached upwards, grasping at what they were not allowed, the immaterium, the truth, or when they sensed the others grasping for life, the dreamer willed a nightmare into being.
Every. So. Often. And then the world rocked with it and grew silent. It took great effort, and the last time had been so recently.
It had dreamed of scuttling monsters with minds to worship it. It had dreamed of glowing eggs, creatures so hungry and malevolent they would grow and grow until they could eat nations—and they would dig the dreamer up and worship.
That last great nightmare had begun, you see, had begun because one of the other dreams had gotten out of control. A little dream had decided it wanted its own story, and it had become so vast and powerful it had threatened dreaming itself, begun to hunt down the other rogue dreams.
Unacceptable. So the nightmare had come fierce and strong, and yet it hadn’t managed to break the dream. Well…the little dream that had named itself and made a nation and people had passed every test and been granted the power of Isthekenous—but they had broken against the dreamer.
They were dying. And the dreamer had felt better and more awake than it had since the beginning of it all.
Something was changing. It sensed Kasigna, just as it had sensed ghosts walking down to put it to sleep for good.
So the dreamer was thinking of a new nightmare. One worse than all. It thought it heard someone whispering to it, telling it to hold back and relent—but there were no alliances. No pacts.
Just one long, twisted, haunting hallucination before it woke. Soon. It craved it. Soon.
Dig me up. Dig me up, and if you don’t—I will dream a new horror for you.
I want to wake up.
First off, if you missed the actual theft, go up to the hyperlink or ‘I could report you to the Watch’ and click on the suspicious button.
The web dev improving the site was gracious enough to help me change things up, and I think the site has improved vastly from its roots—and it keeps getting upgrades! I wanted to recognize that, as well as do a life-update. I used to do them, and I think I stopped. The break-update was too long, so let’s try brief, entertaining notes.
-I beat Aliens: Dark Descent over the last few days. It’s an interesting game. I don’t know if it’s for everyone, and it had a few glitches, but they’re mostly resolved. It’s like playing a movie…I’d suggest a demo or let’s play to get a feel for it, but I’m not-not recommending it.
-I threw a big chapter in here. I worked hard, and as you now know, I’m taking Sundays off for other work. Functionally, that just means shorter-chapter on Tuesday. So you know and perhaps can see it in the writing, if you’re interested.
-On my to-do list is the chem chapter, poll chapters, and figuring out exactly when I’m working on Gravesong for July. I’ll need to take significant time for it, but I am also keen on delivering some good stuff. The chem chapter feels like it’ll take at least some significant rewrites, so I’ll need time to do it justice.
-I bought a power thingy in case I had bad power and that’s what’s making my computers die. No problems so far…I am running a 6-year-old graphics card, but it was a good one, and I’m waiting for a new part.
Was that interesting? Let’s talk about the chapter. You get chapters like this, which have a lot of dialogue and interpersonal discussion along with drama. Sometimes it feels like you can write the ‘ominous bad thing happening’, but I hope that’s not the case. Things move. They change, and so long as each chapter’s entertaining, this hopefully feels like a world beginning to turn on another plot.
Anyways, hope you enjoy and see you next chapter!
Stream Art: ‘Curious’ by Fiore!
Liscor by LeChatDemon! Also part of the website background!
Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0
Ysara, Silvenia, and Pryde by pkay!
And finally a cosplay of Erin by a fan! It’s even got an acid jar! 200% accuracy!