The hour was coming, and they were still all moving towards their destination. Ships. People. Gods. Soldiers. The living and the dead, and the [Innkeeper] was counting, now, like a woman whispering numbers in a dark, swaying room, waiting for the door to open and a kind of reality to rush in.
Sending messages out.
Possibly no one in this moment mattered more than her in the entire world. A strange thing to say.
Let any person be so honored as to be that person. Let them all be terrified of that moment. But the calculus was exacting; Erin Solstice had the eye of dead gods. Her inn was a locus of Izril.
Her level didn’t matter.
Her number? Her number mattered greatly.
That was the strange arithmetic that was being calculated across the abacus at this moment. A delicate finger jerked forwards—stopped. The control wasn’t perfect. So the man who had been known as the [Numerologist] his base class, then a [Patternlord of Graven Icons], one of the five Traders of Roshal who had been saved from the purge of the deadlands, grimaced a moment.
He wore spectacles, despite his new body not needing them and the vision of a ghost being perfect. He had been provided with a high-quality corpse to temporarily animate, yet he still wore spectacles and seemed—hunched.
A brooding, older man, sitting at a table and counting, flicking beads on an abacus and writing down numbers on a long scroll of parchment as if they mattered more than regular ones.
His name was Thatalocian Reevis. And he counted.
“Erin Solstice. Her last name doesn’t even need a value; look at it. What beautiful symmetry. Her name…Erin. 5-18-9-14. Hmm. How I wish I knew her birthdate.”
He was writing, writing down numbers and compiling a sheet of ‘facts’ about Erin as a number of other people watched him. Thatalocian was unto a kind of myth to the current [Slave Lords] and men and women here.
He was a ghost of ages past. A bearer of calamitous news, but hope. Hope, yes! There was irony in it, but Roshal lived on hope. You could not have despair without.
Thatalocian was not liked by all, of course. His other ghostly comrades paid less attention to his numbering of the world; they believed it mighty strange and ineffectual to the powers they commanded. And of course, the living legend who defined Roshal hated Thatalocian.
Emir Yazdil listened, though. He always listened to his enemies. And while he had a particular disdain for numerology, a kind of weird nonsense where you abstracted the world down to numbers—he had to admit, it had a power he didn’t like.
“A quick calculation now. [A Sound Reasoning]. An addition of numbers. [A Missing Entry, Filled]. And we derive answers. Of course, she of the three-in-one cannot be easily approximated, even with a thousand numbers. But Erin Solstice is her metered foe. So her number reveals. Erin Solstice matters, and so I count the simplest of my art. Six. Then…19-21-13…”
It sounded like a kind of odd poetry, you had to give it to him. The Skills activated so naturally that you had to strain your ears to catch them. The brush danced and flicked and ran down the numbers in an incomprehensible pattern.
Numerology. Yazdil understood from his—sources—that it was a practice on Earth, and there were precedents, but the actual usage of it was a long-dead thing. However, Thatalocian had been born in eras where it had gained sway for whatever reason or another and been one of the greatest users of it.
His exact level? Unknown. Yazdil assumed it was over Level 50. Every one of the five ghosts was at least Level 40.
They were competitors. Large fish who had entered the pond that Yazdil had mostly tamed. They swam arrogantly from the past, and for a while, they had been valuable as sources of information, even if that information was frankly unbelievable.
The problem was that the other [Slavers], by and large, were worshiping the old ghosts in amazingly sycophantic ways. Not one had thought to chain ghosts like one did everything else. By the time Yazdil had arrived, it had been too late.
Why not imprison a ghost rather than treat one like a superior? But then. These were former [Slavers]. Unto royalty.
The Naga’s scales twisted as he, in his serpentine form, sipped from a drink and watched. The other four ghosts were waiting for someone to transcribe the [Messages]. One of the five was tapping her foot. Tapping and tapping, an obnoxious, staccato rhythm.
She had demanded a body much like her living one. Had a poor woman executed so she could still have that too-stiff face and the sharp eyes of a vulture. White hair. A suit that embraced little of fashion. More just a kind of uniform for business.
Andra Meitolo. A former half-Elf. Her body was Human, which she did not like, but her entire nature was impatience. She strode around, talked like a storm. It was at odds with Thatalocian; if not for their bond as ghosts who had escaped the dead gods, she might have never associated with the [Numerologist].
Dead gods. Yazdil was still wrapping his mind around it all. He could countenance the word ‘god’; few could. He could understand this threat, but he did not know it or them. He did not know their stories, so the ghosts had even more intractable value.
At any rate. Thatalocian finished his work to satisfaction.
“A small number. There.”
What had he done? The other ghosts stirred, and Yazdil was prepared to mock an inferior conclusion, but did not expect to. That was the thing you had to do. Never ever underestimate your foes. The numbers might be silly to him. The method might be inane. Yet the results?
“Erin Summer Solstice. So fitting.”
The old man sat back, smiling, though the mouth of the corpse he was puppeting twitched, unable to mimic him perfectly. It was like having an inferior Golem, Yazdil understood; the ghosts were all very unhappy and claimed there was no good [Necromancer] to be had in all of Roshal. When they tried to raise a cup or smile, the bodies were a beat off, a step behind.
That would be solved soon. Yet their Skills were intact, and Yazdil…felt his scales prickle with a kind of excitement.
So they knew her middle name. Valuable? Possibly. Invaluable? No. But Thatalocian had many powers that were analogous to [Diviners] of old; rare powers for this day and age.
“That is all very well and good, Thatalocian. Write that down.”
Andra snapped left at a hovering flunkie, who wrote nervously. Her snort made it clear she would demand another helper soon; she was finding a team of people to cater to her every whim. But she trusted to what she could accurately measure. In her case, that was maps, personnel, numbers.
She was a [Lady of Great Enterprise]; that was her claimed class. Her real class was probably more nuanced, but it said it all. A [Merchant Queen] of bygone days.
It had been her Skills that added to Roshal’s own contact networks; right now, she was intercepting [Messages] sent by Wistram.
Even the newly encoded ones. The ones not immediately legible were being logged for later codebreaking. Right now, Andra held up a single slip.
“This one originates from Liscor at 6:31 AM? Destination: Iron Vanguard. Care of Tulm the Mithril. I have here a message at 6:32 AM. Bound for Wistram.”
“Yes, um, lady—that’s—”
Andra’s glare made her helper wilt. But she re-confirmed. Then dipped a hand into a chest overflowing with gold. She had insisted upon it, as she didn’t have any ‘actual assets’—yet.
“[Golden Remuneration]. Codebreaker.”
Her eyes flashed. And the gold vanished until only a strip of it remained at the bottom of the chest.
About four thousand gold pieces spent. Yazdil didn’t wince at that; Roshal was rich. But that Skill would bankrupt even Roshal if it were used for all the [Messages].
No wonder Andra had demanded only five thousand gold coins be put in the box. She flicked the [Message] slip up, grunted.
“Observations. The current cost is around four thousand six hundred pieces for a decryption of [Messages] now used by Wistram. The method is at least widespread enough for the Skill to work. One such talented—well, basic—[Mage] is in Drath. I cannot read this. Find me a [Translation] spell.”
The [Message] had been translated; Andra’s Skill meant that if it could be done and paid for—she would have it done so long as she had enough gold. The results sometimes varied.
The Slavers of Roshal knew better than to ask her ‘what the heck was [Translation] these days’. Several younger ones actually went running instead of ringing for a servant; no Djinn were allowed in this room. Sometimes, they might be used, but another ghost had forbidden their presence. Stitch-folk, too, except for the masters.
“I can read this.”
A hand delicately plucked the paper out of Andra’s grip, and the [Lady] glowered—then relaxed. A third ghost.
Shaullile, her name was. Last name not given. She sat there and read; she had not demanded anything other than a female body of ‘suitable attractiveness’. And she had made few plans and given the least number of orders, Yazdil’s spies reported.
She had sat in front of a mirror practicing how to smile for days on end, so her movements were the most natural of the five. She seemed the least impressive of the lot—yet her eyes flicked, and she read aloud.
“The message reads as follows: To the Iron Vanguard. This is Erin Solstice. Thank you again for your offers of help and payment. Afterwards, I will discuss sending the possessions back—but I am requesting your mutual aid during the Solstice. Be ready for battle, please. Tulm should get it. Interesting. She must not trust Wistram.”
“Is this the same vein of [Message] sent to Wistram?”
Another [Slaver] asked, and Andra tsked.
“I dislike wasting coin. The cost of my Skill doubles each time it is used in a single day. Very well.”
She produced a second [Message]—this one addressed to Wistram, translated it, and this time, it wasn’t in Drathian, so it was read aloud.
“Prepare for conflict. To Archmage Eldavin and any of the current leaders of Wistram? Very interesting. Largely the same wording, though. She has only one day left after this. One would assume this is late.”
“Assuming she does not have a plan? Fool. She has spoken to the legends of Chandrar, though she did not deign to include Roshal’s number. She associated with Nerrhavia, who was a serpent worthy of Wyrms. And I have known both.”
A new voice snapped at last, a ghost who turned the head of his puppet and spoke in a strident, arrogant tone. The [Slaver] bristled; no one spoke to him like that, not the Naga himself.
“Your great foe has done little more than produce a few wisps, Lord Pazeral. Forgive me if I do not quake in fear of—”
They were confident until the puppet jerked and the ghost left it. Slavelord Morren was still taunting the ghost when a hand reached down—a delicate servant girl’s hand—and grabbed the man by the throat.
Morren jerked and recoiled as the hand dragged him up. One of his bodyguards reached for the serving girl to strike her—but a pair of glowing eyes turned to him, and the hand tightened.
The eyes. Yazdil liked this [Slaver] ghost the least. Because his power hadn’t even been affected by death. You could argue…he’d only gotten stronger. Now, the ghost of Lord Pazeral rasped through the girl’s mouth, an eerie blend of the two.
“My foes are the kind to break Roshal in twain. If my foes were the kind you feared, I alone would have broken them and sent them howling back into the sea. Are you a dog who can only see something by its size and must see it to believe it? Should I remove an eye so you can learn to see what is not in front of your face?”
Delicate fingers dug into the man’s sockets, and Morren cried out.
“L-Lord Pazeral. Please—”
“Lord Pazeral. Surely you can forgive Emir Morren one slight?”
The Naga spoke. Pazeral’s fingers paused—then he snorted. Left his host body.
The [Slave]’s eyes dimmed; the corpse sat back up as the ghost returned to the body, and the [Slave] leapt back. Her eyes flickered, and she babbled apologies as she let go of the neck she had been holding in an iron grip.
Instantly, her master began slapping her, and the [Lord of Possession] snorted.
Andra. Business dealings.
Shaullile. Class and purpose unknown.
Pazeral. Able to possess the bodies of [Slaves].
And the last of all of them, who had not spoken, just continued to drink, staring in disgust around the room, at Yazdil, was Loerhin of House Kallinad. A huge man—he stood like he was meant to be tall and authoritative, the oldest of all of the ghosts by far. He had been one of the first Kallinads. He had lived during the days when Roshal was on Terandria.
Loerhin, a [Warlord] from the dawn of Roshal’s existence, one of the mightiest combatants by far. He had put even Yazdil’s mightiest servant, Iert, onto the ground with a single blow.
These were the five new powers of Roshal. Now you counted them, instead of Yazdil and his trusted associates or Yazdil and the [Slavers] who could match him—it was those five and Yazdil.
Each one was a force, but Yazdil did not know them fully yet. He was finding out more, day by day. Loerhin rumbled.
“So long as she does what she swore, we do not need to aim at her.”
“Do we not? She is, like us, a survivor of that apocalypse of death. She is either an ally or foe, and I demand to know which. I demand her to make it clear.”
Andra countered, and Thatalocian murmured.
“Reductive. You make a binary where there is not one. We want her on our side, this is true.”
“Then we shall have her. But we have virtually no agents on Izril. Roshal is a tiny speck of what it was. All the trading routes are down. We are banished from Terandria’s shores, Izril barely lets our caravans through? We slink along Baleros’ coasts? Ridiculous.”
Pazeral glared, and all the ghosts nodded at that. More than one cool eye glanced at Yazdil, who felt compelled to speak.
“Lailight Scintillation is the last major port under Roshal’s control. But I remind you, guests, that Roshal is all but ruler of several ports in name.”
“In my day, we were at a thousand ports. We were in kingdoms as advisors. There is nothing to compare. Your Great Desert was not empty in my day. That is the difference.”
Pazeral returned. And Yazdil’s teeth bared nastily.
“Yes…Roshal was the most ascendant during your time, Lord Pazeral. It was the largest, most powerful it has ever been in its entire history.”
The [Lord of Possession]’s date was easiest to place; it was indeed during Roshal’s golden era, when Wyrms were still ruling parts of Chandrar, before Nerrhavia was even a dream, when the Great Desert was no empty spot. He was a scion of that era; no wonder he was worshiped.
And yet, the Naga reminded him.
“That was the last era Roshal ever ruled. Its power attracted enemies who drove it to the very precipice. The Roshal of now is better as a far off place with little presence in most parts of the world. Better we be a dark dream to our enemies that they can excuse as ‘elsewhere’ or terrible, but unique only to one city and a tiny amount of holdings.”
That was his entire reasoning and why he had never seen fit to want to ‘rekindle lost glories’. Yazdil was well aware of the backlash that a greater presence might engender.
Pazeral just smiled. He did not deny that the crumbling had occurred; he had seen it as he lived.
“You are not wrong, Emir Yazdil. Yet…what a glorious moment it was, however short. I would do it again in a heartbeat, to hold the world in my hand.”
He laughed and drank the wine meant only for the dead that he had insisted upon, and the lesser [Emirs] looked at him, and Yazdil thought to himself—they were hypnotized.
All his sway and their fear of him was gone, erased by their awe for Pazeral’s short-sighted glories. Yazdil could only move them with a knife at their throats. No wonder he was so angry.
Each ghost came from a different time and place. It was not hard to ask them who they had been; they were dying to share it. The hard part, at first, was believing who they had been.
Weak ghosts had not survived the dead gods’ destruction and the Seamwalkers. In fact, these five had been lucky to make it; many had missed the spirit nets, and apparently, Seamwalkers had been tearing Chandrar apart, and even truly legendary ghosts had gone down fighting.
What a waste. And you could argue Roshal had not been represented well during that fight; oh, they had strength. But other ghosts had tried to settle their grudges once and for all, infighting at the last.
But the blunt truth was that the most infamous ghosts of Roshal hadn’t been there. Even Riqre. The sort of [Slave Lords] that had made the mortal world tremble had never been in the deadlands. They had been—elsewhere.
A puzzle for Yazdil. As for the ghosts…
Thatalocian was waiting for his new body, as all five were. Not another undead corpse to puppet via a necromancy spell.
He had been very exacting; they all had. No one wanted an ‘old’ body, but rather to Yazdil’s surprise, the [Numerologist] had demanded one at least 40 years old—in the best condition, obviously—but that old.
“I am not so vain as Andra or Pazeral. And even Andra asked for someone in her late twenties or thirties. Age is command.”
“You don’t include Shaullile or Loerhin in that appraisal of ego?”
Yazdil watched as the old [Numerologist] slowly wrote down numbers on a sheet of vellum neatly. Thatalocian did not respond, and so the two lapsed into a silence as the Naga observed the numbers being obsessively written down in an incomprehensible pattern. They made no sense to Yazdil, and some numbers had been invented, so he understood, for more elegant usage in whatever odd language Thatalocian wrote.
Sides. Already, the ghosts had expressed dislike for one another. Thatalocian disliked Andra, Pazeral, and Loerhin to various levels.
Which was funny. But they really were ghosts from different eras. Thatalocian had been oldest of them by far when he died. He pursed his lips as he paused with brush in hand.
“You are an interesting man, Emir Yazdil. The most feared [Slaver] of today. I wonder what your number is.”
“Do you wish to know my favorite number?”
Yazdil was prepared to tell Thatalocian and smiled teasingly, but the [Numerologist] just kept writing. The vellum was so thin the candlelight made it transparent, and he had such a long sheaf of it that he was writing on, endless numbers that gave Yazdil a mild headache to behold.
“That matters little. Many people say such things to me. My numbers are a way to look at the world. ‘Favorite number’ matters little. I know names in numbers. 8-1-1-4-5.”
“Is that a name? Let’s see…H-A-A-D-E?”
A name, he presumed? Thatalocian confirmed it.
“Haade. A beloved set of numbers for a being I knew. They matter to me, Emir. I have recorded ideas down, and I see, sometimes, in the pattern of numbers, who matters. Do you know who is not at Erin Solstice’s side, whose numbers intersect with hers again and again?”
The Naga paused. He disliked Thatalocian’s focus on Erin. Well, the Naga was fascinated by the beautiful [Innkeeper] as well. He wanted to meet her.
But his obsession was not the same as Thatalocian’s. The [Numerologist] seemed to respect Erin in different terms. Even so, Yazdil knew the answer.
“The Horns of Hammerad are suspiciously absent. A query at the Meeting of Tribes was raised by Erin herself. Chieftain Feshi replied they had vanished and cited a ‘Wer’, one of the Doombringers, excuse me—”
“Doombearers. I knew them. They warp numbers too, but luck can be seen. Brave and extraordinary all. Their number must be chosen for them to even become white-furred. It was foolish to try and wipe them out, as this tribe did. They are the ones who will stand against this coming darkness best.”
A soft voice. Thatalocian paused, and Yazdil shifted, a Human man now, and paced around the table.
“You—have a very different perspective from the other ghosts, Thatalocian. May I address it?”
“I do not lie with [Slaves] of either gender. I do not drink. Nor eat foods meant for ghosts. Nor speak of how I suffered in the lands of the dead?”
Every other ghost was doing just that, even if they got no actual sexual pleasure at the moment—Pazeral being the exception. Thatalocian was almost monk-like. He had been collating his numbers, writing them down; he was a [Scholar], but it did not make sense.
All [Slavers] had a peccadillo, even the hard-working ones. Andra was close to Thatalocian in that she was business-minded; she had been auditing and inspecting all of Lailight Scintillation’s finances, but her goals were naked; she intended to gain power as fast as possible.
“Will you explain it to me?”
The old [Numerologist] removed his glasses; and that was it. He thought of himself as a numerologist before [Slaver].
“Of course. The other four ghosts…no, other three. One of them isn’t like the others. Three of them are soft. You can see it. They have known strife, but never struggled. I could wish for better companions, but I will take what I can.”
Soft? Yet the disdain behind those glasses was apparent. Yazdil swept closer as the brush dipped.
“Pazeral and Loerhin are both skilled warriors beyond almost any living fighter in Roshal, save a Djinni. Even some of the Djinni admitted they might be bested if the two were armed suitably. Is that soft?”
“That is just power. You know what I mean.”
Yazdil did—and disliked Thatalocian’s piercing gaze. But now, the old man was winding the vellum up, binding it carefully around some contraption he had demanded. Hence Yazdil watching. At length, Thatalocian explained it all so simply.
“I am from the era you called the ‘Long Night’. The time when magic lay dead. I lived long enough to see it rekindled, but I was born into those days. Sometimes, they were bright; but the nights seemed too long. Even the sun had vanished. And Seamwalkers rose, fearing nothing with magic dead.”
Yazdil’s skin prickled in sudden, visceral excitement.
“You survived that?”
“Yes. Numerology was one of the things we turned to; you see, it had a power that we clung to when reason became madness. A way to make the world make sense. So you ask why I am a [Slaver] least of the four? We had little time for it. In those days, Roshal stood side-by-side with what you would deem your enemies. Survival mattered more than all. I have a deep, abiding respect for the Doombearers who used luck against the horrors. I look at Erin Solstice and see someone I would have stood with—but the reputation of Roshal soured her to us. I will have that second chance.”
So this was Thatalocian. Yazdil wasn’t disappointed—but he was amazed.
“Are you even a [Slaver]? I merely ask because you have expressed no interest in creating your own following, and our own masters have been jealous to the point of ludicrosity. Perhaps you seek Djinni? Pazeral fears them.”
“Pazeral was born in a time when there were free Djinni. They warred mightily to free their kin. He knew Jinn. He is quite happy we ‘won’ our war. I have not yet found anyone worth keeping company over. Perhaps I shall tour these markets and find a child or promising pupil who understands numbers. If they suit, I will take them, or when I gain a body, I will remember the pleasures of flesh. But I do not care to count like Andra or need them like Pazeral.”
The Naga’s skin prickled again, and this time, his instincts made him recall something. He chuckled softly as Thatalocian glued the paper to a piece of curved metal, continuing to wrap it around something.
“I met a Human [Lord] and had one of those debates, of late. He saw slavery as the intractable evil. He would have freed a [Slave] he was quite enamored with—until he realized she did not love him.”
“Hmm. I have done that many times.”
Now, Yazdil did stop, and Thatalocian’s head turned. His glasses shone like owl lenses.
“Have you never debated with a child of another continent, Emir? Slavery is a better way than prisons, to me.”
“Of course. That was my argument with him. Yet you free them?”
Thatalocian’s finger rose.
“If they are worthy. If I think I would rather have them free. If they are a slave, I treat them as such. But they need not be it forever. There is a chance to rise, however slim, and that is the egalitarian thing many speak of. I? I do not debate it.”
It reminded Yazdil of how he spoke, but he felt such an uncanny repulsion that he backed up a step.
“Are you a slaver, Thatalocian?”
It was only a half-question. The ghost was truly different from the others in that. And yet…his eyes rose, and he smiled as he plucked something from the table, his job nearly done.
“Fear not, Emir. I am still Thatalocian. Of Roshal. You see, that is who I am. More than a [Slaver], I have always been endlessly proud that it was Roshal who endured that long night. I come to you and say we should be proud once more. Wherever the foe lurks, Roshal shall hunt it down. Some foes defy even our chains. I am not blind to how dark we go. I am Roshal. But we are not alike. You see? This is what I did while the others indulged.”
Then he lifted the stick of tallow, lit it with a touch, and placed it in the contraption he had requested. He closed the metal pieces, and the wrapped vellum writ with numbers twined around the candle in the center, and the Emir saw the numbers glow.
Then Thatalocian lifted the lantern up. And Yazdil understood.
“The Lantern Lands.”
A lantern, shining with the numbers that Thatalocian had written, rose in Thatalocian’s hand, and it projected a calm light. A light of…
“This is the Lantern of Reason. It is a weapon to be used against horror. It kept minds sane; the Lantern Lands may well descend from my work. I was not the only one who found flame in the Long Night. It was flame which saved us, and it is why the [Innkeeper] and I must be allies. I am flame and number. I am proud of Roshal, and if we can be allies, we shall, Yazdil. However uneasy.”
Thatalocian stood across from the Emir, and the Naga twisted, backing away from the light. His eyes seemed to glow, and a serpentine figure rose in the shadows as Thatalocian stood there. Ghost and serpent.
“What makes you think we need be so distant, Thatalocian?”
The [Numerologist]’s eyes found Yazdil’s, two serpentine orbs.
“I think you would rather I had little pride and more vanity. That I were less certain. That I needed things more. I believe I am righteous, at times. I may be a monster to many, but I seek to end my foes. Then I shall consider what else I wish to do. You pursue your dreams and simply hate those who threaten them.”
A pause. And the Emir hissed.
“I could have liked you most of them all, Thatalocian.”
He slithered away as the [Numerologist] called back.
“You don’t like yourself much either. Do you, Emir Yazdil?”
Of the five, Thatalocian was the most unsettling, the most dangerous, and the least predictable.
As Yazdil said, at least three of the others were—weaker in some way.
Andra was sitting, nibbling on a nail, making a list of properties she wanted and people she had deemed as acceptable to her needs when Yazdil swept into the sitting room.
Three ghosts sat there. Pazeral, leaving his body now and then to conduct business, Andra, plotting her work, and Shaullile.
Of the three, Shaullile was the most bored, but she was checking sketches of her new body. She obsessed over her looks while the other two obsessed over their possessions.
“I’ll borrow what isn’t given. Markets…there’s no seith anywhere. Ally with me, Naga. Entrust the business-dealings to me, and I will guarantee you a return on investment. Give it to me. It’s what I know.”
Andra, at least, was more familiar to Yazdil, even if he was amused by both her focus and her competency. He sat down as Pazeral sat up.
“Do we have any good [Slaves] in Oteslia? I have a deal to strike.”
“If you are speaking for other [Slavers], Lord Pazeral—”
The [Lord] barely glanced at Yazdil as the Naga sipped from a winecup.
“This is all for my own enjoyment, Yazdil. I’m not building a mercantile empire. But I need authority to get what I want. These Djinni…you trust them too much. But I’m glad to see there’s only a handful free. We won. It took so damned long—but we did win. Once I’m ready, I’ll find the oldest one I can and see if it remembers me. That’s how you do it. Djinni and Jinn. Roshal triumphs, in the end. Who’d know about a good [Slaver]?”
“Try our guild—the palace. If there is a registry you may hunt down…”
Yazdil stopped talking because Pazeral was gone.
“He leaps through bodies like a storm. I think he can do it to any [Slave] if their masters are too low-level. Was that what it was like, the [Slavers] of our golden era?”
What obnoxious folk they must have been. I am endlessly glad they were murdered like that, then. Yazdil sipped from his cup; Pazeral had been barely thirty-nine when he was murdered by a rival lord.
It said something, when each had died. And how. Thatalocian? Old age.
The other four had all been killed. Though Pazeral had the dubious honor of being the only ghost present who’d died to treachery. The other three, Shaullile, Andra, and Loerhin, had known death intimately with blazing sword, claws and fangs, and spear.
Though, again, nuance. Shaullile and Loerhin had been murdered by people.
Andra had been eaten.
That explained it. She and Pazeral were grabbing for power in their own way, but Pazeral did it like a game, for self-interest. He and Loerhin were annoyingly honest in that regard; Andra was afraid.
You could see it in how she was pushing. Doubtless that was her personality as well, but she was muttering.
“I have to organize. Lailight Scintillation is still a power, but if I have to grab each living Walled City and drown them in gold…this K-Kas—”
Shaullile flinched, and Andra couldn’t finish the word. Weak-willed, perhaps. Yazdil observed her, idly drinking.
“Kasigna. Not that we should empower her. I certainly don’t respect her. You and Thatalocian seem remarkably committed to the cause.”
That was bait, and Andra replied swiftly.
“Thatalocian gets it. Pazeral, Loerhin—they must be mad. They saw those Seamwalkers, but they think now that they’re getting bodies all will be well. Twice. I’ve seen this done twice, and I won’t die a third time. Potions of Youth…I need some. But I have time. So long as—”
She broke off, shuddered.
“I can do it this time. I was complacent. Complacent with everyone else in Roshal. This very city. And look how we died. They climbed the towers. Maybe even this—this one. I don’t know.”
Her foot began to tap. Taptaptaptap—
“They climbed into my penthouse and ate me alive. Slowly. I could hear them laughing in my head. Not this time. I should have hired every [Mercenary], forced the nations to go to war instead of—”
Yazdil leaned over and rested a clawed hand on her leg. The half-Elf was no stranger to intimacy, and she leaned over as Yazdil gave her a sympathetic look.
“The Creler Wars.”
Shaullile’s head rose in vague recognition, but she predated those events. Yazdil blinked and placed her.
Aha. So Andra is the youngest of the ghosts by far. She whispered as she leaned into him, for security, for comfort, and touched his scaled side.
“We never paid attention, you know. Everyone was screaming about it—but horrors from Rhir always emerge. This time? This time I remember the Dancer going.”
“Who was she? History notes a dancer…”
“The greatest [Dancer] in the world. She went there and died on those blasted shores, and that was when I felt like I woke up and saw it. Horrors. But it was too late. Too late. We were still rallying a force when they burst across the world. Dragons died. Dragons. They got to Roshal as the evacuations were happening. Two times. Then the Seamwalkers; this time, I am forewarned. But you must stand with me and give me control of your gold, Yazdil.”
“Andra, you and I shall be amazing partners.”
He promised her earnestly. And her look of relief turned into a distance as she pulled away, reestablished authority.
“We’ll have to fire most of your current staff. Many of these [Slavers]—we’ll let them go or roll them into [Slaves] if there’s a protocol that’s acceptable. Am I allowed to simply enslave the incompetent?”
“Not…legally. Why don’t I send one of my competent subordinates to discuss it?”
“Excellent. A lot of them don’t want to give me…enough help. They’re against the plan for the Solstice and anything interventionary to begin with.”
Yazdil paused and slithered upright.
“Yes. That’s true. Let me visit the conclave.”
To his surprise, Shaullile rose and, still checking a mirror with makeup, nodded at Yazdil.
“I’ll go with you.”
The oddest one was Shaullile. She was practicing smiles as Yazdil and she rode an elevator powered by Djinnis up to where some of the more common [Slavers] were gathering to protest—quietly—all this money and power being redirected to the other ghosts.
As Yazdil understood it, they held that interference in the world beyond Roshal would attract reprisals. Which was his position—yet he knew they had to fight or at least resist the dead gods.
There was a difference between complacency and a practiced reserve, and idiots on both ends, from Pazeral’s goals of rebuilding Roshal to isolationists, annoyed Yazdil.
As if you could reduce the political actions of Roshal to simple factions.
Shaullile annoyed him too, frankly. She looked like the least of all ghosts, even including Andra.
“As I understand it, your original body was…a Drake? Have you any input into the way we are organizing Roshal, Shaullile? You have not expressed your will.”
The ghost—wearing a Human’s body at the moment—looked up at Yazdil blankly.
“Not really, Emir. If Andra or Thatalocian or you have a vision for how to deal with our enemies, I will happily let you take charge. I was never a leader like everyone else.”
She flashed him a rueful grin—her control over her corpse was very good. Yazdil raised his brows.
“How old were you when you died?”
He had thought she seemed young, but that made it more clear. And yet—Yazdil watched as Shaullile raised the mirror again.
“Excuse me. I still don’t have this smile down right. I haven’t had a mirror for…ah, perfect. Can you hold this?”
She thrust something into his claws, and he found himself holding an artifact Wistram had recently made—a ‘camera’. It was something that took a magic picture, so it was an old piece of magical technology made simpler. Yazdil dubiously held it up.
“On three. One, two…”
And then Shaullile threw back her head, shaking out the dark brown hair of the body she was piloting. She bared her teeth and smiled as the Emir gingerly pressed the ‘capture’ button. He looked at the picture, and he had to admit—
It was perfect.
The single frame of reality that captured Shaullile was of a young woman, her dead body’s features subtly covered up by makeup, hair flying, and she was smiling.
But that was such a mundane description, so Yazdil tried to imagine how he’d tell Iert about it over the speaking stone.
Shaullile’s mouth was pulled back in a too-wide smile, showing a lot of teeth, like a Drake. She was staring straight ahead, making eye-contact with you even though it was a picture. Not just anyone could stare straight like that. Her eyes were direct, and there was a bit of light giving her gaze a shine—and yet.
And yet, Yazdil stared at the image that Shaullile found satisfying and thought there was something uncanny in the beautiful features. As if there were a void behind the eyes and the charming smile.
Shaullile smiled at everything and nothing. She smiled to be beautiful, and she had the air of someone who had focused on this one thing to the exclusion of everything else. She was, Yazdil realized, focused, and after getting her look right, her mind suddenly snapped back to reality as they entered the conclave to join the [Slavers].
The presence of Yazdil and this young woman, one of the ‘new’ members of Roshal, caused a stir in the audience. But the lesser [Slavers] were determined to have their piece.
“Tithes. I understand that we have it upon truth spells that this is for the good of Roshal, but why must we give even some of our lesser [Slaves] to this cause? It’s the same as Rhir—why must we buy all this ‘goodwill’? Let these other nations take care of the matter without us giving in advance.”
Slaver Morren was repeating a lot of points Yazdil had privately made; he was an ambitious Stitch-man, and Shaullile instantly hid behind Yazdil, staring at Morren with unconcealed wariness.
She did not want to have any Stitch-folk near her. And, Yazdil recalled, she was from a very interesting part of Roshal’s history.
But the debating [Slavers] were largely in agreement. One nodded at Yazdil.
“With respect to the Naga himself, anything the Emir says must be so. But perhaps he could foot more of these exorbitant costs?”
No one had forgotten the fate of the last [Slave Lord] to run afoul of the Naga, but being forced to pay for all these things had even the most cowardly voicing complaints—in this very non-aggressive manner.
Yazdil didn’t care. Letting his detractors make their points here where his supporters could fight and they could get a lot of nothing done would make it seem like there was movement, especially if he conceded on small points to get his way.
This was just good politics, and he actually inclined his head to the complainer. But interestingly—
Shaullile didn’t take the complaint well. She stiffened when she heard the most minor objection to a ten-slave levy on each [Slaver] who could afford it—and raised her hand.
“Excuse me, may I speak?”
“Emira Shaullile. You have the floor.”
Few of the ghosts had made their presence known amongst the lowest ranks of Roshal’s elite, so there was a great deal of interest as Shaullile strode forwards. Yazdil wondered if she was going to make a fool of herself, until he realized her true nature as she glared once more at Slaver Morren.
Shaullile had come from the second most-recent time in Roshal’s history. Her time period?
The rebellion of Stitch-folk. She had been slain by the followers of the first rebels and the Rebel of String, Elucina herself.
Then he saw her as she strutted down the aisle, took a speaking stone, and pitched her voice perfectly for the room. She was more attractive than any other [Slaver] in the room, even with their own illusions and magics and ointments.
She had poise. She had training. Of course! What a fool Yazdil was!
She was the mouthpiece of Roshal. And when she spoke, behind closed doors, her voice had a snap to it.
“I am Emira Shaullile. My role, nobility of Lailight Scintillation, will be to represent Roshal abroad in international affairs. I will be travelling, I expect, to other continents. Izril especially. I know the Walled Cities.”
“Represent us? Emira, you must be new; we have no presence in the Walled Cities. Our number would be barred from any…Drakes don’t even have courts.”
One of the [Slavers] laughed at her, and Shaullile raised her brows.
“If we don’t have it, I will rebuild it. And I think I’ll start with a presence on television networks. Chandrar has one; I will begin with music. Song and dance. I know quite a lot of Drathian songs; it was the style of my day to sing in another language. It was more fascinating. Believe me, I can get the Drakes’ attention. I am needed; I have already noticed my rival denigrating Roshal, and the fact that no one like me was called for is a problem. The Singer of Terandria will be my nemesis. Happily—she’s not the only one who can sing ‘new’ songs.”
She threw her head back, and her hair hovered a second before it settled around her shoulders. The [Slavers] stirred, and Yazdil saw Shaullile wink.
Oh, the stage presence. He wondered what kind of a time she must have been in to have been created to make Roshal’s words heeded. Then he looked at the Stitch-folk and realized Roshal must have been desperate at the time. Afraid of what would come.
Tough. He had thought that Thatalocian meant Loerhin, but now he saw. Shaullile addressed the [Slaver] who’d been complaining.
“To your point, sir. I understand you may be personally inconvenienced amid levies of your hard work. Especially for matters that seem distant from Roshal’s shores.”
“Thank you, young Miss.”
The angry Stitch-folk [Emir] looked gratified—a second before Shaullile snapped.
“Drop your objections, sir. We are Roshal. And when the Emir Yazdil says that our way of life is being threatened, I swear to you on the same truth spells—everything you love and live by is in danger. If you want to hoard what you have, go ahead. When they come for you with a flaming sword, you will lose everything. Do you understand me?”
“Wh—how dare—is this a threat?”
The [Emir] blustered nervously, but the conclave of [Slavers] stirred. Shaullile raised her voice, and she was intense, now, staring down the [Slaver].
“If you don’t know, ask. But I can see a number of people here who know the truth. Members of the Verdant Halls.”
She turned her head, and everyone above a certain rank who would have been briefed—ducked or hesitated. Suddenly, the lesser [Slavers] were focused on the others, and Shaullile’s voice became pointed.
“If they don’t see fit to tell you, find out. But I cannot understand why the Verdant Halls is not closing this debate at once. If you do not understand what is going on, you are not ready to know. But the rest of you? Do you not understand you can lose it all? What are you doing?”
“The cost is high, Emira.”
A nervous [Slave Lady] muttered, a Dullahan trying to hide her head behind her as she faced down the ghost of a Drake. And Shaullile drew a line across her throat.
“The cost of being beheaded is higher, Lady Roare. I know that from experience. Stop objecting. And if you wish to continue, I will find you, and we will open your eyes. The rest of you? This is the will of Roshal and in your self-interest. Do you want to be welcomed into Zeres? Do you want to walk into a Terandrian court and not be laughed out? I require your unity. Now—close ranks.”
Dead gods. Yazdil was glad he was in his Naga form or he’d be having a very embarrassing wardrobe problem right now. He was completely reversed on Shaullile.
A dangerous girl. But what a useful one!
She had the entire conclave of [Slavers] moving around her in one go. Yazdil didn’t even try to get down there to get a word in. He just turned and went to check on the final ghost.
But he didn’t find Loerhin for a while. When he did, the oldest of Roshal’s number was the most…amusing.
Loerhin Kallinad didn’t associate with the other ghosts as much. He had tried with Thatalocian, but the two were clearly different, and he didn’t care for Pazeral.
Andra and Shaullile were non-starters, and in fact, the Emir realized why Loerhin was avoiding him and approached the moody [Lord] sitting on a balcony and drinking the ghost-draught in the right…form.
Which was to say, Human. Yazdil walked forwards, robes swishing, and sat down. Loerhin had stiffened, but he relaxed slightly and motioned. He had already equipped rings with dangerous war spells, and he carried a sword; he was every bit the [Warlord] that Yazdil took him to be.
But he was the most uncomfortable with Roshal as it was, and the reason was hilarious.
“I’m glad I found you in that—appearance, Yazdil. Is that your true form?”
“A gentleman does not divulge all of his secrets, Loerhin. But if that makes you more comfortable, feel free to imagine it so.”
Yazdil had a wineglass and sat, idly looking down over Lailight Scintillation. The Grand Bazaar. The docks were filled, and Djinni flew through the air carrying goods.
It was one of the richest ports in the entire world. Loerhin looked down upon the city and all the magic and saw it was good.
“We didn’t have this, you know. Better magic, but a lot less of it. The fact that you have healing potions? I’d need a [Slave] with healing powers. And there’s fewer monsters. No Hunter’s Guild—no damn Giants. World feels emptier, though. No Halflings. Didn’t even have these…Selphid things in my day. Or Antinium.”
Yazdil burned with a great envy of how Loerhin spoke. But the man looked troubled as he gazed down over Roshal. He greatly approved of the wealth, the means. But…
“Something bothers you about all this, Lord Loerhin?”
The Naga was innocent as could be, hiding a smile with another sip. Loerhin chewed it all over, but it burst out of him at last.
“Have you—why—Roshal’s forgotten the point.”
Yazdil raised one manicured eyebrow, and the [Lord] stared down at a Stitch-woman pulling a new [Slave] along on a leash. And he looked appalled not because of any other reason than it was a Stitch-woman—and a Human slave.
“Roshal’s not supposed to be like this. I look around and the wrong people are leading. You? I’ll take you. Thatalocian is a fool, but he’s the right sort. Pazeral? I thought I understood him until I learned he was a Jinn.”
Loerhin spat over the railing.
“Andra? Half-Elf. Shaullile? Drake. What happened? I talked with a dozen of the top [Emirs] or whatever they are now—and they’re not the best of us. They’re fat, complacent, receding chins—it was supposed to be the best of us. We shouldn’t even have that one, down there.”
He pointed, and Yazdil raised his brows, snorting to himself. Yes, that was Loerhin Kallinad. He had a moral objection to the way Roshal ran itself. It was too egalitarian for him.
“It must have been quite a different time when you were part of it. Did Humans found Roshal, then?”
“It wasn’t called Roshal. There were—I’m sure other continents did their thing. Half of my peers wouldn’t ever talk to me face-to-face, but more than not agreed. I took a look at Terandria, and you can see it. Back when I was alive, red hair was the standard for beauty. See how the [Kings] have kept it in their bloodlines? That’s purity. But everything else? The Humans of Terandria look right. The Five Families are purer, but Chandrar? You shouldn’t let the inferior members of our species reproduce. Any species. There aren’t any laws about it. Can you change that?”
“I don’t rule Roshal. It might be difficult, Loerhin. Come, come. Didn’t you all unite with each other, ghosts, at the end of things? Trying times make it hard for us.”
The Emir was having a grand time teasing the [Lord]. The man just shuddered and kept drinking.
“So long as you get me a half-decent body where I can feel things and set everything right, I won’t get in your way, Yazdil. You’ll have worse from Pazeral or that idiot with numbers. Don’t worry; I know how to use people. I’ll bide my time. But I’d rather go home and fix things from where I was. I’d start with Erribathe. They might still be allies.”
If Yazdil understood things, Loerhin had been running his version of Roshal until he’d been stabbed during a raid and died. The Naga wondered how House Kallinad would react to their great ancestor’s return. It would be fun to see how he ran into Terandria. The first thought was that they’d kill him and bury the evidence…but maybe he’d find a lot of traction there.
At any rate, those were the five new lords of Roshal. The Naga needed them. Or at least, he had. Right now, the Solstice was impending, and every piece had been set into motion; no time to alter things. Yazdil just wondered if they were ready.
He did not like surprises. And this year had been full of them. Preparations abounded, and Loerhin spat something out of his cup over the balcony.
“Bodies ready? I’m not sticking around to see if that hag can command us if we’re still ghosts.”
“By tonight, Lord Loerhin. The witch’s hour: the best time for it, according to Thatalocian.”
The [Lord] grunted as he stood, then leapt off the balcony without fear. A dangerous man in this era that was too small for him. The Naga sat there and knew that however Roshal rustled and stirred—whatever came on the Solstice would not be here.
He could see the pieces moving on the board. But what bothered him was where even Roshal’s eyes failed to see. The Naga stopped drinking after a second and scowled.
One of the Djinni in the air of Lailight Scintillation appeared from under the balcony. She lifted something in her hands, keeping it away from him.
The newest Djinni in the Naga’s employ, Mak’eireen, held the crossbow bolt up, and the Emir hadn’t even heard it fired. But he saw her blowing the air away from him and guessed that meant it was highly poisonous.
“It might not be him. It may just be a casual assassination attempt, as one receives. How close was it?”
“Five of your [Assassins] are dead, Emir. I blocked this one where your spells and other guards failed.”
When you needed a Djinni to snatch an arrow out of the skies, you were gambling. The Emir put down his cup and sighed.
“Well, I am sure they can tell I detest each and every one of them. The feeling, you know, is mutual.”
He lay there a second, staring moodily at the sky, and reflected it was too bad he had slain all his good rivals and enemies. Because right now…the new ones were making him sweat.
He had been ready for many things. To quash rivals, to stop enemy nations or even eliminate up-and-comers with too much promise. But this had been too fast, too decisive.
Ghosts changed the world too much. And these were only the ones who had come to Roshal.
As the Emir Yazdil was relaxing on a balcony in Roshal, which was merely balmy in the winter, it was a lot less fun at sea. Winter snow and storms had made the crossing of the oceans perilous, even with the great fleets laying down as much protective magic as possible.
Avoiding two nasty coastal storms and the fear of attack from the Hivelands had sent the Terandrian colony fleets far further west than they wanted. They were still over two-thirds of the way to their landing point at the New Lands, and they had received a welcome influx of supplies and even visitors from the only ‘nation’ around: Wistram Academy.
The fleet had debated weighing anchor at the Isle of Mages, but there were so many ships that they’d overwhelm the place. Plus, the Iron Vanguard had been spotted coming in from Baleros, and everyone had been reminded this was a race.
Nevertheless, meeting with the Archmages and having a few banquets with the [Mages] had been delightful. The winter chill was still annoyingly bad at sea; it was somehow worse than when you were on land. It was probably the exposure to so much sea and the salt—and inability to move around that made it so dire.
But at this point, the prospective colonists and explorers of the New Land were thoroughly sick of the ships in the Terandrian fleet’s combined navy and had begun taking sides and doing what they did best: politicking in preparation for landing.
Part of that introspection and deliberation came from a certain [Prince], one of the highest-ranking members of the entire fleet. Prince Iradoren, aboard Legend’s Wake, his flagship, crewed with the myriad people of the Kingdom of Myths, Erribathe, one of the Sleeping Three. The [Prince of Men] had come to an interesting conclusion of late, and it was this:
Ser Solstice was definitely not a Human. Which wasn’t hard to deduce, and he had gotten there on their first meeting. But Prince Iradoren was beginning to suspect the ‘Goblin Slayer’ might have a visage under his helm that no one would like.
There was more than just intuition at play here. Iradoren’s very class and other factors had led him to this dark suspicion. And it was growing by the day.
One of the moments when Prince Iradoren had realized Ser Solstice wasn’t normal came earlier on their trip. He had paused while touring the other ships, bored out of his mind by the long sea voyage. But one ship had been fascinating.
“Your Highness! Will you join us for a game of this…what is it called again, Rabbiteater?”
On Earl Altestiel’s flagship no less, someone had cleared the deck, and they were bouncing around a ball and aiming it at a giant pole with a net under it! Of course, Iradoren knew the sport. The young men and women under his authority in Erribathe had already explained the game and a number of other things.
But he’d never seen anyone actually implement it. A [Knight] in armor was trying to block an aggressively pacing [Lord].
Cortese was trying to get at the net, bouncing the ball every now and then, while Rabbiteater tried to block. It had to be said here that Rabbiteater had adopted Erin’s ability to create events and fun.
But he hadn’t, uh, remembered all the fine details.
He kicked at Cortese suddenly, and the Hundredlord jumped over the leg, dribbled two feet, and went for a layup as Menrise gamely tried to tackle him from the side. The [Spell Lady] with her helmet was less nimble, though, and Cortese shot, missed, and was going for the ball when he dodged another kick.
“I say, Ser Solstice! Are you sure that’s how you play?”
Ser Markus called out from the sidelines as Prince Iradoren slowed to watch. Earl Altestiel was waiting on the other side, playing with a few other people, and even Princess Seraphel was trying to be useful! She was nearly knocked over when Cortese, Menrise, and Rabbiteater all came hurtling the other way.
Iradoren steadied her, and she turned and bowed, flustered.
“Your Highness—stop fighting, everyone! His Highness of Erribathe has arrived! Ser Solstice, you’ll hit someone in the face if you keep playing.”
“Yeah, that’s the fun part.”
However, the Izrilian [Knight] in armor stopped, and introductions were made. Prince Iradoren had to confess, privately, he had been interested in the doughty Ser Solstice who’d done so much damage to Ailendamus.
Not a real honorable [Knight], they said of him. Well, Iradoren couldn’t profess to admire the man’s tactics, but he was still curious. The Summer’s Champion and Spring’s Warden, both of whom were in the fleet, were friends with the Goblin Slayer of Izril, and he knew Erin Solstice.
By rights, the [Prince] should have gotten along well with Rabbiteater or whatever his real name was; he was almost universally loved. But the [Knight] barely shook his hand before jerking his head.
“You want to play? You’ll have to toss the fur cloak if you do. And you could get hurt. Can you swim?”
He was brusque—and Iradoren blinked and reconfirmed what he already knew.
Ser Solstice wasn’t Human. Seraphel instantly began scolding him, and so did Earl Altestiel, albeit a bit resignedly. But few Humans ever had this kind of issue with Iradoren.
“I’m not sure I understand this game of ‘basketball’. Where did you learn it, Ser Solstice?”
“Back in Liscor.”
Ah, so Erin Solstice was from Earth. Every Earther in Erribathe assumed so, but Iradoren was dying to meet her. She was rather more accomplished than the ones he’d found.
A shame that Cortese was looking sideways at him; Kaaz and Golaen had found the young people in their lands, and it was annoying to compete. Frankly, Erribathe was not in the right state to rapidly…industrialize? But this was an advantage Erribathe had to seize.
Hence Iradoren’s presence on this expedition. He wanted allies, and Ser Solstice was a brave man. Iradoren respected anyone like that.
“How about a duel, perchance? I hear you take little mercy on your foes, but I could try a few rounds—though we cannot use our swords.”
Everyone laughed again at this, and Ser Solstice’s head turned.
“I don’t get the joke. Explain.”
Then he poked Princess Seraphel in such a familiar way that she jumped, slapped his gloved hand, and Iradoren wondered who the hell Ser Solstice was. He was amusing…but he had to be a Gnoll? Even Drakes surely had manners.
“Ser Solstice! So you know—His Highness carries a Relic of Erribathe! The Sword of Humanity itself! A weapon enchanted to harm all foes of Erribathe!”
“Would you mind showing it, sire? Some of us may never lay eyes on it in our lifetime.”
Even Altestiel was curious, and so Iradoren bared the blade slightly. It glowed as it caught the light.
“Oh no. Is it after Ser Solstice’s blood?”
Cortese laughed, and so did everyone else, but the Goblin Slayer paused a moment. Iradoren hastened to assure him this was not the case.
“My blade often glows; it is meant to be a weapon of [Bane] for all foes that would threaten Erribathe.”
Bane. A powerful enchantment or Skill. Of course, the blade had more powers than that, but this was the famous ability it had. Most enchantments were only a bane to one thing. Trolls, Selphids, spiders, etc.
But the Sword of Humanity was one of the old weapons from the age of the Hundred Heroes. His father might carry it, but he was old, and Iradoren was off to potential danger—so it was his.
The Goblin Slayer refused to touch the blade, but he did nod as he inspected the ancient, beautiful lines. Yet then he said something else.
“Bane against all of Erribathe’s foes? Oh. So that means everyone but Humans, right?”
Everyone started laughing at that. Cortese and Altestiel began slapping Ser Solstice’s shoulders to make him apologize, and Menrise bounced a basketball off the back of his head. But Prince Iradoren hesitated for the faintest second.
And he swore that Ser Solstice noticed. Because, of course…that was entirely correct. Only, people were not supposed to know that.
“Nice sword. Does it do the fighting for you?”
“I do practice without, Ser Solstice. Would you care to test my mettle?”
“Nah. I think I’ll get in trouble if I do. Want to play basketball?”
The [Knight] jerked a thumb at the mock-court, and Iradoren declined. He continued watching for a while before continuing onwards, but while the others pretended not to notice or genuinely wrote it off as a passing encounter—
He and Ser Solstice conceived of an enmity in that moment. They did not like each other. And that was both in personality and Prince Iradoren’s sudden suspicion that the Sword of Humanity had been created explicitly to rid the world of whatever face lay under Ser Solstice’s helmet.
His nature was protector of Humans. His upbringing, his kingdom, was the oldest in Terandria. The Kingdom of Myths had been founded with great pacts forged.
Iradoren’s wife, Helesteria, was one of the proofs of the old ties; she had given half her longevity to him, such that the [Kings] and [Princes] of Erribathe ruled for centuries.
The men and women of the Kingdom of Myths still lived in tribes in some places; in others, there were half-Elves in their ancient villages, or Dwarves, and his land had endured while every other nation fell to ruin or lost their bloodlines.
There was no comparing a new nation like Ailendamus or Taimaguros to Erribathe. Yet Erribathe’s influence had waned; they had been content to be a sleeping power.
Now, with knowledge of Earth, Iradoren was no longer content. He was wholly happy to work with snakes in the grass like Reclis du Marquin to get his way; he might clash with fools like Cortese or run over Earl Altestiel if they decided to oppose him, but they were all Terandrians at the end of it.
What Iradoren could not tolerate was a challenge to his kingdom itself. People who asked questions.
Like how Ser Solstice brought up another issue that he was allowed to think. But the Goblin Slayer had been heard openly speculating on the question that, to him, was obvious.
“Wait…if Prince Iradoren’s a Human man…he is one, right?”
“Wait, I’m thinking. I’m good at thinking. Average. If he’s Human. And his father’s Human?”
“Rabbit, are you drunk?”
The recording of Ser Markus and Rabbiteater talking was blurry, but it was the ninth conversation Rabbiteater had had—and he’d even asked Archmage Feor in public company for an answer. Rabbiteater went on after a second.
“…And he marries a half-Elf. Isn’t his kid a half-Elf? Because they only have half-Elf babies. Not even Skills change that or magic. So how did his father get Iradoren if he’s Human? Is he Human? Or did he have a second wife—”
“Rabbit, stop talking about sex!”
“You talk about it all the time, Markus.”
“I do not!”
That was the end of the recording, but Iradoren’s temper grew. Because once again—Rabbiteater, or whatever his name was, had pointed out an unfortunate truth. He was absolutely correct. The theory had been that half-Elves would rule Erribathe, marrying other half-Elves or Humans, as it had been since the first Elf had married a Human to continue the bloodline of Elves.
…But Erribathe had needed a Human [King]. So they had continued the marriages, but children were another matter.
It wasn’t the largest scandal, and doubtless many a person had quietly come to the same conclusion, but Iradoren did not like how loudly Rabbiteater spoke, as if he had not the decency to whisper.
So turnabout was fair play, and the Prince of Men had an inquiry made into the ‘Goblin Slayer’s’ past.
He did not like what he found.
There was no Goblin Slayer of Izril. Oh, one had appeared for a few months, and there were rumors, but he had no real presence before that.
Nor was the Order of Solstice real. It had not existed except as a name and the [Innkeeper] ratifying it…
The [Innkeeper]. Erin Solstice, who famously took Goblins and Antinium into her inn. She had Ser Solstice’s name. She had been contacted for his ransom; he cited her and no one else.
She had friends among Gnolls and Drakes, both of whom rarely made [Knights] and might be fairly scandalous if they came to Terandria, but it wouldn’t end the world if they were unmasked.
Ser Solstice had sworn never to remove his helmet.
He was one of Erin Solstice’s guests.
Erin Solstice had once had five Hobgoblins staying at her inn.
It felt like the top of Prince Iradoren’s head had exploded when he put it together, and it was so obvious. Most of the next three days had been him double-checking his work in between covertly eying Ser Solstice and realizing he was right.
How had no one seen it?
Well, the obvious answer was that some people had, but most had fallen into Iradoren’s trap: the truth wasn’t hard to find, but it was so ludicrous, so insane that they thought it couldn’t be true. They thought someone else would have noticed, and like that, the insane walked around and pretended he was just some other species or a scarred man.
Because a Goblin who could speak that eloquently—no, he did have odd linguistic quirks. But a Goblin who was a person was so insane that Iradoren understood.
He understood that someone had to have still known. Queen Ielane was said to know everything that went on in her palace; a great thief had barely stolen from her, but she should have known.
Perhaps it was ignorance. Did the rest of the ‘Ivory Five’ know the truth? Iradoren couldn’t believe it of Cortese or even Menrise or Seraphel, but Altestiel had visited Erin Solstice’s inn…
And Rabbiteater had been an esteemed guest of the Order of Seasons. Someone there had to know with their abilities around auras.
There would be a reckoning for this. Iradoren could accept japes and blunders and even idiocy like incest or mistakes of a nature that men and women made. He might not associate with said individuals, but he would allow them to exist—perhaps not in his nation, but he would not put his foot down.
This? This was conspiring with one of Humanity’s sworn enemies. Goblins. Goblin Kings had destroyed so many, and one of them was walking around, and some people were covering his secret?
Iradoren wanted to know who before he launched any action. He also, frankly, wanted to be absolutely sure he was correct, because a false accusation would be very damaging to him with how beloved Ser Solstice was. Even a 10% chance he was wrong would be far too great.
But that was Iradoren’s main concern and conviction as the fleet neared Izril and the Winter Solstice was about to begin. Two things stopped him from unmasking Rabbiteater.
The first was ill tidings at sea and the entire fleet shifting course.
The second was Princess Seraphel.
Princess Seraphel du Marquin spoke sternly.
She stared into the eyes of the nervous Ser Tobb, a slightly rounder Thronebearer assigned to her guard escort. He was vetted by Dame Neranthei, Seraphel’s only [Knight] she trusted aside from Ser Dalimont.
High marks for swordfighting, low for graces—but that might be because he was just heavyset. Quick on the uptake. Closed-mouthed. Good at working in a team. Quite a fan of Seraphel? Had seen her fighting at Krawlnmak’s Pass.
All these things meant Ser Tobb might be a loyal helper, but Seraphel trusted few. He was nervous as he stood in her room with his helmet on and visor lowered. He flinched as she reached out, and her semi-transparent hand passed through his visor. She poked his cheek.
Seraphel’s face was a mask of concentration. She felt at his cheek with a finger, withdrew it, and tried to recall if it felt different.
“Do you have a beard, Ser Tobb? You may speak.”
He raised his visor and gave her a guilty bow.
“Five o’clock shadow, Your Highness.”
He was a bit scruffy, but he probably kept his helmet on most of the time. Neranthei gave him an approving look, and Seraphel stared at her finger.
Right, but even if you assumed hair…Rabbiteater definitely didn’t have scales or fur. So he was Human or Humanoid enough…
“Do…Stitch-folk, Dullahans, or Selphids have noticeably different skin?”
“Selphids you would notice, and Stitch-folk, depending on the cloth, Your Highness. I’m told even regular cotton feels slightly more like fabric.”
And who has pointed ears? Maybe a Stitch-folk with odd ears or a Selphid with a half-Elf’s body, but it made no sense. So it had to be a half-Elf or someone with odd ears, right?
Like a half-Elf. Because Izril had so many.
Or a weird, improbably pointy-eared person.
Or a half-Elf.
Or a person with a scar or some disfigurement or who was in disgrace.
Or a half-Elf.
Or a Goblin.
Seraphel stared at her hand and knew which one it was. She knew not because she had poked so many half-Elves she knew who was and wasn’t by touch—she knew because he had refused to remove that helmet.
As if he would die.
Dame Neranthei was no idiot. She had noticed Seraphel’s questions and stood there, shifting from foot to foot. She was nervous and had to be calculating fallout.
Mother and Father will be under heat. The Order of Seasons might face strife from multiple [Knight] orders—and their own nation. We’ll all be laughingstocks, the Thronebearers will face…well, we’ll survive that.
Why? In the name of a thousand polished buttocks hanging from the Eternal Throne, why?
Why would a Goblin don a helmet and come here?
Of course, she heard Rabbiteater’s voice in her head.
“Why not? You only live once. Idiot.”
That last sentence was uncalled for, but it was him. She had known him, known he had an odd point of view and thought he was Izrilian or a Gnoll, and she had wondered who he was and liked him.
Now she was in a horror. She couldn’t breathe. She had to call for help! She was going to swoon—
Seraphel felt at her forehead.
“Neranthei, am I swoonish?”
“You are the peak of health, milady.”
“Drat. Mariel? Mariel, am I looking piqued?”
“No more so than normal, Princess.”
Mariel, the [Princess]’ personal [Handmaiden], and Neranthei, her acting head of security and bodyguard, had elevated in the world since she had first known them when she had gone to Noelictus and met Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria.
It felt like an age ago. The gloomy Kingdom of Shade with its undead and own secrets and Cara—now, Seraphel was older. She’d survived another war, and her heart had broken a few more times, but that was alright.
Happy endings didn’t come for [Princesses] like her. For Lyonette, Seraphel hoped. For her? These new lands were the best she could hope for, and even that was a gift from a Dragon.
A bit of courage.
A second chance.
Where was her moral outrage over the Goblin? It wasn’t like she’d hobnobbed with monsters in Noelictus. Undead, yes. Anti-royalists like Cara, yes.
But she reached inside her for the well of outrage and fear, and all she thought was that Rabbiteater was as stupid as she thought he was. A stupid, brave [Knight].
A Goblin [Knight].
Seraphel began laughing. She couldn’t help it. Ser Tobb stood there nervously.
“Return to your station, Tobb. Keep a lookout.”
Neranthei ordered him out and knelt as Seraphel quieted a second. Mariel passed Seraphel a cup, and after the [Princess] started giggling, poured water down her neck. Seraphel yelped, sat up, and then stared at her hands.
“Oh, Neranthei. Mariel. You understand, don’t you? Why do I keep meeting good [Knights] who are dead—or soon to be dead?”
That was the thing, she realized. Seraphel had met many a brave and good [Knight]. She liked them.
Ser Solstice was going to die. Sooner or later, someone would find out. She’d seen Cortese eying Rabbiteater; he liked the Goblin Slayer, but he’d yank the helmet off because the Hundredlord was like a dog with a bone—no, wait. More like a cat with an expensive cup that it knew you loved sitting on the edge of a table.
“I think Ser Thilowen can handle…anything you would wish to do. Otherwise, we may let things take their course, Your Highness.”
Dame Neranthei was trying to feel her way through tricky waters. Ignorance was bliss, and if they could have been ignorant, that might have been the best thing to do. But Seraphel was shaking her head.
“I could—I could have the new girl get you something to drink, Your Highness?”
Mariel was even less help. She looked around for Beacle, a new member of Seraphel’s staff who’d also risen fast in ranking due to the [Princess]’ favor. But Seraphel just stared ahead.
“He didn’t save my life. Well, he did in the battle, but I helped him first by riding out. He helped win a war. No wonder Altestiel kept trying to get him a ship to House Veltras’ lands.”
“The winter storms were too harsh, Your Highness. What’s the issue if we wait a bit longer?”
Mariel was confused, so Dame Neranthei elaborated softly.
“Prince Iradoren is monitoring him. He may have come to the same conclusion as Her Highness.”
Doubtless, he had. Seraphel rubbed at her forehead as she looked out the window and into the sea. She suspected Iradoren was well-placed to uncover Rabbiteater’s secret with his class.
Also, the eyes on Erin Solstice and her inn had spotlighted the truth; it was easy to miss the obvious when the [Innkeeper] wasn’t famous and her relationship with Goblins wasn’t common knowledge.
“He’s looking for proof. Ser Solstice is staying on board our ship; someone has been snooping around his room. The Thronebearers notice everything. I…Lyonette must know. Lyonette’s staying at that inn. She knows. Dead gods, she’s interacting with both Goblins and Antinium.”
Seraphel gulped at some water feverishly, now. Ielane would kill her. Neranthei muttered under her breath.
“She’s interacting vigorously if our reports from Dalimont are correct.”
Seraphel spat the water out across the room all over Mariel, and Beacle rushed in with some towels as the [Princess] coughed.
“Neranthei! Are you serious? I thought Dalimont was pulling our leg or offering us the gossip—”
“He didn’t report that to the Eternal Throne, Your Highness. I think—”
Seraphel’s mind actually shut down and had to be rebooted with a wet cloth. Then she just sat there.
“How has Lyonette changed so much from the girl who used to shout at peons?”
“Your Highness has changed a lot as well. I wouldn’t have recognized you from a year ago. You’re so much less gloomy, Princess Seraphel.”
“I never was. I was sharp-tongued and mean to you and Thistel, Mariel.”
“Yes…but you were gloomy. Smaller. Not to say you’ve ballooned! More like—shrunken? Indrawn?”
Beacle was peeking at Seraphel as the [Princess] gave her servants the oddest look. Seraphel wanted to smile at Beacle, but she feared she might cry.
“I have had a great friend. I wish she were here because this is as insane as it has ever been, Mariel, Neranthei. And I have no Cara to sing a miracle for me! It will end in tragedy. It always does. And I shall carry on and find I can survive…but I will never be rid of the guilt.”
The [Deathtouch Princess] sat there, staring at the moving waves as the ship went up and down, slowly, the dark waters without end like her world, which had so little hope. Yet there were other ships at sea, and they glowed, their lights gleaming upon their long journey. And somewhere out there was a shore she had never dreamed of.
Yet she still had tears in her eyes, for she knew how it ended. Neranthei looked up from where she knelt.
“Your Highness, we are your servants. In this room, your will is unquestioned. Even Ser Thilowen does not order us over you. I have vetted your personal [Knights], and each one is of the same will, though I might not trust them as I do Dalimont or myself.”
She chose her words carefully, and Beacle and Mariel nodded. Seraphel looked at Neranthei, and Mariel dabbed at her eyes. Then Seraphel exhaled.
“It will end in tears and death. And I cannot sing like Cara. I am a fool, and if it is my grave I dig, well. They say I am cursed. Keep Erribathe—no, keep everyone from Rabbiteater’s door. Find me a naked, tailless Drake.”
Mariel put her hands over her mouth, and Seraphel rolled her eyes.
“And put him in armor. Beacle saw him. Get a few scales as well, and make sure they show up in his clothes. What else?”
“Ser Dalimont could find a relative of Ser Solstice in Liscor? One who gets drunk or wants to make some coin off his knowing the ‘real’ Ser Solstice?”
Seraphel sighed lightly.
“So terrible. You can’t trust family. Speaking of which, Iradoren’s ship is in the center of the fleet. I want to be closer to Earl Altestiel. Hang the formations; move me to the tip of the navy. I wish to be first on Izril’s shores.”
“But milady, every nation will begin copying you, and they’ll throw the Earl’s plans in disarray.”
Neranthei protested, sounding shocked that Seraphel would do something like that. The [Princess] eyed her.
“Well, apologize to the good [Earl] in person and explain matters. You know I can’t be reasoned with.”
She was trembling, she realized. Trembling and now thinking so fast and hard about making Iradoren’s life difficult, having a banquet celebrating the war, making the moment as hard as possible for him—
She was going to fight for it. Fight for a stupid Goblin’s life whether the idiot thanked her or not. If they got to land, he was a lot safer; you could run on land.
“Mariel. Find me a boat. For now, just find it.”
If nothing else, she could give him a chance. The [Princess] closed her eyes—then rose as her cabin broke into a flurry. Not a single one of her people asked ‘why are you doing this’ or ‘is this a good idea?’
Seraphel knew the answers to both had no reason her mother would respect. Her father—perhaps, even if he would never countenance it. But it felt like she was riding out of her keep, heart in her throat. It felt right.
Seraphel du Marquin left her cabin, later, and went to find the Ivory Four. They were playing cards in Altestiel’s cabin.
“Damn. I lost again. Okay, take off your pants, Cortese.”
“I object to this team-game. Why must I suffer for your mistakes, Solstice? And come to that, this is highly improper—”
“You like it when Menrise loses.”
“How dare you, sir.”
“How dare you! Am I that unattractive?”
“No, what I meant was—”
Earl Altestiel was laughing.
“Okay, okay. Let’s calm down on the unique card game that Rabbiteater’s shown us. The next hand should be reasonable.”
“If you insist.”
“Yes, Earl Altestiel.”
Kiish, sounding relieved.
Seraphel paused, and Earl Altestiel’s voice turned merry.
“The loser has to drink this live eel cocktail…”
Everyone was laughing when she pushed the door open. The ship’s cat was sniffing at an eel in a glass of something that everyone was leaning away from, except Rabbiteater, and Seraphel saw Cortese pause with his pants half off. He turned red.
“Your Highness! I knew she would turn up!”
“You said she’d never come play cards—”
Menrise objected, and Seraphel blushed as they fell silent. She had been reclusive these last few days, weighing what she had guessed about Rabbiteater, and she still had a hard time letting her hair down.
Menrise was drinking through a straw, and she had her tunic off. Altestiel had all his clothes on. Cortese had gotten the worst of it and had been denuded of all but his smallclothes.
“You done being boring yet?”
Rabbiteater waved at Seraphel, patting one of the empty cushions, and Seraphel walked over and shoved him.
“Oh, you prat!”
She was purely exasperated. Then she hugged him straight through his armor. She was surprised her arms could do that! For one second, she squeezed, and he jumped and stared at her, and then she let go and sat.
Everyone looked at Seraphel a second, but she just reached for the glass with the eel, drank it down, and spat the eel back into the cup. The cat decided it was now edible and leapt for it, and Seraphel exhaled. Then she looked around.
Cortese’s mouth was open, and Menrise was clapping her hands in delight. Altestiel gave Seraphel a long, searching look, but Rabbiteater began laughing and slapping the floorboards in approval, and Seraphel sat there.
“Let’s make the most of it. I can’t abandon the team now.”
She thought she saw Rabbiteater hesitate out of the corner of her eye, and Altestiel began to chuckle himself. Then Seraphel was smiling. Until the dawn came.
The most hungover [Princess] in the world was a miserable one. Seraphel stared blankly at the map as other nobles clustered into the room. She sipped from a cup of tea, but there was no salvation there.
Altestiel was holding it together a bit better; he hadn’t gone as wild as the others. Plus, he had a job to do. But he’d been woken up early, and it showed.
“Ladies, gentlemen, Your Highnesses—we have a developing situation. I was reluctant to summon you hither to, but I am now certain there is a potential crisis unfolding, and you must be made aware.”
Seraphel’s head rose slightly as Prince Iradoren stopped looking around for Rabbiteater, who wasn’t here. This was only the senior nobles and leaders. Ship [Captains].
A lot of [Captains] looked grim, but the nobility didn’t know what was going on.
“Trouble with the rations? More wisps? Don’t tell me the half-Elves or Drowned Folk or Drakes have somehow interfered with our landing spot.”
“Another storm ahead of us? Do we have to turn back?”
Groans rose, and Altestiel raised his hands as Kiish changed the magical projection of the map. There was a lot of water around, but she began using the spell to create magical fog everywhere; Seraphel saw the New Butt of Izril in the distance and smiled at the nickname for it…then saw mists enfolding the coast. Then she noted Altestiel’s tension and stopped smiling.
The ‘mists’ encircled everything but Wistram and a bunch of dotted lines in the sea. Which Seraphel realized were shipping lanes. The most common sea-routes. Next, Kiish began placing markers for ships.
“This may not be known to many, but scrying or monitoring the sea—or even places of land not densely populated—is difficult. We generally scry by known coordinates—which are hard to acquire—or people. So you can always get a view of, say, Pallass. And the trade roads around Pallass. But let’s say you wanted a view of the wilderness. It’s tough. And the sea is even harder. This is how I would describe our ‘view’ of the ocean around us the last few days.”
Altestiel began the briefing as he pointed to the map. He traced a smaller circle around their fleet, marked by a lot of ships.
“This is our sight range. So you understand the distances at play, here. There are ships on the trade routes; and the Iron Vanguard is…here.”
He moved west and tapped a spot just past Wistram. They were still near to the Isle of Mages. But Altestiel went on.
“Normally, this isn’t much of an issue; if the seas hadn’t changed, we’d have more understanding of where ships are, but the truth of it is that we are a navy that few in the world could challenge by sheer weight of numbers. If, say, the Wellfar Family were to come at us in full strength, they might win, but we’d see them coming and turn.”
“…You make it sound like we’ve been caught off-guard.”
Lord Firrus Kallinad didn’t beat around the bush. Altestiel’s eyes rose, and even Prince Iradoren, who had been glaring at Seraphel—paused.
“We may have been. I cannot tell, but the signs are increasing. For more context—how many of you are aware of the troubles the half-Elves have been facing while emigrating to the new lands? How many of you have heard of one of the famed [Pirates]—the Alchemist, Irurx?”
He began to elaborate, and a half-Elf from Gaiil-Drome made a groaning sound and turned pale as Seraphel’s heart began to sink.
“If this dread [Pirate]-[Alchemist] is stalking us, he’s one ship, Earl. A single vessel crewed by our [Knights] could surely put him to flight.”
The Earl of Rains paused a second.
“…That statement aside, Lady Razere, I would agree with you we have little to fear aside from a rapid attack or maybe a cloud attack. However, there is one group that could pose a threat to an armada. I have heard via my sources that the Alchemist has been reaching out to [Pirate] groups…he may have sequestered one of the most dangerous ones: the Bloodtear Pirates.”
Then the room tensed as some of the [Captains] began speaking to each other, and Seraphel caught a few mouthing oaths. One of the inland nations—Golaen’s half-Giant nobles—laughed uncertainly.
“I thought they were landbound. The Bloodtears hit that village on the news, didn’t they?”
“Bloodfeast Raiders, Lord Oxet. They’re actually a splinter group of the Bloodtear [Pirates]. And the Bloodtear Pirates do run in armadas.”
“Armadas as in how many ships?”
Lady Menrise was looking around, for she saw how the map was laid out. If there was an enemy fleet coming their way, they should spot it. Right?
“Not as many as any standing nation, but they’re famous for disappearing—then joining together to attack harbors or raid. They are one of the most dangerous criminal forces in this world, and as I said—until today, we had no sighting of any of them. But if you consider where we can scry known vessels…”
Now, Altestiel was tracing a finger through the mists, and Seraphel could see how ships could be moving towards them if they stayed away from the usual shipping lanes. However, at this, Lord Etrogaer, the leader of Golaen’s folk and a capable commander in his own right, did protest.
“If you’re telling me you didn’t notice a flotilla of ships, scrying spells or not, you are incompetent, Altestiel. Even a dozen ships shouldn’t be able to shadow us without you noticing it, seas or not.”
The Desonis officers bristled at the implication, but Altestiel lifted a calm hand.
“I would have seen it, Lord Etrogaer. I absolutely agree. Which is why I’d like to now show you what just happened last night. Kiish, is the projection ready?”
“Set up, Earl Altestiel.”
The [Strategist] glared at Etrogaer but bowed, and even the gigantic man bent over the table with a frown. Seraphel stood on her tip-toes to see, and then Altestiel nodded.
“Here are all the ships we saw.”
The Iron Vanguard, ships sailing across the trade routes from Izril to the Isles of Minos to Chandrar, the trade route from Izril to Baleros, Izril to Terandria…and ones just going to Wistram. These were all the vessels ‘visible’ on the map.
Then Altestiel snapped his fingers—and nearly three dozen ships broke off from the trade routes, turned red, and slipped into the mists, all breaking towards the Terandrian fleet. More contacts appeared in the mists, behind and ahead of them.
Cortese swore softly as Altestiel nodded.
“The Bloodtear Pirates have always, famously, been elusive. Now, perhaps, we know why. Some of those ships are established, known trading vessels. But it occurs to me that a crew can change ships. [Captains] can hire on new crews in bulk so long as they do a good job. Or let go of crews and bring them back later, switching from honesty to piracy. Not a single one of the vanished ships will answer our hails. We have noted their designations with every port. And the other ships we did spot; they’ve come into range and are advancing.”
Now the alarm was spreading, and another [Lady] who actually understood strategy was audibly dismayed. Lady Ficombe of Tourvecall raised one hand as she gestured at the map with the other.
“Ahead and behind. How did the ones ahead appear?”
“They rose. All the ships waiting by the coast are capable of submersion; the ones behind? Faster and doubtless the bulk of them. I have counted thirty-two ships to the rear. Fourteen ahead.”
Kiish clarified hurriedly.
“They’re not warships. Many are only sloops or even smaller. Some are as large as anything but a Citadel-class warship. At this time, the Earl is considering turning towards Wistram.”
“The Academy of Mages can shelter us with their magic. The only question is whether that is acceptable; we would have to run our ships aground in the worst case.”
“Evacuate the entire damn navy?”
Altestiel spoke over a raised voice.
“In the worst case. Whereas moving ahead will let us disembark but press us against the shores. Either way, I would like the permission of all gathered to negotiate with House Wellfar as well as Zeres, if either can reach us, and any [Storm Captains] in the area. Even other [Pirates].”
“What about the Drowned Folk?”
That came from Seraphel, and she blinked as all eyes turned to her, then blushed.
“The Drowned Folk? They’re no better than [Pirates] themselves. The damned Drakes or Wellfar have a far better army…”
Etrogaer said this as if he hadn’t just seen Captain Therrium—well, maybe he hadn’t. Altestiel, though, gave Seraphel an approving nod, then a shake of the head.
“We have reached out to them. I think the response is telling.”
The Terandrian Fleet was not slowing, but they were turning.
Northwards. It might take them up away from the New Lands, but it gave them room to break west or east, still, while taking them closer to Wistram. Of course, they would then be around the middle of Izril, and the High Passes extended into the sea and offered no safe landing.
But it was a good stopgap, and they were still within the range of usual ships arriving and exiting Izril. Of course, many of those were suddenly turning away from their routes. Far, far away.
Like minnows suddenly detecting trouble. But more than one ship did stop to offload goods or, in the case of three vessels, exchange words.
“I cannot speak for the Shadewarden of Nombernaught, Lord Cortese. I can sell you the last of my catch if you were so interested, though I fear it’s not a nobleman’s fare.”
The [Captain] of a fishing vessel had weird, flat fish that Rabbiteater had never seen before. A ‘stingray’? Baeris, the lioness, was sniffing one, and Cortese impatiently handed over some gold.
“That one—for Baeris so long as it’s not poisoned. I was told that Nombernaught refused to help.”
The [Captain] paused a second; he was a half spinefish fellow with tons of spines. He glanced at Ser Solstice, then adjusted his cap.
“It would surprise me if Nombernaught said anything of that nature. Refusing outright would be too rude to a land-lord…we do not tell other folk what to do.”
“I caught the spirit of the refusal. Surely there’s a [Pirate]—that Therrium fellow! Can you contact him? I’m not accusing you of being whatever those Drowned Crews are—can we contact him?”
Cortese growled, and the [Captain] ducked his head again. He watched as the stingray minus the tail was offered to the lioness, who nibbled on it. She wasn’t into it until Rabbiteater tried to get a piece. Then Baeris decided it was all hers.
“I regret to say I don’t know a Captain Therrium, and if I did, I couldn’t speak for him. But while my vessel’s no good for trade, I hear Wistram has all sorts of delights, Lord Cortese.”
“We just passed it. What about Captain Rasea—”
“I must be going, Lord Cortese.”
The second captain met with Menrise, and he strode aboard without the voice of a deep Drowned Man, but full of good cheer.
“Spell Lady! This will have to be quick; I can sell you a bunch of pearls or take an order for later.”
His vessel harvested pearls, and it was small and probably very profitable. Lady Menrise, Seraphel, and Rabbiteater met with him.
“No pearls today, Captain Doulav. Unless you can get me in contact with any of the following people?”
The jovial [Captain] listened politely as Menrise rattled off a list of names, including the Shadewarden Doroumata. Then he shook his head.
“I’m afraid to say I don’t know a single one. The sea’s vast. Ah, I regret that I can’t help you, and then if I’ve taken your time, at least it was only a few minutes, Lady Menrise.”
“Can’t you think of a person? Captain?”
Menrise pleaded with him as the [Captain] hesitated. But he bowed, then glanced westwards.
“It may be rough sailing, but I hear there are treasures the likes of which my simple vessel couldn’t dream of. More than enough for a lady of magic and means like yourself. At Wistram, Lady Menrise. But far be it from me to tell anyone what to do.”
Rabbiteater was nibbling on some cooked stingray as Menrise thanked the [Captain]. He nudged Seraphel as the man strode back to his ship.
“You know, I think he’s trying to hint something to us. Both of them.”
Seraphel stared at Rabbiteater along with Menrise. Every Drowned Folk they’d talked to had been like that.
“It must be their way. They’re all but telling us to turn around and head to Wistram. We’d run straight into the Iron Vanguard as well, which is doubtless why. But the Iron Vanguard has already told us they will fall back unless we hire them, and even if we were right at Wistram, disembarking all these ships would take days. Let alone if Wistram could hold us all!”
“Right. But they’re saying to do that.”
Rabbiteater pointed at the Drowned Captain’s back. And that, at least, was unarguable. Seraphel stared as the Drowned Ship began to head straight south, towards Nombernaught. Doubtless that [Captain] felt safer than they were.
“Paying for the Iron Vanguard’s protection is all but insane. They are charging us hundreds of thousands of gold pieces! And that’s a base-fee—they want massive, insane fees for every ship and soldier they’d lose!”
“They have us over a barrel.”
“They think we’re helpless in the water! We have thousands of [Knights] and more soldiers than any army you could roll from any one nation! We have magic and [Lords]—let us break through the ones ahead and land on Izril! These [Pirates] might fight well on sea, but on land?”
“They bring the tides with them.”
Earl Altestiel sat with the most senior war-leaders, and he was consulting a map. He was the most advanced seafaring expert, and he was quiet. Thinking. In the end, they could turn back and try to fight through the bulk of the forces from the west to Wistram and the Iron Vanguard.
Or they could try to break through to the New Lands or any part of Izril.
“Fourteen ships. Perhaps more lurking in the waves, but we have a superior foe at our rear and an inferior one ahead. North, south—we have no idea how strong the enemy is. I request a test of arms.”
Prince Iradoren stood, and the rest of the war council looked at him. Altestiel exhaled.
“Three ships with magical support from afar that can fall back into our aegis. Crew them heavy with [Knights].”
“I will send one of the Thousand Lances.”
Hundredlord Cortese offered softly. Iradoren’s eyes glinted.
“And I will call for the Skyguard of Erribathe: peerless archers.”
Etrogaer smashed his fists together, grinning, creating a minor shockwave, and a buzz began, selecting the best forces to test the enemy’s strength. Before nightfall, the entire expedition was curving back southwards, towards the New Lands and the blockading force.
Most of the ships deemed too valuable or without means of supporting or fighting, like Calanfer’s flagship, were sent to the rear with a few watch vessels, though their pursuers were still far too far away to attack. Altestiel took the vanguard, and even Menrise’s ship, Tourvecall’s noble [Mages] onboard, was near the tip of the spear, supporting three ships that sailed out to test the enemy’s strength.
Seraphel was so far back she could only see billowing sails, figures craning on the railings, hear cheering and shouts as Rabbiteater sat there. Cortese, Menrise, and Altestiel were all ahead of them.
But the Goblin sat and sat, and when she looked at him, he stared up at her.
“Do you think they could lose? One of the Thousand Lances and [Knights], Rabbiteater…even the Order of Seasons sent a number of their own.”
“Yeah. Three warships. How many are meeting them?”
Seraphel looked around. She’d heard that being shouted. Rabbiteater grunted.
“Three for three. Want to know a secret, Seraphel?”
“[Pirates] are like me. Sometimes they’re crazy. Sometimes they’re cowards. But if they go three-for-three when they could go fourteen for three…get worried.”
The [Princess] hesitated as the Goblin looked up at her, and she swore she saw red light through that visor. She longed to ask him, but now was not her moment, and she almost thought she sensed Iradoren watching her from the side.
“But those are our finest [Knights], Rabbiteater. You know how good they are.”
She protested with him, almost pleading. The Goblin stared up at her.
“Yeah. But we’re at sea. Remember how I beat them with my fists?”
Then Seraphel didn’t know what to say. So she slowly sat and listened to how the cheering became louder and louder—then stopped. A silence fell until a great flurry of voices arose, and she saw sails billow and felt the ship they sat on turning.
“Thilowen. What is going on?”
Seraphel called out as the leader of Calanfer’s detachment strode across the deck. The man turned and bowed.
“We are heading back towards Wistram at all speed, Your Highness. The Earl of Rains is now approaching the Iron Vanguard and other parties at sea. He has not heard from Tulm the Mithril.”
“Let us know when he replies!”
Seraphel called back, and she heard a dark laugh. She turned her head, and Rabbiteater stared at her. Not as if she were stupid—okay, a bit. But more as if he felt sorry for her and vaguely envious.
“What? Rabbit, I’m sure he’s negotiating prices…”
“That’s not what your guy said. Smart commanders would be talking already. I think that Tulm person was watching that last battle. We shouldn’t have shown him.”
Then Seraphel sat with him, and after a while, Rabbiteater patted her on the shoulder.
“Is it going to be alright, Rabbiteater?”
The Goblin paused as she leaned against him for a second.
“No. But we’re a team.”
She smiled when he said that. Rabbiteater stared eastwards, towards the place where the battle had been fought, then west, towards Wistram and the other side of the Bloodtear Pirates. Then north.
“I hate the ocean. Lots of weirdos around. They all glow.”
Seraphel had no idea what that meant. But then she was meeting with the nobility again for a briefing, and the thing about the sea was that it was vast.
Things happened slow. So you could see more ships appearing, see how your own fleet was turning and being chased and boxed in and count the hours and days. It was all so dreadfully—inevitable.
In the distance, as the ships turned, Princess Seraphel could see two ships locked together with the pirates’ three mismatched vessels. All five ships were torn by magic, and two of the [Pirates]’ were burning.
But they were streaming onto the Terandrian ships without slowing, and brave [Knights] were fighting to their end. No quarter. No mercy. Men and women in armor. Magic and steel.
An ‘admiral’ of the Bloodtear Pirates held up the head of Dame Reigata of the Thousand Lances and dipped his blade in her blood. Captain Ereiyne stood on her vessel; her opponents had sunk, their hulls crippled by stone pillars. The survivors were being cut down as they tried to swim away. [Pirates] in the waters, raising their blades as the water turned red.
And the third ship was covered in crawling insects. A single [Alchemist] stood on the taken vessel. Pointing at his kin, a wild smile on his burned face.
The fighting was dying down. The Bloodtear Pirates had probably died in similar numbers to the [Knights] and [Soldiers]. But they hadn’t stopped coming. Something was motivating them, even crazed as they were, to throw themselves into sheer oblivion.
A great buzzing behind them, now, and the Goblin squeezed her shoulder and looked across the seas at the Bloodtear Pirates waving at them.
“They look like me at the Floodplains the day my brothers died.”
Seraphel had never heard him speak of that day, but she looked up at him. Rabbiteater’s helmet paused. And he looked down at her.
“No. Full of hope. Have I ever told you about it?”
The Goblin grinned behind his helmet.
“If we survive…no. If you want me to, I will.”
So Seraphel took his hand as they sat there together.
“Then I shall tell you my story too. I hope you wouldn’t mind. I should love to know yours, Rabbiteater.”
Ser Thilowen’s head turned back, and he noticed Dame Neranthei trying to subtly stand between him and the [Princess] and odd [Knight] with Ser Tobb and her people. But one look showed the moment.
The Thronebearer of Calanfer had specific orders regarding Princess Seraphel. At this moment? The precise, pedantic leader of Calanfer’s forces met Neranthei’s eyes and smiled grimly. He turned and walked on. Behind them, they heard the Bloodtear Pirates beginning to sing.
On the day before the Winter Solstice, everyone made their preparations. Some people did not know the significance of the day.
Ghosts did. They desired bodies, and so the five of Roshal all prepared to transit to their new forms.
Each one had been carefully selected, and unlike the corpses…these were not dead. They had been brought from a place that only two of the ghosts even knew existed.
It was down.
In Lailight Scintillation, the Grand Bazaar, which dominated the glowing city, there were no visible roads to the place that also defined Roshal’s harbor. But it was down.
And further down.
It was a place that men like Emir Riqre knew. It was the same spot that had spawned the [Assassins] who were called ‘Ranks’ that would fill the guilds of other continents; these were all ideas, you see, that came from this place.
Riqre would be what he defined, in his own words, as an ‘innovator’, an experimenter, a man who had gone his own way. But he would have given credit to the place he took inspiration from.
It was called the Wishing Well. Even other [Slavers] only knew of it as a place. Only a few were allowed entrance.
But this was not a tale about that. Suffice it to say that the bodies came from there, each one fit and perfect for their new owners.
Three bodies were together.
Andra’s, Shaullile’s, and Thatalocian’s were all inspected by the ghosts rigorously, for each ghost had that kind of personality.
A man who looked white haired, but had a body that was hale and hearty, if somewhat long of legs, a Human man, was for Thatalocian, and the [Numerologist] bent his head over it and pronounced it good. The hour was almost midnight, and he was waiting for the best moment to make the transfer.
Things could go wrong, and in the same way, each ghost had taken a body befitting them. For it would be harder to mesh with a body not like their nature.
Andra had a half-Elf’s body, albeit far younger than she had actually been. That was vanity, but she had chosen one that was as fit as youthful and attractive. One of the candidates for [Assassin]—now used in another manner.
And Shaullile had chosen a Drake. One with pale white scales, and she had carefully weighed her many choices before choosing this one. She had not taken the most beautiful body she could find, with looks crafted by Skill and magic and alchemy.
Rather—she had chosen the Drake for the color of her scales. Still a beauty, but also for her vocal cords and age and many factors.
Three bodies lay together with a great gathering of [Slavers] and [Slaves] and servants. Ready for the occasion. Andra was annoyed by the lack of the other two’s company.
“Pazeral could not even wait for us? I was told he took his body and slipped into it somewhere else. He’s lucky he didn’t face backlash.”
Thatalocian turned his head, curious, as the ghosts stood in the air, visible but for the moment, immaterial. Unable to use Skills as well, until they had a vessel.
“What form is his?”
“Stitch-folk. He was a Jinn; he likes how the Stitch-folk can change their forms.”
Indeed, that [Lord of Possession] had no real camaraderie; for all Andra and Thatalocian did not like each other, they were still ghosts bound by what they had witnessed, and Shaullile had asked both to be by her side when they woke.
“The first thing I shall do is drink water. Just water. And breathe.”
Andra whispered as she waited. Thatalocian placed his lantern on his body’s chest. Watching it rise and fall.
“I cannot rest. We have a journey ahead of us. Time for work.”
And Shaullile said nothing at all. She just stared at the Stitch-folk amidst Roshal’s number, then at her face. As if memorizing it so she could know it better than the other ones she’d owned, so she could smile and you could believe it. An actress memorizing her new role.
And the last of the ghosts committed an atrocity before he took flesh. Because as a ghost he feared no ordinary blade. He rode out of Lailight Scintillation’s towers with a host of those he had gathered that he deemed worthy, as if to remind the world of how he would soon change it.
The oldest of [Lords] rode down upon the Stitch-folk town with a hundred whooping figures on horseback. He swung his sword from the saddle and ignored the arrow sticking out of his chest; when he raised the blade, it had the blood and brains of the first Stitch-folk on it. Brain turned to cloth; lifestring tangled.
“Even the gore isn’t right. Take them!”
Loerhin’s voice rose above the din and screaming, and he left the figures snatching, leaping from horseback to pursue people into homes.
The man himself walked through the town and left no one alive who raised their blade against him. Twice, he spotted someone he wanted and ran after them, calling for chains and warning others against marking ‘his’ possessions.
He resembled the Bloodfeast Raiders…not at all, actually. This was the oldest form of Roshal, the raider, with no care for the fact that this town was under Roshal’s aegis. That you could get everything he took with a sword with gold and time and words instead.
The man was still dangerous, though; undead body aside, he threw one person strong enough to challenge him through a brick wall, and when he noticed a growing unity among the defenders, he cleaved through an archway with his sword. What made him dangerous was that it was clear he wasn’t trying at all.
“He’s celebrating his rebirth in the oldest of ways. I wonder if there’s something like witchcraft or ritual in…no. He’s just celebrating. From this man sprang Roshal, but he does not know it. If he had mastered anything like learning to bathe in the blood he shed, he would not have been in the lands of the dead.”
The Emir Yazdil watched from carpetback. If Loerhin knew he was observing, the man didn’t care; Yazdil had the sneaking suspicion that if he sent one of his lesser Djinni at the man, Loerhin would win.
Mak’eireen, his current bodyguard and companion with Iert gone, sat in the air, waiting upon the Emir’s words. She was relaxed enough with this new master to converse with him.
A sign of trust. You could bind any Djinni with words very cunningly, but they were never so useful as when they liked you. Of course, most of the owners didn’t understand how to command loyalty, and Yazdil didn’t give out lessons.
A hint: freeing them from intolerable situations and offering them temporary deals for their loyalty did work. Djinni who had been caged so long took a long view, and it was in Mak’eireen’s interests to like Yazdil.
Certainly, she found him more interesting than most. So she spoke after a second.
“He would have been in the same place as the likes of Riqre? He is distasteful enough to me, Emir.”
Below, the man had found another quarry, and Yazdil stared down at him.
“Yes. I imagine he, in his way, is as ‘bad’ as you can get before crossing that threshold. He is only forty-seven; he might have changed if he aged. But I wonder who would have won if they had met: Torreb the Undefeated in his old age or Loerhin.”
High praise for the man’s physical abilities, then. But Yazdil still found the man amusing. Amusing…yet as Loerhin reluctantly noticed the time and swung back to Roshal, abandoning his corpse on the way, the Naga did not yet smile.
The time had come for even the dead to flee death. And that spoke to him of the true danger. Yazdil had plotted many things. But he had not foreseen ghosts.
Nor did he know how even death could be slain.
The return of the living to a true life, no matter what their form, was pain.
It was an agony, however short.
And it was here that you could not lie. Not to the voice that spoke.
The voice counted the levels culled. It pulled and closed off power, and though it spoke equally dispassionately in the ears of each ghost, three men, three women, who took flesh—there were mixed tones in it.
Welcome back to the lands of the living. Welcome to another chance.
Did you really think you could cheat and avoid this? Everything has a cost. Erin never truly died. You did.
The same joy they felt as a hand flailed and grasped at a lantern. A half-Elf sat up with a scream, clutching at her chest, and the shriek became joy.
A Drake silently closed her clawed hand and made not a sound, feeling each part of her body, moving it. The toughest of all, perhaps.
The [Lord of Possession] sat up, cursing, and reached at once for the first [Slave]. But he savored it, the pain and the joy of rebirth.
The last woman sat up slowly and opened the eyes already decorated with black kohl, then exhaled with annoyance at the work she would have to do. She took the hand of the [Necromancer] and nodded at him. The first true compliment upon her lips.
“Well done, my ally. No. My friend. You may be worthy of it after all.”
There was still enough of the man to smile faintly at that. But the Lich, the true Lich stood there and offered her a precise bow. The two in conflict, and a skeleton watched as the Immortal Tyrant breathed again.
Somewhere in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, under the palace of Tyrant’s Rest, a tomb cracked, and its keeper ran screaming out of the crypts and into the Court of Silks. Then the last living guardians threw themselves shrieking off the balconies and the city trembled.
She was smiling. Nerrhavia lifted her hand, inspecting it. The craftsmanship was beyond impeccable, she had to admit. And more; she lifted her hand, grimacing as she felt her power siphoned by the cost of rebirth.
But she had stolen from death as well. She concentrated, and her hand turned translucent. Nerrhavia walked through Toren, turned, and smiled as she rematerialized.
“I expect you shall repay me the effort and expense. Such things matter little, but in this case—the cost was exceptionally high.”
Az’kerash’s voice was dry, but satisfaction burned in every word. Nerrhavia’s nod was crisp.
“You shall have it, as I do not owe anyone lightly. Give the other ghosts their bodies.”
The [Necromancer] turned to a mirror clamoring with souls, and Nerrhavia crooked one finger as the voices rose.
“After we finish negotiating terms, of course. We best hurry. We only have a day left.”
So even the dead knew fear as the Immortal Tyrant laughed, and the Necromancer, Perril Chandler, gave the ghosts a vaguely sympathetic look.
Six ghosts, not five, took flesh that night.
At this moment, in the final hour, six ghosts took flesh. A choice to escape what they felt was the real danger. And the voice welcomed them all.
Welcome back. Rise higher this time.
Welcome. Disappointment. Joy.
But for the last of them, the voice had none of these things. Only a kind of sadness. Only the fear, dispassionate, for the eternal cheerleader in everyone’s mind, the hope and reward—
It saw no future it could cheer for Lord Loerhin.
Five hands stretched. Five pairs of lungs inhaled and exhaled. Five voices rose; five hearts beat irregularly. Five tongues moved.
And the last of them woke up and didn’t know what was wrong at first. He tried to open his eyes and realized he couldn’t. He tried to move—and realized he couldn’t.
“The transfer has failed! You idiots! Get me a new body! Now!”
Loerhin shouted in a fury. He had followed the guiding signals into his form! Yet his voice didn’t even come out. He tried to move and found, to his growing horror, he didn’t even sense arms or legs. He…he…
Where was he?
The ghost’s ability to leave his body was gone. He was truly reborn. And he…he…
He heard laughter, then. Long and loud, and then he did see, though he had not opened his eyes. They were already open; it was just that vision was strange.
The world was like a fishbowl…no, that was how he saw. And the voice was distorted, yet the laughing man, nay, the Naga wanted him to hear.
There he was, standing, laughing, kissing a Djinni who looked on with a kind of amused disdain, and Loerhin spoke.
“Yazdil! I’m trapped! I’m trapped. What’s happening?”
He could not move. He could not speak, not really. Even seeing wasn’t under his control; a kind of light had appeared and let him see, but he had no eyes to…
Wh-what was going on? Loerhin’s mind was sluggish. But he realized he had been tricked at last, and his rage…
His rage and Skills did nothing at all. They just made him shake slightly, and noticed he was in something wet. He was floating in…something. A liquid. And then he realized that he was in a smaller container than he thought.
And the [Lord]’s rage became a horror as Loerhin Kallinad realized he truly had been tricked. The oldest of Roshal’s ancestors vibrated in the suspension of liquid as Yazdil pointed at him.
“Of all the five, you never questioned it once. You think we have changed? Perhaps we have, Loerhin Kallinad. But you were an amateur playing with people. We learned from you. Welcome to the Wishing Well.”
What have you done? What have you done? Let me out!
Now, the thing in the jar was really trembling; it was impressive. He shouldn’t have had the ability to move on his own. But a truly powerful man had been Loerhin Kallinad. He was trying to use his aura, and there were Skills that you could use with just your mind.
But the jar was very complete. Yazdil felt little more than a buzzing, which was being drowned by the excited voices.
Fear eclipsed rage. Rage was hot and heavy with betrayal, but Yazdil’s laughter had only come when he knew he had won. He walked around Loerhin, shaking his head.
“I have heard it said that I do not bring about the same fear as a man like the late Emir Riqre. There are those who dived so deep they never surfaced; but the lands of the dead did not welcome them, did they? You don’t know who they are. Don’t worry, Loerhin. I am sure your keepers will tell you, if they wish. They were great admirers of Riqre. But he was a man who was only one thing. I? I am Roshal. Riqre knew no subtlety. If he were a man who made wishes, he wished upon every star. I wish rarely. When it matters. And I wished for you.”
Now you saw it. It would be wrong to call it a man. But it still moved, and Yazdil read the words that inscribed themselves on the slate; there was no other means of communication.
Let me go. I will slaughter you if you do not. Let me out. I cannot feel anything.
“You will feel things soon enough. Let you out? You are no use as Lord Loerhin Kallinad. I do not need a [Warlord]. Stay here, with me. Your Skills and everything else will be put to better uses.”
The man didn’t even understand. He thought he was invaluable, as if he could get out of this whenever someone handed him a sword.
Roshal had learned how to take everything. It was difficult, slow. Messy. Especially against one’s will, but Yazdil had little care for that. He stepped back as more words frantically wrote themselves on the slate.
Negotiations, now. The Naga slithered back the way he’d come.
“Master? Don’t you want to listen?”
The Djinni pointed, in her way as cruel as could be. And the Naga’s head turned.
“You speak as if there were ever a chance. Come, Mak’eireen. Don’t torment the man. You throw hope into the well. Give him the great dignity of knowing there is no more.”
Behind him, the thing in the jar began to tremble. It had organs, you know. It still had to be alive. Excited people, the caretakers of the Wishing Well, were already clustering around with syringes and tonics. They wanted to give Lord Loerhin a treat and establish how things would be.
The jar had a powerful spell on it. [Regeneration]. You could not lose someone if you wanted their capabilities. As for how you stole a Skill—
Yazdil understood it was a matter of giving and taking. Giving the right classes and Skills and conditions even against one’s will. Taking or being given things was a matter of convincing them. All it took was time on your side.
Silence behind him, aside from the whispers. Loerhin said not a thing. If Yazdil imagined a screaming voice, well. The man had no more voice left. But he might live…
If only the others were so easy. Yazdil counted Loerhin as useless as almost anything but his current form. The other four?
Pazeral was too cunning. Too much a foe; the Wishing Well would have had him if he hadn’t known better than to trust his revival. The other three would have made excellent subordinates or allies. But not leaders.
Doubtless, the other Slavers of Roshal thought so too. Yet Yazdil suspected the other three were ready.
It was hard for the disoriented ghosts to resist, with unfamiliar bodies, if someone put a collar around their necks. The genius of Pazeral was securing safety for himself. You could argue the same about Nerrhavia.
The other three?
Thatalocian, Andra, Shaullile. Two were collared in a moment, and no Skills or magic availed them. The third of them fought.
The collar went around his neck. It snapped shut—and the lantern burned the metal away, and Thatalocian rose.
[Numerologist]. A man stooped and hunched with spectacles askew as [Slaves] and guards rushed at him, surrounded by [Slavers] like Morren who had seen Shaullile’s disdain for him.
They valued her—but not as their leader. They shouted for someone to re-collar Thatalocian. Take the lantern from him.
Someone tore it from his grip as he laid about him in a fury, strong thanks to his new body. Andra was shrieking; Shaullile was still. She had backed away to a wall where she stood. Eyes on the old man.
“Treachery. Treachery! 81145. 81145.”
He was screaming numbers, and these [Slavers] had not expected the lantern to be his way out. They had thought nothing could break that collar. As if they had not seen the King of Destruction shattering older magics.
They thought a [Numerologist], a [Patternlord of Graven Icons], was a weak man. Thatalocian had survived the Long Night.
Yazdil had preyed upon the weakest of the ghosts. As people piled on Thatalocian, chains in hand, the bodies and flailing hands bulged. Then the [Guards] pressing down exploded backwards, and a hand reached out.
It seized the lantern, which had gone out. The vellum had knocked against the candle, and the lantern was dark. Wisps of smoke rising in the room.
“Stop him before he relights t—”
A [Guard Captain] was aiming a wand at the former ghost, not caring if he hurt Thatalocian. He should have begun with that wand. Even then, it might have been too late the moment the man opened his eyes.
The lantern descended and crushed the helmet and head. Thatalocian hammered it down and wrenched it up with a sucking noise. Brought it down again on a second head.
The [Slavers] froze. Andra stopped screaming, choked—Shaullile drew her back against the wall. And then Thatalocian turned. But his body had changed.
Bloated. He was five feet taller, his skin puffed up, his nose snarled, and his eyes bulging. He was still speaking.
“811458114581145—Haade. Haade the Ogre.”
A name like a memory. Now he was charging forwards, swinging the lantern like the death of reason. When reason died—there was only this.
Slavers were screaming, now, and the guards tried to stab at him. Hands wrenched their heads, tore limbs, and the lantern rose and fell, dripping with blood and flesh.
Haade the Ogre rampaged throughout the room, down the hall, and by the time Shaullile had found a key and unlocked her and Andra’s collars, she counted almost no one living. Thatalocian had missed a number of the serving slaves, and they cowered until Andra screamed.
“[Form Ranks]! Protection! [Empowered Puppets]—we have to help him.”
“I think Thatalocian is fine. See?”
Shaullile pointed as Andra commanded the surviving [Slaves] to pick up weapons and charge forwards—they both saw an old man limping back their way, lighting the lantern once more.
His hands were cut a bit, and he looked tired, but that was all.
“One number alone did for the rest. I expected the Naga.”
Andra was shaking, but she produced a puffer she had demanded upon waking and lit it. The blood didn’t bother her as much as the betrayal.
“Loerhin might be gone. Or Pazeral?”
Thatalocian sat down on the slab of stone from which he had awoken. Blood was dripping around the runes, and he shook his head.
“Pazeral was too clever. I didn’t trust him. So the rulers of Roshal had a point. Even now we squabble and infight. Roshal must change.”
“I will help. I’ll follow the greatest of Roshal. A pact, then?”
Shaullile offered. Andra offered a shaking hand, and Thatalocian took it. His bloody hand touched the Drake’s claws, and they stood there.
Ghosts no more. The last ghosts returned to flesh, and the Goddess of Death waited for the zenith of her power until they were all under her power.
These ones were far from the locus of her ire. But they had a role to play.
“The Naga has had the benefit of flesh. For now—his plan around the Solstice triumphs. But I will make good on my promise. Now, come. Roshal awaits, and we define it.”
Thatalocian stood. Ships at sea. Agents abroad. He reflected it was well they had waited; if Iert, the fabled champion of the Naga, were here, two of them might have been taken. But the Gnoll was on Izril.
When that day came—all of it happened at once, everywhere. Everything. Like a flash of light.
And so slowly. The hands of Roshal, the will of ghosts, were all twining around that [Innkeeper]. Perhaps so only the fae could see it, but she touched upon them all.
Bloodtear Pirates singing in a storm, Roshal’s agents departing from the Grand Hive of Izril, the goodwill and her potential enemies—all waiting for that day. Great ghosts living and dead had come across the world.
No more. No more. But they had spoken to [Pirates] and [Slavers]. Gone to farmboys and roused slumbering [Rogues] in Salazsar’s towers.
No more. Now it was just death herself. And the living who feared her.
On the last day before the Solstice, everyone was waiting, making ready, sailing. Every number counted, every thread in place. Except for one group of five running through a world even Kasigna did not know.
I am an inconsistent writer. I’m like a pendulum swinging back and forth, and the chapter is like a piece of cheese. Or wood, whatever. I’m in an odd mood, and you’ll soon realize why.
Back to my analogy—sometimes I’m dulled by exhaustion or other circumstances outside my control. Sometimes I’m sharp.
But you cannot predict how I’ll swing even if it seems like I should be dull and tired, or I should be good today. For instance, I have had a cold and I have the most killer headache because I am moving away from morning coffee.
It doesn’t give me much; it’s become a habit, but why am I drinking mud water which I don’t really enjoy if not for the energy boost? If the coffee becomes a routine my understanding is the body adjusts such that it’s not a real jump in energy.
But I did not know…about the actual legitimate headache that hits you even in sleep. It makes me more determined to kick caffeine. I will not bow to coffee.
However, I had all these things on me, and I still wrote one of the fastest and probably higher-quality chapters than I have in a while. I think we clocked it at around 17,000 words in 6 hours, which is very fast for me.
I knew what this chapter contained. I did not want to write it because it was dark and this is one of the final chapters before the Solstice. I count one more, then my break, then I go. Sometimes I act as if I have more time, or drag my heels. Nothing about how I write is an even, metered tempo. I rush, I delay, I catch up—it would be hellish if this was meant to be a beautiful slice of even cheese each time.
But this isn’t cheese. It’s some kind of production or orchestra, and we’re going. Thanks for your forbearance about my analogies, and…I keep forgetting that since I’m using Sundays for non-writing work I only have one day to ‘write’ on Monday. Whoof. Big writing, but I focused like a razor. Now my headache is hitting me like a hammer. Hoping I can keep that focus for the big chapters ahead.
PS: More Inktober art and it is FANTASTIC. Take a look at it! Savor it! Eat it! No, wait, don’t do that last one.
Map of Central Izril by Pontastic!
Wistram by Moerchen!
Order of Seasons by AutumnLeaf!
Drowned Folk and Rabbiteater’s Duel by jawjee!
Goblinslayer and Seborn by BrazyCanana!
Pakheil by Kalabaza!
Raim vs Belavierr by Ashok!
City of Shields, Illuminary, and Ser Solstice’s Taunting by Guliver!