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(We are selling a poster of the Winter’s Eve Solstice artwork. Link is here.)
And then she woke up.
It was pitch black when the young woman sat up with a gasp, jerking out of the sheets that barely covered her. Her tossing and turning had tumbled the winter bedding to the floor, and her head rotated. A wordless scream in her throat.
The Winter Solstice was here.
Ryoka Griffin had thought her nightmares would stop as the day arrived at last. But it seemed one last one had chased her through the night. She had barely slept, anyways, and had only laid down because she knew she had to be rested.
She doubted Erin had slept. The Wind Runner’s heartbeat calmed only fractionally as she checked the sky and realized it was still night. She fumbled around for a timepiece she’d bought with a stupid sun and moon that rotated around with the hands of the clock.
An hour to the Solstice. Good. She’d told everyone to wake her anyways.
Ryoka sat there, and then it hit her.
One hour to—
She was out of bed in an instant, thumping around, grabbing the clothing, artifacts, Faeblade, everything she had neatly prepared, in a rush. This guest room of Erin’s inn was decently spacious and quite nice, but even so, you could hear loud sounds through the walls. Today, Ryoka didn’t care if she woke up the entire inn.
It wasn’t like the children were here. And the other guests were not Erin’s normal clientele.
Tyrion knocked on the door and thrust it open after a muffled response. He caught Ryoka rifling through a selection of scrolls. The [Lord] of House Veltras paused, then nodded.
“I see you’ve woken up without any need for help.”
One of the commanders of the northern forces, Lord of the Five Families, and Captain of the Obvious, Tyrion Veltras…made Ryoka feel better today. If the world ended in an hour, at least he’d say something like ‘this is bad’.
She almost thanked him—until she noticed how he was already armored up. A fur cloak hung around the ancient armor of House Veltras, adorned with symbols; the antlers of a stag and a lance set between trees.
He carried the sword and shield at his side, and someone trailed after him. Ryoka saw Jericha appear, sword and wand at her side, along with a squad of Tyrion’s bodyguards. Then Ryoka’s smile faded. There was an air of stillness and—oddly—surety that clung to Tyrion today.
As if the stone that bounced around and sank in every situation from romance to social niceties had turned into a boulder of confidence. This was the one thing Tyrion understood. It was the air that hung around House Veltras’ guards and in the inn itself.
War. Ryoka was not used to that odd scent or feeling. It made her limbs feel heavy. Her hands weak, like when you tried to clench a fist and found no strength in your grip.
To reassure herself, Ryoka drew her Faeblade and ignited it. A pink glow suffused the air, and the light shone from her window over the dark Floodplains.
Tyrion smiled faintly as Jericha snorted.
“Like a new soldier with a sword.”
“She isn’t a [Soldier], Jericha. Let’s muster. The commanders are taking their positions. Assuming it begins in—”
Jericha spoke crisply.
Ryoka’s heart leapt, and she turned off the Faeblade and followed Tyrion into the hallway. He did not lower his voice; the other occupants were emerging. In the odd silence that was so still, Ryoka heard boots. Then she saw Drakes marching down from the third floor to the second.
They were ready. Wall Lord Aldonss, Spearmaster Lulv, Wall Lord Ilvriss, General Duln, General Shirka, and even Chaldion had all sequestered rooms here.
They wanted to be here in case of emergencies in the night, and Erin’s [Twofold Rest] had actually, apparently, been a huge lure even for seasoned [Soldiers]. They marched past the Humans without a word as Tyrion stepped back into Ryoka’s room to make way.
Lulv caught Tyrion’s eye for a second as they passed, a snarl on his face like a smile. Wall Lord Ilvriss ducked his head to Ryoka; his face was grim and set. The Wind Runner whispered.
“See you in an hour?”
Chaldion’s voice was dry, and the Drakes laughed at this. Ryoka almost flushed, self-consciously, until she noticed the Grand Strategist’s gemstone and real eyes glittering as he grinned at her. It was even clinging to him.
Now, Ryoka heard sounds from below, and she realized the staff must already be up serving food. They had probably been up for at least an hour. General Shirka grumbled as they headed downstairs.
“It might not even start in an hour, you know. But here we are. I hate waiting for the enemy to arrive. Where’s Saliss?”
“He’ll be here…”
Chaldion’s voice faded as another door swung open. Ryoka happened to know that Pallass would be sending at least Saliss, Grimalkin, and a few others through, but the forces here had contrived to minimize the need for the door as much as possible.
On Invrisil’s side, Lady Bethal, Lady Pryde, and Lady Magnolia Reinhart and a number of nobles would come through from the City of Adventurers. Laken from Riverfarm, and…and then that was it.
Today was no day for intracontinental strife. Even the rules about Tyrion had been lifted for this day. Even for the man who appeared in his nightclothes, watching as a Golem shaped like some kind of maid or attendant ran a glowing, orange palm over his clothing.
“Ah, Tyrion. Ryoka. One second, if you will. I quite forgot to iron my battle vestments. Primera is doing that now.”
Xitegen Terland lifted his arms as the second Golem swung his coat about him, and Ryoka stared. No armor for this man. Instead, he had enchanted clothing, which half the nobility had elected instead of good armor.
House Veltras’ faces made it clear what they thought of trusting their lives to cloth, however strong, versus good steel. But Xitegen had on a very tight-fitting suit that made him look a bit like an orchestra conductor. It even had those long tail ends for butt flaps, and the black fabric turned glossy and bore House Terland’s seal in one huge crest on the left side; Xitegen’s personal crest was on the right.
“Lord Xitegen, you appear ready for a dance.”
The other [Lord] laughed as Tyrion commented.
“What is a battle other than a dance? I’ve heard it described as a game of moving flags, chess, two boulders grinding together, a fistfighter’s match—I should look the part regardless of what form this one takes. I am, after all, a lord’s [Lord]. Not one suited to battle as eminently as yourself, Tyrion. Never fear. Cloth is armor to the north. We’ll prove that soon enough. Less heat on the ironing, would you, Primera? My buttons are searing my flesh.”
He blew on one of his lapels, and Ryoka commented softly, without really knowing what to say.
“So ironing is a thing in this…I guess it was invented a long time ago.”
It was just heating metal or even rocks and warming fabric of some kind. But Ryoka swore she saw too much steam rising from Primera’s hands even for the winter, so either the Golem was burning Xitegen’s clothes or she had added some moisture.
Xitegen paused a second as he buttoned up his lapels.
“Why, yes. It’s a very traditional thing for most clothing in First Landing. Primera also uses steam; it’s one of those completely superfluous functions someone designed into her that I cannot do without.”
“Oh, got it. Full ironing.”
The [Lord] glanced at Tyrion, who just stared at the clothing with the kind of vague awareness some men had that ironing was a thing that existed and was done for reasons. Jericha’s face was straight, but Xitegen turned to Ryoka.
“And you know what that is. Strange. I don’t recall you meeting any Golems with that functionality; only House Terland has that kind of adaptability. The House of El once tried to make a copy of our steam cleaning devices, but I think it just blew up. Once again and yet again you know rather too much, Miss Ryoka. Would you care to explain?”
Ah, even now they were doing the dance. Ryoka Griffin saw the pants rise, and Xitegen stepped into them as Tyrion avoided looking. It was funny, because in this moment—she really didn’t care.
Her entire time in this world she’d been worried, obsessed over risks, and it was funny how things changed. Because she would have loved for some more support in this moment, at this time. All her efforts to keep Earth a secret…and she really wasn’t the only Earther. And Xitegen wasn’t the worst man to know about it.
“Xitegen, if you or Tyrion were actually allies with Magnolia, she might have told you ages ago. Wait, nevermind. She doesn’t even tell Bethal or Pryde. I know about ironing. And Grimalkin’s weights. And I, or Erin or a bunch of people, could talk to you about all sorts of useful and stupid stuff like Felkhr’s flying machine. I don’t really get how so many important people have missed it.”
Xitegen’s fingers slowed as he buckled his belt, and he glanced up. Tyrion glanced at Ryoka, face expressionless, and Xitegen’s head swung sharply to him, then the [Lord] focused on Ryoka.
“…Would you care to elaborate?”
“Maybe later. It’s crazy. I don’t understand why I was so worked up about it. No, I get why, but it doesn’t matter now. If anything, maybe the irresponsible part was me not sharing with people I trusted. I’m full of regrets, but it used to matter a lot—today? Not so much. Does this make sense?”
Xitegen’s brows lifted, and he exchanged looks with Jericha as a door opened and another noblewoman stepped out. Xitegen bowed.
“Lady Desinee El. Good to see another of the Five Families making an appearance. Wellfar couldn’t even send one, eh?”
“Lord Xitegen, am I late?”
She was also fashionably adorned, albeit in a riding dress, and her bodyguards had already been waiting: grim faced [Mercenaries] armed to the teeth. She had been listening to Ryoka babble. Lord Xitegen brushed at his hair.
“Not at all. Breakfast, then? No solemnity before battle, eh? Fine with me. I don’t care to fast. But a word to the wise, Miss Griffin? No need to spread fear. Act as if you know what you’re doing.”
Ryoka shut up. They headed downstairs in a second group as more people emerged from their rooms.
Relc and Valeterisa. Normen, Jewel, Embraim, marching as one group. Numbtongue, pausing by Lyonette’s room as if expecting a patter of paws.
Mrsha and Nanette were not here. And Lyonette and Erin were already awake. The Solstice was about to begin, and they were all ready.
No one was ready.
“You cannot go.”
“I am going to go. It is the most fun I’ll have in my life.”
“It will be the end of your life, you stupid part-Elf.”
A beak pecked a half-Elf on the head, snatching a battle-circlet from Silvenia’s grip. The Death of Magic turned her head and gave Serinpotva, the Death of Wings, a warning look that had spelled the end of fortresses and armies. Her eyes burned with magic.
The Harpy Empress pecked her on the head again. Czautha saw Silvenia reach for her circlet and rubbed a foot through the spell circle.
“You two—stop it. I have to go.”
Both Deaths were reining in their comrade. And for all they were jocular, play-fighting—there was a conversation below the light one that was going on. They had been adventurers. Generals. Saboteurs. Traitors—at least two of them, technically, though Czautha was more kin to a rebel—and both heroes and villains.
Silvenia stared at one of her hands and wondered if it would look better as all bone. That half-Elf she’d met was pulling it off in style. She spoke, eyes flicking upwards.
“I am going. If it looks like I will gain intelligence.”
Negotiations. Serinpotva had the confidence of the Demon King; she was unto the war leader of all Demons. She folded her wings.
“If you can gain intelligence, you may observe. The scope of the threat dictates where you will even go, or whether you will ferry Czautha there.”
“There is no reason for you to risk your life. There are at least ten champions of Izril present. They could slay you if they all turn on you.”
“They’re half my level.”
Czautha shook her head.
“Not all of them.”
Silvenia hesitated, then scowled with ill grace. It was unlikely even she would escape like some naughty child on a dare. When she went to war, not games meant to a purpose, she would be smiling, and then she would be the master of conflicts that Czautha and Serinpotva bowed to.
She was often bored—but she was serious, now.
“Very well. If we agree it is worthwhile. Because I will be used?”
“Oh yes. You are an arrow I aim where it matters. If not at Izril—then the Eyes of Baleros must not return to the Nagas. It is an ancient promise.”
Serinpotva narrowed her eyes. Silvenia’s eyes glittered.
“I always wanted to know what I could do with one of those. Very well. Just as long as someone has a bad time today.”
She began recalibrating her spell as Czautha silently exchanged looks with her partner. Not even the Deaths knew what was coming next, though. That was unsettling.
“I see. Truegold’s in place. There’s a weird Drake contingent still in the mountains…must be that Grand Strategist Chaldion’s doing. [Strategists]. I noticed a number of artifacts heading out the last two nights, including far too many to those Goblins and Antinium. Decent trap spells, and they’re dug in.”
From above, the battlefield at night really was set up well. You had to admit that the earthworks had flattened the usually lumpy floodplains in a vast area around The Wandering Inn, and a killing field had been set up.
Entrenched Drakes on a vast hill, forcing the enemy to charge up to The Wandering Inn or head through several channels where they’d be flanked on both sides. Trap spells waiting to be activated; the forces of Drakes and Humans were spread out, too. No tightly-packed nonsense where artillery could blow them to bits. The [Riders] were already warming up, and the Centaurs had pure mobility; they weren’t even near the inn itself. Clearly, they’d be ready to hit-and-run.
But there was an army around the inn. Liscor’s 2nd Army, as Rhisveri understood it from his bird’s eye view of the area. They glittered in his spell, though most of the crusaders refused to show him their class, which was annoyingly disconcerting.
They were the final defense before the inn itself. Pallass, Manus, and Salazsar formed the main lines while the Humans occupied secondary posts; a lot of their forces were irregulars, like the Golems, or were riding with Tyrion Veltras. However, they had shown up in force.
“Even trebuchets. On defense! Well, this is why Greatbows are superior. How are they making them anyways?”
The Wyrm had to admit even one of Ailendamus’ armies would have a hard time cracking the defenses. It wasn’t just the way the enemy would have to charge across the Floodplains, then summit the vast hill and layers of defenses like a porcupine, it was the levels of the combatants.
Archmage Valeterisa. Multiple [Lords] on either side. Named-ranks…
Now, he had no love for the inn. In fact, Erin Solstice had actually attacked him and insulted him and deserved to be sprayed with acid for it. But Rhisveri had some connections to the battle. That fool, Ryoka Griffin, was inept, so he’d given some Truegold to the defenders, and he was assured this was a mutual enemy.
So he had stakes; hence his interest. This was a good weathervane for his foes. What bothered the Wyrm wasn’t that.
Obviously, if the inn were destroyed, it was no scales off his back. It was just…well…he craned his head around the scrying orb he was using, as if to see better.
“…Where the hell is it? I know he’s there. He’s not more cunning than…argh.”
He couldn’t find it. After five more minutes of checking the magical clock, Rhisveri gave in.
“Dragonlord of Flames. Let’s…speak.”
He opened a spell and half-expected it not to connect. But to his surprise, it instantly did.
“Rhisveri of Ailendamus. Do you need something?”
Rhisveri hesitated. He coughed as Teriarch, the Dragonlord of Flame, responded with a weary, annoyingly calm voice. Damn living legends, even if he was grey of fang.
“Just checking in on my investments. I notice my Truegold on display. I take it those artifacts that have popped up among the officers are your doing?”
A pause. Neither one liked the other, but today was special. Teriarch grunted after a second.
“A small modicum of aid.”
Rhisveri zoomed in on a sword, admiring the clear age of the design. It had to be another Rihal blade, nothing fancy, but had that damn Dragon looted the entire empire? He frowned as he kept searching.
“…It’s all very well and good, but I was wondering—purely so I don’t foul your fire if I decide to lob a few spells over—where you hid the bigger contributions to the battle. Grander magics. They must be well done.”
He hated admitting he couldn’t spot the grand magics from afar. To his surprise, though, Teriarch paused.
“Something Tier 6, Tier 7 maybe? A few of the old Hundred Heroes’ swords if you had them? Come now, let’s not be coy. At least tell me which battalions have [Greater Haste] on them.”
The pause made Rhisveri stop searching for a second.
“You did put down those protections, didn’t you?”
“In my experience, Wyrm Rhisveri, mortals excel when they do not have their hands held for them.”
The Dragonlord’s voice was deceptively calm, but Rhisveri swore he heard an undercurrent of…the Wyrm almost laughed. Wait, that was his line. His voice took on an incredulous strain.
“You must be joking. You didn’t even give them…? I could have lobbed a thousand sets of plate mail and turned some of those [Soldiers] into armored infantry.”
“Plate mail takes time to train in.”
“Well, I could have done it a month ago! I thought you were doing that! What happened to Brass Dragons forging armies’ worth of weapons in a volcano?”
“That’s a gross exaggeration. It’s all magic anyways, pulling raw metal out of lava. The part where they transform into smiths and swing a hammer is purely ornamental.”
That was stupid and banal, and the banter was just that. Yet Rhisveri went silent a moment, and when he spoke next, he was disconcerted.
“You really aren’t arming them with anything more?”
“You and I differ in many ways, it seems, Great Wyrm of Ailendamus.”
Even his Hydra Knights, who Rhisveri admitted were commoners given a chance at nobility, glorified infantry—he didn’t even give them horses, and they thought it was a part of their identity, the idiots—even they got full sets of steel armor. Training.
Mind you, he didn’t respect the Thirsting Veil Knights or Drell Knights either. But the Hydra Knights were a special project he’d gambled on and proven that a thousand ‘commoners’ could stomp any ‘noble’ Knight Order in morale, bravery, and yes, sheer numbers if given the chance. And he armed them well.
Because they were his. Rhisveri looked at the troops that he knew Teriarch could have armed better. Ah. Of course. They weren’t the Dragonlord of Flame’s. That famous champion of causes, that trickster and wily hero and dangerous foe…
“I see. It seems we do indeed, Dragonlord. Good day to you.”
Wyrm and Dragon disconnected their call, realizing once again how different they really were. Rhisveri lay there a second.
No time to send plate mail or toss a couple Lucifen over to set the stage. Seems like my contingency might be more needed after all.
He raised his head after a second, then growled into the air as he cast another spell.
“Visophecin? Get over here.”
“Thirty minutes to!”
A Drake thrust open a door, barked, and the last Drakes still eating leapt out of their seats. The Humans looked up and kept chewing.
The Wandering Inn was a flurry of movement. No one had seen the [Innkeeper], but Lyonette du Marquin claimed she was in position. Chaldion had gotten ahold of the [Princess] and saw Lyonette preparing to depart.
Bound for Invrisil. Sensible. She might be capable, but a [Princess] was a [Princess], and she wasn’t that much help here. Yet. Chaldion was still sitting; his bones wouldn’t like the cold breeze outside even with the cold resistance spells.
Cold resistance spells. There was a limit to how many enchantments you could put on someone, so every other officer had forgone cold resistance for just wearing a cloak. But Chaldion was so old he needed this spell instead of, say, one to protect him from arrows.
Mind you, if arrows were hitting his position, he was an idiot; he’d be commanding from the Drakes’ formation, which was deliberately away from The Wandering Inn. He would not go down with the proverbial ship. The ‘ship’ didn’t matter.
Erin Solstice did. Drakes did. Seeing what this foe was—did. Chaldion noted a few things as he got up.
One, the Knights of Solstice had all gathered. Halrac the Grim, two new [Squires]—one of whom was a City Runner, the second of whom Chaldion suspected he knew the name of—Vess, Ama, who’d overslept…they would be one of the final defenses.
Most of the staff had been evacuated. Of the ones who remained…Ishkr was there, and his sister had stayed to man the doors, and Peggy and several Goblins and Hobs and some of the Antinium had stayed along with Alcaz.
If the Knights of Solstice fell, then would be that Hobgoblin tuning his guitar, leaning against the Stitch-girl. Then would be the staff and the killing hallway—and then Erin herself.
If they got this far, it’s check. Checkmate is losing her.
Chaldion had plans. More plans than he’d even told Shirka. He was looking around for one person he needed to talk to if the battle began in thirty minutes. Saliss had not yet arrived, but Chaldion noticed things.
Someone was singing. No, two voices were singing. Damn that idiot—Chaldion closed his one good eye as he heard Major Khorpe singing from the roof. Even some of the Drakes heading out were pausing in the windows and turning back.
Major Khorpe, singing with another voice raised and matching him. A scandal in the making.
“Ancestors, it was all ever for me. I did it all for none but I…”
Chaldion ignored the lyrics as he glanced around and noticed the Knights of Solstice were under attack. Some Winter Faeries, astonishingly defined unlike how they normally appeared as blue blobs, were dive-bombing Normen and shouting insults at him.
“Don’t ye argue! Get it for us! Yer a [Knight], aren’t you?”
“I’m a Ritter, I’ll have ye know! Get it for us now! Or I’ll spit on ye!”
Even the fearless Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice was ducking from them as they pelted him with mini snowballs. At the final hour? Chaldion wanted to know what they were doing, but then he heard the singing stop, and a figure leapt down from above, landed in the snow, and came into the inn through a window.
“I forgot to eat. Where’s the food?”
Major Khorpe was, as ever, slightly lost-looking, but Chaldion’s glare got his attention as the [Grand Strategist] crooked a claw.
Peggy dashed over with food, and Khorpe sat and ate. Chaldion couldn’t have said what it was or if it tasted good.
In the moments before the dawn while he ate and waited, it was food. If they lived, he’d start noticing details again. Right now, he was the entire battlefield, Liscor, sitting silent, the lines of Drake spears shivering and chanting and laughing and waiting in the cold…
Chaldion could even sense the other commanders, now. The damn nobles were grouped up. Xitegen was the largest aura next to Magnolia Reinhart, who had appeared like a shadow until she let her aura manifest. Radiant lights.
Perorn reminded Chaldion of a deadly breeze, like the passage of an arrow, but she was holding still at her camp. Solid.
Tyrion Veltras, General Shirka, Aldonss, Ilvriss—all rocks to hold around. Though Tyrion felt oddly weak. Maybe he was suppressing it too? Or one of Chaldion’s [Strategists] was dead on the money. Dead gods, Chaldion could even sense some of the new commanders on the board now.
Olesm, harder to grasp hold of, that [Strategist]…Belgrade? The Minotaur, the Armored Antinium’s leader, Tersk. Smaller presences, but still solid.
Chaldion wondered if the boy could sense what he did for the first time. If he realized he was now part of the board rather than a piece with no awareness of how it moved.
The quality of pieces was high. The weak link, if there was one, was…the fact that they should have had an army four times as large with more special forces. But you couldn’t tell even Pallass to send four armies out on an [Innkeeper]’s say-so.
And there’s another problem. Chaldion couldn’t remember what it was, and it panicked him. He sat there as one of his bodyguards glanced at him, waiting for the order to take Chaldion to the command area—until Khorpe spoke.
“I’ve seen healing potion shortages before. Never seen a battle like this.”
“Healing potions. Right.”
Chaldion twitched. He’d forgotten that. Almost. The feeling of forgetting…terrifying. He could not forget. Not in a battle. Not now.
The Grand Strategist took his anger out on Khorpe.
“I’ve always hated your song. The one you and that ‘Last Guard’ wrote.”
It wasn’t a Salazsarian anthem. Yet Khorpe blinked at Chaldion in surprise and shook his head.
“We only changed the words a bit. It’s an old…song? I think I heard my great grandfather sing it. Other species like it, you know.”
“Antinium don’t count. That one above rhymes about going to the bathroom.”
Khorpe started snorting and had to take a drink when he started hiccuping. Then he gave Chaldion a big smile. His eyes were rheumy, and Chaldion wished he could say Khorpe looked worse than Chaldion did.
A month ago, he had. Yet there was a kind of brilliance to the damn Drake that reminded Chaldion of Maviola El. Not the same transformation physically, but the same one in spirit.
Ancestors, what a glorious way to go. Chaldion envied it. Feared it. Hated Khorpe for his surety. And the [Rogue]’s reply disarmed him.
“No, more than just Antinium. Many species told me they liked it. I’ve heard Humans say it, Minotaurs, Selphids, Dullahans…do you know why we sing it, Chaldion?”
The Grand Strategist hesitated, then grunted.
“I don’t sing it to begin with. If my failures are ‘mine’, according to the song, then who should take credit for all my glories and successes? You’re a son of Salazsar. And I am Pallass.”
He paused for a second as the words made a few of the breakfasters nearby glance at him and felt embarrassed. Yet Khorpe just nodded a few times, absently, as if hearing and not judging.
“Sometimes I thought like that. But the song is old. Why do we sing it? Maybe old Drakes feel this way in the end, no matter how many eras pass. The song would die if it was wrong. Ancestors, my sins were always only mine…”
Then he stopped humming and gave Chaldion a disconcerting, direct look.
“Are you ready?”
Chaldion stopped playing with a fork. He looked up, and the old [Major]’s eyes were sharp. Chaldion exhaled, and then his heart stopped thumping so painfully.
He rose as he saw the person he had been waiting for enter the inn. Time…twenty minutes maybe? Chaldion had to hurry. But there was one person he needed to talk to before he went.
The Drake was gnawing on a piece of bread and barely looked up as Chaldion stopped by his table. The bodyguards stared at him. The [Alchemist] rotated one eye to stare at one bodyguard; the other eye moved the opposite way to stare at the other.
Even today, he was doing it. The old Drake paused, then began to sit. Saliss moved the chair out of the way with his tail at the last moment, and one of the [Bodyguards] had to catch Chaldion before he fell.
“You’re going to spoil my bread, old guy. Why don’t you go and take a nap? You look like you need it. Hey? I have a lost old man here! Can anyone pick him up?”
Saliss began shouting, and Chaldion grabbed a chair and sat in it, red-scaled and furious.
“Saliss! Can’t you act your part for one damn hour? Today?”
It was a mistake. Saliss paused, and his face became genuinely hostile for a second. The [Alchemist] was ready for war. Not in clothing, but he had pulled his potion stockpiles, and for all his jollity, he wasn’t distracting anyone.
Chaldion knew how much impact Saliss could have. But even now—the younger Drake stared at Chaldion.
“No. No, I can’t. Surprised? You’ve had decades to figure it out.”
Chaldion was breathing hard already. The Grand Strategist paused, then tried to restart the conversation.
“One day, then. For me. Civility. One—conversation, Saliss.”
Now, he was beginning to alarm his [Bodyguards] and some of the [Strategists] waiting for him to leave. But Chaldion was throwing caution to the wind. He looked at Saliss, meeting his grandson’s eyes. He still remembered when Saliss had been born.
Sometimes, he felt like a stranger instead of Saliss. And that—
That was the problem. Because Saliss bristled, then spoke slowly.
“No. Can’t you write a letter? Even a memo.”
“This is my last—”
Chaldion’s voice rose, and Saliss held up a claw. The [Alchemist] put his feet on the table, speared the piece of bread onto a neck-spine for later, and stared up at the ceiling.
“Old man. How many times have we done this? You might have forgotten, but I don’t. ‘My last battle’. ‘One month of civility’. ‘One year…’. There’s always a next time. Until there’s not, I guess. But you used them up a long time ago. No, I’m not going to play nice. Any respect I give to you—if I give it—will be after you’re dead. And you’ll never know how much that was or whether there was any at all.”
The Grand Strategist opened his mouth, and Saliss’ gaze pierced his scales like a thrown javelin. In silence, the two sat there, staring at each other, and Chaldion only rose when one of his aides coughed.
“Grand Strategist. Fifteen…”
Without a word, the old [Strategist] got up. Saliss kept his feet up without even saying goodbye.
Chaldion spoke after turning back once. Saliss glanced up at him, and the older Drake waited for a flicker. Anything. All Saliss said was—
“That’s not my name.”
And Chaldion walked out of that inn into the cold, staring up at the dark night. He heard Khorpe singing again.
Inside The Wandering Inn, almost everyone was emptying out as the minutes counted down. And still…
Still, there was no feeling yet of impending doom. Just fear. Just restlessness. Normen had gotten into position, ignoring the blue sprites attacking them. They’d chased Ryoka off, and the Wind Runner had left the inn.
Everyone stood in readiness. Counting down the minutes until the moment when the Solstice, the final day of the 14ᵗʰ month, began.
Erin Solstice waited, too. She hadn’t really slept and guessed most people hadn’t. She stood in her [Garden of Sanctuary], waiting.
She was ready, too. Her heart was so calm…but it felt like being at the center of a great hurricane. All her fears and emotions and the tension swirled around her, but she was calm. She heard a voice from the door she’d opened in the inn.
“One minute! Everyone ready?”
Outside Erin’s inn, the Flooded Waters tribe was checking their Thunderbows from their position on the hill they occupied. A singing Antinium and a crew around a ballista were searching for targets.
Gershal of Vaunt stood, holding his new blade with a sweaty gloved hand. Magnolia Reinhart’s [Maids] and [Butlers] stood in a strange rank of their own.
Erin Solstice felt the Winter Solstice coming as Peggy counted down.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven…where’s Inkpaper?…uh…”
The flowers around Erin’s feet—rustled. She looked down, and the Faerie Flowers, which had closed for the darkness like any flower, suddenly bloomed. Erin Solstice’s heart picked up, and she looked around. The door flickered, and a second one opened, showing her the outside of her inn.
She gazed across Liscor’s army, spotting a Minotaur raising his axe. In the distance, Drakes began shouting, and she saw the orange banners of Manus shaking, Pallassians in their yellow armor taking aim.
A squad of flying Drakes and Garuda, led by Bevussa Slenderscale, was in the skies as snow crusted the Floodplains and High Passes. Looming shadows in the darkness before proper day.
The Winter Solstice had begun. Erin Solstice lifted the Key of Reprieve in her hands, waiting…
…And nothing happened.
It was unmistakably the Solstice. Erin couldn’t have told you why, but she felt it. A certain potential in the air. Not just the flowers; her witchcraft told her this was an auspicious day. A day of power, of meaning, at least in this world.
Yet nothing was happening. No thunderclap to shake the heavens. No eternal night…it was already night. Erin stood there for a minute, then exhaled. She sat back down.
“Oh, come on.”
Another five minutes had passed, and everyone was tense. But now Erin was certain.
Every Knight of Solstice, Numbtongue, and all the other Goblins and Antinium instantly pointed their weapons at her. Even if she was immune, the sight of two dozen crossbows swinging her way was terrifying.
“Erin, what is it?”
Jewel was looking right and left, trying to see out the windows. Erin lowered her hands as everyone lowered their weapons.
“I think it’s not happening yet.”
For a second, everyone stared at her, and then Normen exhaled and lowered his mace. Numbtongue groaned.
Erin gave him a guilty grin as she walked out of her garden, took a seat at the table, and Calescent lowered his death-spiced cleaver.
“…Is it in an hour?”
“I don’t know, but it’s not now. I warned you it might be like this.”
They all stared at Erin. Outside, the defenders were tense and wary, calling out anything they saw, confirming that they weren’t under an illusion or being tricked. Erin just stared ahead and suddenly felt tired. So it was gonna be like this, wasn’t it?
After a second, Calescent nudged Erin hesitantly.
“…You want breakfast?”
Erin stared ahead, and her stomach rumbled.
“Sure. What’s breakfast?”
It took nearly three hours before the armies outside realized that if the attack was coming, it wasn’t going to be when they were all lined up and ready. So they told the [Soldiers] to stand down, but be at the ready or whatever you did militarily, and after two more hours of milling around, everyone was checking their timepieces in confusion.
Almost everyone was carrying a timepiece, be it some fancy custom-made clock like Nerul had or just a timekeeper spell like Ilvriss and the others. After five hours, it began to sink in that they might have time or need to eat and pee instead of simply waiting with bated breath.
That was when Lyonette returned. She looked nerve-wracked and frantic, and Erin was yawning as she spoke to several commanders gathered around.
“No, I don’t know when it might be. Midday? I doubt it’s midnight because Kasig—Kaligma’s got a time limit. It might be a surprise attack.”
“Waiting game. Got it. Can we expect a stealth attack?”
General Shirka was still taking this seriously, and Lyonette stopped to listen as Erin sat up and rubbed at her face.
“…Maybe? She’s done it a few times, apparently. Invisible undead Cyclops? But she normally sends a giant army.”
“Got it. Keep us informed, Miss Solstice. Grand Strategist, I have an advisement to watch out for invisible foes…”
Shirka strode off, and the throng broke up. One of the Humans marched back to his troops, grumbling.
“Not a single foe in sight. Do we ‘win’ if we outlast the Solstice? That’s nineteen more damn hours…”
Erin Solstice sat back in her chair, yawning hugely until she noticed Lyonette.
“Lyonette! Why are you back?”
“I thought you’d need help if the inn’s not under attack yet. Plus, I was waiting for the attack.”
“Yeah, I guess I might need a hand in a bit. We might have a bit. Maybe. How’s Mrsha? Kevin and…?”
Erin yawned again, and Lyonette yawned too.
“Up all night. I think Mrsha’s dozing off. She’s too used to your Skill. Everyone is tense—Sest, run back and tell them it’s alright. Sest will be guarding the children.”
Dame Ushar and Ser Dalimont were staying with Lyonette. The Thronebearer bowed and departed, and Erin gave Lyonette a weary grin.
“Some day, huh? I really did think it’d begin now, but it’s just like her. Apparently.”
“How do you know?”
Lyonette sat down for a second; she smelled Calescent cooking and realized that if this was going to take a while, second breakfast and even lunch would have to be made. It was damn cold out there; the inn should re-open. She signaled Peggy, pointing at the messy tables, who gave her a thumbs up, and Lyonette called out.
“Go ask the regular staff to come in, Peggy!”
“Is that safe?”
“Well, we need them to wait tables. If this is all day, we can stand still and freeze up or sit down.”
Erin was sitting herself and nodded.
“Good point. Stupid Kassy. That’s my new name. She just has to draw this out.”
Lyonette watched Erin yawn a third time.
“How do you…know what she might do, Erin? Invisible Cyclops? Did you make it up?”
Erin opened one eye and blinked.
“What? No. She did that once. Sent an invisible Cyclops or something into the palace of this king dude who offended her and slaughtered all his family in the night. Really dark stuff.”
“Is that a real story?”
Erin considered the question as she checked her own timepiece—Kevin’s smartphone he’d lent to her.
She shrugged as she looked at Lyonette.
“It’s a real…story. It’s probably true, but it’d be like in a book of myths or the Bible. He—told it to me.”
She pointed. Lyonette’s head turned, and her heart jumped as she saw who Erin was pointing at.
Zineryr. The statue of him. The smiling Gnome and the pathetic three-in-one who didn’t seem so…silly today of all days. Lyonette’s head swiveled back to Erin for a wordless answer as some of the Knights of Solstice and Numbtongue looked over. Erin sat forwards, arms on her knees, and explained simply as Ryoka jogged into the inn.
“Erin, I’m going for a flyabout. I can’t sit still. I’m going to raid your kitchens, okay?”
“Sure, Ryoka. So, yeah. He told me stories in the brief time we had. About all of them, but especially her.”
“W-why? Isn’t it bad to know more? You said to glorify or worship them gave them power.”
Erin wore a crooked smile.
“Yes. But he said it was important to know their glories and mythologies. Because they will repeat them, you see?”
Oh. That made sense. Like the glory days of an adventurer or…no wonder Erin was so confident. Even so, the wait might prove to be the hardest challenge.
To distract herself, Lyonette found an apron, put it on, and clapped her hands.
“Okay! Second breakfast! Let’s have soldiers in and offer everyone half-off! We still make a profit that way. Yelroan should be with the Silverfangs still in Liscor. Someone tell him what’s going on?”
Erin stared at Lyonette, faintly appalled, but the [Princess] had the right idea. Because, after several more hours, people were coming in and out of the inn again, albeit still waiting and waiting.
During this long Solstice, the wait revealed secrets and omens of the future.
Nothing was happening around Liscor. The same was not true everywhere.
Nothing had happened at Liscor, yet. But all these events. The battle at sea. The armies moving around. It felt like something, even if the outcome was yet in question.
The stakes were rising. The lull of small gambits and peaceful days had given way to moments where it was time to bet everything. Not just at Liscor. Everywhere. It felt like synchronicity.
While that eclipse rose and cast the world into odd twilight, everything felt possible and dangerous. Balanced upon the edge of a knife, waiting to fall.
To one Antinium, it reminded her of the quiet sea. The hour when the waves had gone still, the rain stopped, and she had crept onto deck to stare around only to see a wave larger than she had dreamed of rising across the horizon. She felt the same stillness and urgency of the day. The wave had yet to come.
Of course, this feeling worried people who wanted things to be, if not always the same, always orderly. Always right. Sometimes they forgot that rightness and always being in charge or on top were not the same thing.
Sometimes they justified the strangest of things because they too were afraid, uncertain, and flailing. But the trick to good leadership, as the Grand Queen of the Antinium understood it, was not always being the most correct or having the greatest moral rectitude.
It was making what you decided sound good.
“This is an unparalleled alliance in theory. It is not a commitment—yet. However, it is an unquestionable advantage to have multiple species serving the will of the Antinium where only one remained. Similarly, we have need of high-level individuals. The very fact that Klbkchhezeim was disarmed proves how our greatest champions can have their talents wasted.”
“I am uncertain of the legitimacy of this statement. I also raise another point of issue: you gave the [Thieves] the Eye of Baleros. Why did you do that? It was unclear when Klbkchhezeim stated he had things under control and did not need to effect the trade as of yet. He is still in pursuit.”
“I also object to your phrasing ‘serving the will of the Antinium’, Grand Queen. These…are not trustworthy individuals. With greatest respect.”
The Grand Queen paused with great annoyance. When had disloyalty become a trend? The Free Queen truly had disrupted everything with her ‘success’, which the Grand Queen was now viewing in air quotes. She waved her feeler again to repeat the gesture.
“This is an experiment largely in the same vein as the Free Queen’s successes. Which have met with such unifying success—I am sure you all understand the merit of my idea framed thusly?”
The other five Queens hesitated, and the Free Queen clacked her mandibles, but she wasn’t even facing forwards. She seemed distracted by some…oh yes, the Solstice event or whatever was occurring.
“This…is true, Grand Queen. But I note Klbkchhezeim was the liaison with one member of another species: Erin Solstice. A proven ally. This is how many untested individuals in the Hivelands itself?”
“Merely two hundred. Under my authority. They are—what is the word? Ah, yes.”
The Grand Queen consulted her notes.
“[Slaves]. From Roshal. A subservient, obedient way of using people that is as close to Antinium efficiency as possible.”
“I do not know this word.”
The Silent Queen broke in, clearly anxious about something outside her limited perspective. Which is why she needed the Grand Queen.
Was the Twisted Queen herself displeased? The Grand Queen tried to soothe them all.
“It is an experiment. Observe we have also been paid richly for our services.”
“For our Workers and Soldiers.”
“A fraction of the cost.”
“They could be researching our work and looking for weaknesses.”
Once again, she was getting pushback, and it was annoying. Even the Armored Queen wasn’t happy about this change. Yet these collared peoples were standing to attention, and they were good at following orders.
Everyone was so happy about Anand and his disobedience…the Grand Queen had been promised aid in more than just goods and people. If Roshal could help her Hive level, she would regain authority, so she kept explaining why this was good.
“Pah. No other species has our mastery with shaping. These are tentative allies…you should all be pleased. I sent the Eye of Baleros to rectify and resolve Klbkch’s situation with efficacy.”
And to undermine my enemies if what I understand is true. The Grand Queen rubbed her feelers together.
“I have taken the necessary steps to ensure our continued advantage against the Drakes.”
“You let these people of Roshal through the Hivelands, even our secret tunnels. They could be mapping them. I point this out because I would do it, and it would be foolish to assume the enemy is not intelligent.”
Enough was enough. The Grand Queen waved them all to silence. She spotted Anand peeking at her from the Armored Queen’s perspective and grew angry.
“We have done this. We shall take advantage of the situation I have created. If you do not wish to collect your portion of Roshal’s goods, state so now.”
She waited as the other Queens fell silent, smug because she knew they wouldn’t object to that. Until the Free Queen lifted a feeler.
“I believe [Slaves] are against Liscorian law. I shall consult with my current Revalantor. I must go, Grand Queen.”
The Free Queen disconnected, and the Grand Queen was left angry and annoyed as the other Queens murmured their farewells. Well…well…the Grand Queen sat and stewed.
At least she had someone on her side, now. Even if he was a Naga or whatever he was called.
Come to that—she had sent the strange Courier who had been so cowardly, the one called, uh, Persua, with the Eye of Baleros object south nearly a week ago. She wondered if Klbkchhezeim had finally gotten his blade back.
As she understood it, it was a powerful object. Why, the Walled Cities had even privately asked her to not send it to that [Thief]. That obviously made her decide to send it even more. The enemy of my enemy is my advantage.
The Grand Queen was satisfied with her decisions. That Gnoll who’d done the speaking and trading had been very polite and effective. She wondered how much he cost. Buying people with money was so…efficient.
That was how she thought, today of all days. The Grand Queen knew she was pulling on threads. She doubtless thought of herself as a mastermind.
…Did she have any idea what she was really doing?
The Eye of Baleros was not a toy. It was not bartered for low stakes. Victims had been sacrificed, kidnappings gone unpaid, and streets flowed with blood until it was plucked from the ground by armies seeking to return it to its home.
Or prevent it from being used again. Did it have a will? The greatest artifacts of Lizardfolk might at that. Even when they were ‘lost’, something or someone always found them. Power attracted power.
The irony was that the Antinium of all species could contain it with the power of Xrn, use it to fuel their magic. They had seen magic of that scope in the depths of Rhir. But now it was out in the open.
Now, the Walled Cities knew the Antinium had it. A single City Runner had brought it to Bviora, the daughter of the Lightning Thief, Thivian Stormless.
It burned her through the bag of holding. Magical contamination so strong she had begun casting Tier 3 magic every hour to just reduce the burden on her. It should have been masked, and she should have been using a vault to contain the power of it.
But the Antinium had sent none, and the idiot of a City Runner had been slow and half-dead. Mana-poisoned. Give her credit for something—she’d run across Izril dodging interception and suffering the effects of the Eye.
The eye swirled with a dark green light that sometimes brightened, sometimes grew opaque and black. Sometimes Bviora thought she could see something in it. Visions of the temples it had been stolen from. It was hypnotizing. It lit up the dark night, giving Bviora away. A lurid light in the dark morning.
Her father had spent his entire life trying to keep it hidden. Now—she was giving it back. She would have been guilty. She would have looked at Vetn, still unsteady after running into Klbkch despite healing, and wondered if she should cut ties with him.
But there was no time.
The city was still dark, despite it technically being morning; the Drakes had raised the gates according to the time, not the light in the sky. It would not be bright for a while.
Bviora galloped the horse straight through the gates of Covieke, the Drake harbor-city that had just been attacked by the Drowned Folk. Guards shouted at her to stop and identify herself—they were idiots who’d left the gate open.
A Gnoll sprinted past the Drakes, looking over his shoulder.
“They’re coming—he’s coming—”
Bviora lifted her right hand, the hand made of crystal, her father’s hand. The Lightning Thief had lost many limbs in his life. This—was his very hand, and it had some of his power. She concentrated, and the Skill worked through her.
The Drakes had a winch that could slam the gates shut. They weren’t entirely idiots. A hand pulled on the release lever, and a copy of it worked the brake. The mechanism unwound—a [Guard] dove, and the gate smashed down on their tail.
Screaming. Bviora felt terrible; the tail was severed. Her father had never done that. The Lightning Thief had always made sure no one died or got hurt.
This greatest game for his legacy is going to kill all his children. Bviora rode down the main street, shouting at Vetn.
“There’s a ship coming into port! Get to ground—it won’t be here for at least thirty minutes!”
“Thirty—we’re not going to survive ten!”
He screamed at her. The Thief of Clouds was as old as she was, but without her gemstone arm, he was the better [Thief] by far. He looked over his shoulder—then around.
“I’ll find a fence—”
“Damn the fence. Into the harbor! We’ll pick the lock! Go—he’s almost on u—”
Then they heard it from the gates. The screaming Drake, the shouts of confusion, and the sounds of pursuit being organized turned to alarm. The Drakes on Covieke’s walls had spotted something else—and now they began to blow horns.
Too late. She’d thought they’d lost him. Bviora looked back in a slow horror even as the horse ran pell-mell, galloping down towards the harbor. She had thought the hardest thing was guessing where the Eye of Baleros was when no one else had figured it out. The Antinium weren’t the scariest species in the world. She had thought it was more daring to steal from Calanfer’s palace with the Thronebearers and so many powerful nations.
The few Drakes in the dark street jerked up at the sudden, panicked shout. Bviora just turned her head and saw the huge, steel gates of Covieke. Like the broken harbor gates…this stupid city was getting a reminder today. She could barely see the gates even with [Low-Light Vision]. But she knew…
Something hit the gates of Covieke so hard they rang—and Bviora swore she saw them bend slightly. Then—a flash of silver. It traced a square so fast, two blades, that she would have missed it if she hadn’t been looking.
The section of the gate fell inwards, almost crushing another [Guard]. He looked at the figure that was behind the falling square of steel and screamed, jabbing with a spear.
Klbkch the Slayer slashed the spear in half, kicked the Drake in the chest, and sent the figure sprawling. His head slowly rotated from right to left, scanning the street.
He saw Bviora and Vetn, and the horse stumbled. Bviora felt the animosity wash over her like a wave.
“tHEre YoU aRe.”
He began to run. Two silver swords flashed at his sides. The Antinium burst into a sprint as fast as Vetn in a second, sweeping down the street and leaving a trail of dust behind him.
Vetn shouted. But it wasn’t going to be in time. Bviora looked around desperately for something, anything to throw him off. Why was he still following them? For the Eye?
They’d given him back the sword—but the Slayer was out for vengeance. Klbkch was sprinting down the street, tensing to explode into a leap, when the entire main street of Covieke just—caved in.
Cobblestones, masonry, just tumbled down into the sewers. The Slayer reacted with lightspeed quickness, leaping up onto a falling stone and pushing himself off it towards a wall of a building. He didn’t have the traction to run up the wall, nor the Skill that Vetn had.
Instead, he just punched one blade through the wall and used it to anchor himself. The Slayer hung in the air, staring down at the sewers as more pedestrians ran screaming. He turned his head.
The Slayer leapt off the walls, and someone else screamed as Vetn and Bviora looked away. Klbkch slashed, but a Drake with white scales and hood had already fallen through the street via a hole he’d drawn. Klbkch landed—studied the painted hole leading into the sewers as Tesy the [Magical Painter] fled, and grunted.
He turned back to Vetn and Bviora, ignoring the [Magical Painter]. The two [Thieves] were almost out of sight, and if they could just get out of vision, the Slayer would have trouble tracking them down for a bit.
They had done this dance across six different cities over the last week. Each time, Klbkch had caught up faster. The only things saving them were Tesy distracting Klbkch and the Slayer’s inability to use the underworld contacts and safehouses. And—
Klbkch paused as he made to leap over the gap of the collapsed street painting. He turned, raised one sword, and deflected an arrow aimed at the back of his head. His head turned slowly, and with the last sight of him she got, Bviora had the distinct impression he was getting angrier.
A week. Eight days of wasting his time. Eight days of chasing the two [Thieves] only to be stopped by every idiotic Drake city and that annoying [Painter], only to learn the Grand Queen had given one of their artifacts away for his sword.
He didn’t care they’d ‘returned’ it via the City Runner. This was now personal, and Klbkch would first stab, then arrest both [Thieves] and bring them to justice.
Unless Covieke allowed executions. He suspected they did. Just the one with the crystal hand, then. But everyone was getting in his way.
Tesy, again. The [Magical Painter] had caught up with the [Thieves] after half a week and begun stymieing Klbkch. He had some kind of amazing talent for getting out of trouble; even Klbkch had a hard time catching him. The moment he noticed Tesy was there, the Drake was already running away.
The other problem was—Klbkch twitched.
He could have beheaded Tesy right then and there. He had a clear shot as the Drake had dropped through his trapdoor. But Tesy was Erin’s guest. So was Vetn.
At this moment, he really wanted to murder Tesy. Even if he was Senior Guardsman—
Another arrow dropped towards Klbkch’s face, and he parried it. This time, it was a [Piercing Shot]. His glare made the Drake holding the crossbow freeze. They thought they could get the drop on him in the darkness.
Klbkch’s new eyes could pierce the darkness almost as well as daytime. He had missed Tesy’s paintings, though. If this were day, he would have picked up on the missed details. As it was, it gave the annoying obstacles more trouble. Klbkch ordered one of them to desist in a flat voice.
“Get out of my way.”
“By the authority of Manus—”
A second agent of the City of War skidded around the street. They were everywhere. Klbkch slashed the third arrow in half, leapt—kicked a Gnoll in the face, and tangled with the second agent. They were faster than the idiot [Guards]—he punched one in the face with the hilt of his sword and knocked out two teeth.
“I am incredibly angry. Stop getting in my way!”
They just kept—coming. Klbkch sensed the trap and whirled his swords up. He slashed through two nets, but the third one, made of vines, snared him. He slashed out of it as a Drake threw off her hood.
“By the order of Oteslia’s Peacekeepers—”
Klbkch ran across the ground, kicked her in the groin, and remembered she was female. It still worked. Now Oteslia?
That made four Walled Cities! Though he didn’t know the names of their organizations. The Eyes of Pallass, Fissival, Manus, Oteslia—secret agents everywhere. Salazsar was different. They’d sent another group.
“Get the Slayer! Get—”
The Peacekeepers of Oteslia were apparently [Druids]. A burly Gnoll grew a foot taller, and a furry mane sprouted from his neck and shoulders. He leapt at Klbkch.
“[Lionform Transformation]! [Mighty P—]”
Klbkch swung out of the way of the jump, and it took the Gnoll straight into an agent of Manus. He ducked a swing from another [Druid] with a staff and headbutted them in the chin.
“You are all testing my patience!”
There were eleven of them between the two Walled Cities. The old Klbkch would probably have been stymied by them, even apprehended. With his new body, he didn’t even need [Recaptured Sublimity].
But they did take up precious seconds. In the end, Klbkch held the leader of Manus’ agents. The Drake was trying to stab him with a poisoned dagger; Klbkch had sheathed both swords and was currently punching him in the face.
He could have killed the Drake. It would be so easy. But that would aggravate Manus. Klbkch had ties to Liscor. This was not the time for a war. He was a Senior Guardsman and technically had to acknowledge Manus’ authority.
But he was on a leave of absence. All this meant that killing this idiot was not acceptable.
More agents rushed blindly into the fight on the street. All they saw was a blurring figure in the darkness, a whirlwind of blows—and bodies curled up on the ground. Then a single Antinium holding the last one standing. Klbkch’s voice was loud as he struck the final agent.
“Do. You. Understand. The. Ramifications. Of. Me. Killing. You?”
Each word was followed by a punch to the face. Klbkch shook the Drake, then noted the rolled up eyes. He dropped the agent in disgust.
“How many people want my swords? You won’t get them, and I am in pursuit of [Thieves].”
He looked around. One of the [Druids], the one who’d snared him with a net, was still conscious. She was clutching her groin and looked up.
“The—swords? We want the Eye! The Eye of Baleros!”
Klbkch stared at her.
“That is the possession of the Antinium.”
“It cannot leave Izril. The Lizardfolk can’t—”
He ignored her. They were after the Eye, same as him, then. The problem was that every time they saw him, they clearly thought they could rid the world of one of their species’ biggest threats.
Klbkch was striding down the street again, trying to figure out where those [Thieves] were. He knew they were after a ship. If they got to sea…he would have lost them. So this was it.
He was so angry he almost missed the strange sound in the air. Then Klbkch slowed and groaned.
He swung around slowly, but didn’t instantly draw his swords. Even he didn’t have time to waste in pointless battles. Plus—these special agents were a cut above the others. He hated to admit it, but one against thirty or sixty was a bad bet.
The sound Klbkch heard was too high for most species to even appreciate. Musical theory hadn’t even acknowledged sounds above the regular registers of hearing for a long time, but a few species could appreciate what were known as ‘negative notes’.
Sounds that ranged into the ultrasonic. There were also ‘brazen notes’ that went lower than any normal voice or instrument could create. And yes, you could learn a Skill for the brown note, but that wasn’t classy.
They didn’t go through the gates. Too obvious, and too many [Guards] getting rallied by one of Manus’ agents to go after the Slayer. Instead, the first figure summited the wall and crouched, wearing black clothing, but not all black like some common [Assassin]. More like they were going to a performance, which they were.
Symphony. Thirty members of their assassination troupe followed a figure that sighed as he noticed the Slayer watching him. The Maestro gave him a salute.
Klbkch responded with a gesture. Linvios wondered where he’d learned it.
“Avoid the Slayer at all costs. We’ve lost too much time tangling with him. A lesson our ‘counterparts’ in Manus and the other cities have yet to learn. This is the final stop before they reach the sea. No failures. I want a haze in B Locrian. Then split by fives into the harbor.”
Symphony prepared for a performance, and a familiar haze and a haunting melody filled Covieke, drowning out the ringing alarm bells, and the [Assassins] leapt into the city as the Slayer vanished, hunting with commendable fury and speed—but little tact.
Everyone was eating from a humble pie today. The Maestro had to admit—the [Thieves] were good. They’d outwitted and outfoxed as many as four members of Symphony at once. Used their pursuers against each other.
No cohesion on the Walled Cities’ side. If he had been able to contact a counterpart in Manus or Zeres, they could have had this city locked down. Instead, half the Walled Cities had gone after trapping Klbkch or stealing his sword for the first week, and he’d put nearly fifty in [Healers]’ clinics.
“Let’s have some professionalism, people.”
The Maestro clapped his claws together, a rare admonishment for them—and himself. He hadn’t taken part in the hunt until four days ago, but clearly standards were slipping. Too much hobnobbing with old friends in Salazsar.
He drew a longsword out of the air with palpable regret. The First Violin already had a list of safehouses in Covieke.
“Signal me before springing the ambush unless there is no other option.”
Linvios sighed as his speaking stone lit up with affirmatives.
He hated killing young [Thieves].
“I think I heard the Slayer run into some more agents. Or Symphony. Sounded like music—for a second.”
“He’s got to be Level 40. At least. The files said he was Level 30 at best!”
Bviora sat in the safehouse they’d picked the lock of. The one good thing was that the Slayer had no tracking Skills—he would literally kick down doors or prowl around while fighting off the local Watch.
He’d been closer to them while they had the sword. It had begun ringing every now and then, a clear sign someone was tracking it, but they’d had to hold onto it.
“He’s pissed. I thought he was nice. Erin lied.”
Vetn was clutching at his side, breathing hard. It still must hurt, or he remembered being slashed by Klbkch.
“Anyone who likes Antinium and Goblins is a damn idiot. We’re almost out. The ship’s a Drowned one; it’ll dive. A friend called it in. You can still leave, you know. It’ll be waiting underwater half a mile out in…twenty-two minutes. We just have to get out there.”
The Thief of Clouds’ head rose, and his fur, matted with sweat, was smelling a bit. But his snarl was real.
“Can you run on water? What kind of operation is this? Tell them to surface and pick us up!”
“Can’t. It’s Covieke. The Drowned Folk don’t want to rock the boat any further. Listen, it’s a favor.”
“You have a lot of damn favors. Who’s doling them out? Your father? Or your mother? Which book is she from?”
Bviora turned red.
“Don’t talk about my parents like that—”
“The Lightning Thief got around. You told me there were a bunch of other kids competing. I heard about the Calanfer break in. How do you even win the ‘great game’? What’s the prize, again?”
“His legacy. Vetn—are you in or out? You can get out of the city.”
The Gnoll drank some water, sitting there and staring at Bviora’s hand. At the bag of holding still leaking magic. His voice was hoarse.
“I’m in. I told you, I want to see it through. So are we stealing a boat to get out there?”
“That’s the plan. We need a distraction. If I get the boat—as soon as we’re on the water, I hope he won’t follow. Antinium can’t swim.”
“Nothing’s certain with that guy. If he lands on the boat, we have to kick him into the water. Does your arm have a Skill for that?”
Bviora touched her arm.
“Maybe. I won’t know until he lands. He’s fast.”
The understatement of the century. They sat there, still breathing hard from fear as much as anything. This was a heist beyond what either had done before. Vetn had stolen countless treasures, even from the Meeting of Tribes and dangerous people.
But this? They had Symphony on their backs. Every Walled City had sent agents, and the Slayer was literally streets away. Why were they doing this? Bviora had a good reason. Vetn had one.
Tesy still thought they were mad.
“Vetn, this is nuts. Get rid of this crazy Human girl, and let’s get out of here. Qwera can hide us for a bit. Or maybe Erin can smooth it over.”
He lifted up part of the floor of the safehouse, and both [Thieves] nearly died. Tesy was filthy, covered in sewer muck, and he had just lifted the floor up like a manhole cover. It was a neat trick; even rogue safehouses weren’t immune to his powers.
“Tesy! Dead gods!”
“You stink! What the hell are you doing—get in here!”
Tesy scrambled up, and neither Vetn nor Bviora went to embrace him. He was panting, tired—and was hurt at the way Vetn glared.
“You idiot. Why did you follow us? Symphony’s on me, now, and they haven’t forgotten your bounty.”
At first, Sellme, Tesy, the [Painter], was so incredulous he gasped for words.
“I’m the idiot? Me? I’ve been saving your tail the last week, Vetn! Didn’t you notice me in Marwsh? What about Loeri?”
Vetn’s glare didn’t abate.
“I didn’t ask you to. Turn around. Go back to The Wandering Inn and get into the garden. This isn’t a game.”
“I know! I’m helping! You saved me—I’m saving you. That’s how it works. What’s the plan? I heard something about a boat? I can draw a boat. Let me just get some waterproof paints out…”
Bviora’s eyes lit up. But Vetn snarled before Tesy could get out his special paints.
His voice was a half-shout, and soundproofed or not, Bviora and Tesy froze and stared at him. All of Vetn’s hair was rising; he was angry, and Tesy didn’t know why. The Thief of Clouds glanced at Bviora.
“Bviora, can we get a second? In private?”
There wasn’t really privacy in the safehouse, but the two walked over to a room where you could sleep to talk. Vetn stayed at one end of the room, probably because Tesy did stink of the sewers. The [Magical Painter] turned to Vetn, spreading his claws.
“Vetn, this is crazy. I know you did this to save me. I get it. But you don’t have to help Bviora for a [Thief]’s honor. Even a token to call Symphony off my head…”
“Shut up. Just shut up. You’ve ruined it. I paid them to call the contract off of you, and here you are, probably getting re-bountied all over again. I wrote you a letter for you to stay put. And now you’re coming in acting like a hero?”
Vetn snapped back. Tesy swallowed hard.
“Hey. I saw you were in danger. If I hadn’t painted that street, Klbkch would have gotten you.”
“I don’t want your help. This is my choice. I could have left the moment Bviora got the Eye of Baleros. But I’m going with her because she’s after the Lightning Thief’s legacy. It’s some game between his descendants—winner takes all. She’s wearing his hand.”
Tesy’s eyes went round.
Vetn scratched at his fur, distracted.
“Yeah. It has his Skills and everything. What I understand is someone’s got the Lightning Thief’s body or his limbs. One of his kids has his leg—”
“Whoa, whoa. His actual leg? That’s sick.”
Tesy held up his claws. He wasn’t as much a fan of the Lightning Thief books as Vetn, who’d read them with Qwera when they were all small. The Gnoll glared at him.
“His fake leg. Remember he had almost every limb replaced? Ear, eye, both legs, arm and hand—you’d have an easier time counting what wasn’t a prosthetic at the end of his life.”
Tesy had a pretty good idea what body part had survived. The Lightning Thief had been rumored to be prolific, and Bviora proved he must have a lot of kids.
“So it’s some kind of giant competition?”
“Yep. For the Eyes of Baleros.”
“Aren’t those…bad…to give to the Lizardfolk?”
That was the entire purpose of the books. Vetn nodded again.
“It is—but Bviora wants to know how her father’s body got stolen and what the ‘great game’ is about. You can’t find out without playing. Having one of the Eyes of Baleros puts her ahead of anyone else. The others have only stolen magical items, which also ‘count’—I’m going to find out more with her. She’s got contacts. Her mother seems like she was actually one of the Lightning Thief’s partners.”
Tesy grew excited, despite the dangers.
“Oh wow! Which one? The Drowned Captain? That [Knight]? Maybe the [Mage] who—”
Vetn’s eyes twitched, and then he snarled.
“Tesy! That’s all you need to know. Tell Qwera when she asks, and get lost, got it? No, draw the ship and then leave. That’s how you can help me.”
Once again, the white-scaled Drake froze. This wasn’t like how Vetn normally was. He got angry, sure, he was grumpy and a loner and stingy as heck, but he wasn’t like this.
He began drawing, avoiding the topic, dipping his brush in a magical pot of paint. A simple sailing ship—and Tesy drew a breeze behind it to get it out to sea fast. After five minutes of Vetn prowling around, sniffing the air and coughing about Tesy’s stench, the Drake found the words to speak.
“I’m going with you.”
Vetn turned slowly.
“No, you’re not.”
“You need me. A [Magical Painter] is useful everywhere he goes. Plus, Izril’s kinda dangerous right now. Think about it, Vetn. Remember our heists? We can pull the old cloud trick again, or I can help you get into a vault!”
Tesy grew excited just thinking about it. Some of their greatest escapades had been together, though he’d let Vetn take all the credit. He began smiling at Vetn, who was just staring at him, eyes tired and still angry and…
“Tesy. Did you even read my letter?”
The Drake’s brush slipped, and he quickly undid a bad stroke on his notebook. He ducked his head and, after a few seconds, muttered.
The Thief of Clouds stared at his friend for a long time. Tesy, Vetn, and Qwera. Three kids from the streets of nowhere, growing up together.
Big sister Qwera, always hunting for the next profit. Nervous about her fur and hating the tribes for reasons she’d never really explained until later.
Tesy, painting on everything, getting into mischief with Vetn, who stole and got caught and sometimes had to have Qwera bail the two of them out.
The good old days. Timeless, perfect. Only, it seemed like one of them didn’t feel that way. Vetn stared at Tesy as the Drake avoided his look, and that was classic too. In the end, Vetn found a chair until Tesy began to peek at him from behind his drawing. The Gnoll, though, didn’t look ready to make up and be best of friends again.
He just sat there and looked—lost.
Five members of Symphony were down. The Slayer was playing no games. But Linvios had found the right safehouse.
The one called Bviora, allegedly one of the Lightning Thief’s daughters, was in one corner of the room, Sellme and Vetn on the other end. Linvios knew that based on the [Detect Heat] spell. He was about to have hearing, too.
One of Symphony had finished boring a hole into the safehouse. Normally, that kind of thing was warded against, but the [Thieves] had picked the lock, and the safehouse was either cheap or the magical protections hadn’t been activated.
Sloppy. That was the mistake a young [Thief] or [Rogue] made only once. And they were…very young. The Drake, the Human, the Gnoll.
He had a job to do. Linvios knew there was a backdoor to the safehouse. There always was. So he was waiting for Symphony to locate and secure it. The [Painter], Sellme, could probably get out through the roof or the walls or the sewers.
Symphony was everywhere. For the moment, Linvios listened. Knowledge was power. His employers wanted to know who, exactly, wanted the Eyes of Baleros. The answer was almost certainly Nagas, but which ones and where?
He heard Vetn’s voice—at least one of the three seemed to know the odds against them. Sellme sounded like what Linvios had expected. Someone who would destroy Requiel ute Minen, that beautiful painting and everything else.
Strange, he’d liked Sellme before this. Thumbing your nose at the rich or corrupt or simply powerful was something you should be allowed to do without punishment. Such a disappointment.
They were very young. He was an [Assassin]. He’d done worse. Linvios felt not much of anything, certainly not doubt. Until Vetn began speaking.
“How long are we gonna do this, Tesy?”
“Do what, Vetn?”
The hazy form of Vetn’s heat signature was compacted. He must be sitting. Linvios checked on the Slayer’s position; he had apparently stopped by the harbor mouth. Intelligent. Maybe he’d be amenable to a drink afterwards. It didn’t do to cultivate enemies like him—for now—
“Don’t be stupid. You read my letter. I told you to do something with your life, not paint on walls and ruin paintings all the time.”
“I am doing something. I’m helping you. Listen, Vetn, I know I messed up—”
A thump. One of the members of Symphony near the Maestro twitched; someone had thrown something. Maybe a shoe? Vetn got up to pick it up.
“Did you read my letter or not? I risked my life—I got stabbed—for you. Only for you! I wouldn’t have done that for anyone else. Not Erin Solstice that everyone seems to love, not Mrsha. Maybe not even Qwera. And you—you act like you don’t even care. You followed me when I told you I wanted you to be safe.”
“We’re friends, Vetn. Best friends. I can’t just leave you—”
Tesy’s voice was faint. But Linvios was feeling a kind of slow crawl down his scales. Now he was listening, listening and putting together a conclusion fast. Vetn dropped back onto the chair or bed and spoke wearily.
“Yeah. I get it. That’s how you think. You know something, Tesy?”
“The last time we were all together, after we saved Mrsha, Qwera pulled me aside and offered me a job. To be her security or something. Easy pay, I guard her stuff, maybe sabotage other [Merchants], but nothing too illegal.”
“Sounds like you’d never accept.”
Tesy tried to laugh nervously. Vetn didn’t.
“Yeah. Well, she didn’t expect me to. But she did ask me—if I had any plan or anything. A goal. A future. She bugs us about it all the time.”
“That’s good old big sister Qwera.”
“…I used to think so too. But she has a point. She always has a point.”
Vetn’s voice was dropping now, and Linvios heard a murmur from the First Violin.
“Almost in position. Countdown, Maestro?”
He listened to the murmurs as Vetn went on.
“I thought about it a lot, especially after that bar with Mrsha and—and other things. How long are we gonna run around like kids, Tesy? Getting into trouble, breaking each other out of scrapes?”
“Those were the best times in our lives.”
Linvios adjusted his grip on his sword. He opened his mouth to count down from three, and Vetn’s voice rose.
“Yeah? It was for me, for a while. But I’m tired of it, Tesy. How long are we going to be kids, doing nothing but scraping by and stealing and getting into trouble? How long are you—going to pretend not to see how I feel about you? Even when I write it down?”
Linvios’ teeth clicked together. He paused and spoke a word.
Now this was interesting. Not pleasant, but Symphony was listening now with real interest. They did love dramas, plays—and this was a tragedy in the final act.
“Feel? I—I dunno what you’re talking about, Vetn. Listen, we’re like family. That kinda stuff—”
“You know I’m a Turnscale.”
Dead silence, now. Even Bviora was probably listening in. Tesy responded after half a minute.
“I—I’m always helping when we visit.”
“When we visit. You don’t get it, fine. But you know I like you.”
“I…we’re friends, Vetn. I don’t—it’s strange, you know?”
Vetn’s voice was low now, a growl, but not of anger. Just…intensity. He sounded lost and tired.
“Strange. I swear you have the most fun there. You always hint at it. They love you, you know.”
“But you don’t dance. You draw beautiful clothing and help them live out their dreams and help us get back at the idiots, but you don’t dance. Because it’s weird? You like a lot of them.”
“It’s sort of weird, Vetn. Listen, I’m not—”
“Yeah. Of course you’re not if you say you’re not. But you could do me a favor and tell me to my face. I couldn’t do it for years, and every time you got into trouble and I helped, I wished I could say it. Now I wrote it down, and you pretend like you never saw it. I said I like you, Tesy. I don’t want to be best friends. Can’t you—can’t you even look at me?”
Linvios adjusted the flower in the button of his jacket. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. Now this was a painting sadder than he wished to see before his own eyes. He heard not a word from within, and out of courtesy for the Thief of Clouds, he did wait.
Counting down the seconds, and the minutes, that surely felt like hours. Until, slowly, Vetn got up and left the room. Then Linvios whispered.
The wall imploded in a single moment. Linvios leapt into the saferoom, looking Sellme in the eye. He heard a scream, then swore.
Klbkch wondered why everyone wanted the Eye of Baleros so badly after he ran into Symphony.
He didn’t know assassin groups, but he remembered them vividly from the inn and the Trial of Blades. This was not a second-rate group. They were apparently equivalent to the Named-rank team led by Deniusth the Violinist: Orchestra.
“Strange. All this effort. The Oteslia agent wanted the Eye. What is so special about that thing? Xrn uses it to fuel the preservation spells in the Hives. All of them, true…but there are artifacts with that much power. Back in Rhir, we used one to warm everything up.”
He supposed he really didn’t understand magic. But the thought occurred to Klbkch that maybe—just maybe—this was about something more important than his swords.
He sat there on one of the members of Symphony, who groaned faintly, at the mouth of the harbor. They weren’t dead.
“I could kill you. You are an [Assassin]. But I am a Senior Guardsman…politics about being friendly with Ilvriss’ stupid city. Ilvriss is Erin’s ally. Life was easier when I just killed everything.”
The Slayer felt gloomy. Here he’d felt like this was a return to his glory days. But you never got to go back in time like that, did you? It was all so complicated now.
Did he even have the will to kill? Klbkch thought about it. Then he heard a thump, saw the smoke rising two streets away, and rose slowly. A piece of roofing tile flew down from the sky. Klbkch let it hit him in the head, hard, and it glanced off and smashed onto the ground.
At least a limb or two. From the one with the gemstone hand. Erin wouldn’t begrudge him for removing something Bviora had already lost. And if that Maestro got in his way—Klbkch would repay him for threatening Erin.
With a sword.
In the stomach.
He ran towards the explosion, but halted, aware the [Thieves] would be running. Sure enough—
“Run! Dead gods, run!”
Bviora, Vetn, and even Tesy were streaking away from black-clad figures chasing after them. There was that keening wail of a song—Symphony must have jumped them. Once again they got away?
“The luck of Demons. Not this time.”
Klbkch planted himself in the street. He saw Vetn running full-tilt, staring back the way he’d come with a look of disbelief on his face. Bviora, eyes widening in horror as she saw him.
And Tesy. That idiot who looked so stupid and confident, like a child pulling a prank and not realizing he was eighteen and could be legally held responsible for his actions under Drake law—
—He looked a bit off for some reason all of a sudden.
Like Relc had when Klbkch told him about his daughter being in danger. Like Erin had after meeting the Goblin Chieftain. Like someone had taken a brick and smashed it across his face, metaphorically speaking.
Bviora’s hand blurred. Klbkch saw a flash, faster than even he could imagine, reaching out towards him. To steal his swords!
The Slayer dodged. He leaned to one side, throwing himself back, and the hand—missed. Bviora tried to correct it, but she didn’t have control of the Skill. The hand flashed past Klbkch, and he whirled.
“Run! He dodged it! He—”
She was within striking range. Klbkch tensed—and Tesy threw himself forwards.
“Take the boat and run, Vetn! Run!”
Of course, Klbkch had already attacked. His swords came together like scissor blades. The hardest Chirtix blades forged in the True Antinium’s Hives hit Bviora’s arm right where crystal met flesh—
Klbkch stared at his swords as they shook and emitted a sound that shattered every piece of glass on the street. Bviora screamed in pain and kept running. He’d hit her hard enough to cut her in half—
“What is that made of?”
Klbkch wondered aloud and decided to just take them down at the legs. Vetn was twisting with Bviora, eyes wide, as Klbkch lined up for a second attack—and the Slayer slammed into a brick wall.
He half broke through it, but it arrested his momentum. Klbkch stepped back and decided he’d beat Tesy to the point of unconsciousness first. And cut his stupid brush and notebook to shreds.
He turned, sword cutting through the air as Tesy drew with a blur. Klbkch had to admit Sellme was quick. But he wasn’t a match f—
Klbkch stared into the fiery glow for a second and jumped before a wave of magma crashed over the brick wall and ran down the street, setting fire to every piece of wood it touched. The heat was almost as intense as the real thing.
It was so hot it burned Tesy, and he staggered back, screaming. Klbkch landed on a roof. That was…not expected.
He leapt down, swords scything for Tesy, but the wind slammed into him, picked him up—Klbkch slashed wildly, trying to remember how to redirect his momentum. Tesy was flying too.
Sellme was going insane. Klbkch finally remembered how to do it and whirled his blades, counteracting the air pulling him up. He landed as the [Magical Painter] screamed at him, and now Tesy was pulling another page from the back of his book. Klbkch took one look at what Tesy had drawn in his darkest hours—and decided to go for Vetn and Bviora instead.
He wondered, as he leapt from roof to roof, dodging whatever the hell was crashing after him, some great beast of blackness with scales and horns and melted features—
—Why Tesy was crying.
Symphony was streaming after the [Thieves], leaping out of the sewers and their ambush routes, throwing poisoned blades and playing music that cut the air. Shadows chasing more shadows in the false night. But the cover of darkness wasn’t protecting the [Thieves].
Vetn dodged a wave of sound on pure instinct as he saw the First Violinist draw her bow across the strings of her violin. He felt the air ripple past his right arm, and the brick wall past him cracked, splintering stone and throwing up dust.
Salazsar’s best killers. His heart was in his throat. Symphony should have gotten Vetn and Bviora in the safehouse. Someone had stopped them, and even now, he and Bviora were dead.
More secret agents were marching down with all of Covieke’s Watch and militia, closing a net around the harbor. Klbkch was on their heels.
They were dead, but Tesy—
Tesy had opened his black pages.
A tornado was raging across the city, tearing the roofs off houses. Vetn knew there were people in the homes. He could hear screams.
The tornado had eyes and limbs. It was no mere act of nature. Vetn had seen it. Sellme’s darkest dreams. The burning torrent of magma was streaming towards the sea, and the agents and Symphony were fighting.
A beast was rampaging down one street; stylized monsters thin and tall as houses were creeping down another street, biting and tearing with odd, asymmetrical grace.
Tesy had drawn those the day he had seen real monsters that looked like people. Vetn kept running as Bviora gasped, staring behind her at the chaos tearing apart the entire harbor area.
Covieke was being well and truly destroyed. There was fire raging from one street, a tornado in the skies, and Vetn had seen something huge demolish a house.
Sellme had come to another Drake city, but his paintings no longer adorned walls. They were bringing so much wrath that even Symphony had to turn and fight—or die. Vetn couldn’t believe his eyes. Bviora was just as wide-eyed as they reached the harbor mouth.
“You never told me he could do that!”
Vetn had never seen Tesy do that. He hesitated a second, then whirled and tossed the page on the water.
A boat appeared, wind blowing, and Bviora hesitated before leaping into it. Vetn panted.
“It’ll last for at least half an hour. Oh—that idiot!”
The sails were furled. He grabbed for a rope, glad at least that Tesy had drawn it accurately. Bviora squeaked.
“Let me help you with that.”
Klbkch tugged the sail down. Vetn turned—and froze as he saw a blade at his throat. The Slayer of the Free Antinium was smiling.
It was the kind of smile that wasn’t. Klbkch was exhaling harder than usual, but he’d lost the thing Tesy had conjured, and the [Magical Painter] was fighting Symphony by the sounds of it.
“You are not quicker than I. Now. Step off the boat or I will chop off your hands. Your left hands.”
Bviora and Vetn slowly stepped off the boat, and Vetn squeezed his eyes shut a second, then stared at Bviora, hoping she had something. Anything.
“It was almost fun for a bit. Until I decided it was not. I am incredibly angry. Move and I will kill…hurt you.”
Klbkch’s voice was calm. Vetn’s shook.
“If you let us go—you’ll have to fight all of Symphony to get at us or steal the Eye back.”
Klbkch paused a second.
“I don’t care about this damn Eye. I don’t care about you. I care that you stole my sword, and it feels like that was the least consequential part of this affair! Eye of Baleros this. Eye of Baleros that—”
His blade dug into Vetn’s throat and released a line of blood.
“What is so important about this stupid object, and why shouldn’t I just break it now? Answer me!”
He was going to cut them down. Vetn could almost see it. Bviora was going to try something, and Klbkch was going to take her arm off in a second. He wasn’t an idiot; this time he’d just cut her flesh instead of the artifact. And they were under-levelled against him. Vetn tried to find something to answer Klbkch to his satisfaction. An answer to maybe convince him to let them go?
There was none. Anything you told Klbkch would let him know how important this was, a fact the Slayer seemed to be realizing by the second. A voice spoke from the side, amused, light, and filled with a kind of rapturous delight in the very fact that she spoke and the words were heard at last.
“Why, it’s at the center of the fate of Baleros. Even mortals can see that. That you cannot, ‘Slayer’, is so very interesting. It drew even me out, before my mother.”
Then Vetn felt the silver blade against his throat withdraw, and Klbkch slowly turned to face the woman standing there with sword in hand, traveller’s clothing and a simple scabbard on her waist, as if she could have walked into any city, a nondescript Human among the many of this world.
Except that she smiled like Zeladona of Blades. Except that the air hummed around her, and her eyes looked like a hundred thousand battlefields, and there was an air to her voice like the scream of soldiers shouting defiance.
Except that she had snuck up behind all three without a word. Klbkch’s voice trembled.
“Who—what—I know this feeling.”
He forgot about Bviora and Vetn. He lifted his swords as Cauwine, the Goddess of Last Stands, dead goddess, set foot in this world and flicked her sword up.
“Yes. One of my half-sisters is buried in Rhir. I am Cauwine, Klbkchhezeim of the Antinium. I. Challenge. You.”
He froze one second, the Antinium, to understand what she meant and take in the gravity of what she was. Then he moved with all the speed and strength of his greatest hour.
Vetn saw as he leapt into the boat and Symphony poured out into the harbor and he heard Tesy scream his name—
She was faster.
Klbkch was not ready for this. He had lost his Silver Illusion techniques. His swords could still move as fast, and he traced a killing pattern he had used to slay his foes in the direst of battles—
She was faster. Zeladona of Blades had been just as skilled, but this person—Cauwine—was even more dangerous.
When she swung her sword, his Chitrix blades rang. Rang so badly Klbkch had to drop them, where they cracked and jerked across the streets, tearing the road up until he seized them. And she sounded amused.
“It didn’t break. Few blades ever survived even a halfhearted blow.”
“I wILL KiLl yOU.”
He slashed across her chest, and she jumped, stepped on the flat of his blade, and leapt again. He barely felt it. Footwork Skill? She had begun jumping before he’d begun the slash.
She read him like one would read a book. The tip of her longsword touched his shoulder, and he staggered. It felt like Moore had struck him. His chitin was cracked.
She has the bladeskill of someone who can use it to bend reality. A Sword School—but more. Yet she wasn’t killing him. Klbkch pursued her four more seconds, then whirled.
He threw a sword straight at Bviora’s face. Cauwine caught it midair, then dropped the blade in distaste. She regarded her hand.
“That was forged to slay the likes of me. It has all the wrath of your kind in it.”
It hurt her? Or she didn’t care to—Klbkch snatched the sword up and leapt towards the boat sailing out of the harbor. This time, she cut the air, and he tried to block it.
Klbkch landed, facing the city of Covieke, and spun around. Had she just turned him around in midair? It felt like she’d cut a sliver out of reality and pasted it back in the opposite direction.
“Today is a poor day to do battle, Slayer. I remember a bit of who I was. You aren’t ready for me. Perhaps your kin on Rhir are closer to what I seek.”
She sounded disappointed as she stood there, blocking his way. Klbkch was panting.
“You want the Eye of Baleros?”
“Oh. No. I want them to take it. That’s why I appeared to you and them.”
Cauwine pointed her sword at Symphony. The Maestro stood on the harbour mouth as well, the thirty members of Symphony around him, taking aim at the two [Thieves]. Klbkch saw the Maestro staring at Cauwine. She’d left a cut down his cheek, running down all the way towards his leg.
Klbkch was ready to fight, but at this point, he couldn’t even tell if cutting her would do anything. Just like the other sleeping god. Cauwine stared up at the sky, then down at him.
“My mother makes plans. I do not. I swore to find what is new. Do you sense it? The potential of what they are trying to do with that thing called the ‘Eye of Baleros’—I want to see what comes next. For better or ill, I will give it that chance.”
She smiled wryly, like a child up to no good, and then like the oldest of beings eternally filled with youth, and he had no idea what she meant or what she saw.
But he decided the Eye of Baleros could not be taken. So Klbkch leapt, and she grabbed him mid-leap and bore him towards the sea. He swore as he slashed at her and she vanished into the waves, becoming seafoam and a whisper, that she was smiling in delight.
“I want to let the world turn, Slayer.”
When he surfaced—it was too late.
The Maestro of Symphony watched Klbkch and the woman who called herself ‘Cauwine’ fight. The Drake was bleeding; his handkerchief was pressed against his scales, soaked with blood. And he knew, in his very marrow, she’d barely bothered to wound him.
Linvios Reiscale did not know who that woman was, only that he feared her and adored her and would never cross blades again with her without the greatest reason in the world. Even Zeladona had not scared him as badly as she.
Covieke’s harbor looked like some horrible fairytale as the Maestro regarded the world around him. The tornado was still ripping across part of the city as the other Walled Cities’ agents tried to end it. Paint and blood was running in the streets filled with rubble.
In the distance, the two [Thieves] were fleeing. Symphony had raced along the harbor, but a wind had the boat, and there was no time to give chase. A Drowned Ship was rising from the waves, shedding water, magical shields glowing like a soap bubble.
This, the Maestro felt, was a beautiful, terrible painting. He stood at the water’s edge along the drydocks as the Thief of Clouds fought with Bviora to turn the boat around. The Gnoll boy was screaming something lost to the wind.
The Maestro was full of regrets. But—he adjusted his lapel as he spoke.
“Symphony has failed too many contracts of late. Take aim.”
That was all he said. The First Violinist nodded; no one but the members of Symphony and the figure kneeling in front of him heard. All the agents of the other Walled Cities saw was Symphony at the harbor, taking aim.
Trumpets raised, flutes loaded with darts. Two [Thieves] on a ship as a Drowned Vessel rose in the distance. Linvios looked ahead and heard a scream from the kneeling figure in front of him.
Symphony fired. A twenty-nine projectile volley, followed again in a second. Explosive darts, poisoned shards of metal. Linvios watched, then shook his head as Sellme’s winds blew the ship further out and it was engulfed by a Drowned Vessel’s shield.
He saw a burning vessel. Torn sails. A masterpiece of art collapsing into the waves. He saw the [Thieves] and the blood washing into the waters and heard a choking sound from before him. A figure trying to rise.
“Maestro, we could give chase.”
The First Violinist offered. Linvios was already shaking his head.
“The Drowned Vessel is armed to the gills. We have orders not to raise tensions higher. Furthermore, if we even reached them before they surfaced, one of the Thousand Lances stands aboard the vessel. Prepare an exit and our summary report.”
Then he looked down at the white-scaled Drake trying to rise and do something, anything. Tesy’s eyes were locked on the burning vessel. Linvios drew his sword, slowly, staring down the blade.
“Sellme. Do you have any last words?”
He heard what sounded like laughter or sobbing. Then Tesy spoke. He looked lost as he gazed at that sinking boat, searching for movement. For anything. When his eyes rose, he met Linvios’ gaze.
“I feel like…I could draw a masterpiece for him.”
His eyes were swimming in an ocean the Maestro looked away from. The Drake saw the [Painter]’s lips moving and swung, faster than the words.
In the silence, the Maestro picked up Sellme’s head. He raised it high into the air for all to see as the body slowly toppled over and slid into the waters.
“Symphony! The [Thieves]—is that Sellme?”
One of Manus’ agents finally reached the docks, wild-eyed and panting. He stared at the head as Linvios felt red droplets stain his clothing forever.
“Is it a fake?”
The other Drake stared at the Maestro and Symphony. Linvios spoke without emotion or inflection.
“Paintings do not bleed.”
He lowered the head and gently tossed it into the waters. In the distance, the Slayer was trying to swim after the Drowned Ship. Symphony did not move. They stood there in silence, then turned and strode away as one without a word or sound.
A black eclipse began to rise at last as ‘dawn’ broke. A sun obscured. A pale ring of burning light casting a gloom over everything. Symphony fled it, back into the shadows.
The performance was over.
Vetn couldn’t breathe. He was lying on the burning ship, pieces of metal buried in his body. When he tried to pull himself up again, he understood why it was so hard.
Most of one arm was gone. The Thief of Clouds stared at it and started laughing. Then his lungs filled up with liquid, and he looked around. He had only one half of his vision. There was something sticking out of his face. The Gnoll croaked.
He wasn’t sure if he said it or just mouthed the words. When Vetn raised his head, he saw the Lightning Thief’s daughter.
She was staring at a hole in her chest where her heart should be. She was sitting against the mast of Tesy’s vanishing ship as the crew of the Drowned Vessel tried to reach them and a figure screamed down from above.
But all Vetn saw was Bviora’s eyes, searching her ruined flesh, then meeting his. The [Thief] whispered as the waters rose, dragging Vetn down.
“You are now part of the great game.”
Then she let go, and an eye rolled across the burning ship, filled with green light and shining as it reflected a continent he had never seen.
Then Vetn closed his eyes and wished he could hear Tesy’s voice.
The deaths of Tesy and Bviora did not reach Erin Solstice’s ears. Be it her failing or Klbkch’s silence as he pursued a sinking ship—she did not think to check with him.
She did emerge from her World’s Eye Theater after bouncing around to half a dozen perspectives.
“And you’re sure nothing…huh. You’re bunkering down with people you trust? Good. Thanks, Cara.”
Erin Solstice had heard nothing from the Earthers. None of them reported anything odd. No figures offering deals. No mysteries. Many hadn’t taken her seriously. Many more she did not know and could not contact.
Yet for all intents and purposes, the day was beginning, and the only odd signs were the eclipse and the flowers.
Nothing was going on.
Nothing at all.
There was dissent in the ranks at 9:15 that Belgrade drew Olesm’s attention to. He marched over with the joint command around The Wandering Inn.
Tersk, Belgrade, and Calruz from Liscor’s 2nd Army.
Wing Commander Embria and the other two Wing Commanders were technically part of the forces under Liscor’s command, but the other two refused to go near the Antinium.
Lieutenant Caoraz and his irregulars from Pallass’ 8th.
And on the Free Antinium’s side, Pawn, Yellow Splatters, Purple Smile, and several members of the 7th Hive like the [Templars] and their own battalion leaders.
The one Antinium who could assume command over Olesm, Xrn, was more preoccupied with Perorn’s forces. Caoraz seemed happy to see people brawling, which said a lot about his soldiers, but he was confused as well.
“I didn’t know Antinium had dissent in the ranks. What’s this about?”
“Inefficiencies. Flying Antinium never squabble. Hello, hello. I am a friendly Antinium.”
Pivr fanned his wings as he scuttled along, and Caoraz promptly stepped behind Calruz, who just grunted as the Flying Antinium tried to extend a feeler.
However, even Caoraz owned to curiosity as they reached a kind of odd argument between three groups of Antinium. Namely, the Painted Antinium, the [Crusaders] of the 7th Hive, and the army’s soldiers.
They were…similar and not. Olesm had observed the stratification of the Painted Antinium and the [Crusaders] personally, but he had noted there was a schism of kinds even between the [Crusaders].
Even with the same class, there was a break between the ones of Xrn’s Hive, who used faith as a weapon and were the kind who became [Templars]—and the [Soldiers] like 5th Battalion or the Beriad.
In fact, it was such a familiar Antinium on one side of the arguing Antinium that Olesm covered his eyes, and half his commanders groaned.
Crusader 57 and a bunch of his buddies were arguing with some Painted Antinium.
“Why are you trying to paint us? We’ve got names and armor. Back off.”
A nervous Worker was holding a pot.
“But you do not have a place on the wall.”
Crusader 57 laughed and nudged Crusader 53, who slapped him, but the Worker pointed.
“Listen, we don’t need a wall. You know what we have?”
Crusader 57 dipped into his pouch and dropped some shining pieces of metal into his palm.
“Coins. That’s valuable. Take your paint and shove it up your ass.”
The Worker regarded the pot of paint in his hands.
“I do not think that is an appropriate action, thank you. The paint is a gift. If you are painted, you will be remembered. Know that if you die in battle, Heaven awaits.”
Olesm stopped, unwilling to tell the Painted Antinium to break it up, but also feeling a sinking feeling in his stomach. Caoraz was eying the Painted Antinium with confusion, but the other Antinium and even Olesm and Calruz understood perfectly what was going on.
Pawn nodded calmly as many heads turned to him. He was the spiritual heart of the Free Antinium—though Yellow Splatters began trembling as the talk moved to Heaven.
Antinium, already quite fearless, had something to look forwards to after death. Yet, as was obvious, not all of them felt that way.
“Heaven awaits? Listen to this guy. Tell you what. Stand in front of us when the fighting starts, alright? I don’t care if it’s real or not. Does Heaven have a Garry-bread hamburger so large I can barely hold it in one hand?”
The Worker answered instantly as Crusader 57 mocked him. The other Worker paused.
“…Well, that sounds stupid.”
Here, of all times, the [Acolyte] grew agitated and angry.
“It is not stupid. It is hope. Ask Pawn. Ask Yellow Splatters what it is like.”
Every head turned to the [Captain], but before the argument could further devolve, Pawn held out a hand.
“Peace. Thracian, let the Antinium who do not wish to be painted go. It is their choice.”
“Oh, thank you, oh mighty and wise Pawn. Do I have permission to wipe my ass, too?”
Crusader 57 was not done with his sarcasm. Unfortunately, he had chosen the wrong person to sass today of all days. Pawn turned to Crusader 57. Crusader 57 offered him four middle fingers—until Pawn’s multifaceted eyes seemed to catch the light and hold it. Like pupils made of light. They flashed, and the other soldier stopped.
“When the enemy comes for us, you will be grateful for our silly prayers and ways, Crusader 57. You are a better soldier than the Painted Antinium. Stand behind us.”
The Worker searched for a response, but then, in a show of rare wisdom, let Squad 5 pull him back and bow and apologize to the [Priest]. Olesm decided now was a good time to call out.
“Squad 5. Since you have so much fun mouthing off to your allies, make sure we have a second set of latrine pits. We might be here a while.”
“Fuck. Yes, Commander. Why didn’t anyone stop me? Stop hitting me—”
They moved off, and Olesm shook his head, checking his watch.
9:17. Time was crawling, today.
“I swear, they’re getting more unique every day.”
“It’s a good thing. Even if they fight. No, especially if they do. It means they’re comfortable saying how they feel. Wait until they start having fistfights. Then you’ll know they’re truly a people, and no one will mistake them for all being the same again.”
Calruz looked actually approving as he grunted, his one hand on his axe. Olesm rubbed at his brows, but he didn’t miss Caoraz staring at him.
“Well, they are people. Why do you think Manus lost?”
He smiled when he saw Caoraz’s expression. Then Olesm had a wicked idea.
“Are the Yoldenites here? We forgot to introduce Lieutenant Caoraz to them.”
He pointed towards the two hundred Drakes, who began whooping as Caoraz groaned.
Levity helped cut the wait. Erin Solstice stopped watching the Antinium fighting. She had wondered if she should go out there, but she’d had a pretty good idea she’d just add to the chaos.
Her eyes followed Yellow Splatters as he stepped back now there was no issue and sat down.
“Why is he so upset?”
She didn’t need an answer now. Everyone was stressed. Even if Yellow Splatters had about ten times the emotional stress of what Olesm did—she glanced at the phone.
“Oh, come on. I turned [Immortal Moment] off. What’s taking her so long?”
Erin’s eyes roamed the battlefield again and again. This time searching for an actual sign of an invisible Cyclops or something. But she was sure her Cyclops, Chaldion, would be ready.
Were they ready? The actual answer was—not quite.
The defenders of The Wandering Inn hadn’t even fully been ready had the attack come at the start. Two notable warriors were absent from the lines. It might not have mattered, but there were two final combatants who were belatedly getting into position.
The first was an adventurer group. Not many were in this fight. Some, like Jewel or Saliss, were here as part of other groups, but for actual teams?
Todi’s Elites, Griffon Hunt, the Flamewardens, the Wings of Pallass, and the Halfseekers were the only Gold-rank teams. Some Silver-ranks had been contracted for the fight, but even the Horns of Hammerad were missing in action.
Halrac, as a Knight of Solstice, was with the inn’s crowd, but his team was fighting with Riverfarm’s forces, so he trooped back into the inn out of the cold after a while like a sensible adventurer.
Yet one team hadn’t been there for the battle at the dawn of the day. They did arrive for second breakfast, but it was later, and the Selphid, Jelaqua Ivirith, had stopped crying by that point long enough to smile. She was newly married, you know.
It had been a bad wedding.
It had already been an unconventional wedding because of how fast it was. Maughin, Pallass’ best [Blacksmith], and Jelaqua Ivirith, a Gold-rank Captain of the Halfseekers, looked good on paper when you wrote it like that.
However, it looked different when you wrote that Jelaqua was a Selphid and Maughin was a Dullahan who had come to Pallass for that community of Dullahans abroad.
Not—implausible. They were both from Baleros, and that explained how they had first gotten to like each other. But Dullahan courtships were predictably long affairs of protocol and getting to know the other’s families, which you understood if you knew anything about their fastidious customs.
The problem wasn’t just the way the two had decided to marry fast, though. It was that Jelaqua was a Selphid, and a Dullahan marrying a Selphid was—well, it was rare.
It was even more controversial than it would have been in Baleros, because these were Dullahans in Pallass, and there was a…perception…that Maughin should have really married another Dullahan in the community or found a spouse from abroad. Another Dullahan.
This had been implicit in their relationship from the start, and Maughin had always been clear he didn’t care for the rumors, especially since he had left home. So the wedding had been arranged on the day before the Winter Solstice because Jelaqua had heard it might get ugly. Then, after some thought, she’d moved it to midnight, the literal moment the Solstice began.
The wedding itself was a small affair, or should have been. Jelaqua, Maughin’s closest friends—most of them [Smiths]—a Drake official, and the Halfseekers had been part of the wedding. Jelaqua had saved on not even having to cater or invite most of The Wandering Inn’s crowd.
She had also amended the wedding dress; even the Drake official had been giving her the side-eye. It wasn’t unheard of—but it was still a sight to see Jelaqua, in one of the remaining Raskghar bodies, wearing a wedding veil and dress over full plate armor with her Demas Metal flail at her side.
If the enemy attacked, she would be dashing out of the wedding straight into the fight. Jelaqua had privately…hoped that might be the case.
Alas, Kaligma or whatever her name was had let the Selphid down. Because while Jelaqua and Maughin had invited very few people, literally only a dozen, the official venue for weddings was packed with Dullahans.
Despite it being midnight. Despite Jelaqua not even telling them where the ceremony was happening. Despite the glare on Maughin’s face when he looked back—you had to understand. It was a Dullahan wedding.
Drakes had a number of customs for weddings, like a tail-band sometimes instead of a wedding ring, and vows like inviting your greatest nemesis—at least, traditionally.
Dullahans had other traditions. One of which was that unlike how Dullahan society normally functioned with highly specific rankings of status and protocol, a wedding was seen as a group event. It needed the approval of not only the spouses, but the families and friends.
There was a tradition in some Human weddings. ‘Speak now or forever hold your peace’ and whatnot. Well, in Dullahan weddings?
They spoke the entire wedding if they had objections, or if they thought it was good. It was a rare moment when they spoke their minds. Because this was such an important occasion, they felt they should speak to reassure the couple this was right, or tell the two in no uncertain terms how they felt.
And this wedding—they did. Loudly.
“Under the august gaze of the Walled Cities, by the authority of Pallass vested in me by the Assembly of Crafts as a due official of marital matters—”
The Drake was trying to get into the ceremony, but he was having to read off his script. Because the voices were loud enough to actually make it hard for even Seborn and Moore to hear one row behind. The Dullahans had crowded into the wedding venue, and Seborn was wondering how much trouble you got in if you threw a smoke bomb into a crowd.
“She looks horrific, standing there.”
“Size is not everything. She has no decorum. No future.”
“The Halfseekers are a fraction of the size they were. Maughin is supporting her; she wears his armor.”
“Her family is not numbered here. She has only one member of her people present. This is an insult.”
“Smith Maughin is being taken advantage of.”
That last one came from a sharp-nosed Dullahan that Seborn knew was Maughin’s very mother. She glared at Seborn, and the Drowned Man held the gaze—but eventually turned around and watched Jelaqua. She was trying to smile, but he noticed her flinching inside her body. It was subtle, but he saw the orange veins move.
Maughin was ignoring his friends, relatives, and the community who’d come to naysay the wedding. Give the giant Dullahan this—and Seborn rarely gave anyone anything for free—he hadn’t backed down when they’d harangued him about Jelaqua.
If anything, he’d grown more stubborn about it. Seborn had it on good authority that Maughin hadn’t invited his own mother because of an incident where they’d had a shouting match. From what he knew of Dullahans, that sort of said how big an incident this was.
“Erin’s let us down for once.”
Seborn had to make a comment. He understood now why Jelaqua had moved the date around twice and actually timed it so they might have to run off to fight for their lives. That would have beat this.
Moore glanced down at Seborn with a face full of pain—and anger—and Ulinde’s eyes widened as she forced herself not to laugh. Jelaqua glanced over with a grateful smile.
Seborn just met her eyes.
Are you happy? He didn’t know, but he’d asked her directly, and she seemed to really like Maughin. The [Armorer] seemed decent, and Seborn thought he understood. After Garen, Jelaqua was probably tired. It was time for her to stop.
So be it. Seborn tuned out the Dullahans and stood taller. They didn’t matter. Even so, he saw how the other Dullahans looked at Jelaqua and Maughin. Maybe they’d drive him out of Pallass. They didn’t even see it, the idiots. Because credit again where it was due—Maughin’s head was lowered, and he was staring at Jelaqua as the Drake fumbled on through the ceremony. But he saw her flinching, and then his head rose, and he turned.
The Dullahans standing behind the wedding guests froze a second as Maughin raised his voice. The dark night outside…Seborn waiting for a single sound from the speaking stone to tell him Erin was in danger…Jelaqua’s worried eyes and her hand reaching for Maughin’s…
It was one moment. Seborn smiled as he saw Maughin’s shoulders hunch and his entire body move to face the Dullahans, not just his head.
That’s right. If you hadn’t done this, you wouldn’t be worthy of it. The Drowned Man heard Maughin’s uncle or someone speak, as if they could not see the [Armorer]’s eyes flashing.
“This marriage is wrong. It was done too fast. It may work in half a year’s time. If Maughin had any respect for us, or that Selphid, they would not rush it.”
Apparently, you didn’t address the groom or bride specifically—you spoke around them like this. Yet it was pointed, and Maughin met his uncle’s eyes. Jelaqua squeezed his arm. He looked at her, smiled grimly, then spoke like someone swinging a hammer down on burning metal.
“I said enough. Be silent.”
The Dullahans gasped. A flurry of voices arose—and then Maughin turned and looked at the Drake. The nervous official kept speaking, and Seborn exhaled.
Moore didn’t quite get it, and Ulinde had to whisper frantically to explain. As Seborn understood it—
Custom was that the bride and groom had to listen to every compliment or complaint, no matter how petty. That meant you were still part of the community, even if Seborn imagined Jelaqua would barely be tolerated and snubbed every second they got.
But Maughin had just told them all to be silent. It meant, plainly, he would not listen to them.
Ties broken. Seborn turned to glance at the anguished faces of horror on the Dullahans and how they looked at Jelaqua with such resentment. They glanced at him, and he shook his head.
“You did this to yourselves.”
They always looked so blank like that. Every time. As if he were speaking another language. The Drowned Man looked at them—then calmly spat on the floor at their feet and watched his friend and Captain get married.
Jelaqua Ivirith was accepting wedding congratulations at 10 AM when the sun finally deigned to rise. The Winter Solstice was, after all, the shortest day in the year.
But many people had forgotten what it looked like.
“An eclipse! Look! Wait, no, don’t look. Erin said it was bad. I don’t know why, though.”
Bird pointed it out excitedly to the Antinium with him, some of whom stared up at the black disc surrounded by a nimbus of light.
An eclipse. It happened twice a year like clockwork and, rarely, other times. Auspicious symbols in the sky.
When people saw the eclipse beginning, they tensed, and for a bit, everyone expected this to be the moment. Yet—once again—nothing happened.
Twenty-four hours in the day, same as Earth. No motion for the first ten hours. The most unpleasant things so far were someone peeing on a Rock Crab by accident thinking it was a boulder and Jelaqua’s wedding.
This was not to say that the dead gods were inactive. On the contrary.
Kasigna stood in the lands of the dead. Cauwine was walking the mortal world. The whereabouts of the other four—unknown.
On this day of days, fate began something that, even if it was never fully clear, even to the gods, became tangible.
At moments of power, you could reach out and pluck at destiny’s strings. Similarly, if the boundary between life and death was normally a veil as insurmountable as a wall, you could reach across it now.
The first thing the dead gods did was look and see. Peer across the world for enemies and advantages alike. Then they spoke and acted according to their whims.
But—carefully. This day could not be wasted, after all. Like the [Innkeeper], they had plans, these dead gods. Plans that had to grind over reality and make the impossible a truth that they might live again.
Yet the last warrior had yet to arrive at the Solstice.
The Human armies of four of the Five Families, three Walled Cities, and countless irregulars, like 4th Company and the 7th Hive, were growing restless.
They had been promised a great foe, and all they had gotten was cold. They had been told this mattered, and yes, the leaders of many forces had assembled.
But there was a growing question in the back of many heads: what if everyone had been duped by the [Innkeeper]? Was she really someone who had summoned Zeladona? Or was it all a trick? After all, if you didn’t see it happen with your own two eyes, had it really happened? That was logic. True, it was logic a child would come up with and recognize, but some people only got that far.
Some of them believed. The Free Antinium believed, but even the certainty of trained [Soldiers] gave way to skepticism. They knew logistics and distance. If the enemy was not within the range of their many eyes and spells—the odds of them even reaching Liscor by nightfall seemed low, surely.
Belief was a strange thing. Even Erin’s greatest friends and allies had good cause to doubt her; they had seen her come back from the dead, but her warnings about apocalyptic end times were hard to swallow.
Unless you had been there and seen Khelt’s ghosts or the Gnolls raising the new lands. If this was your first time—you could be forgiven for it all.
In fact, there was a nonbeliever in Erin’s very inn, amidst her sworn protectors. Ser Normen of the Order of Solstice, Grandmaster for his sins, did not believe that today of all days he had the Winter Faeries pestering him.
They’d largely left him alone. He’d even gotten the impression they liked him, but after two incidents where one had spiked a snowball into his earhole, he snapped.
“Fine! I’ll get you what you want!”
They followed him, jeering, exactly eleven annoying fae. Well, ten blue, one green.
“Yer ears are full of cotton! And snow!”
“How hard is it to oblige us? Yer an armored clam; we’d have bothered Ryoka if we’d known it’d take this long, dumbass.”
“Yeah! Burned skin! Ugly!”
“Hmm. That one ‘tis too far.”
“Right. Hurry up, ye stupid spent match!”
Ser Normen liked the fae…well, normally. They were a fascinating part of magic in the world, but today, when he thought Erin might die if he didn’t fight with all his heart? They were really getting in his way.
“Make it nice. Something good. I know you have at least one set. Remember, no iron!”
Shaestrel herself was lecturing him as he tore into the storage room where they’d put the Order of Solstice’s donated equipment and put together what they had demanded all morning. Jewel followed Normen in.
“Normen? Er, Grandmaster—”
“Does she call him that in bed? Hah!”
“Shut up, Theillige. ‘Tis an auspicious moment.”
“Only to you.”
Above Normen’s head, three faeries got into a fistfight. Jewel turned red, and Normen growled.
“Can you help me put this together? There should be a stand somewhere…it might stand on its own.”
Honestly, it wasn’t that much work, even if it was tedious. He remembered the lesson the other [Knights] had given him, and Jewel hunted for matching pieces as she pulled out a gauntlet and fitted it onto a vambrace.
They were assembling a set of plate armor. Standard stuff, nothing like his Demas Metal; they had enough regular metals to armor everyone from Vess to Embraim, albeit needing custom armor for Antinium. This one looked mismatched, and it wasn’t hard—just not the kind of thing Normen needed to do today!
He supposed he had more time than he thought. It really was hard to wait for a fight to happen. It felt like when you were eying the other bloke and waiting for your moment to hit him. When you were past words or stopping and it was just that unbearable moment before violence.
Yet—Normen caught himself as he gritted his teeth, and his armor blazed a second with green fire.
Remember your honor. He was more than a [Thug]. He was—
“Oi! Get a move on!”
Someone beaned him with a snowball to the back of the head, and Ser Normen wondered if he could put one of the faeries in a jar and then throw it across the Floodplains. He and Jewel worked until they had the set assembled. Jewel blew on her cold fingers and sighed as she sat back on her haunches.
“There. What is this for?”
“Ask them. Are you happy?”
Normen stared at the set of armor. It was…useless. Like one of the sets you could see standing for ornamentation, the suit of armor looked nice—but you wouldn’t assemble it like this even if you were going to wear it.
“Stand it upright, fools! What are ye, daft?”
Shaestrel bellowed at the two of them, and Jewel was developing the scowl Normen had been wearing all morning. They pulled the suit of armor upright as the faeries spiraled around it.
“Eh, it’s mismatched!”
“Spot of rust on the breastplate, there. Cheap stuff. Hey, lift the visor!”
“Is this a good spot? I’m bored already.”
“In a storage room? Are ye daft, ye cunt Theillige? Drag it outside!”
“In the snow? See here—”
Jewel tried to argue with them, and the faeries screamed at her.
In the end, Embraim had to appear and help the swearing Jewel and Normen carry the suit of armor outside. The [Pyre-Knight of Glory] glanced at Normen’s fed up face.
“Grandmaster Normen, what are—”
They put the suit of armor outside in the snow. A few [Soldiers] who’d gotten lucky enough to go to the inn for an early lunch glanced at the annoyed Knights of Solstice. Vess, Halrac, and even Ama and Durene had appeared; all the members present around Liscor at the moment.
“Ser Normen, I have…do you need a claw?”
Vess waved something at Normen surreptitiously as they all glanced up at the faeries spiraling around and arguing about ‘timing’ and ‘placement’ and ‘audiences’. Normen looked over and saw Vess had a glass jar.
Ama had a net. Halrac shook his head slowly with Durene behind them, clearly warning the Knights of Solstice not to try.
If they made one more stupid demand of him, Normen was going to try the net. He glowered up at the Winter Faeries, who were laughing and bullying one of the blue ones.
“Are you done?”
He shouted, and they went still. Then Normen felt a chill as eleven pairs of eyes regarded him, and his bad temper became a sudden wariness, like meeting a Face on the streets or sensing a dagger at your back.
Sometimes he forgot they were supposed to be important. But then he heard a tinkling laugh, and someone hugged Shaestrel once. A single Frost Faerie spoke.
“Aye! I’m ready.”
Then the one called Theillige dove down as Normen watched, through the open visor of the suit of armor. A falling star of frost laughing as she vanished into it. The dark opening flashed, and Normen blinked and raised a hand to cover his eyes—
Then the visor snapped shut. Normen blinked—then recoiled as a gauntleted hand came up and adjusted the helmet. A shoulder rotated—the suit of armor moved, and he realized it was no longer empty.
There was someone inside it. Not just a tiny faerie either—Normen stepped back as the visor turned, and frost and blue light began to leak through its slits.
Ama pointed the jar at the suit of armor like a weapon. But then she dropped it. Because the armor looked different than the mismatched pieces of steel.
Frost-covered gauntlets rose, and the visor leaking a frosty mist colder than the winter air regarded the ancient tracings on the armor. A fur cloak hung around the shoulders of the warrior who wore a buckler and shortsword at their side. They weren’t the tallest warrior that Normen had ever seen.
In fact, they might have only been five foot five. Yet cold clung to them like it was part of their very nature. And when the helmet rose, Normen detected no eyes through the slits. Just a presence older than anyone he had ever met.
Older than Typhenous. Older than the eyes of Demsleth. And where the warrior stood, frost refroze the grass and mud. For a second, they stood there. Then a chorus of cheering voices sang overhead.
The ten faeries. They flew around the figure who had taken an aspect in the armor that Normen had pulled out, screaming. Sobbing?
“What a trick! What a joke!”
“Do you see it, three-in-one? Goddess of battles? Come here—come meet your betters!”
“You didn’t even notice! You daft idiots!”
“Hail a member of the Faerie Court! Theillige of the Wild Hunt comes for you!”
Kevin had returned to check on the inn. He was stepping out of the outhouse and froze, one hand on the door. Normen looked blankly at the warrior and then Kevin’s face.
The warrior called Theillige didn’t speak with the same chiming voice he had heard a second ago. Rather, they said nothing at all. They just stood there, helmet swiveling slowly. As if taking in this entire place once more.
But their presence began to change the world around them with each second they stood in the Floodplains.
“Damn wind. Now we’ll be freezing till the enemy comes around. Primera, warming aegis, would you? What’s the time, Seconda?”
“Five past ten, Lord Xitegen.”
Lord Xitegen Terland was sitting and waiting for something to happen, looking royally annoyed by the lack of anything in the morning.
His subordinates couldn’t hide their skepticism either. Why, even the Wind Runner had flown off, and the nobles were getting grumpy. They didn’t like to wait.
Lord Tyrion Veltras himself would have allowed he was impatient today. He had been weighing going to check on Hethon and Sammial, but as he stood with Lord Xitegen, his head slowly turned.
He caught it, frowning, and focused on Xitegen. Then—his head slowly rotated again.
“I would like to check on my sons, Xitegen. I should not be out of contact long, but given the—”
His head snapped back to Xitegen. The [Lord] noticed, and his eyes rose.
“Something caught your eye, Tyrion?”
This time, Tyrion let his head turn slowly. He had no idea why—but he stared at The Wandering Inn. No, at the door. His eyes narrowed as he picked out a crowd around the inn. Something was happening? He reached for his sword—then Xitegen swore.
“What in Rhir’s hells is that? To arms!”
He sprang to his feet, and someone started blowing a horn. The Drakes were already shooting to their feet. Tyrion reached for his sword and felt a chill run down all his body. Not just of warning; he felt the actual cold of—what?
His eyes were drawn to a swirling vortex in the air high above Liscor. People were pointing, and Xitegen was rightfully alarmed.
It looked like a maelstrom of snow. Was this the attack? Tyrion didn’t think so, but the wind had picked up, and a blizzard was manifesting in real time! He stared at it, and his skin tingled as he remembered a moment during the Summer Solstice. Warriors, cold and faceless, accompanying the strange folk who had come to the banquet.
“I’m sensing something familiar. It must be the totems we put down. Gamel? Gamel! Am I having delusions or am I sensing…”
Laken Godart’s voice rose as his head turned. Then Tyrion Veltras was riding, ignoring the calls to muster up. It wasn’t a foe. At least—he hoped it wasn’t.
The final warrior to make it to the Winter Solstice was a single warrior of the fae of Avalon, smuggled in with the other faeries.
Theillige stood in the snow, one gauntleted hand held out, catching snowflakes that clung to the armor. Frost was covering their boots and rising across the armor; so cold were they that it refused to melt.
Yet they did not freeze the [Knights] and [Soldiers] staring at them. The warrior of the Wild Hunt seemed peaceful, and when that ancient visor turned to Normen, it nodded at him.
“Ser—Dame—[Knight]? Greetings. Are you an ally?”
Normen wasn’t sure how to address the figure. Above him, the faeries were laughing and spiraling, still calling out ancient titles and shouting in joy and sorrow and woe.
The warrior regarded Normen a moment, then nodded their head.
A dry voice, a cough. Lieutenant Caoraz had paused with some of the members of Liscor’s army who’d dragged him to the inn for a bite to eat. The surly Drake looked at the winter fae and put a clawed hand on his sword.
Out of reflex. The armored figure regarded him, and the Drake’s clawed hand clutched the hilt tight in alarm—then fell away. Slowly, Caoraz lifted his hands.
Normen was still staring when the sound of hooves heralded Lord Tyrion Veltras. The [Lord] dismounted in a single move, stopping when the visor swung his way. The Lord of House Veltras spoke breathlessly.
“Have we met?”
Another nod. Now, it seemed like the silent Theillige had gotten used to their surroundings. The eyes of the Floodplains and everyone on Liscor’s walls were on them. But all the warrior did was lift a finger to their brow, and a green faerie bowed in the air.
“The honor was mine, Theillige. Do as you wilt. No more rules.”
Shaestrel received a third nod, and then Theillige began walking. Ser Normen, Caoraz, Tyrion, Jewel, Wing Commander Embria, riding over and halting—they followed like a crowd entranced. Where were they going?
Where else? Straight into The Wandering Inn. A Winter Fae put their hand on the door’s handle, swung it open, and a howling storm blew into the inn like a traveller in the eternal winter seeking shelter. They took a step into the inn, and a napping [Innkeeper] woke up, fell out of her chair, and scrambled to her feet.
What is going on? What’s going on!?
The Grand Design of Isthekenous started panicking when it noticed Kasigna getting worried all of a sudden. It had been watching her wondering what the hell was going on, and it was not happy about what she was doing.
But then it noticed something—odd—happening around the inn. Even it couldn’t figure out what was going on—until that figure stepped foot in Erin’s inn.
Erin Solstice hit Level 53 in [Magical Innkeeper]. Assuming she qualified for her Level 50 capstone, of course. The Grand Design started frantically recalculating. What was entering Erin’s inn? It couldn’t even tell. Every time it tried to lock onto the figure, it was—
Different. An ancient knight swung open the doors to Erin Solstice’s inn, walking out of a blizzard. A warrior of the frozen era, the challenger who would walk into the King of Knights’ court and silently challenge the greatest warrior to a duel.
A quiet soldier of frost that the Order of Seasons tried to emulate. Herald of the winter. Merciless, faceless warrior.
They took a single step into the inn and changed. The same person who some called ‘Theillige’ walked across the floorboards, but that was such a limited name in a limited language.
Liska poked her head out the portal room’s door, and later swore on her fur that she had seen a living piece of ice from the dawn of elementals walking through Erin’s hall, simultaneously over sixty feet tall, a colossus of ice armed with a crude shield and sword hewn out of the first glaciers ever made—and small enough to walk down the hallway.
Someone, something even older than mountains. A warrior to judge the very titans. Then—when Liska rubbed her eyes, the figure passed down the hallway as Lyonette threw open the doors to the common room—screamed—and fled shrieking.
For the [Princess] had seen a snarling beast’s jaws of a helmet and gore still clinging to the frozen blade. Hunched shoulders, the fragments of bone from shattered skulls clinging to their armor.
A killer without artifice. The Faerie King’s executioner, who had wet their blade on the blood of deities and killed without remorse. Winter’s merciless Wild Hunt that howled and slew innocents and the guilty alike where it rode.
And surely, the figure was all three of these things and more. They passed under the eyes of the hidden watchers in the hallway, put a hand on the door, and paused a second. Then—when they thrust open the door, it seemed they knew how they wanted to come into the inn.
The [Innkeeper] was waiting for the figure who entered the inn. She bowed, and a travel-weary figure stood in the common room, looking about as if it were their first time.
Erin Solstice stared at the strange metal-and-leather jacket. The helmet was closer to a motorcycle helmet, and a black, plastic visor frosted over was brushed by a gloved hand. A wild rider of the modern age rolled their shoulders, then nodded at Erin Solstice. The people in Erin’s common room stared.
Relc dropped his mug as Theillige walked slowly over to the bar. Erin Solstice hurried behind them.
“Um—what can I get you?”
A single finger rose, and Erin looked around. She searched around, then poured a Blackfur Ale into a mug. A generous head of foam—she carried it over to the silent figure as the inn filled up, watching the stranger.
Silently, the visor rose, and only Erin Solstice and Ishkr saw what lay beneath. Then—the winter warrior tilted their head back and drank.
They downed the mug slowly, without pausing for breath, then lowered it. The visor snapped down. They pushed the mug back, nodded at Erin, and she stuttered.
“Uh—on the house. Thank you for coming.”
Another nod. Then the Winter Fae turned, put their elbows on the bar, and sat there as they regarded the inn. They nodded at Tyrion Veltras, at Relc, Halrac, Redscar, Shorthilt—Numbtongue jumped—Jewel, Durene, and then stood up.
Without a word, Erin and Ishkr began pouring mugs as Theillige took a seat at a table, and people clustered around. Then, the Winter Fae was smiling with their visor still lowered and communicating without a word.
A warrior of a hundred thousand stories. Sitting in the inn waiting for the Winter Solstice to start.
Daring Kasigna and Cauwine to arrive.
They were ready.
Erin Solstice peeked back into her own inn to confirm her eyes. Even then, she rubbed them a few times, and Theillige was still there.
Of all the times for Ryoka to miss this. Erin Solstice would have teased her—but for once, she had no ability to mock her friend. She got it.
This was possibly the coolest guest Erin had had, and that wasn’t even because of the pun. Certainly, the oldest. What was wild was Erin had the impression Theillige was chill. And appreciated puns.
They were simultaneously intimidating and ancient, and yet, they had come into Erin’s inn in a way that the [Innkeeper] understood. They sat there, possibly levelling the other warriors just by proximity.
And Erin thought that Theillige had caught her eye and reassured her without a word.
Yes. You were right. This is going to be hard.
What a bitter relief. Erin walked through her inn and had a single thought. Surely now that the last warrior had arrived—it was time for the Solstice?
Yet it was, what—she glanced down at the phone’s screen.
Would Kasigna come at midday? What was going to be the signal that moved everything? Erin knew her foe. It would be something auspicious. So Erin felt she had a moment.
In that time, then, she went to check on one person. Only one person in this entire world could draw her attention away from the Floodplains.
Here, after all, was everyone she had loved and made friends with. From Rags to Lyonette…the Horns were invisible, even to her, and Erin knew Niers was safe and ready. They’d talked; in fact, the Titan of Baleros was in her [World’s Eye Theatre] at this very moment.
He was not blind to its potential and was using it as a way to command his forces. Perorn turned as Niers stopped talking.
“…kind of warrior do you mean, Perorn? Ah. Erin. I take it something interesting’s happened? Could you explain? Unless this means it’s time?”
His eyes were shining with a great fascination, and Erin offered him a weak smile.
“I honestly don’t know. This one’s all Ryoka, Niers. Let’s just say the Winter Sprites pulled a fast one on all of us.”
“So that’s not what they look like?”
Erin glanced back the way she’d come.
“I don’t think so. I think they just called for a Foliana of their own.”
To that, because he had to be Niers, the Titan raised one brow.
He made her laugh and feel like a person again. But then Erin’s smile grew strained, and she looked up at him.
“Would you mind me borrowing the [World’s Eye Theater] a moment, Niers, Perorn? I want to—check on someone. I don’t think we’re under attack soon. I think even Kassy will take a moment.”
“Of course. If it’s Fetohep, he’s sweeping his kingdom and is prepared—”
“No. Rabbit—Ser Solstice.”
Then Niers Astoragon’s face clouded. He glanced at Erin, then Perorn, and nodded.
“Absolutely. Now might be opportune. They’ve disengaged—I see at least two possible forces moving to aid. Analysis looks strong, especially if they can make it another forty miles. Wistram is already throwing magic out.”
He spoke briskly and encouragingly, and that was how Erin knew how things were going. She glanced around, and at least one other person hadn’t been lost by Theillige’s presence. Numbtongue was channeling Shorthilt—but Ulvama was there.
She never forgot Goblins. Slowly, Erin Solstice walked into the center of her theatre. And she spoke.
“Rabbiteater? Are you there?”
At first, as Ulvama watched and a Goblin [Great Chieftain] strode into the theatre after Ulvama, the dome reflecting what Erin saw didn’t change. Then the glass blinked, and the sound of rain filled the air.
Rain, not snow. A storm that seemed without end was blowing across the sea, in the middle of the vast ocean betwixt four continents.
In this surreally flat landscape, hills and valleys were waves, and mountains occasionally arose with enough force to flatten islands. Only one landmark stood out here:
The Isle of Mages.
But it was a distant dot as it had been the last two days. At least it was visible now. Erin Solstice looked back and no longer saw Izril’s new lands.
They had fled them straight to sea, unable to make landfall. She looked back and saw distant clouds on the horizon, low to the water, billowing red.
Ahead of her? She saw more ships. Then came sound beyond the crashing of waves and howl of wind and rains.
“Gallant Spark shall engage! Engage—”
“In the name of Pheislant! For the Order of Seasons! Summer fades!”
A babble of voices. But the roar of one voice and the chorus following it was familiar—Erin Solstice saw a man in bright orange armor brandishing two axes over his head.
Ser Greysten, the Summer’s Champion, was at the head of nearly a hundred Summer Knights, helmets on, preparing for battle. They were on a ship, some kind of smaller escort vessel loading with soldiers and more [Knights].
Erin Solstice recognized Thronebearers crossing over the rocking waves. One fell into the waters even as she watched—but a [Sailor] yanked them out with a Skill, like someone on a fishing hook. Two [Knights], one wearing the green of a Spring Knight, the other wearing armor unique to him and a cloak of blood, hauled him back up. They steadied the Thronebearer and waited to cross as a nobleman with a yowling lioness, an anxious [Princess], and a woman with a helmet stood there.
There he was. The Goblin turned as Erin Solstice appeared on the swaying deck of Calanfer’s flagship, the Throne’s Will. He broke off as Ser Markus began to cross over to the other ship then turned back.
“Erin. I’m glad you came. Are you alive?”
Of all the things to say, it made her smile. But now—Erin could almost feel the rains lashing her. She could not smell, but she swore if she could…it should smell of blood and thunder.
In the distance, she saw the flashes of magic and ships throwing projectiles and arrows and flame and spells at each other. She knew Rabbiteater was smiling.
“Don’t bother him. He’s commanding. We’re about to go fight.”
“Fight? I thought you were getting to Wistram? Hundredlord Cortese. Lady Menrise and Princess Seraphel—”
“Erin Solstice. Is Lyonette safe?”
The 4th Princess of Calanfer called out urgently, and Erin nodded. Her eyes found a new rank of Thronebearers mustering. They were filling the smaller ship, and Erin saw the [Captain] white knuckling the wheel, staring ahead with wild eyes.
“Good. Then—I hope this Solstice goes well.”
Princess Seraphel was pale-faced, covered in water despite her two [Maids] trying to shelter her, and seemed not to notice it one bit. None of them did. Hundredlord Cortese shouted.
“Ser Solstice, we’ll go without you—”
“No. Erin, I’m going to fight.”
“I thought you were headed to Wistram! Why are you fighting?”
Erin tried again, and this time, Rabbiteater just jerked a thumb over his shoulder. Erin saw ships in the water between the Isle of Mages and the fleet around her.
“They’re in the way. Gotta break through. Most of them aren’t here yet. We might make it.”
No one else looked as upbeat as he did. Erin’s heart beat faster as she looked at the Thronebearers, and it had already begun to run in her chest. Some thin-faced man was shouting at them. Ser Thilowen had his sword drawn, and he was pointing in the distance at some ship blocking their way.
“With diplomacy, we are all made equals. With swords, we follow the dawn. Thronebearers of Calanfer, you will throw the enemy back.”
They shouted as they swarmed across the gangplank, reinforcing the warriors on what Erin now saw was called ‘The Shield of Phel’. Cortese swore under his breath, then addressed Erin curtly.
“Innkeeper Solstice, we have to go. The [Pirates] are insane. They are throwing themselves into a slaughter to get a piece out of us. They only stop once they’ve turned the decks red—I shall endeavor to keep Ser Solstice safe. He sails in the company of two [Knight]-orders and Kaaz’s own. Worry about your own Solstice, but if you have any <Quests> or tricks—”
He bared his teeth without a word. Erin Solstice looked at Rabbiteater. He still sounded like he was smiling as Cortese pointed and his bodyguard crossed towards The Shield of Phel as well.
“Badarrow and Numbtongue okay? Chieftain Rags? Redscar?”
“Y—yes. Rags is even here. So’s Ulvama. Do you want to—”
Perhaps only Menrise and Seraphel’s attendants heard, and the [Lady] of Tourvecall glanced their way, but Rabbiteater just shook his head. Now, Greysten was shouting as Ser Markus was waving.
“Got to go.”
He began to walk across the gangplank, down towards the ship preparing to intercept the Bloodtear Pirates blocking the navy’s way, and Erin walked with him. The [Knight] swore and nearly fell, and Erin grabbed at him—but her hand passed through his. The Goblin caught himself and laughed.
“Too far this time. Solstice hasn’t happened, right?”
“You survive that. Then send some luck over, okay? Tell Mrsha to not be lazy. But…it’s not her fault if she’s not got much. Lots of luck needed over here.”
He kept walking, and Erin saw heads turning on the ship. She watched as the gangplank was withdrawn—then they were cutting through the waters.
It was all a scene. Rabbiteater’s helm slowly turned as rain sleeted down upon the [Knights]. On The Throne’s Will, Menrise waved a wand, showering the warriors with a mist that clung to their armor and seemed to infuse it with more protection. Seraphel shouted, lifting a hand and raising her voice to call above the winds. A desperate voice. Only words, but she shouted as if trying to make them more than empty wishes.
“Luck, Ser Solstice, Cortese!”
Two people shoved past Erin into the projection, and Rabbiteater waved at Rags. She glanced around the deck as people recoiled from her and hissed.
“Can you run? Jump and swim.”
Ulvama looked at Rabbiteater, then at Erin. Ulvama’s eyes were pleading, and Rabbiteater paused as his visor swung to her, then to Rags. The Goblin glanced at his Chieftain and shook his head.
“Ocean’s big, Chieftain. Besides…”
He glanced back at Calanfer’s ship, then at Cortese, who was glancing at the Goblins with a look of disgust. He gestured at Rabbiteater, then the Goblins, incredulously, and the Hobgoblin shrugged. Secrets…
One of the [Soldiers] on board the ship was speaking into a stone. Erin twitched a finger, and one of her gardens whispered and snapped a string. The speaking stone went dead—but too many eyes had seen. Did it matter? It didn’t matter, and it did.
The blockading ships ahead were still oncoming, but behind them came an armada that made a bell in Erin’s head ring, even from here. [Dangersense]. And surely the Goblin knew that better than anyone in the inn.
Rabbiteater turned to Erin as Ulvama backed away. But he glanced down at Rags.
“I sort of like them. Even the stupid ones like that guy.”
Bleakly, Rags looked up at Rabbiteater. She moved to brush rain from her face, forgetting she wasn’t there.
“Idiot. Then go fight like a Redfang, not a [Knight]. Redscar told me to tell you he won’t die before you do.”
The [Knight] threw back his head and laughed, and Erin looked around. Ser Markus was half-bowing, and Greysten was striding across the deck. But she only knew Rabbiteater. In a way, she only cared about him.
“Tell me when you survive the Solstice, Erin.”
“Okay. It’s a promise, okay?”
He reached out, and his hand passed through hers, but they tried to grip each other’s arms anyways. The Goblin nodded.
The Goblin met the [Innkeeper]’s eyes, and he saw her weak smile. But she did try, for him. Then her image winked out, and he could focus. He turned his face to the surf and storms until he could hear the Bloodtear Pirates singing.
They had a style. All the [Knights] had was chants. But Rabbiteater didn’t know that the [Innkeeper] kept watching him as his ship locked with another and the crash threw him to the deck. She watched as the Hobgoblin rose, an axe in hand, and charged towards the [Pirates] cutting across the deck.
He did not stop, until one ship sank burning and he was kneeling, holding onto Markus’ neck as healing potion fused skin and stopped the bleeding. Then he was panting and cheering with the others—
Erin Solstice was counting the ships. Watching. And still.
The Winter Solstice had not yet begun.
A Goblin was holding an axe up in the rain. It sleeted off his armor, hiding his face. But a [Princess] was waving at him, almost falling over the gilded ship trying to look glorious as red rain poured over the fleet.
It made the gold look fake, and the noble sails twisted as the winds tangled the rigging. The battered armor of the golden Thronebearers wore and scratched—but sometimes it revealed a true luster of hard metal underneath.
The Order of Season stood like the burning summer in the middle of the winter storm. The Spring’s Warden saluted the Goblin Slayer of Izril as her [Knights] returned from clearing the way.
Ships at sea. Prince Iradoren’s flagship left two burning Bloodtear Pirate vessels that had tried to stall their advance. Yet they kept coming.
Wistram, in the distance, was glowing like a bubble of havens, but even they had raised their shields rather than let the [Pirates] close.
They looked entirely glorious, and the [Innkeeper] stared at the relieved smile on Seraphel’s face. There was a woman who had seen it all lost before. Someone counting every small victory and hoping for the best.
The [Innkeeper] left the sight of her guest and friend. Her…person. She walked among the waves, searching for signs of her foes. But all she saw was mortality.
The Earl of Rains glanced up from his furious defense of the battlefield. Kiish was holding a bandage over a scratch from flying shrapnel. They turned as they saw the ghost of an [Innkeeper] walking through the sky. He straightened and lifted his sword—and she lifted a hand as she passed by his ship. Her eyes caught his, and he bowed his head, a promise unsaid on his lips.
Further—until she saw the [Pirates] themselves. They were miles upon miles out, chasing down the Terandrian fleets. And they were dying.
For every ship that broke away screaming triumph and fleeing to the seas, five more went down all hands, decks filled with gore. She didn’t know why.
It was in her head to tell them to stop. Offer them something, anything, or strike a deal. But when they saw her walking through the sky, the leaders of the fleet cried out.
The [Alchemist] roared, his eyes crazed with rage, his skin twitching as insects ran under it. Every mask of civility turned into hatred that she could feel. He was frothing at the mouth, the blood of his kin on his hands and deck.
But he was still enough of himself to worry about what she might do. He shouted the favor he thought she owed him into the air—but it was drowned out by the [Admirals].
Two of them. Half-Elf and Human, thrusting their swords up in the air. The [Innkeeper] halted as a strange ‘monster’ cowered behind his father. Yet the Bloodtear Pirates swarmed up onto the decks and screamed.
They cheered her as they had celebrated nothing else. Waving, even bowing and crying out. To her? No—she realized. To what she looked like.
A ghost. The [Innkeeper] hesitated, and Admiral Rosech lifted his sword, recognizing her, and gave her a smile like a bloody dawn. She met his eyes and looked for any regrets. Any uncertainty.
And it was there. There was a mortal man holding his son by the arm, pointing at her, then ahead. He was trying to tell her something.
‘Do you see?’
She looked at him, then at the fleet fleeing him. Erin Solstice stared at the [Pirates] and saw they were afraid. Yet what drove them forwards was a desire so great that all the heirs of the Hundred Families, all their steel and magic and royal blood—it would not be enough.
The [Innkeeper] stood a while as ships passed her, red sails speckled with blue tears, passing under the light of the eclipse. And she understood as she turned her head and saw more ships trying to reach the two fleets locked in running combat.
The Iron Vanguard, Dullahans taking off their heads to stare. A nod from their leader, wearing Mithril armor, and her wordless nod back.
The Dancer of Nadel, gazing at her with a silent resolve.
[Storm Sailors], nearly forty ships strong crewed by an [Admiral] who stared at her as she disappeared in the air.
Even ships from Izril, laboring through the storm. A laughing hand and eyes she recognized, fearless, that belonged to a woman who had lived well.
She saw it all, and she was too far away. And still, she waited for her own storm. So eventually—the [Innkeeper] vanished from the seas and lay down and closed her eyes.
Dreaming of a Goblin’s smile.
The moment Erin woke up, she checked the time. 5:45…PM!?
She’d slept hours! She sat up, realized she hadn’t heard a voice chirping a level up, and swore.
She’d hoped that would work. She happened to know some of the other people who’d met Theillige had levelled, but it seemed her promise with…levelling itself…was on.
After the Solstice. And while it was the day—even now, even now—the Winter Solstice had not yet begun. Erin lay in bed until her stomach growled and she smelled something that made her get up and check the time again.
Dinner was being served.
Eighteen hours of waiting meant that, at this point, people were sleeping in rotations outside. There was a sense of tension still, but there was a limit to how long it could last.
To break it up, to distract from what was coming—or so they still assumed—there was music. Of a kind.
Lyonette, Colfa, Lady Bethal, and Lady Pryde were singing in an impromptu group on the stage of the inn. Just singing. It was some sweet song that Bethal knew from House Walchaís about tripping down a road carrying a basket of roses.
Lyonette wasn’t really focused on the song, but the [Soldiers] listened. To her surprise, Colfa, Bethal, and Pryde all sang very well, and Lyonette had to work to keep up.
“I saw a flower blooming upon that hill
It gave my heart such a thrill~
I followed it across the sea…
Across the Dwarf’s mountains, through the great trees
—Until I found Izril’s shores!”
Bethal switched cadences, and the sweet song sped up and became swifter, and she laughed and clapped her hands as Lyonette and Colfa scrambled to keep up.
Even House Walchaís’ songs were surprising. The [Soldiers] didn’t care as Lyonette blushed and heard herself fumbling. They just cheered and loved it.
It wasn’t like singing in Calanfer, where a [Princess] should be heard only at a few times, yet be pitch-perfect, or if she flubbed, it was for reasons the populace could adore and admire. A carefully planned show.
Bethal and the [Ladies] of Izril were no less ostentatious at times, but there was less of that feeling of artifice. If they did put on a curated display of who they were—it was still in a way Lyonette liked more.
The laughing [Lady] of House Walchaís high-fived everyone after they were done. Colfa was smiling and hiding her fangs, and Pryde was harrumphing, refusing to acknowledge the applause. The [Lady of Pride] grumbled to Bethal out of the corner of her mouth.
“That song is the hardest damn one we sing each time.”
“We don’t sing it enough. Oh, this reminds me of the old days, when we were girls.”
Bethal clasped her hands to her heart, and tears sprang to her eyes. Happy, sad…Lyonette saw her looking around for Thomast. The [Lady]’s voice trembled a second.
“I would sing that with my younger sister and my entire family. I thought all fathers could sing when I was small.”
Pryde paused, and the last survivor of the Sacrifice of Roses looked at Lyonette. Her tears and smile were eminently fitting for this day. Lyonette envied Bethal her ability to do all of it.
“We’ll sing again like this. Promise, Lyonette?”
She extended a pinkie, and like children, yet solemnly, Lyonette hooked her pinkie around Bethal’s. The [Lady] hugged Lyonette impulsively, and then Pryde insisted Colfa teach them her song. Bethal Walchaís stepped back a second as Thomast offered her his handkerchief to dry her tears. She whispered so softly only he could hear.
He looked down as the [Lady of Thorns] gazed up into his face, then at Lyonette.
“This coming Solstice…don’t let Lyonette die, understand?”
The [Chevalier]’s hand tightened on Bethal’s hands as her eyes swung.
“She won’t be anywhere near the fighting.”
“Not until the final hour. That’s how it goes. Promise me?”
Then Bethal turned her head to Lyonette, and her eyes saw another girl, her sister, in the [Princess]’ place. Time reversed on itself as her memories overlapped with the now. Pryde was a girl and there was Magnolia, older Wuvren, and a family standing in the inn, voices raised in song. For a second, until her tears stopped falling, Bethal saw it in the blurred vision of the present and past.
Then she kept singing.
It was that kind of moment as Calescent ladled hot food onto trays and pulled bread out of the oven. Where [Soldiers] stared at Goblins and Antinium and each other and ate—and listened—and it felt like everyone was waiting for the sky to fall.
The long wait and sense of dread had not gone on to no effect. Ryoka Griffin had been physically unable to sit still; she was flying here and there or running around Liscor checking for anything odd. Looking for the faeries too; they had all vanished.
Save for the figure who just sat at a table, eating and drinking in silence. Theillige said nothing when asked; it seemed like a vow of silence or just their new nature.
The Antinium were listening to the song, memorizing it as Erin Solstice wondered if nothing would happen after all. Six hours…though Kasigna did have the theme of darkness to her.
By now, the eclipse had vanished and night had fallen again over the Floodplains, albeit lit by so many campfires and magical light spells. Despite the relatively early hour, it gave the entire night, as the day, a surreal feel.
Someone found her as Lyonette stopped for a breath and got applause and whistles from the [Soldiers]. They wanted her to sing a Calanferian song next, and she began teaching the others the lyrics.
A bee buzzed around Erin’s head as she walked out of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She had been checking it for…anything. Apista landed on Erin’s head, and the [Innkeeper] swatted at her.
“Apista! How did you get back here?”
She was supposed to be with Mrsha! Erin supposed the bee had hitched a ride on Magnolia’s carriage or gone with Sest—she’d even seen Hethon and Sammial pop by for lunch, though they’d been shepherded to Invrisil.
It wasn’t beyond Apista just to fly to the door, Erin supposed. Instead of buzzing off, Apista fanned her wings and seemed to be trying to carry Erin. She was pulling hard enough for her spiky legs to hurt a bit.
“Apista. Seriously. This is not a good time—unless you noticed something? Is it Facestealer? Is Facestealer in the well?”
Halrac stopped drinking—water—and glanced up fast. Apista froze, then buzzed off Erin’s head and shook her body right to left.
“No? Good. Then shoo, and go back and take care of Mrsha and Nanette! That’s your job. Silly bee.”
Erin stared at Apista’s replaced legs and wing, and she swore the bee saluted her with one antenna. Apista actually ‘nodded’ with her body, but then she bumped into Erin’s cheek and buzzed away. Came back. Buzzed away.
“…Okay. I’ll bite.”
Erin followed Apista up the stairs, wondering what the heck this was about. The bee led her to Lyonette’s room and then buzzed up behind the dresser. Erin stared.
“Um. Okay, let me get a chair.”
She got a chair, stood up on it, realized she was too short, and had to get a second chair. The combination of two wobbly chairs let her see a weird little nest up on top of the wardrobe. No…it was a single honeycomb! Made of wax? And in it—was the most beautiful honey Erin had ever seen.
It shimmered. It was magic. It looked—
Okay, it looked faintly toxic, but it was amazing, incredible, and Erin stared at Apista.
“What is this?”
Honey, duh. Apista rubbed her feelers over the honey, and Erin had to guess how she’d made it.
“You made this honey? Did you have help…no, there’s not much. Hey! Don’t fan your wings at me. It’s amazing. But h—oh my stars. The Faerie Flowers!”
It all made sense. Apista looked so smug, and Erin shook her head, lost for words. Would those flowers never stop surprising her? She hesitated, but Apista was actually pulling on the wax honeycomb, dragging it over to her.
“For me? Are you certain?”
Yep, yep. Apista buzzed around Erin as the [Innkeeper] lifted the honey up. It was thick—so thick it barely moved when she tilted it. Instantly, Erin decided she needed a jar. She stuck a hand out through her garden door, grabbed a glass jar from the kitchen, and put the honey in it.
“For me? Because I’m a [Witch]? Or [Innkeeper]?”
…Sure. I thought this far ahead. Erin was only guessing what the bee was actually thinking. But she had the impression Apista hadn’t actually developed that level of foresight.
She had made honey. It was good honey. Something was happening. Ergo, Erin needed honey. Erin held the bee, touched by the gift.
“Well, thank you, Apista. But I want you to go back to Mrsha now, got it? I’ll definitely use this for—for something.”
She thought of her destroyed coin. Well, now she had another odd weapon to use. Faerie Flower Ashfire Bee honey. What a world. Apista buzzed up, ‘kissed’ Erin on the cheek—and flew away.
There was something actually emotionally damaging about that encounter. If even a bee was giving her most treasured possessions to Erin…
When the [Innkeeper] went downstairs, she stood in the common room a second and sensed the fragility in the air. People were laughing, clapping, and bickering, but when they saw her, they fell silent a second.
Did they see a dead woman walking? Erin decided to go to the rec room. She wondered where Ulvama was; the Hobgoblin had been very quiet after they’d talked to Rabbiteater. Maybe Erin should check on him again.
Instead of Ulvama, she found a bunch of Redfangs in the rec room playing cards, arguing over how billiards was supposed to be played, and looking the most relaxed.
Seasoned warriors. Numbtongue wasn’t with them, but Badarrow was. Another sign, Erin supposed, of Goblin stratification.
They waved at her as she smiled.
“Hey, anyone seen Ulvama?”
Shakes of their heads. They seemed—friendly to her. Erin and the Redfangs actually had little contact outside of the five Redfangs who had come to her: Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Badarrow, Rabbiteater, and Numbtongue. And Bugear.
But she had never quite known the new Flooded Waters tribe as well as she wanted. Some of them, like Peggy, were now part of the inn, but there was a distance between them and her.
Still, they had shown up and were manning a bunch of Rags’ unique Thunderbows. But they were allies rather than friends. Rags was Erin’s friend.
Someone who was more like her ally…or just a guy she knew, stood up.
Redscar had been having a drink. He seemed to be of the camp that a single drink wouldn’t kill him, like Theillige themself. Right now, he was just eating popcorn and feeding some to Thunderfur, his huge Carn Wolf.
“Hey, Erin. Is nice place you have here. Very nice. Makes Goblins soft. I feel soft just sitting here.”
“Oh. Thanks? Do you want anything? While we wait?”
“Nah. Gotta question for you.”
He stepped out of the rec room as the Goblins laughed and bickered in their own tongue, which Erin didn’t know. She did feel like an outsider, even though she remembered what that [Chronomancer], Nereshal, had called her.
Was she? Redscar leaned against the wall, and she was vaguely annoyed to realize he was taller than she was. Damn Goblins and their ability to grow. He still looked what you’d call lithe, especially since he had decided he didn’t even need armor on his upper body, only a fur kilt and Redfang paint. Wait, was this who Mrsha was copying with her dress? And the two swords he carried…Erin stared at one until she noticed his grin.
“What’s the question, Redscar?”
He tapped one of the blades at his side. It was new, replacing the Shortsword of Frost he’d had for so long. A gift from her gardens.
“Nice swords. You’s generous to Goblins and Antinium. We see. Still. When the fighting happens…”
“I think it’ll happen. I really do.”
Redscar nodded; this was not in doubt.
“When it happens—how many do you think will die this time? Goblins? I should write Goblins in Goblinhome. Make little tombstones. Very cute.”
Erin stared at Redscar, her face slack, until he burst out laughing. He slapped his knee, then her shoulder.
“Hah! Your face! Hey—”
He threw open the door to the rec room, shouted something, and all the Goblins started laughing. Redscar turned to Erin, and she realized that was a joke.
“That’s not funny.”
“Is a great joke for Goblins. Especially Redfangs.”
His smile was more like a leer, and Erin glared until Thunderfur squeezed out the door and sat there. Redscar patted his mount and glanced at Erin.
“Antinium and Goblins will die.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
The Goblin went from joking to serious so fast, but that was Redscar as Erin vaguely understood him: Garen’s second, the last true Redfang leader. He had always struck her as, well, a fighting freak who loved battle, but she watched the way he treated Thunderfur with such affection. The Carn Wolf even rolled over so Redscar would scratch his stomach. After a while, the Goblin spoke without looking at her.
“You know, I used to not like you. Even with [Natural Ally]. Little voice in my head says trust her. I still didn’t like you.”
“Because of Garen?”
Redscar scoffed and kicked her leg.
“Nah. Garen got what he gave. Not because of Garen, stupid. I was mad because…well, now I’m happy.”
“I don’t follow.”
He rolled his eyes as he invited Erin to scratch Thunderfur’s belly.
“Because someone who likes Goblins is in trouble. Big trouble. Overwhelming death trouble. Death from behind fast trouble. I was mad when Rags told me about you. Because you helped us, and it looked easy. Easier than being a Goblin. Some Human gives Rags pasta and a fruit. Yay! Wonderful Human! Let’s die for her!”
He threw up his hands and danced around in a circle and laughed. Erin didn’t know what to say. But then Redscar tapped her on the shoulder.
“This…this is friendship. You die, we die. After this, I like you more. Maybe teach you to ride Carn Wolves. Being friends with a Goblin should be hard.”
“Should it? You guys are nice. It’d be better if it was easy, right?”
Erin frowned at Redscar, and he shook his head, thumped his chest, and looked around.
“Those Humans and Drakes still want to kill us. Friendship with a Goblin should be hard. Or else everyone is a friend until suddenly things get hard. Anyways, glad you suffer.”
He clapped Erin on the shoulder again and sauntered back into the rec room. Erin stared after Redscar, thinking about what he’d said. Thunderfur lay on his back, trying to hint that a real friend would keep scratching.
After a few seconds, someone who’d been listening in came over and gave Thunderfur his scratches. Peggy glanced at Erin and pointed after Redscar.
Erin stared at Peggy. The [Floor Boss] shrugged. After a second, Erin walked off.
By now, some of the nobles were yawning or had been asleep with orders to wake them when the fighting actually happened.
Lord Tyrion had been in Invrisil with Hethon and Sammial and had a day of just touring the markets until the boys got tired. Every time they saw a soldier coming to tell Tyrion of something, they’d tensed up—it left them exhausted.
Tyrion didn’t really remember the day. He was more reflecting on the long wait and a revelation that he’d come to moments before he’d gone out with Hethon and Sammial.
To say that the [Soldiers] had grown restless after over twelve hours of waiting was an understatement. As the day had worn on, the rumors began, even in the disciplined lines of Drakes. Was this really going to be a battle to end all battles?
Or was this all stupid? People were still wondering if the Five Families had been duped. Tyrion Veltras, well, a man did things for love.
Xitegen was already in the area, but Magnolia Reinhart was a clever woman. Yet here she was with no less than, what…eight hundred servants?
Seriously. They had been lined up, [Maids] and [Butlers]. [Manservants] and [Cleaners] with brooms and more. Even what looked like a [Nursemaid]. Some were Drakes, and some were Gnolls, but most were Humans.
For a damn battle. True, the longer you stared at them the more you noticed some were quite well-armed. And some had chainmail or armor under the outfits.
Bekia, Reynold, Ressa herself; Tyrion knew how dangerous they were. A match for any high-level retainer in his family. But it had been when none other than Gershal of Vaunt was riding around, trying to relieve some stress, that a penny had dropped.
“Dead gods, is that Captain Rozmak of Falling Axe? Your team bailed Vaunt out of that gigantic rodent of ludicrous size attack. Remember? I had no idea you sought employment with House Reinhart! Sir, can I offer you a piece of cheese?”
He stopped, noticing one of the [Butlers] standing with Reynold and sipping from cups of tea and chatting. Instantly, one of the men, a swarthier fellow with less-sharp attire than Reynold, stiffened.
“I think you have the wrong person, sir.”
“I never forget someone I’ve given cheese to. Wait—your entire team is here? All eight!”
Reynold looked around, and several members of the servants tried to turn away too late. Tyrion Veltras had overheard and frowned.
An entire team of adventurers? Weren’t they supposed to be Gold-rank? The small conversation drew the attention of the bored soldiers nearby, and when scrutinized, more people began calling out faces.
“I say, is that Llemonth, the Silver-bell [Duelist] of Ersenshire? What is he doing working for House Reinhart? He’s got a job as a tutor.”
“I know that man…he’s a [Guardsman]! Is he pulling double duty here? He’s Level 26, you know. One of the better ones about—”
Tyrion Veltras didn’t get it until Jericha tapped him on the elbow as the servants broke up, denying the similarities.
“I count two more Gold-rank teams in their numbers, Lord Veltras. And a number of other individuals who have been noted as friendly allies of Magnolia Reinhart.”
Then Tyrion understood. He narrowed his eyes as Magnolia Reinhart fanned herself, sighing and muttering something to Ressa. Wait a second.
He’d heard Magnolia Reinhart had a private army, but one had never shown up even when the Goblin Lord attacked. But her servants were everywhere, and House Reinhart had mansions and holdings…everywhere.
It was well-known that tangling with a servant of Magnolia Reinhart was suicide. But what if she had employed even Gold-rank teams and disguised them as…
Bekia was apparently a former Gnoll [Chieftain]. Reynold was a former [Cavalry Lieutenant] who’d served with distinction until resigning his commission.
Slap a Gold-rank adventurer in a [Maid]’s outfit and they were still Gold-rank. If Magnolia Reinhart had concealed all her allies and supporters in her employment—she met his gaze coolly, eyebrows raised, and Tyrion Veltras felt stupid as Magnolia Reinhart smiled faintly.
As if they were children and he had come to a conclusion three months too late. And the look asked why he hadn’t figured it out ahead of time.
Magnolia had come ready for a real war. Though she had never trained armies like he had. She was…standoffish, he had realized over time. She often put her thumb on the scales, but when it came down to someone or somewhere surviving, she let them manage it and only gave them support.
He wondered who she’d learned that from. But her bringing in so many of her people, to the point where she’d given away one of her secrets, that warrior of the ‘fae’—it all had to mean something.
One of the reasons Tyrion was in Invrisil with his boys was that he really wanted to talk to Ryoka. But the Wind Runner was here and there, unable to sit still.
He knew the feeling. Still, while she had confessed privately to him in their talks on a more personal level that she felt like she’d been useless this last month, he had told her that the only reason Xitegen and some of the nobility, like Lady Desinee, were here was because Ryoka had convinced them.
Whether the Wind Runner saw it or not, she had a bit of decorum to her that she had learned. Maturity? Confidence? An attractiveness that he saw revealed in their personal talks.
He’d been writing Pellmia about his continued struggle to maintain interpersonal relationship relevancy, and the [Lord of Love and Wine] had advised Tyrion to stop disclosing the contents of his more intimate chats with Ryoka in asking for advice. Which was all very well, but that was the stuff Tyrion needed points on the most—
“Father, I think I found Ryoka. She’s at the Runner’s Guild!”
Sammial ran over with some guards, and Tyrion blinked. He smiled and strode to the Guild. She really had changed for the b—
“Fuck you, you sallow bitch!”
The first thing he saw of Ryoka was her tossing a smaller City Runner then trying to knee her in the stomach. The other Runner was shorter, thinner, and tried to do a cartwheel out of the way.
“I just want to talk! I just—”
Ryoka charged into her, and Tyrion, Sammial, Hethon, and the guards—as well as a lot of Runners—saw Ryoka Griffin tackle Persua and begin trying to punch her face in.
Persua screamed. Ryoka was trying to sit on Persua’s chest and beat her face into the ground. Not many people were trying to stop her—no one at all, really—and Sammial wore a look of delight.
“She’s killing that other City Runner! Wait, do you recognize her, Hethon?”
“She’s the one who showed up after Ryoka and got tossed out. Whoa.”
Hethon saw Persua twist; she was pinned by the chest, but she actually hooked her legs up and got her ankles around Ryoka’s throat, pulling the Wind Runner off her a bit. Ryoka twisted, bit Persua on the leg, and the City Runner screamed.
“Ryoka, what are you doing?”
Tyrion shouted, but Ryoka just glanced at him, stared, and went back to now trying to stomp on Persua’s head.
“Should we help, Lord Veltras?”
His bodyguards were reluctant to get in the middle of that fight. Persua went running, trying to hide behind City Runners as a [Receptionist] called out in a monotone voice.
“No. Stop. This isn’t right. A Courier shouldn’t fight a City Runner. Don’t do it.”
Ryoka put Persua in a headlock as the other girl screamed. She started punching, and here Tyrion decided that it wasn’t a fair fight. He strode over.
“Ryoka, she can’t def—”
“Hands off, asshole.”
Ryoka punched him square in the face. Tyrion blinked, jerked his head back, but still caught part of the punch. He stepped back, shook his head, and Ryoka tried to suplex Persua onto the ground.
“I’m going to kill—”
At this point, a few City Runners and the [Bodyguards] did help break the two apart. It was hard. Ryoka got several damn good kicks in, and Persua was screaming.
“I just wanted to make up! I’m sorry! I’ve been working as a Courier and—”
She looked fairly bad before the beatdown of Ryoka Griffin. Tyrion noticed Persua had bandages all over one side, and she looked unhealthily thin.
“Let go. Let go or I’ll kill you idiots—”
Ryoka was thrashing. Tyrion stared at her; he hadn’t ever known her to be this angry.
“Ryoka, calm down—”
She stared at him, chest heaving, and he had to talk to the [Receptionist]. Fortunately, the man assured him it was just a Runner’s Guild dispute; he wasn’t inclined to talk to the Watch over this.
“Is the other Runner that badly hurt?”
“Miss Persua Mavva? Not from the Wind Runner, Lord Veltras. She did two nasty deliveries. One with a dangerous artifact—then she ran afoul of some Face-Eater Moths on a dicey delivery around the Bloodfields. She’s doing Courier-level deliveries, though she’s a City Runner.”
That explained the bandages. Persua was staring at Ryoka, looking—stricken. Tyrion thought she actually sounded serious when she tried to call to Ryoka.
“Can we talk? I want to—”
“I am going to kill you.”
Hethon Veltras had never seen Ryoka so mad. House Veltras’ guards actually had to tow her away, and when he approached, she nearly swung at him.
“Persua deserves nothing but having her face smashed in. Stop getting in my way. What do you want?”
“S-sorry, Ryoka. It’s just—the Solstice is happening, and I’m sure Father doesn’t want you to get hurt.”
Ryoka calmed down a bit, but she still looked wild-eyed and furious. Surely she had a history with Persua that Hethon sort of really wanted to know.
“You—your Dad’s an idiot.”
“Why do you like him, then?”
Sammial stared at Ryoka, and she stared back, blinking a few times. She frowned, opened her mouth—then glared at Persua. She shot to her feet as Tyrion came back. Barefoot, wearing casual clothes, not her windsuit, and not even shivering in the cold, Ryoka walked up to Tyrion.
“The Runner’s Guild won’t press charges. Ryoka, regardless of your grievances with this City Runner, now isn’t the time for—”
The slap Ryoka gave Tyrion made his head turn. Hethon’s and Sammial’s mouths made wide ‘o’s as the [Bodyguards] jerked. Tyrion blinked.
“You idiot! Don’t get in my way! What right do you have to stop me from taking out—you don’t even know what Persua’s done, do you?”
Tyrion blocked a punch to his gut. He grabbed a hand.
“I do not. Ryoka, listen to me. Now is not the time.”
“Let go of—”
She went for a groin knee, and Hethon felt that—but his father blocked it. They wrestled for a second, then Tyrion snapped.
“Someone take Hethon and Sammial back to Magnolia’s mansion. We will see each other—later. Ryoka!”
They left, arguing, as he actually had to tow her off the street. Ryoka had tears in her eyes, and she was still calling bloody murder out to Persua, who stood there looking—upset. Guilty? Hethon stared at the City Runner that Ryoka hated so much. Maybe not guilty, but…forlorn, he decided. As if she had lost something.
Ryoka Griffin would not appreciate the compliment—he thought—but she had never reminded him of Salva more than the next twenty minutes.
Which, incidentally, was how long it took to get her back to the Terland’s Favor and upstairs. She kept trying to hit him.
“Ryoka, I know today is stressful, but enough.”
Salva went to fury like that sometimes, rarely. She and Magnolia had been enemies. Ryoka Griffin finally stopped, panting.
“You idiot. Tyrion—Tyrion Veltras, you don’t have the right to tell me what to do. Even if we are in a relationship.”
“I am not telling you to…I am trying to refocus you on what’s about to happen. Getting hurt before the battle would be the most disastrous thing.”
Tyrion repeated himself, remembering similar conversations with Salva. Ryoka bunched a fist, and he tensed, then she rubbed at her face. Tears fell from her eyes.
“I’m so—angry. And sad. And worried! The Solstice?”
“Yes. Do you need a calming potion? Do you want to rest? It’s been a long day. Eighteen hours at least, if you slept.”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to—”
She was distraught now, and he awkwardly tried to embrace her. Ryoka hesitated, pushed at him—then grabbed at him and suddenly raised her mouth. He blinked.
Tactical assessment. Is this the moment when you initiate a kiss maneuver?
Everything in him was saying ‘yes’, ‘push the charge’, ‘press the advance’. But Tyrion hesitated. Ryoka was closing her eyes, and he saw her panting, her clothing pressed taut against her body—
And yet she wasn’t quite right. Tyrion hesitated. Wait a second. Her hands. Ryoka was tearing at his clothes, and he was stating that this was a good time to go back to the battlefield. His feeling of strangeness—she wanted him to kiss her.
Tyrion Veltras was a weak man. He decided he had a little bit of time to spare, and he wondered if you mentioned this to Pellmia as well. P-probably not?
He wanted to. He lowered his head for a kiss and then had a thought in that moment.
She smells different too.
Hethon Veltras knew it was 8:16 because he’d been checking. He showed Sammial the timekeeper spell as they walked back towards their horses so they could return to Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion.
“Only four hours left. Let’s tell Mrsha about Ryoka. Maybe that’ll cheer her up.”
“She’s been nervous all day! You can’t even have a proper battle in four hours.”
“Who says that?”
“Old Lord Rothebud. He said that once.”
Hethon sort of doubted his brother’s knowledge of battles, but he was ready to agree it seemed like the Solstice wasn’t gonna be bad—or something unexpected might happen? He didn’t know, but the unexpected thing turned out to be running into someone on the way back to the stables.
“Hey! Hethon, Sammial! I heard Tyrion was looking for me. What’s up, guys?”
Ryoka Griffin landed in the snow, and the [Bodyguards] jerked. Hethon and Sammial stared at Ryoka, then over their shoulders.
“Ryoka? What are you doing here? Where did Father go?”
“Tyrion? That’s what I’m asking. Isn’t he with you?”
Ryoka Griffin, dressed in her wingsuit and wearing boots—because it was freezing—looked around. Then Hethon noticed the Faeblade hanging from her side and stared at her.
“You were just slapping him. And that Persua girl.”
Sammial had an amazing ability to point out the obvious, but it came in handy here. Ryoka stared at him.
“Me? Wait—is Persua here?”
Her face darkened in a familiar way, and she balled up her fists. But now Hethon felt this incredible unease on his body. He pointed at Ryoka.
“R-Ryoka. We just saw you. You were beating up Persua, then Father took you back to the inn to calm down.”
“What? I’ve been flying around for the last hour. I haven’t even been to Invrisil today.”
Ryoka gave Hethon a confused—and alarmed—look. But his eyes were on her hand.
Funny how you only noticed things in hindsight. Hethon whispered.
“I know. The other you was barefoot and looked—younger? Maybe. But she—she also—”
Sammial blinked, then his eyes went round.
“That Ryoka had all her fingers.”
Ryoka stared at them, then her face went white. Without a word, she, the [Bodyguards], and Hethon and Sammial went running.
“Which way is the inn?”
Someone burst out of the inn, clothes disheveled, holding a sword, wild-eyed as Ryoka Griffin ran towards the Terland’s Favor. He nearly swung on Ryoka—then stopped when she recoiled.
Tyrion Veltras pointed his sword at her as his [Bodyguards] swarmed around. Ryoka lifted her hands.
“Wait! Waitwaitwait—it’s me! See?”
She showed him her fingers, and Tyrion Veltras hesitated. He stepped back, but kept his sword raised.
“There’s someone else that looks like her. She—it—can bend and twist through cracks. Find it!”
The [Bodyguards] looked at each other and spread out while they surrounded Hethon and Sammial. Ryoka stared in horror at Tyrion.
“Did it attack you?”
“Not right away. It was like you, but angrier. More emotional. I didn’t realize—it didn’t even know about the Solstice, in hindsight. But I was fooled.”
Tyrion looked incredibly disturbed. Ryoka hesitated.
“How did you tell it wasn’t me? Was it the fingers?”
“She didn’t have the faeblade and it’s cold outside.”
Sammial pointed at Ryoka’s sensible covering and boots. Tyrion glanced at his sons.
“No, I figured it out another way.”
“It wasn’t you.”
He avoided Ryoka’s gaze. She stared at him.
“How did y—”
“It was not you.”
Ryoka stared at him until the pieces connected. Then she swung around into the dark night of Invrisil and gripped the Faeblade. But whatever that fake Ryoka was—it was gone.
For the moment.
And the minutes were ticking on.
At ten o’clock, the tension was at its worst for some. A few [Soldiers] had written the entire event off, but the Antinium, Goblins, the ones who had been there and believed were just waiting.
Liscor’s 2nd Army believed. Olesm had been counting the people under his command. He had three companies from the regular army. Only three. And he only trusted Wing Commander Embria.
He couldn’t pull all his forces from Hectval, so it was a bare four thousand he’d mustered here and supplemented with Lieutenant Caoraz’s forces.
He was grateful that the Antinium that Xrn had pulled to form the 7th Hive were here as well as the Free Antinium. Dead gods, even Pivr and a bunch of Flying Antinium had shown up.
No one, even Chaldion, knew that. Olesm had been inducted into the command structure that included Pawn and Yellow Splatters and had been told Silent, Armored, and Flying Antinium had used the tunnels from the Hivelands and were ready to pour out. Not countless thousands…but a force.
Yet the tension was beginning to crack people. The first person it cracked was Lyonette. She was having a discussion with Erin that Olesm was listening to.
“It’s all gone wrong, Erin. Ever since you woke up, I’ve made so many—we’ve made so many mistakes.”
The [Princess] pointed at the mop; the Antinium wasn’t a fighter and had been barred from the inn for today, but his old mop was leaning against a wall. Erin squinted at it.
“What about Silveran? We discussed this, Lyonette. Remember? He did a lot more good running Silveran’s Cleaners. Heck, he stays at the inn, and he’s even learned to splurge! Sometimes he buys three bowls of acid flies. Though he does share them.”
Lyonette was shaking her head. She took a shuddering breath as Pawn listened from one table as Yellow Splatters sat, running over the plans for the umpteenth time with Belgrade.
“—If in the case of spectral attacks—”
“[Crusaders] and faithful Painted Antinium first. Yes.”
Olesm tuned them out. Lyonette stomped her foot.
“I know we said that, Erin, but—Silveran could have run his business from the inn and just swept and cleaned up, couldn’t he? You know he loves to do it.”
“Yeah, but what’s the point, Lyonette?”
“Why didn’t we let him just—do it? He would have been so happy. We could have done more things like that. Why didn’t we?”
This wasn’t a conversation about Silveran, not really. Erin stood there, trying to pat Lyonette on the shoulder.
“I—sometimes we gotta do things that don’t make us happy, Lyonette. But matter.”
The [Princess] wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief and glared at Erin.
“Don’t say that. You sound like my father.”
To that, Erin had no reply. But she put her hands on Lyonette’s shoulders.
“Just in case, I want you to go to Magnolia’s mansion now, Lyonette.”
“Please. Ser Dalimont? Take her?”
The Thronebearer bowed and, with Dame Ushar, gently tried to shepherd the [Princess] away. The anxiety Lyonette felt wasn’t just in her, either.
The Antinium showed fear just like other people. Olesm hadn’t realized it—but it was in their antennae. They shook. Even Yellow Splatters’ were shaking. Olesm didn’t mention it, but the [Captain] seemed like he was under great stress.
Only Pawn was rock-solid. He looked at Erin; he had not unclasped two of his hands the entire day.
“The sky. We will not let it fall. Be it one or all—we have been here before, and this time, we shall hold them back. No matter what. We have faith on our side. Remember that.”
He gazed around the table at the Painted Antinium, and Olesm, the [Strategos], silently met Belgrade’s eyes. They shared a thought—the Painted Antinium would throw themselves into the battle to the death unless someone stopped them.
It might come to that. Olesm felt a great stillness come over him, a certainty that was neither glorious nor overwhelming. Just—the focus that had suffused him in part since Maviola El had died.
Perhaps what she called the burden of the survivor. He put a hand on the Kaalblade, her last gift to him. He was ready. He was, the Drake realized—a [Soldier].
But the tension and fear were infectious, and though it broke over experienced campaigners like the Forgotten Wing Centaurs, Drakes like Lieutenant Caoraz, eying Pawn, and the faith of the Painted Antinium—it found the chink in the armor of the last person Pawn expected.
It was slow, and no one at the table noticed it at first until he was falling over backwards. But then Yellow Splatters fell out of his chair onto his back with a tremendous crash.
He lay on the ground, spasming, and Erin whirled.
Belgrade was kneeling, trying to inspect the Soldier’s mandibles.
“Something happened to Yellow Splatters. Poison?”
“Don’t look at me!”
Caoraz backed up from the table, and Olesm shot to his feet. He gathered around Yellow Splatters, who was waving his antennae wildly. The Soldier with yellow paint was trying to speak.
“N—n—I cannot any—n—we must not fight. I cannot lie any longer.”
“Yellow Splatters? What is wrong?”
Pawn bent over the [Captain], and Yellow Splatters stared wildly, Olesm thought, at the [Priest]. At the Painted Antinium. At Erin. Yellow Splatters knew he should not say it like this. Not here. But it came out of him from the pressure. The fear. The guilt.
“There is no Heaven. I never saw it. We cannot fight and die. There is no Heaven. It wasn’t real. I lied.”
His voice was soft, like a confession, meant for Pawn alone, but it reached the other Painted Antinium, who fell still. Like that—Olesm saw part of his armed forces begin to break.
“What? Yellow Splatters? This is…this is a strange thing you say. That is a joke. Ha. Ha. Only Bird lies. Only Bird…”
Belgrade was not the same true believer, but he stood over Yellow Splatters. The [Captain] lay there, staring up at Pawn. And the [Priest] knelt and asked…
“Are you sure?”
“I saw nothing. Only when I was reborn did I hear a voice. No heaven. None of the others. I lied. The Free Queen asked me to lie so you could level. I am sorry, Pawn. Do not ask them to die.”
Yellow Splatters was shaking, shaking like a leaf. Olesm half-stood.
“Pawn, if this gets out—someone seal the doors. Can you block the telepathy?”
The other Drakes and Humans were staring at the scene without comprehension, but Caoraz was clearly memorizing this. Olesm could have punched him, but his eyes were on Pawn. On Erin.
He was hoping the [Innkeeper] had something to say, but Erin’s head was bowed. She…she had no reassurances to give either. She had seen no Antinium in the lands of the dead.
Pawn. Pawn looked at Yellow Splatters, then at Erin, then around at the Antinium, and for a moment, Olesm saw a crack like the one he sometimes thought was in him. A fracture point ready to split the Antinium apart.
For one second. Then—Pawn gently reached down and pulled Yellow Splatters up until he was sitting. Pawn paused, then spoke to him, gently, and to the others.
“I wish you had not lied, Yellow Splatters. But thank you for telling me the truth. I told you once: it does not matter if you saw nothing.”
“If heaven does not exist, we will build it for ourselves. We must simply work harder.”
Pawn rose, and Olesm shook his head. Something in that Antinium truly was unbreakable. It was a strange light. Olesm wasn’t sure he believed in it or liked it—but his fears about the Painted Antinium routing went away. Yet the pressure seemed to only intensify, and if Pawn didn’t break…
“Crazy Creler shit is happening today. Did you see that Antinium having a panic attack? I didn’t even know they could do that.”
Yellow Splatters was led away, and conversation resumed minutes after he’d gone. Lieutenant Caoraz had been told by Olesm, Caoraz’s acting commander, that he was going to check morale.
The Drake was confused by Olesm’s insistence they work together. Somewhat gratified, true; he’d been reprimanded many times for stating his opinion to his superiors, including Chaldion.
He wasn’t over the Goblin and Antinium thing, though, but Olesm wasn’t a bad one. So the Lieutenant got a drink and sat with some other Drakes and [Soldiers]. Be they on different sides, there was a camaraderie to this feeling before the battle.
“Stress. Seen it before. Had a commander freeze up. Some [Lord] who thought he was ready for a battlefield. He did a great job, you know. Led us into the fight—then we got minced on the shores of Sedwater. Half of us missing or dead, and he just—broke into pieces. Sat down and refused to speak or move.”
This was coming from one of Oswen’s Marshrangers, recounting a scene Caoraz was familiar with. The Drake grunted and decided not to poke at Human frailties.
“It happens. Every time I go back to Pallass, it’s like I’m a stranger. Things are so safe in the Walled City. They locked down an entire block once because someone had found a Soap Slime in their house. A slime. I went over, saw it was the size of my boot, and stepped on it.”
Everyone laughed at that. Caoraz went on, staring out across Liscor’s Floodplains.
“Most places aren’t like this. Liscor, well, Liscor’s sort of on the edge. I meet people in the Walled Cities who think if you cross the street outside of a crosswalk it’s a mortal sin. People mad someone planted the wrong flowers somewhere. They don’t…get…the fact that tomorrow they could be homeless. Or dead.”
“They have never seen what you have. It’s a luxury we grant others. It should be that way.”
That came from a grim-faced adventurer. To his astonishment, Caoraz realized he was sitting with Halrac the Grim. The man was sipping goat’s milk, sensibly, but he looked at Caoraz. The Drake held up his claws.
“Oh, I know. That’s why I serve in 8th Army. I’m just saying—these people think that way. They act as if the world ‘can’t’ end tomorrow. As if you can’t be stabbed to death in an alleyway, even in Pallass.”
“It’s like losing a fight. The first time you get really punched or have your face blooded and wake up snorting blood—then you know it can happen. Until then, you’re a snot-nosed brat. Alcaz. Who’m I drinking with?”
A young man with a crooked nose and a bowler hat shook hands with a few people around the table, and Caoraz liked the company. Despite himself. And despite his best wishes—when the [Innkeeper] paused by the table with a refill and spicy, steaming noodles for everyone in bowls—she put it best.
“They have to live through it one time to believe it. I used to think like that. It’s no one’s fault. And maybe it’d be best if no one ever had to learn that lesson again. But that’s why I asked for you all. Because you won’t hesitate. I’m sorry.”
Erin Solstice gave Caoraz a hazel smile, full of guilt and sympathy for Yellow Splatters—and he challenged her, knowing it was probably stupid.
“So why’d you call us over to die if you did?”
The [Innkeeper] had no hat of fire today. She was just the [Magical Innkeeper], and her eyes flashed and she looked straight into him. The Drake hesitated. Erin Solstice leaned over and poked him on the chest.
“Because you can take it, can’t you, buddy? Pallass, I, the world needs people like you. That’s what makes you special. Not because I asked. But because you came when you heard me call.”
She left him without a reply. He hadn’t expected approval or that response. Caoraz took a bite of his noodles—and noticed several of the people at the table smirking at him. A passing [Lady] clapped her hands in delight.
“Oh, look, Thomast! Did you see that? Even at the end of the Winter Solstice, she still got one. And you said she doesn’t do romance! But I think even Wuvren would have admired that shot to the heart.”
Lady Bethal Walchaís passed by, laughing gaily as Caoraz turned beet red under his scales. And then…and then…
And then it was 11:30.
Near to midnight. Erin woke from a nap and stared around her inn. It was dark, yet when she went to the window, the lights still burned.
“Darn. I think we missed it.”
She couldn’t believe it. Not really. Erin pinched herself and wandered around her inn, bleary and guilty and nervous and—unhappy.
Surely, something had happened this day of days. She knew it. This was it. This was what she had prepared for for months! She had been warned by the last Gnome, by the dead, and she had placed all her bets, and…and maybe that was Kasigna’s greatest vengeance.
Doing nothing at all.
Yet if that was the case—what had the dead gods been doing? Erin feared not knowing their plans more than anything. She refused to believe they had done nothing.
She stood in her [Garden of Sanctuary], staring around at nothing, the Key of Reprieve in hand, feeling like the greatest dunce in the world when someone found her.
Erin nearly punched Ulvama. Even Ishkr had left the inn after the last guests; he was no combatant. The Knights of Solstice, Numbtongue—the inn was empty, most of her friends outside of it.
Ulvama had stayed. She was a powerful [Shaman], and Rags’ tribe had counted her among their number, but it seemed she wasn’t going to wait in the cold.
“Ulvama. Shouldn’t you be in position?”
“I am. Here. I’m not going out there. It’s cold. If there’s a fight, this is the final stand.”
“But Kasig—Kassy’s aiming for me. What if this becomes the most dangerous spot?”
The Hobgoblin [Shaman] puffed out her chest proudly.
“I. Will run away. Duh.”
That made Erin laugh. She sat down in the grass and confessed her worry to her dance-instructor and, well, friend. She hadn’t known Ulvama as well at the start of this, when she’d come back from the dead.
But now she counted Ulvama as part of the inn and hoped the Hobgoblin sort of felt that way.
“I feel like a huge fool right now, Ulvama. Look at what’s going on. I’ve been acting like it’s all about me, and I called everyone here, and I might have just wasted their time.”
“Eh. They have lots of time to spare. You think Thigh Lord does much? He sits around with Golems all the time.”
Ulvama scoffed, and Erin snorted at her term for Xitegen. She plucked up some grass unhappily.
“Yeah, but—I realized it while everyone was waiting. Why did I call everyone here?”
“…Because it’ll be a big fight?”
Ulvama didn’t really get the question. Erin tried to explain.
“Nah, nah. It’s all wrong. You see, think about it. I’m an [Innkeeper]. I’m making it about me, but it was never about me. Not from the start. Remember Relc and Klbkch and—well, you weren’t there. But I’ve told you stories.”
“Yah. A bit. What do you mean? I don’t get it.”
The Hobgoblin was poking some Faerie Flowers suspiciously, but they were just open-petaled, facing the dark sky. Two full moons…but the sky was too filled with clouds to even see a single ray of light. Erin patted the flowers gently.
“It was really all about them, you know. Here’s this weird girl who plays chess, and along comes the Gecko of Liscor and the Slayer. Best friends and Senior Guardsmen! They’re like—the coolest [Guards] in all of Izril. And Pawn became the first Individual Antinium, and there was Rags and Pisces, a future adventurer—and me.”
“Okay. But you helped them be…famous-ish.”
Ulvama twiddled her fingers, not seeing the problem. Erin nodded.
“Maybe a bit. But you see, at best, I was just one of them. Even after that, my inn was part of cool things. Sure, I helped teams, but the Silver Swords were going into the dungeon. When the Goblins stopped the Goblin Lord and Tyrion—it was them. Ever since I died and came back, it’s been all about Erin Solstice. When it’s not.”
“Eh…didn’t you have a stupid flag at the battle? They came because of you.”
Erin couldn’t deny that. She hunched her shoulders.
“I just don’t want to make more of myself than I should.”
Ulvama sighed. Then she poked Erin, as was her way.
“Dummy. You are important. You have to know what you’re worth. You’re stupid.”
“Sorry. I just—”
“Hey now, I don’t want to—”
Erin hesitated. She stared down at her stomach.
Ulvama grinned, and her crimson eyes flashed as her teeth made glimmering spikes in the faint light of the [Garden of Sanctuary].
“Let me tell you a story, Erin. A story about a stupid, slow, fat Goblin. Back in the Mountain City tribe.”
Erin blinked. Ulvama’s eyes were distant, far away, and Erin hesitated.
“You mean…I haven’t ever met him, but I sort of do with Numbtongue. Rags knew him well. You mean Pyr—”
This time, Ulvama kicked Erin. Hard. The [Innkeeper] punched back, and Ulvama grunted.
“Shush. This is a story about a stupid, fat Goblin. When I was just an apprentice [Shaman]. Sometimes we talked. I was good at healing and paints even then. Because I’m a genius. He…always wondered why people attacked him. Other Goblins challenging him. Humans in battle. He thought it was because he was big.”
“He was. But not that big. There were taller Goblins, scarier-looking Goblins. He always thought it was some stupid reason. Not because they noticed him being at the center of things.”
Ulvama drew a swirl in the grass, and Erin saw a breeze run around and keep a single blade of grass standing, like something at the center of a storm. Ulvama’s eyes were sad, melancholic, and nostalgic, and that was not entirely without happiness.
“He thought he was slow and stupid. Hah. Him? The entire world was slow and stupid compared to him, sometimes. He never thought he could be something.”
“I heard he tried, once. Rags told me—”
Ulvama raised the foot of kicking, and Erin fell silent. The [Shaman] glared, then waggled her toes and went on.
“Before that. There was a moment, in the tribe, when he could have been. A moment where if he said ‘come with me’, Goblins would have followed him.”
The [Shaman of the Old Ways] huffed, folded her arms, and nodded.
“…Including me. He had a stupid teacher. A teacher who thought you needed to be perfect at everything like he was…because he was born that way. We didn’t care about that. We wanted someone who cared about us. And made things better. One small thing at a time.”
She looked guilty, then. Ulvama stared across the garden as snow fell on one side and a dry wind blew across the arid lands on the other. Cocoa beans rustled from several trees.
“If I had gone with him, maybe things would have been better.”
“Wh—I understand the story. What’s it got to do with me?”
Ulvama blinked at Erin.
“Dunno. You figure it out.”
Erin opened her mouth, and the [Shaman] went on grumpily.
“Who cares if nothing happens?”
“B—but the amount of money and time they wasted. If nothing happens, then I missed my opportunity to—”
“Eh. Those idiots have lots of time and money. You wasted time? You made a mistake? So what. You’re important. Maybe idiots say afterwards, ‘oh, Erin Solstice is such a stupid [Innkeeper] who can dance really well because her teacher is amazing’. But they’ll also say you’re powerful. You can tell the Five Families and Walled Cities what to do. And if they forget because you made one mistake, you can sneak up on them. With a club.”
Ulvama made a gesture, and Erin smiled. It was true this was going according to Ulvama-logic, but there was something about the way she thought that worked with Erin. Erin had been the underestimated [Innkeeper] a long time.
Important. Me. Erin knew it was true, in a sense…she just didn’t want it to be. She didn’t want the burden. She didn’t want to be right or wrong about today.
Ulvama was patting Erin on the head. Gingerly, like someone patted a dog or cat, worried they’d get a bite. She met Erin’s eyes seriously.
“If you did what you thought was best, even if you were wrong, it was a good idea. That’s wisdom. Trust me. I’m a [Shaman].”
For some reason, that actually made Erin feel better. She stretched out, sighing, and knew that the Winter Solstice was coming to an end. Part of Erin wanted it to go out with a sigh rather than a bang.
Another part of her…was just waiting.
The little timespell was counting down the minutes as Erin stared at it.
She got to her feet, walking around the garden as Ulvama sighed.
“If everyone leaves tomorrow—eh. Stupid [Lords] and [Ladies] will stick around. If—after this—”
She hesitated and seemed conflicted for a second. Erin glanced at her as she absentmindedly did a circuit of her garden. Checking, waiting.
In her inn, she could sense Normen yawning as he and the Knights of Solstice surreptitiously played cards. Ryoka was in the outhouse. Tessa was sitting on the beams of the common room, curled up.
“After this, I gotta focus on some people in my life, Ulvama. At least Tessa and…and other things. Rabbiteater. I could throw my boon at him. I should have already, but he says today won’t be the worst.”
“Yah. But after all that. I…there’s someone I want to introduce you to. Another [Witch].”
Ulvama sounded so hesitant that Erin twisted around as they climbed the hill of the garden.
“A [Witch]? What kind of [Witch]?”
Ulvama grumbled under her breath.
“A special [Witch]. And after that—maybe—I want to show you a place. An island.”
Erin’s footsteps slowed in the grass as mist crept up around their ankles, rising by the moment. She stared at Ulvama.
The [Shaman] met her gaze slowly.
“Yeah. Maybe it’s stupid and dangerous. No, it is both. But if it’s you—maybe you’ll find answers.”
The answers Erin had promised to help Ulvama with. Answers Erin herself…the [Innkeeper] smiled and reached out a hand.
I’d like that. I promise.
Before she could touch the Hobgoblin’s hand, Erin felt it. Her hand froze in midair, and the shy [Shaman] paused—and she saw Erin Solstice’s face freeze over. Then she saw the [Innkeeper] turn, and all thoughts of the future or the truth became a quiet certainty.
Erin Solstice began to walk forward through the misty hill without a word. And now, Ulvama checked the time—
“What’s going on? What, what?”
Erin didn’t answer. She was walking faster, now, through the swirling fog. The place where she had lain, frozen, where statues stood. But there were none around.
Yet she had been here over two dozen times during the course of the day. Just checking. Yet now, now she wasn’t checking. She was walking forwards, and a dread rose over her. When the mists parted, she stopped and cried out.
Ulvama rushed through the mists after Erin and stopped. She froze as a great statue of a weary Dragon, larger than any monster or being she had ever seen, raised his head in a silent roar. Even the grey stone hinted at the scales of pure blackness, wings like a distant purple nebula.
Weariness was on every line of Xarkouth’s body. His eyes were still alight, though, yet his mouth was open, and Erin thought she heard a whisper.
Erin fell to her knees in the grass—then tried to get up. She stumbled towards him.
“No. Nonononono—what happened?”
She knew what had happened. Today! Today of all days—she clung to him, crying out, and then she felt it beginning.
An [Emperor] was sitting and waiting, more nervous than anyone else for the Winter Solstice to end. He was about to ask Gamel for a drink of water and ask for the time—again—when he froze.
He shot to his feet. Laken whirled, nearly fell over in his tent, and cried out. Durene and Gamel rushed in and saw Laken flailing. His eyes were open and wide with horror, and they grabbed at him.
“Your Majesty? What’s wrong?”
Laken Godart said nothing at first. Then he gasped in disbelief. In…relief?
Erin Solstice refused to let tears blind her. She was clinging to one of Xarkouth’s wings when she realized something.
There was no statue of Razia.
Surely there would be, even for one of the Agelum. Ulvama was panicking, asking if this was the Xarkouth who was keeping two of the dead gods away. Erin whirled around. Maybe—
Razia stood there. Not as the kindly, aged, frail member of House Shoel that Ryoka had described, but in her warform, her true form. Six-armed, naked, multiple sets of eyes open wide. Her mouth was a thin line, and she looked wounded. Half-eaten.
Her stone pupils were all open wide in defeat, reminiscent of a Gazer’s, and Erin began to cry out again. Until she saw something odd.
Razia was pointing. All her arms on her right side were pointing, all three of them. Erin stared at the statue. She had never, ever seen a statue do that before. She followed the fingers to the one thing Razia could have pointed at—
Ulvama had noticed as well. The two looked at the Void Dragon, at the Agelum, and then Erin began to follow the fingers. She looked at Xarkouth, still laboring to fly in the last image of him. The statues, after all, were like the Deadlands had been; they showed you as you were. In many forms. Young. Old.
As you died.
Erin Solstice slowly walked around Xarkouth—then she gasped. She recoiled, and Ulvama rushed around. She uttered a sound and stopped.
Xarkouth’s other side was not the huge, beautiful scales. Instead, wounds had torn the scales. Something—a finger—had carved through his very essence. A deliberate wound. A…message.
If they knew they were dying…Erin gazed at Razia’s fingers and the grim expression on the Agelum’s face. Then she read the final warning of the two. It was written fast, in desperation.
they opened a door
Escaped. Erin just read the word again and again in horror, but she didn’t even know what it meant. Ulvama was counting now, looking around.
“Is bad. Is very bad, but—hey, hey, look, it’s okay? See?”
She showed Erin the time.
The Winter Solstice was ending. It was gonna be okay. Ulvama smiled at Erin. Smiled in relief, and Erin Solstice waited for that number to change.
Wall Lord Ilvriss was checking the time on his personal clock. He waited until the number hit 12:01 and then lowered it.
The Drake exhaled and felt the tension leave his body. He sagged and stopped holding the hilt of his sword.
He’d felt like it would have come at the last moment, he really had. Some last, petty attack or a wave of malice to wipe them out. If not at the beginning, then the end. He turned to the other Drakes who were still tensed, waiting.
“Someone send a [Message] to Erin. No—I’ll go. Let’s figure out whether we want to stay on guard for the next day.”
After a second, one of the people in his personal camp looked over.
“Nephew, what? It’s not midnight yet.”
Nerul was staring at his own timepiece, a more expensive one on the [Diplomat]’s wrist. Ilvriss paused.
“It’s a minute past midnight.”
“Is it? Your timepiece must be fast. Mine’s still at 11:59.”
Captain Osthia glanced at her own timepiece.
“We calibrated ours. I’m reading 12:03, actually. Mine might be fast?”
“Damn. Is the thing broken?”
Across the Floodplains, there were cheers going up, and laughter, and Ilvriss began to get [Message] spells. He grunted as he read a scroll.
“Congratulations for a wasted day from Lord Xitegen…typical.”
Something nagged at him, though, and he glanced around.
“Does anyone else have 11:59? Just Nerul?”
The armies were too disciplined to break up right away, but there was more movement after midnight had passed, so Ilvriss saw the question go across the lines. He was glancing at the inn, relieved it looked quiet, when he heard a response.
“Someone else has 11:59, Wall Lord! The Archmage of Izril also does—she wants to speak now!”
“Call her over!”
Suddenly, Ilvriss felt a tingle on the back of his neck. He saw Valeterisa flying towards him and, of all people, Relc Grasstongue jogging after her.
“Hey, why’s everyone celebrating? It’s still 11:59 according to Valeterisa. The longest damn minute of my life. Are you sure it’s broken?”
Valeterisa was frowning.
“Over a minute has elapsed, but my personal clock shows it is not midnight yet.”
Nerul grunted as he glanced down at his wrist again.
“Mine too. Can you explain, Archmage?”
Valeterisa inspected the timepiece, and Ilvriss called for the other malfunctioning one as well. On a hunch, he wrote an urgent reply to Xitegen—
Whether many knew it or not, Valeterisa was an expert in both magic and clockmaking. She deduced the problem very quickly.
“Aha. You see, I was a helper at a very renowned clockmaker store once. The answer is simple.”
She brushed some white hair from her eyes as she smiled. Ilvriss turned to her, hoping it was a simple answer.
“Magical interference? They stop at midnight?”
“No, no. Your spell is a very cheap one, Wall Lord. I could get you a deal on…I could have gotten you a very nice one. You see, most people here are using timekeeper spells. They simply do basic counting. One second? Add one. Then they show you the time.”
“Right. We all synchronized our timepieces. So why…”
Valeterisa was speaking too happily, lost in the explanations she found fascinating. But Relc was glancing around and feeling at the back of his neck. Something…was off.
“Well, you see, Diplomat Nerul and myself have more expensive timekeepers. Even counting spells can be desynchronized or go afoul. But ours are very beautiful pieces of light and calculation magic that—”
“Faster, if you please, Archmage.”
Valeterisa broke off.
“Skipping. I am affronted. Very well. Our timepieces automatically calculate the time based on the position of the moon and stars. You see, the stars are always at the same place in the sky depending on the month and hour. They move so slowly that the eye does not notice, but someone found you could calculate based on their exact position the actual time. Even if the stars are obscured by clouds tonight, the spells still locate them.”
Ilvriss’ mind was racing ahead of the explanation, and Valeterisa delivered it happily as the pieces fell into place.
“Meaning that somehow, despite time passing, it is still technically the…Winter…Solstice…oh dear.”
Then she stopped. The eager Archmage, Wall Lord Ilvriss, looked up at the very stars and around at the world, and Wall Lord Ilvriss’ mouth moved.
“The Solstice isn’t over. Someone’s stopped time.”
“Not for me.”
Relc looked around, trying to grin, but Ilvriss swung around.
“It’s a trick! Send a message—now! Wall Lord Ilvriss to all forces! The Solstice isn’t over! The Solstice—”
His shout was lost in the wild night. The campfires stoked so high, the cheering [Soldiers], and the Floodplains had been bright despite the obscured skies.
Now—as Ilvriss began shouting, the bonfire near his command tent went out. Piles of burning logs extinguished themselves and left only smoke drifting across the snow.
In a second. Relc swung right, lifting his spear, and a hovering [Light] spell vanished. Valeterisa’s own, personal spell flickered out, and the Archmage of Izril made a sound.
“That was no spell.”
Lights vanished across the Floodplains, reigniting as people cast spells or lit flames. But a true darkness suddenly swept the entire landscape.
And with it came a cold, a true cold that made Ilvriss begin to shiver despite the warming spells sewn into his jacket. He knew.
They all knew.
Horns began to blow, and voices began to speak across the speaking stones—but then they faded. As if sound itself had died.
Light. Sound. Then Ilvriss felt as if he were standing alone. As if he were the last person in the world. He looked around, but his head would not move. It slowly turned, his tendons popping and his muscles screaming in agony as he fought it. But he could not help it.
His head rose to the High Passes, to the base of those mountains rising black against the sky. And there stood a woman.
Three women. Young, mature, old.
Maiden, mother, crone.
All at once and by themselves. Three in one. She wore a shawl of pale white, like a grin of purest ivory, like a bridal veil or a shroud of death. The rest of her clothing was grey robes that seemed woven of nothingness.
She stood there, and he knew. Ilvriss saw her head rise, and her eyes found him and every person there for a second, and they knew Death when she appeared before them.
But her eyes were locked on only one thing. Narrowed as if seeing past a petty veil. Brow furrowed with disdain. She raised one wizened finger and pointed it.
The Wandering Inn.
The [Innkeeper] felt Kasigna’s eyes upon her. A door opened on the hill, and Erin Solstice stood in her [Garden of Sanctuary]. The two locked eyes, and one of them smiled.
There you are.
The Goddess of Death’s other, ancient hand clung to a staff made of midnight. A woman as young as the [Innkeeper]—no—wearing her exact face, stood taller.
Kasigna raised her staff, and Shauna Solstice met Erin Solstice’s defiant gaze. The two stared enmity and hatred at each other—and Kasigna drove the staff into the earth.
The Floodplains shook, and the High Passes trembled as snow and earth crumbled. The Goddess of Death said one word:
I have written my notes about my break and the Solstice in previous blog posts. I shall continue my summarization of the work as of 11/18/2023.
The third chapter of the Solstice was—difficult. I count it as following:
Chapter 1 (this one): 37,000 words.
Chapter 2: 30,600 words
Chapter 3: 39,500 words.
In one week and a half I have hit over 100,000 words. The pace which I reached that drove me to burnout was 200,000 words in two weeks, so this is not nearly as bad. Even so.
Keeping concentration and all factors equal is difficult. Yet I believe the bones are there. I am grateful for my delay because the edits on the next two chapters are going to be intensive. However, I am now confident enough to begin posting the Solstice, and I should be able to keep to my ‘regular’ schedule for now.
Expect a chapter on Tuesday if all goes well, and another on Saturday. I will be devoting at least two days to editing, and more to writing the next chapter.
My backlog will not last. I have pushed very hard, but the nightmares I had from stress have ceased today, at least. My feedback from beta-readers and stream-readers is positive, even if the edits will be exceptionally numerous.
Lastly and crucially, a huge thanks must go to all the amazing artists who helped put together the new website you are seeing. Our web developer, who I shall not name for privacy, and Enuryn, have labored to create the Solstice theme.
The Solstice begins. Whether or not it went well, we shall see afterwards, but it is time. Thank you for your patience.
Teriarch, Ryoka, and Dungeon by HolyArtisan!
Erin, Klbkch and Relc from Volume 1 by Duchess Ivie Blanchard!
Theillige and Gershal by Moerchen!
Apista and Klbkch [Maids] by Jawjee!
The Lightning Thief by Guliver!
Crusader by Relia!
Tesy by QtheBird!
Rhisveri by Brack!
Vetn by Ashok!
Wonder by AutumnLeaf