10.04 V – The Wandering Inn

10.04 V

“Gaze upon my mastery of magic and despair,” called [Archmage] Igawiz from the Steps of Challenges. He gazed down, and the [High Mage] removed the veil so all might see her face for the first time since she had come to Wistram.

She lifted a hand, and the aether in the air pooled until even Igawiz’s own arcane glow seemed as a puddle before a great sea, and the [Mage] who had altered the ocean itself grew dry-mouthed. His tongue became leaden, and he stumbled backwards, catching himself as he tripped upon his own robes.

“Magic has no mastery, only deeper mysteries, Archmage. Allow me to show you my question.” High Mage Valmira lifted her hand, and then the stars began to fall.

—Archmagi, Shapers of the Magical World, Chapter 16, pg. 212.

 

Valeterisa was reading her favorite book and her favorite page in it when the monster attacked The Wandering Inn.

This time, it was her fault. Sort of.

Vaguely.

She accepted ownership for the issue after analyzing the monster itself. Before laying eyes on it, Valeterisa assumed it was one of the ‘regular monster attacks’ that the inn sometimes apparently generated. She sighed, closed her book, and called out.

“[Apprentice]? What is that banging sound?”

Monster attack! Where’s Numbtongue? Mrsha, Nanette, in the garden! It’s hideous!”

That was Lyonette’s scream. Then Valeterisa understood it was an attack and sighed louder.

“[Invisibility]. Um. [Speed]. Apprenticemakesuremyroomisn’tdestroyed.

She began to move closer to a blur as Montressa skidded into Valeterisa’s room. The Archmage blurred past her…at a walk. She was still casting magic.

“Twofold…no, better make it [Fourfold Arcane Barrier]. And, um. [Stoneskin]. [Detect Life].”

[Arcane Barrier] was her go-to spell. She always had one layer around her, and she had a number of Skills that enhanced the most generic defensive spell of the modern [Mage]. Hers included [Barrier: Arcane Spellguard] and [Barrier: Crystalline Defense].

That mostly just meant her spell wouldn’t be easily dispelled or blasted and that the barrier ‘cracked’ and was fairly hard even if you struck it with enough force to damage it. Normally, they just winked out of existence once overloaded; Valeterisa’s would crack and need to be shattered.

The Skills had saved her life hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. Mostly in magical accidents. Valeterisa wasn’t a warrior.

She dueled, yes, but she didn’t act as a [Battlemage]…much. And the dueling was something she’d done as a younger student in Wistram and Fissival. Later on, she’d taken a few with fellow [Mages] to generate acclaim, but Valeterisa did not enjoy fighting.

She’d been told she was good at it, but seldom by adventurers, so Valeterisa disregarded this feedback. At any rate, she was staying at The Wandering Inn, and her room on the second floor had all her possessions.

It would ruin her morning if a monster destroyed the inn, so she walked downstairs and saw people running to and fro, doing…warrior things.

Goblins and Antinium were firing crossbows out the window while Lyonette and two [Knights] waved swords and argued. Relc was not here, Valeterisa knew. And none of those Solstice [Knights].

Drat. A Gnoll with sunglasses shouted.

“Numbtongue’s not here! He must be somewhere else! Who am I calling for help, Lyonette?”

“P—Pallass? If it were just a few hours later—I said keep in the garden, you two!

Lyonette shouted at Nanette, who’d come out with a wand, looking determined. The two began fighting as Valeterisa tried the door to the hallway that led outside.

Locked. And someone had pushed a chair in front of it. She sighed, wandered over to a window where the monster wasn’t—she could sense it outside the western wall.

Eight feet long. Five high? Not a Rock Crab. Valeterisa stared at the window latch and fiddled with it. She was an expert puzzle-solver. An acclaimed genius of magic. Archmage of Izril, whatever that meant.

“Do you pull it up and then it unlatches? No. It’s down and…hm. [Unlock Object].”

She gave up, and the latch undid itself with a click. Valeterisa made a soft ‘oh’ sound. You normally unlatched it, but it had a second way to deadbolt the latch…she climbed out the window as one of the Goblins running around with quarrels for the crossbow slowed and pointed at the opening window shutters in alarm.

Valeterisa instantly flew off. Not away, but up. In her experience, many things had to catch you to kill you. At this point, she was annoyed, wondering if this was going to affect lunch and considering lodging a complaint with Lyonette about the attack. She lazily circled the inn, reflecting that it would have been so much easier to do all this with [Parallel Thoughts].

But she was trying to be more invested in the world—the parallel thoughts were a trap, so here she was. Sighing, the Archmage cleared the roof, saw the monster, and said two things.

“Eugh. That is hideous. Oh dear. This one is my fault.”

Her next thoughts were immediately how she could cover up this being her fault and whether or not this would get her evicted from The Wandering Inn. Valeterisa agonized about it. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to tell? Larracel would, instantly.

The monster was indeed eight feet long and had drooping scales and a lizard-like body—though it had six sticky feet that let it climb with ease, and its ‘face’ was more like if a bunch of tendrils had burst out of an open wound like a growth of maggots. Writhing tendrils that dripped as the ‘mouth’ gaped, revealing more cilia inside.

The Manavore was a disgusting monster that grew hair along with scales; it was speculated the unnecessary shift from scales to hair along its ‘back’, to even patches of disturbing, scaleless flesh, were the result of too much magical radiation. It was fairly dangerous; this one was slamming itself energetically against the inn with such force that a regular house would already be cracking.

It was loath to use the magic it stored in its body—but Valeterisa could sense it beginning to generate fire magic. Manavores were capable of ‘spell-like abilities’, what you called any monster with a magical effect.

Wailer Frogs, which could scream beyond any normal lung capacity. Invisible Ghouls, which were….invisible. That sort of thing. Manavores had a lot of potential powers due to how much magic they could store.

Valeterisa never got to see what it actually was going to do. She pointed a finger as the Manavore seemed to notice her and raised that head, tendrils questing up at her. She’d heard they were actually blind and only sensed the world as relative amounts of mana.

“[Ray of Incineration].”

The Tier 4 spell was an orange-red beam that reached down, touched the monster, and set it aflame instantly. It shrieked, and Valeterisa made a note.

One Tier 4 spell not effective.

“[Ray of Electrocution]. [Ray of D—oh, that did it.”

A flaming, soot-blackened corpse flopped over, and Valeterisa reflected that maybe it was the quality of her spells; she was a superior [Grand Magus], not a lower-level [Mage]. So perhaps killing it would normally take 3-4 spells of a Tier 4 nature.

Either way, the Manavore was dead. The shouting from below stopped. Valeterisa sighed.

“Drat.”

…She’d known she was going to get in trouble for her latest experiment. She’d just forgotten how many problems it generated. She hoped she didn’t get evicted for it.

Maybe she could get Montressa to take the blame?

 

——

 

Lyonette was very thankful, initially, after Valeterisa descended. One of her staff, Peggy, was hitting the burning Manavore’s head with a hammer to make sure it was dead. Valeterisa saw the Antinium preparing to drag it off, and Yelroan was speaking loudly.

“Can we get a [Detect Life] spell on it? Then signal the Adventurer’s Guild in Invrisil, I guess, that we’ve got a burnt monster for identification. They’ll generally do all the butchering and hauling off on their own if it’s worth something.”

She appreciated that. There wasn’t any screaming, any fuss, or any huge sobbing ‘thank you’s and ‘you saved our lives’ that she normally had to deal with.

It was much like Larracel’s inn, which was why she enjoyed her stay here: convenient. Of course, Lyonette’s effusiveness was mostly because she didn’t know the Manavore was Valeterisa’s fault.

Montressa knew. She was the [Apprentice] and could sense her master’s guilt with the powers of her class and Skills. Either that or she just knew Valeterisa. She was giving Valeterisa a narrow-eyed look.

“—and thank you again, Valeterisa. I’m sure we can manage several complimentary discounts—dinner on the house? Something for you and Relc?”

“Er. Yes. I did that purely to help the inn. Which I enjoy. Discounts are not needed. I hope the Manavore is worth something…they do tend to have mana crystals, which I’d love to see—I mean, I am happy to let you sell them to the Adventurer’s Guild for cleanup. Because of the inconvenience, yes. And if any more were to appear, I am sure I or my apprentice could easily handle them.”

At this point, Lyonette’s gratitude changed to something resembling Montressa’s narrow-eyed look of suspicion.

“…Why would there be more?”

Valeterisa glanced at her room.

“No reason. That is, there is a good reason, but it’s largely in keeping with me being here as an Archmage. Magical experiments have…magic. Which is what attracted it. But as you can see, it was handled very adroitly, if I say so myself!”

No damage to the inn, either! She folded arms, smiled, and Lyonette’s stare made Valeterisa hesitate.

“Ah. I could help move the corpse?”

The [Princess] inhaled, exhaled, and put her hands together. Valeterisa hadn’t really paid attention to Lyonette the last few days, but she had been running around quite a lot. Lyonette muttered to herself.

“Think of the box, think of the box…Archmage! Why don’t we discuss any additional ‘monster attack’ fees later? Montressa can handle that. For now, if you would move that corpse away from the inn and ensure it is dead, that would be a start. Then you may explain why Manavores are after the inn in more detail.”

Ah. Valeterisa sighed, and her shoulders slumped.

I should have lied.

 

——

 

Life was a confusing series of events wherein you did your best. But you never knew what your best was, and there were no books that explained things like socializing, conduct, and so forth.

Everyone else seemed to understand the rules or assured you they were there, but you had to just guess and observe and figure out what to do.

It was tiring, stressful, and Valeterisa had learned the greatest secret of all: there were no real rules. Everything you ‘couldn’t do’, you could, and it was only weighing the cost. The impossible, in magic, in anything else, was just something someone hadn’t figured out yet.

She supposed, in hindsight, she could have told Lyonette that one of her experiments might attract magic-seeking monsters like Manavores. But she’d honestly forgotten. Valeterisa supposed life might be easier if she explained everything to everyone and told people what she was going to do first.

But it would hardly have been efficient. Even now, at the age of—well, she decided not to remember how old she was—Valeterisa kept being surprised by things.

Both in magic and the world around her. Recently, Valeterisa had found the rest of the world, not just magic, was worth experiencing. That had not been her belief for decades, but some things, some people, were worth it.

Her apprentice Montressa, for instance, was a net positive. They’d had ups and downs that might have been Valeterisa’s fault in large part, but Montressa was a good apprentice. Valeterisa said so all the time.

And Relc was also good. If surprising. The Wandering Inn was a good place to stay. Why, Valeterisa had reminded herself why Larracel was so important just recently.

These were positives in the world—and everything else was either non-important or net negatives.

Like most of Fissival, most of Wistram, 98% of Izril’s north, and so on. Valeterisa hadn’t tried to calculate whether the few good things outweighed the bad. For the last two months, she’d been staying at The Wandering Inn because it was convenient, because she had been tired after Fissival, because there was opportunity here, and because she didn’t want to do the calculus. There was only one logical outcome if it wasn’t worth staying here: she should then go back to her island or return to Wistram.

And she did not want to do that. Therefore, she nodded a few times as Montressa apologized to Lyonette, and she tried to look contrite. As far as Valeterisa understood ‘contrite’, it meant looking down at her feet.

“Manavores are a monster that pursue, well, mana, Lyonette. They might have gone for the inn on its own because of the leyline—but I think it was one of Archmage Valeterisa’s experiments.”

“One with more mana than normal? How dangerous is it? I told you, dangerous magic—”

“I’m sure it’s not dangerous except that it’s radiating magic. Right, Master?”

Montressa stared at Valeterisa, and the Archmage tried to guess what the widening of her apprentice’s eyes meant.

…Probably to lie? Valeterisa answered with the truth.

“The experiment is highly magical, but there is no dangerous spell in any part of it, Miss Lyonette. I assure you, I have no intention of putting a spell with any kind of volatility into this particular experiment!”

That was, by the way, absolutely true! Valeterisa gave Lyonette her best smile and hoped like heck the [Princess] didn’t ask how dangerous the experiment was on its own, even without spellcasting.

Lyonette’s narrowed eyes said she didn’t believe Valeterisa either way. She took a deep breath.

“How likely is it to harm the inn or people within? Aside from attracting monsters?”

“If nothing goes wrong—zero chance. So long as they stay out of my room.”

“What is the likelihood of something going wrong?”

“…Low?”

By now, even Montressa was giving Valeterisa the side-eye. The Archmage was sweating a bit as Lyonette inhaled, exhaled, and then spoke sweetly.

“Archmage! Could you ensure all precautions are taken that this doesn’t happen again? And that your experiment, whatever it is, is secure? Otherwise, we may have to revisit your stay at the inn.”

“I can pay double.”

“That isn’t the point, Archmage Valeterisa. Please—check on your experiment? Now, I have to see about a dead monster and, uh—shovels.”

For some reason, Lyonette developed a shifty look at that last comment and glanced at Peggy, who’d come into the inn. The Hobgoblin nodded.

“And wheelbarrow. Is very important. Maybe just bag of holding and scoop?”

“We could build a giant funnel…in the secret rooms? If we hung it up on a string. However, we simply need a rotation. And lots of bags of holding.”

Rosencrantz motioned with his hands. Lyonette scratched at her head.

“Yes…though every part of Erin’s inn has a compartment of holding. What if you got a bunch of baskets and…Archmage, I will deal with you later. Excuse me.”

She hurried off. Valeterisa wondered what that was about, then banished the knowledge to the back of her mind on the basis that it probably wasn’t as important as what she was doing. Montressa glanced sideways at Valeterisa, then hissed.

“Master? What the heck is going on?”

For answer, the Archmage of Izril sighed.

“I was just experimenting with my new Skill. And, um, trying to do something I’ve done in the past. It’s all perfectly safe. Sort of. Just don’t cast a spell in my room or you might destroy the entire second fl—”

Lyonette’s head whipped around, and Valeterisa beamed at her.

“Flan. I’d like flan for lunch, Apprentice. Get on it.”

 

——

 

The experiment really was simple. Montressa took one look in Valeterisa’s room, rubbed at her eyes, swore, and backed up.

“Archmage—is that—”

“Yes.”

“—And you created—I’ve only heard of this! Is it raw—

“Mostly. Due to my Skill. Don’t cast a spell.”

Montressa’s red hair, proof of her Terandrian heritage, was levitating slightly.

Don’t cast a spell? My wand is about to activate on its own! Archmage, this is raw mana! How is it not dissipating?”

She was staring around the room at the floating orbs of solid—or maybe liquid—raw, glowing, glowing…well, magic. It was a faintly purple color, yet vibrant beyond any naturally-occurring color, semi-transparent. Hypnotizing.

Magic itself. Magic in its purest form. Mana…and enough of it to fuel any spell the two might cast. Normally, this much mana would fuel a Tier 5 spell. If Montressa were to, say, cast [Sparks], a Tier 0 flame spell, it would probably activate—suck up all the magic into the room, and then?

Then you had a Tier 0 spell boosted to Tier 5 intensity. It wasn’t as likely to happen as Valeterisa made it seem; there were containment and nullifying spells, but Montressa could probably have cast a spell if she tried. The [Apprentice] blanched.

“How did you do it?”

“My new Skill. I was testing it out, and one of the side-effects, along with a higher density of mana for my spells, is…this. [My Mana Runs Thick as Blood]. I have been storing a bit of my magical power each day. It seems to keep, though I have had some bleed off. The Manavore must have sensed it, though. Drat.”

Valeterisa picked up a brush coated in melted gemstones and began adding to the containment ward spells around the room. She’d thought she’d done a good enough job, but…Montressa just stared.

“This—this is the stuff of real legends. [Archmages] of old.”

She turned, and Valeterisa gave her a happy smile.

“Yes. Isn’t it?”

It was the first magical Skill and spell that had made her feel like she was truly…beyond the level of magic she had known growing up. Oh, Valeterisa was a Level 54 [Grand Magus of Mind and Studies]. She knew thousands of spells. She was an Archmage, and etcetera, etcetera—who cared? She could empower a spell, boost it, slow it, alter it on the fly, raise earth and call down lightning, or divine the exact radius of something.

But these were all features of a modern [Mage]. No discredit to them; if you wanted a [Fireball], a [Mage] could blast a hole in a hill if they were strong enough. Magic provided so many day-to-day features, from enchantments to [Message] spells, that it was indispensable.

This, though…this was something else. If Mrsha walked into this room and cast [Light], she could probably illuminate Liscor from here. Valeterisa’s mana was condensing, and she added to the room now; the liquid mana, floating around like strange, underwater clouds, grew slightly as she poured more magic into the room.

A child could use this power and cast a spell well beyond them. This was something that had no regard for rules and levels. If Mrsha knew a Tier 5 spell—she would be able to cast it with this.

This was the domain of Level 50 beings and the potential to warp the mundane reality. Montressa’s hands were shaking.

“If you could box this up and I could carry it around—I could fly halfway across the continent.”

“Impractical, but yes. With this, if I can create a storage container that does not attract monsters, I can fuel a spell beyond even my own mana reserves. Perhaps even complete my life’s work.”

Valeterisa stared dreamily at the sight in front of them. She reached out, and a small orb of mana drifted into her skin as she drew it in, and she felt the magic in her blood, like a caffeine rush amplified, like being alive.

Anyone or anything could take it in. Why, when Montressa waved her wand through the air, her wand instantly recharged itself. There was a dried orange on the table that Valeterisa kept meaning to eat, and it had turned incredibly vibrant.

The food was becoming magical, and if the mana density grew further, even the bed and mundane objects might become charged. Valeterisa was looking forwards to that. She smiled as Montressa gave her a look of wonder, then lowered her voice.

“So just keep this secret from Lyonette. And don’t tell her what the magic is doing to the walls.”

The entire room was bathed in indigo light, and Valeterisa was sure you could scrub the color out. With a lot of soap.

 

——

 

That was the joy of Valeterisa’s stay at The Wandering Inn, one of two projects she had begun that was bearing fruit. Even the Manavore hadn’t been much of a problem, what with its understandable desire to get at enough sustenance for months of its life.

The rest? All downsides.

“Archmage, you have…three major meetings today. Liscor’s Council, Archmage Eldavin, and the Adventurer’s, Runner’s, and Mage’s Guilds on behalf of—”

“Skip that last one. Again. Apprentice, I have work to do! And Relc is getting off-duty in the evening. Can’t you deal with the rest of it?”

Valeterisa made shooing motions. Montressa could often take meetings in Valeterisa’s stead. Didn’t she understand how amazing all this magical experimentation was? But Montressa just sighed.

“The Council wants you, Archmage, and Eldavin?”

“…Can he just write down a [Message] and I’ll reply later?”

The two were having breakfast in the inn. Avocados on toast, something Valeterisa quite liked. It was a decadent meal; in the dead of winter, they had this good food? She ate greedily and noted Montressa adding fried egg to her toast.

This was another reason Valeterisa liked the inn; the food tasted good. Back in her mansion, she ate from her garden, which her [Shadow Familiars] had tended to. Edible, nutritious…turnips. Potatoes without seasoning or cooking—perfectly edible! Yellats.

So many Yellats. It worked if she turned off the part of her brain that had to deal with eating it day after day for years. But here? Valeterisa stopped thinking about magic long enough to finish breakfast and let Montressa agonize.

“I’ll keep an eye on your room, Archmage. Please go to the meetings? Please, please, please, please—”

“Oh, very well.”

“Excellent! Then you also have to meet with Lord Sanito at 4 regarding the transportation network, and you wanted to apologize to Master Hedault today. I also have a meeting with the Dwarfhalls Rest Dwarves tomorrow, so you should be ready for a trip.”

Montressa hit Valeterisa with the rest of it, and the Archmage debated running away. Unfortunately…she grudgingly admitted this was all stuff she had deemed important. There were no more [Merchants] bothering her, no annoying requests from [Mages] to learn a spell—just the big stuff.

Drat the big stuff. Montressa got up, looking visibly worried, as a Gnoll girl padded past.

“Mrsha? I’m warning you, I’m warding Valeterisa’s room. No snooping around with the garden, I mean it! The ward spells won’t hurt, but they’ll kick you out.”

Normally, a statement like that might well backfire as the nosy Gnoll girl, always in search of adventure, might take this as a personal challenge. Today? Mrsha stopped hurrying across the inn with a bunch of…tools? A hammer, chisel, stiff brushes, rocks—she put them on a table so she could write a reply to Montressa.

Pshaw. Keep your boring magic. Who wants to worry about magic today? I have more important things to do. Good day to you, madam.

“I feel like something’s going on with the inn. I’ll try to ferret that out, Archmage.”

Montressa eyed Mrsha, grumbling, and Valeterisa shrugged. Larracel’s Haven always had some event for the other guests; Colth was always coming back hurt and talking about having to kill a Creler with his bootstrap while hopping on a cliff’s ledge two thousand feet above the sea.

“You get used to it, Apprentice. Now…”

Valeterisa sat back and tried to not activate [Parallel Thoughts]. Be in the moment. Learn from this world. It’s not all bad. Relc likes this city. He lives in it. 

She exhaled and looked at Montressa.

“…What is the meeting with the Council about?”

Montressa slammed her head onto the table.

 

——

 

Another [Mage] had once declared Valeterisa her rival…at some point. The Archmage didn’t recall the specifics. The [Mage] was—had been?—a master of mental magic. Thought-spells and so on.

Very good at her magic, too. Valeterisa had stolen all of it by copying her. There had been a protest with the Council of Wistram, and Valeterisa hadn’t been charged.

Sometimes, Valeterisa wondered about that other [Mage]. The more important point was—Valeterisa had learned how to divide her thoughts at Level 50, but she’d also long ago memorized spells to aid in recall. She could even replay events.

Her life had not been filled with much of anything she wanted to replay, except maybe days as a girl sitting and watching Master Milaw making a new magical timepiece, or with Heorth, the Djinni of Fissival, telling her the stories that were the truth behind the books she’d read.

Everything after that? No. At least, until she’d met a very strange person.

His name was…Relc. And he was a [Sergeant of the Watch] as well as a [Spearmaster]. They’d met a while back, and he liked puzzles! He was quite, quite large, and Valeterisa only remembered a few Drakes like Magus Grimalkin having shoulders that large.

Some might say his tail was too short and stubby and not very handsome, but Valeterisa had never minded thick-tails. He was very—gratifying. And fit. In fact, she very fondly recalled the beach with him, and she could experience it like it was happening again any time she wanted—

“Archmage? Archmage? I hope we’re not, ah, asking too much?”

—Valeterisa blinked, came back to reality, and looked at the seven members of Liscor’s Council, who were all eying her.

“Ah. No. You were recounting the factual information of which I was already aware from the first sentence, Councilmember Insert Name Here. Thank you.”

Councilmember Insert Name Here was a purple Drake, and he sat back, blinking and mouthing a few words.

“Er. Yes. So the walls?”

Valeterisa had happily replayed other events while waiting for him to finish. She blinked at him.

“They need re-enchanting. You don’t like Wistram.”

“Ah—we don’t dislike Wistram. It’s just that with recent events, you know, some bastard [Mages] showing up, their entire debacle with the news, and—but the wall spells need refreshing.”

“And updating. Especially given all the attacks of late!”

That came from an anxious Drake. The Council looked at Valeterisa, and she nodded.

“I am Wistram.”

They fidgeted a bit. Councilmember Insert Name Here raised a claw hurriedly.

“Ah, yes, but you are the Archmage of Izril, and if I might say so, Archmage Valeterisa, we would be delighted to have you enchanting our walls, regardless of our gripes with the academy!”

She gave him a warm smile.

“I must decline. I am quite busy, but I appreciate the interest. Thank you, and if you have any further inquiries, questions, or complaints, my apprentice, Montressa du Valeross, would be only too happy to—”

“Wait, wait, Archmage! We need the walls enchanted! 3rd District has solid walls, but the rains! And if another monster or army comes out of nowhere—”

Here came the begging. Valeterisa sighed. Relc, now, Relc had huge forearms. She’d been too shy to ask the first few times, but she’d wanted to poke them just to see how much muscle a [Warrior] actually developed…and he’d looked so pleased at that—

 

——

 

Liscor was obligations. Eldavin could at least get Valeterisa’s attention.

“—are you memory casting, Archmage?

“What? No. Are you?”

Valeterisa stopped saying ‘yes, absolutely’, ‘mhm’, and ‘I understand’ at randomized intervals. There was a long pause in their [Communication] spell.

“Right. Well. The snufflewuffamonster is still killing off students and teachers alike. We’ve fought it down to the third underground floor, but we might have to break out Tier 6 spells.”

“Oh dear. Good to know.”

“…You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?”

Valeterisa hesitated, and Eldavin sighed into the [Communication] spell. They were both members of the Terras faction, and he was in charge, so Valeterisa guiltily paid more attention. The problem was, he was intelligent enough to know she cared about none of what he was saying.

“Let me be brief, Valeterisa. Archmages—we’ve sent Verdan back to Baleros. A mess with the Iron Vanguard. Still at war with Terandrian nations. Beatrice—Archmage.”

“Who?”

Nailihuaile’s helper.

Valeterisa ran an analysis of all [Mages] she knew from Wistram.

“…She’s too low-level.”

Eldavin’s voice was annoyed and cheerful.

“As I already said! She knows the Revivalist faction, and we needed someone to take charge. If someone wants to challenge her for her seat, well, I’m going to vote in the old system of challenges. Too much complacency with the others. If an Archmage doesn’t return to Wistram every four months at the latest, they are not keeping their seat. You shouldn’t have trouble popping in for a day with the teleportation spells I taught you.”

“Mm.”

“Incidentally, are you planning on muscling out Fissival’s network?”

“I might. It is in prototyping. Teleportation as you taught me is not efficient enough. Moving the parcels by air…”

“Rather ingenious, Valeterisa. I must admit, I did not see that as a solution. When you return to the Academy, I can teach you more spells. I could use the help; getting Terras under control and trying to neuter the other factions is a chore. Not to mention the cleanup from the Solstice battles…”

The half-Elf’s voice pitched lower, and she imagined him scowling. Valeterisa sat in an outdoor cafe in Liscor and realized she had little desire to return to Wistram.

When he first came here, I would have followed him around day and night to learn from him. Now? She was cold.

Literally. Valeterisa cast a warming spell.

“I do have business here, Eldavin.”

“In a month? I hope you can return to participate in the duels that will inevitably crop up once we allow challenges, Valeterisa. I doubt Feor will go down easy, and Viltach might get sympathy points, but I want you to prove Terras is unmatched. You were a good duelist back in the day, weren’t you? We could have a refresher; I need a good opponent.”

Duels. He wanted her to establish Terras’ supremacy. Valeterisa knew it was the premier magical faction in Wistram right now. No one could come close. Eldavin, the Archmage of Memory, was the font of more magic than all the Archmages put together since Zelkyr.

Including her. Yet her admiration of him had run cold. Valeterisa listened, and do you know what she heard?

Politics. It was a smart consolidation of power. He was talking about getting nations to back Terras, sending his [Mages]—and the students armed in what they’d called ‘Terras Armor’—to make impacts. Eldavin might become the next Zelkyr, and without Cognita, Wistram truly was changing.

Yet—

This is not the same Eldavin who first came to Wistram. That Eldavin had been more careful and had felt more cautious. This one had participated in wars, and his voice was pointed.

“I am going to require effort from everyone, Valeterisa. Magic will rise, but with it, our enemies. Wistram must be united by them.”

“Mm.”

“How much did you actually hear?”

“I dislike duels, Eldavin. I kill my opponents. I was never sure if I could win without being gravely hurt at higher levels.”

There was a moment of silence, then he exhaled.

“Yes, well, I can admire that. We’ll be sparing, and as I said, you are the most senior mage I need right now. A month, Valeterisa. Oh, and while you’re at it, I told your apprentice I’d like you to look into a few other issues as our representative on Izril. The Archmage’s Isle keeps complaining—not yours, the ‘paradise’. And there’s one of our own who’s gone quiet. Try not to cause a mess?”

“I can do that. Are you going to take the Earthers back, Eldavin?”

He was about to disconnect the spell, but Eldavin paused a second.

“No, I think the ships have literally sailed on that one. We’re simply moving ahead of the competition, Valeterisa. Let’s discuss the matter further on your return. Ah—would you grab those ‘Faerie Flowers’ from the inn while you’re there? It’s surprisingly hard to get ahold of any.”

 

——

 

Because she was sad after that, Valeterisa looked forwards to her next appointment—Relc, back for a lunch-break.

She couldn’t have exactly expressed it like a magical formula, but it was better with him than without. They liked puzzles. He was from Izril, a Drake, and she had grown up in Fissival.

More than anything else? He seemed to genuinely like her and feel flattered she liked him. Which was not…well, people had tried, now and then, to court the rising [Mage], or later, the Archmage of Izril. But they hadn’t meant it.

Valeterisa thought Relc did. And he had other qualities that made it easier for her to talk to him.

“Look at this, Valeterisa. It’s Shield Spider chitin. I haven’t seen this since I was a kid.”

She peered at it. It was a curved, almost spiky-looking series of overlapping plates of smooth chitin. It flexed a tiny bit when Relc moved it with his claws, but it was very rigid. And lighter than she thought.

“Ah, armor. To my knowledge…the chitin is considered comparable to steel. Lighter, breakable, but in the same value of pricing. Isn’t Esthelm nearby? And Pallass? Why does this matter?”

Aside from you telling me, of course. Relc grinned at her and explained.

“It’s a warrior thing, I guess, Valeterisa. Lighter armor is great, and this is ours. Liscor makes this! Apparently, someone figured out how to make it again, and it means the Shield Spider chitin gets a lot easier to work. We can produce armor like the old days!”

“I see. But why was the method lost?”

It seemed obvious to her it should not have been, if this was Liscor’s industry. Relc’s face grew troubled.

“I think it was the Necromancer. A lot of good people died back then. When Az’kerash invaded…maybe it was the Antinium? I bet the right [Armorer] died, and his apprentices just didn’t remember how to make the stuff. Then you get people moving away because of the Free Antinium, and the secret just—vanishes. Maybe it was a Skill.”

“That’s very inefficient.”

Normally, when she said that unguarded, Valeterisa was used to people growing upset because they felt she was critiquing them or something else, but Relc just patted her hand and laughed.

“Yeah, that’s us alright, Valley. Say, I heard this place got attacked and someone took it out in five seconds. Nice. Too bad I wasn’t there or we could have raced!”

He winked at her, and she turned red. That was the second thing—he wasn’t afraid of her magic. Other [Mages] were competitive, even when courting her, and yet the Drake didn’t care. Relc half-turned.

“Though…what’s up with service today? Hey, I have to be on the job in thirty minutes! Can I get something to eat? I mean, we?

Another grin, and Valeterisa smiled back. After a few more seconds, Ishkr appeared, dusting his paws.

“Sorry. We were just tumbling, ah—stones. What can I get you?”

“Is garlic spaghetti really half off?”

“Yes—though we have to get it out of the garden due to customer allergies. Colfa’s here, but she doesn’t mind—one second!”

Ishkr vanished into the garden to get the spaghetti, and Valeterisa heard the sound of ringing—hammers on metal? And shouting. Yelroan was ordering everyone about.

“No, tumble the stones with the coins. Otherwise, you don’t get the right roughness, Mrsha. Mind you, I’m just doing this based on what a [Rogue] once told me, Lyonette. If Normen gets back—”

Relc craned his neck.

“What’s going on over there?”

“Mm. Something with the inn. I have to go to Dwarfhalls Rest tomorrow, Relc.”

Valeterisa remembered that and grew sour, but Relc just got excited again.

“All the way there? Of course, you can teleport. That must be awesome. I’d have to run.”

Another admiring look, and she fiddled with one of her rings.

“If you could take time off, I could take you with me.”

Relc hesitated.

“That would be nice, but I’ve got my job—and the kiddos with the spear training in the morning. Too bad. Though I, uh—I, uh, was wondering about something. Venim—okay Drake, a bit uptight, nothing like Captain Z—he came by for a word before lunch. Let me know if this is crazy…”

Valeterisa blinked at him. For a [Spearmaster], Relc wasn’t treated nearly as importantly as he should be. That wasn’t just her bias; Spearmaster Lulv was an important figure in Manus, for instance, and even Guildmaster Tekshia, a retired Drake, had been a Guildmaster. As Ishkr brought the plates over, she distinctly heard him say…

“[Pay No Attention to That].”

She supposed she caught the Skill because she was too high-level, but since Valeterisa didn’t actually care, she just began eating some of the garlic spaghetti.

“You said you wanted to discuss something. What was the topic, Relc?”

The [Sergeant] looked uncomfortable.

“Well—the walls. Liscor’s Council apparently asked you to look at them, right? It’s hard to get someone who’s not Wistram to do those kinds of spells. I don’t want to—”

“Oh, the walls. I—was going to do them, actually.”

When she realized what he was going to ask, Valeterisa grew flustered and blurted that out—then regretted it.

“You sure?”

Relc eyed her, and she hesitated.

“I—can do it. Or rather, Montressa can. I didn’t think of it, but she is the best person for the job. She’s an [Aegiscaster], you know. I can show her some of the other spells, and it would be a good project.”

Yes, she could do that! Learning to scribe mass-scale spells was good, and it wouldn’t be that hard. The smile on Relc’s face made Valeterisa’s stomach flutter.

And the cool part of her mind said—you shouldn’t have agreed to that. It wasn’t worth the gold, and Liscor wasn’t that powerful. She told that part of her mind to be silent.

“Hey, well, don’t let me force you into doing it. I said to Venim I’d only ask you if there were options. You sure?”

“It’s your city. I could help. Because I like you.”

The Archmage of Izril blurted that out and then stopped, embarrassed, because she knew from experience that saying it outright was a mistake. But when she saw how pleased the Drake was, she remembered why she liked him again.

She did that a lot. Relc patted her hand.

“You’re a cool person, Valley.”

“Yes. I cast warming spells all the time.”

 

——

 

Master Hedault in the evening. Or rather, Valeterisa’s attempts to mend bridges with him.

There were very few people of magical note she remembered…anywhere. Hedault was, of course, the best [Enchanter] of Invrisil, but she had gone to major cities, and there was a best [Enchanter] everywhere.

He was more notable because of the bicycles he’d made and, she believed, his connection to the inn. She’d also heard he’d produced Lifewood and had been researching something very magical that had caused him to cancel most of his work.

Something to do with Ryoka Griffin. Who was an Earther and also had other secrets even the rest of them lacked.

When Valeterisa had gone to try and inquire about all this, though, Hedault had refused to even give her an appointment or open his door. When she had asked Montressa—who did have a good relationship with him—to inquire, it had turned out Hedault did not like Valeterisa.

She wasn’t sure why. It was something she’d done. The problem was…Valeterisa didn’t recall what she’d done.

So, she had booked a chance to make it up to Hedault. She tried it in her best methodology.

“This is for you, Master Hedault, to apologize for my previous indiscretions.”

She offered him four thousand gold pieces—or rather, a voucher for it with the Merchant’s Guild. He sat across from her in his apartment, arms folded. He was balding, had an orange beard, and a rather off-putting glower.

Valeterisa noticed quite a lot of odd magic on him she couldn’t identify, stored in his bag of holding, but he covered his bag of holding with one hand when she peered at it.

Everything in his building had his magic on it, from the Lifewood chair to the items in boxes. Quite a lot of boxes piled up everywhere.

It must have been the man’s style. Valeterisa slid the voucher forwards; he slid it back.

“I am not interested in working with you, Archmage. Is that all you booked my time for? This is a favor to Mage Montressa, I might add. Not you.”

She gave him a big smile.

“How about a spellbook? I imagine you have a lot of spare time on your hands, what with your reduced work. How is business? Your Lifewood was much acclaimed in the city.”

She had personally scribed this book with a lot of good spells, and it was one of the things that got any [Mage] interested. Hedault glanced at it, then pushed the book back.

“My Lifewood business is done. A month past. I have personally refunded every client with orders outstanding.”

“Ah.”

She should have really updated her information there. Hedault continued, his glaring eyes turning melancholy, his voice lowering.

“—And I am not taking orders in any case. Solar Cycles has paused with the death of Kevin.”

“Very unfortunate.”

Valeterisa did mean it; he was an Earther and had seemed amiable, but she hadn’t known him. The [Enchanter] stared at Valeterisa, and his lips thinned in a way she knew was a bad sign.

“If your third attempt would be to seduce me, you tried that eleven years ago.”

The Archmage of Izril had, in fact, been about to pull out a lot of enchanting resources that were hard to acquire. She hesitated.

“…I did? How did it go?”

“As well as this time. To be specific: completely unfruitful. For your lapsing memory, after you failed that time, you left, and the artifact I was working to analyze vanished the next day—along with my window. The Gold-rank team was furious, and it ruined my reputation for two years.”

Valeterisa squirmed as Hedault’s eyes flashed. This…sounded familiar. She went back to the voucher and corrected the sum.

“Would this be—”

“I would appreciate if you left.”

Hedault stood up. Distressed, Valeterisa rose.

“I would like to recompense you, Enchanter Hedault.”

His arms were folded, and he glowered at her as he adjusted his spectacles.

“Why? It seems abundantly clear you have only tried to mend bridges because you wish something of me, be it work or magical knowledge.”

“Well—yes. That is how I approach most things in life. You have something I want, and I have come to sequester your favorability.”

Valeterisa had to be honest when he put it like that. Hedault paused, and his glare didn’t lighten, but he gave her a grudging nod.

“At least that is honest. Good day to you, Archmage. You have come at a poor time, which I suppose is in keeping with my week. Please see yourself out. Do not steal a window.”

The Archmage of Izril debated trying to win Hedault over, then shuffled to the door. She stared at whatever his bag of holding contained and stopped in the doorway.

“I could replace the window—”

“Please. Leave.”

 

——

 

When Valeterisa told Relc about that later, he laughed, which hurt her feelings, but he apologized for it.

“You were wild when you were younger, huh?”

“I did what I felt I needed to to learn magic. As I recall, he had found a hat that boosted your spellcasting power, or so I thought. I remember it now. I took it, and it did add to the potency of your spells…but it limited your casting to Tier 3 magic at most.”

“Whoa. How’s that work?”

Valeterisa was gesturing as they had supper in The Wandering Inn. All the mysterious goings-on in the garden had ceased, at least, the obvious ones. The staff was only half-present, and Mrsha and Nanette ran off without wanting to play with Hethon and Sammial, but the inn was mostly empty.

Menolit was here, and a few diehard regulars, but Relc and Valeterisa had a spot to themselves. The Drake saw Valeterisa wave a finger.

“Imagine…something like this, Relc. This is mana. This is what the hat does. It forces the mana through, makes it go faster—this is an approximation. But the shape limits the amount and power.”

She conjured a tube that narrowed at one end, and Relc nodded.

“Oh, sort of like how a spear tip concentrates all that force instead of a mace. But you only poke someone in one spot as opposed to breaking all his bones. Unless you hit him hard enough.”

“That’s a very refreshing way of saying it.”

Relc jerked a thumb at his chest.

“[Warrior]. Anyways, if Hedault’s mad—he’s a touchy guy. But you can keep trying to make it up to him. Do you still have the hat?”

That was a good question. Valeterisa actually thought it might be at her mansion and said so. Relc gave her a thumbs-up.

“Replacing that and his window might be the thing. Wait, did you steal the window to analyze it too?”

“No…he made it too well to unlock or bypass. I had to rip it out of the wall.”

Relc kept laughing about that, but soon he and Valeterisa rose to do something they’d agreed on this night that she had reservations about. It felt rather intimate, and it was her first time, but he was confident everything would work out, so she’d agreed.

 

——

 

“Okay, just let me know if you think it’ll actually hurt you.”

Valeterisa prodded the tip of Relc’s spear.

“No, I think I have good enough protection. Just stop if you think you’ll actually hit me.”

“Got it.”

Relc backed up, then took a running start and jabbed.

With his spear.

With his anti-magic spear. Valeterisa had already teleported away, and he continued the charge alarmingly quickly, and she began to levitate upwards as Montressa shouted.

“Go, Master—whoa!

Relc used his spear like a pole to vault up, and he kicked Valeterisa so hard she went flying downwards from the force of the blow. She bounced as her barrier spells reacted.

Oh my, he’s very dangerous. She felt a thrill as she vanished, and Relc swung around.

“Aw, hells. It’s like fighting a good [Mage]. All of them can teleport in a second.”

[Invisibility]. Valeterisa hung in the air as Relc paced around. She thought she was completely invisible until he reached in his belt pouch—

Sand attack! Ha! Gotcha!

Seeing an Archmage go up against Liscor’s [Spearmaster] had brought out a lot of the guests, even the busy staff. Bezale leaned over and whispered to Montressa.

“When you described this to me, I had an entirely different idea of what might be happening. I was quite worried when you asked if I wanted to watch.”

Montressa spat out her drink. Meanwhile, Valeterisa was having a harder time than she would have liked against Relc.

At first, she was going to take it easier on him. When he stabbed through two of her six [Arcane Barriers] in a single move, she realized he really was a threat.

“I would have used [Triple Thrust], but I was worried about hitting you.”

Could he have struck her if he’d used that Skill? Valeterisa backed off—and he closed the gap in moments.

The Gecko was too fast! No wonder he’d been known as an officer- and mage-killer back when he was in the army. Even with [Speed]—she felt too slow.

“[Haste]. [Reduced Spell: Fireball]. [Fireball]. [Fireball]—”

Valeterisa could fling low-tier spells down with extreme speed. In reply, Relc just dodged right, leaping faster than she could track him! Or rather, her fingers could track him, but the burning [Fireballs] couldn’t. When she made them home, he just jabbed his spear through each one, killing the magic.

“Come on, Valeterisa! I know you can do better than that! I know I’m going to lose. Give me your best shot! Without, uh, killing me.”

In reply, she decided to fly up high, high out of his range. There was no way he could strike her. In response, he threw his spear at her and knocked out another two barriers.

“[Recall Weapon: Spear]!”

This was actually rather embarrassing. Valeterisa decided that to look good, she had to show off a bit. So she raised her arms.

“[Bind Spell]. [Reduce Spell: Chain Lightning]. Increasing magic…eleven bolts. Eighteen…”

One hand caught a splintering nest of lightning bolts that writhed down from the sky. The other hand pointed down at Relc, and he looked up.

“Ah, hells.”

[Reduce Spell] let her take a lot of the danger out of a spell. So without much worry for his safety, Valeterisa hurled eighteen lightning bolts down at him as her second finger began firing [Arrow of Light] spells, a basic attack. Multiplied by about a thousand.

He actually managed to block the first three lightning bolts with his whirling spear and dodged a fourth. The rest caught him as he swore, and when the rain of light arrows finally stopped, Relc eyed his sooty scales and sighed.

“Yeah. That’s pretty much how I thought it would go.”

“You deflected a lot of them.”

“Sure, sure. It only takes one. Well, maybe three. I’ve eaten two [Lightning Bolts] in a battle before. That was not fun, let me tell you. Want to keep going?”

She was surprised; the level disparity between the two of them was clear, but Relc seemed excited as he lifted his spear.

“The thing is—you never get to practice anti-mage tactics. I could do some of it in the army, but how many [High Mages] do you think were keen to let me learn how to beat their spells? Everything I know is based on experience. Can I try the ray spells? I want to see if I can cut them with my spear.”

“Of course. How did you normally solve them?”

Valeterisa was interested by Relc’s spear, which was a very good artifact as well. He shrugged.

“Dodge. See, I’d never have risked it—yeow! That’s why! Spear on fire!”

He looked sillier when he danced around, waving his flaming spear, and certainly, some of the staff and guests laughed at Relc’s antics. But the ones like Bezale, Peggy, and Valeterisa herself did not.

If I were Level 40 and he met me on the battlefield…a second of overconfidence was all it took. The fact that he had a solution to flying [Mages] would scare many of Valeterisa’s peers. Speed, toughness, and skill with the spear—

She liked that he was a [Spearmaster] when all was said and done. Not the best of them; he only had a few [Spear Dances], but he broke through almost every spell below Tier 5 she cast at him without a scratch, even without knowing what they did.

When he whirled his spear, dancing through [Meldat’s Burning Rings] without so much as a singed scale, he grinned at her, and Valeterisa decided she was not wrong to like Relc Grasstongue at all.

She just wondered if they were correct for each other. She was still the Archmage of Izril. And it seemed that her magic experiments would have to wait.

She had work to do.

 

——

 

That night, Valeterisa taught Montressa a few basics of setting up enchantments on something the size of Liscor and told Montressa she intended to take the project on.

“It’s a lot of work, Archmage, even if you have me drawing most of the wall enchantments. Are you sure? After the, um, transportation issue—”

Valeterisa well remembered the debacle with the teleportation plan. And she wasn’t sure.

“I said I would look at the issue. At the very least, walk the walls and propose your plan, Montressa, and I will evaluate it with my schematics tomorrow evening. After I meet with the Dwarves. And—”

She sighed.

“Eldavin has work for me. The Archmage’s Isle needs magical help.”

That was considerably far away, even with her long-range teleportation spells. Montressa grew a bit excited, though.

“The Archmage’s Isle? That paradise? Didn’t they have trouble when Khelt was telling everyone about Seamwalkers?”

“Allegedly. I will go there and resolve the issue…soon. Not with the Dwarfhalls Rest issue. Later.”

Valeterisa went to bed in her room, barely remembering to fill it with more mana before she went to lay down. She was tired, but not magically, unfortunately. Mentally. What an unproductive day in many senses.

Of course, she had spent a lot of time with Relc. The rest had been meetings—but what about the magic? She stared at the floating orbs of mana in the air and sat up with a sigh.

“Two hours.”

She could spare two hours before she went to sleep. In the end, she spent six. But that was fine! [Twofold Rest] gave her…four hours of sleep?

 

——

 

The next morning, a groggy Valeterisa stared at her coffee and wondered how Relc got up before dawn to train children with a spear—and go to his morning patrol. The inn was bustling, and she heard Lyonette clapping her hands.

“Remember, everyone! Rheirgest is bound to be here soon! I want everything prepared. Yelroan, is our permit ready?”

“I’ll check. Liscor is dragging their heels on it.”

“Well, throw gold at them and demand it be here. What about the Antinium?”

“Ready to work this morning. Priest Pawn wished to speak with—”

“Alright, I’ll talk to him, Rosencrantz. Get working. Laken has the lumber from Riverfarm ready to go. Pay him in advance. Oh, and Mrsha, Nanette? Go and get a welcoming banquet ready. Not just food; gifts, seeds, things they might need in their houses. Be reasonable in what you spend.”

For some reason, the two girls began sniggering each time Lyonette brought up coin, which Valeterisa thought was very juvenile.

She had a healthy appreciation for the value of coin. Not that Valeterisa wanted money. She wanted magic, but it was the same thing, by and large. She’d tried a number of schemes over the years to get enough money for all her many expenses, from spellbooks to materials and so on, and she had a lot of money.

Enough to build her private mansion and buy an isle, but money came and, sadly, went. The House of El had had a lot of failed ventures back in the day. Maviola El had somehow always talked Valeterisa into working on another spell that would definitely succeed this time.

Right now, Valeterisa wasn’t hurting for coin. She’d always be able to afford an inn, for instance. But she had a lot of projects, and that was where coin was limited.

Hence her teleportation network idea. Things would have been so much easier if Fissival had gone well. If they had let her trademark her magic, she would have had all the funding, support, and frankly, access she needed.

Without it? She was free, independent…and poor as independent institutions usually were. Valeterisa had slowed her teleportation project idea. For one thing, it was more like sending comets through the skies, and she had the idea that if she had a huge platform, she could ‘toss’ something at extreme distance with the right spell.

But only if she had a gigantic tower the likes of which no building in even Invrisil was close to. So her main income was performing magical feats.

Liscor’s walls were a good example of the kind of work Valeterisa could pull. Sending goods from House Sanito to Invrisil? It was reliable work once a week…but it wasn’t for thousands of gold pieces.

Dwarfhalls Rest…now, that was a bigger project.

 

——

 

“We want you to recreate one of the Magic Hammers of old, Archmage! See that giant arm? The Goblins didn’t mangle it; they even used it, but it’s nowhere near as strong or fast as if you got it moving!”

…What?

The sounds of Dwarfhalls Rest, the mountain that the Dwarfs of Terandria had reclaimed, were so intense that Valeterisa had to upgrade [Silence] to [Complete Silence] and boost the [Forgemaster]’s voice so he could be heard.

Dwarves. Thousands of them. Well, in the entire mountain. The one assembly line was at best only a hundred Dwarves on actual hammers, and they led her around on a tour of the hot mountain interior.

“We’re bringing back the tools of old, Archmage. No more single forges—this is the vision of Deríthal-Vel. See how each smith is moving metal from station to station? Mind you, that’s why we need your magic. A moving platform would help a lot. Right now, it’s apprentices doing the running.”

Valeterisa saw. One [Smith] had just quenched a blade in a huge barrel of oil. After taking it out and inspecting it briefly, he let a younger Dwarf run the still-smoking steel to another Dwarf with a grinding stone. He was pedaling it and began to remove the scaling caused by oxidation at once.

“I’ve heard of assembly lines.”

“Have you?”

Forgemaster Cadimus’ brows rose. He was one of a handful in the mountain, and he blinked as he lifted his helmet and wiped sweat from his brow.

“Well, it means someone understands how to get things going. It’s not the first time we’ve done this; we need magic on that hammer, and we brought a lot of things for our master forges to smith Dwarfsteel, but we need you to re-enchant the stone to take the heat. Do you know how hot mithril needs to be? Dwarfsteel goes hotter.”

The challenge actually made Valeterisa a bit happy. She let him show her around as she speculated what spells were needed, and he told her what they used.

“If you can do [Enchantment: Deep Freeze], that works, but I’d really more like you to use [Greater Fire Resistance] combined with some earthshaping to move the right material around. We have some Grasgil we’d like to use to dampen the heat outside the forge, and some heitbane granite—if you can meld it into the stone.”

He was pointing out where a gigantic furnace was being installed for the famous Dwarfsteel, and Valeterisa nodded.

“I can do that.”

Cadimus was relieved.

“You can? Every [Geomancer] we’ve sent for has complained they don’t know how to melt ore back into the earth. Trust an Archmage to know how to do it right.

Valeterisa suspected that even some of her Archmage peers wouldn’t have been able to oblige the Dwarves fully. They all might have been able to make do; Nailihuaile had been a superior [Enchanter] in her field, for instance, but Valeterisa could simply oblige the Dwarves.

 

——

 

It ended up taking her three whole days to do the job, which the Dwarves praised as exceptionally fast, but Valeterisa ended up drinking eight mana potions despite her considerable reserves.

The Dwarves were very good hosts, though, and gave her rooms far from the clanging of the forges. They understood the need for quiet as well, and the places lined with insulating mud and whatever they used were almost eerily silent after being on the forge floor.

She also got to hear why this was so extraordinary from some of the other Dwarves assigned to be her escorts.

One of them was a Dwarf that Valeterisa vaguely recognized, who’d fought the Eater Goats and Gargoyles at Orefell. He rubbed his hands as she spread the Grasgil into the ground.

“Dead gods, Archmage, you’re saving us a lot of work. Having to hammer all that up ourselves would be a pain. Our [Runecrafters] could do what you’re doing, but we weren’t sure what state Dwarfhalls Rest was. We hoped they’d left the floor intact, but the damn Goblins pried it all up and turned the ore into weapons!”

[Field Commander] Rlint nodded to her, no longer sweating; one of the things Valeterisa had done was punch in a few new vents and add spells to improve circulation in the forges. The Dwarf had been promoted after the Gargoyle skirmish, and he wore one of the signs of his new office on his chest: Mithril-plated armor.

If that was the quality the Dwarves were bringing to Izril, Valeterisa could see why they were dying to get their forges to maximum capacity. She nodded at the assembly line.

“You are already churning out a lot of steel, Commander.”

“Steel? That’s nothing to what the Magic Hammers will do. We’ll give even old Pelt a run for his money—though you should hear some of the old guard back home moaning about how we’re trading expertise for mass-production. Hah! We did it once, we’ll do it again.”

“What do you mean?”

Rlint explained, glancing around for the other [Forgemasters].

“It’s a bit of a sore spot, so don’t tell anyone I repeated this, but Master Pelt apparently spat on Forgemaster Amared’s offer for him to return and lead the smithies. He had a point; we’re doing a lot of bulk-smithing. Back in his day, under Taxus, it’d be each Dwarf to an item. No one trades off. Slower, and it means they all have to be good. But they had such levels they produced insane works of art. This? This might be less exquisite, but it relies on our knowledge, not our levels.”

[Artisans] versus [Craftsmen], perhaps. A [Smith] in an army versus one making custom swords. Valeterisa understood. She wasn’t as invested in the politics, but she liked knowing about high-level beings in any class.

They tended to lead to magic, and something caught her ear as Forgemaster Cadimus surprised the two.

“Don’t let Amared hear you, Rlint. He’s chomping at the bit to prove Master Pelt’s not the only one to smith Adamantium—for that, we need the Magic Hammers.”

He nodded to the gigantic arm of metal that Valeterisa was experimentally swinging up and down. The way it worked was you would pull one weight down manually, or with magic, and the hammer, which actually was on a moving arm, would swing down and hit a piece of metal with all the force of…Valeterisa couldn’t guess.

The entire Magic Arm was enormous and weighed thousands of pounds. The shock of impact and counterweight would send the arm up and prime it for another blow.

There were six that the Dwarves had either salvaged or brought from home. Cadimus pointed at them.

“That’s the only thing we have that can bend Adamantium, Archmage. Heating the damn stuff is hard enough—Master Pelt can hammer Adamantium with his damn hands, which tells you what he’s made of!”

He sounded in awe of the old [Smith], disgraced or not. Rlint nodded.

“Shame he’s not making any. A lot of smiths around Esthelm are apparently taking us on—but none of them will be doing more than mithril. Even Pelt can’t do Adamantium.”

“Why not?”

Valeterisa turned, and the Dwarves chuckled.

“I saw his smithy in one of those scrying orbs. Nice place. Got promise, and I’m sure Esthelm worked hard on it. You could see some magical gear—but even in Pallass, I bet he didn’t want to hurt the Drakes’ feelings by telling them he’d cave their city in if he tried. He’d crack Esthelm’s foundations if he swung hard enough!”

Really?

Valeterisa hadn’t known that. So Master Pelt couldn’t even smith Adamantium right? She replayed a memory of an account of him smithing Adamantium and realized that checked out. He’d apparently melted a portion of the road and created a huge crater to forge even an ingot.

Fascinating. Valeterisa kept working as Rlint polished his armor.

“Those, uh, Antinium doing well in Liscor? We’ve got to get more ties there, Forgemaster Cadimus.”

“Eh…we were about to, but you know what that [Innkeeper] did, Rlint. Leave it be for a bit. Dead gods, I was talking with home about Erribathe. Some of the Dwarves in the Kingdom of Myths are saying they’ll march for vengeance if she’s back.”

Valeterisa was sure this was all very worrying…for Erin Solstice. She just kept enchanting the Magic Hammer, sighing. At least the pay was good. The Dwarves knew better than to haggle with the Archmage of Izril over a fair price, and she gave them a small discount when she had an idea…

 

——

 

“Wh—are these mithril boots?”

“Mithril toes and parts of it.”

Valeterisa presented Relc with a gift upon her return that made his eyes pop. That made her smile; she was sooty, exhausted from her work, and Eldavin had messaged her while flying back with a reminder to get on the Archmage’s Isle problem and locate someone who was refusing to report into Wistram.

One of Beatrice’s faction, apparently, gone rogue. They were handling it for favors from Beatrice. And then Montressa came over, a bit shamefaced.

“Archmage, I’ve got plans for the walls and a list of wall spells. It lines up sort of well with your plans, but it’ll take at least two months if I devote time each day to it! And a bit of work. I, um, I know you have to be back at Wistram soon. But there’s no other person I can imagine we could get to help on this.”

Valeterisa didn’t write magical enchantments that much faster than Montressa. She groaned and went to her room for a lie down, kicking the door open. Relc hovered at the entryway. He blinked at the floating mana orbs, then waved at Valeterisa.

“Er—Valley, I’ve got to do something for you. Want to go to Liscor tomorrow? My treat.”

She turned and smiled at him, and that was the one thing that made her feel better.

“Of course, Relc.”

Then Valeterisa realized that would take time and she had to be on the way to Heiste—but she wanted to see Relc. It was just…she lay there as that treacherous thought came back.

This is a waste of your time. You have [Arcane Discovery]. You’ve levelled up. Now is the moment to dive into magic, or you will be dead before you reach true heights.

“Shush.”

Valeterisa rolled over in her bed and put her pillow over her head. But the magic swimming above her glittered, and she knew she hadn’t done anything with it—

Or her other project. Or her grand goals.

Valeterisa was almost asleep when someone thrust open the door.

“Are you the Archmage of Izril? I’m bored! Hey, what’s this stuff? I want some—”

A child named ‘Bored’ found out that Valeterisa could and would cast a [Gravity Anchor] spell and nail him to the hallway’s ceiling. Which, in fairness, satisfied his request.

 

——

 

Valeterisa’s life was a series of things getting in the way of what mattered: magic.

It had to be magic. She had given up everything else, and Relc was a handsome, thoughtful distraction. Being polite was a distraction.

The second monster attack on the inn was definitely a distraction. Also, Valeterisa’s fault again.

This time, it wasn’t a Manavore. Rather, it was…an Acid Fly.

A single Acid Fly, humble, male—all the small ones were male—awoken by the advent of spring, buzzed into the inn. Normally, it would have been quickly ejected or destroyed, save for a tired Archmage who had forgotten to do one thing: close the door to her room.

What happened when an Acid Fly ran into enough mana to be supercharged? Well…most beings that ran into raw mana didn’t try to ingest that much, or if they did, they were more complex and just got mana-sick.

Insects were easy to magically alter because they were simpler organisms. Hence, you got something like a bloated Acid Fly—minus the acid sack, thankfully—pulling itself downstairs and trying to kill a screaming Hethon just before dawn.

He’d been going to the bathroom. Valeterisa woke up groggily and found the Acid Fly beaten to death by Rosencrantz, who had been on night-duty. He was passing out limbs to the Antinium, who were all looking hungrily at the corpse.

Lyonette stared at Valeterisa, who was so tired that the Archmage snapped back.

“What? It stole my mana too, you know. It will take days to store that much up again!”

 

——

 

She was banned from storing mana in the inn. Valeterisa was so upset about this that she went to find Relc; it was still just brightening around Liscor, and she needed to talk to someone.

On the way, she wondered if she should draw their relationship to a close. It had occurred to her…that he was a delightful waste of time.

No, how did you break up with someone? In her experience, they just stopped talking to you or came and screamed at you that you had ignored them for weeks/months/years.

She was tired. She was the Archmage of Izril, and she was wasting her time on affections. Maybe it was not a waste of time to exist in the real world, but…she had things she needed to do, and affection was eating into that time.

And when she saw Relc, part of Valeterisa thought that she was right—because she felt like he was doing the same as her.

What did she see? Valeterisa saw Relc teaching the spear to a bunch of apprentices.

He’d told her about them. A young Gnoll [Trainee Guardsman] named Vok, a girl who was very talented named Hickery, both from Cellidel, and these days, Humans, Gnolls, and Drakes from Liscor. Even a trio of Antinium.

Relc, apparently, held this practice each morning where he showed them forms and how to spar with practice spears. Valeterisa, loath to bother him, sat in the air and watched, holding her head with her hands.

What she saw was a [Spearmaster]. The Gecko was stripped down to his waist, scales gleaming with sweat, as he pointed the spear while twisting his torso, whirling it to block an attack from the front—then showing his better students how to do it.

He made it look easy, and she was no [Warrior], but she could see the fluid motions that everyone thought they could copy were nonsensical and clumsy in everyone else.

For an hour, Relc practiced with groups of students, going through warmups, encouraging them, giving them tips, lightly sparring with the best students, and grinning.

The last fifteen minutes he took for himself as Valeterisa and everyone else watched. They lined up, sitting on benches, while several children kept thinking Valeterisa was sitting on a fence and falling flat when they tried to copy her.

Relc’s spear cut the air in dances, and he leapt incredibly high, vaulting from the butt of the pole. He stopped, and when he lifted his spear and cut the air, Valeterisa could almost see the promise Zeladona had left.

The moment when magic and blade met and became a style of your own. It seemed to her as if Relc’s spear was tracing a symbol of magic she could not read. The Drake was straining to capture what he could not yet envision, and she thought—

What a waste. What a waste of time it was for him to have to spend his time as a [Guardsman] and teacher to these novices. Even with her, though you could argue she at least could spar with him.

Relc paused in swinging his spear and turned back to his audience. He shaded his brow with his claws.

“Valeterisa? Huh. I thought I saw…”

—But she was gone by the time he looked around.

 

——

 

They met for breakfast, as Relc had promised, in thanks for the boots, and Valeterisa had an idea by then. She had to head out on another mission, but she wanted to do something for Relc.

She was resisting anything as drastic as…well, her having to go to Heiste was proof enough. Montressa followed Valeterisa to their meeting place, and the flustered Archmage snapped.

Cancel the appointments, Montressa! I apologize, Relc.”

Montressa threw up her hands as Relc glanced at her.

“No problem. Did I see you at my morning practice? I, uh—is something wrong?”

Yes. Valeterisa smiled and lied.

“No. Montressa just has lesser priorities for me. I have to go to Heiste soon and perform some duties for my faction in Wistram. Everything else matters less.”

“Oh. What’s the less stuff, then?”

Valeterisa waved a hand.

“[Mages] wish to talk to me. They always do. I imagine it is like younger [Guards] or [Warriors] challenging you to duels.”

Relc laughed.

“Not as much of that anymore. I remember I got a few [Spearmaster] duels back in the day from guys thinking they could win the class off me. That’d be hilarious. Wait, were you at the practice?”

“Yes. There was an—a bug incident that set back one of my magical experiments.”

Nothing would do than she relay everything to Relc while they waited to be served. This took some time; unlike The Wandering Inn, this restaurant was busy. But the conversation dovetailed nicely with Valeterisa’s idea.

“Oh, great that you saw it. Hey, it’s also a relief to have a day off. I mean, I was on the night shift all the time when I realized that—we’d see less of each other, right? Time off matters more. I’ve started counting my days off.”

Relc blushed a bit when he said this, and Valeterisa smiled.

“I thought of that when I saw you practicing. I had a thought, Relc. You should have more time to practice as a [Spearmaster]. Your talents are wasted as a [Guard].”

“Sorry for the delay, folks. Have a breakfast scone on the house!”

There was a clip-clop of hooves, and someone deposited a basket of scones and jam at the table. Relc waved a claw.

“Thanks, Palt.”

“No problem, Relc!”

The Centaur winked, and Valeterisa realized vaguely this was that restaurant everyone liked. Barehoof Kitchens? She took a scone and began to add jam as Relc blinked at her.

“Go on. I think I’m not smart enough to be anything other than a guard, but I like free time.”

She shook her head.

“I should clarify. You’re the Watch’s best asset. A [Spearmaster] would be one of Pallass’ finest, or Fissival’s. You only have fifteen minutes to practice before work. If you had time to train, you’d be even better than you are.”

“…I guess. You’re right it’s hard to get in the full workout, especially with Klb gone.”

Valeterisa nodded a few times.

“That’s why I went to Watch Commander Venim. He is a Drake from Pallass. When I explained this, he was very receptive to the idea of a sabbatical. Pallass has the same system.”

“Wait, you what?”

Valeterisa lost Relc so fast he was still on ‘these scones taste good’. He stared at her with his mouth open.

“You could receive a stipend to train, Relc. It’s the best way to have time for yourself. Venim is willing to discuss time off. I suggested a month. It’s what I must do as well.”

Maybe she should go back to her mansion and buckle down for work for a month or two. Not forever, but just focus. Even with Montressa, all her tools and gear were back there. Valeterisa waited for Relc to respond. When he did—he stared at Valeterisa, hesitated, almost said something, then sat there.

He seemed, unaccountably, nervous. Then worried. Then…his chest inflated as he took a huge breath.

“Valley—I’m not going to take time off for that. I appreciate the thought, but I can’t do that.”

She stared at him.

“Why not? It’s a stipend to train—”

Relc raked a claw across his neck-spines.

“Yeah, but it’s not what I want—it’s a good idea! Thanks for doing that, but I don’t think it’ll work out. Or maybe it will, but I just don’t think it’s right for me. Thinking of it was great, but I’ll just tell Venim…”

He smiled and kept going, but Valeterisa sat there and was unaccountably hurt. She thought it was a good idea, and Relc noticed her expression.

How’s it going, you two? Sorry for the wait. Menu, menu. Check out all our specials of the day. I hear this is a gift for some boots! Happy to hook up Relc.”

Palt trotted back over with a big smile about a minute too late. As usual. The Centaur beamed at both breakfasters and hesitated.

“Uh—let me know when you’re ready.”

Valeterisa was drawing on the table, suddenly thinking of her projects. Maybe the spell looked better like this? She began to fold the napkin up. And if you moved space like so—

“I’m sorry for assuming.”

“No, it’s not—Ancestors, I don’t mean I’m mad.”

“It’s the wrong idea, though. I understand.”

Relc hesitated. Palt was whispering to a [Chef] with an eyepatch who’d poked out of the kitchen with a look of concern. She slapped his flank and pointed—Valeterisa murmured.

“I just thought it was an equivalent scenario to my problems. I am overburdened by…non-magical work. It has weighed on my mind.”

She glanced up, and Relc paused.

“I guess I’m one of those things.”

“No! Yes. I enjoy this, but I am worried, Relc. Aren’t you, that you’ll let your advancement slip away from you?”

The Drake’s jaw worked as he glanced at Valeterisa and down at the menu. He suddenly looked very nervous and glanced back up at Valeterisa before forcing a chuckle.

“Hey! I get it. I thought to myself—a lot—‘wow, I can’t believe she has the time to hang out like this’. Especially with me. The beach was one thing, but you’re the Archmage of Izril. And I’m…”

He glanced down at his shiny new boots.

“You can get to Dwarfhalls Rest in a day. I can barely run to Esthelm by nightfall.”

“That’s not what I mean. It’s not about power or levels. But my magic…I’m busy. With Liscor’s walls.”

“Hey, Venim asked me to ask you—I shouldn’t have. Forget the walls. Hexel made them perfect. That’s my fault.”

Relc leaned forwards and hesitantly touched Valeterisa’s hands. Which made her feel guiltier still. The Archmage fiddled with a napkin, folding it into a crane, then undoing it and folding it into a box. Relc blinked at it.

“I, uh…I just can’t take off time myself. How do I explain? I know—if you need to, that’s you. But I? If I could take off time to just train…even if Klbkch were here…”

He sat back, trying to say something, and Valeterisa hung her head. I haven’t felt this bad since I was sitting in a restaurant in Fissival for two hours until I realized my date wasn’t coming and I was being laughed at. 

I should erase that memory. [Calm Emotions]?

No.

The other diners were having a good time. Outside, there was a commotion; there was a line, but Barehoof Kitchens didn’t promise you’d be able to get in on the few days they were open each week. A loud voice was fighting with the others.

“Excuse me. Excuse me, I’m not in line—out of the way.”

Back of the line, buddy.

“This is an emergency!”

So’s our stomachs! Don’t make us call the Watch! Senior Guardsman Relc is right in there! He’ll mess you up!”

Palt was trotting over, and the loud, familiar voice rose.

Funny you should mention that. Hey! I’m Menolit from Liscor Hunted! This is an emergency! My [Wingman] class—”

The shouting and arguments intensified. A Drake burst into Barehoof Kitchens, slammed into Palt, and both went over with some of the dishes. Relc and Valeterisa didn’t pay attention.

“—I appreciate it, Valeterisa. I guess the problem is…I don’t see myself as needing to learn…no, that’s not right. I’d love to be a better [Spearmaster].”

Valeterisa peeked at him as Relc finally got a hold of his thoughts. He tapped his chest. He wasn’t wearing his badge today since he was off-duty, but she could practically see it there.

“The problem isn’t that I didn’t like the suggestion. Hey, who doesn’t like time off? If it was—spending it with you, that’d be great. For a second, I was all for it. Then I thought about me training each day and not teaching the kids. Or being a [Guardsman]. And I gotta ask—which matters more, Valley? Me learning a new spear dance? Or me punching some idiot who might hurt someone in Liscor?”

She saw Relc give her a big smile, his yellow, slitted eyes flicking to her, then to the table.

“I—have a kid. I think when that happened, no, before that, I sort of knew I wasn’t going to be the greatest [Spearmaster] of all time. Everyone thinks they might be, you know. When I got my class so young, they told me masters from around the world paid attention, and I thought, ‘yeah, I’ll be one of them’. But then I decided I didn’t want to die. I quit the army and—”

“I understand. The value of your work is not in your level alone. In a sense, my magic is better used in service of others. I could be casting [Restoration]. I am sure there are calls for my power without healing potions.”

Relc nodded. Valeterisa thought back to being in Fissival, and her magic could correct eyesight and heal wounds. It could create places to forge metal, and it could protect.

“I am a selfish [Mage]. Magic, the heart of magic, is what I desire. I realized that I had to practice magic in the living, breathing world to level. But I still resent wasting my time.”

She felt ashamed compared to this Drake who would rather teach children how to defend themselves, but Relc demurred.

“Hey, that’s not true, Valley. I hate every time some idiot rolls in front of me while I’m on patrol or when I have a day when I think nothing’s been done. Show me someone who doesn’t hate having their time wasted, and I’ll show you a half-Elf.”

She saw him grin at that, and the smallest smile grew on Valeterisa’s face. Yet…the table drew her head.

“I just wish I had more time to—practice magic. Real magic. I was tired of politics when I left Fissival, and it never ends. I have important things to do. Spells to learn. Even gold to make.

She clenched her hands. Yes, even if she just earned gold all day and night, it would be better than—Relc looked at Valeterisa.

“Hey, I get it. And if this is the part where you say we see less of each other…can it wait until after Imani serves us food? But I have to say—I really liked the fact that you made a mansion for me out of sand. That…that mattered to me.”

He forced a smile, and Valeterisa looked at him. She sat there and wondered if it would be the best move.

 

???: Yes, and yes. Unless you intend to be a mother or can utilize him as a bodyguard what is the point? Even if he rises to Watch Commander, he offers minimal benefits so what is the point? Physical intimacy? Making your bruised ego from past failures feel validated?

Valeterisa (Primary): He is a better person than that.

???: Better than you deserve. The point remains.

Valeterisa (Primary): There is a point.

Doubt: How can this help you learn magic?

Valeterisa (Primary): I saw within the arc of his spear a word of magic I do not know. I have seen Zeladona. He makes dealing with it all slightly easier. Including you.

Doubt: This state of affairs is transitory, without real value. It will not continue forever.

Valeterisa (Primary): Tomorrow will do. Begone.

 

She was tired of planning for those future days. She had left eight years of her life in her mansion fighting against her limited knowledge and failed.

And failed.

She might still be there but for Ryoka. Valeterisa teared up as Relc patted her hand, now sighing, shoulders slumping.

“Aw, hey. Listen, we don’t have to stay. I, uh—”

Menolit and Palt were staring at him, and Valeterisa blew her nose on the napkin. She suspected it was a terribly awkward moment for him, for the owners of the kitchen, and for the guests.

“I could cast [Firestorm], and we could pretend this never happened. I don’t want to break up. I’m just sad.”

Relc blinked at her as one of the Gnolls dining behind them decided it was time for the bill. Then he laughed.

“Don’t do that. I haven’t had breakfast yet. Come on, it’s supposed to be really good.”

 

——

 

Her realization that she wanted this, even if ‘this’ was a hindrance, made Valeterisa feel better. She had never had to question it, she realized. Each and every time a relationship or occupation, anything, had gotten in her way of magic, she had cast it aside and walked on.

Did this make her weaker? Or did it mean she’d finally found something valuable? Like Montressa, she held onto it.

She wondered what Larracel would say, but Imani herself came out of her kitchen—perhaps to ensure Valeterisa wouldn’t destroy the entire restaurant—and took their order.

“So, Imani—sorry for the commotion. What’s all this about? ‘Special of the Day’?”

“I’m glad you asked, Relc. It’s limited food made with special ingredients. Expensive as can be—check the prices.”

Relc did and swallowed, but Imani assured him he’d get a friend discount. Valeterisa was distracted from the angst of her worries by the odd menu. The Drake squinted at the menu.

“Huh. I recognize some of these names, and the descriptions are crazy. Allergies? Am I allergic to peanut butter?”

“…Maybe. I recommend the top item.”

Relc stared at it. Then he laughed.

“Hold on. Are you still at The Wandering Inn? Lyonette said Palt hates the place. And even if you are, is she okay with you selling that much…?”

Palt developed a huge scowl at the mention of the inn, but Imani winked her one eye.

“Just order it.”

So Relc did. Then he pointed to one of the snacks that cost a gold piece. Each.

“Two of these, please. Wait, that’s all sweets. Eh…you only live once.”

The dish came out fast, and Valeterisa had to admit to Relc that she had a sweet tooth. She stared at what he was craning his neck to see, and Relc muttered.

“No way. And what’s that orange thing? Imani, you’ve got to explain this.”

Palt cast a [Silence] spell and whispered as Menolit tried to sit down at a table and was ejected by the other patrons.

“Let’s just say it’s my new Skill, Relc. [Ingredients: Cultural Shift]. Enjoy. I made the dish with the ingredients; the snack we literally just sell as-is.”

She had just placed two round cakes in front of Valeterisa. The Archmage recognized cake, obviously. But she checked the recipe again, and Relc read it out.

“Fudge chocolate layer cake with marshmallow filling. I don’t know about something out of a marsh, but dead gods, this much chocolate?”

He gave her a wide-eyed look and then realized Valeterisa had never had any of the chocolate before—which was incorrect, actually; Wistram had, at great pains, found cocoa beans in Baleros and synthesized some of it.

Just enough for flavor. Valeterisa dug a fork into the first bite of cake and decided whatever amount of chocolate Wistram had had—it was not enough.

It had sprinkles of coconut on top, whipped cream, and even some special ice cream that turned out to have strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla in it.

“Neapolitan ice cream? Why the heck would anyone make it in three flavors—actually, this is really good. Nevermind. And this? What is this?”

Relc was incredulously crinkling something in front of him, trying not to eat the entire treat too fast. He and Valeterisa glanced at a Gnoll tearing it open and sniffing what was inside, and they realized it was a wrapper.

It was, in fact…a weird object made of chocolate with another wrapper inside. And it had peanut butter and chocolate in it. Valeterisa stared at the object.

Then she read the back of the packaging.

“…What’s a calorie?”

“Dunno, but whatever it is, give me another!”

It was literally candy from another world, Valeterisa realized. She stared up, and Palt winked at her. He was ensuring the wrappers didn’t leave the restaurant, but all of this was due to Imani’s Skill.

She could shift ingredients from this world with something from her world. Imani had chosen her ingredients this week to intrigue her guests. What was so unique that even a [Master Chef] wouldn’t be able to replicate? Well…

The [Chef] accepted compliments as she came over, but she had a sardonic look.

“Thank America. Capital of sweets and corn syrup. Try not to eat too much of this kind of thing, Relc. I hope you liked it, Archmage Valeterisa?”

The Archmage realized Imani was also the reason they had fresh avocados and other, rarer items from Oteslia. She sat there staring at Imani. Then she put a large tip in gold on the table.

“I quite like you, Chef Imani. When is your restaurant open? Also—you may wish to be careful of Wistram. They may attempt to kidnap you if they realize your Skill.”

Imani’s lips twisted as Relc hesitated, and Palt glowered.

“They’ve tried that. But thank you—and if you’d like to recommend us to your friends, next week we’re trying Guatemala.”

 

——

 

The breakfast made Valeterisa feel better. The impending journey to Heiste did not. Here she sat, in her room in the inn, as a loud banging sound and voices echoed from the common room.

It sort of got on her nerves, and when she asked what was going on and if she had permission to [Silence] it, Ishkr panted.

“Rheirgest is arriving. Apologies, Archmage.”

“Oh.”

Valeterisa pretended to know what that meant. She went back to sit down and noticed a bunch of death-mages entering the common room, exclaiming and looking around. She could tell they were [Necromancers]; they all had death magic in them. It was less obvious from their clothing. Lyonette was busy welcoming them, and Valeterisa got up to tell Lyonette she was going.

“I will be back…later. Apprentice, ready?”

Montressa had begged to see the isle of Heiste, which sat on the northeastern coast of Izril, a privileged place for people to visit. Valeterisa, having been there once, was just glum, wondering what she had to fix.

But the [Apprentice], who normally echoed her master’s mood, was in a suspiciously good mood.

“Ready, Archmage! I’ve packed our travel bags and food in case we don’t make it there overnight—for everyone!”

Valeterisa noticed that last bit. Her eyes narrowed.

“Everyone? If Mage Bezale is trying to come with us—”

She was not about to spare the mana for that. But Montressa assured her it wasn’t Bezale. Valeterisa stared at her until the door swung open.

“Hey! Am I late? I just had a word with Venim, and I’m good to go.”

Senior Guardsman Relc appeared, and despite herself, Valeterisa goggled at him and then shot Montressa a look.

“My class made me think you’d approve, but if I’m wrong, I’ll take full responsibility, Master. Anyways, it was his idea.”

Valeterisa looked at Relc, and he had his travelling spear and a rucksack. He looked embarrassed.

“Hey, I, uh—thought about what you said. And I was going to ask you, but Montressa insisted she ‘knew’ it’d be okay. So I thought—what if I took some time off and we combined work with—”

She began smiling, and then Valeterisa had a thought. Why didn’t I take him to Dwarfhalls Rest? Or ask him to go with her to other places? Relc got along with people, and he was more fun than her being by herself.

She walked over, hesitated, stood on her tip-toes, and shyly tried to offer him a kiss. He didn’t know what was going on for a second, then looked entirely too happy. He made a fist-pump at Menolit, who was nodding.

“Plus, I got that other thing sorted for you—at least I hope so if it—”

Relc stopped because less talking and more kissing was optimal. Valeterisa was distracted—until she heard the loudest and least pleased clearing of a throat to the side. Then she turned, and she had never been more surprised to see Master Hedault in her life.

He stared at them, then pointedly at Montressa.

“I assume we will be teleporting?”

Montressa—and Bezale—innocently nodded as Valeterisa goggled at Hedault. Relc whispered in her ear.

“I had a word with him too. I said we’d give back the hat, and this guy loves enchantments. So I thought—Heiste?”

“It has lots of enchantments. Um. Last I checked. Master Hedault, welcome. Are you willing to journey with us?”

Hedault folded his arms.

“As my workplace is closed until I vacate the premises—and visiting Heiste is a once-in-a-lifetime chance—I am convinced journeying with you is worth it. Also, I would like my missing item returned. If I have permission to inspect your enchantments and Heiste’s, I have agreed to go with the company. Despite the number of couples it seems this trip entails.”

His disapproving stare took in Relc and Valeterisa, Montressa and Bezale, who opened their mouths to object, and Palt and Imani. At this, Valeterisa turned and slowly stared at Montressa, who turned red.

“I didn’t invite those two! I just was discussing it with Relc, and someone has long ears.”

Imani punched Palt in the side.

Palt! You didn’t get permission?”

“Wait, this isn’t a couple’s retreat? Oh, I really shouldn’t have invited—”

Palt hesitated as he unslung a towel from around his neck. Montressa covered her face as the door slammed open to the inn, and Valeterisa jumped.

Hey! Heiste’s not waiting around forever! Let’s go!”

Wailant Strongheart and Viceria entered the inn, and the [Pirate] rubbed his hands together. Valeterisa stared at Montressa, and her [Apprentice] cast [Invisibility]. She’d picked up the new spell, and Valeterisa was impressed with her.

“[See Invisibility]. [Gravity Anchor].”

That was how the strangest gathering of [Mages] headed to Heiste. Couples…and one very annoyed Hedault.

 

——

 

Something odd happened as they were leaving. Valeterisa was obviously not anticipating so many people coming with her, and honestly, the cosy time she envisioned grew a lot less so with all these [Mages].

Hedault was one thing, but the [Pirate]-[Farmer]? Imani and Palt were…

She was annoyed, especially when she considered the mana costs, but the surprising thing was when Nanette noticed the crowd. She was dusting her hands off; something yellowish like dust was on her palms, and she saw Palt and froze. He glared—but when Imani waved and explained what was going on, Nanette instantly begged to come along.

“Heiste? I’ve always wanted to see it! Please pleasepleasepleaseplease—Lyonette, I have to go! If I don’t, I’ll die!”

She threw the first tantrum that Valeterisa actually remembered seeing from the girl and clung to Lyonette’s legs—then Montressa’s.

“You can’t just fly off for—how long?”

Valeterisa scratched her head.

“Three or four days. For work. Which is why only Relc—”

The [Princess] rounded on Nanette.

Three or four days, Nanette! Rheirgest is here and—”

It’s Heiste! I have to visit! My mother did! It’s amazing! I have to go! Plus—Master Hedault needs someone who isn’t a couple.”

Bezale lifted a hand.

“Again, Mons and I aren’t—”

Lyonette wasn’t having it, but Nanette glared at her.

“If you don’t—I’ll start talking about everything! And I know who needs to go north! He’ll be great company!”

“Nanette? Don’t you dare, young lady! Nanette?”

“I’m not a lady, I’m a witch! Witches make threats!”

Valeterisa deliberated teleporting out there and then, but she did owe Hedault, and he, unfortunately, seemed to like Nanette. Not Mrsha, who tried the same tactic with Lyonette. The [Princess] might not have had [Gravity Hook], but she seemed quite capable of capturing Mrsha under one arm, even with Mrsha squirming in every direction.

When Nanette ran back into the inn with a Drake who had been in the middle of clipping his neck-spines, Lyonette sighed.

“Oh, for the love of sunbeams.

“What’s the crisis? The checkpoint guards said it was an emergency.”

Magus Grimalkin had run straight here. When he saw the vacationers, he gave Nanette a betrayed look. She gave him a hopeful smile and inhaled, eyes locked on Lyonette.

“I have either a great vacation for you—or a very big secret for you, Magus Grimalkin.”

You wouldn’t dare. Lyonette mouthed the words as Grimalkin looked around, and Lyonette and Nanette had a showdown. Valeterisa was extremely upset—until someone passed her something crinkly.

“Candy? Peppermint?”

It turned out Imani and Palt had more sweets. Valeterisa decided they were a useful addition. She sucked on something flavorful as Lyonette slowly caved.

“If a hair on her head is hurt, Montressa—this is assuming Archmage Valeterisa lets her come along.”

“One more nuisance isn’t a problem. She’s a third of the others’ weight for the spell.”

Wonderful. Lyonette saw Mrsha writing something down urgently, but the blackmailing attempt failed as Dame Ushar calmly plucked the note out of Mrsha’s paws and swallowed it.

Which was the wisest move, because Valeterisa could repair a scrap. Of course, at this point, Ser Dalimont grabbed Nanette and towed her into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Valeterisa ended up explaining to Grimalkin where they were going, and he rubbed at his face.

“Heiste? I admit, any [Mage] worth their salt would want to visit—and it’s not like I can get a ticket there ordinarily. I have my classes—but Nanette has a point.”

He was wavering, but something made him change his mind. More than the company of [Mages]—he glanced at Hedault. Hedault, who’d helped Felkhr fly. The [Enchanter] gave him a cautious nod.

“Apropos of this entire event being chaotic and not having fair warning of the situation—your company would not be unpleasant, Magus Grimalkin. Without pressure.”

“Without pressure. Thank you, Hedault. If…Archmage, you can teleport across Izril within a day.”

“At great magical expense.”

Valeterisa grumbled. Grimalkin nodded.

“If you’ll allow a short stop on the way north, I will gladly accompany you. And vouch for Miss Nanette’s safety if she is allowed to come.”

 

——

 

Wailant and Viceria. Palt and Imani. Montressa and Bezale. Grimalkin, Hedault, and Nanette. Valeterisa and Relc.

Too many people. She ended up making a list just to make sure she didn’t lose one of them. How Nanette got Lyonette to agree to let her go was a mystery—but from the respectful way Ishkr and the staff looked at Nanette as she marched out of the garden, it had been a fight to remember.

Valeterisa didn’t wait around to see if Liscor’s Council and half of Esthelm decided to come with. She just flew everyone to her nearest teleportation rune from Invrisil and set off.

They had a slight course correction immediately; Grimalkin’s stipulation for coming was a layover in House Ulta.

Valeterisa didn’t know passengers even got to do that. She sat in the air, cross-legged, grumpy, as Relc and Montressa tried to cheer her up.

“Listen, Valeterisa, I know it’s not what you hoped, and I, uh, apologize for that. I screwed up.”

“I suppose we have both made mistakes this morning.”

Valeterisa allowed. Relc was glancing at Grimalkin.

“But it’s a good thing you brought him. I mean—you know why we’re here?”

“No.”

Valeterisa realized she was the only person who didn’t. When Grimalkin had announced the destination he had to visit…everyone had gone silent. Even now, they stood there, watching as he walked up to a mansion set in the heart of the largest city in House Ulta’s lands.

Salt was mostly what they exported, if Valeterisa recalled right. Oh, and they had this new initiative around physical fitness. Thanks to a collaboration with Magus…Grimalkin…

Ah. Hadn’t Lady Pryde been at the Solstice?

Valeterisa still remembered nearly dying there and Relc rescuing her. She hadn’t been able to continue fighting in the same manner; she’d eliminated undead coming via the north gate, and burning Draugr trying to leap over the walls had been difficult enough.

But she recalled…injuries. And deaths.

The power to teleport meant that aside from the sickness of transit, it took moments to travel countless miles. A revolution in transport even Couriers envied. All the [Mages] had actually linked to provide Valeterisa some mana to pay the cost of travel, except Nanette, who didn’t know how.

They ended up teaching her the rudiments of linking while they waited to teleport to the next spot on their journey north.

Two hours was how long they waited on the first leg of their journey. Valeterisa would have complained—but she didn’t. Something told her it didn’t feel right.

This is what she saw: Magus Grimalkin, shoulders hunched, head slightly bowed, standing in the snow outside a mansion emblazoned with House Ulta’s seal. People passing in the streets and doing a double-take, then running over and holding up a set of weights or pointing to a gymnasium down the street.

Then—seeing the mansion he stood before and going quiet.

Every few minutes, someone would open the door and come out to offer him a drink or something to eat. But the Drake just stood there. Waiting.

There was a subdued air to House Ulta, who, if Valeterisa recalled right, were supposed to be a forthright people, proud, inclined to straight-speech and telling you their minds. Much like their [Lady].

She was in the mansion; the curtains were all closed, but Valeterisa heard murmurs, and Grimalkin stood there. Neck-spines not fully clipped, claws folded behind his back.

Waiting. Head rising—then studying the ground again, bowed, as if under a heavy weight. Standing there as people came out and whispered to him. Apologies. Clarifications. Requests for him to go.

When he eventually turned away, Valeterisa saw him nod to the others.

“I apologize for the delay, everyone.”

“Not at all, man.”

Wailant answered for the silent audience. Valeterisa saw Nanette craning her head up to the curtains, which flinched suddenly, and the little witch opened her mouth.

“If you went inside—”

“That would be exceedingly impolite, Miss Nanette.”

Grimalkin wouldn’t hear of it. So, Valeterisa silently handed him something made of sugar that he took without a word and began to eat, another sign the Sinew Magus wasn’t himself. They teleported away. But not before Grimalkin lifted a hand towards the window. He gazed upwards—and when there was no response after a minute, turned away and murmured to one of the servants.

“I’ll be back. Have my letters been arriving?”

“Yes, Sinew Magus.”

“Good.”

 

——

 

You’d think that would set the tone for the entire trip, but if anything, it did the opposite. For a while, everyone was silent, but then they began to become more energetic to draw Grimalkin out of his deep silence.

The trip went something like this: they’d teleport twice, stop for thirty minutes to an hour, teleport twice, stop.

The reason was that everyone but Valeterisa would puke if they did three jumps in a row without letting their stomachs acclimate. Even Montressa needed time to reset herself.

Also, the mana cost was extreme; Valeterisa had almost burnt herself out with six passengers on the Winter Solstice. With every [Mage] chipping in mana, it was a lot more manageable, but the downtime helped them all replenish mana.

“Feels like I was just on a rolling ship for an entire day then you put me on flat ground. Ugh. But dead gods! Here I am, teleporting with an Archmage! If that isn’t something, I don’t know what is. Oi, Archmage. You mind signing one of those autograph-cards for me?”

Pirate Wailant was the first to introduce himself, much to his wife’s chagrin. The other [Mages] gave Valeterisa space, but he strode up, and she scribbled something on a card. Unfortunately, that didn’t get rid of Wailant. Tier 5 spells didn’t get rid of people like him in Valeterisa’s experience.

“Beautiful. Mind doing another? My wife’s a huge admirer of yours.”

“Wailant! Be respectful!”

Viceria turned red, and Valeterisa scribbled something again. To Wailant’s Wife…she was unmoved by the praise.

“[Mages] do admire the rank of Archmage. Hello, hello…[Recall Memory]…Viceria Strongheart. Let us all have a wonderful journey to Heiste. Please forward any question to my apprentice, Mage Montressa.”

She was doing it on purpose. It was like when Ieka tried to introduce someone to her; Valeterisa didn’t have the time or energy to be polite. She might have done this the entire trip, but the problem was…Relc. And Montressa.

Golem-Valeterisa, which was what Larracel hurtfully called this mode, was deactivated when Relc took Valeterisa’s hand.

“Wailant runs a farm with Viceria. They’re a fun duo, Valley. Hey, where are we now?”

—And the Archmage of Izril started, looked at him, flushed a bit, then cast around.

“Oh—um. House Sanito, actually. A forest.”

Really? Dead gods!”

And then everyone was peering at the trees and wondering if they were ‘like the ones back home’. Nanette caught a pale blue bug on the bark and ran it over to Hedault, who recoiled, but Grimalkin identified it softly.

“Frozen barkeater. Frigus Stultus Arbor Comedentis. The formal classification of the insect.”

Valeterisa knew the meaning of the old-magic name of the bug and smiled and had to whisper to Relc why. He laughed, and Wailant produced a jar.

“Worth money, is it? It’s pale blue and looks almost made of ice.”

Viceria sighed.

“No, Wailant. It’s a pest, and it will eat your crops. What a lovely forest. Do you hide your teleportation runes, Archmage? I imagine you had to proof them against animals and weather.”

“Yes. I put down some basic spell circles. Just some enchantments. [Ghostly Presence]. [Superior Deflection]. [Earthshaping] the sigils into the ground.”

Valeterisa was uncomfortable with the conversation, so she waved a hand and expected the others to be vaguely impressed and not have opinions on the matter. But this was a rare gathering: they were almost all [Mages].

Nanette grew excited at the casual references to higher-tier magic. It was a rare [Mage] who could cast any one of those spells. She wrote this down—until Hedault sniffed. He wasn’t cold; he had a number of splendid enchantments on his travelling gear.

“How banal. [Ghostly Presence] would be what you’d do. [Superior Deflection] is as efficient as one taking a sledgehammer to a nail.”

—That rankled Valeterisa. She frowned at him.

“Those are all very acceptable spells. I have no magical interference, so the enchantments are perfectly within scope.”

Hedault looked victorious as he folded his arms.

“Perhaps. But animals can detect [Ghostly Presence]. Cats, sensitive birds, breeds of dogs—and [Superior Deflection] would not withstand a true seismic shift, just something pounding on the sigil. [Steelform] would have been just as useful and added malleability.”

Ooh. Palt covered his mouth and translated for Imani as Valeterisa’s cheeks turned red. Montressa opened her mouth, but Valeterisa cut her off.

“Oh? And what would you have done to hide the runes?”

Hedault frowned.

“[Isolated Magic]. Obviously.”

“That doesn’t reduce the smell. Or physical appearance.”

He wavered.

“[Isolated Magic] combined with [Camouflage] and [Scentless Musk].”

“So three spells instead of one? Efficient. Weaving that many spells into a single, contiguous circuit that won’t decay would have tripled the time for each camouflaged teleportation point.”

“—Only if you didn’t pre-write the exact enchantments onto a blueprint and lay them down. Which you did, or you would have hand-scribed each one. You could set up this network in fifteen minutes.”

Valeterisa hesitated, and Hedault’s eyes flashed behind his spectacles.

“You hand-scribed each one, didn’t you?”

The amount of time she’d wasted writing runes in the pouring rain—Valeterisa began arguing over how he would have done the earthshaping bit, and the other [Mages] watched.

They were wary of interjecting into the conversation, even Grimalkin; Hedault and Valeterisa were masters of their crafts. Once again, Wailant decided he knew enough to jump in, despite Viceria now stomping on his foot.

“So all these things are hidden anchors for the Archmage to teleport to, eh?”

He stroked his beard as Valeterisa and Hedault allowed that, yes, he understood what was going on. The [Pirate] gave them a big smile.

“I reckon I’d have not bothered to hide it at all. ‘S not like this stuff glows.”

He kicked Valeterisa’s teleportation rune.

“Most buggers walk into a forest and see this? Your average [Poacher] won’t mess with it, or a [Hunter]. Animals don’t care if it’s ghostly or not.”

Hedault and Valeterisa stared at Wailant, and both turned red. Palt gave Wailant a surprised, then gratified grin, and the [Pirate] winked at Nanette.

“I reckon I would have made a fine Archmage myself if I ever put my mind to it.”

“Wailant—”

Viceria did kick him then, and they moved on.

 

——

 

The unshakable ego of Wailant was complemented, not hindered, by Imani’s willingness to pass out food she’d taken from her kitchens and Grimalkin’s knowledge on most subjects on the hops from place to place.

In fact, since they could arrive in Heiste by evening, the group actually flew over to a few nearby settlements instead of standing around in a forest or cave for thirty minutes.

Normally, this delay would have been Valeterisa waiting for Montressa to stop retching while she read a book, and she would have agonized further over not studying magic…but again, Relc and company were more interesting than expected.

“Oh. So you were at Wistram. I thought your personal enchantments were competently done.”

Valeterisa had to allow that Viceria seemed like a capable [Green Mage] who could actually grow plants on Wailant’s farm rather than just talk about it. Not every graduate of Wistram had real-world experience, and Viceria bowed.

“Thank you, Archmage. It was a struggle the first few years, adapting theory to the fields. The hardest part was when we switched to Sage’s Grass. That’s why we’re a team; Wailant had to take care of the monsters.”

“Damn buggers come after the farms. But a few sensor spells and Old Lassy—that’s my scimitar—and we get most of them. The trick is making sure most monsters don’t know there’s magic there to begin with.”

Growing Sage’s Grass was hard. Valeterisa frowned vaguely.

“I had that problem just this morning. An Acid Fly ate all my mana. In my room. I was storing it, and the Acid Fly mutated.”

That made Grimalkin turn.

“You were producing free-form mana? That’s…incredible.”

Nanette was excitedly listening as they sat in an imitation of the outdoor cafés in Liscor and Invrisil. Imani was actually giving the flustered [Cook] tips and her recipe book, and Palt almost dropped his cigar from his open mouth.

“Excuse me—back, please. Yes, that is the Archmage of Izril. Back!”

Montressa and Bezale were keeping the townsfolk back with barrier spells, and Valeterisa tuned out the people staring at her. They always did that; Relc was more shocked and staring at the crowds.

Wailant was unphased by the revelation about mana and tapped the side of his nose.

“Right, that always happens. I dunno about this flying mana, but you just need to do it like the Fraerlings. You hide the magic or—you pretend there’s some better magic over left a bit. We do both; we’ve got magicore bits in the soil. They absorb the mana while the Sage’s Grass is growing.”

Valeterisa didn’t follow the logic at first.

“Won’t that create more signatures?”

“Sure, but it’s magicore. Think most monsters want to eat that? You still get Manavores, but if you rotate the magicore out—it’s still deadening. You can also put other stuff in the soil. I even have this tarp I set up when they’re near-full grown. Heavy as shit! Covered with lead and crap; masks the magic.”

Hedault was nodding grudgingly. He didn’t really like Wailant, who was a backslapping, obtrusive man, but he could recognize sound magical theory when he heard it.

“Standard to Fraerling nullification practices. Their Allotment system is perfect, measured down to the nearest magirite. Free-floating mana…a single contaminant in the room would be able to absorb it.”

It was a vexing problem for her new Skill, and Valeterisa glared at her table. Damn Acid Flies. It was Viceria who blinked and whispered into her husband’s ear. Wailant spoke up.

“Huh. What if you…changed the nature of the magic?”

Huh? Valeterisa, Hedault, and Grimalkin, who’d been making notes in a journal on the puzzle, all looked up. They turned to Viceria. A [Light] spell lit up Valeterisa’s mind.

“I only meant that while it doesn’t work with Sage’s Grass, what Wailant forgot to say is that the magicore isn’t raw. We turn it into low-grade poison magicore. Nothing that can harm the ground. But monsters—”

“—sense it as poison magic. Only raw magic can be easily ingested by mundane monsters like Acid Flies. Of course! If I had changed the nature of the magic, it would be more effort to use, but the Acid Fly wouldn’t have had the ability to do anything!”

Valeterisa grew excited, and Hedault gave Viceria a respectful nod. Grimalkin sighed and crossed out everything he’d been writing.

“Here I was about to compartmentalize the magic via sectionality and add ‘nets’ to reduce any loss of power. Common-sense solutions…”

Hedault nodded at Grimalkin.

“Ah, you have read the same book on Fraerling settlements I did.”

The Drake smiled for the first time since leaving House Ulta.

“There’s only one. Insignificant Thaumaturgy: Fraerling Magic, A Disambiguation.

Such an overstatement from someone who only managed to talk to two settlements and never had access inside.”

As it turned out, every [Mage] except Palt and Montressa had read the one book that even hinted at Fraerling magic, and only vague theories, nothing concrete. The non-[Mages] listened in as Viceria murmured.

“I heard there were more substantive books from the times when [Mages] shrunk themselves down to visit Fraerlings on their own terms. But they were limited in number, and Fraerlings eventually destroyed them all. Even in Wistram. There’s that story about Fraerling [Saboteurs]—”

It grew rather convivial. Despite herself, Valeterisa admitted that Hedault had had a point regarding her enchantments, and she would have wasted time on the mana problem—she couldn’t wait to retry her experiments, actually. Wailant slapped his knees as he got up.

“Alright, my stomach’s settled. Onto the next spot?”

They were about to leave when Relc tapped Valeterisa on the shoulder. She had the ability to forget anything she found inconvenient, so she had absolutely tuned out her audience as they sat there, much less requests from some [Farmer] to help her enchant things or for her to magically fix problems.

Her heart sank when she saw the Drake giving her a pleading look.

“Can you spare five minutes, Valeterisa? For the people here.”

She dithered—and gave in. Maybe once, and she’d tell Relc she couldn’t be bothered to do this kind of work, even if they paid her. She was rewarded with a grin. Then he pointed her to…

A child.

Valeterisa peered at a boy holding a crude stick with a painted star on the end. He was standing there, his parents nervously behind him, and she saw his mouth was open, revealing gaps in his teeth.

“Hmm. Perhaps a rot in his teeth? [Analysis]. No? [Detect Magic]. No crippling curses. [Myflta’s Magical Sensor Net]—boundary here, here, here…”

A bouncing beam of light criss-crossed a cylinder around the boy, and he stared as the beams of light traced around him, trying to detect everything in the field Valeterisa had designated. After a second, Valeterisa studied his wand.

“…Ashwood. Non-magical.”

She stopped, stared at the boy, and his mouth was open wider if anything. Then she leaned over and whispered to Relc.

“Er…what’s wrong with him?”

The Drake had been giving Valeterisa the side-eye. Amused. And…he gestured at the little boy.

“Nothing, Valley. He just wanted to meet the Archmage of Izril. The one who lifted Fissival. He’s a big fan of yours.”

Valeterisa blinked down at the boy. He stared up at her, lost for words. She blinked at Relc, pointed at the boy.

“Him?”

Most people who were ‘admirers’ of hers were [Merchants], who wanted something from her. Or the nobility, who wanted something from her. Or [Mages], who’d love if they could ask her about a spell or…

Children? Valeterisa saw more of them peeking at her and stared down at the boy.

“His name’s Todd. What if you cast a spell?”

Valeterisa panicked as Relc whispered in her ear. Spell? Spell…she looked around, then pointed.

“Oh. Very well. [Grand Lightning].”

Everyone ducked as a bolt of lighting as wide as a tree trunk blasted over the houses and town, exploding in the air a mile away. The boy fell on his backside as Valeterisa lowered a finger, and Montressa covered her face. She stared at him—then decided to fly away as his parents dragged him to safety. Relc ran after her, trying to apologize and laugh and call her back at the same time.

As she flew, Valeterisa saw the little boy’s eyes focus on her, then he waved his wand. And he looked so delighted…she stopped flying away and came back.

That was how she realized she had fans. Or rather, not just fans…something else.

Ryoka Griffin had fans. The Wind Runner was so famous that when Nanette mentioned she knew Ryoka, several children begged for her to tell the Wind Runner to come here and let them fly.

But Valeterisa didn’t have fans among children. Rather, they looked up at her and asked if she had really lifted Fissival. Or been that comet in the skies. When she, embarrassed, lifted a wagon a hundred feet straight up, they were speechless.

They stared at her not like a hero, but like a dream. In their gazes, Valeterisa saw something familiar that scared her. It was like the girl who had looked up as she saw the Archmage flying across the skies or the expressions of children in Fissival.

Someday, I want to do magic like that too.

Because it scared her, she tried to avoid them, but Relc cajoled her into casting a spell. Not [Grand Lightning], but any one of the spells she knew.

The Archmage of Izril. There was only one these days, and none of Izril’s people had seen her for a decade. It was a strange thing for a minor spell like [Karas Duststorm] to attract such awe—but even the other [Mages] got into it.

Hedault enchanted Todd’s wand to pulse brightly and make a sound. Grimalkin lifted a boulder overhead. Palt conjured a dozen illusions, and Viceria made plants grow out of the snow.

They did that at numerous towns, eating more into the travel time, but Nanette’s and the children’s looks of delight were something.

Non-valuable to her studies, obviously. A waste of time. But like Relc…Valeterisa began suggesting they visit each town every stop for a bit. There was something here that she clung to.

A reminder of why she’d practiced magic to begin with.

 

——

 

They were so slow to reach Heiste they ended up camping out three jumps from the isle—well, they’d have to fly to Heiste since Valeterisa didn’t have an anchor-point on the isle itself.

Nothing would do but for Valeterisa to cast one of Larracel’s spells. A magical building appeared, and everyone walked into it wonderingly.

“Not a speck of dust. It’s got a table, chairs—dead gods! Is this what an Archmage can do? Makes a Level 50 [Warrior] look like absolute Creler-crap!”

Grimalkin had to disagree with that.

“This magic is convenient, Wailant. You saw the late Admiral Rosech fighting. Nothing and no one could bring him down.”

“Sure, sure. I guess that’s nice, but this is a free chair. Ah…”

Wailant put his feet up on what was supposed to be the dining table as Imani pulled out food and Nanette hurried to help her cook. The [Chef] gave Wailant a pointed look, and he put his feet down and went to check out a couch.

It was true that Valeterisa’s weakness was that she was a woman capable of casting incredible magic—but a Human woman, not another species. Which meant that her back and feet hurt from all this standing around all day; she was used to sitting.

By contrast, Relc had enough energy to chop down a tree with his spear for firewood—he was dragging the trunk over to the house. Imani opted for an informal meal of what she called ‘korma’. Which had Valeterisa licking her lips and let people sit and eat.

Valeterisa noticed Relc drawing off to stand outside next to a fire Wailant, Grimalkin, Bezale, and Palt had set up on the basis there should be a fire if they were camping. Hedault was busy inspecting the house with Nanette, having never seen this spell before, which left Viceria, Imani, Montressa, and Valeterisa to talk.

…The Archmage had no idea what to talk about. But she accepted another object from Imani and inspected it.

“…What is this?”

“Just something else from my ingredients Skill. Careful on the edges. You snap it open like this—it’s a beer. Palt’s already sharing them around, I see. I swear, of all the things I got from this batch—it was all stuff like this. Too many wrapped products. Just an entire box of chocolate chips…ah, nevermind.”

Valeterisa didn’t care for the drink, so she handed it to Montressa, and Viceria produced some wine, which Valeterisa did accept. The Archmage awkwardly watched Relc talking around the fire, conspiratorially, with his group.

Should she go out there? This was a time for women’s talk…Valeterisa hated it. Then she heard her name. Valeterisa cast a listening spell a bit guiltily.

 

——

 

“—So there I am and she gets me mithril boots. And how am I supposed to give her something that good? Thanks for helping with that, Palt.”

“What, like real mithril? Dead gods, keep her. Hey, this stuff tastes like someone else’s piss, but it’s not bad. I could have used a lot of these on the ship! Barrels go bad once you’re scraping the dregs.”

Wailant muttered as he sipped from his beer. Relc scratched at his head.

“It’s weird. She doesn’t really ask me to do things. We go on dates, but it’s, uh—it’s been a while since I, you know, did the relationship stuff. It’s like—okay, Menolit was giving me tips on how often to ask for sex.”

Valeterisa saw Bezale spit out some of her drink into the fire. Wailant started laughing. Grimalkin gave Relc a look of great reservation.

“This would be Menolit’s opinion?”

“No, he says he heard it from some of his buddies. Once a week! Is that right? Or do you think—?”

Valeterisa’s cheeks were turning red along with Relc’s, and Wailant kept laughing, losing his balance on the tree Relc had chopped down. Palt blew out his cheeks.

“I, uh—don’t think you have to time it like that, Relc. It’s more about the mood. Also, Menolit isn’t seeing anyone.”

“Yeah, but he’s a [Wingman].”

Wingman. That means he helps other people. Now, the real question is whether or not you use magic in the bedroom.”

Everyone stared at Palt as he waggled his eyebrows, and Valeterisa wondered which spell would be able to melt a hole in the wall, hit the Centaur, and avoid collateral damage. Wailant sat there a second.

“Well, I can tell you, it’s a lot of fun, but I have to ask this, Palt, my man. You and Miss Imani. How does that, er…Viceria told me she’d kill me if she heard me asking, but—”

More laughter. Valeterisa heard Palt huffing.

“You know, Imani told me the other Earthers hassled her about it. It’s private—is what I’d say. It’s more like other people make such a big deal we didn’t want to talk about it. There’s this Gnoll who thinks Erin is a, and I quote, ‘sexual fiend’ who would come by every week and try to get me to talk about the depraved sex stuff I got up to with Imani. I had to call the Watch on him.”

“Oh, that guy. He’s weird. I’ve had to arrest him twice. He tried to pull a Saliss. The difference between him and Saliss is that he was enjoying it.”

Relc shook his head. Palt groaned.

“Listen, it’s very simple. It’s fine with me sharing it, I think…all you do is, uh, use a potion if you have two different species. A shrinking potion in my case. Because, heh, let’s just say I’m pretty close to my non-Human half.”

There was a moment of silence, then Wailant snorted.

“Yeah, that checks out. So, Relc. Tell us about—”

 

——

 

“That lot is incorrigible. At least, mine is. I don’t think Magus Grimalkin signed up for this conversation. No wonder Master Hedault is staying away. As for Bezale—she’s shockingly frank.”

Viceria interrupted Valeterisa’s eavesdropping and brought the Archmage back into the conversation. It turned out Valeterisa wasn’t the only person with a long ear. The Archmage blushed.

“Is that what company talks about? Socially?”

She was almost disappointed that it wasn’t something more…well, she understood why it was interesting. Viceria smiled politely.

“When I was young, I thought adults talked about important matters. Then I learned it was ribald jokes, silly nonsense, and gossip. Even among the nobility.”

“Oh, they’re terrible with that. Back home—my family was always gossiping about who was in bed with whom.”

Montressa filled a glass with wine, and Imani glared out the window at Palt. Then turned to Valeterisa with a big smile.

“Since I can only guess what Palt’s talking about with Relc—you do like him, don’t you, Archmage? I hope so. Relc deserves someone good for him.”

Valeterisa was put on the spot, and she hesitated.

“I—yes. He’s very brave. And a good person. He likes puzzles, and we often solve some together. And have intimate relations at least once a week. I was unsure of how to bring up the subject.”

The old Wineblaster was being performed regularly—only in this case it was more like Montressa choking on her wine. Valeterisa was about to drop the matter and flee, but Viceria engaged with the topic with little more than a smile.

“I hope you’re careful.”

“Oh, with magical protection? I have, even if…wait, do I need it anymore? And I have memorized the proper usage of all sex-magic spells. Not that I have used many.”

Valeterisa grew a bit gloomy at the thought of her age, but Viceria gave Valeterisa a worried look.

“I mean, about Relc. This may be too much, Archmage, but he is considerably stronger than you are if he’s over Level 30. I’ve heard tragic stories.”

Imani winced.

“I can imagine…wait, is there much of a difference? Palt’s over Level 30—”

“My dear, he is not a [Warrior]. Galas muscle is real. I imagine Valeterisa knows the difference.”

The Archmage had to own she did. She gestured at Relc’s arm.

“You can feel it. It’s like—I tried to pull his arm down and could not, and you can touch-identify Galas muscle. I read that in a book, and it was very apparent to me as well. Um—um—what do you do to mitigate the dangers?”

“Protection spells. They’re generally good about knowing their own strength, so you just make sure that if you tell them not to worry—also, if one of them has the stupid idea of using a Skill, tell them not to. It usually doesn’t work well.”

Valeterisa decided to take notes. This was all very important information, and she decided to try some of the—Montressa listened to Viceria with great interest, but every now and then, she would look at Valeterisa, stare—eventually, she had to excuse herself.

The talk was not all about the various mating rituals of this world. For one thing, Nanette and Hedault came downstairs, and the young witch girl would have loved to listen in and ask questions, but she dampened the conversation—and Hedault’s glower tamped down the embers outside.

Also—they had a guest. Two of them.

It was inconceivable anyone would stumble accidentally across them in the forest where Valeterisa had made her teleportation anchor. So the duo that appeared were here on purpose.

They’d been tracking Valeterisa, but only one kind of person could find her, even if people were abuzz about her passage.

“Archmage. I hate to disrupt you, but I’m here on behalf of three Guilds. Mage, Runner, and Adventurer. Courier Salamani and Ci at your service.”

The Mage Rider rode up to the fire, and Valeterisa tried to hide. Everyone was astounded, but Valeterisa knew why he was here.

Salamani, the Human with Lizardfolk ancestry evident in his slitted eyes, a Wistram-trained [Mage] who had become a Courier, bowed to her. He was accompanied by Ci, the brilliant white mare who had once been the Moonlight Rider’s companion until Tritel’s passing.

Both looked—well, worn wasn’t the right word. They were in tremendous shape and had crossed miles to catch Valeterisa. Marked by death was the right way of putting it, but Salamani shook Grimalkin’s hand and blinked at the company.

“I—I am on a job to Heiste. I thought I had settled my accounts. And Eldavin said he would help resolve the issue.”

“I understand, Archmage. I merely have a request for you—and you have been dodging [Message] spells. If I may turn over this list so you can confirm you have read it?”

Salamani was insistent, and Relc glanced at the Archmage as Montressa gulped. Valeterisa hesitated—then accepted a list of names and locations.

“Here, what’s this about, Salamani? Have a drink.”

Wailant actually knew the man, and the Mage Runner hesitated.

“If I’m welcome. I had to deliver to Archmage Valeterisa a list of…well, the dead is the only way to put it. The deceased who perished at her mansion. The families and friends would like to speak to her to hear her apologies. Or simply to speak, I imagine.”

“I gave them gold.”

Valeterisa mumbled. A lot of gold, actually. It was one of the things she hadn’t thought of, but the Mage Runner, who had nearly expired in her cells himself…his eyes were vaguely sympathetic up to a point.

“The Guilds have forwarded the gold to all those who would accept it, Archmage. Most of the others knew the risks of trying to contact you. The request—and it is a request—remains. No matter what the Archmage of Memory says.”

Relc was giving Valeterisa a troubled look; perhaps he vaguely recalled the people who had died in her cells, starved as she sat for eight years in her mental prison, but now he was hearing what she had done firsthand. Valeterisa stared at the list.

I cannot do this. Would they accept it if she stood there and used [Parallel Thoughts]?

“You do not have to do it, Archmage. I did—explain to some of them what the issue was. Few would understand how someone can be trapped by their own Skills. Not all will accept an apology, but my job is done. And with that, I think I should be going.”

He was about to head on his way, but Nanette begged him to stay.

“I didn’t meet you last time, or Ci, Mage Salamani. I’m from The Wandering Inn—we’re going to Heiste. Won’t you stay at least tonight?”

Ci pawed at the ground, and Salamani eyed Valeterisa, but she allowed that he wouldn’t make much of a difference, and Imani coaxed Ci over with a beer and some of the korma.

In the end, the Mage Runner ended up sitting with everyone around the fire outside. Salamani was shocked by so many [Mages] being present.

“Then again, I suppose it makes sense. Everyone wants to see Heiste, and even if we’re fewer and far between—it’s good for magic-users to know each other.”

“It’s not like we don’t have other friends. But sometimes you just have to talk magic. Right?”

Palt nodded amiably and got murmurs of agreement. Hedault was patently uncomfortable; he had refused a beer and wine and was sipping from a glass of water. However, Salamani proved to be another icebreaker. After he’d asked Imani about the odd beers and snacks she was showering him and Ci with, the Mage Runner sat forwards, face serious.

“—I know this is sudden, but can I ask what went down at the Winter Solstice? We were far up north. The next thing I hear, Erin Solstice is at sea. I’ve heard everything from her being kidnapped to joining the Goblin Lord to…Lady Bethal Walchaís is at war with House Reinhart. That’s obvious. I ran two deliveries for her because the Driver’s Guild is scared spitless of Magnolia’s wrath. But House Reinhart itself is more active, and that’s a mess.”

“Lots happening in the north? I missed it too. I thought about going, but—dead gods, Salamani. I saw the battlefield afterwards, and it looked like a real war. I saw the King of Destruction’s wars when I was a lad sailing down the coast. It was every bit as bad as that.”

Wailant’s face was grim and somber, and the others told Salamani what they had seen or witnessed. The Mage Runner looked at Imani’s face and Palt’s suddenly wrathful expression.

“Roshal. Of all the enemies to make…and that Bone Giant’s still there? No one’s destroyed it?”

Grimalkin shook his head.

“The size of Liscor, Salamani. Not a lesser Giant. A real one.”

“Dead gods. I thought the Circle of Thorns would be the worst I’d ever see this decade. Now this.”

Ci stomped on a beer can in agreement. The group around the fire was quiet a moment, then Nanette cleared her throat with a wobble in her voice.

“U-um, how is Lady Pryde, Magus Grimalkin? She’s healed, isn’t she?”

Every head turned to the Sinew Magus, and Grimalkin’s back grew even straighter, and his face went blank.

“I don’t believe I should speak out of turn about her—condition.”

“No, no! I just meant—you were there to visit her, right? Have you been keeping in contact?”

Grimalkin hesitated. Then he took a drink, and the words spilled out, awkwardly, but with great necessity, Valeterisa felt.

“I—have. I offered to help try and deal with the curse…but it is not a curse. Or rather, if the magic is still working, it—those Hag Queens—reversing it cannot be done by [Restoration]. I have been sending letters to Lady Pryde. To express my condolences, support…”

He laughed, rueful.

“I do not know what to say. I feel responsible, though, of course, she chose to be there. She has written me replies—I fear our acquaintanceship has only been to her detriment. What else is there to say?”

He paused a second and looked around.

“I apologize. The conversation this night seems to have been about relationships, but it is not my forte.”

“Don’t apologize for that, man.”

Wailant protested, and Grimalkin got nods of agreement.

“And don’t stop writing her letters! I’m sure—I’m sure she wants them.”

Nanette urged Grimalkin, and the Sinew Magus looked at the girl. He dipped his head.

“…Of course. I did not want to upset her, and it occurred to me arriving unannounced was exceptionally rude. I appreciate you allowing me on this couple’s gathering, Nanette and Master Hedault excepted, of course.”

The two nodded at him, and Hedault glanced around.

“I, for one, am relieved not to be the only single individual present.”

“Again, Montressa and I are not a pair.

Bezale raised her voice. There was laughter, but then Wailant blundered into the wrong thing for the first time.

“Come on, Hedault. Even the Archmage has found someone. What say you we meet some nice [Enchantress] on the way to Heiste, eh? Eh? Got your eye on anyone special?”

The [Enchanter] got to his feet so fast it was clear he’d been offended. Valeterisa hoped this wouldn’t be the start of another grudge, and as if he’d remembered her, Hedault glanced at Valeterisa. However—his voice was more level as he replied.

“Farmer Wailant. I do not discuss my personal life often. So I will simply state this: a relationship has not been my goal, or I would have pursued it. I am…very content not to even wonder. I understand this strikes many as odd, or even wrong, but I would appreciate not being involved in any speculation as to my desires.”

“Nothing wrong with liking men, man. We’re all reasonable people here.”

Wailant retorted, looking mildly amused. Hedault’s eyes flashed.

“I was not referring to that. This is why I find it so irksome. When I say I am content, no one believes me.”

There was a moment of silence as he wavered, clearly about to retire, and Nanette tilted her head.

“I think I don’t understand, Master Hedault. But will you please explain it to me?”

Her earnest entreaty caused the [Enchanter] to give in. Imani rushed to break out more snacks with Palt, and at length, Hedault accepted some melted cheese on toothpicks that were dipped in a spinach sauce.

He ate it with relish. Sipped from a glass of purified water and sighed.

“Good food. Fascinating magic. And tolerable company.”

“Hey.”

The [Enchanter] went on as someone kicked Wailant. His eyes were on Nanette, but it seemed as though he met Valeterisa’s eyes more than once, and she listened and understood.

“The world can be vibrant, to me, or dull and tedious. I enjoy enchanting. I do not enjoy most clients, but it is a requirement of the job, and I have a great deal of autonomy—present days excepted—to pursue what I enjoy. Not just enchanting. Skateboarding. Food. The world, Miss Nanette, is colorful, and I seek that out. The difference between me and others, I observe, is…”

He paused, and his fingers tapped on his wrist as he tried to put it into words.

“—The world does not grow less vibrant for me. Passion, I have seen, is an all-consuming thing. The same food that is so delicious becomes less so, for infatuation or heartbreak. The world seems to condense into a single thing, a desire that must be fulfilled or else the rest is meaningless. For me? The world is untainted by that vortex of meaning others call romance. And I have never been more grateful for it.”

The little speech drew silence from the audience, and Nanette nodded, clearly listening to each word and trying to understand. Hedault stared into the fire, which was becoming embers by now, and then he did reach for a beer.

He drank it, grimaced, read the label, and murmured.

“Kevin understood that. He had his desires, but he understood the joy of creation, and he was amiable to all. To myself, Master Pelt—many claim Erin Solstice is the [Innkeeper] who draws you into her life like a storm. Kevin was not that. He was a pleasant breeze and never offended me. Death was unworthy of him. I miss him greatly.”

It was a quiet eulogy, and Hedault poured the rest of the can onto the fire. Wailant had tears in his eyes, and Imani rubbed at hers.

Then they began to speak of the dead, from Halrac Everam to Moore, who Viceria had known, and Valeterisa listened. When they turned to her, she spoke quietly.

“He was no great [Archmage] of old. But he was an Archmage, and he grew more cautious with age. But Verdan Blackwood could fly, and he stopped Tier 6 magics with his very body before he died. When I was a girl, he welcomed me to Wistram.”

She conjured an image of him, toasted him, and shared a story and realized this—

This was community.

 

——

 

By common consent, Salamani joined the party on the next day. They arrived at Heiste after a two-hour flight spell that was very taxing on Valeterisa given how many people they needed; Salamani rode over the waves with a delighted Nanette, but everyone else flew.

The first thing they saw of Heiste was an island paradise. It was larger than Valeterisa’s humble isle, and the brilliant white sands and multi-layered mansion had once belonged to a real [Archmage] of old.

Golems and other ancient, magical servants moved around the paradise, and a boat at dock and some guards and servants were evidence of the current caretakers.

Paradise. One of a few. Heiste was unique in that it was owned by House Wellfar, who let people stay at the paradise and want for nothing—but admission was only for the very wealthy. Or connected. A month or longer stay was to be cherished and remembered.

The white sand, like the brilliant emerald surf, and the waterfall falling from an anchored cloud overhead filled the island’s background. Valeterisa almost missed the small delegation standing at a small pier awaiting Valeterisa’s arrival.

The first thing Wailant Strongheart did was fall to his knees and vomit onto the white sand.

“I hate flying. So this is Heiste! Dead gods! Amazing!”

He leapt to his feet and a scandalized [Lady] of House Wellfar recoiled, pointed, and a [Servant] ran to dispose of the mess.

“Archmage, thank you for arriving! We have been requesting, urgently, support for months now, yeah? Better late than never. You’ll be sorting the matter right out?”

Wellfar’s nobility were barefoot and rather pirate-like themselves. But noble [Pirates]; they glanced at Wailant’s tattoos with mixed appreciation and rivalry. Valeterisa sighed.

Work time.

Though, in this case, Heiste was not plagued by a monster attack ravaging the paradise.

“We killed all of those. No thanks to anyone else.”

The [Guard Captain of Paradise] fingered a new scar on his chin and pointed down the beach as they showed Valeterisa the problem.

“It was about when Khelt began shouting about Seamwalkers. Something…happened. All these servants? Don’t need to be here. I was right here when all the Golems and familiars went dead. Stopped responding. Then some of the ward-spells deactivated. I didn’t even know there were monsters in the lower laboratories until they came out.”

Grimalkin frowned.

“How many? What kind?”

The man shuddered.

“Prismatic Hydra. Some kind of two-headed giant dog. Horrific monsters, Gold-rank or worse.”

The Sinew Magus raised his brows, trying not to sound skeptical.

“And you killed them all?”

Salamani, Grimalkin, and Hedault had come along because the magic fascinated them, and Nanette was wavering between staring around and listening. The [Captain] grimaced.

“Of course not. Some just went into the sea and swam off. But we killed a few; they were almost dead.”

Hedault looked around uneasily, clearly not at home with escaped monsters, but he was fascinated by the reason the magic had gone haywire. He speculated out loud.

“They must have been in [Stasis] spells if they were underground since the era of the owner. Archmage Valmira herself might have captured them. So her magic began failing?”

“That’s the thing—we’ve had other [Enchanters] check the place top-to-bottom, and her magic’s still good. It’s just the Golems and some of the familiars and functions that went dead. A few of them stopped moving. One of ‘em—here, see for yourself. The Cuddle Golem just says ‘Archmage Valmira is dead’. As if that wasn’t the case for ages.”

The problem was actually more fascinating than Valeterisa had given the issue credit. Heiste had apparently suffered something connected with the rest of the world when the King of Khelt had made war against the Drakes on Izril.

All the Golems and a lot of the magical creations and functions of Heiste had gone offline. The magic was still good, but they required delicate re-enchantment to restore functionality, mostly by stripping the original owner’s protocols for obedience only to herself out of them.

It was actually fairly informative work, but the mystery of why it had happened remained a mystery until Nanette shyly drew Valeterisa aside.

“Archmage. I think I know what happened. Valmira must have been a ghost. And her spirit itself…vanished. Could that be the cause?”

Valeterisa blinked at Nanette, and her mind lit up with speculation.

“Maybe. Perhaps. If she were advanced enough to have a connection with ghosts, she might have had contingencies in case she were able to bind herself as a spirit. Even if she failed—she died in a duel, you know, not when she expected—the island might have been programmed to function with that ideal in mind.”

Which meant that with her passing, all the Golems and whatnot had finally been allowed to rest. Nanette looked quite sad when Valeterisa confirmed the theory, which motivated the Archmage to pat her on the head.

“This will take two days. It is not difficult work. You may watch if you wish, and Master Hedault and Master Grimalkin have offered to help me. Otherwise—Heiste is open. You may do as you wish. The Wellfars have given us the run of the island.”

The House of Wellfar wasn’t exactly pleased with Valeterisa’s guests, but until she restored a lot of the island, their own clients were being disappointed by the lack of paradise’s wonders. And Heiste did have wonders!

“This place is too beautiful to exist. Stick some lead up my ass and use me like an anchor—I’ve seen beautiful beaches, but the sand is spotless!”

Somehow, Wailant had befriended a number of the Wellfars—mostly by handing them beers from Imani’s supply as it turned out. And the [Lady of Surf] was a lot more convivial when buzzed.

“Ah, well, we have to have servants combing the beaches, but there’s spells that do it. There! Look! The Archmage’s got them back online!”

Some of the trace vomit and a beer can were floating up into the air as they watched. Trash and detritus—or approaching sea life—was picked up and tossed hundreds of feet from the island. Even the sand would be recombed, and examples of Valmira’s magical genius were everywhere.

“Now, remember. The island is protected, so you can’t harm yourself with fire, but you can cut yourself by accident. And the worst thing to do is to exit the flying zone—you’ll fall straight down until you get caught. Not lethal, but we’ve had a guest die of fright.”

“The—the flying zone? What’s that?”

Relc had been goggling at one of the unique Golems on the island. For answer, one of the Wellfars pointed, and Valeterisa herself glanced over and saw some of the regular guests around the waterfall.

There was a giant cloud that held another building on it raining water off the side. A literal cloud, but one you could apparently walk on. Valeterisa wanted to harvest a sample of the cloud for later—she had been promised compensation for this work.

A rather elderly man was spreading his arms like wings—and as everyone watched, he began to fly, abandoning his walking stick and shooting upwards faster than Valeterisa could.

“That’d old Lord Lichtef. He’s a regular. Look at him go!”

He was doing loops around the waterfall, flying through the clear spray, and the [Lady] outlined an area high above.

“See that cloud? That’s one of the buildings—and there’s those light steps over there. Everything in a rough rectangle is enchanted with a permanent [Flight] spell. The rules are to not run into anyone else; it’ll slow you before you hit anything, but it’s rude. Aside from that? Fly wherever you want.”

Magus Grimalkin just stared upwards as Imani, Nanette, and Relc raced for the waterfall. The Sinew Magus had much the same reaction as the other [Mages].

“That is magic beyond any modern imagination. This island is full of it. Can we inspect the spell?”

The [Lady of Surf] was amused.

“Of course. It’s all written in crystal, but I doubt you’ll learn much. We always get new Archmages in to stare at them.”

 

——

 

The problem with Heiste was that it was too perfect. Or rather, Archmage Valmira had made this place her home and put into it her best magic.

All her notes and equipment had long since been ransacked, so for even Valeterisa, modifying the most basic components of Valmira’s magic was the most she could do. Everything else was too complex—not that Valeterisa hadn’t been here before to copy everything she could.

“Ah. She’s layered the enchantment somehow. You would have to deconstruct it to see what has been done.”

Hedault came to the same conclusion Valeterisa had and sighed as he inspected the flight spell. Obviously, the Wellfars would rather kill you than let you try to deconstruct an enchantment, so he just took the best notes he could.

Meanwhile, Valeterisa admired the magic—as well as repaired it.

One of Heiste’s functions was of course a cornucopia artifact that spat out whatever you wanted to eat. Valmira had made this place her home; there were marvels as mundane as a massive garden that had contained every reagent she could want to grow, to [True Familiars], who could communicate and do almost anything a person could—to the Cuddle Golems.

“The what?”

Relc had finished flying, and he found Valeterisa and remembered one of the weird things she’d mentioned that needed fixing. For answer, Valeterisa pointed, and Relc recoiled from an eight-foot-tall…teddy bear.

It was bright red with silk fur and a big smile, and Relc backed away.

“That’s horrific.”

“It’s very cute. I just fixed it. Look.”

The Cuddle Golem was a unique Golem that would go to someone it deemed in emotional distress.

In this case, Magus Grimalkin. The Drake broke off inspecting a magical walkway and almost punched the thing. In response, the Cuddle Golem spread its arms.

“Hello. Are. You. In. Need. Of. Comfort?”

Since you only got to visit Heiste once, even Magus Grimalkin hesitated—and the sight of him being picked up and hugged by the Golem made Relc laugh so hard he fell over. Grimalkin’s face was red, and he muttered as he stomped away.

“Soothing spells in the arms. I’ll grant you, it’s novel. Let’s, er—let’s visit the Room of Winnable Debates. I’ve always wanted to try it.”

 

——

 

Once Valeterisa corrected the room’s authority enchantments, it revealed a room on par with Larracel’s own great Skill, the [Pub of Best Moments].

Only, in this case, the room would pull from your thoughts and generate an entire place or event you wanted—or had lived—and let you do it over.

Only this time you would have the poise, forethought, and ability to win any argument you wanted. Relc went into it, and Valeterisa watched as he argued Captain Zevara of Liscor into not only giving him more time off, but giving him a raise.

“Ancestors, that felt great! And it was so realistic! Did you see her shake my claw and admit I’d been working really hard? What actually happened was she threw an inkpot at me.”

He punched the air, grinning. Valeterisa wanted to try, but she realized the room needed access to your thoughts; her spells prevented it from working correctly.

Everyone watched as Nanette went into the room, and a tall woman with grey hair appeared. Rather than argue—Nanette gave the image of Califor a hug, and Cuddle Golems rushed over.

“Well, that’s sad. I am going to go over here now before I begin weeping.”

Bezale stomped off. Yet Valeterisa believed the island was still worth the journey. For one thing—she got to remind herself how much magic there was for her to achieve.

 

——

 

Taking Hedault and Grimalkin was a good idea, and Valeterisa congratulated herself on listening to her apprentice’s idea. What would have been busy work for at least a full straight day, if not two, became a half-day of work and a lot of pretending to be busy when the Wellfars checked in.

Which meant more time for the island itself. And coincidentally, Relc.

Sometimes, she forgot they were what you would qualify as ‘together’. Sometimes, she wondered what he saw in her.

Was it…that she was the Archmage of Izril? It couldn’t be her personality or age or appearance. She was older—and the Isle of Heiste made her uncomfortable for a while.

Mostly because the etiquette here was to go around in states of undress, similar to the beach. House Wellfar’s nobles certainly enjoyed themselves with almost nothing on, regardless of gender; the isle was of course climate-controlled via magic, so the winter never touched it.

Valeterisa adjusted the temperature until it was cold enough so everyone was putting clothes on—until they complained. Then she dithered before remembering how you were supposed to do it.

“Hey, Valeterisa. You said we’d have some free time and whoa!

Relc caught sight of Valeterisa during her downtime when they had arranged to explore the island. He had a fruit drink in one hand, but completely forgot to hold onto it.

Valeterisa was wearing one of the two-piece swimsuits that House Wellfar had offered. But she had, ah, added a bit of magic.

…She might have gone overboard. She was fairly certain she’d blended the illusion spells well, but then she remembered Relc had seen her naked.

“It, um, um, comes with an [Illusion] spell?”

Relc was staring at…he jerked his eyes up, and they dropped like a gravity spell was attached.

“Yeah. That’s some illusion.”

That made her more embarrassed. Then, Valeterisa was ashamed and was trying to talk herself out of using a memory spell on him. But the Drake glanced at her expression—and his softened.

“Hey, if you want to put them on—do you mind doing something about my tail? And face?”

He grinned at her, indicating his own features, and Valeterisa protested.

“But you look fine.”

“Well, you’re not a bad drink of water yourself.”

He gave her ‘finger guns’, and Valeterisa stared at him blankly, then felt better. It wasn’t that Relc was, in fact, the paragon of wordy and worldly grace. It was more that when she felt bad about something, she realized—he understood.

Then she was reminded why it was pleasant to walk around with him. In the end, Valeterisa adjusted the spells slightly to be less obvious but still compete with some of the beach-goers. It wasn’t like she minded Relc looking so…interested.

“So they’ve all got illusion magic on? I just thought, y’know, if you’re richer, you can afford a better diet.”

“She does. And he does. And—he does not, but he’s old.”

They were playing ‘spot the illusion’, and it turned out to be harder to spot those not ensorcelled in some small way. And, often, what the people chose to correct surprised Relc. He was using a [True Sight] spell she’d attached to a pair of spectacles, and he kept shaking his head.

“They look good to me.”

“Mm. Wait. She’s not using a spell.”

“Dead gods.”

They both stared at the [Lady of Surf] as she passed by. And that was entirely amusing in a way that didn’t make her feel worse.

 

——

 

One of the features of Heiste was a magical sandbar that let you walk anywhere you wanted, even on the water. It would rise and provide a path—until you accidentally walked into the sea where the magic stopped.

Relc and Valeterisa did just that and admired fish that flocked to the island to feast on plantlife cultivated to attract them. No fear of sharks—Relc whistled as he saw one being picked up by the security spell and tossed into the distance.

“This Valmira was some [Archmage]. Almost as good as you.”

“She was far better than me. Valmira was well-respected…envied, really. She dueled numerous [Archmages] and was considered the best in Wistram before her passing. A freak accident; she should have been protected from the spell that killed her. Speculation has been rife that it was a Naq-Alrama blade or sabotage. I have a book on [Archmages]…um, I could lend it to you if you like.”

Here, Relc nodded affably.

“I could read that. But it’s cooler when you describe them. With spells.”

She could demonstrate [Valmira’s Comet], and the fact that she could cast almost any spell was endlessly amazing to Relc. Valeterisa, in turn, appreciated being able to show off her magic.

They were not in perfect sync, though. They both liked puzzles, but Valeterisa had observed Relc wasn’t always willing to commit to reading a book over the week and giving her his detailed thoughts afterwards.

Similarly…she didn’t have his appreciation for strenuous exercise. Valeterisa got tired after walking for twenty minutes, and Relc kept suggesting walks or ‘exercise’. He had been hurt when she revealed she was researching ways to artificially speed up muscle growth and casting [Lion’s Strength] on herself to keep up.

“I…tell me if there’s something else we should be doing on this date. Is this a date? Do we move sex to tonight? Larracel wrote down some advice for me, but she didn’t mention vacations.”

Relc’s expression was colorful, and Valeterisa confessed.

“I—haven’t done this much. I’m sure you have.”

Relc grinned and jerked a thumb at his face.

“Who? Me? Who wants to date someone with a face like this? I had a kid, but the army’s different.”

Valeterisa protested.

“But you were a Senior Guardsman. And a [Spearmaster]. Surely…”

Surely they appreciated you. She did. Relc glanced at Valeterisa with that wide smile that almost seemed incredulous. Then it turned pained.

“Eh…I wasn’t always good about it. I’ve had a—I guess there was—”

He stared past Valeterisa for a while and kicked some sand at a fish, who went to gobble it up—then spat it out.

“I think meeting Erin helped a bit. Meeting Klbkch definitely did. [Guards]—you know, the other ones I work with? I used to treat them like the army. Now, I get rookies who come to me because they’re scared of Beilmark. That’s sort of how it is. I cleaned up my act a bit, and good thing too! Or we’d never have met!”

He gave her a big thumbs-up, and Valeterisa smiled. Then she felt compelled to talk about her past.

“I…never met many people I wished to talk to. Ever. There were some I recall, like Archmage Amerys, but they weren’t close. For magic, I gave it all away, and they told me I sacrificed love for that.”

Relc saw Valeterisa brush at her face. Not because she had tears; the wind was getting hair in her face.

“—Sounds like you made a choice and did what you thought was best. People always get on your tail about it.”

He was talking about her, but he meant his daughter, Embria. Strange how her pursuit of magic and his quitting the army for his daughter had so many commonalities.

“Yes. I suppose this is true. I have always listened to that advice. When I first heard it, someone told me being different would always make me unloved. But…‘no visionary has ever seen or said what the rest of the world does’.”

“Sounds like a wise person. Who said that?”

“A Djinni. Named Heorth. He lives in Fissival’s Grand Librarium. And when I was very little, I once got lost and he gave me a book…I kept coming back.”

Perhaps that one encounter had shaped her life. Perhaps she would have always gone to magic from the other people she had known, like Milaw. But Relc listened, fascinated, to the tales of Valeterisa’s youth.

They told stories. That was what Valeterisa found strange. The Isle of Heiste was around them, and they flew up to stare at the clouds they could walk on. Admired the sea life, accepted drinks from the [Familiars], and explored Valmira’s mansion.

But they spoke as much of themselves as of this place, as if the place were so wondrous it became a suitable backdrop for the mundane and personal. Or—maybe it was simply that Valeterisa wanted someone to understand her. She had thought no one could who did not know magic, who had not given their life to it.

Then she looked up at that grinning Drake who would go quiet and clench one fist when she said something she had only told Larracel or Mihaela, or a few others, and he’d look proud of her triumphs. Then—she’d have the incredible desire to take his arm, like an immovable object, warm, feel the blood racing, and whisper a word of magic into his ears.

When he looked at her—it was like the delight of casting a new spell. A thrill that rose like magic surging within her. So she pursued that feeling. Heiste was a very lovely island for that too.

For a day or two, Valeterisa reclaimed something she’d thought she’d passed up in her youth. Which was quite a lot of fun. Montressa told Valeterisa not to give her details, though. So did Larracel, which was hurtful.

 

——

 

“Dead gods. Look at that. And you’re telling me this scrying spell shows us the sea? That’s a whale! Dead gods, that’s a whale!

That night, they ate on the beach with food from the infinite cornucopia, and Wailant stared at an image of the sea floor, lit up, another spectacle by night. There was also a choir of Golems that could perform any music in their memory banks, and Valeterisa had just restored access to a library of books where a familiar would read them out to you and recreate every scene with illusion magic.

“I’m glad you could see this, Relc. Archmage Valmira is one of my most beloved idols. She was an [Archmage] at a time when her contemporaries changed the world, like Igawiz, and was renowned among them all. She dedicated everything to magic, and but for her untimely demise at fifty—she would have been the greatest [Archmage] ever.”

It distressed Valeterisa to know she was older than her inspiration. It was just more proof of how unfocused she was.

Even Ci was sipping from a coconut, and the group demurred when Valeterisa compared herself negatively to the legend of Valmira.

“Archmage Valeterisa, you are one of the greatest [Mages] alive! Valmira was amazing, but she also grew up in a time with grander magic. How can you say you’re not as hardworking?”

“She was more focused. I have so many projects to work on…I cannot even earn enough coin. I do have some, from the Kaalblades and whatnot, but she was richer, more successful, and more magical than I. It is not a bad thing to know this, Mage Montressa.”

Valeterisa was adamant about the facts, but once again…Enchanter Hedault came in with the proverbial steel chair, though his was, in fact, made of wood as he reclined on the beach.

“You say this, Archmage Valeterisa, and I too have read accounts of Valmira’s greatness. But upon visiting Heiste…her wonders of magic are true wonders that endure to this day. Testaments to her superior enchanting ability and magecraft. But what a waste of magic.”

Valeterisa sat upright, eyes flashing.

“A waste? Her Golems functioned perfectly for thousands of years after her death!”

“Yes. Their purpose is to hug you if sad. She has a room dedicated to winning debates long past. One of the magical bedrooms is designed to create a rainstorm if you are upset. There is a room full of objects with infinite [Reconstruction] to break repeatedly. She was an unhappy woman.”

Hedault’s eyes were clear and straightforward, and Valeterisa gazed around as if seeing some of the magic for the first time.

Unhappy? Valmira? Surely not! She had all the power and money in the world. She had stayed on her island and only left to visit Wistram in her later years. Only to…duel other challenging [Mages] to the death…which was how she’d died.

In the silence, everyone avoided looking at Valeterisa, and Bezale coughed.

“Uh—speaking of enchantments, do you need to fix that thing? It hasn’t worked all the time we’ve been here. I swore I saw it moving now and then, but—what is it, Archmage?”

With three people working on the job, most of the island was back to spec far ahead of schedule. Valeterisa glanced over aimlessly, wondering if they’d missed something. Bezale was pointing to a contraption only six feet tall, but oddly made. It was…well, it was a series of rings that were motionless as they sat on the beach. Even the wind hadn’t moved them.

“Oh, that. That is a magical…weathervane. It reacts to mana. If there were a mana surge or something, it would react. Go stand next to it, Bezale.”

The Minotauress hesitated, then walked over and jumped back as the rings began to swing around in a complex pattern. It reacted to her mana! It wasn’t very active, and when Montressa joined Bezale, the movement picked up speed until it became an active, hypnotizing pattern.

Bezale had very low mana reserves and was embarrassed, but the other [Mages] came by. Hedault had decent reserves, but Grimalkin had the most and grunted as the spinning accelerated.

“Hey, it’s got nothing with me—though the spear gets a reaction. Archmage, come over!”

Valeterisa sighed, but walked over, and the spinning became very rapid in her presence. It halted when she reached for it, and the quivering metal was cool to the touch.

Another useless object? Well, she supposed this was good to detect some elements of magic. Valeterisa gazed up at the Isle of Heiste.

Lonely. But capable of great magic. She supposed it was a warranted critique of her favorite Archmage. Especially when several Golem-Servants, two [True Familiars], and a Cuddle Golem found the group and began applauding for no reason.

“Well done, Archmage Valmira!”

“You’ve worked hard today! Will you have a glass of water? You must stay hydrated!”

“You have 10,562 pieces of mail from your adoring fans! Would you like me to read an archived message at random?”

That did seem egregious.

 

——

 

Thus passed two very enjoyable days at Heiste. Very little actual time was spent fixing the isle. It really was something that took little effort—but only one or two people in the world could do it.

Valeterisa spent the rest of that time exploring the island with Relc and the others, availing herself of Valmira’s wonders and even playing ‘tag’ with the Cuddle Golems.

…Which was less fun than you might imagine because they were a second line of defense for Valmira’s island. Seeing one of them race after Ci and nearly catch the terrified horse was bad enough—then it came for them.

If Valeterisa had one complaint, it was that this was, again, not magical improvement. She would have kept this to herself or just complained to Montressa, but this group was open enough that she let it out at the campfire.

“I do enjoy the company here. But I feel…I apologize if this is a selfish complaint, but I never have enough time to study magic. I realize this is foolish, but—”

She got no further because, at this, every [Mage] sitting around the fire burst out laughing.

Grimalkin, Salamani, Viceria, Palt, Montressa, Hedault, Bezale—even little Nanette giggled herself silly. Valeterisa grew rather hurt because Imani and Wailant had joined in until Viceria dabbed at her eyes.

“Oh, Archmage—I’m glad you said it. Because I’ve complained to Wailant about that for years. Time? I never have enough time!”

“No one does. Between my apprentices, my work for Pallass, my own studies of the body—I’ve been guilty about it since the Wyvern attack.”

Valeterisa stared around and realized that her lone struggle was, in fact, the commonality between all [Mages]. From Palt to Montressa, all of them were just busy. With relationships, with jobs, with little inconveniences!

“If anything, I admire you, Archmage Valeterisa. You have always been the [Mage] who gave it all to magic. You sacrificed it all for that. I couldn’t. I don’t know if I would, but you did, and that’s why I always wanted to meet you.”

Viceria confessed shyly, and Valeterisa was so unable to handle the compliment she almost flew away. They ended up talking, frankly, about the struggle.

“Even in Wistram, I understand why you left, Archmage. You’d think the Academy of Mages would have time, but you’re attending banquets, teaching students, playing politics—why, I’m glad I left. When I saw you lifting Fissival…that was real magic.”

“It shook the City of Incantations up, I can tell you that. It was an inspiration. A reminder how insular and petty our institutions of magic are.”

Grimalkin agreed. Valeterisa didn’t know where to turn and pressed her palms to her cheeks with a cooling spell. Relc had a proud smile on his face as his tail twined around her leg, and Nanette raised a hand.

“Excuse me. I have always wanted to know—what are Fissival and Wistram like, truly? Montressa described Fissival as—haughty. With second-class citizens, and I have heard Wistram spoken of by the Horns as…as prejudiced against [Necromancers], but it is also Wistram. Can you tell me what it’s like?”

There, at least, Valeterisa could speak.

“I have been to multiple magical schools, not just Fissival and Wistram. I have been to Chandrar and Izril and Baleros and Terandria and Rhir, and each one had a different focus. I wish I had gone to Drath…Fissival is different. The city has faults, and it is still a Walled City, but the Scholarium is the heart of the city. Imagine…an entire city dedicated to catering to magical needs. Paper making, imports of materials, a Watch for defense. The city prizes magic.”

“But so does Wistram.”

Nanette pointed out reasonably, and Valeterisa nodded. She had created an image of Fissival as she knew it from above, a vast city, but now she produced images of Wistram’s shifting corridors, the libraries, and of course—

“Secrets. Wistram is more like a place of secrets and discovery, Nanette. It is where you search for old mysteries and trade in them. This is not all the differences between the two, but it is a theme, even if they change by generations. The Academy of a Hundred Thousand Tomes in Nerrhavia is more akin to an ancient library. You delve down and study—but never overcome—the weight of all that knowledge.”

Each one had great aspects to love and reasons why they had driven her away. Viceria agreed softly.

“Yes, Wistram is amazing—but I wouldn’t tell you to go there, Nanette. Not as a [Witch]. You see, like the Gnolls, we tend to ignore what isn’t proven. Naturally, the greatest [Mages] break with tradition, and we pretend it was our idea all along. There is a reason I never pushed for Garia to go there.”

Valeterisa had honestly…not known Viceria had a child, but Imani was curious.

“That reminds me. Why didn’t you teach Garia magic, Viceria? She’s always been more like, well, Wailant. She says she barely knows any magic.”

The [Green Mage] shrugged.

“We just never pushed her. What was I to do? Put Garia on a path to Wistram? Wistram Academy? That…is not what I thought might be best for my daughter.”

“Why not? Even if she doesn’t become a full graduate—”

Montressa protested, mildly shocked. Viceria raised her brows.

“If she didn’t become a full graduate, how many years would she waste, Miss Montressa? She would have no experience in the real world, as I didn’t before I met Wailant—and Wistram is not kind to those without talent. It is often not kind to those with talent.”

This was very true, and Valeterisa’s head sank, but Palt had been smoking merrily on a cigar, enjoying the talk, and Imani slapped a puffer he was offering Nanette into the fire.

“Oh, come on. I think if you get out of Wistram you’re fine. Who here wasn’t talented in some way that Wistram saw?”

His self-assured comment elicited silence from Valeterisa, Montressa, and even Bezale and Salamani, but Viceria raised a hand, as did Grimalkin and Hedault.

Palt hesitated, cleared his throat, and turned red.

“I—er—oh. But you didn’t go to Wistram, Magus Grimalkin!”

The Drake took his time in replying. He glanced at Viceria, whose shake of the head said it all. Not kind to the untalented? Valeterisa wondered what stories the two might share. Fissival was much the same, but it was unkind to the untalented—and non-Drakes. Grimalkin, though…

“I applied. Fissival has an exchange program. In my second year, I interviewed before a panel of [Mages]. If you’re from another academy, you can try to get in for a year, or as a full student. I had an entire paper on my theory about muscles and physical magic. Not polished, but it was there. I had served in Pallass’ army; I had experience.”

His voice trailed off, and he looked bitter.

“Right before me was a man from Terandria. A first-year student without nearly as much research, but he said what the panel wanted to hear. Wistram was the finest institution, the Libertarians—he knew some people at Wistram, and he wanted stronger ties to Terandria—Mage Rievan, I remember. I’ll never forget it. I went and gave my presentation, and I knew it was good.”

Grimalkin sat there. Then he shrugged, and Valeterisa knew what he’d say.

“Afterwards, they announced he had the slot. When I asked why, the oldest [Mage] got up and said, ‘Young [Mage]. Wistram is a place where students come to learn. Not for those who believe they are already ready to teach.’ And that was it.”

Salamani shook his head, and Palt looked mildly aghast. That anyone had turned down Grimalkin, the Sinew Magus who had proven his school of magic worked, seemed stupid now—but Valeterisa could just imagine it.

As for Hedault? The [Enchanter]’s story was even simpler.

“I was an established [Enchanter] when I considered I should learn magic as was described to me as…proper. Superior. I had no problem passing the entrance exams, but when I arrived at Wistram, my instructors reprimanded me to the point where I quit. They claimed enchanting was one thing. I had studied artifacts of old, and I informed them their methods were not superior to the ones that had gone before. Therefore, I left. Later on, Archmage Nailihuaile, ignorant of this fact, offered me entrance to Wistram due to my acclaim. I refused.”

Salamani wondered aloud as he shook his head.

“How many good [Mages] has Wistram turned down over the years, I wonder? I left and cast [Haste] and became a Courier. My peers laughed at me until they realized I was a famous Courier and they were just…[Mages] of Wistram.”

Palt was so abashed he apologized, but his bias was, well, Wistram’s. The conversation swung back to magic itself; now that they had a chance to ask, everyone did want to know about magic from the greatest [Mage] here: Valeterisa. Unfortunately, her mastery of spells wasn’t what Valeterisa found admirable. She might well know more spells than all the [Mages] here combined—but that was not the same as mastery of magic.

The other [Mages] listened as Valeterisa sighed.

“I…thought I could perform my studies alone. But I was trapped against my limitations. My great work is unfinished, and the two projects I have begun in Liscor will not be complete—or the teleportation network—before I return to Wistram.”

“Your great work. What was that, Valley?”

Relc was chewing on some of the dinner, and everyone else went quiet. Relc looked around, and Salamani coughed.

“Relc, that’s, uh—probably a big secret. Spells are one thing. You can tell people you know them, but Valeterisa’s speaking of magical techniques. Any single one is a huge advantage. You could say Magus Grimalkin knows one technique he’s honed over his life.”

The Sinew Magus flexed, nodding.

“Knowing a spell is different from internalizing a method of magic. I have triumphed over countless peers because when we were matched spell-for-spell, I could draw on the magic ingrained in my muscles, regenerate my wounds to a very limited extent.”

He paused.

“Or just punch them. That tends to work amazingly well.”

Relc nodded.

“Sorry, Valley.”

“Hm? Oh, I don’t mind. I have not succeeded after eight years, so it matters little. My grand magic would have let me do any number of things. Haven’t I ever mentioned what it was?”

Montressa’s head snapped around so fast she was in need of a [Restoration] spell. Everyone turned to Valeterisa, and she supposed she’d never mentioned it. She spoke as Hedault gave her a curious stare.

“It is called…[Auto Spell] is the old name of the Skill, but the true way to phrase it would be self-continuing magic. For instance, I cast [Light Arrow].”

She flicked an arrow of light up.

“I can cast a hundred [Light Arrows] or spells for a thousand. But I must do it. Automatic magic would cast that spell or do something for me without the need for my participation. The [Mages] of old who knew it could create complex spells.”

Grimalkin exhaled.

“Tier 5 magic. They could use minor magics and build entire spell circles in moments. Ancestors, you were ambitious.”

Valeterisa smiled briefly and sadly.

“The problem was that reaching magical theory without a level is…difficult. Beyond difficult. Eight years I sat trying to learn the theory.”

“What, is it like you needed to have the right inspiration or something?”

Wailant was munching along, following this magical discussion. Valeterisa decided to heck with it.

“No. At first, I thought that was it. But I realized…how would you create a spell like that?”

She put it to her audience, and no one had a good idea.

“Melding…some chronomancy…no, I guess it’s like a familiar spell or…”

Palt scratched his head, and Valeterisa nodded.

“Exactly. But how does one deconstruct a familiar spell into the component parts? I do not mean dispelling it or destroying it. Do you know how…[Summon Lesser Familiar] works?”

No one here even knew how to cast the spell. But even if they had…Valeterisa explained the second problem.

“I did not know the magic I employed. From basic fire spells to even grander magics. How does [Valmira’s Comet] work? How does fire work? Slowly, I began to re-teach myself every spell I knew. Until I understood that the spells of today, nay, the magic of modern mages itself is not magic as it was once practiced. It is closer to…Explorer’s Magic.”

What an insult. What a travesty! Only Hedault seemed to understand Valeterisa’s comment. But Nanette was lying with her head propped in her hands, fascinated, drinking it in.

“What’s that, Archmage?”

“Explorer’s Magic, Nanette, is what old adventurers learned. They would delve for books, for spell scrolls, and teach themselves magic without understanding it. As one takes a template for a sword blank and can thus make the copy of a sword. They do not understand it. Our spells are much like this: we put mana into the correct blueprint, but we do not understand what we do. I…retaught myself this magic, but even now, I cannot achieve the next step.”

She had spent eight years to gain little in the way of additional magical power or spells, but to instead ground herself in magical basics. And in the end—she was limited by other concerns.

“Magical power is another factor. There are countless spells we are capable of, even with Explorer’s Magic! But even an Archmage’s mana is limited. For instance, one of the projects I was working on in The Wandering Inn was copying the [Gardens of Sanctuary]. The dimensional aspect of them.”

Grimalkin’s eyes gleamed, and Hedault tapped his fingers together interestedly. The [Enchanter] looked embarrassed.

“I have experimented with that in the past. Failed attempts.”

“As have I. But I barely made a small area.”

Valeterisa nodded.

“Mana constraints. I was attempting to, ah…make more room for my book collection in my bedroom.”

At some point, it had become a full-scale project trying to emulate Erin Solstice’s [Garden of Sanctuary]. Valeterisa sighed as she realized it wouldn’t get off the ground—not with the time she had left.

“I only wish I had a space for me. Not my mansion. Somewhere…with people around. Experts.”

She snuck a glance at Relc, but she also meant, well, Hedault. The [Enchanter] would have been invaluable on projects, and Valeterisa was ready for him to scowl at her and remind her about the window incident. But Hedault just nodded.

“A place of isolation where I can exit and interact with clients or the world beyond as I please—but my own. I well understand this, Archmage Valeterisa. I was reminded recently of the inequities of those with control and those without.”

He scowled so fiercely they had to ask him about it. Hedault looked at Valeterisa.

“Do you recall the state of disarray my workspace was in?”

She gave him a blank look.

“I thought the boxes everywhere were your method.”

The [Enchanter]’s scowl made it clear they were not.

“I am, in fact, moving out of my apartment. I had resided there for over a decade, but circumstances have forced me to make unappealing choices. I have chosen the lesser of them.”

Nanette was shocked and worried. Was he leaving Invrisil after the Solstice?

“What? Why?

The [Enchanter] answered in one word.

“Rent. Due to my success, the owner I had leased the building from elected to raise my rent far higher than I felt was fair. Negotiations failed, and I was served with an ultimatum. I elected to leave—at which point the rates fell to a price I could tolerate. However, once I realized such a situation could come again, I elected to depart either way. I am currently seeking lodgings in Esthelm. Or Liscor.”

That was entirely unpleasant, and Valeterisa remembered the same sort of thing when she was younger.

“This is why you buy an island.”

Hedault gave her a half-nod.

“I considered it, but my job requires proximity to adventurers.”

“Oh, oh, Master Hedault! I know somewhere that could offer you room and board! And—”

Hedault’s head swung around to Nanette.

“The Wandering Inn is chaotic, has an unrepentantly nosy little Gnoll, and is often attacked or has loud events going on. No.”

He shot Nanette down instantly, and her face fell, but now he’d gotten the ball rolling, even Salamani was nodding.

“I can empathize about not having space to practice magic. Outside of Wistram, getting a spellbook means paying adventurer prices. But I can’t just jaunt over to Wistram, and Fissival isn’t exactly close or friendly either. I thought about paying into a local cabal of [Mages], but that can be a disaster. All the egos and sharing…and you know, magic isn’t that strong in Izril.”

Viceria offered around another bottle of wine, remorseful.

“There are enough [Mages]. But not always enough schools. Particularly in the north. When I saw all those children lining up to see Valeterisa—you know, even little Mrsha and Miss Nanette herself don’t have adequate teaching. There is that [Druid] who’s holding lessons, but she doesn’t teach magic. I’ve heard that little Drake, Visma, begging for magic lessons. From Mrsha! I would have put Garia in a school if there was a good one, but otherwise, it was just me. And that’s no good.”

“Why not? You’re a splendid [Green Mage], Miss Viceria!”

Montressa protested, and Viceria raised a brow.

“Mage Montressa, even if that were so—a [Mage] is not a good [Teacher]. I am one very specialized magical school. Teaching a variety of magic? I would want spellbooks, a dedicated place in case of accidents, other teachers…only Magus Grimalkin has any kind of acceptable experience, and he is quite spartan, if you’ll forgive me, Sinew Magus.”

Imani chimed in as Grimalkin agreed, blushing faintly.

“That’s right! If I could learn magic, I would love to, but it’s just difficult.”

“What? My beloved unshod darling! I could have taught you!”

Palt yelped, totally shocked by the revelation. In response, Imani gave him a level look with her one good eye.

“Palt, I know you’re very good at magic, but you would be a terrible teacher. You alternate between buttering me up or smoking out a problem, and I would want someone who would tell me to my face when I’m doing something wrong. Remember the quiche you kept saying was perfect?

He looked crestfallen. Montressa and Bezale assured Imani they could give her pointers, but that wasn’t the issue, was it?

Valeterisa had a moment of…thought. The same thought she’d had in Fissival, that idea in the back of her mind—she closed her eyes. Then she turned to Imani.

“If you wish to learn magic, I can teach you how to start. Have you ever cast a spell?”

Imani hesitated.

“N-no. Never myself. I’ve been guided, but—I’d love to learn.”

Valeterisa smiled.

“Then I shall teach you in the best way I know. [Darkness].”

The lights went out. The beach, the Isle of Heiste, the fire, all vanished, leaving perfect and complete darkness. Of course, several of the [Mages] could see, but Imani cried out.

“Wait, I can’t see—”

“I’ve got you, Iman—”

Palt tried to grab her, and Bezale moved him out of the way. Valeterisa spoke as Imani felt around and found a wand on the sand.

“Are you afraid of the dark, Chef Imani?”

“When I remember the Cr—Crelers. Yes.”

Imani was panting a bit. Valeterisa reached down, and Imani flinched, but the Archmage simply took one hand.

“Then think of light. Concentrate on the wand. You have to want light. Desperately.”

“Just want it?”

Imani’s voice was warbling, but Valeterisa sensed her clutching the wand, and the Archmage’s voice was calm.

“Yes. Elemental magic is linked. Light must come from darkness. Fire cannot rage without fuel. Ice mages must have a temper to master it. Fear the darkness—and grasp the dream of light. The more you want it, the easier it will be.”

“But how do I cast the spell?

Imani was panicking, despite her hand in Valeterisa’s, and the Archmage replied.

“Magic is something you feel. I am full of it.”

In the distance, the magical sensor began to light up, and Valeterisa ignited her mana. Thick as blood—so intense Imani gasped and flinched away. But Valeterisa gave none of it to Imani. Now she sensed it…

“Magic is a thought. A word. A deed. It can be anything—in the old language of [Mages], the word for light can be used as an incantation. Say it—”

She whispered it to Imani, and the [Chef] gasped.

Lux!

It was just a spark. In fairness, it probably was easier from Valeterisa’s overbearing mana, but the spark came from Imani, and the wand flared to life.

Sunlight, a ray of it, shone upwards, cutting through the [Darkness] spell as Valeterisa dispelled it, and it lit up the night sky as Imani’s eye widened, fixing on it. Palt stared upwards, cigar fallen from his mouth, and Viceria clapped in delight.

Valeterisa was smiling as she sat down.

“That’s how I was taught, long ago. Only, it was a Djinni who covered my eyes and told me how to do it.”

“But you didn’t teach her how to control your mana flows or—or use the wand or anything, Archmage!”

Palt was amazed and gratified as Imani hugged him in delight, but surprised. Valeterisa shook her head.

“Technique does not matter the first time. Only passion.”

“I never would have expected that of you. I read several of your books, Valeterisa, and they were amazingly technical. I had no idea you could use [Measure Distance] like that—your spells are infamously complex. I thought of you as a very, well, academic [Mage].”

Grimalkin blinked at Valeterisa. She gave him a miffed look.

“The joy is implicit in anything magical. Surely I wrote that down somewhere?”

She had not, but that won a smile from Hedault, and Valeterisa looked at Imani, who blinded Palt with her ray of sunlight.

“I do feel like a wizard! Now I want to be a [Mage]!”

She called out, and Valeterisa sighed.

“It would be…wonderful if I could set up an academy somewhere. Near Liscor, probably. Higher up, perhaps in the High Passes. Secure, of course, against monsters. With magical shielding. And access to the door. A place for students and masters.”

She was thinking of the [Clockmaker], Master Milaw. The other artisans. It was a dream she had brought from Fissival, and when they heard that…

Viceria, Salamani, Palt, Montressa, Bezale, Grimalkin, and even Hedault, all [Mages] with their own reasons to keep distant from Wistram, looked at Valeterisa.

It was not her dream alone. Viceria stared at Valeterisa and whispered.

“That’s what I thought when I saw you lifting the City of Incantations, Archmage. I thought…if anyone could teach magic, it might be you.”

“If only.”

“Why not try? I must admit, if you offered a lesson, I would go to it myself, Archmage. Or even if there was a place to collaborate…”

Grimalkin himself was taken by the notion. As if he too had considered leaving Pallass. But the problem was there was no funding. Valeterisa sighed.

“I do not have enough gold.”

A simple answer, and Salamani looked abashed.

“Ah. Is that my fault, Archmage?”

She smiled vaguely at him.

“No. Not just yours. I have thought about it, Mage Salamani. There are [Witches], a [Sorcerer] in First Landing, Larracel…there is magic here to be studied. A place for collaboration, of quiet and teamwork—that is a worthwhile dream.”

Hedault was looking at Valeterisa, as if for once they were on the same page. Valeterisa whispered.

“…And I could build it. I thought Magnolia Reinhart would fund some of it, but it should be apart from anyone’s control. Neutral. Comfortable too with big, fluffy armchairs and…and good food. Not Yellats.”

Imani was glancing up, and Valeterisa imagined someone who could make good food all the time. There were so many pieces. She even had the ability to make dimensional magic…but she had not enough mana. And worse? Not enough gold.

“I have two things I must buy before I die. Such a place to live—my mansion is not comfortable anymore. It is too far away. And the second is a promise. I cannot afford either, yet. Maybe in another decade.”

She looked so wistful as she sat there, dreams unfulfilled, as if she could see the opportunity she had helped bring about slipping away. Here sat a woman who might be able to lift all of Heiste overhead—but she could not eat magic. And magic could not do everything.

Yet. Nanette’s eyes were shining as she lay there, and the other [Mages] were wistful, but Relc asked the salient question, as he always did.

“What’s the promise, Valley?”

She looked at him, and Valeterisa’s smile was sad as she packed away her dreams of an academy.

“Oh, that one comes first, Relc. Before I can buy an academy…I must save up. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands of gold pieces. Milaw may never move to my academy of magic. He may die—and so will I before I solve aging and death. But before I die, I must buy a librarian. The librarian of Fissival. Heorth.”

Grimalkin inhaled and Relc blinked, because only those two understood what that meant—and the others had to be told who that was. The great keeper of Fissival’s librarium—Heorth. The Djinni who had taught a girl long ago how to do magic.

“It is illegal to free Djinnis, of course. So I would not free him. Just…forbid him from accepting orders until I died.”

Fissival had laughed at her several times when a younger Valeterisa had asked how much it might cost. Which meant that she just had to have enough money to make even Drakes go silent.

Dreams, possibilities flickering around so tantalizing and yet so impossible to grasp, like magic itself, sat on the beach of Heiste. Valeterisa indulged in them a while. It was good to be passionate and remember why you did such things.

Only that little scamp—and there were two—that little witch without a hat stared up at all those dreams and didn’t have an adult’s cynicism. She spoke like her mother and her mentor, Erin Solstice, and Valeterisa’s skin chilled in a pleasant way.

“Archmage. If you could create a great academy, hire the world’s finest librarian, and maybe make a place for Hedault—even if it was hard—even if there were…complications…”

Hedault was frowning at Nanette, and Valeterisa turned her head, remembering some oddities at the inn. Nanette made no promises, but her eyes danced, brown and merry, like she had a great magic of her own.

“…What kind of place of learning would you want to create?”

Everything waited on Valeterisa’s reply. The Archmage of Izril sat there, meeting the girl’s eyes, then looked around at Heiste, a lonely island of wonders. She thought of Wistram, of Fissival, of places she had been, of her own mansion, and her answer was different than when she had been a girl.

The same in many ways—but the perspective was different. The girl said…

The Archmage said…

“To me, the great institution of magic would be a place where a young girl could walk into those halls and an Archmage could take her by the hand and show her wonders never dreamed of. A place where anyone could enter and delve into the heart of magic as long as they needed. And when they left, it would be waiting for their return. Just that. Magic itself, echoing down every hallway.”

Her dream floated before her vision—then she came to herself and blushed. But the others sitting around the fire applauded her, and then the stupid Cuddle Golems joined in—and the little witch looked up at Valeterisa. Untrained. A witch indeed, but…

“I’d like to learn that magic from you, Archmage Valeterisa.”

So the Archmage gingerly held out her hand, and a beaming girl took it. And she whispered into Valeterisa’s ear.

Wait until we get back to the inn, Archmage. Miss Lyonette might want to talk to you.

What a [Princess] could do…well, Valeterisa thought about that sentence, and she decided to hold onto hope.

 

——

 

The next day, they left the Isle of Heiste. Of course, Valeterisa had to collect her pay first.

House Wellfar was not about to give her more than gold. She tried to haggle for even a single spell or Golem, and in the end, Valeterisa lucked out.

“What about—that?”

The [Lady of Waves] was trying to shove a bag of gold into Valeterisa’s hands. She turned, squinted, and then went off to mutter with some of her fellow nobles.

“Er—that? I suppose we could give…that to you. No one really needs that.

That was how Valeterisa ended up flying back with the magic-sensor, much to her delight. Montressa was staring at the bag of gold they’d left behind, but Nanette assured Valeterisa it was a splendid idea.

There was some debate about going to Valeterisa’s mansion to pick up Hedault’s hat, but everyone was tired of teleportation-sickness, so they headed back to Liscor instead. Valeterisa found herself sorry to say goodbye to the other [Mages], and when they said they should do this again…she realized she meant it.

Nanette ran to find Lyonette, bursting with some idea, and Valeterisa hoped she didn’t have to tell Nanette that a few gold coins in savings wouldn’t be enough for all of Valeterisa’s plans. She did apologize about the Acid Fly incident to Lyonette as the [Princess] whispered to Nanette.

“You what? She what? Cuddle Golems? Well—okay. That’s actually not—er, welcome back, Archmage, Relc! Stay out of the basement, would you?”

They’d boarded the basement off for some reason. Relc glanced at Ishkr, who was nailing the last board into place.

“You got a monster problem? I could take care of it.”

“What? No! We just had an, uh—floor collapse. Lots of water down there.”

The Gnoll wiped at his brow, and Relc shook his head.

“Now floors are going? Dead gods, you should get the Antinium to look at that. Hey, Heiste was great. Look what Valley brought!”

Everyone stared at the magic-sensor as Hedault, sighing, spoke to Grimalkin about the costs of renting a place in Pallass. The Sinew Magus helped put the sensor down outside; it was too big for Valeterisa’s room, and she was frankly concerned about her floor imploding.

“We must talk dimensional magic, Archmage. And frankly, I’ll volunteer a room to see your mana experiment in my mansion.”

Grimalkin shook hands with Valeterisa, and even Hedault chimed in.

“I would not be adverse to seeing that either and would help with the construction of the room. For due compensation. For my hat as well as my window.”

Valeterisa was so pleased by this she nodded to him, and Lyonette bustled over, trying to recruit Hedault to the inn. A lost cause, but they were talking magical compression. Valeterisa gestured with her hands.

“I could actually make a smaller bounded dimension. Say, double the size of my room with limited risk of sudden expansion, but the mana cost takes days of saving up. And hitherto now, I didn’t have a way to store magic reliably.”

Grimalkin nodded, flipping to his notes to show her his experiments, which corroborated her understanding.

“Fascinating. So you can now fuel powerful spells…if you can solve the storage issue. Which of course is a recursive problem. You need a safe space first…”

Hedault lifted a hand, feeling at his Bag of Holding.

“That has been my experience as well. I suppose since Archmage Valeterisa is sharing her knowledge, I must admit—I cannot create powerful enchantments beyond my mana capacity. And I have actually been studying some truly unique magic—

He pulled out some stones written with magical symbols, and Valeterisa almost stole them then and there. Grimalkin’s eyes popped.

“What is—it’s magic, but those symbols—

“Ryoka Griffin. If only we could study these…privately.”

The three [Mages] looked at each other. Grimalkin folded his arms.

“If all three of us linked and we had, say, Salamani, Viceria, all three younger [Mages]…we might be able to create a single bounded room doubling Valeterisa’s current one. Mana requirements indeed. Any actual academy or building must be physically constructed. Either the Archmages of old had enough mana to lift islands overhead or there was an efficiency or something we don’t have.”

It was a puzzle. Valeterisa stood there until she heard a cry from outside.

Argh! Hey! Back up! Back—

“Archmage, your object is attacking someone! Help! Help! I warned you about this!”

My—Valeterisa ran downstairs and found Lyonette screaming. Someone was fleeing as the magic-sensor whirled around, so fast that it was generating waves in the air—and the central ring had turned red. It was projecting a ray of light that followed a swearing, running Drake.

I come to the inn for one second—I don’t have time for this!

Saliss of Lights was diving around, trying to dodge the beam. He was alarmed, and Valeterisa fussed around the enchantment—it went still as she approached. It wasn’t enchanted to injure someone.

But she had never seen it react like that! Not even to her magical presence! Saliss jogged over, panting.

“Is that an attack spell? Please tell me it is. The inn needs some of that.”

“No—it’s a magical sensor. Are you carrying something that is intensely magical, Saliss?”

“Me? I’ve got tons of exploding potions, but you should be more magical than…wait. Wait…”

Saliss’ eyes narrowed. He felt at something and pulled out a heavy box that had a huge padlock on it. He grunted as he put it down.

“I was just coming here to visit Hedault, actually. I have a job for him. Reactivate that thing, would you?”

Valeterisa took her hand away, and the spinning resumed instantly. Everyone backed away as the red line aimed straight down instead of at Saliss. No…wait. There were two lines now, and one was focused on Saliss’ bag of holding, the other on the cube.

What had that much magic in it? Valeterisa bent over the cube, and Saliss licked his lips as he snatched it back from her.

“Well, nevermind if it’s good in enchantments. I’ll just, uh—see you!”

“Wait. What’s in the box? What’s in that box?

Mrsha, Valeterisa, and Hedault all suddenly needed to know. Grimalkin was staring at the magical sensor, which was claiming there was more magic in something Saliss had than all of Valeterisa’s body. 

Like a magical…fuel. For spells. Or enchantments. Or potions. Saliss pulled with all his might, then grinned as he gave them an answer.

“What’s in the box? Seith. You want to buy some? Hundred thousand gold per piece.”

He stepped back, smug, as Valeterisa recognized the word and wondered how hard it would be to mug Saliss of Lights. Lyonette looked from Valeterisa to Nanette to Ishkr and glanced back at the inn.

“How many pieces do you have? I’ll take two.”

Saliss stared at Lyonette, looking genuinely taken aback for a second—before he smirked, slicked back his neck-spines, and offered her the box.

“Excellent! Always happy to have a repeat customer. Also, you gave me the seith in the first place in the urn, but hey, you can have this bit from the lab in Albez. That will be one hundred thousand gold pieces, please.”

He really should have known better. But the naked Drake saw only the [Princess], not the madness of Erin Solstice peeking out of Lyonette’s eyes, like a bloodstained woman holding a knife.

It was in her smile, too. Lyonette oh-so-sweetly curtseyed and gave Ishkr and Yelroan a significant glance.

“Give us half an hour and you can pick it up from Erin’s [Garden of Sanctuary], Saliss. I do hope your bag of holding is big enough? I’m sure you can take enough trips to your home. Or the Merchant’s Guild.”

Saliss’ smile became uncertain, and Yelroan groaned as he massaged his back.

“This one’s going to hurt.”

Did she have—? Was there a [Garden of Sanctuary] that had—?

The Wandering Inn was terrible about keeping secrets. So, as any good [Princess] or Bird could tell you, you lied with the truth. And Saliss of Lights was now staring at a future that involved transporting a hundred thousand gold pieces…and finding somewhere that wouldn’t collapse under the weight of that much gold.

He was a Named-rank adventurer. The Merchant’s Guild in Pallass would be surprised if he exchanged some, but everyone knew Saliss was rich. A lot less suspicious than if, say, Lyonette of The Wandering Inn went to Liscor with that much gold. And Valeterisa was an Archmage. Archmages had gold.

Saliss hesitated and tried to grab the box of seith back, but Lyonette handed it to Mrsha, who ran away with it. Valeterisa saw Nanette wink at her. And she quite audibly heard Lyonette whisper to Yelroan.

“I must say, this laundering isn’t that hard! It’s almost as easy as laundry itself!”

Then, Valeterisa saw Saliss’ eyes crinkle up as he grinned with sheer delight—before thinking of a way to turn this into an annoyance. And she?

She dreamed of wild, crazy, and perhaps just a bit insane magic again. Her head rose…and she thought that mountain looked quite nice. If you were going to build anywhere, that was.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

I write to you today about [Witches]. Who also do magic. I have begun my editing of Book 12—and yet I had this chapter prepped and ready to go, so I hope you will be adequately entertained.

Editing is hard work. But I think I see the path forwards to making the story well, more fascinating as it pertains to witches and I’ll definitely update and let you know what comes of it. As for this chapter?

Magic is always fun to write. I don’t always get into the technical aspects of it, but Valeterisa is, in a way, the best character to practice it. Possibly because she never quite loses the sense that magic is magic.

I could wish to have that in my life for writing. And in fact, I used to hate the process and now look at me; I’ve gotten that problem Terry Pratchett talks about where sometimes the writing itself is fun. It’s sick, unnatural, and I’m profoundly grateful for it since it’s one of the few things about me that’s redeeming. Much like Valeterisa?

This analogy has gone too far. I wonder what you see in the Archmage of Izril? Let me know and wish me luck; by the next chapter I will be deep into the edits and upon my keyboard, or seeing victory.

 

 

Delicious in Dungeon Crossover and Service by Duchcess Ivory!

 

Landshark, Poke Duo, and Hedag by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

Landshark by Artsynada!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

 

Goblinhome by adventurer!

 

Hawk and Relc by OrionWolf’s daughter!

 

Hedag by Yootie!

 

Mavika by Guliver!

 

Infinitypear by Lime!

 


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