10.11 H – The Wandering Inn

10.11 H

(I am on vacation in another country! I will be taking my break early and have a chapter on the 27th for you!)

 

 

Did you know what the Claiven Earth reminded Ceria Springwalker, a half-Elf, of?

Not home, that was certain. Hah!

She walked through the balmy forest underneath vast trees grown in imitation of the ancient forests, in hopes one day they might become Treants or World Trees—strung with bridges and even tree-homes built on the branches.

It looked like what you imagined a half-Elven city to be like. Arboreal. Filled with too much woodworking; wood bent or magically grown to do what you could more easily accomplish with steel. Lots of tree houses.

A nightmare for any half-Elves who were actually afraid of heights. If Ceria turned her head, she could see half-Elves striding along the central ‘city’ of the Claiven Earth set amongst the oldest trees. If she stepped down from these lofty heights, she could reach smaller sub-communities and villages, but the city here probably contained a third of the Claiven Earth’s population in this unique Chandrarian nation. Their vertical buildings had been built up two hundred feet off the ground already on the trees. And what trees.

Any one might be over four hundred feet tall, which was insane, but the Claiven Earth was a small plot of land. It had a lot of vertical real estate. Oh, and they were so wide around that you could find cracks or divots large enough to create homes in.

In fact! Giant trees like these were huge hazards to themselves. Consider what kind of species might be four hundred feet tall and have the diameter of a skyscraper from Earth. You know what a wood-eating beetle called that? Food for it and all its friends for the rest of their lives.

Thus, you had to understand that what was in the Claiven Earth wasn’t the glorious, magical trees of old, but freakish hybrids of overfed trees carefully and obsessively tended-to by their owners. Left alone, they’d probably turn into rotten, insect-ridden corpses split by lightning or wind within the decade.

Magical trees, or so Ceria had always been told, were scary as Rhir’s hells, and half-Elves honored to live amongst them were on their best behavior. Claiven Earth’s trees? Big. Had lots of chirping wildlife—few insects—some even bore huge fruits or had the scents from perfumed bark. Idealistic, lovely monoliths of a gentle forest.

“Grandma always said her great grandma remembered saplings of real magical trees would smack the heck out of anything that got close. Or had poison ivy bark. You pee on the wrong tree and a Dryad comes out and breaks your kneecaps. That’s a forest.”

Ceria idly spat some seeds over one of the tree bridges. She still liked the Claiven Earth; it was really neat. It was like what half-Elves thought real, ancient half-Elven civilization should look like.

As a representative of an actual half-Elven village, Ceria had to say: the Claiven Earth was a lot nicer-looking. Her village had trees, but they were ordinary, got rot and fungi, and the forests were miserable to live in as a kid with no bushcraft skills. These? She imagined she could walk into this forest and come out with a bounty of fruits and an animal companion.

In fact, Ceria actually tried that. She stopped chomping on a banana, and as she headed towards a bridge leading up to the house she and Yvlon had been temporarily granted, she held it out.

“Pst. Hey, you want a banana?”

A very cute passing bird with white feathers and a golden tail stopped, chirped, and instantly began pecking at the banana. It was clearly used to strangers, and Ceria watched as it hopped onto her hand.

“Aw, how cute.”

The half-Elf let it rest on her wrist. The bird rubbed its head against a finger as Ceria patted it on the head, then took hold of it by the wings.

“Now that’s an easy lunch.”

The bird made a shrill sound of alarm, and a passing half-Elf boy stared at Ceria in such horror that the [Cryomancer] let go of the bird. It flew off, shrieking insults, as every half-Elf in range stared at Ceria.

Outsiders. She looks like us, but she has no respect for nature. Is she actually from a half-Elven village?”

One muttered in a tone meant to be heard. A half-Elf wearing an all-natural, all-plant dress with a flower and root-braid securing an amazing head of hair, with strands falling in every direction, turned her nose up at Ceria.

She had style. Her bare shoulders were tanned like most half-Elves’, unlike Ceria’s pale skin. She was beautiful like many half-Elves with access to an entire city’s worth of nature-made cosmetics, and she seemed horrified at Ceria’s treatment of nature; the Dove of Glory actually hid behind her in terror.

Ceria rolled her eyes and called back cheerfully.

“My great grandma was born before the Claiven Earth. You think a real half-Elven village lets an obnoxious, singing bird sit and break the monotony up? Half the elders would shoot the damn thing by breakfast.”

Her smile widened as the debutante gave her a look of horror and disgust. And incredulity; Ceria put her hands behind her head as she strolled onwards and upwards. She called over her shoulder.

Real half-Elves in real old villages don’t dress up and wear all-natural dresses either, just so you know. What’s the point? You’re dressing up for the short-lived races and so people remember you. Forever is the same piece of clothing, in the same wardrobe, for a century.”

She’d had a neighbor who wore the same outfit like that. He’d gotten so disconcerted one time after realizing he’d sewn up one of his shirts with a visible seam that he’d gone and replicated the tear and repair on all his clothing just so it wouldn’t throw everyone off. The other half-Elves stared at Ceria’s back as she skipped ahead.

No, Ceria didn’t miss home at all. And the Claiven Earth reminded her why she hadn’t even lingered in other half-Elven nations like Gaiil-Drome.

The city. The way some of the half-Elves became nature-loving freaks. This was all in pursuit of a vague idea of what Elves should be. To Ceria, it was a more insidious poison than actual toxic beetles.

Who said Elves loved trees? Did they? Was it just one of them like the last Elf Queen? Ceria knew she was getting on the nerves of some of the half-Elves here.

She was, after all, a minor celebrity. She’d been fished up by a boat and instantly escorted here after the battle at sea. They’d patched her up, celebrated their ‘honored sister’ from afar, and then very carefully made sure not to publicly condone any of the actions she’d taken at sea.

Also—the Speaker of the Trees, Lastimeth, had used the last few weeks to grill her about the Crossroads of Izril. Not just him; all the older half-Elves had wined and dined Ceria both individually and in large groups and tried to pressure her into revealing something. Anything.

Since Ceria had her circlet and she was used to it, she’d kept almost everything private. But it hadn’t been fun gathering her strength until Yvlon showed up. Still, there were some perks.

“Captain Ceria! Welcome to the market! Would you care to look at our wares?”

The half-Elf’s ears perked up as she crossed through a commercial market area towards her residence. She stopped, turned, and saw something not unlike an open-air bazaar in Liscor. Half-Elves were displaying carefully arranged artisanal goods at stalls.

Even here, it was part of the act. If you needed a bulk-produced item from Medain or elsewhere, there were Human [Merchants] allowed in who could get you what you wanted. This was for people who took up crafting and enchanting.

The half-Elves here smiled at Ceria, not just because she was loaded with gold. The children Ceria didn’t scare peeked at her, and their parents tried to keep them from talking too long to the Ice Squirrel, a Gold-rank adventurer.

That’s me. Heroine and cool girl to everyone who doesn’t know what it’s like. Ceria scratched at her head as she trotted over to the [Shopkeeper] who’d called her name.

“Hey, what’s on offer today? Wait…are those enchanted canteens? What’s the enchantment? Taste? They make whatever’s inside taste weird?”

She picked up a series of wooden canteens, each one very light and wrapped with a bit of cloth that afforded a nice grip. They could clip onto your belt, but more importantly—the half-Elf [Shopkeeper] blinked.

“That’s, ah—that’s right, Captain Ceria. You have a very good magical eye. Water, in fact. Any water will taste differently. Would you care for a…”

He had a sample he was ready to offer and clean after—but the half-Elf winced as Ceria produced her own water flask, splashed water into a canteen, and took a long sip.

“Whoa. Juice!

She smacked her lips appreciatively as heads turned. Among the half-Elves present, she was the most notable; you could see younger half-Elves wavering, a teenager only thirty-nine years old whispering excitedly to her friends, holding a bow, clearly wanting to ask for tips about being an adventurer.

No one was as iconic as Ceria. In fact, the people in the market barely looked at the half-Elf with white strands in her hair wearing a forest-green tunic embroidered with gold leaf patterns. Ierwyn, the Herald of the Forest, didn’t even wear her sword around on her hip; she kept it hidden in a bag of holding. She had lived here so long people treated her like any other half-Elf most times.

Well—they’d remembered who she was when she’d gone to war against Khelt. But every eye was on Ceria these last few weeks, and Ierwyn didn’t mind that. She watched as Ceria took another gulp and then made a quick decision.

“I’ll take, uh, fifteen.”

The trinket-maker stared at Ceria with a polite smile of disbelief—then of sudden eagerness.

“Fifteen, Captain Springwalker?”

“Sure. Why not? At sixteen silver? Eh, better make it thirty-five. The entire lot. Here.”

Ceria placed thirty gold pieces on the table. She estimated that was good enough. The trinket seller froze, and Ceria waited.

“Hello? Is that good?”

“I—ah—yes. Of course. Thank you, Captain Springwalker.”

Ceria happily began dumping the canteens into her bag of holding. It was another action that earned her the mild censure of those who had never seen an adventurer shop. That didn’t surprise the half-Elf who’d spotted Ceria and observed her.

The Herald of the Forests, Ierwyn, knew that Gold-rank adventurers could spend money like water. What she didn’t understand was why Ceria had bought up so many low-grade canteens, let alone what she did next.

The half-Elf was on an unholy shopping spree. One second she was collecting canteens, the next? She was making a run on bowstrings, packets of seeds, a pair of blown glass window panes, of all things, that reflected a blooming flower as the sunlight shifted over the course of the day, and so many magical items and even children’s toys that shoppers began frantically buying things they needed before Ceria emptied the stock.

“Captain Ceria. May I ask what you’re doing?”

After the eighth gratified and bewildered [Shopkeeper] was counting the gold pieces, Ierwyn approached. Instantly, Ceria looked up.

“Herald Ierwyn. Hi. I’m not in trouble for wrecking the local economy, am I?”

She gave the far older half-Elf an impish grin, and Ierwyn was reminded of…exactly no one at all. She’d met few half-Elves like this. Even her most energetic of cousins or the younger half-Elves she sometimes tutored didn’t have this spark of chaos.

“Not at all. If anything, I’d imagine everyone’s pleased. That is, if you didn’t steal something they were after.”

“Eh, I’ll be gone soon, and I assume more can be made. This is a nice canteen.”

Ceria had just tried the magical effect on one of the water canteens bound with orange-treated fabric that, yes, made the water taste like orange juice. She drank greedily, and Ierwyn raised her brows.

“You, ah, are aware the only effect is taste? It’s not enchanted to preserve the freshness of the water. Or condense more. Or anything else. If you are shopping for good gear, I imagine Medain might have a far better artifact.”

Ceria wiped at her mouth.

“Me? Artifact? Nah; I’m not interested in figuring out what will add to my magical limits for gear. This is just a souvenir. For friends.”

Ierwyn kept staring, and Ceria, with a chuckle, explained something that Ierwyn had never considered.

“It’s a nice canteen. Something that makes boring water taste like a juice? Everyone in Izril that I know would kill for this. Even people like Erin Solstice!”

The [Innkeeper] herself? Both Ierwyn’s and the [Shopkeeper]’s ears perked up at this.

“It sounds like a marketable opportunity.”

Ceria shrugged.

“Yeah, well, if you want to figure out how to mass-produce the canteens, get them all the way over to Izril, and whatnot, be my guests. Me? I’ll settle for thirty-five canteens made in the Claiven Earth. They’ll be a great gift to all my friends—however many there are left alive.”

For a second—just a second—her smile faded. Then she gave Ierwyn a huge wink and a grin, and the Herald exhaled slightly.

“—You are truly an adventurer to the core, Captain Ceria. Not a soldier.”

“I’m pleased you know the difference. The Claiven Earth really is peaceful, isn’t it?”

“It is our pride that even the King of Destruction did not affect us as much as some nations, both before and after his slumber. Though peace is a precarious thing of late. So you’re already thinking of your return to Izril?”

Ceria began heading out of the market, and the two talked as the half-Elves continued towards Ceria’s abode. The [Cryomancer] wagged a finger at Ierwyn.

“Izril? I don’t need to hang onto the canteens or ship them back home to get rid of them. I could probably go to Medain and find people who think these are the greatest ever. And sell them for double or triple what I just bought them for. You really don’t travel a lot for the famous Herald of the Forests, do you?”

Ierwyn was surprised by her own blush. Mostly because Ceria had hit the mark dead on. The younger half-Elf turned and grinned.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“I, ah, two hundred years more or less. I did split my time between campaigning and home quite often when I was more active.”

“Roving around on the campaign as the Herald of the Forests?”

Ierwyn grimaced at the name, but she’d had this conversation literally tens of thousands of times.

“It was an old title that caught on. When the Claiven Earth was less…well regarded, I did indeed make war in distant kingdoms. I was grateful for an end to that, even when the King of Destruction rose to prominence.”

Her reputation, and the Claiven Earth’s earned neutrality, had been part of the reason they’d been spared his empire-spanning wars, even if they had fallen under his aegis. However, Ceria just exhaled.

“Two hundred years? You don’t look a day over…forty-five? For a Human.”

“Ah, well—”

Was that a compliment or not? Half-Elves slowed their rate of aging once they hit their majorities; Ceria looked barely twenty, despite being in her sixties. Ceria clarified after a second.

“—If you were a soldier, you didn’t really visit many of the countries, I’ll bet. So you didn’t buy souvenirs.”

Scars. Sometimes, I’d buy things at a local market, but no, I had no appetite for it. Ierwyn was silent and then coughed.

“I, ah, appreciate seeing someone with a lust for the world, sister. I hope you find the Claiven Earth welcoming, even if we have noted differences in philosophy.”

Ceria glanced at her again, and amusement lit up her features.

“What, the fact that I’m from an older place? Don’t worry about it; it’s all playing pretend at being Elves anyways. But you should have kept travelling, sister. Two hundred years in a place like this? You’re covered in moss.”

Ierwyn didn’t jerk back, and her face didn’t change at the insult, but she did slow a step as Ceria strode up to her apartments. She was wondering how offended she should be. Ceria’s tone was light, even when she mocked their familiar address.

It sounded like a genuine comment, which was arguably even more upsetting. Ierwyn opened her mouth, fell back a step, and thought.

Covered in moss? Oh, she means covered in rust. Me? My swordplay hasn’t fallen behind, even when I fought Khelt’s Revenants.

—But we lost that war badly. Ierwyn had thought a lot about her mistakes and realized that if she had been her old self, she wouldn’t have kept fighting Fetohep’s undying legions at Jecrass. She should have taken a force of riders and attacked Khelt itself. Even if it provoked the full wrath of Khelt. Instead, they’d played into Fetohep’s game and wasted their energy and blood against his forces until he grew tired of the farce and crushed their will to do battle in a moment.

Was that what Ceria meant? Ierwyn eyed the half-Elf from behind.

What a strange sister of the forests. She treated Ierwyn like a familiar half-Elf, which wasn’t just because they were closer in levels than most. She was young; very young by traditional half-Elven standards, but she had both that timelessness and more understanding of the world than Ierwyn, at least in parts.

Yet she was young. And as they walked towards the door of the two-storied tree house set into the side of one of the great trees, Ierwyn glanced at Ceria Springwalker’s circlet. Or rather, the spot she knew there was a circlet—but which even the Herald’s eyes just saw as bare hair.

A relic-grade item. More significantly, a possibly cursed relic-grade item. The true stuff of old adventures. Ceria had stopped using the circlet as a literal doorstop, zipline anchor, and attempting to damage and mistreat it—probably because she’d gotten bored—but it remained a subject of debate among the leaders of the Claiven Earth.

Even Yvlon Byres, Ceria’s companion, agreed something should be done about it. Which was why, as Ceria entered the rooms, swigging from her canteen and calling out, Ierwyn sensed the hidden people.

“Hey, Yv! I’m almost ready to get out of here and find the lads! You ready? You won’t believe what I just bought at th—hm?”

She noticed, a beat too late, that the living room that should have held only Yvlon instead had a number of half-Elves concealed around the room. The Speaker of the Trees, Lastimeth himself, was crouched behind a huge, upholstered chair; Yvlon was sitting, facing Ceria, and the half-Elf’s skeletal hand instantly went for her wand.

Then she glanced at Ierwyn, who was at Ceria’s exposed back. The Herald of the Forests was one of the highest-level [Warriors] in Chandrar. A perfect trap; nowhere to run. Ceria glanced around, face cool, as half-Elves stepped forwards. Then Yvlon stood up.

“Ceria—why don’t you have a seat?”

The [Armsmistress] gestured, and there was a chair waiting for Ceria. Hidden half-Elves walked forward and sat down in a large circle. She eyed Ierwyn, then Yvlon, and groaned.

“Oh come on. Yvlon—”

“Why don’t you sit, Sister Ceria? Your teammate is very concerned about your wellbeing.”

The Speaker of the Trees had a very gentle tone. Ceria stared at him, the intervention of half-Elves, and then stared at the window. Ierwyn tensed slightly in case Ceria tried to jump out of it. Instead, Ceria just reached into her bag of holding and slowly pulled out a red canteen. She poured some water into it and began to determinedly slurp the cranberry flavor.

 

——

 

Uncertainty.

That was what Ierwyn beheld. A mix of startling, alarming experience and decisiveness fit for a Gold-rank team’s Captain and the fragility of someone who’d wear a cursed circlet for power’s sake.

“Sister, at least let’s agree that if you took it off for a day or two, it would clear things up.”

“Sure, absolutely. It’d be a load off my head—and go straight onto yours. Or go into the Claiven Earth’s vaults.”

The intervention was not going well. One of the older half-Elven [Earthtenders] looked appalled at Ceria’s suggestion as the younger half-Elf noisily slurped from her canteen and sat with her legs crossed. Everyone was trying to speak in reasonable tones. The [Earthtender] glanced at the Speaker of Trees, then the Mage of Rivers.

Very high-level half-Elves had gathered to have this intervention with Ceria. She didn’t seem impressed. Speaker Lastimeth glanced at another half-Elf, and Laiska Clearbranch, their [General of Bows], spoke.

“We can swear on truth spells we wouldn’t take your relic, Ceria. What do you think of us?”

Ceria picked at her teeth with a bone finger, and many of the half-Elves winced or looked away. Even her limbs were uncanny; Ierwyn wasn’t shocked. She’d seen half-Elves who’d had that happen to them before.

Is Soldier Thenalden still alive? He has a skeleton leg. Maybe the two should meet. Then again, he’d retired three hundred years ago, and he still had trauma from the battlefield. Ceria flipped the magical circlet in one hand, and Ierwyn stared at it.

It would be so easy to just grab—but that would eradicate trust, and Joreldyn, the Mage of Rivers and foremost magical expert in the room, had said it wouldn’t break the link. It had to be voluntary—and even then, it was unclear how much hold the relic would keep on Ceria even if she wanted it gone.

The problem being she didn’t want it gone. Ceria smiled at Laiska.

“Truth spells can be easily faked, General. As for what I think of you—I think none of you are active adventurers. The Claiven Earth’s very nice. Very tame, even your top-level warriors. How long has it been since any of you saw an Adult Creler? You’d be lining up to tap me on the shoulder for the circlet, then.”

An uneasy shiver ran around the room among those who’d hadn’t fought Crelers before. Ierwyn sighed. They’d done this for twenty minutes, and she could tell it wasn’t going to work. She glanced over as a Human woman leaned over, arms flashing metal.

Even when she was dressed in normal clothing, Yvlon Byres looked even more like an adventurer ready for the fray than Ceria. Her metal arms were bare and flexed in the soft light coming from the trees. Her voice was pleasant.

She made Ierwyn reach for the sword she didn’t carry. Especially when she gave Ceria a pleasant smile. It wasn’t just her reputation as the Silver Killer. It was the juxtaposition of that careful, even vaguely ladylike or knightly demeanor and the woman’s clear ability to kill.

Like…a War Golem trying to smile and sip tea with you. Yvlon did not help her impression to Ierwyn with what she said next.

“No one wants you to die earlier than you should, Ceria. Even if you die a bit sooner, I’d rather it was you rather than someone possessed by a cursed artifact, don’t you agree? We all think this circlet’s doing something to your mind. Can’t you take it off for a bit?”

A few half-Elves nodded until they paused.

No one wants you to die earlier than you—wait, what was that next part? Ceria just grinned in response.

“You’re all heart, Yvlon. Okay, here. Tada.”

She took the circlet off, waved it at the others, and put it on a coffee table. Ierwyn didn’t believe it. Ceria sat back, folded her arms, then looked around.

“See? You don’t even think I did it. I did. I’ve taken it off while I was a guest here, Yvlon. For a week, even. I already feel dumber.”

Joreldyn murmured.

“It still might be magically linked.”

Ceria rolled her eyes, then flicked the circlet across the room. It stopped and hovered as the Mage of Rivers raised a hand, and everyone else flinched away. Ceria put her feet up, sighed, and stared at the ceiling.

“Then I guess he gets to investigate it. Okay, you win. If I don’t get it back, I’ll chop down this entire damn tree. Two days, Yvlon? We have to go and get Pisces and Colth.”

“And Ksmvr and Vofea. Thanks, Ceria. Don’t worry. We’ll get the circlet back or I’ll help.”

Yvlon bounded to her feet with a smile. The other half-Elves stared at the two adventurers, and Ierwyn actually raised her brows.

Is that the real one? She mouthed at Joreldyn, who was holding the circlet away from him as if it were a coiled snake. The Mage of Rivers raised his brows at her and nodded fractionally.

That was strange. Ceria turned and gave Ierwyn a cool-eyed smile. And not one whit about her had changed. No, wait—she fumbled the canteen as she went to clip it back to her belt and tossed it across the room.

“Damn, I was trying to look cool. Hey, Yvlon. This thing tastes like cranberries if you put water in it.”

“Oh. Amazing. Who’s selling them?”

“Some shopkeeper. I bought out the entire stock. Which flavor?”

“Do you have lemonade?”

The two bent over, and she wasn’t different. That was why Ierwyn had suspected it was a fake. Yet Ceria had forked over the circlet…and it was still there. That smiling uncertainty. Confidence enough to talk back to half-Elves above her level. And a palpable frustration like she’d had the moment she’d woken up and demanded to know where her team was.

 

——

 

Weakness. It was like the constant refrain of Ceria’s life since she’d been in Wistram and watched her master go to her death, unable to do a thing.

The next day, she rolled out of bed and stood with only her underclothes on, planning her wardrobe for the day. She felt less sharp. Normally, she’d wake up with a new spell in her mind or plans for the day.

No circlet. Bad brain Ceria. If the circlet was still linked to her, she wasn’t near or wearing it, so the intelligence-boosting effect was off. The half-Elf spread out some of her clothes—then went to brush her teeth.

She wondered if the Mage of Rivers would find anything of note about the circlet. She doubted it, honestly. She knew he was over Level 50, but that artifact had belonged to The Putrid One, a [Necromancer] so famous and ancient that even the Claiven Earth had only found out that he was Bad News, which you capitalized and underlined and probably circled a few times for emphasis.

His circlet? Not something smart people wore, but Ceria had had it this long, and she didn’t see herself becoming that monstrous. She wanted it. Or else she’d fall behind…

Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] was standing on a balcony, practicing in the morning light. She turned—then put a glistening hand up.

“Ceria. Please put some clothes on.”

Ceria stared at Yvlon’s watery, metal arms as they rippled like they were actual liquid. No metal actually splashed down, but Yvlon’s arm undulated like water, deforming, and Ceria—smiled.

Stronger, again.

“I’m just looking for opinions. How’s this outfit? Or this one?”

She held up a set of jet-black robes with green highlights and then a set that was pale-white with red, pink, and orange. Yvlon stared at both.

“That one will make you look like a dread [Necromancer]. That one makes you look like some [Pyromancer]-[Illusionist]. Wear the white one.”

“Okay.”

Ceria tossed on the robes and turned. Yvlon massaged her face after a second, and her ‘water’ arm splashed all over her face.

“Eugh. I nearly drank my own—Ceria? Why is there a hole just above your butt?”

“Easy entry for a fun time? It’s a Drake’s tail flap.”

“Oh. Oh. It’s the clothing you stole from the Trial of [Duelists], isn’t it?”

Ceria winked.

“Yep. You can close it, I think. Here.”

It had a loop of cloth in case the wearer wasn’t a Drake. She turned and felt a wet piece of metal running across her butt. Yvlon tried twice, then muttered.

“Okay, fingers are really hard when my arms are like this. End Skill!”

Her arms became normal again, and she swiftly laced the cloth together. Ceria nodded and eyed Yvlon’s arms.

“So…how useful is the Skill? [Armform: Liquid]?”

Yvlon shrugged.

“…I think I could pick a lock or something? I was thinking about using it to suffocate a foe, but I can’t figure out how that’s better than hitting them.”

“I bet Bograms wouldn’t enjoy that.”

The [Armsmistress] sighed.

“True. But I was imagining what—shoving liquid metal up his nose? They’re my arms. That’s disgusting. Maybe a whip? Take a look.”

One arm began to ‘melt’, like water trying to drip down. Ceria took a respectful step back as Yvlon raised the arm, and it deformed, and she swung it. It was sort of like a whip; the metal didn’t go flying off Yvlon’s body, but she staggered as it stretched and she overbalanced.

“Yeah. That, uh. Looks really dangerous. What if someone cuts your arm off?”

“I probably lose all the metal? I don’t think it’s gone if it’s severed. Not right away. But if I swing it around someone like this—

Yvlon did a more controlled swing, and her liquid arm wrapped around a chair and table made of lovely, carved wood lacquered and delicately sculpted into place. Ceria looked around as birds sang and half-Elves greeted the morning—sometimes in song.

They were in a district that allowed morning singing. Ceria wondered if it was someone getting back at them—she saw Yvlon’s arm constrict, and even without the circlet, Ceria could have said something.

She did not. Yvlon’s liquid arm spiked suddenly, metal thorns erupting like a porcupine, and perforated the poor chair and table. The crash of wood breaking made half-Elves on other balconies spin around, and Ierwyn stopped as Yvlon turned to Ceria.

“Just like that. Then—ah. Oops.”

She realized she’d just demolished the chair and table. Ceria just applauded.

“See that? That’s why you’re the Silver Killer.”

—And above her in levels. The Level 44 [Silversteel Armsmistress] gave Ceria a shamefaced look. The Level 39 [Arctic Cryomancer]—and Level 19 [Prankster]—gave Yvlon a huge grin.

Maybe the circlet has slowed down my levelling and it’s why I can’t hit Level 40. But dead gods—Ceria saw Yvlon flex one arm.

How was she supposed to keep up without it? Ceria sighed.

Well, she had some ideas.

 

——

 

Ceria’s new clothes were more than a fashion statement. Actually, some of the clothing looked hideous, and some were amazing, fantastic works of art. Ceria had stolen the Trial of [Duelists]’ complete clothing inventory, and she suspected it was a mix of clothing meant for aspiring applicants to the City of Shields’ elite whatever and therefore highly magical, highly valuable cloth made in an era of true power…

…And some of it was clothing no one wanted to wear.

Ceria wondered which her new robes were. They were certainly beautiful and eye-catching.

It’s so soft.

“It feels like I’m wearing a cloud. Dead gods, Yvlon, your fingers are cold. Stop poking!”

Half-Elves were admiring Ceria’s robes, even as flashy as they were. Ceria shooed Yvlon away, but the [Armsmistress] wore a rare look of envy.

“I know you took more than robes. Give me some of the clothing.”

“No. Not until I figure out what they do. Plus, you’ll just break them next time you tear out a [Pirate]’s throat and go for a two week-long walk underwater.”

“I will not. Well—if I do, I need good clothing. Mine wore out. I had to change clothing three times underwater. Naked!”

A passing half-Elf turned and stared as Ceria and Yvlon walked together, talking, so amazed by what he was hearing that he actually walked into a guardrail and nearly pitched over. Yvlon’s arm stretched, and she dragged him back as he clung to it.

“So what do these robes do?”

Ceria shrugged. She did a twirl, and the fireburst design on the white robes’ edges lit up. Magical flames appeared around her, and Yvlon stepped back. Ceria twirled harder—then nearly lost her balance.

“The faster I twirl, the more flames appear. Weird, right? I’m pretty sure it does other things, but some of the robes have key words or you have to do a gesture. I’m cataloging the effects. Tell you later.”

They were both conscious of the eyes on them, and Ceria grinned as Yvlon sighed.

“I want two.”

“I want something nice in return. You could have scammed the Trial of [Duelists] out of clothing too.”

I was fighting Bograms. When Colth and Pisces hear about this—”

“They’ll agree with me that you’d just tear up your clothing. Pisces could use some of the robes. I think they’re unisex. And Colth might use some clothing if it doesn’t interfere with his armor. Ksmvr’s obviously getting some of the clothing, and I think Mrsha and Erin and Lyonette could all use a pair. But you? Hey! Stop it! Stop—

Ceria tried to leap away, but Yvlon grabbed her and dangled her over a balcony, shaking her as she held Ceria’s feet. The vertigo of staring down three hundred feet finally ended when Yvlon realized people were staring at her and flushed. Yvlon put Ceria back on her feet and made a show of patting Ceria on the back.

“I, ah, have to go. We’re leaving tomorrow if the Mage of Rivers can’t identify your circlet, right?”

“We were going to leave yesterday, but sure. If the Claiven Earth lets us. They still haven’t pushed on the Crossroads of Izril thing after we refused, Yvlon. But they’re not hinting we should stay. They mentioned a job.”

Ceria was worried about that, too. The half-Elves were awfully chummy. Maybe they took her being a ‘sister of the forests’ seriously. She felt like everyone knew it was ironic. But Yvlon had needed to escape Medain…

We’ll see. Yvlon glanced around, then waved politely at a woman waiting for her.

Ierwyn, the Herald of the Forests, had a colorful expression as she watched the two adventurers’ antics. Yvlon turned and smiled at Ceria.

“Ierwyn seems very honorable. Like Ylawes. I can’t imagine she’d be part of any duplicity.”

“Yeah…okay. Well, have fun sparring with her.”

That was probably part of the colorful expression. The Herald of the Forests had tried to be a nice, welcoming person to Yvlon and made a mistake.

Yvlon strode towards the higher-level half-Elf. And she was higher-level, definitely. But Ceria just smirked as she wondered how much fun it was to have a sparring session with a woman whose arms exploded into spikes and who was trying her best to practice against a worthy opponent.

Well, if you had the chance to learn from the best—Ceria strolled off to her appointment as well. It wasn’t like she and Yvlon could afford to waste their time here.

 

——

 

They called him the Mage of Rivers. He looked like most older half-Elves, white-haired. It was a mark of status. If you had naturally white hair, unlike Feor, you were ancient.

In Joreldyn’s case, age had marked him far more than Ierwyn. He was probably…what? Ceria guessed at least eight hundred years old.

Her grandmother had been far, far older, but she’d lived in a timeless half-Elven village. Joreldyn had begun to get that shriveled look and slightly hunched back along with the frailness of true age. He was also balding slightly—and yet time both clung to him and was unable to drag him down at the rate of other peoples.

When he looked up in his humble tree home, one of the highest in the entire Claiven Earth, Ceria paused at the door, and her skin hummed slightly.

He didn’t have a great, magical workshop like the other Archmages or her master had possessed at Wistram. There was a single bookshelf, a small spell circle, and a few magical artifacts like a staff and scrying orb littered around the room.

It looked like the belongings of a common [Mage], even a hedge mage, set in a very humble home. A small house.

But each object in the room made Ceria feel like it was beyond regular artifact-grade. The circlet that the Mage of Rivers was inspecting was hovering, and he had drawn a magical diagram in the air.

“Tree rot. Is that a three-dimensional spell circle?”

Ceria blurted out as she stared at the shimmering lines in the air. The old half-Elf nodded to her as Ceria walked into the room.

“I thought Wistram had stopped teaching that. When I last visited, they were arguing about teaching it in class when a simple, inscribed spell circle was good enough for anything under Tier 5 magic. Welcome, Adventurer Ceria.”

Ceria stepped forwards, staring at the suspended circlet. The older half-Elf was reading a book and, occasionally, drawing a line from the hovering magic to the circlet. It seemed to be doing nothing; instinct told Ceria that he was cautiously probing it, trying to elicit a response. He had more protection spells than anything else.

He’d looked like an ordinary old man when she’d seen him sitting outside chatting with his fellow half-Elves. But look him in the eyes and you might be washed away by the power to drown cities.

And Yvlon wanted to spar with Ierwyn. The scariest half-Elf just sat here. Ceria had heard he was one of the reasons Khelt’s Revenants hadn’t advanced before Fetohep himself had come racing north.

Mage of Rivers in dry Chandrar. Ceria wished she didn’t feel so damn nervous without the circlet. One of the things it helped with was moments like this. But she was still able to conjure a [Prankster]’s smile.

“When you last visited Wistram. When was that? Five ages ago?”

She wondered if he’d be a crotchety old half-Elf and get mad, but the Mage of Rivers just stopped—then gave her an amused smile.

“Merely four.”

He went back to working as Ceria stood there, flummoxed. Joreldyn frowned to himself.

“Ah. A new age has begun hasn’t it? I’ve lived in five, after all. They pass faster these days. The King of Destruction did not warrant a new age. When I was a boy, they proclaimed the Age of Departures. That was after the end of the Creler Wars and the Age of Reclamation. The only thing to herald a new era after that was the march of the last Treants into the sea from the Vale Forest.”

Okay. He was old.

Ceria shivered gently as the half-Elf lifted his hand, and the circlet spun. It was morphing in her vision, and she knew it wasn’t happy.

She could vaguely sense it now. Ever since she realized it had a personality and will, Ceria had slowly picked up on its own thoughts.

It was…wary. Nervous. It kept morphing, first being the bone-white circlet, then a gaudy crown. Then a simple loop of wood.

“Controlling your circlet’s appearance is simple. Deactivating the circlet’s individual enchantments—far harder. I am old, Ceria Springwalker. What you have brought me is older than the Creler Wars. Far, far older, I think.”

“…You can turn it off?

The Mage of Rivers snapped his fingers. A dozen strands of magic touched the circlet, and Ceria suddenly felt nothing at all from it. The old half-Elf eyed Ceria.

“It is still an artifact. You sensed…nothing last night?”

“Nope. I had indigestion from eating too many curled Yellat fries.”

Joreldyn smacked his lips together absently.

“Yes. A curse from abroad. Far too much oil. Then you might actually be safe from its influence if you can’t feel a difference now. At least, direct influence. I have no doubt it’s altered your perceptions. But this is functionally inert; there is no magic within or without. I cannot selectively alter its enchantments yet. Nor do I know its true nature.”

He actually picked up the circlet now, and Ceria saw it was the bone white circlet. So that was its true form? Or just how it looked at this moment?

Joreldyn had similar doubts. He showed it to Ceria, then touched where the circlet had formed faint, decorative curves along the edge.

“The style is unknown to me. I wish this were a helmet—but whenever I change the appearance, it cycles between half a dozen ancient styles. I do not have a book on magical fashion—I used to, but I traded it to an Archmage, and I believe it is lost on the upper floors of Wistram. This is still enough to go by. I would look up whomever used magical ivory like this.”

“Oh. That, uh, narrows it down to probably tens of thousands of artificers ever.”

“A good place to start for a mysterious Relic.”

She had the impression he was making fun of her; his faint smile seemed to indicate that. Joreldyn sighed as he lifted the circlet.

“…I do not think I will be able to uncover its power by the end of the day. But I will keep trying. Did you have something you needed, Adventurer Ceria?”

He wasn’t being rude, exactly, but he was dismissive. As one got to be when you were this old and accomplished. Ceria shuffled her feet; she knew she didn’t hold a candle to him.

She was behind her old master, even now. Even with the circlet, maybe. And Ceria knew that Illphres would have refused to go up against this ancient [Hydromancer], even though [Cryomancers] should have had every advantage.

“Sorry for interrupting you, Magus Joreldyn. I, ah, just wanted a quick word. I recently lost to a [Hydromancer] at the battle at sea, and it’s been weighing on my mind.”

That Human and those warriors from Rhir. They’d been very, very good, but seeing a young woman of, what, twenty? With the spellcasting force to take Ceria out, even if it was an ambush—

That hurt Ceria’s pride. It was a reminder that even at Gold-rank, she could lag behind. Joreldyn simply flicked a finger.

“I can spare some time. This is a good break point. Would you care for some fruit? I have to do some spell scribing, anyways.”

There was a small basket of fruit on a table. Ceria saw it float over and snagged a mango. Then she saw the half-Elf unrolling four new spell scrolls and begin scribing them into what looked like a personal spellbook.

If Ceria thought she had a chance in heck of stealing his personal spellbook, she would have. Instead, she stood on her tip-toes and tried to edge around the Mage of Rivers. He let her—a magical spell was transcribing itself so fast in his spellbook that Ceria’s heart sank.

Even with the circlet, I doubt I could even memorize—then her eyes widened.

“Wait, does that spell scroll say [Efficient Teleportation]?

The Mage of Rivers gave Ceria a pleased smile.

“Ah, good, Wistram still teaches reading. Yes, indeed. It seems Wistram has discovered old magic. Old magic—this comes from the Terras faction. A gift, in fact. I daresay I could visit Nerrhavia’s Fallen once I master the spell. Even I didn’t know this one; I used to conjure a river or hire a flying carpet. These days, my bones hurt too much.”

Ceria’s mouth opened. She stared at the spell scroll, then the wax seal in the upper-right corner. That wasn’t part of the spell; the scroll was in fact vanishing as Joreldyn copied it. The symbol was a curious orb…a planet, maybe, with a great tree sprouting from it and a staff, scrolls, and other magical paraphernalia hanging off the limbs. An expensive damn wax seal given the detailing for a new faction of Wistram.

Terras.

And they were giving away magic of a grade that had even Joreldyn copying it. He turned his head.

“This new Archmage of Memory is a [Mage] to watch, Ceria Springwalker. This is a complimentary gift from him; I have been trying to come up with a thank-you gift of suitable value. He will take us into a new magical era. Archmages Verdan and Nailihuaile are dead; he has replaced their contributions to magic a hundred times over.”

Of all the times to be an outcast student of Wistram…Ceria sighed. But she noticed the old half-Elf copying over the spells with ease. You had to understand magic to scribe it, even if he was only copying it to study later.

Assuming that was Tier 4 magic—and it was almost certainly not—Pisces took a month of studying himself to death to learn one spell. These days, we could probably master a Tier 4 spell…in two weeks while on the road.

Doing it in about three minutes was showing off. And it was why Ceria was here. She exhaled, then smiled at the old half-Elf.

 

——

 

He knew she wanted something from him. Of course, the Claiven Earth wanted something from the Horns of Hammerad, so the Mage of Rivers humored Ceria Springwalker as she made her ploy. She stood there, giving up on copying the spells he was transferring to his personal spellbook. When she spoke, her voice was bright. Interested.

Young. But dangerous. Adventurers always were.

“So you’re the greatest [Mage] in the Claiven Earth, Magus Joreldyn? They gave the circlet to you, and I can’t imagine anyone better.”

He pondered the question idly without the ego she expected.

“For war, yes. A very narrow field. Ill-respected in times of peace.”

“Huh. You’d think that would be the most respected in times of peace. And that it’s the widest field imaginable. Anyone can be good at it.”

Ceria noisily bit into another ripe mango, and Joreldyn didn’t look up from his delicate copying of the spellbook. Unlike Ierwyn, the Mage of Rivers refused to rise to the bait.

“Perspectives differ in the rest of the world. Even we are not like the Village of the Spring, Adventurer Ceria. You hail from the oldest place of all. I confess…”

“I know, I know. I’m nothing like what you expected?”

Ceria licked her fingers, having eaten the mango. She fiddled with her outfit and robes, and the old half-Elf smiled to himself.

“No, you’re rather like the other Springwalkers I’ve met. The ones who leave are all prone to adventure. And often mischief.”

She didn’t like that. Joreldyn could hear it in her tone. Cloth rustled as Ceria grumbled.

“Really? Is that our reputation?”

“Only to me and perhaps those who have the lifespans to remember the others.”

“Well, no one’s left since I was a kid. Sixty years. The last one left over a hundred and fifty years ago, I heard. I mean—properly left. Some come back once every few decades. They talk about it like the ones who left just stepped out the door. I wish I’d met the last one—but she died.”

“Entanglement.”

Ceria paused as the word that had significance to half-Elves lingered in the air. A warning? A lesson? Joreldyn liked to let her draw her own conclusions. He wasn’t about to lecture.

“You’re doing well for someone who got entangled with Khelt of all places.”

“Higher levels tend to let one survive mistakes. Which Khelt was.”

If he lived another thousand years without having to duel the Vizir Hecrelunn, it would be too soon. Joreldyn treasured his old age. Old age meant he was a dangerous, hidden asset of the Claiven Earth in an age of weaker magic.

Old monsters from even older times made him sweat. He was a gifted [Mage] who had reached an apex few [Mages] of any era could boast of. But Joreldyn had never aspired to be an Archmage or some hero of mythical spellcasting. He knew his limits.

Still, he knew he attracted young spellcasters like Ceria Springwalker. She walked closer, and he was almost done copying the spells. She had an impressive aura for someone her age, a strong command of battle—and she had powerful artifacts and a decent array of spells. However, Ceria’s voice had a familiar note. Of…frustration and uncertainty.

“Yeah, well, I’m about to hit Level 40, but I got my ass kicked by a bunch of Humans, and no matter how hard I struggle and cheat, I can barely keep up with my team. They’re all monsters or geniuses. While I’m here—would you mind giving me some tips? Not just about the circlet. Water magic and ice magic are close, and I could use more spells.”

The Mage of Rivers had expected that. He sighed as he put the quill away and stoppered the ink bottle. He spoke while he closed the spellbook and floated it away to his bookshelf.

“Adventurer Ceria. Every half-Elf who passes by the Claiven Earth makes that kind of request of Ierwyn and I, if they know we exist. With due deference to your significant level and achievements, if you won’t tell us how to access the Crossroads of Izril, what would you have to offer me besides your circlet? Wistram is beyond both of us in spell knowledge at the moment.”

“Oh, I have a few ideas.”

She sounded amused, and only when Joreldyn turned around did he see…absolutely nothing. Nothing, including clothes. Ceria Springwalker folded her arms below her breasts as the Mage of Rivers blinked at her.

She’d removed the magical clothes, which he’d frankly found more interesting than her. Joreldyn stared at them puddled around Ceria’s feet, then at her wide smile.

“Ever seen a Springwalker do that?”

The Mage of Rivers looked Ceria Springwalker up and down and paused before responding.

“Twice. But never before the first date.”

Her eyes widened, and she let out a laugh. The Mage of Rivers heard a knock at his door, and before he could cast a spell, someone opened it.

One of Joreldyn’s younger apprentices was at the door. A young half-Elf of a hundred and twenty years with flare-red hair and a tan from casting outdoors. Volehs was responsible for casting and maintaining most of the magics over Tier 5 that the Claiven Earth needed. Apprentice Volehs stopped, saw Ceria and Joreldyn turn, and instantly shut the door. The Mage of Rivers closed his eyes, but Ceria just called out.

“Come back later! Well?”

She turned back to the old half-Elf, and he eyed her sternly.

“Is this how you approach everything you want, Ceria Springwalker?”

Her eyes glittered far too calmly.

“What’s the problem? I want something, I think the deal’s beyond fair—and even if I had a problem with it before, which I don’t think I did, I really don’t now. Well?”

She gave him a huge grin, and the Mage of Rivers wondered how many rumors would start if he cast a tidal wave spell and people saw her being tossed out of his door buck naked. Clothing spell first. Now, wouldn’t that be a handy spell to learn from the Terras faction?

She gave him an expectant smile, and he reached out and gently patted her on the head. Her robes floated up, and the Mage of Rivers smiled.

“Come back when you’re past Level 50 and try again, young woman. Equals in magic are far more attractive. [Greater Invisibility]. [Tidal Wave].”

“Ah sh—”

She tried to freeze the water; she had good reflexes. Joreldyn heard Ceria cursing—then the sounds of her being tossed off of the balcony, several hundred feet high.

He was almost sure she knew how to cast [Featherfall]. Wistram wasn’t that deficient. The Mage of Rivers went back to studying the circlet. After a moment, he sighed.

“I should just throw you into the sea. But we need her cooperation.”

Destroy or hide this away for her own good or let her walk a tightrope with it on? The Mage of Rivers knew which was the ethical choice. But the Claiven Earth needed her aid. That kind of thinking made him feel old.

He wished, perhaps, that he were kinder to Ceria Springwalker. The old [Mage] worked, then, when he was certain the magics in the relic were eluding his brief time frame, he used a Skill, made a short note, and informed the Speaker of Trees they had their leverage.

Then he summoned Volehs to tell his best apprentice they needed to consult their cousins in the New Lands about the soil issue. Not Joreldyn’s specialty, but he would need reagents to try and create some magical fertilizer that could nullify the problems in the groundwater.

“Volehs? Volehs—

After waiting twenty minutes, Joreldyn walked towards his apprentice’s adjoining cottage. He opened the door and heard loud giggling. A woman’s voice. The Mage of Rivers paused and began to leave surreptitiously—then his eyes narrowed.

He strode into the bedroom, threw open the door, and felt a lot less bad about his lack of kindness towards Ceria Springwalker. Especially when his apprentice froze in bed with said half-Elf.

Master! I—I—”

The Mage of Rivers gave Ceria a narrow-eyed look as she winked at him. Ceria was writing in a spellbook, and one look at his apprentice from Joreldyn made the younger half-Elf quail. Then he exhaled.

“Well done, Adventurer Springwalker. I trust it was worth it, Volehs. See me later. I have reagents that I need finding.”

He strode off, sighing. Now that was youth.

 

——

 

Ceria Springwalker had a shiny new incantation in her spellbook. It turned out the Mage of Rivers taught his students how to scribe spells almost as fast as he did. The next day, she accepted her circlet and gave the Speaker of Trees, Lastimeth, a bright smile.

He gave her a faintly disapproving one.

“It seems Magus Joreldyn could not identify much of the circlet’s workings or true nature, Captain Ceria. And with deference to your desire to find your teammates, we will escort you to our borders and provide horses. We are at odds with Medain and cannot offer you more than sanctuary if you should return. Though I hope you will consider our requests…should you be willing, sister.”

“You’ve been very hospitable, Speaker Lastimeth. The Claiven Earth is very welcoming to fellow half-Elves. As for any favors…the Adventurer’s Guild can handle any requests. I can’t commit to anything until I find my team, and some of my teammates are in Baleros.”

Ceria was perfectly braced to turn down whatever he wanted. The Speaker of Trees had invited her into his own humble home; it seemed to be a motif here, and he poured her more tea.

“Surely it wouldn’t hurt to hear us out?”

“Oh, not at all. Please, go ahead, Speaker. I’m just stating my position.”

Ceria was glad she had the circlet. She felt sharper, and she already had it memorizing her new spell, which she felt would be invaluable in Chandrar:

[Conjure Tidal Wave].

Not just [Tidal Wave]. That was so easy that Ceria could have mastered it herself. No; [Conjure Tidal Wave]. As in, even if it was dry as a bone, conjure magical water out of nowhere to fight with. Or freeze.

Last time, Ceria had been hampered by the lack of water in Chandrar and suffered for it. She could carry water like Revine Zecrew, the Siren of Savere, did, but this spell would be an excellent tool.

And all it took was one night and a really besotted apprentice. Ceria might not have as much charm as some half-Elves, but being the wild adventurer from another continent seemed to work.

She considered this all a win, especially because she’d also gotten some appraisals for her clothing from the Trial of Shields. But her wariness was at its peak right now.

The Claiven Earth wanted something. Ceria had expected them to turn the thumbscrews up about how to access the Crossroads of Izril. Hold her circlet or her and Yvlon hostage for it, perhaps, but they actually seemed to not want to be that…unpleasant.

The copper coin dropped as the Speaker of Trees shifted. He wasn’t a master [Diplomat]; he was more of an expert in internal half-Elven politics, Ceria gathered, and spoke to foreign leaders less than most. A real Fetohep in his way.

Still. Speaker Lastimeth fixed Ceria with a calm eye.

“I shall be direct, Captain Ceria. When you leave the Claiven Earth…I have no doubt that you are keen to find your teammates. But would I be wrong in assuming your travels might lead you south to, say, Tiqr? In search of another relic of the Village of the Dead. A sword that the Empress of Beasts possesses.”

Ceria winced. The problem with having famous teammates and adventures was that everyone knew your goals. And if he knew it—her enemies did too. Whomever they were. Probably Revine.

“We might be visiting other Chandrarian nations, yes. But if you had an adventuring request—my team’s not in the market to hunt monsters or take on another dungeon yet.”

Was that what he wanted? Ceria still didn’t get it, and she didn’t see why the half-Elves would want that, anyways, with the amount of dangerous people they had. To her surprise, Lastimeth smiled.

“Ah, that is not our concern. Rather, Captain Ceria, I know one of your teammates is a [Necromancer] of some renown. Pisces Jealnet, a rarity in this day and age. And your team has ventured in great company. Why, the King of Khelt and King of Destruction were both in your company at one point.”

Wait…Ceria blinked at the Speaker. She hadn’t expected that.

“Uh—more like we were in theirs. But yes…Pisces? What about him? He hasn’t done something stupid in the last two days in Jecrass, has he?”

Lastimeth stood up and took his cup of tea to the window. He indicated the city of half-Elves as Ceria stood.

“Not at all, Ceria. Rather, he is held in great regard, as are you, Yvlon Byres, Colthei—one imagines that of the few adventurers in the world, a [Necromancer] might even attract the favor of King Fetohep of Khelt. Whom Adventurer Pisces has met. You may be aware of the—difficulties between Khelt and the Claiven Earth of late. Even during our peace, one of the Jaws of Zeikhal rampaged towards the Claiven Earth. Ierwyn and Joreldyn rebuffed it, and it did the most damage to Medain, but we are concerned about Khelt’s disposition. And the King of Destruction continues to wage war—these are not things the Claiven Earth has ever desired, you see? And if in your travels…”

Ceria realized what he wanted and instantly compressed her lips.

“Oh no. I’m sorry, Speaker, but have you not been watching me? We would be the worst—

“If you would simply speak well of the Claiven Earth. I have a few documents you might show to other leaders of nations. The King of Destruction himself might listen to a friend—”

“I barely know the man. In fact, I made fun of him the entire time! I called him a bandaged mummy! And I think I spat on him.”

Joreldyn’s smile was too wide.

“He is a man of deep and abiding friendship to those who catch his ear. I know it would not be a light thing to ask, but if you could convince him—”

He was proffering a case of scrolls, and Ceria had an itching feeling on her back. She brought up her hands.

“Apologies, Speaker, but even if we go to other nations—shilling for my brothers and sisters here is not on my list of things to do. Tell you what, I’ll talk up the Claiven Earth, but making a contract?”

Absolutely not. Playing diplomat as an adventurer was a bad, bad, bad idea. Halrac, Jelaqua—no team leader that Ceria had ever met, not even crazy Ylawes, had ever gone for that. There were stories of how you got into trouble.

Worse, though, Ceria could see why the Speaker of Trees was insistent. With Khelt and Reim…the two leaders would snub a [Diplomat]. But Flos Reimarch might actually listen to Ceria.

She had no incentive to do this, or even take the scrolls. Ceria knew she had the upper hand and that the Speaker couldn’t threaten her into helping…but she didn’t expect the bribe. Speaker Lastimeth sighed dramatically.

“I can see you are a pragmatic woman, Captain Ceria. And I well know how difficult it is to forge an alliance or gain anything in writing. The scrolls are marked for each nation you might run into, from Tiqr to Hellios.”

He swiftly opened the case and chased Ceria onto the balcony as she tried to escape. She shouted as she tried to put a foot over the railing.

There’s three dozens scrolls in here! Nope! No thanks! Yvlon and I will be on our way. Goodbye—”

She was about to swan dive off the edge of the Speaker’s house when, like an [Actor], he called out.

“Ah, well. I suppose the Mage of River’s book on your circlet will have to wait.”

“…Shit.”

Ceria closed her eyes as she straddled the railing. She turned and gave the Speaker a long, hard stare.

“Magus Joreldyn does not have a book on my circlet. I’ve seen his library; there are, like, a hundred books tops.”

Lastimeth held the case of scrolls up serenely.

“Of course not. But the Mage of Rivers is a wonderful spellcaster. With Skills. [Enigmatic Clue: Spellcraft] is one of the Skills that any great [Mage] might learn to…”

Research magic. Ceria closed her eyes.

“…There’s a book?”

“One he claims references your very relic. Astounding. Why, I would never condone wearing such a potentially dangerous relic. But a text does exist. In Chandrar. If you were to, say, help the Claiven Earth—”

Ceria stared at the Speaker’s bright smile. She stared at the box of contracts.

“I’m not promising anything.”

“Of course not, Captain Ceria. And I know you need to go. I doubt we even have time for tea. Here.”

The Speaker handed Ceria the box. She took it, gave him a glower, and he gently patted her on the shoulder.

“I do consider you a dear sister of ours. By the way, if you changed your mind about the Crossroads of Izril and the passphrase…simply let us know. Farewell. Have a safe trip.”

Then he gently pushed her, and she went over the balcony’s edge with a shout. The damn Speaker smirked as he did it too.

 

——

 

“I hate old people. They’re mean as shit.”

Ceria Springwalker had forgotten that nice, welcoming kindred of her species could be devious foxes. Yvlon was just amused as the two rode out of the Claiven Earth’s territory.

“Well, it’s not like we have to help. We swore we’d keep the Passphrase of Imlerith secret, but we could get a contract for the Claiven Earth, maybe. And if we don’t? So what?”

The Ice Squirrel turned her head as she gnawed on some fruit jerky.

I want that book, Yvlon. It’s going to drive me insane if I don’t get it! And it might help us find out what my circlet does, for better or worse!”

“I would like to rub your nose in it. But they were very hospitable to us, and since we got away without anything but an offer, I think this has been far better than Medain. I had to sneak out of there, remember?”

That was true. The two were riding fast along one of the roads heading out of the half-Elves’ territory, across Medain’s border. They didn’t have the right of entry to the lands of Jecrass now held by Khelt, and acquaintances of the King of Khelt or not…Ceria wasn’t keen on testing his infamous ire.

So, through Medain they went. Both adventurers had fresh steeds from the half-Elves, and they were inclined to avoid High King Perric’s hospitality. They were on their way to link up with Pisces and Colth at the one spot they knew the two to be at.

Jecrass. Ceria just hoped those two had stayed out of trouble.

 

——

 

The first thing Raelt of Jecrass had done after cutting down Medain’s escort for Pisces and Colth to the capital was dismount and shake their hands.

“Adventurer Pisces. I’m glad we caught you before the High King did. With me. I hope you can ride; we’ll be headed to Jecrass before his patrols catch up.”

Pisces and Colth had stared at the King of Duels standing with a band of over a hundred [Riders] wearing face-covering scarfs, swords drenched in the blood of Perric’s soldiers.

Colth had glared a hole in Pisces’ head as the [Necromancer] had weakly smiled. As troublesome starts went—this was not good.

 

——

 

Pisces liked to think of himself as an informed amateur in the realms of politics, alchemy, literature, fashion, cuisine, and anything else he turned his mind to.

With his deep understanding of the affairs of nations, the public-facing images of royalty, and the pragmatic backroom deals between world powers, he understood that being in the company of a rival King who’d just murdered High King Perric’s people and was conducting clandestine raids into Medain…

…Was possibly a bad look. However, in the moment, he’d weighed offending Raelt of Jecrass with the High King and decided to go with the flow.

They spent nearly three days riding out of Medain and into Jecrass at breakneck speeds. Raelt and his Trickriders of Jecrass, the elite warriors famous for their acrobatics and unique fighting style, kept a blistering pace with their Skills. Every now and then, a group would break away and come back, usually with signs of battle.

“We are at peace—but that doesn’t mean we can’t strike at the High King, and his armies can’t catch our forces. I fear for Adventurer Yvlon’s safety; if he holds her hostage, we will have to see what can be done, but his capital is unassailable. Once we reach Jecrass, we can assess the situation.”

Pisces and Colth were increasingly uneasy as Raelt took them across the border to Jecrass. Not because he wasn’t friendly; he seemed to hold them in great esteem from their meeting at sea, and he’d ordered a return to Jecrass with a bulk of his Trickriders escorting the two.

No, it was the fact that he was entangling them in politics that made Pisces so nervous. But the King of Duels was, simultaneously, well, the King of Duels.

One of the most famous figures in Chandrar, at least if you watched the news, and Pisces’ personal target of admiration. When Raelt came riding past the first village in Jecrass proper, it almost exploded with cheers as people flocked out to see their beloved king.

—Yet he was changed. Pisces remembered a gaunt man standing on the bridge of Sand at Sea, doubting if he was even seeing reality. The King of Duels now was far healthier; he’d regained his lost weight, and he had the air of a general as he rode with his Trickriders in tow.

What Colth observed, though, was his temperament.

“Now there’s a man with his heart set on vengeance. Take it from me, Pisces.”

“I don’t have to. I saw him killing Medain’s soldiers. This seems to be almost a bloodier and more personal war than his battles with Flos.”

“Well, he was tortured by the High King for months. Take it from me, that’s not fun.”

The [Necromancer] felt like some of Colth’s personal assurances didn’t need to be said. One look at Raelt’s face when he talked about Medain, or the fact that the Trickriders were showing the villages bloody flags they’d looted from the High King’s forces—Pisces was just grateful they didn’t have grislier trophies.

No peace while King Perric lives! Jecrass still rides with the King of Duels!

That was one of the refrains that Pisces heard taken up on their ride to the capital city of Inamress. With each place they passed, young men and women would ride up, demand to join the Trickriders, and be told they had to reach the right level and pass training.

The amount of national spirit was, in fact, at odds with the clear deprivations war had taken on the Realm of Jecrass. It was in little things from the soaring prices Pisces saw in marketplaces, to closed businesses in towns, displaced people trying to put new roots down—

And the dead, symbolized by a white armband. Yet still, Jecrass’ sons and daughters were ready to enlist. Pisces couldn’t decide how he felt about it.

“Jecrass seems like it’s rallied to keep fighting. At least, in this unofficial war with Medain.”

Pisces muttered to Colth as they rode, and the [Ultimate Supporter] wrinkled his nose.

“Eh. Raiding each other is a peacetime occupation. They’d not be so enthusiastic if they were still fighting Reim. The sentiment’s only strong because we’re with the King of Duels. See?”

Not everyone flocked to Raelt’s banner. Signs of the war were everywhere: newly-made houses sprawled out from existing settlements, and Pisces saw wreaths of white flowers symbolizing death hung on doors. The King of Duels himself met with those who’d lost soldiers, and Pisces saw his guilty countenance—but that refrain followed him.

King of Duels!

King Raelt of Jecrass!

Raelt and the Trickriders!

The Arbiter Queen and her Lawriders!

Pisces’ head turned as he heard someone shouting that. There was a susurration amidst the Trickriders. They had a banner of a rearing horse, one leg on the ground, a kind of sub-crest of Jecrass’ own flag. But for a second, Pisces saw someone heft another banner into the air. A simple one with a set of scales balanced over a horse’s back. Then the flag was yanked down. Pisces glanced at his teammate.

“Hmm? What was that?”

Colth had seen it too. Raelt had looked up briefly, but he didn’t seem as bothered as his people. Colth glanced at the Trickriders, then at Pisces.

“Trouble is what that is, Pisces. How good are you with diplomacy and playing nice?”

Pisces sniffed. Colth held a finger under his nose, and Pisces swatted his hand down.

“I consider myself a passionate amateur in—”

“So you suck at it.”

The [Necromancer] bristled as his teammate, the [Supporter], Colthei, ally of Demons, Colth of the Demonic Smile…and, Pisces would own, friend and fellow freed [Slave] gave him a sardonic look. The two had been in each other’s company for a month after the battle at sea, and they were just grateful to be on land and not always in each other’s company.

But they were teammates, and so Pisces folded his arms haughtily.

“I may not be practiced in the nuances of actual…negotiations in person, Colth. But I posit to you this: would you rather be with Yvlon, Ceria, Vofea, or Ksmvr?”

The [Ultimate Supporter] thought about this. Then, as they saw Raelt riding back to them, Colth gave the King of Duels a big smile and threw his arm around Pisces’ shoulder.

“Pisces, you’re the best teammate to be here! Well, shall we be going, Your Majesty?”

 

——

 

Three days of riding left Pisces with thighs so sore that when they reached Inamress, he had to walk. The Trickriders were amused but understanding, and Colth, that bastard, just gave Pisces a shake of the head; he was completely unaffected because he could use [Rider] Skills.

However, Raelt dismounted, and the two talked after the cheering and welcome for the procession of riders had mostly stopped. It was still uncanny to be walking down the street with voices chanting Raelt’s name and needing a [Silence] spell to just talk normally—but that was a [King] for you.

“So, ah, how have you been, Your Majesty? Since the Meeting of Tribes.”

Raelt swept back his light brown hair as Colth visibly winced and mouthed ‘really’ at Pisces behind the [King of Challenges], but Raelt gave Pisces a faint smile.

“Call me Raelt, please. I feel as though we know each other, Pisces. I still wake up and see that ship coming over land and wonder if it was all a dream since…”

His smile flickered, and his long stride slowed. He touched a hand to his sword, and Pisces saw that golden bell hanging from the hilt.

“What have I been doing? Ah, seeing how Jecrass has suffered. We lost a third of it to Khelt. Jecaina did the best she could, but Perric, Flos—I’ve been fighting.”

Pisces waited a beat, and Raelt glanced at him. Colth. Ahead towards the smaller palace.

“Yes. Fighting. There are too many that Perric’s harmed. People on the border of Jecrass have no love for him, and his armies suffered greatly fighting Khelt’s. Progress is slow, but each soldier we bring down is one he’s lost. He still has his adventurers and too much damn land. A sizeable blow is needed to unseat him, but it’s possible. Ah—I heard of the conflict at sea. I didn’t imagine I’d find you washing up in a village. How are the Crossroads of Izril?”

He was like a drawn blade. So focused that Pisces and Colth exchanged a glance. Colth took over.

“Ah—empty, Your Majesty. Empty and dangerous. Wonderfully eerie and deadly. We ran into strange threats the entire way, the least of which were monsters from Izril’s Bloodfields.”

Raelt half-turned.

“Really? I should love to see images, if you have any.”

“Sadly, none of us have a mage-picture. But we can show you the Bloodfields monsters. And there was a Sword Crab—”

Pisces turned red, but Raelt’s eyes lit up.

A Sword Crab? The best dueling monster in the world? I’ve always wanted to see if they’re truly as good as they say.”

“Ah—one bested me, Your Majesty.”

“Really? You? Then they must be as good as they say. Come to think of it—you both must be exhausted. And hungry. The palace awaits! I forgot—”

Raelt turned to one of his Trickriders.

“Did anyone go ahead to tell them to ready a bath, food, and whatnot? Go check. As for the Sword Crab, what kind of style was it?”

Pisces hesitated, but blurted out.

“It actually fought like a [Fencer]. Side-on, with one claw. But when it faced forwards, it was using both claws, and it would both snip and lash out—it knew how to parry.”

“Dead gods. I imagine the reach on that thing—how large?”

Pisces tried to approximate it, and Raelt began smiling. Then he became a man again, and for a second, the two adventurers saw the man who had been King Raelt Leysars, before they named him King of Duels. Slightly awkward, long-legged, a fencing-loving [King]…

—Before a voice called out, strident, unhappy, and Raelt stopped and closed his eyes.

Father!

Someone was storming down the road, and a cheer rose. Pisces felt the [Silence] spell drop, and Raelt turned—and Colth kicked Pisces in the backs of his knees. The two knelt as Queen Jecaina of Jecrass, the Arbiter Queen, strode towards the dust-covered Trickriders and the King of Duels.

Pisces didn’t need to be told this, but the two were not married. Raelt was young, but Jecaina was his adopted daughter, and a trick of circumstances had led her to being crowned Queen of Jecrass in his absence.

Now, the cheering rose at the sight of both Jecrass’ rulers, but Pisces heard the chanting again and began to see the picture.

Raelt and the Trickriders of Jecrass! Long live the King of Duels!

The Arbiter Queen’s Lawriders! Queen Jecaina—

She had her own escort of [Riders], and each one had that set of scales of judgment motif, rather than the dancing horse crest of Raelt’s Trickriders. Pisces didn’t remember any ‘Lawriders’ mentioned during the war. He gave Colth a look, and the [Supporter] grimaced.

“Jecaina, look who I found on Medain’s coast—”

Raelt was gesturing at Colth and Pisces, but Jecaina missed the kneeling two as she strode up. She was irate; she wore royal clothing, albeit ones that kept her mobile, and she had a silver bell at her side and a rapier herself. She strode towards Raelt.

“Father, you attacked Medain again? We are at peace! Does the treaty mean nothing to you?”

Raelt’s shoulders hunched as the cheering faltered.

“Peace is just a moment between wars to Perric. You should know that.”

Jecaina had hazel-green hair, long legs like her father, and they even stood similarly, with a duelist’s light-footed poise. Her voice was more…authoritative. Strange, but Raelt’s was more conversational, for all he had the air of a weary general.

I know High King Perric well, Father. But what is an agreement if neither side will honor it?”

“Perric breaks agreements as he pleases, Jecaina. Listen, our guests—”

Are we Perric, Father? How much more blood need be shed? And who is—oh!”

At last, Jecaina spotted the kneeling duo. Her cheeks flushed, and she recoiled—then stared down at the two in surprise. Her jaw dropped, and Raelt smiled.

“I told you I had important guests. I didn’t dare send a [Message] until we were out of Medain. Jecaina, may we speak later? Privately? I present Adventurers Pisces and Colth. Of the team—”

“The Horns of Hammerad. Yes, we’ve met before! At sea! They’re back? How?”

Jecaina’s eyes went round. Pisces started. She remembered him? The Arbiter Queen looked delighted—then outraged as she wheeled on her father.

Father! The High King has their teammate, Yvlon Byres! Did you even think—”

She wavered, glanced around at the uncertain subjects watching the two rulers argue, at Pisces and Colth, and compressed her lips. Then she gestured to Pisces and Colth with a smile.

“Welcome to Jecrass.”

“Welcome to Jec—ah.”

Raelt had been doing the same thing. Both monarchs paused, indicating their city, their palace, and their people. They fell silent, father and daughter, and Pisces and Colth nudged each other until Colth popped to his feet and executed his best bow.

“Your Majesties! We are delighted to be here! Might I beg a boon? We are, I fear to say, parched and starved from a month at sea, and Pisces may swoon if we don’t get food into him.”

He grabbed Pisces’ shoulder, and Pisces tried to stomp on Colth’s foot. But Raelt smiled, and Jecaina clapped her hands.

“At once! Of course! Father, didn’t you feed—”

“Well, we had provisions on the road, but we were outrunning Medain. Is there a feast prepared?”

“Of course! And do make sure to have the [Chef] prepare that orange peel cake you love so much.”

For some reason, Raelt groaned softly as Pisces and Colth followed the strange procession into the palace. That was their intro to Jecrass.

 

——

 

It seemed the King of Duels really did like his new guests. Enough so that he didn’t ride back to Medain to continue harassing Perric’s forces. Instead, he announced he’d be remaining for a while, and a banquet was thrown that very evening.

The King of Duels’ and Arbiter Queen’s presence obviously convened a lot of pomp and circumstance around their being here, in one place—a somewhat rare occurrence, actually, it seemed—but Pisces was astounded to realize he and Colth were the theme of all the celebrations.

“Colth! What do we do?”

He hissed at Colth as they had dinner, and it was a taxing affair—not only was Pisces dressed up in some clothes they’d outfitted him with—a black doublet, which he didn’t know if it suited him, especially with the damn ruff—but everyone was staring at him and Colth.

“Relax, Pisces. Leave it to me. Just don’t say anything too confidential.”

Colth looked like the perfect courtier in his clothing, and he soon was speaking at the royal table as both Jecaina and Raelt leaned over to listen.

“—Ah, someone has an illustration from the Adventurer’s Guilds. Avert your gazes, please, anyone with a sensitive stomach, but this is a Watchertree. Note the legs?”

Someone blanched at the table; there were River Wardens, the local nobility, highly-ranked soldiers, and members of the court who looked askance at the illustrations of the Bloodfields monsters. Colth kept his voice low and dramatic.

Six of them were crawling down the road at us. We didn’t have a choice; we had to fight. Do any of you know how a monster like this fights, perchance?”

Pisces was relieved, as Jecaina speculated correctly about the Watchertree’s roots, that Colth was doing the showmanship. Not only was he good at it—Pisces had gulped down his food, and the rich meal after so long at sea was leaving him exhausted.

He had to confess, with a few unwary gulps of wine, he was almost out before the sun had begun setting. After the dinner, he tried to shake hands with River Wardens, but he was yawning and apologizing—yet they didn’t seem to take offense.

“Naturally, naturally one would be exhausted after riding with the King of Duels and surviving for a month at sea. But I trust we’ll talk again? Riverwarden Mulre. You must call upon me, Adventurer Pisces, and of course, we are delighted the pair of you are guests of Their Majesties.”

Such a delight.”

Riverwarden…Cerani added. The older woman smiled at Pisces, and he gave her his best smile. If only they knew I was a [Necromancer]. He assumed that he had some fame, but clearly, they had omitted the detail about his class. Or why the smiles?

He was, in fact, dimly braced for all this celebration of him and Colth to turn to outrage or disdain. Pisces murmured.

“I’m delighted to be so well-received by Their Majesties. I am sure things are endlessly busy.”

Riverwarden Mulre nodded darkly.

“Oh, aye. Between Medain and the clashes with—the King of Duels has our safety in mind. And the Arbiter Queen our wellbeing.”

Riverwarden Cerani’s eyes flicked to him.

“One cannot help but support—both.”

“Indeed.”

The two fell silent and then beamed hard at Pisces.

“—Which is why your presence is such a delight. I hope you’ll stay and that the King of Duels has a chance to rest, Adventurer Pisces. He seems quite taken by the pair of you.”

In fact, Raelt was still talking with Colth about the monsters, gesturing with his hands as the Arbiter Queen hovered on the outside of the conversation, glancing at them for some reason. Pisces looked around.

“I may need to sleep soon…er, apologies, River Wardens.”

“Not at all. Not at all—servant? I believe Their Majesty’s guest is exhausted. One would think a [Necromancer] is more prone to the night, eh?”

Pisces’ head snapped around, but Riverwarden Mulre just grinned and looked at Cerani—and she gave him a reproving look.

“I do hope we’ll see some of your magic here, Adventurer Pisces. Oh, and I know Adventurer Colthei is the ‘Ultimate Supporter’, but what does that mean?

Pisces stammered out something about Colth being good at everything, and he was so flummoxed a servant led him to his rooms. He almost collapsed into bed, but stared at the ceiling for a second then remembered something.

Wait a second. Chandrar doesn’t persecute [Necromancers] like the other continents. He had known it, but old habits died hard, and it was a culture shock to experience firsthand. That was such a relief that Pisces almost smiled.

Then he felt the scar on his chest, and worry and fear seeped into him. Then he thought of Eloque, Bearig, and the others and closed his eyes. Ivery was still out there. They were still out there.

Pisces slept like the dead, knowing he’d rise sooner or later.

 

——

 

It turned out Raelt Leysars really did like the Horns of Hammerad. Enough so that the next day, he dragged Colth on a morning ride with him to tour Jecrass.

Pisces made the tactical judgment to sleep in and therefore avoided the King of Duels. Whether or not that was what he preferred, it turned out that unless you woke up at dawn like a psychopath, you would be behind Raelt Leysars, who started his day training with the sword at dawn.

He and his followers, the Trickriders of Jecrass, were proper [Duelists]. Not just in the golden bell that the King of Duels wore, no, in mentality.

Pisces’ father was like that. Wake up, splash your face with cold water, and walk outside to do a thousand lunges in your underclothes even if it was knee-deep snow.

Pisces refused. He would not. Yes, he had rediscovered his love of fencing. Yes, he was a Gold-rank adventurer who had achieved his rank by hard work as well as courage and insanity.

The entire point of that, as far as he was concerned, was that he had every right to wake up at 1 PM every damn day, even if Erin gave him a hard time for it.

He would, the [Necromancer] swore, invent a style of fencing whose core tenets involved sleeping in late to achieve true mastery. And he said as much to Colth when the [Supporter] tried to get him up.

“Alright, be like that. Dead gods.”

Pisces went right back to sleep at dawn. When he woke up and sleepily crawled out of bed, the sun was rising, exposing a gloriously bright day in Chandrar. Pisces stared at the rolling savannas, and a herd of animals in the distance, out the window of the royal palace, past the sprawling capital city of Inamress.

He closed the curtains—that damned Colth had left them open—and went back to sleep.

 

——

 

At 10:23 AM, or so a custom-made clock told Pisces, he wandered into the banquet hall after several mishaps. It was uncanny.

“Adventurer Pisces, are you in need of refreshments? Breakfast has ended, but the kitchen staff will take any order you have.”

“I, ah, yes. That would be quite welcome.”

The first servant who spotted Pisces bowed and tried to lead him to the banquet hall. But he insisted he was fine. Five seconds later, another servant spotted him and tried to do the same thing.

It was almost like he was a welcome guest or something. Pisces had never had hospitality this good. Especially not in Erin’s inn. In fact, when he slid into a seat, the [Royal Chef] herself came out to ask if Pisces wanted anything, anything from home.

“Leftovers from breakfast would be quite salutary. I’m aware I was late to breakfast and even brunch.”

“Not at all, Adventurer Pisces!”

Instead of leftovers, he was presented with a spread of seven dishes within ten minutes, each one steaming. The first dish alone would have done, frankly. Pisces was staring at a pile of thin, savory, pancake-like foods, some Jecrass-dish, which you slathered in sauces and rolled in breading, be it meat, cheese, or even more grains.

His stomach rumbled.

This looks delicious. However, Pisces had a grave concern, and it was not only having an audience: the [Chef] was peeking at him, and the servants were watching as they circulated the room—

He had the issue of anyone being treated to generous hospitality, another somewhat novel experience.

Am I supposed to eat all of this? What about the leftovers? I shouldn’t be a poor guest!

The first ‘leftover’ dish had eight thin pancakes which, when rolled with the condiments, were like a burrito in consistency. That was one of seven. There was an entire crock pot of what might have been porridge in another. A waterfall of greens advancing in color until you had sun-roasted tomatoes fresh from a pan, tossed with oil, over some kind of relative of spinach and baked yams.

Pisces swallowed hard.

 

——

 

Rescue came for the poor [Necromancer] twenty-one minutes into his meal. Queen Jecaina, the Arbiter Queen herself, walked into the room, and Pisces nearly choked on his third pancake. She nodded to him as he began to rise.

“Oh, please don’t, Adventurer Pisces. You’re an honored guest. I hope breakfast wasn’t too scant?”

“Not at all, Your, ah, Your Majesty.”

Jecaina eyed the breakfast as if worried they were underfeeding Pisces. When she sat, the servants rushed over, but she simply indicated the meal.

“I shall have a small meal if that’s acceptable. My father has already left; I think he’s touring the new Kheltian border. He took Adventurer Colthei with him.”

“Did he? I, ah, thank you for telling me. Your Majesty.”

“Jecaina, please. If we may be informal.”

It was quite surreal. She was younger than he was, Pisces realized. Twenty-two? In other circumstances, he would have looked down on her for being too young, but Jecaina had a strange gravitas to her. The weight of authority, he supposed. Like Lyonette had developed after working with Erin so long.

Maturity. Yet she was still, simultaneously, youthful enough that he had the odd push-pull of formality with a powerful individual and the chatting cadence of two people meeting each other for the first time.

That added to his already considerably taxed nerves, but Jecaina seemed hospitable, nay, friendly. And she rescued him from one predicament.

After seeing her take a single pancake and modestly roll it up with some nuts and a bit of butter, Pisces dared to hope that him not eating more wouldn’t break the [Chef]’s heart. He sat back, and Jecaina nodded.

“I hope you found your rooms acceptable?”

“Very. This meal is quite, quite—delicious. I couldn’t eat another bite. I hope Colth didn’t impose in any way?”

Jecaina chuckled, and the dishes were swept away to Pisces’ relief. She leaned forward slightly.

Dead gods, she has excellent posture. You noticed such things, or at least, Pisces had been trained to. No slumped shoulders. Well, she was the King of Duels’ daughter.

Jecaina glanced at Pisces, then ate her rolled pancake delicately.

“Not at all. If anything, Adventurer Colth—is that how he prefers to be called—is amazingly good at keeping my father distracted. He kept up with the Trickriders all morning and my father’s morning practice. He rides like he was born to it.”

“Colth is good at almost everything.”

That show-off. Pisces patted at his mouth and hesitated. Jecaina paused, and they had that moment where they were sure the other was searching for a conversation topic and unable to find one.

“Fine weather for a ride.”

“What? Oh, yes. It is. I recall that Izrilians have a winter with longer snows and whatnot. For us, it’s usually more of the same.”

“I see. But Jecrass is so very—green.”

Pisces waved a hand out the window, and Jecaina smiled.

“One of the greenest nations of Chandrar. We owe it all to our rivers. Past our borders, you’ll see why they call Chandrar the desert continent. That is, if you’re not planning on heading north towards the Claiven Earth, where your teammates are. That…might be trickier, but so long as Father doesn’t insist on escorting you, it should be simple.”

“Ah, so the two of them are in the Claiven Earth, now?”

Pisces had been finally caught up on the location of his teammates, and Jecaina gave Pisces a brief explanation of how she understood Yvlon’s departure from Medain went.

“I’m relieved she escaped High King Perric. He is a dangerous man—I am not as furious at him as my father, but I don’t discount how dangerous he is. In fact, I think I understand more of the danger—”

Jecaina sighed, and Pisces tried not to step on any landmine spells like the clear rift between her and her father. But he had to ask something.

“The, ah, Lawriders of Jecrass I heard of?”

Jecaina grew even more embarrassed.

“Oh, that. They’re a small group. Not like the Trickriders, who are established—they administer law in Jecrass. The war left too many displaced, and the Lawriders deliver food and help implement reforms—it is a class of its own. I am the [Queen of Covenant], and it seems I bestow my class upon others.”

“Wh—really?

Pisces hadn’t known that. Jecaina smiled and stood.

“Yes, in fact, I do have some work to attend to. Will you walk with me a moment?”

Pisces rose, and they left the banquet hall. He noticed Jecaina glance at his hip and realized he was armed in arm’s reach of royalty. Pisces glanced at the bodyguards around Jecaina, but they didn’t seem to be staring at the blade. He decided to be very inoffensive.

“I, ah, would hate to distract you from your work, Your Majesty. King Raelt has already provided us a great service in taking us out of Medain.”

Even if we would have rather met with Yvlon, High King or not. Jecaina blinked, and then the Arbiter Queen looked embarrassed.

“I quite understand, Adventurer Pisces. Forgive me for indulging my curiosity with all these questions. I don’t want to take your time or inconvenience the two of you any more than we already have.”

Wait, now it sounded like she was apologizing for taking his time! Pisces tried to clarify.

“Not—not at all! I merely meant that surely, ah, the affairs of Jecrass trump two Gold-rank adventurers. Well, Named-rank in Colth’s case, Queen Jecaina.”

Her lips quirked ironically.

“If it were the business of Jecrass, I might agree. Though ruling selfishly and trampling over the rights of others is the kind of thing I’ve tried not to do—in this case, it’s purely selfish. My father wanted to strike a blow at High King Perric. He might have felt you two were in danger from the High King, but hosting you and dragging Colth around and wanting to duel are all of his desires. I’m almost glad of it; he needs the rest.”

Her gaze became far-off and regretful for a moment, and Pisces, dredging up his knowledge of Jecrass’ history, recalled that the King of Duels had been taken captive after his daughter’s kidnapping. Doubtless that was why Raelt looked so—burdened.

And now the Arbiter Queen’s father has returned, and there is a King of Duels and Arbiter Queen ruling Jecrass, who has lost land to Khelt and suffered the King of Destruction’s wars.

No wonder Jecaina seemed harried. Pisces was seldom sympathetic to anyone he had just met; he had a healthy distrust of people and a disdain to go along with it. Yet he had to admit, Jecaina was a real celebrity he’d read about and seen in the news.

He was a bit enamored with the fact that she was treating him like an equal. Not being spat on for being a [Necromancer] definitely helped. So he tried to sound affable as possible.

“Ah, well…we have dueled once before on the ship that took us to Izril. I was hardly a match for him back then. Even now, with a few new tricks, I’m sure I’m no match.”

His hand stole to the rapier he’d carried from the Crossroads of Izril, bone and steel, and brushed the little bell without a clapper. Jecaina blinked as she eyed the rapier.

That was it, he realized. She hadn’t been eying him, but his rapier! And Pisces recalled that Jecaina had a silver bell…

“I recall that duel. You did quite well. A shame if you don’t care for another. I have to admit, I would have liked to try my luck against you as well. We hardly had a chance to speak on Sand at Sea; I know all we did is talk, but there were so many of us…I’m not a tenth as good as my father with the blade, though.”

She bit her lip ruefully. Pisces saw Jecaina shift, and her own sword, bound in a black leather sheath, had a fancy wire handle guard, but was a standard rapier beyond that. And on the handle, which was bound with blue fabric, was a dangling silver bell.

It hadn’t made any sound in all the time they’d been in each other’s company. That was…rather impressive. Pisces blinked, and Jecaina’s gaze stole to Pisces’ rapier again.

“You’re a fellow Silver-bell duelist, aren’t you, Pisces? I looked up your record. Were you certified for yours or did you take it in a duel? I was certified. I think I’m worthy of it, but—”

“I won mine in a duel. It, uh—wasn’t the most orthodox of duels. I lost my original one, and rapier, actually.”

Sold it. And I earned that damn bell, even if I used magic. Jecaina blinked.

“Really? If I may—might I inspect your rapier? And your replacement bell is very—very interesting.”

She was eying the bell he’d received at the Trial of Shields, Pisces recognized. Instantly, he colored.

“What? No!”

“Ah, of course. Pardon me for—”

“No, no! I mean—it isn’t a silver bell!”

The most shameful thing Pisces could think of was that she thought he had a fake silver bell and was masquerading as a duelist. He practically yanked his rapier out of its sheath to show her.

“It’s a bell, but not silver. I lost my original, and I wouldn’t be wearing that like—it’s another kind of certification, I think. The Bell of Challenges. Just a keepsake. Nothing else.”

Strange. It’s pale white. Is it metal? And it—huh. It has no clapper? And this rapier!”

Like any swordswoman, Jecaina was fascinated as she took Pisces’ rapier and instantly noticed the oddities. She exclaimed over it.

“Was it broken? It’s made of ivory? The balance is very good—did you make it yourself?”

“Er, yes. In a battle against a monster. Well, against some magical projections. I didn’t have time to replace it, and it’s very functional. The bell’s also a spoil of war. I didn’t think of how it looked. It’s magical, I think, but not in any utility sense.”

The Arbiter Queen’s eyes went round.

Magical projections? Where was this, might I ask?”

“Oh, the Crossroads of Izril. They were Drakes who used swords—imitating [Duelists], actually.”

Pisces was so flustered that he completely missed what he was saying until he realized Jecaina was just staring at him.

“The Crossroads of Izril?”

Even some of her bodyguards and servants had turned to stare at Pisces. The [Necromancer] slowly recalled—belatedly—how he was sounding. Of course, it was true, it was just—even for other adventurers, it was an incredible statement.

For a [Queen] who’d never really left her nation, or people who never fought monsters? Pisces floundered. Then he tried not to enjoy the attention.

 

——

 

“—They were each armed with dueling swords, not rapiers. But their movements were that of trained [Swordmasters] and [Duelists]. Each one was quite capable of imitating a high-level [Warrior]’s movements or even a footwork Skill. One came at us with a backflipping slash—very showy. That was when I realized they were immortal; I cut the Drake’s neck, and it stitched itself together with magic before my very eyes.”

Fifteen minutes later, Pisces was giving Jecaina and a small crowd of people a blow-by-blow of the Trial of Shields. And yes, he was showing off.

So what?

It was his first moment when anyone beyond Mrsha or Selys had given him an admiring look. Well, Remendia, but that was ages ago. And he was having fun telling someone the better parts of the damn Crossroads of Izril.

Not that Pisces gave away the secrets. But the more he told them how damned horrible it was, the more his audience loved it.

“And this was with your other teammates separated and an invisible foe stalking you through the halls?”

One of Jecaina’s followers called out excitedly, and Pisces brushed at his hair and sniffed. He had the urge to say something impressive—and then thought of what Erin would do if she heard him.

Hit him on the back of the head. Pisces stopped as he recalled the visceral fear and frustration of fighting Bograms and lowered his sword.

“Yes, well…I was spared from fighting Bograms. Colth was the true hero of the moment, or Ksmvr, really. I can hardly recount his tale as I wasn’t there, but Colth was beset by Bograms the moment we were separated. Yet he was clearing traps and fighting Bograms—until Yvlon found him. By smashing through each trap she encountered, including a literal boulder of death. I daresay it slowed her down…for a minute.”

His audience oohed. Jecaina was shifting from foot to foot excitedly.

“By boulder of death, do you mean…”

“Ah, well, I could show you. Imagine this rolling towards you.”

Pisces embellished a bit because he hadn’t actually seen the boulder Yvlon had been hit by. But he made a suitably spiky boulder that she had said was almost as tall as her. The illusion made some of the audience gasp, and Pisces gave them a somber look. Then a quick smile.

“I gather it ran into her at full speed.”

“And she survived?

“Well, she is Yvlon.”

Telling stories about the others’ exploits was almost more enjoyable than his own. But Pisces did omit some of the details. Such as how he’d gotten the bell.

Some things were secrets his team needed to keep or sell off. But what struck Pisces most of all was Jecaina’s expression as he spoke.

“Now that’s a proper adventure.”

The Arbiter Queen’s comment was accompanied by murmurs and looks of admiration. But Pisces saw Jecaina shift, then lift Pisces’ rapier and stare at it as if trying to envision the battles he’d had.

To Pisces, they had been miserable, desperate, filled with starvation, and yes, moments of glory he’d never forget—which is why he couldn’t stop—but the look of longing in Jecaina’s eyes made him understand the difference between an adventurer and someone dreaming of it.

—He didn’t hate the way she looked so wistful. He’d felt the same way most of his life. And what she said surprised him the most of all.

“I wish I could say I had done something half as incredible as that. It’s an honor to meet you, Pisces.”

The [Necromancer] blinked. Even some of the people of Jecrass turned, smiling—until they realized she meant it.

So that was what a lack of self awareness looked like. Here stood the [Princess] who had won respect for arguing justice on a scrying orb. Someone who was, Pisces would argue, more famous than most Terandrian royalty.

He coughed.

“Your Majesty surely jests. The Horns of Hammerad can’t equal the accomplishment of a ruler of a nation like Jecrass. Especially one who did so much in its darkest hours. And you were at the Meeting of Tribes.”

That earned him murmurs of approval. But Jecaina just held the sword up.

“I had help, Adventurer Pisces. I am my father’s daughter; I am hardly the King of Duels, who could fight the King of Destruction to a standstill.”

“You…convinced the King of Khelt to come to Jecrass’ aid. You freed the Daemon from its bonds.”

She had a wry smile on her lips.

“Yes, after Fetohep took on the might of the Walled Cities, and the King of Destruction led the charge against the Drakes. I know who the true powers of Chandrar are, especially in this region, Pisces. Even my own deeds are only enabled by his aid. Without King Fetohep, I imagine Jecrass might have fallen. Next time, I might not have that aid. I hope I will be worthy of my reputation. Let us put it like that.”

She lowered his sword and proffered the blade to Pisces, and he took it slowly, studying the Arbiter Queen.

What a strange person. Simultaneously older than her age, accomplished, and utterly unaware of how she looked to other people. Like Erin had been at one time, he supposed. Did she not realize that her—her deeds had so little to do with might of arms? That it was not why her people clearly adored her and he himself had admired her actions?

It was something, Pisces supposed, when one could not see their own noble qualities leaking out of themselves. For if it were ever a tangible force, he thought he could sense it from her.

A lack of ego with her father returned. Jecaina looked so dolorous that Pisces said something without considering the implications.

“Well then, Your Majesty. Would you care for a duel?”

Jecaina blinked. Her head rose, and Pisces froze at the sound of his own voice. But no—he meant it.

“Are you sure? I wouldn’t wish to impose after my father asked.”

Pisces blustered.

“I believe—we are closer in skill level. And besides—I believe I would enjoy it. I have not actually properly dueled anyone in years, so I might be a poor match, but—”

“No. I should be delighted.”

Jecaina’s eyes lit up. She touched the rapier at her side, and Pisces felt his heart leap. Not just because he was pleased to see her smile; the green-haired [Queen] tilted her head, and he felt a thrill on the back of his arms as she drew her rapier.

She was a Silver-bell duelist after all. But Jecaina drew her sword as if he had a golden bell, and from the way several of her bodyguards whispered to her, they looked at Pisces as if he might behead her.

“Your Majesty, what about practice blades—”

“Practice blades? With another duelist of a Silver bell? Absolutely not. Padded gear if you must. What say you, Pisces? Ten points?”

“Very standard. Why not? Magic? Skills?”

“Could we try without, just so I might see how an adventurer of Izril duels?”

“Naturally—”

 

——

 

And that was how Pisces ended up facing the Queen of Jecrass across a practice court, swords ringing as they advanced back and forth, circling the other, testing guards, and learning each other’s style.

They both wore padded armor, of course, but they had their own blades. Jecrass was not a rich country, but Raelt had invested in some Braces of Deflection that blocked swift strikes above a certain level of speed; they’d flash and emit a sound. Perfect for a man who loved duels and wanted to use a real sword for them.

Jecaina grinned as she stood, one hand placed on her hip, facing him side-long, pressing him in a series of fast thrusts and feints that was apparently her father’s style—then switching into very smooth, carrying footwork.

No wonder Raelt was able to keep pace with even the King of Destruction like this! It was a very polished style meant for wider spaces than a mere dueling court. Pisces didn’t feel like he was slouching either; three times, Jecaina made the mistake of crossing blades with him only to find that Pisces could land a point by breaking the lock and turning it into a parrying slash.

It was so much fun, in fact, that Pisces realized he was smiling after thirty minutes of sparring as he wiped sweat from his face. Jecaina looked equally pleased, and a servant hurried over to give her some water to wash her face—and then retreated.

At first, they’d had a huge audience, but the cheering and voices had rapidly annoyed the two, and Jecaina had dismissed most of the audience, much to their regrets. It was, perhaps, for the best. Pisces actually felt more stage fright at the duel at first, and when they began using Skills, he was glad not to show his abilities too openly.

[Queen of Covenant] or not, it was clear after they began using Skills that Pisces had Jecaina on levels. He had both a [Mage]’s techniques, like invisibility, the ability to cast off-hand, and his own [Duelist] class—Jecaina had been a [Duelist], but only one on par with Pisces’ secondary class.

“I fear I’m not much of a match. My father will be dying to spar with you, Pisces.”

“Well, I’m not much of a match for him.”

Pisces had won three bouts against Jecaina, each time with a new trick. He was debating using his newest Skill, [Joveln’s Parry], but it almost felt like showing off. However, Jecaina raised her hand.

“One more bout, please? I fear I’ll have to cheat a bit—unless you object?”

“No, not at all. All’s fair for an adventurer.”

Pisces thought Jecaina meant she was going to use an enchantment on her blade or armor and was braced, but the [Queen of Covenant] smiled, held her guard up—and spoke.

“Very well. [Rule of Combat]—not one step back!”

He blinked, and she advanced at a slow walk. Reflexively, Pisces tried to step backwards—and he could not.

“Ah—”

Disconcerted, he stepped sideways, and Jecaina burst into a flurry of offensive steps. Pisces swayed, stumbled—and she touched his chest.

“Apologies. I had to win one point.”

She gave him a bright smile as her supporters cheered. Pisces blinked at Jecaina—then his eyes lit up.

So this was the power of a [Queen of Covenant]?

“Another bout?”

The second time, Pisces understood how it worked, and he advanced in a rush like Jecaina. If you couldn’t step back—the two nearly collided, then stepped past each other, swinging around to face the other. Jecaina was far more experienced with this rule than Pisces, but she was equally bound by it. She provoked him into a reflexive sidestep, and as he wobbled, unable to step backwards—she struck lightly with her rapier.

[Joveln’s Parry]! Jecaina’s eyes went round as a tail appeared behind Pisces and he flicked his sword. Her blade went wide, but she used a Skill and recovered fast—Pisces stepped forwards and shoved as they crossed blades.

His instincts were good. If you weren’t able to step backwards, what happened if you were literally shoved? The answer was you fell flat on your back. The Arbiter Queen exhaled as her back hit the ground, and she stared up at Pisces’ rapier pointed at her throat.

“A Gold-rank adventurer can beat a [Queen], it seems. I knew it, but it still stings.”

Pisces realized he was aiming a sword at royalty and lowered it hurriedly, but the applause and Jecaina’s own smile showed that the audience and the Arbiter Queen had quite enjoyed the match. Jecaina brushed at her armor as Pisces had to ask—

“So that Skill. Is it just for footwork? Or anything else?”

“Oh, I can make it any number of things. Nothing too egregious like ‘you must fight only with a rapier’. My Lawriders have their own tricks like that. Rules in combat. Such a quaint, ludicrous notion.”

“Rather like fencing is.”

Pisces murmured, and Jecaina grinned.

“A style of combat entirely unfit for proper warfare—and I have a class to enforce it. Yes, quite. I thought it was apt, especially because I’m not my father, who can actually fight in battle regardless of the circumstances.”

It was impressive. Pisces was surprised that Jecaina showed him a few more rules she had tried—the one where she declared ‘no parries’ was particularly nasty, but as she pointed out, she had to get used to the rules herself or she’d still be taken out by a better swordsman.

Even so, with that Skill, she was far better than before. Pisces saw how some might consider it cheating, but as someone who’d happily let his undead do the fighting for him, he just found it fascinating.

After their fifth experimental duel, they stepped back, and Pisces had to say it.

“One last duel, then? No holds barred?”

The Arbiter Queen seemed like she’d had the same thought. She brushed at her hair, dripping with sweat, and her guards stirred, but one look from her made them desist.

“Properly. Don’t hold back anything on my account, please. If it’s five seconds—I shall count it as a lesson.”

That was what he was supposed to say. Pisces had no idea how he’d counter her dueling Skill—but he wanted to try. He lifted his rapier, and Jecaina offered him a flick-salute.

The [Necromancer] paused—and then his sword traced a pattern in the air. A remembered salute, given to him by that Drake in the Trials of Blades. As his sword moved, something caught the light shining into the practice court, flashing. Jecaina’s eye found the source and she remembered what he’d called it.

 

——

 

The Bell of Challenges. It had been on Pisces’ rapier this entire time, just a little bell attached where his signifier of rank should have been. Quiet, just like silver and golden bells were supposed to be.

As Raelt, Jecaina, and any [Duelist] could have told you—completely inauthentic as a measure of Pisces’ actual level. It wasn’t silver, after all, even if it sometimes looked like it. An adventurer’s pretense towards a bell, you might imagine if you saw Pisces wearing it. Like a nobleman trying to copy true talent.

The Arbiter Queen would never have accused Pisces of that, even before she had seen his skill in the courtyard. But she had wondered about it. It was too beautiful to be a mere keepsake. She hadn’t had a chance to stare at it closely, but she’d sworn it was a pale white metal with the teensiest of etching, as if someone had taken a toothpick and worked on it.

—It had no clapper. It could not ring. So why—

Jecaina shook her head slightly as Pisces Jealnet gave her a salute that made one of her bodyguards, another Silver-bell duelist, start. Jecaina’s own eyes widened.

I’ve never seen that salute in my life. It was beautiful, flowing, and showy, ending with a cut to the side. It intimidated her slightly, as did the techniques he’d used. But—Jecaina shook her head again.

“Something wrong, Jecaina?”

Pisces’ voice was excited. He held his rapier on guard, poised, ready to begin. And Jecaina’s own arm was about to explode into action. But she held up one hand and turned her head.

“What is—”

Her eyes focused on the Bell of Challenges, and then Jecaina looked in bewilderment at the few people watching the two of them spar. None of the bodyguards or servants peeking in reacted; they were all watching her and Pisces. Jecaina swung her eyes back to the [Necromancer], and he raised an eyebrow.

“I thought you said spells were allowed.”

She had noticed him casting a few spells. But one of her rings could pierce illusions and invisibility—no. Jecaina blinked at Pisces and laughed, incredulous.

“Can no one else hear it?”

She glanced around, and everyone stared at her. The Arbiter Queen eyed her arms, covered in sweat, and between the practice cloth padding, she saw goosebumps on her skin. She gazed up at Pisces and met his eyes. Then stared at the swinging bell.

It was ringing. 

Pisces’ own eyes widened a fraction, and he glanced at his bell. Everyone else watched Jecaina, deaf. To her? Jecaina closed her eyes a second and shivered.

It was the most fantastical sound she’d ever heard in her life. Terrifying. Wondrous. A call to arms or flight. She opened her eyes—

Then she did feel like an adventurer facing down a legend from another continent. Slowly, the [Necromancer] offered her the same salute from a dead city. Jecaina’s sweaty hand took a tighter grip on her sword.

What a strange adventurer. Far, far too humble. She grinned with all her teeth, and the bell rang and rang—until their swords met in the purest tones yet.

 

——

 

They talked about the duel between Pisces Jealnet and the Arbiter Queen for the rest of the day. Even when Raelt came racing back to find an exhausted duo, even that night and for days thereafter, Jecrass was abuzz with the topic.

Not that anyone had seen it. The few servants and guards who had actually witnessed the duel gave different accounts of what they had seen and not heard—and no one had recorded the damn duel.

It had been one of the most engaging and fun duels of Pisces’ life. He was smiling even at dinner as Raelt tried to hint that he too was a duelist, you know. But Pisces’ arm hurt, and he doubted they could reproduce that moment.

It had been genuine. Jecaina seemed so pleased and was so friendly with Pisces that he felt actually sad about the fact that they’d have to leave to find Ceria and Yvlon.

Maybe we can swing back this way? Pisces was inspecting his sword in his rooms later, wondering if he actually needed to buy a better blade. It had held up very well in the duel, and he could manipulate the bone part of the sword. Then again, a once-broken sword could be a liability, and this one wasn’t enchanted.

“Well, well, well. Look at the Necrolad. Famous duelist! Everyone’s talking about your duel with the Arbiter Queen. You know, I was going to give you tips on how to impress royalty, but you managed the first part. The rest?”

Colth opened the door, and Pisces sat up with a wince. Potions were a good way to undo any muscle growth, so he had gotten a liniment for his sore muscles, but still.

“I know, I know. I turned down the King of Duels—it was spontaneous, Colth.”

The [Ultimate Supporter] leaned sardonically against Pisces’ door frame after closing the door. He was in his early thirties, but he looked very young for his age. Annoyingly, he often acted as if he was far older, which he was in adventuring terms—but it could get on Pisces’ nerves.

He was doing it right now.

“Oh, I know. I’m sure it was…spontaneous. Unexpected. Everyone’s talking about it, you idiot.”

Pisces frowned at Colth as he sheathed his blade.

“I don’t think I made us look bad, Colth. And it was a mutually satisfactory occasion.”

Colth covered his face.

“I’m sure it was. You idiot. Our first nation and you get us entangled with the rulers. Raelt’s bad enough, but I leave you for one second and you get seduced by a [Queen]?”

Pisces’ eyes bulged.

What?

Colth gave Pisces a long stare and sigh.

“Okay, rookie Pisces. Here’s a tip since Ksmvr isn’t here to give you lessons. When you act on your own volition, you drag your team into things. See? That’s called responsibility. So when you and Jecaina—”

Colth made some exceptionally lewd hand gestures, and Pisces, red-faced and spluttering, finally shouted.

“We dueled, you fool!”

“Sure, sure. I’m sure you did. How many ‘matches’? Was it first-touch or full-contact? Please tell me you had protection.”

Pisces threw a pillow. Colth caught it and tossed it back so fast it hit Pisces in the head. Spluttering, Pisces waved a fist at him.

We dueled with swords!

Which sword? And so what if she had one too? You can buy them at shops. I’m not judging—”

At this point, Pisces actually got up and tried to hit Colth, but all he ended up doing was chasing the [Supporter] around the room. Colth ended up tripping Pisces and sitting on him on the floor.

“Well, maybe you didn’t hop into bed with each other if that’s your reaction. But from where I’m sitting, that might not be more than a second duel away. And if you do that—”

“She’s a [Queen]. We were having fun!”

“—I’m sure that helps. [Queens] and [Princesses] have gotten Named-rank adventurers to do quests for a single night. That’s a bargain, sometimes. For you—eh—well, Jecrass is poor right now. I’m sure she has to get discounts.”

Pisces fired a weak [Deathbolt] spell, and Colth leapt off him and clung to the ceiling. He climbed around like a spider as Pisces swore at him and tried to stab the ceiling with his sheathed rapier.

“I am not interested in the pursuit of her loins, Colth!”

The [Ultimate Supporter] landed on Pisces’ bed, arms and legs crossed.

“Good. Because if you did promise her anything, you’d better be prepared to break those promises. They’re still [King] and [Queen], and promises mean too much to them. They can enforce even idle promises, Pisces. And King Raelt? He’s got dangerous requests.”

Pisces blinked. He calmed down a second and frowned at Colth.

“What do you mean?”

Colthei’s eyes glinted, and he glanced at the door.

“Let me give you the rundown. I’m sure Raelt will find you; he’s not subtle about what he wants. Promise him nothing.”

Just like Ceria and Yvlon, Pisces felt a moment of unease as he realized his presence in Jecrass had more significance than their last visit to Chandrar.

 

——

 

“High King Perric must die. Be dethroned at the least.”

Raelt delivered that to Pisces in the late morning the next day as the two were warming up so the King of Duels could test Pisces’ mettle. Pisces opened his mouth, glanced at Colth, who gave him a fake smile, and tried to act oblivious.

“Er—is that the will of Jecrass, Your Majesty?”

Raelt blinked at Pisces.

“Will of…ah. Well, Jecaina agrees, but she’s too bound up in her new class.”

He bent to tie his shoelaces, then pointed a finger at Pisces belatedly.

“Which I’m grateful for! But she’s young, and Jecrass needs stability. Flos aside…”

His brows darkened.

“Perric is a monster. Unfortunately, Medain is vast, and he has too much support. I could kill his soldiers for a decade and not do enough damage. However, if an adventurer were to persuade some of his top Named-ranks to switch sides, or uncover a weakness in Medain…I’m asking you discreetly. I’m prepared to reward your team handsomely. Yours is one I hope I can trust.”

He smiled at Pisces, and the [Necromancer] stared at one of his inspirations…who was asking him to sabotage an enemy kingdom. Pisces swallowed.

“I, ah—I don’t know what I could do, Your Majesty. Could you give a more concrete example?”

“Ah—I—he has to have secrets. Enemies. He has a dungeon filled with his enemies. If your friend, Yvlon, found something out. Or if Perric has some plot of ambition he confides in you. Maybe if he hires your team to do something—that sort of thing. Do you use a parrying dagger?”

“I use spells in my offhand.”

Pisces replied weakly, and Raelt nodded as he flipped a parry dagger in his hand.

“Good! I can’t wait to see this parrying Skill. Is that a silver bell?”

“Er—no, Your Majesty.”

It did not ring for Raelt. Possibly because Pisces was so taken aback; he thought he put up a good show, enough to make Raelt happy, but he was so alarmed by the request that he mostly fought on reflex, which probably made him do better than if he was psyching himself out over the fact that he was fighting the King of Duels, his personal hero.

After the duel, Pisces dragged Colth aside.

Dead gods, Colth! What are we supposed to do?

“Smile and nod, Pisces. Smile and nod. We can commit to helping without giving him an actual promise. He hates Medain; I can’t say I blame him.”

It was clear that King Raelt’s enmity was more than a mere grudge. In fact, his interest in Colth and Pisces became a negative thing quickly; in between showing Pisces around the kingdom and offering him refreshments and hospitality, Raelt would have sudden impulses. Like—

“There’s a Djinni. Maef. She might help. She’s…she assisted me while I was in his palace. No one’s suggesting you free a Djinni. But if you liberated her—”

Or he’d snap his fingers while riding to show them a herd of magical horses.

“Frieke switched sides. Would one of the other Named-ranks do that? We can’t offer them much, but even if they joined Khelt or another kingdom—”

He didn’t know how, but he definitely knew what he wanted. Pisces began to realize Colth had done him a favor by keeping the King of Duels occupied; every time Raelt floated a new idea by Pisces, the [Necromancer]’s stomach hurt.

Pisces was leaving a bathroom, one of the places he could escape Raelt, when Jecaina found him.

“Pisces. I know my father’s dragged you all over Jecrass. Would you like to have lunch together?”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

Pisces was not expecting to have lunch together, as in just him and her in a more private dining room. Jecaina picked at her food, then looked him in the eye.

“The King of Duels is a different man than King Raelt, Pisces. The man who raised me and the [King] of Jecrass are…hard to reconcile, sometimes. I know he’s asked you to sabotage Medain. He rules Jecrass. Well, so do I, and neither one of us can relent or acknowledge the other as supreme. I would if I thought it was wise. Attacking Medain is not. I hope you and Adventurer Colthei will refuse his requests. Adventurer Colth seemed to understand that when I spoke with him.”

Pisces swallowed a lump of dates hard.

“I, ah—did think it was a rather aggressive request, Jecaina. I was honored by his trust.”

Jecaina’s lips twisted.

“Perhaps it’s wrong, but we know you from that strange adventure at sea. It still sounds like a fairy tale. Riding a ship from Khelt to fight the Walled Cities? I wake up some nights and wonder if it happened. That is purely Fetohep, though.”

Fetohep. Pisces was indebted to the Eternal King himself, and Jecaina’s worried expression relaxed as she spoke of Fetohep. She smiled, then looked at Pisces.

“Jecrass is not well, Pisces. I’m sure you haven’t missed Khelt’s lands?”

The third of land that Jecaina had traded to Khelt was not visibly demarcated—yet—but it lay across a river, and Pisces had sensed death magic coming from that area. He was curious about it, but even the King of Duels had avoided that place.

Khelt ruled it, and no one would go against the Eternal Kingdom. Not the Claiven Earth, not Medain, not Jecrass.

“His Majesty of Khelt is a remarkable figure.”

“Yes—and a busy one. I wish I could speak with him more, but I cannot rely on Khelt alone. Jecrass is weakened, and perhaps I sold our future to survive now—”

Jecaina’s lips compressed, and Pisces wondered if that was quoting Raelt verbatim. Then she went on softly.

“—We did not survive by sheer might of arms. The King of Destruction attacked Belchan, and we went to their aid. Whether we should have or not, two nations collapsed against each other. We should have gone to Germina and Hellios’ aid. We should have been a nation among allies, not one of the proud few. Agh, I have a small request of my own, Pisces.”

Uh oh. Pisces’ heart began to race, but Jecaina just glanced at him.

“If you meet foreign rulers on your tour of Chandrar—I imagine you will go to the Empress of Beasts for your sword—would you speak to any rulers you meet? Just speak and indicate I would like to communicate with them.”

“For—matters of state, Your Majesty?”

Jecaina half-shrugged.

“For matters of state and to simply speak. Chandrar has fallen out of the habit of speech when one can simply grab a sword. I have not sent a [Message] spell to any neighbor outside of a hundred miles away. Neither has my father or his father or grandfather! Why, when magic exists? Why do we not talk and, when a common crisis emerges, communicate and band together? For all they spoke of a ‘grand alliance against the King of Destruction’, it fell apart the moment he looked at them sternly. I know you are an adventurer, and I wish to ask nothing of you that would endanger your team. Just that if you meet anyone of note…mention my name?”

It was far, far more reasonable as a request went than Raelt’s. Mindful of Colth’s warning, Pisces could only murmur.

“I, ah, could see what occurs, Your Majesty. But I doubt I’ll meet that many rulers of note.”

Jecaina blinked, then eyed Pisces with amusement.

“You think so? I imagine many would be keen to meet the Horns of Hammerad.”

“…Why?”

Pisces gave Jecaina such a blank look that the Arbiter Queen burst out laughing. After a moment, Pisces gave her such an abashed grin of gratification that something slipped out of his mouth.

“I will try, Your Majesty. As a personal promise.”

She blinked, and Pisces bit his tongue. He’d meant it. Jecaina looked relieved and happy and nodded.

“Thank you, Pisces. And I wish to say that I hope you’ve found Jecrass—pleasant. I read a report of how you first came to Chandrar. Laws were broken to take you as a [Slave]. But Roshal refused to accept they had broken any law, and Arbiter Queen or not—”

Her face fell.

“—It seems some are above even the laws of kingdoms. That has weighed on me too.”

Pisces felt his heart constrict and scars on his chest burn for a second. But Jecaina’s guilty look—he forced a smile out.

“Jecrass has been hospitable to me, Jecaina. Do you keep many…[Slaves] in Jecrass?”

“Not many. My father detests them, and we allow them, but no. We love horses more than people and water more than both. Still, I had not thought long on it until I spoke to Fetohep of Khelt.”

“A wise man.”

Jecaina smiled briefly.

“Yes. He is.”

 

——

 

It was safe to say that after a mere two days in Jecrass, Pisces and Colth felt like they were friendly with the rulers of Jecrass. What a thing!

Mind you, Colth and Pisces were as friendly with Raelt as a [King] was to two adventurers who were really nervous about him getting them involved in a war. Jecaina and Pisces had what he thought of more as a bond.

“Just so long as that’s bond and not bond…age, Pisces.”

Colth kept needling the [Necromancer], and Pisces was getting sick of it. But they weren’t just eating well and schmoozing around the palace. They were preparing for their departure.

“Colth. How’s your new Skill?”

Colth was practicing a sword-form in the grass outside the palace. The practice courts were too cramped, and people stared at them too much. Pisces bet they were watching from the palace, but at least here they could talk.

“Eh…I can’t do it right. Give me a few days and I’ll master it. I’m ready to go; I didn’t lose my swords, though I wish I’d stolen Iert’s, the bastard. Or his bones. You could have made a great undead out of that bastard’s corpse.”

They hadn’t spoken as much about those moments, fighting in the cold, freezing waters with the Gnoll. What was there to say? They had been the longest moments of Pisces’ life, and that had been before he’d seen the Witch of Webs standing at the bottom of the ocean, staring up at him.

“I don’t think you’d want me to make an undead out of his bones, Colth.”

Pisces murmured softly, and Colth paused. He shivered, imperceptibly, and lowered the sword and a practice buckler he held. He’d been imitating a stance and been practicing even on the raft, but if he didn’t do it exactly right, his new Skill didn’t work.

“…No. Perhaps not. But those Skeleton Champions of yours need work.”

Pisces gave Colth a hurt look, and five Skeleton Champions all swung their heads around. They lived once more! He’d managed to save them from the battle at sea, and all of them gave Colth a hurt look as well.

“They did pretty well against [Pirates].”

“I could dice them all up myself. Pisces. Pisces. Pisces. Where’s the Stellar Ivory death machine?

Colth began poking Pisces in the cheek, and Pisces exhaled.

[Manufacture Stellar Ivory]. Pisces’ new Skill. Well, one of them. It was the only Skill he had that he didn’t really understand.

“I’m trying, Colth. We haven’t exactly had room or time to practice. Skills don’t come with instruction manuals!”

And Az’kerash hasn’t contacted me, so I have no actual idea how to use this Skill. Colth just gave Pisces an arch look.

“Necrolad—”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Sniffmaster Pisces, we are guests of two rulers, at least one of whom would like to engage in nighttime duels with you. This is the moment to figure out how to make some and create an undead that will kill any [Slavers] of Roshal we run into.”

He had a point. About the Stellar Ivory. Pisces realized he was just—nervous. After all, he was a [Necromancer]. What if—

 

——

 

A new [Necromancer] Skill? Of course! Whatever you need.”

Jecaina instantly approved Pisces and Colth using space or materials, within reason, to try and make some. Colth gave Pisces such an arch look that Pisces kicked him under the table.

Thus began the manufacture of Stellar Ivory! Pisces cast the Skill over a pile of bones in his rooms.

Nothing happened.

 

——

 

“Maybe we have to give you tools. Here. Hammer.”

“Nope.”

“Fire?”

“Nope.”

“Spellbook? Mana crystal?”

Colth was arguably one of the greatest experts in the world for uncovering what a Skill did. One of the first things he had Pisces do was hold a bunch of objects and see if they provoked an instinctive response. If Pisces could make this Stellar Ivory, most Skills would hint at how if he had the right materials.

Unfortunately, nothing worked. Pisces’ instincts said he needed ivory and…

“The moon? No—nighttime.”

For some reason, he felt like night, or perhaps starlight, was important in making it. Colth instantly decided to try that.

“We’d better kill something and put it under the moon and stars, then. Or experiment with bones. Maybe soaking it in water infused by the moonlight? Does it need two full moons? Dead gods, that would limit it. Come on, let’s make a bunch of tests for tonight.”

Pisces protested as Colth outlined a pile of bones in various formats to see if any jogged his instincts.

“Colth! I don’t have that many bones! Unless you want to deconstruct a Skeleton Champion—”

All the Skeleton Champions shuffled behind each other, as if trying not to be the first in line. Once again, Colth gave Pisces that insufferably know-it-all look. He patted Pisces on the shoulder.

“Pisces. Pisces. Pisces. We can acquire as many bones as we need for your little undead and our experiments. Guests of Jecrass? Horse kingdom? Come on. Let’s find a [Herder].”

 

——

 

Horses died or had to be culled or put down. It was a fact of life, even if they were the most well-cared for. That was a lot of bones if they found a graveyard for horses. Colth found a [Herder], and the friendly woman pointed down at a pot.

“Bones? Sure. Got ‘em right here.”

She lifted something up, and Pisces and Colth stared at a huge, thick bone, which was currently in a steaming bowl of…

Horse marrow stew. Colth’s face went slack. Pisces stared at the [Herder].

“You, ah, eat horse bones?”

“Well, not the bones themselves, but the marrow? Sure, sure. Horse blood goes in tea, and the marrow’s good for all sorts of things. Frying, soups, or you just suck it out of the bones—graveyard? We don’t have that sort of thing. It’d be disrespectful, not using all the parts of the horse—”

Pisces stared at Colth, and the [Ultimate Supporter] turned red. He kicked at the ground.

“I hate this country.”

 

——

 

Leaving the bones under moonlight didn’t work, anyways. Submerging them in water didn’t work; even having a naked Skeleton Champion standing on a roof of the palace all night with its arms spread to the moon above did nothing other than have people walk up to Pisces every few minutes to ask what was going on.

It got so bad that Pisces found himself drawing a pentagram in horse’s blood on the ground, and a pile of ‘fresh’ horse bones sat there under moonlight. Then he stood, trying to activate his Skill while five people stood around the pentagram, wearing hoods and robes.

One of them was Colth.

It was his idea. As it turned out, Colth also had experience in being a [Cultist]. He led the congregation in a summoning ritual and kept chanting in the dead mage’s language, which Erin called Latin.

 

“Necromantia, necromantia! 

Inmortui oriri!

Valde terribili!

Formidulosus ossa!”

 

When King Raelt of Jecrass wandered by the royal courtyard, munching on a pear and giving them a very strange look, Pisces turned beet red, and even Colth pulled back his hood.

“Damn. That always worked in the cults I infiltrated. You know how hard it is to sound good while chanting?”

The one good thing about all this was that Pisces learned that Jecrass really didn’t care about necromancy. If anything, the two monarchs found it fascinating. Jecaina was especially interested.

“Necromancy fell out of fashion after Az’kerash, but it does seem useful, if dangerous. I saw the Frostmarrow Behemoth, Pisces. Do you have more unusual undead?”

“Well, he sticks to skeletons of people because he’s unimaginative, Your Majesty.”

Colth slapped Pisces on the back, and Pisces snapped his fingers.

“I can do horses as well, Jecaina. I just choose not to. We could use a ride to find Yvlon and Ceria. And my horses don’t tire.”

A skeleton horse arose from the pile of bones they’d fruitlessly been using, and both Jecaina and Raelt stared at it. Pisces grew worried again because this was a horse-loving people—but Jecaina’s eyes just lit up.

“How fast is it? Want to race?”

And that was how Pisces ended up racing on a skeleton horse’s back for about four minutes. Then Colth walked over as Pisces covered his groin.

“Hey. Pisces?”

“Argh. Argh—

“Sitting on a bony horse isn’t fun. This is why you use a chariot.”

Jecaina was trying not to laugh as Pisces’ skeletal horse continued to gallop without him. But King Raelt just gave the horse a thoughtful look, then summoned the royal hostler to him. Pisces was trying to show Jecaina how the Horns normally used the ice chariot to ride around in when Raelt whistled.

“Hey, it’s a bit dusty—but try this!”

Pisces looked up, and the [Hostler] appeared holding the strangest saddle he’d seen yet. It was far larger than normal and had a weird structure to it. In fact—when the [Hostler] nervously put it over the skeletal horse, even Colth stared.

“Is that a…saddle for a skeletal horse?

Raelt just looked pleased with himself as Pisces shot to his feet.

“I thought I remembered seeing one once. It’s got a structure so you can sit on it like a regular steed.”

The people of Jecrass would ride any horse. Living or, as it turned out, dead. Pisces began to climb onto the skeletal horse’s back in disbelief, and Colth tossed him off it.

“Pisces, you just got twice as useful—”

The skeleton horse bucked Colth off, and the two began to fight until the rulers of Jecrass burst out laughing.

 

——

 

One final thing of great note happened in Jecrass. Even if it was unpleasant the entire way through for Pisces, personally.

It occurred as Pisces was doing the sensible, logical thing: sending a [Message] to Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr, and the inn to let everyone know he was well.

He knew Erin was alive. The sight of her in Baleros hurt—for reasons he couldn’t have articulated. Maybe just hearing how she spoke.

I have run out of regrets. 

He should have been faster. She looked like a stranger. They had to go get her, and Pisces was wondering if it was even worth getting Ksmvr’s sword. He’d rather have Ksmvr, Vofea, Erin—

“So you don’t know where Ksmvr is? Can I leave a [Message] for him, please? At any Mage’s Guild?”

“Certainly, sir…let me just calculate the costs. Once he sends a [Message], our new, Wistram-designed service will automatically flag a [Message] for him. Have you considered teleportation, sir? We’re also pioneering a magical carriage service.”

Pisces was standing at the Mage’s Guild in Jecrass’ capital. He was relaxed, at least insofar as prejudice about him being a [Necromancer] was concerned. As for the Mage’s Guild? They didn’t know who he was; it wasn’t like he was the hero of all of Jecrass, and Pisces’ voice was very dry.

“I have some experience with teleportation, yes. I don’t think even my team and I can afford it. What’s this about magical carriages?”

The [Mage] working the front desk looked actually excited, oddly, to tell Pisces all about it.

“It’s all new magic, sir. From the Terras faction. Imagine teleporting to another city at low cost! Or using a magical carriage like Magnolia Reinhart?”

That drew Pisces’ attention. This was more magic than he thought even a graduate of Wistram like Falene could do.

“Teleportation? Magical carriages? I thought Wistram was half destroyed.”

The [Mage] laughed a bit nervously.

“There are some setbacks at the academy, but I assure you, the Isle of Mages and, more importantly, Archmage Eldavin’s faction are going strong. Soon, we’ll be able to teach [Mages] spells at the Mage’s Guild far faster and with a far greater diversity of spells than before! Imagine learning a Tier 4 spell, sir!”

“Imagine.”

That was strange. Tier 4 magic had put Pisces ahead of even Wistram students. He was going to ask more when the [Mage] put a finger to his brows.

“Just one second while I send a [Message] to Liscor to see who’s available. We could even do a [Communication] spell if—”

The young Human [Mage] was smiling until his eyes flicked up at Pisces. He was rapidly casting lower-tier Spells, and Pisces saw his expression freeze. Then he slowly lowered his hand. Pisces grew a tad bit worried.

“Is no one there? Is something wrong at Liscor?”

Another damn dungeon attack? The [Mage] gave Pisces a hesitant smile.

“No, sir. Just one second while I confirm…”

He left the desk, and Pisces blinked and focused on the [Mage]’s magic. He could sense the [Mage] casting another spell, which Pisces tentatively identified as [Message], again. Then the young man whispered to a [Mage] under a [Silence] spell, hiding his lips with a hand, and both looked at him.

Maybe my reputation’s caught up with me. Pisces was identifying spells now, even as other people cast them. He credited his spellbook from the Djinni for that. He waited at the desk until someone opened the door.

“City Watch. Where’s the runaway [Slave]?”

Pisces’ eyes widened. The [Mage] at the desk pointed at Pisces, and the [Necromancer] felt his chest itch. Ah, and there it was. He drew his sword so fast the other patrons and [Mages] recoiled, and he spun as the City Watch stared at him and backed up fast.

Chandrar. Chandrar—

If not for the Slavers of Roshal, he’d love it so much more. Pisces lifted his blade, a spell on his lips, and the [Captain] took one look at him and shouted.

Stop, stop! That’s the Arbiter Queen’s guest, you idiots!

 

——

 

Level 3 [Slave]. Pisces’ class. Of all the ways for it to come out—Pisces should have known.

Colth was as upset as Pisces.

“I should have remembered. I should have damn well remembered—they test for that. Jecrass isn’t even that stringent, so it was just that addle-brained flunkie at the desk who ran a spell on you.”

“He didn’t [Appraise] me. He can’t.”

Pisces had a ring against it like anyone high level. Colth threw himself into his seat.

“He didn’t have to. They checked Roshal’s registry.”

Pisces had been slumped in a chair in a waiting room in the palace. He had not been arrested. The moment they’d realized an angry Gold-rank adventurer and Jecaina and Raelt’s guest was there, the City Watch had very immediately backed off and asked him to return to the palace.

Jecaina had been informed. And Raelt. Colth went back to the window and kept fiddling with it; they weren’t under arrest, and there were no guards outside their doors that Pisces could sense with [Detect Life]. But that might soon change.

“I don’t see anyone outside. I signal, and you go for it. It’ll lock behind us, and I’ve reinforced the glass.”

Pisces didn’t respond. He just sat there, and Colth grabbed his arm.

“Hey. Focus. Second move is the door. I’ll put a piece of metal on the hinges. Even if they’ve spelled it, I’ll crack the door off the wall. Got it?”

“They really will be hunting me, won’t they?”

Colth’s grip tightened on Pisces’ shoulder.

“We won’t make it easy. Going after a public adventurer like you isn’t easy for Roshal. We’ll make a stink about it; I know my friends will help raise your name in conjunction with them illegally enslaving you. We can spin publicity on it. Just—”

He stepped away from Pisces and gave Jecaina and Raelt a huge smile as the two walked in. A fake one; Jecaina and Raelt wore none.

“Pisces. Colth. I’ve heard the accounts from the [Mage] at the guild and the City Watch [Captain]. Neither group knew it was you. They were acting in accordance with our treaties with Roshal. Treaties which are hundreds of years old. As old as current Jecrass is. It’s rare to find an escaped [Slave] in the city, but they would have alerted the Slaver’s Guild of Roshal and held you until a slaver picked you up. I have informed the Watch, and Mage’s Guild, that any action against you will earn the enmity of Jecrass’ crown.”

Jecaina’s voice was tight, and Pisces looked up slightly as she stood in front of him. King Raelt of Jecrass stood further to the side, pacing with an orange of all things. When Jecaina turned, the King of Duels spoke.

“Hm? Yes. Absolutely. No one is to touch an honored guest.”

“An illegally enslaved guest, Father.”

“You can’t fight Roshal, Jecaina. Not at the moment. Every single advisor just said so—”

The Arbiter Queen was clearly at the back end of an argument. She ignored her father, turned to Pisces.

“I have not reviewed your entire case. But from what I did find—a [Slaver] imprisoned you moments after you teleported out of the Village of the Dead? That’s injustice. Every action afterwards is built upon that unlawful act, but Roshal hasn’t done a thing about it.”

Her eyes darted to her father, and Raelt sighed as he peeled the orange.

“Because they’re Roshal. Like Khelt—even the King of Destruction cannot bully them around. Pisces. I apologize for that. I wasn’t aware of the situation.”

The King of Duels seemed the more possessed, if weary, of the two in this moment. Jecaina paced, then threw herself into a chair.

“So this is what it is to be a ruler of a nation? How many of those River Wardens and advisors pleading with me not to even complain to the Slaver’s Guild of Roshal followed you into battle at Belchan?”

“Jecaina. We can discuss this later.”

The sharp argument between the two royals made Pisces’ own black mood—not lighten, but distracted him. Embarrassed, Jecaina turned to Pisces and sat there awkwardly. It was the King of Duels who tried the orange, grimaced, then threw it out the window. He turned.

“May I know your side of the story, Pisces? We don’t intend on arresting you or sending you to Roshal. We cannot and will not censure Roshal, if we even had the ability to—”

He eyed his daughter, and she crossed her arms.

“—But I would like to know. Simply as one captive to another.”

He met Pisces’ eyes, and the [Necromancer] slowly exhaled. Colth gave Raelt a big smile, then looked at Pisces.

“You don’t have to say a word.”

“Of course not—”

Jecaina half-rose, but Pisces nodded at Colth.

“I would rather tell someone sympathetic than leave it hanging, Colth. I…”

He stopped and stared at nothing. How did you even begin? The manifest injustice of it—the moments with the other [Slavers], from Igheriz and Riqre to the bland and boring bastard of Hrome…

Pisces was unable to speak until he looked at Jecaina. The Arbiter Queen sat there, not the former [Princess] with a sword, not the young leader.

The [Queen of Covenant] sat there, her face cold. Not hostile. But not angry either, at least, not visibly.

“Adventurer Pisces Jealnet. I may have no authority beyond these walls. We shall see. But if you speak, I would like to hear your version of events. And I swear, I will remember it.”

That cold expression was almost terrible—if Pisces didn’t believe that the scales of Jecaina’s justice were weighed by a morality he had seen. So—he looked at her and began to speak.

 

——-

 

Once, Pisces had told Numbtongue about some—some of what he had experienced in Chandrar. He still remembered that conversation in a bath house in Liscor.

With Tessa, Shriekblade. It had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done. It had been because Numbtongue had been a friend, because Pisces had to tell someone. Now?

Yes, he had been on a ship with Queen Jecaina, and Raelt was the King of Duels. Pisces admired him. But it should have been far harder to tell them what that scar meant, let alone show it to them.

It was not Colth that made it easier. It was partly Jecaina, who sat there, unmoving, a judge in repose, just like she had once judged Prime Minister Lyfelt of Belchan.

—But mostly? It was because the words had to come out. Pisces could barely hear his own voice. He knew it wandered and became inarticulate and lost until Colth added a detail or one of the two asked a question.

He should have been ashamed. No—the voice that sounded like Padurn Jealnet, Pisces’ father, would have been ashamed at his son’s tone. But Pisces had seen an Adult Creler die. He had gone back, once upon a time, when he could have run.

He liked to think he knew what bravery was, even if he mostly recognized it in other people. He was not ashamed when his throat closed up in mentioning Cawe.

How much sense he made, he didn’t know. He tried to begin with Igheriz and waking up as a [Slave] after teleporting to Chandrar—then surviving the long trek through the desert. Hrome. Then Riqre…

Colth stopped the tale by pouring a cup of tea that soothed Pisces’ throat. He blinked—and realized it was dark. Hadn’t the sun been up?

“…And then I suppose the rest you know. I—I escaped. With Bearig and Merr the Storm. Until we reached Pomle. The rest is a matter of public record, one imagines.”

Pisces gazed up, and [King] and [Queen] regarded him, faces so difficult to read. Jecaina sat in the same chair, facing Pisces, hands gripping the armrest, face schooled to impassiveness. Deliberately, her eyes glittering with what Pisces thought might be tension. As if, if she didn’t do this, she would be betraying her own role.

The King of Duels was even more imperceptible in his way. He stared out the window, a hand resting on the hilt of his sword. He didn’t look angry. He just studied the stars. His gaze roaming that brilliant sea of shining lights as if he had gone colorblind a moment and was searching for…

“And that’s all, I think, Your Majesties. My teammate is innocent. Not that you could prove it in Roshal’s courts of law. I am Named-rank adventurer Colthei the Supporter. I back his tale, and I guarantee his safety on Chandrar.”

The man with brown-green hair swept the two a smile and broke the silence. His violet eyes rose, and for a second, they glittered. He had a polite, formal smile on his face. Not the smile of a Demon. But the two shifted when he raised his head.

As if they could sense the threat. But once more, their responses differed. King Raelt just nodded shortly.

“That is the kind of insurance you will need if you linger, Adventurer Pisces. A Named-rank adventurer’s word is worth a good deal, even a foreign one. Thank you for telling me the truth of your adventure. I am sorry.”

Queen Jecaina half-twisted in her chair. She looked at her father, then at Pisces. And what she said was:

“Your story corresponds to the information available to me, Pisces. As well as my understanding of Roshal’s actions. There are no other survivors to ask, are there?”

“The other [Slaves], but they’ve scattered to the winds.”

Pisces murmured. Raelt favored his daughter with a frown, but she just brushed at her own green hair and nodded.

“I knew [Slaves] were sometimes unlawfully enslaved, but you never enjoyed their presence in the palace, Father. I wonder—how does it seem to pass a [Slave] in the street to anyone not born of Chandrar? I never thought of that until now. I am…indeed sheltered.”

She fell silent, and Raelt shrugged uncomfortably.

“It is a stain on Roshal’s reputation, what occurred with Adventurer Pisces. That Emir…”

He shivered. Then shook his head.

“Even Perric himself wasn’t half as—someday, when Jecrass is at peace, you will be able to visit the countries I did, Jecaina.”

“As a travelling [Queen]?”

He stared at her, and Jecaina blinked at him. Raelt went on, ignoring the question.

“—It will shock you when you return and remember the Slavers of Roshal and see them in a marketplace. Just as it does to see their ships far from home. Or to see a [Serf]—or see how Rhir treats its Demons.”

Colth twitched at that. The Arbiter Queen said nothing in response to her father’s words. She just looked at Pisces. Then she whispered.

“I have seen and heard the testimony of Pisces, Father. I wish…no. I can see how hard this is for you, Pisces. But I wish you had said it when we were on the ship.”

“It was too close, Your Majesty—”

Pisces murmured, and Jecaina cut in gently.

“No. Not for my benefit then. I wish you had said it in the company of five rulers of Chandrar. Before that terrifying Vizir, the Hero of Zethe, the Archmage of Chandrar, and Gazi Pathseeker. Then, perhaps, a fitting conclave would have heard the truth. With the weight to do something about it.”

She looked at her father, then exhaled.

“I cannot censure Roshal. Doing so publicly would be costly.”

Raelt nodded instantly, and so did Colth. Even Pisces.

“I would not expect that of Jecrass.”

“You should. Especially of me.”

She looked at him guiltily, then, and her father started. He looked at his daughter as if he saw a [Princess]. Not a [Queen]. It was Colth who couldn’t resist a chuckle.

When the others looked at him, the Ultimate Supporter had a twisted smile on his face.

“Pardon, Your Majesty, Jecaina. But if they needed Pisces to explain slavery to them—then that august meeting of mighty rulers truly is blind. They are all sons and daughters of Chandrar, aren’t they?”

Jecaina started a bit, then nodded and bowed her head ruefully.

“—Well then, if only because they would be more inclined to act if they knew someone personally. Selfishness is unto kingliness.”

She stood briskly and faced the others. Jecaina nodded, as if suddenly distracted.

“I shall have to write a letter…enough of my inexperience. What can be done?”

Done? They all blinked at her, and Jecaina’s voice grew a touch impatient.

“A letter of writ signed by yourself and me, Father. A royal proclamation? No, better not to draw attention to it. If Pisces is to leave Jecrass, he should not go without some small act. Or do you disagree?”

“Not at all. I simply…well, it’s worth something. We’ll get the royal scribe or whatnot to write something official.”

Raelt straightened, then strode to the door to yank it open and call for a servant. But Pisces started, and Colth’s eyes slid sideways to him. Pisces stared back blankly as Colth began to cough.

“Scribe. And a glass of water. No oranges in it.”

Raelt was speaking, and Colth coughed harder.

“Er—ahem—ahem. You could, ah, do something about his class, Your Majesties. Cough. Ahem.”

Pisces, Raelt, and Jecaina all stared at Colth. The [Ultimate Supporter] encouragingly hacked into a fist—then realized they were all staring.

“…Remove his class?”

He looked around. Then blew out his cheeks.

“You knew you could do that. Right?”

He stared at Jecaina with Pisces, who was suddenly wide-eyed. She shot her father an accusatory look. Raelt? Since he had no one to glare at, he stared out the window.

“What a beautiful night.”

 

——

 

As it turned out, neither ruler of Jecrass knew you could remove classes. Or rather…it so happened that Raelt vaguely knew what Colth was talking about.

“I knew that.”

His daughter actually tried to stomp on his foot. Raelt dodged, and the King of Duels gave Pisces an apologetic look.

“It’s highly uncommon. I recall something like that when my mother removed a [Soldier]’s class, but he was already a freed [Slave], and it was a formality. You see, how it’s normally done, Pisces, is that if someone bought out a [Slave]’s contract and freed them, Roshal would recognize it formally and send a [Slaver] to emancipate the [Slave].”

So they handled the class removal. Clever. Pisces gritted his teeth. Colth gave Pisces a significant look and a nod, and Raelt went on, scratching at his chin.

“Removing a class. No one’s needed to do that for ages. You can demote someone, and they lose it—huh. It must be voluntary.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Or so I’ve heard when I spoke to a [Prince] of Terandria.”

Colth was very good at lying. Both royals accepted that he’d spoken to another member of royalty at face value. Pisces suspected Colth knew that a [Slave] could be freed from their class by royalty because he had had it done to him. By the Death of Wings or the Demon King.

Jecaina took the news far more straightforwardly than Raelt. She smiled and nodded at Pisces.

“Well, there’s nothing for it but to try.”

“Jecaina, if Roshal were to learn—”

“Who would tell them? How much umbrage could they have for me making a clear decision based on evidence I don’t think they could refute? They’d rather sweep that under the rug than force me to make a public announcement about my decision. Adventurer Colth, does this need to be a royal occasion or will anywhere do?”

Wait, was this happening? Pisces had gone from feeling hollowed out to disbelief. Losing his class…it had haunted him like his scars for so long he hadn’t gotten used to it, but it had become part of him. A bad part, but still.

Only Bearig’s lost his class, and that was because he became a [Rebel]. Could it be so easy? Yet Colth was already smiling.

“It should be somewhat formal, Your Majesty. You’ll need the weight of your class. Perhaps if Pisces knelt and you used your sword—”

“To stab—ah, as if he were being knighted. Yes. If you please, Pisces.”

Jecaina paced over to a chair, and Pisces knelt, somewhat confused and alarmed. He looked at the [Supporter], but Colth just gave him an energetic wink. He thought it would work.

“Jecaina—”

Raelt drew the Arbiter Queen aside, and they argued for a minute in a silence spell, lips moving. Pisces, trying to read them from the side, got bits and pieces of a very heated exchange.

 

“—think what you are doing—”

“—treating me like a child—”

“—Jecrass cannot afford—”

“—Fetohep would—”

—me, then.

 

And Raelt strode out of the bubble, drew his sword, and gazed at Pisces.

“I shall do it. A favor from the King of Duels to an adventurer I hold in high esteem.”

Jecaina blinked at her father, and Pisces looked up. Raelt rubbed at his beard, rugged from days on the road, but his eyes were direct as he nodded at Pisces.

“Hold still, if you please. Adventurer Pisces Jealnet of the Horns of Hammerad. By the authority of Jecrass, as [King of Challenges], I, in recognition of your contributions to the world and as a symbol of personal esteem, do remove your class of [Slave] unjustly put upon you. Now, I remove your cla—”

His voice was slightly rambling and rehearsed; he had clearly done this kind of speech before. But his sword was unwavering as he tapped Pisces on one shoulder, then the other. Like Pisces were being knighted.

The first tap was light, economical, and Pisces saw Raelt lift the sword, casually switching shoulders and avoiding Pisces’ head. Pisces waited, heart beating. It could not be so simple. And of course…

It was not.

Pisces saw the sword lifting, Raelt’s lips moving, and waited. It felt like forever was passing. Like each second was going by at, well, a blink of an eye and taking an eternity.

Wait…Pisces mind was locked in the moment, but a part of him, some other part, saw the sword slowly moving, fraction by fraction, through the air. Some…experienced part of Pisces recognized this.

This was like an [Immortal Moment]. Erin’s Skill, only instead of a moment of wonder stretched out forever, it was the eternity of sitting here, staring at Raelt’s moving lips. His sword—

And the King of Duels was having trouble tapping Pisces on the other shoulder. At first, he was just concentrating, moving his sword, and Pisces saw, in this trapped eternity of time, Raelt’s face slowly changing to one of strain. The King of Duels tried to lower his sword to tap Pisces’ shoulder. First his arm tensed—then his whole body. Then his arm strained—

—Time dilated, and Pisces wondered how long he’d been kneeling there, staring at the sword—Raelt’s eyes were focused on the blade, and his arm shook and shook until—

“—ss!”

Raelt staggered, and his sword missed Pisces’ shoulder. He brought it down so hard it slapped the ground, and Jecaina and Colth jumped.

“Father! What was that?

Raelt was panting. Sweat was running down his brow. The King of Duels caught himself instantly, studied Pisces, and for a second, the two stared at each other in recognition of what they’d felt. Then Raelt backpedaled a step.

“It didn’t work.”

He didn’t have to get Pisces’ voice to confirm it. Raelt stared at Jecaina, sheathed his sword, and shook his head. The Arbiter Queen didn’t understand.

“What? You just missed his shoulder. Wait…you missed?”

She realized the incongruity, and Colth eyed Pisces. The [Necromancer] was breathing hard too.

“Time slowed. It felt like something was resisting—”

“Roshal. I tried, but—the full weight of Roshal is behind Pisces’ class. I think…no, I know it would have alerted them. Jecaina, don’t.”

The Arbiter Queen stared at her father, then drew her sword. She ignored Raelt’s grab for her arm and peered at Pisces.

 

——

 

Jecaina Leysars had experience with regrets. She told herself this might be one of them. But it was the right thing to do. She was the Arbiter Queen. People asked her to weigh in on affairs of import, act like a [Judge]; even compared her to other members of law. She’d received friendly messages from people like House Shoel of Ailendamus, critiques, pleas…

When she was on the scrying orb, sometimes she felt like she was just putting on a performance. Trying to improve Jecrass, to lay sewer systems and build more common-sense roads, that was true work. It was so frustrating that Raelt, her father, seemed so disinterested in all of it.

Had he always ruled like this? Was that what being a [King] was to him?

She knew this might be trouble. But she didn’t care. Jecaina drew her sword and pointed it at Pisces.

“I remove your class in the name of the Realm of Jecrass!”

That was what she tried to say. Halfway through the words, Jecaina experienced what Pisces and Raelt had felt.

It was like a great weight upon her sword arm. A leaden burden on her tongue. Jecaina stood alone suddenly, and high walls of a harbor wreathed in brilliant light stood before her. Beautiful, inviting, even.

Bound with chains.

Lailight Scintillation’s gates stood before Jecaina, but beyond them rose towers. High spires, and coming from each building, it seemed, were chains. Red and rusted, golden and shiny. Leather and metal—and thousands of hands. 

The sheer weight of Roshal, of the Slavers of Chandrar, was like a weight pressing down on Jecaina’s arm. She tried to keep her sword arm straight, but suddenly it felt like there was an invisible cord between her and Pisces.

She was trying to cut it—but Roshal’s animosity beat down on her. Cut the cord? Would she put herself against those gates, this city? Did she dare place her kingdom in the way?

Yes! Jecaina’s mind said it, but her heart wavered. She tried to hold firm, but a shred of doubt crept in. Her advisors had warned her what might happen if she openly made this an issue. Was this right?

Was she making her father’s mistake?

All it took was a moment of weakness. A twisting shadow seemed to slink out of the gates, twining around her arm. It pulled, and Jecaina’s arm wobbled.

The Naga of Roshal blinked at her, in her mind’s eye a huge serpent with glowing white eyes, and Jecaina—

—Stumbled back. Dropped her sword, and Raelt caught her arm. He steadied her, and Jecaina glanced up. Panting, she stared at Pisces and hung her head.

Once again, she felt like a foolish, young [Queen]. Worse still, Pisces just stood and bowed.

“It isn’t easy, Your Majesty.”

He wore a crooked smile, almost relieved. As if some part of him rejoiced that it wasn’t so simple. Jecaina stood there.

Ah.

She wished she could have given him something. But all Pisces took was a few days of slumber from Jecrass. Swapped stories. A single duel only he and one other remembered. Some food and drink.

Oh, and the bones of a horse. That was all of value the Arbiter Queen and King of Duels had to offer the Horns of Hammerad. Much to the shame of at least one of them.

 

——

 

Skeleton horse. That was how Pisces ended up riding out of Jecrass’ palace. And people still cheered and pointed at him. Colth had a real steed, but only because his [Rider] Skills needed a living horse.

Pisces, as a [Necromancer], had complete control over this undead horse. He might not have figured out Stellar Ivory—but this was almost as good.

“I wish I could take you towards Medain, but Jecaina’s pointed out it wouldn’t be wise. We’ll have an escort show you the new route along Khelt’s border to Medain. From there, it’s your choice what you’d like to do. Either skirt Medain, head through it to the Claiven Earth…I wish you the best of luck. Be careful—and remember what I said.”

Raelt shook Colth’s and Pisces’ hands, and then Jecaina offered Pisces a regretful hand.

“I hope you two will pass by once you find your teammates.”

“It would be our pleasure, Your Majesty.”

Colth swept a bow from his saddle, and Pisces smiled at Jecaina. Then…well, they set out to fanfare and began to ride west. After a while, once they were out of sight of the city, Colth punched Pisces in the arm so hard the [Necromancer] swore.

What was that for?

“You idiot. Yvlon’s sharper than you are.”

The Ultimate Supporter just shook his head and refused to elaborate further. Enraged, Pisces’ horse picked up speed, and he swung his sheathed rapier at Colth.

“What? What? Come back here, and I’ll hit you!”

 

——

 

One final detail: an hour after Pisces and Colth had left the palace, a poor [Junior Servant] stood in the rather sumptuous, tall guest chambers that Pisces the [Necromancer] had inhabited.

He’d left it clean enough. Yet still…the poor girl stared up at the ceiling where the clear prints of boots and even dirty handprints had stained the ceiling.

“…How do they do that?”

A senior [Cleaning Servant] passed the girl a long-handled mop and patted her on the shoulder.

“Adventurers.”

 

——

 

It took four days to cross through Jecrass at a non-Raelt speed. Partly because Colth and Pisces kept being hosted at each place they passed by, but mostly due to the lack of speed Skills.

Their escorts were swift, and Pisces’ horse could gallop nonstop without problems, but even Colth couldn’t approach the speed of Jecrass’ finest.

Well, it meant that Pisces and Colth could actually talk to regular Jecrassians. They were just [Riders], a common class in Jecrass—Trickriders and Lawriders were too political, and no one wanted to annoy Medain.

However, one of the sixteen men and women was the son of Riverwarden Cerani, a [Noble Rider] almost as old as Pisces who hung on his and Colth’s every word. Their captain actually took him aside after the third night he’d begged and hinted at a duel—they lasted minutes even with Pisces and Colth taking it easy on him.

The chastened young man, Ladinel, or ‘Laddy’, still chatted with Pisces. The [Necromancer] didn’t mind using him as a source of information.

“So the King of Destruction is still pressing Nerrhavia’s Fallen? Is the superpower not able to hold him back?”

“He’s advancing—slowly. But he is the King of Destruction. The Golden Hordes sometimes press other armies back, but whenever they meet his Seven all together, they retreat.”

Colth muttered from the side as he cooked up some food in a pan.

“Makes sense. Including Flos, that’s six people over Level 50 on the same battlefield. Amerys, Gazi, Orthenon, the King of Destruction, Takhatres, Mars—no, wait. The rumor was Gazi was never the same level as the others.”

“She’s dangerous enough.”

Pisces shivered, distinctly remembering his run-ins with the world’s most famous Gazer. Laddy looked at Colth.

“Imagine fighting six of you, Adventurer Colth. I don’t think I’d want to be a [General] facing that.”

Pisces snorted.

“Six Colths isn’t that dangerous. He’s not Level 50, Laddy. Six Salisses, now…”

The two were throwing things at each other, and Colth was shielding the cook pot, when Laddy broke in with something he’d clearly been thinking of this entire trip. Unlike Jecaina and Raelt, the people of Jecrass had both a narrower view of the dynamics of countries…

…But far more of an actual understanding of the world because they talked and gossiped with each other, not received briefings in court. So, Laddy smiled hesitantly.

“Adventurer Pisces, you’re nothing like what I expected.”

“Oh, did you expect him to be sniffing more and acting pretentious? He’s gotten better under my tutelage.”

Colth grinned as he put Pisces in a headlock. That damn [Supporter] was too good at grappling. Laddy shook his head, half-grinning.

“No, I thought the Bane of Roshal, who’s killed a hundred [Slavers] and freed—hundreds of [Slaves], maybe thousands, would be more intense. How many of them did you kill?”

The other riders around the fire glanced up, not with alarm, but with a precursor to it. The [Captain] shot Laddy a glare, and the boy hunched his shoulders, but the prickle that ran down Pisces’ back resolved itself when he realized they didn’t know he was a [Slave].

So he kept his voice light and amused.

“Bane of Roshal? Someone called me that the last time I was here. That’s the most fanciful title yet, and my teammates are Ksmvr of Chandrar, Colthei the ‘Ultimate Supporter’, Yvlon the Silver Killer, and Ceria the Ice Squirrel.”

He grinned at the silly nicknames, and Colth added in.

“Except Yvlon. It completely checks out.”

“Ah, yes. Naturally. And Vofea has yet to get a name, but I imagine it will be suitably ridiculous.”

They were joking about, but the riders from Jecrass glanced at each other as if they thought this was serious. Laddy gave Pisces an uncertain smile.

“Yes, but—you’ve killed so many [Slavers] that they’ve put a bounty on your head. Or so I heard…”

They have? Pisces stopped laughing. He glanced at Colth, but kept his face straight.

“Well, I was responsible for several somewhat important ones’ deaths. Or in their vicinity while they died. I’m certainly no friend to Roshal.”

His tone and expression made the conversation switch quickly. Colth dished up some hot food and saw several riders kick Laddy subtly. But soon it was time to rest for another day of riding, and Colth saw Pisces roll into his blankets.

The Skeleton Champions were spread out around their camp; not for fear of danger of monsters. One was still holding its arms up towards the moons. Another was lying spread-eagled on the ground, moonbathing, and a third was prostrating itself towards the green moon.

Colth assumed Pisces had ordered them to do that. The [Supporter] pretended to sleep in a bedroll, keeping his body slumbering naturally, twitching, breathing slowly, not remaining suspiciously still. But he used [Dog’s Ears] to enhance his hearing.

Just as he’d hoped, the [Riders] had a gossip session that night, just like they’d had the last three nights, revealing rifts in loyalties between Raelt’s and Jecaina’s followers and their not-inconsequential fears about the future of Jecrass after so many losses. This time, though…Colth’s eyes narrowed as he heard the [Captain] speaking.

“Don’t bring up his class and title, Laddy. If he’s a former [Slave]—naught good will come of it to mention past Jecrass. Their Majesties count him as friend. Act like your horse more.”

“I was only curious—he talks as if he didn’t kill that many [Slavers].”

Another voice murmured.

“He never stopped, is what I heard. I thought he was still on Chandrar. He’s killed more foes than the lot of us combined if even a half of those rumors are true. Mind your tongue, Laddy. That Colthei’s the friendly one…”

Well, that was objectively funny. Colth grinned until he frowned, but the voices didn’t elaborate further.

Odd. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that, either. Colth brought the subject up to Pisces the next day, but the [Necromancer] had no other ideas than that Ivery might have continued to add to the impression he was still fighting on Chandrar.

They had to find the others. So, the two were heading north from Jecrass’ new border with the new Kheltian lands when they received bad news. Laddy shouted urgently.

“Pisces, Adventurer Pisces! Adventurer Colth! Ceria Springwalker and Yvlon Byres have left the Claiven Earth! They’re now in Medain’s capital! Guests of the High King!”

Pisces and Colth looked at each other. They wavered—then did the only thing they thought was logical. They left their escorts behind and headed west.

Into Khelt’s territory to seek an audience with Fetohep. It wasn’t long before they ran into more trouble than they were expecting.

 

——

 

Ceria and Yvlon had an easy time of it at first. It was hard to spy on the Claiven Earth except from very, very far away; the half-Elves guarded their lands zealously, and they had given the two good steeds.

The problem was that, even when they camped away from the road and tried to cover up, it seemed like all of Medain knew there were two Gold-rank adventurers about. Harder still—even with cloaks, it wasn’t exactly easy to disguise themselves.

Ceria and Yvlon both had fair skin, rarer on Chandrar. Ceria was a half-Elf with a bone hand. Yvlon had metal arms.

A passing traveller doing a double-take, an [Innkeeper] asking for an autograph, buying some firewood from a passing [Trader], and the two realized they were being followed.

The big clue for Yvlon was when a full escort of [Soldiers] rode out of a city after then, shouting, ‘stop in the name of the High King!

“What’s the plan, Ceria?”

The half-Elf looked happy to be on the road; she’d been antsy in the Claiven Earth. She stood up in her stirrups and hollered back.

We’re about the business of High King Perric! Halt, you fools!

The [Prankster] winked at Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] sighed through her nose, but she had to admit—Ceria was better at this than she was. The desperate [Soldiers] slowed for a minute in confusion—but caught up in the next.

Adventurers Yvlon, Ceria! We have orders to escort you to the High King as honored guests!

“No!”

Ceria shouted cheerfully as they galloped down the road. This, once again, flummoxed the minds of Medain’s finest. After another beat, their commander shouted.

“Please don’t struggle! We are to take you peacefully to the capital!”

He emphasized the please—because it was two Gold-rank adventurers. But neither Yvlon nor Ceria wanted to fight an army or get on the bad side of a nation.

“Ceria, we’re not going to be able to outrun them.”

Without riding Skills, the others were catching up. The half-Elf just rolled her eyes.

“I know. Here. [Icy Floor]!”

She pointed—and ice shot over the ground behind them. The first [Riders] shouted in alarm and pulled their horses up, and the entire cavalcade slowed rather than ride onto the huge swath of ice. Ceria waved at them.

“Don’t hurt your horses! Tell the High King we were busy!”

She blew kisses as they rode away.

 

——

 

That worked six times in a row over the next few days. It was amazing how simple it was. You wanted to ride after the two? Ice floor.

You tried to sneak up on them in the night? Ice walls while the two struck camp.

You approached Ceria as she was asking for directions in the street? Ice anchoring your feet to the ground.

It was nonviolent, simple, and highly amusing to other people watching Medain’s [Soldiers] flounder. They were nearing Jecrass’ border, and Yvlon was relaxing, thinking Ceria would just freeze her way past a garrison, when their luck abruptly ran out.

“Something’s coming our way. Something magical and fast.

Ceria twisted around in the saddle in the early morning, losing her usual grin. She dropped a Yellat she’d been nibbling on and drew her wand.

“An adventurer?”

“I’ll freeze them if they want to try grabbing us. It’s not a flying carpet—wait. There it is. What the heck is—”

Yvlon and Ceria both spotted something zooming at them from down the road, and their mouths opened. They spoke at the same time.

Damn! Is that Wistram’s—?

“It looks like Aunt Magnolia’s—!”

An enchanted carriage was shooting at them, made purely out of magic. It was spectral; semi-transparent blue mist had coalesced into a rolling carriage that was being pulled by ghostly horses. And it was fast.

A lot was said about the relative speed of horses, which was an acceptable metric for travellers to use. Yvlon was no expert, but this was a lot faster than any horse she’d ever seen outside of Tyrion Veltras’ mount himself.

It was still noticeably slower than her aunt’s famous pink carriage. But that was a lot of speed, even so. Ceria took one look at the first carriage, then saw another barreling towards her from another road.

“Well, tree rot. I hope their carriages have cushions inside. [Icy Floor]!”

This time, she spread out a huge swathe of ice across the ground. In fact, she cast a water spell first; Yvlon saw a narrow wave of water rush forward, then turn to ice. Not friendly ice either; instead of a nice, flat skating surface, Ceria added bumps and ridges, miniature waves and spikes.

Just the thing to blow a carriage’s wheels out. The half-Elf watched as the two enchanted carriages came on. Then she swore.

“Oh, come on—

The first carriage rode over the ice without slowing or slipping. The wheels smoothly passed over a small spike of ice and turned on a dime. Yvlon gazed at Ceria.

“Did you say Wistram?”

“New magic. Even the Mage of Rivers was interested in it. Wonderful. Okay, this might get a bit hairy, Yvlon. Let’s ride! [Ice Wall]!”

Ceria threw up a wall of ice, and Yvlon saw the first carriage swerve to avoid it. They were escalating, it seemed like.

Fine by Yvlon. She just wished she could help. Ceria calmly raised another wall of ice, and the carriage juked again. It was very maneuverable, but the third wall of ice rose fast, dead ahead, and Yvlon hoped the carriages were shock proof.

Then she heard the loudest crack in the world, and Ceria, fixed on the second carriage, turned her head.

“Aw. Come on.”

The carriage burst through the wall of ice magic as it exploded into a shower of fragments. Something, or rather, someone had smashed it to bits in a second. Yvlon stared at Ceria as their horses slowed.

“Was your spell weaker—”

“No. It’s the strongest ice magic I had! I could stop Calruz with that—I get it now. Looks like we’re in trouble.”

Both carriages had reached the duo. One skidded sideways, and the huge doors opened; a group of four adventurers leapt out, holding weapons. Casually—but one look at their leader, the grinning Stitch-woman, Raava, and Yvlon recognized them.

“The Conquerors of Rameid. Gold-rank team angling for Named-rank.”

“Yep. That one’s got a pickaxe.”

Ceria spotted one of the adventurers who’d shattered her [Ice Wall] with a single blow. The other carriage opened, and a [Diplomat] or some equivalent flunkie stepped out. The man smiled and called out.

“Adventurer Yvlon? Adventurer Ceria, the High King cordially insists on giving you a royal escort to Medain’s capital. He is well aware of your pressing needs, but the High King is the greatest ally to adventurers far and wide. Won’t you join me?”

Yvlon looked at Ceria. Ceria just eyed the Conquerors of Rameid.

“So that’s Captain Ceria. Hallo, Adventurer Yvlon. We heard you were giving Perric’s soldiers the slip, so we volunteered to help introduce you to the High King. Unless you want to be rude to us, too?”

Raava was giving Yvlon a smiling-stare, and the [Armsmistress]—Ceria shot a glance at her friend’s face.

Yvlon Byres was as cool as a cucumber. Ceria blinked; Yvlon smiled and nodded at Raava.

“Hello, Adventurer Raava. My name is Yvlon Byres. We meet again. I’m a member of the Horns of Hammerad, a Gold-ranked team. This is my captain, Ceria Springwalker. Some may call me the ‘Silver Killer of Izril’, but I assure you, the truth is I’m hardly so…”

Ceria began snorting as Raava’s face went slack, and then Raava gave Yvlon a furious glower, gnashing her teeth. Ceria? She just put her hands behind her head and sighed.

“Wistram. That’s not a Tier 4 spell, you know. It’s Tier 5.”

She didn’t see any [High Mages] or [Grand Mages] with this lot. And she doubted Wistram had sent over someone that high-ranking just to Medain. Which meant…Ceria’s eyes flickered.

“Damn. I wish I’d had him teaching me.”

 

——

 

Perric had wisely sent two carriages, so the Conquerors of Rameid and the two Horns didn’t have to share one on the ride back. And the carriages managed to get the two from the border to the capital in a day.

“At least we know there’s better transport than horses. Dead gods, this is fast. It’s going to change the world, Yvlon.”

The Silver Killer of Izril said nothing. Well, she’d said everything she needed to Ceria already on the ride. She’d described Perric, the capital, the disposition of rival teams, and what she’d gathered from her brief stint in Medain.

“The High King is simply desirous of another meeting, Captain Ceria. And there is to be a banquet—”

“I hope Pisces and Colth are having a more fun time in Jecrass.”

“Mm. Pisces sent a [Message] saying he was heading out two days ago, right?”

“Yep. We’ll see if they come after us.”

“—Any guests of the High King will be treated with great respect. Jecrass is, sadly, a country of raiders and—”

“Yv? You cool?”

“Yep. You take lead on this one, Ceria. I’ll…back you up.”

The two adventurers smiled at each other. The flunkie that Perric had sent kept trying to interject into the conversation; they just ignored him.

 

——

 

There was another parade when they entered Medain. And a banquet. And the High King himself strode out to greet them, arms spread, beaming.

All this wealth and ostentatious partying actually made it less impressive. There were flower petals being thrown, people staring at Ceria as she waved and at least had some fun; she even decided that instead of riding into the city, she’d disembark and, using an ice spell, skate over the walls to cheers and shouts of delight.

The Ice Squirrel was more of what High King Perric wanted in an adventurer. Yvlon just sat or stood there, face blank, until they got past what she considered to be the unnecessary parts she’d already seen.

She had two questions.

One. How were they going to get out of this circumstance? She had some ideas.

Two. Why was the High King dragging them back? There were obviously numerous angles, including how he eyed Ceria from top to toe appreciatively as she skated over to him. But was it just that?

“Yvlon, Captain Ceria! I apologize for the insistence, but you left so quickly I couldn’t give you my full hospitality. All this trouble—I’ve already met Yvlon, and we are on first name terms. Captain Ceria, I am the High King of Medain. Former Gold-rank adventurer. And you are every bit the adventurer I hoped you were!”

He held out a hand, and Ceria flashed him a quick grin. She offered her skeletal, right hand, and he blinked—then laughed out loud and shook her hand.

“Thank you, High King. I was hoping to find my team, but I suppose when a [King] insists…I’ll take your hospitality. I hope you don’t regret it. The Claiven Earth might have, a bit.”

“Anything that tweaks my neighbor’s nose only makes you more charming in my eyes, Captain Ceria.”

Perric kissed Ceria’s skeletal hand, and she looked highly amused. She raised her eyebrows at Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] nodded.

Yep. He’s like that. Perric turned to Yvlon and gave her a rueful grin.

“I hope you’ll suffer Medain a bit longer this time, Yvlon. We have yet to charm you.”

He smiled at her, and Yvlon Byres…did not smile back. She stood there with the Conquerors of Rameid, Perric’s Golden Ranks of former adventurers, and his servants and people around him and looked the High King in the eye.

“High King Perric. I left last time as politely as I could because I had to find my team. I hoped you’d understand. You’ve brought me back a second time against my will. This time—I’m getting angry.”

Perric’s smile faltered, and the people around him stared at Yvlon, aghast. But the [Armsmistress] just folded her arms. She gazed at Ceria, and the Ice Squirrel winked at Perric, all smiles.

“You heard her. Now, what’s there to eat?”

The two Horns of Hammerad were insolent and chaotic by turns. The Conquerors of Rameid, a good, solid Gold-rank team, were respectful and jocular with the High King. Yvlon was not-quite-glaring at Perric, and Ceria saw someone coming with a tray of drinks. She took one before the High King and took a huge gulp.

—And they wondered why the High King found the two Horns of Hammerad far more fascinating, nay, enjoyable than the Conquerors of Rameid.

 

——

 

One benefit of glaring at everything and everyone who came near her was that Yvlon got to skip the re-introduction to Medain. Perric was more focused on Ceria, anyways, and the Ice Squirrel was loose in Medain’s capital. For once, Yvlon had no desire to rein Ceria in.

“Is that your teammate? She’s funny. I like her.”

The only people who kept Yvlon company were, ironically, Perric’s concubines. Not just the Djinni Maef; nearly a dozen had emerged from their chambers to meet the Silver Killer.

This time, Yvlon took a pulse on Medain herself. Her ride along its border while skirting Khelt’s new outpost—they hadn’t been sure if Fetohep would react poorly to a crossing without permission—had shown the [Armsmistress] that Medain’s borders have been damaged by war.

Far less than Jecrass, she guessed, and Medain’s capital was in full swing with parties and Perric flaunting his wealth. But it felt a tad bit performative to her. As if he were distracting people.

The Claiven Earth had fully escaped the fighting despite their losses. Medain? Everyone was laughing, drinking, singing praises of the High King, or adventurers, but whenever Jecrass, the raids, or the King of Destruction were invoked, the mood went nervous and quiet.

Medain’s people had little stomach for another war, it seemed. Whether the High King agreed or not, Yvlon couldn’t tell. But most of her attention was on Ceria, as were the concubines, in between asking Yvlon for gossip on Pisces and Colth.

They stood and watched as Ceria, well, Ceria’d around.

“She wasn’t always like this. The circlet changed her. I think it did.”

Most people in Izril forgot or didn’t know about Ceria’s circlet; in Chandrar, people had put two and two together. The sword, the circlet; Maef eyed the two rings on Yvlon’s hand. But mostly they watched Ceria causing chaos.

She was definitely playing up her personality for Perric and the public, who were crowded around the palace, and some were even being let into the banquet. Apparently, that was normal; Yvlon had been so uninteresting there hadn’t been a crowd after the first day, but Ceria?

“I am the Ice Squirrel of Izril! Ice magic!”

—She ran to a balcony, leapt onto the railing, and a wave of frost coated the ground below her. Snow began falling, and she started shooting snowballs into the cheering crowd. Chandrarians, who had seldom seen snow, loved Ceria.

She was doing it partly because she was a [Prankster] and loved the attention. Partly, Yvlon guessed, to annoy the Conquerors of Rameid, who were trying to show off in their own way. But they were old news; Ceria went skating down an ice ramp and did a flip off the edge—or tried.

Oooh!

The sound of her missing the jump and landing on her back and sliding down the other ramp—to more cheers—just showed that Ceria’s strategy was working, fails and all. But then the High King insisted on copying her and made the jump.

That was it—they were both showboating attention-seekers. The High King would toss handfuls of gold coins out like Ceria tossed snow. The difference was that Yvlon respected Ceria, for all the half-Elf could drive her insane.

Perric…no.

 

——

 

You would be forgiven for thinking Ceria was all just laughter and games. She was fending off one of the ministers when, panting, nursing a few scratches, and definitely drunk, Yvlon found her.

“His Majesty wants me where?”

She was speaking loudly, and the [Minister] was trying to be clandestine about the High King’s offer to add Ceria into his harem. But even here, Yvlon managed a smile as Ceria took a sip from a cup.

“That’s brave of him to assume I don’t have more bones down there.”

She waggled her skeletal arm, and the [Minister] hesitated.

“His Majesty is quite interested in a meeting between you two. If I may say so, you seem rather open to the idea…?”

Ceria took a deeper gulp.

“Oh, absolutely.”

Yvlon frowned, and the [Minister] brightened up and began to signal to Perric. Then Ceria lowered her goblet.

“—He does have a good [Plague Healer] though, right? It’s too late for me, but I think he’ll survive one night. Just so long as he’s okay with the smell.”

“The—smell—?”

The half-Elf was not lowering her voice. But she did lean over and place an arm on the [Minister]’s shoulder.

“Listen, we all have fun. We’re adventurers. Well…full disclosure since you’re doing this for the guy. I’m completely down to have some fun. All I’m warning you is that there’s, ah, well—you know, you have too much fun, you’re not careful, and things happen.”

“What, ah—I believe I understand—we have cures—what things?”

Ceria kept her face straight; some of the other adventurers, including Raava, were beginning to give her horrified looks.

“Remember the Yellow Rivers? Well, it’s not that.

The [Minister] relaxed. Ceria paused.

“…It’s more brown. Nonstop, really. And it does sort of smell, but I have a charm for that. Bag of holding down there for the leak—you know how half-Elves say ‘tree rot’ all the time? Well, they never say where it rots from, y’know? But just give me fifteen minutes and some drying powder and I am good to go.

By now, the [Minister] was trying to get as far away from Ceria as possible. The [Prankster] gave Perric a huge grin and thumbs-up—he copied her until the [Minister] dashed over, and Yvlon savored his alarmed expression.

“You’re having too much fun, Ceria.”

Yvlon murmured as Ceria used a privacy spell. Ceria just whispered back.

“Yeah, from what I’ve seen, he deserves it. Not that I care, Yv. This is all just a waste of time.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

Ceria took another gulp of wine.

“—He wants something from us. Not just to pop both of us—well, you, now—in bed.”

That drew the [Armsmistress] up short.

“Are you sure?”

Ceria nodded.

“The Conquerors of Rameid are one thing. But I spotted both Named-ranks you mentioned in the palace, still. Requiel, Three of Arms, and Chorteal the Djinni Master. See how many Silver and Golds are among the party?”

She pointed them out to Yvlon, and the other woman scratched her chin with her metal fingers.

“…They could just be here for the free food and Perric’s favor?”

“Not the two Named-ranks. Or do you think they’re having that much fun?”

One look at Requiel, looking bored and drunk and talking with the court mage, and Chorteal, wearing a clearly fake smile as he talked with one of the lesser [Kings] of Medain, and Yvlon frowned.

“Okay. What are they here for?”

“The same thing we are. Mind you, the High King seems to just like us. Let’s find out, shall we?”

Then Ceria was dragging Yvlon over to the High King, who backed away a step.

“Captain Ceria, you jest too often! That was a jest, right?”

She gave him a huge wink.

“If you want to find out, High King, be my guest. But there’s no escaping the dungeon the moment you challenge it.”

He stared at her, then guffawed hugely and raised his voice.

This is why I’ll never get sick of adventurers! Ah, Ceria…your entire team should be here! I know, I know, I have been rude—but such is kingliness. To save myself from Yvlon’s glower, I might as well mention one of the reasons I’ve brought you here. Come, come.”

He swept a hand over, and Ceria and Yvlon followed him out of the main hall and towards a war room of sorts. The High King was somewhat tipsy, and he waggled a finger at them.

“This is just because I want to whet your interest. Some of the other teams, especially Requiel and Chorteal, are in the know. But yours is one of the best…take a look at this map. Do you know Chandrar, Ceria, Yvlon?”

“Only the south parts. Ah, you’re doing something to the west. Zethe?”

Ceria’s eyes found the map in the center of the room, and both she and Yvlon saw a number of markers and pieces set around a nation clearly labeled there. Yvlon’s neck prickled, and she glanced at Ceria, but the half-Elf was just smiling.

The Hero of Zethe?

His identity and whereabouts had been concealed after the voyage with King Fetohep. Was that it?

No…the High King of Medain gave Ceria an approving look.

“Zethe it is. Have you ever heard of Chemath Marble? One of the rarest and most valuable building stones in the world, you know. It made Zethe a fortune. Of course, the country went to seed when the mines were overrun by monsters. Gigantic beetles—and the revolution by the Hero of Zethe. That’s all old history; older than the King of Destruction, even. Recently, though, you’ll not believe what’s been happening—”

“—Someone’s been selling new Chemath Marble.”

Ceria broke in, and Perric looked slightly put out.

“Ah. Er. Yes. Not Zethe; they ran out of their reserves long ago, and the mines are restricted. Literally collapsed. Under so many hundreds of thousands of tons of debris that [Geomancers] gave up uncovering the main shafts. But a certain nation has been selling the stuff and making such a profit…Medain’s annual income might double if there’s a new mining spot with Chemath Marble. The problem is—no one knows where it is. All the spies and explorers I’ve sent have, ah, run into trouble, and the Chemath Marble isn’t high quality. Yet.”

He even had a sample of the stuff he tossed at them, and Yvlon sighed. Buried wealth. Geopolitics in Chandrar. Ceria was just nodding along as both saw where this was going. Perric went on.

“There’s a fortune of fortunes to be made there. You see, it would be one thing if Zethe was selling the Chemath Marble. But they’re not. And they have a, shall we say, loose control over the old mining region? Another power is selling the marble, and they have no technical right to do so. Hence, if some adventurers were to stake a claim and find a new mine shaft…”

“Which nation’s selling the Chemath Marble?”

Perric took another draft of his drink, and his expression soured.

“You may not have heard of them outside of Chandrar. The Empire of Sands…I don’t have the inclination to challenge the soldiers they have lurking around the mining shafts. But a single team of Gold-ranks is worth ten thousand men, anyways. So! I plan on using these fantastic magical carriages to send as many adventurers as I can to Zethe in two day’s time.”

He smiled at Yvlon and Ceria.

“The Mines of Zethe are practically a dungeon unto themselves. I haven’t heard of much treasure there outside of the marble, but it used to have adventurers and artifacts from old Zethe when the beetles overran everything. Which is a dungeon’s haul in itself. And I, of course, shall be extremely generous with whatever you find.”

“—And if we need to find our team?”

Yvlon folded her arms, and the High King gave her a sad sigh and shake of the head.

“Yvlon, I am sure I could find and send them after you. But why don’t we negotiate first? I know money is a paltry reward for adventurers of your level. How about I settle Pisces’ famous debt as the ‘Bane of Roshal’? Pay off his bounty and [Slave] class—before you head out. Then you can peruse my treasury for the artifacts you’d like to claim upon your triumphant return.”

Remove Pisces’ [Slave] class? Yvlon opened her mouth, but Ceria cut in smoothly.

“Roshal doesn’t play that fair from what I’ve heard, High King Perric.”

He gave her an arched brow.

“Don’t they? If you have enough gold, you can free any unclaimed [Slave], Captain Ceria, and Pisces’ initial imprisonment was dubious, legally. It’s not a price I think you can afford—but for the Horns of Hammerad and your agreement, I’m willing to foot the cost. As an investment.”

Yvlon stood there, reminded of the Claiven Earth’s requests for Ceria. She wondered if Pisces and Colth had the same realization she was coming to.

When you were dangerous enough to be close to Named-rank—or the genuine article in Colth’s case—and worse, famous, everyone powerful who needed a favor thought of you. Ceria just rubbed her nose.

“I assume refusing is hard?”

Quite difficult.”

Ceria sighed, drained her cup, and then smiled tipsily at Perric.

“Well then, we’ll negotiate—tomorrow. But you’d better have a better offer than some artifacts below Relic-grade. Paying Pisces’ debt off is a good opener.”

“What should I follow with, then?”

He grinned at her, and Ceria scratched her chin.

“…Got a battleship? We have to take a trip to Baleros, and maybe we could just sail around Chandrar. One of those, a flying carpet, your crown—”

He started laughing then, that High King, and took their arms to drag them back to his kingdom filled with promises and glory. Ceria laughed along too as Yvlon glowered through the party. Ceria was, after all, under a spell.

[Freedom From Morality].

It meant she could joke and play pranks and not feel as guilty about things. Be annoyed, perhaps, by the imposition. Wary of Perric’s displeasure? Certainly. Scheme? Yvlon thought that the disdainful looks some of the other adventurers were giving the sloshed half-Elf were already part of Ceria’s scheme.

—Right until Ceria Springwalker couldn’t. Right up until reality walked up and punched her in the face harder than Yvlon Byres could have. The [Armsmistress] hadn’t known it was even possible with Ceria wearing the circlet.

It was midday through the continuing celebrations after a quartet of [Fools] had finished a comedy routine that had most of the guests laughing; it was genuinely funny, but Yvlon Byres had been stone-faced throughout all of it.

Perric had been showing off the new Adventuring Rooms™ from Wistram; they were just one of the number of new magical innovations coming from the Academy of Mages, and he had all the traditional hits.

Magical illusions, music, even a play of Juliet and Romeo by some half-decent [Actors]; it was as if the man constantly watched what other nations were doing and copied them and felt insecure or something.

One of the things Medain took from other parts of the world came rolling forwards as Perric beckoned Ceria, Raava, and other high-ranking adventurers around him. It was all chrome and polished metal, and someone had even inscribed Medain’s crest on the side and given it a snazzy paint finish.

“—And you might recognize this, Ceria. It comes from around where you were adventuring. Have you seen…? It just arrived, and I believe I’m one of, if not the first, to receive a magical ‘bi-cycle’ from Esthelm! It’s near as fast as the magical carriage!”

Ceria had been stumbling from entertainment to entertainment, continuing to drink. But the moment she had heard the bell on the bicycle—and when she saw it, she stopped.

“Your Majesty! That is a peculiar contraption. What are all these odd pieces of metal?”

Raava and the others who’d never seen a bicycle before were enraptured. Perric called for a recording to be shown on a mirror.

“Surely you saw the broadcast on Wistram News Network about it? Ah! No touching—you’ll foul the ‘gears’. It moves with this Drake mechanism; you push down on the pedals and move!”

He demonstrated, and the bicycle moved. Of course it did; it was a high-end, magical version precision-smithed by Pelt and enchanted by Hedault. But—Yvlon saw a scrying mirror flicker to life, and she would have shielded Ceria if she could have.

The half-Elf didn’t look away as someone rode a bicycle over a ramp and balanced on one end. He grinned at the camera, and some words flashed up over a commercial.

Solar Cycles. And the person advertising the new bicycles, who could do wheelies and knew how they worked—

Well.

That was Kevin. He was dressed up as if he were cycling back on Earth: long, brightly-colored pants and a shirt. He’d even gotten a helmet to complete the look, and he was grinning and selling the bike.

Like it was all a kind of joke—but real. His eyes sparkled with the ludicrous thing only he realized: that he was riding a magical bicycle, wearing faux-Earth apparel in a fantasy world.

He was dead.

Yvlon knew that. She’d gotten a message from Lyonette that had told her who’d died at the Winter Solstice. She knew it—but she hadn’t been there. The Horns of Hammerad had been in the Crossroads of Izril. They had missed the greatest and most pivotal battle at Liscor.

Halrac. Kevin. Moore…the [Armsmistress]’ face didn’t change. She stood there, apart from the group of excited, chattering people around the High King, and he never noticed how Ceria stared up silently at Kevin, a half-smile on her face.

Maef was glancing at Yvlon, but the [Armsmistress] didn’t say a word. She didn’t let her face change.

These people didn’t deserve to see her react. And Ceria? When the commercial finished, she raised her cup, took a huge gulp, and laughed.

“That’s Kevin for you.”

“Aha, so you do know him. Liscor seems to be the place to be.”

Once again, all the attention focused back on Ceria, and Perric leaned over. Ceria took the bicycle’s handles as he ceded it to her, and she flicked the kickstand up. She sat on it and balanced naturally.

“Yep. I even know how to ride this thing. The guy in that scrying mirror? He taught me. This is a nice machine.”

“Machine. Well, I think I’ll use one—it’s rather ungainly, and you can fall off, but it’s a novelty. Even the mundane ones are backordered for months.”

Yvlon let out a soft breath. Ceria was still smiling, and it seemed like the circlet had done what it always did: nullified anything real. Yvlon was about to go and maybe just head to sleep or bathe when she saw Ceria glance up.

For a second, the half-Elf met Yvlon’s eyes, and the [Armsmistress] stopped. Then—Ceria chuckled loudly and raised her voice.

“Yeah, well, don’t hope for anything coming out of Solar Cycles fast, High King Perric. That guy on the mirror? Kevin? He’s dead.”

The laughter died down slightly, and High King Perric blinked. He glanced at Ceria, and he wasn’t entirely a buffoon.

“Ah—a friend of yours? That’s regretful; he was quite charming when I spoke with him. Was it that nastiness at the Winter Solstice?”

Ceria half-nodded.

“Yeah. I wasn’t there. But I was told Kevin was killed by an [Assassin]. Roshal, I heard.”

“R-Roshal?”

Someone laughed in the background, a touch nervously, and even the High King’s face went blank a second. He glanced at Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] nodded. The High King forced a smile.

“It could well be. But proof is always difficult. Was he an enemy of Roshal’s, by any chance…? Let’s not talk too much of worldly concerns, Ceria.”

She blinked, then snorted and laughed.

“Of course, Perric. I’m not blaming Roshal. It was probably them; I doubt anything but an [Assassin] could have gotten Kevin. The Draugr didn’t, and I heard there were thousands of them.”

“—Pardon?”

The half-Elf’s eyes flickered just for a moment. Then she smiled. That wide grin. She took a longer sip from her cup and gave Perric a strange look.

“…Because he was Kevin. I heard he took out nearly twenty Draugr with a baseball bat in the fighting. Come now, Perric. You’re supposed to be a fan of the Horns of Hammerad, and you don’t know Kevin?

The High King could only spread his hands and smile as Yvlon stared at Ceria. But then Yvlon made her face go straight again. Was Ceria—?

“Sorry. I thought people knew the stories. I guess that’s being near Named-rank for you; you know how we conquered Albez and went into Liscor’s dungeon and such, right?”

“Yes, of course. Well, I hadn’t heard the story from anyone but Yvlon, and I did mean to get an, uh—an authentically interesting account from you, Captain Ceria.”

Ceria glanced at Yvlon and snorted.

“Well, Yvlon doesn’t tell good stories at all. Okay, so—did she even mention getting jumped by a Flame Elemental after running into a nest of Crelers and a trap door that teleported us into a pit filled with [Insanity] runes?”

“Nary one of them!”

Perric instantly waved a [Bard] over, and much to the annoyance of the Conquerors of Rameid, Ceria began telling a mostly accurate tale of Albez. Mostly accurate because she did make Yvlon sound better than she was. And one other thing.

“—So there she is, holding the magic door up like a shield with metal melted into her arms—and Yvlon’s shouting at us to run. I’m tapped out of magic, it’s hot as hell, and Pisces’ skeletons aren’t able to handle the Elemental either. Ksmvr’s taking pot shots at it, and we realize we have to get to safety before it blows up. So Kevin points to the pit, and we leap into it!”

“—So he was there? But he’s no adventurer—”

King Perric was hanging on every word. He glanced at the frozen image of Kevin he’d had put back on the scrying mirror, and Ceria gazed up at Kevin and smiled.

“Well, he’s not. We just dragged him around because he and I were, uh—well, you know. Good friends. But you know Erin Solstice? The woman who literally stabbed a [Prince] to death—and a Bloodtear Admiral? She and him come from the same place.”

“Ah!”

Perric exhaled, and he saw it. Ceria went on, telling more stories, out of order this time. And Yvlon saw it too.

 

——

 

“So there we are, and Kevin’s hitting the Adult Creler in the side with the baseball bat, and no one’s doing any damage. Then Yvlon comes running at it holding her own arm—

That was how the Ice Squirrel chose to do it. Right or wrong—if they were alone, Yvlon wouldn’t have punched Ceria. She was just watching as Ceria told stories.

Skinner.

Face Stealer.

Albez.

And Kevin. It was, to the audience of adventuring fans, a true tale of adventure and woe. Incredible, insane, and stupid tales of bravery and luck and—Kevin.

He appeared in the stories. Not a main character; not like the Horns. Just like Erin—he was right there. Hitting a baby Creler with a bat. Luring away Facestealer by racing away from the monster on a bicycle—

Plausible things. Levelling up with the other adventurers. Inserted, for better or worse, into the understanding Perric and the rest of Medain had of the Horns of Hammerad.

Why? That was what Yvlon didn’t understand. If it was a prank, well, Ceria might well level from it. But you could either see this as a kind of mischief that bordered on malevolence or something else.

Kevin was dead. Ceria was eulogizing him into history; one of the [Bards] was writing all this down, and they had truth spells.

The problem was she had her circlet, and the truth spells didn’t even flicker when she lied. Yvlon didn’t care about Perric being tricked. She was only concerned with Ceria and the young man the half-Elf kept invoking.

After her final story involving Kevin—she didn’t add him to the Village of the Dead raid, which had been on the scrying orb—Ceria turned to Perric.

“So you see. He wasn’t ever the same as an adventurer. But he did matter. He invented bicycles, he helped us survive when we might have died—right, Yvlon?”

She turned, and mindful of the truth spells, Yvlon murmured.

“Kevin was certainly unique. There was even a Kevin in Liscor’s army when they fought Hectval. You didn’t mention that, Ceria.”

The half-Elf’s lips twitched at that.

“Well, that’s not adventuring, and we weren’t there. Perric, do you know what I’m thinking?”

She turned to the High King, and he was a lech, a buffoon, and worst of all, a [King]—but he caught on to what she was about to say.

“A statue?”

“A big statue. Or just have your [Bards] properly tell the story. The Ballad of Kevin or something. It’s not that hard for the High King of Medain, is it? Especially if you like the bicycles.”

“Oh, come now, Captain Ceria. A statue for someone who only hit Silver-rank then quit being an adventurer?”

Raava protested, and there it was already. Kevin, the Silver-ranked adventurer. Ceria threw her head back with a smile, and she turned to Raava.

“He was twice the adventurer you were, Captain Raava.”

“Now, now.”

Perric silenced the oooh and Raava’s sound of outrage. He seemed taken by the idea.

“A statue. Bard, take that story and at least submit it to Tales of Adventure and Woe. And let’s have a toast, shall we?”

Even if the statue never appeared, Yvlon wondered how much damage or—how many rumors had just started in Medain. Ceria seized a tankard of ale and leapt onto a table. The nobles, adventurers, and commoners watching—Perric liked to broadcast his parties across Medain’s scrying orbs—peered up at her.

“Then let me raise a toast to real adventurers. Here’s to Halrac Everam! Halrac the Grim! Moore of Raithland! Ulinde! Real adventurers—and of course—Kevin!

“To Kevin!”

Even Yvlon took a mug and raised it. She saw Ceria start giggling as she stood on the table, and they probably thought she was crying. The Ice Squirrel laughed to herself, taking a drink, then pouring the rest over her head to hide the fact that she wasn’t actually crying.

That chaotic [Cryomancer] pulling pranks just because it amused her. As she had said, doing this to be remembered. The same for Kevin. She was laughing to herself, and Yvlon saw her turn to that image of Kevin.

Just for a second, as High King Perric wiped his eyes and people toasted the dead—Yvlon saw Ceria’s features freeze. She looked at Kevin, and something real flitted across her face. Something like agony.

Then it froze, and the half-Elf smiled. She turned, laughing, and Yvlon Byres spoke.

“I get it.”

She snapped her metal fingers and figured it out.

“You’re wearing your master’s mask and freezing yourself. You idiot.”

 

——

 

[Ice Mages] could freeze anything. Anything in the world, including themselves. Ceria’s master had once been famous for wearing a mask of ice to conceal her damaged features.

In the depths of night, Yvlon hauled a dead drunk half-Elf back to her rooms. Ceria had been singing, unable to stand, and was drenched in sweat and drink.

She was so cold that Yvlon’s metal arms hurt.

“To Kevin! Hey, do you think Perric will be hiding in my bed?”

“I think you scared him off with your tree rot. Ceria, you’re cold. Can you at least walk?”

Even for Yvlon’s strength, the flopping, lolling half-Elf was hard to maneuver. A [Servant] spotted the two and hurried away—the one time Yvlon could have used some help. Drunk adventurers were doubtless dangerous.

Ceria hadn’t stopped smiling all night. She slid down a wall as Yvlon caught her breath, exasperated. Ceria’s voice was slurred as she spoke.

“I have to stay cold, Yv. Cold or I’d break the act.”

Yvlon Byres stopped. She bent down, on a hunch, felt at Ceria’s smiling face. Her fingers dug slightly into Ceria’s ‘skin’—and some of it came away. Yvlon rubbed at the flesh-colored ice.

“A new spell?”

“Nah. Just [Ice Armor]. Smiling makes your face hurt. I’m genuinely drunk. And I had a good time. See?”

Ceria half got up and slid down the wall, trying to arrest her movement with the side of her face. She flopped onto her back.

“See—see—if you have this circlet, you don’t feel bad about morality. Right? And if you freeze sadness, then the world’s great. Anger, too.”

She tapped her head, and Yvlon stared down at her. Ceria was still smiling, trying to push herself up. Yvlon breathed onto her hands to warm them up; they got cold at night, and she opened the door to Ceria’s room.

“I see. Here. Stay there for a second, would you?”

“I can do that. Hey, do you think I can just…pass out here?”

The half-Elf was almost unconscious by the time Yvlon came back, but the [Armsmistress] helpfully tossed some water over Ceria. Then she bent down and put something on Ceria’s chest.

“Ow. Ow. What the hell is that?”

Ceria sobered up a bit. She looked down at her chest, jerked, and tried to knock a glowing ember off it. It couldn’t burn her enchanted clothing from the Trial of Shields. And Ceria’s skin…warmed.

Yvlon looked down at her friend.

“Just checking you really want Kevin to get a statue in Medain. I could find Perric and tell him you lied.”

Ceria was panting. She didn’t knock the ember away; it wasn’t burning her, but steam was rising from her body, as if her entire body had been frozen. She looked up at Yvlon, and some heat, like the ember, entered her voice.

“Why? A statue won’t harm him. Are you mad about the lies? Making Kevin look better? He’s dead, Yvlon. No one cares about a [Mechanic]. They might remember him in a decade because of this.”

“I know. That’s why I haven’t punched your head through a wall. I get it, Ceria. We haven’t talked about Halrac or the others.”

Yvlon squatted down. There hadn’t been a good moment; they’d been separated when they reached Chandrar. Ceria met Yvlon’s eyes bleakly.

“What’s there to say? Erin called. They went. That brave idiot, Halrac—he looks so cool and calculated until you realize he’s more of an impulsive hothead than you are. Moore. Moore should have retired.”

Yvlon bowed her head.

“Yes.”

Ceria was dry-eyed as the ember turned black on her chest, but she was panting harder now, though she was merely lying there, hunched against the wall.

“They were adventurers. Soldiers got killed. Seve—I feel bad about Seve. But even old Tekshia knew what she was doing. That’s how we die.”

She took a labored breath.

“But Kevin—Kevin was just some guy. A baseball bat smashing Draugr to death? Did you see them eat that up? He was an idiot. If he saw a Draugr, he’d piss himself and run at the same time. And you know why? Because that’s normal. He was a normal guy.”

That felt like…both an accurate thing and wrong to say of Kevin. But Yvlon didn’t interrupt. Ceria’s voice rasped.

“Damn it. Damn it…he was supposed to be just someone who stayed at Erin’s inn. I didn’t love him, you know.”

“I know. You said it was just a relationship.”

Ceria’s head jerked as she nodded. Her pale blue eyes, changed from their original color, seemed to be turning green slightly. She muttered to Yvlon, to herself.

“That was how it was going to work. Someone to fool around with. The safe one. No adventurers. Someone I didn’t have to worry about dying. Why him?

Her eyes glistened. Then froze. She was trying to cast more frost magic, but she was so drunk that even with her circlet…Yvlon went back into her room, came back with all the coals in the fireplace, and dumped them on Ceria’s chest.

The half-Elf swore at Yvlon. She tossed a few at the [Armsmistress] with her skeletal hand, then lay there. Panting.

“Is this what you wanted to see, Yvlon?”

“I just wanted to know if it was the circlet or you, Ceria. You can’t keep this in forever. Berr taught me that.”

The half-Elf hissed at Yvlon, clenching her fists. Freezing despite the burning rock on her chest.

My magic is glaciers as old as time. Not yours. I can freeze it into an iceberg over millennia. Do you want to hear honesty? Fine. I can still feel sad. It doesn’t help. I feel weak and helpless, Yvlon.”

Her head fell back, and she stared upwards.

“So weak. If I were stronger, a better leader, I would have said it the moment we escaped Bograms. Before. When we saw those Watchertrees and realized there was a gate…I should have said we’re going to Liscor. Straight through the Bloodfields.”

“They were fully active. We didn’t know where the gateway was, if it was even accessible. Vofea knew we had to go to sea to help Erin.”

The half-Elf just shook her head.

“We would have been there at the Solstice. But I couldn’t say it. Yvlon? Ksmvr’s catching up. I think I’m the weakest Horn of Hammerad. I will be, soon. This thing is slowing me down. But I need it.”

She held the circlet up, arm shaking. Yvlon looked down at Ceria.

“You don’t need it.”

“I do. I surely do. I can’t learn magic as fast as Pisces without it. It’s a Relic, Yvlon. They don’t grow on trees. I need it—do you care about Vofea? Really? I don’t.”

She tried to switch topics, and Yvlon sat cross-legged.

“I do. She’s like Ksmvr. She needs us. I hope Ksmvr’s alright. You don’t care about her?”

Ceria put the circlet back on her head.

“I can’t. Or else I’ll worry too much about another Ksmvr trying to get himself—herself killed. If we’re lucky, she’ll take an arrow meant for Ksmvr.”

She meant it. Yvlon’s arm twitched, but Ceria was holding onto the circlet—hard. Her lips moved.

“Even with this thing, you’re stronger than I am, Yvlon. If I could find out what this thing does—maybe I’ll get stronger. That’s why we have business in Chandrar. Not just Ksmvr’s sword.”

“Yisame. Zenol. We’ll pay our debts.”

Ceria was staring at nothing. Then she cursed.

“Dead gods damn it. Omusc. I don’t care about her, either. She was just some [Pillager]. I don’t care that I screwed Revine over. I don’t care about Pisces’ fellow [Slaves]. I never met them. What a crock, though. I can’t forget about them. Even with this.”

She lifted the circlet and smacked it against her head, glaring.

“No morality. But I wake up at night and wonder about Vofea. About other people. I just—wonder if I might care about them as much as you all. This stupid circlet doesn’t even work.

She began gnawing on it, then smacked it against the wall a few more times. Yvlon hadn’t known that. She looked at the circlet.

“Maybe the people who wore it before you had less…of a conscience than you did?”

“The Putrid One? That checks out. I wish I could trade more of me for power. If I hadn’t gone overboard first, maybe Seve would be alive. Maybe we’d all be together, in Baleros, or back in Izril with Erin. I’m trying. But even when I cheat with this, I can’t catch up, Yvlon.”

The half-Elf wasn’t crying. But she was melting…and she was drunk and mourning Kevin, in her way.

She needed Yvlon to say something. The adventurer knew this was a moment when she had to tell Ceria something that mattered, even if the half-Elf forgot most of it the next day. The [Silversteel Armsmistress] sat there and thought for a while, then spoke. She said:

“Hello. My name is Yvlon Byres. I’m a member of the Horns of Hammerad, a Gold-ranked team. Some may call me the ‘Silver Killer of Izril’, but I assure you, the truth is I’m hardly so dangerous. I got my name fighting in the Coliseum of Monarchs in Chandrar, and my team has fought everything from Adult Crelers to monsters in dungeons like the Ruins of Albez.”

Ceria’s eyes rolled up in her head, and she groaned. She tried to curl up, and Yvlon continued.

“I’m a Level 44 [Silversteel Armsmistress]. One of the higher-level members of the Horns of Hammerad. Not too long ago, I was a lot lower level and the weakest member of the Horns. My arms were constantly infected and breaking, and I was a lot like you.”

The half-Elf paused in curling up. She looked up, and Yvlon continued, voice steady.

“I was a weak adventurer in the company of geniuses. A three-year-old Antinium who was doing his very best, a [Necromancer] genius, a half-Elf who’d stayed to fight Skinner—and me. My arms were gone. I was afraid you’d put me with a [Healer] or just abandon me. But my team never gave up on me. So I kept trying, and one day—I gained a new class.”

She flexed her arms. That was indeed the moment things had changed. Yvlon looked down at Ceria, then pulled her upright so the half-Elf was at least sitting.

“All I know to do is to keep trying, Ceria. It worked for me—it’ll work for you. I just wish—”

Yvlon faltered, and she stared at Ceria’s circlet resting lopsidedly on Ceria’s head.

“I wish—you were the same captain who could cry and laugh with us, genuinely. Be part of us, even if you were weaker. I followed that Ceria to death’s door. This one makes it harder.”

“Sorry about that.”

Ceria sat there, meeting Yvlon’s eyes. It felt like the first time they’d talked in a long while. After a moment, the half-Elf closed her eyes.

“I wanted this circlet. It’s not just a shortcut. I don’t see a path beyond Illphres, Yvlon. My master studied magic for longer than I did. She was more talented than me. I saw where she stopped, and it’s not that much higher than where I am. I’m no Pisces. I need this.”

“I get that. But do you have to be a [Prankster]?”

That was a partial complaint that Yvlon had. Ceria was chuckling. She shook her head.

“The world’s a big game, Yvlon. Someone has to be the idiot, the trickster, the one having sex and pulling everyone’s noses and looking like a fool. Colth’s no good at it, for all he tries. And Ksmvr’s too genuine. Pisces…Pisces is just silly, and you’re hilarious on accident. I’m the one who needs to do it.”

“Why do we need someone like that?”

Ceria reached out and grabbed Yvlon’s metal arm with her bone one. Her eyes opened wide, and she snarled.

“We need it or else we’ll scare the normal people. The ones who don’t realize we’d rather drag ourselves over broken glass than stop. So High King Perric can joke about jumping into bed with you or me instead of realizing it’d be the last thing he’d ever do.”

She took the circlet from her hand and looked at Yvlon. Seriously. Ceria was covered in condensation, wet—melted. But her eyes were still frosted in places. She’d changed, Yvlon realized, like they all had.

“I know this is bad for me. Joreldyn can’t tell if it’s actively controlling my mind, but guess what? I know this thing has a will. I’m not stupid, even without this thing on, Yvlon. I’ve heard all the stories about cursed artifacts. I still want it. I still need it.”

She began to tap the circlet against the wall hard, then harder, and Ceria raised her voice.

“I know it’s tricking me. Does everyone think I’m stupid? Do you? I know there’s a cost! I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME.

The half-Elf was punching the fragile-looking circlet into the wall. A [Guard] peeked into the room, saw Ceria and Yvlon, turned on his heel, and fled. Ceria snarled at the circlet and then at Yvlon. She punched the circlet into the stone wall, crumbling pieces of masonry off it with each blow.

“What I don’t get is—I’m in a fight for my morality or my soul or whatever it’s doing to me. Yvlon. Why. Do. You. Think. I’d. Lose?”

The [Armsmistress] sat there. After a few more punches, Ceria lifted the bloody circlet—she’d cut her hand—and put it on her head. The [Armsmistress] just held out a hand and helped Ceria up.

“We fight as a team. Only idiots solo monsters.”

Ceria staggered to the door and looked up.

“Fair enough. Here.”

She reached up, and her hand jolted away from the circlet for a second. Ceria snatched it off her head and handed it to Yvlon.

“Yeah, it really didn’t like that. What do you think?”

Yvlon turned the circlet over in her hands, inspecting it. Did she hear a voice saying ‘put me on’ in her head? No. She gently lifted it, ran her hands down the polished bone—then twisted it with all her strength.

She thought she heard a faint cricking sound, but it wouldn’t break. After a minute, Yvlon calmly raised the circlet and punched it into the palace walls. There it sat, embedded in the masonry, as Ceria fell into bed and Yvlon went to her own.

It was a good talk.

 

——

 

Medain ran on days of partying and hangovers. More tended to be done on the hangover days—the early dawn was servants bringing around potions and cleaning up the messes.

High King Perric had an exceptionally bad one, but everything was set up; his adventurer push on the Mines of Zethe was his big project, but he kept an eye on Jecrass, Khelt, and of course, the King of Destruction.

“We’ll have to take Jecrass to task sooner or later. Were it not for King Fetohep, I would have done so already. What else?”

“The statue, Your Majesty?”

An advisor was running over news for Perric so he could recall or undo things he’d decided on. The High King scowled.

“Something tasteful. Nothing too gigantic. It might help with that [Innkeeper] too…maybe we can get her to upgrade our <Quest> to find the Mines of Zethe? Er—Eroon…”

“Erin Solstice.”

“Right. Yes, her. What else?”

“An emissary from Reim, Your Majesty. A single rider is moving at speed for our border and bearing the flag. We, ah, are minded to let them enter?”

Perric groaned. Of course they were. No one wanted to cross Reim at this moment—damn the King of Destruction. He waved a hand.

“Yes, yes. Let them through wherever. How fast? Well, these magical carriages will equalize the playing field soon. No longer will Couriers and speed-specialists have that edge. Focus on the adventurers, fool.”

He was more interested in the Mines of Zethe and the Horns of Hammerad. You see, the High King had been hamming it up a bit for Ceria and Yvlon. This was, in fact, an exceptionally devious ploy that he had come up with. Yvlon’s flight had interfered a bit, but he’d actually worked it into the charade.

Perric didn’t need the Horns of Hammerad to find the Mines of Zethe by themselves. There were other teams, but you had to look at it from the angle of 4-dimensional chess. No…6-dimensional chess.

The Empire of Sands was a growing threat, even if they were expanding slower. Roshal, likewise, was mixed into this along with the Hero of Zethe and the King of Destruction. What was the through line with them all, even the Claiven Earth?

Why, the Horns of Hammerad. Even if Perric paid Pisces’ bounty, Roshal wouldn’t be done with the [Necromancer]. All his sympathies aside, Perric foresaw a clear moment when he could play his various enemies against each other. The Mines of Zethe would be a windfall for any nation that claimed them—even the King of Destruction would want it for his campaigns.

All was going according to plan. The High King was looking forwards to another day of Ceria Springwalker; she was far more entertaining than Yvlon, even if she’d apparently put some holes in his palace walls. What he failed to realize was that Yvlon and Ceria had already left the palace that morning.

 

——

 

“My head hurts.”

Ceria looked terrible in the morning light. Yvlon, who hadn’t had half as much to drink, was somewhat sympathetic. They were walking down the street towards the gates of the city, trying to look casual.

“Are you sure you want to use my plan, Ceria?”

Yvlon’s plan was simple. Pretend to be lying abed, then use Ceria’s ice spells to slide out the windows and just use a magical carriage to get out of Medain. A thirty minute head start would make them impossible to catch because all the magical carriages moved at the same pace.

The [Armsmistress] had help; a concubine of Perric had run a request to the Mage’s Guild, and one was waiting just inside the city gates, hidden by a huge piece of tarp in an alleyway. It wasn’t cheap, but they were available to everyone, and all they had to do was get outside and leave.

“Yep. The High King’s not that helpful to us. I had some fun. We saw his plan. Nuts to this place.”

Ceria stared around at Medain balefully, eyes bloodshot. Then she glanced at Yvlon. Either she was still ‘melted’ from last night or she was being more honest.

“And fuck that [Innkeeper] too. Last night really put it into perspective for me, Yvlon. What is she doing on the news today? Dancing and fighting a battle in Baleros? If anyone should be weeping for what she did, it’s her. She had every right to call us. But I’ve never seen her just keep going on without mourning the cost.”

“She’s a bit like you, then.”

Ceria drank from a bottle of water and spat the last mouthful out.

“Well then, that’s terrible. Come on. Let’s find Pisces and Colth before they do something stupid.”

They were halfway down the main street and thinking that Perric had missed them when there was a raucous series of horns blowing—drums began pounding—and a group of [Soldiers] wearing golden armor marched in front of the gates. Ceria sighed.

“Aw. Didn’t Maef say she’d try to distract Perric?”

“She also said it only takes half a minute.”

“Heh.”

Ceria chuckled, but then there he was. The High King of Medain himself strode behind his Golden Ranks, and they barred the open city gates.

Even from afar, Yvlon could tell he was smiling; he was spreading his arms and shouting something, but they were too far away to hear it.

“Hey, I think he’s smiling at us. He must be mad.”

Ceria shaded her eyes. Yvlon just exhaled.

“The carriage is down that street. See it? Oh, there are [Soldiers] behind us.”

She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, and Ceria turned and saw some apprehensive men and women approaching them. The half-Elf eyed Yvlon, but the [Armsmistress] just stood there.

“Captain? What’s the plan?”

“You want me to do the plan?”

“You’re supposed to be smarter with the circlet, right?”

That was the entire point of Ceria wearing it. The half-Elf studied the circlet as she took it off her head. She glanced at Yvlon, then murmured.

“Just so you know, circlet…Joreldyn, the Mage of Rivers, knows exactly where you are. If you get ‘lost’ or I get hurt and lose you, he’s definitely going to find you and either seal you ten miles underground or toss you into the sea. Or just break you. Give me some help. All or nothing.”

She held the circlet a second, then her eyes flashed as she put it back on her head.

“Sorry. Just had to [Threaten Object] for a second there.”

“Not at all.”

Yvlon was stretching her arms, then legs. Now Perric had found a speaking stone.

“—trying my patience, Ceria, Yvlon! Why don’t we discuss this over breakfast?”

His voice boomed across the rapidly-emptying street, and Yvlon glanced at Ceria.

“Those Golden Ranks are former adventurers. Most of them aren’t actual Gold-rankers, but they would be with their weapons and armor.”

“I know. Clear a path. I’ll get the carriage and handle the rear. Do whatever you want to Perric.”

“Anything?”

Ceria slapped her circlet, took another drink of water, and exhaled.

“Anything. We’re not coming back here.

Yvlon began walking forwards, wearing a slight smile on her face. Ceria began raising walls of ice behind them. And King Perric—

 

——

 

High King Perric was beginning to get annoyed by how the two adventurers were treating him. He was the High King of Medain, and this was how his generosity was being treated?

“Should we bar the gates, sire? That messenger from Reim—”

“Later! I am busy. Golden Ranks! Arrest Yvlon Byres and Ceria Springwalker.”

He hadn’t called on the Conquerors of Rameid or anyone else for this. The day he needed other adventurers to subdue a single team was the day he lost his crown. Still…the Golden Ranks shifted as they saw Yvlon Byres begin walking at them. Then striding along.

“Can we injure her, Your Majesty?”

The captain of his royal bodyguard looked at Perric, and the High King sighed.

“Healing potions. We still have some stocks. Obviously, if she’s willing to be amenable t—ah. She’s running.”

Well, to be more precise, Yvlon was now jogging. But since it was straight at Perric and his Golden Ranks, the High King felt like it was something of an aggressive move.

“Yvlon! You won’t enjoy my displeasure, I assure you. The penalty for defying the High King is severe.”

Well, he might enjoy the rewards of her being a de facto criminal, but he’d regret it. Behind them, more walls of ice were locking down the street.

Good tactics. Except for the fact that Perric was here. With his Golden Ranks. And it was just Yvlon Byres and Ceria Springwalker. The Silver Killer of Izril was running now. Just…running…arms and legs pumping.

At them.

It belatedly occurred to Perric that he hadn’t put his armor on. And while he had his personal sword and shield…he took a few steps back behind another rank of his people. He’d seen images of Yvlon fighting in the Coliseum of Monarchs, of course.

But she was a sensible woman. One did not offend [Kings] lightly! Hah!

…Hadn’t she said she was wroth with him? But there was anger and there was insanity. High King Perric’s head hurt. Then he wondered…

“Enough horns already! No more trumpets!”

He snapped at one of his followers, and they looked at him. Perric realized no one was blowing horns. It was all in his head.

[Dangersense].

The High King’s head snapped up. He stared at Yvlon Byres, and a thought occurred to the merely adequate King of Medain. The fastest royal lover of Chandrar. The—

Here he was with less than his regular armor on and his Golden Ranks and bodyguard…staring down a woman over Level 40. Coming straight at him. The half-Elf had just locked down the streets to the palace.

This was how monarchs met their untimely ends. Of course, if someone was crazy enough to—

That’s the Silver Killer?”

She was running faster, now. The Golden Ranks were getting nervous. The ones holding huge, gilded tower shields in the front rank were staring at her, and they knew her level. Now, Perric swore he could hear something in the suddenly eerie, quiet street.

“—name is Yvlon Byres. I’m a member of the Horns of Hammerad, a Gold-ranked team. Some may call me—”

Was she—was she saying her introduction as she ran? Perric’s throat was suddenly dry, and he croaked.

“Bows. Aim for her legs.”

Bows raised, much to the relief of everyone, including Perric. A dozen bowstrings snapped—and she kept running.

“Uh?”

Perric made a stupid sound as Yvlon didn’t even break stride. Now, he realized her skin had changed colors. He was staring at a woman with grey, iron skin—sprinting at him. And her arms were beginning to morph—

“Golden Ranks! Stop her! Lower the gates!”

Perric bellowed, and he began moving back. Yvlon’s eyes were locked on his face. She wouldn’t—they had a connection.

“Your Majesty! The emissary from Reim! They’re almost here!”

Already? Perric was shoving people aside, trying to get out of the gates just in case. He ignored his screaming advisor and heard the Golden Ranks shouting. Then—

Yvlon Byres began to lose her temper. High King Perric shoved two [Archers] aside, ran past a flinching [Mage] aiming a [Fireball] at a giant Frostmarrow Behemoth rising behind him—and stumbled out the lowering gates.

Perric ran out his capital city’s gates, then began to turn, wondering if he needed to run further. The gates were lowering into place. Good, solid, enchanted metal. It would buy him time to rally the army and—

Halt! Halt! The city is under lockdown!

Someone shouted from above. There was a scream rising from just past the gates—the Silver Killer was running straight out at his soldiers, and something exploded—and she kept screaming, but a [Guard] was shouting at someone coming from behind Perric.

The High King turned. A single rider was racing at the gates, nevermind they were closed. Moved by a kind of kinship for anyone facing the Silver Killer, Perric waved his arms.

“The gates are closed, fool! Stop! Stop for the High King of—”

He stepped forwards, waving his arms, and saw the rider coming straight at him. But he was the High King; he was wearing his royal clothing and his crown sat on his head. They had to see—Perric saw a horse. He stared up at an armored figure, a shock of amazingly red hair—and the most bored expression in the world.

The rider’s horse passed by Perric, so close he felt the saddle graze his shoulder as he twisted. The boot kicked him in the chest and sent him flat on his back. Then the woman drew her sword.

Mars the Illusionist swung her blade, and the gates vanished.

 

——

 

Ceria was plotting her exit strategy, which was going to hinge on whether or not Yvlon actually killed the High King of Medain. She was giggling; Yvlon was crazy. The world was crazy.

Yvlon, screaming her lungs out, was almost on the Golden Ranks of Medain, who were full-flinching as they stared at her and the Frostmarrow Behemoth Ceria’s circlet had summoned for her.

Then—the closed gates split. Ceria saw a line slash through the enchanted metal, then the gates blew inwards.

It sent the braced soldiers flying. Yvlon slowed, and her morphing arms became a shield. She blocked a chunk of metal flying at her, and Ceria shifted her aim.

What the hell was that? Even she hadn’t expected Yvlon to go through the gates; she had been planning to make a ramp to get the carriage over them.

Enemy attack! Attack!

A screaming [Minister] fled down the street as more [Soldiers] and the Conquerors of Rameid surged towards the gates. Their captain, Raava, aimed a bow at Ceria and realized the half-Elf already had a wand pointed between her eyes. But both adventurers were staring at the gates.

“Who—?”

The dust cleared, and a figure strode through the gates. Ceria’s mouth opened, and Raava’s eyes bulged.

She looked like she was seven feet tall, was garbed from head to toe in silver armor, and carried a fantastic, flaming sword at her side and a shield covered by lightning on her other hip. Ceria had never laid eyes on this woman in her life—but that was because her appearance changed. What Ceria did recognize was the crest on her armor.

Her aura.

Ceria’s [Dangersense] rang one hollow tone like the bones of the earth shifting, then fell silent. Just a warning.

Mars the Illusionist strode through the gates and tossed someone ahead of her. High King Perric struck several of his Golden Ranks, and they fell over. The greatest [Vanguard] in the world planted her sword in the ruins of Perric’s gate and gazed around.

Her eyes found Yvlon Byres standing there, panting, covered in metal, then the Frostmarrow Behemoth and Ceria in a moment. The half-Elf felt a shock running down her arms. Mars smiled.

“There you are. That was easy. Come on. His Majesty of Reim is waiting, Horns of Hammerad.”

“Wh—wh—”

High King Perric looked like he’d just taken a dust bath. He struggled upright. He was one of the few people who could speak; Mars’ presence seemed to steal everyone’s tongues. One of the King’s Seven? In Medain’s capital?

My gates! How dare you?”

Perric howled at Mars, and the [Vanguard] glanced at him.

“No one stops an emissary of the King of Destruction. High King Perric of Medain, Flos Reimarch has called for Yvlon Byres and Ceria Springwalker of the Horns of Hammerad to be escorted into his presence this instant.”

She dug an armored pinkie in her ear, looking bored at even having to deliver this brief explanation. Then she smiled at Ceria.

“He heard you had trouble in Medain and sent me. So bored is he that he’s broken off war with Nerrhavia’s Fallen for a time to meet you two. We’ll ride like lightning southwards. D’you have those magical carriages? Ah, good. Let’s be off, then!”

She whistled, and a horse delicately picked its way through the gates and trotted over to her. Yvlon was panting; her [Aspect of Iron] morphed back to flesh.

“Flos Reimarch wants us?”

Mars was standing there jovially, larger than life—but her sword rose and pointed at Yvlon in a heartbeat, and Yvlon raised her arms to guard herself.

“King Reimarch to you. And to you, High King of Medain.”

You have assaulted the High King of Medain and destroyed my property, Illusionist!

Perric roared, and Mars closed her eyes. Her lips moved, and she seemed to count to ten. Then she opened one piercingly green eye and stared at Perric.

“So? Listen to me, little man. I will be leaving with the Horns of Hammerad in moments. The only question to me is whether I take my liege your head for my troubles or not.”

She lifted her shield, and the Golden Ranks drew back a step. Ceria realized she had a smile of delight on her face. Perric went deathly pale. He stuttered.

“We signed a peace after—”

And you are testing my patience. Only the thought of having to ride all the way back here with some soldiers to take control of Medain after beheading you stays my hand. Do you think this is yester-year, Perric? The King’s Seven have assembled. Nerrhavia’s Fallen quakes! Silence your tongue, stand aside, and watch what you say to my back. Or the Archmage of Lightning shall zip over to rain lightning down on your capital for a day.”

Mars’ voice rose with each passing sentence until it thundered around the city. Then she pointed her sword.

“Are you coming, Ceria Springwalker, Silver Killer? Or shall we make this a challenge like the Coliseum of Monarchs? You owe me a sparring session in good humor or ill, one [Gladiator] to another!”

She grinned; one of this world’s most powerful [Warriors] gazed at the two of them. Ceria Springwalker slowly slid forwards on a floor of ice. She passed by the High King, who was a frozen sheet of ice. Ceria was so tempted to grab his crown…

“Ceria. You are crazy. I was only going to kill him. Give it back.”

Yvlon was staring at Ceria as the half-Elf skated over to her and Mars. The half-Elf blinked down at her hands. A huge crown was in her hands. She started.

“Oops.”

That wasn’t even the circlet. Even it thought that was a stupid move. But the intrusive thoughts had won. She was definitely levelling up as a [Prankster]…Ceria hesitated, and Mars?

Mars threw her head back and guffawed. She stared down at Ceria, then jerked her head.

“Well, shall we be off?”

“Er—don’t you want me to give it back?”

Ceria showed Mars the crown, and the Illusionist winked at Ceria.

“My King only wants you and Yvlon Byres. Your two comrades as well, but he’s tasked someone else with finding them if I cannot. Take the crown if you don’t think it’s too gaudy. It’s a decent recompense for him wasting your time.”

No, no, no…even Yvlon was giving Ceria a stare. The half-Elf? She slowly put the crown on Yvlon’s head.

“You give it back, then. Alright! I’m ready to go.”

She practically ran for the magical carriage. After a second, Yvlon got in. Ceria gave orders to the magical ‘driver’ in the front seat, a spectral man.

“Follow, uh, follow Mars the Illusionist.”

Error. Individual not located with [Appraisal] spell in vicinity—

“Ah. Follow, uh, that horse.”

“Acknowledged. Thank you for riding Wistram Academy’s new, premier transportation service courtesy of the Terras—”

They began riding out of the gates. Mars was already galloping ahead, and Ceria sat back in the carriage.

“From one nation to another. Is this how it’s gonna be, Yvlon? The King of Destruction himself. Dead gods. At least we got away from one of them, eh?”

“Um.”

They looked out the window. Behind them lay the shattered gates, the people of Medain—the Conquerors of Rameid—Ceria blew a kiss at Raava and her team, then saw Perric. She waved at him as the man, his red hair a mess, clothes disheveled, stared at her. She blinked at Perric.

“Uh. Yvlon? Where’s his crown?”

Slowly, ever-so-slowly, Ceria’s head turned, and the Silver Killer of Izril shifted—and Ceria saw Yvlon had the crown in her lap.

“I didn’t feel like giving it back.”

The two stared at each other. Then glanced back—and they were already a hundred feet away from the capital and accelerating. After a second, Ceria slowly sank down in her seat.

“Can—can this thing go any faster? You’re crazy, Yvlon.”

“I’m crazy?”

They began arguing and blaming the other until they heard Mars laughing.

 

 

[Class Change: Prankster -> Trickster of Crowns class obtained!]

[Trickster of Crowns Level 21!]

[Skill – It’s a Joke, Not a Crime obtained!]

[Mischief Skill – Royal Slash obtained!]

[Skill – Copy Spell (Temporary) obtained!]

[Bound Item – The Crown of Medain ownership assigned!]

 

——

 

Pisces Jealnet hoped Ceria and Yvlon stayed out of trouble. They were the responsible ones. Well, Yvlon was, and Ceria was a very canny leader for all she liked her jokes.

He hoped that was the case. For he and Colth had strayed into Khelt’s new lands in Jecrass. Functionally, they weren’t that different from Jecrass itself.

Their escort had left them, and the land had begun to reek of death magic. But not death magic that would kill crops…just a sign of the undead filling this place.

They were visible as well, marching squads of them—quite a lot, actually. It seemed almost as though there had been trouble.

The people looked remarkably adjusted to their new lot in life. At least, enough to wave at Pisces and Colth and ask if they were ‘more troublemakers’. When the two shouted that no, they were not and were seeking an audience with Fetohep—and they weren’t challenged by the undead—the people came hurrying over to gossip and talk.

Few people could move in Khelt who were not actually Kheltian. The former citizens of Jecrass who had decided to remain had already realized the undead were no threat to them, and Pisces saw vast fields being plowed by skeletal oxen.

He stared at a vision from the past, given reality, as a huge half-giant made of bones slowly turned a gigantic mill being built. More were dragging stones over, and a Human marshaling them raised a hand.

“Hail, friends. I recognize you, and by leave of His Majesty of Khelt, you are given leave to pass! I am [Death Commander] Lanodest, who leads the glorious dead and the living of Khelt; this outpost in Jecrass we hold safe. The troublemakers learned that long ago and left for Khelt itself. If you seek King Fetohep, you will find him there.”

Pisces and Colth hadn’t known if making the detour all the way to Khelt was smart. They’d hoped Fetohep might appear before them like he had before, but it seemed Khelt was occupied with troubles.

They were debating heading north to Medain after all, or continuing south, when the monarch found them.

That was why Pisces hoped Ceria and Yvlon were staying out of trouble. You see…he looked at Colth as the large escort of nearly two hundred people, all wearing veils and concealing clothing, set up camp.

They weren’t standing around the two adventurers in a guard, but one did not just turn and ride away from a waiting ruler. And this one had come into Khelt’s lands to find them.

Few people could do that, even the King of Destruction. Pisces swallowed, and Colth hissed in his ear.

“Remember. Don’t say anything without thinking it over.”

Then he ducked into the tent, put on his best smile, and instantly knelt.

“Quarass of Germina! We salute you! The Quarass lives! Germina endures!”

The youngest monarch that Pisces had ever met was lounging on a platform of cushions. The Quarass of Germina raised a hand, and the fans stopped wafting at her. She looked at Pisces, and he sighed.

He was getting really sick of royalty in Chandrar. At least the ones in Terandria left him alone. After Colth had profusely offered his compliments, the Quarass of Germina spoke. A child’s voice. An unsettling age to each word.

“I shall not take our time up with games, Colthei Lacment, Pisces Jealnet. The King of Destruction will soon have Ceria Springwalker and Yvlon Byres, and I have no mind to clash with his will in this. You will listen to my proposal. The King of Destruction has his desires; so too does the Speaker of Trees in the Claiven Earth, High King Perric, and the two rulers of Jecrass. You shall choose which ruler to aid in due time.”

Pisces swallowed, and Colth gave the Quarass a huge smile. Her bodyguards eyed him with great suspicion and wariness. Which, Pisces had to own, was probably appropriate.

“Quarass, we are to be in Baleros. The last thing we wish is to be involved in any trials in Chandrar!”

She smirked at him.

“Your Empress and her mighty consort would beg to differ, Colthei. I doubt they put reins on your actions.”

He stiffened, and she went on.

“My displeasure can be a dangerous thing. My favor is simple: I know where your companions are, Pisces Jealnet.”

He froze, and the Quarass smiled at him, then eyed Colth again as the [Ultimate Supporter] began to sweat. The Quarass fanned herself. Then spoke.

“I have something to offer Colthei as well, and my desires are more complex. I wish two things of you. The first will dovetail with the King of Destruction’s request. The second…have you heard of Chemath Marble?”

Pisces sighed as someone opened a box. He stared at a lump of magical stone, then at Colth, then at the Quarass. And he had only one real thought.

He wished Ksmvr were here. Vofea too.

 

——

 

On another continent, sitting on a rock and throwing stones at the stupid water as he stared at the wreck of Calanfer’s ship, Ksmvr of Chandrar, who didn’t actually even like Chandrar that much, eventually stopped hucking stones.

He eyed the [Knight] speaking with a bedraggled [Princess], [Hundredlord], and a weary crew as lost as he was, then looked to his right.

“So you can’t see what they’re doing?”

Vofea was chewing on a mango as she shaded her eyes and stared out at sea. She was concentrating hard, then shrugged.

“Argh. Fate’s all muddled. But it’s something stupid and complex.”

Ksmvr thought about this. Then he sighed longer.

“That sounds about right.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

It was a long day of travel. But I am now in Puerto Rico! Editing in an apartment on a laptop is tough. A single mosquito is in the room, and I have never seen one dodge that fast before.

I could complain about the travel or mention the first meal I had here, which was delicious, but I think I would rather talk about writing. I had a vague idea I might write through this entire break, but as you saw at the top, I’m going to call it a vacation and post on the 27th.

If the writing urge strikes me, I may indeed put something down, but I think the responsible thing is to not post anything even if I were to write a chapter. This is my first real vacation in years (Canada does not count), and I have high hopes for it.

Soon I shall stand on a beach, and I hope it goes well. It may be a selfish Author’s Note, but I promised myself I would try to change come April. This feels like a big first step. Thanks for reading, and I have another Chandrar-themed chapter coming up. The Horns, the King of Destruction, and most importantly—Minizi. See you in a bit!

 

 

Stream Art: Chains by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

 

The Dungeon’s Heart by Enuryn!

Portfolio: https://enuryndraws.art/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/enuryn

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Enuryn_Nat

 


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