10.12 H (Pt. 1) – The Wandering Inn

10.12 H (Pt. 1)

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The Quarass of Germina was a busy woman. Most rulers were, but she calculated her time down to the increments of each day. If you were a being made up of countless lives and experiences, you could do anything.

Which meant that you had better choose the best anything. She could have been re-teaching a sword school to new warriors. Or overseeing Germina’s dry farms. Or smithing an artifact.

She had taken the time to come to Khelt-Jecrass in the north to find two adventurers. Why?

“Chemath Marble. You do not know what it does. Its use has been lost, and even when the mines were open thirty years ago—they provided only four nations with enough marble to be considered significant.”

The Quarass was pontificating. She liked doing that too. Pisces sat there staring at the girl with brown skin, a headdress of multi-colored jewels, and the light, colorful clothing of Germina, a child until he met her eyes. A girl who owned the Serkonian Lance, the Relic casually propped against the table she sat at.

The tent Germina’s people had set up was spartan; Colth and Pisces had been given sweet dates, water, and nothing else. Was it a sign of traditional Germinan hospitality? Or the nation’s poorness?

Pisces knew Germina was the weakest and smallest of the four Shield Kingdoms at present, but it had a reputation. Mostly for assassins. He hadn’t missed the shadowed figures standing behind the Quarass, faces and bodies covered in black cloth. Of course, those didn’t scare him.

The one clinging to the cloth along the top of the tent, clothing perfectly camouflaged with the ceiling? Invisible to Pisces’ [Detect Life] spell. They didn’t even deform the cloth. That scared the heck out of him. He hadn’t even spotted that one; Colth had warned him.

She’s got two more behind us, I think. And knowing her reputation, there’s one under us too. Hear her out. Promise her nothing. She’s low-level.

Colth was talking to Pisces with some kind of Skill; his words filled only Pisces’ ears. The [Necromancer] was sweating. The Quarass knew what he wanted.

Bearig. Droppe. Eloque. Rophir. Merr. Were they in danger?

He couldn’t read the Quarass’ face or mind. The problem was that the same was not true for her.

“—I would have thought the Death of Wings taught her subject better than that. Do not speak when I am conversing, Colthei Lacment.”

The [Ultimate Supporter] stiffened. Pisces’ skin crawled.

She knew Colth was allied with Demons. That…was not good. The Quarass took a longer sip of water and sighed.

“Chemath Marble is powerful. The palace of Khelt, the walls of Reim, temples in Baleros, and the Fitorian Academy of Ailendamus were the only recipients of the marble. You have seen what Chemath Marble enabled Drevish the Architect to do against the King of Destruction’s foes.”

Bolts of lightning hurled from the towers like a crown around the city. Enough to win several battles.

“—And it was only so limited because Drevish was outbid by his competitors. Khelt’s Chemath Marble you have seen in effect as well.”

“We have? I—ah—Your Majesty?”

Pisces blurted out, surprised by this, and the Quarass favored him with a slight smile.

“I am the Quarass, Pisces Jealnet. Address me as such. Majesty is a lower title. For you, I shall not take offense.”

Her tone indicated Colth had to be on his best behavior, and Pisces ducked his head, sweating. He was no Erin to thumb his nose in rulers’ faces. He did that when they weren’t looking. But the Quarass felt dangerous. She reminded him of a Larracel or maybe Cognita.

Someone for whom politeness wasn’t actually a requirement because she could do without. But someone who would remember when politeness had been given.

“The Meeting of Tribes. King Fetohep of Khelt activated a unique power seldom seen in this world to ferry armies of the dead across continents. I am sure you recall that.”

The Quarass prompted Pisces, and he did recall. Wait…she meant the moment when the Walled Cities had bombarded the army Fetohep had brought. They had reduced the entire army to dust, and the King of Khelt had used the death magic and bones to open a portal to unleash the true might of his armies.

That was Chemath Marble’s doing?”

“Mm. In part. Khelta herself was responsible for the ability to teleport vast distances, but the full might of her magic was enabled by the stone. Now, do you see?”

“You want us to get it in the Mines of Zethe by foiling other nations’ plans, Quarass? That’s a tall order, even for a Named-rank adventurer.”

Colth sounded palpably unhappy, and Pisces could see why. Zethe was northwest of them, and neither he nor Colth had any objectives there. The Quarass flicked her fingers delicately.

“It is. You are unlikely to head in that direction or succeed as matters stand. I inform you of my desires that you may fulfill them. If you should find aught else valuable to Germina, I may trade it for what you desire. Knowledge is important, and I shall arm you with my favors that you repay me.”

“In exchange for helping Pisces find his friends. Rather mercenary of you, Quarass.”

Colth shot back. He looked far steadier than Pisces given the circumstances. The Quarass regarded him with one eye.

“That is what I do to those who are neither friend nor foe but merely an adventuring team far from home, Colthei. My enemies I might speak of. Even spill dangerous secrets to the world. I am well aware of the ire of Demons. But then, Rhir is far from Germina, and the Blighted Kingdom is a more profligate ally. Now, consider how a friend might find Germina’s munificence?”

Colth fell silent, but his eyes flashed dangerously even as his fake smile came over his face. Pisces broke in, smiling nervously.

“We—can well see the value of Chemath Marble and Germina’s interests, Your Majes—Quarass. Do excuse me.”

Once more, the Quarass gave Pisces a smile like he was some new [Student] in class and Colth was the annoying honors student.

“It is useful, though I would rather sell it for exorbitant prices. You see, Germina is hungry for gold, Pisces Jealnet. I shall not be shy about the matter. Though gold is second to expertise, which brings me to my second point. Soon, the King of Destruction will send for you. He should already have Ceria Springwalker and Yvlon Byres headed towards him.”

Pisces exchanged a look with Colth. The [Necromancer] coughed into one hand.

“Are you so certain, Quarass? Yvlon can be—stubborn—and I heard they were in Medain. Trapped.”

The Quarass shook her head slightly.

“It matters not if she is. Mars the Illusionist has gone to fetch them.”

Pisces had begun chewing on a date, and he choked slightly. That—that would do it. The Quarass steepled her fingers.

“I know the King of Destruction’s will in this. He is a passionate man, but among his designs will surely be Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Not to enlist you in war—”

She saw Pisces’ and Colth’s alarmed looks.

“—but rather, to act while he conducts his war. Some of his people remain in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. He wishes them back; they are part hostage at this moment, and their skills would be of great use to him. They are the Mad Ones; [Engineers], [Alchemists], [Mages]—experimenters, visionaries. Inventors of great scope, vision, and destruction.”

Pisces had heard of them. He swallowed.

“Wait. That would follow that he intends for someone to liberate and second them to—”

“Reim. Which is what he will desire, as all know you have business in Chandrar’s south. And should you free them, I trust you will convince them to come to Germina instead. I am the King of Destruction’s ally, but their talents will be put to better use in my purview.”

The Quarass gave Colth and Pisces a happy smile, and Pisces liked this job less than the one about Chemath Marble. Tweaking the King of Destruction’s nose? The Quarass sat back as Colth gave her a faint grin.

“Quarass, you have predicted our movements and even the mighty King of Reim’s mind with a great will. No doubt we could do these things, but Pisces can easily find his companions. With or without Germina’s aid.”

He meant by tracking Ivery, the Skeleton Lord. The Quarass raised her brow.

“Of course he can locate his Skeleton Lord, Colthei. That would be a reasonable decision. If they were all together.”

Colth exhaled slightly with resignation. Pisces’ stomach churned.

“Where—where are—”

The girl studied him.

“My people can liberate them from where they are. Assure yourself, Pisces Jealnet, that time may be limited in some of their cases. They have made enemies; Roshal, among others. I am prepared to find each one, deal with the nations they have offended—even settle Merr the Storm’s bounty—and remove their [Slave] classes. Including yours. I require proof of your intent, first.”

The offer stuck Pisces in the chest, and Colth rose slightly, as if to go.

“We cannot promise that, Quarass. You’re asking Named-rank favors for trifles for you.”

He snapped back, and the Quarass of Germina sighed.

“Colthei. Sit down. I am well aware Pisces Jealnet’s friends are not enough to move an entire team, split as they are and pursuing their own ends. Your friends, however? Perhaps even the Ultimate Supporter would move for that.”

Colth gave the Quarass a blank look, then chuckled.

“My friends? Deniusth, Mihaela, Eldertuin, and the lot are big boys and girls, Quarass. Larracel’s got the biggest britches of them all. Even if they’re in trouble, they don’t need me. Nor do I think Germina’s hand is any more entrenched in the New Lands of Izril than anyone else’s.”

The Quarass smiled politely, even with great interest.

“We shall see whether my attempts are more…thoughtful than the others. I don’t mean fellow adventurers who have never even seen your true nature, Colthei. I mean your friends. The ones sworn in blood with you. The ones who have shared your bonds, your travails, your defiance. Your comrades in chains, Colthei.

It was like someone suddenly pulled the blood out of Colthei’s body. He leapt up, and Pisces grabbed him—and realized two burly [Assassins] had done so too. Colthei stood, pulling all three up with him.

“Impossible. I am the only one left. The Naga winnowed us down to one. The very best.”

His voice was flat. He wasn’t mad—he just shook his head. But his body was taut, straining. The Quarass just smiled. Was there a trace of sympathy in her eyes? Maybe just a hint. But those eyes were very knowing, very cold. As if she had seen too many grievous sights, even Colth’s, to have the same depth of emotion she had once had.

“True. Assuming he had them in his grip. What if he merely told you they had died after one of your escape attempts? They were not all dreams. What if, instead, they escaped?

Colth’s eyes flickered. He put a hand to his head, and Pisces remembered what Colth had shared, haltingly, during their time at sea. Trickery, illusions, waking up in the same place again and again.

I am in the Wishing Well—

“Was it during the—do you know? How do you—

The Quarass said nothing as the [Assassins] tried to wrestle Colth back from leaning over the table. She exhaled.

“Three. I believe three made it after a certain incident at Camp Ethost—a rather simple name for a dark place. A training camp of Roshal’s that suffered intense fires before being abandoned. That was no dream, if you remember it, Colthei. Three escaped.”

Emotions were running like water behind Colth’s face, but his tone was flat, disbelieving. Pisces wanted to grab him, take him aside, and reassure him, but it was all he could do to hold Colth still. The other man’s pulse was thundering; Pisces could feel it through his fingertips.

“Impossible. No one could have survived for so long.”

The Quarass countered.

“You did. They had no help, and indeed, they fled far to escape Roshal’s following. Invisible people, trying to scrape by and hide. I know where they are. The same offer applies to them; I do not believe the Naga will forswear himself on you. Not after you have slain his hound.”

Colth said nothing. But he was tensing up more and more and his eyes flickered around the tent. He couldn’t be wondering if he could take out the Quarass’ bodyguard, could he? Pisces whispered.

“Colth? Easy now. We can fulfill the Quarass’ very reasonable demands and—”

The Quarass of Germina took a drink of water, smiling, and exhaled. She didn’t even reach for the staff at the table. She put her fingers together, looked at Colth, and said—

“Where else would you go to find work where no one asks questions? Where not even Roshal can reach? They are in the Mines of Zethe as hired laborers. So you see, Colthei—”

Her finger rose, and she traced a line between him, Pisces, and her.

“It is all connected.”

Colth slowly, slowly untensed. Pisces stared at the Quarass, at her evil smile, and he wondered if this was what you got if Erin Solstice were old, pitiless, and had access to a dictionary. The Quarass chuckled to herself as the two adventurers sat there.

“What an evil shit-person.”

…Until a voice spoke up. Pisces went white. He looked at Colth, and the [Ultimate Supporter] stared at Pisces, aghast. The [Assassins] twitched. Who would dare say something like that? The Quarass stopped smiling, and Pisces realized—

Colth hadn’t said it. He thought Pisces had. Both of them turned, and someone ducked at the entrance to the tent.


A young woman tried to hide, and Pisces saw a flash of platinum, mint-green hair and suntanned skin. The Quarass sighed.

“Excuse me a moment.”

She stood, and Pisces and Colth found themselves being served a heaping plate of dates as the Quarass exited the tent.




Elena Othonos had just wanted to know what the Quarass was like when she wasn’t being ‘nice’. As it turned out, she got to know exactly how the Quarass acted. Also, what the consequences were.

Stop! Stop! I’m sorry!

The Quarass gulped down more water as Elena hung upside down, suspended from her feet, which were tied by a rope to a pole.

“Normally, you would be lashed. Naked. But I do like you, Elena.”

Can you let me go, then?

Elena swung right and left, trying to keep the blood from rushing to her head. She saw two figures sitting in the tent peeking at her. The Quarass just sighed.

“Let her down.”

Her people had been the ones stringing Elena up; one put away a riding crop with visible reluctance as the Quarass admonished them.

“She is my guest. I do not care if you believe she is disrespectful; her impudence is as natural as it is for the King of Destruction. Elena, I believe he is coming to return you to his side.”

The Earther from Greece grumbled.

“Oh, wonderful. From the frying pan to the fire. At least you listen to me.”

The Quarass flashed her a quick smile.

“It is I who wish you would swear yourself to my cause, but these things take time, Elena. In any case, I trust you will remember what I have said.”

Oh, Elena wouldn’t forget. The scariest person in Chandrar might be the Quarass of Germina. Cara would have conniptions if the two ever met, and as far as Elena was concerned, escaping Wistram to be kidnapped to Chandrar?

At least it was giving her a real sense of the dangers of this world. If only she could report to Cara and the others in Terandria…

Well, it wasn’t like the Quarass was invincible. The girl was still a girl, and as soon as Elena was let down, she sidled over and gave the Quarass a huge hug.

“Stop that.”

The Quarass hated being picked up. Elena beamed as she nuzzled the Quarass’ cheek—and saw the Quarass’ people giving her looks of outrage and pure jealousy. That was one thing Elena had noticed; the Quarass hadn’t tortured her for information about Cara or the others. She hadn’t gotten it out of Elena either because she wanted Elena to like her or because she feared Flos Reimarch’s wrath for whatever she did.

She was palpably unhappy with being a child as well, often cursing her fragile body. Even if—


The Quarass executed a pinch to one of Elena’s nerves, and Elena let go fast.

Even if she was a martial warrior, spellcaster, general, spy, and tactician all rolled into one. Oh, and the last thing? The Quarass fixed her headdress with a sigh.

“Now, behave while I finish convincing those two to work for me.”

“Those are the Horns, right?”

“Yes, Elena.”

“Erin’s friends.”

The Quarass’ eyes flickered.

“They are. And they will be working for me, so our interests align there as well.”

Elena had no doubt the Quarass could convince the Horns to work for her. Well, maybe if she could get a quick word—the Quarass was about to stride back into the tent when two servants, neither assassins, hurried over.


Lady Vaitsha Zectiou wore hand wraps, and Elena backed up a step when the poisonous [Lady of Viper’s Touch] appeared. She was beautiful in a way Elena, a [Beautician], couldn’t match; her skin had a dusky hue to it no blush could give, she swayed slightly as she walked, and even her presence was naturally intoxicating.

Both from a literal pheromone standpoint and because she could kill with a touch. You couldn’t teach that to models on a runway. Well, maybe some of them had that already.

“What, Vaitsha? I am busy—”

The Quarass looked peeved to be interrupted twice, as she was constantly busy, but if Vaitsha interrupted—with young Khalid, the [Champion]-in-training by her side—it mattered.

“It’s from Hraace, Quarass. Pedagogia Araxia.”

Instantly, the Quarass’ annoyance turned to severe interest, even, Elena noticed as Vaitsha offered a speaking stone to the Quarass—fear? Anticipation?

The Quarass took the stone and began speaking into it. She waved the others back, and Elena strained her ears to listen. However, two servants noticed Elena wasn’t obeying instantly and dragged her out of earshot, so Elena only caught glimmers of the conversation.

What she did hear was very, very interesting.


“—gogia, I am sure you well know my t— 

The Quarass stopped, then sounded surprised. Then flustered.

—an entire future ahead of me. No? I can p…I know payment is not…

She listened for a while, nodding impatiently. Then tried to sound reasonable.

—But given the circum—I am well aware of what my predecessor said to you. And did. I remember—I would say I have quite the complexion and my bearing—

She shot a frustrated glance into the air.

“—Would you reconsider? I shall press the matter—thank you, Pedagogia.

She ended the call, stared at the stone, then hurled it onto the ground and began to stomp on it. It was such a fascinating reaction that Elena didn’t even laugh, but merely wondered who talked to the Quarass like that.

And why she sounded so disappointed. 

“She refused, Quarass? We shall have her head in a day!”

The Quarass snapped at Vaitsha.

“And ruin my chances forever, fool? No! I must simply convince her.”

Vaitsha ducked her head, and the Quarass stomped around, thinking out loud.

“It is the most obvious way to improve myself, however long it might take. But if Hraace cannot be swayed…I need the Chemath Marble. They are not immune to gold, however much they pretend to be. Or if I develop a new Skill—damn [Innkeeper] classes. There has to be one useful Skill. My drinking habit for twenty more levels!”

She threw her hands up in the air, frustrated, and that was her real problem. She was the Quarass of Germina. Levelling up was hard for her. She could lead an army, recite high poetry, even do weird Drathian stuff like cultivate her body and soul. But you didn’t get many points for doing what you’ve already done.

Poor Quarass. She stood there, a girl in actual need of a hug, and Elena wished she could be team Quarass. But she already owed Cara everything. Then the Quarass’ head rose, she sighed, and she collected herself. Time to go strongarm a Gold-rank team and Named-rank adventurer into doing her bidding. She’d have to settle for that.

Elena was already turning to go, since she apparently was going to see Flos. She had to pack—she looked back at the tent and then paused.

“Huh. Who’s that huge guy?”

The Quarass stopped. She’d seen the same thing. Elena’s head rose as she stared at someone coming their way. She had been told Khelt didn’t have half-Giants.

“Hey, Quarass, who’s—”




Pisces and Colth were each on their fourth date and arguing about how to get out of this one when they heard a commotion outside.

“Someone’s coming.”

Colth stood up, and Pisces felt it too. A prickle running down his spine. He heard a shout outside the tent.

Halt, in the name of Germina!

Instantly, the [Assassins] in the tent shifted, but when Pisces half-stood, one spoke.

“Remain here. The Quarass wills it.”

Two slipped out of the front flap, and Pisces sat down. This was Khelt’s land, anyways. He doubted—

The shouting grew louder. Then he heard a pounding sound and felt a reverberation through the ground. Colth glanced around.

“Either an ox has learned to run or my [Tremorsense] is telling me someone huge is coming this way. Who the hell is—”

A huge, brown arm, like the trunk of an Elephant, opened the tent flap. Pisces saw scarred flesh, criss-crossing the arm, worn leather guards—and a struggling [Assassin] trying to hold the arm back—all appear.

A man ducked into the tent as Pisces and Colth stared. He was eight feet tall, wider than both of them put together, and more muscled than Grimalkin of Pallass. His eyes seemed small in his huge face, but perhaps that was the vibrancy of the two yellow pupils and the immovable crags of the rest of his expression.

His hair was black and wild, but someone had carefully shaved his face so not even stubble remained. Oh—and Pisces realized the [Assassin] had two daggers bared and was stabbing the arm.

The blades were not going through the skin. The man shouldered into the tent and revealed three more [Assassins] clinging to him like bugs. He looked down at the two adventurers, frozen in their seats.

“Are you the Horns of Hammerad? Pisces? Colth?”

Pisces hesitated.

“Uh. Yes?”

The giant man nodded in palpable relief. Then he struck one palm with a fist so hard the air moved. All three [Assassins] clinging to him were thrown off.

Jaganismet. [Warrior].”

He announced himself. Then—paused.

“Wait. No.”

No? Colth’s mouth was as open as Pisces’. Jaganismet, or whomever this was, looked around.

“I am to be announced. Wait here.”

He strode out of the tent. More shouting. Pisces’ eyes slid sideways.


He didn’t know that name exactly, but he thought it rang a bell? Colth was frowning.

“My Chandrian knowledge is weak. But I definitely know that name. Wait. Wait—”

Before he could tell Pisces what had struck him, someone came running into the tent. The Quarass looked, uh—flustered.

“That fool. Jaganismet, halt!

She shouted back the way she’d come, but too late. There was more shouting, a crash of something being sent flying, voices raised—

Do not do battle! Halt! H—

The Quarass spun, saw them lifting up the tent flap, and cursed. When the adventurers emerged outside, Pisces and Colth saw chaos.

Germina’s warriors were arrayed outside the tent, facing down the giant named Jaganismet and a second party of panting riders. The men and women looked half-dead from exhaustion, but they were trying to raise flags, and they were arrayed behind the huge man. He saw Pisces and Colth emerge and raised his voice.

I am—

At the same time, one of his people began to shout.

“We herald His M—”

Both stopped in confusion. Jaganismet’s face went slack, then he grimaced and stepped behind the man on horseback. The figure faltered, then shouted.

In the name of Heroph-the-Liberated, we herald our ruler, Mighty Jaganismet! We wish no violence with Germina!

Heroph? Jaganismet? The man looked at the herald, and when he got a nod, he strode forwards.

“Jaganismet. [Warrior]!”

He performed the same mighty salute. Paused. Then closed his eyes.

“Jaganismet. [King]. Once, warrior.”

It was perhaps the worst royal introduction Pisces and Colth had ever seen in their lives. It wasn’t a bit—Jaganismet seemed to have messed up his literal class two times.

“Jaganismet! This is Khelt’s land! You have no right to be here. Nor to intrude on my domain!”

The Quarass strode up towards Jaganismet—somewhat apprehensively, Pisces thought. She was flanked by all her [Assassins], and they had blades drawn. Jaganismet was just staring at Pisces and Colth.

“Quarass? I did not know you were here.”

He blinked at her. She stopped, mouth open.

“I am here, Mighty Jaganismet. I am the new Quarass. The old one died.”

“Hm. I did not expect this. Khelt? I did not know we intruded.”

“Your Majesty, the undead you destroyed—”

“Hm. Troubling. First the Quarass, now Khelt. Troubling…but I must speak to the Horns of Hammerad. I desire Chemath Marble. I have been told the High King demands your aid. Therefore, I do the same!”

Jaganismet shouted at Pisces and Colth. The two looked at each other, and Colth muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

“Okay, I’m getting slightly sick of being royalties’ favorites, aren’t you, Pisces?”

“Indubitably. But this fellow seems to be, ah, winging it?”

That was the only way Pisces could describe Jaganismet’s attitude. Yet the Quarass seemed determined to keep him well away from them.

“Jaganismet, you set yourself against my designs. I warn you: begone. You may speak to my guests after I am done, not before.”

The huge man stared down at the child and had to actually stoop down to stare at her.

“Quarass. You are too cunning. I cannot compete with my wits. Yet I have great need. Forgive me.”

“No, Jaganismet, don’t—”

He moved so fast the [Assassins] had barely a chance to step towards him. The giant of a man raised his hands—and clapped them together.

“[Skysplitting Clap].”

A shockwave blew Vaitsha’s veil clean off her face. All of Pisces’ hair and his robes rippled, and the tent nearest Jaganismet went flying. Everyone, including his own people, reeled, stunned. Including the Quarass. Then the King of Heroph took a single step.

The Quarass had the Serkonian Lance in hand, but she had been affected by the Skill. Jaganismet wedged his foot into the ground under her. Then he kicked her.

He lofted her into the air with one foot, almost delicately. Not a kick; a punt, his leg moving faster and faster until the Quarass was launched off of it and into the air.

Pisces’ head craned back. He stared, mouth open. Head rising…then falling…falling…

In the distance, a tiny figure floated down, having no doubt cast [Featherfall]. The Quarass’ people stared at Jaganismet in horror. One raised a blade dripping with venom.

He raised a fist.

—arriors, retreat! Do not fight him!

The Quarass’ voice cracked through a speaking stone. As one, her people froze—then flowed away, running to protect their leader. Jaganismet lowered his fist. His people were in a horror, shout-whispering to him. He simply turned to Pisces and Colth.

“I am King of Heroph. Hear me, Horns of Hammerad. I require your services.”

Something in the way he spoke made Pisces instantly long for the Quarass.




Jaganismet sat in the Quarass’ tent, cross-legged. His people stood around him, covered in grime and sweat. His voice was huge, unsubtle; when he was confused, he sounded it. When he was angry—well, Pisces hadn’t heard him angry, and he didn’t want to now.

Now I remember where I knew that name. Pisces! He fought under the King of Destruction back in the day! He’s one of Chandrar’s deadliest warriors! Right up with Mars and Torreb!

Oh, come on, how many do they have?

Highest-level, second-highest-level, and third-highest, Pisces!

Did that mean he was the third-greatest [Warrior] in all of Chandrar? Jaganismet didn’t seem to notice their silent conversation. When he spoke, both men fell silent instantly.

“My nation needs coin. The Chemath Marble can make my people rich. Rich enough to give every single citizen twenty gold coins a year, my advisors say.”

Pisces exchanged a look with Colth. That was rich. Pisces suppressed a whistle. He spoke nervously to Jaganismet.

“Er—Your Majesty. May I ask how you found us? How you know of us? We’re honored to meet you, of course.”

Jaganismet looked blank a second, then nodded. He made that fist-into-palm gesture again.

“The honor is mine. I found you because my advisors traced you; I merely ran to get here. Heroph is some ways away. It has been four days of it, but I have heard tell of Chemath Marble. My need is great. Despite my labors of twenty years, Heroph remains poor. They say it is a thing of industry, of people, [Merchants] and supplies. I cannot provide these things. So Chemath Marble must do.”

Ran? Pisces stared at Jaganismet, but he believed it. Colth broke in urgently.

“Er, Your Majesty. May I ask what you will do with the Chemath Marble?”

“Sell it.”

“But it must be mined. Do you want us to locate it or…? Secure the mine?”

The Quarass and presumably High King Perric had a complex plan involving locating the deposits and a desire to make sure they were the only people with access or maps of the very complex and, as Pisces understood it, very dangerous Mines of Zethe. That meant battling other adventurers, even other nations mining in the area.

Jaganismet frowned at Colth.

“The marble may be dug if it is found. There are monsters within the mines; other nations want it?”

It sounded like a question, so Colth nodded hesitantly. Jaganismet placed a palm on the table.

“Find it for me. I will kill monsters and foes alike to secure it. I would find it myself. Thrice, I have entered, thrice, found nothing but a tiny amount.”

Okay, that was very direct. Pisces swallowed.

“Ah, indeed, Mighty Jaganismet. That is a very actionable approach. May I, ah, inquire as to our remuneration for this task?”

Jaganismet gave Pisces a blank stare.

“I do not know what that means.”

He turned, and a vassal whispered urgently in his ear a moment. Jaganismet’s frown cleared.

“Ah. I will give you some of the profits. A fair amount. If you have anything else that need be done, name it. I promise nothing of Heroph, and I would offer you any being, man, woman, monster, or Djinni, dead for a boon. But a [King] cannot slay whomever he wishes. It seems.”

He seemed burdened by this, and Pisces opened his mouth. That…was a terrible deal. He’d throw over this man’s offer in a heartbeat for the Quarass, and she hadn’t fully sold him on her bargain!

On the other hand, he was really big. And scary. Colth, though, seemed to have an idea. He gave Jaganismet a silky smooth smile.

“Your Majesty. We are little interested in gold. But perhaps you might do Pisces a favor? He has a class he needs ridding of—”

“Colth. Come now, Colth—”

This seemed like a really bad idea. But Colth began explaining Pisces’ [Slave] class to Jaganismet. The man stared at Pisces, then Colth.

“No one in Heroph may be made [Slave]. They are my people. I have destroyed six caravans of Roshal to free them after I was made [King]. Removing this man’s class?”

His eyes flicked to Pisces, and the [Necromancer] instantly liked him a bit more. He’d taken on Roshal? In Chandrar? His people did not seem as happy by the admission as Pisces expected. But Jaganismet just stared at Pisces. Then turned to one of his escorts.

“…I can remove classes?”

Okay. That idea seemed like a bust. Jaganismet conferred with his people a moment, then turned to Colth.

“I shall try. If you agree to find my Chemath Marble.”

“We can agree to consider your request very carefully if we should head near Zethe, Your Majesty.”

Colth smiled politely, and Jaganismet smiled. He held out a huge hand. Then stopped as an advisor whispered in his ear.

“Ah. That does not mean yes.”

Then he frowned hugely, and Pisces felt himself burst into a cold sweat. Colth, the canny [Negotiator], kept his smile.

“We cannot commit to a deal if our team is not here, Mighty Jaganismet. Moreover, we do not even know if we will go to the Mines of Zethe! We would hate to let you down. There are surely other adventurers capable of the feat. What of Heroph’s people?”

Jaganismet half-shook his head.

“I am the mightiest by far. The other adventurers flee me. Medain has countless; I have none.”

I wonder why they’re so scared. Colth gave Jaganismet a thoughtful, even conciliatory nod.

“I see your problem, Your Majesty, but Pisces and I cannot agree to a unilateral request.”

“I am [King] of Heroph. I must demand it for my people. I will have your word before I leave.”

Jaganismet didn’t move. Now, Colth was sweating, and Pisces saw exactly why the Quarass was so concerned. You’d think—uncharitably, mind you, and he certainly hadn’t given it more than a passing consideration—that you might run around this man mentally.

However, it turned out you couldn’t dance around Jaganismet’s will. Colth did his best.

“Your Majesty, you cannot force us to agree. We are adventurers. You may be King of Heroph, but our authority as independent adventurers is recognized the world over. To press the issue would be to take issue with adventurers worldwide.”

The advisors looked concerned. Even Jaganismet frowned deeply and leaned on his fists on the table. He stared at the ground. He stared at Colth. He closed his eyes. After a minute of thought, the King of Heroph looked up.

“I don’t understand. It is a threat—a trap I cannot avoid without retreating. Therefore—”

Pisces was reaching for a date when a foot kicked through the table and hit Colth, and the entire tent ripped and went flying after the [Ultimate Supporter]. A flying pole hit Pisces in the arm—his mouth was open as the table splintered around him and the sun beat down on his head. He looked up:

Jaganismet had a fist raised.

Pisces dove as a fist pounded the ground. Lightly, he thought; it would have only potentially cracked his ribs.

“Your Majesty! If you slay them—”

Heroph’s people were in chaos, but Jaganismet just kicked, and Pisces felt his stomach compress. He hit the ground, rolled, threw up, and heard the [King]’s voice.

“I will not slay them. Only force them to agree.”


Colth was on his feet as Pisces tried to get up. The [Necromancer] whispered a spell; his Skeleton Champions surged into action from where they had been loitering at the edge of the camp.

Jaganismet faced Colth as the [Ultimate Supporter] leapt at him. He raised a hand, and Colth buried his blades into one arm. Then tried to drag the blades down and cut—and realized they were stuck.

The King of Heroph flexed his arm, swung Colth around, and the [Supporter] let go before he could be grabbed. Jaganismet looked a bit slow—he twisted as Pisces cast a spell.


He was fairly certain it wouldn’t kill someone of Jaganismet’s level, and sure enough, the man only blinked as the bolt passed into him. He swiped—Colth rolled under him and retrieved one of his blades. He tried to kick Jaganismet behind the knee, and nothing happened. The King of Heroph turned; the Skeleton Champions leapt at him.

A fist turned one of his Skeleton Champions to dust. Not to bones; the fist punched through the skeleton so hard and fast it left a cloud of white powder behind. Pisces’ open mouth caught some of the dust particles, and he began to choke.


Jaganismet roared. He punched down, missed Colth, swiveled, and kicked through a second Skeleton Champion; the third jabbed him with a rapier, and the metal bent on his skin. Pisces turned invisible. He ran, casting another [Deathbolt], and it didn’t stop the King of Heroph. If anything, he seemed to be moving faster. The third Skeleton Champion vaporized, and Colth blurred out of the way of a third blow, swearing.

The King of Heroph realized he’d lost Pisces and whirled. He had no spells. No senses to use on Pisces.

He stomped the ground, and dust rose into the air. Pisces saw Jaganismet spin—run at him—

Pisces, run!

The [Necromancer] was trying! [Flash Steps] carried him away from Jaganismet—until he looked over his shoulder and saw the King of Heroph was right behind him. Pisces screamed. Jaganismet screamed, but it was more like a howl of fury.

A [Rider] howled as he rode at the King of Heroph.


Pisces looked up, swerved, and the King of Heroph pivoted. He swung a fist, and the spear struck it with a sound like a gong. It was the rider who recoiled, horse screaming and rearing, but the tall, gaunt man regained control of it and shook out his hand.

The King of Heroph charged him with a roar, and Pisces saw the other man curse. Orthenon, the [Steward] of the King of Destruction, took one look at Jaganismet and lifted his spear up.

[Spear Art: Six Petals of the Cherry Blossom]!

He flicked his spear six times, and six glowing arcs of light struck Jaganismet, who battered through three, deflected two more, and dodged the last one as he ran at the [Ruinbringer Steward]. Pisces and Colth stared as the [Steward] saw the furious [King] would not be stopped. Cursing, Orthenon leapt from his saddle, dropped his spear, and fell towards Jaganismet like a comet.

—nleash Inner Energy: Heavenly—




Pisces slowly got up from the ground after a while. His ears didn’t stop ringing; he wandered around in a circle until Colth grabbed him.

“[Stabilize Condition]. Pisces? I think our escort’s here.”

He jerked a thumb around, and Pisces stared around what had been the Quarass’ camp. He stared at the crater, the three groups of royal escorts milling about, and the three leaders.

The Quarass, Jaganismet, and the King’s Steward.

Orthenon’s clothes were ripped to shreds; he was flexing one arm and grimacing as someone found him a cloak to wear. Jaganismet just seemed disappointed.

“—Taking Elena with us. Unless you would like to endanger your people and war with Reim, the same goes for the Horns of Hammerad, King Jaganismet.”

“Not at this time, Orthenon.”

The man stared at Colth and Pisces, and so did the Quarass with such a meaningful look that Orthenon himself turned to the two of them.

There was little the two rulers could do, it seemed. Aside from Orthenon being one of the Seven, if not originally than definitely now, he’d brought an escort of Reim’s [Soldiers] who were calmly outnumbering both Germina and Heroph’s people. They just glared as Orthenon strode towards Pisces and Colth.

The King’s Steward was amazingly fit, Pisces noticed, with a far paler complexion than most people of Chandrar. Colth muttered in Pisces’ ear.

“Drathian. I met a few when I was with you-know-who. He’s got that weird body they have. Cultivation or something. That’s what he used to stop Jaganismet.”

Pisces’ brows rose. But all the King’s Steward did was call out to them.

“Pisces Jealnet. Colthei Lacment. The King of Destruction requires your presence. I am Orthenon, his steward. We have met. Let us ride. Miss Elena, are you ready?”

Pisces saw the same young woman rubbing at her ears and lugging a Chest of Holding towards a horse. She apprehensively got onto a horse after a quick nod and whispered exchange with the Quarass.

Orthenon turned. He stared at Colth, and the [Ultimate Supporter] covered his face.

“Great. How many [Kings] is this? Pisces, this is all your fault.”

My fault? You’re the one who provoked Jaganismet.”

“Well, you’re the one who had the bright idea to enchant the damn ship—”

They were still arguing a day later when they ran into Mars, Ceria, and Yvlon.




The King’s Steward didn’t even stay in Pisces and Colth’s company the entire time. He remained with them for about an hour until he judged they were outside Khelt’s aegis and the other two rulers couldn’t catch up. Then he turned in the saddle.

“I will be returning to my lord’s side. We are south of Reim at present; my people know how to find our camp. Mars will be heading down this road with your companions.”

“Are you sure?”

Pisces blurted out, and Orthenon gave him a flat look. If Jaganismet’s face was sometimes uncomprehending, blank, and the Quarass’ couldn’t be read, Orthenon looked mildly annoyed in a kind of perpetual way. But he was polite and inclined his head.

“Nothing will gainsay Mars. His Majesty is only of a mind to meet you and briefly converse. He may have an offer to make of you, but it shall not be required. I shall see you in three days’ time.”

Then he kicked his horse into motion and, like Tyrion Veltras, just accelerated into the distance. Colthei stared after Orthenon, frowning.

“Thought so. He’s not actually the best [Rider]. That’s no speed Skill, or if it is, it’s only one or two. He’s giving the horse some of that energy stuff.”

“What did you call it? Cultivation? I’ve never heard of that in my life.”

Pisces felt widely-read, so that was surprising, but Colth just shrugged. He seemed embarrassed as he admitted he didn’t, either.

“It’s one of the few things I never fully picked up. They like eating all kinds of pills and stuff in Drath; I’ve heard they create superior warriors. But Orthenon’s a known quantity. He’s from there. And he is probably…in the top ten for [Warriors] of Chandrar, if he qualifies as a [Warrior].”

Pisces nodded a bit as they rode at a more sedate pace. He felt at the back of his neck.



“Have I been dreaming or abed with a fever all day?”

Colth scratched at the back of his own head.

“If you are, I’m right there with you, Pisces.”

It was actually only a few more hours before they met Yvlon and Ceria. Pisces had expected, given the distances, that it would take longer. But what should he see but another oddity—a carriage racing at them so fast that even Reim’s [Soldiers] raised their blades—until they saw a figure standing on top of the carriage, waving her sword at them.

I found a faster mount than a horse, lads! There’s your sniffing fellow and your [Supporter], girls! So that’s how they look, eh?”

Mars the Illusionist was the most buxom, bustiest—busiest—bouncing—from the motion of the carriage—Pisces stared at the giant woman with very revealing, nay, impractical golden armor and a mane of red hair. Colth just narrowed his eyes.

“Damn, that’s a good illusion.”

“Illusion. Right.”

“It’s got physics and everything. See how her chest and hair move? You don’t get that on bad illusions. I bet it even feels real until she deactivates it.”


Mars was laughing as the carriage slowed. She leapt from the top, took two steps over, and tried to grab them both. Colth dodged—Pisces froze up. She let go of a red-faced [Necromancer] six seconds later as the carriage doors opened and two people leapt out.

“Well, one of the two of you is a fan of mine. The other’s not that bad either. I heard you tangled with Jaganismet himself! Even I’d have trouble dealing with him if he got warmed up. Where’s Orthenon?”



The [Necromancer] felt someone leap on him. Ceria tried to put him in a headlock, and he fought her off. Then Yvlon grabbed him.

“Are you okay? Where’s the King of Heroph? And the Quarass?”

She was frowning around hugely, fist raised, and then she nodded at Colth. He nodded back. Mars boomed above them all.

“No need to fight, Yvlon! They’re sorted. Germina, Heroph, Medain—they bark loud, but they all quiet down when my liege raises his voice. Now, let’s get back in this carriage and head somewhere more interesting, eh? Where is Orthenon? Did that bastard not wait for me? I’d rather ride ahead than be stuck—dead gods damn it!

She realized her companion had left them and seized a speaking stone.

“No, get back here, Orthenon. I’ll not wait a day when I could join the battle. How many hours away are—well, come back and pick me up. Or I’ll hit you harder than Jaganismet next we meet!”

She turned her head, calling out to the Horns.

“Jump in the carriage and meet me at the camp, would you? I have a battle to get to. The rest of you—with me! That magical doodad is faster than all but Orthenon.”

It was such a flurry of activity, transferring to the magical carriage, trying to ask questions of the other two, that Pisces didn’t realize Mars had vanished for a good while.

The first thing he noticed was that the entire carriage was magic. He was so agog by it that the others had to pull him inside.

“Pure mana construction! It’s a summoned vehicle? Is it safe? How hasn’t it lost cohesion?”

“Solid mana, Pisces. I know, it’s crazy. I think it’s mostly air magic with a bit of other stuff mixed in. Look at this.”

Ceria tugged Pisces into the carriage, and he saw it was all interior space. No driver’s space; the magical horses began to canter the moment the door was slammed, and a voice was playing from a scrying orb in the center of the carriage, set in the center of a table.

“Hello, riders of Wistram’s Magical Carriage Service, courtesy of the Terras faction! This vehicle is operating out of its designated location. Your fee is one hundred and twelve gold coins, six silver, and has been temporarily waived due to <REASONS OF KING OF DESTRUCTION>. Please relax and enjoy the ride! This service is in prototype testing, any errors, accidents, or concerns should be forwarded to Magus Rievan, Wistram Academy—

“This is insane.”

Colth stared at the carriage as it began to move, and Yvlon gestured at a bunch of blankets and pillows that Ceria had flopped into.

“We’ve been in this thing for two days straight. Mars hardly let us rest.”

“She told us to piss out the windows. Now there’s a woman who’s even more direct than Yvlon. She rode into Medain, spanked High King Perric, and said she wanted to get back to fight a battle with Flos! I stole Perric’s crown. So, how’ve you two been?”

Ceria was eating out of a box of dried chips. Pisces rubbed at his face. Then his chest.

“A giant kicked me. Are those chips?”

“It came with the carriage. Want some?”


“Colth? How are you? Why did it take you so long to get to Chandrar? I walked, and I got here a week before you.”

Yvlon frowned at Colth, but she raised a fist, and he bumped it.

“It was all Pisces’ fault.”

Reanimating the ship was your plan!

Pisces exploded, showering chips everywhere. They began to point fingers at each other and shout. Ceria and Yvlon listened, both interjecting comments now and then.

“—And then the King of Duels brought us to—”

“—he can’t even figure out how his new [Manufacture Stellar Ivory] Skill works.”

“The Quarass knows about Colth! And Bearig and the others—”

“Hey, guys, I think Wistram can spy on us via the scrying orb. The half-Elves sucked.”

“I found a new way to introduce myself. Neither of us slept with Perric.”

“—kicked the Quarass a thousand feet! Undead horses! With a saddle—”

Somehow, between arguing whose fault certain things were, insane comments that demanded explanations, and laughter—they figured out where the others had been. At some point, Pisces found himself trying to punch at Colth as Yvlon patted him on the arm, and Colth was trying to map out the route both groups had taken as the Ceria laughed and scarfed down snacks at the same time.

Then he realized he was smiling. Pisces stopped, looked at the others, and exhaled.

“That took less time than before. If only Ksmvr were here.”

The others stopped laughing, sat back down, and Yvlon rubbed at her face.

“I just hope he’s safe. He has to be. Vofea too. When are we leaving?”

Ceria chewed, frowning.

“After meeting the King of Destruction. And here I thought we had met too many rulers. Why do they all want a piece of us?”

Rubbing at his hair, Colth shrugged.

“Hazards of being famous. Which we are, thanks to the television. It reminds me of when Mihaela was named the Courier of Izril. She couldn’t sneeze without getting an invitation to meet someone important. The Five Families, the Walled Cities’ rulers—she had attractive people throwing themselves all over her, [Merchants] wanting to cut deals—we’ve sort of made a name for doing the impossible.”

“You say ‘we’, but you mean the Horns with Ksmvr, right?”

Pisces sniffed, trying his best to look superior as possible, and Colth gave him a long stare.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot I’m the rookie as the Named-rank adventurer. I apologize, oh great and powerful Pisces. Hey, Yvlon, Ceria. Want to know something Pisces didn’t mention about our trip?”

Yvlon just raised her brows—she had been patting Pisces on the shoulder since he relayed the attempt to remove his class, and Ceria leaned forward, eyes gleaming.

“Something interesting, Colth?”

The [Supporter] gave Pisces an evil smile, but Pisces didn’t understand what Colth had on him. He hadn’t done anything that stupid. Had he?

“As a matter of fact—you know the Arbiter Queen? Jecaina of Jecrass? She was all over Pisces while we were at the palace. Private duels and everything, and he flubbed it.”

Pisces went red and began to splutter. Ceria’s chortles became hiccups, and Yvlon shrugged. Colth started laughing with Ceria, and Pisces howled.

You said it was a bad idea! You said—

A chip bounced off his head. Colth roared back.

“I was giving you hints, you idiot! I had your back the entire way down, and you didn’t even land a single point!”

Jecaina? Had she really—and he’d ridden off and—Pisces stared at Colth. Then he tried to murder him. Lightly. Yvlon kept the two apart with her metal hands until she started laughing. Then Ceria handed Pisces a crown with amazing, gleaming jewels, like a crown of the sea, and he stared at the magic contained within.

“Like my new hat? It’s not quite as good as this one.”

She indicated the circlet on her brow, and Pisces stared at the Crown of the High King of Medain. He gazed at it, then at Ceria and Yvlon.

“I thought you made that part up.”

The two of them slowly shook their heads. Pisces’ hands began to get sweaty.

“Dead gods, you two. Can’t you stay out of trouble for one minute?”

They gave him such outraged looks that he instantly switched subjects. And then they were on their way to meet the scariest ruler of all.

The King of Destruction.

It helped that all of them except Colth had met him before. Pisces only realized why Colth kept biting his fingernails after an hour. Then everyone made fun of the [Supporter]. Right up until they all recalled that they’d made fun of the mysterious bandaged man on the ship all the way to Izril.

…Which was fine. He probably didn’t hold grudges. Right?




Each time the blades rose, the steel stained deeper crimson. A standard burned as another rose higher, the sigils of the King’s Seven upon it. Horns blew, and a drum beat across another battlefield as Stitch-folk backed away from an advancing line of [Soldiers].

You would think, at some point, Nerrhavia’s Fallen would simply run out of bodies to throw into this slaughter.

They did. Or at least, local regions could run out of available [Soldiers] not shattered, run low on equipment and be forced to surrender wholesale. It was one of the reasons why the King of Destruction chose to take on armies that outnumbered his. And they all did.

They were four-to-one today. The wind was hot, churned by ozone and lightning. The battle was going ill for Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

Just one of the Seven. Kill one of them or kill the King of Reim. It was like a kind of puzzle that the [Generals] of the Court of Steel in Tyrant’s Rest were playing. They’d send an army devoted solely to a core of [Lightning Mages] whose goal it was to kill Takhatres and his Garuda, or an [Archer] battalion equipped with homing arrows.

The problem was that they were up against the most complete version of Reim yet. Not just Mars or Orthenon or Gazi alone—

Flos Reimarch, Gazi the Omniscient, Amerys the Calm Flower, and Takhatres, Lord of the Skies, had taken to the field.

Four of them, not even counting lesser vassals. And you should count them—the eastern flank was collapsing under the weight of that grim vanguard.

Flee or perish! No mercy for the slayers of Maresar, the Bandit Lord!

A [Herald] was shouting across the field as lightning bolts crashed down, sending Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s mages running. A laughing woman was floating high overhead, trading spells with [High Mages]. An Archmage versus gnats.

Someone had snuck behind enemy lines and beheaded several officers; Takhatres was sweeping around the battlefield, eliminating chariot and rider groups. Which meant it was a clash of infantry-on-infantry in the east. The center was being held down by the King of Destruction, and the western flank was advancing, trying to relieve the pressure on their comrades.

East was breaking fast. They had a ravine and higher ground, but Reim’s elites were being led by a [Lord] who flew a standard of his own.

Venith Crusland accepted no surrender. Any [Soldier] his vanguard ran into died. He strode forwards, grim-faced, followed by that bloodsoaked force as the drums beat louder.

Yet another battle. How many since Flos Reimarch had woken up had he personally taken part in? A hundred? Two hundred? This one would be a particularly bitter defeat if Nerrhavia’s Fallen were to quit the field; break the armies here and they might lose as many as six cities before their troops could sweep back.

They might take them back, but by then, Reim’s [Soldiers] would be holding the walls, forcing a costly siege. Worse, if the King of Destruction personally upgraded a city, the odds of taking it became faint.

Something had to give. Flos Reimarch had barely advanced a tenth of the way into Nerrhavia’s Fallen, past their northern forts, and he did pay for those steps in the blood of his people, but one of Chandrar’s superpowers was struggling to mount a credible defense against him.

Perhaps it was the war with Tiqr and the loss of General Thelican. Or the war with Illivere and Pomle.

Or maybe it was disunity in the Court of Steel that prevented them from bringing the full might of their forces to bear, too determined to keep valuable forces loyal to each [General] alive to commit them.

Or maybe it was the rumors of a plague of metal insects within the great nation itself.

It might have been the lack of courage among the Hemp and Cotton; rumors of their desertions had become so concerning that the Court of Silks had authorized battlefield executions of family for desertion and small rewards for bravery, including potential elevation to higher grades of cloth.

The battle was turning ill on the eastern flank, but it was also clear that the King of Destruction had committed his finest forces there. The western front could actually see wounded [Soldiers] standing to attention, and they were gathering for a crushing charge.

—Then the first rank of Stitch-folk faltered, their raised golden shields shifting like a cloud of golden beetles as a figure rode towards their side of the field. Heads rose, and the thud of boots turned to unsteady pattering. Then a halt.

The King of Destruction halted at the front of his soldiers on the western flank. Several arrows sang towards him, but two stopped in the air, frozen by a personal spell, and a young woman with a sword cut a third out of the sky with a flourish of her blade.

Flos Reimarch paid no attention to the arrows. He studied the oncoming soldiers—then raised his hand.

“Warriors of Reim, no quarter, no mercy!”

A roar rose from behind the King of Destruction. [Soldiers] raised their blades, and a furious howl emerged from the throats behind him. Chandrar’s greatest [King] drew a sword and pointed it across the field. The Stitch-folk stared at him. The King of Destruction’s eyes smoked with wrath even from afar.

For Maresar—wet Chandrar’s soil with blood! Charge—CHARGE!”

He seemed to grow larger and larger as the Stitch-folk [Soldiers] cowered behind their shields. Like a stormcloud, emerald-green eyes and hair made of flames bursting forwards, rising taller until he could crush all of Nerrhavia’s Fallen in a blow.

The forces on the western flank braced, heedless of the voices screeching through the speaking stones at them to maneuver—all but two of the officers were cowering, and the two capable of movement were wide-eyed, nerveless—

He hadn’t moved. Instead, his soldiers had backed up, following Venith’s drive into the enemy ranks.

A javelin went through three ranks of [Soldiers], tossed by the King of Destruction himself. The impact tossed one of the Stitch-folk around, and she stared at her missing arm with an open mouth as she lay on the ground.

The rest of her comrades fled, and Flos Reimarch lowered his arm. He spoke in a quieter voice, deactivating his speaking spell. He checked the western flank, then saw Venith had taken the entire pass already. One tilt of the head took in Garuda screaming curses as they harried a fleeing group of chariots, and the King of Destruction said one word.


He called it about six minutes before the [Soldiers]’ nerve broke. Despite their clear advantage in numbers, the Stitch-folk threw down their weapons and fled, even the ones who hadn’t done anything but watch.

The King of Destruction checked the sky. It was just past midday; he reached down and grabbed someone as they tried to run past him to harry the fleeing [Soldiers].

Teresa Atwood struggled—before Flos tossed her back through the air. Her brother had the sense to stay with the [Mages], but she’d stayed with Flos’ forces, rather than Venith’s, throughout the battle and hadn’t seen so much as a single engagement. Flos turned his head and saw Earthers watching far to the rear; none of them had the stomach for battle.

The King of Destruction leaned on the pommel of his saddle and exhaled. He had a theory as to why the battles went so well for him: Nerrhavia’s Fallen sent no champions. No great [Generals] or [Warriors] or even [Mages] wanted to try their luck against the King’s Seven. They sent in chaff, poor Stitch-folk of lower castes, and hoped they could win by sheer weight of numbers.

A single fake charge and morale collapsed. When he looked overhead, Flos could see Amerys floating over the fleeing soldiers, head propped on one elbow, lounging in the air. He couldn’t make out her exact features, but he would bet she wore a discontented look; she hadn’t even bothered continuing to throw lightning bolts at the enemy as they fled.

He could not see Gazi or Takhatres—and the Lord of the Skies was too diligent anyways—but Flos Reimarch bet the rest of the Seven had the same feeling as him.

He heaved a huge sigh, and the King of Destruction yawned as the drumbeats died down.

“Dead gods, but I am weary of this.”

The King of Destruction was so disappointed that when his vassals found him, he was taking a nap next to his horse.




The King of Destruction was maudlin. Not bored; war, to him, was not something so prosaic as to be boring, even when it was a battle easily won. But melancholy? Yes.

“How many hundreds of thousands of Hemp have they sent at us this month? I swear, I recognize some of them. Not a single champion or Mars would be here rather than riding to Medain. What happened to the wars we fought the first time, Gazi? When each day there would be a great [Gladiator] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen challenging me to single combat? There were hundreds of [Carpet Riders]—their [Grand Mages] lined up and sneering at us. Remember? They’d spit or even piss into the sand right up until I threw something at them.”

The King of Destruction was reminiscing, something he didn’t actually do as often as people might have thought. The battle was over; Venith had begun taking captives. Despite the warnings, his vanguard had stood down after the fighting was over, and the [Lord of Wrath] was capable of the task.

Flos was riding north towards their war camp for a celebration. By his right rode a half-Gazer, one huge eye turned towards him, the other four looking in every direction. On her right was a young man clutching a staff, a Golem made of sand and blood-red glass sitting in front of him.

On the King of Destruction’s left floated a green-haired woman, idly reading a book, while a Garuda, the only one not flying, strode along, easily keeping pace with the horses, leaving a trail of blue behind him as his legs blurred. Just to the left of them was a discontented young woman holding a sword and scowling as she listened to the conversation.

The half-Gazer, Gazi, responded to the question.

“We killed them all, my lord.”

Flos objected instantly.

“We did not. Remember how damn hard it was to kill a [Grand Magus of the Empire] back in the day? There was one of those fellows—each time we had him down to his final barrier. Then he’d use a scroll or break a flask and unleash a Djinni, war crime or not…remember when he disguised himself as a female camp servant and fled? It’s damned hard to kill someone high-level. They just don’t have the spirit for it.”

“Well, they did lose the last war, Flos. You can’t blame anyone over Level 40 for having the sense to avoid us. I have a bolt of [Grand Lightning] ready to go for a real challenge.”

Amused, the green-haired woman, Amerys, called down from above. She was more casual with Flos’ name, and he grinned up at her.

“Are we that fearsome, Amerys? It is Nerrhavia’s Fallen! One great army with fifty Level 40 experts would put our backs up!”

She laughed down at him.

“And one [Army of the King] would kill them all! Face it, you’ve become too much of a monster in Chandrar’s minds. When you were young, they thought it was a war they could win. Now? They’re hoping another enemy takes your flank or to politic their way out of things.”

Flos grunted.

“It isn’t like I like wasting the lives of my [Soldiers] or the Hemp. Who’s the current ruler? Yisame. I barely recall her. Her grandfather, now, there was a Stitch-man who swore he’d gouge out his own eyes and rip out his tongue before he agreed to a single one of my demands.”

Gazi nodded, smiling happily.

“I helped him with his oath, Your Majesty. Remember? That was when they sent Mars against us.”

The King of Destruction rubbed at his red-gold beard and sighed.

“Oh, I remember that. That was the first time I completely lost one of those duels and we ended up running for our lives. It got hairy, afterwards—until Mars switched sides.”

Gazi nodded at this while Amerys just rolled her eyes. Takhatres, the pacing Garuda, just snorted through his beak as everyone else listened.

“Every time I hear of your exploits, I can’t understand how you ever survived before you met me.”

Flos rolled his eyes heavenwards.

“It was certainly more difficult before Takhatres, Lord of Chandrar, graced us with his presence and who won every battle afterwards.”

“Just as long as you have your story straight.”

The King of Destruction threw the Yellat he’d been eating for a snack at Takhatres, and the Garuda dodged. The Yellat hit the ground with a puft of sand that blew a chunk out of the ground, and Flos sighed again. He enjoyed the banter with his vassals. He enjoyed the fresh air, the lack of great casualties on his side.

Yet, he did long for those old days, in a sense. Scratching his beard, the King of Destruction muttered.

“If we pressed in hard to Nerrhavia’s Fallen and went for Tyrant’s Rest, we’d get that army of old. They’d have to defend hard to protect the capital. A battle for old time’s sake.”

Amerys’ head rose cautiously, but Takhatres’ and Gazi’s eyes gleamed. Flos knew that if Mars could have heard this, she would have been cheering her support. Orthenon would be cautious—it was a matter of opinion.

“One huge battle won’t end the war for Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Flos.”

Amerys spoke from above. The King of Destruction knew that.

“It would certainly speed it along. But we might well lose too much. Or lose outright.”

That made Teresa’s head come up, and she stared at Flos from the side. Trey Atwood just nodded from his steed, listening; Teresa always seemed surprised when Flos admitted losing was a possible outcome. But he saw it. The King of Destruction closed his eyes.

“I can see Venith and Orthenon taking command. Takhatres on the flanks. Amerys could lock down most [Mages]—Mars and Gazi headhunting enemy champions. If they threw Djinni at us, those damn carpets—a hundred thousand Silk warriors? My [Army of the King] would make it even.”

He could picture it in his mind’s eye. Warriors empowered to be ten, even twenty levels higher than normal, pitting their new Skills against artifacts of the great empire of Chandrar. Even Djinni battling his [Soldiers].

The fight of a lifetime. Teresa’s eyes gleamed, but the King of Destruction grimaced.

“—I see Zamea’s Nomads of the Sky suffering greatly.”

Half-Giants. Always the first to die in such battles. Mage Throwers would be raining down magical fire. If they unleashed a Tier 6 magic—

Entire battalions might die in flame. Of course, he might tell Amerys to do the same upon his foes with the same artifacts he had looted. It depended on how desperate the battle was. Flos had seen worse. But what he saw, most of all, made him sigh.

“Too much risk. We are not ready. Not enough vassals stand ready to turn those odds. And most of all?”

He touched his chest where a new scar itched now and then. A thin sliver just over his heart where Raelt, the King of Duels, had run him through. The King of Destruction sighed.

I am not ready. I see myself either falling or being injured if they send another Djinni after me, or getting past Orthenon and Mars’ guard. Damn. I really should have kept my old armor and sword. I need Relic gear. Or to be twenty years younger!”

He slapped his saddle, annoyed.

“How did I survive as a boy, Gazi?”

She tugged at one braid, amusement in her eyes as all turned to the maudlin King of Destruction, who was, most of all, frustrated with himself. His skin still sometimes felt burned; he recalled that blade piercing his chest and the fires that had nearly baked him alive.

He felt like the weakest link of them all, and he couldn’t remember how he’d used to do it. Of course, everyone remembered but him.

“My liege. Do you not recall the days when you would outrun your bodyguard and fight, surrounded by foes, at times? What of the moment when you took it in your head to kill a War Hydra the first time you saw one on the battlefield?”

Flos grunted.

“That was stupid. I was excited, like a boy. Dead gods. Didn’t it nearly swallow me till you cut its head off? How many times have I been in the scrum, swinging my sword around, completely exposed?”

The Seven instantly answered for him. Amerys called down.


Takhatres shot back.

“Thousands. You were a far better fighter back then.”

Flos glowered at him, and the Garuda stared back, unrepentant.

“What? You were. I haven’t seen you punch a warrior in armor off their feet or clear a hole in the battle with a swing of your sword. You just do that trick with the javelin.”

“It’s called practicality, Takhatres. That boy nearly died ten thousand times. If I did it now, they’d have my head in a trice, all of you or not.”

“That boy was a better fighter than you are.”

The King of Destruction grumbled into his beard, but he had to admit, it was true.

“A better fighter. A worse king. I miss my old sword.”

Then why did you give it away?

Amerys, Takhatres, and Gazi all raised their voices. The King of Destruction threw up his hands and kicked his steed in the sides. He didn’t lose any of them, of course, and he glowered ahead of him.

“I thought I would never use it again! My Seven are returned to me, and all I hear is heckling.”

He heard laughter behind him, and Amerys leaned down to shout-whisper to Takhatres.

“Heckling, he says. As if Orthenon didn’t give him an earful for twenty years.”

“He must have lost his touch, our [Steward]. I’m sorry you have to see this, Amerys. The King of Destruction awakes, and all he does is whine.”

“I believe it’s ‘whinge’, Takhatres.”

The King of Destruction was laughing as they caught up. He shaded his eyes, though even with his [Rapid March] Skill, he knew he was too far away from the camp to see it yet. But he did think he saw someone heading their way. And if he read them right…

“I think I sense Mars and Orthenon approaching. She’ll be sour she missed the battle. Where are the Horns of Hammerad?”

He was looking forwards to that. The King of Destruction began to hum a marching song as he turned his head. He saw Teresa, still sullenly polishing her blade, mutter something to Trey.

The [Bloodglass Mage] and [Chaos Schemer] rolled his eyes as the [Blade of War] clearly complained. Teresa threw a punch, and Trey winced as it hit his shoulder so hard his horse jolted. In response, his Sand Golem, the adorable Minizi, tried to attack Teresa with her own sword.

She was getting rowdy. The King of Destruction considered the battlefield behind him, and his thoughts roamed about. Yes…the two of them weren’t growing much after Trey’s adventures in Wistram, and Teresa had stalled in levelling. Partially because Orthenon and Venith refused to let her take a larger command.

The war had stagnated with Nerrhavia’s Fallen. But the King of Destruction smiled to himself as he stroked his beard. He had an idea of how things could soon change. He lifted a hand as he spotted Mars racing towards him, shouting curses, and saw Orthenon speeding up.

“Begin the festivities at camp! We have a battle to celebrate—I have a hunch we’ll have more than one good piece of news today!”

He laughed, spirits rising as he thought of the future. The King of Destruction leaned back in his saddle, then shaded his eyes as the clear, blue sky of Chandrar lit up for a second. He blinked upwards as a streak of light crossed the sky and then stared. Every head rose, and the [Soldiers] halted; Amerys spun, hands raised, then whistled.

The King of Destruction pointed at a glowing streak coming down towards the earth. Close.

“A comet.”

Then he began beaming. Today would be a good day after all.




The Horns of Hammerad had been discussing Erin Solstice on the fourth day of travel when they saw the comet.

“I just don’t get what was off about her. She—that was not the Erin Solstice I know. Correct me if I’m wrong, Ceria, Yvlon. Even you, Colth.”

Pisces was cooped up in the carriage, and Ceria was hmming, listening to his grievances about how Erin had been acting on the television. Yvlon just shrugged.

“She acted like she did at sea.”

Precisely! That’s not her.”

Colth took a draft of water.

“Seems to be pretty much her, Pisces. I knew she was dangerous when I met her. Even in a wheelchair.”

“Yes, but she’s not like that. She doesn’t dance on the bodies of her enemies, no matter what the rumors say. And that—form? She never sought to be a warrior.”

“…Didn’t she vaporize Draugr with lightning bolts at the battle for the Solstice?”

Colth eyed Pisces, mouth full of water, and Pisces objected.

“That was—a—a—that’s a kind of natural Erin outcome. She does not seek power in combat. She just happens to have a giant jar of acid lying around. Or a garden that spits lightning bolts. I realize this sounds insane, but Ceria, back me up!”

He turned to Ceria for help. The half-Elf opened one eye and adjusted her circlet.

“Erin’s acting weird.”

Thank you.

“It could be she’s just changed. If she hit Level 50, maybe she’s now an [Innkeeper of Slaughter]. You know you change when you hit the threshold, Pisces.”

The [Necromancer]’s face fell. He stood up in the carriage, as much as he could, and leaned out the window so air could blast over his face, scowling.

“I cannot believe that. That’s…she’s damaged from her own flames. Perhaps she’s still grieving for Halrac or—someone needs to help her.”

“I bet the Titan will give her a huge hug. And a rose.”

Colth interjected with good humor, and Pisces spun to point at him, surprising the [Supporter].

“Not him. I mean a friend! Ryoka! Yes, Ryoka might well do it. Someone to remind Erin of who she truly is. Perhaps I should send her a [Message]…but it’s sure to be intercepted. Has Lyonette tried contacting any of you with the [World’s Eye Theatre]?”

Ceria raised a hand.

“She got me since I was first. I heard Yvlon was warded in Medain’s palace. Lyonette got to her thrice; then they figured out how to block her. She said you two were invisible when you were at sea.”

Because of Silvenia. Colth and Pisces glanced at the scrying orb, and the [Necromancer] sighed.

“Hopefully she will tell us how Erin is truly doing. Er—when she can catch up.”

It wasn’t like the [World’s Eye Theatre] had too much of a limit. Lyonette could reach out to the Horns of Hammerad, and she’d tried.

…It was just that she had kept appearing in the middle of their carriage and rapidly vanishing because the projection couldn’t keep pace with the magical device. And since none of the Horns had actual control over the damn thing—Mars had given it the directions—they were stuck.

It had made certain tasks, like using the privy, very uncomfortable these last four days, and Pisces longed to stretch his legs. It had gotten so bad they’d traded off using the roof as a place to stretch, howling winds or not; only a sandstorm had forced them inside.

“Why don’t you send her a [Message], Pisces? Something innocuous but…meaningful?”

Colth suggested after a moment. Pisces just sighed.

“What could I say? Good evening, Erin, I trust this letter finds you in acceptable health? We are all alive, if separated from Ksmvr, and my nose has never been in more pristine glandular condition?”

Ceria snorted water out her nose, and even Yvlon smiled at that. The [Armsmistress] murmured.

“Don’t forget to add a ‘forsooth’ and to sign your name as ‘Pisces the Great and Terrible’.”

“More like ‘Pisces Who Can’t Get Laid’.”

Pisces shook a fist at Colth. He was staring out the window, wondering how long until they could get to Baleros to find Ksmvr and Vofea and help Erin out. At least they were bound to see the King of Destruction today.

That was when he saw the comet.

It was a streak of white-yellow coming down through the skies. It seared a line across the blue skies, so vivid and bright it looked at first like a [Light] spell of unparalleled magnitude. Pisces’ mouth opened as he saw it coming down—towards him.

Dead gods! What is that?

All the Horns looked up, then put their heads out the window. Pisces saw the line getting brighter and brighter—alarmingly bright and alarmingly close. Ceria’s jaw dropped, and Colth breathed.

“Comet nothing. It’s a damn meteor. Dead gods, it’s a [Blacksmith]’s bounty!”

“A comet? I haven’t heard of one falling in years!”

Yvlon was just as agog. Everyone stared upwards—then looked at each other. Ceria, Pisces, and Yvlon spoke all in a rush.

“Wait, it’s getting really big.”

“Is it heading at us?”

“Can’t be. What’re the odds?”

Colth, though, for some reason, started to look apprehensive. He glanced at Pisces. Then at the comet.

“No. It can’t be.”


They turned to him, and the [Ultimate Supporter] gave Pisces the side-eye.

“You don’t think…Pisces. Do you think this, uh, might have had anything to do with your new Skill? And us trying to activate it?”

Pisces gave Colth an uncomprehending look. How in the world could they…?

[Manufacture Stellar Ivory].

His eyes widened. He looked out the window, up at the comet. Then swallowed.

“I, uh—that’s not how it works, right?”

The Horns stared at each other. Then they scrambled to try and get to the driver’s seat. Ceria began shouting at the scrying orb.

Manual controls! Give us steering!

Left! Go left—

“Ceria, put up an ice wall!”

Ice wall? We’re in motion, and it’s coming right at—

Pisces stuck his head out the window, and then he saw a gigantic ball of light descending towards them. The size of, oh, a six-story building in Invrisil? He opened his mouth.

“[Unmanufacture Stellar Iv—]”




The comet missed them. They felt it hit the ground; when Pisces had stopped shielding his eyes and ears, he poked his head out the window and saw a huge cloud of smoke several miles away. He took in a shuddering breath.

“Dead gods, that was close.”

“Close? Let’s get at it!

Colth was raring to go, and even Yvlon looked excited.

“Someone stop the carriage! Carriage—stop! Even if the King of Destruction is waiting for us—how do you stop this thing?”

She began trying to open a door, and that annoying voice came out of the scrying orb.

For your safety, please do not open the doors of the carriage while in motion.

“Open the door! Or I’ll use the restroom right here!”

Ceria shouted at the orb.

Please do not litter in the Magical Carriage. For any complaints or concerns, please contact Mage Rievan at—

The Horns looked at each other. Pisces sat down.

“This is a valuable magical creation of Wistram, Ceria. We are bound to meet the King of Destruction. True, there is a comet just a few miles away, but if the carriage insists we must go to our destination, we should carefully and calmly respect the will of both King Reimarch and Wistram.”

Ceria lowered a fist and gave Pisces a long stare. Yvlon nodded slowly, and Colth gave Pisces a thumbs up. Everyone sat down.

—Pisces and Ceria began kicking the scrying orb, and Yvlon began punching one of the carriage doors. Colth shot one of the spectral horses as the scrying orb began protesting.

Please do not—

Refrain from damaging—

Any hostile actions towards the Magical Carriage Service will be noted—

Listen here, whomever you are. Stop touching the carriage or I’ll—

Ceria froze one wheel, and the carriage went skidding sideways. Yvlon leaned out and, morphing her arm into a kind of plough, tried to slow the carriage—Pisces saw Colth climbing out of one window to slash a wheel.

The carriage slowed, turned, and then the entire thing rolled over as two wheels went out. Colth went flying and landed with a backflip onto the ground, stumbling slightly. Yvlon hurtled out of the carriage, turned to metal, and tumbled for fifty feet before sitting up and swearing.

Pisces and Ceria climbed out of the carriage, the latter with a bloody nose. Both paused to kick the carriage as they stomped out of it. Ceria rubbed at her head.

“Everyone good? Comet?”

Pisces nodded.





The damn carriage had taken them off-course in the time it had taken to destabilize it. It took Pisces a moment to raise his undead horse, but without bones for more, he had to improvise.

He and Colth ended up riding on the undead horse while Ceria skated on a path of ice. It melted so fast she couldn’t use it for transit for anyone but herself, which meant Yvlon had the, uh—most unique option.

Colth! Pisces! Trade with me!

A very unhappy Yvlon was being carried on a palanquin of bones by four Skeleton Champions. It looked sort of bouncy. Pisces and Colth pretended they couldn’t hear her as Ceria did a twirl through the air, missed her jump, and hit the ground hard.

Pisces hoped this comet would give him some answers to his [Stellar Ivory] problem. Or at least be as useful as Colth and Yvlon claimed comets were. He was down to four Skeleton Champions, and the last one had been cobbled together out of the three Jaganismet had pulverized. And that didn’t even count the fact that Princess Seraphel had apparently stolen one; he’d already had to remake it in Jecrass!

“So comets have magical metals in them? I knew they had gemstones!”

They were rare celestial events. Colth hollered back at Pisces.

“Gemstones, metals, you name it! If you’re lucky, it’ll have Adamantium or something in the crust! Or something rarer still! We’d better hope we’re fast or scavengers will be all over it!”

Pisces nodded, but he wore something of a frown as they sped towards their destination. Colth might not know this, but Pisces had been inducted into Earth’s secrets by Erin and the others. Had they ever mentioned comets in this sense?

They’d talked about other planets being in the skies above. What was a comet, then? A piece of one floating through the void?

Well, if so, it was a damn large one. Pisces could still see smoke two hours later as the Horns crested a ridge. Yvlon and Colth were debating the best way to ‘acquire’ the comet.

“Okay, I’ll use my mining Skills, and you punch out anything you can, Yvlon. Anything you can’t damage is the good stuff. I reckon we grab it, stuff it in a bag of holding, and never speak of it again until we find a good smith. Pelt. Then—aw. Blood of Rhir!”

Colth shaded his eyes and began swearing. Pisces groaned too as they saw a huge depression in the earth and a giant, smoke-covered lump of something in the sand. And—a sprawling camp and countless, countless people milling around the crater.

“Someone’s reached it. Who? There’s a damn army down there! Wait—”

Colth frowned, and Pisces felt the hair on the back of his neck rising as he peered down at the army. He saw a flag with an inverted triangle on it. A hovering crown and lightning falling over a crossed sword and shield—the mark of the Kingdom of Reim.

“The King of Destruction’s army. Wait—do you think—?”

The Horns traded a glance. Pisces couldn’t guess how close they’d been to the meetup spot Mars had indicated, but was it too far-fetched to think Flos would come running if he saw a comet? Of course he would! It was Colth who shuddered and Ceria who flinched. The half-Elf licked her lips.

“I think I, uh, sense his aura down below. Dead gods, that’s huge. Turns out we were headed in the right direction. Not just one aura. One, two, three, four…”

“Takhatres, Orthenon, Flos, and Amerys. Gazi and Mars don’t read as strongly. They’re right down there. Dead gods. I can see a half-Giant. A big one.”

Pisces had missed it, but behind the smoke of the comet, he saw something move. A woman so vast she seemed normal-sized from afar had a huge hammer, a maul, and she was approaching the still-glowing comet. She took a swing at it, and her maul bounced off—then Pisces saw two more half-Giants approaching with hammers.

They had found the King of Destruction, it seemed. And by the look of things—a festival was going on to herald his victory in battle and the comet. The Horns looked at each other wordlessly, and Yvlon exhaled.

“Nothing for it. Everyone, be on your best behavior. That means you, Ceria.”

The half-Elf pointed at her face, then wordlessly gestured at all of Yvlon. Pisces half-smiled, but his heart pounded as they began to descend the ridgeline, and Colth licked his lips.

“Time to meet a legend.”




The pounding in Pisces’ heart actually turned out to be internal and external. Loud music filled the air, and the camp below was bustling with activity. In fact, it looked more like a celebration from afar. Countless people were gathered outside the comet or setting up on the ground.

As the Horns approached the camp, they were spotted, of course; the first time, someone dropped down at them out of the air.

Three Garuda, each holding spears, who shouted down as they hovered a dozen feet over the adventurers.

Halt in the King of Destruction’s name! Identify yourselves!

They flew about as the Horns paused and held up their hands. When they shouted up their names and team, one of the Garuda did a double-take.

“The King’s guests? You’re wanted! Wait here!”

He shot off, rather than use a speaking stone, and sped down to the camp. Pisces saw him alight in the center, leap into the air, and fly back.

“Pass, friends!”

Two more groups met them, one a riding patrol who identified them instantly, and the last a camouflaged group of Stitch-folk who had hidden behind a boulder. Pisces jerked when he saw a lazy group of six, but their bows were pointed at the ground.

“Serpent Hunters greet thee, adventurers! Pass.”

“He’s got good soldiers. I didn’t even spot that group.”

Colth muttered reluctantly to Pisces as the Horns waved at the Stitch-folk and proceeded on. The King of Destruction had camped right next to the comet, which had left a huge bowl-shaped depression in the ground. It seemed to be tactically unwise to Pisces to camp in the middle of a valley, but he soon realized that the defenses of the camp were largely hidden.

He nearly fell into the second line of trenches dug into the ground; Pisces windmilled his arms hard when he saw glowing runes pointing up at him. When he heard laughter, he saw [Soldiers] riding down in a vast column along another path towards the comet and camp.

Everywhere Pisces looked, people were moving; he saw a caravan of wagons slowly winding up one slope—there seemed to be several authorized approaches—and the camp below him grew larger and larger as he stared.

It was a moving town, but Colth seemed more shocked with how small it was.

“No prisoner trains. He must be efficient about how he does that. Look, there’s a brothel there.”

Look at that, Pisces!

Ceria pointed, and Pisces saw there were gigantic poles of metal set with giant, gleaming gemstones rising above the tents. One look at them and he felt the power emanating from each.

“What’s that do? Kill any enemy coming at it?”

Yvlon was staring at more concealed dugouts and fortified spots around the camp; it was laid out in a very convenient pattern in case people had to suddenly defend against an attack. But Ceria just shook her head as she shaded her eyes.

“I think it cools the air. That one might block the sun?”


“Well, it’d save on people drinking water and keep sentries from passing out. Smart.”

Colth was approving. Pisces had never seen mobile enchantments of that scale; the radius of the magic was enveloping most of the camp. And the smells! Normally, he associated a moving camp with a bit of foulness; there were latrines, debris, and so on.

Cooking scents rose from the camp along with odors of oil and metal. Fouler odors? Nothing but the feeling of a bazaar; spices and perfumes. Because, Pisces realized, he could see colorful bins full of the stuff. There was a wealth of goods to compete with Pallass’ bazaar—as for dirt and debris?

An entire group of [Soldiers] looked to be showering under a raincloud. Pisces heard laughter and saw others shucking their armor and clothing to leap in there. From the lather, he guessed they had access to soap as well.

“Now that’s a rich army. I bet Amerys did the raincloud. Hey, let’s take the main path down. Or does no one else think we’re walking right through a bunch of defensive trenches? There’s not as many as I thought, Colth.”

The [Ultimate Supporter] just pointed at the Garuda, half of whom were in the air, the other half mingling on the ground.

“The King of Destruction goes on the offense, Ceria. See how he’s got the three main paths out of here? I think I can see hidden palisades or something buried under the sand. He yanks up some of those, and he’ll have his army leaving via the other paths while you try to storm the camp unless you have him literally encircled.”

“Is that common strategy, Colth? I’ve studied strategy like this a bit, but never seen it on this scale. It’s all so polished.”

Yvlon and Colth began debating tactics as Ceria pointed, and Pisces saw an entire line of people taking dirty clothing and washing it. He imagined water was a concern in dry Chandrar—unless you had [Mages].

Of course, the camp was military, but Pisces could barely focus on the [Soldiers]. There were thousands of them, but it was actually hard to tell who was a [Soldier] in the camp itself when they were off-duty. Most had taken off their armor, and there were a lot of civilian types around.

Pisces knew a war camp had people who weren’t [Soldiers] in it, but this? It didn’t just look like a festival—it was one!

Colorful tents had been set up, and there were [Traders] hawking goods on the outskirts! Pisces saw people eating, dancing—and there was indeed music playing.

Someone was blasting music for miles. As they neared the tents and cautiously bouncing figures, the Horns of Hammerad looked at each other and knew.

There was a certain…artificial quality to the voice. Something theoretically possible with a Skill, but even the drums and other instruments were being used in ways the adventurers had only heard in one other place:

The Wandering Inn.

Colth’s face wrinkled up with the unfamiliar sound, but Pisces and Ceria began elbowing each other as they approached. The people in the camp seemed fascinated, just like Liscorians had been when they’d first run into the music. Some were bouncing on their feet to the song, and it was certainly a merry one. Pisces thought he’d even heard this one before.

I Gotta Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas. Colth’s jaw dropped.

“This is surreal.”




Yvlon was still focused on the festival itself. She saw a [Merchant] wearing purple, silk robes eagerly holding out song crystals with the Singer of Terandria’s music on them. He was trying to sell to a [Soldier] who still had dried blood on her armor.

“Fresh from Terandria! No? Can I interest the brave warriors of Reim in a—a full cauldron’s worth of gelato? Mint!”

The [Merchant] was clearly new to this place. Some of the [Traders] were giving him an amused look, and the eager Human’s sunburned face turned confused when one of the [Soldiers] laughed.

“Mint? D’you have anything more interesting, fellow? It’ll do if you’ve got nothing better, but His Majesty sends that sort of stuff to the camps at his whim. ‘Twas an entire month when you’d have it nonstop until he grew so sick he banned the sight of it! But here? Are these song crystals new?”

She picked up one and played it, adding to the cacophony. The [Merchant] swallowed, but the [Soldier]’s face lit up.

“Of course! Fresh from the Singer herself! And I—I would be only too happy to donate the gelato to the celebrations!”

That was a brave move. Yvlon wondered if the [Merchant] was afraid of offending the King of Destruction’s warriors, but as it turned out, someone seemed to have given him some friendly advice.

At his words, every person in earshot instantly came over. Without hesitation, they broke open nearly a dozen vats of preserved ice cream and began grabbing song crystals. They were doing the same at other stalls, Yvlon realized. No one was asking for a price, and [Traders] had goods in open bins.

There were people cooking food outside, and the smells made Yvlon’s stomach grumble. She was hungry from days of travel rations in the damned carriage. She reached for a money pouch until she saw no one was paying for that either.

Why? If the King of Destruction expected all this for free, Yvlon doubted a [Merchant] would be coming here willingly. She had suspicions for all of a minute. Until the woman who’d been asking about the song crystals burst into a smile.

“Now that’s a fair gift for the camp! You’re a right sort, man! Here—for your troubles! I took a better one in battle.”

She reached to her side and produced a blade from her waist. There were three swords at her side, and Yvlon saw her present the [Merchant] with a bloody blade that glittered with magic. The [Merchant] almost recoiled—then took the sword with a nervous smile.

“How generous!”

“Eh, thank Nerrhavia’s Fallen for the bounty! Here, who’s got something to give? Didn’t we find that [General]’s war tent? Give this fellow a chest of gold so he’ll be back!”

Casually, the [Soldier] wandered off and a few moments later came back with a chest that was indeed full of gold. Probably a [Quartermaster]’s stock for paying army wages. The [Merchant]’s eyes lit up, and the [Soldier] reassured him.

“There’ll be more at the end. If we like what you’ve got, you’ll get more. So open up those stocks, fellow! The King of Destruction’s in a good mood! He’s even of a mind to give away some flying carpets!”

Then Yvlon saw it. [Traders] were pocketing bracelets of semi-precious gemstones, accepting looted weapons or valuables in exchange for more unique goods, but the rest were just turning out what they had in hopes of a treasure haul.

And they would get that. The army of Reim was in full swing, and even people without much to offer, like an excited boy, could run into the crowds and emerge with a handful of gold.

“Dead gods. So this is the train of treasures they said followed the King of Destruction around all his campaign!”

Pisces was just as agog as Yvlon. The music was pulsing through the air, and as Yvlon watched, a cloud of Garuda flying overhead accidentally sprayed some people below with wine; they were drinking mid-flight.

Curses rose from below, but the entire Garuda flock dodged as someone came hurtling through the air on a flying carpet. Two dove and plucked a screaming figure off the carpet a second before it hit the ground.

In fact, Yvlon realized that she had lost everyone but Pisces when she turned her head. The [Necromancer] was eying some of the stuff on display, clearly wondering if he could have some.

“Let’s introduce ourselves to the King of Destruction first, eh, Pisces?”

He started and gave her a guilty look, but Yvlon assured him.

“I want some too, but we’re on our best behavior.”

“Agreed. It was just—Ceria! Colth!

The half-Elf had a double handful of skewers of meat. She handed them out as Colth appeared with a mug of ale for everyone.

“What? I’m sure he won’t mind! Come on, Yvlon, this is great!”

They’re still covered in blood, you insane, frozen chipmunk.

Yvlon hissed at Ceria. She hadn’t missed that Reim had just won some kind of battle. One of the [Soldiers] had a huge, bloody scar running down his face, but he was drinking and laughing with his buddies. Colth’s eyes glinted as he looked around.

“Well, don’t offend them. They’re noticing us, Yvlon.”

It was true. More than one [Soldier] immersed in the partying had looked around, even when they hadn’t spotted the Horns, as if an animal instinct had told them someone dangerous was about. Yvlon saw the scarred warrior turn, put a hand to a single-edged sword, and grin.

Who’s this, now? Adventurers? New recruits? Come on, the celebration’s not begun! While we wait for the comet to break open, let’s have a duel like the old times!”

He had grey hair, Yvlon now saw, and he was a Stitch-man. Possibly in his sixties? But he flowed towards them, and Pisces instantly put a hand on his rapier’s hilt.

“Come on, Loxeh, don’t bully newcomers. Besides, we don’t have the healing potions to put you or them together!”

To the Horns’ relief, someone intercepted the [Swordsman], and the disappointed [Soldier] went back to drinking. Colth felt at the back of his neck as he waved at a group of veterans.

“Okay. That fellow set off my [Dangersense]. Not hard, but I’m guessing he’s Level 30 or higher. Definitely an expert. They’re everywhere.

Yvlon nodded tightly as she began striding through the camp, as much to keep moving as to avoid a repeat of that situation. She hadn’t felt this many high-level combatants anywhere, even Invrisil’s Adventurer’s Guild!

They passed by a group of [Mages] with brightly-colored umbrellas who were standing in a knee-deep…pool of water? Yes! They’d conjured a hundred square feet of water and were relaxing in it, out of the heat of Chandrar’s day. One tipped up a hat and eyed Ceria and Pisces.

“Cryomancer. Necromancer. Hallo, you two! Have a drink with Parasol Stroll?”

He waved, and Pisces jumped. Ceria just waved back.

“Not yet! Where did you get the drinks?”

“Over yonder. Got any ice magic? Almost all of us don’t practice it. Magus Mirin! Ice Mage!

A woman with a hat standing in the center of the pool turned. She spotted Ceria and waved a hand. A huge orb of water, bright and pure, rose from the pool. Ceria blinked—then focused. Yvlon saw ice run over the globe of water slowly, then accelerating until the entire orb turned to ice.


The [Mage] raised a cup, and Magus Mirin split the orb into pieces—for their drinks. Accordingly, people rushed over for the ice, and Ceria turned to Yvlon, a bit breathless.

“Dead gods. They’re all capable [Mages].”

“That was a test?”

The half-Elf nodded without a word. As they wandered closer to the comet through the camp, it seemed to have finished smoking. It revealed three half-Giants standing around it, hammering a huge piton of stone on the top of it. Yvlon could see hundreds of people around the base of the comet energetically hammering on it.

It looked black and molten from the heat, but even from afar, she could see odd veins of metal running through it and, in one section, sootstained, green, translucent crystal. Then one of the half-Giants scored a blow, and a chunk fell away, revealing a swathe of shimmering metal that provoked a huge roar of delight. Then shouts of alarm.

It’s still molten! Back, back!

A river of something dark green oozed from a chunk of the comet. Instantly, the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll rose to their feet. Mirin cursed.

“That looks to be Grasgil! Those idiots—Grand Magus Esiela, Palke! With me!”

They cast [Speed] and blurred towards the falling Grasgil, levitating it up before it could stain the sands. Yvlon kept staring as the cheering grew louder, and Colth grabbed Pisces’ arm.

“Pisces! Look! I’ll swear, that’s Dragonblood crystal in there! Like a geode!”

The same stuff Numbtongue’s sword was made of? It looked like there was enough for a hundred swords! Red crystal glinted within, and Yvlon wondered how much the smiths of House Byres or Pelt himself would be drooling over this haul.

“Pisces? Feel anything from the comet?”


The [Necromancer] was frowning as Yvlon turned to him. That surprised Yvlon; she had thought this would trigger something. Was it just a coincidence?

Pisces can’t just call down meteors with his Skill. Right? But then, how the hells does it work? [Mage] Skills were so—confusing. Yvlon only jerked her attention away from the comet when the music that had been blasting through the camp stopped abruptly.

They were nearing the center of the camp, and the source of the Earther-music had been coming from a single device enchanted to be loud enough for an entire festival.

A young man was holding a smartphone as he fumbled with it. He was surrounded by a few other interesting Humans—all around the same age and with something of the same wide-eyed look the Horns of Hammerad wore.

But the rest of the people around them were soldiers. Soldiers and, Yvlon noted, musicians.

[Trumpeters], [Drummers]—the kind of people who worked in an army. They had been listening to the music with great interest, but a clear kind of rivalry. The music of Earth that was so fascinating to most people of this world was being critically inspected by one of the [Drummers].

He was a Stitch-man, but he had bright, white stitches around his sun-browned limbs, and his hair was spiked, pale white—not with age, but dyed. His long arms held two metal sticks wrapped with leather, aged and worn, over an equally battered, massive drum.

[War Drummer] or something. Now that the music had died down, the fellow was speaking in a clear, carrying tone.

“Earthman Lloyd. That’s not a bad song. But it’s more fit for a party than a festival.”

“It’s Earther Lloyd, uh, Drummer Medacium. What’s the difference?”

The [Drummer] snorted.

“A festival’s got to have more weight to it. Blood’s been shed, even if it wasn’t a battle for the records. Nor is that the same as watching someone play afore your very eyes. Here, you stand there. Our turn.”

So saying, he stood over his drums and nodded to a duo of younger [Drummers]. They were young, but this man had to be…fifty? Forty at the least. The hair was throwing Yvlon. She watched as he raised his drumsticks.


The very first thing he did was rap the sticks along the edge of the drum, where wood met the stretched leather. The sound was loud, made the Earthers jump, and turned heads his way.

Come hither, soldiers of Reim! Time to show Our Majesty’s guests how to celebrate like warriors of Chandrar! Who’ll dance for us first?”

Medacium called out, and no sooner did he speak than he had fourteen eager figures, all but two very young, leaping forwards into a ring of onlookers. The [Drummer] gave them an approving nod, then began to play.

Duun. Du-du-du-du-dun—

He didn’t grab another pair of sticks, but his drumsticks visibly changed until he was holding padded mallets which produced the heavier reverberations. Slowly, at first, then with increasing speed, he began to play, echoed by his helpers.

Deliberately, in the center of the ring of people, the [Soldiers] placed one step, then another, some holding swords, others just holding their arms up. Each time the mallet hit the drum, they took a step.


The drums sped up, and accordingly, so did the movements of the dancers. They weren’t following any one pattern Yvlon saw, though many did seem to have a specific way to step and raise their arms and move their feet.

However, the main goal was, apparently, to dance to the rhythm of the drums when the [Drummers] went at it. That was fast.


Now they were going faster, and dust clouds were rising around Medacium’s drum as he began to play faster—and louder. Yvlon was reminded of the times she’d seen Pelt forging, but the sound was deeper and far more musical.

The first [Soldier] who couldn’t keep up was ejected from the dancers to jeers and laughter. Then another. And another.

Soon, there were only five left, three of them Human, another Garuda, the last Stitch-folk. Yvlon realized one of the Humans was getting cheers.

Go, Teresa! Holy fuck, look at her!

Some of the Earthers were pointing to a young woman holding a single-bladed sword aloft. She had tanned skin, the kind you got from repeated sunburns, and she wore the same clothing and armor as the rest of the [Soldiers], but she looked more Izrilian or Terandrian than the rest. In fact…Yvlon thought she recognized Teresa from somewhere.

Where? Erin’s [World’s Eye Theatre]? But that meant—

With even more interest, Yvlon saw the [Lead Drummer]’s eyes twinkle. And if she thought they had set a fast tempo before—his drumsticks reverted from mallets to normal, and for a second, he slowed.

Tic, tic, tic—he was grinning as he tapped the side of his drum. The [Soldiers], panting, slowed, and they wore a look of determined resignation.


Medacium was speeding up. One of the dancers dropped out, then two, as the rest had to strike their heels and feet to the ground almost in the same spot to keep up. Now it wasn’t about how you could dance, but just how fast your feet could hit the ground.

Amazingly, the young woman was still in the contest. Yvlon wondered if she could move her feet that fast, and she thought the girl was doing well—until she noticed Medacium.

He was sitting back on a stool over his drum, one drumstick striking the edge of his drum. With the other? He was having a drink, not looking at his instrument, leaning back, clearly at ease.

People were laughing, and Yvlon then got a sense he was mocking the [Soldiers]. With a flourish, the [Drummer] downed his drink, then raised his other drumstick. He didn’t miss a beat as he began to play on the drum itself.


There was no expressing the speed of which he hit the drum this time. The notes almost blurred together, but they became a hypnotizing avalanche of beats.

So fast and loud the sand was rising around him in a cloud! The other two [Soldiers] had to drop out almost at once, but the last one, Teresa, kept going.

The young woman did her best. For a moment, her feet blurred into a pattern of footsteps so fast and fluid that Yvlon thought she’d kept up—until Medacium stopped and hit one note.


A boom of sound—and Teresa went flying out of the circle. Yvlon blinked; the [Drummer] had sent her flying with a single hit from his sticks. He leaned back, taking another drink.

“Medacium! I was fast enough!”

He snorted.

“You were out of pattern. You’re not Reim’s finest, Lady Teresa. A Skill can’t compete in the Dance of Daheic-Lah. Who’s next? Come on, come on—you.

He was looking around as a second wave of people came over. Then he pointed. Yvlon jumped, but it wasn’t her that he was pointing at.

Colthei grinned. He stepped forwards as the drummer’s eyes glinted.

“Guests to the King of Reim? Adventurers by the looks of you.”

“Yes, sir! Named-rank.”

Teresa, who had been scowling, turned her head, and a woman with platinum-green hair spun around with visible delight. Everyone stared at Colth and the other Horns as he gave Medacium a bow.

“And who’re you, sir?”

“Just a [Drummer] serving his [King]. A musician of no renown. No songs other than the beat of boring battlefields of late. But come, you speak with your feet, and I’ll speak with my sticks.”

Medacium twirled the drumsticks, then began to play. Colth bowed—then kicked off his shoes with a grin to stand barefoot on the ground. At first, it was slow, and Yvlon saw a grinning Ceria and even Pisces standing in the ring.

What are you doing? She mouthed at them. They gave her a look as if she were crazy, and Yvlon wondered if she should join in. But the drumming had already begun, and this time, Medacium amped up the pressure fast.


He threw in double-beats and increased the tempo even faster. Each time someone failed to match the beat, they leapt out, leaving a circle of ever-faster moving dancers.

Ceria was first of the Horns to quit, tripping and taking out two other dancers with a curse. Pisces lasted longer, but he grew red-faced at the cheering, and for all his [Fencer]’s footwork, there came a point where even his feet couldn’t touch the ground fast enough.

But Colth? Colth—kept up. His look of amusement became one of concentration, and he stared down at his feet.


Here it came. The same pattern that had knocked Teresa out began, and Colth’s feet began to drum the ground. Yvlon knew the [Ultimate Supporter] was good at most things he did. He doubtless had experience as a [Dancer] and was using his Skills to maximum effect.

For five seconds, six, seven, he was in it, surrounded by cheering people. Yvlon glanced at Medacium’s face, but if she expected respect on the older [Drummer]’s face—

He looked amused and relaxed as he played at a pace that had Colth sweating. Then he sped up.

Colth’s feet hit the ground and stopped, and the tempo doubled. He turned, gave the [Drummer] a look of disbelief, then shook his head. He held up his hands, stepped out of the ring, and bowed.

“I can’t compete, Drummer! Can anyone dance that fast?”

Was that a look of disappointment on Medacium’s face? It flashed over him for a second, then he was calling for someone to give Colth a drink. He laughed as he toasted Colth and let the [Supporter] come over to inspect his drums.

“Few can dance as fast as you, Named-rank man! It’s not the old days. Is Jelaim of Serpent Hunters here? He could do well ‘gainst you. No? Then someone fetch Mars!”

His words provoked a moment of silence. Fetch Mars? As in, Mars the Illusionist? But all Medacium did was begin playing a rolling tempo on his drums. Low, then louder and louder, and within a minute, she appeared.

“Medacium! Are you calling me? I was busy checking out the comet! And keeping His Majesty from breaking the thing in half by punching it!”

Today, Mars had short, blonde hair, and she was more lithe—she looked a bit like one of Yvlon’s ancestors, like some [Paladin] of old. She was unrecognizable to the woman of before—except in the way she made the metal of Yvlon’s arms tingle.

“Humor us, Illusionist. We have His Majesty’s guests, and Teresa wagers she can dance ‘fast enough’. I’d ask Amerys if she were healed, but it’s you, Orthenon, or Takhatres.”

“And you’ll get Takhatres dancing only with a barrel of wine in him and Orthenon only on the graves of his enemies. Fair!”

Mars’ eyes glinted as she spotted the Horns. She didn’t nod at them, but jerked her head to a tent just behind her. Yvlon looked at Pisces, who was staring at Mars. The Horns of Hammerad watched as Mars stood in the center of the ring.

Then there was silence until Medacium played. He started slow, and Mars made exaggerated movements, throwing her head back, posing, to laughter and calls of appreciation from the audience. Someone was holding up a scrying orb, and then the [Drummer] sped up.

Mars didn’t seem to need Skills to keep up at first. And she had armor on—she flowed from step to step fluidly, still moving about rather than keeping in one position. But Yvlon had expected that.

It was when she got to the speed that had foiled Colth that things changed. Then, Mars seemed to have to concentrate. Her feet were already blurring, and she was grinning, clearly straining to keep up.

This time, Yvlon leaned forwards as Medacium’s eyes glinted, and he doubled the beat. Yvlon heard Mars calmly speak in the moments before her feet touched the ground as she took a hop.

[Speed of the Striking Viper].

The entire camp seemed to turn as an avalanche of drumbeats poured through the air. It felt like Yvlon’s skin was rippling, as if she could feel each strike upon those old drums. But what kept her eyes wide, unblinking, was the second—no, the highest-level [Warrior] of Chandrar.

Mars the Illusionist.

The [Vanguard] had matched the speed of Medacium’s playing. She was moving too fast to see. But that didn’t mean she was a blur. Rather—

She was leaving afterimages. It looked like a multi-headed woman with a hundred limbs was posing in every direction—the sand rose in a storm around Mars the Illusionist. She seemed to fill the circle in a hundred poses that vanished before your eye could even blink.

How long she danced, Yvlon couldn’t say. Ten seconds? Twenty? Less than a minute—then, with a crack, Medacium raised his sticks, wiped sweat from his brow, and Mars paused, raised her fist, and the circle exploded into cheers.

“Dead gods!

Ceria shouted, and Yvlon agreed. She had never seen someone move that fast. Perhaps Mihaela—but that hadn’t been a dance in one spot. Imagine if she did that with a sword in hand.

Mars let other people take the ring, and she downed an entire cup of beer after slamming it into Medacium’s drink.

“You just have to show off for the newcomers, don’t you? Trust a Hraacian.”

“Can you blame me? ‘Twas so boring the last battle that you would have fallen asleep. No wonder His Majesty’s pining.”

The two were laughing with each other when the crowd parted, and Yvlon saw another familiar man stalk forwards. A figure appeared in the center of the dancers, making them leap aside.

“Mars. The King of Destruction wants to meet the adventurers.”

Takhatres, the flightless Garuda, was staring right at Yvlon. Orthenon, the [Steward], merely gazed at Mars’ empty cup with disapproval, then nodded at the Horns of Hammerad.

Mars winked at Yvlon, then called out, gesturing to the ring.

“We were dancing for the old days! Takhatres, you can do it far better. Orthenon, you too! Come on!”

“You can pluck my ass and make a headdress of feathers first.”

The Garuda shook his head, and Mars laughed.

“Is that a challenge?”

She took a step forwards as Takhatres jerked his head. Then, with a huge smile, the Illusionist turned, and Yvlon felt a thrill run through her as Mars gazed at her thoughtfully. Yvlon smiled as politely as she could, and Mars grinned.

“Well, I can see why he took to you. Come on, fierce girl and Horns of Hammerad. His Majesty awaits.”

She swept an arm out towards the large tent, and Yvlon realized everyone had stopped to stare at her. Teresa, Medacium—with a thoughtful glint in his eyes—even one of the half-Giants taking a sip of water was looking down at Yvlon.

At her? Why? Yvlon kept smiling until Ceria hurried over and gave everyone a beaming smile.

“Coming! Yvlon, what the hell are you doing?


Yvlon met Mars’ gaze until Ceria yanked on her arm.

Yv. Stop snarling at Mars. You’re freaking me and my circlet out.

Snarling? Yvlon just had a smile on her face. Her teeth showing. Her eyes open. Maybe a bit too wide. She looked down and realized her arms might be a bit—spiky looking. Mars winked, and Takhatres and Orthenon glanced once at Yvlon.

Then they went to meet the King of Destruction.




The King of Destruction was in a better mood after seeing the comet fall. But he was still maudlin, especially after Orthenon reported in to him.

“Jaganismet. Jaganismet.

When he heard that name, he stood up and couldn’t stop pacing around the tent. Trey knew the name, but he had never met the man.

Jaganismet was one of the vassals that Flos and his followers liked to invoke when they bemoaned the people who hadn’t come to support the King of Destruction. It was notable that he was a name they mentioned, like Venith and Maresar.

With respect to Parasol Stroll and the Serpent Hunters—they were not the ones that Flos had hoped would come to his aid. But Trey didn’t know much more than that.

So he asked, whispering sideways to Gazi, as Teresa and the Earthers filed into the war tent.

“Who’s Jaganismet again?”

The half-Gazer, as ever, gave Trey one of those searching looks that made him feel like someone was x-raying him, including pins and needles running through his body. Gazi half-closed her central eyelid in a frown, as if unsure if he had forgotten something important or just incredulous he didn’t know the obvious as an Earther.

She decided it was the latter and whispered back.

“Mighty Jaganismet. One of the greatest warriors of Chandrar. A fearsome man from Heroph; once, he would fly into rages and kill his way across the battlefield, be it friend or foe. My liege helped him control his fury. He was crowned [King] during His Majesty’s slumber.”

“Ah. Right. Was it a good decision on their parts?”

Amerys, drinking wine and still floating in the air, leaned down idly.

“If you’ve met Jaganismet, I’d say not, Trey. He’s not the smartest of men.”

“He loves his country.”

Gazi frowned up at Amerys reprovingly, and the Archmage of Chandrar lifted her hands.

“Oh, no one would deny that. But I’d rather take a rusted hammer in place of his mind.”

That upgraded Gazi’s frown into a glare. The Gazer’s eye glowed slightly, and Amerys dropped a foot in the air, splashing wine over her robes before she reactivated her flight spells. She gave Gazi a sinister look, but Trey felt Amerys sort of deserved it.

She was a fairly generous woman at times. Intelligent; a [Mage] of [Mages] who believed in foreign exchange, a fan of many cultures, worldly, academic—and elitist too, when the mood came over her.

She was rather like the Academy of Mages that Trey and Gazi had saved her from, even though Amerys often boasted proudly of being the radical, war-capable [Mage] among their ranks.

Their sidebar conversation attracted Flos’ ear, and he turned. He had been sulking because everyone had begged him not to punch the comet for fear he’d break something valuable. Now, he strode over, wine cup in hand.

“Jaganismet might not be able to mince words with a [Scholar], but his mind has outwitted countless foes, Amerys. To be a [King]…when I heard of it, I could scarce believe my ears. He hates leadership.”

Mars shrugged.

“Heroph isn’t exactly replete with great leaders, though. They were war-torn before Your Majesty conquered it, and Jaganismet was one of their many soldiers of fortune who fought from the day he was a child. Sold to other nations’ wars. I passed by during the eighth year of your slumber, Your Majesty.”


“It’s better. Not the best, but I saw nary a criminal there. Nor monster. The lands might not be rich under Jaganismet, but he had a reputation for hunting down monsters with his bare hands. There’re worse men to rule. Like High King Perric.”

That, everyone could agree with, and Flos Reimarch sat himself back down on a throne that was carried around his tent. He had excellent posture, even in his discontent, and he sipped from his cup of wine. Then began to complain.

“He didn’t intend to join us, Orthenon? Are you sure? I could well use him. Or another great vassal! More vassals! My favorite steed for one or two more! Was that the Dance of Daheic-Lah I heard just now? Even entertainment’s no longer as good as it was in the old days.”

He’d been like this for over a month now. Trey sighed as he schooled his face to neutrality, and the [Steward] shook his head.

“Jaganismet claims he is preoccupied with ruling a nation. He does not wish to endanger it, in his words, Your Majesty.”

Amerys was astonished.

“I’ve never heard him to be a coward. He must actually be acting like a [King]. But he did kick the Quarass?”

Orthenon nodded, and Amerys smirked. Flos was still moaning about his lack of supporters.

“The problem is half are too old, and the other half have things to do. Do you know [Bard] Liasel? Our silver-voiced [Songstress]? I heard why she never came to Reim. She has grandchildren.

He covered his face with one hand, and Trey tried not to snigger. It was sort of funny. Whether they objected to how Flos had abandoned his empire, to his continued wars, or were cognizant of threats to their homes or simply had no desire to make war—the King of Destruction would probably have accepted all those reasons.

The fact that some had just had kids and settled down seemed to offend Flos most of all. He listened to the drumbeats from outside wistfully.

“We have one good musician. They can’t even combo their Skills with only Medacium here.”

“We could…send for the Loquea Dree and Monks of Sottheim, Your Majesty? They’re continuing to aid Nsiia, but if you truly have need of them…”

Mars floated the idea hesitantly, and Orthenon instantly shook his head. Flos did too.

“No, they’re fighting well for Tiqr, whom I do owe greatly. And my instincts say I won’t be remiss for my vassals soon. Nor is Tiqr in a bad way, though I haven’t heard of any allies approaching. Orthenon?”

“None, Your Majesty, but I will keep my eye out.”

That interested Trey. As a [Chaos Schemer], he was more aware of the machinations of nations now. As if his mind were able to keep track of details and tricks. And what he had noticed was that Flos had a kind of instinct that bordered on the supernatural. He could call when battles were turning for or against him, and it even extended to his subjects and other nations.

His aura, perhaps—one of the strongest in the world—but it was probably a mix of factors. Flos simply shrugged.

“Call it a hunch. If we win the war, we could have either reinforce us…Loquea Dree will be pleasant to have around. Sottheim. Ah. Uh.”

His face changed, and he wore that colorful expression of trying not to look repulsed, as he always did when he found something he didn’t want to do.

“…Nsiia might well keep them.”

That made Teresa burst out. She was sweaty and still mad as hell from not being allowed to take part in the fighting.

“What? Orthenon said they were some of the finest warriors of Chandrar, Your Majesty! Super-[Monks]! Why not summon them?”

Orthenon shot her a reproving look; he seemed more stern with her these days, and Teresa gave him a sullen glower. But Flos smiled. He was about to reply when he spotted someone and waved a hand.

“Elena, is that you? Welcome back from the Quarass’ realm. Don’t be shy. A drink? No?”

When she didn’t step forwards or accept refreshments, Flos turned to Teresa, visibly disappointed Elena hadn’t warmed to him. Most of the other Earthers treated Flos either as a somewhat terrifying figure or as a joke until the Seven snapped at them. The King of Destruction focused on Teresa.

“It’s not that I don’t value them, Teresa. They replenish their numbers even after crippling losses, they fight well, and Abbot Shurein is a good friend. It’s just—”

He toyed with his cup as Lloyd shuffled in, fiddling with his smartphone. He stared at Trey, who was in the center of the tent, and Trey nodded to him. Lloyd kept staring at the traitor among Earthers, the one with blood on his hands.

I deserve that. Trey saw Flos speak, and every eye jumped back to him.

“—there are only so many orgies one can handle, and that was when I was young. And, gratifying as it may be, there’s something off-putting about running into women constantly hoping for children, let alone the concerns of lineage for me. You understand?”

He turned to look at Trey, and the [Bloodglass Mage] opened his mouth a second before finding words to respond.

“I…have never had that problem in my life.”

Laughter ran around the tent as the Seven relaxed. Even Flos smiled at that, eyes lighting up. And that was the value of Trey, more than his magic, or Minizi.

Make the King of Destruction smile. Keep him out of his funks, which the others feared would see him go into his slumber again. It worried them. It was the one crack in Mars’ armor, the one thing Takhatres seemed to fear.

Flos Reimarch needed constant things to strive for, and this war was exhausting—more so than Jecrass or Hellios or Belchan had been. He palpably resented having to fight lower-caste Stitch-folk sent to die for Nerrhavia’s Fallen, which Trey gave him credit for. But neither would he relent after Nerrhavia’s Fallen had attacked Reim and killed Maresar. Without the ability to end the war in a single stroke, he became—like this.

“Sex. I suppose I’m just no longer young, then. I realized, at some point, I didn’t enjoy more than the act itself in most cases. There were only a few women who ever caught my attention so strongly, and the last—”

He broke off, and Gazi closed her eyes. Amerys sighed, and Takhatres fidgeted. Orthenon’s face didn’t change, but he shifted a step, and Mars looked away. Flos stared into the distance, took a sip of wine, and sighed.

“Well, she could have conquered Nerrhavia’s Fallen by herself.”

And what were you supposed to say to that? The Earthers in the back, Lloyd, Elena, Maximilian, Alanna—just over a dozen, minus George—all looked uncomfortable. Some were pleased to be away from Wistram and amidst all this wealth. Some resented Trey.

Elena was the only one so far that Trey thought of as individually unique. She had caught the eye of the Quarass and Flos, but she probably hated him most of all. The Earthers were silent, and the Seven—

Someone nudged Trey, and he looked up as Amerys’ [Mage Hand] spell vanished. She grimaced, tilted her head, and he saw one of Gazi’s eyes was staring at him. And Takhatres, who jerked his head.

Do something.

What was Trey, a walking clown? A fool and a jester? He tried to think of something to say—and as luck would have it, Teresa interrupted, completely selfish.

“Flos. When are you going to give me a command of [Soldiers]? If you won’t let me join the vanguard, give me something to do. Or Trey will continue passing me!”

Trey stared at his twin.

Where Trey Atwood looked older, with a scar across his throat, a Lifesand Golem with blood-red eyes and teeth at his side, leaning on a staff, a [Mastermind] who had sacrificed lives to free the Archmage of Chandrar, with an oath of vengeance against A’ctelios Salash—

Teresa Atwood was different. Classes changed you, and she had begun to look like some heroine from stories. Begun, because while she stood tall, her hair had actually begun to look redder, and she seemed like a warrior of the deserts, she wasn’t at Venith Crusland’s level. Let alone any of the Seven’s.

Flos broke out of his memories with a jolt and eyed Teresa. He sighed.

“You’ll die.”

“Or level.”

The King of Destruction shook his head.

“No, you’ll die. I’m a judge of warriors if nothing else, Teresa. You have a battle lust I remember from my youth. It was my fault for not noticing, I suppose, but your ego’s outstripped your sword skill.”

Teresa flushed angrily.

“Then let me fail or triumph!”

Orthenon bowed, looking rarely embarrassed by her outbursts as he glared at Teresa, whom he’d taught to use the sword.

“I take responsibility for her tutelage, Your Majesty.”

“No…it’s natural. And I don’t intend to stifle Teresa. But she is my servant, and she’ll be marked a hundred times as a foe to capture or kill. I’ve heard your complaints, Teresa. I have a solution. You will have your chance to prove yourself as a great warrior of Chandrar.”

Teresa’s looked delighted, and Trey gave Flos a suspicious glance. Teresa had been hounding the King of Destruction for months about this, ever since the siege of Reim, apparently. Was he going to let her get herself killed? Even if he disagreed with her immensely, Trey wouldn’t want—he wouldn’t allow that.

“Your Majesty?”

The same concern was palpable on Orthenon’s face. He strode over, and Flos whispered in his ear. Trey tried to listen in, but the silence spell gave him nothing. He just saw Orthenon blink, relax, give Flos a dubious nod, then a smile.

“—the best. The worst that can be said is ‘no’.”

“If they agree.”

“They will. It’s another force I thought might come running to my side, and if nothing else, they deserve to give me this.”

“In that case, I withdraw my objections, Your Majesty. It should prove very interesting if aught comes of it. Teresa shall have her chance.”

Orthenon bowed, stepped back, and Mars instantly nudged him because she clearly had no idea what was going on. He ignored her, but his eyes flicked to Trey for one minute.

Great. More Flos plans. Trey didn’t like it. But before they got to the surprise, the King of Destruction seemed to relax.

“Ah. Perhaps today shall be the best day of the year…well, one of the finest this long year. Orthenon, we’ve kept my guests waiting far too long. Send them in!”

He rose, and Trey’s head turned as the [Steward] stepped out of the tent. Then—he saw the King of Destruction rise to his feet.

Flos Reimarch smiled suddenly. One moment a maudlin [King]—the next, invigorated. His beard, red with Terandrian royalty and flecked with gold in places, seemed to bristle, and his chest expanded as he held out his arms.

Who could provoke such a greeting? Did they even deserve it? Gazi’s eyes swung to the entrance, and she smiled for some reason. Trey peered at a group of people he vaguely recognized. Hadn’t he heard they were here?

Oh yes. He knew them too.

The Horns of Hammerad.

They entered the tent slowly, preceded by Orthenon, who introduced them. A tall, lanky [Necromancer] with pale-white robes and a rapier at his side, visibly uneasy. A smiling man with two shortswords on his hips and who gave Trey an uneasy feeling, despite being as polite as could be. A woman with silver arms, who wore the fakest smile in creation, and a half-Elf whose grin was genuine and whose circlet made Amerys and Trey twitch for reasons he didn’t know.

Gazi’s eyes locked onto the faces of Pisces, Ceria, Colth, and Yvlon. And the King of Destruction?

He beamed, strode across the ground, and before the introductions were even complete, swept one of the Horns up in a huge bear hug.

Horns of Hammerad, we meet again! Well met, friends!”

Ceria Springwalker’s feet left the ground, and she squeaked as he embraced her. Yvlon Byres visibly recoiled, her arms beginning to morph—Takhatres caught her arm. She stared at his eyes and went still.

Pisces nearly leapt back, and Colth recoiled before smiling—but Flos was just swinging Ceria around. He turned, laughing.

“My Seven! Friends, vassals—why in Rhir’s hells are we in here? Come, come!”

Then he strode out of the tent with Ceria under his arm. By now, some of the other vassals had arrived, and Mirin of Parasol Stroll, Jelaim of Serpent Hunters, and even Zamea of the Nomads of the Sky had begun to head towards the tent to join the meeting.

They found Flos outside carrying a very nervous Ceria under one arm. Soldiers, veterans of Reim, his subjects, and his vassals all gathered around as Flos Reimarch put Ceria down.

“These are the Horns of Hammerad!”

Takhatres instantly muttered as he followed Flos outside.


He was not impressed. Nor were most people; Gold-rank adventurers weren’t exactly high-level in Reim. And yet—Flos knew them. From a moment Trey remembered too, like a fever dream.

Sand at Sea. King Fetohep, sailing to Izril with multiple rulers and an army to fight a battle even he couldn’t fully articulate. Rasea Zecrew, being press-ganged into joining them. Fighting Drakes and Gnolls in a land he didn’t know—

And Teresa had missed it. No wonder she got mad.

“Ceria Springwalker, you look—well, actually, much more defined than the last time I saw you. I think my eyes were burned. How are you doing?”

“Uh—well, Your Majesty? Hi.”

Trey had heard Ceria Springwalker was something of a rogue, something of an imp. The Ice Squirrel herself; he’d studied up on her when he knew she was coming. But being hugged by the King of Destruction seemed to have unnerved even her.

“How are the Crossroads of Izril? No, wait…the war at sea. You’ll tell me about both. What’s your class?”

“I—uh—uh—[Arctic Cryomancer]. Same as last time.”

“Really? No new classes? After all that?”

Zamea was staring down at Ceria. A thirty-foot-tall woman, leaning on a hammer that dwarfed the half-Elf…Ceria’s eyes drifted up, then met Flos’ beaming face. Trey knew how that felt. The words blurted out of Ceria’s mouth.

“I actually just got a new class! [Trickster of Crowns].”

Flos’ cheeks bulged as he took a huge drink of water, but he didn’t expectorate. He swallowed, then laughed hugely in delight.

“[Trickster of Crowns]! Hah! Someone keep mine safe! This is the same half-Elf who spat all over me at sea and kept referring to me as ‘bandage man’ and ‘Fetohep’s cousin’. You imp—this is my overdue payback.”

He put her in a headlock and began messing up her hair with one hand as Ceria spluttered. Trey winced, but he did grin as he saw the other Horns look at Flos in dismay.

Oh no. He liked them.

Poor adventurers.




Pisces Jealnet wasn’t sure what he’d expected as a reception from Flos. Something official, weighty, and extremely dangerous if they offended the King of Destruction, he had feared.

He had forgotten what the man was like. Scrying orbs didn’t convey the full weight of being around the King of Destruction. It wasn’t a desire to kneel—rather, a kind of infectious personality that made you want to hang on his word, impress the man.

When he smiled, you wanted to. It was like Erin’s charisma, but if hers was more subtle at times, his was overpowering. And he was, right now, giving Ceria’s head a noogie.

Noogieing? Pisces had only heard it in the context of Kevin and Erin, so he wasn’t sure if it was an appropriate verb, but that was what was going on.

And this is for vomiting on me. And I distinctly recall you stealing a snack off my plate. And this is because I find it highly amusing!

The half-Elf was protesting, begging to be let go—and Flos kept laughing as Ceria’s face grew redder and redder. His vassals were chortling too—until Flos’ arm leapt off Ceria with a mild oath.

Frost Giant’s balls, that’s cold!

He shook out the arm and dropped Ceria, who scrambled up and away from Flos. Pisces jolted and saw the King of Destruction ruefully shaking off a layer of frost on his clothing.

She’d cast a frost spell on the King of Destruction? Pisces was in urgent need of the restroom. Even for Ceria, that was crazy!

The reaction of the vassals was instantaneous. Orthenon developed a frown like thunder, and Gazi twitched. Pisces saw one of her five eyes flick to Ceria. Then to him.

Do not wet thyself in front of everyone. Do not wet thyself—he stared at Gazi and remembered her drenched in blood, casually holding Relc and Klbkch at bay, laughing to herself. A living legend—

The first he’d ever met, really. Besides Cognita. Well, Klbkch didn’t count since he’d been weaker. Even being around her made Pisces feel ready to fight or flee, but her ire was drowned out by laughter.

“Hah! She’s got some spark to her, doesn’t she, milord? You should have seen her at Medain’s capital! She was ready to take on the High King and his little pet adventurers, her and that [Armsmistress] over yonder!”

Mars slapped the frost off of Flos’ arm as he grinned, and Pisces could breathe again. Jelaim was laughing, and only Orthenon and Gazi looked put out. Flos whirled, and now it was Yvlon’s turn. She didn’t back up, but she did freeze up like a statue.

“I heard about that. Stole the High King’s crown off his head. Yvlon Byres, I think? We barely said a word. Hello!”

He offered her a hand, rather than a hug, and she gingerly extended her own. Flos pumped her hand up and down.

“I’m mildly disappointed that it didn’t turn into a mass of spikes. And how are you?”

“Ah. I—uh—greetings, Your Majesty. 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.”

She wasn’t going to do it, was she? Pisces’ look of horror grew as Yvlon began to rattle off the speech she’d told him about. He’d thought it was a joke. Flos’ face went flat—then he began to grin and point at Yvlon silently. He was trying not to wheeze by the end of it.

Mars. Mars. Do you see now why I had to send for them?”

Mars was grinning nonstop, and Yvlon turned faintly red, but Flos clapped her on the shoulder with a huge smile.

“Well, Yvlon Byres, I’m delighted by your presence. If you have the time, we’ll have to see how you fare against some of my soldiers, eh? And you must be Colthei, the new one!”

“Salutations, Your Majesty! I’m the rookie of the Horns of Hammerad, Colthei, The Ultimate Supporter! Named-rank adventurer at your service! I only regret Ksmvr and Vofea aren’t here to meet you!”

By now, Colth had Flos’ number. That damn fool stood to attention and threw Flos a salute. The King of Destruction’s eyes lit up.

“What’s this? I remember Ksmvr of Chandrar. A new member?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. She’s a Satyr.”

Some of the Humans behind Flos started, and Flos’ eyes lit up.

“A what? What kind of species is that?”

“A half-goat woman? Not a Beastkin.”

“What does that—no, no. I should greet everyone first. A rookie Named-rank?”

The King of Destruction chortled louder. He offered Colth a grasp of the hand, then seemed to frown a second at the [Supporter]. Flos shot a comment over his shoulder at Mars.

“He’s pretty good, isn’t he?”

“Passable, milord. Medacium didn’t pass him, but…”

Mars gave Colth a friendly smile, which he returned with his fake one. She was relaxed; he was not. The King of Destruction just snorted and muttered to Colth out of the corner of his mouth.

“Medacium’s little ‘test’ only works for the fleet-of-foot. Jaganismet and I both fail it every time that bastard makes us dance. Don’t mind my vassals. Welcome. You’ll fit in well.”

He clapped Colth on the shoulder, this time with a nod of respect. From someone over Level 50 to someone about to achieve the same. Indeed, even Takhatres gave Colth a brief nod; he barely looked at the other Horns.

Which left the last Horn present. Pisces swallowed hard as Flos Reimarch’s eyes fell on him and Flos smiled.

Why did this man act so familiar to someone he’d met just once? Pisces wished he didn’t always do this, but it brought to mind—

Erin Solstice. She could remember someone she’d met only once, too. The King of Destruction was tall, a natural warrior, and he smelled like Yellats for some weird reason.

“Pisces Jealnet. The only [Necromancer] I can name on Izril’s soil. Fetohep himself complained he couldn’t bring you back to Khelt after the battle was said and done. How was the battle at sea, man? I wish I’d been there, but sea fighting and I never mix.”

He was aware of the battle with the Bloodtear Pirates? Well, that was the news, but Pisces’ role in that? The [Necromancer] stuttered for a reply.

“How was the battle at sea? Er—desperate. Frantic. All the above, I would say. It is a relief to be here and to meet you, Your Majesty. Thank you for your generous hospitality.”

Was it something he said? He felt like his had been the most refined, expected speech. And yet, Flos grew palpably less interested in a moment, and disappointment entered his tone.

Why? The King of Destruction looked Pisces up and down without that sense of distaste Pisces got from nobles of Izril. Searching for something?

“You’re in good health, I take it? From Medain to Jecrass—no one gave you a difficult time of it, caught between either nation?”

“For being a [Necromancer]? Chandrar has been very hospitable, Your Majesty. The lands have been quite marvelous—and Reim’s most of all!”

More disappointment. The King of Destruction hmmed.

“Yes, yes. They’re very lovely…lands…”

What was Pisces doing wrong? The [King] glanced at Pisces and gave him an artificial smile. It was very good, but he seemed to throw out the next question out of politeness.

“I didn’t get to see most of it—not many angles. I can assume the Horns fought hard. How were the Bloodtear Pirates? Raise a lot of undead to do battle?”

Pisces wished he could be more impressive, but he doubted lying was a good move, so he shifted his feet, ready for a third look of disappointment.

“Er—well, I only summoned Skeleton Champions, so they fought throughout most of the fight. Aside from the ship I reanimated, I didn’t do much necromancy—”

Flos had begun to turn for some cups of wine, but his head snaked around in an instant.


He strode back over, and Pisces panicked.

“Ah—ah—yes. Just a ship. Only a small one! And it fell to pieces very quickly thereafter. I can’t reanimate large ones.”

“You…raised a ship?”

That came from overhead. Pisces stared up—and Amerys, the Archmage of Lightning, stared down at him.

It was like he were back in Wistram, seeing her lounging at the high table. Pisces’ mouth opened, and the words came out.


The King of Destruction traded a quick glance with Amerys. Then? He picked Pisces up, swung him around, and put him back on his feet.

“Hah! Just reanimated a ship! Orthenon, go get me one so I can see it! Can you even do that?”

“I can reanimate things—”

“Things? Like what? A building? Let’s find one to knock down—that tent!

One of the camp [Chefs] shrieked.

“Not my tent, Your Majesty!”

Then Flos was dragging Pisces around, beaming, and Pisces shot Ceria, Colth, and Yvlon a panicked look.

They waved at him.




When Flos had been persuaded not to knock down a tent just so he could see Pisces reanimate it, he remembered his manners. He lifted a hand and pointed.

“Mars. Orthenon. Takhatres. Amerys. And I believe you know Gazi best of all.”

That was how he introduced his Seven. No titles, no preamble. The Horns looked at them, and Pisces swallowed.

Gazi and Amerys were the two he knew most, and both made his mouth dry. Yvlon stirred, but she hadn’t known either as well, and Colth was in full fake-Colth mode. What did you say to Gazi? After Liscor?

She killed a group of Silverfangs on the road north. She nearly kidnapped Erin and Ryoka. 

Erin poked out her eye. Is she going to hold a grudge?

She no longer seemed as overpoweringly terrifying to him. Was it because their levels had gotten closer? Gazi seemed like a lithe, deadly warrior, and her eyes glowed with power. That didn’t make him less afraid; now, he was keenly aware how deadly she was. Her armor, cracked though it might be, made him wonder how he’d ever best her.

Best her? Put away that thought! Draw his sword in front of the King of Destruction and he’d be dead.

It was Ceria who spoke, keeping her voice casual. She stepped forwards, held up a hand, and smiled.

“Hey. Thanks again for the book.”

The book. Illphres’ spellbook. Pisces hadn’t seen the handover, and he was sorry he’d missed it. It must have been in secret—his eyes darted to Amerys, whose face tightened for a moment before she sipped from a goblet, and then to Gazi.

The half-Gazer just smiled, her pointed teeth menacing, her eyes locked on Ceria’s face, then sliding to Pisces. He could read nothing from that alien expression.

“It was useful to me. Call it a debt of gratitude and Amerys’ will. Pisces. Ceria. You two look more interesting than the last time we met. I didn’t get a good look at you at sea.”

Again, her central eye glowed, and Pisces realized he had to speak. Flos was watching the conversation with great interest; what he read in their pasts or knew of their relationship, Pisces couldn’t have said.

“Gazi. It is good to see you well. I’m honored to see you again.”

More lies. She wore an expression of amusement, now. A grin at his expense. Pisces tried to smile.

Dead Silverfangs on the road. He thought of Krshia and Mrsha—it wasn’t politic to mention. She held out a hand.

“A great thing, to meet adventurers from Izril. Welcome to Chandrar.”

That mocking smile and her grip were too strong. Pisces shook her hand as Ceria chuckled. He tried not to grit his teeth.

“Yes, absolutely. I must add, I am so relieved to see your eye is fully healed after Erin disgorged it.”

Gazi’s smile winked out. Ceria turned her head, and a look of such delight crossed her face that Pisces realized she’d been about to say the same thing. Behind him—Flos Reimarch spoke.

“Well now. I had almost forgotten. Gazi. Were these two there when that [Innkeeper] blinded you?”

His hands fell on Pisces’ and Ceria’s shoulders, and they went still. Gazi gave them a huge, slow blink of her eyes and then nodded at her [King].

“They were, my lord. A small reason for why I was so distracted. Though I credit news of your return to most of my failure.”

“And how changed are they?”

The King of Destruction peered down at Ceria and Pisces. The half-Gazer took her time, studying Pisces. He wasn’t sure if she could read his class with his anti-appraisal gear, but he still felt like she was seeing right through him.

“I am looking at you this time, Pisces Jealnet. The same to you, Ceria Springwalker. A year has made mice into growing lions, Your Majesty.”

Pisces realized her central eye wasn’t skipping around constantly. It was locked on his face, flicking up, down, but focused. Studying him.

The King of Destruction’s voice was pleased, and he patted the two adventurers on the shoulders.

“Lions aren’t much good against Adult Crelers, but that’s a transformation indeed. So they helped injure you? I’ll settle that [Innkeeper]’s debt later, but we’ll call it a small favor that can be considered against the one I intend to ask. Will you let bygones be bygones, Gazi?”

She turned to him, and Pisces saw her smile. Truly, genuinely, with a kind of adoration he had never seen from her before. One of her smaller eyes glared balefully at him, and he averted his gaze, as if that smile was too personal for him.

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

Flos nodded, greatly pleased.

“Then we are all friends. Bring out more wine for our guests! Ceria, I hear you know your way around a drink. Orthenon, that keg, that one! Let’s see if we can bully her into talking about the Crossroads of Izril!”

Then he was dragging her off, and Amerys floated idly after the [King].

“And let’s ask about her clothing!”

That left Gazi and Pisces together. They stared at each other in silence, and Pisces forced the words out.

“I suppose we should let the matter drop, then. So you know, the Silverfang tribe will remember.”

Gazi shrugged slightly.

“They threatened me. It was their choice, just as it was mine to attempt to kidnap Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin. How might the world have changed if I had succeeded, hm?”

Her eyes were knowing as she looked at him, and Pisces could agree. What would have happened?

“I’m glad you did not.”

She advanced a step, and he put a hand on his rapier’s hilt before jerking it away. But all Gazi did was whisper.

“You are grown. Just remember you stand among the world’s greatest. And one more thing. As a tip—I can see goosebumps. The others are just as hard to trick.”

She winked one eye and passed by him, snagging a cup of wine. Pisces shuddered, rubbed at his arms, and turned away.

Archmage Amerys was floating right in front of him. Pisces didn’t quite scream. But he did leap back.

“So you’re the one who unleashed the undead from the crypt. I don’t remember you. Ceria Springwalker I do. At least, I remember Illphres complaining about her. You?”

The Archmage of Chandrar looked more worn than he remembered her. Older; her captivity must have aged her, and she floated in the air rather than walk about. He imagined her constitution might have suffered most of all. Yet lightning seemed to hang on her every word, and he felt like he was standing before a maelstrom of power. Even Valeterisa wasn’t as nakedly dangerous as she was.

From Gazi to Amerys. At least, this time, Pisces didn’t have an urge to insult Gazi rising with every word.

“Greetings, Archmage—”

“Oh, stop. Flos might be peculiar, but his penchant for avoiding small-talk is one of the things I like of him. We’re no longer at Wistram. What possessed a [Necromancer] to ever study there, anyways?”

Pisces stiffened as all the memories came back. He inhaled—and spoke rather abruptly.

“I thought it was a place for anyone to learn whatever magic they pleased.”

He worried a second that he’d been too abrupt despite Amerys’ claim, but the Archmage of Lightning just paused in sipping a cup of wine, then gave him a sympathetic look.

“Once, it was. Two hundred years ago, it was. Even decades after that, I hear, they still taught some necromancy. Terandria put an end to that. As did the constant attacks by Az’kerash. What a pity, eh?”

What a pity. Such casual words to say about his entire class, his entire school of magic. Amerys read Pisces’ face and lifted her goblet.

“Apologies. I only mean for all of us. [Necromancers] had it worst. Or maybe second-worst, compared to [Golem Artificers]. It’s hard to tell who is more unwelcome there. [Mages] hate [Necromancers]. But the Golems and Cognita Truestone…small wonder no one’s made another of that magnitude.”

“Aren’t the Sedoli faction, Golem-makers, still quite powerful—”

Amerys snorted, as if they were arguing politics at Wistram’s banquet tables.

“Please. Having a modicum of power making basic Golems is a purely plebian take on the situation. They were Zelkyr’s party; they should have been making Sentience-class Golems and ones on the scale of Giants with Cognita’s help. Instead, she has them terrified.”

“I—I rather liked Cognita. She was always cordial to me.”

Pisces frowned at Amerys, and she raised her brows higher.

“Really? You must have been special, then. She always looked at me as though she were calculating how best to snap my neck. Why don’t you follow me? The [Mages] of Parasol Stroll have some manawine over yonder. We can’t let Flos have it; he wastes the damn stuff.”

And then she was floating sidelong, speaking to him, asking about his teachers and how he had managed after being expelled—and Pisces realized after a moment, to a thrill of delight, that she spoke to him like an equal.

Like a [Mage] to a [Mage].

It had been worth coming here for that alone.




Ceria and Colth were good talkers. They danced around the full tale of the Crossroads of Izril, but Flos Reimarch didn’t seem inclined to push. Pisces? He stood and talked to Amerys and the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll.

Yvlon was a bad speaker. She stood there, doing her best, but she really didn’t know what to say.

“Hello, my name is Yvlon—”

She must have said it a dozen times, and it worked and got people to leave her alone, but she felt a bit disappointed this time. Several Earthers—she thought they were Earthers—had come up to her. She’d given them the Yvlon introduction by accident.

It was becoming reflexive. In truth, Yvlon was nervous she would say something provocative or snarl at Mars. She needn’t have worried; Ceria was taking up all the oxygen in the camp, and that was a lot of air.

“So here I am, and I just think—what if I took it off his head? Voilà.

She had the High King’s crown in hand and offered it to Flos. He took off his own circlet, a far more humble affair, and tried the crown on. Then he pulled Ceria in close and produced a rectangular object.

“Nothing will do but a picture! Cheeses!”

He and Ceria beamed into a camera, and Flos inspected the picture with great satisfaction. Ceria nearly laughed a lung out. She was endlessly popular—even Takhatres snorted in amusement.

“This one’s alright, Flos. I can see why you think they’re at least entertaining. Have you told them to get the Mad Ones yet?”

Shhh—shh! Don’t ruin my fun, Takhatres. We have some business to attend to later, Ceria. For now…I do think it was the most entertaining trip at sea. Even if I was suffering the entire time—and the vomit did not help.”

Ceria winked.

“I apologize, Your Majesty. I really was, uh, seasick. But if you have something to ask, we’ll hear you out! We’re trying to get a lot done this trip.”

“No doubt. No doubt. How’s your gear? Do you need a few enchanted swords? We don’t have that much of great magnitude, but we can spare any number of basic ones. We keep looting them off Nerrhavia’s Fallen, but they won’t put out the Relics to play. The best thing I have is this sword, and it is nice—”

Flos drew his own sword, and Yvlon felt her arms tingle. He had a massively long sword—not a greatsword, which was ludicrously big and could be worn only on the back, but the closest thing to it—rust-red. Adamantium. There was something powerful in the enchantment, and Ceria backed up a step, but Flos sighed.

“—But it’s still below a real Relic-grade weapon. And I know I gave my sword away.

He snapped at his vassals, earning a huge laugh, but Ceria’s eyes were on the blade.

“Wow. What kind of enchantment is that? That’s…it might not be Relic-class, but that looks like permanent Tier 6 magic!”

Every head turned, and the King of Destruction blinked at Ceria.

“Well done. Even Amerys had to take a moment to figure…well. Hm. You’re not looking the worst for gear. Amerys wanted me to make you an offer on your clothing, which says a lot.”

He gave Ceria a practiced look. She grimaced.

“It’s great stuff, but I can’t figure out what the clothing does.”

She was so casual. But Flos was a kind of adventurer, and he traded tips with Ceria easily.

“You tend to need a [Clothier] to figure that stuff out. I remember raiding ruins and getting some clothing and trying it on, only to realize it had anti-theft charms. Imagine a full body rash of hives…”

He shuddered.

“Anyways. That fellow, Pisces, could use a new rapier if we have one and he wants it. Colthei looks good…Yvlon…”

He spotted her, waved, and spoke loudly.

“I can’t do better than her arms! If she wants some armor, we can put together a set.”

“We accept!”

Ceria! Yvlon glowered at her friend, but the half-Elf was keen to get whatever she could out of Flos, as she always was with everyone. And for once, it backfired spectacularly. Flos instantly nodded.

“Jelaim! Get some plate armor for Yvlon Byres—don’t cover up her arms! Something decent. And in exchange, you can show me your other crown, Ceria. I’ve been dying to ask about it. May I?”

He peered at Ceria’s circlet, and everyone in earshot did a double-take. Ceria’s face froze up cautiously, and Yvlon blinked.

The King of Destruction had noticed Ceria’s circlet? If anyone could…no, Amerys was glancing over from her conversation with Pisces.

“Uh…okay. It’s got a weird effect on it, though.”

Orthenon was there in a second.


“Maybe just a little? It does…”

Ceria whispered in Flos’ ear nervously, and Yvlon was surprised she would confide in him, but she might have had no choice. Flos blinked, and his eyes widened, but he just shrugged.

“I want to know what that’s like. Gazi did think it was odd when she spotted it, but—give it here. Some might say I have that effect already, and Orthenon, you should want me a bit smarter, eh?”

Orthenon tried to grab for the circlet, but Flos was faster. He took it from Ceria as the half-Elf offered it to him with a weak smile.

Flos made a show of inspecting the circlet and comparing it to his own simple crown of gold. He didn’t seem to have an enchanted circlet like Lyonette and even Perric had; he must have sold that one too. Yvlon saw him settle the circlet on his head, grin, and reach for a camera.

Then the King of Destruction’s expression went blank. Colth looked up from talking about adventuring with Mars. Yvlon’s grip tightened on a wooden cup, and Pisces turned away from Elena, who had been approaching with an outstretched hand. Flos let go of the smartphone, lifted the circlet off his head, and stared at it.

Silence fell over the people around him as if he had suddenly cast a spell. The King of Destruction stood up, and his voice was no longer amused.

“Hm. There’s something in here. Orthenon—cut.”

He flicked the circlet, and his [Steward] drew his blade so fast Yvlon only saw the afterimage; a purple cut across the air that lingered. There was a flash of green light, and Ceria shrieked.

“Wait! Waitwaitwaitwait—stop!”

The circlet had gone flying across the ground. Yvlon ran forwards, staring. Was it broken?

No—but she had seen a flash of green light, and the [Steward] had his single-edged sword in both hands, ready for another cut. Ceria threw herself over the circlet.

“A second blow, Your Majesty?”

Flos was rubbing at his hair as Orthenon studied Ceria, on-guard. He looked down.

“You didn’t cut it? Is your internal energy or whatever you call it waning, Orthenon?”

The [Steward] glowered.

“It hasn’t decreased since I left Drath—nor risen in this land without a drop of energy, Your Majesty. The circlet is hard beyond belief. I can probably break it.”

Stop! Please!

“There is something inside of it, Ceria. I dislike it intensely, Orthenon. Don’t harm her. Amerys! To me!

Then he was on his feet, and Yvlon was striding forwards. Orthenon pivoted slightly towards her, but Yvlon raised her hands.

“Wait. How did you know that there’s an intelligence in the circlet? Your Majesty?”

Flos glanced at Yvlon; she had only known because of Ceria’s comments. Amerys flew over, and the King of Destruction drew a finger; everyone except the Horns and his Seven fell back several steps.

“I just felt like something was watching me the entire time I was in Ceria’s company. The moment I put it on, I knew something was in there. I’ve seen things like that before.”

The King of Destruction’s instincts were a powerful thing indeed. Ceria was covering the circlet with her body.

“Don’t—don’t break it. It’s our treasure from the Village of the Dead. It’s useful. I need—

She broke off, and Yvlon had to explain. She felt like she was doing a bad thing, but she gave Flos a summary of the circlet’s origins as Amerys floated around them. Flos just nodded when she was done.

“A Relic from a dead [Necromancer]’s tomb. I would call it standard if you can ever call finding a Relic that. I’ve heard of [Farmers] pulling the blades of [Heroes] out of the ground. Still—that’s not a Relic without a catch. Amerys?”

Amerys sighed loudly as she flew down and stood on the ground. She held a hand out, and Ceria let her touch the circlet, but didn’t let the Archmage take it. Amerys just passed a hand over it before turning to him.

“Flos. No matter how many times you ask, I am not an all-purpose [Mage]. Enchanting is not my specialty. If the Mage of Rivers couldn’t figure it out—it’s like asking Mars to shoot a bow.”

“I can shoot a bow.”

Mars shot back, having come over to stand on Flos’ other side. She grinned, but she seemed watchful. Amerys nodded.

“But you don’t go into battle with one in hand. It’s like that. I have no doubt if you sensed something, then it has a curse. How bad or how much Ceria can combat it? Who can say?”

Every eye turned to Ceria, and she held the circlet close to her, smiling desperately.

“Flos. Your Majesty. I apologize for not mentioning—anything—anything wrong with the circlet. It’s more scared of you than you are of it, honest. Let’s just go back to partying and pretend nothing’s wrong. I’m the adventurer. I’ll take responsibility for it. And it makes me a lot more powerful as a spellcaster.”

The King of Destruction heard Ceria out, nodding gravely as he stood there. He sighed, and Yvlon realized it had already turned to dusk; his breath rose in the cold air.

“Curses get quite nasty. Far be it from me to stop an adventurer from using any tool at their disposal.”

For some reason, Yvlon sighed when she heard that. Flos gave Ceria a grave nod, then Colth and Pisces. His eyes found Yvlon, and she saw those green eyes shine. They were far more youthful than the rest of him, as if he had truly slumbered for twenty years.

A thirty-year-old man in the body of a fifty-year-old. Yet at the same time, he looked all of his age. As if he had seen a person like Ceria before. The King of Destruction saw Ceria sigh, smile, and bow. Then those eyes danced, and Yvlon remembered what she had somehow forgotten.

He was the King of Destruction, not a reasonable man. Flos spoke.

“—But a friend? Mars?”

The Illusionist drew her blade, and somehow, Ceria dodged. She leapt back, raising a hand, and tried to cast a spell—and failed.

Amerys calmly lowered her hand, and Mars flicked her sword up. The circlet tumbled out of the half-Elf’s grip, and the Illusionist spoke.

[Phoenixflame Draw].

[Antimagic Iai].

Orthenon’s sword came out of its sheath at the same time as hers. The two blades criss-crossed so fast that Yvlon barely saw them intersect.

This time, Ceria’s scream was preceded by that flash of green magic. Brighter, this time, and the thunderclap of sound made the audience stagger. But when Ceria leapt forwards…

The circlet was lying on the ground. Not unharmed, though; Yvlon saw green magic knitting itself together, repairing two gashes down the middle.

It was healing itself? Ceria tried to grab the circlet, but Takhatres was faster. He kicked it up, and Amerys floated it in the air.


“Now that’s insulting. I barely left a scratch. Give it here and I’ll do better.”

Mars sounded peeved. Ceria was screaming, trying to cast magic, but clutching at her head. Mars reached out—and Flos picked the circlet up. He inspected it as green magic crackled down from the cuts, and Yvlon thought she heard a faint shriek, now. Coming from the circlet.


Then the King of Destruction gripped both ends of the circlet, braced himself, and pulled. 

The air stopped—then seemed to pull apart around his hands. The world shifted, as if it were fabric and he had a grip on reality. The ground shook, and Yvlon saw Flos brace, adjust his grip—

Then pull with the same force he had used to break a Djinni’s bindings. And the circlet—


It cracked in half, and a voice shrieked. Green light expanded outwards in a burst of magic that picked Pisces up and flicked him through the air.

Colth caught him; Yvlon staggered as something punched her in the chest, and she raised a fist to fight—

People were on their backs. Flos Reimarch staggered, felt at his fingers, flexed them a few times, then tossed two pieces of bone to the ground. They sparked green, and he stomped a foot on them and shrugged.

“Djinni bracelets are stronger. I don’t think this is entirely broken, though. Still, that felt quite enjoyable.”

He kicked one piece across the ground, and someone bent and scrambled after it. Ceria Springwalker grabbed one piece of the circlet, then the other. She tried to join the two pieces together. Her face was confused. The pieces flashed—green sparks going everywhere—but it was clear something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

“Huh? My—my—”

The half-Elf tried to join the circlet again. She raised it—put the two pieces together—and stared at the break with unfocused eyes.


Yvlon started to get worried. Ceria sat down, mouth agape, and Pisces and Colth instantly ran forwards. Flos began to look a bit concerned.

“I think I broke it. At the very least, I gave whatever was in there a wound. If you wish to keep it still, Ceria, I suppose I can’t gainsay that. But I would toss the thing, if I were you. Or let Mars destroy it.”

He gestured at the Illusionist, and Ceria gave Flos a blank look.


“Ceria? Are you okay?”

Yvlon shook her friend gently, and Ceria raised the circlet. She tried a third time to join the pieces together.


The King of Destruction paused. He looked around. He looked at Ceria. Then he whispered to Orthenon out of the corner of his mouth.

“Er—get a healing potion.”

“No need for that.”

Amerys forestalled Orthenon as she descended and walked over, sighing. She bent over Ceria, who was trying to articulate words. Amerys leaned in, inspected one of Ceria’s eyes, then murmured a spell as Pisces shook her shoulder. She forestalled him.

“Magical backlash. Not the worst. My guess is the intelligence-effect leaving her is addling her mind a bit. You could have done that more delicately, Flos.”

She glowered at him, and now, Yvlon couldn’t tell if she owed him her thanks or…the King of Destruction shrugged unapologetically.

“Let her keep the pieces if she wishes. If whatever that was is still about, well, she has her chance to be free of it or choose again. I just dislike this uncertainty nonsense. Someone find a [Healer] to check on her!”

He favored the Horns of Hammerad with a nod, then bowed his head slightly.

“I hope she isn’t too badly affected, but I did what I thought was best. My apologies if it interferes with your careers.”

Pisces stared at Ceria as Colth bent over the broken Relic. Yvlon just met the King of Destruction’s eyes. What did you even say to him? He had broken Ceria’s Relic, solved Yvlon’s agonizing—at least in some way—and apologized for it. Sort of.

King of Destruction. Small wonder they called him that. Yvlon could not articulate the feeling in her chest. But someone else could.

A young man leaning on a staff walked over. Trey Atwood glanced down at Ceria, then called to Gazi the Omniscient, who was staring at Ceria’s circlet with great interest.

“Hey, Gazi. Look at that. Flos is freeing people from cursed circlets, Djinni from their chains, and he still kisses up to Roshal. I guess we know what he’s afraid of.”

The King of Destruction had been heading to get a drink. His head slowly turned, his shoulders rose, and the Horns of Hammerad stared at the young man—who had just earned a death-glare from half the vassals—and a slight smile from at least Amerys and Gazi.

Who was this? Pisces frowned at the young man, and memory stirred. Wait. Wasn’t he the one who’d caused the riot at Wistram—?

Ceria just sat on the ground, cradling the circlet. She reacted to the [Healer] checking on her, then to Amerys, who spoke slowly to her.

“My [King] is a rash man—you might save your Relic. Either way, do you need anything from me, Ceria? I had hoped to speak magic with you. It seems Wistram is beyond all of us.”

The Archmage of Lightning could have used a lesson in nicety…from Mihaela Godfrey…but Ceria did look up. She tried to focus on what Amerys was saying.

“Me? Magic. Speh.”

She flicked her fingers, and a bit of cold air blew forth. Amerys stared at Ceria, scratched her green hair, and sighed.

“Well, she’s still got more talent than Flos.”

Yvlon whirled towards Flos, fists clenched. Pisces gazed at Ceria, who sat with a blank, distraught look on her face. He opened his mouth—

The King of Reim sat there. Apologetically unapologetic, as if he’d committed a minor faux pas. He smiled, and his Seven looked down at the Horns of Hammerad.

Pisces closed his mouth and swallowed.

Ah, yes. That was the King of Destruction.




Author’s Note:

I have split this chapter in two, because it is super long. I wanted to come back strong after my vacation. And it has been a vacation. In fact, I got back just on Tuesday, so this is more like a ‘regular’ chapter since I had less time to write it.

That’s fine, because I was in Puerto Rico on holiday! The first in years! (Canada doesn’t count). I think I’ll do a blog post about the whole thing so as not to distract you here, but I do think it refreshed me. I didn’t write much; I had a lot of notes, but I realized I’m not a vacation-writing person.

I have a very specific set of specific skills for a…specificity (I never watched that movie with Liam Neeson on the phone). I tend to need to have my computer, my desk, my room, all set up for me to work at maximum output.

So I didn’t work, and that was great. I was with family, and while I’ll tell the full tale later, Puerto Rico might have the nicest people to tourists. People were actually friendly; I’ve heard of legendary French hospitality, and the Italians have a reputation in the same way. I ate great food, including a lot of mofongo, and I got a really intense sunburn because I can’t put sunscreen on.

Then I came back and wrote this. I hope you enjoy it and the next part.



Jecaina, Raelt, and Chains by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe


Springwalker by Yootie!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yootie


Begone by LeChat!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/demoniccriminal

Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lechatdemon/


What They Expect by Rhircat!


Iert by Lanrae!


Maid of Magic by Anito!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/anito


Grave Goods by Moerchen!


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