10.16 N – The Wandering Inn

10.16 N

When he opened his eyes for a moment, he heard his consort singing, and it distracted him from reality. As she had surely calculated.

The man awoke in his bed of pale greenish-yellow sheets that seemed as though someone had woven them from blades of tall grass in the summer. He brushed at the sheets, which invigorated him and enfolded his body in a cocoon of natural Elfsilk: a thin fiber equivalent or superior to most breeds of magical silkworm, but far rarer.

Beautiful fabric, as hard to harvest as silk, and even harder to grow, with the added disadvantage that it would invariably run out of magic and turn to dust within twenty years, even in the best cases. To half-Elves, that was in no time at all. For other races, it was a fine time. A lifetime.

For a moment, as he sat up before the dawn had yet to rise, the man who had once been mortal looked outside, and he heard a clear voice singing. An operatic pair of lungs raised in song.

“Eithelenidrel?”

He stumbled over to the window and saw her outside. It was dark, the sun still rising on the Palace of the Threefold Oath and the great city of Galdatornil below. The oldest buildings, built to accommodate half-Giants, were as nothing to the ancient Giantseats, vast monoliths of stone that had been repurposed into living quarters for people.

The man could sweep his head and see buildings amongst great trees still growing amidst his home—those that hadn’t gotten up and left a few millennia before. Or he could look down and know that, below his feet, suburban Dwarves and other species were preparing to start their day.

It would have astounded anyone from Earth, or even any other nation in the world. But he had seen this same sight for hundreds of years. So King Nuvityn, ruler of the Kingdom of Myths, [King of Men], Elfwed, King of Myths, Leader of the United Peoples of Erribathe, Manoerhog, just stared ahead at another familiar sight.

But it had been so long since he’d last heard Queen Eithelenidrel sing. The half-Elf was standing on a tower of the castle that had a view to his window. Her hair was pale red, even if it had begun to gray…far faster than it should. She was singing with a voice to rouse the entire city.

He didn’t know the words. The strange melody sounded half like language, half like the nonsense that [Bards] sometimes made up for fun or to sound grand. Which is what it was. Once—she’d confessed to him that the words weren’t words at all. Just fragmented memories that the half-Elves had failed to preserve, despite their best efforts.

A song.

An Elf’s song. This was their best attempt at remembering what the words had been, apparently.

It was still beautiful. King Nuvityn had heard it before, of course. That was the problem with being so old.

He was two hundred and forty-one years old. The oldest Human in all of Terandria. Possibly second-oldest in the world. The Blighted King was the only person that Nuvityn thought might be older, and if there was a being who had once been Human—undead didn’t count—he didn’t know of them.

He thought he had aged the best. At least, compared to Othius the Fourth. Even now, Nuvityn had a barrel-chested frame and enough muscle to make him look imposing, although his son had always pointed out his growing stomach. His hair was greying, but it still had the same brown as…

The man stared out the window, and an unwelcome understanding gnawed at the edge of his consciousness. Yet for a moment, he still listened.

Yes, he’d done it all. Eaten every conceivable dish. Had every experience, good or ill. Broken bones? Yes. Kissed beautiful women? Undoubtedly. And, accidentally, even a few handsome fellows. It was hard to tell which was which when you were blind drunk.

Seen wonders? Each and every one Terandria had. Partaken of drugs? He could write a list. Fought foes? He’d filled out an Adventurer’s Guild’s bestiary for fun one time. Accidentally fallen onto a rusty spike of metal that had gone straight through his groin and out the other side?

Yep.

The thing about living so long was that everything became…if not predictable, then something you’d experienced before. That was why, after the second time he sat down on a spiny brush filled with needles and felt them sinking into his posterior and other elements of his body, yes, he had screamed. But he’d also thought, ‘ah, not again’.

It took an edge off anything beautiful. The wonders began to pale, and that was a terrible thing. But Nuvityn knew the secret to age that Othius had forgotten:

Even if it was something you’d seen or heard before…if it was rare, it still mattered. So Nuvityn stood at the window and listened.

Eithelenidrel, his consort, the half-Elven Queen of Erribathe, the immortal side to the throne, had sung in his capital exactly three times before this. Over two hundred years they had been wed.

That mattered. Not just because the song captivated him. His eyes fell on her face. She looked better than last he’d seen her. She’d complained that half-Elves her age were hinting about makeup, noticing how she had aged at twice their rate. When was it she’d last come to the palace?

…Twenty-two years ago? She must have come out of the Grovelands. She looked peaceful, now. Not happy, maybe, but she was singing.

It had taken ninety years for her to sing this song the first time. And that was a long time, even for half-Elves. Ninety years for Nuvityn to realize, belatedly, how unhappy she’d been despite her smiles and laughter. When he’d first heard her sing, it had been a revelation.

Nuvityn liked to say that his marriage had had its ups and downs. The first century had been rougher on her; he’d mostly been ignorant of the problems. The second had been more tumultuous for both, as his longer-lived citizens could attest, but they’d come to a rather amicable last thirty years.

The key moment had been when the [King of Men] had finally realized that he’d never sway, convince, or charm Eithelenidrel into necessarily loving him. And that the pact between them was a pact. She had honored it for her people, and he hadn’t realized how much she’d given up.

Half of her lifespan. Her home. Her people—even if half-Elves lived in the capital—and an heir for Erribathe. Not least, the company of a man she hadn’t truly known until they were to be wed.

He’d given her back one of those things, at least in part. Eithelenidrel stayed in the Grovelands and seldom emerged. Not for most royal events; not that Erribathe had many that were annual. It was one of the Restful Three, a nation without need nor complaint.

Eithelenidrel stayed with her people and only came to visit when it was her inclination or at great need. Then she was more like an old friend, and she’d begun to come by with complaints. Or write that her people wanted copies of plays or whatnot.

That was good. It was fairer, and Nuvityn did his best to ensure that adventurers got to any problems in the Grovelands first. And to get her whatever she wanted. He was, after all, still in her debt. Another two centuries and perhaps…well, perhaps he’d make it up to her a bit.

The point was—the song was so rare that it transfixed him in the ten or so minutes she sang there. Then the Queen of Erribathe turned and half-bowed towards him, and he let out a breath he had held…how long, he couldn’t know.

He almost fell out the window of his chambers to his death as he raised a hand to her. He was weak. Lightheaded. Nuvityn caught himself and wondered why he was so thin.

Ah. Right. He hadn’t eaten.

Because his son was dead.

Oh.

For ten blissful minutes, the King of Erribathe had forgotten it. Not ‘forgotten’, but let it slip from the fore of his mind. Now, he stood there, and weariness sank over him like a great shroud as large as the palace. Pulling him down. Like the depths of the oceans that had claimed Iradoren’s body.

It was terribly cold and dark down there. Iradoren should have been brought back, at least, to be laid in his homeland’s soil. Nuvityn passed a hand over his eyes, and he saw it again and ever again.

That look of fury over his son’s face. Holding the sword of kings, poised to run through a [Knight] on the ground. Why? Why are you—?

Then a look of confusion. Agony, and the terrible sight of a bloody blade moving through his chest, piercing armor that should have kept him proof against any blade. A young woman’s dispassionate face, blank to his identity, heedless, pushing him aside as he fell.

Erin Solstice.

The King of Men stood there, and the Queen of Erribathe raised her head and saw his stricken expression. She wiped at her own eyes briefly. Then began to walk across the tower’s edge towards him. He bowed, then, and wearily straightened as his servants peeked at the frail [King] with worry.

Doubtless, they’d orchestrated part of this. He let them prepare him for breakfast. But all he said was—

“My son is dead.”

Day after day that passed, over a month now, and he continued to hope it had been a dream. But though he was many things—King of Myths, half-immortal, heir to the Hundred Families, Manoerhog—

Nuvityn had been Iradoren’s father.

He knew now, with hindsight that was so clear and revealed too much—

He had probably been a poor one.

Thus, Nuvityn began another day.

 

——

 

“Your Majesty. Will you eat?”

“Mayhaps.”

It was a sign of King Nuvityn’s grief that even with a table filled with his favorite foods, he merely picked at his plate. His courts were largely informal; his trusted advisors came and went since the matters of state seldom called for their great expertise.

Right now, almost all of them were present, because the hour called for it. Erribathe had lost its heir, Iradoren, and its colony dreams were in jeopardy. There was another world—Earth—and perhaps most crucially of all at this moment, Nuvityn might just starve himself to death.

“We can ill-afford you passing, Nuvityn. Have you no appetite?”

Queen Eithelenidrel looked at him, and the man blinked at her.

“Have you?”

She was eating a traditional half-Elven dish: a salad. Eithelenidrel was one of those half-Elves who’d forsworn meat. Her salad was made up of flowers, which she was eating petal by petal.

The secret was the nectar, which was sweet. Nuvityn saw her eating more or less at the same pace as normal, which meant breakfast was going to take thirty minutes if she didn’t talk. She looked—decent.

He knew he seemed half-dead himself. The question was, of course, ‘can you eat?’

Their son was dead. Eithelenidrel looked at him, and he again saw those tears he’d seen behind her gaze. But she determinedly chewed on another flower petal.

“I was resigned to it the moment he was born. I wept half my tears then. The same, I would imagine, for Aradien. We outlive our Human counterparts.”

That was true. Nuvityn closed his eyes. Exceptions happened, like his father outliving his mother, but that was mostly due to accidents. Even with their shared immortality, the Kings of Erribathe perished most often whether due to battle or simply because they lived lives in the open, entangled with mortal affairs and risks.

A younger, more foolish man would have taken Eithelenidrel’s words as her coping with her grief in her own way and left it at that. The older man realized the words were twice bitter.

She…may not have loved Iradoren like he did. Or she’d deliberately moved her heart away from the boy she had raised. Never borne. Or else Iradoren would have been a half-Elf. Was that the only reason why the two regarded him differently? She had been there from the moment he had been born until he was a grown man. Of course, Iradoren had still visited her regularly, at least once or twice a year.

That is not how most Humans live. But Iradoren was—had been—over seventy years himself. A long, long time. A long childhood, even if he’d looked like a grown man for decades.

It was hard to grow up under the shadow of a [King] who could hold the throne for centuries more. Hard, doubtless, to live in a kingdom content with being one of the Restful Three. Nuvityn knew the feeling of wild yearning to prove Erribathe’s greatness.

Well, in part. His own grandfather had told him he was the most ‘placid’ of Erribathe’s heirs in a long time. Which wasn’t saying much. If it had been an insult, it was probably because Nuvityn had spent decades actually roaming around Erribathe. He’d lived with the Hillfolk, tried his hand at smithing with the Dwarves, even lived off of salads and whatnot with the half-Elves.

His title, Manoerhog, was the first to be granted to a King of Erribathe in three generations, which was astounding to Nuvityn. Not even his son had continued the tradition of facing the giant hogs of the northern kingdom of Taligrit and wrestling them in mud pits.

That was why Nuvityn sometimes had it appended to his royal titles, much to Eithelenidrel’s exasperation. Because it made him, well, unique compared to his father, who’d also been a decent ruler and lived three hundred damned years, or his grandfather, who’d lived nearly five hundred.

Each one had been a great [King]. Skilled in swordplay, wise, had mobilized Erribathe in times of need, etcetera, etcetera. But none of them had been Manoerhog.

A title awarded by the northern kingdom of Taligrit to…well, anyone really. But it was seldom obtained, and even more seldom by a King of Erribathe, though it was customary to take the challenge. Nuvityn had taken it and won it in his youth.

They still remembered him for that.

“Hm?”

Someone had been talking to him. Eithelenidrel glanced at Nuvityn, and for once, she was the one talking and he was the silent one not paying attention.

“The Groveland’s Conclave is worried about the state of the kingdom. Keeping you alive is one reason I am here. Also, because I was genuinely concerned.”

“Were you?”

His head rose, and she half-nodded. Nuvityn was gratified by that and found the energy to spear a link of sausage and chew on it. He normally had a fine appetite.

“Don’t fear for the kingdom. I shan’t name you as the regent if I die.”

“Thank you.”

She smiled at that. Not that there was much of a chance anyways; succession law dictated that the Crown of Myths flowed from male heir to male heir. The Queen Consorts were never chosen to rule except if they needed to as regents before a new heir was old enough.

In Eithelenidrel’s case, she would have rather eaten a whole pork roast each morning than taken the throne. Nuvityn spoke out of the corner of his mouth, wrenching his mind off of…well, anything but reality.

“I have already named Prince Geltheid as the new heir apparent. Does that satisfy the Grovelands? I did not make it public…”

Because it was too difficult and his kingdom was in mourning. Eithelenidrel tilted her head.

“Which lineage is that?”

“Thamed. Dwarves.”

“Oh. I picture a boy learning to smith mithril…”

“Yes. A good lad. Stout of heart and mind. He keeps the holds of the mountains in good order and saw off several Ogre bands half a decade back. He’ll be fine.”

There were other [Princes] of Erribathe. Not so much like Iradoren had been, the obvious successor, but the bloodline of Erribathe was carefully diversified among a few groups, if only to prevent inbreeding. The [Kings] of Erribathe married half-Elves, but the bloodlines never mixed with half-Elves, and lesser [Princes] wed other royalty as they pleased.

If they took the throne, well…that was a tricky thorn that had been navigated many times before. The union mattered, and so there had been polygamist [Kings] of Erribathe. Quite a few, actually.

“Have you met him recently?”

That was a quintessentially half-Elven question, and Nuvityn nodded as he continued to eat the link of sausage.

“He attends the palace several times a year. He’s thoughtful. Until now, he was determined to have us expand our industries and allow newcomers to Erribathe.”

Eithelenidrel made a noise of dismay, and he clarified.

“In the Outer Regions. Nowhere past the Mists. He would rather we turned some of that border into prosperous cities. The older minds won’t like it if he takes the throne, but given Ailendamus rising…”

“…Which one is that? The nation you were complaining about recently?”

“The new one. It was founded just after you were eighty?”

He tried, but Eithelenidrel really didn’t care that much about nations beyond Erribathe that weren’t half-Elven. And sure enough, she snapped her fingers.

“Oh! The ones who established the half-Elven enclaves. We like them?”

“They made war on the Dawn Concordat and swallowed eight nations.”

His wife’s brows snapped together in outrage.

“Ah. Gaiil-Drome’s alliance. Then they are a foe.”

Nuvityn decided to abandon the topic. It wasn’t like he had set Erribathe against them in any real way either. His son had wanted to march Erribathe’s armies on Ailendamus to defend older kingdoms multiple times.

Nuvityn had been forced to order Iradoren to hold, twice, literally by telling the [Generals] to march their armies back the way they’d come. He had believed they could have triumphed or forced Ailendamus to pull out of the war—but at what cost?

Iradoren had been young and never counted those costs. Nor that he could die. Nuvityn could well imagine a war that consumed the lives of tens of thousands of his subjects, despite Erribathe’s might.

No. He had been content—or complacent, as Iradoren threw at him—to watch. Of course, the irony was that the one time he had ever gone back on that vow, lured by ideals of new lands and another world…

Nuvityn’s hand clenched on a mithril fork and bent it. He glanced down at the silverware and dropped it as Eithelenidrel stopped eating. He pushed back his plate, one sausage eaten.

“I am not hungry after all.”

“You should eat. You have shrunken with grief.”

A chorus of his advisors added their voices to that, and Nuvityn shook his head. He glanced around and saw one of his people, an Osverthian woman named Voreca, making a signal to Eithelenidrel.

She was one of the heads of her region, which produced metal and armor for Erribathe’s [Knights]. She was also intelligent and came up with plans, often to get him to do something or, until his passing, to sway Iradoren’s mind.

“Oh. Yes. I brought you something, Nuvityn. This may ease your hunger, if nothing will.”

Eithelenidrel fiddled with a bag of holding. She pulled something out, and Nuvityn saw satisfied smiles on his court’s faces. He peered over as she lifted an object wrapped in, of all things, huge leaves.

“What’s this?”

“It is something the Groveland’s bakers made with direction from the…new children. The ones of Earth.”

Earth. The weary King of Myths’ head rose with interest, despite himself, for that was the one thing that he had never heard nor thought of in his long life.

“Where are the Earth-children? And Aradien, for that matter. Are they safe?”

The Earther children hadn’t been sent in the first colony wave, but they had been given all the hospitality of Erribathe in exchange for their knowledge. And Aradien had survived the fighting, hadn’t she? He wondered what he’d say to her.

Voreca called out in a steady voice.

“Lady Aradien has almost returned to Erribathe, Your Majesty. She has been honoring Prince Iradoren at each nation, which has taken time—and the Earth children are well, if concerned for you. See what they suggested be made.”

“Your lies about their concerns for me are well received, Voreca.”

He grunted as he unwrapped the leaves. Voreca assured him it was not.

“No, they regard you as a [King] among others, Your Majesty. They make flattering comments as though you were a famous ruler from their own stories. This is from those stories.”

“What is it?”

Nuvityn found himself staring at a bunch of, well, pieces of flatbread. They were a bit crumbly, and someone had baked some fruit into them. He turned to Eithelenidrel, and she spoke.

“Elven bread. Waybread. Ah…lembas?

She said a word in another tongue, and Nuvityn’s ears lit up. His eyes opened wide.

“Bread made by Elves?”

He took a piece and sniffed it, then broke off a part and tasted it. It was good bread. Unleavened and sweetened by the fruit. He took one bite, then another, noting it was filled with something heartening for a traveller.

Tastes like soldier’s bread. It’d be good for campaign. But he had expected…well, he listened as Voreca tried to explain.

“It might not be the same recipe. We only had their concepts to go off of, Your Majesty. But the concept is that there is a bread used by travellers that can fill a man up with a tiny piece.”

Nuvityn stopped eating. He stared at the bread, then heard his stomach rumble despite him having taken several huge bites.

“…Well, that’s a lie. Wait. Is this another idea that isn’t real from Earth?”

He stopped, and the court susurrated. Voreca gave him an innocent look as a scowl drew over Nuvityn’s face.

“Your Majesty? Whatever could you mean?”

Nuvityn took a huge bite out of the ‘lembas’ and tasted what was probably some half-Elven version of lard, syrup—fattening ingredients, dried fruits, and high-quality flour—he washed it down and growled.

“I appreciate the [Bakers] doing their best. But that comes from their stories of Elves, doesn’t it? I’ve talked to the children. They have no idea what Elves are actually like. Their ‘Elves’ are just characters in books or actors played by Humans.”

“What? But I thought—”

Eithelenidrel looked dismayed as she sampled the ‘Elven bread’, and Nuvityn glowered at Voreca, who was hiding a smile.

She had doubtless done this on purpose. Mostly to get a rise out of him and probably to poke fun at Eithelenidrel. The two had a rivalry of kinds, though, frankly, it might have been one-sided on Voreca’s part as Eithelenidrel had never acknowledged her.

Nuvityn liked the children from Earth. He had great sympathy for them being torn from their homes, even if they’d had the luck to land in Erribathe. Their ideas were fascinating, and Iradoren had been so taken with them he’d demanded they buy sulfur and try to make the many things the young men and women talked about.

But all the Elven claptrap annoyed Nuvityn no end. He hadn’t ever met an Elf, of course; even though the last Elf to ever live had wed Erribathe’s first [King]. But Nuvityn’s bloodline was mildly related to hers, and he knew half-Elves.

Real half-Elves. The kind who lived in the oldest villages. The ones with the power of immortality, and he disliked the presumptions that the Earth-children put on them. He especially disliked the, well, frankly speciesist way the Earth-children talked about Elves.

Beautiful, immortal, graceful—all words that could apply to half-Elves. Eithelenidrel certainly might look the part. But didn’t that paint an entire species with one brush?

If you’d ever seen a half-Elf surreptitiously snort a giant booger out of one nostril, you’d realize they were just people like you. Not all of them knew how to shoot a bow; Nuvityn was a better shot than one half-Elf he knew who was over eight hundred years old, and the fellow practiced with a bow constantly.

And what about Dwarves? When he’d asked, one of the ‘experts’, a lad named Ronald, had had a lot to say about Dwarves that was complimentary. Stout of heart, strong, stubborn, good with metal—wait a second.

He had it in his head that all Dwarves were part smith, part warrior, part grudgeful drunkards who liked living in hills and mining for gold. Nuvityn could only explain it as the children having stories of Dwarves and Elves and not ever meeting them as individuals.

It was disappointing to him because it was how many Terandrians acted. Yes, a lot of Dwarves lived in Deríthal-Vel, Dwarfhome, which meant a lot were experts in metallurgy or related to the field. Yes, many half-Elves did practice the bow because it was something they were known for.

Just…was that how you would open a conversation with a member of their species? Would you turn to a Dwarf every time you had a metal-related question?

Nuvityn realized he’d eaten half the bread as he groused about that, and Voreca’s smirk made him drop the bread and rise.

“Eithelenidrel, thank you for the gift. It seems it has roused my spirits. I must be about the duties of Erribathe now. Will you join me?”

“Hmm. No. I did not wish to return to rule. Just to see you well. I will linger a while.”

He nodded at her and bowed, then turned to Voreca. The food after so long felt heavy in his stomach, but reminded of Earthers…his grief seemed to reignite the other emotion slumbering in his chest.

“Voreca. Summon a [Mage] skilled in communication spells, and meet me in the war room. Has word come back yet from the Village of the Spring?”

“Not yet, Your Majesty. We hope for a reply by today if all is well.”

“Good. Then tell me—”

The King of Myths’ eyes narrowed, his hands gripped the table, and his mind flashed back to that moment. That day—those days of seeing Terandria’s armies beset at sea, helpless to do more than lob spells from afar.

Tell me once again how it came to this.

He began to stride out of the banquet hall, the heavy weight of pain and reality clinging to him. But if there was one luxury—one among the many thousands—to being King of Erribathe, it was that he had the power to do what he willed.

For better or worse, as his son had always wished and why Nuvityn had been considering relinquishing the throne. To slay any foe, to raise great armies.

But first—he listened a while.

 

——

 

“There were three major incidents revolving around Erin Solstice, Your Majesty. Each one occurred chronologically, but her involvement in all three stems back…how long, we cannot say. Knowledge of her is limited.”

“If she hails from another world, it makes sense.”

Nuvityn rested his weight on his hands as he stared at a map of the world, and Voreca and his advisors reconstructed a picture for him. He was no gifted [Strategist] like the late Earl Altestiel.

Ah, a fine man. I met him once, ten years back. Very much like a storm himself, from laughter to tempests.

Another man to mourn. He had sacrificed himself to save Calanfer’s [Princess], Ser Solstice, and so many others. The entire fleet, in truth, but he had been known friends of the…Ivory Five?

Nuvityn consulted some notes spread out to the side. It had taken weeks to get all this intelligence. Erribathe, of course, had informants and networks of intelligence, but it hadn’t been as concerned with the world as most nations.

Establishing links, buying information, and so on had taken time. But they had endless coffers, and the pieces were all here.

“Why would the Earl of Rains have such faith in a man my son wanted so desperately to kill?”

“Your Majesty?”

Voreca stopped, brushing at the silver streaks in her black hair as she hesitated, holding up a mithril pointing stick towards a diagram. Nuvityn shook his head.

“Nevermind. We’ll come to it later. Please, continue.”

He was no great mind. But he could definitely follow the events as she and his people laid them out for him.

“The Winter Solstice—a great battle against undead led by some horrifically powerful [Necromancer].”

“Whom we do not know the identity of. We have scoured the lists of old foes, and we believe it may have been the Putrid One, Your Majesty. But that’s merely supposition based on the Village of the Dead raid.”

A very nervous [Grand Magus] broke in anxiously. The entire table shifted as even one of the [Generals] licked their lips.

“Ten thousand Draugr. An attack worldwide. How—I didn’t even ask about the children. Were any hurt like that Rémi Canada fellow?”

Genuine concern provided a quick distraction. Had an Earther been hurt on the Solstice under his care? A quick shake of the head assured him.

“It was merely Ghouls, Your Majesty. One of them was staying with the hillfolk—the Ghouls wounded two brave citizens who took up arms with the guards to fend them off.”

“Have they already been rewarded?”

Nuvityn got a nod, and the King of Myths rested his weight on the table. And is that woman dead? A foolish question where [Necromancers] were concerned. Best practice was to operate as if they were not.

“Necromancers. Didn’t one attack Noelictus recently? There was a minor incident with that. If the Horns of Hammerad awoke some great foe that the [Innkeeper] took on…I want the Necromancer truly dead. Report any sightings to me.”

Erribathe had failed to kill Az’kerash fully, but they had participated in a number of battles that had defeated him, only for his return a decade later. The thought of another such protracted battle was dire. But what was his other option? To wash his hands of it and let Izril suffer a scourge like that?

Duty impelled Nuvityn to see if that foe could be fought. He put the matter aside as Voreca nodded.

“She may be defeated, Your Majesty. Erin Solstice announced and even challenged her foe to open battle, and it appeared by all accounts the woman was bested. Then, immediately afterwards, an attack by Roshal that left Magnolia Reinhart gravely wounded. An assault on both Walled Cities and the Five Families! Following that, a kidnapping to sea—”

“Hold.”

Nuvityn broke in with a frown, and Voreca paused. He glanced at the icon flashing on Chandrar’s southwestern side. Roshal.

He did not care for them. Did not think of them often as they were banned from Terandria’s shores by and large.

“Are you certain it was Roshal?”

We are certain, Your Majesty. Their involvement at the end of the Solstice is not well known. Nor does it seem as though all of the Five Families or Walled Cities have pressed their grievances against Roshal.”

“They nearly killed Magnolia Reinhart herself. She is the current scion of House Reinhart, yes?”

That would have led to an all-out war against whoever it was, at least in my father’s time. Nuvityn glanced at one of his [Diplomats] wordlessly, seeking an explanation.

“Roshal has mitigated the damage they caused, Your Majesty. There are factors within the Five Families that seem to indicate Magnolia Reinhart has lost some of her authority. The Walled Cities have lost Chaldion of Pallass; we can expect both groups are disorganized.”

“Even so. I would have thought Roshal, famous for its ‘neutrality’, would have been shouted across the television networks for this attack. Why not?”

Nuvityn listened as his [Diplomat] explained, then sighed. Ah, oh. Right.

Politics were never that simple, within Erribathe or without.

 

——

 

Why…was Roshal not at war with the Walled Cities and Five Families? They had launched an unprovoked assault on at least two leading members of the Five Families—three, if you counted Xitegen, and there had been representatives of each family present—as well as on the Drakes.

Throw in the Forgotten Wing company’s forces and the fact that [Assassins] had run rampant in Invrisil, and Liscor, and kidnapped Erin Solstice to sea—and the fighting there—and it was entirely reasonable for multiple nations to currently be watching out in case Roshal decided to kidnap or murder on their lands.

It should have been a political disaster.

It should have been news.

It was not.

Why?

Diplomacy. Soft power.

Shaullile.

In the moments after the attack on Magnolia Reinhart, even as Erin Solstice was aboard The Naga’s Den, and most certainly after the battle at sea, Roshal’s [Diplomats] had worked day and night.

Nevermind the devastation to Roshal itself; they were trying to prevent something just as terrible as Khelt sending another spell against them. Namely—keeping the wrath of multiple world powers from declaring against Roshal.

They had advantages. Magnolia Reinhart’s incapacitation and the freeing of House Reinhart—and the loss of Chaldion—made the job manageable, if not easy. 

Within fifty minutes of the attack, a [Diplomat] was striding into a not-a-throne room for an audience with a Drake curled up against the not-a-throne.

The Serpentine Matriarch was not happy to be woken so late at night, but the battle on the Solstice was making her [Strategists] scream, so she’d been half-watching anyways. She glowered at the [Slaver] as they bowed.

“Give me one reason not to expel you from my city this moment. Sharkcaptain Femar, watch for more kidnappers or hired killers.”

“Always, Matriarch.”

The Sharkcaptain was very close to the [Diplomat], who kept his head bowed, sweating as the huge Drake prowled around him. He was grateful he’d secured an audience with just the Matriarch and her loyal bodyguard. Not the entire Admiralty.

The directive had been to not present the offer in the same room with Admiral Asale. And to move fast.

“Great Serpentine Matriarch, what can I say but to throw myself upon your mercy? You have every right to expel myself and every member of Roshal in the city. Nay, to even bar the City of Waves against us, grievous as that would be!”

“I am minded to. Attacking Drakes as we fight against [Necromancers]? Even if it is the Five Families—striking them? Why shouldn’t I?

The Serpentine Matriarch was young, or looked young, and had the elements of her position about her. Her tail was long, and those who saw her thought she looked less Draconic and more infused by another ancestor of Drakes.

She was prepared, like a viper, to strike, but the [Diplomat] took her off-guard with the next thing he said. The Stitch-man fell to his knees, and Femar lifted his spear, but the [Diplomat] prostrated himself.

“Humble Roshal begs your forgiveness, Serpentine Matriarch, and we shall abide by Zeres’ justified wrath as long as it washes over us! But we beg—beg that you accept a small offering to stay your hand against the worst.”

“Hm?”

The Matriarch frowned, and the [Diplomat] clarified.

“War! Your Serpentine Majesty! Do not send Zeres’ navies to war against Roshal! Spare us only that, and we are prepared to pay any price!”

War? Femar’s brow rose, and despite herself, the Serpentine Matriarch exchanged a glance with the Sharkcaptain. She looked amused, then covered up a smile.

“It had crossed my mind. Why should I hear your request? What…gift is this?”

She was lying. The [Diplomat] knew that.

Zeres was, of all the Walled Cities, the least likely to declare war on Roshal. They had no soldiers at the Solstice. Plus, they had a very good idea how costly a war with one of the other great naval powers would be. The thought hadn’t even crossed the Serpentine Matriarch’s mind.

Even if Pallass and Manus and Salazsar all demanded it, it would have taken weeks for a formal declaration of war to actually come from the Walled Cities—it would have probably just been sanctions or something lesser given that none of their leaders had been hurt by Roshal.

However…if Roshal was panicking that much, the Serpentine Matriarch could press them.

That was her train of logic. Roshal’s? The [Diplomat] had orders straight from Slave Lady Shaullile herself, and he understood what she wanted. So he scrambled to offer Femar a scroll, which the Sharkcaptain inspected, then showed the Serpentine Matriarch.

A gleam of avarice shone in her eyes as she saw the quoted number Roshal would pay just so Zeres didn’t declare war on them.

“That is hardly a suitable recompense for Roshal’s treachery, [Diplomat].

She hissed softly at him, and he scrambled to prostrate himself again, as if he were terrified.

“I can of course amend—”

“You had better.”

The Serpentine Matriarch kept pressing the ‘panicked’ [Diplomat], and in truth, he was pressed—mostly to look as flustered and terrified as she expected. It was indeed good Admiral Asale wasn’t here. He might have reined in the Serpentine Matriarch, but she pounced on the opportunity as she saw it.

Thirty-six minutes of blistering crossfire from her and Femar, protestations, pleas, outright begging, and terror from him, and he had clothing covered in sweat—and a contract agreeing to the most simple, ludicrously open terms.

Zeres shall not declare war on Roshal for a period of (32) days.

Simple. It did not include the other Walled Cities. It cost Roshal nearly two hundred and eighty thousand gold pieces, a ludicrous sum. Or? An excellent bargain.

The [Diplomat] instantly informed Lailight Scintillation of his success and was told to make sure every single [Slaver] group in Zeres and Izril kept their heads down. His job was done.

 

——

 

A rather similar tactic was employed with the Five Families, albeit not as successfully because there was no huge Walled City, but rather, lesser nobles who had to be swayed. Deilan El, Lady Ulva, and the Admiralty of Wellfar were judged rather more canny than the Serpentine Matriarch, though several members of the Admiralty were approached to mixed results.

However, the Drake initiatives became clear when Dragonspeaker Luciva and Wall Lord Ilvriss both petitioned their cities to take immediate ‘offensive diplomatic action’ against Roshal—a Drake term—they had little pushback.

Pallass, indeed, was only slow to ratify the motion because Chaldion was out of the command loop, as was General Duln. But the conversation looked something like this.

 

Oteslia: We are connected securely, and the First Gardener is apprised.

Fissival: The Three are not all in the room, but we’re listening. Connection secure, even from Wistram.

Manus: Motion to censure Roshal underway. Security Council will review. Pallass?

Pallass: Standby.

Salazsar: Present. The Walled Families are highly unhappy. With Roshal.

Zeres: Dead gods. The Serpentine Matriarch is impatiently awaiting results. Shall we impose sanctions? Ban Roshal’s [Slavers]?

Manus: A report has been submitted to each High Command. Recap is not necessary here; a formal, public complaint of Roshal’s assassination of at least two individuals and kidnapping of an independant is merited. Not to mention attacks on our forces.

Salazsar: How many casualties on our sides? Do we have a headcount? Is Wall Lord Aldonss really dead? As well as General Duln?

Oteslia: Wall Lord Aldonss is dead?

Manus: Casualties are being assessed from Roshal’s interference. Minimal at this time. A full report will be generated through private channels later.

Pallass: We are ready to begin.

Fissival: If they only wounded Magnolia Reinhart, a public protest is our agreement. War or any escalation against Roshal isn’t germane to our goals at this moment.

Salazsar: You weren’t there.

Fissival: We provided fire support! At great cost! Your forces weren’t there, just one Wall Lord. Roshal’s sanctions would have some economic impact.

Oteslia: Stop squabbling, please. The First Gardener is watching this conversation. Oteslia stands in favor of public condemnation, regardless of Roshal’s overtures.

Pallass: Can the [Assassin] claims be substantiated factually?

Manus: Identification of the [Assassins] is difficult. The [Innkeeper] is gone.

Zeres: What [Innkeeper]? We’re not declaring war. In motion of whatever else.

Fissival: Proper factual accounting of the…facts will matter for televised condemnation. Strong verbal condemnation?

Manus: They attacked a joint force of three Walled Cities in the field during a battle that cost multiple leaders’ lives. This was no light act.

Zeres: But it wounded Magnolia Reinhart. So a plus for them.

Oteslia: We are not in support of light condemnation. Especially given Roshal’s attempts to buy peace. All in favor of a public condemnation?

Pallass: Pending the Assembly of Craft’s vote, yes.

Fissival: What? Get High Command to do it. Yes—pending proof of Roshal’s involvement.

Salazsar: General Duln is deceased. So is Strategist Chaldion. Yes from us.

Pallass: Grand Strategist Chaldion not dead, please disregard.

Zeres: No war. Condemn away.

Manus: Oteslia, can you clarify bribery attempts? Yes from Manus.

Oteslia: The First Gardener was petitioned heavily by [Diplomats] to avoid public condemnation. All offers—substantive ones—were, of course, refused.

Salazsar: We can disclose the same directed towards members of our Walled Families. Two bribes were taken; they’ve been ignored.

Fissival: Typical. All bribes ignored. That’s what integrity looks like by the way, Salazsar. Can we get the reports now? How dangerous was that [Necromancer]? As bad as Az’kerash? Worse?

Pallass: Bribery attempts? Standby. Investigating…

Manus: No such attempts were made to members of Manus. The Walled Cities are in no binding contracts with Roshal that will impede continued actions, agreed?

Salazsar: No.

Fissival: Of course not.

Oteslia: No.

Pallass: No. Standby for full confirmation.

Manus: Zeres?

Zeres: We are not engaging in war with Roshal. Zeres has no objections.

Oteslia: That’s oddly worded.

Salazsar: The Admiralty and Serpentine Matriarch have no contracts with Roshal at this time beyond basic trade and entry, correct? Two members of the Walled Families cannot sway any vote and have been excised from any votes regarding Roshal by the Last Defenders of the Wall.

Fissival: Oh, that faction of old Drakes.

Oteslia: Please, Fissival. Unity here.

Zeres: Going to war with Roshal is a ludicrous concept that we wouldn’t engage with. We have no issue.

Fissival: That implies war with Roshal would be an issue.

Pallass: Does Zeres have a contract with Roshal?

Oteslia: Zeres. Were you AWARE of the attack at Liscor?

Zeres: Certainly not!

Manus: Zeres, please connect the Serpentine Matriarch with Dragonspeaker Luciva. Now.

Fissival: The Three are being informed. Zeres, what did you sign?

Zeres: There is no issue. The Serpentine Matriarch is occupied.

Oteslia: The First Gardener has a call for the Serpentine Matriarch as well. Pick up.

Pallass: Pallass may have an issue with members of the Assembly of Crafts accepting gold. High Command still votes ‘yes’.

Salazsar: How much did they pay you for Drake blood?

Zeres: Roshal killed no Drakes.

Manus: Drakes have died as a result of the attack.

Zeres: Roshal has killed no important Drakes. War would be a ridiculously unsound step regardless.

Salazsar: You traitors.

Salazsar: That was Wall Lord Zail, please disregard.

Fissival: No, no, keep going. Fissival’s in rare agreement.

Manus: Zeres, please copy over contract details for review now. And please disclose any other entanglements, by city, now.

Oteslia: None that we know of.

Pallass: Standby. All of them?

Zeres: This is ridiculous. Stop sending communication spells. The Matriarch is busy. There are no entanglements. We don’t even have full proof anyways.

Fissival: How much did they pay you? How much do we get for all this? Because you’re sharing the wealth, right?

Zeres: Standby. Also, Zeres demands proof before it backs any resolution sanctioning Roshal. At all.

 

And so it went. You didn’t have to be a genius to guess how one city starting an argument to drag down the unity of the six would go.

Well, as Nerul Gemscale would later comment to his nephew, Wall Lord Ilvriss, the chaos caused by Roshal was indeed a genius move. Not least because they’d paid a minimal price to hold up a full-throated roar of outrage from the Drakes.

By the time the Walled Cities did finish an investigation, their complaint was public—but not televised—and, because they couldn’t fully prove it was Roshal, far too light. And weeks after the battle at sea and Solstice.

How many people paid attention to that? How many people put together the Solstice, The Wandering Inn, and the facts of what Roshal had done as opposed to the nation of [Slavers] doing something unpleasant that the Walled Cities were mad about?

The Five Families had much the same issue. House Reinhart, which would normally have gone to war for the attack even if just in words, was suddenly under new management.

“Oh, it’s an outrage. An attack on dear Cousin Magnolia? Roshal will pay for this. Now—how much?”

That was Lady Cecille Reinhart’s exact quote on the matter. Without the support of House Reinhart, the Five Families also weakened their position.

House Veltras instantly and unequivocally announced their wrath at Roshal’s attack on military forces during an engagement—but like the Walled Cities, it missed the forest for the trees. Both the House of El and House Terland added their voices of displeasure to the calls, mainly due to Deilan El and Lord Xitegen, but they made the opposite mistake.

They complained too early. Before they could spell out exactly what had happened to Erin Solstice—and even afterwards, there was no proof.

A riddle for the Titan of Baleros. Or Magnolia Reinhart when she’d finally pulled enough shrapnel out of her midsection to focus on the problem.

Who had seen what went on in The Naga’s Den? Who could paint a clear and unequivocal picture of the horrors that had gone on and testify?

Well, it was either the [Slaves], who had vanished; Erin Solstice, who was public enemy number one; Ulvama, who was a Goblin, the dead [Slavers]—good luck there—or maybe House Shoel of Ailendamus.

Explaining how that last group had seen what was going onboard the ship was something none of them were keen to do, and Roshal focused on them exclusively. Whatever deal was arranged between House Shoel and Roshal was probably one of mutually assured destruction. Both sides had too many secrets to spill.

Soft power. A gentle touch. Just enough deniability here or a delay in someone shouting there to keep Roshal’s name quiet. At least, when it came to kidnapping.

Assassination? Go ahead and talk all about it! Everyone had [Assassins]. That was fine. Kidnapping looked far worse. And people could talk about Roshal.

Why, even the Chandrar International had a huge image of the destruction in Lailight Scintillation. A harbor filled with dust; ruined buildings. Death wrought by Khelt on an unimaginable scale that only the most enchanted buildings had survived.

Normally, Rémi Canada would have loved to point out exactly what Roshal had done—but Erin Solstice was missing, and he had no proof. And the attack on Roshal was news he had to deliver.

Worse—he’d been invited and given access to interview whomever he wanted. Even if he tried to spin an angle by talking to [Slaves], he still had to show people the ruined harbor. And that picture overwrote all the other news of Roshal assassinating a few Humans somewhere.

Perhaps the [Journalist] even knew he was falling into a trap. He certainly avoided the person who’d orchestrated everything from Zeres’ contract to his invitation.

 

——

 

Shaullile Rubyscale was a Drake. Also a [Slave Lady] of Roshal. Definitely not a long-dead ghost from ages past. Certainly not the manager of Roshal’s entire diplomatic arm and public relations branch.

They hadn’t even had a branch until she came along. It had been individual, cunning [Emirs] like Yazdil doing whatever they thought was best, not organized, coordinated actions.

Perhaps that had served Roshal well, but Shaullile foresaw a future in which having a far more capable group of people would be needed to curb any…incidents that might occur.

After two weeks of monitoring the individual groups trying to raise the news about what Roshal had done, she declared a tentative victory. Forgotten Wing had been the loudest, but they were a [Mercenary] company and far removed from Izril.

Now came the counterattack, or at least, groundwork for it.

Shaullile had just finished hand picking her team. That was to say, eighteen ordinary citizens of Roshal, twenty-nine [Slavers] who had agreed to take lessons from her, and fifty-eight [Slaves].

Well, former [Slaves]. At this very moment, they were having the collars removed, the registry was being updated to show they were free, and they were even being issued markers to prove to any overzealous [Slaver] that these people could not be chained lest the wrath of Roshal fall upon them.

Shaullile always got a bit emotional when she saw the collars being removed. The expressions of radiant joy, disbelief, were so…wonderful.

She had a few pictures taken. Let them hug her—and assured them they would not only relish their new freedom, but truly come to love working for her.

After all, it might have confused Pazeral, but Yazdil had understood in a flash that there was no better person to espouse Roshal’s beauty and greatness than a former [Slave] who worked their way from the bottom into freedom, and had even achieved the dream of owning other [Slaves] themselves. How bad could slavery be if a freed [Slave] participated happily in the system?

Especially if they were attractive, well-spoken, and the same species as anyone they were attempting to sway.

“How has Roshal forgotten all the old tricks? I suppose they did well enough before me—but standards have fallen.”

What they needed was goodwill. What they needed were children covered in the dust and ash of Khelt’s attack spell staring wide-eyed into the scrying orbs and asking why Fetohep of Khelt had killed their entire neighborhood.

That was how you won wars before [Soldiers] marched. The grief and pain of the attack on so many civilians—that was real. Shaullile herself felt wounded by Khelt’s spell. There would be blood for it, but she was no warrior or strategist in the sense the others were.

She defended Roshal and attacked in ways that seldom drew visible blood. However—Shaullile stopped and checked her appearance as she stepped onto a platform raised and lowered by a Djinni, speeding towards the top of a tower for a meeting. She smiled at her reflection in the glass.

If there was anything she craved and loved, it was the ability to speak to a people and convince them. To see Roshal’s flag fly over a Walled City again would be a triumph. Once that was done—

Then she could indulge herself. But the Drake was all business, even more than Andra. So she strode into the meeting perfectly on time. The other Slave Lords of Roshal heard her report out.

“And how much will this cost us?”

Andra was preparing another budget, and Shaullile quoted a number.

“Low. Do you need more coin?”

Yazdil raised his brows, and Shaullile gave the Naga a sweet smile.

“Using coin in the place of tact or manpower is a crutch, Emir. Save it for when you need to stop a Walled City from declaring war. I have thwarted almost all the repercussions coming our way in a public sense. Individuals will remember, but our reputation is safe—not least because of Khelt.”

She would never have said it out loud, but the Tier 7 spells dusting the harbor had actually been a boon compared to a conflict. The other Slave Lords wouldn’t have wanted to hear it, though.

Each one regarded the attack as a personal wound against their beloved home. Thatalocian had taken the blow the most seriously of all. He sat hunched, eyes narrowed, and Shaullile wouldn’t want to be Khelt right now. For various reasons.

She refocused their attention on the obvious, though. They might be out of danger, but there were players on the board, and she didn’t like the one who had gotten away. As far as Shaullile was concerned, it was time to break out the [Assassins]. All of them.

“If Erin Solstice appears—that will be the most dangerous moment. Her reputation must either remain tarnished or we’ll need to address her if she returns. Not my business. Just keep your noses cleaner, will you? Excuse me—tails. Drake aphorisms.”

She sighed and leaned back in her chair as the other four rulers of Roshal agreed, more or less equitably.

Pazeral barely cared about all the work Shaullile had done; the [Lord of Possession] was still fuming over the combined defeats he’d suffered, losing Erin and at Liscor.

Yazdil was even more angry still, having lost Iert and his ship, but he was silent. Controlled.

Andra was simply listening with one ear, continuing to do business as she understood it, which was sums of gold and land and people, working her way into the spine of Roshal’s economy, especially with it so damaged.

And Thatalocian? The [Numerologist] just sat there. He stared at Shaullile, who gave him a charming smile, and his gaze was flat.

“Public…relations. In the days of magic’s death, we needed it not. Roshal was one candle among the few remaining. Our works were good.”

“If you wish to win us some supporters with some virtuous action, don’t let me stop you, Lord Thatalocian. But please let me know so I can advertise it properly.”

They were two different kinds of Roshal, he and she, but she gave him a huge smile, and he grudgingly nodded after a moment. Thatalocian’s eyes narrowed, though, to pinpoints of light.

“This is your talent and Skill.”

Shaullile had lived through the first rebellions of Stitch-folk, presided over a Roshal when they had tried to suppress the new people. She had failed—but her eyes glinted nevertheless.

“I’m quite good with people. Yes. Why?”

The [Numerologist] smiled mirthlessly.

“You have a Skill. A Grand Skill. All your cunning and the disunity of others is not enough. I count one power set against the disunified numbers. An auspicious value.”

The other [Slave Lords] looked at Shaullile sharply. She sighed.

“Yes, well, it can’t work against anything too visible. If you must do it—”

She leaned forwards.

Do it subtly. Or I will eat part of you.

The Drake gave them all a sharp-toothed smile. Then Pazeral did smile, and Andra nodded. Yazdil just narrowed his eyes as if trying to guess her Level 50 Skill.

[Suppress the Truth, Smother the Facts: Protect Reputation (Roshal)].

So long as she lived, and so long as nothing too egregious occurred, Shaullile could stop anything short of a direct attack on Roshal’s name. At least, where the public was concerned. Individuals were harder, but public opinion? That was invaluable.

And she could persuade individuals herself. That made her one of the greatest [Slave Lords] to exist.

 

——

 

Nuvityn saw it. He stood there, confused.

“A [Necromancer] the likes of which no one has heard of. A kidnapping to sea by Roshal. Then she sails into a war between [Pirates] and Terandria and makes her way to Ser Solstice. Slays…Iradoren. Vanishes as the world tries to destroy her, only for the Death of Magic herself to save her life. Who is she?”

“A child of Earth.”

Voreca’s answer made sense, yet it was wholly inadequate. Nuvityn had met Earthers. They did not have the eyes of men and women who had killed and changed forever. They could not stare down foreign rulers.

“Tell me more. Tell me more of the woman who killed my son. Then tell me, Voreca, why she lives.”

Heavily, the King of Myths sat, and the answers came to him.

“We have few agents in Baleros, Your Majesty. What few we had—the Forgotten Wing company is led by one of the world’s greatest [Rogues]. She has a Fraerling escort.”

“Why?”

No one had answers. But now, King Nuvityn felt it. That numbness, that incredulity and emptiness turned to a more comfortable feeling, however poisonous in his belly.

Wrath.

He began to rise to his feet.

“She killed the Prince of Erribathe. Does the Titan of Baleros shelter her? Is there not one [Assassin] in Baleros willing to take our coin?”

“The bounty on her is already high, Your Majesty. Ratified by other nations. Khelt among them. The Blighted Kingdom—”

Nuvityn’s mouth stopped as he began to utter an amount that would drive even commonfolk to try and murder her. He halted, though it was not easy to quell the words in his chest.

“Roshal.”

Thence he sat again, arms folded.

“They kidnapped her onto their vessel. Tell me honestly, Voreca. I ill-like to accord anyone sympathy. But is there a chance that the vessel, The Naga’s Den, was not a [Slave] ship?”

She hesitated, but the folk of Osverthia spoke truth.

“I cannot imagine it were anything other than that, sire. It could be she was treated like an honored guest.”

“Can you prove that?”

He doubted it. One was not kidnapped into luxurious treatment. He remembered something else.

“She had scars around her neck and wrists when she was…not now. Is that true?”

Someone found a still image, and he saw a young woman with clearly burned skin steering a ship through the storm. Nuvityn’s eyes narrowed.

“That man standing next to her. Who is he?”

“Viscount Visophecin of House Shoel. Ailendamus, Your Majesty.”

“Ailendamus.”

There was some kind of puzzle here, and yet the King of Myths didn’t have the canniness to uncover it. He understood parts, he supposed.

“So this Ser Solstice, who bears her name, was important enough for her to sail against [Pirates] and even Terandria for. No…she was not clashing with Terandrians until the end.”

“Not until Prince Iradoren attempted to capture him, sire.”

One of the Kehndroth [Strategists] spoke. They were nomads, by and large, with fierce tempers and fine horses, arguably as good as Voreca’s folk despite the latter’s heavier armor. Nuvityn looked over and saw blazing, red-rimmed eyes. Dusky face. Braided black hair.

“Andromeda.”

He was surprised to see her here. He would have assumed she’d remain with the funeral processions. Clearly, she mourned his loss.

“I was there with Prince Iradoren, Your Majesty. He wished to capture Ser Solstice—”

“Kill.”

Nuvityn interrupted her. She protested.

“Not initially—”

“Kill. He swung his sword to kill. Against a [Knight] who proved his valor in battle time and time again.”

That was part of the reason why all of Terandria was not still crying for the [Innkeeper]’s death. Andromeda’s voice lowered.

“It was with good reason, sire. If he was—”

“A Goblin. You have said. The fact remains that he had no proof. A war was raging, and he chose to execute a single Goblin who had not drawn his sword against anyone present.”

“If it was a Goblin—”

One Goblin was not an army of [Pirates].

He didn’t realize he’d raised his hands until they came down and the entire magical map flickered for a second. The room thundered, and Andromeda fell silent.

My hands hurt. Nuvityn shook them out. He was ashamed then; a [King] should not rage. He wondered who he had been shouting at.

Andromeda? Himself? Iradoren?

How could he shout at the dead? But his son had made a mistake. No matter how Nuvityn looked it over, he could see him brandishing his blade as a [Princess] literally covered Ser Solstice with her body. The King of Myths put his head in his hands a second.

Yet the rage would not abate. Ser Solstice. Erin Solstice. Princess Seraphel of Calanfer—

They all had much to answer for. If only there were [Pirates] left alive to hunt. There were a few, but—

“I shall remove Strategist Andromeda from the room, sire?”

Voreca offered, and Nuvityn shook his head.

“No. She has the right to stay. Let us move on. Assassins have been called for.”

“Is it your will to increase the bounty, Your Majesty?”

His lips moved as he thought out loud.

“It is not my will to take Roshal’s side. Is the bounty sufficient to attract any [Assassin] of renown?”

“Yes, sire.”

“Will increasing it change many minds?”

“…Unlikely, Your Majesty.”

Then it will be our agents or none. He waved a hand and thought. Then he had another question.

“The inn.”

It was petty. Vengeful, but did he not deserve it? Andromeda’s eyes lit up, and Voreca shifted, glancing to the side. Nuvityn’s voice rose.

“Why does the inn still stand? Can we not destroy that at least? With a spell?”

He would sacrifice ten Tier 6 spells to rid the world of that building. In a heartbeat. He turned, and a dry, deep voice spoke.

“Not easily, sire. The inn belongs to Liscor and is protected by Pallass and House Reinhart. There are other factors.”

Nuvityn turned to another old friend. This one older still. He met the eyes of a half-Elf, one of the few people who could live as long as he. This was Miihey. A half-Elf with tanned skin, arms like bars of steel, and old scratch scars all over his body.

He was bare-chested, smelled like the forests he came from, and hailed from Forem. Most half-Elves lived in their enclaves, but here was a wildling from the tribes who wrestled bears and lived in nature. [Barbarian], they said.

Advisor in the Kingdom of Myth’s courts. He was also, like Nuvityn, plain-minded. But not uncunning.

“We have cause. Order the inn evacuated and turn it to ash. Why was it not done already?”

“They will not go, Your Majesty.”

“Then send a weaker spell first and let them flee ere it becomes dust. Why hold back?

Andromeda was nodding. Again, Nuvityn heard it like a clear call to arms. Words of wrath—Voreca glanced at Miihey, and the half-Elf spoke.

“Because children run the halls.”

The King of Myths, wrestling with his anger, suddenly felt his opposition vanish. He leaned over the table.

“Ah.”

“We could fire a warning—”

“No, Andromeda. Are we true savages? Miihey, you have the right of it. Children. I thought you said that inn was constantly attacked, Voreca. Why would anyone allow children inside it?”

“At least two have nowhere else to go, Your Majesty.”

The King of Myths closed his eyes as she briefly explained. Ah, there it was. Intentional or not, the [Innkeeper] had a simple bulwark ‘gainst any decent foe. He opened his eyes.

“Who resides in her inn who still claim her?”

He listened to a brief description. More Goblins. Antinium…and then his eyes narrowed.

“The 6th Princess of Calanfer? Truly?”

One of his advisors ducked their heads cautiously.

“Without a doubt, Your Majesty. We approached Calanfer over the issue—they have been typically obtuse despite our pressing demands for clarity.”

Why an inn?

No one had good answers. Now, frustration was warring with rage. Something had to be done. Decency would not stop wrath of some kind.

“Your Majesty does not intend to let the Prince’s death go unavenged, does he?”

Andromeda was straying close to true insubordination, if not already over the line, but one glance at her face and Nuvityn wondered if she had wept the entire month. Perhaps she and Iradoren had been closer than he thought. His tears had dried up it seemed.

“Never. But I see how quiet Erribathe’s voice has become. Once, if we spoke, the Walled Cities would listen. Now?”

They had made overtures to Pallass about the issue. Nary a response back. Erribathe was distant. Few people remembered the Kingdom of Myths outside of Terandria’s shores.

“They remembered us when the Goblin King sailed against their continent. We sent forces to Izril’s shores to fight and die to stop the Goblin King. Just as we hold against the Demons.”

Voreca’s voice was equally bitter, and provoked nods from many. Nuvityn just shrugged, hearing his grandfather’s words in hers.

‘Better to lie sleeping as a Giant than to wake and die.’ This era changes us all, Voreca. A Dragonlord spoke at Calanfer. My son heeded the call. Now I?”

He stood there bitterly, looking around. Erribathe had not seen strife in his lifetime. Not true strife. Even Az’kerash had never made it to Erribathe’s heartlands. If anything, the threat of the Archmage of Golems invading Terandria had seemed worse at the time, and the Demons.

Now, though…he thought of Erribathe. It needed a king. But it might not need him. He had intended to let Iradoren grow in the New Lands of Izril, then cede the crown to him. Live out his days in some other pursuits. Learning to hunt for a living, perhaps.

“Erribathe has no arms beyond where it can reach with its own soldiers. But we are no helpless nation. I will not let this go unanswered, no. Send word to each land. I will muster a force. A small one.”

“Sire?”

Voreca sounded alarmed, and Nuvityn clarified.

“Ten thousand. Those willing to ride with me for the [Prince of Men]. For judgment. For war, if it comes upon us. We go hunting. And if an army stands between us and our quarry—”

His eyes focused on the glowing icon in the heart of Baleros, then on Izril. Which one? He dismissed them without a thought. It would take time to muster the provisions.

“You intend to leave Erribathe, Your Majesty?”

The other advisors were excited or alarmed, but Miihey had noticed the important part. Nuvityn looked up.

“Yes. I am not ready—yet. A week. In a week’s time, we will ride. Assuming all those I intend to join me are able. Voreca, send word. Gather a host that would sail to Rhir itself. But remember—”

He stopped Andromeda before she strode out of the room.

“It will be an army with tempered blades. When we judge, it will be fairly. My son, the [Prince] of Erribathe, is dead with so many others. We balance those scales.”

Then he felt better as his spine straightened. The King of Myths stared at the faces of those around him and saw them focus on him. He took one breath. Then two, and he felt that heavy weight of guilt and loss around him. But his shoulders fell back, and he felt—

Invigorated, poor as that was to feel. A calmness upon him.

I will find that [Innkeeper] and settle my grief past Erribathe’s borders or die. Even if I must take all of Baleros and Izril to battle.

Ten thousand of Erribathe’s finest. He would put them against an army ten times that size in a heartbeat. But—the King of Myths flexed one hand.

“Saddle my horse. Tell the Village of the Spring I wait on their words.”

He had been intending this, he realized, the moment he saw his son die. Without a word, King Nuvityn strode from the room.

 

——

 

He did not immediately leave the capital city of Terinloth. For a while, the King of Myths walked through the streets that had been first paved in the days when Elves and Giants walked Terandria.

—Of course, all the original stones had worn away. Even magic faded. So little could withstand the weight of so many years, and Nuvityn thought that Erribathe itself was probably a shadow of what it had been, or so changed as to be foreign to the [Kings] of ages past.

That was fine. Something that Nuvityn had learned over centuries of life was that change was alright. Both in himself and the world beyond.

He asked questions on the days when the despondency of ruling his sedentary kingdom year after year got to him. And it was always this:

Are they happy? 

Not just ‘do they look happy’, because happiness could be faked. Were they happy? Nuvityn had met loyal subjects who groused every day of their lives.

“Good morning, Sommete.”

“Is it, Your Majesty? It’s good to see you about. Rumors are a terrible thing.”

The [King] strode past a [Grouchy Grocer], who might have engaged him in further complaints about the weather, the state of the world, and the foibles of young and old people alike. The middle-aged man ran an open-air shop close to the palace.

He was exceptionally popular. A crowd of people bowed or waved to the King of Myths; most, Nuvityn recognized by face and name. Sommete stood there, a scowl on his face, and turned to the first person in line.

“What are you smiling about?”

“Seeing you finally cut your exorbitant prices on tomatoes is a good start.”

A Dwarf put an elbow on the counter sized for shorter people and treated Sommete to an even wider smile. The [Grocer] scowled harder.

“I should raise it back up! The amount of work I do for you people to get prices competitive, and I get sneers instead of applause.”

“Would you like applause? Well done, oh mighty Sommete. I’ve not seen a man burdened heavier this entire year. Oh, good morning to you, Your Majesty.”

Laughter followed Nuvityn, and the [Grouch] huffed harder as Nuvityn smiled despite himself. Sommete was well-liked because he was a kind of magnet for bad vibes. Even now, Nuvityn couldn’t tell if it was all some act or if he was genuinely upset about stepping in a puddle last week. Either way, if you did it respectfully, throwing verbal jabs at the man in the morning was how some citizens like to start their day.

Citizens. Nuvityn was a tall man, but he wasn’t the tallest walking the street. A half-Giant stopped as she began to cross the street; she was using a dedicated crosswalk reserved for people her height. She began to bow, and a gaggle of Dwarves did likewise.

Half-Elves. Humans. Dwarves. Even a small, small population of half-Giants made up Erribathe’s people. That might not actually be the most diverse, but for Terandria, it made Erribathe practically unique.

Not only that—the subraces of humanity practically qualified them as different peoples on their own. You could always tell who was new to Erribathe. When the tribes folk came down from the hills, they stood out like a sore thumb compared to those from other cities.

They all recognized Nuvityn, of course. One of the warriors wearing woad markings raised a blade and ululated, a piercing, sorrowful cry taken up by the entire band come to the city to trade.

“Your Majesty. I can have them stop—”

“No.”

Nuvityn forestalled Voreca from silencing the cry, and he raised his own fist overhead. He answered with his own modulated warcry. A somber, painful sound that surprised him. But Torek’dale’s hill tribes believed each person’s voice was honest.

They lowered their heads as he nodded to them. Nuvityn pretended to be on important business; he didn’t feel able to exchange words with them.

The answering cry was enough. The citizens of Terinloth gazed at their [King], and Nuvityn saw a mix of grief, sympathy—the [Prince] of Erribathe was dead, and mourning had been long this month. He had shown himself little, so small wonder so many wished to speak to him.

What he didn’t see much of, thankfully, were the expressions on a pair of visitors from other parts of Terandria.

Taimaguros. They were clearly from Taima; that divided nation made the two sides war like Drakes and Gnolls. The visitors looked positively aghast at seeing a [King] from the Hundred Families utter a war cry like a low-class [Barbarian].

Possibly, that was why Nuvityn decided to add a second salutation to the warriors. He shouted at the men and women who wore war paint and hide clothing.

Torek’dale an misghet! Salvit Torek agn!

They whooped at the simple greeting—’warriors of Torek’dale, salute to Torek!’. Nuvityn didn’t know the full extent of their odd quasi-language. But he had learned it.

The faces of the two noble visitors was enough for him. If ever a day came when he saw that expression reflected on the majority of the citizens in the capital, for any group of Erribathe—that day, the Kingdom of Myths would plant the seeds of its own destruction.

They were one of the Restful Three. The great kingdom who had taken war to other nations. Seen Dragonlords felled and survived the calamities of ages, from the death of magic to the imperiums of other nations to the Creler Wars.

Past the capital city, you could see the mists rolling across Erribathe. Each morning, they descended on the outer third of Erribathe, cloaking the sky. Any intruders without the ken of navigating them would quickly become lost. Armies had blundered around and been slowly taken to pieces as they became lost for months.

It was one of the defenses of Erribathe. The other was the spread out peoples, each one different. Torek’dale were still hill-folk who refused to live in buildings of stone, despite having thousands of years to change as they willed.

This made them happy. Osverthia, by contrast, was a region founded on the supremacy of metal, and they often competed with Deríthal-Vel for work outside the kingdom.

It was not perfect. Not by far. Erribathe was not a paradise; it had monsters. If anything, the magical kingdom seemed to attract them, and the different peoples sometimes went to war, despite the King of Myths’ attempts to keep order.

But the font of Nuvityn’s nation was that the peoples within at least respected the prowess of the others. Osverthian [Knights] were unmatched for their armor and heavy charge. But Torek’dale’s prowess in hand-to-hand combat and their magics would make any jest about them quickly fall flat.

If Nuvityn looked across his city, he could see old bridges of stone reaching over huge canals along which more buildings opened into the rivers.

Once, those rivers had had a people of their own. No longer. There had been a time, he knew, when the air had contained Harpies and other winged beings.

Erribathe was smaller than it had been. But the survivors of each race who had watched Treants walk into the sea and the Dryads abandon the forests were not idle.

Preserving majesty. It was why you saw Voreca’s people, Osverthians, fencing already in the morning, practicing the swordplay of their ancestors, trying to master the sword schools of old. It was not in expectation that Erribathe might be attacked. If anything, the warriors would dream of being sent on a crusade or to aid another Terandrian kingdom.

It was living up to the stories of their predecessors. The Hundred Heroes—the many Osverthians who’d joined the Thousand Lances. [Heroes] and [Champions].

That was what made the capital city of Terinloth unique. The memories were everywhere.

Cross the third southernmost bridge over the canals, walk through the place where the city branched over to an island filled with half-Elven buildings in greenery. But don’t walk down that street; pass by one of the old walls that no longer formed any kind of protective barricade.

Several sections were still there, maintained painstakingly despite their lack of relevance because of the murals.

—An image set in tiles of a [Knight] tilting against a Dragon, whose own body bore a lance but no rider. The Tourney of the Dragon-Knight, in which Erribathe had seen a great competition of heroes vying to join the Silver Dragon-Knight in his quest to rid Chandrar of one of the Crypt Magisters.

Several parts of the wall had collapsed despite the best efforts of [Masons], but the entire story had been painstakingly recorded in many formats. Even now, you could sometimes find children staring at the glittering tip of the [Knight]’s spear, set with a single piece of mithril, and watch their eyes widen.

If he ever saw that, the King of Myths would stop and ask them if they thought they could have been one of those [Knights]. If they were bold, they’d say ‘of course’. If they lacked for confidence, they’d demur or explain some failing of theirs. Then the King of Myths would tell them to seek another story in the city. That of the Sightless Ranger, or perhaps the somber tale of the King of Trolls. You could live a life of adventure reading the stories and dreaming—

He had been a young man like that once. Racing from sight to sight. Nuvityn wished he could forget all the stories so he could experience them again and feel that heady rush.

That was also why he was a poor father, perhaps. His own father had done what he felt was best: taught Nuvityn the ways of the sword and as much magic as the King of Myths could stand. Given him the finest tutors in leadership, strategy, and the lessons of kingship.

But King Reseclor had been troubled and wearied by the horrific advent of the last Goblin King, Curulac, and rebuilding from the havoc Curulac of a Hundred Days had brought to Terandria had made him a distant king.

It had still worked. Nuvityn had grown up a wild boy racing about the city with a gaggle of his friends. He’d made his mistakes, gone on stupid adventures and won stupider prizes—and fumbled his way into kingship with Eithelenidrel. Left her unhappy and been restless and foolish until time had weathered him into a better ruler.

—Then he’d had his son. Well, he’d had his son while doing all this, and Nuvityn had had the chance to raise the boy in a more peaceful time, and he’d decided not to change what he had felt was a working formula.

Iradoren had grown up free to explore his homeland like Nuvityn. He had not wanted for companions and lessons, but Nuvityn had let him choose his path.

And that boy had stared at the image of the [Knights] on glorious quests and asked why Erribathe was not ruling countless satellite nations, and why the old colonies had been abandoned. When Nuvityn had pointed out that the King of Destruction had emerged from Terandria’s ambitions in Chandrar and the cost in lives to make war against other nations, Iradoren had told him it was acceptable.

‘The glory should be worth the cost, of course, Father.’

The cost. Hearing his son talk about that and seeing how he aspired to place Erribathe above other nations had kept Nuvityn from preparing Iradoren fully to replace him on the crown. When the news of Earth had come to them, both had rejoiced. To Nuvityn, it had been a sign, a way for Iradoren to channel that restless rage that possessed him instead of having to wait a century for his ambitions to rest.

Then…

Nuvityn realized he’d stopped amidst the humble, winding houses near this wall in the southeastern section of his city. The buildings here were old, and the ancient masonry was prone to dust. The streets often needed sweeping.

The King of Myths had been staring at the image of the tourney of knights so long that someone had come slowly down the street. An old [Sweeper]. A half-Elf paid by the city to do a simple job of keeping the streets clean.

She was old. Very old. For a half-Elf outside a village? She was over a thousand years—white haired, but largely unwrinkled. Yet time made her movements slow, and she swept quietly as she passed by the King of Myths. His entourage held back, respectfully, and the half-Elf eventually ended up sweeping a circle around Nuvityn’s boots.

“King Nuvityn. It’s good to see you. Very good, young man. You look thin. Don’t they feed you? Even if you’re grieving, you should eat.”

“Yahne. Mother. You needn’t call me ‘King’.”

That was all he said as she kept sweeping. It always sounded strange from her, but she kept smiling, eyes on the ground as she worked.

“Nonsense. The King of Myths is the King of Myths. Once we abdicate, the Queen of Myths is allowed to be a woman. If Reseclor was alive, he’d call you the same.”

Nuvityn walked after her slowly, watching her broom sweep the ground. He’d watched the same sight year after year. Sometimes, he tried to have her broom enchanted to sweep more easily or to be lighter in secret.

He tried to imagine his proud father sweeping the ground like this or taking on a trade job and couldn’t. Then he imagined what he might do if he removed the crown.

Learn to hunt, probably. Nuvityn imagined a life of tracking down a wild buck and skinning it, harvesting the meat, and selling it in the market. He could do that.

“I haven’t seen you since…the news came.”

It wasn’t so much an accusation as a question. She almost never visited. The half-Elf kept sweeping, though her smile had gone.

“It is hard, Nuvityn. Your sister and brother…it will stay with you until the end.”

“I have lost friends. Buried them of old age. Seen them fall to accident and battle. This hurts worse. Is there anything…you can tell me?”

The old half-Elf looked at him for a second, then just went back to sweeping. Nuvityn followed her another dozen steps.

“I don’t know, King Nuvityn. King. I never fully understood Reseclor, even at the end. The King must be a harsh figure. Vengeful. Just.”

“I am trying to be. But what about the father?”

He waited, and she turned her head to him.

“I don’t know. I would fear him the most of all. Your own father went insane with grief. So did I. We did terrible things, Nuvityn. I still remember it when the last of the glorious folk bowed before the Throne of Myths and departed. They were the reason Curulac came to Erribathe. But we were the reason one less species walks our land. You always had the best temper of your father and your son.”

He didn’t like to hear that. It felt like, any moment, words would explode out of him that would result in death raining from the skies. Nuvityn sat down on the side of the road.

“Then I will be leaving soon. Will you say anything to me?”

The half-Elf stopped. She looked up. Then she handed him the broom.

“It’s a long street. Sweep it with me, if you have time, King of Myths?”

So he did. For an hour or two, as they talked. Then he rode north. It was not Erribathe falling tomorrow that haunted Nuvityn’s dreams. It was that memory of the unsurpassed before, visible between his eyes, echoing every haunt of land.

The legend ran through Erribathe’s ground and its people. If he wished it—if unwary foes truly pressed this sleeping land, they could be awoken.

But first—the King of Myths must wake himself.

 

——

 

Five days he waited before he received the word he’d been waiting on. Across the Kingdom of Myths, word was going out, to the cities of Osverthia, to the lowlands of Forem and the hill-tribes of Torek’dale. But unlike last time, this was no triumphal gathering or host meant to follow Prince Iradoren to new lands.

Drums beat across the land, and warriors vyed or argued over who should join the King of Myths on a journey that might be his last. Ten times, Nuvityn was petitioned to double that number or expand it; he refused.

A larger force could only move so fast and go so long. They would already alarm other nations; he did not intend to quarrel with many, but if any gave battle, he would answer them. Sword with sword. Olive branch with olive branch.

Judgment. But they had to be ready for a harsh journey. And so did he.

Four days was not enough time, even to recover from the privation he’d suffered. But it was enough to remember.

“Your Majesty! The Village of the Spring has signaled they await your arrival! This coming Lundas if possible!”

A [Messenger] had raced from the small camp Nuvityn’s people had made at the edge of a particular village just north of Erribathe’s borders.

The Kingdom of Taligrit. They had very open and friendly ties with Erribathe, partly because Erribathe was a splendid ally and vice-versa. Taligrit was considered rough and savage by many kingdoms, but they were one of the Kingdom of Myth’s few steadfast allies.

The [Messenger] looked for the [King], but didn’t see him. He did hear cheering, though, and saw a group of tall, rugged tribesfolk.

Taligrits. Renowned for their ability to survive killing winters and the tough terrain up here. They were chanting a name, as the [Messenger] leapt down from his saddle, pushing past people.

Nuvityn felt more like himself. He was covered in mud, dressed in the simple clothing Taligrits wore even in the dead of winter, panting.

His shoulders and legs and back hurt. He had a gash on one arm—but he raised a fist skywards and put a foot down on a huge lump of bristling fur and flesh. The cheering grew, and the dazed, giant boar squealed faintly.

Manoerhog! Manoerhog!

The [Messenger] finally fought through the crowd and found the King of Myths standing there, foot planted on a gigantic pig’s side.

“Your Majesty?”

He stared. But Manoerhog Nuvityn just turned and rubbed at one shoulder.

“The Village of the Spring?”

He got a flustered nod and exhaled. Nuvityn nodded.

“I will ride there by Lundas. That’s the date, isn’t it? I’m almost done. Who’s next?”

He turned, calling out, and with a cheer, the Taligrits ran forwards into the mud pit. King he might be, but they had always respected—

A six-foot-five man tried to headbutt Nuvityn with a cheerful grin. He had to be three hundred pounds of muscle; Nuvityn dodged the headbutt, and both of them clasped shoulders. The [Messenger] watched with open mouth—then ducked as the Taligrit man flew over his head.

Panting, King Nuvityn looked around. Once upon a time, he’d been said to be one of the world’s strongest [Kings]. They said the King of Destruction now had that title, and Nuvityn believed them. He felt older. And younger.

“One last time. Come, Taligrit folk. Who’ll reforge me into the King of Myths who will bring justice from our shores? Who among you will go with me?

A cheering mob charged at him, and he set himself like a boulder before a wave. Even the pig got up and charged at him from the side. Nuvityn’s feet skidded as he met the charge…then stopped. The pig’s eyes bulged as he grabbed its tusks.

Uh oh.

What they never said, even in the story about the last [King] to be named Manoerhog, was that Nuvityn had wrestled more than just pigs in his roaring youth. He’d also beaten all three species of non-magical bear endemic to Erribathe.

He was almost ready. He just needed one more old friend.

 

——

 

A month was a long time. Winter was ending in the month it took to dispatch a messenger to a certain half-Elven village in the heart of Erribathe. Beyond the Mists—the mysterious fog that let travellers move across the kingdom at random and stymied attackers—

There were countless provinces. Tribes and nomadic peoples and cities, each with their own culture that had lasted for aeons in this protected kingdom.

Even the most iconic thing of half-Elves: their timeless villages where they could exist in perpetuity. Some of the oldest in the world were here.

The Village of the Spring was one such place. It even had a generic name; it had been founded when a half-Elf discovered a spring and decided that was a good place to settle.

It was not an important place in Erribathe. It was a known half-Elven village, so entry into its lands was strictly prohibited; the entire forest known as the Forest of Time’s Repose was half-Elven territory. A single dirt road led in and out, and the number of people with access inwards was exceptionally limited.

Not that there were guards. Rather, a small town of half-Elves sat at the base of the forest, and that was the beginning of their place.

The town was an example of half-Elves who had taken to the ‘traditional’ principles of their kind, but not fully. Like Gaiil-Drome, which had cities of half-Elves, these ones aspired to a kind of civil timelessness.

The Claiven Earth was another good example of what that looked like. They built out of wood and natural materials, aspiring to artistic, natural designs, and cultivated magical plants and a certain standard of living that also tended towards affinity with nature.

The half-Elves here had lives that could be as dramatic and interconnected as anyone living in a town or city, but with a nod towards their long lifespans; children were an anomaly, and visitors and migration were rarer still. Half-Elven towns like these were generally peaceful, but you could see trends slowly sweep in and out.

Like the Singer of Terandria. Or television. This was the gateway to the Forest of Time’s Repose; go further in and you’d be stopped by the civil watch or perhaps run into those living in the Village of the Spring itself.

Which would make them really upset.

 

——

 

When you made contact with the Village of the Spring, even the King of Myths needed to follow certain protocols or upset the entire lot of them. The Forest of Time’s Repose was indeed small, and clearings within the woods eventually would give way to a huge, secluded village where time had stopped almost entirely.

There were six people allowed to travel the road from the town into the village proper on a regular basis.

One was an outsider. The other five half-Elves in town. They would show up if someone needed something or to bring word of trouble. Fires, war, anything urgent.

It was all so…

Well, here was how to describe the half-Elven village. Anyone who was told of the particular enclaves where time had no meaning could well imagine parts of them. Take a being who lived in centuries rather than decades and who could live thousands of years and give them a hobby and let them just do their own thing as the world passed them by, right?

It wasn’t feasible in many parts of the world; only Terandria was so relatively war-free to allow these places to exist, let alone monster-free, disease-free, and so on.

And it wasn’t like this village was immune to such things. It was just…

The village was spread out. No one lived close to each other. Oh, some definitely within earshot, but it was a delicate matter. Whenever a new child was born, rarely, or someone entered the village to live, doubly rarely, they were always relegated far, far from anyone else.

That was because synchronizing schedules was such a pain. Here was an example of how a true half-Elven village lived.

There was a man. And another man.

Loierdath Springwalker and Veler Springwalker. They were both over nine hundred years old. For a Human, it might be just past…fifty? At least, that’s how they looked.

Both were in good shape for their age.

Loierdath was a [Gardener] by trade. He grew an assortment of vegetables in his garden and sold the excess for supplies to the town. Each day, he woke at 6:00 AM exactly and brewed a cup of tea from tea bushes he kept by the windowsill of his house. He strung up more to let them age, but he really preferred a white tea for his mornings.

In the early spring—which it now was by virtue of a week—he always had a slice of tomato over some toast with one butterknife’s worth of butter. This was what made him a radical, by the way.

The butter always changed. Cow by cow. Every few years, the cows would pass away, and he’d see a team of half-Elves from town come by to butcher the poor animals and drag them off from Hasyth and Redaul’s farm.

They were further out because they lived such variable lives. Loierdath was a radical…within the Village of the Spring’s center.

The butter. Sometimes it had a tang to it, other times it was sweet. He would just get used to how the new stuff tasted when he’d be told the old cows had died.

Bread was more controllable. So were tomatoes. Yes, each one grew differently, but he could be very picky about which one he cut into the right shape. All the ones he didn’t think would taste proper he put in a basket for the town and thought nothing of.

At 9:00 AM each day, one of the village children, Eliscythe, would pick up his bin and add it to a host of others she’d drive to the town and back. That was an unpredictable job. He liked to greet her before she did the job, though if he thought it was too much excitement, he’d stay away.

However! His neighbor, Veler Springwalker, was far different.

He was a [Carver]. Like Loierdath, he ‘bought’ the materials he needed, which another half-Elf supplied, and carved for a hobby and living, starting his day with eggs of all things. Sometimes bacon; often just salad that Loierdath supplied him with.

Eggs were also risky. If Veler got one with a doubled yolk or something different in it, he might just skip breakfast entirely. He’d start his morning at 7:02 AM, wake up, and fry eggs before carving something on his front porch in the morning.

Now, here was why the two worked well together and they hadn’t moved their homes further apart. At 7:30 AM—not that either had clocks, the things always broke so fast—Loierdath would head out to check on his garden.

He would open the door, catch Veler’s eyes, and they’d nod at each other as the other half-Elf sat in his rocking chair, carving away, with a half-eaten egg next to him.

Each day.

Every day.

If one or the other missed that moment, something was wrong and they might be fighting or the other was sick. In fact, Loierdath has found Veler was ill over two hundred times because of it, over the four centuries they’d known each other.

Veler was always getting sick. The point was, they had that moment.

Now, there was obviously space in the day for something unprepared or spontaneous. Why, Loierdath might, after tending to his garden, sweeping his house clean, washing the dishes, and making his bed, decide he wanted to talk to Veler.

Perfectly reasonable. The two had an arrangement. Loierdath would sit on the porch for a while, and if Veler was in the mood to talk, he’d come out. If not, Loierdath would get up after an hour and leave.

It was hardly unpleasant to wait. Bugs were banished from the Village of the Spring by spells. If Loierdath was feeling ill, he’d never go outside and spread the illness around.

If he cared to, he could walk into the village or even read a new book. He tended to read a new book at least once a year and digest it, rereading it maybe as many as a hundred times until he was tired of it and would buy another.

The key was that even if he had a new experience, to temper it. To take in anything he chose to slowly.

The youngsters were very excitable and often came racing back from town with news of the outside world. Their elders, especially the ones living further into the Village of the Spring, were more and more…set in their ways…by and large.

No one would run up to Loierdath with a spoonful of ‘ice cream’, for instance, and make him eat it. That would ruin his entire month. He’d certainly grudge about it for years.

When ice cream had come to the Village of the Spring, it had sat in a preserved tub of metal in an enchanted drawer for about two months before a half-Elf had wandered by and decided today was the day to really try something new.

They were still talking about it. Hasyth and Redaul had opined that maybe, when their current crop of cows passed away, they’d get one more to maybe make some ice cream as a test. If they liked it, they’d try producing enough for the entire village.

How decadent.

Loierdath had talked it over with Veler all of last year, and they’d decided to both vote for that if the two [Farmers] were willing. They both reckoned that since cows lived about thirty years, more or less, in ninety years they’d both be having ice cream in the mornings, since, obviously, it’d take three generations to get right.

That was a half-Elven village. Loierdath was typical of many half-Elves living here. He gardened next to his house. He’d go for walks for fun and pick up acorns and put them in his basket, which went into his bin.

He certainly generated a surplus of food, or maybe he broke even? The Village of the Spring was a net positive to Erribathe, or so it was agreed, or else they wouldn’t get support from the town. Loierdath had levels; he grew wonderful tomatoes, everyone agreed, and any half-Elf could come by and request one whenever they wanted, and if he felt he had one that was suitable, they’d get it.

Otherwise, they’d leave and try again next month. That was how they thought.

Some days, Loierdath would just go about his routine, so perfectly used to everything, that he’d lie down and fall asleep and feel like he’d just woken up. He could spend a day thinking and running on autopilot.

He blinked—and the cold snow falling in front of his teacup became wet rains or bright sunlight. And the half-Elf enjoyed the feeling of time passing without doing more than brushing against him lightly.

What no half-Elf enjoyed was dissonance.

That was a monster, a bug, an anomaly in their day. The ones further from the heart of the village were better at dealing with it. For reference, the last dissonance that Loierdath had experienced was breaking his trowel in the ground.

In dismay, he’d tried to keep planting seeds but been so bent out of shape about it he’d lost an entire harvest to it. He’d put in an order for a new trowel and gone out, each day, to stare gloomily at his garden of half-planted seeds.

When he got his trowel, very speedily from town, he’d seen it had a smith’s mark on the metal, and the handle didn’t feel right.

Over the course of the next month, Loierdath had asked for three new handles and had filed the metal mark away and worked with Veler to get a handle that fit right until he was happy. Naturally, he was a bit persnickety about his tools, so that might have been longer than average.

Life in the Village of the Spring was often like that. Was it perfect? No, of course not. It was fine, but even here, half-Elves had their troubles. One of the things the half-Elves hated around their village was weeds.

By which they meant trees.

 

——

 

There was a half-Elf whose entire job revolved around getting up each day, walking out, and cutting down ‘new trees’ that had just sprung up around a half-Elf’s home. They’d leave him a request to get to it, and he’d head to a new part of the village and chop it down.

After, of course, carefully asking how not to disturb the occupants and arranging a time when the chopping wouldn’t be heard or disturb their schedules. They were largely understanding about it.

“It just popped up the last decade, Prildor. I meant to take an axe to it myself, but I forgot. Now look at it.”

A half-Elf accusingly rapped her knuckles against a full tree as Prildor nodded.

“They do that. Will midmorning be a good time to chop it down?”

Please. It’s in my way.”

By which she meant that the tree was in the middle of her path leading out her door. A seedling must have fallen and begun to sprout. She had walked around it for ten years, growing more and more annoyed until she finally snapped and asked for his help.

It was now…a fully grown tree, and Prildor dismantled it over the next week, taking it apart logically, piece by piece. His was a nebulous job with lots of variables; trees were always different. But he didn’t mind that. He started from the top, climbing up to take apart the branches, and working down until he was ready to chop down the tree itself. Then he hacked it up and carted each piece back to his home.

The rough part for Prildor was running into something unexpected on the job. Like a bug. The forest that enclosed and hid the Village of the Spring was where the enchantments against bugs and trespassers frayed. One time, he’d found an ant nest burrowing close to the Village of the Spring.

That had ruined his season. And caused a huge panic. Huge carpenter ants had gotten half the village out to worry about an infestation. Some had speculated that perhaps it was the dread [Alchemist], Irurx, sending insects against them.

Prildor, as a half-Elf who knew a bit more of the world than most, didn’t think it was Irurx, but disposing of the horrid ant hive and realizing they’d spread to two dozen spots unnoticed had been a foul year. Not that it had taken more than a month of finding the nests; he had just shuddered about it for an entire year.

Anyways, after he chopped down a tree, he’d begin processing it. Prildor would slowly, piece by piece, break it down into his second profession—making arrows.

There was a natural glue another villager harvested and made, and Prildor would spend a season making arrows out of the trees he’d cut down. He made wood tips too; they were exceptionally sharp, and he liked making them out of roots and the hardest wood.

Then he’d take a bow, walk over behind his hut, and shoot the arrows he’d made. A tree’s worth, day in, day out, working on his aim. Usually in the winter. He’d tromp over to a target he’d set up, or make a new one if it had broken, pull the arrows out, replace arrowheads, toss away the bad ones for fire scrap, and do it again.

Again and again, until a tree’s worth of arrows vanished. The remaining arrows he’d made from all the other trees he’d just put away and then get back to chopping down more until he had another huge pile.

Prildor was an old half-Elf. His hair was fully silver, and while he could still do his job, he wondered if in a century or two he might have to give it up for just the arrow making. If no one wanted to cut down trees, they’d have to prevail on the townsfolk, and that would play havoc with the Village of the Spring.

Each half-Elf in the village had a role. Some made necessities, like glue. Others, like Loierdath, had useful Skills. They weren’t all high-level; some were quite low. But they had Skills that worked.

Loierdath could cross-pollinate any two flowers he wished with a touch. Prildor’s arrows were as good as steel, and he could transport an entire tree away from a downed house by himself in a day.

The Village of the Spring was, by and large, happy, and new half-Elves ran around noisily. Some went to the town, others grew older and more mature, the senior half-Elves tolerated their foibles, and time rolled on. And on…

If Prildor had anything that upset him, it was only shown in the white flower he stuck to his tunic’s front as he went about his day. And every weekend, he’d go walking a short ways from his house in the woods where his archery didn’t disturb anyone, right at a fork in the road, and come to a stop near a house near the center of the Village of the Spring.

Where the oldest half-Elves lived. Then he would stop, exhale…and stare at a burned house.

It was overgrown with ivy and flowers now, of course. But the wood was still charred. He wondered when all the ivy had appeared. Prildor would stop and put a flower he’d plucked on a single grave out back.

“Leila, we still miss you.”

Leila, or Leilatha Springwalker, had been a dear friend of his. Older than him by centuries, but not that much. Her grave was covered with flowers.

Wreaths of it. Bundles of flowers, some decayed and old, but Prildor would replace any he felt were too ancient, and he knew other half-Elves came by regularly whenever they had a chance.

She’d only died two decades ago, after all. Less?

Dead gods, it was still fresh. Everyone was leaving flowers for her; that was how her home had gotten so overgrown. No one had cleared away the rubble and ash. There wasn’t any point, at least, not yet.

They were still looking for her granddaughter. Sometimes, Prildor wondered if he’d catch sight of her in the forest again, and he had kept a basket of food ready, but he couldn’t remember when he’d spotted her last. A year ago?

It was the one recent tragedy in the Village of the Spring. Death came for all half-Elves, but it was the fire and her runaway grandchild that had really been the drama. Ceria had always been wild, like her grandmother in her own youth, but Prildor had hopes he’d see her come back any day now.

All the half-Elves on the outskirts of the village kept an eye out for her in the forests if they went for walks. Obviously, she’d need to be sat down and punished for the fire, and someone would have to help raise her until she was settled, or they’d prevail on the town. But, well—

Prildor would stand there, mumble a few words, then walk off. If he saw another half-Elf, they’d stand there and talk for a while. He was one of the older ones in the heart of this place, where apathy for time grew and grew. Even other half-Elves were flighty compared to him.

But that did not mean he had never been outside the Village of the Spring. Nor that he was the least capable of withering change among them. He disliked it, but his occupation as ‘weed trimmer’—that wasn’t his class—proved he had some resiliency.

That was how Prildor lived. On a simple road past a burned house where two roads led into the woods. His home was next to Leila’s abandoned one, and his neighbor on the left, well.

She was an introvert among half-Elves. He saw her once a decade, sometimes.

It took all sorts, and they got along well. Once, they’d tried to live together, but you know how that went.

 

——

 

A great disruption came across Prildor’s life at the start of the year. Spring had just begun when the new trader came into the Village of the Spring.

A man.

“Ermest Soiltevo of Osverthia.”

He’d raise his hat, revealing a balding head and greying hair, and introduce himself to any half-Elf so inclined. He came by every half year, on the dot, and the Village of the Spring would turn out and buy whatever they wanted, bartering for goods and news.

Not all of them went, of course. Many stayed away from the excitement, but Prildor remembered going there to see the ‘ice cream’ everyone had talked about at the start of last year.

“Prildor. A pleasure to meet you, Merchant Ermest. Is this your first visit to the Village of the Spring?”

Then the man had given him a look that was both wounded and amused and just…mortal. He’d coughed and bowed.

“I’ve been coming here twice a year for two decades, Master Prildor.”

“Oh. I must have missed you. I do hope to see you again.”

“Yes. I as well.”

The man had stood there for a second, and Prildor had recognized the expression. Perhaps Ermest had known half-Elves before this. Perhaps he thought he understood the Village of the Spring, but he would always be ‘the new [Merchant]’ until the day he died.

In fact, some half-Elves hadn’t even recognized Ermest since the last time he’d visited. That was because they might have missed his annual visit and not seen ‘the [Merchant]’ for the last ten years.

Still, Prildor knew it was a privilege to be the one person from the outside at liberty to enter the Village of the Spring without upsetting them, and Ermest had chosen countless wares to impress them and gather what they had for sale.

The thing about half-Elves like these was that even if one only grew tomatoes and whatnot—he could have a lot of gold if he sold them every week to the town. Or a stockpile, like Veler, of his favorite carvings.

“I have enough to fill two wagons if you want them. Otherwise, I was going to send them to town.”

Ermest stared at the delicately carved images of people and animals and even buildings Veler had seen, made with painstaking effort and an eternity of work.

“I’ll…see how much I can fit, Master Veler. I—ah—this Song Crystal isn’t worth more than one or two such works, though!”

Even he felt bad about the trade, but Veler lifted a hand.

“The rest goes to town, anyways. This one will do. If I like it, I will come back later for more.”

He pressed an icon, and the crystal began to play a female voice, singing a song that Veler liked. Judging from how his neighbor twitched…Prildor hoped it wouldn’t turn into a feud.

There was nothing Prildor particularly wanted, but as it happened, Ermest had a request.

“I, ah, bear news from the capital of Erribathe.”

“More war?”

The half-Elves were disinclined to listen; the young ones gathered around, but Ermest shook his head.

“No. Though there is dire news of the [Prince of Men].”

His face was graven, and Prildor looked up.

“The boy? What of him?”

He vaguely recalled a young boy running through the Village of the Spring, upsetting the entire community one day a while back. Ermest gave him an agonized look and dodged the question.

“—His Majesty! His Majesty would like to visit on urgent matters. Will you accept?”

The half-Elves looked at each other, and Prildor sighed.

That was dissonance.

 

——

 

The rest of the day was spent consulting the others and okaying His Majesty’s entry to the village. It was not so much that King…wait, which one was it? King Nuvityn could just enter the village, but he respected how much it might upset the half-Elves if he did.

Word had to be spread around so no one got alarmed, and when they said goodbye to Merchant Ermest, they all had agreed that Lundas was exceptionally short notice—

But if he had to come, he had to come. The days flashed by for Prildor, who worried for the rest of the week.

He thought he knew why King Nuvityn wanted to visit. But then someone told him about Iradoren. One of the children, barely eighty, when he was cutting down a sapling by her parents’ home.

“Iradoren? But he’s just a boy. How—?”

Then it made sense. Prildor had put down his axe, wandered away, and grieved for a while.

—He was still grieving when the King of Myths arrived.

 

——

 

Nuvityn always felt like time stopped when he entered the Village of the Spring. It grated against him, as if time were a bubble and his very being were stretched thin against it.

It horrified people who accompanied him, so he came alone, leaving his escort behind. He’d seen brave [Warriors] turn dead white when it hit them fully, or puke. Just so that something would break up the sense that time had collapsed against this place and left puddles, great eddies of stillness.

That was how the air felt. You could get used to it. Then you’d get some panicked person asking when you were coming back and realize that you’d spent eight months as a guest here when you felt like it had been a week. And the heaviness of the air would feel like a library’s worth of dust, not weighing you down, but letting you swim through an ocean of particles of time…

Terrifying. Beautiful. To mortals without longer lifespans, they’d described it as the feeling of their bodies rushing towards oblivion, visibly aging each second here.

Visually, the Village of the Spring was not that immediately off. It was picturesque, though, in a way that was mundanely pleasant…until you ran again into the signs of time being thrown for a loop.

What did that mean? Well, Nuvityn walked down a dirt path towards what seemed like an idyllic hamlet. The grass was lush, soft, and even though he noted there were no bugs, you could be fooled, especially as a city-person, into just admiring some flowers sprouting up in early spring, the way a rolling hill led up to a simple well under the boughs of an ancient tree.

The Village of the Spring looked like what you’d imagine a peaceful, idyllic village was right before the evil army demolished it or the Dragon attacked. You didn’t realize what was wrong for a while until you went to an actual village and remembered real villages had…

Potholes. Grooves in the ground. Crabgrass. Weeds—thistles—spills of substances. Poop from animals.

The Village of the Spring had none of that. It was obsessively perfect. Not just the streets and buildings, which even Calanfer could do.

Even the grass. Why? Well, think of it as if you were a half-Elf living here. You knew how the grass should look. You were on your way to the well and you saw some incorrect grass.

A patch of said crabgrass. Or a thistle sprouting up. Marring this vista you’d have to walk by again and again and again.

Obviously, you stopped and plucked the weed. And if you had several hundred half-Elves doing that, you got an obsessively preserved environment. Same with stains or spills; half-Elves here hated change.

So any markings on a building were painstakingly removed. Animals who had annoying, unpredictable bowel movements were relegated to specific, eccentric half-Elf farms. There were no dogs, cats, or other pets.

They died too soon.

That was the odd dissonance that lingered in the back of your mind. The pastel houses and spotless walls, the lack of insects made Nuvityn feel like he was walking through an illusion.

—Right up until he ran into the opposite problem. Such as a tree sprouting in the middle of the street, half-Elves sighing as they walked under or around it.

The second thing you’d run into were trees. Weeds too big for a half-Elf to pull up that they accidentally let grow. Then the half-Elves called for Prildor or someone to deal with the problem and let it sit for a while. Someone would get to it eventually.

—Which was how a towering maple tree might appear on a road, just—there—with half-Elves wearing grooves around it and adjusting their schedules slightly and shaking their heads at the ‘weed’.

Oh, the grooves were another matter. What happened if you walked the exact same path for a century?

You wore it down. So, in places, you’d find the road was a foot or two below ground level with the sides of the slope giving in slightly. If it got too obvious, a half-Elf group would repave the road, grumbling about how often they had to do it.

All these little things contrived to make a village that was ordinary on first glance, but had Nuvityn’s court running for the hills by the end of a single day. The King of Myths? Well, he’d visited enough that he could tolerate the Village of the Spring as long as he had to. But he always felt so…out of place here.

Of course, the half-Elves thought of this place as normal. Nuvityn dismounted as his horse balked, and he let it run back, then walked on alone.

Some half-Elves were waiting to greet him. They wore white and had ‘hasty’ gifts and condolences for him. He went as fast as he could and got the introductions done after an hour—

“I am searching for Prildor. Prildor. Is he still here?”

One of the half-Elves was clearly nervous he had come to muster them for war. She exhaled and nodded.

“He is. I see. It’s Prildor after all.”

“Oh, of course. Prildor again. He’s so busy. Respectable, but busy.”

Another half-Elf nodded with a sigh. Nuvityn smiled, though his heart was icy now. The last time he’d visited had been twenty years gone. Then one of the older half-Elves spoke.

“Veler, Your Majesty. I can take you to Prildor’s home if he’s about. If you were seeking Leila—she suddenly passed a few years back.”

“Leila Springwalker? I know.”

They’d heard in the capital. Crossed her name off of a small list. 

The half-Elf nodded. He was a…[Carpenter]?

“We knew she had taken ill, and she was frailer these last few decades, but it was quick. A harsh winter, and then…a bitter discovery come summer, you know?”

Nuvityn winced. Leila was one of the oldest half-Elves, and he imagined that in the center of the Village of the Spring…

“You’re lucky she didn’t rise as an undead.”

That would have been disastrous. Veler shuddered, then shook his head.

“No, thankfully her granddaughter had buried her well. Ah—did you see her as you rode into the village?”

Granddaughter? Nuvityn raised his brows.

“No.”

“She’s quite young. Barely more than a girl. She ran off from home after Leila passed.”

“That is distressing. Should I have my people comb the forest for her?”

Erribathe could be hostile to people outside of the communities. Monsters did exist, and while the Forest of Time’s Repose wouldn’t have any, a girl shouldn’t live…

Wait a second. Nuvityn was no fool, and his eyes narrowed.

“How recently was this?”

“Hm. Not long ago.”

“Days?”

“Oh, no. A bit of time…”

The King of Myths’ heart sank. Then his people might be looking for bones, if there were any left. But another half-Elf chimed in.

“I saw her on a walk not long ago. Several others saw her recently too. We wouldn’t wish to comb the forests and disrupt everything, Your Majesty. She knows that if she comes by, we’ll feed her. She just doesn’t want to be punished. She burnt her grandmother’s house down.”

“I…see. I shall have someone discreetly comb the forest with magic. No child of Erribathe should be left untended.”

The half-Elves nodded, seeming relieved that he was going to force the issue. Nuvityn followed Veler, frowning.

“Leila had—no, that does make sense. How old is she?”

He pictured a girl until Veler scratched his head.

“Old enough to do chores.”

Wait, that meant she was at least forty years old. Half-Elves did age slower here mentally, but she’d be a grown woman in height. Nuvityn kept frowning as he used a magical stone to talk to his people. By the time they reached Leila’s home, one had combed the entire forest with a spell and told him no such half-Elf was present.

“There’s no one in the forest.”

“Perhaps town then?”

Veler frowned, and Nuvityn tugged on his beard. That would be the best case scenario.

“Per-haps. What is her name?”

“Leila’s child? I…hm…”

Veler had no idea. But he brightened up as he saw someone striding back from around the burned house.

“Prildor. His Majesty has arrived, looking for you. Also, Leila’s granddaughter. I leave him in your care.”

Bowing, he retreated, and Nuvityn saw a familiar face, if again, one so rare as to be extraordinary.

Prildor had a long ponytail since he hated cutting his hair, and he was dressed like a woodcutter—though that was not his class. He carried no bow nor weapons at his side, and he did not walk like a warrior.

But when he saw Nuvityn, he sighed. Then he got to one knee.

“I heard about Iradoren. Your Majesty. I am deeply grieved for your son. He was so…”

Prildor closed his eyes, and Nuvityn saw he had been weeping.

“…young.”

Almost, Nuvityn wanted to laugh hysterically or curse Prildor and shake him, yet he was right. Iradoren could have lived far longer. At least four centuries more if—

“That is why I have come, Prildor. Please, rise. Will you speak with me and hear out my request? Though, doubtless, you know it.”

“I do. I wished to say no, but for Iradoren…I was looking around for someone, though. You didn’t see a girl, a half-Elf, in the woods when you came this way? I must find her before I go.”

Prildor led the way to his home, and Nuvityn walked up a gentle forest path, worn from centuries of walking, and saw a small archery range littered with arrows.

Prildor must have been shooting them. They covered various targets, and it always astounded Nuvityn that after so long—Prildor’s aim wasn’t actually that good.

Oh, he was a fine marksman. He could probably have won a position in any archery group by virtue of his talents. But for a half-Elf that did this as a hobby…

“Your aim isn’t much better.”

Nuvityn joked, and Prildor sniffed as he led the [King] into his home and began to open drawers.

“I was making a pack of a few of my necessities. All the food will go bad again, but I need to find…where is it? We cannot all be Rolairenes, Your Majesty.”

“That fellow who practices with the sword? Is he still about?”

Prildor just shrugged as he opened a cupboard, frowning. He stared at a pile of dust inside blankly, and Nuvityn wondered what had been there.

“Him? I haven’t seen him since he came by two decades back. He was always flighty for someone who lived like—aha. Here it is.”

He pulled something out, blew on it, and turned to Nuvityn gravely. Prildor had indeed known the King of Myths would want him, and he had a large rucksack filled with what was probably clothing.

“Where is your bag of holding?”

Nuvityn stared at the pack, and Prildor shook his head.

“The magic faded away on the last one. It always does. Let me just put this here, if anyone checks.”

He walked outside and hung something on the door. Nuvityn stared at it, then sighed. The sign read:

 

I am going on a short trip. Please send to the town for any urgent business.

—Prildor

 

“It might be months before we return. Years, in the worst case. I make no promises. I will not return until I have found some semblance of justice I can live with.”

The King of Myths cautioned Prildor. The half-Elf just shrugged. He tapped the sign.

“A short trip. They won’t notice.”

That was half-Elves for you. Shaking his head, Nuvityn stood there as Prildor glanced at him.

“I must beg a boon before we leave, Your Majesty. Leila’s granddaughter. She’s in the forest somewhere. It wouldn’t sit right with me to leave her out there while I go on a trip. Will you find her and return her here? She might fight; she’s half wild.”

Ah. Nuvityn frowned and sighed as he stood there.

“When did she leave, Prildor? I was told about her and already had someone check. It sounds like she might be…deceased. Or at the very least, she might have left for somewhere else.”

Deceased? It’s only been—”

Prildor swept at his hair, then began to look alarmed.

“One year, two years—how long has she been in the forest?”

The King of Myths had thought this might happen. His stomach twisted. The one problem with half-Elves was that they didn’t check on each other, sometimes, especially here.

“I can have hounds sent for to scout the—”

“No, no. She can’t be dead. She would have come back to the village, no matter how angry she was. I—she must have gone to town.”

Nuvityn decided to have his people ask the townsfolk about her. He spoke into a stone, and Prildor stood there, growing more and more alarmed, however belatedly.

“Why was she so angry?”

“She was always unruly. She grew up on her grandmother’s stories and wanted to see the rest of the world. Most children do. But Ceria…I found her in Leila’s home. I walked in, and she screamed at me I was ‘late’. I hadn’t known, you see. It had been a long winter, and the storms in the spring…”

“So her grandmother was dead for months and no one noticed? Dead gods, Prildor.”

The old half-Elf hunched his shoulders.

“—Leila was old, but I expected to see her on her feet any day. Ceria should have run to get us. I don’t know why she waited. She burned the house down after we held a funeral. Then she vanished. I saw her a few times in the forest.”

“How long, Prildor?”

“Years. I think.”

The King of Myths cursed quietly and began to demand answers. This was what it was to rule in Erribathe. Not great wars or sudden politics, but the stuff of legends and immortals grating against unkind reality. He hoped she was in the town.

She was not.

 

——

 

Ceria. Why was that name familiar? Nuvityn didn’t understand at first, and Prildor didn’t help. He practically dashed into the village to announce, dramatically, that Ceria was missing and it had been years. The other half-Elves began to count how long it had been since they’d seen her—and more pieces began emerging as Nuvityn’s people uncovered details.

“She has a bounty on her head in town. Well, she’s wanted. Not just town. One of the major cities of Lemsdreth has a bounty on a ‘half-Elven thief’ going by her name. Which would mean she left the Village of the Spring over a decade ago and headed…”

“That far?”

Several half-Elves exclaimed in dismay as Nuvityn showed them a map. The King of Myths sighed.

“That bounty is also ancient. By mortal standards. Prildor—”

“I have to find her. But she must have come back. She’s from here. No one leaves.”

“Several people leave.”

“Not for decades! The last was—who went to Rhir?”

One of their number had left for Rhir of all places? It made Nuvityn’s eyebrows shoot up, but it didn’t surprise him, not exactly. The Village of the Spring had always had, well, a reputation for being the exact same place. And that some of the half-Elves who left went on to make stories of themselves.

Prildor was in denial about Ceria, though.

“She’s a girl with no training, Your Majesty. Some magical gift; but no one ever taught her to survive or defend herself. What if she were here?”

“…You mean at someone else’s house? Is that even possible?”

“If it’s one of the homes no one’s been to in a few decades—why not? What about Elder Mehswi?”

“She would hate it there.”

“Have you seen him this century?”

—As it turned out, checking on other half-Elves, if only to make sure they weren’t dead, seemed a good idea, and the Village of the Spring decided to send someone to each of the most reclusive half-Elves’ homes.

Nuvityn hoped they didn’t find more dead bodies. But half-Elves like Leila were self-sufficient. Indeed, Prildor himself had one idea.

“Tserre. My neighbor. I haven’t talked to her in half a decade. If she was taking care of Ceria…perhaps…this way.”

He led Nuvityn back towards his home, and the King of Myths scratched his head.

“Ceria. Ceria. I feel as though I’ve heard that name before. But where?”

“Mayhap Leila mentioned it when she visited the palace?”

“Perhaps. She was sixty some years old? She might have met Iradoren when he was a boy…”

Nuvityn’s throat closed, and Prildor stopped as he led them through the woods to his neighbor’s home.

“They are too young, Your Majesty.”

“He was a grown man. My son. He can be both things at once. I have often thought the Village of the Spring is harsh for a child to grow up in.”

Prildor didn’t reply to that, but as the two walked forwards, it began to drizzle slightly. Spring rains. Well, Nuvityn pulled a cloak around his head, but Prildor just peered up at the sky.

“No need for that, Your Majesty. Tserre should be—ah. There.”

The rain stopped pattering down, and Nuvityn paused. His eyes searched the sky, and he frowned.

“What in the world…?”

It was a bright, sunny day. Not a cloud in the sky. Prildor exhaled as he walked forwards, and Nuvityn stopped. Then, on a hunch—stepped backwards.

Rain poured down over his head. A storm was coming, and he saw storm filled clouds—

He stepped forwards, and it was sunny and quiet. Hairs prickled on Nuvityn’s neck, and he heard some birds singing innocently in the trees.

“Ah, the birds. She got so sick of them one time she had me cut down all the trees where they were nesting. I think there were a thousand. They love the weather. Your Majesty, this way.”

Nuvityn followed Prildor, and he wondered why this half-Elf wasn’t on…he reached for his notes and checked.

Tserre’s home turned out to be a two-story stone cottage with a small tower up a winding path. Nuvityn frowned as he saw how remote this was, even for a half-Elf. He turned to Prildor.

“Is Tserre new to the Village of the Spring?”

“No. Just grumpy. I imagine she ignored your last few visits, if she was even aware of your coming. Tserre? Tserre, it’s urgent!

Prildor strode up to the door and, unusually, rapped hard on it. Nuvityn hadn’t heard more than birdsong, but it went quiet at the unexpected disturbance, and he heard the sounds of someone humming a song suddenly stop.

Dead silence from within the cottage. Nuvityn now saw there was a large garden around the home, predictable if this half-Elf was fending for herself, and the [King] even saw two huge chickens pecking at the dirt.

Interesting. Most half-Elves can’t stand animals with their short life spans. One of the chickens squawked at Nuvityn as Prildor rapped again.

“I know you’re in there. Tserre! Is Ceria with you? She’s been in the forest! For years.

Dead silence. Then the door, which was round and had no windowpane, swung open without a word.

No one was on the other side. Nuvityn glanced at Prildor, and the half-Elf stepped through.

“Tserre?”

“Prildor. Who is that with you?”

A force stopped Nuvityn at the entrance. He tried to move forward, but a barrier halted him. His skin prickled further as Prildor gestured at him.

“The King of Myths, Tserre. He’s summoned me for a campaign.”

Nuvityn paused as he heard a half-Elf, voice crackling from disuse, speaking.

Another one? I had a tree I wanted you to cut down. Well, a grove. Come in, Your Majesty.”

There was a grouchy, testy edge to the voice. Nuvityn felt the barrier vanish. He stepped forwards cautiously—and saw a well-kept living room. A table with exactly one chair next to open windows letting sunlight spill through. A shelf of books, a kitchen that smelled of recent cooking, and stairs leading upwards to…well, he guessed a bedroom, but there was a faint alchemical smell in the air and another scent he had long-since learned to associate with magic.

There was no doubt in his mind that a [Mage] lived here. And no sooner had he entered than she appeared.

At the dining table, book in hand. Tserre had white hair as well, and she scowled at Prildor. She wasn’t as old as Nuvityn had expected, though, nor as slow to stand and bow.

I suppose any half-Elf who can’t fend for themselves is in trouble. Prildor nodded to her.

“Tserre, is Ceria here? If she’s hiding, she’s not in trouble.”

“Ceria? Why would that girl be here? What do you mean she’s run away? Years? What is Leila doing?”

Oh no. Nuvityn had been uncomfortable enough on this trip. One look at the scowling half-Elf and Prildor’s own mild shock and Nuvityn stepped outside.

“I believe my people are calling me. One moment.”

He strode outside and squatted next to the chickens for a few minutes. Nuvityn patted one on the head and got a damn good peck for his troubles. He heard muffled voices from within—then—

Dead?

Nuvityn heard too much in that one word. Guilt and shock and—he wondered if she had known Leila well. It was too likely, Nuvityn reflected, that this Tserre might have thought her friend was alive. And just…not visited because she’d lost track of time.

Your Majesty. A thought?

“Yes?”

He was entirely relieved when his people did contact him. Nuvityn snatched the speaking stone and stood as the chickens pecked at his boots. Then he frowned.

“You found her?”

Not…exactly. But Lady Voreca had a thought. Given how half-Elves count time…it would be the most incredible circumstance, but we have a picture and description for you. Someone is running it into the village. Would you care to inspect it?

Nuvityn listened. Then his face went slack. He strode down the path and snatched a piece of paper from a panting [Messenger] in the rain and stared at it.

“—Give me a moment to confirm with the half-Elves who would have known her best.”

He was striding back to the cottage when he saw Prildor and Tserre. She was holding his arm as she walked to the door unsteadily.

“I have to see. Help me walk. It’s been too long since I left the cottage.”

“Tserre—”

She stumbled forwards, and Nuvityn halted.

“Miss Tserre, Prildor, I regret to intrude in this moment of grief. I may have news about Leila’s granddaughter.”

They both turned to him, and Tserre hissed.

“First the cottage. I have to see—”

She hobbled down the steps, slowly at first, but with returning vigor. She was certainly short compared to the other two—she might have been shorter than some Dwarves that Nuvityn knew, though they were never as short as the real ones had been.

“Tserre, do you need an arm—”

“No, I do not, Prildor. It’s simply been—years—since I stood. My legs tingle.”

Years? Nuvityn raised his brows. Prildor was concerned.

“One can develop injuries from sitting or lying in one place for too long. If you can’t walk, Tserre, you may need to move to town—”

“I am aware of that, Prildor. I sat quite comfortably. I didn’t choose to move.”

On a hunch, Nuvityn stopped and let them head out without him. He peeked back into the cottage and narrowed his eyes.

She must have been cleaning this place regularly. But magic can do that. Even so, he thought he saw a faint ring of dust around her chair legs indicating the spell hadn’t been cast that recently.

No footprints or anything else in the entire room. The King of Myths paused outside and saw the chickens were both staring at him.

He hurried after Prildor and Tserre after a moment.

 

——

 

Nuvityn caught up with the two at the burned cottage, and he saw Tserre standing there blankly. She had produced a cane and leaned on it.

The sight of Leila’s cottage left Tserre breathless. Her eyes widened. She wavered, aghast.

What must it be like to her? Nuvityn tried to imagine it. It was probably as though she’d sat down to read a book after seeing her friend only to be interrupted by shouting to learn Leila was dead and her granddaughter gone for years.

That was the difference between the half-Elves and the King of Myths. Both were at least centuries old. Nuvityn was far younger than they were, but he had gained that ageless nature that Prildor, Tserre, and all immortals had.

However, Nuvityn was a [King] who ruled and interacted with mortals. They had stepped away. The King of Myths knew he disconcerted newer members of his courts. He had once asked Voreca to describe it.

She had put it like this: Nuvityn often dressed and groomed himself. Sometimes, though, he’d notice his beard or hair wasn’t to his liking. So he’d request it changed or attempt to shave himself.

If the [Royal Barber] got it wrong, despite their best efforts, or Nuvityn gave himself a funny cut to his hair, he’d laugh the matter off. For he knew the hair would grow back in no time at all; so long as his appearance served, it didn’t matter what he looked like.

It was not the ability to be patient which defined immortality. You might think a half-Elf could stand and jaw around for hours. Rather, it was the opposite. Nuvityn sometimes would have a conversation with someone, engaging, immediate—then break it off when he sensed he was taking too much time. Then he’d smile, agree they had to do it again—and not see the person for months, weeks…years.

When he next saw the same person, he’d stride over and try to begin the conversation as if they had just left it off. The same with a food he liked or an experience. He’d eat a tart he loved and state it was his favorite dish of the year. But if an aspiring [Chef] served it any time that month, Nuvityn would give them a blank look and ask if they were buttering him up. If they did it twice? He’d caution them ‘not to go overboard’.

His favorite treat he might eat once a year. Once every two years. It was that which unnerved younger folk especially. The way Nuvityn didn’t pursue his desires. As if they would come again.

As if he had forever. And more upsettingly, how he treated other people as if they had the same when they did not.

Now, contrast that to Prildor and Tserre. They treated the news of Iradoren’s death, of Leila’s burned cottage, of Ceria’s disappearance for years with due gravitas. The half-Elves of the Village of the Spring had gone up to Nuvityn to give their condolences the moment he arrived.

Like any people would. But it was their attitude that was different. Nuvityn saw the shock over Prildor’s face. The pain on Tserre’s.

But no surprise. It was as if the half-Elves expected anything out of the ordinary to be a shock. They had heard so many things like this it had ceased to be surprising that they were, well, surprised.

Painful, yes. Upsetting, of course. But the world was filled with mayflies. Everything we love dies in the moment between our eyes closing and opening.

That resignation. That bitter tang of grief below their expressions was what Nuvityn hated. He turned away for a second as Tserre stood there and Prildor murmured about how sudden it had been. The King of Myths would be glad when Prildor was out of the Village of the Spring a few months and ceased to look like that.

Oh, but Tserre still grieved. Nuvityn looked at her and saw a half-Elf dressed in thick, woolen clothes, a tiered skirt with a band of pale-white fabric around soft walking shoes, hair tied in a simple bun.

It ill-suited her. It fit the crotchety half-Elf living in her little cottage in a bubble of perfect, everlasting spring. Fit the grumpy expression and the semi-rimless glasses that allowed her to stare down her nose at anyone she chose with icy blue eyes.

—Not the expression of wild grief on her face. The lost eyes roaming the burned house, as if looking for a body. Disbelief crossing her eyes.

“Tserre…”

The sky did not match her empty expression. Nuvityn heard a rumbling sound and glanced up; the sunlight and illusion of clear skies had followed him. No rain fell—

Krakoom.

A bolt of lightning sheared through the pristine blue sky. For a second—the sky above Nuvityn and Prildor cracked open, and rain poured down. Prildor flinched in alarm. Staring upwards at—

A storm was raging across the Village of the Spring. Half-Elves were running for cover elsewhere in the village. But for a thousand feet around them, Nuvityn saw only bright skies as the crack in reality healed. However, his eyes could pick up rain lashing the forest in the distance. Winds howling—

He raised the speaking stone to his lips.

“Voreca. How bad is the storm where you are?”

—It’s barely drizzling in town. We can see both a furious thunderhead and dome over the treetops. Your Majesty, should we come to—?

“No.”

The sky split again, and the rain poured down. Such a deluge that Nuvityn lost sight of Prildor and Tserre a second. But he saw her shielded by a far smaller oval that let no rain through.

That seemed to break the half-Elf out of her trance. She looked up, noticed the storm and lightning flashing through the clouds, and shook her head.

Abruptly, the downpour stopped. Nuvityn stopped shielding his face as the perfect weather bubble closed again. Prildor wiped water off of his face and regarded his soaking clothes.

When Tserre turned her face, her expression was polite. Unreadable. But the King of Myths had a memory longer than a goldfish. After a deep breath, Tserre tapped the side of her head and grimaced.

“[Scrying: Ceria]. It doesn’t work. She’s dead or somewhere the spell fails. Tell me it’s the latter.”

Prildor bit his lip, eyes wide in his face.

“I should have offered her a place in my house. It was just—I never had a child. I know how that snaps you back to counting seconds. I should have—what have I done?”

“The same as I.”

Tserre whirled away from him and stood there. Prildor kept passing a hand over his face, as if hoping he’d wake up. It seemed as though guilt were coming at him in waves. Each time stronger.

They were realizing what had happened. It would strike them harder and harder if they left the Village of the Spring. Nuvityn hoped he could mitigate some of the backlash. He spoke to Tserre.

“What about [Greater Scrying]?”

“Hm?”

She gave him a sidelong look, and the King of Myths spoke respectfully.

“That might penetrate most scrying countermeasures.”

Not that his [Mages] were capable of casting that spell. But one of the advantages of ruling an ancient kingdom was knowing the real magic from current stuff. Tserre blinked at Nuvityn.

“Do you think I can cast magic of that level, Your Majesty? Besides, there are ways to ward that off. If I could cast the spell.”

“I see. It was just a passing thought. Then confirming Ceria’s whereabouts must be done less magically.”

Tserre nodded. She and Prildor had bleak looks on their faces, and Nuvityn hoped it wasn’t a coincidence. But he had a feeling.

“It may be decades since you two last saw her. But would…this be familiar?”

He held up a slightly wet illustration, then glanced up at the sky. Still bright and sunny. How hard was it to keep that maintained and move it…?

Prildor didn’t seem to notice. Nor did Tserre. She and he peered at the illustration, then stared. Prildor’s eyes bulged, and Nuvityn wondered what it looked like to them.

To him, it was a rather dashing picture of an adventurer. A Gold-ranker winking at the ‘camera’, holding a thumbs up with one hand as she held an ice cream cone in the other. She was dressed lightly in adventuring clothing, one knee resting on a wall of a city.

Behind her, a giant sculpture of ice in the shape of a squirrel was gnawing on an acorn, and it was the dead of winter. Snow was drifting down around her.

The Ice Squirrel of the Horns of Hammerad, Ceria Springwalker. It seemed like someone had either interviewed her or taken a [Magic Picture]. What also drew the eye to Ceria’s ice cream cone hand was—

Her hand!

Prildor gasped in horror, and Tserre said nothing. Nuvityn spoke.

“She’s a Gold-rank adventurer. Recently made Gold-rank; she was a Silver-ranker for years, and she was a student of Wistram who both graduated and was expelled about eight years ago. A member of the Horns of Hammerad. Currently in Chandrar.”

Also possibly married to the High King of Medain, but let’s not mention that. And a friend of the very same woman he was setting out to kill.

“Her hand! Chandrar? That’s her. I recognize—she’s entangled! She’s too young! We have to get her. What happened to—”

“Magic. She had enough of it in her veins to partially reanimate her hand. I’ve seen it happen.”

Tserre mumbled. She spoke.

“[Long-Ranged Scrying: Ceria]. No…she must have a ward on her. Gold-rank?”

She stared blankly at Nuvityn, and Tserre stared down again.

“She doesn’t even know a Tier 2 spell. I was supposed to teach her one. Where in Chandrar?”

“I am not certain. Prildor, she is far older than you remember. A half-Elf who’s lived her life outside the Village of the Spring…we can send word to her, at least. But at least we know she’s well.”

“I have to bring her back. If we are to leave Terandria, at least let me get word to her, Your Majesty!”

Chandrar was far out of range of Nuvityn’s plans, but Gold-rank adventurers moved fast. Besides, they’d taken too much time. The King of Myths nodded curtly.

“The muster of the army should be near done. Are you ready to go?”

The two were conferring when Tserre spoke.

“You’re leaving Terandria, Your Majesty?”

She stared at him, and Nuvityn nodded at her.

“My son is dead. I go to pass judgment on his killer, wherever she hides.”

“Your son.”

Her eyes flickered, and she glanced at him.

“I remember a boy running through my gardens, laughing and causing chaos…”

“The very same.”

Nuvityn felt his throat close, but spoke through it. He turned rather than relive anything.

“Prildor. No, Lord Prildor is one of the few I would have follow me if we go to battle against foreign armies. I hope we will return safely. And if we should run into Ceria Springwalker, and if she wills it, I will of course send her to her home.”

Do I hope we shall return safely? He felt that was a lie. Nuvityn turned back, half-bowed to Tserre and nodded at Prildor. The other half-Elf didn’t do more than check his rucksack; little in there was bound to be anything that couldn’t be replaced, anyways.

The two were striding away back towards the Village of the Spring’s entrance when they realized it still wasn’t raining. They turned, and Tserre was hobbling behind them.

She was keeping up, despite both’s long-legged stride.

“Tserre?”

“Magus? Do you have something you wish of me?”

Nuvityn glanced at Tserre, and she frowned at Prildor.

“Prildor’s no great warrior. Any adventure he goes on will be perilous for his health.”

“I’d like to think I’d be of some use to Erribathe, Tserre. I’ll be back soon. Go back and finish your book, and I’ll have Ceria back before you’re done rereading it.”

Prildor bristled a bit at the insult, but Tserre just tsked at him.

“You can’t even get rid of an ant hive without getting squeamish. I don’t care what level you are—Leila is gone, and Ceria is my responsibility. Or at least, I must see her myself. I will come with you with your permission, Your Majesty.”

The male half-Elf bristled at this, but he opened his mouth and saw Nuvityn studying the sky, then Tserre’s set face. He addressed the shorter half-Elf.

“We may march into a war, Mage Tserre. But one of the groups between me and my quarry is the Forgotten Wing company of Baleros.”

“I don’t fear the Great Companies of Baleros, Your Majesty. Let alone companies I’ve never heard of. My magic may be of some small boon to you. Allow me to prevail on your hospitality and give me leave to find Ceria, and I will travel with you, if you will it.”

Well—that said something. Nuvityn didn’t really need to think.

He might not have been the smartest of men, but if he were wandering and found an old man by the road who asked to join him in a battle to fight all of Rhir itself, Nuvityn would have said yes.

Well, he would have said ‘yes’ if the old man had a glint in his eyes like timeless winter and his shadow stretched without end down the road. If he met a strange [Knight] in the woods with armor covered in vines, it might be the victim of a [Druid], or someone you paid attention to and never, ever challenged to a duel.

As for old half-Elves living in timeless cottages? The King of Myths stopped and bowed, and Tserre half-knelt on suddenly dry ground.

“Will you join me, Magus Tserre? I know not your true identity. But Erribathe is a fitting home for you. For I?”

He looked around at his homeland.

“I will go, for my heart is filled with wrath, to bring my son’s killer to account. To know why he died. To judge it all with all the fairness in my heart and upon my head. I may never come back. It is worth it for me.”

A few half-Elves walking down the road and staring at the clear skies stopped as they saw Tserre raise her head. She spoke simply without the hint of grandeur he had that was part and parcel to their kingdom.

“I left that child alone as time fled me. I am guilty of failing my responsibilities. When I thought I had given them all up—I will follow you until I find her or our paths diverge, Your Majesty. Take me into your service, I ask you.”

“Then rise.”

Nuvityn held a hand out, but she stood and bowed again. Prildor’s voice was soft.

“I, too, forgot how terrible time can be. I will walk once more this frightening world beyond my home. There is no Goblin King nor Deaths of Demons to battle this time. But my responsibility is no less.”

“Well said, Prildor, Tserre of the Village of the Spring. Then we ride for the capital. Then distant lands.”

Nuvityn touched both’s shoulders a second, then turned. At last—he began to walk forwards. In strange and ancient company. Prildor followed, feeling at his side.

“I should get a sword. And I forgot my bow—ah, well. Any will do. Do you need your things, Tserre? Your chickens? Should we have someone collect them?”

She eyed him and snorted.

“The worst that will happen is that all the eggs will pile up in my pantry. They’ll be fed. If I need to—”

She patted her side, then stopped.

“…I suppose I could make a few preparations. Allow me to catch up to you, Your Majesty?”

“Of course. Prildor, I will see you in town. Take the time to recover your bow.”

Especially because finding a replacement you like will be a pain. Nuvityn nodded, and the [King] walked back towards the Village of the Spring’s entrance as Tserre and Prildor exchanged glances.

Ceria.

Neither one said what was weighing on them, and as the King of Myths left the Village of the Spring, Tserre muttered out of the corner of her mouth.

“His Majesty truly doesn’t know I’m not a Springwalker? I suppose he didn’t recognize me as opposed to being careful with my identity.”

Prildor scratched at his head.

“He is half-Human, despite his marriage. How long has it been since you left Erribathe?”

Tserre began counting. She was up to four fingers when she stopped.

“Ah. Well.”

She paused, then brightened up a bit.

“Maybe everyone else will have forgotten me too. Do you suppose we could stop by Wistram, then? I left all my things upstairs.”

“Possibly, possibly. Those young Golem ladies are quite charmingly polite.”

“…What Golems?”

 

——

 

They arranged to meet Nuvityn’s people in town, where they could be escorted to the meeting point for his army.

Tserre forbore mentioning that she could both find and get herself to the King of Myths’ position on her own. If they truly had no idea who she was—well and good.

It was a short walk back to her home, and she told her two chickens she was going. They pecked at the ground, then followed her up the steps into her cottage.

It was really—procrastination that impelled Tserre to change her clothes, put her book away, lock all the windows, and so on. She kept a timer spell active so she didn’t waste, well, time.

Ceria.

She remembered, vaguely, a little, squalling girl in Leila’s arms. Then a child poking around her hut—then a moody teenager demanding to know why she couldn’t learn magic yet.

“Because I thought we had forever. Or at least longer. Leila should have taught you. Not me.”

How had Leila died? She’d been sickly…was it just a disease? Conspiracies and implausible reasons warred with the simple truth that Leila’s constitution had been weak.

Dead.

“Now it’s just me. No. It’s never just me.”

Tserre stood there, eyes squeezed shut, as clothing floated out of her wardrobe, de-dusted itself, and she changed clothes. But she was the last…

No one to look after Ceria but her. Leila had friends, but no one capable.

Prildor was a silly man. Well-intentioned, but Tserre trusted him to find an adventurer in Chandrar like she trusted Dragons to be charitable.

It had to be her. She owed Leila that.

Even so, the half-Elf procrastinated as long as she could, minutes counting down, until she softly exhaled.

“Astire. Vorucula. Stay inside.”

The chickens bwarked at her as the half-Elf slowly walked to the front of her cottage. She stared at the perfectly beautiful skies she had conjured—which had kept her from noticing her friend and companion was dead.

Tserre released the spell as she slowly drew something from a holster at her side. Her wand flicked through the air, and the sky was grey and blustery. She inhaled the suddenly damp aroma of spring, and her heart was beating faster.

Fear.

“Fear nothing. See nothing that cannot be understood. Walk with magic in your heart. Lift your wands high.”

Slowly, the half-Elf walked out of her cottage. She began down the slope of the forest path. Her footsteps were slow, but each step began to carry her further and further. As if she were actually far larger and it was a half-Giant’s stride.

She said goodbye to no one. Few half-Elves knew more than her name. Prildor, her neighbor, was one of her oldest acquaintances, and only because he chopped down the damn trees. She kept to herself. She hadn’t left the Village of the Spring in…centuries, it must have been, now.

Yet Tserre knew enough. Her dress blew as her footsteps carried her down to the road. She turned, then frowned.

“Up you come.”

Her wand rose, flicked, and in the distance, hundreds of birds who had enjoyed the idyllic weather during the long winter took wing in alarm.

Above the treeline, a chimney slowly rose. Then the cottage stood, shedding dirt and grass with a groan.

It took one step, then two, parting the trees as Tserre saw a half-Elf walking down the road stop and turn his head. Loierdath rubbed at his eyes—then stared at Tserre as a house walked down the slope.

“Good morning, Loierdath. I won’t be back for a while. If ever. Farewell.”

She had no hat to tip, so Tserre just took a step back. The half-Elf [Gardener] stared as she walked back onto the foot of the cottage. Then it rose and fell, and she saw the forest for a few minutes—before the cottage broke through the trees and came to a stop.

What must they think of her? The King of Myths seemed reasonable. She had to gain his trust first. The army would be…important. Whatever he assumed would be wrong, of course. The truth was never so easy.

Tserre had no hat. She slid down off the cottage’s wooden, articulated foot as the joints creaked and stood outside of the Village of the Spring for the first time since she had entered it. She cast a glance at the legs and hoped the spells were still working. It had been a long time since the cottage had been forced to walk, and the ancient Lifewood creaked as it moved. It might need to run very soon.

The wind was truly picking up. Auspicious. Or was it…? Tserre knew she had left the aegis of the Village of the Spring and the enchantments she’d conjured.

She didn’t bother making more. She just stood there in the tall grass as the cottage lowered itself slightly, crouching.

The half-Elf counted. Her dress was a simple, pale-blue color, the tiered skirt revealing a faint green band of cloth underneath. The cloth whipped in the breeze and blew back silver hair as it came free.

She had a lot of hair. Absently, Tserre cut it to the preferred length, short and cropped just above her neck. The rest of the hair blew away, swirling upwards as she kept counting.

“…two…three…four…”

In one hand, she held a wand, hand-made, the wood worn smooth over the years with bumps and sanded-down edges where tiny branches had once been. Inelegant to many [Mages]. But the wood of a magical tree was worth far more than any machined piece could be. A long-faded script bore her name in faded purple.

Tserre.

“…five…six…seven…”

Few people in the world would have recognized her face, if any, outside the Village of the Spring. But her name might be more recognizable. Yes, it certainly would be. She didn’t bother to think of an alias.

They didn’t work.

Above her, the cottage swayed slightly, the plain stone and glass windows humble and unordinary. The sounds of two excited chickens came from within. Tserre’s spectacles glinted as she adjusted them. Surely.

“…eight…nine…”

Then she saw the grey skies shift and blow, and the clouds broke apart in a simple ‘v’, exposing clear, blue skies beyond. The mists of Erribathe rose—and something cut through them like a comet of light.

Tserre didn’t move as it sped at her. She stood, back straight, heart pounding, as a figure halted, and the storm of air she had brought blasted across the forest, sending the treetops waving.

A woman floated in the air, a smile on her ruined face. Tserre sighed.

Less than ten seconds. After all this time. She raised her wand slightly, aiming it at the floating half-Elf whose face flickered with magic. Body only kept alive by spells. Robes hanging off her frame, swirling silver, like her hair.

“Archmage Ettertree.”

Tserre. You were alive. I knew some of you had to have survived. Have you come to join the Demons?”

The wind blew, and the old half-Elf standing there felt the air rustle across her face. Then it was like time left her, flowing back into the Village of the Spring.

A young woman stood there a second, pointing her wand up at a middle-aged half-Elf holding a staff shining with magic. An apprentice and the great magus of Wistram.

Then the wind blew again, and Tserre was old. But Silvenia, the Death of Magic?

“You haven’t changed, Archmage Ettertree. You look like war incarnate.”

That annoyed the Death of Magic. She swooped closer an inch, and Tserre kept her wand raised.

“Change comes to everyone. You have aged. I daresay I have since last we met. When was it?”

Not long enough. Tserre refused to lower her guard or be drawn into conversation. This had to be drawing attention to both.

“Magic does not age. Did you truly wish to hunt me down that badly?”

Silvenia flitted right and left, eying the cottage, but getting no closer. She was casual, floating through the air, but her hands glimmered with the traces of spells being cast. Tserre simply spoke in her mind as she listened.

“What? Oh, no. I would like to say I rushed here, but Serinpotva had me teleporting some spoils of war. You know how it goes. So you’re not here to join us after all. That would make you…endangered.

Her right eye glowed, and Tserre spoke.

“I’m looking for a—grand-niece. A girl in my care.”

“Oh! Fascinating. Whose was it?”

Tserre debated silence before murmuring.

“Leila’s. I have no designs on your war, Archmage.”

But I remember what you owe me, Tserre. And you know they’ll remember you just as much as I.

For a second, the Death of Magic swooped closer, and her voice boomed as the air shimmered. Something reached for Tserre. But Silvenia pulled back as the cottage door opened.

Bwark?

Silvenia paused, hand reaching for Tserre, whose face had constricted in tension. The Death of Magic turned and saw a chicken staring at her.

Its head was turned to stare at her, but its butt was raised, and it was aiming its cloaca straight at the Death of Magic.

For a second, Silvenia just peered at the chicken. Then she started giggling and laughing, and Tserre relaxed slightly.

C-chickens? Is that what—you’re raising chickens in the Village of the Spring? Is that what they think you are?”

She turned to Tserre, and both half-Elves heard a warning horn blaring through the air. They were running out of time, but Silvenia raised a hand, and time began to slow.

“They welcomed me without question. I was safe there.”

“No longer. It’s an interesting time to die, Tserre. I could use your help. Come now, you know exactly why I’m still fighting.”

Silvenia extended a ruined hand again, and Tserre saw how many more wounds she’d taken. Tserre felt a brief urge to accept, as if she were that girl from long ago. The older woman shook her head.

“I just want to recover my grand-niece. I mean no…disturbance to anyone else.”

“They won’t see it that way.”

The half-Elf who had broken islands and slain Dragons tilted her head back and forth. Her eyes were alight with interest, and she was calculating, despite the insane smile she projected. Rational gaze, weighing Tserre as a friend or foe.

At last, she sighed.

“—You’re far more of a threat to them. I’ll give you time to realize what’s going on. Take up arms with them and I will remember my grudges, Tserre.”

She began to float upwards, then stopped. Below her, the half-Elf had bowed, wand-arm to her chest. Once upon a time, long ago—Silvenia’s eyes shone with painful memory.

Then she flew upwards, vanishing as the first spells and arrows began to chase her. Tserre just stowed her wand after a second and leaned against the foot of the cottage, pale-faced. She could see the King of Myths’ escort galloping towards her.

“That went as well as could be expected.”

She told her chickens, who pecked at the floor of the cottage innocently. The King of Myths would need to be told something, but his would hold until she had a measure of him. She needed Nuvityn’s army. Silvenia could sense her anywhere in the world, of course. But the Blighted Kingdom would not be long behind.

She had to convince both she was no longer a threat. Bitterly, Tserre conjured her cane to lean on it.

“I will find you, Ceria. I promise.”

With that, the half-Elf walked away from the Village of the Spring. Leaving her immortal hiding place behind. When she inhaled and breathed in the spring air.

It felt fresh.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

I just had a thought, and I googled it to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Despite Google apparently being a bad search engine these days…that’s tech news for you. Definitely no other interesting news right now.

My question was—‘do authors pay beta readers’? Turns out they do not. Which is a frankly interesting discussion on its own because I can see how incentivizing readers would lead to huge problems for the purposes of good feedback.

Now, my question was out of concern I might be murdering the beta-readers who help me proofread chapters and give me feedback. Allow me to explain.

This chapter, 10.16, I wrote on Tuesday. 20,000 words in one day. Then I said ‘well, I planned a short chapter, so let’s do the next one’.

I then, somehow, wrote 10.17, 40,000 words, over two days.

That’s a lot, even for me. I feel blasted, but I then said ‘well, I’d better edit both and post tomorrow’.

Whereupon my beta-readers may have protested. And I realized asking people with jobs and lives to read 40,000 words in the time between me sleeping and waking up to edit and providing coherent notes for plot structure and scene work might be a lot.

I don’t talk about my writing process a lot. I sit down and write, and I certainly don’t mention the beta-readers often. Did you even know I had them? Well, I began asking for help…I want to say four or five years back? It became more organized later, but like editing, it’s hugely improved my process for coming out with a chapter.

They’re unsung parts of the story, largely because I don’t want to sing their names out and get them bothered. But I do appreciate it, and that’s why I’m releasing a ‘short’ chapter of 10.16 today. I’ll edit up 10.17, and my hope is it’s like the finale of the last Lyonette chapter; a week’s editing time will show you something amazing.

If you saw it on stream, I will stab you with the two Stabbies I own if you spoil anything (I only have two Stabbies because the third never arrived in the mail. Two is enough). Sorry, I’m discombobulated today, and what I want to say is that having beta-readers is great.

I was never sold on writing groups, let alone writing workshops or those classes. It’s a lot more hit-or-miss, especially if you get people who aren’t invested in what you’re doing or even the class itself. But I have fans of The Wandering Inn who dedicate a lot of time to making things better, and I could write a list of fantastic things they’ve helped orchestrate. Maybe that’s a blog post?

Ack! I forgot the Puerto Rico blog post! Well, maybe I’ll have a bit more time this next week with less writing. I’m actually ahead.

Short chapter this week, longer one next week. Purely so beta-readers and I survive. New schedule, same pirateaba. But I post less, so I still win. I think that’s how it works. Thanks for reading!

 

 

[Parallel Thoughts] by Miguel!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/cmarguel

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cmarguel

 

Doctor by Karu!

 

Ielane by Chalyon!

 

Nanettes by BoboPlushie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Snofo

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

Selys Leaves Liscor by Paraffin!

 

Necromancer of Terandria by Yootie!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yootie

 

Mask by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

pirateaba Stream Screens and A New Guest comic by LeChatDemon!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/demoniccriminal

Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lechatdemon/

 

 

Last Boxes by [I Outlast Even Stone]!

 

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
88 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments