10.19 E – The Wandering Inn

10.19 E

(A reader of The Wandering Inn has started their own web serial! meowcats734 is writing Soulmage, a story about [Witches] and magic. Give it a read here:)

https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/55501/soulmage

 

[Book 13 of The Wandering Inn, The Empress of Beasts, is up on pre-order now!]

https://a.co/d/0891R9mp

https://www.audible.com/pd/The-Empress-of-Beasts-Audiobook/B0D7F6BZBC

 

 

 

 

As there had been in days of old, a [Witch] flew through the night skies, passing over sable forests that whispered and moved like a vast, shifting sea beneath her, dark and roiling with secrets, the ponds and lakes bright eyes staring up at the heavens, filled with the stellar sins only they had witnessed.

Once, they had been filled with magic, trees older than Dragons, stones with voices who spoke of the deeds of Dwarves and Elves. Now, the forests had been cut low, and their ignorant descendants had half-memories and lacked for souls. The memory was fading; even the ground had begun to forget. But the stories retold themselves time and again, and the pointed hat—that too was an old story. One of the oldest.

The [Witch] flew in the face of every tradition she had been taught, her shoes bought from Invrisil’s best Stitch-folk [Shoemaker], an enchanted ring on her finger from Gemsinger, as expensive as her styled hair and clothing no other [Witch] could afford. She carried a wand on each hip, a superior expression on her face, and snacks for stray cats in her rightmost belt pouch.

She had redone every single stitch in her boots in the old way, thrice-made: the wool she had combed herself, the string dipped in the blood of an animal she had butchered out of mercy, and the incantation she had spoken at the witching hour under two full moons.

Her name was Alevica, the Witch Runner. She carried an earring set into the tip of her left shoe, taken from another City Runner whom Alevica had hexed. Her fiancé had hurled the earring in his beloved’s face, and Alevica had taken it, set it into the costly leather, and drawn a sigil out of magic grease and a drop of her enemy’s tears.

Proof against malice. For her other proof against malice, Alevica had a pair of wands made by Archmage Viltach himself. She carried a Runner’s Seal and her deliveries without pride, her hat like a challenge, and the ashes of her mentor, the Great Witch Oliyaya, in a small pendant around her neck.

So she flew, dipping lower and lower over the swaying treetops. Those who looked up saw what was extraordinary: a witch flying by midnight. As it should be. As it so rarely was.

As it might not be—soon. More accurately, she guessed she had fourteen seconds.

Up! Up, you stupid—nononono.

Down the [Witch] came, fighting with her broom as it became clearer that her descent was turning into more of a slow crash. The smooth gliding through air turned into a plummeting nosedive, and Alevica took one look at the ground and bailed off of her broom, reaching for her side.

Proof of her riches, at least relative to [Witches], was the magical scroll, which glowed as she held it upright.

“[Featherfall]!”

The spell caught her, suspending her as if she were in jelly and slowing her descent twenty feet above the ground. The broom hit the ground near the road, bouncing off the side of a wagon. A [Driver] taking his goods across the continent. Alevica cursed as she thought she saw the expensive broom lose part of its coat of paint.

Then she saw it bounce and, maliciously or by chance, roll and land in front of the wagon. The driver didn’t notice the object as he gawked at her.

“Hey! Stop! Stop the—”

Crunch. The [Driver] reacted to the sound instantly by halting the wagon, and he shouted at her.

“Hey! If you’re robbing me, I only have a bunch of corn from—”

My broom!

Alevica howled. She landed on the road and ran forwards, drawing her wands. Which did look like a robbery. The [Driver] held up his hands, but Alevica took one look at her broom and saw it was neatly split down the center.

She began to curse.

You stupid, clodbrained, mudroller without eyes or—that broom cost me thirty gold pieces! It was hand-crafted, and you broke it with your stupid wagon—

It was said some [Witches] could turn the air blue with cursing. Alevica only managed this [Driver]’s ears. She stomped forwards, her beautiful boots picking up dust, as she harangued him by midnight until he drove away.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t see you! You fell on top of me! I have a delivery of Lupp Corn to make!”

What corn? Hey! Get back here!”

Alevica was picking up her shattered broom and staring at the splintered haft of it when she looked up, then around.

She realized she was in the middle of a road leading south from Reizmelt, by midnight, the blue moon shining down over her head.

The light of the moon made her feel as though she were deep underwater; a road at the bottom of the sea. Only distant trees and the bare dirt path were visible to her. There wasn’t anyone else on the road but the luckless driver. And…she stared at her broom.

Come back!

 

——

 

When Alevica got to town, she was footsore from hours of walking, and it was, by her reckoning, perhaps 3 in the morning.

She had no idea which town this was; in all likelihood, she had flown past this one many times and never paused once to ask the name.

But it had a Runner’s Guild, so she stomped into it, startling a sleepy [Receptionist] awake.

“Hey. I need a [Message] sent. Wake up. I’m a City Runner, and I’ve got a problem.”

“Yes? Hello?”

The younger woman fumbled with her spectacles and peered at Alevica. She took in the iconic hat and dress—and Alevica’s scowl—and sat up.

“Are you—”

Witch Runner Alevica. Get me a [Message] to Riverfarm, a drink of something hot—make that breakfast—and I need a carriage to Invrisil. Now.”

The [Receptionist] gave Alevica the look of someone in the service industry hoping they had a bad fever instead of reality.

“W-what seems to be the matter, Runner Alevica? I can certainly help you with…”

The duty of a [Receptionist] was to help Runners, and City Runners ranked above Street Runners. Still, ordering breakfast and a [Message]—Alevica’s glower brought the [Receptionist] up short.

“My broom got run over by a [Driver]. I’m lodging a complaint with them. I need a [Mage] in this dirt-town to send a [Message] to Riverfarm.”

The [Receptionist] licked her lips.

“We don’t have a carriage service in this town, Runner Alevica. As for a [Message], the Mage’s Guild can help you. Wait, do you mean the place with the [Emperor]?”

Alevica rolled her eyes. By now, she was attracting attention from the other Runners in the guild who were dozing in between runs or here for morning work. Several heads turned her way as she raised her voice.

“Yes, the [Emperor]. The [Emperor] who’ll be upset if I don’t finish my delivery. Now?”

She stared at the [Receptionist] until the young woman, flustered, made a choice and dashed out from behind her counter.

“I—I can see if someone’s awake in the Mage’s Guild for an emergency [Message]. Wait right here, Runner Alevica.”

By the time the panting [Receptionist], an aspiring Street Runner herself, got back, she found Alevica had found a table and chair, put her feet up, and was eating food she’d looted from the Runner’s Guild’s breakroom. Alevica was still glowering and crunching on some bright red corn.

“What the hell is up with all this corn?”

“It’s Lupp Corn.”

What corn?

Clearly, Alevica hadn’t heard about the prolific corn that had really helped prices during the winter. She was eating the spicy corn with enough gusto, anyways, and sat up when she saw the sleepy [Mage].

“What’s this about an emergency?”

“I have a message to [Emperor] Laken, Riverfarm. Send to Mister Prost—no, wait. He’s dead.”

Alevica’s face flickered a moment, then grew harder.

“Send to Lady Rie Valerund or [Emperor] Laken. Tell them it’s from Alevica. Message reads: ‘My broom is broken. I’m stuck in’—where are we?”

“Kevaunt.”

“‘—Kevaunt. Wherever that is. Can you direct a carriage my way? Otherwise, I’ll have to ride.’”

The [Mage] copied this down, repeated it once, and hurried off to send the [Message]. The [Receptionist] tried not to stare at her breakfast entering Alevica’s mouth. The Witch Runner yawned.

“That should do it. There’s no possibility of a travel carriage coming through, even if there’s no guild here?”

“No, Runner Alevica. But our city might have a guild. It’s only twenty-six miles from here.”

Not far for a Runner, right? Alevica just snorted.

“I’m not riding twenty-six miles—much less renting a horse! I’ll take a nap. Does this place have an inn?”

An inn? The [Receptionist] was dismayed, but Alevica seemed footsore and tired, and the young woman instantly quoted the Bee’s Knees, a cheap stopover for any Runner. Alevica nodded and got up.

“Fine. Wake me up if my ride gets here.”

She went to stride out of the guild as the lower-level Runners stared at her. Was this how bigshot Runners acted? The [Receptionist] stood there, stung almost as much as the eponymous inn Alevica was bound for, but she managed to console herself.

“What about the delivery, Witch Runner? If it’s priority, we can send it onwards. Will the [Emperor] be fine with a delay?”

She spoke up, trying to sound her most professional. Alevica half-turned, then patted her side where her bag of holding was.

“What, that? It’s just some fancy clothing for a [Lady] in Invrisil.”

Then she strode out of the guild as the [Receptionist]’s mouth dropped open.

 

——

 

The Bee’s Knees was an inn with an owner who was both [Beekeeper] and [Innkeeper]. That turned out to combine into a class called [Buzzkeeper], which Alevica hated.

She hated the name. She hated the huge smile and open-armed welcome he gave people, and she hated the bee-themed motifs sprinkled around the room, including the patterned sheets.

She didn’t even get under the covers, just jumped onto it, boots and all, put her hat over her head, and got forty winks of sleep. When she woke up, she walked downstairs, grabbed a honey mead, and after taking it down with a hot meal, went back upstairs and fell asleep again.

When she awoke—Alevica stared at the ceiling and knew two months had passed since the day Oliyaya, the Great Witch of the Hapis Coven, had died. She could still see her mentor turning to her, face as crooked and twisted as anyone’s image of a [Witch]: warty and horrific, mouth open in a gap-toothed grin, the moment before her head exploded.

Alevica, still bleary, flinched as a part of Oliyaya hit her cheek. She sat up, banishing the image. A swell of merriment and good cheer rose from below, proof the Bee’s Knees was probably a good place run by a friendly innkeeper who was obsessed with honey and liked bees.

The Witch Runner hated it. She reached up as she put her hat on her head, but there was nothing under her hat; hence why she had fallen from the sky.

“Hmph. Time to get more.”

Alevica stomped back to the Runner’s Guild to harvest more of her craft. She should have had a surplus. Whatever. She’d get enough out of them there if the [Receptionist] were still on duty.

 

——

 

She was. The young woman who Alevica didn’t know the name of was at her desk, and she simmered with resentment, anger, and a bit of fear.

All things Alevica drank like a thirsty sailor handed a cup of rum. Not just the [Receptionist]; the entire guild had decided it hated Alevica while she slept, and she took all of it and tucked it under her hat.

This had the dual benefit of charging up her powers and tamping down on the hostility in the room. Now she was filled up with energy, Alevica leaned over the counter.

“Where’s my ride?”

The [Receptionist] didn’t meet Alevica’s eyes; the [Witch] had taken most of the emotions. Not strongly; that was wrong, but enough so that fear should have outweighed the other feelings.

“Your conveyance will be here very soon, Runner Alevica. A reply was sent from the Mage’s Guild to inform you that transport has been arranged. His Majesty of Riverfarm is apparently concerned about your safety.”

Thanks.

Alevica injected as much natural sarcasm into that statement as was possible and felt another spike of ire from the young woman, which she drew into her hat again. Alevica was a good witch.

Not a nice one. Nor a caring one. Not even one with a positive reputation, not even among other [Witches].

But she was quite competent. No [Witch], let alone one her age, could fly. She had been trained by the great Oliyaya, and Alevica was Oliyaya’s finest apprentice. Her craft was ire and anger and fear; in short, it was strife. Alevica was very good at collecting and using it.

It should have kept me in the air all the way to Invrisil. Did I not charge it up at Reizmelt, or do they not hate me still? Maybe I have to pick more fights.

Alevica shrugged as she spun to the door and began to march out. She was almost there when someone stuck a foot out, and she tripped and went sprawling.

Laughter broke out from the other Runners, and Alevica hit the ground hard. She got up slowly, and the laughter died down as the [Witch] calmly drew one wand.

“Miss Alevica, no fighting in the—”

The Runner who had tripped Alevica was giving the [Witch] a challenging stare; she was some local Runner brimming with righteous indignation on behalf of the [Receptionist], no doubt. A scrawny farm-girl who wanted to become a Courier, almost literally hay-haired.

Alevica gave her one look up and down while holding a wand worth more than the entire Street Runner, but her main concern was her boot.

She bent down and stared at the earring in her boot. The hex to ward malice was…

“Huh.”

Alevica heard a faint cracking. Dried bits of grease flaked to the floor, and she came up with a very dirty, but still faintly glimmering ruby earring. The Street Runner stared at it as Alevica looked at her hex—then felt at her boots.

“The strings have loosened up.”

It was true; her boots had the slightest give to them when they had been sturdy as rocks for years. It wasn’t just her broom. Alevica felt at her hat, then lifted it off her head.

In view of the other Runners, she stared up inside of it, mystified.

“Empty.”

Alevica checked her hat as if expecting to find a hole. In a way, she did find one. She stood there, turning her hat over and over in her hands, then looked around.

“Damn it. I hate it when Eloise is right.”

That was a non-sequitur. A statement which made no sense to anyone else. Alevica jammed the hat back on her head and glared at no one and nothing.

“I am not a Wiskeria or a Nanette. Boots, behave. Take to my heels with wings upon my feet. Be swift, be fleet. Or else my end I’ll meet.

A little rhyming charm. [Witch] magic. Even the [Receptionist] was fascinated as she saw Alevica grab something out of the air and flick it onto her boots. They didn’t glow or spark, but she tapped her heels together and sprang back a step, and she moved. As if she were gliding, fast, graceful—

“Five seconds? That’s all I get?”

Alevica stared at her boots, then shrugged.

“Fine. I’ll charge them if the hat doesn’t work. Now, where was I? Oh, right. [Frostbolt].”

She turned, pointed her wand at the Street Runner who’d tripped her, and a bolt hit the girl in the chest and knocked her flat out of her chair. The Street Runner stared at the frost covering her front where the bolt had struck her and groaned.

Every Runner and the [Receptionist] leapt to their feet with a shout of anger. Alevica just took to her heels, boots leaving a trail of dust with each step.

 

——

 

To Alevica’s disbelief, her boots ran out of power seven minutes later. She came to a stop down the road, panting, sweat beading under her dress, which was not meant for running but flying, and stared at her boots.

“That’s impossible.”

She’d charged the enchantment up with strife she had generated on the spot! A lot of it. And yet it had leaked out of her boots when it should have given her hours! She glanced over her shoulder nervously, but the pursuit had ended five minutes ago.

Even so, if the Runners realized she was out of magic on the road…Alevica jogged faster, cursing as the dirt road leading from the town opened up into pastures of cattle-infested farmland.

She might have continued running like this, or hidden, but someone shouted her name on the road, and Alevica spun, drawing her wands again.

“Miss Alevica?”

She had two wands, the ability to raise the dead, and alchemical items; if the Runners wanted a fight, they would get one. However, killing wasn’t something Alevica wanted to do—she tensed until she realized there weren’t Runners coming her way, but a small group of [Riders].

And—she blinked—they looked somewhat fancy.

They were a group of five, with a sixth horse riding empty next to them. Their leader was a young man; he had four bodyguards, and Alevica thought he seemed vaguely familiar?

“Witch Alevica, I’m glad we spotted you! We said we were inbound to Kevaunt; is your delivery that urgent? We came at all speed!”

“That’s me. Are you my ride? I asked for a carriage.”

Alevica glanced down the road behind her and saw what might have been some Runners hurrying her way. She strode to the young man, who was gesturing at the horse. He gave her an apologetic look.

“So I understand, but there is no carriage in the city—at least, ah, currently active. They are all refusing to work, and the Wistram carriages aren’t on demand yet. We have a horse, if you’ll ride?”

Alevica didn’t hesitate after a glance over her shoulder.

“Yep. Let’s go.”

She swung herself into the saddle, noting the horse she was riding wasn’t upset or angry; always good to check. After a moment of hesitation, the young man pointed back the way they’d come, and his group turned.

“It’s only a short ride to the city. I, eh, ah, hope you’ll remember me to Emperor Laken. Not that this is much of a service, but I took his request the moment I heard it. Lucky I was about, really. They forwarded his request to my family given the dispute with the Driver’s Guild…”

Alevica had no idea what he was talking about, but she did know about the damn magical carriages from Wistram.

“So they’re trying to sell the enchanted carriages in your city too? And the Driver’s Guild is refusing to work.”

“That is the gist of it. I understand Invrisil and other cities have the same issue. But Wistram’s carriages are ludicrously fast. I’ve ridden in Magnolia Reinhart’s personal carriage once, and these are the fastest things next to it. Frankly, I’d use them, but the [Drivers] will be out of work since the enchanted ones need no drivers. My father looks at them as a good thing. I have reservations, especially since the Wistram carriages might be more expensive.”

“Fascinating.”

Who was he, and why was he so chatty? How did he know Laken? The young man shot a few glances at Alevica’s face and cleared his throat, flushing a bit.

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I am Lord Pattin. Of Vaunt.”

“Mhm.”

“I was a guest of His Majesty’s last year.”

“I see.”

It made sense. Laken knew lots of nobles, or at least, they knew of him. The young man clearly seemed to hold the [Emperor] in some regard.

“I do apologize if I sound familiar; the Witch Runner is a fairly famous name around here. You’ve been to Vaunt more than once. Seeing you fly in was a surprise, I must say.”

Alevica thought of her broom and scowled.

“It’ll be rarer still these days. One of those [Drivers] ran over my broom in the middle of the night.”

Pattin and his bodyguards had to work this out a moment. Lord Pattin coughed.

“Er—in the air?”

Alevica did not dignify that with a response.

 

——

 

The problem with riding with the young [Lord] was that Alevica had to be somewhat sociable. [Witches] spoke to whomever they pleased, as they pleased, but part of the freedom of the class was the freedom to lose your head.

Therefore, Alevica eventually stopped brooding about the entire mess she was in and played nice. For her.

“And how is the city of cheese?”

They were staring at it in the distance as they rode towards it; Kevaunt and other local settlements all were subsidiaries of the famous…cheese place.

Honestly, unless you liked cheese or you lived nearby, Vaunt was just one city on the map. Alevica had flown there any number of times, but she only associated the spot with cheap cheese and nothing else. It was, to her, a place you passed through rather than lived.

Lord Pattin hesitated as if this were a difficult question, and Alevica sighed as he gave a rather nuanced response. He struck her as more intellectual than most [Lords] his age—which was not a high bar. The huge boulders they were riding around, set into the ground of this pastoral landscape, were more intelligent than most [Lords] that Alevica had met.

“Well, I’m not always in Vaunt itself. I live in Jomsvaunt—”

“All the local towns have ‘vaunt’ in the name?”

“Yes.”

Pattin winced as Alevica rolled her eyes. He was interesting; his bodyguards were bristling a bit with annoyance at her casual tone and attitude, but he was remarkably un-annoyed.

Alevica could sense emotions very strongly; it let her moderate her tone when her usual attitude would cause trouble. Eloise was even better at reading feelings, hence her status as the Tea Witch, another of Izril’s Great Witches.

Eloise, Hedag, Agratha, Oliyaya…Califor…

The list was getting shorter. Alevica focused on Pattin, ignoring the image of Oliyaya cackling at her. He wasn’t angry or even peeved. He felt uncertain.

“—The economy is, well, never the best. It’s all down to the Merchant’s Guilds and these old contracts with the [Farmers] they love to use to keep cheese prices down—then sell at high rates elsewhere. I keep telling my father to renegotiate them, but fighting a [Merchant] on contracts is an expensive nightmare. Vaunt does well enough, I suppose; it’s not like we had those food shortages, and the prices have risen for everyone despite the gouging. It’s, ah—um—”

“Someone’s cow not producing enough milk?”

Alevica had noted how many pastures and farmlands catering towards cows and other milk-producing animals there were. If you could milk it, Vaunt had it. Goats, cows, sheep, reindeer, donkeys, horses, Humans—well, she doubted the last group sold cheese, but maybe on some kind of horrific black market.

There was something going on in the field closest to Vaunt’s low walls. Alevica peered at a group of figures galloping around. Pattin’s voice was hesitant.

“No. Actually. Rather, it’s more military than all that. Our army—it’s not more than a few companies most of the time. But we’ve had thousands of recruits. All because of…do you know a Gershal of Vaunt?”

Alevica had been tired, upset and angry with herself, impatient, and bored all at once. She felt those emotions crystalize in her chest, then break to pieces, and a true feeling, stronger than the trivial ones, rose.

It felt like pain, like terror, like the howling of a hundred thousand Draugr voices, the determination to fight or die, the bravery of seeing other [Witches] standing against the undead—and that damnable pink fire that captured another [Witch]’s craft.

Erin Solstice’s fire. For a moment, Alevica tasted glory and saw it as a man holding a sword aloft, Zel Shivertail’s legacy. A falling banner—a damn wheel of cheese.

Gershal of Vaunt.

Her head snapped around, and Pattin started as Alevica stared at him. The [Witch] lifted her hat, and it was empty, but she tipped it suddenly at the city of Vaunt, as if it meant the world. Not the [Lord]; her eyes stared through him, because he had not been there.

“Yeah. I know him. Vaunt’s greatest hero and warrior, right? The one who didn’t back down when the Draugr overran his spot? That idiot?”

The [Bodyguards], Lord Pattin, all looked at each other and then at her as if she had suddenly become a [Storyteller]. Pattin cleared his throat a few times, and his voice wobbled a second.

“Ah. Yes? That would be who I meant. That was him.”

He paused.

Was that him?”

The single question defined the men and women training in the field for Alevica. It changed the city in her eyes, and when she turned to the young [Lordling], so uncertain, so ignorant, she regained her mocking smile.

“Yes.”

She then refused to elaborate.

 

——

 

Here was a secret only a few people knew: Alevica was jealous of…Ryoka Griffin. Why?

Well, Ryoka Griffin had the power of the wind on her side. She had her stupid-looking wingsuit and paraglider, but the upshot was that she could fly.

Alevica could fly. She could fly better than Ryoka, who was at the mercy of the wind and normally could perform only limited tricks in the air. Alevica could maneuver her broom in any direction, even do tricks in the air, since she flew under her own power.

The flipside was that Alevica couldn’t fly often. Or long distances. Ryoka could.

Oh yes. Everyone knew the Witch Runner could fly. They also knew, if they looked into her files, that Alevica napped in carriages. She was lazy because she used other vehicles to transport her, and most put it down to Alevica’s sloth.

The truth was that even if Alevica wanted to, she didn’t have the power to keep herself airborne all the time. She had to ration her power; her craft was not unlimited. Even so, she was the sole [Witch] who flew Izril’s skies with any regularity, a point she took pride in.

Now, it seemed like she might have to go back to the ground. Alevica thought about that and what it might entail for her future as a Runner. Running was very profitable. But if she had lost her craft…

I’ll get it back. I am not a Nanette nor a Wiskeria. I am neither a child nor a melodramatic [Witch] whose mother is a legend.

That was the decision she came to during her long return trip from Vaunt. Not that there weren’t a few unpleasant surprises on the way.

Lord Pattin kept asking about Gershal of Vaunt until they got to the city, whereupon Alevica lost him by inquiring after a ride to Invrisil via the Mage’s Guild. Upon learning the price of a carriage given the Driver’s Guild protests, she elected to ride.

Because of that, she went to the Runner’s Guild to ask for packages to justify the trip. Anything from Vaunt to Invrisil. That was where she got a nasty surprise that made the issues the Driver’s Guild was facing far more personal to her.

“What? Already claimed?

The [Receptionist] was a man this time, and he gave her a look that said he’d heard what had gone down at Kevaunt, but his concern for their occupation overrode his desire to be snippy.

“That’s right. Wistram says it’ll run a delivery carriage from Invrisil to each city all the way to First Landing every single day. No need for Runners.”

“That’s insane. Every [Bandit] will be hitting that for—”

“Not if it’s letters. And not if Wistram blasts them with magic for even trying. They ran one from First Landing south to Liscor just yesterday. It passed through; we had to give up our packages.”

“The Guildmaster here okayed that?”

The [Receptionist] lowered his voice with a glower.

“It wasn’t his choice. The nobility love the idea. Lord Camos Ouslend approved it along with the Five Families; what’s anyone to do? But if they do run that carriage, you City Runners will be out of luck for all but exclusive deliveries. At least Wistram isn’t making something to deliver inside cities.”

Alevica just stood there, trying to work out how much income would be lost by Runners. Not just that; they’d all be competing over far less work. That spelled…well, she just left the Runner’s Guild and continued riding with more of an eye towards impressing her clients than before.

 

——

 

Money. Money mattered. Every [Witch] had to have an occupation. Being a [Witch] didn’t mean much if you were penniless. True, you got some who lived in nature, but even Hedag tried to scrape together coins. Not that people liked paying the Hedag who cut people’s heads or limbs off; she made money selling charms.

Eloise was one of the ‘rich’ [Witches], which said a lot about how lucrative most were. Tea sold well. Oliyaya, Alevica’s mentor, had been a traditional [Witch] who sold hexes and charms. Usually more charms than hexes.

You might be surprised because Oliyaya had been a fright, a truly horrific-looking woman with a crooked nose, bad teeth, and who played up being the big bad witch, rival to Agratha, who thought all [Witches] should be kind and friendly and not alarming.

When she was a child, Alevica had kept asking why no one wanted Oliyaya’s hexes. Because they worked. Have an unfaithful man? Buy an impotency charm made from a pig’s severed you-know-what, grind it up into his food or drink, and he was going to be limp as a boiled noodle for the next month or more.

And that was the nice hex. Oliyaya could—and had—make a lot worse. It was a bone of contention between her and other [Witches]. How far was too far?

Ah, Alevica. My curses are meant to be bought once a blue moon, if that. They do more for a community by not being sold, you see? Everyone knows they’re there. Everyone knows they work. So mind your manners lest you get to the moment where they’re bought and used.

She had called that ‘respect by mutual fear’ as opposed to Agratha’s ‘let’s all get along’ charade.

Alevica had taken her mentor’s lessons to heart in part; she had never gone for the traditional [Witch] route but realized her ability to travel could make her a killing as a City Runner. Hence, she’d grown rich enough to afford all kinds of custom-made equipment. Her mentor had never told Alevica she was doing the wrong thing. Other [Witches] had, but Oliyaya had just congratulated Alevica on her work. But Oliyaya had sat there, taking apprentices, doing her craft, never wanting more gold than what she pulled in on her sales of charms and hexes.

A Great Witch should be as rich as her name. As famous as her skill. Instead, she’d been just ‘a [Witch]’ who’d come to Riverfarm after the bargain was struck, amused herself with the [Emperor]’s domain, and then gone to war for a new [Witch]—and died.

Killing a Hag Queen of an entity that Alevica didn’t know.

Hag Queen of Aklat Vunn.

Who were they? What were they? What was Aklat Vunn? Who was Kasigna?

Alevica had no answers. Only a dead mentor.

Erin Solstice had called for help. [Witches] had answered her. The [Innkeeper] owed her fellow [Witches] a debt.

Someday, Alevica would collect on it.

 

——

 

Two months had passed since Oliyaya’s death. No one but other [Witches] really invoked her name. She was one of Riverfarm’s casualties, and they had been ‘low’.

Prost was another. Halrac, the third, if you were counting those with important classes or high levels. Only the people who mattered to them still thought of them regularly or had to reckon with their passing.

Alevica finished her delivery late, but her client was understanding. Lady Ieka Imarris gushed over the custom-designed fabrics she had ordered from First Landing and assured Alevica they would be put to good use by the best fashion experts here…for her secretary.

Alevica gave the embarrassed Fierre a stare and decided she didn’t really care. When she got to The Wandering Inn, the annoying Doorgnoll charged her for entry to Riverfarm, despite Alevica protesting she was a ‘friend of the inn’.

“I don’t know you. And you can’t say ‘friend of the inn’ with a straight face. Pay up.”

The [Witch] slapped some coins down and strode through the doorway, glaring at Liska, who stuck her tongue out in reply. And that was that. She walked into Riverfarm, whose denizens didn’t interact with The Wandering Inn as much as Liscorians. There, Alevica let out a huge, exasperated breath—

And sighed louder as Emperor Laken Godart along with Witch Eloise, Hedag, Agratha, and Lady Rie all found her not a hundred steps into the bustling town.

“Alevica! There you are, my dear. Emperor Laken told us you’d arrived. Your poor broom! A mending ritual will sort it out, I’m sure. How are you feeling? How, ah, is your hat?”

Witch Agratha was a kindly, fussy woman who belonged in front of a class of students. That was how she presented herself, and that was how most, including other [Witches], saw her.

Oliyaya had never been able to stand her. Alevica couldn’t tolerate Agratha either. Behind those round spectacles and that smile that was best seen when Agratha offered you a pie she’d baked along with some homespun wisdom was a [Witch].

She could be the [Witch] of simple charms—or be the one who held a cudgel in one hand when sweet words weren’t enough.

Normally, Alevica got along with Agratha by not having to interact with her, but the other [Witch] seemed to think she owed it to Oliyaya to ensure Alevica was doing alright.

“My hat is out of craft. Which you all know. Thank you, Witches. Thank you, Your Majesty. If you’d like to rub it in my face, I’ll go find a pig trough so we can get it over with.”

Eloise frowned mildly at Alevica, but Hedag just laughed.

“Would it help, Alevica, girl, or do you already understand what needs to be done?”

Hedag. Now—Alevica shot Hedag a careful glance. She had hands like a butcher and an axe to match. You didn’t want to get Hedag mad, but Alevica liked Hedag more than the other two.

“I know there’s a problem. My broom went out. I’ll find another craft or get my head in order. Okay? Solved.”

“Just so long as you’re fine, my dear. Taking a tumble out of the skies is a quick way for a [Witch] to meet her end.”

Agratha gave Alevica a direct look, and the Witch Runner ground her teeth. It was Laken who spoke in that reasonable voice as his head swung her way. His eyes were closed, and she never quite knew what he was thinking.

“I don’t intrude in [Witch] affairs, Alevica. The others simply told me what was going on when you asked for a ride. I trust Lord Pattin was a help?”

“Oh yes, he asked to be remembered to you, Your Majesty. And Vaunt’s filled with aspiring Gershals, ready to die in the name of cheese. And Wistram is stealing both runner and driver jobs. I leave it to you to deal with.”

Alevica sketched a sarcastic bow and saw Lady Rie frown. Another mystery; she had been an ordinary lady when Alevica had first known her. Now she had a strange poise, an alluring presence, as if she had twenty levels on the former Lady Rie. She seemed impressive, but Alevica wasn’t convinced it was due to levels. Nor…could Alevica easily read Rie’s emotions.

The [Emperor] had a court fit to his class, even if Prost was gone. Durene wasn’t here, and if you added in Gamel, the [Knight], and Wiskeria, child of Belavierr, greatest prodigy of witches to ever grace this world despite doing nothing much—you had the full set.

Alevica wasn’t one of them. Oh, she had been present in the initial coven, but as Oliyaya’s reluctant representative. She didn’t want to be some advisor to power. She had flown off, gone back to enjoying life—and until two months ago, things had been fine.

Today? Alevica paused as Laken leaned on his staff.

“You mean the magical carriages. I understand what’s going on. Wistram has decided to automate jobs. They’re advertising new magic, new services—teleportation, even.”

“Am I going to look forwards to having Nesor do my job in Riverfarm?”

“No. I don’t feel the need to replace Runners. For transport, certainly, but I’d prefer to have my own magical carriages, not ones owned by Wistram. There’s a benefit to the goodwill of the Runner’s Guild and Driver’s Guild, as I’m sure you’d tell me, Alevica. Please tell them that.”

Laken smiled, and Alevica drew up short. Awkwardly, she cleared her throat.

“I will, then. Unless you want to send Charlay or someone?”

“I may. I trust you’ll spread the word. If you need anything from me, Alevica, I’ll hear you out at any moment.”

He left it at that, whereas Agratha and Eloise tried to get Alevica alone to have a nice talk with other [Witches] about Alevica’s problems. But Laken’s words haunted Alevica more than the [Witches]. Alevica had grown up around [Witches].

Laken…had a kind of power they did not. And that made Alevica think.

The [Emperor] knew what she was doing. Or so she assumed. He had ‘eyes’ everywhere in Riverfarm; he was transparent about his abilities. But did he have ears? He was from another world, and he understood things in ways that made him more interesting, especially to [Witches].

Such as his understanding that the magical carriages would be revolutionary, but the Driver’s Guild and Runner’s Guild would always be needed. If Riverfarm was one of the few groups smart enough to keep them on its side…

It’s the right call to make. I’d have told him that, but he didn’t need my advice. Hence, I don’t need to be an advisor. Alevica could have lived perfectly happily with preferential treatment at Riverfarm’s Runner’s Guild.

Charlay certainly liked her status as a local hero; Laken had set up a Runner’s Guild as Riverfarm began to gain multiple villages and its town widened to the point where one was required. Alevica could pop in and pretty much get any delivery she wanted to take.

A life of living on the laurels of helping an [Emperor] once—and not even that much. That was the Alevica dream. She could get cheap food here, had a house she could live in, rent-free, associate with a community of [Witches], and enjoy her riches as a renowned City Runner until she decided she wanted to settle down in some other fashion.

That was her life two months ago.

 

——

 

“I’m back. Cirsa, did you clean the dishes or is there a mess? Malluni, where are you?”

The door to Oliyaya’s cottage stuck, despite it being newly built, and Alevica had to put her shoulder into it until she could squeeze into the building. That was because, somehow, there were piles of objects behind the door. All of Oliyaya’s possessions; old urns filled with who knew what, old spellbooks sharing space with spider nests inside of boots.

When Alevica entered the cottage, it was dark. Empty. She’d gotten back in the afternoon; the cottage seemed deserted. Alevica had a bunch of fresh vegetables, a cut of Corusdeer venison wrapped up, and flour, bread, salt, everything she’d been able to get from Riverfarm’s markets.

Prices were the best in Riverfarm for everything but salt, which was still cheaper in Invrisil. But the winter had sent prices skyrocketing everywhere. More than one person who’d entered Riverfarm had been a Drake, Gnoll, or even a Dullahan or Garuda from Pallass seeking lower prices despite the cost of using the door.

“Cirsa? Malluni?”

Alevica dumped the food on a table after sweeping it clear of spiderwebs and a scattering of dirty utensils. She tossed the silverware in a bucket by the sink and wondered when Laken was going to get plumbing for Riverfarm.

He insisted it was one of the things you ‘had to have’, so he’d laid out the houses with areas meant for working water. At the moment, you just used well or river water, which was plentiful. Alevica noted that there weren’t that many dishes in the sink and nodded approvingly.

“Come on, you two. Where—”

She was turning around, past piles of uneven detritus that cast looming shadows, squinting up towards the stairwell leading to the second floor. The light coming from the door and through the shutters flickered a second, and then someone shut the door.

Darkness.

Alevica sighed and raised her wand. She lit it up and looked around.

A second ago, there had been only piles of Oliyaya’s witchy trash. But the moment Alevica’s wand lit up, she saw a girl dressed all in black sitting on top of a pile of ancient cauldrons. She was grinning with all her teeth, and the little [Witch] had a pattern of burn scars all over her face.

Aiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeee!

Cirsa’s shriek came from her open mouth, like a pit of blackness, and her eyes bulged wildly. More than one visitor to Oliyaya’s hut had experienced heart problems when Cirsa had done that before.

Alevica just took her fingers out of her ears and picked up the wand she’d dropped.

“I’m back. Where’s Malluni?”

For answer, Cirsa pointed up with a huge grin on her face. Instead of looking towards the stairs, Alevica looked straight up—and saw the second of Oliyaya’s apprentices climbing overhead on all fours, staring down at her.

Malluni had black hair; Cirsa had blonde. But Malluni had long hair that ran down to her waist that she liked to cover her face with. Right now, she resembled a spider-[Witch] who dropped from the ceiling.

Alevica caught Malluni in her arms.

“You mastered the [Spider’s Grip] spell. Good. Have you two eaten yet?”

Shake, shake. Malluni was mute. Possibly not from birth; she had scars that Alevica could feel when she rubbed her head, under her hair. Elsewhere, too; Alevica didn’t dwell on the scars. Oliyaya had paid them back tenfold the day she’d claimed Malluni as her apprentice.

Alevica beckoned.

“Then one of you make sure the oven’s clear and start a fire. I’ll make something.”

She fished out her spellbook and rifled through it as Cirsa poked around the groceries while Malluni started the fire. Cirsa feared flames, quite naturally. Alevica opened her book to the last page and found a recipe for braising venison. She stared at the ingredients, then handed the book to Cirsa.

“Make the braising and I’ll prepare the meat.”

Obediently, the apprentice began pulling drawers open and revealing spices, which she combined in a bowl without looking at the quantities. Alevica only checked her once.

“That’s a tablespoon and a half.”

The little [Witch] caught herself and adjusted the amount. You had to be able to measure a tablespoon of whatever you wanted by eye; Oliyaya didn’t believe in hard and fast measurements when doing witchcraft. Most of the old recipes and rituals didn’t say ‘520 milligrams of Ember Salamander scale sheddings, 3 months growth’. They said ‘a handful of the green stuff and don’t inhale’.

Witchcraft overlapped with alchemy quite a lot, so this was good training. Not only did the two apprentices learn how to make sure the venison was cooked and seasoned as if this were a brew, they learned how to cook food, another very useful talent for [Witches].

Neither one really spoke much. Cirsa could—but she was best friends with Malluni, and since the other girl was incapable or refused to, they operated in silence.

Creepy silence. Oliyaya’s two young apprentices were, to put a fine word on it, horrifying. Not just their appearances or Cirsa’s visible scars; they quite enjoyed being the terror of Riverfarm by night.

“A woman should be allowed to be horrific.”

Alevica quoted her mentor’s favorite saying. She spooned marinade over the venison and then chanted a little spell. She had enough magic from the people waiting in line for Liska’s door for that, or so she thought.

Cooking oven, nice and bright. Give me a feast tonight. Or I’ll stain your iron and give you a fright!

She waved her wand, tapped the food, and, satisfied the food had a better-than-even chance of coming out tasty, let Malluni put the food in the oven. Then the two girls tried to distract Alevica with a huge and hugely-dead horseshoe crab they’d found somewhere.

The giant, armored arthropod was useful in some alchemy; Alevica took it, inspected it, and put it in one of the piles.

“Yes, yes. Very nice. Get over here, you two. Did you eat properly yesterday? I’ll make you stay with Agratha if you didn’t.”

She produced a comb and, to their visible dismay, began to comb their hair, starting with Malluni. The [Spooky Apprentice] tried to pull away, then bite Alevica.

Unimpressed, Alevica caught the girl by her chin and inspected her teeth.

“Yellow. But they look healthy. You’re brushing, then. And eating uncooked Yellats and using carrot juice. Fine. Cirsa?”

The other girl heaved a huge sigh and brought out her spellbook as Alevica went back to combing. She sat there and opened it to the page Alevica had made them study while she went on her delivery. One look told Alevica why the two girls were trying to get out of lessons. It was hard stuff. So she thought for a second, then nodded.

“Sympathy magic. Califor used it to shield all of Riverfarm from undead one time. And stop the wildfire.”

Both girls perked up. Cirsa crept closer, and Malluni sat more readily on the chair as Alevica spoke.

“She had a Cloak of Balshadow, an old one. I saw her swing it across the entire village and cloak it in a moment. That’s sympathy. It’s not boring; Oliyaya would have taught you to…let’s see. She’d probably have you blow out a candle and extinguish a fire that way. But maybe, if we’re lucky, Mavika will give you lessons.”

They liked that. Mavika was another creepy [Witch], which was what Alevica, Cirsa, Malluni, and Oliyaya all fell into the camp of. They believed [Witches] should be feared, in part. Alevica went on, glancing out the window.

“If we’re lucky, she can teach you two how to manipulate an owl with a feather, or maybe move a tree with a leaf from it. Let’s do that after dinner, okay? Now, show me you understand the basics. Sympathy is…?”

She glanced at Malluni, who squirmed, then began to write on the table with a finger. Alevica bent over her.

“Yes. Yes…a small object makes a big one move if the two can be convinced to care for each other. Yes…no. That’s not how it works. Cirsa?”

She busied herself with their hair, then discovered Cirsa might have been eating and brushing her teeth, but she hadn’t bothered to change her dress for the last few days. So they needed washing.

Alevica kept the lesson going and only stopped for the food, which had turned out nicely thanks to her charm. She led the two apprentices out of her hut to find Mavika, who was willing to give them a lesson on convincing mice that a piece of bark was cheese so the owls could pounce on them.

The girls liked that. Alevica then brought them back to their hut and had them both mix small brews using their own blood. Pinprick Potions, which hurt when you drank them like, well, getting your finger stabbed with a needle to draw blood. More sympathy.

Then they had to brush their teeth, wash, sleep—Alevica realized the spiders were getting rampant again and resolved to wipe them out, not that the apprentices minded. She put away the food first, managed to organize one pile by adding to five more, then put her feet up on the table and passed out.

If you had asked her if she enjoyed any of the work today, she would have said absolutely not. Teaching the two apprentices was a pain; Oliyaya always took in the girls who needed her expertise the most, the ones who had lost or been called to the class when no other voices arose.

Alevica hated cleaning. She hated cooking.

But her mentor was dead. Someone had to take care of them.

Alevica slept until sunlight hit her face, and she heard Cirsa scaring the daylights out of their neighbors. Then the [Witch] arose.

And she wondered why people were concerned about her.

 

——

 

As far as Laken could tell, Alevica was stable. As far as he could tell, Yesel was stable. Briganda was the one who was having the most visible difficulty adjusting. Or maybe it was Typhenous, but he didn’t show it, and the [Witches] were helping him in their way.

Those who had lost something on the Solstice didn’t show it in the ways Laken might have expected. He didn’t want them to be filled with visible grief or rage or angst, but it was what he had been primed to expect from his world’s culture.

Instead, they just—worked. Indeed, Alevica dedicating herself to raising Oliyaya’s apprentices had begun the day she’d walked back to Riverfarm to tell them Oliyaya was dead. Laken hadn’t seen tears from the two apprentices, not at Oliyaya’s funeral, nor after.

If Alevica wept when he sensed her sitting at the dinner table in Oliyaya’s home with her feet up—he couldn’t tell, and his ‘vision’ was more and more precise these days. He didn’t mean to be a voyeur, but since his powers didn’t have an off-switch, he had learned to accept what he knew.

Such as Typhenous and Eloise seeing something of each other. Was that therapy as [Witches] practiced it? Or was it just…interpersonal?

Laken didn’t know. He didn’t ask, and he certainly brought it up with no one. He was concerned about those who had been bereaved.

Prost was dead.

Miss Yesel and his family were not. As Laken was walking around the village with Gamel in the morning, greeting people who called hello to him, he noticed Miss Yesel heading his way, so he switched streets.

She followed him. Laken turned left, then right. Then he did a hop down a side alley. Then it became clear she was definitely following him.

Playing hide-and-go-seek or even tag with someone who knew where you were at all times was very hard, as the children and Pebblesnatch had learned. But Yesel knew Riverfarm as well as Laken, and she couldn’t miss the calls. He stopped and nodded to her.

“Miss Yesel. Good morning.”

“Your Majesty. I hope I’m not interrupting. I just wished you to know that I’m back to organizing my section of Riverfarm. Lady Rie was very understanding about my time off, but I have work to do. I trust that is acceptable?”

Her voice was calm, polite, with an attempt at being what Riverfarm’s folk thought of as ‘refined’, which was enunciating their words and elevating their tones a bit. Laken nodded.

“Of course, Miss Yesel. If you need more time…”

Since Prost’s death? But the woman just shook her head.

“There’s nothing to do with myself but work and take care of the children. It will be good for me. Just—please continue to give me directions as needed, Your Majesty. What with the sewers and plumbing and all the other issues, I’m at your disposal, or Lady Rie’s.”

Lady Rie was acting as the functional steward. Laken inclined his head again, but hesitated.

“I wouldn’t want to call upon you too heavily, Yesel—”

Your Majesty. Please don’t push me away. Prost meant everything to us, and I know he meant so much to you and Riverfarm—please let us continue.”

That drew Laken up short. His avoidance of Yesel—no, not avoidance; he’d tried to be kind at every moment, and helpful, and he had been guilty—he realized it was probably a disservice.

So he took a breath.

“If you would like to stand in the throne meetings as a representative of Riverfarm, Miss Yesel—”

“If you’d like, Your Majesty. I don’t have Prost’s insight.”

That was neither yay or nay, but Laken made a swift decision.

“Then I will ask you to, and to share your opinion. And I won’t avoid…putting responsibilities in your lap, Yesel. But do tell me if they’re onerous.”

“I will, Your Majesty.”

He nodded, and he thought she smiled; she certainly bowed, and Laken stood there afterwards.

“I have been avoiding Yesel, I suppose. It was my fault. Alevica—just is too busy. Gamel, what does she look like?”

The [Knight], who was ever-present, spoke quietly to the [Emperor].

“She seemed grateful, Your Majesty. I believe she was more worried you would refuse.”

“No, not that. How does she look?”

One of Laken’s enduring curiosities was sight. Not sight-sight; he didn’t care if someone’s hair was blue, except if that was somehow unique. Beauty, ugliness, he didn’t understand it. But how they looked was more than appearance. Gamel took his time replying, used to the nature of the question.

“She seems like a single mother, Your Majesty. Strained. Keeping up good appearances. She seemed—as if you could have held the bridge on the river up on her back.”

Laken exhaled.

“Like that?”

“Yes, sire.”

“I thought you’d see cracks. I thought…Prost pushed me out of the way. He saved me. Is she angry? Is she proud of him? What is she?”

He couldn’t understand it. After a long while, the [Knight] murmured.

“I think she misses him, Your Majesty. More than anything else.”

“I see. That makes sense. And Alevica?”

“Busier still, Your Majesty. Impatient, when you met her yesterday.”

Another nod from Laken.

“And Briganda? Typhenous?”

“—Better, Your Majesty? As well as you can be? In both cases, along with grieving or…relieved, I would say.”

The [Emperor] rubbed at his face with one hand. Relieved?

It was part of his fascination, his obsession to know why.

 

——

 

Briganda was sewing a new shirt up when Laken checked on her, and Typhenous was sitting on a bench as Cade, Briganda’s child, ran around with other children about the new playground. It was supposed to be child-safe, but there was always a parent watching.

Not interfering with the fun; children dashed from slides to a sandpit to swings, all the traditional things in a park. The weird, magic stuff would come later. Laken had asked the [Witches] for help, and while this was more of a [Mage] thing, they had ideas.

Both adventurers looked up when Laken approached. Briganda rose, and Typhenous began to, then just leaned on his staff. Briganda spoke brightly.

“Your Majesty, can we help you? Is there news about Revi?”

“No, no. Nothing about Revi. I was just…checking in on you two. Are you sewing today, Briganda?”

The [Shield Maid] held up the cloth, not that Laken could see it, but Gamel made an approving noise that didn’t sound forced.

“I have [Advanced Stitching] and [Craft: Supple Clothing]. I never could do more than sew up a travel bag, but it looks fine now. I might be able to do that for a living, Miss Yesel says, Your Majesty. Cade loves the clothing. It’s something I can make for him now…”

Her voice trailed off, and Laken filled in the gap.

“Now your combat Skills are gone? Beniar and Wiskeria couldn’t unearth any synergies out of your class?”

“Not really.”

Briganda murmured, her tone altering faintly. She sat down slowly as Laken sat at the table with Typhenous. The old man was watching Cade play, Laken guessed from the position of his head. Briganda’s voice was forcibly cheerful.

“I guess I didn’t get lucky with my [Shield Maid] Skills. There’s a lot of defensive stuff, still. But no…well, my axe Skills are just gone. I could pull my weight in a fight, but I think I’d fall behind other Gold-rankers. Maybe it’s what I wanted. Now, I don’t have a choice.”

A bitter tone entered her voice, but it was replaced by a laugh of chagrined affection as her son ran over.

“Mom! I fell!”

He had indeed. Laken had noticed him go splat, but little Cade was tough. Apparently, there was an issue though, because Laken smelled something foul.

“Cade. Right in a horsepat? Hold still.”

The [Emperor] was about to edge away politely when Briganda put down the needlework, lifted a towel she probably kept just for Cade-purposes, and swung it around him.

“[Wardrobe Change]!”

Laken couldn’t tell if anything had happened, but the smell was gone, and the faint exhalation Gamel made told him something had altered.

“Did she just switch Cade’s clothes?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Handy. A very [Maid]-like Skill. Briganda bundled up Cade’s clothes with a sigh.

“Don’t fall in the poop again, Cade.”

“Yes! I’ll try!”

And off he went, pretty much exactly where he’d fallen the first time. Briganda turned to Laken, embarrassed and amused.

“It’s like I levelled up twenty times. So many new Skills that I can’t keep track of them, and I keep finding ways to use them, Your Majesty. If it weren’t for losing all my axe Skills, I’d call it my birthday. I have other Skills, mostly like that. It’ll probably be more useful than me being able to hack up a zombie.”

Now that she was retired, she meant there was little call for her as an adventurer. Griffon Hunt was functionally disbanded.

Halrac was dead. Ulrien was dead; the rest of her team was scattered, save for Typhenous. Briganda could—had to be a mother.

Yes, she did sound relieved. Not just because her class had been altered by the arrow Halrac had tried to use on Kasigna. Laken turned to the silent [Mage].

“Typhenous? How are you doing?”

“Hm? What’s that?”

The old man jerked and seemed to wake up. Laken realized he hadn’t been listening in quietly; he’d been dozing. He looked around, collected himself as Briganda whispered to him, and responded.

“I’m grand, Your Majesty. Simply…no new word from Revi?”

“None.”

“Good, good. Then she’ll be fine. She’s quite a tough girl. In good company with that Badarrow fellow. Chasing after her won’t do much good by myself. And I think…”

His voice trailed off. Everyone waited, but Typhenous only murmured after a good minute of silence.

“Yes. I think it’s a pleasant day.”

Laken didn’t need Gamel shifting next to him, nor the way Briganda changed the subject quickly to talk about her new cleaning Skills, to read the room. It felt like something had vanished from the two remaining members of Griffon Hunt.

Ambition? Drive? Spirit? Typhenous was nodding off, and Briganda was forcibly cheerful, but Laken didn’t change his opinion of them.

“…It is relief. They’re relieved. But why?”

He walked off and studied them in his mind’s eye as Cade ran over to his mother, and it took Laken a while to figure out a hypothesis. When he had it—it twisted the knife in his chest.

“Ah. Perhaps it’s because the worst has happened.”

Halrac was dead. Their team was well and truly over, unless they got Revi back, and they would have still had to recruit someone else. The last time Griffon Hunt had schismed, it had been due to Typhenous the Plague Mage accidentally causing a regional crisis.

The worst had happened.

It was neither’s fault. Typhenous seemed to be succumbing to old age with alarming rapidity, and Briganda seemed like she’d hung up her axe.

It was all—incredibly bitter to Laken. Did he blame Lyonette? No. Could he blame The Wandering Inn when everyone had been warned of the costs? Not entirely. Laken of all people knew the costs.

But could he still, privately, hold Erin Solstice and Kasigna to account? For right or wrong, their war had cost everyone too much. Too much.

Erin might have had every good reason in the world to make her stand. But Laken was loath to take out another loan in the future. And yet…

It wasn’t like there was nothing to do. Quite the opposite. Gamel broke off from a whispered conversation with one of his underlings. The [Knight] tugged at Laken’s sleeve as he checked on the three groups who remembered the dead as spring began.

“Your Majesty. There’s been another clash. House Tellis this time. Arson. Three buildings in a town and two fields torched and five dead in the fighting afterwards, according to House Artien.”

“Five dead overall?”

“Five dead Vampires, Your Majesty.”

Laken shook his head, and his shoulders hunched. It should have been a fresh start in many ways. Instead—the dead were lingering. It reminded him of last spring. Only, instead of Drakes sabotaging the north, it was Vampires.

This time, Laken half-believed the north deserved it.

 

——

 

“Speak to me, Gamel. Summon the [Witches]. Rie—add Yesel, and get Durene too.”

“She’s not here, Your Majesty. The Order of Solstice—”

“Right. Then…Tessia, Ram, Beycalt. Beniar’s riding too far north of here to call back.”

Laken rattled off his entire inner circle, perhaps needlessly, but it was something he could control, and he didn’t always hold a full court. He stood there, leaning on his cane, while Gamel nodded.

“I shall send for them at once.”

“Send f—”

The [Emperor] paused as Gamel began snapping instructions at a group of young people who dashed off in every direction. That was the thing: even Gamel had underlings these days.

Laken didn’t rush to his throne room. He didn’t run anywhere at all. In fact, when Gamel suggested it, the young man just shook his head.

“If it’s like the previous ones, I want information, Gamel. It’s not a secret, and we have work to do. Send word to New Windrest. There’s a farm south-southeast with eight cows. I think they have an Eater Goat.”

Gamel began to swear and caught himself. Laken wanted to know about the Vampires, but he had work to do.

“Beniar and the Blacksky Riders are…”

“Too far. Master Helm is there, isn’t he? Have them grab bows and check it out. Maybe it’s just an aggressive goat, but it makes me uneasy. Possibly, it’s rabid.”

“South-southeast. Eight cows. I will send them a [Message] right away.”

Gamel went running for that one. Laken exhaled. Here was his great issue: he had eyes to see within his realm. None to understand the world beyond. And even with all the eyes in the world…he muttered as someone else jogged over.

“We’re going to need to keep a militia or a few good [Archers] with bows at each village. Beniar and his riders could handle Riverfarm when it was three villages. Now he can’t move fast enough. What does my [Head Engineer] think, Tessia?”

The young woman took a beat to respond, but she was his best [Engineer], and she didn’t have the timidity of when they had first met. Now, she regarded it like a puzzle, tilting her head as she responded, voice analytical.

“Can we split them up, Your Majesty? Divide and conquer?”

“No. If the Darksky Riders have to root out bandits or respond to a really nasty monster like an Armored Crawler, they have to move in force.”

“Then…what if we put a siege weapon at each village?”

Laken was highly amused by the suggestion. He smiled as he kept walking towards the fields, and a trail of mewling creatures popped out of an alleyway and began to march behind him. Sariant Lambs, looking as innocent as could be, doubtless lured by the topics he was discussing. Laken let them be as he turned to Tessia.

“A trebuchet? Only an [Engineer] can operate them, let alone aim them in real time.”

“I meant a ballista, Your Majesty. We still have the prototypes for them. Work has slowed since we’re developing the sewage system in accordance with Drake city standards, but give me two weeks and I can have a large prototype working.”

Dead gods, am I putting a ballista on top of every village? Like The Wandering Inn? Laken made a face, imagining it.

“Loading and operating that thing still isn’t a job for non-[Engineers], Tessia. A child plays with it, unloaded or not, and…I’ve met Mrsha. I don’t think it’s an option. Walls, perhaps, but that takes time. If you have another engineering proposal, I’ll hear it. And what do you think, Wiskeria?”

His [Witch]-[General] walked calmly into place and spoke.

“You need more [Soldiers], Your Majesty. Creating a new group of fighters won’t hurt.”

“So now I’m Tyrion instead of Erin.”

Laken grumbled to himself, and Wiskeria tilted her head.

“Do you think Riverfarm shouldn’t have an army, Laken? Also, I heard a dozen complaints on my way here.”

“What? About the sewers?”

Laken scanned the area behind him, but he didn’t sense any problems. Wiskeria coughed delicately.

“No…they’re all worried you’re displeased.”

The [Emperor] realized a greater-than-average number of people were sneaking glances his way, at least, their body positions indicated that. He frowned.

“Why? Is my shirt on backwards? Gamel dressed me.”

“No…they’re distressed because you’re not wearing your hat.”

“My h—

Laken almost said something pithy in German to express how little he wanted a hat on this cool spring day. He wasn’t a hat person. He never got the sun in his eyes, and as for fashion…he growled.

“You’re serious.”

“They’re very worried. They think you didn’t like this week’s contest winners.”

The [Emperor] bit back another oath. He would have loved to say something about where they could put the hats, but the problem was he suspected his subjects were picking up some of his German. At least, insofar as they understood uncomplimentary words.

“…Tessia, can you go grab my hat? The one—which one? I believe it was a festive…chicken.”

“At once, Your Majesty.”

Laken stood there gloomily for a second, then continued walking as if trying to prolong his encounter with the hat of chickenhood for as long as possible. Maybe if he stopped asking what the hat looked like it wouldn’t be so bad.

“Is this where I laugh?”

Wiskeria inquired, voice mild, and Laken sighed.

“I think you missed your moment, Wiskeria. And I think they believe it’s charming and love when I wear it.”

The [Farmers] had won the contest this week, and the votes were in. Chicken hat for Laken, [Emperor] of Riverfarm.

He could put an end to the contest, of course. He could refuse to wear the hat. But they loved making hats and seeing him wear them. The irony was that anyone cared what Laken wore, but that was Riverfarm’s relationship with their [Emperor]. They loved him, and Laken wasn’t sure if it was due to his class, his deeds, a mix of the two, or the fact that he’d wear a chicken hat all day to make them smile.

Not wearing the hat would make the people who’d designed it despondent. Curse the hat; Laken put it out of his mind as Tessia ran back, and he shoved it on his head.

“Your Majesty, you’re wearing it lopsided.”

A louder sigh as Wiskeria fixed the hat for Laken. He kept his face straight and tried to pretend he couldn’t hear the Sariant Lambs sniggering at him.

Everything an [Emperor] did had weight to it. It was a lesson Laken had thought he’d known, but with his advancing class, even trivial matters had taken on new aspects he hadn’t foreseen. Why was there a hat competition?

Well, when Erin had come by for her very notable visit, Laken had organized a little competition for fun. He’d promised to wear the winning [Witch]’s hat to settle a feud between Agratha and Oliyaya. His people had liked it so much they’d gathered together to make their own hats the next week. No one had said ‘Your Majesty, you must wear this hat’.

But what was Laken going to do, be presented with the winning hat and slap it in the face of the children and people who’d made it? He’d thought wearing it’d spell the end of that. Until the second hat contest came along. And the third.

At least he’d stopped a full clothing contest…for now. And only by hinting that he wanted silk clothing and higher-quality materials. That’s right. Laken was so desperate to avoid being dressed by enthusiastic subjects that he was willing to resort to classism.

Laken had a brilliant idea as he began to cross the bridge leading to the farmlands.

“…Why don’t we make the next week’s contest different, Wiskeria? I think the Sariant Lambs deserve some clothing. Ah, Miss Yesel, you’re back. More strife up north. Hat contest for the Sariants? Maybe full costumes?”

“Your Majesty! What a wonderful idea! I’ll tell the judges and participants that, and I’m sure the darling lambs will love the occasion!”

The [Emperor] brightened up and turned his head to give the Sariant Lambs a baleful smile. They mini-stampeded away in a huff as he reflected the little lambs had their uses.

Being an [Emperor] was a day of minor events like that, which translated into major events for the empire. Eater Goat in New Windrest. Costume contest for Sariants.

“We’re waiting for the rest of the [Witches], Wiskeria, Tessia, to discuss the issue. Am I going to have to approve a new company of [Soldiers], Wiskeria?”

Her voice was bland. Not uncaring, but lacking the emotion Laken felt when he thought of another battle on the heels of the Solstice. Wiskeria’s tone was as level as it had been when facing down the undead. No…she’d sounded a bit excited when she saw the Draugr coming at them. Right now, Wiskeria’s tone was serious, precise; impartial.

“Every nation or city needs fine soldiers, Your Majesty. You recall the Solstice. Another event like that will require a fine army.”

“Another event like that will wipe out a fine army to the last. Manus is supposed to be the ‘City of War’, isn’t it? I didn’t see them pulling ahead.”

“Lady Rie suggests a core group of elite warriors, Your Majesty. If you gained a new Skill or wished to equip them well, the Dwarves are willing to sell us armor.”

Laken kicked his way over the bridge, voice sour.

“Elites. Every army in the world has elites. It feels like a relative term. I don’t want to equip and train a thousand Gamels. I don’t want to watch them die. Is there a…a way to supplement the need for so many soldiers?”

“Well, we could use undead, Golems, summoned creatures, [Slaves], [Mercenaries], ask our Goblins to fight…”

“I don’t like those options. We’re not copying Khelt either. You don’t have a [Witch]-based option?”

Wiskeria stomped on the bridge as she reached its apex, and Laken heard a splashing sound from below. He jumped, and Tessia made a faint, worried sound. Wiskeria just snapped down at her feet.

Go back to sleep or I’ll murder you. Sorry, Your Majesty. The river again. Speaking of which, [Witches] traditionally ally with [Warlocks] or summon or enchant monsters. It’s not really scalable.”

Laken crossed the bridge fast, though there hadn’t been any issues since Erin’s last visit. Even so…he turned when he had finished walking over it.

“Is it doing more than just splashing water about?”

“No, he’s quiet. A few splashes when you’re not expecting it or an odd feeling when swimming is the worst. But I’m afraid Erin really did wake him up.”

That was Riverfarm for you. Laken kept walking after a while and tried not to imagine fighting a river or the cost of winning. Then he imagined a line of [Soldiers] fighting the river and being swept away to their deaths.

I don’t enjoy war. He knew he’d need more [Soldiers], but dead gods…Laken turned his head.

“We don’t even have a specialty. Aren’t you supposed to have unique soldiers or something?”

Riverfarm’s army was a group of men and women equipped with decent weapons from local forges; nothing special, nothing bad, and they trained with Beniar and other former [Soldiers] giving them pointers. Beniar was a [Cataphract] and a former adventurer. He fought in heavy armor, but aside from him and the Darksky Riders, who operated in pitch blackness at perfect vision, they didn’t have quirks.

“We have a lot to do, Your Majesty. Specialities can be designed for. Good morning; are we to discuss this Vampire situation as we tend to the business of the fields?”

That was Lady Rie. She was already surveying the farmlands when the others arrived. Her mellifluous tones were, as always, refined and at odds with the soil and people hard at work around her. Laken scowled in her direction.

“You appear to have my [General] on your side, Lady Rie.”

“Izril needs an empire capable of protecting itself, Your Majesty. I suggest we review the Dwarves’ offer. From Dwarfhalls Rest. May I present that after the Vampire situation? And I remind you, we have a scrying orb booked for the Gnolls’ auction at midday.”

“I know. Focus on the Dwarves first, Rie. Tell me about them. Is that Master Ram? Good morning! Which field?”

A cluster of people was approaching now. Mister Ram, who was head of the farms. Beycalt, the construction leader. Eloise, Hedag, and Agratha, senior [Witches], more Sariant Lambs, and even a special representative that Laken allowed because she’d get upset if he turned her away.

Plus, Pebblesnatch told the Goblins what was going on, and the news about Vampires was surely important. They fell into place as Ram spoke.

“We were thinking the tomato field furthest to the right, Your Majesty? We’re trying some new fertilizer. Pardon the smell…but we reckon that’s worth a try today?”

“Tomatoes. Is that the most pressing thing we need for the spring, Master Ram?”

Laken was a bit dubious. People weren’t hungry in Riverfarm; they had countless farming villages who’d saved enough over the winter. Now it was warm enough, Riverfarm was producing food other settlements were gobbling up. Even so, he wanted to be strategic about the fields and not waste harvests on…tomatoes?

“Well, they’re a crop that produces time after time, Your Majesty. Plus, the tomatoes we have are mostly getting old or in preservation spells. What with ketchup being so well-sold in Liscor, it’s not the worst to sell fresh while we’re cornering the market. Of course, if you wish to do another field—”

The [Emperor] was smart enough not to take the suggestion. Ram would defer to almost anything he said, even if what Laken said was stupid.

“No, no. You are the expert on plants. Just a thought. Very well. Field is clear…we’ve got some bugs in the…sixth field up, three to the right.”

He pointed across the grid of fields laid out so [Farmers] could take turns using their Skills and working each plot and also so Laken could identify them. Ram swore.

Milk a thistle. It’s those weevils again. I’ll get on it, Your Majesty!”

He strode off, and Laken concentrated. He focused on the field Ram had indicated and sensed tilled earth and freshly planted tomato seeds, tiny in the ground. He didn’t know if the soil was watered, and it didn’t really matter. If the fertilizer was in there…Laken spoke.

[Empire: Field of Harvests]!

There was a gasp from one or two people around him and a cry of delight from Pebblesnatch. Laken sensed the Cave Goblin scampering forwards and heard her voice.

“Tomat! Tomats!”

“Hey, that’s for us! Scat, you!”

Ram went running after her, but it was too late. Pebblesnatch ducked his hands, leapt forward, and snagged three tomatoes off some vines. She ripped them away and began chewing on them. Laken turned.

“Are they properly grown, Wiskeria? Or only partially?”

The [Witch] sounded amused.

“They’re as red as a baby’s bottom, Your Majesty.”

Laken hesitated.

“…Uh. I see?”

Gamel took over for Wiskeria, sounding affronted. He chose more relative terms for Laken.

“They’re lush, and some are bigger around than my hand if I’m a judge, Your Majesty. They look perfectly ripe to me, and Pebblesnatch is devouring one as if it’s tasty as can be. They look plump. Appealing.”

Laken tried to imagine what that was like, but he had a decent understanding from that description. He smiled and nodded to himself.

“Good choice on the fertilizer, then. Ram? What’s the taste?”

The [Rancher] shouted back.

Fair as can be, Your Majesty! Just the slightest hint of sweet and—eugh—no, wait! That’s the fertilizer. Better wash these first. Hey, get the baskets! His Majesty’s field is ready!

There was a team of [Farmers] ready to go. Not just generic [Farmers] either, but specialists in picking. Even as Laken stood there and Pebblesnatch ran back with her ill-gotten gains, he sensed one [Fruit Picker] shuck an entire tomato plant in seconds and add them to a basket.

There was a joy to observing, even in Laken’s own way, a team working in perfect unity. Normally, a farm had jack-of-all trades like [Farmhands] who could satisfy most roles to competency. But Riverfarm using so many [Farmers] together let them specialize and optimize their planting.

Oh—and having an [Emperor] didn’t hurt either. Laken called out as Ram jogged back.

“I’ll look forwards to tomato-themed dishes tonight. What’s tomorrow, Ram? Cucumbers again?”

“They grow too large, Your Majesty. All water, no taste. We were hoping for wheat? There’s a new variety we want to test in the soil.”

“Wheat it is.”

The [Emperor of Farmlands] smiled. He adjusted his silly chicken hat and nodded to the [Farmers], calling out to them before continuing on his path.

Level 35 [Emperor of Farmlands]. Laken had levelled in both war and peace over the winter, and his new Skills weren’t war-focused—because he was sick of it. True, he might have gotten a fancy new group like the Darksky Riders. But was that better than the ability to grow a field from seeds to harvest every single day?

Ludicrous power. Insane power. Skills on the level of an [Emperor]. Then again, Laken had heard that a high-level [Farmer] could do the same, and many of the fields sewn by the best [Farmers] had already sprouted and grown at prodigious pace.

Laken had Skills fit for an empire, though, and so his next task was to pass through the farming area and head on a walk around Riverfarm proper, towards the areas where logging and more mass-raising of animals was going on.

“Who needs [Golden Yield] today, Ram, Beycalt? Are we looking for construction? Food? Farming?”

He didn’t have to go in person, but he felt like waving his hand and just making a field turn into bloom was pretentious. Plus, he liked the exercise and greeting people. Beycalt spoke up.

“Ah, we’d actually like it for Master Helm, Your Majesty? He’s producing all the pipework for Tessia’s plumbing.”

“Say no more. [Golden Yield: Master Helm]. Make sure it all comes out of his smithy, would you?”

“Of course, sire.”

A few more steps as someone ran that message to Nesor, head of the Mage’s Guild. Laken turned to Rie.

“Now you can tell me about the Dwarves. Eloise, Hedag, Agratha, I’m being told we need soldiers. Do you have sage [Witch] advice?”

Hedag spoke in a loud chuckle.

“If your tone tells me you don’t want them, then I’d listen to your own voice, Your Majesty. A fort needs [Soldiers]. A city needs guardsmen.”

Laken kicked at a piece of grass. He complained out loud.

“Why is most [Witch] advice just telling me to think for myself?”

“Because it’s good advice.”

At least three of them chorused, and Laken heard a scandalized sound from Gamel and a chuckle from Lady Rie. She got along well with the [Witches] and took over.

“Your Majesty, let me paint a picture from my meetings with the Dwarves. I was well-received by them; they’re clearly used to hosting more eminent guests, and they came to Izril to make a profit. They had rather lavish guest rooms, and they treated me excellently.”

“They recognized Riverfarm?”

Her voice was amused at Laken’s surprise. He still felt like Riverfarm was a no-name place, but the times were a-changing.

“Oh yes, Your Majesty. I will say that the, ah, other visitors were less complimentary. I ran into two Reinharts.”

“Reinharts.”

There was a scowl implicit in Laken’s tone, and he would have bet gold that more than one frown appeared around the group. He nodded.

“Go on. Tell me about Dwarfhalls Rest.”

“They heard the same pitch I did, just so you know, Your Majesty. The mountain is…well, I cannot explain it as well as Gamel, but I invite you to imagine a huge line of Dwarves hammering away, grinding on metal, or performing metalwork, each one in their section. There is this grand conveyance that lets objects move down the mountain; from the ore they shovel into their massive furnaces, some of them eight times my size, to the massive magical hammers that pound the largest quantities of metal, they have teams working at every hour. The heat and sound is intense.”

It sounds like a magical factory. Laken was always sad he couldn’t experience these sights himself, even if he knew his experience would be far more limited. Without owning an area, he was limited to his ears, nose, and sense of touch, and a place like that would overwhelm him. Even so, he greedily tried to piece together more images as Rie went on.

“Of note, and what Master Helm lacks, despite his many fellow [Smiths], isn’t just the scope of the work. It’s…well, it’s the elements I don’t believe Izrilian [Blacksmiths] have at all. There were [Runeworkers] pressing their version of magic into completed hammers, and I was shown Mithril samples. In fact, that was their offer. For a fee, we can be their priority clients and equip each [Soldier] we want head-to-toe in Dwarfsteel. They can even forge mithril armor for our officers.”

“Impressive. If you think metal makes an army.”

That came from Agratha, and the [Teacher Witch]’s voice was unusually dry. Wiskeria just sniffed.

“Mithril. No Adamantium? They know how to make it.”

Witch Eloise admonished Wiskeria lightly.

“Not every army’s one from your mother’s legends, Wiskeria. That would be a fine army if you had each [Soldier] in that kind of metal. It would put Riverfarm above even nations like Pheislant in terms of quality. I suspect the cost will be the prohibiting factor.”

Rie sighed and, without preamble, unfolded something with a crinkle of paper.

“The, ah—ah—cost per soldier was quoted to me as highly reasonable at seven hundred and forty gold pieces per unit of gear, armor, and standard weapons. If we order in bulk, it drops to seven hundred twenty.”

Laken heard what sounded like someone doing a spit take behind him. He just did a bit of math.

“So we can afford maybe, what, a hundred sets, and we blow through our entire army’s budget for the year?”

And that would be pushing it. Rie cleared her throat.

“They will accept payments in increments, Your Majesty. I only suggest if we move, we place a bid now…the Reinharts weren’t shy about doing so.”

“So they’re remaking their armies? Dire news. Magnolia Reinhart truly has lost her leash on them.”

Eloise’s voice was dour; she spoke from experience. Even Lady Rie was too young to actually remember a time before the Reinharts had been subdued by Magnolia. Laken frowned to himself.

“She’s not clashing with them, is she, Rie?”

“If her servants are, I haven’t heard of it. Save for the standoff between her servants and the Terlands at House Walchaís…there has been no sign of her people. I believe she is well and truly quitting the north for the moment. Her family is in full force, and they are running over their opponents. Quite literally.”

Laken had heard about that too. The Reinharts had emerged from their mansions and homes, where they had been quietly decadent, like a storm. They had begun seizing holdings belonging to Magnolia and asserting their power in no uncertain terms. More than one person who had forgotten their reputation had literally been hit by carriages moving at slower speeds than Magnolia’s pink one…but it seemed like vehicular manslaughter ran in the family.

He never thought he’d miss Magnolia Reinhart, but Laken really wasn’t looking forwards to running into the Five Families.

“How much clashing are they doing? Is this related to the Vampires? How much can we expect?”

Rie was his expert in the social fields, along with Eloise, and the [Lady] responded crisply.

“My sources seem to believe they’re mostly concerned with regaining their power and fighting among the other Five Families, who did take advantage of their inaction, at the moment. They’re trying to take over cities who lost their noble families, and they’re warring with each other…they’re coming from the north on downwards due to their proximity, but also due to the value of the northern areas. I believe Riverfarm has time; we are hardly an appetizing place with an [Emperor] claiming us, nor are we traditionally valuable.”

She described them like locusts. Laken rubbed at his head, frowning.

“We’re producing food when most of Izril wants it, but I take your point. We’re rich in food, but that doesn’t translate into gold unless we want to gouge people hungry from the winter.”

In fact, Riverfarm was doing the opposite. Their food stores were one of the reasons they had continued to grow by offering aid to people who decided to join the Unseen Empire when only the Order of Haegris, The Wandering Inn, the Knights of Solstice, and the Unseen Empire were giving out food.

Well, Magnolia Reinhart and Tyrion Veltras had both done the same, but that was duty. Each of the smaller groups had made a name for themselves, and in Riverfarm’s case, it had led to direct expansion.

Laken’s new Skills meant that Riverfarm was a real breadbasket…but none of that equated to the kind of gold to outspend the Reinharts.

“Maybe a few sets of Dwarfsteel. But we can make decent armor with the iron the Goblins dig up.”

“Crude steel, Your Majesty. Dwarfsteel is a grade above it in durability, weight—”

“And cost. If I wanted to buy armor, I might as well go to Yitton. Enough. I’ll think it over. Now, tell me about the Vampires.”

Laken took a seat by the edge of the forest leading to the Goblin Lands. His mood soured further as he thought of his closest allies.

Those were, in order, Lord Gralton, directly to the north, then Lord Yitton, both of whom had lands that had a distinct speciality.

Gralton raised dogs. Yitton mined silver. Gralton’s dogs had made him the larger and more successful of the two, and a recent spat of bad events had seen House Byres’ principal silver mine collapse and their entire manor burn down.

Laken had hosted Yitton over the winter and helped House Byres as much as he could due to his friendship with the man. He wasn’t sure if he now regretted it.

“Witch Mavika can speak to what is going on in the north, Laken, if you want me to summon her. She didn’t see this latest encounter—or maybe she did, but her crows have eyes everywhere.”

“Yes, summon her. Rie, tell me what happened.”

The [Lady]’s voice was not so eager now. She spoke in abrupt, matter-of-fact tones.

“All we know is what House Artien stated, Your Majesty. House Tellis was inspecting its own villages for…signs of taint, I believe the expression was. The [Soldiers] and local Watch were about their business when they came under attack. Whether they uncovered a…a Vampire or they were ambushed is unclear. The upshot is that the Watch House was torched; several other buildings and fields went up in flames, and House Tellis claims five assailants were slain. All of whom disintegrated into ash when run through the heart.”

Laken felt like someone was narrating pieces of a fairytale to him. He sat there, rubbing his hands together, as he heard the cawing of a murder of crows, and a [Witch] alighted on the branch overhead. He spoke quietly.

“So they slew five Vampires while searching for signs of them. But they were attacked first. Is that the right of it, Witch Mavika?”

A harsh, sibilant whisper came from overhead. A woman who had been described to Laken as a ‘half-naked woman who wears her clothing like feathers and has the features of a bird, beady eyes and all’ spoke in a rasping voice. She always sounded harsh, but her tone was dark.

“Is that what you believe, Emperor? Or is that what you wish to believe?”

Laken kept his tone steady, quelling any desire to snap back.

“I wish to know what happened, Witch Mavika. Please, I crave a boon. What did you see, if you witnessed it?”

Her voice became rhythmic and heavy. Mavika whispered, and the light filtering down from the sunny sky above seemed less warm on his skin for a moment.

 

I saw through raven’s eyes—

Tools of old, to burn through dark disguise

Cruel tools, and I heard the buzzing of flies.

Metal from days so old, and still

They echoed with pain-filled cries.

Most followed in ignorance of what they might find

A few knew full well their enemy’s kind

They brought a hanging coffin made of silvered steel

How do you think their quarry feels?

They tried to flee, and hide, and lie

When there was no option, both sides died.

 

It was a lengthy response and more formal than Mavika sometimes acted. Laken took a moment to try to decipher what she had said, then gave up.

“Witch Agratha?”

The [Teacher] leapt into action, to Mavika’s great displeasure, but even her eager tones were somewhat dismayed.

“I think, if I decode Witch Mavika’s statements, we have a situation where House Tellis likely allowed the, ah, ‘hunters’ to gather and investigate a village, much as many noble houses have done. Most were ignorant of the true nature of their quarry, as Mavika points out. However, the oldest houses like d’Artien have long and detailed histories of their foe. It appears they brought…a hanging coffin, Mavika? An iron maiden?”

Laken vaguely knew the name of the object, but he had to have someone remind him of what it was. Wiskeria gave the most helpful and disturbing explanation.

“A torture device. A coffin filled with spikes on the inside. You close it over your enemies to torture them. This one was likely made of silver.”

“And they thought that was an appropriate message to send?”

“If the goal is to kill any Vampire you want…why not? Vampires have torched House Byres and killed more than one group trying to hunt them. The Order of the Clairei Fields has pledged to rid Izril of ‘taint’.”

After three of their number were killed while attempting to investigate Vampire rumors, Your Majesty.”

Gamel hastened to add that clarification, but Laken just shook his head.

“It’s getting worse. When the Order of Solstice helped the first wave get away, I thought it would subside. ‘How many Vampires could there be?’”

He gave a harsh laugh. Partly at Delanay d’Artien and the most anti-Vampire groups. They had probably thought the same thing. How many Vampires could there be these days?

A lot, it turned out. And each time one group found a bunch of Vampires or got slaughtered while investigating, the anti-Vampire crusade seemed to grow in strength. It was one thing for a few people to be found or to hear rumors of an old foe you barely remembered. Another to hear three [Knights] had been found with their heads planted on pikes, drained of blood.

Where did Laken land in this entire conflict? Well…he carefully avoided looking at Lady Rie. She wasn’t exactly uncomfortable when the Vampires were brought up, but she had been transformed by a rite rather similar to the bloodsucking creatures. She professed no need for blood after becoming an agent of the Circle of Thorns—even if she was still loyal to Riverfarm as far as he could tell—but the similarities were there.

Rie wasn’t in immediate danger; she could hold a bar of silver all day long for fun. Rather, Laken was well aware of the mythos of Vampires. Powerful, bloodsucking monsters with the ability to fly, shapeshift, hypnotize…

It didn’t seem to square with the conflicts now spreading across Izril’s north. Laken closed his eyes.

“It seems like House Tellis have opened their doors to more arson attempts and more attacks on their land. Once any area weeds out Vampires, they come under attack. Pellmia and House Quellae lost half an orchard to whoever chopped the trees down in the night. It seems to me that if these Vampire Hunters come calling, we should find a good reason to refuse them.”

“Or else Riverfarm becomes another target. But do you have a verdict on the nature of this old threat, Your Majesty? We [Witches] remember them quite well. I do not agree that this approach led by Delanay and the most ardent and alarmed groups is wise. But I can say the Nights of Blood were an intensely terrible time in Izril’s history that rivals the Reign of Dragons and the Selphids’ Domination of Form.”

Eloise’s voice was careful. Laken scowled at nothing in particular.

“I don’t doubt it. What do I think? I think…I would be a fool to think of them as monsters.”

Especially if Erin thinks they’re people. I should listen to her. And at the same time—he glanced sideways.

“What does the Hedag think?”

Hedag made a soft sound.

“Aye, I’ve been wondering that myself. I have been turned from villages time and time again, and that is a Hedag’s duty to accept or to mete their justice where they wander. Now I wonder which ones needed or wanted me not and which feared what I might uncover. I know the stories. But this rooting of men and women and children…”

She leaned on her axe.

“I’d go wandering north if I could, Your Majesty. But I am old. And to hear Mavika tell it, like as not I’d end up spitted on a [Knight]’s lance. I am a Hedag alone and meeker than those that came before. Not with axe may I make my case, and the like who hunt Vampires…”

“…Don’t have any love for [Witches]. Damn. Is that why we’re getting more and more?”

Witches were continuing to come to Riverfarm, and Laken just bet that a group of highly suspicious men and women waving around stakes, fire, and silver weren’t attractive to [Witches] either.

“If this spreads, it may become a hysteria. First Vampires, then [Witches] and classes less…desirable. It would not be the first time, Your Majesty. I hope this paranoia does not spread. And I would hope that cooler heads prevail. There are enough, even now, among the Five Families and lesser houses.”

Eloise’s comment made Laken nod. The [Emperor] turned his head sideways.

“Rie. I hate to ask it of you after your last visit, but would you have time to ride north and have a very confidential word with Gralton?”

“Of course, Your Majesty. I can be there and back in four days. Faster if I can get a magical carriage.”

That was fast. But Lady Rie seemed to not need as much sleep, and she could hop in a saddle and ride day and night with little effort.

She and Durene are in far better shape than I am. I can’t ride for more than an hour before my butt wants to kill me. What I wouldn’t give to have a moment with Durene.

Laken hadn’t seen her in a week, and she’d been gone a long while before that as well. The Order of Solstice. Of course, she’d had good reasons to be helping out and be abroad so much. But was it too much to ask for a moment to themselves?

Otherwise, Laken would start inappropriately fantasizing about what certain people might feel like clothless. And it didn’t help when his power was the ultimate voyeur’s ability.

He dragged his mind away from that subject, especially since the [Witches] were here and could probably tell exactly how he felt, which—great. Laken focused on someone he definitely didn’t want to see naked and, at this moment, didn’t think he wanted to see at all.

“Yitton Byres has gotten his mines open, then.”

“He seems to have dug a new shaft. It isn’t producing much silver, but enough. And I rather suspect House Byres had a surplus of silver.”

“And he’s sent how many people to help with Delanay’s hunts?”

“At least a hundred. I believe he’s one of the reasons House Tellis would have allowed the intrusion into their lands. He is well respected.”

Yitton Byres. That quelled any lewd thoughts Laken had at the moment. He was surprised—well, not surprised after the first few times he’d heard Yitton helping with the hunts. But he was disappointed, even now.

It made sense. House Byres was a traditional foe of Vampires. They knew the legends, and it was probably Vampires who’d attacked their home in revenge for…well, being House Byres. Laken could not fault Yitton for fearing and hating his foe.

If it was fear and hate, Laken would have understood. But there was a cynical part of Laken’s mind that doubted it. He had met Yitton, hosted him and his wife and his people before they had headed north with a sizable guard to try and rebuild.

Laken had never seen Yitton Byres lose his temper, not in war against the Goblins, and not even with the Vampires. He had been shocked, astounded, hurt, angry, grieving—but this all smacked to Laken of something he really didn’t like.

“Say, Lady Rie. When you were negotiating with the Dwarves…did House Byres come up? They’re not nearly as large as the Dwarves for smithing, but…”

Lady Rie’s voice was cautious as she responded. Perhaps wondering how he’d take it.

“As a matter of fact, Your Majesty, the Dwarves actually invoked House Byres by informing us they could make, ah, silver-laced metalwork if we had an order for that specialty. Not as strong as their Dwarfsteel by far, but I gathered they made the proposal given the extraordinary number of orders for the metal coming from House Byres.”

“I. See.”

He really did, despite the eye thing. Laken saw what Yitton did: an opportunity. Yes, House Byres had incurred great losses this winter, such that they’d had to borrow help from friends, and Yitton’s own son had gone to the New Lands to earn gold.

But what was better for the small noble house than a sudden demand for silver, especially silversteel armaments? Those hadn’t been popular for millenia. But now the old foe was back…

“He can’t be that mercantile. He can’t. I’m sure he just thinks the Vampires are a threat. If he was stoking those fears…well, Vampires are real and about.”

It just left a bad taste in Laken’s mouth. Yitton had petitioned him twice, not for security or food, but for any [Miners] or [Smiths] that Laken could spare. They were allies; Laken had obliged him once and then regretfully declined.

But dead gods, he never had guessed he’d regret trusting Yitton Byres of all men. Laken sat there a while, then pushed himself up.

“Alright, let’s talk about armies and whether we can afford that kind of metal. It’s expensive to even maintain a new group of [Riders]. Horses, gear…you have an hour to talk me into it, Rie. Then I get to go to an auction. Either way, I’m going to be counting coins.”

 

——

 

Laken attended the Meeting of Tribes’ expo, but he didn’t really buy much. Correction: he bought nothing. He had a mind to buy something, especially when Gamel described the plane pieces to him and Laken realized what had been found.

But after listening to the bidding, Laken had swallowed his tongue and his pride and slunk away to the ‘I have not enough gold’ corner. At least he hadn’t been stabbed like that poor Stitch-man.

One of Laken’s Skills was [King’s Bounty], which ensured he never became poor. Rie had theorized that they might use the Skill to generate gold forever; what if he kept tripping over bags of gold every time he used his last gold piece?

On the other hand…what if he didn’t? Beggaring the Unseen Empire to try that out wasn’t on Laken’s priority list.

“Gold, soldiers, trouble with my neighbors…I wish I had perfect answers for any of it.”

Laken muttered to himself after the auction had closed. It was very exciting for people with eyes; he had spent the entire time and the hour afterwards explaining to Tessia and the [Engineers] what he thought the Gnolls had made. Laken didn’t know quite how batteries worked, or some of the other inventions, but he could give the [Engineers] pointers.

The blunt truth was that he didn’t have as many earth-shaking Earth technologies in his pocket. He didn’t have a mountain of gold buried under his feet—at least, that he could tell—and perhaps most crucially of all…he didn’t have a mysterious ally telling him what would happen.

It felt a bit like Laken had been in easy-mode, despite all the trials of last year. He had had…Tamaroth’s help. The god had told him exactly what was going to happen, armed him in ways Laken could have never anticipated on his own. For instance, knowing how to save Rie from becoming an agent of the Circle of Thorns? Priceless.

But Tamaroth was now gone. Which was great, truly—and yet it meant Laken was now struggling. Heck, he’d even take Ryoka’s help if she came back, even if it meant another punch to the gut.

“Damn. The fae. I could really use them here too.”

All the fortune that had rained down on him—and the misery—had become a normality that wasn’t that bad. Riverfarm was doing well. It was just, in the back of Laken’s mind, he kept asking himself.

What about next time? 

He wasn’t the only one either.

It was probably why Durene insisted on hanging out with her new companions so much, the Order of Solstice. She was a [Paladin] and now a member of the new group of [Knights] who were the embodiment of valor and bravery. Normen was a hell of a man, Laken would be the first to state—he’d gone after the Bloodfeast Raiders and been burned alive to save as many people as possible.

It just felt like it had continued the trend of him and Durene drifting apart. It wasn’t just seeing each other less. Durene had her own life that seemed to intersect with his more safe one less and less.

All of this was why, late that night, a disconsolate [Emperor] wearing a chicken hat walked through the slumbering town. There were, of course, people on the night shift, but he avoided them by using his senses to change streets. His only companion was Gamel, and the [Knight] was steadfastly silent and loyal.

“I won’t be long. Wait here, would you?”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

The two came to a stop outside of a cottage set decently far out from the town itself in a more suburban setting than the close-knit town proper. Laken knocked once on the door, and after hearing no response, opened it.

He reasoned that with all these damnable, unsolvable, weighty matters hanging over his head, he might as well deal with the things he could affect. And at least one of the people he could actually help; he didn’t know what to do about Briganda or Typhenous. He was going to have dinner with Miss Yesel and her family tomorrow.

Maybe the chicken hat would make Chimmy and Finnon smile. But in this particular case…Laken felt like his presence might be needed. He was almost sure that even the other [Witches] had no idea what was going on. Thus, he called out as he entered the hut, trying not to trip on the piles of whatever-it-was Oliyaya had owned.

“Witch Alevica, do you have time for a word?”

 

——

 

Alevica had spent all day cleaning Oliyaya’s house and trying to make sure the two unruly young [Witches] were getting a proper education. It wasn’t like they ran around all day. They only ran around half the day; the other half, they were in an older [Witch]’s care or Alevica’s.

They had to learn witchcraft, and they did, but the two had quirks. Cirsa and Malluni’s desire not to speak, or to communicate in ear-splitting shrieks, meant you needed a patient [Witch] who wouldn’t rise to their provocations.

And there were so many things a young [Witch] needed. Alevica wondered if anyone was taking care of Nanette. She’d put away her hat, but had anyone helped her sew up her own boots, taught her how to make a safety charm, or write down recipes in her spellbook? Did anyone make sure she had a handkerchief that was clean or check to make sure she was eating three meals a day?

Hate cleaning. Hate sewing. Hate putting scar cream on Cirsa. I’d better make sure Witch Voneng is making a new batch. And that the next time I go, someone helps her put it on. I hate cooking…wait, what should I make tomorrow?

Something with tomatoes. They like bloody-looking stuff. Oliyaya used to cook eyeball dumpling stew. We’d sit outside and make people shriek while we ate it.

Her hat was almost empty. Alevica had diagnosed the problem: it couldn’t hold spite anymore. Something had changed in her. The same emotions she used to love provoking in other people no longer stayed under her hat. They no longer…mattered to her.

She simply had to find what mattered, then. Simple. In the meantime, Alevica could harvest other emotions; they just had a half-life and half-power compared to her craft.

It was eleven forty-five and she had just finished cleaning another part of Oliyaya’s house, sorting things that other [Witches] might want from junk and keepsakes that Cirsa and Malluni might use when they were old enough. She was covered in dust and filth, but she knew she had to hurry; midnight would be here soon, and then the witching hour from three to four in the morning, and then she needed at least two hours of sleep for the next day. She’d nap when she got the two witches to Agratha’s school—if they didn’t bite their fellow [Apprentices] again.

Alevica was so tired that she only realized someone was in Oliyaya’s hut when he spoke.

“Witch Alevica, do you have time for a word?”

Alevica spun and nearly brained Laken with a bucket. He’d snuck up on her! Well, maybe she hadn’t heard him over pouring water on herself. Alevica was used to anyone who entered Oliyaya’s cottage knocking into something, but the blind [Emperor] could be extraordinarily stealthy when he wanted to be.

“Er, Your Majesty? What are you doing here?”

She tried to keep her voice less-than-hostile, but it was late, she was tired…and yet Laken stood there, smiling ruefully.

“Just checking to see if you’re going to head out like you do every night. Well, most nights. Can I have a word about your project? I don’t mean to intrude, but—I see a lot.”

He waved his hand over his face with a grin to indicate the joke. Alevica folded her arms.

“…Not everything, apparently.”

“Well, not everything, but I did notice. I haven’t told the other [Witches]. Will you speak with me? Can you show me what’s going on?”

Alevica exhaled. She’d thought Eloise would get on her first, or Mavika. Well, not Mavika. She’d just warn Alevica that whatever happened was on her own head. Alevica wondered how much Laken was on her side. He’d tolerated Wiskeria, and she was a nightmare on her own. She suppressed a slightly vindictive smile.

“I suppose I have no choice. Give me a second to put my clothes on.”

“Your—”

“I’m naked.”

He’d walked in on her in the bathroom. Laken’s mouth opened, and he backed up a step, though he didn’t instantly swing around the other way; there really wasn’t a point.

I am sorry. I’ll just—

He backed into a pile of objects that began to tilt, and Alevica grabbed them before they could wake the two [Witches] and start chaos. That brought her in close contact with him, and the [Emperor] recoiled, but didn’t run into anything else, thankfully.

I’ll just be outside. I’m very sorry about that, Alevica—

She got to see him turn red, which was a treat. Alevica sensed shame, attraction, embarrassment, surprise—so it was genuine. She wondered if he and Durene weren’t having as much sex of late.

Well, that was a problem for older [Witches] to stick their noses into. It wasn’t Alevica’s business if two people broke apart. Unless she helped engineer it on purpose, of course.

 

——

 

Gamel was waiting for them when they left the house, but he stayed far back as Alevica led Laken away from Riverfarm towards a clearing in the woods that was off-limits, even to people foraging or logging, let alone going for a stroll.

Burnt trees and the first hints of life marked devastation around the area. And the hill and single charred oak was a place no one wanted to go.

A man had hung himself here. Dark deeds had been wrought here. Belavierr’s shadow still hung over the spot where Witch Hunter Tagil had ended his own life after betraying his teammates. The [Witches] hadn’t exactly claimed it at first, just let it be known that here they were conducting the kind of magic that no one wanted to barge in on.

That was its first purpose. The second was as a storage area.

“Ah, of course. You…kept it here. Them?”

“The bodies. You knew we recovered most of them.”

Alevica got to see another side of the [Emperor] again this night. Nervousness. He walked along, tapping his cane as if he weren’t perfectly confident, but he was sure-footed thanks to his [Emperor] senses. This was a habit he fell back on; his emotions were roiling with clear trepidation. Not outright fear, but uncertainty, of course.

“All…eight of them?”

“Three. There wasn’t much left of most of them. The one in the best condition was the one Oliyaya killed.”

“With the boulder to the face. So—I see. I must have let it slide from my memory. The [Witches] said they’d tell me the instant they did anything with the bodies. I gather Eloise wanted to burn them.”

Alevica strode up the hill, through burnt grass, to a trio of what might have seemed to Laken to be mounds, odd humps rising from the hilltop. To her eyes…they looked like giant toads. No, toads were too normal.

Beings of wart and rot. Yet no rot touched them; no maggots dared burrow into their empty eyes or down the smashed, gorey stump of one’s body. No birds came near them; no predators ate of their flesh.

Three Hag Queens of Aklat Vunn lay there, only one with a recognizable face, twisted in surprise. Each one slain at great cost.

The one who had killed Alevica’s mentor still clutched a staff in a hand glistening—still glistening—with blood. Even the blood refused to dry up.

Laken halted well back from them as Alevica stood there. Someone had placed objects around the Hag Queens. A bench made of stone slabs, a spell circle, a hexagram around one of their bodies. Someone had taken a sliver of one of the Hag Queens’ flesh; more [Witches] had clearly conducted spells and rituals to divine the nature of the dead foe. Their origins. Their weaknesses.

No one had touched them. Just the memory of the rot and death they had inflicted was why all three were bound with dozens of the most dangerous charms Alevica had ever seen. If one of them came back to life, every [Witch] would know in an instant—and the Hag Queens would be vaporized by the magic going off.

“Who decides who gets to…research them?”

The [Emperor] glanced at the Hag Queens. In truth, even recovering three corpses had been difficult. When the battle had ended—even during it—the Hag Queens had been immolated or hacked to bits by those who wanted to make sure they weren’t coming back.

In the aftermath, the [Witches] had recovered the Hag Queens’ possessions; the few adventurers on the field had been more interested in the monsters not visibly filled with plague, and no one wanted to touch the objects they carried.

Even now, Alevica refused to touch the object lying on the stone altar. When she lifted her hands, a breeze blew, and the leathery sound the pages made provoked a shiver in Laken.

“Is that…”

“A spellbook. I think. The Hag Queen who killed Oliyaya was carrying it. Don’t touch anything; I don’t think it’s trapped or cursed, but I don’t know what it’s made of. No one knows. Their flesh, their bodies, they’re all unnatural. One of Mavika’s crows took a bite of them, and the others pecked the crow to death, then dragged it into a pit and buried it ten feet deep.”

“Duly noted. So you’re trying to learn her magic?”

Laken approached only one more step; he was probably not going to get more from getting closer other than the smell, which was also…foreign. It wasn’t exactly sweet, and it didn’t smell like any decomposing corpse Alevica had ever known. The Hag Queens in death smelled like what fresh air might be like if you took out the ‘fresh’ but kept the other qualities. Ripe, full, bursting with energy and yet completely and utterly dead.

“I am studying my foe. My master told me to make something of their hide.”

“…Out of their skin? That’s…I feel I should forbid that. That’s a dark path, Alevica. Witchcraft or not.”

She glared at him as his uneasiness grew.

“Have you ever had boots made of leather? If it’s old magic, I will do it. I was trained in the old ways, Laken. As old as Wiskeria. Ask her if she’d make a hat out of their flesh, and she’ll tell you all about what her mother made. Besides. This spellbook is made out of someone’s skin.”

Laken made a faintly ill sound. Alevica just produced a notepad and began to write. After a while, the [Emperor] called out.

“So what kind of magic…”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know as in you don’t know what kind of magic you’re learning?”

Alevica turned red.

“I don’t know as in I don’t know what it says. I’m trying to understand the words. It’s in another tongue, and it’s a lot more different than Gnollish or Drakeish or even Drathian.”

“Another language?”

The [Emperor] had been edging away, but he grew interested again, and Alevica’s frown at the snarl of words and symbols on the parchment turned to him.

Wait a second.

He was from another world. He might understand what she was looking at. Then Alevica realized the one person familiar with other languages, who spoke more than one…was blind.

She sighed.

 

——

 

“I’m actually pretty good with languages, you know. I speak French, German, English…”

“You don’t write it. Leave me alone.”

“Try looking for vowels.”

“Leave me—what’s a vowel, and why do I care?”

“It’s the common letter used in most words. ‘A’, ‘E’, ‘I’, ‘O’, ‘U’. You see? If it behaves like a Latin language—and it might not—it’ll use those letters more than others. Wait, is it even phonetic?”

“What’s phonetic?”

“Letter-based. If it’s character-based, each character is a different meaning unto itself, and then we’re in trouble. Chinese does that…do the letters repeat, or are they all different with only similarities between a few?”

“Don’t you have somewhere to be? Why do you sound happy? They’re all repeating. I think. There’s a lot of weirdness; none of the letters are straightforwards. There’s…spirals in some of them, and a lot have subtle differences.”

“Like…?”

“Like this one. It’s a snail with too many spirals, but it has these weird eye-antennae that change in several spots.”

Aha! Accents! The umlaut! This is so fantastic. Proper language!”

“Are you making up these phrases?”

Laken rubbed his hands together, looking more eager and excited than Alevica could remember seeing him in a while. He chuckled to himself, blowing on his hands in the cold.

“Alevica, you’re lucky I’m here. Anyone else from Earth—Erin, Joseph, Imani—they can’t help you. But my language has all kinds of difficulty. Believe me, German has words like Streichholzschächtelchen.”

She just stared at him for a while. After a while, Laken frowned.

“…I do wish I could see what you’re working with. Are there pictures?”

Alevica glanced down at the spellbook. She glanced up at him.

“Oh, yes, there are. You’re lucky you can’t see some of them.”

“Ah. How horrific…?”

“They’re not actually that grotesque. They just—make my eyes hurt. Hold on. I think they’re bleeding again. I can only do this for a few hours before my mind shuts off.”

The [Emperor] grew instantly alarmed. He handed her a handkerchief as she fished around for something, and Alevica blinked away the spots in her vision. The spellbook—she glanced down and saw something she was sure was not meant to exist.

An image from another world, from a people who had pigments and shapes not in line with this one.

After a while, Laken spoke.

“At least you have a chance. If you want to learn magic from this book, that is.”

“Oh yeah? Why?”

Alevica was grumpy. Not only because she had an enthusiastic [Emperor] here who hadn’t lost his mentor. Not only because she felt stupid when he said things she’d never learned about—Oliyaya had been a fine teacher and had never cared about academic book studies—

She was bristling, but he was genuinely enthusiastic, and she sensed he wanted to help. Damn witchcraft telling her truths. Alevica was about to say something hurtful, and she had loaded up a comment about Durene, when Laken spoke.

“Well, remember what Ka…signal said? During her ritual? I don’t remember the full wording, and she probably translated it, but the last part was clear. The Hag Queens of Aklat Vunn. Aklat Vunn. If you can pronounce that—you might be able to actually read what’s going on here.”

Alevica stopped. He had an actually good point there. Her eyes darted to the spellbook again.

“If I read anything from this book, there’s no telling what’ll happen. It’s not magic like I understand it.”

“But it is a language. If I can help…I don’t know what to do, Alevica. Witch Oliyaya died like a hero.”

“She died like a [Witch].

Alevica snapped back, and she felt a touch of embarrassment at the look on his face. She tugged her hat down, and Laken nodded.

“So let me honor that in some way. Do you…remember any of the spells they chanted? We can’t do anything, even if we work out what the book says, if we don’t have that.”

The [Witch] muttered ever-so-quietly.

“I can’t forget. I’ve written it down. Here. Read this.”

She handed him a note. After a moment, the [Emperor] threw it back at her, and that made the Witch Runner laugh.

 

——

 

How did one decipher a foreign language? That was a good first question, and Laken had consumed a few documentaries on the subject, though he had to own, the visual component escaped him.

But translating ancient texts via the Rosetta Stone was the kind of challenge he appreciated, even if he had no real experience with it himself. Learning a foreign language? He knew several. But what made him excited—and filled him with fair trepidation—was the added challenges.

How did you translate another language when you were blind? That wasn’t Alevica’s problem, but it hindered Laken’s own ability to help her somewhat. However, more crucially than that—

“How do you translate a language when there is a high probability that you can’t even pronounce the right words? When the words, structure, all might be based on another species? Let alone another root language?”

Alevica was making herself a cup of coffee. She sipped at it in her cottage; not Laken’s multiple homes or Durene’s cottage, but Alevica’s home.

It was close to Oliyaya’s, and like Durene’s cottage, set further out towards the forest for privacy. The two had retired there; Laken had no desire to wake up the sleeping Bismarck and Frostwing, and Alevica had no inclination to wake her two apprentices.

“If you’re trying to make me feel worse about this, it’s working.”

“I’m just trying to explain the problems we have to bear in mind, Alevica. You get that languages are derived from root languages in my world?”

“Sure. This world’s got…three proper ones? The common tongue, Drathian, though that’s a mix of different things according to Eloise, and Goblin.”

“Gnolls, Drakes, and other species too. Drakeish is written different, right?”

Alevica waved that off airily.

“They’re not proper languages spoken anymore. Drakeish is different symbols, but each one’s a letter.”

“Huh. So it’s more like a cipher than…it always struck me as weird the single major language in this world is English. If this world really is tens of thousands of years old, it should have at least a hundred languages, especially given its size.”

That was Laken’s inference as a child of Earth. As a child of this world, Alevica hit back instantly.

“Why? It’s convenient for everyone to have a shared tongue. Why would time lead to so many languages when we all communicate in one? Accents I’ll give you.”

The question stumped the [Emperor] for a second, and he had to reason it out loud until he found the logical fallacy in her assumptions.

“Because…right! You’re correct, actually, Alevica. Earth’s languages might actually be decreasing in number over time, and as globalization becomes more of a thing, some languages are spoken less and less and some are more widely spoken. English, for instance, is very common in Germany; they have to use it given how much of the world speaks English.”

“So I’m right.”

She had a smirk in her voice, and Laken shook his head.

Only if you assume that each species and people in this world spoke English from the start. Here’s the thing, Alevica: language is invented by the first primitive peoples figuring out ways to communicate verbally. We evolved to speak and made it up; that’s why you get languages. How did people first learn to speak in this world?”

The [Witch] stopped drinking her coffee as she brought over a cup for him.

“They…huh. They were taught?”

“By who? Dragons? Did one species teach the others? What about isolated groups who had no contact with other species until they were found? Why did every single species and nation in this world begin with English? That’s not possible.”

That’s deliberate design. Laken was frowning. The fact that their English was still so close to modern English on Earth was also astounding. There was something here…but Alevica just exhaled.

“Fine, I get it. That’s going to really make it hard for me to learn a new language. But those Hag Queens aren’t from your world. They’re giant frog-women. Not even frogs; I don’t know what they are. Their bodies don’t function like anything from this world.”

“Have you dissected them?”

Laken was drawn into this line of reasoning for a moment. Alevica muttered.

“Outside of the battle? Not much. No one wants to touch them, but even their eyes aren’t normal. You know how normal eyes work? Well, one of the dead hags has a bit of her eye mushed out, and it’s sort of similar, but it has lots of strange tubules instead of…mush. And her pupils are huge.

Laken shuddered at the image.

“Strange. Wait…wait, this is also useful. Think biologically, now. If the Hag Queens have huge pupils—”

“They’re good at seeing in the dark. Yeah, we got that. What did that Kaligma woman say? ‘Eight swore a pact to me under blackest sun.’ Our best guess is that they lived somewhere really dark. They might have been blinded by the light when they were fighting us, night or not.”

The idea that the Hag Queens had been almost as blind as he was and had still done that much damage made Laken shudder.

“Are they amphibians?”

“Eh…sort of? They have huge throats that inflate; those are like external lungs. There’s a lot that some of the [Witches] are finding out from their bodies, but the most notable thing is that they have a weird doubling of a lot of organs. Even tripling; they have mini-hearts, or what passes for them. They’re smaller than the main organs.”

“Weird. Redundancies?”

The [Witches] might not have been scientists, but they had an impressive understanding of the natural world, and Alevica demurred.

“Mavika has a theory. She thinks it’s actually a defensive mechanism. Like how some toads play dead? If they shut down their big organs, they can reduce their heartbeat and go into stasis. Or hide from something big that’s listening to them.”

Now, Laken had an image of the Hag Queens of Aklat Vunn. Whatever they had become, like Humans, they retained vestigial organs that might have been used in their past, like how Humans had appendices and spleens some people thought had been used to do things like consume bark or whatnot.

His image of the ancestors of the Hag Queens showed him an amphibious species living in pitch-black areas, forced to hide and even play dead as larger predators swam or walked the deeps. Laken shuddered.

“They didn’t wear clothing, right? They had tools. Staff, spellbook—I wonder how advanced that makes their civilization.”

“Is there a correlation between clothing and civilization?”

Alevica shot back. Laken frowned.

“I’d imagine so. Clothing is…a useful protection and social signifier.”

“Spoken like a land dweller. Clothing would weigh down someone in the water and wear down a lot faster.”

Intriguing. Was he being biased and using too much of Earth’s preconceptions to judge this other species? Laken had to admit—

“This is a bunch of fun. Okay, let’s assume they are intelligent, on par with Humans from my world and yours. My worry is that they’re subvocalizing on levels you and I can’t hear, but let’s assume they’re not. Let’s try matching the chants you remember to the incantation the Hag Queen wrote on her chest. That’s our most obvious link.”

Alevica, frowning, paged through the spellbook she’d taken from the stone altar. She had taken precautions; she was using a pair of tongs to flip the pages. It wasn’t exactly as safe as Laken would have hoped, but aside from disease…

Actually, that was a good thought. He swallowed.

“Maybe we should contain the Hag Queens. If they have some pestilence from their world, we could all fall ill. They used sickness in battle.”

“Hm? Oh, that’s what the ward charms are for. Some of the [Witches] can detect sickness, so we monitored them for ages. I was really worried about getting cursed when I first opened the book.”

“And they had neither? That’s sort of hard to imagine.”

The Hag Queens were spiteful. One had cursed Pryde for being beautiful. But Alevica just chuckled darkly.

“Oh, they were cursed to ten hells and back. But we broke through them. Rather easily, actually.”

Really. Easily?”

Alevica shrugged.

“[Remove Basic Curse] or whatever the Skill is called worked on everything. Weird, huh?”

“Hmm. That doesn’t sound right. Unless…”

Laken lapsed into silence as Alevica frowned at her spellbook. Then he came up with a thought and snapped his fingers.

“—Unless the rules governing them are so foreign that our Skills work differently than they should. What, exactly, did the [Witches] remove when they de-cursed the artifacts, Alevica?”

The Hag Queens were from a different world. One foreign to Earth—but also to this world’s system of levels. Laken would bet both his eyes that the Hag Queens had never set foot on this world before Kasigna had summoned them. Their magic wasn’t just unique like a spell school…

Alevica glanced up suddenly. She frowned at Laken, and the two heard a gasp from the window.

Laken spun, and Alevica jumped in alarm. She thrust open the windows as he groaned.

“How did they sneak up on—?”

You brats!

Cirsa and Malluni tried to run, but Alevica grabbed Malluni and hauled her up.

“I told you to sleep! They’re damn nocturnal; they must have noticed you visiting. Go back to bed.”

“Nuh!”

Cirsa shook her head. She leapt onto the windowsill and perched there like a cat, regarding Laken, or so he assumed. He put on his best smile.

“If they’re such a handful and you’re taking care of them, why not let them stay, Alevica?”

“Not anywhere near the spellbook. Hey, Cirsa. Touch it and your hands will fall off. My hat on it. This is not a game.

Cirsa hesitated; Alevica’s snap in her tone was serious, and even the young [Apprentices] seemed to understand the danger. However, they were curious, and Laken noted the suddenly weary tone in Alevica’s voice.

“I’ll put them to bed or give them a task, Laken. They don’t have the patience to stand around and think on this kind of thing.”

He didn’t want to waste their limited hours. Laken was well aware of the foibles of children, but Cirsa and Malluni gave him the impression of being fiercely interested. Why?

It only took him a moment to realize they had to know what Alevica was doing. Deciphering the secrets of Oliyaya’s murderer had to be a kind of victory for the girls as well. They turned to him silently, and he had an idea.

“Well, maybe they can be helpful. It seems to me we need some consultation here. Malluni, Cirsa, could you run a question to the senior [Witches] for me? And go to the kitchens? I think we need a snack for everyone.”

They brightened up as Alevica glared at him, but she seemed a bit relieved as he stumped over to the table. She snapped at the girls.

“If you’re going to help, you’d better listen to Laken’s instructions. He’s an [Emperor], and I’m your mentor.”

Laken opened one eye, the better to wink at the girls as Alevica glared at him. Then they really got down to the brass tacks, or in the case of the Hag Queens…

The removable skin and the weird eyebrows.

 

——

 

“They have what?

Laken’s idea to consult with the other [Witches] to pool their impressions paid off. Most [Witches] had a night life, and even the ones who didn’t were able to contribute their opinions—after Cirsa and Malluni woke them up.

A few gifts of food and the two apprentices’ insistence got results. As Laken and Alevica pored over the book—well, she read it, and he gave commentary—they discovered more disturbing factoids.

“Well, well, well. They’ve got clothing after all. Their skin. Sounds like that outer layer might have been something you…put on. Gross.”

Alevica was more amused than horrified. Laken had to admit…it was biologically sound. Especially for creatures who might need watertight clothing.

“Is it—Cirsa, is it artificial skin? Or someone’s actual skin?”

“Witch Quiraka says…it’s knitted.”

The apprentice laughed happily as Laken blanched. He didn’t ask further questions. Alevica, meanwhile, was moving even further back from the spellbook.

“Dead gods. Okay, Malluni? Get back. Tell Mavika I want her best safety-charm for everyone here.”

“Er—something wrong, Alevica?”

The [Witch] had just gotten confirmation on Laken’s other hunch about the curses. [Remove Basic Curse] was a really low-level Skill to work on the Hag Queens’ magic when one had cast a version of [Regeneration] and the others had resurrected insane undead and fought on the level of Named-ranks or above.

Laken had just wanted to know why that was, and apparently, the answer was…

“They definitely removed the curse, Laken. It looks like the curse is some kind of mini-spell. It’s sort of elegant; you make a simple trigger and then you…connect it to the real spell. That’s why [Remove Basic Curse] worked.”

“Oh, like a trigger running to the real bomb.”

That was a fascinating insight into—wait, hold on.

“—Does that mean the real spell is—?”

Alevica swallowed.

“The real spell isn’t active, and I don’t think I can trigger it. But it, uh—no one should break this spellbook. If that releases the spells…”

Laken’s mouth went dry.

“Maybe we should move the Hag Queens and their artifacts? Build a containment facility?”

“I think I’ll propose that to the [Witches].”

Alevica nodded a few times. Yet despite that, she kept reading the book, or rather, scribing things out. Laken noticed her wiping her eyes. He called out as Malluni came racing back with a charm in her hand.

“Still bleeding? Malluni, Cirsa, don’t look at the book. Get Alevica more ink.”

“I’m fine. Once I stare at the stuff I’ve written down, it’s all okay.”

That was another trick they’d uncovered. Laken had been so concerned about Alevica bleeding from her eyes when reading that he’d asked if she could copy down the individual letters rather than keep reading the dangerous incantations.

What they’d found was…when you wrote down individual components, the letters ceased becoming deadly. There was another benefit too. Alevica wrote something down, stared at her writing, and began swearing.

Okay! I figured out another word!”

Each magical word or incantation had progressively more delirious effects on the mind and body. Cirsa made a sound as she peeked.

“Ow. Ow—”

Ink and paper. Stare at it again and I’ll make you go bother Mavika.”

Alevica shoved the girl, and Laken spoke.

“Right, now we have a bunch of words that might correspond to the phrases that the Hag Queen spoke for the curse ritual. Do the words correspond to any other pieces of the book?”

“Maybe? Yeah? I can’t pronounce what the Hag Queen said, though.”

“Give me a try.”

Alevica cleared her throat a few times and gave Laken a grunting, rasping bark that made Malluni and Cirsa hoot with laughter. While the Witch Runner chased them around, Laken decided pronunciation was going to be their hardest problem.

The issue, as he saw it in his head, was the alphabet. To his relief, this was an alphabetic system, but Alevica had noted there were not only tonal indicators—she had no idea how some words worked.

“There are forty-one characters. This word here. It’s almost something I can sound out. R-ieigh—the ‘i’ is strange—aeereeeh? But that’s one word—teh-groat.”

“R-eigh-aeereeh-teh-groat?”

It sounded actually fairly mundane to Laken, but Alevica assured him it was the most comprehensible of the Hag Queens’ chanting. She had a better memory than he; it was all a blur of their screams and taunting. Laken frowned.

“Seems straightforward. Can you pin down the pronunciation from each component character for us? Obviously, they’ll change in context, but we can use this as a baseline.”

Alevica was doing just that, trying to write down the phonetic words. The ones she was having trouble with she described as the ‘i’ sound with an umlaut designating how it was supposed to be said—and the ‘aeereeh’ sound.

“I’m not doing it right. This character is all wrong. It looks like two mashed together.”

Laken’s ears perked up. His head rose, and he smiled.

“Wait. Say that again?”

He listened to Alevica describing the character, which she said was like a downwards ‘v’ insect that intersected with an open ‘o’ type character. Laken grinned.

“Aha! Just another reason why non-English speakers have an advantage in this world!”

“Oh, really? What am I missing?”

She tossed the piece of paper at him in exasperation, and Laken calmly smoothed it out and held out a hand.

“Quill, please, Malluni? Thank you. I think what you’re describing is like this.”

He wrote, trying to keep the character legible, and held it up. Alevica blinked.

“What is that? A weird b? What is it supposed to mean?”

“It’s ‘ß’. Eszett. I think we’re working with ligatures. That’s how you express what you’re struggling with.”

Laken smiled smugly. It was a staple of the German language…something that Alevica had never encountered before. But Alevica made a sound of interest, and Laken gestured her over.

“Let’s go back over the characters again. Maybe it’s not forty-one characters. If we have ligatures…let’s keep breaking it down.”

 

——

 

It was six in the morning when Alevica, Laken, Malluni, and Cirsa squinted at each other and realized it was daylight streaming through the window. That put paid to their research in the night.

Mostly because it was now day.

Gamel, full of chagrin, helped carry the two girls upstairs to Alevica’s bed to sleep and then Alevica decided to pass out on the floor. Laken stumbled back to his house and told Gamel to hold all his meetings until at least ten o’clock.

They had gotten solid work done. Laken realized what they needed was to have every single [Witch] repeat their own recollections of the Hags’ words and try to match them up with spells in the book for analysis.

They’d already managed to write down the alphabet and match it up to the words Alevica knew. That was a huge part of the puzzle; the auditory component would have been impossible without that clue.

Laken wondered as he lay in bed, exhausted but unable to sleep, how they’d uncover the letters not used by the Hag Queens. Perhaps they were impossible to think of, but there were some words that he bet you could put together with the seventeen characters Alevica had already charted out more or less.

She’d gone to the start of the spellbook, where the incantations got a lot simpler, and sounded out a few of the words for Laken. He was fitting the pronunciations together with his own vague memory of the Hag Queens, massaging them with his own knowledge of German and French for how they must have to sound…

Gamel heard a shout of panic and pain from inside Laken’s bedroom and rushed in, sword drawn.

“Your Majesty!?”

He looked around for a threat, but all he saw was Laken sitting in bed, holding his head in his hands. The [Emperor] waved Gamel away.

“It’s nothing—no, wait. Get Alevica to join me for breakfast. Whenever we wake.”

He made the [Knight] go away and then sat there. Smiling. Wincing—Laken muttered to himself as he felt at his forehead.

“Okay, that’s useful. Turns out even pronouncing the words right in your head hurts.”

Linguistics. He grinned until he passed out.

 

——

 

Early the next morning, as Laken and Alevica were finishing up their linguistics discussion, someone else with a special relationship with the [Emperor] of Riverfarm was also thinking about him.

Or maybe, more accurately, being introspective in general. She was uncertain. She often was—but in this case, the uncertainty was doubt.

Durene Faerise didn’t do much doubting in general. Doubts got you tangled up, and then you were harvesting turnips when they were half-ripe and having to replant them. Doubt was…well, the kind of thing she assumed people who knew better dealt with. Only, the people who knew better knew better than she did, which implied they had little doubt to have.

So doubts were the kind of thing you didn’t need in your life as long as you had someone helping you do things right. If she had articulated that viewpoint before, she would have admitted it sounded rather silly, but Durene had always been told she wasn’t that smart.

Even so, she had doubts, and they wouldn’t go away. So as dawn broke over her back, the woman who looked rather like a boulder herself shifted her position on the slate-grey mountain. Grey rock, grey, cracked skin—grey greatsword.

Impassive rock, weathered skin, and bright steel. Not all greys were the same. To Durene, she felt like each shade was as vibrant and distinct as could be, but everyone said that she looked like part of a boulder if she held still and was wearing the right clothing.

Just like how they said ‘black’ was one color. Mister Prost had once lost a cast-iron pan in his old barn and searched for it for two weeks. Durene had walked inside, seen it, filled with brackish water, in the shadow of the door, and handed it to him.

So, to Durene, the campsite was bright already, despite the few rays of dawn’s light, and she saw her companions shifting blearily and sipping at the pot of tea that Jewel had made. But she also stared into the open cliff face and the chasm beyond and quite clearly saw a pile of rocks littering a narrowing tunnel filled with some kind of unnatural stone.

She kept chewing on her breakfast of cheap bread, cold sausage, and Yellats. It wasn’t good—even Antherr was nibbling on the food with less vigor than normal—but packing enough meals for this adventure meant they needed travel food. Durene longed to be at The Wandering Inn, eating some of that spicy pottage…or at Riverfarm with fresh vegetables ready to go into something hot.

However, the Order of Solstice needed her, and in this one thing, Durene felt confident. She held her tongue on her personal quandaries as Normen took a sip of tea. He was fine because he had [Greater Fire Resistance]. Jewel took a sip and instantly burned her tongue.

“Any movement, Durene?”

“Nope, Grandmaster Normen. The tunnel’s quiet. Still looks artificial.”

Normen glanced up from his tea, and Jewel handed a cup of tea with a wooden straw to Antherr and tilted her head curiously. Ama and Vess both squinted into the cave, but the Drake shook his head after a second.

“Are you sure, Durene?”

“I am!”

She tried not to sound nervous. Durene waved a hand at the rocks.

“They’re all…fake looking. No one has rock like that anywhere I’ve seen. You know?”

The others squinted at the cave’s entrance. The cave over what had been Rheirgest’s village had been unearthed by the Giant of Bone’s passing. It was circular, narrowing after the devastation the giant had caused ended. And the rock was striated in this curious, semi-circular wavy pattern, as if something had bored through it long ago.

“…It looks like any cave to me. But I don’t know caves. Antherr, Jewel? What do you think? And don’t call me Grandmaster, Durene.”

Normen was a city fellow. The adventurer of them, Jewel, and the Antinium, Antherr, both got up and paced a few steps ahead, having to climb over the shifting stones.

“It seems very much like stones to me. I do not know. I am not a Worker; this tunnel feels mostly sound.”

“Something might’ve bored the tunnel long ago. Looks like an old monster to me, or water erosion in a weird way. Maybe from an underground spring bursting?”

Jewel was also nonplussed. But Durene insisted.

“It’s fake stone. It looks like…like concrete.”

That was it. There was a lighter color to it in her mind. She tried to describe it.

“Regular rock’s got all kinds of variations to it. You know, cracks, fault lines, and everything? Sure, this stuff looks like it’s natural, but see how it doesn’t have any of that?”

Ama produced a wand and shone it at one of the walls as the Order of Solstice took a closer look.

“Now you mention it…huh. It doesn’t have that rounding you get in natural stone. So this is a dungeon?”

Vess looked nervous.

“Or a cleverly concealed hideout. Either way, it means we might run into traps.”

“Or monsters who decided to live in an abandoned place. That’s right. Listen, if it gets too hot, we back out. We can still turn back. We’ve only wasted, what, four days on getting here and some supplies?”

Jewel looked at Normen for clarity. He scratched at his chin. Not at stubble like Laken had to deal with. The burns from the Bloodfeast Raiders may have kept him from growing more facial hair. He barely had any on his scalp. It still made Durene’s blood boil to focus on his injuries, but the [Grandmaster] of the Order of Solstice seemed to not mind them these days. His missing eye…well, his good eye was steady as it flicked to the other [Knights].

“We haven’t seen any trouble yet. We’re six [Knights]—as prepared as any Silver-rank team.”

“Probably Gold. And you forgot Sillias and your undead, Rojer, Normen.”

Ama added indignantly. By ‘Rojer’, she meant the Rheirgest Skeleton Retainer that he could summon with his Skill. Ama had insisted on giving the skeleton a name since it was always apparently the same one.

The [Knight-Artisan] patted her cat affectionately, and Normen sighed.

“…And Rojer. If you spot anything else, tell us, Durene. Do you think the walls are fake?”

Every head turned to her, and the half-Troll girl froze. She was tallest of the lot, even compared to Antherr and Normen, well above Vess, and she knew she was big and scary looking. She was strongest as well, even if the others might be more dangerous.

“I…no? I think it’s just concrete. If there were seams or something, it wouldn’t look poured into place. I could be wrong. I’m probably wrong.”

“You have the best eyes in the dark, and you made sense with the fractures thing. I think you’re right.”

Ama smiled at Durene, and the [Paladin of Fire’s Oath] hesitated. She wasn’t used to being right. Jewel, on the other hand, was nodding.

“I like Durene having good eyes in the dark. Trolls are supposed to be good in caves. Maybe it’s part of your heritage?”

Once more, Durene felt a spike of apprehension in her chest. But instead of a hostile comment, Jewel just glanced sideways at her, and Durene shrugged helplessly.

“I don’t know. I’ve never met other Trolls. Have you…fought any?”

“Me? No. I, uh, know teams that have. They’re in the Adventurer’s Guild’s bestiary. Not that—I’m just saying you’re a good scout.”

Jewel had the amazing tendency to put her foot in her mouth. It was her turn to flush, but Normen simply nodded.

“Then what if Durene and Antherr take the lead? Or we could send Rojer first.”

Jewel instantly shook her head.

“Bad idea. I knew some teams who liked to do that. Send a summon in and see what happens. Rojer might wake up all the monsters or set off a trap that hits us. Only send him in when we want to know if something’s dangerous.”

“Got it. Then…Durene and Antherr in front. Vess and Ama in the middle. Jewel and I will take up the rear. If you spot anything, stop and call out so Jewel can evaluate it.”

The six [Knights] nodded and, after chewing down their breakfast, got up. Durene was wide awake, having taken the final night shift on lookout. Here they were about to enter the caves in the mountain over Rheirgest.

On an adventure.

Durene, Ama, Normen, Jewel, Vess, and Antherr. [Knights] of the Order of Solstice. Not the first group you’d think would be doing classic adventurer work. In truth, Durene was excited by the chance to go on an adventure like her stories. And nervous.

The Order of Solstice wasn’t cut out for adventuring work by and large. They didn’t have a registration in the Adventurer’s Guild, and only Jewel was a former Gold-rank adventurer. However—on the other hand—they had armor.

Nice armor. Normen had his Demas Metal plate, and even the poorest-equipped members like Ama had a chainmail shirt she kept complaining was ‘too heavy’. Durene had steel armor on, courtesy of Laken and Master Helm, and a greatsword enchanted to be sturdy.

They were at least as good as a high-level Silver-rank team, and point two…they could really use some treasure.

As they made their way over the initial rockfall and towards the suspicious concrete opening of the cave, Vess whispered.

“Let’s say we run into something we don’t think we can handle. What’s the best plan? Sell the information to an adventurer?”

Jewel whispered back.

“If we have to. But most won’t buy it for much…and it’s not like this place is secret, Vess. Also, keep your voice down.”

“Oh. Right. Monsters.”

The [Spell Knight of Mercy] gulped and made a zipping motion with his claws. He was the youngest of the group, Durene being a year older than him, and almost as uncertain as her. He was a young prodigy with wands, though, and having him and Ama, their [Necromancer], behind Durene made the [Paladin] feel a lot more safe.

The tunnel shrank from the cavernous opening until it was about ten feet high and wide enough for two to go abreast comfortably, but Durene realized she wouldn’t be able to swing her greatsword around with impunity here.

Antherr clearly had the same thought, because he held up his hand and then made an intricate symbol with the other three.

“Uh. What, Antherr?”

The Antinium kept making hand-signs, then realized they didn’t understand, so he spoke in a whisper.

“I thought we were to keep quiet. I believe I should move back and switch with someone else. Durene and I both carry greatswords. We will be unable to fight side-by-side.”

“Oh, good idea. I’m glad you said it.”

Durene exhaled. She’d had the same thought but hadn’t been sure if it was a good one. Doubts, again.

Normen acted like the leader he was, telling Jewel to move up with Durene and moving Antherr back with him. Durene kept moving, thinking about the nature of doubts.

It wasn’t that she liked following orders all the time. But being helpful made people happy with her, and until recently, if they got unhappy, Durene’s life got a lot worse. Was she more qualified to tell people what to do than Normen or Laken?

No, definitely not. Durene stared down the tunnel as it sloped upwards strangely, then split to the right and left. The right side narrowed down until a lip of stone would force even Vess to crouch; Durene would have to crawl under it. The left side just continued onwards, though the floor looked unnaturally smooth, albeit lined with debris.

“Hm. Classic tunnel choice. Going right looks bad. I say we wall it off with Ama’s spell. That way, nothing sneaks up on us. If we have to go right, we do, but getting out in a hurry is risky.”

Jewel made a concise decision, and Ama strode over to cast [Bone Wall], which sealed off the right passage with a line of bones, criss-crossing each other like a ghastly fence. Jewel nodded confidently and took a few steps forwards.

“Ground looks too smooth to be natural stone. Durene’s probably ulp—

That was the sound of Durene grabbing Jewel and dragging her back. Everyone stopped as Jewel whirled.

“What?”

Durene’s voice was urgent and low.

“Are you sure stepping on the trap is wise?”

“…What trap?”

The [Knight of the Glittering Blade] instantly put a hand on the hilt of her sword. She half-unsheathed it, and a glowing blade, bright blue and sparkling, illuminated the ground around her. Everyone froze, and Durene decided, yes, it was a good thing she’d spoken up.

“The…glowing rune or something. There. You saw it, right?”

Jewel gave Durene a supercilious look, then bent down and sprang back with an oath.

The detritus of stone on the ground was not like the rockfall from the giant’s passage. The stones were unnaturally flat or round, some of them. To be precise—some pieces were flat and ovoid, like jagged dinner plates. Others were round and rough, but there were no exceptions between them.

There was no funny, weirdly cracked stone, no off-kilter shape. And one of the flat stones had a very faint gemstone or geode matrix set into it. Jewel pointed down at it.

“That’s the kind of thing you mention, Durene.”

“I thought you saw it.”

“Me? You’re the one with good eyes! You shout that out. It’s not a trap, as far as I can tell. Anyone want to double-check for me? It looks like an eye.”

Everyone gathered around, and Vess pointed his wand down cautiously. The gleaming stone revealed what Durene had seen.

Normen bent over the stone, shaking his head after a moment.

“It’s like…a geode. Natural crystal formations. I agree, it’s not a trap. I’ve seen that kind of spell, and it doesn’t have any visible sigil work.”

He would know, being a Brother of Serendipitous Meetings. But Vess disagreed.

“That’s no natural geode. On a flat stone like this? Either someone cut it out of a big one—and Jewel’s right. It’s eye-like. Weird.”

“[Detect Magic]. It’s not magical. Well, it’s a bit magical; all the stones are. But it’s no spell.”

That came from Ama. Antherr tilted his head. The Soldier’s voice was steady; he had been given a voice by the Free Queen after his rebirth, and while he had lost ten levels, he seemed to think it was worth the tradeoff.

“The stone is brown. The walls are grey. All the stones here are brownish.”

Durene would have said a luminescent, even rich brown like fertile soil, but everyone could spot the basic difference. Normen straightened up, his eye gleaming.

“Definitely a dungeon of some kind then? That means treasure. Jewel, how do we proceed?”

“I…think the stones aren’t dangerous? Don’t step on any of the ones with the gemstones in them. There are only a few.”

Most of the brown stones were plain and, apparently, not that magical according to Vess and Ama. Jewel made a quick call, clearly uncertain.

“If this is a dungeon…I haven’t, uh, been to that many. Okay, okay, we step back, and someone pokes one of the ordinary stones. I think we clear a path and then keep going. Otherwise, we break the stones up? But there’s no need to waste time.”

The very experimental…poking of a stone was carried out by Antherr, who poked one of the round rocks, jumped back, then, after a moment, declared them safe. Durene and Jewel began kicking the round stones to the side, clearing a path for the Order of Solstice to move forwards.

“Who makes a random dungeon in the side of a mountain above Rheirgest, anyways? I always wanted to know.”

Ama wondered aloud as the two women cleared space for the others. Jewel called over her shoulder.

“Why do random [Necromancers] occupy waystations in the middle of winter?”

“Hey. It was cold. No one likes us. We have to hide out in caves and—oh…”

“Yep. There’s always some eccentric [Mage] who doesn’t want his enemies to find his stuff. Or weird hermits. Or secret societies. I bet this is some secret hideout. I doubt it’s active. What we’re looking at, maybe, is some old base that a few monsters might have taken refuge in. There was an earthquake, or they sealed it up; when the giant moved, this place was uncovered. If we’re lucky, they’ll have left some loot behind.”

“How much loot are we talking? I wanted to be an adventurer—well, I wanted to be a lot of things. Being a [Soldier] does not pay well.”

Vess was from the Hectval-Luldem-Drisshia alliance that had fought against Liscor. He was still guilty about that, especially because he had thought the war was due to Liscor’s aggression. Circumstances had led to him denouncing his city and coming to Liscor, whereupon he’d helped rescue Normen during the winter delivery to Rheirgest.

A few more incidents and now he was a [Knight]. Funny how life worked out. Durene had told Vess that was pretty much how she’d become a [Paladin]; she helped a random blind man and then he was leading an empire.

“Could be nothing. Could be a huge haul. That’s the adventuring way.”

Jewel gave them all a big smile that made Durene excited—then coughed into a fist.

“…About ninety-nine percent of the time it’s nothing. You make your money on monster parts and contracts. But every now and then, you get a Dungeon of Liscor. Actually, that’s a bad example. The Dungeon of Liscor sucks for treasure. Chalence—that was big.”

“We could use a few relics. I mean, I know Lyonette promised us lots of gold, but if we’re doing the [Knight] thing, I’d love a really powerful artifact. Especially if we’re fighting a bunch of Draugr again. Or the Bloodfeast Raiders or Bloodtear Pirates. Or…the next monster Erin decides to piss off.”

Ama’s comment made everyone go quiet. Normen shifted, his hand on his mace, and Durene glanced at him.

All the things that the Order of Solstice had fought were way above their level and experience. Embraim had gone after Erin to die at sea. Durene’s eyes still stung remembering the flames coating a [Pirate]’s ship.

“We’ll be ready when the time comes. We need a keep. We have no cause at the moment—no great one we can take on at this moment. This is a kind of training and preparation, as it were.”

Normen spoke after a moment and got a firm nod from everyone. This was training. Durene tightened her grip on her greatsword and the tower shield she carried. She would help out the Order of Solstice as much as she could. They were all good people, the kind of people she wanted to be, who’d fight for a good cause without hesitation. She wanted to help them; that’s why she was here.

She just hoped Laken wouldn’t need her. And she wondered how long she could be part of the Order of Solstice until her duty to Riverfarm dragged her back.

That was the thing. Durene loved the Order of Solstice. She had found, via Laken’s continued ruling of the Unseen Empire, people who she felt she understood.

That was—Hedag, Normen, Jewel, Wiskeria, Vess, Ama, Antherr—friends who wanted to do the right thing and who were brave. In Hedag’s case, she was more like what Durene wished she could be. Confident. Someone who helped those in need. She wanted the Order of Solstice to be a great organization. She was proud to be part of it.

She was just ashamed because she wasn’t really a [Knight] like the others. She was Riverfarm’s [Paladin]. If they needed her…

Maybe Wiskeria and Beniar will make that army and I won’t be needed. Then I can devote my time to the Order. But Laken will miss me. He was already upset about me going after helping with Rheirgest, and I couldn’t even go the entire time. And everyone keeps saying…

They picked their way past the stones and entered a new section of the caves. The oddly fake concrete widened again, whereupon the first thing Durene saw was a wide, circular room. It was once more filled with unnaturally flat stone, but in the center was something that was definitely not natural to caves.

“Hold. Durene, is that…”

Jewel squinted as Vess aimed a glowing wand at the object in the center, and Durene murmured.

“It looks like a bunch of gemstones. Is that…a trap?”

“It has to be, right?”

Ama stood on her tiptoes and stared dubiously at the glowing jewels hovering in the air. Vess just frowned ahead.

“That’s a lot of magic running through the area. Whoa. Are we on one of those magical grounds? It looks like…a leyline.”

Normen’s brows rose.

“A what?”

Everyone turned to Vess, but the Drake shrugged.

“I don’t know. I never studied magic in school. I just heard other [Mages] talk about it. You know, places of magical power? Like Erin’s inn?”

Jewel snapped her fingers.

“Leyline. Of course! This is a natural leyline! This has to be someone’s lair! Leylines are places where magic gets strong. See? You can even see the line in the center of the room. Dead gods, those gemstones might be produced by the magic here!”

The gemstones were clustered around what Durene could only describe as a pool of melted stone in the center. But instead of fire, the stone was glistening and vibrant. A line of faintly glowing rock seemed to cross the room, brightening where it met at this natural leyline. It faded away until it passed out of the room; clearly an intersection of power that made the magic visible to the naked eye.

“So someone found a leyline, decided to harvest the magic here…is that it?”

Normen sounded mildly disappointed, but Jewel gave him an incredulous look.

“See those hovering gemstones, Normen? The leyline might be producing them.”

Each one was a different color and looked exceptionally pure and beautiful. Even as they watched, the [Knights] saw a tiny globule of the molten stone rise up and join a small ball hovering in the air. It looked like this place was…producing gemstones?

“Okay, free gemstones every month? Let’s make this our headquarters, lock the door, and be rich forever.”

Ama rubbed her hands together eagerly. Durene got excited too. Vess was the most cautious, though.

“There’s a lot of magic in those gemstones, guys. Each one’s got more than I do. You too, Ama.”

“Hey. Don’t compare yourself to a rock. And that just means it’s worth tons of gold. Normal gemstones are actually sorta cheap if you get them from Salazsar. Magic gemstones? You can make artifacts and do crazy magic with those.”

Ama slapped him on the shoulder. It was Antherr who observed something quietly, having been watching in silence as everyone else spoke.

“Query. Do magical gemstones normally fly? Or shiver?”

Durene’s eyes darted back to the gemstones. They were indeed hovering in the air around the leyline of power. But now, the voices of the [Knights] had provoked an odd shivering in the gems. Jewel backed up a step.

“Uh—back up. Back up—”

“Do we attack the gemstones? I have a shot.”

Vess called out, raising his wands. Normen turned and drew his mace.

“The stones behind us are moving. Activate your flames.”

“Honor be with us.”

Antherr drew his greatsword as green flames roared down along the hilt, and Normen’s armor lit up. Jewel drew her sword, and it burned with pink glory. Durene and Ama had no specific flames, but Vess’ wand burned with small, grey flames of mercy.

“Shoot the stones, Vess!”

Durene heard Jewel shout, and Ama protested.

“But they’re worth so much—”

Vess drew a bead on one of the largest gemstones and fired a single [Arrow of Light]. It was bright, piercing, and swift and cut through the quiet room towards the gemstone, which…hovered out of the way. It dodged the spell, and Vess took another shot.

A second gemstone flicked sideways, and the glowing arrow hit the far wall and gouged a tiny hole in the stone. Vess swore, but before he could take more shots, Normen called out.

Behind us! The stones are moving!

The [Knights] whirled. All the curious stones in the hallways were flying upwards. Antherr struck one down with a clang, but the rest flew past him as Normen raised his shield, covering Antherr. Durene braced—but the stones floated past her and into the circular room. Then they whirled around the gemstones, and Ama breathed out.

“Um. Sillias, dear? Get over here.”

Her bone cat bounded forwards to shield her from the eight gemstones, each of which settled into place in the center of a whirling formation of rock and stone. The oval ‘faces’ locked into place at the top of each stone body, enclosing the gemstone hearts, and Jewel snapped her fingers.

“Oh! Rock Elementals! I knew that was familiar.”

Everyone turned to look at her. Then the first goliath made of stone strode forwards, two legs and humanoid arms swinging with wide, powerful sweeps, and Durene backed up as seven more followed. Normen spoke.

“[Summon Skeleton Retainer]. Sillias, Rojer, slow them down. Everyone else, fall back! Vess, Ama, hit them!”

 

——

 

Rock Elementals. Natural beings formed when magical gemstones decided they’d had enough of being mined for their value and learned how to manipulate stone and create bodies. They were like Snow Golems; the gemstones were their real bodies, and they surrounded themselves in hard layers of stone to defend themselves with.

Jewel kept up a running commentary, explaining things as the Order of Solstice retreated down the cave. Vess fired both wands as he backed up, but his spells didn’t do more than leave a few fractures on the stone bodies of the Rock Elementals.

Ama had even less luck; she was shooting [Bone Darts] while Sillias, her ferocious giant cat, her mastercrafted undead, tried to cling to one arm and gnaw on it. The Rock Elemental swung an arm and sent the cat reeling, then punched Rojer in the face.

The Skeleton Retainer’s bones scattered everywhere, but he began reforming as the Order of Solstice backed up, luring the Rock Elementals into a place where they would be able to fight with more space.

Durene was bringing up the rear with her shield, raising it, ready to be attacked. The Earth Elementals advanced, but every time they raised a fist—they hesitated.

They didn’t hesitate to pound Rojer into bone powder, but Durene saw them abort a swing several times. One punched Sillias, raised a hammer-fist—

She jabbed at it with a short stab, striking it in the ‘face’ with her greatsword. It was all stone and too tough; the Earth Elemental just recoiled a bit. It held its fist up, and Durene swung her sword again, hacking against one arm.

That made it decide to swing at her, and she took a huge punch to her shield with a grunt. Durene heard a shout and stumbled back. The Earth Elementals slowed as the Order of Solstice kept moving back. They certainly weren’t shy about the other [Knights]; Ama ducked a stone one of them hurled at her, and Normen raised his shield, shouting.

“We choke them in the tunnel. Durene, get back! Let Sillias stymie them and hold them while the rest of us break them to pieces one by one.”

Normen checked the right passage, but no enemies were coming from the tunnel there. Durene’s heart was pounding, but she was ready.

“When do I use my Skill, Normen? I have [Oath of Flames]—”

“Wait till we join battle.”

She nodded, readying herself. She had other Skills too, but her last few level ups as a [Paladin of Fire’s Oath] had given her new abilities she’d not needed—yet. Normen stumbled as he reached the stones blocking the entrance to the cave.

“Our footing is terrible!”

“Clear the stones! They’re coming—slowly—Sillias! Don’t get cracked!”

The cat was eating punches as it snarled and tried to slow the Rock Elementals, who just kept coming, swinging their arms in wide, horizontal ‘punches’ that cracked the cat’s bones, but didn’t seem that fast.

Durene had to holster her shield and greatsword for a second to hurl stones away and clear a place to fight. Antherr didn’t drop his greatsword, but he used his two free arms to work as Normen reached for a jar of acid. Then hesitated.

“They’re made of stone. Acid won’t do much on them. We need hammers.”

Jewel gestured with her rapier, pointing the [Knights] to positions.

“Just get me an opening and I can try a [Piercing Thrust]. Don’t let them get out of the tunnel. One at a time!”

They had cleared about ten feet of fighting room when Durene saw the first Rock Elemental walking towards them. She braced, drawing her sword and raising her shield. This was it! The Order of Solstice tensed as Sillias came bounding back, mouth open in a silent yowl, his skull fractured in several places. Ama put her hand to his head.

“[Mend Creation]! Come on, you stupid piles of stone! We’ll see who’s made better!”

“Steady—”

Vess fired a pair of [Arrows of Light], then held one wand up. The tip of it began to glow brighter and brighter as he charged up a spell, and the [Knights] waited. The first Rock Elemental strode towards the entrance of the cave—regarded its foes—

…Then it turned around and went back the way it had come.

After six seconds, Vess fired an [Arrow of Radiance] into its back, and the scorching arrow cracked the stones on the Rock Elemental’s back slightly. It half-turned, regarded Vess—and then threw a part of its body at the Drake.

“Vess!”

Durene leapt forwards, blocking the piece of stone, which thudded hard against her shield. She imagined it would have cracked the skull of an ordinary person. Vess leapt backwards.

“T-thanks, Durene!”

The Rock Elemental turned as the thrown part of it floated back. Antherr struck the floating rock again with his greatsword, but all he did was send it bouncing to the ground, whereupon it floated back into the cave. The Rock Elemental lumbered back the way it had come. Ama blinked in surprise.

“They’re retreating?”

“Did they sense the trap?”

Normen turned to Jewel, and the adventurer scratched her head.

“They must have. Or they don’t want to leave their cave. Wait—wait—”

The Rock Elementals filed back the way they’d come. Then, as they moved around the corner of the cave on the left-hand side, Durene saw the one in front pause and shuffle back.

It stood just around the corner of the tunnel, frozen in place. After a few seconds, it took another step back. It seemed like it had one fist raised, ready to swing down on the first fool to round the corner. Only, it wasn’t quite out of view.

The Order of Solstice stared at the ‘ambush’, and after a moment, Ama exhaled loudly.

“Wow. These are the dumbest monsters I’ve ever met. Even the Snow Golems were smarter.”

 

——

 

In fairness, they were smart. For literal rocks. The elementals didn’t want to exit the cave. Conversely, the Order of Solstice didn’t want to enter the cave.

Advantages on the Order of Solstice’s side: they were smarter than rocks and had eyes.

Advantages on the Rock Elemental’s side: they were made of stone.

“I can’t leave a dent on them! Every time I crack their armor, they just repair the stone!”

Vess was exhausted and sweaty after firing his sixtieth arrow spell. He staggered back to the campsite to gobble down food along with a mana potion, and Durene and Normen retreated as well.

Durene’s jaw ached, and Normen was rubbing at his chest. She’d eaten a stone punch that had dented her helmet; he’d taken a battering blow to his armor. Antherr and Jewel engaged the Rock Elementals furiously for four minutes before retreating.

“They’re too tough! I got through their first layer of stones—then my [Piercing Thrust] Skill failed! Is my rapier bent?”

Jewel felt worriedly at her sword as Antherr regarded his greatsword with dismay. Even with full windup, all Durene had done was dull her own greatsword’s edge.

Hacking through an eight-foot-tall behemoth made of literal stone was not the job for a greatsword. Durene had been confident in her strength and had even tried to punch the Golem; her bruised knuckles told you how well that had gone.

“Dead gods. The bestiary never said anything about fighting eight Rock Elementals at once! They’re not supposed to come in more than twos and threes at most!”

Jewel flopped down on her back. Normen half rose, wincing.

“We’ll go in after Sillias and Rojer—”

“We’re not going to make a dent! Can your honor’s fire do more than shield you, Normen? Glory isn’t doing much on the stone things—I wish Embraim were here.”

Jewel raised her head, and everyone fell silent, remembering the fallen [Knight]. Antherr lifted a faintly burning hand.

“The fire of honor keeps me safe. It is not a very strong weapon.”

“[The Bonfire Rages] calls down flame…but they’re fireproof.”

Normen’s voice was filled with chagrin. He had faced down Elia Arcsinger’s team, the Bloodfeast Raiders—but the [Knight] who carried Erin’s flame of honor didn’t have much expertise or advantage fighting what was essentially a giant boulder with an attitude. As for Durene…she felt at a tooth.

“[Oath of Flames] only lets me set my shield and sword on fire. I have to promise to do something—if I break my oath, the flames go out.”

“Great. And I’m a [Necromancer]. So what you’re saying is that because our enemies aren’t alive, aren’t flammable, and don’t have…honor or whatever, we’re fighting our worst enemies?”

Ama stopped tending to Sillias, and Antherr clacked his mandibles together.

“This would appear to be the case. I did not think the Order of Solstice had any weaknesses. But surely, Grandmaster Normen, you can intensify your flames?”

Every eye turned to Normen. The [Grandmaster] sat with a thin veil of flames over his armor, like a film of green fire over the azure. It was beautiful—but Durene had seen him fully ablaze during the Solstice, like a living bonfire.

Normen hesitated. His fire could shield him from harm, reveal who had honor in their hearts, and probably a lot more. However, right now, it was barely more than a coating. He gave Antherr an embarrassed shake of his head.

“I…don’t have more than this, Antherr. Do you?”

“No.”

The Antinium lifted his own greatsword and stared at the same meager amount of flames. They turned to the other two bearers; Jewel, who had some pink flames at the tip of her rapier. Vess?

“Vess, where’s your flame of mercy?”

The [Spell Knight] hunched his shoulders. He produced a tiny puft of grey flame from a wand…which went out. His voice held a note of complaint.

“What mercy? Mercy for rocks? Mercy for me? I can’t even figure out what I’m supposed to be showing mercy to!”

“Ah.”

Durene realized what was going on about the same time as the others. Normen scratched at his chin.

“…I don’t think any of us are feeling this fight, as it were. And it would appear that the Order of Solstice fights best when it believes in a cause.”

Everyone sat there, patently embarrassed, until Ama slapped her forehead.

“Oh, come on. We killed Draugr. Now we’re losing to a bunch of rocks?”

 

——

 

About half an hour later, the Order of Solstice made camp again. Everyone watched the cave, but the Rock Elementals didn’t come out to fight, and the Order of Solstice had gotten tired of going in to try and take them out.

If they even cracked one Rock Elemental’s body, it would walk back and let a new one take over. By the time it returned, it would have mended all the damage to its stone body. Jewel had a new theory about this cave.

“It might not even be a dungeon, people. It could be the Rock Elementals built this entire place. Think about it. They find a leyline that creates more of their kind, and they decide to build a cave. They might have sealed it off themselves. In which case, all the treasure is…them.”

“They’re not that smart. Surely. Their entire tactic is standing behind a wall to hit you. I see you in there!”

Ama protested, shouting and shaking a fist at a Rock Elemental, which was indeed standing with its fist raised. Normen muttered ruefully.

“I don’t know. That’s a working strategy of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. And it seems to be working quite well on us.”

Durene couldn’t help but agree. Even Bismarck or a big monster who wanted a free cave would think twice about throwing hands with this many Rock Elementals. What could take this lot out?

“Okay, we can do it with pickaxes, a few wall spells, and…hammers. Lots of hammers. We just have to prep right.”

Jewel was working up a strategy to take out the Rock Elementals. It was Normen who glanced at her calculations, grimaced, and asked a pertinent question.

“Ah…Jewel?”

“Yes?”

She looked up at him expectantly, and he smiled at her, which earned him an answering smile that lit her face up. Durene looked on, faintly jealous. They were a couple, the pair of them. During Erin’s beach, they’d developed a relationship, and while neither one advertised it…Normen glanced down.

“Tier 3 [Wall of Stone]. Six spells?”

“Good point. It should be [Wall of Ice]; they might be able to use the stones against us. Those are rarer, but Ama can raise a few [Bone Walls].”

“Only a few! I’m not Pisces. I do creations. Not random walls.”

Jewel nodded and amended her list. Normen read.

“So six Tier 3 spell scrolls to block them. Two pickaxes, four hammers.”

“Mauls, more like. And I think a Potion of Blast might be worth having.”

“What’s the cost of all that?”

Jewel ran a few calculations as Durene thought she saw where this was going.

“Eh…you can get a Tier 3 scroll for a hundred and twelve gold pieces? So six hundred and sixty…good pickaxes and mauls…eight hundred gold pieces tops?”

“Eight hundred?”

Durene’s voice cracked, and Jewel, the Gold-rank adventurer, shrugged.

“Yeah, but those Rock Elementals are worth at least a thousand gold pieces for each one’s core. If we get them undamaged, they’re probably worth…five or six times even that! Or more! One could go for tens of thousands of gold pieces!”

She rubbed her hands together, beaming, until a thought struck her. It had already, clearly, hit Normen.

“Lyonette is rich. If that’s all we get for fighting the Rock Elementals, I say we leave them to their cave.”

“But—they’re worth gold.”

Jewel began, and Normen pointed back vaguely west.

“Lyonette can hand over ten thousand gold pieces in an instant. Why are we fighting these things? If they were worth more to us than gold, I’d understand. Are they?”

It was the most surreal question Durene had ever asked herself, and yet…she wasn’t a poor [Farmer] living on the outskirts of a small village. She would have risked her life for a hundred gold pieces a year ago. Right now? She weighed sixty thousand gold pieces against getting a tooth punched out of her face. And the tooth felt more valuable.

“There’s a lot of value to this cave, Normen. The leyline is valuable information. [Mages] would love to know where this is. Isn’t Archmge Valeterisa flying over the High Passes just to find this kind of thing?”

Vess pointed out that, and Normen nodded.

“So let’s sell the information to her. And let her…melt the Rock Elementals.”

Durene didn’t envy the simple monsters going up against the Archmage of Izril. Jewel looked manifestly unhappy as she pointed at the cave.

“But…adventurer. I’m an adventurer.”

Ama slapped her on the shoulder happily.

“Now you’re a [Knight]. And [Knights] are cowards, apparently. Works for me!”

The [Necromancer] had a bit of self-loathing towards her class. Antherr folded his arms.

“I do not believe in dying for no purpose. This is a value I have decided upon after experiencing death once already. If Grandmaster Normen wishes to retreat, I vote we run while passing excrement, which I am led to believe deters pursuit.”

Everyone turned to him, and Durene tried not to laugh at the expression on Jewel’s face. Vess covered his snout—when they locked eyes, both burst out in guffaws. Antherr looked pleased with himself.

“I have told an inadvertent joke. This mission has been a success for me.”

“Wait, wait. We have to at least check out the right-hand passage. Maybe there’s more to this cave.”

Jewel brought up one objection, and the Order of Solstice eyed the cave. Durene groaned as she saw how close the elementals were to the right-hand passage. Now, in hindsight, not going right seemed like a poor choice. Normen eyed the passageway with concern.

“We’ll have to stall them long enough for someone to get through there. And if they follow or block the tunnel…is it worth the risk?”

“Nothing ventured—and they’re too fat to duck under the lip of stone. It looks to me like they sealed that spot off. Heck, they might repair it if we come back later. What do you think?”

Jewel rose to her feet and adjusted her belt. Vess, Ama, Normen, and Antherr looked at each other, and Durene hesitated.

“I—I bet we could buy Jewel time to squeeze under the rock.”

“And I can go! I’m quick and the smallest.”

Vess volunteered as well. Normen glanced at Jewel, and Antherr nodded.

“We shall block the Earth Elementals. Or die trying.”

He held out a hand, and Durene hesitated, then grasped it, feeling his strong hand.

“See—that’s the kind of talk you don’t do on an adventure. No dying. Let’s just—Ama, bone wall, and use Sillias to block the elementals? Durene, Antherr, hold them back?”

Everyone agreed with that. Normen frowned as he stared at the right-hand passage.

“Agreed, but if you run into trouble…I’ll hang back. Either I’ll push the elementals back if they try to cut us off or I’ll use my fire to cover you two. Got it?”

The [Knights] nodded. They lined up with Durene, Antherr, and Ama on one side, Jewel and Vess on the other, and Normen at the back. They advanced slowly, halting a good dozen paces from the tunnel intersection.

Durene felt tense, even though she was sure she could take a few punches if the Rock Elementals got past her shield. She stood there as the others muttered, confirming timing, how far Jewel and Vess would investigate the right passage, checking gear—

“Everyone ready? Anyone have questions, reservations?”

Normen called out softly as a Rock Elemental waited to hammer an arm down on one of them. Durene bit her lip.

This was all right. This—strange encounter with the Rock Elementals? She had a bruised jaw, a loose tooth, she’d slept on rocks all last night, and had had to hold a night shift into the morning. They might not get anything of concrete value on this trip.

She could have done this for the rest of her life. Her comrades looked at each other, and Normen’s eyes caught Durene’s, sensing, perhaps, her doubts. Her reservations unspoken.

“Durene? Anything to say?”

Everyone looked at her. Durene squinted at the rock cave, the bright stone of the elementals, at her friends—and asked the question she had really been worrying over this entire trip.

“D—d’you—I don’t know, and I know I’m stupid for asking. But how often should you be, um—having sex with the person you love? Because I think twice or three times a day is a lot. Let alone the other stuff. I mean, I really like Laken, but is that normal?”

Antherr shifted, and his raised greatsword lowered slightly. Vess’ mouth opened a bit, and Jewel stopped crouching to bring her head up. In silence, Ama covered her mouth with a look of delight and curiosity on her face, and Normen…

Normen stared at Durene along with the first Rock Elemental. He and the animated creature of stone had about the same expression on their faces. After a moment, Normen lowered the visor of his helmet.

“Let’s go. We’ll bring that up—afterwards. Order of Solstice! Forwards!

Durene was so red-faced she was grateful for a chance to hit the Rock Elemental with one gauntleted fist as Vess rolled under the lip of stone and Jewel slid under it. She heard a shout.

Ama.

“Sillias! Block that one!”

Normen.

“Jewel! What do you see?”

Jewel.

“Dead gods! It’s deep—Vess, get back! It’s really deep—

Vess.

Aaaah! Bats! Giant bats! Run! It’s an old mine! Argh! My leg!

And Antherr, who pivoted, parrying another Rock Elemental’s punch. He spoke conversationally as high-pitched squealing was followed by Jewel sliding out the way she’d come and Vess screaming as he crawled after her.

“I have never had sex before, so I believe that number feels high.”

Durene stared at Antherr in gratitude—then she stumbled back as one of the elementals shoved her. Vess was struggling, a huge, biting bat’s mouth gnawing at his feet, and everyone was pouring back. Durene acted on instinct. She reached down, put him on her shoulders, and ran as the Rock Elementals advanced a few steps after them, then backed away.

 

——

 

“Okay. It was this huge, deep mining shaft. Filled with giant bats. It kept sloping downwards, and because there were bats, I’m going to assume that there’s another entrance for them. Also—that this is a gemstone mine of some kind, and therefore…no treasure. At least, nothing beyond gemstones. Crap.”

The Order of Solstice was descending the mountain as Jewel recounted what they’d seen. Vess shuddered, patting at his chest.

“They were gigantic. Way more terrifying than the elementals! What do bats that big live off of?”

“Giant bugs?”

Ama suggested, and they all thought about that. Durene shuddered. Still, it provoked a question for her.

“Were there mines here in the past owned by Humans, Jewel? Who made tunnels like that?”

Jewel frowned.

“I’m no expert. As far as I know, Rheirgest was the only settlement here…ever. Those might be tunnels made by Gnolls or Drakes in antiquity. Which is crazy! The Rock Elementals clearly took over this section…I wonder how long it takes for one to form? We could probably guess based on the fact there are eight there, all of them pretty large. I’ll do some research. Anyways, I didn’t get a good look at the mines.”

“They are strange mines.”

Antherr agreed. Everyone turned to him.

“How’s that, Antherr?”

The Antinium seemed to think it was obvious.

“Well, the mines are very tall. The entrance was ten feet tall. Was it smaller on the other side?”

Jewel instantly shook her head.

“Nope. Same height. Very wide across, too. Different stone; Durene was right. The Rock Elementals covered this stuff up, but it was more natural-looking in there. What’s wrong with that?”

Antherr scratched at one antenna.

“…If the miners are like Antinium, they would not make the mines so big. It is a lot of work making a tunnel big enough for a Soldier to march in opposed to one ten feet tall.”

Especially if they were going through stone. That was a really good point. Jewel shrugged.

“Maybe they needed the space for minecarts or something? It’s a good point. What I can tell you is that the shaft goes deep. Vess had about two seconds of light, but it looked like it had to go down at least five hundred feet. No bones I could see, though given how long ago it was made…what do you think? Do we go back or tell someone or what?”

Normen sighed and scratched at his head.

“I think we’ll inform Lyonette. She is curious. Then we’ll consider selling the information to Archmage Valeterisa or an adventuring team. But perhaps let’s find out more about the mines first. And if those Rock Elementals are worth more than mere gold, we can go back and smash them.”

“Aw. I sort of liked them.”

Ama scuffed down the mountainside. Vess spluttered.

“Liked them? They threw rocks at me and punched us for the last hour!”

“Yeah, but they’re just defending their home. They’re cute, don’t you think? Crude, but cute.”

Only someone who loved her pet, undead bone cat Sillias more than other people would describe the towering Rock Elementals as ‘cute’. Normen wearily rubbed at his chest again.

“I think Chaoisa won’t be at our pickup spot until at least midday. She said she had a delivery. Good work, [Knights]. Let’s relax. We may not have acquired any treasure, but no one was hurt, and we learned enough for today.”

It was, amazingly, still early morning. After all the fighting, it surprised Durene barely an hour had passed.

She felt a bit bad about their unceremonious retreat, but the Order of Solstice’s heart wasn’t in the fight. If they wanted to knock down the right passage, they could come back, but it would behoove them to at least have a pickaxe or two and a wheelbarrow.

Everyone lapsed into silence for a few minutes of picking their way down the rocky slopes. Every now and then, Vess would slip, and Durene would grab his arm. For a Drake who’d grown up in the hills, he didn’t do rocky terrain that well; she was steady as could be, as was Antherr.

After a few minutes, she realized everyone was looking at her. Durene flushed, and Normen cleared his throat.

“I, uh—regarding your question in the cave, as it were, Durene. As Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice, I am bound to hear out all the members’ issues. At the same time…”

He colored faintly under his burn scars.

“…The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings are not in long-term relationships by and large. And my advice is—always treat the lady kindly. Always accept a ‘no’ whenever it’s given. Show up with a gift, and remember to wear protection unless you want to settle down and hang up your hat for good.”

He seemed to be reciting that from memory and then, clearly, realized this advice might not have the most resonance with Durene. Normen cleared his throat again.

“—And now to you, Jewel.”

Wh—me? What? I’m—I’m an adventurer. I don’t do long-term relationships either. Don’t sleep within the team. Ask them if they’ve got anything nasty first. Do a spot inspection of anything that goes into you.”

“Gross.”

Ama made a gagging sound, and Jewel glared at her.

“Well, you give advice.”

“I don’t have to. My love is for Sillias! Now, if you want to hear about how to do that—”

Everyone instantly turned to Vess, who stood there, perplexed, as he stared around.

“Do none of you have experience with relationships?”

He gazed at Jewel, a Gold-rank adventurer, who had either been more famous than her partners or dealing with other adventurers; Normen, a member of an all-male group of criminals; Antherr, who had once read a book on sex written by other Antinium; and Ama, whose relationship seemed to be with her cat.

Vess stared at Durene.

“I mean, three times feels like a lot. Every day?”

She was beet red and nodded. The Drake whistled.

“If you’re having fun, that’s good. What’s the problem? Don’t let people shame you…about things, Durene.”

He looked as uncomfortable as she did, but he gave her an encouraging smile, and she felt a bit better. It was just—Durene hesitated. She looked anywhere but at her fellow [Knights].

“I wouldn’t. Be ashamed, that is. And if it’s fun, it’s good. Right. Right…but do you think I should be, um, offering it three times? For him? Laken, I mean. Because I keep getting told it should be that many plus the other things.”

“What other things?”

Antherr raised a hand, and Durene turned red even more. But then her words clicked, and Jewel raised her brows.

“Wait, are you getting told that’s how much you should put out? By who?”

“Whom.”

Antherr added helpfully. But then the other five [Knights] stared at Durene, and she hesitated.

“…Everybody?”

 

——

 

Some conversations were personal.

Some conversations were fascinating.

Some conversations were both.

And it seemed, at least to the Order of Solstice, that it was a conversation that needed to happen, even if the tips of Jewel’s ears were about to burst into flame themselves, and even if Normen was squirming worse than that time someone set him on fire.

—Because it was also clear Durene had no one else to talk to.

“I mean, I could talk to Wiskeria and Hedag. But Hedag’s…solo. I’m pretty sure. And Wiskeria—no. Her advice is usually, um. Different?”

Durene didn’t want to run down a rabbit hole about tantric sex, the myths, the reality, all passed secondhand to Wiskeria from her mother. Because if you thought Durene had issues…

They were all sitting by the road waiting for a huge, armored wagon run by the Contempt of Man, Chaoisa, one of the most famous [Drivers] on the continent. The reason the notorious woman who rode through bandit territory and storms was willing to work for cheap with the Order of Solstice was simple:

She liked Durene. Though she was often in a spitting bad temper; she glared at Normen as she pulled to a stop, about to offer some caustic remark as he tilted his helmet to her. But to Chaoisa’s surprise, the entire Order of Solstice got in the wagon while barely acknowledging her glower, greeting her absently, but talking. The [Driver] waved at Durene and got a smile from the half-Troll girl, but Durene looked so miserable that Chaoisa glanced at them.

“So, uh, what about that cave then?”

Chaoisa was chewing on some tobacco gum she made up herself. She spat over the side of the wagon, and Jewel answered.

“Filled with Rock Elementals. We didn’t explore the entire thing. What’s this about…wait, I get that you can’t talk with anyone else, Durene. But are you saying that you’re not the one instigating the sex stuff each day?”

“I am. Or he does.”

Durene was beet red, and the [Driver] stared at them as her two bulls got the wagon moving. Then she developed the same long ear as the rest of them and listened as they bumped down the road to Celum. Durene struggled to explain.

“It’s just—advice.”

“From everyone. In Riverfarm? You mean, other people you know. Like…your friends? Can you give names? What is it, a dozen people?”

Vess was scratching at his neck spines, trying to make sense of this. Durene’s blush deepened, but she shook her head.

“Not friends exactly. It’s…well Miss Yesel and all the washer women, Lady Rie but she was more subtle about it? Even Ram, Beycalt brought it up once, and Jelov—

She began counting on her fingers, and Normen had to seek clarity.

“The [Carver]? The one who spits on everything?”

Durene was up to five fingers. Which, as it turned out, didn’t mean ‘five’. It meant fifty.

“They’re all giving you advice on how often you and that [Emperor] enter the wailing pit?”

Ama looked highly amused—until, for some reason, it stopped being as funny. Durene nodded.

“I mean, they love Laken. They have opinions on how…I should be acting.”

“You should be acting? What about his conduct?”

Antherr was confused, and Durene laughed and hugged him one-armed.

“He’s the [Emperor], Antherr. I’m—very lucky he liked me. Because he could have found anyone. So I get advice. Lots of advice on things to do. With hands and…things…”

She grew more uncomfortable. Jewel gave Normen a sharp look. He was scratching at his chin and caught her eye. Durene rushed on, seeing the glances.

“It’s not like it isn’t fun! Mostly. But it feels weird.”

“Yeah.”

Vess had stopped in making a sandwich for himself. He gave Durene such a nonplussed look that she answered with confusion. The Drake twisted around.

“That’s super weird, isn’t it? Someone telling Durene to have sex with the [Emperor] all the time? Is that not weird?”

The Order of Solstice glanced at each other and answered in a rush.

Jewel.

“No, that’s not normal to me.”

Normen.

“I agree.”

Ama.

“Yep.”

Antherr.

“I have already expressed my lack of understanding, but I believe it is odd.”

Chaoisa spat over the side of the wagon and turned to give Durene a long stare.

“Sounds like that [Emperor] fellow needs a boot up his ass. What’s that lot fawning over him doing giving you orders, my girl?”

“They just want what’s best for him. I do too. I just…I know they know what’s best, but it’s getting hard. Laken wanted me around, but I knew you were all going to check out the cave, so I said I promised to go. It’s not a big deal.”

Ama slowly sipped from a canteen as she petted Sillias on the head.

“Not a big deal to you, maybe. I’d set fire to his underwear if I had to deal with that.”

Durene looked up, surprised by the murmurs of support. Even the boys like Normen, Vess, and Antherr seemed dubious about the advice.

“But I mean—it’s not bad advice?”

A second glob of brown spit told Durene what her [Driver] thought about that. Chaoisa turned with a full glare.

“Who says you’ve gotta listen to it? Do you go around obeying every little thing, Durene? I thought you were a woman like thunder and metal—like me!”

She gave such a castigating look to the girl that Durene wilted. Which made Chaoisa’s face go slack with guilt. Ama made a fist-punching gesture with one hand. Chaoisa turned a glare of relief on the [Necromancer], raised a fist, and Ama decided to let bygones be bygones.

“I always do what I’m told. Almost always. Don’t you?”

Durene gave the others a look of earnest confusion. She turned to the former [Soldier] who’d quit his city, the Individual Antinium, a Gold-rank adventurer, a [Necromancer], and a criminal with a hat for confirmation that this was the good and proper way of things.

Durene didn’t like their stares.

 

——

 

It was a multi-day journey back to Celum. The Order of Solstice liked each other’s company, but it was a strained trip this time. Well, mostly because of Durene.

She kicked around the campsite at night and forgot to help build the fire or set up tents by the wagon. She was so upset that when Vess limped over, Durene was kicking rocks and trying to hit a tree in the distance.

“Hey, Durene. You okay?”

“What’s wrong with your leg, Vess?”

The Drake glanced at it.

“Oh, that? I think I twisted my ankle when I was running from the stupid bats. It’s fine. I don’t want to waste a healing potion on it.”

It felt like the days when you could pop a potion and not worry about a scrape were long gone. Durene nodded, and Vess sat down and watched her kick another stone.

“So…you seem upset.”

She kicked a rock so hard it gouged a hole out of the tree. Vess winced, but Durene spoke before he could leave.

“I’ve always done what the others told me to do. Always. When I was young, Prost told me how to sow a field. When they needed help getting a wagon unstuck or pulling up a stump, they called for me.”

“And you did it? I guess you were a good girl growing up. I just ran around with a fake wand and got into trouble with the Watch.”

Vess looked embarrassed, and Durene stopped kicking at a new rock.

“Was I a good girl?”

“I mean, you sound like it. My parents would have loved you.”

The boot swung. The rock spun into the air with a shower of dirt, and Vess shielded his face. Durene stared ahead, fists clenched, and knew exactly how it felt to have a rock strike you on the head. Or even in the eye.

“If I was a good girl, why did they make me live alone, even when I was small? Or let the other kids throw rocks at me? Yesel’s always told me what to do. I always listen. She’s never said I’ve been a good girl. ‘Good for Laken’ is what she said. I’m ‘good for him after all’. Even though she tried to get him to dump me when he was first in Riverfarm.”

“She said that? That’s crazy.”

Vess was perhaps the master of understated emotion. He was no wordsmith; but when Durene glanced down, he seemed genuinely astonished and sympathetic. Since that was more than she had ever gotten more than a handful of times in her life, the words poured out of her.

“They’ve always done that. Laken was the first person who was nice to me. And that was because he was blind.

“No one likes you? Why? You’re nice. You brought a pie for our trip, and you saved me from getting bat bites.”

Vess was astonished. Durene’s voice rose as Chaoisa drank noisily at the fire and Ama, Antherr, Jewel, and Normen played cards.

Because I’m half-Troll, Vess! I look like this. I’m stupid and dangerous—and ugly. And they didn’t like me together with Laken until he got mad at them. Now they’re trying to push me and him into every bed we find.”

Quite literally. Master Ram would bustle over and say that if Laken wanted to miss the morning field-growing, hint hint, nudge nudge, they’d quite understand. It was like a kind of game that Durene felt all of Riverfarm was playing.

And Durene didn’t like it. In fact, she hated it. If she was honest, it was one of the reasons she and Laken hadn’t been intimate recently and why she’d snuck away at every opportunity.

“Does he know about that?”

Vess asked after a while, and Durene hung her head.

“No. I’m too afraid to tell him.”

“Because…”

“Because if he gets mad at them, they’ll get mad at me, Vess. And they might be right. Look at me now. I’m a [Paladin]. Laken’s an [Emperor]. I have a good life, and I’m part of an empire. Listening to Laken worked out. Listening to Prost and the others was how no one killed me for being a half-Troll.”

If she quashed the doubts and her ego…and managed to understand that everyone was telling her things that were for her own good, she might feel better. For a moment, Durene really believed it and felt wretched. Until Vess snorted.

It was just a single snort of air, and it came with a booger, which made him scramble for a handkerchief. But the Drake made Durene laugh. Red-faced, he blew his nose.

“I…think that’s a bunch of Yoldenite crap, Durene. Your village sounds awful. Almost as bad as the High Command in the alliance. You’re ugly because you’re a half-Troll?”

“Yeah. Don’t you think so?”

Vess stared at Durene. Then he leaned over and stared at Chaoisa, Jewel, Ama, and Normen. He lowered his voice.

“Actually…Humans all looked really ugly to me when I first came to Liscor. I’m used to it now. But dead gods, they look like Drakes if you peeled their scales off.”

He shuddered, then gave Durene’s cracked skin a closer look. The flesh covering her arms was like dry ground under baking sun. However, unlike a Human, the cracks on her skin weren’t signs of her skin breaking up; there was another, darker layer underneath. Durene had never been proud of it, but the Drake nodded.

“Your skin’s cooler. It’s like different scales.”

The sudden compliment made Durene blush.

“But what about being so huge or…?”

“Nah, that’s cool too. Tall people are just really tall. It’s not like you have five noses or something, is it? Did they really order you around all your life? What happened when you said no?”

Durene sat down.

“Well, the kids would throw more stones at me, so I guess that was it. Mostly, they wouldn’t feed me. But it’s not like I starved or anything. I just…ate a lot, so sometimes times were hard. When I got to be…eleven, I learned how to farm things, and then I was mostly okay. They used to say the Watch would haul me off or the Five Families would send adventurers after me when I got angry. One time I was so furious about some of the kids stealing my garden plants I punched a fist through the barn wall, and they said they’d send for a [Guardsman] the next day. They never did, but…”

Durene was recounting what were, to her, vivid memories that sometimes played themselves, even when the same people were all smiles, offering her fresh food or complimenting her on something she’d done. She was lost in the retelling until a bright glow, harsh and simultaneously filled with softness, illuminated the air around her.

Vess was staring at his clawed hands, and flames, grey and jagged, were dancing from his palms, like the High Passes in the distance. Each flame pierced the night with a light that was beyond dazzling, yet within the harsh outer shell was a soft, mournful glow. It was like the light of candles Durene used to stare at at night when it was dark and she was alone and afraid.

The flame of mercy burned brighter as Vess turned his eyes to Durene. Both filled with regret for her and a cold judgement in his eyes.

“You should have pushed down that man’s house. Why do you keep going back to them?”

Durene stared at the glow and smiled ruefully at his fury. Normen half got up, glancing at them, and Durene waved a hand, and he sat. She answered Vess in a faraway voice, forcing the bad memories back. Not forgotten, but…

“Prost is dead, Vess. He pushed Laken out of the way of a spell meant for him.”

“Yeah, but—”

Durene talked over Vess.

“I was there when he pulled his girl out of the snow and she wasn’t breathing. I think he was hurt enough by that. I think, whenever I’m angry at him—maybe I wanted to push him back or hit him. But did he deserve that? Did any of them, at their worst?”

She stared at her hands and wished she’d been faster or she and Laken had known what the faeries were warning them about. Durene’s eyes stung.

“Prost was the man who shouted at me when he thought I was naughty or he saw me trying to make the other children stop bullying me. He was also the man who checked on me when I was so sick with a fever I couldn’t even get water, and if he hadn’t come by, I would have died. Yesel raised me when my mother died. They’re my people.”

The Drake sat there, looking up at her, and the fires of mercy didn’t dim, but the harshness became less piercing.

“I left my people behind. Because I fought and watched my friends die and killed people all for a lie. I think you’re allowed to do that.”

Durene wiped her eyes and smiled, then nodded.

“But I like Laken a lot. It’s just not easy to…well. He’s important. He’s an [Emperor].”

The Drake nodded along to all that and added softly.

“And you’re a Knight of Solstice. Durene Faerise, the [Paladin of Fire’s Oath].”

She ducked her head, smiling under the moonlight.

“He made me a [Paladin], Vess.”

Sure he did. And he also punched out that Draugr with your fists and took out all those Snow Golems. In fact, Laken Godart pulled me away from that bat, and I’m only sad he didn’t heal my leg too.”

The Drake’s sarcastic tone rose into the night, and Durene did laugh then, in relief. And because she had another friend. For his furious defense of her—she loved him for that, let alone the rest.

Then she felt guilty about it.

 

——

 

The intruders were long gone from the old mines when a pair of scouts inspected the place. The guardians were still upset, and their bodies swung their huge fists warningly, but the scouts did not approach, and the guardians recognized them after a while.

They knew things, even if they were simple. That they were attacking even the scouts was odd—they must have been fighting fiercely, though they didn’t seem to have taken much damage. The scouts left them an offering, which placated the guardians, and then were allowed to access the new opening to the caves and mines.

The scouts inspected the opening to the mines and realized the earthquake must have let in intruders when they saw the opening caused by falling stones. Everything else was as it should be, but the wide opening to the outside world…both groaned when they saw that. They knew what it meant.

People. The Blessed People. No telling which ones. The scouts found the remains of a campfire and worriedly stood there. The mines were agitated too; the scouts had had to kill a few of the giant bats. At least that was food.

The Heartbeat of the Mountain must know about this. It was yet another way into home, another danger. The guardians were fierce, but slow; if they were destroyed, more of the Blessed People might come into home.

—And there was already trouble along the other entrances. Above and below. The People of Kings were one thing; they kept to themselves. But they attracted war.

The Stone Folk had gone marching to war, and one of the Great Devourers had died; the slumbering Tyrant of Flames kept flying about, and a smaller Tyrant of Lightning had torn up the mountainside for months.

None of this was, of course, strictly dangerous to the scouts. All of these threats had stayed away from their home of homes; only once had danger come from above, and it had been swiftly suppressed. The gift of song had been fair.

The Folk of Deep and Song just wanted to be left alone. They had no concept of why so many places were heaving. But the First Doors had thousands of the People of their Ancestors fighting around the concealed entrance; they might well enter, and then it would be war.

The scouts murmured in dismay to each other at the thought of a new place to watch in this mine. They shook their heads as they checked to see if the intruders had gotten any further in. Why now? What did this portend?

No answers. One stopped and sniffed the air before retreating into the blessed quiet and darkness. Strange smells.

It was of fire, of bone, magic—these things were simple. The scents of the Blessed Folks were always confusing and complex. But one smell was a bit…odd. Nostalgic?

The two Trolls looked at each other, then swiftly retreated into the mines, into the deeps where only the great drums sounded. Kinfolk on the surface? A strange thought indeed. Stranger things had happened. They slipped past the angry Earth Elementals and headed deeper, deeper.

Back to their home.

 

——

 

The next day, Lyonette called during a spring storm. Rain came down, absolutely spitting out of the skies with such profusion that Chaoisa’s wagon got bogged down on the roads, despite her wheels meant to cope with just this issue.

This damn road’s more mud’n solid ground! Yer going to have to get out and push! Thudder, Widehorn, stop complaining! We’re nowhere close to a waystation, so shut yer yaps!

Her bulls were throwing a fuss, but one shout at them and they kept straining against the wagon. The Order of Solstice was on the ground, pushing against the wagon. Durene put her back into it, and the wagon popped out of the ground.

“Yes! Nonon—”

Splut. That was the sound of Vess and Ama going over in the muck as the wagon shifted. Durene pulled Vess up, Sillias dragged Ama out of the mud, and Chaoisa shouted.

“You have to walk!”

The wagon was threatening to sink even as she tried to keep it from getting halted again. Normen waved a hand, and they began to trek. That was when Lyonette showed up.

“Normen! How was your dungeon dive? Oh my, it’s really raining here.”

She looked around, slightly in awe, and Normen shouted back.

“Miss Lyonette! No luck! We ran into some monsters—we have information.”

“What? Are you hurt?”

“No!”

The shouting over the din of the rain went on for a few minutes before Lyonette screamed back.

“I. Will. Expect. You. Tomorrow!”

Then she vanished. Durene sighed longingly, already imagining a towel, fireplace…going back to Riverfarm and getting pestered to pay more attention to Laken…

She shuddered, and Jewel noticed.

“Durene, are you okay? Hey, Vess, keep up! We don’t want you drowning in a puddle!”

“Coming!”

He limped after them, and Durene remembered his leg was hurting. Normen had seen it too.

“Should we give you some potion, Vess? You don’t want to walk all day in this, even to the waystation.”

“I’m…fine. Just give me—whoa, Durene!

That was because she bent down, picked up Vess as if he weighed nothing at all, and put him on her shoulders. The Drake found himself riding piggyback, and he protested, but Durene called out.

“I can carry you! You don’t weigh anything at all!”

“But…are you sure?”

She nodded, and to her delight, Vess acquiesced after a moment and waved a wand.

“Well in that case—[Shield of Air]!”

A small, whirling disc appeared over his head, and he held the impromptu umbrella aloft. It didn’t cover all of him or her, but Vess conjured another, and it made the rain a lot less miserable for Durene. She laughed upwards.

“Thank you, Vess! That’s good teamwork!”

The rest of the Order of Solstice trooped onwards. Ama was riding her cat as Antherr and Normen strode ahead, having a merry conversation. That was because both had activated their flames of honor, which were acting like rain jackets against the worst of the rain as well.

Jewel was forced to stump along without any protections aside from a cloak that kept getting blown into her face as she held it up. But she seemed used to bad weather and called up to Durene.

“Are you okay, Durene? Do you want to go back to Riverfarm after telling all that last night?”

“I’ll be fine, Jewel. They’re mostly just annoying about me and Laken. It’s not like they force me to do anything.”

“They can’t force you to do anything, and if they try, hit them. Or get us. I’ll hit them. Unless they’re as big as Chaoisa.”

Vess reassured Durene, and she smiled, though he couldn’t see it. He kept wriggling around like an eel on her shoulders, peering around the storm as if all this was fun. Jewel persisted.

“But they’re not unpleasant about this…intimacy stuff with Laken, right?”

“No…not really. But I really hope they don’t give, um, demonstrations.”

“What now?”

The other two [Knights] looked at Durene, and the half-Troll girl muttered.

“On how to do things. Lyonette got a bunch of ‘bananas’ from Oteslia, which are great, but I don’t think I can eat any more again. Did you know about using your hands and your mouth on the bananas?”

Jewel made a faint sound. Vess developed a coughing sound overhead. The adventurer nodded slowly.

“I may have…some inkling of that, yes.”

“Well, I don’t need a step-by-step guide on it. With a fruit! Nor do I want to know Beycalt’s special technique—”

“Wait, what special technique?”

That caught Jewel’s interest, and nothing would do but Durene give her an approximation, much to Vess’ embarrassment. Which was so funny to the two female [Knights] that Durene began describing other sacred texts imparted to her by Riverfarm’s people.

“I mean, I bet that all works. It’s gross they’re all telling you to do it and pushing you, but I bet…I might borrow one or two of those.”

Jewel glanced casually at Normen, and Durene giggled despite herself.

“If you two have fun, that’s great. It’s just—not fun with Laken anymore. I think it’s because I know everyone’s thinking about it. Does that make sense?”

“If I thought everyone was thinking of me and Normen—yeah. What do you think, Vess?”

The Drake had been squirming the entire time, especially the more explicit the conversation got. He muttered.

“I think I’d like to be put down now.”

His tail swished across Durene’s back, and she realized how close they were while she’d described…she turned red. She hadn’t had close contact with anyone like this save for Laken.

“Your leg’s still hurt, Vess.”

“No, I think you should put me down. Now, Durene. Someone’s coming.”

Durene realized it wasn’t just Vess’ embarrassment. She froze—then he slid down one arm and drew a wand. Chaoisa had halted up ahead, despite the mud, and they heard her voice through the rain.

“—hitchhikers! I’m not some regular [Driver]. Beat it!”

Her voice was pitched high and carrying, and the Order of Solstice stopped, then spread out slightly. Durene reached for her greatsword as Jewel mouthed.

“Bandits?”

It would be like them to use a storm. Durene strode ahead, crouching by the wagon, as Vess limped up with her. Jewel vanished in the rain, and then Chaoisa was right ahead of Durene, perched on her seat.

She was waving a fist at someone up ahead of her. When she spotted Durene, Chaoisa lowered her voice.

“Durene. They popped out of the storm. I’ll swear they were moving fast as wolves. They set my [Dangersense] off a second—”

“How many?”

Durene peered up as Normen strode forwards. Chaoisa mouthed.

“Two I can see.”

“Only two?”

Durene’s head rose. She then finally saw the two travellers. A young man and a young woman, him holding a cloak over her head, standing together by the road. They were facing the wagon, and both were dressed in the oddest clothing.

Durene blinked. Normen, clearly prepared for a trap, stared at what was either the most obvious trap…or something else entirely.

The young man had a black suit on, old and faded, but expensive, sewn with ancient thread. He’d lost one shoe, exposing white socks, but he even had a battered top-hat, which he’d used to wave down Chaoisa. His hair was jet black, and he was covered head to toe in cloth; he even had black gloves on.

The woman wore a mud-spattered white veil and an equally white dress. Her skin was dead white, whether it was from the rain or chill, except for her red lips. And red eyes.

Durene stared at the couple, bride and groom, in full wedding dress, then at Vess. Chaoisa sat with narrowed eyes as Normen called out.

“Hello! I am Ser Normen of the Order of Solstice!”

Instantly, the couple backed away from him. They had been alarmed when they saw Jewel and Normen emerging from the rain; the sight of Antherr and Normen’s identification made the young man put an arm out.

“We don’t want trouble. We just wanted a way out of the rain. We’ll be going.”

He barked, suddenly doing an about-face. But the young woman grabbed his arm.

“Sevil. Look! An Antinium! Did you hear what he said? The Order of Solstice? Isn’t that…”

Sevil turned, saw Antherr standing aflame with green fire, rain pouring down around him as he held his greatsword casually in two hands, the third raised in greeting, and stared. Then his eyes darted back to Normen in recognition. Durene straightened, and the couple stared at them.

“Uh oh. Uh oh…”

Durene was muttering. She had a suspicion born of her association with Rivel. He’d been secretive, but it wasn’t hard to figure out when you noticed the trend.

Red lips. Red eyes. Was that a fanged tooth she saw? She didn’t know, but Chaoisa had said they’d been moving ‘fast as wolves’.

Either they were a high-level bride and groom eloping from some kind of failed wedding. Or…

Normen’s voice was level.

“If you’re free of malice and need help, we are [Knights] sworn to defend anyone in need. Vess? Jewel? Ama?”

He lifted something as the couple hesitated. Before they could react, a green flame lit a lantern Normen carried. The [Grandmaster Knight of Honor’s Flame] held his lantern, and his eyes flashed green as he inspected them.

Jewel lifted a second lantern, which flared pink, and Vess, a third, which shone with his pale grey flames. Antherr didn’t raise his lantern; Normen was of his order.

To Durene’s surprise, even Ama lit a lantern, though she held it diffidently, with less pride or weight as the others. Her flame was blue, and she shivered.

“It’s hecking cold. Durene, which one are you carrying?”

“I don’t have one. Yet.”

Durene hadn’t identified with any one flame yet, as she was still a [Paladin] and she didn’t…know how long she could be purely a Knight of Solstice. She watched with envy and awe as Normen spoke.

“I see honor. Of a kind. One-sided honor, perhaps. But it is there.”

His eyes found the defiant Sevil’s gaze, then the bride’s, and both flinched away from him, but they stared with recognition. Jewel was next.

“I see glory. From her more than him. Whether that’s good or evil, I cannot say, but there is a glory here nonetheless. Tainted, but not by their own deeds, I think. Embraim would have seen far more than I.”

She stared at the bride, then hung the lantern at her side. Ama interrupted next, teeth chattering.

“Listen, I don’t think I’m sadness, and this is a really cold lantern. Something—something bad has happened. I don’t know what, but…”

The two strangers looked at her, and Sevil stared down at his muddy sock in the rain. Ama lowered her arm with a gasp and rubbed at it if she had been lifting a hundred pounds.

“It’s so heavy. The sadness is real.”

Every head turned towards the final [Knight]. Vess held mercy’s fire aloft, and even Chaoisa and the bulls waited as his eyes glowed. The Normen looked at the two and nodded.

“I don’t know whether it is deserved or not. But do they crave mercy?”

Vess’ flame glowed brightest of all, and Vess’ claw trembled as he slowly lowered the lantern.

“Yes.”

The [Grandmaster] nodded again, and Vess met Durene’s eyes without a word. The Order of Solstice exchanged looks, then nodded. Normen touched the brim of his helmet slightly and bowed to the couple.

“Can we offer you escort anywhere you need to go, Mister Sevil? Miss…?”

“Lapsey. Lapsey Garlet.”

She replied breathlessly with a familiar accent that spoke of the countryside to Durene. It was like her own. Then the young woman caught herself.

“Lapsey Vonderack. I’m—we’re married. Today.”

“We had an accident down the road, and we’re bound for Celum. The door to The Wandering Inn? And elsewhere.”

Sevil spoke in a low voice, eyes darting up the road. Durene closed her eyes.

Yep. Definitely Vampires. But Normen just nodded.

“In the wagon. Chaoisa, I understand this is an odd request, but we’ll pay—”

She spat at his feet and glowered as she waved a hand.

“Just get them aboard, Mister Fancy Grandmaster, afore my wheels sink clean through to the ocean floor. Come on.”

 

——

 

Sevil and Lapsey were quiet at first as the Order of Solstice marched through the rain. They didn’t say much; Sevil had a hand on his belt where he carried a knife, but he seemed more concerned about what might be behind them than the Order of Solstice. He kept looking at Normen as if he knew the [Knight].

Not impossible, as Normen was famous, but Sevil seemed to know something else about Normen. As if someone had told him Normen could be trusted.

The reason for the two’s nerves was clear enough; not eleven minutes later, Chaoisa turned her head, and Jewel spoke.

“Riders. They’re moving fast.”

“I didn’t see them coming.”

That was all Normen said. He turned and drew his mace. There was a shout as Durene raised her shield. She sensed something coming and raised the shield—

Thud.

A crossbow bolt hit the shield hard, and Antherr, seeing it, fired back into the night. Someone rode down on Normen, sword drawn, then wavered as he struck at the horse. Both missed, and there was a cry from the rider.

“Hold! Hold! It’s not the quarry!”

More shouts; horses raced around, and Durene almost activated her Skill as one passed by, but Normen bellowed.

I am the Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice! Attack and die. This is your last warning, on my hat.

He’d begun to pull off his helmet, which wasn’t a sign of peace; if he threw it, the helmet would explode like a fireball. The first [Rider] held up gloved hands, and half a dozen others broke off their charge.

“Hold, hold! We’re hunting for foulbloods! By Noelictus, House Byres, and House d’Artien, hold!”

“Oh great, it’s them.”

Durene saw a coat of livery flash, then what seemed like a group of disparate [Riders] revealed themselves as soldiers—and [Knights] or well-armored [Warriors]—bearing multiple crests. Normen kept his mace raised, helmet in one hand.

“Do you attack travellers on the road?”

“No! Apologies! We are hunting two Vampires, Ser Grandmaster! True foulbloods of the night! I am Sir Monst of House Byres! My comrades are a hunting party from House d’Artien, and even [Hunters] of Noelictus! Quick, have you seen a duo pass by? They’re fast as wolves, but we have them on the run.”

“Faster than thought! If only the Order of Clairei Fields were here—you’ll believe us now, Hunters of Noelictus?”

That came from an excited figure on horseback, the one who’d shot the crossbow bolt. Durene had half a mind to pull it from her shield and hit him with it, but one of the two black-clad figures responded.

“We see. Rest assured, this goes to the Guildmaster of Noelictus. But the hunt is underway. Have you seen the two, Grandmaster?”

A feminine voice. A [Hunter] wearing leather armor instead of knightly plate stared hard at Normen. Durene licked her lips; she glanced at the covered wagon Chaoisa was sitting on. The [Driver] was like a statue, face unreadable…and as far as Durene could tell, the covered goods weren’t moving. Or at least, no one could see in the rain.

“We have seen nothing before we were attacked.”

Normen responded, tone hard. The [Hunter] lifted her hat.

“Ser Solstice, is it? Your name precedes you, Grandmaster.”

“Not Ser Solstice. I am only the Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice. I believe Ser Solstice is elsewhere; with me are five [Knights] and Driver Chaoisa. No more.”

The [Hunter] nodded, and intrigued, a few riders drew closer.

“Your name precedes you, Ser Normen! An honor to meet—dead gods!

Ser Monst caught sight of Durene and recoiled in his seat. She saw his look of horror and confusion.

“Is that a Troll?”

“Half-Troll.”

She responded, voice tight, and Normen’s grew even more clipped.

“Dame Durene, [Paladin] of Riverfarm.”

“Of Riverfarm? I knew Lord Yitton mentioned the—ahem. Well met, Dame and Sers.”

The [Knight] of House Byres cleared his throat, then remembered his chase.

“We must ride, then. The rest of you, split up! Apologies, Ser Normen. If you should see anyone in this damnable rain, tell us at once! And be warned—they were only sixteen strong, but they fought like wild animals. With me, Hunters! Ride!

He took off without another word to shouts from the others. Only the [Hunters] waited a beat before heading after him. One nodded at Normen.

“Apologies, once more, Grandmaster. I would hate to come to blows with another [Knight] order.”

Then they were gone. Only after they were long, long in the distance did Durene dare let out her breath.

“I think the [Hunters] knew you were lying, Normen.”

“They probably had tracking Skills. Either they’re disinclined to fight us or they’re gathering reinforcements. Chaoisa, how fast can you get us to Celum?”

“Not faster’n a horse on the gallop. But I reckon I can do half as. Damn rain, damn idiots fighting in the rain, damn…”

Chaoisa’s voice was drowned out by the wagon getting moving. Durene saw a figure poke his head up out of the wagon at last. Sevil looked at Normen with a baffled expression of gratitude on his face.

“Thank you. We didn’t attack them. We were getting married.

His voice cracked. Normen nodded. He put his helmet back on his head.

“I know. Whether they think so or not—they were invisible until I saw them.”

The two Vampires had no idea what that meant. But Durene understood. And she only hoped they would get to Liscor without incident. As for taking a side—the Order of Solstice had already taken a side.

She was just glad it wasn’t the [Knights] of the Clairei Fields. If they had met that order, rain or not—she was pretty sure it would have gone to blood.

Vampires. She looked curiously at the couple. They were pale-skinned, and they did have fangs. Maybe they did drink blood and do all kinds of odd stuff. But they just seemed wet and frightened.

But then, what did she know? She was a half-Troll. She almost wished Monst had taken umbrage so she could have hit him. But then—maybe House d’Artien and Byres knew what was best and killing Vampires was the right thing to do. They were old, noble houses, and that meant they knew what was best.

Unless they didn’t. That thought bothered Durene for a long time on the long walk through the rain.

 

——

 

They weren’t Erin’s. Erin had helped make some of them, like Normen, but the Order of Solstice were not hers. They bore her fire, but if they were hers, they would have all been on Baleros already, following after.

They weren’t Lyonette’s either. They were not Laken’s…and therein lay the contradiction. The Order of Solstice was, in a way, defined more by who they could be, the few moments they had stood together, than any long legacy or other person.

Most people didn’t even know their first triumph: fighting Snow Golems to deliver a wagonload of food. And not all their members had been there from the start; Durene hadn’t been with Normen when he awakened his honor’s flame.

But she had been there when they challenged Elia Arcsinger. She had seen a [Knight] burning rather than letting good people fall victim to the Bloodfeast Raiders. She had witnessed Embraim’s demise. Watched Herove and Halrac meet their end and buried Zanze.

In a way, the Order of Solstice was defined by the [Knights] who had passed before them, like Brunkr, whom Durene had never met. It was who they could be, what they were trying to live up to, that gave them meaning.

Knights made of a criminal, a [Necromancer], an adventurer, a half-Troll girl, an Antinium, soldier, and more. If they could be [Knights]—who else?

When the Order of Solstice walked into Liscor, having used the door from Celum, they were welcomed with fresh food and drinks at The Wandering Inn. Mrsha raced over, demanding to see what they’d gotten, and her face fell when she realized they’d gotten squat.

“I should go to Riverfarm now.”

Durene knew Laken would be worrying over her, but she missed her moment to go through the door again as Lyonette strode over.

“Normen! Welcome back! I—oh, who’s this?”

She had spotted their two guests. Normen introduced Sevil and Lapsey hurriedly, and Lyonette’s eyes sharpened.

“I see. Well—let me see if Fierre is around. Vaulont most definitely is. If you two need passage to Pallass, of course, that can be arranged!”

The two Vampires looked astonished as Lyonette welcomed them into the inn. Mrsha just sniffed at Sevil’s sock and sneezed. She raced over to Jewel, who picked her up.

“Hello, Mrsha. No, we don’t have loot, but we did run into a very interesting set of monsters! Let’s have something e—is that Elia Arcsinger?

Jewel nearly leapt into Ishkr, who was coming over with hot food, as she saw a half-Elf sitting at a table with Bird. Durene’s head snapped around, and she almost went for her greatsword. Lyonette raised her hands placatingly.

“Yes, it is, and she’s an employee.”

“A wh—an employee? Like me? I could have had Elia Arcsinger as my coworker? Wait a second, she tried to kill the Goblins!”

Jewel alternated between shock, outrage, and stupefaction. Which was classic Jewel. Normen frowned, and Durene paused to give the half-Elf a baleful look.

Lyonette gave them all cliff notes of what had led to Elia’s hiring, and Jewel summed it up with a sigh.

“Oh, she got Jeweled. Only instead of Erin, it was you. Makes sense.”

“Does it?”

Ama was the most disconcerted of the Order of Solstice. Antherr just nodded along with Normen as if this was inevitable, if unpleasant. The Antinium turned to Ishkr.

“I will not eat here. I must check in with the Free Antinium. I apologize, Ishkr. May I meet with the rest of you later?”

Normen nodded, and Jewel called out.

“We’ll have a table here, Antherr.”

“Oh—me too. I’m heading into the city.”

Vess also hurried to the door, and Durene sighed—but to her surprise, he pulled at her arm.

“Come on, Durene. You don’t have to go back right away, right?”

“I—maybe?”

She followed him down the hallway and into line again. Before they could even escape, Ishkr had returned with a serving of hot fried bites of dough filled with cheese. It made all of them perk up, including Antherr.

“I thought Antinium couldn’t eat anything but Garrybread, whatever that is, Antherr.”

“That is true of most Antinium. I am a new Soldier, with voice and immunity to the ravages of gluten. What are you going into Liscor for, Vess?”

“I, uh, I’m just checking on a friend. Sort of. Can I tag along?”

“Of course.”

People stared at them as the three waited for the door. Durene was obvious, as was a talking Soldier, but it was their armor and their crest, a multi-layered flame, that made them recognizable.

“The Order of Solstice. Hey, are you all recruiting?”

A Drake called out jokingly, and Antherr lifted a hand.

“If you are ready, you may apply.”

“Uh—I’ll think about it!”

More than one Gnoll stared at them as well, and Durene realized these weren’t city-Gnolls, but a bunch of Gnolls with far fewer coverings, clearly meant for outdoor travel. Most carried bows and a variety of tools.

“Silverfangs.”

Vess stared in surprise at them as some sniffed or nodded warily to all three of them. Antherr agreed.

“Yes. They have made up some of the applicants who wish to be [Knights] of Solstice.”

“Normen mentioned the applicants. Are we training them or vetting them?”

Durene had been at Riverfarm—again—and missed helping out with that. Antherr walked past Liska, who grumpily waved all three through.

“No charge for the glorious Order of Solstice.”

“Have a dough bite?”

Vess offered, and Liska brightened up.

“Thank you! Come again!”

They passed into Liscor, and Durene saw another crowd on the far end of Shivertail Plaza. She blinked at the sun, which seemed so bright and cheerful; it was still raining in Celum. The rain must have not made it over the High Passes. Someone noticed the water still on Durene’s armor and in her hair.

“Rainy, is it? Which city are you coming from?”

An old Drake asked in line, and Durene replied. With a sigh, he stepped out of line.

“The one day I decide ‘yes, I’d like to see those Golems in Celum’. Where can I get an umbrella?”

As it so happened, there were shopkeepers ready to oblige, and the line to the [Portal Door] broke up as more people bought umbrellas just in case. Durene realized Vess and Antherr were leaving her behind and hurried after them.

The Antinium Hive saw a lot of Workers and Soldiers on the streets these days, many holding little treats or going to work, rather than being the silent few. A couple even had pets; one was walking a dog, or perhaps the dog was walking the Worker, so fascinated was the Antinium.

That wasn’t all, naturally. 3rd District was flooded with Humans, and since it bordered the Free Hive, you got Humans and new Silverfangs and Drakes who had entered the city. In fact, one Gnoll was pulling what Durene at first took to be his sister by the paw.

“But Vok. I don’t want to go to school. I want to be a [Guard] like you! Can’t you tell them you took me?”

“You’ll make friends, Hickery. I promised your parents I’d take you. Plus, remember? Relc said Mrsha goes to that school.”

Hickery, the young Gnoll girl, whined.

“I don’t want to meet her! She’s scary! They say she poisons people she doesn’t like with spices!”

“Well…don’t eat anything she gives you. Come on.”

Durene watched the two go.

“Laken should make schools. He’s trying.”

“Laken this, Laken that. Pssh.”

Vess made a rude sound, and Durene pushed him, but lightly. They were nearly at the Free Hive, but they had to stop at crosswalks. A flashing light reminded Durene of Traffy, the Law Elemental of Riverfarm who’d begun all this. Most people grumbled at the light, but when it flashed green, they went in a big mob rather than hold up the many vehicles on the road.

“I am concerned about my fellow Antinium, which is why I am visiting the Hive. I heard there were more attacks from the dungeon, and if so, I will volunteer myself in its defense. Why are you going, Vess?”

“Oh, I, uh, just wanted to meet with an Antinium. But I…hey. Are you in the army?”

Vess caught sight of a group of [Crusaders] sitting at a cafe outside, and Durene blinked. They were clearly [Soldiers] of the army, but what was more astounding was the cafe.

As in—it was an Antinium-run cafe with Antinium servers and an Antinium owner. They were serving food only an Antinium could love—a roasted Shield Spider that even other Antinium were eying dubiously.

“That’s us. Can we help you, pal?”

One of the Workers spoke up, and Vess licked his lips nervously.

“I’m—looking for Crusader 53.”

“You and everyone else.”

The Worker with an odd bit of sass to him was breaking into the Shield Spider with a fork. One of the Soldiers began hand-signing with Antherr and stood up to shake hands with the [Knight]. Vess touched his chest.

“No, I’m—Vess. He knows me. I’d like to meet with him, but he’s been absent.”

“Yeah, too bad, buddy. He’s not here. And he doesn’t want to meet some Drake—”

One of the other Soldiers reached over and slapped the back of the Worker’s head. The Worker broke off, and in a far less sarcastic tone, turned to his fellow crusader.

“Crusader 114-4. Why did you do that? I almost achieved full sarcasm mode. I too will become a [Sasser].”

“No one can replace Crusader 57. Give it up.”

Another Worker responded. He turned to Vess.

“Crusader 53 was moved to the 7th Hive under Xrn. His whereabouts—unknown at this moment. Please excuse any sass.”

“Oh, that’s fine. If you see him, can you let him know I’d like to meet him? It’s Vess.”

“We will pass the message on, if possible.”

They all assured Vess, and Antherr broke off his signing and handshakes with the [Soldiers]. They kept going as Vess sighed—and then there was an explosion behind them from the Worker.

That was the Order of Solstice? I have sassed too much!

The pieces clicked into place, and Durene nudged Vess with a smile.

“You want to meet Crusader 53, Vess?”

The Drake nodded, looking almost relieved.

“I do. But I don’t know how much he…well, it explains why he’s never around. Antherr, did you have anything you wanted to do? I can’t drag Durene around forever; I was going to introduce her to 53.”

Antherr tilted his head.

“Perhaps. Will you have time to accompany me? The Soldiers say that the dungeon problem is largely contained at this moment. But I thought, in light of Durene’s distress with rampant sexisms, she would care to speak to someone.”

Every Antinium turned to Durene, and she blushed again, but nodded hesitantly.

“Do you think I’ll get good advice?”

“Perhaps. It is the best advice I would seek among the Antinium for this very cryptic matter.”

Durene and Vess exchanged a look. Best advice…? Durene followed Antherr and only realized belatedly that while his statement might be entirely true, she should have remembered that it was entirely a matter of relativity.

 

——

 

Pawn, [Priest] of the Free Antinium, worker of miracles, preacher of Heaven, and leader of the Painted Antinium, poured himself a tall glass of Rxlvn. Antherr sat there as Pawn took a shot.

“My emotional distress is incalculable. My day may be ruined.”

“I apologize, Priest Pawn. I hoped you had wisdom in this matter.”

Pawn gave Durene a long stare as she awkwardly sat there. The Rxlvn was really strong; she kept sipping it, and she didn’t know how he’d taken two shots already. Vess was staring at one hand.

“Is this…is this poison? How strong is this stuff?”

He leaned against Durene, and she saw he’d taken a single sip of Rxlvn. The others were made of stronger stuff, though.

Vess was so…funny. He leaned against Durene until he jerked upright, and she was conscious of his presence; he was radiating warmth. She didn’t mind his presence, though, far from it. Pawn poured himself a third shot as he spoke.

“I do not profess to know much about love, Antherr. The misconception among Antinium is that I am an expert. I am, perhaps, the only Antinium to understand it at this moment, but that is not a high bar. No, I misspeak; Chesacre and Thaina may well qualify, but they are gone with Magnolia Reinhart. I am, at least, better than the book, which is highly inaccurate.”

“I see. I was distressed by my inability to offer Durene words of comfort. I regret taking your time and hers.”

Antherr’s antennae drooped, and Durene waved a hand.

“No, I appreciate it, Antherr, really. No one ever…cares. You and Vess and everyone else?”

Vess raised a claw and placed it on Durene’s shoulder.

“You’re great. The [Emperor] sucks!”

Pawn shook his head slightly.

“Whether or not he does, I can assure you, Durene, that relationships of an intimate nature are no different than those of friendships or co-workers. Would you care for Riverfarm’s people to lecture you on how to be a [Knight] with Antherr, for instance?”

“No.”

Durene liked that phrasing, and she saw why Antherr considered Pawn a font of wisdom. She frowned.

“They don’t know anything about Antherr and me. Not really. Not better than we know each other.”

“Indeed. And three times of sex per day seems egregious. Mandatory oral and handjobs included.”

Durene spat out her drink onto Pawn, and the [Priest] paused a moment to wipe at his face.

“…Sex is a personal thing. I would not count the number so much as the fact that someone is telling Durene what to do. That is my real concern, Antherr.”

“I see.”

“With that said, I preach the value of proper lubrication! Which is what I am given to understand mitigates chafing!”

Pawn raised two of his arms, and Antherr nodded.

“I see. Amen.”

Durene had a lot of questions. She wasn’t quite sure she wanted answers, but Pawn turned to her.

“Only you can resolve this issue with your partner Laken, Durene. I would advise honesty in this issue; if he is trustworthy, he will understand this pressure upon you and resolve it.”

“That’s…what I have to do. Thank you, Pawn.”

So why did that fill her with a dread beyond just the fact that he might snap at Riverfarm’s folk? Durene sat there, uncertain, until Pawn lifted a finger.

“However, I would like to relate one thing to you before you go.”

He stood up and put his hands behind his back, taking a few deep breaths. When he turned to face them, his voice was heavy.

“This is difficult for me to speak of, but I must relate it for your sake. Have you heard of the tale of…Lionette? Not to be confused with Lyonette. They are very different things.”

They were sitting, incidentally, in the barracks in the Painted Antinium’s headquarters. Antherr clearly knew this story, and a few passing Painted Workers murmured.

“Boo.”

“Hiss.”

“Sounds of disparagement.”

Durene eyed them, then faced Pawn. Really? She and…oh my. Oh wow.

“Um. No. What is the tale of Lyonette?”

Pawn sat down heavily and began to drink his third cup of Rxlvn.

“The tale is simple. And cautionary. Love…is a very good thing. A glorious thing. You can devote your all to it. And then, for reasons that one side thinks are clear, it can dash your heart to pieces. Then have her stomp on said pieces. And kick them into the toilet. Even if you love someone…maybe she, or a hypothetical he, does not. Just know that breaking apart is a terrible thing.”

Antherr nodded, drinking in this sage wisdom as Vess, sobering up a little, jerked away from Durene and patted her arm. She glanced at him, then nodded hesitantly at Pawn.

“That, uh, sounds bad.”

“Remember the pain you inflict on others.”

Pawn gave her a serious look. Then he shook his head.

“It was so—sudden. A brief absence and then a commitment that felt as strong as mithril turned out to be made of sand? Lionette and…uh…Rook broke apart when they had loved each other truly. At least, so I—he—Rook—believed.”

Another nod from Antherr; Vess was licking cautiously at his drink again. Durene stared at the murky liquid in her cup and spoke, hesitant.

“Maybe she stopped liking him and thought it was for the best.”

Pawn’s head jerked up, and Antherr paused mid-nod. Pawn responded a touch stridently.

“How would that happen by mere separation of time? It was a few months.”

“That can be a long time. Maybe he changed, or she changed, and they weren’t…the same people that they had met.”

Pawn’s mandibles opened, and his antennae began to wave slightly.

“But—but they still liked each other. Was that not enough?”

The half-Troll girl stared past Pawn.

“It’s enough to be best friends. Maybe, though…”

It wasn’t fair.

The [Priest] leaned over the table, voice low, and Durene looked at him sympathetically.

“I know. It’s not fair. I don’t think it ever is. But would it have been fair to him if she…couldn’t remember why she wanted to do everything for him, even die? If she started liking other people—”

She glanced sideways at Vess, and he paused mid-slurp of his drink. Durene jerked her head away and stared at her hands.

“Even if she tried…does that make her a bad person?”

Pawn stared at Durene, then Vess, then sat back.

“I believe this analogy has lost me. But she…couldn’t she pretend to like him? Just for a bit longer?”

His voice wobbled, and Durene saw the Worker reach for a cup of water another Painted Soldier was using. He poured it over his head, and Durene tried not to laugh. Because she did understand how he felt.

“But if it wasn’t real—isn’t that worse? It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t hers.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do now? If I can’t even look at her?”

Pawn sat there, dripping with water. Durene gave him a wretched look, and she hesitated. She squeezed her eyes shut.

“Can you still try to be friends?”

She cracked one eye open after a bit. Pawn sat there. Then he looked up.

“…I don’t know why I stopped. Or wanted to stop. At least that.”

He stood up.

“I must go. Thank you, Durene. It is you who have helped me today.”

He shook hands with her, all four of his, then began to run from the Hive, waving all four hands. Durene saw Antinium rushing after him.

“Oh no. He is going back.”

“Stop him. Not to Lyonette the Heartbreaker.”

“Alarm. Alarm? Alarm!

She had a feeling she had helped instigate something, especially when hundreds of Antinium began racing after Pawn. But Durene just rubbed at one eye.

“I think that…might have cleared something up for me too. Maybe. Thanks for doing that, Antherr.”

“I am amiably uncertain about everything that has transpired, but if I helped, I am glad.”

The Soldier smiled at her, then leaned over confidentially.

“I do not have the sexy-objects of which to make love with. Nor do I think I need them. But I think I understand what it is to love.”

“Oh? Do you love someone?”

Vess had been staring at Durene and jerking his eyes away every time she glanced at him. Relieved, both looked at Antherr, and the Soldier nodded confidently.

“I am in love with Shaman Theikha of the Meeting of Tribes. She helped give me my name. Her heartbeat is a wonderful sound.”

Durene blinked. The…Vess opened his mouth, then began to chuckle.

“I think, uh, Antherr, you should look up platonic love first.”

The Antinium paused. He buried his head in his hands.

“…There are multiple kinds?

 

——

 

“[Like Fire, Love].”

“No. That is too silly. [Like Fire, Romance].”

“What if it gets nasty? [Like Fire, Infidelity]?”

“Ooh, I like that. Not the idea, but it sounds better.”

“Why? Please explain, Durene.”

“Well…in love, don’t you get burned?”

It made sense to Durene, but Antherr gave her such an amazed look that she felt like she was the expert in love. At least, compared to the Antinium.

They were heading back from the Free Hive, and Durene actually did feel better. She wasn’t looking forwards to some things, but she was ready to return to Riverfarm. She just had to check on the inn—and see if their Vampire guests were alright.

As it so happened, that was harder than it looked like. Mostly because a crowd of Antinium were surrounding the inn as Pawn spoke to a very flustered Lyonette. The Antinium were chanting things like—

“Friendship is better than love!”

“Do not become the friendshipslayer as well as the heartbreaker!”

“Use proper lubricant in all applicable situations!”

…The last type of comment might have explained why Lyonette was as mad at Pawn as gratified by his change of heart. At any rate, Durene found Normen sitting with Jewel. He was frowning a bit, but when she asked about Sevil and Lapsey, he assured her it was settled.

“Miss Lyonette put them on a waiting list for transit through Pallass. There’s a provisional Grade 1 Passport they can apply for; come tomorrow, they’ll be allowed through. General Edellein wasn’t pleased, but Lyonette spoke to a Strategist Esor.”

Durene had no idea who those two were. Jewel frowned and scratched her head.

“They’re all top brass to me. The Edellein fellow—he’s an angry Drake. Wasn’t there another one in charge of Pallass?”

“Duln. He died. Esor used to come to the inn with Chaldion. He wasn’t that notable, but Erin would probably have remembered him. Chaldion snapped at him least of all. So he’s smart and dangerous. He doesn’t seem to be in charge, though.”

Normen’s time in The Wandering Inn had given him a number of insights into the guests. He frowned briefly, perhaps for Pallass’ leadership, but Durene nodded.

“In that case, I’ll go to Riverfarm.”

“With me!”

Vess began, but Durene gave him a smile and pat on the shoulder.

“I’ll go myself, Vess. You can visit tomorrow; maybe we could go with Sevil and Lapsey, Normen? Or are we going back to the cave with pickaxes after all?”

He shook his head, casting an eye around the full inn. Then he beckoned.

“I didn’t mention it, but I think going with them would be best. A short escort—even a day’s walk. Some gold; they can tell us what is happening.”

“Can’t we talk here…?”

One look around the busy inn and Antinium surrounding Lyonette and Durene doubted they’d be overheard. But Normen just tapped the side of his nose.

“There are spies, even with Miss Lyonette’s help. The [Garden of Sanctuary] is…unavailable, and the theatre isn’t as secure. Besides, the two of them want to be out of the north, and they are exhausted. Tomorrow makes sense.”

Plus, wouldn’t it be really hard to spy on the two Vampires if they passed through a Walled City? Durene blinked.

“Oh! Right! Pallass is really secure. Duh.”

She slapped her forehead and nodded.

“Then I’ll get Laken to let me go for a day. I’ll—be ready in the morning?”

Everyone nodded. Normen cleared his throat.

“If you would like Vess or someone to go with you—”

“No. I think it will be fine.”

The [Grandmaster] peered at Durene, then he smiled briefly.

“Good luck.”

Durene hoped she wouldn’t need it. But then again…she steeled herself as she lined up for the door to Riverfarm. It was one thing to be Laken, always busy with things to do in the Unseen Empire. But sometimes she wondered how he thought his Empire, well, looked.

 

——

 

When you entered Riverfarm, did you expect a quaint, provincial village? You would get one if you looked at the houses made of sturdy timber, saw Riverfarm’s people trooping to work in bands, [Farmers], [Ranchers], and so on.

Then—the effect faded if you actually knew provincial villages. Because Durene did, and provincial villages did not have brick streets so neatly placed that you could roll across them without so much as a bump.

Villages did not have glass windows, nor hanging lanterns that flashed lights to tell traffic when to go and stop. Nor did villages have so much—well—magic.

Yes, Laken was constantly bemoaning the fact that it would take ages for sewers and all the amenities of a city like Liscor to appear. But even in Liscor, Durene didn’t see magical charms hanging outside windows.

In fact, the first thing a small crowd of Drake and Gnoll visitors saw was an archway with hanging charms overhead. The Drakes paused suspiciously, and a Gnoll sniffed.

“Smells like mint. What’s this?”

“Welcome to Riverfarm! Welcome!”

Councilwoman Beatica strode forward with one of those fake smiles on her face. She only lost a tiny bit of the smile when she saw Durene, who glowered her way.

Beatica, the woman from Lancrel who’d caused so much trouble for Riverfarm in Laken’s absence, was a completely unchanged woman. Self-serving, power-hungry, and unpleasant to her enemies.

—She just hid it well. And she had been defeated by Lady Rie and subsumed into Rie’s staff; the other option had been being tossed in the river, Durene understood.

The annoying part was that she was good at her job. The group of Drakes and Gnolls stepped forwards bemusedly as Beatica and a group of four people, one a Drake himself, approached with baskets in hand. They began to hand out cookies, and Beatica pointed up.

“Don’t mind our archway; it’s just a little [Witch] thing. A Goodwill Arch or some such; see the charms? They flash if someone has weapons, insects, illness—welcome to Riverfarm! Is this the entire tour group for the day? Seventeen, eighteen, I think we’re all here. Good day, [Paladin] Durene. I think His Majesty is in the fields. He’s expecting you.”

Some of the visitors stared at Durene, but a Liscorian Gnoll sniffed the cookie with evident delight and nodded appreciatively at the arch.

“Oh. How smart! What is this?”

“A snickerdoodle; a type of cookie. Cinnamon. Just a small gift for all visitors. Riverfarm, as you will see, is not short on things to eat. In fact, on our little tour, you’ll have the chance to buy all the fresh produce you want. And any magical charms.”

“Charms?”

They were everywhere, actually. Beatica had one that she showed off as if she loved [Witches] and had been on-board with them from the start.

“This is one to stop my dress from ripping or picking up stains. Just the thing, isn’t it?”

“Dead gods, and you can buy a charm like that?”

Even Pallassians tended to be surprised at the variety of charms one could get in Riverfarm. Which had surprised Durene, but here was the thing: you had to consider the difference between [Mages] and [Witches].

[Mages] made big magic. Valeterisa could lift a city overhead or enchant a sword to be nigh unbreakable. She could preserve food, freeze it—but she required copious magical gemstones, time, and effort.

Eloise could whip together a little hanging charm for a small bit of magic in an hour while sitting and drinking tea. Her charms would be something along the lines of ‘the tea bags you hang from this little hoop shall never lose flavor even if you re-use them several times’.

Small—but if you were a tea person, that was a charm you were going to buy, right? It was perhaps the most obvious contribution of the [Witches] to Riverfarm.

Rather than being a city of glass and steel, it was becoming a city of magic. And the evidence was everywhere.

“Hey, this lumber’s at the wrong spot. You want Ivolethe Street, not Ivor Street.”

Beycalt was scolding a new work crew, and the groaning lot of four Humans regarded a huge stack of cut lumber that would have to be re-loaded onto a wagon and pulled several streets over. Beycalt spotted Durene as the half-Troll girl tried to be unobtrusive.

Alas. Beycalt waved Durene over.

“Hey, Durene! You’re back! Excellent; His Majesty’s in the fields. He’ll be delighted to see you. Did you do much with the Order of Solstice?”

Durene was mindful of Vess’ disdain for Riverfarm, and she tried not to analyze Beycalt’s words for any hidden malice, implicit or otherwise. The woman wasn’t from Riverfarm; she seemed friendly as could be, and Durene smiled. She eyed the stack of lumber.

“Just a bit of fighting, but no one got hurt. No treasure. Um…”

Do you need a hand with the lumber? Durene counted a stack of twenty beams of wood; even she’d find them heavy, and she didn’t really want to load a wagon. But all her childhood she’d been the go-to for this kind of labor.

I should offer to help. It’s the right thing to do.

I don’t want to.

The duality of Durene. Well, a duality these days instead of a singularity of ‘I should be helpful’. For once, though, it seemed like she wasn’t needed.

One of the scrawnier-looking men was heaving on one of the heavy beams, trying to lift it with a partner. It had to weigh at least two hundred pounds; it was heavier than he was, and Durene was about to help out to avoid him dropping the entire load on his foot. But then he slapped his forehead.

“Dead gods, I’ll forget my own head next. One second.”

Then he plucked a pair of gloves from his belt, donned them, and lifted the entire beam of wood with a grunt that said it was heavy—but doable.

Durene blinked. Beycalt gave the man a severe look.

“Break a leg because you didn’t put those Gloves of Strength on and I’ll break the other one, Madsam. Get the timber over to the inn, prompt!”

“Aye, Beycalt. We’re on it.”

Gloves of Strength? He was the only one who had them; the other four men had to work in teams of two, and Durene pointed as Beycalt turned to her.

“We’re making artifacts now? Who made those?

Beycalt looked very pleased with herself, and she showed Durene a similar set of gloves, albeit with lovely, green-dyed leather and padded interiors.

“One of the new [Witches] collects satisfaction in her hat. Witch Quiraka. She’s one of the Great Witches like Eloise; she offered to make several artifacts for a special house. I got three sets of gloves. Well, she made four; I had to give up one pair to Beniar.”

Durene wondered if Normen or Jewel would want some. And she wondered why more cities didn’t invest in [Witches] if this was what they could do.

Then again, there were downsides; Beycalt grimaced as she leaned over.

“Quiraka is getting a three-story ‘house’ out of all this. More’n more powerful [Witches] are showing up, each one in a different coven. Remember how Eloise warned us some didn’t get along, like Oliyaya and Agratha?”

“Yes…don’t tell me they’re that bad. I mean—were that bad?”

Beycalt laughed a touch sadly.

“That bad? I had to have a team scrub the street outside of a mess hall. Another of the [Witches] heard Quiraka paid for a big house, and the two had a screaming match. They shouted so many insults at each other the air turned blue and stained the street! That’s fun enough, I suppose, and the markings come off with a lot of soap.”

Throw in [Witch] pranks and the tendency for people to buy curses along with charms or just the penchant for the hatted women to do odd things, like Mavika and her crows, and you got a city of people who were a bit careful about magic.

But respectful. No one had forgotten Califor’s saving of the city, and Belavierr was the reminder of what a really bad [Witch] looked like. [Witches] weren’t always embraced with open arms; Durene knew that some people spat when they saw them or avoided them like the plague, moving to other settlements in the Unseen Empire to get away. But the [Witches] seemed to be able to live with this because they had a place to be.

And if they can do it, shouldn’t I? Durene inhaled the smell of baking, the feeling of this growing city, and smiled. Right up until Beycalt nudged her.

“You should get going, Durene. His Majesty’s definitely going to be happy to see you.”

One suggestive raise of her eyebrows and Durene was back to piqued. She tried not to frown, but Beycalt’s next words drew it out of Durene.

“Plus, he’s been hanging around Witch Alevica all day long. Not that I’m suggesting—but better to have a real Riverfarmer by his side than her, eh?”

Was that comment meant to inspire Durene to rush to Laken? Alevica? Durene couldn’t even imagine the two being romantic. She frowned at Beycalt, who seemed to think Durene had taken the wrong impression.

“He’s not laid a hand on her! I’m just saying—”

“I get it. Thank you, Beycalt. I’ll see Laken as soon as I see him.”

Durene was half tempted to walk to her cottage to check on Frostwing and Bismarck; Gamel took care of the two animals, but she missed them. However, before she had gotten a street over, someone else found her.

“Durene!”

“Miss Yesel!”

Uh oh. Durene tried to smile at the woman who had lost her husband, but Yesel didn’t want pity. She gave Durene a brisk smile.

“Laken’s in the fields inspecting the, ah, totems. Hurry on over; he’s clearly missed you. Enough so that Witch Alevica is making eyes at him. And Lady Rie is up to her tricks. I’ll suggest he clears his schedule today.”

“Oh, throw me into bed with him, why don’t you? Hello, Miss Yesel, the Order of Solstice is fine.”

Durene was shocked by the words that came out of her mouth. So was Yesel, and the woman actually stopped, mouth open, with a load of laundry in hand.

“Why, Durene. You sound like you want them to steal a march on you.”

“With Laken? He’d never do something like that! And Alevica would make advances on Laken after trying to charm—Jelov!”

Durene snapped back. She chose the [Carpenter] out of maliciousness, and both she and Yesel heard a surprised grunt.

Really? I have that much of a shot?”

Jelov smoothed back what remained of his hair and the [Carver] straightened his dirty jacket with great satisfaction. Durene opened her mouth, but Yesel swiveled back to her.

“No one is suggesting His Majesty would be anything less than himself, Durene. I’m just pointing out that they’re quite attractive ladies, and he is an [Emperor]. They have lots of wives, some of them. Harems in Chandrar, you know.”

Durene blamed herself for talking this out with the Order of Solstice. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have made the mistake of making a comment. And she wouldn’t be so—

Annoyed.

She knew Yesel meant well.

For her or Riverfarm?

Durene knew that the woman was just doing what she thought was best.

Even if it never means best for me.

The [Paladin] tried. She really did, but for one of the first times in her life, she folded her arms and spoke.

“Firstly, Laken is blind. He doesn’t care what the two look like because he can’t tell. He likes a charming voice more than anything else. Secondly, harems are a myth that people made up about other nations that exaggerate what actually happens. Laken told me all about it.”

Yesel was so astonished that she just stood there for a second, then reddened and said in a hurt tone that Durene couldn’t believe was coming from her—

“I apologize, Durene, I just thought you wanted help with your relationship with Laken.”

“My relationship—”

Durene bit back the rest. She realized people were staring at her, then turned.

“I think I’ll talk to him right away. I’m sorry, Yesel. I’ll go right now.”

She had been on the fence, then deciding she was overreacting. Being back for five minutes in Riverfarm? She saw Yesel frowning at her, and Durene shook her head.

Maybe it was his class. Maybe it was just how they had built him up. But the people of the Unseen Empire hadn’t just put Laken on a pedestal; they were building statues of him.

Quite literally, as it turned out.

 

——

 

Laken Godart was inspecting something in his fields when Durene marched over, trying not to glare at the way everyone smiled when they saw her. Ram had been crushing a hat in his palms, but he ushered her forwards like he was already imagining she solved everything.

That was it, Durene realized. It wasn’t just the getting-into-bed thing. It was just her and Laken being a couple. If they were good together, why not more of that?

Alright for Laken; no one told him what to do. Everyone told good old Durene what to do.

“Durene.”

Laken knew she was here. Of course he did. He smiled and rose from where he was feeling with his fingertips at a huge totem of wood in the ground. It was planted deep and twelve feet tall; the wood was carved with symbols of eyes, little Winter Sprites, a village—and a man with a crown that Durene supposed was meant to be Laken.

The totems, dubbed ‘The Emperor’s Eyes’ by people, were all over the Unseen Empire. They marked Laken’s control and allowed him to ‘see’ in a wide area around them.

Making them was as simple as having some of the [Carpenters] or [Carvers] work on them and then planting them in the ground. They still had requirements like Laken having to own the area; he couldn’t do this somewhere another noble or city owned the land. But they were effective.

Here was the thing: this particular totem had additions that Laken had clearly only noticed today. He didn’t ‘see’ everything.

“I was just inspecting the…shrines people have begun putting up. To me, apparently.”

Laken’s voice was dry, which Durene knew meant he was annoyed. He gestured, and Durene didn’t have to look to see the little pile of colorful stones, the wicker dolls of him, garlands of flowers, all lovingly arranged in front of the pole.

“Your Majesty, it’s just a small thing. If someone finds a gold coin in the soil or takes a tumble but doesn’t get hurt—”

“I’m not the one saving them, Mister Ram. I dislike the practice intensely. I dislike the precedent. How many more of them are there? And why didn’t anyone bring it up? Durene, how was your trip?”

“Because they thought you knew. The Order of Solstice is fine, Laken.”

Durene stepped forwards into place beside Laken and forestalled Ram’s response. He gave her an odd look, but Laken paused.

“—It looks like a mound of soil or whatnot around the totem unless I focus. There are…they’re everywhere.

His voice was getting peeved. Durene didn’t quite get the issue.

“People want to show their appreciation, Laken. They have miniature totem-things in their houses. What’s wrong with this?”

“It’s close to worship. And [Emperor] I may be, but my ego isn’t that large.”

“You could have fooled me. What’s the problem? And can I go?”

Another voice. Not all of the court was here today. Rie was actually absent for once, and the [Witches] only showed up for weighty matters. It was Ram, Gamel, one of Rie’s people, and a dozen others.

A ‘small’ gathering these days. The odd one out was Alevica, who got a glare from all present. She looked sleepy; actually, Laken did too. He turned to her.

“If you wish, Alevica. I’ll find you at dinner maybe?”

“I have to make some for Cirsa and Malluni.”

Alevica replied instantly, and Laken waved a hand.

“Why don’t I have someone make food for everyone? Gamel, take an order for the [Chef] to make what they like. And we can go over the phonetics then—Durene, Alevica’s doing some translation of other languages. Isn’t it exciting?”

“Yep. Exciting.”

Durene and Alevica exchanged glances. They didn’t really like or hate each other; Durene didn’t like how Alevica bullied Charlay, whom Durene was friends with, but they had been through a lot. Alevica gave Durene a sardonic look and rolled her eyes skywards.

Ram seemed to be keen on gesturing to Alevica behind the [Witch]’s back, then at Laken, as if to indicate the impropriety of someone edging into Durene’s relationship. The [Paladin] ignored him as Alevica chewed over Laken’s offer.

“Fine. See you later.”

She stomped off. Durene distinctly heard someone call out in a too-friendly voice.

“My oh my, Alevica! Fancy seeing you here. I was thinking we should go for a walk—”

“Piss off, Jelov. Not interested.”

“Ah.”

Laken turned back to the shrine around his totem pole, his problem of the day.

“Tear it down, Ram.”

“But, Your Majesty—”

“Take it down. I don’t want worship. If people get lucky, it is not me.”

“Maybe it is you. You are an [Emperor]. Don’t you have Skills that affect your entire nation? Like [Empire: Minor Blessing of Luck]?”

Everyone stirred as Durene spoke, and the glower she got from Laken told her that he had hoped she wouldn’t bring that up. Ram’s eyes lit up, and Laken growled.

“—I don’t need this. Pull them down.”

“They’ll just put them up somewhere else, Laken. It won’t stop them. You can’t stop them from being proud of you or doing the worship stuff. You might as well embrace it.”

I am not looking to be a Pope.

Laken’s voice rose, and as always, he turned to her and modulated his tone. He’d shout at anyone else in the world. Except for her.

“You get it, don’t you, Durene? Being an [Emperor] is one thing. This cult of personality is closer to that of a despot.”

He’d told her all kinds of stories and parallels of his world, historical and current. Durene got Laken’s reservations. She just turned her head and stared pointedly at Gamel.

“I think, Laken, it’s too late for that.”

Laken could at least tell where she was looking. He frowned at his [Knight] as Gamel shuffled his feet and gave Durene a warning glare, but she was making full use of her status as Laken’s concubine or partner or whatever she was in their eyes.

“…What is it?”

Durene leaned over and whispered in his ear.

“Ask Gamel if he’s changed his armor.”

She had the great, immense satisfaction of seeing Laken’s brows knit together in confusion. Yes, the things he didn’t know—the little ways his own subjects lied to him.

 

——

 

It was just a stylized set of armor embossed with a huge, closed eye. Good steel, courtesy of Master Helm, made when Laken had given the [Smith] his [Golden Yield]. Gamel had a sword and shield that Rie had found an [Enchanter] for.

The bare minimum for a bodyguard of an [Emperor]. Yes, the armor was dark black and the eye was embossed with gold to make Gamel look more intimidating.

Naturally, he’d told Laken he’d levelled up in the last battles on the Solstice; everyone who’d participated had.

“[Eye of the Emperor]. A dedicated [Knight] with seeing Skills. I knew he levelled up; he’s got [Blind Foe] and [Farsight] and a host of useful Skills. How flashy is the armor?”

“It has a cape.”

Laken put his head in his hands.

“I thought that was a cloak for the cold! Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t Rie tell me?”

Durene was scratching Bismarck under the chin as the Mossbear sat in their cottage, which was twice as large as it used to be, filled with fancy chairs, refloored, glass windows replacing her shutters—

She didn’t recognize her home anymore. People kept coming in and making it ‘suitable for His Majesty’ whenever she was gone. Her old kitchen was now shiny marble countertops and magic heating runes.

At first, she’d been gratified, even if she missed her home. Now, she looked around and it made her upset.

Her home. At least Bismarck was the same. He was being fed honey from a spoon as Laken ranted to Durene. Alone.

Except for Gamel, who’d stationed himself outside with a group of four. And Frostwing, who kept pecking at a bowl of meat Durene held out. And several Street Runners, who kept pounding up the road with messages for Gamel that he hung onto until Laken was ready.

And everyone who knew Durene and Laken were having ‘alone time’.

“He told you about the class. And that he was getting new armor. Rie and Gamel probably hoped you’d get used to it.”

“I can hardly tell him not to wear better armor. Does he have to have a cape? I have it on good authority that capes are dangerous for your own health.”

Laken sounded amused by the cape mention for reasons Durene didn’t know. She was used to his self-referential Earth humor. She shrugged.

“They think you should look better. They’re always trying to get armor or clothing to fit me.”

It was hard to give her modern fashion that fit her skin; in the end, they’d settled on making her armor bright and golden. Laken sighed.

“I have to stop the shrines, Durene. And you should tell me about Gamel’s armor or anything else I’m missing. Is there anything else? I can trust your opinion, and the [Witches]’, at least.”

Durene thought about things Laken had missed. She eyed his head, and his blonde hair was barely visible under the stylized white-and-red felt hat that resembled a chicken.

“…You do know that you’re wearing—”

“The chicken hat? Yes.”

Durene grinned as Laken tugged it off. She toyed with it as Bismarck begged for more honey with a whine.

“Then you know all your [Merchants] and [Traders] have been going to other cities with all the contest hats on? The chicken, the Traffy hat…it makes people look twice.”

Laken groaned, but then began to laugh. He saw the humor in this, at least.

“Affection. Dead gods, I have too much of it. Everything Riverfarm does should be unique and extraordinary. We’re becoming a local power. I need a bigger army too. Rie has been hounding me about it with Wiskeria all day.”

“That’s probably good.”

“Aren’t you sick of the idea of more wars?”

Laken sat up a bit, edging closer to her, and Durene saw him glancing at the door. The proximity of Gamel was something he had gotten over. It bothered Durene if she thought of the [Knight].

“I used to be afraid every time a [Bandit] group came within a hundred miles, Laken. If Beniar’s Darksky Riders never go to war, I’ll be happy, but the small army and them aren’t enough.”

“Fair. They need to be everywhere…argh, let’s not talk about work. Tell me about your journey with the Order of the Solstice. You didn’t find anything in the cave?”

“No, but we picked up some Vampires running from those hunters. We’re helping them go through Pallass tomorrow. I promised I’d head out.”

Laken’s face fell the moment Durene mentioned that.

“Vampires? And you’re leaving already? If it’s to help them, that’s good—how insane were the hunters?”

He listened gravely to the story that Durene relayed and shook his head.

“That’s not rightful fear of Vampires. That’s…a witch hunt. It smacks of mania. A crusade? An inquisition? I need to speak to Yitton and tell him to stop endorsing this.”

Durene swiveled to face him.

“You need to do it now, Laken. The couple we found seemed desperate. Neither one looked like a murderous killer.”

He was nodding. And that she did love him for. For Laken Godart, there was right and wrong. And he always, always did what was right.

“If we must take a side, we will. I am reluctant to do so because it might lead to a conflict. But I will not make the mistake of Goblins again. Just—be careful, would you? The Order of Clairei Fields hates the Order of Solstice. Are you going to keep journeying with them? I could use you here, if only because you’re honest with me, Durene.”

He smiled at her, and Durene squirmed inside. Uh oh. Here it came. She had an image of Pawn pouring a cup of water over his head. She hoped Laken wouldn’t do that.

“I—I like them a lot, Laken. Vess, Antherr, Normen, Jewel, Ama—they’re all amazingly brave people.”

“Of course they are. Normen is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever met. Of course you want to be with them. And it’s safer than going alone…so you’ll keep journeying?”

“Tomorrow and any time they go out, if I can. They want to build their keep somewhere, but they haven’t found a spot, and there are trainees…”

Laken mumbled to himself.

“I offered Normen a place in Riverfarm, but he thought it was too political. Maybe somewhere just over the border or connected by door? What if I offered to let the recruits train here? That would let you stay. It’s not a bad idea to help the Order of Solstice grow, anyways.”

That was Laken for you. Durene watched him as he pet Frostwing on the head. And she wondered…

“Laken, if I asked you for a necklace of diamonds, could I have one?”

His head rose, and he half-smiled.

“That sounds gaudy. Do you need it for anything?”

“No. Just if I wanted it.”

He raked a hand through his hair.

“It might be expensive, but…gemstones are less egregious than in my world. If you want one, I could see about having one bought or commissioned. Is that hypothetical or serious?”

“Just a question. I don’t really want one. I am sorry I’ve been gone so much, Laken. But the Order of Solstice feels like a home. Like…a family?”

That was truly honest. Laken grimaced and seemed envious for a moment. Then, with another glance at the door, he murmured.

“Well, I can survive being jealous of them if it makes you happy. Dinner with Alevica and her two terrors is soon, but we have some time today and before you leave. What if I told Gamel to go for a walk?”

Aha! He does like it! Not that anything in her observations of young men had ever told Durene they were opposed to sex. But normally, she was the one instigating because she was mindful of what people told her.

She didn’t feel that familiar stirring of excitement and embarrassment—and yes, shame, but delight—as usual. Instead, she was more conscious of how Ram and Yesel would be smiling afterwards, and Gamel. Did he report to them how many times the two got into bed each night?

The thought made Durene pull away from Laken’s arm.

“I think I’d rather kick Gamel into a tree first.”

“Huh?”

The sound came from both Laken and outside, which clearly showed that Gamel had heard it too. Durene’s eye twitched. She looked at the brilliantly blue bird perched on her arm.

“Frostwing, attack.”

The bird opened its mouth and begged for more meat scraps. Durene turned to Laken.

“You should get a [Falconer] to train her. All she does is eat and poop.”

“Has Gamel made you upset? Or is it—Gamel, further away from the cottage, I said.”

The [Knight] shuffled off quickly, clearly deciding this was the best for his health at the moment. Durene took a huge breath.

“Laken…can we have an honest talk? About us?”

He gave her a puzzled look and one filled with trepidation. Laken wasn’t stupid. He sat up, facing her as best he could, as Bismarck tried to nose forwards, whining for more honey. Durene grabbed the jar and the bowl of meat and tossed both out the window as she opened the door.

Bird and bear raced outside. Laken opened his mouth, then frowned.

“Durene. What’s wrong?”

“I…I don’t know how to say it, Laken. Did you—I never brought it up because I was embarrassed. And maybe I thought it was for my own good. But I’m tired of it.”

Durene bowed her head and stared at her hands for a second. Troll’s hands. Troll’s skin. She was a simple farm girl who didn’t know much and had lucked into being the lover of an actual [Emperor].

At least, that was what they told her, implicitly or explicitly. Sometimes—Durene wondered if she was really that stupid. She raised her eyes and saw his closed eyelids were squeezed into a frown as he tried to work out what was bothering her.

“Tired of…people around us? Riverfarm?”

“Tired of having Yesel, Ram, Beycalt, and everyone else advising me on when you look like you could use a quick tumble, Laken. Tired of being lectured about both ‘keeping you happy’ and ‘not tiring you out’. Tired, Laken, of being the person they go to when you’re mad. And maybe I’m just—maybe we need a break.”

Durene saw Laken’s face pale, then begin to redden. She saw, not for the first time, the [Emperor] of Riverfarm lose his temper.

She?

She felt relieved.

 

——

 

Hi, it’s me.

Laken Godart.

I am sitting in Durene’s cottage at night. There’s some annoying fly buzzing around the outside; Gamel is standing at the entrance gate to Durene’s home with four of his lackeys, and she’s sitting across from me, voice soft, guilty, for some reason, as she describes being pressured into being intimate with me.

She wants to break up. How am I taking this, you may ask?

Well, let me tell you what’s happening in Riverfarm at the moment.

I am…Riverfarm, in some ways. In some ways, it’s separate from me, but I see it.

—In the Goblin Lands, a group of Goblins are hunting a pack of Corusdeer. They are herding them towards the two walls set up to contain and protect Goblins, but the deer, in their panic, actually burn holes through the wooden walls with their antlers.

One of the Goblins has fallen, kicked in the chest by a Corusdeer. The rest surge on, chasing the herd past the walls. They hunt through the forest as deer scatter, startling a [Witch] going for a walk and picking herbs.

The [Witch] tips her hat. One of the Goblins waves; then they’re onwards, hunting across the fields now, and the farmers on the night shift and people turn to stare.

Jelov backs away from the Goblin hunt and steps on a rake, hitting himself in the nuts. The Goblins continue, letting the rest of the herd scatter to take down two of the deer. Just two; then they come to a halt close to Riverfarm.

Armed Goblins and my subjects. A few people have rushed out of the house. I see all this in my mind’s eye, a stalemate captured in moving figures without sound or color—but then I see a Human hurry into a house and come out with a knife. Not to defend herself with or attack; she offers the tool to the Goblins for butchering.

They have their own knives, and a few Humans offer to help. Or so it seems; the Goblins wave them off. Someone spits at them covertly from the side. The Goblins tend to their wounds, and a [Witch] makes an offer on the Corusdeer antlers, which the Goblins accept.

In this metaphor, I am Jelov, lying on the ground, clutching at his nuts.

That is how it feels, honestly. I sit here as Durene lays out what is going on, and I can’t believe it. She…

How dare Yesel and the others do this? I’m boiling with fury, and I want to summon them and castigate them and have them apologize to Durene. But I can’t focus on that. Can’t even fully focus on this conversation.

I’m—what do I say?

“Laken?”

“I’m sorry. I’m listening. Keep going, Durene. And they…gave you tips?”

“Demonstrations.”

Demonstr—

“With bananas.”

It’s funny. I want to laugh, but I can’t. Here I am listening to Durene’s unwilling sex-ed class from half of Riverfarm and I just wonder—how did I miss this?

What are you going to say to her? She wants to break up. I am suddenly reminded of my unfaithful thoughts. Not even unfaithful; just flashes of brief arousal, really. The real question is how I missed this.

The real question is…what do I do?

I should have seen this coming. I should have realized my position was affecting her. No one told me. Durene should have. No, that’s not fair; she’s shy. I should have had someone who was honest and told me…

What do I do? Apologize, tell her I’ll fix this—don’t let her just go off into the sunset. But you know what I am thinking of most in this situation?

It’s…well, it’s silly, but—

What would Fetohep do?

That undead ruler of Khelt. It’s not like I put him on the same pedestal as his subjects, but I wonder what advice he would have in this situation. Something vaguely condescending, but also, I suspect, morally or principally correct.

I ask—because you know what I realize in this situation? More than the shock of Durene’s admissions?

I am alone.

I realized it a bit ago when Lyonette invited me to the poker night. Me. She comes out of nowhere and asks if I’m willing to participate in a little charade, a trap, and I agree. Then she sits me at the kid’s table, and I realize I’m a distraction.

My feelings on that aside, it was an insane gamble, a brilliant play. If I thought I could have hired Lyonette for the Unseen Empire, I would have on the spot. It’s one of the things that makes me realize how Erin found or trained her own people.

But what I realized when I heard the other rulers chatting and playing games with each other, even when they were sniping literal hundreds of thousands of pieces of gold from one another was…

It is lonely. That Duke Rhisveri, even the way Lyonette spoke to her mother, all smacked of a loneliness I thought I knew. It turns out the isolation of people in power really is different from even social introversion. And I wished…

I wish I had talked to Fetohep more. Because now, I sit here, and who can I confide in or ask for help in this matter? Who should have warned me?

The [Witches]? They’re subjects of a different kind. Alevica? Perhaps, perhaps; I’ve just gotten to know her. Gamel? He’s part of the damn problem. Rie? Even if she’s closest, she is an underling.

Now, Durene is sitting there, and I’ve half-heard it all. My head is in a daze. I feel stunned, and I need to say something to her to stop this from happening. But most of all, I realize, with irony, with regret—

I am alone. She is not. She has the Order of Solstice.

All I have—is her.

I don’t want to lose her.

 

——

 

Of all the things Laken had expected to happen today, this was not it. And today had been going well, despite the shrine thing and his lack of sleep because he’d been excited about Alevica’s project.

Now—it felt like someone had hit him with a few hammers. In quick succession; he had just been about to lose his temper over people telling Durene to be intimate with him. Then it was like she poured ice water over his head.

“Slow down, Durene. Let’s go over this. First—how long has this been going on?”

“I think ever since you made it clear you liked me and no amount of trying to break us up would work—so just after the fighting with the Goblins?”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

“I thought they knew better. I thought it was normal. People are always nosy about relationships in villages, Laken. I’ve heard Yesel giving that kind of advice to other women. They just do it more to me than anyone else.”

She sounded so—calm. As if her mind was made up. Laken was the one in a mild panic. He held up a hand.

“I can tell them to stop at once. It’s wholly inappropriate. But a break between us?”

“Yes. I—I don’t know what to say, Laken. Aside from the fact that I don’t feel like it’s special when we make love. I like you. I don’t remember that same feeling I got everytime you even touched me. I’m sorry. There’s a better way to say it, but I think I was lying to myself and you for a long time. Can we…break up?”

This wasn’t Laken’s first experience with a relationship ending. It was for Durene, and he wasn’t sure how he’d grade her speech on the Fetohep scale of speeches.

Honestly and privately—probably 4/10, with maybe a point for it being her first time. There was something she wasn’t telling him, that was clear.

Does she like someone else? She hasn’t been unfaithful—Laken’s mind raced ahead, and he cut himself off. No, she’d be more guilty, then. But she might have noticed the discrepancy of how she felt with him versus…

Another person? The Order of Solstice? Wait, stop thinking about that. 

Damn Yesel. Damn Ram and Beycalt and everyone else. Now, Laken was thinking back to how often they did get…frisky? How often they had sex. It had always seemed fine, even great, to him, but the frequency was getting called into account, and it made him feel dirty.

All of Riverfarm was in on it? How did he reprimand them for this? How did he punish a group for—Laken tried to focus on the conversation.

“I understand why you feel this way, Durene. I’m sorry…for not noticing. I wish you’d brought it up. We could have worked this out, I think. I don’t want to tell you ‘no’. It’s not my choice, obviously. I just—I like you.”

Tremendously, immensely. He was trying to keep his voice level. Laken cleared his throat.

“We could take a moment off. Go on a vacation. Certainly have all the people bothering you stop at once. Things might change a lot.”

“I’m sure they would. But I think…it’s already changed how we were, Laken. I’m sorry. It is my fault for not knowing what to say.”

Durene sounded miserable, and Laken reached out hesitantly and touched her hand. She squeezed his fingers.

“I know they helped raise you and you have an odd relationship with them all, Durene. How about this? What if we took a simple pause in the relationship?”

A week or two and they could talk, and he could work out her issues. He thought it was the best option—and then Durene came back with a swift reply.

“What if we didn’t?”

It flummoxed Laken. He was stunned by the response, not just because it cut him down, but because Durene seldom ever said…

She’s serious.

Two instincts warred in Laken’s mind as he tried to come up with another reply. One was his voice, his inner self, his guiding conscience in matters of right and wrong. It was very clear from his understanding what must be done.

You have to let her go. It’s her choice. There is no scenario where you can do anything else but agree without being completely in the wrong.

The second voice he didn’t like. And it sounded like Tamaroth or the voice of his class.

Don’t let her.

That was it. It didn’t tell him to order her, to argue, or to…it was just there. This cannot be. This should not be. Don’t let her.

He ignored the second voice because it was wrong. Even so, it felt like he was gargling gravel with every word.

“If that’s what you feel is best, Durene. I—won’t object, of course. But I think this is moving a bit too fast.”

Couldn’t they talk about this and come to a mutual decision tomorrow? Yet the [Paladin] simply heaved a huge, relieved sigh, which hurt more than anything else.

“Maybe. Maybe I’m being wrong about it or too fast. But, Laken…you don’t want us to break up?”

“Of course not. Never. I love you dearly, Durene.”

He thought she was smiling. She helped his fingers find her face, and he found she was. Durene’s voice rumbled through her fingertips.

“Then, Laken, it’s my choice. I’m sorry.”

She gave him the gentlest hug as she knocked the [Emperor] flat, harder than if she’d hit him. He was speechless, and Durene squeezed hard before letting go. Then she got up before he could say a word.

“Bismarck, leave Laken alone. Come here.”

Laken heard a faint fuss from outside—then he sensed Durene trudging back towards Riverfarm with the bear.

She’s taking my bear with her. That was one of the thoughts echoing through the [Emperor]’s head. The other was, trivially…

I’m glad she didn’t break up with me while I was wearing the chicken hat.

 

——

 

Durene did not, in point of fact, mean to take Bismark with her. She just didn’t think the Mossbear nosing around and bothering Laken was best for him, so she lured Bismarck away with the empty jar of honey. And by the time they’d gotten to Riverfarm, Durene realized she couldn’t just turn him loose to harass whomever he wanted.

She didn’t know what to do afterwards. She felt lost, relieved, bad about feeling relieved, and like she was still in a relationship with Laken. Except that she wasn’t.

Where do I go? Several Riverfarm people were giving her odd looks, as if wondering why she was here instead of with Laken, and Durene didn’t like it.

If she stayed in Riverfarm, word would be out across the entire town something was up. Gamel would probably report what was going on to the others even if Laken and Durene didn’t say anything. It wasn’t like it’d be hard to miss.

Durene wandered about a few streets until half a dozen people had come up to her and asked if she needed anything and how Laken was. Then she couldn’t take it.

“Bismark, come on.”

Durene marched through the door to Liscor, and that was how she found herself—with the giant Mossbear—sitting at a bar in The Wandering Inn nursing a drink.

“Something for your friend?”

Ishkr poured a Velrusk Claw into a cup, and Durene glanced at the bear.

“I don’t think we want a drunk bear in the inn. Is he a bother?”

“I think he’s amusing. It’s the first time I’ve had a bear as a guest. If he’s a bother, I’ll toss him back through the door to Riverfarm.”

Durene eyed Ishkr, who was a lot more slim than she was, but he seemed confident, so she let him pour a bowl of milk and honey for the bear. Bismark lapped at the bowl happily, and after a few gulps, Durene placed some coins on the bar.

“Can I get something stronger?”

“Firebreath Whiskey?”

“Something not as…spicy?”

“How’s Pirate Lord Rum sound? Three splashes of that, mixed with Fizzle Water?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

Durene found herself checking her coins. Normally, she didn’t worry about money. But if she and Laken were split…she’d have to actually have money. She had just asked Rie for coins whenever she needed some.

Do I keep my fancy cottage? I’m still Riverfarm’s [Paladin]. Will he give me orders? 

That wouldn’t be fun. Durene took another gulp from her drink. She knew she had to look miserable; she had hoped to find the Order of Solstice here, but they’d apparently gone out to Wishdrinks to have a small party instead of dinner here. Menolit had apparently bought them a booth, wanting to hear stories of the adventure.

Durene was in no mood to head out and ruin the fun. She didn’t know what to say; Ishkr was here, appearing behind the bar every now and then while serving tables. But the normally silent Gnoll seemed to have a few Erin qualities these days.

“Bowl of peanuts for your thoughts? On the house.”

He slid one over, and Durene moved Bismarck away from trying to steal her food. The bear whined until Ishkr gave him a bowl. After a while, a little white Gnoll girl appeared and began to ride Bismarck around by dangling a piece of meat in front of him, which took care of him for a bit.

“I…it’s complicated. I don’t, um, I don’t know what to say. Do you think the Order of Solstice will be here tonight?”

“Normen, Jewel, Antherr, Vess, and Ama all have rooms here. They might be late; Menolit likes to go drinking.”

“I guess I can see them in the morning. I, um, ah, do you have rooms? At the inn? I don’t know where I can stay.”

Ishkr’s brows didn’t rise; he just glanced at a little board on the wall.

“I could put you on the third floor? Your two guests are sleeping up there as well. The bed’s made. Here.”

He put a key on the table, and Durene fumbled for some coins.

“Thanks.”

“No need. You’re a friend of the inn; Lyonette would give you a room. As long as you need. Would that be long-term, then?”

Durene flushed as she fumbled the key into her belt pouch.

“I don’t know. Maybe? I—I might not be welcome in Riverfarm for a while.”

Certainly not by the people, no matter what Laken said. Or would they be happy that Laken was finally rid of her? Both options seemed bad. Ishkr polished a mug and then spoke out of the corner of his mouth.

“Tell me if I’m being obtrusive. But my guess is that you and a certain [Emperor] aren’t seeing eye to eye?”

“We’re not seeing each other, actually. I—broke up with him.”

Durene took a huge gulp of her drink and noticed it was half-empty. Ishkr filled a cup with water.

“You don’t want to be dehydrated. Tough breakup?”

“No? I think it was fast, and he didn’t argue. Maybe it was too easy. I said what I had to and—left. Maybe I should have done or said something else?”

She didn’t know. No one had given her advice on this, for once, so she’d fumbled through it. Ishkr shrugged.

“Better than average, then.”

When she looked at him quizzically, he elaborated.

“Neither of you got violent. There was no meltdown, no breaking things?”

“No. But maybe I should have…”

“Given him a final memory?”

Durene reddened, and Ishkr shook his head.

“Simple and straightforward has a lot going for it. I knew a Drake once that couldn’t tell his girlfriend no. So he led her on, stopped talking to her, avoided her for nearly a month—then blew up at her in public. All because he didn’t want to ‘hurt her’ by doing it outright.”

“That would be bad. Then again, I think—I think I waited too long, too.”

Another drink came sliding down the bar.

“On the house. One second, would you?”

Ishkr stepped away from the bar as Durene nodded. She was so lost in her thoughts, second-guessing herself, that she only looked up when she realized Ishkr was walking back instead of teleporting. With someone else.

“I’m paying t’be a guest here, not—oh. Durene, my girl! Why didn’t you say it was her?”

Chaoisa, the Contempt of Man, was apparently staying at the inn as well. The high-level [Driver] was bad-tempered as ever until she saw Durene. Ishkr put a half-finished pizza and her drinks on the bar.

“I could set you two up at a table. Drinks are on the house.”

The [Driver] sat down with a grunt as Durene turned to her. She nodded to Ishkr as Chaoisa gave Durene a gap-toothed grin.

“I thought you were going to be with that fancy [Emperor]. What happened? He said something that pissed you off?”

“Actually—I broke up with him.”

Chaoisa’s face registered shock for barely a moment before she put her head back and laughed. Her tangle of short-cropped hair shook as she put a hand out.

“Something he did?”

“Not quite. It’s—”

Durene ended up giving Chaoisa her version of things. The [Driver] had heard half of it in the wagon, and she spat onto the floor when Durene was done. Ishkr appeared with a mop and a mild glare.

“From what I heard, it sounds like the rest of Riverfarm was filled with shittalking brown nosers so far up his ass they were making your life miserable. If he let you go, he’s a fool for not knowing what he had.”

“I don’t think he was happy. But he wouldn’t have made me stay.”

“He didn’t even beg? Sounds like he was too full of pride then.”

“He didn’t do…anything wrong, really. He didn’t know. I should have told him. Then I just sprang it on him the first thing when I got back, then walked out. I even took Bismarck with me.”

Durene was feeling her actions now, and she put her head down, pressing a glass of cold water to her forehead.

“You don’t need him.”

Chaoisa assured Durene, and the half-Troll girl gave the [Driver] a wretched look. She had no idea why the Contempt of Man, the famously insociable [Driver], had taken such a shine to her in the first place. Chaoisa was always checking in on Durene, like a big sister Durene had never had. It was…Durene liked Chaoisa, so she came out with some of her worries.

“Maybe I don’t need him. But I think I was the luckiest person in the world for getting to him. Now I’m wondering if I tossed that all away instead of trying to take a break and make it work.”

“Pah.”

Chaoisa pursed her lips again, and Ishkr gave her a warning stare. She met his eyes for a good ten seconds, then swallowed instead of expectorating again. Which went some way to showing the power of Ishkr. Durene took a hefty drink.

“You’ll find someone else, my girl. You’re young, stronger’n anyone but a Gold-ranker; you’re a [Paladin] and a Knight of Solstice.”

“That might be true. But I’m also half-Troll. Who else would like me?”

Maybe a non-Human like Vess? Durene flashed to the Drake, and Chaoisa took another bite of her pizza. This time, she stared down at her plate.

“Most men might, but they’re cut from bastard’s cloth anyways. You don’t need them to live happy, Durene. There’s coin for pleasure, and besides. We’re not changing what we look like or how we are. Look at me.”

She turned and gave Durene a grin that showed her yellowed teeth and her soiled coat and jacket.

“I’m a [Driver]. No one wants a big girl who’s pushing forty who spits tobacco and swears like one of Rhir’s Demons. But I do the job no one else can. You, now, you’re a catch.”

Chaoisa’s face was vulnerable—then proud as she raised a glass to Durene. The [Paladin] looked at Chaoisa, then shook her head.

“I think you’re magnificent, Chaoisa. I wish I was as brave as you. You’ve been nothing but nice to me.”

It was definitely the drinks, but Chaoisa’s eyes misted up around the same time as Durene’s, and she patted Durene wetly on the shoulder.

“I don’t really—‘snot like I liked them [Knights]. But when I saw you, I thought you were like myself. An honest girl, and you showed that Elia Arcsinger what was what! You’re going to be fine, Durene, I promise. Happier than I was, I promise. It’s hard to be a lady like us, sometimes.”

The [Unstoppable Roller] patted Durene on the shoulder as the girl hugged her, moved as her throat closed up.

Down the bar, Elia Arcsinger raised her head from a plate of spicy shrimp noodles and decided she didn’t want any part of the conversation. She kept eating as Calescent glared at her in outrage as she slurped down red noodles.

 

——

 

By the time the Order of Solstice returned, close to midnight, Chaoisa and Durene were fully drunk, and the Contempt of Man was singing on the stage at the far end of the [World’s Eye Theatre].

“—lover, I fear you’re driving me crazy. I don’t think you can save me. So I’ll drive away, away—

For once, it wasn’t a Singer of Terandria song, but an Izrilian song about love that Durene knew. Even the [Princess], sitting with Pawn, was listening rather than objecting to Chaoisa’s taking over of the inn’s stage.

If anything, Lyonette looked impressed. Durene had been too shy, even dead drunk, to go on stage. But as it turned out, Chaoisa had an amazing singing voice.

Her voice filled the room as Normen stopped and saw Durene there.

“Durene. Were you looking for us? We were at Wishdrinks—”

“Something wrong, Durene?”

Vess added urgently, and Durene turned.

“No. Well, I broke up with Laken. I’m…going to be fine.”

The Order of Solstice stared at her, and then Antherr turned to Ishkr at the bar.

“I believe our drinking is not done. Do I offer congratulations or sympathy, Durene?”

“Both.”

Jewel came over and gave Durene a hug as Ama nodded.

“I never liked that [Emperor] guy anyways. Tell us about it, Durene. Did you make him cry?”

“I hope so. I mean, I hope he’s sad.”

Durene stumbled over to a table of people who wanted to hear from her, to make sure she was okay. Vess, Normen…Chaoisa came over as people applauded, and Durene realized this was what had lured her away from the Unseen Empire and even Laken.

More than a lover or even a nation. She had wanted a group like this. Durene reached for another drink, and when she had downed enough of it to pave the road for deep secrets to pour out, she gave vent to her feelings.

“And maybe now…I’ll know if someone can like me for me. I helped him when he was lost, before he became an [Emperor]. Now, I’m no longer weighing him down. And he’s no longer pulling me higher. I can find out who I am. I’ll always be grateful, but I want to know…who Durene Faerise is without the [Emperor] of Riverfarm.”

Yes. That would be nice. Durene had another drink and stayed up, wondering if she had done anything right or wrong. Until she went to bed and slept in until midday. But all she knew was that it had been her decision this time.

Hers.

 

[Class Consolidation: Farmer → Farm Lady!]

[Farm Lady Level 3!]

[Skill – Estate: Collect Taxes (Crops) obtained!]

[Skill – Estate: Forager’s Bounty obtained!]

[Skill – Above Common Law obtained!]

 

Huh? Wait. No.”

Durene rolled over in her bed.

 

[Level Ups Canceled.]

 

Durene went back to sleep, shaking her head. Where had that come from?

 

——

 

Laken didn’t sleep that night. He stayed up, thinking.

Pacing.

Word was out around Riverfarm; Laken blamed Gamel for seeing the obvious. No; he’d sensed Durene heading out the portal door, and it would have been obvious to all that something was up.

Perhaps they could sense his ire. As the [Emperor] mourned, so the land mourned? Laken didn’t think he was at that stage yet. But a few things were clear to him in the circuitous thoughts that replayed the breakup.

This was not Durene’s fault. He understood how she had gotten to that point. He understood that he had missed some things—but he could also point out that without her telling him, he had been unaware of the problems.

No, Laken was clear.

He blamed the Yesels and Rams of the world. It seemed obvious to him, in hindsight, that the relationship had gone off a cliff because of their interference.

Of course Durene needed to break up. Laken himself felt oddly used at the thought people were engineering his hookups with Durene.

His struggle that night was to not lash out or do something drastic. He could see why the others had thought they were doing everyone a favor with Durene’s ‘advice’. In a way, it reminded him that Riverfarm had changed so much and not at all.

“That was how I met her. Durene. A girl this village tolerated—barely—and mistreated. They were never fully evil. They were certainly never fully good. They were a people. They didn’t deserve to be buried alive in an avalanche. But they didn’t have the right to lecture me about Durene. They were wrong about [Witches], many of them. We were all wrong about Goblins.”

This is what he believed. Laken knew there was a right and a wrong to things. Even if he didn’t always have the perfect answer, there was morality. Back in his world, he had never had a chance to do more than argue it person-to-person. A blind man.

Here, he was an [Emperor]. And here, he had operated on his beliefs and made terrible mistakes. His metaphorical blindness persisted, though, and it had cost him Durene.

It’s not over yet. A breakup isn’t forever. She isn’t leaving Riverfarm for good. Surely not. She’ll visit, and I can clear the weeds of people’s sycophancy. I must.

Laken had almost managed to talk himself into this being a good thing. Then he’d wondered if it was final, something unrecoverable, and he’d gone back to brooding.

Oh yes. When he heard a knock on the door past midnight, he had come to a decision. There would be…what was that Erin expression?

There would be consequences.

“Enter, Alevica. I’m sorry I missed the dinner. I was busy.”

“I’m sorry you missed it too. It would have been hilarious. I heard Durene dumped you and took your bear.”

Witch Alevica sauntered into the Durene’s cottage, and Laken resisted the urge to see if he could toss her out with his aura. He sat there, sullen and tired.

“So all of Riverfarm knows?”

“Yep. I think they’re lining up every eligible woman they’ve got. Lucky you.”

Laken’s scowl deepened, and he folded his arms as Alevica tossed some objects down on the table. Scrolls. She must have been continuing her study of the Hag Queen’s spellbook.

He couldn’t focus on it right now. Laken spoke abruptly.

“Durene’s still a [Paladin] of Riverfarm. She is a member of the Order of Solstice; I wish her luck, and I will support them, as I promised. But in light of her…absence, I am elevating her to [Lady] of Riverfarm.”

Alevica paused before swinging herself into a chair.

“Uh. Let me give you some advice. You can’t buy her back.”

I’m not intending to. She’ll need some kind of funds. I’ll give her control of this area, her cottage included. She’ll own the proceeds, and the profits will go to her armor and needs.”

“Does Riverfarm do taxes?”

Laken shook his head hesitantly.

“Not…yet. However, we can work out what she might earn and allocate the funds to her. She’s a [L—a lady.”

For some reason, Laken couldn’t say ‘[Lady]’. As if part of him knew…Durene didn’t have the class? But he was certain he’d allocated the title to her.

“She’ll have the status of one, and I am going to sign the paperwork tomorrow. Which makes her one of the three noble classes I can assign people to.”

He said that rather sourly, and Alevica raised her brows.

“So Lady Durene, Lady Rie, and two others? Didn’t you give Prost the [Steward] class? I thought [Emperors] had hundreds of nobles.”

“Well, I’m not high-enough level, and Riverfarm isn’t big enough yet. Plus, I gave nearly four dozen noble titles away, and I’m afraid you can only have so many Dukes. And knights. And damn barons and ritters.

Laken realized that Alevica had no idea what he meant, and he was forced to clarify.

“The Winter Sprites. I gave them classes in exchange for their help a long time ago.”

“Pfft. You gave them your noble ranks? I can’t tell if that’s stupid or genius. Too bad they’re all gone and the ones that came this time only like Ryoka.”

That was a sour point with Laken as well, actually. He had hoped that the lot who came with Shaestrel would be some of the ones he’d befriended, but they had all been different, it seemed. He folded his arms.

“It makes it hard. One of the reasons Riverfarm is always hungry for more talented people is because I can’t elevate the ones who are promising.”

Having sixteen [Lords] wouldn’t put him on par with House Veltras, but dead gods, it would have made a really good start. In fact, it would have solved more issues. Laken changed subjects.

“And I’m making it illegal to put a shrine to me up.”

“Yeah, that’ll work. You want to ban breathing too just for fun?”

Alevica seemed to be drinking in Laken’s bad mood. No…he noticed her lift her hat and glowered. She was absolutely taking in his ire. Maybe this was her way of trying to make him feel better; Laken felt a touch less angry already, and he resented that she was artificially moving his emotions around. So essentially it equalized any help she was doing.

“If they want to worship anything, they can worship Traffy or believe in Riverfarm’s laws. I just wish I had someone else they could look up to. They should have looked up to Durene. She’s a damn [Paladin]. Everyone should have seen her as an inspiration, but Yesel and Prost—yes, Prost—they made her smaller than she was.”

Alevica chewed over the issue and, to Laken’s surprise, gave him a helpful response instead of more mockery.

“People love Lady Rie. She’s like a mini-you for affection.”

“That’s what I want. Let them make a shrine to her. That’s…a bit better. Not me. Or…or…if only I had someone to manage each area of land! Give it some color, some personality. I’m already well past Gralton and Yitton for size, and I’ve looked into how the Five Families operate. I can’t manage and detail more than Riverfarm. House Veltras, El, Reinhart, all of them divide up their lands. A place becomes themed after each [Lady].”

“Like how House Ulva’s proud and uppity and how Gralton’s people love dogs? Whereas Riverfarm is just sorta safe and people have a thing about totems?”

Laken nodded.

“Exactly.”

He just needed more help, honestly. Two dozen more Rie’s. Heck, Laken would have taken an Erin in a heartbeat, but those kinds of people couldn’t be bought. Gralton couldn’t be…Laken had never made the offer since until recently he’d been smaller than Gralton’s lands.

Hmm. He sat there, and another thing occurred to the [Emperor] suddenly. Alevica was yawning, but she eyed him curiously.

“It’s interesting.”

“What is, Alevica?”

“I’ve seen you angry before, a few times. But never as interested as when you found out I was trying to research the Hag-language.”

“Aklat Vunn. Why should that surprise you? It’s fascinating. You are literally learning a dead language; possibly a magic one.”

Alevica made a face.

“Maybe. The spellbook has a few diagrams, but it’s all writ in language. A spellbook would have the spells manifested as concepts. Same with how [Witches] do magic. Incantations, mandatory incantations for spells, are old. Outdated. Who bothers with chanting a spell when you can point and say [Fireball]? Or think it? Why’s that fascinating?”

Laken couldn’t delve into the idea of magical worlds and fantasy settings to her in one go, so he settled on an easier reason.

“Because, Alevica, it implies the very words are magic. Ryoka would agree with me. Erin would. Deciphering a language is something I can do. It’s—not something I was necessarily the best at, but it’s what I liked, back in my world.”

She sat up a bit.

“Languages?”

“Being a traveller. Being aware of more than your own little bubble.”

He clarified with a shake of his head. Laken spread his arms.

“Riverfarm is wonderful in many ways. The people here work hard and have their good parts, for all I want to throw them in the river right now. But I would hate to be trapped here. My father was German. My mother was French. I was in California when I vanished. I have travelled to other lands, even if I haven’t seen them, Alevica. And each one does something right, something wrong. Like naming me ‘Laken’.”

“…What’s the problem with that?”

“In German it means—look, my mother didn’t like my name last-second, and she came up with a name that, uh, uh, translates into ‘bedsheet’ in German. And then it was written down and—”

Alevica began laughing, and Laken heard Frostwing wake up and sleepily peck at her. The [Emperor] decided this wasn’t the worst thing to happen to him recently and continued.

“The point is that I brought it here. To Riverfarm. Some new ideas. I liked the fact that we’re taking in [Witches], different points of view. Doing things like other people, changing wholesale, isn’t always good. But…”

He opened his eyes a second, remembering how bright Melidore had felt, even blind, or the wonder of meeting the faeries the first time.

“Goblins and Humans. We should be interesting. We should be unique. The fact that Durene, our only half-Troll resident, still feels like an outsider is disgraceful. Riverfarm pushed her when I should have pushed them to keep changing. Change and change until [Witches] are welcomed in this village. Now they love your charms and magic. Last year, they would have driven you all off. Changing your opinions for that better morality, that better viewpoint…”

That was what he thought was best. Change and change and keep the important part the same.

“Hearing a blind man speak about viewpoints is never not funny. I suppose you have a point. I’ve been all over Izril. It’s more fun than being a [Witch] who squats in a swamp and sees the same sights, day in, day out. I was going to travel to another continent when I turned thirty.”

Alevica stretched and sighed.

“So much for that dream. Keep making [Witches] happy—or keep people from throwing rocks at us—and we’ll give you enough loyalty. But I can see you’re still in a pet and my hat’s full enough for my trip tomorrow. So I’ll be off.”

She waggled her fingers at him as she stood, and Laken sat there, toying with an idea that had just struck him. Alevica paused by the door. After hesitating there, she came back, tone light and nettling.

“Or do you want to cry more about Durene? Because if you feed my two brats more of your food, they’ll stop telling me my cooking sucks.”

Alevica sat down after a second, and Laken inspected her in his mind’s eye. A change had come over her too, whether she admitted it or not. He almost wished she had remained the prickly, aloof [Witch] rather than this more likable, tired one.

Change comes for us all. Laken hadn’t asked Durene if she’d had anyone in mind when she referenced liking other people. He had been too guilty with the admonition that yes, sometimes he enjoyed the company of other women. Never with intent to do anything, but…

Well, now I’m officially allowed to flirt with anyone I want. Seven hours is way too soon. 

“—Actually, I’d better check on the girls.”

Alevica levered herself up so fast that Laken groaned.

“Did I mention how I hate that [Witches] know what I’m feeling at all times?”

She paused, hand on the door.

“Well, imagine being a [Witch] and knowing exactly who finds you attractive. And who wants to be earnest with you, and the people whom you should never find yourself alone with?”

“What a dark thought. There aren’t any people like that in Riverfarm, are there?”

Laken thought of the man Hedag had killed, and Alevica’s chuckle was lower.

“If there were, we’d sort it out. It’s not like such people are always beyond hope. Eloise, hate her, find her annoying, she’s good about that. Hedag is the final resort. Should I be flattered?”

“Forget my feelings. It’s embarrassing, and I’m a mess. We have wording to go over, Alevica. And I’d like Witch Alevica’s input on an idea I just had. Something that will change Riverfarm once more for the better.”

Laken’s smile made the Witch Runner hesitate at the door. She came back a third time and sat down; this time, back straight, wary.

“Is this the kind of thing you should ask your advisors about?”

“No. I’m asking the advisor I trust right now, not the ones who caused Durene to leave. That means [Witches]. That means you. Are you a nosy [Witch] or should I summon Eloise?”

That got her. Alevica put her feet up on the table as Laken stood up to open the door. He paused a second as a sad, snuffling sound turned to panting.

“…She brought Bismark back.”

He smiled. The Mossbear padded into the cottage, threw himself down, and began snoring. Laken leaned against the overgrown sack of lard as Alevica waited.

“So? What’s the big plan?”

The [Emperor] smiled with all the well-intentioned malice in the world. He told Alevica, and she stopped, made an inarticulate sound, then laughed and told him even the other [Witches] would think he was crazy.

Which was good enough for him. The [Emperor] concentrated…and the next morning, Riverfarm, nay, the Unseen Empire awoke to strange circumstances indeed. Then Laken got back to work with Alevica, mood restored slightly, waiting for the reactions of his subjects.

Frankly, he thought they deserved it.

 

——

 

“Your Majesty! Your Majesty, are you aware of the changes in Riverfarm?”

The next morning, Laken was strolling into the center of town, yawning, so tired he nearly walked into Ram as the man pelted towards him. Laken held out his staff.

“Yes, I’m aware. Durene’s broken up with me.”

“I—yes, sire. But the fields! I woke up and I heard—everyone across the Unseen Empire’s in a panic! They’re all asking what happened!”

“I don’t blame you, Farmer Ram. Or you, Miss Yesel. But I am aware of the pressure you put on Durene. We will have a conversation.”

“Yes, sire, but—er—”

Ram fell silent a moment, and another woman spoke up, a touch breathlessly.

“Your Majesty, Durene’s…choice is terrible. I can’t imagine what she was thinking, but I’ll have a word with her as soon as may be. However, the fields? It’s snowing over some of them! In the spring!”

Laken waggled a finger at Yesel.

“Absolutely not, Miss Yesel. Durene—excuse me, Lady Durene—has made her choice, and if I find anyone is going after her, we will have words. In fact, she’ll have words with you. I think she’s done being pressured, and that is that.

He strode on, and the flustered Yesel and Ram trailed after him. Laken turned his head as more people flocked towards him.

“Ah, Gamel, good. You know what? Keep the armor. But watch out for the capes. I’m told they’re a liability.”

“I—uh—yes, Your Majesty. But what’s this about me being assigned to—to—Lady Rie?”

“Her demesne is Riverfarm. I thought I’d reward her with the town. Are you worried it’s not mine? Not to worry, Gamel. I am all of the Unseen Empire. This is just subdivisions. Oh, by the way, I’d watch out for Durene if you run into her again. She’s not best pleased with you. I’m not, but I’ll get over it. That’s why I decided not to give you a grant of land at this time. But we shall mend our rifts.”

“Y-Your Majesty?”

The [Knight] stuttered as Laken walked on. The [Emperor] kept moving. The trick was to keep moving and let people catch up to your chaos. That was Alevica’s wisdom, and he assumed it worked for her.

She was actually watching the chaos with her two young [Apprentices], fully enjoying the scene. Laken managed to deflect Beycalt, Helm, who’d actually ridden here overnight in a complete tizzy, and the next six of his court with the same strategy.

Alas, he ran into stiffer resistance as a woman dismounted from a horse.

“Your Majesty, am I to understand you’ve given me control over my town and Riverfarm as the liege-lady?”

“Lady Rie. I thought you were having a word with Yitton.”

Laken frowned at her reprovingly, and she responded innocently.

“In light of certain events, I sent Geram and two of my people to have the conversation.”

“Would that be Durene breaking up with me or last night’s changes?”

“Both, Your Majesty? Might I seek clarity on the second? I am sorry to hear about the former—I had nothing to do with the regrettable pressure Durene was under. I regarded her as a worthy rival.”

“She didn’t have rivals. As for the changes, what is there to say? I’m outlawing the shrines. Or rather…the shrines to me. You may now find the shrines are perfectly appropriate, since they are not, in fact, to me.

The confusion his statement elicited gave Laken immense satisfaction, and Rie trailed after him, asking questions he refused to answer.

Laken’s march of malice only ran into a problem when he met someone his ‘I refuse to answer questions’ technique failed to work against. Which was Pebblesnatch.

She marched up to him.

“Emperor person. You is behind weird thing in Goblinlands?”

She asked him in sleepy, grouchy tones that said she resented being woken up early by his shenanigans. Laken smiled.

“Yes, that’s right. Do the Goblins have questions?”

Pebblesnatch yawned, then stepped forwards and kicked him under the kneecap as hard as she could. Gamel grabbed her as Laken swore, and Pebblesnatch shouted.

“No! Leafarmor said do that. Is our message.”

“Argh. That really—dead gods, that stings.”

Laken clutched at his knee and waved away the proffered healing potion. He deserved that, he supposed. Trust the Goblins to have an un-ambivalent response. Laken turned as someone else walked over.

“Your Majesty. Good morning to you. I see it’s snowing again. I have theories about what has gone on; will you elaborate?”

“Ah, Witch Eloise. You turned me down.”

The [Witch] tipped her hat to him, voice polite as the other [Witches] blinked at her.

“I did. I was quite flattered, but I have had enough of that sort of thing for one lifetime. And I did find your other…decision fascinating? The [Witches] are not minded to kneecap your other leg, incidentally.”

“We may buy you a drink instead, [Emperor] Godart, lad! I laughed for a good hour this morning!”

Hedag’s voice was so hoarse Laken believed her, but she was in the best of spirits and rescued Pebblesnatch, who was drooling on Gamel’s armor to make him let her go. Everyone turned to Laken, and he even realized Typhenous was here.

The old man seemed querulous today, but even he was murmuring.

“Oh my, oh my. Snow at this time of year? Fascinating. What’s this all about?”

For answer, Laken turned. He was approaching the fields and farmlands, which, as ever, were in full production for the spring. But he spoke.

“Gamel? I think this calls for a Skill. What do you see?

The [Eye of the Emperor] stopped. He spoke, and Laken felt a flash of cold—but in the distance. Cold, the sensation running down his body, freezing powdery snow, the touch of flakes landing and melting on his skin.

The feeling was intense, but he didn’t shiver; it wasn’t a physical reaction, it was how he experienced snow. Yet he felt it was distant and placed it several hundred feet away, falling from the sky.

As if he could feel the snow Gamel was seeing, and chart its progress down from high overhead, even sense the clouds above. Things Laken had never imagined, but now understood, and understood how vision must be for other people.

Simultaneously, Laken felt-saw cold frost, thick and heavy, on what should have been growing squash. Only it hadn’t killed the fruits; were they ice themselves?

In another field, he sensed an overgrowth of plants, so many he couldn’t have walked forward without getting enmeshed in their vines. They were all ‘brightly colored’; Laken experienced that as a sharp, sour taste in his mouth.

“[My Eyes Described the World I Beheld].”

It was like a thousand experiences, each one in terms Laken understood; the cold feeling of snow, the overgrowth of plants, even the feeling of soil and grass, painting a ‘picture’ in his head equivalent to Gamel’s vision.

What would vision be to a man who had never seen before? Color would be alien. But this…Laken exhaled as he ‘saw’ the snow falling over a field of frosted melons, another a wild surge of plants. Some fields were the same, but they were a patchwork of craziness. And even the totem that had held a shrine to him yesterday was changed. People were gathered around it, and he felt their presence as smell, the physical touch of their clothing, a whisper of voice…

Ah, I do love how this world gives me so many things that I wanted to know. But never, ever in such ways that told him his lack of sight meant he was inferior.

It would have been so banal to give his eyes vision. Yet he didn’t want it, and whomever called the shots understood him.

So Laken drank in his changed lands and smiled.

“What do the Goblinlands look like, Pebblesnatch?”

“Eh. Is lotta pear trees. Everyone is call Raidpear ‘milord’ and bows. He hates it. Is really funny.”

Every head turned to Laken, and the [Emperor] called out, for now a crowd had gathered.

“Well, and it should be! Let it be known that Baron Raidpear is the ruler of the Goblinlands until he should relinquish the title. The profits from their iron and, indeed, the muster of troops is his responsibility under me. I also congratulate Lady Durene, owner of Durene’s Cottage and surrounding lands, Lady Rie, who rules House Valerund and Riverfarm proper—the many nobles of the Fae, whom I am sure will administer their lands well—”

“The what?

Miss Yesel squeaked, but Laken silenced her with a wave.

“—And of course, our ranking noble at this moment, Margravine Mavika.

There was a gasp. A flutter of thousands of wings, and Laken felt feathers running below his fingertips, heard-saw the voices of thousands of crows—and the woman herself alighted on the ground.

Strangely, Mavika seemed oddly hesitant today. She shuffled her feet, then spoke in something less like a rasp.

“You…are sure of your decisions, Emperor of Men?”

“If you are of yours; I did offer the rank to Witch Eloise first, but you were my second choice, Margravine. Your rank, incidentally, is ‘Margrave’, just below the two Dukes, who are both fae. To you, I cede the forests and several fields. Which are…those two, I believe.”

Laken pointed, and a visible wince from several [Farmers] and Ram’s moan made him turn.

“…Am I imagining what you’re seeing, Gamel? Or is it really…?”

“Filled with giant worms, Your Majesty? It is. And some twisted plants the likes of which I don’t know—”

“A carrion crow’s due, I have no doubt. We’ll have to see what Mavika’s fields yield. Aside from giant worms. Your duties are very simple, Witch Mavika. Aside from defense of the realm and administration of your lands as you see fit, I will require taxes of your lands. The tithe to you is yours to do with as you see fit, of course.”

Every head swung back from Laken to Mavika, and some of the Riverfarm’s people stood there. Gamel was the first to actually work out what was going on.

“You divided the entire Unseen Empire among the nobility, Your Majesty? Then I’m one of Lady Rie’s subjects?”

“Yes, subject to me, of course. I imagine there will be some effects. From here on out, each shrine in each of my vassal’s lands is for them. If you must thank anyone, thank them. Indeed, where is Ivolethe’s lands? I am going to make an offering right now.”

Laken had gotten one of Frostwing’s feathers, and he made a show of stepping over to the shrine covered in frost. It was cold, and he shivered as he put the feather down, but he swore he felt…something as he did.

“B-but, Your Majesty, some of us are beholden to the—the fae folk! I’ve been assigned to a Ritter Lashinxe!”

Laken turned to Ram with a huge smile on his face. He patted the man on the shoulder.

“I don’t hold the Durene thing against you at all, Ram. Ritten Lashinxe? A splendid vassal of mine. One of the greatest knights of the Unseen Empire. Indisposed, of course; they have a dual allegiance to the King of the Fae. I’m sure it won’t affect your duties unduly.”

My hair’s gone white.

“Oh my. Really? Well. You’re the same Ram to me.”

Laken patted the man on the shoulder in a reassuring way. Then he heard a squeal.

“W-w-wait. I’m assigned to her?”

Beatica pointed at Mavika, and Laken beamed.

“Ah, well, it would have been unfair to designate all of Riverfarm to Lady Rie alone; it is so big. So I had to do carve outs…”

There was a shriek, a thud, and Laken stood there. Beaming like the sun shining down. Everyone turned to him as Alevica and her apprentices cracked up.

Part of the reason Beatica might have been so upset was because the changes to Riverfarm weren’t just in the fields or even structural; Laken turned to Gamel.

“Am I right or does she have feathers?”

It was Ram who replied in a strangled voice, feeling at his hair.

“It’s very…fetching, Your Majesty? Like a plume around her neck and across her shoulders. Is—is that something we should expect? Do we have a choice in the matter?”

The [Emperor] decided to humor him and reassure the others.

“Of course, Riverfarm’s folk have a choice. In time, I imagine we will see reshuffling of people with similar results. But each one will change Riverfarm in no small way.”

It was Mavika who responded, voice a bit hoarse.

“I am now [Witch] and ruler of land. A leader of covens I can be no more; I will rule with the oldest of ways. As best I can.”

She seemed to be defending herself not just to the people of Riverfarm and the incoherent Beatica, but to her fellow [Witches]. Laken actually felt bad for Mavika, a bit.

I offered her a choice, and she took it. I hope it makes her better. He hoped it made them, his new vassals—more independent. More trustworthy. Like what Lyonette was to Erin; someone that Laken could rely upon. Certainly, the literal changes of a vassal’s domain was just what he’d wished for.

But it wasn’t all just fun and games. Laken felt parts of his empire had changed. Helm was the first to speak.

“Every piece of cold iron’s gone out of my forge, Your Majesty. Steel’s fine, but…the hammers feel heavy. What does this mean?”

“It means, Master Helm, you and I had better have a chat about customs. It means you had all better thank people properly. Especially if they’re fae or witch. Because they will be responsible for your wellbeing or ailments.”

Laken waggled a finger at them all, and Pebblesnatch groaned.

“It mean we actually are Emperor’s Goblins? And we pay taxes?”

Oh yes. It changed…everything. In fact, Laken was most curious about the effects Lady Rie, as the highest-level [Lady], had on her people. He turned to Gamel.

“Feeling any different, Gamel? Lady’s Rie influence will be positive, I trust? Beatica will get used to the feathers.”

Gamel felt at himself surreptitiously.

“I feel fine, Your Majesty. Ah—wait. Didn’t Nesor say…?”

Lady Rie spoke up, voice filled with emotion she suppressed as well as she could.

“I believe…several structures lost in the Second Antinium Wars have appeared on House Valerund’s lands. I shall, with your leave, go to inspect them, Your Majesty. I may soon levy my own household guard. Valerund’s old household guard.”

Laken nodded to her.

“You have my permission, of course. I suggest we all take a day to get used to the new situation. I, myself, will not know what to do without Durene. But if I can struggle through it, so can you.”

He gave them all a brilliant smile, and his subjects stared at the [Emperor] of Riverfarm and his genial wrath. Laken Godart was still smiling when he recalled one thing that he had known when he hatched his crazy plan.

Which was that the fae would surprise him each and every time. Beware…the consequences.

“Aiiiieret.”

It was a high, unnatural voice. Well, not words, but that kind of sound that made Laken spin in alarm. Gamel’s Skill had worn off, and the [Knight] raised his shield, jumping between Laken and something that had crawled up from…

Out of the shrine? The frost-covered offerings now dedicated to Ivolethe parted, and something leapt up, holding the feather from Frostwing. It landed on the ground, and Laken paused.

“What is…”

He felt just…cold. Cold and snow. In a curious, moving tumble of motion as he and Gamel backed up. It stumbled closer on two ‘legs’ it made, and Laken heard a gasp.

From the [Witches]. Then there was a cracking sound, and someone who had gone to inspect the fields came running.

“It’s alive! It’s aliiiive!

Not what you wanted to hear. Laken spun as something came stumping out of the field to cries of alarm—then stopped, swaying where it stood. And then Laken felt it.

The wicker scarecrow and the ball of snow given life moved forwards slowly, and Witch Agratha, the normal one, the amazingly normal one even in moments of wonder and stress, spoke.

“Well. I daresay this is a Snow Elemental, and a friendly one too! And if I don’t miss my guess—is there such a thing as a…a Farm Elemental?”

A wicker man—or woman, Laken wasn’t clear on the inspiration of the model—walked forwards. It was made of pieces of hardwood, wrapped together, and it held a hoe someone had dropped.

“It’s not a Golem. Not a summoned creature…oh my. Fascinating.”

Typhenous remarked in that too-calm voice of someone far away. Laken had hoped this would snap him out of it, but he couldn’t win all his victories in one day.

Wasn’t there some kind of film about wicker creations and cults? Aren’t living scarecrows coming to life in fields out of horror stories? It fits Mavika’s domain, anyways.

“…I think we also have our new guardians. Worship them.

Laken pointed to the Elemental of Ice or whatever it was, and it chirruped again. An astonished Master Helm bent down to pet it—a second before Traffy and a Sariant Lamb bodyslammed the rival for Riverfarm’s affection.

Then the [Emperor] just stood there, chuckled to himself, and laughed as his Empire changed once more. He only stopped when a thought hit him.

“I miss Durene.”

He had done it. Created a new group of power, of magic and wonders that would move Riverfarm ahead. Yet still—the [Emperor] glanced at Alevica, and she tipped her hat to him, and he was glad of that.

Still.

He was alone. He was peerless in the continent famous for its lack of [Kings] and [Queens], let alone [Emperors]. And he had just given his most trusted people more work that would keep them away from him. Right now, Laken thought they deserved it. But that loneliness…Laken closed his eyes.

“It will be the end of me more surely than that bearded man. I see it now.”

More than a lover, Laken realized he had always needed Durene as a friend. He wished he’d told her that. The [Emperor] stood there, leaning on his cane, and then shook his head. There was nothing for it.

He decided to go have a drink.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

That’s right, the [Emperor] is back. And I’m not sure if this is a new groove or if he’s lost his clothes…wow, that’s a dated set of references.

I’m off my break and I have energy again. Which is excellent! It’s a hectic time for me; this month is going to be busy, not least because I have a wedding to go to. Two this year! Those cause some disruptions but I will work around them and let you know if I need breaks.

If I meet a reader at a wedding, uh…pretend you don’t know me? I accept bribes for character arcs? I dunno, I’m not going as pirateaba. I’ll go as…bland aba…

I hope you enjoy this chapter, and I think I got into the groove of some of my older writing styles for a bit there. I like feeling in the zone and it’s not always a given for a chapter but I’m pleased, and I will work hard on the next one.

…I assume Rags is gonna win that poll. So I’ve got a lot of chapters for July set up, and I’ll try to make them all as fascinating as possible.

Anything else? Oh yeah, Shadows of the Erdtree, the awaited Elden Ring DLC, came out during my vacation. You don’t have to worry about me being obsessed with it; I beat it in three days. It was fun. I have quibble with the story beats, but it’s not that hard. Now all I have to do is wait for Silksong. It’s coming out any day now…

Thanks for reading!

 

Stream Comic: Vess and Crusader 53 by Fiore!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/atlasphenomenon

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Stream Art: Alevica and Nanette by Yura!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yurariria

 

MrshaPlot by BoboPlushie, a gift to me, pirateaba! Symbolizing my eternal state of mind?

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Snofo

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

Nanette by Kalmia!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/kalmiayarn

 

Peblesnatch and Antinium by Luca!

 

Alevica, Ryoka, and Ryoka by Yootie!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yootie

 

Antinium at Night by Bread!

 


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