10.20 E – The Wandering Inn

10.20 E

Laken Godart, Emperor of the Unseen Empire, took a nap after his morning of chaos to receive two announcements. The first was gratifying, if worrying.

 

[Emperor of Farmlands Level 37!]

[Skill – Empire: The Changing Citizenry obtained!]

 

“…Voluntarily, I would hope.”

He had to assume that was what had led Mister Ram’s hair to change and Councilwoman Beatica to grow feathers. Sometimes, it seemed to Laken that Skills he possessed were already active before he heard the notification. Sleep was just when he became conscious of them.

Then again, maybe you had to adopt the opposite approach: the fae might have caused some of the pronounced shifts in his populace and the world had decided to ratify that with an actual ability.

Either way, Laken was not so cruel as to force his citizens to shift their bodies unnaturally. He was that petty—but he rather suspected Beatica would be the first to jump Margravine Mavika’s domain for anyone else’s.

Laken awoke ready for the rest of his day corralling worried people. He was prepared for a crowd to still be there despite his nap, but as he emerged, he ran into the second announcement. This one was also gratifying, if worrying.

“Witch Mavika, I may be a humble [Gigolo] without much to my name, but upon my class, it would be my honor to marry you.”

“Huh?”

Laken Godart emerged from his cottage to find a tableau. Well—tableau implied silence. A bunch of [Witches] laughing themselves sick and a stock-still audience of people was an interesting contrast.

Witch Mavika was perched on a roof, trying to avoid a young man professing his love to her on bended knee. Laken leaned over.

“Gamel, am I dreaming?”

“No, Your Majesty. It’s been like this for the last hour.”

“…What. That fellow there. He can’t be more than twenty. Does—why does Riverfarm have—[Gigolo] is a class?

“I think he’s new to Riverfarm, Your Majesty. He may just be a traveller. And he’s not the only one.”

The [Knight] and [Emperor] resumed listening as a second suitor made his case. How did they even have wedding rings…?

“Margravine, I am a [Bird Watcher]! Nay, if you’ll have me, a bird lover—ack! Aieeeee—”

That last bit was the sound of Mavika kicking someone off the roof and them hitting the ground and beginning to scream. She snapped around, her voice a hiss.

“I am a Witch, not some [Lady] to be courted! Leave me be or suffer my wrath!”

“Ah, but you’re a [Lady], Mavika.”

A new voice called out, and Mavika turned her head, her tone dripping with venom.

“Thallisa.”

The wind blew. No, wait—Laken’s skin didn’t register anything. But the wave of heads turning and the current that rippled across the clothing and buildings and ground—

What was that? The [Emperor]’s head snapped around as he felt a shock course across one arm and his body like a jolt of electricity.

Then a [Witch] was there. Laken didn’t recognize her. She was a tall woman with an even taller hat, which she tipped in what Laken took to be a theatrical manner.

Her voice was filled with sardonic amusement, but Laken could barely hear it. The moment the [Witch] appeared, his heart had begun to race, and he heard someone singing in his ears.

Paris, France, 2012. A younger Laken Godart had been waiting in one of the larger plazas, bored out of his mind and upset; he was waiting for his mother, and she was thirty minutes late and had just sent a message saying she might be delayed even longer due to a traffic accident.

He’d sat there, disconsolately bitter and unwilling to do anything other than sulk. Then he’d been assaulted by a blast of sound as a band began to play. It seemed he had been inadvertently present for a performance by a pop band, perhaps for self-promotion. Or maybe an organized event.

The first moments of hearing that female singer blasting music into his ears had been terrifying, exhilarating, and shocking.

The same song was playing in Laken’s ears right now. For a moment, he flashed back to the moment, and his heartbeat spiked in his chest. Then he was once again in the present.

Faint cries and shouts of surprise said that Laken wasn’t the only person to have that experience. The [Witch] tipped her hat up.

I have arrived. Good morning, Your Majesty. I am Witch Thallisa indeed. I greet my fellow [Witches], and I offer a gift to the patron of [Witches]!”

She swung one arm up, and Laken realized something else. Thallisa had a cape. She swung it now, and something fluttered towards Laken.

Gamel caught it in one hand as Laken recoiled. The [Emperor] took a second to make sure it wasn’t actually an attack or dangerous before reaching out.

“…You certainly have a way with entrances, Witch Thallisa, was it? What is this, if I may ask?”

“Why, merely a Cape of Voices, Your Majesty. Made from fox fur.”

Laken reached out as Gamel shifted

“Your Majesty—”

Fearlessly, Laken felt at the surprisingly soft cape. He raised his brows.

“An artifact? You needn’t have provided a gift, Witch Thallisa. The pact stands for all [Witches], though I am grateful and intrigued. What does it do?”

Thallisa. Begone. We do not agree, Your Majesty.”

Mavika was glowering, but the new [Witch] ignored her. She tipped her hat again.

“The cape is simple, Your Majesty. Wear it and animals will understand your words. Not perfectly; they are still animals, and a squirrel has no notion of advanced math no matter how much I explain it to them. ‘Tis a small gift for an [Emperor] who is said to commune with beasts and folk alike. I am the Witch of the Eightnight Coven. I seek the hospitality of your lands.”

“Granted. Of course. But if Margravine Mavika has a quarrel…”

Laken glanced at the [Witch], and Thallisa chuckled.

“We disagree on everything from animals to justice. Mavika believes crows should be crows and [Witches] should be isolated and aloof. I believe the opposite.”

“She is a meddler.

“—Which is why I am delighted to see you’ve taken my position, Mavika.”

Thallisa laughed, and Mavika made a low noise in the back of her throat.

“I am a Margravine such that [Witches] will have land fully of their own.”

“If the result is what we both agree on, why quibble? But you shouldn’t harass your suitors so, Margravine.”

The two [Witches] began sparring, completely ignoring Laken after a moment. He surreptitiously put his cloak on, despite Gamel’s objections. It wasn’t that warm in the spring’s morning, and instantly, he felt his throat itch a bit.

“Hm. Is it working? Can anyone hear me?”

One of the Sariant Lambs, omnipresent around Laken, gave him an unimpressed look.

Mraaabra. Loser. Mehee—

Laken heard a cute mewl and simultaneously—his head snapped around. The Sariant Lamb jerked—stared at him—then galloped off in alarm.

It wasn’t perfect; it sounded like half-gibberish, but had he just heard—?

Thallisa was laughing. At Laken’s expression and Mavika, who was squawking back at her.

“A noble class is befitting of a [Witch]! It is isolation and power. I have not betrayed my beliefs! These suitors are inappropriate!”

She sounded defensive, and Thallisa waggled one finger.

“Oh, Mavika, your view on nobility is as old and one-sided as your witchcraft. Isolated? It is purely noble to marry and start vast bloodlines. I wish you the best of luck, Margravine Witch Mavika. I shall begin crafting my wedding gift posthaste.”

Then she curtseyed, which Laken imagined was a deep cut to hear Mavika’s cry of outrage. Witch Thallia retreated, and Gamel whispered.

“She’s one of the [Witches] on par with Witch Eloise and Hedag, Your Majesty. Another ‘Great Witch’. I would have introduced you, but…”

Laken had rather undercut any event this morning. Witch Thallisa seemed to be greatly amused; she glanced his way and tipped her hat, and he nodded as he whispered back.

“Specialty?”

“Hex magic and potions, Your Majesty.”

“Hm. Potions are good. Hexes…”

Laken hoped she was at least cordial. From how she interacted with Mavika, it seemed like the two had a rivalry, which might mean more [Witch] strife. Thallisa gave him the impression of a heckler.

He was smiling to himself as he turned to some of his advisors.

“Wiskeria, not off to inspect the rest of Riverfarm? Rie’s already gone.”

The [Witch]-[General] was largely unmoved by the chaos of the morning. As one might expect of Belavierr’s daughter, she sounded like she was only grudgingly impressed.

“Turning land over to the fae is either a brilliant move or dangerous. You’re playing with their rules, Your Majesty. I suggest no one violates any laws of hospitality—or miss any tithes.”

Laken nodded, growing a tad bit serious, but his heart was still light and amused. They all deserve it.

“More to gain, more to lose. I have a list of people I should like to elevate, actually. I thought Eloise or Mavika would be more…interesting than you. But gaining more noble titles to give out is a priority for me.”

“I quite understand, Laken. I wish you had informed me about this, as your [General], though. I had a dream about dying, which made me worried when I heard about all the changes. I thought it was some kind of attack, and I had the army ready to go until you announced it was your doing.”

Wiskeria folded her arms. She sounded less-than-pleased, and Laken waved an airy hand.

“You know me. I’m sometimes erratic. Such is the nature of [Emperors]. I thought my citizens liked me being very much the ruler they wish me to be.”

The [Witch of Law] paused, and her voice grew a trace annoyed.

“I can tell you’re amused by this, Laken. And spiteful. I would remind you my job is to be the commonsense voice in your ear and your [General].”

“Meaning?”

Laken smiled, and Wiskeria shrugged.

“Meaning I may not know much about relationships or even ruling, but I can tell when someone’s getting a fat head. Your subjects are upset. Some contrition would be appropriate, least of all when they reckon with a Goblin…[Lord].”

“Ah, yes. That will need clarity, or at least, the brackets being written down when it’s announced.”

The blind man was in too good a mood to worry about the consequences. He smirked.

“Send for Raidpear at his earliest convenience.”

“He’ll kick you in the knee again if he sees you smirking.”

Wiskeria warned flatly. Laken gestured at his broad, vindictive smile.

“I’m afraid the smile and smugness comes with the crown. Not that I always wear one.”

“Oh, really? I have a good idea on how to fix that.”

The [Witch] adjusted her hat, then spoke in a carrying voice.

“Durene’s not coming back, Your Majesty. Even if you make her a [Duchess].”

Heads turned. Laken felt someone knock his smile off his face with a club. He’d almost forgotten…he turned to Wiskeria heavily, rubbing at his chest.

“…Thank you, General Wiskeria.”

“Anytime, Your Majesty.”

Laken’s foul glare only made Wiskeria tip her hat upwards.

“I will forgo a noble title since I already have a [General] class. But if you are giving away the auspices of empire to your vassals, may I have forty acres of land? Some of the forests Mavika doesn’t control or maybe the swamplands would do.”

“What? Why?”

The question threw Laken. Wiskeria answered casually.

“Well, because it would be an income. And I could also let [Witches] live on the land rent-free. [Generals] do own property. I am also allowed to do with the land as I please, aren’t I? I may raise a monument to Traffy, or laws, there.”

Laken stood there, flummoxed, and Wiskeria tipped her hat again.

“Giving land to me would also incentivize some other [Witches] who’d like the same. They’re merely guests in Riverfarm. If they own land, they have duties to you.”

“A smart idea. Why don’t I give land to Hedag then?”

Laken was still smarting from the Durene comment. Wiskeria chuckled.

“Well, because you’d reward one of your most loyal vassals first. And I’d tell the other [Witches] what you’re up to.”

In the silence, the [Emperor] scowled and muttered.

“Pick your forty acres, then. And there will be requirements for anyone who owns land; you can’t just leave it fallow. You get to work out sufficient laws for the [Witches]. And other vassals.”

He expected Wiskeria to balk, but she just unstoppered an ink pot, pulled a scroll out of her bag of holding, and a clank of parts heralded the Elemental of Law, Traffy, striding over. Wiskeria sat down in the street.

“I was just about to do that. Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Laken stomped off, reflecting that you could never just have a victory with [Witches] about. Then he wondered where Durene was right now.

“A month. No, two weeks. Gamel, make a note for two weeks from now. Three weeks? Two weeks and a bit. Twenty days.”

“Sire?”

“I’ll have dinner with Durene then. Two weeks is a good amount of time. She made her choice, but it’s not as if it wasn’t hasty. We can reconnect. On neutral ground that doesn’t remind her of—book a restaurant in Invrisil. Not too fancy! In fact, she hates stares…find one with excellent taste. Potatoes? She loves potato dishes. Actually, make that Liscor. And book the entire restaurant.”

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

Laken was thinking out loud.

“No, wait. By ourselves is too much.”

“So don’t book the…”

“Book the entire restaurant but fill it with other people. Couples. But don’t use Riverfarm people as actors! See if you can get Antinium or Drakes or…”

The [Emperor] wandered off, already trying to figure out the best tactics. As he did, a Centauress in the crowd nudged a [Witch].

“Hey, Alevica, is it true that Durene broke up with Laken?”

“Yes. Don’t touch me. Get lost, Charlay.”

Charlay the Dustrider whistled.

“Wow. And this is what happens when someone breaks up with him?”

She stared at the falling snow in the distance, Mavika’s continuing marriage proposals, and the other oddities in Riverfarm like a Snow Elemental and what looked suspiciously like a Rock Elemental squaring off with Traffy.

Charlay nodded to herself.

“People should break his heart more often.”

It was a pithy, non-serious, common comment about the Emperor of Riverfarm. What Charlay didn’t realize was that Alevica wasn’t the only person to ignore her words. A number of hatted women watched the [Emperor] walk off. And the look on some of their faces, such as Eloise or even Hedag, wasn’t amusement.

It was…concern. The [Emperor] had done amazing things. He had done arguably good, interesting, unique things.

They could also sense—

He was alone.

 

——

 

When Durene Faerise woke up, she kept wiping at her eyes. Her head was befuddled from all the drink of last night, and yet she knew where she was the moment she woke up.

The Wandering Inn, third floor, listening to Chaoisa’s muted snores from next door—having just broken up with Laken. Now a full-time member of the Order of Solstice.

She was relieved, as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She believed it was the right call, and her fellow [Knights] and Chaoisa had supported her.

She was amidst friends. Real friends who had backed her decisions and never asked her if they were right or wrong. Durene felt better, truly.

The [Paladin] kept wiping her eyes, then rubbed her tears on her blankets. She hugged her knees, and for a while, she cried. Not because she had regrets; of course she had regrets. But she thought she was still allowed to be sad.

“I really liked him. I loved him.”

She thought she always would. Whatever came next. Durene sat there as the sun rose and then exhaled.

Now what? When she got up, she was excited to find out the answer. Yesterday had gone Durene of Riverfarm, the [Paladin].

Today, Durene of the Order of Solstice arose. Much the same as the old one. But different.

Always a bit different. She kept glancing at herself in the mirror as she dressed. Trying to figure out what was changing.

 

——

 

“I think I need my own flame, Normen, everyone. What do you think it should be?”

Later that morning, everyone was having one of those quiet breakfasts after a night of too much liquor. Normen was chewing his cereal slowly, as if trying not to make it crunch too hard.

“Fire?”

Jewel looked up and thoughtfully inserted a poached egg into her mouth. She slowly sucked out the insides, then ate the rest. It was a fairly disgusting maneuver, if talented; she could eat without a plate or her hands.

“I took on glory, for now. It makes sense; I could change it, but Ama’s got sadness. There aren’t many other flames. At least, none from Erin that we have access to. Do you know of any other ones, Normen?”

Ama was eating toast with all the crusts cut off. She had dumped them all on Antherr’s plate, and he was dipping them into his pottage, having apparently traded the bread for more crusts.

Durene noticed this kind of thing because these eating habits were a bit weird. Not that she hated it; she liked her friends being odd. Now, Normen was eating cereal and drinking coffee. Which was totally normal until you realized he had put water in his cereal instead of milk.

A horrified Mrsha had come by to steal food, or pretend to, taken one look into Normen’s bowl, and tried to give him a pitcher of milk. He’d handed it back. Now, the [Grandmaster] scratched his chin thoughtfully.

“I’ve seen a lot of Erin’s fires. I wouldn’t touch black or invisible flames of rage or hatred with a ten-foot hat. There’s pink and blue for nostalgia, and hazel’s determination. Glory and honor. But aside from hope…it’s hard to say. Happiness? Purple?”

Durene listened intently; she had never seen these other flames and said so. Normen nodded.

“They’re rare to see out of Erin. Hard flames, even for her, I think she told me once. If you wanted to take any on…”

“I dunno. Am I that hopeful or…happy? Determination I could do, but that feels like you and Antherr have covered it with honor. What do you think, Vess?”

“I think you all eat weird. Durene, why are you eating potatoes for breakfast?”

“They’re good. I like them.”

Durene defended herself with a frown at the Drake. The [Spell Knight] gave her a look of horror as she bit into one.

“But…raw? Unpeeled?

“I washed ‘em. It’s less work for Calescent.”

Durene couldn’t say why she liked raw, cold potatoes so much. She didn’t mind cooked ones either, but a few of those on the side with a hearty, ‘regular’ breakfast and she was happy. She was a big girl; it wasn’t disruptive to get a potato or two.

Vess shook his head. Then he stuck his tongue out, poured ketchup onto his tongue in a vertical line, and then took a bite of hamburger.

“You’re all weird. I love you guys, but you’re weird.”

The other Knights of Solstice stared at Vess in silence for a while. Then they all went back to eating. Vess replied to Normen as he repeated the trick for another bite of hamburger.

“I don’t think Durene’s gotta embody those emotions. I’m ‘mercy’, but I don’t feel merciful all the time. Mercy was shown to me, and I guess…I guess I did it, a bit, but I’m not living up to it. It’s aspirational for me.”

He looked guilty for a moment, and Durene recalled the story of how he had met Crusader 53. Vess seemed merciful to her, but she took his point.

“I don’t know if I aspire to be hopeful or happy, though. I’d like to be both, but…”

Normen was nodding, patting his mouth with a napkin.

“It’s a difficult thing, as it were, Durene. A fellow can make up his mind in good time. But now you’re with us, you’ll have plenty of time to get a feel for the fire you want. It might come upon you at random. It did for me.”

With a smile, he patted the lantern at his side, which held the old ember that Mrsha had given him on his fateful trip. Normen finished his bowl and looked about.

“Speaking of which, where’s Mister…Sevil and—who was the lady?”

“Lapsey. They might be sleeping. They were on the run for hours before they met us, apparently. Why don’t we get a full tale from them as we escort them south from Pallass? They’re bound for the coast, apparently. Or some place they don’t want to tell us.”

Jewel murmured, and Normen nodded. Durene leaned forwards, and so did the Order of Solstice. This was their first official task beyond escorting Rheirgest.

“So they’ve got a base of you-know-whats. They’re in hiding in southern Izril?”

Ama frowned at Normen, and he nodded.

“It seems so from the few things Mister Sevil mentioned. I could ask Fierre or…others, but I’d rather not involve them, and it sounds like they’re not as connected at the moment.”

“We’re talking about Vampires. Just making sure.”

Yes, Ama. And trying not to mention the name.”

Normen sighed and nodded at Ama, who relaxed. Durene glanced around.

“Should we have a secrecy spell or something on? Laken has them all the time.”

Normen grimaced.

“I don’t own anything that convenient, do you? No one saw fit to donate secrecy spells to the Order of Solstice that I saw.”

“Oh. Right. Well, can we get them made up?”

“Maybe I could put a word in with a contact of the Brothers? I don’t want to…Jewel, do you have adventurer contacts?”

“Hm? Yeah. Good secrecy spell? Renewable? It’ll set you back about four to eight thousand gold pieces.”

When everyone else blanched, Jewel stopped eating eggs and salad and sighed.

“Right. I forgot we’re not working with adventurer budgets. Damn.”

They were a bit unorganized. They really should have started with a base, and Durene said so, but Normen shrugged again uncomfortably.

“I have offers from dozens of [Builders] who’d do the work for free or for a song. I haven’t chosen a good spot yet. I don’t wish to place it near Miss Erin’s inn, but the keep should at least connect to her door. I have too many choices. North? South? Both feel…partisan. We can’t start training and arming recruits until we have that—”

“And money. Don’t forget money.”

Jewel put in, and Ama nodded.

“Yeah, do we get paid?”

Normen looked increasingly wary about all these questions that Durene hoped he had answers to.

“A stipend per month. Making money will also matter. We cannot live off of donations alone.”

“How do we make money?”

“I was thinking that, if we fought monsters, we would have the remains processed at the Adventurer’s Guild. Each [Knight] would be responsible for that. If it’s [Bandits], well, stolen goods must be returned. But anything we cannot trace back to the victims…”

“Wait. Is your entire plan to finance the Order of Solstice…robbing [Bandits]?”

Durene laughed, and Normen gave her a serious nod.

“It’s a viable strategy to the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Aside from that, we hope for goodwill and benefactors like The Wandering Inn. But I am, again, more concerned with Sevil and Lapsey’s situation. I propose we help them, but not directly make contact with whatever enclaves are out there. The last thing we need is to draw more attention, and I understand they are in danger of dying in the north. The south is barely more hospitable. Vess?”

Normen turned to Vess, and the only southerner cleared his throat.

“Yeah. I was just telling Normen that if the, uh, V-words are in the south, no Drake city is going to like them. They can probably hide away if they keep their noses clean, but I did a bit of digging in Pallass’ library, and turns out, the Walled Cities might have long memories too. The, uh, V-people got around.”

Durene groaned.

“Great, so Sevil and Lapsey will be in trouble in the south too?”

“If they are, they’re not likely to be under as obvious an attack. Plus, there are Gnollish lands where Drakes would refuse to go. If they get to their people, I imagine they might be safe. I imagine…they might be headed to the New Lands. Out of danger of any power in Izril, at least, directly.”

That made sense. Durene sat up a bit as she imagined hundreds, no, thousands of Vampires fleeing and gathering together.

“I hope they make it. Erin helped hundreds, but there are thousands more.”

“Hah? What?”

Ama stopped chewing and feeding Sillias bits of toast the cat undead chomped down and then spat onto the floor. She turned to Durene with everyone else. Normen blinked.

“Thousands? I thought most had fled.”

“Nope. Why did you think—? They’re all over the north.”

The rest of the [Knights] hadn’t heard what Laken had; when she recounted the attacks on the Vampire hunters and how entire villages had vanished overnight, Normen grew a worried look.

“I thought we escorted most of them. If there are thousands—and entire villages would be that—then how will they get south?”

Jewel counted the limited options.

“By ship or through the High Passes—I imagine most will pass through The Wandering Inn. I hope Miss Lyonette can handle any trouble that arises. Let’s ask our couple about that. That might be one of our first big battles, Normen. We need to be ready if the Order of Clairei Fields or anyone else bothers the inn.”

He developed an even more worried look, and Durene swallowed.

It’d be sure nice to have Wiskeria and an army right about now. She realized she’d left Laken’s empire and all the benefits of his power…things might get harder for her with only her fellow [Knights]. But they could do this.

“Okay, so let’s scout out somewhere cool on our trip south. I know a few old [Necromancer] haunts. You guys like living in marshes or bogs? We do that all the time. Or we find an old keep, fix it up, and we’re set.”

Antherr raised his hand as he ate.

“I would also like to volunteer that we have a number of recruits who wish to become [Knights] or [Squires], Normen. Many Free Antinium have expressed the desire, and I have even received a ‘notice of application’ from the Armored Queen. Though she has not provided any [Knights] in person yet.”

Normen looked slightly overwhelmed by everything. He coughed hard into one fist with a rasping sound from his damaged lungs.

“I do not want any recruits until we have a keep or location at the least, Antherr. We lost Herove and Zanze when they were unprepared…even Embraim and Halrac, skilled as they were, needed support. First, a southern trip to any sites. Then northern. Then we settle a headquarters. Within two weeks at the latest. Agreed?”

Everyone nodded, though it wasn’t a vote. Durene was a bit worried because Normen didn’t seem as comfortable as Laken with all these big decisions.

She went back with him for a second helping of food to ask how he was feeling. They lined up in front of the kitchen, where Calescent had installed a small window that he could serve people directly through and participate in the common room experience.

“Normen, are you certain about the headquarters plan? It takes a long time to build stuff, even with a team. I’ve seen Beycalt work, and she said towers or keeps could take years, even with Skills.”

She only wanted reassurance, but the look he gave her was slightly panicked.

“I—am not an expert in managing organizations or building, Durene. I’m just a fellow who’s decent at fighting. I’m in over my head, to tell you the truth. I don’t know why I became a [Grandmaster].”

“You’re brave, that’s why! I just think we should be organized about this.”

Durene tried to reassure Normen, and he nodded.

“Yes. And if there were anyone with experience in management or building, I’d cede choices to them.”

She and he turned to look at the group.

Ama, the foremost expert in the group, had led an unsuccessful cult of less than ten [Necromancers].

Antherr had been born a year ago as a mute Soldier all his life before the Order of Solstice.

Jewel had operated a three-person Gold-rank team, which was promising! She just didn’t have any grasp of ‘regular money’ after paying adventurer prices.

As for Vess…Durene liked the former [Soldier], but she had had to help him set up a tent while they were camping. She sighed gustily.

“It’s a lot of work. Laken always delegates the work off to experts like Rie or Prost…you have to keep double-entry bookkeeping on your finances. As for building, you subcontract, but you need a trustworthy team and to look over their shoulders! Everyone’s happy to build wherever Laken points; he learned really quick to start asking questions, or they’ll build on bad ground just to please him.”

Normen gave Durene a long, appreciative look.

“You seem to know a lot about it.”

“Well, I’ve listened to Laken do it all the time.”

“I see. Then…I appoint you as our manager of finances and construction.”

“What? Me?

Durene’s yelp made several people in line jump. But Normen’s eyes had lit up with relief, and Durene realized to her horror that a half-Troll farmgirl had more experience than anyone else in the Order of Solstice.

They were doomed.

Durene was protesting to Normen, who assured her that she was just a consultant, but one he could trust, as they waited for food. Ahead of them, a half-Elf trying to avoid their attention stepped up to the window.

The Goblin [Chef] and Elia Arcsinger recoiled from one another as they stared at each other. The [Chef] scowled. Elia blanched.

“Is a lie. You didn’t eat my devilspice eggs.”

The [Spice Chef] stared at the deviled eggs with a coating of red dust on top. Elia licked her lips and avoided staring at him as she thrust out her tray.

“Another bowl, please.”

Calescent threw up his hands and covered his eyes. Since his hands were covered in his deathspice, he just howled at the ceiling.

She isn’t real!

A laughing Asgra wrote something down and slapped it on the counter. Elia picked it up as Normen read over her shoulder.

 

Order #31 — Dvled Egg bowl. Velan the Kind was right.

 

“You is come back. Order 29!

Elia wandered away, holding the piece of paper as far away from her as possible as Asgra slapped an order note on a bowl and shoved it forwards. The tray of jello wobbled as Durene saw a blue jello tower with whipped cream mounded on top of it. So precarious was the tower that it looked like it’d fall over at any moment, and the boy who lifted the tray up held it very nervously.

“Wait. You can ask for a jello tower with whipped cream and they give it to you?”

An incredulous voice sounded, and Sammial Veltras gave Mrsha, Visma, Ekirra, Kenva, and Chimmy a superior look.

“That’s right. Because I’m an important guest. Come on. I will share it with you.”

They hurried him into the theatre, out of sight of Lyonette just before she came striding downstairs. She waved at Normen and Durene with a harried smile.

“Good morning, you two! I hope you had a splendid night—I’ve taken care of your two guests already. They send their thanks. I’m so sorry, but I have business with…”

Durene was relieved the two Vampires had Lyonette’s hospitality. The [Princess] smiled, then turned and hissed.

“Asgra! Calescent! Are you two adding things to the menu?”

“No…”

Calescent took his hands down from his streaming eyes, and he and Asgra gave Lyonette innocent smiles. She raised her eyebrow.

“Really. Then why did I see the ‘Fortress of Doom’ cake being eaten by some of Rheirgest’s villagers? Made out of brownies? With red cherry sauce for blood? Tiny bones and bodies made out of sausage?”

The [Chef]’s chest puffed out.

“Must be some other talented Goblin [Chef], Miss Lyonette.”

“I’m allowing this order window that Imani suggested because it works and it’s faster, but no off-menu items, you two. You have a nearly unlimited food budget, but even an idiot can tell you’re spending too much money on what you’re selling.”

The [Princess] pointed at her eyes, then at Asgra, and the threat seemed to work because the Cave Goblin nodded meekly. Then rolled her eyes when Lyonette’s back was turned.

Calescent sighed. He was having a bad day. He’d spiced his eyes, been told he couldn’t make all kinds of crazy food, and Elia Arcsinger liked his most diabolical spices, even if it turned her red-faced and she sweated like a piece of bacon in the summer. He smiled at Normen—then his face fell.

“No. Not you two.”

The half-Troll girl was slightly hurt. She thought he liked her.

“What? I loved your breakfast, Calescent. Can I have another fish? With two—three potatoes?”

Calescent looked like someone was yanking teeth out. He took a pre-made fillet—then lifted a basket of fries.

“What about french fries? Mashed potatoes? Potatoes au gratin? Potatoes with salt on them?

“Just potatoes.”

The [Chef] stared at Durene, then put three potatoes on the side of the plate as if he were committing a food war crime. Durene took the pre-made plate with a smile. She didn’t know what he was getting so worked up about.

“We’re going to be on the road today, Calescent. Could I get some snacks? Some of those gingerbread fellows would do a treat.”

The [Chef] smiled at Normen, or he tried to. He produced a fresh-baked tray of gingerbread cookies, complete with frosted buttons and eyes, and raised them. A few even had tails or looked furry; a splendid accomplishment with dough. Normen eyed them, then he coughed.

“…They’re a bit naked, aren’t they?”

Asgra and Calescent looked at each other, then at Normen’s meaningful glance. Slowly, Calescent produced a tube of black frosting and drew a hat on one of the gingerbread men’s heads.

Instantly, Normen picked it up and took a bite.

“Fresh and delicious as can be, sir. Can I get fourteen for the entire group?”

“Yah.”

Asgra and Calescent watched Normen eat the gingerbread hat man and then stared at each other.

Some of the guests were so weird. 

After a moment, Bird came over, and Calescent strained a bunch of Acid Flies he’d been deep-frying with a great sigh of relief.

 

——

 

The Order of Solstice had a routine, Durene learned. As they waited for Sevil and Lapsey to get up, she observed the activities the members got up to. Normally, she just arrived for the action, having to split her time between Riverfarm and Laken.

But after a leisurely breakfast, Antherr got up and headed into Liscor. He checked on the Free Hive a lot, and he had friends in the Beriad.

“They are still engaged in Liscor’s 2nd Army, so I wish to spend as much time with them as possible. I will also train with some of the aspiring [Squires]. Even if they cannot join us. Jewel, will you come with me?”

He was one of the more gifted members of the Order of Solstice with a blade. Calruz had taught Antherr well, and Jewel was the only person better with her rapier. The two headed into the city, and Ama produced a spellbook.

“Then I’m studying with Rheirgest’s people until the time comes. They have really interesting techniques, and I want to upgrade Sillias to dodge more. Those stupid Earth Elementals clobbered him!”

Vess didn’t join Ama in studying from a book like Durene assumed he would.

“Don’t you study magic, Vess?”

“Me? Nah, I’m more of a spontaneous spellcaster. I think I’m technically a [Sorcerer] or a [Wizard].”

“How do you train then?”

For answer, Vess lifted his wand.

“I just shoot spells at targets and try to make them bigger and stuff. I’m working on [Fireball]. Seems fitting, right? Hmm—pah!

He frowned at his wand, then flicked a slow-moving ball of flames. That instantly earned him a shout.

“Outside, please!”

Vess scurried out of the inn as Lyonette gave him a glower. That left Normen and Durene, and he confessed his morning was mostly sorting through [Messages] to the Order of Solstice or trying to figure out where they were going to build their headquarters.

“What if we just settled somewhere nice and scenic? A plateau?”

“It can’t be ruled by any noble or city, and it should be defensible and have access to a road in case the door goes down.”

“…Okay, that’s harder. You said you wanted the High Passes, but…somewhere near a road and the High Passes…”

They were putting their heads together, and Durene was glancing out the windows to check the time. She wondered if the Vampires would be down at ten o’clock. Everyone had woken up late and taken their time with breakfast, but the couple could lie in as long as they wanted as far as Durene was concerned.

However, Lyonette kept glancing at Normen and Durene sitting together, and she came over after a few minutes of the two working.

“Durene, I don’t mean to interrupt, but how are you feeling after, um, last night?”

She knew what had happened; most of the inn knew from Durene’s drunken talk with Chaoisa and the small party afterwards. Durene gave Lyonette a weak smile.

“I’m…not happy, but okay. Thank you for understanding, Miss Lyonette. I’ll pay for my room—”

Rather to her surprise—or not, given Lyonette’s finances—the [Princess] waved the idea away.

“Oh, no, hang the cost. I hope Laken is doing alright?”

“I hope so, too.”

He had to be. He was the [Emperor]; Durene imagined everyone would be helping him feel better and giving him work. Lyonette nodded a few times.

“So all is well? Did I see Antherr and Jewel going to Liscor? For travel supplies?”

“No, just practice, Miss Lyonette. We’re set to go; we’d have to rent some horses for the day, since Chaoisa’s wagon can’t be transported to Pallass, but we’re set on supplies.”

Normen patted his new gingerbread hatmen, and Lyonette gave him a puzzled look.

“So…you’re just hanging around here?”

“Until Sevil and Lapsey come down, yes.”

Durene had the faintest inkling something was wrong, but that became full-blown worry as she saw Lyonette’s brows knit in sudden alarm.

“Come down? But…I checked them out of their rooms this morning. At dawn.”

“Huh?”

Normen and Durene blinked at her. Lyonette hesitated.

“You asked me to get them Grade 1 Passports to Pallass, remember? I put them and you on the daily list—”

Durene blinked, astounded and hurt.

“They already woke up? But we agreed to escort them—”

“They didn’t want to be a bother, and they were insistent. I think they wanted to beat the, uh, light, and they were nervous about being—”

Normen leapt to his feet with a curse. He called out.

“Vess? Ama!”

The Drake sat up with a groan; he’d heard.

“They’re already in Pallass?”

“Yes, they were getting horses! Oh no, I should have realized—that’s why you were all hanging about!”

Lyonette stood, flustered, and Durene looked around for the other two. Normen just turned.

“Can you find the other [Knights]? Tell them to meet me in Pallass! Durene, perhaps they took their time finding horses? At the very least, we can ask and see where they’re going!”

He strode for the hallway, and Lyonette shouted after them that she’d find the other [Knights]. Durene’s heart beat faster as she headed for Pallass. The two Vampires had left! Didn’t they trust the Order of Solstice fully?

Would you? She had to admit—it was a fair point, but Durene wanted to help them. She only hoped she and Normen could catch up. Then she realized something else.

“I’ve never been to Pallass before.”

Laken and she had never gone since The Wandering Inn had been connected to Riverfarm only relatively recently. And Laken didn’t like being in foreign cities where he was blind and at risk. Normen turned to her, and despite the stress on his face, he smiled.

“You know, I’ve never had a proper look around myself.”

 

——

 

Pallass, the City of Inventions, did not disappoint. It took a few minutes to get to Pallass; despite Liska moving them to the front of the queue, they had to reckon with the first obstacle of any visitor to the city, regardless of their intention:

Gate-Sergeant Kel.

The scowling Drake sat behind a small window he could inspect new visitors to Pallass from. He made each one present documents, checked them off a list, and barked at them until he was satisfied. Only then would a squad of [Guards] raise a portcullis and admit the visitors one at a time.

You had to stand in a waiting room filled with advertisements for activities in the city. There were even a few books, but the queue wasn’t bad in the morning. Normen went first, and Durene saw him enter the chamber where Kel began barking questions.

She got nervous, especially when she realized she was a half-Troll in a Drake city—but when she entered the room, the Drake only hesitated a moment.

“Name and papers.”

“Um. Durene Faerise. Here are my papers.”

She passed them through a slot, which snapped open. The Drake read from them.

“Place of origin?”

“Uh. Is that where I’m born or…?”

“Where do you owe allegiance or reside? If you’re outside a city, list the nearest city as well.”

“Er—Riverfarm. The Unseen Empire.”

He scratched at the papers, eying Durene with what seemed more like curious appraisal rather than hostility. Durene saw a few [Guards] staring at her then looking away when she glanced at them.

Are they going to bar me for being half-Troll? She was worried about the reactions she got from Invrisil, Celum, or just…Riverfarm. But the Drake seemed to be going through the routine.

“You’ve read the rules in Pallass? Specifically no littering, no disruptive events without prior permission, no importing of insects, unstable alchemical ingredients, or magic without a disclosure…we’re reading basic enchantments on your gear.”

“Um. Yes?”

“Alright. For the purposes of my documentation…can I confirm you’re, uh, a Troll?”

Durene turned red. Here it came.

“Half-Troll. But I—”

I don’t eat people? She hesitated, and Kel spoke.

“—You are on the list of approved demi-humanoid species, miss. I will add a provisional subsection to this passport. If anyone gives you trouble, show them this.”

“I am? Approved demi-humanoid species?”

Durene was so astounded she barely saw the papers come back with a stamp on them. Kel gave her a patient smile.

“Trolls, Ogres, Cyclopes; even Giants with huge provisional permits. That’s not to enter the city; they’re allowed to sit and trade. I pulled the books open. Just in case I needed them. There’s even a fifteen-page provisional form on Goblins for some reason…and not just as [Slaves].”

He stared at Durene with confusion that almost matched her own, then cleared his throat.

“Next! Welcome to Pallass, miss.”

 

——

 

Normen was waiting for Durene and getting looks for his beautiful armor as she stepped through. Durene instantly got looks as well; a Gnoll sniffed at her, and a Garuda flew down to stare, then flapped away excitedly.

However, no one screamed. Durene was baffled, but Normen just smiled at her.

“Let’s hurry to the first floor. But we might as well take a good look at Pallass while we’re here. No trouble with Kel?”

“No…he didn’t even bother me about, y’know, being half-Troll.”

Normen’s smile just widened fractionally.

“I thought not. He’s a stiff sort, but he knew Erin, and she liked him. She has good taste in folks.”

They began walking across the 8th Floor, and Durene stared at Dullahans and Drakes, Gnolls and Garuda, and even a few Humans clearly visiting. Most of them stared back with astonishment, and she saw a Drake walk straight into a light pole, but no one was afraid.

Just curious. Repulsion she expected, but even that was second to…

“They’re not afraid. They’re just curious.”

She didn’t get why. That was until Normen waved a hand to take in Pallass.

The walkways and roads were beautiful, smooth stone, beyond even Riverfarm for the way they had been carefully cut and set into the ground. Every building that Durene saw had glass and bright metal in it. No all-wood houses; magic lightposts and buildings packed together seemed claustrophobic to Durene, but it was also expensive.

So this was a city to rival Invrisil. When Durene caught her first sight of the city, an inverted pyramid with each descending floor larger than the last, she gasped. When she saw the elevators moving up and down, the smokestacks filled with different colors from the [Alchemist] huts, the water flowing up along the walls via a set of powerful waterwheels, and the giant metal foundries—

The City of Inventions was as varied as she had imagined, and it was so huge, filled with millions of inhabitants, that it made her knees go weak.

The height from 8th Floor made Normen go pale. Durene didn’t have as many problems with the dizzying heights, but he stepped away from the elevator.

“There’s not much cause for worry in Pallass, Durene. You’re as unique as a Djinni or a Beastkin, perhaps, but you can find a few of those in Pallass as visitors.”

“But I’m half-Troll. Dangerous. At least, that’s what the stories say. No one’s afraid—”

Normen shot her a semi-sardonic glance as he stepped into the elevator.

“First floor, please. Why would they be? They’re in a Walled City.”

It took Durene a moment to realize what that meant, then even longer to process it. Being in a Walled City meant you were safe.

Safe in ways a girl from Riverfarm couldn’t imagine. There were no monsters here, except maybe sewer pests. No [Bandits] attacked; there was crime, of course, but it was individual, and the Watch and army had a huge presence.

This was Pallass, and save for a literal army or an event like the Wyvern weyr—no one had anything to fear.

Durene envied this place. For a moment, she wished she had grown up here. But then again…she had heard Drake laws were strict and unforgiving. The Watch was everywhere, and she could see Pallassian [Soldiers] in their yellow armor too.

Pallass was both City of Inventions and one of the six pillars of Drake supremacy on the continent. Whether Durene knew it or not, her visit had already been logged in channels far above Sergeant Kel’s paygrade.

Pallass saw almost everything that went on in its aegis of power. And it, too, had ideas about what was best for Izril…or Drakes…or the Walled Cities…or just Pallass.

 

——

 

It took Vess a while to catch up with Durene and Normen. When he did, he found them on the first floor, asking some [Guards] about Sevil and Lapsey.

The 1st Floor Bazaar was a sprawling maze of cloth awnings and stalls in a huge central mass; it had once started as an impromptu set of day-traders with their wares, but had morphed into a permanent fixture of Pallass.

“Cocoa seeds! Straight from Baleros!”

“Saffron threads! Mass-grown! Buy them by the pound here or pay a gold piece per gram elsewhere!”

Faerie Flowers! I have three shoots, the most exclusive item in Pallass! I want to see real bids or nothing!

Normen was smirking at some of the yellow flowers on display for reasons Durene didn’t get as Vess strode over.

“There you two are. Good thing I asked if anyone had seen a tall, grey Human and a blue [Knight]! Sorry—Jewel is held up, and Antherr and Ama can’t make it.”

“What? Why n—oh. Antherr’s Antinium.”

Durene should have thought of that. Normen frowned.

“Why not Ama?”

“She tried, but she brought Sillias with her. They locked the gates, and Jewel’s getting grilled because of all of her artifacts. They passed me because I had a Luldem Passport, even though that makes me a small-time Drake.”

Vess scowled, though he seemed as keen to stare at Pallass as the rest of them. He peered around as Normen nodded at a [Guard] sorting through pages of a book.

“They’re checking to see if Sevil and Lapsey left. It’s hard to tell.”

“No kidding?”

There were four main gates, and the amount of people entering and leaving Pallass was insane. Each one had to still be checked in and out, and there were hundreds of [Guards] facilitating the process.

That made Durene feel a bit better about Pallass’ opulence and amazing sights; if she had to do this every time she walked in or out of Riverfarm, she’d go crazy.

“—Let’s see. Sevil and Lapsey? No such record, Mister Knight.”

The Drake looked up from the book with a huge sigh. Normen frowned.

“Maybe they’re still in the city?”

Or maybe they’re not using their real names.

Vess whispered to Durene, and her eyes widened. She turned to the Drake.

“What about a young man and a woman? Human? They might have—we might have used the wrong names?”

The Drake gave her an appalled look.

“Do you want me to sort by every couple that left the city this morning, miss?”

“Please?”

It was the kind of thing that made Normen and Vess look aghast at Durene. Both men clearly expected the Drake to spit in Durene’s face and throw the literal book at her, but after a moment of locked eyes with Durene, he bent over the book with a groan. Vess muttered to the other two, impressed.

“Wow, I can’t believe he’s doing it.”

“Well, it’s his job.”

The perks of being with Laken was the realization that most people could be prodded to do almost anything. Well, Durene wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, but she also had the suspicion that standing there and reading the book for them was easier than doing gate duty.

“If we can’t tell whether they’re in Pallass or not…we should split up. No, wait. We should have asked Miss Lyonette to locate the two of them using the [World’s Eye Theatre]!”

Normen groaned as he realized the obvious. Durene slapped her forehead too. They weren’t used to having such powerful Skills about!

“I can run up and check.”

“Give it a second, Vess. If they’ve gone, maybe it’s best they go in secret. We stand out like a sore thumb. I just wanted to know what was going on with their situation. Let’s ask Fierre when she’s about if—”

Normen was shaking his head, and Durene was just about to ask how far Normen wanted to go in defense of the Vampires. She had great sympathy, but…they couldn’t fight all those hunters, could they? They were a group of six. The Order of Clairei Fields had hundreds, maybe even thousands of [Knights] across the continent.

However, a huge shift in the bazaar made all three [Knights] turn. The hubbub died down, and someone called out.

“Hey! The Flying Gnoll is taking off again! Outside!”

“Wait! Don’t leave the city without—”

Too late. Everyone in earshot turned and, except for the shopkeepers, headed for the gates in a rush. Durene looked at her friends, then they too hurried outside to stare up at the walls.

Felkhr, the Flying Gnoll of Pallass, was a speck four hundred feet up. Durene saw a group on the walls looking down, waving—but her eyes were drawn to the figure with the hang glider he’d crafted himself, dressed in a blue bit of fabric that stood out against the sky.

—Not just him, Durene realized. As she squinted, she saw four other figures up there.

“Four?”

“They’ve added more fliers this time. Looks like two Gnolls, a Drake, and…a Dullahan? Hah! The armor will drag that idiot down, or they’ll drop their head!”

A Pallassian citizen, a Drake, made the amused remark as several Dullahans stared at her silently. But everyone was breathless, craning their necks upwards.

“I saw him on the scrying orb.”

It was a trite comment for Durene to make, but it was strange to think that this was the Gnoll she’d seen. It wasn’t a bad comment either; several Pallassians gave her approving glances.

“You’re lucky, Miss…Human. Felkhr doesn’t fly every day. He’s training the newest Fliers of Pallass. A national hero, you know. All the Walled Cities want him, but he got his start here, jumping off the walls. I know him personally; talked to him several times.”

A Gnoll sounded quite proud of Felkhr, and Normen snorted quietly as Durene nodded and smiled. The [Knight] leaned over and whispered in Durene’s ear.

“They weren’t so complimentary of him before he succeeded according to Miss Solstice. At least now the fellow’s got the support and adoration he deserves.”

It was true. Whatever his history, now a cheer arose as Felkhr spread his arms—waved down—then leapt from the walls.

Durene’s breath caught as he and the other four fliers dove, but they began to curve as their wings opened, and she saw them cease falling and enter controlled glides almost at once. Applause burst out from below them; Durene’s mouth stayed open, and she pointed up.

“They’re—they’re flying.

Durene knew flying was possible with magic carpets or wings and she had seen others fliers before; even now, Garuda were actually following the fliers past the walls as well.

But seeing people who should be landbound actually speeding through the air was something else. It made Durene’s heart beat a hundred miles a minute in her chest, and she wondered, for a moment—

Could I fly if I had that wing-stuff on? 

Surely not. Surely she was too heavy. But maybe…Durene looked around and saw countless faces upturned. With pride, wonder, envy, and amongst many, that yearning Durene felt.

“Wow.”

Nothing for Durene captured the City of Invention’s spirit more than that sight of a Gnoll turning in the sky, waving down at the cheering crowds below before doing a loop-de-loop in the air for the joy of it. He kept going, gliding into the distance with the other trainees, who seemed far less inclined to radical moves.

 

——

 

“Well, that was worth seeing. I guess Pallass does invent some stuff.”

Even Vess couldn’t hide his admiration afterwards. Everyone trooped back into the city as the [Guards] herded them inside and resumed entry and exit proceedings. It had to be a problem when people flooded out like that, and more than one [Guard] double-checked some suspicious people that might have slipped in or tried to exit in the rush.

“Hey, Lawrell, get over here!”

“One second!”

The Drake who was checking the book made a show of turning to Normen and the [Knights] to avoid work as much as he could. He was just about to close the book when something caught his eye.

“Sorry, Knights. I don’t think that couple passed through. I might’ve missed them, unl—wait a second.”

He frowned at an entry on what was either the first or last page of the book, then glanced up. Durene raised her eyebrows.

“Sevil and Lapsey? Male, female? Around my age?”

“On foot, I’d imagine. We were going to buy them horses, and I don’t know if Lyonette gave them anything.”

Normen added, and the [Guard] hesitated.

“Yeah, on foot, western gate. At—7:42.”

Durene guessed it had taken the two a while to get through Pallass, and they might have done some sightseeing. She nodded eagerly.

“That’s probably them! Black hair, er, red eyes?”

A glance upwards. Lawrell hesitated, then half-twisted.

“Yeah. Um. Sergeant Golsa?”

What, Lawrell?

A scowling Drake turned and stomped over. Durene frowned at the book, and Vess wandered away from Durene and Normen to stare at some of the saffron on display. The [Guards] didn’t notice Vess circling to glance at the book from behind.

The Drake [Sergeant] blocked Durene and Normen from seeing what she was looking at. She and Lawrell conferred a second and Durene cleared her throat.

“Is that the two of them? Lapsey? Sevil?”

“—No, miss.”

After a second, Sergeant Golsa turned to Durene and, to her surprise, closed the book. She gave Durene an unconvincing smile.

“Sorry, Lawrell was checking yesterday’s list. I don’t see any Humans coming through the gates.”

She ran her eyes down a few pages she flicked through fast in an unconvincing manner. Normen frowned, sensing the same thing Durene did.

“But he said—”

“Sorry, we can’t keep prying through the entry logs, even for [Knights]. If you want to enter or exit, we can help there, but we’re swamped. Move along!”

The [Sergeant] gave them a nod and practically dragged the other Drake away. Durene swore she saw Golsa hissing at Lawrell and looked at Normen.

“What was that about?”

He shrugged too-casually.

“It must have been an error. You know how the Watch is. Let’s go ask around then. Or maybe we’ve lost them.”

He motioned Durene away, and they walked into the bazaar, where Vess caught up after a second. Here, Durene realized Normen was suddenly looking sharp and attentive, in his element.

“Caught a glance at the book, did you, Vess?”

The Drake grinned at Normen, and Durene realized the [Grandmaster] had signaled him to move away.

“Yep. Good call, Normen. That idiot [Guard] was getting his foot mashed in under the table. He had the book open to the first page.

When Durene and Normen gave him quizzical glances, Vess explained as if it were obvious.

“First page. It means someone’s on a list or in trouble. If you’re at the gates and the Watch flips to that…I saw a few descriptions. Red eyes, fangs, western gate. On foot.”

“So it was them. Why were they on a list?”

Normen’s face clouded over, and Vess hesitated. He glanced at Durene, and the half-Troll girl began to get a bad feeling in her stomach.

“—I didn’t see any reasons listed. It just said ‘flagged’.”

“We’d better go to the western gate then. Are we waiting for Jewel?”

Normen checked the mace at his side. Then he turned to Durene and shook his head.

“No. Vess, get us some horses.”

They moved faster now, and Vess had horses for the three of them from a stable within ten minutes. The three rode out from Pallass, hoping to find the two Vampires’ trail as they asked people coming towards Pallass if they’d seen the two.

Durene had thought it would be a hopeless task or one they were far too late to. As it turned out, many people had seen Sevil and Lapsey.

Even still, the Order of Solstice was too late.

 

——

 

“A what?”

“[Bandit] attacks. On the road not ten miles from here. It was horrific.”

A Drake was waving his arms at Durene, as shaken as she was. He was not a mile out from Pallass, and Durene turned her horse around.

“And two Humans were part of it?”

“They were dead in the way. It was a dozen figures on horseback. Hoods and masks—they came down the road like a storm. Arrows flying, demanding valuables—the Watch chased them off, but those poor Humans were right in the way.”

“What happened? Is that normal?”

No one else looked wounded as Durene stared about. Several people did look worried, and they were exchanging the same warnings with people leaving Pallass. The Drake shook his head. He was a [Farmer]; he had a wagon full of Yellats, which was why Durene had felt comfortable asking him.

Normal? [Bandits] almost never pop up that close to Pallass. They must have been desperate [Highwaymen] or crazed; the Watch were here minutes later. But it was too late. Those poor Humans—the fellow tried to defend the girl and…”

Durene just stared at the Drake as she pictured Sevil’s face from last night. [Bandits]. Ten miles from Pallass.

“They killed him?”

“Shot him a dozen times with arrows.”

The [Farmer] drank some water and spat. Then shuddered.

“Everyone was screaming—the girl was shrieking, and I don’t blame her. I think she got lucky; they took a second shot at her but missed several times, then fled. They must have had bad aim.”

Or she dodged. Durene grabbed the Drake’s arm.

“Where is she? Down the road?”

She was turning, ready to ride hell-for-leather nevermind not knowing much of how to sit a horse. The Drake’s next words drew Durene up, though.

“Down the road? Are you crazy? The Watch took her into protective custody the moment they arrived, miss. She was incoherent. I expect they patched her up and wanted to take witness statements.”

“Wait—”

Durene whirled, and the Drake pointed.

“She’s probably in Pallass, if she has any mind to leave after that. I’d stay in the city forever after a moment like that, or go back home. Just so you know, that’s never—no, there have been a few attacks on the roads of late. Must be from losing General Duln. Now there was a good [General], Dullahan or not…”

Durene rode away from the Drake. She didn’t think of it being rude; her mind was filled, and she shouted.

Normen! Vess!

They turned, and Durene pointed back the way she’d come. None of this made sense. None of it made sense, and her eyes were suddenly narrowed.

Strange page in a book. Mysterious [Bandit] attack? And if Lapsey had survived…

Why hadn’t she come back through to The Wandering Inn? Durene stared at the walls of Pallass, and a great suspicion dawned upon her.

 

——

 

“She’s in Pallass? Are you sure, Durene?”

“Positive. None of that makes sense, least of all the [Bandit] raid.”

“How so?”

Vess and Normen were as shocked as Durene to realize one of their two charges was dead. Normen had been set to tear off into the distance, but Durene was convinced something else was at play.

“[Bandits] don’t just slaughter people, Normen. They’re like criminals in your cities.”

“Ah. I always assumed they were more…permanent.”

That was really funny coming from a former criminal, but Normen was a city-boy and seemed to think [Bandits] were below even his breed of…criminality. So was Vess. Durene explained as the two hurried through the 1st Floor with her.

“They rob and sometimes pillage, but a group on the main road? They’d be grabbing valuables or kidnapping at the worst—the [Farmer] didn’t say anyone so much as lost their money pouch.”

Normen’s eyes sharpened, and Vess swallowed.

“Uh, Durene. If it wasn’t [Bandits], that sounds like…”

Normen’s lips turned pale as he pressed them together, and suddenly he was looking in every direction.

“Didn’t you say that Vampires were known to the Walled Cities, Vess?”

“Yeah, but they haven’t taken a stance like all the northern nobles. House Byres and House d’Artien or whatever are shouting about hunts from the rooftops.”

“…Whereas the Walled Cities haven’t said a word. Despite hundreds of them passing south. Then again, Erin let them go via her door. I don’t know how many passed through the door to Pallass directly. Sevil and Lapsey might have been the first. And if someone noticed their red eyes and…”

Suddenly, the Walled City of Inventions didn’t seem so glamorous to Durene. She looked around, then strode over to the first [Guardswoman] she could see.

“Excuse me, we’re looking for someone who was attacked on the road a few hours ago. Lapsey? Do you know…?”

The [Guardswoman] was very helpful in that she knew nothing, but directed Durene to the Watch headquarters on Floor 1, which would know if anyone did. Durene strode into the office, and here was where she sensed the first undercurrent of something she really, really didn’t like.

The Garuda at the desk was as polite, if bored, as could be. He willingly got up to check for a report on a [Bandit] attack and a Human survivor.

Durene saw him casually pull open a drawer, find a few files—then pause. She couldn’t read Garuda body language, but she could tell when he looked up and stiffly told her that the matter was confidential.

“We know the—the person involved. We’re her friends.”

“I’m afraid it’s being handled by the Watch, Miss…?”

“Durene.”

“And we are not simply her friends. We are the Order of Solstice, and those two are under our protection. Were under our protection. We would like to speak with them at once.”

Normen put in softly, and the [Guard] blinked at him, then his eyes widened.

“Wait, those [Knights]?”

His eyes flicked to something on the desk, and Durene reached for the sheets of paper. The Garuda snatched up the file.

“I, ah, let me get the Watch Captain or someone more senior, miss.”

“What’s the problem? Just show us Lapsey. What did you…where is she?”

Durene was trying to keep her voice calm, but she was getting agitated. A suspicion was in her stomach. She glanced at Vess and Normen, hoping the two more familiar with Drake culture would reassure her. But Vess just swallowed nervously. When the Garuda hurried off, Normen whispered in Durene’s ear.

Explanation, condemnation, and warning.

“This is Chaldion’s city.”

 

—-

 

The Watch Captains of Pallass apparently rotated floors semi-regularly, and there were nine, one for each floor, on duty at all times. Which told you how massive Pallass was compared to Liscor.

Today’s Watch Captain for 1st Floor was Captain Qissa. Qissa was a polite Drake. If she knew more than the file told her, she didn’t let on. In fact, she barely glanced at the file.

“Your friend is in protective custody, Ser Normen. I regret to say it’s out of my jurisdiction.”

“Then who can we speak to? Her security is the business of the Order of Solstice.”

“You three are [Knights]…your authority is acknowledged, but not recognized within Pallass, Ser Normen. I can personally say I admired your actions against the Bloodfeast Raiders. But I’m afraid I can’t help with your request.”

The Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice stood there, visibly angry and upset, eyes filled with suspicion. The Watch wasn’t alarmed; there were three [Knights], but they were loitering around as the Watch Captain stonewalled him.

It was all as he had said, and the walls had ears that had picked up even his words. This was Chaldion’s city. Pallass, the City of Inventions, had both made and been molded by the Grand Strategist of the Drakes.

But one correction, please. A small one, but one that mattered.

This…was Chaldion’s city. He still lived, but the Drake who had defined Pallass’ leadership for so long was gone. Now, the systems that worked so smoothly had cracks.

For instance, the Order of Solstice should have never been able to find Lapsey’s whereabouts. It was the kind of thing an outside observer or internal one would only recognize by the failures.

The raid had gone smoothly; the two Vampires had been flagged by the [Guards], and the correct action had been taken. But a step off; the raid had been done in broad daylight, with witnesses, and the [Guards] had let the information about Lapsey slip.

What should have happened was that the connection with the Order of Solstice should have also been flagged; the two Vampires should have gone off and vanished quietly, and the Order of Solstice led in circles that never led back to the City of Inventions. There were cracks—and with one crack, one could dig deeper and find the truth.

Now that the Order of Solstice knew that Lapsey was in the city, it didn’t matter if Qissa did her job and refused to offer them information.

They knew she was in the city. More crucially, they knew where, or rather, where she was not.

“Hey, you three. What’s going on with Sevil and Lapsey? Sorry it took so long; Kel made me go through a magical inspection. Now I can go in and out so long as I don’t get more artifacts, but I had Ama check via the [World’s Eye Theatre]. She says she can’t find Sevil, and when she tries to find Lapsey…she just gets static. At least I was smart enough to find you three with it!”

Jewel caught up to the Order of Solstice with a smile, but that quickly vanished as Durene glanced at the Watch House and Normen stopped pacing back and forth.

“Someone has Lapsey. Pallass does. Sevil’s dead. I think they killed him.”

The Gold-rank adventurer stood there a second, blinking at Normen. Then she grinned uncertainly.

“That’s a bad joke.”

Normen just met her eyes. He frowned around the City of Inventions, then jerked his head.

“Come on.”

“What do we do? Search the jails?”

Vess was holding onto one wand as he walked close to Durene; she hadn’t drawn her greatsword or shield, but her fists were clenched. Suddenly, the Order of Solstice was watching every passerby, and it felt like eyes were on them.

Eyes were on them. Normen glanced sideways and frowned at a Garuda reading a newspaper. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to identify the Eye of Pallass watching them, but the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were used to foes in the shadows. He just kept his voice level.

“We leave the city. There is no way to find her if she is here.”

Sensible. The Eye of Pallass didn’t buy it for a second and made a quick call and flagged the Order of Solstice’s wariness. In the times before now, Chaldion or his team would have taken the request and escalated it into a further investigation and countermeasures.

But it didn’t go to Chaldion or even his replacement, Strategist Esor. Instead, it went to…the wrong person.

The note from the Eye of Pallass landed on the desk of Pallass’ new head of security. General Edellein, per his orders.

It wasn’t that the Drake [General] did the wrong thing with that information. Or the right thing in a suboptimal way.

In fact, he didn’t do anything with the information. One of his overworked aides filed the information away for the [General] to review.

He only checked his correspondence after dinner. And by that point—it was far too late.

 

——

 

Sevil was dead. Lapsey was missing. Pallass was behind it.

The Order of Solstice couldn’t have known; the Vampires had given them the slip in the morning, and by the time Durene had woken up, it had been too late.

While they’d had a silly breakfast, Sevil had been dead.

It was their first failure. They had lost members before. They hadn’t stopped Roshal from kidnapping Erin. But this was the first time the Order of Solstice had known there was danger, sworn to protect someone, and completely, ineffectually failed in their defense.

Durene felt sick. She sat in The Wandering Inn trying to figure out how they’d convince the Watch to let them have Lapsey. Antherr was just staring at his hands in shock; Ama was ranting.

“It’s just like Ailendamus. Some noble decides they don’t like you and you vanish. We should have told those idiots to wait for us. Why didn’t they trust us?”

“They just had a dozen [Knights] kill their friends and family, I bet. It’s a miracle they trusted us at all, and that was only because they were desperate. I knew Walled Cities were dangerous, but…”

Jewel murmured as she played with a fork. They had trooped back into the inn, told Antherr and Ama what had happened, and sat down. They had food: croissants and fruit as a snack.

No one had ordered it or touched the food. Ishkr was hovering around with a pot of tea, definitely listening in. Vess poked at a grape and tried to defend all of Drakekind.

“It’s…we don’t know why they were targeted. Drakes don’t just murder people. If it was Pallass doing all that on purpose, it’s their secret agents and stuff. Everyone knows they have them.”

“The reason seems clear to me. Do you have any actual doubts, Vess?”

Normen’s voice was flat. He didn’t seem distressed. He sat there, ice cold, and Durene realized that he was focused like an arrow, unlike the others. Vess shook his head miserably.

“No. But you’re not getting Lapsey back if they’re under lock and key, Normen. It’s Pallass. They have an entire army in the city for security at all times.”

“We have sworn to protect her. We have failed Sevil already. If this were a battle and I feared losing you all, I might suggest some of us retreat. This is no battle. This is…politics. There are ways. If this was Invrisil, I could try bribes or organize a gang. Pallass…”

Normen drummed his fingers on the table. Durene cleared her throat.

“What if we made a public protest? Tell Miss Drassi? She’s friends with the inn, right?”

Vess winced and shook his head.

“In Pallass? On the news? They’ll shut it down. They don’t have to cave to public pressure. And informing everyone Lapsey’s a you-know-what sounds dangerous. Especially if the Order of Clairei Fields gets it in their head the inn’s moving them.”

Jewel nodded.

“They already know. Or Pallass knows; how many of the ones Erin sent south survived?”

Bang. Durene jumped; that was the sound of Antherr hitting the table with a fist. He stood up, voice flat.

“I am useless here. I cannot enter Pallass. Inform me if there is anything I can do.”

“Antherr. Are you alright?”

Jewel turned to him, and the Antinium strode to the door.

I am unharmed. I must reflect on whether I am worthy of my class.”

Normen spoke as Antherr yanked the door open.

“You’re needed in your class, Antherr. Keep your hat on your head. We’ll tell you if we have any ideas.”

Antherr paused—then looked back and nodded shortly.

“I am ashamed.”

“We all are.”

The door closed, and Durene rubbed at her face. She spoke, her voice halting with a half-laugh.

“Is it…is it bad that I wish I were with Laken now? I wouldn’t change things for the world. But if things had been somehow different—”

She felt stupid, but Ama just patted her hand earnestly.

“If you were with him, you’d just be over there, and we’d be stuck with one less person, Durene. Come on, let’s think. How do we do something about Lapsey? Erin’s theatre isn’t that great; it can’t locate her.”

Normen’s voice was grating and low as the flames on his armor.

“It tells us she’s alive.”

That was true. But you could be ‘alive’ and be in a lot of situations that Durene didn’t want to contemplate. She snapped as she clenched a fist.

“Why is everyone leaping to murder Vampires anyways? Did no one think of talking? And—and why keep her alive and drag her away? What’s the purpose?”

The Order of Solstice didn’t know. They were helpless, at least in the arena of understanding Walled City politics. They needed, Durene realized, someone like Rie who understood political currents. Either that or they needed an army big enough to make Pallass listen to them.

Lacking either, they were helpless. That was until Ishkr, who’d been listening while sipping from a tea cup he’d poured for himself, spoke.

“I’m no expert. But I think everyone treats Vampires much like Trolls in the north, Durene, or Goblins. Threats on sight. As for Pallass—my guess is they didn’t expect to kill Sevil. They might have thought he’d survive the arrows. What they’re doing now, if I’m any judge, is interrogating her and adding her to Pallass’ special forces.”

The Order of Solstice glanced up. Normen stopped staring at the little lantern at his side. Everyone turned to the [Head Waiter], and Durene’s mouth fell open.

“What? How do you know that? What special forces?”

Ishkr scratched at his chin.

“I’m no expert, but I’ve read a few reports. They did it with the Raskghar. Remember the prisoners? Have you ever seen any of them? No? Well, they’re somewhere, and Pallass is ‘training’ them. My guess is as anti-Gnoll specialists, but they’re really careful never to bring them up. Most people have forgotten about them completely. Lapsey might turn into one of those operatives. Either that or they’ll dispose of her if they can’t use her, or they’ll turn her loose in the north to cause trouble.”

He sounded utterly convinced of these facts, and Normen sat up sharply.

“How do you know that, Ishkr?”

The two looked at each other, former employee and current of Erin’s inn. Ishkr gave Normen a nod.

“Guesswork. And overhearing a few conversations with Chaldion’s people. Most are good with secrecy spells, but they leave files around. Plus, even if they’re magically sealed, I can open them up.”

This was a revelation to everyone. Ishkr offered the teapot around and poured Ama a cup. She gaped at him.

“…What? How?”

“If it’s enchanted, I throw a rock at it. Or a spoon. It breaks the enchantment or sometimes destroys the document.”

The [Server] saw Ama’s look of utter disbelief and raised a paw.

“[Magic-Piercing Throw]. And [Avoid Danger: Inn]. Those two tend to keep me out of trouble even if there’s a failsafe. I have Skills, everyone. But this Lapsey situation is bad. Chaldion wouldn’t ever have allowed it if Erin was here and he was still in charge.”

He had a big frown on his face. Ishkr leaned on the table, thinking out loud.

“If Lapsey’s a captive, you need to lean on Pallass. Miss Lyonette can’t do it directly; she could get Ilvriss to help via Salazsar, but they won’t like her using the door, which is her only bargaining chip. Without Chaldion, that leaves either Saliss or Grimalkin as residents of Pallass with any sway.”

Normen nodded.

“Saliss was my thought. If we ask him…”

Another shake of Ishkr’s head.

“He’s not a military leader. I doubt it’ll work. And Grimalkin takes orders. You could try, but I have an idea. Can you give me…thirty minutes?”

“Sure. Can we help?”

Durene scrambled to her feet, heart inflating with hope. But Ishkr just waved her back.

“Just have some tea and write down the exact time that Lapsey was attacked. And the Watch Captain and [Guards]’ names that you spoke to, if you can. No promises. I’m not Erin. Miss Lyonette? I’m taking a thirty-minute break!”

He hurried off. The [Knights] sat there, blinking at this sudden help. But Durene felt suddenly relieved, and she saw Normen’s tight expression and posture relax.

“He’s no Erin. But he did learn from her. Durene, who was that first Drake we spoke to?”

They bent over a piece of paper as they waited, and Ishkr was actually back in eighteen minutes. He popped into view behind the bar, and Durene stared at him.

“You know, Gamel’s the [Eye of the Emperor] and he can do all kinds of weird things with his eyes. See long distances, through walls…”

“Wait, he can? Pervert. Remind me never to get undressed in Riverfarm.”

Ama covered her body protectively, and Durene reassured her.

“Don’t worry, he’s loyal to Tessia. Besides, Laken can see everyone anywhere, and he says it gets old.”

The rest of the [Knights] stared at Durene, and she paused to let that statement bounce back to her and went on as she turned red.

“—What I mean is, Gamel is getting powerful. He can blind anyone in a fight and stuff. Because he’s Laken’s personal [Knight]. But Ishkr is Erin’s [Server]. He just teleported four hundred miles.”

Vess blinked.

“Yep. Well, maybe he came back through the door first?”

The Gnoll gave them a little, innocent wave, and Jewel glanced at Normen. Both shook their heads.

Normen whispered to the others.

“There’s no way he got anywhere in Invrisil and back in eighteen minutes. Then again, he can slide anywhere he wants. And apparently break Drake code magic by throwing spoons at it. Can he do anything else?”

Vess scratched his head.

“He can clean really fast. And produce your order in a second.”

Durene narrowed her eyes.

“Anything else?

The [Knights] stared at Ishkr suspiciously. Suddenly, the Gnoll seemed a bit too bland and charmingly normal. He was, in fact, entertaining a request from Mrsha and Visma at this moment.

“Ishkr, can you clean our uniforms? We just got them for school, but someone tripped and fell when we were coming back, and they’re all dirty! While she was playing football with Ekirra. We hafta go now!”

Visma shot Mrsha a dirty look and showed Ishkr a set of four cute uniforms for Ekirra, Mrsha, Visma, and Kenva, which had a lot of muck on them. Ishkr tsked.

“That’s a problem. I don’t have a cleaning Skill for clothing. But wait a moment…Rosencrantz has one.”

“[Clean Apparel]. But he can only clean…”

“I’m on it. Normen, you’ll have a visitor in ten minutes or less. Rosencrantz!”

The Order of Solstice watched Ishkr vanish. They turned to the door, but no one came into the inn that seemed to be for them; just a few [Necromancers] of Rheirgest. Before a minute had passed, Ishkr was back.

“Here you go, Visma. Be careful not to get them dirty.”

“Yay! You’re the best, Ishkr!”

Four stacks of neatly folded and immaculate clothing were in Ishkr’s arms, and the children rushed to put on their school gear. Ishkr went back to cleaning the bar with a smile as Durene narrowed her eyes.

“Can Rosencrantz clean four uniforms with a Skill?”

“No. That Skill only works on himself if I recall right. Maybe he levelled up after the Solstice? Everyone did.”

Normen peered at Ishkr, who glanced innocently their way. None of the [Knights] bought it.

“Everyone did level—didn’t you get a Skill for your armor and mace, Normen?”

Jewel turned to him, and the [Grandmaster] looked embarrassed as Durene sat up.

“You didn’t use it in the fight.”

“It’s an upgrade Skill. [Forged By Deed]…the magic enchantment wouldn’t do anything against the Rock Elementals. I’ll show you later. You didn’t use your [Oath of Flames], Durene.”

“It only works if I promise to do something, and it sets my sword and shield on fire.”

Ama grumbled as she drank her tea down.

“I feel like we’re weak against fireproof enemies. Or things made of rock.”

“Isn’t everything weak against giant rock-people?”

Vess tried to smile at Ama, but they were all tense and waiting, at odds with Ishkr’s relaxed attitude. What had the Gnoll intuited? Well, when the door opened and Durene saw the answer stride in, adjusting some official-looking robes, she saw Normen slap his forehead.

“Of course.”

He stood up in relief, and Durene stared at the purple-scaled Drake. She nudged Jewel, who had a faint look of recollection on her face.

“Um. Who is that?”

Diplomat Nerul. Salazsar. I hear you have an issue for me, Grandmaster Normen? I’ve been doing quite a lot of high-level diplomacy today. Ishkr briefed me, but I’d love to hear the rest in the garden? This one seems like it could get ugly, and I’m strictly here in an individual capacity. I can make a stink, but we’re going to have to move fast, decisively, and have all our eggs in a line.”

The Drake was overweight and had a reddish tinge to the scales around his nose slits, which Durene took to be the Drakish equivalent of a drinker’s blush, but he moved like a brisk storm as Normen stood up.

“You can help us, Diplomat Nerul?”

“As a favor to the Order of Solstice? Of course! For a chance to tweak Pallass’ nose? I don’t need authorization from home to do that. But come, come. Answers first.”

They vanished into the [Garden of Sanctuary] as Normen strode for the door and Durene sat up. She gave Ishkr a huge smile, and he winked at her. When Nerul came out the door barely ten minutes later with the notecard of names and times, tucking it up his sleeve, the Order of Solstice followed him to the door to Pallass.

Predictably, Ama got detained at the checkpoint again.

 

——

 

Durene, Jewel, Vess, and Normen all followed Nerul out of the checkpoint as Ama raised hell with Sergeant Kel. Rather to Durene’s surprise, she noticed Ishkr tagging along as well as the other Gnoll. His sister, Liska.

“Wh—how did you two get through the checkpoint?”

The [Knights] were on the day-list, and Nerul had flashed his passport and gotten instant clearance, but were Ishkr and Liska just on the list at all times? Liska smiled smugly at Durene and her brother.

“It’s a door. I’m a [Doorgnoll].”

“Yes, yes. Now get lost. This is serious business, Liska.”

“Eat shit, Ishkr. I’m gonna watch. You can’t even get through a door without me.”

Liska sauntered down the 8th Floor, and Ishkr stormed after her, arguing with his natural weakness: siblings. Nerul was adjusting his uniform, which proudly showcased a badge with Salazsar’s insignia. He muttered to himself as he strode along.

“She might be able to open any door she wants, but the checkpoint isn’t that incompetent. Anyone see how Ishkr got past them? No? Nevermind. Alright, leave the talking to me. This is a raid. We move in and out, no fuss, no fighting until the target’s secure. Until she’s out of Pallass, this all reverses the moment someone with more authority than me comes along. If you do act, do it without getting yourself killed, but get in the way of those in charge.”

Durene’s back itched, and she glanced around the calm streets. Her voice rose slightly.

“How, exactly?”

“Be haughty [Knights]. In my experience, that gets away with a lot. Do honorable-ish things. I’ll signal you if I’m in trouble. Until then, silence and look imposingly upset.”

Durene could do the upset part, and imposing. She pointed towards the elevators.

“Should we find the Watch House on the 1st Floor and the Watch Captain on duty? Qissa, I think her name was.”

“No need. She’s not in the know. Anywhere will do, and here we are.”

The [Diplomat] knew where he was going and what to do in Pallass. He led them unerringly down the street, following signs that led to what was on each floor of Pallass: the Watch Barracks.

8th Floor’s Watch Barrack was smaller, probably due to the more residential crimes and duties as opposed to the largest floor and so many entries and exits. Nevertheless, a Watch Captain was on duty, and the [Guards] were milling about the Watch House.

Nerul entered, marched past the desk as a friendly Gnoll called out to ask him if he could be helped, and was halfway into the Watch Captain’s office before the alarmed Gnoll tried to stop him.

“Wait, wait! You can’t enter there! What’s wrong with—”

Durene didn’t know the Dullahan Watch Captain, a serious-looking man with a mustache, but she felt a bit bad for him as he jerked and sat up with outrage. He opened his mouth to snap as well, but Nerul turned and bellowed with a roar that deafened the [Guards], criminals, and everyone else.

How dare you touch a [Diplomat] of Salazsar on official business! Is this impeding Salazsarian affairs? I’ll have your badge! I lodged sixteen [Messages] with the city already; can’t I get a single response, or do I have to do it myself? You’re lucky I’m taking this case, or you’d have a hundred angry [Knights] banging on your door by the end of the day, ready to shove their collective lances up your behinds!”

“Huh? Wh—”

The [Guards] turned and spotted the Order of Solstice, who tried to stand straighter. Durene tried to seem impassive and not smile, and Normen had a very good glower on his face.

“What’s this about, Diplomat? Salazsarian business? Guardswoman, let him through.”

The Watch Captain was not happy to have a [Diplomat] barge into his office, but one glance at the Order of Solstice and he was on his feet. However, Nerul didn’t enter the office but spoke loudly, to the room, glancing at the sun outside and then at Normen.

“I’m trying to be fast, Watch Captain…”

“Menlir.”

“Menlir, thank you. And you may be assured that I have told the Order of Solstice they have no authority within a Walled City, but they’re rather agitated. [Knights] and their honor. I’ve managed to talk the rest down from storming the gate, and I assured them this is all a mismanaged event. But I need the poor lady your idiots arrested out here now so they can know she’s not being held captive or in chains.”

Nerul inflected ‘captive’ and ‘in chains’ in such a way as to hint that if she was at this moment, she had better not be when she was brought out. Whomever she was.

There were several citizens in the Watch House, and they glanced at each other with as much confusion as the [Guards]. The Watch Captain, on the other hand, took in Normen, whom he recognized, blinked at Durene, and then developed the worried look of a superior fearing incompetence among the lower ranks. Especially when said incompetence meant he might be in trouble.

“Diplomat, are you representing Salazsar officially?”

“Only semi-officially. Salazsar would hate to think the Watch was mistreating visitors to the City of Invention. But I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding. I need Lapsey, Human, released and in my care now.

The Watch Captain stared at Nerul, then picked up a speaking stone.

“One second. Can I seek clarification on…Watch Captain Menlir to all channels. Do we have a Human in custody? Lapsey? I have a situation on 8th…”

He listened to something that made his brows draw together with the same expression that Durene had witnessed on Qissa’s face. But before he could get more, Nerul spoke in a carrying voice.

“I’m sure this is all a huge misunderstanding. The poor girl was involved in a [Bandit] attack down the road. Her partner was slain—a day after his wedding! And she’s here in…custody? Hence the mistake. The Order of Solstice is personally responsible for her wellbeing.”

The Watch Captain was getting a different story, but Nerul was informing the audience what he believed to be true. Menlir’s eyes were flicking around, and Durene was trying to count the mistakes.

Mistake one: he’d not gotten Nerul into the office. Everyone was listening.

Mistake two: he wasn’t getting orders from the top, and Nerul was pushing him directly to respond in real-time with little information.

Mistake three: he tried to argue against Nerul with facts and logic.

“Diplomat, this isn’t a Salazsarian matter. And I cannot comment on anyone we have in protective custody. I’m going to have to ask you to step into my office and have a private word. I can summon a [Strategist].”

Nerul boomed over the poor Watch Captain like a thunderstorm of umbrage, and his voice grew louder just as a Garuda with a curious box-like device stepped into the room. She had an odd jacket, which read ‘Wistram News’ on the back, and Durene’s lips twitched.

Liska had gotten the door for them.

A [Strategist]? Are you mad, man? She needs a [Thought Healer], a [Mortician], sympathy, and someone to hold her hand! Are you telling me that the Watch’s first reaction to someone being attacked on the road is to lock them up? I am telling you, some idiot [Guard] too busy slapping his tail against his balls decided she was a problem and locked her up. This is a stain on Pallass’ reputation and the Watch! The last thing we need is for someone to catch wind of this and—dead gods!

He turned theatrically, saw the news crew, and threw up his claws.

“Nothing to see here! Move along!”

Nerul made a show of trying to block the Order of Solstice with his body, and both he and the Watch Captain turned a shade paler.

“This is Channel 2 of Wistram News Network. We’re just investigating a tip off about an attack on Pallass’ roads? Within ten miles of the City of Invention?”

The Garuda gave Nerul a long look that said she thought she had a story, and she activated the scrying orb that was mounted in a box on her shoulder. Nerul tried to dance out of frame.

“Watch Captain Menlir was just resolving the issue. Nothing to see here, miss. Menlir, the Order of Solstice is a [Knight] order, and this is going to go wide in the hour if you don’t get her—every Terandrian ponce with a feather in his helmet is going to be on this story like a flash! It’s about chivalry and such! Tell them to fish her out from wherever she is.

“Is something the matter? Did I hear something about someone being held against their will?”

The Watch Captain was trying to get someone to turn off the camera. He barked, face paling.

“This is a Watch matter! Diplomat Nerul, the authorization is—”

Nerul pretended not to hear as he held up his claws.

“It’s purely a matter of misunderstandings. Diplomat Nerul, Salazsar. You haven’t bought good gems unless they’re House Gemscale! Listen, this isn’t a news story, miss, so why don’t you turn this scrying orb off—it’s not about racism.”

“What about racism?”

The Garuda focused on Nerul’s face, and he swore under his breath. Nerul looked right, left, then tried to shoulder-charge Captain Menlir into his office.

“Excuse me, excuse me, no comment. Captain Menlir, if you’ll step into your office with me?”

He slammed the door shut, and Durene’s jaw hurt from trying not to grin. She enjoyed the moment—until she remembered Sevil was dead. Then she clenched her hands and instinctively reached for the hilt of her greatsword.

When she saw people staring at her, she almost let go, embarrassed. Then she caught herself and drew her sword an inch from the scabbard. The [Guards] reached for their weapons. Durene locked gazes with one as she waited.

 

——

 

Inside the office, Menlir regained some composure, which wasn’t bad for Nerul. The [Diplomat] knew he was on a time attack.

Even though he’d put Channel 2 on the story and he had lodged urgent complaints with Pallass—he didn’t have Salazsar to lean on, or public opinion.

Once High Command got wind of this one, it was likely they’d do whatever they pleased and hang any pressure Nerul could exert. Once Salazsar heard why that poor Vampire was in custody, they’d back Pallass in a heartbeat.

In truth, Nerul hadn’t known if this was the right thing for him to do. This was a military affair, and he was a [Diplomat]; his job was to back his city, and his city was anti-Vampire, even if they weren’t at the front of any decisions.

On the other hand, Ilvriss was tied to Erin Solstice, and Erin Solstice was an asset the City of Gems needed, whether they liked it or not. Nerul had done the math and decided it was worth the attempt.

“Diplomat, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but if you’d let me explain, that individual is a sanctioned enemy of Pallass. She was apprehended and put in custody, and the clearance is Class 4.”

Above Menlir’s grade and above Nerul’s unless the [Diplomat] had a really good reason. Menlir didn’t look happy, but the Dullahan knew the rules.

Nerul leaned over, and instead of his loud bluster, he adopted a low, intense voice as he put a hand on the Dullahan’s shoulder. That was a faux-pas in Dullahan culture, but Menlir had grown up in Pallass, and besides, it let Nerul loom.

“And I am telling you that, Class 4 or not, whichever idiot put her on a list did not think about the fact that you have an angry [Knight] Order who wants her best interests. Now we have the news and foreign powers looking into the matter. What kind of fool takes someone into protective custody after surviving a bandit attack?”

Menlir was chewing on his mustache, and the Dullahan whispered back.

“I don’t make the rules—”

“I don’t care who makes the rules. Those [Knights] are not going to let the matter rest. Unless you want a full-scale riot in Pallass, you’ll get her out and return her to them. Get on the damn speaking stone and explain that to whoever’s got her.”

“She’s a Class 4—”

I am trying to save Pallass from a diplomatic incident!

Nerul’s bellow might have bypassed the silencing charms on Menlir’s office. The Drake grabbed Menlir by the shoulders and shook him, shouting in the Dullahan’s stunned face.

This is my exact job! Don’t lecture me on public image and I won’t tell you the law! You’re lucky they came to me for help! You have five minutes before this becomes a news story. Suppress the news crew, get the girl out, and I’ll keep this from becoming a bloodbath!”

The truth was a powerful thing. Nerul didn’t lie once; Menlir was lucky that they’d come to Nerul for help. Because he sincerely doubted the Order of Solstice was going to let this lie.

Class 4 prisoners. Dead gods. It was one thing to put Raskghar into that kind of thing, and Nerul was still wondering what had happened to the children. But this?

This was sloppy. This was stupid. He saw Menlir stagger back and let the Dullahan think before raising a speaking stone to his ear.

Menlir had to convince someone this was an issue. Nerul put pressure on the Dullahan not by continuing to rant or making a theatrical show of checking outside…he took a seat, leaning forwards on his knees, and stared at Menlir.

Poised, tense, as if ready to move. As if each passing second were a countdown to a detonation, because it was. Just not in the way Menlir thought.

“They don’t want to release her.”

The Watch Captain spoke after one minute. Nerul bounced to his feet and grabbed the speaking stone.

—that [Diplomat] to drop the issue. This is—

“[Assert Authority]. Listen to me. You are about to disclose Pallass’ entire anti-Vampire operations, you mule-brained idiot. I am escalating this issue. Get your superior, now, and authorize the release.”

Who is this? You can’t—

“This is not the moment to quibble with the most famous [Knight] Order on Izril! This is one Vampire! Get another! I don’t care what intelligence you think you can get from her, walk away before you endanger the entire operation!

Get another. There had to be other Vampires in Pallass’ aegis that had been impounded. Nerul had not mentioned that to Normen. That was the aspect of diplomacy he chose to assert; the nature of the bastard he had to be.

The Order of Solstice could win this fight. No others. The idiot on the other end tried to argue with Nerul.

This is a security channel. Put this stone down and tell Watch Captain Men—

Nerul dropped the stone, yanked out his personal one, and spoke into it.

“Diplomat Nerul, Salazsar. I am requesting emergency upgrade Scoliphax-Iridium-Hecta-4526. Put me through to a [Strategist] on a diplomatic emergency. Recommending immediate action; Watch Captain Menlir is apprised of the situation. Remove your [Tactician] on communications. Respond.”

He turned to Menlir, and the Watch Captain stared at him as a voice chirped back.

“Diplomat, you are being escalated now. Please clarify?”

Nerul lived for the way his heart pounded in his chest, and he felt like he breathed fire with the words he shot across Pallass’ networks. But he was still racing.

Pallass really had lost a step with Chaldion. Still, there were truly competent people in the Walled City. He hoped he didn’t run into any of them. Or any magnificent incompetent.

What would Chaldion have done? He would have let the Order of Solstice escort the two damn Vampires all the way to wherever they wanted to go. And impounded a thousand more in secret.

Nerul didn’t always like Pallass, but he knew the Drakes needed good leadership. Manus was too war-focused; they did what they did best, but they had less competency in other areas. Fissival was all about magic, and Oteslia had good sorts, but they had a lot of internal politics weighing them down. Salazsar was all infighting too, but it had some good leaders. Zeres…the Serpentine Matriarch of recent years wasn’t her mother or grandmother or great grandmother.

No city was perfect, but Chaldion had been a loss, even if he was a bastard that deserved lead weights and a toss off the walls. What Nerul feared wasn’t just incompetence; he feared competency of the wrong kind moving into the vacuum.

He was just getting his way and explaining his position to an alarmed [Strategist], who was okaying his decisions, when his speaking stone buzzed.

“—in five minutes and I’ll meet you there. Thank you.”

Nerul was about to stride out the door and tell the Order of Solstice to hop to it before someone smart caught onto his play. He switched channels absently.

“Nerul, I’m busy. If this is—”

This is Wall Lord Eschowar, Salazsar.

The voice was coming through on a secure connection, admitted via the Drake spell networks. Nerul froze as he heard the old voice of the Drake, sharp as a bolt of lightning. He hadn’t sounded like that since Nerul had been a boy.

“Wall Lord? I was just—”

Real sweat beaded down Nerul’s neck as the Wall Lord spoke calmly.

Free the Vampire. You have clearance from Salazsar in an official capacity. Make one report via the secure channels. Tell me who responds fastest. I want an analysis on High Command.

“—Yes, sir.”

Nerul spoke shortly, and the speaking stone went dead. The Drake swallowed. Then he began to run.

 

——

 

Durene hadn’t seen people move this fast since Laken had lost his temper and shouted at them. The moment Nerul had come out the door of the office, he had a location.

“5th floor. They’re meeting us in five.”

“What’s going on? This is Channel—”

Watch Captain Menlir almost tackled the Garuda, and in the chaos, the Order of Solstice followed Nerul. The Drake kept up a brief monologue as he ran, panting.

“Dead gods, I hate running—we have to move. I pulled every lever I could. Pallass is convinced this is a diplomatic incident, but High Command might be onto us.”

Durene lifted nervous finger.

“Is that bad?”

“It’s bad if they disagree with me and revoke what we’re doing! Come on! Elevator to 5th Floor! Emergency diplomat on the move!”

Nerul charged into an elevator, bypassing an entire line of outraged citizens. Durene tried to squeeze in after him, but only Normen and Vess shouldered through; Jewel cursed, looked at the line, and pointed.

“This way!”

They ran for the central staircases instead. The two [Knights] charged down the steps, attracting a lot of attention and snappy comments. A Drake skateboarded past them, pursued by two [Guards], but the two were the fastest-moving people around beside that.

Durene’s lungs hurt after running down four entire floors of Pallass, and she looked right and left, wondering where on the huge floor—

“That way!”

Jewel pointed, and Durene wondered how in the vast city Jewel knew where to go. Then she saw the pink flame on Jewel’s hand tugging her. Was Normen doing that?

By the time the two caught up, they found themselves at Pallass’ prisons, and someone was being led out by a full squad of [Guards]. The moment Durene saw Lapsey, she felt a surge of fury in her heart.

The Vampire was in a weird piece of clothing that bound her arms up behind her back. She had chains on her arms and even a mask on her face. She wasn’t even walking; they were wheeling her out on a little stand, and her eyes were blindfolded.

“[Diplomat], this is all secure. We need to have some assurance that—”

“I will make sure everyone keeps their mouths shut, [Warden]. Did you torture her?”

A Drake glanced at Durene as Jewel yanked the eye covering off Lapsey. Vess was sawing at her bindings, and the [Guards] were staring at the [Knights] with ill-concealed surprise. And distrust. Were they the ones who’d attacked Sevil? Normen stood there, hand on his mace’s hilt, staring at them.

“No flames.”

That was all he said to Durene. No honor in anyone here. Vess’ head rose, and his eyes flashed.

“Nor from me either. Nerul’s got some. No one else.”

The [Warden] was hissing at Nerul.

“That is exactly what—”

Do we need a healing potion? You are not in charge here, [Warden]. I am. We’re escorting her out of Pallass.”

“No healing potion needed, [Diplomat]. Just interrogation at this moment.”

The Drake bit off a crisp reply, and Nerul turned.

“Get her out of here. I will meet you on 8th Floor.”

“Lapsey, it’s us. I can’t get this jacket thing off you. Can you…?”

Vess was sawing at the fabric, which might have been enchanted. Durene didn’t bother with the knife and seized the jacket with both hands. She heaved; the fabric tore with a loud sound, and one of the Drakes grimaced as the Vampire began to flail. Her eyes were wild and terrified. She tried to bite as Jewel removed the mask.

Don’t touch me! Don’t—

She stared at Durene, recognizing the half-Troll girl. Jewel grabbed Lapsey’s arm.

“Let’s go. Can you walk?”

“They killed him. They—

Her voice was hysterical. Her red eyes were rolling as she jerked around in her restraints, making the entire trolley rock slightly. Durene felt horrible as she looked at Lapsey. Then her fury rose.

These [Guards] are going to pay for this. Normen just glanced at the upset Warden.

“Get her moving, Vess.”

The Drake grabbed the trolley and began to move the Vampire as Durene and Jewel kept working on her bindings; Lapsey tore one arm free and scrabbled at her bindings, hissing.

“Wait, the sun!”

Lapsey shrieked as Vess began to run her towards the nearest elevator. Durene cursed and looked around, plotting a way up to the 8th Floor through the shade.

Meanwhile, Nerul was having a silent shouting match with the [Warden]—which he was winning—and Normen was looking in every direction.

For a moment, Durene thought they’d get away with it. Then someone flew downwards, shouting.

“What is going on here? Who—the Order of Solstice?”

Strategist Esor landed hard, cursing, and Nerul spun.

“Ancestors damn it. Esor!”

He moved to block the [Strategist] from the Order of Solstice, but Strategist Esor, whom Durene had never met, gave the entire scene a sharp look. His eyes found Nerul, and he snapped.

“Diplomat, you are out of line!”

“Am I? Or are you people idiots?”

Esor wavered as Nerul tried to body-block him. The [Warden]’s eyes narrowed.

“I was told this came from the highest channels, [Strategist]. I objected, of course—”

“It comes from me and Salazsar. Normen, get Lapsey out of here. Esor, calm your feathers and appraise the situation.”

“I didn’t receive a report about—and why is the Order of Solstice here? What’s going on? Where are the Eyes of Pallass?”

Esor seemed disoriented, and he glanced around. Durene jumped as a shadow moved, and a Drake hurried forwards.

“Strategist, we forwarded the reports—”

“Is this not approved by High Command then?”

The [Warden], Esor, and Nerul were all occupying different levels of authority. Esor was being whispered to by Nerul, and his gaze was focused, dismayed, as the Eye of Pallass tried to talk in his other earhole.

The [Warden] was direct. He stared at Nerul, the [Knights], and his eyes narrowed.

“In light of this, I object to the overriding of protocol. [Guards], take the prisoner back into custody while we sort that out.”

“Overruled!”

Nerul barked, and the [Guards] hesitated, but the [Warden] shot back.

“You are a foreign [Diplomat]! Seize her. Strategist, this is a Class 4 prisoner—”

Esor was barking at the Eye of Pallass, and the [Spy] was having a hard time defending herself.

Why is the Order of Solstice involved? Who didn’t flag this in the Eyes? We have clear protocols in place that Chaldion himself instituted!”

“Sir, we flagged it through all the correct channels.”

“It didn’t come to me. It must have gone to—Edellein.

Esor began swearing. Durene would have loved to puzzle this all out; it seemed like dysfunction that she was well familiar with Laken. Someone or some system was failing and causing havoc on the scale of an entire nation. However, the [Guards] were moving forwards.

“Halt!”

They were quick; they surrounded the trolley in seconds, and one grabbed Vess as the Drake reached for a wand. Jewel tensed, looking to Normen. The [Knight] put a hand on his mace as Nerul whirled to bellow at everyone present.

Durene reached forwards to stop the [Guards], and one drew a sword on her. Her skin prickled; she tensed and saw a pair of Gnolls watching her from an alleyway. Ishkr and Liska? The [Server] had a mug he was preparing to throw—

Then Lapsey exploded out of her straightjacket. Jewel and Durene had torn the fabric enough to get one arm free. The Vampire had done the rest.

Durene had been prepared to rescue Lapsey from her cruel abductors, even been steeling herself, darkly, for torture or worse in the hours Lapsey had been kidnapped. She supposed she’d expected a tearful bride traumatized beyond belief.

What she and the [Guards] were not prepared for was a whirl of claws and fangs that leapt on the first Drake [Guard], bit through his leather armor and into his flesh, and then shredded his leather gear as Lapsey began to beat the Drake with her fists.

Prisoner loose! Prisoner loose! Get her off—

The [Guards] reacted in a moment. One reached for their friend, who was screaming, and Lapsey kicked—Durene saw Vess duck, then twist and stare as the Gnoll flew over his head.

Dead gods, she’s strong! Durene tried to pull Lapsey off the Drake she was savaging. Another [Guard], a higher level one, barked.

“[Freeze, Criminal]! Now, gr—”

He ran forwards into a flying headbutt. Lapsey began kicking him as he fell down, then punched down awkwardly at his body. She didn’t know how to fight, Durene realized. She flailed, even windmilling her arms as she punched at the Drake. But her strength and fury were enough; she hurled the [Guard] aside and went for a third.

Lapsey almost impaled herself on the sword the [Guard] had drawn. Durene yanked her back and tossed her at Vess.

I’ll kill you! I’ll—

“Hey! Stop fighting! Stop—we have to get you out of here! Jewel, help!”

The Gold-rank adventurer tried to wrestle Lapsey back, but even with their combined strengths, Vess and Jewel could barely hold the Vampire back. Durene saw the Vampire lunge, mouth open and revealing sharp teeth—

The [Paladin] made a judgment call and chopped Lapsey in the forehead with one hand. Hard. Frankly, harder than she would have hit a regular person. But the Vampire was unnaturally strong and tough, and she blinked, went limp, and Durene barked.

“There. Get Lapsey upstairs, you two.”

The Vampire blinked at Durene, then seemed to see more [Guards] trying to get after her. Durene swung her tower shield off her back; she swung it around, making everyone else dodge back, then tossed it at Jewel. The adventurer raised it like a makeshift umbrella, and Vess pointed.

“The elevator. Come on—”

They backed up as Lapsey hesitated, then turned. Without a word, she let Vess and Jewel hurry her away, but her eyes were on Durene. Watching her with anger and grief too large for words.

Durene got that. She gave Lapsey a short, unsmiling nod. Then slowly turned.

“I said halt!

The [Guardsman] not taken out by Lapsey’s attack had just finished checking on his colleagues’ wounds, which were thankfully shallow. He strode after the trio heading for the elevator.

Durene grabbed his shoulder and shoved the Drake back. He went stumbling backwards, and his buddies, six of them, whirled.

“What are you doing?”

Durene wondered that herself. She stared at her hand, and it made a fist. Then she glanced at Normen. She was wondering if he’d give her a look of disapproval or orders to control her temper or do something smart instead of the stupid plan she had in mind.

Instead, he gave her an imperceptible nod and smile. Durene hesitated—then she raised her voice.

“I am Durene Faerise, Knight of the Order of Solstice! And you, sir, are no sir, because you have mistreated the woman under my protection. Instead of taking care of her, you arrest someone attacked by [Bandits]? I’m…I’m honorably upset at you!”

Her voice rose until it was a shout. People already staring at the odd scene turned to Durene. The Drake gaped at her.

“What?”

He had clearly never met a [Knight]. He eyed her armor with vague recognition, then tried to stride past her.

“The [Warden] said halt! In the name of—”

He was glancing at Durene again, wary of a grab, but she didn’t grab him. Instead, Durene was busy tugging off one of her gauntlets. Then she hit the Drake in the face with it.

Lapsey, standing in the elevator, raised her head. Jewel and Vess, fumbling with the controls, looked up. Ishkr winced. Liska sipped from a milkshake.

The Drake [Guardsman] wobbled.

Agbh.

He made a funny sound and clutched at his face and teeth, which were bleeding. It occurred to Durene that when people slapped each other in the face with gloves, they probably did it with leather gloves or silk, not pieces of metal.

What are you doing?

The other [Guards] bellowed at her and reached for their blades. But Durene just put her gauntlet back up as the Drake staggered upright, drawing his sword.

“I am affronted. Honorably, that is. I challenge you all to a…bout of fisticuffs. In the honor of Lapsey.”

“What? Arrest her for impeding a [Guard] and—

The outraged [Guard] with the bleeding mouth turned to his fellows, which was a mistake. Because Durene’s next action was to punch him in the face.

Ooh. Durene felt the impact and saw the Drake’s head snap back. She tried to remember when she’d last been in a fight with her fists. She’d been eleven, and one of the teenage boys in Riverfarm had picked a fight with her.

Back then, she’d hit him hard enough to make him puke and gotten shouted at. This time—the Drake rocked back, fell over on his tail, and stared at the sky, eyes rolled up in his head.

“Yaiss!”

One of the [Guards] shouted in horror. The others stared at Durene.

“You are attacking a [Guard] of Pallass!”

“No, I’m being honorably mad. Have at you.”

Durene eyed the sword the nearest Gnoll was waving at her. Then she thought of Sevil. Dead. Lapsey’s terrified face. And the fact that she had armor on.

The second punch had a lot of impact behind it, but Durene still didn’t hit them…

Like she thought they deserved. Even so, the Gnoll did that thing where he fell over and didn’t get back up. His helmet was dented in a bit, and Durene wondered if they weren’t good at taking punches. She’d seen bare-knuckle fights in Riverfarm, and they went on a while unless one person really landed a good hit.

Drop your weapon! Drop your—

The other [Guards] began shouting at Durene as they backed away from her. Then they realized her ‘weapons’ were her fists. One bumped into an azure [Knight] watching the rest of the Order of Solstice get away. The Drake spun, and Normen caught their blade with his own gauntleted hand.

“I think, sir, that Durene speaks for the entire Order of Solstice, as it were. Our honor is offended. Diplomat Nerul? You did your best. These are purely the consequences.”

Normen spoke to the [Diplomat], who put his hands on his cheeks theatrically and sighed. Then Normen drew his head back and headbutted the Drake [Guard] in the face as hard as he could. Durene strode forwards. She was not always smart or clever, and she didn’t know what to do a lot of the time and assumed other people knew better than she did.

But in this moment—she believed in her heart of hearts that the right thing to do was to give every [Guard] and the [Warden] the beating of their lives.

And that’s what she began to do.

 

——

 

A brawl had begun on the 5th Floor. Well, it started out as a massacre.

The [Guards] accompanying the [Warden] were fighting two [Knights] in armor. They had swords, but Nerul had a voice, and he was screaming at them that, if they killed either [Knight], it would be a diplomatic incident.

So they tried fists, truncheons, batons—and found that when you tried that on an angry man with green flames or a giant half-Troll woman in armor…they were a lot harder to subdue than your average, unarmored drunk.

Esor flapped around, demanding all sides stop, but Durene and Normen demolished the squad of seven in seconds. Durene took a bit longer with the [Warden].

Put me down! Arrest her! Arr—

She threw him at a bunch of [Guards] racing out of the prison. They slowed down, and Durene raised the Fist of Honor—which she had used to break at least a few noses. She was filled with not so much righteous wrath as just wrath.

She had never considered anyone in more just need of punching than the Watch reluctantly approaching her. Unfortunately, that was when things got hairy. Because Durene had forgotten a crucial fact.

Hoi there! Someone’s beating down the Watch! Hey, 5th Fighters, get over here!”

“Soldiers.”

Normen spoke as he stopped kicking a Drake in the groin. Durene spun and blinked as a bunch of really burly Drakes ran towards her. They were dressed in civilian clothes, but they had that straight-backed posture and shaved neck spines that said [Soldier] to her.

“Back off. I’m fighting a duel of honor.”

The lead Drake had bright, pinkish scales and a tattoo of some kind of clenched Drake fist on his arm. He gave Durene a blink.

“Put down your fists, miss. This is a safe city.”

“This is an affair of honor, sir. These fellows deserve it.”

Normen punctuated that with a stomp on a Drake’s fingers as they tried to reach for their sword. The crack made the [Soldiers] wince, and the one in front put up his fists with a sigh.

“On my break too. Come on, lads.”

Nerul had been watching the brisk scrap with approval, but he raised his voice urgently.

“Alright, that’s enough. Stand down, Durene, Normen!”

The two [Knights] ignored him. Lapsey wasn’t out of Pallass yet by Durene’s count, and she raised her fists as the first Drake moved towards her, keeping his stance low. She had armor on, and big as he was, she was bigger.

“This is the least of what is deserved, Diplomat.”

Normen growled, and Durene saw the flames of honor burning bright on his armor. Four Drakes and a Gnoll were spreading out warily around him; only one was after Durene. She felt a bit insulted; it was a squad of five. She threw a punch as Nerul shouted.

Yes, but those aren’t [Guards]! That’s—”

Durene’s punch missed the Drake, who leaned out of the way, pushing her fist out of line. Then he grabbed it. Durene felt a pull on her arm and stumbled as the Drake heaved—then the world rotated.

“Huh?”

All the air left her body as Durene hit the ground with a crash of metal. She stared for a second, then tried to roll up. Someone hit her in the face with a knee, and she stumbled; she punched, missed the pink Drake, who hit her in the chest, the stomach, and then the face again.

“[Armorpiercing Blows].”

It hurt. A lot. Durene swung a fist and missed. She kicked; the Drake captured her leg under an armpit, then kicked her other leg as she flailed. Down she went, and then the Drake sat on her chest and began to punch her.

Get off of—

Durene threw the Drake off, to his clear surprise, and he rolled upright as she staggered to her feet. Her head was ringing. She threw a wild punch as the Drake lunged and took her down a third time.

“—The Sinew Magus’ trainees.”

Nerul sighed and covered his eyes. There was no mistaking the distinctive [Soldiers] of Pallass’ army that fell under Grimalkin’s care. Durene tried to get up as the Drake pinned her arm and tried to wrench it up; she heaved and threw the Drake off of her again, but he just blocked one punch and gave her a return kick.

The bewildered half-Troll girl had never run into someone who practiced fighting like the 5th Fighters; the Drake kept coming at her, and she felt like she was hitting air. If she tried for a grab, he’d tackle her, and if she got on the ground, he’d jump on her and begin punching her.

“Surrender.”

That was his terse advice to her after a minute of Durene’s head ringing. Her response was to growl.

“Never.”

The Drake shrugged.

“Okay then.”

His fist hit her in the chin so hard and fast that Durene never saw it coming. [Flash Punch] and…

She fell onto her back, and the Drake approached warily. Durene lay there a second, and a thought crossed her mind.

I need more training. The Drake [Soldier] made her feel silly and slow. He advanced, and Durene whispered as she lay there.

I’ll get Lapsey out of Pallass safely.

[Oath of Flames].

Her armor ignited, and the Drake springing towards her broke off with a curse. That moment of wavering was all Durene needed; she grabbed his leg as she sat up.

Instantly, he hit her in the face with a one-two combo, threw an elbow onto her arm, and tried to pivot into a kick to her face. Durene’s head hurt. She felt like he’d dented her armor. She stood, twisted—and then threw the Drake.

“Ah—”

He stared at her for a second, and she saw him flying, eyes wide, over the heads of the civilians. Then he tried to catch himself; he bounced over a roof, grabbed for the tiles—then went over the balcony of the 5th Floor.

“Oops.”

Durene saw the [Soldier] falling, eyes wide, before Esor dove after him.

[Emergency—

Durene didn’t hear a scream, only panicked shouting. She staggered, rubbing at her head, then had a terrible thought.

“Normen!”

He was taking on four of them at once! Durene whirled and saw a Gnoll on the ground, two Drakes backing away, bruises on their arms and faces, and the third Drake landing a punch on Normen’s face.

The [Knight] of Solstice took the punch with a grunt, pivoting slightly as it snapped his head back. He raised a fist, and Durene saw the other [Soldier] tense to dodge. He began to spring left, faltered—swore—

Then he swept Normen’s fist aside. The Drake missed the savage kick to his kneecaps, and when he countered, Normen ducked the punch. He strode forwards, throwing heavy punches against the Drake, who lacked the armor protecting Normen. Uppercut, stomach punch, knee to the groin—

It was a brawl, not a fistfight like Durene had been losing. One of the other [Fistfighters] tried to rise, and Normen kicked them in the face.

He was still aglow with honor’s flame. Which was at odds with how he fought. Something was…Durene squinted at the [Soldiers]. They seemed to be faltering.

“Status effect! Status—”

The Gnoll tried to tackle Normen and took the [Knight] off his feet. They were going for a pin when his teeth snapped together, nearly taking the Gnoll’s ear off. Disconcerted, they jerked back, and Normen’s helmet crashed into the Gnoll’s head.

[Bone-rattling Headbutt].

He stood up as the Pallassian soldier collapsed. Someone leapt onto Durene’s back, and she swiveled, grabbing them. She hurled them off her before they could try to choke her; Normen spun.

“Steady. Regain formation. Mobility’s limited—”

The squad of Grimalkin’s [Fistfighters] was backing up, realizing that this was not a regular threat. Durene heard a shrill whistle as one called for aid; she groaned as someone launched into a flying kick that hit her in the stomach.

Then she grabbed the leg, turned, and hurled the screaming Drake off the 5th Floor. There were shouts of horror, and several Garuda dove after the [Soldier].

It was a working tactic. The 5th Fistfighters of whoever-they-were backed away from Durene. She advanced, feinting grabs, then just kicked another [Soldier] when they stumbled in backing away.

The entire area was lit in searing green flames. Normen’s fire was spreading, and the crowd of people calling for the Watch or more soldiers stared as Normen took out three more [Soldiers]. Durene thought she was dangerous, but it occurred to her that she hadn’t ever seen Normen fighting seriously since he’d gained his new class.

[Armor-piercing Low Blow]—his kick made a Drake grimace, despite the block, which turned into a [Flash Blow] that went above the guard. The Drake stumbled and went down; he’d taken a punch to the face and a [Free Elbow] in quick succession.

A grab to Normen’s arm went bad as he threw another punch. A [Heavy Blow] sent the second Drake spinning with a missing tooth, and the last [Soldier] shouted a Skill.

“[Ogre’s Punch]!”

Normen blocked with one arm, rocking back a step, then, as the Drake tried to throw another Skill, Normen countered.

“[Minotaur P—”

A [Knight’s Riposte] was faster. The kick hit the Drake in the stomach, and the [Soldier]’s lunch came out involuntarily. He was mid-spew when Normen decided the honorable thing to do was to uppercut his jaw.

Watch! Call the Watch!

Fire on Floor 5!

“Is that the Order of Solstice? Why are they fighting [Soldiers]? What did those idiots do?”

By now, the situation had escalated well past a brawl. Normen turned calmly as a group of the Watch coming out of the prison slowed down, aiming crossbows at him and Durene. The [Paladin] was about to suggest they’d done their job and distracted everyone long enough; she didn’t want to know how much damage a crossbow would do to her, armor and thick skin or not.

However, it seemed like fortune was on their side.

Don’t fire, you idiots! Civilians in crossfire!

Nerul checked the [Guards]’ advance, and Normen began to stride for the group grimly as they switched to melee weapons with every sign of reluctance. The fire was continuing to spread. Honor’s flame was burning nearly fifty feet around Normen, and Durene glanced worriedly at some of the downed [Soldiers]. They didn’t want to kill the [Soldiers]…

Wait a second. No one was burning. And honor’s flame wasn’t that hot. There was no smoke rising from it either; the flames were two feet high in places, but the [Soldiers] flinching away from the flames literally burning on their chests didn’t seem to be in physical pain. Though they were grimacing.

What were the flames doing? Before she could check, Durene felt water spraying her from above and looked up.

A jet of water arced up, trying to douse the flames, but it didn’t even make the emerald fire die down. Normen kept walking as dizzying little rainbows shimmered around his feet and off his armor.

It was beautiful, and he might have looked like a [Fairy Knight] or some avatar of rainbows and friendship if not for the blood dripping from his gauntlets’, his burned face, and the look of murder he wore.

“Surrender now or—”

One of the [Guards] was aiming a spear at Normen when Durene seized her arm. She picked the young Drake up and felt bad for a second; the [Guardswoman] screamed and seemed Vess’ size and age.

Durene pivoted to throw, and several Garuda leapt into the air.

A hand like steel caught her arm. Durene strained and felt someone drag her back. A leg inserted itself with deftness precisely behind hers, and she looked down at a Drake as big as she was, if not as t—

Grimalkin threw Durene in a single motion, and the [Paladin] felt the entire world rotate until she slammed into something. A wall? The floor?

Wall. She landed on her head and scrabbled around on the ground for a second until she figured out where ‘up’ was. What had hit her? What had hit—

She looked up just in time to see the green Drake, the Sinew Magus of Pallass, putting the [Guardswoman] on her feet. He strode towards her, and Durene sat up groggily.

“Wait—”

She knew him, right? Muzzily, she got up and swung a fist in alarm. Grimalkin caught the fist.

“Stand down.”

“Huh?”

Durene tried to yank her fist back. She could not. His arm felt like an immovable object. Durene yanked again, alarmed now.

She had never, ever run into anyone stronger than she was. She grabbed for Grimalkin’s arm reflexively, and he caught her other wrist. Durene tried to force his arms apart. Then kick him—

He stepped past her again, collapsing her leg as he threw her down; the motion was simple and effortless. When she tried to get up, he let her.

“[—und Spell: Quake].”

She threw a mad punch, and he knocked it aside, then hit her in the chest.

The entire world shook. Durene’s armor rattled. Her bones rattled. She swayed, saw him raise a f—

Grimalkin’s second punch took Durene off her feet. She fell over with a thud that made the audience wince, then cheer. Grimalkin saw Durene’s eyes flickering. She wasn’t out, despite the punch to her jaw. However, Durene wasn’t sure she could take the Sinew Magus on, even if she could figure out where ‘up’ was. Her entire world was spinning in every direction.

Sinew Magus!

The explosion of voices made Ser Normen turn. The Watch and the [Soldiers] backed away in evident relief as Pallass’ national hero strode forwards, face grim. He avoided the green flames, eying them suspiciously as he called out.

“Ser Normen. Stand down. You’ve attacked Pallassian soldiers and the Watch. You may get away with mere imprisonment if you surrender now. If not, I will be forced to take you into custody.”

The [Grandmaster] of the Order of Solstice turned, flames still blazing in surreal, flickering tongues of fire that burst upwards into shards of dying flame.

Or…Durene stared bleary at Normen, and her upside-down view of him made her think, for a moment, that the flames were like green tears dripping down into the sky.

“Grimalkin.”

“What are you doing, Ser Normen? This is not Liscor. You cannot cause a riot. You are no Erin Solstice.”

The [Sinew Magus]’ voice was calm, but his body was tense. His eyes flicked to Nerul, then the Watch and prison behind Normen. Grimalkin’s brows drew together as his analytical mind presented him with a number of scenarios. But he was a son of Pallass first and foremost.

“Stand down.”

“You don’t even know what your city has done.”

Normen’s voice was faraway, tired. Yet smoldering with a growing ire. He turned and raised his fists.

Not his mace. However, the meaning was clear. Grimalkin slashed a claw through the air.

Lower your hands, Normen. I don’t want to hurt you.

A strange hush fell, despite the crowd. The Sinew Magus was a guest of The Wandering Inn. Whether or not many here knew it…

Rufelt pushed through the crowd as Felkhr, climbing the stairs after his flight, turned. They stared at the [Knight] and the [Mage] squaring off. Grimalkin’s eyes were filled with reluctance. Normen stared into the depths of the Sinew Magus’ gaze.

“You’re not even going to ask what they did, Grimalkin? Are you a Drake or a dog? I should break the heads of every single [Guardsman] in Pallass.”

“You’re overwrought. Let me cast a calming spell—”

The Sinew Magus pointed and then jerked; his claw burst into green flames. Swearing, he swung his hand, scattering the flames. Normen advanced a step, and Grimalkin swung his fists up.

Now, the air was tense. The two men looked at each other as Normen spat. Flames sputtered up as he cracked his neck.

“Get out of my way or on your head be it. My hat is filled with wrath.”

“You have no right to start brawls and chaos in this city. There are laws.”

There is also right and wrong.

The Grandmaster bellowed, and Grimalkin wasn’t the only person who flinched. The [Sinew Magus]’ eyes swung to the [Warden], and they were uncertain for a moment. Then his stance firmed.

“Don’t do this, Normen.”

For a reply, the [Knight] simply took his helmet from his head. He stared into it a moment, then lifted burning eyes to Grimalkin.

He threw his helmet, and the [Sinew Magus] shouted a spell. Then flames were raining down across Pallass.

 

——

 

He was filled with wrath until his hat left his head. Then Normen Callsten was calm. The flames of honor burning across his armor were not hot; honor was not heated.

The [Sinew Magus] blocked the helmet, which exploded like a fireball. Flames rained down, and Grimalkin raised a hand, conjuring a shield to block them from striking the crowd, who scattered.

It wouldn’t hurt them. Normen’s fire wasn’t the bitter cold of sadness, nor the painful blaze of glory. He was the [Knight of Honor’s Flame]—and his fire was the weakest of the Order of Solstice.

Normen wondered how many of them knew it. He lifted his fists as Grimalkin muttered an incantation. When he attacked, the Sinew Magus vanished, closed the dozen feet in a second, and threw a single jab.

Beautiful. Normen could neither block nor react fast enough. He took the jab and nearly went over as his head rang like a bell.

Honor kept him upright. Grimalkin swayed out of a big punch, shoved Normen’s second swing aside, and knocked the [Knight] flat with a leg sweep. He was a skilled battlemage. Normen was a streetfighter.

Honor didn’t make you stronger, faster, or smarter. Normen landed and saw Grimalkin pointing a finger down at him. Web spell—

[The Bonfire Rages]. A geyser of flames erupted from Normen, and Grimalkin leapt back, carrying himself out of the range of them. He landed amongst the scattering of flames on the ground, where [Soldiers] and [Guards] still lay, and glanced down at his feet, frowning. Green flames everywhere; he had avoided them so far, but it was impossible to keep doing so.

Normen rose slowly, shaking his head. Grimalkin hurled two spells at him; webs which burnt away before even touching the [Knight]. Then an overloaded [Arrow of Light] spell. The arrow made Normen’s armor shudder, and he rocked as he strode at the Sinew Magus.

It hurt. Honor wasn’t a shield against anything. It was, perhaps, useless. You could live a life without honor. It could make you do stupid things, like fight the Sinew Magus of Pallass in his own city.

But what was he supposed to do? Turn away? Sevil was dead. A man Normen had not really known. Murdered in open daylight. Who would hold Pallass to account?

Normen could not. He knew it. Rationally, he knew that he could only hope to escape Pallass after this. He was buying time for Jewel and Vess to get Lapsey out of here.

But Grimalkin knew better. Normen tilted his head as Grimalkin began to circle, then stumbled. The Sinew Magus didn’t want to get into range with the [Knight]. Grimalkin frowned at his feet; there were green flames clinging to his boots.

Normen punched his fists together, and green sparks filled the air. The Sinew Magus raised a foot, grimacing, and then he felt it.

His feet didn’t want to move. The flame of honor clung to it, and the ground. It was…sticky? Heavy? The flames clung to Grimalkin, just like the confused [Soldiers]. The [Sinew Magus] couldn’t [Flash Step] away.

Honor didn’t matter if you had none, craved none. Otherwise—it clung to you. It was heavy. And if Grimalkin had believed he had just cause, perhaps he could have shaken the flames loose.

—When he looked up, Normen saw that green fire in the Drake’s eyes. And uncertainty.

Grimalkin knew what his city would do. So. Normen raised his fists.

A lesson.

“[Ironskin]. [Impact Shockwave].”

—Like a horse kicking him. Normen staggered. He threw a punch as Grimalkin tried to sway back.

[Flash Blow]. Blocked with a grimace. [Free Elbow]—Grimalkin’s head jerked, and he threw a punch that sent Normen’s head spinning.

[Bone-rattling Swing]. The Sinew Magus grunted. He kicked, or tried to; his leg was heavy, and Normen barely pivoted before a [Knight’s Riposte] made the Sinew Magus’ eyes widen.

[Barrier of Air]! It blocked the [Armor-piercing Low Blow]. The [Brutal Headbutt] exploded the magic, and Grimalkin recoiled slightly.

A wave of attack Skills, even for a [Knight] of Normen’s level. The two locked eyes as Grimalkin dragged a fist back. Three spells were bound into his arm, which swung like the wrath of Pallass.

“[Arcsinger’s Downfall: Wallbreaker Hammer].”

Normen’s punch aimed for Grimalkin’s gut; the Sinew Magus saw it coming and intercepted Normen’s fist with his own.

The air split with a shriek that Normen heard a second before he lost his footing and tumbled through the air. He slammed against something—the ground—and rolled before getting to his feet. The collision of Skills and magic had thrown him, but aside from the tingling in his fist, he was fine.

When he looked across the flaming sea fire, he saw Magus Grimalkin staring at his arm. He had barely moved; Normen began to charge. Then stopped.

Bemused, eyes filled with taut pain, Grimalkin slowly maneuvered his bent arm a fraction. [Ironskin] or not—a cry arose dimly in Normen’s ears.

Arm broken. Not a bad break. The Sinew Magus stopped trying to correct the damage and looked up. He barely winced as his good claw glittered. He braced, unable to move with the green flames now burning all the way up to his chest, and Normen strode forwards.

The [Grandmaster] bent down and picked up his helmet. Slowly, he put it on his head. Then he turned away. The green fire around him died down. Limping, he walked over to where Durene was sitting up groggily. Normen reached down for her and hauled her up with effort; she blinked incredulously at him.

“Let’s go.”

Normen turned. His head passed over downed [Soldiers] or [Guards] or the people staring at him. His eyes swept across them all.

Filled with honor. Honorless. A mix of everything in between. Curious honor. Straightforward virtue and an elbow’s glow of it.

The [Knight] met Grimalkin’s eyes. There was nothing scary about honor. Nothing to be gained from having it. But if a man should fear anything about honor, it was this:

He should wonder, each day, if he had lost his. 

“Message delivered. Let’s go. Stop me if you wish, Grimalkin.”

The Drake eyed the burning man and hesitated.

 

——

 

Durene wasn’t sure if all the Watch and [Soldiers] would jump them as Normen’s flames died down. She was breathless.

This was crazy. And bad. Normen had just broken Grimalkin’s arm. But it seemed like he had calmed down; his flames were gone. Nerul strode forwards, no longer smiling but whispering.

“Alright. Everybody get to an elevator and then we run while they still think we’re in the mood to throw hands.”

He tried to drag Normen and Durene away, and the crowd backed up as the two [Knights] came their way. The Watch shifted, as if to intercept, but when Normen’s hand inched towards his mace, they hesitated.

Grimalkin was watching them like a Golem, unmoving, and he didn’t seem inclined to keep fighting. For a moment, Durene thought they’d be able to get away without further fighting. Then she heard a bellow.

“Stand down. Stand down, all of you! General Edellein is arriving!

Durene whirled, and she heard a groan from Nerul. Normen said nothing, raising his fists, until he turned, and then she heard an oath from his mouth.

“Piss on my hat.”

A squad of heavily armed Drakes and a [General] in bright-yellow armor, also a Drake, were marching towards the standoff. And they were dragging someone with them.

Vess had a black eye. He gave the other two a thumbs up, despite the two Drakes dragging him forwards. Edellein barked as he saw Nerul, the [Knights], and the downed [Guards].

Everyone here is under arrest in the name of Pallass’ 1st Army! Including you, Diplomat Nerul!

The Drake gave Edellein a supercilious glance, and Nerul raised his claws.

“General Edellein. Are you mad? I’m a [Diplomat] of Salazsar.”

The [General] was steaming mad. He glanced at a set of notes that a [Strategist] was holding up, then narrowed his eyes.

“You and these [Knights] are under arrest for attacking soldiers of Pallass, freeing a criminal under false pretenses, failing to adhere to the chain of military command, and disrupting the peace! We are reclaiming the V—the prisoner now.”

“Oh dead gods, you idiot—let her go! She’s out of Pallass, and she might be in Riverfarm or Invrisil right now! Do not cross the jurisdiction of Liscor, let alone any northern city!”

Nerul barked back, and Edellein’s eyes opened wide.

“She is a prisoner of Pallass. Class 4! I have sent a squad after her. You, [Knights], surrender and you may only face a week in jail. Resist and the penalties will be far worse.”

They were going to grab Lapsey? Vess had gotten to the checkpoint with the others when they grabbed him. That meant there was only Jewel and Ama on the other side, and Antherr if he came back. If they fought in the inn—

Normen had the same thought as Durene. He pointed at Vess.

“Let our [Knight] go. We started a fight for the honor of a civilian imprisoned for no crime whatsoever, General Edellein.”

The Drake [General] glanced around as he heard murmurs from people watching. He seemed to realize they had an audience and flushed. He hissed at his [Soldiers].

“Clear the streets. And who are you?”

“Normen, Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice.”

Normen had learned something from Nerul already; his voice was carrying, and Durene bet people had already identified him based on his armor. He stood there, burning proudly, and Durene saw the Garuda [Camerawoman] from Wistram News Network.

This was becoming an incident. Edellein’s eyes flicked sideways to the news crew, and he adopted what might have been a conciliatory tone. For him.

“I will sort out all these allegations momentarily. But this is my city. I am [General] Edellein of 1st Army. Stand down, Grandmaster.”

“Let my [Knight] go.”

Edellein paused.

“I don’t think you heard me. Stand down. You are outnumbered in the City of Inventions.”

“No.”

Durene and Vess stared at Normen as he calmly drew a mace. And it occurred to both of them that he might be the most radical and hotheaded of their entire group. Edellein stared at Normen incredulously. Then he motioned.

“Don’t hurt him badly.”

Several of his [Soldiers] stepped forwards as the 5th Fighters drew back respectfully. These were Drakes armored head-to-toe in plate, and behind them were Drakes who had potions in hand. Steel and alchemy; Pallass’ specialties. They seemed loath to waste the potions on Normen, though.

The [Knight] gave them one look and spoke, and Durene realized why he hadn’t used his new Skills yet. They didn’t work on Rock Elementals. But people?

“[Enchantment: Acid Coating].”

Green liquid began to run across his Demas Metal armor. More pooled across the head of his mace, forming a globule of liquid that defied gravity as he swung his mace up. Just like his famous fight with Elia Arcsinger…but more acid.

A lot more.

Even the bravest of Pallass’ [Soldiers] halted at the sight of a [Knight] in acid armor. Durene heard one of them mutter.

That’s the [Knight] of Honor’s Fire? What the hell is honorable about that?”

“There’s nothing honorable about the fight, sir. Only what it’s for. Let Vess go, [General].”

Edellein was staring at Normen with chagrin, but not dismay. He lifted a hand.

“Archers, kneecap.”

A dozen bows snapped, and Normen jerked, pivoting, but too late. The arrows struck him in the knees, targeting the vulnerable joins of armor, and the green flames on his body died down a hair. Edellein blinked at Normen. The flames of honor rose until they burned two feet off Normen’s body. Then he raised his mace.

“[The Bonfire Rages].”

A plume of green flames shot down from above, sending everyone, even Durene, running back in alarm. When she lowered her hands, she saw Normen standing in a blaze of green fire, the very color of his wrath, his disappointment, his guilt. The flames burned over him a dozen feet into the air as the [Knight] waited in the fire.

A single skeleton slowly rose to its feet, lifting axe and shield, eyes glowing with the same green. Durene reached for her sword as the 1st [General]’s eyes narrowed. He swung an arm up as Ishkr grabbed Nerul’s arm. Where had he come from? Had he been watching and—

Edellein shouted as Nerul bellowed almost at the same moment.

“Take them down.”

“[Cease Fire]!”

Nerul’s bark was aimed at the [General]. Edellein’s arm jerked down, but the rest of the [Soldiers] moved forwards. Ishkr pointed, and Durene heard him say:

[Group Action].

Durene felt the will to draw her sword and to punch the nearest [Soldier] to her drain out of her body. Her hand went limp; Normen lowered his mace only slightly; everyone else relaxed instantly.

A Drake ready to punch Durene dropped her hands with a grimace; several [Archers] pulled the arrows from their bowstrings, and Nerul turned to Ishkr with a look of astonishment. Edellein gaped at the [Diplomat].

“What level are—?”

Halt! Halt! I am the leading [Strategist] of Pallass, and I demand everyone halt!

Esor flapped down, panting, voice ragged, and Durene saw the pink Drake she’d tossed over the balcony jogging back towards the crowd. She was relieved about that. Esor landed between Edellein and Normen, clutching at his chest.

“Halt…oh, good. 1st Army, Watch, stand down. Order of Solstice, you have five minutes to exit the city. No charges raised at this time. Do not return any time this month. Diplomat Nerul, get out of the city, now.”

“They are all under arrest!”

Edellein roared in outrage, but Esor raised his voice.

“Belay that! General, a word, if you please?

To Edellein’s clear astonishment, Esor dragged him to the side; well, tried since Edellein was in full armor and Esor wasn’t that strong. Durene stared at Normen. The green flames around him were dying, and she edged over to Vess. The [Soldiers] were holding him uncertainly, but they let go of Vess and backed away as Durene raised another Fist of Honor. She heard, quite clearly, Esor hissing at Edellein.

“General, unless you want every Brother of Serendipitous Meetings in a hundred miles of Invrisil to start trouble in all the Pallassian-aligned cities, let them go. They’re [Knights]. They will not relent. Our operations are going to be uncovered now unless we let them go.”

“They attacked—”

This is not worth the political expenditure! The Order of Solstice is beloved! Turn on your damn suppression spells!”

Esor clearly realized they were being overheard and glared at Edellein. The Drake’s face went blank. He leaned over as he twisted something on his finger, and the last thing Durene heard was—

“You will never countermand my authority in publ—”

Then they were hidden by a swirling veil of smoke. Durene looked at Normen, who wore a full grimace as he helped Vess up.

“Are you hurt? Did they get Jewel?”

“No. Let’s get out of here before that guy changes his mind.”

“Too right. Let’s run!”

Nerul dashed past them. The [Soldiers] hesitated, but with Esor and Edellein having it out in private, they had to obey orders, and their current ones were to let the three go. So Durene began to run; she didn’t want to fight that pink Drake again.

 

——

 

The Order of Solstice was almost at the 8th Floor when Edellein finished his argument with Esor. The Drake [General] appeared with his personal bodyguard in a flash of light just past the checkpoint, and Durene, clutching her side from running up three flights of stairs, groaned.

“Oh…come…on.”

The furious Drake was conflicted as he strode forwards, clearly wishing to arrest them and clearly having Esor in his ear on why that was stupid. He must have known Pallass looked bad, and perhaps he was thinking of a parting shot of some kind.

He might have gotten away with it too, if not for the fact that Liska strode up to the closed checkpoint doors and pointed.

“[Open Says Me]!”

The portcullis shot up to the curses of the [Guards], and Liska dashed through the door with a grin. Vess was hot on her heels, and Durene and Normen were hurrying to get out of Pallass as Edellein strode forwards with a face like thunder.

Halt! Where is the prisoner? My squad—

Esor flapped onto the 8th Floor, looking even more dead from all this physical exertion than Durene. He actually landed on his face, then sat up.

“I…told…you…”

General Edellein was about to stride into The Wandering Inn when he stared through the door. He stopped. Not because he feared Peggy, who had a crossbow drawn and resting on her knees, or Jewel or even Ama and Antherr, who were barring the way, weapons drawn and blazing.

No…Durene imagined the 1st General of Pallass was brave enough to take on the entire Order of Solstice with his bodyguard. However, a hundred or so Antinium lined up in the common room of the inn, each one armed head-to-toe in bright, pink armor?

Each one wearing a sigil of flames on their chest? Durene stared as a hundred copies of Embraim, armed head-to-toe in armor, raised their weapons.

“What the—”

A hundred Antinium or more all ready for a fight. Edellein halted and said pretty much the same thing as Durene, only with a bit more pith. Esor gasped in his ear.

“Armored…Antinium. They arrived this morning. Order of Solstice recruits. Following the late Knight Embraim. The Armored Queen has more in training.”

Edellein stood there as the Order of Solstice headed through the door. The 1st General shivered and then snapped back at the Garuda.

“More with classes? They have to be stopped. They are gaining too much ground.”

The Garuda just shook his head pityingly. For Edellein, for Pallass.

We are the nearest Walled City to Liscor, General Edellein. We are facing the north, Gnolls who will not have our side, and every other nation in the world seeking the New Lands. We cannot fight a coalition. Let them go.”

The 1st General stood there as Esor’s voice rose slightly. He turned his head, glaring at Edellein’s personal bodyguards and people. Esor knew how to work a privacy spell. The mostly Drake command under Edellein stared at Esor in quiet horror, and the Garuda coughed and clutched at his chest.

What a disaster. The door was about to close; it was just waiting for one person who tried to sneak past everyone as Normen strode through. Esor turned his head and rasped.

“You…I’ll hire you for Pallass. Name your price.”

Ishkr froze. He gave Esor an innocent smile that didn’t fool the Garuda one bit as he stepped towards the door. The [Server] bowed slightly.

“I don’t believe you can afford it, Strategist.”

The door closed. Esor nodded to himself.

“I thought not.”

Then he decided he needed to visit Tails and Scales later that night.

No wonder the Grand Strategist drank. But first…Esor had to figure out what the hell the fallout was going to be on this one. He rather feared the Vampires were the least of their concerns; even the Order of Solstice wasn’t the major problem.

The real question was who had been watching Pallass’ amazing display of incompetence. Their enemies? Or worse still…their allies?

 

——

 

The fallout from the Order of Solstice’s showdown with Pallass was considerable, if not directly obvious. You see, the incident got some press within Pallass, but not actual media coverage despite Channel 2’s objections.

However. More than one person witnessed the very public strife between Esor and Edellein and inferred more than just incompetence at work.

“This is Nerul. Hello, Mister Superior. Do I have a moment of your time? Splendid. I had a quick inquiry for you, [Diplomat] to [Diplomat].”

After writing a report and sending it through the more secure channels, Nerul had an even more private call with one of his fellow [Diplomats].

The famously virile Mister Superior was a Gnoll in Salazsar who specialized in contracts. Nerul got to the point.

“I just witnessed massive dysfunction between Strategist Esor—yes, the smart heir of Chaldion—and 1st General Edellein. It seems clear to me that the good 1st General was not handpicked for his position. If I had to guess, the Grand Strategist expected Duln to remain in power or for another [General] to take over. No…you don’t need to confirm that.”

If Mister Superior even could; the High Commands of any Walled City were a bit opaque even to top [Diplomats]. Nerul’s claws drummed on the table.

“…That is not what leads to that kind of systematic breakdown. It felt as though even the Eyes of Pallass weren’t under Esor’s command, and that is the principal domain of [Strategists]. Can you look into something for me, Mister Superior? I don’t need pure confirmation. Just rumblings. Has anyone from Salazsar…or Fissival…or Zeres been giving gifts to the senators in the Assembly of Crafts?”

In a power vacuum, look at who filled the gap left by Chaldion. The [Generals] and military command were hard to sway, but Pallass was a democracy; the [Senators] had the power to influence High Command, at least, some of them. Nerul murmured into the stone.

“Check for a Senator Errif. I know he’s among the top. If you can place him having a dinner, a gift, from Salazs…”

The [Diplomat] stopped. He sat there, listening.

“You’re sure? I see. Wall Lord Mailgest? One of the Last Defenders of the Wall and Eschowar’s old buddy. Very clear. Thank you.”

He put the speaking stone down after a few niceties. Then Nerul went back to drumming his claws on the table. He didn’t do anything as stupid as making a wall with pins and names and faces on it; he didn’t have anywhere secure enough for that kind of thing. But in his mind…

“[Mental Canvas]. Errif. Mailgest.”

Dinner with a [Senator]. Lack of respect for Chaldion’s heir? Most Drakes and even Gnolls wouldn’t like a Garuda with that power. 

If Thrissiam was alive, he would have been a shoe-in. But Edellein? Career Drake. Could just be politics, and he fit all the bills. But if someone had notes…

Oh, Nerul hated it. He hated it because it made sense and it worried him. Drakes had much to fear from their enemies. Like the Gnolls. Or Humans. Or Lizardfolk.

But their biggest foe was always other Drakes. Infighting…Nerul’s claws tapped faster and faster.

This was how Walled Cities died. He bit his lip. Then he picked up his speaking stone and connected to another [Diplomat] in Oteslia. He needed a quick word.

 

——

 

If you had eyes for Drake politics, you noticed the Pallassian problem. If you had eyes for the Vampire situation, you took note of the Walled Cities’ stances.

Lapsey was just confirmation of what was becoming apparent: the door was not safe. Which meant you were now bound for a sea voyage—exceptionally easy to blockade harbors unless you had your own boat, and noticeable—

Or you had to go overland from Liscor. Past the Bloodfields, which were fully active, even if the road stretched onwards. Even then, you were then entering Pallass’ domain from the north.

The fact that the Vampire Hunters of the north and Pallass hadn’t exchanged notes was something to pay attention to. Also of note was the fact that the Order of Solstice had gone to blows with Pallass. They’d made a good showing, all things considered.

Because, the only way that would have ended was in tragedy for the [Knights].

“Even with, what, a hundred aspiring [Squires]? Pallass would have slaughtered them. They nearly did. How many [Knights] does the Order of Clairei Fields have?”

“My count is a thousand two hundred across all Izril, Your Majesty.”

Laken Godart felt at his arms as Lady Rie poured more tea into a cup. He was shivering. Durene had been that close to…

“Suddenly, I am all for armies. Get me options, Rie. Ask Lyonette if she can give me a small loan. A million gold pieces? Find me soldiers.

Lady Rie nodded, judiciously adding a lemon into the cup.

“The issue is not so much gold as manpower, Your Majesty. It cannot come from nowhere, and Riverfarm would need to spend a year training its [Soldiers].”

Then find me [Soldiers]. That’s why I gave you land. I will have a word with Gralton.”

“And Lord Yitton? Should I approach him for [Soldiers]?”

Laken hesitated. He sat there, eyes closed, imagining it.

“They shot one of the two in broad daylight. Has no one asked them whether they intend to…have they done anything? What is the point other than a word and a need for blood?”

“Memory, Your Majesty. And they are a convenient threat. Have you noticed something?”

“What?”

Rie sat down and whispered.

No one is hunting the Circle of Thorns anymore. Now, the onus becomes on who harbors the taint. Thus far, it is a unifying issue. But men and women of conscience may grow sick of what they see soon enough. I would caution you about being the first to put a target on his back.”

The [Emperor] nodded slowly. This all made sense. He was not—ironically—blind to the dangers. Yet…he sat there and imagined what his [Paladin] would think or do.

“I wish I could order her to stop. But I never could. And she would never obey. You don’t have a month, Rie. You might not have a week. Get me an army overnight.”

“Your Majesty? That seems like a…a tall order.”

She laughed uncertainly. Laken had asked and trusted Rie with many things. He sat there, letting his tea cool down, and his head turned to find hers unerringly.

“It is. An impossible one, perhaps. I have counted on you as a reliable subordinate and vassal, Lady Rie Valerund. Just like Prost. I do trust you. If you want me to need you, then prove you can do what I can’t. Now, send for Charlay.”

He sat there, tapping his fingers on the armrest of his chair. After a while, someone tromped into his house.

“Uh. You wanted to see me, Your Majesty, sire?”

Charlay was not that much at ease, but Laken smiled and ushered her into his house.

“Sit down, Charlay, wherever you please. I have a job for the best Runner around, and I’d like you to take on a personal request of mine. I will, of course, pay a premium rate.”

“Me? I mean—that’s me! What can I do for you?”

He leaned back as she excitedly cantered around; a giant horse-woman was sort of terrifying to a blind man. Laken coughed.

“Well…you’re going to be going in what’s essentially a giant circle around Riverfarm. I need you to find every local [Mayor], [Village Head], council, or even the nobility and give them this letter.”

He reached for a stack of identical letters, but cautioned Charlay.

“If they have questions or seem to object—I need tact, Charlay. Don’t lie or be anything other than…you.”

She was actually a very charming, straightforward messenger because she wasn’t good at dissembling. Charlay sat down as Laken cleared his throat.

“So what am I delivering?”

Laken beamed at her in such a way that Dustrider Charlay began to get a bit worried.

“An offer for them to join my empire.”

She swallowed. Laken, on the other hand, had done a bit of math. He reckoned he might get a new noble title to assign to people every time he got a town’s worth of land or three villages. A city? Laken leaned back in his chair.

“For each one that accepts, I’ll pay you a very handsome bounty. Oh, and I want you to take Traffy with you.”

He cajoled Charlay along. The [Emperor] sat there, and his little empire suddenly seemed too small, too constricted. It was rather like hunger, but far vaster as feelings went. Laken began laying his own mental map in his mind.

“Start with the mining settlements. I have all the food I need. I need mines. Or larger towns will do.”

“How do I get them to just sign up, Your Majesty? Seems like a tall order.”

Laken smiled at Charlay.

“First…ask them if they fear [Bandits] or monsters. Then, ask them if they’re hungry.”

 

——

 

And more. You could read more into that brief moment when Normen raised his mace, from his evolving grasp of fire, to the power of Sinew Magus Grimalkin’s soldiers.

You could certainly infer something was going on with the Armored Queen and the hundred or some [Squires] she had sent to Liscor. The fact that one Queen had done this alone suggested the divides between the Hives were widening. You could look into that, Ishkr’s ability to act as a force multiplier, or even the fact that Liska could open any door she wanted.

Sergeant Kel had certainly noticed that. You could be a Watch Captain Zevara, who had a frank conversation with Watch Commander Venim about the role the Watch played in activities that were not in accordance with the law—and how he pointed out that the Watch was in accordance with the law. It was just Pallassian law.

If you were Lyonette, you might notice that Watch Captain Zevara had this conversation with Venim because a [Maid] had apparently left a note for the good Watch Captain about thirty minutes before the standoff in Pallass.

And if you were Mrsha, you could observe that a standardized uniform at school meant you had to wear it every day, another sign of the growing tyranny of the education system, now funded and run by Shassa Weaverweb, who was, for some reason, not going back to Oteslia.

Whilst all these people made these smart, prescient, and true observations about the world, there was one thing in the entire event they did not observe:

The tears of a Vampire.

 

——

 

Lapsey was burnt, despite Jewel’s best efforts, and microblisters were popping up on her arms and face. She scratched at them as she wept.

“You should have let me kill them.”

“They would have killed you.”

I don’t care! Give me a sword. I’ll—”

She tried to get up for the umpteenth time, but Durene pushed her down, and despite the Vampire’s strength, she was too exhausted and distraught to do more than flail a bit before relaxing. She sat back, and tears ran from her eyes.

“We didn’t do anything wrong. Not to them! Not to anyone! We were getting married. Sevil told me they hated his people. He told me I’d look over my shoulder for the rest of my life. I thought it couldn’t be that bad.”

The Order of Solstice was not celebrating their victory. They sat or stood in a room upstairs as the Embraim-[Squires], each claiming to have a piece of his lantern, were fed below.

They had to deal with housing that many Antinium. If they could even all become [Knights] of Solstice. They had to discuss the Pallassian issue.

But at this moment, Normen simply knelt there. Head bowed.

“Please get up.”

Lapsey begged him. The [Grandmaster] of the Order of Solstice did not. He knelt on both knees, flame of honor extinguished, his burned head facing the ground, eyes closed.

“We—didn’t trust you. We didn’t want to draw more attention. We thought Pallass was safe.”

“Where were you going?”

Durene wished Rivel were here. The one Vampire among them, the ‘squire’ they had inducted to save his life, had never truly been a [Knight]. At least, not yet. But he would have been able to explain and empathize with Lapsey.

There was no other Vampire here.

Not Fierre.

Not Colfa.

Not Vaulont.

They stayed away. At first, Durene thought they didn’t know; then the truth became obvious. Too many people had identified Lapsey. Associating with her would murder any of her kind.

The Vampire was new to her species. Newly…made. She whispered, brushing at her black hair.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if Sevil knew. Half the families are trying to hide, the other half—running away. Because the north is filled with poison, and now they’re trying to murder everyone. But there’s no safe way south.”

Vess was staring at the grey flame of mercy.

“So there are more?”

Lapsey nodded hesitantly.

“Yes, but—they can’t go south. There are hunters on the roads making people pull their hoods back. That’s all they have to do, or watch for anyone moving by night. The north is poisoned, but if you run, they’ll find you. And they keep searching.”

“We have to do something. Pallass can’t get away with this.”

Ama punched a fist into her hand. Vess had a piece of tissue stuck up one nostril. He wasn’t badly hurt; they’d only knocked him down when he tried to stop them from grabbing Lapsey. He gestured at the tissue as he replied.

“Oh yeah? What are we going to do, fight all of 1st Army? All one hundred Antinium down there could fight with us and we wouldn’t beat Hectval’s army, Ama. We could take on maybe two companies. Then we’d be dead.”

Jewel pointed out the obvious as she stared out the window.

“We’re [Knights]. We fight smaller battles, like adventurers. This is a war. We have to do what we can.”

“And we are on the side of Vampires?”

The question drew Vess’ ire. He glared—then blinked at Antherr, who sat, polishing his armor. Normen’s head rose, and Antherr met the green glare of honor with his implacable expression.

“I ask because I do not know. I hear two things. One is that Vampires are an old evil. The second is that they have done little wrong as of now. Yet Vampires attacked House Byres. It is as I have heard Antinium described to me by the Gnolls. We are a people. Yet we invaded Izril and made war upon Gnolls and Drakes and Humans. Where is the correct choice?”

Normen replied, his voice grating and soft.

“We trust our eyes. We trust this.”

He held up a lantern, and it blazed with harsh, green light. Vess’ seemed piercingly painful; a desire for mercy not granted to Lapsey. The Vampire looked up as Jewel lifted the pink flame of glory, which was so small. Yet it grew when she looked at the Vampire, if it could be found anywhere.

As for Ama…blue flames deepened with all the memories in the [Necromancer]’s eyes. Antherr lifted his lantern, and it blazed hazel, then. Glory and honor. A calm flame of determination that refused to wither and die.

“Then I never shall doubt again. How do we protect Lapsey? How do we get her to safety, if there is any in the south?”

“The New Lands. We were going to head south along the New Lands to the coast. As far as we could get. If we had to leave for Baleros or Chandrar or…Sevil thought someone was watching for us. Once we got far away from Pallass, they’d find us.

Lapsey whispered. She showed them a line running down the map, and Durene nodded.

“This makes sense.”

“Does it, Durene?”

Normen was confused, but Durene had been thinking.

“Vampires aren’t stupid, Normen. They have to be watching out for their kind. I think they noticed Pallass is bad; otherwise, Lyonette would have seen more Vampires coming through. Sevil and Lapsey were on the run so no one could help them. I bet most of them are going south past Liscor on foot. Or through the High Passes.”

“That’s suicide. Even if they are strong and can heal and do crazy stuff. I grew up in the shadow of the High Passes. You think those Gargoyles and Eater Goats are the only bad stuff up there?”

Vess shuddered and shook his head. Durene grimaced.

“Then…they’re all coming south, going past the Bloodfields, then avoiding Pallass’ spies and soldiers.”

“It must be a slaughter. Especially if the Order of Clairei Fields and House Byres know they have to head through Liscor.”

Jewel shuddered. No wonder they’d run into hunters around Celum. Durene nodded, staring darkly at the map.

How dare Pallass do that? She was still angry. But more than that—she glanced at Lapsey. The Vampire woman was distraught, her face streaked with tears—but her red eyes betrayed a wrath behind all that sadness.

Durene realized they’d been talking over the quiet Vampire, and she sat down.

“Lapsey? Is any of this what you want? Getting to the south, I mean?”

Everyone turned to her, embarrassed; they had forgotten she had a will in this. However, Lapsey just shook her head.

“I…Sevil was the one with the plan. He and his family knew people. I don’t. I…now he’s gone. I’m not safe in the north. I know that; they were tracking us even though we moved away from my village twice. We’d get people asking questions about us, and then we realized they were following.”

Trackers. Durene glanced at Normen, who grimaced.

“I’ve met men who can do that. The Brothers have their own experts. The north isn’t safe. But do you have a plan, Lapsey?”

“Don’t ask her that. She just lost her husband. She needs a [Thought Healer], rest—let’s get her safety first, huh? Don’t worry, Lapsey. No one will grab you here.”

Jewel shook her head. But the Vampiress stared at her hands.

“…I can’t go back home. My village wouldn’t take me back if they knew…and I don’t want that. I want to find my people. My people. Then they’ll show me my powers. Sevil was. I’ll get to them, hide, learn to use a sword, and then come back to Pallass.”

Durene’s mouth opened.

“Um. Maybe don’t do that?”

Lapsey’s eyes flashed red as her head rose.

They killed my husband. First them! Then the Vampire Hunters! Then—”

She stared blankly at a wall, then smiled for some reason.

“Then I’ll hide away somewhere no one will find me and have a hundred children. Be the mother of blood. A hun—maybe a dozen. Six.”

A hundred? Even six sounded like a lot! Normen blinked at this strange turn of desires, shooting Durene a glance. Durene realized that as the person asking about intimacy, she got to handle this one.

“Um. Why children, Lapsey?”

The Vampiress looked up blankly and responded as if it were obvious.

“Because Vampires need children. Especially after all the murder. Sevil says I have hope. And our children would have. I’m not sick, don’t you see?. I’m…important. Sevil and I would have restarted everything properly. If I’d known what Pallass was up to…”

She clenched a fist. Durene’s ears perked up.

“What’s this about being sick? Are Vampires ill?”

For answer, Lapsey eyed Durene, shook her head as if darkly amused—then her body flickered. Durene leapt out of her seat as Lapsey’s prison clothing shifted, tore—and a black wolf landed on the floor.

Normen jerked onto his feet, and the wolf sniffed at Vess, who recoiled, mouth open. After a second, the wolf looked around, then crawled under the bed. Durene didn’t get why until she saw the bed bump as Lapsey hit her head.

Sounding a lot less confident, she called out.

“…Do you have a blanket? I lose my clothes when I do that.”

Normen, Vess, and Antherr all turned around as Jewel thrust the bedsheets down for Lapsey. When the Vampire emerged, she explained.

“It’s my gift. Shifting. You’re supposed to lose it or never have it if you have the curse. But it’s just poison in the wells and groundwater. Sevil could flit across the ground. Mist stepping, they called it.”

“Why aren’t you sick then?”

Lapsey shook her head as Durene wondered how this poison had gotten all over the north.

“I grew up far to the east of Celum. A bit north; along the coast. Apparently, House Byres never came that far, and so the wells were safe. Sevil and his entire family moved there over the winter. Then they heard about the hunts and…”

She sat there, looking lost, and Durene wondered how fast she and Sevil had met if Lapsey had married Sevil. That was, what…four months and marriage?

Well, it wasn’t her place to judge. Durene patted Lapsey’s shoulder.

“We’ll get you to safety, Lapsey, I promise. The inn’s safe enough right now, and we’ll make sure you’re guarded. Did…all the family die?”

Lapsey’s eyes flooded with tears again, and she wiped at them.

“They were so—so happy when Sevil introduced me. They said I’d help revive their kind. We were going to have children! Sevil was so strong and powerful, and he loved me, especially when he found out I was untainted—”

Wait a second. Something about how she spoke made a bell in Durene’s head begin to sound a tiny bit. Lapsey was completely overwrought, but Durene cleared her throat.

“He…checked, did he?”

Lapsey nodded earnestly.

“He said he’d been to dozens of villages to find one without problems. Then he realized this one was clean, and he said he fell in love with me at first sight.”

“Uh.”

Vess opened his mouth, and Antherr covered it quickly. Durene kept her smile up like a shield.

“That’s great. What happened to your village? Did your parents object?”

“No…we eloped.”

Lapsey squirmed a bit, and Durene’s heart sank.

“You eloped?”

“He was kind to me. And magnificent. We’re just a fishing village on the edge of nowhere, and I wasn’t anything special. My family was going to marry me off to this horrible [Fisherman], and I barely had a dozen levels, and then Sevil came into the village one night and…”

Durene stared at Lapsey’s shining eyes and the tears that began to flow again. The half-Troll whispered to Ama as Normen found it harder to maintain his vigil of guilt.

“I think it might’ve been a bad thing for Lapsey to, uh, have been made a Vampire.”

She didn’t like how she had just run into an example of why Vampires might have the reputation they did. Ama glanced at Lapsey, then whispered back.

“What, like some village girl deciding the first stranger to walk into her life and offer her kindness is worth dying over? That’s bad?”

“Yeah, that’s b—hey.”

Durene shoved Ama with a scowl. The [Necromancer] grinned at Durene. The two were smiling at each other when they realized the sniffling had stopped. They looked back, and Lapsey was staring at them, red eyes glowing between her fingers. A horrific scowl was filling her face, and Durene realized that among the many sterling traits Vampires had—hearing was one of them.

“I, uh, I only meant—”

 

——

 

Ishkr was bringing up a bloody steak when he heard a shriek, a thud, and saw the door burst open. Durene went flying out the door, hit the far wall, and slid down, staring as the sounds of fighting came from within.

Durene. Wearing armor. Ishkr had leaned out of the way just in time thanks to his Skills. He saw the half-Troll girl bring up her arms as a furious Vampire leapt on her, claws extended and slashing, biting and—

Ishkr was reaching for an emergency jar of cloves in his bag of holding when Lapsey halted. She caught herself, hands on Durene’s throat, as the [Paladin] held up an arm, and a pair of figures halted.

Colfa and Vaulont had both emerged from rooms adjoining the one the Order of Solstice were in. They, like Ishkr, definitely hadn’t been listening in. When they saw Lapsey had halted her attack, both froze—then swept back into their rooms before anyone saw them.

Colfa backed up through the doorframe, out of sight of the [Knights] and Lapsey, a finger to her red lips. Vaulont just stood in the doorway, like a shadow, listening as Lapsey began apologizing.

“I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“I, uh, I’m sorry too? Please don’t bite me.”

Lapsey laughed as she got off Durene. She stared at her hands, then reassured the half-Troll girl.

“I can’t turn you into a Vampire like that. I have to drink all your blood first, then inject my own. And even then, you’d be a thrall. It’s very…”

Colfa’s eyes widened, and she glanced at Vaulont, who was leaning against a doorframe, invisible to Lapsey, but across the hall from Colfa. She mouthed several expletives, and he nodded and grimaced, pulling down his mask.

Ishkr glanced from face to face as the Vampires exchanged looks of deep reservation. Then remembered he was here. He offered Vaulont the steak. Meanwhile, Lapsey was staring at Normen.

“He fought so many of the Pallassians. By himself! I know your Order. It’s famous. Your fire is so beautiful.”

Durene got up, wincing.

“Normen did fight the Sinew Magus.”

Jewel exploded.

“Which was crazy! He’s a guest here. Normen! What were you thinking? Erin likes Grimalkin!”

Normen’s voice was low as he opened the door, pointedly beckoning everyone inside as he stared at the three eavesdroppers.

“I am not Erin. That was a warning.”

“And if he kicked your ass?”

Ama sounded skeptical. Normen glanced at her.

“I don’t think about whether I win or lose when I take off my hat.”

The [Knights] of Solstice gave Normen glances of respect or worry. But Ishkr had been mostly focused on Lapsey. She had given the [Knights] a look of wonder and speculation. He distinctly heard her voice before the door finished closing.

“Do you accept recruits?”

“Huh? Wh—”

They moved back into their rooms, and after a moment, Ama or Vess must have cast a muffling spell. Undeterred, Colfa and Vaulont just produced glass cups and put their ears to the wall. Ishkr just went to fetch another steak. But before he did, he peeked out a window on the second floor.

The grassy hill outside had undead building the new tower, villagers of Rheirgest chatting as they supervised the work, and even a few children playing. Ishkr ignored them. He stared pointedly at a patch of grass that seemed to ripple unnaturally against the wind. After a moment, he closed the window.

Not the regular pests the Thronebearers dealt with. He was sure Vaulont would take care of it. Otherwise…Ishkr decided to make another garlic jar.

Just in case.

 

——

 

While the Order of Solstice tried to calm a very upset Vampire, who didn’t want to have her entire reason for Vampirification and marriage called into question this day of days, other people were getting on with their lives.

Namely, Alevica. She woke up as usual in a chair in Oliyaya’s hut and hoped Malluni and Cirsa hadn’t gotten into too much trouble. She felt at the crick in her neck and decided she needed to get the two some new clothes.

They had about three sets of robes between them. All black; they were mostly the same size, and witch robes weren’t demanding. Oliyaya wasn’t big on wardrobes.

Hadn’t been.

Alevica’s mentor had been big on making what you wore; Alevica had made her boots, her own robes, and Oliyaya insisted you put a bit of yourself into your apparel. But she had never seen the need to accessorize or even get more clothing.

A [Witch] is a [Witch], and a fancy dress or skirt matters not, Alevica.

She used to say that all the time. It was one of the lessons Alevica had not taken to heart; she had a wardrobe, and the two girls should have at least enough clothing to not have to go around in the nude or in their underthings when they needed a wash.

Then again, it was doubtful that Oliyaya had seen washing as a necessary component to keeping her robes functional.

After that, lessons. Their teeth are good; I need to get them eating more healthy things. Malluni’s too scrawny, but she hates anything that’s crunchy. Or mushy. Cirsa won’t eat anything visibly orange. So I have to do something about all that.

It wasn’t suffering, not really. It wasn’t fun to have this on her head. All these issues were a problem, and Alevica felt at her money pouch and wished she’d saved a bit more gold over her life.

But she wasn’t going to curse her lot in life or say the two brats were a drag. Why?

Because if Alevica wanted, she knew she could find a [Witch] to take care of the two, arguably better than Alevica could. [Witches] took care of their own. Agratha was but one of the [Witches] specialized in teaching.

That was not the issue. Alevica was no mother. She didn’t have a sense of maternal pride in the two girls. But they were Oliyaya’s apprentices. The [Witch] murmured a spell as she stretched.

 

“When I was young: I did what I pleased. 

Nothing mattered back then; I took my ease. 

Oliyaya was a great [Witch]. 

Her apprentices don’t let her down. 

 

Now I am old: there is great need. 

My mentor is from her burdens freed. 

Oliyaya is a great [Witch]. 

Let her apprentice rise to her name.”

 

She felt the weariness leave her. Not completely; she’d missed the final rhyme on the last sentence, and more importantly, she hadn’t chained her craft to any sympathetic magic or invoked any real power beyond what lay in her hat.

…Which was over half empty already. Damn. Alevica cursed, but as she stretched, she felt energy hit her like a triple helping of Eloise’s wakeup tea.

Her shoulder popped, and Alevica swore, but she rotated it and suddenly all her stiffness was gone. Alevica twisted a bit, then raised her voice.

“Cirsa? Malluni? You’d better not be running amok or I’ll drown you in the well! Breakfast!”

She didn’t hear the giggles or scamper of feet and cursed. So this morning was hide-and-seek, eh? Let’s see how much they laughed when she dangled them by the legs out the second-story window!

“Who am I kidding? They love that.”

Grumbling, Alevica stomped upstairs, but she didn’t sense them anywhere. Resigned, she cast a locator spell.

“Malluni.”

Where one went, the other went. Alevica closed her eyes, tossed one of her wands up, and caught it blind. The tip of it was pointing straight out the window.

“Oh, you have got to be—”

Alevica stomped outside, already feeling the beginnings of a bad day coming on. If the two had begun pranking Riverfarm’s people, Alevica would have trouble. She strode outside, flipped her wand again, and felt hope.

Wait, the wand was pointing at her home, just down the road! Maybe the two had woken up and…Alevica’s smile vanished.

Decided to cook for themselves?

Smoke was rising from the chimney, a lot of it. Alevica began to run without a word. Cooking was really bad.

Malluni and Cirsa were too young! Malluni could be trusted with some things, but Cirsa had been burnt in a fire. She could handle flames—until one sparked or spat, in which case, she’d go fleeing. If they did that with oil or firewood or a pot of hot water—

Are you okay? What are you two doing?

Alevica burst into her house, wands raised and ready to extinguish a grease fire, and she saw [Chef] Moldierre raise his hands and back away from the pottage he was serving Cirsa and Malluni.

“M-my pardons, Witch Alevica! I was just feeding the two girls.”

“Huh?”

Alevica lowered her wands as the man backed up in alarm. She saw the girls eating the pottage, happily dipping their fresh bread into the bowls. They had eaten a lot, to judge by the waves of satisfaction coming off them.

“What’s going on? What are you doing here?”

Moldierre was the personal chef of Laken…wait a moment. The [Chef] gave Alevica a nervous smile.

“His Majesty, ah, suggested I make something suitable for the girls this morning, Witch Alevica. He personally dined with them, and I understand I am to prepare a meal for the two for breakfast and dinner? I would be delighted to oblige any requests you have.”

“Laken did what?”

Cirsa grinned, exposing a mouth full of food. Alevica wobbled, and her stomach growled.

“I—thank you. I suppose I could accept that.”

“Very good, Witch Alevica. I do have to be preparing His Majesty’s lunch, but if you wished me to pack up the pottage or…”

“No, I can, uh, eat it.”

“Then I will leave you to it!”

The [Chef] strode towards the door, then paused and poked his head back in as Alevica stared at the pot of food.

“Oh, and I should say that Miss Yesel and the [Tailor] will be here in half an hour about the clothing.”

The other shoe dropped as Alevica turned around slowly.

What [Tailor]?

 

——

 

Miss Yesel was no [Witch], but she was a mother, and getting two girls to hold still so they could be measured for clothing—then getting some clothing they would wear that wasn’t a [Witch]’s robe—was something Miss Yesel did quite well.

Alevica helped, but she actually had time for a breakfast not scarfed down in between getting the two girls to eat and not run off, and she was trying to plan out the next part of the day.

An error, as it turned out, because no sooner had the [Tailor] left with promises to deliver the clothing tomorrow than someone knocked on the door.

“Witch Alevica? Witch Cirsa, Witch Malluni? I am Witch Thallisa. An old friend of Oliyaya’s.”

A familiar [Witch] swept into the room. Alevica was so startled that she barely had time to tip her hat.

“Thallisa! What brings you here today?”

“Teaching. You two apprentices—upon your feet. Show me your best magic.”

Cirsa and Malluni shot to their feet, as surprised as Alevica by their obedience. Malluni covered her face, then showed a horrific, twisted visage of a night ghast, a thing of nightmares. Cirsa blew through one hand she made a small circle with, and a small gale rattled the roof.

Thallisa nodded approvingly.

“Sight and sympathy. Not bad. Oliyaya trained you two as a pair. You two appear healthy enough. By your leave, Witch Alevica, I’ll give them a lesson in brewing potions. I have no doubt you’re quite able to teach them, but it is my specialty.”

Witch Thallisa had once brewed a cure to the Griffin Plague in the north years ago. There was no arguing with her expertise; even old Oliyaya would have said she was as good at curses. Oliyaya’d given Alevica lessons as a girl, but the Witch Runner spluttered.

“I…I won’t object, but what’s this about?”

“His Majesty of Riverfarm asked me to lend my time as part of what I offered him. I obliged, for Oliyaya’s sake if nothing else.”

Laken!

Thallisa turned and gave Alevica an amused look. Cirsa and Malluni giggled, but Thallisa clapped her hands together.

“None of that. Now, you two are to run into the forests. Stay away from trouble and gather to me the three most valuable herbs or ingredients you can find. Whatever you bring me, I will teach you to brew and use my greatest Skill to make a potion you shall keep. You have until the first rooster crows the evening watch. Beg favors from other [Witches] and they may teach you what to search for or where to find it.”

The two girls wore expressions of delight and avarice—then, when they hesitated, Thallisa checked the rising sun theatrically.

“Well?”

They ran, and Alevica’s mouth stayed open.

“You did that to me when I was a girl.”

She remarked faintly, and Thallisa favored Alevica with a smile.

“And it worked because I made you a potion that fixed all of a shy [Witch]’s teeth. Why would I use any trick but what is valuable? If they are wise, they will beg lessons from Eloise and the others, and they will remember everything they find today. Incidentally, Eloise has agreed to teach them tomorrow, and I understand Hedag the third day. It seems this [Emperor] has arranged a number of favors for you.”

It did indeed. Alevica’s head was spinning, and she was alternating between painful nostalgia, overfullness from three helpings of pottage, and anger. And a bit of relief she was determined not to let Thallisa sense.

However, she underestimated the Great Witch. Thallisa adjusted her tall hat and gave Alevica a smile.

“I had heard the [Emperor] of Riverfarm had a lover in a half-Troll girl. My, how quickly he switches affections. Are you representing all of witch-kind for us? Because I have an aphrodisiac I could lend you in the name of relationships.”

Thallisa. He’s not interested in me!”

“I am sure sending his [Chef] here is purely altruistic then.”

Alevica colored, and Thallisa laughed, then inspected the home.

“He’s had someone clean this place. I’d watch out for someone trying that with Oliyaya’s hut. If she moved all her junk in, it’s likely to curse the poor [Cleaner] who tries to help out there. I will be by later for some things she swore to give me when she died, if that’s acceptable. I wish I had been there to face those women. But truly, I didn’t think this place was worth moving to, let alone dying over, until I came to visit.”

She turned, and Alevica caught a moment of regret and sorrow from Thallisa before it vanished under the [Witch]’s tall hat. Alevica stood there bleakly.

“I couldn’t do a thing.”

Thallisa flicked Alevica’s hat with a finger.

“I doubt I could have made a difference. An entire coven managed to hold one of those ‘hags’ at bay. Oliyaya was one of the eldest; it’s only right she took the curse. If only Belavierr had half her decency. Califor should have remained instead of the Spider. There was a [Witch] I could admire.”

Even speaking another [Witch]’s name could be dangerous. Alevica flinched a bit, but Thallisa had a reputation as a plain-speaking [Witch] with a sharp tongue and a sense of humor—and that was among other [Witches].

“Is Laken trying to take away all my work? It’s not romance, Thallisa. It might be chivalry and the thing men do for a woman in need.”

“Of course, Alevica. I would never lecture a fellow [Witch] on what she knows.”

Thallisa said that with such a straight face Alevica glared, but the [Witch] just sat down at the table and helped herself to some pottage.

“I would caution you on reading that book of magic. But revenge is something I know full well. By your leave, I’ll approach those Hag Queens later and do my inspection. If no one objects, I’ll take the one that killed Oliyaya.”

“You want to inspect them? Be my guest; everyone’s careful. What are you going to do with her body?”

Alevica blinked, and Thallisa’s smile was cold and contained under her hat. A magnificently tall hat, meant to show off, and because Thallisa liked how it looked. It was stitched piece by piece from the hats of other [Witches], the fabric covered with a charm to make the material seem glossy and ordinary, because Thallisa believed no one but [Witches] deserved to see her hat for what it truly was.

“Witch Quiraka and I have come to honor Oliyaya’s wish. We’ll make a handbag out of the Hag Queen’s flesh.”

Alevica shivered as Thallisa sat there, her craft leaking from the brim of her hat, filled with the accomplishments Alevica had not achieved for all her prodigy. And all the success Alevica feared to grasp.

 

——

 

“What are you doing, Laken? If you think I want all this help—”

Alevica thrust open the door to Laken’s home. It was more like a mansion; she strode in furiously, saw Laken was consulting with Ram, Beycalt, and a dozen other advisors, and turned on her heel.

“Ah, Alevica. Can you wait for fifteen minutes? Ram, let’s finish the official subdivisions of Riverfarm and not quibble over markers yet.”

Laken spoke up as every head turned to Alevica, and she sensed it.

Speculation, faint outrage, jealousy—normally, she’d drink it in. But oh no. She was not getting into Durene’s seat and having one half of Riverfarm poking her about how to swallow bananas properly and the other half vying to replace her.

She did not like Laken, nor was she slavering to get to know him better. In a way, it was sort of sad; it was obvious to Alevica that no one was going to organically meet the [Emperor] and get to like him on his own merits with this lot around him.

No wonder all the rulers are either as mad as loons or have their heads up their own asses.

As it so happened, many people knew about Laken’s translation attempts with Alevica. Even if they thought that was code for something else. But Laken was just wrapping up his meeting when the topic was brought up.

“Your Majesty. If I may, I heard about your efforts with Witch Alevica on the, um…other languages issue? I believe I have something of a solution, if you’ll hear it.”

Here came Miss Yesel, fully vying for a ladyship of her own. Laken had been turning towards Alevica, but he faced Yesel, brows raised.

“You, Yesel?”

“Not me, Your Majesty. Rather…if you’ll give me five minutes? I believe our good [Mage] is waiting…Ram, would you get her?”

The man hurried out as Yesel explained.

“Wistram has sent a representative to the Unseen Empire. Not a permanent one, but they wished to set up their Mage’s Guild.”

“And they’re stretched. What of it?”

“Well—I inquired, and they said they would be delighted to cast [Translation] for us. It’s very common when Drakes and Humans share a city. Different writing systems, you see. And while I am sure Witch Alevica is doing her best…”

Alevica sat up in her chair and glared at Yesel. Then wondered why she was glaring.

[Translation] was a spell? She wasn’t up to date on [Mage]-magic. It made sense; [Mages] had a spell for everything. But she felt a flicker of annoyance in her chest despite the excitement Yesel’s words provoked. Maybe it was the smug expression the woman had.

However, Alevica’s annoyance was echoed by a wave of it coming off Laken, though his face never changed. That made Alevica…feel better. Annoyance and disappointment.

The idea someone would wave their hands and make all the careful studying and work Laken and Alevica had put into this project redundant stung. However, Laken wasn’t an idiot. He nodded tightly, and Yesel took that as a compliment, beaming.

“Your Majesty of Riverfarm! I’m Magus Reyna of the Terras Faction of Wistram. I am delighted to meet you, and Archmage Eldavin sends his warmest wishes for further cooperation. I understand I can begin that in some small way here?”

The [Mage] was from Wistram indeed. They radiated confidence, disdain, and boredom as they introduced themselves. Alevica saw the woman glance her way, but the disdain only increased.

Typical [Mage]. She sounded Terandrian and probably thought anyone outside her class was incompetent at magic. Alevica reluctantly went and fetched the spellbook with her kitchen tongs from her house. She put it on a table and warned the [Mage].

“Don’t touch it.”

Everyone in the room shuddered and recoiled at the sight of the hide-bound book, but the [Mage] just waved a hand over it and then flipped a page or two with her fingers.

“Don’t worry, Miss Witch. It’s not an artifact. My…these words…”

Her confidence drained a bit, and Alevica stared at the woman’s fingers.

“Well, your fingers haven’t fallen off. Hey, Laken. The book’s not immediately cursed. If you die in the next few days, can you let us know?”

“…What is…? This isn’t magical writing. But the words—”

The [Mage] could tell there was some kind of magic here, but she couldn’t sense it with her spells. Idiot.

This was Hag magic. Hag lore. It didn’t read like regular spells; until the words were said out loud or the curses activated, you’d see nothing.

Laken was disinclined to give the woman a full breakdown of what the book was. He spoke crisply.

“I believe you said a [Translation] spell would clarify what the words are, Magus? If you would like to know what the book is, I suggest asking Archmage Eldavin. If he is somehow unaware, he may, of course, petition me for a further explanation.”

That rattled the Wistram [Mage] sufficiently. She put a finger to her temple, then relaxed.

“I’m sure the Archmage needn’t be bothered with…he is very aware of Riverfarm. But it’s just another language. [Translation] covers Drathian and all written languages, even old ones. Allow me, Your Majesty. And Wistram will be happy to cast all these spells for a nominal fee with our improved [Mages]—[Translation]!”

She waved her fingers with a flourish, demonstrating that she also had the ability to cast without a wand—and cast what was probably at least a Tier 3 spell without warmup.

Better, in short, than your average [Mage], even from Wistram. Magus Reyna stared down at the book as her eyes glowed a second.

“Aha! It says…this is a spell of…well, it’s not words in a direct, one-to-one translation. I…is this a spell to make someone’s head explode?

Alevica’s nerves thrilled as Reyna lost more confidence and blanched. Laken sat up; the book was open to the ritual the Hag Queen had used on Oliyaya. All the other advisors drew back as Laken spoke.

“Yes. So they are spells?”

“They’re…spells. Yes.”

Something was wrong. All the woman’s confidence had drained out of her, and horror was coming off her like the scent of rot. Alevica stepped forwards.

“Is there history here? Anything else about Aklat Vunn?”

Reyna was passing a hand over her eyes, which were flicking down the page. As if trying to stop herself from reading, but her lips moved, and she spoke as if she was in a dream.

“The words…are full. They’re not just words. Each one is power. They—they—they sacrificed their own people for each word.”

“Say what now?”

Ram glanced at the book and shied away. He just saw words that burned his eyes and mind, but Reyna saw something else. Alevica’s ears perked up. That sounded like deep magic. The darkest, the kind Belavierr had done. Reyna’s voice rose an octave. She was blinking now, but unable to turn away. Now it was fear roiling from her.

“Millions. They built their words out of dark deeds. To their g—g—I see a world with a black sun. I see when each word was first carved. They built their magic out of blood and bone, and I cannot stop looking. Help me.

Her eyes. Alevica saw liquid dripping down Reyna’s cheeks. Blood.

Yesel had stopped smiling. Laken hadn’t noticed the blood yet; he was leaning forwards.

“Reyna. Reyna, what’s wrong?”

Wiskeria stepped forwards and wrenched the woman’s head away, so hard she nearly broke Reyna’s neck. But Reyna’s eyes were open wide, and the [Magus] emitted a high-pitched scream.

“They’re in my eyes! The words are in my—

Laken shouted like someone in a bad horror movie, too slow and too late.

“Close the book!”

Gamel slapped the book closed, but the [Mage] began to shriek now as her eyes kept roving the air. Alevica strode forwards, cursing.

“She’s translated too much!”

“They’re in her memories. It’s like a parasite of the mind; no telling how much she got. Or how dangerous it is. Everyone, step back. If it gets ugly or she starts to babble in tongues or you see any part of her bulging, I’ll blow her brains out.”

Wiskeria calmly drew her wand. Everyone leapt back, and Yesel called out.

“Wiskeria, are you mad?

“I am not having a portal open in Riverfarm. Alevica, you’ve seen the book. Can we dispel it?”

It wasn’t magic. Reyna was just seeing too much! Alevica bit her lip. Knocking the woman out was an option; she was beginning to thrash and scream now. But what if—

Translation. Eyes. The knowledge was burned in her head—Alevica blinked.

“Reyna! The spell! Cancel the spell!

The [Mage] didn’t hear her. Wiskeria’s eyes flickered as she understood. Alevica pointed her wand at the [Mage], but she didn’t have enough of her craft right now, and it was [Mage] magic. It was Wiskeria who grabbed Gamel’s arm.

“That’s it! Blind her, Gamel!”

The [Knight] didn’t hesitate. He pointed at Reyna, who was thrashing about on the floor now.

“[Blind Foe]!”

Instantly, the woman’s eyes clouded over, and her scream choked off. She lay there, gasping, then spoke.

“Dispel—”

The [Mage] undid her own magic. Then she lay there a moment. When she raised her head, she was still blind, but she had such a look of terror on her face that Alevica felt bad for her. Then Reyna opened her mouth, and Alevica got to see the most impressive projectile vomiting in her life.

She dodged. The others did not.

 

——

 

Laken Godart took the time to let Nesor come in with a cleaning spell and to give some succinct orders to his court as they filed out.

“Ensure Magus Reyna gets back to her fellow [Mages] with an appropriate explanation of what occurred. All our hospitality, Miss Yesel. No one is to speak of any internal Riverfarm projects again, let alone to Wistram, is that understood?”

The very subdued Yesel and the rest of his court bowed to the [Emperor]. He stood there rubbing his face, and Alevica saw him exhale a few times.

He was as disturbed as she was, alarmed, upset—and a bit smug. When the others were gone, Laken turned to Alevica.

“—And that should put paid to any idiots thinking they can just do our jobs for us. A shame about Reyna, but perhaps it’ll make Wistram take us more seriously. Sorry about that, Alevica. Did you have a decent morning with Cirsa and Malluni?”

Alevica had been about to remark on the dangers of what they were doing—or the fact that the Hag Queens were on par with the oldest and nastiest of [Witches]. The comment about her morning was so banal—but it reminded her, and she hissed at him as she stomped closer.

“Stop doing me favors! Half of Riverfarm thinks you’re courting me after Durene!”

“Well, I’m not.”

Aren’t you? It seems awfully convenient that you’re practically taking away all my problems whether I like it or not.”

The question bothered him, and Laken frowned, resting on a table that had a map of Riverfarm. Not, incidentally, a map useless to him. Someone had painstakingly made tiny houses and streets so Laken could run his hand across the map and feel what people were looking at.

“I’m not. Truly. I want to help you, Alevica. I owe Oliyaya a great debt as well, and seeing you taking care of Cirsa and Malluni…am I not allowed to do that? I’m having dinner with Yesel’s family some nights, and if I hear any rumors about that, I’ll kick all the gossipers into the river.”

“Well, I’m not Yesel. I just don’t like you managing my life with all your influence. Thallisa, Eloise, Hedag—those are Great Witches, Laken. Them helping is…they’d do that, but this feels like too much.”

“I’m an [Emperor]. It comes with the territory.”

Laken sounded pleased with himself, so Alevica snapped back reflexively.

“Well, no wonder you don’t have friends and Durene left you.”

She felt bad about it, even for her, the moment she felt the guilt flooding through him. Alevica cleared her throat.

“I just meant…”

“No. Wiskeria said the same thing. It’s an easy shot, maybe, but it’s true. I don’t have…peers. I wish I did, actually.”

Laken sat down, and Alevica did too. He spoke absently.

“I can solve most problems by just telling someone to do it. Ironic for a blind man without many skills. The other problems are unique to me: protecting Riverfarm, negotiating with other powers. That’s why I like your project, Alevica. I can help with the translation. I can’t solve it with my class. I’m just one person doing my best. Can you let me do that for a while?”

The Witch Runner sat there and didn’t give him any physical clues as to her mental thoughts. After a while, she nodded.

“…I suppose I can do that. Alright. You said you had a huge hint for me?”

She was rewarded with a relieved smile, and Laken sat forwards eagerly.

“Yes! I figured out another word last night, but I didn’t manage to tell you. Every time I get one right, my head stings. I think I’m figuring out the pronunciation. But it’s not really pronounceable; I’ve been trying all morning, and Gamel thought I was choking. But let me try to describe it and see if you can get the word right in your mind.”

He began speaking, and Alevica kept her face straight, glad he didn’t have [Witch] powers. She scolded herself mentally.

Great. Now you feel bad for him. And you don’t like him. You don’t. Stop it. Cut it out.

She was paging through the book to distract herself when her eye caught a spell at the beginning, squeezed onto the same page with three more. Alevica paused, staring at a word that seemed to correspond with the most basic of spells.

“Hm. Sçæptiŝ?

Laken looked up, and Alevica tried the word again.

S-cuh-hae—

“Try a deeper tone. Almost guttural. Imagine a bullfrog trying to speak.”

Scaaaep—

The two were practicing the words, and Alevica gave up on that one and tried the word Laken had figured out in his sleep. It was indeed like a burp or the deepest bass rumble you could imagine for some of the words, combined with harsh, sibilant characters.

“Řoçit?”

“Try more…do you know how to roll your r’s?”

“What?”

Laken demonstrated. Alevica tried for the next twenty minutes.

“R-r-r-r-”

Rrrrrrrrr. Perro. Pe-rrrrrr-o. Purr.”

Even when she managed that, it wasn’t quite the inflection you put on the first ‘R’.

“It’s not as gentle as Spanish. It’s more like…uh…Czech? But because it’s from the Hag Queens, I think you have to do the rolling ‘r’ about an octave or two below our voices.”

Well, my voice isn’t going to go that deep.

Alevica’s tone was hoarse from trying, and she accepted some fresh lemonade from Laken, then nearly spat it out.

This is sour as shit. What is this?

“Lemons from one of the fae lands. Don’t you like it?”

My face is puckering up.

Alevica heard Laken laughing, and, exasperated, she took another gulp of the sour lemonade—despite the sugar mixed in—and snapped.

“This is hopeless. I don’t even know how you’re figuring out the words in your head! I’ll never speak it!”

It must have been because he had references to sounds in Earth that had the right bass tone; she hadn’t made any magical word ‘click’ in pronunciation, only writing.

Laken stopped laughing and frowned. He let Alevica continue drinking and then nodded.

“You’re right. Maybe it is impossible to say with Human vocal cords.”

He stood up abruptly, and Alevica protested.

“Hold on, don’t give up just because I said that. I say a lot of things like that. You know me.”

“I’m not giving up! I’m just…Gamel? Do we have any honey?”

“Honey?”

Gamel strode over as Laken emerged from his kitchen. The [Emperor] came back, and there was that eager smile on his face.

“Honey deepens your voice. I feel like an idiot. If this was on Earth…what if we used a program, or in this case, something to change what you’re saying? Is there magic for that?”

Alevica opened her mouth. She…didn’t know.

“That’s not normal magic, even for a [Witch]. Wait a second…no. It can’t be.”

“What? Do you think we could ask Nesor?”

Nesor? Do you think I’m trusting him with my voice? No. It’s…Cirsa. She and the little [Apprentices] love playing tricks on people, right? They have tons of magic to change their voices to sound evil. I used to do that too!”

That couldn’t be the answer. But Laken just grinned, and Alevica, after a few ginger prods from her wand and a drink of honey, tried it.

How’s this.

Her voice dropped so deep that Gamel jumped, and Alevica swore the table rumbled. Laken clapped his hands in delight.

“That’s perfect! See if you can make your voice even more…you want that weird ‘vrrrr’ sound that bullfrogs make. It sounds a bit like an electronic device or a motor from my world. Or a lightsaber.”

Alevica had no idea what Laken meant, but she had heard bullfrogs. Now she had the idea, she didn’t try adjusting her voice; she inhaled, pulled air into her cheeks, and tried to make them vibrate with magic.

She imagined she looked ridiculous from how Gamel burst out laughing one time as Alevica tried to combine that with her voice. She made Gamel stand in a corner facing a wall, and she kept going.

“Rrr-roçit. Rrrrrr-ocit.

Laken was trying too, mostly so she didn’t feel like a fool. Alevica took a breath and tried to imagine one of the Hag Queens saying it. A voice like thunder, gleefully reciting magic from another world. A dead world. She felt her tongue curling, and it felt like she struck a match inside her mouth.

“Řoçit.”

Alevica felt no twinge of pain in her mind. When she had stared at the word, yes. When she had figured out the sound, yes. But when the word spoke itself aloud, it felt like she spat something full of power into the world, unlike craft. No emotion, no stored magic, but a word that itself created power and meaning and force.

“Wh—”

Laken went over in his chair with a crash. Gamel whirled in alarm. Every light source in the room went out in a moment. Alevica was pitched into pure blackness.

“Laken?”

“Your Majesty!”

Both she and Gamel shouted in alarm. Alevica drew her wand, aiming around. What had she done? Had she created anything? Had—

Someone grabbed her arm, and she tried to blast Laken out of existence, but he was laughing.

“You did it! Alevica, you did it! What’s wrong?”

He hadn’t realized the lights were out. Oh. Alevica shakily lit up her wand. Or tried to. After a second, she swallowed.

“Laken? Can you tell where we are?”

“Yes. What, did the lights go out?”

“Yes. The word I spoke took them out. I don’t think it was a full spell.”

“Great! I mean, wow. Need a match or something?”

“Sort of. The light…isn’t coming back.”

“Ah. Oh. I see.”

Silence. Gamel tried to light a lantern with an Octavia firestriker. Alevica tried another [Light] spell. Gamel swore.

I just burned my—but there’s no light. Are we blind?”

“No? I can see light from the windows…”

“Hold on. Grab my arm, you two.”

Laken grabbed the two of them and was just towing them out of the room, to the doors, when all the lights popped back on. Alevica blinked in the sudden, blinding light and stared at her wand. She stopped Laken, and when she told him what had happened, he grinned.

“That’s magic. We’re casting magic, Alevica.”

She gave him a shaky smile and realized he couldn’t see that either. Alevica swallowed, the word still seeming to burn her mouth.

New magic. Suddenly—her little pet project with Laken felt a lot more consequential. Now she had the hang of one word…she wondered what else she could say. She and Laken began to try the other words, but only Alevica had managed the weird cheek-trick, and despite three hours of practice, no more words magically appeared.

“This is it, though. You have one word.”

“Even if I can only say it once in twenty-four tries.”

Every time the lights went out, it took about three minutes for them to come back on. And that was one word in a series of one spell that Alevica was pretty sure had something to do with darkness. Or maybe…eating light? There were any number of concepts that ‘Řoçit’ might correspond to.

She and Laken ended up talking so much that they had dinner in Riverfarm, chatting practically past Yesel and everyone else staring at them. Cirsa and Malluni didn’t bother them; they were feverishly making a potion under Thallisa’s guidance, and Alevica only broke away when Rie came to fetch Laken.

“I hate to interrupt, Witch Alevica, but His Majesty and I have a bit of work to do—”

The [Lady] gave Alevica a peeved look, and Alevica tried to croak a response back. Then she saw everyone staring at her and pushed her chair back hurriedly.

“I’m done for the day anyways. See you, Laken. I might go for a delivery tomorrow, actually.”

“What? But we’re just getting—what is it, Rie?”

Laken got up, clearly annoyed, and Alevica backed away. Even if he and she agreed nothing was going on, she was not going to get involved in this drama. Cursing, she stomped over to the Runner’s Guild and raspily demanded a delivery that would take her out of Riverfarm at least a day or two.

Laken was only so happy to help with Cirsa and Malluni; he could deal with her being gone. Besides—now that she’d figured out the clues, Alevica reckoned she could study the spellbook at her own leisure anyways.

Much to her annoyance, she found her two apprentices were already tucked into bed by the time she had finished arranging her delivery tomorrow and had gotten some food for the road. Alevica stomped over to her chair, then realized someone had added a second bed downstairs in her cottage.

“Damn [Emperors].”

She hopped into bed, glaring, and then yawned. Alevica drifted off, still feeling the rumble of that word on her lips.

Her enemy’s magic. The magic that had killed Oliyaya.

Power worth having. Steal it from them, my apprentice. Alevica just bet Oliyaya would say that. Her eyes squeezed shut, and she put an arm over her face.

The Witch Runner kept her voice quiet so she didn’t wake the two younger [Witches] with any sounds. For a while, her shoulders shook, and she held the sobs in her mouth like a spell she could never utter.

Then she slept, wishing bitterly she had never had cause to learn new magic or be anyone other than the selfish Witch Runner. But like always…that voice that had neglected her for so long spoke into the silence of the night with words and a tone no one had ever deciphered fully.

For it disagreed.

 

[Outworld Translator class obtained!]

[Outworld Translator Level 5!]

[Skill – Basic Proficiency: Speech obtained!]

[Skill – Defy Solecism (Daily) obtained!]

[Synergy Skill – Mind Shield: Eldritch Inscriptions obtained!]

[Skill – Tongue of Deikat Vunn obtained!]

 

When Alevica awoke in the dead of the night, it was in a cold sweat. She sat up and said:

“Oh.”

The word made the house rumble.

 

——

 

The moment she had made sure Cirsa and Malluni had breakfast and would report to Eloise, Alevica rushed over to Laken’s house.

He wasn’t there, but people cleaning the place told Alevica that Laken was holding court. So off to the ‘throne building’ Alevica went.

She had a lot of thoughts as she strode around Riverfarm, first of which was that seeing a walking wicker man was really, really strange.

It was sweeping the streets and had a small crowd of people watching it from afar. A walking wicker man. Not an Elemental. Not a Golem.

A familiar. To be more precise, a Witch’s Familiar. There wasn’t just one; three had popped up in Riverfarm alone. Two were sweepers. One stood in the fields and attacked any bird that tried to eat the crops.

Familiars and Elementals. On any other day, Alevica would focus on that.

However! She had levelled up, and her first other thought was that she couldn’t tell anyone her class without giving away important secrets! Good thing she already had an anti-appraisal ring, but her Skills!

A [Synergy Skill]? And…and the [Tongue of Deikat Vunn]?

Think like a [Witch]. The new class was great. Alevica had pulled out a dictionary from Riverfarm’s library and looked up what ‘solecism’ meant; it made sense, even if it was less impressive than she’d thought. But Deikat Vunn was a hint.

It should be Aklat Vunn. Unless Aklat meant something else. Or Deikat is a lower version of that? Could be either one.

She couldn’t wait to ask Laken about all of it and speculate with him. However, Alevica doubted he had the [Translator] class; he was an [Emperor]. Smaller classes didn’t really pop up with the monarchy. Though she could hope.

Alevica was hurrying to break the good news to Laken, so she didn’t pay much attention to her surroundings as she strode down the main street. Thus, she nearly tripped over Traffy, who was directing traffic. The little Law Elemental screeched at Alevica, who was jaywalking, and a Snow Elemental, which looked like a cute little Snow Golem…that could fly…made a tinkling sound.

Elementals. Like the old days, just walking about. Alevica held up her hands as the little lantern with legs flashed bright lights in her face.

“Traffy. Traffy! I’m not in the mood for—I will kick you. Get lost!”

The tripod legs scuttled after her as Alevica growled. Then she realized something.

Wait a second. Traffy was plain iron with three little openings—a ‘traffic light’ as Laken had called them. This was a walking lantern with one central ‘eye’ that was flashing a bright blue. And it had a little…hat…

“What the—?”

Alevica remembered Charlay bragging that she was going on a big job with Traffy as a mascot. Then who was this?

A second Law Elemental made a shrill, whistling sound, and someone with a larger version of its hat looked over. Alevica saw one of Riverfarm’s new [Guards], a woman with a hat, blow a tentative whistle.

“No crossing the street without a light, Miss Witch!”

The Watch had arrived. Alevica stared at her eternal nemesis; the woman had a baton, a navy blue cap rather than a helmet, and lighter clothing than the armor some Watch members wore.

They must have been dressed like that because Laken didn’t expect the same levels of crime as some cities. It certainly made them look more like officials than jumped-up [Warrior].

Alevica still hated them on sight. She aimed a kick at the walking lantern, which scuttled aside. The [Guardswoman] shouted.

“Sireny! Attacking a member of the Watch is a crime!”

Bite me.

Alevica shouted back over the outraged wail from the little Law Elemental that had doubtless led to its name. Or rather, she tried to shout ‘bite me’.

What instead came out was a croaking bellow that made both members of the Watch scuttle back in alarm. Alevica put a hand to her mouth, then spun and kept running.

Her new Skill wasn’t active all the time, but it was like a second…layer of speech under regular words. If Alevica wanted, she could shift the way words came out, and each word became different. Unique. She imagined a frog’s throat inflating in place of her own, and controlling how it should move was uncanny. Disturbing.

And frankly, exciting.

I’ve done it. I’ve cracked the code. Or rather, I can now pronounce all these damn words! I just have to figure out how they sound, and now I can say them!

“Laken! I’ve done it! I—”

Alevica burst into the throne room and halted. The [Emperor] looked up from where he was sitting on his throne, and Alevica got a full glower from everyone present. But what drew Alevica up short was the sight of some familiar faces.

Durene, Normen, Vess, Jewel, Ama, and Antherr all stood before the [Emperor] of Riverfarm. The Order of Solstice had a petition, and Alevica understood quite clearly why Laken hadn’t bothered her this morning, despite their huge triumphs of last night.

His love had returned. Only—it seemed like she’d brought problems.

“Alevica, I will speak with you momentarily. Forgive me, Ser Normen.”

The [Emperor] inclined his head, and the Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice shifted uncomfortably.

“Not at all, Your Majesty.”

Laken sat back on his throne, posture good, but his face was pained, and Alevica felt anger, uncertainty, and frustration radiating off of him like flames from a fire. It was at odds with the literal flames shining off of Normen, Vess, and Ama.

Mercy, Honor, and Sadness. No glory? All of the [Knights] were bubbling over with emotion. Guilt, regret, fury—Durene was like a lighthouse of it, only surpassed by Normen and Ama—

Something bad had happened. Alevica began listening as she strode over to the other [Witches]. Eloise wasn’t here; she was taking care of the children, and she kept seeing a lot of Typhenous. That old man was on his way out, but the [Tea Witch] seemed to have taken pity on him.

Mavika was there, and she glared at Alevica.

Witch, be mindful of your courtesies and obey the law here.

Alevica just stared at Mavika, Mavika, telling her this.

“Oh yeah? And what are you going to do about it? Fine me?”

Mavika hesitated. Then she calmly stomped on Alevica’s foot so hard that the Witch Runner felt tears come to her eyes.

Laken ignored the sounds of Hedag separating the two as he sat there, head tilted upwards, a huge frown on his features. When he did move, it was to shake his head, and his voice was regretful. But direct.

“—I cannot oblige your request, Grandmaster Normen. I am committed to giving the Order of Solstice as much aid as reasonable, but—”

What? They’re being hunted down, Laken! You can’t turn Lapsey away!”

Durene burst out, voice raised, and Alevica’s head turned. Who now? She glanced at the other [Witches], and Mavika touched her two canines.

Oh. Vampires. Alevica frowned as Durene strode forwards, and someone barked.

“You are in the presence of His Majesty of Riverfarm, Paladin Durene! Even if you are a [Lady], you must adhere to decorum in front of the [Emperor]! Mind your manners.”

Durene halted, flinching, as Master Ram shouted in outrage. For a moment, she quailed; then she balled her fists.

“Laken doesn’t need a [Lady] to curtsy to him and speak nice, Ram. I’m his [Paladin], and I’m a [Knight] of Solstice. Lampsey needs our help. Vampires do! If they’re getting slaughtered as they cross the border—where else can they go? Laken, you took in Goblins!”

“I did.”

The [Emperor] was avoiding turning his head towards Durene, as if he were afraid of meeting her eyes, despite being blind. He spoke, voice husky.

“I am sure Lady Rie would agree if she were present. This is harder than Goblins, somehow. Vampire Hunters are combing Izril, Durene. They will not stop, and I have it on good authority both north and south regard Vampires as a dire threat. Worse than Goblins—save for a Goblin Lord arising—ironically. I have already angered many by establishing the Goblinlands. If I were to hide Vampires here, the truth would come out. And then I would make Riverfarm a target it cannot afford to be at this moment.”

“But it’s the right thing to do. You do the right thing, Laken. Each time.”

He flinched at that. Oh, this was good. Alevica wished she had some popcorn. Right now, the object of Laken’s regrets and love was here, and he still did love her. But he had a duty, and the two forces were fighting it out inside him.

Actually, she felt bad for him. Durene was so hepped up on her righteous fury she didn’t see how this was going. Even so, maybe it was necessary; Laken shook his head.

“Riverfarm has made stands of principle. Rightly and wrongly, Durene. But it cannot survive numerous noble houses coming to blows here. I am willing to make that stand for Vampires. Not shelter them.”

If you hid them—

The truth will come out, Durene. And when it does—even if we have an army, we do not have a [Spymaster]. I am not going to have a dozen Drakes burning down the Unseen Empire like last time!”

Laken shouted at Durene to the astonishment of all present. He stopped, and shame from him washed over Alevica a moment later, but Laken just sat back hard against his throne.

“The answer is no. I will render any aid short of that, Ser Normen. But Lapsey will not find haven in my lands. Vampires may pass through unabated as they did when Erin sent them south. If I am pressed, even by Lord Yitton, my ally, I will state my position: I do not see the danger nor the reason to kill these people. But I cannot force the position against the entire north and Pallass.”

His tone was like someone sharpening a knife.

Yet.”

There it was. Alevica breathed out and saw the [Witches] arguing silently; a few looked unhappy, but Witch Thallisa, who was already in the court somehow, just tipped her hat silently.

“Goblins and Witches. If he collects the full deck, this little experiment of an empire folds.”

She murmured, and Alevica had to agree. Even the Order of Solstice were nodding grimly, probably prepared for this. Normen bowed his head, but Durene stood there, vibrating with fury.

“Coward. That’s cowardly, Laken. I thought you would always stand up for people.”

Knight Durene, hold your tongue.

The [Emperor] was saved from having to answer by Normen barking. Antherr and Jewel came forwards to drag Durene back. She argued with them fiercely as the [Knight] took his helmet off and bowed.

“I apologize for Knight Durene, Your Majesty. She’s worked up as a fellow—woman gets.”

“I quite…understand, Ser Normen. No offense is taken, and in light of our previous relationship, I will let the matter slide. I do regret that I cannot offer you anything more.”

“Passage is enough, Your Majesty. In truth, I would have hesitated to ask it of you, the inn, or anyone else if Lapsey’s kin continued to flee. One or two may be doable. Ten, a hundred…”

“They are coming for Vampires with nothing but slaughter on their mind. I understand that, Ser Normen. What I need…what I request the Order of Solstice to find are answers. Why? What deeds were committed that have led to this unceasing hatred after so long? Perhaps a resolution can be found, but until then, I suggest Vampires are safest outside of the north, and if they are in the south…as far away from a Walled City’s influence as they can get.”

On that, at least, Laken and Normen agreed. The [Grandmaster] bowed, stepped back, and Alevica saw the court murmuring and coming forwards to consult with Laken. More Vampire troubles.

Laken was turning to Alevica, a question on his face, when the Witch Runner realized something. She leapt to her feet, abandoning one of the chairs the [Witches] were sitting in.

Burn my hat—I have a delivery to make!”

She’d completely forgotten. And today of all days! Alevica cursed, realizing that her number one ‘helper’ who could take over for her, Charlay, was gone. She was in such a rush and Laken was so busy with the Vampire issue that she didn’t even get to tell him about her new Skill.

Well, it’d keep.

 

——

 

The thing about being an Alevica was that you were not a Wiskeria or an Eloise or even a Hedag. What did that mean?

It meant that weighty decisions like the fate of Vampires—which Alevica was sympathetic about; having people just murdered for no good reason was bad—the Unseen Empire, and all that?

She didn’t need to be part of it. Even Hedag was more involved with decision-making than Alevica. She didn’t always put her foot on the scales like Eloise or Wiskeria, but Hedag was there. Heck. Thallisa was getting involved.

But Alevica wasn’t important enough. She didn’t have to be. She could fly off and not wonder how Laken was handling letting down Durene or what was going to happen next.

She was a simple [Witch] and Runner. Like Ryoka…no, wait. Like Charlay…wait, Charlay was working directly for Laken and trying to recruit entire cities…

Alevica had just come to Riverfarm for Oliyaya. She wasn’t part of it. She didn’t want a piece of the court like a noble title.

She liked to keep telling herself that so she didn’t forget.

Thus it was that the Witch Runner leapt onto her broom and flew northwards again, once more heading straight up the continent on a stupid delivery for gold she didn’t really need if Laken was helping with her two apprentices.

At least she had filled up her hat…but her magic was draining at an alarming rate. It was still enough for a flight just west of Reizmelt and then back, if she used carriage services.

In truth, Alevica’s flying was very limited. What she actually did was leave Riverfarm, head to Invrisil, and take a carriage north on one of their cheap runs towards First Landing.

Her plan was to disembark at Reizmelt and fly to her destination, then come back and hitch a ride south to Invrisil. That would keep her flying within her magical means. A three-hour flight east and west, rather than the entire way. She definitely had enough magic for that, but it meant sitting in a carriage for most of the day.

It was hellishly dull. Alevica didn’t consider travel that fun outside of flying at the best of times. Normally, she slept or annoyed her fellow passengers, but Alevica couldn’t see the point at the moment. A few were introducing themselves; there was a [Scribe] who had new employment up there, a [Trader] who did the commute regularly, a mother visiting a son…

Alevica had too much energy to sleep, so she tried sounding out the word from the book in her head.

‘Řoçit’ was the word she’d managed to say. Alevica was convinced she could replicate it, but it didn’t do anything other than make the lights go out. On the other hand, there was another spell that seemed to have a definite effect. And it was only one word long…

Sçæptiŝ. But Alevica didn’t feel like alarming the guests or getting tossed out of the carriage by practicing the magic. So instead, she stared out the window and listened to the most inane chatter of her life.

None of the passengers were discussing the Vampire situation. They were all about the New Lands or the magical carriages and Wistram’s new advertisements for their magic.

I suppose this is what normal people consider important. If they don’t know about Vampires…it was funny to hear what they regarded as important.

“My word, yes. Reinharts everywhere. It’s like they’ve all decided to come off holiday. They’re very…imposing. I wouldn’t get in their way if I were you. They’re the Five Families, of course, but there are rumors. Still, perhaps it’s for the best. Everyone makes much of Magnolia Reinhart. Of course she’s an impressive woman! But all this ‘peace with the Drakes’ talk…”

The [Trader] was having an animated conversation with the mother and [Scribe]. The [Scribe] was more cautious about airing his views.

“I…wouldn’t know about the Reinharts. I just work in the Scrivener’s Guild, and the nobility are excellent clients one and all. I will say that Lord Tyrion’s absence is quite notable. He sailed to Baleros, didn’t he? Chasing the love of his life?”

“It’s so romantic! The Wind Runner.”

Alevica snorted into her hat quietly as the mother clapped her hands together. The [Trader] looked disgruntled.

“That can’t be it, Miss. A [Lord] of the Five Families doesn’t just go sailing off to another continent. Even for love. Besides, the Wind Runner is always mobile.”

“Who better than the Lord of House Veltras to catch her?”

The [Scribe] was on board with the romance. The [Trader] huffed.

“Well, Lord Tyrion had best learn to ride on water, because if he’s really in Baleros for the Wind Runner, he’s wasted a trip. She completed a delivery in Izril’s south yesterday.”

Hm? Alevica raised her hat, and the other two protested.

“That can’t be.”

“I have it on the Merchant’s Guild’s authority myself. It was just an entry in the ledgers; they note who does what. It was a Prelon delivery. Basic…but I did note the name.”

Ryoka in southern Izril? That had to be a mistake, but Alevica filed it away to tell someone. Laken might care. It seemed like there was some useful information here.

Well, that was the highlight of her carriage trip. Whereupon Alevica got out of the coach in Reizmelt, hopped on her broom, and sped off on her delivery. She was getting paid well for it; not many Runners wanted to risk her destination, and Alevica flew through the air, trying out new words.

“Scaeptis. Scaeee—

Her voice rumbled as she tried to get it just right. It was almost right, Alevica could sense it. But it was damn cold up high, and maybe it was messing with her lungs because it wasn’t quite right. Also, Alevica kept scratching the back of her neck and turning around.

She had the uncanniest feeling on the back of her neck, and when she checked her boot, she remembered that her anti-malice charm was broken. But all Alevica saw was open pastures of horses and boring fields when she looked around.

“Maybe [Bandits].”

They usually avoided taking potshots at her, but she could sometimes tell when she was flying over one from the stares she felt. Alevica eyed a lazily circling Griffin in the distance and banked away from it.

There were threats in the air. Lightning, airborne monsters, getting hit by a bug in the eye at top speed—oh, and some idiot [Hunters] thinking you were a bird.

Whatever. Alevica went back to practicing until she reached the borders of her destination. Then she saw the reason most Runners refused to deliver anything.

About sixty [Maids] and [Butlers] were camping along the edge of a wall in progress. They were having tea, standing around, with neat tents set up as if they were having a retreat. One look told Alevica whose they were: only Magnolia Reinhart’s servants would be loitering out here in such odd style.

And only her servants went around armed to the gills with artifacts. The servants were quite relaxed, though they spotted Alevica the moment she spotted them. They didn’t move or stall her passing…but the Golems and armed [Soldiers] did.

Halt in the name of House Terland!

Barely a thousand feet from the servants’ camp, a bunch of Golems assembling a wall halted, and Alevica swerved, cursing, as a glowing beam of light illuminated her. One of the Golems was tracking her!

“Hey! I’m a Runner, you idiots! On delivery!”

Descend. Now! House Walchaís is under the protection of House Terland!

Cursing, Alevica dropped until she landed and held up her hands. Small wonder Magnolia’s servants hadn’t advanced; even the Griffin and possible [Bandits] didn’t want any part of the small army securing the border to House Walchaís.

Lady Bethal Walchaís’ lands. The traitor’s lands.

Alevica stomped towards the leader of the Golems and [Soldiers], who gave her a suspicious look. But she flashed her Runner’s Seal, and he could confirm she had a damn package. Not for Bethal Walchaís, by the by.

Alevica had some standards.

“Look, it’s just a bunch of parts from the Dwarves. Something for spinning wheels? All kinds of stupid metal.”

A bulk order, but one that hadn’t been able to get to House Walchaís due to this blockade until Alevica had taken the request. The surly [Lieutenant] let her through after a moment.

“Mind your manners, Runner.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Alevica flew off with another glance at the servants. They hadn’t moved when she’d been intercepted. They just stood around, chatting, looking completely at ease. But from the way the Terland soldiers watched them…

The moment they leave, I wouldn’t want to be Lady Bethal, her famous [Knights] and her husband or not.

Alevica had heard that House Terland had interceded to save Bethal, but it seemed Magnolia Reinhart didn’t forget or forgive easily.

 

——

 

The rest of House Walchaís seemed normal enough, if somewhat tense and hungry for news. Alevica wasn’t used to being warmly greeted, what with the hat and robes, but the [Mayor] of whatever town this was herself came out to thank her for the delivery.

“Lady Bethal—well, her sister, excuse me, paid for these wonderful spinning devices you put on the wheels. New from the Gnolls! It’s dreadfully hard to get anyone to deliver to us. No one bothers the foot traffic, but the Runner’s Guild and Driver’s Guild barely take any requests.”

“Yeah. That would probably be because they’re scared spitless of Magnolia Reinhart. Lucky for you some of us like gold. Glad I could be of service. Thanks for the money. Got anything for the way back?”

They did, but getting it out of the woman while delivering sparse updates on the news was draining Alevica’s nearly-empty teapot for social interactions. She tried to extricate herself from the town as fast as possible.

Only one thing made her stop, near the end, as the [Mayor] was walking her out of the deserted Runner’s Guild.

Please tell the other Guildmasters that we earnestly would like deliveries. This…unpleasantness between the nobility shouldn’t interfere with commerce.”

“I think you’re out of luck. It’s more than just a grudge between Bethal and Magnolia.”

Someone was going to die for Bethal’s actions, and it had better be Bethal. The [Mayor] avoided Alevica’s pointed glance and murmured.

“It’s so tragic, though. Lady Thricia has returned! However it may be, it is her. She’s as young as she was when she was a girl, and I…well, Lady Ulva Terland was here herself, and many of the nobility, to see the miracle. I cannot argue that much will change Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s mind. But I can at least pray it will be so. Would you like to offer a prayer, Witch Alevica? For the road, the wellbeing of House Walchaís, or anything else? We have a shrine.”

“…Pray?”

Alevica had been about to get on her broom, but she swiveled around at the odd word. An alarm began to ring in her head, and the [Mayor] smiled in the way of someone with their own new thing to show.

“It’s just a small shrine. Over here. I’ve shown all our new visitors it, not that we have many, ha, ha…but they’re in every holding of House Walchaís. It takes a moment to get your mind around it, though. But you can even get a new class!”

“A class?”

Alevica turned, and the [Mayor] beamed.

“Yes! I, myself, didn’t get one, but there’s a mother in this very town. Poor woman; she lost two babes from miscarriages, and it’s helped her make peace with it greatly. And an, um, a young man who works in the graveyard. Peculiar, but everyone does pray. Especially in dangerous lines of work.”

The [Mayor] pointed, and Alevica’s toes began to itch. Down one of the main streets in town was a kind of altar, a flat wooden top of black wood set under a little half-roofed alcove.

“The Skills are marvelous things, Miss Witch Runner. Truly. I could wish for a class like that if I wasn’t a [Mayor]. One heals any scratch you have, like a potion! Another—well, the [Farmer] says it helps with the culling of animals. Difficult work, you know. But there’s some benefit, I’m sure…”

Alevica barely heard the woman. She was just focused on the small structure, barely larger than a door. The simple, served roof sheltered the midnight altar, where some flowers and even a simple stone bracelet had been placed, and a few melted candles.

It wasn’t much. No one had left great gifts like Riverfarm’s own totems, but it froze Alevica solid. Especially when she saw the simple title affixed over the statue of three women.

 

Three-In-One. 

Kasigna.

 

A shrine and prayer. Alevica had never seen the like, never heard of it in all her days. It reminded her of witchcraft to summon spirits or commune with elementals. But when she thought of the Solstice—she knew.

 

——

 

Alevica didn’t remember what happened next. Well, not fully. She came back to her senses after the [Soldiers] tossed her over the wall they were building. She got up, bruised and panting.

She had attacked the altar and tried to burn it down until the [Mayor] and the Watch had pulled her off of it. Alevica had been dragged away by one of the Rose Knights and a Golem, screaming curses until they got her over the border.

“Those idiots. Those—”

She was panting, wild-eyed—and she might have done something stupid that would have gotten her killed. A Golem was facing her, eyes glowing red in its metal face, and it had an arm-mounted crossbow pointed straight at her.

“Miss Alevica? I think further action would be unwise at this moment. Would you care to withdraw and leave the rest to us?”

A refined voice spoke up, and Alevica saw a [Maid] with a frilly headdress curtsey to her. The Golem switched targets, but Alevica’s haze of fury and panic cleared as she saw several servants around her.

“Rain tonight. May we offer you a drink and some shelter, Witch Runner?”

A [Butler] unfolded an umbrella just as the first few drops began to patter down. Panting, Alevica got up. She looked at a cup of tea one was proffering her.

“I—no. I—I need to get back. To Riverfarm. Thank you.”

Suddenly, the sixty-some servants made Alevica feel a lot better. Maybe they couldn’t enter House Walchaís, but they could keep people from wanting to move in and out. Now, Magnolia’s trade war against Bethal made sense.

This is bad. I have to tell Laken. 

How much damage would those shrines do? The [Mayor] didn’t seem…a new word appeared in Alevica’s head.

That pious. But how many did that woman need until she’d be back? Only a few hundred? Or millions?

Either way, Alevica leapt on her broom and began to fly back as the rain began to pour down. Frantic, now. She was so distracted that she just made a beeline back towards Reizmelt. And she didn’t see the danger coming until it was right on top of her.

 

——

 

The storm clouds were nasty, but no lightning was coming down, and Alevica was soaked despite the little charm she’d used to try and cut the rain. Still, she’d kept an eye out for danger; flying branches, something from below. She’d done this job as a Runner long enough that even filled with worry, she was alert.

However, Alevica had made the mistake of many people: she’d forgotten to look up. In her defense, ‘up’ was just the storm clouds above. Aside from them spitting rain, Alevica had seen nothing above her head.

Only something flying truly high up could have hid above the clouds, even the closest ones. No regular monster could do that. A Griffin couldn’t, or even most Wyverns.

That was why it was really unpleasant when a Griffin did come out of the sky with a scream that gave Alevica a second’s warning before it almost grabbed her.

Kissing toads! What the hell—

The Griffin aborted its dive and twisted up unnaturally fast as Alevica did an aileron roll. She cursed, drew a wand, and fired in one motion.

The charges of the Viltach-made wand were a piercing arrow spell. Alevica aimed for the wings, but the Griffin dodged; she fired a dozen more, and they should have pierced the right wing.

Instead, they bounced off. The Witch Runner’s eyes went round, and then she heard a shout.

“[—erring Throw]!”

Something hit Alevica in the chest, wrapped around her, struck her shoulder, and she felt herself plummeting downwards, off her broom, arms immobilized.

What—what was—

A bola, a throwing device that was two weights attached to a cord of rope. It was encircling Alevica, and she lost her wand as she struggled to break free.

Catch her, Hircas!

The Griffin screamed and dove as Alevica saw the ground spinning beneath her. The [Witch] reacted with pure instinct.

Broom, to me!

Her broom swerved out of the air, and Alevica pivoted until she was falling boots-first to the ground. She tensed—landed, and shot away from the Griffin, whose claws closed where she had been a moment ago.

Alevica stood on her broom, fighting to get the damn bola off her as a voice cursed in surprise from overhead. It was a good trick; Alevica thanked Oliyaya for teaching her to tie the homing spell to her boot soles.

You can’t get me that easily! But that begged the question—who was after her?

A [Bandit] with a Griffin? A [Bounty Hunter]? Griffins were notoriously hard to train. Alevica twisted her head and saw a Griffin, a big one, wearing armor and a figure sitting on a saddle aiming something else at her.

Alevica drew her other wand and blew the bola out of the sky with a miniature bolt of lightning. Her other wand was gone, and Alevica was flying too fast to recover it. Damn, damn, damn—

“I’m a Runner, you idiot! A Runner! Back off if you’re a [Knight]!”

That was Alevica’s guess; only a [Knight] could afford armor and proper gear. However, the Griffin just dove again, and Alevica caught sight of a young woman pivoting towards her.

She had a helmet on, lined with fur, and two glass goggles on her face. Alevica couldn’t make out much of her features, but she did see a smile like the Griffin’s; an expression of a predator on the hunt.

“Give up, [Witch]. You can’t outrun a Griffin in the skies.”

The Griffin was unnaturally fast. It had to be benefiting from Skills; normally, they had trouble regaining altitude, but this one just swooped upwards. All of Alevica’s normal tricks avoiding the bastards weren’t working, and she juked left as it went higher.

It’s going to dive again, and I don’t know if I can dodge that and the bola.

I am a citizen of the Unseen Empire! Back off!

Alevica used her other card in desperation. But the laugh from above made her blood chill.

“I know you are. You’re the ally of the Stitch Witch. Surrender and I won’t hurt you. I’m after Witch Wiskeria.”

Oh fuck. Wiskeria and her mother? Those damn—

A bolt of lightning decided now was a great time to come down, and Alevica finally saw the last piece that put everything together. An insignia was drawn on the Griffin’s armor and the rider’s own gear. It was crude, stylized, but Alevica could guess which nation had a Griffin on it. As for the rest?

The Wing of Shame. Kaliv’s disgraced [Griffin Rider] unit. Wiskeria told me about it once. Bandits, murderers, people seeking redemption. All following their leader, the famous, immortal, disgraced Griffin Prince.

“Aw. Shit.”

That made sense for who it was. Alevica wondered how likely it was she could talk this idiot out of their attack. But she could feel a thirst for vengeance coming off the rider as well as significant ire and that feeling that she had gotten from Laken this morning.

Feels like love. Great. Someone’s going to try to uncurse the Griffin Prince the old-fashioned way.

Alevica doubted hacking Wiskeria’s head off would stop the curse on the Griffin Prince; you’d have to do that to Belavierr several times, if you could even kill her that way. But she doubted non-[Witches] understood the problem. Regardless, Alevica would have really preferred for Wiskeria to be the one dealing with this right now.

The Griffin was flying high overhead, fearless of the rain, and Alevica was waiting for it to begin another dive when something streaked past her face. An arrow.

The rider was taking shots at her! 

“That’s it. I’m boiling her blood in her veins.”

Alevica kept juking as she grasped her good wand and prepared for a counterattack. She didn’t care about the reasons; she cared about surviving and not being either captured or killed in this stupid revenge game.

Her wand was actually of little use in the air; lightning needed to be grounded to be truly effective. The Griffin looked like it had magical resistance or spell reflection as a Skill.

So a high-level [Rider], and she’s got [Unerring Throw]. 

Curse time. Nothing like a good curse. Can’t see the enemy? Curse. Wearing magical armor? Curse. Alevica just needed a feather or something…

Or the bolas. A wicked smile made Alevica stop trying to untangle herself from the damn bola that had cracked her shoulder.

Return to sender. Classic curse magic. Throw it back twice as hard, and even if you had curse protections, you didn’t have bola-to-the-face protections.

Alevica began to chant.

Bola, bola, fill with wrath. By my pain and by my craft! Fly back wicked bola and greet your sender. Rightly, unrightly, end her!

She reached for the power in her hat to juice the bola up with as much malice and suffering as the stupid [Griffin Rider] deserved. Then Alevica faltered. She felt at her hat with one hand.

“Oh. No—”

Her hat was almost empty. When had—?

My craft isn’t working. I should have fixed it. All the power she’d stored in there from Riverfarm was almost gone! She didn’t have enough power for a curse spell. She barely had power for another ten minutes of flight!

Alevica’s confidence vanished. She fired her wand up, sending arcs of lightning into the air and making the Griffin dodge—then scream as Alevica dove towards the ground.

Forest. I need a forest! Suddenly, Alevica’s faith in her ability to fight back or even keep dodging in the air was gone. Without magic, she only had her wand’s charges, and she was up against a [Warrior] and a damn Griffin.

At least the rain gave her some cover. Another arrow hit the ground, and Alevica thanked her lucky stars that the archer didn’t have [Pinpoint Shot]. She heard a shriek from above and twisted her broom, racing it left at a ninety-degree angle.

The Griffin had to abort another dive with a squawk of alarm; Alevica was flying a foot over the ground, and she’d executed a turn that the animal couldn’t keep up with. She heard a shout.

“[Unerring—]”

This time, the bola didn’t hit Alevica. Mostly because she had reached into her bag of holding and tossed a pillow out. The bola hit the pillow, and Alevica raised two objects in her hands. Crossbows.

Get lost, you idiot!

She fired, and both bolts went wide as the Griffin flew upwards. Cursing, Alevica reloaded and fired again, but her shots went wide again. Aiming at a target in the air when both of you were moving at speed?

The [Rider] seemed to understand aerial combat better than Alevica. The Witch Runner hadn’t fought many enemies in the air. On the other hand—Alevica ran a serpentine pattern then dove over the edge of a small hill, refusing to give the Griffin any space to nab her.

She was more nimble. Stalemate, in short.

Until Alevica’s magic ran out. The [Witch] was playing for time, now, and distance, so she fired her crossbows again, to make the Griffin Rider think she was intent on fighting.

Please give me a forest. Any forest! I need to signal for help then hide. Can Griffins track by scent? I can do something about that—

There was never a forest when you needed one. Izril was filled with damn trees, and not one gigantic forest appeared in front of Alevica as she wove her broom through the rain.

She did get a swamp, though.

 

——

 

Alevica ran out of power eighteen minutes into her chase with the Griffin Rider, but she timed it well. She was flitting across the water, and under a small copse of trees. The Griffin was flying overhead, tracking her, when the [Witch] vanished. She had flitted under a branch, and she didn’t continue onwards.

Obviously, the [Griffin Rider] instantly swung her Griffin back and descended towards where the [Witch] had been. But when she hovered there, the [Witch] was gone.

“But she was flying…”

Then the trick became obvious as the rider saw some objects lying in the swamp. Namely, a hat, robes, and a broomstick, all abandoned.

A decoy! The [Witch] must have bailed off her broom at some point and made her clothing look like she was still flying from above. The rain had muffled and hid her—cursing, the [Rider] shouted.

“Find her! Hircas, find her before she warns the others!”

Screaming, the Griffin took to the skies, and the two combed the marsh, but the thick waters were rippling and flooding with the rain. After nearly two hours of searching, they had to fly away in frustration.

Only then did Alevica surface, collect her hat, robes, and broom, and stop breathing through the wooden straw she’d luckily had in her bag of holding.

“Idiots.”

Like hell a real [Witch] would abandon her hat. Then again, Alevica had been nigh-impossible to spot from above in the water regardless. The swamp had saved her.

She still hated it. She was covered in filth, freezing, and out of magic. She’d been trying to suck as much anger and frustration out of the [Griffin Rider] as she could, but it wasn’t much.

“I really am out of my craft. How much magic do I have?”

…Thirty minutes, maybe, with that recharge. Great. Alevica glanced at the sky, then took off, flying as covertly as she could. She had to gain ground on the [Griffin Rider]. Then call for help. The problem was…she had no idea where the hell she had ended up.

Near Reizmelt? There’s a swamp there. If a monster pops out, I am so dead.

Alevica had a wand that was almost out of charge and two waterlogged crossbows. She’d tried to save them, but she’d hid underwater; it had flooded her damn bag of holding.

Avoidance was her only strategy. Alevica flew fast as she dared, wondering if it would be better to use her craft to call for help.

The ribbiting in the swamps decided her. There were Wailer Frogs about and worse monsters still; she’d take her chances on getting to a settlement.

She thought she’d ended up south of Reizmelt, more or less close to the same town she’d passed by earlier this week. Vaunt and the realms of cheese. But this swampy land…

Alevica was flinching from what she thought were wings overhead when she came across, of all things, signs of life.

In a swamp.

Flickering lights that were definitely torches or lanterns; Alevica’s eyes picked out cleared ground, and she gasped in relief.

“A village! Yes!”

Swamp people. But people who might let her hide away, even if she had to buy their help. Alevica had no idea who wanted to live in a swamp. Ogres? Bah; she doubted they were more than a collection of water-loving eccentrics.

As Alevica flew closer, she realized that was one option. Or…another?

What if they were a group of people who wanted to stay hidden at all costs? A group of people with long, pointed fangs, say? Alevica’s stomach dropped as she realized the reason she was seeing so many lights in the middle of the rain was because it wasn’t just a few watch-lanterns. Nor was it a party.

Figures on horseback were riding back and forth, and the flames were growing as Alevica dropped to the ground in the swamp and froze. She heard shouting, screams of terror, and her eyes picked out, for a second, green armor. 

A [Knight] charged across the ground, torch in one hand, lance in the other, far too fast even for a regular horse on the gallop.

The Order of the Clairei Fields. And it looked like they were setting fire to the entire damn village. Alevica saw houses covered in green mold, camouflage against the treeline, smoldering as voices cursed.

They’re heading into the swamp! Don’t let them get away!

Call for the other hunters! Send word to Hunter Delanay; it’s a swarm of them! Watch your backs!

The air was filled with malice. Alevica tried to put it in her hat, but it was foul and black. Filled with both panic and hatred. There was terror too—the [Witch] crouched on the shore, water turning to muck, heedless of her robes and boots sinking.

“Insane.”

She’d heard they were hunting Vampires, but this was a step far above just combing through the villages. They were razing the entire place! She counted at least a hundred figures on horseback. Worse—the screams of terror didn’t rise. They fell silent, and Alevica felt the hairs on her neck stand up.

The shouting continued, and more hands began to ignite the buildings, soggy wood or not. Alevica saw the [Knights] and other hunters spreading out purposefully, creating a net around the village. They were combing the ground and undergrowth, even plunging into the water.

Mad as loons. They wanted their quarry dead, but they were still up against desperate people, even if they seemed largely unarmed. One of the [Knights] vanished with a cry in the distance, and the others waded towards him, shouting.

Now was the moment to hop on her broom and get out of here; the Order of the Clairei Fields might recognize Riverfarm, but they weren’t friendly, and they had a history with [Witches] too.

Get up and go. But Alevica, damn her, hesitated.

She couldn’t help it. She was no Califor or a Hedag. But she could sense the desperation and fear—some hatred, yes, but most of it was just blind panic. And something else…a longing. A need for someone to reach out and help.

Hope was such a simple word for it. It was the feeling of someone on the edge of a cliff reaching a hand up even as the ground gave way. It was the last thing Alevica had ever felt from her mentor, along with pride and determination and wrath.

Salvation.

She wished she didn’t feel it. The [Witch] raised her mud-spattered hat and locked eyes with a cluster of red pupils crouched in the mud across from her.

If not for her abilities, she would have missed the family so still and quiet were they. Alevica took hold of her broom.

“I can’t do anything for you. I’m out of magic.”

She could barely save herself. Alevica cast a glance skywards and wondered if the rider had seen the fires from above. She backed up another step, then stared at the silent figures. One of them pushed forwards a young figure, who protested—but a mud-covered hand was on the figure’s mouth.

The boy wasn’t more than eight. The same age as Cirsa and Malluni. He went still as Alevica closed her eyes. Then she reached out and put as much of what they had to offer her in her hat.

Damn her. She was no Ryoka Griffin. But even so—

A [Witch] had to fly.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

So, I wrote a huge 60k chunk of words in one week, and I realized I not only had to split in two, but I needed time to edit. I took that time, and that’s a good thing.

Edits…added about 5,000 words? The second half requires more edits, and I’ll try to get it done this week, but I am flying out to a wedding, and you know how much time that might take. Either this week or the next, but I am within the Riverfarm arc that ties into the Order of Solstice.

I’ll write up some thoughts on how doing these arcs is complicated next chapter. But suffice it to say, I’m thinking of the Rags poll chapter as well.

My other note is that this is a busy month. Are July’s busy months? Lots of stuff happening in the world and in my work that I can’t get into, but I hope that after this one I can rest a bit more. Nevertheless, I am always continuing to write, and I hope you enjoy these chapters. I’ve been feeling more sociable, and I have more energy for non-writing things, the continuing update on the writing changeover.

But it’ll take more time to manifest; my other note is that wasabi-flavored chips are like an explosion if you eat too many. I have one of those Japanese Bokksu boxes I was gifted for my birthday. I like them but wasabi’s…wasabi.

That’s all from me. See you next week or the week after! Unless my Boeing flight crashes. I’d better not go to Innworld. The [Knights] of Solstice wouldn’t even accept me. Drinking milkshakes from Barehoof Kitchens is where it’s at.

 

 

Stream Art: Oliyaya and Alevica, and Malluni and Cirsa by Yura!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yurariria

 

Stream Art: Ishkr and Vess by Fiore!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/atlasphenomenon

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/fiorepandaphen

 

Stream Art: Laken Coping and Otterdog by Artsynada!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

 

Gnoll commissioned by Vnator, by @mutsomuno!

 

Otterdog by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

Lyonette’s Gamble and Cards by AVI!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/0avi0

 

Erin and Worker by Rocky!

 

Snow Elemental by jawjee!

Instagram: https://instagram.com/jawjee_draws?igshid=OGQ5ZDc2ODk2ZA%3D%3D&utm_source=qr

 

Ryoka by Relia!

Tumblr: https://www.tumblr.com/reliaofdreams

 


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