Interlude – Brewing Sariants

(The author is on break before they explode of tiredness. Back on the 28th!)



The following events took place during the month of winter quiet, including dancing lessons, a cold war between two girls, a Gnoll learning how not to fall, and more.


Some days, life kicked you in the face. And you thought that sucked, like a bucket hitting you in the face while you were drawing water and your best, traitorous friend, Nanette, laughing at you if you were a white Gnoll.

Or you were a certain City Runner turning over a new, positive leaf. But you just happened to get in trouble for turning in the wrong denominations of gold coins. They weren’t all weighted the same, and you were being accused of swapping coins around so you turned in the lighter ones and kept the heavier ones.

Or you were a fun fellow to be around, a confidence man, a [Trickster], not a scam artist, and you really didn’t deserve to have a death-squad set fire to your apartment. With you in it.

So, when life kicked you in the face like that, you reeled and perhaps took it on the chin. You complained, you scowled—

Then life drop-kicked you in the groin. It didn’t matter what gender you were or if you even had gonads of any kind. It still hurt. And when you were on the ground, like the white Gnoll girl putting too much death-spice in a plate to get back at her worst enemy—the plate got served to the [Innkeeper] instead, and she died, and it wasn’t your fault.

Or you, the innocent City Runner, Persua, found out that someone was investigating you for previous complaints about supposed sabotage of fellow Runners, and you had a ‘record’—again, unfair.

Or, as a young man climbed out of the soot and ash of the building where he’d used an emergency wand of water to prevent himself from dying, he ran for it and someone shot him through the leg.

That was when you and life had a personal grudge. And you thought, ‘well, this is a bad day, but it can’t get much worse’. And then—you looked up as you were lying on the ground, and life had fifteen friends, and they had spiked clubs.

That was when the little Gnoll girl caught herself in a fight with Nanette as two sides of adults shouted at each other, and she got a bloody nose and scratched up Nanette’s face. And that was when Persua heard that she was under investigation—and the investigator was Mihaela Godfrey, and she was to report to the Haven now.

That was Rickel dragging himself to an [Underground Healer]’s, no longer laughing, no longer having a good time, and being told he could get treatment but no potions. And realizing he didn’t have any either because everything had burned up in the fire. And the [Healer] took a look at his leg and the crossbow bolt in it, checked their notes from the Last Light’s tutorials, and said they hoped they figured out the stitching technique.

That was a bad day. Sariant Lambs knew it because they had those kinds of bad days all the time. The sound you made when life kicked you in the stomach was not a scream of defiance or even a cry of pain. It was, at that point—just a noise you made, like the sound Nanette made when getting hit in the stomach by a flying headbutt from Ekirra.





During the month of winter, not all things were good and pleasant. True, it wasn’t ‘Creler eggs in your cereal’ unpleasant—it was just two kids fighting.

The snowman incident had evolved. Why were they fighting? Well, neither one would back down. But the adults could recognize a bad fight, and so they got together.

Lyonette invited Numbtongue, who was backing Nanette, over for a cordial chat after the second day of hostilities. This was before the Erin death-spice incident. The day before, actually.

“My, they haven’t stopped fighting for two days straight! Nanette’s going around telling everyone how mean Mrsha is, and Mrsha’s been attacking Nanette with beavers.”

“Yeah, that was pretty funny.”

Each girl was using their specialty. Nanette was rallying public support, and Mrsha was rallying the troops. But the [Bard] and [Princess] thought that it could get worse.

“My sisters, you know, get this bad. There would be years of fighting and feuding. All this silly escalation—we can end it now, can’t we, Numbtongue? If I am counting right, it’s Calescent with you, Jewel, Normen and Alcaz, Liska…”

“Mhm. But you get Ishkr and Bird. And all the [Knights]. The Antinium…”

“Yes, but you have all the Goblins.”

Lyonette’s acquaintance with Pawn meant the Antinium backed her implicitly. Numbtongue was a Goblin, and Goblins went with their own. Ishkr had decided to check Nanette, so Liska had joined the opposing side.

In truth, Mrsha, as the older resident of the inn, should have enjoyed unbridled support, but she had grown complacent. Her cuteness had long reigned alone.

A new era was coming. Yet it needn’t be one of strife. Numbtongue sipped from some coffee. It was late, but gaming on the laptop never stopped. Nor did the fun. The ‘fun’ in his case was either going to be seeing if Garia wanted to get into a fight after her training or seeing if Salkis had snuck out of her home.

Lyonette was just having some decaffeinated tea, courtesy of Eloise. She wished Numbtongue had joined her. Tea and coffee was like Nanette and Mrsha. They were on the same side, really. Dreamers in search of caffeine when they woke.

“I appreciate you taking Nanette’s side, really. Both girls were naughty. Mrsha shouldn’t have overreacted, and Nanette shouldn’t have been so…well, petty.”

“Mm. Silly fight, and then they make up.”

Both smiled at each other. Numbtongue nodded to the relieved [Princess].

“Let’s get them to be friendly again. It was a good lesson for both.”


“Mrsha just had to learn she couldn’t keep getting away with things, though.”

That was when Ser Dalimont, standing with his hands folded behind his back, winced. The [Princess] paused for too long, and her voice rose slightly.

Excuse me? Her get away with ‘things’? Get away with what, pray?”

The negotiations were beginning to break down. Ser Dalimont had heard the like before.

“Could—I get a snack for anyone, Your Highness? Bard Numbtongue?”

“Nothing for me, Dalimont. What did you say, Numbtongue?”

He raised his brows.

“What I said. She does this all the time. Sometimes it’s funny, but she picks fights with bears. Sometimes the bears eat her.”

Name one time!

“Belavierr. The Meeting of Tribes, all of it. Fetohep. My laptop. Nanette’s the latest…”

Lyonette’s eyes grew wider with each passing second.

None of that was her fault! She was defending Rufelt and Lasica, she was a Doombearer hunted by Gnolls—it’s not your laptop either, Numbtongue!”

The problem was the representatives. Numbtongue and Lyonette did not always get along. The Goblin’s eyes narrowed.

“Oh yeah? Even if it wasn’t her fault, she’s smug. Sassy. Sometimes someone needs to dunk her head in the well. She hurts people’s feelings and gets away with it because she thinks she’s cute. Remember her stealing food?”

I cannot believe you. You are the last person I want to talk to about propriety. You—triple throne-hopping fan-collector.

That was a Calanferian insult. Ser Dalimont hurried out with a pair of cupcakes.

“Perhaps we could slow down, Your Highness? Mister Numbtongue. A cupcake?”

“If Princess Lyonette eats something so uncouth, sure. Or is she going to lecture me on how to eat a cupcake?”

The [Princess] stared at Numbtongue, and her eyes narrowed.

“It seems someone must. Because for a [Bard], you have no notion of how other people feel.”

His eyes narrowed. He didn’t like her assertion. Numbtongue ignored Pyrite and Reiss, the voices of reason. He turned his head to Shorthilt, listened for a second—then flipped the cupcake onto Lyonette’s dress.

The icing slid down the front of her dress. The [Princess] gasped. Ser Dalimont, the failure of a bodyguard, deflected the second cupcake and got his charge to safety as she shouted insults at the grinning [Bard].

The death-spice incident occured the next day.





The sight of a Gnoll boy cannonballing into a young witch’s stomach was either funny or painful, depending on whether you were a terrible person with the empathy of a raisin or not.

Needless to say, Shriekblade nearly laughed herself out of concealment. Several members of the inn were also laughing themselves silly—but the fighting was actually not that pleasant at this point.

The adults were nastier than children could ever dream. Bird had been putting wormy birds under all the enemies’ pillows. He rubbed his hands as he emerged from Nanette’s rooms, having wormed multiple foes. Octavia, another Nanette supporter, was not going to enjoy the dead bird he’d put on her slumbering back when she rolled over.

But he halted in the second floor hallway as someone emerged from his rooms. Or rather, four people.


Peggy, Sticks, Picker, and…Bird peered at the fourth Goblin. She had a maid’s uniform on. Unlike Sticks and Picker, both male Goblins who were slightly troublesome for Rags and good, if not committed workers, she wanted to be here. Her class was [Maid]. Her name was Ressga. She was waiting for the Skills where she got to throw knives.

“Wait. What are you doing here? That is my room. You are not allowed in there.”

In reply, Peggy gave Bird a huge smile.

“But you are helping other people so much. So we help you, yah?”

Bird hesitated. Then he brightened up.

“Oh? Is there a dead bird in my room? How sad. How sad.

He turned until his back was facing them and rubbed all four hands together.

The fools. Another good lie! Heh. Heheheheheh.

Bird then turned to face the Goblins and gave them an innocent smile. But who was the fool, Bird? Because the big smile the Goblins gave Bird made him hesitate.

“Wait. What did you do to my rooms?”

“We cleaned them.”

The Goblins walked past Bird. He stared at them—then threw all his hands into the air as he rushed inside.

“No. Noooooooo—




If you thought that was cruel, when Ser Sest had tried to tattle on Nanette, someone had wired the door to Numbtongue’s mining site in the High Passes and not let him back through. Liska. Liska had done that.

Kevin made the mistake of being team Nanette and bit into a Garry-made mealworm pie. In retaliation, Joseph organized Liscor’s entire soccer team to have practice right outside the inn as Lyonette tried to put on a quiet, refined tea party with some friends. Later that day, Joseph was attacked by some beavers who extorted him out of his pants.

Octavia added itching powder to Ser Lormel’s armor.

Erin Solstice died of spice-death. Which, as Goblins could tell you, was a terrible way to die.




Her mouth was still on fire and her face was puffy as Ulvama laughed at her during dance practice. Erin Solstice scowled.

“Stop laughing.”

“Or what?”

“Or I’ll tell that lot you’re on Mrsha’s side and you’ll be part of it.”

That drew Ulvama up for a second. She, like Erin, had stayed out of the turf war. One would have thought she’d take Mrsha’s side, but the [Shaman] knew a problem when she saw it.

“Ooh. Good answer. You’re being more [Witch] every day.”


Erin Solstice was another neutral party currently being hit by friendly fire from both sides. She glumly got up to do some dancing. Ulvama had not asked why Erin didn’t just defuse the fighting. The [Innkeeper] might have been able to—but the [Shaman] gave her a side-long look as they did some jumping-jacks to warm up.

“You don’t want to stop them from fighting?”

“I want them to stop on their own. If I’ve gotta do it—Nanette and Mrsha were so buddy-buddy I thought they’d never fight. But Mrsha’s fought with Ekirra before. He lost—but she felt bad about it. She’s fought with Visma. I gave Ryoka a flying elbow two days ago. Fighting lets you make up.”

“True…but what if they don’t stop? Then it’s like Garen and Reiss.”

Erin nodded stiffly.

“Yeah. That’d be bad. If it keeps going, I’ll settle it without taking sides.”


The [Innkeeper] was counting the days to what she thought the Winter Solstice was. Her days of relaxation were not pointless. She glanced at Ulvama sideways and, through puffy lips, muttered.

“I destroy both sides and salt the ground.”

Not even a flicker of hesitation. If the Titan of Baleros could have heard that, he would have teleported himself into her inn with a rose. And the [Innkeeper] meant it. She wiped at her face as she felt her body getting tired—but slower than before.

“Alright, what’s our first dance, Ulvama? Also—you promised to share your magical recipes, remember?”

“Oh, right. You doing something witchy?”

Erin Solstice’s eyes flashed slightly.

“Just a pet project while I’m waiting on an Ashwheat delivery.”

She was a [Witch], after all. And she had not made use of many of her other class’ abilities. But Erin Solstice had decided there was some utility. She might not be able to compete with Imani, but she could cook her own brand of food. And yes, it might be less edible, but it was magical. And no one had ever said [Witch] brews were supposed to be tasty, right?




“[Basic Brewing]. Let’s toss in [Wondrous Fare] because it boosts everything. [Infuse Witchcraft]. Well, what’s the point of infusing food? I guess I’ll save that for something else.”

Erin Solstice was running down some Skills she had later that night. The inn was…quiet.

There was a lot of scheming abounding. And no one wanted to be out.

If you were on either side, the other side had a target on you, and you might run into a trap. But if you were one of the few neutrals left, like Relc or Bezale or, ironically, Ryoka Griffin, you did not want to be seen as being on one side or the other.

So Erin had the run of her inn, and at the moment, she was making a fire in the [Garden of Sanctuary].

She might be too tired to do anything but roll around in her wheelchair, but a bag of holding and the ability to use her [Portal Door] in imaginative ways let her collect most of what she wanted in moments.

And what she wanted was firewood, the big cauldron—it fell through the floor and nearly brained Erin as it landed in the grass.

Whoa! I could kill myself like that! Okay. Damn, it rolled over. I wonder if I can infuse witchcraft into a sword? But why would I?”

She was thinking hard. About…enemies. And about how the heck she’d be able to confront them with her limited resources.

The sword in the stone would work—but anything short of that was worthless. A legend of Chandrar had not left a scratch.

But sunlight had. Ideas. Ideas like loaves trumped magic, which was why she hadn’t convened Pelt and Hedault and tried to buy a weapon.

“If I can’t hurt them, I can at least hide or piss them off. So I’m gonna do just that. [Basic Brewing]! Fire! Hah!

The witch pointed her fingers at the pile of wood where she’d kicked the cauldron into place. Her fingers…sparked.

Erin stared at her fingers.

“Wait a second. I don’t know any regular fire spells.”

She had every kind of magical fire, but in this case, she actually just wanted regular flames. Erin scratched her head.

“[From Witchcraft, Sorcery Ariseth]! Flame, glorious flame!”

She pointed again—and her fingers pffed some smoke. Erin looked around, and to her relief, no one was watching.

“Wait a second. I can levitate things, and I can even do spells. Where’s my magic?”

She still had enough craft, especially from the [World’s Eye Theatre]. Having an audience watching movies for the first time generated a good amount of wonder. But it occurred to Erin that sorcery, or [Sorcerer]’s magic, was harder than she thought.

Unlike [Mage] magic, this was all about willpower as well as imagination. And Erin didn’t actually have much practice with it.

“Flame, dear flame. Hot. Rising from my hands. Really hot…”

She managed to conjure a small flame after several minutes of really hard concentration. But when she hopefully tossed it into the logs of wood—it didn’t catch. It needed tinder, more power, and Erin needed to ‘solidify’ her idea of fire.

To make a [Fireball], she would have to conceptualize the raw explosive power of one from start to finish. Imagine both how it formed—and how it would invariably detonate—and give it enough fuel to realize that vision. Once done, she could probably do it again far more easily.

But even creating a flame hot enough to set logs of firewood ablaze was a pain in the ass. Erin rolled back and forth—then coughed into one fist and looked around.

“…Apista! Hey, Apista, I’ve got a job for you!

A lazy bee about to sleep for the night crawled out of her nest and flew over. She gave Erin a sleepy look, but when the [Witch] explained what she wanted, Apista grudgingly crawled over to the firewood and set it ablaze with her body.

[Witches] were pragmatic, and Erin didn’t feel like working on that kind of magic. She had another kind. She poured water into the cauldron, this time by levitating the bucket Mrsha had so painfully drawn from the well. As the water began to steam and bubble, Erin began whispering the Skills she had gained as a Level 17 [Witch of Second Chances].

“How did it go? Nanette said…ah. Of course. I’d better toss some Sage’s Grass in this. Witch brews have actual rules. Stir counterclockwise and roll around the cauldron, I guess. I have a potion I’m trying to brew. It’s something weird and new. And if you cross me, it’ll be the death of you. Or at least, something nasty. Nasty enough to start with, I guess. I’ll use it on both sides and then make a bigger one to use against them. Proof of concept. No…[Distill Simple Concept].

Witchcraft was not about magic as [Mages] understood it. They put a spell into anything they used. [Alchemists] craved reactions that were chemical and obeyed different laws. Witches put feeling and intent into their magic.

The first brew that Erin tried was a copy of one she’d seen others do. Just a proof of concept. And in this case, she rolled around the cauldron vigorously. She had just danced with Ulvama, and she took that effort—some sweat from her brow—and even hopped up and danced about the cauldron.

A liquid appeared and fell, drop by drop, into the cauldron, turning the liquid inside a sour green. Erin danced harder—then flopped over and nearly set her hair on fire.

“That’s…too…much…work. How am I supposed to do that for three hours? Stop, stop!”

Apista, crawling on the edge of the cauldron, ignoring the bubbling heat, poked her face down and tasted the brew Erin was working on. She sipped a bit, then turned to Erin.

Weak. The [Innkeeper] glumly got up after eight minutes and groaned as she peered in the pot.

“Oh no. It’s way harder than I thought. I’ll have to be at full-Erin power before I can do this.”

The world’s weakest energy brew was bubbling in the cauldron in front of her. [Distill Basic Concepts] meant her vigorous workout had been channeling energy into the brew.

Much like Wiskeria could draw on nature to create her brew and used ingredients, a [Witch] could provide a lot by herself. But Erin didn’t have the energy to put in, so her energy brew had less energy than a cup of coffee in it.

If she’d danced about for three hours straight, she was sure she’d have something that would knock your socks off. But…glumly, the [Innkeeper] shook her head.

“That’s a no go. Besides—it’s not even that useful with stamina potions.”

Back in the day, the coven of old [Witches] claimed they’d been the ones selling lots of energy draughts until [Alchemists] completely muscled them aside. But—

Erin was about to toss the entire cauldron aside when she realized that was stupid. You could add layers to your creation. She swirled the liquid in the pot as she thought hard.

She had one idea. It had come to her after her Earther call. It dovetailed with something she thought would really annoy Kasigna. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt her, but…

“I don’t think I can weaponize it without making something other than a brew. A glass bottle, perhaps, you could throw. This is drinkable stuff. But hey, I could use it on Mrsha and Nanette?”

You what now?

Apista hadn’t been involving herself in partisan squabbles. She believed in the team. Erin’s smile, though, was so evil that the Ashfire Bee decided it might be better to take cover. She crawled into a spare pot that Erin had brought out and peeked out from under the lid.

“Don’t worry, Apista. But don’t get scared if I, uh…I’m going to do something a tiny bit stupid. Or crazy. Or scary. I don’t wanna put blood in the pot because Calescent makes stew with it and I sort of have a thing about bleeding to death. There’s a limit to how much I can put into the pot. If I had [Distill Advanced Concepts], I bet I could put law into a brew. But then again, I’m not Wiskeria. I have to put things I have in, right?”

Erin was explaining her understanding of witchcraft to the bee, and Apista gave her a wary nod. You only put in what you had. Checked out. That was why [Witches] kept storing things in their hats.

Nanette could have put grief into a creation. She hadn’t and it had been too heavy, but Erin, by the same token, hadn’t collected enough unique resources. The [Innkeeper] rolled left and right.

“Maybe I could bring Mrsha over and get her to dance for three hours if I needed energy. But for a test-run…I’ll have to track down the real Earther to get the good stuff. But I can prove the idea now. It’s just, um. Embarrassing. No one’s allowed in the garden for a moment!

Erin locked down the garden and took a deep breath.

“I can do it. Anyone can do it. In fact, it’s even a [Witch] thing. I mean, maybe it’s stereotypical and racist…but Oliyaya would be proud. Okay. Here goes. Don’t tell anyone, Apista.”

Erin leaned back in her chair, stared up at the ceiling, and went for it. It was one of the most classic things you could imagine with a [Witch]. At first, she just made stupid sounds. But it was in there, wasn’t it? No one had ever heard Erin do it.

But any [Witch] could laugh. Had you ever been so angry, so hateful, so despairing or happy or any emotion in between that you could only laugh? If so, you could understand the hysterical cackle, the laugh of a demon, or the pure peals of joyful relief.

Erin Solstice had recently met a [Clown] who laughed like that. But the impetus for this brew was both an item of utility…and a way to hurt her greatest foes. And they might fear the laughter of Gnomes above all. She wanted to put that into this brew, and she could.

That was one thing. But the real question was—

What did Erin Solstice cackling sound like?




The [Garden of Sanctuary] was closed, for some reason, this night. The feuding factions obviously suspected the other side of using it. Liska, Numbtongue, and Jewel were plotting in Octavia’s shop while Lyonette held court in her room.

Both sides were trying at this point to get Erin on their side. They feared the other using Erin, much like someone watching for a weapon of war rolling towards their battlements.

But there were some people skulking about by midnight. They kept to the shadows.

The inn felt darker some nights. The winter moons didn’t glow so brightly tonight, shuttered by clouds. The shadows drew long—the animosity filled the air.

And the candles and lanterns weren’t lit. Ishkr might be on strike.

No—wait. The inn was dark because Gothica was blowing out the lights. The Goblin was standing on her toes as she snuffed a candle. She grinned in the darkness, a cheshire smile of needles and glowing red eyes. She turned—and Ryoka Griffin held her hands up.

“Holy fuck that’s creepy, Gothica.”

“Thank. You want to scare someone?”

“No…I’m just going for a walk. That cool?”


The Goblin stepped back—and melted into the shadows. Ryoka stepped forward and waved her hand into the shadows.

Gothica wasn’t there. It wasn’t a trick of the light.

“She’s getting higher-level. That’s creepy. That is creepy, right?”

Ryoka Griffin looked around, and her companions were less impressed. A lamb kicked Ryoka in the ankle, thoroughly unimpressed. And a faerie shrugged.


“Eh, she’s no nuckelavee or redcap yet. Those’d scare the shit out of ye.”


Ryoka sighed, and a patch of shadows glared indignantly as Shaestrel floated by. The faerie shrugged innocently as Ryoka whispered back.

“Shaestrel, no offense, but the fae always one-up whatever we do. You know how it gets annoying with Earthers and tech? Gothica’s pretty good, right?”

Shaestrel gave Ryoka an odd look.


“I meant no offense by it. Just the truth as I promised to speak, Ryoka. I mean it. Have ye…no, you didn’t meet any redcaps in our lands. Just as well. I mean what I say. There are some of their number that scare me.



There was a difference between Shaestrel and Ivolethe that Ryoka was picking up on. They had a lot of similarities, but Ivolethe was, somehow, pricklier than Shaestrel. She would be flipping off most people à la Gothica and be more strident at times. Shaestrel was closer to the truthful storyteller.

Also, she had come here on a mission, so she was friendlier by default than Ivolethe had been. She also seemed more prone to admitting fear or other emotions.


“I’ll tell ye what’s creepy. This inn, right now. Gives me the need to pish in the outhouse.”


The faerie commented as they tip-toed down the inn. Ryoka had been wanting to go to the garden for a private chat—but the door wasn’t working. The [World’s Eye Theatre] was Ryoka’s next stop.

“What, you too? I thought it was just me.”

Nerry snorted at both cowardly females as she trotted along. But Shaestrel and Ryoka looked slightly uneasy.


“‘Tis nothing. Ivolethe would be laughing around like Nerry here. Then again, she’d be walking with sword in hand. Warrior-born, that one. She used to run with the Wild Hunt.”




“She never said? Aye, of the two of us, she’s the more dangerous.”


“I thought you were both members of the Faerie Court, though. And you both talk like you’d been to war…”


“A difference between one who takes to it and one who picks up the blade out of necessity, Ryoka Griffin. Note that I don’t give that [Lord] tips on the blade? I have been spanking yer [Innkeeper] in games of chess, though.”


“Please don’t ever use that turn of phrase with Erin. How are you beating her?”


“I’m better. It makes her mad as shite, though. Gaaah! What’s that sound?”


This time, even Nerry heard it, and everyone halted. The inn felt ominous and creaking—and the plotters and the quiet, dark hallways added to the effect, but Ryoka’s skin erupted into goosebumps.

The sound came from everywhere and nowhere. As if wherever the person was, they had no physical presence. But she swore she heard, like a phantom-sound in your head, both there and not there, but loud—

“Is that someone laughing? Who the fuck laughs like that?”

A terrible noise was echoing faintly down the hallway. Nerry slowly slotted her wand into place as Shaestrel rubbed her ears.


“…That’s spooky. You laugh like an evil villainess about to send a poor girl into the woods alone or push someone into a burning oven. That sounds like the laughter of a devil spitting in the eye of god.”


“I don’t laugh that bad, do I?”

Ryoka shuddered, but it was true that if she had a menacing laugh…this one sounded like wrath. It sounded like hatred and mockery. It wasn’t laughter. It was…a cackle. The kind of cackle that someone might make as a bee hid in a pot in her garden. But instead of a dark night, rain was lashing down and a storm blew about that place, as if she stood on the edge of a cliff, a pot burning over flames now burning clear, shimmering shadows with hate.

That was [Witch] magic alright. Then Erin Solstice caught herself and decided maybe she needed to reign it in a bit. Then she looked at the pot swirling crazily with color—and kept laughing. Letting it out. She laughed as if she’d laughed at Skinner. Laughed like the crackling sound of a skeleton’s clattering jaw. Laughed like a Gnome guffawing in a dead god’s face.




Tom, Tom—the [Clown] sneezed as he stood aboard the Blighted Kingdom’s ships, far at sea. Then he cleared his throat a few times and began doing breathing exercises. He had the uncanny feeling he needed to up his game. Almost like he had competition.




The sound of laughter and the dark night filled with angry people was the backdrop to Ryoka Griffin pushing her way into the [World’s Eye Theatre]. But again—she was too late.

She froze as she saw two figures meeting in the center of the theatre. They looked around, but Ryoka Griffin had ducked when Nerry noticed the two, and so the two operatives thought they met in secret. Ryoka heard them whisper as she slowly found a magical artifact, a conch shell, and put it to her ear.

Hedault had furnished her with a number of items in exchange for more of her coin, and this was an artifact that improved her hearing. And what she saw as she peered down was…

A young girl with two braided pigtails and a little Gnoll girl with white fur, looking around. They stopped warily as they came face to face, then Nanette spoke.

“Okay. Truce?”

Mrsha nodded seriously. They were meeting in secret. No one knew they were there. And as Ryoka Griffin crept away, Nanette whispered to Mrsha.

“This has gone way too far. Why are we fighting?”

F-forsooth. I felt bad when you got hit.

“And I felt bad when I punched you in the nose!”

Nanette, I’m sorry. It was my fault for being petty. Like a real Terandrian noble.

“But I’m older! And I’m a witch! Can we make up and fix this?”

Both girls nodded and hugged each other. This war had done nothing but hurt both sides. But how would they fix this? Someone had to. The adults were all stupid.




“Damnit, is everyone plotting around here? I bet it’s Erin in the garden. Let’s try the basement—”

Ryoka tried to find a quiet spot in the basement—right until a shadow shouted in pain.

Off my foot!

Ryoka leapt back, and Gothica hopped around in a circle.

“Sorry, Gothica. I didn’t see you there! It’s your fault you’re invisible. You’re too good at hiding.”

A patch of the wall spoke up right next to Ryoka and Gothica.

“She’s not that good.”


This time, Ryoka and Gothica leapt back, screaming, and Shaestrel dove into Nerry’s fur. Shriekblade looked slightly pleased as she appeared. She slowly uncrouched from her spot, and Ryoka pointed at her.

“What are you doing here? Er—Shriekblade?”

“Hiding. I’m not taking sides in this war thing, and Lyonette wants me to prank someone. I don’t prank. I stab. Don’t tell anyone I’m here or I’ll stab you.”

“Got it! We were just leaving. Um…”

Ryoka backed up the stairs quickly. Gothica held up a middle finger at Shriekblade experimentally. It worked well on Demsleth, Erin, Magnolia Reinhart…the Named-rank adventurer eyed the middle finger.

“What’s that for?”

Gothica lowered the finger, feeling embarrassed.

“Nothing. Sorry.”




“Is there anywhere private?”

Ryoka Griffin ended up standing in the snow outside the inn, shivering despite the coat and boots she’d put on.

Nerry had it even worse. The lamb vanished into a snowdrift and came out spitting snow and shivering. Shaestrel grumbled, and she was shivering, arms folded together as snow came down.


“This is stupid. ‘Tisn’t as if the inn isn’t warded. Let’s risk prying ears and just use yer rooms.”


“Can’t you ward them with something, Shaestrel?”


“Oh, sure. Let me just pull all the magic I have into a spell that works under your stupid rules. Because that’s what I get to have here. Magic in spades. Notice how my form is also so mighty? Or maybe I’m weak as a puppy and can only work in my element.”


“But you’re still a fae.”


Aye! And ye see all the bloom and flowers and crap? My power is weak! It’s winter! I’m cold!


Above her, a few Winter Faeries who were as yet not known to Ryoka were flying around, sprinkling snow in places. They came and went and seemed to be just having fun. Or perhaps just trying to literally freeze over certain places.


Hah! Shaestrel’s lost her touch! She never was good at snow! She just had to come through in spring!

“Shut up, you lot! You worthless pixies, go off somewhere else. Eat sh—uh oh.


The downpour of snow covered the front door of the inn, and when Ryoka, Nerry, and Shaestrel collapsed into the hallway, the snow literally blocked the front entrance.

“Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen one of the fae get their ass kicked by one of their own.”


“Shut up, Ryoka.”


The laughter had gone quiet as Nerry, Shaestrel, and Ryoka, thoroughly defeated and cold, got back to Ryoka’s rooms.

Nerry was disgusted at both. She set about putting down the ward-stones that Ryoka had been given and checking the room for cracks. She put a blanket by the crack in the door.

“We’re already warded, Nerry. If someone breaks through the spell, I don’t think that will muffle us.”

The lamb was so annoyed that she had to write a reply. It took her longer than Mrsha, but her writing was more economical. She took the time to get across some salient points.

“Idiot. Ward spells don’t block wires. Wire under door and sight spell. [Rogues] can put tube under door too.”

“Oh. Clever.”

There was an odd balance between the three. Ryoka was an expert on Earth and some other things. Shaestrel was a magic, mythos, and fae expert. But Nerry was actually the most knowledgeable about this world.

Unfortunately, the lamb was incapable of doing much, so Ryoka was the mind of the hapless vessel Shaestrel and Nerry had to work through.

The fae seemed content with how things had been going, but Nerry was not. She was a mad ball of spite, and she would often follow Ryoka around, kicking her in the ankle or being darkly amused at everyone’s ineptitude at best.

She had every reason to be, really. That bad day that Mrsha and others had had?

Imagine being a Sariant Lamb. At best, they were pets. At worst, monsters who didn’t appreciate their charm would devour them, and they were a conscious species living in mortal terror of being found out, unable to easily manufacture tools or advance out of a primitive stone age without stealing. In some places, people ate them.

Sariants had tried. But hoof-based tech was just—cumbersome. There was a reason why Earth’s predominant species had digits and opposable thumbs.

Well, actual sheep or goats would have still had a lot better time than Sariants. They had just been built too small to do much. Their one hope, as mentioned, was the Trials of Levelling.

But as Ryoka was learning, the solution was far from easy.

“Alright, sorry, Nerry. We wasted a bit of time, but at least we learned Mrsha and Nanette are burying the hatchet. That matters a bit.”

Nerry rolled her eyes, and Ryoka persisted.

“No, it does. I mean what I say. We’re spending time here gearing up and trying to introduce people to one another, but that’ll help your people and my goals. If I can get Tyrion to sit down with an Antinium or Goblin—that’s something. Erin Solstice’s inn works literal wonders, but only when things are good.”

“Fine, true. It is why we wanted her help.”

Nerry allowed. Ryoka sat down and reviewed the scrolls that Nerry and her people worked so hard on. She had been provided with a lot of info, and she was right now…understanding more of the Trials of Levelling.

“Okay. I get the Tower of Sariants issue. The highest you guys have ever gotten is two hundred feet?”

214.4. It counts for us.


“Odd. I never knew it did that.”


Shaestrel muttered. The…system or whatever governed classes apparently kept tallies on the Sariants. It was not in constant contact, though; since they did not level, it essentially had a kind of ‘report’ that would generate every year on their progress to their goals.

Ryoka was rubbing her head.

“It’d be so easy if we could only do one of these. Alright…tell me about the other trial. The Respect of Species?”

Nerry glumly indicated a scroll. Ryoka picked it up, and her face turned into a gigantic wince instantly.

“Oh my—and you guys did six? Wait, this is amazing, it’s over half-done!”

Nerry gave Ryoka such a sour look that the Wind Runner lifted her hands.

“I know, I’m—and there aren’t many people at all! Dead gods.”


“Let me see. Let me see. I don’t see what makes it so hard. Explain it to me?”


Shaestrel flew over to stare at the scroll, and Ryoka tried to explain.

The second trial, the Respect of Species, was arguably easier than the first to the naked eye, at least on a practical level. But as Ryoka read the exact wording, she had to think that this would have been far, far easier in another age.


<Trial of Esteem — The Respect of Species>

To justify yours is a group worthy of its place amongst the other species, receive the respect and accolades of the worthy. An individual must, without coercion or influence, genuinely offer one or any number of your people the sincerest token of personal gratitude, admiration, respect, envy, or fear.

Awe no less than [10] individuals capable of levelling to fulfill this task. 


That sounded really reasonable, right? Sort of like one of those old-fashioned rules that said you had to have a certain number of representatives to start a club or start a petition. In this case, it was dependent on people with levels.

It would be really, really simple for even Sariants to do that.

If not for the next part.


Each one of the ten individuals must be at least [Level 57] or higher.


The Sariants had wept tears of blood when they’d heard that. Level 57? How many people in this world were there that counted? From their time of genesis, they had worked on that one. That was one reason why they tried to become pets of the rich and powerful.

High levels arose at the heads of kingdoms or gave rise to them. And they had diligently pursued that goal.

In this time, they had managed 6 out of the 10. Very promising. But Ryoka’s heart sank at the prospect of getting four more.

Then again, she thought of Larracel. Was she over…?


Um. Well, Erin knew Niers Astoragon, and he had to count, right? That was at least helpful. But the problem was—how did you get genuine respect, awe, fear, or anything for a Sariant? Their perception as pets did not help.

“How did Sariants do it the first time? Or with the others?”

Nerry wrote for a while, and she had an ugly smile that made Ryoka suspect she was not going to enjoy reading it.

“Saving their lives works. But we can’t set it up. The first one we accomplished before we even knew about the quest. That was Eydol.”

“Ah. Say no more.”

She feared us before she died.

“Please, say no more.”

Ryoka Griffin shuddered, and the lamb spat, looking pleased. Ryoka had higher hopes about all this. Right until she reached for the scroll and read the last quest.

“…Oh, come on.

Shaestrel floated over, read, winced, and nodded.


“Aye, there it is. I told ye, those six bastards and all the rest never played fair.”


<Trial of Growth — The Unsurpassed One>

To win the right for your kind to grow beyond their mortal limits, hear these words, worthy one. You of all your people must achieve what is impossible by any member of your species naturally. You must create, in body, spirit, or magic, what lies in the realm of Skills. The foundation of [Flurry of Blades] is unsurpassed motion and ability that cannot be replicated by mortal hands. Create a single concept worthy of a Skill and you shall usher your people forward.


Erin Solstice had told Ryoka Griffin about the origin of blade-Skills. And she had cited the traitor of Elves, the greatest warrior in the lands of the dead with a blade, as the foundation of those.

Ryoka looked at the Sariant Lamb. Nerry stared back at Ryoka and kicked her in the leg. And yes, it hurt like the dickens, but there was a world of difference between that and—[Ankle-blasting Kick].

Because that was a copy that scaled with your level. But the real thing? Ryoka Griffin exhaled slowly.

“There’s no way. I mean—it has to be magic. Do Sariants have mana?”


“About as much as you have in one leg at most.”


Shaestrel muttered. Ryoka sucked in her cheeks. She stared ahead and wondered how they were going to manage that. Nerry gave Ryoka a searching look.




The lamb waited for despair. They had put their burdens on other levelless people, the Sariants. Some had been kind. Others, opportunistic or uncaring.

A few had needed to be killed before they endangered everything. But even the best-intentioned had just flailed around without a plan. Some had helped with the first task, the Respect of Species, and they would be remembered forever. The second, the tower, was ironically probably the easiest to solve, and the Sariants had tried to accomplish the first and last before they tackled the tower. That would be doable—but the effort might expose them.

Far better to know the last could be done. Yet it was the last that made them despair the most because the issue was simplest and hardest to grasp.

Hubwigh. The sound of life hitting you when you were down. Hope without a chance. It was probably the sound that defined Ryoka’s life, of walking around the corner into a sucker punch.

But you know what? If you got hit enough like that—you eventually learned to walk around the corner and punch life in the face before it got the first shot in. Ryoka Griffin opened her eyes, slowly, and looked at Nerry.

“Well. I don’t know about the Respect of Species—and I think we should ask for hints about the tower and…the rest. Tomorrow, I’ve asked to talk to Demsleth and Klbkch because I think both might have…clues for us.”

Nerry nodded. It had occurred to Sariants to ask the species they knew to be new to the world, like Antinium and Stitch-folk, how they’d done it. One had to assume they had done it.

Asking a Dragon was just common-sense if you could find one. But Ryoka was running her hand through her hair.

“As for that last quest…that’s a stinker, for sure. I don’t know where to begin. I don’t think you’d be able to create a new martial art even if we, uh, got you started. We’ll think on it. Shaestrel?”


“I…dunno if she can learn a thing. I could think on it.”


The Spring Faerie was uncertain. Nerry closed her eyes and exhaled. One quest would be appropriate for her lifespan. But then Ryoka Griffin hit expectation in the balls with a kick.

“…But for now, you’re lucky that we have a healing potion shortage and not a mana potion one. I’ll buy as much as we need, and we probably need a lot less given how much you weigh. It might get you killed, though, Nerry—but I do know how you could get enough mana to cast magic. Although…you can’t use traditional spells, I bet.”

Say what now? Nerry opened her eyes, and Ryoka Griffin remembered something Teriarch had once told her. There was a way to expand your mana pool. Shaestrel and Nerry looked at Ryoka with open mouths.

Ryoka Griffin smiled evilly…then shuddered.

“Dead gods. That laughter really is spooky.”




The next day, Ryoka Griffin put a bowl down at the breakfast table, and Nerry lapped at it, made a face, but kept drinking the mana potion. The Wind Runner watched her anxiously, and Shaestrel did too. She’d promised to see if Nerry was about to kill herself with excess mana potion drinking, but the truth was that it was going to be an unpleasant, long process that would strain Nerry’s body either way.

The same way Ogres had learned to give themselves spellcasting abilities, it was like enlarging your stomach by eating too much—or just like how someone built muscle by tearing it and forcing it to grow and get stronger. It wasn’t going to be easy, but the lamb never hesitated.

The one problem Ryoka had was having to keep pushing away a nosy bee.

“Apista, shoo. Shoo! Lyonette—can you take your bee away?”

“Oh, come on, Ryoka. She’s just hungry. She barely eats anything, and little Nerry has a full bowl. Let her have a bit? Why is Nerry so attached to you, anyways?”

Lyonette frowned briefly at Ryoka, but she was distracted. The Wind Runner raised a hand—then gave up and poured some mana potion into a separate bowl. Instantly, the Ashfire Bee crawled over to that.

“There. Both of you get mana potion. Sheesh. Shaestrel, keep an eye on Apista too?”


“Yeah, yeah.”


The reason Lyonette was so distracted, even from her beloved pet, was because her daughter and Nanette were the center of attention this morning.

There the two sat. Mrsha wore a spare set of  blue robes that Nanette had, and she was sitting next to Nanette, who’d put on one of Mrsha’s kilts with a trendy patchwork, colorful shawl in the same style as the kilt, boxed tartan lines, over a black shirt. They’d even found a beret hat that Mrsha refused to wear.

The two girls held hands as they waited for breakfast, smiling and showing everyone they’d made peace. Both their supporters stared at the two as Mrsha and Nanette became the bridge for peace in the inn.

“They’ve made up.”

Lyonette spoke, staring at Numbtongue cautiously. He frowned, eying her, and nudged Ishkr, who nodded.

“They have.”

Lyonette looked at Mrsha, and Bird glanced over as he walked downstairs and nearly fell flat on his face. Jewel pushed into the inn, looking tired, and waved something at Numbtongue. She mouthed.

“I have the centipedes!”

He pointed at Mrsha and Nanette, and she nearly dropped the sack she was holding. Lyonette looked at Numbtongue, then exhaled slowly. He looked at her, nodded, and they put out a hand. They shook hands—and Nanette and Mrsha beamed in relieved satisfaction.

For about five seconds. Until Lyonette, Numbtongue, and both sides rounded on Nanette and Mrsha. Lyonette raised a finger.

“You two made up? Now? After all the trouble you two caused?”

Numbtongue nodded.

“You can’t dress up and make up. There’s a mess everywhere.”

“There’s itching powder traps all over the inn!”

“There’s a sack of centipedes about to go into the bedrooms!”

You two are in so much trouble, young misses! You have a long weekend ahead of yourselves—guess who gets to clean up?”

Us? But you—

Nanette and Mrsha stared in horror at the evil adults. Their scolding only intensified as the two began to protest. And Ryoka was rolling her eyes and smiling in relief as a door opened and the light of the garden in the morning spilled in.

“hEy. aNYonE sTill FiGhting?”

The most scratched, worn out, and hoarse voice in the world made everyone turn. And then they saw Erin Solstice’s haggard face. But that wasn’t the scary part.

The scary part, as the [Witch] rolled into the common room of the inn, was her hair. It was standing up in parts, messed around by a storm, and had dried into place. She had rings under her eyes, and she smelled like a bunch of alchemical items.

But she smiled. And she was holding something in her hands. A flask filled with liquid that swirled around like a vortex even when she held it still.

Acid green mixed with a swirl of black and white, rotating together in a spiral. It made you feel vaguely uneasy when you looked at it.

And it wasn’t even the full-power version. Lyonette stopped scolding.

“Oh. Erin. Um. Actually, Nanette and Mrsha just made up. Silly them. Isn’t it? Was—was that you laughing last night?”

No one’s fighting?

Erin rasped. She looked around, and everyone eyed her. Erin smiled.

“Because if someone’s fighting…I have a tonic to mend your ailments. By killing you. Anyone want a taste?”

She looked around, and everyone remembered the tragedy of Numbtongue. Slowly, they backed up, and suddenly, Mrsha and Nanette? Why, what silly children! But girls will be girls. We had a bit of egg on our faces too, didn’t we? But least said, soonest mended, we’ve put it behind ourselves, and we’ll be right as rain now. Punishment? Forget about it!

The [Innkeeper]’s smile was a bit tilted. She looked around as she bit the cork and opened the bottle. Ryoka Griffin eyed the brew.

“Oh shit, it’s smoking.”

Grey smoke drifted from the bottle despite the lack of heat. Erin stoppered it with one thumb as she looked around.

But I was sure I saw a lot of fighting last night.

“We’ve settled it. I’m so sorry you were eating spices, Erin. But it’s all sorted.”

Okay. But you were fighting.

“But we’re done! This is all good, Erin. There is no need to be scary. I must now go to the outhouse.”

Bird waved his hands. Erin smiled at him.

“Yeah, but Bird…I remember you were all fighting. So here’s a question. Side Nanette. Side Mrsha. You two made up, right?”

Ishkr, Numbtongue, Bird, Jewel—Jewel was outside the inn and running through the snow, the centipedes running too. She was learning. Lyonette, Ser Sest, Normen, Octavia, everyone gave Erin a nod to say they had mended their ways and made peace.

The [Innkeeper] gave them a happy smile. And side Solstice slowly raised the brew and took a huge gulp.

Well, now it’s my turn to attack everyone. That’s called a grudge. Hah. Heh. Heeheeheehee–ahahahaha. AHAHAHAHAHAHA–”

She began laughing. But—it was hard to even describe how painful the laughter sounded. Instantly, everyone clapped their hands to their ears.

What laughter! It sounded like—Ryoka had once heard laughter like this in a movie. A crazy clown. But that was just special effects and some good lungs.

This sounded like insanity. This made thoughts—jump—made thinking difficult. And it was uncontrollable.

Erin Solstice cleared The Wandering Inn for five whole minutes. Ishkr threw himself out one of the windows with [Emergency Evacuation], and the rest of the guests ran out, covering their ears.

Five minutes, and the [Witch] was lying on the floor, face-down when the laughter stopped. When she looked up and Ulvama nudged her with a toe, hands over her ears, the [Witch] croaked.

“My throat hurts.”

Ulvama gave Erin a look of vague respect.

“Yah. I bet.”




“I call it a Cackle Brew. I’m not sure if it’s something you drink to attack your enemies with or whether it’s something you give your enemies. It’s a work in progress.”

Erin’s voice was still hoarse after all that, but she could at least get that much out. Everyone went back to breakfast, a bit shaken up by Erin’s newest creation.

“But Erin, I don’t understand. By the way, breakfast? Ishkr found a cask of blue fruit juice, so we’re having the last bunch this winter.”

Lyonette poured Erin a cup, and it soothed her throat instantly. The [Innkeeper] brightened up.

“Hey, that’s great. I’m feeling a lot better. Now, have we all stopped fighting? We’re all friends here.”

Erin looked around at the guests of the inn, and they glanced at each other. Erin Solstice had come in with all finger-guns blazing. Numbtongue leaned on a table and frowned at Mrsha and Nanette. Lyonette sniffed as he brushed at her skirts.

“You didn’t need to be so aggressive, Erin. That was practically Kaazian or something Taimaguros would do. I’ll have you know that it was never about the girls. Well, not entirely. I certainly didn’t start anything.”

“You didn’t? You’re the worst one!”

Numbtongue shook his fist at Lyonette. Several members of team Nanette nodded, and Lyonette made a scoffing sound echoed by three [Knights]. Ser Dalimont just rubbed at his forehead wearily. Erin’s face fell. Then her lips compressed.

“Come on, guys. Lyonette, have a drink.”

She poured the cup for the [Princess], and Lyonette hesitated as Mrsha and Nanette groaned. Ser Dalimont looked at Erin, and she gave him a sunshine smile as he opened his mouth. He slowly closed it and looked at his fellow Thronebearers. Then he folded his arms, looking resigned. Lyonette turned to Erin with a false smile.

“I am just stating facts, Erin. But we’re all calm—even if some of us are prone to being unreasonable.”

“Or stuck up [Princesses] who like bossing everyone around and think they know what’s best.”

Numbtongue muttered under his breath. Octavia kicked him. Erin said nothing, but her lips were compressed slightly in vexation. Lyonette was glad Erin wasn’t reaching for more Cackle Brew. Hurriedly, the [Princess] sipped from her cup.

Or rather, she looked at the cup and hesitated for a good second.

“Wait a second. Is this cup unwashed? It looks dirty to me.”

Erin blinked a second and peered into Lyonette’s cup.

“Whatchu talking about? Looks clean to me.”

“No, I think it’s dirty. I swear I can see bits of dirt in it. Ishkr, can I get a second cup?”

Lyonette was just about to get a second pour when Numbtongue called out.

Ooh. Look. She’s too good to even drink blue juice with a bit of dirt in it. She’s got to waste the last stuff we have.”

Lyonette’s head snapped up. She took one huge gulp of blue juice instantly and glared daggers at Numbtongue. Then she grimaced.

“Nevermind, Ishkr. Although—eugh. Either there was something in there or it’s the cask itself. Is your cup good, Erin? I’m afraid mine’s gone bad. Why did you make your brew, again?”

Erin sipped from her blue juice, face neutral.

“Eh, mine is good. I just made it because…well, laughter’s the best medicine, right, Lyonette? But medicine can also be deadly. And laughter is the cure to fear. Which means it can probably hurt someone.”

Erin-logic was hard to follow before you had your coffee. Lyonette signaled for some as she suppressed a burp. Nanette peered into her cup and slowly pushed it back.

“I have to go to the outhouse. Mrsha, let’s go.”

Erin smiled at Nanette and looked at Lyonette.

“I think it does something. After all, that was one gulp. And I can make it even stronger.”

“Dead gods, Erin. Better? I—hic—excuse me. I—hic. Hic. There’s something in my throat.”

The [Innkeeper]-[Witch] spoke cheerfully as Lyonette took a deeper gulp of her drink, grimacing, and waved for some water.

“Right, and I’m tired and a [Witch]. So I didn’t get the real effect. Plus, I put everything into that brew. But I wonder what comes out if you haven’t had a good cackle?”

“Erin, you’re not–hic–making any sense. I–Heh.. Ohohohohohohoho–you–hahahahahaHEHEHEHEHEHEE.”

Lyonette began laughing. It started as hiccups, then a polite giggle. Then it grew louder and shriller. She stared at her cup, and the blue juice…which barely masked the swirling brew. And it couldn’t hide the taste.

Everyone turned and stared at Lyonette. The [Princess] covered her mouth to muffle the sound. But this time, it was building within her. She looked around desperately—

“[Emergency Evacuation]. Everybody out—

Ishkr touched his chest—jumped to the window—and Erin’s portal door opened, and the [Head Server] went through it. He popped out of the air and onto his back in the middle of the common room. He stared up—and Erin winked at him.

“You’re part of the inn now, Ishkr.”


Ryoka tried the door to the hallway. It was locked. Erin Solstice looked around as her guests tried the windows, realized they were locked, and stared at her. She smiled happily at them.

A big, happy smile.

Erin, this isn’t funny.

“I think Lyonette thinks it’s hilarious. Show them, Lyonette. Oh—and one more thing.”

Erin Solstice stared around as Calescent covered his ears. Mrsha and Nanette were staring through a window in horror and relief they weren’t there. Erin Solstice gave everyone a happy smile.

This is for the death-spice.

Then the [Portal Door] opened under her wheelchair and spat her out of the inn. After a second, it grabbed Ulvama, who went through with a shout of surprise.

No one else was spared. Lyonette’s eyes bulged—then she threw her head back and started laughing.




This time, the laughter took out half the inn. Anyone over Level 30 stayed conscious. But despite Erin’s reinforced inn, the laughter cracked two windows and everything made of glass that wasn’t in a cupboard.

It wasn’t eardrum bursting. It was a combination of mental and physical. It had shattered all the plates at the table Lyonette sat at.

The [Princess] was lying on the floor, exhausted, after four minutes when the laughter finally ceased. Everyone else was either passed out or in the furthest corner, covering their ears.

The worst part was that Lyonette had [Detect Poison]. But she hadn’t realized her Skill was letting her know the drink had been bad since she’d never needed to use it before. And Ser Dalimont, who had also noticed, had weighed tipping Lyonette off versus the wrath of Erin Solstice. He was shaking his head as he knelt on one knee and Erin rolled past him, making a show of checking on people.

“Alright. Anyone else want to start fighting? Because if we want to do this, I’m fighting everyone and I can do this all week. Tessa, you’re on my team. So is Gothica and Ulvama. I give you full permission to get nasty.


The [Goth] poked her head up from under a table and her eyes lit up. But to her great disappointment—the sides were done. So Erin turned to the Named-rank adventurer. She had earplugs in and she was removing them calmly, unfazed by the damage.

“Hey, Tessa, how did you rate that?”

“Pretty painful. Good way to clear a room without killing everyone.”

The Named-rank adventurer popped into view as Erin, being pushed by Nanette as Mrsha held open the doors, rolled back into the inn. Erin smiled.

“Good. I’m still not sure of the final product, but Cackle Brew is a go. Everyone stopped fighting? Also good! Take an hour off, guys. I’m gonna get some sleep. I was working on this all night.”

Erin rolled away in the silence as the two girls who had theoretically started all this looked around at people massaging their heads or picking each other up. And this wasn’t even the full version?

The very good girls, determined to sit there and do nothing contentious at all, froze as a hand grabbed each by the shoulder.

Then Erin Solstice smiled.

“Oh. And since you two got out of the laugh-zone, why don’t you do the shopping for the day? Tessa will watch over you. While you’re there, see if my Ashwheat has arrived from Imani and Palt? Then you can clean the cauldron out. It’s in the garden.”

Nod, nod. Nanette and Mrsha nodded. Do the shopping, get the Ashwheat, clean the cauldron? Sensible work. An honest day’s work.

Mrsha had always said that there was nothing to life like doing chores without remuneration. That was the principle by which Nanette lived.

The two hurried out the door as some stragglers came in. Menolit, for instance, walked in, took one look at the collapsed people and the chaos, and turned right around.

“Alright, crew. It’s another inn thing. Wishdrinks it is! Or do I hear a vote for the Drunken Gnoll?”

Sign of the times if the most popular Liscor-themed pub wasn’t Wishdrinks anymore. Or if there was even competition.

Braver guests stepped into the inn. Klbkch walked over to Relc, who was massaging his earholes.

“I apologize for being two minutes late. So, my day was quite objectionable, Relc. Once again, I have been ‘sassed’. I—are you listening, Relc? Have you seen Ryoka Griffin? I have an appointment with her. But before that, the sass. It is not just Crusader 57. Have you met the Kevins? And Xrn. And…”

Another figure carefully stepped over Liska, who was still out for the count as her brother poked her with a broom. Demsleth looked around, stroking his beard.

“Did I miss a party? Drat. Not that I’d be eating anything…”

He sighed heftily.

“Water and a vegetable platter. Clean living. It’s attitude, attitude. But I’m still allowed to have a party. I could have sworn I heard laughter.”

And clearly half the guests were already passed out from drinking. He sat down at a table, folded his hands, and looked around cheerfully. Maybe there was a [Jokester] about? He could use a good laugh.




As Mrsha and Nanette hurried out the front door with shopping baskets in hand, no Thronebearers or Normen accompanied them.

For one thing, all but one of the [Knights] had been taken out. Only Dalimont was even above Level 30…though it had to be said the others were levelling faster than they would have dreamed possible.

The second reason was that Shriekblade was, um…a good deterrent. Lyonette had backed off from having Mrsha escorted by two [Knights] at all times. She had to trust that Mrsha could go into the city, buy something from Krshia’s shop, and get back.

And you had to admit that even with the [Knights]’ superlative bodyguard training, there was something about having a Named-rank adventurer that was more reassuring when it came to monsters. The two girls were very quiet until they got out the front door.

That was so scary. She was like Oliyaya—no, Mavika! Wait until I tell the other [Witches] about that!”

Nanette burst out, looking over her shoulder. Mrsha wrote furiously.

r u crazy? We take that to our graves! Why would we spread our guilt around to [Witches]? Especially Hedag? They might punish us again!

Nanette shook her brown hair furiously and gave Mrsha a serious look.

“Erin already punished everyone. But think about it, Mrsha.”

She seized the younger girl by the shoulder and pointed ahead at an imaginary, glorious future.

“They love hearing when Erin does actual witchcraft. This will have all of them asking for details. Maybe there’s scolding. But maybe there’s shortcake, tea, and cookies.”

Oh. Mrsha saw it. Would you gamble a scolding if the reward was witch-snacks? They didn’t ever have terrible, dry snacks either. Everything they made had craft in it.

I suppose we must confess our sins posthaste, then. After chores. That was like old Erin, you know. Scary Erin.

“I had no idea she could be that mean. I knew she could be dangerous—”

You didn’t see her when she got mad at Safry and Maran. That was not-Archmage. 


Grev told me to use the word. I am acquiring the lingo of the older youths.

Nanette was fairly certain Mrsha was using the phrase wrong. But it was true that Erin had impressed on some of her staff a reminder people occasionally forgot.

In fact, the group least offended by the laughter-attack was the Goblins. Most of them had liked Erin by reputation and her Skill and knowing what she’d done…but it was one thing to like this Human and another to feel like your Chieftain of the Inn had some bones to her. They couldn’t wait to tell the other Goblins about the new attack and maybe smuggle some Cackle Brew to them.

Speaking of which…Nanette and Mrsha slowed down as they hurried towards Liscor. A gigantic, pale blue Wyvern glanced at them.

“Oh! It’s Icecube! Chieftain Rags is visiting! Look!”

Indeed, Rags was walking up to the inn at this very moment. She had someone in tow—a Goblin boy, an actual child, with a broken leg splinted up. He was hopping to keep up, but excited because it was his first visit to the inn.

“Hey. Where’s Kevin?”

“Um. He’s in the inn. He might be passed out or maybe he’s okay. If you hear laughter—run.”

Rags gave Nanette a blank look, then nodded.

“Thanks. Come on, Balanceboard.”

The Goblins often visited the inn, and Liscor’s Watch ignored them—mostly because they did not want a war with Rags’ tribe. Even so, Icecube had a Hob standing guard as Snapjaw and Badarrow fed him scraps of meat.

The average Wyvern could carry at least twelve Goblins without too much trouble if the [Wyvern Rider] had a passenger Skill. Only two Hobs’ worth without. But most of the Goblins weren’t joining Rags right away.

Oddly, they were all standing together, and Mrsha and Nanette saw the second extraordinary event of this day happening right before their eyes. They would have gotten closer—but Shriekblade picked both up and put them under her arms.

“Miss Tessa, let us go—”

“No getting closer. It’s dangerous.”

The Named-rank would have carried them into Liscor, but Mrsha and Nanette begged her to let them watch.

“Please let us watch! It’s going to be so cool!”

Tessa relented after a moment’s thought. After all—all three slowed down, and there were [Guards] on the walls pointing. No one shouted for someone to stop—instead, half the Watch on the eastern wall gathered over to stare.

This is what they saw:

He was grinning. A smirk over his face. Not overconfident. But the smile of the eternal challenger, a champion of a different kind. He lived for this moment, and because he did, the odds only made him smile harder.

A famous red blade in his right hand, a frigid shortsword in his left. He stood there—and the grass around him drifted away. The snow flurried into the air.


If ever there was a danger-zone, it was that. But the Goblin, still shorter than your average Hob, didn’t move. He just stood there, and the gigantic Carn Wolf behind him growled. Yet Thunderfur was not part of this battle.

So Redscar waited. Waited for the other two people he had summoned to make their move.

But they were also statues. Tensed, leaning forwards. They were breathing, and their eyes were on him. One was a woman with one arm, her black hair growing long and tied back so it wouldn’t get in her way.

A [Sword Dancer]. Pekona held the shorter, curved wakizashi up across her body, horizontally, edge facing upwards. It seemed as if she would leap into the air or start dancing across the snow any moment.

Her teammates were watching from the side. Ylawes Byres himself was standing opposite the Goblins, arms folded. He did not look happy—but that wasn’t due to this occasion. He was watching intently. He might have joined in, despite his aversion to Goblins.

Redscar called to anyone who thought they knew a sword. The Goblin who had held his own against Zeladona longer than most was grinning. But this was not an occasion for Ylawes or Dawil.

This was the hour of those who had been marked. How were they supposed to improve? Fighting monsters? Training?

No. No, the greatest swordsman of the Redfangs refused. So he had put out an invitation—and the second figure waiting to move was still, snow melting around him as he gave off steam.

Calruz, like Pekona, only had one arm. By consensus, they had decided to make it two-on-one. Calruz and Pekona versus Redscar. But was it really going to be two-on-one if both only had one arm?

The Minotaur’s scars stood out in the snow, and members of Battalion 5 were watching their Captain enjoying a vacation. The Beriad were silent. The winter air was blowing softly.

Then, as Mrsha and Nanette held their breaths, Redscar began screaming. It was a war-cry, a bellow of fury, excitement—and it was scary.

The fur blew over Mrsha’s face, and her heart rate picked up. Adrenaline spiked.

[Battle Warcry]!

His opponents moved as the Skill rushed over them. Pekona made no sound, but she began sprinting left through the snow. She vanished, moving left around him as Calruz roared and charged.

[Flicker Step]. And the Minotaur?

[He Left Pride in his Wake].

Redscar’s eyes widened as he saw Calruz open with the Skill he’d been granted. Redscar dodged left, deflected a slash at his back—then dove right. His swords came up, and he blocked a charging blow from the Minotaur. But then he was leaping back again.

Was that colorful air? It looked—gold.

Nanette pointed, and it seemed like the surging Minotaur’s charge had left a shockwave in the air that was visible. A slicing line of gold that Redscar jumped out of the way of. It was trailing after Calruz, boxing Redscar in! But the Goblin kept grinning. He planted his feet—and skidded.

The Minotaur’s charge slowed—and then stopped as enough snow and dirt blew into the air to knock Falene flat behind the two. Pekona leapt over the first manifestation of sharp pride—and her second swing cleared twenty feet of snow. Redscar and Calruz turned—and both caught the blow. Redscar raised his swords and blocked it.

Calruz took the cut across his chest—then roared and shook himself. A line of red appeared on his arms and chest—barely deep enough to draw blood. He took a swing at Pekona. Then Redscar rammed both blades into his side, but before they could dig deep, the Minotaur hit him with an elbow.

They were fighting for real! Without healing potions! Mrsha and Nanette watched, mouths open, as Pekona came down, blade trying to vivisect Redscar from above.

This was training in the way of blades from the age of Zeladona. It was crazy—but all three were definitely crazy.

And levelling. That was why the Watch was observing the fight. Yes, because Calruz, a known prisoner, was there, but he was fighting in Liscor’s army. Redeeming himself.

Yes, Pekona and her team were there—but it was Redscar who probably made the Watch nervous. What level was he now? The question to the Redfangs, Goblins, adventurers, wasn’t if Redscar was dangerous.

He had always been dangerous, even before becoming a Hob. Even as a regular-sized Goblin, he had been the second-in-command of a famous Goblin tribe. The shadow of a famous Chieftain. But now…

Was he still in Garen Redfang’s shadow? Or was he beginning to step out of it? And even if he still was eclipsed by his former Chieftain—how close was he? A second Goblin of Garen Redfang’s prowess in a Goblin tribe?

Slowly, they had rebuilt. They had taken the survivors of that disastrous battle in this very Floodplain and founded a place to live. They had technology, burgeoning, but their own style in battle. They had Wyverns and lieutenants like Badarrow, Snapjaw.

Slowly but surely—Rags’ tribe was becoming the true equal of the ones that had gone before them. Hers had always been underdogs. But if this tribe had gone back in time—maybe everything, and their interactions with the Redfangs and Mountain City tribe would have been far different. They were still not at the level of Reiss.

But they were continuing to level.




Levels. By the time two girls reached a certain [Chef] in Liscor, it was already midday. They came in cold, with snow on their clothes, and babbling about a sword-fight outside the city. And a laughing [Innkeeper].

“What’s this? Cackle Brew? And I missed it? Wait, she did what—okay, that’s why I missed it. And you two stopped fighting? Very good. I was always team Nanette. Ow. Stop kicking me! Imani! My hoofless filly, we have guests! Can you come out?”

Barehoof Kitchens, the now-famous restaurant attached to the Drunken Gnoll, was doing a lot of good business. Mostly catering or teaching, but they did open the restaurant proper some days. Imani was looking for assistant cooks, though.

Unlike Erin, who operated a one or two-[Cook] kitchen at best, Imani knew that a team took the load off, and she and Palt wanted a proper business. The irony was that if Erin had ever actually hired staff, she wouldn’t have had to cook so long.

“Palt? Is it Mrsha and Nanette? I’m coming—I just have to finish preparing our test-ingredients! Get them the Ashwheat, would you? Erin’s been bugging me about it all week!”

The [Chef] was carefully demarcating a bin, writing an odd note and affixing it to a four-by-four crate. Rather large and packed full of objects. Flour, spices, even eggs, cheese, milk, and meat.

When Mrsha and Nanette came into the kitchen proper, they warmed up thanks to the heat from the ovens. Palt pointed at them.

“I told them they could have some of your viennetta.”

“Again? Palt, half of Erin’s guests want it.”

“Well, half the city is banging down our door for it! Come on, you know Erin will pay us back.”

He was overly proud, and Imani rolled her eyes. But then she pointed towards the cold box.

“Give them a slice. What’s this about swords? Mrsha, Nanette. What did Erin do this time?”

They had been telling the story over Liscor all day, to Krshia, Selys, and now Imani and Palt. The Centaur shook his head as he smoked away. Imani let him smoke so long as he kept it in a contained bubble, and he was taking down some Wireweed Tobacco today. He’d been at it for four hours and barely gone down thirty percent of the cigar. It burned slow.

“My, oh my. Someone gave her the old death-spice and thought she wouldn’t come back at them? Remember…oh, Isceil?”

Palt’s face fell, but Mrsha nodded as she recalled the curry-attack Erin had launched back at the [Mages] when they had first come to the inn. Imani patted Palt on the flank.

“She’s pretty violent to her friends and family despite that, Palt. If she’d done that to me when I first came by, I’d have run right away.”

“Ah, but she let the children escape. She has a way about her, Imani. Erin Solstice only attacks people who will survive.”

“That…sounds terrible. Do you have your bag of holding, Mrsha? Load it up. There’s a lot of Ashwheat. Oh, Palt. What country should we do this time?”

Hah? Something about the question made Mrsha and Nanette look over surreptitiously as they dumped bags of Ashwheat into their bags of holding. Palt was scratching at his chin. He was, as boyfriends did, trying out a beard. It was not the best of looks, but he was trying it. Imani had not given him much credit for the attempt.

“I’m thinking we should have a dartboard and throw darts at it. Your world and mine. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

She rolled her eyes.

“It would be if we wanted to be silly, Palt. Come on. Do you have anything? I was thinking Morocco. Or…I’ve always wanted to know how they cook in eastern Asia. Or we could go New Zealand.”

“I’m down for islander fare. Though I will say—Baleros can’t be beat for some of its spices. What if we did, um…Gazers?”

Imani gave Palt look.

“Do you know their city? Any city? The region? If not, get a map and we’ll do it in four days.”

“Give me one second! I’d love to know…map, map. Excuse me, girls.”

Palt trotted around, and Mrsha and Nanette, justifiably wary of a Centaur with four left hooves, let him clatter about, pulling out a map. They were entirely curious as they peeked at the crate, and Imani put her hands on her hips.

“Oh, you two little spies! Are you here to steal my recipes? And here I thought Erin of all people would hold back!”

“No! But we are curious. Miss Imani, what’s this about countries? Are you using a Skill? Can we see?”

Imani sighed. But she was proud, so she explained. Mrsha and Nanette’s eyes went round as they clustered around the crate.

After all. It was ready for Imani’s best capstone Skill, as soon as she and Palt settled on a country.

And she was a Level 35 [Otherworld Chef].

It had taken a while for Imani to find her feet after the trauma of arriving in this world. Magnolia Reinhart had not helped there—though she had with the grief and mental anguish. Erin’s inn had been the start, but finally, after starting her own business and meeting Palt—

Imani had begun stepping into the next level of her own career. She wasn’t chasing Erin Solstice by far, yet. But her rate of levelling had still eclipsed all known speed, and she was going strong. It already put her as one of the best [Chefs] in Liscor, hands-down, and she could have walked into Pallass and Invrisil with respect.

Her Level 30 capstone Skill had also been her class consolidation, and it was therefore a doozy. For reference, Erin Solstice had gained [Field of Preservation] and [Magical Grounds] at Level 30, two Skills that both turned her inn into a free, fully-preserved area and made it magical enough to run the portal door.

Imani had gained only one Skill. And as she and Palt argued, they eventually came to a conclusion.

“Gazers might eat bugs. Or worms or something. I don’t know, but I have heard they eat some ingredients raw.”

“Well, then we’re not doing that. I will not be cleaning that up, thank you. Morocco? New Zealand? We can go more specific?”

“What about…well, what about that place with excellent meat?”

“Turkey? You just want to do more barbecuing with your favorite customers.”


“…I could do that. I’m honestly curious. Okay, Iran. Where’s our list?”

After some consultation, the two found the list, wrote ‘Iran’ on there, and Mrsha and Nanette saw they’d done a number of different places. They had written…


-Nigeria. (Good for home cooking!)

-Hostole Plains. (Too many oats. Palt’s home is banal and must import too much. Hurtful, my dear, but possibly true.)

-Khelt. (Wow! AMAZING option! So expensive!)

-Thailand. (Street food! Sell this to the vendors!)


-Samal. (It’s good and fine and has a lot of contrast, but why did we get a key?)

-Nombernaught. (Sushi and seafood options galore!)

-London. (No…)



What on Earth could it mean? Mrsha was scratching her head, but Nanette’s eyes lit up. Then she saw Imani put her hands over the crate and saw the ingredients.

There were cuts of meat, local venison, a sack of flour, salt, a few local spice-varieties, herbs, even a jar of Gnollish fish paste. Yellats, apples—it was a complete spread. As if Imani were trying to get a bunch of generic ingredients. Because her Skill—the [Otherworld Chef] spoke with great excitement as Palt danced on his hooves.

“[Ingredients: Cultural Shift!]”

And the bin changed before their eyes. Mrsha began choking on her viennetta as she saw the glass jar of salt turn pink.

“It worked! It’s a good one! What is that salt?

“I knew it. Himalayan salt. Oh, dead gods. It’s the trendiest—it’s just pink, Palt. Stop dancing or you’ll step on my foot again! But the spices…oh, I think we’ve got to make a curry. I knew freshness mattered!”

Imani was not a fan of the salt, which was very popular in her world, but she was all over the spices. In fact—she slowly pulled out a small bag, opened it, and smiled.

“Saffron! They must either have enough of it or—it’s the jackpot, Palt!”

“Free saffron! Wait, wait. What was it labeled as?

“Um…oh! Some of Wailant’s spices. The good stuff. So we have to put in good materials to get good results.”

“Checks out. How’s the meat?”

“…I don’t know what it is. Goat? It’s not impressive. I told you, we’ll put in a huge box of steak, do Kobe, Japan, and hope for Wagyu.”

“It cannot be that good.”

I wouldn’t know. I’ve never eaten it! Come on, help me sort through the box.”

The two [Chefs] were all over the ingredients, sorting, cross-referencing them—and Mrsha and Nanette finally got what the Skill did.

It changed them to local variants! Mrsha ran around, sniffing at the box in delight! You could get food from any country in the world! Any one you wanted!

Now the worry about any group that ate bugs or something nasty made sense. Imani was telling them about how she’d experimented—and levelled—like mad after getting it.

“All five of my new levels come from this. We did a few more countries before we took a list, but it was generic. ‘America’ just gets you…all of America. You have to get more specific if you want to make sure you get something good. Also, I was given an entire jug of corn syrup.”

“Have you gotten many good spices and foods, Miss Imani? What did Khelt give you?”

“Nothing but the finest. Old Fetohep really does buy the best. Apparently Khelt imports so much that the ‘national food’ really is imports. In other countries, it’s often what they grow. We’ve had a lot of winners. A few duds.”

Imani was nodding. She pointed to another bin mostly untouched.

“I did an entire spread for London. Four pounds of Calescent’s best spices. And guess what it turned into? Salt, pepper, and vinegar.

She sighed. Mrsha peered into that box and pulled out a packet of preserved, salted cod. She tossed it back in sadly. Then she pulled out something odd.

“Wait, what is that?

Nanette had never seen such a colorful object in her life. Imani hesitated.

“That’s wrapping paper. It’s not chips, Mrsha. It’s just fries. They call it chips over there.”

An entire package of…‘chips’ from a supermarket in a plastic bag was in the box. It was still frozen because Palt had enchanted the box to stay cold like a fridge. She stared at the nutrition label on the back and looked at Imani. The [Chef] shrugged.

“I have no idea. I hope I’m not stealing the food from some store. Oh, Palt! We have got some of the good rice, turmeric, a lot of chickpeas over there—I think this is another keeper!”

“Well, my darling Earther knows her countries. Even if she places too much faith in the United Kingdom.”

Palt trotted over to her, and the two kissed. Mrsha gagged, pretending to throw up into a bin, but Nanette watched the two smiling and flirting—before they noticed the children and told them to go back to Erin.

“And not a word to her, got it? I’m going to surprise her, but knowing Erin, she’ll make me get food from her home. And make…ice cream sandwiches or pizza with stuffed crust or something completely banal. Imagine wasting an entire bin on frozen pizzas and hot dogs? Americans.”

Imani’s blatant food discrimination might be a bit too mean, but she was aglow with pride and accomplishment. And food. Mrsha’s mouth watered, and she reflected that Erin should have never let Imani run off with this prancing Centaur. Calescent was very good, but he was taking over the inn and not an Earther.

Imani, like so many, was advancing fast.




“I heard there was a new dessert available in my walk through Liscor. You wouldn’t happen to have a small cake I could purchase, would you? Not for myself. But a certain young woman is a bit down. Lots of pests gnawing on her while camping and whatnot. I would like to cheer her up.”

Demsleth hurt Erin without intending it. But he was a good guest at the moment. He sat at a table as Ryoka first met with Klbkch—but he kept shooing away a pair of Gnolls.

“Where is she? Is she eating well? Is she safe?”

“I think she’s quite well. Thank you, Spearmaster. That will be all.”

Lulv sat down. Demsleth pointed a finger, and Lulv popped out of the inn. He reappeared, and Bird raised his bow.

“Oh, it’s just a falling Gnoll.”

The Gnoll raced back into the inn and this time popped back into the air again. Bird waved at him as Lulv and Ferris fell down. The [Infiltrator] landed hard and groaned. Lulv just got up, ran back into the inn—

The third time he reappeared, he was buried up to his neck in the dirt and snow just outside the outhouses. Erin stopped rolling towards an outhouse, pointed at him, and laughed.

“This is why I let you into my inn. Get Gnomed, sucker. Gnomes laugh at you. No, wait. I can do better. Welcome Gnome…you look stupid.”




While Demsleth nibbled on some Yellats, he glanced over at the young woman making him wait. Ryoka Griffin was talking to Klbkch, and the Slayer had abandoned Relc for a moment.

The Senior Guardsman was a bit hearing-impaired after the laugh-attack, and Klbkch had once again been accosted by Workers and Soldiers. He sat by a fireplace as Ryoka patiently ignored Nerry kicking her and Shaestrel rolling her eyes.

“More stories from my past? Very well, very well. I did once encounter a sonic-based attack. Perhaps it was laughter, but it was so loud it would literally shake your insides and kill you.”

“How did you defeat it, Revalantor Klbkch?”

Rosencrantz scooted forward on his butt, and Klbkch paused dramatically.

“Why, I flooded the entire tunnel by breaching a wall. My theory was that the pressure and water would destroy the enchantment.”

“And did it?”

A longer pause, and Klbkch sipped from some blue juice.

“…No. In fact, the sound travelled through the water, and I think it killed hundreds of thousands of fish. That was the first time I met a Drowned Person, I think. I had kept coming back because I was unable to enter the water—and I saw a group of four individuals breaking the magical enchantment for me. They left quickly, and I cannot believe it was easy. But I must assume the sound travelled a great distance underwater. When we closed the gap in the seawall and dredged the water, I think we recovered enough fish to supply one of the Combat Hives for two months.”

Ryoka exchanged a look with Shaestrel. Klbkch’s war-stories were dubious, ethically, but he was certainly open about his time. In fact, Ryoka suspected there had to be at least a few representatives of both north and south writing down all his anecdotes.

Well, here went nothing. Ryoka leaned over as she signalled to Nerry to deploy the localized privacy spells. There were a bunch of Workers and Soldiers near her, but no one else, and Shriekblade had come back with Nanette and Mrsha, so she thought they could get away with it.

“Klbkch? Would you mind telling me about how Antinium…got the ability to level?”

He gave her a blank look as Nerry sat up.

“Got the ability…to level?”

“I assume you had to gain it, right?”

Ryoka Griffin was gambling on the fact that Klbkch was one of the oldest beings in the Antinium’s entire history. He had known the First Queen. If any being knew the secret—it was him or Demsleth.

But Klbkch gave Ryoka the blankest look in creation.

“—Every species levels, Ryoka Griffin. Every sentient species. With the exception of…Dragons…one presumes.”

He slowly turned, and Demsleth got up from his chair and began to edge over to the private conversation. The Antinium looked from Ryoka to Klbkch, confused as the Wind Runner frowned.

“No, but—does that mean when Antinium were first created, they were able to level? Can you explain some of that for me?”

Klbkch put his chin in his hands, looking intrigued.

“A strange question, Ryoka. But I will answer. No, the Antinium were not always able to level. The first ‘Antinium’ were far more primitive, and Queens warred with each other. The First Queen was the uniter of all, and when Antinium fell under her governance, her Hive became the center of reason and True Antinium. They were the ones who were able to level.”

“Ah. But what was that factor? Were you there? What was the—announcement—like?”

Nerry was vibrating, but Klbkch gave Ryoka an even more puzzled look.

“Announcement? Why would there have been one? We were able to level. I would know. I was there.”

You were? Did you wake up one day and just level?”

Klbkch paused.

“Functionally, one supposes so. I recall gaining levels a number of cycles after my creation. Let me think. I was created when we only had one Hive. By the time we had thirty? Fifty? That was about it. This is an odd question, Ryoka Griffin.”

His head swung to Shaestrel and Nerry, and whether or not he could tell what Shaestrel was or knew Nerry’s secret—and Ryoka doubted both—he was intelligent. But he seemed genuinely confused.

“So…you don’t remember a thing? Did the First Queen ever talk about it?”

“Why would she talk…about something that needed no discussion? It is not like we knew of levels before we were able to level. Nor…afterwards did we need to know why.”

Ryoka frowned at Klbkch, mouth open slightly.

“Huh? You didn’t question it?”

“Why…would we?”

Klbkch’s blank look was intensifying, but the rate at which he was speaking was slowing down. Nerry was staring at Ryoka intently, and Shaestrel was muttering swear words.


“Ye secret keeping shites with your poking of the…too much. Even if it is yer power…”


Ryoka looked at Shaestrel and felt a sudden tinge of unease. The same reflected in Klbkch’s eyes. But the regular Antinium were growing restless. One whispered loudly to another.

“This is a bad story.”

“Yes, I agree. The Wind Runner is bad at asking for stories.”

“Hello, I would like my turn, now.”

One waved an arm as Demsleth sidled through the privacy spells. He sat down, and Klbkch and he exchanged one look fraught with dislike. However, Ryoka wasn’t done.

“—If you don’t know about how you levelled. Then—tell me about towers. Did—did the Antinium ever build a tower, Klbkch?”

The Antinium sitting there all looked at Klbkch dubiously. Ryoka’s question seemed like an uninteresting one, but Klbkch did sit up then and snap his fingers as if in sudden relief.

“Towers? What a curiously stupid question, Miss Ryoka. Why would we echo that kind of egotistical design, underground?”

Ryoka turned red as the Antinium laughed at her—but Klbkch waved them to silence and lifted a finger.

“Curious—but not inaccurate. I remember one time when the Queens sent me looking for resources. Do you recall the gemstones I located in an earlier tale? Well, they had me retrieve the entire vein. Tens of thousands of Workers to quarry them and other, rarer materials. Useless marble. Quarried stone, and we could not repurpose the existing materials at all. Only once did we build an obnoxious tower in our Hives. I cannot understand why the Queens wanted it, but the First Queen allowed it to happen. Such a waste of energy. Then we knocked it over.”

The Antinium listened respectfully, then looked at one another. Rosencrantz raised a hand.

“Is that the end of the story, Revalantor Klbkch?”

“Yes. The most useless building the Antinium ever made.”

Klbkch sat back and helped himself to a plate of Erin’s new chicken tenders as the Antinium muttered. Ryoka, Nerry, and Shaestrel looked at each other. The lamb was so tense Ryoka could have used her like a mace.

The Antinium were not impressed.

“This is another boring story. Miss Ryoka should not be allowed to ask them.”

“Three out of ten. I would like to ask a story now, please.”

“—When was this, Klbkch?”

Ryoka refused to let it go, and one of the Antinium threw a piece of Garry-bread at her head. It bounced off a shoulder as they booed her. But Klbkch just shook his head, also looking exasperated.

“I do not recall the details, Ryoka. It was entirely unimportant. Your talk of levels is—I am sorry, I have stories to tell.”

He turned away from her. Then stopped. Klbkch looked at Ryoka and Shaestrel, then focused on Nerry. And for some reason, Klbkch, who shared his food with no one, not Relc, not Mrsha, slowly pushed his plate over the table.

“…Your lamb looks hungry. Have a snack.”

Nerry blinked at the chicken tenders, then picked one up in her mouth and began to crunch it down. Lyonette looked horrified at the carnivorous Sariant Lamb, but Ryoka Griffin was already looking to Demsleth.




Teriarch, Dragonlord of You Know the Rest, sat in his Human guise at his table. He effortlessly blocked a number of scrying spells, including one he recognized.

That damn Wyrm again. He wasn’t annoyed; this was a decent break from his training, but the line of questioning exasperated him.

“Miss Griffin, levels are levels. Some species gain them, some do not. It is a matter of factors that…”

He hesitated.

“Well, in truth, it always seemed to me to be about balance. We, Dragons, are far too powerful to gain levels. We would rule the world…and we already did at many points.”

“So you don’t know about any…secrets about levelling? Did Dragons ever build towers?”

The poor girl was having a bit of a mental episode, it seemed. He’d known a number of people like that. They got into vehicles, got obsessed with aesthetics or building huge edifices or the highest tower…the Dragon sighed, but humored her.

“My dear. You have seen my Dragonthrone. We build everything. Have we built a tower? Yes. I remember one in a Dragonthrone. Ridiculously high. It must have been eight hundred feet, made out of precious gemstones, Adamantium, even the bones of our kind. Magic in some places—all in a Dragonthrone. A true edifice to hubris.”

“Is it—where is it?”

He exhaled over a drink morosely.

“Lost. Destroyed in one of our wars, I believe. A Tier 8 spell hit it and broke the enchantment. All but two or three Dragonthrones have been lost, remember?”

Why was it built?

He gave her a confused look. No, a puzzled look. No, a confuzzled look. What were these questions about? Teriarch shook his head.

“My dear, why do children build sandcastles on beaches or people in snow? I think you had better reflect on why you’re drawn to tall, vaguely phallic objects. It’s all conditioning, you see. A respect for height is a completely Human concept. Fraerlings don’t respect that sort of thing. Neither do Selphids.”

She was so stunned that she didn’t say a thing as he patted her on the shoulder. Teriarch leaned back in his seat and shook his head.

What a silly question. What a…

He fixed on a little lamb staring at him with such desperate eyes that the Dragon paused. Ryoka said something else.

“What was that, my dear?”

She gave him an anguished and, for some reason, frightened look.

“I said…didn’t you hear me? About Nerry.”

“What about her?”

The Dragon gave Ryoka a puzzled look. She sat back, white-faced and looked at the annoying faerie. And Shaestrel looked nervous; the lamb looked sad.

He didn’t know why, only that Ryoka gave up trying her silly requests after a minute.

“I’m—sorry to waste your time, Teriarch.”

“Not at all, my dear.”

He should have been annoyed. The Dragonlord felt that in most circumstances, he would have been quite annoyed to come here and be bombarded with pointless nonsense. But for some reason…he wasn’t.

Perhaps he was just in a gracious mood today? That was it. Demsleth got up—then paused.

“Your lamb looks underfed, as Klbkch said, Ryoka. I say, server? Get her something nice to eat. And you should get her to a proper [Pet Carer], Ryoka. Fluff the wool, get her hooves shined, and all that. Here.”

He put a handful of gold in Ryoka’s palms and nodded at Nerry. Then Demsleth walked out of the inn. Before he undid his fake clone, he felt sad for a moment.

And he couldn’t have said why.




The answer was unspoken, but it was there. Ryoka Griffin had never been more shaken than when she sat down and Ishkr brought Nerry a milkshake.

“Something happened.”


“Oh, aye. But even that Dragon forgot it. We play with deep secrets, Ryoka. Deep ones at the core of it all. That bug-man is ancient of days, and he was there. And he forgot.”


Ryoka’s head swiveled, and Shaestrel stared at Klbkch. The Antinium was back to telling stories, but every now and then, he would glance at them.

“Nerry? What do you think?”

The lamb had been in high emotional distress ever since the first time Ryoka had broached the subject. But at length, she calmed down and looked at Ryoka.

“We know they did it. They did it. We will too.”

That was all she wrote. Nerry looked at the Antinium, then Ryoka, and the Wind Runner nodded slowly.

“Well then, I think we had better start working on what we can do. Finding people with levels and brainstorming how to do the final test. I’m going to loop that into Erin’s goals too. I can go places, even if she can’t, and Hedault…well, hopefully we can hit all three in one go.”

Dryad seed, Sariant Lambs, and fighting the six. Nerry glanced at Ryoka sharply. She didn’t understand the six entirely, but she got the gist.

“Where are you going to go?”

Ryoka Griffin was looking around the inn. Erin Solstice had come back, and she was laughing, if somewhat hoarsely, and making plans for her bread. She caught Ryoka’s eye and waved. The Wind Runner smiled, if somewhat warily, and looked at Nerry and Shaestrel.

“For now? Nowhere. Hedault’s still working on my stuff, and I have a dinner date to plan. Maybe I can get Klbkch and Tyrion to eat a meal together?”


“That seems stupid.”


“Yeah. But the month remains.”

Ryoka Griffin looked again at Erin and then out the window. The snow was falling. She saw the door open and glanced over.

“Hey, it’s that Gnoll again. The one who flies? He keeps visiting the inn. Do you think he hates me? I think he hates me.”

Plenty of people hate you. It’s fine.

Nerry wrote, and Ryoka looked self-conscious. Then shook her head.

“I’m staying till the end of the month. At least.”


Nerry frowned, but Shaestrel slowly nodded. She looked at Erin, who had made her Cackle Brew and was upgrading her Shadow Loaf. Ryoka absently felt at her side.

“Hedault better have my Faeblade done by then. He’s not permanently enchanting it…why, Nerry? The Winter Solstice comes dead at the end of the fourteenth month of the year. Halfway through winter. I’m going to be here for that. Then we’ll see.”

She and Erin traded another look, and of all the people in the inn, Ryoka Griffin understood why Erin was working hard.

Dance, dine, fly, and live with little kids like Mrsha and Nanette enjoying food and cuisine from around the world.

But when the Winter Solstice came…Ryoka Griffin tried to make the most of this month off. Because it might be the last one before nothing was ever the same again.





Author Call: Hey everyone, remember 9.40 GG? Remember months ago when I asked for medical readers? Well, now I need chemists. I need people with lab experience or know our version of…alchemy? This is broad, and I might not know what I need so I am asking for any readers with a good deal of knowledge to send in a resume or just a list of experience to my assistant at so we can make a chem-reading crew for an advance chapter.

It may take months. I may need to take time off to write it. It may be…a bad chapter. But with your help, I can make it better! Thanks!




Author’s Note: I realized I should have taken my break last chapter. Because I’m tired and my cold came back. Not full-blown, but it’s creeping in there, like a persistent cough, and it’s affecting my physical wellbeing.

It’s not like if I’m 10% off you get a 90% chapter. The personal mathematics of writing means that sometimes if I am sick or in pain, I write a wonderfully good chapter.

But on average, if I’m sick or tired and at the end of a writing month, the chapter becomes worse. At least this time I didn’t shoot for the moon and hit some random tower of Sariant Lambs. Anyways, I’m taking my week off, and I hope you enjoyed this month of writing. I’ll catch you after it, and soon I will be getting to work on other writing projects—but I will schedule it in and let you know what’s up. Thanks for reading and remember.

Don’t get sick.


Ressga and Tolveilouka by LeChatDemon!


Sadness, Selphid Duck, and Torreb by Brack!


Guess that Pokemon and Haven by Mg!


Selphids (Colorized) by Enuryn the Naturalist!


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – Innovation and Invention

The following story took place during the winter break of dinner dates, dancing, and a suspiciously quiet inn.



“Rufelt, what do you dream about?”

The co-owner of Tails and Scales paused in cleaning a mug at his bar. The glossy countertop and recently reupholstered chairs were polished by a thousand occupants, the wood smoothed and stained by countless spilled drinks.

He got a lot of questions as a [Bartender]. ‘What do you think I should order?’ ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ ‘Who are you to tell me how much I’ve had to drink?’

Those were all popular ones, but he also got questions like that from his regular guests. Any [Bartender] could tell you that there were times when you were just a drinks-dispenser or doing crowd control and counting coins coming in.

Then there were moments when someone sat down and, whether you liked it or not, you were getting a story. It was a cliché because…it happened.

The bartender was not your friend. At the same time, they were being paid to serve you drinks. To some people, they were one of the few confidants you could meet in your day, and the drinks didn’t hurt with loosening the tongue.

No one paid him enough to hear the dark stories. No one had enough gold for one of the nights when someone confessed something that had him calling the Watch as soon as he could slip out—or staying up thinking about what they had told him.

Mind you, Tails and Scales had a selective clientele. They took anyone on some nights when they wanted to make money, but Lasica and Rufelt got to choose their customers, and some were so well-paying that they made up for clients who ordered the cheapest drinks.

Rufelt’s bar was back in business. Things were—good between him and Lasica.


Not perfect. But there wasn’t an illusion that things would be perfect. They were not—as they had been—drowning in things said and unsaid. It felt like Rufelt had woken from a dark dream.

And that dream—that nightmare—was a woman and a period of his life he would never forget. Belavierr…and the work of Demons.

He talked to people about it. Not his patrons, mostly. But he’d joined a group of people who talked about how they were doing, and after his run-in with the Stitch Witch, he’d been directed to a class he’d never known existed.

Chaldion, or rather, one of his people, had introduced Rufelt to an odd subclass that was rarely seen outside of a city like Pallass.

[Thought Healers].

It was an odd class. How did you heal a thought? Before his loss, Rufelt wouldn’t have understood what the need was for that—or rather, how it touched on him. But that was because he would have thought it was something a [Soldier] or [Adventurer] needed.

It didn’t occur to him that everyone lost a loved one eventually. It never seemed to the Gnoll, the City Gnoll, that you talked to anyone about that, aside from maybe your family, your partner, or your closest friends.

He knew the Plains Gnolls shared things, but it was inconceivable to him. Yet Pallass did have [Thought Healers].

He wasn’t sure how well they did their job. The first thing the [Thought Healer] had asked was whether he wanted to work with a specialist on erasure or one on reflection. When asked, they had explained that some [Thought Healers] could simply help you block out a terrible memory. They worked with [Soldiers] a lot.

The one he’d worked with leaned on Skills. [Introspective Moment] was their Level 20 capstone, and he’d use it to reflect on things. See how he and Lasica had gotten to their lowest point. It was useful—but it was a Level 20 Skill.

Rufelt, as a Level 40+ [Bartender], was…keenly aware sometimes that he out-levelled everyone he met. Everyone. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t make him happy to realize he was higher-level than some [Generals] of Pallass. Yes, they had a different class, but Rufelt was sometimes a bit of a levelist when it came to hiring people to reshingle the bar or do plumbing and so on.

He knew he shouldn’t be. There was talent, and levels didn’t match competency or ethics, etcetera, etcetera…but the [Thought Healers] of Pallass were low-level.

Not a one over Level 30. It suggested to him that their methods weren’t perfect. But they worked, he talked to people—and he always had a treat for a certain little Gnoll girl with white fur.

She would come into his bar, sigh, order a cup of milk in the most pretentious way possible, and he’d stir in some syrup or honey with a flourish and maybe froth the milk up and draw something in the foam.

He was onto coffee, now, too. Milk froth let you decorate it in shapes. Annoyingly, Lasica and one of his helpers were really good at doing bunnies or cute shapes. Rufelt was more into stylized art…and everyone kept asking for Lasica’s coffee drawings.

Anyways, that snooty little child would soon start forgetting to copy her mother, and she’d often have a friend and giggle and laugh and pester some guests. A kid. But a brave one.

—The point was that Rufelt went to a [Thought Healer], but he thought he was mostly ‘done’ with his sessions. They were fairly expensive, anyways. What did this have to do with the question being asked to him?

Well…the Gnoll who was leaning over his single cup of cheap Wheat Ale was sipping it and trying to make it last the night over a plate of fried greens and half a venison steak.

That was one of the cheapest meals you could order. It was still as tasty as Lasica could make it. Snap peas fried up with butter but still moist enough to crunch, the kind you could pick up with your paws and nibble on over your drink all night. Rare venison—Rufelt had never met a Gnoll who liked well-done steaks that he respected. Spiced up properly, though, and still steaming since Lasica’s dishes had [Retain Heat] on them. You got an entire hour before they even began to cool.

But the meal fit the Gnoll who was in his work-clothes. A bright gray hat with Pallass’ symbol—scales and a gear in place over a brass plate on the top of the cap—and overalls stained with oil. His fur had a bit of it as well, and he looked tired and was slightly hoarse.

Felkhr, or the Flying Gnoll of Pallass, was as famous in Pallass as Rufelt, if not more so. He was a subject of either ridicule, sympathy, or a kind of wary amusement depending on who you asked. Like Saliss, he was one of Pallass’ crazies.

The Gnoll was famous for jumping off the walls of Pallass and trying to fly. He’d been doing it for…oh, Rufelt had to guess at least eleven years. Not consistently; he’d get into a spree of attempts, back off, not do it for eight months, then be back at it again.

All kinds of contraptions too. Wings made of bird feathers, parasols, even entire vehicles, which shattered and he had to clean up. The poor fellow had broken more bones in his body than Rufelt had broken mugs in his life. Spent more money, too, on [Featherfall] scrolls, his inventions—

He was a regular at the bar. He came in like clockwork most nights, ordered the cheapest option on the menu, and took his time over one drink if it was the last day in his shift.

Tonight, Rufelt made a gesturing motion with his paw. He didn’t answer the question right away.

“Slide me that mug, would you, Felkhr? I’m testing out something new.”

Without a word, the Gnoll slid the mug two-thirds empty over the bar. Rufelt caught it and then pressed down on something as he lifted a tube up.

A glossy tube made of links of metal shot some more ale into the mug. Felkhr grunted.

“Walls, what is that?

“It’s a tube. For dispensing drinks. I bought it to test out. It might beat walking over to the keg if I’m selling drinks.”

“I can see that. But why in the name of someone else’s Ancestors did you add that? Look at it. Each link has to be forged manually, and it’s got to be airtight. What a pain in the paws to make, and it must cost a fortune.”

Rufelt paused, about to brag about his latest acquisition in the name of bartending technology. He blushed—and Lasica, who’d come out with a plate for Chaldion at his table, turned.

“Do my ears deceive me? I could have sworn I heard my voice over there. But it can’t be because my darling Rufelt doesn’t listen to that nonsense. He has to have the keg tap. No matter what it costs.”

Rufelt blush deepened, and he slid the mug back towards Felkhr. Some of the guests chuckled as Lasica gave Felkhr a smile, and he raised his mug. Rufelt muttered under his breath.

“It didn’t cost that much.”

Felkhr was sipping from the frothy head of his cup. The pretext for the demonstration had filled his mug, and he seemed genuinely embarrassed.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to get in the way of a spat.”

“It’s nothing. You’re right—it’s too expensive to do for anyone but my bar. I hear some of my colleagues are trying wood…”

“Huh. I doubt it’d work. You’d have to be careful with it. Even if you did links of the wood in slats a foot long…you have to have a resin at the seams. And it’s hard to have something both watertight and malleable. One split and you’ve got drinks on the floor, and if you flex it wrong—it’ll just rupture.”

The Flying Gnoll indicated the idea with his paws and grimaced just imagining it. Rufelt nodded.

“It might work—but you’d have to be very careful.”

“No, it’s not even good for that. The wood’ll get filthy and nasty, and the resins we use—you want to drink that?”

“…Good point. Maybe a tube made out of leather or…?”

Felkhr was nodding.

“You have to make sure it’s not alchemically enchanted. Frankly, you want an intestine or something.”


“But practical. Metal’s the other option. What is that, steel? No, it’s not steel…it’s in links, and each link flexes just enough to give you a tube. Who made that? Pelt?”

He had a good eye for this kind of thing. Then again, he worked with [Engineers] every day even if he wasn’t one himself. Felkhr was a lift operator when he wasn’t jumping off the walls. Rufelt leaned over.

“Actually—it’s a special alloy. Not sure what it is, but it’s not Dwarfsteel. But guess where I got it?”

“Dwarfhalls Rest? So they’re finally working the smithies.”

Felkhr’s eyes lit up, and Rufelt smiled.

“They had an expert in Invrisil, and they came through Pallass. We got to talking, and I put in an order, oh, a month back. It showed up already.”

“Now that’s metalwork. Our smithies are in trouble. It’s definitely not steel; it’d be far heavier than that. Can I inspect it?”

Felkhr got up and inspected the metal with great interest. To Rufelt, it was just a fun device for his bar with great practical uses, no matter what his wife thought. But Felkhr…

“It’s not Dwarfsteel. It’s light, probably tough—fascinating. Can I ask who you talked to?”

“I’ll give you their [Message] contact. So…what’s this about dreams?”

When Felkhr sat down, he had a fresh mug of ale, and Rufelt might offer him a third top-up that night. And Lasica was going to send out some fries in a second, he just bet.

The Gnoll accepted the little gifts gratefully. He was miserly with his coin, but he’d always put a silver coin in the tips-jar at the end of every week. He’d done that since a decade ago, and their relationship wasn’t as strong as some.

You could argue that the Grand Strategist, Chaldion, was one of the guests that Rufelt knew very well. Or Saliss. Even Magus Grimalkin, a new customer, was showing his face more and more often.

Especially since he had a guest—Lady Pryde Ulta, and the Sinew Magus did not actually eat out that much. Lasica wouldn’t stop speculating about that.

“…The dream is just a question I keep getting asked. By Totene, our mutual healer.”


That was another thing Rufelt had in common with Felkhr. He hadn’t realized it, but the two Gnolls both went to the same [Thought Healer]. They’d seen each other in the clinic one time, and it had surprised Rufelt.

“Dreams…I’ve discussed a lot with them. Not dreams, per-se. But they were mostly making sure I wasn’t cursed. Lots of magical tests and charms. What, do you move onto dreams?”

“I think they’re getting desperate. It’s been six years, and they keep asking me. I think they’re onto something, but I keep lying to their faces.”

“—Huh. Why do you keep going if you’re lying?”

Felkhr paused with a bite of venison raised to his mouth. He blinked at Rufelt, then grinned.

“I have to. Remember? The Assembly of Welfare passed that resolution?”

Rufelt’s mouth opened, and he put the mug to one side.

“Wait a second. That was six years back. All that hullabaloo about your flying attempts. They’re still paying for it?”

You’re still paying for it with your taxes. Twice a month.”

“Ancestors. And no one’s told them to stop?”

Felkhr shrugged.

“Eh, it’s fun. I steal those snacks they have for us in bowls all the time. And I do know all of them by name, but most have given up on talking me out of my ‘crazy ideas’. Totene’s onto dreams, now.”

He spoke so casually that Rufelt had to remember the incident back then. There had been an entire resolution of concerned citizens, and he’d refused to sign the petition…Felkhr sat there, staring across the bar.

He had good weeks and bad weeks. Everyone did. This seemed like a bad week. Maybe a bad year. After all…Rufelt looked around and then grabbed the keg tap.

“Give me eight minutes.”

The Gnoll whirled across the bar, filled mugs, and took fifteen custom orders and one magical one.

For that, he took one of the floating liquids out of the special-made containers across the huge back of his bar, glowing with rare and exotic drinks, and poured it carefully into a cup. Then he swished in a dense, practically sap-thick drink like toffee and a shot of Firebreath whiskey.

The end result was a gravity-neutral orb he prodded into place over a bowl. He handed the bemused Human a spoon.

“Enjoy, sir. Take it slow and don’t stir it about or you’ll get some of the stuff on the ceiling.”

“Er—thank you, Master Bartender. Quite a delight.

The man bowed, then hurried over in delight to show his companions.

“Dame Ushar, look at this! Have you seen the like? Even the bars back in our capital…”

“Ser Sest, you will be the death of me. Her H—Miss Lyonette gives us time off and a stipend and you’ve spent half on a drink.”

“I shall use it as an anecdote for decades, Dame Ushar. Ser Lormel, would you care to try it? I shall not offer it to Dame Ushar, who seems not to believe in my cause.”

“Now, hold on. I never said I wouldn’t try a sip—”

Three [Knights]—though they’d taken off their armor—were occupying a corner of his bar. Rufelt shook his head but he decided they were funny, and if Lasica didn’t object, they’d be allowed to come back. He understood they were on break, which meant the inn was probably under guard by the infamous Shriekblade and the last member of their order.

The Wandering Inn was just crazy. But then again…he returned to Felkhr, who did indeed have a plate of complimentary fries.

“Where were we? The dream? Why do you lie to your [Healer]?”

“…I think they’re still trying to find a reason to have me stopped. And the dream…it’s been coming back again. Ever since the Wind Runner started flying. I’ve had it every night since the Archmage lifted Fissival.”

Rufelt saw Felkhr staring at something, far past the colorful flasks of alcohol. He bit his lip as he looked at the Flying Gnoll.

Felkhr was a famous…failure in Pallass. Unlike Saliss, who was a nuisance but a Named-rank Adventurer, Felkhr could not fly. He had failed for over a decade, since he was a young lad. Which was fine.

He had a dream, and Rufelt happened to know that Felkhr was actually as smart as a [Mage]. Why, he’d repaired Rufelt’s taps for a song back when the Gnoll was dirt-poor and didn’t want to pay for decent brass. He kept inventing things, and he made enough in his job—and he was respected enough to be a lift operator—to keep himself afloat.

But it had to be hard for not one, but two famous individuals to appear in Izril who were capable of flight. Valeterisa was the better of the two, even. She was an Archmage; she had magic.

Ryoka Griffin, though? She—was flying. She had a wind suit and her glider, and children were copying her. Rufelt had even asked Erin to bring her friend into the bar so he could meet her properly.

The problem was that she had done what Felkhr had dreamed of for over a decade—and she was flying around Izril.

The problem was actually Felkhr’s greatest ally. Everyone saw Ryoka flying and turned to him. But he hadn’t managed her flight yet. On one paw, Ryoka proved the dream was possible.

On the other—she had done it first. The Gnoll didn’t talk about her bitterly, though. But his thousand-mile stare was another story.

“Tell me about your dream.”

The two Gnolls were at one end of the bar, and though Rufelt had to step away to deal with customers as the night wore on, he took a seat next to Felkhr. The dream came out in anecdotes, and only afterwards, as he cleaned up, took a shower with the plumbing of Pallass, then lay in bed, did Rufelt put it together and stare at the ceiling as he did on those nights.

This is what Felkhr said:


“I have a dream. It isn’t every month that I have it. I can’t remember when it began. When I was eighteen? After the first dozen attempts, I think. In my dream, it’s a nice fall day. The sun’s out, but it’s so cold I can feel the wind blowing on my fur behind me. I’m staring out across Pallass, and the High Passes are frosted with snow. Today’s the day, I think.

So I jump. I jump, and I spread my arms—but then I realize I’m not carrying anything. I don’t have any wings. No flying invention. And no scrolls or potions or wand. And I’m falling. Then it’s no longer day, but night, and the wind is rushing around me.

The Walls of Pallass are three hundred feet high. Three hundred feet. It takes a while to get to the ground, even if you jump, you know. And in that moment, everything feels so slow. But this time, I know there’s no surviving the fall.”


The Flying Gnoll lifted his cup as Rufelt sat there, as Lasica peeked out the kitchen and the last regulars looked up. He spoke with the faintest of smiles on his face.

“And I think—this is it. At last. I’m afraid, at first. Terrified. Then I’m relieved.”

“Relieved? Why?”

Rufelt broke in, the only voice in the quiet bar. A trio of [Knights], listening from their table. A [Chef], no longer cleaning dishes.

One glowing eye as the Grand Strategist sat in his booth, smoking a cigar that sparked in the late night. Felkhr looked at Rufelt, then stared into the distance.

“—Because I’ll know. I’ve always wondered whether, in that last moment before I hit the ground, I’ll find the secret. Whatever was holding me back. Maybe I’ll pass out and gain the right class. Maybe I’ll find a secret. Magic. I don’t know. But I’m relieved in that dream because I’ll know by the time I land whether I can fly.”

He looked around, then drained the last of his mug.

“…I don’t think the [Thought Healers] would see it that way, though. Thank you for the drinks. I’ve got to be going. I’m going to try again tomorrow.”

Then he got up and walked out that bar and into Pallass, the snow that had fallen melting under the streetlamps, the great lifts shut off for the night, the clank of the city silent. One Gnoll out of millions of people.

That was the Flying Gnoll as Rufelt understood him.




Felkhr of Pallass had grown up in the City of Inventions all his life. He wasn’t a Gnoll. He wasn’t a City Gnoll. He was a citizen of Pallass before anything else.

They did love their city. Pallassians took pride in the fact that they did things the other Walled Cities would never dream of. The clank of gears turning, the feeling of your stomach dropping through your feet when you rode an elevator, everything that visitors swore they’d never get used to—that was home to Felkhr.

It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t perfect. Did he enjoy Pallass the same after hearing about the stolen magic of Gnolls? Did he always agree with everything the city did?

No—but he was still a Pallassian. Yet even here, in his City of Inventions, sometimes, Felkhr despaired.

City of Inventions. It wasn’t just the name of his city, it was their motto. It was what kept the Walled City fed. Alchemy, engineering, steel—new ideas flowing in and out.

And yet, in his experience, he could divide everyone he met into two camps—those that supported him and those that did not. He knew it was childish, but he couldn’t help but notice how many proud Pallassians would brag about the great lifts or some new potion or point to Maughin—then tell him he was an idiot.

Couldn’t they see he was doing what every [Engineer] did—only in his way? But no, they only saw the feathered wings and laughed at the broken flying vehicles as if they thought it all had to work. The [Engineers] made silly gears, tried out projects that failed—with supervision, safety, budgets, and planning, of course—all the time.

But he did count the people who believed in him as the few friends in his city.

Rufelt and Lasica were the good ones. Felkhr had known them when they were a dueling Gnoll and Drake who would try to steal each other’s business every night. They gave him that extra snack or drink.

Some of the ones who believed in him. Most did not. And Felkhr knew that was true because he felt like he’d talked with at least a third of Pallass directly.

The thing about being infamous—for better or worse—was that people came up and talked to you. Whether it was before he took that leap of faith or they’d come up to him and buy him a drink at a bar.

They had predictable questions. The first was just—‘why?’ Then they’d ask if he was scared, or crazy, or whether you got a good class out of jumping and breaking your bones, or how far he’d gotten.

Mundane questions, but he’d learned to be polite when answering. The other benefit of being so infamous was that Felkhr knew everyone.

For instance, he had met Saliss of Lights. He’d talked to General Thrissiam, General Duln—every General except the new ones. He had exchanged comments with Grimalkin about healing—actually, the Drake had come in to study his recovery. Felkhr had even talked with Chaldion.

Most of them…got it. Even if they thought he was crazy for wanting to fly. Felkhr remembered the first thing Saliss had said to him.

The [Alchemist] had transformed the ground into something soft. Softer than mud, which had caught a screaming Felkhr who had been tumbling as his safety line—his emergency line—snapped. The Gnoll had pulled himself out of the slime. The Drake had kicked him as he lay panting on the ground.

Hey. I’m the insane one here. You want to fight for top crazy? I’m afraid you’d win. Who wants to fly?”

But he’d grinned at Felkhr, and told him never to try to jump without a [Featherfall] scroll again. He…got it.

So did Pelt. Maughin was too polite to do more than tell Felkhr he was overbooked for most of the Gnoll’s requests. And the Dwarf was too greedy or drunk. But he never laughed at Felkhr.

…Okay, he laughed at the Gnoll a lot, especially when he came by with a broken leg or arm. But never at the idea. He’d just spit.

“I never wanted to climb a damn staircase. You want to fly? Good luck building those shitmetal wings. Feh. Only a dreamer runs down a road no one’s even sure exists.”

Saliss, Pelt, Grimalkin, Rufelt…they understood. Whether or not they thought his goal or methods were mad, it felt, to Felkhr, that the high-level members of Pallass got the attempt. The citizens—did not.

Some of them tried to talk him out of his jumps. Others were more drastic, hounding him, telling him he was mad.

Six years ago, a petition had been formed by the ‘concerned members of Pallass’. They had demanded the Assembly of Welfare—a subdivision of the overall Assembly of Crafts—personally forbid Felkhr from trying his flying experiments and, if he refused, exile him from Pallass.

Their reasoning had been that his attempts were disruptive to the peace, distressing to people who observed him falling, and a bad example to the children of the city.

That had been the maddest Felkhr had ever gotten. A public forum had been convened, and the entire argument had been the topic of discussion for all of Pallass for a month. He had said, publicly, that it was possible.

Of course it was! If Oldblood Drakes and Garuda, both subsections of Pallass’ population, could fly, why not a Gnoll or regular Drake? Why shouldn’t he be allowed to try? It wasn’t like they had to look.

But the same damned citizens who would complain about an ‘offensive aesthetic’ to a home, or the Dullahans who would object to another Dullahan’s armor decorations, had pushed the issue until the Assembly of Welfare heard the topic.

Felkhr had been afraid he’d be forced to stop, and he’d wondered if he’d have to move to another city or…do something else. But that was when he’d met Chaldion.

The Grand Strategist had summoned Felkhr to his office. The nervous Gnoll had waited nearly an hour until Chaldion walked in and told him to explain his idea.

He had listened to the entire thing without blinking more than once or twice, then told Felkhr that he thought the concept was ridiculous, impossible, and that there wasn’t much strategic merit in it anyways, since they had Garuda. Felkhr had replied that it wasn’t Chaldion’s job to tell him what to do.

Then that old Drake had smiled and told Felkhr to go home and not worry about the drama. The next day, the Assembly of Welfare had ruled that Felkhr would attend the [Thought Healers], but unless they deemed it an actual matter of insanity, he could not be stopped from his flying experiments so long as he endangered no one else and didn’t block the activities of regular citizenry.

Felkhr often thought about that encounter when he saw Chaldion at the bar. The [Strategist] didn’t say much to him other than greetings now and then. Same as Saliss.

The Named-rank adventurer wasn’t his friend. Rufelt and Lasica were…good acquaintances or friends he hung out with at their business at best. But he was glad to know them. Some days, especially of late, Felkhr thought he’d have given up and packed his dreams away but for people like them.

Especially of late. Which was odd, wasn’t it? Why was he at his lowest now when a Human was flying across Izril’s skies with a contraption? Why now when people were taking notice and there was a Human in the Engineer’s Guild talking about air travel like a real thing, and he was being offered money?

Well—perhaps because Earthers ruined everything. Including dreams.




Troydel didn’t understand why he was so unpopular. Not in general. But specifically in the Engineer’s Guild.

He was an Apprentice Journeyman, a technical rank in the guild’s hierarchy that meant he was allowed to submit proposals and do basic work like installing devices—but only with supervision. He had skipped the entire apprentice section mainly because the Guildmaster of the Engineering Guild, Chaldion, and a number of Pallassian officials wanted him to explain and implement Earther concepts.

The problem was…Troydel could only give them ideas, not facts. How did you make a combustion engine? Combust…gasoline.

How did you make gasoline? Oil? Refine it? How?

What did an axel cylinder look like? Okay, a car was understandable. How did the steering wheel, mechanically, turn the wheels? And why did Drakes hate him so much?

Even with memory spells and help, Troydel just didn’t know the answers. But having the end result was still a net boon and a direction for Drakes to rush down, right? Troy just didn’t get the hate.

…That was, until he heard an [Engineer] grousing as they lined up near the great lifts.

The Great Lifts of Pallass were not the private ones that let citizens ride up and down. These were the massive transport lifts that went up from the ground floor. It made Pallass’ insanely odd design of an inverted pyramid work; you didn’t have to physically haul items up each floor or via stairs. They just were pushed onto the lifts, and the lifts would slowly ascend to the 9th with ore, to the 5th Floor with parts, head down to the 1st Floor with outgoing goods or to pick up more supplies…

There were eight, two per cardinal direction, and they ran until dusk, when noise ordinances had them cease working except for great need. Instead of electricity or gas fueling the ‘engines’ that turned the gears, it was all magic.

Magical gems or raw mana powered the elevators, and they were expensive. Rather like Erin’s door, it was a huge loss in mana to provide a great net boon in transport.

But the amount of organization and effort required to run the Great Lifts was intense. The huge gears that Troydel could see turning in the exposed shaft were under heavy strain. They were steel, checked repeatedly, and [Repaired], but they could snag or get jammed.

Also, the elevators had a manual braking system, so if someone operating them didn’t hit the brakes at exactly the right moment, you were either too high or too low. And the elevators had a ‘warmup’ time, so adjusting could foul you up precious minutes.

Therefore—the Lift Operators had an important job. There were only a few, but they were well-respected and good at their tasks.

The technical job name was ‘Floor Lift Operator’, and Troydel had been told it was an actual ranking that could outrank several members of the Engineering Guild, especially in a crisis. Drake command was such that you could pin the level of an [Engineer]’s rank in a guild against a [Captain] in the Pallassian army and know who outranked who.

He had a cheat-sheet in his room. And he did have nice rooms and a huge allowance granted to him by the city. But sometimes, Troy missed having Leon around and staying at the inn. He still had rooms there…if a Goblin or Antinium hadn’t gotten them. But he just didn’t fit with Erin.

The Drakes, though, disliked Troy, and one was saying it loudly as they lined up with a bunch of parts to head to the new hydroponics attempt on Floor 3. The Guildmaster had Troydel working practical assignments as well as blueprinting, because he wanted Troy to understand the guild—and level up.

“It’s that Human. I hate him.”

“He’s not an ass. I’d rather work with him than 4th Army any day. They treat us like [Sappers] and hate being told ‘no’. And there’s bad Masters too. Troy just tells you to come up with an idea for how something works, and it’s usually wrong.”

“That’s not it. I hate…his inventions. Or wherever they come from. Every time you think you have some brilliant idea and you take it to the Guildmaster, he tells you, ‘talk to Troydel’. And wouldn’t you know it, but he’s already thought of that. Or he says, ‘oh, I know how that works, and here’s how it’s supposed to be done’! It makes me want to quit. What’s the point of being an [Engineer] if there’s nothing left to invent? I—oh, hi, Troy.”

Troy hunched his shoulders as the Drake stopped grousing and gave him a fake smile. The other [Engineers] stopped nodding along and coughed and pretended they hadn’t heard what was going on.

So that was why. Troy finally got it, and his heart sank. So that was why the [Engineers] waving their weird gear-designs, like a triangle or just different circles, all had that disappointed look when he told them what he’d remembered.

Oh. You already did it. That’s…great. But what about my achieving it from scratch?

The problem was actually something he felt a strong kinship towards. Because—it was the problem of Earth, honestly.

Oh, there were tons of inventions and exciting new technologies coming out every year. Robots, advanced designs, home-inventors were probably better than they had ever been. But what Troy liked about this world was that it wasn’t explored.

On Earth, they knew every body of land. The only parts they didn’t know fully and weren’t settled were the deep Amazon or…underwater or space. Or the Arctic, he supposed, what little of it wasn’t melted. This world was new—yet somehow, he was bringing more of Earth over.

“H-how’s the blueprinting going, Troy? I heard that the Guildmaster’s approved some designs.”

“Oh…I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about it.”

The other Journeymen and women and apprentices nodded, sighing. So, instantly, Troy told them everything because he wanted them to like him.

“—I can tell you we’re going to work on steam engines. For the gears since Pallass is so good at it. Steam-powered elevator. Oh—and we might do hot air balloons.”

Ooh! That’d be great!”

Instantly, the Drakes warmed up and got excited. One of them glanced knowingly at Troydel.

“How about the flying gliders like the Wind Runner has?”

“Honestly—I think someone else is working on that. They’re literally copying it. I just gave them notes.”

There were a lot of projects going on in the Engineering Guild, and a few of the [Journeymen] murmured.

“I’d love to work on that. Hey, we might get a chance to fly them! Imagine being the first non-Garuda or Oldblood Drake to fly. The Flying Gnoll will literally eat his fur if…”


Troydel saw another Drake nudge the talkative one—the same one who’d insulted him—and point. And there he saw a Gnoll glance up, and his cap with the brass badge of Pallass flashed.

Floor 5! Lift ready?

A tired [Worker] who’d helped wrestle the last bin of parts onto Great Lift #4 shouted. He got a response.

“Floor 5 confirms! Lift ready!”

A speaking stone barked.

Floor 3, lift ready!

“Heading down!”

Then the Gnoll pulled the first lever, disengaged the brake, and Troy felt the elevator lurch slightly, and gravity did the rest. They descended, and the Drakes from the guild muttered quietly.

“I forgot he works here.”

“I heard he was a Journeyman too, before he quit. Floor Lift Operator pays better than what we make.”

Him? But his flying contraptions are stupid. Seriously, why doesn’t he just copy the Wind Runner’s Glider or her Wind Suit? She’s flying, and he was trying feathered wings last week. Maybe he’s just an idiot?”

Troydel was glancing at Felkhr, but if the Gnoll heard, he was busy pulling the first brake as they slowed to 3rd Floor. He had multiple levers—the entire Great Lift was more like a train, and as they stopped, it was within three feet of the ground of the 3rd Floor.

Which was obviously unacceptable for Earth’s elevators. But given that Felkhr was slowing the elevator just by using markings and his understanding of how the brake-system worked, it was good enough, and the Drakes, in classic Pallassian fashion, had improvised a workaround to the issue.

“Lift stop!”

Lift stop confirmed! Brakes engaged!

“Clearance—three feet, two inches!

“Three feet, two inches!”

Instantly, a bunch of workers came out with wooden blocks to create a mini-ramp that let the bins of parts roll off the lift. They shoved them into place, and the passengers waited for the lift to unload. The gossipy-Drake might have badmouthed Felkhr further, but someone slapped him on the back of the head with a clipboard.

“That Gnoll can operate the Great Lift without a single Skill. He doesn’t even have [Operator] as a class. Step to your job and let him do his.”

An older, visibly annoyed Master Engineer stepped past the Drake as the Journeyman ducked. Everyone went silent, then the engineers flooded out to get to work. Most were heading towards the hydroponics project.

The idea was simple. Giant irrigation systems of water would pump water up via reserve water-wheels to feed gardens of produce. That way, Pallass would be able to grow plants in the city like Oteslia and not be at the mercy of local farms. It could draw straight from the river…once they managed to make everything work properly.

“Who in Rhir’s hells is that?”

The Journeyman Drake hissed until one of the other Drakes, a female apprentice, poked him and hissed.

“Mind your tail, idiot! He’s the inventor of the Rascale Mk. 4 Safety Harness!”

“The Mk. 4? Oh, come on, that’s just a stupid bit of rope.”

At this, the rest of the Drakes began to kick the talkative one, and some of the actual workers gave the Drake an annoyed look. One of the ones who worked on the Great Lifts tapped the Journeyman on the shoulder. He indicated his safety-harness, and Troy glanced at an actually approximate version of a harness that people would use in his world.

With it, you could hook yourself into scaffolding or, in this case, hooks such that if the Great Lift fell suddenly, you wouldn’t go with it. Even now, there were Drakes, hanging high up, performing maintenance on one of the parts of the Great Lift.

“Listen, idiot. Go back to the Engineering Guild and review the reason why this ‘bit of rope’ exists. Because if you’re so smart, we’ll give you a Mk. 3 and let you suffer the consequences. See this?”

He yanked out a piece of yellow rope from a side of the harness. It would extend down, and it was just a support. The Drake stood on it as he raised his voice to the other workers.

“The reason this exists is that if you take a fall and you’re dangling up there, the harness keeps you from dropping to your death! But guess what? You hang there for an hour and your legs die. No blood down there. This bit of rope is what you stand on, and it saves your legs and your body from needing a [Healer]! It’s so impressive that the City of Ropes paid us for the design. They use it in their city, and they climb for a living. Got it?”

He kept shouting as Troy moved on, berating the Journeyman Drake who was probably never going to badmouth the Mk. 4 harness ever again.

That was the good thing about Pallass’ systems. Even Troydel’s plans in the Engineering Guild would run through dozens and dozens of tests before they were rolled out for public use. But the Drakes were running with countless different ideas. Troy looked back once at the Gnoll who was waiting for the goods to be unloaded and staring ahead.

As if he were dreaming—but he was paying careful attention to his controls and the lift too. But Troy wondered what Felkhr was thinking of.




He was avoiding The Wandering Inn.

Yet he had to go. After his six-hour shift—Floor Lift Operators were not allowed to report to work tired or work more than six hours due to the dangers of a slip up—Felkhr returned to his home.

He had an apartment, one of the copper-ones cheap as anything, but he slept here more than anywhere. And ‘here’ was a workshop he’d rented next to one of the foundries.

It was cheap because it was loud as hell and often too warm—but the giant, blazing foundries that produced Pallass’ steel, which was sold the continent, the world over, were warm in the winter.

He had a one-room studio cluttered with projects and inventions, but little of it was worth anything to anyone but him. Twice, a [Thief] had broken in and left without taking anything besides supplies.

Felkhr had a blanket, pillow, and other objects piled up on one table; he slept under it if he needed to. He tossed his cap and jacket down on a bench and sighed.


He was getting sensitive of late if some young [Journeyman] could get under his fur. But he’d spotted Troydel in line, and—maybe it had compounded his worries.

Absently, Felkhr began to sort through his designs as he tried to get in the mood to create something new. He had sheafs and sheafs of parchment, blueprints for things he’d made, budgets for how to make them with his limited salary, and notes.

How far he’d flown, what seemed to work—and yes, weights of materials, cost of enchanting items, and a neat notation of his own bodyweight and details few people ever bothered counting.

Like…the speed of the wind. Felkhr hadn’t measured it for a while, but he had this spinning contraption with spoon-like bowls that he’d tied to a moving piece of red chalk. It was on a slider, so if it spun fast enough, it created a circle.

The more wind, the bigger the circle. On windy days, it would create variable circles—he took the aggregate and tried to assign it a numerical value so he could calculate wind-speed. Felkhr couldn’t remember why. Oh, right, he’d wanted to test on a day when it was windy enough that he had enough backwind to catch some of his inventions.

The notes for that were pinned to one wall. Absently, he cleaned them off and shuffled them into a pile. He didn’t need that right now. Felkhr stared gloomily at the principle design in front of him.

It was…a glider.

It wasn’t hard to see how Ryoka Griffin’s hang glider worked. Felkhr had distilled it down into parts and even done measurements. How? Well, he knew that the Driver’s Guild had standardized wheel sizes. So he’d found an image of Ryoka Griffin next to a wagon and then calculated her rough height from that. Then he’d copied it all onto a piece of paper and done some guesses about the right canvas for the wings and which wood to use.

That was easy. The world was filled with things you could measure, and bending your head around that was just a matter of knowing where to start. The hard part…would be copying the Wind Runner.

Just like the Journeyman had said. Felkhr was not copying Ryoka Griffin. He didn’t want to.

It felt like cheating. More than that, it felt like he had been reaching for his goal, reaching with all his heart and soul—and someone had just handed it to him.

“There has to be something else. Why not wings? Damn it—and she has wind magic, so it’s not as if this thing works. It’s just a way to slow yourself while falling!

Frustrated, the Gnoll tore the parchment off his drawing board, tossed it aside, and went back to his designs.

He knew it could work. It should work! The problem was…it didn’t.

What had he gotten wrong? Last attempt—Felkhr reviewed the notes and winced as he remembered hitting the ground too hard. Even with [Featherfall].




Concept: Garuda-feather wings. Maybe the issue with his flying was…feathers. He had bought chicken feathers, used goose, but Garuda were one of the few species who could fly yet were of humanoid size.

They were the biggest flying species in the world that flew under their own weight. By that, he meant that they didn’t have some lift that defied his understanding.

Wyverns, for example, were heavy, thousands of pounds, yet flew. Magic was the reason. The Garuda he’d interviewed had told him they had hollow bones.

He had bought enough bones of chickens and other flying birds to know it was true; birds were incredibly light compared to other ground-based species. In that sense, he was woefully too heavy.

However, Garuda claimed they could produce enough lift with their wings to fly without needing magic. They were an incredibly lightweight species, and he had begged and bought enough feathers off them to make two huge wings.

Bigger wingspan, bigger birds. He’d combined that with a new wing-shape and tried to glide like Ryoka Griffin. He thought it had worked…for about five seconds, his fall hadn’t been that fast.

Then the wings had snapped.




“I need stronger materials. Damn it!

Half his inventions snapped due to the sheer force of the wind. Or…resistance. In the air. Felkhr threw down his pencil, unhappy, and looked at the wreckage he’d salvaged.

Half the feathers were gone, and the sturdy wooden struts…he’d made it like a basket, with little struts and wood thin as sticks to hold the weight.

He’d even copied a Garuda’s wing. It was incredibly, incredibly hard to get a mold of a wing. He’d had to pay a Garuda to let him encase their wing-arm in a proper mold to get a pattern, and then he’d had to pay for cleaning the gunk off their feathers.

But the end result was a mold of a wing—and he had one of a seagull, a chicken—chickens could fly—and an Oldblood Drake, all made out of a plaster. It was probably the most valuable thing in the studio as they looked like pieces of art.

Certainly—the person who knocked on the door and came in seemed impressed. Felkhr spun, but the Drake raised her claws.

“Peace. Mister Felkhr, you’re not answering our notes.”

“Who are you? Get out. You’re—wait a second. Aren’t you Chaldion’s people?”

The Drake paused as she adjusted some plain, nondescript clothing. She looked like a common citizen bundled up in a jacket, but he recognized her from his meetings with them. And she came to the Engineer’s Guild.

“I’m a representative of the city, Mister Felkhr. And the city—and High Command and the Engineer’s Guild—would like very much to work with you.”

The Gnoll folded his arms.

“Are you the people who’ve been moving my notes around? Help yourself. Like everyone’s saying—the Wind Runner has her flying glider. I’m being left behind.”

The Drake made a show of looking innocent.

“It wasn’t me. Mister Felkhr—have you seen our notes?”

“Maybe. Was it the one you stuck in my sandwich? I ate half of it before I wondered why it tasted funny.”

The Eye of Pallass rubbed at her forehead.

“Some of my colleagues have a taste for the dramatic. I apologize. They should have left it on your drawing board. If you were not aware, let me repeat: we want you to head up a project in the Engineering Guild. We—that is, the Guild—are prepared to reinstate you as a Senior Journeyman and have you head our Flying Initiatives. We have a handsome salary and budget. You’ll be working with Pallass’ best. Here’s what you could make as an income. Not the budget.”

She scribbled a number down, and Felkhr blinked at it.

I could pay for a lot of Garuda feathers with that. But then he looked up and shook his head.

“Not interested.”

The Drake seemed to be expecting this. She found a seat on a table as she carefully put one of his first attempts at a flying vehicle aside. He’d seen the spinner-toys you could whirl up into the air, based on actual seeds that fell from trees, and tried to make one that carried him up—but it had seemed stupid and dangerous, so he quit.

“May I ask why? If it’s a matter of not wanting to take orders, I could…find you a project where you are in full control.”


The Gnoll kept his arms folded. The Drake felt her way out tentatively.

“If you need more coins—”

“I don’t want to be told what to work on. Do you have any blueprints for what the Engineer’s Guild is making? You have to have them. That kid, Troydel, probably submitted them.”

“Mister Felkhr, I have no idea what you’re talking about. We’re just beginning the projects.”

This time, the Eye of Pallass gave him a completely blank look, and he almost fell for it.

What am I saying? That’s stupid. I—

Felkhr jabbed himself in the paw with a quill, and the Skill failed. She blinked, and the Flying Gnoll laughed at her.

“What Skill was that?”

“…[Misdirect Thoughts]. Why did it fail? You don’t have any notes on your file about being able to beat mental Skills.”

Felkhr waved a paw nervously. They were scarier than he’d thought, Pallass’ agents. But she seemed curious, and in the interest of everything staying friendly, he explained.

“That only works if I don’t know the facts. Which is that the Engineer’s Guild never approves a project without a plan.”

“Oh. Damn. Well, I—”

“Show me the blueprints or I’m not interested at all. I bet you I know what they look like, anyways. Hot air balloon. Hang glider. Aeroplane. Wingsuit. Uh…zippy lines?”

The Eye of Pallass stiffened.

“How do you know that? How do you—are those blueprints of them? Let me see that!”

She snatched some experimental sketches and yanked out a binder from her jacket. Then she shuffled over and compared the two. Felkhr called out.

“No one told me. I just—overheard things. Engineers talk.”

“Damn them. We’ll have to work on that. As for this—this is why we want you. I am sharing this with you to get you to come aboard. Understand that we’re improving and figuring out how to implement each. You won’t be able to do this yourself, Felkhr, and it’s already been done. Got it?”

She handed him her binder, and Felkhr’s eyes widened. What he saw were mostly sketches.

Ideas. Based on Troydel’s descriptions of what should be. [Engineers] had gotten into the job of figuring out how each worked. But he…

“Incredible. Wait. Is this a ‘plane’? Why does the wing look so odd?”

He had never seen this before. Then—Felkhr remembered where they had come from and jerked his eyes away as if burned. The agent folded her arms.

“Search me. Something about wind direction or…lift. That boy has no clue. He knows what it should be, but not all of why, and the explanations make my head hurt…”

She coughed, and Felkhr glanced up. Did she speak with Troy? He, on the other hand, was caught. He was staring at the oddest wing design ever—and something was going ping in his brain, while at the same time he was telling himself he didn’t want to know.

He forced himself to slap the binder shut and thrust it back at the agent.

“I—am not going to work on that for Pallass.”

“Why not? You can tell we’re ahead of you.”

The Flying Gnoll gave the agent a weary look.

“What’s your name, Miss?”

She was slightly offended by the question.

“I don’t know if that’s helpful.”

“Can’t you give me a fake one? I don’t like speaking to people I don’t know.”

“Fine. Call me Zemize. Pallass is offering you all the support you never had, Felkhr of Pallass. Your city wants you.”

He folded his arms again.

“It’s got a funny way of showing it after a decade.”

The Drake winced as she glanced around his workshop.

“The times change. Your ideas were never practical, but—we can see that it’s a viable path forwards, Felkhr. Consider your salary an apology. How large would you like it to be?”

Felkhr bared his teeth.

“Still not interested. I don’t want to be told to…copy someone else’s idea. Which is what that kid has. I don’t know where it comes from. Some ancient nation? Chieftain Seru’nial’s tribe? Another world?”

He was just throwing things out there, and the agent’s tail twitched back and forth as she laughed at the ideas. But Felkhr shook his head.

“Regardless. I believe it’d work—but it’s not my way. And my way will be the only way I do it. I’m not interested in making a hundred of those flying machines for the army, either. I want…to fly.

He had never wanted anything more in his life. If he looked out the window, he could see the snow falling, and he imagined soaring up into those grey skies.

He was at his least motivated ever. He was at his most motivated ever. Because he knew it could be done. Because he wasn’t sure if he was barking up the wrong tree—

But he still believed in his plans. And he would not be a copycat to Ryoka Griffin or Troydel. He would rather just line up and buy one of the Wind Runner’s gliders when Pallass manufactured them and admit defeat rather than stop experimenting.

“You could do all this so much better with money. We’ll be spying on your designs, you know. You can’t defeat Troydel when it comes to ideas. Believe me. I’ll tell you this—I’m one of his assigned handlers, and he has plenty of people keeping him happy because he knows enough to turn Izril on its head. But all the things we need to make—we need you, Felkhr.”

He smiled politely at Zemize.

“But I don’t need the city. Not yet. And between you and me, Zemize, there’s another reason I don’t want to work with the Engineering Guild.”

“Which is?”

She leaned over, and he whispered to her.

They’re slow. They have safety protocols and review boards, and they won’t test anything without trialing it a hundred times first. Which is great for the city and their people. I’m faster.

Then he got up and showed her to the door. Felkhr kept smiling for nearly an hour until she was gone. Then he curled up and howled under his pillow for a while.




They’d figured it out! They had the whole of it! It made him so—so—angry. He wanted to punch a hole in a wall.

Lacking that, the first thing Felkhr did when he got to Liscor after paying for a day’s travel was punch the snowman outside.

“Stupid designs! Why do wings look like that? Stupid—know-it-all—Wind Runner!”

He hadn’t slept all last night. He’d been translating as many things he’d seen from his scan of the blueprints Troydel had made as he could onto parchment, then figuring them out. But he had stopped himself from begging to see the rest and was glad he hadn’t seen more than hints.

He didn’t. Want. To. Know.

There was more than pride at stake. More than the joy of accomplishing it himself. Felkhr had not gotten to where he was by taking the easy path.

He was more than the Flying Gnoll of Pallass. True, he might look like a crazy Gnoll punching a snowman to death as people edged around him outside the inn—but he had a secret.

Felkhr was a [Dreamer].

He was also an [Inventor].

And guess what? Neither class wanted Troydel’s certain knowledge. The Gnoll felt in his bones that he’d ruin himself if he saw the blueprints, and he had every reason to be proud.

Because he was a Level 33 [Dreamer of Flight].

And a Level 31 [Crazed Inventor].

Some people got to the famous ‘thirty before thirty’ hallmark of talent. Which was reaching Level 30 before reaching the age of 30.

Well, Felkhr had done it twice. And if you thought you didn’t get good Skills—there was some irony in what Felkhr got, actually.

He had gained, in his approximation, about the same amount of Skills as a regular Level 30 person between two classes. Mostly because the [Dreamer] class was, by and large, a famous dud.

Felkhr wasn’t even someone who daydreamed, so some of the Skills some sleep-enthusiasts got he had straight-out refused. The Skills he did get were odd.

The thing about wanting to fly is that when he was younger, he had assumed it would be given to him by levels.

You see—levels provided. Everyone knew that a class could shape you, but you also tended to get Skills that affected your life’s path by levelling.

So why would a Level 33 [Dreamer of Flight] not get the ability to fly?

[Realization of Your Deepest Dream] or something pithy like that? He’d fly for five minutes each day, and that’d probably satisfy him.

…But he didn’t get that Skill.

His [Inventor] class was simple. He had a lot of abilities like [Phantom Tool], which allowed him to adjust something from the inside rather than having to take it apart. [Incredible Adhesive] was one of his capstones that allowed him to make a glue twice as strong as regular.

He had [Detect Fault], which was invaluable for dealing with wood or metal, [Accident Prevention]—which had saved his life a few times and gave him a dodge from the first accident in a workplace each day. A literal dodge—or he’d catch himself from pouring solvent next to a candle or the like.

[A Scroll A Day: Parchment] meant he drowned in writing material. Even used it as toilet paper. He could adjust something he made, measure it down to exacting specifications, and make his simple tools work like magic.

His [Dreamer] class? That…gave him so few Skills he suspected something was laughing at him.

Here was an example of what the [Dreamer] class gave him. At first, he’d gotten [Lucid Dreaming], [Perfect Memory: Imagination], and so on, but then the class had seemed to…change.

Level 30 [Dreamer of Flight]. Capstone Skill?

[My Dream of Flight: 30% Discount]! Which meant he could walk into any shop, go to any [Merchant] in the world—and if he needed something for his dream, he only had to pay 70% of the price. The remaining bit would magically appear—or he’d find the coins in his pocket after paying.

Why. That? Why not ‘let me fly, you stupid class?’ Why not…[Super Jump]?

Another ‘[Dreamer]’ Skill he’d gotten?

[Mending Recovery]! For breaking your bones! [Increased Income: Job]! For more pay when you got your income from working as a Lift Operator! [Powerful Persuasion: Enchanters], for when you needed them to enchant your latest creation!

[Locate Item: Scroll of Featherfall] so he could go bargain-hunting for the scrolls.

Literally. He could detect [Featherfall] scrolls anywhere in Pallass. You want to find a [Featherfall] scroll? You talk to Felkhr. He could tell you that Grimalkin of Pallass had eighteen in his mansion.

Classes were stupid. And that was why Felkhr was in a crisis. He had not come this far on his own just to cheat his way to the end.

…Assuming he could find the end and it wasn’t by following Ryoka Griffin, Troydel, or the Archmage of Izril.

The Gnoll was understandably vexed by recent events. Stressed. Sleep-deprived, which was a terrible thing to be, and great sympathy should have been given to anyone lacking even an hour of sleep. Especially [Writers]. And [Engineers] and [Inventors] and [Dreamers].

So it was understandable that he beat the poor snowman to death. But, uh…when Felkhr finally caught himself and stopped mashing in the Yellat-nose and the remains of two eyes, he looked up and saw he had an audience.

Besides the visitors coming in and out to The Wandering Inn via the door, he also had two little Gnolls and two Drakes who were staring at him in horror.

They had a wheelbarrow of snow, and their beloved snowman was dead. Mrsha, Kenva, Visma, and Ekirra gave Felkhr a long look as he straightened up and looked at their snowman.

“Oh. I, uh…he was just standing there and…”

He killed Mister Snowy! He was an Antinium! He’s racist!”

Visma began shouting. Felkhr raised his paws.

“No, no, I was just mad—”

It occurred to him it was the wrong thing to say. Mrsha was whistling, and a man in armor was striding towards him.

“Excuse me, sir. Back away from the children—”

“No, no, I was just—”

Felkhr was worried. He tried to back up—then felt the hairs on his neck rise. He looked up—and a glinting arrow was trained on him.

“Should I shoot him in the legs, Mrsha?”

Bird the Hunter called out from the tower. The Gnoll froze and held his paws straight up. His bad morning was getting worse.




Someone else having a bad day was Kevin.

Also Watch Captain Zevara.

They sat across from each other as he put his head on the table. Erin was mediating. The Watch Captain’s arms were crossed, and she had a bandage on her tail.

Two, actually. One was fresher than the other.

“I don’t understand it. Am I cursed? Or do you have a grudge against me? Are you trying to get bicycles banned from the city?”

“Yeah, Kevin. What’s wrong with you?”

“I was swerving. This time it wasn’t my fault! Some idiot wasn’t looking and stepped into me, and it was either run him over or go left.”

“And the Watch Captain’s tail got run over.”

Erin turned to Zevara, and the Watch Captain nodded.

“How do you not see it?”

Kevin threw up his hands.

“I’m sorry. Tails are hard to see! I’m not used to having to navigate around Drakes, and yours is sort of long!”

“Don’t be lewd, Kevin.”

Erin slapped him on the shoulder as Zevara twitched her tail under the table defensively. The [Innkeeper] was not helping, but she was highly amused.

“If you do it again, I’ll arrest you. Your fine you can pay off now.”

He nodded, red-faced.

“I am so sorry, Watch Captain. Seriously. It’s like—I don’t know how it’s happened three times this month.”

To be fair, the first time in Esthelm and the second time had been close together, but she’d dodged him all month until now. Zevara shook her head. But Erin was offering something.

“What’s that? Did someone say…peppermint, magical candy cane for the Watch Captain and Kevin the tail-killer?

Kevin perked up a bit. Zevara’s face didn’t move. She refused to look as the [Innkeeper] danced over—then got tired and sat in her wheelchair.

“I’m tired. Standing is too much work. Ishkr, let’s get some candy canes out! Do I hear applause?”

“You do not.”

Erin eyed Zevara.

“…Just a little bit of applause?”

“No. What is ‘peppermint’? What is this candy cane?”

Before Erin could answer, there was a commotion outside. Zevara’s panic finally set in.

This is it. I knew a month of nothing more than an inedible scone would be too much for her. 

She turned, claw on her sword, ready to face whatever came in—

“Another criminal for you, Watch Captain. Although perhaps this falls under Miss Solstice’s purview. This fellow just killed Mister Snowy.”

Zevara and Erin both sat up in alarm.


“He killed who?”

Ser Lormel pushed a rather wet and nervous Gnoll forwards. He shuffled into the inn as Mrsha trained her wand on his back and the other three furious children walked forwards. Nanette looked smug as they marched him over to the others.

“A snowman.”

“Oh. Lead with that, please.

Zevara sat back, claw on her chest. Nanette gave Mrsha an arch look.

“I told you making snow-birds and mini snow-people was cuter.”

Eat poo.

Mrsha wrote back. The two had had their first fight this morning—over making cute little snow creations on the outside of windowsills and lining Bird’s tower, versus Mister Snowy, an exercise in creating the largest snowman possible.

Nanette instantly and pettily side-stepped Mrsha, so the Gnoll girl’s written comment was in sight of her mother.

Mrsha du Marquin, mind your manners! Did you write that at Nanette?

Lyonette scolded, and Mrsha stared at Nanette in horror.


The witch stuck her tongue out, and the first war of The Wandering Inn began. Lyonette was duped into striking a blow against Mrsha—but she would inevitably turncoat for her daughter’s side.

Erin Solstice, the independent nation, looked on in a mild dawning realization as Numbtongue laughed at Mrsha, once again placing himself on the wrong side of history as he opposed cute, white-furred Doombearers.

But that was another tale. The one in front of Zevara looked miserable, and frankly, the Watch Captain didn’t care if he killed a snowman. Snow Golems were a hazard, but destroying a children’s playtime?

She was about to dress him down and suggest a fine without going through on it when Erin peered at the Gnoll’s face and blinked at the striped fur along his ears, a lighter brown, and some colorful white splashes of color across his paws and arms.

“Felkhr? Is that you? Hey, long time no see! What are you doing beating up snow people? Guys, this is Felkhr! He saved my life in Pallass!”

“Hello, Erin. I, uh—I’m sorry about the trouble.”

The Gnoll smiled weakly, and Kevin blinked. He looked at Erin, and Felkhr looked at him.

The two knew each other. And instantly—both wanted to talk.




Erin Solstice was very forgiving of snow-people murder. Which went to show she had flaws, despite her championing of Antinium and Goblin rights. In fact, when she saw Felkhr was shivering, she had him pull up a chair in front of the fire.

“Someone get this Gnoll a coffee! Felkhr, anything you want to eat? On the house. He saved my life so no buts, Lyonette!”

“You get to comp five meals each week, Erin. That’s one.”

The [Princess] called back, and Erin’s face fell.

“Darn organization.”

Ishkr brought over a cup instantly, and Felkhr blinked, hesitating. But he wasn’t one to turn down free food.

“Could I get…the Continental Allstar breakfast please?”

“Ooh, good choice. See, someone likes the classics. Ishkr, can you run the order to Calescent?”

The Gnoll flicked his paw as he wrote down the order on a piece of paper. He tore the note off, and it vanished.

“Already there.”

“Look at that guy. He can [Memo], now. This is Ishkr, Felkhr. My super-waiter. And this is…”

“The Flying Gnoll of Pallass.”

Felkhr actually played into his reputation a bit, because he felt like it was a way of repaying Erin. Ishkr smiled.

“I have heard of you. Haven’t you come in a few times?”

“I think during a party or two. But the inn looks…nice. I’m sorry about the snowman. I was just—mad, and it was staring at me.”

“Huh. I guess it happens.”

No, punish him!

Visma stuck her head up from the table, and Felkhr began apologizing. But, unexpectedly for once, Erin played peacekeeper.

“Visma, it was an accident. Felkhr looks pretty rough. What if…I give you all a snack on the house and you let it slide? Please?”

Ekirra, Visma, and Kenva whispered together and came back with a counter.

“We want one of Miss Imani’s newest things!”


Erin recoiled in her seat. Ekirra bounced up and down, smiling as the [Innkeeper] stared ahead, face waxy.

“Yeah, she’s made super good food.

“But I have…cake…”

Felkhr eyed Erin as Ekirra delivered the finishing blow.

“But her cake is better! She made viennetta cake. We’ll forgive this guy for that! Just say we can, and she’ll let us have a slice!”

Erin’s nod was that of a corpse. She sat there as Calescent poked his head out of the kitchen in a kind of outraged horror too. Ishkr frowned.

“We should compete with them. Calescent isn’t a dessert expert.”

“Nope. Goblins don’t use sugar much. We beat them? Like Nanette beat Mrsha at making cute snow things?”

Lyonette’s head snapped around, and Mrsha’s jaw dropped as Calescent pointed proudly to his mini snow-Goblin on the windowsill outside. It was shaped like Pebblesnatch, and it had a poofy hat.

“I don’t know. I think she might be getting overambitious.”

Ishkr replied calmly. Lyonette and Mrsha’s first ally walked over as Nanette’s smug smile faded, and she gulped. Ishkr was not someone you wanted as an enemy.

“H-hold on, guys. Felkhr, I, uh, think I’ve gotta go. You stay and enjoy the food! Guys? This is silly. I mean, even for me, what are we mad about? Come on…

Erin rolled after Nanette and Mrsha, who were running to secure allies already committed by treaty to either side.

Felkhr had no idea what was going on. He was just blearily glad for food and coffee. The children had rushed out to redeem their dessert, and only after he’d chowed down on the big plate a Goblin brought him did he realize someone was watching him.

“Hey. I’m Kevin. Mind if I sit?”

“Go right ahead. Table’s empty. You’re…the owner of Solar Cycles, right? Half the Engineer’s Guild in Pallass would love to shake your hand and steal your designs.”

Kevin blushed faintly and waved it off.

“Nah. Dude. That’s way too much. I just—knew how to make bicycles, and I had Master Pelt and Hedault helping me. I didn’t invent them.”

Instantly, he put himself ahead of Troy in Felkhr’s eyes. The young man was modest in how he led-in with the conversation, and within moments, Felkhr and he were talking.

“I hear Pallass makes all the steel stuff, all the time. I know Master Pelt leaving was a blow…”

Felkhr coughed into one paw.

“With respect to him, and even Master Maughin, they’re artisans. They churn out the finest works—mastercrafted armor, enchantable items, and so on. Gears for new projects in the Engineering Guild…but we have massive foundries for bulk steel. One Master Pelt work comes out at the rate it takes to make a thousand spears.”

“Right. Industry. Dude, I didn’t think of that. I guess they have nothing to worry about in Esthelm.”

“In Esthelm, perhaps. But Dwarfhalls Rest has got my city worried. They have Dwarfsteel, which Pallass can’t match. If it depresses prices…well, the New Lands rush has the foundries working overtime. Competition can be good.”

Kevin’s eyes lit up as he nodded.

“It would be! Master Pelt’s the guy doing my bicycles—but he’s been complaining he’s bored of doing anything but the best bikes. Er, the ones that need his touch. And his apprentices have more orders than just my stuff. Do you think Pallass could do my bikes?”

“Why not? Although you might as well ask Dwarfhalls Rest if you’re doing that. Between you and me, I’m exceptionally curious how they’re made.”

Kevin stood up.

“I’ve gotta go to Esthelm anyways to get money for a fine. Want to see them?”

This time, Felkhr hesitated. He looked at Kevin, but it wasn’t gliders the young man made. He got up.




“Magnificent. I can see how it all works together. But it’s so…elegant compared to Pallass’ clunky gears. And these brakes!”

A bicycle was a wondrous thing to Felkhr. Kevin stood back proudly as the Gnoll inspected it—but with some degree of wonder himself.

Because of all the people that Kevin had ever met, including Pelt, Felkhr was one of the few people to look at a bicycle and wonder how it worked.

Mechanically, that was. Pelt understood metal. But Felkhr understood function. As proof of that, he had already deduced how the bicycle could be taken apart for repairs, but he stopped when he noticed Kevin looking.

“I’m sorry, I was just—”

“No, go ahead! Pull it apart; anything can go back together.”

Nothing would do but for the Gnoll [Inventor] to pull apart the gear system, inspecting the chains and murmuring in awe.

“It’s so smooth how it rotates. I see it now…the gears are layered up on one another. Incredibly economical, and it can change from one to another. Why? Because the smaller ones in diameter require more torque. So you can change how much energy it takes to move this!”

He spun the pedals, and Kevin nearly spat out his coffee. He’d known grown-ass adults who didn’t understand how the gears on their bikes worked. 

“I hear you’re sort of an engineer yourself. You, uh, try to fly, right?”

Kevin was reminded of the earliest pioneers of flight when he looked at Felkhr. The combination between mad and genius, and the more the Gnoll talked, the more Kevin suspected where he lay. Felkhr paused.

“That’s right. I’m behind the famous Wind Runner. She’s not here, is she?”

He looked around Solar Cycles, and Kevin clarified.

“No, but she comes to The Wandering Inn a lot. The Haven’s heading south…it’ll actually be close to Pallass within a few days, and then they’ll be out-of-range of Erin’s door, which’ll be something. Uh—do you want to meet her?”


The answer surprised Kevin. The [Engineer] scratched his head as Felkhr avoided his gaze. He was inspecting the gears.

“The turning mechanism on this is so useful. Not that I have that much call for it myself. But the frame…pure steel and enchanted. Damn. That’s probably as tough as anything I need. If only I could afford it.”

He sighed. Kevin was moved at this point to ask a pointed question.

“So you’re making flying devices yourself, huh? I’ve…studied a bit into that. Are you having troubles?”

Another pause. Felkhr glanced up, but he was open enough.

“I’ve never gotten them working. I’ve tried wings, different things like spinning blades, even parasols. I can slow my fall, but the Wind Runner’s got more than I can do. Even Pallass is chasing her way of flying. For as good as it’ll do them.”

He went back to inspecting Kevin’s tools, some of which were custom-made for the purpose of working on the bicycles. Kevin hesitated.

Ryoka and Erin had opinions on how much to share with people. He?

He had told Rags about B2 bombers and speculated on how to make everything he could with her. But by the same token, Kevin was also more careful with Felkhr.

“Would you—want a hint? Doing things Ryoka’s way, I mean. Or with ideas on how to fly other ways?”

The Gnoll’s head snapped up. He looked at Kevin—and then shook his head.

“No. Thank you. You must be like Troydel.”

Kevin jumped, then scowled.

That motherf—he’s in Pallass, isn’t he? I forgot!”

Felkhr grinned.

“He’s giving the Engineering Guild a runaround. But I don’t want help, thank you. Like I said, Ryoka Griffin’s way of flying isn’t what I want.

Now, that made Kevin curious. He squatted down and passed Felkhr a wrench so he could remove a bolt. The Gnoll eyed the washer and grunted.

“What’s this for?”

“Friction, my dude. Without damaging the thing it’s holding.”

Oh. That’s so…foundationally changing.”

This alone was something the Engineer’s Guild would adopt. A washer—a protective layer to avoid repeated damage from something being tightened against it. Felkhr looked at Kevin somberly.

He knew what Kevin and Troydel were. Faster than Grimalkin and more sincerely. How could you not? They came in with such groundshaking ideas in the most minute of things.

After a moment, Felkhr went back to work. After a longer moment, Kevin spoke up.

“Why don’t you like Ryoka’s flying, Felkhr?”

“I do like it. I just…don’t want to copy her. Plus, once I figured out what she was doing, I realized that’s not flying. That’s another form of magical flight. Maybe I have to steal her designs—but even if I copied everything she’s got on her, I can’t fly like her.”

Felkhr sat, playing with one of the gears, then asked if he could make a sketch. Kevin offered to lend him some spare parts, but the Gnoll insisted he only needed the sketches.

“Ah, you mean because of the wind.”

“Yes. I’ve thought about flying. And what I noticed is that she’s got a lot of wind behind her. I’ve spoken to Garuda. I know how it works…I think. You know they use hot air to fly? Birds?”


There it was again. Felkhr’s face fell, and Kevin felt guilty, but the Gnoll rallied at once.

“That’s what they call it? It’s the hot air under clouds. According to Garuda, birds and all kinds of fliers use it under their wings. It…pushes them up. And the Archmage of Izril. I saw her using flame. I was standing in my apartment last night, all last night, working on another plan. Have you heard of hot air balloons?”

Kevin hunted around for his biggest hammer.

“Yep. Where’s Troy now? I’ve got a present for him.”

He only half-meant it. Felkhr wasn’t paying attention as he went on.

“I just saw a glimpse of the plan, but the name, hah, made a lot of sense when I heard it. Hot air rises. Thermals. It’s another way to fly.”

He paused.

“It’s a way to fly.

His voice was so longing Kevin felt for the Gnoll, but Felkhr shook his head.

“The problem—the problem is that the Wind Runner has her own wind. And without it, you’d never get off the ground, right?”

“Or you’d need a running start, a high place, or a lot of natural wind or all three.”

Kevin thought about hang-gliders, and Felkhr nodded.

“That’s not flying. You need something else. That’s why I’ve tried artificial wings. I knew I needed something to flap with. I’ve tried [Antigravity], [Featherfall] wings, [Forceful] enchantments on the feathers…”

“Whoa. Whoa. Dude. How has none of that made you fly?”

Kevin thought the first one would work! But Felkhr just smiled sadly. He showed Kevin an object, a stone with a bit of quartz in it that Kevin used as a paperweight.

“The same reason why I’m not begging the Archmage of Izril for lessons. It’s magic. I want a way for anyone, even a magic-less Gnoll like me, to fly. You see? I’ve known a [Mage] could cast [Levitate] for ages. If I’d known magic was stolen from us and Gnolls could become [Mages]…but that’s not the point. [Antigravity] just orients an object’s weight in the opposite direction. So if you had a stone that weighed two hundred pounds, it’d yank me up.”

He was certainly thinner from a stingy diet than most Gnolls. Felkhr gestured at the stone.

“…But the cost in mana is so high literally only an Archmage can afford to sustain it. I paid a fortune to have feathers enchanted with the stuff, and the mana it burnt through wasted the enchantment in a week, and it was a good [Enchanter].”

“Damn. Hedault does say there’s a limit to the amount of power ‘ambient mana’ can provide. So no-go? [Featherfall]?”

“You just fall slow. It makes it hard to flap the wings…I was onto something with [Forceful], but each feather didn’t generate enough…lifting power. But—gaah, I wish I hadn’t seen those designs!

Felkhr covered his eyes, annoyed. He couldn’t get it out of his head. Why did wings look like that? Kevin hesitated, and all the answers lay behind his eyes, probably better than Troydel could articulate.

But he didn’t say them. Felkhr sensed that gaze and turned to Kevin. In that moment, his nerve almost broke.

“I…Kevin, right? I don’t know if I can ask you this, but I’ve been trying half my life to fly. Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, man. Shoot.”

The young man sat there and saw the Gnoll rub at his oil-stained fur, his face tired. He believed in his dream. He had pride—but also that longing in his eyes. Kevin had rarely seen that desire, and it scared him slightly.

“Th—wh—where you come from, your lot flies, don’t they? They fly in those balloons, in those planes, and glide and sail.”

“Fall in style. Yeah.”

Kevin was honest. Felkhr squeezed his eyes shut.

“—I could do that. But tell me one thing. Do people really fly, or is it just a—dream? Do you get what I’m asking?”

Kevin did. He thought for a long time, and he did like following the latest trends in outdoor adventure, even if he personally didn’t skydive or do any of the most extreme things. He knew what Felkhr meant, and he answered slowly.

“Felkhr, my dude. Honestly? Most of ‘flying’ is like someone sitting in a wagon while the wagon does all the work. It’s wild, but you only get to see out the window, if that makes sense. Now, there’s skydiving and parasailing and…ways to fall in style. But if you’re talking about legit flying, wind in your face?”

The Gnoll nodded, eyes wide and attentive. Kevin counted.

“…Windsurfing. Which is insane and gets you killed. It’s all down, no up with one exception. Hang gliding’s the same. You need a high place, good conditions…parasailing. All are down. Except that we’re working on something. There are jet…well, a way for someone to fly with a backpack, essentially. And we’ve strapped on a literal turbine to wingsuit divers and onto hang gliders.”

“A what?”

“It’s…nevermind. They can fly with that stuff. Fly straight up, fly into the clouds.”


There was a but. And Kevin looked at Felkhr and smiled ruefully.

“…But they’ve got these turbines, these engines strapped to their backs and onto their devices, and they’re loud. They’re noisy as hell and heavy. And they run out of power. So if you’re asking me if someone can just fly around forever—no. You can buy a flying bike—well, a flying wagon. But not fly. Not even where I come from.”

He had seen someone strap a turbine, a literal fan, to their back and attach it to a parasail. That was the most open, immediate thing you could get—and he imagined it was still closer to a car. Humans could jet-fly. Humans could engine-fly.

But Ryoka was closer to Felkhr’s dream than Earth, or so Kevin felt.

Was there some kind of flying that Earth could not dream of? He didn’t know, but the Gnoll’s gaze brightened, and he sat back and exhaled.

“…Then I’m still in competition.”

“Do you want a hint, dude? I’m telling you, there are things you don’t know that, uh—you might need hints on.”

Kevin now wanted to help Felkhr, and the Gnoll was incredibly stubborn.

“No. No help. If I don’t figure it out myself, I won’t level. Thank you, Kevin. This has been very helpful.”

He moved to stand. But Kevin stopped him. The young man gave Felkhr a serious look.

“Dude. I just want you to know something. I respect the effort and the hustle. I really do. And I won’t give you hints if you don’t want—but there’s a world of effort that went into the stuff Troy and I are throwing around and where you are. Hundreds of years.”

He looked the Gnoll in the eye.

“People died who were like you. Worked their entire lives to move us forwards an inch, fly us for just a minute. I can’t tell you how many thousands of geniuses worked so we could fly around and take it for granted. You could work for the rest of your life without getting anywhere if you don’t understand the basics.”

The greatest achievement of humanity was arguably flying. More than the internet. More than any weapon—they had defied gravity, and Felkhr was going it alone. The Gnoll’s face was unhappy.

“I know that. Believe me, I’ve heard it from every person I’ve ever talked to, including my parents. I know how hard it is.”

“I’m not trying to talk you out of it. I just—want to help.”

Felkhr’s defensive look altered. Now, he seemed as wary of accepting help as of being told what he was doing was impossible.

“I’m good at figuring things out, Kevin. With respect, even the glimpses I got are huge hints. Thank you. I’ll come back for more, alright?”

He turned to go, and Kevin raised a hand…then slowly lowered it. He was about to agree when he saw something he had never quite been able to forget.

So, uncharacteristically, he blocked the way out of his office.

“Dude. Dude. I—listen—that’s not—let me tell you a story.”

Felkhr halted as Kevin ushered him back to his seat. The young man took a deep breath and tried to tell Felkhr in a way he’d get it. So he told him the story he always thought of.

“—There were the bravest guys—and girls—that the world’s ever seen. The smartest, and they didn’t just get into the air. They wanted to fly higher. In my world, there was a country. Russia. And they wanted to fly…to the moon.”

To the moon? Felkhr’s eyes opened wide at Kevin in disbelief. Even his dreams didn’t go that far. But he just wanted to get off the ground. He looked out the window, as if he could see the moons shining overhead.

What ambition. But Kevin’s face was somber.

“They were racing my nation. This was way before I was born. Well…a few decades ago. And they had the best minds in their part of the world working on their dream. But they were being rushed. Pushed by the generals and…they wanted to be first, so they sent a man into space. But their ship wasn’t ready. He knew they would send him up, but they’d never be able to get him down in one piece.”

Felkhr’s fidgeting went still. He looked at Kevin, and the young man kept talking. Then—Felkhr thought he could almost see it.

“His name was…Vladimir Komarov. And he knew his ship was filled with mistakes. Rushed designs. He could have refused, but if he did, they would have sent the backup pilot instead. So he went right up there. And when he did—he told the state to bury him without a casket. So they could see what happened to someone who burst into flames on the way down.”

Kevin shuddered. He had seen an image of that very story and had to find the reason why that picture existed. Felkhr looked at Kevin bleakly.

“It sounds like a problem with their High Command, not the people who tried to get him up there.”

“Yes. It was. But we’ve done the same thing. The first people in my world to fly—also saw a lot of their friends die. If I could have gone back and given them a hint—I would. Dude. Let me at least help.”

Kevin could have probably told Felkhr another dozen stories in the same vein. Each one about people rushing towards their dream and putting their lives on the line.

But what changed Felkhr’s mind as he sat there wasn’t just the cautionary tale. He was the cautionary tale, and every scar he had from breaking his legs or an arm was proof. It was…the way Kevin pleaded with him. The quiet horror of knowing those names that history had not forgotten.

They had not been forgotten. So, the Gnoll’s look of defiance slowly changed to one of humility. He took a huge breath and—in that moment—wished so dearly he could have met them.

He thought they would have understood him, and he them, despite their difference in species, like no other beings in the entire world.

Even so. His pride warred against his mind for a moment. Then, Felkhr closed his eyes for a second, then looked around.

“…Can I borrow a piece of parchment?”

Kevin handed him some paper. Felkhr sketched with a paw and spoke.

“[From Mind, Accurate Sketch]. Is…this a good blueprint of a working plane? Your hang-glider, parasail, hot air balloon?”

He showed four different sketches rendered in simple pencil work, and Kevin swore. It was a monoplane, not a jet, one of the old designs reminiscent of a WW1 fighter, but it had the same aerofoil design that had been the start for everything.

“Fuck. It is.”

What a curious wing. Felkhr couldn’t take his eyes off the cross-section of the plane’s wing that had made him so confused. He looked at Kevin.

“Is this accurate to the best flying machines?”

“…Yes. One exception, but those ones work.”

Felkhr nodded. He rolled up the piece of paper.

“In that case—I’ll start from that. It’s a hint. But let me figure out why, first. If I have questions, can I come back to you?”


Kevin smiled, and the Gnoll left the room. Head raised, on a hunt. A spark reinvigorated.

…He came back after four minutes and pointed at something on Kevin’s desk just as the first Dwarf [Emissary] strolled into the waiting room and booked an appointment with Kevin. The Dwarf’s ears perked up at the conversation.

“Can I ask—what’re the little steel orbs for?”

And Kevin laughed.

“Those? Ball bearings. If you think Troy’s changed Pallass…you haven’t seen anything yet.”

The only problem was…Pelt hated making them, and Kevin needed thousands. Felkhr stared at the object as Kevin picked it up and gave it a spin for demonstration. And he got it. His eyes lit up.

“Now that’s amazing.”




The concept of ball bearings was not immediately impressive until you realized how useful it was.

In that—it allowed for a far more frictionless way to rotate something around. Instead of two pieces of metal grinding on each other, you had only a few perfectly round spheres. Mind you—you needed a lot of them, and they were an efficiency measure. You didn’t employ them until you had something to rotate. Until you had the industry to manufacture them.

However—it was a sign. And there was a vision that was coming from Pallass, from Liscor, from places around the world.

The times, they were changing. And as proof of that—the Dwarves were coming.

The first of them knocked on Kevin’s door after having been chased out by Master Pelt. Negotiations were hard work. In fact, another one was not contacting Erin Solstice this very moment as Felkhr returned to the inn.

They had seen how well that worked. Rather, a Dwarf was sitting and enjoying lunch. Which she would do for at least another day before figuring out the smart way to get the [Innkeeper]’s attention without the wrath.

But that was another another tale. Felkhr was already muttering to himself.

“I don’t understand it. I don’t understand those damn wings. But I don’t have to. If I don’t understand it—I just need a mold. Or I can cut it out of wood and build a prototype.”

There was something about that plane which made him incredulous that it could fly. The Wind Runner’s glider made sense. It was like a giant wing. But the plane had far less surface. Why did it work? Perhaps that thing on the front…but the wings were still like that for a reason.

By the time he was back in The Wandering Inn, though, Felkhr was already doubting his commitment to going it solo.

What Kevin had said about a thousand geniuses had rattled the Flying Gnoll. He sat at the table where Erin’s promise of free food was apparently still ongoing, sipping greedily from a cup of ‘eggnog’.

It tasted like sweet soup, but he bet he could save a bundle on his meals if he ate now. Yet the Gnoll was bouncing to morose.

“Maybe I should go back and beg for knowledge. I…just want to fly.

Felkhr muttered. The desire to do things his way and the desire to leap into the air like the Wind Runner were warring in his heart.

Much like the war going on between Nanette and Mrsha. It was drawing in all the foreign powers, and right now, the cold war was becoming a battle for the most powerful allies.

In fact, it had even drawn down one of the inn’s most formidable neutral parties.

Not Shriekblade.


He sat across from the muttering Felkhr with Nanette on one side, Mrsha on the other. Bird rocked back and forth in his chair as he eyed the boiled eggs one was tempting him with, ready to become egg salad with a dollop of mayo, and the spicy chicken wings from the other, breaded.

“I cannot commit to one side or the other without a firm stance on your position on birds. Nanette, do you support the acquisitions of ballistae for the inn?”

“Absolutely, Bird.”

The witch replied instantly, and Numbtongue nodded with a huge grin. Mrsha scowled, and Bird turned to the Gnoll and her mother.

“I see. You have echoed Mrsha in this regard. We are at an impasse. However, would you, Nanette, also commit to backing any bird-related movies during movie night over any snuggle fests of Numbtongue’s disgusting romantic movies?”

He wanted to watch Birds. Numbtongue did not, and because they practiced a democratic system for Erin’s theatre…

The [Bard]’s smile turned into a scowl of alarm. He looked at Nanette, and the witch, also partial to romance, unlike Mrsha, hesitated.

A second was too long. Bird looked at her and nodded slowly. He glanced at Felkhr, then walked over and sat with Mrsha.

“We were meant to be enemies, Nanette. You fight me at your peril.”

“You might regret your choice, Bird.”

Nanette folded her arms, smiling too-innocently. It looked sinister to Mrsha and Lyonette. The little witch was showing her fangs. But Bird was the first member of the inn not to lose to Nanette.

He spread his mandibles and raised them.

“I am Bird, Nanette. You don’t know who you face. I’m unpredictable. Even I don’t know what I might do. I have the power of Queens on my side. And lying. At any moment, I might do something genius or stupid. Or both.”

He put all four hands to his head, pressing his fingers against his brain.

“Hm. Hmmmmmm. Aha!”

The first salvo of the war was a dirty blow. Bird turned to Lyonette and whispered loudly.

“Miss Lyonette, you should send a [Knight] to Riverfarm.”

“I don’t know if Laken wants to be part of this altercation, Bird…”

That was going too far. But Bird shook his head happily.

“No. Not to him. Ask…the [Witches] of Riverfarm what should be done if a little witch is getting a big head and ego. Heh. Heheheheheh.”

Nanette’s confident smile turned pale. Lyonette clapped her hands together in delight.

Escalation. Why were Mrsha and Nanette fighting again? Possibly at least one of them had forgotten.




While a [Knight] was heading to the door and being sabotaged by other members of the inn, including Liska, Felkhr’s muttering to himself and figuring out the odd wings was largely overlooked.

He sat at his table as more guests drifted in and out. The Flying Gnoll noticed them, of course. Some like Klbkch made his fur crawl, but the Antinium was only here to unfold a map on the table and read it with a bowl of acid flies on the side.

In fact, even Saliss of Lights wandered into the inn, and Erin Solstice broke off from trying to de-escalate and disarm the conflict in her inn.

“Saliss! My favorite naked Drake! Why are you sooty? You look tired—pull up a chair! What can I get you?”

The Drake had his privacy box on, and he flopped into the chair.

“Sugar. And I’ll take it from Ishkr, thanks. Watching you roll around for fifteen minutes to get me a drink is funny—but I’m hungry and thirsty. Also, you clearly haven’t met many Drakes if I’m your favorite naked one.”

“Ooh. That one stung. Are you okay?”

The Drake was not. He was not his usually annoying self. He was tired, sooty, and, most unusually of all, injured. He had a burn on his arm. Just a faint discoloration of scales, but Erin blinked at it.

“I’ve never seen you get hurt before. Wait, you blew a hole through the roof of your lab.”

“Yeah. There’s two holes, now.”

“Whoa. You making some kind of super-vial of explosions?”

Saliss grimaced.

“I know you’re being cute, but that’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do. I’m looking through the Albez stuff, and I just hit gold. Unfortunately, it’s so potent that Xif took one look at it and decided he didn’t want to try figuring out what it did. Xif said that.

“Whoaaaaa. Wait, what’s making it go boom?”

Saliss flopped upright and seized the first milkshake that came his way.

“It’s not ‘what’, it’s ‘how much’. I’ve never seen anything like it. It makes Sage’s Grass look mundane. I used half of a pebble yay big the first time in a non-reactive solution.” 

He indicated a pebble half the size of one of Erin’s nails.

The second time? Powder. And yes, those are [Alchemist] terms. ‘A chunk of this shit’, ‘a sprinkling of powder’. Some recipes are incredibly stupid. I used 3 milligrams the first time, which might have been stupid, but again—non-reactive formula. Then I used 64 fraerling-grams.”

“What’re they?”

“A thousand less than a milligram. Fraerlings are the only ones who use that measurement, generally. Anyways, look at my arm!”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, it’s embarrassing. I—hey, is that an ordinary cake? I heard someone was making new stuff called viennetta. I thought we were friends. Bring it out! Bring it out!

Saliss began banging on the table. He glanced over, saw Felkhr, and blinked.

“Well, well. Look who it is. Hey. This is my inn. Back off!

He shook his fist at Felkhr, and the Flying Gnoll broke off from his ruminations long enough to grin. Erin twisted her head to look and realized that for all her guest was isolated—he still got people calling out to him.

A feathered woman walking in with the two members of her team and six rookies halted. Bevussa, Captain of the Wings of Pallass and rising star among her city, called out.

“Is that Felkhr? I haven’t seen you at the inn. Hello.”

“Oh. Captain Bevussa. Hello.”

The Garuda was busy, but she waved before marching over to Erin to introduce her team. Erin distinctly heard one of the Drakes, Issa, whispering. The Oldbloods looked askance at Felkhr. But the two Garuda out of the new recruits waved.

“Captain, you know that guy? He’s the crazy Flying Gnoll.”

“I like him. His father was a Garuda too, you know. Straighten up, you lot. Erin, these are my new teammates. We’re expanding and eying the New Lands…could I borrow that special garden that Jewel was talking about? I want to see how well they do without me in a fight.”

Bevussa was politely ignoring Felkhr staring at her wings and the Oldbloods’. He was comparing them to his plane sketch.

“It makes no sense. It doesn’t work like that, does it?”

The wings versus the plane? He frowned…then slowly rotated the drawing and began to sketch out a bird’s wing.

“They’re not the same. Are they?”

He stared at the wing of a bird—then the cross-section of the plane wing and tried to make the two make sense. It was only when someone oohed loudly in his ear that he jumped and nearly knocked over the cinnamon roll he’d been given.

“Ooh. A hawk wing. And a boring plane wing.”


The Gnoll’s scream made Erin look up from leading the Wings of Pallass to the Pomle garden.

“Bird! Are you harassing Felkhr? Felkhr, you remember Bird, right?”

The same Antinium who’d killed dozens of Wyverns? Felkhr leaned back in his seat, and Bird protested.

“I was merely staring at beautiful bird wings while plotting how to harm Nanette in a non-lethal manner, Erin.”

“—Don’t do the second thing! And don’t do the first thing unless Felkhr lets you, alright?”

Bird sulked as he perched in a chair. Felkhr slowly reached for his drawing, and Bird handed it to him.

“Hello. I am Bird. What are you doing? These wings are alike, by the way.”

He pointed at the sketch, and Felkhr’s brows crossed with both the instinctive alarm of a Pallassian meeting the feared Antinium and confusion.

“What? No, they’re not. They’re completely different.”

“They are very much the same. May I show you why?”

Felkhr handed the parchment to Bird. Bird instantly tore it in half.


Before the Gnoll could get mad, Bird rotated the hawk wing that Felkhr had sketched in quite good detail until it was positioned sideways—like a hawk in motion. Gently, he traced the curve of the wing where it would meet the body—and it was raised.

Similar to the design of the plane’s wing. Then Felkhr saw it and felt like a fool. Bird happily pointed to the plane’s wing.

“They have the same bumpy top bit and flat underside. So do Wyverns. Dragonflies and bees and insects do not have that exact type of wing, but they fly silly. Like her.”

A bee flew overhead, lazily shooting green fire behind her. The jet-powered bee nearly flew into Felkhr’s open mouth before she winged into the garden after Erin. The Gnoll’s eyes followed it.

What a sight! Wait, how is she—

He was sketching the bee without saying a word, trying to capture the method the Ashfire Bee was using to fly. Bird oohed silently as Mrsha tugged on his arm. They had to plot dire vengeance against Nanette!

“Who are you, please? I think we have met, but I do not remember it.”

Bird tilted his head left and right, and Felkhr jumped again.

“I’m—Felkhr. The, uh, Flying Gnoll of Pallass.”

“Oh! Can you fly?

“No. But I want to.”

Bird’s visible excitement turned to disappointment instantly. Mrsha, distracted, wrote on a card and slipped it onto the table.

Excuse me, sir. Why do you want to fly so badly? I have heard that you break more bones than I break plates each month. It seems foolhardy in my opinion.

At this point, Felkhr didn’t even bother to act surprised that a young girl wrote like a [Scholar]. As for the answer? It poured out of him without a second’s thought. He was staring at the plane’s wing, understanding now it was modeled after a bird’s wing. He still did not understand why it worked…

And now he thought he could see how he might have missed the simple issue of design for years. If this wing worked—it was not about feathers, but structure. 

“Maybe I should take the easy way out. Why do I want to fly? Because…I think it would be the most fun thing in the world.”

Mrsha had been expecting a stupid answer about aspirations or perhaps the natural ambitions of the grounded beings to conquer the stratosphere. But she sat up as Bird clapped his hands together and smiled hugely. Felkhr stared out a window. It was snowing. But up there…he craned his neck, as if to stare into those clouds.

“Have you ever wanted to touch a cloud? I think of it all the time. I think flying would be the most amazing thing in the world. I dream of it. Soaring into the sky—I don’t think there would be an experience more magical and amazing than that. I want to fly, because if I could fly, there is nowhere and nothing I couldn’t reach. Fly above the clouds. Whenever I wanted. Just spread a pair of wings and take off.”

He blinked and looked at the two children, one big, one small. Then he felt embarrassed and annoyed that he felt embarrassed. But his mouth kept working.

“Pallass is a huge city. A Walled City, one of the biggest cities in the entire world. Home to millions. Climbing from foot to the top of the walls is tiring, even for an adult. But you know who flies over our city as if it’s as tiny as a foothill? Birds. I see eagles and hawks up in the air, and I wonder how the world looks. I think—it would be so fun I could die for it. That’s why. Ahem. Nice to meet you. You’re…Mrsha, right?”

Then he was embarrassed all over again and looked at the white Gnoll cub. But she gave him a look of rare respect, and her eyes shone from the blaze his dream had produced. Mrsha had never had the dream of flying, not really. She saw people fly and thought it was cool—Ryoka had taken her soaring across the ground.

But now she wanted to know what the sky looked like way up high. And she got what Felkhr meant. It was one thing to be a passenger.

Another to be able to fly.

Someone else understood far more than she did, though. The instant Felkhr finished speaking, Bird raised all four hands. The Gnoll recoiled slightly, but Bird was smiling. He grabbed one of Felkhr’s paws with two hands.

“You are right! Planes are noisy and make loud sounds and smell, according to Kevin. Flying is natural and beautiful. Everyone should dream of flying. I like you, Felkhr. We must now become best friends. I have deep respect for your dream.”


Bird logic moved faster than even Felkhr’s mind could catch up with. But he had a supporter in Bird, and the Antinium instantly began slapping the table.

“Ishkr, Ishkr! We must have food for Felkhr! I will give him my five meals a week to fund his projects.”

Ishkr reappeared, looking slightly annoyed.

“You don’t have five meals to comp, Bird. And Felkhr can order what he wants.”

“Oh. Then may we all have some of that fried chicken wing, please? You should eat. Why are you staring at wings?”

“I’m trying to figure out why it works. Do you know if I can buy some wood or twine around here?”

Felkhr could go to his workshop, but the idea of working in this warm inn rather than his unheated workshop—the forge’s ambient heat was less pleasant than a fireplace—appealed to him greatly. Plus, free food. Bird instantly ran upstairs.

“I have tons of wood from when I was going to try and murder an entire city! You may have it—and glue and string.”

Something about how he spoke was greatly concerning to Felkhr, but the Gnoll was suddenly drawn to the hot wings. He realized it had been a long time since he’d had anything fancy to eat.

An entire basket arrived for him—then another for Bird as the Antinium ran down and dumped an armful of scrap on the table. Ishkr let him do it, and he delivered Mrsha’s lunch too and pulled the covering lid off with a flourish.

The lunch was…a piece of burnt breading on a plate. A big plate. Mrsha stared down at it, then up at Ishkr.

The Gnoll was just as surprised. He frowned towards the kitchen, and Calescent gave them an evil smile.

A chef was a bad foe to have.




Felkhr and Bird didn’t even see Mrsha and Ishkr go off or pay attention to the hijinks and shenanigans and perhaps even silliness going on around the inn.

It was strange. One second they were strangers—and Bird was a stranger, even if he was friendly. But then Bird mentioned his dream of flying and it was like an electric bond was running between them.

Like a [Lightning Bolt] of understanding. You get it. Only, Bird’s dreams had never been more than the desire to fly and pestering Valeterisa and other people to make it happen.

Felkhr was the embodiment of trying to make it happen, and Bird’s mind was blown away by the reality of Felkhr’s dream.

He was also an expert when it came to birds…which was one of the reasons why he thought it was impossible to fly.

“Birds are very light, Felkhr. I know this. I am heavy. I do not think it is possible to fly unless I was a Wyvern. They are fat. But magic. I have always thought magic was the only way.”

“It’s not.”

“I know, but Kevin’s planes are silly and smoky and stupid and dangerous. Much like Kevin himself.”

“I’ll—take you at your word. But Ryoka Griffin flies.”

“She has magic. You see? Magic is the answer.”

“This isn’t magic, though. This is clever! When I saw these blueprints, I thought—they’re too polished. Most of the designs I’ve seen from the Engineer’s Guild have a lot of excess detailing. Ambition. This is stripped-down. Economical. Why do these wings work?

He and Bird were making a model plane. It wasn’t hard with Felkhr’s [Inventor] class to bend twigs to create a chassis that more-or-less mimicked the plane’s wings. Bird had enough wood scraps to make it work, and they agreed to cover the entire thing with Felkhr’s free parchment, which he had mountains of.

“While you finish your copy-plane, I shall show you a great flying device that Miss Erin helped me make.”

Bird ran upstairs—then came back with a paper airplane. Felkhr nearly dropped the plane he was working on and stared at it.

“What’s—it flies!”

Bird sailed the plane around happily. Then he accidentally threw it into the fireplace.

My plane! Oh well. You see, that one flies.”

“But it doesn’t have the wing structure as this one. That’s just made of paper; it flies because it’s light as a feather. If I could cast [Featherweight] on myself…it’s too much mana. I’ve asked, and a [Featherweight] necklace strong enough to make me gravity-neutral would sell for hundreds of thousands of gold pieces. But this plane…the raised ridge here, the flat underbelly of the wing—there’s a reason for it. Let’s see if this one flies.”

And as luck had it, they didn’t need to go to Liscor or Pallass’ walls and bother the Watch. Bird had his tower, and the next hour saw him and Felkhr tossing the plane off it and shouting.

Because it flew.

Not well. It flew like a drunk cat due to the rushed design, and it was subject to gravity. But Felkhr realized that if he threw it hard enough—and didn’t smash the entire thing to bits with acceleration or a bad throw—he could see it getting an improbable amount of lift.

“Why is that?”

Bird didn’t know how the plane worked, but he knew the basic components.

“It is missing the spinning thing. It should be going fast. What if…we put a string on it and pulled it around?”

Then he was holding it over his head as Felkhr pulled it in the snow outside the inn.

They never quite got it to fly like a kite, but Felkhr was convinced. The airplane was aerodynamic, and the wings had something to do with how it caught the air.

After an hour, he and Bird were sitting by the fireplace, inspecting the plane and arguing about it. Bird wanted to make a big one out of lighter materials and see if he could have a plane-kite fly. Felkhr didn’t see the need. He wasn’t here to have fun.

“I just don’t see why the air works like that.”

They were slowly murdering Kevin. The [Engineer] was sitting at a table, trying not to walk over there and describe the flow of air to Felkhr and Bird. But the two enthusiasts were engaged—and they were also annoying the heck out of other members of the inn not embroiled in Nanette and Mrsha’s feud.

“No, I will not [Repair] it again. Please stop breaking—whatever this is!”

Montressa snapped as Bird brought over their prototype plane, which had suffered another collision that had snapped the weak twig frame. The Antinium cajoled her into it—and Felkhr gloomily reflected on the issue.

“It’s steel. Or something lighter. But it has to be tough. Did you see how that plane broke because the wind pushed too hard on it? Whatever’s making it has to be sturdy and light.”

“Oh. Is that expensive?”


Felkhr pushed the issue aside. He placed the repaired plane on the table and stared at it.

“Something about how the wings act. A bird’s wings let them fly. You’re right, Bird. Most creatures with wings have this shape, now that I think of it. Garuda, hawks, and this. Why?

Bird scratched at his head.

“Because it is best? You are a confusing person, Felkhr. If the shape is like that, it is because it’s best.”

“But why is it best?”

Bird was not exactly [Engineer] material. His mind sometimes worked perpendicular or opposite of Felkhr’s. All the Antinium knew was that the design was optimal, so he didn’t care why. But Felkhr had to know.

In this case, though, Bird became the catalyst to understanding it all. He stared at Felkhr glaring at the wings and running his mind in a circle. Then—Bird opened his mandibles, put his head in front of the plane, and began…

“Fuuh. Faaaauh. Heeeh.”

Felkhr got Antinium spit on his arm. He didn’t know Antinium could spit. He leaned back. Bird was breathing hard.

“What are you doing, Bird?”

“I am producing air. See? If you want to know why the wing works, you should see how it works. This is too hard. I am getting a fan.”

He walked upstairs, and Felkhr sat back. And again—his mind felt like it had exploded. When Bird came down and began to fan the plane, Felkhr stared at the air moving the plane slightly. Obviously, he couldn’t see what was so special about the wing structure. Just like he couldn’t see why a bird flew.

But like the hot air that Garuda claimed let them fly…Felkhr stared at the waving fan. Then he sat up.

Chalk. Does anyone have chalk? Or—paint? Dye?”

Bird looked up, and Kevin blinked. This time, it was the young man’s turn to have his jaw drop as Felkhr proposed something Kevin hadn’t thought of. But of course, he understood what Felkhr was thinking of. Bird sat up.

“I know where to get some!”

Eight minutes later, the two were kicked out of Octavia’s shop and then the common room of The Wandering Inn in quick succession for stealing and then causing a mess. They ended up doing their experiment in Bird’s room but had to throw open a window very quickly.




“Watch Sergeant. Inn alert.”

One of the [Guards] on the wall called it out. Beilmark strode over and snatched a spyglass from a nervous Human.

“What is it?”

“That window’s smoking blue.”

Blue smoke was billowing from one of the windows of the inn. Beilmark stared at it.

“…Hm. It’s just one window. Keep an eye on it.”

“Yes, sergeant.”




Felkhr was blue. The dye was all over him and Bird—and it was hard to breathe. However, the crude wind tunnel with the dye still illuminated what he wanted to see.

The wind. The passage of air across the plane was illuminated by the particulates, and as Bird, coughing, fanned the wind and Felkhr got on his hands and knees, he thought he saw it.

The simplest of stuff, really. It was just there when the wind blew, depending on the angle of the wind. The smoke ran past the plane—passed under the wing, around the solid object—

And over the rounded edge of the wing. It formed a trail behind it, a cloud as it caught the edge of the wing, and Bird’s furious fanning showed Felkhr a truth.

The air was bending over the top of the wing. It passed smoothly underneath the flat bottom. But over the top—he ran his paws through his fur.

“That’s it! There’s something here.

He saw it. And his head hurt because he realized there was a world of context he was missing.

Felkhr could not understand yet how the difference in air pressure created the aerofoil effect. He was barely seeing the effects of the wing’s structure in a practical setting. But he saw something, and it was amazing.

It was daunting. But now his mind was expanding. Instead of his feathered wings, he was imagining the act of flying less as a matter of flapping the ‘right’ pair of wings and more like…cutting through the air.

As if the air were an ocean, and only the most effective blade—not the sharpest, the most effective—would derive the motion you wanted. It was exactly like water, he realized, only faster! Consider—a sword would sink fast if you angled it point-down and dropped it into the water while something flatter sank slower.

Yet what he wanted was lift. Hence wingspan. Hence a design to capture as much air as possible. Hence parachutes like the Wind Runner used.




Eventually, the threat of suffocation drove Felkhr and Bird out of the room and downstairs. Saliss laughed his tail off at the sight of the two blue figures leaving a trail throughout the inn. Erin shouted as she rolled over a streak of dye and it got into her wheelchair.

Bird! You’re cleaning that up!

“I’m sorry. Can we wash ourselves…?”

After they’d dunked themselves with freezing water from the well, Saliss leaned over.

“How’s the flying going, Felkhr?”

“I’m o-onto something.”

The Gnoll chattered between his teeth. Bird was trying to remove the dye and finding it was already embedded into the floorboards, much to Lyonette’s horror. Another regular of Erin’s inn sat up and took stock of the situation.

“Oho. What a terrible thing. If only there was a cleaner here to deal with it. But I dunno about that, pardner. I’m just a humble guest of this here establishment. Reckon I could make a call to a fellow I know. Handy with a brush. Just say the word.”

Silverstache twirled his silvery mustache as Lyonette stared at him.

Everyone was a character. Saliss rolled his eyes at the Antinium.

“Look at that. Everyone’s crazy. It used to be just us. Now there’s a thousand posers around here. Like Tessa. Hey, kid. Do you even take breaks?”

He spoke to a wall, and a chameleon-like Drake was standing there. Felkhr nearly leapt out of his seat again, and Tessa glowered.

“Leave me alone. I’m happy.”

“Alright, alright. You’re not taking up the Engineering Guild’s handsome offer, Felkhr?”

How did he know about that? Well, he was a Named-rank adventurer. Felkhr had a bunch of notes from the day and a lot to think about.

“No. I want to do it myself. And there’s something—”

He paused, shook his head.

“—I don’t want to take them up on the idea.”

“Sure. Well, if you want someone to make you a [Featherweight] potion—I’m not your guy.”

Saliss winked at him.

“You can’t afford it, and it’s not your answer. But sometimes you’ve gotta accept a shortcut.”

He was getting on Felkhr’s nerves. The Gnoll snapped back, refusing to look at Kevin.

“I know that. But there’s a difference between a shortcut and—copying or cheating.

“Hey, did I say the other two things? Look who’s touchy. But just so you know—the Engineer’s Guild is racing you. And they play dirty.”

The [Alchemist] grinned. Felkhr knew he was probably only being annoying, but it got under his fur. He stalked towards the door, only pausing to thank Erin for her hospitality.

On the whole, he felt good. He was doing things his way, he had made a series of breakthroughs that felt more impactful than his entire year of studies—and Bird was a surprisingly good person. Felkhr’s good mood lasted right until he got to Pallass.

Then he saw Drakes flying.




A Drake flew across Pallass as people watched, calling out. He had a huge grin on his face, and the same [Journeyman] who had insulted Felkhr and been reprimanded was on television.

“Journeyman Yoiss Emscale of Pallass is pioneering the newest way to travel! I’m Noass, your reporter on-the-ground for Channel 1. He says it’s called a ‘zip-line’. And it’s just one of the new ideas coming out of the Engineering Guild.”

Felkhr was just one of the people in the crowd watching as a zipline crossing from the 9th floor all the way to the 5th floor sent the Drake down at incredible speed. He had a simple device that let him do it. He wore the Rascale Mk. 4 Safety Harness and had attached a sturdy rope to it. Then—he’d added an existing Drake invention to the rope.

The metal carabiner wasn’t quite like the ones Troydel knew, but Drakes had their own clip-in mechanism, and it was attached to the zipline. The concept of just using gravity to slide down the line wasn’t the most novel thing in the world.

“This has been in place before—but I am proposing a faster, more engaging system of travel across Pallass!”

Journeyman Yoiss was flushed with pride—and the Engineering Guild’s Guildmaster was flushed with fury. But he gave a restrained interview to Noass when the microphone was pushed in front of his face.

“I regret to say this is a public demonstration of a new project, Reporter Noass. A very new project, and Journeyman Yoiss is proposing something new when we have not conducted an extensive series of safety tests. I already have an objection from our Garuda and Oldblood Drakes that the ropes will interfere with flying in the city.”

“Ah, but isn’t this system better for the non-winged residents of Pallass, Guildmaster? It’s a minority versus a majority, and where would we get if we had to accede to every particularity? Can you confirm that you’ll be offering a public test? There’s already a queue.”

There was indeed, but the angry Guildmaster shook his head.

“No public testing! I will congratulate Journeyman Yoiss on his discovery later.

His glower probably echoed Chaldion’s and a number of the Eyes of Pallass. But the problem was that once one of the [Engineers] set up the test, it was hard to stop gossip running. And the other problem was that Troydel had a big mouth.

Felkhr knew exactly where this idea had come from. He saw Yoiss high-fiving a nervous Troydel until he was whisked away for his ‘congratulatory chat’. It wasn’t unique to the Drake, and it wasn’t the most world-breaking idea ever. But he did hear one of the younger apprentices chatting.

First this—next, we’ll be doing gliders. It’s all moving so fast! We’ll be [Engineers] within the month! And we’ll be flying to Liscor in two!”

Flying to Liscor. They sounded so confident. They sounded so—smug.

He had been trying this for over a decade, and now they had walked on into his great dream and project because they knew it would work. With most of the ideas done, and they were going to steal his dream. Felkhr stared at the zipline. He clenched his paws around his designs.

No. Absolutely not.




The Engineer’s Guild could move fast if they had to. With their hand forced, they restricted the zipline from usage—but they had to let Journeyman Yoiss continue his public tests. He became a project head, and even if he had probably had a very uncomfortable closed-door meeting—publicly, he was Pallass’ darling.

Whereas the number of people laughing at Felkhr increased. He didn’t go to Tails and Scales that night, though, or the night thereafter.

He didn’t have time. Felkhr was designing a new flying machine—and this time, he was keenly aware he was on a time crunch. But he had a plan.

He took the wing-design from the blueprints and married it to the most basic frame he could come up with. A bar he could cling to—and because he realized he’d be dangling, a foot-loop so he could lie prone.

It was a hang-glider. More aerodynamically shaped than the Wind Runner’s, and he had attached feathers to the tail with the idea that it would add something like stabilization or whatever birds had feathers for, but—

It was just a hang-glider. The entire project screamed at him that it was wrong. Felkhr knew it. But he had also seen apprentices from the guild going to the exact same stores he went to for his materials and buying them up. In fact…he sorely suspected they were just following him around and using his suppliers.

The Eye of Pallass, Zemize, had warned him they’d do it. But it was so blatant that Felkhr saw red.

Two days and two nights, stopping only to grab as much food as he could carry from Erin Solstice’s inn and eating it while working. He was dragging cloth over the wicker frame he’d built and cursing.

“Silk. I’d buy silk if I could or something lighter-weight. And the wood could be lighter. Can I use hollow wood? No—wait. There’s that Drathian stuff that’s hollow on the inside. If only I had a damn budget—

He was hurling tools around in a rage, not because he was frustrated.

He was done.

A Level 30 [Inventor] with his Level 30 [Dreamer]’s Skills could afford and produce a copy of Ryoka Griffin’s glider in two days if he didn’t sleep. But Felkhr stared at his final work, and he had never been less proud of an attempt.

It’ll probably work. But I didn’t come up with any of it. I don’t understand the wings fully. It’s just the Wind Runner’s glider with alterations.

His glider had a longer wingspan and thicker frame. He’d attached feathers, but there was no innovation to it.

He hadn’t levelled up either. Felkhr rubbed his paws across his face, and someone spoke behind him. He didn’t jump. He’d almost expected Zemize to be there.

“When I told the Engineer’s Guild you’d be done first, they didn’t believe me. Mind you, they’ve got steel in theirs. Something about the inner struts.”

“Steel’s too heavy.”

“Mm. Well, they’re getting theirs enchanted. And they are using silk. You sure you don’t want to join the project?”

Felkhr turned slowly, and his glare didn’t make the ordinary-looking Drake woman flinch, but she raised her claws.

“I’m not trying to offend you. But it seems like you’ve come around.”

Felkhr glanced at his creation. He took a deep breath and felt the urge to heave a hammer at the Drake and knew exactly how stupid that would be.

“I don’t want your help. Leave me alone, and if you try following me—well, don’t. I can’t do a thing, but I bet some of the people I’m going to meet will be unpleasant.

He stalked out of his workshop, head bowed, and went to finalize his creation. Felkhr had to run back eight minutes later, swearing in annoyance. He was so mad that he had forgotten to yank the cloth canvas he’d fitted and hand-stitched together off his glider.

He had an appointment to keep.




“You are late, Mister Felkhr, by eight minutes. And I have a highly important client I am due to meet. Please state your proposal.”

The [Enchanter] that Felkhr had booked an appointment with was a notoriously touchy man. And he’d been busy all month it seemed, so getting a spot with him was a stroke of luck.

Then again, Felkhr had heard his business had fallen through, so he had less work to do. But Felkhr didn’t have that much coin, and the balding man with orange, frizzy hair was already noticeably upset.

However—Felkhr had a Skill.

[Powerful Persuasion: Enchanters]. One of the nonsensical [Dreamer] Skills that enabled him to get what he wanted. He already had a Scroll of Feather Falling…but getting this man to help him out was going to be hard with little coin, a delayed appointment, and a rush job.

And yet…Felkhr’s knot in his stomach didn’t alleviate, but it didn’t get worse for dealing with Hedault’s displeasure.

Mainly because his Skill was reassuring. It had nothing to do with his personal charisma. In fact, sleep-deprived, smelling of glue, and furious as hell, even a powerful charisma Skill would have done little to sway Hedault, who dealt with Magnolia Reinhart.

Rather—[Powerful Persuasion] did something else entirely. Felkhr stared at something just above Hedault’s head and slowly read from the glowing lines above the [Enchanter]’s pate.

“…I’m terribly sorry to delay you, Enchanter. Let me be precise. I have a rush order for an enchantment on this cloth canvas here I would like fulfilled overnight. I can’t offer you appropriate compensation, but it is for an engineering project. A flying machine. I could offer you some of my [Incredible Adhesive] in partial exchange. Oh, and I think Kevin would vouch for my good intentions.”

It was not what he’d have said if he took a wild swing at how to impress Hedault. But the direct language and the mention of his project and Kevin and the [Incredible Solvent] were all written above Hedault’s head.

The [Enchanter] blinked—then glanced up suspiciously as if looking around for a fly. He tapped one finger against the other rapidly.

“Intriguing. Another project? This is not Kevin’s skateboarding attempt, is it?”

Felkhr didn’t get more than the initial statement, so he focused on Hedault and tried to smile.

“No. Er—I saw him working on ball bearings, if it helps, but this is flight. I have this canvas here, and I was hoping to get it enchanted. You’re the only [Enchanter] I could find who can work on something as flexible and mundane as cloth. The ones in Pallass have all banned me or they’re working for the Engineering Guild.”

“Hm. What is the enchantment? Lay the cloth down—it’s in pieces.”

Hedault was instantly offended by the material, but Felkhr assured him it wasn’t a problem.

“I only need a day’s enchantment on it. If it works—I’d have each piece enchanted and then sew them all together.”

“Ah. Go on. This is not a cheap endeavor, but name me your funds. I may…be interested in the result.”

Hedault was a man who appreciated vehicles in their forms, and when he heard of the glider attempt, his eyes gleamed.

“It would be useful to compare against my own project for the Wind Runner. What enchantment do you want, exactly?”

Felkhr sagged in relief. He had thought hard about what spell to use for this flying attempt, and despite his misgivings—he leaned over.

“[Wind Resistance], please.”




It was dawn when Hedault woke Felkhr up in his waiting room and presented the canvas to him.

“I have not done any runecrafting upon it. The enchantment is highly unstable and will dissolve in two days.”

“Plenty of time, thank you. I’ll test it right away.”

“Are you quite sure you have the optimal conditions?”

Hedault gave Felkhr a dubious look. Even after napping, the Gnoll looked—distraught. Guilty. Harried.

But the Flying Gnoll was racing, racing—and he had seen the glider for Ryoka Grifin sitting in one of Hedault’s rooms, ready for enchantment. He felt like he was dreaming still, only it wasn’t his quasi-nightmare about falling.

He had a glider. He had the knowledge. Perhaps the great adventure, the struggle had been taken from him.

—But he could still fly. Felkhr grinned at Hedault as he took the still-warm cloth.

“There’s never an optimal moment. If I fly—I should be able to fly in a storm or in broad daylight. Thank you, Enchanter Hedault.”

He bowed several times and began to head to the door. The [Enchanter] frowned mildly, and he made an observation that struck Felkhr through the back.

“Birds do not fly when it rains.”

The Gnoll slowed, looked back—and then strode out the door without a word. It didn’t matter. The sky was clear, cold, and he was ready.

Today was going to be a red-letter day.




Three great changes by innovation struck the world, all very close geographically to each other, on the day that Felkhr hauled his glider up to the 10th floor.

He was greeted by laughter, shouts, and even a few cheers by some of the people who saw him.

“It’s the Flying Gnoll!”

“Break another leg!”

“Copying the Wind Runner at last? Took you long enough!”

“Good luck!”

His head turned at that last one, and he saw a little Garuda child, practically a chick, waving at him as her parents nodded. Felkhr paused and tried to smile.

Then he was on the 10th floor.

“Civilian Felkhr. Are you making another flying attempt?”

The tired Watch Captain on duty was Venim today, and it made Felkhr glad because they weren’t going to hassle him about ‘positioning’.

“I won’t be long, Watch Captain.”

There was even a decent breeze flowing across the battlements. Drakes shivered in their fur-lined armor, and Gnolls glanced over but were too disciplined to howl a greeting. A Dullahan manning one of the catapults gave him the side-eye as Venim eyed the glider.

“That’s a big contraption.”

The entire thing was seven feet across in wingspan. Honestly, Felkhr felt it might be too small? It looked like the wings of a plane attached together in a ‘v’ over the simple handlebar and strap for his legs.

“No safety harness?”

“I’ve got a scroll in case I fall. I could…clip into one. No. It doesn’t matter. This is going to work.”

He had said the same thing to Venim before, but never so cynically. The Watch Captain frowned at him and stepped back.

“If you want to try, I can’t stop you. But have your scroll ready.”

Felkhr growled at the Drake—but he reluctantly pulled the scroll out of his bag of holding and put it in a loop in his belt, secure and ready to activate. He could use a scroll in a second from experience.

He wondered if the Engineering Guild or Eyes of Pallass were watching him. Below, as Felkhr turned his head to see, he could see Journeyman Yoiss zipping down his zipline, shouting in the fun of it.

Another way to travel. Felkhr’s red-rimmed eyes glared down—then he put the glider down.

Damn. He’d have to do a running jump with it, and it was sort of heavy. But Hedault’s enchantment was keeping the wind from picking up the glider and carrying him off the walls. He hadn’t even considered that danger. Okay, do a jump, then loop your legs into the straps.

It occurred to Felkhr that he might well not be strong enough to hold onto the glider, and he groaned. He needed that harness and to clip into the frame, or one slip and he’d go tumbling.

“Can—can someone watch this for me? I need to grab—”

More laughter from people watching as Felkhr ran down to get his Rascale Mk. 2 Safety Harness. It was mostly as good as the Mk. 4, and he wasn’t worried about dangling. He couldn’t remember the crowd ever being that large or it annoying him this much.

He couldn’t remember caring, many times. Sometimes it bothered him, but now?

He clipped into the frame and felt the reassuring lock from the metal carabiner before he gripped the handlebars. The glider still wasn’t being buffeted as the winds blew at him, and he took a few breaths.

“Any speech before you fly, Felkhr? You could wait—maybe Wistram News Network will send a camera!”

One of the civilians watching by the ranks was hoping to get on camera. Felkhr didn’t turn his head.

“If I have anything to say, it’ll be after I succeed. What’re you all gathered around here for? You know it’ll work.”

He felt angry, now. Angry and tired, and yet his heart still leapt as he saw that drop—and the blue, cold skies beyond. Felkhr stared ahead until someone brought him down to earth.

“We might. But I have never seen anyone but Ryoka Griffin fly. What enchantment is that?”

He turned—and the biggest Drake in the world was there. Grimalkin of Pallass had his arms folded as he watched Felkhr. The Sinew Magus gave the Flying Gnoll a nod.

“…[Wind Resistance].”

“Hm. Intriguing. That’s a novel take on it.”

Grimalkin wrote that down, and Felkhr almost snarled at him—but he knew Grimalkin wrote everything down. And the Drake was here and not laughing. He just watched as the Gnoll took a few breaths.

Don’t do it. Throw this thing away and make something else. Or ask Kevin for everything. But this? 

The [Dreamer] felt his class wavering. The [Inventor] was not proud. Yet the Gnoll…

Just like a boy, he stared up at that sky and thought of the stories of Chieftain Seru’nial. How did it go?


Chieftain Seru’nial took her tribe beyond the sky…


He had imagined a Gnoll with wings, flying amongst birds. If she could do it, why not anyone else?

He had his pride. But he also wanted to know the dream was real. He wanted to fly. So Felkhr took a running start. He pounded towards the battlement’s edge. There was normally a wall between you and falling to your death, but there were also ramps where Pegasi could land, and so he dashed towards the edge—and then leapt. He swung his legs up, and one was caught in the strap at once.

Damn. Felkhr kicked as he went over the edge to laughter, applause, cheers, and gasps. The glider dipped, and he was more focused on his right foot, trying to fit it in the loop so he could remain prone. Hanging from the glider by his harness was going to be stupid if they did put a camera on him.

How do I turn? It only occurred to him now as the glider soared downwards that he had never wondered how to turn. With wings, he assume you flapped, but—

The glider was shooting downwards fast, the wind blowing across the wings. Excellent acceleration. Felkhr waited for the wind to do what he knew it should and seize the wings, pull them up or something. His paws were clinging to the wood, but he wasn’t straining to keep himself level—he was heading down.

Down fast. Felkhr blinked. Where was his lift? Where was—

A force pressed him against the canvas of his glider as he headed down, faster than he could ever remember going. The Gnoll stared down at the ground coming at him fast, and time slowed.

[Quicktime Reactions]. A [Dreamer] Skill that had saved his life. His eyes found the canvas, and Felkhr felt the magic in it. Still warm…he remembered how the wind hadn’t buffeted his glider, despite the breeze and large wingspan. It would have blown most objects off the walls when he left it there.

[Wind Resistance], he’d said to Hedault. Because that would increase the effect of the wing’s ability to cut through the air. 

But that was—suddenly Felkhr’s tired mind snapped to a conclusion. Wait a second. He was assuming that the spell would accelerate what he didn’t understand. Improve the ability of wings to lift. But that was magic.

What if the spell meant the wings weren’t moving through the air at all? In that case—he remembered his sword analogy and how it plunged through water.

He was in an aerodynamic sword cutting through the air. Plunging straight towards the ground with no lift at all.

The Gnoll’s kicking foot stopped going for the holding strap. He kicked loose of the strap—then his paws were grabbing at the harness.

Dead gods. He was attached to this glider. And the harness—was locking him into place. He clicked at the carabiner, then reached for a knife—and remembered he’d never saw through the harness in time. He pulled at the locked piece of metal desperately, and the ground was coming up. So the Gnoll did the only thing he could, which he’d done probably a thousand times before.


The scroll glowed as he unfurled it, and he felt it drag him up, buoying his fall. For a second, Felkhr felt relief—

Then the glider tore him down, and he was thrown against it. Down, down—the [Featherfall] was only working on him! The Gnoll tore at the carabiner, and his face was pressed against the canvas, and he couldn’t see the ground, only knew it was there. And th—





This was a tale of hubris. It was written in red. All the achievements of Earth had come flooding into a world, and countless groups and people were chasing dreams.

Grasping at things they had not earned. Forgetting, or never being told, that each victory Earth had made was often built upon failure.

Humans of Earth had made it to the moon. But not all their rockets had cleared the atmosphere. The first explorers to chart the wilds of the world were not always the first who had gone. Only the first ones who’d made it back.

If you looked up and saw an elevator moving or a plane flying in the dream of Earth, you might forget what it could do. Someone who had never seen one of the Great Lifts fall had never considered how many tons of force could come crashing down.

Chaldion saw that vision and reached for it. A devil in smoke, one eye glittering like a gem reaching for a blade made out of innovation.

Others were more innocent. They just wanted to fly or realize miracles of technology. But they forgot.

There was a hubbub around the 10th floor when Troydel heard the Flying Gnoll had launched his glider first—and crashed.

“Someone call the [Healer]! It’s bad! The Sinew Magus is heading down there now!”

Grimalkin was bounding down the floors in a hurry. As he did, Troydel watched as Yoiss took his third ride of the zipline that morning.

Hah! That’s why you need a team and a budget! Hey, look how fast I can hit the third floor! We might need a [Slow] spell at the end of the line!”

He had taken his own precautions in heading down the zipline. At the end of his destination, there were nets, pillows, a literal safety-zone that kept him from smashing into the ground, and the Drake had learned he could use a glove to ‘slow’ his descent if he wanted.

He’d already gone down too fast twice, and when he stopped, the impact had flipped him straight in a circle in his harness. Twice. But he was drunk on speed.

Yoiss headed down for the third time faster than before, but he was ready to slow himself by the end. He shot down the zipline, laughing as he blasted down from the 9th Floor to the 5th at such a speed even a passing Garuda looked slow.

Only then did he smell something odd. The Drake looked around, and the last two days, at least one person passing under his zipline had complained about dust or something. Irritants in their eyes or something that made them sneeze.

They hadn’t thought much of it. Nor had Yoiss noticed at first the slight indentation and rough edge at the top of his carabiner where it slid down the rope.

He had never heard ziplining instructions, and Troydel had never actually gone on one. The Drake had no idea why speed was regulated.

Now—he saw the top of the rope smoking where it met the metal. The speed and repeated stress of going down the zipline was…sawing straight through the sturdy Pallassian steel.


He put his gloved claw up to slow himself. Instinctively, as a sudden terror filled the Drake and understanding of the mortal danger hit him—he put his gloved hand in the wrong place.

Ahead of the carabiner screaming down the metal wire.

It was so fast he didn’t even feel his fingers vanish. Just saw the claws tear off his hand. Then—he raised his other claw and seized the rope behind the carabiner.

The friction tore the scales of his palm off in the first second. But he kept holding it, shouting now. Despite the pain, despite the skin being torn off his palms—because if he didn’t—

The second person dropped out of the sky as Troydel heard the scream. This time, all of Pallass saw it.

A falling Drake. Blood and two fingers fell—and so did Yoiss. He dropped as the carabiner snapped and plunged down like a falling comet. Only, this was not Valeterisa.

Grimalkin saw him falling. The Drake, leaping down floor after floor, drew a wand and pointed.

“[Featherfall]! [Featherfall]! [Featherf—”

Three spells. Three flashes of green light—missed. Yoiss was falling too fast. Grimalkin shouted the third spell—and then stopped speaking.

Then he heard the sound, too quiet for what it meant in the dead silence of the dawn. The Sinew Magus squeezed his eyes shut—then opened them as he heard the screaming begin. He took one look at the Journeyman—then ran for the 1st Floor. Hoping there was at least one of the two he could save.





When Kevin Hall saw Troydel stagger into The Wandering Inn, his face was white and he could not speak. The [Engineer]’s own grudge against Troydel turned to horror as he heard about the two disasters within minutes of one another.

Felkhr was his fault. Yoiss was written all over Troydel’s face. But what Kevin did not know was that this was one of three innovations that touched Earth’s technology this day.

And the third’s consequences—

Also belonged to him. He had given secrets and ideas to this world. They were going to use them in ways he had never dreamed.




It wasn’t just the ball bearings, but the smooth rotation of the little orbs did go into the piece of technology that was simultaneously simple and complex.

Skateboards. The wheels of the board could be a simple wheel on a spoke—or a ball-bearing assisted rotary action enchanted with magic and high-quality steel.

Hedault had one such board, which was capable of halting itself, lightweight, and practically indestructible even in high-speed collisions.

Goblins had no such expensive boards. In fact, most didn’t even have a skateboard Kevin had made themselves.

Poisonbite had brought the idea back to Goblinhome after being taken with skateboards, and Goblin [Tinkerers], Rags’ specialist tribe, had—in their classic way—stolen the concept. Most of the Goblins who had a skateboard weren’t even Hobs. Hobs had a wary respect for the problems of balancing, but younger, shorter Goblins without Carn Wolves loved the board.

And the High Passes were all verticality. Of course, this was something Goblins were allowed to do in their spare time, and Rags regarded the [Boarder] class as a kind of weird pastime by her Goblins. But she didn’t stop them from acquiring it.

So long as Goblins did their jobs, they could do whatever they wanted in their free time. And it was their jobs they were doing at this moment.

Iron Group 14 was a rotation of eighteen Goblins, none of them Hobs, who had found a tiny vein of iron. Rags had bought as much as she could, but they had to climb for nearly an hour and reach a tiny cave some of the old Goldstone Goblins had discovered and chip away at the ore before bringing it down in baskets.

One big basket per each was a day’s work. It was dangerous. This was far from Goblinhome, and they were alert for all kinds of hazards.

Gargoyles, Eater Goats, those damn ant colonies that kept spreading, super-monsters from higher up, camouflaged killing monsters, food—they had guards from Goblinhome, some on Wyvern-back, but their main safety was stealth.

The High Passes were unsettled as Balancestep, one of the younger Goblins at one and a half, picked up a fallen piece of ore on their way out of the mines. He had a skateboard strapped to his back and was looking forwards to going back to Goblinhome.

The mountains were restless. Everyone knew some order in the system of predation had been upset; it happened a lot. A big monster died or moved somewhere else, and it forced all the others to squabble and fight.

In this case, he was worried about Wyverns. The Wyvern Lord kept coming back and attacking the captured Wyverns and Goblins—and all the Goblins were peering up at the skies.

The Wyvern Lord hated Goblins and would blast any it saw with its icy breath. But it kept away from Goblinhome, by and large.

The problem was that if you stared up too much, you forgot to look around. And the thing that came after the Goblins was not the Wyvern Lord.

…Though he was perched right over the mouth of the mining site, maw open, ready to blast all eighteen Goblins. He was just waiting for them to see him when he—and the Goblins—heard a loud voice and a familiar sound.

“I can’t—baaah—sleep—you—baaaah. Baaaah—it hurts! Stop biting me!”

The Wyvern Lord turned—and a female ‘Wyvern’, scales bright yellow like lightning, raised her head as she shouted, and he heard the familiar sound.

Eater Goats. Nearly a thousand poured over the ridge, following Rafaema. They had jumped her in her sleep! She had bite marks on her scales, and two dozen were hanging on, trying to chew her to death.

She spotted the Goblins as Balancestep looked up, saw the Wyvern Lord hanging above them, and froze. The Wyvern Lord snorted—saw the Goblins diving for the cave, and exhaled.

The Eater Goats and Rafaema both got a full blast of frost to the face, and the Dragon screamed—the goats broke off, half running for it, the other half spotting easier prey.

The Goblins. They dashed for the cave entrance—and the first Eater Goat was crushed as the entire cave entrance collapsed, nearly knocking the Wyvern Lord off his perch. Outraged, he screeched and flew up.

What the hell? He wasn’t that heavy! How did—?

The Goblins had collapsed the cave on themselves rather than get eaten. They were flooding towards an emergency exit they’d dug, a safety precaution for just this event.

All but one.

Balancestep had been knocked flat by the icy Wyvern Lord’s breath. His friends had tried to pull him to safety, but it had been him or everyone. When the rocks fell, he had been lucky not to be crushed. Now—he got up with the iron ore spilled around him, the basket half-frozen and lying on the ground, and saw the Eater Goats eying him.

As well as the Wyvern Lord. A huge serpentine head turned, and the Wyvern snorted icy flumes as the Eater Goats opened their mouths. The little Goblin was dead. He looked around, and Wyvern riders were screaming alarms as Goblinhome heard about the attack.

But they’d never reach him in time. The first Eater Goat was already detaching its jaw, running at him with a mouth that looked large enough to take half of him away in one bite. So the little Goblin cried out. He knew he’d never outrun a Wyvern. Not here. But then he remembered what was on his back and looked down.

The path up to the iron mines was rocky, a hellish climb upwards and almost as bad down. There was a lot of crusted dirt and stone. It was the most vertical slope you could imagine short of an actual cliff, and an army would lose hundreds on the ascent if a better channel wasn’t cut.

But it was a slope. There were a billion jagged edges—but the little Goblin didn’t think. He yanked the skateboard off his back—and looked back once. The Eater Goat leapt.

Do or die. Balancestep put his foot forwards and went over the ledge. The Eater Goat snapped its jaw shut, but didn’t feel any welcome contact. It looked around—and then saw a Goblin going down the slope on a skateboard.

“What the—? You bastard, we had a truce!

Rafaema screamed at the Wyvern Lord. He snorted as he eyed this foreign Wyvern Lord. She was yellow and sounded similar to that cute Dragon. Yet her scales were the wrong color. He didn’t suffer competition, especially from other Wyvern weyrs. Yet the speeding Goblin distracted him.

Those weyr-stealing bastards. He took off, ignoring the challenger to his turf. The Wyvern dove after Balancestep, scattering Eater Goats behind him. The Goblin wasn’t enough for a mouthful—this was just petty vengeance.




Balancestep couldn’t believe he was alive. The first second he went down the slopes, he knew why no Goblin had tried this.

It was like a skateboarder from Earth going down a mountainside. The wheels of the board were meant for hard surfaces, not dirt and gravel. But—Balancestep was a [Boarder], just like Kevin.

[Wheels: Uneven Rolling]. Even if the class was new and the entire concept of skateboarding was wild and new and exciting—the system that governed levels and classes knew how the Skills worked. The skateboard bounced as it went over stones and gravel, and the Goblin swerved left around a pillar of stone.

One hit and he would be dead. But one look over his shoulder and Balancestep saw an azure Wyvern diving, mouth trailing frost vapors even in the cold. So he bent his knees and sped up.

He hit a rock too big to be nullified by his Skill a second later. The impact should have either snapped the wheel of the board or tossed him. Instead—the Goblin felt a Skill activating.

[Ignore Bump (Twice)].

He tried to avoid the next rock he came across. The third would be his doom. In doing so—he forgot he was being chased.

The Wyvern Lord screamed, and a claw smacked the ground next to Balancestep. He swerved right—and struck one of the rocky inclines. His arm went numb, but he just went flying.

Flying like a comet to go splatting on the rocks as his skateboard flew past him. The Goblin looked down. He never thought he’d die of falling-death.

—And he wasn’t going to if he could help it. The Level 11 [Boarder] activated his final Skill. His capstone.

[Skateboard: Get Back On Board]!

To the disbelieving Wyvern Lord, head poised to snap the Goblin up—it looked like the Goblin twisted in midair and the skateboard slowed. Then—he landed and kept going, shooting down the cliff side.

What the heck? The Wyvern Lord blinked. Then ducked an arrow screaming past its head. It looked around, snarling, and saw the archer.




Badarrow had emerged from one of Goblinhome’s secret entrances. The swearing Hob was completely naked, but he had his bow. He loaded the special arrow as the Wyvern Lord kept going after Balancestep.

The Goblin was headed straight for Goblinhome. In a literal sense. He wasn’t going down to the stiff climb where the rocky terrain became impossible to roll over. He was stuck, the Wyvern Lord diving after him. And so he headed straight ahead.

Towards the edge of a cliff. There was a ramp of stone, and the Goblin shot up it. He went up, up into the air, and passed by the Wyvern Lord’s head.

Whoa. The Goblin and Wyvern locked eyes, and even the Wyvern looked impressed. Then—Balancestep was falling and laughing. His feet were still locked to the board, and he looked down.

There was no way he’d survive landing. Right? 

The valley that Goblinhome lay against descended around him, and the Goblin looked at one of the canyon walls. Like a second floor. He reached down as Badarrow fired his second arrow—and wondered if it would work.

[Rushing Wallride].

His skateboard touched the canyon wall and shot down the side of it. The Goblin laughed in disbelief—and the Wyvern Lord screamed. He would have hit the Goblin with all the frost breath in his body—but Badarrow’s second arrow hit him straight in the chest.

It shouldn’t have gone through the Wyvern Lord’s scales even if it was enchanted—and it didn’t. But the [Sniper] hadn’t meant to hurt him with the arrow. Rather, it was the object tethered to the arrow that jangled.

The Bell of Pain rang, and the Wyvern Lord recoiled, trying to get the tip of the arrow just lodged in the outermost layer of his scales free. But every time he moved, the bell dinged.




Got him!

Badarrow shouted. The bell worked! But his ebullience as the Wyvern Lord flew away, screaming in agony as it tore the arrow free, turned to grief instantly.

He’d seen the Goblin kid falling. He looked across the distance—and Redfangs on Carn Wolves were racing out of Goblinhome.

They stopped around a little figure lying on the ground at the end of his journey. One of the Goblins, Redscar himself, swung  out of the saddle and looked down.

A skateboard was smashed to bits. It had travelled almost the entire length of the canyon wall, riding diagonally across the wall until it met the ground. And the rider? Redscar bent down slowly. Then he poked the little figure on the ground and heard a muffled shout.

Broken leg.

“Broken leg? What about rest of him?

One of the other Redfangs demanded incredulously. The others were staring at the cliff. Redscar’s grin was the largest thing in the world.

Lucky. Big levels tonight.

He raised a claw and made a fist—and Badarrow and the other Goblins began cheering. The tale of Balancestep—or Balanceboard as he was re-nicknamed, would take a longer time to reach Kevin.

Nor was this use of a skateboard a sane idea. But if it was that or get eaten by a monster—more than one Goblin began seriously taking an emergency skateboard with them. And the class continued evolving.


[Death-defying Skateboarder Level 17!]

[Bound Spell – Featherfall obtained!]

[Skill – Launch Step obtained!]

[Skill – Board: Tough as Steel obtained!]

[Skill – Defer Damage: Skateboard obtained!]




…When Felkhr woke up, he knew it was bad. He’d been hurt worse before.


And those times, he’d had healing potions. This time, to be fair, they’d had to use a healing potion or he would be dead.

He’d shattered most of his ribs, and his legs had been thoroughly broken in multiple, multiple places. That was what had hit the ground first; the glider had brought him down like a weight and slammed him down.

The only thing that had saved him was the fact that his [Featherfall] spell arrested his personal fall and thus the entire descent. And the fact that the glider, heavy as it was, had still not gotten to a truly terminal velocity.

He felt like a fool. The [Healer] finished rattling off his injuries and then told him to get some sleep. But Felkhr dwelled on it in the week it took him to exit the clinic on crutches.

Which, incidentally, the [Healers] hadn’t believed possible. But he had [Mending Recovery], and they were not used to patients who healed that fast without healing potions.

Some bitter irony that his habit of getting hurt meant he was one of the luckier ones in this world without healing potions.

It didn’t change the fact that he had nearly killed himself without even testing Hedault’s enchantment. In the [Enchanter]’s defense this time, Hedault would have probably assumed any sane being would have run a test flight with a bag of stones instead of trying to just fly with that spell.

And that did not change the fact that Yoiss was dead. When Felkhr emerged from his recovery, the first thing he ran into was a petition.

“No more dangerous experiments. No more flying, no more dead citizens of Pallass! It’s time to regulate this madness.”

Just like six years ago, a group of citizens were petitioning the Assembly of Welfare to take a role in restricting Felkhr’s experiments.

It was too late for Yoiss—but the sight of him falling off the zipline had pulled public sentiment one way. Felkhr’s near-death wasn’t as bad, but in the wake of the scrutiny over the Engineer’s Guild, he was an easy, logical target.

Since he couldn’t attend a hearing on his feet, the Assembly ruled that they’d heard his arguments before and he could rest at home. So the Gnoll dragged himself to his apartment, which was cold and hadn’t been occupied for two weeks, and lay there.

They’re definitely going to stop me this time. Last time, he had argued tooth-and-nail against his detractors. This time—they had just seen the consequences of idiocy like his, and they would have the chance to make every argument without him even defending himself.

He wished he could say it was unfair. But the longer the Gnoll stared at the ceiling, the more he felt ashamed.

What had he been doing? He’d been caught up in a competitive spirit with his ‘enemies’ at the Guild. As if they’d stolen from him. As if he had a monopoly on flying.

As if…the Wind Runner had taken his thunder.

When the truth was that an honest Felkhr, a better Felkhr would have rejoiced at anyone flying at all.

But a part of him was still proud of what he had done. It hated Troydel and Kevin and…anyone making it easy.

“Ten years. Twelve. Twelve and I wasted it.

His bones had been crushed. Even if he could use crutches—it would be a month or more before he could even think about working. He had no finances, his dream was broken, and he…

He was weeping. Snotty. And yet still—he stared up at a window. He still wanted to go up there.

It wasn’t right. Not that way. I did it all wrong. But I can’t—beg Kevin or Ryoka Griffin for help. It’s not that. And it’s not the way I did it. It’s something else. I’m such a fool.”

Felkhr snuffled, snotty, and hunted around.

“Tissue. Tissue.”

He feared he didn’t have any and it was going to be a nasty time with nothing to wipe his face but his fur. But in the dark, cold apartment, someone blew their nose, or rather, nostrils noisily.

It’s so sad. Here’s a tissue. Don’t worry, it’s used.”

Saliss of Lights handed Felkhr a wet tissue, and the Gnoll, lying in his bed, nearly broke every one of his mending ribs in terror. Someone slapped the claw down, and a huge arm handed Felkhr a box.


Wh—how did you get in here?

“How. He asks us how. How do you pass gas? It’s easy, Felkhr. How couldn’t we get in here? Window, pick locks, phase through stone, Grimalkin punches through a wall, we shadow you inside, shadowstep, copy your key…[Unlocking] spells, hello?”

A yellow-scaled Drake stepped out of a shadow in Felkhr’s rooms where he had been standing so still that he had been invisible. As for the huge Drake with forest-green scales, well, he had been actually [Invisible], because there was no way for Grimalkin of Pallass to hide even with the powers of standing still and shadows.

“We apologize for surprising you, Felkhr. But it’s hard to have a private word. Actually…I didn’t realize Saliss was here.”

“He was standing there, and I tickled his tail. Ever hear Grimalkin scream? It’s…less funny than you think. He just sounds loud.”

Saliss grinned, and Grimalkin turned red under his scales. Saliss paused a second as Felkhr lay there, eyes darting from one to the other.

“Wait a second. One, two…hey. If the third person’s hiding here, come on out. Make your cool entrance already.”

He turned around slowly and glared around the room. Grimalkin paused…and he and Felkhr looked around. Everyone waited.

“Alright, it was just us. Sometimes it happens.”

Saliss muttered, looking embarrassed. He and Grimalkin looked at Felkhr, and the Gnoll croaked.

“Why are you two breaking into my home? To recruit me into the Engineer’s Guild? They don’t need me. An idiot who can’t even test an enchantment?”

Saliss and Grimalkin both shook their heads. The [Alchemist] raised a claw.

“I don’t do dirty work for Pallass. Or to be precise, that’s all I do, but I don’t do dirty work that I can delegate.”

“I did not come here for that reason either. I am…here as a neutral party. Despite my position in the military and Pallass’ projects, I am here as an individual. A concerned one.”

Grimalkin looked more uncomfortable between the two. He kept glancing over his shoulder. Saliss patted him on the shoulder and pretended to wipe away a tear.

“He’s actually serious. He’s going behind the Eyes’ backs. I never thought I’d see the day.”

“To do what?”

Felkhr thought he knew, but it was stupid. He tried to sit up, coughing. It was Grimalkin who offered him a cup of what turned out to be water.

“Hydration is important during recovery. The [Healers] prescribed you a healthy diet, but I can get you on your feet, at least. You must have a healing Skill, though.”

“[Mending Recovery].”

Saliss nodded.


Grimalkin’s brows rose. Then he looked around.

“This apartment is freezing. Let me at least put down a rune of warmth regardless of what happens before we go.”

“He doesn’t need this. He can sleep in his workshop. I took a look inside, and it’s decent. Rune that place and put a few explosive locks on the door for the snoops. If you throw five off the edge of the floors, the sixth one gets the message. I haven’t done that for ages.

Saliss rubbed his claws together, and Grimalkin sighed. He looked at Felkhr.

“If it is not obvious, Felkhr, we would like to offer you our support. Saliss and I. We came to the conclusion separately, but as you can see…”

He indicated Saliss, and the Drake nodded. Felkhr just lay there, looking at them.

“You want to help me? Not the Engineering Guild’s flying project?”

Saliss pretended to spit to one side.

“Nuts to them. They can request anyone they want—except me. They’ve got all of Pallass backing their cute projects, and after that kid died, they’re double-checking everything. But you’re poor. I took a look at that glider you copied, and you made Ryoka’s glider out of cheap wood and cotton cloth. Aside from the idiotic enchantment, you need funds. I’m rich. And Grimalkin might not be an expert, but he can enchant decently well.”

The Sinew Magus nodded, arms crossed.

“I can indeed. It won’t be nearly as good as Master Hedault, but I can volunteer my magic, and I think it’s for the best. After all—a flying solution accessible to all should not be gated by levels.”

“I don’t—why now? Do you feel sorry for me? Is Chaldion telling you to do this? You know that kid, Troydel, and Kevin and probably Ryoka Griffin know how to make flying machines. I can’t. I’ve failed. I’m going to be exiled or banned from even trying. Why help me?”

Felkhr‘s voice was weak. But he wanted their help. Yet he couldn’t believe it. In reply—Saliss looked to one side, grinning, but it seemed like a grimace, and Grimalkin studied his feet. Saliss nudged Grimalkin, and, surprisingly, Grimalkin nudged him back. Saliss was the one who replied.

“—You never asked for help. Which, fine, we never offered. We should have. But I thought it really was impossible, and I’m a selfish, conceited, annoying monster of a Named-rank Adventurer. I don’t know what Grimalkin’s excuse is.”

The Sinew Magus’ head bowed.

“…Perspective, perhaps. Believing something can be done is easier with a proof of concept. I’m not proud to say that my desire to approach you came after hearing about the flying initiatives Pallass launched. I couldn’t put a voice to it until I saw you, Felkhr. I would like…to support your project. Neither Saliss nor I want to take any role in doing more than being consultants or partners in this affair at best. No management.”

“But why?

They were both going behind Pallass’ tail or, at the very least, setting him up as a rival when they could have offered their services to the guild. Yet…the answer came to Felkhr as the chins of the two Drakes rose and they looked almost indignantly at Felkhr. Saliss’ eyes gleamed as he replied.

“Why didn’t you join the Engineer’s Guild, Felkhr? Why didn’t you just run over to the Wind Runner when she first appeared? You know, all these ‘special projects’ come from us copying another world’s technology. The kids, the Earthers, know how to do it.”

Grimalkin nudged Saliss again, hard, but the Drake went on.

“It’s fine if we copy some things and do it safe. Like the damn ziplines or a cake. But flying?”

He ground his teeth together audibly and jabbed a thumb-claw into his chest.

We are the City of Inventions. And here we are copying all these cute tricks without a thought to making them special, making them ours. Earth has no conception of magic, but we’re chasing after them as if they’re the only minds between two worlds. If we just copied their stupid flying planes without a hint of innovation? I’d rather back an idiot like you over a copycat any day.”

He articulated what was in Felkhr’s chest. The Gnoll looked up—and that was it.

It wasn’t that he hated flying. It wasn’t that he hated taking notes from those geniuses who had gone before.

He hated the idea that he had nothing to offer. Nothing but the ability to realize what had already been done. Magic, technology, science, levels—all of what had been done?

He wanted to make something new out of it. More than a noisy plane like Bird described. More than a glider that required someone else’s connection with the wind. A bridge between it all.


Maybe it would be one small, infinitesimally tiny step forwards based on all these things—but that idea burned in Felkhr anew.

So the [Dreamer] looked at Saliss and Grimalkin and saw them. People with high levels who knew the impossible could be done. Sons of Pallass, prideful, both experts in their fields. Slowly, Felkhr nodded.

“I…I can try again. But I need to ask for theories this time. I need to know more, and more about magic too.”

“I have both, and I can explain them.”

Grimalkin, the note taker of legend, had all the facts. Saliss grinned.

“And you’ll make it practical, won’t you? No nonsense about Ryoka’s unique magic. Anyone can drink a potion of [Featherweight] and ‘fly’. This has to be—workable.

“Yes. Yes. Maybe it is the glider, but it has to fly under its own power.”

Grimalkin flipped a page open in his notepad to show everyone a sketch. Or rather, a magical picture that might have been taken from one of the movie-nights.

“There are ways to do it. Propulsion based on turning propellers—”

Saliss nudged Grimalkin.

“Let him propose and we fulfill. First, we need this guy on his feet. Maybe I can pull out a potion. I’ll deliver some gold, you deliver the notes.”

Felkhr looked between his first two serious backers, and his heart was filled with more hope than he had in ages. But then—his face fell.

“I’ll never be able to practice in Pallass, though. Is there a room in Liscor or Invrisil? They’ll ban me from trying in the Assembly of Welfare.”

Grimalkin and Saliss had been discussing first steps, which mainly seemed to be getting Felkhr a room, burning this one to the ground, and hazing the Eyes of Pallass. But both looked over at this statement, and to Felkhr’s astonishment—they laughed.

Both were amused. Even Grimalkin chuckled, and Saliss rolled his eyes at Felkhr’s blank expression.

“Oh, that’s sweet. You think the Assembly will kick a poor Gnoll puppy boy like you when he’s down? Well, they would in a heartbeat. But you think I care? Not that we have to defy them anyways. I think the resolution isn’t going to pass. Your supporters showed up, and they’re having it out with the ones who want you to quit. Not that it matters. The old man decides, and he’s watching you.”

“What? I have supporters? Rufelt and Lasica?”

Felkhr was bewildered. Grimalkin looked surprised at his blank expression, but Saliss just shook his head.

“Come on. You’ve always known they were there, Felkhr. They’ve given you the most help. Maybe you should have asked for more help, but they turned up before Grimalkin or I. Actually—that’s what got me moving. And I really didn’t want Erin to suggest I help you. Some things I can do on my own.”

Once again, those eyes flashed—and Felkhr tried to think. Supporters? He had people who thought he was doing a good thing, like…

Like the Wind Runner?

“Do you mean children?”

Saliss slapped a palm to his forehead. And only when he helped drag Felkhr out of his apartments did the Gnoll remember. It was them.

It was always them.




Two kinds of people were in Pallass. Those that supported Felkhr, the few, the high level, and those who did not.

But one entire group had never derided him nor made fun of his attempts.

Oh, well, that wasn’t entirely true. There were always exceptions who poked fun at him or laughed along. But one entire body of people in Pallass had never sneered. And that group was—


They never did. When they saw him pacing along the walls testing his flying devices, they’d ask him how it was going. They’d humor him and give him feathers or talk to him about what flying was like.

They never mocked him, only watched and sometimes gave him a few words of encouragement, bought him an ale. Most clearly thought he was mad, but there was also something behind their gazes.

Expectation, perhaps. As if they were wondering and hoping he’d do it. Spread his wings and fly and join them.

Perhaps they remembered the tale of the Gnoll who had gone to their people’s greatest kingdom and learned to fly. Perhaps they simply respected anyone who wanted to do what they did.

Perhaps they were lonely, the last species able to fly in the skies of the world without prejudice or war at their wings.

Over a hundred Garuda showed up when the Assembly of Welfare decided to hear Felkhr’s case. The issue of the Flying Gnoll of Pallass and public safety had been opened to the public—which was a move to let the detractors have their say.

It backfired splendidly on the [Senators] who heard person after person demand Felkhr be given his chance to fly. When they did rule—they allowed him his right to continue experimentation providing he did not injure himself that badly again. If he did, they would immediately halt his self-endangering activities.

They did not have to worry in that regard. For the rest of the month, Felkhr didn’t so much as jump high. And not because he was grounded in his apartment, either.

He was actually only laid up for eight days.

He had broken almost every rib and shattered several bones in his legs. Even if he could hobble back to his apartment, he should have been practically immobile.

But as Saliss had observed, these things often came in threes. Only in this case, the ‘third’ member of the Felkhr alliance was banned from Pallass by name. So Bird waited until Felkhr had hobbled into the inn to talk with Kevin before he sprang on the Gnoll.

“Felkhr! How badly are you hurt?”

“I’ve…broken a lot of bones, Bird. Please don’t hug me.”

“Are you terribly, mundanely wounded by your encounter with the ground?”



Bird rubbed all four hands together, and Felkhr almost got mad—until Bird pointed to an Antinium he had brought over.

“This is Zimrah. She is going to heal you, Felkhr.”

“I don’t need a potion, Bird. And there’s a limit unless you know [Restoration].”

Bird just laughed at Felkhr.

“Ha. Hahaha. You are so funny, Felkhr. I do not need that silly spell. Healing is a funny rule. I like breaking rules. Like truth, it is easy to fool, and Zimrah cheats.”

Then she put her hands on him—and Felkhr thought the Antinium were scarier and more powerful than the Walled Cities could ever dream of.




Then again, Saliss and Grimalkin knew quite a lot. For one thing, both were actually quite knowledgeable about flying…if not in the way Felkhr wanted. Saliss was trying to show them how other people ‘flew’.

“Ever heard of the combo attack the Haven’s crew does? I’ve seen it. They can toss Eldertuin like a twig, literally catapult him into foes. Skills cheat. What we’re doing here is limited, because any big spell or Skill can’t be replicated. So let’s call it a cap at Tier 4 magic at most.”

Grimalkin raised a quill.

“No Dwarfsteel. I took a look at whatever that metal Rufelt has is—and it’s one of their secret alloys. Plain wood will do if I enchant it lighter.”

Felkhr was nodding as he wrote down a plan.

“Then—the first thing I want you two to do is for Saliss to pay for a bunch of wooden rods I’ll fabricate. We’ll use those as the structure, and Grimalkin will put his best protective spell on them. Then I break them.”

“Ah. I knew he was crazy. Go on.”

Saliss laughed, but he understood instantly what Felkhr was describing. He showed Grimalkin a little contraption he’d worked out, and the Drake looked outraged.

“Those are my weights! I gifted you that weights-set to work out with!”

“Yes…but they’re perfectly calibrated for this. See? I can test the strength of each object.”

Felkhr innocently pulled on a string and added fifty pounds to a device he could test the tensile strength of an object with. Of course, ‘tensile’ was not the word he used, but he had heard how easy it was to break a flying vehicle in the air.

Having a baseline for the force put upon the entire flying machine would be important. But even Felkhr confessed that it was guesswork.

“Unless I know how powerful the wind will be, I don’t know how strong this entire device should be…or how each rod interacts with one another. I assume it adds to how much force it can support, but it’s more complicated than that.”

“Hmm. Hmmmmm. You know, it’s more than I want to deal with too. But I know a Gnoll who could render that kind of issue into numbers. If anyone can do it. Hey, Grimalkin, introduce Felkhr to the Math Gnoll himself. And ask those annoying know-it-alls if there’s an equation to measure force from the wind on a surface.”

“The Math Gnoll?”

Felkhr raised his brows in disbelief. But he learned to soon respect the flashing of sunglasses. Someone else believed in his vision—and Yelroan believed you could calculate the force a mace hit armor with. And if you could do that—the strength of any vehicle was just an equation. All they had to do was know the formula.




During Ryoka Griffin’s month of dinner dates and Erin’s month of dancing, a bitter cold war between Nanette and Mrsha blew across the inn.

At the same time, Felkhr studied flying. He watched Ryoka Griffin skimming across the snow and saw it was good, but impractical.

He re-watched Valeterisa lifting Fissival and noted the antigravity spells on the rocks as impractical—but also noted the air spell and flames with great interest. But he didn’t miss the fact that she’d had Djinni support.

Apista, ironically, was the best case example of how to fly on multiple levels. The bee flew far differently than the birds that Bird caught, living and dead, as examples. She also had her jetflame spell.

The act of paring down the materials into the lightest, sturdiest compromise between strength and weight was simple for Grimalkin and Saliss. One knew every material there was to work with in alchemy, the other could do the enchanting and actually break most of the pieces with his bare biceps and compare which was stronger on a personal, if merely qualitative, level.

And Yelroan would read Felkhr’s blueprints and try to calculate lift and drag and the structural integrity as Felkhr made tiny prototypes and launched them.

Then the four of them, two Gnolls, two Drakes, and sometimes one Bird, would gather in The Wandering Inn to talk, or Tails and Scales, although Bird couldn’t go to Pallass.

For the first time he could remember, Felkhr was sitting with more than work colleagues at a table in the pub instead of at the bar, eating while arguing fiercely and drawing on the table until Lasica shouted at them. Felkhr was gnashing his teeth over the issue.

“It’s impossible to fly without some form of propulsion. The most we can do is glide. Wingsuits, hang gliders, parasailing—are all dependent on incredible velocity and height. Or at the very least, a strong backwind and a hot day.”

Saliss grinned, stuffing half of the fries into his bag of holding for later.

“So what’s our propulsion? We’ve got jet fuel, propellers, hot air…”

“No propellers.”

Everyone but Saliss chorused instantly. Saliss spread his claws.


Felkhr shook his head.

“It’s loud, dangerous, we don’t have an ‘engine’, and those helicopters and gyrocopters sound like death-machines.”

Kevin had described in detail the dangers of literal beheading when you so much as walked around a helicopter’s spinning blades. Besides, as Felkhr indicated—

“The problem is size. A plane is so big because of the need to power everything. The magical solution has to be superior to the stuff Earth has. Look at my design. It’s only possible with a rune enchantment. Well, maybe Earth could do the same, but I think they’d have another technique.”

Everyone leaned over, and Yelroan agreed.

“…That’s definitely not safe if they had to produce that from a live flame and combustion. But—hmm. I like that a lot.”

He grinned, and Grimalkin raised his brows.

“Interesting conception. Up and down.”

Felkhr was onto something. He kept scratching his head and hoped he didn’t have any dandruff as he spoke, slowly, working the entire thought out.

“Propulsion only goes one way. The other should be ambient heat. Can you do it?”

The Sinew Magus grimaced as he made some notes on his notepad then pulled out his spellbook.

“—I can do the spells. But there is no way I can power them off ambient mana, Felkhr. I’m sorry. You’ll get a gentle breeze at most, and that’s not practical.”

The Gnoll heaved a huge sigh.

“Then we’re using a magical fuel. We can still beat Earth. More compact, lighter—and it has to be within budget.”

Saliss was tapping his claws on the table, frowning hard. He stared at the runes as he listened to the discussion of magicore versus gemstones versus mana supply. Then he coughed into one fist.

“We might be able to make this thing slim and compact after all. It won’t be accessible to everyone. Not right away. But if you want that proof-of-concept, Felkhr…I’ve got a power source.”

Everyone stopped and stared at him. Grimalkin flipped the pages of his spellbook.

“Enough to power two Tier 1 spells at a Tier 4 consumption rate?”

The [Alchemist] gave him a surprisingly somber look.

“All day and all night, Grimalkin. Or at least for a few hours. But it’s on me to figure out how to make a controlled output, not an actual explosion. But I have to do it anyways, and if I do—keep away from the 9th Floor for a bit.”

Everyone looked at him incredulously, but Felkhr was willing to take a lot of what Saliss said on credit. He lifted a mug as Rufelt sent over a pitcher for the table.

“Here’s to new ideas.”

“Here’s to working together!”

Yelroan smiled. Saliss raised a cup.

“Here’s to being alone and having no one who loves us because we’re all insanely married to our jobs!”

The other three stopped as he took a huge gulp of his drink. And then Saliss looked sideways.

“Whoops, sorry. I forgot Grimalkin was here.”

The Sinew Magus looked hurt as Saliss bounced an onion ring off his chest. He seemed to be having as much fun with peers as…well, Felkhr and Yelroan.

“What are you talking about, Saliss? I am married to my work. I haven’t cultivated a personal relationship like that.”

Saliss paused with his toothy mouth open, and his eyes slid sideways to Felkhr and Yelroan. The [Mathematician] slowly sipped from his mug.

“I see.”

Saliss shook his head with a grimace.

“Wow. That’s just painful to hear. I feel so bad for someone I’m not going to name right now. Alright, here’s to that!

Felkhr would never quite forget the completely blank look on Grimalkin’s face.

He thought he had never had a finer month. He had never laughed more, enjoyed dinners more.

Gotten angrier more. Angry enough to have a shouting match over designs with Yelroan, or so sad he shed tears over a prototype smashed to bits carrying all his plans. Or more excited.

And it seemed to him as if the world itself were waiting for him to finish his work. As if Pallass had suddenly caught a new scent on the breeze.

Less people mocked him than before. Zemize didn’t show up at his workplace, and Saliss reported not having to trounce half as many spies as he thought.

“Sometimes the Eyes of Pallass are smart. Smart enough not to interfere with things.”

That was his only comment, but Felkhr thought he could see Drakes and Gnolls, Garuda and Dullahans, watching him. He’d quit his job and was working full-time on his first prototype. Obviously, they’d thrown things off the walls already and gone to Liscor to test things out.

But the flight day…that would be the first day Felkhr got into his Rascale Safety Harness Mk. 5 and marched out of his worksite. He couldn’t believe that day came when it did.

Or the fact that the Mk. 5 was a creation of Troy, who had seen the disastrous events surrounding Felkhr’s and Yoiss’ falls and invented a way to disengage out of the harness. It wasn’t fast because that was not something you wanted to do by accident, but if you removed three clips, you could yank the harness into two pieces by disengaging a central lynchpin strap.

But that was all a different story and going on as the Flying Gnoll pursued one dream. When his day came, it was, perhaps, a small story.

At first. But Pallass had been waiting a long time, laughing, mocking, and now, silently expecting. Felkhr could have waited more years, but it felt like it was all coming together fast.

But then—if this day had been a long time coming—

His true class had come first. It did not carry him to his goal. It just helped him get there sooner.




On the day of Saelsmorn, the second day of the week, in the the month of Mouring, the fourteenth month of the year, twenty-three years after the King of Destruction’s first slumber, Felkhr of Pallass checked his safety harness and accepted the helmet that Yelroan handed him.

The [Mathematician] was the only person in his workshop. He let Felkhr inspect the padded helmet.

“Not enchanted. Grimalkin doesn’t want any magical interference.”


Safety goggles went under the helmet, and Felkhr felt a bit warm in the jacket and pants—but it was cold up there even for a Gnoll. It was getting into the middle of winter.

10/14/23. Not a fancy day by any means. Saliss had almost begged Felkhr to lie on the records and claim he’d done it on 13/13/23 or lie entirely and say it was 2/2/22 just to annoy the [Historians]. But they’d agreed that this was a good day, weather conditions notwithstanding. Yelroan was updating Felkhr on the conditions as the Gnoll checked his gear.

“There’s a slight breeze up there. You can call it off. Grimalkin wants to kill the weather magic.”

“No altering the weather. We’re proving it works. Can you help me strap in?”

Yelroan did, and he was nervous and excited. He’d switched his sunglasses for non-shiny ones so he didn’t blind Felkhr by accident.

“There’s a crowd up there. And speaking of weather—Grimalkin says you’ve got a few important guests. He said not to tell you if you’re nervous.”

“I’m not nervous.”

Felkhr was about to pee. He’d done it eighteen times so far, and now he was in his harness, he regretted not trying one more time to squeeze something out. He was terrified—and exhilarated.

This was it. The object moving with his arms was bulky—but they’d folded it up, and he could walk around with it.

It looked like a bunch of moth wings secured by wood to his back. Silk indeed, and it fanned out somewhat like the Wind Runner’s suit if Felkhr spread his arms—but it was detachable instead.

And it had a few other tricks that the Wind Runner didn’t need. Felkhr barely noticed the weight; it was light as could be.

Of course, as he knew, ‘light’ still meant his entire body’s weight needed to get off the ground, and that was going to be a challenge.

“Where’s the canister? Careful, careful—

Saliss had told them there was no chance of it going ‘boom’. But he said that with five holes in his laboratory, and Felkhr knew how much power that had to go into anything to damage Saliss’ lab. Yelroan very carefully attached it, and Felkhr felt his back heating up.

“Alright. Runes working.”

“The connection to the mana stones good?”

He had one in each glove of his suit. Felkhr nodded and tested both. Yelroan confirmed both spells were working.

Aside from the passive enchantments, there were only two active spells that required the power source Saliss had provided. Steering was not one of them.

After much consultation with flying experts like Apista, Bevussa, and so on, it was clear to Felkhr that fliers were very sensitive to the slightest movement in the air. A wheel or rudder was too powerful; he’d shift his body weight left or right to yaw.

There were a lot of dangers, though, and he was armed with a Scroll of Featherfall but determined not to use it unless he had to. Besides…as he had learned, the acceleration of other objects could still mean his end.

But he had his class. It burned in him, and Yelroan stepped back.

“Alright. This is it. They’re waiting for you on the 10th floor. Want to take an elevator?”

“I’m not walking.”

The two Gnolls grinned at each other, and then they began to walk outside. And this time—




They were lining up as they had always done. Idle passers by, citizens. People hoping for an accident or, sometimes, those who thought this time he’d do it.

Only this time, they knew what was coming. So Felkhr was surprised to see people lining the street by his workshop on the 8th Floor. He looked around—and saw familiar faces.

The Engineering Guild. Garuda. And Drakes, Gnolls, slowing as they saw the commotion. Felkhr heard whispers as he and Yelroan marched forward. He looked different this time, with his helmet and goggles and an actual suit.

“What’s happening now?”

“That’s the Flying Gnoll of Pallass. Is he doing something again? I thought they banned him?”

“Why’s there a crowd this time? His contraption doesn’t look better than last time.”

“I saw the Wind Runner on the walls. And the [Innkeeper] of Liscor. Maybe…”

Felkhr stumbled a bit—and Yelroan grinned.

“Told you.”




Ryoka Griffin was fidgeting on the cold battlements as a young woman in a wheelchair sat, warm under a blanket. The Barefoot Runner was paying for her arrogance, but she was also nervous.

“I feel like he hates my guts. Am I paranoid, Erin?”

“Ryoka, you think everyone hates you. In this case, he might. Grimalkin, does Felkhr hate Ryoka?”

The Sinew Magus turned from checking the air currents. He frowned at Ryoka.

“No. Felkhr quite admires you, Miss Griffin. That would be paranoia.”

“But he’s never asked to talk to me. I only heard about this project yesterday!”

Ryoka protested. She was eying the sky, checking the wind. There was more powerful wind above. Grimalkin folded his arms.

“Felkhr wanted to do this without relying too much on outsiders. This is a Pallassian project. He felt that too much copying would undermine his conclusions.”

“Maybe I should talk to him. Or—do you want me to help with the wind?”

“No. Any attempts and I will dispel your wind magic.”

Grimalkin snapped. Ryoka lifted her hands.

“Oh, come on, Grimalkin! This isn’t a game!”

“We know. But Felkhr will prove he can do this without help. No magic except for his gear. No Skills save his own. And none of that will help him fly.

“Pardon me for trying to help.”

Ryoka went off to sulk with someone else not always beloved. She walked over and cleared her throat.

“Hey. We haven’t talked. I’m Ryoka.”

“You’re blocking my view.”

Chaldion of Pallass had a huge fur coat on and his own seat. Ryoka threw up her hands, and he grinned.

The Grand Strategist of Pallass just happened to be here. Despite Grimalkin and Saliss doing their best to keep the day secret—here he was. And there were a number of Pallassian officials in the crowd.

“Old man, I will throw you off the walls first. This isn’t your moment.”

Saliss beamed as he kicked one of the soldiers trying to block him from Chaldion in the shins. The old Drake raised one brow innocently.

“It’s a custom to watch the Flying Gnoll make his attempts. There’s no law against me being up here.”

The [Alchemist] had an annoyed look on his face.

“Right. And the crowds just turned up. General Duln, [Senators] on your good list—all because they’re interested.”

Chaldion sipped from a cup of steaming tea without a word.

“I’m sure Noass and his camera crew are just here because they can sense a good moment. Miss Drassi as well.”

Channel 1 and Channel 2 were fighting in the background for the best spot. Saliss’ teeth ground together, but even he was too excited to stand still. But he had to point to the forty assorted Drakes and Gnolls and Dullahans and Garuda standing on a set of bleachers to the side.

“And the damn choir?”

Chaldion made a show of looking sideways, and his good eye widened.

“My, is that our city choir? I had no idea they were there. One good eye, you see. Bad peripheral vision.”




By the time Felkhr got up to the 10th Floor, there were thousands of Pallassians waiting and thousands more coming up. Saliss trying to heave his grandfather over the edge of the walls wasn’t even noticeable to the Gnoll.

He walked forwards and looked around.

“This is it.”

Unlike last time, there was no certainty in his bones. He was terrified, nervous, and he had been as thorough as could be. Prepped for this. Even done underwater tests to prove the ideas worked. He’d thrown more sandbags with his face attached to them onto the ground than he could count.

But there was something in his chest. It was burning—and he didn’t pay attention to Noass and Drassi wanting a word. The choir was warming up around him—and he just looked at Yelroan, Saliss, Grimalkin.

“Is Bird here?”

He couldn’t make it, Felkhr supposed. But then he heard an excited voice.

“I am here, Felkhr! Hello! I can see everything through the theatre! Zimrah and many of us are here, watching! The Flying Queen is shouting through Pivr. Pivr, shut up.

An excited Bird was peering out of a scrying orb. He meant the Antinium. Felkhr smiled at them and Rufelt and Lasica. Behind him, Noass was throwing elbows.

Felkhr, a word before you set out on your latest attempt? Do you have a word for the crowds?

The couple holding the scrying orb waved to Felkhr. Rufelt grinned as he looked at Felkhr, shaking with nerves himself.

“Is this it, Felkhr? You’re not dreaming.”

The Gnoll pinched himself. He knew there were probably countless people watching. Not just Antinium or Pallass.

Goblins were watching from Goblinhome. Gnolls in the Great Plains had stopped and gathered around scrying orbs, murmuring a name and asking who he was. Garuda flitted down in Chandrar, alerted by their cousins from Pallass that something was going on.

The Titan and leaders of war were tuning in—and all Felkhr saw were the people who had supported him. And the sky.

It was blue as could be with great clouds threatening more snow in the distance. But the spots he saw were so vividly, painfully clear—he stared up and up, and he knew how high the sky was.

Higher than the depths of the sea. Many times the size of the High Passes. A cloud was inconceivably high…he felt the two mana stones in his gloves tingle as he pressed his paws down on them. Then he turned to Rufelt and Lasica.

“No. I’m not. Dreaming, that is. But then again, I am. Because this is the day I find out.”

It was a statement only Rufelt and Lasica and his friends would understand. A Human woman with raven hair was elbowing Noass, and the [Innkeeper] was waving at him as Mrsha and Nanette peered at him expectantly.

And it was all too much. Felkhr’s heart was pounding out of his chest. He had never had a ceremony. He had always done this alone, with mockery and no great expectations on him.

All except for the Garuda. He looked at them now—and raised a paw. But Felkhr’s last words in this moment were just…

“I’m not dreaming.”

Then he was running across the 10th floor.

No one was ready for that. The [Senators] were getting ready for a speech. Erin blinked as Felkhr dashed past her. She saw him slip on some melted snow, and his arms windmilled. But then he was at the edge of the battlements, and his stride lengthened. She saw him arc his back, spread his arms, and those wings snapped into place. Wider than his wingspan, a wingsuit perhaps. But what was that strange thing suddenly rising over his helmeted head?

Then he leapt, ahead of the gasps and cries, and the Choir of Pallass began to sing.




The Choir of Pallass, the recognized entity with the best singers—amateur and professional—was a hotly contested spot that had the honor of singing at formal events. In this case, it was an ‘honor’ because they were cold and Chaldion had summoned them and made them stand here an hour and a half.

They had one job, which was also nerve-wracking: sing the anthem of Pallass. Something they knew by heart—but they didn’t know when to sing. He’d just said that at some point the Flying Gnoll of Pallass would fly, and crash or succeed, they had better be singing on time for the cameras.

His sudden run meant they began singing in a panic as he cleared the ledge. They were quite drowned out by all the screaming and cries. And in all honesty, the singers were all watching Felkhr go over the edge.

It was not the best launch. The wing on the right side took two tries to click into place, and he was angled badly after that slip. All the while, he was going down, and they wondered if they would be singing his funeral dirge.

But then they saw the wings of his suit inflate—the wings lengthened, the cloth stretching to follow the sliding wood extending outwards and snapping into place.

Not a wingsuit! More like a flying suit with the wingspan of a smaller glider. Felkhr had insisted on it. Ryoka Griffin could fly with her Windsuit and her glider, but both were reliant on the wind, and the Windsuit was not meant for gliding. It was a fast way to travel, across great distance and down—but not up or even to maintain your altitude.

His flying wings had nine feet of clearance from either side. And they extended behind him like the wings of a great butterfly. 

Yet they were rigid, enforced by magic, and the silk fabric was a bright sunshine yellow, the color of Pallass. As the choir’s voices faltered and they stared—the wings caught the wind, and their aerofoil design arrested Felkhr’s fall.

He was gliding now! He had achieved the ability to glide downwards. But the Garuda were murmuring. Bevussa peered down.

“He’s got the wingspan. But there aren’t any thermals. He’s in trouble.”

Without the ability to flap his wings or go up—he was just headed down. And those wings didn’t seem like he had the ability—or the strength—to flap them. One of the things that made flying so hard for his weight was the force that it would take to flap wings that large! Even the strongest Gnoll would be in trouble.

But then she saw the glow of magic, and something rose over Felkhr’s back. The Flying Gnoll had deployed the secret part of the Pallassian Flying Suit Mk. 1.

It was…well, it looked like a parachute. Or perhaps a parasail was more like it. Kevin grabbed Troydel’s arm as the two stood on the battlements. He was holding a scrying mirror steady for the Goblins, but he began shouting.

It’s a parasail. Is he parasailing, Troy, you bastard? Tell me!

“I don’t know! I thought he was working with you, asshole!”

A parasail and a glider? Why both? Then Kevin’s eyes narrowed.

It really was strange. There was no point to having two types of materials which moved at different speeds. One would just outperform the other, and then the other was dead weight or would get in the way.

…So why did that parasail open so fast? And why—did it look like Felkhr was suddenly rising?

“What the fuck?”




Felkhr’s back was warm. Yet it wasn’t burning, and it was welcome in this cold temperature. It was working.

The first rune on his suit was active—powered by Saliss’ fuel source, it was directed up. It was currently heating the air around it—and shooting it straight up.

Straight into the parasail. The concept was simple—hot air balloons, parasailers, all obeyed the same laws that Garuda and birds used.

Hot air rose. They rose on thermals, but unlike them, Felkhr would generate his own. It was a concept Earth might have dabbled with, but they had no way of miniaturizing an entire generator on that level. Nor were most people keen on having a dangerous, combustible object on their backs.

But Felkhr was using magic. He could not attain the lift he needed via a Tier 2 spell. So in order to counterbalance his weight—the parasail was inflating with hot air.

And at the same time, he felt the [Wind Jet] spell on his back. It was blasting out behind him, and a little Ashfire Bee saluted him from the top of Lyonette’s head.

Two forces, one lifting, the other pushing him forwards. The jetstream of air wasn’t a propeller. They had moved straight past that because wind magic was free and simple. And now he was stopping his dive, levelling out.

For the first time in his life, Felkhr stopped falling. And then he was going straight ahead, adjusting the heat from the parasail that could pull him up, adding more speed to the [Wind Jet] spell moving him forwards. He was flying.




“He’s doing it! Rufelt! Do you see it? He’s flying! How is he doing it?

Lasica was grabbing Rufelt’s arm and pointing. Pallass was shouting with noise, and Chaldion was clearing his throat and staring at the silent Choir of Pallass.

“The Flying Gnoll is flying. He is flying—

They had completely forgotten to sing. Everyone was trying to figure out how Felkhr was keeping aloft. Even the [Mages] watching weren’t sure how Felkhr was doing it. Everyone knew you could cast [Levitate].

This was arguably harder. But that Gnoll had no magic in his body. He was flying—and flying better than someone with [Levitate]. He was slowly curving now, getting a feel for how to turn the wings and angle them so that he slowly turned left.

A thousand commentators, each with the wrong idea how he was doing it, were chattering away to their superiors and anyone who would listen.

But the Garuda were cheering.

He’s flying! The Gnolls fly once more!

They were leaping into the air, but they didn’t want to get in his way. And frankly—he was faster than most. Now, Felkhr was pumping as much magic as could be outputted from the canister at his side, and he shot over Pallass’ skyline.

They were staring up. [Engineers], citizens, Troy, and all of them saw Felkhr flying. Suddenly, the dream wasn’t a dream—but a reality.

This was just the start. Suddenly, in the heads of many popped ideas. If you could put a Gnoll up there—what about a ship? What about a ship in the skies? What about a house?

It was like they could feel the world changing as the impossible became possible. But these were the people who were too late. They had latched onto something—but Felkhr had seen it before they could even imagine this reality.

That was the difference. Only Chaldion looked up and murmured.

“We have fliers already. Long-distance scouts, perhaps. Novel transit. It’ll kill more idiots, I suppose.”

Someone slapped his arm.

“Old man, you’re the worst.”

Chaldion looked sideways at Saliss. The Drake was smiling genuinely for once. He stared up as Felkhr flew overhead, laughing incredulously, and he was smiling.

“I let it happen. I always believed he had a chance. Look up there. That Gnoll is the very definition of Pallass. He did it with a world against him. That is why he flew. He, like every member of the Walled Cities, did it alone. These are the people who drag us forwards, step by step, against every odd. Who level.”

The old [Grand Strategist] gave Felkhr a look of respect. A rare look, and a nod for the few in this world he ever acknowledged. He saw something of himself in Felkhr.

So did Saliss. But where the two differed—the Drake seized his grandfather by the jacket and hauled him out of his chair. Cheerfully, he stared into Chaldion’s eyes and hissed back.

Imagine what he would have done if Pallass had supported him. We would all be flying by now.”

The two locked gazes, mystified, as if wondering how the other had come to their similar and yet completely opposite conclusions. Then Saliss pointed up. His voice was quiet in the chaos around them.

“Old man. I’m calling in my rank. Put out an all-call across every Walled City. Top-priority, on the desk of every leader and High Command.”

“For what?”

Shaken, Chaldion sat. Saliss pointed at Felkhr, then pulled something out of his pocket. It was in a solution of gel, but Chaldion’s good eye locked on it. There was a written note on the bottle. Saliss whispered as he looked up at Felkhr.

“If you want to copy Earth’s tech, go ahead. But this will make Gnolls fly. I need as much of it as you can find, and I need to know where it can be found. It’s called…seith. And it will power more than just flight.”

He didn’t mind Chaldion taking a sample, and he knew how to handle the stuff now. He’d already told Erin. Saliss let Chaldion fumble the bottle away and went back to watching. That was for later. For now—

This was Felkhr’s moment. And higher the Gnoll flew. Higher…like the stories of flying people from Earth.

Ryoka Griffin could think of a good tale like that.

Icarus came to mind.




He was doing it! But the joy Felkhr felt quickly turned to worry.

“…Wait a second. How am I going to land?”

They’d worked so hard on flying and staying safe that they’d sort of assumed he might just disengage and use the [Featherfall] spell. But there was no way that he was going to ruin this beautiful thing now.

He’d probably hit the heating rune and float down using it while disengaging the thrust. There was an entire set of…terms that Felkhr realized he needed to describe this.

Three-dimensional movement like this meant that it was the realm of Garuda and Earth’s fliers. Yaw, for instance, the way he was angled, was influencing how he flew.

Every slight movement made his direction change. Scratching his nose, holding an arm out—and the wind would catch it and turn him. He was afraid to tilt sideways and glad the parasail was stabilizing him. It only occurred to Felkhr now how crazy Ryoka Griffin was.

Wingsuit diving in general; there was no stabilizing force like the ground. Whereas this design incorporated a steadying force above him. That was allowing him a far more natural time steering.

As he increased the heat lifting him higher and decreased his thrust, Felkhr nearly began to dangle, so he hurriedly increased speed.

There was a ‘minimum speed’ to keep going in the air; any slower and he’d just stall out. But as he rose higher, he thought he heard a voice.

Careful, careful—stop, Grimalkin!

Huh? Who was that? Was someone—talking to him?

No, it sounded like the wind carrying someone’s voice. Felkhr blinked. Then the Wind Runner’s warning hit home.

As Felkhr rose, he ran into something his ground-based observations of the wind had never quite captured, even with the highest kites.

…Which was that the wind was not all one thing. There were currents in the sky. Just like there were currents in the ocean—exactly like those—there were cross-currents and powerful jets high, high above where most people could tread.

He ran into one now, and a fell breeze slammed into his wings so hard he was dragged a thousand feet sideways in a second.


That was what Ryoka had been so afraid of. The wind was her friend; it enabled her to perform incredible stunts and kept her safe.

But it was not Felkhr’s friend. Helplessly, he was caught in a slipstream in the skies. Then he was going faster than he had ever thought possible.




“Felkhr? Felkhr? He’s out of speaking stone range. He wasn’t supposed to go that far up. What’s going on?”

Yelroan was paging the Gnoll desperately. Ryoka pushed forwards.

“He’s gotten caught. It’s a gale up there! I told you—let me go up there!”

Grimalkin still refused to budge, and he was looking straight up now, whispering a vision spell.

“No, he can still handle it.”

“Handle it? He just lost his parasail!”

Everyone was craning their heads up to see. But Ryoka could feel the wind moving.


“Aye. Torn right off. The strings weren’t tough enough for the wind up there. Ye need a way to reel it back in or you’ll lose it. Like a net afore a whale.”


Shaestrel commented darkly. She and Ryoka were peering up—and now, the Flying Gnoll was encountering another thing only fliers knew about.


The little figure up in the air began to fall as he tried to break free of the wind threatening to blow him miles off-course. But as a result—the wind seized his wings and sent him down.

Into something that Ryoka knew only too well. A stall spin as he went down like a corkscrew. And he did not know how to arrest his fall.




The force of the spin halted, which was good—because the centrifugal force alone could kill him. He had, in fact, passed out. When he opened his eyes as the wind blasted his face, he was staring down at the fields outside of Pallass.

Then Felkhr was in a familiar position. Face-down. Falling. And his wings refused to budge. He was caught in a nosedive. And he was locked into his flying wings. Without the parasail, the hot air spell was useless.

I have no way to arrest my fall! His physical strength wasn’t enough to shift the wings! Felkhr stared down and imagined how it would be if this was his end. Crashing on his first flight, a cautionary tale.

He could bail out, though. His paws were on the clamps—but then Felkhr gritted his teeth. He was so high up he had time before he crashed.

Not like this. He had already flown—now, he was going to wrest triumph from defeat.

He couldn’t do it before. But now—the Gnoll’s eye snapped wide under his goggles. The [Dreamer] was awake, living the dream he had chased all his life. The [Inventor] had finished his creation, and now—the next step awaited.

Felkhr dropped over Pallass with millions of eyes looking up at him. He would surely level again—but the world had already recognized his achievement the first day he had trialed a glider with the hot air spell and soared four hundred yards on the Floodplains.

He was a [Visionary of Flight]. And every silly [Dreamer]’s Skill had finally turned into something different. His class had always believed in him. Now—he shouted.

“[Innovation Never Ceases]!”

He was both falling and there was another part of him on the ground. Standing at his workshop bench with every tool and material he had ever used hanging around him.

Like…the most perfect waking dream. He could seize a brush and half feel it, move as fast as thought. And he would have to be fast as thought because he was staring at his flying suit in front of him.

The Pallassian Flying Suit Mk. 2. In his mind, Felkhr worked like a storm. He needed—so that was why the wings had those parts that moved.

Flaps. Trim. Tabs. Ways of adjusting in midair! Of course! But it was more than just needing to lift a part of the wings up and down. He needed a way to do that while strapped in.

A lever? No, nothing so clunky. How would it move? He saw something in his mind’s eye and grabbed it. A vision of Kevin’s bicycle gears. But he had to lock it into place—

“Bail out, Felkhr! Get out!”

Yelroan was howling at him. Felkhr was working on the completed contraption in his mind’s eye. He had any tool he wanted. Any material.

[Innovation Never Ceases (50 Gold)]. Any change he wanted, he could bring to life. Within his budget. Felkhr felt his gold allotment burning away—but then he seized the image in his head—and dragged it into the physical world.


He pulled a hand-crank, and a flap opened. And slowly—then all at once, he levelled out of the killing dive. Felkhr was panting, but his Skills were burning.

“[My Creation Never Dies — Full Recreation]!”

He looked up—and the parasail inflated once more. Felkhr was still heading down, but levelling out now—he thought he could hear people screaming and cheering and calling out.

…Was that singing?





The Choir of Pallass had watched Felkhr plummeting to his end. And—for some reason, that was when they had remembered their jobs and begun singing.


So long as our heads rise to the sky

Ne’er shall our city silent lie.”


The screaming of people watching the Flying Gnoll plummet was growing louder. Desperately, the choir sang as the scrying orbs played Felkhr across every screen. The [Senators] were screaming for the [Mages] to cut the feed, and Wistram was screaming right back not to.


Dragon marvel from behind

At the glorious mortal design!”


Then he had levelled out! The Gnoll flew overhead, and the Choir of Pallass sang on.


“Dawn beholds a day it never dreamed, 

onwards our armies scream!


Pallass may you never be the same!

Let the world hear thy eternal name

City to put all others to shame!


Issrysil marvels! Issrysil marvels!”




Some of the non-Pallassians with their mouths open were gaping for entirely different reasons than Felkhr’s flight. Erin Solstice, Ryoka, and Lyonette all stared sideways at the Choir of Pallass, who had gone into the next verse.

That was their national anthem?

A purple-scaled Drake sighed as he watched from a lower floor of Pallass.

“We have got to have a national anthem half as good as that.”

Krshia looked at Elirr as Jeiss nodded along to Lism. The two Gnolls shook their heads. Krshia pointed straight up.

“We have to have a flying Gnoll.”

“Good point. Let’s steal both.”




Then Felkhr was landing. In a field outside of Pallass, knees too shaky to stand. He staggered out of his harness, fell to his knees, and said the dumbest thing he could think of.

“Flying…flying is sort of scary. Walking isn’t that bad.”

He flopped onto his back—then stared up at the sky. And instantly—he wondered if he could go back up there.

He had flown. It wasn’t something that required a machine. It took magic, but he had controlled everything.

It was just like he’d flown in his dreams. The [Visionary] lay there for a moment—until he heard the sound of all of Pallass running out of the city towards him. Then he sat up in alarm. Looking so stupid because he had never thought about the popularity or attention he’d get after becoming the first non-mage to fly.

He had forgotten in his long quest what it would be like to change the world. The Gnoll stood up slowly and looked around.

Was this all a dream? He blinked—and then realized he had always been dreaming. He had just finally pulled that dream out of the sky and into reality. So the Flying Gnoll of Pallass,  Felkhr, looked up and whispered.

“Dad. I did it. I finally figured it out.”

Then he spread his wings and took off into the sky.



[Visionary of Flight Level 38!]

[Skill – My Dream Never Ran Out of Fuel obtained!]





Author’s Note: You voted on the poll, I delivered.

I’m tired. I try to work hard on any chapter, of course, but in this case I knew Felkhr was waiting for his chapter, and I was glad that choice won.

I was sort of sad the other two chapters lost because I know what both of them are too—and despite 11 million words, The Wandering Inn feels like me running around and trying to give each perspective its due time.

Because when I do, I hope you agree that the story is original, fun, and adds to a character. But it takes work. And so I sometimes ask for Patrons to vote on the next side story, or just choose one path to run down, and I can’t do the rest or if I do, they wait.

Hopefully you thought this was a good chapter for this update. I’ll catch you next time, and until then…I don’t much like plane-flying. Helicopters scare me. But flying like that? I could do that.

No wingsuits, though. That’s suicide. I had an idea for a helium-filled suit that made you practically gravity-neutral so you could jump really high or fly with a simple fan, but it turns out helium can’t lift crap.

Someone invent me a super-helium. Alright, you have your assignment, I have mine. Thanks for reading!


Sneaks by jawjee!


Ksmvr Danger Dance by Qthebird!


Numbtongue by pkay!


Smile by Andrea’s Husband!



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9.40 GG

(A huge thank you to the medical readers who contributed to this chapter! Louis.EXE, Alan, Sishio, Hanna, Brian, and Arcane all added terminology and their expertise! Any details you note are wrong are probably my fault and should go in typos.)



She was no longer a [Doctor], the Last Light of Baleros. A 3rd year surgery resident aspiring to become a surgeon. She had seen more patients die under her hands than perhaps any doctor in her world who still lived.

She was no longer Geneva Scala, a young woman from Earth. An Italian-American living in Madison, Wisconsin. Once, a Level 36 [Psychic Surgeon], unwilling prisoner of the Minds of Selphids. Paralyzed without external help.

She was no longer Human. Her name was Geneva no more. She was alone.

She didn’t know what she was. But what defined her was…curiosity. About everything. She, this new woman with seven levels total, penniless and friendless, still believed she would be the one to do what no one had done and save a species. Save Selphids.

After all…

She was one of them.




—She nearly died that first day as ash was still falling from the skies. Died.

Not from the horrors that the Minds had unleashed and become, the ravening Selphids tearing apart intruder and friend alike. No—that was one kind of mindless rush, helping the others up, watching them—die—

A wave of slugs engulfing a screaming Human-Geneva—the original?—no—she had different skin, the wrong face—eating and eating and screaming mentally all the while.

Hunger. Hunger in the darkness—and Fraerlings.

Tiny folk, flying on bats, dragonflies, some of them shouting.

Get out! Get out! This citadel is going to vanish! The bomb—

One disappeared. Just disappeared as something streaked down. It cut through stone. It cut through the Gathering Citadel’s enchanted walls and the Selphids and the Fraerling, leaving only a spinning wing of the bat. A bolt of color so intense not-Geneva didn’t know what it was.

Only that it had come from above and blasted through everything. It kept going through the stairway they were climbing, through the basement down into the earth.

The lightscar was still in her eyes. The afterimage refused to go away. It seared her retinas, and the running not-Geneva realized it wasn’t vanishing even when she blinked.

It stayed there, a streak across her vision, as she ran. Ran up the stairs, arms and legs pumping, stumbling every now and then. The other Genevas fell behind, but she kept running and didn’t realize why.

“Wait—I can’t—”

Even a Gnoll-Geneva fell behind, and it took this one a second to realize—she had probably cleared six floors by racing up the stairs without slowing. Because, of course—she couldn’t feel her screaming muscles.

Her body was dead.

She was first out of the Gathering Citadel, running through one of the tunnels she recalled coming in through. She leapt out of the building but did not linger or go back, though the thought crossed her mind.

Selphid! Freeze!

A panicked Lizardfolk standing sentry saw her rush out and took her for a foe. He was armed with a flaming wand, and the first shot turned some of the ancient stone above her head liquid. So Selphid-Geneva turned and ran.


Then the [Mercenary] realized that would kill both of them and fled—because the sky was turning red with the firestorm coming down. More streaks of light flared down, and Selphid-Geneva looked up.


‘Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.’

—Genesis 19:24-25


The words flickered in her mind. And she had been raised Catholic. Why now? Of all times? The woman put her hands to her head and felt nothing.

—Just a vague tingle. Not down her fingers. She stared at her hands and knew they touched her skull. But she couldn’t feel them.

She had no limbs. She had no—she felt wide. She felt like she was stretched. She began to panic—but the sight of all the hellfire coming down made her run and not process it. She looked back once, just once, thinking to go back in, only to see more of those arrows searing down where the entrance had been.


‘But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.’

—Genesis 19:26


She did not become a pillar of salt. But the lines—the lines criss-crossed her vision, like the slash-marks of some beast. They burned and burned; even when she stopped running, collapsing because her legs refused to keep working after three hours and slept—

They remained.




Sleep was tormented. That first night and day thereafter, Selphid-Geneva—as she thought of herself—felt like her entire life was being played back to her.

Like a VCR tape—only her entire life was the tape, and she was watching it in a blur that took a lifetime and mere moments.

VCR. Dead gods, she was getting old. They had passed DVD’s, and everything had begun going digital by the time she was in her residency. Although some professors hated the modernization and fiddling around so much that some still used slide-projectors.

Whatever worked.

Dead gods? Yes, that was…odd. Everything Selphid-Geneva remembered took on an odd tinge. Like a sepia film back in the old days, colored by…

The Minds.

They had done this to her. Done it to all the waiting bodies, which they intended to turn into Geneva-Clones but without the morality, agents that were only loyal to Selphids. The original Geneva—the real Geneva?—had split herself among them all and foiled the process.

So this woman knew and felt everything the original had felt. But she was also, simultaneously, part of her new body.



[Healer class obtained!]

[Healer Level 4!]


[Skill – Potions: 148% Efficiency obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Synthesis obtained!]

[Skill – Healer’s Intuition (Basic) obtained!]


[Selphid Telekinetic class obtained!]

[Selphid Telekinetic Level 3!]

[Skill – Basic Telekinesis obtained!]

[Skill – Lesser Mindward obtained!]

[Skill – Doubled Mental Presence obtained!]


A rush of voices—as if that omnipresent system were appraising her as a separate being and giving her…nothing at all, really.

She was glad enough to be alive not to quibble. Especially because she knew—she had seen—how many of them didn’t make it.

Did the real Geneva make it?

When she awoke, Selphid-Geneva felt sick. She was engulfed in…blackness? Nothing? And she felt stretched.

“Hello? What’s going on?”

She spoke. She knew she spoke. Selphid-Geneva raised her head, or tried to, and couldn’t move. A wave of fear overtook her.

Was she paralyzed? But no, she was a Selphid. So why? What…what happened?

“Hello? Did someone capture me? Please—I can’t see.”

Selphid-Geneva called out again, but felt no one around her. The last she remembered—and she could remember well thanks to the Second Mind’s training—was that she had collapsed in a forest.

“Is it night?”

She tried to stare around, but again…her head wouldn’t move. But something was moving. She felt her body move. Then Selphid-Geneva realized what was going on with a dawning horror.

I am a Selphid.

I can’t see. I’m in a Selphid’s body, and I can’t see.

Then she felt her body ‘spread’ so far and wide in every direction, in ways no Human body could imagine contorting.

Only the fact that the Minds had apparently accounted for other host bodies kept Selphid-Geneva from going into shock. She had what was a subconscious for Humans; she could spread, move, and control her body naturally. Without that, she would truly have been lost.

The problem was—without context, Geneva the Human was now a Selphid with no understanding of how Selphids interacted with their host-bodies or how to survive. Her sleep must have knocked out her instinctive connection with the corpse she was inside, and without it—

She was in grave danger. Selphid-Geneva’s first day became a true struggle for survival.




How did a parasitic—or symbiotic if you wanted to be charitable—species actually interact with the world? Science did analyze many other species to figure out the differences between them and Human physiology—everyone knew dogs had highly developed noses and poorer color vision, for instance.

But Selphids lived in modalities so devoid of Human logic that Selphid-Geneva was helpless for at least an hour before she realized she was interacting with the world like a Human.

In other words, she was trying to ‘see’ and feel her way around by touch. But Selphids did not see. To be more precise, what Selphid-Geneva thought of as ‘sight’ was more like a general sense of her body’s surroundings. It took her a moment before she latched onto the term for what was happening.

Proprioception. It was an ability Humans had—the five senses were a myth. Proprioception was the awareness of the body’s position in relation to itself. Even without visible sight, Geneva had a mental map of how she was configuring herself.

And even without sight, there was definitely some awareness of the space she was inhabiting. Her mind was making the analogy towards sight.

Chemical reading? It only made sense for a Selphid to forgo sight in places without light. It was very limited—like a local snapshot of what might be literal micrometers of space around her.

The problem was, this ‘sight’ extended across her entire body. So Selphid-Geneva’s mind was presented with not so much one unified vision as a kind of 3D map of herself twisted into what she began to realize was a depiction of a Human’s body.

Or rather, a humanoid’s internal nervous system. Only someone who actually looked at the Human body would instantly recognize Selphid-Geneva’s form taking on an almost perfect simulacrum of the real thing. Selphid-Geneva had a kind of sense of how her body was placed, and it fit everything. The problem was that sensing that many different inputs and the foreign form was overloading her mind, which was used to a Human form and inputs.

Arms, fingers, travelling up across the shoulders, most of her mass down the spine, spreading out to any conceivable muscle she might need. It was…interesting as much as overwhelming. Geneva’s ‘presence’ was dictated by how much mass she had in one area.

Unlike the regular body, which had muscles, nerves everywhere and could only add or subtract, Selphid-Geneva was a semi-fluid within the body, and she realized she had a great deal of herself along the spine and legs.

Because she’d been running? She was also twined around a lot of obstacles. All of this was so disorienting that Selphid-Geneva froze and tried to process it. When she finally worked out that she couldn’t see anything—because she was in a dead body—her next step was to try to control her body.

This was uncannily easy. Human-Geneva had always been good at one-tasking things. She was at best a limited multitasker. She could perform in an operating room in tandem with a team, but she could not carry on a conversation in a party while dancing.

…In her new body, Selphid-Geneva could perform the equivalent of moving each finger on her hand independently along with all her toes and wiggle her ears all without even trying. She had an incredible ability to subdivide her body’s capabilities mentally without losing track of herself.

This was mostly because Selphid-Geneva’s ‘body’ could configure itself to anything she wanted it to. Square? She could turn her body into a square. Hook? She could reshape her body like self-aware clay.

So this was how it felt to be a Selphid! Selphid-Geneva had a sense of her body’s stretchiness, and while she had no measuring tape, she reformed into one blob along the longest circuit she could find. She had to…push things out of the way or squirm through impossibly tight tunnels that she knew she could get through. She experimented, stretching, and wondered if a Selphid, like the long intestine, could become incredibly long if stretched out.

However—the moment she elongated too much, Selphid-Geneva felt a warning in her very core. She stretched and stretched and realized that if something were to pull her, her entire being might—split.

It was hard to articulate consciously. It was akin to how a Human looked down from a great height and felt the certainty that if they fell, they died. Or a desire when stretching an arm not to have the arm pull so far their entire body snapped. Pressure when resting weight on the eyes.

That kind of thing.

Wait a second, I know what that is. What is it called? The…the…it was one of the proprioceptors in the muscles.

It felt like decades since she’d been studying this, even if it had been, what, a year in this world? Technically, that was longer than an Earth year—but Geneva had observed that children and adults still conformed to Earth’s senses of time. An eight year old, despite being older than their Earth counterparts, looked like they were eight, not eleven.

Puberty should have hit far earlier unless lifespans are delayed due to the increase in years. It still doesn’t quite track logically why it’s identical. Is that due to magic or some other factors extending lifespans? Healing potions?

What was it called? She didn’t know. But the feeling was immediate, and that warning made Selphid-Geneva instantly stop this dangerous line of moving. When she finally gained a kind of understanding of her body, about two hours had passed.

Then—she realized she might have killed herself. For Selphid-Geneva now wanted to get up, and she knew a Selphid was helpless without her body. There was just one thing…

She no longer knew how to control her body. And she had no idea where anything was.




The time limit on a Human living or dying was about three days. Three days without water was your max. Without food? You could go weeks depending on how you cut back on moving, and in ideal areas without weather, temperature, or threats taking their toll.

Selphid-Geneva’s time limit was a lot lower than that. She was a parasite in a decomposing body. After an hour of feeling around in desperation, she realized two things.

The sun was rising. And—her body was being nibbled on.

She felt it. The minute vibrations of something eating or poking at the body were like mini-quakes to her, especially in whatever part of the body she was in. And the sun of hot Baleros, even in the fall or winter, could be just as deadly.

Some parts of Baleros never snowed over, and she had been in a humid jungle climate. Decomposition would be rapid and for her—fatal. The heat was already making her feel vaguely ill.

I have to regain control. Selphid-Geneva didn’t know how, but her instincts did. As she searched around, she felt like she came to—latch-points. Thin things in the body that she could pull just so to provoke a response.

The Selphid understanding told her there were countless latch-points for her body to use, and it was seamless; she would ‘twine around’ one and pull what she suspected to be muscle, or make it pull itself.

Good? Um…the problem was she had no context for what she was doing. So she kept exploring until the panicking Selphid-Geneva finally regained her scattered wits.

What am I doing? I’m a damn [Doctor]! Or was! She was a Selphid, yes.

She was no longer the original Geneva. Yes. But she was not the other Selphid-Geneva. The Mind-Geneva who had betrayed all her morality and been twisted by the failure of the Minds and breaching of the Minacien Wall.

Everything that made up Geneva Scala was in her, and that included her knowledge of anatomy and her desire to…


In this case, it was herself. So Selphid-Geneva stopped, and took the most scientific approach she could.




The highest probability was that she was along the spine. To practice ‘stretching’, she had gone through the longest part of the body, so she probably was either in a leg, or most likely, lying along the spine and legs and perhaps even close to the head.

Without orientation, she needed to view the body as a foreign land, but one that had landmarks. The first thing Selphid-Geneva then did was to divide up anything she encountered into categories.

‘Hard’ and ‘soft’. She could push aside…whatever was around her to explore an area on the Z-axis before continuing down the Y- or X-axes. Because she was operating in three-dimensional space, Selphid-Geneva had to orient herself first to understand which way she was going.

Happily, because the Human body was a largely vertical one, it did not take Selphid-Geneva long to understand which direction always seemed to have an infinite ‘up’ and ‘down’. Geneva’s training once again helped orient herself.

Not ‘up’, but superior, towards the head, or inferior movement towards the legs. Anterior, posterior, distal—she subdivided into each section of the body and combed it, trying to piece together the immediate surroundings with her own mental image of her body via proprioception and her own understanding of the Human anatomy.

An area with ‘hardness’ meant it contained a bone or something she could not shift easily with her Selphid body alone. All softness indicated to Selphid-Geneva she was in some organs.

By this understanding, she built a mental picture of her surroundings and realized she was likely in the lower back, specifically the retroperitoneal space where organs, spine, and nerves resided. Subdividing outwards found two routes—legs. Thus, the inferior direction. Therefore, the opposite was superior, and she had finally reoriented herself.

Selphid-Geneva didn’t know all of how Selphids worked, but living with Okasha and Idis had given her a lot of understanding. They needed the head. Some warriors like Calectus could fight ‘senseless’, as Selphids called it, even with the head of a body chopped off, but Selphids considered that to devalue most bodies greatly.

Ergo, they needed the eyesight and total connection a head gave them. Because all the nerves did run up through the spine into the brain, it made sense. Selphid-Geneva had heard some Selphids just ate the grey matter in a host body, so she suspected it was purely the nerves the Selphids needed. They overrode the central nervous system and took command of the peripherals.

The ultimate parasite. She shuddered and wondered if there was any way to stop a Selphid infiltrating a body short of pure physical trauma. Surgical removal? Nigh-impossible because they were able to stretch so far. Magic or telepathic ability—she pushed those thoughts aside for a moment. She was a Selphid now, and she needed to survive.

Based on the knowledge she’d gathered, locating the hard spine and finding all the ‘latch-points’ inside was easy.

In theory, shouldn’t I be able to control the entire body from the spine? She tried…but it became far more difficult to move the body from where she was. Like…trying to pick out a single strand of thread in a piece of rope as long as your arm. She suspected she might need to spread out across the entire body to make it work in her inexperienced state.

Plus, it was abundantly clear that she needed to move fast. First was the distinct sense she was no longer alone in her body. Something foreign had entered it. Second—

The body was undergoing rigor mortis rapidly. It was like a fire alarm ringing in Geneva’s head, and entirely from whatever Selphid instincts she had. Every muscle was hardening up, seizing as the body’s control was lost.

To Geneva, it felt like she was siphoning the…fuel out of each muscle? Regaining control over it and undoing the damage. But she had to work fast; the longer she took, the more the entire body began to spiral out of control. What a fool she’d been to detach herself!

Selphid-Geneva realized her body could keep expanding down the legs while following more connections to the arms and shoulders due to her multi-tasking ability. Doing one thing at a time would only slow her down, so she began to seek the head while the rest of her moved in every direction.

Now she was certain the body was being eaten. Selphid-Geneva ran into the intruders at the same time as she found the skull and began trying to take control.

Her body ran into a cluster of tiny things in one leg. They had pierced the skin and were devouring…well, they recoiled when she felt the change in air.

Air, a harsh thing. Wind? It felt…dangerous to Selphid-Geneva on multiple levels. There was an unpleasant quality out there, as if contaminated gas were everywhere. To her Human sensibilities, it felt like entering a miasma of dangerous fog she had to destroy. And it was also drying her out.

She needed water. A semi-fluid Selphid could not dry out. In fact, Selphids arguably needed more water than Drowned Folk. Selphid-Geneva realized this fact as the things eating her body recoiled from her—then decided she was food too.

They began to try to eat her.

“Aah! Stop! Stop!”

Selphid-Geneva recoiled, retreating, but they came in, tearing pieces off her. It hurt. It didn’t hurt in the way pain did, but it felt like a tiny part of her vanished with each loss. That—was a terror she had never felt. So—instinctively—she struck back.

She grabbed the first intruder, covering it with herself and realized it was fragile, had an exoskeleton and legs—and identified it in the moment before she crushed and absorbed it.


They were just…ants. And Selphid-Geneva had just killed and eaten one. She processed their remains fast after engulfing them and spat them out. Then she froze.

I just killed something.

Not a sentient species.

She hesitated—and the rest of the invading ants nibbling on the corpse decided to attack. Selphid-Geneva’s frozen nature as they bit at her turned to a terror of losing parts of her memory, her self. That felt like the Minds. And she had another thought.

I am no longer a [Doctor]. I am a Selphid. For better or ill—

She began eating the ants.




Selphids did not enjoy eating ants. Selphid-Geneva found that out about eight minutes after routing the infestation trying to gnaw on her leg. Mostly by finding Selphids could puke.

It was less like a bodily reaction with a stomach, more like feeling unwanted components swirling around in her and ejecting them. It still felt awful, but it was a selective ejection.

Also, Selphid-Geneva was learning more things about herself. She did not regard destroying the ants as breaking the Hippocratic Oath at this point. They were not Antinium, and…well, to be fair, if she met a doctor who thought eating meat was the same as violating their sworn duty to their patients, she might have laughed at them.

Survive. Selphid-Geneva’s first action as she fiddled around the head was to actually repair the damaged body. She did this, again, on a kind of instinct mixed with her knowledge of bodies. She tried to close the gap the ants had chewed into the leg at first and found countless serrations.

But without thread or needle, how did you close…? Selphid-Geneva recalled something Okasha had once said and ‘spat’ into the lacerations. They were probably only tiny cuts, but to her, they seemed gaping. Yet, with a bit of effort, she could produce a liquid that closed the wounds. Like there was an unlimited supply of liquid duct tape in her body.

Well, imagine how much spit it would take to seal a window. Each sealant production took a bit of Selphid-Geneva’s precious fluid supply, and while the ants had given some of that back to her—yuck—she doubted she wanted any large wounds in the body.

They would be back in force if she knew ants. Or something bigger to eat this nice dead corpse. So Selphid-Geneva was rapidly feeling around the head. And then, at last, she found a ‘latch-point’, twisted into it—

And sight was on. Or rather—Selphid-Geneva saw the red light of her eyelids.

“Oh, come on.”




“I’m in the head. Let’s see. Twelve cranial nerves. CN2 controls eyes. But I’m going to need CN3, 4, and 6 to move them. This is ridiculous. Memorizing the twelve cranial nerves pays off now?

She had a good laugh about that, but it was true! Once Geneva was in the head, things began to move a lot more smoothly.

Finding the oculomotor nerve, CN3, to open the eyelids was easy. Remembering that the facial nerve closed the eye was funny, and it took Selphid-Geneva a long time before she could turn her head and stare around the tilted forest floor.

The hypoglossal nerve controlled the tongue, while the facial nerve controlled the closing of the eyelids, but the cervical rootlets controlled many of the head motions—those came from the spinal cord. The harder Geneva thought about it, the less easy it was to do.

It was like a wire game where you had to recall which nerve controlled which function—and to a Human, piloting this body would have been incredibly, insanely difficult to do consciously.

As it was for Selphid-Geneva…until she realized that her subconscious was doing a far better job than she was. She also realized that even if she could have resided in the head and taken control of the body, spreading out across this form was essential for multiple reasons.

The first was to manually repair the effects of the body’s lack of a functioning brain. Undo the muscular stiffening, perform spot repairs, and keep the body free of pests. The second was that, like she had observed, even for a Selphid, nerves could be packed together, and it was easier for her to go to each spot and take control from there, rather than rely on the central hub. Like being on the spot, rather than going through a middle manager.

When Geneva finally managed to open her mouth, she tried to speak via the laryngeal nerves.


She couldn’t make a sound! Why? Oh. Selphid-Geneva felt the vibrating of the vocal cords but…

No air. Right. This body wasn’t breathing.

Twenty more minutes before Selphid-Geneva got the lungs pumping. She had to find the exact nerve…phrenic, in the neck. But then she promptly stopped them because there wasn’t any blood in this body. It was actually fairly liquid free, and she realized with growing alarm as she gained ground, taking control again, this was a problem.

Selphids drank all the blood of a body. They filled it up, and like a good parasite or symbiote, replaced a lot of bodily functions, like keeping the body moisturized. Okasha had often said, along with Idis, that Geneva was an ‘easy host body’ because all her functions were intact. Whereas a long-dead corpse…would continue to decompose.

She was supplying the muscles with nutrients and oxygen, and in her absence, the body was continuing to turn to mush. In this case, only the preservative techniques of the Selphids had helped the body survive the several hours Selphid-Geneva had abandoned running it. But even so—like a building left to rot, she had done a lot of damage on accident.

“Up. Up…there we go. I…am…breathing. I am thirsty. I need water—can I repair this body with food? How do I eat?”

Three hours and thirty-eight minutes after she woke up, on the first day of the rest of her life, Selphid-Geneva sat up. In that sense, of all the others, her escape from the Gathering Citadel was hardest by far.

But who had made it? She found herself in a forest near a local ant-hive, some of which were biting on her clothing; a few daring scouts had made it up the leg of her pants and begun eating in around the ankle. She brushed off the bugs only when she saw them and then felt at herself again.

Nothing. Selphid-Geneva had only the vaguest hint of touch even linked into the nerves. She…felt nothing. She only realized a centipede had been eating into the nape of her neck when her moving hands dislodged it.

She smelled nothing. The nose wasn’t returning much. The nasal passage had rotted.

She tasted nothing; the tongue was just movable, but the taste-buds had long since died. She could hear best of all; cochlea, eardrum, and ossicles were all intact and hadn’t been damaged much. The eyes, when opened, were fairly good. They were blurry when she had first opened them, but again, as soon as her body reached them, they began to adapt and translate the vision into her mind.

She felt like a ghost in someone’s body. Though she could control it—though she was a Selphid within it—she was also more ‘Human’ when she possessed the body fully. A close approximation of the woman she had been all her life.

But she had no—senses.

There was a certain famous movie about pirates that Geneva Scala had once watched where the crew was cursed to a life as undead beings, unable to enjoy life’s pleasures. Immortality at a cost.

This—was the reality of it. It felt so appalling to Selphid-Geneva as she stumbled into a world of sunshine and smoke—ash still drifting down—and saw the bright colors but felt nothing of it; not the wind nor the leaves crunching beneath her bare feet nor wounds nor—

So this was what they felt. Selphids. No wonder they hungered for fresh bodies so much. No wonder Okasha and Idis…Selphid-Geneva Scala touched her chest.

“What a high price to pay for freedom. But I didn’t pay it. I’m not even Geneva Scala. Who am I? For what purpose was I brought into this world?”

She almost screamed. She almost panicked before she remembered another famous movie that had once cited those lines. Then she laughed. She laughed and realized she still had humor. And when she saw the Forgotten Wing company wearily inspecting the ruined Gathering Citadel—when she saw that familiar face—her face on a limping Human’s body talking to a tiny Fraerling—and hid—

She knew all was not pointless after all.


[Healer Level 5!]

[Skill – Perfect Recall (Medicine) obtained!]


That night, as Geneva Scala slept in the forest, she heard a voice. Then she woke up and began laughing.

“Medicine? Medicine? That’s so—generic.”

Inaccurate, too! She opened her eyes wide, then shouted.

“Golgi tendon organ! That’s the feeling and sensation of overstretching a tendon. Of course!”

She covered her face—then went back to sleep. The most powerful Skill any student could wish for…and here she was. But she felt she was already changing from the Geneva she knew.

For the better? Or worse.




Two days later.


“Hey. Hey, spawnling. Is this your first body? What are you doing walking into town looking like that?”

Winter was upon Baleros. Not that you’d ever tell amidst the endless jungles. It was still humid, and visitors during the winter called Baleros ‘hot and muggy’ on warm days. They should see the summer.

Not that it had begun to snow yet. Nor had Erin Solstice as of yet changed the world by showing them Zeladona’s Trial of Blades. But she had just announced it, and all the scrying orbs were showing her announcement.

—Few were even bringing up Selphids. The Gathering Citadel’s destruction? Virtually unknown to the rest of the world.

Selphids knew, though, so they were very jumpy; the ones in the local town of Soxet, a stone’s throw away from the place where one of the Gathering Citadels had been torched, was abuzz with rumors.

The few Selphids that were in town were not keen on adding to the wariness. One of them therefore grabbed the woman walking into town. She jerked.

“Hello? I’m sorry, what?”

Spawnling, what are you doing? You’re not in any shape to—are you a vagabond? A survivor of—just get over here! There!”

The angry, dead Lizardman had on a rather thick vest and heavier clothing than was warranted for these temperatures, but it protected his body, and the clothing was nice and red with a rare white mink fur trim and black slacks. It didn’t wear out, so he could use it for at least a few months, and it was proof against bugs and other vines and such that would scar his flesh.

He’d gotten it for a song, too. Someone had apparently died in said vest…which didn’t bother him one bit.

But the ragged young woman who walked into town, barefoot, with clear holes in her flesh and smelling of—he slapped something on her shoulder, and his grip was painfully strong.

It might have been too aggressive for another species, but he knew she could barely feel it. What he slapped on her was a green sprig of eight little leaves tied together pinned by a needle.

The needle, incidentally, was halfway deep into her arm.

“Hey. What did you do that for?”

The woman looked worried, as if she thought he were hurting her. But the other Selphid snorted.

“Don’t pretend you’ve got any nerves left there, idiot. You smell like a corpse. You’re making us all look bad. Present for the manyfolk or they’ll get upset.

She touched her nose and looked so incredibly stupid he grabbed her, practically ran her over to the only Selphid-bar in town, and threw her in before the gagging Lizardfolk and few Centaurs could call for the local militia.

“Domene-domeix. Who have you brought in today?”

Domene-domeix, or ‘Dom’ as he was referred to outside of Selphid groups, glanced up as a Naga bartender with a fresh body wrinkled up his nose.

“Spawnling or an idiot who can’t present, Teyis. You think they smell bad now? I had to stick a Charm of Scent in them just to get them here. Spawnling, sit. What in the name of gallbladders happened to you?”

“I—I’m sorry. I just survived an accident. I didn’t realize I smelled.”

The young Selphid said, looking slightly shocked as a few Selphids glanced over. Lizardfolk occupied the bar too—but were here mostly for the cheap drinks, which they would take elsewhere. It wasn’t just the dislike of Selphids; seeing so many bodies in states of decomposition really just didn’t put you in any mood to eat. Not to mention the smell from the poorly-maintained ones.

A Selphid bar was not uncommon. Selphids could eat at any restaurant the manykind had—but it was always nice to have someone who charged you for a meal you’d eat at prices you could pay.

In other words, a quarter of the serving one of the manykinds would eat, even a small Lizardfolk, and all mashed up with no sense of taste as the manykind understood it. Some presentation maybe, but when it was being digested, who cared?

Unless you were trying to fuel a fresh body—and that was a chore—a Selphid didn’t burn as much energy as other species by far. They could drink and eat less, like Fraerlings.

This new Selphid looked like she needed both food and a new body. Her feet were the worst; two days of walking barefoot without skin being regenerated had torn them up, and they were beginning to stink like the rest of her. A corpse in the sun walking through mud and in a jungle’s heat?

“Gaah. She stinks, Domene. I wish I didn’t have my new body right now! I might have a scent-potion. Sit her down.

Teyis retreated, trying to plug the Naga’s scent glands with one clawed hand. He was the most important Selphid in the town.

You could tell for a few reasons. First, he ran this bar, which meant most Selphids would come and reasonably report to him. Any community of Selphids needed someone like that.

Second, his body was in great condition. New, exotic as a Naga—and in great condition. These two factors made up the worth of any body, and only the richer and higher-level Selphids got those in a limited community.

Just like Dullahans valued armor, Selphids ranked themselves by body. But they had a lot of rules that most of the manykind never heard about. And right now, this new Selphid was breaking a bunch of them.

“I’m sorry. I was lost. I was involved in some—trouble. Bad trouble. My name is…”

Domene clapped a hand over the woman’s mouth and hissed at her. He wore a twelve-month Lizardman’s body, but in decent condition since he’d had it almost since the day the owner had passed. His senses were about half-normal, but that was excellent given the time span.

“You little idiot. Stop saying that loudly. And if you’re half as stupid as I think you are, Minds educate yourself and don’t use your real name! Do you want to get us all in trouble?”

The new Selphid stopped, blinked, and then focused on the people Dom was looking at. Namely, some Lizardfolk pinching their noses and waiting for some cheap mugs.

Teyis reappeared loudly with pewter mugs and filled them extra-high with foam on top.

Here you are! Sorry about the newcomer; we’re sorting them out. Remember, it’s copper back if I get the mug. No cracks!

“Thanks, deadman!”

“Thanks, Ixten!”

The Lizardfolk chorused—and one spoke the name of the dead Naga’s body. Then her face screwed up.

“I’m sorry. I know he’s d—”

“All fine. All fine. Enjoy your drinks.

Teyis’ smile didn’t slip, but he let the Lizardfolk pull back and turned too quickly away from their stares. It was hard wearing the body of someone that people had liked, and Nagas were beloved by their Lizardfolk counterparts.

“Now then. Let me see to this smelly youngster.”

He spoke too-loudly, and then he and Domene pulled the newcomer into one of the back rooms. Only then did they both look at each other and grab the rotting young woman’s arms.

“Alright. Now, let’s—”

Domene began with his Lizardfolk mouth but continued it as his body breached skin, and his actual, Selphid body slithered into one of the wounds on the young woman’s arm.

“—talk about this now! Who are you, and if you have anything to do with the Gathering Citadel, say it now! But be warned—the Minds hold little sway with us right now. This is a disaster, and you’re either coincidental or involved, spawnling!

“What are you doing?”

The young woman yelped and nearly yanked back from the two Selphids’ grips as they entered her body. But she was being held, and they shouted at her.

“Are you trying to start a fight?”

Teyis roared and entangled her. He gave the Selphid a buffet along nine entire sections, and Domene gave a far weaker ‘push’, akin to a hard shove.

“Stop fussing, spawnling. We can’t talk in the open, and [Silence] spells are the last thing we need. Who are you?”

“I—I am Elizabeth Scastein. Or did you want a fake name?”

“Minds, that’s not a Selphid name. Who are you?




Selphid-Geneva’s first encounter with Selphids in her new body was…shocking, but not as unpleasant as it would have been for a Human.

Being ‘invaded’ by other Selphids was not an intrusion since she was wearing a shell for a host anyways. It was probably akin to someone stepping into your house. It could be personal, but they were clearly agitated.

As for being struck by the other Selphid—she had forgotten they had levels and classes on their own! Even if it translated to their bodies, whomever Teyis was, when he’d rammed his form into hers, she had gotten the distinct impression he was stronger than she was.

Her name, incidentally, was an homage to the two things she’d thought of. Lacking a name like Geneva, and not wanting to endanger the original, she had come up with a few fake ones and tried them on.

Scastein was a combination of ‘Scala’ and ‘Frankenstein’, a fitting blend. As for Elizabeth? Well…Selphid-Geneva had thought of calling herself ‘Marie’ or ‘Marie Curie’ after one of the most famous female medical practitioners to ever live, but she’d had the feeling everyone might do that.

Elizabeth Blackwell was another famous woman, so Selphid-Geneva had stolen that first name. She wasn’t sold on the new moniker, first or last. She wasn’t good at coming up with names.

“Well, ‘Elizabeth’, you’d better have a good reason for not presenting properly. The Lizardfolk here got wind of the Gathering Citadel’s destruction, and every settlement in the region is whispering about the Minds and the Forgotten Wing company and casting eyes at us. You are from there, aren’t you?”

The two Selphids pressed in, both physically and in a way that Elizabeth would have described as someone leaning over and staring at you if she were still Human. It was beyond handsy—the feeling of two other species in such close proximity.

However, it did not feel like inappropriate sexual conduct, more like general closeness. Which she was glad of—then Elizabeth realized she might not even technically be ‘female’ in a biological sense since Selphids had no variance in sex. Also, and this was funny—the way one of the two was prodding her rather reminded her of her heritage.

Selphids, like Italians, might be rather physically affectionate in private. And wasn’t that a weird thought?

The Selphid-Italians were waiting for her response. So the first real struggle Elizabeth had to deal with was…what did she say?

The truth? She was no fool. The truth could set you free—and it could also get you killed. The truth of what the Minds had done was horrific, and it also put her in danger. The truth that she was a copy of Geneva Scala was reason enough to kill her—or treat her without rights.

What would happen on Earth? She could only imagine, cynically, that if any government got a hold of her, she would vanish, never to be seen again. The ethics and debate over the morality of clones would come, and it would probably result in their status as people being recognized—after countless clones had been killed and dissected while the debate raged on.

She was…deeply cynical, she realized. Geneva Scala was that after so long of seeing the Minds and the deaths she had been unable to prevent. But Elizabeth?

There was a part of her that was fascinated with all of this. In fact, she was copying the other two Selphids. Mimicking the poking they were doing to her and getting slapped back—probably because she was doing the equivalent of trying to intimidate them.

I am free. I saw Geneva Scala survive. Poor woman. She can’t walk without Okasha. She has all the levels. Forgotten Wing has her.

Let her be the Last Light of Baleros. What a relief not to be alone. Therefore…

Elizabeth replied slowly.

“I—was at the Gathering Citadel. The Minds, all the Selphids—the [Psychic Guardians] are all dead. I think so, at least. The Minds went crazy, and I think the Forgotten Wing company fought them. But they were all wiped out by a—a bombardment from the skies.”

Domene and Teyis froze, then began jabbering questions.

“So you were there! [Psychic Guardians]? Teyis, what is this one talking about—you’re young as can be, too!”

“Quiet, Domene. This is something only an older Selphid should know about. Dead gods. Minds, I can’t think—no. No Minds. We need a conclave. Grab everyone you can without presenting a bad side. Now. The manykind don’t need to hear about this. But before that—”

The other Selphid was stretching, and Elizabeth realized Teyis was following her around the body. Twining around her like someone in a sleeper hold.

To lock her down, she realized. She tried to dodge, but he just ‘grabbed’ her, and while both were infinitely malleable, there were weaknesses she realized. Teyis seized Elizabeth’s body where she was elongated, like someone performing a joint-hold; if she stretched, she might snap at these critical junctures.

“Before that. You, Elizabeth. Did you have anything to do with what the Minds wrought? What happened there?”

She held still. The Selphid hesitated, then spoke.

“I…did not do what the Minds did. They had the Last Light of Baleros prisoner, and they breached the Minacien Wall. One of the Minds sacrificed themselves to let Geneva Scala escape. I—I’m a new Selphid. I don’t know how anything works. The Minds created me in an attempt to make new Selphids from nothing.”

The two other Selphids were still as they heard all this. At length, Teyis shifted and spoke.

“Domene. The others. And…dead gods.”

Domene agreed as he returned to his body.

“I know, right? I don’t even think we need a truth stone. That is the worst lie I have ever heard in my life.”

“What? But I was telling most of the truth—”

Elizabeth began, but there was a lot about Selphids she really didn’t know about. For instance, lesson one about Selphids?

Reproducing and making new Selphids was not an issue the Minds cared about. The Wasting, yes. New Selphids?

Not really.




The Selphids of Soxet were helpful, valuable members of the community in cases like Teyis. Yes, you had individuals who could cause trouble, but Selphid doctrine insisted on having a good relationship with any of the manykind they were near for long periods of time.

Manykind—it meant any species other than them. In front of them, you ‘presented’ well. That meant you kept your body from smelling, didn’t do anything to alarm them, and didn’t discuss anything untowards.

There was an entire world behind the scenes of Selphid culture, and a lot of that culture revolved around fear. They had once been nearly wiped out after the Selphid Empire collapsed. That prejudice from the manykinds was alive and well, and a reason why Selphids had little presence outside Baleros.

“Baleros. Home to the Beastkin. Lizardfolk and their Nagas. Centaurs. Dullahans. Gazers. And Selphids. We have more unique species than any other continent. By contrast, Izril’s got three. They used to have Harpies, which made four. Terandria’s got Humans, Half-Elves, Dwarves. No more Giants or half-Giants. No more Dryads. No more Halflings. No more…Chandrar, the same. The Djinni and Jinn are gone. Each continent loses species. That is the lesson, spawnling. It could be us next. Dead gods…six Minds are dead. Maybe this is our last era. The Gnolls, us—who’ll be first to disappear?”

This dour statement explained much of the Selphids’ way of life. It came from Teyis and was accompanied, to Elizabeth’s rather surprised amusement, by a chatter of voices.

Teyis, don’t say it like that! I’ll cry!

No, I will! Give me the tear ducts!

Stop fighting! You’re going to break the body, and we’ll all be in trouble—

“Get the spawnlings out of here, someone.”

Three voices came from one body. And the fighting little Selphids—spawnlings was what they called children—stopped as a primary Selphid took over.

“Sorry. They’re almost ready to start their own bodies, but they’re a handful. And their parent is too busy running a bar to instill some much-needed discipline into them.”

A Centaur crossed his arms as he trotted back and forth, and Teyis avoided the look. The other Selphid, Agoeith, gave Teyis a weary glare as the body, which housed multiple Selphid children—no less than fourteen, apparently—and their caretaker sometimes twitched with one of the Selphid children pulling a nerve and being scolded.

A nursery. Elizabeth was horrified as a Human and entranced as someone studying this unique culture. Selphid biology was still largely foreign to her—and she was a Selphid!—but she had picked up enough to understand their life cycle in reproduction.

As asexually reproducing beings, Selphids could reproduce by themselves, but almost always did it in pairs. Larger groupings were also rare; she wondered if they took after other species culturally?

Both ‘parents’ contributed genetic material, which was their own body, to create a third mass that would subdivide into little Selphids. A spawning could create over a dozen Selphids, easily, which explained why the Minds were not concerned with making new Selphids.

Keeping the Selphids alive and free of the Wasting and finding enough bodies for them was the far greater challenge. Even in bloody Baleros, bodies were not in such great supply as to let Selphids waste them.

Thus, even Elizabeth’s body was being ‘fixed up’ as someone spread an unguent over the exterior and a Selphid [Embalmer] did the same job from the inside, scolding Elizabeth all the while.

“It’s practically rotten. We’re going to have to suck the moisture out and then hope nothing rips once we preserve it. It’s that or you start growing fungi and attracting flies—you’d better take care, you little spawnling. You find an egg, you get rid of the infestation right away. That’s how you get maggots.”

“Wh-what do I do with the eggs?”

“Eat them? Not my taste. Just eject them, otherwise.”

Selphids had, uh, an interesting palette too. They would happily devour component parts of the bodies they entered. But the thought of eating more insects made Elizabeth queasy.

She was patently uneasy around the Selphids, whom she associated with the Minds. And they were simultaneously too welcoming and too alien at the same time. They treated her like a ‘spawnling’.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth was already making use of their help. One of the Selphids grunted or made a wet expression of air bubbles as they turned over a set of sewing needles.

“Here. Is this a [Healer] thing now, using needles?”

“Where’s the thread? I would like soap and hot water, please.”

Beth inspected the needles and then turned to Teyis. The affronted Selphid frowned.

“You’re giving a lot of orders, newcomer. Is it essential for you to have this right now?”

Elizabeth’s head came up.

“It is if you want me to help when someone’s wounded. If I need to find this later, it’s too late.

“And you think you can sew someone up like a [Saw Doctor]?”

The Selphid was incredulous, but in this, Elizabeth was no uncertain amateur. She snapped a piece of thread with her hands.

“I don’t think, I know. I need better thread than this. And I’ll need a sharp blade. Daggers work, but there are better tools. Healing potions are no longer being made, right?”

Teyis glanced up as some of the other Selphids gathered around. They seemed surprised by her tone of authority, but after Agoeith nodded, they diffidently went to get her what she needed. Teyis replied to Elizabeth directly.

“That’s what we’ve heard. The Eir Kelp Island is gone. Some tragedy at sea around the time Khelt made that fuss.”

Elizabeth looked up briefly. The Selphids needed potions least, and even they murmured nervously.

“Can the…island be salvaged? Is there any other way to make healing potions? I guess I’ll have to find out. But if that’s the case—can someone bring me any spare, old shirts or linens? I need to make bandages. And this needle…are there any curved ones?”

Grimacing, she looked around for something to test the thread on—then realized she could use her arm. The needle was as bad as she feared, and sewing flesh together with this…

“Ooh! She’s so fast!”

“Look at that! Let me try! Let me—”

The Selphids in the mixed body crowded over—until one of the others raised their voice.

“Keep the spawnlings quiet, Agoeith. I can barely run my bar as it is. I’ll trade with you, but only if you can run an entire business.”

Teyis and Agoeith were a pair that had decided to raise Selphids here. To that end, they had purchased a body large enough to accommodate the growing Selphids—much like someone buying a house. The Centaur, famously difficult for one Selphid to control, was a perfect vessel for multiple Selphids to grow in.

What Elizabeth was curious about was what role parenthood had. It seemed Teyis and Agoeith had both been high level—and just as apparent they were reduced in some way by the spawning.

“Excuse me. What happens if two Selphids mate? Teyis keeps talking like he’s injured.”

The Selphid in her body patching things up made a burbling sound like a grunt. It was weird, Elizabeth could both talk inside her body as well as listen with the auditory nerves. Multitasking, again. The [Embalmer]’s reply was terse as he spread more of that paste around, and Elizabeth sensed he was drying out the body, mummifying it.

This old profession from Earth had a much more significant role here. In fact, he would even have her wrap her skin with linen to both suppress the smell and bad appearance and help preserve it.

“You must be new, like you claim, child. Creating new Selphids means you give up part of your body. They grow up faster, but Teyis and Agoeith didn’t want to raise them for eight years. So they gave a third of their entire bodies up. Even eating like Centaurs—it’s made them weaker. I hear that if you do it wrong, you can even lose muscle memory or other parts. Not that I’d know. I’m not raising that lot.”

The noisy Selphid spawnlings had taken after Lizardfolk, and sometimes they grabbed Agoeith’s vocal cords to talk. Elizabeth listened as they were shushed again, and Teyis went on.

“We cannot do anything that gets us destroyed. The Minds know that. They know that…I’ve never spoken to one. I’ve met their representatives a few times, and they seemed like they knew what they were doing! Rhir’s hells, if we can’t trust the Minds to do what’s right—the Minacien Wall?”

Every Selphid in the room shuddered. And Elizabeth understood something else.

The Selphids didn’t know what the Minds were doing. Each community of Selphids had the same understanding: help each other, don’t rile the manykind. You helped another Selphid if you could—you didn’t fight them in wars.

They had to do this to survive. It was as tight-knit a community as any Elizabeth had seen, a minority who had to be very careful. She understood it on that level.

However—the Minds were a kind of unseen force that rarely interacted with the common Selphid. The understanding was that if a Mind sent a representative, you did what was asked because the Minds knew all.

It was even a saying.

“Minds think for me. So there are a bunch of escaped…experimental people running around like this Elizabeth. The Forgotten Wing company’s on the hunt. The Titan—”

Teyis was summarizing what they knew. They didn’t believe she was an ‘experimental Selphid’, but it was abundantly clear that Elizabeth had no idea what being a Selphid was, and this gathering couldn’t fathom the concept that she was Geneva’s clone. They had confirmed the rest of her story via truth stone, anyways, and they were panicking.

“I thought he was on our side. He’s supposed to be friendly to us.”

Domene murmured in his Lizardfolk body. The other Selphid elders broke in, speaking heatedly.

“Friendly doesn’t matter if you get in his way. He stomps. You heard what he did to the Jungle Tails when they sieged his capital? I heard it was a slaughter. He even used Goblins.”


“He’s a friend. I have a relative in his forces who says it’s the best experience you can get outside of working for one of our companies—”

“He’s still one of the manykind. A smart one of them. If he thought the Minacien Wall was being breached—who wouldn’t do that?”

The Selphids all fell silent at that. Elizabeth was surprised.

“You aren’t—angry?”

She would have assumed the death of six Minds and the loss of a Gathering Citadel would trigger defensiveness. But a deep gloom seemed to infuse the Selphids here. Teyis answered for them.

“If the Minacien Wall was breached…the Minds had a reason. But we know our history. The wall is there to protect us. The Minds put us all in danger. If word spreads that we are breaching it again, the manykinds will sweep us away. And this time, they will leave not a single Selphid alive.”

The Selphid children began crying as tears leaked from Agoeith’s eyes. She let them, wiping them away as the Centaur Selphid spoke.

“This is secret to all of us, Elizabeth or whomever you are. Word may spread. We have likely lost the Forgotten Wing company as allies. Even if the Titan did this just to prevent worse—he killed six Minds. Can we trust him? Can he trust us? We have lost a Great Company’s friendship. We have lost Minds.”

“What can be done?”

Domene demanded, hammering a table. Gloomily, Teyis put down tiny cups of liquor, which all the Selphids drank from.

“The new lands, perhaps. Every species is going for them. Otherwise? We withdraw from cities that evict us. We don’t cause trouble for a decade.”

A quiet silence. Then the [Embalmer] left Elizabeth’s body, returned to his old Dullahan form in great condition despite years of use, and spoke quietly.

“We are dying out.”

No one said a word. The oldest Selphid amongst them turned his gaze to Elizabeth, and she saw now the pulses of orange under flesh, the hints that a Selphid was staring out from behind dead eyes.

“If we could find a place to live in our own communities, we would. It’s not hard, but finding bodies is. We depend on other species. But even if we had both, Elizabeth or whomever you are—the Wasting will kill us all.”

Even at the rate Selphids reproduced, the Wasting cut them down. As Elizabeth had observed, it was a phenomenon across the entire species. The cause? Unknown. But age sometimes seemed to play a role; few Selphids lived longer than a century before the Wasting materialized.

And it could cut down even the highest-level Selphid. It was the bane that terrified the Minds, who were extremely susceptible to it. One might reasonably assume it was some kind of pathogen or plot like the one against Gnolls to weaken their species. However, the Minds had never found evidence of that.

The Wasting meant that Selphid young were often numerous and fearless of the condition for decades, but high-level leaders were dying a slow death—and forced to ostracize themselves from their community for fear of spreading whatever this was. Elizabeth was almost certain it was not a transmissible disease, but it was hard to prove without knowing the root cause.

She was watching a species in decline for a multitude of reasons. So—the Selphid who sat there, flexing her body’s arms and testing the inner, preserved walls of her body, raised her head.

“And me? What becomes of me?”

“You say nothing. You don’t cause trouble. What else? We’ll make a story up for you. You survived a [Bandit] attack or something. You need a mentor. I’ll do it.”

Teyis decided after a moment. Elizabeth was surprised.

“You’ll help me?”

Then every Selphid in the room smiled. Wearing faces of the dead, young and old, of every form. Domene chuckled as he picked at his teeth, carefully brushing them with some toothpaste to keep his body in good condition.

“We’re Selphids, spawnling. What one of us does reflects on us all. Remember that. Now, let’s figure out just what you can do. And in the name of Baleros’ many tails—can we please get her a better name? Elizabeth is so…Terandrian.




The name stuck, or rather, half of it, stuck.

“Beth! [Healer] Beth, help! Help! Someone got bit by a piranha! It’s bad—we need potions!”

“Don’t use a potion! Staunch the bleeding!”

“H-how do we…?”

The panicked Lizardboy who ran in two days later prompted a young woman to rise and run after them. She raced down to a river, faster than Teyis or the other Selphids in his bar could move.

Some things never changed. And while she had lost all her classes—the first thing ‘Beth’ did was seize the leg, stemming the bloodloss. Then she wound a tourniquet around the leg as she assessed the mess of torn flesh.

“Healing potion!”

Someone had one; this town still had healing potions, but one of the Nagas who’d slithered down—one of three the entire town had—seized the bottle.

“You idiots! Don’t pour it randomly! There’s no more potions left!

“B-but Calexn—”

A Lizardgirl pointed at the little Lizardboy who’d had his leg laid open by one of Baleros’ deadly aquatic fish. Elizabeth saw the Naga—one of the normal ones, huge and serpentine, with powerful scales and delicate humanoid hands and, depending on the Naga, either serpentine or humanoid faces.

However, unlike the panicking Lizardfolk, Nagas were leaders, and this one saw Beth checking the wound.

“It’s a Fishertooth Piranha. It’s left its fangs in the leg, no doubt. Are you the new [Healer]? Do you need the potion?”

The Naga proffered her the bottle, but Beth just shook her head.

“I can close the wound. But I need…somewhere to operate! Someone find a stretcher and get me a clean place!”

The riverbank was muddy and dangerous to work in. The Naga’s brows shot together.

“You’re one of the Last Light’s disciples. A new kind of [Healer]?”


“Good. You four, pick up Calexn. Carry him—carefully! Use my home. Everyone else, clear out!

The Naga was good at giving orders. In short order, Beth was pulling out the tools she’d re-fashioned with the help of Teyis.

They were all low-quality and reminded her of having to work on the battlefield. Daggers instead of scalpels. Sewing needles instead of surgical ones—and common thread.

In this case, Elizabeth was using a straight shaving razor. Better, thinner, and sharper than most daggers. The first surgeons had been barbers for a reason. A Lizardfolk town didn’t have much call for a barber, but thankfully one of the Selphids had given her one they used for grooming.

Elizabeth was cursing as she realized she might need the potion after all.

The bites were deep. And she had no Skills. She hadn’t realized how she had come to rely on them. Worse, it took her one second to realize this was dire.

Artery cut. It was spurting out with each heartbeat, and she seized it before they even lifted the boy up. He would have been dead before they got him to the house otherwise.

Nevertheless, there was so much blood that the convulsing Lizardboy, holding onto the Naga’s arm and crying out, might be close to death from that alone. And the fact that he was conscious was a problem. Each time he cried out, she felt her grip slipping.

Stop! Stop—

“Hold him still! I need to close the—”

She couldn’t stem the bleeding and operate at the same time. The Naga was shouting and the Lizardfolk were trying, but the boy was in a lot of pain.

“Painkillers! Do you have any? Or a sleep spell?”

“No! Someone get an [Alchemist]—”

The Naga was holding down the Lizardboy with their strength, but it was the jumping muscles in the legs and the slight movements that could throw off Beth. She debated asking them to knock out the Lizardboy. It was better than letting him die, but she didn’t know how strong the Naga was. And all the while, the blood was pouring out.

“Tourniquet! Get me that piece of fabric and loop it around his leg! The stick!”

A tourniquet was just a piece of cloth and a stick. Geneva had a single one, which she used with the stick—she slid the stick in place between the fabric and the leg. Then she spun the stick as it caught the fabric, tightening it up. She could finally let go and tie the stick into place.

Her tourniquet let her breathe in relief. For one second. Then the boy’s thrashing leg and the wet, slick scales revealed an issue with the technique in this world.

The tourniquet slipped—and then the cheap fabric tore. It wasn’t tough material but an old shirt she’d washed and been given by the Selphids. Geneva seized the wound as blood filled the cloth. She looked around, and she didn’t trust another tourniquet.

She was about to call for a potion when the Selphid stopped. She stared at the blood flow and then looked at her arm.

“I have to stop his bleeding. He is dead within minutes if I don’t. If I seal the artery with a potion, he’ll lose it. I know one way to stop the bleeding. But I—”

She hesitated, then looked down. The boy was fading away, and he was staring up at her. Beth stared around.

“—Will you let me try?”

The image of Geneva Scala, the original, helplessly feeling Okasha, Idis take over flashed in her mind. But then she looked down and saw the open wound.

Not the same. The Nagas looked at each other, and the first one to find Calexn wavered. Then he nodded.

“Save his life, Selphid!”

Beth exhaled, and she was already bending over Calexn.

“Alright. Then don’t stop me—and keep back.”

The Naga was watching the boy die in his arms. The thrashing was growing weaker with every pulse of blood; two serpentine eyes swung up as Beth cut across her arm.

“What is the Selphid—”


Then—Beth slithered out of her body and into the wound. The reaction of the Lizardfolk was instantaneous.

It’s taking Calexn’s body! Stop—

Silence, I said!

The sounds weren’t that audible to Beth anymore. She was out of her body so she didn’t ‘hear’ in the same way. Her senses, already reduced, became weak, but she was covering the wound. And now—she was doing the only thing she could think of in lieu of using [Hemostatic Pause].

She found the blood pumping out of the Lizardboy’s leg and had the terrible desire to drink it. Instead, Beth found the severed artery, covered it—and the blood flow stopped.

However, the entire leg was laid open. She spread, secreting the same emergency repair gel and covered as many vector points as she could. It worked! The blood leaking from the leg diminished noticeably even in her Selphid state.

She had also performed a gruesome double duty—she was cleaning the excess blood from the wound so she could see. Lacking clamps, staunching, and helpers, she had been just staring at a mass of bloody flesh; there wasn’t even strong lighting. Once she got to her body, she’d be able to see the wound properly.

The problem was—even as Beth held there, she knew, instantly, she had made a mistake. She had spot-sealed a number of wounds, a vein, torn flesh—like a spot welder stemming a leaking tank of blood.

However, the blood wanted to keep flowing out. She was applying pressure as a Selphid, but the instant she returned to her body, she was terrified it would burst the sealant she’d used, and the boy had little blood left. Perhaps the gel would hold, but she couldn’t risk it.

If she had transfusions, she could gamble on it. But right now, the Naga was watching her, and she doubted even the Lizardfolk’s leader was trusting. She had to…

Leave the body, grab the artery, and start operating? She should have clamped it! But she hadn’t been able to get a grip.

“Hey! Can you grab the artery?”

Beth shouted, but she wasn’t even sure she was audible over the sounds in the background. Panicking now, she tried to stretch back into her body while holding the artery shut—but there was no way she could reach the nervous system and do this. So…so…

It occurred to her, for the first time, that she was not entirely without Skills. Yes, she had lost most of her high-level abilities. But Geneva’s time in the Gathering Citadel had left all of them with—tricks.

And one of them she had never used in an operating room before. But in her desperation, Beth shouted.

“[Lesser Mindward]!”

She thought of a clamp sealing the artery shut, a mechanical device, like one on Earth, grabbing the severed tube and gripping it tightly. And then, as Beth let go, she saw/sensed a bubble of force grab the Lizardboy’s artery and seal it. Blood pooled against the entrance, trying to leave with every panicked flutter of his heart.

But something—willpower made manifest—held it in.

“It’s working! I need—”

The instant she came back to her body, the Naga grabbed her. Beth froze as a steely claw grabbed her head and rotated it left and right. But the male Naga just stared at Beth, then let go.

“This one is not taking Calexn’s body. Let them work. What next?”

Beth was panting already from her exertions. Using her Selphid body was—tough. But she looked at the leg and now came to a difficult crossroads.

“Two things. Either we use a lot of that potion—what quality is it?”

“Lowgrade. Barely more than Eir gel water.”

Thankfully, the Naga knew how to read the labels or knew the quality of the potion he held. Beth’s grimace said it all.

Healing potions had grades. Most people weren’t discerning, but good potions could cleanse a wound, prevent poison, and heal perfectly.

Bad ones just accelerated the body’s natural healing. And in this case…

“Even if you dump that on the leg, it won’t necessarily work. The veins and arteries are severed.”

Beth spoke quickly, pointing down at Calexn. The chunk of missing flesh…the Naga’s face was grim.

“I know. Can you heal his leg?”

“I have a Skill that adds to a potion’s efficiency. Let me—”

Beth took the potion, measured a spoonful out, and made the half-conscious Lizardboy drink it. Then her head shot down to see what was happening.

It was only a tiny bit of potion. So the healing barely touched the leg, but because the potion was operating at 148% efficiency—

“He’s gaining color!”

“The leg-wound is not closing.”

“No…he had bad lacerations on his side and tail.”

Another Skill activated as Beth scanned the damage. This potion was working on the lesser wounds first.

[Healer’s Intuition (Basic)]. She had wondered what it did. Now, Beth understood. It was essentially giving her the power to ‘sense’ what was wrong with Calexn.

Lacerations on the tail in four spots. I can sense at least one tooth buried in his leg—need to extract it once I figure out if I can even save his leg—

She equated the Skill to a basic visual scan. It saved her time, but it was hardly impressive. In fact, even feeling at the bad leg told her at least one more tooth from the damned piranha was lodged inside it. So her Skill was only one step in a long process.

Damn it. If only it was more advanced she could rely on it. But Beth was more worried about what she might have to do.

“I’m not seeing the veins trying to reconnect. Do you have any better potions?”

“Not in this town. I could send for some but…”

The Naga had to know what Beth was thinking. Which was that…after all her effort stemming the bleeding, she might now have to take the Lizardboy’s leg off.

Even with all the advances in Earth’s medical fields, some wounds were just terrible. Losing a chunk of your leg was not the same as a cut. You could stitch together severed arteries, essentially closing gaps to let the body seal the wound. But a chunk of a leg missing required something far more difficult.

If Beth were in an operating room on Earth, she’d demand skin and vein grafts. Reconnect the leg manually or even transplant skin from other parts of the body to seal this wound. And even then, she would have had to have a scaffold or matrix to let the muscles reattach and cells regrow. Full muscle replacement was still impossible because of the issues of rejection to the host, and that was on Earth in the best operating rooms.

She…did not have the tools or confidence to do a successful graft here.

But she had to try. The only alternative, which had been in medical practice for centuries before the modern day, was to amputate the leg; it would be necessary even if she left it be and healed it shut. After all, without blood flow or any of the tissue or—the leg would quickly enter necrosis and need it anyways. At best, the boy had a lame leg for his entire life.

“Do what you have to do, [Healer]. The only other [Healer] in the city can’t help. He’s a [Potion Healer]. Useless.”

The Naga spat. Beth rested the back of her hands on her cheeks, keeping her fingers from touching her dead flesh. She thought for a long moment. Then she looked up.

“I am going to have to use the entire potion bottle. And—I need you to find a way to kill this boy’s pain. What I am going to do is gruesome, but it is the only way to try and save his leg. I have no other chance. Understand?”

The Naga stared at Beth. Then he glanced around.

“Get me Yeox and Thoenesith. What are you going to do, [Healer]?”

The Lizardfolk ran to get the other two Naga-leaders as Beth took an unsteady breath.

“Harvest enough tissue and veins to perform a flap graft.”

And there was only one place where she could get all that from…Beth stared at the other leg as the Naga glanced at the potion, at her, and then paled.




There was science—and mad science, like you saw on television. Dramatized malpractice of medicine.

It had also existed. Scientists who gave up all ethical standards. Beth refused to call them doctors.

This…was not that, but it had the same roots. Taking a skin graft from one part of the body and using it on another was basic. Take a piece of iliac crest from the hip, use it to replace a missing roof of the mouth, and so on. Take skin from the thigh and add it to the face.

That was one thing.

Cutting out veins, lengths of the artery, and then transplanting them over to the wounded leg? All while healing the wound closed so she could re-harvest and also giving the Lizardboy enough potion so he could replenish the blood loss?

That—was a technique neither Earth nor this world had ever conceived of. But she did it like a science.

The first thing Beth did was ascertain how much of Calexn’s body could be regrown with enough potion. A tablespoon’s worth of potion healed half an inch of severed artery and veins; she began to harvest that and transplant it over, connecting the new portion of flesh.

To Calexn and the Nagas, it was both unsettling and eerie how fast Elizabeth worked. The Selphid only looked up once when she began the harvesting of tissue.

“I need something. Get me a wooden straw.”

“A straw?

Was she going to suck up the blood too? A café produced a straw, which was dunked in boiling water before Elizabeth told Calexn what to do.

She had him pour the tablespoon of healing potion out of the flask and into the straw, but rather than just toss it into the place where she was cutting tissue from—she made the Naga put one thumb-claw over the straw.

Then—she would direct him to release droplets of the potion right where she wanted it. It was far more precise than a spoon and allowed her to measure healing potion with exacting care.

An improvised syringe, or as close as she could come to it. The Naga had no idea what Elizabeth was emulating, but it shook him. What a demand for precision in this bloody operation! No [Healer] he had ever met was this…technical.

While this was going on, Beth had to work fast to slow the blood loss. She had to cut as economically as possible to reduce the patient’s pain. Thankfully, the boy had passed out, so his screaming and moving was not an issue. The straw technique she was glad to have; there was a rapidly diminishing quantity of healing potion.

If she were a younger doctor, it would have failed mid-surgery. Because she was older and had done this so many times, Beth never hesitated.

One of the three Nagas had to leave mid-operation. The other two just looked away as Beth performed the surgery to save the leg. She didn’t fill the entire leg with transplanted flesh. Once she thought she had enough—she connected everything she could with more healing potion and released her [Mindward].

Blood pooled again, but as Beth spot-sealed a tear in the new artery, she watched blood rushing down the leg. She did one last thing with a final tablespoon of potion; the bottle was almost empty. She applied drops down the entire length of the graft, hoping that it would prevent any weakness in the grafted tissue.

She felt it, pressing her fingers into the boy’s foot, behind the knee—then realized she had little touch. Instead, Beth made one of the Nagas confirm they could feel the pulse where she indicated.

Once she was done with the grafting, Beth pulled out four teeth—the piranha left part of its teeth in the victim’s flesh to make the bleeding worse and kill them. She sutured each gap, then stood back and tried to think if she’d missed anything.

“I think—I think I did it. When he wakes up, I want to know if he can feel anything in his foot. But until then…”

Beth sat back at last, covered in blood from the arms down. The gloves she had put on—not a surgeon’s rubber gloves—were red, and she was terrified of infection.

“I need a poultice. Something to disinfect—to keep the wounds clean. The likelihood he’s going to develop an infection is high. We need to clean the wounds. Does the other [Healer] have anything? If not, I can mix something up. I know a basic antiseptic.”

“A what?”

The Naga who owned this house and given the orders was named Vexx. Beth clarified.

“A cleaning fluid. For the legs.”

The Minds had helped her in that. She rattled off local varieties of herbs and a root, and Vexx nodded.

“I can have it made up. In case you’re not here—what do you do?”

Beth described cleaning the wounds, changing the bandages, and eventually removing the stitching, since she had used a lot of that to supplement the potion. Vexx wrote this down and nodded.

“Clean the wounds. Change bandages regularly; do not let the boy get it dirty or flies get in. I know this. Thank you…what is your name, [Healer]?”

“G—Beth. Beth.”

The Naga nodded. Then he focused on her, and the Naga calmly grabbed her.

“You did not try to steal Calexn’s body. But you used something on his leg—and I have never seen a Selphid [Healer] act like that. Something tells me you were at that Gathering Citadel. I will remember you saved my people’s life. So please, do not try to escape.”

Beth’s relief turned to fear as Vexx stared at her. And she remembered, too late.

She was a Selphid now. And Selphids…

Were in danger.




“We dug into the brain of reality and inserted ourselves into it. Tricked into believing we should belong.”

―The Second Mind


“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”

―Mary Shelley, Frankenstein 


What purpose had Beth? She asked that as the Nagas held her captive in the town of Soxet. It seemed to her that her origin was twisted. She had been cloned against her will, and terrible deeds had been done by the Minds.

Not all, though. She had been wronged by the representatives of a species—wronged in ways she was sure she was not consciously processing and no amount of therapy might ever fully resolve.

But she also felt it still. It burned in her, a desire to know. A desire to understand.

A desire to give aid where none existed.

The boy, Calexn, lived. His leg did suffer an infection, but a minor one that the poultice Beth made up fought off. She mixed it using [Basic Synthesis] in the cell that the Nagas put her in. The local prison cell was nicer—especially because the Lizardfolk gave her pillows and tried to make her comfortable.

The Nagas allowed it and to let Beth check her patient, though she shouted at him for trying to hobble around. She had saved his leg.

But the problem was they were intelligent enough to spot things. And Beth’s use of her Selphid body was something no Selphid ever did—for fear of calling down the suspicion upon them of stealing bodies.

However, her Selphid form could be used to save lives! In her captivity over the next day and a half, Beth began formulating how, in an Earth-setting, a Selphid might act as an exploratory probe in a body. Doctors used microscopic lenses. What about a living being capable of manually performing surgery within the body? Let alone a Selphid’s ability to attach muscle…

Well—the issue of contamination via microbes, the dangers of invading a living body, and the danger of Selphids taking a host were all salient. But Beth did envision a kind of synthesis with medical theory. The idea of using nanotechnology to heal wounds without the invasion of surgery had long been floated, but there were huge ramifications in that move too. Selphids were the natural bridge in this world.

“…If only we could trust you. Mark my words well, Beth. I think you are a good person. A [Healer]…what level are you now?”

“Level 9.”

She had leveled four times in one surgery.


[Healer Level 9!]

[Skill – Bloodless Incision obtained!]

[Skill – Enhanced Edge obtained!]

[Skill – Stretchline Thread obtained!]


[Selphid Telekinetic Level 6!]

[Skill – Telekinesis: Bubble obtained!]


She had leveled in her other class, too. Her [Healer] Skills made sense and were welcome; the ability of her [Telekinetic] was…odd.

With it, Beth could make a bubble or sphere with force. It had limited applications as far as she could tell, in most settings. She had one very useful idea—but that wasn’t something she could test right now.

Beth had been amusing herself by taking some of the tea the Lizardfolk served her and floating orbs into her mouth until Vexx arrived.

The Naga was knowing.

“Level 9 yet you worked with a talent I have only heard rumors of. Do they call you The Last Light?”

“I am not her.”

The Naga consulted the truth stone and frowned at the mixed results.

“Another odd statement. But I know for a fact she is Human. Perhaps the Minds did something? You did meet them.”

Beth said nothing. No Selphid had been allowed to visit her. Her eyes slid to the door where Lizardfolk stood guard.

“Have you harmed anyone else?”

“Your people? No. But they are not cooperating. Here is my dilemma, Beth. I think you know a lot. And yet—you came into town wounded and alone. I do not see an agent of the Minds in you. But I am Naga. You are Selphid.”

Vexx stared at her, and his eyes were faintly violet-green, slitted, and he was tall, eight feet when he slithered upright. Dangerous. Lizardfolk were physically slim, weaker, and playful; Drakes outweighed them, and Lizardfolk’s only main advantage in battle were numbers. But Nagas were the balancing force; each one was powerful in the extreme, and many had powers.

Beth said nothing to Vexx, but the Naga just sighed and slithered closer. He rested his claws on the jail cell.

“Here is the thing, Beth. I know Teyis. And because I know him and have had Selphid companions in my travels before I settled here—I know your people. And what I know is that Selphids report to each other. They take care of each other like every species does. But your Minds are unto Selphids what we Naga are to Lizardfolk. And do you know what my quandary is?”

She waited, knowing it was rhetorical. Vexx whispered to her.

“Neither Teyis nor I…are agents of our people. Yet here you are, and now I am very nervous, you see?”

He slithered back, and Beth frowned. That was not what she had expected. Vexx looked…vexed. Worried.

“You mean you’re not an agent of…”

“Jungle Tails. The great Naga leaders. Whomever you want to assign me, I am just a Naga living in a town. We are not all part of a grander conspiracy, but I know my roles too. Here I am with a possible agent of the Minds who were responsible for—something terrible happening. Do I report to Jungle Tails? Do I report to my people? Or do I report to the Forgotten Wing? And I know at the same time Teyis is doing this too. Neither he nor I want to tear this town down.”

Vexx gave her a look, and Beth hung her head.

“I’m sorry.”

He shrugged.

“Don’t be. I am telling you this because I feel guilty. And so you know, because I am a simple Naga, who wants no danger to come to my town, I told several—contacts—I had found you. Nagas. But far more senior than me.”

He stared at her. Beth grew nervous at once, but Vexx lifted a claw.

“I told them…I had found you. I gave them details and then told them that, regrettably, the Forgotten Wing company had gotten to you first. Maybe it will bite my tail, but I think they will understand. You see?”

“The Forgotten Wing Company?”

Geneva Scala? The original? Beth’s head came up, and Vexx nodded at the look on her face.

“Yes…the Titan’s forces still occupy this area. And I think he has the best—and most gentle claim on you. He is kinder to Selphids than Maelstrom’s Howling or Iron Vanguard would be. So. His people are enroute. This is my compromise. Think less of me for doing this, but Baleros is about profit and opportunity. But sometimes…”

He looked at her seriously.

“…Sometimes, I do not want that opportunity where I am.”

She understood his fear only too well. So Beth nodded and sat back down as Vexx left and wondered what would happen when the Forgotten Wing soldiers got to her. She hoped they would ask questions rather than torture her. She had heard terrible things of the Titan…but then she had a thought.

If Vexx had told the Forgotten Wing and his people…

Who had Teyis told?




If Vexx was the de-facto head of this town, Teyis was the unofficial one where Selphids were concerned. When they got wind that Vexx had imprisoned Beth, there was trouble.

Beth heard the loud arguments from hundreds of voices outside her cell. Selphids and Lizardfolk in a standoff. Despite being outnumbered, two dozen Selphids were approaching the cell, and the Lizardfolk were nervous.

Rampaging Selphids were a danger on par with Nagas—Vexx, hissing as he and Teyis argued, let Beth come out of the jail to show she was unharmed.

“—This is larger than either of our peoples here, Teyis. Let it be!”

“Not if you turn her over to Maelstrom’s Howling or someone else. She is a Selphid, Vexx. You do not interfere with my people.”

That was before a Gathering Citadel was turned to ash only miles from where we are!

The Naga pointed to the horizon where the smoke still rose from the crater. The Lizardfolk around him had slings and simple spears. Teyis had a steel sword, which made him one of the most well-armed people in the village.

Neither looked like they wanted to fight. They were caught between the giants of their people and obligations—Teyis looked guiltily towards Beth.

“At least she’s well.”

Vexx was offended and twisted his tail into a ball.

“You think I would have harmed her after she saved Calexn? She’s being treated very well. But until a Great Company arrives, she’ll be here. You can visit, Teyis, but—hey. Miss Beth, you are under arrest! Don’t move!”

He twisted around, and everyone tensed up, but Beth ignored Vexx. She had left the two Lizardfolk guards and was currently…tickling a Lizardboy on his foot. He was laughing.

Stop, stop! I can feel it!”

“Good. Remember, you keep your bandages clean and change them. Did anyone else get bitten by the attacks? Is anyone else hurt? Sick?”

She raised her voice, and the Lizardfolk, completely distracted from their standoff with the Selphids, murmured. One of them raised her voice.

“I have a bump on my tail from where a fish bit me. I swear there’s something hard in there, but it’s all healed. It hurts.

“I think I have Yellow Rivers.”

Gaaah! Get away!

They were not the most impressive fighting force in history. Vexx covered his face with one claw in a familiar way. Then he raised his voice.

“Stop interacting with the prisoner! We’re in a standoff with the Selphids—get back in line! You don’t have Yellow Rivers, Extin. Beth, inside!”

She ignored him. Beth was feeling at the yelping Lizardfolk’s tail and grimacing.

“It may well be a tooth. This is a cyst—give me fifteen minutes and I can see what’s in there. But I’ll have to cut into your tail to remove it. I’ll sew it back up, but it will hurt, understand?”

C-cut into—? Can’t you use a potion instead of sewing me up?”

“Do you have one?”

“No…but…it hurts real bad. Maybe I’ll let it stay?”

The Lizardgirl danced on her feet nervously. Beth gave her a stern look.

“It could get worse, and it won’t heal without treatment. I need to borrow your home, Vexx. But let me see the sick person next.”

“What? Absolutely not. My house is not a [Healer]’s clinic.”

The outraged Naga tried to get the Lizardfolk to arrest Beth. But she was diagnosing the Lizardfolk who thought they had Yellow Rivers—they did not. When he tried to push her back into the cell himself, she poked him in the chest with a finger.

“Some of your people need my treatment. I won’t run. I don’t think I’d get far. Do you have any more healing potion?”

“We have [Healers]. Not as fine as you, Miss, but an aching tail and a few rotten teeth are not your job to fix.”

Vexx was annoyed. Beth locked eyes with him and folded her arms.

“It is my job if you’re keeping me here. If anyone else gets hurt, call on me. Because I am the best medical practitioner in this entire region. Now. Where do you keep your soap and how can I boil some hot water? I need linens for another tourniquet too.”

The Naga’s full serpentine glare met Beth’s stony gaze. Beth…was the same woman who had faced down the Minds. The Naga slithered back a step—and then exhaled hard as Teyis grinned at Beth. She winked at the Selphids.




Despite being a ‘prisoner’, Beth left her cell no less than eight times across the next day and a half to minister to people with complaints. And her insistence on being resupplied with medical tools paid off instantly.

When trouble came—it came from the direction of the river again. But this time it wasn’t fish.

It was [Mercenaries].

Lizardfolk were so social that even prisoners in the simple jail could shout and see what was going on. They didn’t believe in locking their people away out of sight and mind. So Beth, if she pulled herself up with her Selphid body’s strength, could see through the simple rusted bars to the muddy street where Lizardfolk tracked in fish from the rivers, harvested sweetberries from bushes, and mingled.

We have wounded. [Healer]! We need a damn [Healer]!

They came in screaming, like a storm, and ran into both Selphids and Lizardfolk. Beth stared out the bars of her cell and saw desperate warriors, many bloody. One had an arrow sticking out of his shoulder, and they were all…

Beastkin? She saw what looked like a Gnoll—only he was shorter, had distinctly lupine features, and grey fur. A pair of Cat Beastkin, spotted, were holding up their paws as Lizardfolk surrounded them with spears.

Which company are you? Lower your blades! Lower your blades—

“Unlock my cell!”

Beth shouted at Vexx. The Naga glanced at her, but she was already trying to bend the metal of her bars. She saw blood—and the [Mercenary Captain] was panting, wild-eyed.

“They tore us up. Greyfur Irregulars. We were just supposed to ambush—they took three different companies apart. Th-th—”

He was in shock. Beth raced out of her cell and triaged.

Half the company looked like they were hurt, but two were so badly wounded they were being carried. One was obvious; a deep sword wound in the gut. The other?

She wasn’t sure what was wrong from a superficial inspection. Beth snapped.

“Put pressure on those bleeding cuts. You—I’ll tourniquet that wound. Get those two inside Vexx’s home and get me any healing potions left in the town!”

“We’re out! I have none to spare, and—my home smells of blood already!”

Vexx threw up his hands, but Beth ignored him. She applied a tourniquet to a cut leg that was losing too much blood, then she was racing into the Naga’s home.

This time, she was in a race against time on multiple fronts. But she had levelled up.

Two patients. The first had a cut along their abdomen from ribcage down to pelvis. Deep, filled with blood, and the Wolf Beastkin wasn’t responsive. The other was a scaled person—but neither Lizardfolk nor Drake. Salamander? They had a curiously flat head and the most lizard-like face of all three species, and they were crying out in agony.

“It’s burning! It’s burning my side—here! It’s in here!”

“What was he hit with?”

“We don’t know! But it’s there—”

A desperate [Mercenary] who’d helped drag the two in pointed, and Beth stared at the smoking flesh. It was…charred in a circle, and she had no idea what was causing it. But she recognized the cause.

Some kind of magic or effect. Her triage told her that the belly-cut Wolf Beastkin would die faster. But whatever was burning the Salamander Beastkin alive would be almost as fast.

So Beth pointed at the Wolf Beastkin as she checked his airways and found they were clear.

“Someone hold him still. I need to—”

Dab away the blood. Then she whispered as she stared at the pulsing blood running out of him.

“[Telekinesis: Bubble]!”

The blood flow stopped. At least, from the largest cuts. Beth concentrated, and one of the [Mercenaries] stared. Even for someone not trained in medicine, the bleeding visibly slowed.

Three, four…

Four bubbles, and Beth’s mind was screaming in pain. But four tiny bubbles of telekinesis appeared, stopping the flow of blood. That was all the Selphid could do.

I need a potion. Someone find me one. Tell Vexx at least one of the patients is going to die right now if I don’t get it. You—hold still. I’m going to have to cut into you, understand?”

The Salamander was on his side as one of his friends cut away his armor. His voice was a rising scream.

“Just cut it out. Get it out, getitout—

She had to figure out what it was. The Wolf Beastkin had more time with the blood flow slowed. Beth reached for a razor blade as she heard a commotion outside.

I saw the fighting. Where are they?

“Stay out! Who are you? Who are—? And who are you, Miss?”

Beth paid no attention to the shouting. She was slicing into flesh, cursing as she realized whatever it was had gone straight past or through a rib.

It wasn’t magic. Now she looked closely, the flesh was literally cauterizing before her eyes. But what could it be? She’d seen the residue of [Fireballs] and flame rain spells, but this? The Salamander was begging her to take it out, and she realized—

The barber’s razor was heating up fast as she cut. It had to be some physical object. Then, as the [Healer] worked desperately, someone spoke.

“[Analysis: Origin of Injury]. That’s no spell. It’s a crossbow bolt. It’s lodged into the flesh. No other pieces of shrapnel, thank goodness. Don’t try cutting it—it’s too hot. Pull it out. Slice the entire area of skin out if you have to!”

Beth jerked up. She stared into two slitted eyes—and then a Lamia was bending over her. A Lamia…wearing a pair of spectacles, who talked like Geneva and had a dagger in her hand. But she pointed, and Beth felt her pulling with her mind.


Help me.

Beth concentrated—and then the two were pulling. The Lamia had found what was burning the Salamander to death.

A tiny piece of shrapnel, the enchanted head still burning with enough flame to cook the Salamander from the inside. They yanked—and a tiny, flaring bit of metal came out of the cooked wound.

Beth jerked aside as it landed, flaring, and stomped with her shoes, crushing the metal and extinguishing the enchantment. Then she looked up.

A Lamia, scales twisting from green to orange across her body, was panting as she ran her hands over the Salamander’s side. An entire section of their flesh was charred. Deep, and they would die from the heat that had killed far too much around their ribs.

Beth needed that potion! The Lamia whispered as Beth dug around.

“Bone shrapnel might be lodged in the soft tissue.”

“I—think I’ve got it out. If we had a potion it would push the shrapnel out of the wound in most cases. But we don’t and the burn—”

“Allow me. It might not be enough. But I can—[A Drop A Day: Potion of Mending]!

A glistening drop fell from her claw tips. Beth’s eyes went round as the Lamia—Lamia-Geneva placed her claws over the wounded Salamander and a drop fell.


Beth caught the drop mid-fall with her mind. Lamia-Geneva turned to her.

“What are you—”

My turn. [Potions: 148% Efficiency]!

It was the Lamia’s turn to goggle. Beth dropped the tiny bit of potion into the wound, and both held their breaths.

Potion of Mending? Most healing potions were called ‘healing potions’ without bothering to identify which it was, aside from cost. But Beth prayed that this…

A drop. But a drop at 148% efficiency was enough.

The charred flesh visibly lightened, and the smell of cooked meat lessened. Beth, exploring the wound, saw healthy flesh reappearing until the burn damage was ‘only’ an inch deep.

Far better, though. The Salamander groaned in relief, and the Lamia was speaking.

“Any other wounds? I didn’t spot any—that shard of shrapnel would have killed him by overheating his body before anything else, but it would have been death regardless in another ten minutes. A deadly—too deadly a weapon.”

A microscopic splinter of killing magic. Beth agreed. It was even worse than an Evercut Arrow—and she thought only one species in the world could manufacture something so deadly, so small. So that told her what this Beastkin mercenary group had run into.


However—that was only the first of two patients. She had to go to the cut Beastkin next. At least that was simpler, if no less dire. At least they could try to do an impromptu blood transfusion if one of the other Beastkin was compatible. They just had to mix the two blood samples. But closing that wound mattered even with her temporary telepathic seals.

Beth’s head rose to the other patient. Then she stopped and stared.

A panting woman with half her face dripping and oozing with wet, semi-transparent, indigo tendrils—like long strands of noodles—or the tendrils of a jellyfish—was standing over the Wolf Beastkin.

Her entire right side of her body was wet, though much of it was covered by clothing. One bright yellow eye without pupils or irises stared out of the Drowned Woman’s face.

The other half was Human. Dark-skinned, fingers dancing as she held the needle sewing the abdomen closed.

The stitching was amazingly precise. Criss-crossing lines of thread, holding the skin together with thread that looked far, far better than the stuff Beth had. The Drowned Woman was also doing something to the Wolf Beastkin’s abdomen.

“What are you doing? The internal bleeding—”

Stopped. Nice bubbles of telekinesis. How did you do that? I was more direct. The venom is hemostatic. I’ve sutured everything closed. [Fast Stitching] and [Upgrade Material: Angler’s Line].

Lamia-Geneva and Beth turned as the Drowned Woman straightened. Then the half-Jellyfish Geneva Scala looked at the two of them as Vexx and the Beastkin [Captain] and Teyis all stopped at the doorway. All three Genevas—former Genevas—looked at each other in a moment of silence. Then, as one, they turned and shouted.

Get out of the operating room!




Three women sat in the jail cell, talking. The Drowned Woman, who called herself Ithaca, and the Lamia-Geneva who still went by ‘Geneva’, were not technically under arrest like Beth.

But this was ironically a good spot for them to talk. They had tended to the other wounded [Mercenaries], and the Salamander and Wolf Beastkin had good chances of surviving. A [Healer] with [Recovering Bedrest] was looking after both, which let the three relax.

They were talking quietly, yet each one was eying the other. And each one was—familiar and different.

Was it their bodies? The cloning process? Or just the different perspectives each shared? The Lamia was the most nervous.

“I—I know it was the Forgotten Wing Company that did this. I cannot understand it. Original Geneva is with the Titan, but his methods are beyond even the Roving Arrow company’s tactics. His people are searching for us. They were searching for me. I saw his people fighting three companies that ambushed him. They cut down their attackers so fast—”

She shuddered. Beth shook her head, troubled, but confused.

“Maybe it’s better if we go with him. If only to spare the fighting. How did you get here, Ithaca?”

The Drowned Woman made a wet, bubbling sound.

“I saw the fighting and split up w—I came running because I didn’t know you two were here. I ran into Leneva here. But I’m not sticking around to join the Forgotten Wing company.”


Lamia-Geneva pulled a face at the name. Beth grinned.

“It suits you. You two ran in when I needed your help. And your Skills! Sewing?”

She looked at Ithaca, and the woman grimaced.

“Weak. [A Drop A Day] is far better.”

Beth nodded.


Then she and Ithaca turned to ‘Leneva’, who raised a claw.

“It may be, but it’s a drop. Your telekinesis…that’s impressive, Beth. And you can add to the effects of potions?”

“For what it’s worth. I started at Level 1. You two as well?”

Both nodded. Leneva slithered to the window, and Ithaca leaned back. She was still dripping; her weak Skills might not be powerful—but her jellyfish nature was.

“I can poison with the tendrils, and they move—although better in water. The real advantage is paralyzing patients or numbing them—or stopping blood loss. I was probably meant for a role in anesthesiology. I’ll take every advantage, but I get dry fast. I wouldn’t even last a day in this cell without needing a lot of water.”

“We can get you some. Vexx isn’t a monster…”

Beth went to call for a guard, but Ithaca got up. She paced over to the cell door, which was unlocked for this meeting.

“No. I’ve got to go. Forgotten Wing is right on top of Leneva and you. If you want to come—I’m heading out.”

“Go with you? Where?”

Both Beth and Leneva were surprised. The Drowned Woman nodded to the window.

Where we’re needed. Tell Geneva if you meet her and the others—we’re dividing up. I met another Geneva, and she’s headed straight for Izril. She…‘fits in’. You two can choose what you’re doing. Great Company, United Nations—but I’m taking off to sea. It’s fitting.”

“To go where?”

Ithaca paused, then looked back.

I’m going to the Eir Kelp Island. One of us has to figure out why the healing potions are gone and synthesize a replacement or do something. Leave it to me. If you don’t hear a replacement for healing potions is out or news in six months, assume I’m dead.”

She looked grimly determined, or maybe it was her body giving that look, but the glowing-eyed woman was already headed to the door. She turned to Leneva.

“Want a ride?”

“I…no. I don’t have an adventure in me. I would rather work with help. That—impromptu operating is insane. These poor Lizardfolk without more than a [Healer] who can give them better bedrest. Someone needs to help them.”

Leneva answered first. Beth was wavering, and something called to her. Ithaca had a plan. The healing potions? Of course! Beth rose.

“I’ll go. If you need backup, Ithaca—I’m your girl.”

The Drowned Woman paused, as if she hadn’t expected either to join her, but then she smiled.

We’ll see if I need it. It might be better to split—got any gold? Let’s—

They were walking towards the door when Beth recalled the guards. The Lizardfolk guards who could listen. A pair of crossed spears tipped with crude iron barred their way.

Hey! No running! Vexx! They’re running for it!”

“Uh oh. Just let me—”

Beth tried to push a spear down. She was strong, as a Selphid, but one of the Lizardfolk surprised her.

“[Leg Sweep]!”

“[Tag Team: Leg Sweep]!”

Both Lizardfolk took Beth and Ithaca down in an embarrassingly easy way. Neither doctor was a fighter—and Beth was afraid to hurt the Lizardfolk who threw themselves on top of her, screaming for backup.

“Stop, don’t hurt them!”

Leneva backed up—though both Lizardfolk weren’t even attacking her. Arguably, she was the strongest of the three without Beth going into a Rampage—and the Lizardfolk looked at her anxiously as a Naga.

But Leneva wasn’t talking to them.

One of the Lizardfolk [Guards] fell over, crying out, and Ithaca got up. Her jellyfish stingers had struck the Lizardfolk in the face!

Do no harm.

Beth’s mouth was open wide with disbelief, and Leneva was horrified. But Ithaca just pushed herself up.

“Sorry. Beth, are you—”

She dodged back as the other Lizardfolk swiped a spear at her. Then the Drowned Woman was running. Beth tried to heave the Lizardfolk off her. She got out the door of the prison—just in time for eight Lizardfolk to dogpile her.

Ithaca was running, though. Lizardfolk poured out of the village as the Drowned Woman ran for the river. Vexx stormed out of his home, shouting.

Stop them! The Forgotten Wing company wants all of them! But don’t harm them either!

The Lizardfolk had a hard time fulfilling that request. Ithaca’s jellyfish side meant the second Lizardfolk who tried to body check her fell over as well, paralyzed. And if they couldn’t stab or shoot her—

Stop, Geneva Scala.

Vexx surged for Ithaca as Beth watched. The Drowned Woman jerked back, and the Naga was faster, stronger than his kin charging in his wake.

—But he never saw the howling Gnoll woman charging out of the forest until she drop-kicked him. The fourth Geneva slammed into Vexx, and even the huge Naga felt two hundred and something pounds of fur and muscle hitting him.

Then both Genevas were running, running. The Gnoll Geneva pointed a finger back as Vexx writhed upright and spoke.

“[Vine Snare].”

Vines engulfed Vexx, and the two were running for the river. The other two Nagas were too slow to catch them; Teyis and the other Selphids were getting in their way, and Beth and Leneva—stared as two of their own dove into the river and swam for it.

Leneva looked at Beth, and Beth stared back at her. Then—Beth groaned.

“Great. I hope you like reading books.”

They were both under arrest.




After that, Beth and Leneva were only allowed out of the cell to check on the wounded [Mercenaries] under guard. And the Lamia was arrested.

To Beth’s great annoyance, Vexx apologized profusely to Leneva, as if she were the only afflicted party, and the Lizardfolk showered her with food and pillows to make her comfortable.

At least neither had to wait long. As it happened—the group that had done so much damage to the Greyfur Irregulars arrived within forty minutes of Ithaca’s escape.

They came into the town fast, and Beth was once again at the cell window to watch. This time—she heard no shouts for a healer. But she did see the Greyfur Irregulars instantly surrender, throwing down their weapons in terror as a far larger, far better-armed group marched into the town.

Forgotten Wing. A stylized flowing wing made up of three colors, pink, yellow, green, after Three-Color Stalker. What was fascinating to Beth was that this group had a mix of species.

Most companies, including the one she’d been part of, were comprised of one majority species with a few others mixed in. Forgotten Wing really was a mishmash.

You had Centaurs, Dullahans, and yes, even Lizardfolk who looked more serious than their cousins, sweeping the butts of their spears out to keep them at bay. The only species not present was Selphid—for obvious reasons given their errand.

“Naga Vexx? We’ve come to take charge of your prisoner. I recognize the Greyfur Irregulars’ surrender. They will be held under the statutes of war and ransomed or released without harm. Do you have any injured?”

The crisp-sounding Centaur met with Vexx in the street. He nodded as the frightened Beastkin relaxed slightly, and looked around.

“Forgotten Wing will secure this ground, conduct several interviews, and leave, all on the Titan’s personal orders. We hope this will make up for any inconvenience.”

A bag of gold changed hands as a Centaur slowed, saluted, and spoke crisply. Vexx took the gold with a bow and began to count it, unabashed. He glanced to the prison, and Beth glared out the window.

“I hope—you will treat her carefully. She is a [Healer] and saved one of my people, Captain. Also, it is prisoners. There are two…of the woman you seek, I think.”

The Centaur pawed his hoof at the suggestion they might do otherwise. Then he did a double-take.

Two? We will treat them with our utmost respect, on the Titan’s name.”

Then Beth heard a voice.

In the name of Paeth, which endures, we will! A Fraerling’s oath on it too!”

All the Lizardfolk recoiled—then surged closer until the Centaur trotted around, shouting for them to get back. Vexx himself stared, as did Beth, as a tiny Fraerling stared back at all the Tallfolk.

I am Tallguard Cein! Keep back; I am not a toy! On the Titan’s orders!”

He had an amazingly loud voice for such a small man. It seemed the Fraerlings really were working with the Forgotten Wing company—and that Beth warranted one to come with this hundred-man company.

As it turned out, the Titan was no idiot either. The first thing the Centaur and Cein did upon entering the cell was set up a number of devices. Leneva shrank back, but Beth was fascinated.

“You’re the group who attacked the Greyfur Irregulars.”

“Hello, Miss Scala! Misses Scala! That’s correct. Nasty business. I’m glad we ran into you—there are a bunch of mercenary companies that our opponents have hired and more dangerous fighters still lurking about. I hear Jungle Tails has a force moving around us. How’d they get here so fast?”

Cein saluted Beth as the Centaur grimaced. But he bowed to both—Leneva’s voice was hostile.

“You massacred them.”

“They ambushed us, in point of fact, Miss Scala. We defended ourselves and rendered aid to the survivors. But that is Baleros. Should I call you Miss Scala? Or do you have another name…?”

“That’s Leneva, I’m Beth.”

The Selphid introduced both of them. Leneva had folded her arms and was glowering at Cein. Both she and Beth had instantly guessed who had injured the Salamander. But Beth was more understanding, at least in terms of the Fraerling defending himself.

The little man was busy setting something up, at any rate. He called out.

“Listening spells—down! Let me set up our own advanced truth stones…can someone secure that window?”

Tallguard Cein gave the Centaur Captain orders, and the Centaur rolled his eyes as six Lizardfolk ran to do the bidding of the Fraerling.

“Yes, yes, Tallguard. As you will. Just remember we are equivalent in rank. The window is secured already; I have a [Bubble of Silence] spell up.”

“Not in technology! And I will thank you to remember that damn birds and cats can go through that window. I don’t fancy having to stab one to death.”

The Tallguard had a fascinating device so small Beth had to squint to see it. It looked like a truth stone—if you wired it up to something akin to a diorama of the solar system. A single truth stone hung in the center with numerous other ones hanging at points around it. The entire contraption began to float and revolve as the Fraerling grunted.

“There. It’s only a five-layer; we don’t have the old magic. But it should pass even Selphid mental games.”

“So you can fool ordinary truth stones?”

The Centaur seemed as fascinated as Beth. The Fraerling shrugged.

“It’s just a Tier 3 [Detect Truth] spell. Of course you can beat it. This could probably be overwhelmed by Tier…6 magic? Tier 7 if you’re not a specialist? But it has multiple stones that detect different types of lies. This one’s intention. This one’s factual. This one is emotion—see how she’s fascinated? And worried.”

He tapped some of the hanging stones, pointing to a color cheat-sheet he had. Then the Tallguard caught Beth’s eye and saluted.

“Don’t you worry, Miss Selphid! Answer our questions fairly and we will not harm you, despite what occurred at the citadel! I am Tallguard Cein of Reton—”

“—And I am Captain Yameth of the Forgotten Wing company, in charge of this company. Our orders are to conduct a brief questioning then take you—safely—to our headquarters.”

The Centaur broke in. He had dusky blonde hair, and he and the fiery-haired Cein glowered at each other before both turned to the Selphid and Lamia.


“Beth. Elizabeth Scastein.”

“…You may call me ‘Leneva’. I suppose that’s as good a name as any.”

Both Geneva-clones watched as the stones lit up, changing to a multitude of colors…mostly red. Her emotions were violet with worry, and Cein stared at the truth stone.

“Wow. That’s a wild reading.”

“A lie.”

Yes…they’re factually lying, but they sort of believe it here, see? And they’re uncertain here—let’s try that again, Miss Selphid. Name?”

“I…that’s the only name I’m comfortable giving you.”

Cein inspected the truth diorama again.

“Factual—she’s worried, and that’s true for some reason. Partly, but—hold on, let me check if this thing is broken. I kiss cats for fun!”

The stones lit up, and he muttered as he checked each one against a chart.

“Nope. Same result. Okay, let’s proceed.”

The Fraerling glanced up at the Tallfolk and their stares and snapped.

“It’s a good statement because it’s nuanced! I kissed a cat one time on a dare. You think it’s funny? You kiss a maniacal killing machine eight times your size and see how it ends up!”

The Centaur covered a smile. Then he turned serious.

“Let’s go with Beth first. Asking too many questions is above what I’m here for. The Titan only wants to know a few things until we take you to him for actual questioning. And I will assure you that you are not going to be tortured.”

The truth stones lit up in reassuring ways for Beth as the Centaur spoke. Yameth pawed at the ground for a second, took a breath, then stared at her seriously. His hands twitched towards the shield and sword hanging at his side.

“Answer each question with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, please. Then we’ll clarify. Question one. Were you in any way complicit with the breaching of the Minacien Wall?”


Cein noted the crystals and wrote something briefly. He nodded at Yameth. The Centaur went on.

“Are you beholden to the Minds or part of their organization in any way?”

“No. I’m not.”

Slightly different lights. Yameth nodded once more.

“Then—do you have information on what happened at the Citadel that any interested parties would find useful?”

“…Yes. But I would like to talk with the Titan or someone in charge, please.”

The Centaur glanced at Cein. The Tallguard made a show of inspecting the colors, then looked up.

“Well, you’ll get your wish, Miss Beth. A tiny bit of involvement on the Minacien Wall question, Yameth, but it’s all guilt. I say we take her in nicely. This time, Miss Leneva.”

They turned to the Lamia, and the other doctor frowned.

“I am not party to any unethical medicine. Nor do I wish to be a captive of the Forgotten Wing company. I would like to go on my way, please. Peacefully.”

Cein studied the truth stone as Yameth frowned at her.

“That’s not my call to make, Miss Leneva. Speaking of which…what’s this about a third one of you? Four?”

He had just been told by one of his subordinates about Ithaca. Beth hadn’t said anything, and Leneva scoffed.

“I don’t know if she’s one of us.”

The truth stone flashed, and Cein sprang up.

That’s a lie. Damn, a third? No one spotted her—let’s move!”

The Centaur nodded.

“Agreed. Sparrow Company, secure the town. I want guards on all exits—seal that damn window—and Tallguard Cein will take command. I’m going after those two, but we have foreign opposition. Tell the Titan we need a flying carpet or a full Centaur escort. And reinforcements on our position.”

Two Lizardfolk rushed out the door, and Beth looked between the two.

“You’re taking me to the Forgotten Wing company?”

Ceil saluted.

“That’s right, Miss. Safely, securely—and believe me, you want us to do it, not Maelstrom’s Howling or the Iron Vanguard. We’re going to wait until someone faster or more forces arrive. Precautions. It shouldn’t take until tomorrow, even; we’ve got flying carpets in the area, though the Titan might want a full escort.”

Cein hopped up onto Yameth’s shoulder as a Lizardfolk outside called for a ladder and some wood to board up the window. It seemed like this company was prepared to hold Beth here safely.

As it happened—and as Beth, Leneva, and Geneva in general was entirely used to—things never worked out quite so smoothly.




It was just past sunrise, and Yameth was wide awake. He would leave, patrol the town, and trot back in, and each time, Cein, the Tallguard, would swing up his crossbow slightly, though he never aimed at the Centaur.

Beth couldn’t sleep, though Leneva had managed to—mostly by putting a pillow over her head and curling up like a snake in a corner of the cell.

Yameth hadn’t managed to find either Ithaca or the Gnoll-Geneva’s trail from the river, and he hadn’t pursued them far. He looked annoyed by his failure, but he was clearly wary of something out there. He glared as Cein shifted with his crossbow in hand as he came through the doorway.

“You make my [Dangersense] tingle every time you do that.”

The Centaur snapped at the Tallguard the eighth time it happened. It was probably around seven o’ clock if Beth were reading Cein’s watch right.

Both had been up all night. The Tallguard checked his timepiece and shrugged.

“I’m not going to embarrass my city. Technically, you shouldn’t be patrolling like that. You leave yourself open to being sniped, and it means you might get ambushed.”

The Centaur rolled his eyes.

“That’s fair if I wasn’t a Centaur; trap me in a room and I’m in danger. I need to stretch my legs, and checking on our forces matters. Second, moving in a typical patrol often lulls idiots into attacking. I trot the exact same path every hour like some kind of braindead Golem. You wouldn’t believe how many people try to sneak up on the Forgotten Wing’s officers and take us out. They never see our [Rogues] waiting for them.”

“Oh. Is that why the [Sentries] look so vulnerable?”

The Captain snorted.

“You haven’t seen the [Rogues], then. Advance companies like ours have as many as eight. Ambush and counter-intelligence specialists. Three-Color Stalker trains some of them. I swear, I’m always nervous I’m going to bump into one of them when I use the latrines.”

Both he and Cein looked around, and the Tallguard triggered something on his side. What looked like tiny lines of light flashed around the cells, and he swore.

“I don’t sense anything! My wards are great at spotting enemies sneaking up on me. You sure?”

Hey, who’s the rogue on my ass?

Yameth barked into the cell. Beth stared about—then she heard a loud sigh.

Captain…the Titan has a bet going on how many of the Tallguards on assignment spot us. You just invalidated your Tallguard.”

Both Yameth and Cein jumped as a grumpy-looking Lizardwoman sat up. She was one of the eager Lizardfolk [Guards], who had appeared to be snoozing against the wall. Yameth pointed.


Cein swore a bit as he eyed the [Rogue], who shot Beth a quick glance.

“All’s quiet? Where’s our damn escort, and why’s it taking so long?”


Yameth responded. He jerked a thumb at his chest.

“Not me—but Maelstrom’s Howling is in the forests. They’re…casually patrolling around. We think they want to jump any Selphid or people they find. And believe me, a Centaur blitz on our lines will not be fun. There’s also Jungle Tails. Somehow, they hired those mercenaries to jump us. We think they have a force skulking around the area—hence my inability to pursue those other two Genevas at will.”

“Great. Odds they know these two are in town?”

“Vexx assured me that he only told us, which means he probably only told some other Nagas. There’s Selphids in town—and this is a Lizardfolk town.”

“So they might be coming in any minute.”

The Fraerling finished. Yameth tossed his head.

“Not if they know what’s good for them. We have tripropes spread out across this town. We’re not some rookie company—we’re an elite group. They’re invisible, and Maelstrom’s Howling knows that the Titan is not playing foal-games here. They charge in? Poor bastards are going to break all four legs. We’re waiting on a flying escort.”

“I hope it won’t come to violence. I’ve had enough of that.”

Beth spoke up, and Cein and Yameth turned to her. Both looked slightly amused by her statement as the [Rogue] settled back to ‘sleep’.

“Fighting like this is a way of life in Baleros, Miss Selphid. Fraerlings and Tallfolk—if it’s not each other, it’s monsters.”

“I am sick of it. I will not participate. Nor do I want to be an object to be fought over. Leneva’s the same.”

Beth held their gazes. Yameth opened his mouth slowly.

“If you are a [Healer]—and the Titan himself has been in touch with me, Miss Beth—I think you will have your chance to do good. He may be a tricky monster, but the Titan is not an idiot. He—”


The Fraerling snapped and aimed his crossbow up so fast that Beth didn’t see what he had spotted for a good second. Yameth’s sword cleared his scabbard, and the [Rogue] snapped.

Magical spell on us! Sparrow Company, all stations!

Lizardfolk leapt up, and Yameth stepped back as the tiny crossbow aimed at—

A young woman. She had hazel eyes and brunette hair. And she was sitting in a wheelchair. She rolled through the wall of one of the iron cells as Yameth shouted.


“It’s a projection. We’re made. Who is—wait a second.”

Cein shouted as the young woman stared blankly at Beth’s face. Then…Beth recognized her, and her lips moved. Leneva sat up—and the groggy Lamia focused on Erin. Then her eyes opened wide, and she breathed the name before Beth.

“Erin Solstice?”

Leneva whispered, and the apparition of the [Innkeeper] blinked. She looked around, as if studying the cell or…something Beth couldn’t see. Then she frowned a second at Beth—then someone to Beth’s right—then said in a hesitant voice.

“Are you…Geneva Scala? Hey, Niers. I levelled.”

The [Healer] felt a sudden chill roll down her spine. Yameth’s head rose, and he stared at Erin, then Beth and Leneva. Then…

A strange call began.




The Earther call with Geneva Scala included Geneva Scala.

All of her. They were silent throughout. Beth, in her cell, just listened, eyes wide, trying to piece together everything. But unlike a lot of Earthers focused just on Erin and the conversation—on her end, she was staring at the other Genevas. And they…and much of the focus was on her.

All of hers. Cein was whispering to Yameth, keeping his voice low so as not to intrude on the main conversation. The Centaur was reporting to someone via speaking stone.

Yes, we are in the cell—do you want her moved? The projection might track us—we are made! No contacts yet!

Meanwhile, the Tallguard was staring at the other Genevas.

“That one. That one…Tallguard Cein to Iuncuta Eirnos. Sweep the river. The one we’re at is, uh—I think they called it Toothwater Maw? Sweep up it. I’m staring at a beach of some kind. You’re looking for a pair of Genevas. One’s a Jellyfish Drowned Woman, the other’s a Gnoll.”

Beth focused on the one he was talking about and saw—

Geneva Scala. Ithaca and the Gnoll woman standing side-by-side. That Geneva focused on her, and the two traded looks. Ithaca nodded, and the Gnoll woman raised a paw.

I see you.

Then they were running. Beth wished them the best. Leneva hesitated as Yameth and Cein strode past their cells. She hesitated, biting her lip, glaring at them. Beth was more direct.

She stuck out a foot, and Yameth tripped. Beth, in turn, nearly had her foot kicked off by the hoof. Yameth almost slammed into the ground—then turned and glowered at Beth. She raised her hands as Cein caught himself.

Whoa—Tallfolk almost went down. Sorry, the prisoners aren’t happy. What’s our order, Iuncuta?”

Beth rubbed at her foot, feeling the skin was damaged as she sat in the cell. Leneva gave her a mildly horrified look.

“You could have broken his legs if he toppled over.”

“We’re doctors. He’ll live. Do you want Ithaca to get away or not?”

“Of course I do, but what about ‘do no harm’?”

“I’m allowed to trip people. I always thought I was being a bit of a holier-than-thou prat, honestly, talking about it like I couldn’t harm a fly.”

“Don’t say ‘holier’. Remember?”

“Oops. Sorry.”

Yameth and Cein ignored the back-and-forth as they waited for orders. The Tallguard heard a terse report eight minutes later and shot to his feet.

“I need a squad. Now.

“Take two. Go, go! [Haste Formation]!

Yameth was still giving orders, but the Tallguard was out the door like a shot, the [Rogue] with him. Beth could only sit there with Leneva.

Erin Solstice’s message did not go unnoticed by her. But as it was finishing and she slowly disconnected—everything else seemed to crystalize around Beth in one moment. Things went south fast.

Contacts! Back to the town! Back, back! They’re coming in now! Two sides!

“Maelstrom’s Howling and Jungle Tails! I count Nagas—thirty of them—where did they—”

A rush of voices. The door slammed open, and Yameth raised his sword and then shoved past someone who skidded into the cells. Cein appeared, crossbow empty, as he fired something outside. And then?

Leneva was clinging to the bars as Beth climbed to the window. The prison shook as horns began to blare. Leneva shouted at Cein.

“What’s going on?”

“Two Great Companies are attacking us! Keep your heads down. Someone get that cell open! Beth, get out of the window if you don’t want an arrow through your face!”

Cein snapped. He leapt to one of the prison windows, cut a hole in the wood boarding it, and began to fire through. Leneva spoke in a rush to Beth as the Selphid dropped.

“Beth, I’m so sorry. Ithaca and her friend, you—she’s right. We have to go where we’re needed. And if each one of us takes a place and people—but I did not want this. No matter what, we have to tell them to stop this madness of fighting and death.”

Something about the way she talked…Beth hesitated.

“What are you talking about? Leneva? The Forgotten Wing Company isn’t evil.”

The Lamia was staring out the door. Beth heard a shout.

Gorgon! Gorgon coming in—

How had Jungle Tails gotten here so quick? Maelstrom’s Howling was fast, and this Gathering Citadel bordered their territory. But Jungle Tails? Even if they had been told by Vexx…why were the mercenaries already in place? Baleros wasn’t a hop and a skip to get an entire fighting force right here, and Niers Astoragon had taken everyone by surprise. Even if a few days had passed…

Leneva looked at Beth, dead serious.

“Is any Great Company good or evil or just part of this bloodletting, Beth? They’ve committed so much horror. Too much. And this death. I am sick to death of it. I would rather someone capture me and let me just heal. But not the Titan. If we are to be split up—I thought—”

She had Beth’s hands in her own, and though the Selphid could not feel them, she saw Leneva’s determined, nervous expression. Her hands were…shaking as one of the [Mercenaries] unlocked the cell door. Beth was struck for a second.

You told them where we are.”

Cein’s head slowly rotated, and Leneva backed up as the Lizardfolk guards froze.

“I didn’t know you were here. I wanted them to pick me up. They’ll listen to me, I hope. Beth—this is my fault.”

Already, she could hear the screams of pain outside. Leneva just shuddered as she turned.

“No more. An end to it. I’m tired of this entire continent.”

She whispered, and Beth realized she was holding something, clutching it to her chest. She had taken it from a bag of holding. Yameth pointed at Leneva.

Stop her—

But it was no weapon. The Lamia offered it to Beth.

“Here, Beth. You can use this better in the Forgotten Wing company, I think.”

The Selphid gasped as she saw what it was.

“What is that? How did you steal—?”

The Lamia held it out as the Selphid took hold of it. The other [Doctor] whispered.

“The others died because they ran ahead. I hung back to find it. We must do one good thing in this world, you understand, Beth? This was worth my life. N—”

The wall blew in, and Beth fell over. The shockwave of sound and light overwhelmed her senses, and she clutched the object to her chest as she fell. She felt not the pain of the wall coming in—but she was shocked, afraid—and when her vision cleared and she found a huge slab of stone on her chest, she shoved it off her.

Then she realized those lightscars from the citadel still hadn’t quite vanished. The permanent damage to her retinas made seeing in the dust harder after the flash that had reactivated the wounds. She looked up—and the Lamia was shouting.

Stop! Stop! Don’t kill them! I’m here! Don’t—

Cein nailed a Naga through the enchanted breastplate. The Naga fell over; a Gorgon leapt through the door.

He had a buckler in hand and deflected the second crossbow bolt, tiny as it was. He reached out—

And Leneva took his hand. The Gorgon raised a stone as he dropped his buckler, and the two flashed.

They vanished in a blaze of light. Beth stood there, holding the item Leneva had given her, and the fighting—


Lizardfolk wearing the insignia of a lizard’s tail were fighting the Forgotten Wing Company in the streets. But they were being hacked down as their suicidal rush into the cells left them open to—

A Centaur charge. Maelstrom’s Howling came forwards in fury, Centaurs shooting arrows into both sides’ backs and then lancing the Nagas from behind. One broke into the prison as Cein dropped his crossbow and drew a sword. He leapt, a grappling hook swinging him down towards a Centaur.

—However, the Centaur saw the miniscule Fraerling, twisted, and caught the struggling Tallguard in a flash of movement. He seemed to stutter-step forwards in a blur—and Yameth went down, a spear in his hindquarters, and two Lizardfolk fell, screaming from wounds in their legs.

He was a high-level commander. The Centaur focused on Beth and cursed as the Selphid retreated.

“Only one of the two. Maelstrom, we ride!

He grabbed at her, and she fought him as Cein cursed and went limp as the Centaur squeezed. He had her! She was shouting, protesting.

Not again! Stop! I will not let you—

She went to punch him, to force him to let go before he killed the Fraerling. In reply, the Centaur raised a hand as he yanked her off her feet, and the Selphid felt a blow across her neck that should have knocked her out. But she was a Selphid, and it only disoriented her. The Centaur noticed it, grabbed her head, and sighed.

“You have to break their necks—”

He cracked her neck, and all her nerve-connections snapped. Beth could only stare out her corpse’s eyes as her body went limp. The Centaur heaved her up, then frowned. He twisted around in a blur of quick steps—aimed his spear up.

“…What was that?”

The Centaur looked right, left—then narrowed his eyes. Beth, lying on the floor, heard voices.

Just fell over—

Gas attack? Magic? Watch th—

She heard the thud of bodies falling, and the Centaur slowly rotated on his hooves. He waited as the sounds of fighting slowed, and someone shouted.

I see them! Selphids! Sel—

Then they went down. To what, Beth could not say. But the Centaur waited. He sidled over, giving whomever was out there no view of his body, and waited. If they came, he would kill them. Beth saw his eyes rotate, scanning for intruders. Then she felt the faintest presence of…

She had been taught to use telepathy. If she concentrated, Beth could sense the Centaur, the unconscious minds around her; some wounded, but many just unconscious. Yet it seemed to her like there was one more presence responsible for this sudden silence. 

And it was creeping in via one of the tiny windows. So stealthily the Centaur never noticed it. Then he whirled and mid-curse as he raised the spear—hesitated.

“What the? A duck?

He threw, and the spear snapped in the air. Then the Centaur’s eyes rolled up, and he collapsed slowly. He fell over, and Beth rolled over and saw one of the agents of the Minds. Then she heard it.


She stared up—and a duck slowly fluttered into the cell. It landed on the ground and pecked at the floor. Beth…just stared at it. Stared, and stared—until the duck looked at her—and she pieced it together.

It looked like a duck. It quacked like a duck. Until you realized that the ‘quacking’ sound was just in your head. Then…you might see it, past the artifice it projected into your mind.

The smallest Mind in the entire world, a little orb two-thirds the size of a soccer ball, floated over to her.

The Duck regarded Beth, then spoke to her.

“I am sorry, Geneva Scala, you were put in the body of one of us. We have done terrible things. This little Mind has come to make amends.”

She stared at it and wondered what fate had in store for her next. She waited for the Duck to summon its minions and spirit her away. But the mini-Mind just floated there.

“What are you going to do to me?”

Beth whispered. For reply, the image of the duck in her head pecked at the ground, and the Duck answered.

“I don’t know. I just hit things and unlock doors. I guess the Forgotten Wing company will get here soon? I hope so. I’m not a big thinker, you know. I’m the Duck. All my Selphids are [Rogues] and [Psychics].”




The Duck was part of a Named-rank team called Fowl Play. And yes…it had chosen the name. The Selphids in the team varied, but they were generally at least Level 30. A team of six in current standing—but the peculiarity of the team was they had a mascot.

Their famous duck. It looked like an ordinary mallard with a green head and speckled dark wings, and it would survive every monster encounter, raid, or whatever they did. People would pet the duck, feed it, and rumors abounded that Fowl Play replaced the poor duck, but it was a good luck charm.

The truth, of course, was that this Selphid team was being carried by the duck itself. And the ‘Duck’ was, in fact, the smallest Mind ever to be made.

Eighteen Selphids. Not hundreds. Eighteen individuals, or rather, nine [Rogues], nine [Psychics] had combined to become the most specialized Mind in the world.

The Duck, as it liked to call itself, did not ponder any mysteries of the world. It did not try to solve issues of the Selphids. The Duck claimed it was fairly unintelligent, in fact, and did one thing really well: open locks.

“~I can find any trap, I can unlock any door. I sacrificed my intelligence for so much more ♬. If you need wisdom, find someone else! But if you want to open a treasure chest, I’m the best!”

It also sang. Because so few Selphids went into the Duck, its personality was no gestalt of many perspectives—it was an adventurer, a thrill-seeker.

And right now, it was singing as it floated down the hallways of one of the most famous landmarks in Baleros. That was, namely, the capital of the Forgotten Wing Company.

Elvallian. Beth walked with the floating Duck—the rest of its company was being treated as guests as the two were led forwards by the highest-level [Mercenaries] she had ever met. Tallguard Cein and Captain Yameth were following, eying the ‘Duck’, whom they still saw as fowl fluttering around.

But the voice and identity of the Duck unnerved them. The Duck was amazingly careless with its identity—or it seemed to realize the time for secrecy was over.

They had just disembarked from the flying carpets that had arrived to secure Beth and the prison—but not Leneva, who had vanished with Jungle Tails. The Duck had knocked out everyone fighting and allowed Beth to be…saved?

She wasn’t sure. Was this what she wanted? Beth didn’t know, but the Selphid—both Selphids, actually—walked ahead as the doors opened, and the carpeted hallway high up in the academy led them to their fate. The person Beth first saw, pacing in a conference room beyond was—

Geneva Scala.

The Last Light of Baleros stopped when she saw Beth. Her eyes went wide. She recoiled, and Beth knew she had to be seeing the image of the Mind-Geneva upon her.

“I—I’m not her. I’m just me.”

That was the first thing the Selphid said. Then she held up what was in her hands. What the Lamia had given her.

“I’m not sure what’s happening. But I brought this.”

Geneva stared at her, face white—and then her eyes slowly focused on what Beth held. It was—

A microscope. The microscope, in fact, that the Sixth Mind had made for her. It was damaged, scorched, and waterlogged from Leneva’s escape, but she had carried it out, and the artificial creation still glimmered with magic.

“You rescued it?”

“One of us did. Someone has to keep researching the Wasting. And that someone might be me. After all—I’m a Selphid now.”

And I am the Duck! Salutations, Geneva Scala! The Minds—the other Minds—have sent me to repent for our mistakes!

The Duck chirped, and Geneva recoiled from it as she realized what it was. Her face went paler, and she stepped back.

“You stay back. You—who are—Geneva?”

“Beth. Elizabeth Scastein.”

It sounded worse every time she tried it out, but Beth said it to make Geneva feel better. She knew how she had to be feeling. She stepped forwards uncertainly and looked at Geneva. Did she see something orange…?

She thought with her mind and reached out and sensed the Selphid there.



Geneva confirmed Beth’s suspicions, and the two stopped. So she was prisoner in her body again? Or had she trusted Okasha after…?

“Who else made it?”

Beth asked. She offered the microscope to Geneva, and the [Doctor] nearly dropped it.


“It’s heavy! Thank you, Okasha.”


The other Selphid had used Geneva to catch it, but Beth hadn’t even realized the cumbersome artifact probably weighed sixty pounds, having a lot of metal in it. Geneva put the microscope on the table, looked at Beth, and seemed lost for words.

“Who else made it? You’re the only other—me I’ve found. The Lamia…I don’t know how many there were. Did you hear where the other two were going?”

Beth shook her head after a second’s pause. She felt instantly guilty, not telling Geneva the truth. But Niers Astoragon led a Great Company. She’d tell Geneva in private about Ithaca’s plan—once the Drowned Woman had a head start.

And like that, I’ve taken a side, even if it’s just me…against me? Beth felt weary now.

“What comes next? What happens now?”

She was so tired. And as if he had been waiting for this moment, because he had been watching, a figure stepped out from behind a cup on the conference table. The Titan glanced up at the Duck and then bowed to Beth as she recoiled.

“That, Miss Beth, is something we must decide. But it will not be against your will. That I promise. No Mind shall ever hold you again. And when I am done with Jungle Tails—no mercenary company either. I promise you that on my company and by the Fraerling cities.”

He tipped his hat to her, and the Duck chirped.

“Yes. No more. We are at your mercy, Titan. Let it be a truer mercy and wiser than the folly of the Minds you saw die. But perhaps it shall be Geneva Scala who decides, for once.”

They looked at each other, then at Geneva as a Squirrel Woman appeared in a seat, scaring Beth again. But then the [Healer] realized she might be safe after all. Which made her…

All the more lost. But then she saw that microscope and saw her path.




“I cede it to you. My name. You have my—our levels. You have our body, our face. You are the Last Light of Baleros—unless one of us wants the title. I’m happy to leave it behind. Call me Beth. I think it’s sticking. The Duck calls me that.”

“How can you stand to be in its presence? It unnerves me. Especially because no one can tell who it is. Even the Titan has trouble unless he concentrates.”

Geneva Scala and Beth Scastein stood in the first thing they had ever been given in the Forgotten Wing company.

A laboratory. It was sparse at the moment and doubled as an operating room and was furnished less-well than the Mind’s setup for them.

Both preferred it more. In fact, there was less call for Geneva’s talents, or Beth’s. The Forgotten Wing company did not lack for [Healers]. Beth was tuning the microscope, frowning at what she saw underneath it.

“I don’t know. Perhaps the Minds made me think I am a Selphid. Or perhaps I’m just acclimatizing to this body. But the Duck is a Selphid. I am one. So let me take on the Wasting. You should go to the United Nations company and the others.”

“You don’t want to come with me? Are you sure?”

Geneva looked troubled. She sat, devoid of Okasha, so the two could talk completely alone. With Beth’s help, she could walk, and her own psychic powers were enough to let her move clumsily around. She would nevermore be completely helpless.

She was more powerful than Beth, as a [Doctor] and as a telekinetic. Beth stared at Geneva for a long moment.

“No. I don’t want to be a pariah. I don’t want their sympathy or to be…I was almost glad of it, Geneva. You have a great burden, and the thought that I—we are no longer alone—”

“—It helps.”

Geneva finished the sentence. They did that, now and then. Thoughts converging the same way, but Beth could sense them differentiating already. Just like how Ithaca had been willing to paralyze the guards and Leneva refused to work with Niers…

This would be a fascinating case-study of a soul or personality splitting across bodies and perspectives. A shame I don’t study that kind of science. But why not?

“Leave the Wasting to me. Tell all the Genevas that. I am a Selphid; it will come after me. I will go amongst our…my people and do what I must.”

“What if the Minds try to force you into something again? Or turn you into a Mind?”

Beth bared her teeth.

“They can try. But I think the Duck is honestly here to avoid that. I would like to believe they understand it is better to leave us alone. Or give us support and not interfere.”

That was, ostensibly, why the Duck was here. It had presented itself to Foliana and Niers, who were rightfully distrustful, with a simple offer. If it was unwelcome, it would leave. But if Geneva Scala or the Forgotten Wing company had need of them, the Duck would be a valuable ally.

“So you’ll handle the Wasting like we promised. Leaving me to…”

Beth carefully tuned the sample slide into focus.

“Go back to the United Nations company. Have a life. Work with Niers Astoragon, but be careful. He’s a dangerous man. No saint.”

“I know. What are you looking at?”

The two Genevas were, ironically, most comfortable with each other. Despite Beth being a Selphid, Geneva treated her like the sister she had never had…which meant the two sort of got on each other’s nerves. Especially because Geneva’s first question to Beth when hearing of the Calexn surgery was whether it had been unethical to use her Selphid body like that—or to subject the Lizardboy to that much trauma and danger with the harvesting of the tissue grafts.

“If I thought it would save his leg, I deemed it ethical, which meant you deemed it ethical. You would have done the exact same thing as me, so I would appreciate not being lectured. You don’t enjoy it, I assure you.”

That was the kind of mind-bending statement they snapped at each other. Still…Beth was glad of the company.

“Selphid cell samples. Those Fraerlings truly did fix up the microscope.”

“It took them a week. I think they were surprised and offended to learn anyone could match their level of innovation.”

Both doctors smiled wryly at each other. Fraerlings, the ones who had descended on the Forgotten Wing company, were…interesting. They were helpful, intelligent, brave, and had a society equivalent to Earth’s on many levels.

But they were also fairly egotistical, the lot of them. Niers Astoragon, naturally, was the archetype of his people in that regard, but he was also fairly compassionate and determined, it seemed, to make Geneva trust him even if that meant giving her space to process.

The Fraerling [Mages] and [Engineers], though, were not at all shy about tooting Fraerling technology. Only to be told, to their chagrin, that Fraerling microscopes were largely inferior to Earth’s.

For a species so small, they seemed to have a blind spot in considering things smaller than them. Repairing the microscope to Beth’s standards had taken a while, but she was back to studying cell cultures.

“Selphid cells. They really are unique.

What Geneva and Beth saw were those distinctly…geometric cells, with the hard cellular walls as opposed to malleable tissue membrane. Long nuclei and such an alien cell structure that it unsettled the two doctors, like sci-fi horror images.

“Hm. It looks like the other samples we’ve seen. Not the Wasting. You can tell; the Wasting appears to break down the cellular walls like ‘cracks’. It’s obvious at a microscopic level, and even the metabolic one. This Selphid’s healthy.”

Geneva murmured out loud, running her observations by herself. Beth snorted lightly.

“I should hope so. It’s me.”

Geneva’s head snapped up, and she regarded the young woman—who had faintly green hair and darker skin. New body, same Beth. She had limited taste, and the body was in mint condition; her old one had been falling apart, and the joys of taste, touch, and yes, smell again, were so apparent to her in their absence.

Although this body had a slight problem with the nose. It was like having shoes that didn’t quite fit until you got used to them.

“I’m studying my own cells, and I’ve pestered other Selphids for samples. Here. Stained. The Fraerlings can even dye cells.”

She provided Geneva with eight more samples, which the doctors inspected. Geneva, frowning, went from slide to slide, then stepped back, put her head back, and, raising her glasses, pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Are you sure you want to continue this, Beth? Because I have a headache already; there’s variance in some of these slides; two look like they have Galas-muscle or whatever the equivalent in Selphids is.”

“That’s probably one of the Selphid [Commanders] and the Duck.”

Geneva had observed that without even reading the slide samples, confirming the fact that nuclei changed colors or seemed to even grow with additional genetic information or magic when they achieved Galas-functionality. The [Doctor] made a face.

“Yes—but none of these samples indicate any way the Wasting is combatted. And we have looked at hundreds, probably over a thousand Selphid samples with no conclusive data.”


Beth smiled slightly as she put her knees to her chest and sat on one of the tables. She felt nimble, and the one benefit of the Selphid’s body was the ability to run, jump, and do whatever she pleased. She could feel the tension in the muscles, but as long as she didn’t snap any—

Geneva watched Beth in a far more static pose—then she levitated up slightly so she could cross her own legs. Her mind was powerful, but she seemed weary.

“…You’re hiding something.”

Beth’s smile slipped.

“You sensed that. It wasn’t on my face.”

She accused the Human, and the [Doctor] raised her hands.

“Guilty as charged. I cannot stop it, Beth. I can sense—mischief. You—have you figured out something about the Wasting?”

“Leave it to me. I am intending to go to the Dyed Lands. Or rather, a few Selphids are being rotated out from the front there. I believe that if our conclusion to the Minds was accurate—we will find in their cells a hint that a cure to the Wasting is there. But I have a hypothesis…”

“Tell me.”

Geneva focused on Beth, squinting, trying to figure out what the Selphid had learned. She seemed irked by the possibility she had fallen behind herself. But it was a conclusion only Beth could come to. Mischievously, the Selphid smiled.

“It’s only a hypothesis…I wouldn’t want to taint your conclusion with my half-baked data.”

“Beth, I swear to you, I have sworn to harm no patients. But I will kick myself.”

Geneva Scala got up in such excitement she would have shaken Beth—but without Okasha, she had to sit back down hard. Beth relented and leaned over to Geneva.

“I am basing my analysis not on empirical data, but limited observation as a member of the species, Geneva. It may be that I am completely wrong. But if I am right, the question of why Selphids waste away no longer becomes an open one. Nor can it be attributed to malice on another species’ part. At least, I do not believe so.”

“Becoming a Selphid gave you insight into their biology? What? What is it?”

Geneva focused on Beth like lightning to a lightning rod, and the Selphid smiled.

“I imagine because it is a normal thing to Selphids—none of them notice it at all. It is a unique conclusion only born from a Human perspective in a Selphid body. The Mind-Geneva—Evil-Geneva might not have even realized it since the Minds created her.”

The [Doctor] shuddered, but then she leaned over.

“What is it?”

Beth looked herself in the eyes, then nodded. She reached up to adjust her spectacles—then remembered she didn’t wear any.

“Since I have been—created—it has been about two weeks. Two weeks, and I have been cared for quite well. The first few days of surviving were tough, but I’ve been fed, clothed, given a new body, and do you know what, Geneva?”


The [Healer] whispered to herself, a stunning conclusion. A suspicion that put the Wasting in a new context.

“I ate ants on my first real day of wakefulness. Then food. Teyis thought I was ill. Then, when I got here, I gorged myself until I was sick. I can’t eat as much as you, not with a Selphid body—it just gets stuck. But I ate and ate, Geneva, until I was beyond sated. And do you know why? I feel so hungry.

She smiled wider, and Geneva Scala’s pale yellow-brown eyes snapped up, like a cat’s eye stone in themselves, and the conclusion hit her at the same time. It was not the satiety of food that Beth craved. Or if it was, it was no food she could eat, and she had eaten such a variety that even Foliana had wondered if she had too diverse a palette.

Nor might a Selphid who felt this all their lives realize how odd it was. But Beth, a Human—felt it.

A craving. Selphids were hungry.

But—for what?




She was not Geneva Scala. That was a kind of mental refrain going through Beth’s head. It was—uncomfortable seeing her face and seeing the mind behind it—and the unease with which Geneva looked at Beth.

It made the Selphid feel like a parasite. But by the same token, she realized she really didn’t envy Geneva at all.

“Doctor Scala. I have eight questions for you today from my city. Ten from the others. Here’s a handy list—but would you have time to talk over your answers? The experts keep coming back with questions and clarifications.”

“I can do that. Who am I speaking to?”

Iuncuta Eirnos pulled a huge face as she accosted Geneva over breakfast. Niers rolled his eyes.

“That would be me. Privacy reasons. We have volunteers who might fly out just to meet you. Which would be a pain to organize security and training for those cityfolk who’ve never seen a beetle in the wild and think they’ll eat out of your hand.”

Fraerlings were fascinating. They were the only people who ‘got’ what Beth and Elizabeth were doing and were thusly impressed by the [Doctors].

And unsettled.

The amusing thing was that in a world of healing magic and potions, the more magic you had, the more barbaric the idea of delving into the body and the brutality of cutting, even breaking bones to suture and stitch flesh together, were.

Fraerlings hadn’t forgotten [Restoration] existed. True, they didn’t have full-scale access to the spell, but Beth felt like they treated her and Geneva like [Saw Doctors] from the old parts of her world’s history.

She didn’t blame them, but there was nuance to her opinion. Niers Astoragon coughed as he looked at Eirnos.

“I can give you an hour of Geneva’s time, Eirnos. But after that, I really do need her.”

“For what, Titan?

The one-eyed woman was not impressed with his titles. Foliana, sitting between the two, leaned out of the way of the two Fraerlings locking horns as she nibbled on a moldy mushroom.

“Three-Color Stalker, that’s really not good for your health.”

“Miss Foliana, that’s likely to make you sick—”

Geneva and Beth both spoke at the same time. They glanced at each other, surprised both by their overlap—and the fact they’d said different things. Beth had spoken first and more authoritatively.

Niers and Eirnos focused on the mushroom, and both recoiled. Did you think mushrooms couldn’t get moldy? This one had growth on the growth…and it was wet. In a state of decay.

Foliana was gagging a bit, But she forced the mushroom down.

“Someone likes it. I think. Yuck. Yuck.”

It was difficult to even watch. Eirnos lifted one eyebrow, grimacing.

“Can’t you eat something else?”


The Squirrel was the leader of a Great Company, and no one could gainsay her, not even Niers. The Titan shot back at Eirnos as if he were used to watching his companion endure food poisoning.

“She’s teaching my [Healers], Eirnos. You can send Fraerlings to watch and learn too if you wish. An hour and twenty-two minutes from now.”

“As opposed to teaching Fraerlings, Titan? Who’s better placed to understand what the good [Doctor] is saying?”

He rolled his eyes.

“Tallfolk need her expertise more, and we are in a position to mass-produce her tools and concepts. Fraerlings need little; even with the Eir Gel shortage, one bottle of the damn stuff will hold over a Fraerling settlement for ages. Actually, we have two [Doctors]. Miss Beth, would you consent to…?”

Reminded of Beth, the two Fraerlings turned to her just in time to see the [Healer] close her eyes and flick a finger.

The mushroom Foliana was nibbling on shot out of the Squirrel Beastkin’s paws. Foliana blinked at it, but she was so nauseated she only made a half-hearted attempt at a grab. The mushroom spun past a [Servant], who recoiled—and straight out the window.

Niers, Eirnos, Geneva—and the [Servant] with a second course of fly agaric mushrooms, the red, spotted shroom that looked like the archetype of all poisons—all stared at Beth with a kind of horror. Foliana’s eyes narrowed.

Beth pointed and, with a mental push, sent the other shroom flying out the window too. Three-Color Stalker caught it in a simple leap.

“Stop that. I’m eating.”

“That is literally poisonous to your digestion. As a doctor, I forbid you to eat it.”

Foliana opened her mouth with the mushroom’s red cap in it. She stared at Beth, perplexed.

“I’m Three-Color Stalker. Mm. I own…this. Everything.”

She gestured around the entire palace. Beth pulled with her mind, but the Squirrel-Woman was too strong. Foliana closed her mouth—then drooled on a bubble of force.

A telekinetic bubble. The Duck, the mini-Mind, had claimed that psychic shapes were useful, akin to how [Mages] had ice-walls. This one was fragile. Foliana poked it twice, then clapped her paws and imploded it.

The explosion of mental force made Niers wince, but he was patently fascinated. Eirnos just rubbed at her temple.

“Telepaths. Great. I thought only Fraerlings were experts. And Selphids.”

Niers snorted.

“Beth is a Selphid now. All the Genevas have picked up the ability—that’s something else to see if we can steal. It’s obviously possible. Not everything our kind does is superior, Iuncuta. With that said—Beth, Foliana is trying to backtrace a monster. We’re reasonably sure it eats mushrooms, but it’s also killing people. One of the Yellow monsters from the Dyed Lands.”

He grimaced.

“We need a better word for that. Not yellow. Sunrise Yellow? Something classy.”

Foliana watched the mushroom tug in her grip. It was a weaker tug than Geneva could produce. Even with her [Doubled Mental Presence], Beth had realized she was about a quarter as strong as Geneva at telekinesis.

Size mattered. Mental ‘force’ from her was coming from a tiny Selphid. Just like magic, telekinetic strength seemed to scale with the body. The Skills she had acquired probably helped to correct that, but there was no way she’d be able to grab the mushroom from a [Rogue] of Foliana’s level.

So Beth spoke instead.

“The likelihood even someone of Foliana’s constitution will get ill from this—or pick up something untoward—is far too high. You haven’t even roasted the mushroom. That other one was in a state of decay; it could have parasites.”

“Mm. I have to eat it like it’s enjoyed. You can’t boss me.”

“I forbid you to eat it, Foliana. For your own good.”

The Squirrel Woman’s lips moved.

“Forbid. Me. Hmm.”

She opened her mouth, inserted the entire mushroom, and began to chew. Beth stood up. Three-Color Stalker swallowed defiantly and folded her arms. She had defeated Beth with the powers of mastication. The mushroom was down—Niers was watching Beth with great interest.

What are you going to do now? Beth marched over and looked Foliana up and down. Then she turned to Geneva.

“Have you replicated a stethoscope? Do you have any records on other Beastkin? I will have time for the Iuncuta or whomever Geneva is teaching later, Niers. But at this moment, Commander Foliana and I will need an hour. I’ll write up a checklist, Geneva. Can you ratify it tonight?”

“Checklist? What? I’m busy.”

Foliana tried to hop past Beth, but this time, the Selphid grabbed her arm, and she was physically stronger than Geneva. Foliana blinked at her as Beth stared at her.

“You need a checkup, Commander Foliana. We’ll start with your medical history. Then move on to your diet and any symptoms. We need to create the process from scratch. Even if you insist on your diet, you need proper meals in between them.”

“What? No.”

Foliana shook Beth off with a weird wrist-twist that made her paw vanish out of the Selphid’s grip. She vanished as well…and Beth saw Niers’ lips quirk.

“If you want to try—maybe start with someone else, Miss Beth? Foliana is impossible to control. Ask Perorn. She’s fighting in Izril, and it’s a holiday compared to managing Foliana.”

“And you.”

Eirnos muttered under her breath. Niers frowned at her, then paused. Beth was staring at the open door where Foliana had probably escaped through. Then…slowly…she rotated. Her head turned, and she stared pointedly at the chair where Foliana had been sitting. It was still pulled out. After a second, Beth reached out.

A glowering Three-Color Stalker reappeared, and Eirnos swore. Geneva had been looking the same way.

“I hate telepaths. Thinking quiet is hard.”

Foliana bounded out of the chair. Beth ran after her.

“Foliana! It will not take long, but you need someone to make sure you’re in good health! You broke dozens of bones, you eat anything you think is necessary, and you’re in your advanced years!”

“I’m not old!”

The angry Squirrel Woman turned back—and she and Beth began to squabble. The sight of a Selphid woman trying to drag the famous [Rogue] to a room for examinations while Foliana swatted at her with her paws drew such a crowd of the Titan’s students that classes had to halt for half an hour.

After all, everyone was used to Niers doing unhinged things. But Foliana? Geneva Scala caught Beth’s eye as Foliana pushed the Selphid into a broom closet and locked the door with some lockpicks in a flash then bounded away. The [Doctor] seemed amazed.

She was really surprised when Beth kicked the door straight off the hinges and went after Foliana.


[Healer → Headstrong Healer class obtained!]

[Headstrong Healer Level 14!]

[Skill – Locate Patient obtained!]

[Skill – Medicine: Remove Flaw (Single) obtained!]

[Skill – Quicksilver Stitching obtained!]


[Telekinetic Level 8!]

[Skill – Indefinite Lift (Mental) obtained!]




The Duck floated in the air as Beth dangled from the ceiling of Foliana’s tree-rooms. It wasn’t the best place to conduct a training session—but Beth couldn’t get free.

“How did she do that?”

“[Rogue Trap]. Rope. I’m trying to undo the knot, but it keeps tightening. Quack. Even her simple Skill traps are hard to undo.”

Beth was just glad that she didn’t suffer from blood rushing to her head. She was glaring—but she had failed to break the ropes even with her Selphid strength.

At least she’d managed to get through half of Foliana’s interview before the Squirrel Woman had announced she was ‘bored’, caught Beth’s feet up, and dangled her from one of the tree branches.

The entire room that mimicked some great tree branch and a nest higher up was fascinating to Beth—and so was the Duck honestly.

It hovered there, and when the knot finally undid itself, the Selphid Mind caught her.

“There. Three-Color Stalker is a very good [Rogue]. Better than any one of my component minds. But all together, this Duck can match her quack for, um…whatever sound squirrels make. Quack for squeak-scream.”

Beth sat up slowly as the Mind lowered her to the ground.

“Geneva doesn’t trust you. Neither do I.”

“This is hurtful but fair. Rest assured, though—I am a deadly duck, but Three-Color Stalker and Niers Astoragon could kill me very quickly. I am the weakest of all Minds. A useful helper, but not a killer. Not like the legends of Baleros. You need to know who you are, and both you and Geneva can benefit from mental training. The Second Mind did only give you the basics.”

Beth sat cross-legged warily…then got up. She hadn’t been hurt by Foliana, and the rope trap had only left her more resolved to chase down the woman.

No one else would, not even Geneva. But Beth turned to the Duck first.

“Have you had a medical checkup?”

The Duck recoiled and quacked a bit.

“Me? I self-tend my Selphids constantly.”

“I don’t know enough about Selphid—our physiology to judge. But I should find out. So you are going to teach me more telepathic abilities?”

“If you want.”

The Selphid Mind seemed diffident. A welcome change to be sure, but Beth was still wary.

“What do you do in your Named-rank team?”

“That? Oh. Pick locks. I can blind a monster. Set a trap.”

“You? Set traps?”

The indignant little ball actually lifted something up and shook it at her. A cloth sack.

“I have a bag of holding! All I do is toss down a bear trap, arm it—I don’t get to use Skills, but I am the greatest [Rogue]-amalgamate living! I can pick a lock from the inside, just by moving the tumblers! And there’s nothing stealthier than me. I have no footprints, no lungs to give me away—”

“You quack a lot. I can hear you think. Get out of my room.”

Three-Color Stalker spoke, appearing on the branch of her bedroom. Beth and the Duck jumped. The Mind screamed.

“Aaah! Wait, you can hear that?


The Squirrel woman looked amused. Beth pointed at her.

“Family history? Do you know anyone who’s had a disease or—”


Foliana landed and tossed Beth out of her rooms. Then locked the door. Beth rolled out into the corridor as the Duck floated after her.

“Did you just try to stop Foliana with your mind? You’re crazy. And I’m the Duck.”

“It didn’t work.”

Trying to stop Foliana from moving was like trying to stop a tank with a dandelion. Not only had it been hard to get a ‘fix’ on her—Beth stared up at the Duck.

“If you want to help me, answer me one question. Why is Geneva so much stronger, mentally, than I am? Even without levels, we are both essentially the same mind. I think it’s because I’m smaller than she is, but why does that make sense?”

The Duck floated past Geneva. To a passing servant staring wide-eyed at the woman who had annoyed Foliana, it looked like a duck was sitting on Beth’s head. Beth got up as the Duck continued.

“That’s simple. It’s because the shadow of our mind is the reflection of our body. The mind and body are connected. If it’s the power of your thoughts—you and Geneva are equals without Skills. But the weight of your mind in moving objects is bound to your Selphid body. Don’t worry. Your Skills like [Doubled Mental Presence] will accrue faster than Geneva’s, especially if you work at it. And technique will make everything easier. But this is good.”


Beth sat up as the Duck begged for a snack and the servant offered it a piece of bread.

“Why, because otherwise I could lift this entire citadel. Balance matters. I have often said to the other Minds that they should be cute Ducks or dogs or divide up like me. When they grow large, they grow pompous. Are we rulers of Selphids or companions and guides?”

That answered a lot. She still didn’t trust the Duck…but as Beth sat up, she thought she was at least willing to listen to it. Then she went to sit in front of Foliana’s door. After a moment, she called out.

“I am willing to take my answers in writing, Foliana.”

No one responded. But after a long, long moment, Three-Color Stalker’s voice came out, muffled, from behind the door.

“Go. Away.”




Beth’s bullying of Foliana, the most famous [Rogue] in Baleros, was not missed by the staff of the palace. From servants to the [Mercenaries] of the Forgotten Wing, her stock rose instantly upon seeing that.

Geneva Scala was a story to many who wanted to shake her hand or talk to her. Beth…was the crazy Selphid [Healer]. Their reputations influenced how people talked to them.

Among the Fraerlings, Geneva was the ‘Earther doctor’, and something of a rival in terms of her medical prowess. A friend to the United Nations company. It meant they came to her respectfully, with a hint of challenge and determined to show her they were the equals of her world, if not better.

Beth was just a funny Selphid—since the nature of her cloned identity wasn’t out.

“Psst. Miss Tallfolk. Uh—Beth, right?”

Most Fraerlings were also not as impressed by Beth taking on Foliana. The [Headstrong Healer] blinked as a Fraerling strode over.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

By ‘strode over’, that meant the Fraerling was speaking from one of the Fraerways overhead as they did not share foot space with Tallfolk. But the Fraerling was very energetic and had that wide-eyed look of a tourist.

“Are you…a Selphid? Oh, it’s fascinating to meet another one! I have a report for Geneva Scala from the ‘front’ all written up. Interviews with Tallguard battling monsters. I was told to file it…do you know where?”

That was the problem with getting set up. Beth hesitated.

“I think they moved the filing cabinets so the Fraerlings could access them. It’s a shared room—I could take it for you.”

The Fraerling sighed in relief.

Thank you. I’ve been walking for the last two hours asking for anyone who knows—you can’t bother the Titan, and only the senior staff seem to know about Miss Scala’s project. My feet are killing me. This is no city like home—but fascinating. Can I pass it to you from a window?”

There was a way for Tallfolk to place objects in ‘loading bays’ or via windows into the Fraerways. Beth picked up a teensy folder that a [Scribe] would have to re-transcribe and tried not to say it was cute.

“You’re from a Fraerling city, then? Not one of the Tallguard?”

She could have guessed based on the wide-eyed look the Fraerling had. She had bright yellow hair spiked up with gel or something and a pair of glasses that seemed to make her eyes huge. Magnification?

“That’s right! I’m a [Doctor] from the cities. Doctor Yeiyan at your service! I’d shake your hand but the Tallguard tell me that’s a good way to get hurt. Mind you, I saw a bird up close and nearly fainted the other day. What a terrifying place!”

She was chatty, energetic, and Beth immediately loved her.

“You don’t even see birds that often?”

Yeiyan shuddered.

Birds? We have pet ones in the aviary our Tallguards use to travel with, but even those are dangerous. They’ll take your arm off in a single peck! The largest animals in a Fraerling city are…dragonflies? Hump Beetles you ride on? Nothing like here. I heard there were rats in the Fraerways, and I’ve been jumping at every shadow. Although the Tallguard are constantly patrolling!”

She pointed to the serious fighters, who did indeed patrol the Fraerways and wiped out all threats to their kind. Yeiyan pulled something out and waved it around. A teensy wand.

“They even gave me a wand for self-defense. Self-defense. Imagine needing a weapon to just walk around! At least it’s only [Paralysis].”

Beth smiled sadly.

“I’ve heard how safe Fraerling cities are. Thank you for coming out to help with the medicine.”

“Oh, well, I had to. Tallguard are [Medics] and [Healers] at most. They rely on potions. Someone had to bring you Tallfolk up to snuff.”

Yeiyan beamed, and Beth paused.

“…Right. We’re not all incompetent. I’m a doctor myself, you know. I don’t have the class, but we might work together.”

The Fraerling paused.

“O-oh. A Tallfolk [Doctor]. That’s very good of you. Do you, um—are you a [Sawbones Doctor], a [Plague Doctor], or a [Bloodletting Doctor]? Those are the three I’ve heard appear in your societies.”

“…None of those.”

“Very good, very good! You know, we have something called blood transference. It’s a very handy thing where Fraerlings can exchange blood—but it’s complex. I was told the Last Light knows about it, which is impressive.”

Beth was straight-faced.

“I know about that too.”

Do you? Wonderful! Do you wash your hands before you work? That’s very important, you know.”

At this point, Beth decided she should stop playing dumb. She smiled.

“I do practice proper hygiene, Miss Yeiyan. In fact, we’re working on a proper disinfectant we can cheaply clean our operating theaters with. Cross-contamination between blood transfusions would be terrible if we get the practice going among us Tallfolk. Of course, we’ll have to index all the blood types. They have eight main types among Humans—and far more given mixed species and all the other peoples of this world.”

The little Fraerling [Doctor] paused in fiddling with her glasses. She peered at Beth.

“…Um. You seem rather up-to-date on most medical knowledge. For a Tallfolk. But if you have any problem with a patient, allow me to help! We can remove organs in Fraerling cities, you know. Infected ones that you think are sickness—even your tonsils. See? Mine are out!”

She opened her mouth, and Beth smiled.

“Do you remove the appendix regularly in your profession?”

She nearly knocked over Yeiyan with shock. Then the [Doctor] sprang to her feet.

“Who are you?”

Beth’s smile widened.

“A doctor.




Half an hour later, no less than eight medical practitioners, two Tallguard, six from the cities, were having a spirited argument with Beth in one of the rooms where Fraerlings and Tallfolk could organize.

“—it’s all aftercare in the cities. Which is why I went and joined the Tallguard. They don’t come whining to me about painkillers two weeks after an operation.”

“Why couldn’t you just use a healing potion?”

Beth sat with one of the grousing Tallguard [Healers]. The [Doctors] were groaning in sympathy. Some were [Healers]; one was a [Physician]. There were no [Surgeons], because magical medicine mostly just meant that level of specialization was rare.

“Sometimes they’re allergic. Or it’s just best not to overload the body with healing potion. Ironically—you Tallfolk with your weaker potions strain the body less. We can develop resistances to our stuff because it’s so high-grade. You know about allergies where you come from, Miss Beth?”

The question came with an innocent stare from the Tallguard. They kept doing it to her, and Beth smiled politely.

“Absolutely. Do you have any antihistamines for Doctor Geneva and I to look at?”

“Anti…what’s your term mean?”

The group instantly wrote this down. Beth’s eyes twinkled.

“Allergy-suppressing medication.”

“Oh, well, of course! By the way, did you know that it is possible to reduce allergies via exposure? That was one of my specializations!”

Yeiyan raised a hand excitedly. Beth’s face was deadpan.

“Absolutely. Although with beekeepers, the longer they’re exposed to bee venom, the weaker their tolerance becomes. It’s a huge problem in the beekeeping industry where professional keepers are forced to retire.”

The Fraerlings fell silent and glanced at each other. After a second, Yeiyan whispered.

“Ooh. She’s good. But that implies you keep honeybees, Miss Beth! We keep the cute little ones. Sweat bees, masked bees, cellophane—honey bees are too big and dangerous for Fraerlings. Ours help our [Druids] pollinate.”

“Ah, cross pollination, of course. But do you work with bees because it’s simpler than doing it by hand or have your people found there’s some benefit?”

Argh! She got us!”

One of the Fraerlings plucked a hat from their head and danced on it a second as the others clapped. And like that—Beth had won their respect. Then they began gossiping and trading information freely.

“It’s so much fun being here—although the injuries are terrible. Tallguards are fighting hard against the monsters and Jungle Tails. But the worst ones are the lightly-wounded Tallguard.”

Yeiyan confessed to Beth. The [Healer] blinked.

“Oh? Why? Because you’re operating on them when they’re awake? I’d have thought you had anesthesia or magic for that.”

“Oh, no. We can put them to sleep. But I have to chase them around and stop them from hurting themselves worse while they’re in recovery. Tallguard bounce off the walls. Have you seen what they’re doing on that balcony on the second floor?”

Nothing would do but for the Fraerlings to make Beth take them there. And unlike the Tallguard, who would ride on your shoulders or head—they could either follow her in the Fraerways or she could carry them in a cage that resisted falls or impacts.

There they are! Miss Beth, arrest all of them! Halt, you lot! You’ll smash your heads open!

Commander Rozcal and a bunch of Tallguards, some with broken arms or light wounds, froze as a group of Niers’ students and Fraerlings gathered around.

“Aw, it’s the healers! Jump, jump—”

A Fraerling was on the second-floor banister leading down to the first one. As Beth walked over, she saw a Tallguard dive off the balcony—and the bungie cord attached to their legs caught them a literal centimeter before they hit the ground.

Look at them. One miscalibration and they smash their heads open. The rest of them are gliding off the roof! What happens if birds attack, Commander Rozcal?”

He laughed, a tiny man with a booming laugh.

“That’s what bows are for! It adds to the excitement! Hey, Healer Beth, you wouldn’t stop us from having fun, would you?”

Beth glanced down at the bungie-jumping Fraerlings. The healers looked at her, and she addressed Rozcal.

“I wouldn’t, Commander Rozcal. But it seems to me the students might accidentally run into your jumping Fraerlings. It’s not that safe, is it?”

Rozcal looked around at the Titan’s students pushing to get a look.

“Eh, it’s safe enough…”

“Would a helmet take away from the thrill of having your head striking the ground?”

Yes it would!

Half the Tallguard shouted indignantly. Beth leaned over and smiled at Rozcal.

“Would a dead Fraerling take away from the thrill of this game? Because no one here can save someone whose brains are splattered on the floor, Commander Rozcal.”

Oooh. The healers looked at her, and Rozcal’s face went slack. Then he grumbled.

“…Fine. We can put on a Crelerbane helmet. That thing will save you from anything. You’re tougher than most Tallfolk, Miss Beth.”

She smiled at him, then winked at her new friends, who were cheering.

“I’m just doing my job, Commander.”




A day later, a woman was ticking off boxes on a list. She hadn’t organized it yet, but it was a sample sheet with a lot of items. She read them off to another woman, who was busily fabricating up a kit you could pack into a small case. Surgical needles, gauze, thread—bags of holding existed, but not everyone could afford them. This had to be compact and have enough to deal with most contingencies.

“Blood types. Past history of diseases. Checking for parasites…addictions to new types of drugs, magical damage. Physical scars. Presence of Galas muscle. Skill-based curses or other effects?”

“We need Fraerlings. They have the technology to detect these things. A comprehensive medical checkup gives us records. Records become a database.”

“The Titan will use that database. He’s all for itemizing his people’s levels. If we can build it, he will use it.”

“That is a necessary tradeoff, Geneva.”

Geneva Scala glanced over at Beth, and this time when both looked up, neither could quite read the other’s thoughts. They could guess—but something was happening.

“You want to let him make his company stronger?”

Geneva’s voice was offended. Beth’s was exasperated.

“I thought we went over this. It is far better to work with a Great Company to effect a greater change in the world—even if it makes him, personally, stronger. That is how it works in our world.”

“Yes, but he doesn’t need to go to a bloody war. Beth, I am all for working with Niers Astoragon and Paeth. But I will never be an unconditional witness to a slaughter again.”

Beth gave Geneva a brisk nod.

“Then have it out with him again. But I’ll take a blood bank and figuring out how many blood types exist, Geneva. Okay…field kit’s done.”

Geneva glanced over at the wax-wrapped satchel and the items Beth had layered inside it.

“There’s only four needles. You don’t have anything other than two poultices, Beth. No potion?”

“Healing potions will not be available for all. Four needles are enough. Most poorer [Healers] will not be able to afford a set of sixteen. One of these satchels should cost less than a gold coin and contain everything a [Healer] can use to save a life.”

“Fraerling medicine—”

“—Is not scalable. Not until we copy their industries. And before you say people are working on healing potion remedies, Geneva, I am planning for the immediate. How’s the PPE looking?”

“What’s that?”

Geneva and Beth were talking so familiarly that it was hard for most non-Earthers—no, non-doctors to follow. In this case, it was Geneva’s friend, Okasha, who hesitated as Geneva turned.

“Personal Protective Equipment. The gloves, Okasha.”

“Right. You want a set, Beth?”

“For the field kit. Yes.”

Here, at least, they were more thorough. Along with the field kit, Geneva had established a baseline of gear in her clinic. The Yellow Rivers had required full-body suits, but even if they lacked those—

Goggles with glass eye lenses sewn into leather, a thick leather butcher’s apron, a hairnet, and thin gloves were the basic necessities for any Geneva and anyone she took into the operating room. Thankfully, each piece of gear had come from a different class.

Flying goggles for Fraerlings and other beings that rode aerial mounts or moved around fast were available, if not exactly cheap or easy to obtain. The apron was the kind they sold to a [Butcher]—ironically fitting. The hairnet and gloves were from [Chefs] who wanted to keep contamination out of their food.

“This is the easy part. The clean room for our samples is done. [Purification] wards on all air vents and a [Cleansing Bubble Barrier].”

“What’s that?”

Beth was interested as Geneva mentioned a room devoted to keeping their medical lab equipment and samples clean. Geneva pointed to the door leading to the clean rooms, and Beth thought she saw it; it shimmered like an actual soap bubble.

“You can walk right through it, but it should be a very effective filter, and we must trust the spells. I might ask for a filter on the air ducts anyways, and they are not exposed to the Fraerways.”

“Smart. Is it HEPA?”

Geneva almost smiled at that.

“Close as we can manage—or perhaps better than Earth. As for biocontainment, we will be using lab suits. Foliana was helpful there. [Rogues] apparently have full-body diving suits and self-contained helmets if they think they’ll be exposed to toxins in the air or swim through sewers.”

Beth had to smile ruefully at that. Everything they needed was here in some form or other. It was just making the system that was tiring.

In fact, Geneva was still going. She had a boundless amount of energy—Beth had a headache, but the [Doctor] was fiddling with her glasses.

“I’m writing up a post-triage system now that I have the help of experts like the Fraerling [Alchimagi] and [Physicians]. We can follow patients and prescribe the right treatments. But we’ll need a code system and speaking stones geared to every expert.”

“A switchboard? You’re going to need someone to run that. And [Scribes], [Secretaries]…”

Geneva nodded.

“I’ve asked the Titan to provide it all, and to his credit, he has. I could use your help with the filing. Or you can chart the anatomical encyclopedia I’m working on. We might have to print books so we standardize disease and anatomy, especially if we train people.”

“I thought one of the other Genevas was doing that.”

Both Beth and Geneva had heard of the Dullahan giving lectures to other [Healers] on the scrying orb. Geneva frowned.

“She is—and I am trying to get in touch with her. But we can work on multiple fronts together. Communication and organization are what I’m working on with a Great Company’s help. After that comes imaging, better diagnostics.”

“Right. Good luck with that.”

The [Doctor] paused for a moment, blinking.

“What do you mean, ‘good luck’?”

Beth smiled faintly.

“I’ll let you handle that. But I’m going to head out now. And I don’t think I’ll be staying at the Forgotten Wing Company.”

Geneva was so startled she didn’t reply. But Okasha spoke up, mystified.

“Head…where, Beth? Aren’t you staying?”

Beth just shook her head.

“For now, yes, but not indefinitely. My calling isn’t here. Geneva’s allowed to focus on the lofty medical goals. As for now, I’m flying out.”

She grabbed the gear and stuffed it into her bag of holding. That prompted Geneva to follow after Beth.

“You? Flying? I’m not lofty—where are you going?”

The angry Human stalked out of her laboratory after Beth. The Selphid called over her shoulder as she ran down the hallway. Fraerlings walking through the Fraerways above idly watched the two angry doctors arguing.

To the soldiers from the front! Niers is rotating them back—some have magical ailments or toxins from fighting the monsters in the Dyed Lands! You prepare the lab for treating them—I’ll triage!”

The [Doctor] skidded to a halt. She looked after Beth with a kind of exasperation all over her face.

Beth! We’re [Doctors]! You can’t just run ahead—they’ll be arriving here, and we can do this in an organized manner!”

She caught the running Selphid’s smile as Beth shouted back.

That’s your job. But someone needs to be there as they’re bleeding, and that’s me!”

The nimbler Selphid was running ahead with no concern to how she’d treat the patients’ long-term ailments—she was trusting Geneva. And there it was.

Beth could articulate the disconnect between her and Geneva now. And it was that Geneva was doing the most boring job in the medical practice: taking care of people. She knew what Geneva was doing was essential. If she could create a hospital or a system based on her ideas, she would save countless lives.

However, Geneva had been studying long enough to know the job. Outside of an emergency room, and even in it, there was a process.

Have the patient establish their own chief complaint. Gather history from them, narrow down the differential diagnosis, order lab tests—

The efficient world of Earth’s medicine could bore you to tears at times. If Geneva made it, Beth would rejoice. But what called to her was the immediacy of rendering aid. Not the battlefield, necessarily, but the difference between being in the front and organizing it all. Yet Geneva was happier and believed she needed to set up the system.

The difference flashed between Beth and Geneva, and then they were drawing apart. And Geneva Scala glared. Perhaps in envy or just in annoyance that Beth wasn’t seeing the big picture. Then the [Doctor] whirled and caught the eye of a waving Fraerling above her in the window of the Fraerways.

“[Physician] Toppledes, meet me in our operating room! I need [Battlefield Healer] Rothefieln, and—[Alchimagus] Sopren.”

She called out to one of the Fraerling’s advanced [Healers] and named one of the Forgotten Wing company’s best Tallfolk [Healers]. Sopren, another Fraerling, completed the four senior experts in treating wounds, diseases, and ailments.

By the time the [Soldiers] returned with Beth’s preliminary checkup, Geneva would be ready. But the [Doctor]’s exasperation was because Beth was racing ahead. It was like two sisters, one older and more responsible and the other younger, impetuous.




“Who are you? Who’re you, Miss? They said the Last Light was waiting. Am I going to make it?”

The coughing Human had something in his lungs. Spores, poison? She didn’t know, but Niers had ordered him encased in a bubble-spell. How were they going to test for it?

Gauze and microscope probably. See if they could find particulates?

“I’m Beth. The Last Light is waiting—tell me what happened. Does anyone else have a record?”

“It was one of the Yellow things. Sprayed him—”

“Lizard, mushroom, something else?”

“Uh—uh—it looked like a giant damn skunk. Smelled like one, but it didn’t just make us gag. Half the battalion were sick, and some fell over.”

A panicked [Soldier] escorting the wounded one babbled a recap of the events. Beth was writing on a [Message] scroll. But she took the man’s hand a second.

“The Last Light will be waiting for you. Just wait a little bit longer, alright? I’m telling her what she needs to know.”

“Thanks. I can make it, I think. Lasted two days—just—”

He had a rattle in his lungs, but when he stared ahead to Elvallian in the distance, the [Soldier]’s gaze had that hope in it that made Beth so afraid. She kept patting his hands.

“If you can talk, tell me what you’re feeling and where it is. I might need to listen to your chest and look in your mouth, alright?”

She had to know where the damage was—a visual inspection instantly showed her damaged mucosa reaching down into his lower airways. But the man seemed grateful for her inspection and notes, which she was sending rapid-fire to Geneva. And still he looked for her, trusting she could do the impossible.

Yes, Beth would far rather be the [Healer] on the ground. She patted his hands and let him stay on the stretcher that was coming towards the city on foot. They had propped him upright because if he lay down, he might die from choking on whatever was agitating his lungs.

Chemical irritant in his upper and lower respiratory tract. Tell Geneva to get a breathing tube and Jar of Air or something. Full physical, monitoring, and we have to make sure he’s not still breathing dangerous poisons around.

The Titan had taken Geneva at her word to isolate victims of the fighting, but the exigencies of travel meant he had to compromise when he felt the wounded weren’t a danger to those around them. And sometimes speed would be the difference between them getting here or not at all.

We just need—to identify and catalog a world of ailments and then be able to rule out one after the other. Is this poison? Is this magic? Is this allergens?

That was the point of the database. Beth hoped that the other Genevas, including the Dullahan who had also claimed the ‘Last Light’ title, would be able to make use of what she and Geneva were doing here.

But again—she was glad Geneva existed. Because it meant Beth could be right here. And once she had written up a report on the wounded and organized them, she turned to the Selphids.

There were [Healers] enough in Elvallian. Half were flooding out to meet the [Soldiers] rotating out from the front pushing towards the Dyed Lands. The Titan had organized his supply lines such that he could pull back wounded or tired forces. Beth hadn’t seen such a thing in her limited time on the front lines; she supposed that was his talent and the power of a Great Company.

Because she was a Selphid and because she had Geneva—Beth was not glued to the injured. She took half an hour, in which case she trusted Geneva was doing her utmost to save lives. Half an hour, in which some of these poor people might pass away.

Could she have saved them if she ran after them? Perhaps—but she had to trust there was a system being built, and the system was more important than she.

And she was after a bigger enemy. That was—

The Wasting.

The Selphid [Mercenaries] were wary of even the Titan’s own chain of command. They were candid about a lot of things, but Beth, even as a new Selphid, understood that the destruction of a Gathering Citadel and six Minds had shaken the Selphids who made up a backbone of Niers’ company.

However, they were happy to see another Selphid acting as a [Healer], and that instantly gave them a rapport with her. Especially when they saw the quacking duck.

“Is that the Duck? Hello! Who’s got a bit of bread?”

“Quack, quack.”

The Duck was following Beth around. It actually quacked. The little Mind would take pieces of bread, then eat them.

Beth tried to keep a straight face as the Selphids cooed over the mascot. It seemed barely any of them had any inkling the Duck was more than a…duck. Even within their own people.

“What do you need, Miss Beth? I’m not wounded—just tired. Body’s a mess, but whatever hit me missed. We’ve got a bunch of spines this Green thing spits out for you lot to look at.”

Beth frowned at the green-tinged holes in a grinning Selphid’s body that she pointed out. Beth tapped the Selphid.

“Go in for a checkup. I’ll make you an appointment—and switch out that body. The toxins might be hurting you.”

“Aw. Come on—”

“No buts. And if you want to volunteer, I could use where you were relative to the Dyed Lands. If anyone was in the Dyed Lands or closest, I need to speak to them.”

The confused [Mercenary] scratched at her chin.

“There are a few. The Titan pulled a few [Scouts] out. Selphids only?”

“Yes. Would you volunteer to give me a small bit of your body? All I need is…”

Beth indicated, and the Selphid stared as she pulled out a vial to store the sample and began to write notes.

“You want part of me? Why? It’s not a problem.”

“I’m investigating the Wasting. Don’t worry, none of you are in danger. Rather, I’m looking to see if the Dyed Lands can help fix it.”

That news made every Selphid in earshot whirl around. They looked at her, then began to crowd over.

“Are you sure? It’s not causing the Wasting, right?”

Is there a cure? Take a tiny bit of mine—”

“Did the Last Light put you up to this? The Titan? After the citadel, I thought—”

“Shh. We’re not presenting well. Let’s talk in private or inside. Who’re you, Beth? Are you Terandrian?”

By the end of it, Beth had nearly a hundred samples. She thanked each Selphid and was assured she could find them via their names later. She was heading back to the capital when someone tapped her on the shoulder.

Healer Beth. The Titan wished us to speak to you. He states you have need of our services. I am Necrosa Division’s Mage-Lieutenant. [Corpsemaster] Rirex.”

Beth turned—and stared into the eyes of a [Necromancer]. He was a Selphid, and his own body seemed exceptionally well-preserved. She blinked a moment.

“The Titan employs [Necromancers]?”

“We fulfill double roles in battlefield management and combat. Our presence is not usually advertised. I normally collect the dead—many [Mercenaries] have clauses for their bodies to be used by Selphids or returned to their families, so I do not animate them long. Enemy [Soldiers] are likewise better used for Selphids.”

The [Necromancers] of Baleros had a different perspective on death than most continents. Thus, a [Corpsemaster] was almost akin to a [Necromancer], an [Embalmer], and a [Merchant] or [Quartermaster] combined.

Rirex was a high-level Selphid and shot the Duck a glance. Then he leaned in as he pointed to a covered wagon.

“I have collected what the Titan wants in a bag of holding. I would have refused…but I understand what is being done. You have the support of the Forgotten Wing.”

“Yes, of course.”

Beth assured him, but it hadn’t been a question. Rirex’s brows rose.

“You have the support of the Forgotten Wing. And the Bodies of Fellden.”

She froze and recoiled suddenly in a panic, but the Duck chirped before Beth could shout her alarm.

“Rirex, among others, serves Selphid goals. The Bodies of Fellden are not anywhere here, are they?”

“They have no desire to clash with the Titan. Healer.”

He handed her a bag of holding and stepped back. Shaken—Beth stared at him until she looked into the bag of holding and saw what he had collected. Then she was reminded.

Medical advancement was always built upon…

…the bodies of at least a hundred Selphids that Rirex had collected. Useless to [Necromancy]. But to Beth?

She somberly took the bag and hoped for a clue.




Beth was a Selphid. It made her part of a people, and whether she liked it or not, she suspected it influenced her way of thinking too.

However, she was not unwilling to embrace this culture. She had every misgiving about what Selphids could do from her time as a Human as Geneva Scala.

—But she also had some sympathy towards Selphid existence. In her fresh body, she had taste, smell, even the vaguest sense of touch. But to live without it was hard.

It was not an excuse, but she also had a sense of just how much another Selphid, Okasha, had been tormented during her captivity.

When you were out of a body, sensation was magnified in some ways. Light felt harsh—and if you were in a glass jar, the slightest sound was overstimulating—and you were helpless.

A combination of both being blind—and yet blasted with over-intense light. Deaf, but aware of booming sounds. Trapped in a small world of perception.

Okasha in her natural state, out of Geneva’s body, was also a lot more retiring than Beth remembered. Or maybe that was the effect of captivity.

The two met in neutral ground, which was a bowl of water they poured into and talked in. To Beth’s surprise, Selphids could exist in a bowl of water without issue. Which suggested they could derive oxygen from the water, like a fish.

Communication underwater was also not a problem—when two Selphids met, they ‘talked’, and shared ideas and communicated such that Beth could feel some of Okasha’s memories and senses like a real thing.

You’re so…strange! You don’t behave like a Selphid at all, Beth.”

“And you’re shyer than I thought, Okasha.”

“Yes, well—you’re bold as brass, Beth! Look at you, inchworming along!”

That was how Beth moved, like a caterpillar. She was climbing over some objects in the bowl; the Selphid-made container had props, much like how a room had furniture.

“I’m not supposed to move like that?”

For answer, Okasha rolled forwards, like a pool of magma. Beth instantly copied her, but Okasha assured her she wasn’t wrong.

“Some Selphids move like that—it’s just super confident.”

Like walking with your chest puffed out, Beth supposed. She was amused…until Okasha whispered.

“Do you think Geneva will ever trust a Selphid again? She needs me to walk—but she can move with her mind. Could you fix her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe with Fraerling help, but her nerves are damaged, and they’ve been long healed. I…would hope she trusts you, Okasha.”

“She says she does. And maybe she can stop me if I go insane again. But I’m…sorry. About everything. Bodies, real, living bodies, are too much for me. Everything else pales in comparison.”

It was almost like speaking to a drug addict who was describing the world when they weren’t high on something.

In fact, it wasn’t a bad comparison. Beth knew she could eat blood, and the byproducts of her own body fed into her. But Geneva’s body was producing adrenaline, all kinds of hormones…maybe the Selphid’s incorporation with her wasn’t one-way.

“Tell me more about being in Geneva’s body.”

“I don’t take over! I just assist—”

“No, I believe you. But it’s still hard to imagine how you can co-exist without damaging her.”

“It’s…tricky. I have to make sure not to push anything around, and I can’t move through the membranes and break a blood vessel to move. Also—I keep having to make sure the body doesn’t hate me.”

“Hate you…oh, the immune system reacts to you?”

Okasha moved around restlessly.

“It’s sort of used to me. Yeah, you have to deal with that. And learn what things you can do to help Geneva. You can make her tired or give her a boost of energy—but that’s bad. That’s…touching the Minacien Wall. I’m not going to do any of that unless she asks, I promise. The Duck talked with me, and I think Geneva and I will talk things out more.”


Okasha peeked at Beth sidelong, or rather, her entire body moved out and nudged Beth.

“…You could take my place. Then it’d be two Genevas in the same body.”

Beth thought about that only a moment.

“I think we’d annoy each other to death, Okasha. I’m doing my own thing, and we’re too alike—and not alike—for it to work.”

“Oh. Okay. But I just want you to know—I like you. I mean, it’s hard being a Selphid, sometimes. But is it wrong that I was happy that you’d know how I felt? It’s like—I think the other Selphids feel the same way. The Last Light is a good person. She’ll help everyone. But you know what it is to be us.”

Beth considered this, then she did the equivalent of a ‘nod’, her body rippling in affirmation.

“I’ll try to help, Okasha. Promise. But I won’t be a tool of the Minds.”

“Of course not. But any Selphid will help you if they know what you’re doing. Promise, Beth. By the way…I have something for you. I dunno if it’s a gift, but when you asked to meet, I thought I’d ask.”

A gift? Okasha timidly offered Beth a ball. It was…a ball for the two Selphids, tiny—and given how small they were, it was miniscule.

But it was hard. Semi-malleable, so nowhere near the level of metal. Beth played with it, tossing it to Okasha, who ‘tossed’ it back underwater.

“What is it?”

“It’s Geneva’s lucky orb. I made it out of her body.”

You took something from—

“No, no!”

Okasha hurried to explain to Beth.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be there. I’ve never found it before, and I’ve been in all kinds of bodies. Maybe it’s because she’s a telepath? Or from Earth? I found bits of it all over the place. Then I formed it into this. Tada! I love it. I keep finding more scraps, and it’s not metal or anything that dissolves…do you know what it is?”

Beth felt the ball all over and didn’t know. Only when she returned to her body to ‘look’ at it did she do a double-take. Then she groaned.

“…I think we should show this to the Fraerlings, Okasha. Or the Titan. And Geneva. You might lose it, sorry. Maybe we can replicate it or break it down.”

“What? Is it valuable after all?”

Okasha was stunned. Beth though—massaged her forehead as she stared at the tiny ball of microplastics. Geneva was not going to be happy about this one. If Selphids ever got to Earth and Beth managed to show a lawyer this—they were going to have a field day suing everyone. But maybe this was useful?

There was a lot of potential in the Forgotten Wing company. Plastic, Selphids—if there was anywhere to find an answer to some of the questions plaguing this world, Beth hoped it was here.




The process of analyzing Selphid tissue, corpses and samples from living Selphids, was long and tedious. And that was before they even got to Geneva and Beth.

An entire team of Fraerlings was doing the job.

First, fixation of samples with a [Stasis] spell to prevent them from degrading or changing. It also meant that Geneva and Beth weren’t as worried about dangerous contaminants—though they were still in full PPE.

Second, dehydration before the samples were sectioned—and again, Fraerling magic could desiccate anything they wanted. They were quite taken with the concept, and then they embedded the samples in wax before sectioning the microscopy samples.

One of the top [Alchimagi] came in himself to deliver another batch, including a monster from the Dyed Lands. He pointed at it excitedly.

“We’ve got the last batch for the day, [Doctors]. It was fun enough to get half of Rozcal’s unit in on the job.”

“Fun? Thank you. What was so fun, Alchimagus? Sopren?”

The Fraerling’s eyes glinted.

“Sectioning the damn samples, of course! We had to get an Adamantium greatsword off one of the Armorbane units to cut the green one. We didn’t even have to stain that sample. You’ll see.”

He bowed his way out, and Beth raised her brows. The dyes, ironically, were the hardest thing for the Fraerlings to copy. But when they’d heard Earth and the Minds had found a dye that could bind onto the cells, they had worked day and night to replicate the process. It seemed they were unused to being bested, so they were working harder on this than obliging the Titan’s requests for arms and magic, or so Beth understood.

And grateful the two were for it—but both couldn’t help but groan as the final shipment arrived. Putting each sample on a slide, dying them so she could get a good glimpse of the samples, and then noting down miniscule changes under a microscope was not how Beth or Geneva had wanted to fulfill their career on Earth.

“I’m not sure what I’m looking for. We could do multiple zoom levels if the Fraerlings upgrade the microscope.”

Beth complained after processing fifty-two samples in over six hours that evening. Two days had passed since the first wounded had arrived at Elvallian, and they had been getting samples all day. The [Doctor] sighed.

“Neither am I. The cell structure is so damn strange. They have cellular walls instead of membranes—I think they’re cellular walls. Chitosan rather than cellulose? But Selphids are so flexible…”

“Maybe we’re closer to legos on a fundamental level? Geometric connections—but so remote that we seem organic and fluid higher up?”

“Hmm. I don’t know what the comparison I’m looking for is. We’re not biologists…but I can’t help but feel like Selphids match some organism perfectly.”

Geneva scratched at her head. Beth paused—and her eyes lit up.

“What, a slime mold? Perhaps a magical one.”

Geneva whirled and snapped her fingers in relief.

That’s it. How do you keep remembering all the terms I can’t come up with? I have to dive back into my memories to do that, and it’s not easy. Because you’re a Selphid?”

She looked exasperated and envious. Beth just smirked.

“[Perfect Recall].”

“And you do not want to help me with coming up with a glossary of all the medical terms? I’ll make you write it!”

Geneva shook a fist at Beth—then the two went back to discussing slime molds. There really were a lot of parallels, and now that Beth thought of it, the parallels were obvious.

Wait a second. If her factoids about plasmodial slime molds from a project in high school were accurate…weren’t they able to pass on information between molds once they met? Almost like Selphid Minds. She shook her head in amazement.

“Biology and magic mixing. I really do wonder if the magic in Galas muscles shortens a lifespan or induces cancer or other unpredictable elements into the body.”

“Magical cancer?”

Both women shuddered. Then Geneva reached for another slide.

“You keep doing the Selphid samples. I have something else we just pulled from the Dyed Lands.”


“I’ll bet you on who has to do the next thirty.”

The two stared at each other—then after a silent count of ‘three’, they threw out a hand.

Paper beat rock. Glumly, Beth went back to the Selphid samples, dying a batch as Geneva put her new item under the scope.

“What are you seeing?”

“…The first [Mercenaries] to push towards the Dyed Lands haven’t gotten there yet because of how many monsters are flooding out. I think a few [Scouts] made it close—but at least one died. It must be horrific fighting different ‘colors’, each with their own ability.”

Beth nodded somberly as Geneva spoke. Each monster had evolved over hundreds of years, seemingly, to be an exceptionally dangerous predator. It appeared like each color refused to hunt its own side; small or large, if something was Green, for instance, it would predate and be preyed upon by another color.

Fascinating ecosystem. But practically—Geneva gestured to what she had.

“There are other specialists looking at the horns, claws, organs—mostly for alchemical or other uses. I asked for a few samples for the microscope.”


“…It’s all one color. Take a look. I didn’t even dye it.”

Geneva stood up, and Beth looked at the most colorful tissue sample she had ever seen. If Geneva hadn’t told her…

“It’s green on a cellular level. No, the cells and protein have to be auto-fluorescent. Or it’s just magic, but everything is green. Organelles, nucleus…ah! Wait a second. The cell’s morphology resembles myotubes. Look at those alpha-actinin. Z-band structure and striated. How bad did they say the monster they fought was?”

She didn’t want to imagine it. Geneva Scala shook her head.

“They claimed they had to use mithril to even cut the sample off it in the field. The Fraerlings used Adamantium to do the sectioning. This came from a monster that apparently grew and regrew. Perhaps it’s part of the regeneration factor?”

“Could be…”

“Here, keep working on the Selphids. I’m just curious. If I had a computer, I’d be making a full database of images. As it is, files.”

“There’s a computer in the United Nations company. When are you going to go back and tell them you’re alive? They saw you in the call. They had to.”

Geneva pretended she hadn’t heard the question. Beth folded her arms.


“What are you going to do, Beth?”

I am going to the Dyed Lands. The Duck has agreed to take me. Either I go with the Titan’s soldiers or with Selphids. Either way—I am going.”

The [Doctor] looked up. She stared at Beth.

“That would be exceptionally risky.”

“For you, yes. I’m a Selphid. Someone has to, and I’ll be glad to know you’re here.”


The two looked at each other, and Geneva went back to staring at the slides—then trading places with Beth in silence for sixteen minutes. Until Geneva said something.

“Wait a second. Take a look at this. Which slide is…?”

Her head rose again. She had been calling out interesting things—unique cell types, odd quirks in the magical biology of monsters for Beth to see, but abstractly, with no real ability to process the data in a meaningful way.

But now—she was alarmed. Beth walked over, wondering what was so interesting, and stared down…and froze. She glanced up as Geneva consulted her notes.

“What monster is this from?”

“I—don’t know. It’s brown. Or black? I’m told both colors exist. But look at it, Beth. Why—it says this came from a squad that had been wiped out. One of the monsters was wounded. Look.

Beth looked, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose. She glanced up at Geneva.

“That’s not right. It’s a nucleus…but it’s not two. It looks like it’s got a growth. Like a fungi?”

Or something else. See how the cells are bunched up like that? The hide on whatever this was was so tough, I was told it required an enchanted mithril blade to harvest. Those’re Galas nuclei.”

They were. Beth could see the telltale signs of magical infusion in the nuclei, the repositories of a cell’s genetic makeup. In that sense, she was not seeing anything new in whatever monster had done this damage. But what made her true body squirm with sudden unease was—

The little node attached to each nucleus. Like an addendum to what should be a regular dot. She had never, not in examples of Galas muscle, not in any other species, ever seen that thing before. Then Geneva pointed out something else.

“Look…to the bottom right. It’s hidden among a lot of cells down there.”

“What am I looking for?”

“Just look.”

Annoyed, Beth searched around until she thought she found it. Then she stared.

“…This one doesn’t have a node. And the nucleus is distinctly normal.”

No magical engorgement. No colorful strains. She glanced up at Geneva, then down at the cells. So if that little node on the other nuclei was responsible…

“What kind of effect could do that on a fundamental level?”

“I am assured by the [Enchanters] that magic cannot make Galas muscle easily. Even [Archmages] of old couldn’t do it.”

Geneva was reaching a conclusion, and so was Beth. The Selphid stared down and thought that while it was not the same, she had just seen something that Earth’s scientists would one day have to grapple with.

Namely, the evidence of genetic alterations on a cellular level. But this looked deliberate—even elegant. What in the Dyed Lands could—alter cells?

Was something making the monsters of the Dyed Lands? Then she wondered what had happened in those two hundred years. She had to find out.

This was enough for Beth’s curiosity. The Duck, the knowledge that she had the means and the opportunity to find that cure for the Wasting—all of this would have led Beth forwards. But on the one hundred and seventy-seventh slide of Selphid material, from a dead [Scout] who had been recovered from the Dyed Lands, she stopped.

Geneva Scala was yawning, but she looked up as she saw Beth’s head rise. Without a word, the Selphid pointed. Geneva shot to her feet, walked over—and looked down.

What both women saw was this: the alien, spiky cells of Selphid genetic material. Each cell had rigid cellular walls unlike most cells the [Doctors] were used to seeing. Long and thin. Foreign design to Earth. The long nuclei, the foreign structures that were not even based on Earth’s biology. Everything they understood to be, well, Selphid at the cellular level.

A single-celled organism—but one of incredible flexibility. Each cell had far more components to it than, say, a cell of Human skin tissue because the Selphids were capable of so much variation. Mechanosynthesis, chemical synthesis, allowed them to constantly change to new needs. They were packed with potential.

—And one more thing. Geneva recoiled so fast that Beth had to catch her with Okasha. The [Doctor] stared at Beth in alarm, and the Selphid smiled weakly.

“It’s there.

She pointed down at the slide, and when Geneva looked again, she saw it. Selphid cells, from living tissue, from dead, all looked the same. Just like that. Except where one [Scout] had found—something.

Something that they needed. Something that Selphids wanted. For better or worse—if only that Selphid had lived. For what she saw, in the long nuclei, the blurry, black strands of DNA—were no longer long, pill-like shapes, but at one end, in each cell—the black strand opened like the petals of a flower.

If only this microscope were even stronger and they could see the chromosomes with a fluorescent or electron microscope. But even the faintest, blurry shapes indicated something to Beth.

It blossomed—like the precursor to something else. An unsettling tendril of growth on the most fundamental level. Something—

Something was there. And Beth swore as she looked down at what she thought was beautiful—and unnerved Geneva’s eye with its spirals and twisted geometry—

Beth swore she would go there and find it.





Author’s Notes:

If you are a person who does the healing in Earthworld, you may notice that this chapter has a bit more finesse to it than most chapters.

That’s because I wrote it a month in advance, asked for a group of medical experts among the readers of Innworld, submitted a chapter for approval, and, based on feedback, edited and revised.

It’s not perfect, and honestly, I wish I had more time to make it even better, but I have more ideas for the arc, and the chapter itself is technical in a way I would literally not be able to do without talented people giving feedback.

Not just terminology, but methodology, understanding, perspective—this is why some of the best authors are talented in other fields. Gun nuts can write very convincing gun porn…I mean, action books.

Former soldiers can convey the horrors of war. Me? I fake it. Or perhaps, it’s more honest to say that my method of writing what I cannot personally experience is to think about how it feels. How it would be.

Nevertheless, when you’re dancing in concrete, tangible fields like medicine or science, you’d better know the steps, and I hope you enjoyed this chapter regardless of whether or not you know what it’s like to be in Geneva’s field—but if you do, I hope this chapter really was fun to read.

We continue onwards and believe me, we’ll be back to Geneva. And Beth. And all the others. If I need help in the future, I may put out a call—but it is hard to write in advance. For context, during my one week off in the Volume 1 rewrites? I had a spare two days in which I wrote this chapter so I wasn’t writing during my break. If I need to, I’ll announce an update off…mostly so I can get ahead and do this again.

Thanks! Back to normal, uninformed chapters for me.


Selphids (Linework) by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!


Apista, Valley, and Caleis Berkeson by mg!


Flames by OnionLittle!


Nerry the Gamer Comic by Lanrae!


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“Have you heard of The Wandering Inn?”

It was a question that had grown louder over the past year. At first, it was a whisper amongst the guards on Liscor’s walls. Then it stole into the city, amongst the Antinium. It went to Celum—and spread further. Growing faster and louder, jumping to Invrisil, Pallass. And then across the world.

They didn’t talk of it the same way. The Antinium only knew it as the idea of chess stealing into their Hive. Someone feeding them new food.

Most of Liscor only thought of the ‘crazy Human’ rather than her inn. At some point, it became a contentious haven for the Goblins. A young woman who could make the inconceivable reality. Then—even a point of pride.

Even now, though, so many people took it lightly. The Wandering Inn was connected to Pallass and Invrisil. It was in the news. People knew Erin Solstice’s name better than, say, the Bannermare’s. Oh, they knew the title, but what was her name?

Erin Solstice was famous, and even now—people took her lightly. The world was filled with Jewels, who knew the inn existed and was even within their ability to reach. But they thought it wouldn’t ever affect them, personally.

It was like seeing a mountain rising in the distance over a year’s time and still getting surprised when it walked over and picked on you. In that sense, Jewel had done nothing wrong.

The smart people, though, the ones with cunning or a head for stories—or who had met Erin Solstice—those who had a dream gathered. Because they realized she could help them. Or they could help her.

As winter deepened across the world, The Wandering Inn faded from the news a bit. People were more interested in other things if Erin Solstice did not visibly cause a worldwide incident.

Four months made up the season of winter. The turning from winter to spring marked the end of the year, which was paradoxical to Earther minds. Nevermind that this calendar system made more sense.

Halfway into winter, fourteen out of the sixteen months in the year, would come the Winter Solstice.

That would be a significant day. However, there were sixty-four days—thirty-two days in a month—until that point. The dramatic opening of winter turned into quieter days, at least, at the inn. Erin Solstice caused no explosions. The Haven passed into the Bloodfields, and all the news turned to ongoing wars, like Flos Reimarch continuing his war against Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

The Forgotten Wing Company pushing into the Dyed Lands with the other Great Companies. And the surge to the new lands of Izril.

Forty days into the season of winter and a glum little Gnoll girl was shoveling snow off the front step of the inn. She shook a paw up at the sky.

Damn you for snowing! Somehow, despite having a [Princess] for a mother, she still got the job of shoveling snow that was almost identical to Earth’s custom of child labor. Mrsha’s rage at the sky didn’t last long. Someone gently kicked her with a boot.

“Mrsha, stop complaining and shovel. It’s breakfast hot chocolate. Miss Lyonette got the nibs that finished fermenting in, and she’s got some marshmallows that Miss Imani made. I saw them. The faster we finish, the sooner we get to try it!”

Nanette stopped Mrsha’s rage, and the Gnoll girl looked around open-mouthed. How did the witch girl know that?

“You might hear far better than me, but I listen, Mrsha. Come on, this isn’t hard.”

Nanette had a thick, blue overcoat on and mittens, unlike Mrsha, who just had lighter clothing over her fur. Mrsha’s poofy hat did look cute, though, especially with Apista napping on top. Mrsha rolled her eyes, but they set to work clearing a small path through the paved walkway across the top of the hill.

All they had to do was get to the outhouses; two Thronebearers, Alcaz, and a number of Antinium and Goblins were doing the rest of the walk, so Mrsha’s complaints were even less valid.

Why do I get the <Basic Quest – Shovel Snow, Mrsha!> if this is so easy, Nanette?

The outraged little Gnoll held up a card. Nanette poked her playfully.

“Because you won’t do it otherwise. Besides, I think Miss Erin likes bullying you.”

Mrsha poked her back until they were tromping back into the inn, little shovels put aside, giggling and having a poking-war. As they entered, a vexed voice called out.

Lehra Ruinstrider, are you going to laze around here forever?

Mrsha and Nanette stopped as they saw another familiar sight. Which was the slightly chubby Gnoll Named-rank adventurer being berated by no less than Suxhel. The Gazer was yanking on Lehra’s ear.

“We’re late. Half the caravans to the new lands have set out—”

“Aw, but we can use Erin’s door. Come on, Suxhel, it’s hot chocolate today.”

Everyone is using the door. Erin Solstice told you to find the Crossroads. We’ve wasted our time here—and all the gold! All you do is eat and watch the plays and—drink!”

“Sh-she might give us another clue if we keep waiting. It’s not that expensive here! Come on, Suxhel. Didn’t we say we were going to work with the Halfseekers?”

Lehra wheedled as Suxhel looked to her team for support. But Emper the Stitch-man and Elgrinna hadn’t managed to get Lehra moving for an age, and both had given up.

“We had a nice rest, Lehra. After that war—everyone needed a break. Now is the time to move.”

Emper opined, and Lehra grumbled that he might be right. Elgrinna stopped reading a book and glanced up.

“Getting the Halfseekers was an idea—but it wasn’t going to pan out. I think the team might dissolve. Mage Moore’s fairly content, and it’s not like a Gold-ranker hurts for coin. Rogue Seborn is planning on going to sea, and Jelaqua Ivirith is probably bound to announce her engagement any day now.”

Nanette and Mrsha skidded to a stop as they headed to the breakfast table. Lehra’s own ears perked up.

“She’s getting engaged?”

“She’s been seeing Master Maughin for months. Why do you think she only accepts local contracts?”

“…I thought she was lazy like me.”

Suxhel rolled all her eyes. Lehra rubbed at her face as she sat up a bit.

“What about Moore and, uh—their new Selphid, Ulinde? Can we hire them?”

“Maybe. But I think Moore might retire too. If not—you know he’s seeing Ulinde? He’s not exactly in the adventuring mood either.”


Lehra waved her paws in alarm, and her teammates shook their heads at her. The slightly-disheveled Stargnoll looked around.

“But I thought—well, if we’re not waiting on the Halfseekers, why are we here?”

“Miss Mrsha, punch Lehra, would you?”

Suxhel called out. Lehra yelped at the punch to her leg. Then she rubbed it.

“Okay. Okay…we can think about leaving. It was a nice break. We’ll get back to doing Named-rank things again. All I have to do to level is—fight a Dragon. Naked. Throw myself into danger. I can do that. That’s what Named-ranks do.”

She shuddered faintly, and her team looked at her in concern. Lehra’s confidence seemed shaken since seeing her rival, Dragial, die and the carnage at the Meeting of Tribes. She slapped her cheeks slightly with her paws and tried to focus.




Lehra was an example of someone who had wasted around two months. Or perhaps she hadn’t wasted it, but needed it to simply not be in the middle of fighting.

Not everyone had been so idle, though. A month.

A month was enough time for Ceria to send a single [Message] back saying the Horns of Hammerad were enjoying their time amongst the Great Plains. And that she really enjoyed parfaits with karaoke, and that Erin had to come over so they could play a dancing game at the arcade.

One letter from the half-Elf alluding to the fact that she had made use of the Earther Tent in the Gnoll gathering was equivalent to twenty-three missives from Ksmvr reporting on the state of things. After eleven days of trading amongst the Gnolls, the Gaarh Marsh tribe had finally sold him forty-five trees in exchange for a bale of slightly damaged silks salvaged from the sea and brought to the Meeting of Tribes by a Drowned [Trader].

Erin wanted to know the full story as, somehow, Ksmvr had neglected to write anything other than the final trade. He was far more invested in talking about his teammates than himself, and he had observed Pisces’ feverish studies along with Yvlon’s flying lessons—which Erin had realized were actually somewhat literal about eight reports in.

She was reading the last of his messages, sitting cross-legged, sweating into a light workout shirt this morning. Before she washed and changed herself into her day clothes, she had found lighter clothing was preferable.

But she couldn’t bring herself to do the morning dancing with just her underclothes on like a certain green Hobgoblin sipping juice out of a cup.

“I think Tkrn and Inkar are heading back with the Silverfangs today. I need to get Inkar a gift. I thought she might stay.”

“Eh. She has a tribe. She’s not a city-girl like you.”

Ulvama shot back. Erin glanced up at the Hobgoblin, who was now a regular face in the mornings.

Ulvama, the dancing [Shaman], had ironically been one of the greatest contributors to Erin not going the way of Lehra. Unlike Grimalkin or anyone else, she would relentlessly practice her hobby and have Erin exercise her weak body.

Which—to be fair, everyone tried to get Erin to do. The difference was—Ulvama didn’t bother Erin to come join her. If Erin forgot or made excuses, Ulvama would dance by herself. And her pointed stare of contempt for Erin’s laziness got the [Innkeeper] to rarely miss the morning and nightly practices.

A month of practice still couldn’t get Erin on her feet all day—and in fact, she found herself bound to her wheelchair so much that she could navigate very smoothly with it.

“I feel like your dancing isn’t getting me on my feet, Ulvama.”

“Why’s that?”

The Hobgoblin gave Erin a challenging look, and Erin complained as she pushed herself into a squat from her sitting posture.

“—Because every time I get stronger, you want me to dance harder! How many side-hops did we do today? A thousand? You keep upping the difficulty until I’m so tired I have to sit in the chair!”

“Yah. Because you’re weak. You need legs like this. Hrgh!

Ulvama tensed and flexed a calf. Erin stared at the bare skin and had to grudgingly admit she had muscle there. She poked Ulvama’s leg.

“But you eat almost as much as Lehra.”

“And I can stand up. I am better than you. Now, time to do cat-stretches.”

That was what she called the yoga-like routine where they stretched into complex postures. Erin groaned, but the [Shaman]’s exercises were effective. At least, she thought they were.

An audience of koi fish watched the two at their morning routine. Erin grumbled to Ulvama.

“I just found out yesterday that you steal up to twenty gold pieces worth of food each week. Yelroan did an inventory with Calescent. Can you stop that?”


“…I’m the [Innkeeper].”

Ulvama turned her head and treated Erin to a beaming smile.

“And I am a guest. Make me.”

Erin bit her lip. She hadn’t had it out with the selfish Goblin [Shaman]—mostly because she was grateful for Ulvama’s help. And Yelroan had assured a horrified Lyonette that they could make up for Ulvama’s stomach if they needed to. He had inventoried their door income, and that alone was such a high amount of gold per week that Lyonette had decided to give Mrsha and Nanette an allowance that very day.

But Ulvama? Erin wasn’t quite sure she knew the Hobgoblin yet. She definitely had a feel for Ulvama’s character, though, and it was spicy, bullyish, and you had to catch her caring for people. Erin dropped it and muttered.

“Well, I’ve had enough fighting with Goblins after Gothica. She keeps visiting from Rags’ tribe, you know. And she’s getting worse.”

“Because you fight her.”

Because she aura-clashes with me! She literally stopped my wheelchair until I made her back off!”

“Hmm. So? Sounds like a good [Goth].”

Gothica would annoy Erin until she lost a literal confrontation, and Erin was sick of having to toss her aura at the Goblin. Gothica seemed to believe it was making her level up—and the worst part was that she might be right.

Badarrow was a far better visitor. He would come every week or two, and he and Numbtongue and sometimes Bird would disappear to watch movies, play games, or shoot arrows at things.

Aside from the Gothica issue, Erin rather liked having a new routine and a quieter inn. She was trying to hold a pose where she bent forwards and touched one foot—when Ulvama began poking her in the side.

Stop it. Stopitstopit—

“Hm. Good stomach. You’re getting better. But your arms need more strength. Dancing only takes you so far. Maybe we need to get Mrsha to beat you up each night. That’s good practice, wrestling.”

Erin swatted Ulvama away.

“What, wrestling now? I thought I was just getting enough muscle to walk!”

Ulvama scoffed at her.

“Enough muscle to walk? You mean the same muscle as the One Eye Cyclops? Pssh.

That was her name for Chaldion, and Erin tried not to smile. That would be a pretty weak—

“Hey, what are you doing?”

The [Shaman] tried to put Erin in a headlock. Erin twisted away, but Ulvama pointed.

“Knee’s frozen up.”

Erin’s knee went numb, and she wobbled. Then Ulvama had her head under one arm, and she was messing Erin’s hair like they were boys fighting.

Stop that! I’m gonna get mad! Stop—

“See? No muscle. You want to swing a pan? Even a [Shaman] can beat you up. Let’s practice that. Or you can swing a pan while dancing.”

She let go of Erin before the [Witch] could either activate her flames or use her aura. Erin glared at Ulvama and flopped onto her back.

“Most [Shamans]…aren’t Hobs, Ulvama. I’m tired, and you don’t play fair!”

Ulvama flapped a claw at her.

“You’re stupid. You think Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh can’t beat you up with her paws? She’s eighty years old. I’d watch. She’d punch you out faster than that [Boxer]. It would be very funny.”

“She couldn’t do that. I mean—if I was back to normal, she couldn’t do that.”

Erin hadn’t met Shaman Theikha in person, but she knew the eldest [Shaman] was old. Even if she was a Gnoll and they were taller and bigger than most Humans…Ulvama smirked at her.

“[Shamans] aren’t wimpy [Mages]. She has the heart of the earth. She’d beat two of you with her paws. Four.”

The [Innkeeper] groaned. She didn’t like to hear that, but Ulvama didn’t actually tend to lie much when she was explaining things. Other times? All the lies.

“Great. So do I have to practice fighting now?”

“Mm. Just some exercises. I will think of fun ones. Throwing rocks builds muscle too. We could get little witch and Gnoll and throw rocks at them.”

That was one of Ulvama’s cruel suggestions she didn’t really mean. Erin was pretty sure she didn’t mean it. But then the [Shaman] was poking Erin.

“Up, up. I want hot chocolate.”

“Give me ten minutes. Stop poking me, Ulvama. I’m gonna get mad—tell Lyonette to get it ready, alright?”




No respect. But that was somewhat refreshing from Ulvama. It reminded Erin of the good old days. Goblins, for all their peculiarities, were consistent like that.

Some people gave her all the respect. Too much respect. Ever since the day when Erin had begun telling her story of getting to this world and becoming an [Innkeeper], people had been talking about a book or writing down the tale.

Lyonette was taken with the idea, and she kept trying to find a [Writer] or [Historian] who was interested. Satar Silverfang claimed she wasn’t a good-enough writer yet, and she was trying to document her people’s entire history, but Erin was embarrassed.

Especially because she did have people who never said her first name and bowed and such.

“Miss Solstice. We will have your bath ready momentarily. Did I hear you wished to have Princess Marquin begin serving the hot chocolate and ‘marshed mellows’ now?”

“I’ll be down in ten minutes, Dame Ushar. Yeah, give everyone a cup. And it’s marshmallows.”

The formal Thronebearer bowed and strode down the hall. She had on her gold armor like always, and—Erin felt guilty as she saw three Antinium trudging out of the bathing room.

It was on the ground floor of the inn, and Palt had enchanted it so the moisture wouldn’t mold the wood. Even so, they cranked a window open so there was a cold breeze—and a hot copper tub filled with water.

The water came from the Antinium Workers who hauled it from the well. They could do it fast, and three of them could fill the tub in less than five minutes. Then a simple heating rune warmed the water until it was steaming.

“We really should do, like, a permanent bath house with plumbing. Sorry, guys. I mean…girls?”

Erin squinted at the Workers. Rosencrantz wasn’t here, and she wondered if Ushar had deliberately selected the Antinium who weren’t distinctly male like Bird or Pawn.

Silverboots had never indicated which way they cared to be addressed, at any rate. One of Silveran’s [Cleaners] had been part of the new inn staff—much to Silveran’s jealousy. They waved one hand as Erin wheeled into the bathroom and the door shut.

Silveran. Silverboots. Silverarm. Who else had popped up among the Workers because of his cleaning service? There was Silvermop, Silverstache…and those were just the Antinium who had taken after his name.

“How many people is Silveran employing these days? It used to be two dozen Workers. Now…did he really say over a hundred?”

That couldn’t be right. Then again—Silveran’s Cleaners were very good at their jobs, cheap, and he had told Erin he had employed his first Human because there was no Cleaner’s Guild, he paid better, and you could get reliable work through him. He was already employing a Drake and two Gnolls.

The times, they were a-changing. Erin could now soak in a bathtub—and notice Ushar had sprinkled in some dried petals, which gave the water a scent.

“Rosewater? And it’s got oils. Aw. Come on.

This was too much fancy respect. Erin did like having a Goblin [Chef] doing the food, though. She remembered waking up on the floor of her inn, cleaning all the tables from last night, and cooking all before dawn.

These days, she danced with Ulvama, had a bath, and breakfast was waiting for her without doing work once.

“…Am I getting spoiled? If I am, I’d better drag down everyone with me.”

The staff and inn were nice. It was nice having Relc here in the mornings because he had a room here. It was great that Mrsha had school and a routine, that Nanette would sit in the tower with Bird and sing some mornings, and that Erin could call up a friend in her new theatre at a moment’s notice.

“Ah, right. Goodbye present to Tkrn and Inkar. I think it’s gotta be chipping in for that new saddle Krshia found, but I also can give her a bunch of snacks to bring to the Gnolls. Mana candies, Unbreakable Scones, Spider Succulents—no, wait, those will never survive the journey without breaking. Um…”

Her menu had a lot more items on it, many of actual quality. Erin had found she liked making new dishes—if she didn’t have to replicate them. With Calescent’s help, only the magical ones that required [Wondrous Fare] needed her direct involvement.

Plus, the [Chef] had developed a handy new Skill—[Copy Recipe]. With it, he could choose a single dish per day to steal from Erin, even the ones he shouldn’t be allowed to make.

Unbreakable Scones, incidentally, were Erin’s latest creation. She saw Relc gnawing on one and dipping it in the hot cocoa that morning. He had snow on his boots. He must have been helping shovel.

“Relc, are you still eating that scone? Give it up.”

I wonsh lesh ish beash me.

He growled, and his sharp teeth ground against the Unbreakable Scone. It was, uh…hard to eat.

In theory, it was a dense, highly calorific piece of bread that had a huge amount of butter, Sage’s Grass, a teeny bit of cement mix…and other hard edibles in it.

In practice, Erin had yet to find anyone who could take a chunk out of the scone in a single bite except Snapjaw—and even she had been afraid she might break her teeth on the stuff. But the effect was that if you managed to get a bite, you developed [Stoneskin]!

Your skin would literally turn as hard as a rock. A full ‘bite’ of half a scone gave you a [Stoneskin] effect for thirty minutes. Powerful.

The issue was, uh…Relc had been gnawing on this scone for four days now, and he had it halfway down. Until Erin figured out how to make them more edible, they were a joke food. She’d heard one of her guests had taken a scone and hammered it into the street until it broke the cobblestones.

Snapping it into swallowable pieces was also not a good idea. Menolit had gamely had Lehra saw off a chunk with her Blade of Mershi and—painfully—swallowed a huge chunk.

…He still told stories about passing it out of his system, mostly in the same piece. But the point was that Erin was working on her magic in her spare time.

In fact…she levitated a mug of hot chocolate off Ishkr’s tray with her hands.

Whoooo~ I have the power of ghosts. Who could be doing this?

Her levitation abilities thanks to her [Witch] magic were a lot less impressive when she added sound effects. But Erin still beamed every time she did it. Correspondingly, every single [Mage] grew embarrassed or pretended Erin didn’t exist.

Erin sipped from the hot cocoa and reflected it should not taste this good for a new product. Didn’t chocolate factories on Earth have a formula they’d refined for ages?

Then again…they also had labels that said quite explicitly there wasn’t much chocolate in their ‘chocolate’. Whereas Erin was getting hers from a garden filled with literal magic.

“What’s the sweet stuff in here, Lyonette? Sugar?”

“Nope. Nali-sticks. One one-hundredth per cup.”

“Huh. That doesn’t seem like much.”

Even for the famously sweet nali—maybe it was just the quality chocolate being fresh. Erin smiled as she sipped from her cup, then she looked out the window.

“…Is that graffiti on Liscor’s walls?”

Everyone stared out the window. Lyonette groaned. Erin stared at the giant image of an Antinium pushing a wheelbarrow, which some citizens were admiring.

“I wonder who could have done that.”

“I hear there’s been street art in Invrisil, Celum, Esthelm, Liscor—but not Pallass.”

Ishkr carefully glanced out the window. Erin eyed the Antinium, but it didn’t seem like a critique of anything. Just a pent-up artist unable to go anywhere. She decided not to comment.

“If Zevara comes by, I’m not here. [Invisibility]!”

She flicked her fingers. Erin did not vanish. She was smiling as Mrsha and Nanette stared the other way, trying not to give her any attention. And that was the inn. Erin called out to Lyonette.

“I’m going to Liscor soon to see about Inkar’s gift. Where’s Numbtongue?”


“Octavia’s shop?”


“Strongheart farm?”

“Nope. Riding with Salkis.”

“…Hmm. Okay. Let me know if you spot Ryoka or that guy.

Erin glowered a moment, then exhaled slowly. At least Lulv and the Manus crowd hadn’t come by for a while. She wheeled over to the door as a [Knight] came striding over to escort her into the city. Normen, Jewel, and Ser Dalimont formed up in a practiced manner as Erin smiled.

The inn was peaceful, for a given value of peace.




Ryoka Griffin’s list of injuries she had accumulated over the past year might exceed any other Earthers’ record. She had been slapped by a Wyrm’s tail, had her arms dislocated, lost fingers, broken bones, been shot by crossbows, and more.

She had also reached Courier, was entangled—yes, that was the best word—with Tyrion Veltras, and had made powerful enemies on multiple continents.

Over the forty days of winter, she thought that no one had come closer to killing her than one man. Where Wyrms had failed, where myths from the lands of the fae and dead gods and Persua had all fallen behind—

Hedault versus Ryoka had nearly done her in for good.




Thirty-eight days ago.


Ryoka Griffin was still a bit shocked Valeterisa could like anyone. But the Archmage of Izril seemed to have upgraded Montressa from ‘apprentice’ to…cat.

She kept patting Montressa on the head and telling everyone how exceptional she was. Which, to Ryoka, felt more like having a favorite cat.

Then again—given how Valeterisa treated most people, a pet was an upgrade. She certainly seemed more present after being stopped by the Unmarked Coach and Fierre. Then again, a lot had changed.

Two days after her arms got dislocated and Valeterisa was saved from herself, Ryoka Griffin was breakfasting with Fierre.

“So you’re working for Lady Ieka? Seriously?”

The Vampire girl gave her a toothy grin.


Ryoka raised her brows over breakfast at The Wandering Inn. She had a room and so did Fierre, and she was antsy today. A light green faerie was currently devouring a muffin larger than she was, and a Sariant Lamb was chewing on another at their table. But even Fierre seemed to treat Nerry and Shaestrel as familiars at best. Not as real people.

The irony of a Vampire being out-subterfuged by a Sariant Lamb was not lost on Ryoka. Yet Fierre was distracted. She looked, well, happy. Excited.

“It’s the kind of job I never thought I’d have, Ryoka. I never considered working for the nobility—too much danger of inquisitiveness. But Lady Ieka…she has contacts. She’s magical. Clever.”

“She, uh, likes women.”

Fierre’s smile widened as Ryoka coughed into her fist.

“That’s a perk! I think. I don’t mind it, and if she wants me to wear a maid’s outfit or something—well, the employee can flirt with their employer, can’t they?”

“I think that breaks about every labor law I can think of. But since I don’t know if Ieka obeys any…good luck?”

Ryoka had some misgivings on how professional Ieka was, but Fierre just rolled her eyes.

“I’m open to tons of stuff, Ryoka, but I think she just wants an expert helping her. Which is too bad.”

“Yeah, yeah. You thirsty Vampire. As long as you’re happy.”

The Wind Runner sighed and glanced towards Shaestrel again. The Spring Fae was giving her a meaningful look, and Fierre switched tacks.

“Ieka would love to have you on retainer—but something tells me you’re busy. Can I write ‘relationship’ with Tyrion Veltras on my notes? I’ll cut you in 50% if I can sell that as fact.”

“None of your business. But you can put me down for any healing potions on the black market. I might need them soon enough.”

Not just for herself…she was speaking of an upcoming event she was dreading. Ryoka had put it off, and Fierre raised her brows calmly.

“You can pay an exorbitant fee if I get any—though Ieka has me snapping any up too. The fact is that there aren’t healing potions on the black market, Ryoka. No one’s selling. Even the hoarders are nervous.”

Healing potions were vanishing. Now it was how many you had—and Ryoka Griffin had heard Jericha talking about House Veltras’ supply with Tyrion. The Vampire girl, for all she loved blood, lowered her voice.

“It’s going to be a bloody war, the next one that breaks out. The King of Destruction, Ailendamus, and the Forgotten Wing companies are the hot battlegrounds right now, and they all have surpluses. But a city? Not so many healing potions. When there are none to be had…”

No more fast healing. No more curing a massive wound in a moment. Valeterisa had her magic, but she was one person. Ryoka swallowed hard.

“Yeah. Well, on the subject of magic, I have a meeting at twelve I cannot be late for. Wish me luck, Fierre. Because I’m about to either be hexed to Rhir and back or…well, I can’t imagine a fun outcome.”

She got up, pushing her chair back, and the Vampire girl raised her brows. Erin waved at Ryoka as she wheeled herself towards the [Garden of Sanctuary] with Ulvama.

“Hey, Ryoka. Off to meet with the jerk?

“Not Tyrion, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] was still mad at Ryoka for even associating with Tyrion…but Ryoka still took breakfast at The Wandering Inn and hung out here as often as she could.

No…she visited Sammial and Hethon and sometimes watched Tyrion trying to practice and regain his levels or went with House Veltras on their extended vacation, but the winter was reminding Ryoka of a time limit.

Her time limit. Erin needed rest, and she had her own goals. But Ryoka…Ryoka knew the Winter Solstice was coming. She had a great task—everyone did.

Ryoka knew how she could make a first start in gaining a powerful ally in Ailendamus. The only problem was…she gulped.

It was going to require something she had given away on behalf of the Horns of Hammerad. And somehow, even if she showed up at 12 o’clock precisely, she didn’t think Hedault was going to like her taking back the wand she had sold him.

Not one bit.




Shaestrel’s goals were a mystery. She might have been along for the ride. But in order of importance, Ryoka regarded her tasks as follows:

Find weapons or follow the Faerie King’s hints to stick it to the dead gods, be it finding dungeons, mastering the wind, or so on.

Gain the full support of Ailendamus and Rhisveri by fulfilling his task of reviving the Dryads or in some other manner.

Help Nerry to realize her people’s goals of fulfilling their own quest.

Something about Tyrion Veltras.


It was vague, but the truth was that it was more direction than Ryoka Griffin had had at a lot of times in her life.

In fact, she’d been doing more prep work and more talking and discussing the problem than she had—ever. Before she ran off, she talked with Erin. She talked with Nerry and Shaestrel, and Ryoka had a good approximation of some of the problems in front of her.

Firstly, Shaestrel was pretty certain that the ironwood wand that Ryoka had sold to Hedault for the Horns way back when was a Dryad seed, or rather, a Great Tree’s seed as the core. A nigh-unlimited green magic wand that was probably Relic-class or close enough.


“Ye didn’t do wrong by selling it.”


“Really? You think it was good to sell the one Relic-class item the Horns recovered? For all the help Hedault gave and the appraisals?”

Ryoka was relieved to hear that. Shaestrel snorted.


“What? That? Nae, you haggled as well as a [Sailor] ten years at sea staring at a bare chested Siren singing on the rocks. ‘Twasn’t worth it, though the favor still remains. But yer friends wouldn’t’ve used the wand well. A boney duelist necromancer or a frozen daughter of whores?”


“Pisces and Ceria. Can you not insult Ceria’s ancestry? I get the part about Sprigaena—”

Shaestrel drop-kicked Ryoka on the forehead.


Don’t talk of that name to me! Those traitors—as I was saying, neither one’s got a green bone in their body. That [Enchanter] though…getting the wand from him may be difficult.”


“I’ve got the Faerie King’s obol. Wouldn’t that be magic beyond even the wand?”

Shaestrel hesitated.


“Oh, aye. But something tells me that one’s not the kind to like reneged promises. Reminds me of brownies or crafter sprites, he does. Very picky. Hates broken promises.”


That…was so accurate to Hedault that Ryoka winced and smiled at the same time. She didn’t know him as well as Kevin or Selys did, but she knew quite well that he was a fastidious man who did not like unexpected things.

And that was pretty much Ryoka’s modus operandi. Ryoka jogged down Invrisil’s streets as she spoke. People turned because they noticed the Wind Runner—but many smiled because they saw the grumpy, bouncing Sariant Lamb in a sling across Ryoka’s chest. Nerry looked mildly seasick, but the carrying sling, rather like one you used for a baby, gave her a way to keep up with Ryoka and see.

She couldn’t speak, and formulating words was hard, so Ryoka didn’t expect her to join in, but the Sariant Lamb’s sour glare at everything said much.

“Maybe Hedault hasn’t done much with his wand. We could be offering him way more with new magic, and I can sweeten the deal with…well, I can try.”

Ryoka’s hopeful note lasted right up until she reached Hedault’s apartment. Then she realized that even if she, personally, hadn’t heard of things changing, it didn’t mean they hadn’t changed. The enchanting world was not a loud one unless you were invested in it—and while Ryoka had been flying around the world, Hedault had been moving up in the world.




Literally. Ryoka Griffin found his new apartment and stared at the sign out front. Instead of his home in the rich street, he now had a four-story apartment. And according to the sign…he owned the entire thing.


Enchanter Hedault, no solicitation. No meeting without prior booking. Specializations: artifact identification, Tier 4 general enchantments, bicycle and skateboard tuning.

Affiliated with Solar Cycles. Please inquire with Selys Shivertail of Liscor for any orders pertaining to vehicles.

No bribery. No [Merchants]. No individuals affiliated with or including Archmage Valeterisa, Erin Solstice, Gilam Quellae, Ulva Terland, Mihaela Godfrey, and Saliss of Lights allowed except by prior, written consent. No [Assassins]. No copying or other theft of enchanting designs. No deferred or delayed payment accepted. No dogs. No cats. No avian or any other pets. 

Commissions on Lifewood Furniture closed. Please see Merchant’s Guild for any available products.


The sign was typically Hedault, and Ryoka craned her neck back to see each window had been closed—but the [Enchanter] was clearly doing well if he could afford this entire apartment. She really wanted to know what some of the people here had done to get that ban—and they must have all done something to get their names written out.

Good on Kevin and Selys if their business was so profitable it was the second thing listed under Hedault’s services. But Ryoka really, really didn’t like the Lifewood Furniture mention.

“What the fuck is Lifewood Furniture?”

Shaestrel made a face.


“…Is it…is it the souls of family members bound to your seats or couches so you can hear them scream and watch ye enjoy yourself for the rest of their mortal lives? No? That’s what I think of. Don’t ask me. Magic here is stupid betimes.”


Ryoka was hopeful that wasn’t the case, but then a sharp hoof jabbed her through her sling. She heard a rustling—and a very annoyed Sariant Lamb scribbled with one hoof.

One of the things that had taken Ryoka a while was—equipping Nerry with things she needed to just communicate and get around.

The sling was one thing. And Ryoka was also trying to fix her damaged glider and assemble gear befitting a Courier. She had some artifacts, but she wanted to be ready for a fight. Her new Faeblade with its paralysis and flame settings was quite powerful, but Ryoka felt unprepared to take on Valeterisa or anyone of her caliber.

Nerry, similarly, needed a way to write that didn’t involve her dipping her hoof in ink or using a quill with her mouth. Ryoka had heard you could buy quills that wrote whatever you said—and they were completely damn useless for a Sariant Lamb.

Instead, she had helped fashion a very crude ‘pen’ that was a metal nib attached to some straps so Nerry could write with a hoof.

It was still painful and slow because her hoof didn’t have the same dexterity as a hand, but the Sariant was pleased by it. It seemed a lot of the things impeding her people’s ability to do things were their quadrupedal nature and tiny limbs. Wands, writing implements—everything was so hard.

Poor Sariants. To make up for this, Nerry was a ball of vengeance and contempt towards everything else. Which Shaestrel and Ryoka rather respected. She also had as much information as Fierre, albeit sometimes only in things rich owners of Sariants possessed.


Lifewood. Very expensive. Very rich. Rumored to give long life. Conforms. Even grows. Very lucrative. Probably paid for apartment.


“Ah, fuck.”

Ryoka groaned. She looked up—and coincidentally, just before her meeting with Hedault, the doors to his apartment opened, and two [Porters] came out carrying a chair. Their leader, who looked like someone from the Merchant’s Guild by the crest on his clothing, was bowing.

“Another fine work, Master Hedault. We will have the auction’s proceeds to you on time by the end of the week, sir. No need to involve any other Merchant’s Guild or a private association! If there is anything I can d—”

The door shut without any physical help and locked itself magically. At least Hedault still had his giant scrying orb embedded in the doorframe.

The Merchant’s Guild representative was smart enough not to say anything until he was down the steps and a ways down the street. Ryoka had debated going up to the door, but it was 11:47 and she was therefore far too early for Hedault.

“Excuse me.”

No, we are not accepting—oh, the Wind Runner. Excuse me, Miss. We have to get this to the Merchant’s Guild now.”

The representative looked askance before he recognized her, and no less than sixteen bruisers, men and women, were waiting for the two [Porters] with the chair. They set off towards the Merchant’s Guild, and Ryoka eyed the chair.

It looked…vibrant. Beautiful wood, rosewood maybe, gleaming with a fresh varnish and probably cut from a single log or something. This chair wasn’t upholstered, though, and didn’t look ‘done’.

Yet the wood seemed to be subtly shifting in the two men’s hands, and Ryoka had the oddest feeling as she stared at it.

The…difference between a desk or a chair made of dead wood was the feeling that this chair was still, somehow, living. Hence the name. It was unsettling. Beautiful, and Shaestrel muttered as she saw it.


“Ah. So that’s what it is.”


“What’s that chair? Lifewood?”

“Yes, Miss Griffin.”

The man was friendlier to Ryoka, as a Courier, than most. He spoke quickly, pointing to Hedault’s apartment.

“Master Hedault—a prickly man, genius, but hard to work with—has been making them all year. His first creations were a bit wild—overgrown, needing water, but these latest ones are going to all the nobility. In fact, this might go overseas at a huge auction. Lifewood, and if we give him the right chair, he can enchant one to modern styles. No thousand-year-old chairs in old fashion. Of course, it requires so much finicky precision…no glue, no metal. The same tree, and a naturally-made varnish. We have to work with dedicated [Woodcarvers], but as you can see—”

“What makes Lifewood special?”

The representative gave Ryoka a blank look.

“Oh, it’s got all kinds of properties. Many say it’s got natural power in it, and it does generate green magic, but between you and me, I’d rather buy a chair and pocket the rest. We have to sew a cushion to match, and the cushion’s just basic. But the chair is many times stronger than a regular one, and it will conform to how you sit. Some you can water and put in light and they’ll grow leaves and branches and repair cracks. But most owners just buy them for the value.”

“Ah. So it’s useless crap for rich people.”

Half the porters and guards laughed, and the representative gave Ryoka a grin.

“Miss Wind Runner, you shouldn’t say such things of our clients. It’s rich enough for the Guild. No less than Lady Ulva bought the first few sets, and Terandria wants as many as we can buy. Master Hedault’s the first to rediscover how to make Lifewood in centuries.”

So this had made Hedault rich. Ryoka had half suspected it was Solar Cycles…she groaned as she thanked them and jogged back to the apartment to pace back and forth. This was going to be harder than she thought.

At 11:59, according to the magical timepiece Ryoka had bought to avoid being late, the door to Hedault’s apartment swung open.

Doubtless, he had seen her, and she jogged up the steps—and saw a magical note hovering in the air.

A scroll was floating next to the door, listing instructions for visitors. Money had given Hedault all the things he wanted—including a way to interact with people even less.


Ryoka Griffin — 12:00. Wipe feet thoroughly before entry. Proceed to second floor. Follow the arrows. No pets.


She stopped, stared down at the glossy, transparent gel doormat, and shivered as she stuck a foot in it. It was made of water, and the cleansing mat removed the dirt from her feet. Then she glanced at Nerry.

“Aw, come on.”

Had she already messed up by bringing Nerry? Ryoka did not want to put the Sariant Lamb outside even for a moment. The scroll flashed with handwriting, brisk and impatient.


The rules are very clear. Place the lamb outside or find a caretaker. Our meeting is now 29 minutes.


She just—could not win with him. And she couldn’t run back to the inn and—Ryoka was about to dash outside or beg Nerry to stay put when Shaestrel hovered up.


“Listen, ye fastidious blowhard! My kin, Ivolethe, has been your guest! Do you grant me the same entry? If so, the lamb stays. If not, we both shall leave and ye shall be poorer all of your days for it! A brownie has rules even the Faerie King must acknowledge, but no law has ever been set that does not bend or break!”


The writing stopped dead—and Ryoka held her breath. Shaestrel had not gone through the doorway but hovered outside of it, arms folded like a…

Well, like a Vampire who couldn’t enter without permission. And at the same time, like an imperious member of the Faerie Court, small as a Fraerling and ten times as arrogant.

After an eight second pause, the writing did not resume—but a voice spoke from the scrying orb.

“Enter. The lamb and your…guest are both welcome. Next time, please indicate any company in writing.”

“Thank you, Hedault. We’re on our way.”

Ryoka exhaled in relief. She saw the way up the first staircase was clearly marked by glowing arrows and stepped quickly upstairs with Shaestrel.

That was the easy part.




Hedault was not an idiot. Ryoka suspected, with all due respect to him, that he was definitely high-functioning. A literal savant.

But an idiot? Oh, no. By the time Shaestrel appeared, he had a bowl of assorted nuts and some rye bread and butter that Ryoka suspected came from his pantry. And he definitely remembered Ivolethe.

“Ryoka Griffin. You are on-time, and your lamb may sit there. Hopefully it will not move or shed. I did not expect to see a…green Sprite. Is she important?”

“Her name is Shaestrel, and—yes. I’m not sure of her rank, but she is very important.”

The Faerie was grabbing nuts and biting them down. She was a messy eater, but she paused as Hedault nodded to her.

“Greetings, Shaestrel.”


“Ah, there’s politeness. Greetings, Magus of Humanity. You are smarter than most. You have the honor of seeing me, and that is hospitality for hospitality. Trust for trust. I think ye will understand the nature of our visit and weigh what is offered wisely.”


He blinked at her, then turned to Ryoka. Hedault sat back, steepled his fingers, and eyed her up and down.

She was no longer the City Runner pestering him on behalf of the Horns, and he had moved up quite a bit. Hedault spoke crisply.

“So…this is not a mere consultation as you indicated on your form?”

Ryoka sighed and winced as she fumbled at her belt pouch.

“What should I have written? I assumed that was general. I—have a big request to make of you, Hedault. How are you?”

“Inclined to skip small talk. I am sure your events and mine are a matter of public record unless it is germane to our talks?”

“…Fair enough.”

She sort of liked him. He was unapologetically straightforward, and she remembered that he had somewhat taken to her when Reynold had finally gotten her a meeting with him. How had it gone last time?

She didn’t recall exactly, but she knew he had gotten invested in talking about enchantments. Ryoka switched tacks and was surprised to realize she was actually accommodating and understanding. When had she figured out how to talk to people?

Maybe a year of dealing with people as troublesome as me helped out a lot. All I had to do was meet a bunch of people like Madain. Or Alber.

“—I was in Ailendamus, recently. That’s part of why I’m here, Hedault. I have a very important obligation as, well, a Courier and more. Shaestrel is here in Ivolethe’s place, and she is an important representative. Nerry is—a companion.”

The lamb was sitting with her hooves folded, not eating, just watching the conversation with too-sharp eyes. Hedault glanced at her, then at Ryoka.

“Very well. Are you representing Ailendamus? House Veltras? The Runner’s Guild or…The Wandering Inn?”

He pronounced that last part with some hesitation. Ryoka smiled faintly.

“Let’s call it myself in service to Ailendamus. None of the Five Families, not the Runner’s Guild or anyone else. I’m only friends with Erin. Have you enjoyed working with her?”

The [Enchanter]’s eyes narrowed, and he tapped his fingers together twice. Ryoka remembered that was his tic. He also was missing a ring finger on his left hand—the product of a magical mishap, she suspected.

“Her inn has never failed to upset my stomach. Whether or not my experience is a net positive or negative, Erin Solstice is not a woman I care to associate with without preparation for a disorganized day.”

Did that mean he liked her or not? The [Enchanter] reached for a cup of tea, and Ryoka did the same.

“Small talk seems inevitable regardless of my comments.”

“I’m sorry for wasting your time. I think it’s a Human—a personal thing to lead with that.”

He gazed at her. He was balding with orange hair, and his eyes were a sharp, luminescent beige-grey color, like wild cotton, perhaps, but magical.

“Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad was refreshingly direct. Master Pelt, likewise. Efficient men who I was pleased to work with. Kevin can be likewise direct and concise in his communications.”

“No efficient women?

She couldn’t help but needle him slightly. Hedault narrowed his eyes.

“Maid Ressa in service to Magnolia Reinhart. Maviola El at work. Would you like me to write up a list of both genders?”

Ryoka winced.

“No…just asking. Alright, Hedault. I can see this isn’t going to be easy. Er…this isn’t small talk. How’s the, um, Lifewood business going?”

Hedault’s pinched glare shifted. He sat back and gave Ryoka a wary expression. Then…he closed his eyes, snapped them open, and spoke quickly.

“It is, as you can surmise, the most profitable endeavor I have undertaken even including Solar Cycles. Although I personally find my partnership in that project more rewarding. The Lifewood enchanting within my capacity is mostly for furniture; few have asked for functional objects, and I am not prepared as of yet to make a Lifewood Carriage per Lady Reinhart’s request, nor was she able to produce the raw materials immediately. But it has contributed to four levels and my class consolidation and capstone. I am now a Level 42 [Lifewood Artifact Analysis Enchanter]”

Ryoka’s mouth fell open. That name was so—pedantic it fit Hedault. But he’d hit Level 40 thanks to the wand? Hedault wasn’t done yet.

“In recognition of this success, I have already allocated a substantial sum to my debt, which I articulated to the Horns of Hammerad and yourself. If you are collecting upon that, I will set aside all but my most obligatory projects.”

He sat forward, gazing at her. Ryoka sucked in her cheeks. He thought she wanted to renegotiate their debt. He was…partly right. But the real reason she was here was going to really make him upset.

“I, uh—appreciate that, Hedault. And that is partly why I’m here.”

He gave her a pinched nod and waited. She slid something over the table. He gazed down—and his eyes opened wide a moment.

“What is—”

“What do you make of these?”

A stone with a hole in it, marked in red lines, threatened to set fire to the table it sat upon. Hedault had a big slab of slate that floated over an enchanted dais—he had probably made it himself. The obol of the Faerie King, marked ‘flame’, or rather, a word that encapsulated a lot of meanings of fire, was threatening to set the stone on fire.

“It’s drawing the magic of my enchantment in on itself. It is—inherently magical. Is this an enchantment? It’s fire magic. No. It’s…this isn’t a spell. Wh—this isn’t an enchantment. What is it?”

He saw more in the obol than most. Ryoka almost wished she’d shown this to lesser [Mages]. Jericha had been unable to guess at the obol when Ryoka had flashed one at her, and Ryoka didn’t have enough to give out, even to her allies.

“It’s something you couldn’t get anywhere in the world. It’s called an ‘obol’, and it’s more like a—”

Word. This is magical language. A magical word so powerful it reacts with ambient mana.”

Hedault’s eyes glittered as he lifted it up. Then he stared at Ryoka and then at Shaestrel.

“It’s the same magic as Shaestrel and Ivolethe. Entirely foreign. Wild, for lack of better description. It reminds me of my studies that claimed Unicorns and other immortal beings had magical systems that defied modern [Mage] spells and Skills.”

He did know his stuff! His hand closed around the obol as if he wanted to snatch it away—but he placed it down with effort.

“If you would like me to decipher this and enchant something with it—I will put all my projects aside. Where did you get it?”

His eyes were alight with desire and interest, and Ryoka had his full attention. The Wind Runner smiled faintly.

“It was payment for services rendered, Hedault. Extremely weird services. I am prepared to give you a number of these—and they might make your enchanting magic far more powerful. But I…I need to have something in exchange. Do you remember what Ivolethe said when I showed you the wand we traded you for your help?”

Hedault’s avaricious gaze turned into inquisitiveness—then alarm. He looked at Ryoka, then touched the grey, ironwood wand at his side. His mind ran ahead of the conversation and then he sat back in his chair—and stood up, pushing himself back.

“—You want the wand. No. We have made an agreement, and I cannot trade it. It is the most powerful object I possess.”

Ryoka exhaled hard. So much for an easy entry.

“I need it, Hedault. Let me explain—”

He was backing up fast. And Ryoka saw the floor glowing and barrier spells activating.

“No. I do not suffer reneged contracts. Not from a Courier, not from one of the Five Families. I will involve the Watch and Magnolia Reinhart herself, if I must. The law applies to everyone fairly, and I will not be persuaded by you, a Gold-rank team, or Erin Solstice herself.”

“Hedault, let me explain—”

She feared that this reaction wasn’t due to her—but probably Hedault’s experience with other individuals. Ryoka could just bet that pre-Circle of Thorns nobles would use [Assassins]—and Gold-rank adventurers would use force if they thought they were overpaying for something.

I’m not stealing the wand! I swear on a truth spell! I am negotiating, Hedault!

He stopped behind six magical barriers, each ensconced in runes. And unlike Valeterisa—Ryoka didn’t see an easy way to get at the enclosed magical circuit. Hedault’s face was hostile.

“That remains to be seen. I have heard that claim before—and I am taking sufficient precautions this time. State your offer.”

Ryoka was about to snap back when someone kicked her in the knee. She winced—and looked down and saw Nerry’s warning stare. Someone pinched her ear with a tiny hand made of spring and buzzed a whispered voice.


Careful. Yon man might have brownie blood after all. Going back on a deal is the hardest thing of all to do without a grudge. Don’t think of it as that, aye? Think of it as a new deal. One wrong move and he’ll stop listening.”


Stop. Ryoka froze—and her mind cleared. She bit back the harsh words and looked at Hedault.

He was clutching the wand to his chest. She realized, suddenly, that he was throwing off the same vibe as Madain. Or Lupp.

He had probably been attacked more than once, and she was threatening the most valuable thing to him. He wasn’t even thinking of the obol. Ryoka…knew how to do this, didn’t she? She took a deep breath.

“Hedault, are you casting [Detect Truth]?”

“Yes. But I am not a fool to think that Archmage Eldavin’s acquaintance cannot defeat it.”

The man called out, glaring at her. Ryoka nodded.

“Then—read me carefully. And trust me—please, Hedault. On Erin Solstice’s inn and Shaestrel and Ivolethe’s hospitality—which is not easily breached—I am not going to take that wand from you by force. I need it. But I want to offer you a fair deal for it, and there is a great reason I need it. Will you let me explain why?”

She looked at him—and his sudden alarm and anger faded bit by bit as he stared at her, then Shaestrel and licked his lips. Hedault’s death-grip on the wand loosened. He closed his eyes.

“…I have never been attacked nor forced against my will to do something at The Wandering Inn. Though Erin Solstice has been pushy beyond politeness. Nor have you ever betrayed trust—aside from the moment when you tried to kill Archmage Eldavin.”

Ryoka’s smile turned lopsided. Hedault stared at her, clear-eyed. But then the barriers deactivated, and he slowly sat back down.

“Explain the context to me. Then I shall make a decision.”




How much did Ryoka tell Hedault? Fithea and the nature of Ailendamus was out. Earth…she suspected his contact with Kevin had told him a lot.

Earth was a secret Ryoka had tried and failed to keep hidden. The Faerie King was hard to explain and touched on the dead gods.

So…because this was critical, she told him everything but the Faerie King’s and Ailendamus’ natures.

“A Dryad seed?”

Hedault stared at the wand lying on the table in front of them. Ryoka had placed a bunch of the Faerie King’s obols on the other side, and both she and Hedault were inspecting the other’s items.

Ryoka couldn’t sense any signs of life from within the wand. But she touched it and felt—


Had she ever touched it before? Maybe once, but either Hedault or the usage had—activated the power of this wand. The green felt like nature, but all of nature, not just your image of green spring. It felt like an echo.

It felt like the gigantic forest in the lands of the Fae. Very, very faintly compared to that place, but the potential was there. Ryoka’s skin prickled, and she saw Shaestrel staring sadly at the seed.

“I—think so. Shaestrel. Is it really a Dryad’s seed? Would casting magic have…”

Harmed the seed? Killed it? The faerie’s voice was soft.


“Aye, that’s it. I knew it the moment I saw it. If you’re asking if it’s the seed of a Dryad unborn or if it were harmed—no to either. Not exactly. You can’t burn a seed up like this. Ye might have drawn from some of it, but it was a seed of a great tree and has power to spare. As to whether it’d make a Dryad…that’s not one thing you hold. It’s potential. A Dryad comes from a tree. Wherever it were planted—that matters.”


The last member of a species. Or the revival of a great forest. Ryoka held the wand and had the sudden urge to break it open. To make up in a small way for her carried guilt.

She knew the moment Shaestrel said that—she couldn’t ever agree to letting Hedault have the wand. Not knowing what it contained.

The problem was—it seemed Hedault knew her will too, because he stared at the wand as she slowly put it on the table and forced her hands back. He was playing with an obol.

“It is the foundation of my fortunes, Ryoka Griffin. I counted on this wand. It was given to me fairly—and I do not like being forced to do things. Not at all.”

He hesitated, and Ryoka caught herself—again—before she could say something hasty. Hedault fiddled with his hands, tapping them on the table.

“…But nor do I like the idea of using a living being for my magic. That makes me uncomfortable. And if what that wand contains were to be known—every [Druid] in the world would come after it. Countless individuals.”

A curious thing happened there as Ryoka watched the [Enchanter] sitting across from her. The man in his thirties stared down at the wand, and a host of emotions overtook him.

A sudden silence that made him go still. A pensive closing of his eyes—then a look of pain and frustration that shifted to loss—such that his eyes glimmered. He looked up at her, and she felt like a monster.

He did it so fast. The balding [Enchanter] gazed up at her.

“—I cannot see a future in which you, or I, become comfortable with the notion that I keep the wand. That you take it in exchange for something is inevitable. I—must reconsider my business. But I cannot imagine the results any other way.”

He stood up again, but slowly. Ryoka’s mouth fell open, and even Nerry blinked. Hedault—moved at a different mental speed to her. He had transitioned from his decision at the speed of light, and now he was looking around his apartment, as if counting the cost of running it without his Lifewood furniture.

Suddenly—Ryoka stood up, hands raised, and began speaking quickly.

“Hold on, Hedault. I have more than the obol. And—and if you need anything, let’s put a price on—”

Suddenly, the conversation changed from ‘persuade Hedault to give me the wand’, to ‘give him a fair deal’. He looked so genuinely pained as he listened absently to Ryoka’s reassurances that she would make up the cost—and he was not really listening.

“Take the wand. Take the wand…I didn’t budget more than thirty minutes to you, Miss Griffin, and Miss Selys is outside the apartment. I will—see you tomorrow. Clear my schedule. I will announce to the Merchant’s Guild a cessation of my Lifewood sales and—”

Ryoka Griffin passed by Selys Shivertail on her way out the door. The Drake smiled at Ryoka—but the Wind Runner barely noticed.

“Rude. Hello, Hedault. I’m just going over Kevin’s projects. How are you doing? I know, five minutes for small talk—”

Ryoka Griffin found herself standing outside. And she was holding…a wand. The feel was rough, and it was heavy. Made of wood literally as heavy as iron and even tougher.

He hadn’t even taken her obol. The [Enchanter]…Ryoka turned back to the apartment as Nerry trotted outside. The door closed, and Shaestrel floated down solemnly next to Ryoka. She looked the Wind Runner in the eye.


“Ye are a heartless monster for hurting that man. And he has a heart as gentle as any brownie. What a terrible person ye art.”


Nerry nodded with a huge smile on her face.




Did you know Hedault was a vegetarian? Ryoka had no idea. No wonder he didn’t like the idea of owning a wand with a literal Dryad in it.

She felt bad as she walked back towards the portal door to Liscor. Now she was trying to figure out what to give him. The obol, obviously, but—could she give him anything else? She didn’t have a surplus of magic.

Shaestrel was not helping. She kept floating after Ryoka, adding to the Wind Runner’s guilt.


“Ye know, but for our meddling and the Faerie King’s tricks, he was fated to have that wand till he died. You ruined the man’s fate. Perhaps his levels. Fame would have poured onto him, and gold aplenty. No telling where his destiny lies now. Tis true. I swear it by the Dryads, living and dead.”


“Shaestrel, stop. Are you trying to make me cry?”




Ryoka wished she were surprised. She…well, she was going to make it up to Hedault. He was right. Now that he knew the truth, he didn’t want the wand. He wasn’t going to have to lose his apartment just because she’d taken the most profitable…source of his income away.

The image of Hedault selling his apartment was not to be focused on. She headed to Esthlem, and Kevin didn’t help when Ryoka asked about Hedault.

“Hedault? He’s a stand-up guy. He doesn’t charge us much on Solar Cycles. He’s a partner in the business, but he makes all his money from the weird chairs. I think Solar Cycles is his passion. He loves skateboarding, and he can afford to work with us because of his Lifewood stuff. Actually, we were going to make a bike out of it. Pure wood. Green.”

Oh, fuck me!

Ryoka left without elaborating. She stomped through Esthelm, trying to tell herself that the obol of Oberon was worth far more than the wand in the long-term. And…as if someone had been watching her the entire time, someone spoke to her as she was headed to the portal door.

Psst. Hey. You. Windy Girl.

Ryoka Griffin slowed in front of a conspicuously empty alleyway no one seemed to be paying attention to. A hooded figure with a huge nose…or mouth…was standing there. She stepped into the alleyway, and no one but Nerry and Shaestrel noticed.

“Uh. Excuse me?”

The figure tilted his head up—and Ryoka recoiled in horror. Right before she saw the deformed mouth and hideous, vacant—

Button eyes?

A gigantic sock puppet wearing a black hood made a show of looking right and left before bending over to her.

“I’m a friend.”

Dead gods damn it, Rhisveri—

Ryoka raised her voice and turned to the passersby, but not a person heard or saw them in the alleyway. The puppet instantly shook his ‘head’.

“Rhisveri? Who’s that, the handsome Duke of Ailendamus? I’m Rhissy—”

“Fuck you. What do you want? I thought I was excommunicated!”

“Hey, the nations you destroy and innocent people you kill are none of my business. I’m just a friend. Met with any people carrying ironwood wands lately?”

Ryoka covered her face. Shaestrel was laughing so hard she was about to puke nuts. ‘Rhissy’ didn’t seem to be able to see nor hear her with his magical projection.

But it was amazing how smug a sock puppet could look. So this was how he was getting around his injunction that no one from Ailendamus talk to her? Why couldn’t any immortals she knew be cool? Only Oberon was 100% style all the time.

“How do you know that’s who has the—seed?”

Rhissy shrugged.

“You’re the one who mentioned a wand. Wand. Only production of Lifewood in centuries. It’s not arch magic. But I’m sorry, I forgot I was talking to the Windy Girl herself. I suppose it was a genius realization on your part. Incidentally, you’re a hit in Ailendamus. Very popular.”

Ryoka didn’t want to engage with him. She shook her head.

“I’m handling it.”

Sure you are. That [Enchanter] totally just gave away the most powerful wand he could dream of.”


Rhissy’s tone grew more sarcastic.

Definitely. One look at your face coming out and I knew you needed help. Well, just say the word and I’ll take over. Rhisveri won’t accept just the wand—it needs a way to germinate the seed. But I might have some ideas on that. Just beg me for help and I’ll help, Windy Girl.”

Something about his tone…Ryoka’s head rose. She realized—Rhisveri didn’t have the power to break through Hedault’s anti-scrying spells.

He didn’t know Hedault had just given her the wand. Ryoka hesitated.

“No, I’ve got it under control.”

Oh, of course. Tell you what. I’ll check back in a week, and when you need help—just let me know.”

The sock-puppet laughed at her. Then he slowly sank down into the brickwork of Esthelm, hood and all. Ryoka stared as his head vanished. When she looked down, Nerry gave her a long look.

Even without words—Ryoka nodded.

“Yeah. You think your life is weird? That’s mine.”


“That stupid Wyrm. Did ye see that? I’ve never—I’m going tae puke. They’ll laugh at him nine realms across when I tell them about that! And his face when he thought ye needed his help!”


Shaestrel had to lean on a wall to keep from falling over. Ryoka just shook her head.




The next day, before she visited Hedault again, Ryoka Griffin was walking through Invrisil when someone pulled her into an alleyway.

Rhissy, I swear I’ll kill—oh.”

A man with silver hair was holding onto a bandaged stomach and grimacing. Taletevirion spoke as he glanced at Shaestrel.

“Who’s Rhissy? Nevermind that. The seed was dead, right? There’s no way it was a real one. Good? Too bad. What a failed dream. Back to rest for me.”

He slapped Ryoka on the shoulder with a false look of sympathy on his face. Ryoka Griffin stared at him. The Unicorn gave her a bright smile…then his eyes jerked down.

“…What’s that in your pants?”

“What would you like to see, exactly?”

Shaestrel laughed so hard this time she threw up the morning sausage she ate. Ryoka slowly pulled the ironwood wand out of her bag of holding. Taletevirion’s eyes locked on it. The Unicorn, holding his wounded stomach, slowly slid down the brick wall.

“Oh. Neuter me with a spoon.”

He saw the wand, and his face went even paler. Ryoka Griffin gently patted him on the shoulder as she put the wand away.

“Know any good planting pots?”

She waited—and he sat there, staring ahead with a kind of pained horror and resignation as she went to see Hedault.




“Eighteen obols. And I’ve got tons of gold. And—I could get Archmage Valeterisa to teach you some magic?”

She tried to cheer up the silent [Enchanter]. Hedault just poked at the obols on the table.

“Whatever you believe is fair. But no Archmage. She is objectionable, dangerous, and a thief.”

“Okay, no Valeterisa. Come on, Hedault. I feel like I’m kicking dogs here.”

“…Do you do that often? Nalthaliarstrelous may want a word.”

His head slowly rose. Ryoka backpedaled at once.

“No! Never! Only if they’re off the leash and literally about to tear a leg off! Listen, Hedault. Ask for something, please. Need a delivery? A favor? Want Erin to stop bothering you? Please demand something. I can ask House Veltras for a favor. Even House El or Terland!”

It would salve her conscience if he had anything to make up for the wand. Hedault looked at her, and his eyes did light up slightly.

“There is…one thing. But I doubt you would part ways with it.”

“Name it. If it’s something of mine…”

Aw, shit. Ryoka hesitated, and Hedault saw it. He was going to ask for the footwraps. She closed her eyes and wondered what Nama would think.

But if it made up for things…fuck. That felt fair. Ryoka hated turnabout when it was fair. Hedault nodded.

“If you ask me what I want, I will be honest. Few people are inclined to actually be truthful, I’ve found.”

“…I could at least let you study whatever you want. Say it, Hedault?”

He inclined his head with a bit more respect.

“Then—the one suitable repayment I would take would be if you gave me your unique Kaalblade and let me disenchant or study it. Including how it is made. That would be appropriate along with the obol.”


Ryoka gave Hedault a blank look. He frowned at her, vexed.

“Your Kaalblade. The one that Deilan El or the late Maviola El gave you. The one significantly more powerful than the rest? Some have called it the ‘Windsword’, but I doubt it’s made up of wind. It is—pink?”

Ryoka blinked at Hedault. Then she realized what he meant and almost laughed. But his annoyed expression and how bad she was feeling—

“Oh, Hedault. You must never have seen it up close. It’s—I hate to tell you this, but it’s not enchanted.”

It was a completely logical mistake for him to make. What object could do what the Faeblade did without magic? Ryoka was rewarded with a look of complete incredulity and then skepticism on Hedault’s face.

“Impossible. If you are lying—hm?”

He stared as she pulled the hilt of the Faeblade out of her belt loop. Then…he stared at it. He bent over the Faeblade, and after asking permission and Ryoka telling him not to squeeze the handle—although he wasn’t registered, so the danger was minimal—he touched the Faeblade.

He held it up. He peered at it. Hedault found a magnifying glass. He murmured a spell.

“[Detect Magic]. [Analysis: Mana Trace]. [Identify Magic: Elements].”

Three spells, each of a more complex nature than the last. Hedault stared at the Faeblade—then looked at Ryoka.

“That’s—impossible. It must be camouflaged magic. So powerful it’s above me. I’ve heard some enchantments do that. Or else—it’s spring-metal. Yes, a forged contraption on the level of Master Pelt. Thinner than paper and sharper than mithril!”

Nothing would do but for Ryoka to create the thin light blade. Hedault stared at it—and then his eyes popped.

What is this?

The Wind Runner gave him a sheepish look as the actual sheep stared at Ryoka, Hedault, and then at the sword with avariciousness. Nerry and Hedault listened as Ryoka spoke.

“Master Hedault. It might not make up for your wand but—let me explain something to you from the start. Oh. And we might need to borrow Kevin’s laptop.”

That was how she ended up telling Enchanter Hedault all about Earth. And aliens. And that was when the [Enchanter] nearly lost his mind.




“Why her?”

The question was asked in not so succinct a manner over a hundred times to a hundred individuals over the course of a span of time that felt like an aeon.

Time was different in the courts of the Faerie King. The closer you got to the heart, the less it mattered in small ways.

The more it mattered in others. Laws were like that. Some laws in the realms of the fae you could bend around until they made a circle. And others grew so strong that they could break reality.

In this place—well, Melidore still spoke like summer. His very nature, let alone his attire, was a harsh ray of sunlight. Even when the Winter Court held sway, he was that bright beam of sunlight. A warm day in winter.

Technically, he was in dissent, and the Faerie King’s wrath might fall upon him—but only technically. After all, there were realms where it was ever-summer, or places out of sync where spring had slain winter. So Melidore was, in a large sense, fitting and representative of the Spring Court even if every being around him was frozen and somber, like crystals glittering upon the surface of a lake.

In another sense, he was a stubborn prat. But then, that was a matter of perspective.

He was sitting, moving pieces across a board, when he asked the question to the right person at last. And that was Ivolethe. They were playing a game similar to chess, only on a board that would have made Erin Solstice sit up and salivate.

The rules were incomprehensible to the rare guests who made it this far. It was the kind of game that made visiting deities sweat, and some visitors got up after a mind-boggling defeat to realize they had spent fifty-two years losing.

The Faerie Court could be cruel. At any rate, the pieces were moving. Ivolethe would place one and watch it, a suspiciously barefoot young woman, run in a diagonal line across the board. But she vanished as she ran into a glowing portal, and Melidore’s figure that looked like a frozen member of the Wild Hunt—missed.

The game, incidentally, was the game of Fate. And the fae played it very well. But of course, any good player knew that you weren’t just playing against one opponent. Melidore and Ivolethe were just passing time with a smaller reflection in a limited scope.

The real game was played against the board, a thousand opponents, luck herself, and overturning the table was a valid tactic.

Melidore scowled as Ivolethe pulled her entire board apart to protect the annoying Runner, sacrificing pieces to throw them in his path. Against all odds, it was working. A mini-Nama tossed the Wild Hunt piece off the board, and it vanished.

“Why her?”

“It was a prophecy, twit. Are ye not familiar with how it works? Swords in stone. Some things are inescapable.”

“If you let them. You have not tried to escape your role in this in any way, Ivolethe. But—why her? Why does our King give her a gift?”

Ivolethe was choosing her next move carefully. Ryoka was still running. She hadn’t been moved the entire game; both were playing around her. She was currently turning in a circle, and no one could guess which way she’d go. But when Ivolethe looked down at her, she smiled with fond exasperation.

When she looked up, her gaze was sharp, like falling icicles, and dared Melidore to keep playing. He did, of course. He was burnished arrogance, and his armor would have made the sun look like a pale reflection.

“He has given children gifts in hopes they will shatter foes. He sees a thousand paths, and if there were a blade out of a piece of grass—wouldn’t you hurl it at that lot?

Winter and summer stared each other down, and Melidore nodded grudgingly.

“I would. In a heartbeat. But I see more faith placed in her than that. What power does she have? Friendship with the wind? She is no master of any weapon. Why. Her?

Ivolethe laughed. She had lost the game. Ryoka went tumbling off the edge of the board and vanished—it was a bitter loss. But the two fae reset the board, and Ivolethe kept playing.

Younger, lesser. Members of the court watched. Some thought Ivolethe mad. She had been playing this game, this side for countless turns.

And she had been losing. There was one road to victory amongst a million, and the Winter Fae was searching for it. Some would have thought it was Ivolethe’s madness, championing a mortal.

—But those ones did not see the weary figure slumbering upon the throne. One of two—and the other was eternally empty.

He looked like he was sleeping, a great head of antlers resting upon a fist. But betimes, Melidore thought he saw a green flicker.

As if the Faerie King were watching Ivolethe’s board.

Ivolethe graced him with an answer to the question at last. Ryoka looked up, and the faerie waited for her to run. The Winter Fae pointed at Ryoka.

“Don’t look at it so simply, Melidore. Look at how she plays, Ryoka Griffin.”

His wrath at being lectured like a neophyte to the game made a group of visiting guests to the Faerie Court flinch. One of them drew a blade—and burning plasma winked out in the face of Melidore’s fury.

They quailed, but Ivolethe laughed at him. The Summer Fae looked down—and then he saw.

There was some analogy to chess—but Ryoka was neither a bishop nor a rook nor a queen piece. People were more than one thing. He looked down—then traced Ryoka’s route across the board. Ivolethe’s smile widened.

“‘Twas not about her. If our king wanted a sword, he would call you, Melidore. Why does Shaestrel go? Perhaps it is because Ryoka’s ability is…to make a mess of things. So grandly no one can play around her.”

Every single time, the board dissolved into chaos around the Wind Runner. One of the Winter Fae would end up fighting Melidore’s own pieces, the Wyrm sisters, or a melee would ensue that caught even him off-guard.

Now, he saw it. Melidore’s eyes rose, and he traced the path Ryoka Griffin had taken. He looked at the guests of the Faerie Court, who regarded him in great alarm with their little tools that beeped and chirped numbers that made no sense of them. His burnished gaze stared through them—




And through space. At a spaceship still hurtling through their realm, leading an armada now. Every ship that they could pull together.

Commander Paethex had left over a thousand warships venting into space. There had never been a craft as deadly as hers. Solar-battlestations hadn’t done as much.

—However, the tide of the war was turning upon her. Planet-cracking weapons were being trained on her position, and the fleet was in rapid reconstruction, even in transit. Engineer crews were feverishly working on prototype shield arrays meant to make use of a nigh-unlimited power source.

Solar-battlestations. Entire worlds remodeled to harness the power of a star, or the similar equivalent, with fusion generation. At least two were vectoring towards her. Her superiors had informed her that if she could destroy them, she would liberate multiple sectors.

If she could kill a battle system with the firepower of a star. And she had…a stick. But it was a lovely stick, and at this point, she was willing to see what would happen if she—

“…It’s the only maneuver that will work. Tether as many generators and containment batteries as you can. I need twenty units of time or we’ll be shredded before we can launch within my optimal range.”

She was giving orders to the other Victory Company commanders—even a Sector Admiral. None of them were happy.

“If they capture your weapon—”

“This isn’t a matter for debate. We reach optimal range. Accelerate to maximum velocity—”

Her projections of the battle were very simple. Their harnessed AIs were calculating tens of thousands of attacks would come from the first Solar-battlestation. Too many to count. They would overload any shields they had, but the entire fleet would be bunkering behind the prototype shields.

Even in the simulated battle, it was clear they wouldn’t last. Twenty units—less—and some weapons would punch through, shredding ships. After the shields went down, nothing would remain.

So the fleet would already be backing off. They just had to accelerate into range, dangerously close to the enemy station and escort—then they would flee backwards in their twenty units of time.

The AIs were not happy. The commanders were not happy. Paethex’s entire plan revolved around a single object that left the combined fleet—and her ship. It flew towards the enemy station, which would launch every interceptor it could…and then…?

Throw the stick. Of course, the rest of the fleet called it Providence Garethex after the sector they’d found it in and her. Paethex was highly embarrassed by it.

Only her track record and miraculous offensive kept the other Victory Commanders from stripping her of her position on the spot. She saw them looking at each other silently.

They were going to toss the greatest asset in this sector at a Solar-battlestation that had more gravitational tractoring and shielding than their entire fleet combined. It would just catch Providence Garethex, and then they would all be dead.

The Koorvigas member of the Collective that had sent the Solar-battlestation would just love to use that weapon to exact vengeance. Paethex, though, was gambling that the ‘stick’ wouldn’t be caught.

“—How can we retrieve the Providence, Commander Paethex? Even without the ability to match a Solar-battlestation outright, we have not utilized its full potential. Is this—gamble—worth the risks of losing the Providence outright, even if it destroys the station?”

The Sector Admiral had one question that indicated both a suicidal amount of trust and a lot of doubt. And to that, Paethex just smiled. That wild, crazy smile that had put her on every news cycle across this galaxy.

“It is the gamble that will change whether we can win this war in our lifetimes or not, Sector Admiral. Because if we fall back, we will cede ground to those battlestations until an equivalent can warp in. How many units of time will that take? Thousands? Millions? Our fleet and the Providence can destroy any number of battleships, but we will flee every battlestation—so the Collective will pull back around them. But if this works, every battlestation between here and their homeworlds is now a target.

And if it worked, suddenly that other Solar-class battlestation would be turning around and running as fast as it could. Then—she had a route straight through their lines. Turn their impenetrable forces into weak targets. Force the other members of the Collective to either sue for a ceasefire or pull out of their warfront entirely.

If it worked. Paethex stared at the projection. The…child or gigantic scaled creature that she had met and made the deal with had been very precise about how to use the Stick. There was no situation where he had said ‘power your entire warfleet off the ambient energy coming from it’.

She was taking a risk on what he said it was meant to do, so Paethex spoke as they began counting time down to their entry into realspace.

“…As to your other point, Sector Admiral, the ‘Providence’ was never meant to be used as a mobile power source. Just as you observed in our combat—it was designed to be used in close-quarters combat. Thrown, in fact.”

The commanders muttered louder, in disbelief. Paethex turned to them, and then her eyes lit up.

“It may not happen. The Solar-battlestation might seize it. Or the explosion may throw it out of our reach. But I was told—it comes back.

Everyone turned to the viewports. And they stared out the window. Paethex still saw a stick, if she looked, but behind the arrays absorbing the energy, floating in space off the bow of her vessel…

Some of the Victory Commanders had already identified the Providence as looking similar to objects used in ceremonies from their homeworlds. Floating in space, bathed by the energy it was giving off—the spear was eight feet long, and the tip was edged.

It wasn’t even a monomolecular blade. But it was a very pointy stick. The ‘Dragon’ claimed it had belonged to a legendary hero, well, multiple legends. For some reason, he’d decided that he was willing to part with it for enough printed gold, platinum, and other metals to cover him eighty times over and five of the Victory Company’s ships. He had seemed very interested by the way they could print metals like gold. Enough to give up the stick in return.

Paethex was going to throw it. She had been told it would hit whatever she threw it at, and it would always come back to her. Paethex was still unsure why he’d taken her offer, but she had remembered what he’d claimed. She was going to take that very, very literally.

The point that Ivolethe was making to Melidore was simple. Visitors to the Faerie King’s courts. The fate of at least one galaxy. And—Sariant Lambs, a Wyrm, the last Unicorn?

Ryoka had a way of making strange connections. And in a game about fate? She was a good card to play.




Hedault the [Enchanter] had known Kevin’s bicycles were not normal. But like Grimalkin, like most people who tried to wrap their heads around another world, he had assumed Kevin was from either a nation that had invented the bicycles—or that Kevin was in possession of ancient knowledge.

Not the knowledge of another world.

“I thought you came from another dimension.”

Ryoka nearly spat out her drink.

“You what?”

“It was the most reasonable idea. I thought Erin Solstice had appeared from a dimension separate from this one. One created by an Archmage.”

“—Is that a thing?”

Hedault shrugged.

“My studies indicated it was possible. Even modern [Mages] can create partially tangential dimensions. Wistram is functionally a compressed city within the academy. Another world without magic seems ludicrous.”

“…Huh. But we’re from different worlds. Just so it’s clear. Everything runs on—”

“Electricity. Lightning magic harnessed. Not fire, wind, or water?”

Hedault was sitting in his apartment, and Ryoka had a laptop. Kevin had made a Powerpoint slide-based presentation when he realized that he’d have to explain Earth to people like Selys. She was flipping through slides and glad Hedault was no longer hyperventilating.

Rather—she was disconcerted by the way the [Enchanter] thought.

“Uh—those are actually power sources. We still burn coal for fuel in some places, but we have wind farms—that harness wind power. Dams harness water, and we’re working to take advantage of volcanoes and other power sources.”

“I see. That is logical. Without magic, you would turn to natural sources of energy. Blood sacrifices?”

“That doesn’t produce power. We definitely tried that—for other reasons.”

Hedault was rubbing at his head. He had to have the most killer headache—Selys had been forced to lie down for over a week, according to Erin. Yet the [Enchanter] just sat there, staring at the Faeblade.

“This is a piece of technology from…”

“Another world. Another another world. So far in the future compared to mine that it’s like us—comparing a laptop to a piece of paper.”

Ryoka waved the laptop and a piece of paper for emphasis. Hedault nodded.

“And that is why I mistook it for magic. The competence of its creation is on par with magic—or even exceeds it.”

He was way too calm about this. Ryoka paused.

“Are you sure you understand, Hedault?”

He glanced up at her, and the Master Enchanter of Invrisil raised his brows.

“I do not understand anything of Earth. I will ask Kevin to explain it more thoroughly. And review these—pictures later.”

“Keep it secret.”

“Yes, yes. But I do understand the concept of the ‘Faeblade’. It is a piece of superior technology incomprehensible in the modern age. That is the very definition of Relic-class items recovered by adventurers and treasure seekers.”


When he put it like that, it was familiar to him. It was a different kind of technology, but the effect was similar.

Here was where things got weird. Ryoka was nervous about telling Hedault about Earth and aliens. However—she thought it was the right call.

Trust. She needed friends, or at least, a lack of enemies, and Hedault’s giving up of the wand was exceptionally…noble of him. But it got weird about fifteen seconds after she explained all of Earth to Hedault’s basic understanding and told him where the Faeblade had come from. Because the first thing Hedault did was stare at the hilt of the weapon.

“Have you tried enchanting it?”

“Have I what now?”

Ryoka paused, and Nerry looked up from her nap. Shaestrel had been gobbling snacks out of a bowl, and the Spring Fae looked up as well.


“Hah? What did he say?”


Hedault gave all of his guests a blank look.

“It is a non-magical item. Have you tried enchanting it? Anything in this world can be enchanted that does not have magical properties, and this has not a dram.”

“You…can’t enchant alien tech.”

“Why not?”

Ryoka looked at Nerry and Shaestrel. She hefted the object in her hands.

“Well, you couldn’t enchant this laptop.”

Hedault’s frown now looked insulted.

“You have never shown me that laptop before. I can enchant it.”

“N-no, you can’t…I mean, if you could—

Ryoka suddenly remembered something. Hadn’t Inkar claimed that Krshia had upgraded her iPhone? Ryoka had inspected it, and it was a model beyond the latest ones she knew about in 2016. But Rose had claimed she’d heard this new phone was coming out—it just hadn’t been in stores.

Was it possible to enchant electronics? No. Surely not. But [Repair] worked on a laptop to charge it up, and she had seen Teriarch…

“You can’t clone a laptop, can you, Hedault? With magic?”

He gave her a dubious look.

“You mean with [Foundational Recreation of Mundanity]? The Tier 7 spell that can recreate any non-magical item? That would be lost magic.”

“Ah. Just checking. But you think you can enchant a laptop? I’ve shown this to Palt, Ceria, um…Pisces, Montressa, and Bezale all know about it, and [Mages] of Wistram are all aware of Earth. Heck, Grimalkin knows about Earther tech, even if we don’t show a lot of it to him. No one’s tried enchanting it.”

Hedault sat back in his seat, and he tapped his forefingers together. Twice.

“None of those [Mages] are [Enchanters]. I am an [Enchanter]. The difference is our competencies and specializations, Miss Ryoka.”

“I get it—”

Hedault kept going, face straight, but he sounded peeved.

“I am sure you regard your Gold-rank friends as capable [Mages]. Their ‘enchantments’ are, by and large, temporary, inefficient, and ineffective. Even Mage Montressa and Mage Palt are not equivalent to my spellcasting. Mage Montressa is capable of laying down a temporary ward or runecrafting. Mage Bezale can runecraft, write spell scrolls, and lay out a semi-permanent ward. None of that is equivalent to what I can do. I am an [Enchanter]. I can create an artifact that does not lose its magic after a year. My magic is specialized and permanent. Please draw a distinction between a [Mage] and myself. And underline it.”

Ryoka ducked her head at his furious glare, and yet he still didn’t raise his voice.

“I’m sorry. So you think you can enchant a laptop.”

Hedault’s left eyelid twitched. He got up, walked over to a drawer, and pulled something out. He came back with a glossy piece of magical paper that Ryoka knew had to come from actually magical trees. He also had a brush and a bottle of what turned out to be one of the liquid gemstones that [Mages] melted to use in their spell runes.

Magicore was apparently lower ‘grade’, and Hedault wrote furiously, inscribing a beautiful rune that looked like a feather—but incredibly stylized.

“Wait, Hedault, I get it. Don’t just enchant—”

The entire process took him less than a minute. Then he placed the still-wet runes face-down on the laptop’s front—and murmured.

“[Transfer Rune].”

He flicked the paper up—and the glowing rune was dead center on the laptop’s front. Ryoka stared at it. Hedault picked the laptop up—and threw it over his shoulder.


Even with [Repair], it wouldn’t survive a full-break! Not without Demsleth! Ryoka leapt—and nearly crashed into Hedault’s sofa as she saw the laptop slowly floating downwards.

“[Featherfall]. That would be a temporary rune that will last a month at peak efficiency. Pure material fee discounting tools is likely only two gold coins’ worth of gemstone. I would charge you sixty-four gold coins and fourteen silver for the labor.”

Hedault’s smile was smug as Ryoka caught the laptop and felt how light it was. She tossed it up, and it floated down.

“Did—can you remove—?”

“I can remove it very simply. You could remove it with a simple blade, but I am capable of pulling the rune off the laptop. Give it back to me.”

Ryoka did, and Hedault made a show of running his hand over the rune. He murmured.

“[Artisan’s Dissolution].”

Then he levitated the gemstone up—and it was liquid once more. It floated back into the jar, and he stoppered it. Fastidious, Hedault put his paintbrush away, stored the jar and the piece of paper—and sat back down.

“A demonstration at no personal cost for materials. [Artisan’s Dissolution] is a Skill that allows a crafter to undo parts of their work. I have seen [Carpenters] create temporary shims or other wooden structures and strategically destroy their creations once no longer needed.”

Ryoka sat there, trading glances with Nerry. Even the Sariant looked impressed.

No wonder he was the best [Enchanter] in Invrisil! Ryoka’s heart began pounding.

“Okay, you can enchant the laptops to be tougher. But—c-could you enchant them to be better?

Now she was confused, and Hedault put his head in his hands.

“It is a question for myself as well. When I used my Skill—[Analyze Object]—I detected the—laptop—was hollow. There are a number of strange things inside.”

“That’s the motherboard and memory and…”

“What do they do?”

“What does a motherboard do? Uh, it directs the laptop. Makes decisions.”

“How does it work? It was made of copper, gold in small parts, and…many materials I am not familiar with.”

“How does it work work? You mean, how does it operate?”

Hedault gave Ryoka a too-patient look.

“I must know in order to enchant this device. The rune I showed you is…a trick of sorts. I can enchant an entire object without knowing the functionality of what lies inside. But to enchant an object perfectly—you have seen Kevin’s bicycles, haven’t you?”

Ryoka had. Just that morning, she’d seen Kevin riding around Liscor. His bicycles were lighter, faster, and tougher than Earth’s most expensive bikes, and she really wanted one.

The only thing that didn’t work perfectly were the brakes. She’d seen him run over Watch Captain Zevara’s tail. For the second time, apparently.

Ryoka did know how a computer worked—but the principle of how the binary-level decisions it made, literally a ‘1’ or a ‘0’ built up to the level of computing a screen or running a video game, was hard to articulate.

As it so happened, Hedault understood the issue.

“I do not need to know how it functions perfectly, Ryoka Griffin. I need to know how it operates. Heat? Electricity? Lightning? Friction? Kevin’s bicycles are hand-enchanted by myself. I enchant each part to a purpose. The wheels have a spell to increase their grip on the road. [Gecko’s Pads]. The chain we had meant to make as lightweight or frictionless as possible, but even Master Pelt’s steel would break under too much stress, so I enchanted it with [Protection]. In theory, I would apply as many enchantments to each component of the laptop as I could.”

“I…don’t think you can draw on them with gemstone. You’d destroy every component. Plus, I don’t know how to put a laptop back together.”

“The same for the Faeblade?”

Hedault began taking notes. Ryoka hesitated.

“Er—I’ve never found out how to open it, and I wouldn’t if I could.”

“So, an all-encompassing enchantment. There are ways to ‘attach’ an enchantment to component parts, but—aha, you are a potential client, so I shall explain.”

Hedault got up and pulled over an easel. He flipped the cover off it, and Ryoka realized he was giving her a lecture he often gave new clients.

“Each item I enchant has a set amount of mana it can contain. The right materials hold more magic; inferior or impure items contain less. Thus, a perfectly carved piece of wood all from the same tree would be far more receptive to magic than a bag of gravel glued together.”

He had a diagram of each object for reference. Hedault turned the page, and Ryoka saw the breakdown of a sword.

“In theory, I could enchant each ‘part’ of a sword. From the grip to the guard to the blade. In practice, most enchantments encompass an entire object. Because each object can contain only so much mana, it is a question of choosing the most efficient enchantment. The most skilled [Enchanters] can divide up enchantments without creating magical interference. In practice, most items are enchanted as a whole with the most powerful effect.”

He came back to the laptop and regarded it critically.

“For this kind of object…I do not believe [Protection] would matter. But how would I enhance it?”

“Could you increase how fast it runs? But you’d be enchanting the thing to just go faster with [Haste] or something. Wait. That might work. But then…I bet if you played a game, it’d run at twice the speed. Numbtongue would kill me if you did that.”

Ryoka was confused, and Hedault was very interested. Nothing would do but for Ryoka to boot up the game of games that Numbtongue loved so much.

Hedault stared at the brightly pixelated figures moving around and peered forwards until his eye was nearly touching the screen.

“This picture is made up of tiny images.”


Fascinating. Why are you killing those people?”

“Um. It’s a game. Want to play?”

Hedault stared at the image of a dead person—well, an alien—with blood splattered all over the screen. The look he gave Ryoka was so judgemental she closed the program.

“For a woman so concerned about Dryads, you do not seem concerned about this ‘fun’. I do not enjoy games about killing people any more than I enjoy watching it. But I can see a [Speed] enchantment would throw off this entire contraption. Tell me more about it.”

Ryoka explained the power supply and let Hedault feel the laptop. He frowned.

“Feeding it electricity seems like a very dangerous game to play.”

“Yep. You’d make the battery explode.”

“Hm. I wonder if Wistram tried? It would be like them. But half my classmates I studied with had no nuance. Control in the level of an enchantment is another skill most [Mages] lack. The ability to regulate mana intake….why is this warm?”

Ryoka blinked. Kevin’s laptop wasn’t great. It wasn’t. It could run an old game and play movies by his standards, but…

“Computers heat up when they’re in use. Ideally, you keep them cold. See the fan running there? The best computers are in frozen rooms.”

“Ah. Then if I enchanted this to be cold, would that improve it?”

Ryoka’s mouth fell open. He already had a good idea! She had owned laptops before, and she had literally melted the graphics card in one.

“That could work! Wait—that’s genius! Or you could enchant it to be heat-resistant, maybe, to save the parts from melting?”

Couldn’t you overclock the computer? If Hedault could freeze it cold, you could probably get a lot more power out of Kevin’s laptop!

That was exciting for the future of Numbtongue gaming. But then Hedault turned to Ryoka’s Faeblade.

“And this…you claimed this was the product of light. Or—heat or even the ability to paralyze someone? How does it work?”

Ryoka had to shrug.

“I have no idea, Hedault. If I had to guess, it’s projecting something out the hilt there. Don’t worry, it won’t turn on unless I add you as a user—and it doesn’t hurt me. See?”

She showed him with the lightblade, and he winced as she let it pass ‘through’ her skin, though it was really the light just morphing around her body as not to touch it. It was scary—but safe.

“If you don’t know how to improve it…I could simply enchant it for [Protection].”

Nerry yawned as Shaestrel floated over. The lamb looked around and decided she needed to use the bathroom. She trotted off in search of one as Ryoka muttered a reply.

“Well, I suppose that works. Actually—! Hedault, I have a problem where the regular blade shatters every time it meets magic. The paralysis blade is more like…well, it works really well, and the fire setting is horrific. Could you make the blade not shatter?”

“If it is a projection, similar to a Kaalblade, I doubt that my enchantment would work. It would only affect the hilt.”

Nerry found a bathroom and nearly drowned in the toilet before she situated herself. She listened, wondering if she could get Ryoka to make her some armor or Hedault could be trusted to give her tools.

Sariant Lambs had long coveted a powerful [Enchanter]’s aid. The issues of holding wands, or just the ability to do things with their hooves…well, she was more concerned about surviving in Ryoka’s company.

The Wind Runner had yet to know the full scope of Sariant trials. Would she even be helpful?

Nerry was worried about the Wind Runner’s cooperation. But as it happened…


“Ye fools. If the blade is made of light, make it brighter. Duh.”


“There’s not a spell for that.”

“There is. [Luminosity]. Try that.”

“Okay. That’s—bright—

The door was mostly closed. But Nerry knew the moment Ryoka Griffin activated the Faeblade. The searing beam of light scarred the lamb’s retinas. She recoiled, nearly fell into the toilet—and then felt the heat in Hedault’s apartment suddenly go up. The lamb recoiled—then heard a shout.


Turn it off! Turn it off, you f—it burns!


Shaestrel was shouting, but Hedault and Ryoka were dead quiet. Nerry was frozen there a second—then she smelled smoke. She leapt to the door, nudged it open, and went blind.

Pink light was blazing from the sword. So bright that even not looking at it, it was blinding. The Sariant Lamb felt heat too. She dashed for the stairs, and by the time she was halfway down—

Her wool was sizzling. Ten seconds had nearly caught her on fire, and the heat was growing. Hedault and Ryoka were up there! Nerry looked around, and Shaestrel, swearing, dove.


“Outside! Outside—”


What about Ryoka? Nerry looked back—then ran on a hunch.




Hedault’s apartment was blazing with light through one of the windows. As a frantic Sariant Lamb and the Spring Fae dashed outside, Shaestrel pointed.


There! Get him!


Nerry ran into an alley beside the apartment, and a Silver-haired man drinking Rxlvn and lying on his side stirred as she leapt on him.

“Stupid undead. They never die. Damn seeds. It’s not new. It’s not n—get off me, you pest.”

Taletevirion nearly tossed Nerry off him…then he sat up as he saw the lamb’s frantic face and smelled the foul, burnt wool.

“What the—?”

He noticed the piercing light a second later and looked up.


Upstairs! Turn the thing off! ‘Tis burning them both alive!


The Unicorn swore as he leapt to his feet. He blurred up into the apartment so fast Nerry was still climbing the steps.

Damn [Enchanters]! Dispel!

The flash of light stopped—and the Unicorn lowered a horn to the charred skin of Hedault and Ryoka. He looked around, wincing as he took in the blackened room, which had begun to catch fire from the heat of the sword alone.

“Well. That’s…”

He eyed the Faeblade and chose his words carefully.





The ongoing tales of Ryoko Griffin, the Windy Girl, were a hit in Ailendamus. Each week, a new story came out. It was making the hither-to unknown Duke Rhisveri something of a hit, and he was accepting new storylines from [Bards] and Ailendamus’ [Writers].

Sock puppet sales were becoming an entire industry.

This week’s tale was about the Windy Girl, that rapscallion who always ‘meant well’, who was trying to recover a seed for Fithee, the great protector of the forests.

She went to an [Enchanter]’s house to get a wand. She ended up stealing the [Enchanter]’s livelihood, for the greater good, kidnapping his Sariant Lamb, and burning down his home.

Rhisveri liked to draw from the real world. He was also highly amused by the reports he was getting from his agents in Invrisil. Of course he took some creative liberties, but he liked to think he captured the spirit of everything.




In truth, it was Hedault who blamed himself. The [Enchanter] was inconsolable.

Not about the apartment. Or his damaged workspace, materials, and his near immolation. If not for Taletevirion, who Ryoka excused as a ‘friend’, she thought she would have been burned for life if she survived—and blinded as well.

The light-enhancing spell on the Faeblade hadn’t even been that strong. But…what if you held up a magnifying glass to the sun? The intersection between technology and magic was far, far more powerful than Ryoka thought.

And yet—Hedault just pressed his head to the table at dinner in The Wandering Inn, much to her horror.

“This is entirely my fault.”

“No, nononono—”

“Yeah, it’s not your fault! Ryoka, what did you do?”

Erin slapped Ryoka on the shoulder in the private dining room. She was serving them sausages in a bun, loaded with condiments—or rather, Ishkr was serving with Erin supervising. But Hedault was adamant.

“I should have weighed the risks. I was excited—I did not test my enchantment. The fault is mine alone.”

“No, it’s not. I was stupid—we were both stupid.”

Hedault was pale with fury—at himself.

“I am an [Enchanter], and if I had made the same mistake with any of the dangerous artifacts I have ever handled over the years—this is the second mistake in my career. This is the first, and I deserve a scar for the second.”

He held up his missing ring finger on his left hand for emphasis. Ryoka winced.

“Hedault, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I bring trouble wherever I go. Please—I’m sorry, you’re sorry, and you gave me the wand. Let’s eat. Do you…like the food?”

He stared down at his sausage-in-a-bun. Or rather, in his case, a seasoned Yellat. Erin had put out ketchup, mayonnaise, relish, cheese, chili…Hedault rather seemed to like the art of creating a six-layer condiment topping before he took a bite.

Ryoka just put some sour cream and chives on hers, then added some ketchup. Erin gave Ryoka a deeply disturbed look.

“What are you doing, Ryoka?”

“Sour cream and hot dogs?”

“…No. Mayonnaise if you’ve gotta.

“Who eats mayonnaise on hot dogs? That’s disgusting, Erin.”

Sour cream?

“Why’d you put it out for me if you didn’t think I was going to use it?”

Erin shook her head.

“That’s just so you feel like you have options! You’re never supposed to use it! It’s like having all those popcorn options at the movie theatre. Caramel, chocolate, and the weird flavors no one tries like raspberry-white chocolate popcorn.”

“I love that stuff.”

“I’m not friends with you. I don’t associate with this person!

Erin wheeled out the door to shout at no one in particular. Hedault, meanwhile, looked pleased by his creation. But he was eating it with a knife and fork rather than messily holding it up.

“I…will not make that mistake again. It is a lesson I will not forget when handling Earth’s technology. The next time I perform any enchantment on your Faeblade, Miss Ryoka, I will do it using the appropriate Skills. [Reduce Mana Flow] will allow me to funnel a hundredth of the mana into any enchantment, and I will have every protective spell activated. Nor will I allow the device to damage itself.”

Ryoka paused in her second bite of her meal.

“…You want to keep enchanting it?”

Hedault stared at her messy face until she used a napkin. Then he replied.

“Of course. Give me time to experiment. But I can, at the very least, put an enchantment on it that allows you to call it back to your hand. Depending on the quality of the materials…I may be able to make a far more powerful effect.”

His eyes glittered with the challenge. Then he peered at Ryoka.

“Your clothing as well. I have seen you use your ‘Wind Suit’, and the glider.”

“I’m getting the glider repaired actually.”

“I can enchant that.”

Ryoka sat up. Shaestrel was trying to eat her half of the hot dog while Nerry demonstrated that Sariant Lambs were happy carnivores—she had put only ketchup on her bun and seemed to like the feeling of carnivorism. Hedault was inspecting something on the table in front of him.

“I will accept these ‘obol’ as payment. You can afford my services, I think.”

Ryoka was a Courier, and she had Valeterisa’s money. She gulped at the thought of hiring Hedault full-time—but then she leaned over.

“You’d do that for me, Hedault? Really?”

He looked up blankly at her.

“Miss Ryoka. Aside from the fact that you are offering me magic I cannot get anywhere else. Aside from the wand, which I consider morally imperative to turn over—”

His eyes flashed.

Enchanters level by enchanting what is new and novel. I will trade that wand in expectation of the levels and drive to allow me to attain Level 50. Assuming you have…a month, I will begin a very careful series of tests on the Faeblade and return you a series of possible enchantments for your clothing and flying devices in three day’s time. Is that acceptable?

Ryoka smiled. She held out a hand, and Hedault refused to take it.

“I will send you a contract this evening via Street Runner. I do not shake hands.”

“Are you a germaphobe, Hedault?”

The vegetarian [Enchanter] didn’t appreciate physical contact. Or messes. He sighed.

“No. I simply dislike people touching me. I dislike messes. In my line of work, dirt can ruin an enchantment. Or kill me.”

“Huh. That’s fair.”

Hedault treated Ryoka to a rare smile. He lifted his fork as a cup of water came out for him and blue juice for Ryoka.

“Very good. Then I will see you in three days. When you arrive, I will have some temporary slippers for you to wear.”

Ryoka’s face went blank, and Hedault nodded in satisfaction. Temporary slippers for everyone. No more adventurers with muddy boots. No more barefoot runners.

He had his own kind of priorities.




If that was all that had occurred over the last forty days, it would be something. But it would have let down Ivolethe, really.

Ryoka Griffin was pacing the night after Hedault promised to upgrade her Faeblade and her gear with time.

Because she hadn’t given him the okay. She’d told him she’d sleep on it. An astounding comment that had Mrsha trying to steal the Faeblade to give to Hedault so he could turn it into a blade that could cut the High Passes.

But Ryoka was worried.

“Am I going to stay here for another month, Shaestrel? Even if I’m flying about—am I wasting time?”

The Spring Faerie was enjoying life in the inn. Unlike Ivolethe, who had taken her sweet time until she was Ryoka’s pocket-buddy nibbling on snacks, Shaestrel had come here for a purpose.

So…she was currently sitting on a heating rune Hedault had drawn on a piece of paper. That heating rune was warming a cup of tea.

She was having a hot tub bath. In tea. Jasmine, Ryoka thought it was. The Spring Fae seemed to be enjoying the novelty.

Nerry was busy writing her nightly essay trying to explain her people’s woes to Ryoka. She had a little fluffy bed that she refused to sleep in because it was cute and cuddly. She slept under Ryoka’s bed with a wand aimed at the door.


“Ah. This would be the part where ye panic and breathe too hard and pass out from yer weak spine and liver.”


That struck home. Ryoka hadn’t actually been in panic-mode, but it was familiar.

“I’m not going to hyperventilate and pass out. My liver’s fine.”


“Pshaw. I haven’t seen ye take a drink of anything stronger than blue juice for the last four days. A real warrior maiden of old would be squeezing men’s heads between her thighs while pishing ale!”


“Who did you meet who does that? Vikings?”

Shaestrel laughed as she kicked her legs in her tea bath. She gave Ryoka a sardonic look over the lip of the cup.


“You want me to say what your path is. But the truth, as I told you, is that I don’t know, Ryoka. My perspective is limited here—”


She meant this world.


“—And it is not perfect regardless. Remember when I told you that [Enchanter] was fated to have that wand? I was not lying. One fate had him carrying it until he died in battle. Thence—with his dying breath, he broke it. And a great tree grew from where he fell. Perhaps a world’s tree. But that was how he was meant to die until we meddled.”


“Die in battle? Hedault? How?”

Ryoka stopped pacing and turned. Shaestrel’s eyes were deep and sunken. She smiled like some prophetess speaking dire fates.


“Never ye mind. If I told you, you’d avoid that fate so hard you’d run into another. You’ve changed his destiny. So. If I tell you to not stay, I might well steer you into another stupid problem. If you stay, you might do well. Certainly, your stupid sword wouldn’t shatter if a cantrip sneezed on it.”


Shaestrel’s role seemed to be to tell Ryoka nothing was certain and everything was unpredictable. And that…helped.

Ryoka had to think. Every morning, she would see Tyrion Veltras. And Hethon and Sammial would follow her around, and she—

Well, Tyrion aside, she had done some good here. Valeterisa hadn’t flown off in part thanks to Ryoka. Rhisveri, for all his posturing, was watching her.

And there was a Unicorn. But…Ryoka paced back and forth.

“I see your point. It’s just—I know there are people I can help influence or talk to. Influence is the wrong word. I’m…friends with them. Tyrion, Teriarch, even Magnolia to some extent. That matters. Ysara. I can’t leave without seeing her. I just don’t know how to—talk to them or change their opinions. The only way I’ve done it is by flying across Izril with an antidote or dodging magical traps in Valeterisa’s mansion.”


“Ah, ye have the problem of heroes. So busy rescuing damsels and slaying Dragons ye can’t hand someone a handkerchief to blow their noses without saving their lives first. She’s got the ego of one.”


Nerry nodded as she dragged her first essay out. She scribbled a note at the top.


The [Emperor] and you are both arrogant. Equally. Is it an Earther-Human thing or just you two?


Royally stung, Ryoka Griffin sat back down. She put her head between her legs and stared at the ground. Things had gone well. Erin Solstice hated Tyrion’s guts, but she was tolerating his presence.

Though, for how long? She had been about to throw him out, but Ryoka’s talk in the gardens had helped. She had feared Hedault would call the Watch, refuse to give the wand, and she’d cause a disaster.

Burning down his apartment didn’t fully count. That was only half Ryoka’s fault, which was an improvement.

The truth was—Hedault had been eminently reasonable, nay, principled when she talked to him. Talking to people seemed to avoid the entire drama she was used to.

“Hm. Nerry, I’ll read your essay in a second.”

The lamb was kicking her ankle, and it hurt like shit. The truth was…Ryoka thought of yesterday.

“Is Erin telling more stories about how she got to the inn?”

Despite Erin’s claims, she had barely gotten through Skinner in a single night of storytelling. Everyone had so many tales, like Pawn giving his perspective of how he and Bird had first been ordered to unearth the crypt in secret, that they hadn’t gotten far.

Ryoka hadn’t known how Erin had met the Goblins. Or that Relc had actually killed Rags’…parents. She should go down. She didn’t know much about Goblins, she realized. Tyrion Veltras had killed a lot of them, but Erin’s outrage was only a fact for Ryoka.

Yet Ryoka knew for a fact that a certain Goblin Chieftain had literally flown in to join the storytelling. She had a thought as she stood and picked up Nerry’s essay. The lamb still had ketchup on her face.

“Do you like eating sausage, Nerry? Are Sariants actually omnivores?”

The lamb nodded. Ryoka was perplexed.

Sariants were omnivores.


That entire fact became the foundation for an idea. Slowly, Ryoka Griffin thought of something novel. She fished out Hedault’s contract and gingerly signed it. Then she turned to Shaestrel.

“Just tell me if I’m being stupid in the next few days or really wasting my time.”

The faerie opened one eye and fanned a wing as Ryoka picked up the teacup and went down to listen to the stories.


“Since when have I stopped? You’re not always incompetent, mortal.”




Tyrion Veltras was busy training. Every morning, before dawn, a younger man woke up, eyed his mirror, shaved everything but a budding goatee off his face, and dressed himself.

He disliked his face. He quite recalled hating the way it aged—now, he disliked how the goatee just looked terrible on his younger face.

The vigor of his body was a welcome tradeoff. The lack of levels—not. He would check his [Messages], then leave the Haven and practice his swordsmanship.

Sometimes against the fake image of himself, sometimes with a partner. Jericha or even Ulim or his guards. But mostly, Tyrion was trying to rebuild decades of muscle memory and push himself.

He should have gone back to his keep to practice tilting and to work more thoroughly in secret—but Ryoka Griffin was here, and his sons would have refused to go regardless.

Anyways, a [Lord] levelled differently from a [Lancer], and Tyrion needed to marry the classes. So he spent a good deal of time tending to the affairs of House Veltras.

It had already earned him a single level. He recalled he’d never taken his lordly duties seriously until his father had passed away.

In between his training, Tyrion would have breakfast or lunch with Ryoka, though his sons usually pestered her with questions and activities. He would go out to see a play or ride with her and discuss topics.

Like her world. He listened to her description of another world’s woes and strengths. To Ryoka’s surprise, Tyrion, like Hedault, wasn’t blown away by everything he heard.

If anything…he quite recalled her face when he said he would like to visit if the chance ever occurred.

“You? Visit? I would have thought you’d hate a place without horses and…well, so modern.”

“Are not these ‘cars’ and other vehicles capable of great speed? I should greatly like to ‘drive’ one. Or race one.”

The thought of Tyrion Veltras behind a racecar’s wheel somehow fit—and yet disconcerted Ryoka Griffin greatly. But a speed freak loved fast things regardless of the setting.

This was very enjoyable, incidentally, and Tyrion had reported to Lord Pellmia that things were going well. The [Lord of Love and Wine] was quite the popular figure in the north. Pellmia’s only complaint was his son, Gilam, who was temperamental. Tyrion could relate to Pellmia, despite the age-difference between their sons. Sammial could be troublesome too.

His fear was that Ryoka Griffin would soon run away. His frustration was that he could not visit The Wandering Inn. Erin Solstice held a great grudge.

She also charged him two gold coins per transit. Not his people. Just him. He could afford it, but felt she was doing her best to make his life inconvenient.

They had gone to the Season’s Theatre to watch a play yesterday. Tyrion Veltras was training in the winter cold while eying the Bloodfields.

He had heard an Adult Creler had been spotted. While the Haven could doubtless fight one, he had seldom seen the Bloodfields in the winter. The yearly battle…

Well, his armies led with fireballs and blasted the Bloodfields until they had enough clear space to fight in. But he had never liked this place, and there were parts that had been growing for millennia.

Few people were brave enough to stretch their legs as the Haven went south, even the nobles with retinues. Which was why it was such a surprise to see two women walking into the Bloodfields.

Not far in. One had a horse, and the other…Tyrion stopped his morning sword training as he saw a familiar young woman with black hair talking to a woman with…indigo hair?

He had no idea who she was until he realized.

It was Ysara Byres. Tyrion glanced at the Haven. Hadn’t Ryoka said she wouldn’t make breakfast? Then he saw the two were eating.




Erin Solstice made a toasted baguette wrapped in wax paper, piping hot. Horseradish sauce over beef was Ryoka’s principle condiment. Again, to Erin’s horror.

Ysara Byres had a ‘philly cheesesteak’, which she kept picking apart.

“I just don’t understand why ‘cheesesteak’. It’s a beef sandwich. With some melted cheese.”

“It, uh—it’s colloquial to where we come from.”

Ysara looked up, and of all the things they could have opened with, that was the first thing they talked about.

Breakfast. But it was a good opener, and when Ysara Byres had ridden in with the Silver Swords—well, Ylawes and the expanded team were being hosted by Erin.

The Silver Merchant and Wind Runner were having a chat.

“I think it was here. Right here.”

“Hm. No, we were closer to the hill leading to Liscor. The Haven’s passed that.”

“Oh. Well, it’s similar. Persua was right over there behind some rocks with a crossbow—no, Claudeil had the crossbow, and he shot me. Then I was in the Bloodfields, and you saved me.”

“You saved yourself. I just distracted a Watchertree. Yvlon could have probably charged in and killed half the Bloodfields. Ylawes, the same.”

Ryoka shook her head, flushing red.

“No, you saved me. I was about to run straight through the Bloodfields. I was self-destructing, and you pulled me out of it. I didn’t know who you were—and I ruined your caravan. What happened to the [Merchants]? Um…was the leader…Goelax?”

“Tellgre. They were fine. We recovered the cargo, and yes, we had our trade routes disrupted, but after hearing about Skinner attacking Liscor…my one regret was not being able to see Yvlon. I heard she was recovering. I have you to thank for helping her.”

“Thank Erin. I was mostly a mess afterwards. It took me a while to get on my feet. Thank you. I don’t know what to say.”

The woman hadn’t changed much over a year. Her tattoo was both of a silver ship and of gold vines encasing it. She had indigo hair, a silver earring—but Ryoka had changed, and she took in a lot more of Ysara.

If she had the knowledge back then, she would have realized how odd it was for a respectable, traditional member of the nobles of Izril to be in the south—let alone be so dramatically different.

Ysara was definitely gay. Even apart from the similarities in style—she didn’t fit with her family.

“How—was visiting House Byres?”


Ysara’s face was careful, but she added after a second.

“I hear from Qwera that you and Erin are trustworthy. To Turnscales.”

She glanced around, and only Tyrion Veltras was in sight. Ryoka lowered her voice.

“It’s a fight. But yeah. I sorta picked up on it before…do people try to target you? If they notice, I mean?”

Ysara frowned faintly.

“…It’s easier in the south. Drakes put down any oddities to me being a Human. In the north? Most wouldn’t put the name to me instantly. How much they ‘know’ varies, as do their reactions. But I haven’t attended a gathering of nobility in…well, since I was fourteen. There are exceptions. Lady Ieka would be one. Some are entirely gracious or do not care. Lady Zanthia, a kind of mentor to many of Izril’s noblewomen, never said a word about my hair, and she has bullied Magnolia Reinhart for filching sweets as a girl, or so the rumors go.”

“But it’s hostile.”

The Silver Merchant’s smile was even more pained.

“Your world is different from mine, Ryoka Griffin. Hostile? Hostility implies they know we exist. The Drakes are hostile. The north insists there is nothing wrong. Behind closed doors, they put the daggers out, but they don’t stab us to death. Just poke us until we fit in.”

“—Fuck. That sounds terrible. Are your parents? Is Ylawes, Yvlon…?”

Ysara Byres turned her gaze north as Ryoka fumbled a bit. She didn’t know if she wanted the answer. The Silver Merchant blinked down at her cheesesteak as if she hadn’t remembered she was holding it and ate. The hot food was good in the cold snow.

“Oh, Ylawes has no idea I’m a Turnscale. I suspect Yvlon knew something, but she was a girl when I left. My parents…my mother is a kind, generous woman and hospitable even to strangers. If you ever meet her, I hope you will treat her kindly, and I am sure she will be welcoming to a friend of the family.”

Her smile twisted as she took a bite of her sandwich.

“I think I am her great disappointment. And perhaps the only person in Izril she’ll war with. A proper, bloody war that would make the Creler Wars seem light and ethical. All behind closed doors. My father is more baffled than anything.”

Ryoka swallowed. She didn’t feel like prying more.

“I’m sorry to hear that. My parents…well, I hated my father more for letting me down. I feel silly about it now. But I wonder—if I could go back—if I’d be even more disappointed or if I’d change my mind. I wasn’t a good kid.”

Ysara turned with a laugh to Ryoka.

Neither was I. I can’t say I made it easy for my parents. But that was just fair turnabout. I tried. I tried to become an adventurer. Then a respected [Merchant] in the north. The distance helped—but then one day I snapped, found myself dying my hair indigo with some of my merchandise in my bedroom in an inn, and then I shipped out to sea for three months with a [Storm Sailor] I’d met the previous week.”

“Whoa. A trading voyage? Was it…?”

“It was an interesting three months. After that, I decided I’d better go somewhere that kept me from being able to visit. The south was where I met Qwera. So when I saw a young woman running away from something—”

So that was why she had known what Ryoka needed. The Wind Runner thought of what Shaestrel had said. They were walking north, and she stopped and bent down. Something was glinting in the snow.

“I wonder what would have happened if I went with you. Like you offered. Just—joined your caravan as a helper or Runner or something instead of going back. Do you think I would have been—healthier? This can’t be what I think it is.”

Ysara eyed Ryoka. The Wind Runner had found something next to a withered stump of a tree. She lifted half of a silver blade out of the snow. Ysara’s broken blade. The Silver Merchant inspected it ruefully.

“The enchantment on it must have been old for it to snap. But the silver’s barely tarnished.”

She tossed it back into the snow. Then touched the sword at her side.

“Plain steel works for me. I’m not better than Ylawes or Yvlon anymore. If you went with me—maybe you would be the ‘Silver Runner’, hair dyed, kissing strangers in pubs. Or you and I would have killed each other. I bet I would have gone to Qwera for help, and you would have ended up as one of her projects. Vetn, Tesy, both owe a lot to her.”

Qwera. Another Turnscale in a position of power, hiding. And she was also a Doombearer. Ryoka exhaled.

“Um. I know a few more…”

“We know each other. You mean the [Alchemist]. I would be very careful how you speak. Even with wards. Even in privacy.”

Ryoka ducked her head at the warning note in Ysara’s voice. But she raised her head.

“Can anything be done? No. I’m sorry, I meant—is there anything being done that we can help with? The [Alchemist] has a way Erin can help. But can I do anything?”

“‘Do anything?’”

Ysara savored the words like a strange drink she had never had before. She looked at Ryoka, then laughed.

“You make it sound like there’s a path forwards other than just continuing to be. You…Qwera tells me she found interesting things in the Earther tents. But you said that like Magnolia Reinhart once spoke before the Five Families. Like a [Bannerlady]. As if there’s a war to be fought. Rose was an interesting girl. She spoke as if it was time for the Turnscales to come into the open.”

“Is it? I’m not so sure. Rose is—”

Ryoka hesitated. Ysara supplied a word.

“Naive? If we tell the cities we exist, and the north, then they will come after us. North will copy south, and I have seen how the Walled Cities deal with Turnscales.”

“Yeah. So maybe not. It’s a fight on Earth, and sometimes it feels like people who just don’t like gay people—let alone transgender or…anyone win. Hell, we barely get along as Humans. Forget species like Drakes vs Gnolls. We’re down to skin color.”

Ysara grimaced.

“That should surprise me—but it doesn’t. If we had no more foes on Izril to fight, the flowers of Izril would prune each other based on pedigree and whether we’re noble-blooded or could trace our heredity back to the Hundred Families of Terandria. I think you are right. It would endanger us all.”

She paused, and her earring sparkled as she turned her head north.

“…It would be dangerous and deadly, and there would be no going back. But the idea makes my heart leap.”

Ryoka turned to Ysara as she crumpled the wax paper into her belt pouch. Ysara touched the sword at her side.

“I never felt much joy in victory over monsters or people with the blade. But if you want a warrior, I’d raise a blade and fight for that. Drawing a sword and telling my mother, telling Izril, ‘here I am, come silence me. Try to make me vanish.’ That? I would fight for that.

Her eyes flashed just like they had when she walked into the Bloodfields with sword in hand. Ryoka Griffin swallowed hard. Then she looked around. At the man standing there, pretending not to watch her. Then at the High Passes, where the road to Liscor lay. The Haven—and then Ysara.

She held out a hand.

“Maybe there are some slow steps forwards, Ysara. Or fast ones. If I can do it—if you need me to do anything, I’ll always do a delivery for you. Would you…well, are you sticking around Liscor? Would you be free to talk again sometime? Over food?”

Ysara gauged Ryoka’s face and noted her missing fingers on her hand. She removed her riding gloves, took Ryoka’s hand gently, and squeezed.

“I think I could stay in Invrisil and see where the wind is blowing before I set forth again. Qwera is busy with her enterprise, but I am one woman—and I can make coin for House Byres sitting for a month. Especially with Erin Solstice’s door. Did you just need a friend to talk to?”

Ryoka Griffin took a breath. She glanced over her shoulder, and Tyrion Veltras trotted off. He really was the most unsubtle spy in the entire world.

“Maybe. But I might be here a while. And I have an idea about the best thing I could do.”

Ysara Byres nodded reasonably.

“Ah. I heard Lord Tyrion had a flag raised for you. But if you’re going to be here a month—I haven’t been part of a meeting of three ships at sea for a while, but if you find another lovely lady, I’ll think about it. Not Lord Veltras. Thirty-two days in a month…you could have at least sixty encounters, each with a different person. Especially if your ship docks on both port and starboard sides.”

Ryoka’s mouth opened. Wait, was she talking about—she definitely was. Ysara’s smile was cool as could be—and Ryoka realized she really wasn’t like Ylawes and Yvlon.

“What, you’re trying to level up, aren’t you? Ah—I forgot, you don’t have levels. But there’s no faster way to level up sometimes. Everyone could use another level.”

“What? No, I—”

Ysara was laughing at Ryoka Griffin, and it turned out she had the humor to match Wailant at his worst. It was a good start.




You know, the power of food really could bring people together. Ryoka Griffin was not a foodie. In fact, she had eaten a lot of bad food on the road.

Mad Madain’s bowel-scourging bowls of meat were an example of what Ryoka could eat and be fine with. But she had to own—there was something nice about food.

It relaxed people. It was a way to connect. In fact…it was the only time she had ever gotten Taletevirion to sit down.

He had a bandage over his midriff and winced every time he moved, but he did sit down. He stared at the bowl of noodles.

“What is this?”

“Ramen. I think it’s ramen. Um. Erin?”

The [Innkeeper] was rolling back and forth on the floor as bowls of the noodles were sent out the kitchen. She was shouting.

“Hey, Bird, you put the egg into the bowl! You don’t eat it with the shell on! That’s right, Ryoka! Ramen is on the house! We’ve got pork in the ramen. We’ve got spicy ramen! We’ve got, um…basic ramen!”

“No, but what is it? Noodles in broth? You can’t do that and call it a fancy name. This is literally just long noodle soup. Wait a second—no, this is Drathian. How do you know how to use chopsticks?”

Taletevirion protested as he picked up two chopsticks. Ryoka paused.

“I’m from Drath.”

The Unicorn snorted.

“And I’m from the moon. The green one.”

“No, my ancestry is partly Drathian. As you understand it.”

The Unicorn gave her a long look. He spoke in a language Ryoka didn’t know. Korean? It wasn’t any dialect of Chinese she could place nor did it sound Japanese.

“What did I just say?”

“I don’t speak the language.”

“Right. So I believe you. You’re so Drathian. You know, ‘Drath’ is an archipelago of survivors of countless nations. Even if you have a similarity with your Earth-thing—that’s like saying I’m from Izril. What part?

He was in a persnickety mood. Ryoka threw up her hands.

“Fine, I know more about the culture—probably—than the average person living in Izril!”

“You don’t know more than me. Let me try another language. Let’s see—”

This time, she thought he definitely spoke in something that sounded analogous to Cantonese, maybe, but she wasn’t sure. There were differences in how each language spoke.

Pekona, who was sipping from the definitely-authentic-to-her-homeland soup, had been quietly eating at her table with Vuliel Drae. When she heard what Taletevirion said, she sprayed her entire mouthful of soup into Dasha’s face.

Ryoka twisted around in her seat. Pekona stared at Taletevirion, and the Unicorn looked worried.

“Er—that was a joke.”

“What did he say?”

Pekona didn’t want to repeat it. She eventually whispered as Ryoka came over, and the two women gave the Unicorn a look of such disgust that he turned red.

I appreciated it. It’s polite to remark on aesthetics. In Stitch-folk Culture.”

Ryoka sat back down at the bar and slid her bowl slightly away from the Unicorn.

“Teriarch said you were randy.”

“That bastard has no room to talk. Did he say ‘randy’? That—”

The Unicorn pounded the table with a fist. Ryoka laughed.

“He’s not that bad. He’s old now. He was old when he met you, right?”

The Unicorn folded his arms.

“Perhaps, but I know stories. He’s not immune, either. Mention the ‘Wuvren incident’ around him or Magnolia. I dare you. And that’s nothing compared to what he got up to in his youth. But I warn you, I’m a being of dignity and taste. You can’t seduce me into helping you. Even if you have a seed.”

Ryoka Griffin stared at him open-mouthed over her bowl of soup. Nanette was peeking at the two of them from the side—she had brought her bowl over to eavesdrop. She was far too interested in the conversation. Without a word, Taletevirion put his foot out and pushed her chair.

With a squeak, Nanette went sliding across the bar until she bumped into the far wall. Ryoka was recovered enough to shoot back.

“On the list of long-lived people I know—you’re on the bottom. Under Rhisveri.”

“Ooh, I’m so impressed. The Wind Runner has bad taste. Everyone goes for the scaly ones first. You think you have good taste? Wait till one of them spits fire over you. That little lightshow in the [Enchanter]’s apartment is mild compared to that.

Ryoka Griffin hesitated. Fire back. Fire back…she had a good retort after only two bites of food.

“—How’s Lady Bethal’s horse stock doing? I hear it’s a good time to be a horse breeder. Know anything about that?”

He froze with a mouthful of soup in his mouth. Then he looked sideways at her.

“I’ll have you know I flirt like a champion. I’ve seen how you flirt. Crashing into the ground in a glider and getting shot with crossbow bolts—it’s a unique one, but I bet at least one subspecies of swan was impressed. And Lord Tyrion Veltras, of course.”

Ryoka glowered.

“I fly well. I survived a magical hurricane in my first hour of flying. I’ve outflown the Wild Hunt in you-know-where. Mihaela herself certified me as a Courier. I’d like to say I’m decent.”

Taletevirion pulled a face.

“Eh. I’ve seen better ducks flying, and they spend half their time face-first in lakes.”

Shaestrel stopped fishing noodles out of her bowl as Nerry stuck her face into her bowl of ramen.


“Eh. They were taking it easy on ye.”


A woman slowed down as she carried a bowl of ramen over to a table with Valeterisa.

“Eh. You’re average at best. Even if you can fly, most Couriers are still better than you. Don’t get a big head.”

Mihaela Godfrey delivered the final blow as Ryoka Griffin slumped over in her seat. She put her head down, and Taletevirion laughed.

“I like this place. I’m glad I accepted your dinner off—whoa! What was that for?”

Even his enjoyment of Ryoka Griffin’s misery was cut short by surprise. Erin Solstice had just rolled past Ryoka, and she slapped the Wind Runner on the back. Fairly hard.

“What? Ryoka asked me to.”

Dead gods damnit, Erin! I meant that for—not the moment!

“Sure. Sure.

Erin rolled on as Ryoka glanced at Taletevirion. He was laughing. Then he grew quiet.

“I don’t want to risk my life. Don’t say it.”

“I’m not saying anything. I’m just having ramen.”

“Sure you are.”

He grumpily took another bite of soup, but Ryoka held up her hands.

“It’s just soup. I promise, I won’t say a thing.”

“You say that, but the next thing I know, I’ll be waking up in a wagon in Chandrar, and someone will be telling me I’m on my way to be executed. Or we’ll be rescuing an Earthspirit Djinni. Or…I can’t do it, you get it? I can barely protect myself in retirement. See?”

The Unicorn indicated his stomach. Ryoka glanced at him.

“Retirement doesn’t sound that safe if you’re getting stabbed. What if you were a consultant?”

Taletevirion kept a straight face.

“Nice try. Every consultant gets pulled into the fray eventually.”

“Well, even assuming that’s so, isn’t it better to have someone who can take the burden from you if you do have to do something?”

He snorted.

“And you think I’ll teach you swordplay? With your cute glowing sword? You’re not talented.”

“I didn’t mean me. Plus, I think I’m decent. What’s—Erin, stop hitting me!

“You want me to stop? Fine, fine. Hey, are you the guy who drinks Rxlvn? Have another cup. Hey, Lyonette, look! He’s not dead!”

Taletevirion chuckled weakly as he took a sip from the black liquid. And truthfully, Ryoka didn’t press him that hard. They just—talked.

“Do you know, um…turn…skins?”

Ryoka muttered after a sip of ale. The Unicorn paused, his mug to his lips.


“Are you against them?”

He thought about that.

“Your people burned the Vale Forest until no magic was left. The Treants fled the land. The Dryads and forest spirits lie dead, and the last Elementals are either the noblest sort who laid every grudge aside or insane with grief like the river your [Innkeeper] friend poked. I am the last of the last. Yes, absolutely I care who porks who. That’s what I go to sleep thinking about. It preys on me. Not the Great Trees burning, no. I am haunted by the image of two men rolling around in the hay.”

“Just checking. Not everyone’s on board, and I’m curious.”

Ryoka got sad just hearing that. And to her surprise, Taletevirion patted her on the shoulder.

“Hey. It’s a good question. Your spicy salamander is too good-hearted, but there have been sorts who would give you the opposite answer. Ever heard of the Silver Knight of Dragons?”

“Oh. Him? That explains a lot.”

Taletevirion gave Ysara Byres a meaningful look as she, Saliss, and Mirn all had a bowl of soup in their own private meeting.

“Yes, it d—yeow! What are you doing?

Erin Solstice lowered her hand. She had just delivered a slap to the Unicorn’s back as hard as she could.

“Okay. That one was just because I thought it was funny. It doesn’t hurt that bad, does it?”

Taletevirion and Ryoka turned. Ryoka whistled.

“Gothica? Get her.




They called them Ryoka’s Dinner Dates. Or rather, that was Lyonette and Erin’s term for them. Ryoka opined they were not dates. She just wanted a private room or to have a conversation with a guest.

“I dunno, Ryoka. You looked pretty chummy with that Unicorn last night. And Palt kept calling Taletevirion the only handsome man in the inn besides himself. Imani said you two were a good match.”

Ryoka rolled her eyes. Erin was being mean—for her—but she had no teeth when it came to the world of innuendo-sniping. So the Wind Runner leaned over and smiled at Erin as the [Innkeeper] teased her over lunch.

“Then may I have a date with you this evening, Miss?”

Erin gave her a wide-eyed look, and the teasing stopped immediately. But she and Ryoka didn’t really have dinner so much as popcorn over one of Erin’s memory-movies in the [World’s Eye Theatre].

And a fight.




“I don’t have to ever forgive him. And I think you’re hanging out with a monster. The only reason I let him go through my inn is because you won’t give up on him and I need your help. If I wasn’t trying to kill those six, I’d ban you both!”

Ryoka tipped Erin out of her wheelchair. It was like cow-tipping, but the [Innkeeper] was an angry cow. And Ryoka was only mad enough to do that because Erin had aura-kicked her out of her seat.

Maybe he can change, Erin. Maybe he can be redeemed. Do you want allies or not?

I want allies. But I don’t have to like any of it! [Killer Fishies Attack]!

Oh, f—

Ryoka dove for cover as a glowing piranha dive-bombed her. She raised her head.

“I don’t see you quibbling with Lyonette.”

She didn’t murder thousands of Goblins.

Erin shouted back. She raised a finger—and Ryoka threw a pepper spray potion into the air.


It didn’t even hit Erin directly. The [Innkeeper] couldn’t right her chair, so she opened the [Garden of Sanctuary] door under her. Ryoka cut the fishes in half with a belt dagger—and Erin landed on top of her with a flying elbow as she was looking around. Then the wind flipped Erin off Ryoka.

Shaestrel and Nerry were eating from a bucket of popcorn, and both were enjoying the fight. It ended with Ishkr tossing a bucket of water on the two of them—and Ryoka got up.

“Zel Shivertail killed thousands of Antinium. Relc killed Rags’ parents. Tyrion Veltras’ wife was murdered by Drakes, and he fought Velan the Kind. Many members of House Veltras died in the Second Antinium Wars. I don’t need you to forgive him. It’s just—keep letting him use the door. Please.

Erin lay on her back, arms folded as she stared up at the ceiling.

“I will never let him in the inn proper.”

“Okay. Okay. But—will you at least let Hethon and Sammial in? They’re kids. And you can change their minds.”

“Sammial’s a little brat.”

“He’s okay. He just doesn’t have a mother.”

Erin eyed Ryoka as she raised her head with effort, then flopped onto the ground.

“I don’t get you, Ryoka. You are the nicest person to terrible people.”

Ryoka smiled weakly.

“I guess I see something familiar. Thanks, Erin. Can we agree to disagree?”

The [Innkeeper] was flopped on her back, water running down her brown hair onto her face. She looked up at Ryoka, and her hazel eyes flashed.

The inn had not been trembling with the force of their fight. But now, Ryoka felt the full force of Erin Solstice’s true anger.

For a second. Then her face turned baffled. She searched Ryoka’s face up and down, and she closed her eyes.

“…What am I missing? Nanette?”

The witch had been watching the fight and perhaps taking notes. She peered at Ryoka and then called out.

“Maybe it’s what I don’t understand, Miss Erin?”

The [Witch] took over for the [Innkeeper], and she gave Ryoka a different look. Searching. Then—she seemed to understand.

“That’s it. Ryoka, it’s not about me forgiving Tyrion Veltras. It never was about me ‘agreeing to disagree.’ You…you talk as if I wasn’t there, too.”

“Me? No, I know you were at the siege.”

Erin Solstice sighed. As if it suddenly made sense. She looked at Ryoka and then past her as more guests of the inn popped in to see the end of the fight.

“—Did you ever see an image of…? No, there was no public television back then. You don’t get it. She doesn’t get it, Numbtongue. Don’t drop-kick her.”


Ryoka twisted around, and the Hob stopped sneaking up from behind one of the rows of seats. He clearly believed in tag-team brawls. He stood up and gave Ryoka a smile. She hesitated.

It was harder to argue with Numbtongue than it was with Erin for multiple reasons. He had lost his brothers.

But there was something Ryoka didn’t really know. And Erin Solstice slowly pulled herself up into a sitting posture.

“Ryoka. I wasn’t ‘at’ the battle. I didn’t watch it from the walls or my inn. When I tell you I saw Tyrion—there was a girl with a flag. A really stupid white flag that was actually just a bedsheet. Before his army attacked Liscor, Goblins fought Goblins. They did it because they didn’t agree with the Goblin Lord, Reiss. They did it because they had nowhere to run. And some—did it for me. They followed a girl with a flag, and I saw Tyrion ride right past me.”

Ryoka Griffin froze. And Nanette sighed and made an ‘oh’, faintly, in the background. Numbtongue looked at Ryoka’s face, and he realized—she really hadn’t seen that part.

She had been in Reizmelt, and it was a battle she had followed, but not watched. Niers Astoragon and the Walled Cities had seen it. Nobles of the north like Magnolia Reinhart had seen the battle and that girl waving a flag and trying to stop everything crashing down.

But not Ryoka Griffin. She had never well and truly seen Goblins die. If she had—maybe she would never have been able to look Tyrion Veltras in the eye and smile.

She hadn’t seen it. Hadn’t really gotten what had happened. Ryoka had heard Goblins fighting Goblins and no one had mentioned that Erin Solstice had been there.

Of course she had. And now—Ryoka Griffin saw it.

The World’s Eye Theatre flickered as Erin Solstice spoke. The glass dome didn’t blink. But it shifted.

And there was a girl waving a flag. She looked younger, her face was dirty, and she was holding a stupid flag made out of a bedsheet. Tears ran down her face as she waved it, and an army of Goblins poured forwards in front of Tyrion Veltras.


Antinium, a hundred led by Pawn, charging into battle. A Goblin with black eyes pointing and killing them, casting [Deathbolt].

Az’kerash’s apprentice. And then Ryoka saw House Veltras and the Humans of the north charging…

She looked away. Then peeked. The images flickered so fast as Erin Solstice got up. But they were there.

If Ryoka had the nerve to watch it. If she dared…Erin Solstice slowly got up. She twisted her head and realized what was happening—and raised her hand. The dome went blank again, and Erin Solstice took mercy on her friend. She inhaled, exhaled, and then looked at Ryoka. Peaceably, speaking softly.

“I will never forgive him. Just remember that. You can advocate for Tyrion Veltras. And I can avoid taking a rook to checkmate the king or avoid losing a piece or position on the board.”

She exhaled as Mrsha brought a towel over to her. Erin took it and ruffled her hair as her face vanished from view. But when she lowered the towel, her eyes were somewhere else. In the past and long ago.

“—Tyrion Veltras and I will never see eye-to-eye. He’s not here. He’s still riding past me on that battlefield, and I am still holding Headscratcher in my arms. If you can aim him away, do it. But if we ever meet like that again. That time—I will kill him.”

She met the Wind Runner’s gaze and smiled faintly. Then she sat back down in her wheelchair as Numbtongue and Mrsha helped her up. Ryoka Griffin finally got it. Erin Solstice turned away.

“I wish I got to level from fighting. I shoulda been a [Bard] like you, Numbtongue.”

“You’re not worldly enough. Not enough sex.”


The two bantered as Nerry trotted over and inspected Ryoka. She had a smirk on her face, as of a lamb seeing someone who had fought someone else in a wheelchair and lost.

But Shaestrel just floated on by.


“Good on ye two for having a proper fight like friends. Soft friends. Ye didn’t even bite each other’s fingers off.”


Ryoka rallied a bit at that.

“Again. What kind of friends are you used to, Shaestrel?”

The Spring Fae laughed merrily.


Legendary friends. The kind who rolled around in the first kingdoms at the dawn of time brawling, then fucking, then fought the gods side-by-side! Does anyone know my story? No. Peh. You ignorant children.”


She spat to the side. Then looked fondly down at Erin Solstice.


“Ah, but you don’t bow before legends nor anyone, eh? And here I thought Ryoka Griffin was arrogant. If you met my king, Melidore might explode before he beheaded you.”


For Erin Solstice might not kneel. Ryoka Griffin weakly grinned.

“Didn’t I hear she stole the sword in the stone?”

Erin flushed mildly.

“Oh yeah. I was going to ask whether I actually stole that thing.”


“Psh. Memories. As if it would be owned by the likes of you. It was a nice trick. But you claimed it. Ghostspeaker. Fae thief. What a marvelous [Innkeeper], to fear not and bow to naught. A witch indeed.


The Fae smiled as she spiraled down around Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper] flushed mildly—but there was also a great deal of sarcasm in Shaestrel’s tone. Erin’s chin rose.

“I don’t like bowing to people. Sorry. Besides, it’s not that I think I’m that great. It’s just—that I’ve met the greatest people in the world. Gnomes and [Kings] and [Queens]. Dragons.”

Her eyes blazed with memory. The Spring Fae left it at that. She winked at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner slowly sighed as someone handed her a towel to wipe the water off.

Some dinner conversations were harder than most.




Ysara. Taletevirion. Erin.

Of all the meetings she had had—Ryoka had not expected to fight with Erin again. But also, of the four Dinner Dates that week—the one she dreaded most was easiest.

“So I, uh. Thank you for coming.”

“I owe you. I was not kind. What is this?”

“Sushi. Hey, Erin. You don’t have to serve me Japanese food each time I ask for dinner.”

Erin poked her head into the private dining room and scowled.

“It’s not just you! Do you know how hard it is to find the dried seaweed stuff? Besides, sushi is fun. You guys should come outside for a bit. Relc and Mrsha are making a seventeen-foot-long sushi roll.”

Ryoka felt like this was an affront to all things good and proper, and she sort of wanted to see it. But the sound of Nerry trying to spit out a mouthful of wasabi made her look over. Shaestrel was chewing on the raw salmon in a bite of sushi as she eyed Ryoka’s fourth guest with a lot of unspoken sadness.

Rags, Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe, was on her eighth piece of sushi. She had a huge taste for seafood.

“I didn’t know Goblins liked seafood.”

“Many Goblins do. Fish taste good. Why is it rolled in seaweed?”

“Presentation, I think. A good way to hold it together. Uh. I don’t know. Probably just the ingredients that were around Japan at the time. Good flavor and texture composition.”

Rags chewed down on the platter between them.

“Makes sense. What about the mayonnaise-bacon one?”

“Don’t touch that. Erin’s from America, and they bastardized sushi. I heard her bullying Imani and Calescent into making it. They know crimes against cooking when they see them.”

The conversation between the two was light, at first. But Ryoka was fidgeting, and Rags was silent.

“So. Do you have the same grudge as Erin about me associating with Tyrion Veltras?”

Rags stopped chewing and glanced up at Ryoka. Her crimson gaze was steady.

“No. I don’t have the luxury of choosing allies.”

Ryoka sucked in her cheeks. Rags kept chewing.

“I was not kind to you. I tried to rob you—I stole your potion.”

“Yeah, but I…I guess I never got to know Goblins as well as Erin. The Redfangs at her inn—I just didn’t meet any. So I’m saying I—want to understand.”

Rags patted at her lips with a napkin.

“You wouldn’t want to meet Tremborag’s Goblins.”

“No, of course not.”

Ryoka shuddered. She knew what Rags meant, and the Goblin Chieftain gave her a long look.

“Do you want me to explain my people are a people?”

“No…but I don’t know how else to learn.”

The [Great Chieftain] of her tribe frowned, and her eyes were sharp.

“Then explain to me what you asked to talk to me about. Are you…learning Goblins are not monsters?”


“Then are you seeking forgiveness? Are you trying to understand our culture? Do you want to know my history? My opinion?”

“Not—exactly? It’s just that I don’t know much.”

Rags sat back, patting her stomach.

“Right. So you asked me to explain what it is to be me. Couldn’t you guess? Pretend you’re a Goblin. That’s most of it. I am not Numbtongue. I am not Ulvama. Goblins are very different. Like Humans.”

She was being slightly facetious, but she was challenging Ryoka. The Wind Runner turned red.

“I just—I am trying to both help and be Lord Tyrion and House Veltras’ ally. I don’t think Tyrion Veltras is beyond a kind of redemption. I don’t even think he’s evil. But he has done terrible things.”

“Mm. But he’s attractive so it doesn’t matter?”

Absolutely not!

Ryoka stood up fast, and Rags grinned at her. It was not a nice smile. But nor was it completely mean.

“I see Goblins. Goblins like each other. Sometimes Goblins overlook other’s bad sides because they like each other. Snapjaw eats everything. She nibbles on Badarrow in her sleep. He likes her. Poisonbite is bossy, rude, gets jealous—but Goblins fall in love with her. Until they don’t.”

“It’s not about being attracted to him. I hope not. I know what he did. But I wasn’t there. I just—I am not guilty enough.”

Ryoka spread her hands, and it was honest. Then she saw Rags smile at her. And the Goblin Chieftain leaned forwards.

“I will tell you a secret, Ryoka. Something I don’t tell Erin. Okay?”


Rags glanced at the door and whispered.

“I know everything Velan the Kind did. I know he killed countless people. I don’t feel bad about that. I like Velan. I think he was wrong—but I don’t hate him. Because I was not there.”

She sat back and picked at her teeth with a claw. Ryoka Griffin sat there. Rags eyed her.

“Reiss killed Zel Shivertail. And many Humans. My tribe did not. Tremborag earned his hatred. It is hard to see one tribe when the Goblin Lord went marching. It was not a good thing. But you weren’t there. If Tyrion Veltras tries again—I will fight him. If, next time, you help him or stand aside—I will be angry. But if next time can be stopped, I say you should be his ally. That is where I am not Erin Solstice.”

She was pragmatic. Ryoka felt like she was exhaling a breath she hadn’t known she was taking in. Then—Rags smiled faintly.

“I did not come here to talk about Tyrion Veltras, anyways.”

“Oh? Then—how can I help? I would like to talk to you.”

Ryoka smiled, and the shorter Goblin smiled back. It felt like they were trying to kindle a friendship they had never quite had. Both had known Erin Solstice, but, oddly, it was like two friends of a friend trying to feel each other out and become friends themselves.

Ryoka didn’t even know Rags’ personality that well. The fact that the Great Chieftain could talk so eloquently now was a shock. But she got a good feel for Rags from her exchange about Tyrion. A pragmatic, highly intelligent Goblin. Rags picked up another sushi bite, this one eel.

“…Tell me about trebuchets. I hear you gave the blind [Emperor] the trick to making them. How do you make a fighter jet?”

Ryoka’s face fell. She stuttered.

“I don’t know—how responsible it would be to share—even if I had a working plan, which I don’t, Rags—”

The Chieftain slowly drank from her cup of blue fruit juice.

“Tyrion Veltras killed my tribe. I am suddenly feeling very sad about it. There is an Archmage making flying Humans in armor. He got that from Earth. Give me fighter jets.”

She looked at Ryoka.

“It’s only fair. Plus, I know how they’re made. I watched a movie in the theatre. They spin a blade around very fast. I know the shape, the wings, just not the engine. But I could probably figure it out.”

Ryoka stared at her. Damn the overabundance of World War 2 movies.

Bullshit. There’s no way you could guess how to make one.”

“I made ballistae and trebuchets. I have a plan for a giant falling rock trap. My Goblins just can’t find enough rocks big enough to haul over. I am going to make an elevator. I just need enough gears from Kevin’s workshop. I have blueprints. Want to see?”

Rags dipped into her bag of holding, and Ryoka walked around the table in disbelief. Nerry trotted over, and both stared at Rags’ designs.

“No way. Did you design all this yourself? Aha. You’re wrong about how engines work, by the by. That’s a steam engine. Real engines use gasoline.”

Rags rolled her eyes.

“Yes. And I have so much gasoline lying around. It’s so easy to get. All your stupid vehicles are made out of steel. Do you know how hard it is for Goblins in the mountains to get steel? I make my Thunderbows and ballistae out of Wyvern bone.”

Ryoka was trying to see a flaw in Rags’ plans, and the Great Chieftain took another sip of blue juice, looking smug.

“…You don’t know how to make a fighter plane, do you? You hint you do. But I am going to tell Erin you are a…what word does she use? A poser.”

Ryoka’s head snapped up.

“I—I just haven’t laid it out in my head yet. Do you know about the capstone-bridge design? Where all the rocks are held in place by pressure?”

“Yeah. They’re called bridges. Humans and Drakes make them.”

“…Grain silos?”


“Combine threshers?”

“Kevin told me about them. You can’t make them either. There is nothing you know that Kevin doesn’t know, is there? He made bicycles. He knows more about how a combustion engine works than you do.”

Ryoka Griffin found herself sitting and facing Rags. She spoke quickly.

“Aha, but I know how a battery works.”

“Acid, copper wire, magnet. Things go round and round. Useless unless I use electricity. Next.”


“Bat poo, sulfur, saltpeter, charcoal.”

Dead gods damn it, Kevin!

Ryoka slammed the door open and shouted down the hall. Kevin jumped as he made up an egg sushi.

“What did I do?”

Ryoka went back to Rags.

“I…crop rotation.”

“Even Wailant knew that.”

“Pythagorean theorem? No—no. Euler’s equation. I bet you Kevin doesn’t know that, even if he knows calculus. Did he mention the cartesian system of graphing? There’s an entire system behind mathematics that’s useful. Double-entry bookkeeping? Stop me if any of these things are new. I—I know how Greek fire was made. Or at least, how we guessed they made it. Roman concrete?”

Ryoka and Rags were going back and forth, and the Goblin was having fun now as she asked questions. Slowly, the door to their private room cracked open, and a pair of sunglasses gleamed as Yelroan peaked in. He had been promised math, after all.

Ryoka had a single thought as she caught her breath and she realized Rags was manipulating her. But when she thought of Eldavin or all the knowledge of Earth…she had already told Hedault to experiment on her energy sword from the future. So she grinned and tried to actually think how you’d make an airplane. She hoped Kevin had explained aerodynamics to Rags. The worst part was that even if the materials were inferior—magic might bridge the gap.

“I did have an idea I’ve saved for a rainy day. But it might literally change the world.”

“If it’s new, I’ll make a statue of you.”

Rags leaned forwards as Ryoka began to outline a plan she had come up with but had no interest in pursuing, because it wouldn’t help her. And she didn’t trust Laken. But before she began, she whispered to Rags.

“Say. Of all the people—why don’t you give Bird a ballista?”

Rags was the one person who could do it, aside from Chaldion, and she was arguably just as close and even more friendly to the inn. Rags smirked.

“He can’t pay me enough for one. They are not cheap. Now, what was your special project?”




Forty days and forty nights. That was a lot of time to talk to people. But step one was talking. Reconnecting with some.

Getting to know others properly the first time. For instance, Ryoka had a formal Terandrian dinner with Lyonette and Mrsha with the Thronebearers dancing attendance. It was the most awkward thing in the world—until they established who was Mrsha’s mother.

Ice cream cones with Nanette while they sat in Riverfarm, by the graves. Sometimes, Ryoka cried—other times, her companions were very gracious to her. Often, Nerry and Shaestrel were there.

The lamb would be chomping down on an ice cream cone as Shaestrel listened, and the Spring Fae, as promised, told Ryoka if she was wasting time.

She said not a word. But she began smiling on the sixth day.




“It’s called ‘mac and cheese’. And Erin made it. There’s a lot lower-quality stuff. This has sausage and breading, and it’s healthy if you eat the salad.”

Sammial and Hethon looked delighted by the food in the Haven’s private dining rooms. Tyrion eyed the noodle-based cheese dish with dubiousness, and Jericha eyed Nerry and Shaestrel, who were waiting in front of a bowl to be served by Ullim.

But the most interesting part of the table was not Ryoka Griffin for once. Hethon kept glancing sideways as the guest to this conversation smiled faintly.

“It looks better than the ship slop you get. And that’s with respect to Miss Solstice. I love her, and she is a fine host—but I nearly broke a tooth on her scones.”

Ysara Byres could be pithy if she felt relaxed, and she was leading with her nautical experience and frankness. Ryoka had said it would play well with the Veltras family.

“Lady Byres.”

“Ysara, if I may, Lord Tyrion.”

She smiled briefly, and Tyrion ducked his head after a moment’s pause.

“Then let us be informal. I must say your appearance has changed notably since last I saw you. I regretted not having the chance to test your skill with the blade. I was told House Byres’ prodigy was one in a thousand years.”

Ryoka winced a bit, but Ysara was equal to Tyrion’s indecorousness. And he was not being deliberately impolite.

“I have a fondness for dyed hair, Tyrion. And I received my tattoo at sea. Do you find either objectionable?”

Hethon and Sammial’s heads swung from Ysara to Tyrion. The [Lord] gave Ysara a blank look as Ryoka held her breath. And true to her expectations…

“House Wellfar dresses much in the same attire as you. I was merely observing the facts. I do not follow fashion trends.”

Jericha and Ullim exchanged a glance behind Lord Tyrion. Ryoka almost burst out laughing—and wondered if she had to explain to Tyrion about ‘Turnscales’. Somehow, she thought he knew more than he let on when it came to same-sex relationships.

[Soldiers] often did. But that was her big trick, you see? Ysara Byres and her indigo hair were seated next to Sammial and Hethon, and she gave Ryoka an amused look.

What if I told you that you could influence the Lord of House Veltras’ way of thinking? Ryoka cleared her throat gently. Ysara had asked her to bring up the topic. She was still wary of her identity and the dangers to her people. Ryoka? Ryoka was crazy. So she smiled across the table at Tyrion and spoke.

“They have a lot of fun customs at sea, you know. And on campaign, I’m told. It’s not a topic most Drakes bring up. But—I’ve heard [Sailors] have relationships with each other, men in a relationship with other men. Does it happen in armies too that you know, Tyrion, or is it not spoken of? It’s completely normal to me, but I don’t know Izril’s customs.”

Jericha’s head snapped around.

“Miss Ryoka, Lord Hethon and Sammial are here.”

“So? It’s not an inappropriate conversation.”

Tyrion Veltras blinked at Ryoka Griffin. He often seemed surprised by the line a dinner conversation took, and he visibly hesitated. Sammial and Hethon were staring from Ryoka to Ysara to Tyrion to Jericha. Sammial had a vague look of disgust on his face, and Hethon looked uncomprehending, but neither was shouting in outrage. That was good.

“I—am familiar with some rumors. But it is not mentioned. What occurs on the campaign, and at sea, is often dropped. Such gossip is often used to cast aspersions on the character of members of the nobility. I do not partake in that kind of gossip.”

“Right. But it’s not wrong, is it? Or do you think otherwise? By the by, Drakes call that being a ‘Turnscale’, but I have a bunch of different definitions from home. Let me know if Izrilians have a different term. Pass the bread, would you, Hethon?”

Ryoka. This is not a fit subject for the dinner table.”

Jericha hissed at Ryoka. She looked nervous, or perhaps uncomfortable. Ryoka gave her a flat look.


Ysara nodded.

“I’d be happy to share what I’ve seen. And it does exist, regardless of thoughts on it. I would like to hear what Lord Veltras has to say.”

“But it’s—not appropriate!”

Jericha tried again. This time, Sammial raised his voice.

“Why? I want to hear about this.”

“Yes, tell us why it’s inappropriate.”

The final guest spoke up, and if Ysara had vivid indigo hair—she was not the most dramatic person at the table for hair color.

Taletevirion looked very interested as he sat up at the table. He had not been especially moved by Ryoka inviting him to dinner with Lord Tyrion. Or mac and cheese. But this conversation…he began picking baby tomatoes out of the salad bowl and shoveling them into his mouth as Jericha floundered. His silver eyes glittered at Ryoka.

I know exactly what you’re doing. But I’m playing along.

That’s what they said. He glanced at Ysara Byres, and Tyrion Veltras eyed Taletevirion.

“I understand you are an accomplished swordsman, sir. I am reinventing my own skillset. Would you care for a duel after this meal?”

“I could spank you both for a while. Why not? It sounds funny to see what ‘once in a thousand years’ looks like for House Byres’ prodigy. And beating on a Veltras [Lord] used to be a tradition in my family.”

Ysara and Tyrion’s faces both turned slack as the Unicorn laughed like a braying donkey. Jericha turned her wrath on him, and Ryoka sat back. Hethon passed her the bread, and she tucked into the meal with a good humor.

Yes, this. This was what Shaestrel was smiling at. This was the Ryoka Griffin trademark.

Chaos. No, wait, that was Erin’s job. Ryoka was more like weird meetings. Suddenly, Ryoka wondered if she could get a certain sock puppet to agree to a meal at Erin’s inn. Maybe he’d run into a Goblin. Maybe he’d run into Erin Solstice or Demsleth.

Either way, only good things could occur. Ryoka Griffin lifted a cup and smiled.

“Here’s to awkward dinner parties.”

Everyone stared at her, but Ryoka Griffin had done this so much that the embarrassment was like second nature to her. She drained the cup, laughed, and then began to launch into a discussion of Turnscales with a Unicorn, a Silver [Merchant], and the [Lord] of House Veltras.

It was going to be a fun month.

The Unicorn sat, awkwardly, with Ysara Byres and Tyrion Veltras, as Shaestrel floated out the window, burping, having eaten half a normal person’s plate of macaroni at a speed not even Sammial could match.

He told himself he’d seen something like this before. If not all in the same place…you didn’t get credit for rearranging the same thing into a novel order. A sword was a sword. A girl was a girl. To a Dragon—or a Unicorn—it was still the same thing.

It didn’t matter if it was a sword in the stone or an alien’s weapon from the far future. The last Harpy of empire or a young woman with an aversion to socks. It wasn’t…new.

—Even he knew he was lying at this point. So the Unicorn broke into a discussion of what sailors did and whether that was normal—quietly.

“The Vale Forest is dead. Every Great Tree was felled. You, boy, and your family did not raze the entire forest for lumber. There are deep roots—but your legacy is just that. A legacy. If you want to grow a seed faster than a decade for the first shoot to break soil—you had better find magic. But the Drakes stole the magic of Oteslia’s tree. There are no great green havens left. A Treant might nurture that seed. But it would be the death of an ancient. And they’d do it too, the soft bastards.”

He took a long drink of Rxlvn as Tyrion Veltras stopped abruptly. Ryoka turned, eyes widening. Ysara paused, then waved a fork.

“Excuse me. Is this—innuendo I’m missing? About ships docking together?”

Ysara thought Taletevirion was joking or making a reference to Turnscales. She smiled—until the Unicorn blew air out of his mouth.

“No, not your stupid issues of Humans kissing each other regardless of gender, girl. Which I have entire sympathy for—fools are fools. But you haven’t even gotten into the weird stuff yet. Ever had a relationship with an Elemental but their form keeps changing? Or a spirit of the snow who melts and forgets their lover every year and falls in love all over again? That’s hard to make work.”

Jericha’s mouth opened, and she looked between Taletevirion and Ryoka. The Wind Runner opened her mouth nervously.


“What seed are you referring to, sir? And how do you know about the death of the forest?”

Tyrion Veltras eyed Taletevirion, and the Unicorn was drunk. Or getting there with Rxlvn. He took another swig.

“I’m talking about the Dryad seed in the wand Ryoka has. The one she’s trying to grow.”

He gave her a smile like a horse as everyone’s gaze suddenly locked on Ryoka Griffon. Hethon began choking on his food, and Tyrion sat bolt upright. Ryoka was open-mouthed. She realized—

The Unicorn was doing this on purpose. Taletevirion exhaled happily.

“I love making smart-assed people’s lives harder. You want to talk secrets? Let’s talk about that, too. Trust goes every direction. And around a corner. That’s when you stab it.”

Ysara Byres sat there as Ryoka Griffin looked for a way out—and Jericha closed the window and bolted it with a look of great satisfaction. Nowhere to run. All the time to talk. As Nerry nearly laughed herself off the table, Sammial Veltras rubbed his hands together with glee. Ryoka never let him down.




A fun month indeed.

The Spring Fae was laughing so hard she slammed into one of the walls of the inn. Then she flew through the window.

“What the—hey! Shaestrel, what’s up. Aw. Is Ryoka in trouble? Is it the Bloodfields? Let me get Relc!”

Erin Solstice was in her room, writing a letter to her penpals. Which included Earl Altestiel, the King of Avel…

She had just played a game of chess with Niers, and he’d said that he knew at least a few Earthers. He’d wanted to talk about her world, and she’d countered with ‘if you beat me we’ll talk’.

(She’d won.)

The Titan seemed to enjoy having someone who could actually throw him mentally off his game. They had a winter, though, and Erin was trying not to think about the Winter Solstice.

She was going to do some baking in a moment—once more, she would call upon the profane, the ignored, and the humble warrior of the kitchens. Though he was small and probably inedible…

The Shadow Loaf would rise again.

Erin was also making preparations in her way. Time was a valuable thing, and neither she nor Ryoka were wasting it. If they were warriors with swords, they should have been out training or slaying monsters.

But since neither one was—Shaestrel alighted on Erin’s desk.


“Nae trouble. Not yet, or if it is, let her wallow in it like a pig, eh? She enjoys it.”


“That’s so rude and so Ryoka. Did you want more food or something? Or another teacup bath?”

Erin Solstice was being as nice to the Spring Fae as she could be, and she really did like her guest. Although she was quite aware of the fae’s penchant for trouble and pranks. However, Shaestrel hadn’t even done much pranking aside from an incident where she convinced Palt to cast a miniature [Forcewall] spell right under the lip of one of the outhouse seats.

Which—gross. She peered at Erin Solstice.


“Your flowers are looking well. Perhaps some will bloom soon. That was another thing my kin told me about. A girl who tricks the fae’s oldest prank. The [Innkeeper] who makes Gnomes laugh, mocks the gods, and claims a Dragon’s title.”


Erin flushed mildly.

“You mean the Grandmaster of Scales thing? I think Xarkouth wouldn’t have minded. I played a bunch of people in chess…”


“Aye, aye. I’m not holding you to task. But what a wondrous young woman. High ‘level’ in this world, great friend of Goblins.”


“You’re talking me up.”

She was getting embarrassed, but Shaestrel wasn’t saying it as pure praise. The Spring Faerie was…smiling. Erin Solstice saw her eying the chess board. The [Innkeeper] waited for the prank. And…here it came…


“The greatest chess player that the warlord of another continent plays. I say these things and they’re true. You spoke well to Ryoka Griffin of who you are and what you have done. I see it. I do not deny it, Witch. I would be a fool to try. But…”


Shaestrel paused, and a light came into her eyes. Then she grinned, and Erin saw the member of the Summer Courts. Small, compressed into this world, a visitor from far off.

Smiling, without contempt or dismissal of who Erin was. But even still.

The arrogance of the fae upon her. And Shaestrel’s voice was sweet like honey and buzzed like a storm of flies in the midst of an overwarm forest.


“…What a fat head ye might get. Luckily for you, I am here. You play chess well, [Innkeeper] Erin Solstice?”


Erin blinked. She looked down at the chessboard, then up at Shaestrel sharply.

“Wait. Do you play chess?”

The Spring Fae’s smile grew wider.


“I play it. And a game beyond even that. If you beat me at chess—I might teach you the other.”


Erin’s hand crept towards the chess board as if it were possessed. And suddenly—her heart was beating fast. Her eyes lit up.

“Are you any good?”

Shaestrel shrugged overly modestly.


“We shall have to see. But I hear tell you have lost to Gnomes.”


“One game. And he bong clouded me.”


“Gnomes bong about everywhere and everywhen. ‘Tis not surprising. But just so you know—I beat Gnomes at games of chess and fate. Let’s play a game.”


Just like that. Erin Solstice was not ready. The window was open, blowing the cold winds of winter in, and she had Ishkr close it after a second.

She had to go pee, and she was tired from a long dance routine in the mornings. Winter had just begun—but here was Shaestrel.

And the Grandmaster of Scales had no great thunderous temporary Skill appear over her head. There was no quest. A fell wind did not blow, nor did an ethereal battleground representing their chess pieces appear and shake the foundations of the inn.

But her heart was pounding. And she swore—she could hear laughter.

The [Innkeeper] faced her greatest opponent yet, who fluttered down and stood there, eyes alight with an even greater challenge.

Erin Solstice laughed in delight. Then she began to play and fight for the chance to step onto an even greater playing field. A deeper game still.





Author’s Note: I’m not dead. Nor am I that sick. But this cold refuses to go away.

It’s actually not much coughing. Or snot. At the start of last week, I had chills and a mild fever. Then—headaches every time I tried to write that sometimes went away.

The last cycle of this chapter, I felt weird nausea and wasn’t that hungry. The point I’m making is that I realized I was under the weather and it sucks. Writing isn’t a thing where if you’re at 90%, you can still put out a decent chapter. Sometimes even being a bit ‘off’ or mildly tired is a huge impediment.

Other times, I have written amazingly good chapters despite being in incredible pain or sick as a dog…who’s sick. But this is just a pain and I tried to tailor this chapter to the fact that I am weaker.

I hope you have enjoyed Volume 1’s rewrite. I hope I am better soon, and I feel like big things have happened or are happening. I am old after my birthday, and we may have to take things slow in my decrepitness.

But really, if I get healthy, I’ll be back to it. For now, I’m launching the Patreon poll. Late, I know, but I’ll try to toss in some fun options to make up for it. I have completed a big task in rewriting Volume 1. Onto the next one—but for now, maybe I’ll take it easy.

…This is ‘easy’. I may need to learn easy. Thanks for reading.


Stream Art of Shovel Duo by Bobo Plushie!


Volume 1 Erin and Rags by ArtsyNada!


Yolden by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – Beginnings

(Volume 1 has been completely rewritten and is up now. The old version can be found here. Please see the Author’s Note to find what’s been changed.)


This tale was about Mrsha.

It belonged to her because she had been getting into less trouble of late. Valeterisa trying to pluck all her hair off like a turkey didn’t count because that wasn’t Mrsha’s fault.


She hadn’t gone on any whirlwind adventures recently, no one had fought a war over her in, like…a month, and the closest Mrsha had come to death in school was when Visma had pointed one of the practice bows at her. And that was less death-death than ‘nearly getting your eye shot out’.

Visma had gotten in a lot of trouble for that. School was fun.

Mrsha was content. She would sit, wearied, at lunch with Ekirra and Visma and some of the new students and tell them stories of her great past. She had new friends at school now, too.

There was Tockie, a boy who came from Esthelm and whose parents had agreed to trial him at the school. He was amazed by all the gems Numbtongue found in the High Passes and kept saying there was lots of coin to be made up there.

Goess was another Drake from Liscor who didn’t like Antinium. But he was very impressed with Mrsha’s friendship with great and powerful adventurers and listened to her stories, so she tolerated him.

There were Visma’s doll friends, and Ekirra had his Little Crab teammates, who were tangential friends to Mrsha’s. But her real friends were Gire, although Gire had to be a Chieftain. Lehra, who was her food buddy.

Nanette was older, but she and Mrsha were the best of friends, which put Nanette in the same category as Gire and Visma and Ekirra, obviously. Lyonette had claimed you couldn’t have multiple best friends, and Mrsha had told the [Princess] that she clearly had never had friends.

…A lack of dessert was still somewhat constant with Mrsha’s life, but she had changed. Now, she walked around on two legs, wore a kilt—and the inn was different, too.

Why, when she woke up, she might encounter Yelroan or Jewel and recall they were now part of the inn. Or find Inkpaper hiding in a spare room, reading a book until Peggy found him and hit him and made him work.

All this was good. Somehow, Mrsha kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. And the other shoe would be spiked, lead-lined, land on her head, and be filled with Crelers.

…She kept waiting and realizing that there were a lot of kids her age. Not just her classmates. Why, it seemed like you couldn’t swing a Nerry around without finding a child!

“Grev! You scamp. You can’t bribe Goblins with play tickets! They’re not allowed in Invrisil! And Peggy, play tickets are not coins!”

Lyonette was taking Grev to task as Mrsha watched over breakfast eggs. Calescent had made hers into a big smile with some sausages, which she appreciated. The boy was trying to spirit an entire cake out the door with his gang of friends.

“Aw, it’s worth gold, pure’n simple, Miss Lyonette! Plus, them Goblins are good at trading!”

“Yep. We sell this to Haven guests. Is good trade item.”

Lyonette covered her face, but she turned with a huge frown.

“You do what?

Mrsha watched with curiosity as Peggy put two of Grev’s tickets to the Season’s Theatre in a pocket. She held onto them until Liska let the Haven’s guests in. [Lords] and [Ladies] went through to Liscor or Invrisil or even Pallass without a second glance at the common room of the inn.

They liked to pretend that the Antinium and Goblins didn’t exist. Only those who knew Erin like Lord Sanito would even come to the common room.

As for Lord Tyrion Veltras, he was banned from ever leaving the portal room. Erin had reluctantly allowed him to get back to Invrisil, because if he was stuck at the Haven, it would be a literal political nightmare since the Haven was in Drake lands. But just like Spearmaster Lulv, he was only tolerated to avoid a fight.

And she only let Lulv in because watching Demsleth bully him was hilarious. Mrsha did see a number of guests come in from Pallass, though, including another Drake girl who ran into the inn before her father caught up.

“Kenva, wait! I have to meet with Liscor’s Council for work—”

“It’s your day off! I want to stay here with Aunt Torkessa! Or I’m telling Mother you’re not nice to me!”

The Drake girl bullied her father as the put-upon Watch Captain of Pallass hesitated. He looked at the Antinium and Goblins—but he gave in as his sister murmured to him.

“I’ll buy her a snack. Go on and have your meeting, Venim. If we’re not here, try a playground. I’ll leave a note.”


He adjusted his uniform and strode out the door. Mrsha saw Kenva wave at her, and she waved at the Drake she’d met during the Haven’s visit to Liscor.

However, in the confusion, she had almost missed Peggy’s transaction. It was smooth, and if Peggy hadn’t tipped Mrsha and Lyonette off to the issue of Grev’s play tickets, she would have missed a side-door opening.

One of the Haven’s staff, in that bright, glossy blue uniform, and no less than Barnethei, the [Vice Innkeeper], stepped out of the secret passage leading past the trapped hallway. Lyonette scowled at that—and at Barnethei, but Mrsha’s ears perked up.

She saw Peggy sidle over, and the Hob traded two tickets to Barnethei. Mrsha heard them muttering.

“Two tickets? Very good. Very good. I have a number of my guests who are begging for the tickets. What did the lad buy?”

“Big cake.”

“Well, allow me to pay for that…”

Barnethei was only too eager to ‘pay back’ all of Grev’s purchases with real gold. Mostly because he was in turn selling the play tickets to his guests at a markup that still beat waiting for one of the Season’s reserved booths.

Lyonette couldn’t believe it. She marched over.

“Innkeeper Barnethei, have you been buying these tickets from Peggy?”

“I happened to hear the lad trying to buy goods with the tickets, and I made Miss Peggy an offer…”

The [Vice Innkeeper] defended himself with a huge smile. Lyonette gasped in outrage.

“And you’re selling them to your guests at a markup? Peggy—don’t sell him any more tickets! It’s worth way more than a cake!”


The Hobgoblin seemed very amused as Lyonette and Barnethei squared off. She and the Haven’s [Waitress] murmured to each other, which tickled Mrsha to no end. A Human and a Goblin talking so casually? Erin had left her mark on the Haven—or perhaps Ishkr had.

However, the showdown between the [Princess] and [Vice Innkeeper] didn’t go down like either expected. Because—while Lyonette would have normally had it out with Barnethei, things were no longer the ‘old days’. She didn’t have to do everything personally.

“Is this another income source for the inn? I think I need to ask the Antinium and Goblins if they’re making money other ways. The inn sells acid jars, magic, operates a transportation service…Miss Lyonette, why don’t we settle this amicably? Innkeeper Barnethei can purchase any tickets Grev ‘sells’ Peggy. We’ll just charge him a fairer price. Retroactively, of course. I assume Barnethei knows how many tickets he’s sold? I’m happy to calculate their value based on each show and the seating.”

Barnethei’s smile slipped, and Mrsha banged on the table with her fork and knife.

Go, Yelroan!

The [Mathematician] was still at work finding out how the inn was running, but a sign he was doing good work was that Lyonette instantly ceded the floor to him. She stepped back, smiling triumphantly—and didn’t seem to notice how Barnethei relaxed and he and Yelroan stepped over to have a civilized conversation over a breakfast snack.

Lyonette could be acrimonious when she felt her authority was encroached upon. Yet she was also very happy to let people she trusted do their job. Which meant she had more time to fuss over Mrsha and wipe bits of egg from Mrsha’s face.

A mixed blessing. The Gnoll put up with the fussing, and then Lyonette was off.

“Oh! Is it little Kenva? Um—Watch Captain Venim’s daughter? Are you here for breakfast or a snack?”

“I’d like a cupcake! Or—or one of the Shield Spider succulents!”

“I’m paying for her. Venim is in Liscor. Whichever is cheaper, please.”

Kenva’s aunt informed Lyonette, and the [Princess] smiled hugely.

“Why don’t I get you a carrot cupcake you can try, Kenva, and a Shield Spider succulent? All you have to tell me is if you like it—on the house. You and Mrsha like to play, don’t you?”


The Drake girl’s eyes lit up, and Lyonette ended up giving her and her aunt a carrot cupcake. She wanted their reactions to know how well it would sell and if they needed any tweaks to the flavor or consistency. It had frosting, which redeemed the Hawk-food in Mrsha’s eyes.

Where’s my cupcake, prithee?

She held up a card meaningfully as Lyonette went to say ‘hello’ to Menolit and get Moore a big breakfast. She was good with people and made them feel very welcome. Lyonette rubbed Mrsha’s head.

“If you can go to school without causing trouble, I’ll give you and everyone a snack. But no cupcakes now!”

Tyranny is meant to be opposed. Tyranny of sweets is the meanest action of the smallest mind!

Mrsha shook a fist as her mother rolled her eyes. But the argument attracted Kenva, and the Drake girl appeared.

“Hello, Mrsha! It’s me, Kenva, do you remember?”

She shyly waved a claw, and Mrsha waved back. Of course she remembered! Kenva seemed to regard Mrsha as a celebrity from television—and Mrsha rather thought Kenva was interesting. Because her father was Venim, one of Pallass’ Watch Captains.

Kenva had bright yellow scales, which seemed to be more common in Pallass, but she had darker blue scales around her eyes, like speckles or a permanent eye-liner. It was very cool, and Kenva admired Mrsha’s white fur.

“Are you two friends, Mrsha? Kenva, Mrsha has to go to school in an hour, but you two are free to go around the inn if you like! Just be careful about the World’s Eye Theatre, and no going outside or anywhere in Erin’s inn that makes you sad.”

Lyonette’s warnings made Mrsha roll her eyes, and Kenva’s aunt looked amused by the injunctions, but Mrsha brightened up as a carrot cupcake magically appeared.

School? You have it too? Boring.

You don’t like school? I quite enjoy the lessons I have had.

Kenva read fairly quickly, which meant she was learning how to read and write, at least. She rolled her eyes.

“What lessons do you learn? Numbers and words and stuff? Some of it’s fun, but I hate having to recite the pledge to the Walled Cities, and they tell us stories about General Edellein when everyone knows he’s not as good as Thrissiam, and blah blah boring stuff.

Mrsha was confused. When she vouchsafed that her classes were nothing like that, she and Kenva compared notes.

To both girls’ mild outrage, it turned out that the prototype lessons in Liscor were what Kenva called ‘survival lessons’, and she only got a few classes that focused on them. Shooting a bow, growing your own plants, all things [Druid] Shassa was teaching her first class, weren’t Pallassian lessons.

“If you sign up for soldier classes, you get to shoot bows and stuff, but we get [Soldiers] and [Instructors] for teachers. And our teachers are [Teachers]! Is Oteslian school better?”

What does Pallassian education look like?

“Boring stuff. We find out if we’re good miners or learn numbers so we can work at guilds or study magic, alchemy—”

This sounded really cool to Mrsha! Until it turned out that it was mostly aptitude testing—no one got to make actual potions. Once you or your parents decided on a career, you would take ‘advanced’ classes in a particular field. More math, education in literature or handwriting courses—and then you’d enter an apprenticeship at eleven onwards.

School was not all-encompassing and usually went from six to twelve. Kenva wasn’t in love with her classes that ran four days out of the eight day week, and Mrsha suggested she join Liscor’s classes.

Ours are better. We might get even more education, like in Illivere! 

“Where’s that?”

It’s a nation that makes Golems in Chandrar. I have heard that the Council might fund a comprehensive education system!

Erin certainly believed in it, as did the Earthers, and they had described enough of how their world taught children to Selys, Krshia, Lyonette, and so on. Mrsha wasn’t sure she liked the idea of having to go to school until she was twenty—but more classes on how to identify good mushrooms and hiking around Celum wasn’t bad.

Kenva was taken by Mrsha’s more engaging school, and she was bouncing in her seat.

“I have to join your school! It sounds so much more fun. Liscor’s a lot more fun than boring Pallass.”

Pallass, with its elevators and so many people, was boring? Apparently so to Kenva.

“You can’t do anything in Pallass. There’s always a [Guardsman] or [Soldier] who’s watching you. And I can’t push the elevator buttons or go skateboarding—Liscor has so much new stuff!”

You should join my class! If you can.

Perhaps it would put her education in Pallass in jeopardy? Kenva chewed on her lip, then developed a sly look.

“I’ll ask my dad! You know—if he gets a job as the Watch Commander, I might get to go to Liscor’s school anyways.”

Mrsha was nodding—until her mind registered Kenva’s comment. Then she dropped her fork with her last bite of sausage on it.

His job as what?




Jewel of Glitterblade came downstairs into The Wandering Inn and, as usual, always felt a moment of trepidation every time she sensed an ‘event’ occurring.

She wasn’t used to it. Most inns had drama, but that was the [Innkeeper] and a rowdy guest or someone sleeping with another member of staff. A barfight at most.

Erin’s inn…was different. She nibbled on her breakfast that a Goblin served her and stared at the smiley-face made of eggs and sausage as she listened in to Erin exclaiming as Mrsha delivered today’s events. Jewel…was trying to calculate whether this would somehow lead to an event where she was fighting for her life and/or at the heart of some dangerous worldwide phenomenon.

You never knew.

“Watch Commander of Liscor? They’re going to replace Zevara? That’s not right!

“They’re going to what?

Relc roared as he ran downstairs, late again to work. But he skidded to a stop as Erin waved her hands in her wheelchair.

“Relc, you didn’t know?”

“We’re getting a Watch Commander? I heard we were getting upgraded, but—Captain Z’s not gonna be in charge? Aw, it’ll be Cellidel all over again! We can’t let this happen! Who okayed that? Jeiss? That traitor!”

Erin was nodding. She slammed her hands on her wheelchair’s armrests weakly.

“You’ve gotta stop it. Riot! Riots in the street! If someone else arrests me, it won’t be Liscor anymore! Wait, your breakfast bagel sandwich!”

She waved as Peggy danced out of the kitchen, hot-handing a bagel still smoking from the griddle. Relc grabbed it.

“Hey, thanks! I’m gonna get to the bottom of this—”

He raced out as Erin turned, red-cheeked, and Lyonette undid her apron.

“I’ll go ask Krshia. They can’t hire some Watch Captain from Pallass over Zevara! That’s—just wrong! Even if the Walled Cities are in charge.”

“My father’s great at being a Watch Captain!”

A little Drake shouted, looking hurt. Lyonette hesitated and went over.

“I didn’t mean he’s bad, Kenva. I’m sure he’d be a great Watch Captain of Liscor if we’re hiring more. It’s just—oh, I apologize.”

Watch Captains? Jewel chewed as she made a face. This was new to her. She was used to Watch Captains being lazy, lower-level, and ineffectual. The kind of people you were hired to do dirty work for, like clean up a sewer or take some [Bandits] to task.

Drakes respected their Watch Captains more, it seemed.

“Is there any way this’ll turn into a fight?”

She was worried. She was officially part of the inn’s security—but she didn’t know her job. And frankly, Lyonette had told her to follow Erin around, especially if the [Innkeeper] was exploring her new rooms in the garden, but there wasn’t much direction to Jewel’s day.

She was a Gold-rank adventurer. Yet somehow, she was incredibly relieved when her ‘superior’ saw her sitting there and trotted over.

“Miss Jewel.”

Normen tipped his hat, even though he was wearing the new Demas Metal armor and his hat didn’t fit the brilliant metal at all. He still seemed awkward in it and would instinctively try to walk out of the way of the [Knight]’s path if he saw himself in a mirror.

The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings was used to the inn, though, and Jewel nodded to him.

“Are we up to something today, Normen? I could get my team together.”

The rest of her team and Alcaz were on a later shift and took turns enjoying the inn’s hospitality and acting as a kind of bouncer-guard combo. It wasn’t the work they’d envisioned as Gold-ranks, but they were willing to give this a shot for a while.

Especially after seeing what Erin Solstice could do. Normen sat down, polishing his armguards nervously to make sure there were no spots.

“Doesn’t seem like it. Miss Solstice might go about, and we’d be with one of the Thronebearers if so. The fellows and the lady know what’s what.”

Ser Dalimont and the other three [Knights] would tell Jewel where to stand or give orders—they were professional bodyguards. Jewel exhaled.


“Unless Miss Solstice has us charge the new Watch Captain from Pallass, I don’t think so. Worst comes to it, we’ll be in Pallass, fighting their Watch one against a hundred.”

She smiled, and Normen grinned at his joke…but the thing was, it could happen. Somehow, the image of Erin Solstice leading Liscor’s Watch against Pallass’ wasn’t impossible. A remote possibility, yes, but…

What an inn. Jewel saw an upset Kenva being reassured by Mrsha that her dad was great—it was just that Captain Zevara was a staple. Children playing, Antinium wandering about—that silly one, Bird, was telling Numbtongue over breakfast about an encounter he’d had.

“I am telling you, Numbtongue. It was the Invisibird. Two of them.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“You are not listening. I saw their vapor trails in the sky! They were as big as houses! Bigger! I shot an arrow, but they dodged. This is what the ballista is for. This matters to me, greatly. It matters as much as the butts of other people matter to you.”

Numbtongue nearly spat out his breakfast and laughed. Bird slapped the table.

“I do not question your odd hobbies, so do not question mine! Also, would you like to watch a movie tonight with me? Kevin is going to have us watch a movie about someone in a plane.”

“…Okay? Is it a good one? What’s so interesting about the plane? Do they fly a lot in it? I want to see the inside.”

“Apparently they are in one. Then it crashes.”

“Ooh. What time? Can I bring a friend?”

“Only if they have snacks. Now, if I had a special arrow like Halrac has, maybe I would have hit the bird. Do you think Archmage Valeterisa would enchant my bow and arrows?”

Numbtongue was nodding along, but Bird was still invested in his failed hunting story. The Goblin sighed and reluctantly engaged with Bird. He tried to settle the matter once and for all.

“So you didn’t kill the Invisibird or hit it. Maybe it was a dream, Bird? Or you imagined it. Does it even matter?”

Numbtongue was yawning dismissively, and Bird tilted his head. Then his voice innocently replied as he ate his breaded chicken cut into bird shapes with a side of egg with ketchup for breakfast.

“You may be right, Numbtongue. I only levelled twice after that.”

“…You what now?”

This was one conversation. Goblin and Antinium friends. At another—Jewel peeked over, and there was Archmage Valeterisa. Archmage Valeterisa, who had just invented a new spell and was busy talking with Lady Ieka Imarris. And busy taking notes was Fierre, crimson eyes alight with interest, making occasional comments, and Montressa du Valeross.

Valeterisa was patting Montressa on the head.

“…I do not see why we cannot do this in the Haven, Ieka.”

Ieka smiled and glanced knowingly around The Wandering Inn.

“Two reasons, Aunt. Put up a privacy spell, would you? Firstly, dearly as I love Innkeeper Larra, she does like to know everything. Innkeeper Solstice is less nosy—and you had better believe House Veltras and every other noble family will try to steal our conversation. Plus, my new employee is a bit allergic to sunlight.”

“I burn easily. Hello, Archmage.”

Fierre bowed, and Valeterisa peered at her.

“I know you. You drove a coach into me. This is my apprentice. She’s a good apprentice.”

“Archmage, thank you—you can stop patting my head!”

Montressa protested, embarrassed. Valeterisa smiled.

“I am saying it more. And I have a proposal, Ieka. Instead of teleportation, a lift spell. I have notes…Apprentice, where is my sketch? You lift up via a platform into the sky, then you send the objects along a pre-arranged route. And before you say ‘toss’, you would have specific coordinates. The odds of hitting someone in the air are remote. Probably. But the savings in mana compared to teleporting mass would be…”

Their conversation went silent even though Valeterisa’s lips kept moving. Jewel looked at Normen.


“Yes, Miss Jewel?”

“—If she causes another scene, how do we stop her?

Two nights ago, Valeterisa had just put up a [Forcewall], and Jewel hadn’t known if drawing her blade was the right move. Then she’d flown off. Jewel had felt useless—although it hadn’t been that bad—but she had wondered how to take on the inn’s threats.

Valeterisa could cast [Chain Lightning]. Jewel was a [Swashbuckler], a good fighter, able to weave and dodge, and she had artifacts of personal protection and an enchanted sword.

…She wasn’t up to ‘dodge lightning bolts at close range’ yet. She had seen Zeladona. She had heard about the Adult Creler.

The question seemed to pain Normen, and as if summoned by it, two more people sat down at the table. Jewel jumped—but Normen nodded at a Gnoll with yellow fur and sunglasses and—Peggy.

“Good morning, Adventurer Jewel, Sir Normen. Were you talking about threats to the inn? I was just reviewing the employees, and I noticed we had five full-time members of security, assuming you all keep working here. Goblins, Antinium, and every member of the inn including Mrsha are apparently ready to fight…but what are we fighting?”

“Yah. Chieftain said this inn was dangerous. Big danger. Crazy poo-pants random danger. Anyone know where next bad thing is coming? First Archmage—what next? Blind [Emperor]? Rock Crabs?”

Peggy, the Hobgoblin with one peg-leg, was also on a mission from Chieftain Rags. This wasn’t retirement, and she wasn’t just being shuffled off because of her wounds. Rags had sent some Goblins with odd traits like Inkpaper, but she had also warned Peggy that Erin needed saving at times.

The Hob was rightfully worried that if trouble came, she might not be prepared. Yelroan looked at Normen…and the man was concerned.

“I’m afraid I don’t know much, ladies and gent. Wilovan and Ratici saw more than me, but even they were ‘new’ to the inn. And even the Gentleman Callers failed.”

He was the longest-serving member of the inn—and his career wasn’t that long. Jewel raised a hand.

“Who’re the Gentlemen Callers? Another adventuring team?”

Peggy had the same question. Normen hesitated as a man from the streets did when mentioning the underworld. Yelroan’s glasses flashed.

“That’s a famous criminal duo. Level 40 [Rogues]. They were defending this inn? And failed?”

Jewel’s mouth opened, and Peggy whistled. The Gold-rank felt a twisting in her stomach, but Normen corrected Yelroan.

“[Thief] and [Thug], sir. [Thief] and [Thug]. Not [Rogues]. They’re fine fellows. Did their best, and Miss Lyonette said they discharged all their debts. They’re…by way of association, related to the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings.”

He said that like the title meant something, and it did, to Jewel. Yelroan knew this, but Peggy raised a claw.

“Who’s that?”

Normen blinked at her.

“That would be me, Miss.”

You’re a Brother of—I thought they were criminals in a gang!”

Jewel’s chair shot back. Then she was embarrassed as Normen turned red. Yelroan hmmed.

“I can see there’s a lot I don’t know. No one’s sat down and given me an accounting of the inn. Oh, features, yes. Locations—although I think even Miss Solstice doesn’t know all her gardens. But when did the Brothers become affiliated with the inn?”

Normen had to think.

“I think…the Tallman—that is, the Titan of Baleros hired the Gentlemen Callers to protect the inn.”

“The Titan? I thought that was a joke. He didn’t really—”

Jewel’s mouth opened, and even Yelroan lowered his sunglasses in disbelief. Peggy raised her claw higher.

“Who that also?”

“It was a rumor in my organization. We don’t do names—I could ask. Alcaz might know, but they were definitely hired. It was right before Miss Solstice was shot. They failed to stop Hectval from doing it, which led to the war.”

Wait, the war between Hectval and Liscor started at the inn? That’s how Erin got shot?”

Jewel’s mind was exploding. The war was all over Liscor—and it had been for months! She’d caused a war?

Her stomach hurt, and Peggy slammed a fist onto the table.

“Who’s Hectval?”

Normen was rubbing at his head.

“I—what happened before that? I know there was a nasty business with the dungeon. Raskghar. And Miss Mrsha came to the inn by way of the Goblin Lord, I heard. A survivor. The Horns of Hammerad were here—that’s where that fellow, Calruz, became a prisoner, I think. But I never heard the full tale outright.”

Calruz? Goblin Lord? Peggy’s face went dark, but Yelroan was trying to take notes.

“Let’s see. I think I need a timeline. And…if I’m right, we’re not the only people who don’t know what this inn’s been through. Maybe this should be one of my first tasks.”

He glanced up, and the other three turned—and saw Rosencrantz and the Antinium peeking over at them. The Workers and Soldiers not busy were obviously curious, and Rosencrantz raised one hand.

“I have heard it from Pawn that Miss Solstice appeared one day and delivered chess and the sky unto the Antinium. I know all of Priest Pawn’s stories, but they are allegorical, and I understand Miss Solstice is not the sky in actuality. I, too, would be curious about the facts of the inn.”

Yelroan raised his brows as Jewel looked around. He nodded and then wrote on a fresh piece of paper.

“I think…we need a timeline. And a story. Funny. Has no one ever thought to tell it?”

He looked around, and it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. But then again…Jewel glanced at Erin, at Lyonette, and even silly Bird and Numbtongue and Mrsha. It had never occurred to them because they had lived it.




Mrsha du Marquin had a playdate with Kenva that lasted all day. Nanette was busy visiting the [Witches] of Riverfarm, Ryoka was doing something with Shaestrel and Nerry, and most of the inn was debating Watch Captain Zevara not getting promoted.

She, herself, rather liked Kenva, who was very respectful of Mrsha’s knowledge and wisdom. She even accompanied Mrsha to school where they got to visit the Blue Fruit trees—and Shassa explained the dangers of poison and showed them which fruits were bad with her magic.

Sticky, blue juice was on both girls’ faces by the time they came back, and Watch Captain Venim found his daughter happily laughing with Mrsha.

Thus, Mrsha found herself invited to the Watch Captain’s home that night for her first playdate in Pallass. Kenva was overjoyed, and she had suggested it. She whispered as Venim rushed around the kitchen, trying to produce food for three.

“No one ever visits. They say it’s no fun because my dad’s a Watch Captain.

Am I to meet your distinguished mother soon?

Kenva’s face fell, and Mrsha realized she’d made a mistake. The Drake kicked her legs under the table.

“She split up. I live with her half the week and Dad the other half. I don’t like her boyfriend.”

Er…er…I apologize for my indecorous comments. Mothers are a difficult subject for me, too. I have a quite good mother and a faker who has bothered me on occasion too.

Kenva’s face wrinkled up as Mrsha tried to describe her complicated family situation. Then she sniffed the burnt food, and Venim poked his head out of the kitchen.

“I have some pudding. But, ah, we might need to grab some food from a restaurant. I can head out and place an order.”

I want to eat Presto Prelon Stew again! Mrsha, you’ll like it! A Dullahan makes it up in a big pot and sells it in a stand!”

“Presto Prelon Stew? That’s street food. I don’t know if it’s the thing to feed Miss Mrsha—”

Venim began to object, but the girls were ecstatic. Mrsha loved street food. He went out, and because everyone in Pallass lived on multiple floors and were squeezed together, the vendor that Kenva knew was only down the block and told Venim they’d have it in fifteen minutes.

“Can we have the pudding if we have to wait, Father? I’m hungry.

Kenva’s stomach was rumbling, but her father was a patient, dutiful adult.

“Be strong, Kenva. Dessert comes after dinner.”

He had that air of parenthood about him that made him resist his daughter’s pleas, and Kenva was only a decent [Beggar]. Venim, though, was not prepared for Mrsha. The white Gnoll wrote for a minute on her notepad, and that was odd enough. But when she held up the missive, the Drake stared at it.

Strength. What is strength, sir? Watch Captain Venim, I would say that the strength to eat what delights you and be happy is greater than any fanciful notion that there is an order to enjoyment. Is ‘strength’ the ability to follow rules dogmatically or the strength to see your daughter’s delight regardless of societal pressure and rules?

He stared at her notecard. Then at Mrsha. Kenva’s mouth fell open as Watch Captain Venim thought for a long moment—then got up and brought some pudding out for everyone to share. She looked at Mrsha.

“You’re so cool.”




After her dinner date with some rather tasty Presto Prelon Stew, Lyonette picked up Mrsha and brought her back to the inn. The Gnoll had a full belly, a copy of the recipe for Calescent, and she had made up her mind.

She convened Erin, Bird, Numbtongue, Selys, and all the other members of the inn who were arguing about Zevara not wanting the Watch Commander’s job.

“She doesn’t know if she’s ‘fit for the position’, Erin. It’s not the Council. Lism—Lism told me he’d appoint her in a heartbeat over a non-Liscorian. That’s like his entire thing.”

Selys was grimacing as Relc groaned.

“But Captain Z’s better than some Pallassian! This Venim guy…word is he’s a stickler for the rules, but we don’t want that!

“I don’t know. He seemed very respectful, and Mrsha just had dinner with his daughter. What did you think, dear?”

Lyonette drew everyone’s attention to Mrsha, who was waving her paws and demanding to be ‘heard’. Mrsha waited—then slammed her paws down on the table and showed them her note.

Watch Captain Venim is a fool and a weakling unfit for office! I pressured him into giving me dessert first. Watch Captain Zevara would never fall to pressure like that! A weak leader doesn’t have the strength to lead Liscor’s Watch! If this Drake crumbles in the face of pudding, what will happen when a hundred thousand Crelers come up the walls?

“Yeah. Yeah! What Mrsha said! We need a Watch Commander who’s used to monster attacks, not one with Pallass’ walls! Come to that—they didn’t even take out the Wyverns with an entire Walled City at their disposal!”

Relc punched a fist into his claw. Erin chewed on her lip.

“Plus—why are we just asking for Pallass? I bet you Chaldion will have him report on stuff. Isn’t there a good Watch Captain with experience from anywhere else? Invrisil?”

Relc objected at once.

“You don’t want Humans. No discipline. At least Venim knows how to command a lot of people.”

Selys nodded in agreement. Erin scowled.

“Yeah? Well, can he hold off undead when they’ve invaded the city? Like when Skinner attacked?”

“That’s what I’m saying. Captain Z’s gotta be Watch Commander.”

Relc was about to hit the table again when someone held up a hand.


Jewel flinched when everyone looked at her, and Erin blinked.

“Jewel? What’s up? Do you know a candidate for Watch Commander?”

The Gold-rank adventurer turned pale.

“Me? No! I—I just had a question.”

“We all did, Miss Solstice.”

Yelroan broke in, and Erin realized the Goblins, Antinium, Jewel, even Normen, Gothica, and members of the inn were gathered around the table. She blinked, and Mrsha looked around.

“What’s up?”

“This isn’t about the Watch Commander. We were actually hoping you could clear up a matter of…consistency for us. I’ve been getting up to speed with the inn, but it occurs to me that for all you’ve told me—one of the things I don’t know is history.

The Gnoll of the Plain’s Eye Tribe looked at Erin, then at Numbtongue and Bird, Lyonette and Mrsha. Even Apista, who was smoking hard on a mini rollup.

“History of what?”

Erin looked around, and the Gnoll grinned at her.

“Everything. I heard this inn was destroyed—three times. I had no idea of that. With respect, Miss Solstice, I’ve heard anecdotes about you, but I don’t know…how you came to be in the inn. I heard there were five Hobgoblins here, once.”

Numbtongue’s face fell, and Bird looked up. Lyonette’s mouth fell open as she realized even the other Goblins didn’t know the full story. Gothica, maybe, as a Cave Goblin, but—

Erin blinked as Yelroan indicated Apista.

“Why is there a bee on Miss Mrsha’s head? Why is she smoking a tiny cigar? We know there’s a story behind you and Mister Kevin and the other Humans, Miss Solstice.”

Erin looked vaguely alarmed, but Yelroan waved it off. His eyes were sharp, and he knew about Earth, but he gave Mrsha a slight wink as he looked around.

“—But I think what would help everyone is if any time a new employee was hired, someone could tell them the story of how…The Wandering Inn started. Properly.”

“What, you mean like an employee manual? Watch out for moving stones, don’t touch glowing flies? I can see that.”

Erin rubbed at her chin, but Lyonette saw Yelroan shake his head. Mrsha was bouncing up in her chair with the answer, but Nanette exclaimed with a laugh. She had come back just in time, and she had a bunch of realistic wooden spiders braided into her hair by Oliyaya’s apprentices.

“No, Miss Erin! He means stories.

The little witch and the Gnoll of the Plains both smiled at each other. Erin’s eyes opened wide.

Stories. Both Nanette and Yelroan came from powerful oral traditions of storytelling. And they looked around this inn—and sensed all the stories here. Erin gazed at them, then Lyonette, and murmured.

“Oh. They don’t know Headscratcher. Or Shorthilt. And…no wonder no one knew who ‘Ser Solstice’ was. None of them were here when Toren was here. Or—”

“Even the Horns. Calruz. How many people know he was the leader of the Horns?”

Lyonette’s eyes turned misty, and Erin looked at Mrsha, then around the inn.

“A story.”

“Maybe a book? What if you sent word to Krshia Silverfang’s niece? The, um…the one who writes stuff? I saw her on the scrying orb.”

Relc snapped his claws together.

“Satar Silverfang? You want her to write The Wandering Inn’s story? It’s not that impressive.”

Erin laughed, and everyone gave her a look as if she were crazy. But the idea was catching on, and Numbtongue strummed on his guitar.

“It’s a good story. A long one. I can’t tell the Ballad of the Redfangs in one sitting yet. Maybe write it down?”

Selys laughed in amusement.

“Psh. You could write it into a book. Maybe even sell it. I tell you what, I’ll fund it. We could hire someone. We’d call it—The Innkeeper of Liscor! The Human who spits blood!

Erin rolled her eyes.

“No one would read that, Selys. And it’d be like twenty pages long. I came here—no, wait. First, there was Rags’ tribe…but before that there was a Dragon…”

Demsleth was coming into the inn with Alber, both looking bruised. He froze as Relc rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah. It was a…well, I thought it was a fire-breathing Wyvern, Erin.”

Relc hesitated and gave Erin a sidelong look as he recalled what Klbkch had hinted at during the Christmas party. Then he brightened up as he remembered something else.

“But you called me a Dragon. Ooh, put that in! And Klbkch died…”

“He what?

Erin waved this off as Mrsha’s head rotated between everyone, but the people who had been there exclaimed.

“He came back. Yeah…the Goblin Chieftain. Wow, you know, I forgot, but back then the inn was further away! I had to walk for half an hour to get here—and that’s when the dungeon was uncovered. I met Pisces when he tried to rob me—nothing’s changed since then. But…”

Her eyes lit up, and everyone looked at her. Of all the things you do in an inn—they had never really done this.

Told the story. Jewel was sitting forwards, trying to put this together with rumors she’d heard and her own knowledge of adventurers.

“Where does Crossbow Stan come into this?”

Crossbow Stan!

Erin laughed and almost cried—and she had not known him that well. Lyonette looked around.

“So many stories. We should have this written down, Erin. Or organized it. Yelroan, you’re right. And it might be a longer book! Does anyone actually write stories that we know?”

Satar could do it. How long could it be? But be sure to tell only the good parts about me! And I have to relate the great Battle of the Cave!

“Did…someone mention how the inn started? I hear Ysara’s coming back. I never told you all that I met her the first year I was here, did I? I was at the Bloodfields, and she saved my life. I never got the chance to thank her for that. Well, I didn’t even know she was Yvlon’s sister until I heard her name.”

Everyone turned as Ryoka walked in, stuffing a bunch of books on forests and old maps into her bag of holding, and Erin’s mouth fell open.

“You what? You met Ysara? When?”

“Bloodfields. The first time I went. I think I know most of everything that happened—but I could use someone telling me what happened after I left and ran to Reizmelt.”

Ryoka sat down with Nerry in her arms, and Shaestrel flew over.


“Ah, the story of the inn! Ivolethe was there. Break out yon burnt corn and tell me stories, mortals! I heard the riddle of the Dragon in the cave was a let down made of shite.”


She said that so only Erin and Ryoka could hear. But then Kevin, Joseph, Imani—more guests of the inn were being lured over.

“Oh, the phone call. I mean, text call. We had that happen.”


Imani shook her head, and Kevin apologized for bringing it up. Imani shook her head as she hugged Palt’s torso as he sat next to her, and now Yelroan was taking frantic notes.

“Timeline, please! We should organize this, and clearly there are a lot of perspectives. Who was here first?”


Erin raised her hands, and everyone turned to her. Mrsha banged her paws on the table.

Story! Story! Tell us how it went!

Everyone knew a bit of it—but the red-faced [Innkeeper] was the only one who had been there. Ulvama stomped over, growling.

“It’s dance time! Why are you—oh.”

She spotted a bowl full of popcorn coming out of the kitchen in Ishkr’s paws and decided exceptions could be made. The Gnoll [Server] was smiling, and Erin raised her hands.

“Alright! Everyone quiet down! Let me start from the beginning. I’m no good storyteller—and like I said, it’s a short tale. I’ll need help. And I guess—we could get someone to write it up and make it pretty. How should we start?”

“It was a dark and stormy night?”

“Shut up, Kevin. It wasn’t stormy at the start. But I did get burned. I was going…to the bathroom.”

Everyone looked at Erin. She turned red.

“Well, I was. And then—oh, well. I was running because I ran into this monster. I was teleported. No, let me start. I was in my home in, um…”


“Do we censor that?”

Ryoka muttered to Joseph anxiously. Joseph pulled a face.

“It’s an open secret by now.”

Erin threw a piece of buttered popcorn at them. Then pointed to it.

“Aha! See? That. That’s from home. Nutritional yeast on popcorn. Not baking yeast. Nutritional yeast. No one does that but me.”

“Yeah, that’s because it’s a sin against popcorn.”

Kevin shot back, but he was eating Erin’s favorite condiment on popcorn. She glowered.

“You didn’t seem to mind when you guys ate all the food at my inn and didn’t pay for it! But let me start again.”

She closed her eyes, and a silence fell over the group.

“I—was going to the bathroom. And I must have run into a teleportation spell or…something. Because the next thing I know, I was face to face with a fire-breathing Wyvern. Definitely a Wyvern. It couldn’t have been anything else.

Her mouth kept moving for a second, and then the illusion spell turned off. Erin’s glower found Demsleth as Ryoka slowly turned her head, and Erin continued after a long pause. No one else had noticed.

They were finding comfy chairs, asking for food, taking notes—and listening. After all, this was a real The Wandering Inn moment.

Rozencrantz was sitting right next to Bird. The legend of the Free Hive was slowly chewing on crackers as Octavia tried to fit in next to Numbtongue. Rosencrantz was very nervous—especially when Bird turned his head. But then the [Bird Hunter] gave him a cracker. Shaestrel, Nerry, and Apista each stole one, and the bee flew crazily across the inn to land in Nanette’s hands.




More Antinium were coming. Pawn was leading a charge straight up Liscor’s streets with all the [Crusaders] and Painted Antinium not on duty.

She is telling stories? This is why we put Rosencrantz at the inn! Hurry! Hurry!”

Yellow Splatters jogged after Pawn. The Crimson Soldier loped after both—and Crusader 57 grumbled.

“This is stupid.”

“Free food.”

One of the other members of Squad 5 poked him, and he decided to shut up. The running Antinium were halfway to the eastern gates when someone blurred past them. They slowed—then ran faster as Klbkch sped up the hill.

Why, there was even a fully-stressed Watch Captain Zevara, who ran after the Antinium.

It’s the inn! Sound the Solstice alarm! What is it this time? Monsters? War with the Humans? Archmages? Another <Quest>? I told Lyonette to give me lead time on those!

Pawn shouted back.

“No, she is telling stories!”

Watch Captain Zevara nearly tripped over her tail and slowed in disgust—right until a bunch of Silverfangs, off-duty [Guards], and citizens of Liscor nearly ran her over. Krshia Silverfang was dragging Tkrn and Inkar towards the inn, and the two were running to keep up. Satar Silverfang demanded notes. Plus, they wanted to hear this too.




Synchronicity. When the Horns of Hammerad heard that Erin Solstice was telling stories of how everything had happened, they were upset.

Ceria Springwalker was furious, a rarity with her circlet. She was currently kicking across the grass, shouting.

“Jelaqua’s going to make it! And I bet Halrac will be sitting in a corner with his arms folded. Pretending he doesn’t really care. And—and I bet Ylawes’ team will make it back, and we’re not there. She’ll be breaking out the good cookies, Pisces. The ones with jam inside.

“I hate those. I always think of the Acid Fly cookies she fed me. I have been thoroughly disenchanted with surprise cookies as a concept, Springwalker.”

Pisces sniffed—but even he was looking north. A big, red-furred Gnoll was rolling around on the ground and throwing a tantrum because she was missing storytime. Yvlon Byres raised her head and opened her eyes. She had been daydreaming.

“Comrade Pisces. I am sorry, once again, for offering you my special cookies.”

Ksmvr patted the [Necromancer]’s shoulder, and Pisces waved this off.

“That was a friendly mistake on the road, Ksmvr, between our team of infallibly honorable intent. That woman, on the other hand, is untrustworthy. Someone should be there to clarify all her slanderous statements. Doubtless about me.”

He doubted Rags would be there to set the record straight. Yvlon eyed Pisces as she sat up.

“You mean, the part where you tried to rob her, and she saved you from being killed by the Watch? What part is she setting straight, exactly?”

Pisces turned red. But then he realized he was being flanked. Shaman Theikha stopped ordering her apprentices to spread blankets on the grass, and she sat cross-legged as Honored Deskie had one of the spinners brought out. It began to whir, softly, as she got to work. And they were looking at…

Cers somersaulted forwards until he was sitting in front of the Horns, and Ceria stopped ranting about pizza as she realized the Gnolls were gathering up. Honored Berr, Gireulashia…they sat down and stared expectantly.

“So how did it go? To set the record straight.”

Chieftain Feshi grinned as her former classmates looked around. They were slow to pick up on the event, but the Gnolls of the Plains were already gathering, some with hobbies or tasks to keep their paws working. The Horns realized that they were in the heart of one of the greatest storytelling communities in the world.

So—Ceria brushed at her hair and laughed and turned to Pisces, who turned beet red. He got up as Ksmvr nervously shuffled some leaves like a deck of cards, trying to get his part right, and Yvlon smiled.

“Well, I, ah, was not there for the inception of all the events, but I have my own perspective. Which I can admit is biased. T-to be honest, we have to give Miss Erin many plaudits. As I knew it, one day it began in the wilds of Liscor’s floodplains. Mostly deserted on the eastern approach. After the two Antinium Wars, all the existing settlements had been abandoned, so I, myself, was, ah, loitering around the area at the time I believe she came to the inn.”

“He was hiding in a cave doing necromancy.”

Ceria clarified unhelpfully, and Pisces scowled. But then he took a breath.

“To give Erin Solstice credit—I was a graduate of Wistram, a competent [Mage] and able to defend myself and turn invisible. She survived in those wilds against Rock Crabs, a threat that can take out an entire Silver-rank team—by herself. I happened across her mere days after she arrived, so in that sense, I am probably the third person to know her.”


Yvlon shoved him from one side, and Ksmvr shoved Pisces from the other side to equalize him. But the [Necromancer] was warming to his theme.

“She has told me numerous anecdotes of how she came to be there. So…if I may…”

He spoke, absently, trying to remember how it went. Even if they weren’t all there, like Olesm, or Rags…they were surely remembering it, too.




And in her inn, surrounded by friends and guests, new employees and old companions. Erin Solstice took a breath and went on. Her eyes were glittering. Her hat was aflame…but it seemed like an old song ran through her.

If you were a [Bard], you saw it in the flash of a younger woman, more uncertain, calling out to a group of five Hobgoblins who had saved her life.

If you were a little Gnoll, staring at Ryoka Griffin’s face, you saw a Runner charging through the snow, followed by glowing winter faeries.

The [Princess] saw an [Innkeeper] in a blizzard. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] saw a lost young woman trudging through the streets of Liscor.

The [Priest] saw a smile across a chessboard. A [Strategos] remembered a wink and a sense of vertigo as he met the opponent of a lifetime.

A Goblin [Great Chieftain] always remembered the first taste of spaghetti and blue fruit juice at a table in that inn. Not the same table or inn, but the same spirit.

And a [Guardsman] duo? They looked over—and remembered a young woman standing at the door to her inn, staring wide-eyed at them.

All of that ran backwards as Erin Solstice spread her hands, closed her eyes, and began to tell the story. Maybe not the way it was done perfectly—but it was a start.

“Let me think. One second I was opening the door to the bathroom in search of a toilet. Then—I didn’t really feel as if I teleported. I opened the door and—bam. Dragon, right in front of my face. He breathed fire, and I—I was in a cave, and I just ran for it. Screaming.”

She looked around, and a Dragon winced, but he was listening too. He could just picture it, even if he didn’t remember. If he had meant to roast her…it must have been an accidental discharge of his flame right before he panic-teleported. And—the [Innkeeper] met his eyes, then looked out a window and pointed. Every head turned.

“I don’t know where I was, exactly. First I was in a cave—then there was fire. I remember running out of the cave. I was afraid I was being chased, so I just—ran. For probably half an hour! I was racing across the Floodplains, no idea where I was and it was dark. Just when I was slowing down, guess what I spot? Some little green people. And guess who tries to knife me? Goblins.

“Hah. Classic.”

Peggy high-fived Gothica, and Erin scowled at them. She rubbed her shoulder unconsciously.

“So there I am running from Goblins—burnt—no idea what’s happening because it’s the first time I’ve ever seen Goblins or a fire-breathing Dragon—and then I see it.”

She paused dramatically.

“An inn.”

Everyone stared at her, and Erin Solstice waited for the gasps and then went on. Awkwardly, laughing, smiling—then growing sad as she recalled all that had passed. Then smiling again at Relc as Lyonette hugged Mrsha and Ryoka sat down, listening.

And so it began, once more, and it was continuing even now.

This—was the tale of The Wandering Inn.





Author’s Note:

I have left another note at the end of Volume 1, but I feel I should preface the rewrites by explaining what’s changed.

Seven years ago, I wrote The Wandering Inn’s first volume and had no idea it would be successful, or even read by more than a dozen people. I had hopes—but the first draft had a lot of experimental ideas, or unformed concepts.

Back then, Antinium were just another species and there were ‘Antinium mages’ hanging out in the Adventurer’s Guild. Liscor was a lot smaller, ten thousand people compared to a hundred thousand, and characters like Rags and Pisces and Gazi weren’t as nuanced as they’d later become.

This rewrite that you can find on the site has been the work of years. I’ve known that rewriting Volume 1 is something I should do, but I’ve put it off. I wanted to rewrite the first few chapters, or parts of the story because it’s rougher and weaker than what I can currently do.

But rewriting is hard. So hard that I had to learn how to edit by working with professional editors and get two years of experience before I even took on the project—and it still took me months of working in the background as I’m sure readers of Volume 9 are aware of.

However. I am happy with the rewrites because I did not erase what made Volume 1 good in my mind—I just upgraded the weak parts and kept the bones of what made the story appealing to so many.

For an old reader, don’t fret. You can find the old chapters and all the comments in an archive on the site. If you want to see what’s new, it might be good to read everything from start to finish. Volume 1 chapters are literally a tenth as long as some Volume 9 chapters.

But to clarify what I’ve done in the rewrites…some chapters are not touched at all. Others have minor tweaks for consistency’s sake. Mostly, I have added perspectives like Teriarch’s, Rags, and Pawn so the readers can see a bit through their eyes.

The most fundamental rewrites are two chapters, though. And that would be the Interlude – King chapter, and Ryoka’s final chapter of Volume 1, 1.55 R. I decided both required complete updates in prose and even plot, respectively. If you re-read 1.55 R, you will be surprised by a character you’ve never seen before and hopefully you’ll find Ryoka more relatable, even if her actions are mostly the same.

It’s my birthday as of posting this, and it’s very fitting. I can finally show people a start to The Wandering Inn I’m proud of, and that opens the way for a lot. Physical books, a polished start for any new readers—and I didn’t do it alone.

I would like to thank a bunch of people for getting The Wandering Inn to this part. In no particular order, JAD Illustrated and Shawn King for creating the iconic covers for the story. Diana Gill for helping me re-write the story. My assistant, agent, my beta-reading team, and the typo killers, who have slain probably millions of grammatical and spelling errors, even in this very author’s note. My family, from my parents and siblings to my grandfather, who have all supported my writing as it changed from a hobby to a career.

Last of all, I’d like to thank a certain web developer who has helped upgrade the site. You may now see a ‘reader settings’ icon, and it has the ability to change font size, and even enabled the blasphemous light mode and other settings for reader experience. More updates to come, but this may be a huge help for anyone who wants a different reading style. All of this helps for the enjoyment of people who come to the site, and that’s a great thing.

I could not get here without help, and I hope for any readers new or old they enjoy what’s been rewritten and what’s to come. Thanks so much for reading,




The Wandering Inn by Miguel!


Erin Solstice by deva arts!


Rock Crab and Erin Fire by Brack!





Rose and Adetr + Dressup by butts!




Previous Chapter Next Chapter

9.38 TV (Pt. 2)

(The writing notes for 9.38 TV can be found here. Warning—spoilers for the entire chapter.)


On the third day, Valeterisa asked Montressa if she was ready for the trial teleporting. She had just used her new Skill.

[Arcane Discovery]! It was like…a moment of inspiration. A moment of insight that you had when puzzling something out. Every week, a little bubble would pop and Valeterisa would realize how something could be done.

In this case, she had puzzled out some of the mechanics of the famous spell, [Valmira’s Comet]. She had always known it was meant to be used en masse—but she had never realized that the spell itself was configurable.

Of course! You could make it larger, smaller, faster—Feor had mass-produced the spell in the now-famous battle with Eldavin, but he could have vastly altered the spell.

All spells were like that. She wrote down her notes and was glad to see Montressa practicing in the morning. They were still [Mages], after all.

“[Master Spell: Levitation]! Archmage, I’m doing it, I’m doing it!

Montressa floated out her window, nearly lost control of the spell, and panicked. Arms windmilling, she nearly took a nosedive, but Valeterisa caught her and sent her floating back into her room of the Haven.

“So you are. Be careful not to land on your head, Apprentice.”

She smiled, vaguely pleased. After all, it wasn’t as if Montressa had learned [Levitation] overnight. But she did have a Skill.

[Apprentice] was an odd class to gain at Montressa’s level, but it had unexpected results. One of these was [Master-Apprentice Spell]. Just like how Montressa could borrow some of Valeterisa’s expertise with [Master, Allow Me], she could also ‘copy’ a spell from Valeterisa. It did seem like Valeterisa had to approve it, so she had opted for the spell that would give her apprentice much-needed mobility.

“Very good, Apprentice. Are you learning the spell by casting it?”

“I am—balancing the ‘lifting’ is hard. I nearly threw myself straight down!”

“Levitation and gravity spells are merely a matter of direction. Keep practicing. I would like to test the teleportation from Sanito to Liscor.”


Montressa hesitated. She checked her [Message] scroll and bit her lip.

“Um—we may have to double-check some of the spell circles. Some of the [Mages] want you to see their work.”

“How many layers are they up to?”

Montressa checked the top of her list.

“Palt just got to three! He says it will take—two more days? Oh. The others—”

She fell silent. And then Valeterisa felt the first familiar sensation she did not like. It was…a memory. It reminded her of her talks with Maviola El where the energetic older woman would be raring to go on a project. And then, after Valeterisa delivered the designs or finished the enchanting work…

Less communication. Less of that bright spark of enthusiasm. But she didn’t see the problem.

Until she began checking the spell circles.




Palt the [Illusionist] didn’t ask for a double-check of his work on the third day. Four [Mages] did—and the seven others were silent. But of the four, only one had no errors.

“You need to redraw your base layer. It is…unfixable.”

“U-u-unfixable, Archmage?”

“Yes. You went straight over the activation rune here. And the connection…”

It was done with a shaky hand. Valeterisa stared at the [Mage] who had painstakingly melted the gems and apparently singed up their hands with molten gemstone.

“Did you not draw it out earlier? You could have made a funnel for the gemstones.”

“Oh. Oh. I just—I thought I could draw it on the stone, but it was harder than it looked.”

Montressa’s face was an entire wince. Two entire layers of the five-layered spell circle were wasted. Valeterisa put on her work-smile.

“It is alright. Simply redraw it. Consider laying the lines out in a blueprint.”

“I will absolutely do this, Archmage. Could I—could I have more gemstones? I’m also out.”

The Archmage paused as she turned away.

“…How are you out of gemstones? You should have had enough to spare.”

“I did! But the purification left less than a third.”

Valeterisa’s head slowly turned to Montressa, and the [Aegiscaster] began speaking quickly.

“I see what the problem is. We should have established how you purify—I think it’s a matter of how you heated it. Can I see your process? And your purification spell? I’ll walk you through parts of the first layer. Archmage, give me—one hour? We will need more gemstones.”

That cost money. And more than Valeterisa thought, because when she sought out the [Gem Merchant] in Invrisil and a [Stockpiler] in Pallass, both revealed their prices were up 50%.

“I’m sorry, Archmage. You bought up our immediate surpluses. Supply and demand.”


Budget: 17,534 gold pieces.


After all four spell circles were checked, only one could be used without a complete redraw. And Montressa’s query revealed all but Palt and Bezale needed more gemstones. She vanished, promising to correct the issue.

“I’ll run every [Mage] through a basic lesson in purification, Archmage. And check on their spell circles.”

Valeterisa tried to relax after that. She wrote a [Message] to Telim and Sa’la and felt incredibly awkward when both replied with delight within five minutes of her sending. She spent the rest of the day talking to them…and trying not to notice Montressa returning.

It seemed she needed more gold for more—corrections to spell circles. So by the end of the third day, the [Gem Merchant] informed Valeterisa he would be resupplying his stocks as soon as possible. He even advised her she could wait so his prices would go down. As that was not an option—he gladly took her gold.


Budget: 14,444 gold pieces.




Valeterisa was making a puzzle in her room. No one wanted to carry her puzzles after she had made one inaccessible without the use of magic, but she liked making puzzles.

It was somewhat of a contradiction. Valeterisa actually liked solving blacksmith’s puzzles. But she had solved every single one she had ever found without exception. Lacking a challenge, she had made challenges and quite enjoyed the process of making puzzles as difficult as possible.

She was making this new one entirely mundane and not thinking about her budget. Or the gemstones. Or this being anyone’s fault.

Montressa’s room was next to hers, and it was past midnight as the Archmage worked until she was tired enough for a [Sleep] spell to take effect without delay. She was glaring at a piece of metal she was bending so that it would lock into place unless you removed it—

—When she heard voices outside her room. She never remembered to close her door properly—then again, her apprentice couldn’t wake her unless she opened the door. Valeterisa would sleep through a thousand knocks.

Up late, probably with her friend. This was why she had forgotten to remind Valeterisa of the ceremony with the Blighted Kingdom.

The Archmage grumped until she heard a voice.

“You’re up late, Miss Montressa.”

Only Larracel and sometimes Barnethei occupied the graveyard shift. The Haven’s [Innkeeper] didn’t seem to need to sleep, and Valeterisa remembered asking her how she did it. She assumed magic, but Larracel claimed it was years of being an adventurer and taking sentry duty.

Montressa’s voice was weary and quiet.

“I was in Celum, Miss Larra.”

“Checking the spell circles?”

“Yes. I—I think we solved the issue. It’s my fault.”

“Mm. The [Mages] didn’t know how to draw them properly.”

It was a statement. Valeterisa nodded, and Montressa paused before replying.

“I’ll make sure they do it right. We’ll definitely have the House Sanito to Invrisil route done. If I could teleport, I’d go over, but…”

Larracel’s voice was quiet, and they sounded like they were moving away.

“Nonsense. You’re nearly mana burnt. Go to your rooms. I will wake you early with a special breakfast. An [Energizing Special Meal]. Nothing silly like Miss Solstice’s scones.”

“Thank you, Innkeeper Larracel.”

“It is Larra, my dear. Keep at it…”

The murmuring turned quiet, and Valeterisa pointed at her head as she put her puzzle aside. There was no market for it anyways. That was for fun.





The fourth day had good news for Valeterisa. Bezale was done with her spell circle, and it was perfect. No flaws, and the sweating Minotauress beamed as Valeterisa checked her work and found nothing to correct.

She had laid it on a splendid foundation, and even better, all three [Mages] along the Sanito line reported they were done with their spell circles.

So soon?

Montressa paused over breakfast, looking tired. Valeterisa frowned at her.

“I thought they were behind. Didn’t you give them aid?”

“No—we wanted to test by day three. And I did send them [Messages] regarding the gemstones, but I barely got to Invrisil by midnight teaching the other [Mages]. I—suppose their circles work. Should we send something to House Sanito?”

Valeterisa picked up one of the cups from the Haven.

“Let’s send it circle by circle.”

Bezale herself operated her spell circle, and it glowed as the cup sat in the center of the circle. The [Mage] in the town closest to her confirmed their circle was active—and all they had to do was push mana into it and it would be good to go. Valeterisa had manually written the coordinates of each spell circle down so they were linked to the one ‘ahead’ and ‘behind’ them in the chain.

She waited, smiling, as Bezale’s circle activated. The Minotauress was sweating as she activated the circle. The cup—

Didn’t move.

Bezale gasped as the mana flowed out of her. Something had triggered—Valeterisa’s smile slipped. Montressa was chewing her lip hard as she danced from foot to foot.

“Perhaps the spell circle on the other end wasn’t joined? Can the [Mage] re-check their linkage? We—I can go over there if you teleport me, Archmage.”

“Try one more time.”

Valeterisa hesitated. It should work. Bezale wiped sweat from her brow, and Valeterisa realized something else was wrong.

She’s down to half mana pool already. The Minotauress had a very small mana pool compared to Montressa or Palt. Hence her being a [Spellscribe]. Valeterisa saw Monstressa slowly feeding mana into the spell from the side, giving Bezale a boost. She said nothing—but this time, she watched closely.

The spell circle was functioning perfectly. It activated and—

Nothing connected the link. Valeterisa spoke into the silence as Bezale sat down, face grey from mana exhaustion.

“Something is wrong in the town of Layyve. I will take us there. Tell the other [Mages] to hold.”

This time, Montressa was very quiet as they headed to Valeterisa’s private teleportation rune. It could send the two of them a hundred miles, but it wasn’t optimized for the bulk items. Valeterisa had amended this spell for the project of hauling lots of goods, which even Erin’s door struggled with.

“Um. Archmage…”

“We will inspect the spell circle. I assume it may just be a minor error. A single poorly-written line would short the spell.”

“That’s true.”




The [Mage] in Layyve was self-taught. Which didn’t matter in principle. Great [Mages] could arise from self-study and collaboration. Fissival was built on this first type of magic.

If they had issues drawing the spell circle, they could have said so. Or asked Montressa. Or perhaps…mentioned that they had never drawn a spell circle before.

Valeterisa didn’t understand it and said so. She stood in front of the nervous man.

“If you do not understand how to draw a spell circle, why did you not say anything?”

He said nothing. His lips were pressed together, and sweat rolled down his face. Valeterisa stared at the spell circle.

It looked…almost like her drawing. If you assumed a child had drawn it. Not even the circle in the ‘spell circle’ was perfect. And the gemstones!

Hundreds of gold pieces’ worth hadn’t been melted properly. He had used a [Potter]’s kiln to melt it, and the impurities and gem mixture had already been cooling when he poured it. The last bit—and this was damning—was the dirt.

He hadn’t cleaned the floor of the rented warehouse perfectly. And if you put gemstones on even a smidge of dirt, the gemstone flaked off with the dirt.


Montressa stared down at the circle, but there was nothing to salvage. Valeterisa peered at the man.

“I know your name is Mage Monterroc. You were very talkative four days ago. If you could not do this, why didn’t you say so?”

He said nothing. He just—didn’t. She had a sudden urge to lift him up and shake him—but there was no point to doing that. Valeterisa stepped back.

“—If Bezale uses three times her mana supply, she could reach Selic. She could store it up for a transit while we correct—”

She was figuring out a solution, and Montressa began nodding.

“We can do that, Archmage. And we’ll—figure out a solution here. I can come back and write the spell circle. If I take three days, I can have it done.”

“Very well. Very well. But—let us go to Selic first. And then House Sanito.”

Something was dawning on Valeterisa. A cold pit of fear in her stomach. And she was striding off to the teleportation rune to see about those other two ‘completed’ magic circles.




They never found the [Mage] in Selic. No gemstones. No [Mage]. The warehouse had been bought—but the [Mayor] in the town claimed the [Mage] had asked for the deposit back.

The [Mage] that Alman Sanito had vouched for was a Wistram-trained [Mage]. Just not an expert in the enchanting, runecrafting, or scribing spell schools.

“Spell circle? I’ve been working on it for four days! It’s done, right here!”

She proudly led Valeterisa over to a spell circle, and Valeterisa was relieved to see it was in a storeroom, the spell circle was on clean stone—she bent over it, about to congratulate the [Mage] when Montressa spoke in a strangled voice.

“The—there’s an error in the circle.”

“What? No. I copied it perfectly! Where?”

The [Mage] was instantly defensive. But Montressa’s finger rose, and Valeterisa pointed.



They pointed at different spots. Valeterisa’s finger twitched. She looked at Montressa’s spot in layer two—and the one she had found in layer five. Then she counted.

Six errors. And the problem with spell circles was this: they were not made in charcoal. You could not just…erase a section and re-do it easily. If you were lucky and it was in a later layer, you could re-draw it.

But one of the errors was in the first layer. That was an almost complete redraw, and the [Mage] kept apologizing for the error and claiming they hadn’t spotted it.

“It’s almost microscopic, Archmage. The complexity of the rune—I am so sorry, and I will redo it, of course! If you have your apprentice re-check the work—or you yourself—”

“Two runes. I can do two runes in two days.”

Valeterisa muttered to herself. She ignored the [Mage]. Thin? Microscopic? Each line of the circle was slightly bigger than the width of her thumb.

Hedault could draw a rune on a grain of wheat. That was runecrafting at a master’s level in the modern age. This was two-dimensional spell circles. Not inlaid in the brick. Just melt the gemstones and pour.

She looked at Montressa as a silence fell over them.

“I want to see all the spell circles, Apprentice. How many had errors?”

“I checked them. All of them had one or two faults, but the [Mages] listened to my instructions—I went to the ones who asked for help first. Should I…?”

The illness of not being able to meet Valeterisa’s gaze seemed to be spreading. The Archmage looked at Montressa, then turned.

“Archmage Valeterisa? Lord Sanito had heard you were here. Do you have a moment to meet with him?”

A bowing [Page] rapped on the door to the storehouse. The Sanito House wanted an update. The [Page] was smiling with excitement. They didn’t think anything was wrong.

Valeterisa turned, and the [Mage] that Alman had hired gulped.

“I’ll—I’ll begin redrawing with what I have left, Archmage—”

She ran off. Valeterisa looked at Montressa.

“Talk to Lord Sanito. I will be back in an hour. I will check on the other spell circles.”




Valeterisa returned in the night to pick Montressa up. Her face was quite blank when Montressa, who had been wracked with guilt speaking with the happy Sanitos, saw her.

That was a bad sign. The Archmage didn’t say anything as they laboriously teleported back to Invrisil. Four teleports—and then they used Erin’s door.

Which was a Skill-based door. Unable to transport goods in bulk if you wanted to also transport people. Limited now to the places Erin Solstice had been. Inferior to the power of magic.

Yes…that’s why they used it. When Valeterisa stepped into the Haven, Barnethei himself served them a meal. It was very late, but he had the remains of a roast he added to some mashed Yellats and served it all with a cranberry gravy.

“Archmage, Mage Montressa. Let me know if you need anything.”

Valeterisa ate in silence, but hungrily. Montressa had no appetite.

“Um. Archmage…how was the…?”

“Seven circles. Two were drawn appropriately.”

Montressa’s head rose. Her stomach churned, but she latched onto the ‘two’.

“That’s good! Then can the two—?”

“One was outlined. A circle. The [Mage] was robbed by a [Thief]. They claimed they suspected the local Merchant’s Guild of hiring the thief. The other was on layer two. After nearly five entire days.”

Valeterisa stabbed her food with a fork.

And the others? The [Apprentice]-[Aegiscaster] was afraid to ask. Valeterisa answered for her.

“I redrew a circle in two cities. I will need gemstones. Tomorrow. Have them ready.”

“The budget—”

“Find the gemstones. Then. I want you to check on Palt. I did not inspect his circle. We have two days. We will send a test item from House Sanito to Invrisil tomorrow.”

The Archmage finished eating and got up. Montressa’s stomach grew worse. And the next day—

The issues grew worse.




If Archmage Valeterisa drew a circle, it took four hours and she did it right. But the gemstones she had to use and all the others had resulted in…


Budget: 11,002 gold pieces.


“You have literally bought out every gemstone I have that’s not waiting on a client, Archmage. Half the [Mages] who came to me are cursing your name.”

The Dullahan [Stockpiler] remarked as Valeterisa pocketed the last gemstones. She said nothing. She should have spent four thousand gold pieces on the amount she’d bought if she’d shopped around, gone across Izril, paid for caravan delivery.

Instead, she’d spent four times the cost, but she needed the circles done.

It took her the entire day to finish work on the two spell circles and rush-finish the one in House Sanito. But when it was done—she had four.

Beautiful. She convened the [Mages] on the evening of the sixth day, ignoring the fact that there would be seven more to do tomorrow. If she spaced them out a hundred miles each…she’d only have to do three.

She could do three. Montressa had put in effort herself and had gotten to layer three before Valeterisa finished her work in House Sanito.

The test was to send a single lump of copper ore over from House Sanito to Invrisil. Montressa had found a [Mage] to replace the one that had vanished, and the incompetent one—well, one of the two—was standing by to receive the piece of ore.

Valeterisa paced back and forth in front of the circle where Bezale waited. She spoke.

“Send the sample.”

She waited. Montressa wrote on the [Message] scroll. Valeterisa waited…then cast a [Timekeeper] spell. She checked the minutes passing by.

After two minutes, she glanced at Montressa. The [Mage] wrote furiously.

“I—I think the connection between House Sanito and the first waypoint is having problems.”


Valeterisa’s voice rose. Montressa’s lips went pale.

“Th-the [Mage] in House Sanito activated their circle! But the other one did not receive. It might not have been—powered?”

“The [Mage] there—”

“Their mana pool must be too small. Maweil’s shores.”

Bezale muttered. Montressa wrote furiously.

“I’m having the [Mage] get backup now. But the one in House Sanito is exhausted. Just wait—”

Forty-one minutes later, the piece of copper transferred from House Sanito to the first teleportation network spot. But the [Mages] on that end were so tired they had to be rotated out again.

To send an item, you needed Bezale, a Level 27 [Spellscribe]’s mana pool. She was not actually indicative of most [Mages] her level; the Minotauress had a smaller mana pool than most, especially if you had a Skill.

But that was above a local [Mage] by far. Because you had to both receive something and send it.

Valeterisa had a sudden thought. Activating the spell circle took a set amount of mana. But to send four hundred pounds of ore, she calculated they might have to activate the spell at least twice. Montressa and Bezale together could do the receiving for Invrisil.

And only Invrisil.

The piece of copper languished in the next town over for nearly two hours. Valeterisa finally went off and had dinner, leaving Montressa to figure out someone to power the spell. When it did arrive, Montressa presented Valeterisa with a lump of copper.

It was eight at night. Valeterisa stared at the copper.

“We can reach Invrisil. Perhaps that will do as a demonstration.”

“Yes, Archmage. That—I will apologize to Lord Alman and Lady Edere myself.”

Montressa’s look of relief almost placated Valeterisa’s feelings. But the Archmage just turned away. One day.

“I will attempt to fix this issue tomorrow. All I need to do is draw three spell circles.”

Three circles. Twelve hours of work. She walked out of the warehouse without saying another word to Montressa and Bezale.

Larracel the Haven was sweeping across her inn when Valeterisa returned to her rooms. The Archmage was relieved that Larracel didn’t want to talk about something mundane. The [Innkeeper] made only one comment before Valeterisa shut the door sharply.

“It’s rare that I see you with a scowl on your face.”

Only afterwards did Valeterisa look in a mirror. She hadn’t been aware that she was glaring. The next day, two things happened.

One—Palt announced he was finished with his work. He had taken six days, twice as long as he had claimed, and the exhausted Centaur had burned up some gemstones he needed reimbursement on. But his spell circle had no flaws. Technically, it had one minor smudge on layer three, but it was correctable with literally five seconds of Valeterisa’s work.

That was the good news. The bad news was one Montressa slowly delivered to Valeterisa in person. She teleported herself to the town of Layyve and saw the problem.

Which was, precisely, a giant crater in the center of the stone warehouse where someone had painstakingly chiseled or cut the entire magic circle out of the ground and run off with it in the middle of the night.




The assassination occurred as Demsleth was waiting to meet someone blessed with another artifact. He heard a scream for the Watch and asked the [Barkeeper] what was going on.

It took the woman a while to come back, and when she did, her face was white.

“Lord Lien is dead! The son of House Bellrui is dead! Murdered in the streets by four [Assassins]!”

“I thought the guild was disbanded.”

Rafaema frowned. People were screaming, and the [Barkeeper]’s face was pale. Demsleth’s frown deepened.

“Did they have any signs? Any—calling cards?”

“No. Nothing. Lord Lien was on horseback—he’s a common sight around town. Then, four figures popped out of a carriage and stabbed him to death! It—it makes no sense. I’m going to be sick. The blood everywhere—and now? Lord Ellas will die of grief!”

The woman sagged against the bar, and the rush of people coming in to talk allowed Demsleth to make sense of it. No one knew who the assailants were—only that they had been quick to the murder. This was planned, and they had left no clues; it had been an unmarked carriage.

But what caught his ear was the way they talked.

“—now of all times? Just when he—”

“Lord Ellas has buried wife and now his son. It’s the end of House Bellrui. Ever since the Sacrifice of Roses—”

Demsleth intruded on a conversation as someone with a hood pushed into the bar and looked around.

“Has something happened between Lord Lien and his father recently?”

One of the townsfolk tried to explain.

“Lord Lien has always been a bit of a—well, a troubled lad. He’d ride around causing mischief as a son without a mother is wont to do. It got bad last year and the year before. His father would row with him in public. But Lord Lien seemed to have a change of heart as young men do! He cleaned up his ways, swore to reform—now this.”

Demsleth’s eyes flickered towards the figure going to his table.

“It sounds like something caught up with him.”

The townsfolk stared at him. Demsleth was tempted to see the scene of the murder to see if he could piece together something himself, but he had a visitor waiting.




“That’s right. It wasn’t something as stupid as buried treasure. It was a vault. A vault with a damn key. Only, you spoke the key, and the words made the key appear. Or the—the key was the words. Dead gods, I don’t know. Then I turned it upon the lock, and the vault was nothing at all. And I just had this.”

The woman had a key. Or rather, a keydagger. The ‘hilt’ looked like the handle of a huge, old-fashioned key, and the blade had teeth reminiscent of a lock on one end—a splendid cutting blade on the other.

“A Keydagger of Samal.”

“Is that what it is?”

The woman was shaken, but her eyes locked on the dagger. Demsleth didn’t quite glower at Rafaema, who had realized what it was.

“It probably unlocks something in Samal. A great journey—but if you were entrusted with it—you have a fortune waiting for you. A great treasure, or perhaps danger. But this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Are you ready?”

An old man, hooded, sat next to an azure Drake in the corner of a bar buzzing with worried talk. Dark tidings. His mismatched eyes flashed as he looked at a key to the paradise of Samal in Terandria. Buried until a ghost had asked this woman to find it.

The woman wiped her mouth after taking a long drink of her ale. She exhaled, burped, and shook her head.

“Not I. You want it? Fifteen thousand gold coins. Since you know so much about it and you haven’t tried to crack me over the head, I reckon I’ll give you the first offer.”

Demsleth’s face went flat. Rafaema shifted as the woman, who was named Naunce, looked at him. She appraised the quality of his clothing.

“Keydagger of Samal, you said?”

“You aren’t—inclined to keep it? You said a ghost came to you—”

Naunce nodded a few times.

“Yep. Babbling about ‘death on Terandria’ and fighting Seamwalkers. Scared me so much I didn’t sleep for two weeks. Told me to take the dagger and fight. Fight what? I’ve been attacked three times carrying this around. I’m selling it—only, no one would offer me more than fifty gold for it. I need to find an auctioneer or…someone who won’t screw me over for it. Maybe the damn Merchant’s Guild. Even if they take a cut—you want it? Last chance.”

She waved it at him, and the old man sat there. Just…staring at her.

“That ghost likely found the nearest person to this vault. This vault she left in desperation, perhaps at the end of her life. That is a Keyblade of Samal, ancient paradise, and she hand picked you out of all people.”

“Right. But I didn’t ask for it. Me? I’m just a [Street Rogue]. I’ll take my fortunes, but that was a stupid choice, eh?”

Naunce poked a tongue into a gap in her teeth. She looked uneasy at Demsleth’s intense stare and rolled her shoulders.

“What, you want to risk your life because some damn ghost appeared?”

“You were chosen. Do you not have dreams or aspirations? Does this blade not stir something in you? It could make you a [Princess] or unlock a great treasure worth far more than a thousand gold pieces. It could be the key to a great adventure. A new life. Do you want any of that?”

Something in the way he spoke was right. This time, his voice seemed to quiet even the people at the bar, and the Drake stared at the dagger. The wording was right…but Naunce’s eyes only flickered once at Demsleth’s words. Then she scowled and spat onto the floor.

“I don’t believe in stories. Gold in hand is worth a lot more than a fake dream—and this sounds entirely fake. Hey, is this expensive? I can’t imagine why you’d uptalk it to me—do you want it or not?”

He stared at her, searching her up and down—then shoved the table back so hard it knocked over Naunce’s drink. She cursed him, but the old man strode out the door so fast he left a breeze.




By the end of the seventh day, Archmage Valeterisa had three working spell circles. One in Liscor. One in Invrisil. One in House Sanito. Even with her magic, she could not connect all three.

She had possessed five at one point.

One had been stolen, and Bezale had glumly reported that was likely the Merchant’s Guild’s doing.

“How do you know that?”

Montressa demanded angrily. The Minotauress just offered her a note.

“They put out a request for anyone who knows how to decipher the thing. I didn’t know, I swear! That damn ‘Bloody Secrets’ person sent me a tip.”

Valeterisa said nothing. Montressa licked her lips.

“What about the other one?”




The town of Alnas where Valeterisa had drawn the first spell circle for one of the [Mages] was very apologetic.

The Town Council even came out to meet the Archmage of Izril themselves.

“It’s…the Runner’s Guild, Archmage. We do depend on them for deliveries. We had a talk, and if it’s between them and you—we will have to revoke your rights to the storehouse.”

“You can’t do that. You’ve leased it to us.”

Montressa’s voice rose in outrage. Valeterisa just looked at the storehouse. The [Councilmembers] conferred with the Runner’s Guild representative, who whispered back.

“—That’s exactly right, Miss Mage. But you have leased it for a month. So at the end of the month we’ll demand it back.”

Montressa du Valeross was getting angry now. Her red hair rose as she pointed a trembling finger inside.

“Then who broke the spell circle inside?”

The delicate gemstone latticework was smashed to bits. Probably with a hammer. You had to be careful with spell circles—and Valeterisa had obviously planned to have each site properly treated to prevent any accidental damage.

“We have no idea, Archmage, Mage Montressa. Did you hire [Guards]? No one here saw a thing.”

Montressa was staring at the City Runner from the local guild, but Valeterisa lifted a hand. Her face was quite calm as she pointed at the storehouse.

“There is no culprit who smashed the storehouse that anyone knows of.”


The Council agreed, and while the [Detect Truth] spell said they were not quite telling the truth, they probably didn’t know who exactly had done the deed. It was probably a Runner—or someone who was hired—and her spell circle was gone.

She had one day, not enough time…and this town had just closed its doors to her even if she was going to redraw a circle and protect it.

Two thousand gold coins down. Three spell circles. A wasted week she could have used studying magic…Valeterisa stared at the sky.

And even if I work all day, I will only be able to send some copper from House Sanito to Invrisil. Not all the way to Liscor. Even Mage Bezale can barely do more than one shipment per day. Two if she only receives.

“Ah. I understand it now.”

Valeterisa spoke to the sky. Montressa was shaking with anger and—she looked at Valeterisa as the Council eyed her and the Runner raised their brows. But Valeterisa stared at the winter sky.

“Heorth. The Grand Librarian of Fissival told me stories of being a Djinni before he was sold to the City of Incantations. He knew magical empires on Chandrar where his people were first enslaved. He said, even then, they would make him carry his burdens across the entire continent, a journey of weeks sometimes, to deliver a simple gift. I asked him why in that time of magic there was no faster way. And he told me Djinni were that faster way. I never understood why until now.”

She looked down, and Montressa flinched away from that blank stare in her eyes. Valeterisa stared at the warehouse.

“Council of Alnas.”

“My name, Archmage, is—”

She spoke over the man.

“I am not allowed to keep renting your warehouse after a month. But until then, that is, legally, mine to use as I please, is that so?”

“Yes…for a month, Archmage. But we insist you do not alter it again. You can use it for storage, as agreed.”

The [Councilmember] spoke slowly after conferring with the City Runner. Valeterisa nodded. She lifted a finger, aimed it sideways, and spoke.

“Very good. [Siege Fireball].”

A tiny orb of flames appeared at the tip of her finger—then it engorged, whirling flames expanding until it was twice her height. The entire spell took eight seconds. Montressa was staring open-mouthed, and only the City Runner had dove away.

“What are you—”

Valeterisa fired the spell straight into the warehouse. The flames burned through the iron door, and she saw a glow from within the sturdy building. Then it exploded.

The warehouse did not actually blow up and rain down over the town. The flames exited every window and crevice of the building—then the heat cracked the stones in the cold air, and the warehouse began to crumble inwards as smoke rose. Valeterisa spoke.

“[Levitation]. I am going back. Apprentice Montressa, tell House Sanito that I am not fulfilling my contract. I am done. Goodbye.”

Then she flew off. She flew over to her hidden teleport rune, stepped into it, and thought about teleporting out. She grudgingly waited as Montressa, begging her to wait, ran up and teleported them twice to Invrisil. She said not a word to Montressa. She said not a word to anyone. She just left.




The words spilled out as Lady Ieka was hunting around for [Assassins]. Just one or two that had survived the Circle of Thorn’s destruction. She didn’t even need anyone killed necessarily.

But they could break a few legs. She was snapping at her [Head Maid], who was fumbling slips of paper as she did when she got nervous.

“Give me the list of our—give me the briefcase.”

“I’m sorry, Lady Ieka—”

The [Lady] flicked her fingers through the list of names, seeing how many had been crossed out. [Assassins] really had been a tool of Izril’s flowers. Without [Assassins], they lost their teeth.

And oh—she wanted teeth right now. Her aunt sat in the Adventurer’s Haven, not talking to Larracel, who was patting her knee now and then and making her sip from a cup of honeyed milk.

Not The Wandering Inn. This was Valeterisa’s only real home away from ‘home’…and she sat, blank-faced and tight-lipped.

Ieka had seen that too. It reminded her of how she and her aunt had first met. A rare family gathering of the Imarris family where a branch cousin returned from the south. Something of a controversy. Half of Ieka’s aunts and uncles had claimed she ‘smelled like Drakes’, and she hadn’t said a word as they refused to pay for her Wistram education.

Ieka had found Valeterisa practicing magic in the gardens later. And the [Mage] who had graduated from Fissival had taught her a magic spell.

That had been, oh, close to thirty years ago now. Something was wrong if that face was still there, despite all her achievements and accolades.

“I want the Merchant’s Guild’s newest ‘acquisition’ gone. If we cannot steal it back—break it. They can’t have taken it far. I doubt even a Chest of Holding can fit that much stone.”

She snapped at one of her [Bodyguards], a serious woman who hesitated before murmuring back.

“Lady Imarris, do you have a location for us? If it’s lightly guarded, I could take a group and hide our features, but the Merchant’s Guild employs fairly well-armed guards. How much blood are you willing to shed?”

On our part and theirs? Ieka’s blood was boiling, but even now—she slowly whispered a spell.

“[Calm]. Calm…

It washed over her. Leaving her icily angry, but no longer boiling mad. A spell that her aunt had taught her for the harsh courts of Izril’s nobility.

“I have no location. An [Assassin], then. Who isn’t dead or in hiding? Estvie, contact each one covertly. Use the cipher and the wording.”

“Which file is…?”

Ieka gave up. She felt sympathy towards Valeterisa, she truly did. Because this was the exact kind of thing Ieka was used to.

You did not plan on success, in her experience. You took risks—and doing anything, from the ventures in the New Lands to this, required expertise. Competent people.

And they were so hard to find. It was one reason why she had thrown caution to the winds to push her hired settlers to get to the New Lands first. If she could not out-bid the other nobles and groups who were snatching up all the talent, she would make a claim first. She did not like doing that—and the cracks were showing.

“Estvie, don’t worry about this. Focus on getting our people out of the Drake cities. Find a passport. No, I don’t know which ones they want. Arrange it. Inquire with Pallass. Sirrah, accompany her.”

Her [Bodyguard Captain], Sirrah, had the presence and authority to get the attention of a number of people. She could at least get Estvie in touch with a…Watch Captain?

Ieka would have focused on that, and she glumly watched her [Head Maid] hesitate, then head off, whispering anxiously with Sirrah.

A Ressa would have a solution—or find one autonomously. But Ieka didn’t have a Ressa. And neither did Valeterisa.

“Where is your apprentice now, Valley? I don’t believe the girl ate all of yesterday.”

“I don’t know. I left her somewhere.”

Larra pursed her lips.

“Where is ‘somewhere’? Here or in the north, miles from Invrisil?”


Valeterisa was staring at a book. She wasn’t scattering her thoughts. She was very deliberately ignoring Larracel and occasionally taking grudging sips from her drink. It occurred to Ieka that the lack of [Parallel Thoughts] meant her aunt was emotional.

She was angry. She had apparently blown a warehouse to smithereens in a town—which was violent, and they had complained loudly to the Mage’s Guild. But Ieka Imarris almost, almost wished Valeterisa had turned her magical wrath on the Merchant’s Guild.

Yes, she was proposing something that would hurt the Driver’s Guild, Merchant’s Guild, and Runner’s Guild. Ieka had suspected they would try something like this, and her [Bodyguards] had spent three miserable nights doing duty protecting Invrisil’s storage house and Liscor’s.

They’d chased off a number of busybodies, but without teleportation, they’d been unable to safeguard anything else. A word in Lady Edere’s ear had saved House Sanito’s teleportation circle.

I should have forced her to accept help. But part of Ieka had seen Valeterisa lifting Fissival and thought—if she could do that, she could do this.

Unfortunately, every issue here had nothing to do with Valeterisa’s personal ability in magic and all to do with the [Mages] she had hired. The logistics of not having Valeterisa be everywhere. Politics, ensuring basic competence in the people she hired—everything Valeterisa didn’t do.

Montressa du Valeross had…done her best? Ieka wasn’t about to bestow any compliments on the [Aegiscaster] for this debacle, but Larracel did.

“Your apprentice thought any Wistram graduate was as good as her two friends. They both came out with perfect spell circles, and the one in House Sanito managed it with her help. She was teaching [Mages] how to lay the magic out. She should have vetted the candidates better, but I have made her exact mistake in employees. Barnethei does a good job these days.”

“Thank you, Miss Larracel. Talent is hard to find. And the good Gnolls are impossible to entice.”

The two were bantering back and forth lightly, and Valeterisa’s blank look was turning into a scowl. Ieka glanced around. There were some people listening in on the conversation, and she glared at a [Merchant] smiling over a glass of wine at a far table, obviously and ostentatiously listening in while gloating.

He didn’t seem to know the score. Which was that it was a bad idea to offend Larracel’s treasured guests in her Haven. His smug look kept being interrupted by annoyance as he flagged down a passing—and somehow extraordinarily busy—[Barmaid] and demanded his basket of bread.

When the breadbasket arrived, it was late, slightly burnt, and he had been waiting twenty-two minutes for his actual entrée. And it was definitely going to give him food poisoning.

Larracel wielded her hospitality like a dagger in defense of Valeterisa, but the Archmage of Izril was still defeated. She sat there as a young woman with red eyes poked her head up over her menu and extra-rare steak. Ieka had the urge to accost all these unsubtle spies and enemies of her aunt, but her aunt’s wrath was not directed at them.

“I thought she was a good apprentice.”

She finally spoke, like a dam beginning to burst, as Mihaela Godfrey stomped over. She opened her mouth, and Larracel shot her a warning look. Instead, the famous Courier grabbed one of the Runner guests to the Haven and steered them towards one of the guardrails for an intense conversation.

“I thought you liked Mage Montressa, Valeterisa. You said she was quite helpful in Fissival.”

“She was. But she was not here. I trusted her insight.”

Larracel was pursing her lips, staring at Barnethei as he brought over a cache of sweet candies to tempt Valeterisa with. It was normally Mihaela she had to talk down—she had never seen Valeterisa mad, but her tone was gentle as she patted Valeterisa’s arm.

“Yes…she made mistakes. Young women often do. This entire event reminds me of Maviola El’s projects. Remember when she had you making anti-gravity tonics? They worked, but they moved your insides around so everyone would end up sick for three days afterwards, puking their insides out. Sometimes ambition outstrips competency. Montressa is a good girl. Isn’t she? Valley? Have a lemon drop. Erin gave me some.”

The Archmage didn’t affirm the statement. She pressed her lips tighter together, as if to deny the floating yellow candy before she replied.

“She should have realized the [Mages] were inadequate. She assured me they could do the job when they could not.”

Larracel sighed patiently, but she couldn’t keep the exasperation out of her voice.

“It was a mistake. The girl’s beating herself up about it. Are you truly going to have her take the blame for this event in front of all three noble houses? Valley, you once burned down half my library practicing flame spells.”

“And you threatened to spank me and nearly pulled my ear off and made me replace everything. So?”

The [Wizard] gave Valeterisa a pointed look.

“Shouldn’t you be somewhat generous to Montressa now? If you make her go back to drinking or the mess I heard she was before she met you, we will have words.

Valeterisa flipped a page and took a huge gulp of her drink. She didn’t meet Larracel’s eyes, but her tone grew even more sharp.

“Why? It is her fault. The mistake cost me twenty thousand gold pieces. An apprentice should be at least decent in anything I ask her to do or not do it at all. This was a waste of time. She is a waste of my time. Months I could have put to better use.”

The Archmage of Izril was blinking faster, and her faded blue hair was getting in the way of her face. She brushed at it as Larracel’s head turned, and she raised her voice.

“I think you’re overwrought at the moment, Valeterisa. Sleep on it—”

Her fingers flickered, and a wand appeared in her hand. She cast a spell—and Valeterisa flicked off the [Silence] spell like it was a gnat. She glowered at Larra and raised her voice to spite her.

“I am not. She is not organized when her job is organizing my affairs. She is not a good spellcaster—she has to borrow my magic. If she is not capable in either area, why do I even bother—?”

Larracel slapped Valeterisa’s arm hard, and the Archmage jumped. She scowled at the [Innkeeper]—then looked over.

Apprentice Montressa du Valeross stood there. Not awash with tears. She was too old for that. She was a [Lady] and a graduate of Wistram.

Ieka Imarris could admire that. Yes, you kept all the tears behind the shimmering eyes. Montressa’s cheeks were red, but she slowly bowed as Valeterisa looked up and hesitated.

“I will apologize to House Sanito myself tomorrow, Archmage. This is all my fault. As you said. I’m sorry I let you down.”

Lady Ieka glanced around at the people now pretending that they were deaf and blind and Valeterisa’s angry face. Barnethei was standing there, face grave, and Larracel was staring pointedly at Valeterisa while holding her knee under the table. But the Archmage of Izril’s face went flat. Her eyes sparked, and she spoke.

“You should be sorry.”

Montressa flinched with her entire body, her head fell, and her messy red locks draped over her cheeks to hide her face. Larracel slapped the table, and the sound cracked across her inn like an explosion.

Valeterisa Imarris, enough.

The magic of the Haven’s [Innkeeper] echoed around Ieka and made the [Mage Lady]’s hair stand on end.

Larra’s voice was no less loud.

“Don’t take out your feelings on Montressa right now. She made her mistakes—enough!”

Everyone flinched—everyone except one person. Valeterisa kept speaking.

“My magic was flawless. I made you my apprentice to do the things I cannot be bothered to do. And you failed me. Some factors may have been out of your control, but you are not a good apprentice. Archmage Feor had Teura. She was good at her job. Salii the Secretary was a capable assistant. You are not.”

The blood had already drained from Montressa’s face. But now it seemed as if she were shrinking in place. But Valeterisa was casting no spells. Just talking. She pointed at the [Aegiscaster], and Montressa’s hands were shaking.

Larracel looked between Valeterisa and Montressa, who couldn’t break away from Valeterisa’s furious stare. And the Archmage was only speaking faster and louder with each word.

“I feel as though you are wasting my time and only taking my magic. I thought I could trust you. Apologizing to House Sanito is not enough. I wanted this project to succeed, and you—”

This time, Larracel slapped her. It was quick and fast—and she pierced two barriers with one hand to leave a red handprint on Valeterisa’s cheek. The Haven’s magic was a sea in Larracel’s domain, and it pushed at the Archmage of Izril’s magic to breach it. Even unawares—Ieka doubted she could have stabbed her aunt.

The crack of flesh on flesh wasn’t as loud as the thunder of Larracel’s anger. But it left a longer silence. Ieka was frozen at her table as Valeterisa sat there.

The Archmage’s cheek was red and already swelling. Her face was shocked—and Larracel’s was furious. For a second. Then Larracel’s flooded with guilt and sudden worry—and Valeterisa’s went blank.

The look of anger that had turned to shock, then pain and a deep hurt turned cold and impassive. Like…Cognita’s. Larracel reached for her, but Valeterisa recoiled. The last, instinctive motion she made. Then her face drained of emotion like a punctured vase, feeling like water spilling out the crack.

Without a word, Valeterisa rose.


Larracel raised her voice, but Valeterisa did not look at her. She did not gaze at Montressa or at Ieka, who stood up.


Valeterisa’s angry face and her flashing eyes, usually mild and grey-violet—a bookish academic’s eyes turning to distant stars and magical theory—had been alive with anger and embarrassment and regrets. Now?

They went blank again. But not the blank of suppressed anger that had been bubbling up all week. Just—blank.

As if the emotions were a distraction and the mind who held them was too…diffuse to care. Valeterisa’s thoughts spread out, and her voice, one of many thoughts now racing in different directions, spoke.

“I am going. Goodbye. I will settle my tab later, Innkeeper Larracel.”

“Valley, don’t—”


The Archmage floated up into the air. Larracel drew a wand and aimed it up.

“[Dispel Magic]!”

She tried to stop Valeterisa, but the Archmage of Izril waved a hand, and Larracel’s wand stopped mid-glow.

Valeterisa! [Hand of the Spectral Giant]!”

This time, the [Wizard] raised her wand, and the guests gasped. A hand made out of viridian light reached up, grasping towards Valeterisa. It shot upwards—but the Archmage just pointed down as she shot higher.

“[Thresk’s Steel Warspears].”

Eight jagged spears shot down, pinning the hand back against the roof of the Haven. Then—she was out of reach. Larracel’s other two spells missed as Tyrion Veltras lowered his shield and stopped covering Sammial and Hethon.


Larracel kept shouting for minutes more, desperately, but there was no one listening.

Valeterisa flew. Off the Haven as it rolled across the new road passing by the Bloodfields. North, amidst the snow, towards Liscor, angling north further still. She paid no attention to the voices behind her or her niece’s [Message].




Thirty-nine thoughts divided into Valeterisa’s consciousness. She could go up to forty-nine. Thirty-nine…and she stopped thinking about her failed venture in any emotional sense whatsoever.


Thought-Process #3 (Navigation): Fly to Liscor. Portal door to Invrisil. Teleportation to ‘home’ mansion will take 6 casts of [Long Range Teleportation] via spell circles. Adding in flying time and casting time. Budgeting mana supply. ETA…6 hours, 12 minutes, 55 seconds.

Thought-Process #11-17 (Magical Studies): Continue research into arcane theory regarding [Valmira’s Comet]. Fascinating spell alteration potential. I should embark on my main project once more. I have several conclusions. Where is the Wind Runner’s hair?

Thought-Process #8 (Acquisitions): Sever more hair from Ryoka Griffin. Do I have a baldness spell? Buy Faerie Flowers. No. Steal Faerie Flowers. Doombearer fur sample. Steal magical flames from Erin Solstice? Buy?

Thought-Process #37 (Budget): Finances have been greatly depleted. Steal.

Thought-Process #36 (Morality-Consequences): This is all acceptable.

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding): I trusted her. I liked her. Why did it fail? I thought it would be beautiful. Magic should be beautiful, but whenever I try to make it for others, it fails. I wanted to make the Teleportarium anew. It would have helped everyone. Why didn’t they see that? Why did Montressa not see it? Why…didn’t I see it? Why is it so difficult? Why—

Thought-Process #1 (Danger): That Antinium with a bow is aiming at me. [Arcane Barrier].


That was better. Only one of her thirty-nine thoughts was even remotely unsettled. The rest of her blithely cast a barrier in the air as she floated down towards an inn. No emotions. No stress. Just an acknowledgement she was poorer in terms of gold and a refocusing back on what mattered.

Which was magic. Magic never let you down. Your body, your…family, and your alleged friends and apprentice all did.

It was, as Valeterisa was often reminded, a mistake to try and use her magic in anything other than academic, personal settings. She decided she was going to her mansion. Fissival was worthless. Liscor was a failure on all fronts.

She was going home. And she was not taking Montressa. The Archmage almost smiled in relief as her body executed the actions her mind directed it to. Such as trying to pluck hairs from a screaming and biting Gnoll girl as a [Princess] attacked her with a cutting board and being chased out of an inn while stuffing a bunch of rock-hard grey scones into her bag of holding.

This was how things were most efficient.

This was fine.

Emotions were difficult and painful. Valeterisa realized she might have inadvertently missed the opportunity to use the door. Now, the Antinium was shooting arrows at her, warning shots. She sighed. She had to fly to her teleportation circle instead of skipping four transits. How tedious.

If only…Thought-Process #4 (Optimization) was speculating on how she could do things and have done things better. It opined that so many inefficiencies in the failed Teleportarium project would have been best handled by Valeterisa.

Obviously, she would have had to rely on [Mages] to fuel the spell, and in hindsight, the issues with guarding the circles and the Merchant’s Guild meant it would always fail and had been a waste of time.

But someday…she’d construct every spell circle and have familiars or Golems or Elementals guarding them. An automated mana-capture process. No trusting apprentices whose name she couldn’t even remember. No need to rely on fallible people.


Thought-Process #4 (Optimization): Thirteen magical sites at four hours would have still wasted over fifty two of my hours. Let alone creating the network across Izril. Impossible, impossible. I don’t have time to waste. Hence—the project is impossible. 

Thought-Process #39 (Brooding): My apprentice did so much. Maybe I should have checked for her. Compounding errors. Mine. Hers. It’s never easy.

Thought-Process #40 (Realization): Ah. Now I remember. This is why I began my great project to realize a great magic of old. It all ties back to itself. There is never enough of me. I never have enough time.

Thought-Process #40 (Realization): I am unable to perform enough spells, even divided fifty ways. I will die before I even learn how to slow time for myself. I can do nothing for Ieka or anyone else if I must cast every spell one by one by one.

Thought-Process #40 (Realization): I cannot even send a lump of copper a hundred and fifty miles with twenty thousand gold pieces. If I only had the ability to help myself, to automate processes like Earth’s designs. So I tried.

Thought-Process #40 (Realization): I must uncover it. My great life’s project. I am so close…it should be beautiful. I know this now. Another year. Another decade if I must, and I will have it. A key to greater magic. To Wistram’s upper floors and everything else. Just a simple technique from ages past. I wonder if the Death of Magic knows it. Perhaps I should sell my soul to Demons. But all I desire is simply…

Thought-Process #15-31 (Magical Project): Continuing the project. Goal—rediscovery of the spellcasting technique. [Automatic Spellcasting].


Her lips quirked into a vacant smile as Valeterisa flew higher towards her hidden spell circle. Ah—what a beautiful light of ambition. She was up to forty different thought processes. Forty-four…fifty-one.

She was advancing. Divide it up, more and more, and devote as much as she could towards grappling with the intangible. Creating a network, a spell that could automate any spell she wanted. Better than a familiar. More reliable than anything.

They had made Golems out of this technique. It was foundational and forgotten. You could fight a battle with it. Create a great edifice with simple spells if you chained this technique. Grow fields of food. All you needed was magic and a plan.

The wind whipped around her, snow falling from the High Passes and the skies overhead. Valeterisa ignored it as she focused. Her body flew north towards the mansion that enabled her to focus by taking away other distractions. As she flew—only one thought kept repeating.


Thought-Process #39 (‘Feelings’): I’m cold. I liked having an apprentice.




Terrium Archelis Dorishe was a coward after all. He hung his head as his fake body, Demsleth, trudged towards The Wandering Inn.

He had to. He had agreed to meet with Magnolia Reinhart that night, and he could at least keep that promise.

But nothing else. He could not keep the spark of joy and hope in Rafaema’s eyes. The Lightning Dragon had parted ways with him after he had met with Naunce. But in truth—he had long since disappointed her.

Coward. Lazy. Incompetent.

It was an unspoken accusation, but it roared louder all the more because it was unsaid. He saw how she looked at him. He was old—older than any being in this entire world that still drew breath, he suspected.

But he had not forgotten entirely what it meant to be young and to be let down by those you trusted. He had forgotten Ryoka Griffin. Magnolia Reinhart. So much—but not that.

Demsleth was appropriate after all. The glutton, the old storyteller, the traveller who went from place to place indulging only in delights, small things, and yes, he was also a gift-giver and a kindly man. But he relied on nostalgia. His fire was banked.

He was appropriate as a guise for Teriarch because of failure.

Not his wing. Damn the wing. That was a cascading failure in a sea of failures. The [Mercenary]-to-be, the [Slime Master]…

The Revenant, Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer. As Demsleth trudged towards the inn, his real body, the body of the Brass Dragon, was elsewhere. Wearily flying back to his cave in the High Passes. A coward, heavy and unexercised and weak.

He couldn’t do it.




The holes in Tolveilouka’s chest hadn’t closed. The Revenant tore around the inner sanctum in the place that mortals called the ‘Village of the Dead’. The inner city was filled with the Putrid One’s spoils of war. It had been the place where countless undead waited, a force to break the world in half, immortal, empowered by their master’s body.

That traitor [Sword Legend] had slain them all! Countless vassals eliminated—and the rest had gone rogue with the Putrid One’s death.

For their treachery, Tolveilouka had murdered them. But the half-Elf Revenant wished there was but one ancient Crypt Worm or a Lich or—a powerful undead.

It burns. That damn Unicorn’s cleansing horn! Damn him and that forest! If I had a single burning Relic, I would hurl it into the forest and watch it burn.

Unfortunately—his master had never made a habit of stockpiling great weapons of war. He had used them on his enemies, and for that, a Walled City had crumbled to ash. A great achievement. But Tolveilouka wished he had one.

Or a way to heal the wounds in his body. They wouldn’t heal! He had been created to regenerate from any wound, to survive any foe. But the agony as his cells fought to undo the purifying magic was intense.

A screaming half-Elf eventually gave way to a figure sitting cross-legged on a crimson blanket under one of the withered ash-trees of the city. Sipping from a vintage lost to time out of a porcelain saucer as the snow fell. The pain was mitigated not by the alcohol—but by the meditative state he forced himself into. The picturesque moment. He exhaled, his breath misting upwards into the clear night sky, and spoke upwards.

“I have lived nearly two thousand years. Two thousand—for I do not count the eternity I spent by my master’s side. Waiting for a breath of life and a smile is not living. What little elegance I have is surmounted by his grace. I have always been uncouth and rabid, a servant to greatness. But even I will own that the world should turn beautifully. It should pirouette and the seasons glide together. It is an ugly, banal reality that makes existence so tedious. A thousand foes, each one sneering more pitifully than the last, have claimed there is no art in poison, no nuance in death. I am always reminded of that Silver Dragon, Ydergrisel, for he was one of the oldest foes and barked louder than all.”

He paused and took another sip from the clear liquid. The sky was clouded, and the cold did not bother him. His chest burned as it had not since he was alive—a screaming spear of agony that would have left some writhing on the floor. But he refused to twitch.

“—That he is wrong is evident. It is simply another realm my master and I found. How dare anyone else judge what we find worthy? But I saw it then, and I saw it now: it should be beautiful. It should be glorious. It should thrill my bones, even if it is my end, and I should weep at my foe’s skill on the battlefield.”

Lesser undead stood aimlessly in the city below him. The half-Elf sat cross-legged, that curved blade, unsheathed, lying on the blanket in front of him. He did not reach for the handle, but he pointedly looked ahead.

After his long speech, the image of the half-nude, extremely attractive Centaur stamping a hoof and beckoning towards him, bare-chested and trotting left and right in front of zombies aimlessly swiping at him—winked out.

The illusion of the ‘adventurer’ vanished, and a rather embarrassed silence fell over the courtyard below him. Then—the Dragon appeared.

“I know you.”

Tolveilouka’s eyes had been fixed on the spot where he guessed the Dragon would be. He had been off; instead of a roof of one of the shattered buildings, the Dragon had been crouched in the snow, hiding his presence with some skillful illusion.

A Brass Dragon. But as Tolveilouka well knew, Dragons were more than just one thing. You could call him a Fire Dragon and be basically accurate if exceptionally basic. Or you could call him…

“The Dragonlord of Flame. I recall you warning my master to stay away from your domain twice. A great foe we did not need. And once, you saved the ‘Silver Knight’ from being slaughtered after a defeat. I wondered if any of you yet lived. So many lie dead. I thought I sensed someone watching me during my duel with that Unicorn. I thought you would come for me that very night.”

The violet flame escaping from the Dragon’s mouth melted the snow as he spoke. One eye was burning like the shores of a distant island, pale blue waters as to almost become green, lapping against a beautiful beach. The other was the color of the horizon as all faded to blackness. The twisting of magic between dimensions.

What a beautiful foe. Until you noticed how corpulent he was. Tolveilouka drained the last of his drink and tossed the cup aside. Everything was a disappointment. But at least the Dragon seemed to know it.

Unlike other foes, he hadn’t immediately leapt at the illusory bait. For all the Revenant’s arrogance—and he had a full deck of it as well as another deck filled to the brim with his ego—he didn’t flinch when he saw Teriarch.

“I was quite aware your wounds would not heal in a day or week. I confess…I would rather not be here, Servant of the Putrid One. But my companion has given me an opportunity. Strike when your foe lies weakened.”

“Strike them when they sleep. Fine tactics for the great general who shattered Wyrm empire and broke the legion of Truestone upon his claws.”

He flinched at that. Flinched—when he should have embraced his accolades. Tolveilouka grew even more morose. The blanket shifted under him as he leaned his weight upon his right knee. He had his robes on—but the Dragon’s eyes flickered as he noticed the glint of metal.

Tolveilouka had put something on underneath the simple robe. The Dragon bared his teeth.

“I don’t suppose you would swear an oath to forgo your vengeance, to live in peace and carve ten thousand statues of your master as a more fitting legacy?”

The half-Elf laughed.

“I have broken more than ten thousand statues. Don’t mock me. My master is newly dead.”

“One could argue he was slain ten thousand years ago.”

Tolveilouka paused and took a shuddering breath in the cold.

“One could. I will not. So, Dragonlord. Are you going to destroy me or not?

His face began to bulge. Tolveilouka’s voice distorted—for the Dragonlord of Flame, he wouldn’t stay in his fake body which resembled the half-Elf he had been. He rose as his skin burst and rotted, rippled and warped. Rising ten feet, thirty feet tall.

Some called it monstrous, simply ruined flesh and eternal rot bound to a form. But the hand that grasped a blade hiding under the picnic blanket was still nimble, and the armor he had under his robes shifted, altering to even this foreign shape.

The Dragonlord looked up and—flinched. He had been crouched to spring into the air, ready to exhale brilliant flames. But he looked up and quailed.

Yes. This weapon has crushed the skulls of Dragons. And this armor is proof against flame.

A long club of Adamantium spiked with cruel pinpoints hung from Tolveilouka’s grip. It had been made for him—and the weapon began to glow as it sensed its enemy. His armor looked like it had once been made out of wood—and it had. A set of armor grown from a great forest—

Twisted by the Putrid One. It blossomed with fungi and corruption, but it twisted around his body, and it was proof against fire.


Tolveilouka lifted the club with one hand. He smiled—and his lips split and stretched, a smile across a face that curved up and up, beyond the regular geometry of humanoid faces. He spoke through warped teeth and lips cracked with rot—and still, the Unicorn’s horn burned. Tolveilouka touched at a stretched, gaping hole in his being and grimaced.

“A strange foe. I have never met a Unicorn so dangerous or gifted. You know, Dragonlord. They make no weapons to kill Unicorns. Blades of their horns or armor from their hides, yes. But no weapons tailored to slaughter Unicorns. Why? We who were mortals or those who dream of life eternal do not fear Unicorns. Yet as you know.”

He hefted the club, which seemed to reach for Teriarch. Adamantium—but its curved spines were bone. Dragonbone. He smiled wider until it seemed his face might split in two.

“…We make weapons to kill Dragons. I would not have dared to take on a Dragonlord alone even when my master lived. Now he is dead. Are you prepared to face me?”

He looked down from his vantage point at the Dragonlord’s eyes, fixed upon the Relic that had been designed to kill foes like him.

And the Dragonlord?

Teriarch stared up at Tolveilouka, and the spirit that had laid waste to armies—


And fled.

Tolveilouka pointed, and a rain of rot-infused arrows shot down from the skies, but he sat back down, returning to his original form and grimacing as he realized the bottle of wine had spilled over.

Strange times. The few immortals that lived, it seemed, were dangerous beyond what they had any right to be. Or young and new. Or…




“…A coward.”

Magnolia Reinhart sat in a private room of The Wandering Inn and looked at an old, old man. He seemed lesser when he sat with his shoulders hunched, head bowed, like a pathetic lump of flesh.

He could look brilliant—but this was not exactly austere company for this evening. To be fair, The Wandering Inn didn’t match Magnolia Reinhart.

She seldom did this, even for galas and balls and formal events. It was better, in Magnolia’s eyes, to go without makeup or with the barest amount you could get by with.

Expectation. Young men were rarely so fastidious with their looks or they did it poorly, like Violinist Deniusth’s dyed hair. Sometimes you had some adept makeup that made one stand out, but it was a disparity between genders.

And it was taken for granted. Far better to present a simple, honest appearance—or honest as you chose to be—and let your detractors natter. When it mattered, she could dress up.

Her servants had spent an hour and a half on her hair. There was a treatment with Slime Jelly and other conditioners where you—after cleaning down to the roots—soaked the hair to give it an enduring luster. It wasn’t about artificial dyes to make the hair brighter, but rather to strip away anything that kept the true glow from coming out.

You could do much the same with skin. Washing your face with a towel would do most days. Cleaning your pores was advanced, tedious, and even with spells, costly and difficult. Being so clean that even purified water didn’t improve things was something everyone should be at least once a year.

She wasn’t even wearing all-pink. She had a pink rose pinned to a black lady’s hat, which she had worn over a more businesslike dress than Izrilian fashion normally allowed for. Magnolia quite liked the ‘business attire’ of Earth, which was more mobile than your Terandrian gowns. She thought she would make it a trend.

It looked, if you had more sight than just the normal spectrum, like a river running down a black dress. Most people just saw black, but Jelaqua had done a double-take because the Selphid had seen the ‘black’ dress was actually red, but so subtly tinted the colors revealed themselves the longer you were in their proximity. And the lines in colors beyond the mundane looked like rivers running down to the hem of her dress where it met her ankles, cut on either side for mobility.

Demsleth had a coat. It was one of those coats that might have been brown or blue but had faded so many times in a wash and with wear that it was somehow both. He had a knitted sweater on underneath, which was beige, and it had crumbs and stains from eating.

She knew his appearance reflected his mood. And right now he looked beaten. Nevertheless, Ressa, every time she opened the door to let in a server with food, gave Magnolia a sympathetic look.

Yet the [Lady] smiled. It was not a false smile or a fake one. It just was, and it took no effort to rest on her features.

The people who looked disconcerted were Erin Solstice and Lyonette, who were helping hand-cater the weekly meeting she and Demsleth had agreed on. Well, Lyonette was. Erin was just rolling around and giving commentary.

“Um—um—sorry about the fuss, guys. Valeterisa’s flown off, and she only caused a bit of trouble. I have a fondue—well, it’s actually called a ‘ti’hilo’—and it’s pretty spicy. It’s a spicy fondue. No cheese, actually.”

Lyonette wheeled Erin’s chair to face a wall as the [Princess] glanced between Magnolia Reinhart in style and Demsleth in not.

“Apologies, Lady Reinhart, Sir Demsleth. This is meant to be eaten with specialty cutlery, and Chef Imani has given me basic instructions on how to use them.”

“Oh, fascinating! What are these orbs, please?”

“Barley, Lady Reinhart. We have a selection of wines—and to accompany the dipping sauce and main course, some chicken dijon, courtesy of Chef Calescent, and several fine cheeses.”

“…Is that camembert?”

That was the first thing Demsleth had said after calling himself a coward. He stared at the cheese, which Magnolia fancied would taste heavenly in that sauce. A mix of cultures had gone into this course, and Lyonette assured him it was. He reached for the first slice of cheese as Magnolia Reinhart rose to freshen up a moment.




Magnolia Reinhart had risen to inspect the meal with some delight—as well as faint incredulity that The Wandering Inn was capable of something so far beyond burgers and pizza. Which was hurtful but fair.

She found Erin Solstice wheeling her chair around in the side hallway that exited the common room. The other hallway led to the rec room, workout gym, and Antinium prayer room. This hallway was next to the hidden kill-zone traps that bordered the main entrance and contained all the private dining rooms for birthdays and such.

She peered down the hall and saw a Goblin and Antinium pushing a second course to the wall; they had a rolling cart that allowed them to simply unload a course of dishes. Now, what sensible mind had thought of that? Probably a certain [Mathematician] who had reviewed broken and spilled dishes between new workers or the issues of a short Goblin having to place dishes on a taller table.

Erin Solstice, also on wheels, looked tired. She had been dancing, and Magnolia Reinhart thought she looked healthily tired at this time of day. But the [Innkeeper] tipped her hat, and the [Lady] paused at the door to the dining room.

Ressa was giving Ser Lormel the side-eye as the [Knight] bowed to her. But Magnolia and Erin’s conversation was private. The [Witch] tilted up her head to the [Lady].

“Demsleth’s sort of depressed today. Ryoka said he’s been off. Do you…want some company for dinner?”

Magnolia’s lips quirked.

“Are you inviting yourself in, Miss Solstice?”

The [Innkeeper] waved her hands—then decided this wasn’t the time to be silly. She took a breath.

“I meant after. I appear with dessert, maybe. Flaming ice cream. We hit him with some flames and a Minotaur’s Punch. Or…I have a few interesting gardens. I could make him cry.”

She peered at Demsleth, who didn’t seem to be focusing on anything more than the food and his glum mood. Magnolia half-smiled. Erin looked up at her, trying to be earnest and not as…rude as she could be.

“If you need help…”

It was an odd thing to offer the Lady of House Reinhart. Insulting to some…and at any other time, Magnolia might have welcomed it. But here?

Her smile deepened, and she inclined her head as she touched Erin Solstice’s arm. The [Magical Innkeeper] hadn’t really come because she was invested in serving the meal or giving the guests a personal touch.

“I do appreciate the offer. But in this moment, Miss Erin, I believe I have things quite covered. If I fail—I will throw myself on your capabilities. Please, though. You know more of his past than I can name, and I envy you that. I, though…I would like to believe I know him.

The eyes of Izril’s [Lady] shone—and Erin Solstice met them once with the gaze of Earth and her inn. Then she bowed her head and touched a hand to her head. She tipped her hat.

“Enjoy your food. And good luck.”

Then she rolled away, and Magnolia Reinhart sat back down at the table.




They began eating as Erin and Lyonette bowed out. There were no spies—even Ressa stood outside the door, and she would allow no one, not snooping little Gnolls, not Shriekblade, nor Erin Solstice, to eavesdrop.

“I rather feel for that poor girl, Mrsha. She is an imp—but I believe Archmage Valeterisa was trying to extract hairs from her?”

“Did that happen? I must have missed it.”

Demsleth ate with his head low to the table. He had an appetite for five—he was a Dragon—but he looked ashamed. He ate with good manners, but every time he looked at her—

“Forgive me. I should have attired myself better. I can do so—but I have spoiled the mood. I am—”

He searched for words, his mismatched eyes lost in a sea of guilt and regret and patheticness. His eyes always mimicked the Dragon’s true gaze. Magnolia had once asked why, if it was so obvious, he did that.

His reply had been that eyes were windows to the soul, and even in his many guises—he should be honest in that.

Magnolia interrupted the Dragon’s lost expression and uncertain words lightly.

“I have seen you dress up in a pure white robe like some pretentious [Monk], oh great and stylistically inhibited Dragonlord of Flame. And you had the gall to claim it was fashionable because you wore it. As for your conduct—I once caught you licking a serving tray after we had eaten the turkey from it. A pig that wears clothing is still a pig if you have ever seen it eating from the trough.”

What a shot. Ressa, standing outside the door, coughed into her sleeve. She debated letting the curious little Drake, witch, and Mrsha creep over to listen. It was probably a good lesson in something.

Teriarch turned bright red as Magnolia smiled at him. She was still as elegant as ever—but her words and directness did not befit the attire.

But it was in line with the last three meetings they’d had.




The Dragon was confused. The [Lady] haunted him. Not in some romantic sense or even with guilt.

He was guilty that he had known this woman and forgotten it all. He was guilty that he had slunk away from the Revenant when Taletevirion had placed his life on the line.

He was ashamed that he had not inspired Rafaema or any of the mortals he had met.

He felt like a fool, a failure, an idiot, and unworthy of the charge placed against him. He…could not understand Naunce. When given the chance of a lifetime, how could you throw it away?

The terror of dying. That was his answer, and he was ashamed because he had no grounds to lecture her at all.

But he was confused by Magnolia Reinhart. Because she was not like how Rafaema treated him.

The Lightning Dragon looked at Teriarch like a legend who constantly disappointed her expectations. Pain.

Ryoka Griffin hovered in uncertainty, begging for stories and guidance and—help. A girl on a quest that neither she nor he could do alone, that they were not ready for. A young woman fighting as he had seen so many brave girls struggle against adversity. Agony.

Magnolia Reinhart called him fat. And old. And she had, apparently, a hundred and one stories, each involving him embarrassing himself in front of her.


“Surely there is one memory you have of our interactions—over the thirty years since you were sixteen—that revolves around me in some good light, Lady Reinhart?”

He muttered, beginning to dig into the sauce with a good appetite. All the spellcasting—he dipped the barley into the fiery sauce with these odd tongs made of wood. Culture from Chef Imani’s world, no doubt, and far different from what Erin Solstice knew.

Magnolia laughed softly.

“I’m afraid I can’t recall a single time.”

“What about in my august home in front of my true being and grandeur?”

He snapped somewhat peevishly. Magnolia tapped a finger to her lips.

“As I recall, you had an infestation of Face-Eater Moths in your food supply. Have you rooted them out?”

He paused—and the Dragon, who had slumped into his cave, suddenly raised his head in alarm and opened his preserved goods and began to rifle through his inventory. Magnolia Reinhart grimaced as she went on.

“I recall this because you were bragging about choice cuts of meat and had to show me some exotic cow that you had a cut of—you teleported a slice to me, and I had the most wonderful grub sitting on my plate. I believe I didn’t eat a steak for eight years after that.”

She had to be lying. But the truth spell he whispered inaudibly provoked nothing but the truth. Maybe she was a [Lady] who could fudge a truth spell—

Magnolia Reinhart raised her voice, sounding more amused. Nanette, Visma, and Mrsha were putting a cup to the door and listening—both Teriarch and Magnolia knew they were there.

“That’s another habit you have when you think you’re losing. You instantly begin to suspect your opponent of cheating. I cannot but play cards with you and win two hands before the truth spells appear. ‘Cheating is an art’ is your excuse, but there’s nothing artful about hovering a mirror behind Ressa to see her hand.”

Giggling and a ‘shush’ came from behind the door, and Demsleth-Teriarch turned redder. And still, he was confused.

Why was she doing this to him? Constantly tearing him down. Was he not torn down enough? Perhaps…and here he became gloomy.

Perhaps she was angry and this was her way of taking it out on him. He didn’t know her personality. He didn’t know her.

Eldavin did. Suddenly, the Dragon’s hunger abated, and he lowered the tongs and put his hands in his lap.

“It is amusing…in a pitiable way…that you mention my follies, Magnolia Reinhart. A foe of mine pointed out my penchant for the dishonorable blow not an hour past. I suppose the previous me would have called it ‘intelligent combat’. But it just reminds me that I, as you see me, am a coward. I am sorry I have not lived up to your expectations.”

To all of theirs. Magnolia Reinhart peered at Demsleth.

“—I fear you have still not understood my position, Demsleth. And you do fly around enough to make it hard to keep up with you. Have you let down poor Rafaema again?”

Again. She said it pointedly, but she wasn’t wrong. Part of him wanted to growl. But he just exhaled.

“I made a fool of myself trying to seek out those touched by ghosts.”


“I was barely able to keep ahead of Rafaema physically. I twisted my, er, leg.”

“You are significantly out of shape. She’s in her prime. I can only imagine she was humoring you to begin with. At least you didn’t break your leg.”

He paused a second and tried not to glare. It was all true. He deserved this.

“…And I proved myself a coward. I—I did not fight when I could have. Because I thought I would lose, you see? He had a weapon made to kill me. I cannot take them lightly. Even in my prime I would risk a mortal wound. And I am not…in my prime.”

That was why he hadn’t stepped in with Taletevirion’s duel. He had meant what he said to Rafaema: it was harder to beat Tolveilouka especially when not using his real body. He lacked coordination, and even Eldavin, his other half, was weaker than Teriarch in Dragon form.

But the real truth was that he had been afraid. Taletevirion was one of the world’s greatest duelists and seasoned by war. He had never lost his edge, despite his philanderous ways. In that moment…perhaps even as Unicorn and Dragon, Taletevirion was far more dangerous and far more ready for a war. The same with Rhisveri—for all the arrogant Wyrm had been unskilled in combat against an immortal of his caliber, he had been in fighting trim and unexpectedly good at magic.

Teriarch was not. He could barely fly around, his battle senses had dulled…he looked up, and Magnolia Reinhart gave him a blank look.

“Do…do you mean to say you thought you were in shape? This entire time? Demsleth, please. I have known you to get winded merely breathing.

She meant breathing fire. And it was true that it was a tiring thing for Dragons…but she knew very well that he of all people should not need to gulp air after basic Dragonbreath.

The Dragon was getting angrier and angrier. He felt like she was putting needles in his hide like the Stitch Witch—who was apparently still knocking about causing trouble. His voice rose in a growl that shook the table and dishes and made Mrsha’s earwax vibrate as she pressed her ear to the door.

“I am—trying to tell you how pitiful I am. How wretched, how cowardly—I ran from a battle I knew I had every advantage in!”

Magnolia lifted a bit of barley dripping with sauce that tasted like tangy fire on the tongue.

“Excellent cooking. I wish I had given Imani a chance, but the dear girl was inconsolable for months. Rightly so. I had [Healers] looking after her until she stopped screaming at the sight of a bug. Demsleth, pitiable? Cowardly? Out of shape? What is new, pray?

That was enough. He leapt to his feet, crimson with shame and anger. The Dragon pointed a shaking finger at Magnolia. And it did shake because—

“I do not understand it. Ryoka Griffin I understand I had a burgeoning relationship with. Rafaema? One she has every right to ask. But you? You claimed to me that we were great acquaintances for three decades! Yet you needle me, you belittle me—I was dead! I was dead, and at last I could rest until my entire people put a charge on me as heavy as the High Passes! If you know anything about me—if I ever revealed the secrets of my nature and past to you, surely you know what weighs on me. Have you no sympathy, woman?”




Ressa, listening by the door, nearly spat flames herself as she took a gulp of water.

“Get that salamander, Magnolia.”

She hissed, and Visma nodded energetically.




Magnolia Reinhart didn’t move, but she did flick off some sauce that had gotten onto her wrist as Demsleth nearly overturned the table. She looked at Demsleth, and all the wrath of the Dragonlord of Flame was upon him. Even in his false, Human body, he snarled with the flames that had melted Chandrar to glass—

And it bounced off her aura. The sauce in the fondue pot began bubbling, but the air on Magnolia’s side of the table was cool, warmed by two fireplaces in Erin’s inn. She raised a brow.

“I cannot count how many tantrums I have seen the Lord of Flame throw. But you humored a girl who would scream at you, so I suppose I have to weather the same in your senility. Sit down, Demsleth. Or will you ruin this fine meal?”

He sat down. He was so red-faced that he hung his head. He was going to go back to his cave and never come out. But Magnolia Reinhart didn’t give him any room to breathe. Like Captain Todi kicking a man in the gut when he was already on the floor, she kept going.

“I feel bad for Rafaema. And Ryoka…”

She pursed her lips.

“No, not Ryoka. For young Rafaema, I do feel a great degree of sympathy. I feel sorry for her, because she will learn what I learned as a young woman of sixteen when, quite by chance, I happened to meet a surly, cantankerous old man living in a literal cave. But you know, painful as it is, Rafaema must learn the same lesson I did. Which is that you are even more pitiful than you are claiming to be right now.”

He was already dead. Stop! The young audience listening at the door could actually see the old man through the crack sitting there, staring ahead with a face as pale as ash in ruddy cheeks. Magnolia was lecturing him as she took a slice of the chicken and dipped it in the sauce. He whispered.

“Why did you even wait for me, then? You came all the way from Oteslia—if you knew how wretched I was, you should have been glad I was dead—”

She splashed half her winecup at him and drank the other half. He blinked as the liquid hit him in the face. He inhaled to rage at her—and a finger of her will made manifest, her aura, pressed him into his chair.

Pink ire. Enough will to become a physical thing. Her eyes flashed, and he quailed as she raised her voice. It was direly amused, pained, and she was lecturing him, now. With memories.

“Oh, shut up. Demsleth, for a man who once danced Terandria’s Hundred Kingdoms on his thumb without swinging a single sword, you can be more obtuse than a rock when it comes to self-pity. You are everything I expected. In fact, I don’t think you’ve sunk to rock bottom. Rock bottom is falling for Wuvren’s charms and trying to posture all night by one-upping her suitors. She levelled four times that night, she told me. We didn’t speak for two years after that. If I can survive that embarrassment, I can survive anything.”

How low could he go? He wanted to put his head in his hands and vanish. And still—and still—

She haunted him. Magnolia Reinhart. This—this woman. He did not know her as a girl. He wanted to weep because Eldavin had stolen those memories, and if he only could kill his other self to reclaim what he was missing, he would.

Yet she haunted him, because when he peeked up and saw her green eyes dancing there like the Vale Forest blowing in the winds of summer, he saw no contempt. Instead, he finally placed what he saw there.

Laughter. She was laughing, amused, and yes, a bit sad. She was not filled with that—that loss and painful let down of expectations he had seen in Rafaema’s eyes or the hopeful uncertainty that burned in Ryoka’s, of a girl looking for a hero.

Magnolia Reinhart saw him. And her eyes surpassed a Dragon’s in that moment because they saw true. And they had seen it from the start.

Something changed. Just like he had once learned, long ago, to see the truth hidden in things, a young woman staring out of a Drake’s face, the fae in Winter Sprites, the nugget of truth in grand lies and the shape of the world—everything about his strange interactions with Magnolia Reinhart changed.

Consider…consider it another way. All her anecdotes about his embarrassing moments. He had thought it was some kind of powerplay or way to establish familiarity. And it was the latter. But—instead of a way to just put him down, perhaps she was trying to tell him something too.

Which was that she knew him. To be clear, she did not just ‘know him’ like Rafaema who had heard the tales and dug up stories of the Dragonlord of Flame.

She knew Teriarch. She knew Demsleth. She knew his lowest, most disgraceful—and realistically, lazy—sides. She knew the Dragon, who, as she pointed out, had sometimes slept for years at a time and woken up only to ask her what year it was or begrudgingly fix her magical carriage.

This was the Dragon that Magnolia Reinhart knew, and so even now, at his lowest—she just gave him a familiarly exasperated look. Insulted him to his face, splashed wine on him—but she did not recoil or look disappointed.

Expectation. Slowly, Teriarch’s head rose. Then, at last, he gazed upon Magnolia Reinhart and saw it.

She had known him over thirty years. Thirty-one years exactly. He did not know the scope of it, but if she were like that Harpy girl he had once met crying while lost, the brave warrior who defied Dragons with naught but a dagger on Chandrar’s sands, or any other—

His heart hurt. He wanted to know who the girl had been. For this woman knew him—and knew him too well. Finally, he looked at Magnolia Reinhart an