5.11 E

“What a pathetic little province. Aunt, are you sure an [Emperor] lives here of all places?”

Lord Rael of Veniford twisted in his saddle to speak to the older lady riding next to him. He stared down the dirt road, at the shabby signpost at the crossroads and the distant houses in the distance. He could see small shapes working as the evening light turned the world orange. Peasants building more houses, by the looks of it. He wrinkled his nose in distaste.

The woman riding next to him gave Rael a sharp look. Like him, she was dressed in fine riding clothes, attired as befit her station. Her dress was impeccable but it stung Lord Rael’s pride that it was the same dress she’d owned a year ago. His family, the Venifords, could not afford to dress in the latest fashions so they repaired their clothing rather than replace them at year’s end. Rael was acutely aware of the stitching down the left side of his pant leg—practically unnoticeable, unless you cared for good cloth.

And it was presumable that everyone in the small procession cared about such matters. They were all the nobility of Izril. The Human nobility, that was. Rael wouldn’t have ridden with a Drake—if they did know how to ride at all—for any amount of money. He was a [Lord], an owner of a large province of land bordering Invrisil. Unfortunately, said land was not nearly as profitable as, say, Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s holdings and their family had fallen on harder times since his birth.

If the Venifords had one treasure, it was their matriarch and Rael’s aunt, Lady Bevia Veniford. She was an old warhammer of a woman in Rael’s opinion. She’d survived two husbands and both Antinium Wars and she was a high-level [Lady] adept at social graces. Her ties had brought income to Veniford in the form of trade and so on, but it made Rael angry thinking of how his aunt lowered herself to make deals with [Merchants].

He had been raised to be proud of his class by his father, Lord Willam Veniford until his demise during a hunting session at the horn of an angry Corusdeer. It was just another litany in the list of Veniford’s woes. And this—being forced to attend a social gathering in the middle of nowhere at Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s request was just another injustice Rael intended to correct when he assumed control of the family. Unfortunately, his indignation did not seem to impress his aunt. She leaned over and quietly spoke in a cutting tone.

“You will keep your remarks to yourself, Rael. We are in the lands of Emperor Laken and while we are here you will behave properly, or I will put you over my saddle and spank you myself.”

Rael jerked and his cheeks flamed. His head swiveled quickly, but none of the other riders were close enough to have heard. He glared at his aunt.

“This is beneath us! We are nobility—why is there no escort? And look at that village! It can’t hold more than a thousand peasants!”

“It can. Riverfarm has expanded of late. And they are putting up new houses quite quickly. I had heard they were in the middle of rebuilding not a week ago, with barely more than half a dozen homes standing. There must be four times as many houses. Quite impressive of this young [Emperor].”

Lady Bevia straightened in her saddle, giving the town an appraising look. Rael fumed, trying to see what she did in this rundown countryside. Bevia shook her head slightly as she regarded her nephew with disapproval.

“You have too much of your father in you, Rael. Look beyond appearances. Lady Reinhart herself has taken the time to organize this gathering—at a time when the Goblin Lord is marching through her lands! This [Emperor] is the first of his kind to appear on Izril in over a thousand years.”

“He might not be a true [Emperor]. Why would one appear here?

Rael muttered sulkily as he brushed at his hair. It was wet, conditioned with an [Alchemist]’s tonic he’d bought half-price while in Invrisil a month ago. It felt too slick—perhaps the mixture was going bad? He cursed to himself as he impatiently adjusted his posture on his mare. He should have been riding a stallion at the head of this band of nobles!

Laughter came from the fore of their procession. Rael scowled at the young [Lords] and [Ladies] pressing their mounts ahead. Not everyone invited to the gathering was as old and tiresome as his aunt. A number of young nobles had come with their families. Rael itched to join them, but he was worried about his hair. And the stitches on his pant leg. He tried to tell himself that no one would care.

Bevia eyed Rael as she drew her mount around a fresh pile of horse dung dropped by a rider in front. She cast her eyes back to the wagons filled with foods following their group at a good pace.

“I do not believe Magnolia Reinhart would make mistakes. Nor do I believe Lady Rie Valerund would pledge her loyalty to a charlatan. This Laken Godart is an [Emperor], I have no doubts. So if he appears before us in rags you will bow and address him with respect.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Rael grumbled. Bevia sighed through her nose.

“Rael, you are beginning to test my patience. I brought you on this outing because Lady Magnolia requested I bring you, and I agreed against my better judgment.”

“Lady Magnolia asked for me specifically?”

Rael’s heart jumped in his chest. Bevia shook her head.

“She had a list. Do not let it get to your head. Now, if you wish to ride with the younger men and women, do not let me stop you. But remember—respect. Hold your tongue, Rael.”

She raised a finger. Rael nodded absently. Magnolia Reinhart knew his name! He kicked his mare forwards eagerly, riding past the other older nobles.

“Rael! It’s about time! What, were you going to hang back with your aunt until we got to the village?”

A young man called out as Rael trotted his mount forwards. Lord Andres of Lelk turned his stallion and rode back as Rael slowed. A group of six young nobles turned to him and Rael recognized all of them. Three were young men and three young women. They were all local nobles, none from exceptionally large houses. Of the six, Lord Andres probably had the wealthiest lands although Lady Cimeca of House Tellis probably had more holdings.

Rael would have been placed at the lower rung in terms of both wealth and size of his lands, right above Lord Pattin of Vaunt. Rael was glad to see him and smiled arrogantly at Pattin. The young [Lordling] was heir to a small city and a few villages that produced cheese and little else.

“I decided to keep my aunt company. She’s getting on in years and I didn’t want to abandon her until I was certain she could do without me, Andres. Cimeca, you look well.”

Andres laughed as the young woman with red hair turned her head to look back at him. Rael’s heart skipped a beat as Cimeca politely smiled his way. He urged his mare forwards and he was soon part of the group. The young nobles laughed as their older counterparts hung back, talking quietly. Soon Rael was repeating his comments about the landscape to the laughing crowd, heedless of his aunt’s warnings.

“Aye, it’s a poor province. Riverfarm and the surrounding area earn a pittance compared to lands managed by proper [Lords]. I heard all of this was once Valerund land until the family lost all of its members during the Second Antinium War.”

Andres nodded around the countryside, shaking his head at evidence of unused cropland long abandoned. Rael nodded, but Lord Pattin cut in.

“First Antinium War, actually, Andres.”

“What? The Antinium didn’t invade our lands during the First Antinium War! Pattin, are you sure?”

Haviet Meliope turned her head, her emerald earrings sparkling as she looked at Pattin. She was dressed well, although she was no beauty in Rael’s eyes. Still, her clothing was a far cry from Pattin’s worn riding clothes and sad mare. Pattin nodded, undeterred by her skepticism and his poor fortunes. He twisted a ring on his finger as he talked absently.

“We were never invaded, it’s true, but Lord Quail Valerund was one of the first to pledge his forces to Lady Magnolia when she led our armies to fight the Antinium at Liscor. He perished in the battle—one of the only nobles who fell. He was Lady Rie’s grandfather and a powerful [Lord]—he was succeeded by his daughter and her husband of course, but the loss of such a high-level [Lord] hurt the family and they never quite recovered. Then of course the Second Antinium War happened and they lost control of almost all the rest of their lands along with their garrisons. That was why Riverfarm and the surrounding areas are so poor—”

“Argh, enough talk of history!”

Rael burst out, annoyed by Pattin’s lecturing tone. He spurred his mare and his horse trotted forwards a few steps as Rael raised his voice.

“No one cares why this place is so poor, Pattin. But why an [Emperor] of all people would deign to live here is beyond me. I wouldn’t let a Drake [Lord] live here—if they’d ever come out of hiding behind their Walled Cities, that is!”

He smirked as one of the young women laughed and Andres chuckled. However, Haviet smiled nastily at Rael. She and he had hated each other ever since he’d made an ill-advised comment about her appearance to a few of his male friends a year back. She’d heard and never forgiven him for it.

“I wouldn’t speak so loudly, Rael. If your aunt Bevia hears of it she’ll put you over the saddle right here and now.”

Rael turned beet red as Andres, Pattin, and Oswalt howled with laughter. The other ladies laughed too. He glared at her.

“How did—”

“Haviet just learned the [Long Ear] Skill, Rael. Haven’t you heard?”

Andres grinned as the others kept chuckling. Haviet smiled at Rael and he glared at her. He was a low-level [Lord], as was she and the rest of their company. He didn’t know their exact levels, but they couldn’t be much higher than he was, a Level 13 [Lord] and Level 4 [Warrior]. He glared at Haviet and came up with the most cutting response he could.

“[Long Ears], eh? Well, it can’t hurt Haviet’s looks even if she started looking like a half-Elf. Who knows? It might even be an improvement!”

His words made Haviet flush beet red and provoked another laugh from Oswalt and an unwilling one from Andres. Pattin didn’t laugh though, giving Rael a troubled glance. Rael cared not one whit for his opinion. Cimeca gave him a frosty look, however, which wasn’t part of his plan.

“I think any Skill is to be commended, Lord Rael. Besides which, Emperor Laken Godart has invited us into his domain and that merits a certain degree of respect from all of us.”

She swept her gaze past Andres and Oswalt who immediately stopped laughing and cleared their throats awkwardly. Rael turned his head away, face flushed with anger and shame. After a pause in which all seven nobles trotted forwards, it was Oswalt who spoke.

“I say, there are a number of nobles I don’t quite recognize. I know all of our families, but who’s the woman riding with that man in the doublet with the rapier behind us? Is he her bodyguard or is she single?”

He nodded covertly and everyone turned in their saddle to look. Ellia Cantras, third daughter of the Cantras family, known for their beekeeping, peach orchards, and small population of [Mages], glared at Oswalt. She and he had been in an unofficial relationship for two years until it came out that Oswalt had been cheating on her with local peasant girls and visiting brothels.

“That’s Lady Bethal Walchaís, Oswalt. And if you have half a brain you’ll keep away from her if you don’t want her husband to run you through. Sir Thomast is a [Chevalier] and ten times better with a rapier than anyone here.”

All the young men turned to stare at Sir Thomast. Andres whistled.

“That’s him? I thought he’d be bigger! And that’s Lady Bethal? I heard she’s a firebrand.”

“In bed or out of it?”

Haviet and Ellia rolled their eyes at Oswalt’s joke. Cimeca frowned.

“Don’t offend her, whatever you do, Oswalt. And don’t touch her without her consent.”

“Why?”

“Because you could lose your hand.”

What?

Rael stared at Cimeca. She hesitated and lowered her voice. The other nobles moved their horses closer to hear.

“She’s got a Skill that makes anyone who raises a hand against her suffer. She learned it during the Second Antinium War. The rumor is that she provoked Lord Elmha at a ball six years ago and he slapped her. Apparently he tore half the flesh off his hand and that was before Lady Bethal demanded he duel her husband for the insult. Lord Elmha took three cuts to his right shoulder and apparently hasn’t been able to move his arm or hand since.”

Andres shuddered and Rael found himself glancing backward in alarm. That was Lady Bethal? He knew she was a very influential [Lady] with a powerful estate, but that? Lady Bethal was laughing as she turned in her saddle to talk to Bevia who’d ridden up behind them.

“You’re quite lucky, Rael.”

Pattin was the first to break the thoughtful silence. Rael jumped and stared at him.

“How?”

The impoverished young lord gestured to his aunt.

“Lady Bevia is quite good at making deals. She’s made connections with everyone in this party except Lady Bethal and if anyone might negotiate a favorable deal with this emperor, it’s her. I don’t expect Vaunt to come away with much, but if Laken Godart is offering anything I’m sure Lady Bevia will secure a piece of it.”

Andres sighed.

“If he has anything to offer. I still don’t know why Magnolia Reinhart herself went to the trouble of arranging the meeting. I’m just here for the outing, but I’ll be damned if I know why my father sent both me and my elder sister all the way here at her request. Why would she want to help him?”

Oswalt snorted.

“Why not? He’s an [Emperor] and she’s the highest-level [Lady] in the realm.”

“That’s not a good reason! She’s hardly pledged herself to him. And this isn’t exactly helpful—it could be a ploy to embarrass him, my mother says.”

Haviet leaned forwards. Andres rolled his eyes.

“With a social gathering?”

“If his village really is poor—”

“I thought he owned the lands around here? Anyone know if he owns the local cities?”

“I don’t know much. Only that he calls himself ruler of the Unseen Empire.”

“Unseen?”

“He’s blind.

“What?”

Rael turned to stare at Haviet. She nodded.

“Hadn’t you heard? He’s blind but apparently he sees everything. Somehow. Don’t ask me, but apparently his army has slain every Goblin, [Bandit], and monster in the area for the last few months! The roads are completely safe, which is why my father wants a trade deal with him.”

Andres leaned forwards conspiratorially.

“I also hear he commands beasts. He’s got a half-Giant for a bodyguard and a [Witch] for a [General].”

“No!”

“Yes, and—get this—he’s also able to protect his people from harm. He can magically sense when they’re in danger.”

“That has to be false. Unless there’s really a Skill like that?”

“I’m just reporting on what’s said! But apparently there’s a rumor that when he first appeared, he went to Invrisil and bought supplies for his village with gems and gold! People say he’s an exile from Chandrar—”

“I heard it was Terandria!”

“Terandria? Are you mad? They don’t have [Emperors] there. Unless he’s of some old lineage.”

“Hey, what’s that? Someone’s coming this way!”

The noisy gossip broke off as Lady Ellia pointed. Rael looked ahead and saw a group of mounted warriors galloping towards them. He stared in fascination as they slowed and then jerked in surprise as the mounted [Guards] and [Warriors] escorting the party moved forwards, protectively encircling the young nobles. Rael gripped at his new longsword, irritated. He wanted to declare that he could handle himself, but he never got the chance.

Cimeca stared as the lead rider approached the group. The head of the [Guards] rode forwards to meet them and they conversed. The rider nodded and then kicked his mount forwards. Rael stared at him in appreciation. He was wearing heavy mail armor and his horse was covered in scale barding. He looked like a seasoned veteran and the [Guard Captain] was clearly wary of him.

“My Lord and Ladies of Izril, I am Beniar, a [Cataphract] and [Captain] in service to His Majesty, Laken Godart. I have been tasked with escorting you safely through his lands. I bear you my liege’s compliments and his gratitude for your long journey.”

Beniar bowed in his saddle to the older nobles and then flashed the young women a smile that made Haviet and Ellia blush and fan at their faces. Rael saw Cimeca’s cheeks were slightly red as well and scowled at Beniar. There was a pause as the nobles conferred, then Bevia raised her voice.

“Sir Beniar, we are grateful for your escort. We eagerly await meeting his majesty soon. Tell me, are we close to Riverfarm?”

“Indeed, my lady. We are less than an hour’s ride away.”

Beniar bowed again and the procession, heartened by the news, began moving again. Beniar and his escort fell in line with the nobles and their guards. Soon he was the center of attention as nobles—not just the young women—surrounded him. Rael had to grudgingly admit that Beniar was a good emissary. Not only was he a former Silver-rank adventurer, but he was a [Cataphract], a class unknown to everyone in the group. Rael tried not to be impressed as Beniar described fighting for Laken Godart against Hobgoblins.

“You said the village is just up ahead? Can we ride to it safely? I’d bet my mount could give yours a run for its money with or without armor!”

Andres looked eager to race his horse against Beniar. The former adventurer only smiled politely.

“It is up ahead. I’m afraid I must stay with the procession, but if you wish to go ahead, feel free. My Emperor has assured me the roads are clear.”

“And does that mean they are?”

Rael challenged Beniar and was infuriated when the other young man chuckled in reply.

“If Emperor Laken says the roads are safe, then they undoubtedly are, Lord Rael. Nothing moves or enters his domain without his knowledge.”

There was an impressed pause as everyone considered Beniar’s words. Rael considered scoffing, but he didn’t quite dare. Andres laughed at last.

“Good enough for me! Anyone coming? Pattin? Andres? Cimeca?”

“I’ll go.”

“And I!”

The young nobles hurriedly chimed in, all save for Emile and Haviet who were asking Beniar about a scar on his cheek. The five nobles raced ahead, laughing, and Rael spurred his mare hard, trying to catch Andres’ stallion. He lost, much to his disgust. Though he managed to make his mare beat Oswalt, he was outdone by Andres, Cimeca, and to his absolute disgust, Pattin. The poor lord might have had an old horse, but she was quick and he rode flawlessly in the saddle, nearly catching Andres as they raced into the village.

“Good sport!”

Oswalt laughed, not at all put out by his loss. Rael stared dismissively around the village. Now that he was up close he could see the houses under construction and the milling people at work. It looked just as pathetic as he’d thought! Still, he held his tongue and turned his panting mount as he heard a woman’s voice calling out.

“Lord Andres, Lady Cimeca, Lord Pattin, welcome to Riverfarm!”

A [Lady] was standing in the center of the street, dressed as if she were ready to go to a ball. The laughing young nobles straightened and tried to wipe sweat off their foreheads as Lady Rie Valerund swept forwards. She was a beautiful woman and Rael couldn’t keep his eyes off her neckline. That was, until he saw the giant bear walking down the street.

Mossbear!

Pattin cried out in alarm and Andres and Oswalt paled. Rael fumbled for his sword but before anyone could act, they realized the bear had a saddle. And someone was riding it.

“Please do not be alarmed. My young lord and ladies of Izril, may I present His Majesty, Emperor Laken Godart.”

Lady Rie bowed slightly as the bear stepped forwards. Rael gaped. There was a young man riding the bear! He was only a few years older than Rael, and his eyes were closed. He turned his head to the nobles as their horses shied away, smiling.

“Good evening. I am Laken Godart, Emperor of Riverfarm. I thank you for coming all this way. Please, be at ease. Bismarck is not dangerous.”

He gently patted the green bear’s head and it made a whuffing sound. Rael’s heart raced. He stared at the [Emperor] as the young man turned his head unerringly to look straight at him. His eyes were closed, but somehow he knew where Rael was!

“Lady Rie, will you introduce me?”

“Of course. This is Rael Veniford. His lands are a good bit southeast of Invrisil, and he is the sole male heir of his family. Lord Rael, may I presume Lady Bevia is riding with you?”

“Aunt? Ah, yes—she’s on her way here. Greetings, your majesty.”

Fumbling, Rael bowed in his saddle and saw the [Emperor] nod in return. He felt off-guard and unsure what to do but was relieved to see his companions were little better off. Lady Rie smiled.

“You are no doubt exhausted from the trip. Please, allow our [Handlers] to care for your mounts. We have refreshments ready and I am sure you would enjoy touring Riverfarm on foot while we wait for the rest of the nobles to arrive.”

She whisked the young nobles away as Laken Godart remained seated on his bear, patiently awaiting the arrival of the other nobles. Soon, Rael found himself greeting Laken Godart all over again as the other nobles arrived. He was relieved to see they were equally dumbfounded to be greeted by the [Emperor] riding a bear, but they concealed their surprise well. His aunt only blinked once before gracefully bowing in her saddle.

“Emperor Laken, I am Lady Bevia Veniford. I am delighted to make your acquaintance. You do live up to the rumors, your majesty.”

“Oh? There are rumors about me?”

Laken Godart smiled as if he was unaware of the speculation and gossip that had followed his every move for the last two months. Lady Bevia smiled.

“Merely a handful, your majesty. And please, allow me to be the first to apologize for intruding on you at this busy time. I understand Riverfarm is undergoing extensive construction and Lady Reinhart’s gathering was something of a surprise.”

“Ah, well, I am told Lady Magnolia Reinhart enjoys such surprises. And it would hardly do for an [Emperor] to refuse an audience, would it not? I am delighted by your presence, Lady Bevia. I only trust that my hospitality shall not disappoint.”

“I cannot imagine that it would.”

Bevia nudged Rael and he bowed, stammering another greeting. They withdrew as another noble drew forwards to greet the Emperor. As they moved away, Bevia whispered.

“Unexpected.”

“What is?”

Rael looked at her uncertainly. His aunt blinked and he realized the comment must not have been aimed at him.

“That was a true [Emperor], Rael. He has poise—and a sense for drama! Greeting us on a bear of all things. And he called this an audience? Lady Magnolia was right to draw attention to him.”

“Why?”

Bevia squinted at Rael as if to tell whether he was trying to be deliberately obtuse.

“Because it will benefit her to be the one to introduce Emperor Laken to Izril’s high society, of course! And because he is a true [Emperor]. Leaving him alone would be dangerous and risky. Acknowledging him is a safe maneuver.”

“But she hasn’t come herself. Isn’t that a slight?”

“She sent Lady Bethal, a close friend, and her maid.”

Bevia pointed back to where a maid was standing politely on the ground. She was attracting glances from the local peasants, who’d probably never seen anyone wearing a maid’s uniform before. Rael shook his head.

“A maid?”

“Her spy. Don’t try and woo her. Keep up, and try not to fall over yourself bowing next time!”

Soon all the nobles were dismounted and led to a small clearing out in the open. Rael wrinkled his nose at the outdoor setting, but he had to admit that the banquet was certainly impressive. Each noble had brought a variety of foods, and as such the tables were heaped with delights. Bevia nodded appreciatively.

“And without spending a copper coin he has us host ourselves. Clever.”

Rael stared at the [Emperor] as he slowly walked forwards to the head of the table. He needed no guide despite walking without opening his eyes. He was flanked by a giant half-Troll…female in a suit and Lady Rie on his other side. Rael wrinkled his nose as he eyed the half-Troll.

“Clever or not, he’s made us come all the way here. And he only controls this village, Aunt. This is the least he should do for nobles of Izril.”

He’d gotten over his shock of meeting Laken Godart on the bear and was determined to treat this outsider with more scorn than the other nobles fawning over him. Bevia gave him an irritated glance, and Rael saw Cimeca look over. He smiled to himself as he realized the other nobles around him were giving him speculative looks. Cimeca leaned over, keeping her voice low.

“You’re not impressed, Rael?”

“What, by the bear? That was a trick. What else has this [Emperor] got besides a monster for a pet? We are still [Lords] and [Ladies] when all is said and done. We come from powerful houses—this [Emperor] is wise to greet us as equals. He must win our respect.”

Rael saw a few other nobles nodding in agreement, older men and women. He puffed up with pride as Bevia stared at him.

“Be quiet.”

She nodded to Laken Godart. The young man waited for silence and began to speak.

“[Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, I greet you. I am Laken Godart.”

Rael sensed a stir among the crowd. He nodded to himself. The [Emperor] wasn’t using his title. He was being humble. He shot his aunt a triumphant look, but her focus was on him. Laken Godart continued.

“I am aware that you are here at Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s request. I was unaware of this gathering until she arranged it in my honor, and I am grateful for her aid in doing so. For your enjoyment, my people have created a small setting in which we may mingle and talk. I look forwards to meeting each one of you in person. But before that—”

He paused for a second and Rael frowned. He was already hungry. What did he want, an official greeting? Entertainment?

“—But before that, I believe there are a few more guests I have yet to invite.”

There was murmuring. Rael frowned. Someone else was coming to the gathering? Who? It had better not be the staring peasants. He leaned over.

“Aunt, who is he talking about?”

Quiet!

“I greet the nobility of this land before me. I offer them the warmth of my hearths and the bounty of my lands. I would be remiss if I did not extend the same invitation to my own vassals.”

Laken Godart looked up towards the darkening sky, his eyes still closed. He gestured, as if inviting someone from above.

“My lords and ladies of the court? I invite you to share this banquet at your discretion. My lands are open to all those of my empire on this day. Come, if thou would.”

For a few second there was stunned silence. Rael looked around, and then couldn’t help it. He laughed.

“What was that?

Bevia’s head whipped around. She glared at her nephew, but Rael was busy watching Cimeca and the other young nobles. He saw her giggle, covering the motion, and heard chuckles around him. Bevia’s fingers dug into his arm and Rael suppressed a yelp. His aunt gave him a look that deflated Rael’s good spirits. It promised trouble.

The [Emperor] seemed not to have noticed Rael’s comment. He looked towards an older man standing to one side, dressed in a suit.

“Mister Prost? We may have visitors this night. Keep a place at the tables open should guests arrive. Now, I believe we are ready to be seated?”

“Of course, your majesty.”

The man bowed and began leading nobles to the tables. Rael was about to walk forwards and find himself a seat away from his angry aunt when he paused. He heard something. A laugh from high above. It was faint, but unmistakable. It cut through the voices, the sound of wind, the chirping of insects—a giggling laughter. You couldn’t not hear it. It was as if it was the one true sound in the world and everything else Rael had heard over his lifetime was fake noise. He looked up in bewilderment and felt a breeze blow.

It was fresh and warm, filled with life. It stirred his hair and heart. Rael inhaled and caught a scent in the air, like morning dew, like the fresh air of forests, like spring. He heard more laughter and looked around. The breeze blew. The forest around the meadow stirred. And then he saw a glow of green, a figure dancing among the trees. By his side Cimeca gasped and Rael heard someone inhale sharply.

A woman stepped out of the forests, laughing. She was dressed in wild green and red clothing and her skin was tinted green. Her eyes danced, and the air brightened around her. She walked forwards, spinning, her steps light on the ground. Rael stared at her. She was the most incredible thing he had ever seen in his life. It wasn’t her appearance that caught him like a fish on the hook, but her otherworldly nature, the depths of her eyes, the way she moved.

And then the forest rustled. The air opened. Green figures began descending, walking out of the darkness, dancing down like birds from above. Wild folk, dressed in wild clothing with eyes that shone. Proud folk, that put the assembled company of nobles from Izril to shame. Fair folk, the fairest and most beautiful folk Rael had ever seen.

Fae folk.

 

—-

 

This is how they came. I stand, stunned, as the fae come out of the skies and shadows of dusk. They weren’t so large before! And these fae are full of life and motion, bearing the aspect, the very essence of spring itself. The Frost Faeries I knew were small winged creatures full of mischief and laughter.

At least the laughter is the same here. The fae come forwards, laughing, showing off. Yes, that’s what they’re doing. Showing off. Each one is the center of attention, a one-person performance that demands all the attention in the world. They dance into the meadow, shining stars that glow in my mind’s eye.

The fae.

Dancing and laughing, appearing out of the air like spirits. Called by my voice. The fae descend on my gathering, brightening the dusk with their presence. They walk or run or leap about, dressed in wild clothing that’s both rich and free. Their garments shimmer with beauty, almost as much as the fae themselves.

Or so I imagine. I, Laken Godart, can’t see. But I can listen. I heard the nobles and people of Riverfarm around me gasp with the beauty of the fae. I can only sense them as shapes in my mind for all their voices are like magic to my ears. But there is a difference. And what I sense is that difference without the allure of their physical forms.

The fae are tall. Thin and lithe, their bodies are different than Human ones. Their arms and legs are actually a bit too long for normal. And their faces are more angular than Human ones. I can’t sense what their eyes look like, but I can tell their ears are pointed. Each fae is different, but I sense some with wings.

Insect’s wings. Perhaps I’m the only one who notices them at first. The others are spellbound. I am too, to be honest. But I can’t see the fae, so their effect is muted on me. The fae come out of the forests, at least thirty of them. Perhaps more. I can’t tell—they don’t seem to stand still in my mind. But they stop on the opposite side of the banquet table, laughing, and then fall silence as one speaks.

 

“So you call us, Emperor of Men! You invite us to your feast, you who gave us the titles of your empire. Do you offer us the hospitality of your lands? Do you open your doors to us?”

 

I start, surprised to be addressed. The magic of the moment breaks and I remember who I am. Laken Godart, [Emperor]. And I have a job to do. I have to remember. I planned for this. I wasn’t sure they would come, but now they’re here. So I choose my words carefully.

The fae. The fair folk from my world. Not all legends about them are wonderful. In fact, the further back you go, the more sinister they appear. I remember reading of Wechselkind or Changelings, children replaced by faeries. So I answer carefully.

“I offer you the hospitality of this banquet, lords and ladies of my realm. Food I offer you, and company within this meadow. Feast and revel to your heart’s content here, but nowhere else I ask of you.”

 

“Ah, a wise host!”

 

The speaker laughs at me. Which of the fae is it? I can’t tell. None of them step forwards. And the voice isn’t distinctly male or female. Neither are the fae.

Strange. I could have sworn the Frost Faeries were female, all of them. But these fae—I can’t tell exactly, but some give me the impression of masculinity. Others are clearly feminine—but the lines are blurred. I can’t tell what they are, only that they’re here. The fae mill about.

 

“There is iron here! Cold metal in the tables! Does he give offense, this leader of men?”

“In the tables, the nails! Is it a slight or oversight?”

“Not much iron. And we are outdoors. Food is offered. A feast in our honor! We have not seen such in millennia. Sisters, brothers, do we accept?”

“Within the meadow, aye! For a night, aye! Such are the terms!”

“Then we accept! The deal is struck!”

 

They speak all at once, in a rush. And then they move all at once, making the Humans in the meadow start. The fae descend on the table and snatch up the filled glasses and plates, filling their plates, beginning to eat without so much as waiting for anyone else. They call out to my diners.

 

“So then, mortals! Join us!”

“Yes, come and revel! Come, sit.”

“Join us!”

 

Every eye is on me. By my side Lady Rie is trembling. I hear Durene’s voice.

“Laken, who are they?”

“The nobles of my court.”

I turn from Durene and address the stunned nobility.

“[Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, I present to you my guests. Those you see here are the nobles of my court. The fair folk.”

“The fair folk?”

One of the [Ladies] speaks. Bevia, the older noblewoman. She stares at the fae and at me.

“I have never heard of their kind, Emperor Laken. These guests of yours, are they Human or—or something else? Please tell me. From what land do they hail?”

To her credit, Lady Bevia’s voice barely trembles although I know she must be as shaken as I am to be in the presence of the fae. At her words, a few of the shining folk laugh and call out.

 

“Avalon, mortal woman! That land beyond lands! The eternal realm”

“Shh! They don’t know where that is!”

“Hark, the emperor speaks! Let him explain!”

 

I nod. How can I explain them?

“As they say Lady Bevia. They come from lands far distant. And they are not Human. They are the fair folk. They have come here in honor of the banquet you have brought with you. They will dine with you. But before we sit, I have a few words of caution.”

I hold up my hand and speak loudly, over the laughter in the table in front of me. I can see the nobles staring at the fae, entranced. But this has to be said. Caution hums in my veins now that the first moment of wonder is gone. Remember the legends.

I caution you. The fair folk are neither enemies nor friends. Make them no promises and speak no untruths to them. Stay within the meadow and if they ask you to leave with them, politely refuse. They are nobles, but they are not mine. I was honored to give them titles. But they do not answer to me.”

I hear laughter from the fae.

 

“Well said!”

“The emperor understands!”

“No man, no gods! No ruler save for our ourselves!”

 

They cheer and raise glasses, already drinking their third refill, some of them. I gesture towards the table.

“Please sit or stand and eat at your leisure. Tonight is a night for talk and entertainment. We will have a magical display and I believe, a demonstration later. But for now enjoy yourselves.”

It’s abrupt and not that refined, but it’s all I can do. Lady Rie isn’t helping—she’s staring like the rest. I have to nudge her before she starts and begins ordering people about.

“Mister Prost, let us break out more wine for our—our guests. And please, let us find a seat for you, Lady Bevia. Lady Bethal, will you sit or stand? Emperor Laken, may I offer you a seat?”

I shake my head. Bethal hurries off and Durene steps over to me. I sense her bending down as the confused nobles hesitantly approach the table with the merry diners. It feels like a dream.

“Laken? I didn’t understand that.”

“I’d be surprised if you did. Durene, remember the Frost Faeries?”

“Them? I remember. What about them?”

“These are the Frost Faeries. Or some version of them.”

What?

“It’s something from my world, Durene. There are…legends about them.”

“What legends?”

Lady Rie is coming up behind me. I turn.

“Lady Rie?”

“Emperor Laken, the nobles are dining with your other guests. Hesitantly. Would you explain to me exactly what they are?”

There’s a note of panic and fear in her voice. I understand. The fae are brilliant, magical—clearly otherworldly. They entrance just by existing, and unlike the limited magic I’ve experienced in this world, there is something off about them.

They touch this world lightly. I shiver. Awe and wonder can easily become terror at the unknown. I turn to Lady Rie and realize I haven’t prepared her at all for the fae. I didn’t know if they’d come. It felt like a long shot. But now they’re here. I sense Prost approaching, and Wiskeria.

“I should explain. All of you—step over here.”

We move back a few steps so we’re still in the meadow. The sunlight is fading and I can tell the illumination in the meadow comes mainly from the magelights and braziers now. We stand near one and I speak as clearly as I can to Durene, Prost, Rie, and Wiskeria.

“Those are fae. Fair folk. I don’t know if there are legends about them where you all come from, but in my homeland we have tales of them. They are…well, I suppose the best word for them is spirits.

“Ghosts?”

Lady Rie’s voice trembles. I smile, hearing the fae’s unearthly laughter.

“Not quite. They’re more like magical beings. Very powerful, very mysterious. They’re spirits of nature. They play pranks on mortals, they live deep in forests and in mounds. It’s said there are portals to their world scattered in ours.”

“Dead gods. This sounds like a children’s tale! And they’re real?

“Reality is stranger than fiction, Lady Rie. Much stranger, apparently. But what you need to know is that the fair folk have rules. After a fashion. They obey bargains and they don’t lie—but they twist the truth. If you don’t try to deceive them and don’t try to make deals or follow them, they’re harmless. Probably. And don’t threaten them either.”

“How would you hurt one of them? Hypothetically speaking.”

Wiskeria turns her head to stare at the fae. I hesitate.

“Cold iron. That means pure iron. Or horseshoes. I think they don’t like bells either. I don’t know—I’m not an expert on the folklore. But they’re masters of illusion. If they offer you gold—don’t take it. It’s probably just flowers.”

Flowers?

Lady Rie’s voice is high-pitched. I can sense the nobles looking at us uncertainly. I turn to her.

“Lady Rie, please calm down.”

“You didn’t tell me anything about this! Where did you meet these—these fair folk? Am I to believe they’ve been hiding here all this time? What do they mean, calling us ‘mortals’? Are they?”

“Lady Rie, calm down.

She quiets. I take a deep breath, and then another for good measure.

“I’m sorry I didn’t warn you. I didn’t know if they’d come. I didn’t expect this. But they are here. And the danger is…acceptable.”

“So long as we don’t make deals or follow them. What about the village?”

I turn my head to Wiskeria.

“They’re supposed to stay in the meadow. That’s the deal. But…it might be best if you keep an eye on the children, Mister Prost. And you, Wiskeria. Don’t ride patrols. Just make sure everything’s lit and keep an eye on everyone. If you see anything moving—tell me.”

“We can do that.”

To my relief, Prost sounds far more stable than Lady Rie. He turns to Wiskeria.

“I’ll head into the village and tell everyone not to stray. We’ve food set out and we can make an early night of it.”

“I’ll tell everyone else. And find some horseshoes and iron weapons.”

They hurry out of the meadow. I look at Lady Rie. She’s breathing hard, but she does seem to have calmed down a bit.

“I’m sorry, Lady Rie. Are you feeling alright?”

“No. But I suppose this is what an [Emperor] does, isn’t it?”

She looks at me, and I half-smile. Lady Rie shakes her head. She turns back towards the nobility sitting and standing around the banquet table.

“We’ve been speaking too long. We are worrying our guests. Emperor Laken, I believe it is time to socialize. I can only hope that you know what you have summoned to this gathering, your majesty.”

“I wish I knew. Durene?”

I reach out and touch her. Durene stares at the fae.

“They’re beautiful. Frightening and beautiful.”

“I know. I can only hear them. But…I know. Do you want to go to the village?”

She pauses. One of her hands finds mine.

“No. I want to meet them. But stay by me?”

“Of course.”

We walk forwards, following Lady Rie. And at some point I find myself dreaming, or something close to it. I hear a humming as I walk towards the fae. Their laughter engulfs me, and there’s a buzzing in the air, just below the surface. And I feel color.

Color. I have never seen color before in my life. I have no idea what it might be. But the fae represent more than just the idea of spring. They are spring incarnate, and when they speak, when I feel them moving about the meadow, I am struck by flashes of—of something that I can’t explain.

Vision. Is this what it’s like? The experience is disorienting. Frightening, even. But I think it’s a color. It can’t be anything else. It speaks to me, I who know no color. They speak and I hear green.

The fae laugh and eat merrily, talking amongst themselves while we mortals move like we’re underwater, watching, listening, talking more quietly. At first I’m overwhelmed, and then I find myself back in the world. And then I’m dreaming again.

The young nobles are clustered around the fae, trying to keep up, staring in awe at these wondrous guests. The fae are caught between genders, some of them. I know they’re the same Frost Faeries I met, but some are decidedly masculine. They flirt with both genders unashamedly, attracting the young nobles—and the young men and women on serving duty—around them like flies. I don’t focus on them for the moment and instead turn my attention to the older nobility.

The wiser ones are nervous as well as entranced. The rest are just awestruck. I sense Lady Bethal chatting to one of the fae while her husband, Thomast, keeps a wary hand near his rapier. Sacra sits far back, her eyes wide in her face.

“Your majesty?”

A voice interrupts me as Durene stares at a male-ish fae laughing and eating a slice of roast beef with his fingers. I turn and sense Lady Bevia.

“Emperor Laken? I was wondering if I might have a word. I am Lady Bevia—we spoke briefly when we first met.”

“I recall. Greetings, Lady Bevia. Let us sit. There are some private tables. Durene? Would you care to join us with some food?”

“Oh! Right!”

I move back with Lady Bevia to one of the newly-made tables made for intimate diners. Each one is decorated with a fine tablecloth and candles—a necessary expense according to Lady Rie. She spent lavishly on the banquet even without the need for food. I don’t know if it was worth it, but I’m at least grateful for the silver cutlery. Would the fae have come if we had spoons and forks made of iron instead?

“I’m grateful that you accepted the presence of my other guests so readily, Lady Bevia. I do apologize for their sudden arrival, but my court is…fickle at best.”

“I see. I was unaware of the presence of so many nobles. Tell me, do they live on Izril? Are they part of your new empire, your majesty?”

Awestruck or not, Bevia’s voice is sharp as she sits and Durene hurries over with plates heaped with food. She hovers around the table timidly. I cough and realize that Lady Bevia is eying Durene with some surprise.

“Lady Bevia? May I introduce my consort, Durene?”

Durene squeaks when she realizes I’m talking about her. I sense Bevia blink, but once again she reacts with nothing but grace.

“My word, I had no idea your majesty was married. Do forgive me. Lady Durene, was it?”

“Hello. I’m—I’m not a lady! I’m not married. Laken and I are just—”

Durene stammers as Bevia gets up. She actually retreats a step. I interject again.

“Durene saved my life when we first met, Lady Bevia. I was quite lost and helpless. Blind as I was, I met Durene and we quickly grew close.”

“I see. I am charmed to meet such a forthright young woman. Tell me, Miss Durene, are you the famed warrior I have heard so much about? I have heard of an imposing hero who slew a score of Hobs by himself in service to Emperor Laken, but the rumors neglected to mention your lovely appearance.”

“Me?”

I can sense Durene is blushing even if I can’t see it. Lady Bevia smiles and I’m grateful to her extreme tact.

“I would be honored if you would sit with us.”

“Oh. Okay—I’ll just sit on the ground—”

Durene sits down awkwardly. I smile at her and pat her arm underneath the table. Then I turn back to Lady Bevia.

“I thank you, Lady Bevia. Where were we? Ah, yes. To answer your question—no. The fair folk do not live on Izril. Nor are they part of my empire in truth. My gift of titles was just that—a gift in exchange for a service they rendered to me. They owe me nothing and in truth, I believe they would not come at my behest no matter the situation. This is a…special occasion.”

“A feast. I understand. Do pardon me if I admit to some relief. Your court is intimidating, to say the least.”

“I imagine so. But so are Izril’s nobility.”

I sense Bevia smiling.

“Ah yes. This little gathering was organized by Lady Reinhart. I understand it was something of a surprise. I apologize if we have caused you any inconvenience.”

“Very little.”

I lie through my teeth and sense Bevia knows it. She delicately spears a sautéed mushroom on a fork and nibbles at it as Durene tries to eat as much meat as possible while appearing polite. The rich food is a treat to her and the villagers, I have no doubt. I can barely touch my plate for nerves.

“Ah, this food is quite well done if I might say so myself. I believe Lord Imral provided the mushrooms, and Lady Fel the beef Miss Durene is enjoying so much. Tell me, Emperor Laken, have you ever met Magnolia Reinhart in person?”

“No. I would like to at some point. However, I have interacted with her servants.”

“I see. Well, I would hate to color your impression of her before you two meet in person. She is an impressive [Lady] and a credit to my class. If difficult to work with on occasion.”

I raise my eyebrows.

“By all means, Lady Bevia. Color my impression as much as you would like—sight is hardly an issue when it comes to meeting new people for me.”

Bevia’s startled laughter makes a few heads turn and Durene nearly drops her drink.

“Hah! You are quick, aren’t you, young man? Well, I don’t think I can say anything Lady Rie has not. However, I would ask that you think of her kindly. She has held together the squabbling nobility for far too long. This is her being kind, if you can imagine that. She was far more direct in her youth.”

“Really? And may I ask if you were more direct when you were younger, Lady Bevia?”

“Oh, slightly.”

She twinkles at me. I smile back and find the appetite to have a roll of mustard and beef. It’s actually quite good and I find I have an appetite after all.

“Lady Bevia, I am an unsophisticated [Emperor] with little in the way of subterfuge.”

“I appreciate the lie, your majesty.”

“No, truly. I prefer straightforward conversation. That’s why I fell in love with Durene, after all.”

I hear a choking noise to my right and ignore it.

“You may well imagine this gathering was somewhat difficult to set up, but now you are here, I would be delighted to talk openly and frankly about the possibility of friendship between my empire and yours.”

“Indeed? Well, well. It is refreshing to be straightforward. I did come here in hopes of making friendships, your majesty. However, I have some slight reservations…”

Lady Bevia delicately pats a cloth napkin to her lips. She pauses, and I sense her bite her lip ever so slightly. She might not know I can sense her movements. Or is she doing that on purpose? I remind myself to be careful—Bevia seems a lot more intelligent than her nephew. What’s his name? Rael?

After a pause, Lady Bevia cuts to the heart of the conversation I was expecting.

“Forging friendships is all very well, Emperor Laken, but I would imagine any noble would be concerned about your empire. Monarchy is an alien concept to Izril. We have done without [Kings] and [Emperors]. It is why our ancestors fled Terandria. To have an [Emperor] appear so suddenly would panic some of the nobility. They might fear you would annex their lands in time.”

“Quite understandable. What if I told you I had no intentions to govern more than Riverfarm? That other towns and cities came to me asking for protection?”

“I would not be surprised. The question is what would occur if a city under the domain of say, Magnolia Reinhart were to ask you for similar protections?”

“I suppose I would decline. I have no intentions of taking land or making war, Lady Bevia. I realize that’s a poor reassurance.”

“Ah, from an [Emperor]? I would not doubt your word, your majesty. When a monarch speaks, I would assume it was true.”

“What if I could swear it was true? On a truth gem? That I have no intention of taking over your lands or any other? That I am willing to work peacefully in hand with the nobles of Izril?”

Bevia pauses. She narrows her eyes slightly. Then she smiles.

“Well now, I believe that I might assume a bit more if that were the case. Tell me Emperor, where were you raised? And may I offer you a stuffed egg? They are quite excellent and come from my [Chef]’s kitchens, by the way.”

“I should be delighted, Lady Bevia. Now, Lady Rie tells me your estates import a good deal of food crops. I don’t know if I can interest you, but I do expect to expand Riverfarm’s farms twenty-fold and I was wondering if you were interested at all in produce…”

 

—-

 

My conversation with Lady Bevia is short. Short, for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from agriculture to trade to monster incursions and the need for security across Izril. We part after Durene’s finished her third plate and I get up, feeling as though someone’s hit me with a few footballs in the face. For an old [Lady], Bevia is sharp.

“How did it go?”

Lady Rie appears at my side as Lady Bevia moves back to a small cluster of nobles, laughing lightly. I nod and lower my voice. One of the things Lady Rie warned me about was the Skills of [Ladies] and sometimes [Lords]. They can listen to a conversation across a noisy banquet hall if not guarded against. Still, all that I’m saying should be fine to hear.

“Good. You were right—she sought me out straight away. Do you think she’ll relay my words to the others?”

“Without a doubt. Lady Bevia could be considered an emissary of sorts. The others will probably approach you after considering what she tells them.”

“I’ll meet them as they come, then. How are the fae doing?”

I sense the laughing folk at my tables. By this point the fae have eaten a good portion of the food the nobles brought—and they brought enough for four times our number! At this point they’re drinking and talking with the nobles. Most of the older ones continue to stay back, but the young ones are completely engaged.

I sense some of them clustered around a young man with a cup in one hand. Laughing, they surround the young [Lord], laying hands on his body, touching him, flitting away. They provoke him and lead the young man on like a game, and I sense his face flush. He reaches for a female fae and she spins away, laughing. The young man pursues her and nearly lunges until he’s caught by another young man. The second [Lord] says something to the drunk one and I hear a loud, slurred voice.

“Keep off, Pattin! No one wants your opinion. Damn you and your poor house!”

His voice is a bit too loud. Not that the fae care. They ooh and laugh as the young [Lord] named Pattin flushes. He replies as I slowly move closer, on the pretext of asking Gamel if he’s got enough wine to go around.

“They outrank you, Lord Rael. It’s not seemly to pursue them like that.”

“Rank? We’re all [Lords] here, you daft idiot!”

The young lord Rael shakes Pattin’s grip off. I remember him now. He’s the one who laughed after I invited the fae. He doesn’t strike me as hugely bright. Pattin on the other hand interests me. Lady Rie appears like a fae herself and whispers in my ear.

“Do you want me to stop them?”

“No, let them talk. Remind me where Lord Pattin comes from?”

“Vaunt. A small city with a few villages. Very small holding, but they make excellent cheese. Unfortunately, they can’t produce a large amount owing to sickness among their cattle six years back. They have yet to replenish their herds and have fallen on hard times. Young Lord Pattin is considered a very intelligent [Lord] though, and I believe that when he replaces his father, Vaunt will prosper.”

“I see.”

I sense Rael staggering forwards until he’s intercepted by his aunt. I can’t hear what she whispers to him, but it sobers him up fast. She bows to the fae lady that Rael was pursuing.

“I do apologize, for my nephew’s rudeness. May I inquire as to your name, Lady…?”

The fae woman draws herself up and I don’t have to see the mischief in her eyes. I can hear it in her voice.

 

“I am a Baron, foolish mortal! Kneel before me!”

 

“A Baron? Do you mean a Baroness?”

Bevia sounds startled. The fae woman laughs at her.

 

“Why would I be a Baroness? I asked to be Baron and so I am! Will ye not kneel?”

 

“I’m afraid [Ladies] do not kneel to [Barons].”

 

“Truly? Pity!”

 

The fae woman loses interest instantly. She dances away and I hear her begin to bother someone else. The fae call out to me as I pass by their table.

 

“Come sit, Emperor!”

“Drink with us!”

“Eat with us!”

“Dance! Dance with our kind! Come!”

 

I decline as best I can as they whirl around me, laughing, snatching at my robe. Durene moves forwards protectively.

“Hey, keep away! You can’t just—”

 

“Ooh, the half-child is angry!”

“Come, daughter of Trolls! Dance with us!”

“Walk the woodlands in with us!”

“Eat and drink, half-child! It has been too long since we have eaten with your kind!”

 

“Wait, what? I’m not—I should—hey, Laken!”

Durene yelps as the fae press drinks and food into her hands. I turn back, but Durene’s objections are quickly muted as the fae cheer her on. She sits with them and begins a drinking contest with one fae. I don’t think she’s in danger, so I move on.

“Emperor Laken? A pleasure to meet you. I am Lord Tourant—”

“Your majesty? Might I have a word? I am humbly Lady Fel of—”

“Do you have a moment, sire? I was hoping to have a quick conversation about—”

The nobles of Izril converge on me, the one person they understand in the sea of strange folk around them. I fend off invitations to sit as best I can and greet everyone I can remember by name. But I move on, breaking out into the edge of the gathering as the fae begin luring more and more [Lords] and [Ladies] to sit and dine with them. They eat and drink with the nobles, talking quietly, listening to the Humans, and laughing.

I don’t know what’s said but I have a feeling those who sit with the fae would tell them anything and everything. Ah, well. I walk on, until I’m standing by a brazier that’s gone out, on the far side of the meadow. I stand there and concentrate. It was just a dim feeling before, but now I’m closer I’m certain.

There’s someone here. I have another guest, one I’ve overlooked. She stands at the far end of the meadow with another silent figure. Another fae. Only these two are different from all the rest. They’re nearly invisible to my [Emperor] senses—more like vague shapes than anything specific. I don’t know if they’re visible to anyone else. I walk forwards slowly.

It’s colder here. The heat of the other braziers doesn’t reach this far. And as I move forwards I sense one of my guests is eating something. The other is quite, quite still.

And armed. My hazy impression of the two changes. One is female, standing alone, greedily devouring a plate full of food. The other is silent. A tall, armored warrior standing by the side of the fae woman. He—and it is definitely a he—makes no move as I approach, but I can tell he watches me. So does she. And as I draw closer, she speaks.

 

“Emperor of the Unseen. I was not invited to your banquet. I am not one of your court, nor do I wish to be. Yet my kin come, and I was permitted to join them. Will ye cast me out or give me the hospitality of your hearth?”

 

I start as I hear her voice. Blue! The word springs to mind along with the color. This fae is different from her kin. The air around her is cold, and I feel like her body is different from the other fae. This fae seems surly, almost annoyed at being spotted.

She stands out from the rest of her lively kin. They shine with life and laughter, the embodiment of spring itself. But she stands alone, dour and silent, eating while the silent warrior stands to one side. Watching her.

“I would be only too glad to offer you the hospitality of the banquet. But not of my hearth. What lies in the meadow—”

 

“Yes, yes. Well then, I shall eat and drink. ‘Twould be uncharitable if I did not offer you my gratitude. So. There.”

 

I wait until I realize that was it. I cough.

“May I ask why you’re standing here alone? And why I didn’t notice you before? Who is your companion?”

 

“Yon silent statue? Take no notice. He is here for me, not you.”

 

There’s a grimace in the fae woman’s voice. She picks up a egg and eats it carefully. Again, that’s surprising—her kin eat and drink with reckless abandon, but this fae is deliberate, mannered.  I wonder—

 

“We’ve met before.”

 

“We have?”

 

“Briefly. You might not recall. You met many of my sisters and gave them titles they rejoice over. But I met you alone. In the city.”

 

Memory strikes me. I gasp.

“You’re Ivolethe!

The fae woman smiles.

 

“Aye.”

 

“But I thought—where’s Ryoka? And why are you still blue? Is this your true form?”

Ivolethe pauses.

 

“True? Form? What would you like me to say? As for where Ryoka Griffin is—you would know better than I. I have not seen her since my punishment began. This is the first time I have come to this world since. I know naught.”

 

“Punishment?”

 

“Yes. Punishment. I am forbidden from returning to this world. Yon guardian is proof of my King’s ire with me. He is here to ensure I do not flee.”

 

Ivolethe flicked a bit of food at the silent warrior standing behind her. He doesn’t move. But I don’t see the specks of food land on his armor. I stare at Ivolethe, unsure of what to say.

“Can I ask why you were punished?”

 

“You can.”

 

I pause.

“Will you tell me?”

She grins for the first time.

 

“Nae.”

 

I’m starting to remember her more now. Ivolethe pauses as she drinks from a wine glass she was not holding a second ago.

 

“‘Tis not my decision to withhold the truth. You need not know what happened, save that I broke the rules of my kind. I interfered with what would be and for that was punished.”

 

“By exile from this world?”

 

“Aye. A harsh punishment. I may go where I please, do what I please. But of this world I am banned from returning save for this one moment.”

 

“That doesn’t seem harsh.”

Ivolethe’s glare is palpable on my skin, like a blast of winter air.

 

“You think so? Here is where my friend lives, mortal. Here she lives and here she will die. I am banned from entering this world until her death. Understand? That is my punishment. To know my friend lives and to not see her triumph and failures. To live until she is gone and chase memories. That is pain! That is how I suffer!”

 

Her voice rises. I feel the air chill further and for a second, a cold wind blows through the meadow, cutting off conversation and turning heads. Then the chill fades. Someone laughs, and the moment is lost. The warm magic of the spring fae overwhelms Ivolethe’s cold fury. I stand with her, silent.

“I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”

 

“Sorry. Hah!”

 

Bitterly, Ivolethe drinks deeply. Then she shakes her head.

 

“Save your tears, mortal. ‘Twas a fitting punishment by my King. How else would you punish the fae? Our hearts are hurt only by those we give them to. I broke the rules and so, I suffer. No more, no less.”

 

“Is there anything I can do?”

She looks at me blankly then grins.

 

“Do? What arrogance of mortals! There is nothing to do, Laken Godart. Nothing you could say would change the fae. Do not mistake your influence.”

 

“Sorry.”

She stares at me. Then hesitates.

 

“Well, there is something.”

 

“What?”

 

“Could you—could you tell Ryoka Griffin I live? That I did not die when my form was broken? Tell her I am punished, nothing more. And—”

 

For the first time the armored warrior stirs behind Ivolethe. She breaks off sharply and scowls. I stare warily at the armored figure. His armor is dark in my mind. His figure hazy. I don’t know what he is—another kind of the fae?—only that he scares me. Ivolethe stares silently at me for a moment.

 

“Naught else. Tell her that if you meet her again, Laken Godart.”

 

“If I meet her? Do you know if I will?”

Ivolethe shakes her head.

 

“I see perhapses and maybes and what could be. I see the lines of if and when. But the future changes. If you meet her, Laken Godart. Remember me.”

 

“I will.”

 

“Good. Then we have little else to discuss. Yon food is quite good. I would tell you to eat as much of it as possible before my kin devour the rest.”

 

Ivolethe returns to eating from her plate. I stare at her, surprised by the sudden change in conversation. The frost fae stares at me.

 

“What?”

 

“I have a thousand questions.”

 

“Do ye? I have a thousand answers: no. I am not permitted to speak. Go back to your dream, mortal child. Enjoy the presence of my kind, for thou shalt soon wake from the dream. And be wary, lest it become nightmare.”

 

Ivolethe glares at me. She gestures to the spring fae again and I turn my head.

“Nightmare?”

I start as I sense Ivolethe baring her teeth behind me. They’re pointed. She grins at me.

 

“Aye. Or did you really think you could invite the fae to dine with you without dangers?”

 

I turn back to her. Then I hear the buzzing begin. The night has taken over the meadow and the braziers are burning low. I see shadows shifting across the table. And then I see the fae shapes beginning to move.

They creep across the ground, laughing, dragging the Human nobles into shadows, eating, growing more and more excited as they drink further. The fae enter a frenzy as the pitch of their laughter changes. They seem to grow as the shadows deepen. I see Oswalt, enthralled, follow three giggling fae into a shadow. He disappears.

“Oh no.”

 

“Indeed.”

 

Ivolethe grins at me as my heart begins to race. I see Durene surrounded by fae, Lady Rie speaking in a trance to one who smiles at her. I can’t tell how many there are, only that they’re moving faster, and…humming.

There’s a buzzing, a thrum in the air. It was a distant sound when I first met the fae. Now it’s growing louder, like the thundering of insect wings. I look around. Where did Oswalt go? Where’s Gamel?

“Ivolethe, what are your kin doing?”

 

“What we always do. You know the legends, don’t you? You summoned the Spring Court, Laken Godart. What did you think they would do?”

 

I turn to her, desperately.

“What do I do?”

She tilts her head towards me.

 

“Have you any bells?”

 

“Bells? I don’t know!”

She nods.

 

“Then I would find out. Quickly.”

 

—-

 

Rael knew he was dreaming. He didn’t care. He reached out to one of the beautiful women as the buzzing grew louder. She laughed and let him try to touch her breasts, her face, her arms, always ducking back or stepping just out of reach. He followed her, grateful that Pattin wasn’t anywhere to stop him. But some part of Rael wanted Pattin to stop him.

The fae woman was beckoning to him, telling him to follow her where the lights weren’t so bright in the meadow. Rael stumbled after her. He saw movement in the shadows. Frenzied, urgent, violent. He didn’t know if it was what he thought or—

There was a humming in his ears. Rael stared at the fae woman. She was beautiful. He couldn’t say how or why she was beautiful, only that she was. More beautiful than Cimeca could ever be. Rael was dimly aware of grabbing for the laughing woman’s hands, of telling her something.

Everything.

There was something wrong. He was drawing further away from the meadow and he recalled that being unwise. But he couldn’t stop. The fae woman’s face seemed to change the further she got from the light. Her features melted until her eyes were dark. They looked almost insectile. But she was still beautiful. Staggering, Rael saw other young men and women following him. He saw Cimeca leaning into the handsome man—or was it a woman?—and heard the distant buzzing grow louder.

 

“Come. Touch me. You want to.”

 

The woman taunted him. Rael reached out and touched her. She felt—

Quick as a flash, the woman tilted her head down and bit. Rael cried out in pain and pulled his hand back. Part of the flesh on his forearm was missing. The fae woman laughed as blood dripped from her mouth. She beckoned him.

 

“Come. Join me. Just a bit further.”

 

She shifted her dress. Rael stared. His body flushed and he took a step after her. Just a few more steps and they’d be out of the meadow. He saw someone lying on the ground just a little bit away, being dragged onwards. Oswalt? Rael heard buzzing in his ears—

And then he heard a bell ringing. It was faint, but the hum faltered as it rang, clear and piercing through the night. Rael stopped stumbling forwards and looked around. The fae woman looked up.

Again the bell rang. And again. It was chiming loudly. It was a hand bell, and the humming sounded as if it might overwhelm the noise. Then another bell chimed, and another.

The humming faded, grew less urgent. The flush in Rael’s body continued, but he could think around the tightness of his pants. He became aware of the blood leaking from his arm and stared at the fae woman.

“You bit me.”

She shrugged. The frenzied light in her eyes had dimmed. The bells continued to ring, and Rael turned to see the [Emperor] ringing a bell with a number of his servants. They spread out around the meadow and the dim braziers and faded [Light] spells brightened. The world came back into focus. Rael backed away from the fae woman as she smiled.

 

“Leaving? You will never know what waits beyond yon boundary.”

 

She indicated a space just past the meadow. Rael stared and smelled spring, the scent of pollen in the air. And blood. He backed away. He would never forget the sight of the fae woman stepping  back and the urgency in his blood. And the fear. He turned and ran back towards the banquet as the bells continued to ring.

 

—-

 

I ring the bell as loudly as I can in my hands. The sound it makes is loud and high—it’s a sheep bell, designed to be heard by shepherding dogs. I ring it again and see Gamel ringing a cowbell. He looks disoriented, but as the sounds of the bells carry, the confusion fades.

The humming from the fae dies down. I see the excitement fade from the spring fae around me and the humans in the meadow start and shake their heads as if waking from a dream. Those who left the banquet table, the young men and women mainly, stumble back. Not all of them are the same as the ones who left.

I sense Rael returning, covering his arm. One of the young women’s clothing is mussed. Another has a sprained wrist. But the worst is Oswalt. Three of the fae were standing around him. I sense him get up, make an incoherent sound and stumble away.

Bloody. As he approaches I hear Rie gasp. I keep my voice steady.

“Gamel, get a healing potion.”

Oswalt is in one piece. He’s alive. But he’s covered in blood. His arms, his neck, and places hidden by his tunic are dark with blood. He’s been bitten or…scratched.  Part of his ear is missing.

“Oswalt!”

A [Lady] runs over to him, pale-faced. His mother. She pushes a fae woman back and the fae retreats, laughing softly. I sense the fae draw back, and the buzzing grows softer as the bells continue to ring.

 

“Well done.”

 

A voice speaks in my ear. I whirl and sense Ivolethe standing in front of me. Her silent warrior guardian is right behind her. She nods to Oswalt as Gamel rushes over with a healing potion.

 

“Almost too slow. But not quite. Yon fool will live, although he will remember.”

 

She grins at me and I shudder. The memory of the fae creeping about, pulling their victims out of the meadow—

“What would have happened if he’d left the meadow?”

 

“Oh, he would have been outside the laws of hospitality. Perhaps he would have gone for a trip and come back older. Or perhaps he would have woken up naked a few miles yonder. Or perhaps…”

 

Ivolethe shrugged. There are a thousand things her shrugs hints at. I turn my head away.

“This was a mistake. I thought your kind would obey the rules of hospitality!”

Ivolethe’s eyes glint.

 

“And why would you think that would make you safe? The summer court is not like the winter. You were lucky that you only invited my kin, not…others.”

 

“And are we safe now? What if others come?”

The frost fae considers my question. She nods.

 

“I would draw a circle of salt around your village or at the very least, the houses. Put an iron horseshoe on each door if ye must. But do not fear; those of us who would play mischief are fewer now than we were.”

 

“Not reassuring.”

 

“Is it? You know the myths. You invited us anyways. Will you complain and say you weren’t warned?”

 

“No, but they might.”

A voice interrupts my argument with Ivolethe. I sense Lady Rie come forwards. She seems pale, but unaffected by her experience. Of course—those who weren’t lured away by the fae were merely charmed. Durene is shaking her head and saying she feels like throwing up, but the nobles wise enough to stay put are just shaken. It’s their outrage that bothers me.

“How dare you! You’d assault a [Lord] of Izril?”

A man is shouting. Oswalt’s father, I think. He has a sword in hand as he faces one of the female fae. She laughs in his face and I see two [Lords] trying to hold Lord Tourant back.

 

“Did ye fear for your son? You were warned, mortal man! What passes is not your choice but his!”

 

She points at the silent Oswalt. His wounds are healed and save for the tip of his ear he’s fine. But he’s pale and shaking. Lord Tourant trembles with fury as he steps forwards the fae woman.

“If you were not a woman I would cut you down—”

He raises his blade and the fae woman leaps forwards. Before he can, react, she grabs the steel blade—with her bare hands. There’s a cry of shock and Lord Tourant nearly drops his blade. The fae laughs as her hand bleeds crimson onto the blade. She holds it, her blood coating the metal, without pain or fear.

 

“Steel? Hah! If you’d duel us, bring cold iron and star metal! Bring blades forged of magic and legend! And if you thrust, do it with your heart in your hands for we’ll pluck it out if you miss!”

“Yes, come!”

“Come and dance the dance of blades!”

“Bare your sword, lordling of men! Shed blood and life like wine on this night!”

Come.

 

More of the fae spring forwards and surround Lord Tourant. The excitement in them isn’t completely suppressed by the bells. Tourant backs up as the fae woman offers the blood blade to him, hilt-first. He hesitates, and then another [Lord] curses and reaches for his sword.

“Damn these outsiders. Tourant! Let’s teach them a lesson!”

He nearly has his sword unsheathed when a voice rises.

“Stop.”

Both men turn. I sense Lady Bethal striding forwards. Her eyes are ablaze with passion and she seems—her dress is very rumpled. I don’t think a fae did it either, because Sir Thomst follows her, adjusting his doublet. Lady Bethal interposes herself between the two lords and the fae.

“You were warned, Lord Tourant. As was your son. Emperor Godart told you the perils of following them. I won’t see you or anyone else dead over this quarrel, and Thomast assures me it would not be our mysterious guests who perish should it come to blows.”

Lord Tourant pales, but his face is still red with anger over his son. He points to the stricken Oswalt with a trembling finger.

“He was bewitched! That was magic!”

Lady Bethal folds her arms.

“If it was, it was no magic I’ve encountered. It was passion. Quite enjoyable passion, but passion nonetheless. You controlled yourself as did your wife. If young Oswalt had the sense not to chase skirts he would not have injured himself. As it is he has lost part of an ear—hardly a disfiguring mark. Indeed, a lost ear due to passion is quite attractive to some.”

Sir Tourant stares at Lady Bethal. He hesitates.

“My son—”

“Sit down, Lord Tourant. You are in Emperor Godart’s presence.”

Lady Bethal turns and all the nobles seem to start and recall I’m here. The man next to Tourant hesitates.

“With respect, Lady Bethal, this is hardly a matter for you to—”

“Sit down, Lord Melbore.”

“I—”

Sit.

He nearly sits down right then and there. The two men back down and sit at the banquet table. Lady Bethal turns. She smiles widely at me.

“That was a most enjoyable interlude, Emperor Laken. May I ask if you have more entertainments planned for the night? Your strange guests are most entertaining.”

I hear laughter from the fae. One steps forwards and kisses Bethal on the cheek.

 

“Yon mortal could be one of us!”

“Almost!”

“A pity she loves only one! Lucky mortal man!”

“Unlucky mortal man! Hah!”

 

Slowly, the mood returns to something like normal. The fae resume feasting and laughing, but this time the nobles sit across from them at their own table. I find Lady Rie again.

“How bad do you think this was?”

She purses her lips.

“Honestly? I have no idea. Your fair folk certainly frightened the nobles, but whether they’ll hold a grudge against you is different. But watch yourself—she’s going to speak with you next.”

She nods, and before I can turn around I feel thorns. I turn and Lady Bethal is right in front of me with her silent husband.

“Ah, Emperor Godart! We didn’t have a chance to talk. May I have the privilege of a few short words?”

“Of course, Lady Bethal. Are you thirsty? Gamel, could you fetch us some drinks?”

The cups of wine are practically all empty, but Gamel hurries off promising to find some. Lady Bethal laughs lightly as she watches him go.

“Most impressive how many devoted servants you have, Emperor Laken. Am I correct in understanding that young man is a [Knight]?”

“You are, Lady Bethal.”

“Fascinating. You know, I have a small order of [Knights] whom I fund. They are quite energetic. And decent fighters, although of course not as adept as my Thomast. You’ve met him. Say hello, Thomast.”

She waves her husband forwards. He bows slightly and murmurs a word, but, I note, keeps his attention firmly focused on Ivolethe. No—not her, the warrior standing behind her. I’m impressed he can even see the two fae—they’re being ignored by practically everyone else in the meadow. Wait—I think Bethal and Bevia can see them too.

“I’m honored by your presence, Lady Bethal. I understand you’re a close friend of Magnolia Reinhart?”

“Close? Well yes, we did grow up as friends and I do occasionally help her out with small matters. But you know, Magnolia does have her obsessions. And while I understand her, it does grow tiresome worrying about everything, doesn’t it? I prefer to simply act and face the consequences later.”

“Hm. I can admire that way of thinking. I fear that I take the opposite approach. Acting without caution is slightly dangerous when you can’t see.”

Bethal laughs.

“Oh, forgive me! It must be different. I am simply referring to…well, let’s just say I enjoyed myself immensely tonight. I came here expecting to simply eat and dine and chat, which is frankly dull, but this was well worth the trip! I won’t forget tonight. You know, your visitors are enchanting. Who did you say they were? Fair folk? They certainly have wonderful complexions! Do you know if I could visit them?”

I try to fend off her questions, smiling politely, and see Gamel heading towards us at speed. He has a wineglass in each hand and I’m not ashamed to admit that I plan to use him as a conversation topic to steer Bethal away from questions about the fae. He’s nearly upon us and I see him offering a cup to me when a hand shoots out and knocks the cup away.

 

“Stop!”

 

One of the spring fae shouts, his voice drowning out all sound. He seems enraged and Gamel staggers back, surprised. I whirl as the fae leaps forwards and snatches the cup from Gamel’s hand. Several of the Human [Lords] leap to their feet with a hand of their weapons, but the fae are faster. The one with the cup raises it above his head and shouts.

 

Treachery! A poisoned cup!

 

The other fae shout in outrage. Their good spirits change to fury in a moment.

 

“What?”

“Who dares break the law of hospitality?”

“Who offers violence?”

“Find them! Hound them! Tear them apart!”

 

They begin shouting all at once, their beautiful faces suddenly twisted with rage. I hear buzzing again, loud and furious. Gamel backs away and the nobles of Izril freeze in fear as the fae turn, their faces masks of anger. A buzzing fills the air, a loud, low drone that makes the tableware rumble and the air shake. I sense the people around me freeze as the fae cry out in outrage. I raise a hand and shout.

Stop!

The fae halt. They turn towards me. I look at the cup the fae is holding.

“Are you sure it’s poisoned?”

 

“Yes! ‘Twas not yon servant who poisoned it, but death runs through this cup! A treachery, a breach of sacred hospitality!”

 

I don’t doubt the fae. I turn to Gamel. He’s pale as every eye fixes on him.

“Gamel, what happened to the cup?”

He trembles, spreading his hands, his face white.

“Your majesty, I swear I put down both cups for a moment to find an untapped keg of wine. When I turned back—it must have been then! Only I don’t know who might have touched it!”

He points to a place where the wine cups were standing. I try and sense whether there are clues or any sign of who might be there. But the nobles all could have gotten up and walked over, and no one’s left a handy bracelet on the ground or incriminating sock. I shake my head.

“So you have no idea who might have put poison in the drink?”

“None, sire.”

“And it is poisoned? For transparency, let us test it. Good folk, please.”

Lady Rie walks forwards, her face pale. She takes the wine glass from the fae and place something in it. A fork. I have no idea why she’s doing that until I recall—all the silverware is made of silver.

After a moment Lady Rie takes the fork out. I can’t tell if there’s a difference, but the nobles all gasp as one, so I suspect the silver’s changed somehow. Apparently it reacts to many poisons. Rie nods slowly.

“Someone was trying to kill Emperor Laken. Someone in this gathering.”

The meadows goes silent. All the nobles and stare at each other, pale-faced. My people surround me protectively, as if that could save me from the invisible assassin. One of the [Lords], Tourant, speaks hoarsely.

“Surely you don’t suspect us, Lady Rie? We never touched the cup!”

“Indeed, how could it be us? What about a servant?”

Anyone could have touched the cup! Why, it could be these strange folk—”

The [Lady] who speaks breaks off as the fae closest to her hiss in outrage.

 

“You dare question our honor?”

“Kill her!”

 

The buzzing begins again, loud and fierce. The nobles shrink in their seats and once again I raise my voice.

“Peace, fair folk! Please, peace!”

They subside, looking at me. I take a few deep breaths. Poison. I never sensed it. And it was coming to me? Why now? Was it—where’s Sacra? I speak as calmly as I can, sensing for her. She’s…wait, she’s in the village. Because she’s not a noble, that’s right! But could she have…? I try and focus, speaking to the crowd in the meadow as calmly as I can.

“Peace. I understand and appreciate your outrage, fair folk. However, no harm was done. This is a time of feasting and I would not besmirch the honor of my guests with accusations without fact. I ask you to sit and eat, lords and ladies of the fae.”

They hesitate. At last, one of them shrugs.

 

“So long as hospitality is not broken entirely and the host agrees, we abide. But a second breach and we will hunt. Honor demands it!”

 

I nod.

“I would expect nothing less.”

Satisfied, the fae sit. Soon they begin laughing as if nothing’s happened, but the nobles of Izril are well and truly frightened. They stare at me, grateful to be saved from the wrath of the fae. I sense Ivolethe moving through the crowd. She plucks the offending cup of poison and sniffs at it.

 

“You have enemies, Laken Godart. Take care you survive to meet Ryoka Griffin.”

 

She takes the half-full cup from the serving tray and downs the liquid inside before I can stop her. Bethal gasps audibly, but Ivolethe just laughs.

 

“Fear not, mortals. ‘Twas not the danger to us that offended my kin, but the insult to hospitality. There are few poisons in any world that we fear.”

 

She tosses the cup down and turns away. Bethal breathes out slowly.

“I see. Well I for one am glad of that. Emperor Laken, I am appalled at this assault on your life—at your own gathering, no less! Please rest assured that I will investigate this matter personally. And please be assured that Magnolia was not responsible for this heinous attack.”

I’m breathing hard. Durene is right behind me, and I know her fists are clenched, ready to hit something.

“You seem very sure of that, Lady Bethal.”

She doesn’t move and her voice is steady.

“I am. Magnolia does not employ poisons. She is far more direct. If she wanted you dead without a shadow of a doubt, well, I realize that is hardly a comfort, but there it is. She intended this gathering as a way to test you, Emperor Godart.”

“And did I pass her test?

I snap and sense Thomast shift ever so slightly. Lady Bethal nods slowly.

“I would say you did. Please do not mistake Magnolia’s actions for hostility. She must be sure of her friends and enemies. I would elaborate, but I think Sacra is tasked with explaining the rest of Magnolia’s thoughts.”

“I will see her directly then. Lady Bethal, I apologize for the abruptness, but—”

“I understand completely.”

Lady Bethal smiles, bows slightly, and retreats. I turn. Ivolethe is standing behind me.

“What?”

 

“It seems this banquet is at an end. The food is nearly eaten and the wine is almost gone at any rate. I believe my kin are leaving.”

 

Sure enough, the fae are gathering. I hesitate as they laugh and call out farewells to the nobles of Izril. Only Bethal waves and smiles in return.

“Are they offended by the poison?”

Ivolethe grins her pointed grin.

 

“Only in your name. In truth, I think they rather liked it. A banquet is not complete without bloodshed and intrigue, after all. I thank you on their behalf since they will not, arrogant fools that they be.”

 

“So you’re going? Just like that?”

She nods. I have a thousand things to ask her, and I sense the warrior behind her and know I won’t get an answer to any of them.

“There’s so much I need to know. Will your kind return if I host another banquet?”

 

“Most likely not. This was special, Laken Godart. You know that. If it happened twice, would it be as special? Nae, do not look for wonders twice in the same place. We are not permitted to interfere in this world.”

 

I frown at Ivolethe.

“But you did. That was poison meant for me.”

 

“Aye. But we were allowed to come here.”

 

I pause.

“That makes no sense.”

She laughs.

 

“You are like Ryoka. Foolish. Don’t you see? The rules we have against interfering are not rules set in stone or graved on the world’s heart. They are just rules. Made by our King. He thinks we should not interfere, so we do not out of respect to him. But there is no reason why we cannot.

 

“But then why is he…?”

Ivolethe shakes her head.

 

“Caution, Laken Godart. Caution and memory. Our King does not wish our deaths. He fears that to interfere would mean the end of one of us, and that is a cost far too high.”

 

“He fears for you so much?”

The winter fae nods. Her voice grows tired, older, even as her spring cousins laugh and dance about, making the most of their last moments on earth.

 

“If one of our kind should perish every thousand years, it would be far too many, emperor of men. We are old.”

 

“How old?”

I feel a frozen finger jab me in the throat and flinch.

 

“Must you mortals ask a question of everything? Old, fool! When your kind was learning to build with stone and wood, we were already ancient. In ages past we danced with gods and demons and made war and peace across worlds.”

 

She pauses.

 

“Once our courts were filled with the fae and we filled the forests with laughter. We are fewer now. Far fewer.”

 

“But you are immortals. Aren’t you?”

She just sighs.

 

“All things die, Laken Godart. All things. So our King forbids us to do more than spread winter on this world. And that is a boon based out of obligation. But he let us attend this banquet because it was special.”

 

“Why? If you don’t mind me asking.”

She just sighs.

 

“For the memory of such things, I think. Our King desires not to interfere in this world’s doings, but he remembers. We all remember what was and what might be again, and we long for these gatherings. We love acknowledgement, and for that the Faerie King would bend his own rules to allow us a few moments to dance and make merry. For this kindness, you were granted a wonder. If the world changes because of it, well, such is fate. And we enjoyed ourselves, so that’s all that matters.”

 

She smiles wickedly. I find myself smiling too, but it’s bittersweet.

“I wish—”

She cuts me off. I feel a kiss on my cheek, a sweet kiss like a snowflake, like frost. Ivolethe dances back from me, elegant, mischievous, as Durene gasps.

 

“Hah! If wishes were so easily granted! Take your gifts, Laken Godart. I do not think we will ever meet again.”

 

I rub at my cheek.

“Don’t you know?”

She shakes her head.

 

“If we knew everything, what would be the point of anything? Go well, Laken Godart.”

 

She laughs, a bright, cold sound, and bows. I bow back and Ivolethe turns. In a moment she and the strange warrior are gone. The other fae dance forwards. One steps forwards and bows to me, mockingly.

 

“‘Twas well done and cleverly played. You asked for naught but our presence, and the boon is granted. So we go.”

 

I bow again.

“That is all I wished for. You have already done me a grand favor, fair folk. I would say that I am in your debt, but I am told that is unwise.”

 

“True!”

“This emperor is wiser than most!”

“No debts, no payment!”

“Well then, farewell, wise ruler! Remember us, mortals!”

 

They bow, laughing. All of them. I don’t expect it, but the unruly mob lowers their heads in unison. And then they shout as one as the nobles of Izril look on.

 

“To the Emperor of Eyes! To the Ruler of the Unseen! To the Protector of the Cottage!”

 

And as the last echo of their voice fades in the meadow they are gone. Gone, just like that, leaving only that most precious of things behind. A memory.

 

—-

 

The night was filled with activity long after the fair folk left. The nobles of Izril were almost panicked by what they had seen and experienced. There was the issue of poison hanging in the air, and the fear of suspicion. For the [Emperor] and his people, there was the issue of Magnolia Reinhart’s maid to attend to.

She would have an audience on the morrow—for tonight the [Emperor] insisted on drawing a circle of salt around the village, a tricky task, but a necessary one. The nobles found themselves sleeping in newly-built houses, and if they grumbled about the poor treatment, they found their beds were as soft as any they had experienced in their homes.

Only two people stayed up long after the banquet. Tired though they were, Bethal and Thomast walked just outside the village, ignoring Laken’s warnings. Bethal was chattering into an amulet at her neck, talking animatedly though there was no one but Thomast to hear. And she was not talking to him.

“Oh, Magnolia, I had a wonderful time. The food was quite good—rustic, you know? Of course there were a few delicacies, but I enjoyed the ambiance. We had an open-air dinner and the most intriguing guests. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself so thoroughly. Well, maybe the time we were at Lord Faltifant’s, you remember—well, I was getting to that!”

She huffed as she listened to the voice speaking on the other end.

“Yes, it was quite surprising. All very well done—I enjoyed the décor, for all it was outside. You know, the setting was really—yes, he passed! Splendidly, too! He had these strange guests as well, Magnolia. I don’t know what they were! I said I don’t know—no, not which species! I’m not even sure they were real! But they were quite engaging! Would you like me to tell you about them? Really? Well, listen!”

She began speaking rapidly as Thomast scanned their quiet surroundings for any movement. Bethal finished and added a few remarks to the silent amulet.

“Thomast says he couldn’t kill one of the warriors there. No, not a chance. It was one of the strange visitors, the members of Emperor Godart’s court. No, Thomast says he’d lose, but you know how modest he is—wait, talk to him? I can relay—he’s my husband, Magnolia. I know you know! But I—”

She paused and turned to Thomast.

“She wants to talk to you.”

The Chevalier accepted the amulet, continuing to scanning the landscape. He spoke quietly and matter-of-factly.

“I’m not sure what I saw. But whatever it was, that warrior wasn’t Human or any species I’ve seen. And I’m sure it—he—could have killed me in a duel. I don’t think I could have hurt him with my blade. But perhaps—does the phrase ‘cold iron’ mean anything to you?”

He listened, and then after a moment lowered the amulet and handed it to Bethal. He whispered to her as he passed the jewel back.

“She’s shouting obscenities.”

Bethal covered the amulet and made a face.

“That actually meant something to her? What does she know?”

Thomast shrugged. Bethal raised the amulet and adopted a cheery tone.

“My, that’s an earful, Magnolia! Do you know what—? No? Okay, but I will ask you later—come on, Magnolia, I met them! They were quite alluring in a primal sort of way. You would have—what do you mean, the poison? Oh, right! Yes, the poison. Quite dreadful, but those strange visitors discovered it straight away. Quite luckily too! No, I have no idea who could have done it. But it’s a short list, isn’t it? I doubt one of Laken’s servants would have—you have to go? But I had hardly finished describing the food! Oh, very well. Treat that Emperor Godart as a friend, do you hear me, Magnolia? A friend! Yes, that’s my suggestion! I’m not being swayed! Fine!

She lowered the amulet and made a face. Bethal dropped her cheery tone as she turned to Thomast.

“She’s going to look into it. But I really doubt she’ll find proof, Thomast. Sacra’s not exactly adept at this sort of investigation.”

Thomast nodded. He looked at his wife as she massaged her throat. The Chevalier considered his words, and spoke at last.

“Why didn’t you tell her the poison was meant for you?”

“I didn’t want to worry her. And she should treat it as an attempt on Laken Godart’s life, not wonder if he’s a threat. My impression was that he was an ally of sorts, not someone Magnolia needs as an enemy.”

Thomast nodded.

“I felt the same way. But that doesn’t change the fact that someone tried to kill you, Bethal.”

“My rings would have protected me. Probably. Thomast, we need allies and Laken Godart didn’t plant the poison. If he had, those angry folk would have said so, I have no doubt. We’ll think of who it could be. But let’s leave Magnolia out of this.”

“She sounded tired.”

Bethal nodded slowly.

“She’s tired. She’s being nice. Trying to keep the continent together as always. If only she had some help.”

“Do you think this [Emperor] is the help she needs?”

“Possibly. I don’t think he’ll make things worse. On the whole, I’d trust him over her enemies. The Circle of Thorns has spies everywhere. Perhaps it was one of them who planted the poison. Or perhaps I just have enemies.”

Bethal sighed. She stood with Thomast as the night drew on. The events of the last few hours swirled around them. Fae and magic. Poison and plotting. Bethal looked up.

“Thomast?”

“Yes?”

“Did you enjoy the banquet?”

He thought about this. The banquet had caused a stir. Laken Godart had either terrified or impressed the nobles of Izril. He’d saved himself from being assassinated by Magnolia Reinhart—Bethal and Thomast had been sent to kill him in a duel of honor if they deemed him too dangerous. All in all, Laken had proved himself an adept [Emperor], if a young one. He had mysterious forces at his command, loyal servants, and that most important of qualities—luck.

The banquet had been a wonder, a moment of strange magic in a time of strife. Thomast nodded to himself as he recalled the fae.

“I hated it.”

Bethal kicked him in the shins.

“Spoilsport.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.10 E

“Ressa, how do you suppose an evil tyrant laughs?”

“I have no idea, milady.”

Magnolia frowned mildly as she sat on her pink couch, nibbling at a jam tart.

“It’s just that I’d like to be as authentic as possible. If I’m truly a—what did that girl call me? A ‘cold-hearted tyrannical bitch’, I might as well enjoy myself.”

“As opposed to how you loathe existence in general?”

Ressa stood behind Magnolia, hands calmly folded, watching her mistress snack. Magnolia smiled.

“Yes, well, I imagine tyrants enjoy excess to the fullest. One would hope that a tyranny allows for such indulgences. But enough about the children from another world. If they’re alive, they can stay that way. They may return to one of my holdings—if they can conduct themselves properly around my servants, that is. Servants are not slaves, Ressa. They are not expected to fawn over adolescent children as if they were royalty. I would remind them of that.”

“I shall make a note. Putting aside children for now, Lady Reinhart—we have received a quick response from all the nobles you have selected for Emperor Godart’s gathering in a week’s time.”

“Ah, yes, that.”

Magnolia paused in eating her tarts and a sour expression crossed her face. She half-turned in her seat to the second [Maid] standing behind her.

“Sacra, tell me. Do you think Laken Godart will refuse the invitation outright, or play along?”

“I can only speculate, Lady Reinhart.”

Sacra, clothed and looking like a perfect [Maid], bowed her head. She was not wearing her adventurer’s guise or holding the mace she preferred to use in combat, but Magnolia was quite sure she could use a vase or something similar to cause quite a bit of damage. Magnolia Reinhart smiled at her. The right [Maid] for the right job was something her grandmother had always said. As Magnolia recalled, her grandmother used to employ Selphid [Assassins] and had at least one Minotaur [Butler].

“Speculate away, Sacra. You have met the man in person. What was your impression?”

Sacra was silent for a moment. Magnolia saw her eyes flicker as Sacra recalled her time undercover, posing as the Silver-rank adventurer known as Odveig. She had many identities. It was a shame that Odveig had been outed as a spy, but such was the cost of her work. At last Sacra nodded.

“Laken Godart. He is quite intelligent and cautious. He is aware of far more than his blindness would indicate and he is willing to listen to others’ opinions. If he has a flaw, it is his inexperience.”

“As would befit someone coming from another world. If that is his identity. Go on.”

“I believe he would entertain the gathering simply to avoid offending so many noble families. However…he might be swayed if one of his advisors objected strenuously.”

Magnolia nodded.

“And of those advisors he has…a former [Farmer], a [Witch], and Lady Rie Valerund.”

Ressa grimaced lightly.

“It would be Lady Rie who would object. She was quite opposed to your presence when you two met, Lady Magnolia.”

Magnolia raised her eyebrows.

“You saw that too, Ressa? She hid it well, but she quite hates me, doesn’t she? Hates and fears—an unfortunate combination. However, she seems to have flocked to Emperor Godart’s camp so I doubt she would sabotage him quite so easily.”

“It might be for the best. Her aiding him is a part of your plan, isn’t it?”

Ressa stared at her mistress. Magnolia nibbled another tart and nodded absently.

“It is. Lady Rie is at least adept enough to know that cancelling the gathering outright is a bad move. She will undoubtedly attempt to help Emperor Laken deal with the situation. And therein lies the test.”

“Test?”

In some ways Ressa knew Magnolia quite well, having grown up around her all her life. But where the two differed were their skillsets. Ressa was good at serving tea, managing a household full of servants, and cutting throats. Magnolia was, when you got down to it, a people person. She played political games like she ate tarts—often, and with quite a bit of expertise. She could see how events would play together where Ressa could not.

Magnolia smiled as she turned to look at her [Head Maid].

“Of course. It’s all a test. Lady Rie will help Laken to spite me—or to curry herself favor. It doesn’t matter. She will do her utmost to prepare carefully for my trap. She will be quite poisonous to our good [Emperor], I think.”

“How? Did you threaten her? Manipulate her with a Skill?”

“I didn’t have to. It’s simple, Ressa. Lady Rie will cause more harm than good just by being as helpful as possible. The key is whether or not Laken Godart notices this, and how he represents himself at the party. That is why Sacra is going, and Lady Bethal and Thomast as well.”

“To evaluate him if he fails.”

Magnolia nodded.

“Or if he does too well. There is more than one way to fail a test. With that said—Sacra.”

“Yes, milady?”

Sacra stepped forwards as Magnolia gently pried a ring off her middle finger. She handed it to Sacra and Ressa eyed the ring with serious misgivings. Sacra, noticing, accepted the ring very gingerly.

“I’m giving you this ring in case all else fails. Twist it and aim, Sacra. It’s not hard—just aim at a target and ah, don’t stand too close.”

“Magnolia, that ring could destroy—”

“Ah! It’s just in case.”

Magnolia raised a finger as Sacra held the ring away from herself and looked at Ressa. The older [Maid] made a note to tell Sacra exactly what it did. She prayed no one would recognize it—Magnolia’s wearing it was an open display of power and a threat. Sacra wearing it would be a declaration of war.

Bringing a ring like that into another noble’s home was tantamount to bringing an elite [Assassin] in with you—worse, since all you had to do was point the ring and wait for it to destroy half the building you were standing in.

“Just in case. Worst comes to worse and all that. Either Laken Godart proves himself, or…”

Magnolia left it at that. Ressa nodded to Sacra and the other [Maid] edged out the door. Magnolia sighed as she hunted for another cherry tart on the tray filled with snacks. She mumbled to herself as she did, a sign of stress. She’d lost weight over the last few days with the Goblin Lord’s army on the march, despite her stress snacking.

“The Goblin Lord is headed straight for the Great Chieftain of the Goblins. If he joins his forces with this—this Tremborag, his army might grow strong enough to destroy major cities. You know this, Tyrion. Why are you hesitating to attack? This isn’t like you. What is your plan?”

“He might be building his army further, waiting for the opportune moment—”

Tyrion? Nonsense! He has an army. Why grow it unless he intends to completely crush the Goblin Lord’s army without a hint of a struggle? He could already win. And this [Emperor]—”

Magnolia broke off, sighed, and shook her head. She looked up at Ressa.

“I’m tired of dancing to other people’s tunes, Ressa. Truly tired of it. Laken Godart has one chance to prove he’s worthy of his class. If not I’ll destroy him and his empire where it stands.”

“Is that wise?”

Magnolia paused, a cherry tart halfway towards her mouth.

“I’d like to think so, Ressa. But we’ll just wait and see, won’t we? How long did I give him?”

“A week.”

 

Day 89

 

“Is it time yet?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think we’re early. We—”

 

“Emperor Godart?”

I wake up with a start. For a second, the voices keep going in my head, but they grow distant and I can’t recall what was spoken as I open my eyes and look around. That dream. I know it was important, but I still can’t recall what was said. And now I’m not going to. I sit up a bit and realize I was slumped over in my throne, dozing.

“I’m sorry, Wiskeria. What were you saying?”

Wiskeria smiles ruefully and adjusts her pointed hat. It’s late. I rub at my head and sit up straighter, although I’m not in the public eye for the moment. The ‘throne room’ I’m sitting in is empty save for Wiskeria, Prost, and Lady Rie. We’ve been discussing Magnolia Reinhart’s sudden invitation—well, demands, really—all day. For a little bit I’d hoped this was just a threat or trick of some kind. But apparently, Magnolia Reinhart means everything she says. This gathering is going to happen, whether I like it or not.

“How many letters have we received today, Lady Rie? Seventeen?”

“Twenty three. That would account for almost all the nobles attending—there are a few families—and I believe the rest will arrive tomorrow via City Runner at the latest.”

Lady Rie’s voice is strained from talking into the night, but she sounds far more elegant and composed than I feel. I turn my head towards where I sense Prost standing.

“So that’s where we are. Mister Prost, we have a small army of the local nobility descending on Riverfarm in a week’s time. They will be expecting a banquet and perhaps lodgings for the night. It’s a social gathering, which means they’re coming here to appraise me and my empire. All of this is taking place at Lady Magnolia’s request. Lady Rie believes it’s a trap or a trick of some kind meant to embarrass me. Your thoughts?”

I hear Prost gulp. It’s an unfair question to ask him, really. He might be a [Steward] but he was a [Farmer] all his life. Still, he rises to the challenge with awkward pride in his rustic voice.

“Trap or not, it seems you have little choice, your majesty. I’m not expert as to the games that nobles play, but Lady Reinhart is a powerful woman. If she wants a gathering, well, why not entertain them nobles and show them as much hospitality as they like?”

“The problem isn’t the gathering. It’s what Magnolia Reinhart has planned. She might be trying to embarrass Emperor Laken, or force an incident at the banquet. It’s risky, and I have no idea what she wants out of this!”

Rie cuts in, her voice frustrated. She’s been explaining this all night, ever since we got the letters. I sense Wiskeria shift and look towards her.

“Wiskeria?”

“We don’t know what Magnolia Reinhart desires. But we’ve debated for hours about the same thing. We can either accept the invitation—not that we have a choice—or cancel the gathering.”

“Which will cause trouble.”

I don’t bother to turn my head as I sense Lady Rie nodding. Wiskeria nods as well.

“In that case, what choice is there? As Mister Prost says, we must entertain the nobles.”

“Not as easily said as done.”

Lady Rie sighs. I nod, but Wiskeria’s summed the matter up nicely. I clear my throat softly and all heads turn towards me.

“I agree, but we have no choice in the matter, Lady Rie. The nobles are coming in a week’s time and I for one don’t see the merits in debating why Magnolia Reinhart has done this any longer, or what she has planned. For now we must ready Riverfarm. Can it be done?”

I have no idea. But Lady Rie nods decisively as all heads turn towards her. I wish I could make out all the details of her face with my not-sight. But I can hear the determination in her voice.

“It can. It will be difficult, but I am a [Lady] of the realm and I have hosted a few small gatherings at my estate and attended larger ones. I will begin advising your majesty on preparations for the gathering at once. I realize it will be an imposition, but there is much work to be done.”

“Ah, of course. Food to be prepared, entertainment, and so on. Not to mention—houses for the nobles? I suppose we could move people out or try and build a few in the week we have left.”

I grimace as I think of all that we’ll have to do. Not for the first time I find myself grateful that Lady Rie’s helping. I sense the woman shift and after a pause she speaks.

“Yes, your majesty. But not just that. I fear that Mister Prost will have to devote all of his workers to building a reception hall at the very least. This ah, throne room is all very well for audiences with other towns and cities, but we will need a building four times as large to hold a proper banquet.”

I hear Prost draw in a breath sharply and I sit up on my throne. Wiskeria mutters what sounds like a curse word. I turn my head towards Lady Rie.

“Are you serious?”

 

Day 90

 

“I think we’re early. We shouldn’t be here!”

 

She was serious. As soon as I rise with odd voices bouncing around my head, it’s all business. I find Lady Rie already coordinating people in the center of Riverfarm by the time Durene, Gamel and I reach the village square.

“We’ll need to clear a wide space for the banquet hall. It should be built out of the highest-quality lumber available. And furnishings—I will put in an order to Invrisil as I doubt any of the local cities will have the quality required for such an order.”

Lady Rie is talking to Prost, and from the way his shoulders are tensed I can already see that there’s a lot to do and not enough time to do it in. Both turn and bow as I approach.

“Emperor Laken.”

“Your majesty.”

“Do you truly believe we can build a banquet hall in seven days, Lady Rie? Let alone furnish it?”

I sense her pursing her lips.

“It’s not a question of ‘if’, but must, your majesty. Hosting a dinner outdoors would certainly be acceptable, but not if the implication is that it is due to lack of an appropriate facility to begin with. Not to mention, we must impress the nobles coming here. I am afraid an outdoor event with a village in view would not be…”

“Impressive?”

“To say the least.”

Lady Rie nods and I sense Durene shift by my side. I haven’t really asked Durene about Lady Rie—they haven’t talked that much as far as I know. Of course, Lady Rie is a [Lady] and Durene is often helping out around the village. Right now Lady Rie is too busy to speak with anyone but me and Prost hurries away to get her ambitious project underway.

“Speaking of decorations, Emperor Laken, I’m afraid we must consider a large investment in goods from Invrisil. Ordering so much so quickly will be costly, but I am told you have connections in the Merchant’s Guild that might be willing to offer you a discount?”

How does she know that? I nod, trying to keep up. It’s not an hour past dawn yet and my head feels stuffed!

“I do. But what will we be buying? Chairs? Cushions? Drapes? We have [Carpenters]—”

“—Who make chairs adequate for sitting, but not dining, your majesty. At the very least we should add cushions. The necessary goods will be everything from decorations to silverware, I fear. I did not bring more than a few sets of silverware from my mansion before it was destroyed, and there is nothing worse than a mismatched set so we shall have to order enough for all the guests—”

“Silverware?”

I turn my head blankly towards Lady Rie. I sense her nodding.

“Of course, your majesty. Have you—have you not attended a banquet before in your homeland?”

“I—”

I haven’t. Obviously not. And while I know that Durene knows the truth, I don’t feel like spreading the fact that I’m from another world. So I lie.

“I’m afraid that my memory of dining and so on is limited, Lady Rie. What I experience is ah, very little compared to others owing to my blindness.”

I gesture towards my face. Lady Rie starts.

“Oh! I most humbly beg your pardon, your majesty. I—I hadn’t considered.”

“No, no. Please don’t worry. But I lacked any sort of vision growing up, and my ah, ability to sense my surroundings did not manifest itself until this year, so…”

“I see. Please excuse me, your majesty. Well, I will gratefully fill in any—gaps in your understanding. You see, cutlery…”

Flustered, Lady Rie stumbles over her words and I breathe an internal sigh of relief. It’s not good to lie, but people do get uncomfortable when I bring up being blind for fear they might offend me. Good to know I can use that as an excuse for not being up to date with all the conventions of my rank.

However, as Lady Rie goes on I realize that there’s a lot I don’t know. Not just about the social dictates of hosting nobility, but everything from how many forks someone needs to eat a salad to how many waiting staff we’ll need to serve food—and how they should be dressed. I nod along desperately as Lady Rie goes on and on.

And now I find myself stuck. For the first time, I have no idea what to do. It’s like I’ve suddenly run up against a brick wall in my head. Because for all I’m an [Emperor], for all I have Skills and come from another world and want the best for Riverfarm and my people and so on, I’m lost. Because I have no idea how to host a party. Or a gathering. Or any kind of social event at all.

Let’s be clear: hosting soirees is not a skill most blind people acquire. Having a friend over? I can get snacks out, or make sure there’s a meal ready. I could host someone for a day or two. But this?

“Forks, Lady Rie? What’s wrong with the forks we have?”

“They are not what I would give a [Lord] to eat with, your majesty. We have a lack of good cutlery in general. I believe we’ll be able to get by with some well-honed knives for serving, but we simply must have appropriate utensils for our guests.”

“I understand it’s not elegant, but what’s the difference?”

Lady Rie pauses.

“…I believe it would be easier to show you in person, your majesty.”

She takes me to her home and brings out some of her silver cutlery while Durene gets some of the village’s utensils. I find myself holding a wooden fork, which is more of two long prongs, a metal fork more like the ones back home, and a delicate silver one engraved with detail.

“Damnit. I had no idea—I completely forgot about forks!”

It’s not like I have a habit of touching forks, after all! And while the difference in quality might be obvious to someone with eyes, it’s only the weight of the fork and the shaping of the metal that speaks to my fingertips. Lady Rie’s fork does feel far more expensive, but again, I can’t do anything but compare the metalwork of the forks with my fingers. I can’t see silver and appreciate how much better it is than pot metal!

Frustrated, I run my fingers along the fork, feeling the difference with my fingertips. And yet, when I compare the two in my mind with my [Emperor]’s senses, they’re almost indistinguishable. One works as well as the other, but it’s this kind of detail that I lack.

“It seems as though my lack of sight is a hindrance here, Lady Rie.”

“Only slightly, your majesty. But if you would advise me on your nation’s culture of dining and etiquette, I might adjust the banquet to suit your tastes.”

I pause and bite the inside of my lip. My culture? Back home I’d rather just microwave something than eat expensively. I choose my words carefully as I reply, handing the silver fork to Durene who takes it gingerly in her hands.

“The nation that was my home…honestly, Lady Rie, my nation was so different from this one that you would find it very alien. It is impossible to compare the things to which I was accustomed to here—especially because I was blind. Riverfarm meets all of my needs quite well, and I am content with that. However, if you think more needs to be done, I am willing to listen, although my input will be shallow.”

“I see. In that case, I would be delighted to go over my list of preparations with you.”

Lady Rie puts a soft hand on my arm. I sense Durene stirring and nod.

“Thank you. I hope we have the coin for all of this?”

“We may have to borrow, Emperor Laken. Or perhaps not. It depends on how many things can be done without. Tables for instance—I had a thought. If your [Carpenters] can design a long table and it can be engraved and polished in a week’s time, it might well serve in place of a purchased one.”

“No doubt. Can we do the same for chairs?”

“I will make inquiries at once.”

Lady Rie rises and leaves her cottage. I ball my fists up in frustration. Lady Magnolia Reinhart. If there was ever a good way to frustrate me, planning an elegant banquet I can’t see would be a good start.

“Laken.”

I turn as Durene gently puts the fork on the table. My half-Troll lover looks at me. I try to put a smile on my face.

“Durene? I’m sorry. I know you probably want to help out around the village. I’ll coordinate things with Lady Rie.”

“Well…I could stay with you today.”

“Huh?”

“Just for today. You know. While you’re with her.

There’s a possessive note in Durene’s voice that reminds me of when she met Ryoka. I pause.

“Durene, Lady Rie is—a subject.”

“And a [Lady]. Laken, she’s flirting with you!”

“Is she?”

I did wonder. It’s hard to tell. Someone touching me on the arm isn’t unusual, but Lady Rie did act unusual around me. But then, I’m not used to flirting in general. Back on Earth, the people I knew weren’t exactly adept enough to flirt. It was more straightforward. But Durene clearly thinks Rie’s flirting and isn’t exactly keen to let me stay with her.

“Durene, I’ll be fine. I’ll talk with Lady Rie, but it doesn’t matter.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I’m with you, remember?”

Durene pauses.

“Oh.”

“Silly.”

I hold her hand. Embarrassed, Durene squeezes my hand gently and flees. I stand up as Lady Rie comes back with a group of [Carpenters] only too willing to make however many tables I need. They just need, oh, instructions on what the tables should look like, how long they should be, how tall, what kind of wood they need to use, and so on. I sigh and get to work with Lady Rie. She doesn’t flirt. But she does touch my arm twice more throughout the day.

 

Day 92

 

“We’ll get in trouble!”

“Let’s go, hurry!”

 

Who’s in trouble? Why are they hurrying? Away? I open my eyes, annoyed that I can’t understand. I get out of bed with Durene, walk down into the village to see what’s happening, and immediately sense a problem.

Over the last day, the giant banquet hall that Lady Rie envisioned has been going up. Quite quickly too—they laid the foundations in one day and began dragging freshly-cut parts over to create a scaffold. That was how it was when I went to sleep, and there was a night team working on it. Only, during the night the scaffolding for the building has collapsed and I can already here shouting going on around Prost. He hurries over to me the instant he sees me.

“There’s trouble, your majesty.”

“What kind?”

“An accident at the site. Two of the night workers—a [Builder] and [Carpenter], were working on adding a section and it collapsed. Neither one was hurt, but they both claim it was the other’s fault.”

I rub at my hair, groaning internally.

“What happened?”

“One says it was an unsteady section that wasn’t checked properly. The other says that everything tore loose because the first fellow wasn’t paying attention. They both blame each other and got into it.”

“Can you tell who’s right?”

I hear Prost’s grimace.

“No, your majesty. I’ve told both of the men to take a break and let tempers cool. They’re both good workers and they’re both furious over the delay—it’s not so much the time lost as the fact that it could have been avoided. I’ll get everyone back to work, unless you’d like to judge the situation yourself?”

And do what? I have no idea who’s right and I’m no building expert. I had no idea what the difference between screws and nails were until I was fifteen, because my parents were too afraid that I’d hurt myself touching them! I shake my head.

“I trust your judgment, Mister Prost.”

He nods and hurries off. I sigh. I’ve been doing a lot of trusting of judgment recently. I don’t have a choice, but it means that I can’t do my one job—namely, deciding things as [Emperor].

Case in point. Later that day I find Prost and Lady Rie coming up to me with another problem, this one directly related to the nobles attending the gathering.

“A lot of the families are worried about having their daughters serve at the banquet, your majesty. They’re afraid that they might be asked to bed the [Lords] attending or be carried off.”

“What?”

I turn to Lady Rie. Her tone is acerbic.

“And I told Mister Prost and the other families that was nonsense, your majesty. They need not fear for their daughter’s chastity—”

“Chastity’s the least of it! What’s to stop one of the young lordlings attending the ball from carrying a young girl off—or a [Lady] doing the same to a young lad and having him murdered to hide the evidence?”

“Mister Prost! Those are rumors—”

“I know a village not two miles from here that had that happen to the [Headman]’s son—”

The two begin arguing and I have to raise my voice to get them to quiet down and explain what they’re arguing about. When they come out and say it at last I get a bad feeling in my stomach.

[Lords] carrying off village girls who catch their eyes. [Ladies] finding young men to have an affair with and killing them to hide the evidence. Apparently it’s happened in the past. I recall something similar from my world. Droit du seigneur in French, or the medieval ‘right to a first night’ practiced among the nobility. Apparently that law doesn’t exist in Izril, and Lady Rie is insistent that nothing else happens either.

“Your majesty, I understand Mister Prost’s worries, but they are groundless. Such events never happen—and if they did, it was one or two truly depraved individuals from decades past—and it would not occur on your lands, not when these nobles are coming to visit you! They wouldn’t dare offend you!”

“No? And what about if they used their privilege and station to force a girl into saying yes?”

Prost folds his arm as he glares at Lady Rie. For the first time he and she seem to be at odds, and Lady Rie seems exasperated by the argument.

“Any girl may refuse, of course—those rights are sacred, and these nobles live next to Lady Magnolia Reinhart herself! She does not stand for any coercion of the young or unwilling. That is one of the few things she does well. The Reinharts have always maintained order among the aristocracy and meted out justice.”

“Too little too late. That won’t save a broken-hearted girl and her love.”

“She can say no—

“To a [Lord]? Without bringing down wrath on her family?”

I have to hold up my hands to stem the argument again. When Prost and Rie are quiet, I look at Lady Rie.

“Lady Rie, can you assure me that the things Mister Prost is describing would never take place?”

She hesitates as Prost folds his arms.

“Well—I cannot pretend that some instances of this behavior never occurred, but at this gathering I am sure any young woman would be safe—”

“Hah!”

“Mister Prost. How often is it that this sort of thing occurs? Are there truly that many instances of it, or are all these rumors just that—rumors of someone in a village being carried off by a noble?”

“Well, sire…I never did hear the village’s name.”

“You see?”

Rie sounds exasperated. Prost flares up again.

“Just because it never happened in recent years, doesn’t mean it won’t at this gathering! There are young men among the nobles attending, and the families here are worried, your majesty. And with good cause!”

“I understand.”

What a mess. And again, I don’t know what the best solution is. I turn to Lady Rie.

“Could we address the issue? Tell the nobles attending that the serving staff are off-limits for…everything?”

Rie inhales sharply.

“Simply mentioning that would cause great offense, your majesty! I can assure you it will not occur, and I would stake my reputation on that fact.”

“But the people are worried. There’ll be more than one family that hides their daughters on the day, and I’ll stake my class on that fact too.”

Prost turns to glare at Lady Rie and I try not to clutch at my head. What am I supposed to do? Both are looking towards me.

“Emperor Laken, your decision?”

“Your majesty? What should I tell the families?”

I don’t know. I bite my tongue on the words again. In the end I tell Prost that the serving women won’t be touched and Lady Rie agrees to have older people wait the tables. It’s not a good compromise and I worry that more than one family might try and hide their sons or daughters on the day. If only that was the least of my worries.

As night falls I sense a fight breaking out between a group of men. I send Durene to break it up and sit up anxiously in the cottage, sensing Prost hurrying to the scene, Durene holding one man by the leg and gently slapping another man off his feet.

Trouble.

 

Day 93

 

“Wait!”

“Shh! We’re not supposed to be heard!”

 

Wait? Why wait? Why aren’t they supposed to be heard? Today I get up with a full migraine. It gets worse as I go about my day.

“The fight last night, Emperor Laken? It was between the two men who quarreled over the collapsed scaffolding yesterday. Never mind that we repaired the damage yesterday.”

Prost comes up to me with a sour tone in his voice. I shake my head.

“That was more than two men brawling, Prost. There were at least eight of them and more joining in before Durene got there.”

“Ah. Those would be the friends and other workers. They’ve started taking sides. You see, one fellow, Mister Horst, is a [Carpenter] from Windrest, and the other’s a [Builder]. Mister Wellim comes from Tunslaven. Since they’re quarrelling, folks have begun taking sides—”

“And now it’s a feud. I understand. Wonderful. Mister Prost, what do you suggest I do?”

I rub at my head as the man thinks, chewing at his lip.

“I’ll separate the building teams today—put Horst and his lot to building the tables and chairs with your permission. That’ll keep arguments to a minimum, but I’d better have some lads making sure there’s no fighting after work’s over. Or Durene. No one’s likely to throw a punch with her watching.”

“Good. Do that. I have to talk to Lady Rie about…everything.”

Prost hurries away and I find Lady Rie speaking with Durene of all people. They’re arguing too. I draw closer, listening. For once the two women are so heated that they don’t notice my presence. Durene’s voice is loud as she snaps at Lady Rie.

“I don’t see why I need to stand during the banquet! Why can’t I eat when everyone else is eating?”

Her voice echoes off the houses nearby and I sense heads turning. Lady Rie’s voice is much quieter, but waspish as she replies.

“You are neither nobility nor formally engaged to Emperor Laken. It would be an indiscretion of the highest order to seat you at the head table, and nowhere less would do! You have no manners—”

“I have plenty, thank you very much!”

I sense Rie rolling her eyes.

“—No manners suitable for formal dining and you are supposed to be a [Paladin], a defender of his majesty, aren’t you? You should stand in attendance! You wouldn’t want to embarrass Emperor Laken, wouldn’t you?”

I open my mouth and hesitate. Durene would never embarrass me, but I can imagine her struggling if she were sitting with me and chatting with other nobles. And yet—she is Durene. But Lady Rie knows this social world best and so I hesitate. Durene herself deflates at Rie’s word. She gulps.

“No. I wouldn’t want to embarrass him. But—”

“Good. Then it’s settled. We’ll see if Master Helm can put you in armor. Otherwise…we might find a [Tailor] able to sew quickly. But armor would be more impressive, I think. A [Paladin] would be quite impressive to our guests.”

Lady Rie claps her hands and turns brusquely away from Durene. She and Durene both jump when they see me standing behind them. I cough.

“You’re sure that would be the best fit, Lady Rie?”

“Emperor Laken! I do believe so. I am not familiar with the [Paladin] class, but it is impressive—as is Miss Durene herself. Having her stand at attendance at your side while a list of her achievements is read out would be most impressive. Don’t you agree?”

“Hm. Durene?”

I turn my head towards her. Durene smiles—she knows I can sense when she does it—and only hesitates for a second.

“I—yeah. I could stand next to you, right Laken? I’d be imposing and impress all those nobles. That’s the best way to do it, right?”

I pause. And perhaps it’s just as well that another argument breaks out—this time between a whole group of angry workers clustered around the banquet hall. Rie sighs distractedly.

“We’re far behind on the building without this sort of distraction! Emperor Laken, by your permission I’ll sort it out.”

She converged on the arguing workers at the same time Prost and Wiskeria do. I see Wiskeria break up the prelude to a fight with a burst of magic. Durene turns.

“I should go over too. Just in case. I’ll uh, see if I can get Mister Helm to make me some armor. You said I should have some anyways, right Laken?”

She hurries away. I stare at her back. The words in my mouth die unspoken. But I’d like Durene to sit with me. She belongs there. But what if it causes trouble? What’s the protocol? If I let her sit with me, what happens?

I don’t know. Wiskeria breaks up the fight and cools down everyone—literally, by shooting sprays of water everywhere. She’s declined to weigh in on all the preparations, claiming ignorance as a [Witch]. I wish I could do the same. I don’t know what to do. And the words keep repeating themselves as I go to sleep, dreading the half-formed dreams, hating my indecision, my inability to figure this out!

I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know—

I can feel my teeth grinding together as I toss and turn that night. I don’t know! And I’m afraid to tell Lady Rie she’s wrong, but something’s wrong! I can feel it.

It’s not right! This gathering is—flawed, somehow! It’s going to go wrong.

Damn Magnolia Reinhart. What did she do?

 

Day 94

 

“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring—”

“And—”

 

Blank words in my head. Missing pieces of a puzzle. I get up blearily, eat, walk into Riverfarm with Durene, and listen to the day’s issues. Everything’s behind. Lady Rie frets while Prost talks the situation over. Wiskeria listens quietly.

“The arguments over the building are costing us precious hours, Mister Prost!”

“I know. But I can’t help that! We’re already rushing as it is—we’ll try to get a roof up the day after tomorrow, but every mistake sets us back—”

“We can hardly afford to wait until the day after tomorrow! The decorations are arriving and we must set to work making the inside presentable quickly!”

“We can sand and polish everything quick once it’s up. The tables and chairs look good at least—”

“Those are the least of my concerns. If another brawl breaks out, simply arrest everyone involved.”

“All forty of them?”

“If necessary! This petty feud between the two craftsmen must be resolved, Mister Prost.”

Prost shakes his head.

“Perhaps Emperor Laken could speak to the two men. They’ve been clamoring for a ruling, and both sides want to hear his opinion—”

“On what?”

I raise my voice. Both Rie and Prost fall silent. I look up, my head aching. I try to keep the annoyance out of my voice but I can’t. Not today.

“I’ve listened to the arguments, Mister Prost. Neither man can prove the other caused the problem and it’s far beyond that now. Both sides want me to punish someone, which I can’t do without proof.

“And truth spells don’t work if both sides think they’re right. Or if they don’t know to begin with who’s wrong. Not that anyone can cast [Detect Lies] here anyways.”

Wiskeria looks up as she fiddles with a pouch full of ingredients. She’s been riding patrols with Beniar, escorting City Runners arriving here with bags of holding full of purchased goods. She meets Prost and Rie’s annoyed looks calmly. Then she turns towards me.

“Emperor Laken, I’ll watch the building today and stop arguments from breaking out. That will let Mister Prost handle the rest of the village.”

“That might work. We’re baking and preparing as much food as we can, but it’s not enough, according to Lady Rie.”

Lady Rie sighs.

“Hardly. There’s a [Chef] I’ve been speaking to who could prepare all of the finer dishes we need to present, but he lives thirty miles north of here and is reluctant to make the commute. And I don’t wish to empty the treasury to purchase her services. But we must have a suitable meal ready. And then there’s the issue of gifts…”

I raise my head.

“Gifts? Don’t tell me we have to give our guests—”

“Oh no! That’s not the custom at all. Quite the reverse!”

“What, then?”

Rie smiles slightly, the first smile I’ve sensed all day.

“It’s a custom for visitors to offer a present to those hosting such gatherings. Especially those of high-rank. I imagine an [Emperor] would merit quite a large present, but no one knows what might suit you, Emperor Laken. You recall the gift I gave to you? Well, we’ve received a few tokens like that, but there have been a number of discreet inquiries as to what you might enjoy.”

“What I might enjoy? I get to ask for my gifts?”

The notion sounds ridiculous to me, but Rie nods seriously.

“Indeed. I was rather hoping for this, actually. In fact, this is how Magnolia Reinhart can claim she’s doing you a favor. If we approach the nobles the right way, we might come away with more than we spent to host the gathering.”

“I don’t follow. You mean…ask them for money?”

“A…monetary contribution. Or something similar. Minor artifacts, perhaps much-needed supplies…it all comes down to the phrasing and way the invitations are couched. I would like to speak with you regarding some of the ideas I had in that regard later. If you are willing?”

It’s wrong. My head throbs.

“Of course.”

I lie to Rie and sense her smiling. Prost stands up wearily.

“I’ll get back to work. There’s a few of our [Mages] and [Hedge Mages] willing to try and put on a show—that is, the first stage of entertainments. I’ll see to them.”

“And I will see to the attire.”

Lady Rie sweeps off. I sit on my throne, massaging my head. I sense Wiskeria getting up.

“Your majesty? Everything well?”

“Not really, Wiskeria. I’m not sure how well this party—gathering—whatever, will go.”

She nods.

“Lady Rie’s doing her best. But this was forced on her early.”

“It was. By that damn—do you think we’ll make it?”

“I’m not sure. But I worry that making it or not making it isn’t the problem, your majesty?”

“Then what?”

Wiskeria tilts her head, her voice thoughtful.

“I don’t know. But I don’t think how we impress the nobility is the point. Otherwise, wouldn’t Magnolia Reinhart have made the gathering a few days away and not given us enough time? No, I think it’s something else she’s after. I just don’t know what.”

I turn my head towards her. She’s right. There is something else. But what? What? After a while, Wiskeria gets up. And I, lost and confused, go after Lady Rie. I find her with Durene, consulting with Master Helm.

 

—-

 

“This armor’s too tight! And it’s not real armor, it’s far too thin!”

Durene complains as she models the new armor that Mister Helm, the [Blacksmith], has forged. It was a collaborative work given Durene’s size, and several other [Blacksmiths] are standing around her and consulting with Lady Rie. The noblewoman smiles and claps her hands together.

“Functional armor is not the point, Miss Durene. The armor looks quite good on you, although I see some parts that could be—ah, well, it will do. It only remains for us to forge you a suitable shield to go with your sword. And polish the sword, I think. Could it be plated, Mister Helm? With something akin to gold leaf? Silver? And I think…yes, I think we could add one more thing.”

She regards Durene thoughtfully as the half-Troll girl catches sight of me. She tries to wave, but the stiff armor doesn’t let her. Durene speaks distractedly.

“What else? I can barely move in this as it is.”

Rie’s voice is soft and thoughtful as she speaks out loud.

“A helmet, perhaps? Yes. That would be quite impressive. A helmet would be just the thing.”

“A helmet?”

Durene half-turns to look at Lady Rie. The [Blacksmiths] around her fall silent. My heart sinks when I realize where she’s going with this. Rie nods.

“Yes…with a visor? Can such a thing be done, Master Helm? It would be a grand spectacle, to see Miss Durene armored like a [Knight].”

She looks around brightly at the men and two women around her. Durene goes very quiet. I stand there, my heart suddenly beating very quiet. A helmet? A helmet with a visor. There’s only one reason why Rie wants that.

To cover her face. But no one says it. I sense Durene hesitate, her face grow angry—and then twist into uncertainty. She hesitates, and I see her look at me, and then at Lady Rie. She’s supposed to be quite beautiful. Lady Rie, that is. I’ve never heard Durene talk about what she looks like. She’s too afraid to tell me.

In the end, Durene’s voice is very quiet.

“I…guess so. I could wear a helmet.”

“Wonderful! There are quite a number of designs that might work. Mister Helm, I’ll sketch a few, shall I? You can tell me what would be easiest.”

“Ah. Yes, Lady Rie. We’ll do our best.”

Mister Helm’s voice is quiet as he turns towards Lady Rie. I sense him looking back at me. Durene’s staring at her feet. I take a step forwards and feel a hand on my arm. Lady Rie’s touch.

“Emperor Laken? What do you think? I imagine Durene in full armor would be quite a sight to see—ah, begging your pardon. Quite a spectacle, and certainly impressive, wouldn’t you agree?”

No. I open my mouth. Hesitate. I can tell that Mister Helm is looking at me. So is Lady Rie. She’s gripping my arm with her hand, trying to tell me not to object. She’s right. She knows how the other [Lords] and [Ladies] would react. I close my mouth.

To hide Durene behind a helmet. To not let her eat with me. To do things as they should be. Because a half-Troll doesn’t belong with Humans.

Things crystalize in that moment. I feel the same flash of heat I felt once before, listening to an angry [Farmer] shout the same thing. Not in the same way, not in the same words, but the same thing. And I think about a banquet, about entertaining nobles, about doing things just so.

And I realize what the trap is. I jerk my arm free of Lady Rie and open my mouth.

“No.”

The word cuts through the air, blissfully free. Lady Rie pauses. I sense Durene look up as every head turns to me. Rie’s voice is low as she speaks to me, too close to my ear.

“Emperor Laken, I don’t mean to gainsay your opinions, but I truly think—”

“I said, no, Lady Rie. No helmet. The armor can stay. But make it real armor. And Durene doesn’t need the armor for the banquet. She’ll be sitting with me at the head table. Give her a dress instead.”

Silence. My heart is pounding, my head feels clearer. Lady Rie draws in her breath sharply.

“Emperor Laken? I really don’t—”

Enough.

I snap the word and Rie’s mouth closes in an instant. I look around. Durene is staring at me. The [Blacksmiths] are staring at me. I stand taller. When did I start hunching my shoulders? I point.

“Mister Helm?”

He jumps.

“Yes? Your Majesty?”

“Thank you for Durene’s armor. It’s quite, well, I can tell it’s quite impressive. A showman’s piece, no doubt. But let’s aim for functional armor when it comes to that.”

“Of course, Emperor Laken. We’ll get right to work—”

I hold up my hand.

“Not necessary. There are more important things that we need for now. Nails, for one. Hinges—there’s a lot of metal that goes into houses. Let’s get our [Blacksmiths] back to work on those houses, shall we? Don’t worry about the banquet. Durene? Follow me. Someone get me Prost. And Wiskeria.”

I stride off and sense Durene shrugging out of her armor. Still muted, Rie follows. I can sense her eyes on my back and feel Prost and Wiskeria hurrying towards me.

“Mister Prost?”

“Yes, Emperor Laken? I heard you had the [Blacksmiths] working on construction materials for the houses. Should I—?”

“Get your workers back to building houses. We’ll keep a smaller team on the hall, but take it slower, Mister Prost. We won’t be using it for the gathering.”

I feel the electric shock go through the people around me. Durene exclaims.

“We won’t? But I thought—”

“Would we have gotten it ready in time? And would you trust the building not to collapse on us, Mister Prost?”

I nod at the half-finished building. Prost grimaces.

“It’d be close and that’s without furnishings, sire. But what did you have in mind if not that gathering hall?”

“Easy. Get the tables and chairs done. Then put them in a meadow. That one just past the new farmland sounds good. Clear us a wide space—we have plenty of folk who can do that and it won’t take us a day. We’ll serve our guests there.”

What?

This last bit is too much for Lady Rie and she manages to speak despite my order. She turns to me, aghast.

“Emperor Laken, it’s not proper. Your guests will be expecting the highest honors. They’re nobility, and if Magnolia Reinhart was hosting—”

“She’s not. I am. Be silent, Lady Rie. Thank you.”

I cut her off again. Lady Rie falls silent and I can sense her lips quivering as I turn my head. I can sense them there. Durene, Wiskeria, Prost, and Lady Rie. I sigh.

“I’ve made a mistake. Lady Magnolia Reinhart invited the nobility here, which forced my hand. But my error, the trick she forced me into was playing her game. I don’t think she expected me to put on a formal display for the nobles. Nor should I.”

“But that’s what they’re expecting.”

Durene sounds confused. I smile slightly.

“Yes, they are. That’s what’s traditional. But I’m an [Emperor], Durene. Why should I do things their way?”

“Um…I don’t know.”

“Exactly.”

I nod, almost laughing as I sense Rie’s dumfounded look. I look at Prost.

“Don’t worry about [Chefs], Mister Prost. Tell our [Cooks] to make the kind of food they know everyone will enjoy. As much as they can get ready beforehand and we’ll do a lot of cooking the day of. Now, I want you to have our [Carpenters] make more tables as quick as they can and lay them out in the village square. We’ll feed our people at the same time as the nobility.”

“With chairs and so forth, your majesty? That would take a lot more work.”

“Do we need them? No—in fact, have only a few chairs brought to the gathering place. We’ll have people stand and eat. They can socialize while we put on a display. We’ll have the trebuchets do some test firing—maybe let the nobles try them themselves. As for the issue of young women and men serving—”

I can sense Lady Rie shutting her eyes tightly. I look at Prost.

“Have we parchment? Large sheets we can use as signs?”

“I could have some. Are you planning on making a declaration, sire?”

“Just something posted on the main roads. Have it read as follows: ‘I, Emperor Laken, declare that anyone taking advantage of another person upon my lands without consent will be summarily shot and executed, regardless of their rank or gender.’ Or something to that effect.”

Wiskeria draws in a sharp breath. I see Prost shoot a glance at Lady Rie. Funny, he seems uncertain.

“That’s a bold statement, sire.”

“I’d think it would be the least of what you’d expect from me. Have the posters put along the main roads—on those handy totem poles Jelov keeps carving, for instance.  Make sure all of my guests see them. Just in case. Oh, and Prost? Add some images.”

“What? Sire?”

I’m enjoying myself now. I gesture.

“Images. You know, illustrations! A bloody headsman’s axe and a few heads lying on the ground, or a body feathered with arrows for emphasis. Be creative. You can have some of the children decorate them if you like. Now. Wiskeria.”

“Emperor?”

She’s smiling at me, I can tell. Wiskeria tugs at her pointed hat as I point towards the meeting hall and my throne room.

“Those two men who keep starting fights. Find them and put them in my throne room to wait for me. Tell them that if they start a fight before I arrive…well, just warn them what might happen.”

“Yes, Emperor.”

“Now. Lady Rie.”

She’s practically vibrating. When I speak her name she waits a beat as if she didn’t want to cut in and shout at me this entire time.

“Emperor Laken?”

“I take it you object to most of what I’ve just said?”

“Why, what gave you that idea, sire?”

Her voice is sweet. Too sweet. I turn to face her.

“I don’t disagree with your choices, Lady Rie. By all means, decorate and find proper utensils to serve our guests. But if we serve them, it will be my way. Riverfarm’s way.”

“And if the nobility take offense?”

“Let them. This gathering wasn’t my idea. It was Magnolia Reinhart’s. If it doesn’t have the amenities they’re used to, they can take it up with her. Speaking of which, I’ve decided what they should give me.”

“Oh?”

Lady Rie pauses.

“What would that be, your majesty?”

“Food. They can bring food. Tell them I would like for them to bring as many delicacies as they can carry—not just for themselves, but for my people. They’ll be feeding all of us, so advise them that a pack horse or wagon might be in order.”

I grin at Lady Rie and wonder if her face has gone pale. Durene laughs out loud in delight.

“Emperor Laken, are you quite sure? That would hardly be what they expect—although I’m beginning to realize that is quite the point.”

“Indeed. I don’t want money. I don’t need their charity. That isn’t what an [Emperor] needs. Perhaps a [Lord] might ask for such gifts, but all I need is something to amuse my people. Yes, food—and entertainment. Do they have [Jugglers]? [Bards]? Are there such things as [Actors] in this world or…or [Players]? Tell them to bring those too. And—”

Memory flares. A bit of a dream. I stop.

“Pudding.”

“Pudding?”

“Yes—pudding. Tell them I’m fond of sweet foods. Have them bring as much of those as possible. And while we’re at it, Durene?”

“Yes, Laken?”

“Why don’t we take a break for a bit? Let’s go for a walk in the woods. I’ll be back in an hour, Lady Rie. Let me know if the sky’s fallen when I return.”

I take Durene’s arm and smiling, walk away. Lady Rie just stares at my back. I walk off with Durene and laugh for the first time all week. She’s smiling too.

“Wow. What happened to you, Laken?”

“I stopped worrying about what other people might say, Durene. Remember? That’s the point. Lady Rie had her heart in the right place, but she did what people wanted her to do. What Magnolia Reinhart wanted to her to do. I’m doing what I want to do. Which is walking with you.”

“Oh. Right! Hey Laken?”

“Yes?”

She gives me a quick kiss as a reply.

 

—-

 

It was a nice walk and we stretched it out to two hours. The two hours came from me sitting down to rest my aching feet while Durene offered to carry me. In the end we just sat and talked, which was wonderful. So wonderful that I forgot that the two men were waiting for me in the throne room. When I finally got back and walked in, they jumped. They hadn’t been sitting, but standing at opposite sides of the room. I felt slightly bad that I didn’t think to give them chairs, but only slightly.

“Mister Horst. Mister Wellim.”

I look at both of them. They open their mouths, uncertain, and I walk past them to sit on my throne. I sit, and the two men shuffle forwards. They wait for me to speak.

I don’t. The uncomfortable silence stretches out as the two men shift uneasily. Actually, I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. I just sit, sensing them grow more and more nervous with each passing second. At last, one of them musters the courage to open his mouth. Quick as a snake, I raise a finger and he freezes.

I wait until he closes his mouth and keep sitting there. The two men stand in place, sweating. I can practically hear their hearts pounding. And I just sit. When I finally open my mouth, I think both of them nearly have heart attacks.

“Gentlemen. Why are you here?”

They stir. And look at each other. I sit there, a young man on a throne. Blind, probably half the age of either of the men in front of me. But it’s they who can’t meet my eyes figuratively or literally. I am blind. And young. But I am an [Emperor].

“Emperor Laken, about our uh—our—our quarrel.”

One of the men, Mister Horst, begins hoarsely. Again I cut him off.

“Quarrel, is it? A quarrel is two men fighting. It gets broken up and both men need a day to heal their bruises. The worst is a broken bone. This is a feud, gentlemen.”

Silence. I look from man to man, opening my eyes briefly for effect.

“Both of you claim the other made a mistake which caused the scaffolding to break. What was it, three days ago? Now there are brawls of thirty people or more. What, exactly, is the point?

They don’t have an answer. I go on, speaking calmly, shifting my attention to the man on the left.

“Mister Wellim, I know of you as a [Builder] who made or repaired half the homes in your village. You’re a community figure and a father of three.”

He starts. Yes, I asked Prost about all that before walking in here. But it still works. I shift my attention to the man on the right.

“And you, Mister Horst, are a [Carpenter] respected by everyone I’ve talked to. You’ve been running your own business for twenty years.”

He hangs his head at this detail, a representation of his hard work over the years. I turn my head to each man.

“Why are we here? If you, Mister Wellim, were dealing with a fight between two of your apprentices, how would you handle it? By smacking a few heads together? Separating the two? What if they kept fighting? What about you, Mister Horst? Would doing any of that do any good? Why are two of your best workers fighting, anyways? What is the point?

I slap the armrest of my throne. Both men jump. After a moment I sigh.

“No one can rule who caused the problem. Both of you were there, and both of you claim the opposite thing happened. You come to me as if expecting me to know the truth. Well, I wasn’t there and I’m no god. But again, I have to ask, why do I need to be here? Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t we be building houses right now?”

Neither man speaks, but I get the slightest nod from Horst. I go on.

“Construction is dangerous. Or so I’ve heard. If there’s an issue of one person not paying attention, that’s a problem. If it happens again and there are witnesses, there may be need for punishment—or maybe not. Accidents happen. But this feud has already seen violence. If someone dies from all this hatred and anger, who will be to blame? You, Mister Horst? Or you, Mister Wellim? If someone dies, I rather think it would be my fault.”

They both look up sharply. I nod.

“I am an [Emperor]. This is my domain. Shouldn’t the blame fall to me? If things get worse—only they won’t get worse. Because we will sort this out. One of you made a mistake, or neither of you did. Either way, it’s a matter between you two, not two villages. We are working together here, all of us. We are all part of this—this nation. And I expect you to remember it.”

A beat. For a second I open my eyes again and hold their gazes. Then I close my eyes. It’s hard not to blink. I should probably exercise my eyelids, but what’s the point?

“You’re not children. If you want to hold a grudge, hold it. If you know you’re right, watch the other man until he makes a mistake again and point it out for all to see. But the feuding ends now, as does the gossiping and sabotaging each other. You don’t have to like one another. In fact, if you want to start a fight, now would be a good time. I’ll turn my head if you don’t want me to watch.”

I smile at that and turn my head sideways. I can sense the two men looking at each other. Then one of them clears his throat.

 

—-

 

Fifteen minutes later I walk out of the throne room as Horst and Wellim walk out. They’re not holding hands, but they’re talking to each other like people, even managing to smile. I find Prost waiting for me.

“I think we’ve come to an understanding, Mister Prost.”

“Good, Emperor Laken. Whose fault was it?”

“Rot in the timber, perhaps. A bad nail. Bad lighting. I think we’ll stop building at night. It’s efficient, but both Mister Horst and Wellim agree that night work leads to mistakes.”

“Very good, your majesty.”

Prost eyes the two men walking off. He looks at me and I sense a knowingness in his gaze.

“Did they brawl?”

“Not as such. They might throw a punch at each other while working, but I expect that will only be if one drops a piece of timber on the other man’s toe. They’re not friends, but they’re quite reasonable people when they get down to it.”

My [Steward] nods and I nod too.

“Only, you knew that, didn’t you Mister Prost? All of the times you broke the fights up and told them to work it out—or hinted to me that I should intervene—was to get me to do what I just did, wasn’t it?”

“Why would you say that, Emperor Laken?”

Prost bashfully looks the other way. I smile.

“A [Farmer] probably learns more than one or two tricks over the course of his life. A father likewise. Tell me, why didn’t you deal with it yourself?”

“I couldn’t do it, your majesty. Both men, well, they’re proud men and not keen to listen to a new [Steward]. An [Emperor] on the other hand…”

“Young as I am?”

“You saved their villages and drove the Goblins off. I don’t think either of them thought of your age while you were sitting on that throne, sire.”

I shake my head.

“All I did was ask them to settle things like adults, Mister Prost. It could have backfired or not worked at all. I didn’t know if what I was doing was the right thing. I just guessed.”

“But it did work, your majesty?”

I nod. Prost smiles.

“Then it was the right thing to do.”

“Yes, but what if it’s the wrong thing next time?”

He just shrugs at me. Prost speculatively looks across the village as the sun begins to set in the sky.

“Maybe it wouldn’t work any other day, and maybe it won’t work again. But it did work this time and that means what you did was the right thing, even if you didn’t know it was the right thing you were doing. And most of all, because it was you, Emperor Laken who did it, it was the right thing to do. Because [Emperors] don’t make mistakes.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re [Emperors], sir.”

“What if I made a mistake?”

“Then I’d suppose you weren’t acting much like an [Emperor] in that moment, sire. Or maybe it wasn’t your fault because things went wrong for no reason. Maybe it couldn’t be helped and it would’ve happened that way anyways. But [Emperors] don’t make mistakes because they know what they’re doing. Otherwise, why would they be [Emperors]?”

I frown as I mull over his convoluted statement.

“That’s circular logic, Mister Prost.”

He pauses, and then shrugs again.

“It may be circular, but I rather like it, sire. And it works. ”

I laugh.

“Good enough. Now, how’s Lady Rie doing?”

“Chomping at the bit, begging your pardon, sire. But she’s doing a good job, and now that there’s no need to worry about food—or a building—she’s got us figuring out seating arrangements and the like.”

“Much more manageable?”

“Much.”

We walk together, and for the first time I realize that Prost might not be in awe of Lady Rie as much as I was.

“I feel rather foolish, Mister Prost.”

“Do you, your majesty? I think you did a good job today. It was a hard decision.”

“But one I should have made, not anyone else. We wasted a lot of coin and time dancing to Lady Magnolia’s tune.”

“I expect the drapes and other things will make the great hall that much better anyways. And silverware’s good for entertaining folk, sire. It’s an investment for the future.”

“Were you always so optimistic, Prost?”

“No, your majesty. Not as smart, either. But I’ve changed a lot over the last few weeks. Done a lot of thinking ever since a young man pulled my son out of the snow.”

“Huh. Well, I hope I won’t make this mistake again. Mister Prost?”

“Emperor?”

“Let’s get to it.”

He smiles.

“Yes, sire.”

We walk back to work. Work being whatever I care to focus on. Lady Rie has her ideas, and I’m inclined to follow them. When I don’t have anything better in mind.

It’s a silly lesson I learned today. Relearned, rather. I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like that all the time. But I do know something more important: no one else knows what they’re doing, either. And so I’ve got to make the decisions, even if I’m wrong. Even if they’re the wrong ones.

Because I’m an [Emperor].

Hm. I feel like I finally understand. All the little pieces are coming together. If I add all the fragments up, that nonsense dream I’ve been having, then—I have an idea. Or rather, I had an idea. I’m just a few days ahead of myself.

 

Day 95

 

“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring lots of sweets!”

“And pudding!”

 

Aha! I wake up with a smile. So that’s what it was all about! I stretch, walk out of my cottage after spending a leisurely breakfast with Durene and find Prost in good spirits.

“Emperor, we’ve got two more houses built and I reckon we can get another field sown today if we push it.”

“Excellent, Mister Prost! Any trouble from Mister Horst and Mister Wellim?”

“Not that I know of, sire. They’ve been working well. Not on the same team, but they go to each other’s sites and shout insults at each other. In a good way.”

“As opposed to a bad way?”

“It’s more like competition than it is anger, your majesty.”

“I’ll take that, then. Lady Rie?”

She bows her head, slightly…sullenly? She’s still not happy about my changes, but she’s working within my design and she’s stopped touching my arm.

“We have the clearing set up. I’ve taken the liberty of setting a few braziers up. I think [Light] spells would be more appropriate given the warmer weather, though.”

I nod.

“Good, we might actually do this. Now, I know we’re expecting the nobles to bring food, but have a few of our [Cooks] see me within the hour. I want some of Riverfarm and the local dishes on display and a lot of sweet foods.”

I turn to Prost as Wiskeria rides into the village, her [Hunters] carrying a dead buck between them. I wonder if a [Witch] has any party tricks? What am I saying? I wonder if she’ll agree to perform a few. I’d rather like to see her turn someone into a frog.

“I’ll also need some dry corn for an experiment, Mister Prost—we’ll make popcorn and a few other dishes from home. How good are your sausages, by any chance? Do we have any fresh pork sausages or could we make some?”

“Sausages, sire? Let me find you a selection…”

Back to work. Only this time it feels right. Uncertain, but right.

 

Day 96

 

“And pudding! Sweets and pudding, okay? Remember!”

“Quick, let’s go! Before—”

 

Yes, yes. I rise, and feel a hum of anticipation in the village. Lady Rie’s pacing nervously before I have a chance to meet with her.

“I’m just not sure we have enough entertainment, Emperor Laken, I don’t know how long you expect us to be occupied with trebuchets, but at some point we will be out of diversions!”

I smile at her, noticing for the first time how stressed she sounds. I wonder how much strain she’s been feeling? I feel great, incidentally.

“We’ll make do, Lady Rie. Mingling and conversation will suffice if we have nothing else at the time.”

“Conversation? If you say so, your majesty. And will you tell me at last what the other seats are for? You aren’t intending to seat more of the villagers with the nobility, are you? Your Mossbear, perhaps?”

Apparently Lady Rie also gets sarcastic when she’s peeved. I like that—it’s more honest of her.

“Trust, Lady Rie. We may have some unexpected guests. Or not. Now, let’s go over my actual conversation topics one more time. Tell me about trade goods coming from the south. You say it’s rare for Drakes to sell their goods past Liscor? What items are in high demand around here and what role did Riverfarm and the local villages fulfill up till this point?”

She sighs, but proceeds to lecture me at length. I wish I could take notes, but my stupid phone is completely dead. I hope I can get it fixed soon. Didn’t Ryoka say that a [Repair] spell charges it up? How come no one in my entire empire can cast the spell?

I wonder how you recruit mages? Reel them in with promises of free room and board? Spellbook on a fishing line? Maybe Wiskeria knows some people. Heck, maybe she’s part of a coven.

One day left. And as I sleep, it all falls into place.

 

Day 97

 

“Is it time yet?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think we’re early. We shouldn’t be here!”

“We’ll get in trouble!”

“Let’s go, hurry!”

“Wait!”

“Shh! We’re not supposed to be heard!”

“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring lots of sweets!”

“And pudding!”

“And pudding! Sweets and pudding, okay? Remember!”

“Quick, let’s go! Before—”

 

This is what I dreamt, over a week ago. The voices stir and echo around me, not quite here, but not quite in my mind either. They’re…like real memories, if that makes sense. Memory that becomes reality as you remember it? There’s just one thing missing from the conversation, one little clue.

Today, as I wake up I feel the village come alive. I eat breakfast with Durene, smiling at her as she paces around nervously.

“Are you sure it’ll be okay, Laken? What if they get angry? Maybe I should wear a helmet! Or a hat!”

“I hate hats. Durene, it’ll be fine. Besides, your suit looks quite nice.”

“You wouldn’t know! You can’t see!

I laugh. Durene’s been dressed for today, against Lady Rie’s objections. She decided a dress did not suit her, and instead wore a suit—at my suggestion. If women can wear pants and suits, why not Durene? And apparently she cuts a rather bold figure with the cloth my [Tailors] had labored over.

“It’ll go well with my clothing, Durene. I’ve got enough cloth for a dress. We can say we switched roles for the banquet.”

“Laken!”

I’m not wearing a dress, but robes that are quite long and showy. All the better to give me some additional gravitas, according to Lady Rie. She tried to get me to wear lace and I refused. This was the best compromise we could come up with. I’d rather walk around naked than wear a suit with more lace than fabric.

“Looks like Lady Rie’s already pacing outside of the cottage. Prost’s here too. I thought the nobility were supposed to arrive this evening?”

“Maybe they’re early?”

“Not as far as I know. Pass me a fried potato, will you Durene? No, Frostwing, that’s not for you. Stop pooping so loudly, please? I’m trying to eat.”

This is how it goes. I go outside, tell a joke, and only Durene giggles. Gamel’s too uptight with his suit, Prost is distracted tugging at his, and Lady Rie’s far too high strung. Wiskeria just doesn’t like my sense of humor.

No one arrives in the morning, although we had prepared for a few early guests. Apparently I’m so intimidating, the entire group of nobles is arriving together. Or maybe that’s due to the presence of Magnolia’s servant, Sacra, and the famous Lady Bethal Walchaís. I sense a rather large caravan of people headed this way just after breakfast and Beniar’s riders report the nobles are coming in a train.

“A rather large group. They may arrive an hour late. I don’t think they were expecting to carry quite so much on the trip here.”

Lady Rie stares accusingly at me. I just smile.

“And their escort?”

“Light, for a group of nobles travelling. I counted sixty armed guards.”

“So two per noble? A bit less? That is trusting. If they’re staying the night, they can sleep in the houses for the nobles or outside. It shouldn’t rain today.”

“I doubt they’ll stay the night. And I’m surprised Lady Bethal isn’t travelling by magical carriage. Apparently Magnolia Reinhart lends it to all her closest friends. I wonder if it’s broken?”

“Magical carriages? Hold on, explain that to me? Someone?”

The day wears on. I try not to let my nerves get the better of me. I have a plan. It’s not a good one, and it’s based on guesswork and a dream I had. But it’s all I’ve got. As evening wears into dusk, the first nobles ride into Riverfarm, a group of laughing young [Lords] and [Ladies] and their retainers. They freeze the instant they see me.

“Lord Andres, Lady Cimeca, Lord Pattin, welcome to Riverfarm!”

Lady Rie calls out more names as the mounted nobility draw back, staring at me in alarm and awe. I smile, and gently let Frostwing flap her wings. Beneath me, my mount shifts and growls, making the noble’s horses back away skittishly.

That’s right, I’m riding Bismarck, my Mossbear. If you’ve got a Mossbear and you don’t ride it to meet people, what kind of [Emperor] are you? Durene stands by my side, practically vibrating with nerves. I try not to show anyone that my legs are trembling as they hug Bismarck’s sides.

A flurry. A torrent of bodies. Rich men and women dressed in finery, armored warriors—I can only rely on Wiskeria and Durene’s whispered explanations. Their voices sound like any other, perhaps a touch more refined and breathy—the nobles ride up to me on their horses while I let Bismarck snuffle at them. And then I hear a voice I recognize.

“Emperor Laken, I bring you greetings on behalf of Lady Magnolia Reinhart, who apologizes for the inconvenience of this small gathering.”

“Odveig. Or would you prefer to be called Sacra?”

“Either is fine.”

I turn my head to the [Maid] standing and staring up at me without a trace of fear. I can sense Wiskeria tensing besides me, but Sacra pays her no notice as she bows and introduces the last of my guests. I smell a floral perfume and hear a light voice.

“My, is that a Mossbear? Thomast, look! How exciting! Do you think I could ride it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Emperor Laken, may I present Lady Bethal Walchaís and Sir Thomast?”

The man and woman step forwards. I get nothing from my image of them in my head. Lady Bethal is wearing a dress and Thomast some kind of doublet. They’re attired much like the others I suppose—my [Emperor] senses don’t extend to color or detail well. But the two do have a kind of…presence in my mind.

Lady Bethal feels like a rose, or a bush covered in thorns. As if I could walk into her and be stung. It’s an aura about her, and Sir Thomast—just seems too poised. He stands as if he could leap into action at any moment and there’s a grace about his movements that makes me think he knows how to handle the rapier at his side. Both bow to me and Lady Bethal’s first words after her greeting are about Bismarck.

“Is he tamed, your majesty? I had heard there was an [Emperor] who commanded the hearts of both beasts and men, but until Magnolia told me about you, I was quite under the impression that it was all rumor! Oh, but do forgive me—I do forget myself. Thomast, why don’t you ever stop me?”

The [Chevalier] says nothing. I get the feeling he’s staring at me, not at Durene, for all Bethal is now gushing over Durene’s suit and greeting Lady Rie. From the way Rie goes stiff and quiet, I get the feeling that Lady Bethal’s spiky aura isn’t for show.

Big players. Large fish in small ponds, or however the saying goes. Bethal strikes me as a shark, though. The nobles wait for me as I finish greeting Lady Bethal. They’ve already spotted the clearing filled with food that their servants are busily unloading and I think their mood is—intrigued. Some of them appear dismayed from the way they shift and lean closer to talk to each other, but I’ve made an impression.

So here’s how it ends. I raise my hand and make a small speech in the silence as every eye falls to me. As the light fades I quell the butterflies in my chest. Is this the right thing to do? Is this the right thing to say? I’m an [Emperor]. It better be.

“[Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, I greet you. I am Laken Godart.”

They stir as I don’t give myself any titles. I could have proclaimed myself ruler of the Unseen Empire, or any number of things, but I’m here to make friends, not scare them. I go on.

“I am aware that you are here at Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s request. I was unaware of this gathering until she arranged it in my honor, and I am grateful for her aid in doing so. For your enjoyment, my people have created a small setting in which we may mingle and talk. I look forwards to meeting each one of you in person. But before that—”

My heart skips a beat in my chest. Here it is.

“—But before that, I believe there are a few more guests I have yet to invite.”

Murmurs. I see heads turning and Thomast tense ever so slightly beside his wife. I ignore the confused nobility and look up.

“I greet the nobility of this land before me. I offer them the warmth of my hearths and the bounty of my lands. I would be remiss if I did not extend the same invitation to my own vassals.”

I look up towards the sky. Please be there. Please don’t be a dream.

“My lords and ladies of the court? I invite you to share this banquet at your discretion. My lands are open to all those of my empire on this day. Come, if thou would.”

I offer a hand up towards the heavens. And wait. There’s only silence. After a moment, a long moment in which I curse and wonder what the hell I should do next, I lower my hand. The silence around me is broken by a low voice muttering out of the group of nobles.

“What was that?

I hear a titter and someone shushing the speaker. I turn, keeping my face calm, not letting blood rush to my cheeks. It was a long shot. A perhaps. And I am an [Emperor]. So I keep up the charade, as I turn to look at my [Steward].

“Mister Prost? We may have visitors this night. Keep a place at the tables open should guests arrive. Now, I believe we are ready to be seated?”

“Of course, your majesty.”

Prost breaks the silence by gesturing. The young men and women dressed in fine clothing step forwards and quite elegantly lead the nobles to the tables. I dismount Bismarck and do the same, pointedly standing. It’s going to be a standing dinner, a time to chat. Less formal which means less risk of me making a mistake. I turn my head to the buffet and try to remember my lines? Thank Magnolia for her hospitality again? No, wait, maybe I should talk about the Goblins—

I freeze as I hear a giggle. It’s a soft sound, but it cuts through the quiet murmuring like a bell ringing in a snowstorm. The sound is bright and cheerful and makes every head turn in confusion. I feel my heart beating faster.

The giggling stops abruptly. But the air is suddenly warmer, and the sky brighter. The clearing illuminated by braziers and mage light warms, and it feels as though everything is lit by a subtle glow. I feel the wind blow strong for a second, and smell wet earth, flowers, the smell of nectar, growing grass—

Spring.

Oh, that’s what I was missing. I hear the voices overhead, crystal clear at last. Unearthly voices, voices that rustle and leap with life, the voices made of magic.

 

“Is it time yet?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think we’re early. We shouldn’t be here!”

“We’ll get in trouble!”

“Let’s go, hurry!”

“Wait!”

“Shh! We’re not supposed to be heard!”

“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring lots of sweets!”

“And pudding!”

“And pudding! Sweets and pudding, okay? Remember!”

“Quick, let’s go! Before—”

 

A clamor of quick voices, arguing, talking rapidly and urgently. And then an authoritative voice, singing out above them all.

 

“Too late! It’s time!”

 

I hear laughter. And I look up and smile. The skies open. The nobles gape. Durene looks up and gasps. Lady Rie nearly swallows her tongue. I just laugh as the wind blows and they step downwards, step out of the forests, dance into the meadow. Of course, why would they be cold and frozen in the spring? I look at one of them as they wink and blow me a kiss. They bow, mockingly, and I shake my head.

“Took you long enough.”

 

“Same to you!”

 

And then my banquet really begins as they descend, bringing spring and chaos in their wake. The tricksters, the harbingers of spring and snow. The beings of myth and magic. The Fair Folk.

The fae.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.09 E

I dreamed I was sleeping in my bed, with worried voices speaking loudly overhead. I couldn’t tell who had trespassed here, only that they had come in secret and stood around me, speaking anxiously and quickly. As I was dreaming I missed most of what was said, but I knew it was important. I tried to remember, to grasp the words as they flitted by, but like memory and water they flowed away, leaving me only with an impression. Snippets of a conversation.

 

“Is it time…?”

“I don’t think so.”

“…sure?”

“….we’re early. We….here!”

“…trouble!”

“Let’s….”

“Wait!”

“…We’re not…”

“…remember to….”

“…!”

“And…! …okay? Remember!”

“Quick…before—”

 

And then I woke up.

 

Day 85

 

As dreams went, it wasn’t the worst I’ve had by far. Not the best either—it was mainly confusing. I’ve had good dreams and bad dreams aplenty. Of course, I don’t remember most of them and I never ‘see’ dreams.

Because of course, I’m blind. Hello, I’m Laken Godart, [Emperor] of the Unseen Empire. Protector of Durene’s Cottage, sovereign of the village of Riverfarm, Windrest, Tunslaven, Kiquel…and so on.

I’ve got a lot of titles. A lot of power. And yet, it feels like only yesterday that I was a normal young man walking around in San Francisco. Forever ago and yesterday. Strange—I sometimes forget what my friends’ voices sound like. There are so many around me each day, asking me questions.

“Laken, do you want eggs on your uh, weird potatoes, bacon and onions?”

Sometimes the questions are good questions and come from people you love. Nevertheless I roll my eyes as I get up.

“No eggs for me. And it’s call bratkartoffeln, Durene. Honestly, I keep telling you. How hard is it to remember?”

“Hey! I try, but—oh, you’re joking.”

I smile to myself at the sound of Durene’s voice. I can tell she’s in the kitchen, delicately stirring the fried potatoes with a long-handled spoon. She transfers the hot food to a plate and comes to sit by me as I dress and move towards the small table in her cottage. I have a chair—she uses the floor. We’re still pretty much on the same level because she’s a good bit taller than me. Bigger, too.

She’s half-Troll. And a [Paladin]. It’s a long story. I eat breakfast happily with Durene, talking about the day until a loud squawk interrupts us. A large and, apparently, blue bird is making a racket. She smells breakfast and wants in.

“Shut up, Frostwing.”

I toss some bacon at her and sense her catch the bit of meat and worry at it. Placated for a few moments, I turn back to Durene and keep eating. It’s wonderful to be able to sense where every part of your meal is on your plate. It’s what I always imagined sight to be like, but better, since I can sense everything in my domain. And that means I can sense everything from Durene scratching her leg to Frostwing behind me, to the Mossbear snuffling around our front door—

“Um, Durene. He’s back.”

“Is he?”

Durene gets up and I sense her opening the door. Feel it too—it’s no longer cold and the breeze actually feels quite nice. Spring is finally here. Durene shouts at the large bear outside.

“Go on, shoo! I’ll feed you breakfast later!”

The bear whuffs and I raise my voice.

“Bismarck—heh. Bismarck, go on, leave the door alone!”

I snort a bit as the bear obediently backs away. Yes, I named the bear Bismarck. I think it’s funny and it needed a name. Especially because it’s now my pet. Or something.

[Lesser Bond: Bismarck]. I received it yesterday after I finally came up with a name for him. Bismarck was just called ‘Unnamed Mossbear’ before that. Apparently I tamed him by feeding him and having him fight in a battle alongside my people. Now he lets me ride him, hangs around the cottage for food and in general pesters Durene.

“Shoo! I’ll give you potatoes later! And don’t you dare dig up my garden! It’s all growing, understand? Leave my plants alone!”

Possibly only Durene could push a bear off her property. She’s actually stronger than the Mossbear, and the Mossbear’s bigger and tougher than normal bears to boot. Durene chalks it up to her [Enhanced Strength] and her other new Skills, but I wonder. Trolls are said to be extremely strong and tough, but they can’t gain classes or level.

As a half-Troll Durene seems to have the benefits of both her Human and Troll heritage. Not that it helped her before she met me. She was an outcast, barely tolerated by the village. Only when I became an [Emperor] did everything change.

“Oh, how much it changed.”

I mutter to myself as I stroke Frostwing’s head. My lovely, stupid bird snaps at the meat I offer her.

“Soon you’re going to have to hunt for yourself. You can fly, and it’s a waste of good meat to keep feeding you cow and pig. How do you feel about rats?”

She poops in her nest. I sigh. Animals, Durene…what else? Well, there’s the young man waiting patiently outside the gate. I keep telling him not to do that, but Gamel is my [Knight] and seems to believe I should be attended at all times. Since the villagers agree with him, it’s hard to tell him to stop. Plus, it is convenient.

Time to start my day! I stride outside as Durene, grumbling, chucks potatoes at Bismarck. Apparently bears can eat potatoes and he chases after a spud as I walk past. I wonder if this is what it’s like having a dog?

“Good morning, Gamel.”

“Your majesty.”

Gamel bows. Quite smoothly too. He must have been practicing. I nod at him and square my shoulders.

“Time to start the day. Durene, I’m heading into the village.”

“Wait for me! I just have to—no, Bismarck, there are no more potatoes! Go eat some berries!”

Disappointed, the Mossbear ambles out of the cottage gates as Durene hurries into her cottage. I sense Bismarck heading into the forest now that breakfast has been served. He’ll scavenge for food until dinner or when I call him. I’m fine with that. I know some people would prefer me to ride him around everywhere but I like walking and Bismarck is not that comfortable to ride.

“I wonder if someone can make a saddle for him.”

“The bear, sire? I will ask Mister Prost about it right away!”

“No…”

I grimace and wave a hand. This is the problem with being an [Emperor]. Everyone takes my words as a command. And that can be a big problem.

“We have more important things to do than waste time with saddles for bears, Gamel. Maybe once we finish construction and get everyone settled.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Right.”

I wait until Durene comes out of the cottage. She’s got a greatsword and she’s tying it to her belt. It’s old and she doesn’t have a sheath—the greatsword is made of iron, not steel. Even so, she’s killed two Hobs with it and a score of Goblins.

Durene, my [Paladin], and Gamel, my [Knight]. Their lives were shaped by me. I saved Gamel’s life. Kept him alive when he was dying. I ordered him to live and he lived. He has never told me whether he resents that order.

The cottage that we leave behind is mine. The dirt road that we walk down is mine. The village we enter is mine, as are all the people inside. I claimed it. I claimed the land around here, marked it with totems proclaiming the borders of my empire. So I can ‘see’ the entire area around the village if I concentrate. I can sense the hundreds, no, over a thousand people in this area alone busy at work this early in the morning.

I sense houses going up, people carting timber to the areas under construction, the [Farmers] hard at work to the north in the new fields, the [Blacksmiths] at their forges, working to produce nails and hinges and so on for the construction. Riverfarm was a small village of just over a hundred people. Now it is turning into a city.

There’s a method to the chaos. It might seem chaotic at ground level—I wouldn’t know. The babble of voices greeting me, the sounds of horses and people shouting at each other is confusing for a blind man. But I can view the village from above and get a very reliable idea of how things are laid out.

“Good, we’re still on track. Gamel, is Prost supervising the building?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“We’ll go see him, then. Durene?”

“I’m going to help carry stuff, Laken.”

“I’ll see you later, then.”

I part ways with Durene, knowing she’ll be carrying trees around and helping people lift things too heavy to carry without a team. I’d like to stay with her, but I have my duties too. I am an [Emperor], and my job is to oversee…this.

An empire. Or the beginnings of one. It’s small, and by small, I mean that it only has a few thousand people in it, but that’s a frightening number of people to house, feed, and protect every day. They’re all villagers, the people of Riverfarm, Windrest—villages that were raided by Goblins. Oh, and a town. The town of Trottvisk declared itself part of the Unseen Empire just the other day. It happens.

So much to do. I wouldn’t know where to start—but I have some advantages. My Skills as an [Emperor], my knowledge from Earth, my home, and my counselors. I might not know how to take care of so many people myself, but if there’s one thing I know from Earth, it’s that delegation is key.

In fact, my coming from another world is probably my biggest asset. One day I just appeared in this world. And while all the scientific knowledge in the world wouldn’t protect me from monsters or starving to death by myself, it does help when I’m a leader of a large group of people. One of the things I brought from my world to this one was the idea of sanitation.

Obviously, people didn’t eat everything with dirty hands in this world before I came along, but they didn’t consider washing hands essential and they sometimes built their outhouses and latrines way too close to the water.

That’s changed now. I walk towards a man directing people to dig the latest public outhouses away from the river that gives Riverfarm its name. He stops, turns to me, and bows the instant he notices I’m here.

“Emperor Laken, sir!”

Prost, my [Steward] has also changed markedly since I first met him. He was a [Farmer] who barely tolerated Durene and couldn’t accept that she and I were living under the same roof. Now he’s my right-hand man who oversees construction, settles minor disputes, coordinates things like food, housing—all the things I’m bad at. I nod to him.

“Mister Prost, how are we doing today?”

“Another four houses built since you last visited, sire!”

Four? But I was here last night!”

Prost beams. I can sense it and hear it in his voice.

“Yes, your majesty. But we had a night team working and they’re quick! Don’t fear that people minded the hammering—we sleep like rocks unless there’s an alarm called!”

I have to shake my head. Another of my Skills is [Blessing of the Hearth], which allows people a comfortable night’s sleep even if they’re lying on the floor. I had no idea it could be used this way, but that’s the thing about leading, or so I’ve learned. It’s about combining multiple perspectives to achieve the best result.

“Well, carry on Mister Prost. I just wanted to see if there were any new developments.”

“In the construction? No, sire. We’ve been keeping to the directions you gave—it’s very simple to understand!”

“Is it? Good, good.”

My directions. As I said, I can see the entire village and my empire with a bird’s eye view. That means I’m uniquely able to visualize the layout of the buildings in my head and organize it as best I can. However, there’s a lot to take in.

“Just let me know if you see any issues arising regarding wells, proximity to the outhouses and so on. We want everything within reach and I’d hate to know that we didn’t build a large enough road or something.”

“Yes, sire. Don’t worry, I’ve talked it over with the other [Village Heads] and [Farmers] and so on. They all agree your plan for the city is sound.”

One of Prost’s new talents aside from all his organizational skills seems to be reassuring me. I leave him to it. The village does look good in my head. I tried to copy it over as best I could to a map, but sadly I still can’t read books with my [Emperor] senses. I had to describe it and trust that everyone understood what I was talking about.

Creating a village. Planning it out with access to water, food, keeping houses away from [Blacksmiths] who are noisy, and organizing a central road that splits off into smaller paths—it would be a challenge for an [Architect], and I have absolutely no training in this area. However, I did my best. In fact, coming up with a design for my new empire reminded me a lot of video games—or rather, what I imagine video games are like.

It’s hard to play a lot of games when you’re blind. Board games sort of work, but anything with a strong visual component? No thanks. I did have friends who told me what it was like, though. The friend I was hanging out in San Francisco with, Zoe, she told me about a game. Age of Empires II or something. She described it like this, where you direct people around, lay out your kingdom, and defend it from enemies.

In my head, I’m thinking of where monsters or bandits might come from, how we’re going to expand—because we will expand, I’m sure of it—the placement of other villages, and of course, how to patrol the entire area I’ve claimed to keep it safe. I get headaches just thinking of all the problems. And people do this for fun?

“Gamel, I think I’ll look at our crops today. I see Wiskeria and our guest are near the farms so we’ll visit her on the way.”

“Very good, sire.”

Though Prost is my [Steward], I’ve assigned him to worrying about construction and farming for the most part, which he knows the most about. However, I have two other people I regard as my counselors. I go to meet both of them now. They’re standing near the farms, talking with their own crowds of people.

One is a woman on horseback with a pointed hat and spectacles, overseeing the deployment of armed men and women. The other is a woman wearing a dress, out of place among the more simply dressed folk. But she is also in the thick of things, speaking eloquently as people bow to her and hurry off.

“Lady Rie, Wiskeria.”

I greet them as I approach. The two women break off immediately and come to me. Rie curtsies and Wiskeria dismounts to bow slightly. Wiskeria is a [Witch] and my [General] tasked with defending my empire. Lady Rie is a [Lady], formerly the landowner of some of the villages and towns around here.

After Goblins attacked her mansion, Lady Rie pledged herself to my service. I was the one who led an army to save her, but I was surprised by her request to become my vassal. It’s been three days since she came to Riverfarm and she’s already assisted in numerous ways.

“Good morning, Emperor Laken.”

“Morning, sire.”

The two greet me, Rie formally, Wiskeria informally. I nod to Wiskeria and incline my head to Lady Rie. There is a difference and according her the status of her rank is important. Lady Rie is good with people. She is a [Lady] after all, and as the last member of the Valerund family she knows how to organize and settle disputes.

“Lady Rie, thank you for your help. May I ask if there are any new developments?”

“None worth speaking of, Emperor Laken. However, I urge you once again to entertain the notion of an audience with some of the local nobility. I could arrange the meetings quite easily.”

I grimace and cut the motion short. Lady Rie has been floating the idea past me for the last few days.

“I understand your desire Lady Rie, but I have no desire to enter the political world just yet.”

“I fear it is far too late for that, your majesty. Your presence alone is significant, and I worry that the other nobles will take your expanding empire as a sign of…”

Rie hesitates delicately. I fill in the gap for her.

“Danger?”

She shifts ever so slightly.

“Perhaps. Which is why an audience may allay their worries. I have no doubt the other [Lords] and [Ladies] who own lands in the area have already investigated your presence, your majesty. They will be cautious, some afraid—but the truth is that there is a surplus of lands and not enough of the aristocracy to manage the land. Your presence may be quite beneficial so long as the other nobles are assured that their lands will not be encroached upon. And you are needed. Many villages lack a local [Lord] or [Lady].”

“Is that a bad thing?”

The practice of landowning seems medieval to me—not the act of owning land, that’s as common as landlords, but the idea of owning everything on a piece of land, including the people. I don’t see why anyone would want that, but Lady Rie seems surprised by my question.

“Having a [Lord] is quite beneficial, Emperor Laken. Some would consider a village or town not protected by some kind of landowner to be very dangerous indeed, or at the least, troublesome.”

“How so?”

Wiskeria stands patiently to one side, listening, and I sense the crowds of people either moving away on business or waiting for me to finish. I feel as though I’m interrupting important work, but I am the [Emperor]. Teaching me important facts is quite necessary if I’m to lead well. Rie explains as I stand patiently with Gamel behind me.

“When my family was alive we managed a huge area of land. It is not simply protection we offer, but justice. We enforced laws, settled disputes, collected taxes, and dealt with disasters and monster attacks as they emerged—ruled in short. Each [Lord] is a [King] of his own domain, or so it is said.”

“I see. And there’s a lack of nobility in the area?”

Rie pauses.

“The Second Antinium War was…devastating to put it mildly. Many of the aristocracy lost their lives defending their homes from the Goblin King. As such, there are many unattended lands that lack any local ruler.”

“I see. Well, if it will reassure the other [Lords] and [Ladies], I suppose I could consider an audience. But on the same note Lady Rie, would you prefer to stay elsewhere? I know Riverfarm’s accommodations are less than what someone of your station might expect. Several of the local cities and towns have offered to give you their finest lodging.”

I float the idea by Lady Rie, wondering if she’ll bite. She declined the offer the first time I made it, but will she have changed her mind in the three days she’s been here? Lady Rie shakes her head instantly, and then recalls that I’m blind.

“I am quite content here, Emperor Laken. I would like to see my home restored to me—but so long as the Goblin threat persists, I do not believe I would be safe anywhere but here. As to staying in a city or nearby town—if you will allow me to say so, I see greater opportunity in making myself useful to you here, your majesty. If you will permit me to stay, I would do so gladly.”

I nod.

“I won’t turn away aid, and I do consider you quite invaluable, Lady Rie. Your people are quite helpful as well. Although as I recall, your man—Geram?—was insistent on staying by your side.”

Adamant, in fact. He didn’t say so around me, but I got word of the argument through Prost. All of Lady Rie’s servants follow after her and treat me with the utmost respect, but it can’t be normal having an [Emperor] pop up all of a sudden. Rie’s voice is apologetic.

“Do forgive him, sire. He worries for my safety, but I assured him I was quite safe in the village.”

“I quite understand. I believe he will be quite an asset to Wiskeria’s army.”

Geram is one of Lady Rie’s more notable servants. He’s a huge bald man who fights with his fists. He’s apparently a former [Street Brawler] of some renown—an odd choice for a captain of the guard for a [Lady], but he does seem tough. He took down several Hobs himself while defending Rie’s mansion. I wonder if he’s romantically involved with Lady Rie, or the other one, Nesor, her [Mage] is. He’s a young man with a lot of anxiety and isn’t the best [Mage], but I’ll take any magic-users I can get.

“I’m grateful for all the soldiers I can get, Lady Rie. On that note—Wiskeria, how goes training the army?”

Wiskeria steps forwards smoothly. She’s in charge of defense, which is a lot simpler since I can tell if anything enters my lands. Wiskeria can send out a patrol to deal with most problems at once, which is why she devotes most of her time to actually creating an army to fight with.

We have a small core of adventurers and retired [Warriors] and so on, but I’ve had to rely on other towns and cities by using another Skill – [Imperial Levy]. I can request their soldiers to fight if a huge group of monsters or bandits come along, but I’d prefer to have a force at my disposal. Wiskeria’s been working in that area, but training [Soldiers] up from scratch is hard.

“We have a number of recruits interested in fighting, Emperor Laken. I suspect we’ll have less after the rigorous daily training, but then again, perhaps not. They are quite dedicated. However, we do have an issue.”

“Oh?”

She nods.

“There’s not enough weapons to train all the potential recruits, and many skilled workers—[Bakers], [Carpenters], and so on—don’t have the tools or space to ply their trade.”

“That was my observation as well. Too many villages fled without packing their supplies and lost them to Goblins or thieves.”

Lady Rie sighs. I nod. The Unseen Empire is comprised mainly of villagers who fled their homes and as such it lacks most of everything.

“I’m aware of the problem, Wiskeria, but I consider getting a roof over everyone’s head the first priority. Most of the villagers are still sleeping in barns—that can’t last forever. If they’re not training, send your soldiers to help with everyone else. That goes for our experienced craftspeople, Lady Rie. We have a lot of hands. Anyone can help lift or hammer nails, or help make rope and so on. We’ll use that to get everyone housed quickly, and then focus on specialized buildings and tools. Our [Blacksmiths] can only work so fast and I need them making nails before swords.”

Wiskeria nods reluctantly, but Lady Rie clears her throat softly.

“We may be able to procure some arms and tools without needing to forge them ourselves, Emperor Laken. If you will allow me to make a few inquiries, I believe I could obtain a good deal of supplies at a cheap price.”

“From the other cities?”

“Indeed. I could put in an order to Invrisil and further cities abroad as well. The transportation fee would be somewhat steep, but it would allow General Wiskeria and other craftspeople to begin working sooner. If you consider it wise? We have enough money.”

I shift uncomfortably.

“It is your money after all, Lady Rie.”

Perhaps it’s my Skill – [King’s Bounty]. Or perhaps it’s just how things worked out. But Lady Rie’s fortune is now part of the Unseen Empire. She told me it was mine to use and I reluctantly accepted it. That money could buy a lot of tools—I just wonder how I’ll repay Lady Rie.

I’ll think about it later. And Lady Rie seems to regard it as an investment.

“Consider it a gift for saving my life, Emperor. Very well, I will send a few [Message] spells with Nesor’s help. If you will excuse me.”

She bows slightly and moves away. She’s graceful, intelligent, and extremely helpful. I can’t help but think that I lucked out in having her pledge her loyalty to me. I wait until she’s out of earshot to speak quietly to Wiskeria.

“You’ve been watching her?”

“Yes, Emperor. She’s done nothing out of the ordinary. She uses her personal mage to send [Message] spells, but her people have settled in well. Fairly well. The [Servants] were arrogant until Prost settled them down and I believe Lady Rie had a word with them.”

“Sounds good. But keep a discreet eye on her. I will too. In my own way.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

Saving Lady Rie was an easy decision. Accepting her as my vassal…well, I didn’t have any reason to refuse. She’s competent, in need of a home, and knowledgeable on things like politics and trade, something neither Wiskeria nor Prost know that well. I haven’t had any reason to doubt her and neither has Wiskeria.

However, after Odveig, neither of us are quite so trusting. Lady Rie seems perfectly willing to put herself behind me with coin as well as her help. Maybe she’s grateful. Or perhaps she thinks I’m a rising star and wants to secure as much influence as possible. I’m fine with either option, but I do worry.

“All’s quiet so far?”

“You would know that better than I, Emperor.”

Wiskeria’s voice is a little less formal without anyone else to hear. She treats me more like a person than Prost or Rie or anyone else besides Durene, which I’m grateful for. I smile.

“True, but I do worry. It might be my senses can’t detect hidden threats or…well, it puts my mind at ease to know your people are patrolling.”

“Of course, sir. I think it reassures the other towns and cities too. But I have only a limited number of warriors at my disposal and I prefer to keep most of them here in case you sense anything.”

“Right. Speaking of sensing—Beniar’s riders dispatched the [Bandit] group on the western road.”

“Ah. Any casualties?”

“None. They took them out in the middle of the night.”

I relay the news to Wiskeria with the utmost certainty despite Beniar being over fifteen miles south east of here. I sensed him attack the [Bandits]. I felt it. It was almost like I was there.

 

—-

 

Darkness. The night is pitch-black, so dark that the distant stars and obscured moon do little to provide light. It’s so dark that the few lazy sentries outside of the camp of [Bandits] can’t see much. And why should they worry anyways? They’re hidden well off the road, far from any settlements. They can hide and strike at people on the roads at their leisure.

Or so they think. But galloping hooves break the night’s silence. I imagine the sound of galloping, anyways. I can’t hear, only sense. What I do sense is the [Bandits] on watch looking up in sudden alarm. They reach for their weapons, peer into the darkness. One goes to rouse the others.

Too late. The first rider appears out of the darkness like a ghost. He rides down on a sentry who screams once—the sword takes him in the chest and he falls. Beniar, my [Cataphract] and [Captain], turns his mount and more riders appear out of the darkness behind him. They charge the sentries and into the camp of bandits.

The ragged men and women are ready for a fight. What they’re not ready for is for Beniar to scatter their torches and campfires, plunging them into darkness. Again, I have to imagine the shadows flickering and the riders streaming through the camp. I don’t have a problem with seeing since the images in my head aren’t really visual.

I sense Beniar and his [Riders] cutting the confused [Bandits] down as they flail at shadows. My riders have no problem seeing in the darkness, and as they cut down the last of the [Bandits] they cheer. I roll over in my bed miles away and go to sleep at last, relieved.

 

—-

 

[Blacksky Riders]. That’s the name of the last of my new Skills. After the battle at Lady Rie’s mansion I gained a new Skill that allows my soldiers to become, well, terrors of the night. It was hard for me to figure out what my Skill did at first, but after one exciting night it all became clear.

My Skill allows a group of chosen riders to see in the night. Not only that—the effect extends to their mounts and lets them dampen the light when they so choose. Thanks to that, Beniar’s group of mounted warriors have become night ambushers who can attack in the darkness with ease. It’s a powerful Skill and has already led to rumors that the people of my empire don’t need eyes to see.

Just like their [Emperor]. I was relieved that none of the riders were hurt, though, and Wiskeria seems equally relieved. Losing just one soldier or horse is dangerous.

“Beniar should be on his way back. I think he’ll arrive after midday, but I’d like to put a [Mage] with his group. Someone who can send and receive [Message] spells.”

“I agree. Unfortunately, that young [Mage] that Lady Rie employs can neither ride nor send [Message] spells reliably. There are artifacts that can do the same, but they are quite expensive.”

“More problems. We’ll put that on our list until later, Wiskeria. At least I can tell where everyone is. But keeping the lines of communication open is one of the key principles of war. I think I read that somewhere.”

“Hm. I agree. But aside from Lady Rie’s personal artifacts we have nothing of our own. And I would rather buy more swords and bows and so forth than purchase a single artifact.”

“They’re that expensive?”

“Oh yes. On that note, may I speak with you about the crops your [Farmers] are growing? Food is essential I know, but they could easily devote a few fields to growing some crops that [Alchemists] would buy. Or a few varieties of mushrooms? I’m familiar with what sells well and I could obtain some seed samples with enough coin…”

“You have my attention.”

The work never ends. There’s always something to do, which isn’t bad, but it means that I always feel like there’s more I could be doing rather than taking a break. I’m sure that’s unhealthy, but I have energy and it’s not like I’m running about. Just talking and listening.

In any case, the rest of my day is devoted to managing things with Wiskeria. She’s quite sharp despite only having been a Silver-rank adventurer before I made her into a [General], and I value her insight. We spend an entire day talking about how to use Beniar’s riders most effectively and hunting without depleting animal populations. It feels slightly wrong that I can tell where every deer herd is, but I have to keep my people fed. I work and then I go to sleep with Durene in the cottage.

It’s another day in the life of Emperor Laken. That is, until Nesor wakes up screaming and rouses the entire village.

 

Day 86

 

Zel Shivertail is dead. The army raised by Magnolia Reinhart at Invrisil has been defeated. The Goblin Lord is marching towards the city, only a few days away from this area. And like that, I’m facing another crisis. The same crisis I’ve always had to face, in fact. The enemy that has defined Riverfarm’s struggle, the nemesis of the Unseen Empire in my mind.

Goblins.

“Nesor, calm down and give me answers. How badly was Magnolia Reinhart’s army defeated? How did General Shivertail die? Where is the Goblin Lord’s army headed?”

It’s early morning. Rie, Prost, Wiskeria, and I are all standing in the large cottage assigned solely to Lady Rie. Nesor, a young man who failed to graduate from Wistram is sitting at a table, face pale, hands shaking. He’s stuttering, barely able to speak.

“I—I just got a message Lady Rie. It said General Shivertail was dead and the Goblin Lord had won! It was a warning to all the nobility in the area so I got it—”

“Nothing else?”

“N-n—”

He shudders. I look at Wiskeria. She has an impatient look on her face, the same one I’m trying to suppress.

“You can’t send [Message] spells, can you, Wiskeria?”

“I never learned. That kind of magic is more difficult for my class.”

“Nesor, calm down.”

Lady Rie is soothing Nesor. She looks at me apologetically.

“I apologize, Emperor. Nesor, send a [Message] spell back to—oh, First Landing? It must be chaos in Invrisil right now and I don’t know that we’ll get a quick response. This might take a while.”

I nod and step out of the house with Prost and Wiskeria. I turn to them and see the same worry and fear in their eyes that I’m feeling. Only they’re looking to me for help. I can see lights in the houses nearby and a lot of people are standing in the streets, looking worried. Time to do my [Emperor] thing.

“Okay. Prost, calm everyone down. Don’t mention specifics, but let people know there are Goblins near Invrisil and—leave it at that. Tell them there will be an announcement later and that we are still waiting for details.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

Prost hurries off. I turn to Wiskeria and drew her aside.

“Wiskeria, explain what Nesor said to me.”

“What part?”

All of it. I know the Goblin Lord was marching north, but who’s General Shivertail?”

Wiskeria’s voice is surprised.

“You don’t know?”

“I have never heard of him before. Assume I’m from far away and have no idea of anything. Who is he, and why is this so important?”

I can sense Wiskeria looking at me. I never told her or anyone besides Durene that I’m from Earth, but Wiskeria isn’t stupid. She’s already expressed surprise at the things I know and don’t know. Right now I don’t care. I might tell her everything just in case—Ryoka would object, but I need people I can trust in possession of all the facts. For the moment, Wiskeria takes me at my word.

“General Shivertail is—was—a hero of the Antinium Wars and the highest-leveled Drake [General] in the entire world. If he’s dead, then this Goblin Lord is extremely dangerous.”

“Antinium Wars. Wasn’t there a book on the history of the Antinium Wars? I never found a copy to read. Please explain all of it.”

“Yes, sir.”

I walk with Wiskeria to her private house and she brews me some tea while she speaks, summarizing decades of history while the sun rises. Her home, like Rie’s, is hers alone. It’s a bit extravagant especially since a lot of people are still sleeping crammed together, but rank has privileges and as soon as we get personalized housing built Wiskeria will move out and let a family take this home. She wants a forest cottage with a garden for mushrooms and other alchemical ingredients. And a place to brew potions where there’s no one to smell it.

Anyways, her explanation of Zel Shivertail and the Goblin Lord fills me with dread. The news we get just after morning is no better. Nesor finally got through to First Landing and all the reports are of the battle, and the Goblin Lord’s army.

Tens of thousands. That alone is enough to panic me. I could muster a force of a thousand soldiers. Maybe two thousand if I pressed every city and town in the area to turn out their garrisons. That’s all. If the Goblin Lord comes here—

“What should we do, Emperor Laken? People will panic if word spreads.”

“It’ll spread.”

Wiskeria glances sideways at Nesor. I grimace. The young man sounds like he couldn’t keep a secret to save his life. Funny, I’m probably only a few years older than he is.

“I won’t lie to people or hide the truth. Prost, we’ll tell them what happened. But when you do, tell them this: the Goblin Lord’s army is not headed our way just yet. They’re moving towards Invrisil, which is close by, but I haven’t sensed any Goblins in our radius and I will know if they approach.”

I sense Prost nodding in relief. I don’t talk about my abilities, but people need reassurance now.

“If an army comes calling we’ll evacuate or fight, but until then, there’s no reason to panic. Wiskeria will send out more patrols and alert all the settlements nearby in case they haven’t heard.”

“I’ll send riders now.”

“Good. Lady Rie, if you would keep communicating with First Landing?”

“Of course.”

I nod and stand.

“In that case, Prost, you and I will calm people down.”

And so we do. Prost shouts the news and I tell people what I just told him. It doesn’t calm them down exactly, but no one screams or runs. And once we get people moving about their tasks things calm down. I walk around the village, reassuring people, being there, and it does help. Everyone looks calmer when I’m around and more than one of Riverfarm’s original villagers recounts the battle in the village to the others.

Everyone’s calm. But me. As I lie in bed next to Durene I toss and turn and eventually wake her up.

“Laken, why are you so restless?”

“Why aren’t you? Durene, I promised them everything would be okay, but I have no plan if the Goblin Lord actually comes this way. We can’t fight and we might not be able to escape.”

“You’ll figure out something. If you can’t do it, no one can.”

I laugh in the darkness. How does she believe in me?

“I wish that were true.”

“It’s true! Now come over here.”

She pulls me over and I forget about Goblins for the moment. It’s nice to have someone with you who can take your worries away. For a while I’m not an [Emperor], and the cottage is intimate.

A bird screeches, surprising both Durene and me in the silence. Frostwing objects to being woken up. I throw my pants at her.

“Shut up, Frostwing.”

 

Day 87

 

Today I consult with Rie and Prost. Reassurances are all very well, but I want to be prepared for a fight if it comes to that. Ironically, Wiskeria’s not on my list—she’s training her forces and there’s little I can do to help her. I don’t want to be a distraction.

However, there are things I can control and one of them is my project that Prost’s been in control of. Siege weapons. Ryoka Griffin taught me the fundamentals of how they work and the rest has been trial and error. I have a few [Carpenters], one [Blacksmith], and three new [Tinkerers] on the job with some other eager young men and women.

Lady Rie stares at the two prototype trebuchets and ballista and I realize that she’s never seen them before. We keep the siege weapons far, far away from the town in case of more accidents.

“Prost, how are the trebuchets working?”

“Well, Emperor. I haven’t been here all day, so I’ll let Miss Tessia explain. Tessia?”

Prost gestures and a young woman steps up. She’s got red hair and loose work clothing. I first met her when I helped dig her out of the snow after an avalanche. She’s Gamel’s girlfriend and her timid personality has been replaced by what I can only consider an engineer’s mania.

“Emperor Laken! We’ve finally gotten one of the trebuchets working! We can throw a twenty pound stone over two hundred feet with each shot, and I think that once we make a new trebuchet we’ll be able to hurl a stone twice as far!”

She grins as behind her the people crowded around the trebuchet step back. It fires and I hear a creak as the arm comes up and a stone is hurled through the air. I stare at the sling as it releases a stone and sense it fly into the distance. The people cheer as two boys run after the stone to see how far it’s landed. Lady Rie just stares.

“Is that a…a catapult?”

“It’s a trebuchet, Miss!”

Tessia either hasn’t heard that Lady Rie is a [Lady] or doesn’t care. She begins excitedly talking about range and the ballista they’re building while I inspect the trebuchet up close.

“Amazing. And can you aim it?”

“We’re figuring it out now, sire. The lads—and lasses—have been firing it nonstop. I’d say Tessia’s got the best shot. She can hit a house from two hundred feet five shots out of eight!”

“Please tell me we’re not actually hitting houses, Mister Prost?”

“Oh, they built one out of spare wood, don’t you worry, sire. But I reckon that we could build two more trebuchets within the week! Those would make the Goblin Lord blink twice, don’t you think?”

“Indeed they would. But I want those trebuchets inspected carefully and tested thoroughly. The last thing we need is for someone to get hurt.”

“Yes sire. I had to knock a few heads together when some of the lads kept wanting to rush things. But don’t fear—after the second time, Tessia started doing it for me! The lasses are much more careful about making sure no one’s in danger of being thumped by the arm and standing back and so on.”

Prost beams with all the pride of a former [Farmer] now constructing weapons of war. Lady Rie looks dazed as she comes over to me.

“Emperor Laken—your majesty, may I ask whether this was your invention?”

I smile slightly.

“Not my invention, Lady Rie. I know about the theory, but the villagers of Riverfarm built all this.”

“I see. But you know how to build siege weapons?”

“Is that uncommon?”

Lady Rie stares at the trebuchet as people begin to load it again.

“Oh…slightly. I believe the Walled Cities have such devices. Pallass creates them, but the secret of such weapons is zealously guarded and they refuse to sell to Humans. Other nations have them…but they are not mass-produced. And you’re building them here?”

“And we’re training [Engineers]. We have [Tinkerers]—I hope they’ll level up when I get them building some other inventions. War chariots, maybe. Or an irrigation system.”

Lady Rie stares at me. I smile. The sight of the trebuchet firing again gives me an idea and I turn to Prost.

“Mister Prost, it occurs to me that most of the villagers haven’t seen the trebuchet in action. Maybe a test would impress them as much as Lady Rie and reassure them of their safety. Could you move the trebuchet to an open space and set up a target?”

“Of course, sire!”

“And why not make it a contest? Let Tessia and the other workers have a contest who can hit or get nearest to a target. The winner will receive…well, how about a few mugs of ale and a small coin prize? You decide.”

Prost smiles.

“I think that would motivate them greatly, sire. But could I extend the offer of ale for the entire team? They’ve been working like Demons to get the trebuchet done.”

“Of course. Lady Rie?”

I leave my [Steward] to set it all up and walk a few paces back with Lady Rie. She still keeps staring at the siege weapons.

“You know, that is the true treasure of your village.”

“Excuse me?”

“Those.”

Rie points to the trebuchet as Prost begins speaking and Tessia and the others mill about in excitement. She nods to the path to Riverfarm behind us.

“If you’ll permit me to say so, Emperor Laken, Riverfarm is hardly a rich village. With your help I have no doubt it will be quite self-sufficient, but planting cash crops as Wiskeria has suggested will only earn the people a modest income. However, building siege weapons? Exporting such devices would earn you a fortune.”

I nod slowly. I hadn’t considered it except as a form of protection, but…

“The war industry is always a profitable one. I don’t know that I’d like for my empire to be known for that, but at least we’ll be able to defend ourselves.”

“It is your choice of course, your majesty.”

“Choice. Yes, well, I’d like my people to have the same. I’m building trebuchets and teaching people to become [Engineers], Lady Rie. But I’d like them to be able to become [Alchemists] or [Blacksmiths] or [Scribes] or whatever they desire.”

“That is rather ambitious, your majesty. I suppose it might be possible, especially with your communal farming system. There will be less need for [Farmers].”

I shake my head.

“Less need for as many [Farmers], perhaps, Lady Rie. I intend to provide them with oxen, ploughs…Riverfarm used to consist of subsistence farming where each family tended a small plot of land. By creating large fields we can provide for a large number of people with only a few [Farmers].”

“And you intend to let the next generation grow up to become artisans instead?”

“That’s the theory. Or [Soldiers]. But to do that they need to survive and this place needs to be standing in a week’s time. The Goblin Lord’s army…I was hoping you had some thoughts on the matter. Is there any force that can stop them?”

Rie nods.

“Of course! There is already talk of Lord Tyrion’s army. He gathered one at the same time as Lady Magnolia and his is by far the superior one. I doubt Lord Tyrion Veltras falls far behind General Shivertail regardless of level.”

“Huh. Lord Tyrion Veltras.”

The name’s only vaguely familiar to me, like Magnolia Reinhart. There are so many influential people in the world and I feel like I’m a small fish in my corner of Izril.

“Tell me about Lord Tyrion, Lady Rie. He levied a vast army, but does he have his own private force? Do lords and ladies have armies of their own? I recall your mansion was defended, but…”

I can hear Lady Rie’s rueful smile in her reply.

“The Valerund family was…much diminished by the time I became its sole heir, Emperor Laken. Aside from the small number of guards I employed, I had no standing militia to speak of. I would have relied on the forces of towns and villages to root out threats. But my example is hardly indicative of more powerful nobles. Lady Magnolia Reinhart has many, many servants trained in espionage and combat. She often employs them to clean up…problems in her domain.”

I think of Odveig, the perfect spy masquerading as a Silver-rank adventurer.

“I can believe that. Does Lord Tyrion do the same?”

Rie shakes her head.

“The Veltras family has a conventional army. As do the Reinharts, although theirs is far smaller and guards their family estate. Most powerful [Lords] and [Ladies] train their retainers. For instance, there is a Lady Bethal Walchaís who commands a knighthood. Her Knights of the Petal are elite and quite, quite dangerous.”

“I see. Everyone has their personal force on top of regular garrisons.”

“Yes, your majesty. I see you have started your own army as well.”

“My own army? Oh—yes, Wiskeria is doing her best.”

“Not just her.”

Lady Rie puts a gentle touch on my arm and I jump. She withdraws her hand quickly.

“Forgive me. I meant no disrespect.”

“It’s nothing.”

Is she standing closer to me? Yes, she is. I clear my throat and keep my head turned towards the trebuchet which is being pushed to another spot. I don’t have to look at it of course, but people get nervous when I talk about things behind my back that I shouldn’t be able to ‘see’.

“What were you saying, Lady Rie? My own personal force?”

“Indeed, Emperor Laken. Your ah, Sightless Riders have already developed a reputation.”

“My what? Oh—Beniar and his people? Yes, I could see that. That was due to a Skill, but perhaps I’ll obtain more.”

“One can only hope. But such specialized units are the hallmarks of any powerful ruler. And it is my sincere hope that your initiatives keep your empire safe. I know that I am eternally grateful for your intervention in my hour of need.”

She gently touches my arm again. I hold still and think.

Okay. She’s definitely flirting with me. That’s not hard to figure out. The question is—does she know Durene and I are an item?

I don’t get to ask, if I was intending to ask. Prost comes back and Lady Rie stands demurely at my side. I continue the inspection and watch the trebuchets being fired for an enthusiastic crowd without any more incidents. But I do recall the touch. Was it just a casual touch? Am I overthinking things?

Her fingers were very soft.

 

Day 89

 

Between my personal assurances and the trebuchet demonstration, my people are calm enough not to panic at news of the Goblin Lord’s army. They trust me, because I’ve protected them from Goblins before. However, that faith doesn’t apply to the other local towns and cities. They were all too willing to offer me a tribute so I’d protect their roads, but the Goblin Lord’s army is justifiably terrifying.

As such, I spend most of today entertaining audiences. I have no throne room, but one of the first non-essential buildings that went up was a meeting hall. It’s mainly a storage area, but someone decided it had to have a throne despite the lack of beds. So here I am, sitting on a wooden throne decorated with carved eyes. My [Carver], Jelov, is a famous man in the village. From a recluse who sold small trinkets, he’s now got eight apprentices and more work than he can handle.

“Of course my people will alert your town the instant Goblins cross my borders in force, [Headman] Filk. And I am committed to defending all the cities under my protection. My army will hunt down any stray monsters and bandits, as promised. Only an army could resist my forces.”

“Just as you say Emperor Laken. Forgive me for troubling you. It’s just that the Goblin Lord has an army and—”

The man standing and bobbing nervously is the leader of a town nearby. I forget which one. I hope he’ll mention the name again in conversation. I shift on my throne. Why did Jelov not include a pillow?

“Indeed. The Goblin Lord has an army and if he did march in this direction I would be unable to stop him. But consider this, Filk. Lord Tyrion Veltras and Magnolia Reinhart have both committed their forces to stopping him. Do you truly believe they would allow the Goblins to rampage unchecked?”

“Lord Tyrion? Well, your majesty—Lady Reinhart might—but Lord Tyrion does have an army.”

There’s a question in his voice. His town—what was the name again? Started with a ‘g’, I think—doesn’t have a [Mage] who can receive [Message] spells. I nod.

“He has been gathering an army for weeks now, Headman Filk. A substantial one that outnumbers the Goblin Lord’s army by all accounts. I would trust him to take care of the Goblin Lord. And if any raiding parties should head this way in the meantime…I will deal with them.”

That relieves the man. He raises his head, bowing again awkwardly.

“I had no doubts, your majesty! I’m terribly sorry to take up your time—of course Lord Tyrion’s got his army! And you’ve got yours.”

“Of course.”

I smile at him and he smiles back. Nervously. I feel his gaze on my closed eyes. I think the audience is over, so I gesture subtly to Prost, standing at the back of the room.

“You must be tired from your trip. Please, allow me to offer you refreshments before you go.”

“Oh—sire, I also meant to give you this!”

Filk nearly falls over himself as he rushes to the back of the room. He comes back with a small chest carried by several people from his town.

“It’s just a token of our appreciation, your majesty. Some of our local produce, a few bundles of cloth—rough stuff, but we wanted to show our thanks. The town of Gec isn’t prosperous as those big cities, but we’re grateful that we can sleep in our beds thanks to your men!”

Gec! Of course, how could I forget a name like that? I smile at Filk.

“I appreciate the gifts, Filk. They are not necessary—I have sworn to protect your town and I mean to keep that pledge. Please, tell the people of Gec that I appreciate their faith in me. I would love to sample their produce—are those apples in the chest?”

“A few, sire. We have this cellar with runes of [Preservation] and—oh, pardon me for taking your time! It’s just a small token, hardly—thank you once again!”

He retreats, embarrassed. I smile as Prost moves forwards to take the gift. This is the fourth emissary to visit me today. People are worried, and they’re coming to me to hear what they already know. There is a Goblin Lord, but Lord Tyrion’s got an army. I can defend them from everything but a massive force and…that’s it. But they feel better because I’m an [Emperor].

That’s people for you.

 

—-

 

My day is occupied by entertaining guests and appearing as confident—and dignified—as possible. Lady Rie takes over for Prost and it’s quite something when a [Lady] is personally greeting visitors and leading them into my throne room. It’s a long day, but I do get a pillow after my butt gets too sore to sit still.

“You may receive another pledge of loyalty from one of the nearest towns, your majesty. Headman Filk of Gec was quite taken with your village.”

“If they join, I’ll have to figure out a way to manage their town from here, Lady Rie. Perhaps I could send you to oversee it for a day or two? We can’t have more people coming here!”

The thought of my empire growing to encompass other cities and towns gives me a headache. Rie offers me a cool drink of water and I take it gratefully.

“I assume that the news of the Goblin Lord means that politics are on hold for the moment?”

“On the contrary, your majesty. It means that the aristocracy is even more desperate to find allies. You have a number of missives that just arrived.”

“More letters? I would have thought the City Runners in Invrisil wouldn’t dare venture out.”

“Mm. Apparently they’re willing to risk it for enough coin. And your lands are known to be safe for Runners. Would you like me to read them to you?”

“Please.”

I sigh and sit back on my throne. I want to see Durene. Maybe I can have a day off where I just go walking with her? The woods are nice and I could pretend to be inspecting it for valuable mushrooms or building spots or something. We haven’t had a quiet time to be together lately except at night. And sex isn’t the only part of a healthy relationship.

Lady Rie stands next to me as I sit on the throne. Her voice is soft as she reads through one letter.

To [Emperor] Laken, I am Lord Tilwa Petroms of Invrisil. I have heard of your recent accomplishments and must congratulate you on your newfound success. Hm. Lord Tilwa is a known schemer, but if he’s acknowledging you openly as an [Emperor] he must feel you have quite a lot of power already. It seems he wishes to meet with you in Invrisil.”

“Oh? I’m not keen on travelling at the moment.”

If I leave my lands I can’t ‘see’ anything with my [Emperor] senses. Lady Rie shakes her head. Is she standing closer again?

“An [Emperor] should not travel to meet a [Lord] in any case, your majesty. Lord Tilwa is testing you with this letter. Leaving him without a reply for a day or two should unsettle him slightly.”

“Oh? I’m good at ignoring [Lords] and [Ladies]. I think I responded to two dozen letters with polite nothings.”

“Including mine, Lord Laken?”

“You sent me a gift, as I recall. Are you saying I should demand something from Lord Tilwa?”

“Perhaps. He might send you a gift instead, if he hasn’t already.”

“I don’t recall. I think I left the letters lying around. It might be good to see if Prost remembers.”

A rustle. Yep, she just stepped closer. What is her game?

“I have no doubt that Lord Tilwa wishes the same thing from you that all the nobility do.”

“Which is?”

“Influence. Power, derived from your name. At the moment your financial and military capacities are unknown and you control very little land for someone of your class. Thus, your power is mainly in lending support, verbal or otherwise. However, if you can establish Riverfarm as a powerful exporter of goods or military might—”

“Defending areas under my protection or selling siege weapons?”

“As I understand it, Lord Tyrion himself lacks siege weapons. Your empire could be quite powerful economically as well as militarily. Lord Tilwa understands that and is attempting to test the waters, but he can wait. There are more important individuals to address. Now, the next letter—”

I hear the rustle of paper and then a sharp gasp. I sense the letter fall from Rie’s hands and her quickly bending to snatch it up with trembling hands. I sit up.

“Lady Rie?”

“My apologies, Emperor Laken. But this next letter—it must have been mixed up and not placed at the top. City Runners normally organize such missives meticulously by rank—”

“Maybe one of the villagers mixed it up when they were giving it to you. Who is the letter from?”

“Lady Magnolia Reinhart.”

I pause. Magnolia Reinhart. My stomach doesn’t exactly sink with dread, but it does flutter a tiny bit.

“Isn’t she in Invrisil? Right where the Goblin Lord’s army is?”

“She is apparently still able to send letters. And this one—I will read it with your permission.”

Lady Rie opens the letter without waiting for me to say yes. I hear the crinkle of paper as she reads in silence, and then what sounds suspiciously like a curse.

“Lady Rie?”

“The letter is—well, I shall skip the greetings. Magnolia Reinhart writes—To the [Emperor] Laken Godart of Riverfarm, I extend my warmest greetings. I had no idea such an august personage had arrived in Izril until this moment and must render you my deepest apologies for not contacting you sooner.

“That’s a lie.”

“It is. She goes on. I am so deeply apologetic in fact, that I feel the only thing I can do to express my sympathies in full is to host a small gathering of my fellow [Lords] and [Ladies] in your honor. Naturally, I would be remiss if I did not invite you, but I would hate for the pressing commitments of station or distance to dissuade you from attending. Thus, I have taken it upon myself to—that scheming bitch!”

“Lady Rie?”

“I—I am deeply sorry, your majesty. Please forgive me. Lady Magnolia writes—Thus, I have taken it upon myself to host this little gathering at your estates in Riverfarm.”

What?

No need to thank me. I will most likely be too busy to attend the gathering myself, but I believe about thirty of the local nobility will attend, as will a close friend of mine, Lady Bethal Walchaís. I have scheduled this event to take place a week from today. I trust this gathering will be most informative to all parties, and I hope that you will allow one of my most trusted servants, Sacra, to convey my personal regards.

Lady Rie paused.

“The name ‘Sacra’ is underlined heavily, Emperor Laken.”

“I understand what she means.”

I grit my teeth as I sit back on my throne. She’s sending Sacra? I mean, Odveig? Why? And a gathering? Here? For what reason? Lady Rie hesitates and I see her looking at my face.

“Ah—there’s a few more lines, Emperor Laken. I trust you will entertain this small soiree in your honor, Emperor Laken. I am mistrustful of [Emperors] and royalty in general, but I feel that we will all be more secure when we get to know each other, possibly over a few light snacks and conversation? Lady Bethal shall tender you my warmest regards. Sincerely…

Lady Rie folds up the letter without finishing. I sit back. The two of us wait in silence for a long time. At last, I speak.

“Lady Rie, how well do you know Lady Magnolia?”

“Not well, Emperor Laken. I have met her several times. The day before I travelled to your village, in fact.”

“Really? And what do you think of her?”

“As a person or as a [Lady], your majesty?”

“Either.”

“She’s dangerous, ruthless, and cunning, your majesty.”

“Do you think this is a trap?”

“Without a doubt. She might want to humiliate you by hosting the event here, gain more information about your empire, poison the other nobles against you, threaten you, or…”

“Or?”

“Kill you. It would not be unheard of in Izril.”

I sit for a long time on my throne. Lady Rie’s words send a chill down my spine. Goblins. Politics. I can’t decide which is deadlier. But I do know one thing. One or both is coming my way. The Goblin Lord or the hand of Magnolia Reinhart herself. And I’m not ready.

Not yet.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – Flos

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“—And it looks like the rain has truly broken the spirit of the Face-Eater Moths. What a dramatic end! A simple climate change spell has reversed the entire battle and indeed, saved the city of Liscor, a stunningly intelligent move by that young mage, wouldn’t you say, Noass?”

“Indeed, Sir Relz. Although I would point out that it was destined to rain sooner or later given Liscor’s unique climate. However, actively encouraging the climate change was a smart move. I can see our fantastic [Soldiers] from Pallass finishing the last of the moths off now. No doubt this will be a hotly debated topic in the days to follow.”

“Without a doubt! This dungeon is unlike any I’ve seen before and it’s—I’m told that it’s being considered a Gold-rank dungeon, and that will play a major role into the politics of the Drake cities and perhaps the Human ones. Adventurers will be coming to claim the dungeon’s riches, but the strategic danger of the dungeon cannot be underestimated. I wonder if Liscor is prepared to handle the influx of both monsters and adventurers into the city?”

“They’ve certainly incorporated a few adventuring teams well. The Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, and the Horns of Hammerad—all names to watch! Now, let’s go back to the battle. I wonder if we can find someone to talk to? Ah, it’s the [Innkeeper]. Hello Miss, are you—”

Erin gave the two Drakes a bright smile and then slammed the door in their faces. The two chattering commentators went silent. The crowd from Pallass burst out into complaints. They tried to open the door again but it only revealed a brick wall. The magical connection had been severed, at least for the moment, and with it, the [Mage] in Pallass apparently decided his work was done too. The image of the Drake city disappeared and the connection broke.

Across the world, people looked up from their scrying orbs, scrying hand mirrors, enchanted magical pools of water and in one case, a shield enchanted with [Farseeing] and [Clairvoyance]. Some pondered what had occurred while others laughed and went about their lives, thinking of Liscor’s battles as a pleasant diversion, a distraction.

Magnolia Reinhart did not think of it that way. She was immediately in conference with Ressa and a few [Ladies] and [Lords] whom she trusted. Lord Tyrion did not speculate, but rather adjusted his plans slightly. The Walled Cities began arguing with each other and Pallass found itself defending its decisions as all five other Walled Cities blasted the Pallassian army’s lack of support for Liscor.

So it was in Izril. However, in other places, other continents, the reactions of those who had seen Liscor’s struggle was different. The King of Destruction put down the marble-sized scrying orb at last and stretched. Then he began pacing around excitedly.

“What a battle! Tremendous! Those are the kinds of monsters that live in Izril, are they? And they emerged from a dungeon? I had heard of legendary dungeons filled with monsters, but to think they could grow to such size! What treasures must they be guarding? What ancient nation constructed such a dungeon I wonder, and to what end? Gazi, you never spoke of the scope of Liscor’s dungeon!”

He turned, his eyes shining with excitement to stare at the woman sitting across from him. Gazi looked up. Two of her four smaller eyes focused on Flos, her king, while the other two moved around restlessly in their sockets. She opened her mouth and smiled at him with sharp teeth.

“I did not know the extent of the dungeon, my King. To my knowledge, Liscor’s dungeon was only a two-level crypt filled with undead. The true extent of the dungeon evaded my sight. Although I did note the Antinium Hive had dug extensively underneath the city. Their activity may well have concealed the dungeon from my gaze.”

“I see. Perhaps they were aware of the dungeon before now. Ah, but what a city! The Antinium, the fabled scourge of Rhir and Izril, living in peace with Drakes and Gnolls? I saw those—what did you call them? Soldiers? They were painted for battle.”

“Yes. That is new.”

“Intriguing.”

Flos grinned. His face was not as alien as Gazi’s. Where the half-Gazer’s skin was orange-brown and her face was loosely based on a Human’s, Flos was entirely Human. Gazi had no nose, four smaller eyes and one large central eye and ‘hair’ tied back into a braided ponytail. Flos had red-gold hair, a strong nose and features worthy of a statue. He was a [King].

Not just any king. The King of Destruction, a ruler who had once ruled over almost all of Chandrar and been poised to invade the other continents of the world. Flos’ name had been known by every nation under the sun until he had suddenly and unexpectedly given up his dreams of world domination.

He had entered into what many called his ‘slumber’ and his kingdom had fallen to pieces. Most of his vassals had left him and his lands had been reclaimed by his enemies and other nations. He had slumbered for over a decade until two Humans from Earth had appeared in his throne room.

And then the King of Destruction had woken up. He had called his vassals back to him, reclaimed his throne and found the spark of ambition to once again rule. He had called his most trusted followers to him, his Seven, a group of legends that had helped him conquer years ago.

Only three had responded. Of the seven, three were dead. Queravia and Tottenval had been slain before Flos had entered his slumber. Another, Drevish, had been killed by the Emperor of Sands. His head had been sent to Flos and the King of Destruction had vowed to slay the Emperor of Sands himself. And one more, Amerys, had not responded though she was known to live in Wistram, the home of [Mages]. Four of the Seven were absent. But three had come.

Takhatres, Lord of the Skies. The bird-man who led his tribe of Garuda against the Emperor of Sands at this very moment. The fastest being on Chandrar and perhaps, the world.

Mars, the Illusionist. A mighty [Vanguard] and a champion of Flos’ armies. Practically undefeatable in battle, Mars took the appearance of a beautiful woman with magical artifacts while concealing her true nature.

And finally, Gazi Pathseeker, known as Gazi the Omniscient. A Named Adventurer and [Scout] feared for her ability to spot any threat, deception, or spell from miles away. She had returned from Liscor blinded, her central eye damaged by an encounter with a certain [Innkeeper].  She sat before Flos now in front of the campfire.

It was night. In fact, it was so late into the night that it was closer to dawn than not. Liscor was far removed from Chandrar and thus evening in Liscor was deep night for Flos. His excitement had forbade sleeping however, and as the [King] walked around his fire more people sat up.

“My King, it’s late. Wouldn’t it be better to rest now? We have a long day in front of us and it will be dawn in a few hours. Why not lie down until then? My bed is open.”

A sultry voice spoke from the side. Flos glanced over and looked at a beautiful woman lying on the ground. She was half-naked underneath the stars and her skin was dusky and flawless. She looked like some vision of the sands, unreal under the moonlight and the surrounding arid desert. To look at her was to be entranced and one young man sitting around the fire gulped and looked away. Flos just stared blankly. Gazi rolled two of her eyes and tossed a bit of sand.

The image of the beautiful woman flickered just a hair as the sand struck her in the face. For a fraction of a second a shorter, less enthralling woman could be seen wiping sand from her face. Then the illusion returned. Mars glared at Gazi. The half-Gazer only smirked.

“Bad illusion. You need a new artifact.”

Mars the Illusionist narrowed her eyes. She drew the simple blanket more firmly around her body.

“Maybe I’ll get one tomorrow. What about you, Gazi? Going to get a new eye?”

There was an intake of breath from the two other people sitting around the fire. Gazi just grinned, not affected by the jest. She pointed to her closed central eye.

“Perhaps one made of gold. It would do me no worse than my current eye. And look better. Would you like to see what my eye looks like now? It has yet to recover.”

“Pass.”

Mars shuddered and looked away. She gestured alluringly to Flos. He was still staring at the scrying orb, as if hoping it would show Liscor once more.

“Well, my King?”

“What? I suppose you’re right, Mars. Why not, let us sleep for a moment. The bazaar awaits after all. Although I shall hardly sleep a wink after such excitement.”

He sighed but made to lie down. Mars scooted her bedroll closer and Gazi sat up as if to do the same. Flos ignored both and lay down on the ground. He closed his eyes and began snoring within minutes.

Mars and Gazi stared at him. They turned around and looked at the other two companions around their fire. Trey and Teres, the two twins from Earth looked at them. They hurriedly turned.

“Time to go to sleep.”

“Night!”

They rolled into their bedrolls which provided them sanctuary from the cold night air. Mars and Gazi eyed each other and then went to sleep as well. This was Chandrar and this was the King of Destruction’s camp. He was far from his Kingdom of Reim at the moment, having travelled for three days at speed. He was headed to the Jerios Bazaar. Trey still wasn’t sure why.

 

—-

 

Morning came too quick and too early. Trey woke up as someone kicked him in the ribs.

“Up.”

He shot out of bed. The kick hadn’t been hard, but the second one would be worse. The young man from England rolled out of bed and looked around blearily. It was still dark! But the smiling half-Gazer didn’t seem to care. Gazi nodded to the campfire where a pot was already simmering. Trey could smell the mild aroma of Yellats cooking with grain. It was a slightly spicy, filling soup and his stomach rumbled at the thought of breakfast.

But breakfast came after pain. Trey got up, grabbing the staff at his side and looked at Gazi.

“Training?”

“Training.”

She grinned at him. Trey groaned in mild resignation. This was always how his day started. At the break of dawn Gazi woke him up. He raised his staff as she led him to a spot just away from the fire.

“Now, cast.”

“[Flash]! [Sand Arrow]!”

The staff that Trey held was expensive and the orb held in place at the top flashed with blinding light as an arrow of sand shot across the desert. It flew past a group of three training with swords. Flos, Mars, and Teres looked up as Gazi nodded.

“More arrows. Hit that rock, there.”

She pointed to a hand-sized rock twenty paces away. Trey squinted to see it and aimed.

“[Sand Arrows]!”

More arrows flew and hit the ground right around the rock. It was a good shot; Gazi looked mildly disappointed. She thumped Trey with the flat of her huge greatsword.

“Aim better.”

Sweating already, Trey did. He kept shooting arrows of sand until Gazi made him switch to casting [Flash] and the other few spells he knew. Trey was a [Mage]. His sister Teres was a [Warrior] aspiring to become a [Blademaster]. Or perhaps aspiring wasn’t the right word.

They were the personal servants to Flos. Or companions. Vassals? It was hard to tell. Trey and Teres followed the King of Destruction around. They were hardly as useful as the rest of his servants like Orthenon, his [Steward], or the other vassals like the stern Venith or his wife, Maresar. But they had knowledge from another world and Flos claimed it was they who had given him the inspiration to wake from his slumber.

So for that reason they were indispensable. And Flos’ vassals had taken it upon themselves to train Trey and Teres to be worthy of accompanying the King of Destruction. There were few [Mages] in the Kingdom of Reim, Flos’ nation, so Gazi was training Trey in the use of magic.

He hated and enjoyed it. Trey wiped sweat from his face in the brief moment Gazi allowed him to rest. He hated Gazi’s strict requirements regarding his aim, the flow of mana in his body, and the speed at which he cast spells. Too slow or off-target and she’d hit him with her blade. But he loved magic.

“Good. You hit the target six times out of eight.”

Gazi didn’t have to turn her head to count Trey’s strikes on the tiny rock they’d been using as a target. Her four smaller eyes could all move independently and they were powerful enough to see through walls and indeed, her head. Trey wondered what her large eye was capable of. He also wondered who would have dared to blind Gazi. She was fearsome, unreadable, and very deadly.

She was also his only friend. If they could call themselves that. Gazi hung around Trey more often than anyone else. She was a loner, but she had formed a bond with Trey after he had objected to a practice the King of Destruction and his nation allowed: keeping slaves. He hadn’t realized it, but the entire continent of Chandrar kept slaves or sold prisoners of war and criminals to the Slave Traders of Roshal in exchange for coin.

Chandrar was the biggest exporter of slaves in the world and Flos had sold off the first army he had crushed to feed his impoverished kingdom. Trey understood the reasoning but he couldn’t accept it. He had argued—futilely—against Flos’ decision and the ensuing fight had driven a rift between both him and Flos and Trey and his sister.

There was still a gap, months later. Trey stared at Teres as she trained with Flos and Mars. The other two warriors took it easy on her despite Teresa’s skill with her sword—she had improved in leaps and bounds and was already a Level 18 [Warrior], soon to become a [Swordswoman] according to Orthenon, her teacher. Trey didn’t know how he felt about his sister becoming a warrior.

He didn’t know how he felt about being a [Mage] to be honest. It still felt like he could pinch himself and wake up from the dream he was in. The King of Destruction? Magic? Levels? He was in a dream—

Smack. Trey staggered as Gazi hit him with the flat of her blade.

“Ow!”

“Enough rest. Give me five casts of [Sand Veil] in quick succession. Change directions each time.”

Okay, maybe he wasn’t dreaming. Trey rubbed the back of his neck and did as she instructed. Training with Gazi was hard. Speaking to Gazi was hard sometimes. But she was a friend. She understood how he felt about slavery. She had been a slave, once.

“Breakfast!”

Flos roared the words at last and Trey sagged in relief. He trudged back to the campfire, already wrung-out by casting so many spells so early. He’d feel better after an hour and some rest; his internal reservoirs of mana would refill. It was important to keep pushing himself, though. According to Gazi, most [Mages] were lazy and didn’t use all the power their bodies were capable of. She intended to make Trey a [Mage] beyond all others. He feared she might succeed.

“What have we here? Yellats? Grain? Ah, what a familiar meal. It feels as if we’ve had it for the last four days in a row!”

The King of Destruction laughed in good humor as he peered into the cooking pot. He was a huge man, muscle without fat, and he always seemed to be bursting with energy. He was also, apparently, over forty years old. He looked more in the prime of his life than Trey did. Flos took a seat on the arid ground and looked around.

“Has the rest of the camp had breakfast, Gazi?”

“They are eating now, my lord. We’ll be on our way within half an hour. We should reach the bazaar just after morning.”

“Good! I haven’t been to Jerios’ Bazaar in over two decades! I hope everything has changed.”

Flos rubbed his hands together. Trey, sitting exhausted next to his twin sister, looked up.

“Your Majesty?”

“Yes, Trey?”

The [King] looked up, pleased to be asked a question. He had striven to bridge the gap caused over the winter and Trey’s willingness to ask him questions was a first step in mending their strained relationship. Trey hesitated.

“Are you—is it truly alright for you to leave your kingdom for so long, your Majesty? Especially right now? You don’t have much of an escort—”

Trey broke off, aware that he was in earshot of the other people sitting at campfires further away. They did not intrude on the King’s personal campfire, but they still sat close enough to defend their ruler at a heartbeat’s notice.

Their escort was a mixture of [Warriors] and [Mages], all of them elite. The band of String People warrior-mercenaries known as the Serpent Hunters and the small coven of [Mages] known as Parasol Stroll had joined Flos’ kingdom during the winter. Both groups of his former vassals were incredibly dangerous and they had been selected to follow Flos wherever he went.

Flos only smiled as he saw Trey looking at the robed men and women holding parasols over their heads and the silent men and women with stitch-marks around their arms and legs wearing dark green armor.

“My escort is more than enough to handle any [Brigands] or monsters by themselves, Trey. We could handle a small army with Mars and Gazi! Never fear that I’m undefended. Besides, we are travelling to Jerios and the Bazaar does not tolerate armies marching upon it. As for your second question—this is an important trip firstly, and secondly, my kingdom is well-attended in my absence.”

“But you just fought a war. Two wars—”

Trey had been there. He had ridden with Flos as the King of Destruction had fought off the first armies that had come seeking his destruction. After his grand defeat of the coalition army besieging his capital city at Reim, the King of Destruction had led his army north against two of the kingdoms that had caused him harm.

The Kingdom of Germina ruled by the Quarass and the Kingdom of Hellios. Both nations had sent an army to trap Flos by slaughtering his people as they fled towards the city and very nearly succeeded. In return, Flos had marched his armies into their kingdoms and destroyed both. The memory made Trey shiver and Flos saw it. The King of Destruction smiled gently, not quite looking at Trey.

“Orthenon is more suited to the job of managing the kingdom, Trey. He is quelling unrest in both nations and ensuring law and order. A [Steward] can do such things, oft times better than a [King] can. Besides which, my face would only spark more hatred in both nations at the moment.”

That was certainly true. Trey remembered the sight of Flos’ armies besieging the capital of Hellios and fighting Germina’s armies on the field. It had been a slaughter. With the defeat of the coalition army, no other nation had been willing to come to the aid of either kingdom. And in a one-on-one battle against the King of Destruction, no small nation had a chance.

It had been so quick. Before the winter had begun to set in, Flos’ armies had marched north at speed. He had taken Orthenon, Mars, and Gazi, leaving Maresar and Venith to guard the kingdom in his absence. The conquest had taken less than two weeks. Hellios had surrendered unconditionally as the King of Destruction’s armies had marched across their borders and crushed their army. The Kingdom of Germina had not.

 

—-

 

Blood. It ran hot on the dry ground, quenching it. There was smoke in the air, though there was precious little to burn. The kingdom of Germina built its city out of mud brick and stone. Now Flos’ army flooded through the streets, forcing frightened civilians back, pursuing the stragglers of the Quarass’ army.

Trey rode ahead, following Flos as the King of Destruction charged his mount towards the squat palace that was home to Germina’s ruler, the Quarass. It was an ancient building, grand because it was so old. It had been decorated with reliefs showing previous rulers over thousands of years. Flos rode into the building, his armor bloodied. Gazi followed, a swift shadow by her king’s side.

“Trey, come on!”

Teres’ eyes were blazing. She had fought in the last battle, though she had mainly been protected as she rode with the King’s vanguard. Trey had stayed with the [Mages] and thus not had to fight. He felt sick. The battle had been a one-sided slaughter. The King of Destruction had rode through the lightly-armored ranks of Germina’s army, cutting the [Soldiers] down by the thousands with his army.

The twins pursued Flos and his personal vanguard. Trey could hear shouting behind them as the rest of the army spread out to seize the city. Orthenon was overseeing the surrender and Mars was fighting the last of Germina’s forces that had refused to surrender.

It felt wrong. Too easy, almost. It was hard to call war unfair, but after seeing Mars fight, after seeing how helpless Germina’s army was against the high-level vassals Flos commanded…Trey thought Mars could have destroyed Germina’s army by herself if she had enough time. She’d slain the Quinfer, the Germina army’s champion, in a duel that had lasted only a minute. Then she’d charged into the ranks of the army, ignoring the soldiers as they tried to batter her with their weapons.

Unfair. But the Quarass had sent a [Mage] to kill Flos. He had slaughtered the civilians that Flos had rallied to fight the army that had ambushed him. Flos had given the Quarass one chance to surrender. She had refused, sending his messenger back without the hand that had delivered the message. Now Flos rode into her throne room, Trey and Teres following just in time to see the Quarass rise from her throne.

She was an old woman, older than Flos. For all that she had an imposing presence, an aura of authority. It was powerful and made Trey halt. But if she was a candle, Flos was the sun itself. He dismounted from his horse as Gazi slew two of the soldiers who rushed towards him. The King of Destruction strode towards the Quarass, his bloody blade in hand.

The Quarass didn’t flinch. She raised a hand as Flos approached her.

“Wretched [King] of Destruction, I would speak with you—”

She never got a chance to finish. Flos strode up the dais and beheaded her. It was so quick that Trey was left gaping. Flos turned as the throne room erupted into screams. The Quarass’ court threw themselves at the soldiers following Flos or fell to their knees. Flos raised his sword and bellowed.

“The Quarass is dead! Throw down your arms or join her! Her crimes are not Germina’s! Join her, loyal citizens or surrender!”

His words had provoked a bloodbath in the throne room, but the streets went quiet. Soldiers and citizens of Germina had fallen to their knees, weeping, and Flos’ banner had flown over the city. Trey remained in the throne room, just staring. The Quarass’ head had been placed under a shroud but her headless corpse sat against her throne where it had collapsed. He thought she was still staring at Flos.

Staring at him.

 

—-

 

“Trey?”

Trey jerked and realized he’d been lost, staring into the fire. Teres was looking at him. He knew his feelings were written on his face and turned away. It didn’t help. Teres had been born only moments before he had and the twins shared the closest thing to a psychic connection.

“Hey, it’s over.”

Hesitantly, Teres hugged Trey. He let her do it, although the contact was awkward. Everything was so much harder now. He hadn’t forgotten their fight and she hadn’t either. But she was comforting.

The King of Destruction had slain the Quarass. Trey didn’t understand Chandrarian politics, but he understood that it was a massive event that had scared and outraged the other kingdoms. However, they were loath to march against Flos and risk the same. So they had secured their borders and threatened war should Flos so much as sneeze in their direction. The King of Destruction had been content to simply claim the lands of Hellios and Germina for now and thus no further wars had taken place yet.

At least Hellios’ ruler was still alive. Queen Calliope and her son, Prince Siyal, were captives in their own castle. Their deaths would have sparked a bloody uprising throughout their nation. Their lives prevented the same—Hellios’ army had laid down their arms almost to a man rather than keep fighting. A good thing too—Flos had made it clear that he would behead both royals in an instant had they attempted to stir insurrection.

The image of Flos with bloody sword in hand was at odds with the man peering into the cooking pot and asking Gazi what seasoning she’d used. When he was not at war or enraged, Flos was full of life and energy, hard to anger and impossibly fascinated with the most minute details of his citizen’s lives. He seemed bigger, and drew the attention in any room he entered. Mars had once joked that Flos could pass wind and still appear more kingly than half the [Kings] on the continent. Trey believed her.

Flos was one of the highest-level [Kings] in the world. Perhaps the highest—his true level was unknown, a closely guarded secret. But his Skills were incredibly powerful. They were all geared to war, making his kingdom prosperous in times of strife and impoverished at all other times.

Hence their meal. Flos waved away a hovering Stitch-Woman who inquired whether he’d like a meat breakfast or lizard’s eggs or any of the other luxuries his people would be only too happy to provide him. He’d been asked the question every morning and his answer was always the same.

“I like simple food. I will be fine, Xeritha. Thank you for your concern.”

The Stitch-Woman withdrew. Trey, who sometimes thought his purpose in life was to ask the obvious questions to amuse Flos, raised his voice.

“What’s wrong with your breakfast, sire?”

It seemed that people really objected to Flos eating the stringy, spicy vegetable called Yellats. They were a staple of the Chandrarian diet and tasted a bit like sweet potatoes if you made them spicy. Trey quite liked them.

Flos exhaled slowly as he peered into the simmering cook pot. He took out a bowl—a wood-and-silver carved piece that Trey was sure was not standard for camping and filled it with a bit to taste. He replied as he gently smacked his lips together, savoring the hot stew.

“Yellats are considered a poor man’s food, Trey. They are filling and easy to grow on this continent—more so than any other plant in fact. This poor soil and the heat will kill potatoes in a drought, but Yellats can survive extended dry spells. They are ideal in my opinion and I have grown up enjoying them. But to other nations they are a symbol of poverty. Other monarchs would starve themselves before eating a meal such as this.”

Flos shrugged, not at all concerned by this fact. He began pouring the hot soup into bowls and passing them around the fire. The King of Destruction delighted in such things, apparently. To him, activities like serving others or cooking was a luxury to be enjoyed when he was travelling abroad. In his palace and with his subjects Flos was waited on hand-and-foot.

“Come, let us eat and be off quickly! I wish to be at Jerios soon!”

He began to eat his food rapidly and Trey quickly blew on his food and did the same. Life moved at Flos’ pace, which was to say, fast.

Within twenty minutes they’d struck camp. The String People loaded their bedrolls and supplies onto the pack horses and camels. Trey had been surprised that Chandrar had as many horses as camels—his image of the Middle East was limited at best. He was just as glad to mount the placid mare that Flos had picked out for him. He knew the camels were tetchy even with experienced [Riders] or [Animal Handlers]. He’d seen one spit right in the [Packmaster]’s face one time.

“To Jerios!”

Flos shouted in good spirits and his warriors cheered and set off. The King rode up and down the line of warriors and attendants, talking with them briefly, sometimes clapping a hand on a shoulder. His presence seemed to inspire regardless of whether he spoke for a few minutes or just a second. Trey watched the King of Destruction leave his subjects with glowing smiles.

“He is beloved. It isn’t just his Skills—a [King] who truly cares for each of his subjects is a rare sight in any land.”

Gazi rode next to Trey, at ease on her stallion. He glanced at her. The half-Gazer wore her brown scale armor like always. Her greatsword she carried around sheathed on her hip—but only when she rode. It was actually too long to carry that way when she was walking on the ground so Gazi kept it on her back. When Trey asked if it was hard to draw the sword, Gazi had just laughed and told him that anyone trying to catch her off guard would have to be very fast indeed.

Now the half-Gazer stared at her King with one eye, her other three scanning the desert landscape for danger. It wasn’t all desert of course—there were places with a lot of greenery and life. But the lands close to Reim had big arid spots due to the lack of water. Water was a resource prized as much as gold in Chandrar. Although gold was important too. Which was why their trip to the Jerios Bazaar intrigued Trey so.

“So this bazaar. Why are we going again?”

Gazi half-turned in her saddle although all of her eyes remained focused in other directions. Trey tried not to shudder as the half-Gazer smiled at him. It was her fake, small smile she always wore.

“Simple, Trey. The Jerios Bazaar is an annual gathering of [Merchants] and other sellers of goods. It has more treasures to be bought and sold than most nations will ever possess. It is an important place to visit should you desire valuable artifacts.”

“Right. So why does the King of Destruction want something from there? And if he wants something—why not take it?”

“His Majesty is not a thief.”

Gazi looked reprovingly at Trey. She turned and nodded to a speck in the distance.

“Besides which, if my lord wanted to seize the treasures of the bazaar he would have to send a very large army to take it. As it stands, we who have come with him are a capable escort of defending him, but little more.”

“You’re joking. Aren’t you a Named Adventurer? And isn’t Mars—”

Trey looked at Mars riding ahead of them, making ribald jokes with a [Mage] carrying a parasol. Gazi nodded.

“Mars is formidable. But the [Merchants] have many guards and artifacts to defend themselves with. She is only one person in the end. As for myself—I would not arouse the wrath of the entire bazaar at any cost. The sellers and buyers unite in the face of threat and there are most likely a number of individuals there that could best me.”

“Really?”

A nod. Gazi gestured to her closed middle eye. Trey had never seen it open, but he had seen the pus and liquid that had trickled from it in the first few days when Gazi had returned to the kingdom. He wondered if it could heal—Flos had talked about finding a healing potion strong enough to regrow Gazi’s eye.

“Without my main eye I would be considered a high Gold-rank adventurer, not Named. My lord as well.”

“Flos? But he’s—”

“Strong! But not that strong, Trey!”

Flos had overhead their conversation. He rode back, laughing as he gestured to the sword at his hip.

“I am strong, Trey, and an experienced warrior. I could best a Gold-rank adventurer with the strength of my arm alone, but that does not make me a Named Adventurer! To become a famous hero known across the world I would have to be truly outstanding in some way. Gazi obtained her title thanks to her eye—she is virtually impossible to ambush with it and she can cast spells with it. Her armor and blade is also of the highest quality.”

“But you’re the King of Destruction!”

Flos laughed again.

“What is a [King] without an army, Trey? The answer: he is still a [King], but again, without an army. And this king lacks both armor and sword. Had I my old arms I might have been a Named Adventurer, indeed. But I have neither armor nor sword nor any of my enchanted rings or other equipment. That is one of the reasons I ride to Jerios—to find a sword capable of surviving more than a few blows in my hands.”

He gestured at the steel sword at his waist. Flos did have a habit of wrecking the swords he was given. His remarks made Mars turn her horse backwards, frowning.

“What? My King, what happened to your old blade?”

“I gave it away.”

Flos smiled as Mars gaped at him.

“That was a national treasure!”

“I know. But I had no need of it and so I gave it to a [Soldier] when I went into my slumber. I wonder where it is.”

“But your sword—what about your armor? Your helmet? Your lance?”

“Those too. I gave each piece away.”

“Your rings? The [Ring of Health], the treasure that you took from the treasury of Armil?”

“And that. All gone. I regret it in hindsight.”

Flos laughed hugely as Mars spluttered. He waved a hand as if brushing away all his lost treasures.

“Mars, they served no purpose in my grief. Besides, it is more entertaining to rebuild my armory this way. I hated my old armor anyways. It was enchanted with a [Featherweight] spell and I hated having to strap it down or have it bounce about every time I moved. I’m in mind for some heavier armor, enchanted of course, but with a different focus…”

They rode on as Flos began talking animatedly about armor with Mars arguing for certain enchantments, vouching for armor enchanted with magical shields, disputing the notion that swords enchanted with [Sharpness] were better than swords enchanted with [Weight] and so on.

Trey listened with half an ear. It sounded like a discussion between people playing a tabletop game or a video game, but it was all real and those discussing it were deadly earnest. He watched as a collection of tents came into view.

The Jerios Bazaar was based around an oasis and it was a sprawling, noisy affair this early in the morning. It was also magical. Trey could see [Shopkeepers] and [Traders] displaying artifacts, showing them off by conjuring water out of the air or letting customers test their products. But he also saw signs of the visitors’ wealth—there were summoned servants flying through the air, djinni who appeared as sometimes humanoid, sometimes outlandish shapes that were half-corporeal, embodying the element of air or fire or some other aspect.

And beyond them? Trey saw someone sitting on an elephant arguing with a man on a camel on where he could rest his mount. He saw a magic carpet flying through the air and a screaming man drop—

The entire caravan groaned and Flos grimaced as Trey looked away.

“Ah. That’s why no one rides those things. Looks like the bazaar is just waking up.”

“You call that just waking up?”

Trey stared as a [Mage] arguing with a [Merchant] at a stall turned and vanished in a puff of smoke. The Jerios Bazaar was filled with amazing people and surprisingly, very few of them looked inclined to cause trouble. Indeed, if there was thievery it was only going on in an economic sense. Pickpockets and thieves were in grave danger in the bazaar. Trey saw a man turn as someone grabbed a pouch at his belt.

“Stop, thief!”

The cloaked figure ran with incredible speed through the crowd. He got fifteen paces before a man with a huge chest full of hair and a skullcap stabbed him in the chest. The [Thief] ran backwards, screaming, and was enveloped in flame, shot with two arrows and struck by a being made out of lightning. His corpse was quickly tossed out of the bazaar.

“Don’t cause trouble.”

Flos smiled as he approached the bazaar. Trey eyed him with trepidation because the King of Destruction was nothing but trouble. However, Flos touched an amulet on his chest and Gazi and Mars both twisted rings and they turned into different people as they approached the bazaar. Flos grinned down at Trey through a face ten years younger with dark skin and black hair.

“Surprised? I wouldn’t walk into the bazaar with my face, Trey. Believe it or not, I can be cautious.”

“Won’t the [Mages] be able to tell you’re under an illusion?”

“Oh, most definitely. But anonymity is prized at the bazaar—many of those visiting are wearing a disguise of their own.”

Flos flicked his fingers dismissively. He eyed Gazi—the half-Gazer had turned into a woman with long flowing locks of blue hair and starry eyes.

“Gazi, that illusion is ridiculous.”

“Blame Mars. She lent me the rings.”

“They’re for my use, not yours.”

Mars, a redhead dressed in impractically revealing armor shot back. She gave Flos a charming smile.

“Shall we, your Majesty?”

“Indeed. Let’s set up camp a ways away from the Bazaar. Hasil, Fellif—”

The leader of the Serpent Hunters and the [Mage] who spoke for Parasol Stroll rode towards him. Flos nodded to the bazaar.

“Don’t let more than eight of your people enter the bazaar at once. Keep the rest at camp—I will be going into the bazaar for the day.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

Hasil, the dark-skinned Stitch-Man bowed, his hand on his poisoned scimitar. Fellif, the Human [Mage] with a sharp goatee nodded.

“Do you require an escort, your Majesty?”

“No. Mars and Gazi will be enough. Trey and Teres will follow me naturally; I will browse quietly. Weapon stalls I think, although Gazi will look for a healing potion for her eye.”

“We’ll split up? How much coin do you have, Gazi?”

The half-Gazer reached for her belt pouch.

“Hm. Enough. I have several thousand gold pieces and enough to barter with. My lord?”

“I have ten thousand gold pieces in my bag of holding.”

Ten—”

Teres choked as she stared at the small bag at Flos’ side. This one wasn’t the typical leather pouch that inconspicuously hung at Gazi’s waist—it was a black-and-ruby affair, taken from the Quarass’ treasury. As had the contents of the bag, Trey suspected.

“That’s not much to buy with, sire.”

Mars looked concerned at the small amount that Flos had brought. The King of Destruction smiled.

“I have a number of jewels I found as well. But I intend to spend lightly, Mars. Most of the gold must go to my kingdom and arming my soldiers. I simply wish for a decent quality sword. You recall I broke the last one?”

“Wasn’t it enchanted?”

“Poorly. Spells can break just as easily as steel if you swing hard enough, Teres. We might see about getting you a blade as well—Mars, how much gold do you have?”

“More than you. I fought as a mercenary for a decade, my King. I could buy you armor as well—”

“Mm. A few artifacts might not go amiss. A shame those djinni are so untrustworthy or I’d seriously consider a flying army of them. Remember the Kingdom of Oleis? Fantastic at harassing the enemy. But now that I think of it, a flying carpet—”

They began heading into the bazaar. Flos had elected to dismount so they all walked on foot, joining the crowds of people walking past the open tents that had been set up. Some were magical, so the tents were larger on the inside than the outside.

Trey gaped at the objects on display—there were magic scrolls, floating orbs, and then things that didn’t look so magical like rich saffron being sold by the pound, sheaves of high-quality paper, food and ice being offered by some food merchants—it was a feast for the eyes, ears, and nose. Almost overwhelming, in fact. Trey looked at Gazi. She was following Flos as he looked around animatedly, talking loudly to Mars and Teres.

“Are you going to shop by yourself?”

Gazi turned. She had no eyebrows to raise, but Trey saw her skin move in the same way.

“Would you like to come with me?”

“I…wouldn’t mind.”

Gazi smiled. It wasn’t that Trey wouldn’t mind following the King of Destruction, it was just that he liked Gazi’s company.

“Very well. My king—”

She broke off as their group of five passed by a crowd. The man who had fallen off the carpet had survived his fall, but had broken both his legs in multiple places. He was screaming for help as [Traders] clustered around him, offering him a number of objects.

“Sands, my legs! My legs are—healing potions, please!”

“Can I interest you in a bone regrowth potion sir? The finest to be had for miles—”

“Pain numbing tonic? Just a whiff and you’ll be free of pain—”

“Would you like me to retrieve your carpet sir? My djinn can find it for a nominal fee—”

The poor man reached for his money pouch as Flos passed by. The King of Destruction turned his head as he looked around.

“Blacksmithing…I’m sure there’s an entire row of tents devoted to weapons. Ah! Well, we’ll find our way there eventually! Gaz—I mean, Gabrielle, are you going?”

The half-Gazer bowed slightly.

“I will return within the hour, sire. May I take Trey with me?”

“Oh? But I had hopes to enjoy—well, if you wish.”

Flos frowned slightly, looking almost hurt that Trey wouldn’t follow him around. It would be him asking Trey exactly what he found familiar from his world and his opinion on everything, Trey knew. Teres was giving Trey a look that told him to stay and join in her suffering. Trey gave her a guilty grin.

“I’m sorry, your m—sire.”

“Far be it from me to distract you. Besides which, you might keep Gazi occupied. Don’t start a fight if someone insults my name, Gazi. And keep Trey safe!”

Flos sternly instructed Gazi before turning and staring at a stall filled with scrying orbs and mirrors and so on.

“Now here’s a shop that catches my interest! I could have watched the battle at Liscor far more easily and without hurting my neck with one of these. [Shopkeeper], how much is this orb?”

He held up a yellow sphere that shone with inner light. The man who hurried up to him with a welcoming smile had a turban on his head and silk clothing.

“Ah, a good eye sir! Eight thousand gold pieces.”

“For an orb this small?”

Flos looked dismayed. The man bowed his head slightly.

“Ah, it’s not just scrying, but records memory as well! Hence the price. Did I hear you say you observed the most entertaining affair in Liscor?”

“We did! However, my scrying orb was only so big—”

Flos indicated the marble-sized object. The [Shopkeeper] tsked.

“A true shame! For a distinguished personage such as yourself, you should have one at least the size of a man’s head! Allow me to walk you through my wares—did you know more broadcasts are occurring?”

“No! Truly?”

“Yes!”

The [Shopkeeper] smiled as he showed Flos a huge orb which a crowd of people were staring into. Trey and Gazi paused to stare at another image flashing across the orb.

“It seems Wistram’s ability to link the orbs of scrying is a service they are willing to offer to more than Drake cities. Look—this is a mock battle by the Titan himself in Baleros!”

A tiny figure was standing on a podium in the sphere’s image. As Trey watched, whoever was keeping the image steady shifted, and he saw a row of soldiers with wooden spears fending off a cavalry charge. The projection was being watched with fascination by the crowd.

“One of the Titan’s students set it up. There are [Kings] and [Lords] and countless others watching this at the moment. I believe Wistram intends to offer this service at a great price.”

“I see.”

Flos narrowed his eyes as the ‘Titan’ stood on a dais, shouting orders that were transmitted out to his army. Trey saw his hands clench for a second and saw Mars and Gazi shift and look at their king.

It was Niers Astoragon who slew Queravia, the Gambler of Fates. Trey shivered as he saw Flos’ gaze darken for a moment. But then the King of Destruction was talking animatedly with the [Shopkeeper].

“So any orb can be turned into a…a recording device for such a projection? Is such grand magic possible?”

“If Wistram wills it…ah, but I believe a mage must transmit the image. These humble orbs only convey the image that Wistram sends. Speaking of which, may I interest you in…?”

“This way.”

Gazi murmured and tugged Trey’s arm. He followed her into the crowd, peering back over his shoulder and for a second regretting not staying with Flos. Then he turned back to Gazi. He had to focus on her back to avoid getting lost in the crowd!

“Where are we going?”

“Healing potions.”

Gazi raised her voice to be heard. She led Trey through the crowd. The young man looked around from stall to stall. So many things on display at once! He thought he saw the row of tents Flos had mentioned, where armor and blades were being sold. And…were there actual [Blacksmiths] making weapons at this moment? He heard a clang, looked to ask Gazi about it and realized he’d lost her.

 

—-

 

“I’m telling you, this isn’t a good blade. Show me a better one.”

A few minutes later, Flos was arguing with a [Merchant] over a blade. Teres and Mars found him pointing at a shimmering saber that sparked with lightning. The disguised [King] looked disgusted as he held the saber up. The [Merchant] pursed her lips.

“What is wrong with that blade? You picky Humans! This one is enchanted to shock your enemies! Simply but tap your opponent and they won’t be moving any time soon!”

She was a Stitch-Woman. Flos shook his head.

“It’s fragile. The enchantment’s no good and the blade’s—what, pure silver? An enchantment on that won’t last.”

“Oh? And you’re an expert on blades?”

The [Merchant] was either inexperienced or had misjudged Flos entirely. He smiled.

“Give me a warhammer. Ma—Maven?”

Mars plucked a warhammer off the racks and tossed it to Flos. He set the saber back down and raised the warhammer. The [Merchant] raised her hands and screeched.

“What are you doing?

“Any good sword can take a blow like that! Any enchanted blade should be able to take an unenchanted maul’s strike, or the enchantment is no good!”

Flos raised his voice. He’d attracted a crowd, which listened to him speak about blades. He raised the faulty saber, pointing to the silvery metal.

“A blade is only as good as its [Blacksmith], regardless of the magic put on it! If you bought this blade for anything more than four hundred gold coins you lost your deal, Miss Merchant! This is a half-decent enchantment but the blade will shatter far, far too quickly! I’d rather have an unenchanted blade of quality metal than an enchanted blade that will break after hitting a shield!”

He tossed the saber back on the rack as the [Merchant] went pale. Several people in the crowd nodded appreciatively, agreeing with Flos’ assessment. The King smiled and turned to Mars and Teres who’d gone shopping elsewhere.

“Any good shops?”

“Some decent swords among the trash. I’ll show you.”

Mars led Flos and Teres through the crowd, pointing out the good picks she’d spotted. Teres watched attentively. She had her own sword that Orthenon had given her, but the magical swords fascinated her. Flos just shook his head time after time, though. He stopped at a well-stocked tent and spoke to the [Merchant] waiting on his customers.

“Have you no enchanted swords worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer or better?”

“Ah, sir, I have this new blade that is enchanted with [Petrification]—”

“But the steel’s poor!”

Mars and Flos objected almost at the same time. Teres stared at the blade, unable to tell the difference. Flos looked dismayed.

“I could pay to have a better enchantment put on the blade here, or have it done later! What about your unenchanted blades? Show me your best—do you have any Dwarven-made blades?”

The sweating [Merchant] hurried into the back and his slaves came out with an assortment of blades. He was on trial as the crowd that followed Flos had gathered again. The [King] was simply too loud and too amusing to ignore, and his opinions solid. Flos inspected one blade and grunted.

“Better, but this is still only adequate for an enchantment. Do you truly have no masterworks? Something made by a Level 40 [Blacksmith] or better?”

“Honored guest, these are Dwarf-forged blades.”

“I have no doubt. But I’m talking about real Dwarven craftsmanship. Not just their mass-produced arms.”

Flos turned away when he realized the [Merchant] had no idea what he was talking about. He walked through the bazaar, talking to Mars and Teres.

“Perhaps I thought too highly of Jerios’ markets. Then again, truly masterwork blades would be rare…I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to have a blade forged myself and enchanted here?”

“We can look among the [Blacksmiths], but I don’t know their levels or the metals they work with, sire. I saw one tent claiming to work with pure mithril. A blade like that would hold an enchantment, but pure mithril? I suspect it’s a trick.”

Mars made a face. Teres stared at the blades Flos had so dismissively discarded.

“What did you mean, ‘real’ Dwarven craftsmanship, Flans? Do you mean all that’s fake?”

“Not at all.”

Flos grinned at Teres, enjoying his fake name. He pointed at another row of Dwarf-quality blades on display.

“Dwarven-made weapons vary in quality, but the Dwarves are good [Blacksmiths] and their steel is pure. It’s an indication of quality, but most of the blades are simply better than regular. You might as well turn to a [Blacksmith] on your continent with a higher level for a good sword. However…I know there are better arms made in their mountain home, however seldom.”

“Really?”

Both Mars and Teres stared at Flos in surprise. He nodded and bought a few kebabs for them to eat while he explained. Flos tore the hot meat off a skewer as he spoke.

“Back when my kingdom first expanded, before I had met you, Mars, I decided to invest in my army. I had obtained a fortune from the kingdoms I had destroyed and so I ordered a massive shipment of Dwarven arms from Terandria. We sent a fortune to the Dwarves, in exchange for arms for over a thousand soldiers as well as personal armor and a blade for Gazi.”

“And they delivered?”

“No! That was the curious part of it. The Dwarves failed to provide a tenth of the arms I paid for—they had overcommitted and suffered a disaster in their forges or so I was given to understand. They were unable to repay me either—so they sent me a set of armor and blade for Gazi instead.”

“One blade and suit of armor?”

“The very one she wears. And if it seems a poor repayment Mars, it was not. I don’t know what [Blacksmith] made the armor, but it was worth far more than I paid—than I could have paid at the time, I believe. You know Gazi’s scale armor, Teres, and her blade? Neither one is enchanted.”

What?

Mars raised her voice, attracting attention. She lowered it and hissed at Flos.

“It has to be! That armor’s been through more wars than—I’ve had to replace my armor three times and I buy the best-quality armor money can afford!”

“Nevertheless. It was made by the truest of experts. I’ve never inquired as to the make of the armor as I doubt any of my [Blacksmiths] could hope to replicate it. It’s a masterwork, Mars. In the mountains there are some Dwarves who truly know metal.”

“Incredible. And you hope to find a blade like that here? I think I would have noticed such a weapon.”

“Indeed, it would be a long shot. And I am more interested in that scrying orb in truth. What that [Merchant] said about anyone broadcasting their image…”

Flos looked back in the direction of the scrying orbs then turned to Teres.

“You said it’s familiar to something from your world, Teres. What was it you mentioned?”

“Television.”

“Ah, of course! You did tell me about it, but I had imagined something entirely different. And this is similar?”

“Well…”

Teres hesitantly explained as Flos listened with growing interest. She didn’t like the look in his eyes when she talked about news appearing all over the world. Teres cursed Trey and hoped he was having fun wherever he was. She was going to kick his butt for leaving her behind when she met up with him again.

 

—-

 

Nawalishifra Tannousin tossed her head and grabbed the hilt of her dagger. She was nearly out of patience with the man in front of her. She would have drawn her blade and stabbed the man twice if she could have gotten away with it. But doing so would scare away other customers and she and her people needed this sale. So she kept her voice pleasant, though her every instinct railed against her acting like a common [Merchant].

“It is simple, you oaf, you! Look, this is Naq-Alrama steel! Pure ingots, forged in the heat of my people’s forges, may the dunes take me if I lie! It is not some metal you find lying about on the streets or melted out of cheap steel! It is magic and enchantable and I am selling it to you!”

She glared at the dark-skinned [Trader] who was blinking hard in obvious confusion. Though he looked accustomed to the sun, Nawalishifra was sure he was a city-dweller, not a true son or daughter of the sands. If he was, he would not ask so many foolish questions.

Her skin was far darker than his, and Nawalishifra had to shift her veil not to inhale it as she talked. She knew she was not what he had expected—there were few women in her clan who could swing a hammer, and she was the only [Blacksmith] in her clan worthy of the class. That was the problem, sadly.

“I don’t understand. This metal’s special? But it’s an ingot. Why haven’t you made it into a sword? It’s useless as it is.”

Nawalishifra turned red and gripped the hilt of her dagger. She didn’t know what would come first, dagger or sharp words, but another young man pushed forwards. He had too wide a smile and was too unctuous as he bowed to the man in front of him. She wouldn’t have minded it save for the fact that he was her brother, Allaif. He stepped in front of Nawalishifra as she glared at him.

“Sir, please excuse my sister, ill-tempered though she is from standing out in the sun! She does speak a truth however. The metal is yet to be smithed, but surely an outstanding buyer such as yourself can see the merits of buying the steel as it is! It is ready to be shaped, into shield or sword or mace or arrowhead! And the metal is magic, as my unmarried-and-ill-mannered sister says.”

His ill-mannered sister glared and folded her arms. They were standing in the shade, in near darkness, in fact! The tent’s flaps had been veiled to let as little light in as possible—too much might spoil the quality of the ingots before they could be smithed. Her ears burned with shame—because Allaif’s frantic explanations covered up the truth that the buyer had gotten too near to.

The ingots were less useful, for all they were pure Naq-Alrama metal. It would be far more proper to sell a blade and Nawalishifra was sure it would be ten times as valuable as the next cheap artifact she’d passed on display in the bazaar. But her clan couldn’t forge and sell such a blade—at least, not sell and forge it.

Allaif’s talking had gotten the interest of some other buyers. They clustered around the metal. One, a rich [Merchant] dressed all in silks, sniffed as he eyed the metal. He knew the worth of Naq-Alrama metal, Nawalishifra was sure. But he was skeptical.

“I can see the value of forging a blade, but can any [Blacksmith] manage such a feat? I am told the metal is tricky beyond belief to manage.”

The question threw Allaif, but it was Nawalishifra who interrupted. She gave the men her best smile and felt like her teeth were falling off as she gestured to the ingots.

“Not so, good sirs! The metal is tricky and requires smithing only under the moonlight until quenching, but the trick of shaping the metal is easy indeed. Why not let my humble self show you?”

She led the men outside and, cursing at having to waste the precious metal, took one of the wasted ingots that had been damaged by sunlight on the journey here. Nawal hammered the metal rapidly in the shade, pointing out how to hammer the metal just so to make it move correctly.

“It is all about temperature, honored guests. And the striking must be precise. Six strikes here, see? One, two, three—and then another two here! Thus the metal moves. And care must be taken not to allow it to reduce in heat below a threshold—the forge must be hot, and no magic fire can be used at any time. Fold the metal and then apply the powder and oil mixture before quenching the blade in light-bathed waters—”

She went down the list of details and specifications, noting the dismay on the faces of her customers. Allaif was grimacing at her to stop, but Nawal had memorized this routine by heart and she knew misleading a customer would ruin the metal and throw her clan’s name into the wastes. If selling the ingots as they were wouldn’t do so already, that was.

“So many steps!”

The knowledgeable buyer shook his head. Allaif hurried over to him, fawning in a disgusting manner.

“We can repeat and write down the instructions to your pleasing, good sir. The metal is ready to be forged and any high-level [Blacksmith] can make a blade beyond all others out of it!”

Nawal glared at her brother. Write down the secrets? They were already compromising all of their clan’s crafts by giving away the ingots! But they had no choice. She would have rather torn off her veil and walked the bazaar naked, but their clan depended on the sales they earned from the bazaar. If they had to sell secrets to survive this year, so be it.

“I will think about it. Perhaps I will return on the morrow again.”

That was all they got from the well-informed buyer. The rest left without so much as that vague promise. Allaif walked back to Nawal and she glared at him.

“I think he might buy if we lower the price more, sister.”

“What? We will barely have enough to eat with on what we are selling already! And what was that disgusting display, you dog, you?”

Nawal snapped at her brother. He glared at her.

“Do not blame me for making the best of a bad situation! We must sell the ingots, and it is more profitable to sell them and earn goodwill with a [Merchant] or other faction than to hold onto them and starve with them sitting uselessly in our homes.”

“Useless? A blade forged of pure Naq-Alrama steel is—”

Nawal choked on her words. Her brother shook his head slowly and pityingly.

“Useless since no one can forge the metal in our clan but you, dearest sister. And what manner of fool or coward would use a blade forged by a woman?”

That was true. Nawal knew that no self-respecting warrior in the Bazaar would do so. She hung her head as Allaif turned away. Her clan lived closest to the desert and made their fortune with their signature steel. However, calamity had struck them not half a year ago and thus the metal they had meticulously refined over the course of the year was useless. She turned away, despairing, as Allaif looked around.

Their tent was guarded by other members of their clan, warriors armed with weapons that were mere alloys of Alrama steel and not pure metal. Nevertheless, the weapons shone in the light such that they looked enchanted when they had yet to receive a [Mage]’s enhancements. They were still magical, though, so there was truth to the glimmer. It was all the advertisement their tent needed; in truth, Nawal’s clan would have had visitors queuing up to bid on their blades any other year and her clan’s warriors would be needed to guard the tent. But not this year.

“I must make arrangements. I believe I can sell the ingots. For a better price than we might get if we had swords! Just hold here and—do not scowl at anyone who comes in!”

Allaif made extravagant promises as usual as he hurried out of the tent. Nawal glared at his back, suspecting that he was going to get drunk and cause trouble as usual. How could the same seed of her father’s loins be so useless in him and the wrong gender in her? If he was alive he might have died again just to see this sight. She turned away from the stacks of beautiful ingots and saw someone pushing into the tent’s flaps.

“Hello? Are you looking for our blades? We only have ingots for sale.”

Nawal called out, too tired to pretend to be happy to see the visitor. To her surprise she saw a pale-skinned foreigner enter the tent. His skin was far too pale for the hot sun and he jumped at being addressed.

“Ingots? Sorry I’m—a bit lost. You don’t sell swords? I’ll be going.”

He backed up towards the entrance and Nawal’s pride flared.

“We used to sell swords. The finest blades you will ever see, my word on it! Don’t back away, you milk-skinned fool, you! Come and see true metal, if only once in your lifetime!”

Her words made the young man stop. He approached the table and gasped as he saw the Naq-Alrama steel.

“That’s…is that magic metal? Some kind of special metal?”

Proudly, despairingly, Nawal nodded.

“It is Naq-Alrama steel.”

She looked at the young man’s blank face and scowled.

Naq-Alrama steel! Have you never heard of it?”

He hadn’t. She grumbled under her breath.

“Ignorant foreigners. Listen well. This steel is magic, forged of the sands, refined through heat and kept from any—any sunlight! Such is the nature of the metal that it can endure any pressure when quenched in sun-filled waters. It will hold enchantments with ease and the blade itself cuts through magic like water. If there was ever a blade for one who seeks to do battle against [Mages], this is it! You could make a blade worthy of a [King] out of these ingots which we will sell for handfuls of gold!”

She raised a fist and nearly struck the metal, but held back, knowing the blow would only freeze her skin to the ice-cold ingots. The young foreigner looked impressed, which warmed her heart slightly.

“That’s incredible. If you’re selling them so cheaply, why not have someone make a sword out of—”

“We used to do that, you idiot, you!”

She shouted at him and the young man flinched. One of the [Caravan Guards], Hesseif, poked his head in and Nawal gestured to him that it was fine. He gave her a nod and resumed watching for thieves. Nawal sighed as she looked at the young man.

“We had a [Blacksmith] of renown who shaped the blades. He created less than ten per year, but they earned enough for our clan to thrive! But he died—his heart gave out last year.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. But can’t you get someone else to—”

“No. The techniques are too hard to learn overnight! It takes years of practice and of all whom my father taught, only I learned enough to shape the metal.”

The young woman laughed at the young man’s confusion.

“But if you can do it, can’t—”

“Who would use a blade forged by a woman?

Who indeed? Women could be warriors, but they weren’t capable of making steel, that was a fact. It was a truth among Nawal’s people that women were impure—the metal grew to develop defects if they shaped it. Her father had broken with tradition because he needed a helper, but he had forbidden her from entering the forge whenever her blood flowed throughout the month and of course Nawal was forbidden from shaping any blade herself.

She could make armor so long as no one knew who had done most of the forging and goods like nails and so on, but never blades. So her father had said while she hammered in the forge and he claimed to have made each blade himself with her ‘help’. He had given her a chance, but he was dead and no one else would touch a blade she made, however keen.

The young man didn’t seem to understand that. He was a foreigner and wrinkled his brow. Was he a [Mage]? He was certainly no warrior of the sands, accustomed to blood and glory.

“I don’t know about people in your tribe, but I know someone who probably won’t care if you forged the blade. He just wants the best blade in the world. And if your uh, Naq-Aama—

Naq-Alrama.

“Right. If that steel’s the best he might buy it. Why don’t I ask him?”

Nawal stared at the young man, and a sprig of hope entered into her heart.

“You? You have a master?”

“What? No! I’m not a slave—”

“But he’s wealthy? A man of power? How much might he spend?”

“Uh—he said he has at least ten thousand gold pieces, but I think he might spend more—”

Ten thousand gold pieces. It wasn’t a lot, but the thought of actually selling a blade had Nawal’s mind racing. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Sell to foreigners! Surely there were some who wouldn’t mind how a blade was made so long as it was sharp! Drakes, perhaps? There were rumors that there was a great dungeon filled with monsters on their continent. Perhaps if she—

“Sister! Wondrous news!”

A loud voice came from outside. Nawal’s heart sank. She hurried out of the tent, making sure that the layers of flaps prevented any sunlight from touching the inside of the tent and came outside with the young man to see Allaif, standing in front of the tent and grinning broadly.

He was not alone. The rich [Merchant] from before and a man with a whip at his side were behind them, along with a group of armed thugs. Nawal eyed them with distaste, noting their cheap iron weapons and marking the man with a whip for what he was—a [Slaver]. Not of Roshal, clearly; he was probably just a local [Slave Trader] who dealt with the impoverished and desperate.

Nawal glared at her brother as he smiled broadly at her. He looked too happy, as if he was pulling one of his tricks on someone. They had always landed him and the people around him in deep trouble.

“Allaif, what is this? I have a buyer for our steel—”

“As do I, sister! All of it!”

“What?”

Nawal’s eyes widened and she saw the other members of her clan start. Allaif had found a buyer? But—she looked back at the young foreigner. How much had he compromised to sell all of their ingots? Allaif rubbed his hands together, looking proud of himself.

“We will earn as much as we would for a commission on blades, sister! This generous [Merchant], Sir Redif, will buy all the ingots from us at such a price!”

“At what cost?”

There had to be a trick. Nawal eyed the [Slaver] with apprehension. Allaif spread his hands, looking wounded.

“Sister! I made the best deal I could, for the clan! I gave away only one thing to honored Redif.”

“Which was?”

“You.”

Allaif smiled at Nawal as the ground fell away under her. He spoke quickly as a rumble sprang up from the other clansmen.

“It is the best offer! The best! We will be paid richly and you, dear sister, will be sent to show any [Blacksmiths] how to forge Naq-Alrama metal! You will be able to continue helping around the forge—and find a husband if honored Redif is generous. It is for the clan, sister.”

Nawal just stared. Slavers? Her father had banned slaves from the clan two decades ago, before she had been born. Metal forged with the weight of shackles was impure as that of metal made with dishonest deeds or blood, or so he had said. She stared at her brother, her brother.

“You cannot sell me, Allaif.”

A flash passed across Allaif’s eyes, one of his dark moods nearly escaping.

“I can and will. I am our representative and I speak for our family and clan with our father’s death.”

“You are not worthy of licking his boots, you spineless worm!”

“How dare you!”

He raised his hand and Nawal gripped her knife’s handle, making Allaif hesitate. The [Merchant] interrupted impatiently.

“Enough! This isn’t a debate. I have papers proving my ownership of both the Naq-Alrama metal and Nawalishifra Tannousin.”

He brandished a sealed parchment, signed in blood. It was a binding contract. Nawal looked at it and felt her stomach drop. He’d actually signed it. Without asking, without thought. Allaif smiled victoriously as the other Tannousin clansmen muttered curses.

“Sister, is it really too much to ask? You will be well treated, privileged even! Our father was mad for letting you hold a hammer, but I have given you the same honor. Do not make this harder than you have to.”

“No struggles, girl. I’ve broken more new slaves than I care to remember.”

The [Slaver] grinned as he unslung his whip and his thugs drew their weapons. Nawal walked slowly over to Allaif. He smiled at her.

“Ah, sister. Do you see reason?”

“Goodbye, brother.”

Nawal stared into her brother’s eyes. He tried to look remorseful, but just looked insincere. He bent to embrace her and she drew the dagger. And plunged it into his chest.

Allaif gasped and his eyes went wide. There was a shout from behind him, but too late. Nawal’s voice was low as she felt blood rush over her blade.

“I renounce you, I renounce you, I renounce you.”

She whispered it into Allaif’s ears as he choked, and then twisted the dagger. He gasped and clutched at her shoulder. Then he fell backwards.

The [Merchants] and [Slave Trader] stared at Allaif in shock, and then backed up as Nawal retrieved her dagger from her brother’s body.

“There will be no sale. And I am no slave. Honored buyers—I regret to tell you my brother erred in selling me and my clan’s wealth.”

Nawal smiled very politely at the pale-faced [Merchant]. The man gaped at her and then colored with outrage.

“Insolent woman! You may have killed Allaif, but the contract—”

He flinched as Nawal swung her dagger and spattered the contract and the [Merchant] with blood. She cleaned her dagger with a handkerchief as she spoke calmly.

“I have renounced him three times. He is dead to my clan and I, and no longer of our blood. Any contract he signs is dust.”

Her clansmen appeared behind her, and Nawal was relieved to feel Hesseif’s presence at her back. The [Slaver] eyed her and cracked his whip.

“Is that so? Well, I have a contract and I say we enforce it right now. There’s always room in my train for more slaves, and breaking a contract is a crime!”

He raised his whip to strike at Nawal and there was a flash of light. Nawal blinked as the young foreigner blinded the [Slaver] and his thugs, making them hesitate. She felt Hesseif shift and readied herself for a bloody battle, but in the moment the light had flashed someone had appeared next to the [Slaver].

“I wouldn’t start a fight.”

A tall woman with blue hair and starry eyes, a vision of perfection, stood next to the [Merchant] and the [Slaver]. She wore brown scale armor made of a metal that Nawal had never seen before and held a greatsword in one hand. The woman smiled slightly as she held the greatsword underneath the slaver’s throat. He gulped and cut himself.

“I am a [Slaver]—”

“With a bad contract. You heard her.”

The woman nodded at Nawal. The [Merchant], pale-faced, backed up a step.

“Harming a [Merchant] in the bazaar—”

“Who said anything about harming? I’m simply defending a [Shopkeeper] from being illegally made into a slave. If you want to try and enforce your contract, I’ll defend her. And myself. Starting with your head.”

Her voice was loud enough for the other people watching to hear. Nawal admired her poise. This foreigner woman had the respect of the bazaar, and could slice apart the [Slaver] and his thugs without repercussion if they called her bluff. And the [Merchant] knew it. He backed up and the [Slaver], realizing the same, fled. The thugs he’d hired melted away as the young man turned.

“Gaz—”

She slapped a hand over his mouth and he staggered. She stared at him and his eyes widened.

“Gabrielle! I thought you’d lost me!”

I didn’t lose you. You wandered off and I was waiting for you to find me. But you found something interesting so I decided to wait.”

Gabrielle, the mysterious woman, turned to Nawal. She had a slight smile on her face.

“So you’re a Tannousin [Blacksmith]? You, a woman?”

She knew about Clan Tannousin! Nawal straightened, pride in her voice.

“I am. Though I may be a woman, I am the only successor to my father’s craft, master that he was. I can forge true blades of Naq-Alrama steel, woman-touched though they may be!”

Her announcement drew a murmur from the crowd, a disapproving one, but Nawal only had eyes for Gabrielle and the young man. They looked at each other and the young foreigner spoke.

“I think our uh, master won’t mind that Gaz—Gabrille. What do you think?”

“I think he would accept such a blade gladly, no matter what hands touched it.”

Gabrielle looked thoughtfully at Nawal.

“Do you truly claim to have your father’s skill?”

Nawal drew herself up, her eyes flashing. She raised her voice as she stood with her brother’s dead body lying at her feet. She would grieve for who he was and who he had been later. But this was pride and steel—it was the pride of her clan.

“Lead me to your master, foreign warrior! Pay my cost and I will forge your master a blade sharper and finer than any he has laid eyes on in his life! My oath on it! I swear it on the body of the man-who-was-my-brother, cursed be his name!”

She pointed at her brother with her dagger and the young man flinched. But Gabrielle just smiled wider.

“Good. In that case, come with me.”

She turned and began to stride through the bazaar. That was a bit too sudden even for Nawal. She hesitated as the young man turned.

“Um, this way. Sorry, I never got your name—”

“I am Nawalishifra Tannousin, a [Blacksmith]. Who are you?”

She stared at the young man, all pale skin and awkwardness. But he had surprised the [Slaver] with magic. And he clearly knew this Gabrielle. Who was his master? The young man smiled at her and Nawal drew her veil further over her face in embarrassment.

“Me? I’m Trey.”

 

—-

 

Trey had had weird days, but it felt like they all paled in comparison to an ordinary day around Flos. Even when he wasn’t here, things got weird. He now stood in a bazaar with Nawalis—Nawalishif—Nawal, a [Blacksmith] wearing a veil. She seemed calm, despite having stabbed her brother through the heart moments ago.

Gazi was equally calm as she stood at ease, sheathing her blade on her back. She didn’t seem bothered by the death either.

“It was her clan’s politics. Her brother would have died had she gone with the [Slaver]—his people would have beaten him to death the instant they were alone.”

“Oh. But Nawal—”

Gazi smiled. Her illusionary face stayed the same, but Trey knew one of her eyes was fixed on Nawal as the dark-skinned young woman began shouting at the rest of her clan standing behind her.

“Well done in finding her. I’ve heard of Clan Tannousin before. They can outsmith a Dwarf. Most Dwarves, at any rate. If this young woman can truly smith  Naq-Alrama steel, she must be at least Level 30. Probably higher.”

“What, her?”

Trey stared at Nawal as she shouted animatedly at her fellow tribes people, cursing them and exhorting them to clean up the body and keep the light out of the tent at all costs. He turned to Gazi, embarrassed.

“I didn’t do much. I just wandered in by accident and when I heard how good the blades were, I thought of his M—you know who.”

“Indeed. And I thought the same thing and let you enter the tent.”

Gazi smiled as Nawal strode over to them. She looked far more cheerful despite having just lost a brother.

“Lead on then, Trey and Gabrielle! Take me to your master and I will see what blade he wants! I will offer him a discount he does not deserve—more if he will buy all the metal we possess! Assuming he has coin of course.”

“He has that, and he will buy every blade you can forge.”

Gazi assured Nawal as she led them through the bazaar. Trey couldn’t help but notice that they were being followed by some of Nawal’s clan members. Probably for her protection, although Trey didn’t think he’d stand a chance. She’d moved very quick with that knife of hers.

“So where is he? Have you a camp? We must talk details and I must see your coin.”

Nawal was impatient. Gazi just smiled. She looked amused for some reason and Trey began dreading why.

“He is just up ahead. At that tent.”

It was a familiar tent, the very same one they’d passed by upon first entering the bazaar. It was the one with the scrying orbs and as Trey saw the huge crowd gathered around it, he heard Flos’ voice. He was shouting loudly, standing in the middle of the bazaar, and his illusion was gone.

Flos, the King of Destruction, stood in front of a [Mage] from Parasol Stroll who was holding a scrying orb up at him. He was speaking into it, his voice booming, the people around him looking awestruck or terrified as the Serpent Hunters and Parasol Stroll formed a protective wall around him. Mars stood behind the King of Destruction, as he spoke into the scrying orb, addressing an unseen audience.

The entire world.

“I am the King of Destruction! I have returned! If there is any nation that seeks my end, come! Send your armies to me! But I will not make war on any nation that treats my people and my kingdom as friend! Let any who crave glory flock to my banner, and any foe of mine quake behind your walls! I am Flos of Reim and I have awoken!

Trey covered his face. He wished he was dreaming. He turned and saw Nawal staring at Flos, her face suddenly dead-white. He could hear the voices.

“The King of Destruction, here?”

“Impossible.”

“Amnesty? He wants adventurers and warriors to join him?”

“He won’t declare war?”

Flos continued, his voice a roar.

“The Empire of Sands is my foe! I will slay the Emperor of Sands myself! As for Wistram, send Amerys to me! Return to me my [Mage] or I will sail upon your walls and break your academy into dust! I say again, I will make war on no nation that does not attack my people! But the blood of Drevish stains the Empire of Sands and I will return the favor a hundred thousand times over!”

He went on, shouting into the orb, his image captured, his words projected across a thousand scrying orbs in a thousand spots across the world. Gazi turned to Nawal and smiled.

“That is our master.”

“Him? You mean—”

The young woman had lost her self-assurance. She stared at Flos as if he were, well, Flos, the King of Destruction. Trey saw her pale as she recalled her bold claims of a moment ago. Gazi just smiled wickedly.

“So, a blade worthy of a [King], and one my lord has never seen before. Your oath on it.”

She looked at Nawal and the young woman glanced at Trey and then at the King of Destruction.

She fainted. Trey caught her just in time and looked up to see Flos, the King of Destruction, grinning at him out of a thousand scrying orbs. He gestured, and the world followed his every word. In a bazaar, standing in front of a dusty tent filled with scrying orbs, Flos sent the pillars of the world quaking and laughed as nations and [Kings] scrambled to catch up. Somehow, Trey had expected nothing less.

 


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5.08

(Volume 1 of The Wandering Inn is now on sale as an e-book on Amazon! Please read this short message about the book!)

 

They were coming. They were already here. The Face-Eater Moths flew and crawled across the Floodplains of Liscor, chittering. There were so many that Erin couldn’t see the sky. Already they were crawling over her windows, their legs scraping the glass. She saw one moth press its body against her window and backed away.

Erin!

A hand yanked her into the middle of the common room. Erin whirled. Ceria’s face was pale and she was holding her wand in her other hand. She shouted over the terrible rustling of thousands of bodies.

“Get into the door! To Celum! We’ll fight them here!”

“What? No!”

Erin shook her head. The half-Elf stared at her incredulously.

“Erin, there are thousands—

“Tens of thousands. Moore, block that window!”

Jelaqua snapped as Moore heaved a table up and rammed it against the window. Erin stared around the room. The adventurers were all boarding up windows or preparing for combat. They looked grim as they checked their gear. She saw the Halfseekers downing potions, the Silver Swords pointing out a crack in the window and arguing—the other Horns of Hammerad were upstairs with the Redfang Goblins, trying to seal off the windows there.

Glass windows. For once Erin regretted the beautiful, expensive, fragile glasswork. She saw a Face-Eater Moth clawing at the window and then saw Ylawes striding towards her.

“Miss Solstice.”

His voice was clipped and he was holding his shield and sword as he stared around the inn. The common room had returned back to its normal size and it felt cramped, as though they were in a tiny box. Erin could hear movement all around them, things battering at the wall.

“I advise you to leave through the door to Celum. We’ll cover you and try to slaughter the moths, but we’ll have to fall back as soon as this inn starts going down.”

“It’s not going down. And I’m not leaving.”

Erin snapped at the [Knight] as he tried to escort her to the doors. He and Ceria both looked at her.

“Excuse me? Did you see the size of those five moths, Erin? One of them could flatten your inn just by landing on it!”

“Not my inn. I have a Skill.”

The young woman folded her arms. She could feel her inn groaning under the weight of so many bodies, but amazingly they had yet to break a window despite the pounding impacts that now came from every side. Moths were hurling themselves at the windows. Ylawes stared at her.

“You’re sure your inn will survive? That changes things.”

“It’ll hold! Moore couldn’t break my walls. My windows though—”

There was a crack as something massive struck a window near the kitchen. Erin saw every head turn. Ylawes stared at her and then looked around.

“In that case we have an opportunity. We can hold this ground; use it to shield our backs.”

“Shield our—what are you talking about?”

More voices. Erin saw Yvlon. She’d come down the stairs. Pisces and Ksmvr were behind her.

“We boarded up as many windows as we could and closed the doors. Hopefully that buys us time. But how long are we planning to hold out here?”

Yvlon pointed back upstairs. Pisces looked around. The [Necromancer]’s gaze was sharp as he eyed the Silver Swords. Falene and Dawil were standing by the doors, the half-Elf holding a staff and the Dwarf a hammer in both hands. He nodded to them.

“The most expedient solution would be to retreat into Celum. But that isn’t your brother’s intention, Yvlon. He intends to take the fight to the Face-Eater Moths.”

“Exactly.”

Ylawes had produced a helmet from somewhere. It was a classic knight’s helm with a visor. He put it over his head, his voice muffled as he spoke.

“We’re going out there. The moths are already breaking the windows and trying to get in—we’ll distract them. Yv, you and your team hold this inn. If Miss Solstice is right we can rely on it to shield our backs and rest if needed. But we won’t win this battle sitting and holding out.”

Win? Ylawes, there are thousands of—”

“I know.

His voice made Yvlon go quiet. Ylawes looked around and Erin saw him open his visor to look at his younger sister.

“Yv, this is our duty. My team’s duty. We’re Gold-rank adventurers and Liscor is under siege. We need to take down those giant moths. Liscor only has a limited window before the city is overrun and we are bound to fight.”

“Sounds about right.”

Jelaqua strode over. The Selphid wasn’t smiling and her hands gripped the two-handed flail tightly. She nodded to Ylawes as the Gold-rank adventurer turned.

“You’re thinking the same thing, Ylawes? Head out and smash those bugs?”

“We’re going to aim for one of the five giant moths. You?”

Erin and the Horns of Hammerad stared open-mouthed as Jelaqua grinned with bloodless lips.

“Nothing so grand. Moore’s magic can’t hit aerial targets and Seborn and I aren’t cut out for it either. We’ll just mow down as many moths as we can. You want to coordinate?”

“No. We’ll just foul each other. Let’s stick within range of the inn, though. We’ll take the front.”

“Fine. We’ll try to hold that ground too.”

Jelaqua nodded. She struck Ylawes’ shoulder with a gauntleted fist as he nodded to her. Yvlon was still staring.

“Are you insane? You’ll be torn apart if you go out there! Ylawes—”

“Don’t argue with your brother!”

To everyone’s surprise, Jelaqua snapped at Yvlon. She looked around. The Selphid’s eyes flashed as she nodded to the door.

“This is a Gold-rank adventurer’s responsibility. It’s not the same as being Silver-rank. When you reach our level you swear an oath to fight. We don’t run, not when a city’s at stake.”

“Exactly. Liscor won’t survive that onslaught for long. Their magic barrier is already weakening.”

Ylawes’ words were punctuated by a thump in the distance. Erin’s eyes widened.

“What was that?

Attack magic. Came from Liscor.

Seborn announced from his position by the doors. Erin heard a thunderous roar and the chittering of the moths stopped for a second as a tremendous thwoom of noise made the windows of her inn shake. She looked around wildly as the press of bodies let up on the outside for a second. She ran to look out a window, ignoring Ceria’s warning.

Moths were flying about in confusion. Erin could see the magical barrier around Liscor flickering and then a flash of orange and red blinded her. The giant moth flew back, keening, as hundreds of its smaller kin fell burning from the air.

“Good use of fire magic. But it won’t last. They only have a limited number of enchantments on their wall.”

Falene announced as she stared out the windows. Indeed, the moths were already attacking the barrier again. They hurled themselves at the blue shield surrounding Liscor and Erin could see it flickering with each impact. Two of the colossal Face-Eater Moths landed on the barrier and she saw it go out for an entire second.

“Dead gods. Are you really going to fight that?”

Ceria’s voice was soft. Ylawes nodded. He looked at her and the other Horns of Hammerad.

“Hold the inn. Don’t let the moths in. If you can’t, pull back into Celum and don’t open that door for any reason. We’ll survive.”

“Ylawes—”

The [Knight] turned and looked at his sister. Erin couldn’t see his face through his visor, but she thought he was smiling.

“I’ll see you soon, Yv.”

There was a crash from upstairs and the sound of splintering glass. Pisces cursed and he and Ksmvr rushed up the stairs. Erin looked around. Where were the Redfang Goblins? Ylawes looked up and nodded to his team.

“Ready?”

“A moment. The mana here is strong. I’m trying to harness it.”

Falene closed her eyes. Erin gasped in surprise.

“Oh! My inn’s got lots of magic! Can you use it?”

“Of course.”

The half-Elf opened her eyes and regarded Erin severely. She shifted her gaze to Ceria.

“Ceria Springwalker, you are a mage of Wistram. I trust you to hold this ground until we return.”

“I’ll—do my best.”

Ceria looked pale. Erin stared at her and then at Falene. The half-Elf was beginning to glow. Dawil grumbled and moved backwards as Falene’s body sparked, jolts of electricity arcing from her body to the ground and tables.

“Hot! Watch it, Elf!”

She made no reply. Across from her, Erin saw Moore raising his staff. Jelaqua’s voice was calm.

“We’re going in, boys. Slaughter tactics. No need for speed or maneuverability out there. Moore, can you cast your armor spell on all of us?”

“Yes.”

The half-Giant’s voice boomed. His eyes flashed green as he brought the staff down. There was a rumble and Erin saw vines covered in huge thorns worm out from beneath her floorboards. They covered his arms, his legs—she saw the same was happening to Jelaqua and Seborn!

“Dead gods.”

Ceria breathed the words. She was staring at Falene. Now the half-Elf was surrounded by a crackling aura of lightning. It was contained—Erin saw the bolts of electricity trying to earth themselves on Dawil and her tables and Falene drawing them back around her. The half-Elf’s voice echoed as her eyes flashed.

Magic is limited only by the quality of the mage, Ceria. This inn is a place of power. As am I.

She turned. Her body shone with lightning. Dawil grumbled.

“And I’m a place of metal. Keep your [Lightning Shroud] spell under control until we’re clear of the inn, Elf!”

“Ready?”

Ylawes strode towards the door. His armor shone as Falene and Dawil took up places behind him. Erin heard more crashes above and shouts. She looked up. Were the moths getting in above already?

“We’re ready.”

Jelaqua’s voice came from a shape cloaked in vines. Erin stared. The Selphid was covered in green armor, her body engulfed in razor-sharp thorns and twisted vine. Only her eyes were visible and then, only just. Seborn looked equally fearful, but Moore—

Two giant eyes stared at her out of a mass of barbed plant matter. The half-Giant turned and Erin, Ceria, and Yvlon backed up a step. A towering creature rose, a hand covered in razor-sharp blades gripped a staff. Ylawes glanced at the Halfseekers.

“On my count, then.”

He put his hand on the door as Dawil knocked aside a barrel that had been pushed in the way. The barrel fell and broke, spilling alcohol across the ground.

“Oops.”

The Dwarf’s voice was loud. Erin heard the chittering, the rustling, saw something smash through the window across the room. It began thumping against the table blocking the way. Ylawes didn’t look around. He waited three seconds and then lifted his shield. He shouted as Ceria and Yvlon ran to attack the moth coming through the window.

Silver Swords! Let’s go!

He threw open the doors. Erin gasped as she saw moths swarming around the entrance. A giant Face-Eater Moth taller than the door itself reared up, its razor-sharp mouth opening. Ylawes raised his shield and it flashed white. He roared as he charged.

“[Shield of Valor]!”

A bulwark of silver light formed around his shield. Ylawes rushed forwards and the moths found themselves swept up, pressed helplessly against the shield as he rammed them together. Hot on his heels was Dawil. The Dwarf roared as he smashed a moth flat and swung his hammer into another with a crunch.

“Come on you flying sacks of crap! I haven’t got all day!”

Behind him strode Falene. Erin heard her speaking as she raised her staff. Spells erupted from the tip of her stave too fast for thought.

“[Blue Lightning], [Flash Fireball], [Water Arrows], [Sand Spray], [Aerial Burst]—”

The lightning around her flashed and Erin heard hundreds of moths shriek as the electricity blasted in every direction. As they tumbled from the sky Jelaqua led Moore and Seborn out, screaming a warcry. The Selphid plunged into the ranks of moths, her flail knocking them aside, creating a space as she whirled through the first rank of moths around the inn. Seborn was already stabbing with his enchanted daggers as Moore smashed moths with his hands and staff.

The door!

Ylawes roared and Erin ran for the door. A moth the size of a large dog flapped towards Erin. She saw its ‘mouth’ opening and shutting as it flew towards her face. Instinctively Erin raised the frying pan.

“Get lost!”

She smacked it and the moth fell down. Erin slammed the door on it and struggled to drag the half-drained barrel in front of the door. She heard more cries as the adventurers began fighting outside the inn and more sounds. The moths were attacking in full force now.

“The windows! Yvlon, take that side!”

Ceria shouted as more moths began bursting through the windows. The one on the far wall had been decapitated by Yvlon’s sword—Erin saw its torso hanging obscenely out of the wall, dripping onto the floorboards. Ceria pointed as more dark shapes squirmed in the window behind it.

“[Ice Spikes]!”

She fired with her wand and skeletal hand. Erin heard shrieks as the forms fell back. Yvlon ran to the other side and lopped off a moth’s leg that had penetrated a glass window.

“Erin! Get to Celum, damn it!”

“No!”

Erin shouted back. She ran into the kitchen and dragged out the crate of rattling potions. She heaved it onto a table, taking care not to break the bottles within. These weren’t the potions Octavia had broken by accident the other day. She’d bought these over a month ago. Healing potions, alchemist’s fire, mana potions—she shouted at Ceria.

“Potions are here! Get them!”

“Potions? Good!”

Ceria turned and cursed as another moth tried to crawl through the broken window. A shimmering wall of ice pinned the insect against the window and then sheared it in two as it blocked the window off again. Ceria pointed and another wall of ice blocked off another broken window. The moths began hammering on the ice again. There were so many!

“I’m going to see what’s happening above!”

Erin ran for the stairs. She could hear more fighting above. She took the stairs two at a time and saw chaos on the second floor.

“Comrade Pisces, the moths are coming through your room!”

“I see them!”

Pisces and Ksmvr were holding the second floor, trying to cover the eight rooms, each of which had moths crawling through the broken windows. They were not alone, though. Erin gaped as three giant bear skeletons tore into the moths above, biting and tearing at the insects. She froze as Pisces impaled a moth on his rapier. The [Necromancer] turned to her, his face alight with battle fury.

“Erin! Get below! We’ll hold the moths off as long as we can! The Goblins are doing the same one floor up!”

“They are?”

“Yes! Bird is wounded!”

Ksmvr shouted as she cut at a moth with three arms. Erin paled.

Bird!

She ran for the third floor, ignoring Pisces’ shouts for her to come back. She’d forgotten about Bird! Was he—

Moths covered the third floor. Erin froze in the hallway. Moths. They were pouring in from the staircase leading up to Bird’s watch tower, filling the corridor. The only thing stopping them was a line of five green warriors. The Redfang Warriors were snarling, cutting moths down as they swarmed through the opening. Behind them an Antinium lay on the ground, bleeding green from dozens of wounds.

“Miss Erin. I regret to inform you that I have failed my duties.”

Bird looked up weakly. His body looked like it had been sliced by thousands of razors. His bow was broken and Erin could see his internal organs pulsating from a place on his side where his exoskeleton was just gone. She reached for the potion at her belt and fumbled with it.

“Bird—hold on!”

One of the Hobs turned. Badarrow’s blinked as he saw Erin and he shouted something guttural at her, pointing at the stairs leading down. He was standing behind a pile of moths. The Hobs had already killed so many that they were forming a barricade in the hallway. Erin saw Headscratcher cutting at two moths, roaring, as they tried to fly in the tight space.

Badarrow loosed an arrow and saw Erin struggling with the potion bottle. He ran over, grabbed the bottle and unceremoniously smashed it against Bird’s chest. The bottle broke as the healing liquid splattered over the Antinium’s wounds.

“Ow.”

Bird’s wounds began to close as Erin dragged him back from the fighting. She saw Shorthilt and Rabbiteater both cutting down moths coming from the doors. The Redfang Warriors fell back a step as more Face-Eater Moths crawled over their companions. And more were coming down the stairs each second.

“Many! Many!

Numbtongue was shouting in frustration as he kicked a cat-sized moth and speared another with his sword. He howled in agony as the small moth he’d kicked latched onto his arm. As he tore it off and stomped on it Erin saw a circular chunk of flesh had been torn off his arm.

“The door! The door to the watch tower! Can you close it?”

She shouted as she pointed to the stairs the moths were streaming down. Bird shook his head as he rose unsteadily. He pulled a dagger from his belt and stabbed a moth crawling among the dead bodies towards Badarrow.

“They broke the door. And my tower! And my bow!

He rose and Badarrow grunted. Bird looked around and walked into his room, past Shorthilt. The Goblin shouted something at him and charged in after the Antinium. Erin shouted for Bird and the Antinium reappeared a moment later with his old crude bow in his arms.

“I have a spare. Miss Erin, you are in grave danger! Please go below!”

“What about you? Come on, get downstairs!”

“No.”

Badarrow growled at her. He shot another moth at point-blank range as Bird took a position beside him. Bird nodded.

“We will hold this spot until we must fall back.”

The other Hobs growled agreement. Numbtongue stumbled back, cursing, as more moths forced him to pull back from the doorway he was holding. Instantly Headscratcher, Shorthilt, and Rabbiteater took a few steps back and formed another line a few feet further back down the hallway. Numbtongue turned to Erin.

“Need potions! Got more?”

“Yeah, lots! Hold on!”

Erin ran down the stairs. Pisces and Ksmvr were fighting in the hallways now, battling  back-to-back. Erin froze as she saw deformed skeletons, huge shambling horrors smashing moths.

“Wha—Pisces, are these all yours?”

“I am a [Necromancer]!”

He looked irate as he stabbed a moth behind one of his Bone Horrors. Erin saw Ksmvr pushing a moth into a room and nearly slipped on the blood.

“Hold on, I’m getting potions for you all! I—gah!”

A moth that had been stabbed through the chest fluttered up. Erin reacted instinctively.

“[Minotaur Punch]”!

She caught it on the abdomen and felt her fist go through the moth. Erin screamed in horror as the moth squirmed on her arm. Ksmvr tore it off and threw it to the ground. Erin stared at the gore on her arm and didn’t throw up. That was a challenge. She ran downstairs, her stomach roiling and saw the situation on the ground floor had gotten worse.

“There’s too many!”

Yvlon and Ceria were fighting a hard battle. Despite Ceria’s ice magic the moths were flooding through the windows and unlike the second and third floors, there were no hallways or doors to block them coming in. Yvlon whirled and cut a moth down as Erin ran for her crate of potions. Ceria was screaming obscenities as she shot moths with her [Ice Spike] spell.

“Hold on, just hold on!

Erin ran back up the stairs, dumping some potions on the ground and then hurled the crate at the Redfang Goblins. Headscratcher grabbed one bottle instantly. Somehow the Goblin recognized the potion and hurled it across the corridor. Erin, knowing what the potion did too, threw herself to the ground.

She heard a roar and felt the wave of heat blast her. When Erin got up, the third floor was a mass of flame as the moths burned. The corpses that the Goblins had stacked up became flaming barricades and the assault slowed. And yet, still the moths came, screaming as they burned, smothering the flames with their bodies. The Goblins took the brief interlude to snatch more potions out of the crate, eying them and snapping at each other as they braced themselves for the next wave of scorched insects.

Hey! One of you come with me!”

Erin screamed at them. The Goblins turned. Headscratcher shouted what sounded like an order in their crackling tongue—Shorthilt raced after Erin as she ran back downstairs. She slipped on the blood coating the stairwell and crashed onto the ground. Erin scrambled up, feeling a searing pain in her elbow and side.

“Are you good?”

What?

Pisces screamed back. Erin shouted.

“Can you hold?”

“Wha—yes! For a while!”

His Bone Horrors had pushed into each of the rooms. Erin could see them smashing and cutting the moths apart. She nodded and ran downstairs.

“Ceria! Yvlon!”

The half-Elf and woman looked up as Shorthilt raced downstairs. The Hob charged towards a moth that had come through a window and cut. He slashed the moth in two and then raced across the inn to cut another moth to ribbons.

“Thanks! How are the others doing?”

Ceria shouted at Erin.

“Good! Bad! I don’t know, there are way too many!”

“My brother’s outside in all of this!”

Yvlon screamed at the other two. Erin nodded. She had no idea if the Silver Swords or the Halfseekers were even alive, but she had to trust they were. She looked around. Her inn was filled with shouts, thumping, screeching insects. She had to do something! But what?

Fight? Erin realized she was holding her frying pan and hurled it at a moth that had burst through a window behind Ceria. It clonked the moth and it was stunned long enough for the half-Elf to turn and blast it with shards of ice. Erin backed up towards her kitchen as Ceria yelled at her to keep back. No, fighting was out. She was no [Warrior]. Then what?

It was a flash of inspiration. The door! Yes, why hadn’t she—Erin ran for the door and yanked it open.

“Erin!”

Octavia nearly cut her with the kitchen knife she was holding. She was standing in front of the door with Drassi right behind her. Erin saw the [Alchemist]’s eyes widen as she took in the chaos behind her.

“Erin, get through quickly!”

“No! Octavia, I need potions! And the Watch! Where’s Celum’s Watch?”

“Watch? Lyonette ran to get them! Erin, how many are—”

Thousands! Liscor’s under siege and we’re barely holding! I need all the potions you’ve got, understand? Healing potions, mana, explosive—put them in crates and wait for me to open the door, understand?”

“What? But—”

Octavia hesitated for only a second. Then she nodded.

“I can do that! Give me five, no, two—”

She looked around desperately.

“I’ll open the door soon! Get the Watch to come! Tell them we need as many [Guardsmen] as they can spare!”

Erin shouted at the [Alchemist]. Drassi looked confused.

“Erin, what are—”

Pallass!

Erin slammed the door. She ran into the kitchen, hearing Ceria cursing and Shorthilt shouting a warning behind her. Mana stone, mana stone! Where was—

There! The bright yellow mana stone gleamed at her in the bowl next to the door. Erin grabbed it and rushed back out. She slapped it on the door and opened it.

Pallass! An entire Walled City lay in front of her, the sky blue, the streets filled with people going about their business. For a second Erin just stared. Then she waved her arms and screamed.

“Hey! Help! Help!

Heads turned in surprise. Erin shouted as Drakes stared at her. They just stared at her as she shouted and waved at them.

“Come here! It’s an emergency! Come here!

They just stared at her! At last a few Drakes walked over, looking confused. One of them, a Drake with dark purple scales looked amused.

“Human, what’s this about? What—”

He caught sight of the fighting behind Erin and recoiled.

“Ancestors, what’s going on?”

“Liscor is under attack! There’s monsters everywhere! Get the City Watch! Tell them we need reinforcements, now!

“Liscor, under attack?”

More Drakes came over. They stared over Erin’s shoulder, alarmed, but not afraid. The Drake eyed Erin’s inn through the door.

“Are those…moths? What’s happening, Human?”

“There’s an attack on Liscor! Get help!

Erin screamed at him. She would have run through to yell at them, but she knew her door only had enough power to let her enter and exit. And she needed an army! The Drakes around the door looked unconvinced.

“This doesn’t look like an attack on Liscor. How do we know you’re telling the truth?”

“Do you see the giant face-eating moths behind me?

“Yeah, but that could be just your inn.”

For a second Erin just stared at the purple-scaled Drake. She raised one fist and punched him through the doorway. Then she seized the entire door itself and began dragging it across the common room.

“Erin? What are you doing?”

Yvlon caught sight of Erin as she sliced another moth in half. Her face was covered in sweat and her armor was already streaked with the yellowish blood of Face-Eater Moths. Erin didn’t answer. The door was heavy, but she was fueled by desperation. She reached her own door to the inn and yanked it open.

Erin! Are you crazy? Come back!

Ceria screamed at her back. Erin saw a sky filled with motion, thousands of crawling shapes. She heard a roar and saw Moore swinging his staff. The half-Giant was covered in his armor of thorns and the moths were literally cutting themselves to pieces as they swarmed him. The Silver Swords and Halfseekers were fighting outside the inn as the moths flew overhead, landing on Erin’s inn.

Falene was blasting insects out of the sky and she had created a space around her, a bubble that slowed the moths as they flew towards her. Ylawes and Dawil were keeping her safe, battling a moth twice as tall as Moore. Erin didn’t hesitate. Though her every instinct screamed to get back indoors she heaved the doorway out and pushed it against a wall. Moths came flying towards her. Erin scrambled back as a shape blurred past her. Seborn stabbed the moths with his daggers, twisting the blades as the moths screamed. The Drowned Man turned to Erin, his eyes flashing behind his armor of thorns.

Get back inside!

“Wait!”

Erin shouted at him. Seborn couldn’t reply as he turned, cursing, to fight the moths converging on her. Erin set the door against the wall and then yanked it open. Again, Pallass appeared in front of her. This time the purple Drake was standing in front of a crowd of Drakes, talking with an officer of the Watch.

“—Just here, [Guardsman]. I was telling you, she was screaming about moths and Liscor being under attack. Then she punched me! Typical human—”

He broke off and turned. The [Guardsman] turned. The crowd went still. They stared as Erin finally looked around and took in the scene outside for the first time.

It looked like a vision of hell. The sky was filled with thousands of dark shapes. They were swarming over the walls, held back by frantic warriors on the walls. Lightning and fire crackled from Liscor’s battlements, blasting moths apart and arrows felled more, but there were a hundred for every one that fell.

And in the distance five giant moths loomed over it all, giant behemoths that blocked the light. Two were on Liscor’s walls, biting at the [Guardsmen] there. Another was flying across the Floodplains, hunting a scuttling Rock Crab. Two more were coming this way, flapping their wings.

Erin saw the Silver Swords struggling to contain their small bubble of space, the Halfseekers cutting down the moths coming towards her inn. She heard Liscor’s horns blowing, heard the chittering laughter of the bugs. It was a roar that filled the air. They flew towards her, so many that it seemed like they would drown her inn with the sheer weight of bodies.

For five seconds she stared and the people of Pallass stared with her. Then Erin heard a Drake woman scream.

What are they?

“Monster attack! Monster attack!

“Summon the Watch! Call the army!”

Liscor is under attack! Raise the alarm! Dead gods, raise the alarm!

They fled as the lone [Guardsman] backed up, holding his spear and shaking. Erin stumbled back as Seborn, Jelaqua, and Moore closed on her position. The moths had seen the light of another city and were flooding towards it.

“Erin!”

Jelaqua shouted, her armor covered in gore. Erin pointed at the door.

“Keep the moths away! Reinforcements are coming!”

The Selphid stared at her and then the door. Understanding flashed in her eyes as Erin pointed to Pallass. Erin slammed the door and ripped the mana stone off. This time she opened the door to Celum. Octavia was piling potions into crates. Erin began yanking them through as Drassi pushed them towards her. She shouted at Ceria, Yvlon, and Shorthilt as she dragged the potions into the inn. She shouted at Pisces and Ksmvr as they came down the stairs with the Redfang Goblins, retreating into the common room.

“Hold on! Just hold on! Help is coming!”

She prayed that was true. The Face-Eater Moths were everywhere. How was Liscor still standing? Could they hold on? They had to have help!

Before it was too late.

 

—-

 

The [Message] spell that was sent out from Liscor was short and simple. It was marked with the highest-priority reserved only for emergency messages as per Drake protocols. It read as follows:

 

Emergency. Liscor is in immediate danger of falling to monster attack. Repeat, Liscor is in danger of falling to overwhelming monster attack from dungeon. Face-Eater Moths have attacked the city in tens of thousands. Five colossal moths sighted.

 

That was it. There was no request for reinforcements, no plea for tactical advice or support. If it came it would be too late. If help came within the day it would be too late, let alone in weeks. There was no force that could reach Liscor from any of the Walled Cities to which the [Message] spell was sent in time. It was just a warning.

The reaction of the other Drakes cities was immediate. A group [Message] call was set up within minutes, using established emergency protocol. The messages from one Walled City to another were transmitted to all parties and read off as each city’s leaders debated on the content. Initially only the six Walled Cities took part in the call, but such was the extraordinary nature of the event taking place that soon other parties across the world were sending [Message] spells, demanding answers.

Indeed, Magnolia Reinhart’s assembly of [Lords] and [Ladies] and a military camp in Lord Tyrion’s command tent were also aware of the situation. They clustered around the uncomfortable mages relaying the [Message] spells, listening intently. This was raw news as it was happening for anyone with the informants and a [Mage] capable of ‘listening in’ on the situation in Liscor, and the discussion of the Walled Cities.

 

Fissival is present. What is Liscor’s situation? They have not responded to any [Message] spells.

Oteslia. The city is under siege from monsters. Does any city have more details?

Manus. No.

Zeres, likewise.

Salazsar can confirm. Our Lord of the Wall reports exceptionally dangerous monsters. Swarm of Face-Eater Moths with individuals exceeding the forty feet in height.

Oteslia. Surely an exaggeration? How were such moths not spotted?

Salazsar. Our Wall Lord reports it crawled out of Liscor’s dungeon.

Manus. Can your Wall Lord confirm danger of threat?

Salazsar. Unknown. Our Wall Lord is currently engaged in combat.

 

Silence then, as every Walled City waited for details. Magnolia Reinhart sat in her chair lightly, listening to the [Mage] as the older man sweated and waited for more [Message] spells to be sent to him. Across from her, a [Lord] muttered under his breath.

“Goblin Lords and monster swarms from a dungeon? This is the last thing we need.”

Minutes passed, and then—

 

Pallass. Can confirm monster attack. Visual confirmation.

Oteslia. How?

Zeres. Is it possible to share visual input via spell?

Pallass. Standby.

Salazsar. We have visual input as well. Scrying orb. However, our [Mages] are unable to transmit imagery.

Manus. What does Salazsar see?

Salazsar. Overwhelming numbers. Our [Strategists] predict one-in-three odds of Liscor being overwhelmed in the next thirty minutes.

Fissival. To Pallass, request nature of visual confirmation.

Pallass. Visual confirmation is…visible. We have a [Mage] capable of [Scrying] at the location of a portal to Liscor.

Oteslia. Please confirm, Pallass. ‘Portal?’

Manus. Keep up with current events, Oteslia. Pallass, can you send visuals via [Scrying]?

Pallass. Standby.

This is Wistram. If Pallass has a [Mage] capable of casting [Scrying] we will amplify the spell to all interested parties. Our mages are ready to link at a moment’s notice.

 

There was a ripple of shock throughout Lord Tyrion’s command tent. He raised a hand and spoke drily.

“Of course Wistram would be spying.”

There was a nervous chuckle around the tent as the [Lords] and [Ladies] and lesser officers stared intently at the young woman, the [Mage] in charge of relaying what was happening. She gulped, but began to speak again, repeating the conversation after the moment of hesitation by all six Walled Cities.

 

Zeres. Wistram is not invited to this conversation. Remove yourself at once.

Fissival. Wistram was invited by our request for magical consultancy.

Zeres. The mages are not authorized.

Oteslia. If Wistram can send [Scrying] spell, do so at once.

Fissival. To a vote. All in favor? Fissival votes yes to Wistram magical aid.

Oteslia agrees with Wistram’s request.

Zeres reluctantly acknowledges.

Salazsar permits. Act quickly.

Pallass will comply. Standby.

Wistram awaits. Our circle is linked and led by two of our Archmages. We will send a magical projection to all individuals with appropriate receptive capacity.

 

Niers Astoragon instantly sat up. He turned to Peclir Im who was listening quietly behind Foliana and several of the Forgotten Wing company’s officers and [Strategists].

“Get a scrying orb at once.”

“Or a mirror. Hand mirror. I have one in my room.”

“Too small. And yours is weak, only capable of lesser scrying. I want an orb.”

Peclir dashed out of the room and several of Niers’ students looked at the [Grandmaster Strategist]. Niers frowned as he peered at the magical slate upon which the [Message] spells were appearing. Foliana munched on a carrot muffin as she sat next to him.

“Looks like a lot of people are listening.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if this conversation was appearing across the world. Liscor falling at this moment to a monster attack from a dungeon? If Wistram really does send the projection, I wouldn’t be surprised if the King of Destruction himself watches. Assuming he has a scrying device.”

There was a ripple around the room. Niers flicked his eyes across the slate. A single message had appeared. And then another. Foliana offered Niers a crumb.

“Muffin?”

He ignored it. Every eye was on the slate.

 

Oteslia. Pallass, your status?

Pallass. Standby.

 

—-

 

Hold the line!

Watch Captain Zevara was fighting on the walls. She screamed at her [Guardsmen] as they fought the moths crawling over the walls and flying overhead. Arrows were being loosed overhead and the few [Mages] in the Watch were blasting the larger targets, but there were just too many moths. As Zevara turned her attention back to the space in front of her she saw a cloud of moths come up and the [Guardsmen] with shields and spears crying out in dismay.

“Duck!”

She shouted and the Drakes and Gnolls flattened themselves as Zevara inhaled deeply. She exhaled a huge gout of flame. The moths fell as the fiery cloud engulfed them. Zevara gasped for air, feeling her lungs strain to absorb enough oxygen. She’d always had trouble breathing—it was worst when she inhaled too much smoke. Now she coughed and tried to inhale.

More moths fluttered up at their position. Zevara spat fire again, feeling the world go dark around her. She gasped, and felt a hand steady her.

“Careful!”

Olesm had a scroll in one hand. He unrolled it as Zevara straightened and aimed with his claws. A shower of spectral arrows materialized overhead and cut down a swath of Face-Eater Moths attacking the wall fifty feet down. Zevara nodded.

“Good job! Ration those enchantments though! We only have so many left!”

“I’m hitting every big target I can see!”

Olesm reached for another command scroll for Liscor’s defenses. Zevara, her head clearing, saw a group of [Guardsmen] cry out down the wall and scatter as a huge moth landed at their position. It wasn’t one of the five giant moths, but it was still large as a house and simply ignored the jabbing spears and arrows the Watch sent into it.

“Olesm! That moth!”

“I see it!”

The Drake [Tactician] fumbled with the scroll, trying to open it. He had it open and ready to cast when he froze. Zevara was about to shout at him to cast the spell already when she saw what he’d spotted. A Drake in full magic armor was racing up the steps, shouting, cutting down moths and heading straight for the huge moth on the walls. Zevara could hear Ilvriss’ voice clear as day.

“Drakes of Liscor, rally to me!”

He used a Skill. He must have, because Zevara stood straighter and sensed the Drakes and Gnolls around her standing tall, catching a second wind.

“Don’t let these vermin scale the walls! Push them back!

Ilvriss charged down the wall, shouting as he and his escort flooded into the breach. His enchanted sword flashed twice and the giant moth staggered back, keening in pain. Zevara saw his blade stab into the moth again and again, carving through it easily as he and his small group of followers retook the spot.

“Good! Now all we need is ten more of him!”

Zevara shouted at Olesm. The Drake grinned and aimed his scroll at a giant moth climbing up the walls. A jet of flame shot downwards and Zevara saw the moth fly off the wall and flap wildly in agony.

“I’ll try to bring that one down!”

“There are four! Two are here—where are the other three?”

“One’s flying north! The other two are at Erin’s inn!”

What?

“The inn! It’s still standing! The moths are being held off there!”

Zevara turned, incredulous. She hadn’t thought of Erin’s inn, except to wonder if the young woman had fled or been killed. Her tail twitched as she saw the flash of swords and color of magic. The inn was ablaze with motion, covered by moths, but still it stood! And shining out of a door set against the front wall was another city. Zevara’s heart skipped a beat as she realized what Erin was doing.

“Ancestors, of course. Pallass!”

 

—-

 

Zeres. Pallass, what is taking so long?

Pallass. Standby.

 

A pause, as around the world the wealthy and powerful leaned forwards, some actually leaning on the unlucky [Mages] who had to relay what was happening. In Terandria, a group of nobility sat around, eating snacks and laughing lightly.

“What fun!”

“This is far more entertaining than anything I could have hoped for today.”

“I say, let’s have a bet on whether Liscor falls. Any takers, say, a hundred gold pieces?”

“Make it two hundred and I’ll take that offer.”

“Four hundred on the city standing but being gutted.”

“Ah, wonderful! Let’s see if these Drakes manage to get something for us to look at, shall we?”

 

Pallass. We have visual. Stand by for Wistram to relay!

Oteslia. At last!

 

The image swam into place slowly, a blurry scene coming slowly into view. Flos, the King of Destruction, leaned over the tiny marble-sized scrying orb and looked at Gazi.

“Are you sure this is the only orb we have, Gazi?”

She looked apologetic.

“My lord, that is my personal orb. I thought we had a larger version in our posession.”

Orthenon rubbed at his face, shaking his head.

“We did—until we were forced to sell them for food two winters back.”

“No matter. Is this from the perspective of the [Mage] in Pallass? A wonder that Wistram can transmit it to so many locations. Now, what have we here?”

Flos leaned forwards, as did the rest of the people in the room. Trey stared in wonder at the magical portal set into the wall, at the crowd of Drake civilians clustered around the door. There was even sound! The [Mage] was standing next to a Drake [Guardswoman] as she argued with an important-looking officer in yellow armor. It was probably not a conversation that Pallass meant for the world to hear.

 

“Hurry up! We need reinforcements now!

Erin stood in her doorway, shouting at Pallass and unknowingly, the world as the battle raged behind her. Moths were falling from the sky, blasted by Falene’s lightning and a shower of thorns Moore sent upwards like a flight of arrows. The Drakes in front of the door stared at her, but Erin’s words were meant for Watch Captain Venim as he stood with a company of Drakes in armor. They hadn’t entered the door although they’d been standing there for the last ten minutes.

“Watch Captain? Our [Mages] have the doorway open and ready to go! Give the order and I’ll take my men through.”

The Drake was a [Captain], nearly hopping with impatience as she eyed the battle in Liscor. But Watch Captain Venim just shook his head.

“I do not have permission to send your troops in, [Captain].”

The Drake turned her incredulous gaze on him. She kept her voice low so the anxious crowd of Pallass’ civilians couldn’t hear, but she was standing right next to the Drake [Mage] who was mightily concentrating, his face beaded with sweat as he stared at the portal.

“And why not? Liscor is under attack! Those flying moths will overwhelm the walls within the hour if we don’t clear them away! Ancestors, my company might not be enough! We need to push as many soldiers through as that doorway allows and do it now!

Venim closed his eyes.

“The Assembly of Crafts is debating. We do not have authorization to support. Prepare to close the door if the inn is overrun.”

The Drake inhaled sharply.

“Watch Captain? You can’t be serious—”

“You have your orders, [Captain]! So do I! We wait until the Assembly responds, is that clear?”

Venim snapped at her. He broke off as the Drakes looked at him. One of the civilians stared at the soldiers and then at the battle.

“Why aren’t we sending our army in?”

There was a murmur from the crowd. Many Drakes had left the streets rather than look at the hordes of monsters, but the stronger-willed civilians were present. Indeed, several richly-dressed Drakes were inspecting the carnage with a great deal of interest.

“It’s Liscor. It’s not our city.”

One of the Drakes spoke up hesitantly. A Drake with a monocle in front turned, looking offended.

“Excuse me? Liscor is a strategic asset. If they fall, the Humans might easily sweep through or claim Liscor as its own. Not to mention that this dungeon threatens us all. If monsters occupy the area around Liscor or if that dungeon has more swarms of this magnitude—”

“Hey! Where’s the army?

Erin shouted through the doorway. The Drakes turned back to her. Erin ducked as a moth came for her and the crowd screamed. Quick as lightning, a Drake [Archer] standing in Pallass shot an arrow straight through the doorway. The moth fell, and Erin got back to her feet. She was shouting through to the other side now.

“I don’t know! I said I don’t know, Jelaqua! They’re just standing there! Can you hold—aah! Run away!”

She fled as another house-sized moth landed with a thud that made the crowd draw back. The Drake [Soldiers] in Pallass rushed forwards, but before the moth could approach the doorway, a Selphid charged into it. Jelaqua cursed as she hit the moth’s face body, legs, and wings, her flail smashing the insect back.

“Good job that Selphid!”

The Drake with the monocle applauded as the rest of the Drakes in the crowd looked at him. He nodded to the other Drake on his left.

“I say, did the Human call her Jelaqua? That must be Jelaqua Ivirith, a Gold-rank adventurer! She leads the Halfseekers.”

“Splendid flail work!”

The other Drake agreed. They inspected the battle, unaware or simply uncaring of the looks they were getting. The other anxious Drakes stared at them, and then one with purple scales and black eye spoke up.

“Well go on, what about the Halfseekers?”

The Drake with the monocle and his buddy looked surprised.

“Well if you must know, the Halfseekers are a group of three Gold-rank adventurers. They used to be a group of eight and quite well-respected, on the verge of Named Adventurer status as a group. However, they’re solidly Gold-rank now. Their team isn’t specialized for this kind of fighting. Oh—see the half-Giant? That would be Moore, a specialist in earth magic. He’s using…my word, is that a mass-variant of the [Armor of Thorns] spell?”

“It must be. It takes quite a lot of mana to use that spell—I wonder if he’s exhausted himself already? But the defensive benefits are considerable.”

“Naturally, naturally. Oh look, Noass! Do you see that?”

“I do indeed, Sir Relz. That flash of movement, there? That would be Seborn, their Drowned Man and [Rogue]. He’s a Crab-type Drowned Man and very adept at close-quarters combat. Not ideal for the number of flying moths, but he’s keeping mobile with his team, shielding this inn.”

“Shame that none of the Halfseekers can take the fight to the giant moths. Look, one’s assailing the walls. I can’t think that it will be repelled with just the forces th—”

“Ancestors!”

A cry broke through the commentary. Across the world people leaned forwards, trying to get a better look as the Drake [Mage] was buffeted by the crowd. They saw him pushing forwards, staring through the portal at a flash of light. One of the five giant moths was on the wall, climbing over, but a flash of light tore a part of its face away and then another.

“Look! On the walls! Someone’s shooting at it!”

“Who?”

The two Drake commentators, Sir Relz and Noass, pushed forwards as the crowd and the world held its breath.

 

—-

 

The gargantuan Face-Eater Moth had nearly climbed over the walls and was threatening to enter the city where it would cause havoc unchecked. The City Watch was trying to hold it back but the massive moth simply ate the defending Drakes and Gnolls or speared them with its massive legs. It was just crawling over the battlements when an arrow sprouted between its head and exploded into a shower of spikes that tore part of its face away. The Face-Eater Moth reeled back, keening, and heads swiveled for the unknown shooter.

He was coming up the stairs. Halrac raised his bow and loosed another arrow. It streaked towards the giant Face-Eater Moth and exploded into a cloud of green dust. Poison. The moth shook its wings as Halrac shot a second arrow which froze a portion of its left wings. It dropped, and Halrac shifted his aim and shot a moth the size of a wagon instead. The fireball that engulfed the winged creature consumed it almost entirely.

“Griffon Hunt!”

A cry went up as Halrac shot again and again, his enchanted arrows finding their mark each time. The [Guardsman] rallied behind Halrac and pushed the moths back to the wall. Halrac advanced and behind him came Typhenous and Revi. The Stitch Woman shouted in fury.

Come forth, spirits! Drive back these monsters!

She pointed and the City Watch saw a wave of ghostly warriors and archers charge up the stairs behind her. Spectral warriors flooded the battlements, fighting the Face-Eater Moths. Revi pointed and a flaming Corusdeer galloped past her while two bright eagles made of light harassed moths flying overhead.

“Typhenous, we could use a shield!”

Revi shouted at the old man behind her. Typhenous raised his staff.

“[Wall of the Winds]!”

A howling gale sprung up along their section of the wall, hurling the moths climbing or flying there away. Typhenous raised his voice as the [Guardsmen] cheered.

“Keep shooting! The wall works one way!”

Halrac grunted as he loosed an arrow. It passed straight through the wall of swirling winds and exploded in the face of the Face-Eater Moth as it tried to fly back up. Outraged, injured, the moth flew backwards.

“Keep me covered. I’m bringing that thing down.”

He spoke curtly to Revi. She paused in exhorting her summoned minions.

“You think you can?”

Halrac glared at the giant moth as it circled, flying overhead to bypass the windy barrier Typhenous had conjured. He pulled five glowing, cherry-red arrows from his quiver.

“Let’s find out.”

He drew and loosed and the explosion consumed the moth. It fell amid the cheering.

 

—-

 

Pallass confirms one of five giant Face-Eater Moths is down!

Zeres. We have eyes. We saw.

Oteslia. What’s this about Pallass not sending reinforcements to Liscor? Explain yourself!

Pallass. Standby.

 

Zevara’s claws tore the parchment slightly as she stared up from the hastily scribbled [Messages] and at the smoking corpse of the giant Face-Eater Moth that had fallen onto half the wall. The ink was still wet and the Street Runner was already dashing off the wall to safety.

“The Walled Cities know about this? And they’re watching? How in the name of—the inn!”

“Are they sending reinforcements?”

Olesm called hopefully as he surveyed the wall. He pointed.

Fall back! [Rapid Retreat]!”

A group of [Guardsmen] fled at speed as a group of moths swarmed over their location. Zevara shook her head, looking at the rest of the messages.

“No! Damn Pallass! They’re still holding back!”

She stared around the city. The walls were holding, but the moths had just flown over the walls in many spots. Now the fighting was in the streets of the city as moths attacked homes, buildings, and [Guardsmen] indiscriminately.

“Report! How bad is it in the city?”

She snapped at a second Street Runner as he dashed up the stairs. The young Gnoll panted and wheezed as he spoke.

“Gnolls are on the rooftops, shooting down moths entering the city! Miss Krshia has anyone with a bow in the center, but she says they can’t do more than protect their area.”

“The Gnolls? That’s excellent!”

Zevara stared at the small shapes on the rooftops below. The Gnolls were shooting down moths as they came. She spotted more flashes of movement in the streets.

“Are those adventurers?”

 

—-

 

“Go, go, go! Get out there and fight!”

Selys was distributing potions, shouting at adventurers, and herding civilians into the back rooms. The Adventurer’s Guild had turned into chaos as the Drake [Receptionist] tried to force the lower-ranked adventurers to leave the building. They didn’t want to go.

“I said get out there! The city is under attack! You’re adventurers, this is your job!”

“But there are so many! We don’t get paid for—”

“You don’t get to live if they slaughter us all! Move!”

Selys shouted at a young man with a sword. She had a bow by the doorway. She snatched it up as she heard heavy wing beats. A group of moths landed in the street and the adventurers flinched. Some rushed out, but before they could fight the small swarm a shape flashed by them and kicked the first moth so hard its head collapsed. Hawk the Courier spun and kicked rapidly, smashing the fragile moths’ bodies. He spun, ready for more, and spotted the staring adventurers and Selys.

“Hawk!”

Selys shoved the Bronze-rank adventurers into the street. She pointed.

“Guard that street! Just take down any moth you see! Go!”

She turned to the Rabbit Beastkin. Hawk was panting, but unharmed. He wiped moth fluids and body parts from his foot as she approached him.

“Stamina potion?”

“Thanks. I’ve got better ones. Ancestors, this is the second time I’ve had to defend Liscor in months! First the undead, now this!”

Hawk looked around. He straightened as more moths flew down through the air. Two fell to arrows, but the rest landed on roofs, eliciting screams from the people within. Hawk leapt up and Selys saw him kick off a wall and onto the roof where he began smashing the moths. She looked around frantically. Liscor was still fighting, still surviving, but there were more moths coming every minute and no end to them in sight. She shouted the question that was on everyone’s tongue.

Where are the Antinium?

 

—-

 

“Flood the tunnels! Workers with bows, fire into the kill zone! Collapse tunnel G-43E! Activate the traps in cluster JF-42!”

Belgrade was at the center of chaos as Workers and Soldiers streamed around him. Anand could barely see for all the bodies, but the sight of the Face-Eater Moths flooding the tunnels was enough to chill the Antinium to the core. If not for the kill-zone he and Belgrade had created, they would have overrun a good deal of the Hive. As it was, over sixty percent of the Hive was currently fighting and the rest was on reserve.

“Take down that giant moth! [Combined Arms]!”

He pointed, and a group of Soldiers charged forwards, their fists swinging as one. The giant moth reeled back as Soldiers and Workers swarmed onto it. The giant room that was the end of the kill zone was filled with moths and Anand saw Antinium fighting and dying, desperately trying to keep the moths from entering the rest of the Hive. The Face-Eater Moths were numerous and strong. They tore Soldiers apart, trampling them. One giant moth rushed forwards and stopped as it impaled itself on two silvery swords.

“Advance.”

Klbkch’s voice was met with a wave of Soldiers who pressed the moths back. The Revalantor fought, his blades flashing in the gloom as the Antinium held the line. In a lull he ran back to Belgrade and Anand as the two struggled to keep ahead of the moths as they dug through the earth and tried to enter the Hive via other sections.

“Belgrade, abandon your command of the lower-eastern section. The Queen has assumed command of the Workers and Soldiers there.”

“She has? That is a relief!”

Belgrade sagged. He turned his attention to another area as Anand paused to stare at Klbkch. The Revalantor had fought for six hours straight already without pause.

“Revalantor Klbkch—”

“Speak quickly.”

Anand nodded.

“We have received another urgent request for aid from Liscor. It seems the Face-Eater Moths have declined in ferocity after the slaying of their eighth mother-type leader. Should I take some Soldiers and reinforce…?”

“No. We have allocated all we can. The Hive must stand. Tell Liscor that reinforcements are on the way.”

Anand nodded. Reinforcements were on the way. And as the battle dragged into its seventh hour in the Hive, the Antinium appeared aboveground.

 

—-

 

“The Antinium! The Antinium are coming!”

“At last! What took them so long?”

Zevara’s head turned in relief. She expected to see a wave of black bodies flooding out of the tunnels. What she saw instead surprised her. She saw color.

“What? Are those—?”

The Painted Soldiers charged onto the streets. Zevara saw a Worker with a censer point and then two Antinium, one a giant with yellow splatters, the second painted with a ghoulish purple smile lead two groups into the city. They began smashing into the moths on the ground. As she watched the Soldiers charged a wagon-sized moth, bearing it to the ground and stomping it to death. More flooded up the walls and began hurling themselves at the moths there.

“Watch Captain! The team of Griffon Hunt says their [Scout] is out of enchanted arrows!”

“What? Damn! Give him every one we’ve got and get more [Guardsmen] to reinforce his position! Another one of those giant moths is coming! Let the Antinium hold the wall!”

Zevara saw [Guardsmen] race to where another giant moth had landed. The Antinium were now on the walls, ruthlessly crushing moths, fighting with reckless disregard for their safety. She saw one Soldier with bright blue circles on his body jump off the wall and onto a wagon-sized moth climbing up. Both Antinium and moth fell and landed with a crunch below. The Drake winced as she saw the yellow-striped Antinium leader pull another Soldier back from doing the same.

“Push them back! The Antinium are here—push the moths back!”

She shouted at her [Guardsmen], feeling a surge of hope for the first time. Zevara turned as Olesm downed the second giant moth with a flash of lighting. She heard a cheer as the moth fell and the Soldiers in the streets covered it, tearing it apart piece by piece. Three left! They could do this! Three left!

 

—-

 

“Another excellent lightning strike by that [Tactician] on the walls! Good shot, I say!”

“Are those Antinium reinforcing Liscor? Of course, this is the only Drake city with a Hive. Why weren’t they deployed earlier?”

“That’s unknown, but they seem to be pushing the moths back quite quickly where they are! Hold on—do you see what I’m seeing, Noass? Those Antinium have paint on their carapaces! Is this some kind of new Antinium variant?”

The two Drakes who were commentating in the crowd probably had no idea their words were being broadcast to countless other people across the world. However, their words were highly significant to the many people watching. In Baleros, Niers Astoragon leaned over.

“My eyes aren’t what they used to be. Umina, do you see what those Drakes are talking about?”

The Lizardgirl stared hard at the image in the orb.

“I think so. The Antinium have…well, they have something on their bodies.”

“Color? Paint? But they appear to be the standard Soldier types. Is this a trick or does it have more meaning?”

Niers leaned back in his seat, thinking hard. Foliana munched on her muffin.

“Mm. Looks good. Think Liscor can win it?”

Every head turned to Niers. The tiny Fraerling smiled, knowing his reputation could rest on a correct answer.

“I wouldn’t place all my coin on them just yet, Foliana. They’re putting up a good fight, but the adventurers around this…inn are tiring. They’re—wait, it’s that Human girl.”

He sat up as the young woman appeared in the doorway again. She waved at the crowd.

“You lot coming through yet!?”

The Pallassian soldiers shifted uncomfortably. The young woman glared at them, and Niers laughed as he saw her raise one expressive finger.

“Fine! Stay that way! You guys are all assholes, you know that? You and your stupid Walled City!”

Then she slammed the door shut. Niers blinked as the Drakes cried out and the portal vanished.

 

Salazsar. What is going on, Pallass?

Pallass. Standby. Human interference.

Zeres. Stop saying ‘standby!’ Recover the image!

Pallass. Standby.

 

It took five gut-wrenching minutes for the image to reappear. Magnolia saw Erin arguing with another Human in armor as the portal reopened. She leaned forwards.

“What has that young woman done now?

“Look, guard the inn! Inside! Just hold on—they’re coming through the third floor and my guys are tired! Take over and don’t let them come down the stairs!”

The Human in armor nodded and Magnolia saw a group of [Guardsman] rush into the inn. Their arrival had surprised the Drakes in Pallass.

“Is that the insignia of Celum’s City Watch?”

“You’d know more than I, Noass. What are they doing in Liscor?”

“Using a magic door.”

Magnolia muttered to herself, ignoring the intrigued looks the others in the room were giving her. Ressa frowned as she stared at the adventurers fighting the moths. Magnolia glanced up at her.

“Ressa, it looks like Liscor will survive. Unless you disagree? The Antinium are there, there are Gold-rank adventurers on the wall, and two of those horrid moths are down. All good, or do you disagree?”

The maid shook her head.

“The moths are still numerous. And there is a problem.”

“Which is?”

“The adventurers who have been attracting a lot of the attention.”

Ressa pointed at the Halfseekers and the Silver Swords. Magnolia peered at them.

“What’s wrong?”

The maid’s face was grim.

“They’re getting tired.”

 

—-

 

It happened in an instant. One second Jelaqua was there, twirling her flail, the next, the giant moth descended. The Selphid tried to move but her leg slipped in the muck and blood. Erin saw legs snatch her up and heard Jelaqua’s shout.

“Let go of me, let go!

“Jelaqua!”

Moore roared as he ran to grab her. He was too slow. The moth flew up and Jelaqua’s voice grew fainter. There was a shout and then Erin saw something falling. She saw Jelaqua’s pale face, her arms flailing—

And then the Selphid hit the ground. Her body thumped on the ground and bounced. She didn’t move.

“Jelaqua?”

Moths covered her. Erin shouted in horror and tried to run forwards. Seborn was already there, cutting, dicing. Moore thrust aside moths and scooped Jelaqua up. Part of her face was missing—the moths had torn her body to shreds in those brief moments. Her mouth was moving but the rest of her body was limp, twisted.

Broken. Moore ran for the inn and Erin shouted for Celum’s [Guardsmen] to cover them. They obligingly filled the air with arrows, but it wasn’t enough. The giant moth circled and this time struck Moore. He screamed as a leg went through his stomach and the broken armor of thorns on his body. Seborn cursed. This time the moth landed, mouth open wide to eat the half-Giant whole.

“Silver Swords, on me! [Knight’s Challenge]!”

A voice shouted. The gigantic moth turned as Ylawes struck his shield and it rang like a gong. It and the other moths converged on the silver [Knight], buying time for Erin to run out with the Horns of Hammerad and the Redfang Goblins and drag Moore and Jelaqua inside. The moth charged Ylawes and struck his raised shield. Though Ylawes was guarding, the impact sent him staggering backwards. He raised his shield again and blocked a leg as sharp as a needle before it could strike his chest.

“Dawil! Take out its legs!”

“On it!”

The Dwarf ran around the giant moth. He swung his hammer.

“[Thunder Blow]!”

The impact snapped the giant moth’s leg in half. The insect jerked as Ylawes sliced at its head, and it tried to bite again. The Dwarf ran around as Falene raised her staff.

“[Grand Fireball].”

An explosion cooked the insect’s abdomen and it shrieked. It turned, and the half-Elf ran swiftly backwards. Ylawes struck his shield again and the moth turned. Before Dawil could cripple its other leg it grabbed the [Knight] and took off.

“No!”

Erin heard Yvlon shout. The young woman raced forwards as the giant Face-Eater Moth flew higher. Ylawes was a speck overhead. She could see him cutting at the moth, into its belly as it tried to bite him. Falene raised her staff.

“[Blue Lightning].”

The bolt hit the moth in the wing and tore a hole open. It flinched, but kept flying. Dawil knocked a moth aside, panting, his beard covered in gore.

“Think our boy can do it, Falene?”

“Never say ‘our boy’ and my name in the same sentence again, Dawil. And I think he’s done it.”

Erin stared up at Ylawes high overhead. She couldn’t hear what he said, but she saw his sword tear a hole in the giant moth’s abdomen. It screamed and fell and he fell with it.

“He’s gonna splat! Someone do something!”

Erin shouted in horror as Ylawes fell. Falene sighed.

“I am. Don’t block my aim. Wait…wait…[Featherfall].”

She pointed and Ylawes’s body slowed twenty feet from the ground. He landed with a grimace, his armor covered in gore. Dawil ran forwards and buried his hammer in the insect’s head, splitting its brains open and putting an end to its convulsions. Ylawes raised his sword and Erin heard the cheering.

It came from Pallass. She turned back to the door, annoyed and angry.

“Those jerks! They haven’t done a thing, just watched!”

“Don’t need to! There’s only two of them moths left and we’re thinning out the rest of the buggers at last!”

Dawil marched over to the others, panting, his face red with exhaustion. He grabbed for a stamina potion at his belt and downed it.

“Damn things aren’t working anymore. Hey, one of you mind killing the next giant moth?”

He looked around and realized he wasn’t the only one swaying on his feet. Falene leaned over her staff, her elegant face marred by her sheer exhaustion and Ylawes stumbled, barely able to stand.

“We’ve got to rest. Stamina potions aren’t enough.”

“Okay! Rest! The inn’s secure—I’ve got guys from Celum holding it!”

Erin pointed to her inn. It was scarred from the outside, every window broken, and Bird’s beloved watch tower had been smashed, but it still stood. The Silver Swords stumbled inside and paused.

“Huh.”

Dawil stared around Erin’s common room. It had been enlarged again, and over thirty members of Celum’s Watch stood behind the windows with crates of potions at their feet. The bodies of Face-Eater Moths littered the floor and Erin had used the extra ‘stage’ part of her inn to clear the bodies and broken furniture away. It looked awful, but the Silver Swords just collapsed on the ground, ignoring the blood that was on their floor and armor.

“How’s Jelaqua? Is she?”

Injured.

Seborn looked up as he crouched next to his teammates. Jelaqua wasn’t moving, but her eyes and mouth twitched. The Drowned Man grimaced as he poured a healing potion into her mouth.

Her body’s broken from the fall and her real form took damage from it too. I’m trying to get a healing potion into her, but there’s no saving her body. She can’t move it or do more than speak.

“What about Moore?”

Healing. He took a bad injury but he’ll be fine with rest.

The half-Giant’s eyes were closed and his head was covered in sweat, but the [Guardsmen] from Celum had covered him with Erin’s blankets from the kitchen and his wound had closed thanks to the healing potions. Erin looked around.

“Ceria, Pisces, Yvlon, Ksmvr, you all okay?”

“We’re good.”

The Horns of Hammerad looked up. They were exhausted too, but the arrival of Celum’s Watch had kept the pressure off them. Likewise, the Redfang Goblins were sitting together, sharpening their blades, keeping a wary eye on the open doorway. They were being given a wide berth by Celum’s [Guardsman], but after seeing the hundreds of moths the Redfang Warriors had slaughtered to keep Erin’s inn from being overrun, it was hard to call the Goblins anything but an ally.

Especially now. Erin peered out of her inn at Liscor’s walls, still filled with fighting.

“You think we’ll be okay if we rest? All but two of the huge moths are dead and there aren’t as many of the other ones. I think we’ve won. Right?”

A grunt answered her from inside. Dawil, on his feet and still pale with exhaustion, looked troubled.

“Battle’s not over until we take out the last two. And there’s enough moths to cause trouble. Hey—watch it!”

He pulled Erin back as the [Guardsmen] in her inn loosed another flight of arrows. The moths approaching her inn fell, pin cushioned, and the ones who got to the walls died to a mixture of spears, swords, and axes. Celum’s Watch might not be as well-trained or as numerous as Liscor’s, but with Erin’s inn they could easily hold the moths off. Erin nodded as she spotted some of them downing Octavia’s potions.

“Okay, two big ones, but once we get rested we can take them down, right?”

“Right. Liscor’s walls might recharge enough to blast the suckers. Or maybe they can shoot them down. Was that Halrac the Grim I saw on the walls? He took out one of those things himself!”

Dawil nodded approvingly. Erin did too.

“Yeah, that’s right! I think we can do it!”

She broke off as she heard voices. Erin peeked around the door and saw the Drakes from Pallass standing in front of the door. They were still doing their commentary, by the looks of it.

“—seems like Liscor’s managed to repel the worst of the assault, Noass.”

“That’s right, Sir Relz. The swarm seems to have been broken and the last two Face-Eater Moth mothers are circling around in disarray.”

“That’s indeed so, Noass. Did I hear you right? You called them ‘mothers’?”

“Apparently those exceptionally large ones are brood mothers that lay thousands—tens of thousands—of eggs, Sir Relz. It’s a disgusting process.”

“Quite, quite. But they definitely have morale and it is failing. See how they’re circling around just out of bow shot of Liscor? Not a smart move, but then, when have monsters ever thought tactically?”

“Indeed, indeed—oh look, it’s the Human who owns this inn.”

Erin peered through her magic doorway at the crowd standing in Pallass’ street. She eyed Watch Captain Venim who wouldn’t meet her eyes and then the two rich-looking Drakes standing in front.

“Excuse me, some of us are fighting for our lives here.

“And some of us are watching the show, Miss Human. You seem to have things well in claw anyways. Do you think some of the adventurers who just fought out there would mind coming to the door so we could congratulate them? The Silver Swords did an excellent job, as did the Halfseekers. Taking down a Face-Eater Moth in the sky like that, my word, what a show!”

Sir Relz, the snobby-looking Drake applauded lightly and the crowd murmured agreement. Erin glared at him.

“They’re all tired from nearly dying. And stop telling us it’s nearly over! We get to say that! You get to watch! Besides, those moths aren’t just flying around in a panic!”

“Oh really? Flying in a circle seems to be rather unintelligent to me, wouldn’t you agree, Sir Relz?”

The Drake called Noass smirked. Erin stared at him.

“You’re stupid. And that’s not a random spot. That’s the spot where the Face-Eater Moths crawled up from to begin with!”

Sir Relz, who’d been smiling condescendingly and sipping from a goblet of wine, paused. He stared at Erin.

“It is?”

“Yup.”

Erin glared around. She eyed a Drake in fancy robes who was staring hard at her and the battle outside.

“And what are you looking at?”

She waved at him but he didn’t respond. He looked like he was concentrating hard. Sir Relz on the other hand looked more and more concerned.

“Miss Human.”

“Yeah?”

“When you say the moths crawled ‘up’ out of the ground, do you mean to say you didn’t see the entire swarm fly in? They appeared out of the dungeon, correct?”

“Yup. Five of the nasty ones. Came right out with a shower of water. Like a geyser. Why?”

“Well…how do you know their entire population consisted of only five moths?”

Erin stared at the Drake. Sir Relz stared back. Erin closed her eyes and then someone screamed. She looked over her shoulder as a Drake pointed and groaned.

“You have got to be kidding me.”

Another Face-Eater Moth mother crawled out of the hole in the ground. She spread her wings and her brood flew into the air, fresh thousands flying upwards. Erin stared. Then she saw another Face-Eater Moth mother crawl out of the hole. And then another. And another.

Six giant moths flew through the air, chittering, their voices making the wax in Erin’s ears vibrate. She stared at them as the crowd in Pallass went silent and the defenders of Liscor’s walls froze. Her voice was very audible in the silence.

“Oh, we are so dead.”

 

—-

 

Zeres here. The situation looks unwinnable. Our [Strategists] predict destruction of the city unless the Antinium are capable of fielding an army large enough to repel the moths.

Pallass. Our [Generals] concur. We are prepared to send a company of [Soldiers] into Liscor to evacuate and hold the walls until the citizens can flee into Celum.

Oteslia. Only now are you sending your forces in? Too little, too late!

Salazsar. Liscor must not be abandoned at any cost. Surely Pallass can send in multiple companies.

Pallass. There is no known limit to the population of moths. We recommend evacuation.

Fissival. Are there any reinforcements that may be called in via Celum? Can Wistram assist?

Wistram. We are unable to send reinforcements. If Liscor could hold out for a day we would be able to teleport a single Archmage to the battlefield.

Manus. Untenable. We may only watch and see what transpires. Let us hope for a miracle.

 

Silence. The world waited as the Face-Eater Moths flew in a gathering swarm, chittering, angrier and angrier. They seemed equally focused on Erin’s inn as the city—waves of them were already hammering the inn, driven back only by arrows and the exhausted [Mages]. Erin sat in her inn, staring at the six giant shapes.

“We can’t beat them. I mean. I thought we could. We got three! Three! But now there are six. It’s not fair. How big is the dungeon, anyways? Why are they all out here? Why…?”

“Fair’s never a word you should use in adventuring, lass.”

Dawil stood with his hammer in his hands, staring at the swarm. He sighed.

“It was a good fight. Other side cheated, but then, don’t we all? We’ll have to hold this spot. Don’t know what’ll happen if the big ‘uns come for your inn. Your walls might not hold, but we have to stop them long enough to get all those people in Liscor through the door.”

“It doesn’t have enough power for that.”

“It must. Or—could we hide them somewhere else? The dungeon? The Antinium Hive?”

Erin didn’t know. She stared up, helpless. Pallass’ [Soldiers] were going to come through any minute, but she’d heard them talking. They were going to evacuate people, not fight. The moths blotted out the sky, flying higher, laughing at her. She looked up and knew despair. The Gold-rank adventurers couldn’t beat them. Who could?

“Erin.”

A voice spoke softly in her ear. Erin and Dawil turned and saw Pisces. His robes were white and pristine, enchanted against bloodstains and dirt, but his face was sweaty, grimy, and he had a gash down one arm. He looked up at the swarm of insects, and shook his head.

“A calamity if ever I saw one. A truly terrible threat to any city. And yet—I think I have been too arrogant.”

“Pisces. What are you talking about?”

Erin stared dully at the [Mage] as he spoke. Pisces seemed tired, but almost relaxed as he stared up at the swarm.

“I call others fools. I judge harshly—out of pride and vanity it is true, but also a sense of my own self-worth, my own recognition of my talents. But I must admit—I am as idiotic as the next self-satisfied peon at times. We are all fools, and it is wrong of me to judge based on a moment’s failing. But perhaps it is only the truly intelligent that see the truth? Ah, hubris.”

“Pisces, this really isn’t—”

Erin broke off. She had a feeling. A small certainty, a spark of inspiration in her gut. It had nothing to do with her knowledge of magic, of battlefields, or monsters. It had everything to do with how she knew people. She stared at Pisces.

Look at him. Look at his face, his posture, the way he seems to be holding back a smile. Look at his eyes, alive with hope.

Hope.

He knew something. Erin rose slowly.

“Pisces.”

He turned to her, his gray-green eyes dancing.

“I have a plan.”

“You do?”

Dawil stared at him. Pisces nodded.

“It may work. It may drive them off or at the very least, cripple the moths.”

He gestured to the swarm flying higher. More were breaking off, coming for the inn and the city now. She could see the City Watch retreating, pulling back from the walls.

“Pisces, are you sure?”

He looked at her.

“Trust me, Erin.”

She stared at him. Pisces, the unkempt, rude jerk. Pisces, the [Necromancer] who’d tried to rob her ages ago. Pisces, the genius who had been outcast from Wistram. Pisces, who had made Toren.

“What do you need?”

“This space. Your inn has mana—I need as much of it as I can gather. I need Falene’s help, and perhaps Moore’s and Ceria’s as well. But most of all I need to be outside. And the moths will certainly come for me.”

“You need us to cover you. Buy you time.”

Erin looked at Pisces. He nodded. His eyes were on her face, searching, asking for a chance. She stared at him. Then she nodded.

“Let’s do this.”

 

—-

 

“And another wave is coming in—looks like five hundred by my count Noass!”

“Five hundred! They need to be downed with arrows—looks like Celum’s [Guardsmen] are taking out some and—Ancestors, look at that bolt of lightning from Liscor’s walls! Looks like that [Tactician] up there had enough mana for one more spell! Good shot too!”

“And here they come. The Silver Swords and Seborn of the Halfseekers are on the front line of course, chopping them down, but there’s only so many blades to go around! Hobs on the right—strange how they’re here but let’s not question it at the moment—oh! And an excellent [Ice Wall] spell from the half-Elf!”

“Indeed Sir Relz! This team of adventurers is quite good—not Gold-rank yet, but they’re a name to watch. Anyone have the name of their team? I think—yes, I think this is the ill-fated Horns of Hammerad, of course known for their defeat in Liscor’s dungeon and then subsequent revival and miraculous find at the Ruins of Albez! This is of course a team that mostly focuses in the north of Izril, but they seem to have come south at just the right time—or is it the wrong time?”

“We’ll know soon. Another wave coming up on the left—”

Erin threw a knife and saw a single moth falter. The Drake [Soldiers] from Pallass raised their shields and one of their [Captains] spat lightning as the moths flew at them. They fended off the assault, to cheers from the Pallassian citizens behind them.

It was so strange. So surreal. It felt like the end of a football game. American football. The crowd was cheering, the players—moths, were trying to score a touchdown—Erin felt sick and tired, but she couldn’t rest. The moths flew overhead, chittering, trying to kill them. But they just had to keep the goal safe. Touchdown line. Whatever.

Pisces stood in a circle with Falene, his arms raised, his eyes closed. She and Moore stood with him, arguing. Well, Moore was sitting—the half-Giant’s face was screwed up with pain as he clung to his staff.

“You don’t know how to perform linked spell casting? What kind of an amateur mage are you? You said you graduated from Wistram!”

Sweat streamed down Pisces’ face as he stared up. He still found the energy to glare at her.

“I did graduate. That was not a subject I studied.”

“It is a basic theory that was taught to all third-year students when I—”

“Shut up or I’ll hit both of you.”

Moore interrupted them both. The half-Giant’s normally kind face was strained with pain and exhaustion. Pisces and Falene glanced at him and fell silent. Erin thought they were only arguing to keep from feeling the strain. The three [Mages] were literally glowing with magic. They were channeling it through Pisces as he did…something. Erin wasn’t sure what, only that it was his plan. Ceria would have joined in, but she was essential to keeping the moths away from the [Mages]. She raised another ice wall as more moths flew and scuttled towards them.

“You’re sure you know what you’re doing?”

“No! Shut up! You’re worse than Ceria ever could be!”

Pisces snapped at Falene, a vein throbbing on his forehead. He stared up again.

“I read this in a spellbook and I haven’t had a chance to try it out! Actually, I read about a completely different spell, but the theory should be the same. It only takes a little bit of energy if done correctly—”

“Hurry up, then!”

Pisces gritted his teeth. He looked up.

 

—-

 

“You know, we might not make it. Funny, did you ever think of that?”

Revi gasped for air as she sat on the ground behind the battlements. Her face was white, and she was shuddering. She was using too much mana, Typhenous knew. But her summoned warriors were the only thing holding the wall. The Watch had pulled back, but the moths kept coming and they had to stop them or be completely surrounded. He offered Revi another mana potion but she shook her head. She’d had too many already—she’d thrown up and started coughing up blood. Any more might kill her.

“I always wondered where I’d die. Today might be it. A shame—moths aren’t exactly a glorious death.”

Typhenous straightened. His barrier of winds had grown to encompass the area around them. It was taking all of his mana and he was feeling faint himself. He saw Halrac grimly loosing arrows into the swarm. The man’s fingers were bleeding. Funny, Typhenous could feel nothing but affection for him in this moment.

Revi saw the look. She bared her teeth.

“Good old Halrac. Hey—make sure he doesn’t die before we do.”

“Perish the thought. Oh, look. That Drake is still fighting.”

Typhenous pointed and nearly fell over. Across from them Relc spun and slashed in a sea of dead moths. Some of the Drakes and Gnolls in the City Watch had fallen from exhaustion, but Relc kept fighting, snarling at the moths as more landed around him.

Heroes. They held the wall. Tekshia Shivertail with a barbed spear, Krshia and the Gnolls, grimly fighting with Liscor’s civilians to let the [Guardsmen] rest—and the Antinium. The Painted Soldiers fought on, despite the green blood that oozed from innumerable wounds on their bodies.

Typhenous smiled to himself. Now he regretted his choice of words. There was nowhere he’d rather be in this moment. He stood, proud of the people he was fighting besides and held the barrier of winds for another moment. It was a race. Would his heart stop or would his magic give out first?

“Typhenous. I just wanted to say—”

Revi’s eyelids were fluttering. If she didn’t release her spirits now—Typhenous thought about knocking her out with his staff. But if he did, would they die? He stared up.

Up. There was something going on. Typhenous was no Wistram mage but he could feel it. He stared around, perplexed by the powerful mana he could sense. Where…? Ah, Erin’s inn. Of course. It was a font of magic—no wonder the [Mages] there could keep fighting after so long. But what were they…?

“Typhenous? I lost my magic.”

Revi looked up. The spirits had vanished. Typhenous realized that his control of the barrier had slipped away too. The moths flew closer. Two of the giant ones landed on the wall.

“Two! Alright! Come on then! I guess I get to kill twice as many giant moths today!”

Relc roared as he ran towards the moths. Typhenous barely heard. He stared towards Pisces, Moore, and Falene, and then looked up again.

“Of course! It’s so obvious! Of course!

“Ty—what?”

Revi looked at him. The old [Mage] grinned at her wildly. He pointed.

“He’s doing it! Young Pisces! Can’t you feel it?”

“No, you know I can’t sense mana like you c—”

Revi paused and looked up. Overhead, the clouds were dark and grey. They’d always been dark and grey. It was the rainy season. But unlike the last day and a half, the clouds were darker now. Stormier. The sky was filled with water after all. It just needed a push. Revi blinked.

And a drop of water fell from above. The Stitch-Woman blinked as it landed on her forehead. Typhenous stared. Another drop fell and struck him on the side of his cheek. He looked up.

It began to rain. First droplets, and then a flurry, then a squall. Then the clouds opened up. The rain fell harder than Typhenous could ever remember seeing, a deafening roar that struck the wet earth, washed the blood from Liscor’s walls—

And hit the moths. The Face-Eater Moths keened as they fell to the ground, unable to fly. The giant moths fell out of the sky as if struck by an invisible hand and they began crawling desperately back towards the rift in the ground. Six fled, slipping on the ground, joined by their brood that drowned as the lakes in the valleys grew and marched. They climbed down into the rift, slipping on the water, fleeing the storms.

Six fled.  Soldiers from Pallass flooded across the landscape, easily dispatching the fleeing moths. They downed one moth with lightning, two with alchemist’s potions, and one with arrows and spears. Two escaped. The rest of the moths disappeared into the rift as Pallass celebrated and the viewers around the world did likewise.

 

—-

 

“We’re alive.”

Zevara stood on the walls, unable to lift her sword, barely able to believe it. Her entire body ached. She swayed. The rain fell down, cool and soothing on her scales. Slowly, Zevara looked around.

Olesm sat on the ground, exhausted from directing the battle. He sat on a dead moth—the battlements were covered with them. The Floodplains were filled with dead or dying moths, come to that. Zevara could already see Rock Crabs and Shield Spiders coming out to eat the corpses and soon more scavengers would arise. The corpses would rot—

A problem for later. She stood on the walls, staring at the wounded, the people of Liscor, and the adventurers. A soft footstep made her turn. Tekshia Shivertail stood, leaning on her barbed spear. The elderly Drake looked more alive than Zevara despite her age. She spoke calmly as the storm raged on.

“By the authority of my position as the Adventurer Guild’s [Guildmistress], I, Tekshia Shivertail, declare that Liscor’s Dungeon is Gold-rank. Let no adventurer of lesser standing challenge it. Come, Drakes and Humans and Gnolls of legend. Come challenge this dungeon. Come, for foes and treasure await.”

She stared out across the Floodplains, to where the last giant moth was disappearing into the hole, pursued by Pallassian [Soldiers]. Zevara looked at Tekshia. The elderly Drake smiled at her. Zevara nodded in gratitude and then fainted.

 

—-

 

“Excellent work! Did you see that battle! I recognized two of those adventurers. The woman in armor, part of the—what was it? Horns of Hammerad? Yes, that team! And the Silver Swords. Both are Byres children! Dead gods, is that what Yitton Byres lets children do?”

“More like, is that what all of his children do?”

A babble of voices broke out in Lord Tyrion’s command tent. Noble [Lords] talked excitedly, energized by the victorious battle. Tyrion leaned back as the Drake [Mage] in Pallass finally cut the connection.

“I haven’t bought Byres steel in ages. I should place another order—if that’s what their sons and daughters do, I’d hire another team led by one of their family in an instant!”

“Not to mention Griffon Hunt, was it? I know that man, Halrac the Grim. Unfriendly fellow, but did you see him take down that moth?”

“What team had the half-Giant again?”

“Astounding. Absolutely—I shouldn’t think that Liscor’s dungeon would be anything less than a Gold-rank dungeon after this. What treasures must it hold? No, what other threats?”

“Liscor’s survived then. A pity I suppose, but the Drakes do fight like Demons when their tails are pressed against a wall!”

Tyrion looked up at that last comment. He stared at the map of the continent on the table in front of him. The position of the Goblin Lord’s last sighted forces was marked there, as were the locations of a number of other armies, including Liscor’s forces. He nodded to himself.

“A pity indeed.”

 

—-

 

“I want reports on all four adventuring teams. The Horns of Hammerad, the Halfseekers, the Silver Swords, and Griffon Hunt. Particularly on that [Mage], the one who cast the weather spell.”

Niers ordered the excited soldiers and students as he and Foliana retired to his quarters. He poured himself a cup of wine, barely able to sit still himself. A dungeon like that, hosting a monster nest of that size! And that was only one monster type in the dungeon, surely. It made him want to go adventuring again. Why, the treasures such a dungeon might hold—

“Interesting battle. Good Liscor’s standing. You’re glad too, right?”

Niers looked up at Foliana as she appeared next to him. He nodded.

“I can only hope that—”

“Your mysterious chess friend is okay? Mm. Think they had something to do with the battle?”

“I have no idea. But I did notice that Drake—Olesm Swifttail? He was commanding Liscor’s defenses. An excellent job for a [Tactician] of his level. I wouldn’t be surprised if he jumps two levels, perhaps three.”

“Mm. Liscor’s a place to watch?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

Niers grinned to himself. Dungeons made heroes. Dungeons could make legends. The Forgotten Wing Company had become famous after they had cleared a dungeon like Liscor’s. It made him remember the past and he glanced at Foliana.

“Think we could clear a dungeon like that?”

Foliana blinked slowly at him.

“Hmm. Want to find out?”

Niers stared at her. He could never tell if she was serious. He smiled.

“Got a plan?”

She paused.

“Nope.”

 

—-

 

The magic [Scrying] ended, and with it, the need to continue the link. The mages of Wistram relaxed, rubbing at sore shoulders in exhaustion as they finished the spell. They had sent the image of Liscor’s dramatic battle to the entire world—and reaped the benefits of course.

A scrying orb could be used to see what was going on somewhere else. What the viewers around the world didn’t know was that the mages of Wistram had been watching their reactions and listening to their conversations at the same time.

However, the speculations and intrigue would have to wait. The spell had taken its toll, despite two of the Archmages being present. One of them, a half-Elf with a long white beard, looked up as a [Mage] approached him.

“Archmage Feor, did you recognize that young man who cast the rainfall spell? And the half-Elf who cast the [Ice Wall] spell. You don’t think—”

Feor nodded shortly.

“It seems they are still alive. However, I saw one of our graduates, Falene Skystrall, as well. It may be wise to direct any inquiries through her.”

“Of course, Archmage.”

The old half-Elf waited until the [Mage] had gone, then he stared back at one of the many scrying mirrors placed around the room. One of them had shown a large man with reddish-gold hair. Feor frowned.

“What are you up to, King of Destruction?”

The mirror didn’t answer. Feor frowned. Was it just entertainment for Flos? Or something else? He turned away. Magic and mystery and dungeons. He was getting too old for this. Feor spoke to another [Mage] as he left.

“Investigate that door. Make an offer if the [Innkeeper] is willing to sell it. If not—I may have a task for some of our recent graduates.”

“Yes, Archmage.”

 

—-

 

So it went around the world. From Magnolia to Wistram, people speculated and plotted. But in Liscor itself, there were no schemes. Just a bit of peace.

Funny how it all worked out. Erin stood in the rain, letting it clean her off, grateful for its presence. Oh, her inn was getting wet, and there was blood and dead moths all over. And all her furniture was broken, and Jelaqua was paralyzed and Octavia probably had a bill worth thousands of gold pieces. And the dungeon was still a threat, and people had died.

But that was all for later. They’d survived. And funnily enough, it had been Pisces who’d saved them all. He stood by himself, just smiling up at the sky. Pisces, the hero. It didn’t sound so bad when you thought about it.

Time enough to weep for the fallen, to heal, to thank all the people who’d fought and look to the future. For the moment, Erin was just grateful. She stood in the rain until she noticed something crawling near her foot. She looked down.

A small Face-Eater Moth was crawling through the rain, trying valiantly to still walk as the water ran past it, trying to carry it into the growing lakes. It looked up at Erin and fanned its wings weakly. It wasn’t so scary when you made them small. Erin stared at it and bent down.

Face-Eater Moths. The first threat of many, perhaps. They’d nearly won, oh, so nearly. But they’d underestimated Liscor and the weather. Erin peered down at it and nodded.

“Welcome to Liscor.”

She smiled at the moth and it waggled its feelers at her. Erin raised her foot and stomped it into the ground. Then she made a face.

“Ew.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.07

(Volume 1 of The Wandering Inn is now on sale as an e-book on Amazon! Please read this short message about the book!)

 

It began with a quiet in the morning, a hush as the incessant rainfall ceased. Erin Solstice woke up and looked out into a soggy landscape at the crack of dawn. She heard shuffling feet and knew there were others who had woken up at the same time as her.

The door to her inn opened as Erin got up and blearily brushed her teeth and changed clothes.

“I should probably get my own room. Yup, yup. Why do I sleep down here anyways? Because the kitchen floor is soft? Well, it is, actually. But I need a dressing room, at least. The actors could use one and so could I.”

“Probably. Then again, I don’t mind the view.”

Erin whirled around.

“Jelaqua!”

The Selphid grinned at her, looking tired. She was up early. She eyed Erin as the young woman finished dressing.

“Hey Erin. Nice forearms.”

Only a Selphid would compliment someone about the state of their forearms. Or someone really concerned about body fitness. Erin sighed.

“Morning Jelaqua. Breakfast’s not ready yet so you can go back to sleep.”

“I know that. Normally I’d be in bed, but I couldn’t help it. I heard that lot getting up so…”

Jelaqua nodded over her shoulder. Erin walked out of the kitchen and stared out of one of her inn’s windows.

“What, the Goblins? They do this every day.”

“Really?”

“Every day since I gave them their rooms upstairs, yeah.”

“So they’ve done this today and yesterday is what you mean.”

“Um…yes.”

The Selphid woman and Erin stared out the windows. The Redfang Goblins were standing outside in the dewy grass in that not-quite-darkness that was the sky before the sun fully rose. Actually, standing was a bad word. They were sparring.

Five Hobgoblins, each taller than Erin, each green, and each strong and fit. They kicked and punched at each other, sparring in pairs or two-on-one and then switched to swords in scabbards and calisthenics. That meant Headscratcher would wail on Badarrow with a sword as the other Goblin cursed and dodged while Rabbiteater did pushups and Shorthilt and Numbtongue sprinted up and down the hill.

Jelaqua shook her head as Erin readied breakfast. The Selphid stared hard at the Goblins as they performed a demanding workout. It wasn’t just physically tough—the Goblins hit each other hard and Erin had seen them draw blood with their swords while sparring.

“Plague corpses, that’s unnerving.”

“What is?”

The Selphid absently picked at the stiches around her crown. A bit of skin fell off around her skull and Erin made a note to bar Jelaqua from the kitchen. The Selphid was a bit smelly at close quarters and her body looked decidedly worse than it had when Erin first met her. Jelaqua noticed Erin flick the dead skin off the table and wipe the offending spot and grimaced.

“Really sorry about that. My body’s not doing too well right now. It’s time for a change, but I haven’t been able to find a fresh corpse for the life of me. No one in Celum or Liscor’s eager to sell a body to a Selphid, you see.”

“Not a problem. Just don’t uh, drop any part of yourself in today’s breakfast. You got hurt defending my inn, after all.”

“Huh. I suppose I did.”

Jelaqua scratched at her stitches again, seemingly surprised that Erin remembered. She stared at the Goblins and shook her head again.

“They’re like clones of Garen.”

“Who? Oh, that’s the Hobgoblin that betrayed…”

Erin broke off. Jelaqua nodded, her face unreadable.

“Yeah. I know I shouldn’t think they’re the same, but damn me if Garen didn’t teach them to fight and train like him. He learned those exercises from us. And seeing these Goblins do the same…”

Her fist clenched. Erin nodded slowly.

“Hard?”

The Selphid paused.

“Nah. They’re different, in the end. That’s what I keep telling myself now, thanks to you. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the view. Look at those calf muscles! And the way those sweat glands are working!”

She licked her lips, staring avidly at the way Shorthilt’s pectoral muscles moved as the Goblin charged up the hill with Numbtongue right behind him. Erin stared at Jelaqua. The Selphid really did have the oddest interests in people. Namely, their bodies. There was a lot to look at as the Goblins sparred in their loincloths, and their sturdy big toes weren’t normally the subject of interest for most Humans.

Most Humans. Erin saw Jelaqua break off from ogling the Goblins to look at her with a grin.

“This doing anything for you?”

Erin stared blankly at the five Goblins as Badarrow began loosing arrows at the other four Goblins. The Hob was using arrows that had no arrowhead, but he was aiming at close range and the other Redfang Warriors were getting hit hard. She heard a yelp as Badarrow shot Rabbiteater in the groin and shook her head.

“Nope. But uh, I’m not thinking of the Goblins in any kind of intimate sense.”

“Mm. I could give it a shot. I mean, Goblin bodies are—well, it’s a bit daring if you get my meaning, but what Selphid would turn their tendrils up at one of these specimens? But I totally get that you’re not into having sex with Goblins.”

“Thanks for understanding?”

It was weird talking with Selphids. This wasn’t the first time either. Jelaqua knew more about the Human body than Erin did, and that was despite Erin’s education in biology. There was just something a bit off putting about someone who could tell you exactly what you felt like from the inside.

But Jelaqua was a good person. Erin leaned over the windowsill, watching the Goblins. The Selphid stared at them again.

“Funny though, they really do look sort of like Garen. Do you ever get confused by them? They look mostly alike to me.”

“Really?”

Erin looked at Jelaqua with a frown. The Selphid nodded.

“Oh, their bodies are different, but I can’t tell them apart. Can you?”

“Yup! They’re all unique. It’s easy to tell them apart when you know how. Here, let me show you. The easiest one to spot is Badarrow. That’s him with the bow.”

Erin pointed to the Hob who was shooting at the other Hobs, trying to keep them from attacking him while they ducked and tried to avoid his arrows. The [Innkeeper] smiled.

“He’s the bad-tempered one. He always looks grumpy and he’s always grouching to the others. He really likes bows and arrows so he sometimes stares at Bird’s bow. I think he’s jealous.”

“Huh. I do get that vibe from him. [Archers] love bows. The entire Gnoll species seems to love them too. We had a half-Gnoll that always—well, never mind. Who’s the Hob charging him?”

Erin saw a Hobgoblin charge up the hill, willingly taking an arrow in the shoulder to tackle Badarrow to the ground. There was triumphant shouting as the two Hobs rolled around, punching each other.

“That’s Headscratcher. He’s like the cool emotional leader guy. The other Hobs listen to him mainly and he’s always leaping into the fight. But he has a soft side.”

“You sure?”

Jelaqua watched Headscratcher put Badarrow in an arm lock before the other three Goblins decided it was time for two-versus-three battle. Headscratcher and Shorthilt charged the other three with wild shouts, fighting ferociously. Erin nodded knowingly as she stared at Headscratcher walloping Rabbiteater.

“Oh yeah. Total softie. He cried during the play last night you know.”

“You’re joking. No? Okay, it made sense. Moore was blubbering on me and I would have cried, but my tear ducts are all clogged up. Seborn’s a cold-hearted bastard though. Who’s the other Hob with him?”

“Shorthilt? Weapon dude. He likes sharpening swords. He’s always maintaining that sword he has and he doesn’t let the other Goblins touch it. He’s like a snob-Goblin.”

Erin saw Shorthilt pirouette with his blade, warding off Badarrow and smacking Numbtongue with a fast cut to the shoulder. He was probably the best of the Hobs with his sword. Erin frowned, a bit vexed.

“I think he’s a good guy. Silent type. But he means too well, you know? He sharpened my knives one time and I nearly cut through my cutting board!”

“Huh. Okay, what about that Hob?”

Jelaqua pointed and Erin saw Numbtongue backing up, cursing loudly as he tried to flank Shorthilt and the Hob kept him and Rabbiteater at bay.

“Oh, that’s Numbtongue. Easy to spot too. See how he’s the only Goblin saying anything? He’s the only one who can really talk.”

“I have never heard one of the Goblins say more than five words together, Erin.”

“Yeah, but he could if he wanted to. Remember when I was singing? I swear he was singing the entire song with me after the first go round. He’s got a great memory, and I’m pretty sure he’s memorized both plays by heart.”

“A talking Goblin who doesn’t talk.”

“That’s right. And so we have our last Goblin. Rabbiteater.”

Erin stared at the Goblin, who looked grumpy as he and the three defeated Goblins watched the victors of their mock battle, Headscratcher and Shorthilt, celebrate. Jelaqua looked at Erin.

“So what’s his special feature?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nope. He’s good at most things and he likes to eat. He’s a hard worker and the other Goblins like him because he doesn’t get on their nerves. He’s a Hufflepuff, poor guy.”

“A what?”

“That’s like…you know, someone who works hard but doesn’t have any defining features?”

“Oh, a loser?”

“No! They’re good people and Rabbiteater’s good in a lot of ways! He just doesn’t stand out. Hufflepuffs are nice! Okay, I was a Gryffindor, but…”

“I have literally no idea what you’re talking about, Erin.”

“I know.”

As the Selphid and Human girl talked and the Redfang Warriors trooped inside for breakfast—fruit and oatmeal with honey—more people began waking up and walking downstairs. The Wandering Inn woke up as Drassi arrived for her morning shift. But the small crowd would soon have some more visitors. A band of three Gold-rank adventurers set out from Liscor, walking through the wet grasslands, arguing as they headed to The Wandering Inn.

The Silver Swords were a group of three adventurers, known for their championing of just causes and for protecting those in need. They had grown famous in the north, enough so that their name was recognizable in most Adventurer’s Guilds across the continent. Rarely did they stray so far south, though, and while they were a solid team who had worked together for six years already, they were known for arguing. Mainly because each of the three members of the Silver Swords hailed from a different race.

Their leader, Ylawes Byres, was Human. He was a [Knight] who strode ahead of the group. Next to him walked the half-Elf Falene Skystrall, a [Battlemage] who had graduated from Wistram. Behind the two, stomping along and muttering into his beard was Dawil, a Dwarf [Axe Champion] dressed in full plate armor.

Such an unusual combination of species was rare to see, not least because half-Elves and Dwarves were known for their distaste for one another. That was a long-held stereotype at least and while it might not have fit in general, it seemed to fit with this group, for whom the word stereotype was sometimes understated.

It was Dawil who was complaining this morning, his deep voice loud in the morning hush. He stomped along, growling at Ylawes’ back. All three adventurers were armored up despite the early time—Dawil’s armor and Ylawes’ silver plate shone bright in the sunlight, as did Falene’s magical robes that caught and enhanced the light. None of that made the Dwarf’s mood any better.

“Bah! We had to get up early and for what? Breakfast in that inn? Hah! I’d rather have Drakes rubbing their tails all over my head and Gnolls shedding in my soup than have Goblins stinking up the place! And you! Why are you walking in front of me, you giant shining lummox? Bad enough that I have to get up at the crack of dawn when we’re not on an adventure. I’m not staring at a flashing mirror all day!”

He cut ahead of Ylawes, grumbling about [Knights] and polished armor. Ylawes sighed, but it was Falene who cut Dawil off. The half-Elf looked down her nose at the Dwarf.

“If you’ve stopped grumbling, I’ll present my findings, Dwarf. I was telling you about the group Ylawes’ sister has found herself with.”

“Oh good, the half-Elf has done some research. Let’s all applaud her woodsy majesty then!”

“Dawil…”

Ylawes’ tone was patient. The Dwarf grumbled, but let Falene go on as the Human [Knight] nodded to her.

“As I was saying. It seems the half-Elf, Ceria Springwalker and the [Necromancer] Pisces truly are Wistram graduates. I had my sincere doubts, but I received a brief note from a colleague in Wistram affirming their claims. However, it seems they left Wistram prematurely…I sense there was an incident that the academy is attempting to cover up. I’ve sent follow up letters and hope to know more soon.”

“Two [Mages] from Wistram, eh? And one’s a [Necromancer]? I didn’t know that the mages graduated [Necromancers]. And didn’t I hear you say that you’d never work willingly with someone who raised the undead, Byres?”

“The mages don’t let [Necromancers] join the academy. At least, they don’t encourage it. And my family has fought against the undead and those that command them for generations, Dawil. I don’t understand why my sister would work with this [Necromancer]. As for the Antinium—anything, Falene?”

Ylawes turned to Falene hopefully. The half-Elf hesitated and shook her head.

“Nothing. The Antinium are supposed to be a mindless mass. Why one of them would join an adventuring group—much less have a name—is a mystery to me. He could be a Prognugator, but those are supposed to be exceedingly rare. And why would he be exiled from his Hive?”

“Outcast, probably. So let’s see, we have a half-Elf with a missing hand and a [Necromancer], both of whom left Wistram under dodgy circumstances, and an Antinium from the Hives. Tell me again how your sister’s mixed up in all this, Ylawes?”

The tall [Knight] grimaced. Ylawes could have walked out of a painting of a knight fighting a Dragon. He frowned at the inn as he ascended the hill with his companions.

“I don’t know. Yvlon lost her team in Liscor’s crypts and I think she fell in with this group by accident. She knew the half-Elf—Ceria Springwalker—from the expedition. As for the [Necromancer] and Antinium…she refused to say. But I’ll take her back north safely regardless of whatever mess she’s gotten herself into.”

“If she’s willing to go. You’ve already committed us to finding a lost adventurer. In Liscor’s dungeon no less.”

Falene looked sideways at Ylawes. The man nodded grimly.

“It’s a just cause and if there really is a Minotaur down there who’s survived this entire time, he deserves rescue.”

“And we deserve a big bag of gold for finding him, but will we get that? No, it’s another one of your noble causes.”

Dawil grumbled. Ylawes gave him a stern look.

“If need be I’ll pay the reward out of my own pockets, Dawil. I told you that I was looking for my sister and we might not find work here. You were free to join another team—”

“And leave you to get killed? Hah! Maybe the half-Elf would do that, but we Dwarves understand loyalty!”

Dawil thumped his chest. Then he pointed at Ylawes.

“But mark me, Byres. I’ll gladly eat and fight monsters in this city so long as there’s pay to be had and food in my belly, but if you’re really trying to get your sister to come back with you you’ll take my advice. You’ve pestered your sister for a week now and for what? Nothing. Listen, I might be a Dwarf but I’ve lived for thirty eight years—”

“And I’ve lived for twenty seven. Dawil, if you’re trying to give me sage advice…”

“Just listen! Y’see, I’ve been around for a while. Not as long as Miss Snooty half-Elf I’ll grant you, but—”

Ylawes rolled his eyes and Falene looked resigned as Dawil stroked his beard knowingly.

“Women aren’t so easy to manage. Sisters either. In my opinion, women are like metamorphological magic theory.”

Ylawes, who’d been opening his mouth to tell Dawil his advice was unwanted, stopped. He stared at the Dwarf. Falene stared as well.

“Go on.”

The Dwarf smiled.

“You see, it’s simple. Women are like metamorphological magic. I don’t understand it, and you don’t either. The half-Elf might, but if you go blundering about trying to tug your sister one way, it’ll do no good. Probably make things worse. Why not ask for advice before you keep prodding her with a stick?”

He looked up at his companions and saw them looking at him thoughtfully. Ylawes nodded.

“You know Dawil, you might be right.”

“Of course I’m right! Been around longer than you, haven’t I?”

Falene smiled drily.

“I suppose that sage advice comes from meeting women? You do seem oddly popular. Just the other day that Silver-rank adventurer was making passes at you. Remember? The part-Dwarf [Warrior] with the beard? She was quite handsome. Were you interested?”

“Her? Gah! Not on your life! Did you see that beard she had? It looks like she grew it with hair tonic and the way she talked! Tall folk this, us short folk that! She’s not Dwarfish at all. No, I’d rather make eyes at a Drake. False beards are really disgusting.”

Dawil shuddered and shook his head. The Silver Swords laughed as they climbed the hill. Ylawes pushed open the door for his comrades and they strode in. They paused as they saw the Redfang Warriors in the corner, and the inn stopped for a second in surprise.

Drassi was serving tables with Lyonette, Erin was chatting with the Halfseekers, and the Goblins were eating alone and massaging their bruises. The Silver Swords walked forwards and Ylawes cleared his throat as he looked around. He nodded slightly to Erin.

“Is Yvlon—?”

“Not here! She’s still out on her mission-request thing.”

Erin cut him off brusquely. Ylawes looked disappointed.

“She told me she’d be back today.”

“Yeah, well, she told me the same thing. Maybe they couldn’t find enough Corusdeer?”

The [Innkeeper] shrugged as she offered the adventurers a seat. The Horns of Hammerad had been absent for the last four days on a big contract for Esthelm. They’d been hired to provide meat for the city as Esthelm’s food supplies were low. To that end they’d been asked to slay Corusdeer, which was a task that seasoned [Hunters] might balk at due to the danger.

Late-season Corusdeer were dangerous as they migrated and Ceria had told Erin to expect them to take at least this long. Ylawes looked like he wanted to ask more, but Dawil was already sitting at the table and his stomach was rumbling loudly.

“Your sister’s not here, Ylawes! Too bad! Now let’s eat! I could eat a horse. What have you got?”

“Oatmeal! With fruit and honey!”

The Dwarf’s face fell. Erin smiled.

“I have ham and mayonnaise sandwiches and two fried steaks I could heat up if you wanted it.”

“What? You didn’t tell me you had steak!”

Jelaqua shot up at her table. Dawil chuckled.

“Steak? I’ll have one of those and that oatmeal mush. And what do you have to drink?”

Ylawes and Falene sat as Erin hovered over their table. Erin smiled as Lyonette hurried out with bowls of freshly chopped fruit and oatmeal for all three and began heating up Dawil’s steak on the pan. It was so easy to serve food! All you had to do was heat up something Erin had cooked twelve days ago and bam! Ready to eat! The only thing that didn’t last with her [Field of Preservation] Skill was soufflés.

“I just got some wine in today. I’m expanding my stock. So in addition to ale, mead, and whiskey, I’m now serving wines from Liscor and Celum! They’re local stocks, imported from Wales and uh, I think Sasil. That’s a Drake village south of the Blood Fields.”

“Hm. Wine, eh?”

Dawil looked interested, which surprised Erin since she’d expected Falene or Ylawes to want wine instead. The Dwarf nodded at the bottles Erin had put up against the bar.

“I’ve heard of the white wines that Drakes make, and I’m fond of a bouquet now and then. I could have a cup of the red and wash it down with that mead!”

That sounded weird to Erin, but she nodded agreeably. Falene smirked slightly at Dawil.

“Really, Dawil? Wine and mead? What happened to your Dwarfish pride?”

“A Dwarf can like both, you prissy snob! And don’t pretend to be all elegant and refined you hypocrite—I know you drink hard spirits when no one’s watching!”

Dawil pounded his hand on the table, making his bowl of oatmeal jump. Falene shook her head as she turned to Erin. The half-Elf’s smile was just a bit too knowing as Dawil growled under his breath about judgmental half-Elves.

“I would gladly have a small cup of the Walesian Red—do you have a recent vintage or an older one I could sample?”

Erin gave her a blank look.

“Um. We have red wine if you want it? Or did you mean the maroon wine?”

Falene paused.

“I meant the Walesian Red. I assume that’s the bottle over there?”

Erin looked over her shoulder.

“Oh! Right. It probably is. I don’t use the names of wines. I just call them by how they look. I’ve got red, off red, sort of red, greenish yellow, maroon…hey, why do we call all those wines white if they look green? What about green wine? What’s wrong with calling it that?”

Falene stared at Erin for a long moment. Dawil roared with laughter as the half-Elf just stared at Erin, completely unsure of what to say. Erin gave Falene an innocent look of puzzlement.  At last, the half-Elf coughed delicately and pointed.

“In that case I will have the second bottle to the left.”

“Sure thing! Coming up! And what about you, Mister Dawil?”

“The same.”

The Dwarf grinned widely and then his eyes widened as Erin turned away from Falene and gave him a conspiratorial wink. She returned with two cups of Walesian red, which met all expectations. The Silver Swords ate without further incident and Dawil was ready to admit that the oatmeal made for a filling breakfast—if you added a steak on the side that was.

The Gold-rank adventurers might not have quite fit in with the rest of the inn’s guests, especially given their wariness around the Goblins, but they were adventurers and the Halfseekers seemed at home with another experienced team nearby. Jelaqua leaned across their table and called towards them as she finished her bowl.

“Hey Ylawes, guess what? There was a Creler infestation near here.”

“Really?”

All three Silver Swords turned at once, interested and concerned in equal parts. Ylawes put a hand on his sword.

“How big is the nest? Did you see any adults?”

“Nothing so bad! We actually got tipped off when Mrsha here came in with a Creler egg!”

Jelaqua pointed at Mrsha, who was sitting tenderly and rubbing her bottom. The Gnoll looked up guiltily as Jelaqua went on.

“Turns out she’d found them in a cave not two miles away! Can you imagine?”

“I take it you cleared the nest then?”

Again, the Selphid shook her head.

“Nah, the place was clear when we got there. Lots of Creler bodies, no live ones. Looks like they invaded a Fortress Beaver colony and the beavers barely wiped them out. Cuddly little varmints must have been really lucky and fought only newborns or something. I thought about hunting a few of the beavers for their pelts, but Moore wouldn’t let us. He’s too fond of animals.”

She elbowed Moore and the half-Giant grunted. He placidly dipped a huge serving spoon into his bowl of oatmeal. Drassi, who’d been waiting the adventurer’s tables since she was still nervous around the Goblins, looked interested.

“Really? The Fortress Beavers killed them all? Why’s that? I thought they were really placid animals—unless you started breaking their dams, that was. They’re a real threat when it rains since they like to create huge forts but I’ve never heard of them being aggressive—hey, anyone want more oatmeal?”

“Here!”

Jelaqua and Seborn raised their bowls. Drassi moved over to them with the serving pot. The Drake was in her element with people to talk to. The more people the better. It was Falene who answered her, sipping her wine and speaking so the room could hear.

“Even non-violent animals will attack Crelers, Miss Drake. Animals hate Crelers as much as the thinking races and for good reason. A nest of Crelers will systematically wipe out all life in the area if left unchecked and then colonize a new location—or burrow underground to feed and reproduce.”

“So that’s why they have such huge bounties. Huh, Selys always talks about that and how it’s so hard to award coins to adventurers since they don’t collect trophies or all the Crelers are smashed to bits.”

Drassi looked interested. Ylawes nodded seriously.

“Crelers are a considerable threat. Hatchlings and baby Crelers are manageable for Silver or Bronze-rank teams if the nest is small, but larger nests and juvenile Crelers are a match for Silver-rank teams. Any larger and Gold-rank teams have to step in. And once Crelers pass into their adult stage they’re a threat worthy of any Gold-rank team on their own.”

“Not fun. The bounty on them is high but I’d rather kill sewer rats all day than fight one of those bastards! Gah, we used to send out suppression teams of three Gold-rank teams together to fight really big nests in Baleros!”

Jelaqua shuddered. Seborn raised his one eyebrow as he wiped oatmeal off his crab claw hand.

Ever tried fighting them underwater?

“Don’t joke, Seborn.”

Who said I was?

 

—-

 

The day began in earnest. The Silver Swords ate breakfast and chatted with the Halfseekers as Erin, Drassi, and Lyonette got about the business of business. Erin actually got to relax for most of it—her [Barmaids] were good at their job and there wasn’t really that much to do. If it weren’t for her nightly performances Erin would have been seriously concerned with paying Drassi, but as it was she assured the Drake that she’d have a full load tonight.

“And I get to watch the play, right? I heard all about how it’s like a performance and a story in one. Selys says it’s amazing—she said you took her to a performance once and she’s dying to see another one. I can’t wait to see one myself. It’s already the talk of Liscor!”

“How is it the talk of Liscor? I haven’t even advertised it yet! Most of Celum just found out about the plays today!”

Erin frowned in bemusement and Drassi smiled.

“Well, I heard about the plays from Selys and then Lyonette told me that’s what I’d be doing today so I’ve been telling everyone about it all day!”

“Without having seen a play?”

“Yup!”

The [Innkeeper] had to shake her head. Selys had warned her that Drassi was a gossip on an entirely different level. She even had that as a class! What happened if she got to a high level in that class? Did she turn into a [Chatterbox] capable of whispering around the world? Erin was listening to the Silver Swords quizzing the Halfseekers on the dungeon—hinting that they might want to join in today’s exploration it seemed—when the door to her inn opened.

“Miss Solstice?”

Watch Captain Zevara strode in. Erin turned, surprised to see her. The Watch Captain looked busy as usual and she cut to the chase.

“I’m here on duty Miss Solstice. I won’t take much of your time—but I’ve just gotten an official message from Pallass. They’re ready to open the door to your inn and I’m told that the Assembly of Crafts had dropped all sanctions against our city. As far as they’re concerned your inn is off-limits.”

“What, really? That was fast!

Erin stared at Zevara and hurried to get her mana stone. Her guests stared at her with interest as Zevara nodded.

“You can thank Wall Lord Ilvriss for the rapid response. He’s been in communication with his Walled City for days now—there’s been a political struggle going on between Pallass and Salazsar and it looks like Salazsar won.”

“Whoa, this was a big thing, then?”

“We’re just pawns in the larger conflict. But yes, this is meaningful. I’ll be making an announcement in Liscor later today—I’ll try to explain the limited capacity of your door, but you might get a lot of people wanting to walk through to Pallass. I’m here to tell you not to let them use your door. Celum’s fine, but you only have enough mana to send two people through, is that correct?”

“Without recharging, yeah.”

Zevara nodded.

“In that case, we’ll be offering a request form to be filled out at the Watch’s barracks. Citizens and interested parties can sign up to travel to Pallass. If they’re approved—and most will be—I send a [Message] to Pallass and get confirmation. That way, they can clear individuals from their end and deny entry if they choose. And if no one from Pallass wants to return, we’ll send two people through. If they want to come back they need to follow the same protocol in Pallass or pay a [Mage] to charge up the door enough to let them return.”

Erin frowned as she placed the mana stone on the door.

“Wow, that’s so complicated. Official, too! Hey, thanks for doing this! I guess it would be bad if people kept trying to go to Pallass. This way it’s slow, but people can get on a waiting list!”

The Watch Captain nodded.

“It’s not ideal, but it will allow for a small bit of traffic per day. I’d like to ask you to expand the door’s capabilities if it’s possible—ideally Liscor would like to send five or ten individuals through and have the same number coming into our city per day. But I told the Council that might impossible.”

She looked quizzically at Erin and the young woman gnawed at her lip.

“Yeah…my inn’s already filled with mana apparently, but I have no idea if it’s all going to the door or what. Pisces might know. He was working on it with Typhenous or Moore. When he gets back I’ll ask him to get all his mage buddies together and do some more experiments, okay?”

“Just so long as it doesn’t cause another diplomatic incident.”

“Hey! That was—okay, that’s fair. Uh, the door’s ready. Are we supposed to wait?”

“Watch Captain Venim should be on the other side already. He’ll be making the same announcement on his end—he might have done so already. I can pull up some [Guardsmen] if there’s too much of a crowd from Liscor—I want to handle this calmly and without incident, Miss Solstice. You might also have a few members of the Council here to make a speech when the first person from Pallass arrives and we send our first visitor through.”

“Whoa! It’s going to be that big?”

The Drake nodded. Erin looked at her with round eyes and then opened the door.

“Okay then, let’s make my inn fam—oh. Hi, Watch Captain Venim.”

Sunlight poured through her doorway. Ylawes stood up in astonishment and the other guests in the inn stared in fascination as the blue skies and huge city of Pallass appeared in the doorway in front of Erin. A Drake was standing on the other side of the door, dressed in yellow armor. He had a helmet under one arm and saluted Watch Captain Zevara.

“Watch Captain Zevara, I’m pleased to see you.”

“Likewise, Watch Captain Venim. My apologies for the slight delay. I was just letting Miss Solstice know what to expect.”

Watch Captain Venim nodded. He was standing in the sun, and Erin saw to her great surprise that she was no longer looking into the alleyway! It looked like they’d been placed on some kind of side street. She stared at Venim in fascination.

“You moved my door! Hey! That’s so cool! I forgot I could do that! Maybe I’ll move my door out of Octavia’s shop!”

She peered around the street excitedly. There seemed to be a crowd behind Venim! She hoped they wouldn’t rush through the door. He didn’t seem to have many [Guardsmen] posted to keep them back. Zevara saluted, looking slightly worried as she eyed the gathering.

“Watch Captain Venim, a pleasure. Have you already made the announcement on your end? We’re not quite ready here for the ceremony although we could speed it up if there’s excitement on your side. I hope you haven’t had to keep the mob from the doors.”

“The mob?”

The Drake in yellow armor looked blank and then stared over his shoulder at the crowd.

“Oh. Ah, no, Watch Captain Zevara, it’s peaceful here. I understand the door’s inactive until Miss Erin connects it so we’ve installed it here. It should be perfectly fine. We announced the doorway this morning with the regular morning news. I believe the [Belldrakes] have spread the word and there is some interest.”

“Good thing you opened the door now before a huge crowd appeared!”

Erin excitedly looked at the Drakes and few Gnolls in the crowd. She waved, expecting them to gasp or cheer in return. The Drakes stared at her with raised eyebrows. A little Drake child waved back and a few adults peeled away from the crowd and walked down the street.

Erin frowned. So did Zevara. Venim didn’t notice the confusion on the other side of the door. He was talking, waving a small sheet of parchment in front of Erin to get her attention.

“Watch Captain Zevara has informed you of the waiting system in place, Miss Solstice? We have our own sheet in the Watch Barracks. I don’t think we’ll get much interest at first, but we’ll inform you or the city of Liscor if any of our citizens intend to pass through your doorway. Otherwise we’ll arrange a time to open the doorway each morning, say, just past midday?”

If your people want to come to Liscor? But—wait a second, don’t they all want to come?”

Erin pointed at the crowd of Drakes, dismayed. More were leaving. Venim hesitated.

“I believe they’re just looking, Miss Solstice. Pallass did have a deep interest in your door, but that was with the intent of moving large bodies of goods and people through. Since the Assembly of Crafts was appraised of the strict limits on your doorway—and that your inn was in fact a focal point of magic to begin with—they’ve lost interest in its economic viabilities.”

The Drake smiled as if it was good news. Erin and Zevara just stared at him.

“We may experiment with transporting a set number of objects through the door instead of people per day, but the [Merchants] are still arguing about how to set up such a system. They want a representative of their own on Liscor’s side to handle the influx of goods and none of their senior members want to cross over—”

The penny dropped. Erin stared at the disinterested Drakes, at Watch Captain Venim’s apologetic expression, and realized what he was saying.

“Wait, people don’t want to come to Liscor? Why not?”

Her incredulous question provoked a response from the crowd at last. A Drake with a slash of red across his blue scales raised his voice.

“What do you mean, why not? What’s Liscor got that Pallass hasn’t, Human?”

Erin stared at him. That was a silly question! Liscor had—Liscor had—she opened her mouth and drew a blank. Okay, Pallass was bigger…and a Walled City, but Liscor had stuff! It was different, wasn’t that enough?

Apparently not. Another heckler in the crowd raised her voice and drawled sarcastically.

“Wow, Liscor. I’d just love to see the…what do they have over there? Grass? Shorter walls? More smelly Humans?”

There was a laugh from the crowd. Erin stared at the Drakes, dismayed. Zevara looked dumbfounded.

“You don’t think Liscor’s cool? Come on, it’s another city! Four hundred miles north! There’s this new dungeon filled with monsters that just appeared and everything!”

“Oh yeah? So what? We have three dungeons in the area!”

“Exactly! What’s this about travelling? Who wants to do that? Do I want to spend a week in Liscor, home of the rain, the Antinium, and boredom? Your city is a border city! Maybe I’ll pop by to visit Celum, but only if I feel like talking to fleshy Humans all day! Pallass is six times larger than Liscor!”

“I thought it was eight!”

“With walls that short, how would you be able to tell? Hah! Got ‘em!”

The crowd laughed and joked as Watch Captain Venim leaned closer to the door. Zevara was just staring as Erin weakly protested and got ribbed for her trouble.

“I delivered your report to Pallass’ Assembly of Crafts, but they didn’t take it too seriously, Watch Captain Zevara. Monster raids from dungeons aren’t uncommon and you are due reinforcements soon. Liscor’s army sent a detachment of their forces north and Pallass spotted them over a week ago. They should be arriving soon if they’re marching at a steady pace. But as for Pallass sending aid to help guard the dungeon…”

He grimaced and spread his claws helplessly. Venim looked apologetic as he continued, nodding to the crowd that was breaking up behind him despite Erin’s best efforts.

“Well, we’ll approve your visitors and I’m sure some [Merchants] and perhaps some adventurers will be coming through from time to time on our end. Who knows, there might be some tourism your way, but we’ll approve both people you want to send through today. I uh, think we could get one or two of the senators to arrive for a small ceremony as long as it doesn’t last too long.”

He stepped back. The crowd of Drakes had grown tired of heckling and was breaking up. Venim saluted again.

“Just send a [Message] spell when you want to send someone through. We’ll have a small escort ready and a few [Guardsmen]. More if I can get one of the senators to show up.”

He nodded and eyed Erin and Zevara’s faces. Somewhat sheepishly, Venim closed the door. There was a faint thump, and the portal closed. Zevara and Erin stood in front of the doorway, staring. At last, Erin looked at the Drake. Zevara’s face was pale and she looked stunned. Erin shuffled her feet and then raised her voice.

“Wow. People in Pallass are jerks. They really don’t think Liscor’s cool?”

“Apparently.”

Zevara looked like she’d been stabbed. Her expression was the shock of someone finding out that their home wasn’t as well-respected as they thought it was. Erin could practically sense the thoughts running inside of Zevara’s head because they were parallel to her own. Of course Liscor wasn’t a Walled City, but wasn’t it a strategic landmark and all that?

Wasn’t Liscor famous for the Antinium, for defeating the Necromancer and…and more? But people thought it was just a rainy, boring place? That wasn’t fair! Okay, it wasn’t a major Drake city and it was far from the others, but—

She wondered what Liscor’s Council would say if Zevara told them what had happened. No, what would Liscor’s citizens say? They had a lot of pride in their home and they’d believe until now that their home was the best. Mainly because visitors who badmouthed a city got in trouble fast and because they’d never actually met a bunch of people from Pallass all at once before. But now…

There would be trouble. There would be anger, indignation, and hurt feelings. For now, Erin stared at the doorway with narrowed eyes. She kicked the blank wall with her foot.

“Whatta bunch of arrogant snobs.”

Zevara paused. The Watch Captain’s pale face returned a bit of color and she almost smiled at Erin.

“Absolutely. Well…thank you for your time, Erin Solstice. I have a report to deliver to the Council. And I’m sure they’re not going to like it.”

She walked off. Erin stared at the doorway. Pallass wasn’t all that great! All it had were huge walls, tons of cool things to see, magic elevators, about eight times as much horizontal landmass and about the same amount as much vertical space and…

“Darn it. Liscor’s cool.”

Erin scuffed away on the floor with her foot and walked away. The doorway remained closed. And underneath Liscor something, many somethings moved in the dungeon.

 

—-

 

The warning signs began just after midday, as the Horns of Hammerad were returning from their long stay abroad. They were covered in muck, tired, sweaty, and currently sitting on a wagon. The wagon being pulled by undead bears.

It was not a smooth ride. Bears, unlike horses, moved with a loping gait and the wagon jerked along, making the occupants quite, quite uncomfortable. It had been a long four, no, five days and they were understandably unhappy. They argued as they rode over a hill, skirting the puddles of water. Another problem with undead bears was that if you didn’t pay attention to them, they’d drive you right through a pond. Or into a tree.

“All I’m saying is that it’s not our fault if we don’t see you when you’re invisible, Pisces! How was I supposed to know you were in the radius of my [Fireball] spell?”

“I told you I was going to attack one of the Corusdeer from behind, Springwalker! At what point does that not translate into my proximity to said creature?”

“I thought you were picking the ones off on the outskirts, not right in front of me! And Ksmvr, stop gnawing on the Corusdeer horn!”

“Itsh tasty.”

Yvlon sighed as Ksmvr hunched over his horn. Her stomach rumbled. Loudly. She stared up at the grey skies, grateful it had stopped raining at least.

“I’m not blaming anyone, but how did we run out of supplies a day ago? We’re hunting for food for Esthelm; how did we not take our own supplies into account?”

Ksmvr looked shamefaced as he opened his mandibles.

“I take full responsibility for my actions, Miss Yvlon. I bought supplies in accordance to Antinium policy for this trip.”

“Which means?”

The Antinium shifted guiltily.

“…Antinium policy is that we eat our foes on the march. Or our own dead. We are able to march most effectively with the reduced burden you see, and…”

He trailed off. The other three adventurers exchanged glances. Ceria covered her face with her good hand.

“Okay, Ksmvr doesn’t buy supplies next time.”

“Agreed.”

Pisces and Yvlon said it at once. Ksmvr deflated.

“I apologize for my continued failures.”

Yvlon patted him on the shoulder. When the Antinium looked up she gave him a warming smile.

“We all make mistakes. Don’t worry—it’s not like we’ve starved and we can eat as much as we want at The Wandering Inn. We’re nearly back.”

“About time too.”

Pisces sniffed. The [Necromancer] had, surprisingly, fared best out of all the four adventurers in the Horns of Hammerad. Despite Ceria being a half-Elf used to living in the forest, despite Yvlon Byres’ training to become a [Knight], despite Ksmvr’s hardiness, the [Necromancer] had endured the lack of food simply by the expedience of having a meal’s worth of snacks hidden away in his private bag of holding.

It had been the subject of much ire once it had been discovered. Ceria kicked him and the [Necromancer] glared at her, but didn’t dare retort back. His stomach growled noticeably less than his comrades and he devoted his attention to steering the undead skeletons of the bears he had summoned towards the inn in silence.

That was the Horns of Hammerad. Ceria the half-Elf, the [Cryomancer] with her skeletal left hand, Pisces, a [Necromancer] with a haughty attitude and a rapier hanging at his belt, Yvlon, a [Wounded Warrior] whose armor didn’t gleam like her older brother’s, and Ksmvr, a three-armed Antinium cast out from their Hive.

They weren’t the best team around, and they had only adventured for a few months but…well, that was about it. They were a Silver-rank team on the verge of ascending to Gold-rank, but they were new. They’d survived one literal trial by fire, but they had yet to adopt the camaraderie of the Halfseekers or the Silver Swords. But they were adventurers.

And they were nearly home. The inn was in front of them, warm and inviting. The wagon drove up the hill and the Horns piled out before it had pulled to a stop. Pisces wasted no time in ending the spell that held the skeletal bears together; the bones fell into a heap and he pushed them into his bag of holding as the rest of his team headed straight for the doors. Visions of hot food and warm beds assailed Ceria and she could smell the lunch being served within. She put her hand on the door handle and froze. Yvlon and Ksmvr stared at her, practically dancing with impatience.

“Ceria, what is it?”

“Hold up, do you feel that?”

The Horns stopped as one. Pisces, hurrying to catch up, stopped and looked around warily. A new team they might be, but they were used to heeding each other’s warning. Ceria looked around, puzzled.

“My [Dangersense] is going off. It’s faint, but I feel like something’s…coming.”

The Horns of Hammerad stared around but they saw nothing. Uneasily, Yvlon gripped the handle of her sword and Ksmvr reached for his weapons. Pisces, frowning, looked at the wet landscape and shook his head.

“Let us enter the inn, Springwalker. Inside will be safer regardless of what occurs.”

He made sense. Ceria nodded and opened the door. She walked into The Wandering Inn and saw the warm fire, people sitting around tables, five Goblins hunkering in a corner, a Drake serving drinks to a table of adventurers, and then a beaming face as Erin Solstice turned.

“Ceria! Yvlon! Ksmvr! And Pisces! Hey, how have you guys been?”

She strode over to them and Ceria saw a man in silver armor stand up. Yvlon, who had been distracted by the heap of waffles that Mrsha was digging into with a fork, froze for a second as Ylawes strode towards her with a welcoming smile. She managed one of her own.

“Oh, brother.”

Oh brother.

Pisces muttered under his voice as Ylawes strode towards his mud-spattered sister. Ksmvr poked Pisces in the side.

“Comrade Pisces, why did you say that? He is not your brother, is he? Or is he?”

The [Necromancer] was saved from the intimates of language and Human genetics by Erin ushering the Horns of Hammerad to a table.

“Come in, come in! Ylawes, don’t bother your sister. Whew, you’re all covered in mud! Sit, sit. Hey, Pisces’ robes and Ceria’s are nice and clean. Can’t you get your armor to do that, Yvlon? Lyonette, drinks for everyone! Drassi—”

“Waffles, hot from the kitchen! You want honey and butter with that?”

The Horns of Hammerad could have cried. In between grabbing for plates and elbowing Pisces out of the way, they simultaneously said hello, explained where they’d been and why they were so hungry, and talked about Ceria’s strange episode at the door.

“What, you too, Ceria? I felt the same thing! I thought it was just a funny feeling until I realized it was my [Dangersense]. What could it be? Did you see any monsters about on the way here, Ceria?”

“Nothing worth mentioning. Has anything happened over here?”

Ceria talked with a mouthful of waffle, spraying crumbs onto the table and making Falene shoot her a disgusted glance. Erin shot a glance towards the door to Pallass and shook her head hesitantly.

“I…hm. Anyone want more waffles? I’m planning on a big dinner tonight—hey, you won’t believe what happened! I’ve got the [Actors] coming here to do a play each night, Ceria! Remember them? They’re going to put on a performance and I’m going to fill this inn with hundreds of people and earn tons of money!”

“Actors? You mean that play? That’s a brilliant idea, Erin!”

Ceria smiled and Pisces sat up at his table with interest. Ksmvr, about to poke, was stopped by Yvlon as she whispered in his earhole. Ceria frowned as she wiped dirt and food off her mouth.

“I can imagine you’ll have tons of guests. But—hundreds of people? Are you planning on holding the shows outside? It’s going to keep raining Erin, and unless you want to set up a second roof—”

“What, no! I’ll have them all in here of course!”

Erin waved at the common room of the inn. Ceria and the other adventurers stared around the common room. Jelaqua raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Uh, how? By packing them in like tadpoles?”

“No! I’ve got plenty of room! Wait—oh!”

Erin looked around the inn and slapped her forehead.

“Oh right, I disabled it. Of course you think I’m an idiot! Okay, watch this! I got this Skill two days ago and I totally forgot to show it to you all! Ready? [Grand Theatre]!

She clapped her hands together. The eyes of everyone in the room were on Erin. They heard the clap, and then the echo. The sound was deeper, larger than it should be. The others looked around the room and gasped.

The perspective of the common room had changed. One second it had been small, still large enough to hold a crowd, but hardly enough for the hundreds Erin had described. But now, in the blink of an eye it was vaster. A dark, massive room stretched out behind the guests, barely lit by the dim glow of the fireplace. The common room had tripled in size and ended at a stage at the back of the room, clearly visible above the tables and chairs.

The extended common room was devoid of any furniture. The floorboards were of the same quality as the rest of Erin’s inn, as were the walls, but the windows hadn’t been copied further than the walls. The extended part of the common room was dark, like an indoors theatre, and the sound of Erin’s clap continued for a little bit in the silence. The room was waiting, welcoming, expectantly waiting for noise and drama to fill the room with life.

Erin’s guests stared. Pisces’ jaw was fully open. Yvlon’s eyes were wide. Moore was quietly choking on his waffles. Seborn looked around in disbelief and Mrsha was hiding behind Lyonette with Apista. Dawil fell out of his chair and Falene dropped her cup. It shattered with a crash in the silence as everyone stared around the gigantic common room.

Ceria looked at Erin. The young woman grinned at her. The half-Elf took one deep breath and then another. She left for five days. Just five! She looked at Erin and couldn’t help it. Ceria shouted.

Erin! What in the name of trees is this?

And the inn exploded into noise. Mrsha ran across the common room as the adventurers and other guests clustered around Erin. The Redfang Goblins, forgotten for a moment, stared at Erin as Badarrow and Shorthilt slapped Rabbiteater, who’d fainted. Erin grinned as she raised her hands and tried to explain over the shouting—

And that warning feeling in the back of her head twinged. Erin stopped smiling and looked towards the windows.

Something was coming.

 

—-

 

Watch Captain Zevara had felt it too. She strode onto Liscor’s walls, shouting for the Drake officer on duty to find her. To her surprise and pleasure, it was Olesm who hurried up.

“Olesm! I thought you were off-duty today?”

“I was! But I felt my [Dangersense] go off and—you felt it too?”

Zevara nodded grimly. She surveyed the empty Floodplains around Liscor. She could see Rock Crabs on the ground, a few Razorbeaks and other birds in the air, but nothing else. But her [Dangersense] had interrupted her meeting with Liscor’s Council and Zevara did not ignore such warnings lightly.

“Have you seen anything?”

“Nothing, Captain. I thought about sending a message to you, but I knew you were in a Council meeting—glad to see you.”

Olesm smiled and Zevara’s heart leapt a bit in her chest. She still carried a small candle for the Drake [Tactician] and hoped they could be more than just fellow civil servants. But right now they needed to focus on business, and Zevara was just glad Olesm was here. He was the city’s best [Tactician] and if he wasn’t that high-level, he was sharp and good in a pinch.

“How many [Guardsmen] are on the walls right now?”

“Just the usual rotation. I’ve told them to be alert, but I didn’t want to make anyone nervous by requesting more.”

“Well, I’m already nervous. And I’d rather call the alarm now than be caught off guard.”

Zevara turned.

Street Runner!

She bellowed, keeping her voice loud and deep as possible. Why was it that people said female leaders screamed while male Drakes could shout as much as they wanted? She wasn’t a shrinking flower! But raise your pitch just an octave and your men thought you were panicking. Zevara had worked hard to earn her reputation as a steady Watch Captain, and she’d be damned if she showed weakness now.

A Drake had heard her call and one of the Street Runners that hung out near the wall ran up the stairs swiftly. Zevara eyed the young Gnoll and pointed.

“Run to the Watch Barracks and have them send me every off-duty [Guardsmen] they have! If you find more in taverns get them! I want ten Street Runners getting [Guardsmen]. Go, now!

The Gnoll’s eyes widened and he raced down the steps, already shouting at his friends. They scattered as Olesm turned back to Zevara. She tried to look calm and collected, like she knew what she was doing.

The [Guardsmen] around her had also heard her orders and they scanned the Floodplains with increasing alertness. Some looked to Zevara, but they were well-trained enough to keep their attention where it should be. Olesm looked at Zevara as his gaze flicked back into the city. She could tell he was calculating how long it would take them to have more [Guardsmen] on the walls. Five minutes if they were ready, ten or fifteen otherwise. They could have six hundred members of the City Watch on the walls soon, but would they need them? Zevara’s stomach ached.

“You’re not going to sound an all-call, Captain?”

The Watch could blast a horn throughout the city that would alert everyone to muster on the walls—or warn the citizens they were under attack. Zevara shook her head, keeping her voice calm though she didn’t feel that way inside.

“No reason to. Not yet. It could be that the danger’s not near us, or that we can handle it on the walls. Remember the Carn Wolves prowling the Floodplains three years back? That had everyone’s [Dangersenses] warning them not to go outdoors, but we were safe.”

“You’re right.”

Olesm tried to sound confident. Zevara tried to believe her own words. She scanned the landscape, waiting. She kept her eyes on four spots as she glanced around the landscape. The first was the raised rampart of dirt around the dungeon’s official entrance. Ancestors, was it the dungeon? It might be the dungeon. Zevara bet it was the dungeon.

“Damn those Pallass fools. They think this dungeon’s like their three dungeons? They’ve cleared all three of their spots, and I know those are Bronze and Silver-rank dungeons! That’s nothing like the one we have here! We have no idea how large it is, and how dangerous—we could use some of their soldiers!”

She muttered to herself anxiously. Olesm glanced at her.

“Pallass denied your request? I thought we’d settled things with them.”

“We did. But they’re still not going to help us in any way. Once they realized they weren’t getting Solstice’s magic door without a fight, they lost all interest in it—and us! All they want to do is ship goods to Liscor. No one in their scale-rotting city wants to visit Liscor. They think we’re a backwater city with nothing interesting to see!”

Zevara ground her teeth together. Olesm spluttered.

“Well that’s not—who thinks that?”

“All of them. And our dungeon’s not a concern to Pallass.”

She stared at the second landmark, the place where a rift led down into the dungeon from the Floodplains. That entrance should be partially flooded already, but it was another spot of worry. She’d considered having it filled with dirt, but hopefully the water should deter some of the monsters.

Zevara shifted her attention to the next spot—the road leading north. If the Goblin Lord had sent his forces south or a hostile group of monsters had come out of the High Passes, it would come from that direction. But Esthelm would have warned them, surely? Or did they not have enough [Mages] capable of casting [Message] spells anymore?

No way to know. Zevara would send a message to them if nothing happened in the next few minutes. She stared at the last spot of worry—Erin Solstice’s inn. It was the target of more strange happenings than Zevara had ever seen. Rogue Named Adventurers, undead skeletons, Hobs, portals to other cities—Zevara’s stomach clenched and did backflips at the thought of what the young woman might have done in the short hours since she’d seen her.

Dungeon entrance, rift, road, inn. Zevara alternated between then until she heard pounding boots and turned. The rest of the City Watch poured onto the walls. A Senior Guardsman stopped in front of her. The Gnoll saluted, his hand on his sword.

“What news, Captain?”

“Nothing yet. My [Dangersense] is going off and so is Olesm’s. Have everyone spread out along the walls—west side a priority and shout if you see anything!”

“Yes, Captain!”

The Gnoll began ordering the [Guardsmen] around the walls. They spread out, and Zevara saw more marching down the street, called to action by the Street Runners. She heard a loud and familiar voice grousing as Relc climbed the stairs.

“What? We don’t know what’s out there? Come on, it’s my day off! This better not be like the time with the Carn Wolves or I’m gonna get mad!”

Shut up, Relc! Get your fat tail moving or I’ll kick you off the walls!

Zevara bellowed at him and the nervous [Guardsmen] laughed. She was privately relieved to see Relc as he grumbled and raised a single claw in her direction. The [Sergeant] was a famous [Soldier] when all was said and done, and there were far worse people to have at your back. She turned back to ask Olesm if Erin had mentioned anything, anything unusual when it happened. Her [Dangersense] blared an alarm into her skull and Olesm jerked. Zevara’s head spun wildly.

Inn, dungeon entrance, road, rif—there it was. The rift was hidden from her sight by a large hill, but Zevara clearly saw the geyser of water spraying into the air. It shot upwards as both she and Olesm watched, propelled into the air by a massive force. And then she saw a leg rise above the crest of the hill. It was long, insectile and—furry? Zevara only got a moment’s glimpse before it lowered and she saw water spraying down.

“What in the name of the Ancestors is…?”

Olesm never got a chance to finish his question. Something rose out of the rift, something massive. Zevara saw a head poke above the line of the hill, wet, covered with hair, a giant furry head and then a long, long body. A huge abdomen shook; gargantuan wings unfolded and exposed a staring pattern of black spots and brown chitin. Two fuzzy antennae swiveled and Zevara saw the jaws open.

The mouth, oh, but it shouldn’t have a mouth! But this species, this horrible offshoot was known for its mouth, infamous for it! The razor-sharp opening gaped wide as the gigantic moth shook its wings, spraying water everywhere. Zevara’s heart stopped as she saw its body rustle. Thousands of smaller moths were clinging to the adult, and as the mother spread her wings, they began to take off as well. The Drake stared at the moth as it fanned its wings, ridding itself of the water. Olesm’s voice quavered in the silence .

“Face-Eater Moth.”

It was larger than Erin’s inn. The Face-Eater moth flapped its wings once and sounded like thunder. Its carnivorous children flew upwards searching for prey. The huge swarm covered the sun. Zevara looked up and screamed. Anyone would have screamed.

Sound the alarm!

Her voice snapped the [Guardsmen] around her out of their stupor. They stared at her and then rushed to the walls, some running to grab more bows, more arrows, others racing to the north and west walls. Zevara turned to Olesm and grabbed the Drake.

“Get the command spells for the wall! Prepare to activate Liscor’s defenses!”

He nodded and ran for the small box of scrolls that would operate Liscor’s enchantments. Zevara turned and found the nearest [Guardsman].

You! I want all citizens indoors! Take a squad—get the Street Runners! Clear the streets!

He nodded and ran for the stairs. Zevara looked around. The Face-Eater Moths were still flapping their wings, still drying them. Some were beginning to fly, and they were moving in a swarm. They would eat anything and everything in sight. One giant moth, countless smaller ones.

Smaller? Zevara could see some of the moths at a distance, as large as wagons. She saw the mother flap her wings and tried to count. They could hit the mother with spells, fry the storm with magic. They had arrows; they could hold the walls so long as they could keep the moths there! She kept calm. She kept calm until she saw the second leg coming out of the ground.

Zevara froze as another gigantic moth began worming its way out of the rift. She turned. The [Guardsmen] around her had gone silent. The Watch Captain screamed into the silence.

Summon the Antinium!

 

—-

 

“Oh my god.”

Erin stood at the windows, staring. The second moth was just as colossal as the first. It crawled out of the rift, miles away from the inn and yet it still seemed huge. From her vantage point Erin could see it awkwardly pulling itself onto the grass, and she could see the thousands of smaller moths clinging to its body. She heard a faint sound behind her.

“Jelaqua? How bad is…that thing?”

“Bad. Very bad.”

The Selphid’s face couldn’t go whiter, but her hands shook as she gripped her two-headed flail. The Selphid stared at the giant moth as it opened its mouth again. Moths shouldn’t have mouths. Not like the gaping hole that opened and closed sharply. Were those teeth around the edges of the mouth?

“That’s a Face-Eater Moth.”

“A Face-Eater…that name’s a joke, right?”

“Nope. They do exactly what you think. Ever seen one bite someone’s face clean off? They won’t stop with faces either. They can bite through arms, tear flesh off—and they’re huge. Dead gods, the big one is larger than this inn.

“And there are two!”

Lyonette hugged Mrsha to her chest. Her eyes were wide as the second moth extracted itself and began fanning its wings. The adventurers stood at the windows, nervous, holding their weapons. Erin looked from face to face, afraid. She’d never thought she’d see a monster that would actually scare her more than Skinner, but the two giant Face-Eater Moths made Moore look like a tiny puppy!

“Jelaqua? Ylawes? Are they going to attack?”

There was a pause as both captains stared at each other in silence. Moore was the one who answered. The half-Giant kept his voice low.

“There are a few things that could happen. In the best case scenario the moths go back into the dungeon. But that’s not likely. They’re mostly likely hungry. Something—or someone woke them up. And so they’ll probably search for food.”

“And that food’s us, right?”

Drassi’s voice quavered in the silence. Moore nodded. He didn’t take his eyes off the moths. There were thousands and they were beginning to fly in a huge cluster.

“But perhaps—perhaps they might go elsewhere. Or only a part of the swarm remains. That would be ideal.”

“And the not-ideal?”

No one answered Erin. She stared at the two giant moths. Each one was larger than her inn. She imagined them attacking Liscor, flying over the walls and—her eyes widened as she saw another head rising from the rift.

“Oh you have got to be kidding me.”

Another Face-Eater Moth was climbing out. This time Seborn swore long and loud. Jelaqua looked stunned.

“Three? How large is their nest? They were just sitting in that damn dungeon the entire time? Ylawes, have you or your team ever seen something like this?”

“Never. I didn’t think they got this large. The biggest one I’ve ever seen was mounted on a wall and it was only as large as a Troll.”

The [Knight]’s face was grim as he adjusted the straps on his shield. Erin stared at the moths. There had to be tens of thousands of them now. More were coming out of the rift. More and more. But they might fly away, Moore said. If—if—

If no one provoked them. Erin saw the smaller moths flying around in a widening circle. Their wing beats—it wasn’t like the deafening buzzing of bees. It was more like distant thunder, vast and terrifying. Erin saw the moths flying closer to the Walls of Liscor. She could see [Guardsmen] on the walls. She saw the future and held her breath.

“Don’t—”

Someone said it in the silence. Erin saw the [Guardsmen] raising their bows as a group of moths flew closer. They might have had orders. Or maybe one of them lost their nerves. Erin saw a single arrow fly, saw a Face-Eater Moth jerk and fall. The moths swirled in alarm; more arrows flew. The moths fell, landing on the ground and wriggling, some still alive. Erin saw the giant moths turn their massive heads. She saw their mouths open and their wings spread.

And then she heard chittering. It came from the moths. It was high-pitched, terribly loud. It almost sounded like laughter, loud and hysteric, coming from a thousand, ten thousand bodies. The moths flew. Erin heard a scream from inside the inn. The sky turned dark. The moths flew up and blotted out the sun. Then they came, all of them. They chittered as they flew towards Liscor. And towards the inn.

“Lyonette?”

Erin’s voice was terribly calm as she turned her head. She felt like the world was moving in slow motion. She saw the [Barmaid] turn, her eyes wide. Mrsha was in her arms, holding onto the [Barmaid] tightly. The small Gnoll looked at Erin, trembling with fear.

Slow motion. And then fast. Erin grabbed Lyonette.

“The door! Now!”

She pointed. Lyonette looked. Not to the door of the inn, but the magic door. She stared at Erin. Erin shouted. Time went back to normal as the inn erupted into chaos.

The door! Drassi, now!

She ran to the door as the adventurers shouted and began racing about the inn. Erin ran to the door and tore the mana stone to Pallass away. She opened the door and saw Octavia look up.

“Erin, hey.”

The [Alchemist] paused.

“What’s that s—”

Inside!

Erin practically threw Lyonette and Mrsha into the doorway. She rushed Drassi through and Octavia shot to her feet.

“Erin—”

“Liscor is under attack! Get the Watch! Get help!”

Erin screamed at her and then slammed the door. She looked around her inn and ran for the kitchen. She should run, she knew. She should escape. Ceria screamed at her as Pisces, Ksmvr, and Yvlon began overturning tables, pushing them into barricades against the windows.

“Erin! Go through the door!”

“Not yet! Not yet!”

The [Innkeeper] ran into her kitchen. Knife, frying pan—she ran to her pile of blankets, threw them aside, pulled out a crate which clinked.

The inn was full of thumping, banging as the Goblins and adventurers raced to secure the building. They were shouting, and from the walls of Liscor blared horns. They screamed an alarm.

 

—-

 

In the city Selys looked up, heart suddenly pounding.

“Those are siege alarms!”

The adventurers in the Guild stared at her. Many of them were Human. They had no idea what Drake warning signals sounded like. Selys sat upright and stared out the window. She heard Runners shouting as people screamed and fled into their houses. She turned and shouted at the staring Humans.

“Liscor is under attack!”

Then she raced to bar the doors of the Adventurer’s Guilds, shouting at anyone on the streets to come inside. The civilians hid as the horns blared onwards. And in the inn the adventurers waited. Erin stood behind a window she herself had boarded up with nails and spare boards, peering out the cracks. Everyone was indoors.

Almost everyone.

 

—-

 

Bird stood in his watch tower at the top of The Wandering Inn, staring at the mass of Face-Eater Moths as they flew towards him. He stared. His bow felt suddenly very small. The Antinium looked up at the largest moth and then at the tens of thousands behind it. He reached for an arrow.

“That is a lot of birds. A very big lot.”

He drew the arrow to his chest and loosed. A moth fell. Bird drew a second arrow and just as swiftly a second moth fell. He stared at the endless swarm, so numerous that they defied counting. He looked thoughtfully at the quiver at his side.

“I might need more arrows.”

The moths had seen him. They flew at him as the Antinium began to loose arrows again and again. Protect the inn. Guard it. He shot moths down until they were right on top of him, swarming his tower. More and more. Bird had one thought, one desperate realization as the moths closed in around the inn and the city. Just maybe, just once…there could be a thing as too many birds.

The Face-Eater Moths were everywhere. They came, flooding the walls of Liscor, clawing at the glowing field of energy that sprang up around the Drake City, biting at the magic barrier, swarming over the inn. They chittered as the magics slowly began to fail. The noise—a fourth giant moth crawled out of the rift, and then a fifth. They chittered as they came. The noise filled the air, made the walls and ground vibrate. That chittering, that infernal squealing. It was everywhere, deafening. And worse—

It sounded like laughter.

 


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