8.47 H

It was a strange thing they saw. Almost incomprehensible in that first moment, especially for many who were not familiar with the idea. Then it caught in the mind, like a burr to the imagination. A brilliant idea, a natural extension of something they had already been led towards. After all, it had flowed like this before.

In another world. But only a fraction realized that. It changed the experience of viewing, but what it told remained the same.

The first thing they saw was the sky. It was evening, cloudless, and it looked like someone had poured fire across a pink aurora in the sky, turning to a deep blue like the ocean on the very edges of the horizon. A few stars were visible, glowing a faint fiery red, or bright yellow, or just plain white.

There was virtually nothing on the horizon that interfered with the glorious view. No clouds. No mountains. No hills or buildings or trees, and no birds either. It filled everything, beautiful, hauntingly vast. Then, a moment later, was the sound.

Sound. Not smell. Not touch. The audience heard crunching, the sounds of someone walking on something dry, powdered, with labored breathing close by. The view shifted upwards abruptly, and someone’s face came into the frame.

Yes…frame. For it was a kind of lens, if not a camera or video recorder. Something similar, and the person angling the image understood something about capturing images. They settled the image on themselves, not too low, so you weren’t staring up at them and into their nostrils. For a second, two faintly violet, mostly grey eyes stared straight into the audience’s. Then they flicked ahead, scanning for something.

The person in-frame was a young man. Human, skin tanned as well as sunburnt, wearing a headwrap and long, concealing clothes to prevent the rest of his fair-ish skin from burning. They were nondescript, a beige that ran to brown, as to make him somewhat invisible amid the sand surrounding him. He was dusty, sandblown, and looked tired.

Behind him was the undercarriage of something huge and hairy that went mweh. It was, in fact, a camel, standing to grudging attention as the young man spoke. He had the reins of the camel in one hand, and spoke quickly. His voice was clipped, precise, and fast. As if he only had half the time to get a word in that everyone else did.

“This is Rémi Canada…[Journalist]. I think I’m here at last. If not—this joins a dozen other failed attempts. It will be, to the best of my ability, an accurate account of everything I see, without editing or falsehood.”

He stopped for a second. His eyes flickered, but he didn’t open his mouth. The view changed again, and that was when the audience realized he held the view that bobbed occasionally, dipping as he climbed onto the camel’s back. It knelt and he rose, riding up the hill, set against the sunset in that vivid, open sky that could only belong to one continent.

Chandrar. As the camel crested the hill, Rémi adjusted his camera, or whatever else the audience was seeing through, allowing them a view of the great sand dune he had crested sweeping back towards actual ground. Still dry, but dotted with actual vegetation brave enough to grow along the changing border of sand.

Hup. Go faster. That way.

Rémi ordered the camel, and it went down the hill, somehow tracking the finger that appeared for a second. The destination was as obvious to the animal as it was to the viewers.

Amid the arid place, with still no visible signs of civilization or large patches of vegetation—anything—a giant valley had formed, completely coincidentally, out of two large sand dunes.

It might be gone tomorrow, if the wind blowing the tops off the dunes kept up. But for now, it completely hid several miles of land in the neverending landscape about here.

Yet it was not completely empty. There was nothing much to see beyond tough low-level vegetation, actual dirt rather than sand—except for one little spot where something glowed despite the fading light.

A distant fire. Tiny, smokeless, and distinctly—at least one figure. Rémi focused on it and the image magnified, bouncing around as the camel descended.

“I think this is it. My Skills are telling me—this could be it. Slow down, girl.”

Mweh.

The distant fire was disappearing into the night, so even though Rémi rode closer at a measured pace, details were nearly impossible for all but the most discerning viewer. All they could see was a fuzzy group of shapes amid the small amount of light, not pixelated, because this was not an electronic recording. More like how the eye lost detail, and everything grew blurry and indistinct.

Nevertheless, the campfire’s residents finally came into focus, and a voice murmured, loud enough to be heard as Rémi and the camel approached.

“…tracked. The same one stalking us. Prepare for battle. Not you, Yinah.”

Something meowed loudly, and then one of the three figures standing around the campfire turned. Rémi stopped abruptly, as a voice called out.

You there. Halt! Draw blade and die.

The camera moved, rising, as the young man called out.

I’m unarmed! This is a magical artifact! Don’t shoot! I just want to talk!

“Hah!”

But the female figure didn’t loose an arrow. She held a bow, tipped with an arrow that glittered dangerously with a light of its own. She was only a silhouette against the fire’s light. She turned her head.

“Do you see anyone else, Ksmvr?”

Ksmvr. Then, you might remember the name and put together the pieces.

A figure leapt down, causing the camel and Rémi to start. He followed it, and an odd figure landed, a cloak billowing around him. He too was nearly invisible without light, but something shone dully, light reflected off a curious body.

A strange one. Not as tall as the woman, but squatter, with a rounded back even when he stood upright. Shorter too, but he had leapt downwards from an incredible height with such ease. He stood there, tilting his head left and right, and…were those antennae? One, a stump of one, waved left and right erratically.

“I saw no one else, Nsiia.”

“Well then, it seems our pursuer either has invisible friends, ones far away, or tells the truth. Come closer, stranger! Keep your arms raised and don’t aim that…thing directly at any of us. Domehead, awake. No need to keep hidden.”

The leader, or so it seemed, the woman, gestured. Rémi rode forwards, slowly, then jerked. The camel screamed, and understandably.

Something came out of what had seemed like part of the hill the group was camped next to. A massive figure, with a glowing head, rose out of the sand it had been buried in, a giant! A [Knight] in full armor—

No. Something even larger. A giant wearing metal armor glowing with faint, magical runework. And rather than a helmet, his glowing ‘head’ was a perfect half-sphere. A crystal dome, transparent, disclosing a small forest of glowing crystals of many colors, predominantly bright yellow, within. They winked and turned off or on hypnotically, but the giant metal creation—the Golem—had a huge axe in one hand. It stowed the weapon on its back as the camel backed away, making sounds of alarm.

“Hush, Sandi. Relax…”

The camel, whose name was apparently Sandi, did not want to get close. Yet then the woman laughed, and whistled.

“Come here. Don’t be alarmed by this giant child. If your master means treachery, he’ll be the one to suffer for it. Not you, brave one.”

Somehow, her words calmed the camel and it trotted forwards, even eagerly. Rémi dismounted, and that’s when the woman came into view by firelight, and Ksmvr as well.

The first sight of Empress Nsiia of Tiqr, the Empress of Beasts, was a fitting one. Whether Rémi had chosen the moment or by luck, she stood with only the faintest hints of light on the horizon. A cooking fire was at her back, and she was as travel-worn as Rémi. Still, she wore riding clothes and, over them, a patchwork of leather pieces. She had a sword at her side, and dark skin.

But what stood out was the way she held herself, hands on her hips, eyes glinting. They were a bright orange, almost as wild as the cat that perched on her shoulders, eyes aglow. A city cat, a house-cat with blonde and ashy fur, but two strange, ceramic back legs, perfectly carved to imitate the real things.

The Empress of Beasts smiled, warily, facing down Rémi and his unseen audience as if she had an army at her back, rather than a single cat and two odd companions. Her eyes had a faint glow, like an animal’s, and her hair was running long, uncut, almost as wild as the very air around her.

She was Nsiia of Tiqr, Nsiia Oliphant, the fallen Empress of Beasts who had lost her empire and been taken prisoner of war months ago. A friend of the King of Destruction. A recent escapee, hounded by at least three major powers who had no desire to see her regain power.

…She was the least interesting of the three people who stood there. Marginally more interesting than the cat, Yinah.

The giant Golem was eight feet tall, made of polished metal despite the fine layer of grit, and carried a battleaxe that no normal Human could have wielded without being a giant of their kind. Yet Domehead could lift it one-handed. He was an automaton, voiceless, seemingly without personality—certainly without face—but he was a miracle of the Magus-Crafter of Illivere.

The first Sentient-class Golem in living memory. Built by the finest magical craftspeople of Illivere, champion of the Testing Grounds. Affectionately dubbed ‘Domehead’ by a nation that wanted him back.

Yet even Domehead was not as strange as the last figure, which the audience may have seen, certainly heard of, but never up close. Never like he was: still, watchful, his two broken antennae twitching, his three arms at rest.

One hand on the hilt of a long, wrapped sword at his side. Another casually drifting near what looked like a plain little cloth sack—a bag of holding. The last clutched a strange buckler with a shimmering forcefield around it.

Three arms. He had a fourth, but it was severed above the elbow, the stump long since healed over. Yet not with flesh. His entire body was…chitin.

Insectile armor. A carapace of dark brown and black, and his eyes were two round, multi-faceted orbs without pupils or any other color. He had two biting mandibles, and his ‘back’ was a rounded shell, like a beetle’s. He was shorter than Nsiia, discounting his antennae, and compact, but bedecked with strange artifacts.

His long cloak, bearing two holes from arrows or spells. The wrapped sword at his side, the sword of a [Paladin] from antiquity—though the audience did not know its exact nature. A Forceshield, two hanging compact hand-crossbows, a belt of potions, bag of holding, and more tools and weapons.

He was an adventurer. The only Gold-rank Antinium adventurer in existence. The only Antinium to ever leave his Hive and journey abroad, alone.

Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad.

There they stood, a trio—quartet if you counted the narrow-eyed Yinah, and sextet if you counted the mare and second camel resting around the fire—each one as striking and as different as they could be from each other.

Rémi Canada, unseen but audible to the audience, held up his hands.

“I’ve found you. I’m Rémi Canada, a [Journalist]—please, give me a second to speak?”

Nsiia’s eyes narrowed as she pointed directly at the viewers.

“What is that you’re holding?”

“A modified artifact. It’s a scrying mirror, but it’s not active!”

Nsiia had raised the shortbow she was carrying at the word ‘scrying mirror’. She aimed the arrow straight at Rémi’s chest.

“And how are we to know it’s not active?”

“Nsiia, I do not believe he would admit it is a scrying device if he intended to spy on us. He has already found our location and you believed he has been following us the last four days. If this is an ambush, we are already jeopardized. He would die, either way. Should we not hear him out?”

The Antinium spoke. Nsiia glanced at Ksmvr, and put up her bow again with a wry laugh.

“Well thought out, Ksmvr. Alright then. Explain yourself, Rémi Canada.”

The young man exhaled, and lowered the magical camera, with a telltale shaking until he steadied it. He approached, explaining.

“I’ve been trying to find you for nearly two weeks. As soon as I heard you’d escaped the Illivere Federation—before that, honestly. I was hoping to interview you. Or even have a chance to meet you. Now that you’re fleeing from Illivere, I hope you’ll…take me with you. I realize this is sudden, but I am a [Journalist]—I’ve written articles for newspapers and reported on Tiqr’s war. However, I believe you will be the story this world needs to hear. If you’ll let me accompany you and film what you do.”

Nsiia tossed her head back as she pointed to the fire. Domehead had already stepped backwards, in the shadow of the camp, as still as a statue, without the need to move, even to look around. However, his arms were cradled—the better for Yinah to curl up and nap in them. The Empress of Beasts glanced at Domehead and smiled.

“You found us, when at least three nations have hunters and trackers after us—and you want to accompany us into a warzone for a story? Hah! Well, I have heard of [Writers], [Historians], [Poets], and other fools trying the same. I also know your name, Rémi Canada. Sit, and I shall consider it.”

She gestured, and again, the viewpoint wobbled as Rémi hesitated. He coughed, and then spoke.

“—As a matter of fact, Empress Nsiia, I hate to contradict you, but I am not here to follow you, specifically. I was hoping to meet with…”

The camera swung left, and Nsiia’s look of shocked outrage was replaced by a puzzled Antinium. Ksmvr looked left, then at the camera. Then he pointed to himself with one of his hands.

“Me?”

And that, of course, was how it all began.

 

——

 

Ksmvr did not know Rémi Canada, except vaguely by name. The young man was interesting, at least as Humans went. Which was not very, to Ksmvr.

He could not fly, possess bodies, breathe acid, breathe underwater, smell what you had eaten yesterday, or so on. Also, Humans looked vaguely the same, but Ksmvr appreciated that not everyone could be Pisces.

Rémi was fascinating in that he had somehow sought out this small group, despite Nsiia’s best attempts to take them through the least-populated areas of Tiqr. She was native to this land and had chosen the most inhospitable terrain, the better to foil trackers. They had also moved at a near-gallop, albeit with Skills, the entire time.

Nevertheless, this young man had done what other [Trackers], [Hunters], and [Scouts] had not. He had already been on the way, and heading from the opposite direction, which helped, but he explained as he let his camel sit and took a seat next to the fire.

“I had to ride nearly day and night to catch you. I wouldn’t have dared try to catch up, but I have [Expeditious Traveller]—it’s helped me get around.”

Nsiia grunted, already in a dangerously bad mood. She sat, cross-armed and cross-legged, next to a bubbling pot of porridge by the small fire they’d made. Breakfast, in fact. They were travelling by night due to Ksmvr’s allergy to baking to death in the heat of the sun, but she’d sensed Rémi coming.

“Alone? Even when Tiqr was safe, I would have called you foolish without any escort. Monsters abound, especially near the borders of my empire…my former empire. How could you find us, nonetheless? Neither scrying spell nor Skill should let you follow me. A [Tracker] would not be able to hone onto me personally, only follow what little trail we have—and sand and camouflage take care of that.”

“You mean, because of your aura?”

Rémi angled the strange object he held and Nsiia glowered at it. It was, to Ksmvr’s eyes, a curious kind of box. He had seen what was surely part of a scrying mirror inside, but it was somehow attached to, or linked with, what looked like a glowing crystal, expertly cut into a rough sphere, but with smooth facets rather than perfect roundness, like some kind of extreme geometric object.

“My aura, yes. I am a monarch in class—even deposed of my throne. You either have a level beyond mine, or a different means.”

“Different means, Your Majesty. I’m…a [Journalist]. The Skill that led me here isn’t one that means you harm. Nor does it track you, specifically. It must not interfere with your aura. It’s called [Follow the Story].”

“Hah! Explain your class then. I’ve never heard of it. Is it like that…Drassi? Of Wistram News Network? Television?

Ksmvr grew more interested as he sat around the warm fire. Rémi nodded, fishing out a flask of water but keeping his device perfectly level with what looked like practice.

“Yes, Empress Nsiia. It’s a class about news. About…truth, reporting events. A new class, in a sense. Not [Reporter]. Mine’s more of a derivation. A [Reporter] is on the scene, or someone who relays what’s happening to an audience, like television. My class writes news articles. Have you seen a newspaper?”

“That new thing? I saw a few articles.”

“Well, a [Journalist] researches, finds new stories for the public, be it through magazines, newspapers, the television…and I do think I may be the highest-levelled [Journalist] in this world.”

Nsiia’s eyes narrowed suspiciously and Ksmvr sat up at this claim. But Rémi didn’t appear to be attempting to deceive them, and he spoke very confidently indeed about such new things.

“Hah. So you find stories to tell? Why did you come to us? I will own that my flight from Illivere is news, as is Domehead. Ksmvr himself is a famed adventurer, but one who survived the raid on the Village of the Dead. We three all have tales to tell, but why Ksmvr?

Nsiia couldn’t hide that she was peeved, and didn’t bother to try. Rémi glanced at Ksmvr, and angled the box towards him. Instantly, Nsiia moved her head left and towards it, scowling.

“What are you doing? What is that thing for?”

“Recording, Your Majesty.”

Recording our positions?

“No!”

Rémi shielded the box from her wrath. He explained, backing up.

“It’s not transmitting to Wistram or any other organization. I’d never do that—there is a thing known as ‘journalistic integrity’, Your Majesty! It is not my job to interfere like that unless I feel I have an ethical responsibility to do so—not in this case at all. This is a new artifact I commissioned, with almost all of my profits. Not a new one, in fact; an existing kind of magical device. It takes images and transfers them into this crystal, here.”

He tapped the rounded crystal very gently.

“[Mages] have had the magical acumen to broadcast images, record them, from creating pictures to full-scale images, for a long time. They have not created…media until very recently.”

“And you want to record Ksmvr? Why him? You are aware the King of Destruction has been wounded gravely in battle, aren’t you? There is a war in Terandria, unrest in Wistram of all places—a thousand and one great events. Why him?

Ksmvr opened his mandibles.

“Yes, why me, Rémi Canada? You are surely aware of who I am?”

He looked at the young man and Rémi nodded.

“Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad, Gold-rank adventurer. Former or current member of the Hive of the Free Antinium, Liscor. I couldn’t identify which was true.”

“Former.”

Ksmvr was impressed by Rémi’s understanding, not to mention the gratifying speed and accuracy with which he spoke. Ksmvr liked that kind of person. Rémi reminded Ksmvr of Hedault, or Femithain, although the two other Humans were different in other ways.

“Why did you seek me out, Journalist Rémi? If you are aware that the Horns of Hammerad live, and I do believe it is an interesting news story of some small fascination, you surely should have sought out the more veteran and important members of my team. Captain Ceria Springwalker, Pisces Jealnet, or Yvlon Byres. Unless…I was the only one you could find?”

Rémi brushed at some hair in his face and shook his head. His eyes were intent on Ksmvr, searching him, but he kept as much attention on that little recording box. He hesitated, then angled it towards himself.

He had an odd tool for that. He could actually place the box on a long arm and hook with a lever that let it rotate back towards him, or to capture a sight that he couldn’t with only his arm for extension. He recorded himself now with the box as Nsiia scooted over so she was next to Ksmvr.

“I have heard credible reports that at least Pisces Jealnet and Yvlon Byres are alive. I can give them to you if you would like, Ksmvr. I assume you’re going after them?”

“That is my intention, yes.”

“Well, I would like to record that. I can’t fight, but I will find my own supplies. I can even offer to pay you, although it’s not much…”

“But why?

Nsiia glowered at Rémi. He gave her a puzzled look, and realized Ksmvr also didn’t understand. He looked at Ksmvr, shaking his head slightly.

“Ksmvr—excuse me—do you have any last name, Ksvmr?”

“I do not. Antinium do not have last names. Ksmvr of the Free Antinium is a suitable appellation if you must give me one.”

Rémi nodded.

“Then that’s a fact I, and my audience, now know about Antinium, Ksmvr, where we knew virtually nothing before. You are the first Antinium willing to talk, an adventurer, an emissary of your people. This is the chance of a lifetime to show the world what Antinium are.”

Ksmvr found many fallacies in Rémi’s plan, though he had to admit, he understood the [Journalist]’s idea.

“I regret to inform you, Rémi Canada, that I am an outcast of my Hive.”

“Nevertheless, Ksmvr, there is no way for me to meet an Antinium under normal circumstances. I believe you could change the world’s perception of your species.”

“I see this one’s logic, Ksmvr.”

Nsiia leaned over, whispering. Ksmvr hesitated, then tilted his head slightly.

“Then you think we should let him accompany us, Nsiia?”

“Why not? This…what do you call your box, Journalist Canada?”

“Rémi is fine, Your Majesty. I call it a ‘camera’, although that’s more of a catchall term. Magic recorder would also do.”

“Then Nsiia is fine. It seems to me that since Ksmvr and I are thrown together by the whims of fate, your recordings might also detail Tiqr’s plight, mightn’t they? Or do you have no care for Tiqr?”

Rémi nodded at Nsiia.

“I reported on the war for Tiqr, Your Majesty.”

“I know. Then…?”

Rémi held up the box on the stick, which somehow stayed perfectly level despite his less-than-perfect motor control. A balancing spell, Ksmvr guessed.

“I would consider it as important a news story as that of interviewing the Antinium.”

Nsiia smiled, satisfied.

“Good. Then we shall eat, and break camp. We ride by night. Just what is it you want to do? Shall it interfere with us or will you just…watch?”

“If you’ll let me use whatever Skills you are employing, I will follow you, ask questions when you are free—I can eat by myself, but I also have supplies. If fighting breaks out—I am protected from some harm by my Skills. [Impartial Observer].”

Nsiia threw her head back.

“Hah! Now there’s a [Spy]’s Skill! What a curious coincidence. I shall allow it. Unless Ksmvr objects?”

She looked at him and Ksmvr hesitated. However, it did seem like Rémi Canada might be helpful, and if he had news of the others…Ksmvr nodded slowly.

“I shall allow it. Although I must inform you, Rémi Canada, that I am not part of Empress Nsiia’s movement to free Tiqr.”

“Really?”

Rémi focused on Ksmvr in an instant. Nsiia scowled.

“I consider Ksmvr a boon companion—”

“I am only coincidentally in the Empress’ company, due to shared pursuit. In fact, I would like to state that I am not part of any political or military movement in direct confrontation with other nations.”

“—a friend and comrade in arms, who has saved my life and I his.”

Nsiia shouted. Ksmvr saw Rémi track both of them, and then turn to Domehead.

“And Domehead? Isn’t he property of Illivere? Or, do you consider you’ve liberated him as a Sentient-class Golem?”

He swung back to Nsiia and Ksmvr in time to catch the way they looked at each other. Ksmvr hesitated.

“I did not free or liberate Domehead. Nor did Nsiia.”

“Yes…”

Nsiia turned back to Rémi, and Ksmvr saw her narrow her eyes with more than just annoyance or pique. She regarded him a bit more warily. Rémi eyed them.

“Then how did he come into your company? I would like the full story later, whenever you can give it to me.”

Nsiia frowned and crossed her arms again. Ksmvr scratched at his head. Already, he somewhat regretted his choice, but all he had to do was…be recorded? Surely, it was not a problem. So he shrugged.

“He followed us. I believe the dynamics and cultural significance of Golem-creation have not extended to Sentience-class Golems and am unsure of the exact positions in play. But it is my understanding that Nsiia is Domehead’s mother.”

He pointed at Nsiia. She blinked at him. Rémi blinked at Ksmvr. Domehead’s crystals winked in their dome. Ksmvr looked around, then went to eat breakfast.

 

——

 

It was at this point that Drassi fell out of her seat and hit the floor. The crash in the newsroom was accompanied by her swearing and two assistants rushing into frame to help her up. Drassi stood up, re-seated herself, and spoke.

“Uh…if you’re just tuning in, this is Drassi, and we just saw—I can only describe it as a recording of [Journalist] Rémi Canada meeting the Empress of Tiqr and Ksmvr—and a Golem named Domehead? This is…this is extraordinary! It’s like one of those recorded broadcasts, only—well, how did we get it?”

Another Drake hurried over to confer with Drassi, but the [Reporter] pointed him around. So the Drake gave a nervous report.

“Apparently—it was a, uh, delivery to the Mage’s Guild via a City Runner. It broadcast first on Visions of Chandrar—one of the competing news outlets.”

“I’ve never even heard of that one. Is it new? And then we got ahold of it?”

Drassi blinked. The Drake nodded. Drassi turned to the viewers, looking amazed.

“Well, there you have it. Rémi Canada is apparently travelling with the Empress of Beasts and Ksmvr—he’s a personal friend, I’ll have you know—in Chandrar! Expect more of these recordings to come. In fact, this one’s not over! So, uh…is this going to be a thing? Because I like it!”

She looked around, and there it was. It was a thing.

Not a movie. Not a television show, or news broadcast. Technically, if you had the terminology for it, it was a documentary, or a journalistic report. And it went around the world, mainly thanks to Drassi’s personal friendship with Rémi Canada that led her to copy the recording.

Also, the nature of the revolutionary little device Rémi had poured all of his income into producing. The documentary hit every major city, every person who could pay to see a broadcast of the recording, and even small villages where people now had a habit of gathering around the scrying orb to see interesting events, or even had it playing as they worked.

This is what they saw.

 

——

 

Nights of riding, days of rest. Or talking with Rémi. At first, it was disconcerting, him with his little box and how he asked questions and always pointed it at them.

But then Ksmvr and Nsiia got used to it, and she stopped trying to walk into every frame. In fact, they almost forgot about it. Not that it existed, but they never saw anything other than Rémi pointing it at them, so they began to just…act normally. After all, nothing ever came of it.

The first days of flight and adjusting to Chandrar’s challenges were over. Ksmvr had settled into a routine of travel across Chandrar, such that riding each night was involved, and chatter was minimal as they moved as fast as they could—besides, sand and the bumpy ride of Spitty, Ksmvr’s mortal nemesis, didn’t make for great chatter anyways.

They had some time to talk around fires or eating without fires, or before they broke camp or slept, but Rémi occupied that. He kept up well, despite being noticeably the weakest traveller among the group.

“I’m not used to travelling. I’ve done it before—but never at this intensity. I’ve gotten a lot of experience.”

That was his one comment around a breakfast of dried Yellats and dry jerky, followed by not-dry water. Nsiia quirked an eyebrow, amused.

“You’re too modest, Rémi. Even a trained [Warrior] would find this pace somewhat tiring. Ksmvr, how does it trouble you, if at all?”

“I hate Spitty.”

The camel turned his head from flirting with Sandi and spat. Ksmvr blocked it with his Forceshield and glared at the camel. Nsiia laughed. Yinah meowed, complaining at being woken up. She got to ride in a side-basket hanging, not on the mare’s flanks or Spitty’s side, but on the smoothest, most comfortable ride: around Domehead’s neck. Indeed, the Golem was carefully feeding Yinah bits of meat.

For some reason Rémi recorded that, then focused on the group. Nsiia stabbed the ground with her sheathed sword, and did a rough sketch in the dirt.

“We’ve circumnavigated much of Tiqr. I would have liked to ride through the heart of it—but now is not the time. We had to place distance between us and Illivere. Us and Savere, as well, which is why I held us so far north. There are garrisons in my empire as well—and no doubt Nerrhavia’s Fallen will be after us soon.”

“Are those the three groups most likely to pursue, in your mind, Nsiia?”

Rémi asked. He did talk and interject questions, but usually preferred to let Ksmvr or Nsiia fill the air. Nsiia scowled.

“Yes. The Siren personally wants me. Nerrhavia? They have an interest in keeping me from my people. Femithain wants Domehead, and he was responsible for my captivity. It falls on his head if we are not caught. So—three nations. There are smaller ones, but—peh.

She turned her head and spat, to show how she cared for them. Ksmvr nodded.

“We are nearing your western border. What is the plan after that? Where are we bound? I am content to be headed in Pisces’ direction.”

Pisces was due west, headed towards Roshal, so Ksmvr had not objected. But Nsiia just sighed.

“I need my army. And they are here. To the west of Tiqr lies three major lands.”

She pointed, and Ksmvr and Rémi leaned forwards. Ksmvr was aware of the nations around Reim, having followed the King of Destruction’s war, but the rest of Chandrar was largely unknown to him. He knew Roshal was a harbor on the furthest west coast of Chandrar, the famous nation of slavers.

In the center of Chandrar was Zeikhal, the Great Desert that had devoured countless nations and was a no man’s land that few could survive the further in you went. But along the southern coast? Savere, then Nerrhavia’s Fallen to the east…tiny Pomle, Illivere, Tiqr, smaller nations, and then?

“The Kilalle Steppes border Zeikhal here, you see? They are a wild place—few permanent cities. No central ruler. Garuda territory. Their clans—groups of Garuda, much like your Gnolls—hold it. They have been friends to Tiqr more than enemies. It is here Vasraf and what remains of my armies hide.”

She pointed to the northwest of Tiqr. Then circled a section along the coast.

“Here lies another power we should be wary of, and why you should keep accompanying me, Ksmvr. The Empire of Scaied is a mercenary one, and they might well go after an Antinium alone for the bounty on his head. More than that? You helped me escape.”

“In fact, I merely waved my sword in the vague direction of—”

“Yes, yes. But they are enemies of Tiqr and you are an enemy of theirs by extension.”

“I object to this line of thought.”

Nsiia grinned at Ksmvr.

“Not everyone is as reasonable as you, Ksmvr. The Beitv Underlands are in the middle, there. Another land without a central great power, though they do have rulers…”

“Tell me about them.”

Ksmvr was fascinated. Nsiia shrugged and cast her eyes at the evening sky. They had an hour before the land cooled enough to ride.

“Shortly? Very well. The Empire of Scaied made war on Tiqr many times—and we them. They fight for coin. Mercenary—they clash with other kingdoms, raid, and sustain themselves by war. Tiqr does not, and we share opposing views. I thought they would attack Tiqr when the other nations made war, but they were busy enough not to join in.”

She grimaced.

“They have a number of unsavory features, and I do not have time to list their many faults.”

Ksmvr held up his hand.

“…Is this an unbiased opinion?”

Nsiia’s glare made him lower it after a few seconds. She poked holes in the little sketch of Scaied for a moment, then sighed.

“I wonder if you would like them, Ksmvr, or they you, without fear of the Antinium in name. You see—they do deal with creatures kin to yours. Or so I think. Giant scorpions, which they ride—somewhat like the Jaws of Zeikhal, but far smaller.”

Ksmvr looked at Nsiia. He frowned, drawing his mandibles together.

“I am not a scorpion.”

She blinked at him.

“Yes, but I meant you are like an insect. And a scorpion…”

“I am not a scorpion. No one rides Antinium.”

Ksmvr crossed his arms. Nsiia peered at him.

“Fine then. The Beitv Underlands might be more your folk.”

“Why?”

“Because they live underground.

The [Brave Skirmisher] paused. He opened his mandibles, raised a finger, then crossed two arms.

“I admit, there is some correlation there.”

“It’s my understanding that the Beitv Underlands have never had a strong military presence or a large standing army, Empress Nsiia. How have they survived? Peace treaties? Economic strength? Skills?”

Rémi looked intrigued. Nsiia just laughed.

“Nothing so smart, Rémi! They survived because no one would bother to invade them. The Beitv Underlands have some wealth, but if anyone tries to conquer them, they collapse the tunnels and withdraw. You would have to take two armies—one to fight and one to dig!”

“Antinium could do it.”

Ksmvr spoke, and Rémi shifted the box to him.

“Do the Antinium have designs on Chandrar, Ksmvr?”

The Gold-rank adventurer hesitated. Ksmvr looked at Rémi, at the box. He shrugged.

“I am not a Queen of the Antinium. But we have designs on everywhere acceptable to be colonized. Chandrar is far away.”

Nsiia eyed him. Rémi nodded, but frowned.

“Yet the Antinium have a reputation for being a warlike, invasive people, Ksmvr. What would you say to that?”

Ksmvr gave him a blank look.

“We have invaded Izril by Drake and Human rhetoric. We did make war. We would move to Chandrar if we could, to establish new Hives, I believe. If possible.”

He fell silent. Rémi waited, then prompted him.

“And?”

“…That is what species do to live. The Gnolls left Izril. Someday, we may leave Izril too. If so, the Beitv Underlands might be a prime target.”

Ksmvr stared calmly into the camera. He chewed on his breakfast as even the Empress of Beasts gave him a troubled look. Then he amended his statement.

“Except that we would have to cross water. We hate water. I hate water.”

 

——

 

Rémi Canada’s first documentary came out after a lot of drama and news around the Meeting of Tribes, to substantially less fanfare and instant attention. That it even got coverage was thanks to Drassi, but it didn’t have every eye glued on it, like, say, watching Foliana of the Forgotten Wing Company, Three-Color Stalker, try to throw peanuts at Grand Magus Eldavin did.

…Through the scrying orb. As if she could somehow toss a nut across the world and onto the other projection just because they were presented side-by-side in the same picture. Which demonstrated her lack of spatial understanding vis-à-vis the perspective of a camera, or her own misplaced confidence in her Skills. Or just her desire to toss shelled peanuts at [Mages] who annoyed her.

That was hugely interesting to any audience, no matter who you were, and had happened on the news. Live. Including such memorable scenes as the [King] of Pheislant, who was currently divorced, maybe, possibly, definitely asking both Queen Geilouna of Desonis and Strategist Perorn of the Forgotten Wing company out on a date.

And being shot down. By flaming arrows. That was another event from the news, and the Meeting of Tribes. So you could see why, frankly, even though Ksmvr was in the news, and Nsiia and Domehead, it wasn’t as instantly eye-catching.

Moreover, Wistram and the other news networks, which were becoming more mainstream television, were learning a lesson—their audiences did need breaks. They could only show so much high-drama before being tuned out.

Enter Rémi Canada’s first foray into the documentary. Was it at the worst possible time? Or…best?

There was something that made the documentary do the rounds on the other channels. It was just…well, a lot of quiet. Actual conversations, rather than a bloody battle. Like the opening, sometimes Rémi and the others just rode and the view was of Chandrar’s landscapes, the vivid sky, or capturing a conversation.

Because, crucially, Rémi Canada’s recordings were not edited. It was up to anyone who received a copy of the magical image to do so—or not at all. He didn’t have the magical acumen to do so, so, very interestingly, some groups chose to play it wholesale, and to their interest, they found audiences willing to watch someone just ride across Chandrar for an entire day in the background.

And—coincidentally—watch Ksmvr, Nsiia, and Domehead. None of the people being filmed really understood who was watching them. They didn’t stop near Mage’s Guilds or civilization. They were certainly staying away from scrying orbs, which, by now, everyone sort of knew could be reverse-engineered to spy on the user. And ‘everyone’ was really just anyone with a modicum of power or connection to a group with any military might or secrets they didn’t want revealed.

The only person who could chart any of this was Rémi Canada. And he was just the journalist, film crew, and passenger in this adventure together.

 

——

 

Ksmvr observed a few qualities about Rémi after two days of travel. First, the [Journalist] possessed a number of interesting abilities, both in Skills and developed by his profession.

He was able to keep up well with Nsiia, Domehead, and Ksmvr, despite being the least-conditioned of the group. Ksmvr could ride Spitty until the camel dropped dead, but Nsiia made sure they got plenty of rest, and he was a [Skirmisher] over Level 30, and had Antinium biology designed to weather most extremes.

Short of heatstroke, he could keep on going. Nsiia was the Empress of Beasts and Chandrar was her home. She could sleep in the saddle, and her faithful animal companions had extra intelligence and strength due to her presence.

Domehead was a Golem. He could run all day and all night. So even Yinah looked perkier than Rémi after a day of hard riding. Nevertheless, he kept up.

“I’ve done some hard riding. Unless you have an escort, you have to bounce around for stories.”

“And you seek those out.”

Ksmvr was riding Spitty, side-by-side with Rémi and his camel, Sandi.

Spitty and Sandi. He kept trying to ride closer and Ksmvr kept pulling him away. The camel turned his head to glare at Ksmvr, and the Antinium offered him a Yellat to eat. Spitty hated Yellats.

“I had to, right when I was starting out. Newspapers were not in circulation, nor was the television. I actually went from city to city with a little news bulletin—I made a small profit selling them to [Merchants] and people who were interested in my writing.”

“Fascinating. And you did this alone?”

Rémi hesitated. He had his magic-camera out, and it was on that swivel-stick that let it film both Ksmvr, the camels, and him.

“I had companions. At first. They died.”

“I am sorry to hear that.”

Rémi’s face had gone guarded. Ksmvr saw him nod, slowly, and look at Ksmvr.

“May I ask a question? Did any Antinium leave the Free Hive but you?”

“No. I was exiled.”

“Really? May I ask why?”

“…Gross incompetence.”

Nsiia turned in her saddle. Rémi raised his eyebrows.

“Really? But you’re a Gold-rank adventurer. You seem to be one of the most competent the Antinium could hope for—every species and nation respects Gold-ranks. I also thought you once threatened to start a war in the name of the Hives?”

Ksmvr felt unpleasantly warm, despite the cold air. He shrugged.

“…That was a bluff.”

Really? A bluff?”

Nsiia cackled with delight. Rémi smiled.

“And you don’t mind sharing that to our audience?”

Ksmvr hesitated.

“—Ah. Will many people see this? In that case, I would like you to remove this commentary.”

“Could I persuade you to keep it in?”

“I would prefer you to remove it. Threatening war is a viable tactical advantage. Psychologically.”

Rémi coaxed Ksmvr into allowing him to keep it in. Ksmvr relented because his war threats had backfired and he’d been cautioned by Captain Ceria not to do that too often anymore. He tried to go back to Ksmvr’s expulsion.

“I have heard that other Antinium have left the Free Hive in some way. Bird the Hunter. So others have exited.”

“Yes, but their situations were not analogous to mine. You asked, specifically, if any had left with me. They did not. I was exiled. Their status is less directly related to that.”

“May I ask what that is?”

Ksmvr thought for a second. He prodded his stomach. And found he didn’t want to talk about it.

“You may. I decline to answer.”

Rémi nodded. He changed tack instantly. He was tactful, and had already managed to get Nsiia’s account of Tiqr’s fall out of her. Ksmvr was surprised to hear the Empress of Beasts relay her view of how the war had gone.

“—I never thought Tiqr was doomed, Journalist Canada.”

“No, Your Majesty? But you could see the odds stacked against Tiqr from the outset. Surely you heard your [Strategist] and [General]’s commentary. Did General Vasraf ever advise you to sue for peace?”

Nsiia threw her head back, eyes blazing.

“Peace? That would have looked much like what we see now! At best, I would have been a puppet on the throne, but the other nations in the coalition did not make war just to stop me from allying with Flos Reimarch. They did it to take Tiqr, which they wanted. Let us not play games.

“Of course, Your Majesty. But the odds…?”

Nsiia sighed.

“I thought if I bled them, wounded them in great battles, they would relent. If one hound in the pack falls away, the next is more likely to follow. Even Nerrhavia’s hordes would not eagerly come one after another, not with the King of Destruction in the north. If I could do it again, I would sue for peace, if only to avoid the needless losses. Does that answer your question?”

The young man nodded, focusing on her face for a moment.

“Yes, thank you. And your plans next?”

She smiled thinly.

“That will wait until we find Vasraf. I do not trust you that much, Rémi Canada.”

She met his grey-violet eyes with hers, and Rémi ducked his head. Which led Ksmvr into his question.

“Violet eyes are not a natural color amongst Humans except when exposed to some magic, in their heritage or otherwise. May I ask your heritage, Rémi Canada? You do not appear to be natively Chandrarian.”

That was a guess based on skin tone and the fact that Rémi didn’t seem as used to the glare of the sun as even Chandrarians of his skin color were. The young man hesitated.

“—My eyes aren’t inherited, Ksmvr. They changed color due to one of my Skills.”

“Ah. Interesting. Which one? Unless it is secret.”

“No. I can share that. [Eyes of Personality]. It’s…call it a Skill fit for a journalist. It was one of the earlier Skills I got.”

Ksmvr nodded politely and added it to his lexicon of eye-based Skills. He concluded his observation.

Rémi Canada was a good deceiver. Not by outright lie, but by omission. He side-stepped, like Pisces could do with his rapier and footwork. He had things he did not want to say, like Ksmvr, who ignored or declined all of Rémi’s questions about the inner workings of Antinium Hives, and so on.

If anything, the most honest person here was Nsiia. Domehead could not talk, but ironically, Ksmvr realized the Empress of Beasts was fairly honest. She had been careful with Femithain, but he had never seen her do anything that was duplicitous, save when she needed to hide something. She was no manipulator.

Indeed, she was much like Spitty or Yinah. They did not pretend. Spitty spat at Ksmvr before the Antinium got on his back and kicked sand on Ksmvr’s bedroll. Yinah would hiss and scratch at you if she did not want pets or cuddles.

Ksmvr…thought it was nice that Nsiia was like animals. He disagreed. Deception was a key element of warfare. But he liked it in Nsiia.

 

——

 

Even in how she fought, Nsiia was straightforward. She feinted, drawing her sword back for a strike. She pretended to favor her left leg after Ksmvr struck her a lucky blow with a practice sword, then exploded outwards with a leaping slash.

…But these were not deceptions and Ksmvr said as much. With a laugh, Nsiia planted the wooden blade in the sand. She had grabbed everything she could from Femithain’s mansion that might be useful. Fearing she wouldn’t find an actual sword, she’d grabbed the lead-weighted training blades Armsmaster Dellic had given her to practice with Ksmvr.

“How else should I lie in combat, Ksmvr? Ask you politely to block my thrust, then slash you from another direction?”

Ksmvr shook his head.

“No. But there is a nuance to combat you lack. Feinting is one thing.”

“And what else is th—”

He kicked sand into her face and she howled and slashed at the air. Ksmvr darted left, swinging low at her legs. That was how he’d do it if he got this chance. Take away her mobility, because Nsiia could leap around and almost match him. He cut in—

She blocked his sword without seeing it, hand wiping grit out of her gaze. Then followed it up with a roaring slash. Ksmvr jumped back, but he’d taken a blow across his chest.

“Point. I fear that—”

You Manticore-kissed bastard! My eyes!

Nsiia’s flying kick hit him in the chest. Ksmvr ran as she chased him with her sword for a good half a minute. Rémi was just watching. When she had calmed down, Nsiia pointed at Ksmvr.

That was a dirty trick. It does not become a warrior of Tiqr.”

“But it worked.”

Ksmvr rejoined. Nsiia narrowed her gaze dangerously as Yinah dragged over a water bottle so she could rinse her face.

“If that is your lie, I do not do it, Ksmvr. I would consider tossing grit, changing weapons, but not attacking when I or another brave warrior parlayed.”

“Then that is the difference between adventurers and warriors.”

Hah.

She took a gulp of water and splashed some on her face. Then she pointed her sword.

“Come out and let’s finish our spar.”

“…Not if you are angry. This is only for practice.”

Nsiia tilted her head and smiled thinly.

“I am not angry, Ksmvr.”

“You sound like you are lying now.”

Come on out.

“No.”

Ksmvr was hiding behind Domehead. The Golem had watched the spar, and was now regarding Ksmvr as he poked his head out from behind the giant Golem. Nsiia pursed her lips.

“What if I ask Domehead to take over sparring?”

“…He does not need to do that. You do not need to do that, Domehead. You have no muscles to train.”

“He could practice by hitting you.”

“Domehead would not do that. We are friends, tempered by adversity. This is so, Domehead.”

Ksmvr patted Domehead on the shoulder. The Golem didn’t really have a head to turn since his neck and head were a giant dome, but his body twisted slightly from Nsiia to Ksmvr, clearly confused.

Nsiia glared.

 

——

 

Training with Nsiia was one of the things Ksmvr did regularly, in hopes of improving. The other thing they did on their march was talk to Rémi. The third, other than mundane activities like riding, feeding, resting, excreting, and so on?

Train Domehead. Nsiia had taken Ksmvr’s words to heart. She did not recite the lullaby or oath as when she first called Domehead a child of Tiqr. Ksmvr suspected she felt Rémi’s eyes and camera on her, since he did see her take Domehead aside in private before they slept and rose.

What she did with them was talk to Domehead; though, the Golem seldom said anything.

“A warrior fights, Domehead. You are a Golem; I, an [Empress]. It is not either of our duties to fight without end. A [Soldier] knows only war and service until they rest. You will not be asked to do the same, and a [Soldier] will rest and retire, or else their life is one thing. Remember that. Someday you will put down the blade. You may be a guardian, a protector of the innocent. Spare no quarter when you fight monsters and horrors. When you fight warriors, offer them mercy. That is not weakness. That is honor.”

Domehead said nothing. Nsiia raised her voice.

Honor is sparing a foe who asks for surrender. Honor is turning your blade when you can, and sparing the ground their blood. Honor is not kicking sand in someone’s face when you are talking.

Ksmvr turned to Rémi.

“I think she is still angry. Nsiia, was that directed at me?”

“Why would you think so, Ksmvr? Not at all.”

“I feel as though you are now lying.”

“I am not.”

“I suspect that is a lie, too.”

The [Journalist]’s lips quirked. Yet, the idle banter was broken as Ksmvr, now riding on Domehead’s other side, across from Nsiia for his safety and petting Yinah’s head, spoke.

“Domehead. When a warrior surrenders, watch them to make sure they do not pick up their blade and stab you in the back. That may be a cunning feint. I would surrender to you, and then escape, or use a Skill to attack you. Flee, if I thought I could not win.”

Do not teach him that!

Nsiia snapped at Ksmvr. The Antinium saw Domehead turn to her. He could not speak, and he had yet to express himself, but Ksmvr thought that the way Domehead faced was a good clue as to what the Golem preferred. Another nuance was how many lights shone in Domehead’s ‘head’, and the crystals lit up most when Nsiia spoke. They went dark as Domehead turned to Ksmvr, with the Golem’s inherited disapproval.

Yet Ksmvr was determined.

“I am not teaching you my scurrilous ways, Nsiia. I am educating Domehead. He would take your words literally, and a foe would take advantage of that. You do not understand how Golems think. I do.”

She blinked. Ksmvr saw her eyes flicker to Domehead, and after a second the Empress of Beasts went on.

“—Many enemies will do that. It shows their dishonor, so yes, as Ksmvr says, I never lower my guard. But there are honorable warriors, Domehead, and I trust them. Sometimes, I realize they may dishonor themselves for what they see as a greater need. Other times, when they act dishonorably, they reveal themselves, and that is a tragedy. Even so, I do not regret sparing lives. It is the mark that separates us from blood-thirsty monsters.”

She patted her mare’s neck.

“Even wolves and other animals do it. They surrender and are spared. To kill without need, or for only the sport, the joy of death, is cruelty, and that is a thing of people. And animals who know enough to be so cruel. And cats.”

She looked pointedly at Yinah. The cat stretched out her claws. Ksmvr held her up.

“You would not do that, would you, Yinah? Kill for sport?”

“She would kill an entire population of creatures just to satisfy her hunting desires. She is a lady of death without mercy or compassion and only bloodlust, Ksmvr.”

Nsiia warned him. Yinah purred innocently. Ksmvr cuddled her. He completely missed her narrowing her eyes and nodding in his arms.

 

——

 

Between all these day-to-day activities, by the time Rémi Canada stopped and announced he needed to send the first recording crystal off, they were in the Kilalle Steppes.

The ground had risen, and grown less dry, actually. Ksmvr was used to Tiqr’s arid climes near the nation’s border. Literal desert and just cracked dirt, broken up by the rare oasis. Nsiia told him there were actual rivers and such closer in, but he hadn’t seen that since they had to flee her homeland.

But the Kilalle Steppes rose slightly, and then turned into brush. Not super-green brush, granted, but a kind of yellow, tough plant that hinted to Ksmvr that this place got some kind of rain.

And oh, it went on forever. Flat, leading into the occasional hilly area, but with that disconcerting effect. Ksmvr did see landmarks far, far in the distance, but Nsiia explained that the Kilalle Steppes were a vast piece of land.

“There are noticeable things to see, Ksmvr. But so spread out—this is ideal ground for Vasraf and my army to hide. This is also the territory of Garuda clans. They hold the skies; we may see a few.”

“Will they be hostile?”

She thought and answered simply.

“Not to me, most likely. They have always respected Tiqr. Some might be tempted by the lure of money, but Tiqr has been friend to Garuda and I do not think they would cast that aside. They will not necessarily be allies.”

In fact, they ran into the first Garuda clan within five hours of entering the first real areas of that grassy biome. Ksmvr took it as a lesson. One second he was staring around, watching for danger as always; the next, someone screamed.

It was a bird’s cry mixed with a voice. Ksmvr looked up.

Garuda?

But he hadn’t seen anything in the skies! And that was because he hadn’t been looking. Ksmvr stared up, wildly, and saw a patch of the grey-blue heavens move.

A Garuda banked, and flew left—he or she had been far distant and to the west, but even so, Ksmvr might have spotted them. Yet the Garuda had been camouflaged in the sky. They had feathers that were a darker blue than the sky, but…

Nsiia grinned at Ksmvr’s confusion.

“You think Garuda can’t hide? The sky is to them what a patch of grass or shadow is to us, Ksmvr.”

“I have been humbled.”

Ksmvr murmured. He stared up, and saw Nsiia raise her hand; the Garuda was already flying back, but she seemed to think she’d be seen. He stared at the sky, and, no less than twenty one minutes later, saw the clan coming in.

They flew in fast. As fast as, well, birds. Maybe not as fast as some birds in flight; they had a slower air speed due to their size and what they carried. But as fast as horseback riders? At least.

They came swooping down so fast Ksmvr resolved never to drop his guard if Garuda might be about. Here was a people who had [Skirmisher] in their very biology.

Travellers below, do you fly in peace or war?

A voice shouted from up above. Nsiia had her hand lifted. She beamed upwards.

“Only wings of peace for the clans of Kilalle! Don’t you recognize me, sky-friends?”

The other Garuda circled, and one folded his wings and dove. Ksmvr stared up, thinking how much Bird would like to see this. And how good it was Bird wasn’t here. He saw the Garuda pull up sharply and hover in the air, flapping his wings. He stared, narrow eyed, at Ksmvr, Domehead, and Rémi with clear suspicion. Then he did a double-take in the air. He looped a quick arc and shouted.

“Featherfriend, I’m as blind as a Human! Is it true? The Empress of Beasts! You did escape Illivere!”

His shout caused exclamations from above. More Garuda dove, and the rest broke off.

In minutes, they were landing, striding forwards a bit awkwardly to clasp Nsiia’s hand with their wing-arms. Not necessarily their talons—they touched forearm to forewing or simply bowed.

Nsiia hadn’t lied. The Garuda were delighted to see her. One pointed back the way they’d flown from.

“The rest of our clan will want to see you, Empress of Beasts. Will you eat with us?”

Nsiia smiled, eyes bright with emotion at the warm welcome.

“Not more than a meal, I fear. Which clan is this? I must find Vasraf—if you know where he is, I beg you for information. And are my companions welcome?”

The Garuda who had swept downwards had a bow on his back. Just a bow, Ksmvr noted. No blade, nothing more than a single potion at his belt.

No armor, no bag of holding. Of course, he might not be able to afford the bag of holding, but nothing else? Ksmvr found it odd because all of the Garuda literally carried one or two items at most. The warrior nodded slowly.

“Oh, the clan will want to see this. But if you vouch they’re featherfriends, they’re welcome, Empress.”

“They are.”

And that was that. Ksmvr got his answer to the odd attire of the Garuda as soon as he saw their clan.

More Garuda rose in the distance, a huge flight, to meet Nsiia. They landed, gaping at her, asking questions, and staring, not least at Ksmvr and Domehead. The rest of the clan stayed with their mobile camp.

Travelling animals. Beasts of burden like oxen carrying wagons. Even, Ksmvr saw, platforms that were very wide and could only travel on this kind of flatland without fear of falling or breaking or getting stuck.

This was how a Garuda clan lived. They flew almost nonstop, carrying very little to ease their burdens. Supplies, baggage, all went slowly below with herds of animals. In that way, any enemy would have to both evade their warrior patrols and make it through countless miles of aerial harassment to attack anything valuable if they couldn’t fly or attack back.

At night, Garuda slept on the ground and were at their most vulnerable. Rich clans could afford a kind of aerial sleeping encampment or formal bases, or, if Garuda had a city or settlement, they obviously moved from shelter to shelter.

They were sort of like Gnolls of Izril, but only in that both were nomadic and centered around groups. In fact, Ksmvr understood that their greeting and interactions with Nsiia were an exception; they landed to speak with her, when most would conduct their conversations airborne.

“A single warrior might speak with you to learn your intentions. You could attack them, in which case her friends will shoot you full of arrows or fly off, well out of range. There is a reason why few nations dare the Kilalle Steppes, even with great armies.”

Nsiia remarked drily. Ksmvr nodded.

“Yet, surely, Garuda have not conquered the world because they have a weakness.”

“In the air? No fiercer foe. Not your Oldblood Drakes or people with artifacts or riding steeds. But Garuda must sleep and land at some point. That’s when [Generals] across every age strike. They do better when mixed with Humans or another force on the ground. Many flew in Tiqr’s defense…but the other nations brought Garuda and archers too.”

Nsiia sighed. However, she beamed as an old Garuda chieftain flew forwards to greet her. Garuda didn’t hug, Ksmvr noticed. Weaker bones and feathers too easily ruffled; they made much with their wing-arms, though, and could perform amazing gestures, riffling their feathers to add to an emotion they were displaying.

The clan offered food, conversation, and a direction to take. They actually had heard of Vasraf striking back, liberating Tiqr’s people from slavery, but they’d fled a massive counter force weeks ago.

“If they are anywhere, here, in the foothills, is a good bet. But you will find more clans. We shall tell them the Empress rides for her kingdom and send you support!”

“Not aid. Not yet. The wind is not in your favor, Empress, and we did not fly for you before. Apologies, but that is how it must be.”

Another Garuda had come forwards to speak with Nsiia and she was nodding to both the old leader, and the second Garuda, who had an odd sureness to the ground that her kin lacked.

“Your goodwill is all I can ask at this time. Perhaps later—but here is one you should meet. Adventurer Ksmvr, I introduce you to Skyleader Rekai—”

The old Garuda who had white and black feathers, almost like a seagull’s, eyed Ksmvr, and held out a claw. Ksmvr shook it.

“—and Landguide Heka.”

Heka, the younger Garuda, was in her forties, and walked over to take Ksmvr’s hand with more firmness. He was interested.

“And who rules this clan?”

Both Garuda laughed with a familiar, light humor.

“He must be from Izril, if his being so odd wasn’t proof enough.”

Skyleader Rekai commented. Nsiia nodded with a grin. She gestured to Rekai, whom Ksmvr had thought was the Garuda’s equivalent of a [Chieftain] due to his age and the respect of others.

“Rekai governs the sky, Ksmvr. Heka, the land. It is a leadership of two.”

“What if the two disagree? Surely there must be a first among equals.”

Ksmvr was fascinated. Rekai and Heka exchanged glances that looked knowing.

“If sky and land disagree, one does what one thinks is best and the other must adapt or be blown away. Sometimes they quarrel completely independently, but neither can do without the other. Heka knows animals. I know air currents, sky battles, and I don’t presume to tell her where animals rest.”

Nsiia smiled, and Heka nodded, a respectful smile on her face. Even so, when they turned to have food brought out, Nsiia whispered to Ksmvr in a low voice.

“She is the power on the land, but Garuda who tend to animals or can’t fly are not as well respected. Bear that in mind.”

“Ah. And all landfolk would be…”

Nsiia laughed.

Exactly. Can you blame them?”

She looked up. Rémi was capturing the Garuda doing amazing, three-dimensional maneuvers in the air just for fun. Ksmvr looked up and felt a pang of envy for once, even though he was no Bird. He could jump, but the Garuda had an entire other dimension, only partially touched by gravity, for them to explore.

“We’ll tell other clans you are coming, so you aren’t mistaken. Even, perhaps, send word to your [General], Empress. But let us ask this Antinium more questions! Are your people truly not going to invade?”

“I do not think that is germane at this given time, Skyleader Rekai. Rest assured, I will inform you if this changes.”

The Garuda laughed in disbelief, opening and closing his beak, which had a small crack from years of combat. He pointed, and the other Garuda, many flying even as they listened, laughed.

“He doesn’t speak like I thought he would! The Black Tide—I imagined you would be like Crelers.”

“We would resent the comparison. Antinium hate Crelers as much as any species. More.”

Ksmvr found that, to his amazement, he really was the source of fascination. And…a bit of uncomfortable fascination too. For the Garuda possessed little of the fear other species had for him. In fact, some muttered a bit, loud enough for him to hear.

“If you stare at it from high enough, it looks like a snack. I don’t see how the Drakes ever lost to…”

Ksmvr…did not think they meant that in a complimentary way towards him. He was uncomfortable. And unfortunately, reminded of Apista whenever the Antinium were present.

At least the lack of fear was a pleasant change. And there were supplies to be traded to supplement their dwindling food supply. In fact, Rémi sent off his first recording crystal to one of the Garuda, who was a City Runner—albeit in their sense.

“Don’t worry. Hey, I know you, Journalist Canada! I’m going to be the talk of the Runner’s Guild! I’m experienced. I fly between clans often, but that just means I’m one of the best Garuda since I’m fast, even for my kind! Alright, let me repeat the order. Send a [Message] spell to Wistram, the newspaper, a Drassi…”

Rémi watched the Garuda take off with the first crystal, but he exhaled once the runner was out of sight. Ksmvr was surprised.

“Have we done enough to warrant a first recording, Journalist Canada?”

The young man blinked at him.

“For a first one, of course! This is just the opening. I think we’ll have many more, and I don’t want a backlog.”

Ksmvr thought he was overestimating the appeal, but he didn’t dwell on it. Nsiia led them on after only an hour of talk, and warned both Garuda they might run into pursuit. The clan assured her—they didn’t care. No pursuers were likely to trouble them.

On they went. Three more days after that. But that little event with Rémi’s crystal?

It changed everything.

 

——

 

They continued. Nsiia was training Domehead on the third day as Ksmvr combed Yinah’s fur. She was educating the Golem, a bit overly-patient in her tone.

“It is a splendid block, Domehead. Now, attack—good.”

The Golem attacked, swinging his battleaxe into a blow that stopped a good three feet from Nsiia. The problem was he was too strong, and they had no practice weapons for him. More than that?

Domehead simply didn’t learn like Ksmvr or Nsiia. He did not speak, so even Ksmvr couldn’t tell if he took everything they said to heart.

Nor was he instantly able to communicate via Ksmvr’s clever idea, which was Mrsha’s hand-signals. He had tried to teach Domehead a few, like ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But even then…the Golem didn’t respond, even when asked a question.

If it frustrated his caretakers and companions, they still did their best. Nsiia was attempting to add nuance into Domehead’s attack routines. Ironically, this was what the Golem did well. She moved her blade to parry the strike, and stopped him.

“No, you moved into the low-cut. I don’t know what Femithain called it, but next time, change your attack.”

Domehead’s head lit up brightly, as it did when the Golem was ‘focused’. Nsiia explained.

“It is too obvious. I fought Golems in Tiqr’s war, and other times besides. They can be splendidly fast, and attack with all the precision engineered into them. Even by [Golem Artificers].

She sneered at that.

“Especially if they base it off actual warriors. You were made without flaw, and they did not sacrifice ability for some odd quirk in you. Even so—I can tell where you are going to attack. Come, attack.”

Domehead did. Nsiia moved her sword unerringly in the direction of each of his strikes, even when he halted mid-swing or changed it into another routine.

“I know every pattern because you took it from me, and Femithain gave it to you. Which is not a poor thing, but you do not surprise your foe.”

“Deception.”

The Antinium happily called from his seat. Nsiia scooped up a clod of dirt and hurled it at Ksmvr. He ducked. The Antinium saw Nsiia turn, exasperated, as Domehead froze, seeming to attempt to internalize her suggestions.

“Do you have anything to add, Ksmvr? I don’t know how to explain it like a…a Golem would know. Or an Antinium.”

Ksmvr tilted his head as Yinah scratched him lightly to remind him who was most important here. He went back to combing her fur.

“Only that you state that Domehead has a lack of deception and the unpredictability of non-Golem warriors. I would add to that: his attack patterns are not that refined. He is a capable warrior, but he does not fight like he could.”

Nsiia scowled.

“He fights better than any veteran [Soldier] below Level 30!”

“Yes…but by virtue of an aggressive offense that makes use of his reach and strength.”

The Empress of Beasts stared at Ksmvr as Rémi Canada, yawning, leaned against Sandi. Spitty trotted over, saw Rémi making moves, and spat all over the [Journalist]’s arm.

“They based his attacks and patterns on my fighting, and Armsmaster Dellic’s, Ksmvr. Neither of us take an axe as our primary weapon, but we are quite good with them.”

Nsiia put her hands on her hips, looking dangerously peeved. Ksmvr nodded.

“Yet Domehead would still lose to any [Blademaster]. Or even a suitably skilled [Swordsman].”

Really. Then show me how Domehead should be attacking.”

“I do not know how to use an axe properly. I am only pointing out—do not hit me. I have Yinah. Do not hit—”

He was running away from Nsiia, Yinah raised as a shield, when someone blew a long, warbling horn. Nsiia lowered her practice sword. Domehead lifted his axe, turning, and Rémi spun. Spitty spat and hit him on the face this time, but the [Journalist], Ksmvr, Nsiia, and Domehead were all turning.

“Already?”

Nsiia whispered. Ksmvr saw her drop the practice sword, then raise a hand. He looked across the wide steppes, across the dry grass, and saw, in the distance, a small, dark outline amid the grass.

Only one figure. From there came the horn. Then—another call. Then another. Yet Ksmvr was confused, because he saw only one figure.

A man on horseback, although that was only a guess based on the way Nsiia began to run forwards, arm raised. He was riding hard, straight towards her, yet now, as Ksmvr ran forwards too, and hopped on Spitty’s back, he saw no horn in hand.

“Nsiia. This may be a trick. Domehead, do not follow her. Prepare for ambush.”

Nsiia didn’t turn. She was racing forwards, and that lone figure just rode at her. Rémi didn’t mount up. He swept his eyes towards Ksmvr, saw the Antinium halt, warily, and just recorded the moment.

They were so far away that even as both figures ran, Nsiia on foot, the man on horseback, it was minutes before they met. That dot of a figure never changed, even as it slowly grew, revealing the flash of armor, twinned shortswords, a bow, and patterned clothing, worn from battle. Ksmvr couldn’t make out the face yet, but he heard more hunting horns blowing.

Yet only one man rode forwards. Ksmvr heard other sounds now. Whoops. Wild shouting. Voices shouting someone’s name.

Nsiia. No—they didn’t call her that.

“—press! Empress of—!”

It sounded like thousands. But where…?

At last, Ksmvr figured it out. In Rémi’s camera, the truth was revealed as well. The stalks of short, yellowed grass in the Kilalle Steppes were flattening, moving behind the single rider in a huge pattern. As if something was pushing it down. Like a wave, with him at the fore.

It was a hypnotic sight. Only as General Vasraf of Tiqr finally came within the last thousand paces of Nsiia did his Skill finally lift and reveal who was making all that noise.

Like they suddenly had appeared out of an invisible mist, an army materialized behind the [General], riding horses, camels, racing along with war-dogs, even strange, canine-feline animals that Ksmvr knew were Tiqr’s hyenas. He saw one group of [Riders] screaming Nsiia’s name riding a mix of strange animals, from an impossibly dark Nightmare, to a striped horse.

There were two Grand Elephants, who began trumpeting, carrying a small host on their backs, armed with bows. But all of them were running at Nsiia, who howled as she raised her arm. Vasraf was the first to meet Nsiia, leaping from his horse, yet it was the stallion who stopped first and, without prompting, knelt.

Vasraf halted on the ground, the [General] looking weary, haggard from months of guerilla warfare. It seemed like part of that wounded exhaustion fled as he looked at Nsiia, then began to sink to one knee.

“Vasraf.”

She caught his arm and held him. The Empress of Beasts looked past him, at the army that swirled around her, cheering, shouting, reaching for her, then falling silent. She looked at him, and then embraced him.

“You kept faith.”

“How could I not?”

Ksmvr, Rémi, and Domehead all watched as Nsiia turned, tears in her eyes. She raised her hand, and the soldiers and civilians, Tiqr’s last army, looked at her.

She made no speeches, as if this was the right place to suddenly orate with a speaking Skill. She had no famous quote, probably rehearsed, to say now. All Nsiia did was raise her hand into the air and shout one word.

“Tiqr!”

The army looked at her, and then they and whatever audience watching was there, back in time when Nsiia had walked out of the gates of her city. The Empress of Beasts waited a heartbeat, then thrust her hand into the air, higher.

Tiqr!

This time, Vasraf shouted the word with her, and many people around her. Once more, Nsiia threw up her arm, and this time, animals howled and brayed and everyone shouted it, so loudly even the Kilalle Steppes heard it.

“TIQR!”

That was how Nsiia Oliphant returned to her people. The Empress of Beasts, freed from her captivity, reunited with her army and greatest [General], on a mission to free her nation and people or die trying.

Ksmvr had completely forgotten that was who she was. She was just Nsiia, to him. Who got mad, laughed, and rode about like another adventurer or a simple warrior.

Ah, but that was because he hadn’t seen her in the context of who she was. Her class. An [Empress] needed a people, or it was just a name.

She returned to Ksmvr, Rémi, and Domehead as that person, head held high, changed in a moment. As if, Ksmvr thought, someone had suddenly thrown something around her shoulders. A heavy weight. Not simply a burden, because it added something to her.

“I believe it is customary to kneel in front of royalty. Or at this moment.”

He murmured to Rémi. Ksmvr knelt as General Vasraf and the [Soldiers] followed Nsiia. Ksmvr saw Domehead hesitate, then kneel. Rémi copied him.

The Antinium tugged on Spitty’s reins, expecting him to kneel. Even Sandi knelt, like the horses. Spitty took one look at the procession of the Empress of Beasts, turned his head, and spat on Ksmvr’s head.

Mweh.

Sandi made a sound as Ksmvr stared up at Spitty and his archrival smugly bared his teeth. How could a camel look smug? Very easily.

Nsiia laughed as she saw the sight. She strode forwards, and tugged at Domehead to bring the Golem up. Then she turned.

“You do not have to kneel to me, friends. You never did, and I consider you equals. Rise, and let me introduce you to my people. Vasraf, here are the people who accompanied me out of Illivere. Yinah, a brave little cat. Domehead, whose fate is linked to mine and to whom I owe the burden of raising, and teaching. My brave mare, Chance. Rémi Canada, who takes images of everything to show the world. Sandi, and this one is Spitty, a finer spirit you will never meet.”

Her eyes twinkled as she indicated the camel. Vasraf stayed out of range as the camel straightened himself with obvious pride.

“That much is clear, Your Majesty.”

But his eyes were on Ksmvr. Nsiia turned to him, and again, the Antinium felt every gaze lock onto him. Tiqr’s people were curious, wary, but not hostile. Nsiia spoke for everyone’s benefit.

This is Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. Ksmvr of the Free Antinium! The very same one who broke the chains placed on me. Bearer of a sword from aeons past, a [Paladin]’s blade! A Gold-rank adventurer who escaped death a continent away and appeared before me, by great fate and magic! If there is ever a sign for hope, for victory, he is surely it. I have returned, and together, we shall liberate Tiqr or fall in such a blaze that our enemies shall remember their wounds until the day they die!”

A cheer rose up from the soldiers as Ksmvr waved an urgent hand.

“I did not liberate Nsiia, in fact. That is an objectionable interpretation of events. I did not agree to liberate Tiqr—hello—I am not declaring a side in—”

His voice was lost in the roar from around him. Ksmvr waved his arms frantically, and Rémi’s little box caught it all. The [Journalist] waited until Ksmvr was hurrying after Vasraf to clarify, Nsiia was taking the arms and hands of her people, talking, and the army was making camp. He shot nearly an hour of footage, then calmly pulled the memory crystal out of his artifact.

“Time to find another Runner.”

This was a recording alright. And yet—Rémi’s eyes glittered as he watched Ksmvr, Nsiia with her army, and the rest. This was enough to be topical, fascinating. Yet the real story he had come for—ah. It was finally time to record that.

 

——

 

Things moved fast the moment Nsiia reclaimed her army. She did not immediately assume command of military operations. In fact, she left that to Vasraf, who had the forces he’d cloaked in one of his Skills already striking camp with long practice.

“We’ll be hidden fairly well from pursuit, although if they know exactly where you are, Your Majesty, we may need to ambush them before they reach us. Thankfully, I obtained this Skill. From afar, they will see only me. Closer, and it falls away.”

“A thousand paces is far too close for any sane [General]’s comfort. No wonder they never caught you!”

Nsiia was inspecting the numbers of Tiqr’s people, the state of their armor and weapons. It did not visibly dismay her, but she did take a long breath.

“You took most of our forces. Even swelled their numbers.”

“We took on Tiqr’s citizens. I hit prisoner trains, caravans of slaves—but I didn’t dare strike at any in Roshal’s grip. They might have retaliated.”

Vasraf shook his head. He gestured at the army.

“We have supplies—we’ve raided outposts, and we survive on gifts of food, and trade with the Garuda clans. You see veterans of combat. But even so.”

“…The coalition broke Tiqr’s full might. Yes, I know. Yet this is more than I had alone. We will create a victory out of it, Vasraf. I have an idea as to how. But you will tell me everything, and I will listen. Domehead? Where is he, and Ksmvr?”

She turned and saw the two, behind the officers and other [Soldiers], apart from the rest. Vasraf eyed Rémi Canada. He nodded at the [Journalist].

“I know his name. What is his role in this? Another way to broadcast our battles? We have seen you on the scrying orb, Your Majesty. Are we to call this…Golem and the adventurer your closest aides, Empress? You hoped to have a force of Golems…”

“In vain. I could not sway Femithain. Domehead followed me. Ksmvr freed me, as I said, and I trust both without reservation. As for the [Journalist]—be careful what he sees. His box records all.”

Nsiia grimaced. Vasraf nodded warily. Rémi scrambled forwards as Nsiia beckoned to the other two.

“Your Majesty, I would like permission to record—”

“No. I am going to speak with Vasraf. Domehead and Ksmvr may join me, but you will not record that.”

“If I could make a case—”

“No. Record the camp. Vasraf?”

Rémi didn’t put up much of an argument as Nsiia pointed, and the war tent already being set up opened for her. Ksmvr thought the young man had expected not to be allowed to film an actual strategy meeting.

It surprised Ksmvr that he was allowed in the tent. Even the other officers held back, and the fact that Domehead accompanied Nsiia surprised Vasraf more than Ksmvr. Yet he didn’t mince words.

“Your arrival gives me hope, Empress. It truly does. I had begun to despair, and our army could not endure without you. We would be in dire straits by winter. And yet—have you a plan?”

“I do. I did not lie, Vasraf. I admit, I was not prepared for Illivere. Many of the things I tried to do—learn the art of Golem-making, find allies to deliver you supplies, arms, fighters like Golems—were a fool’s dream. Of course they were, for I was desperate and in captivity with no real chance of escape. Now? I did not know if my people would embrace me.”

Vasraf shook his head. He was actually slightly shorter than Nsiia, but a helmet with a red plume, and his boots, made him seem taller. Ksmvr thought he must be a good [General] given his Skills, and he held himself like a warrior. Even so, it seemed that if it came to battle, he would reach for the bow on his back, rather than the two less-impressive shortswords.

The bow looked like a piece of bone. And since it was bone, Ksmvr wondered if it was Grand Elephant bone. Clearly enchanted. He respected a [General] smart enough not to endanger his life directly.

More than that, Vasraf was noticeable in how he and Nsiia played off each other. He was a [Wild General], but his deep voice, his short-cut beard, and the way his features always seemed so watchful, piercing blue eyes in brown skin, made him the opposite of Nsiia.

Where she became angry, he became watchful. But not simply watchful…if Nsiia attacked like her moniker, the Empress of Beasts, he was a stalking hunter in the grass. A different kind of predator.

“Your stallion knelt to me, Vasraf. Herothe. He was born of Tiqr’s soil. He saw me declare the [Wild Riot]. All the blood shed by Tiqr’s children of fang and paw and wing…and yet he knelt. They still call me their leader, and I must answer, don’t you see? The animals of Tiqr could take away my class, but they wait and give me a final chance. Tiqr still breathes. It knows me.”

Vasraf nodded, eyes fixed on Nsiia as she clenched her hands, staring down at a simple map laid on a worn wooden table.

“This is so, Your Majesty. Yet the Grand Elephants have left Tiqr. I present to you an army, a fighting force. Yet we are a fraction of our strength. A beaten army, Your Majesty. We can harry the forces holding Tiqr, but we cannot take on Nerrhavia’s hordes, or even Savere’s bandits. And every nation will send forces after you.”

Nsiia nodded. Now, they walked around the war map, and she spoke, pointing down at it. Vasraf had a new map and Ksmvr saw Tiqr, the same place geologically, but demarcated into zones. Each nation held an area of land, and Nerrhavia and Savere held the lion’s share, to the east and south respectively. For Savere, it was just an addition to their landmass. For Nerrhavia, it was an outpost. Vasraf had marked different garrisons, the last known points of armies…Nsiia shook her head.

“I will not hide and wait a lifetime to see Tiqr restored, Vasraf. Yes, I am aware this army is not capable of fighting a massive force. But I have listened, as Femithain’s guest. Even without you, no nation finds holding Tiqr that easy, is that so?”

Vasraf smiled grimly.

“With a populace like ours? No. Animals and people, we do not take new chains and collars well. Many have been made slaves, but many more know this land. Will the kingdoms bring in their people to work our land? It has not been pleasant.”

“Exactly. As to their armies—some will come to pursue me, but the forces in Tiqr are not as mighty as the ones that conquered it. We face garrisons. And they are not as keen to hold onto Tiqr, I think. Savere? Yes. But Nerrhavia is distracted with Reim.”

Vasraf was nodding and they spoke quickly; both saw the same thing. If anything, the explanation was just to make sure they were on the same page, and perhaps for Ksmvr and Domehead’s benefit. Ksmvr saw the Golem’s head shining brightly.

“You mean to sue for peace if we deal them a blow. Defeat some nations, force Nerrhavia’s peace if possible.”

“It is the only way. You disagree?”

“Not at all, Your Majesty. But I say to you: if we take the field against Savere alone, with the Siren of Savere versus you, I, and our army—we will lose.”

Nsiia exhaled.

“Yes. I am no fool, Vasraf. Your struggle becomes mine. To win this battle for Tiqr’s freedom, we must liberate our people, turn many into warriors, reclaim lands so we are not scavenging or begging for food. We require an army, supplies; we must seize them from victories, level by combat. We have a foundation here, but to live? That…will require allies.”

Ksmvr’s broken antennae waved. Ooh. This was fascinating, because he understood something of war, and he knew Tiqr’s history. Vasraf leaned on the table.

“Allies Tiqr lacked to begin with. We called on every hand, and no one came. Perhaps some might, if they thought they had aught to gain, but who would come that failed to aid us last time?”

Slowly, his head moved, and he looked towards Ksmvr. Vasraf’s eyes flickered, and he looked at Nsiia. With a start—Ksmvr realized what Vasraf had been thinking, perhaps from the moment they’d met. Nsiia glanced at Ksmvr, and the Antinium had to speak.

“I must regretfully inform you that I am not a representative of the Hives, General Vasraf. Nor am I willing to declare myself for Empress Nsiia’s bid. She informed you incorrectly.”

He nodded slowly.

“That is understood, Adventurer…Ksmvr. Your Majesty?”

He glanced at her. She smiled thinly.

“No, Vasraf. Not him. I hope Ksmvr will help us, if only because he does have a relic worthy of inspiring, and he is a doughty warrior. But I do not intend to invite the Black Tide to Chandrar.”

He exhaled, slowly.

“…It had crossed my mind.”

“They would not come. Not for me.”

Ksmvr spoke, and both Humans looked at him. Vasraf nodded slowly. Nsiia stared at Ksmvr.

“You must tell me the whole of it, sometime, Ksmvr. No, Vasraf. The Black Tide would mean war on all fronts, it would take too long, and the Antinium—the Queens at least—are not allies I would trust. Rather, for forces willing to take Tiqr back, I know where they are to be had.”

“Really.”

Vasraf was openly skeptical. Hopeful, but he folded his arms and waited. Nsiia smiled, and her eyes twinkled. Vasraf refused to ask her the obvious. He seemed used to this, so she came out with it.

“The King of Destruction has them.”

The [Wild General]’s eyebrows shot into his helmet. Ksmvr started.

“You want his allies? When the coalition made war on us because we might ally with Reim?”

“Yet we did not! And Flos, damn him, refused to intervene because of his peace. In fact, he fights to the north, surrounded, and everyone is trying to stop him from growing, because his allies lie scattered across Chandrar. Only a handful went to his aid because they wait for the King of Destruction to roar. Some are, like Tiqr, held down under boot. Some will not move for fear of being the next Tiqr. But they exist.

Nsiia spun around to the map and pointed.

“You know it. I know it. There exists one clan in the Kilalle Steppes—many clans flew for the King of Destruction. One went to him and was feared above all else. And look—here. In our foe’s lands, the Empire of Scaied?”

The empire of scorpions and mercenaries? Ksmvr looked at a dot that was on the map, though it was no city or fort. Vasraf muttered.

“The [Monks] of Sottheim. I heard Scaied watches them like hawks. They would not have left their monastery lightly anyways, not if they feared reprisals.”

“Hah. Fear and Sottheim. You jest, Vasraf. They were simply aware of the journey and odds. But if we freed them…”

“It will be as if we are coming to the King of Destruction’s aid.”

Nsiia scowled. She stabbed the map.

“He refused to aid us. I will not declare for him. This is for Tiqr alone, and I say we do what can be done. Which is to attack other nations and reclaim these warriors for Tiqr!”

“Sottheim would be thousands of [Monks]. If they joined us. No nation would welcome fighting them. Only Pomle—and they would call that a worthy foe. And if we attacked or convinced another ally…”

Vasraf flicked his eyes across the map. Nsiia waited, and turned to him.

“This is all I have to offer, Vasraf. What do you say? If you tell me, as my [General], it is impossible, we will talk about hiding, building, and biding our time. Then—I will repay what debt I can, and bury hope for a while.”

She flicked her eyes to Ksmvr and he started. Then she turned to Vasraf.

“But if there is a chance, now? It lies in your hands, Vasraf. Can it be done?

The [General] stood there, looking at the map. He looked up at Nsiia, and then at Ksmvr, Domehead. He rested his weight on the table for only a moment. Then he nodded.

“I say it can.”

Nsiia’s eyes gleamed bright and she clasped arms. So it began. Ksmvr stared at the map.

…He wondered if he should go now.

 

——

 

Nsiia convinced Ksmvr to stay for a few reasons. Firstly, she owed him, and an army to free Pisces and Yvlon and find Ceria was an attractive thing. Second?

“Scaied is still west, Ksmvr. So if you go with us, you benefit from Vasraf’s and my Skills to speed your journey. Lastly, you are still being hunted for freeing me and for being Antinium. For all these reasons, you must stay.”

He didn’t like it, but he agreed it was better. Better to have Yinah to pet, Nsiia’s army, and company, rather than just Spitty.

Chronologically, this was the moment captured on the third of Rémi Canada’s crystals. Third in the documentary, although, again, no one in Vasraf’s army used scrying orbs except to check news as it pertained to a chase. They were already having trouble fighting off scrying spells and television was not a luxury they could afford.

Rémi’s documentary captured Ksmvr, Domehead, and Nsiia fitting into the army. The [Journalist] saw the Empress of Beasts at her most charismatic. She sought out warriors, remembering some, stopping by groups to thank them, inspire them. She was a warrior-queen, and animals and people flocked to her.

He wasn’t interested in that. Oh, he recorded it, but the young man had the feeling it was the kind of puff piece you could do on any ruler. It mattered more because Nsiia was fighting for her homeland, but showing her at her best, the heroine of a tale of independence, was still not what he was after.

It was important. Privately, Rémi supported Nsiia’s bid, but he also bore in mind how bloody any war of freedom was going to be. He was interested in the wary way Tiqr’s warriors watched Domehead—because they had lost many friends to the Golems—but they almost respected Domehead for throwing over all of Illivere to follow Nsiia, his mother.

That was a story for his world. Artificial intelligence, ethics, morality, learning at play. But not this one. Rémi was fascinated by it and watched Domehead privately, but he and his camera were here for one person.

Ksmvr. He had not lied to Nsiia. If Ksmvr went, Rémi went. If the other Horns of Hammerad popped up, each with a grand story to tell, Rémi would still stay right here, rather than chasing after them. He wanted to film Ksmvr. Because the Antinium was Antinium, and like ‘Goblins’, he was only a monster, a nightmare from Rhir.

That he was not was obvious. Rémi wanted to show that to everyone. He had deliberately chosen a side—and that was Ksmvr’s, and he was searching for a moment to bring it out to people, capture the world’s imagination.

The problem was—it was hard.

Oh, the first two documentaries had attracted some attention. Rémi had an audience, Chandrarians—and a surprising number of non-Chandrarian— viewers who were intrigued by this window into the continent. However, it wasn’t ‘soccer-famous’. It wasn’t ‘King of Destruction’ viral.

It frustrated Rémi, and he could keep a tab on what was going on. His small news team had a feed to him that he was sure no one could trace and his [Message] scroll gave him a few updates.

[Confidential Sources]. If Wistram could tap into that, he’d answer for it, but he had to believe in his Skill.

“The problem is…”

Rémi watched Ksmvr as the Antinium warrior sat with Vasraf around a fire on their first night of journeying together. The [General] was sitting with some veterans, getting a feel for Ksmvr. Not as warily as they might have been, but swapping stories, asking Ksmvr about the Village of the Dead raid. The problem was…

Ksmvr was sort of boring.

 

——

 

The Blighted Kingdom, Walled Cities, and other interested parties were among those who watched Ksmvr and the documentaries by Rémi Canada. Yes, some watched because Ksmvr was Antinium. Some watched because Nsiia, Domehead, or just Chandrar was fascinating, because they were growing addicted to television, and so on.

But some watched because that was the enemy, right there. Some watched because they did not want Antinium cast in any light besides [Incinerating Radiance], and they could see what Rémi was up to.

The Blighted Kingdom had an entire group dedicated to this unhappy phenomenon taking place. They were glad to see Ksmvr was being boring.

Yes, because aside from some interesting comments, petting Yinah, and being a bit silly, he did do the alien invader quite well. He spoke of the Hives and you felt your skin crawl. It was fine if he was a bit personable.

…Well, fine as fine could be, given that Wistram had refused to take the documentary off the Wistram News Network. The Blighted Kingdom had made a request, and the Archmages and Council should have normally obliged, given their mutual foe.

However, it seemed Wistram’s new leader had overruled the request. Grand Magus Eldavin had replied, quite bluntly to their [Diplomat], that censoring the series when Drassi and other networks were broadcasting it sounded like an incredibly stupid idea, and thus not one he would ever endorse.

Still, Ksmvr was doing his enemies’ jobs for them, by and large. He was reserved, and you could call that professional, or whatever you wanted, but he was fading into the background in the Nsiia-Tiqr independence documentary.

Or maybe the Chandrarian documentary? Because that’s what the third memory crystal was showing. Ksmvr sat around with Vasraf. He had just, impartially, recounted the events of the City of the Dead, without giving away too many details.

“…understand that it is a matter for my team to reveal.”

Vasraf nodded, almost as formal. He looked around as some of the warriors looked ready to object, and they went silent.

“This is fair. That you freed Her Majesty is deed enough. You come to Chandrar, and I wish I could show you the best of it, friend Ksmvr.”

Yinah hopped into Ksmvr’s lap and he began to pet her, which didn’t make the Blighted Kingdom’s analysts happy. Cats were beloved in most parts of the world, and Ksmvr holding one didn’t help. But it was only a cat.

“I wonder if you would tell another story, Ksmvr? Perhaps about your earlier adventuring career?”

Rémi Canada himself tried. But Ksmvr calmly, and instantly, deflected.

“I would prefer not to take over the conversation. I am quite interested by General Vasraf. Would you share some stories, [General]? I have shared as much as I feel enabled to of the raid on the Village of the Dead. It is a custom in Tiqr to swap stories thusly, is it not?”

Vasraf gave his warriors an amused look and they chuckled. Rémi ground his teeth. Ksmvr was too good at being…diplomatic. Vasraf sat back.

“Ah. You speak eloquently, Ksmvr. And it is true; we are ingracious hosts. By rights, I should have led. But I have few tales of such daring, for I was not an adventurer. It also does not feel right to boast of great things. Not here. Not now.”

He looked around the camp and the warriors of Tiqr sombered. A hyena, resting by the fire, raised his head and nodded.

Too intriguing. Too interesting. Ksmvr was overshadowed by…Chandrar itself. As the night fell in that incredibly dark sky, before the vividness of the stars, on that hauntingly isolating view of the steppes, stretching into nowhere? Vasraf looked around and spoke.

“Ah, here’s a dark story for this day. Perhaps one that might help. We march to Sottheim—among other places. Scaied. Our enemies with stinger and venom. Take none lightly. Chandrar has many ruins. Many old powers. I will tell you a tale all who visit Chandrar and this region should know. Especially an adventurer who goes far.”

He nodded at Ksmvr and the Antinium nodded back. Vasraf looked around; in the distance, some people were cheering Nsiia, but here, the warriors sat around a bright fire, resting. Animals wandered around, and Domehead himself was sitting, dome glowing with a light of his own as firelight played off the reflection of the crystal and his armor.

“A’ctelios Salash.”

The warriors stirred. One, a woman with only one ear, started.

“Wild General…?”

“Do you say it is a bad thing to tell Ksmvr?”

She hesitated. Some of the other warriors had tensed. One grabbed the hyena and hugged him. After a second, the woman shook her head.

“No, General. It is the story to tell.”

“I have heard that name. One of the Shield Kingdoms of Chandrar, is it not?”

Vasraf smiled thinly.

“You are right, Ksmvr. And it will defend Chandrar if a great foe comes. But I do not think we celebrate it like Ger or other Shield Kingdoms. Listen and know: there is one rule all travellers to A’ctelios Salash must remember. To eat the meat they offer freely is a choice. One that can never be taken back. Never make it lightly. But—here is my story. I do not say never eat of it. For I have been to A’ctelios Salash.”

Even the other warriors were surprised. Vasraf closed his eyes. Of all things, an owl flew down to perch on his shoulder. Not one from the camp. Just a wild owl. He offered it some meat as he began to speak, his features far away.

“It was when I was a young [Fighter]. We went on raids against the enemy—in this case, [Bandits] who struck many nations. We pursued them north, along Zeikhal. A war party—not a poor one, but too zealous, without proper leadership. We ran out of supplies, like the amateurs we were. Inexperienced—we thought we could hunt and forage, even in Zeikhal, during the spring. We were fools.”

He shook his head, and Ksmvr nodded along, sympathetic. Vasraf went on.

“That was when, hungry, starving, we realized we had journeyed close enough to A’ctelios Salash. Have you ever seen the Carven City?”

He turned and only one warrior nodded. Vasraf shook his head.

“Then I must describe it. I don’t know how to say it. I saw…a face buried in the sand. Like some great statue. But then I realized, it was no being I could ever name. Not animal. Not beast. Not even monster. And it was no statue. That is what they carved out of it. They lived in its head. Each eye was an entrance and they lived within.”

His audience shuddered. Vasraf went on, holding out a hand.

“Understand me. A’ctelios Salash is not evil. At least, they were not. We came to them starving, desperate, and they gave us water for free, directions. And they offered us food.”

“Meat.”

Someone whispered. Vasraf nodded. He held up a finger.

“Just so. But they did not trick us. They told us what all travellers must know. It is a choice. They urged us to try it, and seemed to think it would be a great favor. I…I do not wish to describe what it looked like. It was not normal meat, and it came in a huge chunk that never rotted. It did not smell quite normal. And yet?”

He gulped.

“I have never been hungrier in my life. Not just because I starved. Some days I can still smell it.”

The owl fluttered off and Vasraf looked about.

“A choice. What would you have done? I had starved for six days straight on the last of our rations. Here was food in plenty.”

“You did not eat it, though.”

Ksmvr was sure of that. Vasraf cast a glance his way and smiled.

“…Nearly. I knew what it did, but I did not mind. It is not a curse; and the people offered the choice freely. They were friendly, and hospitable. I might have taken that first bite. But for Algr. We had a warhound with us. One of the hunting dogs, a more loyal or fierce friend you’d never find. Algr we called her. She was starving to death but she sniffed that meat and refused to eat, even with some in my hand.”

As one, the people around the campfire turned to the hyena lying there. The animal looked up, and there was such a knowing look in its eyes, shining by moonlight and firelight, that Ksmvr felt something tingle in his body himself. Vasraf nodded.

“I didn’t eat. There was other food to be bartered for, though we had to trade dearly for it. Half the warriors ate. Then we set out to find the bandits. To make a story short, and because it was not glorious, we won. We tracked them down. Beat them.”

He shrugged, letting that part escape as if it had not mattered. Vasraf looked around, motioned. Someone offered him a pipe they’d been passing around. Ksmvr saw him blow some smoke quietly over the fire.

“What happened to the warriors who ate the meat, General? How did you win when half your company had eaten it?”

Vasraf started. The [Wild General] looked up and smiled a second.

“They came with us, of course.”

He paused. His face clouded.

“They fought with us, and we won a great battle against the raider-tribes. Then…they went to their home. To the Carven City, and I never saw them again.”

Now the silence was all-consuming. Ksmvr looked around. At the faces of the somber warriors. At Vasraf. He noticed something, then, and hesitated, but Vasraf was finishing the story.

“This is why I will not besmirch A’ctelios Salash, you see? Only tell this story. Yes, the warriors ate meat. But it was a choice. It was a fair trade. They had strength and endurance given by their food, which never spoiled, and their wounds closed quickly, even without potions; they bled less. I thought them the same men and women I had known.”

He passed the smoking pipe, took a swig of water. Stopped. Stared into the fire for a long time.

“Up until it came time to part ways…then I saw a hunger there. They could not have returned to Tiqr, even if they had the heart for the long journey.”

It was a fine tale. A tale of Chandrar, spooky, mysterious, but as Vasraf delivered it, not evil. For an audience, it was fascinating—more fascinating than Ksmvr.

But there was something they did not see, that Ksmvr did. As the Antinium sat around the fire, he saw something that the people watching the third recording would not. Could not, except maybe in the small vibrations.

Rémi Canada, holding the recording box, was shaking. He had the box on the stabilizing arm, but he himself was shaking, his features so contorted that…no one else noticed, sucked in by Vasraf’s tale. But Ksmvr saw Rémi staring at Vasraf—until the [Journalist] saw him looking. Then he turned his head.

But he had not looked like he agreed with Vasraf’s tale at all. Ksmvr did not know why. Because he did not know the story.

It was just a moment, and then Vasraf clapped his hands.

“Argh! I have brought us down too low. The first stories should be ones of daring. Not ones to draw us to silence. I should have saved it for the end.”

He laughed, self-consciously, and it broke the spell. Vasraf looked around and called out.

“Here! Is there no one with music? Let us play some for Ksmvr, a song that makes even hyenas dance!”

He stood up, and someone brought over a variation on a dulcimer, flutes, and drums, and played a merry tune for Ksmvr. The Antinium sat up as he listened, and applauded politely with the others.

“Do Antinium have music, Ksmvr?”

Nsiia was back now, with Domehead, and Yinah leapt from Ksmvr’s arms to Nsiia. She waited for pets and scratches, but the other animals were too close to Nsiia. So Yinah went right back to Ksmvr for full attention, haughtily offended.

The Antinium looked up.

“I know one Antinium who sings. I have never heard music in the Hives.”

“Really? What of dancing? Drinking? What do you do for fun?”

“Nothing. Antinium do not have social activities, Empress Nsiia.”

Just another thing to make Tiqr’s people frown and look at each other and set him apart. Excellent, excellent. The alien thing sat there. Until he added in a distant voice.

“We do like it, though. I had not the opportunity to hear music until I left my Hive. It is a nice thing.”

Nsiia’s head rose. She looked at Ksmvr and Rémi raised his camera suddenly. For the Antinium was suddenly unguarded.

“Really? You love music, but never play it in the Hives?”

“How would we know how, Empress Nsiia?”

“No one picks up an instrument in their spare time?”

Ksmvr looked at her, bewildered.

“Spare time? Instruments? We have no objects in the hive. We have no spare time.”

“Not a second to whistle or…?”

Vasraf leaned forward. Ksmvr looked at him.

“We wake, we sleep, we work. We fight. General Vasraf, I must inform you that many things of culture other species have, Antinium lack. We are a different people than what you understand. We are not a people. I am a former Prognugator, but I bear the body of a Worker. There are Soldiers and…other Antinium types, but we serve our Queen. There is no other need for entertainment.”

In silence, Tiqr’s people looked at him, more alien still. Rémi was waiting, breathless. And then Ksmvr said it. He looked at a flute someone held and his voice betrayed something. A quiver in that steady, perfect diction.

“…But since I am exiled, I am allowed to listen to music. It is…good. I like it. Will you play more?”

Nsiia turned to Vasraf, struck. The [General] sat up and now his eyes looked like a copy of hers, of Rémi’s, of an audience unseen.

Interested. No, beyond interested. Fascinated.

“What music do you like? I will have my people play any song you wish!”

Nsiia spread her arms wide. Ksmvr shook his head, blankly.

“I do not know what music I like. I have liked every music I have ever heard. Eighteen times so far.”

Again, everyone listening turned to each other with that look. What? And yet, he was telling the truth. Into this moment, someone decided to act.

“I…have some music. Not to offend Tiqr of Chandrar’s songs, but I have something that might interest you all. Have you heard of the song crystals from Terandria?”

Rémi Canada spoke. He produced something from his collection, the very impetus for his recording crystals, as Nsiia turned. Some warriors knew what he meant, and Nsiia herself clapped her hands and laughed.

“You have a song crystal? Why didn’t you share it earlier, Canada?”

“I thought it would be too noisy while we were trying to avoid attention…I have a few, actually. From the Singer of Terandria. Have you listened to them, Ksmvr?”

He shook his head. The Antinium stared as Rémi tossed one to Vasraf, who read the inscription.

“I have not. My team has not purchased any.”

“You could buy them yourself. Don’t you get paid?”

Ksmvr nodded.

“But that would be a misuse of my funds, when I could put them to better use for my team. But I will listen if you play a song. Is it good music?”

“There is only one way to find out! This one! Play this one, Vasraf. It says it is merry. I am not in the mood for sad, or ‘rock’, whatever that may be. This is a joyous moment, so play merry! Play laughter! Play for Ksmvr, who does not know music!”

Nsiia demanded, and the people cheered. Ksmvr was about to tell them he knew music—he had listened to it eighteen times—when the song crystal activated, and Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria, brought a song straight out of Rémi’s world and into this one.

Rémi’s camera caught it all. Ksmvr’s head snapped up. A female voice began singing as a fast drum beat began to play. A catchy, modern song benefitting from Earth’s range of instruments.

Nsiia blinked—then clapped her hands and laughed with delight. Some of the warriors shook their heads, but most were fascinated. Vasraf himself scrutinized the crystal he was holding, but most people enjoyed the music.

Even the animals. It was a new kind of music, and Tiqr’s people, regardless of individual taste, could appreciate something new. Same with animals.

Of course, music was not new to any audience. This song was probably well-known, especially to a Terandrian audience or a city with access to song crystals. But that wasn’t the moment.

The moment came spontaneously, and inevitably. For, unlike what Ksmvr expected, the audience here wasn’t content to just listen along appreciatively to the nuance and tone of the music, analyze the lyrics, and give a round of polite applause or their considered feelings on the piece as a whole or individual elements.

That was boring. This song was not boring. He saw the first person begin to tap their foot as it lay stretched out next to the fire. The shaking foot began to translate into head-bobbing. Then the person stood up. And they began to dance.

It was a warrior’s dance, accompanied by laughter and clapping as they tried to sync it up to the sound. But they were hardly the only person to spontaneously begin to dance. One of the Grand Elephants began to slowly stomp to the beat, or tried to keep up since it was fast, and waved its trunk back and forth.

And that was how the animals did it. More people began to dance, together—although this was not really a couple’s song—just an expression of wanting to move your body to fun music.

Nsiia didn’t. She just looked around, taking it in. Vasraf didn’t either, because he was a [General]. Also, because he didn’t actually like dancing.

Wonderful. Fun. Still, not amazingly new, but it was certainly authentic and captured on Rémi’s camera. He panned it right and left, taking it in as the song began to play. Then Nsiia pointed and laughed.

Yinah! You?”

The little cat had been bobbing her head left and right. Now, she began to happily roll right and left, in such a silly way that Vasraf took one look at her and began chuckling. So did a lot of Tiqr’s warriors, who stopped to watch. The cat seemed content to just keep doing that as the song played.

“Repeat the music! Have her do it again!”

The song was ending, but Nsiia badgered Vasraf into repeating it. And sure enough—the instant the music replayed, Yinah began doing her musical roll.

Cat videos were a powerful force in any world. Rémi rolled his eyes, wondering what he had just unleashed. But he gamely recorded the cat rolling back and forth in front of Ksmvr. At least he’d have another claim to fame. He saw something happen then.

Ksmvr stood up. He looked at Yinah, the people who were dancing. And then he began to dance too.

Somewhere, when this documentary was being aired live, a Blighted Kingdom [Strategist] performed the old Winebreath Blaster with commendable spray. Everyone stared. It was unimaginable! Literally—they could not imagine this. But there it was, live.

The Antinium didn’t really have the joint-flexibility of Humans, Garuda, or Stitchfolk. Like animals, he was hampered by his very body; for instance, his back shell didn’t bend like a spine.

So he couldn’t perform half the moves. But he had stood up, and, knees bent, was bobbing to the tune of the beat, all three of his arms stuck out. He was waving them up and down, arms straight, like he was banging on some imaginary drums, shaking his body to the beat. Every few seconds he alternated sides.

He was, in fact, performing a simple dance move that Rémi Canada recognized as the…no…wait. It was so simple Rémi wasn’t sure if it was a dance move. But it was hypnotic, because that was literally the only thing Ksmvr did.

No footwork, no movement. He just stood in front of Yinah as the cat rolled back and forth, doing what Rémi could only describe as an Antinium boogie, completely unprompted. The monster mash, that was what it was! A dance move so old and so…and Ksmvr was doing it happily, mandibles raised.

Completely unself-conscious because he was dancing. It never occurred to Ksmvr people might think it was silly.

Which it was. Tiqr’s army and Nsiia stared at Ksmvr for a long moment. Then Nsiia started laughing. Ksmvr didn’t notice, nor did he stop; he was caught up in the song. And Yinah didn’t care; she was just rolling back and forth.

He’s dancing! Do you see that?

Someone exclaimed. But then they were cheering Ksmvr on. Rémi double-checked he had the camera rolling. This…this was it.

He knew it in his marrow. But Rémi couldn’t have predicted what came next. Because, like a steel chair from the corner, a literal steel being rose.

Domehead. Nsiia saw the Golem flash its head-dome with a multitude of lights. It looked at Ksmvr. At Yinah, rolling back and forth. And then, behind Ksmvr, it copied the Antinium. Move for move, although Domehead only had two arms to wave.

Ksmvr turned his head and saw the Golem dancing. He almost stopped, but then Nsiia leapt forwards. She had seen Domehead, gasped, and leapt towards them with peal of laughter.

“Don’t stop dancing! Vasraf, come on and join us!”

“No.”

Vasraf, this is an order!

The [Wild General] refused. So Nsiia leapt forwards and all three of them were doing it. Yinah rolled back and forth in front of Ksmvr, Domehead, and Nsiia doing the silly dance as an entire army laughed—and began to copy them.

The stupidest dance in the world. Well, that was harsh, but it was so silly. Yet the genius was that Ksmvr and Domehead didn’t do it self-consciously. They did it completely seriously, with no sense of embarrassment or irony that ruined it to watch. In fact, their enthusiasm was contagious. Add in a little cat rolling around…

“This is a disaster! Call Wistram! Have it removed! Now! Those damned Antinium geniuses!”

The Blighted Kingdom was in full panic. The cunning of the Hives. Their twisted genius! Who had known they were this savvy? Because—you took one look at this image. The Antinium doing this dance?

And it was hard to remember that they were the scourge of Rhir, the Black Tide, allies to the Demons. The Walled Cities were experiencing much the same problem. The worst part was you had an [Empress] dancing in the background, a cat, and a Golem doing the same infectious dance. To music.

No worse weapon in the history of memes had yet been unleashed. That was what people saw in the third documentary series.

That was the moment Rémi Canada had been waiting for. It went around the world the moment it was aired. To mixed reactions. Panic from people who saw what it was doing. Amusement. Disbelief. A horrible dance move infesting every bar and club.

Outrage. Outraged. The instant she saw it, Crafter Se, who had personally volunteered to lead the advance force chasing after Domehead, sent a message to Femithain’s main force, moving slower.

Magus-Crafter!

“This is Armsmaster Dellic. You’ve seen it?”

The [Golem Artificer] pointed at the scrying orb, as if he could see it. Domehead—dancing?

“This is an embarrassment to Illivere! Do you see what they’re doing to my—to Domehead? Tell the Magus-Crafter I move to add ‘defacing a national relic’ to the charges to be brought against Ksmvr and the Empress of Beasts! Tell the Magus-Crafter…”

Armsmaster Dellic looked around the main camp. He replied to Crafter Se, cutting off the woman’s shouting.

“I’m afraid the Magus-Crafter is unable to hear you at this moment, Crafter Se. He’s…er…laughing too hard.”

Wh—

Armsmaster Dellic held the speaking stone away from his ear. He looked over. And it was true. The sight of Domehead doing that dance was making the Magus-Crafter laugh so hard…

Or were they tears?

 

——

 

[Dancer Class Obtained!]

[Dancer Level 1!]

[Skill — Feel the Rhythm obtained!]

 

Ksmvr knew he should feel bad about that one. But he didn’t. Everything had changed.

The third documentary crystal went out hot and fresh, less than two days after the last one. Because Rémi Canada had such intense confidence that, short as it was, it was worth watching. Which he was right about, of course.

Everything changed after that night. How could it not? Tiqr’s army woke up and more than one person laughed about the dance over breakfast. With Ksmvr. They were friendly, and he feared he’d lost his dignity.

Nsiia assured him it was the exact opposite.

“Ksmvr, you must ride with us. You are a symbol, and your sword inspires. More than that? You are something to draw the world’s eyes to our cause.”

“I must refuse.”

Rémi Canada was recording over breakfast, having sent for a City Runner, the best he could afford. But like heck he’d miss anything now.

His instincts were good. He had a front-row shot of Ksmvr stopping his munching on breakfast, turning to Nsiia as she leaned over.

“I will free your friends, Ksmvr. My army will join forces. But I am not so stingy as to think that is a suitable reward. For freeing me? For aiding me? Should I reclaim Tiqr’s throne, I will give you a royal class. I shall remove your friend, Pisces’, [Slave] class if I can—though I have not the knowing, just the understanding it can be done. And I shall award you lands and riches. Is that not an adventurer’s dream?”

Ksmvr calmly ate a banana. He replied with a copy of the calm dignity of yesterday, made more outstanding because you had just seen him doing the ‘Antinium dance’ as it would be known.

“Even so, Empress Nsiia. I do not have Captain Ceria’s approval, and I am well aware of the risks.”

Nsiia slapped her knee, impatiently.

“You could help us independent of your team’s decision! Land, Ksmvr! I would make you an [Emir] if you desired! A [Lord], or whatever rank you wish! Is that not a great thing?”

Ksmvr stopped. Then he did something odd with his mandibles. He waited, but Nsiia just frowned.

“What are you doing?”

“I am sneering. I cannot sniff, but you may assume I am now sniffing. Sniff. I must inform you, Empress Nsiia, that I am already de facto a land-owner. I own two trees. You cannot sway me with what I already possess.”

Gold! Rémi dropped his food, focusing with two hands. Vasraf’s mouth was hanging open, mid-bite, and Sandi trotted over, stole one of the precious bananas, a treat, with a mweh of happiness.

Nsiia looked at Ksmvr.

“You own…what?

Nothing would do but for Ksmvr to pull out a scroll and present her with it.

“My contract of ownership and seal. Do not damage it, although I have backups.”

Nsiia stared at the scroll. Vasraf leaned over. Then she turned.

“Someone find me—do I have a—?”

She called for someone, and, after only a minute, the growing crowd of soldiers admitted a woman with a ragged hole for one ear, and a scar along the visible part of her shoulder. She bowed.

“I was an [Emissary] before I laid down the quill and took up a blade in defense of Tiqr, Your Majesty. What may I do for you?”

“Will you…tell me if this is real?”

Nsiia handed her the scroll. The woman took the scroll, read it, and stared at it. She had to find a pair of reading spectacles. She studied the seal, held up the scroll to the light, looked at Ksmvr, and then spoke slowly.

“…I would have to cross-reference it with a guild, as I do not know Izrilian seals, and it has no magical signature. It does not need one…it looks…real. Adventurer Ksmvr…by right of deed, friendship, and valor…hereby granted in perpetuity to descendants and…he owns two trees.”

He owns two trees. Rémi had the entire thing on the crystal, and the City Runner who had come to pick it up was eating another banana, staring. Ksmvr proudly accepted the scroll.

“So you see, I will not be bought by mere lucre or gifts of land.”

Nsiia exchanged a look with Vasraf.

“I…I see that, Ksmvr. Er. Well then. Would you consider throwing your might behind Tiqr if I gave you…a rock?”

Ksmvr scoffed.

“A rock. What good is a rock? Unless it is made of a rare mineral, of course. Do not insult me, Empress Nsiia.”

“How about…fifty rocks? And th—eight trees?”

Ksmvr halted, in the middle of peeling a banana. Spitty came over to do Sandi’s trick and Ksmvr slapped his mouth away from the banana.

“…Eight trees? What kind?”

Nsiia had to find a [Botanist]-equivalent.

“Er, acadias?”

“You have my attention. Perhaps I might consider endorsing…”

Rémi had to send off the crystal by midday. He delayed for another day. And that was when his contact told him the series was blowing up. Of course it was. Ksmvr had gone from being the Gold-rank adventurer, a loner from a hostile race, to becoming Ksmvr, the Dancing Antinium. Ksmvr, Lord of Two Trees!

It had an effect. They found Tiqr’s army the day after that—perhaps they’d already been coming, by the first documentary.

 

——

 

The attack was fast, sudden, and vicious. They came out of the skies, camouflaged, invisible—it was too fast to tell what, or diagnose their exact method of creeping up.

Or rather, flying up. They dove out of the sky with a speed and savagery that befitted [Bandits].

Garuda bandits. [Air Bandits], who slashed down with killing blows. They might have been lightly-armored, but you only needed one arrow between the eyes to kill. Or a spell like [Lightning Bolt].

Or an arrow through the wing, or sword, because it wasn’t Nsiia’s army that was under attack. Rather, it was another Garuda clan.

In fact, it was the same clan that they had met on the way in. The army was marching south and one of their [Scouts] rode up.

“Bandits attacking a clan! It’s two clans in the air! They’re going after the ground!”

Nsiia cursed. Vasraf held up a hand.

“They haven’t seen us?”

“They see you, General. And maybe those two. They must have failed to beat your Skill.”

The [Scout] pointed at Ksmvr and Rémi, the only two members not of Tiqr’s army, who might not benefit from Vasraf’s Skill. Which meant an entire force was in range of this sky-battle and attack on the clan’s ground.

“We must save them. They gave aid to us and alerted you, no less, Vasraf. To arms!”

Nsiia snapped. Vasraf nodded.

“Bows. We’ll only get one shot before they fly. Do we have the Garuda to battle them?”

“Not an entire clan, [General]. Take your moment. Once they see our army, they’ll fly off. It’s a raiding clan; they won’t risk fighting an army.”

One of his Garuda replied. Vasraf nodded.

“Empress?”

With me!

Nsiia stormed towards the fighting Garuda. Skyleader Rekai was fighting off the surprise-attack, but he was outnumbered, and below, Landguide Heka was fighting this raiding clan’s ground-based Garuda.

Either Garuda who had been too injured to fly, or, Ksmvr noted, Humans and Stitchfolk. It made sense; they were trying to steal the supplies on land and nearly had them.

They never saw Nsiia riding towards them until she was nearly on them, and she shot ahead of even Tiqr’s fastest [Riders] on Chance. She leapt from the saddle as one raised a blade to stab a wounded Heka.

Stop!

The Empress of Beasts landed as Ksmvr calmly aimed three crossbows, preparing for his [Aggregate Volley]. Domehead was running along with the other warriors, and Vasraf was signalling for the attack. They saw Nsiia stand there and throw up a hand.

The Garuda [Raiders] leapt back in surprise. The clan warriors on the ground looked up and stopped, hope in their eyes. Because this time, it was an [Empress] who stood there.

She had claimed a small crown, a circlet of gold with a single gem that Vasraf had carried from the capital. She had added to her armor, and wore a complete set, but the proof was simply in her aura, now blazing free. Her eyes.

She threw up a hand, palm up and shouted, her sword angled, held straight out as she stood over Heka.

Enough! There is enough bloodshed here! Enough death! By my blade and kingdom, I will see no more of it! Lay down your arms or I will be your foe!”

One of the Garuda above spotted Nsiia and called an alarm. More swooped down, but they didn’t see Vasraf’s army waiting just out of their range, hidden by the Skill. Nsiia turned, fearlessly, as bows aimed and they jeered down at her.

Then she grabbed a spear she had armed herself with—because she used a spear arguably better than even a sword—and slashed the ground, drawing a line. Spear planted, ready to be plucked and cast, sword held in her other hand, she pointed it at the leader of this group.

“Lay down your arms, raiders, or die. I am the Empress of Beasts and you will not harm this clan.”

Words of a ruler. The [Raider] laughed, without any belief, though he did hesitate.

“If you’re the Empress of Beasts, I want that bounty. Take her alive!”

The other Garuda switched weapons. Nsiia sighed. She held up her sword, and swung it down. From his position, Vasraf calmly aimed his bow.

Loose!

His shot took the head off the Garuda who’d replied to her. The rest of his army armed with bows took their shots at the Garuda attacking the land forces. Only three, [Markswomen], aimed up and dared to fire into the melee.

Ksmvr hit a Garuda with eight bolts and wondered if that was overkill. His volley only hit one target, after all. Domehead pounded forwards as Tiqr’s army revealed itself.

Flee! Flee!

The clan on the attack saw all the Garuda who had flown down die in two swift volleys. Seeing thousands of warriors below, the ones in the air understandably panicked and fled.

Rekai’s warriors didn’t pursue. There was an army in the air, a clan of Garuda, and they loosed arrows and spells as they fled, such that Tiqr’s soldiers kept shields up. Nsiia spat; she knew they couldn’t catch the raiding clan, and she shouted.

“Skyleader Rekai! Take your warriors down!”

He was diving, wounded, with the surviving Garuda, to take shelter in the army’s aegis. Nsiia glared after the retreating raiders, who had lost a lot, but lived to strike again. Hopefully against fewer targets now that they’d lost warriors. Even so…

She was turning to talk to the Skyleader and Groundguide when a flicker caught Ksmvr’s gaze. He looked up, in the middle of having to reload each crossbow he carried, one by one.

“General Vasraf. We may be under harassing fire.”

The [General] had seen it too. He cursed.

Bows up! Prepare for Garuda bombardments! They’re going to hit us from the clouds! Prepare barrier spells!”

The army groaned, going for shields. Indeed, the swarm of hundreds of Garuda [Raiders] were coming this way. They were going to attack, damn them! Safely out of range, unless Tiqr chased them off with spells, their own Garuda, or bow shots.

“We will defeat them, if you can protect our wings.”

Skyleader Rekai croaked. Nsiia frowned. She stared at the Garuda, swooping towards them, faster than they had run.

“No. Vasraf, wait. [Hawk’s Eyes]. Does anyone else see that?”

One of her [Markswomen] nodded. So did a [Scout].

“General, they’re not flying to attack. They’re fleeing a second force in the air.”

Vasraf narrowed his eyes. He nodded, slowly.

“Barely four dozen. They’re in pursuit. What kind of flying force…they’re fast.

He broke off suddenly. The [Raiders] were streaming back the way they’d come. They were feinting left, right, but it seemed single figures were blocking them, herding them towards Tiqr’s army. Like sheepdogs, Ksmvr thought.

Or wolves. But instead of hunting one or two—he saw a distant speck tangle with another for a moment. One began falling, and the other flew away as the [Raiders] resumed their flight.

“What clan is that?”

Nsiia was staring at something. Her eyesight, magnified by her Skill, focused on something only she could see. Then she blinked.

“Wait…”

Skyleader Rekai and Groundguide Heka had both seen the movements too. Garuda eyes were keen, and they looked up. Then—abruptly, Rekai, who had been ready to fight, and who had grinned to see the [Raiders] flee, suddenly went pale. He squawked.

“That’s them. It’s them! The Executioners! It’s them!

He shouted. The Garuda in his clan took one look at the fleeing [Raiders], and Ksmvr saw a panic set into them in an instant. Groundguide Heka sat up.

“Loquea?”

She looked up and screamed. In fear. Ksmvr saw more of the Garuda raiding clan drop out of the sky. One after another, as barely sixty figures pursued them. Now, they were getting closer and the aerial pursuit let him see something.

Blood. Showers of blood, as [Raiders] died. A flash, as one of the larger shapes dove. A scream. Not like other Garuda screamed. What was happening?

They passed closer still. Now, Ksmvr saw them. Garuda, in their many-plumed feathers, screaming, diving—and it sounded like, pleading—as sixty Garuda followed them.

A…kind of Garuda. But some group that, either by subspecies or nature, was completely different from the rest. They were taller than regular Garuda by far. Tall, long, their beaks curved. But that was not what was most striking. What was most striking was the cloth armor they wore, which matched the feathers on their wings. They dove, and Ksmvr saw the wings open.

Black. A midnight Garuda dove after a screaming [Raider], hurtling towards the ground. A weapon swung down, as the pursuer took aim. The Garuda [Raider] twisted, in an amazing spiralling dive that no regular warrior on the ground or [Archer] had a hope of hitting. The [Raider] dove—straight into her pursuer’s blade.

It was the strangest weapon for use in war. A ridiculous weapon that only a fool would use, or someone who knew only how to use this. It had no place in a fighting line, and it was cumbersome, designed for another purpose. And that was…the [Farmer]’s cutting tool.

A scythe. The fact that the blade cut inwards made it a contradictory weapon. And Ksmvr had never bothered to imagine even wielding one. Except—now he saw it.

In the air. The giant crow-warrior extended the blade in front of the [Raider]. And let the enemy warrior dive into the razor edge. Another warrior of this…Loquea clan performed a similar maneuver, swinging their scythe around and catching a Garuda mid-dodge.

Rekai hadn’t named them wrongly. It wasn’t a battle—it was an execution. The [Raiders] were so terrified of this small group that they fled. And those that fought—Ksmvr saw one Garuda fight back. She grappled with one of the crow-Garuda, slashing with daggers. They tumbled through the air, and Ksmvr saw them break apart after a moment. The Loquea warrior flew up, and the Garuda warrior fell, dead, to hit the ground in front of Tiqr’s army.

Her neck was snapped.

“Loquea…”

Someone breathed. Ksmvr looked around. Vasraf. He was looking up, and his eyes caught each warrior. Their armor made it hard to see where feather or figure began, but they finished their grisly battle and circled. Dark shapes in the air.

Terrifying the Garuda clan below. Vasraf turned, and Nsiia, Empress of Beasts, stood there. She looked up, and there was a smile on her face.

But it was grim, and whether it was genuine or wary, Ksmvr couldn’t tell. Vasraf spoke to Nsiia, and glanced at Ksmvr.

“Another sign, Your Majesty? You wanted to find the King of Destruction’s vassals. Here is one. The Loquea Dree clan. The Executioners of the Garuda.”

Nsiia looked at him and nodded. The figures were descending. Sixty of them, and Ksmvr didn’t think one had died in their attack. She raised her voice.

Hail, Loquea Dree! I am the Empress of Beasts! Will you parlay with me?

Not one answered. Then—abruptly, as one, they dropped. Fearlessly, towards the landfolk who saw them bank, land, scythes held in long arms, wings spread, around the army. Tiqr’s warriors started. Domehead whirled and Nsiia spun.

Ksmvr!

Rémi’s camera whirled, and he saw Ksmvr move, leaping, diving—a [Skirmisher] at his fastest. For once—too slow. He rolled upright, and came to a stop. He could have transitioned into any number of moves—

But for two scythes. One on his right, the other on his left. Boxing him in. Two warriors stood there, and if they pulled, the scythes would go right through him. He froze, a crossbow in his hand, the hilt of the [Paladin]’s sword in the other.

A figure landed in front of Nsiia, taller than she was. The tallest Garuda Ksmvr had ever seen. Face like a mask, eyes dark black, beady.

Loquea Dree. He or she spoke, voice rough, as if from disuse.

Antinium. Black Tide of Rhir. Enemy to Garuda? Of Chandrar? So claimed. If it is, they die. We guard Garuda. From crime. From monsters. From enemies. What is your answer, Empress of Beasts?

The crow-warrior looked at Nsiia. She looked at him, and the clan that had once served Flos Reimarch. Ksmvr looked around, at Rémi, capturing the scene; Domehead, frozen, uncertain what the move was; Vasraf; the terrified Garuda.

He was really reconsidering whether this was worth eight trees.

 

——

 

The scythe blades were very sharp. Enchanted. It was incredible, but each blade was individually enchanted by a master [Enchanter]. The shaft of the scythes, which Ksmvr now understood to be war scythes, a very odd creation even in the varied annals of arms making, was a separate piece. Given the wear and tear of battle, it made sense you’d have blades that could be fit into new frames.

The interesting thing was that the scythes’ shafts of wood were also enchanted, this time for protection and to be as light as possible. Having two separate enchantments should have been very difficult.

And it was, but as Ksmvr admired a blade of the Loquea Dree’s warriors, he received an explanation.

“The King of Destruction ordered each one forged. Each blade, made by his greatest [Enchanters]. When he ruled nation upon nation.”

“Superlative weapons.”

“Yes.”

Ksmvr eyed the giant crow-Garuda standing and talking to him. It was the leader, the same one who had demanded to know if he was a threat to Garuda.

“Warrior Leka.”

“Leka Thri.”

The warrior corrected him instantly, without inflection in his voice—which was like a caw, the Garuda’s traditional accents, —mixed with a screaming sigh.

It contrived to make his tall, thin silhouette, his dark cloth armor and feathers, not to mention his scythe, curved beak, and dark eyes rather intimidating. Not to Ksmvr particularly, but he admired the effect.

If not nearly dying. But the Loquea Dree clan had put up their weapons the instant Nsiia vouched for him. Now, they stood in a conference with Tiqr’s army, the Empress of Beasts, and the terrified Garuda clan, staring at the bodies of their attackers.

“Leka Thri. My apologies. It is one name?”

“It is my only name. If you address me, address me so.”

The warrior stopped. Then, of all things, coughed. He reached for something, a small flask, and drank.

“Apologies. I do not speak long.”

“Interesting.”

Leka Thri had not said much. He had spoken for about five minutes in total, in fact. Now, Ksmvr saw the head tilt uncannily sideways, like an owl.

“You interest as well. Ksmvr of the Antinium.”

“You did not come to kill me, then?”

Nsiia looked up from talking with the other warriors.

“I say he is not harbinger of war, warriors of Loquea Dree. First of Judgement, Seelaw Ya. Why did you threaten Ksmvr? You came hostile, to one who is an adventurer. Your clan is not declared against the Antinium, and you have no quarrel with Tiqr.”

The leader was actually one of the two Loquea warriors who’d put their scythes around Ksmvr. He bent slightly, so he could talk to Nsiia at eye-level.

“We hear many things. Some, even Garuda clans, say this is the forerunner of invasion. Some say he is spy. Infiltrator. We held blades out, and judged him as well as the weight of your words. You are Empress of Beasts and honorable. Ksmvr of the Antinium passed both tests.”

Ksmvr glanced at the scythe. Interesting indeed. Now he looked closer, the wicked edge of the warscythe had a sheen to it. And it was changing color, even as he watched. But when Leka Thri held it up slightly, closer to his head, it turned a faint, dark blue laced with red.

“Your blades judge?”

“Yes. See.”

Leka Thri held it closer to Ksmvr, and the blade changed again. It turned…well, no different blue, but the red receded and mixed faintly with grey, and, of all things, the faintest of yellows, like a daisy.

“What does that mean?”

Leka Thri turned as Nsiia approached. He bowed, deeply, and Vasraf nodded. For all they had come down like meteors, Loquea Dree was showing deference to Nsiia. Leka Thri turned to Seelaw Ya, and received a slight gesture from one of the First of Judgement’s wings. So he spoke.

“It says he has little of sin. Here. Yet he spills blood. Distantly; not so I. He has taken lives of people.”

He pointed to the blue. The red that grew when Leka Thri lifted the blade closer to him, and Ksmvr eyed the [Raider] corpses. But when Leka Thri shifted the scythe back, Ksmvr eyed the grey and yellow.

“Those two?”

“Lawbreaker.”

“In fact, I did not break many of Illivere’s laws. I merely…”

Ksmvr stared at the scythe. He technically freed Nsiia. And did a few other things. Leka Thri pointed.

“Breaking law is only one measure of judgement. Which law? How great? We do not slay for small crimes. We are not…murderous. You call us Executioners. That is not our name for ourselves.”

He turned his head and Seelaw Ya nodded once.

“Just so.”

Both looked at Skyleader Rekai, who flinched.

“It is just a nickname, great Loquea Dree.”

“Names matter.”

Nsiia was watching the interplay just like Ksmvr and Rémi’s camera. She pointed to the final aspect.

“And yellow?”

Leka Thri looked at Seelaw Ya again, then turned. He put up the scythe and spoke, simply.

“Valor.”

Ksmvr stared at the yellow running along the blade. He turned to Leka Thri, and shook his head.

“Using a blade to measure crime seems imprecise, to me. As proof, I am not valorous. I have done little that is commendable, of late.”

Nsiia looked at Ksmvr, and her lips twisted. Leka Thri stared at Ksmvr, without moving or saying anything. An uncanny stare…rather like any Antinium would give.

“This blade is a guide. It is meant to take lives; the colors of judgement were a secondary effect. Requested by the King of Destruction when he gave us our role. We make our own judgement. Only sometimes do the blades tell a simple story. When they run red and black with great murder and sin.”

So this was one of his vassals. An entire clan of Garuda—the Executioners, despite their distaste for the name.

But why were they here? No, for that matter, why were they not flying off to the King of Destruction’s side? Just for Ksmvr?

Well…yes.

Leka Thri was something of a speaker for their clan, it seemed, since he translated some of Seelaw Ya’s intentions as they stood together. Ksmvr saw a few of their own helping restore order to the clan, even herding back the animals. However, the regular Garuda stayed well clear of them if possible. They looked terrified—and Ksmvr began to understand why.

One of the scythe-wielders stalked among the clan, staring at the blade as he passed by Garuda. Most he ignored; children hiding behind parents, warriors and non-warriors alike, backing up, flying away on some pretext. But now and then he would follow a Garuda. Stop them. And ask them a question.

It never resulted in anything. But the scythe blade was always just…there.

“Loquea Dree are one of the bodies of law, especially among the Garuda. There are Garuda nations, like the Shield Kingdom of Qualvekkaras, Kingdom of the Winds. Some answer to the law within nations, but Loquea Dree was formed when the King of Destruction first rose to power. I recall it, as a girl, hearing their name.”

“Yes.”

Seelaw Ya had produced a wrap of dried meat, mixed with other herbs and some kind of spice Ksmvr had never tasted, but it was a simple meal. Still, Nsiia ate some out of politeness, as did Vasraf. Yinah sniffed the bundle, and reached down with one paw. Nsiia stopped the cat.

To Ksmvr’s surprise, Seelaw Ya silently raised the bundle and Yinah grabbed a morsel. The crow-Garuda stared as the cat chewed it down with no expression. Yinah eyed Seelaw Ya—then slowly edged around Nsiia’s shoulder so the cat was out of sight.

“When the King of Destruction had empire, he faced a problem. Garuda raided. Quarrelled. Clans under him fought with those not. Between each other. He had no great vassal to quell such issues, hunt down crimes. Some clan leaders—biased. None of his Seven could fly like Garuda, even Amerys.”

Leka Thri spoke. Ksmvr thought about the ‘Lord of the Skies’…Takhatres, the fastest Garuda in the world. On the ground. Leka Thri gestured to himself and the sixty warriors.

“So he found a clan feared by all. Great warriors. He gave them scythes and a charge.”

“To be the law of all Garuda?”

Leka Thri looked at Ksmvr. Seelaw Ya’s beak opened.

“Ha.”

It was a monosyllable. It might have been a laugh. It sounded ominous. After a moment, Leka Thri went on.

“No. He charged us to hunt down murder, great crimes. ‘For so long as you carry my blades, protect your people from great evil. Even mine.’ He broke the Black Judgement, who slaughtered and executed the law without nuance. We protect Garuda from great foes. Crelers. Those seeking to wipe out clans. Foreign powers.”

He stared at Ksmvr. Well, that explained most of what they were and why they’d come. Nsiia grimaced.

“You did not go to Reim once Flos Reimarch awoke.”

“No. He broke faith with us. We did not forget that. Nor can he offer us what we want. If he reclaims empire and Garuda flock to his banner, more than one clan, we will think. But he has nothing we want.

Seelaw Ya spoke. Leka Thri nodded, and Ksmvr didn’t miss the way the Garuda lowered their heads. They had never seemed angry. Now, they looked…more scary.

“So, you have come, judged Ksmvr, and not found him wanting. Could I ask you to fly in support of Tiqr? Garuda are my people, though not as many in number. Loquea Dree are renowned warriors, on land or in the sky. You would be a powerful ally and I reward such allies.”

Nsiia’s voice had only the barest hint of hope in it. Seelaw Ya looked at her instantly.

“No. Tiqr’s battle is not of interest to us.”

She sighed, but nodded. Vasraf interrupted.

“First of Judgement, we plan on finding the aid of other warriors who might join with those sympathetic to the King of Destruction. Tiqr does not ride in his aid, but the Monks of Sottheim are our target. Will you not share common cause with us? Tiqr fell for its association with Reim, Loquea Dree may well consider us allies in that sense.”

It was another good argument. Seelaw Ya gave it a second’s thought.

“No. We have seen what has passed. We are not blind. Tiqr’s war is still not ours. This flight does not come to fight in your name, Empress of Beasts.”

Nsiia and Vasraf both sighed. Ksmvr spotted one of Loquea Dree’s shorter warriors stop in front of Landguide Heka. He watched as the crow-Garuda bent down so they were at a level.

“Y-yes, warrior?”

Landguide Heka stared in horror at the black eyes of the warrior. Garuda had irises, but the Loquea Dree’s were so dark that iris and pupil mixed together. It was part of why they were so alien. So odd.

Ksmvr thought they looked like Antinium eyes, albeit in bird-form. The warrior stared at Heka as the Garuda shook in terror. But crow-warrior didn’t look at the scythe. After a moment, the warrior opened her beak.

Kin.

Heka froze in sheer terror. Which was funny, to Ksmvr. She made a strangled noise in her throat—and her beak opened and closed. She said nothing. After a full twenty seconds, the warrior stood up again. And she looked…odd.

Seelaw Ya and Leka Thri had both turned to watch. Now, they looked at Nsiia. Then at Vasraf, and Yinah, peeking out at them with clear nervousness.

Then their heads rotated to stare at Ksmvr. And Rémi Canada. Leka Thri looked at his leader and got a nod. So he turned back to Nsiia.

“Therefore we shall journey with your army. If it is acceptable. If not, we shall negotiate.”

Nsiia blinked at them. She rubbed at one ear.

“…What? You said you would not fight with Tiqr.”

“Yes. We will not. If we must do battle against common foe, we shall consider it. But we will journey with your army for as long as that one remains.”

He pointed at Ksmvr. The Antinium was as astonished as everyone else.

“Do you still suspect me of being a spy? A threat to Garuda?”

“No.”

Leka Thri sounded surprised. Ksmvr tilted his head, much like they did, although not to the same degree.

“Then…why?”

Nsiia looked from Ksmvr to Leka Thri. The warrior glanced at Rémi Canada, aware he was being recorded perhaps, Seelaw Ya, and then turned to Ksmvr.

“You have something we greatly desire. Perhaps we can obtain it. We shall be ally. Journey with you. Even…friend. If you accept it.”

He opened his beak. Ksmvr saw no teeth, although that would have just completed the look, but a razor’s edge, serrated to rip. He stared at Leka Thri’s extended talon. At Nsiia. She was frowning, clearly confused, but she looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium hesitated.

“Will you fight to help me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You have something we desire.”

“Will you tell me what it is?”

Leka Thri hesitated. He looked around again and leaned in to whisper.

“…To tell you what it is may ruin what we desire. Especially if it is known.”

He glanced around and Ksmvr wondered who he was talking about. Nsiia’s eyes had sharpened, but Ksmvr doubted she could hear the minute whisper, even with a Skill. Leka Thri paused.

“…We will bare our blades in your cause, be it Tiqr or otherwise. If we cannot find what we want, we will leave. But we think you have it.”

“I cannot give you what you desire if I do not know what it is. May I be told?”

Leka Thri hesitated as Ksmvr whispered back. He paused, then replied.

“…It is embarrassing. Perhaps later. Will you accept our company?”

He stood back. Ksmvr opened and closed his mandibles, perplexed beyond reason. But he looked at some superb warriors, at Nsiia, and shrugged.

“Very well.”

And thus, Loquea Dree’s sixty warriors joined Nsiia’s army. Or rather—Ksmvr.

 

——

 

It was all about Ksmvr. The meeting with Loquea Dree’s clan, his magical sword, his curious personality, were all creating a kind of wave in an audience now fascinated by him.

These crow-Garuda, mysterious intentions or not, only added to Rémi Canada’s conviction that he was right. He filmed them joining Nsiia’s army, and Tiqr’s liberation was an amazing side-plot and backdrop to Ksmvr’s story.

But it was Ksmvr’s story. Loquea Dree and Rémi had come for him, and Rémi couldn’t parse quite why they were here. Until that night, when he got a clue.

Leka Thri and Seelaw Ya and a few others of the crow-Garuda were honored guests. The rest mingled, but largely kept to themselves. And how not?

They were intimidating. Not as much to Humans and Stitchfolk, perhaps, lacking some of the cultural understanding Garuda had, but even Tiqr’s warriors couldn’t hide how they found the Loquea Dree warriors.

Indeed, even the animals backed up. This was a bit of Loquea Dree’s fault in truth. Animals hated it when you stared too long at them, because that was what predators did. And Loquea Dree were excellent predators.

Nevertheless, Vasraf did his best to accommodate them and broke bread, offering it to Seelaw Ya as he sat around that night’s campfire with Ksmvr, Nsiia, and the others. Rémi had it all on film, of course, and watched as he tried to draw them in with tradition.

“The right to entertainment of choice belongs to our new guests and allies! Will you share stories, between warriors and travellers, First of Judgement? Or perhaps some sport? A game?”

He turned to Seelaw Ya. The First of Judgement considered the question. And to everyone’s surprise, he nodded.

“We shall have…music.”

Music? Ksmvr sat up and Rémi focused as Nsiia nodded.

“Of course. We have songs and bands of our own. Does Loquea Dree have music?”

“Yes. We know you have songs. Perhaps you shall play some. For us—we shall begin.”

So saying, no less than eight of Loquea Dree produced small objects. They carried little gear, even though they were stronger fliers than regular Garuda. But they had small…bone flutes. Whistles. Yet Ksmvr and Rémi soon learned with everyone else that Loquea Dree’s main source of music was their voices.

A shrill, high-pitched orchestra began as the eight warriors played, four on the small instruments. The other four waited, perfectly still, until the beginning of a strange melody. Almost pleasant.

Right until they began to sing. And then every hair on Rémi Canada’s arms rose. Because he had heard singing, bad singing, sonatas, opera, and all kinds of music.

This? He added a new term into his musical lexicon.

Scream-songs.

It was not a cacophony of disorganized music. In fact, it was music, and beautiful. Also? Terrifying. The singers had some gift, but the sight of eight dark shadows in the night performing what sounded like a screaming lament seemed like the herald to a night-ambush by horrors with lots of teeth and claws.

Seelaw Ya and Leka Thri looked around as Nsiia’s smile froze into a rictus and Tiqr’s army stared in horrified fascination. Ksmvr himself tried to nod along to the song as Yinah slowly dug her claws into his carapace. For some reason…Leka Thri kept staring at him. At Yinah. At Domehead.

They were halfway through the song when Seelaw Ya looked over. Then, without warning, Leka Thri stood. Every eye was on him. What would the crow-warrior do now? Join in? Was there some new part of the ceremony unique to their clan? He stared at Ksmvr, then turned sideways, glanced at Rémi—put his arms out, his long arms, talons balled into fists.

And began to do Ksmvr’s dance. Arms waving, legs slightly bent, butt out a bit. The Ksmvr dance. He did it a bit slower than Ksmvr, to the cadence of the song. Then reversed directions.

Nsiia’s mouth opened wide and she covered it slowly with her hands. Vasraf began choking to death, assassinated by his food. Ksmvr just looked at Leka Thri. The warrior was doing what could only be a copy of Ksmvr’s moves. But how had he seen…

Rémi Canada himself had stopped thinking. Domehead’s dome flashed with lights. He watched Leka Thri do the dance, and began to rise, but Nsiia touched his arm. She looked around, desperately, and mouthed.

Don’t laugh.

It was a tossup whether Tiqr’s warriors would have laughed anyways. Somehow, the silly dance…Vasraf looked at Leka Thri, doing it to the background of the scream-song.

“This is the most horrifying…”

His voice was quiet. Literally horrifying, and also horrifying in the sense of watching a social disaster. Ksmvr didn’t understand, though. Leka Thri was just looking at him.

We want something from you. Which would be…?

The song ended. Leka Thri lowered his hands. There was applause—led by Vasraf—but the Loquea Dree didn’t seem happy. Seelaw Ya, the others, were looking at Ksmvr.

“Will you play music now, Empress of Beasts?”

“Of course. Something dignified. Vasraf? For our guests?”

Seelaw Ya hesitated. Ksmvr looked at him. He looked at Leka Thri’s hard-to-read expression. But he seemed displeased.

Rémi Canada had it. The [Journalist] nearly dropped his recording device. He raised his voice, shakily, interrupting the moment. Because he could. He was part of this story, even if he was the recorder, the eyes and lens. And because…Loquea Dree really needed a hand right now.

“Why don’t you play the song from last night, Empress Nsiia?”

That song? I’m sure our guests would not…”

Nsiia hesitated. But they knew the dance. Seelaw Ya glanced at Rémi, and nodded instantly.

“That would be preferable.”

Nsiia looked at Vasraf helplessly, and he didn’t understand. Not yet. But then that merry song began to play. Yinah didn’t roll about, much to the crow-Garuda’s disappointment, but after a second, Domehead got up. So did Ksmvr. He saw Leka Thri rise.

“You will dance?”

The warrior looked at him. Ksmvr nodded.

“I like music.”

“This is good. Music is good. You see. We are not just Executioners.”

Leka Thri glanced at Rémi. The crow-warrior adjusted his posture as Domehead began to do the dance, so that Domehead was on one side, Ksmvr in the center, Leka Thri on the other.

For the camera. Rémi met Seelaw Ya’s intent gaze. Leka Thri went on.

“Just as we said. We are law, but not without nuance. We are kin. We are not simply terror.”

Then he began to do the dance. Ksmvr did too, wondering why Leka Thri had told him what was obvious. The three began to do the Antinium dance—and now it was a bit scary.

But mostly hilarious. A giant crow-man, like a nightmare—one of the nightmares of Garuda children, Domehead, and Ksmvr, the representative of the Black Tide, doing that silly little dance.

Vasraf tried. He really did. He actually stabbed himself with his sheathed dagger. But then he started chuckling. Nsiia elbowed him hard, but it was like a cork popping out of a bottle. More of Tiqr’s warriors had to laugh.

“Apologies, Seelaw Ya. It is objectively funny.”

She turned to the leader, First of Judgement, fearing he would be offended. But he was not. In fact, and it was still scary—Nsiia stopped as she saw the expression on his face.

He was smiling. The crow-man turned to Nsiia.

“Yes. It is good. All is well, Empress of Beasts.”

Ah. Rémi Canada exhaled. There it was. He kept the camera focused on the scene. Recording #4 would have to go out soon. Maybe even tomorrow, if he could arrange a pickup. Somehow, he had a feeling one of Loquea Dree’s warriors might even do it if they couldn’t find a Runner.

You did things quite deliberately. Rémi Canada knew exactly what he was doing. So, it seemed, did Loquea Dree; though, they had slightly different purposes and, arguably, weren’t good at it. But they knew where to be for what they wanted.

As for Rémi? He wrote something down on the [Message] scroll he carried, one-handed. A note to his team when they sent this one out, and when they communicated. Just a title, a name to be used to refer to this series. It meant something, after all. Names. Intention.

He had weighed the ethics, and made a decision. When this video went out, and when they talked about it, they would use his name. A recording of Ksmvr, the Horns of Hammerad’s Antinium member.

Ksmvr, Gold-rank adventurer. Ksmvr the [Skirmisher], if you referred to his class. Ksmvr of the Free Antinium, technically formerly of the Free Antinium, but few made that distinction. Ksmvr of Liscor, a title not yet endorsed, but perhaps when they learned more of Ksmvr’s story. Saw what he did.

And Rémi’s name for him, so that everyone would know it. Intention spelled plain to anyone who understood.

 

Ksmvr of Chandrar.

 

——

 

Ksmvr of Chandrar. What a peculiar title. He was not made in Chandrar. He had not lived in Chandrar long. Why call it that?

It was just one of those nonsensical elements in life. And the Flying Queen of the Antinium knew nonsensical. No one else was as sensible as she. Proof positive? They had rejoined with the last of the six Queens of Izril. The Free Queen had finally been brought back into contact with the others.

Yet, oh, how dreary were her complaints. She stated, more than once in their meetings, that her Hive had been bereft of material and technological aid. Some of that was due to her remote location and the lack of any supply network until now. Even now, the Drakes were attempting to collapse it, thanks to Magnolia Reinhart. But Antinium could keep digging, so it was simply annoying…

However, the Flying Queen had to take umbrage with the Free Queen’s complaints. Did she think it was simple, to be one of the Queens in the proximity of the Grand Queen? Every figure and metric of her Hive was assessed, her placement of Soldiers, her research projects, all had to be tabulated and accounted for.

“Flying Queen. Your Hive’s efficiency has decreased in this last week. Can you account for the variance?”

And there she was. The Grand Queen of the Antinium. Taking the Flying Queen to task for something the Flying Queen was already looking into. Irritated, the Flying Queen rubbed her palps together.

Around her bustled her Hive, Workers and Soldiers, of more types than regular Antinium, many with wings, transporting goods, repairing parts of the Hive, and so on. Like any Hive, and hers had always been quick since she had incorporated the Flying Antinium’s naturally high speed into their network.

Hers was also the only chamber in the heart of the Hive. Every other Queen sequestered themselves away. The Flying Queen was surrounded by her Hive, the better to see them.

“I am tracing the reason for the delays, Grand Queen. Fear not.”

“That is a Drake expression, Flying Queen. I do not fear this inefficiency. Merely require it solved.”

Irritated, the Flying Queen watched the scrying mirror go blank. That was just it. No one appreciated her. She had used the idiom to exemplify her study of the enemies! No one had her vision! Pivr—she missed Pivr. Her greatest Revalantor should be here, to make her feel better.

“Inefficiency. My projects are mine to dictate. The Free Queen thinks she is so removed, so superior because she is creating Individuals.”

It was a sore point with the Flying Queen, because the other Queens had agreed that the creation of Anand and other Prognugator-type Antinium for far less of the cost of a regular Prognugator—not to mention their ability to level—outstripped any other achievement of late.

It irked her more because she couldn’t replicate it. She had tried. For instance, every Antinium in the entire Hive had been issued with a single copper coin just last week. The Flying Queen had waited…and nothing had happened.

She didn’t understand why, which indicated something of her lack of understanding about fiscal economics and the need for an actual system to spend said coinage.

Yet that was part of her success. She tried projects, more than any other Queen, and if they failed? She moved on. Some called that ‘reckless’, or ‘without proper foundation’, like the Silent Queen. Well, the Flying Queen had wings on her Antinium. So there!

And she had proof the Free Queen was not flawless. The Flying Queen went back to her second scrying orb, a large one she had placed next to the mirror. She reached down for a bowl of cheese-stuffs. Anand had brought some foods from the Free Antinium’s Hive, and the Flying Queen had instantly added it to her diet.

“The Free Queen informed us that this Ksmvr was exiled due to incompetence. Despite creating a Prognugator in secret without authorization, she exiled him? What a waste. I do not think he is incompetant. Proof? He is a Gold-rank adventurer. She is so blind.”

She stared at the recording of Ksmvr doing his dance. She had watched it eight times, often while working on her projects in the Hive. It was just…interesting. She rubbed her feelers together; she had been informed via the news network that another part would be airing tonight and had cleared her schedule to watch.

For now, though, the Flying Queen had to get to the bottom of these inefficiencies. It was in the supply chain, of all things. Apparently goods weren’t getting to the right places on time, or Antinium. She’d had her Prognugators analyze what was nearly a 22% slowdown! The Flying Queen focused on the logistical problem.

“…The area of interference…no. Not food distribution. Not the other Hives…”

She was so vexed by it, because the Grand Queen had intimated it was because of the Flying Queen’s methods that her Hive was falling behind quota. The Flying Queen was going to establish it was some outside force.

Of course, the Grand Queen was right. It was due to the quality only the Flying Hive had. She finally completed her analysis and stopped.

The source of the slowdown and congestion that made her entire Hive run so much slower was…right here. It was centered around her throne room. How could that be?

In the background, Nsiia began to dance with Ksmvr. The Flying Queen stared at the image and the series she’d been playing non-stop. Then turned her head.

All of the Antinium instantly went back to bustling around, carrying objects, putting foodstuffs for her next meal in place, scurrying here and there, rotating Soldiers out, and so on. Fast, commendable, perfect as could be, even above average. The Flying Queen hmmed.

“How odd.”

She went back to watching the scrying orb. Instantly, behind her, the Workers and Soldiers slowed. Not a huge amount. But they did slow, well, by 22% when you accounted for pileups and delays in the Hive. Not even that much. Just…walking a bit slower. Heads turned. Lingering as a they exited through a tunnel.

Staring at the Antinium above ground. The beautiful land. The dance.

Ksmvr of Chandrar.

“It is so odd. I cannot figure out…”

The Flying Queen’s head turned and Antinium snapped back to work. She stared blankly at them. Back at the scrying orb. A slight…reflection finally caught her eye on the blank mirror she used to talk to the other Queens. Slowly, she turned back to watching and waited for three minutes. Stared at the reflection in the mirror. Then whirled.

Aha!

Antinium froze in terror and mortal fear as the Flying Queen of the Antinium loomed, catching them in the act. The Flying Queen gazed down upon them. Well, well, well. Well, well, well, well…she hesitated.

“Well. How interesting.”

Later that week, the Grand Queen grudgingly—exceedingly grudgingly—commended the Flying Queen. Her workforce slowdown had somehow, mysteriously, vanished, and she had, in fact, hit a 4.5% increase that no Hive could match.

The Grand Queen suspected it wouldn’t last. But unfortunately for her, in some sense, the Flying Queen’s Hive continued to work even harder, and that was by Antinium standards. She couldn’t figure it out, but that was because she only looked at the reports.

She had no idea that part of the reason why Antinium Workers and Soldiers worked even harder than usual was due to the one-hour break before their rest period. In which they entered the now-enclosed area to stare at the scrying orb on repeat. The Flying Queen refused to tell the Grand Queen why until she was asked. She was not impeding the Antinium’s growth as a whole.

She was just a bit smug about it. And that was all there was to it. The Flying Antinium did not suddenly all turn into Individuals. In fact, they watched and went back to work and that was that.

Except for one single Worker, in Tunnel B35-South—this was obviously a translation for the Antinium—which corresponded to a job serving the nutritional paste to Soldiers and Workers. It was very simple. The Worker filled bowls with the slop. Antinium took said slop and ate it, and deposited it with another Worker.

This was the entire day of said nameless Worker, and it had been for nearly three years straight. Wait, eat, dispense food, rest—unless it was called to some urgent task like fighting to defend the Hive.

There were no feelings involved in said Worker. And yet—of late—it had been hesitating.

The moments in between rushes of Workers and Soldiers were sometimes minute, but it was there. Like the moment between filling bowls. Then, the Worker just stood. Stood, and waited. That had been everything, and that hadn’t been fine because ‘fine’ implied there was good and bad. It had just been.

But now—the moment seemed to stretch on. It had no orders during this moment. No monsters attacked, no Queen to command. So the moment…had no expectations.

There the Worker stood. The last Soldier took a bowl. It had time. It stared ahead. Then, slowly, it turned in its small cubicle, looking left, for a Worker delivering more slop, right, for more Workers or Soldiers or its replacement.

No one. And it was not exactly visible from the place where Soldiers ate without voice or interruption. Slowly, the Worker stood straight. Then it turned left—and began to shake all four arms. It did a little dance, left, right, left, right. Snapped to attention and began filling bowls as Workers entered. When they were done, and in that moment—the Worker began to do the dance again. Dance, and danced.

And began to level.

 

——

 

So that was what was happening with the other Horns of Hammerad. The first entry in the documentary series came quite some time after the other Horns had all been located, each by a different group, and had begun their long journeys.

Still, the first glimpse of Ksmvr was an insight. A way for the others to link up…if they had a scrying orb. Which not one did, at least on hand. Only Ceria Springwalker had a tiny scrying mirror.

“Block the scrying device she has. She cannot be allowed to see this. Yet.”

The Siren of Savere, Revine Zecrew, turned away from the orb, furious. So that was where Nsiia was? She was going to hunt her down and—

But this was only one of the Siren’s many plans. The [Bandit Queen], the [Hydromancer] who ruled lawless Savere—at least, that was what it was known for—did not pace around her study long.

In another time she would have been focused on Nsiia, but she had something else to allay her wrath, much to her people’s relief. She kept going back to something in her workshop, as one of her [Mages] ran off to do her bidding.

“Illphres.”

Her old friend. The Siren stared bleakly at a sheaf of organized letters. Amid spell tomes, books, even an illustration. Yet…

“She had an apprentice. She told me she would never take one. And here she is. Good enough to damn an Adult Creler, almost. And with some kind of powerful relic!”

The Siren didn’t believe in chances, and she often suspected designs, but she couldn’t see the one here that had led Ceria Springwalker to her. She thought about it. The half-Elf…was an adventurer. Perhaps one of those traditional, annoying, upstanding ones.

But perhaps not. She was Illphres’ apprentice. And even if she was the of the most holier-than-thou type? So what? The Siren…got what she wanted. There were ways.

She smiled. This was good. This was fascinating. This might be what she needed. She strode back through her palace, at the port-capital of Savere, Runsblud, home to an ever-changing court. The most dangerous [Bandits], [Pirates], and other criminals who took Savere as a port from the storm of law.

The Siren descended into a banquet hall replete with laughter, rogues—mostly women—her warriors, not a traditional army, but a match for many nations. Into Savere had come the half-Elf with ice powers. Savere was not Roshal, which twisted. But it could corrupt. And the Siren herself desired something. So beware, Ceria Springwalker. Could she navigate Savere’s dangerous reefs of power? Ingratiate herself to—or survive—the deadliest rogues and criminals?

Could she do that? Would the Siren find what she wanted? Revine turned, the power of water sweeping behind her as she saw the half-Elf, surrounded by Savere’s deadliest. She was—

Ceria Springwalkere turned. Revine stopped dead as she saw the half-Elf’s face. Her…cheeks were bulging so huge they looked like they had doubled her facial size.

Ib a squirrel!

Half the audience around her was cheering her on to fit more Yellats into her mouth. The other half were laughing so hard they were sliding off their chairs. Revine stared at Ceria. She closed her eyes.

…What had Illphres been thinking?

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: If you’re a Patron, you saw the first…6,000 words for free as a rare chapter-teaser. That was because I wrote the edited chapter, but switched focuses to something else because I thought it would be better to edit.

So I wrote…like 34,000 words for that chapter, which is in editing and will be out sometime. And 6,000 words. So that’s 40,000. And now I wrote this.

I’m tired already and I’m not even begun this writing cycle. But that’s how it goes. I think you’ll enjoy the edited chapter when it comes out, but for now, make do with this paltry offering. Actually, the first six thousand and parts of this chapter show why I didn’t want to get it edited.

First, this is a longer tale than usual, so I was fairly sure I couldn’t do it in one arc. Which I didn’t. Second? I had some more emphasis on my weak points—painting a picture of what’s happening. I don’t know if you saw it, but that’s what I tried to do this time.

Anyways, leave me your thoughts and thanks for reading! I’m back! Time for a break?

 

Something different this time…here are the winners of a competition by @Me#3460 on Discord, for the best images of…pirateaba? Who people conflate with the character, Pirate, which my avatar is based off of. It’s great art and much thanks to all competitors and drawings. Here are the top three!

 

1st Place: pirateaba with amazing hair by Curry! No, I can’t do that. I wish I could. Also, that I could hold a burning quill. I mean, I can, but it’s not fun.

 

2nd Place: A Space Marine pirateaba by LeChat! With the weapons of war I apparently get. The keyboard is more dangerous than the mouse, by the way. Pointy.

 

3rd Place: Surreal pirateaba by Anito! Apples and hands. This is accurate to the core of my being.

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/anito

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – Perspective and Past

[The Wandering Inn is on its monthly break until October 16th for Patreons, when the edited chapter is due to be written! It may be delayed or the 1st Draft released then, and the edited version later. See you then!]

 

“The worst thing that could happen has come to pass. We are damned. This is a disaster in our war; I would even venture to say this may be the end of us.”

The grim voice spoke, in the lands of the dead. A pronouncement so dark, so at odds with hope. But then—the brighter anything burned, the longer the shadows. Every [Witch] knew that.

Not that they were here, among this gathering. Nor was the girl who brought true sunlight into this land. Erin Solstice, the living ghost among the dead—no.

She sat there, on the steps of Khelt’s palace. Right over there. Doing something that looked suspiciously like recreating cotton candy and trying to tempt Xarkouth, the Last Dragonlord of Stars with it.

However, it was not always about Erin. True, part of the dead’s concerns revolved around her, but they did not stop plotting or thinking out of her sight. Thus, a smaller conference took place as one member of the group gave their dire pronouncement.

Nerrhavia of Nerrhavia’s Fallen spoke, and it was a motley crew of ghosts who heard her words. Not Califor. Not Khelta of Khelt; she was ever busy. Rather, Nerrhavia had gathered the ghosts who would listen to her. She did not have even Erin Solstice’s ear whenever she wanted, and that rankled.

However, she did have a contact. A friend of Erin Solstice.

Cawe. And Gerial. She had towed him along, and since the great ghosts were in deep deliberation over the news, he came with. They were friends. Low-level friends, who found themselves consorting with legends.

That Cawe was here was simple enough. Nerrhavia stood there, legend of Cawe’s homeland, albeit a dark one. The [Pickpocket] knew the ghostly ruler was being kind and even flattering to her in order to get to Erin. Well…she liked it.

Nerrhavia didn’t lack for important people to speak to, even without being the most important ghost present. Queen Merindue of Nerrhavia’s Fallen often deigned to bear the old tyrant’s company, despite being at odds. That was, ironically, because they shared interests. One had helped depose the other’s reign and dismantle the ancient empire. But it was still the same land, the same people, in a sense. They were Stitchfolk, and keenly aware that all the power here lay in the Necrocracy of Khelt…and Erin Solstice, in a sense.

“You speak like the six have made some grand move. When, in fact, we have received the greatest hope of all, Nerrhavia. Do not be dramatic.”

Nerrhavia turned, and her braided hair of this vision sparkled, each braid banded by a single ring of power. Her eyes flashed behind eye-shadow and painted makeup, and her dress was the very same she had once demanded cut out of the shade of her throne and stitched together.

Dramatic? I am never dramatic, Merindue. And if I am—it is not now. I do not exaggerate. If you had but the tenth of my least-favored [Magistrate]’s wisdom, you would see it clearly. Or do I not speak the truth, General Ignoyeithe?”

She turned and nodded slightly to one of Chandrar’s legends. And again…they had lots. However, the [General] who had scorched earth across all five continents, once won a battle with a hundred-to-one odds, and had commanded [Soldiers] in his first victory as a boy of eight?

Some respect due. He took attendance, along with some of the less-popular ghosts, those who had served Nerrhavia in life, and crucially, a [Slaver] of Roshal.

Not the company Cawe wanted to keep, although this ghost was old and had reigned in Roshal long before she had even been born—millenia ago—but it was Nerrhavia’s will. Because if you denied them a seat at any table, they were your enemies. And like it or not, they were allies here.

“Do you see, Grand Emir? General? Would one of you explain to Merindue, my able successor?”

Nerrhavia paced back and forth, sneering at Merindue, and turning her gaze to Gerial and Cawe. She fluttered her fingers at both.

“I trust you are not bored? I thank you, Cawe, my subject, for attending me during this busy hour.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

“Please, you shall call me Nerrhavia. And if ever a way is found, I shall have your name rendered unto Nerrhavia’s honored families, posthumously.”

Cawe fluttered her wings with embarrassment and Gerial nudged her. She winked at him. However, the Silver-rank adventurer was nothing but approving.

“Now there’s a generous client.”

The Grand Emir rose slowly and sighed. He was old and refused to change, much like Drevish. The Garuda opened his cracked beak.

“I see it plainly, Queen Nerrhavia. For did I not use the same ploy? The same tactics? It may not be intentional, but now there is a scroll that presents hope to each ghost, that they might live again. Unity? The Dragon has shattered it among us, if Khelt’s growing power had not already.”

“Exactly. More fool, he. Yet I sense desperation from Terandria too. They have no mortal agents. We do, though the path is long. But that is not why I summoned you.”

Nerrhavia’s eyes flashed. Merindue sat up, eyes flicking back to the gathering. She was sharp, but Nerrhavia was quick. Proof positive?

It was bare moments after Xarkouth had landed and news had spread of the scroll. Already, the most savvy ghosts saw what would happen and were drawing sides.

Cawe wondered if Nerrhavia wanted to live herself. However, the tyrant of old seemed to have a different goal, or one more subtle.

“You see, that you come, and I call you—I do not call you friends, for we never broke bread or shared water. I only call you allies, and the enemy oblivion. Even now, I tell you that we must, the whole of us, put aside ambitions to live. Cawe, you must speak to Erin Solstice and we to our factions. This must not splinter.

She put a hand into her palm, delicately. Some of the ghosts murmured.

“No designs on life, Nerrhavia?”

An amused [Martial Artist] murmured. Nerrhavia’s eyes flashed again. That wasn’t metaphor, either; little glowing shards of light in her irises told you exactly how peeved she was. All the time.

“Do you think I am talking lightly? I wish to live with every fiber of my being, but there is one scroll, and too many hands grasping. And I have not the means to grasp any harder. Not here. What I am telling you is that this is the thread that will snap, and drag us all into defeat! So yes. My ambition?”

She made a plucking gesture, as if drawing something from her heart, and blew on it.

“I will have you all make that same pact.”

It was an impressive speech. What made even Merindue hesitate was…it sounded like Nerrhavia was serious. And yet—yes, remember the tyrant. Remember her acts and evil that led them to denounce her, and celebrate her demise.

Also remember she was devious enough to rule an empire for nearly a thousand years, and that she did not want to die twice. Erin and Khelt could use worse allies, even of convenience.

“Then, your goal. I can only assume it focuses on Khelt, or Erin Solstice. Given her companions—why the girl? Khelt has the means to utilize our knowledge and might. She is far from her body, and only a single girl.”

“I expected better of you, Grand Emir. Only a girl? Look. She sits there, in the company of the great ghosts. She had the sword. She had the light. Something turns on her. I would count her as a great ally or enemy had I lived. I will bet on one person to be a vessel for my will. And it will be her, not a scroll.”

Nerrhavia glanced at Cawe and Gerial, significantly. Then turned.

“…And we must focus, because I believe this scroll is a great opportunity, chaos or not. Khelt is needed. We are all needed, and greater deeds must be done.”

“Greater than driving those six from Chandrar?”

Gerial muttered. Nerrhavia nodded.

“General?”

Ignoyeithe straightened. He nodded at Nerrhavia, and spoke.

“I have been thinking. It is hard to know the exact nature of our foe, even with Erin Solstice’s explanation. Yet…it seems to me we have lacked a perspective on this conflict, strange as it might be. We see it as a predation of sorts. Perhaps survival. A return? This is speculation, from our limited talks with Dragons and knowledge gleaned. Yet I look at it like a [Strategist]. There is a certainty in any battle, no matter how oddly fought. Simply—it is this.”

He raised two fingers, and made a simple fist with the other. He gestured, touching fingers to fist.

“Attack. And location.”

“Not attack and defense, surely?”

Merindue was amused. Ignoyeithe shook his head.

“Defense is a form of attack. Perhaps the word is simply ‘conflict’. Supplies, movement, intelligence, feints…even magic boils down to two elements. Where the attack comes, and the nature itself.”

“Your meaning?”

The [General] floated past them. He stared out into the distance of dead Chandrar, but what he stared at was…the reflection of ‘now’. The many changing landscapes of then. His words came slowly.

“…This is a war. Consider our foes. Six. Able to walk this world, perhaps exiled as we are. Trapped. However, I suspect that they have a way back, just like Erin Solstice. Perhaps scrolls of their own, or similar methods. Now consider their nature. They are all anathema. I have felt such revulsion only a few times. I do not know the ‘Crelers’ which came after me; but the Soulless of Rhir? The things that come from beyond, that Drath hunts? And…A’ctelios Salash itself. These all provoke the same universal hatred in my being. Do you understand?”

His audience looked at each other. Gerial shuddered. What in the name of d…what was a Soulless of Rhir? Some horror before Crelers?

“We are all united against them. [Slaver]. [Rebel]. Garuda, Human, ghost. That is not in dispute, [General].”

The Grand Emir nodded. Ignoyeithe made a palm-bow gesture.

“No, Emir. To my point, then? They are surely reviled in the living world. The one girl who lives hates them as much as we! So this is not a war between the dead and dead things. This is a war that we must regard as all versus them. And…they have attacked in the first theatre of war. The first place which, if they conquer, becomes a beachhead for terrible victories to follow.”

Nerrhavia was nodding. Cawe was struggling to follow the metaphysics of what the [General] was seeing, but the Grand Emir had it.

“…The land of the dead?”

“Yes. If it lies empty, then each dead person becomes fuel for them. It becomes, perhaps, an unassailable ground to attack the living world. They will not know from where the danger stems! They will not be able to fight back!”

The [General] gazed around.

“Queen Nerrhavia is correct. This is no time for disunity. The dead must aid the living.”

“But how? Short of Khelt…”

The ghosts were frustrated, galvanized by the repositioning of this war. If this was the first battle…Gerial was feeling for the sword he didn’t have.

“In times past, it was possible. [Witches] harnessed spirits. Even I had ghosts bound to serve me. Whether they were the ones here?”

Nerrhavia frowned mightily.

“There are ways to touch the living. Usually, ways that the living must enable. But surely…if we could become an army of ghosts? All we can give is knowledge, and Khelt is an unpleasant repository for our power. I do not wish to make them the new rulers of our world.”

The Grand Emir nodded, although General Ignoyeithe was upset by the attitude. However, even Merindue remembered that Khelt had once been an expanding kingdom, and aggressive.

“Thus, Erin Solstice, Nerrhavia?”

The woman’s face twisted.

“Yes. But she does not want to know how to acquire power. None that I could give her.”

“Like what? Draining ten thousand men of life the hard way?”

Nerrhavia went over to try and chase Merindue off.

“Thou wretched and inferior successor! We must pool our knowledge. Surely there is more we can use? Is there any message Roshal might heed, if Fetohep of Khelt spoke it?”

The Grand Emir was tellingly silent. When the ghosts looked at him, he sighed.

“…That we do not see eye-to-eye with Khelt, that we have been insulted, is plain, Queen Nerrhavia. The same for the young woman who will heed none of our words. Yet you yourself are as charismatic as you are convincing. We do not wish to end. Roshal will reconvene. Now. Permit me a time to give your words to them.”

He strode away without another word. Cawe glared at him, but Nerrhavia looked satisfied for a moment, before concealing the expression. Merindue hovered over and murmured quietly.

“Did it work? You clearly aimed to sway them.”

“I hope so. It would be just like the [Slavers] of Roshal to hold back a trick. Indeed, among the many who tried to cheat death who remain…I have tried to make a list, but only a few Dragons, perhaps a few surly fools in Terandria, the last Giants…”

“Regis Reinhart?”

“That ancient ghost? Perhaps. Perhaps…now that you say it, perhaps, but I assumed he would be eaten with the rest. Unless he is like the Quarass? But Roshal, indeed.”

Nerrhavia looked at the Grand Emir. Her eyes glittered like dark diamonds.

“After all. If there were any lot to hoard another scroll of rebirth, or doorway to death…it would be them. Now, to work. I have made my oath. Let us restore sense to this rabble.”

Two [Queens] swept onwards. Was this a war, like General Ignoyeithe claimed? A game of chess? If so, they were more useful than not. Otherwise…

And there the greatest chess player, living or dead, sat, happily giving a dead Dragon a sweet tooth. Sometimes there was a central actor to a story, a heroine of the moment. But it was a poor stage if they were alone.

 

——

 

Speaking of Dragons imbibing sugar…well, it was a peculiar thing. But as Reynold, [Combat Butler], driver for Magnolia Reinhart’s famous carriage, looked on, he couldn’t actually remember if Eldavin—that was, Teriarch, that was, Eldavin—had a sweet tooth or not.

He hadn’t known Eldavin was Teriarch, of course, but he had been ‘let in on the secret’ so to speak after being saved from the [Assassins]’ ambush. He was one of three people to know, and considered it a great honor.

Almost as much as being granted the magical legs. Reynold was no expert on the exact cost of the artifacts, but it was probably more than he had ever been paid or was technically worth. Thanks to them, he could walk.

He was a grateful man. If he chose, he could think on the reasons why he needed the legs to begin with. He could think of his dear friend, Sacra. He could think…they were so cold.

His legs, that was. He could ‘feel’ them, connected to his flesh-and-blood legs. A magical bonding at the joining site. But be it some error or just bad design, they were always a bit cold, since no blood flowed through them.

Reynold didn’t think of that. If he did, surely, it had to be in the context that all that he had lost, or seen lost…had to matter. That Magnolia Reinhart had a worthy dream. If not? Then it was for nothing.

He was at least important enough now to have knowledge second only to Ressa herself. Reynold suspected it was Magnolia and Ressa’s way of repaying his loyalty. For instance…he stared at the two Dragons.

Did Teriarch have a sweet tooth? He didn’t know, because the half-Elf had visited sporadically, and before Reynold was employed as well. And…well, because Magnolia Reinhart made you not notice even a [Glutton]’s appetite for sugar.

Incidentally, she was currently engaged in a quiet screaming match with Lyonette du Marquin, in a [Silenced] corner of the ballroom. Reynold saw Wall Lord Ilvriss being harangued by his sister and mother for similar explanations. He was impressed; the Drake calmly thrust his uncle in the way of his family, and ran for it.

Now there’s a fellow who’s led a battlefield rear action more than once. Commendably fast retreat. No hesitation.

Reynold saw Ilvriss pass by the two Dragons. Now here was his chance to observe, and Reynold had to own that, scouting for enemy [Assassins] and [Spies] as he was doing even now, despite that fellow from Manus, and Magnolia’s own security cordon, he couldn’t take his eyes off the Dragons.

They fascinated him, but he was careful not to give away that he was watching. The one with blue scales—Rafaema—and the one with brown-green, Cire? Different! She was taller, older, and more snappy, and he was a happy-go-lucky scamp. But that wasn’t the fascinating thing.

It was how they reacted to stress. Cire was glued to the First Gardener, checking on Mivifa, going back to Rafaema, peering at Lyonette—making sure everyone he knew was alright. By contrast? Once she’d come down, out of the rain and tremendous hole in the clouds she’d created, Rafaema had taken stock of the situation, then marched back to the buffet table.

She was currently clearing out every dessert with a hint of sugar in it, and this being Magnolia’s party, there was a lot. Even so…Reynold eyed Rafaema.

Lady Reinhart had a secret to her sugar consumption. It didn’t touch her, which was how she managed to eat so much without her heart stopping. The Lightning Dragon? She just ate it, and Magnolia Reinhart herself would have applauded anyone who could eat…

“Five…six…pounds of ice cream.”

Reynold shook his head. Extraordinary. And it wasn’t like that was her only option. Rafaema was going for the sweets, and her minders looked worried she’d puke. But then, the one called Ferris had taken a tremendous beating and was recovering.

“Reynold.”

The [Butler] didn’t jump. But he had a hand on his longsword, even though only Ressa could have crept up on him like that. He nodded to her as she appeared. The [Maid] turned to Reynold, inquisitive.

“All clear?”

He nodded.

“No more killers I could find. Numbers 1-7 are on patrol.”

“Naturally.”

There had been a bad opening in their security, which allowed the criminal mob to get at Miss Lyonette. They’d pulled their attention back to watch Magnolia, and the only people on guard-duty had been forced to choose between the dignitaries and Lyonette.

“Is it simply Oteslia’s underworld?”

Reynold murmured, covering his lips, on the pretense of smoothing his mustache. Ressa grimaced.

“For a measure of ‘simply’? They have Faces. I want you to post more watchers on Lyonette’s residence.”

“Watchers or ready to intervene? I must say, her guardians have done a rather poor job so far.”

By which, Reynold meant Saliss of Lights, the Gentlemen Callers, and, to some extent, Wall Lord Ilvriss. Ressa growled.

“They’re not professionals.”

She meant as they were. Reynold nodded.

“And are we launching a counter-offensive?”

“No.”

“But…”

Ressa folded her arms. She was unhappy, but she twisted a ring and Reynold caught a thought on the linked band on each of their fingers.

It’s the damned Dragon. Oteslia’s afraid to move on them because whoever’s in charge clearly knows. Magnolia does not want to reveal she knows or get entangled in it. Even the First Gardener would slit all our throats if she suspected we knew.

“Ah.”

Now that complicated things. Reynold grimaced.

“But we have…our Grand Magus. Surely that might persuade them…?”

“If he was—normal—I’m sure that would be an option.”

“Aha.”

Reynold wanted to say something un-butler-y. It was a bad situation all around. He didn’t know how far from ‘normal’ Grand Magus Eldavin was behaving, but given that Magnolia and Ressa were worried…

“Then we’re collecting signatures? Stay on plan and leave for Wistram as soon as possible?”

“…Almost. If we leave, we’ll have to avoid Zeres. The Velistrane will pick us up when that occurs.”

“Not myself via carriage?”

It seemed to Reynold they could travel on land just as fast north to a safe harbor, but Ressa elaborated.

“No. That is because you will head north when we depart Oteslia. At that time, you will go via carriage to the ancestral manor. And you will collect a few household trinkets.”

They had been strolling left as they walked, circumnavigating the buzzing Oteslian ballroom, all eyes on Lyonette or the golden [Knights] who had come and knelt towards her, or looking at her ring. Reynold nearly slammed into a decorative pillar.

“A few household…?”

He turned a shade paler, despite himself. Ressa smiled thinly.

“Magnolia has forgotten some of her travel supplies. We will need them for where we’re heading next.”

If you didn’t know what they were talking about, it sounded perfectly innocuous. If you saw Reynold’s face, you’d suspect it was not.

If you were Reynold? You would have understood that, while Magnolia Reinhart and Ressa headed for the Reinharts’ capital warship, he would run a fetch errand and meet them at sea, no doubt.

…Carrying every doomsday and armageddon-class artifact he could tear out of Regis Reinhart’s possession.

There was a contingency. Reynold knew what could be traded to make the ghost give up items, as well as Magnolia claiming her birthright. But that kind of weaponry was a step up from the items Magnolia had requested to use against the Goblin Lord. Just what did she intend to do when she met Grand Magus Eldavin?

Even Ressa didn’t know. But she laid one more piece of information on Reynold.

“That’s just a bit of servant gossip. Keep it in mind when we leave.”

“…Naturally, Miss Ressa. The other?”

“Prepare yourself for a trip. Lady Reinhart has, in her infinite wisdom, decided to split some of her gifts that are Oteslia-bound. She is going to get every signatory she can before leaving. You are going to present some gifts to the Gnolls.”

Reynold’s head snapped up.

“But Zeres’ army is outside. I can’t imagine they’ll be keen to let Lady Reinhart leave, the statement we made at the gates or not! Ressa, I can’t guarantee her safety.”

Ressa gave Reynold a happy, sympathetic smile. And that chilled him to the bone worse than any scowl.

“No. Which is why she won’t be going.”

She patted him on the shoulder. Reynold took a moment to let that sink in. He pressed some cool fingers to his brow.

“About my vacation…”

“After this. Bonuses, as well.”

“Very good, Miss Ressa. Might I request a change in shifts?”

“Why?”

“I have the pressing need to find a drink.”

Ressa thought about it.

“Granted.”

The [Butler] nodded smartly, gave her a bow, and stepped lively over to the nearest available drinks. No good, cheap beer or ale. But the fancy stuff did it, and maybe they were serving Firebreath Whiskey, an impropriety to the occasion or not?

He found something almost as good; Hoshill Champagne. Now, your average champagne was slightly less alcoholic than wine. Of course, they also served it in tiny glasses. But Hoshill Champagne was a particular type of the stuff that was made from grapes. All kinds of grapes, but grown on Hoshill.

It was a place in Izril with higher-than-average gravity. Reynold didn’t know the details. Someone had been mucking around with physics, as usual. The end result was a particular kind of grape that took to a stronger, more concentrated drink, even after fermentation.

Strong stuff, which they served in what Reynold had always thought of as a noble’s version of a shot glass. It was a fluted, fancy, thin glass, practically pencil-wide and almost as long.

He calmly walked around the table, to where one of the staff was serving drinks.

“Excuse me, Miss. Would you mind if I…?”

She recognized him as being in the employ of the caterer, and nodded.

“Of course. Do you need some drinks?”

She offered the tray, which had little holsters to prevent the glasses from tilting. Reynold adjusted his suit lapels.

“I shall requisition what is needed, thank you very much.”

She nodded. The Drake watched as Reynold carefully picked out an appropriate vessel. Which was the biggest cup he could find. Then he expertly popped the cork on another bottle, filled the entire cup up to the brim, and took it down.

Her mouth opened wide with awe. Reynold sighed. Now that hit you well and truly proper. One of the other guests, none other than Wall Lord Aldonss of Manus, stared at Reynold. He checked his tiny glass, then tried to copy the [Butler]. He took down two mouthfuls of the Hoshill Champagne and realized he’d made a mistake when the world tilted forty five degrees. Reynold just poured himself a second cup.

Someone else drinking hard was also causing a scene. Two rather shabby fellows were clinking cups of wine. They would have fit in, normally…except that both had scorched clothing, dried blood all over their scales and fur, and they had just been seen laying waste to everyone within reach.

“Not today, then, Ratici. We nearly died.”

“Nearly, Wilovan, nearly. Here’s to nearly. Was that the aforementioned boon I saw on you?”

“Ratici, it was.”

“What did it feel like?”

Reynold’s head turned in time to see a Gnoll with a battered top-hat exhale. Wilovan looked at Ratici gravely.

“It felt like I was a…it was like being filled up with light and…when I saw that ring glowing, I thought—”

He hesitated, and took a drink. Then he shook his head and spoke, solemnly.

“…It felt like I was a decent man. With a hat made of gold, and a knighthood.”

“All that.”

The Drake looked wistful and envious. Wilovan touched his chest, as if he could still feel it.

“Humbling.”

“Do you think you’ll level, then, Wilovan? It seems to me a fellow might hope for a bit of good news ere he lies down his head.”

“Ah, Ratici, that would be asking. That would…but a fellow does hope.

“Excuse me.”

At this point Reynold had to break in. The two Gentlemen Callers turned, and gave Reynold a supercilious look. He saw them recognize him. On two levels.

First, as two men who saw someone else who was dangerous. And Reynold had to own—he wasn’t sure if he was the kind of danger they were. His magical legs and recent levels…well, he’d dare any group if he was sitting on the pink carriage’s driver seat.

But the second way they recognized him was, more importantly, as another man with the ability to dress himself. They gave his suit a nod. He gave their battle-worn ensembles the same. Ratici went to adjust his vest.

“Good day to you, sir. I hope we’re not disturbing the environs, such as it were? Been a rough day.”

“Not at all, gentlemen. Allow me to welcome you to Lady Reinhart’s gathering, in the name of Lady Reinhart herself.”

The two exchanged a glance. Ratici coughed into a fist.

“That’s a tall thing for a fellow to offer, sir. We’d be happy, but I’m not sure that’s yours to give.”

Reynold gestured at his garb.

“I am, in fact, Lady Reinhart’s personal [Butler] and driver. I can happily assure you that you two are welcome. Especially in light of you keeping Miss Lyonette alive. Believe me, Lady Reinhart respects acts like that.”

They all looked over to where Magnolia Reinhart and Lyonette were still arguing. By now, Ressa had included a visual filter, but Reynold, and, he suspected, Ratici at least could see right through it. Magnolia was splashing tea at Lyonette, and the [Princess] was pointing at the Thronebearers, clearly shouting ‘get rid of them!’.

“Well, thank you, sir.”

Wilovan broke the silence and raised his wine glass. Only then did he see Reynold was drinking.

“Is it customary for the help to drink? Not that we’d tell, sir.”

“I’m actually off-duty. Can I interest either of you two gentlemen in a fine Hoshill Champagne?”

“I’ve never really tried the stuff myself. I can’t say I’m in the mood for social drinking.”

“Ah, then you will be pleased to note Wall Lord Aldonss’ condition, Mister Ratici. Two gulps.”

Reynold expertly poured two full cups, having to crack open a second bottle as he did. Ratici saw the Wall Lord walking sideways, bumping into people.

“Aldonss? Aldonss, what’s the matter?”

Makhir hurried over, breaking off his surveillance of Rafaema as Ferris composed a [Message] back to the screaming High Command of their mutual city. The Drake was shaking his head.

“I can’t stop. I can’t stop. Everything’s sliding! Is the world on a slant or just me?

Makhir seized Aldonss. The Drake breathed a sigh of relief as he stopped and began to right himself. Just a loss of equilibrium. He’d really thought for a second…

Hunt Commander Makhir’s eyes widened. Then he looked down and saw both himself and Aldonss sliding down the ballroom floor, despite standing perfectly upright.

Wilovan and Ratici looked at Reynold. The [Combat Butler] offered them a cup.

“Inebriation changes your gravity, sirs. Just don’t drink enough that you pass out.”

“Now this seems like a fellow who knows his drink.”

The two abandoned their wines and took a gulp. It went down hard and stung, but that was what you wanted. All three sighed. Then Reynold nodded.

“Gentlemen Callers?”

They stiffened. Both nearly went for their weapons, but Reynold glanced at them.

“I am in Lady Reinhart’s employ.”

“Ah. The Flower Lady.”

Wilovan murmured, relaxing slightly. Reynold nodded.

“I never did foray into it before becoming a [Butler]. But I am from the north.”

“Ah, then sir, you have us at a disadvantage, knowing our names and all. To whom are we speaking?”

“Do pardon me, gentlemen. Reynold, [Butler], at your service. Charmed to meet you.”

He gave both a firm handshake. Ratici and Wilovan smiled, and Reynold managed one himself.

Some things didn’t need to be said. Wilovan checked Reynold’s legs, as everyone did, and Ratici glanced down too. Reynold eyed their wear and tear, and thought of the reports he’d heard from Liscor, the Brotherhood of Serendipitous Meetings.

“It seems to me that I’d be rude to say it, but you were that fellow in the nasty ambush with the Guild, weren’t you?”

“…The very same.”

Wilovan looked at Reynold. Not even many of the guests had put that together. The Gnoll nodded slowly.

“Then, sir. I shall drop it and offer you my sincere apologies.”

“It’s…not necessary. Thank you for your discretion.”

Ratici nodded as well. He looked around at the gathering. They had known each other a minute, no more, and yet, the Drake was confident as he raised a cup.

“It’s been a difficult time, fellows. But that’s what a man has to do. A difficult time of late.”

It was a simple toast that said nothing and said it all. Reynold slowly tapped cups with the Drake and Gnoll. They drank in silence.

The [Server], who had watched the strange meeting in the center of Oteslia’s ballroom, felt someone tap her on the shoulder. One of Oteslia’s Wall Ladies stared at the three.

“…Excuse me. Who are they?”

 

——

 

Debonair. Now there was a word that said a lot. Too much, really, especially if someone used it to describe themselves. It was a word that said what a lot of other words could say much more simply. Fancy for fancy’s sake, perhaps, like ‘eloquent’ or ‘preface’. Sometimes things were too much gilding and not enough substance.

Now, the [Butler], the hat-men? They were style layered onto a lot of substance, which could and would kill you with a tap from a club that pushed your brains out your mouth. On the other hand…the Thronebearers were to [Knights] what debonair was to words.

Or so it seemed to anyone meeting them for the first time. Ser Lormel, Dame Ushar, Ser Sest, and Ser Dalimont of the Thronebearers of Calanfer marched in radiant pomposity towards her temporary home, followed by a seething gaggle of onlookers.

It did not matter that they were covered in grime; in fact, even as you watched, you could see Ser Lormel’s armor magically losing some of the lesser dents, cleaning itself.

“Now there’s a Skill that’s useless.”

Saliss shook his head as he watched the [Knight] gallivant forwards, bowing to some people in the crowd, giving the onlookers a real display of Terandrian etiquette. Which, it had to be said, the Drakes and Gnolls either found amusing, vaguely charming, or ludicrously stupid.

Mirn knew Saliss was shaken, and folded his arms.

“Self-cleaning armor? I’d trade one of my Skills for that. Does it do clothing too?”

He admired a well-dressed man, even though the Thronebearers were in a different style to, say, Wilovan or Ratici. Saliss could appreciate it…but didn’t. He glowered as Lyonette fled into her mansion.

Certainly, the rest of Lyonette’s growing entourage didn’t hold anything but the lowest of expectations for this group. Wilovan and Ratici slumped into chairs as they entered, clearly ready for more near-death encounters. Xif took one look at Dame Ushar as she greeted him and rubbed at his eyes.

Saliss, Mirn, the three watching [Covert Maids] from their hiding places? Not a single thought ran in their heads but ‘how could this lot make things worse?’. They had already outed Lyonette to the rest of Oteslia, if they hadn’t known already, and from what everyone had seen of the war, the Thronebearers of Calanfer were as good in a fight as Saliss’ left sock.

Saliss was tired, dealing with new layers of complexity added to the Oteslian situation. He was no [Strategist], despite being Chaldion’s grandchild. But he could see what they’d see.

“Let’s figure out how deep a hole we’re in. Magnolia Reinhart just tweaked Zeres’ tail again. She’s got a grand plan and people now have to choose sides and support her or not—and it’s a damned tempting offer, but it’s a side. Her side. At the same time, Oteslia’s gangs have Lyonette marked for death, but Oteslia’s Watch won’t go after them hard—did you see that, Mirn?”

“Yep. As bad as it gets.”

“No, no. It’s worse. Because now everyone knows Lyonette is Lyonette, thinks she’s mixed up with Ilvriss from the ring, and we have four gold-plated idiots ready to complicate things. Plus the Faerie Flowers, Mrsha being missing, the tribes of Izril ready to tear the Drakes a second tail, the antidote, and…!”

Saliss didn’t even know about the Dragons. His head hurt. He expected to get a message from Chaldion any moment now. When one came, from the Mage’s Guild of all places, and Researcher Dromenl—he was surprised.

“What? A possible lead? Don’t pull my tail. That’s the last thing we need—where in the name of Sewer Slimes is Anazuland? What’s…huh…what’s this?

He frowned as he snatched the sheaf from a Street Runner at the door and scanned the pages. Saliss’ eyes sharpened. Even he had only vaguely heard of the ingredients mentioned. He’d normally dismiss it out of claw altogether. But today? He saw something Researcher Dromenl had underlined several times. An appended note.

 

Khelt has begun experimentation. Alchemical ingredients are limited; superlative experts concur this solution is likely to succeed. Sourcing of reagents has begun.

 

‘Superlative experts’? As the Named Adventurer [Alchemist], Saliss was insulted. He might have been less so if he came face to face with the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets and the experts who agreed that, if the reagent still existed, it was definitely likely to help. See? You hadn’t lost all the good stuff! Now just get a Unicorn horn, and…

He strode out of the mansion and left Mirn to watch the Gentlemen Callers sit, wearily tending to wounds and discussing the situation. Mirn’s own head hurt trying to process what was at stake.

Lyonette du Marquin had retreated to her rooms already. The Thronebearers were to wait on her pleasure, and that might be a few years in coming. Nevertheless, Ser Dalimont was first on the chopping block as their leader.

“Here of all places. Just like that.”

One of the Thronebearers was murmuring. Ser Sest cast a glance around the mansion, at Xif, the Gentlemen Callers, Mirn, and coughed.

“Dalimont, do you think it’s wise to go by yourself? I could smooth Her Highness’ temper…”

Dalimont glanced up as Lormel offered to join him. He eyed Ser Lormel.

“…When was the last time you attended Her Highness?”

“Hm. Well, not personally, but she was a lovely girl of about twelve…”

“Ah. In that case, I think I will risk her wrath alone. Her Highness, Seraphel, gave me a message to relay to her sister should I meet her.”

None of the other Thronebearers looked keen to join Dalimont, especially since it turned out they’d also let her daughter uh…vanish. They gathered around, taking stock of the situation, as Dalimont girded his loins or whatever the hell [Knights] did.

Mirn watched with a bit of Saliss’ skepticism as they muttered.

“So this is Oteslia. What a huge tree. I’ve seen paintings and the scrying orb world tour, of course, but it is a sight to see in person.”

Ser Lormel nodded.

“Extraordinary. You know, this is the time to purchase some souvenirs in person. As much as one can afford, really. I am told they sell cuttings of some plants, seeds—”

Sest raised a finger.

“Is it germane to gift something frivolous, in times of war?”

“More to gift than not, I should think, Sest. Why, it’s the height of impoliteness to travel a continent apart and not have some token to bring back. Now, what’s this business we’re caught up in? I got that Lady Reinhart’s here—what a scandalous contract! And a siege. And the Meeting of Tribes. And…I say, does anyone have a bit of paper so we can jot this all down?”

Amazing. They were idiots. Dalimont rose as Ratici looked up. Lyonette had called his name, and he marched to the steps like a man towards a Creler nest.

“Excuse me, Miss, Sirs. Paper’s over there.”

The Thronebearers turned. Dame Ushar fetched some writing supplies.

“Thank you, Mister…”

“Ratici. Are you staying with us, then?”

Wilovan raised his intoxicated and weary head; he was indeed feeling a bit of gravity pulling him sideways, not altogether unpleasant. But he was in no mood for another fight, thank you sir. Dame Ushar watched Dalimont head to Lyonette’s room and bowed slightly.

“Indeed, Mister Ratici. We trust we shall not be a burden on her H—Lady—Miss Marquin.”

“You mean, Miss Solstice.

“Is that the name she’s using?”

Ser Sest exclaimed. Xif poked his head back into the dining room.

“Are you all staying here? Someone had better get groceries. Not me. I’m trying to experiment…”

The Thronebearers traded glances. Lormel looked patently horrified.

“Is Her Highness staying under the same roof as an [Alchemist]? Hardly safe, I must say! Mister Ratici, and Wilovan, is it? And good day to you too, Mister Mirn! I know we are allies of convenience, but I must ask if Miss Lionette is so strapped for coin that she must share a home?”

Interestingly, he gave Lyonette the curious inflection of her fake name. Mirn shrugged.

“I just got here. I think we’re all here to avoid her being shanked in her sleep. There have been attempts already. This is a house given to her by the First Gardener.”

“Yes, but the impropriety!”

Xif looked rather hurt.

“Saliss of Lights is here too. He’s a Named Adventurer and he’s naked.”

“We did notice. But a Named Adventurer is considered de rigueur in making scandalous moves…no, no. Absolutely not. This will not do!”

Dame Ushar had investigated the pantry and found it was almost empty of foodstuffs. She tapped Lormel on the shoulder.

“Add provisions to this list. Make a column—next to the one with the political issues. Lady Marquin surely hungers for food from home. A Calanfer wrap, perhaps for an evening snack? I imagine the ingredients would not be that hard to source.”

“Fresh beef? Perhaps an issue with the [Druids]…”

Lormel adjusted his writing. Mirn, Xif, and the Gentlemen Callers were now watching this side show with a kind of awed stupefaction. Were they idiots? No, were they real?

“Nonsense, I’m sure even Oteslia has a [Butcher]’s. Who has the best Skills here in the appropriate cuisine preparation?”

Lormel hmmed.

“I suppose I would do, in lieu of a chef. At least in preparing small treats. [Delight Cooking], you know. Not for meals, but at least something to cheer Her Highness?”

“Ah, I knew you had your weight in gold, Ser Lormel.”

Sest had been taking a tour of the house. He nodded at the Thronebearer and Lormel modestly shook his head.

“It’s only for entertainment. The Princesses do appreciate a bit of a show, especially when they have guests…now, to business. Dame Ushar, your shopping list.”

“Thank you, Ser Lormel. Sest, are you going to walk about the mansion?”

“A few rounds. Lormel, the streets?”

“At once, Ser Sest! Just to scope out this quagmire. Perhaps inform the palace we have made it anon to the Princess’ side?”

“Very good. With deepest apologies, guests—it is a very difficult situation and we have landed ourselves in the center of it. We must make formal introductions later…”

Sest bowed as the two Thronebearers hurried to the door, but they all stopped to shake hands, bow, and then speed out. He walked around the rooms and the mansion’s exterior. Mirn just shook his head and collapsed into a chair.

Humans. I thought Saliss was making some of it up, but they really are all as crazy as the rumors say.

He was tired enough himself that he might have dozed off. The occasional raised word from Lyonette drifting down the stairs was not enough to take him out of a dozing state.

Dame Ushar returning with groceries wasn’t either. Nor Lormel returning, still amid the buzz from outside. Sest? It was only when someone shrieked that Mirn was on his feet, club in hand.

Wilovan had a similar weapon in his grip. They surged forwards as someone screamed.

[Assassin]! Murder!

The watching [Maids] cursed as they focused on the mansion. Already?

It was Xif’s fault. Xif’s, the First Gardener’s, and mainly Xif’s again. Given the gravitas of the situation, the First Gardener had decided Lyonette needed some help. So she’d sent some staff to assist in the mansion’s upkeep, as she very much doubted anyone with Lyonette could wield a broom properly.

Sending staff to a Human who had just been nearly killed? You might want to vet them. You might not want to open the door, but the [Alchemist] had absent-mindedly let them in.

And—Mirn skidded to a halt as he raced upstairs and saw the carnage.

A shock of red hair. Blood. Mirn’s jaw opened. A body in a dress lay on the floor as an innocuous Drake with a feather duster whirled. She looked almost as confused as Wilovan and Mirn. But they froze in shock. The [Assassin] cursed.

I got her! Understand?

She threw down something. A badge or calling card, and burst out the window. Mirn looked around for Dalimont, but he was gone. Dead? A traitor? What was—

“What’s happening? Another attack? Dead gods.

Xif stared in horror at Lyonette’s body. She wasn’t breathing. Someone had stabbed her so many times that—everyone was frozen as they saw the murder. How? Without anyone seeing?

Ser Sest, Ushar, and Lormel appeared behind the group, the slowest to arrive. They took one look at the bloody room, the dead body. Ser Sest nodded.

“Ah. They’ve discovered the body.”

“Well done, Ser Sest. This must be a record.”

Lormel went to shake Sest’s hand. Every head turned slowly as the Thronebearer adjusted his mustache.

“Yes, well. I say, is that a calling card? I do love collecting them.”

He strode over and picked up the token, a kind of curved wing. He tucked it away and Ushar scolded him.

“We have to analyze which [Assassin] it was, Sest.”

Excuse me. Lyonette is dead!

Mirn shouted. The Thronebearers turned to him, looking amused. Ratici and Wilovan were turning, realizing something—

A door opened. Mirn saw a familiar young woman poke her head out. Lyonette stared, still angry, and now confused, at the gathered people. Mirn’s jaw dropped as Dalimont heaved a sigh.

“Excuse me, Your Highness. I believe your [Knights] are securing the mansion.”

He closed the door as Mirn’s jaw clicked shut. Dame Ushar studied the dead…body…

“Does anyone have a spare preservation charm? I need a bit more pig’s blood.”

“We could use beetroot juice. It washes easier.”

“Ser Lormel, please. Blood is not that easy to replicate. Excuse me, Mister Mirn? We need to preserve the moment.”

Dame Ushar carefully covered Mirn’s footprints with a fresh splattering of blood. She stepped back, nodded, and closed the door. Then she adjusted something on the front.

Lyonette’s Room.

The sign was a bit askew. The Thronebearer dusted her hands.

“We need a new window, Lormel.”

“I will ask the help to look into it.”

What is going on?

Mirn burst out at last. The Thronebearers gave him an odd look. Sest explained after a moment.

“Why, security of course, Mister Mirn. This is just the first step. I’ve taken the liberty of placing wards on all the windows, and I suspect the roof isn’t fully secured yet, Ushar, Lormel. Also, we have at least four pairs of eyes. I noticed three of Reinhart’s staff.”

“Fitting. I suppose they’ll deal with other surveillance.”

The three Thronebearers trooped downstairs. They stood around the table as Lormel consulted their notes. This time, their audience followed and looked again.

“This is by way of being the pre-murdered-quarry feint. A classic in Calanfer, and I am delighted it worked here. I apologize for the ruse, but it is always most convincing the first time.”

“The dead body?”

“Pig’s meat. I bought some blood and meat from a [Butcher]’s. We do have to hang a charm up to make sure it won’t smell or rot, but that room is effectively occupied. Some [Assassins] break in, see the dead body, and leave. Not that you intend to let them onto the premises, you understand? But it is amazing how often they check the signs on the doors.”

Ushar smiled. Sest rolled his eyes.

“We only let in that one so she would cast further bounties into doubt, Ushar. Let’s not imply that we make a habit of letting killers near Their Highnesses. Now, I’m nearly done setting up the sound wards, Lormel. What’s the situation politically?”

Ser Lormel adjusted his hair with a comb.

“In a word? Tricky. We’re clearly married to the Wall Lord Ilvriss, aha, that is to say, both as allies of convenience and perception-wise. I should wait on Her Highness’ word, but I have already had nearly eight invitations from concerned parties wishing to meet with one of us, personally.”

“Very good. Perhaps I should visit them?”

“Polish your armor first, Ser Sest. I actually have written invitations as well. How many, Ushar?”

She counted.

“Sixteen.”

“Sixteen. Then how about this? I shall respond to all signatories via the Mage’s Guild. No, no, the Runner’s Guild. Let me just accidentally list all parties in correspondence so they can see each other…and my delighted acquiescence…on behalf of Calanfer, the Eternal Throne protect all allies…that should do.”

“Do you think they’ll buy it? Perhaps it’s too blunt, Lormel.”

“Not for [Knights] far from home. Forgetting to respond individually is a classic mistake, Ser Sest. Now, when you go, they want you to ride in a carriage.”

“Ah, excellent. Then I shall ride myself. Armor shining. Should I announce myself? Ser Sest of the Thronebearers of Calanfer!

Dame Ushar tapped a finger on the table.

“Mm. That’s quite good. Give them the Duke’s bow as well before entering.”

Mirn traded a look with Ratici. The other Drake looked like he’d turned into a fish. Was he hearing things right? Were the Thronebearers…

“Excuse me. What are you doing?”

Xif looked bewildered. The Thronebearers instantly elaborated.

“I’m so sorry, Alchemist Xif. This is by way of being a rushed moment, so we have failed to elaborate. Simple politics. Sers Sest and Lormel are simply engaging in a muddied waters tactic. The Thronebearers prevailing rather publicly on a lot of interested parties, nay, allies. At least in presentation.”

“And presentation leads to reality at times. Lormel, would you draw up a list of all the priority candidates to keep track of?”

“I have a list of thirty two and growing. Would you like to quibble over the names?”

Sest glanced at the list. And there it was. Like watching a fish, flopping on land, finally enter the water. The Thronebearers didn’t even seem bothered by the tangle of politics. This was their battlefield and they calmly set to work. Dame Ushar stepped outside for a second and Mirn listened as she vocalized loud enough for the watchers to hear.

Excuse me, Miss? I am Dame Ushar of the Thronebearers of Calanfer, at your service. May the Eternal Throne watch over you! Might I trouble you for directions or a method by which to communicate my deepest thanks to Pallass for allowing my company safe passage? Perhaps an embassy? Quite a splendid journey, near the end, but I do see their warning about Zeres was to be heeded. Perhaps a way to send a written letter? Thank you.”

She marched off. Sest shook his head.

“Ushar does like the theatrics. Should we ask her to skulk in armor amidst nightfall?”

“With a shadowed figure? Next to whose mansion?”

“Mm. Make it one of Her Highness’ enemies. She gets to rub soot into her armor. Who are we bribing and how much?”

“Can you slip…eight gold pieces to…this Drake? A Wall Lord Aldonss’ staff. And then, of course, slip up.”

“Trip?”

“Maybe just drop the bag. Let’s not all fall over ourselves, Lormel. Save that for the right moment.”

“Too true, Sest. Too true…”

Fascinating fellows. Quite an upgrade from fancy idiots. But it occurred to their audience, watching the Thronebearers, that perhaps these were the reinforcements they needed in this hour. After all. Lyonette had a Named Adventurer in her corner. She had Mirn, the underworld’s famous duo, and a lot of allies.

What she did not have—until now—were people who could help her deal with the many factions warring for her interest. And, more crucially? Sest and Lormel were drawing up a rotation, and Ratici and Wilovan, Mirn, even Xif, realized none of them intended to leave her side, sleeping or eating.

She didn’t have good bodyguards. The Gentlemen Callers were good fighters. Terrible bodyguards. There was a difference between being able to kill someone and watching someone. Saliss had the exact same problem. The Thronebearers of Calanfer lived for this job alone.

“I rather think we have a chance of escorting Her Highness out of this mess, between us all, Lormel. It’s Dalimont I’m worried about. The man’s changed.”

Sest said at last, when they were done with their brainstorming session. By now, Mirn, Ratici, Wilovan, and Xif were sitting with the Thronebearers, having learned a respect for their methods. Mirn glanced up as Lormel nodded eloquently. Ushar stepped back in, having sent a signatory address to Pallass and accidentally read part of her letter out loud for ‘great services rendered to Calanfer’.

“Are we gossiping about Ser Dalimont? For shame.”

Sest ducked his head, but he glanced significantly around.

“You see, Mister Mirn—”

“Mirn’s fine.”

“—I thank you. It is not that we don’t trust Ser Dalimont. All of us were sent by our respective members of the royal family. Ser Lormel normally guards their Majesties, the [King] and [Queen] of Calanfer, I am Princess Shardele’s champion, and Dame Ushar is the chosen representative of Princess Vernoue.”

It was all Terandrian to Mirn, but Ser Sest had a point.

“Ser Dalimont is—or rather, is recently—Princess Seraphel du Marquin’s [Knight]. That is, her chosen representative of the Thronebearers in enforcing her will, defending her honor, a trustworthy aid and confidant. Calanfer is united as one, but there are…factions, shall we say.”

Lormel coughed tactfully.

“Indeed. Not that we, any of us, bear Her Highness Lyonette any ill-will. But Dalimont? Changed.”

“How so? He seemed like a fairly well-set chap. Not that I’ve seen much of him yet.”

Wilovan leaned over. The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings might be divorced in some ways from the Thronebearers, but they had interesting similarities. Especially as two groups that sometimes regarded their own members. Ushar pursed her lips.

“Well, Dalimont was not in Seraphel’s camp to begin with. This is gossip, of course, but I have to admit…I’ve been itching to speak of it. We haven’t had a moment to spot it, but the differences have been growing. Her Highness, Princess Seraphel, didn’t have a champion until recently; she had no desire to do so.”

“Who is that? The…”

“4th Princess, Mister Xif. Lyonette’s the 6th.”

“Oh. And wait…she’s a [Princess]? What!?

Mirn grinned.

“Keep up, Xif. Is that significant, Dame Ushar?”

“Mm. Not really, Mirn. I would say it is significantly insignificant, given Princess Seraphel’s…personality. She can be difficult.”

“I say, Ushar! A bit harsh!”

That was Lormel, protesting. He explained to the group.

“Princess Seraphel has had an unlucky run of it. I would put a better spin on it if we were not so closely allied…between us, she is ‘Seraphel the Dutiful’ in Calanfer. Her other nickname is…Seraphel the Cursed. The Widow. She has survived two husbands now in their graves.”

“Three, if you count the fiancé who eloped.”

“Was it…unscrupulous?”

Wilovan looked as uncomfortable as Lormel about this line of gossip, which the Thronebearer clearly appreciated. Lormel sighed.

“Not in any case. One died of age, in bed, another a hunting accident—after they divorced, but still—the last one, most recent, soon after they were wed, in battle. So I suppose it should not count, but it does. Dalimont was escorting her on that last marriage. Messy business. Quite a scandal at the time, over in Noelictus. It…changed him.”

“I never knew Dalimont as well before that. How do you mean, Lormel? Obviously, I’ve seen how he acted at Liscor. Differently.”

Ushar rested her weight on the table. Lormel, oldest of the lot, and the one who’d been at the royal court, frowned.

“I—I don’t know how to say it. He pledged his allegiance to Her Highness, Seraphel. He certainly levelled up a bit. He was a [Knight] like any other—decent. Mannered, a bit ill-fated to be chosen as Her Highness’ leader to escort her to the wedding, or so I thought. He came back without as much patience. For some kinds of activities, you see? Like at Liscor, where he did away with our customary address.”

“It’s part and parcel of our very order.”

“Yes. Well…he wasn’t the only one who changed.”

Lormel murmured. He cast his eyes up towards the ceiling, where the ‘discussion’ that had gone on for at least two hours had at least stopped being vocal enough to be heard through the floorboards. Lyonette had stopped shouting. Lormel tapped a finger to his lips.

“I have heard rumors Princess Seraphel changed too. But no further can I speculate. And what happened there? Only Ser Dalimont knows.”

“Surely you could ask another Thronebearer who went with them.”

Ushar remarked. Ser Sest shook his head.

“I would make a joke about the Kingdom of Shade, Noelictus, if it were not entirely unseemly, Dame Ushar. I fear the only ones who could tell us of it were those two, unless the dead can speak. We sent a royal escort to Noelictus with Princess Seraphel. Ser Dalimont is the only one who came back.”

 

——

 

Princess Lyonette du Marquin did not like him. She did not trust him, or the other Thronebearers. They were an inconvenience, fools, and had nearly died to no good end. She was not Calanfer’s pawn. She had her daughter to save and she knew the Thronebearers.

She had every right not to trust them. Dalimont could even agree with her frank assessment of their combat capabilities.

What saddened him was that she wondered why her sisters had sent their [Knights], and Seraphel, 4th Princess of Calanfer, him. Lyonette du Marquin did not think of familial love in their actions. She just saw familial gain.

It saddened Dalimont, because that was no way for her to live. He had not thought of it like that before. Now? He looked at Lyonette du Marquin and struggled to recognize her.

Not in appearance; she was clearly older, changed by her experiences, but in everything else. The way she held herself, looked at him. Even spoke.

Gone was the young [Princess] who made a name for herself by calling people ‘peons’ and refusing to so much as acknowledge anyone she considered lesser. Even her presence felt different. She had been a Princess of Calanfer, before.

Here was a [Princess]. Dalimont would not have credited the transformation, and he wondered if his companions would sense it. But he had seen a change just like this.

“Your Highness. I beg your pardon for our interruption to your plans. Yet Calanfer is at war. The crown would seek you out as it would any hope of defending the Dawn Concordat.”

He saw those blue eyes narrow. You mean, a tool. A weapon. Dalimont hesitated.

“…Yes, at least as far as His Majesty is concerned. However, I do not represent the Eternal Throne alone. Princess Seraphel bade me come and render you aid, Your Highness. Not purely for her political gain! I cannot speak for my company. But I shall do as I believe Her Highness, Seraphel du Marquin, wishes. And that does not mean I shall demand you return immediately.”

It surprised her, though Lyonette kept her face clear. Dalimont was born and bred in Calanfer, though, so what others would miss, he read.

The thing was, she was skeptical. She knew the 4th Princess of Calanfer. Seraphel du Marquin was not as…unkind as some of her sisters. She was famed for her sharp tongue, her failed marriages. But she and Lyonette had not been closer than any other two sisters; far less than some. Neither were they enemies.

“She has changed, Your Highness. I do not know how else to say it other than…an experience. No, I apologize, for those words are lacking. It was…”

Dalimont closed his eyes, and the perplexed [Princess] lost some of the ire and actually listened after two hours of remonstrations. He didn’t blame her; she was terrified for her daughter. He had wondered—but it was true. And her learning of their journey, their encounter with Mrsha, and him understanding her position had taken that long just to go through.

But there was more she didn’t know. Ser Dalimont had changed. He had been in the company of the 4th Princess. How could he explain it to her? He tried, hesitating, but all he could say was—

“…An adventure. Such as the one you yourself have gone through. Princess Lyonette, I beg you. Listen to me. I am Seraphel’s will. She sent me, war or not, to help you. My fellow Thronebearers may demand you come home. Seraphel…does not. She is worried for you. She is not the same woman you knew.”

The [Princess] looked at Dalimont. The Thronebearer rose from his kneeling position where he had rested. His armor was still battered. But gold was not light, anyways.

“I will tell you almost all that I can, without revealing Her Highness’ secrets, such as they may be. For the rest? You must ask Princess Seraphel herself. It may be an incredible tale, Princess Lyonette. Nevertheless, I tell you this: it was an adventure. A tragedy in parts. Noelictus, the Kingdom of Shade, saw war and calamity. The dead walked. I fought undead and saw a [Necromancer] assail the living. I saw war. And…the very same monster who assailed your inn. The Spider herself.”

He clenched a fist. Now, Lyonette was listening. Dalimont shook his head.

“Her Highness was there. Yet it seems that at the center of it all…it may sound incredible to say, unbelievable, but at the heart of it, among the many things, the reason she changed and we escaped the direst of odds was a simple—meeting. We met someone extraordinary, before her name rang across the continent and world. You know her, I think. We met the Singer of Terandria under Noelictus’ dark skies.”

Lyonette’s eyes widened. She stopped growing angry, questioning Seraphel’s intentions. She sat down and listened. Because though the story was incredible, unbelievable—she had met someone too. And she knew more than Dalimont of why it had come to pass.

In Noelictus, the Singer of Terandria had appeared out of nowhere, seemingly. Her tale intertwined with the 4th Princess of Calanfer, among many others. Dalimont spoke, haltingly, conveying as much as he could to explain to Lyonette why she could trust him. Not all of it. He didn’t know all of it, and what he did speak was incredible enough.

But that—was a tale for another time. And before Dalimont could tell it fully, Lyonette du Marquin and he both turned and saw the news coming from Terandria.

A single battle among many, but an astonishing one. What made the two stop was that Lyonette looked at the figure and named him. Dalimont realized that, somehow, his long journey across another continent had led him straight back home.

It was all, somehow—connecting.

 

——

 

A [Knight]-order quite unlike the Thronebearers of Calanfer rode like fire. Literally; some of them ran so hot after the battle that their horses’ hooves ignited the ground.

However, theirs was a distant flame to the Order of Seasons’ true might. Pheislant’s fighting army, much battered, but rescued from a complete rout, rode with them, as did the liberated prisoners.

To the south, the Summer’s Champion and Order of Seasons’ main force fell back for reinforcements. Yet they had survived the anvil of the Order of the Hydra.

This disparate force was moving deeper into Ailendamus’ territory, cutting east, already being pursued. But from the Order of the Hydra, who were on foot.

“We have a window to strike from. I will not gainsay Ser Solstice his choice. If anything, I say it is the only option left to us! We could fall back and regroup, but Ailendamus will be forced to pursue us. We might even hope to enter the main battleground of Kaliv and the Dawn Concordat, as we hoped.”

One of the most senior Spring Knights voiced his opinion as they rode. He was one of the former prisoners, a Ser Gauradin, who was checking his armor as he spoke. He adjusted a gauntlet, then murmured to the company.

“…I think I have the wrong armor set. Mine has my name etched in it, just behind the cuirass. Can anyone check?”

The recently-liberated prisoners were trading their gear back and forth, much of which had been neatly, conveniently stored. One called out that she had Gauradin’s armor and they arranged to trade the next time they stopped.

What the Spring Knight didn’t say was what everyone knew. One person’s unorthodox tactics had turned the battle in their favor. If Ser Solstice thought continuing the raid across Ailendamus’ lines would help, well, the recently-liberated prisoners were not about to question his judgement.

If anyone would, it would be Talia Kallinad, one of the most senior Summer Knights present. She wasn’t sure she would.

There he rode. Talk of the hour, the mysterious Goblin Slayer of Izril. Ser Solstice, or the ‘rabbit eater’, as the Order of the Hydra knew him.

The Goblin [Knight]. She couldn’t decide what to make of him anymore. She had ridden to his aid and did not regret that. She had seen him best a [General] of Ailendamus—for the third time.

And now? He had two auras.

Every [Knight] could tell. Gauradin rode forwards, next to Ser Solstice.

“A fine moment, Ser Solstice! If we were at the Order of Seasons, we would celebrate your achievement! It is customary, you see, for friends and comrades to toast the occasion. We of the Order of Seasons call it the Advent of Color. I had not your acquaintance except in passing, even though we rode in the same host. I would take it as an honor, Ser, if you would allow me to participate. You have liberated us from ignoble imprisonment and won a great battle.”

“I would also join your Advent upon our return!”

A Summer Knight who had ridden with Talia called out. Ser Solstice raised his hands, his body language expressive despite the armor, but he didn’t object. He seemed quietly pleased as the others gathered around him.

The hero of the moment. Behind him, Ser Ilm was discussing Rabbiteater’s new change with a veteran Summer Knight. Neither Zolv nor Voost were here, not the Summer Champion’s personal guard, but every Order of Seasons [Knight] was an aura-wielder, and thus among the world’s experts in using them, aside from [Ladies], royalty, and the few other classes that specialized in the subject.

“Two auras. Now, neither one is seasonal.”

“Does it matter, Ser Ilm? An aura is a fine thing! Two? Why, that’s rare even among our order!”

“Not unheard of, but yes. I only fear it will make Ser Solstice’s life more difficult. Not worse—but we have a precedent.”

“Do we, Ser Ilm?”

Talia rode closer and joined the conversation. Ser Ilm nodded, the Autumn Knight’s eyes alight with scholarly interest.

“Sometimes a member of our order is so gifted as to receive two at once. Even be caught between seasons, though that is rarest yet. It is a blessing…and a complication.”

“I can see the complication. Will his auras fight for dominance? He cannot sustain both at once, surely.”

Talia knew auras. Each person had their innate personality, beliefs, willpower, made manifest. If you could physically manipulate it, that was a huge, versatile help. But…like any muscle, pool of magic, or so on, it had limits. Ilm nodded seriously.

“He will have to find his balance. That he has two means two forces weigh equally upon his soul. For instance, I am Autumn’s Child. You two are Summer’s Wrath. He? Something in him speaks to Hearth. Something in him is quite Brave.”

“I cannot doubt the latter!”

The Summer Knight laughed. Talia smiled politely, and Ilm went on.

“He shall have to train. Battle will help him, I think, although I hope it will not cost him anything. I see Ser Markus and Dame Meisa are already showing him the basics.”

Talia looked ahead. And there they were, his friends. She had been among their number just a month ago, and would have been most pleased of all. She was conflicted. And Ser Ilm noticed.

“I was gratified to see you break Ailendamus’ lines with us, Dame Talia. But I would be remiss in not mentioning the wedge between you and Ser Solstice.”

“I cannot credit it, Talia.”

The other [Knight] leaned over. He frowned, flipping up his visor to stare at Ser Solstice.

“You have never elaborated on your reasons for drawing a line, nor did I ask. But I have not found his conduct unbecoming! Unconventional, perhaps.”

“I cannot explain, Ser Ioust.”

“Very well. But I shall make amends for my own absence of warmth.”

The man nodded sharply and rode forwards. Talia bit her lip. They had noticed her obvious split with Rabbiteater, in the mess hall and at other times. Greysten had had words with her, but not forced her to do anything. Now? Damn it all—she ground her teeth.

Why was it not easy?

 

——

 

They made camp shortly, only travelling far enough to avoid pursuit. There was a lot to do, injuries to attend to that healing potions had not fully fixed, armor to swap, plans to be made.

Rabbiteater was at the center of it, with the veteran [Knights] and Pheislant’s command. He was not eloquent, but Talia saw him surprise the others with the course he plotted. He was not an expert on maps. He did not know the particulars of their logistics or Pheislant’s army’s style.

However, he did see places to hide, places to strike from. He was a veteran raider and knew how to lose pursuit or make a defender’s life a misery.

She absented herself from the discussion, though she had every right to attend. She still didn’t know how to act around him. Talia was attending to her armor when someone joined her.

“Dame Talia. A word?”

Dame Meisa. Talia glanced up. They were closer to the sentry posts than the camp proper, a ways out from the latrines. Talia saw few [Knights] around.

“Of course, Dame Meisa.”

She tensed a bit, despite herself, as Dame Meisa sat, removed her helmet, and began to check her own gear. The two were silent for a moment. But Meisa was Spring and spring did not like waiting.

“I was pleased to see that you honored your vow at the end. Rabbiteater might have died, but for your intervention, and I thank you for that.”

Talia’s hand paused as she applied a thin coat of fast-drying paint to her armor.

“I only did what any [Knight] of the Summer would do, Dame Meisa.”

“Of course, Dame Talia. But I didn’t know if you would do even that. You’ve made your feelings about Rabbiteater plain.”

The Summer Knight calmly put down her breastplate. She suppressed her aura, although posture was more difficult.

“—That sounds unworthy of you, Dame Meisa.”

“Does it? I didn’t know if you would ride to the Goblin’s defence.”

“You rode with him. I was not about to let any [Knight] die in vain.”

“And if it was just Rabbiteater, Ser Solstice alone?”

Talia set down her tools.

“If you want to take me to task for my views, Dame Meisa, it feels like this has been a conversation long set aside.”

Meisa’s not-quite-glare never wavered.

“Indeed. I recognize that, as a Spring Knight not yet set in her season, I cannot take a superior [Knight] to task.”

“By all means, Dame Meisa. Speak your mind.”

“Very well, Talia. Then I find your conduct towards Rabbiteater dishonorable and shameful. I am glad you acted properly at the crucial moment.”

Talia Kallinad was not the woman you turned to when you defused a situation. The Summer Knight felt her temper roused in an instant.

“Really. That is an incredible position from you, Meisa. Should we simply ignore that Goblins have been our enemies? That Goblin Kings have destroyed entire nations?

“I think we should make a difference between individuals and species! Or did his identity undo the fact that he saved us from the Bear of Ailendamus? He sailed across an ocean because you asked him to, Dame Talia. And you insulted him time and time again, when before that I counted you as his strongest ally.”

Talia did not deny that. She folded her arms.

“And I am not blind to the fact that the instant I vouched my doubts, you hopped entirely into Rabbiteater’s camp.”

“Is that a slur on my dignity, Dame Talia?”

Meisa asked, calmly. Talia shrugged.

“You tell me. I do not suggest that intimacy is disgraceful. I am not a prude, Dame Meisa. But it is one thing to greet a Goblin [Knight] as a comrade, and another to go as far as you.”

The Spring Knight smiled with more than a hint of Winter’s element.

“I confess, Dame Talia, you may be right. Perhaps I have ‘hopped’ faster than most. But I will tell you, honestly, that it was you who pushed me into it.”

Talia hadn’t expected that.

“Really? Why?”

The Spring Knight stretched out her legs. The two sat alone, ignored by the rest of the camp. Unheard—except for Ser Markus, trying to slowly edge away, on his way back from the latrines.

“You drove me to it, Dame Talia. I will confess, it was swift. And motivated by sympathy. Sympathy, aye, for a brave warrior who crossed a sea for war, did all this, and was stabbed in the chest by a woman who would not look him in the eye. But I found he was more than he seemed. So I will not be lectured by you and—what are you doing, Ser Markus?

Talia’s head snapped around. Ser Markus froze, halfway behind the tent.

“I, ah, was just heading off. Don’t mind me, Dame Talia, Meisa.”

“You look as if you fear we’ll kill each other, Markus. Don’t be a prat. We’re talking.”

Meisa nodded. Both stared at Ser Markus and the Spring Knight hesitated. He checked his armor, then shook his head.

“I appreciate the situation is deeply personal and thank you for your words of assurance, Meisa. Talia. But with respect? I have sisters.

He made his escape. Ironically, his flight calmed the argument. For a moment. Meisa turned back to Talia.

“You disgust me, Talia. I held you in considerable esteem, and we fought for Ser Raim together. Despite that, despite sailing to Baleros for your brother, you could not see past the color of Rabbiteater’s skin and eyes. For that, I hate you. It is like our half-Elven brethren in the Order of Seasons facing issues with the least-tolerant of our order.”

“How dare you. It is not the same—”

Then why did you ride to his aid? Why do you clearly struggle to maintain your hostility? I am glad you are conflicted. Mayhaps, with time, you will stop breathing hypocrisy. Good evening to you.”

Dame Meisa rose, and Talia was rendered speechless for a moment. She watched the Spring Knight walk away. Talia caught up after fourteen steps. Meisa swung around.

“There is one thing you have yet to think of, Meisa.”

“Which is?”

Meisa waited. Talia looked past her, at Rabbiteater.

“Some day that helmet will come off. Some day, if we live, and I do hope we all will—he will have to choose where he goes. Will he stay with the Order of Seasons? Will he live his entire life behind a mask? Will you go with him? You offer him a Spring’s fancy, Meisa. Do not deny it. Or would you wed a Goblin? Do you see the end of the strange road he has taken?”

Meisa hesitated. And Talia thrust the only knife she had home. Which was that Meisa’s kindness was not necessarily forever. The Spring Knight looked at Talia.

“Spring is short. For however long it lasts…”

“That is the fault of Spring. It runs off, ever quick. Think more carefully yourself, Dame Meisa, on what you believe. And what you think he believes of your actions.”

Talia turned on her heels and strode off. Ser Markus ducked back behind a tent flap. She turned, and kicked him through the canvas.

 

——

 

The Order of Seasons had gotten away. No—worse. They’d gotten away, looked good while doing it, and humbled a third Ailendamus [General].

Or had one [Knight]? Rumors were flying everywhere about this ‘Ser Solstice’, and fact was hard to tell from fiction, so little stock was placed in the veracity of everything. But he was a name to remember, especially if he popped up again.

“I want those [Knights] crushed! Not by another army! Tell the Dame of the Hills to kill them all!

Rhisveri stormed out of a war meeting, knowing full well that his words would be tempered by the damned [King], his advisors, [Strategists], [Generals], and all the incompetents.

Incompetents. Mortal fools with a fraction of my lifespan, who think a Skill equates to strategic genius! I don’t know why I bothered to create them!”

He raged in private. It was his counsel who calmed him.

Yes, Rhisveri was the Wyrm who ruled Ailendamus. But even he had people he listened to, although the relationship was notably unbalanced. Nevertheless, Sophridel, the Elemental of Masks; Fithea, the ancient Dryad; Culnous, eldest of the Merfolk; and a few more were allowed to speak to him.

Not Gilaw or children like Menorkel the Titan. Rhisveri had a hair-trigger temper. Yet even he needed someone to vent to.

“Let them fight their wars. Ailendamus wins in the end, Rhisveri. Take a step back. If we lose mortals, we lose mortals.”

It was a calm rejoinder from a remarkably…cold…eyed man. With horns. And colored skin. As in—not the colors normally associated with Humans. If he was even Human. Which he was not. Nor was he a Demon of Rhir…technically. That was a catchall term for them. He?

He was closer to, oh, let’s say, the genuine article. And his dispassionate expression didn’t change, even when the worst casualty reports came in.

By contrast, Sophridel was a logical being of many faces, but he was not uncaring, just incapable. One could care and didn’t choose to, the other was simply alien to it.

“I did not create Ailendamus to waste lives, Visophecin. This reflects upon a larger setting. The Order of the Hydra was bested.”

“Not by lack of numbers. It was a fluke. You saw that high-level [Knight] charge out. Izril. He did not fall into the trap of their system of warfare.”

Culnous pointed out. Rhisveri growled over it.

“I don’t care. If our strategy were perfect, flukes would make no difference! And now House Veltras is sinking our navy!”

“One fleet. Which you had a hand in.”

Visophecin calmly reminded Rhisveri. He didn’t flinch from the Wyrm’s glare—in this place, they were all in their natural forms.

“Peace. He was unwise to kidnap Ryoka Griffin, and Veltras’ child. So I believed. Yet I see a deeper wisdom, by chance or design. Or did you not feel it as she opened that gate?”

The horned man turned and nodded at Fithea. Even Rhisveri bit back the hostile comment. The Dryad commanded attention; she was oldest of them all, and that said a lot.

“I did, Fithea. I have also heard of the commotion she caused just yesterday.”

“That was Gilaw’s fault as much as mine. Culnous, are your people distraught?”

“Only startled. No harm done.”

The Merman spat some water from his mouth as he swam up in the portable vessel. He eyed Visophecin.

“I was sorry to miss her. You arrived in a storm. Do you want to meet her too, this Wind Runner?”

“I already have observed her with the children. I did not care to get close. Someone must treat her with due wariness.”

Visophecin’s caution infected the others. Rhisveri glowered.

“The coinage she has…”

“Rhisveri. Do not fixate.”

Sophridel spoke, and the Wyrm hissed. He really wanted that money, but Fithea was more focused on the gateway.

“I heard voices. Do you know what this means? She has offered you a meeting with your kind, Rhisveri. Worlds apart! She cannot be ignored. You must meet with her. If you will not, I will.”

“You do not know what she wants, Fithea!”

“No. We do not. And it must be something, given the forces at play, mustn’t it, Rhisveri? I wonder exactly what this Ryoka Griffin is seeking?”

Visophecin made Rhisveri hesitate. If you had to rank them in terms of power…well, power was a silly game to play. But if you did, and you took out Culnous being the head of his people, Fithea’s respect, and such?

Visophecin was one to make even Rhisveri at least watch his tongue, now and then. The Wyrm smiled.

“My affairs are mine. Have I not done a fine job?”

The man paused a moment. When he spoke, as many times, it surprised the others.

“You have. I will not deny your role has done more for us all than can be stated. And here is the proof: Ryoka Griffin.”

“How do you mean, Visophecin?”

Sophridel floated closer, more masks turning to face the man. The cold eyes flickered with something like…interest. Visophecin smiled, a rare motion.

“Why, because we have finally entered into what I will colloquially call the ‘big leagues’, Sophridel. The grand stage.”

“Ailendamus was not that already?”

Rhisveri snapped, offended. Visophecin shook his head.

“No. Rhisveri, reframe your perspective as Fithea suggests. We have had successes. Ailendamus was a major power decades ago, over a century ago. And it has had more power here that it has not needed to even unleash.”

He gestured around at all of them, and the others besides, the shadow players behind Ailendamus’ greatness. There were nods from all around. Visophecin looked at Rhisveri.

“However. We have, by chance, luck, or a design on a grander scale, now had someone try to steal our greatest treasure. Concurrently, we have also had a marriage invitation—a pact analogous to matrimony. I do not pretend to understand Wyrm courtships, but it is there, is it not?”

“Er…in a sense.”

Rhisveri recoiled backwards. Visophecin went on.

“The first pact to Ailendamus’ ruler.”

“Nonsense. We’ve had plenty of…oh.”

Rhisveri saw everyone look at him, then at Visophecin. The man tapped his lips, and a tail—of a kind—moved behind him.

“Yes. To the true ruler of Ailendamus. We have established contact, even possible trade with a foreign power. Only, instead of on a planetary scale? A dimensional scale. We have entered into a new phase of imperium. So when I say I take this matter seriously? I take it seriously. I suggest you reframe the Wind Runner not as a thief, but as tidings, Rhisveri. Now—what shall we do about it? Leave the Order of Seasons to the mortals. We must be serious, cautious, resolute, for we dance a game with our kin. And they play as well as we.”

The other immortals slowly nodded. Now there was a reason why you had Visophecin come and speak, for all his idiosyncrasies. There were far worse things to have than a devil on one shoulder. Well, the other one had…uh…Gilaw? Rhisveri tapped his claws on the ground.

“It’s too soon, almost.”

“Almost. But such invitations never come when they are wanted exactly, Rhisveri. We must adapt. That it is inconvenient to us?”

Damned inconvenient! There’s no way we can accept—”

Discuss it, Rhisveri. Remember. Scale.”

“Hmph. Then we need to accelerate the Dawn Concordat’s war. It’s going very well. Soon—and once we have Calanfer, we’ll have the Dragonthrone! A proper meeting place! A proper safe place, if we can restore it.”

Visophecin and the others nodded. Ryoka was one thing, but that was a long-laid plan. Fithea sighed in longing, but she did not covet it as much anymore. The voices! Oh—she stretched out trembling, ancient limbs.

Hope was closer than she thought. She wanted to see her kin again. Visophecin watched her, and Rhisveri. Yes, now was not the time to withdraw and hide. The only question was: who would gain? He resolved to meet this Wind Runner as soon as possible. After all, they were united behind Rhisveri and Ailendamus. But you could always make a private bargain.

 

——

 

There was nothing in the world that could not be taken cynically. If you grew up seeing it, breathing treachery and learning gain and manipulation, then in time, that was all you saw.

No matter where it was, no matter what the gesture. A gentle hand stroking a lock of hair on a child’s face. A smile, a compliment. It was all artifice. Of course, then someone might protest that a ‘mother’s love’ was a genuine thing, that people trusted and cared for each other.

To which Seraphel du Marquin and every member of Calanfer’s royal family would probably have laughed until they were sick—if that was not completely unbecoming of royalty.

Do you really think your family loves you? Or are you, and those around you, simply better at lying to yourselves? It was all gain. If you raised children kindly, it was so they remembered, and because it reflected on you. If you followed the law, were pious and noble, it was because it behooved you to do so, rather than be seen as a thuggish brigand.

It was a cynicism that ran beyond bone-deep. Crucially, though…Seraphel sat on horseback, riding briskly and somewhat uncomfortably ahead of the royal carriage through the rocky pass.

It was wrong. So the greatest lie was a trick on her, believing Calanfer’s family was the truth behind every household, only with the paint and gilding stripped away in private. The truth was…she had seen loving families.

Just not hers. Oh, it was there, in a strained, distant way. She had considerable affection for some, exasperated and crossed with the quibble of the month though it may be. She was just—

Changed.

Very changed. Seraphel du Marquin rode through the rocky pass next to Kaliv’s border. They had just passed through that famously narrow gap, one of the few into Calanfer from Kaliv. The very place that had been in the news—where Calanfer had won historic battles against invading forces. Krawlnmak’s Pass. A rather silly name for a landmark of Calanfer and place of so many military victories.

Sullied by the Archmage of Death’s fall. It was, of course, garrisoned at this point in the war. The fortress which occupied Kaliv’s side of the pass was a deterrent to attacking armies. Should they want to cross into Calanfer, they would have to fight both the fortress and the famously treacherous ground.

Of course, it ran the other way too. Kaliv’s fortress was a not-so-subtle reminder to Calanfer; they could hold it if the two nations ever came to blows. Which they had not, because fighting was not usually a game Calanfer liked to play.

Wit and diplomacy. Elegance and style. Seraphel du Marquin was not alone as she rode, nor was the royal carriage. In fact, a baggage train and countless servants were accompanying the royal procession, not to mention nigh on a hundred Thronebearers of Calanfer.

A huge number, but the capital had rotated them out of Calanfer in order to guard the [Princesses]. Nominally, they were there to support the war effort and reinforce the local garrison, but they were bodyguards.

No one wanted to take chances. Indeed, as was so often the case, this was a move on multiple fronts. Seraphel could not guess her father and mother’s exact thoughts, but she knew the game.

“Let me see. It would be a suitable gesture to Kaliv that we are contributing to the war effort, to let Aielef return. That I and Vernoue are here proves that, to other nations, we don’t think Kaliv will fall. We also get to garrison one of Kaliv’s fortresses and prove that fact with our escorts. Oh, and it makes Ailendamus think something is happening. And…”

Schemes. Calanfer’s royal crown played them out like another person played cards. Not always malicious, or even wrong much of the time. But it was always a scheme.

It made other nations rather refreshing to Seraphel. Nadel had been a wonderful diversion. Charming, in love with its famous Lord of the Dance, and safe. Each kingdom of Terandria had its peculiarities. Seraphel had been to more than a few, and it was not just a definition of borders in some cases.

For instance, Desonis really was marshy and wet. A complete climate change, and still, they had a remarkable indoor life and a cheerful indifference to storms. Seraphel had once been asked if she’d like to go for a swim as a minor hurricane was blowing through the area.

By contrast, Nadel had an obsession with dance and music, to the extent that [Dancers] and schools were an acceptable occupation, and even the meanest inn or dive had better footwork than you’d find in other nations’ major cities.

Workers, and even [Scribes], could leave their jobs for a lunch, or break and shake out their exhaustion or stiffness in dedicated buildings. Seraphel had heard it described as a ‘night club’ by some of the Lord of the Dance’s guests, despite them being open in the day, but she hadn’t had a chance to meet them long…

A pity. There was so much Seraphel wanted to do, but Calanfer was at war, and she was still a [Princess] of Calanfer. On a royal tour to ‘boost morale’, in Kaliv’s border regions.

In truth, Seraphel suspected it was partly to give Aielef a reward for her campaigning to raise support for months on end, and to let her go home. Seraphel and Vernoue? It might be a punishment. She had not exactly gelled well with her parents on her return, and while she had made a striking impact at the ball at Nadel, it was not in the way the [King] and [Queen] would have preferred.

Well, Seraphel was a little rebel. And not the worst of the bunch, because Lyonette was still out there.

“The Princesses of Calanfer return! Glory to the Eternal Throne and Mighty Kaliv! Hail the Griffin Queen!”

A voice from up ahead. Seraphel sighed. There went the peaceful quasi-silence of the ride. She had to own, she was a bit saddle-sore, but it beat being cooped up in the carriage with Aielef and Vernoue the entire way here. The Thronebearers were doing what they did best: impressing the local populace that had come out to see the procession and greet their liege-lady.

Aielef of Calanfer waved genteelly from her carriage, smiling as people called out her name. She hadn’t done badly here; Seraphel saw people calling out to her, welcoming her back. Well, they would love the [Princess] who had married their Duke.

He was not someone Seraphel had met more than a few times, but it had been a prestigious, acceptable marriage in the Terandrian royalty bloodlines, and, importantly, a pact between Calanfer and Kaliv. It was customary for at least one of the royal family to wed to Kaliv, as their alliance was exceptionally important.

Aielef, the 3rd Princess of Calanfer, had a small family here. She was Aielef the Fierce, known as the most outspoken, bravest of the Princesses of Calanfer, a fitting match for Kaliv’s tough kingdom.

…Or so the propaganda said, at any rate. In truth, Seraphel wondered how well Aielef matched Kaliv. Because the first thing she said as the carriage’s windows were rolled back up was quite audible to those nearby, if not the distant crowds.

“Disperse them immediately. I don’t want to see them when I reach the manor. I don’t want to breathe the same—”

Ah, and there it was. Good old Aielef. Seraphel rolled her eyes.

If you knew the Princesses of Calanfer by their gossip, each one had a peculiarity. Seraphel was ‘Seraphel the Dutiful’, Shardele was ‘the Radiant’, and so on. It was a good way for the people to separate the large royal household and identify with them.

However, if you wanted to do it the way Seraphel did, you took them at their faults, not their imaginary virtues.

Shardele smoked Dreamleaf like a [Charcoal Burner] smoked wood. Menisi had an obsession with things that went beyond mere ‘scandalous’, past ‘depraved’, and into horrific. Aielef hated the peasantry, a habit she’d passed on to some of her sisters. Seraphel herself was known for once insulting one of her three brothers so badly he hid in his rooms for eighteen days.

Vernoue was in her mid-twenties, and had yet to grow, but she’d demonstrated an amazing ability to ignore people already and just read her magic books. Lyonette? Lyonette was a brat which encompassed any number of issues.

After her was Ellet, the youngest [Princess], the 7th, who was only twelve or something. She was cute, had been spared the company of many of her sisters, and was doted on by her parents. Her fault was…that she was charmingly naive and delightful…and had an objectionable habit of chasing the dogs around…

Alright, Ellet didn’t have a major one. Yet.

Aielef, now…she was cleverer than Lyonette. She never said ‘peon’ where there was a chance it could be overheard. She was all smiles as she swept out of the carriage, waved, and blew a kiss outside the fortress. Then she hurried inside.

“I am exhausted from this life on the road. Ithe? Ithe, my sisters are here, as I wrote. Have them led to their rooms. I do not wish to speak to anyone. I will be in my observatory. Oh, and someone deal with the Griffin.”

She strode into her home, which doubled as one of Kaliv’s keeps, and Seraphel saw the whip crack as servants clustered around her. They bowed, keeping well out of the way as the other two [Princesses], the 4th and 5th, entered far more slowly. Seraphel waddled a bit; she’d ridden all day and she wasn’t used to it, still.

Vernoue glanced up from her open books and put a book leaf in between the pages. She fiddled with her reading glasses, which she didn’t really need, Calanfer’s [Princesses] being the product of good breeding, but thought made her look mage-like.

“We’re here at last. Good. I was getting tired of Aielef’s snapping.”

“I should have thought you’d have tuned it out, Vernoue.”

Seraphel murmured. The 5th Princess regarded her older sister. They had a fairly good relationship as it went; some of the [Princesses] could not stand each other. Menisi and Shardele were a classic, hence why they were never paired together if possible.

“Even I can’t ignore her harrumphing. I almost wanted to ride, but I can’t imagine sitting in a saddle for hours. You need a healing potion.”

“I’m…fine, Vernoue. It builds—”

“Character?”

“No, tough skin. Which one needs if they want to ride.”

Vernoue raised an expressive eyebrow as she shook her red hair. Hers was deeper, like ruby. Aielef dyed hers, while Seraphel had a lighter cast. Why would you want to ride?

Of course, that was the question. But Seraphel was not about to elaborate as the nervous household fussed around her.

“Your Highnesses, I am Ithe, Princess Aielef’s head of the household. If there is anything we can do, you have but to ask.”

A nervous woman bowed. Seraphel tsked quietly and Vernoue nodded, losing interest. Now here was a staff ruled by fear.

“Will we be dining with the Duke or the family?”

“The Duke has departed to join the war front, Your Highnesses. I believe Her Highness would like you to attend a dinner in four hours, with her daughters…?”

“That is acceptable, thank you. I believe Princess Vernoue and I would like to see our rooms. It has been a long journey.”

Of course, Your Highness…”

They were escorted to their rooms, which were rather decent. Vernoue disappeared into hers, and Seraphel inquired as to Aielef and the family. She knew Aielef had a son, but he was probably in training or even serving as a [Squire] or some such.

[Squire]? [Trainee], perhaps. It was a fact that Kaliv did not have a standing [Knight] order like many nations. Rather, it was folded into their mighty Griffin Rider forces and they had, of all things, a goat cavalry. But they didn’t discriminate on the basis of royal entry.

You had to bond with a Griffin or one of the giant, mountainous goats. If you just took from noble families, the odds were you wouldn’t have enough riders.

“Which probably makes Aielef as happy as a crab in boiling water every time she has to host Kaliv’s warriors.”

Seraphel smirked at the thought of Aielef baring her teeth and having to be polite. She really felt as though royal blood conferred a kind of gentility, thought, and elegance unobtainable in other ways. She even had a Skill to bring that quality out in her chosen circle.

Well, Seraphel had been here only once before. So the fortress was distantly familiar to her at best.

A sprawling, vertical compound set into the rocky passes of Kaliv, which was a small nation, but a hugely vertical one. It was hard, even as Ailendamus’ armies poured in, for them to easily take Kaliv. They could win the lowland fights, and they had with distressing ease. But they had to climb to assail the major cities on plateaus and higher up the mountain. Taking the capital meant scaling small passes as Griffins dropped rocks on them or entire sections suffered landslides.

…On the other hand, they’ve de-winged even Kaliv’s Griffin Riders with their Greatbows, and I haven’t heard good news aside from the Order of Seasons joining.

Seraphel did not like being so close to the front, even if it was Kaliv’s rear. She knew the crown was sending three [Princesses] to this fortress as a gesture of faith. Kaliv had to stay in the Dawn Concordat. If they folded, Gaiil-Drome and Calanfer were on the chopping block.

Anyways, Seraphel could think on politics all day. She could wander Aielef’s home all day. She did neither, because both were eminently boring. She could only do so much.

She wished she could do more. She wished the war were over so perhaps she could go to Izril, see what that continent of Drakes and Gnolls was like, and find Lyonette and give her a good yank on the ears. She wanted…

Something else. Seraphel was aware her parents had been trying to make another match for her, without much success. She didn’t blame anyone interested; even the most desperate [Merchant] wanting to be partly royal had heard of Seraphel the Cursed. The woman who murdered husbands with bad luck.

“It was only two. Technically that brat died after he broke the engagement.”

Seraphel kicked down the corridor. Yet even she wondered. No…she knew why each one had died. One was truly an accident. The other had been old age. The last, and most recent…?

Ah. That was why her sisters thought she was so changed. Why Seraphel was different. She imagined that, before this, she would have ridden with Aielef, sniping with her sisters, then sat in her room as bored and miserable as could be.

…She honestly wasn’t better off now, since she was still bored and had to do what Calanfer’s crown bid. But perhaps the difference was hope. She had been through a lot. And so, as Seraphel dismissed the servants, she walked Kaliv’s fortress.

Not the higher levels, which were quite nice. Aielef had an ‘observatory’, with an actual glass roof to the stars and very un-fortress-like viewing platforms, that she might have some elegance in her life. Seraphel understood she didn’t actually stay here as much if she could help it.

Rather, Seraphel headed down. Down, alone, not waited on by anyone. Even Vernoue was probably ordering her special mana-infused tea, some snacks before dinner…a [Princess] was used to being surrounded by servants, not going as far as to pick up anything that they didn’t need to.

Seraphel had been roughing it, as they understood it, of late. So she could at least ride and walk about, even survive on something not prepared by a [Chef]. She was well aware that was not a [Warrior]’s ability to rough it, but that wasn’t what she wanted.

If she wanted anything…the [Princess] began to hum as she descended, going to a place she knew probably existed.

The 4th Princess of Calanfer had developed a few interesting hobbies of late. The first was that she sang, not that anyone had ever known her to be particularly enamoured with singing. But as she walked down increasingly narrow corridors that even the servants didn’t bother using, past the wine cellar, she sang a simple song.

Do, a deer, a Corusdeer. Rei, a ray of magic light…

It was a cute song. A child’s song, adapted. Taught to her not just because it was fun, but as training. Hold the note properly.

A friend had taught it to her. Seraphel sang as she came to her destination.

The second hobby of Princess Seraphel, that concerned everyone who heard of it because it sounded distinctly like something the 2nd Princess might do, was this.

She would seek out the deepest part of many fortresses, palaces, or so on. The place where more than armor or treasure or wine was stored.

The crypt. The mausoleum. The…resting place of honored dead. And she would walk it. She would pass by remains, carefully interred such that no [Necromancer] might awaken them, and look around.

As if searching for something. She would not linger long. But she might say something, when no one watched her. A simple…question.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

Of course, no one answered her. What was strange was why she expected it.

 

——

 

Aielef’s family joined them at dinner. Two shy daughters, both in their teens. One was older than Ellet by four years.

They were rather meek, perhaps counting themselves as inferior in terms of rank, being divorced from the royal family. Maybe it was how Aielef raised them; they were certainly no strident Lyonettes, but dutiful daughters.

Nor did Aielef put on any pretense, not here.

“You’ll be here for a week, two at most. Then you can begone, and I shall either be forced to sojourn with Kaliv’s aristocracy somewhere else as part of the war, or go on tour. Azole, don’t fidget. And don’t copy your aunts. Vernoue, must you read at the table?”

The 5th Princess didn’t look up from the food she was eating while reading her spell tome.

“You’re not my mother, Aielef.”

“Aielef, I don’t believe I was ever introduced to your youngest daughter. Will you tell us how your family is doing?”

Seraphel smiled at a shy girl with dark purple hair. Purple, not the fiery red. Aielef had to dye her hair, but Seraphel guessed that one bloodline removed was enough to let her daughter keep her hair natural.

Aielef gave her younger sister a long look.

“This is Ayuse. Ayuse, greet your Aunt Seraphel. Aumerth isn’t here; he’s apprenticed, safely away from the front.”

“Hello, Ayuse.”

Seraphel smiled at the timid girl. She received a murmur in reply, which grew louder as Aielef stared at her daughter. It was the elder daughter, Azole, who kept staring at Seraphel as Aielef dined with the Princesses. They didn’t talk politics. Nor, Seraphel suspected, would Aielef insist they dined together.

“You’ll find the manor equipped for some of your needs. Just don’t burn anything, Vernoue. Seraphel, there’s not much to do here. We certainly can’t ride or visit the city, but I shall have some of my friends over and I suppose you must attend.”

“I may take you up on that, Aielef. But I’ll find something to do. We are at war.”

“Yes, and it’s dreadfully boring.”

“Not worried for your husband, the Duke? Ronnel?”

They all had perfect memories for such things. Aielef flapped her hand, chewing an inferior cut of meat that had the servants sweating as she glared.

“I am sure he will be fine.”

No love in that statement. Vernoue raised expressive eyebrows at Seraphel from her book, proving she did listen in now and then. It was not missed on Aielef.

“You will do your part soon enough, Vernoue. I can only hope you manage to find a match!”

Do your part. By which she meant, get married, bear children, and forge a powerful alliance. Seraphel had done her part multiple times, with increasingly less value. She wondered if her family would marry her off. Surely…even to one of the Thronebearers. She didn’t want that. After the war ended…perhaps Cara could…?

Vernoue’s response was to close her book shut. She glared at Aielef. Yes, here was a less-than-ideal pairing of the [Princesses], but she’d been the only one besides Seraphel that could be spared.

“If I have to marry someone, Aielef. I’m a [Mage].

“You’re half-decent at best. If you were gifted, you’d be at Wistram.”

Vernoue’s cheeks flared. Seraphel bit her tongue.

“I’m supposed to be the one with the barbed comments, Aielef. What has you bothered?”

“That damned baby Griffin scratched me on our last tour and it hasn’t healed! A minor infection! Me!”

Aielef snapped and showed them a red, faintly irritated line on her arm. Seraphel had seen far worse, although she was glad the [Healer] had told Aielef to leave off healing potions.

“It’s almost gone down. The poultice will take it away in a day, two at most. Leave off Vernoue. She could have gone to Wistram, but they never let go of their [Mages].”

Vernoue gave Seraphel a grateful nod and turned back to her elder sister.

“That’s right, Aielef. If I must get married, I’d rather marry…an Archmage! Yes, I’ll marry a famous [Mage] from Wistram. Don’t take me to task for applying myself. I’m adding value to my marriage. What do you do, besides sip wine in your ‘observatory’ and complain about all the peasants below? And don’t try to say Seraphel’s done less either; she’s ‘done her part’ more times than you!”

Aielef scowled at the unexpected team up. She pleated her napkin, eyes flicking between the two. It was then that her elder daughter interrupted.

“Your Highness, Aunt Seraphel?”

“You don’t need to use her formal title, Azole.”

Azole nodded. She looked at Seraphel, every bit the daughter Calanfer wanted. Hair red, skin flawless, no noticeable quirks.

“Is it…I don’t mean to be rude, but mother says you’ve married multiple men and have lots of experience. Is it—difficult? I might be wed soon.”

Seraphel’s eyes opened wide and she glanced at Aielef. Azole’s mother went crimson, and Seraphel suspected that she had never thought Azole would repeat her comments verbatim. Nor did Azole quite know what Seraphel took from the statement.

The 4th Princess took her time in replying.

“I…am sure Aielef refers to my familiarity with matrimony. I can’t say I know married life well. You are to be wed, Azole?”

“I am of age to be engaged.”

She was seventeen. Seraphel gave Aielef a bleak look. Her mother scowled.

“Don’t give me that, Seraphel. Ronnel and I have agreed on some fine, eligible bachelors. Not out of her age, with promising classes and backgrounds. Nothing like what you went through.”

Vernoue’s head slowly rose from her book, then ducked down behind it. Azole and her younger sister looked at Seraphel as the 4th Princess spoke, slowly.

“I would have thought you’d give her more time.”

“To do what, lose the best matches?”

“Your daughters need not marry as a necessity of state, Aielef.”

“Better that she has time to set up now than wait. You’ll have a difficult time, bearing children and starting a family, Seraphel. Believe me. I’m not saying any of it is your fault. It’s bad luck. War, age, hunting accidents, and a divorce. None of it is your fault.”

“But…you have a point, Aielef. Make it.”

Seraphel tapped her ring finger on the table in a way her sisters knew was a sign she was losing her patience. And thus control of her tongue. Aielef hesitated, but they were in the weeds now.

“—I only mean that you don’t get to complain from having simple bad luck. Every one of us is to be married, even that runaway, Lyonette. Take what you’re given and make the best of it, I say.”

Azole looked at her mother, not nodding, but listening. Seraphel glanced at her.

“And what if the marriage isn’t…ideal? As mine were certainly not. Death aside, divorce aside?”

You make it work. Do you think I’m not aware of complications? Dead gods and eternal steps, Seraphel, you hold yourself like you’re the martyr of all [Princesses]. You’re one of four of us. We’ve all been married. We make it work. Shardele? Do you think she smokes Dreamleaf just because it’s fun?”

“Absolutely.”

Vernoue muttered quietly. Her older sisters looked at her and she fell quiet. Seraphel knew what Aielef meant and her older sister went on.

“Menisi—well, she’s the only lucky one of the lot! She has someone who fits her damned personality.”

“True enough.”

Seraphel caught something Aielef had let slip. But that meant…

“Then what about you, Aielef?”

Vernoue peeked around a page. Aielef sat still, and Seraphel looked at her daughters and cursed. She shouldn’t have said it here, but in private.

Incidentally, the serving staff were calm automatons this entire time, like Golems. They took plates, filled glasses, and scurried out of the way. All of the diners ignored them; they were used to being watched.

Seraphel was about to take it back, but Aielef replied in a calm voice.

“I have borne three children for Kaliv and Calanfer, Seraphel. I quite love them. Ronnel is a perfectly fine husband and we understand each other. It took a few years, but I do not lack for my enjoyments. And I understand he has his.”

Vernoue sat bolt upright and Seraphel hoped her daughters didn’t understand that last part. She feared they did.

“Is this how you talk about marriage to your daughters?”

“What, realistically? You do not need to love the man you wed. Or do you disagree, Seraphel? Can you honestly say you even liked any of the three you were betrothed to?”

Azole and Ayuse turned to Seraphel. She saw the elder daughter staring at her. This was, perhaps, the only moment Seraphel would see her before she was married. They did not often visit, and Seraphel could say any number of things.

Most of them useless. Their fates were nearly written in stone. And yet…Seraphel’s head rose, and Vernoue edged back from the table.

“Uh oh.”

She prepared a small barrier spell. Even Aielef hesitated, because she knew her younger sister.

“Seraphel, don’t make a scene…”

“No, you’re right, Aielef. I suppose I do seem rather dramatic to you. I didn’t realize how you saw it. You have a very pragmatic approach to your situation. And I have not had the luxury of finding out how I would behave. And you are right.”

Seraphel looked past Aielef. Her eyes flickered, and she shook her head.

“No man I have ever married has loved me. That is eminently true.”

Her sisters, her nieces, even the staff were all looking at her. Seraphel spoke, seeing faces, places…

A dead man grinning up at her from a bed. A child hand-in-hand with a [Shepherd]’s daughter…each one, sometimes in intimacy. The things she did for her kingdom. The last one, smiling up at her through eyes that were glassy, face covered in blood.

“They call me Seraphel the Cursed. But I think…no man has ever loved me for being me. They have loved my body, loved aspects they saw in me—never me. Nor did I have a choice. If that is a curse, I think it is not one women find rare.”

She looked pointedly at Aielef. The 3rd Princess’ mouth was a hard line. Seraphel went on.

“I have never been pleased by the matches made to me. But perhaps, then, I have never met someone I could truly love, because I am a [Princess] and they see my class, or see my past. Besides, the good ones are all dead.”

She stopped and closed her eyes.

“…I need not be jaded and complacent about it. If I am to be married off again, Aielef, it should be the one I choose. I will keep searching for happiness, even though my value is long spent. And I encourage your daughters to fight, to find something more than value for their kingdom. Because it matters.”

“You’d throw over your kingdom for your pettiness, Seraphel?”

The 4th Princess smiled like a viper.

“If it is that, or turn into someone as miserable as you, Aielef? Of course.

Vernoue cast her spell just in time. Good old Seraphel. Words like arrows. She watched the first tureen sail over the table as Seraphel ducked.

 

——

 

Well, that was an eventful dinner. Seraphel had her dress cleaned, and thought she wouldn’t see Aielef all week. Her daughters?

She spent that night watching the scrying orb, which had the fascinating recap of the Meeting of Tribes on. At least someone was as miserable as she.

Oh, and there was the Singer of Terandria, one of her concerts. Seraphel smiled.

“Once this is over, I will find a way to meet you, if I have to hire you personally to tour Calanfer.”

Once this was over…she fell asleep, remembering the past.

The next day, Seraphel du Marquin was prepared to find her own way to keep entertained when something happened.

A flier came hurtling down from the skies as Seraphel was going on a morning ride. The Thronebearers cried out and hurried her back as they raised bows and shields, but it was a lone [Griffin Rider].

Nevertheless, they kept their guards up, but the flier was headed for the fortress. Shouts arose and the defenders swarmed out as the Griffin landed.

Wounded. Seraphel rode back and heard the commotion.

“Absolutely not. Turn them away! I will not have it.”

Aielef was speaking to her head of the guard as the weary, wounded Griffin closed its wings and the rider held their hands up. To her vague surprise, Seraphel saw it was a young woman. And she called out, outraged.

You bitch! We’ve been dying for months and you won’t even give us a place to rest?

Aielef turned white and the Thronebearers drew their blades. Seraphel held up a hand. Well now, she liked this young woman already.

“Aielef, who is this?”

“A criminal. This swine came here, demanding shelter for her group.”

Seraphel was mystified. Griffin Riders were held in great esteem in Kaliv. She couldn’t imagine anyone turning them away, especially in times of war.

Unless…she thought of the one group that would not be welcome. She turned and saw the crest on the light armor the Griffin wore, emblazoned on its sides. Not an official crest, mind you. They couldn’t afford embroidery, but the black streaks of soot, marred with blood and damage to the armor, was plain.

“Kaliv’s Wing of Shame.

Vernoue muttered. Lillian Woods glared at the three [Princesses], but had her hands up and was eying Kaliv’s warriors warily.

“They’re not to land. Begone! You will find no respite here!”

Aielef snapped. Seraphel held up a hand.

“Aielef. I know they’re disgraced criminals, but the Griffin Prince fights with them, doesn’t he?”

“Yes! And all the brigands and murderers and waste! No one in Kaliv will give them welcome.”

Well, some did, or else how had they existed for over a decade? Seraphel didn’t know the Griffin Prince well, but everyone knew his story.

If she was ‘cursed’, he was cursed. He had made a pact with dark, dark magic as a boy. They said he was immortal, but had paid such a price that his mother, the [Queen], had exiled him, and his name was never to be spoken aloud. Yet still, he flew Kaliv’s skies, redeeming criminals, clashing with brigands and monsters.

And…fighting Ailendamus’ armies. Seraphel pointed to the young woman.

“I’ve seen the Griffin Prince fighting, Aielef. So have you. He’s killed more [Generals] and high-ranking warriors of Ailendamus than anyone else! He’s half the reason why they haven’t taken more ground!”

“Seraphel, I am the ruler of this manor in the Duke’s absence! I will not argue with you!”

Aielef’s eyes flashed fury from yesterday as well as the public altercation. Seraphel looked at the young woman and saw something familiar. She was probably a criminal, but her Griffin was wounded and she had a desperately furious look in her eyes. Outraged, not just angry.

“Very well, Princess Aielef du Marquin. You are the liege-lady of this land, my elder sister, and have every right to refuse them.”

Aielef blinked. So did Vernoue. Seraphel the Reasonable was not any Seraphel they knew. Aielef almost relaxed, but Seraphel was famous for her backswing. And here it came…

“I am 4th Princess of Calanfer. By my authority, I demand the Thronebearers of Calanfer render aid! Set up outside of the fortress. Bring food, potions, supplies. They can camp.”

You can’t do that!

Aielef exploded, but Seraphel pointed at one of the Thronebearers. The unlucky [Knight-Captain] hesitated.

“Your Highness…”

“Do not bother to sequester any supplies from Aielef’s domain, Knight-Captain Doniff. But I do demand you unload all of the Thronebearers’s supplies, potions, and whatnot.”

Then how will they protect us?

Seraphel gave Aielef a beaming smile.

“Why, I suppose they will have to prevail upon you. But that is not my concern. Do it, Knight-Captain.”

The Thronebearer hesitated. He looked between the two [Princesses]. He could spoil Seraphel’s designs easily by refusing and it was the 3rd vs the 4th Princess.

However, he was still a warrior, as much as he was a Thronebearer, and he knew exactly what Seraphel did. If anything, the man was impressed that Seraphel saw it.

“I beg your pardon, Princess Aielef, but we cannot disobey the 4th Princess’ orders. We are technically assigned to ward Her Highness, Seraphel, and Princess Vernoue…”

You are here to protect me!

Aielef raged. Doniff stepped back hurriedly, and pretended to have gone deaf. Aielef went after him. Seraphel stuck her foot out.

The wounded [Griffin Rider] was surprised to get aid. But she didn’t waste time. She was clearly desperate, and shot into the skies as the Thronebearers indicated a place to land. Seraphel hurried away before Aielef could seek vengeance, and hid behind a tree until the screaming stopped.

In that way, she was able to see Kaliv’s Wing of Shame in person for the first time.

They were…not an inspiring sight. Three dozen Griffins landed, all wounded, and their riders were filthy, travel-worn, and exhausted. Some just lay down. Griffins snapped as Thronebearers approached with supplies.

Gleaming [Knights] versus the rag-tag brigands. But one group had become Ailendamus’ nightmare and racked up a kill count beyond belief.

All thanks to one man. Seraphel spotted him as the young Human woman who had come to beg for aid dismounted.

He was still a [Prince], after all. But…oh, such a strange one.

Seraphel was no aura-expert, but she could tell the power of royalty and bloodline. He was like…a child. A [Prince], but for a second, Seraphel swore he was a child as young as Aielef’s younger daughter.

Then she saw the tall man with his curled, short-cut hair, a weary expression, a warrior’s physique—but devoid of any scars. Yet the way he walked and the wary respect Doniff gave him told Seraphel that here was a veteran of more battles than any ten warriors combined.

Because he did not die. For proof? She stared at his right arm. It was…steaming as a terrible acid ate away at it. So terribly he’d kept his arm free from his fierce Royal Griffin, who lay panting. Yet though the acid ate away skin, bone, tendon, it regrew in moments. For a second she saw black thread, knitting itself out of the air…then it turned to flesh and bone.

Seraphel shuddered as the Thronebearers moved back. The young woman threw a healing potion on the acid and finally it stopped. The Griffin Prince had been grimacing mildly. Now he relaxed as his arm reappeared in seconds.

Not even a Potion of Regeneration could do that, surely. The man was younger than Seraphel, and his shoulders were broad. He was actually shorter than she expected, but a stocky [Prince] of Kaliv. But for the curse.

He bowed as she approached.

“Your Highness, Seraphel du Marquin. You do me a great kindness by allowing us to rest here. I…am the Griffin Prince.”

He gave her no name. He needed no introduction. He just stood there, with a kind of shamed dignity. He obviously knew all the stories about him.

Seraphel gave him the slight bow of royalty to royalty, casual, but she was fascinated. Indeed, she saw Vernoue approaching, warily, drawn in by the strange story of Kaliv.

“I am sorry that we cannot give you more aid, Griffin Prince. But take whatever you need. You have been fighting.”

A silly statement, and the young woman next to him snorted. The Griffin Prince just laid a hand on her arm.

“Lillian. Forgive my companion, Your Highness.”

“Of course.”

Seraphel supposed someone else might have been offended, but there was a kind of familiarity with him. She had met warriors like him, and in situations like this. The Griffin Prince studied her, and then she saw recognition in his eyes.

“Princess Seraphel. The…4th Princess. Do they call you…? Forgive me again, but—”

“Yes. Seraphel the Cursed. I think we are kin, you and I. Though your curse is rather more dramatic than mine.”

The Griffin Prince stared at Seraphel, then he did laugh, ruefully. And oh, if Seraphel thought her face had lines, if she looked in the mirror and saw sadness there?

It was nothing compared to how weary he sounded. She had known women and men three times his age who had borne and lost children, lived through war and disease, who did not sound that sad. But he had nothing. Even Seraphel was still a [Princess]. His title was just a name.

“Well met indeed. I bear warning, if Her Highness will hear it. At least to the [Captain of the Guard], and the Thronebearers. To Kaliv’s command and Calanfer’s throne itself, though we are bound for the capital next.”

He nodded upwards, towards the distant misty peaks. Seraphel’s heart beat faster and Vernoue and Captain Doniff came forwards.

“What is this news?”

The Griffin Prince looked bleakly at them.

“Kaliv’s lowlands are lost. Our combined forces are routed and Ailendamus is sending three armies to march upwards. The Wing of Shame flies now in defense of the throne itself. You should brace yourselves. Fleeing [Soldiers] will be coming soon, with Ailendamus’ armies hot on their heels.”

For a second, Seraphel was speechless. She turned to Vernoue, and the 5th Princess exclaimed.

“But we’ve not heard of any battle on scrying orb! The last we’ve heard, the Order of Seasons was trapped in a valley and they’re fighting today!”

The Griffin Prince nodded slowly.

“I have no doubt. Perhaps the Dawn Concordat will want to keep it silent. Ailendamus may, even. But it would not have been on the scrying orb, because they attacked under cover of night. They sent waves of stealthed fighters forwards, their own Griffins—even damned Hydras. Then the rest of their army. It wasn’t even a battle.”

Seraphel looked in horror at the Knight-Captain, who was pale.

“I cannot imagine they would have attacked and won so easily, Griffin Prince. I do not doubt your words, but…how? Surely there were fortifications?”

The Griffin Prince shook his head.

“There were. I was there, and Calanfer, Gaiil-Drome, Kaliv’s own…I took to the air the moment I heard the horns. By then it was too late. Knight-Captain, Your Highnesses—they struck like lightning. It is the Great General who took the field who did it. He is…he has some kind of Skill or magic that tore through every formation. Overran us, as if we were children caught unawares by professional [Mercenaries]. We barely escaped, and only then because…”

He gestured at his bare arm, ruefully.

Seraphel was lost for words. This was a disaster. What would Calanfer do now? That army was the one which had held the ground so far. That it had lost in a single battle, even a sneak-attack?

“How long will you stay? Can you speak, sir Griffin Prince, or will you fly onwards?”

The Griffin Prince grimaced.

“Only a few hours. Less. We will take as much as we can carry. Eat. Lillian, get everyone fed. But then we must fly. Your Highness, I must advise you to retreat.”

“Flee the pass? We have held armies here before…and with the fortress, if the [Soldiers] rally here?”

Seraphel knew she was no [Strategist], but she repeated what she’d heard, dumb with shock. The Griffin Prince shook his head.

“Were any other army coming your way, I would say there was a chance, Your Highness. This one? No. No, it’s the same army we’ve fought. No more unique soldiers aside from the ones in stealth. We’ve beaten worse forces back. It’s that [General].

A Great General of Ailendamus. To her knowledge, there were exactly two of the unique title of Ailendamus’ finest on the field. The Dame of the Hills, and this Great General. It seemed the titles were not for show.

“I will inform my sister and the [Captain of the Guard], of course, sir Griffin Prince. I thank you for the warning.”

He nodded, and Seraphel realized he was probably starved for drink and food too. She bowed, so that he might partake, and hurried over to Vernoue.

“Did you hear?”

“We’re in trouble. We might be leaving after all. Aielef and her daughters shouldn’t stay, right?”

“I don’t think so. I can’t imagine what this Great General is capable of, but the crown won’t risk it. You tell Aielef. She won’t want to turn away the Griffin Prince, not after this. Send a [Message] to the capital.”

“And what will you do?”

Seraphel needed to talk to the Griffin Prince. This was as dire as she’d ever known it. She had seen Ailendamus make war before. But this was a scale above the fighting, then. Although the Great Knight, the Dame of the Hills had been there. And she was a terrible, terrifying foe.

Not one without honor, though. Seraphel was hurrying back to the Griffin Prince, but in truth, she didn’t have the levels or Skills to change things. She had some, from what she’d witnessed, but it sounded like they needed a miracle.

And here was Kaliv’s miracle, their immortal protector, bested and wounded, flying to the last battles high above. Seraphel hadn’t believed in miracles. Things that could turn a battle around.

Noelictus has one. Perhaps. But it’s gone now and—far from here. The only other person she could think of was…

Cara. The Singer of Terandria. Yet neither was here. Neither was here. So Seraphel would have to do what she could. She had seen brave men, too, fighting against all odds. But they…died.

She was walking towards the Griffin Prince, set to ask if he might perhaps know what could be done, had some insight—perhaps to fly to the Order of Seasons instead and beg their full might? They were not far! Or Pheislant or—

She never got to speak to him. The young man had been eating ravenously as his Wing of Shame tended to their wounds. Yet he raised his head incredulously and turned to the north.

“Impossible. Impossible!

He cried out. Seraphel saw him sprint towards his Griffin, calling its name. The fierce beast spread its wings, shrieking, as everyone, Thronebearers, [Princesses], and the Wing of Shame themselves looked north. The Griffin Prince took to the air, rising, then he cried out, a note of incredulity—and horror. He pointed, and it took those on the ground a moment to see.

Then they saw it. Princess Seraphel du Marquin knew the fighting was days to the north. Even if the combined army were smashed, the Griffin Prince’s flight was far faster than any rider could hope to achieve. And yet.

And yet—something came out of the hills in the distance. Figures. Riders, rather. Even a few people on foot. Seraphel’s eyes opened wide. She saw them blur across the ground, so fast—then suddenly jump. Not physically, but jump across the landscape, mid-flight.

She didn’t understand what she was seeing. They were moving so fast. What kind of movement Skill was this? And yet, it wasn’t just them. She saw the air change. Were those…birds? Why was the sky rippling in color, from blue to cloudy to orange then black? As if it was going through the cycle of day and night in a moment.

Then the first wave of riders crashed forwards, within less than a mile and, suddenly, Seraphel heard distant, blaring horns. Shouts. The Griffin Prince jerked in the air and she saw a foremost rider, a [Knight], no, an armored half-Elf, riding towards her, armor battered.

Can you not hear? Damn you all! What’s going on? They’re behind us! Our [Message] spells—

He was roaring in a hoarse, hopeless voice, as if he’d been shouting for nigh on an hour. His voice was magnified by a spell, and Seraphel flinched as it bounced off the canyon walls. She recoiled, and Vernoue stumbled.

“[Message] spells! N—so many! They sent it at—there are hundreds—

A wave of birds screamed past the Griffin Prince, then saw him in the air and banked, flying in every direction. His fierce mount snapped and had a mouthful of one of them. Seraphel felt something snap around her, and the reverberation of whatever it was stunned her.

As the half-Elf slowed, seeing the statues of people finally move, Seraphel looked down. Not at the first wave of fleeing soldiers, so close, already reaching them at last, the Dawn Concordat’s shattered army.

Not at the animals, or at Vernoue, who finally got the desperate [Messages] that had gone unanswered, piled up and coming in all at once. Not even at the Griffin Prince, hanging in the air, staring at the land-forces who had caught up, against all logic, to his faster force.

She stared down at…the grass. The grass that the half-Elf rode over. It was nothing that should be too obvious, unless you had just seen it. Then—well, it had rained. It was still fading summer. So she saw a noticeable change over however long it had been.

The grass? It was nearly twice as high. It had been shorter a moment ago. Yet all had grown, the [Soldiers] fled, an army been routed due to strange laws. A dire rule.

A Great General of Ailendamus’ power. The Griffin Prince, circling overhead, had it at the same time as Seraphel, as the fortress suddenly came to arms, and war swept closer. After all, you could have a fast army. One that could increase in power. One with skin like stone, or that killed magic.

You could have many things, but what did every [General], [Strategist], and warlord love? What was the key to a hundred battles, if only you could clutch it in your hands? Seraphel looked past the [Soldiers].

How did it go? Something about turning mountains to dust? The final warrior that killed all? Could bring nations down? What was…the one thing Ailendamus had? Though Seraphel could not know that. What they ruled, or at least, did not fear like mortals did?

Time.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: So quick. Not my break. That’s long-awaited and I am…deeply in need of it.

Huge writing is taking its toll on me, and I need the break. But as I noted at the top, the edited chapter is due for the 16th, as I get off the break. Actually, I might need one more chapter to set it all up…well, I’ll figure it out.

I’m not sure if I’ll release the ‘first draft’, or wait for the edited version, in which case The Wandering Inn is on break until the 19th for Patrons, and you get a ‘free’ extra chapter at random. I will let you know, but I am sure it will improve quality immensely!

I will not say much now. I have pushed quite hard this month, and we are moving at well, an on-target pace. But like lightning! Like I have a time machine! Which I don’t, and really want!

If there are any aliens or extra-dimensional people, please consider giving me a time-thingy so I can deliver more quality at my leisure. No? Damn. Well, then, you all get to wait. And if they had a time-thingy, they’d just skip to whenever the entire story is done rather than give one to me…

Sigh. Anyways, see you in a bit! Look forwards to another edited chapter and give me your energy as I rest! Thanks for reading!

 

Lyonette by Zanic!

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Erin, Horns Battle, and more by MrMomo!

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Imgur: https://imgur.com/user/TheMrMomo/posts

 

Rabbiteater and Casino Fight by Brack!

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Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 


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8.46 G

[Barbara Clark will edit a chapter in October! Look forward to it! Also, vote in the Patreon poll! These two things are not related. At all.]

 

“One. Kiscre. Two. Highsword. Three. Seizhe. Four…”

“I don’t know Seizhe.”

“Mountain City Tribe.”

“Mm.”

“Four. Filthblade.”

“Redfang. How many?”

“Over three dozen. Held a hill.”

“Mm. Not as many as war.”

“Still too many.”

“Not as many as a battle, Chieftain.”

“…Five. Escre. Six…”

It was incomprehensible at first, over her terror. Lady Hekusha—technically ‘lady’ as it was a noble title, if ornamental, for she owned no formal land nor had a house—or Magus Hekusha as they failed to call her. Were even surprised by her insistence on the title.

Hekky. That would be a…a childhood name. Although the rag-tag group that had used to call her that was long-since grown. No more adventures. No more watching them play at being proper [Ladies]—which they were, even then—but devolving into actual fistfights.

Well, back then only Pryde and Bethal had hated each other that much. And it was more like a rivalry which blew out of proportion at times.

Nevertheless, Hekusha was too terrified to make sense of it. The quiet voices, the reasoned, even carefully enunciated words—at least from the smaller one. The Chieftain, for all the big one seemed more in line with the image. It took her a while to realize what was happening.

Numbers and names. A simple system. The little one—called ‘Rags’—was counting the dead. Apparently the Goblins hadn’t overrun Tenbault without loss. It was still…so strange.

For she counted just over a hundred names, solemnly, refusing to let one off her list, even those that didn’t have official names and were just ‘that one with the scar on his…’ and so on. Strange, because she thought a hundred Goblins to defeat a Named Rank adventurer and Tenbault’s defenders was too high a cost.

Strange, because why did Goblins sound like they cared about anything? She was only glad they hadn’t touched or harmed her. Yet.

The woman flinched when the big Goblin looked down at her. There were three on the Wyvern’s back, though the last one didn’t speak. She had red paint on her arms and, of all things, a strange, spectacle-like headpiece. A helmet, but with eye-coverings. Hekusha had never seen the like…but then, she had never seen a Goblin flying a Wyvern before. The [Wyvern Rider] grunted, taking orders from the little Goblin.

It was the big Hob who grunted at the terrified woman lashed into place on the Wyvern’s back. The great creature was grumbling with four passengers, nevermind that two were child-sized, and the [Wyvern Rider] kept reassuring it, urging it on.

They were being followed. And whilst Hekusha, known to all and sundry as The Healer of Tenbault, and not by any other name, dearly wished for her freedom, she was terrified that any battle in the air would result in her falling to her death. And she couldn’t quite recall [Featherfall] off the top of her head. If she had her spellbook…

Her teeth chattered and she really needed to pee. She was still shellshocked and afraid of what would come next. And—she shrank back, trying not to disturb the angry Hob. They were clearly aware of her value, which was good, but they were dangerously unpredictable, angry, for all they could speak.

 

——

 

“Calescent, stop smiling.”

Rags glanced up once and saw the Healer of Tenbault’s terrified expression. Her [Spice Chef] gave her a hurt look.

“I have great smile.”

“No you don’t. Humans scared of more than thirty teeth. Sharp teeth, too.”

Calescent frowned. He opened his mouth and began to count his first row of teeth. The horrified look on the woman’s face…Rags sighed.

“Kevin’s alive.”

Hh. Dn’t nd tll uf.

Calescent retorted, finger tapping each tooth. Rags rolled her eyes. She had just received a signal from Taganchiel. She brushed absently at something on her wrist.

A glowing mark in paint. Taganchiel was from Mountain City’s tribe. He was a former apprentice of none other than Ulvama herself, and as such, practiced her brand of shamanic magic. When Rags had discussed the issue of [Message] spells being difficult—she couldn’t cast them herself, and he was a [Shaman], not to mention interception—he’d shown her how they did it.

The magical paint wasn’t nearly as complex as the stuff that could turn to armor or produce advanced effects. But Taganchiel could make the white paint glow certain colors. Right now it was glowing a steady blue.

Safety. He’d broken down the marking into different quadrants. She saw all four were blue. He was safe, the bulk of the Goblins were safe, Poisonbite was safe, Kevin was safe.

She sighed. The last word they’d gotten before they were out of range was of the messy withdrawal. Her Wyvern flew alone through dark skies, having long since passed nearly two days in travel time.

Fleeing Tenbault. That had not been the plan. But…Rags glanced over her shoulder.

“Fightipilota.”

She poked the Goblin in front of her. The Redfang turned her head, and Rags rolled her eyes at the newly named Goblin. Officially sanctioned, by no less than the Goblin herself and Taganchiel. Just in case it helped land her the coveted class.

“Any Humans following, still?”

Fightipilota shrugged.

“Went into clouds, Chieftain. Hard see. Night. Maybe track?”

Her shrug went to indicate that all things being equal, the Wyvern they were flying was overburdened, however, given the Humans’ lack of aerial forces in any number, the few flying carpets and solo Pegasus would not easily catch them unless they had advanced tracking capabilities.

Rags nodded. It was as good as you got. She glanced down and frowned as the Wyvern made a rumbling mraarh sound, which meant it wanted a break.

“Idiot’s still following.”

“Idiot.”

Calescent stopped poking his teeth long enough to agree. Rags sighed.

“Fighti. Down. There.”

She pointed to a forest. They were headed north, fleeing a massive Human army trying to get back their beloved Healer. Alone. Rags had told the other Goblins to get back to Goblinhome, and take Kevin back to Liscor and await their return. If they lost the Humans, they could circle back. It was risky with one Wyvern, but they had a better shot than multiple Wyverns.

…The problem wasn’t just that, though. It was that some idiot had decided to heck with Rags’ orders and followed them. He’d barely been on the horizon yesterday. By the time they landed, he’d sped up and Rags guessed that he’d be on them in less than twenty minutes. She glared as the Wyvern dove quickly, hoping to escape notice; the nearest Human settlement was a ways away. Even so, she still spotted the group of sixteen, led by the giant wolf.

Rags dismounted in a clearing as Fighti took the Wyvern in slow at the end, saving the monster from tearing its wings on the branches.

The Frost Wyvern whined, much like a dog. It did not like forests, where the canopies could shred its wings if it landed fast or hard enough. In fact, Rags had heard that Wyverns sometimes died to Griffins, their rivals to the north, a species from Terandria, who loved to bait them into dives that crashed them into the trees, leaving them easy prey from above.

Fighti reassured her mount, and set to work. She fed the Wyvern a meal-bag, a huge amount of dried Eater Goat meat that the beast scarfed down as it also pooed. Rags wrinkled her nose at the smell, but Fighti was already offering it a stamina potion and slashing the branches overhead, readying for a fast takeoff.

“O-oh, dead gods…”

A weak voice made Rags look over. The Healer was slowly sliding down the Wyvern’s back. Her hands were tied, and her wand was gone, in Rags’ own belt. The woman looked like she wouldn’t have put up much of a fight, even without these precautions.

She was a bit…disappointing. Rags had expected the brilliant Healer of Izril, for all she hadn’t liked Tenbault itself. At the very least, she’d expected a kind of Erin, or powerful Human—someone with power, for good or ill.

The Healer was, rather than that, a strange, strikingly ordinary person. In that she had a look to her. Beauty products had given her fair skin even advancing into her forties, as smooth as some baby’s bottom, which Rags had no idea why Humans loved to use as points of comparison.

She had rather lustrous hair, beautiful magical robes, and what Rags assumed was a fairly lovely complexion. She might be a [Mage], but she had no spectacles and didn’t dress like you’d think. She looked aristocratic in all the rich ways, at least.

But she held herself like a mouse. And she had not the power Rags expected out of her, either in presence or magic. She stared around, then jumped and backed away as Calescent thumped to the ground.

“Ten minutes. Good for snack.”

He announced. The Healer backed up as if she expected she was the snack. She stared around at Rags, then folded her hands.

“I—”

She stared at Rags and the Goblin waited. She peered at the woman, heard a choking sound, and realized the woman had completely lost her next words.

“You stay there. We rest. Twenty minutes.”

Rags ordered the woman. She got an instant, terrified nod.

“Of course. I am your prisoner. I am in complete cooperation, Chieftain—Chieftain Rags, isn’t it? Believe me, I will not offer you any…”

She trailed off again, and that look of horror resumed. Rags rubbed at her head. Two days of this. She knew the woman was listening to them, watching them, but she was scared spitless.

Not, however, incapable of being dangerous. Rags peered at the Healer’s hands as she turned to talk to Fighti. She swung back and snapped.

Don’t take off ring!

The Healer’s hands flew back. Calescent whirled, a spatula raised like the wrath of cuisine.

“I wasn’t! I was just—it’s a lovely ring you gave me, Chieftain! It was just chafing a bit—”

The woman’s huge, reassuring smile failed under the spotlight of Rags’ crimson glare. The Goblin crossed her arms as the Frost Wyvern begged for more food and Fighti offered him a huge cow femur.

“Don’t. Take off. Ring.”

She stared pointedly at the Healer. The woman nodded. Rags snorted as the Healer cast her eyes to the sky.

“Humans can’t track you with an anti-scrying ring. Do you think I’m stupid?”

The woman jumped. She stared at her ring, then at Rags.

“This is—?”

Rags traded a glance with Calescent. The Hob gave her a weird look. Did she think Rags had just made her put on jewelry? The first thing Rags had done when she’d woken the woman out of her faint was to make her put on the ring.

And warn her not to cast [Message]. Rags rolled her eyes.

“Take off the ring and Calescent takes off your hand, got it? And he’ll make you eat it. No [Message] spells. I can tell.”

The Healer went dead-white. She looked at Calescent and the offended [Chef], preparing a fast meal on a little pan, put his hands on his hips.

“No meat on hands. I don’t feed hands, Chieftain. Although…if marinate…”

He tapped a finger to his lips, then smiled reassuringly at the Healer, without his teeth.

She just stared at her hands as Rags, grumbling, strode over to Fighti.

“Can we turn yet? Find way to turn?”

“Got to find no-Humans place, Chieftain. Humans see us turn, they turn. Like this.”

Fightipilota made a little diagram in the dirt, to indicate that their ability to turn left or right was hampered by them having to go through pursuers, who could then cross a shorter distance to reach them. Simple geometry—a word she had no idea about. But she knew how to raid and get away.

Rags grumbled.

“What about hiding?”

“Hah! Good one. Chieftain wants to hide? From [Trackers]? How long?”

Fair point. Rags sighed.

“North, then. But…go that way. Too many Human settlements, see? Aim for here.”

She pulled out a map and showed Fighti where she thought they were, and tried to chart them into areas with no Human settlements. Fighti nodded.

“Okay, Chieftain. You, boss. I get promotion if we get back?”

Rags gave the Redfang-turned-[Wyvern Rider] a long look.

“You Redfang. I promote what, Poisonbite job?”

“No…maybe Air Force Major? Ma’am! Sir! Drop bombs! Vrooom!”

She made sounds and gesticulated, trying to get across her limited understanding of Earth’s air forces and the powers she’d get. Rags stared at her.

“…Sure.”

She blamed Kevin for that. The Human was a huge boon in many ways, not least of which was the casual way he’d come to Goblinhome and just…hung out. Done ollies with Goblins. Shown them there was one Human who just thought they were ‘cool’.

Also, he’d helped her design a new kind of ballista they were already prototyping, given her insight into Earth’s industrial complex, the power of gears and bicycle schematics, knowledge about Earth that reframed Erin Solstice in an entire new light—even helped design two pieces of gear for this mission.

Fighti had an experimental helmet with ‘goggles’. In this case, two pieces of glass that saved her eyes from being blown out by bugs or grit hitting her at high-speed, embedded in a leather helmet. It wasn’t advanced, and Kevin had talked about ‘plastic’ being probably better, or enchanted glass, but they had done it!

…Mainly by literally stealing glass from a window and cutting it into the right shape. But Fighti had told Rags it made seeing a lot easier. She also had the same gear Rags still had around her neck, hanging down from the strap.

A crude breathing mask, or ‘gas mask’ as Kevin had called it. It was a curious snout-like device with a filter, but it had worked to keep the dust out. It too used glass and leather, their two main objects, or metal in Calescent’s case, though the [Smiths] hadn’t had enough iron or time to do all of them.

Rags really liked the idea, even though these were literally only dust-grade. Kevin had suggested them and told her about filtering, although he only had charcoal and various layers of cotton and cloth as a filter, with no idea of how to make an actual one to filter out gasses.

That was sort of his weak point. He was friendly, laid back, informative…but he had all the [Wyvern Riders] chanting ‘fighter pilot, fighter pilot, fighter pilot, jet pilot’, each night as they went to bed. He couldn’t tell Rags how gunpowder was made, and a lot of what he knew was neat. It was up to her to turn ‘neat’ into useful.

Even so, she had to own that he’d helped spur her to make the Tenbault assault a reality. And he had been for it, too.

Save Erin Solstice. Bring her back. Rags had once again gone to war, but this time for the [Innkeeper]. What a curious feeling.

She had the Healer. Now they just had to get her to Liscor or Goblinhome. And it would be so much easier if Rags only had to worry about one Wyvern. However…she turned, sighing, as a sound broke into the clearing. Calescent looked up and casually shifted his grip on the frying pan, ready to toss the contents in someone’s face. Fighti and her Wyvern turned, and the Healer started. Rags saw a figure break into the clearing, and heard the panting whine of a huge beast that even the Frost Wyvern edged back from.

Thunderfur, the mightiest Carn Wolf, and Redscar. The Goblin hopped to the ground, grinning, two pieces of cotton wedged into his ears. Rags glared at him.

“Idiot. I told you to go back.

What, Chieftain? Can’t hear! I come for backup!

The Goblin cheerfully bellowed. Rags threw some dirt at him, but then fifteen more Redfangs, all on Carn Wolves, raced into the clearing. They were the best group, which had gone with Redscar in the assault. They had also declined to flee, and punched through the Human lines after her.

“Finally caught up!”

A Goblin moaned in relief and slid from his saddle, clutching at his groin. A female Redfang and Fighti cackled. Rags gave the ailing Goblin a blank look; she was told that Carn Wolves’ loping pace was ‘harder’ on male Goblins than even horses. She had no idea why.

“Redscar, you alive? You rode for two days. Need a break? Stupid. Any injuries?”

She poked at the taller Goblin, scowling. He was mostly a Hob, though lean as ever, and eating three times what he used to. He’d shot up in height, and was now a reflection of Garen—albeit different in a number of ways. Nevertheless, the bladesman had survived a clash with a Named-rank, albeit on advantageous ground.

Just not unhindered.

What? Sorry, Chieftain! Can’t hear!

Redscar bellowed cheerfully. He hadn’t actually been pretending. His hearing—no, all the Redfangs’—was clearly gone. Even the Carn Wolves, which made loud sounds, were clearly bemused by their new state of being.

Rags bit her lip. Not good. She hoped his hearing would return. But if it didn’t…

The Healer had looked up as Rags gave up on words and signed to Redscar, who replied with ease. If anything, his one concern about hearing loss wasn’t for a lack of communication given how well Goblins read each other, it was in his situational awareness on the battlefield.

The woman jumped as Calescent tapped her on the shoulder. Her shriek was so loud that even the deaf Redfangs and Carn Wolves looked over. The [Spice Chef] gave her a long look.

“Food.”

He offered her a plate of…the woman peered at it.

“W-what is this?”

“Savor Pancakes. Is good. Eater Goat meat. Not hand.

The Healer of Tenbault stared at the pancakes in sheer stupefaction, then at the sizzling pan over a quick fire. Calescent had, in the course of fifteen minutes, set up a fire, unwrapped some pre-made dough from a cloth bundle, and mixed it with stringy goat meat in a pan to create ‘Savor Pancakes’, which were a meat-based, savory pancake you ate hot with gravy and butter.

It was the kind of thing even the Carn Wolves would eat, which either spoke to the adaptability of Calescent’s cooking, or its bottom denominator. The Redfangs scarfed it down quick, the first real meal they’d had from hard riding. Calescent had some spice he offered everyone for taste, but no one was stupid enough to take him up on the offer.

It was technically more of a flatbread-like parathas than a pancake, but since no one had educated Calescent on the fine art of naming things specifically, he called them pancakes.

Rags checked on all the warriors first, and then got her plate. Her Savor Pancake was a bit too moist and didn’t have any gravy, despite her demanding a double-helping! She stared at her pancake, about to take Calescent to rare task, when she heard a huffing sound that was slightly…guilty.

She looked over and saw Thunderfur turning his head away, the wolf licking his chops. She looked at her pancake and recognized Carn Wolf drool all over it. He’d licked her pancake clean!

The Redfangs laughed at the fight between the Chieftain and Thunderfur, as Redscar sat, exhausted. He poked at one ear and grunted in disgust; it was filled with dried blood. He poked with one claw, still hearing a ringing sound in the back of his head.

Not good. He’d known the risks going in, but wow, did this suck. The Hobgoblin wondered if they’d get back to Goblinhome in time. He wasn’t too concerned with the next steps; Rags was in charge and she was smart. He just had to win against any foe they met. If they did that…

It was as he sat there, wondering if he’d have to retrain himself to notice what his ears could not, that he felt a tentative, cold hand on his shoulder. He jumped, and heard—

—toration].

A spell. Rags stopped punching Thunderfur’s left foreleg and whirled. Redscar jerked back, then grabbed at his ears. He stared at the Healer of Tenbault as she backed away.

“It’s only a healing spell! See? I can be useful! I’m an asset. It should—it did work, didn’t it? I’ve never healed a Goblin…”

What? What did y—I can hear.”

Redscar stopped shouting, and felt at his ears. Suddenly, he could hear. Thunderfur bounded over and the Healer fled with a shriek. She hid behind a tree as Rags got to her feet. Calescent’s eyebrows were in his hair, and Rags saw the Healer staring at Redscar as the other warriors got to their feet.

“I can heal you! Just don’t—don’t touch me, understand? Don’t do bad things. I can be very valuable, but only if I’m treated well!”

She called at them. The Goblins exchanged a look. Rags exhaled, slowly. Oh yeah. That was right. They’d kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault.

 

——

 

“[Restoration]?”

Rags had never heard of the spell before. The Healer of Tenbault, who was apparently named Hekusha, looked a bit offended as she sat, half-comatose, on Thunderfur’s back.

Rags was riding pillion on a second Carn Wolf, so only Fighti and Calescent were in the skies, to let the Wyvern fly ahead and at a reduced burden.

Also because Hekusha could barely sit upright and you didn’t want to play ‘catch the Healer’ at high altitude.

She’d cast the spell that made her famous four times, as Goblins and Carn Wolves lined up to have their hearing restored. Only four times, and she’d done it quick—just about twenty seconds of what looked like magical prep time, and then, like a miracle, the Goblins could hear, and Thunderfur howled in delight before being shushed.

Even healing potions hadn’t saved the ruptured eardrums—at least, not from Merdon’s voice. But the Healer had cast her spell and restored them to as good as new.

In fact, two Redfangs had complained she’d removed their new war scars, and some old ones! A grizzled veteran of nearly ten years had pointed at her hip and complained it didn’t ache anymore.

Three times. Then the Healer had touched the final Goblin, cast her spell, and keeled over. Just—dead backwards, such that she would have hit the ground hard if Calescent hadn’t caught her.

“Mana drain. I can only cast it…four or five times a day. With potions, up to ten. I’ll cast more tomorrow!”

Hekusha hurried to assure Rags. The Goblin Chieftain folded her arms.

“Ten? But only ear-damage. Why so much…mana?”

She was no expert, but Hekusha had to be what, Level 40? Level 30 at least, since she claimed [Restoration] was actually a Tier 6 specialized spell. Rags was awed she could cast it. Rags was awed they weren’t dead if someone could throw that kind of magic around.

“It…does not differentiate. [Restoration] is a set-cost spell. It is…a bit…impractical to use repeatedly. I was only capable of casting it once per day, you know. Even with nearly a dozen Skills dedicated to casting one spell, four per day is what I normally do. Three or four.”

Rags raised her brows.

“How did you learn?”

“A—I am a friend, a great friend—of Magnolia Reinhart’s. The Lady of House Reinhart? Of the Five Families?”

Hekusha looked hopeful. Rags nodded.

“I know who that is.”

“Duh.”

Redscar grumbled. Hekusha stared at him, then gave Rags another big, still-scared smile. But she had relaxed enough to talk after the Goblins expressed approval in no uncertain way.

“We were—childhood friends. I was common-born, back then, but they hired me to act as a kind of—magical follower. I was their age, and later Magnolia Reinhart, who is deeply much a friend, helped find a mentor to teach me this spell. Which no one else has mastered! Thus my name.”

She seemed to really want Rags to know Magnolia was her friend. Rags nodded.

“So you cast it. So you aren’t a [Healer]?”

“No. A [Mage]. [Restoration], you see, is one of the few healing-class spells. The school of life-magic is thought to be relatively non-existent in modern-day magic, given that few spells to heal exist. I, ah, am I making sense?”

“Yes. Go on.”

“Well…that’s it. I can cast [Restoration], and I have quite a lot of people who want me to cast the spell, you know. I have a lot of money. At the Merchant’s Guild. I could, uh, give it to you if you set me free.”

“Hm. No. We want you to heal someone.”

The Healer’s eyes lit up.

“Heal someone? A Goblin? I can do that! And then you’ll let me go?”

“Yup.”

“Oh. Really? I’m—so delighted you’re reasonable! You know, this has happened three times before. Normally by people who demand I heal someone. But uh—never by Goblins. I thought Merdon would protect me properly. He’s never allowed anyone to capture me. Is he alive?”

“Redscar?”

“Mm. Stupid armor. Big-voice-man fine. Lots of shouting.”

“Oh, that’s good. Redscar, is it?”

“Mhm. Chieftain, maybe we can keep her? Good for not dying bleed-bleed-death.”

Rags sighed at Hekusha’s expression.

“No, Redscar. Hekusha. We want you to heal one person. Redfangs, any Goblin hurt, but one person. Then you can go. We’ll drop you off at, uh, close to a Human place.”

“That’s so very generous of you, Chieftain!”

The Healer smiled wanly. Rags raised her eyebrows. She wouldn’t have described her own actions as ‘generous’, but the woman had clearly expected a Tremborag-type Chieftain, to judge by her reaction. Rags tapped her chest.

“No one touches you. Except maybe to keep you from stepping in wolf poo. I promise.”

“Of course I—that’s good. Thank you.”

Rags nodded. This was a good step. Hekusha relaxed, and they passed a few minutes as Redscar followed the column pursuing Fighti flying ahead of them, occasionally correcting their course to keep hidden in valleys or forests. After a second, she spoke.

“Um. Who am I healing? An important Goblin, surely. What are they suffering from? Disease? It’s often disease or poison that leads people to come to me. Or permanent illnesses. I have Named Adventurers among my clients, you know. But if it’s just one person and you’re letting me go, maybe I could even signal to them I’m well?”

“Hrr. Doubt that. It is not a Goblin. She’s…Human.”

“R-really?

“Mhm. Shot. By crossbows. Six.”

“Oh dear. She’s not dead…?”

“No.”

Hekusha relaxed. She’d clearly been worried about that. Rags went on.

“Poisoned crossbows. She was hurt…bad. Lost a lot of blood. So…she’s frozen. In ice.”

“In—”

Rags watched the woman’s face. She nodded slowly.

“Solid ice, almost. She is not dead—spells don’t say so. But not alive, either. So—frozen. With crossbow bolts in her, see? Right here. In the chest. You…we warm her, somehow. You heal her. Maybe through ice? Then you can go.”

She waited. Hekusha’s expression changed slowly. She tried to keep up her smiling, nodding face, but Rags saw the look of deep, deep uncertainty and fear. The Chieftain gritted her teeth.

“Can you do it?”

“I…maybe? I have Skills. Yes, of course. Yes. Of course.

Rags stared at her. Then she turned her head forwards, so she didn’t see anything that contradicted the hope she had to cling to. And they were still headed north. Away from the High Passes.

How far did they have to run? Rags’ head turned forwards, as Redscar took over the questioning, keeping his smile toothless. The other Goblins clustered a bit closer, a bit fascinated by the second or third Human they’d ever truly met, who did try to smile back, if tremulously.

Rags, though, looked ahead. Searching. Her eyes flickered, and she saw Fighti bank, turning. Perhaps it was just a gust up there. Or she felt it too. Like…candles in the dark.

Something Rags had never seen, but knew the moment she’d heard it described to her.

Lighthouses.

 

——

 

Four days of battle. Four days of strange war. Then he fell.

Luck, experience, and his levels had carried him this far. Yet war was war; he slipped on a patch of mud. A rookie mistake, but he hadn’t even seen it in the press of bodies.

Rabbiteater fell. His shield rose, reflexively, but he was armed with a sword, not the enchanted axe, in the melee.

There the [Knight] stood, violet armor battered. A mace in two hands. It swung down, and the Goblin tried to guess where it would land. He failed. He guarded his face and it struck his gut.

A crushing blow that knocked the wind out of him, and touched him inside. Like a shockwave—some kind of Skill. Despite himself, the [Champion], [Knight-Errant], curled up reflexively. Then the mace rose, and fell. No grand pronouncement or movement to it. Just the efficient two-stroke to finish off a wounded foe.

How sensible. If the Goblin had the time, he might have grinned or even nodded, but every fiber in him was reaching to raise his sinking shield, twist out of the way.

He was too slow. The mace thudded into its target as the embattled Order of Seasons gave ground to their foe.

…Which was the mud, right next to Rabbiteater’s helmet. The Goblin blinked. He’d expected to die. And he could not believe anyone had aim that poor. Had something thrown his enemy off?

I have you, ser! Yield like a good chap!

A huge, booming, cheerful voice emerged from the helmet. Rabbiteater stared upwards at the [Knight] of the Order of the Hydra. He carefully kicked up.

The blow to the groin had [Enhanced Strength] behind it. [Aspect of the Champion]. Codpiece or no, he heard an oath from behind the helm, but then found he’d miscalculated as much as his foe. The figure grabbed his leg.

Unsporting, ser! Yield; you’ve been bested!

“Rabbiteater!”

A voice out of the melee and Ser Markus broke through with Meisa. The two Spring Knights were battered, their armor showing dents, their own spring green revealing grey underneath.

The female [Knight] turned, mace rising as she let go of his leg. Rabbiteater struggled up, but the foreign [Knight] just gave him a glare.

“I’ve bested your friend, [Knights]! The fellow doesn’t intend to yield.”

“Rabbiteater?”

Ser Markus lowered his blade. He glanced at the Goblin, and Meisa motioned him down.

“Yield, Rabbit—Solstice! Yield! We’ll win!”

“Hah! Two against one? Hardly sporting!”

At this, Ser Markus put up his blade. Dame Meisa saluted the [Knight], wielding hatchets in both hands. An unexpectedly aggressive approach, but Spring was often unexpected.

“Not two against one. En garde, Dame Knight!”

The Hydra Knight charged, mace swinging, but Meisa just whirled away and began her chopping assault, forcing the cursing opponent to back up for fear of the enchanted blades that could cut her armor if struck right.

“Solstice. That is to say, Rabbiteater, are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

Rabbiteater was still gasping from the blow he’d taken. But he wanted to jump Meisa’s opponent. Markus held him back.

“You’ve been bested, Rabbiteater. Stay down. It’s unchivalrous. By rights, you can’t participate in the battle. You’ve seen it done enough times! Is this the first time you’ve been beaten?”

“Yes. Who cares?”

Rabbiteater wanted to open his visor to spit what felt like blood or phlegm. He watched as Ser Markus restrained him by the shoulder. Meisa was winning, unexpectedly.

The other [Knight] was good, but her mace was just steel. Meisa’s hatchets came from the Order’s armories, and they had already taken nasty gashes out of her foe’s armor. Markus watched, but didn’t look like he’d intervene even if things went south. Indeed, the milling battle around them…

Aha! A pair of foes. I challenge you two!

Another group emerged from the fighting. No less than six Knights of the Hydra. Damn. Rabbiteater reached for his axe, but Ser Markus blocked him with an arm.

“My companion’s been bested.”

“Has he? Crying shame. You then, Ser? I challenge your Season of Spring! I am Ser Hedey.”

“Ser Markus of the Spring. Very well. En garde!”

And they fought. Rabbiteater watched as one of the Hydra Knights began to duel Markus in a ringing bout—they both had sword and shield—while the five others looked on. One even nodded at Rabbiteater.

They could have jumped Ser Markus and, even if Rabbiteater had joined in, he doubted they’d fare happily two on six. But instead, they dueled.

Dueled. And when the Hydra [Mace Knight] fell to one knee, bleeding from a limp arm and croaked ‘yield’, Meisa raised her hatchets.

“A well-fought match. Watch her hatchets, friends. Dame Spring! At your convenience.”

Another of the Hydra Knights bowed slightly. Two more helped the fallen Hydra Knight back up and towed her away. Meisa removed her helmet—an incredibly stupid move given arrows might be falling around them, but there were no arrows—and drank a stamina potion.

“I’m ready.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“Very well then…”

Rabbiteater watched, arms folded. After a second he looked at Markus, who might have the edge. Again, because his armor and weapon were a cut above the Hydra’s [Knight]. But there were more opponents for him even if he won. And in the distance…Rabbiteater saw a huge shape, fighting a literal fireball.

“Hah! A fourth time, Summer’s Champion?”

The Dame of the Hills, the huge half-Giant [Knight], saluted an invisible opponent as the two champions of their respective orders advanced on each other. Around them, [Knights] of both sides clashed, but in duels, for the most part. Melees in others, but…so few died. Most shouted that damn word.

Yield. Rabbiteater stared at the fight, then stomped off. Four times someone tried to stop him, and he just shrugged.

“I yielded.”

And they let him go. Rabbiteater retreated to safety, where other fallen [Knights] and the wounded were recuperating, or resting before entering the fray. He sat down and fished out a healing potion for his stomach.

This was a stupid way to fight wars.

 

——

 

Or, alternatively, a smart one. Because, and here was the thing—the Order of Seasons lost this battle.

The Summer’s Champion didn’t. Rabbiteater saw the cursing half-Giant woman, the famous Great Knight of Ailendamus, retreat, her armor scorched all the way up her arms and legs. But the Summer’s Champion, Greysten, had fought two thirds of the battle against her alone, and couldn’t shift the odds even after his victory.

Nor had he killed the Dame of the Hills, Merila. By now, the Order of Seasons was too battered and ‘losing’ [Knights]. Which was to say that some were taken prisoner. Not killed.

Twelve dead on both sides. Twelve. Because most [Knights] never finished the kill-stroke, and armor saved them from the worst wounds, as did a quickly-applied healing potion. Thousands of [Knights] had clashed, under a thousand now from the Order of Seasons’ side, but the Order of the Hydra had sent over ten thousand.

Many had been bested in duels, but the Order of Seasons didn’t take any prisoner. They couldn’t; they were forced to flee on horseback, as a furious rearguard held off the unmounted [Knights] who cheerfully pursued for a mile or two then gave up as the victors, nearly eighty [Knights] now prisoners of war.

A stupid kind of battle. A [Knight]’s kind of battle. Ser Markus and Rabbiteater argued in one rare moment of discord as they wearily retreated.

“It is not stupid, Rabbiteater.”

“Is.”

“It is how Terandria has always fought. Are you calling millenia of tradition stupid?”

“Yup.”

Ser Markus made an indignant squawk. Meisa rode up on Rabbiteater’s other side. She was beaten, having lost her last duel, but she’d been able to ‘escape’, as the [Knights] hadn’t been able to demand she accompany them to their back lines.

“Few [Knights] died, Rabbiteater. Better that than a slaughter. You would have died if not for the rules of war.”

“Yup.”

“Well…? And don’t give me a one-word answer.”

She poked at him with a gauntleted finger, which was a very Goblin thing to do. Ser Markus saw the annoyed ‘Ser Solstice’ turn his helmet, then elaborate.

“We took no prisoners. They did. They’re winning.”

He pointed back at the Order of the Hydra.

“They certainly have the numbers on their side. Ordinarily we’d establish prisoner trains—escorts to take our prisoners away. But they have us on the run.”

Markus agreed wearily. Rabbiteater shook his head.

“There are thousands of them. They’re winning.”

“Not if we break their lines! The Order’s won greater battles with less, Rabbiteater, and reinforcements should be coming.”

Pgrh.

The Goblin made a rude sound in his helmet. He rode ahead as the two Spring Knights exchanged exasperated glances.

“What’s wrong with fighting a war where you don’t kill the other fellow, Rabbiteater? Isn’t that better, from what you’ve told us of Izril’s conflicts?”

Rabbiteater stopped. He glared back at them as the Spring Knights around them caught up with the main force. He pointed a furious finger.

“I don’t care about how you fight. [Knights] fight like the other one’s…people. A person. What about the people who don’t get to be people on the battlefield?”

He was not as eloquent as Numbtongue, and even now struggled to make himself clear. But one finger was enough. Meisa and Markus turned and saw the army that had taken casualties. In the hundreds.

Pheislant’s forces and Ailendamus’ forces had fought, but there was a distinction between [Knights] and…non-[Knights]. You’d often see both fighting together, but in this case, the Order of the Hydra was playing to the rules and essentially boxing out the Order of Seasons from fighting the regular [Soldiers] of Ailendamus. They formed a wall of duels and melees, such that the Order of the Summer couldn’t use their famous fire aura to burn the [Soldiers] en-masse.

Which meant that two armies of mostly non-[Knights] fought. Ailendamus’ army, and Pheislant’s mostly mounted force. Again, it was people on horses versus a very grounded army.

Unfortunately, no rules of war existed there for yielding. Ailendamus’ army had torn Pheislant’s to pieces. Again. They’d sat on a hill, and showered the poor [Soldiers] with crossbow bolts, keeping them from helping the Order of Seasons.

The dead. Rabbiteater saw Greysten talking to the bloodied Pheislant commander. Ser Markus followed after.

“It’s a damned shame. If we could have broken through again to help them—but yielding and the code of honorable engagements doesn’t work as well with [Soldiers], Rabbiteater. They don’t have our armor, by and large.”

“Yes. So the [Knights] get to live. Everyone else gets to fight like they’re monsters. Or Goblins.”

“That’s not fair…!”

“Markus. Let him be angry.”

Meisa drew back her companion. Markus glowered, but let Rabbiteater ride on. The Goblin Knight slowed as Greysten removed his helmet.

“Damn. Is there any way out of it?”

“No, Summer’s Champion.”

“Then we break west. Now. Rabbiteater, we’re being boxed in. Damn. Damn!

The Summer’s Champion tossed his helmet down. He looked bruised. His entire body looked like one bruise, and no wonder. He’d been battling a literal giant. Well—half-Giant, but kin to Zamea and the largest of her kind.

A half-Giant with levels. That Greysten had driven her off was amazing. Even so, he had the energy to command.

“What’s a box?”

“This valley. They’ve driven us into a corner. We’ll need to break west. And we must take the battle to Ailendamus’ lines. They’ve torn up the [Soldiers] again. Crossbows. I’m sure Pheislant’s own could rout them if they got a good charge in, but they can never get close.

Rabbiteater grunted. He’d seen that. Whoever was commanding Ailendamus’ forces had seen how the last army got beaten and had done everything in their power to not let that happen. They played on the Order’s knightly nature by forcing the individually inferior, yet numerous Order of the Hydra to hold them in place.

Even if the Order of the Hydra ‘lost’, the Order of Seasons couldn’t take the [Knights] prisoner. In the meantime, Ailendamus had the boring-but-efficient strategy of creating a fortified line behind which their far superior and numerous archers punished Pheislant’s riders for coming close.

“This is a stupid war. Stupid rules.”

Rabbiteater growled. Greysten was drinking from a water bottle. He looked at Rabbiteater.

“I heard you were bested, Rabbiteater. I’m glad they didn’t take you prisoner, although the Order of the Hydra’s reported to be an honorable lot. They probably would have let you keep your armor.”

“That’s not…the point. How you [Knights] fight is stupid.”

Rabbiteater glowered. Greysten stoppered the canteen and sighed.

“You’re entitled to being angry, Rabbiteater. But if you keep calling how we fight stupid, I’ll have to smack you. It’s how we’re fighting, and we’re not about to change how the rules of war work.”

The Goblin hesitated. Then he saw how Greysten was actually giving off steam, even in the warm evening breeze. He was as angry as Rabbiteater—only his aura showed it. He went for another drink of water, and grimaced as steam rose out of his canteen.

Damn. And damn that giant…half-Giant…giant…woman!”

He made a fist and shook it at the figure still visible in the distance. Someone else joined them and tossed Greysten her water flask. Dame Voost, one of the best duelists in the Season of Summer.

“Cool yourself, Summer’s Champion. Ser Solstice.”

Rabbiteater nodded at the woman who’d yet to be bested in the duels. On the other side, Ser Zulv, another of Greysten’s close companions and leader of one of their strike groups, joined them.

“You must refuse her challenge, Summer’s Champion. Neither you nor she ever wins, only forces the other to retreat.”

“I know. But she can force me to it! [A Knight’s Duel]! I can scorch her and melt her weapons, but her damn [Squire] keeps tossing more in. And she’s as strong as—well, a half-Giant.

Rabbiteater had seen Greysten fighting the nigh thirty-foot tall [Knight]. It seemed like he’d lose any encounter, but he had levels on her. So while she could strike him like a hammer, his Skills could turn blows or hold his ground, and she had to be wary of Greysten’s flame; conjuring a fireball like a [Mage] was the least of his tricks.

“If only the Spring’s Warden was here. She’d do better—or the Knight-Commander or the Winter’s Watcher. I’m not a good match for someone with that kind of reach, who can stay clear of me. And we can’t let her go rampaging into our lines!”

“Perhaps if I challenged her…?”

Voost offered. Greysten grunted.

“I’m not sure you could win, Voost.”

“Neither am I. But if it means you could break the stalemate…”

The [Knights] talked strategy as Rabbiteater cooled off and listened. The brunt of it was this: after multiple battles, their glorious advance into Ailendamus had stalled out. The enemy army had been made to fight them, and they had to break out of this trap and fight out of the valley or be captured.

Which didn’t mean dying. For the [Knights], at least. They’d all be prisoners of war for a time, ransomed when convenient. Even the [Soldiers], if they surrendered en-masse.

Later in his tent, as they ate around a pot of food, Greysten had a more reasoned discussion with Rabbiteater.

“To your point, Rabbiteater, it may be that only [Knights] have the luxury of a safer battle, but we do not exactly attempt to slaughter our foes in general. Many an army has lost only a tenth or fifth of its numbers and surrendered. Still bloody, but better.”

“Goblins don’t get that mercy.”

The Hobgoblin snapped. Greysten stopped filling a bowl and nodded.

“Aye, they don’t. But that’s an issue…damn, I wish Venoriat was here to talk about it.”

He meant the Fall’s Sentinel. Greysten offered Rabbiteater a bowl and the Goblin ate hungrily as Greysten tried to figure out what to say.

“…If every people fought like this, it wouldn’t be bad, though, would it? And I would like everyone to fight like this. I’ve seen bad battles, where the blood’s turned the ground red. I’d like to see no more if possible. Can we agree on that?”

“Fine. But it’s still stupid. No one’s going to level.”

“Yes they will. Don’t be a prat.”

Greysten heaved a ladle at Rabbiteater. Then, grumbling, he scooped up the soup with a bowl. Rabbiteater glowered, but it wasn’t as hostile as the wide-eyed Markus and Meisa thought. They were guests and probably saw tossing ladles as the height of acrimony. To Rabbiteater and Greysten, it was more like how Redfangs argued. If they threw a punch, well, it meant they were annoyed.

“Dame Meisa, you levelled up last battle, didn’t you? And Markus?”

“Yes, Ser Greysten. Two levels so far.”

See?

The angry Summer’s Champion waved a spoon at Rabbiteater, gobbling so fast it looked like the two were also racing to see who could finish their bowl faster, as if that conferred some legitimacy to their arguments.

“Not as much as a real battle. I am high-level for your [Knights]. And I’m ‘just a Goblin’. But a Goblin who fought real battles. They trained for years with fancy dummies. Magic and good food and techniques and practice. I’m higher level.”

Fancy dummies? Greysten’s lips moved until Markus coughed.

“Training dummies.”

“Oh.”

Rabbiteater jabbed his chest with his thumb.

“You fight in a way that makes you weaker. Ever fought Crelers? Eater Goats? Gargoyles? They don’t yield. Real fighting…no yielding. Fight like that, and you’ll level.”

He glared at Greysten. The Summer’s Champion glanced at him.

“It’s true, Rabbiteater. You are higher-level than most of my [Knights], even Summer’s lot. You’d be a veteran among them if your main class was your [Knight]’s class. However, with all due respect, the fact that I am higher-level than you by quite a bit proves we can still level. And survive. If I fought like you, I would be dead many times over because I have been bested. You are higher-level, Rabbiteater. But…there’s only one of you.”

Markus inhaled. Rabbiteater stared at Greysten for a long moment, and the Summer’s Champion waited, chewing. At last, the Goblin grunted, reached for the pot, and filled his bowl.

“Yeah. True.”

What else could you say but that he was right? Rabbiteater ate slowly. The coming battle would be fierce. He saw Greysten grimace.

“If we are routed here, surrender or not, we will fail both Pheislant and the Dawn Concordat. We must break through their lines. Or I fear this war will not last long at all. We are meant to ride to Kaliv’s defense. Seeing how they’ve held down an entire Season…”

He sat there, face dark, fiery hair reflecting the cookfire’s light. Markus and Meisa stirred.

“…I fear for all of Terandria’s south if Ailendamus isn’t checked. Can we do it, though? Lend me your strength for this next battle, Rabbiteater. I wish I had talked one of my peers into joining us. I didn’t think they could hold us back like this.”

Rabbiteater nodded. This was not his war. He didn’t know the Dawn Concordat, or hold Ailendamus as an enemy in any real way. But…he looked at Markus, Meisa, Greysten, and thought of the Order of Seasons.

A tribe of Humans. Friends. If he could have, he would have taken them back to the inn after this was over, to show a surprised [Innkeeper] who he’d found that was like her. You fought and died for friends and family. He ate with Greysten, and dreamt of an inn. If only she was alive. Then, surely—even if the coming battle had twice the odds against them—

He wouldn’t lose. But the boon had long since left him. All he had were memories.

 

——

 

Something strange happened over the next day of travel. Rags noticed it first, over breakfast.

“Ta. Da?”

Calescent had covered it with a plate. Hekusha blinked at the complex little puffball in the charred, wooden ‘cup’.

“U-um, what’s this? Calescent, is it?”

The [Spice Chef] gave her a beaming smile.

“Soufflé.”

He looked triumphantly at Rags. Hekusha peered at the item he served her for breakfast. Rags stared down at her porridge and cinnamon and gave him a thin-eyed glare. Clearly someone had been laboring harder over a certain dish than others.

“How did you make…?”

The Hobgoblin was exceptionally proud of himself and showed the two. He’d worked on the basic ingredients for the soufflé by having a Redfang raid birds’ nests for eggs. He had flour, along with a variety of travel rations like your basic salt, spices, and so on. He had the recipe from his studies with Imani and one could pan-fry a lot.

But soufflés also required ovens, so Calescent had, after much thinking, improvised one by carefully laying embers in a hole in the ground and constantly replacing them to get as close to an even bake in a primitive field-kitchen as one could hope for.

Incidentally, Redscar and Fighti were eating his failed attempts with considerable relish. The [Spice Chef] waited like some anxious contestant on a cooking show as Hekusha ate the food which she had never actually partaken of before. Variants, of course, but her eyes went wide.

“It’s…delicious!”

Calescent clapped his hands and whooped, much to her shock. Rags just glared at her porridge, but Hekusha’s appreciation trumped her annoyance. Indeed, Calescent was keen to tell her he could cook.

“Lasagnas. Soufflés. Quiches. Egg-dishes is nice. Eggs is nice. But I have been told…there are good dishes. Needs rice. Or bread. Curry. Have you eaten curry?”

“I have not. Curry…I’ve, ah, had those other dishes. And you know how to cook them?”

Calescent nodded self-importantly.

“I have a cookbook.”

“You do? I’ve…that was quite delicious, that soufflé. I’ve eaten at restaurants with [Chefs] who have cooked worse.”

“Ah! Ah, that is good.”

The Hobgoblin beamed, already trying to figure out a new dish. To impress her. Hekusha glanced over as a Redfang looked over.

“You eat fancy food? All the time? Like…cake?”

“Cake? You’ve eaten cake? But that’s the newest thing to come out of the kitchens! Frosted cakes, that is. It’s…you have?”

The Goblins grinned. Rags listened, in silence, as the Healer of Tenbault was taken aback. She explained.

“I do visit fine restaurants regularly, actually. I ah, do it in disguise. I have a ring. That is…I believe your Chieftain has it.”

Rags had confiscated all of her magical items. Frowning, she dug in her bag of holding and produced one.

“This?”

The carved eye was clouded over, a milky-white gemstone inset in the ring. A Ring of Illusory Form, as it turned out. Hekusha nodded.

“Yes, well, it’s not good to be so popular as I am. So I must go abroad like someone else. The Healer rarely leaves Tenbault publicly, you see. It’s…mystique.”

“Mystique. Why?”

Calescent savored the word. Hekusha brushed at her hair, uncombed, and losing some of its sheen from days of travel. But last night the other Goblins had even found a stream for her to wash in.

“Well…it’s, ah, important not to let people find me, especially when I travel. They make demands, or pleas…I can’t help everyone. Hence the system at Tenbault. A lottery and purchased tickets. It provides an income for the city, you see, and my guards, and my work.”

The Goblins gave her blank looks. The Healer tried to elaborate.

“Much of my income goes to keeping Tenbault running. Hiring a Named Adventurer is not cheap, but I do have the opportunity to travel and visit restaurants, dine with company, and see attractions fairly regularly. However, I also have magical research. Into magic in general, but also [Restoration] as a spell. To make it more…accessible.”

“Ah, so many people can cast it? Useful.”

Redscar nodded thoughtfully. Hekusha hesitated.

“Well, a few. I have apprentices and staff. I hope they escaped.”

“They did. Ran off.”

Rags murmured. Hekusha nodded. The little Goblin fished in her bag of holding, but before she could produce some of the objects they’d taken from the Healer’s home, Calescent broke in.

“Do you know ice cream?

“You mean…gelato? It’s extraordinarily expensive, but I bought eight pounds of it. And it went by distressingly fast…don’t tell me you know how to…really?

“I will make you some. When we get to Goblinhome.”

The [Chef] looked happy, although Rags knew for a fact he hadn’t ever made any, since ice was harder to get. Even so, him smiling at her, the other Redfangs chatting, asking her what fancy things she’d seen…

It was notable to Rags. They were really trying to reassure Hekusha. No—she sensed the same hunger she felt once upon a time, with a certain [Innkeeper]. Kevin had rekindled it, but Hekusha was, ironically, the one who truly brought it out.

Because she was terrified of them, or had been, and they wanted her to see. Look at us. We’re people. Not for just anyone would Calescent have burned his fingers making a soufflé in the early morning.

It seemed to be working too, if the Healer’s more relaxed riding and talking was any indication. Rags wasn’t as eager as the others and just went back to trying to read the Healer’s notes. They were written quite legibly by Hekusha’s own hands, but the magical theorems were mind-boggling to Rags.

Not for the first time, she bemoaned not getting Pisces to teach her everything he’d known. Noears had been the best [Mage] that Rags had ever met among her kind, but even he hadn’t been academic. He’d learned magic by studying, not like [Sorcerers], it was true, but it was from scavenged spellbooks.

Perhaps Hekusha could teach her? When Rags asked, the Healer was all too willing.

“Of course! I’m er, all too willing to do so! I don’t teach much, and [Restoration] is technically a spell for Level 40 [Mages] at least. You need a very…dedicated teacher to learn it at lower-levels.”

“Did you?”

Rags frowned as Hekusha tried to show her a basic spell—[Featherfall]. Learning while riding was difficult, but Rags had little better to do; Fighti was taking them on a course they had arranged last night with the map. Hekusha bit her lip.

“I learned from…well, I suppose there’s no harm in saying to you all. A rather mysterious person that one of my childhood friends knew. She asked me if I was willing to change my career, and I accepted. It was an intensive apprenticeship. Four months—not all personal mentoring! But I would have never understood it without…an old half-Elf. I actually heard he reappeared, which is astonishing…”

So there were two people who could cast [Restoration]. Rags’ eyebrows rose. Then she focused on the spell, and the Healer of Tenbault was amazed how fast Rags learned.

“You really are gifted. And you taught yourself magic?”

“I had a teacher.”

“Incredible. Well, I can certainly teach you more! Do you have more Goblins who can cast magic at this…Goblinhome? Where is it?”

“Mm. Somewhere else. We have to go around, first. Lose trackers.”

Rags cast a warning glance at Calescent, who ducked his head. The Healer nodded a few times.

“Of course. Maybe I could write them a letter, though? Signal them I’m safe? Some of my pursuers won’t give up…”

“Maybe. I don’t see any so far.”

Rags frowned back the way they’d come. Hekusha bit her lip.

“I’m sure they’re out there. Magnolia Reinhart is a dear friend. You know, if we head to this person who needs healing—I’m sure Magnolia might ransom me for a spell scroll of similar value. She certainly has a Scroll of Restoration lying around.”

“Eh. Maybe.”

 

——

 

In fact, there was a bit of a problem with the Healer’s pursuit. Oh, there was all the will in the world. Izril’s north didn’t have as established a flying contingent, a fact they sorely regretted now.

But there was a Pegasus in the air, flying carpets, House Zolde providing two of theirs, and ground pursuit too. The speed the Goblins were moving astounded their pursuers, though. Top-level Skills and the Carn Wolves made them hard to catch.

However, they would be caught! In any other time, the pink carriage of Magnolia Reinhart would have been on an intercept course, loaded with her staff. Or House Veltras’ fastest would be racing after the Goblins. Or…

…Well, Magnolia Reinhart was in the south. House Veltras had politely declined to join the chase in a significant way and then gone off to sail on Terandria. They were smashing an Ailendamus fleet after a two-day chase even now.

So while there were pursuers, the highest-levelled Skills weren’t behind them, or the same kind of organization. A weary [Pegasus Flier] landed, ready to demand food, water, a conference with the trackers…and found no one at all, least of all the carefully-grown magical grasses the Pegasus demanded.

The carpet riders swore they had the Goblins dead to rights, and signalled for an intercept, only to find the only force capable of bringing battle to the Goblins was over twenty miles back, and no one had thought to move forces from ahead of them.

Coordination was a virtue. Coordination won wars, and while there was a lot of force, it wasn’t directed. That was why more formal institutions, love ‘em or hate ‘em, were often employed in situations like this. A fast-moving target with elusive qualities in small numbers?

Send the Guild of Assassins. A perfect match. But oh wait.

They were all dead, or in hiding. Funny how that worked out. As for the Healer of Tenbault, she was an asset.

Yet the lone [Assassin] left in the North, to his knowledge the only one still endorsed and in the employ of one of the Five Families, thought it was really a sign of how much Magnolia Reinhart liked the Healer.

Because she’d put him on the job.

Him.

T-Theofore. Who everyone remembered.

Right?

…No one had even come after him when they’d purged the Assassin’s Guild. His own guild had put a bounty on his head for siding with Magnolia Reinhart—then promptly forgotten all about him. He’d thought he’d have an easier time of it, with Ressa and Reynold and Magnolia’s fearsome staff.

But noooo. The instant Magnolia Reinhart heard about the Healer being missing, she’d chartered a Pegasus, flown him to Pallass, and made him join the hunt.

Five days without sleeping in a bed. Two on a non-stop Pegasus flight, one getting through damned Pallass and Liscor and Invrisil because no one would answer the portal door, and two more flying on carpet.

Theofore hated his job. He didn’t want to find the Goblins, but he had a terrible, sinking suspicion that he was on their trail. He certainly wasn’t about to kill them or try to rescue the [Healer].

He’d levelled up a lot by the horrors of Magnolia Reinhart making him pursue the Wind Runner, clash with fellow [Assassins], and Ressa’s hell-training. She was a former Face of the Assassin’s Guild, and Theofore had thought those days of recruit-training were behind him. Even so, he wouldn’t want to fight multiple Hobs and a Chieftain.

He was simply on reconnaissance, and could report back to Magnolia where they were headed. Theofore hunched on the carpet he was flying and prayed like hell he didn’t hit a goose flight in midair. You heard horror stories of how you died on these flying death-traps. Even with a Scroll of Featherfalling, he was terrified, miserable…and flying through rain.

“I hate Magnolia Reinhart. I hate Ressa. I hate that damned Wind Runner, Ryoka Griffin. I hate rain. I hate Goblins. I hate the Healer of Tenbault. I hate Izril. I hate the Assassin’s Guild. I hate rain. I hate rain. I hate Pegasi. I hate Drakes. I hate…”

His litany of misery was only abated slightly by being right. He began to compose a [Message] spell—or would when he got out of the damned rain. Whether Magnolia Reinhart wanted to act on it was up to her.

However, Theofore now knew where the Goblins were headed. It wasn’t that he was a good tracker, or was faster than the other people in the sky or on the ground. Theofore was still an [Assassin], and he’d used his knowledge of Izril and a map and common sense to figure out where the Goblins were going.

There was only one place a Goblin in this region of the upper north might go to escape pursuers. Theofore grimaced as he descended and confirmed he’d found a giant Wyvern stool lying across a horrified rabbit’s den.

“You and me both.”

He muttered at the poor bunny. Theofore nodded and checked the map. There were…places that someone in his line of work knew. No doubt about it. When Goblins fled, they tended to go to places no one was around. That was elementary. Or, in this case…

Other Goblins.

 

——

 

The change in landscape and temperature wasn’t immediate, but it was fairly quick. Rags saw Fighti descend as the terrain changed.

What had been rather green lands had slowly begun to grow a bit barren. A bit…hotter too, come to think of it. And rather than forests, what they now found were more like swamps, as the indigenous trees and flora turned tropical.

“Chieftain. Air smells funny.”

Fighti coughed as she circled back. Rags frowned. She stared ahead at a distant smoke stack and a valley.

“Too hot?”

“Not for Snowscale. But funny air. Funny land. Not good hide.”

Fighti patted the Frost Wyvern who exhaled a plume of cold. Rags glanced ahead.

“Hekusha. You know where we are?”

“I…maybe? It looks like we’re close to the Deuse Valley.”

“What’s that?”

The Healer licked her lips.

“Mostly abandoned land. There’s not much habitable there and it’s hot. An active volcano, I believe. Do you…know what that is?”

Rags had no idea. The Healer explained.

“It’s this phenomenon where hot, molten stone shoots up. I would recommend we go around this place. No one comes here, not even [Alchemists]. Monsters and Lava Golems and others might love the heat, and it’s simply inhospitable.”

“So no one’s here.”

“…Yes, but…”

“Good place to hide. Fighti, you keep going. Besides…”

Rags glanced at Hekusha and completed the statement in her head.

There are Goblins here.

She sensed them. In fact, she sensed the Chieftain, a strong presence. Although…and Rags had never experienced this before, dimmed. Greydath had been invisible, but this was like a light you only saw when you got close. She was fascinated, but mainly just hoped they could break east or west and head back south.

Fighti took to the air, but with clear reservations. Rags didn’t understand why, but Redscar tasted the air and spat.

“Weird air. Smoke. Smells like alchemy.”

“That might be sulfur. It’s a compound [Alchemists] sometimes use.”

“Huh. So [Alchemists] come here?”

“Oh, no. Never.”

“Then how they get it? It lying around all over the place?”

Hekusha shrugged.

“It’s simply not in that much demand. I suppose I’ve never asked, but it’s clear the market has saturation. Er—that means there is enough to buy. But I do know this valley is deserted.”

Redscar grinned.

“Right. Sure.

The Healer didn’t know. The Goblins grinned at each other, chuckling. Hekusha smiled uncertainly; she really seemed to have taken her ease with them. The Carn Wolves grumbled, not liking the hotter air, especially as they proceeded in.

Rags’ first warning that something was wrong was when she heard a shriek from above. She looked up, tensing, and saw Fighti bank back. Calescent had joined her and was waving frantically. Rags saw the Wyvern, a small shape, wobble in the air. Then—drop.

“Attack!”

Redscar howled. He pointed as the Wyvern went into a sudden, uncontrolled dive. But—Rags stared. Nothing had hit them! Was it a tiny projectile?

No—the Wyvern, Snowscale, flapped his wings and caught himself from the deadly dive. He wobbled, descended, tried to rise, then came down too fast. Rags whirled.

“To them! Go, go!

Hekusha cried out, but Rags left her with two Redfangs as Redscar charged with Thunderfur. She was right behind him, clinging to a Redfang’s back.

They found Snowscale lying on his side, breathing with a wheeze. Fighti was trying to tend to him, but Calescent wasn’t helping. He was lying on the ground.

“Calescent! What happened?”

“Where’s enemy?”

Redscar demanded. He had both his swords drawn, but Fighti just shook her head. Calescent wheezed.

“No enemy.”

“No enemy? What?”

“No enemy. Bad…air.

Rags stared up, then she too felt a strange, burning pain in her lungs. She began to cough, and finally saw something rising into the air, invisible by the time it got higher.

Steam. No, steam and…

The correct word for it was a fumarole, a natural steam-vent created by the heat of volcanic activity. It emitted gas, not just water vapor.

Sulfuric gas. And a host of other bad things in the smoke that had knocked Snowscale out of the air when it had accidentally flown too low over a vent.

Not just sulfur. One of the Carn Wolves began sneezing and backing away from the vent, still six hundred meters distant. A Goblin joined the wolf.

“Chieftain. Poison.

The Redfang did double-duty in Poisonbite’s unit and knew what she was talking about. When she spoke, all the Goblins moved. Snowscale was urged up, and forced, whining, to lumber away.

“What is that?”

The fumarole didn’t look like deadly poison to Rags, but the instant they retreated further, she felt the stinging pain in her lungs and incessant need to cough dissipating. Redscar swore and shaded his eyes.

“…Not just smoke. Chieftain. You see?”

Rags squinted ahead. And the barren landscape began to resolve itself into something else.

Yes, it was hot. And the stone and dirt had that dry, igneous quality that came from being situated near a heat source that leeched water out of the ground.

However. This was not a place lacking water. It pooled in groundwells, often thin and shallow, at least, from what Rags saw. The swampy outer region gave way to this different kind of marsh. But there was still life here.

Maybe it would be harder if this was Kevin’s Earth. All these poisonous compounds made even small life difficult to sustain, let alone a complex organism.

Here, magic provided. And only magic. Rags saw strange clumps of plants growing along the water she’d never drink even if she was dying of thirst. Strange plants, mosses…even some of the stones were odd.

Yellow sulfur deposits. She frowned at them. She’d never seen the powdery, yellow stuff before. Sand? This wasn’t sand. However, her attention was on the plants. Some were located right over the vents, and if her eyes didn’t deceive her, they were adding their own mixture to the smoke.

“Poison plants. Great.”

The Redfang nodded.

“Chieftain, poof-air places death. Choke-poison death. There. There. There…maybe there, safe.”

She pointed, and Rags saw her tracing a route away from the poisonous vents located near anything growing. The other ones might just emit a toxic smoke, but…

Rags growled.

Wonderful.

She liked sarcasm. It suited her. Fighti anxiously propped herself up on her shoulder.

“Snowscale sick, Chieftain.”

A retching sound made Rags look over as the Frost Wyvern threw up. And it was a lot for a Wyvern to throw up. Rags grimaced.

“Get Snowscale up.”

“But Chieftain—

“Get up. We take to Hekusha, okay? She heals…we go on foot. Maybe scout. Oh, and masks.”

“Kevin’s masks help?”

Calescent was on his feet, and grimacing, shaking his head a bit woozily. Rags shrugged.

“Better than not, right? Now—”

She turned as a warning howl came from behind them. Where the Healer was. Cursing, Rags ran for the Carn Wolves. Redscar raced back the way they’d come. What now? What—?

What now turned out to be…Goblins. Goblins, of course, but more Goblins. In fact?

A tribe. Nearly two hundred Goblins, surrounding the two Redfangs and Carn Wolves, who were riding around a terrified Hekusha hiding behind a barrier she’d cast.

Such strange Goblins though. Rags and Redscar halted. She heard whoops, the classic yiyiyiyi of Goblin war-screams, but the Goblins looked different.

They all wore masks. Carved, wooden ones. Stone ones. Even a metal one on what was clearly the Chieftain-Hob. Some were painted, others crude. But each one was securely over the Goblin’s face, giving it a terrifying visage.

Goblins were monsters and horrifying to regular people. For the first time, Rags got something of that sense from seeing these Goblins. Was this what Humans felt like? Strange, unknown creatures?

They were still Goblins, though, and their chatter and interplay were still familiar to Rags, so the dissonance only lasted a second. And they hadn’t attacked, though two spears buried in the ground a ways away from the Redfangs who’d drawn bows clearly showed they weren’t happy.

Redfang! Stay back!

Redscar advanced with a snarling Thunderfur. At the sight of him on the mighty wolf, the other Goblins scampered back. However, the Chieftain roared and slapped his chest.

Our tribe! Not here-Goblins. You leave! Now!

It had been a while since Rags met Goblins who were not part of her tribe. It was almost refreshing. She raised a hand and the Hob turned to her, then to Redscar, confused. Rags saw Redscar nod to her, and thus confirm she was in charge.

“I am Chieftain of Flooded Waters tribe! Not to fight!”

“Leave! My tribe strong!”

The Hob bellowed back. He saw the other Goblins and even Snowscale and Fighti loping over and hesitated.

Not because the Frost Wyvern was particularly horrifying with vomit and drool leaking out of its jaws, wings folded, limping along. Although it was still certainly big. Rather, because of the basic dynamic among Goblins.

He was a single Hob, a powerful, well-fed Goblin with scavenged armor that might even be steel, or iron; it was rusted from heat and weather. His tribe of two hundred was armed with bows, spears, throwing javelins, slings, and so on. Not bad…

But the real denominator that separated him and Rags was Hobgoblins. Hobs were a measure of strength and Redscar and six of his warriors were all Hobs, as well as Calescent. Any one of them was an equal to this Chieftain in theory, and he grew warier still.

“You leave. You come, we fight!”

He warned them as the little Goblins drew back on bows. Rags didn’t like the way her [Dangersense] pricked her when she stared at them.

“Arrows might be poisoned, Chieftain.”

Her expert in the field whispered. Rags grimaced. It made sense. Give a Goblin any natural poison and you bet they were putting it on their bows.

A memory of a frozen Human struck her. She shook her head. No. They would not repeat that. Not here. She pointed at the Hob.

“No fight. We run from Humans. Rest here. Get sick. Bad air. Okay?”

She gestured at Snowscale. The Hob clearly understood what happened, but he glared, and shook his head.

“Take Human. Go now! No stay! You fight—all tribes fight! This Molten Stone tribe! They come? Kill you all!”

Rags’ ears pricked up. Molten Stone? He wasn’t talking about his tribe. More tribes would fight them if they advanced? She tried to shout, coughed.

“Hah! Sick Goblin. You leave. Leave!”

Arrows showered the ground in front of Rags’ group. Redscar snarled. He drew his swords and the Hob Chieftain backed up.

“Chieftain. I challenge him?”

“No. Leave him.”

Rags didn’t want Redscar to antagonize this tribe, though she was sure he could win. She coughed again and saw Hekusha standing there.

“Hekusha, heal Snowscale.”

“Heal a Wyvern? But…”

She hadn’t gotten much of the interplay between Goblins. Rags pointed and the Healer hesitated.

“But my barrier—”

“We’ll shield you. They won’t attack. Go!”

Even so, Calescent had to gently urge Hekusha before she’d drop the barrier, and she scurried over, using his body as a shield.

“Might be fighting, Chieftain. Can’t turn back.”

Redscar muttered. Rags bit her tongue.

“Maybe. I don’t want to fight poison. Challenge Chieftain if they attack. They’ll probably run when you win.”

“Mm.”

The tense standoff might have gone on longer, as the Redfangs took out bows and their Carn Wolves snarled. Rags was preparing her own last resort. Her Dwarfsteel crossbow with [Dual Shot], and [Fast Fireball], would make the Goblins think twice, but she really didn’t want to fight them, even if she ‘took over’ their tribe.

She was actually wondering why this Chieftain was so…hostile. Normally, Goblin tribes didn’t like to stick together and the Mountain City tribe was a rarity, but Goblin tribes didn’t just brawl when they met. They usually traded, exchanged news, and agreed to part after a short meeting.

Sometimes a tribe took over other tribes, but instant hostility without aggression was strange. She would have been curious and at least talked to the foreign Goblins. Maybe they thought having a Human would be trouble?

The jeering tribe of mask-Goblins suddenly went silent. Rags saw a few lower bows and point. She turned.

What was…?

Calescent, waiting for Hekusha to heal Snowscale, had clearly had enough of this toxic environment. Grumbling, the [Spice Chef] had taken his hand away from his death-spice bag, ready to dump in an attacker’s face, and pulled something out of his bag of holding.

A leather mask, with glass eye sockets. The complex little filter Kevin had worked up went over Calescent’s mouth and he breathed a bit easier.

“Hrm. Better breathing. Harder seeing. Chieftain, masks help. Chieftain?”

Then he noticed that the other tribe had gone still. The mask-wearing Goblins stared at the curious device on Calescent’s face. Rags turned, saw their avid expressions, the way the Chieftain hesitated, and whirled.

“Everyone. Put on Kevin-masks. Now.”

The Redfangs didn’t hesitate. They pulled out the masks, and fastened them. Hekusha, devoid of mask or comprehension, just watched as two sides stared at each other behind masks. Even then, the other Goblins wavered.

What broke the spell was when Redscar dismounted, fished out a complex hood, and put it over a whining Thunderfur’s face. The Carn Wolf’s ‘mask’ to keep him from inhaling dust looked like a cross between horse blinders and an elephant’s trunk. Rags saw the masked Chieftain’s figure jolt—then he nearly fell over laughing.

“Mask! Mask for dog! They know mask-dog!”

Goblins hooted, and Rags saw their hostility evaporate in an instant. They holstered their weapons, then marched over, pointing at Thunderfur, who looked really indignant about all of this.

 

——

 

And once again, the day was saved thanks to…Kevin?

Or putting masks on dogs. Which, Rags discovered, was a real thing. She stared at the wagging hunting dog’s tail as it sniffed at Thunderfur and the huge Carn Wolf blinked at the ceramic mask attached to the dog’s face with careful straps.

It was clear that the mask was not meant to really come off except when the dog was fed. At first, Rags wondered if it was a punishment, but the tribe of mask-Goblins, who were actually known as the Yellow Powder tribe, due to the deposits they harvested and the color of the poison they manufactured, were friendly enough once the ice had been broken.

“Mask not bad. Dog wear mask since this small. Good mask. Mask or die choke-choke-argh-death.”

Rags nodded. Oh, of course. But…the Chieftain Hobgoblin was fascinated by the mask she’d let him inspect. He loved the filters, and the glass eye-goggles.

“Is good. Chieftains have glass. I not have.”

He muttered, a bit upset by this lacking problem. But he loved the filters. They were new to him and he asked to see one of the replacements Kevin had worked up.

“Ooh. What black stuff?”

“Charcoal. Help bad air.”

“Smart. Goblins wear masks. Good goblins. Friends.”

The dog wagged its tail. It had a droopy face, but was clearly used to Goblins. In fact, it barked at Hekusha, who kept well behind Calescent, who was talking with the Goblins present. Rags frowned.

“Good Goblins? There bad Goblins?”

“Sometimes. Goblins fight Goblins. Bad Goblins come from big mountain. Or sea. Sometimes fight. Sometimes to see Great Chieftain.”

Rags sat upright.

“Great Chieftain? I am Great Chieftain too.”

The Hob blinked, but he took Rags at her word.

“Then you come for Great Chieftain of Molten Stone tribe? You know masks. Not fight us.”

“No. Humans following. We come…know Goblins here. Molten Stone tribe is big tribe here?”

“Yes. Tribes here…here…here…Molten Stone here.”

The Chieftain of the Yellow Powder tribe, who was named Neuz, showed Rags a simple map. If the Molten Stone was in the center, around what Rags guessed was the smoke stack, a volcano, then there were in fact many tribes around the center one, all of this tribe’s size or a bit bigger.

It was so strange. Rags was instantly reminded of the only other tribe to do things that way. In fact…Redscar leaned over.

“Chieftain. Sounds like Mountain City tribe. And Kraken Eaters.”

Mountain City! Kraken Eaters!

Neuz exploded with rage, and the hunting dog barked behind its mask. Rags guessed these were ‘bad Goblins’. To calm him, Rags pointed at the mask he held.

“Chieftain Neuz. You take my mask. Gift. You help us get to Molten Stone tribe?”

The Hob looked at the mask and the coveted glass.

“You give?”

Rags nodded. Instantly, he jumped to his feet, beaming.

“You guests! Molten Stone tribe not like visitors. You must have gift. Gift for Great Chieftain, Anazurhe! [Witch]! Business. You say ‘business’, and show gift, they let you go.”

Rags traded a glance with Redscar. Now what was this?

 

——

 

“Molten Stone. Kraken Eaters. Redscar, you remember?”

The Redfang leaned against Neuz’s hut as he found a guide and messengers to tell the other tribes to let the Flooded Waters Goblins through. He frowned as a little Goblin child tottered past them, intent on touching Thunderfur’s leg. She began to pluck hairs and Redscar ushered her away as Thunderfur growled. But even this little child wore a mask.

“Garen talked about them. Remember?”

Rags did. Tremborag and Garen had looked for allies during the Goblin Lord’s attack, but the two tribes they had decided were worth approaching…hadn’t come. Neither Chieftain would work with Tremborag.

It felt like a long time ago. She had wondered to the character of the two, and recalled something vague about a brute and a spellcaster, respectively.

Well, Kraken Eaters had come to Invrisil and she’d heard about what even a few warriors had done. As for Molten Stone? She felt more of a Mountain City vibe from them, which didn’t comfort her, knowing Tremborag.

However, Neuz came back and did elaborate on some things.

“Goblins come. Humans come. Even…”

He frowned, and searched for the word in the common tongue. He traced a triangle on his hat.

“[Witches]?”

Rags supplied. Neuz brightened.

[Witches]. Like Great Chieftain. You take gift. Only [Witches] no gift.”

Rags frowned. She felt at her bag of holding, not expecting this hurdle. Calescent hmmed too, looking around.

“What good gift, Chieftain Neuz?”

“Gold. Magic things. Things Molten Stone want. Like spices. Tasty food.”

Neuz looked longingly in the direction of the central plume. Calescent raised his brows and pulled out his patented bag of spices.

“Like this?”

Neuz took one finger’s taste of the death-spice and ran around howling for five minutes. Then he promptly offered Calescent a mask for some of the spices, which were hard to get in this terrain.

“Magic mask. Very good. Need. We give Goblins, and things like yellow powder. They give this.”

He gestured to the masks they all wore. Calescent didn’t mind the trade, lopsided as it seemed for a plain wooden one, but the instant he put it on his face, he stiffened.

“Chieftain! This mask! Magic!”

Neuz clapped his hands, laughing, as Calescent tore it off and showed it to Rags. She squinted at it, but barely saw any magic on it. Nevertheless…when she put it on her face, the world suddenly changed. She inhaled and the air was sweet and clean.

“A magical filter?”

Hekusha edged out from behind Calescent to stare at the mask. Rags was astounded. Kevin’s filters were one thing, but no wonder even the dogs wore these masks at all times! Neuz nodded.

“Goblins go to Molten Stone. Sometimes Goblins come, take good Goblins. Sometimes Goblins come back. If bad Humans, Molten Stone comes. Molten Stone powerful. Has…psst psst.”

He flicked his fingers and nodded at Hekusha.

“Magic?”

“Mm. Other tribes, Humans come for Great Chieftain. Not you. Other one. She has great magic. You go—but give spice.”

Rags nodded, as it seemed Neuz wanted to go back to work. Goblins were actually harvesting sulfur, scooping it into bags. They loaded up a group of four Goblins with some, who would be their guides the rest of the way in. Hekusha was patently amazed by their industry. The Redfangs, for their part, made judicious trades. They refused to part with enchanted weapons or good steel, but they ended up trading entire sheaves of steel-tipped arrows for carefully-prepared bundles of cheap wood tipped with obsidian.

“Poisoned arrows? Losing ammunition.”

Rags commented to Redscar. He shrugged.

“Poison better than steel for annoying Gold-ranks. Shoot one in foot? ‘Argh! I’m poisoned! Fall back!’ Scared of no healing.”

Rags snorted. That was true enough. She bade farewell to Neuz, not too concerned about his tribe running into pursuers. Anyone in the air would suffer the same fate as Snowscale, and if an army wanted to cross this terrain, good luck. Neuz’s tribe could harry them here for days with ease.

Thus, the Goblins advanced, and while two more tribes spotted them, their guides and their masks led them forwards. Snowscale grumbled as he waddled after Fighti, and Hekusha ended up with the clean-air mask as the other Goblins walked forwards, breathing lightly.

They ascended, then, curiously, descended into the last valley. For there, in the center of it all, was a vast mountain of stone, cavernous tunnels where the active volcano belched smoke. Fearless of it all, though, was the Molten Stone tribe.

The ground was powdery and stones ran down as their guides carried them down the slope, shouting.

“Business! Business! Yellow Powder!”

…But there was no one in immediate view. Only when Redscar nudged Rags and pointed up did she spot a telltale shadow in an opening higher up. A Goblin with a bow.

Yet the strange, volcanic fortress in the center of the circular valley was massive. And as Rags approached, that sense of impending power heightened. There was someone here. If Rags sensed her, surely the opposite was true. So the twenty or so Goblins walked towards the igneous lair of Anazurhe, the Great Chieftain of the Molten Stone tribe. They passed through tunnels of obsidian, cut by lava flows, into extreme heat…and then, suddenly, into cool air, deliberately cut stone, and cooling spells.

Into a volcano, tamed by the power of Izril’s Goblin [Witch]. [Witch of Flame]. Great Chieftain.

And…the strangest tribe Rags had seen yet. Her eyes went wide. Hekusha’s nearly popped out of her head. Especially when they saw the other Humans.

 

——

 

Names were unimportant. If you gave your real name, you were de facto a fool, especially in their line of work. He was named Roell, for instance, and his companion was Vinn.

Vinn was new. Roell was not. Roell was a paid Guide, or rather, the intermediary, and Vinn was under employment. It was a good job, but Roell had to emphasize a few things.

“Listen. There are rules here. You saw them on your way in? All four tribes that challenged us?”

Vinn was sweating. He nodded.

“I thought they’d gut us. But I just…and they left.”

Roell sighed. He adjusted his mask—like all hells you’d walk through this place without one—and took it off. You didn’t need it inside. Vinn was still staring around.

“You agreed to this job and you thought they’d gut us?”

“Well…it’s just…”

“Never seen a Goblin, have you?”

The man shook his head, wordlessly. Roell suspected Vinn might be his real name. But what could you expect from a Daylighter?

Daylighter, as in common citizen. Roell was no Daylighter. He was a [Rogue], a catchall term for someone on his side of the law. His exact class was private, thank-you-very-much. Nor was he a member of a gang. He didn’t have a hat, he didn’t have a tattoo, and he didn’t have a penchant for cutting off a fellow’s pride and joy—but the Sisters of Chell were female-only, so there.

Roell was connected enough in certain respects, though. Hence him being allowed here, and given the sometimes-unenviable job of shepherding people like Vinn around.

“Just relax. Follow my rules. Do you remember them?”

“Uh—uh—”

Vinn panicked like this was a damned test. Roell rolled his eyes.

“If you don’t remember, ask me. I get paid more if you live. Remember, it’s very simple. Rule number one. Don’t look at…”

“The blueprints.”

“That’s right.”

The two men turned, and a Goblin stared at them behind one of the masks. It slowly rolled up the scroll it was holding. Roell nudged Vinn and the man turned his head.

“Don’t look at the blueprints. We know.”

“Good.”

The Goblin glared. Vinn jumped at the voice. Roell turned back to him. He stared past the Goblins waiting for Vinn to get to work, at another group that had just entered.

“That’s a damned Wyvern. Huh.”

A little Goblin’s jaw was hanging open as he pulled Vinn to one side. Masked Goblins were everywhere, walking down the interior street, pointing at the two Humans—but without much surprise. Some had pointed hats, others masks. A lot had wands. They were more interested in the new Goblins, anyways.

“Rule two. If they start chattering, in any language, just don’t do whatever you were doing. Got it? They won’t kill you right away, although they might beat you senseless.”

“Okay, okay. I remember. And it’s safe, right? I’m filling in for the last fellow—”

“The last woman.”

“What happened to her?”

Roell rubbed at his sooty face and wished he hadn’t because he got something in his eye.

“What happened to her? She made a fortune and retired, that’s what happened.

“Oh.”

The [Rogue] neglected to mention that the person before her had ended up with half her face melted off. Because she’d violated Rule #1. He sighed.

“Last rule. Well, you know the others. Don’t bother them, don’t get in their way, don’t say anything that’ll tick them off…but this one’s messed with. If they flirt with you, that’s one thing. But don’t bother them.”

Flirt with—who would—with them?

Vinn made a choked sound. Roell shrugged.

“You’d be surprised. Just remember all three. Now, get to work. This one’s ready.”

The masked Goblin nodded. Vinn turned his head desperately, but Roell strolled after him. He saw the civilian heft his tools like a shield. But really…you could land yourself in trouble, but it was a simple job. Every now and then, this tribe called for something and Humans answered. Sometimes, what they wanted, and what Roell provided, was someone with Vinn’s class.

A…[Mason]. But, Roell always wondered, looking around the city of the Molten Stone tribe, with its houses and cut stone—why did Goblins need a [Mason] over Level 30? They were very specific. He never saw what they worked on, and he never looked at the blueprints the Goblin leader held.

As far as he knew, all of this place had been built with Goblin tools. He strolled down a walkway and stared at a Goblin planting glowing, hot flowers. She chittered at him behind his mask and he backed away, carefully raising his hands.

“Pardon me, Miss.”

The [Rogue] produced a handkerchief to wipe at his brow. At least the job paid well.

 

——

 

Rags couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a Goblin city! No, a town? It wasn’t large enough to be called a city, or even a town in sheer numbers, but it was the most…civilized thing she’d ever seen.

Even the Mountain City tribe, with its sprawling occupation of the mountain Dwarf fortress, hadn’t compared to this. She was sure it was a cooling spell making the air breathable, and while every Goblin wore a mask, or almost all, they clearly only did it for decoration.

“Whaaaa.”

Calescent gaped at a Goblin house. Rags had thought the individual rooms in Goblinhome were a first, but she had never expected to see a Goblin sweeping out the door with a wicker broom.

Nor so many Goblins with magic. Hekusha stared at a gaggle of little Goblins Rags’ height, holding wands and whispering and pointing at the Redfangs with clear delight. They were all magic-capable—no, magic-users! It was easy for her and Rags to tell they all had mana pools.

“Magic-users? But—”

And they had wands. Decent ones too. The Healer of Tenbault was agog. Not least because she had just seen two Human men standing amid this place! She felt woozy. What was going on?

Even Redscar was clearly amazed, though he tried not to show it. The little Goblin guides of the Yellow Powder tribe were talking and explaining to the nearest masked Goblin, who pointed them off. Rags couldn’t see a single face that looked malnourished.

In fact…there was clothing on every frame, good quality clothing like any of Liscor’s citizens might want to wear. Even Goblins with snacks! Few children; most were at least a certain age, although there were a few young ones.

Calescent’s jaw was so far open a passing Goblin child took one look at it and promptly chucked the snack she was chewing into it. Upon which point the Hob began to choke.

It was only when a bell tolled, and the pace of the Goblins milling about changed, that Rags realized the truth of it. She saw some Goblins ignore the bell completely, like the one planting and harvesting the glowing flowers, and the one sweeping the door. But the gaggle of little Goblins with hats her age turned. There was a laugh high overhead, and Rags saw a figure racing over the roofs.

A Hob, grinning, holding her pointed hat as her feet glowed and she leapt across a gap nearly ten feet wide. Rushing…towards the bell. She was followed by a second Goblin, another Hobgoblin, male, who had a pointed hat and tattoos on one arm that gleamed. He did a flying leap after her…

And went splat onto the street. But he got up, laughing, as if he hadn’t felt a thing, and chased after his companions. He turned and stared at the Redfangs for a second.

New Goblins! What tribe are you from?

The stranger slowed, and Rags saw the magic in him, but different from hers. Redscar checked the younger Goblin, with no visible scars. He frowned.

“Flooded Waters. We—Redfangs.”

The Goblin did a double-take as his companion halted on a rooftop, glancing back.

“Redfang warriors? Are you Garen Redfang?”

He stared at the sword Redscar carried. The Goblin hesitated.

“No. Redscar.”

“Oh. What class?”

The male Goblin’s eyes lit up with interest. Redscar shrugged.

[War Leader].

“Oooh!”

Goblins skidded to a halt, hearing and pointing out the Redfang [War Leader], despite their rush. Redscar saw the admiring look on the Hob’s face.

“What’s your class?”

He eyed the tattoos, the hat. The young Hob grinned.

“[Warlock]. You staying? I’ll visit you, Redscar of Redfangs!”

Then he leapt, and joined his companion on the rooftop. He began to explain as they raced off. The other Goblins ran, a few small ones screeching. One ran back as she lost her hat and Rags had it at the same time as Hekusha. The Healer of Tenbault muttered.

“It’s almost like they’re going to…class.”

“They are.”

Rags stared at the Goblin who ran after her friends with a wand, screeching that they’d left her behind. A class. This was…

An academy. A Goblin magical academy.

 

——

 

How was this possible? Even in Rags’ most delirious fever-dreams, she couldn’t imagine this place existed. And it didn’t, in a sense.

Rags quickly realized that this Molten Stone tribe was comparatively tiny. Even depleted from battle, the population of Goblinhome outnumbered it by a good deal already. That this was a collection of spellcasters was self-evident, but Rags realized that the bulk of the Goblin population was camped outside this inner sanctum.

As in, in the Yellow Powder tribe, and other tribes who roamed the outskirts. She saw their four guides offering the bags of sulfur to a Hobgoblin [Witch]. She checked them, then handed them something.

Three glowing healing potions. The Goblins hurried back as she made a smaller Goblin carry the bags off. Sulfur. Rags’ eyes narrowed. She checked one of the doors.

Brass. Now here was some rather nice, polished brass that she really doubted had come from this region, or even been made here, judging by the lack of any smithies. There was some sulfur from the only volcanic region she’d ever encountered, which was not lacking on the markets.

“You. You are Chieftain Rags of the Flooded Waters tribe. The Witch of the Molten Stone tribe has been expecting you.”

The female [Witch]’s voice was as eloquent as any Rags had ever met. Rags nodded.

“Has she?”

“She knew you were coming. She will see you. Do you have a gift?”

“Huh. Maybe. What is this place?”

“The Molten Stone tribe.”

The Hob was interesting. She looked fully-grown, which was a statement in itself because only Pyrite had ever seemed actually old enough to say ‘yep, there’s no chance I’m going to grow again’. Even Garen and Reiss were young.

Moreover, she had a complex structure to her hair, like a spiderweb. It looked like if you did anything as provocative as run a comb through the hair, it would create the most horrific tangle you’d ever imagine, which nothing short of a razor would save you from. Yet they never quite tangled.

Oh, and she’d dyed it blonde. Which was such a strange choice. It was purely aesthetic, so Rags had never seen it before.

“Who are you?”

“Witch Prixall. Hob of the Molten Stone tribe or…spellcaster? Yes, spellcaster of the Molten Stone tribe. Not a [Shaman]. We do not have many rankings.”

The response was just as intriguing from the softly-spoken Goblin. Most Goblins knew what they were in relation to the Chieftain’s authority. She didn’t.

Rags’ sense of the Mountain City tribe grew. She crossed her arms as Redscar started after her. But Prixall pointed.

“Your wolves. Carn Wolves. Leave them and the Wyvern Riders. Some may come.”

“Me.”

Redscar announced. Calescent nodded, and Rags glanced at Hekusha. Prixall nodded.

“The Healer of Tenbault too. The others can put the wolves in the stables. If they don’t eat horses.”

“They won’t. You have a stable?”

The [Witch] nodded. She pointed ahead and Rags strode with her. Paved roads, with soil for planting. Cool air. No restaurants, she noted. No shops. This was not a city; there was no economy in place. Nevertheless, it was not a tribe either.

“You have doors. Buildings.”

She commented neutrally. Prixall nodded.

“We trade and build.”

“What do you trade? Do the tribes outside raid for gold?”

“No.”

The [Witch] frowned. Rags noted the gesture. She was…hard to read. As if she lacked the Goblin’s technical ability to express themselves with body language. Rags made a raised eyebrow of disbelief and inquiry. Prixall missed it.

“…Do you not raid? How do you get that?

She pointed at something. A bunch of little Goblins clustered around a scrying orb under the boughs of a huge tree. The scrying orb was clearly new, placed there so anyone could watch.

“We bought it. We trade. The Molten Stone tribe does not steal anything.”

The response astounded Rags so much she had to stride to catch up. She stared up at Prixall.

“How was this place made? How do Humans not attack? Why do they visit?”

“Because Witch Anazurhe is too powerful. Molten Stone she made, here. When she came. It is young, but the Humans write it off their maps. We do not fight other Goblins or make war. She was here when the Goblin King came. She refused to join him. This is Molten Stone, and your trouble, Chieftain Rags, is not ours.”

It was a speech that told Rags a number of things. Firstly, that she really wanted to kick Prixall right behind the knee and send her sprawling. Second? This Witch was old as Goblins thought of things. She had founded this tribe? Humans cooperated with them?

The Goblin King had come to her, too.

 

——

 

Hekusha’s mind was reeling from revelation after revelation. Talking with Rags had been one thing, erudite as she was. Seeing the two holding a conversation while walking down a Goblin city—that was how the Healer of Tenbault saw it—beggared belief.

How could this be? Who were those men? She didn’t know, but surely someone would look into this when she was free. Maybe Magnolia Reinhart, when she freed Hekusha.

Hekusha was hurrying after Calescent, who seemed favorably disposed towards her, as the [Witch] led them further into this place. Through tunnels of dark stone, cut to let the polished glass catch the light.

Obsidian? The Healer didn’t see many guards, but she sensed a powerful magic coming from ahead. So did the one called Redscar, because he strode with his hands casually on his swords’ hilts. Calescent kept smiling, reassuringly.

“Chieftains don’t fight. All is good. Chieftains don’t fight. Well…mostly.”

“Are you sure?”

“Mm. All is good.”

She gave him a smile which he returned. At least she had a bodyguard. Hekusha heard Rags talking.

“She will ‘see us’, this Great Chieftain?”

“She has a guest. But yes. You have caused trouble and brought it here.”

“I have done what I wanted. What I must. Does Witch Anazurhe think I am wrong?”

“She will decide when she meets you. She has met Chieftains she does not care for.”

“Tremborag?”

“Yes. Among them.”

Rags grunted.

“Maybe I will like her. But this? This is not Goblin.”

They had crossed from obsidian tunnels into the heart of this mystery. A glowing stream of lava ran across the way from them, but was heatless as they entered a room with two huge doors. The lair of the Great Chieftain.

However, Rags’ words did not go unnoticed. Not Goblin. Hekusha could not have known how much those were fighting words. Prixall recoiled and Redscar tensed. Calescent just sighed. But before the [Witch] could respond, another voice, older, more wicked, perhaps, but simply vexed in this moment, responded.

“Not Goblin. Not Goblin, this little child says. So she said to Tremborag’s face. Tremborag the Great. Tremborag the Fat, who led his tribe to sate his hunger. Not Goblin. How would you know what Goblin is? Why do you decide? I am Goblin. I am [Witch]. You do not get to judge me, little Chieftain.”

The voice echoed around them as the four Goblins and one Human turned, seeking the source. Prixall turned back to the doors, smiling a bit. Triumphantly. However, then the voice continued.

“You said it to Tremborag and Garen Redfang. So I laughed. Come, Rags of the Flooded Waters tribe, and tell me to my face that I am not a Goblin.

The doors swung open slowly, dark granite, with all the showwomanship of any [Lady] of the Five Houses.

Rags eyed the opening, from which light cascaded. She never hesitated, and strode forwards, Redscar at her side. Calescent beckoned as Prixall turned, and Hekusha gulped.

“Maybe I should wait outside? I don’t think a Chieftain needs to see me. I’m quite valuable, you know, and if they come to blows…”

“You too.”

The [Witch] glanced at Hekusha, and the Healer scurried after her. She saw the huge sanctum of Anazurhe first, a circular room with a powerful spell circle surrounding, appropriately, a glowing cauldron.

Yet there was light aplenty from glowing orbs on the walls. If they went out, you’d get some proper occult lighting, but for the moment the central chamber was actually fairly inviting. Two figures stood in conference—well, one did. The other was watching Rags approach, head tilted back, a half-mask over her lower face letting her glowing eyes wink red. Graceful and tall, a pointed hat on her head. A [Witch], dressed in her motif, with a robe like fire and jewelry, magical and not, hanging from her arms. Even an earring set with a curious plain green stone, the least expensive item she wore.

Anazurhe, the [Witch of Flames]. And standing next to her…watching with interest, or feigned interest at least…

Hekusha froze. She rubbed at her eyes to make sure she was right. Then, before the [Witch] could speak, before Rags could greet her or insult her to her face, the Healer of Tenbault ran.

She hadn’t run since she was a girl, but she put every stride and ounce of desperate, sudden adrenaline into…well, a pretty bad dash, honestly.

But the other Goblins were so surprised, they watched her run across the room and fling herself towards the last figure, Anazurhe’s second guest, who looked bemused.

Archmage Valeterisa! Archmage Valeterisa!

The Archmage of Izril blinked. The Healer of Tenbault seized her arm.

“I’ve been kidnapped by Goblins! Please, save me! I’ll repay you! There they are!”

She pointed a finger back at the Goblins. Then grabbed Valeterisa’s arm.

“Teleport us away!”

The rather plain woman with messy hair, powerful magic and robes, but a complete lack of attention to style like the Goblin [Witch], stared at the Healer of Tenbault.

Rags stared at the Healer, and nodded. She was disappointed, but she had expected that. Calescent on the other hand? He stared at Hekusha, hurt written all over his face. Redscar had only heard ‘Archmage’, and he was ready to draw his blades and leap at her.

Prixall started uncertainly, but the Witch Chieftain raised a hand. She looked…amused. So Rags nudged Redscar.

Valeterisa looked at the terrified woman, trying to shield herself from the Goblins as she waited for salvation. She pursed her lips, and her eyes flickered.

“I…am not Valeterisa. My name is Anabelle. Charmed. I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else. Goodbye.”

And she tried to pluck Hekusha’s hands from her arm. The Healer looked at her.

“What? Valeterisa! It’s me! Hekusha!”

“Hekusha. Hekusha…”

Again, the eyes flickered.

“Oh, the Healer of Tenbault. Hello…that is what I would say if I was Valeterisa. Which I’m not, because the Archmage would not socialize with Goblins. You have me mistaken.”

“What? You can’t—help me! I’ve been kidnapped!

“Please let go. Please let go of my arm. No? Very well.”

Valeterisa pointed a finger, and Hekusha froze as a paralysis spell hit her. Valeterisa tried to remove her arm and realized she’d just locked Hekusha’s hands around it. She sighed, and stared at her arm, as if seriously considering removing it.

“So this is the Healer of Tenbault. She does not seem worth the effort to me. But the Chieftain of the Kraken Eaters would want her, and Tremborag would have. Did you steal her to heal Goblin after Goblin?”

Anazurhe spoke. Hekusha flinched—then tore her hands away from Valeterisa’s arm with a scream. She danced, as the magical fire covering the Archmage of Izril’s arms went out. Then she stood, realizing she had miscalculated all.

Rags stared at the woman, then swung her head around to meet the Chieftain’s gaze. With a shock, she felt like she was staring into two dancing flames. The [Witch] was fire, and even a [Steelflame Tactician] paled before it. Even a [Great Chieftain]…

No, they were alike in that. If anything, Anazurhe, up close, only confirmed what Rags had felt.

A faded lighthouse. Like Greydath, but not quite. She shook her head.

“No. She might not be worth it, but I stole her to save a friend.”

“A Goblin’s life? Whose? Does Garen Redfang live? The Goblin Lord?”

Rags hesitated.

“No. A Human who is friend to Goblins.”

The [Witch]’s eyes opened wider. Valeterisa cocked her head and pulled something out. She scribbled down a note. Prixall blinked, and the Healer saw the [Witch of Flames] throw back her head and laugh.

She removed the half-mask she wore, and smiled, her lips showing a slight scar. Redscar noted with approval that at least someone here had a wound from a blade. Anazurhe smiled at Rags, not as condescendingly arrogant as Tremborag, nor as single-minded as Garen. Nor as weary as Reiss. But she had some of these things. Mostly, though? She bent down the ways between their heights.

“So the Great Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe has upset all of north Izril and stolen their precious Healer of Tenbault, all to save the life of a Human. I say…that is not-Goblin at all.”

Redscar winced. Calescent didn’t move, still looking sad. But Redscar took a look at Rags’ expression and grinned.

“Got you, Chieftain.”

 

——

 

Archmage Valeterisa was on her way south to visit…someone. She had a note. Let’s see.

 

Actionable items for this month: 

-Visit the Meeting of Tribes. Confer with Grand Magus Eldavin.

-Appended notes: inquire into ‘Fissival magic suppression’ endeavors. Obtain Gnollish favor.

-Meet with Wall Lord Ilvriss regarding ‘plans’.

-Inspect one ‘Erin Solstice’ regarding death, condition. Confer with Grand Magus Eldavin.

-Investigate Ryoka Griffin or Wind Runner of Reizmelt.

-Investigate ‘The Wandering Inn’, Liscor. Connection with—investigate disappearance of a ‘Mrsha’. Confer with Grand Magus Eldavin, local authorities.

-Visit your niece (Ieka). Very important! Do not forget! Present ten years of birthday presents. Do it now. Don’t forget this time. Hurry up.

 

She felt like that bottom note had been there a while, given the appended instructions. However, she had already crossed out one item off her list, hadn’t she? Or was she still doing it?

 

-Visit Anazurhe. Bring gift. Collect any magical items/knowledge present.

 

She waited, patiently, devoting her mental capacities to memorizing the spells Eldavin had presented her with to long-term memory. She also began plotting where to put the next teleport beacon; she’d been setting them up but she wondered if they’d fail once she got to Fissival.

How fascinating. If Fissival did have a magical suppression field continent-wide, could they then lock down teleportation spells if they chose to? She would assume they had in the past, but could they do it now, or monitor them? Valeterisa began trying to calculate how they’d do it if so, when she saw the two Goblins arguing.

The small one was attempting to kick the taller one. Which the taller one, Anazurhe, responded to with a jet of fire. That was in keeping with her personality, but she did not appear to be malevolent.

Valeterisa knew that because the little Goblin wasn’t dead. Two Goblins, both of the Hob variety, dragged her back, and they began to argue. Valeterisa wondered if she should listen, but she decided one of her mental processes could distill any useful information later.

She had six trains of thought running on the Fissival question, but she had to devote three to dealing with the Healer of Tenbault. The woman was pleading with her.

“They’ll kill me, Archmage! Please, you can save me, can’t you?”

“Hello, Lady Hekusha. I am very pleased to meet you after—twelve years. How do you do? You are looking well.”

Valeterisa’s mouth moved in her ‘social greeting’ setting. The look on Hekusha’s face made Valeterisa devote another few thoughts to actually addressing this situation.

“…I am not Valeterisa, Hekusha. If I was, I would not be in the company of Goblins, who are a de facto monster, without treaty or sympathies at this moment.”

She hesitated, and sent off a mental query.

 

Archmage Valeterisa to Invrisil’s Mage’s Guild. Query. Are Goblins still classified as monsters?

 

She got a response after three minutes.

 

Yes.

 

During which Hekusha had laid out an appeal to spirit her to safety. Valeterisa could, of course, do this. Although if Anazurhe objected, it might put her in danger. She did not want to, which she calmly pointed out. At which point the Healer said something that triggered one of Valeterisa’s subconscious routines.

I’ll…I’ll tell them you were here and didn’t help me!

That. Was a threat. Valeterisa’s brows rose as a third of her mental processes, which equated to enough to run her at what she estimated to be an older Valeterisa’s full mental capacities, formed up. She nodded to herself.

“I see. In that case, Lady Hekusha, I will have to kill you.”

The Healer of Tenbault stared as Valeterisa drew her wand, and aimed it at her forehead. She squealed and dove. Valeterisa waited and let the ominous [Orange Light] spell glow until the Healer’s head was out of the way, then cast her spell.

[Ray of Incineration].

It blasted forwards, scorching the far wall as the Goblins whirled. Anazurhe hissed, but Valeterisa calmly pointed her wand down at the Healer.

[Orange Light].

Don’t kill me!

“If you threaten me or reveal anything inconveniencing in the future, I will kill you, Lady Hekusha.”

Valeterisa waited to see if her intimidation ploy had worked. It seemed so, given the babble of assurances, so she put her wand back.

“Very good! Please stop bothering me. Thank you.”

She stood there for a while, as the Goblins stared at her. Valeterisa eventually did look back down at the Healer of Tenbault, because it occurred to her that she should elaborate, the woman being important enough to warrant it.

“Goblins are not an isolated group, Lady Hekusha. Like other ‘non-civilized’ species, they do trade and have their own items of worth. It is only…mm…an ‘illegal’ group that trades with them. However, it would be foolish to turn down the opportunity for knowledge. Witch Anazurhe is in the possession of a method of spellcasting and materials even an Archmage finds useful.”

“But they’re monsters!”

A full third of Valeterisa refocused again. She sighed, removed her spectacles, and cleaned them with a spell.

“Yes. That is a common refrain. Since you have said it, I disqualify you from being heard. Thank you.”

And she heard nothing else. Which was quite pleasant. The Goblins stared at her and she peered at them. They had nothing too interesting that she wanted. A Ghostly Blade enchantment on that sword, Ice Edge enchantment…no, no. She hoped this was not a waste of time. She had important business to be on.

Then she stared at something hanging around the Great Chieftain’s neck. Rags. She saw that Witch Anazurhe was looking at it too, but it had no magical aura.

That Valeterisa could see or sense. And that was fascinating. Because, and this was nothing more than observation, a number of her observational thoughts putting together information—

It had no magical aura. It looked plain.

However, Witch Anazurhe looked at it. Ergo, it had value.

Witch Anazurhe did not lack for wealth. The key was therefore significant if she knew it, as neither Goblin had met.

Therefore, it was important. No mundane key was worth keeping, however, given the intrinsic risk of destruction and the fact that a mundane key could be easily replicated.

Therefore it was magical.

And she could not read it.

Therefore, it was very magical.

 

——

 

“Talk to me in our language, Great Chieftain of Flooded Waters. Not their tongue, but ours.”

The two Chieftains walked together, after their eventful meeting. Rags stumbled and looked at Anazurhe.

“You…speak well.”

She managed, but the Goblin [Witch] was using inflections and words that Rags had never known existed. Rags was used to filling the gaps in the Goblins’ language with body language. This lacked any body language.

Anazurhe smiled, or Rags saw the movement, because she had replaced the half-mask over her face. She walked through the heart of a volcano, the strange Molten Stone tribe, showing Rags around.

Not grandly, like Tremborag, to impress upon other Goblins how superior he was. There was a bit of pride, but it was well-earned. This place was…beautiful. Peaceful, as Rags had never known a tribe.

The other Redfangs and Calescent lagged behind, touring the city on their own time. Well, Calescent just stared at some Goblins on swings of all things, seeing who could fly highest before going whuph on the ground. Such a silly game with a piece of wood and rope. Rags thought they could make it in Goblinhome.

But it was a children’s toy, something you’d see in Liscor’s parks. It brought a smile of longing to her face. Calescent’s was morose. He was hurt.

Rags was…less so. In the back of her mind, she had thought Hekusha was too friendly; even Erin Solstice herself probably wouldn’t have gone from kidnap-victim to friend in…or perhaps only her. And only because she knew Goblins.

Anazurhe gave him and Rags a knowing look.

“I speak like Goblins here do. You speak like Goblins who steal the Healer of Tenbault do. You could remember how to speak like this. Few do.”

Rags frowned. She was already copying Anazurhe.

“Speak like…what is difference?”

She felt like she was learning the common tongue again, and it was odd for a language she knew. The Great Witch shook her head.

“Warrior talk. You speak, all Goblins, in low verse. Talk meant for battlefields. See? You…understand danger, northwest, coming in fast?”

She switched, mid-sentence, to the expressive body language that Rags knew well. Reflexively, Rags even glanced north-west and ducked. A screeching Goblin on a broomstick flashed just overhead for approximately four seconds. Then she ran out of power and crashed.

“You stupid Goblins! Don’t fly here! Begone or I will hex your ears off!”

Anazurhe bellowed and the terrified Goblin apprentices picked up their companion and the broken broom and ran. They had [Witch]’s hats. Rags shook her head.

“You teach them magic?”

“Yes.”

“And trade with Humans.”

“Sulfur. Other tribes gather ingredients. We trade for gold, sometimes artifacts. Food we cannot buy.”

“Other tribes are not allowed here, though?”

Anazurhe shrugged like a Human. An omni-shrug, which could mean a lot of things, distinctly unhelpful.

“Other tribes must guard this place. My magic can only do so much. They give talented Goblins. I make masks. My apprentices make masks. They are safer here. Even adventurers choke in these fumes.”

It still seemed like a variant on Tremborag’s own system and Rags frowned mightily. Anazurhe gave her a piercing look.

“If you say ‘not Goblin’, Chieftain Rags, I will scorch you. What is Goblin? Why must Goblins always copy Goblins? It was good to say to Tremborag because he wanted to be a Human [King], or a Drake. Not me.”

“Fine. Then…cruel to other tribes. Not nice.

To this, Anazurhe threw back her head and cackled. It was an amused sound, lively, and, to judge by the way all Goblins turned and looked, rare. She looked down at Rags.

“Yes. [Witches] are not nice. Have you met [Witches]?”

“No.”

Rags narrowed her eyes. Then amended her statement.

“One. Didn’t like. Rings in the eyes.”

Anazurhe’s own eyes widened. Rags saw with interest that, while they were crimson like every Goblin’s, they seemed to flicker like a dancing flame with a brighter core. She made a sound, and touched her own fancy hat on her head.

“Belavierr.”

She said that in the common tongue. Rags jumped. Anazurhe’s gaze darkened.

“That is a bad Witch. Do not go near her. Take not her offers.”

“Figured that out.”

The two walked on. Anazurhe nodded at Rags.

“Tell me how. Where.”

“You don’t know?”

“No. I knew you came. I know many things. My eyes go far. Not to the High Passes.”

She knew of Rags’ tribe. She knew of Reiss, the battles at Tremborag’s mountain, and the sorry tale of how it had ended. She did not know of The Wandering Inn, Erin, the encounter with Belavierr, or Kevin. Rags explained as Anazurhe showed her the city.

It really was quite inhospitable land, even if you were a Goblin. Outside the concealed fortress, the volcano looked lively, and it certainly spewed toxic gas. Even on the way in, Rags had begun feeling faint. It was actually ‘purer’ than the toxins the plants shot into the gas vents…but that only meant a different kind of poison.

You needed a mask. But if you had one…it was just really hot, and if you had water and food, any Goblin could live here.

The Molten Stone tribe clearly relied on the other ones to provide resources, and Humans. But without the Great Witch herself? It could not exist. With her, it had achieved the closest thing to Reiss’ dream that Rags had ever seen.

She watched one of the smallest Goblins, one of the ‘talented Goblins’ hand-picked by Anazurhe’s people from the tribes, playing outside with some others. She had magical potential, or some other aspect that set her apart. But Rags just watched the little Goblin tilt her head up and stare at the ash coming down. Like…snow. And she was making a snow-Goblin. Ash-Goblin. A little head, two pointed ears, a pebble for eyes.

That any Goblin would waste time on such a thing told Rags this place was safe. They could have fun here. It only took a Great Chieftain, and multiple tribes on perimeter defense.

“…This is not a home for all Goblins. Just those who are here.”

She had finished telling Anazurhe her story. Now, the Great Witch nodded. She had shown Rags actual classrooms, alchemy stations, even a library of books. The Molten Stone tribe had [Cooks] and [Chefs], [Stonecutters], [Cleaners] even, who kept it running, but most Goblins were magic-users of some kind.

“I am not Reiss, the Goblin Lord. I am not Tremborag. Do you see what I have made?”

Rags nodded.

“An…academy. Like Wistram.”

Anazurhe smiled proudly.

“Yes.”

Rags looked at this place and it did take her breath away. What a grand idea. Do what every other species had, only for Goblins. A hidden academy of magic. And yet…she shook her head and rounded on Anazurhe.

“It is beautiful, Chieftain Anazurhe. But when Reiss made war on other Goblins. When the Humans chased us to Liscor. When we died—your Goblins did not come. Do you care for no Goblins? Why this? Why let other Goblins die? Your Goblins do not go to other tribes. They do not teach their magic. My tribe had no [Shaman]. No [Witches]. Why are they here?”

Was she just a power-hoarding Goblin? The [Witch of Flames] regarded Rags, not upset by the challenge. She took off her mask again, and Rags understood this was the Molten Stone’s custom. A sign of revelation, intimacy.

“Chieftain Rags. Is my tribe not wonderful? Is it not safe? You see it now, with classrooms, learning. Magic and food to eat. When other tribes suffer, my Goblins can go. Great students, to learn. To live. To die. When Humans come, or Goblins make war on Goblins, they will go.”

Rags frowned. But they hadn’t. She waited as Anazurhe explained.

“Yet they do not. Not this time. Next time. Ten years. Twenty. Then it is done. Since I came here, I built this. Molten Stone is my tribe. It has lived as long as I made it. I, you understand? This was just rock decades ago.”

She touched the opening to the fortress entrance. Rags blinked at it. Then looked at Anazurhe. The Great Chieftain smiled.

“You…made this? Molten Stone is not old?”

“Yes. No.”

Then Rags understood. She stepped back and beheld it again. A fort hidden in stone. An academy. Being built. Wistram before it had been Wistram. Anazurhe whispered.

“It is not done. Not yet. Goblins must have a safe haven. For magic, here. For war? Our island. I made this. I refused to follow even our King who lost himself to madness. So I greet you, Chieftain Rags. But I will not give you more than aid here. No armies. No great pacts. Not yet.”

She reached out, and touched Rags’ shoulder. The Chieftain looked up at her. Then saw the long claws reach down and touch something hanging around her neck.

The key.

Valeterisa poked her head out from behind a rock. Both Goblins turned to stare at her and she poked her head back. Anazurhe looked at Rags and shook her head.

“You and I are not the same. I will stay here and make something that may last. You? Beware, Rags. You are a Great Chieftain, but you walk the path of Goblin Lords. Stay.”

“What is the difference?”

Anazurhe shook her head.

“One, like Tremborag, like me, like Kraken Eater’s Chieftain, are content to be Chieftains. The other are Goblin Lords, and seek a Goblin King. Like Greydath. They will all die. Take the key and toss it away.”

She pointed across the vast, barren wasteland. Rags’ own hand clutched at the key. She backed up a step.

“We need it. It is the great treasure of Goblins. We need more than this, Anazurhe.”

She gestured around at the hidden enclave, so small, for all it was so hopeful. The Goblin Witch saw her walk away. An Archmage hopped out from her hiding place and hurried over.

“Hello, Chieftain Rags. I am Archmage Valeterisa. Would you like to trade for that key you are holding? May I inspect it? I am a friendly Human…”

Prixall had also been watching the conversation, eavesdropping as well. She walked over.

“Mother.”

Anazurhe looked over.

“Chieftain.”

She corrected, but mildly. Prixall, the oldest [Witch] besides Anazurhe herself, like a spark next to a great fire, watched Rags go. Curious. Dismissive of a ‘lesser’ tribe, but curious.

“She is not like the Fomirelin Chieftain.”

“No. He loves battle. She wants something more. Watch her. That one will never grow as old as you. She walks the path of a Goblin Lord. She has his key. To uncover his gift, she would need to be a Goblin Lord at least.”

Anazurhe murmured, sadly. Prixall nodded, but hesitated.

“What if she survives to become a Goblin Lord? Survives and lives even then?”

The Great [Witch] exhaled slowly. Her burning gaze turned back towards the fortress, and Prixall knew exactly what she was staring at.

“Then? She will die.”

 

——

 

Ah, that was it. Tired.

Like Greydath. Anazurhe made sense to Rags, now. She had done wonderful things here. But she was tired. Resigned. She did not even want the key.

The difference between a Great Chieftain and another Goblin Lord, Rags supposed. She walked back inside the Molten Stone tribe and found there were two things she had left to see. Two more things. One, an ambition, the other, an explanation.

The first thing she did see, though, was Redscar hitting Goblins with sticks. He had practice swords and was whalloping nearly a dozen Goblins in an exhibition of what it meant to be Redfang.

Anazurhe joined Rags as the Goblin Chieftain groaned, but she looked amused.

“So this is Redfang. My Goblins train with blades. They want to learn.”

“What kind of Goblin warriors?”

It was hard to see at first, because the eager Goblins, male and female, tried to fight Redscar on his own terms.

Which was objectively stupid, because he was a war veteran and praticed with blades every second he breathed. They couldn’t get near him; Rags saw a Goblin charge in with a spirited cry and shout. Redscar let him swing and slashed him mid-strike. He actually halted another Goblin’s thrust by grabbing their arm and applying a knee to their chest.

“Weak! Weak!”

Redscar left a trail of bruised Goblins behind. He seemed offended by their lack of experience. They had arms training. But they were clearly a cut far below Redfangs, who had all the practical knowledge in the world.

Rags saw they had a huge audience. Goblins were watching Redscar fighting. Not just admiring him, personally, but staring at him with a familiar expression. It took Rags a while to realize it was adoration. Awe.

“They know Redfang. They think he is Garen Redfang.”

“You know his name?”

“Yes. We know famous tribes. This is the first Redfang they have seen, though.”

To judge by their looks, Redscar did not disappoint. But Rags found it curious. Goblins knew of other tribes, but this expression was again, more of something from Liscor. It was…she snapped her fingers.

“Joseph.”

“Hm?”

Rags didn’t know how to explain. It was like how Ekirra looked at Joseph, or Drakes at Drassi. Celebrity.

She looked at the scrying orb set in the plaza and pointed at it.

“You have scrying orbs? Not worried about Wistram spying? They can do that.”

Anazurhe snorted. But it was a Human man who edged over, wiping sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.

“Not to worry, Miss, er, Chieftain. All our scrying orbs are custom-enchanted. No one’s spying through them. Matter of fact, I can arrange some if you have the coin. May I introduce myself? Roell, [Rogue]. I can get you what you need, have it delivered right here.”

Rags stared at the Human, but she was reminded instantly of the other [Rogue] who’d come to Goblinhome. She actually shook his hand.

“You sell things to Goblins?”

“That’s right. Begging your pardon.”

He gave Anazurhe a wary look, but the Great Witch was analyzing Redscar’s performance. At last, some of the Goblins had decided to use their talents.

Here came that [Warlock]. Roell and Rags both watched the magic-user show off his talents. Rags had never met a [Warlock] before, but she understood his power was analogous to [Witches]. So how would he…?

The young Hob leapt with a whooping shout, his practice sword glowing in Rags’ eyes. He’d run his hand over it while waiting for an opening. Redscar was no idiot. He backed up, parrying the sword—then recoiled as a hissing snake shot out of the blade and tried to bite him!

A spectral snake made of orange light. Rags started. The [Warlock] turned, and flicked a bolt of concussive magic that knocked one of his buddies flat as she tried to charge Redscar from behind. He hesitated in dismay, and Redscar knocked the blade from his hands. The [Warlock] stared stupidly at his hand, backpedalled, and Redscar gave him a flying drop-kick to the back.

“That’s a fairly dangerous fellow. He’d be a Face for sure. Makes this lot look silly.”

Rags shrugged. She eyed the [Warlock] with interest as Redscar picked him up and tried to explain how not to do that again. He had potential. That bound creature trick would have done a lot of damage if he had the experience to back it up.

“Anyways, Miss. Where are you from? Don’t worry! Rogue’s confidentiality. I reckon you’re on the list if your tribe’s met my people.”

“Mm. I met someone else. Gave me free rings.”

“Oh. What’s his name? I can do you a better offer. Do you need potions? Supplies? I can get you a scrying orb, free, depending on what you have to sell…”

The man broke off as Rags saw Hekusha again. The Healer of Tenbault was staring at Valeterisa, who kept wanting to see the key. And Roell. He blinked.

“That’s…is that the Healer of Tenbault? Then you’re…”

He looked at Rags, recoiled, and backed up. Rags raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t want to sell me things?”

“Er—maybe when all’s cooled down, Miss Chieftain. Terribly sorry, but we don’t like dealing with active tribes.”

The Healer of Tenbault stared at Roell. Then pointed an accusing finger at him and Valeterisa.

“You’re conspiring with Goblins. I’ve been kidnapped! They slaughtered Tenbault’s people! How could you?”

Rags crossed her arms. Now that her true feelings were out, the Healer looked even more afraid of the Goblin monsters than before. And equally—as outraged at the traitors to her people.

It was Valeterisa who rubbed at one ear.

“Is she speaking? I can’t hear anything.”

Roell, on the other hand, just gave the Healer of Tenbault a long look. A…none-too-friendly look, actually.

“Begging your pardon, Miss. I’m just a poor man, trying to make a decent living. I’ve never seen more than…”

His lips moved. Roell counted.

“Eight people get killed, all because they were stupid. I heard they got you.”

He nodded at Rags.

“Crying shame. Hope you’re treated well.”

“You’re just going to leave me here? You won’t tell them where I am? I am the Healer of Tenbault.

Hekusha shook her fist at him. Roell glanced at Rags and Anazurhe.

“…Assuming I was stupid enough to do that anywhere near the Great Chieftain of the Molten Stone tribe, Miss? I’d still not really bother. Molten Stone pays well, and they give [Alchemists] good stuff through my gang. Even set me up with a poultice once. I had a niece who died in Tenbault. Never saw you. Good riddance. G’day, too.”

He nodded to her and stalked off. Rags liked him. She nudged Fighti.

“We buy stuff from him later.”

Fighti was munching on some food the Molten Stone tribe had provided as Hekusha was lost for words. And friends. Anazurhe gave Rags a knowing look.

“Chieftain Rags. Humans will come and search for her. They will not get here, but tribes will fight them. You cannot stay.”

Rags already knew that. She nodded.

“Can you give food, directions? Get away from Humans?”

Anazurhe’s eyes glinted.

“I can give you magic to hide you or speed you. That is what I do. Even to distant Goblins; Chieftains have paid me to give aid. My magic can stretch across the north, and I can give you great potions or spells.”

Rags’ ears perked up. She nodded slowly.

“Useful. You want something?”

Anazurhe winked.

“No one comes to the Great Chieftain without a gift. Except [Witches]. What will you give me for aid?”

Rags pursed her lips. Valeterisa jumped in.

“I will pay Anazurhe if you would consider trading me the key…no? Very well.”

Rags stared at the woman.

“Are you really an Archmage of Wistram?”

“Yes. I believe so.”

Valeterisa gave her a blank look. She raised a finger to her temple.

“Valeterisa to Wistram. Am I still an Archmage? …Yes? Good. Yes, I am.”

Rags wondered if she was sick, and if it was contagious. She edged back a bit, but she did have a suitable gift in mind.

“Chieftain Anazurhe. If you give us shelter to rest a day or two, and magic, we will trade. And Archmage Valeterisa will give us something, for my gift.”

Both Anazurhe and Valeterisa glanced at Rags. The [Witch of Flames] looked amused.

“Archmage and Great Chieftain both owe you favors? It must be a gift of gifts.”

Rags shrugged, casually. She produced her gift, and held it out. Valeterisa’s eyes sharpened and Hekusha whirled.

“That’s my—!”

Her notes, personal spellbook, and everything looted from her research station all came out of Rags’ bag of holding. She held up the trove of knowledge to Valeterisa, who made a snatching grab for it, eyes alight with curiosity.

“Good gift?”

Anazurhe grinned, taking off her mask. She eyed Izril’s most famous Healer, who had turned dead-white. And you know what? Rags didn’t feel bad about it at all.

“Good gift, Chieftain Rags. You are welcome to Molten Stone!”

 

——

 

Rabbiteater joined the battle with the Order of Seasons, riding in neat wedges of cavalry. This time, the Order of Seasons would take their mounts into battle. They had to risk it, despite the danger of being bogged down by the Order of Hydra’s numbers.

The army of Ailendamus had parked themselves along a ridgeline, cutting off the Order’s escape route. And here came the legion of [Knights], chanting and cheering as they marched forwards, led by the Dame of the Hills.

Dame of the Hills! I challenge you!

Dame Voost saluted the half-Giant with her sword. The Great Knight smiled behind her helm.

“Ah, a ploy for the Summer’s Champion to burn my fellows down, is it? Challenge denied! [A Knight’s Duel], Ser Greysten! Let’s have it out!”

The Summer’s Champion roared in frustration, but he swung his own warhorse around and rode at her. Rabbiteater cursed. It was already going bad.

Just like last time, the Order of the Hydra moved in, refusing to let the Order of Seasons charge and breakaway. They neatly cut off Pheislant’s [Soldiers] from the rest of the fighting with a hail of crossbow bolts, and Rabbiteater watched Pheislant’s forces skirmish against Ailendamus’ infantry while under heavy crossbow fire.

…Behind a wall of the Order of the Hydra, who cheerfully surrounded two lance-charges of Ser Zulv’s best Summer Knights who tried to break to the aid of their regular forces. The Order of Seasons was forced backwards, charging, regrouping, refusing to duel, but hemmed in by a press of bodies that would take down any mounted [Knight] in seconds. They moved back into the valley as Greysten and Dame Merila fought.

Greysten was roaring with flame, and slashed halfway through her own sword with his axe. It wasn’t enchanted; it was a huge blade for a half-Giant, a colossal expense of metal, let alone in forging. She dropped it with a curse, throwing her shield out to block a gout of flames.

Sword!

“[Armed At All Times]!”

The highest-leveled [Squire] that Rabbiteater had ever seen, a fully-grown man, charged forwards. Somehow, he tossed up a blade longer than he was tall, and Dame Merila caught it. She swept back down with a scything blow that Greysten parried with a Skill—but sent his horse rearing back with the shock of it.

“If he just killed the [Squire], it would be easier.”

“That’s not chivalrous.”

Ser Markus pointed out. Rabbiteater rolled his eyes behind his helm. He began to charge with his group. They were going to lose. The Order of the Hydra had marked Voost, Zulv, and were playing this game and winning. If only…his eyes roamed.

If only…

 

——

 

There was a secret at the heart of the Molten Stone tribe. Rags was shown it, while Valeterisa and Anazurhe read the Healer’s notes.

It was Prixall who was tasked with showing Rags, as a sign of the Molten Stone tribe’s largesse. She was a bit uncomfortable, and Rags got the sense the [Witch] didn’t know if she was the clearly superior Goblin anymore.

“You don’t like me.”

Rags commented as the two walked deep into the bowels of the volcano. It was still being built, and Anazurhe was expanding down. She feared not the volcano, explaining to Rags that she could keep it suppressed. How and for how long were her problems, so long as nothing exploded at the moment.

“…I think Chieftain Rags is a mighty Chieftain.”

Prixall answered, cautiously. Rags grinned.

“You sound like a Human.”

Prixall glared. After a second, she answered, matter-of-factly.

“You…that Redfang, the one with two swords, is strong. Redfang is famous. Even we hear of Flooded Waters. Goblin Lords. You stole the Healer of Tenbault. All Izril hates you. You are high-level.”

She looked at Rags, and the shorter Goblin deciphered the gaze at last.

“Jealous?”

Prixall looked away.

“You have adventure and fame. Other Goblins like what you do.”

Rags peered at the [Witch]. Prixall herself, too. And yet…

“What is wrong, then?”

“…You will die.”

Rags slowed as they descended further, into a place not used by any Goblins. Prixall glanced back at her.

“That is what Chieftain Anazurhe says. Goblins like you will die. We stay here, we learn. We level—slowly. But we level safely. You have bright lives. Short lives. Like…”

She made a little flame with her fingers and blew it out. Rags smiled grimly.

“Not all. Redscar is eight years old. I knew a Chieftain over ten years. Goldstone Tribe. His name was…”

She saw the Goblin [Witch] stop, remove her mask, and start laughing. Prixall put her mask back, and shook her head at Rags.

“Great Chieftain. Do not be mad.”

“Why not?”

Rags put her hands on her hips. Prixall just shrugged. She tapped her chest.

“That is old for Goblins not here. Chieftain Anazurhe is not old. There was a Goblin who was old who came here, once. Greydath of Blades. But he was old. No other Goblin I have ever met was old. Not other Goblin Lords. Not other Great Chieftains. Not even Velan was old.”

This time, the young, young Goblin came to a halt.

“You met Velan the Kind?”

“Yes. He was here. He asked my mother to fight for him. She told him no, to run and not die. He refused.”

Mother. Rags looked at Prixall. The [Witch] touched her hat, then her chest.

“Chieftain Rags. I am not old. I am her oldest daughter. Living. When she came here, started this tribe, she had me. Long ago. I studied here. I helped make this…”

She tapped the walls of the cavern.

“I am not old. I am over sixty years old. And I am not old. You all die too soon.”

Rags recoiled so hard she slammed into the wall. She looked at Prixall. A fully-grown Hob. And—Rags didn’t see a difference between her and Snapjaw. She had no white hair like Greydath. She could have been a Hob of four years. She was…

Prixall nodded.

“Goblins of the Molten Stone tribe admire you. Want to be Redfangs or Flooded Waters. But why? If they leave, they die. Glory is…”

A flame burned for a second. Then winked out. And there was nothing Rags could say against it. Prixall pointed down the corridor.

“See what Chieftain Anazurhe makes, Chieftain Rags. You are smart. You may see.”

She led Rags forwards, and they came to a strange place. Through carved tunnels—neat, but still with a bit of variation in craft, signs of mixed skill levels, albeit hard work—they came to a huge…chamber.

Chamber was Rags’ word, because she couldn’t figure out what the purpose was, at first. It was a completely square room in all dimensions. Unlike even the rest of the fortress, even Anazurhe’s personal magic room, this place was perfect.

Perfect as in, each line of geometry was a mathematical constant. As in, each tile was laid with such outstanding craftsmanship and skill that even Hexel or Drevish would have said it was fine work. Rags saw two braziers, custom-made, each a solid piece of iron, sitting next to the one part in progress.

A…staircase. Which led to nowhere yet, as it was only sixteen feet down. Each step made of gleaming, dark granite. Each block without flaw. And the new ones were being laid personally by a sweating Human [Mason].

Watched by no less than eighteen Goblins, and commanded by another Hob, holding a scroll and inspecting it constantly.

“I, ah, I’ve got a little flaw in this stone, sir?”

The Human poked his head up and showed them one of the blocks he was installing. He was clearly using Skills; it looked like the place he’d laid was as seamless as the rest of the room. He was good at his job, and clearly nervous about his audience, who were armed.

“Bad stone?”

“Yes, sir?”

The female Goblin took a look at the stone, made a noise of disgust, and hurled it past Rags and Prixall into the plain corridor beyond. She went over to kick at the pieces as the [Mason] watched. Then turned back.

“Good. No bad stones.”

“No bad stones at all, Miss. I…”

He stared at Prixall and Rags. The [Witch] spoke.

“Keep working, [Mason]. We will observe.”

“Yes ma’am. Of course. I…”

He went back to inspecting each stone before laying it. Rags stared around the perfect room. Black stone, polished like a mirror. When the two braziers were lit, it would give this room ambiance, especially with the walls of equally smooth stone. The stairway wasn’t a slope, but an actual stairway. Why?

There was no reason for this much clear expense and, to judge by it, painstaking perfection if Anazure just wanted a new wing. Why hire a Human? Was this some magical room?

If so, why wouldn’t a [Mage] make it? Rags saw Prixall watching her with amusement as she strode around the room.

“Anything special?”

“No. Just built to exacting standards. Show her.”

The Goblin with the scroll hesitated. Prixall glared.

“Anazurhe has given Chieftain Rags permission. Show her.”

The [Mason] hesitated as Rags looked at the blueprints to this room. Which he had been told that if he so much as glanced at would result in a painful death. Rags stared at a very neat set of blueprints of…

This room. A perfect square, noted out with exact measurements for how big each tile should be. A scrawl about the quality of stones, and a staircase leading down to…

Nothing. It literally ended with a single arch. It was nearly done. Rags nearly went cross-eyed trying to figure out what this damned room was for. It was only when she saw the writing on the top left that it all clicked. It was how it was written, and it was what Rags had seen before that let her understand at last.

 

[The Labyrinth of Fithel].

 

It was written like that. Like…Rags’ eyes narrowed.

A Skill. She looked around the room and had the distinct impression it was familiar. Not in appearance, but…she closed her eyes and remembered a door. A door that led into a garden, that had existed before someone found it. She turned, suddenly, and gasped.

Inheritance Sk—

Prixall made a slashing gesture and Rags stopped before she clued in the [Mason]. He was oblivious, inspecting another stone with sweaty fingers. Prixall couldn’t hide her astonishment.

“You know what this is?”

Like the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Rags nodded.

“This is…something that exists, but you get. A Skill of a place?”

The [Witch] inhaled sharply.

“You are smart. Chieftain Anazurhe is making. This is…a special place. If we get, we get danger, but lots of space.”

“How does she know?”

Prixall snorted softly.

“She remembers. She is stealing this place, see? Nearly done.”

Rags’ mouth opened. She had never thought of that! Goblin memory extended to many things, but remembering an inheritance Skill and stealing it? She thought she was good with the Healer of Tenbault! This…this was real theft, the kind even Ratici would tip his hat to.

And it gave Rags a lot of ideas. Prixall hurried her back before she could give the game away to the oblivious [Mason]. Each one had to be Level 30, and they came here with no idea what they were doing. Obviously, seeing the blueprints was death, given what it was about.

Rags, knowing the Molten Stone tribe’s even greater dreams, thought nothing could surprise her as she went to meet with Anazurhe.

Until she saw the last part of the Molten Stone tribe, a water fountain that doubled as their water supply. The Goblins purified the natural water they collected from the very toxic landscape, and Anazurhe had made a water fountain out of it so that Goblins could scoop water out of a basin.

Bathing in it was frowned upon, even if it technically would purify the waters. Just a fountain, another resting area, and where the [Witch of Flames] and Archmage of Izril had retreated to argue over the magic notes while silly Goblins hit each other with sticks in the other plaza and watched the scrying orb.

That was the place. Rags saw the fountain first. Then…without warning, he was there. Without explanation—no, without preface. Suddenly, she saw him and stopped dead.

 

——

 

Velan the Kind, no, he was just ‘Velan’ before they named him like that, yawned. It made the other Goblin Chieftains snort.

A rare gathering of their kind, but the Great Chieftain had come when asked. He really tried to hold it in, but he couldn’t help it.

It upset the Goblin [Witch] of the Burning Snow tribe, who was trying to explain her grand plan to them all. She shouted at him.

“Stop snoozing you stupid—stupid Great Chieftain!”

Then she threw a ball of fire at him and singed his eyebrows off. Which sort of ruined the dignified showcase and plan she was trying to get the other Goblin Chieftains on board with, but they just didn’t have a good place or the will.

“A Goblin academy is good. But where? Gazers have jungles. Dullahans will find you in the north. Underground?”

He tried to console her afterwards, as the Chieftains went to more interesting activities. The Goblin [Witch], sulking, muttered.

“Maybe somewhere else. Chandrar. Izril.”

“Far to go.”

The Great Chieftain stretched. Anazurhe shrugged.

“Maybe.”

That was his first meeting with the [Witch] named Anazurhe. She did leave for Izril, and he saw her only a few times before then. Then once more…fifty years later. And then? He was already—

 

——

 

Rags jolted. She stumbled backwards and Prixall caught her. The Chieftain was breathing heavily. She looked up and saw.

Velan the Kind. He sat there, staring over her head into the distance. At something amusing or…contenting.

His statue, of course. The Goblin King—no, he wasn’t quite the Goblin King, was he? It had triggered the memory in her, but this Goblin wasn’t the same one who had raged across Izril. A bit younger.

“Chieftain Rags. Are you alright?”

Rags looked up and saw Prixall looking concerned. She realized what had happened to Rags.

“Chieftains see it differently. Some Goblins too.”

Velan. He was just like her memories, but it was something to see him sculpted out of stone. Rags…looked around, and saw a figure sitting by the fountain.

Anazurhe was looking at her. The Great Witch had commissioned the statue. The statue of one of the most hated beings in the world. Her eyes were distant as she looked at Rags.

“You did know him.”

“Of course I did. Some Goblins are older, Rags. I saw him be the great Goblin Lord that they called kind. The one they made pacts with. Then…madness. That is the fate of Goblin Kings. He was mad when he died. And I do not know why.”

She looked so sad. Rags shook her head. From wanting to take Anazurhe to task, she had gone to respecting her vision to…she could not condemn it any longer. Not someone who had been there. No wonder she hid her tribe here, playing a longer game.

“I saw what you are making.”

“Ah. You knew?”

“I have seen another.”

Anazurhe’s pointed hat tilted up. Her eyes glinted.

Interesting.

“Quiet, please. I am committing these notes to memory.”

Valeterisa muttered from the side. Anazurhe looked over, and poked her hard in the side. The Archmage did not respond.

“You see much, Chieftain Rags.”

“I do. I say…it is Goblin if it matters, Chieftain Anazurhe.”

The Witch smiled. Rags went on.

“I would like some of what you do for my tribe. We are young…”

She glanced at Prixall.

“Very young. But we are making something in the High Passes. Maybe it is in danger. Maybe it will not last. But if you will let some of your Goblins come, we will try to make something like this.”

“And what is ‘this’? A safe place? A place of power?”

Rags shook her head. The Great Chieftain was testing her. She gestured around.

“A place that does not need to steal.

Ah.

Anazurhe smiled. She nodded. That was what Rags liked most of all. This was not Tremborag’s domain. Everything she saw had been won fairly. You could not walk here and say this was stolen, that Goblins were a people who could only raid and destroy.

Only she had done that. She looked at the Healer’s notes, shamefaced. But she had a task she needed done, and it was worth the cost, she thought.

“If a Goblin wishes to go with you, I will let them. They will not.”

“Not one?”

Anazurhe shook her head.

“They know what lies outside. You have little to offer them. They will go, like the island-Goblins, to die, for great deeds. But not because they see hope.”

That was the weariness. Rags shrugged.

“I will ask.”

 

——

 

Not one Goblin volunteered. Not even Redscar’s fans. They were tempted, from the little [Witches] to [Mages] to the [Warlocks], but they looked at Prixall, at Rags, and the ‘old’ Redscar and Redfangs, and saw exactly how long they’d live.

Rags couldn’t blame them. But she needed them. She was trying and failing to figure out how to convince them, as the Molten Stone tribe feasted them. Rags saw Calescent, a bit happier, trading his death spice with the Goblin [Chefs] and showing the Molten Stone tribe that there was fire they had yet to experience.

“Could I…purchase a bit of that? Might be a cheaper way to distract someone.”

Even Roell made a purchase of Calescent’s death-spice after he sampled it. Rags herself munched on a delicacy of their tribes; some kind of weird preservation technique. The Molten Stone tribe loved to bury eggs, Yellats, and other foods like fish, in clay pots with ash and other things—and let them rot into weird, discolored foods.

Well, not rot. They were perfectly edible. It wasn’t quite fermenting as her experts knew it, but it certainly took advantage of the natural terrain. Rags poked an egg with a brown outside and a black yolk. Hekusha stared in horror at her plate; the Goblins had, with careful spitefulness, served her a huge bowl of them.

Rags shrugged, took a bite, and found it was good! She liked it a lot more than bugs. She tried a pickled bit of herring next and chomped it down.

“Your Healer does not like you.”

Anazurhe murmured as she removed her mask to eat. Hekusha had indeed shown her colors and she was alone. Rags grimaced.

“She will heal Erin or not. Then we let her leave. We kidnapped her. She does not need to like us.”

“Mm. I don’t think she can.”

Rags’ heart sank. She looked at Anazurhe, then shook her head.

“If there is a chance…”

“Potion of Regeneration failed. Will [Restoration] work? Weaker spell. Different, but weaker.”

“Maybe she can heal Erin’s body.”

“Hmm. She is not a [Healer]. She can only cast the spell. She is a [Mage] who casts a spell efficiently. Not someone who knows why and how to kill sickness. There is a difference.”

Rags stabbed at one of the eggs with her claw. She had to believe this was for something. She had to do something!

“We will try.”

“Mhm. But do not bet on her. She is a greedy thing. Like crows.”

Anazurhe gestured. Rags turned and saw a giant, fire-resistant crow hassling Snowscale for his food. Apparently, due to some pact with another [Witch], the Molten Stone tribe had fliers who could use special masks. The crows were far smaller, though, and only a normal-sized Goblin could ride them, not a Hob.

Valeterisa was munching down on the black eggs, oblivious to what she was eating as she read the notes.

“It is interesting. Healer Hekusha, you seem capable of teaching this [Restoration] spell to other [Mages]. I believe I can learn it. Note to self…learn…[Restoration]…devote eight processes to memorization and casting.”

You can’t steal my magic!

The Healer of Tenbault wailed. Valeterisa raised her eyebrows. She rubbed at one ear.

“Oh, I stopped listening. One second…ah. Why not, Healer Hekusha? It is clear you decoded the spell you were taught nearly five years ago. Your research changed, and I do not believe this spell is being communicated. Even Wistram has lost it, with the exception of Grand Magus Eldavin.”

Rags’ ears sharpened. She looked at Hekusha. The woman stuttered.

“I—I was attempting to simplify it. To allow me to—”

Valeterisa scanned the notes and shook her head.

“You were not. Your research is plainly devoted to developing link-spells that you might cast it more efficiently. Not simplify it for others. In fact, half your research is designed to encode the spell. Interesting.”

Anazurhe’s eyes narrowed. She looked at Rags and the Goblin made a face. They understood. Valeterisa calmly reached for an egg, then stared at it.

“Is this poisonous? [Detect Poison]. No? Very well. It is now clear why Magnolia Reinhart declined to support you. Mystery solved. Note to self…tell Ieka…excuse me, Witch Anazurhe? Is there an acceptable magical present I could buy here?”

“Want a mask?”

Anazurhe turned to Rags. She nodded at the magical notes and Hekusha, watching someone effortlessly copy her spell. And unveil the truth.

“Greedy Human. If she can save…who is it?”

“An ice cube.”

Rags stared down at her plate, no longer hungry. She sat there, doodling on the table.

“You know—and I am being social here, hello Chieftain Rags, I hope we can do good business together, please accept this friendliness as a discount for favors owed for magical notes—this entire business with healing someone reminds me of an issue I must look into. Perhaps [Restoration] would help? I am looking into a frozen young woman in…Liscor, The Wandering Inn. How strange. Coincidence. Ahahahaha.”

Valeterisa’s polite laughter cut off as Rags jolted. The Archmage looked up as every Goblin in Rags’ entourage stared at her.

“…Was that a faux pas?”

Roell looked over from his dish where he was telling Vinn he’d done a good job, relax, have a drink, go to bed. Rags saw him bow politely.

“Excuse me, Great Chieftain? Er, other Great Chieftain, Archmage? This wouldn’t happen to be about the Oteslia-Khelt puzzle, would it?”

Everyone looked over. Rags frowned.

“The what?”

The [Rogue] realized he had everyone’s ears. He fumbled to recall.

“It’s…something in the Mage’s Guilds. Oteslia put out an alchemical problem. Something to do with a complex poison thing. You know, Oteslian generosity? They’re researching it, but Khelt put out a huge bounty on anyone who solves a number of problems. Think it’s reversing a freeze spell, finishing an antidote…‘course it might not have reached you, but I just thought I’d mention it.”

Anazurhe tapped her lips thoughtfully. Valeterisa began bothering the nearest Mage’s Guild about it. The Great [Witch of Flames] glanced at Rags.

“Oteslia and Khelt? Are they helping?”

Rags sat there. Yes. Perhaps! And yet, if the best [Alchemists] and [Researchers] of Oteslia could do naught, and the other [Witches] of Riverfarm, and all the people helping Erin, even the Healer of Tenbault, who could? She sat there, but Anazurhe was moving.

“Let us check.”

 

——

 

Rabbiteater was fighting with the Spring Knights, not in the thick of the fighting but on the edges. He battered down faces, yanked Markus out of a knot of [Knights], and dueled.

Challenge!

And like idiots, Spring Knights leapt from saddles or fought on horseback against their opponents. Rabbiteater had to admit—it was easier than a melee. The Order of Seasons would be squished against such numbers.

But maybe, they’d also combine their auras and burn their enemies out of their plate armor. He grimly battered a [Knight]’s guard down and rammed his shield into a face. The fellow fell down stupidly and Rabbiteater drove the sword point down next to his visor.

“Alas, Ser Domost. A valiant effort! At your leisure, Ser Plain Armor!”

Another Hydra [Knight] saluted Rabbiteater. The Goblin actually tilted his visor open and took a drink of a stamina potion. This was so…

He was no closer to any edge of the fighting. And he’d been trying to push out. The duels made it impossible. Rabbiteater kept staring towards the edge of the fighting.

The thing was, he saw something. The Order of the Hydra was boxing in the Order of Seasons, wearing them down despite the dangerous charges. But they were on foot. Fast as they were, if you broke clear of them…could they catch up?

You’d have to do that, first. And if Rabbiteater refused a duel, he was fairly sure they’d take him out in a second. He was still sick of it, though. So when he heard a shout that he liked, his head swivelled instantly.

No fair, Ser! That is unsporting!

A [Knight] lay on the ground. Order of the Hydra, plate dented. An energetic [Knight] in a kind of purple and fading orange had bashed him flat. It had been a one-sided match, mainly because when the Hydra Knight had gone down, he’d never been able to get back up.

Mostly due to the vines holding his limbs down. The Fall Knight, or Autumn Knight of the Order of Seasons, turned, wiping sweat from his brow as he loosened his helmet.

“Nonsense. Magic’s perfectly acceptable. You can use potions or scrolls, I can use magic. I trained with a mace and spells. Next?”

A Hydra Knight charged him. The Autumn Knight waited and the figure slipped on a patch of greased ground. He was on him with less skill than some of his counterparts, but a considerable vigor in attacking downed foes. The other waiting [Knights] booed the display.

Rabbiteater loved it. He made his way over to the Autumn Knight. The waiting [Knight] who wanted to duel him sighed, but let him do it.

More fool, he. The Autumn Knight spun.

“Is that Ser Solstice? We’re getting thrashed out here. Our people are, at any rate.”

Rabbiteater turned to the same sight he’d been watching; Ailendamus’ huge crossbow corps raining fire down on the enemy while their infantry held them back. He glared.

“Yes. Who’re you?”

“Ser Ilm. Autumn’s children. I’ve been separated from my lance. Want to join up? See here, we’ll duel you two at a time! My sword-arm’s getting tired, Ser Solstice, but if you back me up…”

For once, the Hydra Knights weren’t as keen to take the fight. One pointed at Ser Ilm.

“You’ll just cast magic on us! We’re not loosing arrows at you!”

“Too true, Dame Hydra! It is a duel. I could throw a [Fireball] at you all, but I won’t.”

The Autumn Knight had a practical, almost needling tone that Rabbiteater liked. And his presence gave Rabbiteater an idea. The Goblin dragged at Ser Ilm’s shoulder.

“Let’s retreat. Get Markus. Meisa.”

The lance was already falling back to rest and charge again. Ilm nodded. They waited for a duel, but the Hydra Knights just folded their arms.

“Let’s take on the Summer Knights. They’re sporting, even if they melt your armor. Yon’s Dame Talia Kalinad, over there. You know, from the games at Daquin? It would be a feather in your cap to take her out.”

They moved left, and Rabbiteater saw the fiery blade of the first [Knight] he had liked. He shook his head and pulled Ser Ilm back.

“They are going to win, Ser Solstice.”

The Autumn Knight calmly spoke when they were riding back to the defensive line of skirmishing [Knights]. Markus and Meisa, both of whom had survived their duels, looked at Rabbiteater. Ser Thaime was also there; Dame Ingrela was not. She’d been captured, along with Raist.

Rabbiteater nodded. He stared out at Ailendamus’ army. And…he kept seeing the figure there. He’d assumed it was a feint, but from the way he saw the figure strutting about, followed by a unit of fighters, he thought it was what it looked like.

There was Ailendamus’ [General]. A [General] could empower an army beyond belief, and since he had those pikes, he had put all of his fancy archers in one spot. Eggs and baskets and all that.

Of course, there was a wall of Hydra Knights keeping the Order of Seasons back. And they had Voost surrounded, forcing her into duels she was winning, but unable to break out from, like Zulv. Rabbiteater looked at Ilm, his friends.

“I have an idea. We can’t win without playing different…games. Not like Ailendamus.”

He tried to explain. Markus frowned, but Meisa lifted a hand.

“We can’t just violate the rules of engagement, Rabbiteater. It goes both ways.”

She glanced at Ailendamus’ army.

“There is a way to die quick, and it’s out there.”

Rabbiteater nodded.

“But. One person can change everything.”

“You’re speaking like you’re the Summer’s Champion.”

Ser Thaime snorted, but he eyed the Goblin Slayer, whom he’d ridden with. Ser Ilm leaned on his horse’s saddle, interested. Rabbiteater shrugged.

“Maybe. But you don’t need him. One person can do it.”

“You seem sure. We’re not high-level—”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Rabbiteater stared at something only he could see. Levels? Status? It didn’t matter. He had learned the lesson Greysten had, and the heads of each order.

One person was all it took. He saw a young woman with a white flag. If she had not stood there. If she had not been there…his hand tightened. He longed for the same power, the hand of the Drake [General] on his shoulder.

He didn’t have it. All he had was…a memory.

It was enough. Just because it was a memory did not mean it had not happened. He had been there. He had bested the Bear of Ailendamus. Rabbiteater reached for that feeling. And found…some of it was in him.

Ser Markus was about to object that he didn’t want his friend to die. The words slowed on his tongue. He squinted at Rabbiteater. He felt…the Spring Knight’s eyes widened, but Meisa nudged him. Her eyes were glittering.

“Do you have a plan, Ser Solstice? I am willing to listen.”

Thaime was sensing the same thing. He removed his helmet, his sharp mustache gleaming with sweat, and looked at Rabbiteater. The Goblin glanced at the Autumn Knight. He hesitated. One was coming.

“Maybe. Ser Ilm. Are there any more Autumn Knights with you?”

The [Knight] grinned.

“We’re spread out. Why?”

“…What kind of magic can you cast? Any of these spells?”

The [Knight] listened. Then he really began to smile. And Rabbiteater felt something welling inside of him. He looked back ahead. Reaching for it.

 

——

 

[Communication] was a Tier 4 spell, and [Message] was Tier 3. Both were used at Mage’s Guilds, although not everyone could use the [Communication] spell.

Nevertheless, any large Mage’s Guild could. The [Mage] taking incoming calls grumbled, but the friendly, female voice didn’t add to his bad mood on this mundane day of days.

“Oteslia’s Mage Guild. If you’re calling about a delayed shipment, please be advised we are currently under siege…how can I help you?”

Hello! I’m from the Mage’s Guild in Anazuland. I was just communicating an information request regarding a bounty, if that’s alright?

Anazuland? The Drake had a map out. You got vague directions the further you cast the spell from, and he checked the map. Some place in the middle of nowhere next to a huge uninhabited area. About right. He’d never been to ‘Anazuland’, but it was on the lists they sent out and did some basic communicating.

“No problem, Miss. What can I look up?”

“Just the bounty on a ‘Seifre Poison — Frozen Complications’, I believe the research topic is called.”

“Ah, another one.”

The Drake even had the applicable materials here; everyone wanted a piece of that bounty. But he’d noted no one had actually come back with a solution. He read it out.

“Let’s see. Khelt’s backing this information request—verified cures only. A partial solution awards you twenty two thousand gold.”

Oh my. That’s…hey, get away from there, you ***** brat!

That last part wasn’t censored, but it was a word the Drake had never known before. He heard a screech, remarkably high-pitched, and the voice returned.

I am so sorry about that.

Probably children in this small-town Mage’s Guild. The Drake assured her it was fine and gave her the rest of the relevant details as she copied the notes down. He thought no more about the interaction, instead counting the minutes down to his lunch.

 

——

 

In the ‘Mage’s Guild’ of Anazuland, Rags stared with open-mouth at a Goblin [Mage] who’d chirpily requested the info. She’d stopped only once, to kick a little Goblin trying to peer at her scrying orb. However, even swearing in Goblin hadn’t broken her cover.

Anazurhe inspected the bounty as it was printed out. Even Valeterisa looked mildly interested at the money offered.

However, the problem was clearly that the Healer of Tenbault had her spell, not an answer to the rest. Rags had Lyonette’s information.

Cure for being an ice cube. Antidote for poison. Way to bring a sort-of-dead person back. Way to mend her flesh, even if she isn’t technically alive.

A four-part process, and the [Doctor] who’d written it up had hinted there were more problems she hadn’t worked out yet before disappearing. They might have one with the Healer. Maybe.

But the rest? Anazurhe looked at the antidote and listed poison. She tsked.

“Okay poison. Bad if shot. In veins? Frozen in blood? Yuck.”

She was so casual it made Rags angry, despite knowing that the Goblin Witch had no reference for Erin Solstice. Anazurhe nodded. Valeterisa was peering at the details.

“Hm. Liquid would not work. Potions require a living system. Powder? Gas? If the body is frozen—ah. No wonder it is so difficult to administer. I…hm. I would risk applying it to the body as it warmed. But then the patient might die. Which I assume is not the desired outcome? No? Simply inquiring.”

She was rather interested by the puzzle as an academic, but she had no good answers either. Rags offered it to Hekusha, who gave the entire sheet a blank look.

“What would you do?”

“C-cast [Restoration]? I seldom get immediate poison victims…”

Valeterisa, Rags, and Anazurhe looked at the Healer of Tenbault. Now here was someone who had a single answer for everything. Mind you—it worked, but still.

Anazurhe tapped the sheet thoughtfully. Rags hopefully looked at her.

“Is your tribe filled with many poison-experts?”

She glanced at the crowd of Goblins that Redscar, Fighti and Calescent were trying to recruit into coming with them. The Goblins listened to stories of battle and looked at the celebrities…but shook their heads. More were clustered around the scrying orb, and Calescent stopped and went to sit with them, giving up.

“Not like a great tribe. No. But this…”

Anazurhe frowned. She inspected the details provided by Oteslia’s [Researchers], who believed in communication. She ran her finger down attempted solutions that had not worked on frozen trial rodents. And her eyes turned.

She looked left, and Rags looked left as well. Anazurhe spoke.

“There is the Goblin who could find the cure.”

She pointed at Velan the Kind. Who had once been one of the greatest [Alchemists] ever. That was what Rags kept forgetting. He had made such medicines that his body had become as strong as any [Warrior]. He had travelled to Drath, had learned secrets…

And was dead. Did the answer lie in memory? Anazurhe looked at the list. She turned it over. Frowned.

“…Hm. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.”

Rags’ head rose. No one ‘hmmed’ like that for nothing. Anazurhe’s eyes flickered down the list again, and she muttered.

“There is one potion. Not tried? Not known? Maybe…maybe…Prixall! Get over here!

She snapped at the [Witch]. The Goblin walked over with an exasperated look Rags recognized. Safety or not, it couldn’t be fun being the eldest daughter of the Great Chieftain for sixty years. If only she could get Prixall. Alas, Redscar wasn’t enough, especially since he probably would refuse to seduce her.

“Chieftain?”

“Get that thing. The drink for ceremonies. Useless drink.”

Anazurhe snapped her fingers, clearly at a loss for what she wanted. She glared at Prixall as the Goblin suggested fifteen different names, finally got the one Anazurhe had forgotten, and stomped off to get it.

“What is it?”

Valeterisa was still engrossed in the problem. Anazurhe, on the other hand, explained, her eyes glittering.

“Useless drink.”

“…Great.”

Rags snorted. Anazurhe rolled her eyes, flapped her hat at Rags, and explained haughtily.

“A useless drink now. Something…made it less useful. It used to be used all the time. Goblin’s Lament made it. Some tribes made it. A very valuable drink. Less useful now than many, many lifetimes ago. Useless…now. I tried many times. But…”

She spread her claws.

“No good. I put it in special cups, put it in special ceremonies. Nothing happened. It is not a drink for us.”

“Drink? Not medicine? Drink for who?”

“Spirits.”

Rags’ eyes narrowed. Prixall came back, and Anazurhe shook her head. She stared about.

“So quiet. So empty. Nothing comes…one did, but didn’t stay. Only one? Used to be many. Here.”

She took a mostly-empty container and held it out. It glowed with magic, and Valeterisa dropped the notes instantly and came over.

“What a fascinating magical binding. It is a specific barrier on this amphora.”

She tapped the clay vessel. Anazurhe slapped her hands away.

“Yes, yes. Obvious. Duh. Now, look, Chieftain Rags. Prixall. Cup!”

The [Witch] held out a hand. She opened and closed it, then turned her head.

“You didn’t say ‘get a cup’, Chieftain.”

Prixall glowered. Anazurhe spoke slowly.

“Get…a…cup.”

Prixal was about to burst, but Rags offered her own canteen.

“Will this do?”

“Sure.”

Anazurhe held the canteen out, not even bothering to align it with the amphora. Rags worried she’d waste it, but, as it turned out, there was no need.

The liquid that flowed out of the amphora didn’t fall like regular water. It…drifted, as if it was made less of liquid, but not quite gas. Oh, and it was a light green, swimming with motes of violet and even particles that might have been for taste or a byproduct of how it was made, for it was surely old, as the vessel indicated.

…It went straight through the canteen. Straight through Anazurhe’s hand. As if neither were there. It fell into the ground and vanished. Valeterisa’s head followed the small stream down. Anazurhe looked at Rags.

“Hmm? Only a special barrier keeps it inside, you see.”

Rags stared at the liquid. Then at Anazurhe. She flicked her eyes back to the scattered bounty, and her eyes opened wide.

“Does it…do anything?”

“Spirits drink this. But ethereal poison? Very bad. You take an arrow, dip it, and it goes through armor. Like that one’s sword.”

She looked at Redscar. Valeterisa nodded happily.

“Goblins have their own version of a Ghost Touch liquid. Fascinating. I have never seen this kind of potion, although I do not foray into alchemy…”

“Yes, yes. Shut up. This is hard to get. This is a drink. If an [Alchemist] uses the ingredients…maybe an antidote goes through her, you see? Your ice cube.”

Rags was hopping from foot to foot. Yes! Yes! That did seem likely! Anazurhe smiled.

“And I get the partial bounty. Twenty two thousand gold! Everyone wins!”

“Where can we get it? How is it made? Do you know?”

“Hmm. I know how. Or I can remember from [Shamans] past. The problem is…ingredients are rare. Rarer than Kraken Hearts, maybe.”

Rags stopped dancing.

“…Where are they? Do you have any?”

“I did. I used them to make this, see?”

The Goblin [Witch] helpfully held out the useless amphora of ghost happy-juice. Rags was tempted to kick it into the fountain.

“Do you have more ingredients? Where are they?”

“I know of three.”

Anazurhe was enjoying Rags’ impatience. She held up three fingers.

“One comes from fish deep in the ocean. Hard to get. Drowned Folk maybe can get it. The second? A Baleros creature deep in the jungles. Might be none left. Both are one in a decade.”

No, no, no! Rags was tearing at her hair. So close and yet—no wonder not even Oteslia had any! Anazurhe waited until Rags was about to explode, and then smiled.

“Fortunately, Chieftain Rags, the last one is more plentiful. There is one place to get it. Or rather…one tribe in Izril grows the mushroom. Harvests it. Uses it. Maybe they are dead. Maybe they live. I think, with the Goblin Lord, they may be dead, but maybe some remain.”

“Who?”

Rags stared at Anazurhe. The Great Witch smiled.

“The Ghostly Hand tribe.”

Rags stared at her. Anazurhe went to inform Oteslia of the possible solution and put in for a partial bounty. Rags just stood there. How…how was she supposed to get there? In southern Izril? How in the—?

 

——

 

“Shoo. Shoo.”

Numbtongue kept urging the little Goblins away as they followed the Gnolls to their tribe. The [Hunters] were tolerant, but the Goblins were still putting them all in danger.

Even so, the annoying Goblins with the white handprint on their skin could tell he was a Hob. One kept poking him.

“You Hob. We Goblins.”

“Yes. Go away.”

“We have tribe.”

“Good for you. Go away.

“You visit?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No.”

“You have ghosts. Chieftain have ghosts. We show?”

“N—what?”

The Goblin grinned at him and stared at Pyrite. The Hob stared back. He waved slowly. She grinned wider and waved back.

 

——

 

Hope. Secrets. Other tribes. Rags was mixed on what she’d learned, but she felt in her marrow she’d found a clue. Healer of Tenbault aside.

This was something, if she could get to Goblinhome. Anazurhe assured her that she could help speed and aid their journey. They would also go with something from Valeterisa, who kept avoiding Rags mentioning payback for the notes.

But Rags would not go with other Goblins. They had refused. Maybe some of the Goblins from the outlying tribes, but no one from this academy. Not yet.

She had nothing to show them. Only stories of death. What could inspire them? What could…and not Kevin. Not this time. He wasn’t a Goblin, and that was the point.

Redscar had given up on recruiting to speculate with Rags about a way back. Fighti kept trying, but no one was listening. Calescent sat at the scrying orb as Hekusha tried to re-ingratiate herself with him.

“I just meant…you must understand. I quite like your cooking, but, you see…”

Goblins perched on swings or lay about the scrying orb, with their favorite new hobby. Watching television. Calescent gloomily watched too. He wished they had a cooking section. All they showed were angry Gnolls, angry Drakes, and now people killing each other. War, strife…he stared at a figure as Drassi began to commentate. Then he frowned. Then…

Hekusha backed up as Calescent made a fist. She squeaked and hid her face as he swung it. Then stared. Calescent picked himself back up and rubbed at his jaw. He checked the news. Then he shot to his feet with a roar.

Chieftain!

Rags turned. Anazurhe saw the [Chef] shoot to his feet, sadness forgotten. He waved his arms, scattering children and the Healer as he pointed, lost for words.

“Him! Him! Chieftain, here! It’s him!”

“Who?”

Rabbiteater!

And then every Goblin was running over. Pushing each other aside. Anazurhe picked up a Goblin child, squealing as his space was invaded, and tossed him at Prixall. She threw herself down and saw the [Knight]. You’d never know he was a Goblin unless you knew.

Then…you saw him.

 

——

 

Ser Greysten’s arm was burning from mortal exhaustion, not from fire. He felt like his entire body rang from throwing himself into terrible blows against the Dame of the Hills. She was stronger. He was higher-level and refused to burn her.

Neither would yield. And because of that, his Order was losing. He cursed, surging forwards as she drank a potion, to deny her that.

“Hardly sporting, Ser Greysten!”

Then damn sport! Fight, Dame of the Hills, until one falls!

She grinned, tossing the bottle aside. Her [Squire] ran after it, since a bottle fit for her was actually too expensive to waste. Greysten rode at the half-Giant, into her shadow, and felt Rabbiteater was right. Ailendamus had played their [Knightly] nature against them. Perhaps not the Order of the Hydra, but someone…

It was the same conclusion Dame Talia came to. She looked around as a cluster of [Summer Knights] fought inwards. Winning duels, or the crushing melee—but hindered by the rules of, well, chivalry.

How would Wil do this? How would the Titan? She imagined them sailing a ship into the middle of a formation. [Strategists] didn’t fight fair. She grimly set herself—and then saw it.

Someone was recording this battle to see whether the Order of Seasons won or lost their bid to aid the Dawn Concordat. But it had not been exciting; a bunch of armored people bashing each other down, or Ailendamus calmly shooting Pheislant’s forces from afar, was hardly the stuff of prime-time television after the King of Destruction and similar battles.

…And that was the case right up until the shouts of dismay. The cry of impropriety. Talia turned her head. There was only one [Knight] on this field who would do such a thing. She saw what was happening at once.

Hydra Knights by the dozens were shouting, flailing, hacking at…webs. More were slipping and falling all over each other as the ground turned to butter. A cadre of Autumn Knights was standing, throwing non-lethal, but highly annoying spells into a section of the bunched [Knights].

Unsporting! They are attacking with magic!

Well, have at them!

A roar went up from the Hydra Knights. Outraged, they charged the emplaced Autumn [Knights], who began to cast more [Sticky Webs], [Tripvines], and other spells. However, this backfired almost at once.

[Dispel Magic]!

A [Knight] drew a scroll and Talia grimaced as the webs and other hindering spells vanished at once. Of course they had magical countermeasures. She bet Rabbiteater had thought he could overrun them. Chivalrous rules went two ways!

The Goblin. She felt a tightness in her chest, an anger at his name, which went hand-in-hand with Greysten’s lecture and her own sense of betrayal. Even so…she looked for him.

If he was in the knot of Autumn Knights being swarmed by the Order of the Hydra, he was dismounted or already down. They refused to duel—they took out the [Mage-Knights] fast, knocking them off their saddles, some going as far as to aim blunt-tipped crossbows which dented plate armor. Talia winced. And now they’d just lost six Autumn Knights. That…she turned to see if she could spot him or Markus.

…There was no one there. The Hydra Knights picked themselves up, reprimanded the six Autumn Knights, and frowned at the grins on the captured group’s faces.

 

——

 

Oops! Looks like that ploy didn’t work, eh, Sir Relz?

Noass laughed as the two went over light coverage of the battle, in between Drassi’s Gnoll-segments. Sir Relz chuckled, but then frowned.

“Hold on, Noass. Do you see that?”

He pointed out something odd in the battlefield. Noass frowned.

“Indeed I do, Sir Relz. What is that?”

“Looks like something our scrying spells are picking up. Clearly magical. Excuse me? Can we zoom in on—there! There’s ten of them! See?”

A disturbance in the lines of the Order of the Hydra, exactly opposite where the Autumn Knights had made their brief stand. The Hydra Knights were resetting themselves, but they were a bit disjointed there. Some were being knocked down, looking around, confused. Shouting—and not seeing ten [Knights] riding through their ranks.

Not at first. Noass eyed the glittering figures.

“They must be invisible. I think we have a situation. We are watching, live, ladies and gentlemen, ten [Knights] under [Invisibility] spells trying to break the Order of the Hydra’s lines. They’re clearly noticing, but they don’t see them. Will they make it? This is Wistram News Network and—”

 

——

 

Rabbiteater wasn’t technically breaking any rules of chivalry. The Autumn Knights had, and they’d been punished for it. But what was he doing? He wasn’t attacking the [Knights]. Okay, his horse bumped several over, but he was just…

Invisible. He surged forwards, as Ser Ilm cursed.

“They’re on us.”

[Invisibility] spells! To arms! To arms!

The Hydra Knights weren’t stupid. Seeing the space where the group of ten were pushing through, the [Knights] on foot and anyone bumped by a horse could put two and two together. The Hydra Knights, caught off-guard, began to converge.

Too late. Rabbiteater roared.

Charge!

Spring ends! With Ser Solstice!

Markus shouted, another invisible figure. They rode forwards, no longer trying to hide. Hydra Knights tried to block their path, but they couldn’t see, and Rabbiteater knocked two flat, breaking through more and more trying to form a wall of flesh and armor. But they’d been distracted.

Classic tactics. Goblin tactics in this case. Burn a farm and hit a road twenty miles away. Rabbiteater rode and saw their back lines desperately closing.

Break free! Go!

It was only ten of them. Then nine, as Ser Thaime got tangled at the rear. He lashed around him, reappearing as someone dispelled the magic on the group.

Another Spring Knight ran into eight [Knights]. Horse or not, it was she and her mount that were stopped cold. Eight.

Rabbiteater leaned down and struck a helmet with his sword. It jarred the blade from his hand and he cursed, abandoning it, but then—he was clear. The Order of the Hydra turned as one.

They’ve broken the lines! After them! Signal the army!

Horns began to blare. Ailendamus’ forces turned from their systematic breakdown of Pheislant’s forces. Accordingly, the [Soldiers] of Pheislant cheered to see eight [Knights] riding clear.

Eight.

Rabbiteater saw Ser Ilm, Dame Meisa, and Markus riding next to him as the last [Invisibility] spell melted away. He looked back and saw a furious wave of purple pounding after him; Hydra Knights.

“If we slow, they’ll get us! Where are we going?”

There.

Rabbiteater pointed at the army. The [General] of Ailendamus, a head turning in a plumed helmet. But if the [General] lacked for [Knights]…

“Infantry! Reposition!

A row of pikes rotated smoothly, and two battalions of crossbows pivoted. Rabbiteater saw Markus’ wild grin waver.

This was why no one had tried this. The [Knights] surging towards Ailendamus’ lines found themselves running towards the enemy [Archers]. Less infantry, but there were eight of them. The Order of the Hydra was in chaos behind them, nearly half trying to intercept the [Knights] or force the rest of the Order of Seasons back.

“Rabbiteater. We’re going to run right into the crossbows.

“Yeah.”

The Goblin never turned. He rode, not at a gallop, slower, enough so that the Hydra Knights almost appeared to be gaining. Markus looked at Meisa. One of the Spring Knights cursed.

“There’s no chivalry in dying like a porcupine, Ser Solstice!”

“I know.”

He knew that. They said she had died like…

Something was burning in Rabbiteater’s chest. A feeling. Home.

An adventure. He looked back at the army behind him, [Knights] fighting [Knights]. This was not his war. Not his people or land. But they were his friends.

He looked forwards. He could still feel it. A claw on his back, a hand on his shoulder. An [Innkeeper] and a [General].

Meisa looked at Rabbiteater, then at the other Spring Knights.

“I will ride with Ser Solstice! Fall back! But I tell you this, my sisters and brothers! Spring ends!

They looked at each other. And then the Spring Knight who had protested squared his shoulders.

“I am Ser Jauslef of Pheislant! I will ride with you, Ser Solstice! To victory! To the end of Spring!”

Rabbiteater nodded. Eight figures streaked forwards. And now—Ailendamus’ crossbows were levelled. Eight [Knights] rode at a wall of pikes.

They were going to die. Talia Kallinad was fighting clear of the Order of Hydra. Her group had seized the moment to break away, and they were going to the aid of Ser Greysten, who might well defeat the Dame of the Hills judging from his fiery onslaught. If he did, they needed to escort him into the next charge. She waited for the crossbows to fire. She did not want Markus to die. Nor Meisa…or even Rabbiteater.

She waited. But the deadly hail never fell. Talia didn’t understand it. She saw the [General] signalling in frustration. Why…?

Then she saw. Of course. Eight [Knights] were charging the enemy lines, but behind them…

As the Summer Knights broke free of the Order of the Hydra’s forces and a second wave turned to follow them, she saw hundreds of [Knights] on foot, pounding right behind Rabbiteater. Right in the line of fire if any crossbows missed.

Turn back! Turn back, you idiots!

The Ailendamus [General] was shouting fury at the courageous idiots fouling his lines of fire. Well, he ordered the crossbows to hold. It was only eight [Knights]. The pikes would tear them up. And if they didn’t? The [Crossbowmen] were terrified of [Knights] and heavy infantry in their ranks, but why would they fear eight [Knights]? His own bodyguard outnumbered them.

Why indeed? Then he felt something on his face. The [General] turned back. He was a [General of the Line], not a particularly powerful one to work with the Order of the Hydra, but good enough to serve in this specialized kind of engagement and bully Pheislant’s army.

And good enough to see auras. The Order of Seasons was like a light show, but only three main auras; Spring, Summer, and Fall. He squinted back the way he’d come.

“…What kind of an aura is that?

It was like nothing he’d seen. Then…he shivered. Something happened.

A fell wind blew across the battlefield. A biting breeze in the midst of summer. Such that the pikes, archers, and even [General] felt it. He felt a terrible suspicion creeping in the back of his mind. The leader of this band of eight was charging in plain, grey armor. Yet the wind blew cold.

And everyone knew they were battling the famed Order of Seasons, heroes, if not in this case. They fought Summer, Spring, and a bit of Autumn. Of their Order, there was only one [Knight] who might not wear the colors given to them.

Now? Out of nowhere? But that was how it always happened. A lone [Knight]—or only eight. Who would be so mad?

It was cold. The [General]’s skin broke out in sudden goosebumps. No. It couldn’t be. He stared at the [Knight] with the strange aura and recalled that General V-something had been defeated by an unknown [Knight] too, hadn’t he? Then he heard it.

A voice, one of the Spring Knights bellowing.

“—the—er!

It was too faint at first. But then, as he rode, someone magnified his voice with magic. Then the entire battlefield heard it. A man, Ser Markus, roaring.

To battle! To victory! To the Winter’s Watcher! Spring ends! Winter dies! For the Order of Seasons!”

 

——

 

Greysten’s blood froze in his veins. He raised his head as the cry went out. Suddenly, it was around him. Even the Dame of the Hills turned and cursed, on the back foot.

“Already?”

“The Winter’s Watcher! To the Winter’s Watcher!”

Greysten whirled. Had reinforcements come? Another head of the Order of Seasons? A smile broke across his lips. Then he saw who was shouting it. His smile flickered.

That was not the Winter’s Watcher. He knew it because it wasn’t snowing. Because the Winter’s Watcher had specific armor. Because he would have felt the champion of winter.

Yet…the wind did blow cold. And a [Knight] shouted it. And because he shouted it, it must be true. He was a [Knight]. He fooled even his own Order. Greysten’s lips moved in horror. He almost laughed. But that was not the Winter’s Watcher. And that charge was—

 

——

 

Rabbiteater was laughing. Ser Markus was bellowing, crimson with embarrassment. But Ailendamus was recoiling as one army. The air was cold. The [Soldiers] stared in horror at the legend of frost. Or what they thought was the Winter’s Watcher.

The cold?

Ser Ilm had a wand in one glove.

“[Cold Air]. [Cold Air]…”

He was concentrating so hard on blasting the enemy army that he nearly was caught from behind. For the Order of the Hydra had doubled their chase.

“Rabbiteater, they’re all turning on us!”

“Good. Pheislant gets away if we die.”

The pikes were lowering. A [General] was bellowing; Rabbiteater heard his voice.

“[Hold the Line]! The brave Order of Hydra will bring down this Winter’s Watcher! Hold your ground, brave sons and daughters of Ailendamus!”

Damn. Rabbiteater saw the glittering tips of spears. He looked back. Then he sped up.

Rabbiteater!

But the [Champion] had drawn his axe. A cloak of blood flew behind him as the glowing axe rose. The [Pikemen] stared in grim terror at the [Knight] bearing down on them. They would fight to the death.

So be it. Something was calling to him. He felt it in his chest. Tidebreaker. He felt like he could almost triumph. Almost…almost…

But why couldn’t he reach it? Why? Something was in the way of that feeling. Conflicting. The power of the greatest [General] of Izril…faltered.

Because it wasn’t all he was. He wasn’t Rabbiteater of war. He wasn’t even as good at it as his brothers. Shorthilt. Numbtongue. Headscratcher. Badarrow. Rabbiteater was the average one. And Zel Shivertail had not been the only one in that memory.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice sat there at a table, smiling at him.

“Is this it? Hey. Hey.”

She poked Zel. The [General] snapped.

“You poking me is the rudest gesture imaginable, Miss Solstice.”

“Well, sorry. It’s a Goblin thing. You calling them rude, huh?”

The Drake [General] gave Erin a withering look that said she was beneath that kind of argument. And Rabbiteater—

 

——

 

Laughed. The burning strength in his arms faded. She was there too. Inside his memory. He clung to that.

Home. A different kind of strength. The two warred in him. He was afraid. He didn’t want to die.

He was doing it for both reasons. He had never fought for glory. Only for the inn. Friends. His tribe. His family. But the strength to do it…

He saw the line of pikes approaching. Not yet. He didn’t—he didn’t think he could—

The [Champion] plunged onwards, fighting to seize one or the other. Unable to reconcile the feelings. Meisa spurred her horse, shouting for him to stop. She was too slow.

They were Spring Knights. Even Rabbiteater was too low-level. Spring was young. It needed more. It needed age to grow. Light and wrath, even winter to temper it.

So the [Knight] shouted. Summer’s wrath.

Knights of Summer! To arms! To the Winter’s Watcher! With me—charge! Charge!

The Order of the Hydra turned, too late. They saw a second wedge of armored figures, a full lance, thundering to their left. Orange and yellow and red. The colors of summer.

Talia Kallinad lowered her lance as Rabbiteater twisted in his saddle. The [Summer Knights] accelerated, as the faith of the first line of pikes wavered. They saw the light blazing from the tips of the lances, a match for their pikes. Heard the massed oath.

Summer fades!

The [Knight] glanced sideways at Rabbiteater. She couldn’t see his face behind the visor as it turned towards her. Did she see a surprised glint of red?

Then they hit Ailendamus’ lines. Talia Kallinad rammed her lance home before two pike tips slammed into her breastplate. She kept going, abandoning the lance and swinging her sword, as the Season of Summer and then Spring overran the first rank of pikes. Fighting forwards, following the Goblin [Knight].

An oath fulfilled. Just in time.

So long as your cause is just, your heart unwavering, and you live with honor, I will be your ally. I will stand with you.

She had wavered in her oath. Nor was he perfectly honorable. But he was as good as she had ever met in a Goblin. For now—Talia Kallinad rode with Rabbiteater.

 

——

 

Rags saw it all. The feint. A classic Redfang trick that had Redscar and every Goblin with her on their feet, cheering. Then the charge, the shouting.

“That’s a Goblin?

Prixall stared at Rabbiteater. The Humans didn’t get it; like hell a Goblin was going to reveal the secret. They just thought the Goblins loved good television, which this was, even without the secret.

“Rabbiteater.”

She had thought he was going to die. Rags had tried to throw a Skill across the world, but she wasn’t strong enough. And there wasn’t enough time. Anazurhe had had the same thought, looking towards her ritual room.

But then they had seen the Summer Knights charge. With Rabbiteater. Humans, fighting with a Goblin. Following him. Rags looked at Prixall’s eyes, fixed on him. All the Goblins, transfixed on a Goblin on television—not one being slaughtered, or hunted, but the hero even Sir Relz and Noass were cheering on.

A hero. No.

A [Champion]. And he set the Humans to flight.

 

——

 

Flee! Flee!

Rabbiteater cut through Ailendamus [Archers] like a [Farmer] through wheat with an enchanted scythe. But his axe did not fall and cut the Humans to pieces, though he could have killed dozens with the jade axe.

He didn’t. He thought of Erin, and what she might do.

I am the Winter’s Watcher! Flee or perish! Winter dies!

Ser Ilm was laughing, magnifying Rabbiteater’s voice and tossing [Snowballs]. The sight of the Summer Knights charging, that famous name—

The [Crossbowmen] in Ailendamus’ army were brave, experienced [Soldiers] who honestly liked their kingdom. They were probably even paid well.

But they didn’t want to be killed. They broke and ran, screaming, as Rabbiteater tore apart the orderly formation. Pheislant’s army regrouped, free of the harassing crossbow fire. It was all—falling apart.

The Order of the Hydra was trying to stem the chaos, attacking from behind. Yet they had no hope of stopping the rout of the army. Only one person could do that.

The [General]. He was waiting for Rabbiteater. No flight on horses. A bodyguard of two dozen surrounded him and he was restoring order to some battalions, but he’d set himself, sword drawn. Rabbiteater headed towards him.

Rabbiteater! Watch out! They’re [Bodyguards]! They’ll—

Ser Markus fell. A Knight of the Order of the Hydra took him down with a halberd to the stomach and the Spring Knight was on the ground, fighting. Talia rode with Rabbiteater, four Knights of the Summer with her.

Strike the head from the Hydra’s neck! Follow Ser Solstice!

She bellowed. They crashed towards the [General]. Rabbiteater saw the [Bodyguard] brace. Some were superior [Armsmen] and [Armswomen]. But there were six…his eyes narrowed as he saw lightly armored figures stepping in an ominously familiar way. Each one carried only a blade in one hand, and a buckler, dagger, wand, or nothing at all in the other. They looked like—

—Pisces—

The [Duelists] struck in unison as the [Knights] charged in. Rabbiteater saw a blur and heard multiple voices at once.

“[Disarming Strike]!”

“[Weapon Clash]! [Sundering Slash]!”

“[Dismounting—”

He hit the ground hard as Talia and the other Summer Knights shouted in horror and frustration. Their weapons were cut from their hands. In one case, a [Knight] clutched at a suddenly-limp arm, expertly slashed.

My axe. Rabbiteater stared at his empty hand. He looked around for an axe, but then they were on top of him in the melee. A man ran at him with a polearm. Rabbiteater had lost his sword, his axe—so he threw his shield at the man. It hit him in the gorget and Rabbiteater kicked him to the ground.

Defend the [General]! Push them back!

Talia was fighting with a blade made of pure fire, keeping two [Duelists] at bay. One spotted Rabbiteater. The woman lunged, in that perfect, deadly strike. Rabbiteater twisted, and the blade pierced only the first layer of armor, then tore it up.

Champion’s gear. He retreated, panting. The woman slashed, keeping him well out of range. Rabbiteater had no time to retrieve his weapon or find a new one. He reached for his bag of holding and she slashed it from his belt.

“Surrender or die!”

He said nothing. The [Duelist] waited only a second before slashing. This time she scored a blow across his gauntlets that cut all the way through. Red blood ran down his arm. The Goblin stared at it.

Damn. That was a sharp sword. And he had no weapons. If only he could block it. But she’d slice his hands off. Or poke him through the neck.

Something was coming out of him. Like your lunch coming out of your chest. But not in a bad way. He had never felt this way before.

How had it gone? Rabbiteater felt like he was swimming through the air. His hands opened. No—not hands. They looked like—

Claws.

The [Duelist] lunged, in a strike to one leg, at perfect range. He slashed at her blade, and she flicked her sword to cut across his hands. If he lost a finger—

Her rapier rebounded. The force sent a shock rippling down her sword and nearly twisted it out of her hands. The [Duelist] backed up, eyes widening, then checked herself. But the [Knight] was charging her. She didn’t panic.

[Long Backstep]. Her sword aimed, a piercing thrust that could turn into a slash. He didn’t expect that and she lunged. The blade struck his side and—bent.

The armor was hard. Her eyes went round. Was that a Skill? Now he was too close. She slashed with her parrying dagger.

He caught her hand. The [Duelist] cursed. She went for a slash to his arm, but he caught that too. She stared at him. Then saw the helmet come back.

Oh dead g—

The [General] saw the headbutt. He felt it. The [Knight] dropped the [Duelist] and turned.

“You are not the Winter’s Watcher.”

The [General of the Line] felt calm in saying that. He lifted his sword; his bodyguard was in shambles, fighting for their lives. And this [Knight] had no sword.

But he had the strangest aura the [General] had ever seen. It twisted suddenly, and the [General] struck. A slicing blow that evaded the desperate hands which were so strong. It struck the [Knight]’s shoulder, and—bounced.

The [General] whirled back as the [Knight] stumbled. He checked his artifact. Even a Summer Knight should have been cut. What Skill was that?

Not a Skill. Aura. But a different one. What was…he looked up.

“—Who are you?”

 

——

 

Rabbiteater was shaking. His hands felt like Zel Shivertail’s. He felt like he had when he fought the Bear of Ailendamus, almost. As if he could bring down even the Dame of the Hills.

But that was not what saved his life. It was something else. Twice now, a blade had come for him. They had been turned by something else. The second feeling.

Like an [Innkeeper], standing in front of her inn with a frying pan. He thought she was staring into his soul. It filled him, and Talia shouted.

“An aura?

Of course. After so long in their company, it was inevitable. But—what a strange aura. Both [General] and [Summer Knight] saw it. It was flickering. Between two…

The [General] tried another strike. Again he got through, and again he hit something. Something…like hitting a wall. Of an inn. The man stared at the [Knight]. His lips moved.

“I smell something.”

Of all the things to say. But it was true. It smelled like fresh bread. The air felt warm, like there was a fire nearby. A strange fruit’s smell hung in the air. Cooking.

Home.

Then the [Knight] charged. The sword struck his armor and bounced. He tore the blade free. And then there were the [General] and [Knight], barehanded.

Soldiers of Ailendamus saw the [General] recoil, reaching for a dagger. The [Knight] needed no blades. His fist rose. The [General] had been in bar-fights. He had been a [Soldier] and a common man. He put up his fists.

The uppercut broke his guard. It broke his teeth. It lifted his feet off the ground. An [Armsman] charged. Talia saw the Goblin dent his chestplate and send him flying backwards. The [General] wobbled, threw a punch. The Goblin threw a headbutt.

Invincible. Unstoppable. Indomitable. Never give up, the Drake roared in his ears. You cannot fall!

A [Duelist] slashed across his chest. Cutting armor. The blade stopped a second before it cut through his ribs.

“I’m waiting for you to come back.”

It smelled like pasta. The fist of a [General] broke a nose. Talia saw the reeling [General] backing up, barely able to see, spitting fragments of teeth and blood. The [Knight] charged, and she realized what she was seeing.

Two. Two auras. One. Then the other. Somehow linked. Then—both.

 

——

 

The Goblin hit the [General] in the stomach. He threw an elbow up, whirled to backhand a [Soldier]. Jabbed, and followed it up with his right. A swaying figure stood there, his jaw broken, as he saw the Goblin twist, a fist raised, bloody metal knuckles swinging.

The ghosts waited. Three figures were clustered around the small incline. One nodded to a bewildered ghost who had just appeared, lying on the ground.

“Aha, you see? Experience does provide, even when Skill abandons us. As I projected, we should see one or the other appear shortly, with a veritable bountitude of modern information.”

The [Strategist] saw one of Terandria’s ghosts approach to interrogate the bewildered survivor. He did not move; he was waiting. The other two, companions, looked at each other.

One was a [Warlord] from ages past. The other scratched at her chin.

“…What’s he talking about?”

The [Warlord] rolled his eyes.

“Some idiot [General] got charged by a high-level [Knight] and is getting the shit kicked out of them. We’re here to interrogate whichever one dies. Figure out what’s going on in this war and such.”

“Ah.”

The [Strategist] glared at his two companions. Their only sources of information came from the dead, so battlefields like this were important. You could even see who was winning or losing.

Now, they waited. For one or the other or even both to pop up. It seemed bad, to hear it from a recently-dead [Soldier].

They waited. Seconds. Then a minute. Then…

 

——

 

The final punch never came. The Goblin looked at the swaying [General]. The Human was unconscious. If Rabbiteater hit him, he would die.

The Goblin pulled out a healing potion and splashed it on the man’s face. The Human sagged, and the Goblin caught him before he hit the ground. Because…he didn’t have to die.

Erin wouldn’t have killed him. This was not that kind of war. Rabbiteater looked around.

Flee!

Ailendamus’ army broke, their [General] lost, seeing the Winter’s Watcher or some great [Knight] standing in the ruined command tent. Pheislant’s army was already charging their way.

Only the Order of the Hydra remained. They tried to take the command where the Summer Knights, Spring Knights, and mysterious warrior stood. One of them cursed as he saw the army of Pheislant coming.

Back! Back to the Dame of the Hills! Prepare for an attack on both sides!

The Order of the Hydra disengaged. But their leader pointed a finger at the mysterious warrior.

“You are not the Winter’s Watcher! Name yourself, Ser!”

The mysterious figure hesitated. Then he nodded. He spoke a gravelly word.

Rabbiteater.

The Hydra Knight hesitated. Then he nodded and ran.

 

——

 

The battle had reversed in a moment, as battles did. The Order of the Hydra turned, as they realized they were in a bad spot. Pheislant’s army was to their rear and [Soldiers] or not, they were ready to attack.

It would be a fight to remember. The Dame of the Hills had abandoned her duel.

“We will die and they will die. Ten thousand [Knights] stand ready for battle! For Ailendamus!

The Order of the Hydra set itself. They waited, as the milling forces around the ruined camp and their fleeing support army tried to regroup. They turned as half their forces held back the furious, reinvigorated Order of Seasons and Champion of Summer. Setting themelseves. Arming their rear ranks with crossbows for a full battle. Waiting…

Pheislant’s forces and the [Knights] never came. In fact, they began to stream away from the battle.

What? They’re running?

The [Knight-Commander] couldn’t believe it. But Pheislant’s forces declined to save their beleaguered Season of Summer. Only as they headed away and the [Knights] who’d been fighting them returned did he realize—

Break ranks! After them! Send all [Riders]! Send word!

Too late. The army was breaking off. Not attacking the dangerous Order of the Hydra. Rather, without anyone to stop them, they rampaged back the way they’d come. Riding. Racing towards…

Ailendamus’ war camp. Where their supplies, baggage trains, support like [Cooks], [Healers], and so on were located…

And the prisoners. They had a rear-guard there. But by the time the Order of the Hydra arrived, everything not taken was burning. And the prisoners of the Order of Seasons, so hard-won?

…Gone. This—this was a disaster, even if General Avring was alive! This wasn’t how the Order of Seasons fought! This was more like…

A raid.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater laughed. He was racing east, with the newly-liberated Order of Seasons’ [Knights]. With Pheislant’s army, breaking away from Greysten’s forces. Rabbiteater hoped he’d escaped, but he’d told the others they weren’t going to join up.

“That’s not how you fight! Strike here! Strike there! And take prisoners!”

“You mean, free prisoners. I say, is that chivalrous or not?”

Ser Markus had a bandage on his head. He looked concerned, but Dame Meisa just grinned.

“They were prisoners, and we rescued them! Just like the Bear-[General]’s camp! It’s completely fair!”

“Well, it feels jolly unsporting. I might like it!”

Dame Talia rode with Rabbiteater. She looked at the Goblin. She was not the only one. He didn’t know how a tribe of Goblins cheered him. The Flooded Water’s champion. A symbol.

A [Champion]. But also…he smiled.

A [Knight]. And he carried that memory with him still. Two things.

 

[Champion Level 34!]

[Skill – Aura of the Hearth obtained!]

 

[Knight-Errant Level 15!]

[Conditions Met: Knight-Errant → Aura Knight Class!]

[Skill – Aura of the Brave obtained!]

 

Copies of that memory. Rabbiteater closed his eyes.

“They’ll be following us.”

Ser Ilm observed. Rabbiteater nodded. He looked forwards.

“So. Onwards?”

“Onwards.”

Dame Meisa smiled, her eyes alight. Markus raised his fist.

“Onwards! The Order of Seasons rides to the Dawn Concordat’s aid! With—”

He realized that Greysten wasn’t with them and wavered. So Talia spoke.

“The Knight of Solstice?”

She glanced at him. Markus and Meisa turned. The Spring Knights’ eyes lit up.

“Yes. A fitting name. The Knight of Solstice!”

And that was the kind of story to move even Goblins to action. Hope. Daring. Adventure. But more than that…a Goblin riding in the company of friends.

 

——

 

It puzzled the Order of the Hydra, even as word came that reinforcements would be coming. The few [Knights] who had clashed with the mysterious warrior gave their reports, and it was the [Knight-Commander] and the Dame of the Hills herself who speculated who it could be.

“A warrior from Izril. A Drake?”

“Perhaps. But it’s the name he gave you that makes me question that, Dame Merila. ‘Rabbiteater’—have you ever heard of such a name?”

The Dame of the Hills sat cross-legged, not angry for having lost a battle. If anything, the foreign knight had lit the spark of battle in her eyes. She spoke, slowly.

“I have not, [Knight-Commander]. But I think we are being too…too literal. Think of it. Ser Berst asked this [Knight] his name. What sort of fellow would use deceit in such a way? What fine, proud lot like the Order of Seasons would do such a thing?”

The Order of the Hydra snorted. They had fought rich [Knights] in enchanted armor and thrashed them until this battle. The Dame of the Hills grinned.

“Not a proper [Knight] poncing down on his stallion, no. That fellow fought with fists and beat a street-boy of Ailendamus hand-to-hand. Humbled [Duelists]! He didn’t give you his name, Ser Berst. Think on it.”

The Hydra Knight did, and then his eyes widened.

“Of course!”

“I don’t follow.”

Rabbiteater, Knight-Commander. A rabbit eater. Common-folk, as we are. ‘Tis a challenge to us! No rich fellow! Well, I take it as a personal vendetta. To this ‘Rabbit Eater’, I’ll bring him down, upon my oath as a Great Knight of Ailendamus!”

The Dame of the Hills rose, and cast her gaze eastwards. So there it rang, from Ailendamus’ Court of Masks to Izril. That [Knight] of Izril. The mysterious Goblin Slayer.

Ser Rabbiteater Solstice.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I swear, I thought it could be 22,000 words. I was trying for it since I wrote 38,000 words and even with a small break, I’m at the end of my writing cycle. The next chapter is the one before my break and I was trying to take it easy.

….Hah. Well, I won’t divide this one up, but I will commit to a shorter chapter or my name isn’t pirateaba! Um. Anyways. I hope you liked it and I did get to the ‘end’ of my outline, for better or worse. Thanks for reading. I don’t have much to say right now, but I will be doing an edited chapter this month! It might even be the one right after my break!

I’ll speak on it next chapter, if it has words left. See you next time!

 

PS: I know we have a lot of fun here, but don’t eat rabbits. I like them.

 

Mrsha Fries and Cheeseburger Request by Foe!

 

Numbtongue, Toren, and Masked Toren by Eris!

 

Goblins by Flingering QtheBird [Holy Chicken], Pontastic, ArtsyNada, LeChatDemon, and Panzer of the Seven Entire Roles!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.45 O

A Gnoll and a Drake without hats walked into a casino. If you laughed, it was only because you had mistaken the smiles on their faces for something else.

At roughly the same time, other important people gathered. Not fellows. Not if you called Navine Gemscale and Helessia Gemscale ‘fellows’.

Magnolia Reinhart. The First Gardener of Oteslia. Wall Lords and Wall Ladies. Drakes, a few Gnolls, all guests of the party that had never really gone down right.

Zeres’ army had led to that. Assassins after Magnolia Reinhart. It had to be said, she had failed to impress as of yet. Everyone had seen her dramatic entry into Zeres, with all that wealth and gifts on display. But had they gotten any?

No. Did she think she could buy Drake affection? Buy goodwill and treaties? Absolutely not!

…But she could give them something. It might help.

This was the hour, however. The hour did not include Saliss of Lights, or the Gentlemen Callers, or Xif, or Shriekblade.

It did include Nerul, Osthia, Ilvriss, Rafaema, even Cire, who was here because he’d heard Lyonette was here. He was giving the First Gardener a headache, but he hadn’t called anyone Creler-headed to their face. Yet.

Magnolia Reinhart had yet to arrive, yet Navine Gemscale felt that was only appropriate. She had to offer them something substantive, or she would be all talk and no delivery. She had been so…much of a let down. What had happened to the young woman who had taken control of the Reinhart family? Not that Navine wanted that ruthless woman, but where was the Deadly Flower of the North?

Questions. They dominated the minds of those present. Rafaema glowered, behind a layer of makeup.

Makeup, because the damned ink wasn’t coming off. Makhir and Ferris were especially watchful, and she’d had to order them not to bring an actual guard. She’d refused to tell them what had happened, but both could recognize a Grade-A asskicking when they saw one.

Who is Onieva? She looked around, but the Drake wasn’t here. Rafaema wasn’t at a simmer. She was on a boil and the lid was shut—long enough for her to see what the Human was scheming.

 

——

 

“Who is Rafaema?”

Saliss was asking the same question. He was keeping an eye on Tessa; she’d collapsed after taking the damn cure. But he speculated with Mirn.

“Do you mean…?”

“I remember.”

Mirn stood with Saliss. The [Alchemist] snapped, then tried to modulate his tone.

“I remember.”

“You remember everything?”

The Named Adventurer should have been smiling, then. But he hadn’t been and even Mirn was afraid to ask. It was one look. A shuddering breath. Saliss bit out the words.

“I remember. That she was there. As she saw it.”

“Oh. Oh—

“Who is Rafaema? Why have I never heard of her? Focus on that, Mirn. I’m going to find one of Chaldion’s lot. I’ve never heard of her, but maybe she’s a grade above mine. Maybe he doesn’t know.”

“Hah! But what about uh…Tessa?”

Saliss stopped at the door.

“If she wakes up and she’s sick, do your thing.”

“If she’s violent?”

“Try not to bleed everywhere.”

Saliss shut the door and walked off.

Questions that mattered. Saliss’ would also be…why? Why was he doing this? For Lyonette, obviously, Erin, in the local ‘now’. But why was he doing this? 

How much longer?

 

——

 

For Wall Lord Ilvriss, as he watched Magnolia Reinhart sweep in, and the grand ballroom—recycled from the last time he had danced with Lyonette here—he had a thought. He could trust Lyonette. He did not know how much she could help, but now he had to ask.

Can I trust her?

He waited, glass in hand, ignoring his mother’s looks as he stood with Nerul, not next to Lyonette.

Waiting.

Good evening, Drakes and Gnolls of Izril. I realize this is a small gathering. Smaller than I had hoped, but I see that Oteslia has attended in full. It is my honor to meet you, once again. I pray your indulgence. For the time has come to speak candidly.”

Magnolia Reinhart’s voice reached them first, before the [Lady] herself. The guests looked around, over a thousand of them. Some suspicious, others bored or just hostile, even now. Lyonette did not move, just glanced around at the open doors, showing a view of the city.

She had no doubt that what would follow was impressive. She, in fact, knew what would follow, at least, the contents of it, the big twist. Oh, but it was huge.

Yet that was not the question she had asked. Now, and then. The noble Drakes stirred. Some adjusted their trendy monocles. A few popped out as the amateurs forgot to hold them tense and they broke on the ground. The others turned, some in the flowing dresses, a copy of which Lyonette wore.

Navine focused on the common, bronze ring on Lyonette’s hand and her brother. Then her head snapped up.

For here came Magnolia Reinhart. No—outside there was a roar of voices. Shouting. The Drakes turned to the steps leading up to the grand, public ballroom. They could see something coming up the steps. They pointed.

Then the others saw it. Ilvriss blinked. Nerul began to chuckle. He threw his head back and laughed, a deep guffaw. His was one of the few sounds amid the gasps or just silence. Even the First Gardener was taken aback, but Cire stood up with interest, as Mivifa hid behind a curtain.

For here came a carpet. No, the carpet. The very same that had unfurled at Zeres. A train of Humans, even a Gnoll in a [Maid]’s dress, rolled out the vast, ridiculously long piece of cloth. Straight through the ballroom, up the steps.

Here she came. Heads turned, and the people tried not to crowd. But surely…surely…there she was.

Speaking through the stone, addressing them, as she rode, standing on top of the rolling vehicle coming up the stairs. No…it was floating off the ground. A pink carriage.

“Do forgive me, friends. But I had to make a bit of a scene out of it.”

The pink carriage rolled into the ballroom, through the double doors, as Magnolia Reinhart stood on it. Ressa calmly brushed at her shoulder as she stood with the same pink dress she had worn when she stood on Pallass’ walls.

There was a meaning in each thing. Lyonette had eyes for Reynold, though few looked at him. They were gawping at Magnolia, or the servants proceeding with treasure after treasure, held on pillows or in their arms. And the Dragonsail, fluttering behind the carriage…

But the [Butler] she looked at. The same man she had seen a few times before. Erin had liked him. So had Ryoka. He looked older. Tired.

His legs. He had legs. They were as striking as any Lyonette had ever seen. The feet were carved, and she did not see them in the shoes. So were the upper legs, joined to the torso. But he could not wear pants, for a coruscating beam of magical energy, like lightning, connected foot to the upper part of his legs, where shins could be.

Magic. He looked left, as he slowly moved into the room and came to a stop, and a bridge appeared that Magnolia might step down. He nodded at her once, as Magnolia descended into this moment.

And all Lyonette could think—as she looked at this grand scene that the Lady of House Reinhart could engineer, at what was coming next—at Magnolia Reinhart’s confident face, hiding what had to be nerves beyond belief—was the same thing she had asked her then.

 

——

 

“What is wrong with you?”

Lyonette du Marquin saw Magnolia’s hand stop, a bit of cake perched on the fork.

“I beg your pardon?”

The [Princess] was shaking. She looked at Magnolia. Her plan still echoed in Lyonette’s mind. It could work. It could. It was intelligent, it had been well-planned.

Yet something was wrong. And it was this.

“Forgive me, Lady Magnolia. But I meant to say…what is wrong with you? What has changed? Why are you so…timid?”

Lyonette du Marquin rose along with Ressa’s brows. But the [Maid] did not look disapproving. She saw Lyonette stand like everything she was.

Red hair, blue eyes, the product of luck or Skill—a strikingly beautiful young woman who held herself, even in ‘disguise’, with the poise she had been taught from birth. Something else as well. A dignity, an age she had earned that her sisters lacked.

Not just like a [Princess]. Like youth, the very embodiment of it. It was quite familiar to the two. It hurt that it was nostalgic, because it meant you truly had changed. Even when you swore you wouldn’t.

Age judged youth. It famously loved to do so. However—youth? It went two ways, and it was never comfortable. That was called fairness.

“What do you mean, Miss Marquin?”

The [Princess]’ eyes flashed.

“I must struggle, Lady Reinhart, to find help for my daughter.”

“Which I have given, to the fullest extent I can without tangling this issue further.”

Lyonette jerked her chin down, in a grudging nod.

“I know, and I thank you on behalf of The Wandering Inn, and myself, Lady Reinhart. That is not what I was referring to. Rather—I am perplexed. No, I am angry and outraged. Because I had come here expecting to beg and fight for a single favor, not have it held out wholesale.”

“One supposes it would be a lovely relief. Why do I feel as though you hold the opposite to be true?”

Magnolia’s eyes were outwardly perplexed, but she tapped her forefinger against the stem of her teacup. Lyonette shook her head.

“That is the good, equitable, nice thing to do, Lady Magnolia. It is not what I expect of the Deadly Flower of the North! I was prepared to sign almost anything. That I would sign…something punitive. Demanding. Not necessarily unfair, but which gave you something I did not know I possessed, or was willing to part with. And in return, I would have the famous carriage. Or the aid of no one less than Ressa, and damn the consequences.”

“Interesting. Is that all?”

Lyonette was breathing hard already, but she met Magnolia’s gaze because she couldn’t speak like this and not do that. Her eyes strained, so she focused on the words pouring out.

“No. You came to Zeres like a storm. Forced the Serpentine Matriarch to allow you access, displayed the grandeur of your house. Then—you came to Oteslia like a mouse. All these people who have come to visit you, Zeres besieging the city itself? You have not…pulled at them. Or pushed. I know you can.”

“What do you imagine of me?”

Magnolia toyed with a ring on her finger. She was still. Lyonette didn’t have to imagine it.

“Secrets. Everyone has them. A Wall Lady suddenly supports you because of a little letter on her dress stand. Another—a rich [Merchant] is set to become very rich if she backs you. So she does. It does not cost House Reinhart as much because there are clever ways to do it. Preferential treatment. Another group backs you because you tacitly support their enemies.”

“Calanferian politics, in short.”

Politics. Wherever you go. The very heart of diplomacy, with the bows and ribbons removed and the insides exposed. I do not think it is evil, or reprehensible. It is only how we behave. I would not hold it against you, Lady Reinhart. Rather—the Magnolia Reinhart I heard of, that even Calanfer saluted, was the very woman who would strangle anyone in her way with the very noose they wove for her, and drag them after her as unwilling allies. The flower that could not be plucked, even with adamantine gloves.”

At last, Magnolia Reinhart laughed. It was soft, amused, genuinely amused. She shook her head.

“I quite liked that turn of phrase. I still do. What do you think, Ressa?”

“They called you a flower, rather than a viper. Flowers are still innocent, Lady Reinhart. They should have called you a Creler, if they could bear to call a [Lady] that. Crelers don’t just defend or hunt. They crawl into your room and lay eggs in your head.”

Magnolia’s lips quirked. Ressa was fixing Lyonette with a long look that was more painful than the [Lady] herself. It was not disapproving, however. She almost looked encouraging.

“I will admit. I have changed my methods, Lyonette. It is true; I could employ less kindly methods. I could be more persuasive.”

“Yes. Why aren’t you?”

Lyonette was breathing hard. Magnolia pursed her lips. She didn’t move. She just sat there, accepting Lyonette’s frank criticism. That too, was wrong. She was no outraged personality, to throw Lyonette out on her rear. But Lyonette was sure she could say something to singe Lyonette’s ears.

Why have you changed?

To that, Magnolia Reinhart sighed. She put down her teacup, and stretched. She looked at Lyonette—then calmly, and quite deliberately, put her feet up on the low table between them. Lyonette was appalled at such a display of indifference to the Oteslian furniture. But Magnolia Reinhart just looked up at the ceiling and murmured.

“You know. I quite feel like you do, some days. Why should I listen to fools, with no notion beyond swinging a sword at their ‘enemies’? Why do I allow them to impede me? Why should I tolerate them waving a stick in my face, as if that is the only power that matters in this world? I could not. Zeres’ army stands outside. I could prevail on my allies and make their situation untenable. Move other Walled Cities and groups against them. I do have connections.”

She lifted her hand. Lyonette saw it change in the air, her fingers leaving…afterimages? Yet it was a delicate, slow movement. Magnolia Reinhart reached out. Dozens of trailing images of her hands, opening something.

“I could ask him.”

Was it a scroll? Or the idea of a contract? Lyonette saw a man standing there, cursing, staring over the bow of his ship. She saw something, writ between them. A simple contract.

Coin and goods. Trade and security.

Gold for sugar. House Reinhart famously imported it from Baleros, free of [Pirates] or price fluctuations. With none other than…

Lord Admiral Seagrass glanced up, and Magnolia Reinhart smiled. He frowned at her, and only at her, and raised two brows, impatient, glaring over the wreckage of ships after his encounter with The Pride of Wellfar. Lyonette saw something glowing on his arm.

A tattoo. None other than House Reinhart’s. Magnolia nodded at him, and her fingers curled. Then—abruptly—she released her grip, and he faded, looking annoyed. Lyonette saw Magnolia’s head turn.

“I could prevail on a certain, notably upstanding, [Stormlord Captain] with certain…scurrilous rumors to raid Zeres’ famous trade routes. He is no fond friend of them, you know, since the Walled City does like to throw its weight around. He would have a cost, of course, but I could pay it. I could hire [Pirates]. I could forge the same kind of deals my family is famous for.”

“Favors for silence. Murders done. Fortunes stolen. Lies made. Lovers. Lovers. More lovers…discrepancies in taxes paid. Embezzlement. Secret projects and children.”

Ressa had on a pair of reading spectacles. She was going down a list. Lyonette saw Magnolia’s gaze flicker left for a moment. She focused on the cards Ressa was flicking through, hoping to see just one bit of writing…

“It is what I am good at. I do admit it. If you wanted me to, I could even become…nastier. A blade in the dark. That was why the Assassin’s Guild broke ties with me. Not because they were offered more, but because I refused to wield them. I could have the Admiralty of Zeres wake up and find their comrades’ throats cut if I prepared. Is that what you would like, Lyonette du Marquin?

Lyonette took a moment. She had to look away from that burning gaze. Two burning sage-green and sand-yellow irises in a lovely [Lady]’s face. Not at all soft, even like the most deadly of flowers. She whispered, hoarsely.

“Not all of it, Lady Reinhart. But why do you do none of it?”

Magnolia Reinhart sighed, sat back, and the force behind the stare flicked off like a switch. She looked at Lyonette, tiredly.

“Because, Lyonette. A tyrant is still a tyrant, no matter if she dresses her hand in perfume and hides the blood with silk, rather than steel and sorcery. And a tyrant can change the landscape with force if need be. They can make fortresses, make terrible war, and destroy many things. They can also create places where wealth, learning, and a kind of happiness emerge, that is true. What they cannot do is change minds. You can unite foes against a single enemy. But once the monster is dead, they go back to quarrelling. You can force a cease-fire. Peace does not come like that.”

Lyonette looked at Magnolia. Was she…quoting something?

“That still does not mean you must do without any of it, Lady Reinhart.”

She smiled.

“Of course not, my dear. I do not. There have been times, even recently, when I forced certain people to stop. When I did, I was quite unkind. I simply prefer not to get to that point if at all possible.”

“But why not then—I understand that, Lady Magnolia. I truly do. But what about…there have been times when I felt as though if you had but given us aid—you could have had considerable parts of Liscor! You could have used…”

She hesitated.

“…The knowledge of your guests. They’ve done well for themselves. Some of them.”

“Some.”

“You never used it. They were just guests of yours. I know you are not that simple. Erin…she can find the best in people. Yet I refuse to believe you cannot do the same.”

Ressa nodded, fractionally. Magnolia sighed.

“Very true. I could have had Kevin begin his…what is it? Solar Cycles? Very catchy. Or perhaps unearthed young Joseph’s abilities in kicking round objects. I did not. In truth, I rather expected Erin Solstice to get sick of them, much as I was. She can find the best in people. Yes. I never tried.”

“Why didn’t you? Even Invrisil is making a soccer team. If you…”

“I do not need more wealth, Miss Lyonette. I could throw away every artifact and gold coin I could get my hands on and not notice it. I do not, actually, need more power. Not in that regard. Isn’t it lovely that they are making something of themselves? I am sure they are levelling up and doing something worthwhile, that helps multiple cities.”

“You didn’t help them.”

Lyonette accused Magnolia. She sat down, because she was getting tired of standing to little point. Magnolia shook her head. She pursed her lips, and again, seemed to quote something.

“We cannot shape them. Only give them the chance to be all they might. A tyrant’s claw weighs down on all souls, yet the hand of kindness smothers as well. If they are to rise, Lyonette, they should do so on their own merits.

“…I have never heard that sentiment expressed before, Magnolia. Not once. The first part about tyrants—of course. Never the second. Why would you not help people? Focus on them? Bring out their best?”

“Whether they want to or not? That is quite like The Wandering Inn, Miss Marquin. Quite like a certain young woman who could see the best of everyone. Antinium, Goblins.”

“Yes. You don’t share that belief?”

Magnolia Reinhart smiled, eyes glittering.

“I did. However, I have met wiser guides. It is entirely possible for me to gain my way by force and words. It will not change anything. I came here not to drag Drakes kicking and screaming into peace, but persuade them. So yes. I will not bully or blackmail or threaten them. Nor will I tempt their greed and avarice, or push one or the other into potential. I came here for something far longer. That applies to how I have acted. Earth…is a dratted inconvenience. But for it, I could have worked in peace, I think.”

Lyonette looked at Magnolia.

“Who told you that? They’re wrong. Without Erin…without the inn, the world would be worse off. You need to find the best in people. She’s befriended Goblins and Antinium and…”

“…They stand out. Don’t they? Ahead of their time. Touched by a kindly [Innkeeper]. They will have the most difficult lives one can imagine. Perhaps it is kinder, to give them all that, as terrible as their lives have been and will be. Perhaps. But that is Erin Solstice’s choice, not mine. Because she can do quite a lot where she stands, but I? I could do everything. I could build them a city, engineer pacts and peace and gather them up.”

Magnolia clapped her hands and Lyonette saw it. A city, perhaps not Liscor, somewhere safer, backed by all of the cunning of the Five Families, the wealth, agents like Ressa and Reynold who kept undesirables away.

Manufactured.

“A tyranny of kindness. No. That is too far. I admire your struggles, Miss Marquin. If you ever come to where I stand, I wonder if you will think as I do, though. Hate me. Take whatever I offer, or do not. But I oppose only the rawest calamities. The Spider. All out war. I do not lift up, and I do not crush anymore. I leave people be. If they will change, make more of themselves, that is well and I support it. I refinance areas struck by disaster, I offer opportunity. But if they will not change, if they will not do anything, I do not force them. It is their choice.”

She turned to Lyonette.

That is freedom. That is the ideal way to rule, if you strip down your own ambitions and moralities and views of how you think the world should be to its plain core. Strive to make the world better without forcing people into your schemes.”

Who? Who in the world told her that? Lyonette rocked back in her seat. It sounded so weary, so different from what she would have imagined the Magnolia of old saying, she had to believe it wasn’t just something Magnolia had come up with. Who had told her that?

Because—

“You are wrong, Magnolia Reinhart.”

Ressa sighed as Lyonette stood. She looked at Magnolia as Lyonette curtseyed, quite appropriately, as a [Princess] did. A swish of the dresses, an inclination of the head to a powerful [Lady]. No more.

“You are wrong. I will be there for your announcement to the Drakes. It may even succeed. But whoever told you that—there is no limit on the good one can do.”

Magnolia sighed as Lyonette spun on her heel, to visit Ilvriss, so furious she was shaking. She called after Lyonette.

“Very good, Miss Marquin. Drag them kicking and screaming into your vision.”

The [Princess] stormed away without a word. Ressa glanced at Magnolia. She walked over, and for once, sat down, where Lyonette was. Magnolia eyed her, but picked up her cold tea cup. She frowned at it, and it began to steam as the enchanted ceramics warmed themselves.

“She is right, you know. There is nothing wrong with fighting for something. You have, all your life. He’s not perfect. Look what he’s doing now.”

“He is out of his mind and I fear for him. We will head north as soon as this ends, siege or not.”

“…And? You believe everything you just said?”

Ressa folded her arms, glaring. Magnolia sighed.

“The difference that I realized, Ressa, is that when I was Lyonette, she was right. Now? I can move mountains. Teriarch is right. There is too much power to do it fairly. I could never guide Kevin into making Solar Cycles. It would be too easy.

She stood, brushing at her dress.

“Come, Ressa. It’s time.”

Without a word, the [Maid] rose. She helped prepare for the grand, gentle pact of Magnolia Reinhart. She couldn’t help but remember something that the very same guide and mentor had once said to Magnolia, though. She muttered it and Magnolia stopped dead.

“…you need not be a Dragon yourself, though.”

 

——

 

As Magnolia Reinhart greeted the Drakes of Izril and laid out her grand plan for a kind of peace, two men sat in The Dragon’s Hoard. Fairly appropriately, in name and symbolism, though they couldn’t see all the threads.

“A fairly posh place.”

“Posh?”

Ratici looked at Wilovan. The Gnoll was checking a menu, glancing around. The restaurant section was set in the center, and to the sides were the gambling tables.

Magical cards, dice, even a new area where you could place wagers internationally on events like gladiator bouts or fights. Wilovan glanced over as he heard a small voice, leaking into the magically divided areas.

“…and here comes the Champion of Rust, into the greatest arena of Nerrhavia’s Fallen! The terror that came out of the sands! The One-Armed Warrior! The Silver-Killer! Yv—

But he was distracted. The Gnoll looked around. If a lot of the guests here were rich, there was a noticeable contingent who were not. Who were…in a word…disreputable.

Of course, a fellow could be honorably disreputable, but Wilovan felt in his marrow these were the gents who did not deserve the name. They skulked in the background, avoiding the light where some Drakes and Gnolls did come to just gamble.

“I wonder where the leader is?”

The [Thief] snorted.

“Look ahead, Wilovan.”

“Ah, a fellow at the heart of things.”

Wilovan went to tip a hat he didn’t have. There he saw the person to put a question to. It was a burly Drake, laughing at the largest table in the center of things. He had some quite lovely companions, some fellows and ladies of a peculiar sort of expertise in one area—just like Wilovan and Ratici—and he ruled this place.

“Hm. Looks like a few…colleagues.”

“Yes indeed. Good to know a large city doesn’t want for fellows like us.”

The two Gentlemen Callers stopped only a second. A few heads glanced their way. They did not look for the exits. A question was a question when you asked it.

“I wonder if he’ll keep us waiting?”

“It falls in line with the lack of manners we might expect, Ratici. I suggest we start with an appetizer. Do you like…tomato fritters?”

“Wilovan, insofar as I dislike anything, that is the most repulsive food I could imagine.”

“Mm. Appropriate for the moment?”

“…Get two.”

The Gnoll waited politely for a [Waitress] to come over. They waited, and knew that the Drake in the center had noticed them. Even so. A fellow had to wait for the right moment to take the spotlight. They just wondered one thing, if anything.

“Is it today?”

Wilovan glanced up from the knife and fork he was placing just so. He glanced at Ratici.

“We shall find out, won’t we?”

Ratici nodded.

 

——

 

From another perspective, it looked different. The Dragon’s Horde. It sounded like a joke, but the Drakes did like such things.

The tables rolled with coin, but they weren’t a casino, if that word was even in this world’s vocabulary. Not yet. The tables made money, but they had rich clientele.

Which was stupid. Logical, as far as they saw it, but stupid. You didn’t want the rich to come here. Well, you did, but not just the rich. The rich were few and far between, and they tended not to come back if they spent a fortune.

Having more accessible stations for someone with only a bit of gold, and incentives for them to come. More addiction. More…delight.

That was what it could be. As it was, this was clearly just a base of operations. If you came here even a few times, you’d notice figures slipping in and out the back hallways. They avoided you, unless you poked your head in, because you were the innocent guest. And there were rules.

Rules, set down by the huge Drake in the center of the room, at that table three times bigger than even the largest group ones. He was a big fellow, not yet fat, but with the way he was eating, he clearly had reached the top of the food chain. Indeed, he had a huge kind of suit on him.

Again, not a suit—not yet, but a swaggering set of clothes still aping other people’s fashions. Hence the doublet. Terandrian, the watcher guessed. He had a lovely Gnoll on one arm. But she was, in fact, very dangerous, if the stiletto dagger he’d seen her use to nab some treats was any indication.

She was not, however, a Face. There were three of them present. Here was the boss. Here were the best underlings.

Three against…the figure glanced over as he adjusted his hand, half a mind on the game.

Two. He knew the three, not the two, the Gnoll and Drake who’d walked in with style. Hat-men? From the north? He liked them almost at once.

Not so for this lot. There was a lazy Drake, feet up on one of the couches, stacking gold coins and counting them. A Gnoll, sitting with arms wide, trying to hide his patchy fur with regrown fur that still stood out, no matter the dye job.

Lastly, the Drake whispering to a huge, two-headed dog he kept feeding huge portions of meat to. Not three-headed; two giant heads, a dark blue coat, and fangs that made the watcher glad he was well clear of the monster. Even a Carn Wolf would take one look at this hound from hell and decide he had better things to do.

Since he was closer, from his table, he could actually pick up a few words—not that the center group tried to keep their voices low.

“…There’s just not as much good soil this month.”

The Drake counting coins was complaining. The Drake in the center stopped letting his companions feed him treats and snapped.

“Well, go water more and you’ll get more good soil. Everyone knows that. I keep telling you. There’s mites around. I’m dealing with them. You can take a month with less than a wagonload of soil, Ecleeif.”

Ecleeif. The Drake counting coins; thinner than the other three and with a kind of whine in his voice.

“It’s not like you’re getting any less—Porun—”

The furious stare from the center made him amend his words.

“Chief.”

Chief. Mind your manners. We’re at work, Ecleeif.”

The [Beast Master] snapped, glancing up from his hound, who issued a growl. Ecleeif sulked back into his seat. The watcher smiled, and the person opposite him folded.

He couldn’t help it. He muttered, so low no one heard him.

Oh my god. They’re stereotypes. Are they doing it on purpose?

They had to think they were genuine. He cast a glance down at the two figures watching the center table as they ate. One was picking at a fried tomato, the other flirting with the [Waitress]. Yet they had a kind of edge to the way they sat.

“Good fellows.”

“Are you going to play or not?”

At last, one of the other players demanded. The watcher jumped. In doing so, he knocked over his stack of silver coins.

“Oops! Sorry—I—drat—”

 

——

 

A commotion made Wilovan look up. The Drake in the center was looking their way, signalling one of the [Waitresses]. However, a shout at a table made everyone’s heads turn.

A figure was scrambling after some coins rolling all over. The other [Gamblers] at the card table were on their feet, shielding their cards. Wilovan raised his brows.

A young Human man was scrambling to pick up the coins, some of which had scattered so far by him turning and spraying them they’d actually bounced off a table. And into someone’s soup.

“My soup!

“Ancestors damn it, Rickel!”

One of the Drakes roared. The young man hurried over.

“I am so sorry—I have no idea how they got this far.”

“I’ve been looking forwards to eating all day, sir!

The Human was a gambler, clearly. A bad one, and flustered as he tried to apologize to a couple breaking from their gambling or watching the scrying orb. He reached for a coin pouch, a small one.

“I uh—I’ll pay for it.”

“And the damage to my dress!”

The Drake insisted. Rickel bit his lip.

“I…of course. How’s…this?”

He offered them a gold coin. To Wilovan’s eye, even if you factored in the soup and the dress—not exactly the most expensive one, it wasn’t bad. The Drakes hesitated. The Human stared at their faces.

“Wait, is that not enough? Um…how’s this?”

He added another gold coin. Bit his lip, and added a third.

“That’s all I can afford. Is it enough?”

Did he not know how much he was offering? Ratici snorted in disbelief, but the young man didn’t look rich, especially if three gold coins was a setback. He was gambling at the silver-tables, not gold.

“It—well, it’ll have to do. Go on, now.”

The Drake shooed Rickel away and scooped up the gold coins. His partner even fished out the silver coin out of her soup.

“You fertilizer-head. Don’t you know how much a gold coin is worth?”

Rickel went back, flustered, to his table, apologizing to the other diners who seemed to know him and were clearly amused. The Human rubbed at his head.

“Uh—sometimes I’m off. Sorry. I think I’m out. Especially if I’m paying for the food.”

He looked at his much-depleted money pouch and his face fell. The other [Gamblers] laughed at his misfortune, but the Drake in the center raised a claw and boomed.

“I’ll cover it.”

“Boss, why do you like that idiot?”

Rickel actually threw a salute with a grin, and the Drake addressed the whining Drake counting coins.

“Because he’s funny, and he has good ideas now and then. He’s harmless. Come back tomorrow, Rickel! And next time, don’t put all your coins where you can toss them into soup!”

Laughter. Red-faced, the Human hurried down the tables, heading for the restroom. He tripped halfway across. On a silver coin.

“Oh sh—”

He crashed into a table and the Drake in the center of the room laughed so hard he nearly fell out of his huge chair. Rickel got up, flustered.

“I am so sorry—”

“Not at all, sir. Don’t you worry.”

Wilovan helped him up; Ratici had saved all the dishes and drinks. It didn’t escape the center group’s attention and they fixed on Ratici. Not Rickel. The Human glanced at Wilovan as the Gnoll picked him up and dusted him off.

“Thanks. Feel free to laugh. I’ve made a mess of myself.”

He grinned, cheeks still red. He had an inviting smile, which was probably why the others tolerated him, despite messing up their game. A young [Gambler]. Wilovan shook his head, remembering his hat was gone.

“A fellow doesn’t laugh at another fellow’s misfortune. I hope some good luck comes your way, sir.”

Rickel’s lips twitched.

“I love the way you said that. Now there’s a bit of style.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m pleased you noticed.”

Ratici glanced up. Rickel looked at the two of them.

“You’re not from here, are you? You have…amazing style. I’m Rickel, by the way.”

“Mister Rickel, that puts a stride in my step, so it does. You’re not half badly done yourself, if I may say so.”

Indeed, the young man had a quite nice set of clothes on himself. Nothing in the vein of either the Gentleman Caller’s style, or the current one, or the suit and fashion on display in the center of the room. He had a kind of jacketed hoodie on, able to be buttoned up, comfortable green pants with a slash of white down each side, and a complementary undershirt with Oteslia’s own regalia on it.

Throw on a hat and he’d not be too bad. He grinned at Wilovan, fashion recognizing fashion of its own. His was not at all popular or in vogue…but he wore it as if it was.

“You’ve got to have style, right? Well, I have to go—but you know this is a trap, don’t you?”

Wilovan’s smile never changed. Ratici glanced up. The young man kept smiling.

“That’s a fairly odd thing for a fellow to say. Dangerous, even.”

Wilovan remarked calmly. Rickel nodded. He glanced at the two of them.

“It is. But I like you two. You walk in here, cool as cucumbers, and sit down. Why?”

Ratici raised his brows.

“Are cucumbers cool, Wilovan? I never looked into how cool any were.”

“It may be they’re fairly pleasant in that regard, Ratici. I have never eaten a warm one.”

The Human laughed. He laughed, throwing his head back, and looked at them, even more amused. Even more happily.

“I like you two! You’re not afraid? At all?”

Now the figure in the center was waiting, staring at Rickel with clear annoyance; he was getting in the way. Wilovan glanced over the young man’s shoulder.

“Sir. I’d advise you to stay in the restroom a good spell. Or have a wander in the city. As to your question? Sometimes a man does what he does. He’ll pay the cost of it. Tomorrow. Or today. We’ll find out, won’t we, Ratici?”

“That we will, Wilovan.”

Rickel was lost for words for a moment. He stood there, then looked at the two. He shook his head, and flipped a coin.

“[Bet: Luck].”

The coin flipped around and around in the air. Wilovan looked up. The coin fell, glittering, bounced off Rickel’s thumb—and straight into his eye.

He swore, stumbling away, as the silver coin bounced off and someone picked it up. Wilovan shook his head, and Ratici adjusted his belt.

“Well, more to you.”

Rickel called out after their backs. He walked off, sighing, hands in his pockets, as the two Gentlemen Callers walked on. They’d forgotten all about him already.

So here’s the two foreigners who think they can plant seeds wherever they want.

The Drake in the center was the gardener. He was the head. He was the boss.

And this was a Gang. Idioms aside, Wilovan knew what this was. Oteslia’s largest Gang was here. He raised a paw to his head, realized his hat was gone a third time, and nodded.

“Good evening to you, sir. My name’s Wilovan. My companion here is Ratici. We were hoping to have a word, as it were, if you weren’t too busy. A pressing matter.”

Good evening. Do you hear how they talk?”

One of the others at the table wheezed with laughter. The Drake in the center looked over, picked up a fork, and tossed it at the Drake.

It was the thin fellow who counted gold in the open. He dodged, cursing, but just. The tines of the fork buried into the couch cushion.

He nearly hurt that fellow. Wilovan frowned. Ratici just shook his head.

The others fell silent as the Drake glared. Then he shifted his eyes to the two.

“So who’re you? The Gentlemen Callers?”

“Some call us that.”

Ratici murmured. The Drake snorted.

“Well. They call me the boss. Or the gardener, if we’re out in the open. Poruniv, Oteslia’s Second Gardener.”

As names went, there was significance in it. Wilovan tipped his head, and Ratici did the same.

“Well, sir. If we could have a word regarding a certain bit of unpleasantness, that would be a gracious thing.”

“Hah. You northern lot are funny. I never thought I’d see a Drake and Gnoll instead of Humans. Just goes to show.”

Poruniv’s eyes narrowed.

“You’ve got a lot of guts, strolling in here. You think I want to hear you out? Ecleeif, Zanzeil, Neverwhine. Get up.”

Three figures rose. The Gnoll with odd fur patches, hands suddenly in his pockets as the rest of the table scattered wide of him. The scowling Ecleeif, stopping to shove all the gold into his bag of holding, bare-clawed. And Neverwhine, and the giant dog, which rose.

A huge rumble from the two maws. Wilovan and Ratici never looked sideways.

“This is my place. The Dragon’s Horde. You want to come here, to the Second Gardener’s Gang? The Earthtenders? Other gangs in Walled Cities would know better, but that’s the north for you. I’ll tell you what: if you tell me what I want to hear, you might walk out. You think you two are the only Faces in Oteslia? You’re looking at four of them.”

The Second Gardener stared down at Wilovan and Ratici. The Gentlemen Callers never blinked. Wilovan calmly reached into his jacket. The three next to Poruniv tensed, but he held up a claw. Wilovan slowly pulled out a club.

Just a polished, wooden club. He raised it, as the rest of the room stared, and placed it down on the table in front of the Second Gardener.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mister Poruniv, sir. We may be a rather bit uncouth, but we have a question to put to you. Will you stop harassing a certain lady under our care? We consider it rather unmannerly, sir. We hope you’ll say yes. Because we don’t intend to take no for an answer.”

The Second Gardener’s eyes bulged. Then he laughed. He pointed at the little club; not even a long one. Even the other faces snickered—two of them. Ecleeif was just scowling.

“Poruniv—it’s a waste of time to get hurt, even if there’s only two. What if we…?”

Shut up, Ecleeif!

The Second Gardener whirled on him. Classic. Unprofessional. Wilovan’s nose wrinkled. The smaller Drake backed up and back Poruniv’s head turned.

“You two are annoying me, you know that? Let the ‘lady’ go? You mean that Human who’s taken all the Faerie Flowers out of circulation? Who hired you two to take them? Tell her we can deal or she’ll find a dagger in—”

“No, sir.”

The Second Gardener stopped. Wilovan calmly squared his shoulders.

“It’s unmannerly to involve civilians in this. And since I find this entire business distasteful, sir, and how you’ve done things, I don’t care to prolong it. I am Wilovan of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Wilovan of the Gentlemen Callers.”

“And Ratici, of both.”

The two nodded once. Poruniv stared as Wilovan picked up the club. He pointed it at the leader of Oteslia’s biggest gang.

“I challenge you, sir. To an ungentlemanly bout. To the death. Here and now. Let’s have it done.”

Dead silence reigned. It was an open challenge. Wilovan would have done it differently, more eloquently, in the ways of the north. But sometimes you had to state your case plain, rude and boorish though it was.

And frankly, he did not care for Poruniv’s place, his attitude, his gang, or what he had done. Wilovan’s eyes were calm. The Drake?

He laughed.

“Now I know you’re both idiots. Why would I take up a challenge from two idiots?”

“Two Faces. Does the south not count Faces, or do you not have enough to remember how it’s done?”

Wilovan nudged Ratici as the Drake snapped at last. Poruniv’s eyes narrowed. He glared at the [Thief].

“I’ve killed more Faces than you’ve ever seen. I don’t need to throw down with every foreigner who comes to my city.”

Wilovan saw the pronouncement run through the group in two ways. The Gnoll with the paws in his pockets nodded. Neverwhine frowned a bit, and Ecleeif looked done with it all. None objected, and the others standing behind Poruniv were careful not to let him see their reactions.

They wouldn’t protest, at any rate. And now Wilovan saw more guests who were smart heading for the doors. The idiots just watched, but more figures were coming out and blocking the exits.

Well, it was going as badly as the two had thought it might. Wilovan sighed, and turned to Ratici.

“Looks like it’s today, Ratici. A crying shame.”

He reached out, and Ratici shook his paw, solemnly. The Drake nodded.

“A shame. We came here, asked a question, and you can’t say we didn’t try. It’s just a shame when a fellow doesn’t have dig-nity.”

He said that last word oddly. The criminals of Izril’s south saw the two shake their heads. Rather like an audience watching fascinating actors in a bit.

“A fellow expects it, but without dig-nity, what can you do? Indeed, Ratici.”

Poruniv refused to rise to the bait, although he was smiling through gritted teeth. It was the way they said it.

Dig-nity. Stretching the word out with that little pause in between. So much of a word that it was two, the way they said it. Ratici nodded, sighing.

“Are you two done? Because if I lose my temper, there’s no last chances. And I don’t think you’re that stupid. No duels.”

Wilovan turned to face the Second Gardener. He shook his head.

“No, sir. You’ve made that rather clear. A fellow states his mind, and we take him at his word. Eh, Ratici?”

“That’s right.”

“Well then, shut up and—”

All three Faces shouted at the same time. The Gnoll tried to cut at it with something, then dove away. Neverwhine grabbed his hound and blurred to the side. Ecleeif just ran for it.

Poruniv held still as Ratici threw the object he’d retrieved with lightning speed. He saw it coming; perhaps his reactions were slower than the other three, or some of the [Thieves] who’d seen the blur, but he held himself still.

The magical barrier around him caught the strange, runic cube in midair and blasted it. Wilovan and Ratici were already throwing themselves backwards, but the Second Gardener laughed.

“You Ancestors-damned id—”

Then the cube opened as the magic tried to disintegrate it, and the world imploded.

Negative space. A sucking vortex. Wilovan saw magic, the air, and the Second Gardener all rush towards the hole in the world.

As he rolled to his feet, club in hand, and struck a head so hard it would never rise again, Wilovan felt the pull at his back. Even from a ways away.

A few facts. Firstly, most gang leaders had something like that. Protections from assassinations from fellow gangs or even within their group. But most fools kept their magical barriers just past their skin layer. Which helped…but not if something literally sucked out magic as well as your body.

Fact number two? Unfortunately, the Second Gardener’s barrier was a bit too far removed. Wilovan whirled and saw a Drake screaming.

Kill them! Kill those bastards!

He was missing all the scales from his face, arms, and front, though. Literally ripped off his body by the pull. He was grabbing for a healing potion. And while he was backing away, the Gentlemen Callers’ hats were off.

 

——

 

You know, it was hard. A man did his best. He kept a hold of his temper. He acted as he should be.

A gentleman. Even when he wasn’t. The hats weren’t just fashion or a symbol. They were a reminder. A heavy one.

When they came off, it was a relief. A terrible relief. That was why the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were tolerated. Even by the other Gangs, who laughed at them. Never to their faces. Izril’s south learned the same lesson the north had learned.

Violence. Sheer violence. Not battle nor glory nor even fury. A Gnoll raised his club and hit someone so hard their skull shattered and their brains moved.

A [Thief]. A [Thief] was not a combat class. Yet he stole lives. He grabbed a dagger out of someone’s claws and buried it back in her eye. They never hesitated. They never spoke. As if even the acts of speaking, shouting, were wasted. All of it was channeled into one thing.

A [Thug] with a club. He performed no tricks. He had no flash. He swung and swung and men and women died. Aim for the joints. Aim for shoulders. Anywhere a blow like a hammer would do the most damage. A cluster of five tangled around a table and realized there was no blocking it when he struck down a swordsman’s guard and left the sword buried in the screaming Gnoll’s chest. No dodging—one cartwheeled left and a Drake appeared and slashed six times. The two tore around another table, scattering the others like wheat.

Kill them! Kill…

A choked voice. The two were headed for the side of the room, because they had failed. The Second Gardener was alive. Secured behind more protections and a wall of blades. It was probably today, but the Earthtenders would pay the toll.

Not for anyone Level 20. Not for Level 30—Wilovan snarled and ducked a [Dagger Art]. A wide-eyed Drake passed by him, caught in the Skill, and he swung his club once.

But it was two and four. Two and three, since one was incapacitated. A Face…

The air turned to fire. Wilovan inhaled flames and bellowed, the first sound he’d made. Ratici tore out of the flames and saw the Drake named Ecleeif standing there, pointing a finger. No spell. The [Sorcerer] just pointed and the air turned to flame. He backed up, cursing, shooting a spell in his off-hand with a wand as Ratici dove at him.

A hound leapt. It covered thirty feet like a bullet of flesh and weight. Ratici performed an [Aerial Dodge], just in time for Neverwhine to come from the other side, with, of all things, a shield and whip. It cracked, the tip exploding in the air with a shower of deadly ‘sparks’. Flechette shrapnel. Ratici felt one sting his arm for the first time.

Wilovan was on fire, but he barrelled out of the flames, as the [Sorcerer] tried to suck the air out of the world. The Gnoll came face-to-face with a shorter Gnoll. But his paws were armed with the signature weapon prized by Gnolls of the south in Gangs.

Claws. They slashed, light, fast. None even close to a killing blow, aiming for Wilovan’s arms, chest. He struck, but the other figure blurred into dodges, burning Skills, slashing Wilovan six times. The Gnoll barely felt it as Zanzeil backed up, grinning.

Then he felt the burning pain. An agony so specific, Wilovan had it in a moment.

Creler poison.

The claws. They were made of…Wilovan registered them as Ratici spun, dodging two biting heads.

Curved legs. Fangs, attached to a crude band of metal. Zanzeil went for Ratici. Wilovan snarled, abandoning the potion. He charged and the claw-wielding expert backed up in alarm.

Keep them away from me!

None of them wanted to die. They threw underlings at the Gentlemen Callers and they died. Ratici tossed a vial into a group of six and it exploded, sending screaming Drakes and Gnolls crashing down. Not because it was any alchemical substance or poison. It was all-natural…magma.

Wilovan! There! There!

The Second Gardener turned. Poruniv saw a staggering, burnt Gnoll turn, and those eyes fixed on his. The [Thief] drew his daggers and three Faces hesitated.

If it was today, we’ll take you with us. And the thing about the gangs was that they were pragmatists. They really didn’t want to die.

Hey! Over here! Over here!”

A shout. Wilovan almost missed it, but it was familiar. And so was his hat. It sat on a head as Rickel waved. The Human shouted and Poruniv’s head turned.

You?

The Gentlemen Callers hesitated, but it was close, and if they—they looked at each other. Ahead was certain death, but a repayment of dues.

Was it…today?

They turned and ran on a single hunch. It could have been a trap. But the young man ran, and they surged down a hallway.

If you let them get away, you’re all dead, you hear me? Dead!

The others ran, although Elceeif stayed back, letting Zanzeil and the roaring hound, led by Neverwhine, with a group of the most deadly underlings surge forward first. They pounded after the Gentlemen Callers. One was poisoned! The other had taken a few shrapnel hits and they were outnumbered. All they had to do…

They charged down the corridor, turned, cursing, and headed right. Where were they? Rickel? Wilovan? Ratici? They must be fast, but…wait a second.

…Where were they?

“This way, this way!”

In the exact opposite direction, Rickel urged Wilovan on. Ratici was jabbing something into Wilovan’s shoulder.

“Antidote. If that bastard cut it with something else…”

“It will do. Give me my hat.”

Wilovan snatched the hat out of Rickel’s hands. Ratici was turning, priming a weapon, but no one was coming after them. They were going…the wrong way.

“We have a minute. They think we went that way. Come on!”

The two traded glances. Oteslia’s best gang…? But Rickel was running, and he could run.

Some people were sprinters. Other people were marathoners. Rickel belonged to the hundred meter—get-out-of-trouble specialists. He dodged around a screaming [Waitress], vaulted a cart—Ratici was already next to him. Wilovan just charged through everything but the Human, who he tipped his hat to.

“Terribly sorry, Miss—”

Rickel pointed, and Wilovan crashed through a door into a yard around The Dragon’s Horde. There was a wall. And…a ladder?

“I should have put it up, but I wasn’t sure I’d have time.”

Ratici blinked, stowing a grappling hook. Wilovan looked at Rickel.

“It was a risky bet to gamble on. If your Skill didn’t work…”

Rickel shook his head, grinning desperately.

“What kind of idiot bets on life-or-death stuff? I’m not a high-level [Gambler]. Shit, they’re coming…”

The ladder, strategically placed, was being wrestled into position, but the fastest members of the gang had come right after them. They poured out the door—and into Wilovan’s club.

Thump. Thump. Thump. A heavy sound emerged in quick succession, puzzling the Human at first. His heart was pounding out of his chest. He had never done this, risked his life like this, but—what was that sound?

One, two, three, four, five-six, seven—Rickel heard the sounds and turned as Ratici swarmed up the ladder. He turned, and stopped for a second.

Seven bodies and a [Thief] halted before exiting into that deadly kill-zone. A Gnoll stepped back, and stormed to the ladder.

“Up, up!”

Ratici grabbed Wilovan and he tumbled over the wall. Rickel leapt and landed hard, swearing. Ratici nimbly dove and landed like a cat—but he tossed down one last object before he did.

The whumph and smoke and screams echoed in the background as the three ran for it. Rickel kept pace until he had to slow, clutching at his side. Ratici and Wilovan just towed him on.

“Well, that’s torn it. We need either the Watch or to get Miss Lyonette to safety. If they’ll continue.”

“Might not. The Watch will never get them, Wilovan. They’re right in the open. Either they’re twisted to sideways, or something’s up.”

The two Gentlemen Callers caught their breath. They looked at their hats, put them on their head—and they were alive. Alive, thanks to the Human, grinning, shaking with adrenaline.

“I’m…I’m going to pee. And then puke. I’ve never done that—we nearly died.”

Rickel gasped, holding his heart. Wilovan clapped him on the shoulder.

“We didn’t, thanks to you, sir.”

“I know…you’ve got to go!”

“What about you?”

Rickel had run so hard he tasted iron. He tried to speak, coughing.

“—catch up. You have to go. You’re with the Human with the Faerie Flowers, right? She’s going to be assassinated! Poruniv’s sending a huge group. In the open.

Wilovan and Ratici tensed.

“You’re sure?”

“I heard him and double-checked. I’ll—”

They were already going, but Ratici held for a second to hear Rickel’s voice. Wilovan was pounding down the pavement—where was she now? Rickel gasped. He had saved them in a moment when even they thought they’d die. But why? Who was he? Part of the answer was in Rickel’s next words.

A question.

“Ask her. Is she…? Are we from the same place? If she is—”

He grinned. At last. At last!

We’re on the same side.

 

——

 

Magnolia Reinhart stood with her famous carriage behind her. She walked down across a gloriously long carpet, past lines of servants holding treasures. In that moment, she looked like a fitting guest of Oteslia.

The scion of the Five Families. The Deadly Flower of the North. A foe, perhaps. To be trusted? How could they trust her?

What did she want, really? Some dearly wanted it to be something genuine, like Navine. Others saw her as inherently untrustworthy, the great manipulator in some game they could barely see.

Ilvriss studied the [Lady] as she passed him by. Lyonette looked at Magnolia, hands clenched in her dress, disturbed by their conversation of yesterday. Waiting. All of them.

“Drakes and Gnolls of Izril. Or is it ladies and gentlemen?”

Magnolia’s lips quirked. No one spoke, nor did they chuckle. She looked around, eyes alight.

“I know I have put on something of a show. We have engaged with my visit in delightful ways. And, I will admit, less delightful and somewhat tedious little gatherings. I suppose it is to be expected; we are nominally enemies, after all.”

That alone drew a chuckle. Drakes nodded; at least she wasn’t going to lie about the truth. Magnolia nodded as well.

“Yet we could dance forever, and while some of us dance quite well…I did not pack my dancing shoes, among the many things I thought to bring. Some of them gifts. And I do mean that quite sincerely: gifts. None of this is meant to impel you to a decision. In the coming moments, I will lay out a proposal. It is my sincere hope you will ask questions, think on it, and reply in earnest. I hope, naturally, that some of you choose to agree, to participate. But I will not force you.”

Her eyes lit on Lyonette.

“I will not lie, or obfuscate the truth. Which is quite difficult for me—”

More titters of amusement. Magnolia glanced about, breaking the look.

“—but it must be this way. Without further ado: Ressa. Please distribute copies of my proposal.”

“And what would that be, Lady Reinhart?”

A Drake called out, one who hadn’t lost a monocle and was Wall Lord of Manus. Rafaema frowned at him; he wasn’t of the High Council. Hunt Commander Makhir’s ears twitched.

“Why, Wall Lord Aldonss, exactly what I claimed and said from the beginning. This is a gathering, put on by the First Gardener, to assemble like-minded Drakes—or anyone willing to listen—to propose a simple thing. Peace. Between Human and Drakes. As I have said from the start.”

The Wall Lord looked at Magnolia. He began to snort…but then stilled.

“You mean, you were serious?

She sighed. But it was not an uncommon reaction. Peace? It was too simple. Too…straightforwards for a woman rumored to walk in zig-zags and squiggles. Yet it was true. She had come here, to try and make peace. That was what she did. That it took them by surprise said something about plans and schemes.

Ressa and six other [Maids] and two [Butlers], including Reynold, had simple stacks of scrolls in their arms. They passed them out, and Drakes gathered around, reading over each other’s shoulders, snatching more to inspect. It was a contract—a copy of the one Magnolia Reinhart presented to the First Gardener.

Ilvriss read one with Nerul and the [Diplomat] began swearing before he was halfway down the page. He recognized a legally-binding magical contract when he saw one, but it was what it contained that made his mind race. Navine held it up for her mother, eyes incredulous. Rafaema read her copy with Cire peeking at her.

“Is she serious?

Rafaema scoffed. But Cire just blinked.

“Wait…is it bad? It’s not…”

This is ridiculous.

One Gnoll from Zeres tore her copy up before she was halfway through. Her companion, rather than join her friend, gave her a steady look.

“Why don’t we read it first before shredding it entirely? Excuse me, Miss Human? Another copy, please.”

“But the contents…is this serious? It’s nothing!”

“On the contrary. It’s everything. It may be less ambitious than you expect of me—but I think it is eminently acceptable. Or do you disagree, First Gardener?”

Lyonette had her own copy, proffered to her by Reynold. She read the same thing she had looked at yesterday. It was indeed simple. Iron-tight, such that even Nerul doubted Mister Superior and all his best teammates could find a loophole. But simple.

“Uncle. I think I have it all set out; it’s the most straightforward contract I’ve read. But can you make sure we have it right?”

Osthia was staring at it and blinking. Nerul cleared his throat and Navine and Helessia drifted over.

“Of course, nephew. Family. It’s…well. It is a straightforward, three-part contract. Three clauses, no open ways to rephrase or add anything. Firstly, a commitment to the project known as the ‘Wall of South and North’—that bit’s a placeholder. Second? A mutual defense clause. If the signatories underlined therein come under attack, their counterparts are obligated to come to their aid only if the following groups should attack. From the north: Terandria. From the south? Antinium.

Makhir was blinking at the contract. A mutual defensive pact against two specific enemies. Not Baleros, or the King of Destruction. But the Antinium? Rafaema wanted to know what Manus would make of that.

“That’s…and the last bit?”

Navine looked at Nerul. The [Diplomat] smiled and nodded at Magnolia like he was a [Fencer], acknowledging the first cut of a bout. She winked back with a smile.

“What I suspect will cause the biggest fight because it might actually be…a simple non-aggression pact. Again, non-binding in terms of future wars. It does not prohibit us from making war or joining it on the north. It does, however, declare that the signatories—the sides who sign the pact will no longer consider themselves in a state of war. Humans and Drakes. They will not support, financially or militarily, the yearly conflict in the Bloodfields, and will agree to open borders and trade…assuming there are any that exist, which, given the state of things, is impossible. But it would mean…”

“Peace.”

Ilvriss murmured succinctly. An end to even the scheduled battle at the Bloodfields that cost lives each year. In truth, it even made sense. Neither side waged war as they could, because of the Antinium. But it was—

“You cannot be serious, Magnolia Reinhart. Do you think we’ll agree to this?”

“Which part…is it Merchant Redoger?”

“You have it right, Lady Reinhart. And I represent my city of Marwsh, not just as a [Merchant]. You would have us agree to put money into this wall, say we’re at peace—what will the other cities think?”

“That it is a good idea?”

Navine snapped. She turned.

“Honestly, what part of this is so concerning? I would like to hear more—”

“Wall Lady Navine! This is far too much to accept!”

Why? Which part? Not wasting lives and weapons at the Bloodfields? Do you know how much it costs to clear it out each year, to begin with? We lose nearly a dozen [Soldiers], even when we clear it at range.”

“After the last battle? When House Veltras—”

“Oh, so you’d be fine if you thought we won the last one?”

The babble of voices grew, but Magnolia Reinhart clapped her hands.

“Excuse me.”

And there was silence. She spoke, brightly.

“I believe there are three issues in the contract. Each one I hope to discuss. I hope each one is reasonable. Let us break it down, if you will. The first is simple. A clear-cut agreement that we do not need to be at war any longer. That the Bloodfields skirmishes waste lives. What does anyone gain from them?”

No one had an immediate response. They fought there because Humans and Drakes were at war. But to outsiders, including Lyonette, it was the most reasonable part of Magnolia’s proposal. She shook her head.

“It has always seemed to me that the only thing that wins at those skirmishes are the Bloodfields themselves. The most you could say is that some level from the conflict, and that is a poor silver lining. Indeed, some years, both Human and Drake groups have refused to send soldiers to fight and die there. This will simply make that arrangement, that sensibility, permanent.”

“And invite critique from all sides.”

“I imagine that is already the case for anyone who is present, Wall Lord Aldonss.”

Magnolia returned. The Wall Lord hesitated, but gave her a grudging nod.

“If you had that as your only clause, we could discuss it. But this second part—Manus would never accept it. A complete defensive pact if the north is attacked by Terandria? Your Houses Veltras and Wellfar just attacked a Human navy.”

Magnolia grimaced.

“I will admit, Wall Lord Aldonss, that was not the case when this contract was drafted. Do note the date.”

…Months ago. Ilvriss nodded. That was fair. Yet the Wall Lord went on.

“Very well, but in exchange, you promise that the north—or whichever Houses sign this, and I see around two dozen—”

Bethal Walchaís.

Zanthia of House Briez

Pryde Ulta—who had written her name in a tiny gap above Bethal’s, just below Magnolia’s. Lady Wuvren…Lyonette recognized the names.

“Powerful Human Houses. But they would march entire armies to defend us if a third Antinium War broke out?”

Those present were patently skeptical. To which Magnolia simply responded.

“Of course we would. By ship or through Liscor. I chose the two largest enemies of our peoples; Terandria and the Five Families have an uneasy relationship, as the present now indicates. The Antinium…even more so. [Diplomat] Nerul, I assure you we might even provide a clause that exempts Ailendamus in this case if war were to break out before signatories begin signing. But yes, Drakes might well join the north.”

“And be wiped out. We march our armies north, they die and we’re weakened.”

A Drake from Fissival folded his arms. A Pallassian [Senator], Errif, edged away from him. Magnolia Reinhart frowned mightily.

“This is a magically enforced clause, Spell Lord Uhis.”

“There are ways around it. We need not send all our forces.”

“Then you will not. I do not believe any [Strategist] would demand that, anyways. But it is still binding.”

Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes glittered and the Spell Lord frowned, looking for a retort.

“…Then why would we take this as genuine that the Five Families would come to our aid during an Antinium incursion?”

Two eyes flashed, and for the first time, genuine ire entered the [Lady]’s tone. Ilvriss looked up as Magnolia Reinhart swung around and placed her feet, confronting Uhis.

“Because we will. Because, Spell Lord, I am Magnolia Reinhart. And I did ride to the aid of the Walled Cities and Drakes during the First Antinium War. Or did you forget? I believe it is in your history books, though you do tend to omit my name.”

She looked around, and they looked at her. You did forget, didn’t you? The Lady of House Reinhart had been far younger, then. Younger than Lyonette was now.

“That was decades ago.”

And I was there, sir!

The [Lady]’s voice cracked back and the Drake flinched. Magnolia’s eyes burned.

“I was there. No contract forced me to march. The Five Families considered letting the Walled Cities crumble, but I defied even the head of House Reinhart to muster an army. I did not do it expecting the Drakes to throw their gates open and call me a hero, and I am glad to find my trust was never misplaced, not once. I did not do it for accolades; they called me a traitor when I returned. I did it because the Antinium were a threat to all of Izril, just like the Goblin King.”

She looked around.

“The Goblin King, whom the Drakes marched against to fight in the Second Antinium War. So before you say anything, I do not hold that debt over the south. Even if I could. I hope, though, Spell Lord, that I have at least earned a modicum of trust. If the Antinium attack…I will be there. Have I earned the right to say that?”

The [Lady] looked about. No one, not even the red-faced Uhis, dared gainsay her that. Lyonette held her breath. For a moment, that was the Magnolia she wanted. But then the [Lady] calmed. Smiled. And hid away her fangs.

What a waste.

“…Both are somewhat contentious offers. The last, perhaps the most. But I must explain it. ‘The Wall of South and North’. Ressa, the diagram.”

The [Maid] brought out something. Not just a blueprint that Reynold walked over to get, but another object. A custom-made dais, set with a huge quartz-stone that reflected something into the air.

“What project is this? A Wall? As in a Walled City?”

The First Gardener, Shaerrha Brasswing, asked. She wasn’t sure what to make of Magnolia’s offer. It was ambitious. And yes, almost less than she had expected Magnolia to offer. But it might work. She might be able to agree to that. But what would the other Walled Cities do? Her eyes lingered on Cire, then Ilvriss, Makhir…

None of them gave away their thoughts. Zeres, Fissival, and Pallass were noticeably absent in any major respect aside from individuals. And this contract only had one of the Five Families and their allies signing it.

Not enough? She looked, as Magnolia Reinhart unveiled her final trick that wasn’t a trick. Because she explained it. Because she showed them openly what it was, to get them to agree.

“On the contrary, First Gardener. I do not put a lot of stock in walls around cities. It has always seemed to me that you can just…fly over walls. Oh, don’t bristle. It was a little joke. I know there are protections and I do not doubt they have saved countless lives. But if there was ever to be a wall I built, I would not shelter Invrisil. It is…this.”

A wall rose, glittering, a kind of projection that Lyonette recognized. Because she had met someone who did the exact same. The [Architect] of Liscor, Hexel, had the same thing in a Skill. This was more permanent, made out of magic. Magnolia gestured at it.

“A way to make good on the promises outlined. Peace. Defensive pacts. And…a way to be more than distant allies, or disgruntled neighbors. I did not have the way to realize it. So, a long time ago, nearly a decade, really…I reached out to someone who could help me. He completed it, a great work. One of the last, I think. Before his death.”

A name traced out as the project unveiled itself. Lyonette had missed it the first time, and she gasped. Ilvriss murmured.

“Drevish the Architect.”

One of the King’s Seven. The famous, deceased…Rafema stared at it.

“What is it?”

For it was no Walled City she had ever known. It was, in fact, a wall of a strange kind. It had a roof—of sorts. But it was a long, slightly curved wall. No battlements on top. Indeed, no one could walk on top of it. It looked like it would fit into something. And it was entirely hollow. Strong, thick walls, as thick as Manus’ second layer of walls. Defensive spells aimed…up? Some down. Clear anti-tunneling defenses, and two reinforced gates at either end.

The most curious bastion she’d ever seen. It almost looked like it was designed to defend against itself. That was to say, people who’d already entered it. And aerial attacks—half the defenses were pointed straight up.

“I regret to say that Drevish’s amazing abilities did not extend to names. Or rather, he considered the ‘Wall of South and North’ a quite apt title and never bothered to update it. Yet he did pour his genius into this project. I believe it can be done, and quickly too. With the right funding and will.”

“It’s the most damned confusing construction I’ve ever seen. And I grew up in Manus. What…what is this for?”

“And where?”

Wall Lord Aldonss and Merchant Redoger peered at it. Of the two, it was the [Merchant] who asked the right question. Magnolia Reinhart smiled.

“Why, the High Passes, of course. The actual, second area seldom-used. The pass between north and south. This would be a tunnel. A pass…within the High Passes. Protected from monsters and anything underground. A safer road than even Liscor, with respect. Liscor does flood, and it does have the Bloodfields. This? This would be…”

“It would be madness.

Helessia whispered. The Drake actually tried to prop herself in her bed and her attendants moved to help raise her up. She spoke, coughing lightly, as she looked at Magnolia.

“With all due respect, Lady Reinhart—even I could not agree to this. War-hungry [Lords] would allow its completion—if only to send raiding parties through. It would be the prize to whichever side held it; unfettered access to the enemy’s lands.”

Ilvriss agreed. His scales prickled, just imagining House Veltras holding it, able to send through a lightning-army whenever they wanted.

“Lady Helessia. I am so glad you spoke. Nor do I think you are a fool, and you recognized the very same thing I pointed out to Drevish when I first brought up the problem. To which, I have to say, he laughed and came up with a solution in fourteen seconds. And it is this: no force can or ever will fully take this wall. Because of the gates.”

She pointed. Now, everyone focused as the blueprint focused on the two gates inside the walled tunnel. Two gigantic gates that looked as ugly as any Manus fortification Rafaema was familiar with. She muttered.

“You could put an entire army there and have every [Mage] blast it and it wouldn’t break.”

“Yes, Lady Rafaema. Not to mention, the tunnel is not exactly a good place to fight. No fortifications for an army assailing either gate. Do you see? Each side will have access. A key is not needed; one can simply shut the gate and hold it. And the other side…”

…Would rather pass by Liscor or climb around it than go through. Rafaema tapped her lips. She was beginning to understand.

“Then how would it work? I can see it’s defensive on both sides. But if one side closes the gate…”

“The other doesn’t get through. I could hold this with a thousand Drakes against twenty, fifty times that number. Yes…so we would have some safety. Obviously a garrison, but Lady Reinhart. This ambitious project will cost gold for dirt. Why would we make this, fund it, work together for a door we can both slam in each other’s faces?”

Magnolia looked to the side. And for the first time, Merchant Redoger, not she, answered.

“…Because we wouldn’t. Not unless an actual war occured. With all this effort put in, it’s too costly. It’s a crying waste of gold if we did that. But we would not have to. There would be two trade routes to either side of Izril, west and east. It would change the economies. House Veltras goods flowing in from one side, Invrisil’s monopoly would break—Pallass wouldn’t be the Walled City in control of all the goods flowing from the south.”

What? That’s—

Errif yelped. But Magnolia Reinhart smiled.

“It is a [Merchant]’s answer. What good is a door, if it is always locked? I thought someone would understand.”

The Gnoll nodded at her. Thoughtfully, Ilvriss tried to imagine it. It was far from Salazsar, but it would provoke a boom of settlements near the door—assuming it stayed open. Perhaps…multiple Liscors. Before, he would not have thought that was a boon, but a city with Humans and Drakes and Gnolls might not consider each other so…alien.

He looked at Lyonette, and wondered if Magnolia had looked at Liscor as the example. But she hadn’t. This was years, nearly a decade or more, in the works.

This was Magnolia Reinhart’s proposal. A contract of three. And no matter how they craned their necks or twisted, none of her guests could say that any one part was beyond all comprehension. There were certainly parts they objected to, and the whole was a grand, dubious undertaking. Put their names on the contract?

Yet. Wall Lord Aldonss looked at Magnolia Reinhart. He cleared his throat.

“…Forgive me, Lady Reinhart. I understand that you would now have us ask questions about details, and we would likely receive…gifts…and communicate this with our cities and our own people.”

She twinkled at him, expectantly.

“I sense a ‘but’, Wall Lord.”

He nodded, almost smiling.

“But. Is this truly it? Do you have a future design, or is this the whole of what you propose? I would take further revelations poorly, you understand.”

She clasped her hands together, and spoke sincerely. But oh, even when she was, she was bad at it, Lyonette thought.

“It is, Wall Lord. The whole of it, I swear on truth stone and Skill and House Reinhart. I could not lie to you. Not if I wanted sincere allies. And I must have that. I did not come to trick you, or force you to agree. I hope each Walled City will hear this and deliberate. Negotiate, although it is a straightforward contract I have no intention of changing. I hope at least one Walled City will sign, and other Drake cities as well.”

Her eyes lingered on the First Gardener, but it was a troubled reply she got. Aldonss sighed.

“This will not lead to peace, though. Even if we create this in our lifetimes, the gates might close for decades. It will not, I fear, do more than end some of the hostilities at the Bloodfields. Yet I imagine it will continue, and distrust…it cannot be said that this is the cure for Drake and Humans’ bad blood. Not after so long.”

Everyone nodded, then. Even Magnolia Reinhart. And here it was. Lyonette saw her take a breath.

“I know. You know, Wall Lord Aldonss, I feel like that is almost a poor argument. Because, yes, it cannot fix the history of war and injustices we have done against each other. It is only a step, and a small one at that. But it would be a step, the first taken in millenia. A step, for another step in the future. This is not enough? If you say this—I would be very upset, because even coming to this one step has taken me half my life, Wall Lord. And it would be my greatest triumph if I could realize it.”

She turned her head, and regarded her plan. Magnolia chuckled softly. Lyonette felt like the next words were aimed at her. But then—Ilvriss and Navine and many others thought the same thing.

“I know some of you expected a genius proposal from me. I do hope this meets your standards. Yes, it is not quick. But change never is. And…I must tell you something. True change never is. If, by some miracle, each Walled City agreed to trade and make peace with their enemies, the Humans, tomorrow, I doubt it would change a thing. Because that is not how the people would see it. Those are but words.”

Rafaema found herself nodding. Yes. Yes…she locked onto Magnolia and listened more intently. The [Lady]’s head turned.

“I can force those present, persuade them into doing things my way. But that does not change the citizens of your cities. It will not change their children. This might. Seeing Humans coming through a safe passage, cities where our kinds mingle? It is a good first step. You see—there is a way of looking at things like this. It is like…to use an analogy fit for Oteslia, a tree. A hope. We plant it, and water it, and do things to the soil I suspect.”

She waved her hands, impatiently, as one of the actual [Gardeners] snorted.

“We let it grow. Over years. Decades. Until it is mighty. A beautiful tree, fit for shade, sometimes for fruit, sometimes just to be. And then some fool takes an axe and in an hour, undoes decades of work. That is inevitable, I am afraid. If not a fool, then a lightning bolt in a storm. A wildfire. Bugs. Dreadful things. You cannot prevent it all.”

She tsked, as those experienced in the art of horticulture winced at memories. Magnolia Reinhart went on, looking ahead.

“…But that is why you plant hundreds of trees. Entire forests, in case one falls. Multiple forests, you see? Some will inevitably die. Others, though, will live. However. It is a fact that you will not see the results in your lifetimes. You will see the first trees. Not those that reproduce and come after. Yet what you are doing—is making the world better. Just not for you. That is what I would like to do, if you will help me.”

Wall Lord Ilvriss had never met Magnolia Reinhart before. This was not the woman he expected. He envisioned what she was imagining. How…difficult that was. How against everything he had been raised to think it was. Forests. Nothing immediate.

Good for the future. Hard work with no reward. Yet—when statues faded, there trees would be. They would not bear your name. They would not be the same ones you planted, but descendants that survived if you worked hard.

Who would do such a thing? Who could appreciate it? Not you. Not your children. But…

Ressa stood there, behind the woman she had chosen to follow on her lonely quest. And she knew the answer.

You would never benefit yourself. No one would thank you in your lifetime, or see the full scale of what you had done. But perhaps. Perhaps someone with eternity ahead and behind him would. He could see it, and see what she had done across the ages he slept and woke.

A girl’s answer to a weary Dragon’s despair. Even now—what a young, idealistic idiot. Ressa closed her eyes as Magnolia Reinhart spoke.

The First Gardener, Shaerrha Brasswing, did not know what Ressa saw. But at the same time…she saw. She looked at the image and idea Magnolia was talking about. Not as it was. Everything was so blurry. But her eyes roamed, looking for the Earth Dragon, listening to Magnolia with an uncharacteristically solemn look on his face. A gentle, slightly wild child. Her son.

As he had always been, for them all. She clutched at her heart and had to sit. Mivifa helped her down. She saw it too.

Wall Lord Ilvriss shook his head. Magnolia Reinhart stood there.

“I will have peace, as honestly as I can contrive it. I am not your enemy, ladies and gentlemen. Believe me. Whenever a threat should arise, be it [Witch] or Antinium, Necromancer, or plague, that is what I must fight. I stopped my cousin from making war at Liscor. Because that is our role. Let us allow Izril to change, and fight only what we must.”

There she stood, a watch-woman, holding a torch, looking at him. At him. He nodded to her. So that was what she was trying to be.

“Terribly difficult.”

He murmured. Yet not a second passed that he thought she was wrong. Only saw what it had cost. Was that what Zel Shivertail had seen? Why had Ilvriss not gone with him? How the future might have changed if he was the him that could go back.

“I should have been me, back when I was him.”

He saluted Magnolia Reinhart with one claw, and she dipped her head at him and walked on.

They admired her. Even Cire, who stared at an image she had conjured.

“That would be nice. I like trees.”

…But she disagreed. Lyonette du Marquin shook her head. And she spoke, though that was not arranged, though she knew it was unwise to attract attention to herself.

“It’s too long, Lady Reinhart. We can do more. You say we will be allies—that is to say, north and south for only the most dire enemies. You give these species a chance to change over time. But I have been to a place where bonds just as great can be forged far faster. Why not ask for more? Let those who sign that contract be allies in all wars. In all battles.”

Drakes shook their heads at her, and Ilvriss fixed Lyonette with a gaze, but her hands were clenched. She had seen it.

“When there is danger, we will be there. That is a promise between true friends. I know there are those who could make such a promise, now. Perhaps not all. Not by one contract. But…”

And her head turned to Wall Lord Ilvriss. Magnolia Reinhart shook her head. She smiled at Lyonette, sadly.

“I am sure it would endure, Miss…Solstice. I do not doubt the strength of your words. Or individual friendships. However, even if we could agree to that—and we do not trust each other enough—”

She looked around, and met rueful smiles with her own.

“—such promises would only last as long as we lived, no matter how hard we tried to keep to them. The problem with such fiery pacts, you see? Inevitably, they are broken. Because they must be. Because something changes. Something slow. We will not see it, friends. But we may live proudly, if we keep ourselves moving to that goal.

The First Gardener nodded. A [Druid] in the back let his tears dribble down into his beard. And that was why he followed her. The [Druids] of Oteslia nodded.

Such gentle persuasion Magnolia Reinhart used. Lyonette wanted her to inspire. Lead by example! Do more than hold out a hand—grasp mine. She could not love Magnolia’s idea, not alone.

Nor—the shaking figure. Makhir felt a nudge. He looked over at Ferris and the [Infiltrator] directed his attention left.

“Rafaema? Is something…?”

The Lightning Dragon stared at Magnolia. She was shaking. Shaking her head, backing up a few steps, her discipline shattered. She saw what Magnolia was talking about. She saw the scale, taken in mortal lifetimes. But unlike Cire—Rafaema was horrified.

“No. No. It’s too long. It’s too much. I can’t—”

Her breath came in gasps. As if something heavy were on her chest. Panic welled in her, and she could not explain why. Only that she saw herself. Over those long ages. Was that what it took? Alone?

“Raf?”

Cire touched her claw. Rafaema turned. She tore away from Cire and stumbled away. Magnolia Reinhart glanced at her, as she stood in the center of it all.

Some would never agree. Drakes and Gnolls left to tell their allies exactly what the Human wanted and conspired to oppose it. But more than she could have hoped at this weary point stayed. Not a single quill touched the contract. Not yet.

A tiny step, that she had to write in ink by the time this ended.

 

——

 

The debate was in full force, and Magnolia Reinhart occupied the center circle, talking candidly about the cost—which Drevish had tried to marry to speed and quality. It was said you could only get ‘cheap’, ‘quick’, or ‘good’, on a project, and not all three. It was a truism Drevish had laughed at. For lesser people, perhaps. While he had died, his work had not.

It was at this moment, as Lyonette hung back, offended to her core, without being able to fully denounce Magnolia—only that she was doing the right thing the wrong way—and as Ilvriss was thoughtfully heading over to introduce himself to a stiff [Butler]—that someone came rushing up the steps.

“First Gardener—a minor issue.”

Shaerrha glanced up. She listened, then approached Magnolia.

“Lady Reinhart. Do you have any…Human allies in the area?”

People listened in, and the First Gardener let them as Magnolia Reinhart raised her brows.

“Many allies, but none directly here.”

“Ah. Well, there is an emerging situation. It may become…unpleasant. I am told Liscor’s army is there, and they are pragmatists. But the Admiralty and Zeres’ army also hold the area. And while I am told Admiral Asale and the Admiral of the Land are reasonable—the current Sharkcaptain is not. There are four Humans trying to reach Oteslia. They have passports and I do not know how they got this far unhindered. But they are [Knights] and Zeres seems prepared to capture them.”

Lyonette’s head turned. Magnolia raised her brows. She took a deep sip of tea.

“And who might they be?”

“Thronebearers of Calanfer. If their golden plate is anything t—”

Magnolia Reinhart was too much of a [Lady] to do a proper spit-take. She didn’t even so much as purse her lips. Lyonette du Marquin, on the other hand, was quite capable of expectorating all over Nerul. The [Diplomat] stared down at his vest.

“I have never seen such a splendid execution. The old Winebreath Blaster. Classic diplomatic trick. You, young lady, are a credit to your home. Natural talent. Indeed.”

Ruefully he walked away. Lyonette didn’t even hear—she turned.

Oh no. Not them. How had they…? Mrsha had written to her about four idiots, but not…

“Dear me. By provoke, do you mean…?”

Magnolia Reinhart glanced towards the double doors. Shaerrha bit her lip.

 

——

 

Oteslia is just ahead! Ride! Ride, damn you!

Dalimont roared. The three Thronebearers surged after him, terrified. A sea of Drakes were hot on their heels.

We have passports! We h—

An arrow grazed Ser Lormel’s head and he ducked. To be fair, it was a practice arrow, but the idiot didn’t have his helmet on and he was trying to put it on as they rode. Which was an exercise in futility and he lost track of it. It went rolling and two Drakes tripped over it, which was something.

Lormel nearly went back to get it, but Zeres’ army, loosing arrows without arrowheads, daring them to take a swing, was cutting off their exit.

Do not draw your blades. Even if they attack.

Dalimont growled at the others. They had their hands on their hilts, but they could see the Drakes wanted them to spill blood. Then they died.

It had all gone so well. The Liscorian army had been very reasonable, especially when they saw the passports originated out of Liscor! However, Zeres?

“They’d violate the rules of war just to kill us?”

“I believe they would, Dame Ushar. Listen to me. One of us has to make it to Oteslia.”

“The gates are closed!”

“Then do nothing. If they beat or torture us, tell them only the truth. Listen—”

Hands were grabbing for Dalimont. Warily, he knocked them down with his glove, but he dared not strike at the jeering Drakes. He saw the Admiralty, including a thunderously powerful Drake with an aura that sent barbs into Dalimont even from afar. Arguing with two leaders.

Was this where they failed? After going so far to reach the 6th Princess? As someone grabbed his leg and he jerked, Dalimont feared it was so. His horse reared, and if a flying hoof struck—

Exactly that happened. A Drake cried out and the others shouted.

They’re attacking! Get them!

“No, damn you! The Eternal Throne—”

Blades came out. Dalimont went down, cursing. Not now! Not after all! He was thrashing as someone ripped off his helm and put a spear to his throat when he heard a sound.

…At first, he thought it was a horn, from one of the Singer’s songs.

“Cara?”

But it wasn’t her songs, as he had heard in desperate hours. It was just a horn. First one, then two—musical, in a sense, but a single, crescendoing note.

They came from the walls. The fighting slowed. Someone shouted.

1st Marines, about face! Formation! Formation!”

It was a worried tone. Dalimont, still on the ground, didn’t dare move. The other three Thronebearers rose, armor muddied. Scarcely believing it. Yet in the distance…

Oteslia’s gates were swinging open.

Both Zeres and Liscor’s forces reacted with calm alarm. There was no chance Oteslia’s 1st Army would sally forth. That would be silly.

…But just in case. [Archers] and [Mages] trained their arrows on the gates. The Sharkcaptain crowed and pointed to Asale.

“See? Wait for it—that damned coach is coming!”

Asale rolled his eyes. The Admiral of the Supply doubted Magnolia Reinhart was so stupid as to do something expected. Indeed, no pink carriage came out of the gates.

…But Magnolia Reinhart did.

The Sharkcaptain choked on his own words. He stared as a figure filled the gates nearest the Thronebearers.

Archers!

“You idiot. Belay that order. We will not assassinate a [Lady] of the Five Families in the open!

The Admiral of the Land roared at the Sharkcaptain. Bows went up and untensed, as the [Lady] halted there. Asale’s spyglass was one of thousands on her. What was she doing?

Well, standing there. But that wasn’t what made Asale’s eye lock on her and realize she was playing a different game from the impulsive Zeresian army. His gaze swung sideways.

“Ah. That would be…the First Gardener of Oteslia. Bows. Down.

Shaerrha Brasswing stood beside Magnolia Reinhart. She looked shaky with nerves. Magnolia was serene—or at least, outwardly composed. The Sharkcaptain, Femar, hesitated.

“What in the name of Creler nests is she doing out there?”

Well. Standing with Magnolia Reinhart. And then…walking forwards. Asale saw Magnolia Reinhart glance around, smile, and make a comment.

To a tall [Maid] who produced a parasol, a pink one, and opened it over both’s heads. On her right, Mivifa of Feathers strode forwards, grim, staring around at the army in front of them. And behind them came Oteslia’s guard. And…

“That’s a [Druid]. One of Oteslia’s finest.”

The Admiral of the Land was slower to catch on. Asale just lowered his spyglass when he saw another face.

“And Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar. His sister too. If eyes don’t mistake, that was Wall Lord Aldonss.”

“What are they doing?”

“Walking, you idiot.”

Diplomat Nerul was striding along in a new shirt, rubbing his claws together happily and waving for any scrying orb that might be there. Asale rubbed at his face.

“You just walked into their trap.”

“Nonsense. We have an army. Do they want to be captured?

“Oh, please, Femar. Yes, let’s capture the First Gardener of Oteslia, Magnolia Reinhart, and multiple Wall Lords and Ladies of different cities. If we even got close—I count three Named-rank threats. There’s Shriekblade…and there’s Saliss of Lights. Four. And look at the walls.”

The Drakes looked up. Asale pointed out more figures had joined Oteslia’s [Soldiers]. Who were now manning the walls as if they expected an attack. The figures wore [Maid] or [Butler] uniforms and they carried…presents.

Bows. A spear. A box you did not want opened in your direction. They had, of course, been meant as gifts, and many weren’t combat items. But if they had to give them to Zeres’ army…

“We are not going to attack. Send word to 1st Marines. Tell them to let the Thronebearers go.”

Asale sighed. Femar spluttered.

“I’m going to—”

“If you go down there, Sharkcaptain of Zeres—

The Admiral of the Supply, who was a peer to his cousins with levels—and seldom gave orders, raised his voice. Even Femar stopped, and turned, full of anger.

“—What? What will you do?”

Asale glared at him.

“I’ll save a recording and play it in every barracks in all of Zeres. Not that I’d be the only one.”

Femar hesitated. Magnolia Reinhart was proceeding slowly across one of the bridges, waving at the disbelieving Ser Dalimont. Asale sighed.

“Idiot.”

He had probably helped Magnolia Reinhart more than he could believe. Admiral Asale looked at the image that would be playing on every scrying orb.

 

——

 

Grand Magus Eldavin looked at the young woman…no, the woman, walking with her head raised, smiling, chatting, at ease.

As Zeres’ army drew back. They could attack. An arrow could claim her life—well, if it got past her ring. But would they attack?

For there walked the First Gardener, Mivifa, Wall Lord Ilvriss, and more. Would you attack? Because you could. And if you did, it was war. But if there was a chance of peace…

“You did it.”

Eldavin looked at Magnolia. Then—clutched at his heart. Why did it hurt…? But he never took his eyes off of her. Gnolls and Drakes and Humans, walking together, to stop some idiots from getting slaughtered. Daring an army to attack. Knowing full well they wouldn’t dare.

 

——

 

A message. Asale leaned on his chair. Not for the first time, he regretted not accepting Magnolia’s invitation to Oteslia weeks ago, the Serpentine Matriarch’s will or not. He was so focused on the events outside, he nearly missed the next bit.

 

——

 

Inspire them. She was doing it. Just what Lyonette had wanted. Magnolia Reinhart had looked out and seen the Thronebearers wallowing in a trap of their own stupidity—

And she’d gone to save them. Not for them, but because of what it could mean. She’d talked the First Gardener into it, Ilvriss, and the rest. Some had resisted—and it had been no less than Wall Lord Aldonss who agreed first.

Lyonette du Marquin stood on the steps of the ballroom, watching the small group going to thumb its nose at Zeres depart. She would have gone with Magnolia, but the [Lady] had stopped her.

“Not you, Miss Solstice. I think you and the poor unfortunates out there should not be, ah, together on scrying orb. Don’t you?”

That was completely reasonable. So Lyonette remained. She didn’t fear for the [Knights], yet dreaded their arrival. Magnolia might save her some trouble by convincing them to keep their heads down.

Maybe they could go after Mrsha. For once she didn’t dread them as much, not with the cunning [Lady] on her side. Lyonette was wavering, as Cire chased after Rafaema, who was sitting, head in her knees, not with the others.

Naturally, that was when Wilovan and Ratici found her.

Lyonette! Get inside!

A Gnoll tore up the stairs, followed by a blur of a figure. Lyonette looked down. He was singed head to toe. His clothing was battered and he had cuts showing through his fur.

“Wilovan?”

Ratici was hot on his heels. The Gentlemen Callers barked one word.

Assassins!

Lyonette saw them a second later. Ratici leapt, snatched an arrow out of the air as Lyonette turned and ran. In truth, they misnamed what was coming for her.

[Assassins] used stealth and cunning and had shown how poorly they did in a stand-up fight in the north. The Second Gardener didn’t have many, if any in his Gang. He just sent a mob to kill Lyonette.

Dozens of figures were swarming up the steps, blades in hand. Someone screamed for the Watch as Lyonette looked towards the ballroom. The ballroom filled with people and few guards now, who would be diced in seconds and had so many openings—

“This way!”

Ratici pointed and she raced down the steps. Of all the times—! Magnolia wasn’t here, nor was Saliss, or anyone else! Even the staff had gone!

Kill the Human!

“Why are they after me?”

Flowers.

Wilovan bellowed. He and Ratici charged down the street. The [Thug] turned, saw a wagon, and bellowed.

Off your seat, sir!

A Gnoll had a second to gawp before Wilovan was up. He tore the Gnoll out, tossed him onto the street, and to Lyonette’s surprise, didn’t commandeer the wagon—it would be too slow. Rather, he cut the horses loose by ripping their harness off the wagon, then strode around and struck two wheels with clinical blows.

The wagon collapsed, and Wilovan grunted.

“Ratici—”

“On it.”

A wall of dirt rose, blocking the rest of the street, aside from a single opening. Wilovan glanced at Lyonette.

“Inside this building, Miss. Sword out. We just have to wait for Mister Saliss. Don’t move. Ratici will have the inside. I’ll stand here.”

He set himself. Grimly, calmly. Lyonette felt her throat constricting. Her heart pounding. What madness was this?

She didn’t know, not knowing what had passed with the two. But she did know a dead man when she saw one.

She saw Erin lying on the ground.

“No. Wilovan—don’t—”

“Glad we could get to you, Miss Lyonette. We owe a Rickel a favor. A good man. This is the place, Ratici.”

“A good place, Wilovan.”

The two tipped hats. Lyonette saw Wilovan take a huge breath. He turned, and smiled jauntily at a mob of low-level, deadly, unscrupulous men and women. Then he bellowed, for perhaps the first time in memory.

Watch! Summon the Watch!

They never slowed.

 

——

 

As Magnolia Reinhart greeted the Thronebearers, outside the gates, someone came pelting to get them nearly ten minutes after the mob first attacked Lyonette, shouting—Ilvriss turned, cursing, and Saliss blurred. Too late. Everyone who was moving, moved.

 

——

 

A hat lay on the ground. A man made his stand. He should not die. A [Princess] beseeched him, and a fellow tried to honor her request.

It was golden. It was a shout.

[Boon of the Princess]!

Out in the open, but she didn’t care. A Gnoll, a [Gentleman Thug], a contradiction in terms, laughed, as it whispered in his mind. It was so bright. Was this real magic?

His club never sang. It just struck and it was a sick thing, as sick as the beast was, without a hat. He held the gap as they went over the top of the walls and wagon. But they came for him. Trying to get past the guardian.

When it fell, they died. But they had knives and arrows. Here came the Gnoll with claws, dodging past two sacrificial pawns. He slashed, six times in a moment, and Wilovan waited for the sting and burn. A fool with a sword ran him through the side.

Too many to dodge. Not for a big lad. The two looked down in shock. At—the torn fabric. The sword literally running through Wilovan’s side—across his fur. His poor coat.

[He Scratched Only Thread].

A club descended on the swordsman as the Gnoll leapt backwards with a cry of alarm. The Drake staggered, alive, but shaking his head, bewildered. Heeding not the cries.

[I Struck Him Deaf].

—Until he fell dead, Ratici’s blades buried in his throat. The [Thug] laughed. It was so golden. No, so bright. Was it just in his head?

…It wasn’t. As the others backed down and Zanzeil fled backwards, and Ecleeif stopped, took one look at the furious duo, and carefully slapped himself with a stray brick and lay down in the alleyway, the rest saw the light.

It did not come from Wilovan’s Skill. It came…from a ring. It should have been bronze. Or it had been. Now, it was gold. It was shining.

The [Worldly Princess] stared at it. What was…this? She saw a ring, the very same ring that Erin Solstice had once worn. A gift—from the Wall Lord of Salazsar light up.

At last. When you needed it. When, and where it mattered most. Just a formality. A trinket that spelled out a single word.

SALAZSAR.

The light burst upwards. In a distant Walled City, an alarm rang.

“A Daughter of the Walls calls for aid!”

“Ilvriss?”

They were alarmed. What was wrong? The people stared at the scrying orb where Ilvriss was turning, looking back at Oteslia. The scrying orb was on delay, so they saw the beam of light shoot upwards from inside the City of Growth.

…Ilvriss definitely wasn’t wearing the ring.

 

——

 

But what did it do? Lyonette stared at the glowing ring that had activated due to her distress and fear. Calanfer had objects just like that. Seraphel had a tiara that shielded her from danger, and so on.

Lyonette’s ring of [Fireballs] was pointed, but Wilovan was in the line of fire. Her sword in her free hand that held the glowing ring. Yet it hadn’t exactly done more than scare the army of criminals.

To be fair—that was good. But they realized the light wasn’t harming or hindering them in any way.

“It’s just a trick! Get her!”

Zanzeil, the Gnoll with the Creler-claws, pushed at a low-level [Knifer]. There were nearly eighty in the attack wave left, and the boss himself was on the way since he wanted blood.

And…the Watch wasn’t attacking. Cirediel hesitated as he watched. He’d been about to come to Lyonette’s aid, but there were so many. He raised the brick he’d picked up.

“I’m—I’m—”

Why was the Watch not coming? Pegasus Riders were circling, but an armored core had yet to advance. They were pointing. Seeing something.

Lady Rafaema, don’t!

“Out of my way!”

A furious struggle to the side. The only other person who had remained who could help, Rafaema, was struggling with Makhir and Ferris. Both Gnolls had her wings pinned and she was bashing both, Ferris taking the worst of it since Makhir was behind her. Her mouth was sparking, but they were holding her back.

“We cannot risk—”

Cire stared at the two. Then at Lyonette, and the glowing ring. Someone was aiming a bow at her! Where was the Watch?

“Cire, stand back.”

“Aren’t you going to save her?”

The [Guardsman] hesitated. Cire squared his shoulders. He ran forward, brick raised. If they didn’t go for Lyonette, then—

“I wouldn’t do that, Cire.”

Someone blocked him. Cire wavered, but a claw shot out and plucked the brick from his claw before he could move. A huge figure barred the way. He had an impressive physique, not muscled, but a telltale discolored patch on his neck. Well—newly grown scales too.

The Second Gardener, flanked by the last of the Faces under his command, saw spears rise. Instantly, Oteslia’s Watch converged.

“Let go of the First Gardener’s son.”

A warning voice. Neverwhine and his hound hesitated. Even the two-headed dog stared up at nigh on four dozen bows trained on them. But the Drake never moved. He tossed the brick aside.

“Hello, Cire. Don’t worry, it’s all fine. They’ll be out of our city soon enough.”

He grinned at Cire. The Dragon stared up at him. No—not at his face, or build, which were foreign. But at that patch on his neck. His voice trembled.

“Poruniv? Is that…?”

Cire’s old friend looked around at the Watch, who gritted their teeth in silence. At Oteslia’s flying guard, who looked at each other in silent alarm.

Neither Dragon moved, though Rafaema struggled. The light—

 

——

 

A press of bodies around the wagon and walls. [Thugs] and [Thieves] and worse gathered around.

Someone kill that damned Human already!

A roar from the frustrated Face leading them. One of the [Thugs], armed with a deadly hammer—a literal hammer, but so deadly if you swung it hard on either end—was queued up. He didn’t want to die, but there were only three of them. All one needed was to get past the [Thief] and [Thug] and strike once.

Someone jogged up and joined the crowd trying not to foul each other up.

“Hey, are you all here to kill that Human?”

“That’s right! What are you, an idiot? Where were you?

The [Sneak Thug] snapped at a Drake. The figure caught his breath.

“Sorry. I have no idea what’s going on. But you’re here to kill a Human with a ring? Red hair? Right over there? Exactly forty one paces?”

The [Thug] hesitated. He stared at the Drake. It wasn’t Saliss of Lights; you tended to notice nudity fast. Nor Ilvriss. Nor anyone he personally knew. The Drake was, if anything, just some random Drake. A [Trader]?

“Yeah.”

“Oh, good.”

The Drake backed up. Then he produced a vase, for some reason—because he was a [Pottery Trader], but that was unnecessary background detail—and crashed it into the [Thug]’s face. The Drake went down and figures turned.

“What the hell?”

A [Thief] raised a dagger uncertainly as the [Trader] gulped. He stabbed, but an armored hand grabbed it. The [Thief] looked up into two burning…lenses? An armored face. An armored body, ruby-red.

Rubirel Guard! To the aid of the walls!

A Drake with a halberd decapitated the [Thief]. The crowd of criminals whirled. They saw three bodyguards crash into the mob.

“Reinforcements! Get—”

Attack! Attack! In the name of Salazsar!

Something bounced off Zanziel’s head. The Face saw a furious…little…Drake woman throw more items from her purse. Suddenly, he realized more figures were emerging, literally running forwards and hurling objects, drawing blades.

Salazsar!

Another object bounced off his face. He looked around.

“What the…”

Then more figures broke forwards. Even Oteslia’s [Guards], some of them. But mostly travellers, people who had moved, but anyone who…belonged. Allies, citizens. Summoned by the ring.

Salazsar’s last defenders.

 

——

 

Lyonette saw a mob sweep into the side of the small group of killers. Drakes, Gnolls, civilians, aside from a few of them with actual armor and weapons. The criminals turned, caught off-guard and already nervous. A few began to attack back, like at the old Drake lady waving a cane.

Wilovan snarled, but saw Zanzeil, the Face, slash someone across the arm before they could slash the little figure.

Retreat! Get out of here! That damned ring—

More figures were sprinting towards them. And this time—a blurring shape came up the street. Zanzeil took one look at Saliss of Lights, followed by Mivifa of Feathers shooting out of the skies, and ran for it.

Poruniv stared as his attack failed. He stared at that damned ring—then at Cire. Mivifa was flying towards him, and she had seen the Second Gardener.

“Damn.”

He twisted a ring and a spear jabbed, but he distorted out of reality before he was touched. Mivifa landed, as Saliss of Lights threw an orb at the retreating criminals running for bolt-holes, many boxed in and surrendering.

Rafaema was still howling, though. She was shuddering, striking the paws holding her. She was enraged. No—burning—

Rafaema of Manus. Enough. You are hurting your people.

Only when the voice spoke did she come to her senses. She looked around, and saw Magnolia Reinhart standing there. The [Lady] was a bit winded, but watched Ilvriss and the sons and daughters of Salazsar charging into the city—as well as their allies. Anyone who truly had ever made an oath to defend Salazsar. She’d heard of the rings; more ornamental than useful. Never seen one used.

But it was to Rafaema that Magnolia turned now. The Drake was panting, wild-eyed.

“Let go of—”

Then and only then she saw the bloody-faced Gnoll, still holding onto her. Ferris? Rafaema lowered her arms. Makhir was bleeding, but not nearly as badly wounded.

“What am—I didn’t—”

Her head had gone white. She’d been ready to fight, but they had held her back and she had thought she was going to die like when that Drake, Onieva, got her. But she’d been ready to fight.

“Ferris?”

Rafaema reached for him, and then doubled over. She nearly fell, and this time Makhir was holding onto her.

“Wall Lady Rafaema? Wall Lady! Are you well? Lady Reinhart, back up—get a [Battlefield Healer]!”

Makhir snapped at Manus’ [Soldiers]. Ferris tried to rise, and Rafaema was clutching at her chest. It hurt. What was—? She felt like she was going to explode, all of a sudden.

“Oh, be quiet, Hunt Commander. What a mess. Rafaema. Rafaema, do you hear me?

A voice. It was so knowing, so pervasive, it even fought through the Lightning Dragon’s confusion. She shuddered, unable to do more than listen. Something terrible was trying to emerge. She fought now, to keep the lightning from exiting her lungs.

“Listen to me. Do not let it out, here. Fly. Do you hear me? Fly as high as you can. Go! Fly!

How did she know? How did—

Rafaema was in the air before she could think. Her wings strained, but the magic carried her up. Makhir, held back from Magnolia by Ressa, saw his charge fly straight up. Her eyes were glowing. Her mouth was opening and—

Something burst out of Rafaema. A sudden change in her. Near-death, Magnolia’s speech, something—many things, a confluence of it. An awakening.

Makhir and Ferris saw it. The First Gardener, hurrying towards Cire, Manus itself, watching the events on the scrying orb, suddenly focused on a figure streaking up, high over Oteslia. So high even the great tree receded. No one noticed at first.

They did when the sky split in half and a bolt of lightning pierced the heavens. A strike so thunderous every cloud discharged all the rain within it.

Gigantic leaves fell from Oteslia’s tree. Every animal in a thousand miles screamed—and then hid. Makhir stared up as Rafaema lurched in the air, then discharged a second, smaller blast. How did that woman…?

“Stress. My word. You would think Manus of all places knows how to rear Oldbloods.”

Magnolia winked at Makhir, then lost her smile. She pinched the bridge of her nose. Oh dear.

“Ressa. Tell me I’m not seeing what I’m seeing?”

“You are blind and deaf and stupid, Lady Reinhart.”

“Wonderful.”

She had a nosebleed. Ressa offered a handkerchief to Magnolia as the [Lady] wiped at her nose. And stared at the…scene.

The ionized air filled Oteslia. Outside, an army of Drakes was in disarray. No less than the Admiral of Supply himself came to a halt, too late to save…

Well, the Human. The young woman with fiery, just, striking red hair, a certain complexion of the features, blue eyes, standing with two weary men with hats by her side like bodyguards. Or [Knights] of the street.

Which took nothing away from the actual [Knights], battered, dirty, yes, who had come to a halt and thrown themselves into kneeling postures before her. Just to complete the moment? The high tension in the air, the crowd of Salazsar’s Drakes, multiple famous individuals all here to see, the ringing in your ears after lightning split the world in half and the rain pattering down, revealing gold on the armor, and that shining ring on her finger?

Well, there was Wall Lord Ilvriss, curiously missing his ring himself. Wall Lady Navine and Helessia, shielded from the rain by a kindly [Combat Butler], both looked at the Human. The ring. The [Knights].

All that was missing was a scrying orb. Fortunately, Ressa had slapped and deactivated every one she could see. But here it was.

Oteslia. City of Growth. Rickel laughed until he nearly fell off the rooftop he was watching from. He sipped a cup of coffee and laughed in delight.

You loved to see it.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I can, of course, check Twitch chat when I write, which is a hindrance and a help. But sometimes I can tell if a chapter is good or not…and be surprised either way.

I feel this is stronger. It has the flaws of a web serial, but I was ‘in the zone’, which applies to writers as well as athletes. Anyone can do it in any scenario, I think.

This was 20,000 words over two days, and…18,000 in one sitting. One of the longest chapters I’ve written, albeit in two parts how I posted it. The reason it came out this way is because of how I’ve learned to write, even over the last few years.

It is not that I become better at every chapter I do. I have ups and downs. But my new system of writing over three days, rather than one, allows more chances for quality to emerge. Me streaming live-writing, doing things like exercising before I write, stretching, all sometimes click together for my best chapters.

Now, was this one of them? I don’t know. That would be your decision. But I felt good writing it. It may rush in places, especially near the end, some parts especially prose might suffer as I work onwards, but it is spontaneous, even though parts are planned. How it comes out is random. Like…experimental cooking. Every now and then you get a nice cake.

Thanks for reading.

 

Zel vs Ilvriss by Curry, commissioned by Ayutac!

 

Gothics, Yellat Day, and more, by LeChat!

 

Wyrm, Fetohep, Mushroom, and more by Brack!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.44 O

[I did another interview with the friendly Fantasy Inn! Check it out here!]

 

It was now time to ask questions, even if the answers were undesirable. Simple questions with answers like barbs, if you asked them right.

If you got truthful answers. Each one of them knew all the little lies, half-truths, omissions you could get. They also knew how to cut to the heart of truth and yank it out if they had to.

Did they want to?

 

——

 

Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar had learned you could not buy truth. You could buy words, you could buy the answers you wanted, and have them shouted loudly, but truth? The closest you could get to that were experts. A kind of loyalty.

“Who can we trust?”

He murmured to himself. His audience of five, including himself, sat, thinking hard. More than that? Ilvriss was getting answers—in part to that question. Answers he…didn’t think he wanted.

Xesci, the [Courtesan of Change], was the kind of person who had all the answers by her very nature. She did not—usually—give them out since there was such a thing as confidentiality and client privilege, especially in her line of work. These circumstances dictated otherwise.

“I’m not a truth teller. So I can’t tell you for certain, that just because I sense a…a love, or certain things, that they’re not agents of the Necromancer.”

She prefaced herself again. Nerul, Ilvriss’ uncle and [Diplomat] at the top of his class, wiped at his brow, slightly. He was sweating from a ‘quick jaunt’ that had him climbing all the way down to the gates of Oteslia and back up to their higher mansion. He could have hired a sedan chair or the like, but that was too noticeable. He replied to Xesci.

“That’s where we come in. Captain Osthia and I do the back-check. Income, suspicious visits, and so on. We have the diadem of whatever-the-hell for a final check. But we do need impressions, Miss Xesci. So…what have you learned?”

Again, the Courtesan pulled a face. At last, Ilvriss stirred. The last member of their group did not. She was shaking slightly, curled up in a corner of the room. Shriekblade, or Tessa, depending on how she was feeling, was not in a good way of late.

“I know you have reservations, Miss Xesci. But I swear on Salazsar’s walls, it will not leave this room.”

“Even as fantastic gossip material. My promise as well, on my tail.”

Nerul added. Ilvriss glared at his uncle, but a [Diplomat] knew his targets, and Xesci smiled a bit, surprising Ilvriss.

“Fair enough, Wall Lord Nerul. Then…I don’t think your sister is an agent. Nor your mother, Wall Lord. Nor Magnolia Reinhart, the First Gardener, your Miss Marquin—especially not her—or anyone on your Priority One list. Actually, my impression is that Magnolia Reinhart and Miss Marquin, and your sister…definitely not. I can’t prove it, but that’s my instinct.”

“Go on.”

Ilvriss relaxed. He relaxed, and he didn’t know how tense he’d gotten. Nerul clapped his claws together.

“What a relief. Start with my dear niece, who I would be very upset to learn was an undead puppet or conspirator. She does have absences and secrets…”

“So does any Walled Drake. Why are you certain my mother and sister are safe, Miss Xesci? Can you elaborate?”

They had to look into such things. Again, the [Courtesan] eyed Ilvriss.

“There are some answers, Wall Lord, that…you might not want to receive.”

The purple-scaled Wall Lord blinked a few times. Nerul bit his lip and his tail curled up, but Ilvriss wasn’t quite sure what Xesci meant. He got sure in moments.

“I can see which face or likeness I would ah, take, if I were to work for a certain client. You know that. Well…I have met those who have no face, or who are just—odd. That’s a big hint. However, both of your family members have distinct people in mind—a range. Everyone does.”

Ilvriss nodded, trying to block out Xesci’s own analysis of his childhood crushes, loves…Nerul leaned forwards.

“Just out of curiosity, who’s mine?”

Xesci glanced at him. Ilvriss groaned.

“Uncle…”

“I want to hear it.”

Captain Osthia Blackwing muttered, then coughed as everyone looked at her. The Pallassian [Wing Captain], presumed dead and under the name of Captain Shieldscale, saw Nerul smile.

Ilvriss had asked Xesci already, so he knew her answer.

“Charming women, Wall Lord Nerul. I could choose from nearly forty faces.”

“Ah, how appropriate. No one person?”

“A few. But that would be, ah, exoticism. I think. People you’ve met but never interacted with.”

“And you know this because…?”

“I would have to improvise them naked. And I recognize a number of influential faces, even without being an expert on regional leaders.”

Nerul started laughing. Ilvriss covered his eyes with one claw.

“Can we return to my sister?”

“Absolutely, Wall Lord. It’s simple. I ah, saw a number of faces in her mind’s eye, but one of the reasons I think she can’t be an agent is simply that she…that is to say, some of my co-workers do know she’s engaged their services. Privately.”

Ilvriss’ face went blank. Xesci went on, as Captain Osthia glanced at Ilvriss and Nerul sat up, eying his nephew.

“It would be good cover, but I somehow doubt a true puppet would maintain that kind of intimate…”

“You happen to know these fellow workers? I have never heard of Navine ever visiting a brothel or…it would be all over Salazsar!”

Ilvriss protested. He was already uncomfortable with Xesci’s power in some ways. This? This had gone off the uncomfort waterfall and he was fighting discomfort sharks in the water.

Xesci was an expert of intimacy, and she winced. She had a very bland face on; the schemer she had been when she first met with Ilvriss. It helped her detach, and she claimed it made her smarter, if ruthless. There was still enough of her to look awkward on his behalf.

“I’m sorry, Wall Lord. But I did see a number of figures, so it indicates she could only be a double-agent.”

“Which we can investigate. So that’s instinct and knowledge for you. Anything we should know?”

Uncle.

“No, he has a point. Wall Lord, I know this is difficult, but anything relevant, Xesci…?”

Osthia gave Ilvriss a pleading look. He had to stand up and walk over their private, secured rooms to pour himself a drink. Not wine; he had meetings to go to later and he was off the stuff. But he wondered if you could do something similar—just to drown out sensation. Distilled plum and lemon juice, no sugar, maybe. He’d ask for some made up.

“No one I know. Rather handsome Gnolls, Drakes, even a Human—that would be my co-worker. And uh—two female Drakes.”

The spray out of Ilvriss’ nose-holes and mouth made Tessa roll out of the way reflexively. He turned, coughing.

“What?”

“Ah. Uncomfortable secrets. Don’t let’s get on the Turnscale wagon, nephew. We have bigger fish to kick.”

Nerul wagged a claw. Ilvriss shook his head.

“I’m not about t—I just—Navine?

“I told you there were answers you didn’t want to hear, Wall Lord. Your mother…”

Xesci looked even more uncomfortable. This time Nerul and Ilvriss traded a look.

“Er, Miss Xesci. For my nephew’s sake, if it’s a matter of delicate…”

“No! Not in that way.”

Ilvriss breathed again. Xesci paused.

“She just doesn’t have Wall Lord Zail in her mind. Someone else. A Drake. Multiple ages. Perhaps deceased? A lover? Er…”

She watched as Ilvriss slowly rubbed at his eyes.

“…We’re going to have to look into this, aren’t we?”

“I’ll handle it. Just give me a description, or better yet—pose with the face so I can do a rough check. I’ll do it later.”

Nerul murmured. Ilvriss sat back down, heavily. After that opening salvo into finding allies and uncovering Az’kerash’s minions, he thought nothing would surprise him.

…Right up until Xesci told him why she was almost convinced Lyonette was genuinely non-Az’kerash.

“A what?”

Captain Osthia shouted. Xesci lifted a claw.

“Two things. It is not strong. Not in an…intimate way. First loves. I would be hesitant to look like that. It makes it too much like cheating on someone…with a copy of them. But she does like this…Antinium. A Worker, I think?”

“An Antinium.”

Ilvriss was least-surprised of all of them. Which still meant shocked. Xesci gave him a helpless nod.

“It is surprising, but this is personal, something unconscious, Wall Lord. It’s the fourth Antinium I’ve seen.”

Fourth?

“Well, hers was the most accurate, I believe. The others were…I would call it a very specific desire.”

“For what? Insects?

“Or being frightened. Someone’s deepest fantasy can be a terrifying, albeit safe, encounter with something…not quite like a person? I’ve seen Goblins, Golems, even a Creler, the King of Destruction—fame is popular—two of the four I saw were actually of the one they call the ‘Small Queen’, Xrn, and the askers were both male.”

“Please stop talking.”

Ilvriss felt like he was going to die. He shifted focus.

“…I doubt there’s much chance Navine or Lyonette could be puppets with that kind of imaginative backstory. Can we go to the Gardener?”

“Of course, Wall Lord. You’ll be glad to understand her desires are standard.”

“Wonderful.”

“A bit colorful in one of the images I could have chosen as a fantasy. She apparently met a rather splendid Minotaur, in a bath-house or something, because I—”

Next.

“Ah. Magnolia Reinhart, then. She’s harder to read, as [Ladies] are, but her maid, butler, and so on all had people in their desires. It’s…complicated.”

“How so?”

Ilvriss just wanted to know if they were monsters in disguise. Xesci hesitated.

“The [Butler] loves someone who’s dead. I can tell. They tend to be idealized. Captured in a particular pose or dress. The maid—”

“Ressa. Former Assassin’s Guild.”

“—She’s simpler. A number, including Lady Reinhart herself. I’m not sure if that’s love or desire. However, Lady Reinhart?”

“Yes?”

“…I could do someone attractive to her, certainly. But the face of the real person she wants is—impossible. I’d fail. I could become him…but I’d still be wrong. And I don’t know why.

The [Courtesan] frowned. Professional pride appearing for the first time. She was reluctant to divulge these deep, intimate secrets, but she did. Ilvriss sat up.

“Please, explain. Could that mean…?”

“Oh, no. I know who she loves. It would be that fellow—I saw him in the scrying orb. Grand Magus Eldavin.”

Really. That explains a lot. If I could use this, Salazsar would be able to confirm a number of intelligence hypotheses that—sorry, sorry. Secret.”

Nerul sat back as Xesci gave him a look. Ilvriss frowned.

“That’s not too unusual.”

Xesci nodded patiently.

“Yes, Wall Lord. But I have an instinct beyond mere Skill, because I am good at my job. If I presented myself to her, I feel as though I would still fail to capture…something. Something is wrong with that image, yet it is right. Does that make sense?”

“No.”

“It doesn’t to me, either. She’s…a challenge. Although I’m not likely to find out why.”

“Well. It seems as though they’re at least not undead puppets. Have you found anyone who matches that?”

Xesci hesitated.

“One. But it could just be a lack of loves or someone who really doesn’t care. Not high-ranking, but I will pass you the name…”

Nerul rubbed his claws together, nodding. Ilvriss leaned back in his chair to process what he really didn’t want to think about in some cases. He only looked up when Nerul spoke.

“Hm, Uncle?”

“I said, which one do we reach out to first, nephew? I’d put money on Reinhart. Risky, given who she is, but you said she intimated she was an ally.”

The Wall Lord hesitated.

“…We need to run more checks on movements, connections—”

“On Reinhart? Hah. Tell you what, I’ll do my best work, get Blackwing to help me, and pull in all of Salazsar’s intelligence. We’ll come back to you in a year with squat. The First Gardener’s probably just as bad. A Calanferian [Princess]? We’ll only trace her back to Izril, not before.”

“True. But we can’t make a mistake.”

Nerul fixed Ilvriss with a keen, perceptive eye.

“Nephew. You already took a chance with the three of us.”

He gestured at Shriekblade, himself, and Xesci.

“It’s time to take action. We need allies. It could go bad, but now is not the time to sit. Not now. Not with the Gnolls boiling mad and threatening a war we can’t sustain. For the Antinium or the Necromancer. Someone needs to be caught up.”

Ilvriss knew he was right. He rubbed at his face, then nodded. And then looked at Nerul.

They’d all heard the news, even under siege in Oteslia. It was complicating an already complicated affair with Magnolia Reinhart, and his own mission. Ilvriss met Nerul’s eyes directly.

“Tell me something. Did you know about this, Uncle?”

Nerul gave him a clear look which could have held a million lies. Yet he did shake his head.

“No, Ilvriss. I didn’t have a clue. Nor would anyone with half a brain have told me, given my job. Mind you, I might have found out…but I didn’t know. The question is: did anyone in Salazsar? Did you?”

Ilvriss saw Osthia’s gaze swing back to him. She had no knowledge. He frowned.

“No. But then, even for a Wall Lord, I’m younger. I wonder if my father would have access to that kind of information? He would be the only one in the family. But we do know Fissival’s always loved magicore.”

“Along with any number of magical items. Well, it’s a mess. And I can’t envy whomever’s sent to calm the Gnolls down, if anyone. Bloody idiots might just escalate and that will not go well. There’s little respect for [Diplomats] among High Commands.”

Nerul grumbled. Ilvriss raised his brows.

“Do you actually think you could do something, Uncle? What about the siege?”

“The army outside? Of course! Mind you, Zeres’ Admiralty is smart. They’d run if I walked at them. They know a shark in the waters. Let’s stay focused. Allies and Necromancers. Where do we start first?”

Ilvriss thought about it. He glanced left, and smelled and saw Tessa lean over and vomit onto the carpet. She collapsed into the puddle and lay there, curled up. In the silence, Ilvriss gestured.

“Probably with her.”

 

——

 

“Why is she sick?”

Wall Lord Ilvriss asked that question to three [Healers], all of whom had no idea. Well—one never got a chance to investigate Shriekblade. She came round, slashed with her claws across the poor Gnoll’s face, and sent the [Healer] screaming for…a [Healer].

Adventurer Tessa. You will collect yourself.”

Ilvriss snapped, as Osthia wrestled Tessa back to their coach. The scarred Drake turned her head and gave him a stare like a wall had sprouted eyes.

“I’m Shriekblade.”

“Shriekblade, then. What is wrong?”

“She’s gone. She’s gone. I have to go get her. I’m never going to be okay again. She’s gone. She’sgoneshe’sgoneshe’sgone…

She was having some kind of breakdown, like a [Soldier] fighting a horror for the first time. Ilvriss looked at Osthia, but the other Drake had it.

“Do you mean…the Healer of Tenbault?”

Tessa looked up. She shot to her feet.

“Yes. I have to go get her. I’m leaving.”

With that, she began to try to commandeer the coach. Osthia stopped her. Tessa kicked her across the street, and Ilvriss jumped for the coach. Cursing, he fought with Shriekblade and got her to stop—mainly because she collapsed halfway through trying to claw out his eyes.

“No. She’s already dead. Goblins are killing and eating and raping her. She’s dead and I’m not going to ever be me again.”

She lay there as Osthia caught up with Ilvriss. He looked at his helper. Shriekblade was their ace in the hole, the one genuinely high-level deterrent against a traitor. They needed her better, as callous as it was to ignore her own distress. But how? Damn. Goblins?

Ilvriss had a sinking suspicion it might be connected to a lot of events. But for now, he wrestled Tessa back into the coach and began to hunt for a temporary cure to what ailed her.

 

——

 

“So, feeling any side-effects? Are you alright?”

As they partied out the night in Oteslia, Mirn, the [Protector] of Pallass’ secret bar, a Sentry as they called him, former [Soldier], and friend to Saliss of Lights…and Onieva, asked a question that really cut down on his personal enjoyment of the night.

Such as there was to be had with a bunch of horny, silly kids like Cire and his friends. Some were interesting, like Lyonette for instance, but Mirn had come for Onieva.

She gave him a long look.

“…Nope.”

“Well, be careful. I know you’re on a high after so long, but don’t lose track of the time! And be careful what you put in your body!”

“Mirn. Mirn, you are the last person I want to hear that from.”

Oneiva laughed as she followed the group down the street. Mirn rolled his eyes, tail curling.

“You’re the one who told me to be careful!”

In truth, Onieva shouldn’t have been out there at all. She should have tested the new, faerie-flower substitute for her potion, but Mirn understood she’d been desperate. So she’d taken it. It had worked perfectly…and would probably be a huge upset in the alchemical world and all that, once Saliss returned.

The problem was that Onieva was clearly deliriously happy, and thus, incautious. Mirn had to be the one to watch out for complications. And there were going to be some.

 

——

 

“What are the side effects?”

“Excuse me?”

Saliss gave Mirn a look as he prepared the vial. He’d taken one drop as a taste, sworn a blue streak, and told Mirn his crazy hypothesis about the changing, convenient nature of the Faerie Flowers was right.

“It means this stuff is adapting to what it does, and Xif and I and all the idiots trying to make it into something are effectively gutting its usefulness, Mirn. I’ll write him a note and get the others to stop…after I take this.”

“I got that. But what do you mean, side effects? Did you sense any?”

Saliss just snorted.

“I don’t need to, even if I could. Mirn, I did my research. Faerie Flower drinks that make you go back in time and dream true-ish dreams, but lead to incredible depression or dependancy. Glory drinks that make you cry buckets. Soporific smoke and so on. They’re tricky flowers. There’s always a catch. I don’t doubt that fertilizer composite does something too. Maybe it makes anything it grows allergens or something. So when I take this…I need you to look out for me.”

The Sentry folded his arms.

“And do what, exactly?”

“Make sure it doesn’t wear off when I’m out there. Make sure to test whether it’s doing anything to my head. Memory, and so on. And most importantly—”

 

——

 

“—Avoid a scene.”

Mirn repeated the instructions. Onieva rolled her eyes.

“Please, Mirn. When do I cause a scene?”

“…I’ll stomp on your tail, you Wyvern-bitch. Don’t pretend you’ve forgotten how many bars fights you cause every time you go out.

She laughed and danced ahead of him, spreading her arms and swinging around in a wide circle. It caught the attention of Lyonette and the others.

“Mirn! I’m so glad you’re here. This is going to be a good night!”

“That’s right! I told you they were sort of Archmage!”

A shout from the rambunctious teen, the leader, Cire himself. The others cheered and Mirn felt his head beginning to ache. That was the beginning of a long night.

 

——

 

“…Am I old, now?”

It was a terrible thing to think. Because, Mirn felt, if you had to ask, you already knew the answer. He reminded himself that he was youn—he wasn’t technically young, but he was far from aged! He wasn’t at his middle years…y-yet.

He had no back pain. He was a former [Soldier] who had kept his levels, and knew what the hell ‘Archmage’ meant. Mirn might not be able to do a backflip like Onieva, who promptly astounded the skeptical kids, but he could still march forty damn miles with armor and packs.

Probably.

The thing wasn’t his disabilities, it was his ability to…well, run around. Mirn was a one-bar Sentry. Literally. Sometimes that bar moved, but it was because someone was literally kicking down the door. He had forgotten that ‘fun’ involved hitting eight places in one night, mostly because you kept getting kicked out of them.

“We’ve got a real [Lady] with us, so everyone behave! Let’s show Lionette a good time, since I finally got her to come with us!”

Cire crowed, oblivious to how that made Lyonette start. He was turning up the charm, but he’d forgotten that alcohol adjusted all the dials.

Well, he had something. Mirn saw someone hurry into the pub, which had wisely given them an outdoor table, and come back with an Oteslian rye. Naturally, Oteslia was an expert at brewing all kinds of alcohols. Every city had their specialty, and Zeres had a lot of foreign imports. Pallass could hold its own as could Fissival, because of alchemical or magical drinks.

But if you ever wanted to stare at a row of two hundred different beers and then walk to the ‘ale’ category in massive breweries…this was the place.

Mirn had no desire to do that. He served two dozen kinds of drinks, max. His clientele wanted alcohol, and if he had any, that was good. In that sense, Mirn was a terrible [Bartender]; he had about three levels in the class.

But he was a damned good Sentry, so what he saw was everything.

“Let’s see. Eighteen to mind. That one’s already drowning, that one’s on something…the rest are rather fine.”

Mirn was actually surprised. One was clearly as drunk as a Sariant Lamb alcoholic—and the little things did have a drinking problem, which was hilarious—but the rest weren’t in over their heads.

Rather…he eyed them. Something about a few of Cire’s gang of friends gave Mirn a vaguely odd sensation, but he didn’t parse it fully. He was a bit distracted.

“Damn. He is handsome.”

“He is, isn’t he? If only he had ten years. And his head out of his tail.”

Onieva took down a beer as the others egged each other on. Cire promptly had to copy that, and two of his friends. Mirn eyed Cire. It was hard…not to.

He was far too young, but now Mirn understood why people followed him about. He was young, but everything that was perfect about being young. Not a scale out of place, and Mirn was sure Cire had no idea about scale creams or tonics that some of his friends and clientele used. Some things were just unfair. Even his scales and eyes set him apart; there were ‘bronze’ Drakes, or ones with copper-colorations, or brown.

Few had a meld of colors like his. Not Lizardfolk. Not Drakes. Well, staring at handsome kids was not his job, so Mirn went back to watching Onieva.

And Lyonette. And…well, it was interesting.

“Whoo! Hey, Utasen, why are you looking sick? We’re just getting started!”

Cire laughed. A new friend, whose name he somehow already knew, looked appalled.

“You just took down four beers!”

They weren’t small tankards, either. Mirn sniffed at his drink. Not spiked or worse than anything; it had a pleasant scent, and he tasted it and guessed it was corn? Too light for him, but tasty.

Even so. Cire didn’t even wobble as he spun around on one foot to show how fine he was. By contrast, his Drake friend looked wobbly.

“Everyone knows Cire’s got two holes in his boots.”

One of the female Drakes put in dryly. Cire laughed and held up his boots. Lyonette sipped her beer, refusing to take it down fast. Mirn saw Onieva spin a tankard around and wink at Lyonette.

“You won’t hang with this crowd if you can’t hold your liquor. But why the hell are you all wasting good beers?”

So saying, she gulped down half of her drink with about the same effect. Cire’s brows rose as Onieva finished off her tankard. Mirn rolled his eyes.

“Onieva, don’t bully them.”

“Oh? Can she hold her water? Look at these old crabs.”

“Old crabs?”

Onieva reached out to a sniggering Gnoll and slapped his shoulder so hard he fell out of his seat, much to the amusement of others. She looked around.

“I’ll have you know that I could drink all of you under the table.”

Oooh.

Cire grinned and Mirn shook his head. He had no idea, but Onieva, even without turning on her complete immunity to alcohol, was still resistant. She had trouble getting drunk.

“Hey! Pull out a Firebreath! Let’s take some shots.”

“So soon?”

That came from both Lyonette and Raef, the Gnoll sitting next to her. The young man grinned as Mirn tried to kick Onieva. He got a stinging retort to his shin and swore, holding it.

“You don’t like spirits, Miss Lionette? Can I call you Lionette?”

Raef leaned over, smiling with his teeth. Lyonette copied him, showing no unease. She did hold herself with a kind of dignified reserve. Mirn eyed her as a bottle was brought out by a [Server], who demanded payment in advance. Cire scattered gold coins on the table with a promise of more to come.

Little brat. That was the First Gardener’s son, alright. Mirn watched as he took down a shot of the famous Drake whiskey with Onieva and two others. They were going to be in trouble soon.

“I don’t usually drink, actually. I’m around alcohol a lot, but I’ve worked as a…a [Server].”

“Really?”

Raef’s eyebrows rose. He…gave Lyonette a look. Mirn raised his own brows. Wasn’t she supposed to be a [Princess]? That was what Chaldion had told him while he briefed Mirn for this odd mission. Chaldion had told him Lyonette wasn’t as important as Saliss, obviously.

“Yes. But tonight’s a night to have fun, so I’m trusting Cire to show me the ropes.”

Lyonette smiled, and the young Drake burped, realized she was talking to him, and went back to playing the good host of the event, a bit abashed.

Clever girl. Mirn nodded along, and realized two things. He did have experience in watching drinkers, and there was a difference between them.

When you had alcohol, how you drank it revealed something about your personality. A clue, at least.

Young people…of which Mirn felt a growing disconnection with…drank a lot. Infamously, but it wasn’t without purpose. Their consumption waxed and waned. It was social, and so they had competitions, or imbibed a lot when the excitement dictated it. Their goal was to have fun, and so they went for a night of fun that might end up with them head-first in a pile of their own vomit, but not necessarily.

By contrast, if you looked at Onieva, or Mirn himself, or, interestingly here, two of the young friends of Cire, they took over the whiskey and drank it down fast. No savoring it, or even the need for snacks. It was practiced. They had something like water or a juice along with the shots, or mixed it in. They weren’t excited by the prospect of drinking; they knew exactly what they wanted.

Calmly, each one took down enough to obscure reality for a bit. Make them stop thinking. It was cynical drinking, in a way. You didn’t need other people for it and sometimes you preferred that.

What was odd was that Onieva and Mirn should know how to do it, but why would Raef and those two drink like that? An odd personality trait in younger generations. But Raef calmly poured himself a double shot and took it down without blinking, much to Mirn and Lyonette’s astonishment.

Mirn himself tried that, and had to reach for a pitcher of water. Nope, it wasn’t diluted. So there were three people here with constitutions of steel!

The last kind of drinker was just Lyonette, incidentally. Lyonette alone. Someone who didn’t actually drink that much due to her upbringing, and had been told by well-intentioned idiots that it was a social thing, to be done at banquets and smaller events, but completely missed the context of it all.

Especially because this was the first time Lyonette had really been able to kick back with peers, not run a business or be responsible for a child. She was a small minnow in deep waters, and someone had just spiked the pond with rum. Mirn watched her as she experienced the joys of social drinking, perhaps for the first time.

 

——

 

Raef, or, as she was behind the illusion, Rafaema of Manus, watched Lyonette with about as much keenness as Cire. More so because Cire was caught up in a competition with the odd Drake woman who had invited herself along.

The male Drake was quieter, the responsible guardian. That was fine. Rafaema was focused on Lyonette. The trouble was…

Was she lying to Raef already? She claimed she was used to working. Which wasn’t a [Princess] thing at all.

Ferris claimed she worked at the inn. Maybe she actually did? Or she saw it as work.

In her way, the Dragon was as world-weary as Mirn…and she had four times his lifespan to amplify her views. She was not here to party like Cire—and she saw how much he had to drink to bypass his own natural immunities to alcohol. Even Onieva began to fall behind just due to the sheer quantity he could imbibe, which would explode a lesser Drake’s stomach.

Still. Onieva was odd, as well as Mirn. Rafaema had a feeling about them…but it could wait. For the moment, she was doing something unpleasant for her city. Which, to judge by the news coming out of the Meeting of Tribes, was as Drake as you could get.

Those damned idiots. We don’t need a war with Gnolls! Did Luciva know about this? How am I going to fix it? What else have they…

“It’s the cities. It’s always the cities. Everyone asks why we fucking hate the walls and the boots. It’s stuff like that.”

One of the non-actor Gnolls began growling as that very conversation came up. Cire turned, looking a bit uncomfortable.

“Hey, that’s Fissival. Fissival is totally Creler eggs, Rox. Oteslia’s okay. I’d know about them doing anything bad.”

“Just because your mother’s the First Gardener, Cire? Hah! They’re all evil. You don’t know. You’re a Drake.

“Hey now. Don’t bring us down, dude. Let’s not monk about on boring stuff.”

That had to be an actor. Raef rolled his eyes as a Gnoll cut in, fur dyed strategically, ushering them to another bar. On the way, Raef leaned over to Lyonette.

“What do you think about the Meeting of Tribes thing, Lyonette?”

“Me? Oh…it’s terrible. One supposes they have their reasons, though. Cire! I believe you wouldn’t do anything that terrible. You do know a lot about Oteslia, don’t you?”

Raef frowned as Lyonette went over to console Cire, who cheered up.

“That’s right, Lionette! I do! And if I’d heard about that gemstone or whatever, I would have had someone go dig it up.”

“You can do that?”

“I mean, probably, yeah. I could probably get the Pegasus Fliers to do that.”

Rafaema frowned at Cire, who was bragging too hard. And at Lyonette, who was clearly interested in Cire. Genuinely?

She hadn’t drunk much. Rafaema glanced around, then, as they headed to the next bar, suggested a round.

“Let’s all take a shot to Fissival sticking its fat tail into an ant hive!”

The others cheered at that, and Rafaema saw Lyonette protest. Cire, laughing, offered her a shot and she sipped at it, then reluctantly took it down.

“So, Lionette, where are you fr—”

Raef headed over to Lyonette, as the others began to dance or drink or grab snacks and bother the other clientele. It was turning into a damned party and Cire knew everyone. But this time Onieva got in the way.

“You’re looking a bit unsteady. You can say no, you know? Come on. Do you know how to dance?”

The [Princess] shook her head, eyes determinedly clear.

“I can. And I’m having fun, Onieva, thank you. I’m actually a quite decent dancer.”

Onieva raised a single brow, mockingly.

“Saliss told me all about your ballroom dancing. But that’s not dancing. Come on. Mirn, get over here and let’s have fun!”

“Dead gods, Onieva…”

Again, Lyonette was spirited away and Rafaema cursed. A party? Why had she thought that was a good idea? It was, in fact, the worst way to get Lyonette to spill anything. Even if she was drunk…

“Hey, Raef. Stop getting in my way! Those two crabs are bad enough, but I’m trying to impress Lionette!”

“Shut up, Cire.”

Raef glowered, watching Onieva and Mirn actually join in quite proficiently. At least they were acting their age, or not hiding it, rather. The other actors hiding their true ages and pretending to enjoy shaking it out in the bar, or laughing?

She hated it. He had to see it. Rafaema’s lip curled. Cire was already away, catching up with some friends.

He did see it. Or else why did he always gravitate towards the genuinely younger crowd, letting his group follow him around? It might be unconscious, but it was there. Raef leaned back, plotting her next move.

Two more pubs they hit, and each time Mirn calmly advised Lyonette to take a glass of something else because she was overdoing it, or Onieva took over the event. She was here to have fun—and apparently get in Rafaema’s way. However, the Dragon noticed something interesting as Mirn yanked Onieva aside after she headed to the restroom. They whispered for a second and Rafaema glanced up from watching Cire and Lyonette flirt.

…and what’s eight times sixty three?

“Dead gods, Mirn. I don’t…five hundred and four, okay? Who wrote that crap?”

“Saliss did.”

“Well, I hate him. What else?”

“What’s the key component of healing potions?”

“Eir gel. Basic faculties are all here! No side effects, okay?”

Mirn nodded. Rafaema glanced over. Onieva knew Saliss of Lights? Right, she was his cousin. Interesting, though. And interesting how she was as intoxicated as Cire and Rafaema.

Which was to say, not at all. Lyonette, even Mirn and the other actors were all feeling it, but Onieva had an inexhaustible amount of energy. Maybe she was a [Social Drunkard], or some class that turned this kind of thing into power? It fit the socialite. Rafaema nodded to herself…right up until the street fight.

“What? Someone’s doing what?

A Drake was talking to Cire, plucking at the young man’s arm.

“In broad daylight! I mean…whatever, Cire. We were just walking along and they told us to clear the street.”

“And did you?”

“Do we look like Lizards? ‘Course not! We were about to really get into it, y’know, but they said we’d settle this tonight. There’s eleven of us and thirteen of them. Come on, can you bring some of your group?”

Cire hesitated as Rafaema and some of his minders’ heads turned. He was bright-eyed with excitement, but he did waver.

“I dunno, Lotse. I’m showing this Human around—Lionette—”

“She can watch! Come on, Cire.”

The Drake girl was definitely not an actor, and she and some Drakes were asking him to…Rafaema scooted over.

“What’s this, Cire?”

“Someone tried to bully friends of mine. I dunno, Lotse, I’ve got a reputation to worry about…”

“That’s right. Cire, we’re here to have fun. Let’s uh—let’s go get some snacks. On me!”

A Gnoll emphasized the words, glancing around for backup, but Lotse grabbed Cire’s arm as the Drake began to backpeddle.

“Cire! We’re begging you. Are we friends or not?”

The Earth Dragon’s eyes turned back. His expression cleared—then took on an obstinate cast that Rafaema didn’t like.

“Of course we are. I’ll come with you.”

“No, Cire—”

The Gnoll grabbed for Cire, but the Earth Dragon prised off the paws with casual strength.

“I’ll just duck out for a second. Come on, Lotse. Twelve against thirteen’s fine. We’ll just…”

He glanced at ‘Raef’, but the Dragon just folded her arms.

“You want backup?”

“If you want to come, Raef? What, you too good for it?”

Rafaema ignored the goading words. She had trained with a sword and she doubted Cire was trained in anything except how to hit a toilet bowl when sick. She had killed someone, just this week.

“I’m not fighting your battles. Nor should you.

She emphasized the words. Cire just made a face at her.

“They’re my friends, Rafae—I mean, Raef. You never leave your friends when they need you. Come on, Lotse. She’s Creler-brained.”

“Who?”

The Drake blinked at Raef. Cire hurried her off.

“He. Whatever.”

Rafaema was going to kick him again for being so stupid. She sat there, growling, and glanced at Lyonette who was free. The Gnoll actor was sounding a quiet alarm and four of the others hurried out of the bar, cursing. Rafaema had a clear shot at Lyonette. She stood there, cursing—then went after Cire.

Not for his safety, but for anyone he tangled with.

…Maybe for his safety. He was a Dragon, but he was still…

 

——

 

It was a fast fight, so Rafaema arrived when it was one minute into it, and thus almost a third over. She watched, coming to a halt in the shadows as a smaller crowd watched two dozen mostly-Drakes brawling.

Clubs, fists, nothing edged. It was a street fight between two groups who didn’t have anything more than pride on the line.

But pride…well. Rafaema watched the melee. It was a bad one. No formations, no tactics other than ‘hit anyone who’s not my buddy’. The thing was that Cirediel was in there.

And he changed things. He was young, yes. Transformed by magic, yes. But he was still a Dragon.

He had little training, too. Even so, Rafaema watched someone throw a hook at him as Lotse tackled a Gnoll and they went down, throwing punches. She probably had [Street Fighter] as a class, because she hit the Gnoll in the jaw with a vicious elbow. Cire?

The Drake throwing the punch had a good one. He’d probably brawled enough. Cire? Cire blinked, reflexively put up his hands to shield his face, and backed up.

In short, everything you didn’t do in a brawl. And yet—Rafaema saw his eyes open, and he blocked the punch. He returned with a big, telegraphed swing. The Drake saw the motion, but it still laid him flat.

Cire was too quick. Too strong. And while you could equalize it, like the Drake with [Lesser Dexterity] or something that swore and punched Cire in the back for downing his buddy—Cire just turned and tried to uppercut him.

Tough. Rafaema watched someone glance a club off of Cire’s shoulder and wince at the unexpectedly jarring impact. It was still fairly even—until another haymaker from Cire tossed someone else clean out of the fight and into tomorrow. Then it got nasty.

“They’re using potions or artifacts or something! They brought a leveller!”

Someone clearly thought Cire had levels above his age, which was actually fair. Lotse’s jeer and her friends were cut off as a furious Drake tore a dagger out of his belt.

Cire froze, eyes on the sharp blade. Instantly, the other unarmed brawlers moved back. Rafaema tensed. What was Cire going to do? If he breathed acid, or panicked…

He jumped up and began to fly back.

“This guy’s berserking! Lotse, Auhousa, get back!”

He grabbed at his friends as the Drake charged, scattering the others. Cire threw out a wing as he changed directions for Lotse. So the Drake went for him, dagger out.

It might snap on his scales. Unless it’s enchanted. Rafaema saw the entire moment. Either way—she had her sword hilt in her hands. Step in, slash. Don’t kill him. She’d have to cut off his…hand?

She leapt forwards, and the [Knife Fighter] charged at Cire. Right into a broomstick.

The thing about broomsticks was that they were not designed as weapons. Too light, no edges—quarterstaffs were heavy and hurt, and were a decent weapon.

Then again, so was a broomstick if it hit your neck right as someone swung it. Not a killing blow, but it laid out the poor Drake. As did a foot, kicking him in the chest.

Rafaema slowed. Cire recoiled, and the Pegasus Riders shooting down from the skies roared.

Oteslia’s Watch! Break it up! You’re all under arrest!

Creler eggs! It’s the boots! Run!

Lotse and the others ran. But the lone Drake with an actual knife didn’t get away; an old Gnoll had come out of his shuttered shop-home with a few others and were beating Cire’s assailants with weapons. Well, in one case a Gnoll looked at a Drake with a kitchen knife in her claw and ran for it.

“You alright there?”

Cire was still frozen, staring at the downed Drake. The old Gnoll panted as he leaned on his broom. He had greying fur, and Oteslia’s Watch swept down around him, chasing the others. They saw Cire was safe, and Rafaema saw the plain relief in their eyes.

“I’m fine. Thanks uh, Mister. That was totally Archmage of you. I would have probably taken him out, but I didn’t want to hurt him.”

Cire nodded at the dagger. Plain steel. He would have been fine. Rafaema sheathed her sword, sighing. But then the old Gnoll smiled.

“I’m sure you would have been, Cire. But you never learn. You keep closing your eyes. Sixty years and you never fixed it. You should, or it’ll stick.”

Cirediel stopped, walking towards a severe [Pegasus Rider]. Rafaema’s head turned. The Earth Dragon’s eyes opened wide. He looked at the old Gnoll, and the [Shopkeeper] grinned.

Just a shopkeeper. Just one of the many citizens of Oteslia, who probably knew Cire as one of the many kids running around. As he had always done. As he had…

Oh no.

“Uh. Do I know you, old guy?”

Cire tried to chuckle. But something surfaced in his eyes. The Gnoll glanced at him.

“It’s me. I’m sure you’ve forgotten, but I’m Eshell. We used to hang out sixty years ago. I was…”

“…a [Shopkeeper’s Apprentice]. You worked at the place we got our sweets. At—”

Cire stared at the shop the Gnoll had come out of. Sign faded. Rafaema didn’t read it, but the Earth Dragon recoiled.

“We stopped going there—but you were—”

Eshell looked at Cire. The Earth Dragon backed up.

“That’s a bad joke. Eshell left Oteslia. It’s been only…”

His eyes flickered. The Gnoll glanced at the Pegasus Rider, who had noticed Cire’s behavior, dismounted, and was striding over.

“There’s never a chance to talk to you, Cire. But I just wanted to say hello. Don’t worry. I’d never say a thing. It’s just…good to see you. I doubt you’d want to talk, but I have a family now. Well, grandchildren. Your age. Maybe you’ll meet them.”

“I—I—”

Cirediel backed up from the Gnoll. The [Shopkeeper] looked at him.

“Cire?”

The Pegasus Rider swore. Cire looked at his old friend, whom he had forgotten about. Purposefully, Rafaema had no doubt. In the shadows, she watched as he backed away from Eshell without a word. He ran, leaping into the air. So fast, flying away from the truth.

No, she didn’t prefer Cire’s life at all. Or how Oteslia did things.

 

——

 

Back at the bar, Cire returned with an explosion of laughter, seizing two drinks, and towing Lyonette to dance with him as if nothing had happened. That something had was obvious. That he would not talk about it? Doubly so.

Rafaema returned too, a bit too dispirited to interrogate Lyonette, if she even could. She decided she’d just prevail on her as Wall Lady Rafaema. She didn’t want to talk to Cire, even if he wanted to. She was about to tell him she was off, and walking across the bar when someone beat her to it.

“Excuse me.”

A Drake tapped Lyonette on the shoulder as she did a quick-step with Cire. He turned.

“Hey, guy. I’m dancing with Lionette.”

“Sorry.”

And with that, the Drake produced something. He had a coat on, and was not one of the younger partying people. He held it up and Lyonette turned.

“I’m sorry, I’m—”

She blinked at the Faerie Flower. The Drake smiled.

“It’s not good to hoard, Miss. You know what happens to hoarders?”

He was already stabbing. Lyonette tried to back up and bumped into Cire. The Drake snarled—stabbed her with his empty claw, and blinked at it.

“What the f—”

Rafaema’s head spun. Who the heck was that? A Drake adjusted his cap, and a Gnoll with a top hat stepped through the doorway.

Backup! She’s got a bodyguard! Get me—

The Drake reached for another blade, and two more figures rose. Someone tried to come through the doorway and disappeared into a casual backhand from the Gnoll with the top hat. Lyonette reached for the sword she didn’t have. Rafaema spun, drawing her own sword…

—And saw one of the two figures was down. Mirn stood over a Drake, rubbing his fists. The other was lying on the floor too. How the—?

The first Drake attacked, oblivious, having finally gotten another dagger out. He snarled, looked over, saw all of his buddies were gone, and the female Drake with pink and cobalt scales leaping over the Drake she’d taken out in a flash. She had a bottle of Firebreath whiskey in her claws. Rafaema ran after her. She was going to get h—

The funny thing about wine bottles was that they were actually harder to smash than they looked. Rafaema saw it thunk into the Drake’s hand, face, eye—and didn’t break. Parts of him did. Onieva kicked his legs down and went to stomp, but by that point he was so far out that she didn’t bother completing the motion.

Five attackers, all taken out in moments. Rafaema saw Cire’s head spinning left and right, comically, just as much as Lyonette’s. The Lightning Dragon only wished she could claim credit for anything.

Who…? She looked at Mirn, dusting his claws off, Onieva, who tossed the bottle down and put her claws on her hips, exasperated, and the two hatted figures…who were already gone.

Who were they?

 

——

 

“Just one time. Just one night without someone trying to kill me, thank you.”

“It reminds me of home.”

The party was over, obviously. Cire’s brawl was one thing, but an actual murder attempt? The Watch had arrived with amazing speed, no less than Oteslia’s Pegasus Riders, which was very suspicious.

As suspicious as Cire’s ‘friends’, who all had drawn some actual artifacts the instant he was in danger. Mind you, they’d still been slower than Mirn and Onieva, but that wasn’t fair.

A Sentry and Architect were always ready for danger. They speculated on the whys and wherefores as they went. However, the two Gentlemen Callers had assured them they’d get Lyonette home safely.

“How are you feeling? Good? Any side effects? You took out those two as fast as I’ve ever seen you.”

“Mirn, stop worrying. I am fine. In fact, I’m amazing!

Onieva did a happy cartwheel and Mirn tried to smile.

“I just wonder when it will wear off. You’re taking a huge risk, you know.”

“Yes, yes.”

The Drake kept on cartwheeling with amazing grace, especially since she had to account for a moving tail, and then stopped. She turned.

“Mirn. Those Faerie Flowers are going to change everything. Once Saliss gets ahold of them…it could be everyone.

“I know. I know, just don’t get ahead of yourself. Come on, if you have to celebrate and still be up…here.”

He stopped, and checked a note he carried. Carefully, Mirn walked over to a door set among countless other doors in a residential street, and knocked twice.

“Excuse me. I’m looking for a cow?”

Without a word, the door opened. Onieva mouthed silently.

“Why a cow?”

The Gnoll sitting inside the doorway grinned.

“It’s a good password, though, isn’t it?”

“No. It’s really not. Hello, Onieva and Mirn.”

The Sentry’s eyes widened.

“I’ve heard of you. The Mirn and Onieva?”

“Keep it secret. What the hell are you doing, talking before the door’s closed?”

Mirn scowled. Abashed, the Sentry closed the door, and locked it. Mirn checked the door, looked around the Turnscale bar, as they were known, and saw this one was big. Big, populated, and, to his eyes, established.

Some of the bars like the ones he had to run had a lifespan of days or months at most. They were literally abandoned buildings or rented. This one? It had custom sofas in circular patterns, a magical ‘curtain’ to separate one section, and areas for relaxation, consultation…Onieva blinked.

“Is that a smoking section?”

“Like it? I’m Esse. It’s got magical containment so you can have a puffer and not disturb everyone else.”

“Dead gods. I’ve got some. This place is…”

The Sentry smiled proudly as Mirn and Onieva looked around. The two chorused almost at the same time.

Unsecured.

Esse looked puzzled. Mirn pointed at the door.

“This isn’t reinforced enough. You’ve got a decent lock, but I could blow this thing down with a single spell. Where’s your magical shielding?”

“This is too crowded.”

Onieva agreed with a frown. There had to be three hundred people in here at once! Which, of course, was a given due to Oteslia’s massive population—millions meant that any Turnscale population could easily fill a bar like this and every inch of it several times over. However, allowing so many was a risk.

“How are you going to evacuate them if it goes bad? What about a raid?”

Mirn glanced at the other Sentry. Esse blinked, then grinned.

“Oh, a raid? We haven’t had one of those—not a raid—for a decade! Trust me, we’ll hear it coming.”

“That’s what they all say, before everyone gets caught and exiled. And you’re using a week-old password with the cow thing.”

The Gnoll’s smile vanished as she realized this wasn’t a joke or light commentary, Mirn was serious. The [Protector] glared at Esse.

“Magical shielding? How long has this bar been open? You know you should rotate every two years at most. What about screening?”

“Listen, you just walked in here and you have a problem? Take it up with our Architects. I’m just the Sentry for this bar.”

This bar? You have more?

Onieva and Mirn chorused, outraged. Esse frowned at them, and glanced around for someone more senior.

“I don’t know what Pallass is like. I hear horror stories, but please, Architect, Sentry—relax. Oteslia’s more like the other cities.”

“Other cities…I’ve never seen this. Not in the other Walled Cities.”

Mirn shook his head. Onieva just frowned around. Then frowned deeper as someone knocked on the door. Reflexively, she and Mirn backed away as Esse casually adjusted the spyhole. He should have motioned them back; there should be a checkpoint area to shield the interior from view and buy a second, or at least a spell trap waiting to hit anyone coming through.

What was wrong with them?

The two settled down at an actual bar with a variety of drinks and food. Rude opening aside, they were still Mirn and Onieva, and some recognized them once they introduced themselves.

“It’s not Esse’s fault. Let me get you to an Architect. Oteslia’s not as hostile as many places.”

“How is that possible? Even if it’s the First Gardener, the entire city?”

“They just don’t enforce it. Thank the [Druids].”

Mirn frowned, until he realized the Drake explaining things was being literal.

“You mean…?”

“Thank the [Druids]. I think they tend to lean on our side. None of them ever come in here, but between you and me…if they were searching for us, they’d probably find us. No one can hide anything underground with them around.”

Mirn shuddered at the very idea. Onieva just frowned. Mirn turned to her.

“You haven’t seen this before?”

“I didn’t go here before, not often. I just met with Architects. If I did go out, it was just anywhere I felt like.”

“Fair enough.”

The [Protector] grimaced. Onieva was a rare case in that when she went out, there was almost no way to trace her back to Saliss. In a sense, she was freer than anyone here…so long as she was Onieva.

“Anyways, I’m just glad no one got hurt and this potion is working so well. No side effects?”

Onieva yawned, smiling.

“None. Tell Saliss it’s the best thing ever and to make more.”

“I will. Say, is this place in need of funding? We can provide a few services. Mostly protective, but financials…and alchemical.”

One of the Drakes leaned forwards, interested.

“We’re set for the first two, but what do you mean, ‘alchemical’?”

The two were explaining what they could add for anyone in need, when Onieva’s head turned. She kept a claw on her cup, but frowned.

“That piece of Ancestor crap.”

Mirn froze. He kept smiling, but didn’t turn his head.

“Onieva?”

“You know that thing about saying shit and having it proven, Mirn? There’s a tail.”

The others gathered around Onieva turned pale. The Drake woman leaned back casually, and her head turned. Mirn didn’t look around.

“Who? And how sure are you?”

Onieva’s mouth moved.

“…Could be a coincidence. But it’s one hell of a one if so. Eyes at eight o’clock. Lone, fur.”

Mirn waited a beat as Onieva pretended to flirt with the Drake on her left, then he turned to go get a drink. On the way to the bar, he glanced at the bartender.

“Sober up. You’re drunk.”

The Drake nearly dropped the mug she was passing to Mirn. She glanced under the counter.

“You sure?”

“Wait on it.”

Mirn turned and finally spotted who Onieva had picked up. He walked back.

“Shit.”

“Did someone follow you? Is it Pallass?

One of the others squeaked. Mirn and Onieva exchanged a glance.

“Doubt it. But we were just in their company. It could be they’re fine.”

“Maybe it is! Don’t scare us!”

Onieva shook her head. She stared, turning in her seat on the pretext of waving at Esse. Of course, the figure pretended to be in his cups, but it was definitely Raef. The Gnoll, one of Cire’s friends. Onieva’s eyes narrowed.

“…Something’s off about him. Mirn, do you see it?”

“Nothing I’ve got is alarming me besides the face. Onieva, what is it?”

The [Alchemist]’s eyes stared across the room at Raef for a long moment. Her tail began to thrash, slowly, as she turned back to Mirn. She gave him a needle-toothed smile and murmured.

“…That’s an illusion.”

 

——

 

Of course, Rafaema knew this existed. Not all of Manus’ High Command even admitted this place existed. Discussing it with her? Not a chance.

Yet she had, like Cire, had many instructors over the years. Some had taken risks. Some had, because they were them, told her, shown her things she never forgot.

Lead us. But what did that mean? It was a question Rafaema always asked.

“How will I lead my people?”

How could she reconcile this to…she sat in a Turnscale bar, having used the password she’d collected to get in. It was a relief it worked, but she’d shadowed Onieva and Mirn here.

Shadowed, in a way only she could. They might have noticed a tail, someone who had to follow them on foot. They had no scent Rafaema could take up, even if she could smell like a Gnoll.

Nor could someone hanging high, just below the cloud layer expect to see them.

Unless they were Rafaema.

This was certainly more of a lively place than the ones in Manus, the few she’d been to. But then, Manus knew almost everything. It had informants among all groups, and if it didn’t crack down often, it was because it was concerned with greater matters.

“Hello there, are you new or waiting for someone?”

They were too friendly here. Raef smiled at a Gnoll who’d come over.

“I’m just uh, looking around. I’ve been to places like this before. I’m just…I’m trying to understand?”

“Of course. Listen, if you want to talk to anyone, my name is…”

That was a good excuse to keep mostly unobserved. Rafaema glanced at Onieva and Mirn. She knew she might be spotted, but if she was, she’d explain she was one of them and find out more.

It certainly went to telling her why they were so good at fighting. So, Saliss of Lights’ cousin was one of them? That was important intelligence. Did they know something about Lyonette? Could she prevail on being a Turnscale to get their aid?

She was so busy trying to work this out she didn’t notice the population of the bar decreasing for the first few minutes. Then she noticed people heading out.

“Looks like a big party’s going on! Anyone with us?”

An excited Drake ran over, shouting the reason why they were all leaving. Rafaema’s eyebrows rose. This was casual. She wavered, but Onieva and Mirn were staying put. Even so, she had to probably introduce herself or…

She was headed for the bar when it struck her that too many people were leaving, all at once. Quickly, not like people making up their minds. But Onieva sat, with her curious coloration.

Her curious mismatched eyes. How she’d made Rafaema start, when she first saw them. Cire too, but she wasn’t…one of them. They’d be able to tell. But if she knew Lyonette—was it connected?

Rafaema approached the bar, but the [Bartender] had hurried into the back. She glanced around, and her heartbeat picked up. From three hundred people, the room was emptying fast. And she wasn’t stupid. But then Mirn glanced over.

“Hey there. You’re one of us, aren’t you? Cire’s friend?”

Raef hesitated as he put a tankard on the bar. He adjusted his belt.

“That’s right. I’m new to Oteslia.”

“You don’t say? So are we. Always good to meet someone like us. You know the rules, I hope?”

“Of course. Not a word to anyone. I don’t tell lies.”

They probably had truth stones. Rafaema calmly took a chair two seats over. Oh, dead gods. Had she gotten herself into…?

“I’m telling the truth.”

“I know that, dear. Mirn. Sentry. You know Onieva?”

Someone waved. The female Drake who was so casual, leaning with both arms back on the bar’s counter.

“Hello! Raef, right?”

“Yep.”

“A secret’s a secret. Everyone has to keep them. I know you’re new, a citizen, not anyone else, so it’s fine, you knowing and nothing else. It’s a Sentry’s job to sort out protection and whatnot. Especially if someone does come after us.”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone. It’s just chance, us meeting like this. Sorry if I’m…”

Rafaema looked around and her throat went dry. Esse, the Sentry, was calmly locking the door. As one did, when not letting anyone in. But…they were the last person in the bar besides them. Evacuated, in less than ten minutes.

Shoddy. You should all be out the door in less than one minute. A wakeup call.

“We believe you, Raef. Onieva, don’t scare him. It’s just…there are rules. Call it paranoia, but anyone who seems odd who isn’t known? Concerning.”

Mirn winked. Raef swallowed. Sword on hip. Activate teleport scroll or alarm and Makhir can be here like lightning. But he and Ferris don’t know I’m here. I gave them the slip!

“What have I done besides show up?”

“Nothing. That’s fair. Like I said, we have to be paranoid. So we’re not accusing you of anything. If you belong, you belong. But the ring needs to come off.”

Rafaema jerked. How did they…? No one should be able to tell. No one except—

Onieva’s eyes glittered as she glanced at Rafaema. The Lightning Dragon looked down at her ring. Had she adjusted it and made it more noticeable? Fool. Fool—

The air began to ionize in her lungs. She spoke, calmly as she could, in a whisper. They didn’t know her.

“I’m sorry, but I really won’t tell anyone.”

“I’m sure. But you cannot walk in here in disguise.”

“…Isn’t that the point?”

Mirn blinked. Then he threw back his head and laughed. He swung himself out of the bar and Rafaema twisted, hand on her sword hilt. But the Drake looked at Onieva and shrugged.

“He’s got us there. Onieva, maybe we’re being too overprotective?”

“Psht. Maybe we are, but that’s our job, Mirn.”

Onieva swept her neck spines back. Mirn hesitated.

“…Let me talk to the bartender. One sec. Onieva, come with me. Raef? One minute, I promise.”

He headed towards the back door. Onieva followed. Rafaema hesitated.

I’m in a trap. I have to go, now. She stood up, wavered, as she heard the back door shut. Not that way. So she strode over to the front door. She didn’t have the key, but she could unlock it from the front! She fumbled with the locks, listening for anyone coming through.

They’re the most dangerous if they think I’m after them. I just have to risk it. I—

They were her people too, weren’t they? But they didn’t know her. She didn’t want to have to kill them, or call down Manus and Oteslia’s wrath on them. Rafaema was still a Dragon. Like Cire, but with training. If she had to—

She tore the door open, teleport scroll in her claw, wings opening wide to shoot into the sky, at a speed that would take even them by surprise. She would have leapt forwards, but for the fact the door was blocked.

“Hi there. My name’s Onieva.”

A Drake with pink and cobalt scales smiled at her. Her mismatched eyes gleamed under moonlight. And the glowing bottle she held.

Rafaema recoiled with a cry of surprise. Her sword rang as she dropped the scroll, but Onieva just waited for the Drake’s impulsive lunge. Then she slammed the door in Rafaema’s face.

The Dragon collided with the door in a whumph as it slammed shut. She caught herself, whirling—were they going to attack? Wh—

Then she saw the bottle, stuck to the door with a bit of something tacky. The glowing bottle that had been in Onieva’s claws. Rafaem—

 

——

 

The door wasn’t up to Mirn’s quality, but it still reflected the burst of force without more than a quiet burp. Onieva threw the door open, and strode in.

Mirn’s club was in her claws. He had a backup, and could have helped, but she was the highest-levelled person here.

The ‘Gnoll’ was lying on the ground, his shape flickering slightly from the impact that had sent him hurling across the room. Onieva charged as ‘Raef’ tried to get up.

He was tough. Mirn watched from the back door, ready to move in to help. Esse was watching for an incoming raid, but if there was one, they didn’t see it. Tough, fast, and strong. Whomever this stranger was—a female Drake?—she was also very good with her sword. Someone had trained her well.

Mirn watched as Onieva began to kick the stuffing out of her opponent. Oh, but it was ugly.

The first thing the Oldblood Drake tried to do was breathe something. She opened her mouth, roaring, swinging her sword, and aimed at Onieva. In response, the [Alchemist] threw a small vial into Raef’s mouth and a smoke bomb blew out of every orifice. Raef was blinded, and whatever she was trying to spit was gone completely.

She still swung madly, and quickly too. Was that [Enhanced Agility] or [Greater Agility]? What level was she? Onieva circled around the smoking figure and lashed out. A nasty blow that rewarded her with a cry. She circled as the figure spun.

[Enhanced Toughness] too. Mirn couldn’t imagine Onieva taking it easy. Not in a fight. Not here. Nor did she. She calmly walked around the slashing Raef, took her legs out, and backed away as the figure thrashed. Raef was almost back on her feet when the Sticky Web jar exploded all over her. Then Onieva picked up a chair and began bashing her on the ground with it.

In another time, Saliss could have ended the fight in seconds with a spray of acid or another potion. But Onieva had to improvise. Which meant she ‘only’ had some low-grade potions anyone could afford, or you could attribute to her being a relative of Saliss in the worst case.

She ‘only’ had that. Chaldion’s heir.

Rafaema should have stopped moving, because the sturdy chair had already broken from the impacts. Onieva glanced at the handles as it broke off, and backed up. The female Drake tore out of the sticky webs, roaring, spitting electricity.

“Ancestors. What is she? A mini-[Juggernaut]? Some kind of [Indomitable]? [Berserker]?”

Mirn muttered. Onieva backed up as the sword hunted for her again. A lunge—Mirn would have been sweating if he was tangling with whoever this was.

Onieva? She dropped Raef as the sword missed her. Did not dodge away, but dodged into her, took her down, pinned her, and began to choke her.

Mirn had experienced that move first-hand. Short of a Skill, a [Warrior] had no way to free themselves and it had to be terrifying. The Drake couldn’t breathe electricity, only thrash, and Onieva had the perfect posture to lock her joints down with minimal effort.

…Even so. She was having trouble. Raef was so strong even Onieva was being thrown, using all of her weight and force to keep a stranglehold over the throat. Who was this? But the movements were slowing down. No matter what you were, you needed to breathe.

A minute. Then two minutes.

“Rhir’s hells.”

The furious Drake was still fighting. Her illusion spell was almost completely off. Mirn was checking her face, frowning. He blinked as Esse grabbed his arm.

Mirn! That’s—

“I see it. Shit. Onieva! On—

 

——

 

She was going to die. To a single Drake! Here! Rafaema couldn’t breathe. Two minutes had passed, but she couldn’t breathe and the other Drake was on top of her.

She’d tried to cast magic, but Onieva had just avoided the spell, then webbed her claw down. The Lighting Dragon felt something rising inside of her. Not here! Not this way! Not—

The arm released from her throat. She gasped, and lay there. She began to rise, but someone was still on her in a joint-lock. Two voices were speaking.

“Leave her. A Wall Lady disappears, and there will be hell to pay.”

“Mirn. She’s seen us.

“Well, if she reveals anything, Esse, you, and I are compromised. That’s a given. This place has to be abandoned anyways. She knows what will happen. But Onieva, I am telling you, as Sentry. Leave. Her.”

“I’m an Architect, Mirn. You don’t give me orders about threats.”

“I give it to you about citizens and people I protect. [Protector]. Leave her.”

Dead silence. Then Onieva suddenly began to laugh.

“Really? Fine. We know who she is. Alright…”

Then they picked her up. When Rafaema came too, she was lying on the street, in an alleyway two streets over from the repopulating bar. Only when she got back to her place, where Hunt Commander Makhir and Ferris arrived after searching all night and stopped, ready to berate her, did Rafaema realize the final insult.

Someone had written ‘idiot’ across her face in ink.

 

——

 

Onieva relaxed, in the awe of the others who’d seen her. She was the best of them. Mirn could not imagine anyone who could beat her.

“Want to speculate what that was?”

Esse had left them be with food and drinks. And, Mirn suspected, gratitude for not killing Rafaema.

It could still go bad, and the two Pallass-residents were ready for all of it. Sometimes, though…well. Everything was a risk.

“Nah. I’m tired. I think…no? It’s not wearing off. Mirn…it’s not wearing off and it’s been hours. It’s as good as the other version! Better!”

Onieva pinched herself, and was delighted. Amid it all, danger, annoying kids, and the rest, her delight remained and Mirn was happy for her.

“That’s wonderful. What do you think Saliss will do? Can he share it around? Maybe we can provide it for the others, if only my bar. What do you think?”

Onieva’s lips moved. She frowned.

“…That would be wonderful. We still have to figure out side effects, but we’ll have to see what Saliss thinks when he’s up.”

Mirn was nodding, tired, but elated, when something stopped him. He looked over at Onieva.

“…Or you could tell me now. Unless you’re not thinking about it.”

The Drake snorted.

“Why? I can’t read minds. Ask Saliss.”

Slowly, Mirn sat up at the bar. There was a difference between being playful, or being…Onieva…and ignorance. And this was different from how she’d ever talked.

“Right, Onieva. But I am saying that you would know what Saliss is thinking.”

“Why?”

The [Protector] felt his stomach knot. Onieva looked at him. She lost her smile; she was not a fool, after all.

“Mirn? Something wrong?”

“Do you…not remember? What’s your class, Onieva?”

“[Alchemist], of course. And don’t ask me my level. Some things are secret, even to you.”

“Just like Saliss?”

“We are cousins. But he’s the Named Adventurer. I’ve never wanted to…Mirn? What’s wrong?”

The [Protector] sat there. Wondering if he should tell her. Wondering what he should say. Would Saliss…?

“What’s the catch?”

He understood it, now.

 

——

 

Lyonette had a hangover the day after the outing. She discovered how much it hurt for nearly an hour of lying in bed.

When she finally arose, Saliss was lounging in the dining room, heckling Xif.

Xif had his head in his paws, but he looked more rested than Saliss or Lyonette. Onieva was nowhere to be seen, but Mirn was with them. Lyonette paused.

“Good…”

Her voice caused her so much pain that she stopped. Saliss glanced up, and tossed something at her. It bounced off Lyonette’s head and she glared at him.

“That’s a vial, dummy. You catch them and drink them or it looks as stupid as…that.”

“What is it?”

Lyonette whispered. Her throat was sore, she felt exhausted and grumpy, and the naked Drake was not who she wanted to see right now. Saliss raised his brows.

“A Hangover Potion. But if you don’t want it…”

The [Princess] scrambled so fast to down the orange-flavored vial of actually tasty liquid for once that Mirn snorted. He nodded at her as she came downstairs, headache and fog already clearing.

“Where’s Onieva? I have to thank her, and you, Mirn, for last night. And the Gentlemen Callers…?”

“Gone. They’re looking into the people who tried to kill you. They said they finally have a lead since some were actually taken alive. Onieva’s resting.”

Saliss replied in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Is she here?”

“Nope. She’s private and she partied harder than you. You’ll see her around.”

Lyonette could believe Onieva needed a rest, hangover cure or not. She’d seen how much the Drake drank. Cire, Onieva—they were excellent customers, in a sense, for The Wandering Inn.

“Well, thank you, Mirn.”

“No problem. Saliss and I can keep you company without them.”

“Really? You’re not busy, Saliss? I thought you were working on the potion with the flowers all night.”

“Nope. I took a break too.”

“I trust it was somewhat fun? I had…a somewhat enjoyable experience.”

The Named Adventurer paused for an infinitesimal moment Lyonette missed as she stared at a bought breakfast; no one cooked here, not Mirn or the two [Alchemists].

“I’m told other people had a fun night. Onieva can have all the fun she wants. Saliss gets the jobs. Saliss is the responsible one, and can you believe that?”

“It boggles the mind.”

Mirn whispered. Saliss shrugged.

“Everyone needs Saliss. My cousin’s even more worthless than I am, if you can believe that.”

“No. She’s not.”

Lyonette glanced up from a sandwich as the two Drakes locked gazes. Saliss obviously didn’t like Mirn; maybe it was a history? She knew that.

“I can’t believe you figured it out. We’ve…have we wasted the potential of the flowers?”

Xif’s first remark made Lyonette sit up. Saliss turned back to Xif, and a huge, happy smile crossed his features.

“Xif, my friend…absolutely, yes. I figured it out and you didn’t. And all your hard work has, in fact, been negative work. I figured it out and you—

He got up and began to dance, chortling at the Gnoll [Alchemist]. Lyonette stared at them blankly.

 

——

 

They caught her up on the unique properties of the Faerie Flowers later. Lyonette shook her head.

“You mean, by trying to find out their properties…”

“We have now created nearly a thousand bad combinations with them. Which means anything based off of those formulas is probably gone too. As it stands, we have a flower that’s a powerful fertilizer, sleeping agent, painkiller, drink additive…now we have to figure out what can be made that’s not ruined by Xif’s hard work.”

For all that, Saliss didn’t appear as annoyed as Lyonette expected him to be. If anything, he was more focused and less annoying than usual. He turned to Lyonette.

“What’s the first thing to do? I promised Wilovan and Ratici I’d stay with you.”

“Well, looking into the killers after me would be my first step—”

“—And they’re doing it. I’d advise you not to get in their way.”

Lyonette bit her lip, but she accepted that with a curt nod.

“Then, Mrsha. I have a number of people to petition.”

“Alright, then.”

 

——

 

That was how Lyonette found herself sitting and sipping tea with Magnolia Reinhart.

Why she paid a visit to Wall Lord Ilvriss, who had also requested to meet Saliss of Lights on behalf of the sickly, shivering, shaking Shriekblade.

And the reason why the [Druids] of Oteslia heard her, in their Circle. From Nalthaliarstrelous to Shassa, because she knew Mrsha, and Drakes and Gnolls she had never met. Even a Beastkin.

All to answer the one question that mattered. Not who was after her, not even, at this moment, how to cure Erin Solstice. Her only question:

“How can I save my daughter?”

There was so much power here, represented in individual people and groups. The only problem was that Oteslia was under siege.

And that Lyonette had nothing to offer them. Oh, she had many things, but very little herself. Very little tangibly.

They knew it, too. They knew her. That was what shocked Lyonette.

“A [Princess] of Calanfer begs our help for one of our kin.”

The first [Druid] spoke from where he sat, a single eye fixing on her, his large eyes gleaming behind brown, leathery skin. Lyonette had expected grey, if at all. She did not know the [Druids]’ number included those from Baleros, the rare Beastkin tribes.

Nor had she ever met one of them like this. Hawk was ordinary, a Rabbit Beastkin compared to…

At first she had thought he was almost like stone, so unmoving and still. Yet stone did not have horns; a pair, one larger, one smaller. What was so strange was that despite being Beastkin, adopting more humanoid characteristics, he could walk on all fours or upright.

Rhinoceros Beastkin. The others sat in silence, letting each speak. One sat in the midst of an actual stream of water, a waterfall in miniature, which somehow gave Lyonette the impression the Drowned Man was not being struck by the water, but enveloped in it.

Nalthaliarstrelous himself sat with Shassa, the [Spiderweb Druid], far enough away that the nest in her staff didn’t bother him. He was rubbing at the head of a creature, trimming very gently the horns of a Corusdeer, young, not yet adult, who had an overgrowth of the horn.

“A child. She has the class, but children have many classes.”

“Do you discount her as one of us for age?”

That came from a Gnoll making a cairn of stones. In their inner sanctum in Oteslia, Lyonette had been surprised to see hundreds of [Druids], some on patrol for cruelty. Others growing food or plants. Some tending to animals.

They were not all alike. If Nalthaliarstrelous represented their most warlike aspect, some of these [Druids] were clearly peaceful, like Shassa had been. Others walked hand-in-hand with the politics of Oteslia.

They knew who she was. She gulped.

“My…identity is known to you, [Druids] of Oteslia?”

There was no point in denying the truth. Nor would it have been wise. Nalthaliarstrelous snorted.

“Even if you dyed your hair, Lionette Solstice, it would have been obvious. You hide your class, and name, but not nature. Your aura reeks of Terandria.”

The [Princess] colored; she had considered it was difficult to conceal her identity, but it was another thing to be so casually revealed. The leader of the [Druids] was not the Rhino Beastkin, but a Drake, fairly fittingly.

She sat on a hovering basket of soil in the air, a levitating plant growing up there, roots reaching down to basins of water placed to feed them. A naturally levitating plant? She pruned it carefully, flicking bugs down for a giant mouse-thing to eat. It reminded Lyonette of Apista, because the rodent—fully six times larger than your standard rat—was too intelligent. It was in the eyes.

“Your identity is known to us, Lyonette du Marquin. Rest assured, we will not reveal it. We are not part of Oteslia’s plans. However, the concerns of [Druids] still exist. You would have us do what?”

“Send [Druids]. Or just one to find my daughter. Bring her here. I know it is in your power.”

Lyonette looked directly at Nalthaliarstrelous when she said that. The [Druid] snorted.

“And kill those who pursue her.”

“She is a child.”

“Yes. And we are no enemies of the Tribes.”

“Then you’d let her die? She’s done nothing wrong!”

Lyonette saw Nalthal’s eyes flash, and movement flickered around the Circle. It was the Drowned Man under the waterfall who spoke, his voice like Seborn’s.

“We make no war on Roshal. Injustice exists and we choose our battles. If you asked us ten thousand years ago, when there were many times our number, you would have a different answer, Princess Marquin. From other circles, different as well.”

“This one asks for what gain do we move, when you might well find your aid in similar allies.”

Shassa spoke nervously, glancing at Nalthal. Lyonette looked at him too, and thought of her second meeting of that day, with Magnolia Reinhart. The Human [Druid] scowled at Shassa. He must have told them a lot. But he was clearly not happy with the decision. Proof positive: him kicking Shassa in the stomach.

However, the Circle was a vote, or so it seemed. Lyonette tried again.

“If you would intercede, just to help her…?”

“Miss Marquin. What could you offer us? Everything is a trade, and we do not forswear our pacts. Let us say we gave you our aid. Perhaps you resolve everything peacefully, in safety. In the worst case? We defend our sister, child or not. We might die like mayflies, but we will honor our words. For what would we weigh the lives of many [Druids] and our kin here with a single one of us?”

Another nod, from a Gnoll.

“If it seems callous, simply count how many lives are weighed on either choice, Lyonette of Calanfer. Betimes that is simply what we must do. Or did you not see the grim necessity wrought at Liscor by Druid Nathale…Nathelire…Druid Nalthal?”

She had come to a too-practical group. Lyonette bit her lip.

“If you know I am a [Princess] of Calanfer—then would you accept a promise on behalf of the kingdom?”

She was willing to sign a lot she had no right to. But the [Druids] just snorted.

“Were you [Queen], we would consider it. Yet Calanfer lost its forests and sanctuaries. Lost it and clung to their Eternal Throne. Calanfer has little good will with us, Lyonette du Marquin. The actions of your predecessors have done much to harm us.”

“Not me.”

The [Princess] defended herself. To that, Nalthal laughed nastily. He flicked a shaving of Corusdeer antler at her.

“Of course not. But we remember. That is how it works. No aid will come from us. Begone and waste neither’s time.”

His eyes lingered on her.

“Go. Sometimes you must do what is necessary yourself. Seize it, [Princess] of Calanfer. You cannot ask others to fight your wars forever.”

 

——

 

Of course, he was right. Lyonette laid out her second case to Magnolia Reinhart after they finally got to the heart of the discussion. She had no idea why Magnolia had segued into Grand Magus Eldavin.

She was sweating as she tried to sip from her tea. The first part of their conversation had gone well, but Lyonette was keenly aware she was outmatched, if Magnolia Reinhart’s aura didn’t prove that itself.

In Skill, experience, aura…Magnolia Reinhart was renowned as the bloodless warlady of the north. The Deadly Flower. Well, she was bloody enough in the past, but her ability to make deals was the stuff they told stories about.

Curiously, she had not swept Oteslia with backdeals, threats, or grand, covetous deals as of yet. If anything, Lyonette had considered her presence in Oteslia as inoffensive as possible, especially at the ball she’d attended.

“I would only need a small favor, Lady Reinhart. I would, of course, repay it many times over.”

“Indeed, Miss Lyonette? Or is it Lionette? Do forgive me, I forgot to clarify which it was. We must keep up appearances. Although…I would have personally changed more than a single letter on my passport.”

“…Lyonette will do, Lady Reinhart.”

The [Lady] smiled as Lyonette flushed. The [Princess] resolved not to let it shake her. She met Magnolia’s gaze.

“You know my daughter is in grave danger. From the Plain’s Eye tribe and others. I do not think you are heartless, Lady Reinhart. The [Druids] are—out of necessity, they claim. But you could give me a small escort. A few favors. All I would need is…”

She hesitated. Lady Reinhart helpfully filled the gap.

“My carriage. Which I presume you would ride out of Oteslia, with, perhaps, Reynold driving it? Two [Maids]? I can well imagine it might break Zeres’ cordon. You do know Liscor’s army has joined them? Well, even combined, if Reynold got up to speed, they could not catch him.”

Lyonette nodded slowly.

“…And once I had my daughter, I could bring her to safety.”

“Indeed. Along the way, would you, by any chance, out of, oh, necessity, be forced to run over any Gnolls of the largest tribe in the world with my rather famous and noticeable coach? Or kill Drakes if any got in your way?”

The [Princess] did not respond. Magnolia Reinhart pretended to pluck lint off her dress. Ressa produced a duster and flicked it over her arm. The [Lady] gave her [Maid] a long look. Ressa smiled politely.

“…In my hour of delicate negotiations, Miss Lyonette, bloodshed is not desirable.”

“But—”

Magnolia lifted a finger.

“I told you, Miss Mrsha departed the city she was last in, in the company of Sellme, if what the Gnolls hunting her are shouting can be believed. I am not sure this is for the best, although it makes tracking her harder than this other white Gnoll. He moved objectionably fast.”

Lyonette sat up. Magnolia went on, scowling.

“If that child is as bright as I am led to believe, she will slip away if her captors are that. If not? If the chance arises in any city they are in, my people will try to escort her to safety. But they do not know where she is. We believe she is in a number of cities near the one she fled from, but the hunters are searching every person on the road.”

“Then you do have people looking for her.”

Lyonette whispered. Magnolia Reinhart glanced up.

“My dear. If this was the north, they would have already delivered her to you and I would be claiming my ransom in…what would I ask for, Ressa?”

“Probably cake and ice cream.”

“Ah, that would be like me. But I do not have as…many…agents in the south. I am not inclined to lend you my carriage unless the need arises.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

Lyonette whispered. The lack of resistance was like a balm on a burn. But Magnolia Reinhart waved it away.

“Miss Marquin, it is I who must thank you for being rather charming. At the ball, you know? Being a gracious visitor with a number of Drakes who have every reason to dislike you is rather difficult and I am not exerting my, ah, more pressing charms. Shall we talk about what you might do for me, in the interim you are here, under this lovely siege? Very refreshing. No boulders crashing down around us, no arrows, no rationing as of yet…I quite think we should copy it in the north.”

The young woman hesitated.

“Naturally, Lady Reinhart. But if Mrsha is found…”

“I assure you, Miss Marquin. If you have the opportunity, rush—with considerable decorum, foresight, and caution—to her. However, I have a little soiree planned for tomorrow. Soirée. Dreadful word. I’d rather it was a dish. Raspberry or something. That’s what it sounds like.”

“Are you hungry, milady?”

Ressa bent down. Magnolia paused.

“…I do believe I am, Ressa.”

“Ah, then I shall fetch a delicious sampler of sweets fit for a pig.”

“Thank you, Ressa. Are you hinting at anything?”

“Not at all. Your Highness, will you take anything?”

“Er…perhaps something savory?”

“Very good, your Highness.”

The two watched Ressa go. Magnolia murmured to Lyonette.

“You know, she only tends to act like this to prove a point, when she thinks I will be embarrassed. I would prefer it if you would be your charming self tomorrow. I plan to finally make a concerted appeal to the gathered individuals here. Some cannot arrive due to this dratted siege…well. It is time.”

Lyonette’s ears perked up. Time for what? She sipped at her tea cautiously as she was served a kind of delicate brie, crackers, fruits, and Magnolia stared down at an entire cake. Lyonette was impressed. It would have gone for several gold in The Wandering Inn, even without her markup. There was so much frosting as Ressa cut a slice that she wondered if there was more actual cake or frosting in it.

“Ressa. You offend me.”

“I am so sorry, Milady…”

Magnolia stopped Ressa as she went to take the rest of the cake away.

“You slice the entire cake if it’s meant to be eaten, Ressa. Lyonette, will you take a slice? No?”

She delicately put a fork into the first bite of pure frosting as Lyonette and Ressa exchanged a glance.

“…You were about to unveil your project, Lady Reinhart? Is that not…well, peace between Drakes and Humans?”

Lyonette prompted after a few seconds of horrified staring. The thing wasn’t that Magnolia ate like a pig. In fact, her manners were better than most. She sipped her tea, ate with a very small fork…it was just that she didn’t stop. Lyonette felt her teeth melting and heart beginning to stop just watching her and jerked her eyes away.

“Indeed. I have yet to offer the many exquisite gifts I so tempted the Drakes with. For that matter, we have yet to come to any accord on peace. I did ask them what they envisioned. The idea of mutual cooperation…rather like talking to a bunch of angry bricks in a wall. So it is my turn to make an offer, and I have one. It only remains to be seen whether they will listen at all. Hence, your involvement.”

Lyonette nodded. She had observed how much dislike Magnolia Reinhart generated by being…Magnolia Reinhart. Which was not surprising, given her family’s history.

“Of course I will attend, Lady Reinhart. However—with deepest apologies, I am sure you can accept some reservations? I would not want to be privy to anything untoward.”

Magnolia laughed drily.

“A Calanferian [Princess] to the core. You will not take it on trust?”

“I would prefer to know what you plan to offer Oteslia, or the Drakes at large, yes, Lady Reinhart.”

The woman pursed her lips, but to Lyonette’s deepest surprise, she nodded.

“Very well. Ressa, fetch some of the materials.”

“You’ll tell me?”

This was not Magnolia Reinhart’s modus operandi at all. Nor was it wise in any game to show anyone the cards you wanted to hold onto; knowledge was power, even if it was only time to prepare and think. Yet, Magnolia Reinhart met Lyonette’s gaze calmly.

“I cannot have secrets. Not for this. It must be a plan without frill or duplicity. Do you see why I struggle so, Lyonette? This is what I intend…”

She outlined her plan. Lyonette’s head shot up. She leaned forwards and said—

 

——

 

But of course, her daughter mattered more. Lyonette was already flustered when she went to meet with Wall Lord Ilvriss.

Who also knew who she was. At this point, the [Princess] felt like she should wear her tiara just to present herself properly.

“Miss Marquin. I apologize for the awkward situation. Alchemist Saliss. Greetings.”

It was actually one of the few times the two had met. Lyonette forgot they were not actual contemporaries, for all that Pallass had been open to Liscor for a while. Saliss walked butt-naked into Ilvriss’ temporary estates.

“Wall Lord. I hope you don’t mind, but I dressed up for the occasion. Is that Shriekblade lying in a pool of her vomit? Classic Tessa.”

Ilvriss had been prepared, but no one was prepared for Saliss. He actually did a double-take, snapped his gaze up from Saliss’ bare…bareness. Even Lyonette looked askance at the [Alchemist]. What did he…?

Both Human and Drake looked down and their eyes tracked a miniature version of a tuxedo or similar dress.

…Attached to Saliss’ tail. Ilvriss closed his eyes. Then he turned to Lyonette.

“This way, Lyonette. I presume we shouldn’t stand on formalities?”

She smiled at him, genuinely, for the first time that day.

“Of course not…Ilvriss. If that’s acceptable?”

“I would rather imagine that lies up to you, Lyonette. Thank you. I have to apologize again—one of my employees, the Named Adventurer Shriekblade, is ill, so this serves a dual purpose.”

Mannerisms. If Magnolia, even at her most open, was a kind of dignified, charming social dance, and the Druids a fairly blunt enclave, then Ilvriss was a different kind to both. He had that [Merchant]’s manner, almost. Businesslike, direct, but with a certain style of due dignity and ceremony. Lyonette had some familiarity with it, and sped up her own tempo to match his, like a good [Diplomat].

Speaking of which, Ilvriss introduced her in quick succession to Nerul, a charming, if somewhat portly Drake, Captain Shieldscale, a brusque [Soldier]’s [Captain], and Xesci, who seemed too charming to be a [Secretary], and the comatose Shriekblade.

“My personal aides this time. A rather…different group, but trustworthy.”

Lyonette frowned. She had little read on the [Captain] or Xesci, but Nerul made her hair want to stand up. As a [Princess] of the famous political kingdom, she had more respect and wariness for him than anyone else in the room except for Shriekblade.

She sat there, muttering to herself.

“She’s dead. I’m dead. She’s dead. I’m dead…”

Saliss had focused on her without even doing more than nodding at Nerul and giving Xesci a second look and frowning. He squatted down as Lyonette was caught up as to the reason Shriekblade was in this state. She bit her lip and Ilvriss glanced at her.

“Goblins?”

“A strange coincidence. Unfortunate given the timing. I need Shriekblade to be…herself. I had few recourses left; it was either a [Druid] or [Alchemist] Saliss.”

Of the two, Lyonette would have gone with a [Druid]. She fully expected Saliss to annoy the Drake with countless thin scars all over her body, but to her surprise, he didn’t. He squatted down and spoke, almost kindly to her.

“Hey Shrieky. It’s me. Saliss. Remember me?”

She didn’t say anything. Saliss turned.

“Look. I dressed up my tail. You’re not doing well, are you? Tessa? Shriekblade?”

“She’s dead, Saliss. She’s dead. I’m not going to be well again.”

The Drake muttered. Saliss shook his head.

“You don’t need the Healer, Tessa. Hm. You’re sick. Are you eating? Mirn would throw a fit. Let’s see. Are you…?”

He went to feel at her forehead and Shiekblade moved. She drew two daggers and slashed at his claw so fast Lyonette didn’t see her move. Only that Saliss was two steps back, on his feet.

“Yep. She’s dangerous. I’m surprised no one’s dead.”

Ilvriss rubbed at his cheek, and Lyonette saw tell-tale signs of a healing potion; fresh scales.

“It has been troubling, to say the least. She refuses to take anything. We did administer a calming spray…”

The [Alchemist] shrugged.

“Tessa’s got more of a tolerance to that kind of thing than a [Veteran Warrior] does to healing potions. You might as well spit onto a warm towel and toss it on her. It would do about as much good. She’s really down; I don’t think you’d be able to take her out of it, just blank her for a while. And that won’t help.”

Ilvriss hissed through his teeth.

“I feared that was the case. Saliss of Lights. Could you prescribe and create something to help Miss Tessa? A calming draught? Something to at least keep her from violence? Restore her senses?”

Saliss tilted his head, regarding Ilvriss.

“Do you mean make her work?”

There was no change to his tone, but Lyonette’s honed abilities made her glance up. So did Nerul. But Ilvriss glanced at neither his uncle trying to signal him, nor Lyonette. He met Saliss’ gaze calmly.

“I mean, help Adventurer Tessa. Not Shriekblade.”

Saliss smiled.

“Good answer. And the answer is…no. I can give her any number of mind-altering tonics, but I won’t. I don’t prescribe potions for this. That’s sort of how we got here.”

He gestured at Tessa. Ilvriss, a bit taken aback, looked at her.

“But how can she…?”

“[Healer]. [Thought Healers] if you have any. Get a [Druid]. But she’s out for at least a week. If the Healer comes back, so does she, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

Saliss eyed Ilvriss. The Wall Lord paced around a bit.

“Adventurer Tessa’s aid is necessary, Saliss. We need her now.”

“Well, I can’t do it aside from turning her into a Golem. Sorry.”

Saliss gave Ilvriss an almost apologetic look. Almost. Lyonette, wavering, looked between him and Ilvriss. He had to have thought of it. Why wasn’t he saying…?

“Saliss. Do you think a Faerie Flower might help her?”

The Named Adventurer turned his head slowly to Lyonette, and his flat, blank look told her that he was not happy. Ilvriss glanced over.

“Faerie Flowers. Yes. It did cross my mind. Do you have a supply in Oteslia, Miss Marquin? I heard…something about it?”

The fact that he hadn’t heard all about her monopoly surprised Lyonette, until she remembered he was a [Wall Lord] who specialized in gems and not a [Merchant], [Herbalist], [Gardener], [Alchemist], or so on. She nodded.

“I have some in the city. Saliss, could we give um, Shriekblade, a Faerie Flower drink? A Minotaur’s Punch? It’s helped people like Halrac and—”

“No.”

The Drake folded his orange-scaled arms. Ilvriss and Lyonette turned to him.

“Why not? It helped me considerably, Adventurer Saliss. Have you tried the drink?”

Saliss scoffed.

“Have I tried…? Who do you think I am? Of course I’ve tried it. And I’m telling you, I won’t give it to Tessa. Nor am I going to whip up some kind of magical cure based on it.”

“Why not?”

“Because it might work. And that would be terrible!”

The Drake snapped. He looked at both blank faces and threw up his claws.

“Tessa doesn’t need another potion! I don’t think there’s a single potion in the world that could fix her, unless it’s one that just clears out everything she’s drunk for the last twenty years! Yes, you might make a miracle-drink. But it’s a bad idea.”

The [Alchemist] looked from face to face and realized…they had no idea what he meant. Not even Nerul—maybe the odd Drake, Xesci.

“But if it helps, Saliss…”

They didn’t understand and Saliss didn’t know how to fully explain. He raked a claw through his neck spines. How to explain that the worst thing would be if it did help, because that meant…?

He made one mistake. A huge one, but Saliss hadn’t thought Lyonette would spring the question on him. Because he’d forgotten that she was well-meaning, genuinely probably a good girl, especially for a [Princess]. But she just had no context for this. His mistake was saying all this, arguing with Lyonette and Ilvriss, in front of Shriekblade.

The Adventurer had her claws around his leg before he could move. Saliss whirled.

“Tessa, don’t—”

But she didn’t have her blades out. She stared up at him.

“You…there’s a new potion? What’s a Faerie Flower? I’ve heard of it. What does it do?”

Saliss cursed. Lyonette wavered.

“It’s—Wall Lord, maybe if we applied it to a Potion of Cleansing or something similar? Saliss, if you don’t want to make it, perhaps Xif could?”

“No. Tessa, you don’t need it. Get off—”

“I need it. Saliss, don’t stop me. I’ll kill you. Give it to me. Give it—who’s Xif? Xif of Pallass? He makes some of my potions. Where is…?”

The [Alchemist] was one of the fastest Drakes in the world. He was second-fastest in this room. He went for Tessa, this time in a complicated grab. She dove past him, and shot for the door.

Tessa!

He charged after her. Lyonette saw Captain Shieldscale go after both. Nerul cursed.

“Ilvriss! I’m going to stop them! Is she going to gut that poor…?”

He ran out the door. Xesci hesitated, but then followed on the general principle that everyone was running and she’d better get a head start. Ilvriss cursed, going for the door, but then stopped. He very much doubted that he could beat two Named Adventurers, even if they found a coach. The Wall Lord turned.

“I’ve bungled this situation nicely, Lyonette. It’s been—difficult.”

Lyonette hesitated, about to go after them, then strode over to the door and closed it. She was also aware of how fast the others moved. The [Princess] looked at Ilvriss. He was far more tired than she remembered. But some of the grief…it was not necessarily gone, but it had changed.

“Why are you here, Wall Lord Ilvriss?”

They had not been able to get into it at the ball. The Wall Lord smiled, bleakly.

“I am on an assignment. Self-imposed. I actually intended to meet with Magnolia Reinhart later today.”

“I just met with her. May I ask…what for?”

Wall Lord Ilvriss hesitated. He looked at the closed door. Then at Lyonette. It occurred to him, suddenly, that Saliss of Lights, who was connected to the Cyclops of Pallass, a dangerous Drake and a possible ally, but a…dangerous Drake…had just left. Leaving Lyonette alone and proving he was about as good as the Gentlemen Callers at bodyguarding.

To be fair, it was difficult, and combat experience did not equate to good preservation instincts for anyone but yourself. However, he had left Lyonette behind and Wilovan and Ratici were likewise missing. Ilvriss looked at Lyonette.

It was becoming a paranoia, as Nerul had pointed out, in how few people he did trust. Even now, he wrestled with the implications.

Yet. If there was one person in the world he would have taken the chance on, for better or worse, because of what he thought about her, because of what she could do—it would have been Erin Solstice.

Lyonette? Could he really imagine a Terandrian [Princess] had come all the way to Liscor as part of some Necromancer’s scheme?

Absolutely, yes. In fact, it happening without some kind of guidance was even more suspicious still. Ilvriss realized his claw was on the doorknob.

“Important business, Miss Lyonette. Very confidential to Salazsar. However…I trust only a few people with the particulars. And this Oteslian business confounds it all. The Meeting of Tribes as well. Trust is a difficult quality these days.”

“I…I imagine so, Ilvriss.”

Lyonette glanced at the Drake. He took his claw off the handle. Then carefully produced a magical key and locked the door. Then he twisted a ring on his claw. She glanced around.

…Now that she thought of it, she had seen no servants in this mansion, as evidenced by some track marks, a general sign this was not a place you hosted people. She saw Wall Lord Ilvriss turn.

“It would be acceptable for me to inform you of the details. And now might be an opportune moment. May I trouble you, Miss Lyonette, for your time? I would only need about twenty minutes.”

“I…would like to make sure Alchemist Xif is well, Wall Lord.”

“Naturally. Perhaps after?”

He stood, quite polite, the same Drake she remembered with deep purple scales, a certain dignity like a [Lord] of Terandria to him.

Claw on his sword hilt. Of course, Lyonette had her own sword too, but she was well aware of the difference. She glanced at the shut, locked door. Empty mansion. No one to hear her…she took a few steps back.

“What…kind of questions?”

 

——

 

Thirty minutes later, Lyonette found Alchemist Xif with Wall Lord Ilvriss. Nerul glanced up, breathing hard, and eyed Ilvriss.

“You took your time.”

“We had to catch up. I answered a few questions. Is Xif alive?”

Lyonette snapped. She stalked past Nerul without a word. The [Diplomat]’s eyes narrowed at ‘questions’. He glanced at Ilvriss as Xesci and Osthia turned.

A fun fact. Because their biologies were rather similar to Humans, albeit with scales, lacking noses, and so forth, unlike Lizardfolk who were closer to actual lizard biology rather than mammalian, many things were the same.

However, unless you were a Drake—and even then—it was harder to tell someone was blushing. Or, alternatively, had been slapped. Blood below the scales was less visible, but swelling was still swelling.

Ilvriss rubbed at his cheek. He supposed he deserved that, when viewing it from her context. Yet he gave Nerul a significant look.

“I assume they were questions that had good answers, nephew?”

“The best, Uncle. The best.”

Nerul smiled and Osthia let out a huge sigh of relief. Ilvriss felt his own shoulders relax. They could talk more. For now—he pushed into the door as he heard a cry. Nerul’s head snapped up and they crowded through into the shared home.

Shriekblade had taken Xif hostage in the laboratory they’d set up, and Saliss had broken in, but been unable to enter without her making good on a threat to slit his throat. Mirn, who’d been napping, then nearly died to the whirlwind of blades, watched with a club in his claw, but Saliss had no weapons in his claws. He just looked ahead, bleakly, then walked away.

Lyonette du Marquin and Wall Lord Ilvriss heard sobbing. They entered the laboratory and saw Shriekblade. Still a mess, and this time compounded by tears, snot, practically lying on top of a terrified Gnoll.

Xif had an empty vial in one paw. He looked at Shriekblade, but she had dropped the daggers. She was sobbing, feeling at herself.

“It worked. It worked!

The impromptu potion lay empty to the dregs in the bottle. Lyonette saw the Named Adventurer sobbing, and shaking, then laughing in relief. She was better. She broke into a relieved smile that she traded with Ilvriss.

Finally. Some good news. Ilvriss smiled all the way back to his mansion. Right up until Xesci whispered to him. She had noticed two people in the crowd around Lyonette’s home and they concerned her greatly.

On the list is the First Gardener’s son, Cirediel, and a Wall Lady Rafaema. I…I can’t get anything from them. At all.

 

——

 

Questions. While the others asked the important ones, it was the considered opinion of two fellows of singular talents that they could ask one, as it were.

Singular talents. A man had a number of gifts, some quite good ones, if he was lucky. However, expertise was hard to come by. Insofar as anyone could claim anything without being a braggart, they were fairly good at one thing, each.

The two were Wilovan and Ratici. They knew a lot of things.

They knew they were not good men.

They knew they had failed when they absolutely should not.

They knew they did not want to fail again.

They knew a girl was missing, a child, rather spirited, but entirely innocent, and that was a terrible thing. If they found out who was threatening to harm a hair on her head, all bets were off.

All hats were off. They had been on their best behavior, so far from their normal grounds. And see what happened? People kept taking advantage of their kindness.

It was enough. They had one question, and sometimes a fellow had to ask, no matter what the answer was. They had chosen to ask a question like that. The two walked through Oteslia, in their best suits.

Ratici still had a vest, but he had chosen a good, Wyvern-leather one. The kind a fellow brought out and kept well-secured. His pants were a bit different; a Noelictus-brand fiber, black as shadow. Not black as black could be, because that was altogether too dark and stood out at night. He had on his usual cap, but he’d even taken the time to buff his shoes, and fetch the good ones that didn’t just make no sound, but made anti-sound, sound which ate other sounds.

Wilovan had on a more formal attire. Erin had called it close to a suit from her world, but it was more open than that. And with deepest respect to her…she didn’t know clothing.

No constraining fabric when he turned, twisted, or lifted his arms. Nothing to catch onto either, mind you, and the outer layer wasn’t silk, or even fine cotton, but a stiffer composite from Ironrams. Mixed with cotton; you weren’t about to ask for a solid weave, my word, no. It gave him a grey look, as the cotton woven in was of roughly the same color.

With his top hat, he looked a bit too austere, so he’d chosen a patterned scarf, a token from an encounter no gentleman talks about, patterned green and braided with a soft cream color. Now there was a fine piece of clothing, fit for any man, rich or poor. Like Ratici, his shoes were buffed, personally, and his pants covered all fur.

They stood out. Neither Gnolls nor Drakes dressed exactly like they did. It was more of a northern look. But the two Gentlemen Callers were used to such looks. If anything, it was funny.

“Seems to me we stand out here as much as in the north. Two fellows, never quite right at home, Ratici.”

“That’s true, Wilovan. However, perhaps there’s some comfort in that.”

“…I fail to take your meaning, Ratici.”

The Drake [Gentleman Thief] shrugged.

“It’s one of those things where a fellow never has to think ‘well, the grass is greener over there’. He’s always a bit out of place wherever he goes.”

Wilovan turned to his friend and companion of long years.

“Why, Ratici. If you don’t mind me saying, that’s as philosophically fine as I’ve ever heard you vouch.”

“I suppose it’s your comments rubbing off, Wilovan.”

The Gnoll smiled. They walked on, in that unhurried, self-assured stroll. They did not stride quickly, nor meander. It was slow, purposeful. Deliberate.

Style. Of course, they both knew where they were going. Wilovan even had a rounded walking cane, and Ratici had a little map of Oteslia, so they wouldn’t get lost. Not that they had an appointment, but both were sure they were expected.

Here were the facts: five fellows had conducted themselves rather unpleasantly yesterday. Five fellows—and it wasn’t as if there hadn’t been some rudeness before, hmm? This time, though, there were people to ask.

The Watch had four, but the fifth had vanished rather unexpectedly. Of course, Ratici and Wilovan were old hands at this. They had sat the man down, offered him a drink, and pressed him gently on where he was from and what all this spot and bother was about.

He had vouchsafed the information quite quickly, and they had taken him at his word. After all—when he told them this ran through the biggest Gang in Oteslia, and exactly where to go if a fellow was to have a chat—why, it all sounded straightforward.

They’d asked him to sit tight and he’d obliged them. So the two Gentlemen Callers had prepared themselves for a little trip.

“…I’m told the fellows at Invrisil have disbanded. That is to say, they’ve been replaced. Not enough left.”

“Good lads.”

Ratici mumbled. Wilovan nodded.

“One of them wrote to me. I have the letter here.”

He proffered it, but Ratici didn’t look at it.

“You can tell me, Wilovan. A [Reader] gets through such things faster than me.”

“Very well. In summary, he spoke about cost. It seems the last bit was too much coin, even for most of the fellows to pay.”

“When you take a lady out…”

“…you spare not a dime. Even so, they considered it that way. Crimshaw put his hat up.”

“Did he?”

Ratici traced a claw gently along a wall. He flicked a coin up, then approached a booth selling something. He did not steal, but bought and paid with the stall owner. A girl, who beamed at the large gold coin. What kind of fellow stole from children?

“Here. A souvenir.”

“Not a gift fit for the lads back at Invrisil. Normen went off, you know. After that girl.”

“Good. I thought he had promise.”

Ratici tipped his cap at the Gnoll girl. Wilovan did the same with his hat. He paused, as the Drake attached something to his vest. Wilovan debated, and eventually stuck his behind an ear, since he had one and it did not do to infringe upon the other’s look.

On they went. Ratici adjusted the little flower hanging out of his vest’s pocket. Wilovan had it tucked across one ear. It got them admiring looks from passersby. Glares from a few fellows, especially since the Gentlemen Callers tipped their hats at a few ladies. But if a man wasn’t brave enough to wear a flower, how could he hope to ever make a positive impression?

They did not go into the dark streets of Oteslia, into the poorer sections. If anything, they went up. They headed to a commercial district. To a rather ritzy section, really. True, it wasn’t the kind of place some self-respecting folks like Erin Solstice would go, but…

It was a gambler’s den. But someone had taken the den, and upgraded it into a casino. If they had words for that kind of thing. The Gentlemen Callers would have called it a ‘money haven’, or a ‘flash visit’. Or…

A base. Not that there wasn’t food, a restaurant, and a place to play cards, dice, and other such activities for massive amounts of coin. Ratici felt at his vest.

“I should have taken my cards along. If we have time, we should play a few hands.”

“If we have time, afterwards.”

Wilovan agreed softly. The two checked themselves one last time, and then strode up to the door.

“Excuse me, sir. Miss. Would you happen to have an open-door policy on this fine establishment? Me and my friend, Ratici, here, were hoping to play some games and enjoy ourselves for a night on the city, as it were.”

The male and female Drake at the door gave each other a look at the odd accents, address, and dress, but it was clear both had money. One leaned over, whispered, and the first Drake nodded.

“Head on in. Someone will let you know the rules. Do you have weapons?”

“Nary a one.”

They were searched, of course. Wilovan and Ratici stood back as the two found not a single weapon—aside from a pocket knife Wilovan used to trim his claws. They took it, and let the two Gentlemen Callers in.

Of course, they were expected. Of course, the two knew they were expected. Sometimes, though. You had to ask a question. They tipped their hats to the lovely lady in the rather scandalous—yet fetching, you had to admit—dress as she smiled and asked them if they wanted food or the tables. Ratici ventured he would prefer a bite to scope out the scene, and Wilovan agreed.

They were charming, polite, and followed her into the casino, nicknamed ‘The Dragon’s Horde’. The most lucrative establishment with rich clientele, some of whom had actually come by their earnings honestly. Run by a fellow said to be in charge of a bunch of other fellows, who had sent said fellows to pay Lyonette a visit.

The two Gentlemen Callers followed the Drake [Waitress] to a table and sat down as eyes focused on them. They smiled, looking around.

As good guests did, they left their hats at the door.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This chapter is split into two parts. So the next one picks up right after this part. Read on! Unless you’re a Public-reader and reading them right as they come out. No one will suffer waiting as you do, not before, not after.

C-congratulations?

 

Hob and Goblins by tobinkusuma!

 

Magnolia, Erin, and Ieka by Tomeo!

 

The Last Tide by Miguel!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.43

“There are but two laws in this world as they apply to all folks capable of levelling, be they winged or finned, small or large. There is law for those of low-level. And law for those who level higher than the rest.”

The Book of Levels, Chapter 4. On the whole, Teresa Atwood found it curious. It was a mix of biblical-esque writings about morality, strength through suffering and perseverance–‘those who struggle will one day outlevel those who live in complacency’–and a kind of, well, power-gamer’s handbook.

She was no expert, but telling a [Farmer] to try cultivating difficult crops in bad soil? Sounded like a good way to give yourself a hard time. Or to gain experience.

However, it was a mix of morality and tips, and thus parts simply read wrong to her. Like the opening to Chapter 4.

“It’s not fair.”

She broke off reading, frowning at the passage. A steady, no, trying to be steady look was her only reply. Teresa didn’t know if that was impatience or a desire to hear what she said.

She deferred to the latter, as it had been a chapter every day at best, despite neither having read this before.

“I know it’s true. I’ve seen Orthenon spar and he can do eight-versus-one. I don’t think anyone in my world…maybe if it was an actual fighter or soldier versus a bunch of idiots, maybe. But with weapons? I know everyone can break our world’s records, even if they’re only Level 40. But it just doesn’t sit right.”

She had actually done this, in the times between war and strife. And in the Kingdom of Reim, that was all the time. To test her theory, she’d asked some of the King of Destruction’s vassals, from Mars and Orthenon to ‘lesser’ vassals like Maresar, Venith, and so on, to perform some tests.

Teresa hadn’t watched the Olympics and written down all the scores, but she knew things like the hundred meter dash. Of course, figuring out how far a meter was when no one thought in anything but feet was annoying…

However, the results were clear even without precise measurements. Some people weren’t built to run, didn’t enjoy it, and some people like Orthenon could zip across the battlefield, being all about attacks and maneuvering.

Mars, for instance, wore armor, and she could run forever, but she didn’t sprint, only charged into the enemy at the head of a vanguard. Nevertheless, she could easily break ten seconds without Skills.

That was a Level 60+ [Vanguard], though, one of the greatest warriors of Chandrar. By contrast, the [Mages] were actually quick…for what Teresa expected of them. But even Ulyse, the highest-levelled among them, couldn’t compare to [Warriors] half his level.

Teres missed Ulyse.

A single one of Flos’ vassals could scare an army. But the law applying to only a select few rankled Teres.

Her audience never replied. He sat, never moving, blinking a few times. Covered head to toe in bandages. Teresa looked at a living mummy, and the flash of green. However, even the flesh around his eyes had burned. He hadn’t been able to open his eyes for days and the [Healers] had privately confessed they were terrified that the heat had melted his eyes from his sockets.

That they hadn’t was because he’d been drinking healing potions as he fought, and his level. Even so, and even now, the King of Destruction sat, bandages hiding horrific burns that did not want to heal.

Magical fire. The power of a great Djinni, the terrifying Drenir. Yes, he’d been freed and laid waste to a Nerrhavian city. However, the battle had left the King of Destruction so wounded he’d been levitated away. Now, without him to lead armies, Takhatres had abandoned Reim to hold Hellios. Orthenon and Mars were stuck in the north, and Maresar and Venith alone were holding off the biggest push of Nerrhavia’s Fallen yet.

Teres? She was keeping Flos company. She could have been fighting, but after he had woken up, he had said two words, though his throat was as burned as the rest of him.

First–Gnolls. Second? Teresa’s name.

“They’re all safe. Takhatres is sweeping Hellios, holding off the armies. The only problem is if Queen Calliope rebels…or her son.”

Teres put aside the book after three more pages, when his eyes began to roll. The King of Destruction tried to nod, then froze.

Teres bit her lip. She didn’t need to read his mind to see how much that hurt. His bandages needed to be changed regularly because his wounds seeped or bled, but that was so painful she couldn’t watch. And no one dared try healing the burn wounds at this point. The risk of infection and thus murdering him in seconds via potion-enhanced disease was extreme.

So Teresa read to Flos. She reached for the newspaper next and Remi Canada’s articles. Reim’s capital was under lockdown. They were preparing for a siege. She wished she knew whether Trey was safe. Or if relief would be coming. But it was this, speaking to Flos, practicing her sword drills alone, or speaking to Nawal.

Yet if Flos didn’t speak, for once silenced by burns, forced to write if ever–and all he wrote were simple questions, like ‘Gnolls’, ‘war’, ‘Trey’, or ‘Fetohep’…the Blacksmith of Clan Tannousin said nothing by choice.

She stood by the anvil, swinging her hammer and making superlative blades of steel, until her hands were raw and bloody.

Two ghosts. The war was going poorly, and the one magical cure for Nawal–perhaps–who knew her, was lost to Wistram. The other, for Flos?

He was in no position to gainsay Fetohep at the moment, even if he could ride on the capital and demand one of the great treasures like a Potion of Regeneration to heal himself. Not with Khelt’s show of force. Rather, the opposite. Venith and Maresar were almost more worried about a single army from Khelt than five from Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and they were worried about both.

So, Teresa did her best. Distract Flos Reimarch from his terrible pain. She held up the newspaper so he could read.

“The Gnoll tribes are saying it’s Fissival that uh, planted this anti-magic crystal in the ground. Did you know they could do that?”

Flos blinked twice for ‘no’. He looked at the paper, and Teresa read out the commentary and analysis by Chandrar’s most beloved [Journalist].

…the allegation, among many conflicting narratives, in brief, can be summarized as this: the Walled Cities, or Fissival alone, conspired to nullify the Gnollish people’s arcane abilities, which differ from that of Shamanic magic, using said crystals. Whether they are scattered across Izril, and how far this plot reaches, or even the accuracy is not yet verifiable. However, the facts are these: a crystal was uncovered directly under the Meeting of Tribes. It correlated to a burst of arcane magic. More Gnolls have yet to manifest talents, but some have managed to cast arcane magic when they could not before. And finally, Fissival, the City of Magic, is known to have had a continent-wide teleportation network which ran on waystones such as these.

It was dry, well, newspaper-like, but that was clearly an attempt to be accurate and not shout the obvious, which was unverifiable as of yet. Flos Reimarch expressed his thoughts on the matter.

Fgtr.

“You said it. No wonder the Gnolls left Izril. What do you think will happen?”

Hmbth.

Teresa began to find some of the other newspapers from Izril. Some of them were spicy. The news was the talk of the world. The talk of the week. The talk of…well. The century. Right up until the next big thing happened. Like Reim falling.

But the Gnolls weren’t going to forget. She wondered what the consequences would be.

 

—-

 

“Consequences? I’m sure the tribes will be furious. It might be war and that would be disastrous, given that would be exactly what the Antinium want. Why would we add anything to that?”

The question was so stupid that Grand Magus Eldavin didn’t even deign to look at the speaker as he addressed Wistram’s own Council of Mages.

“Gnolls have historically been part of Wistram. Gnolls have been [Archmages]. Fissival alone, or some wider conspiracy, has engineered their exclusion from Wistram, and indeed the rift between the species and the academy now! Is Wistram Academy going to simply sit by, or censure this with words?

“It would be neutral, Grand Magus.”

A cautious voice from a [Mage] of the Hulltp faction, a tiny one, but which had a whole two seats on the Council of three hundred. The half-Elf looked at the Drake.

“Neutral? Neutrality is not the same as inaction, young man. If we do nothing, or merely reply in words, we, by doing so, imply that there is little problem with this kind of action. That it is fine to erase the magical talents of generations. I am putting a vote to the Council to do more than censure. Down with the City of Magic! I suggest, to begin with, all Fissival [Mages] be banned from the academy. Certainly from speaking with any…Humans…among us. Second, a magical boycott of all items from Fissival’s academy by all magical institutions across the world. That would be today’s items, but I suggest that we make the following announcements over the next few days…”

Eldavin said the words ‘suggest’ and ‘vote’. However, he spoke with no such intentions in mind. The [Mages] listened as the Terras faction seats, newly acquired, and a majority, waited behind their leader. The other Archmages weren’t even present. What would be the point?

Cognita was gone. Who ruled Wistram?

Grand Magus Eldavin.

 

—-

 

Of course it was horrific. The Gnolls of the tribe they’d joined were hopping mad. The news had just hit them, less than an hour after the Earth Elemental had uncovered the stone. They weren’t even at the tribe yet, but the [Hunters] were howling, throwing things, and uttering so many bad words that Bird was glad they hadn’t found Mrsha yet.

Her trail was getting harder to follow. They now had to rely on guesswork, sightings of white Gnolls, so this detour wasn’t actually a bad thing. It gave their scouts, like Snapjaw, the chance to use Icecube to search.

Bird had been staring at Fierre’s scrying orb, where Drassi had done the smart thing. Which was to kick Relz and Noass out of the booth and give a proper opinion piece of the entire event.

…By bringing on a Councilmember Elirr of Liscor, and a Pallassian Gnoll [Camerawoman] to take over. It was smart. So smart that it might have been a certain [Cook]’s suggestion in Drassi’s ear, as well as Remi’s, that made her do it.

At any rate, the composition was Drassi’s doing, and it also worked. Elirr was older, but had the perspective of a Gnoll who had been in the tribes. The Pallassian [Camerawoman] knew how the best interviews went, and took over a kind of interviewer/commentator role. She’d lived in Pallass all her life.

Not to say there wasn’t shouting. But the best moments were like these, in silence, when you saw Elirr’s paw trembling on a cup of tea.

“Am I surprised, Miss Treisha? Surprised? Yes. Horribly, terribly. But it does not surprise me, no. That is the worst part. That is…”

He swallowed.

“That is the worst part of all.”

No one had a good thing to say about Drakes in this moment. From Magnolia Reinhart, to Rasea Zecrew, to Ailendamus, not one person had a good thing to say about this.

Well, Magnolia Reinhart did thoughtfully remark to Ressa one thing.

“It might make our reluctant allies come to the table. That would be a silver lining in the stormcloud they’ve summoned. And we must have some silver lining, Ressa, or I’ll have to cut short this visit to find out what has happened to…Eldavin…with no gain and all loss.”

Her hand tightened on the teacup. Ressa nodded slowly. She watched the ongoing coverage, as Elirr and Treisha, overburdened despite talking for nearly two hours, let another trio of Gnolls storm in.

“You never considered offering the Gnolls land in the north?”

Magnolia Reinhart’s gaze shifted. She looked at the young woman feverishly reading something in between trying to hold the conversation down and watching the scrying orb. Lyonette du Marquin touched the letters as if trying to pick them off the page. They’d been having a tea party when the news struck.

“Never once, Lyonette. Not in my wildest dreams of pursuing a peace with the Drakes.”

“Why not?”

Lyonette glanced up, all vim and vigour and action. Magnolia had been hearing about some of the things she was getting up to. Calmly, the [Lady] regarded the [Princess]. Did she know who she was talking to and dancing with? Did her class attract them? That would put fact to the stories.

“My dear Miss Marquin–oh don’t look so worried. No one can hear us, magically or otherwise. Do you think I’d allow it?”

Lyonette hesitated, frowning, but chose her words with the tact Calanferian [Princesses] were supposed to be known for. In Magnolia’s experience, it was not a given.

“No offense to your security, Lady Reinhart, but we were nearly all assassinated in the open.”

Magnolia Reinhart heard a snort and elbowed Ressa’s knee. Lyonette blinked as both older women smiled.

“Miss Lyonette. What is the point of nearly being assassinated in public if no one sees? Rest assured, I don’t take chances in private for no gain.”

The [Princess] blinked. Magnolia glanced out the window and sighed.

“There are a lot of them. But the quality?”

Lyonette’s head turned just in time to see a [Butler] politely shove a figure climbing up towards one of the windows of the mansion with a stick. A figure flashed past her. There was no sound, but Lyonette winced.

There was a reason even the Assassin’s Guild of Izril had only ever taken Magnolia Reinhart’s holdings or attacked her in ambushes, as opposed to clandestine, convenient operations. Figures carefully swapping out bags of sugar in deliveries to the house turned as someone tapped them on the shoulder and they saw a trio of maids, led by an angry Gnoll [Maid], standing with cleaning supplies.

Not that scary, but you got the point. Magnolia answered Lyonette’s question as Reynold watched the figure run off, glad he didn’t have to get a broom.

Gnolls are not the group sending forces north each year to slap hands with Human armies, Lyonette. Nor would the Walled Cities, ah, see a non-aggression pact between Humans and Gnolls any more favorably than between Antinium and Gnolls. Finally? Yes, I could probably arrange a huge patch of land to be given, or at least free access to the north. If I drank a Potion of Dunce, I would do just that.”

Why? But of course, Lyonette was too intelligent to ask that. She thought about it and came to the conclusion in two sips of sweet tea.

“…Ah. Conflicts.”

“Exactly. The worst thing I could do for Human-Gnoll relations is to let them be our neighbors. Can you imagine the first time a [Lord] or [Lady] decides one of them has stolen something?”

Magnolia sighed. You took matters one step at a time. But–she had to admit, as she scowled at the commentary…

“…Even my family wouldn’t enact a scheme as ludicrously unpleasant as this.”

It was hyperbole, because Ressa snorted again, but it just went to show that Magnolia Reinhart had more to learn.

Lyonette went to sip more tea, but it was hard. The [Princess] looked up from her cup. She tried to speak, coughed, and lifted her tea cup.

“I fear…with great apologies, Lady Reinhart, I might request a different cup? Mine is rather too sweet for my liking.”

Magnolia eyed Lyonette as Ressa, smirking, offered her a cup without Magnolia’s usual dose of sugar. She rolled her eyes. Fine, you were right. She’d add less sugar. Maybe.

Lyonette tried to wash the sugar dissolving the enamel of her teeth away with some of the rather fine tea. She looked at Magnolia, and the [Lady] murmured.

“We do have much to talk about, Miss Marquin. Too many issues cropping up of late. Even one is a headache. The Titan of Baleros is apparently running around Izril with every [Bounty Hunter] in existence tearing apart Invrisil on the hunch he is there.”

“You know that for a fact, Lady Reinhart?”

Magnolia sighed.

“I do have my network still, Miss Lyonette. Diminished, but it seems intelligence is not the strong suit of those pursuing Niers Astoragon. If I were to start my search anywhere…but it seems they’ve checked Liscor. Drat the fellow. He ignores me, and doesn’t even have the decency to conduct his affairs without causing a commotion.”

She scowled, then her lips quirked.

“Of course, that is hardly surprising given the Titan of Baleros’ character. What is surprising…I am not surprised by much, Lyonette. Not by much. If anything shocked me of late–it was that Tyrion Veltras proposed to anyone. Truly. I could accept the rest. But Tyrion Veltras, proposing to Ryoka Griffin no less?”

The [Princess]’ face twisted. She hadn’t expected Magnolia to bring that up, out of all the pressing and urgent events, but the [Lady] looked like she was slightly in shock, even now.

“You heard about it?”

“I believe I actually swooned. Ressa, do you recall that?”

The [Maid] considered the question.

“If you mean by ‘swooned’, laughed so hard you actually cracked a rib, yes.”

Both women traded glances. Magnolia began to chuckle so hard she had to put down her cup.

“I am sorry, Miss Marquin. You have come to me with great need and urgency and believe me, I am looking for that young child. But–you do know Miss Ryoka Griffin?”

“Yes…”

“And I am sure you know of Tyrion Veltras and his…reputation?”

Oh yes. Lyonette saw Magnolia lift a handkerchief and dab at her eyes.

On bended knee. Asking permission to court her.

A snort–Lyonette looked, but Ressa had turned her head. Magnolia laughed. Then she grew serious.

What a disaster. What riotous, unacceptable messes they’re making of my continent. I thought the worst they could do was start the war to end all wars or create weapons on par with Tier 7 spells. Instead, they’ve got Tyrion Veltras making war on Ailendamus. Well, better than him writing love letters, eh, Ressa?”

“Please never say that again, Lady Reinhart.”

Ressa shuddered. Lyonette saw her blanch, actually bend down, pick up a cookie, and pour herself a cup of tea. Completely ignoring decorum, she downed the entire teacup and cookie.

“Do forgive Ressa. Terrible memories. Tyrion Veltras has always admired women of a…particular character. Even as a young man.”

Particular…

Lyonette’s mouth worked. Magnolia Reinhart smiled as Ressa shook her head like she was trying to throw off a shade’s grasping hands. But then she lost her smile.

“However, and I do regret bringing this up now, but I had no opportunity to speak to you before–Lyonette. Erin Solstice’s passing was a tragedy and I was deeply sorry to hear of it.”

Lyonette’s heart began to pound, painfully. She waited, but Magnolia Reinhart said nothing more. Her face was bleak. Bleak. Not uncaring. At the same time, however, she did not weep. She just looked…mildly sad. Lyonette found the words bursting out.

She isn’t dead.

Lyonette knew she was being a poor guest. She couldn’t help it, though. Her voice rose. Magnolia glanced at her.

“…Of course not, my dear. I do hope she can be revived, with this technique of ice. It is beyond curious, though. Such strange messages from…Khelt.”

“You know ab–”

The [Lady] glanced at Ressa. She didn’t even bother responding to that.

“Have either you or Erin Solstice met Fetohep of Khelt, Miss Marquin?”

“No.”

“He does commission from Solar Cycles. And yet. And yet. Is this all connected?”

Magnolia Reinhart couldn’t even begin to fathom it. Erin Solstice? Not surprising. Tragic. Heartfelt. She should have truly taken the girl in hand, or posted more of her people there, but the young woman had seemed fine on her own.

Careless. Yet…

“We cannot shape them. Only give them the chance to be all they might. A tyrant’s claw weighs down on all souls, yet the hand of kindness smothers as well.”

Lyonette glanced up. She had never heard that, but it sounded like a quote. Magnolia nodded to herself, then glanced up.

“Miss Marquin. Let us not play too many games. You are busy, no doubt, sequestering aid for your beloved little Mrsha–”

“My daughter.”

The [Lady]’s eyebrows rose. She peered at Lyonette and for a second, the full weight of her aura hit the [Princess]. Not like someone swinging a hammer, but a pressing scrutiny. Lyonette began to fight it, but then…Magnolia’s eyebrows rose.

“Your daughter. Indeed. Forgive me, Lyonette. I will help you. I have been, but navigating Drake lands is not easy for my people, what few of them there are. I can certainly tell you she made it out of that city long before the Gnolls got to her. And they are Plain’s Eye.”

Lyonette inhaled, hard. Magnolia went on.

“I will help you. But you will answer some questions for me, first.”

“Of course. Anything I can within reason. Is it the Healer of Tenbault that worries you that much? I…”

Lyonette had deep suspicions about just which Goblins might have kidnapped her, and why. Maybe Magnolia suspected it too, given how much she knew about Erin’s friends. But it seemed she was off. Magnolia turned, blankly.

“Oh, her? She is…quite capable of negotiating for her safety, and I’m sure the others are looking for her and all that. No, that is not what worries me. Not at all. We are following her, aren’t we, Ressa?”

“Someone’s on the job.”

The [Lady] waved the thought away without a second word. The [Princess] sat upright. What had Magnolia Reinhart so worried? If she wanted answers, she had summoned the right person to spill all.

Almost nothing was out of reason. If she wanted to get to Mrsha, when she found her, or if her brave little girl managed to tell her where she was, she would need the fastest vehicle in the world. A Pegasus, perhaps, or maybe a pink carriage. Magnolia Reinhart nodded. She appraised Lyonette, pursed her lips.

Why was she nervous?

“Lyonette…I would like you to recall meeting with a certain…a certain person. Spare me no details or speculation. But tell me everything. Did a Grand Magus Eldavin seem–off–to you when he visited your inn?”

The [Princess] hesitated. She knew that name. But why, of all disasters and opportunities, did this make Ressa stop taunting her mistress, make Magnolia’s hand tremble on the cup like that? Was it a cunning feint? Or…? She tried to think back to the enigmatic [Mage]. Magnolia listened.

Who had done it? Ryoka? Had he…?

If there was one thing that worried her, it was not the Circle, or Tyrion’s addled mind, or events in Oteslia, even the Drakes’ actions. It was simply this.

What had happened to him? He, who had never taken sides for as long as she had ever known him? The weary legend who slumbered? Why now? Why like this, and so odd, missing all her hints? Talking about reshaping Wistram?

The [Princess]’ eyes flickered, trying to work out what Magnolia’s game was. In any other time, the [Lady] wouldn’t even have hinted at the card being on the table. Now was not that time. She had to know.

What had they done to the Dragonlord of Flame?

 

—-

 

It was true that even Regis Reinhart sneered at the mistake Fissival had made–if it was Fissival. Real genius was that it wasn’t.

“Either way, that it could ever be found out makes it a fool’s gambit.”

Yes, no one with a single good word for what had gone down. No one at all. Except for the little man in Bird’s head.

…Niers Astoragon, that was. He sat, listening to the outraged commentary, the shock, the fury, and told Bird it was fine.

“In fact, listen to what they just said.”

The Gnolls had exploded into fury as Drassi read out a breaking news bulletin. Bird was not sure why Niers laughed.

“Fissival just announced that the city had no motives against Gnolls, and any conclusions drawn are incorrect. Also, that they may have destroyed ancient Drake property, and the Walled City wishes to investigate.”

“Is that what you expected?”

The only thing Bird had expected all day was omelettes, and he’d gotten boiled eggs instead. He shook his head.

“No. It is silly, and I would know silly.”

“No, it’s not. I just bet you, that army from Fissival we passed? It’s picking up the pace. The Drakes aren’t going to apologize. Why would they? That’s an admission of guilt. They’re going to claim the Gnolls are making it all up.”

“Provoke them? Why?”

The Titan laughed.

“If you know you’re getting into a fight, Bird, you might as well throw the first punch. And they have. I can’t imagine many tribes are going to walk away from this. But the Drakes have the march on them in a huge way.”

“I do not understand. They did not turn off magic for [Shamans]. They have only made the Gnolls angry.”

And killed generations of their magical talent in the arcane field. Put a huge rift between them and Wistram–that’s two hundred years of progress if what these Gnolls are saying is true. Maybe more. Think of it like this, Bird. You know that Great Shaman of the Goblin King during the Second Antinium War? He threw an army of your people into the sky by himself.”

“Yes. I wish I had been there.”

Bird sighed sadly. Niers paused.

“…Well, that was one [Shaman]. Gnolls? Gnolls have had [Archmages] and great [Shamans]. Two spellcasters, across a single race.”

“Is that so impressive?”

“Stop tilting your head, Bird. Yes, it is. Most races have one or the other. Good [Mages]? Good [Shamans]–both is rarer. Humans, for instance, tend to have one per civilization. Having a mix of them means you have more magic-users competing for less resources. More chances for truly high-level people to emerge. Even Fraerlings, my people, are behind in [Shaman]-magic. Dullahans are [Mages] without [Shamans]…Centaurs have a bit of both, but aside from them, Humans, Gnolls, and Garuda…no other species has an equitable mix.”

The Goblins, milling about, were oblivious, but might have protested being left out. To which the Titan would have replied they were a shamanic-leaning species, much like Gnolls, but without institutional opportunity, by and large, to benefit from arcane magic training. At which point they would have probably agreed.

Bird digested all of this, processed it, and came to a simple conclusion.

“So Drakes have done a bad thing for a clever reason. They have still done a bad thing. It is not nice. I think.”

In his hat, the Fraerling laughed. He laughed so hard he nearly knocked Bird’s hat sideways. To one of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, it looked like Bird’s hat tipped itself at him. He cautiously returned it and then backed away.

“Bird, Bird.”

“Niers. Niers. Yes?”

“Listen to me. Are the Drakes going to beg for the Gnolls’ forgiveness? Absolutely not. Did they do this? Rhir’s hells and Foliana’s stupid tail, yes. I’ll bet a fortune. Do you know why? ‘Nice’ doesn’t win wars. Worry about morality after you win. That’s a luxury and that’s why I’ve rolled over idiots who think I have to obey their rules. Do you know what the proof of who’s better is, now? After all their history of fall and rise, decline and triumph–the Drakes still have the Walled Cities. The Gnolls have traditions like the Meeting of Tribes. Who won?”

Bird considered the question. He replied, slowly.

“You are not a nice man.”

Niers snapped back. He wished he could sit in Fierre’s hat. But she didn’t have one. Why not? He’d start a damn trend.

“I’m nice when I can afford to be. When your opponent’s hanging by the cliff, Bird, you don’t give them a hand. You break their fingers. You get to be a ‘silly Bird’ because someone else keeps you safe. They never do nice things. If you want to lead people, remember that. Their lives are your responsibility, so you never hold back. Never.”

He waited. The Professor realized he’d lost his temper and calmed down a bit. Something about Bird did annoy him, though. Perhaps it was being stuck in the hat. Perhaps it was just that: moralizing over what had been done.

The enemy has hurt your entire people. Don’t argue over the ethics. They’ve done it.

What are you going to do? Feshi was at the Meeting of Tribes. She’d have an answer, he was sure. They needed to find Mrsha, but these Gnoll hunters…they were tearing apart cities for her!

Even I wouldn’t authorize that, even if someone knifed me personally. There’s more than just vengeance and tradition here. The Titan began to tug on a string, but he had far fewer.

When the Antinium did speak, he was calm, for he liked and disliked Niers, but he knew the Titan was still the Titan. Even so, he murmured.

“I do not see why you wanted to meet Erin. I do not think she would like you.”

Niers Astoragon froze in his hat.

“Why not? She’s a brilliant chess player, and from what you’ve said, she’s done hard things and led armies. Dead gods, she challenged the Assassin’s Guild in Invrisil! She–”

He stopped then, because something strange happened. Something that made even the group talking about the incident turn. Numbtongue, Pivr, Goblins, Antinium, Humans, and more.

Bird was laughing. He laughed, like he had been taught, not like True Antinium laughed. And oh, it was free and gentle and mocking and innocent.

And sad. Niers heard him speak then.

“You do not know Erin at all. I hope you someday do.”

“…Me too, Bird. Me too.”

The world had changed in a day. A grand conspiracy had been unveiled. Big things were going to happen and now everyone sensed it, not just the Titan of Baleros.

What did you do on such days? Well, you either talked, processed it, or you kept moving. In great tragedy or triumph, what else could you do?

Perhaps…even Niers was taken completely aback by what came next.

“So, [Shamans] are a power of spiritual magic?”

“Collective. I don’t think there’s a difference. Certainly in how they cast it, but one’s simply innate, which is why you can suppress it. The other’s shared. I’m not a [Scholar], but I know enough to know how to foil both.”

“Intriguing. But how do [Shamans] get magic?”

Niers shrugged.

“Ask Ulvama.”

Bird went over and plucked at Ulvama’s arm. The snoozing Hobgoblin jerked, raised her staff, and relaxed only fractionally.

“Oh, you. Bird. What? Trouble?”

She peered at the Gnolls, unconcerned with Gnoll drama. Bird shook his head.

“How do [Shamans] get power, please?”

Ulvama peered at him as if doubting this was a real question. Then she shrugged.

“All Goblins have power. Not just magic bzzt.”

She flicked her fingers, and tapped her chest.

Power. Because we are united. Tiny bit, lots–usually tiny. [Shamans] gather. [Shamans] have power from old things too.”

She saw Bird’s blank expression, and Fierre’s, who had come over for a history lesson. So Ulvama sighed, and switched into a suddenly more advanced diatribe.

“There is magic in many things. Magic in tradition. Magic in ideas. If you take a boring rock, and put it in a special place for a long time, it is powerful. Not to [Mages] unless the special place is mana zone, because [Mages] only see one thing. But [Shamans] see the value. [Shamans] take it. So our magic does not do what [Mages] do because it is not the same magic. Understand?”

“Oooh. Yes. So even non-[Mages] can…”

“Yes, yes. I go back to sleep now. Okay?”

Ulvama was turning over and Niers was chortling. He was going to borrow that for his lecture on [Shamans]. It was a nice little way of explaining it. What Ulvama didn’t say was that the same held true. Cut off a [Mage]’s magic and they had none. That was simple; anti-magic fields, or Skills, although a truly extraordinary [Mage] could punch through it.

To beat a [Shaman], you could have a harder time or easier. Like a [Wizard], if the staff mattered, hit the staff. If a tribe’s will mattered, shake it.

He was about to explain this all to Bird, since he regarded the Antinium as something of a pet project–how high could his [Revalantor] class go? What did it do?–when Bird spoke.

“If it does not matter how much each person has, like Gnolls have [Shamans] even though there was a bad stone, does that not mean that Antinium can have [Shamans]?”

Ulvama had snuggled into a ball, facing deliberately away from Bird. Fierre saw the crimson eyes open. The Vampire girl herself sat upright, blinking.

Niers said nothing at all. Bird looked around. He nodded to himself.

Then, he walked over to the Antinium. They were milling around, the ones with names and the many with none. Of them was Infinitypear, an [Adventurer], Touma the Great, [Martial Artist], and so on.

And the Antinium with scars all over his carapace. He had no name. He had an aura. He was old.

Bird did not know his story. No one knew his story. That was fine. The Soldier had never expected anyone to tell his story. He had never had Erin sit him down individually. He had never done anything worthy of note–certainly not like these Individuals. He did not envy them. He did not hate them. If anything, he was glad they had come because things were better.

He had not even known Mrsha that well. So why was he here? Because he had seen her, scampering around once when he got to come to the inn. He had eaten a bowl of congee. Stared into a fire and seen half of a play.

And that was more than he had ever had in six years of his life. So when they called, he came.

…Bird passed right by him. The Antinium turned as Bird peered at an Antinium Worker with something interesting on its shell. Rather than just paint, it had discovered that some of the paints were also glues, so it had sprinkled dirt and grass onto its back shell, and applied what was more like a resin than glue.

Thus, Grass Shell had been created. The Worker had a little shortbow, a spear, and a buckler. He stopped still, as Bird came to him. The Individual of the Free Antinium pointed at him with all four hands.

“You. You have the power of grass and dirt on your side. Therefore, you are most worthy. You are a [Shaman].”

Grass Shell’s antennae waved frantically. A [Shaman]? Him? He peered down at his chest. Bird nodded.

“You have the magic of the Free Antinium. Yay. Xrn will be happy! Or not? Someone tore her head off. Part of it.”

He hopped away, humming to himself. Ulvama stared at Grass Shell. Xeu, Pivr, looked at each other in dead silence.

Niers Astoragon sat there, and came to a slow realization. Of course, he had known it, but he gave voice to it in full.

“You are exceptionally dangerous, Bird.”

The [Bird Hunter] tilted his head.

“Me? I am just a silly Bird. You must be mistaken.”

The Titan rubbed at his chin, smiling. He thought for a while, then mused aloud.

“I wonder…no, I don’t have a copy of a chessboard. And Tallfolk’s are way too damn big. A pity. You told me you played chess, once. If only–”

“Pawn to F4.”

Bird happily spoke. The Titan blinked. He paused for a long moment. Then replied.

“Pawn to E5.”

“Pawn takes E5. My bird is appearing.”

Bird happily clapped two of his hands together. The Titan blinked, in the silence of his hat.

“Erin Solstice taught you how to play chess with numbers?”

“Of course. Every Antinium can do it if they learn. Chess does not need a board. Silly. Even Apista can play chess with a board.”

Apista, the undisputed grandmistress of chess in the bee world, buzzed lazily past Bird. She had, in fact, demonstrably won a game against Mrsha one time. It took nearly two hours as the two wandered away from the chess board–well, Mrsha did. Apista kept having to figure out how to correctly attack with knights.

…But she did win. Niers sat in Bird’s hat, murmuring chess notation. It did not go unnoticed, of course.

“Bird. Are you playing a chess game against yourself?”

Fals couldn’t help but ask. Bird stopped muttering his moves, and hesitated.

“No? Yes. I am lying.”

The City Runner took it at face value, but Fierre almost went cross-eyed trying to work out…Fals grinned.

“We can play an actual game of chess, if you want. I have a board. From Erin’s inn. I bought it back in the day. It might be worth something, right?”

Some of the Gnolls looked over as Fals hopped onto the wagon and Bird climbed onto it.

“I would like to play games of chess.”

“Well, take it easy on me. I’ve seen the chess players in The Wandering Inn. I can let you finish your game.”

“Do not worry, Fals. It was only in my head. And I was winning.”

Someone kicked Bird’s antennae and he winced and slapped his hat. Fals didn’t notice.

“Anyone else play chess?”

Even the angry [Hunters] looked up. Fals was friendly enough to get a response from the growling Gnolls.

“Chess? We’ve heard of it. Some people in our tribe have a chess board. All they do is play the game. I had to hunt with one of them, once. Idiot watched a Corusdeer walk right by him because he was thinking of the next move.”

“I’m not bad at chess.”

Fierre offered. Numbtongue just rolled his eyes, but even Badarrow had been taught. And of course, the Antinium knew the game. It was Ulvama, of all people, who yawned.

“Silly game. I am good at games. You show me, I win.”

Her instant confidence made Bird’s head slowly turn. Niers whispered in Bird’s hat.

Let her win two games. Then crush her.”

For once, both Antinium and Fraerling were in complete agreement. So Niers sat, watching, playing off games with Bird. It was amazing, but he actually did it. The Titan actually had to peek under a crack in his hat as Fals spluttered.

Poke me with needles, it actually looks like a bird. Sort of.

Chess and drama. Numbtongue listened sympathetically to a species who had gotten the quintessential Goblin experience for the first time in living memory. Ulvama began losing rapidly, for all the [Shaman] was, in fact, the best player in the Mountain City tribe, and started throwing fits.

Grass Shell just lay down. The thing about Antinium was that they had no true class. [Butcher], [Digger], [Warrior]–all usually below Level 5, let alone Level 10.

[Shaman], now? He’d never even dreamed of being a [Shaman]. What did a [Shaman] do? He must be, though. Bird was a [Liar], but he didn’t lie. The power of grass is in me? The little Antinium lay on his shelled back and lazily waved his arms and legs as he stared up at the sky.

 

[Shaman Level 1!]

[Skill – Ambient Focus: Grass obtained!]

[Spell – Razorgrass Patch obtained!]

 

—-

 

Some people who didn’t know all about the betrayal of Gnolls, the drama at the Meeting of Tribes, actually covered a lot of ground.

Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad ran across the ground, in the kind of run the Antinium could keep up forever. Only, faster because he had the Ring of Jumping that let him easily leap over obstacles, and his [Brave Skirmisher] class.

Next to him rode a woman with dark skin, bright eyes, hair flying behind her. Below her, horse sped along, bearing the Empress of Tiqr, the Empress of Beasts, on its back. Other animals had more speed, more enhancements by Skill or magic or pedigree. Few had such will.

A little cat meowed on the back of the saddle, strapped in to avoid falling off. She kept staring at a giant figure, running as the lights flashed in its crystal ‘head’, carrying a huge battleaxe on one shoulder.

Domehead was the slowest of the lot, which meant that the Golem’s dead-run that never faltered, and could run down horses within an hour or two, was the benchmark by which they travelled. They did not stop travelling, the three.

They were being followed. And they had destiny to catch.

Ksmvr. Do you know where your comrades are?”

“Yvlon is behind us, in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. However, Comrade Pisces is a captive of Roshal. I do not know where Ceria is. It is Pisces I must go to first. He will not be a [Slave].”

Nsiia’s eyes glinted.

“No indeed. Well-reasoned. Do you have a plan to catch him, though?”

Ksmvr nodded.

“I sequestered the aid of the First Crafter, among others. [Bandits] have been hired to raid Pisces’ caravan. Along with other bits of material aid. However, I will personally free Pisces if need be.”

“All by yourself? I heard tell it was a large caravan.”

Ksmvr shrugged.

“I am a Gold-rank adventurer. I will pick them off, lay traps. And I have this.

The sword of the [Paladin] was sheathed at his side. Nsiia eyed it.

“Hyenas laugh at me, but that’s fair enough. Even a Djinni would fear that blade.”

Ksmvr nodded. He glanced at the Empress of Beasts.

“And you are headed the same way to find your army along the Kilalle Steppes. I suppose we are allies, then. It occurred to me an army might free Pisces.”

The woman smiled.

“It might, mightn’t it? But that would depend on whether we stick together.”

Ksmvr nodded. The sun rose over the borders of Illivere’s lands, as they passed out of the greenery and cliffs which had given rise to each state’s strength in stone and the cultivated lands built on Golem-labor. They headed north, for anyone wanting to hide marched along Zeikhal, the Great Desert where sand and sheer distance made it easier to elude pursuit.

“Are you sure you didn’t want to take the Golem horse?”

Nsiia asked Ksmvr after the first hour. She was busy setting herself, adjusting what she had taken, and looking at Domehead. Domehead, who had come after her, not to Femithain or anyone else when freed. Ksmvr had called her a poor mother.

Which meant he was a son? The Empress of Beasts had no idea what to say to that. If she feared anything, more than pursuit, being captured by the forces that would surely follow from all countries that feared her return and Femithain himself, she feared that Ksmvr was right even more.

Ksmvr replied steadily as he ran.

“I am a [Skirmisher], I have plentiful stamina potions, and I am Antinium. We have marched for days on end without rest. It is what we were designed to do. Moreover, as a law-abiding adventurer, stealing a Golem Horse would be considered theft of a national treasure.”

Nsiia threw her head back and laughed.

“The rest of it was not a crime? Facing down Illivere’s finest, freeing me?”

Ksmvr shrugged. He calmly munched on a dry ration bar, as he had exerted himself a bit that night.

“It is lawful refusal to be held prisoner, asserting my right to self-defense…and I did not free you.”

Oh?

“I simply waved my sword between your hands. That is what Ceria told me to say if I ever got in trouble. It sometimes works.”

Nsiia laughed. She threw her head back and breathed in. Free. There was a difference, for all that Femithain had never chained her until the end. Free. She spoke, a note in her voice.

“I shall not forget this, Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. This is a mighty thing you have done for me. I failed my kingdom once; never again, I say. I shall have it back. Not at any cost. I paid one far too high in losing it, but I hear my people are the poor subjects of other lands, slaves like your friend. I will free every single one, and I will repay you as well.”

Ksmvr’s head turned. He nodded, calmly.

“I shall register the debt, Empress Nsiia.”

She regarded him.

“Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. Ksmvr of the Free Antinium. Have you no last name to call yourself, Ksmvr?”

“No. I do not need one. Antinium have one name, if any.”

“Hm. You should have two. One so they know you, the other so they know from where you came. Be it tribe, or deed, or place. I am Nsiia Oliphant, so-named because of my capital city, and the very Grand Elephants my people made friends with long ago. You should have a name like that. Perhaps you should choose one?”

Ksmvr stared ahead.

“…Byres, maybe?”

The Empress’ eyes brightened, but Ksmvr shook his head.

“It does not matter at this moment, Empress Nsiia.”

“True! As for you. Domehead!

The Golem turned, arms and legs pumping in distance-covering run #1, the algorithm running smoothly. Yet Nsiia saw lights shine from individual crystals in its atrium-dome. She drew closer as the Golem kept running. It never changed speed, never did more than slightly turn to her, as it was programmed to do when addressed.

Yet she sensed something watching her. Nsiia reached out. Her hand hovered near the reinforced plate armor. And Domehead…moved back.

To avoid hurting her by accident? Getting in her way? Or…?

“Oh, Domehead. I have not treated you well. Do you…do you understand me? Can you communicate?”

The great automaton said nothing, but the lights moved in its head. Nsiia threw her head back and yowled, like Yinah. A guilty sound. Ksmvr nearly fell over a rock as the sun began to bake the dry, flat ground. It was warm at first, then unpleasantly hot. He absently reached for a water bottle. He must remember to hydrate.

“I will make it up to you. I must apologize. You–Domehead, never let anyone strike you again. Not I, not your creators, not anyone. Do you understand me? Can you tell me if you rage?”

He said and did nothing, just ran. Nsiia looked at him. Then she rode closer.

Again, the Golem veered away slightly, but Nsiia just followed. Domehead hesitated…then did what no unthinking Golem should. He stopped moving away and let her come nearer. As they rode, Nsiia gently placed a hand on his side.

“I know not what Femithain has given you. But if Ksmvr is correct…I beg your forgiveness again, and again, Domehead. For you are a child born of metal and magic. Yet…you come to us, on this day we shall mark, and mark again. Little child. Born to Tiqr. Beast’s friend. Stop your crying. Still your fear. For wherever animal or person roams, a friend shall be near. I ask that you grow older, and wiser, and live long. Levels come to you, and may your life be filled with song…

Ksmvr listened, as she began to recite a nursery rhyme. He had never heard it before, and she dared not slow, even as she rode. Yet the Empress never took her hand away from the great Golem as she sang.

So passed their first hours in flight. As the sun rose, it got hotter, and hotter, and hotter.

Ksmvr knew this, of course, but he found it displeasurable the more it baked his brown-black carapace. Nsiia was used to it. Domehead didn’t care. Ksmvr did not slow, but he emptied the first water flask that would have lasted him half a day on Izril.

“The heat is a disadvantageous foe.”

He confided to Nsiia as they slowed. She nodded.

“What manner of provisions have you? I didn’t have much to take, although I had a bag in case I did ever manage to flee…”

“I have ample food and supplies. Observe. Rations.

He had bought nearly twenty pounds of dried rations, a staple across Adventurer’s Guilds and one of the things they sold. These were, of course, a local variety used by Illivere’s folk, so it was a kind of Yellat-paste mixed with nuts, dried jerky, then sun-dried and compiled into bars or even cubes.

Nsiia’s look of disgust said it all. Yinah sniffed a bit of a bar and tried to hawk a hairball up.

“I shall hunt, if we have time to slow. Or on the ride.”

“Will your horse tire? If we must slow…”

Ksmvr was aware horses needed such things. Nsiia laughed and patted the brave mare who tossed her head and actually reared slightly as if she understood everything.

“She rides in the company of the Empress of Beasts! A finer horse you will not find even in Jecrass! And this is a woman who was born for battle and adventure. I will only give her the strength for it!”

“Ah. Enhancement Skills. Very nice.”

Nsiia lost some of her smile. She frowned at Ksmvr.

“You are a bit too practical for my tastes, Ksmvr. Have you no sense of drama?”

“I have attended many plays, thank you.”

Ksmvr carefully topped up his water supplies. He had a lot of water, but he still felt unpleasant, so he drank more. Nsiia saw, and nodded.

“I know how to find wells. We shall stop and perhaps purchase more supplies. It is hard to disguise you, but at a distance with a cloak? It can be done. No doubt we are being scried.”

She snapped her fingers with vexation.

“Femithain gifted me with a ring to hide my presence! A standard thing. But you do not have one, do you?”

“No.”

“Nor does Yinah. Or Domehead. Well, I shall simply have to try to ruin any [Scrying] spells myself. Let me simply…”

She frowned mightily, and Ksmvr felt the air change. He felt his heart beat a bit faster, and Yinah yowled.

“What are you doing?”

“Using my aura to block spells. I dislike it, and it will tire me out. Grr…there.

She shook herself, as if shedding something on her back. Ksmvr was mightily impressed.

“Auras seem very convenient.”

“They are. I myself trust a blade more than an aura, though. Enough talk. If you have one, perhaps I shall teach you as we run? I do not have the means to unearth it, though. Onwards!”

They headed off. Ksmvr ran, but something began to happen after only twenty six minutes. He began to…slow. Domehead moved up a pace, and Nsiia glanced at him.

“Is something wrong?”

“I do not feel good. This is a distasteful heat.”

“A potion, perhaps…?”

Ksmvr sipped a stamina potion, and felt the jolt of energy, but he still felt bad. He sped up anyways, but Nsiia watched him, frowning.

After only six minutes, Ksmvr went for his water again and drank a lot. Nsiia cautioned him.

“Too much will slow you down.”

Ksmvr splashed some on his body.

“I am not a fool. Do not lecture me, Empress.”

She blinked once. The Antinium had a snappish tone to his voice. After only three more minutes, he slowed further, stumbling.

“Ksmvr! What is wrong?”

“I do not feel good. It is hot.”

The Antinium muttered. He tried to keep moving…then slowed down. Then he fell down and curled up. Nsiia, astonished, leapt from the mare’s back and ran over to him. She put a hand on his shelled back and yanked it away.

You are burning up!

Ksmvr was hot to the touch. Not like metal left under the sun, but close. She grabbed her own water flask and poured it on him.

“What’s wrong?”

“Hot.”

That was all Ksmvr said. She was watching him shut down in front of her. Why? He had seemed to hydrate and he was a Level 30 [Skirmisher]! What was…?

It was as Nsiia stared at the sweat on her own skin, and at Ksmvr, that she realized what it was.

Perspiration. He wasn’t sweating.

“Ksmvr! You don’t sweat?”

He didn’t respond, but Nsiia realized–bugs didn’t. They didn’t regulate their body’s temperatures, not like other creatures did. They hid in the shade in the heat, under the sand, and when winter came…

Heat and cold. Ksmvr wasn’t moving. Frantically, Nsiia dumped the rest of her flask over him and looked around.

This was not the place for shade. They were entering Tiqr, but a war-ravaged part of Tiqr, and this was one of those places where you travelled in arid conditions from oasis to oasis, which were greatly important. Further towards the capital there was more water, but it was a plague across Chandrar.

Water. Some nations had the Purifier Golem, or had money to buy water, or natural rivers. Or they stole it, like Savere. But nowhere was immune from thirst. And heat?

A shadow passed over her. Nsiia whirled.

“Domehead! Stand here, please! Shield Ksmvr from the sun while I think.”

The Golem instantly blocked the killing sun from covering Ksmvr. Nsiia searched through his gear, frantically. However, neither was a [Mage]…

“We need to cool him down. Ah! He hasn’t any elemental scrolls…very well. Very well.”

She seized the objects he had and improvised to save his life.

 

—-

 

Ksmvr was hot. He was too hot. It was pain, not like physical pain, but a bad, terrible suffocation of heat. He couldn’t see or think. It was just there, to be endured, with no relief.

Until it wasn’t. Until he felt something all over him, dripping, swishing, pattering. So much of it that it cooled him down.

Right up until he realized he was drowning.

I am going to die! Water! Water!

He flailed his arms wildly. Nsiia backed up, and Yinah stopped bathing in the entirety of Ksmvr’s water rations she was dumping on him. But it had worked. She had given him the perspiration his body lacked, and Ksmvr came to.

“Wh–what happened?”

“You are dying of heatstroke, friend. Domehead, help me. Carefully, carefully…”

Ksmvr tried to move, but it was like someone had hit him with a spell. He felt two massive hands pick him up, and Nsiia fussed around him, bending down, applying something to him.

“What are you doing? I will run…I am a Gold-rank adventurer. I do not fall to heat.”

She patted his shoulder.

“You are in no condition to do either, Ksmvr. Until it turns dark and we can cool you down, you are as weak as a Sariant Lamb, the worthless little things. Rest. Domehead will carry you.”

“But the sun? You have used up my water.”

“Yes. We will manage. A well will present itself. But this…should save you until we get there.”

She pasted more of whatever it was all over Ksmvr. It was mud, he realized. The glop from all the water she’d dumped down. A cooling covering.

“I am embarrassed.”

“Everyone has a flaw, friend. Isn’t it lucky you took me?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Domehead’s crystals whirled as he carefully held Ksmvr, the dangerous Antinium, weak as a lamb in his hands. If the Golem thought…Nsiia put a hand on his arm.

“You see? We two laid you low, Domehead. He, of necessity. I, of cruelty. But we are allies. Protect him, I ask you.”

The Golem did nothing. Nsiia stared up at him, anxiously. Ksmvr, head lolling, indeed unable to move, had an insight.

“You. Domehead.”

The Golem adjusted its posture. Ksmvr whispered.

“You nod when someone asks you for something like this. It is a sign of affirmation, and expected.”

The Golem paused. Then Nsiia saw it try to nod at her. Her eyes went wide. Ksmvr smiled. Nsiia’s head turned to him.

“How did you…?”

“I had to be told too.”

 

—-

 

Onwards, and this time with a pressing concern as the trio moved. Nsiia rode ahead, head high, on a swivel. From what the delirious Ksmvr saw, it was not good.

So flat. The horizon turned to wavy lines in the distance. They were passing through a true desert terrain and it seemed to Ksmvr nothing could survive here. That anything did was because they were so small they could survive off the barest hints of moisture–or they had magic in them.

“Sand Worms will be our only true threat, I think. This is not part of Zeikhal in truth; just a place sands reclaimed. Yet there will be wells.”

“Wells. Where does the water come from?”

“From mountains. It runs down. Or groundwater from whenever it rains, deep basins. Or simply…up.”

“That is not how water works.”

“Then you have not seen all wells, friend! And it may seem deserted to you, but any traveller knows there are wells on their journey. I think…if I recall correctly…aha!

She spotted a well at last, though Ksmvr had no earthly idea how. Experience; Nsiia pointed, and they headed down the barest hint of a road, packed from use compared to the dust around them. The very earth was cracked, but as promised, there was a well.

Just a circle of tightly-packed stones, into which you could hurl a bucket or waterskin and use the rope to draw it up. Nsiia was doing just that.

“Water for your rations, cooling for you. We must travel at night and find a way to remedy your weakness, Ksmvr.”

The mud had baked dry already in the heat. The Antinium was still weak as she applied more water and fed Yinah some. It was not good water, but it was there.

“I did not expect this. I have never been away from Izril.”

“Ah, well…when we reach my people, we sh–”

Nsiia broke off, because there was a scream from above. Then, without warning, a stone struck the earth near them and a shape circled overhead.

That is my well!

Ksmvr tried to pull for his blade, but he couldn’t. Domehead moved–but Nsiia held up a hand.

“Domehead, stop! Hey there, well’s guardian! We did not see a sign!

A Garuda landed, far enough away to be well out of danger, a sling in one hand, a simple spear in the other.

What was this? Ksmvr saw the Garuda eye him, but he must have seemed a ball of mud. Domehead and Nsiia he was far more wary of.

“What’s this? Are you travellers or nobility, to have a Golem bodyguard? What’s that he holds?”

“Private business, friend. I come from Illivere.”

The Garuda grunted. Ksmvr didn’t see his dress, but it must have been light to let him fly around.

“That’s clear. This is my well.”

“And I did not see the sign. Was there a bowl? I would have left the fee if I had seen it. You come to anger too fast, guardian.”

“Hmph. Well, it must have been blown away, though it was secured! The fee is four silver. More, with all the water you’ve taken.”

Nsiia mumbled and Ksmvr, holding still, heard her fish around in her bag of holding.

“It seems a steep price to pay! I have been at this well before, and it was a silver only, and we saw no guardian.”

“Well, I must not have seen you. Times are harder. Tiqr’s fallen, but this is my well. I’ve maintained it for years.”

“Only the one?”

“Psh. What do you care? It’s a pittance to you and it keeps me alive.”

Nsiia nodded agreeably. The Garuda kept frowning at Ksmvr as she tossed the coins down.

“We’ll leave and be on our way, friend. As soon as we draw the rest of the water.”

“Hmph. Do that.”

Ksmvr heard the beat of wings, but he still didn’t move. He heard Nsiia go back to the well, and draw more water. She filled his flasks, then murmured.

“Domehead, he’s circling. Turn slightly.”

The Golem obeyed, shielding Ksmvr. Nsiia was silent as Ksmvr whispered.

“Is that common?”

“Oh yes. Someone must own a well. Someone must make sure it is not befouled. It is a living, and individuals or tribes or cities hold their own. A single Garuda is a threat indeed. Had I no bow, he could strike me with stones with the right Skills, or even harry a group. Even if they were mighty, he could warn others out of maliciousness.”

“I see. A different place indeed. No one does this in Izril.”

“So I am told. They don’t claim rivers?”

Ksmvr shook his head slightly. He felt so miserable. He was beginning to hate Chandrar. It definitely ranked below Izril on his scale of exactly two continents he had now been to. Below Rhir, maybe, even though he had heard Crelers came from there.

“Some do, but not for access. Yvlon tells me that no noble truly tries to claim all of a river. Some do things like toss silver into wells, but that is only tradition.”

“What, to purify the water? Odd traditions, Ksmvr. I should like to visit, nevertheless. Someday…we have the water. Domehead, keep up. Quickly, now.”

Something was wrong. Nsiia set a fast pace, so that Domehead jolted Ksmvr a bit. Did she want to escape the Garuda?

No. As it turned out, she was merely finding the right place. She set herself, on a hill of all things, a natural rise and the only such one, and bade Domehead stop. She waited.

“Why have we stopped, Nsiia?”

“For his friends, of course.”

The Garuda was back. This time Ksmvr raised his head and saw nearly two dozen riders approaching. The Garuda was the only flier of the lot, and shouted as he drew near.

“Surprised?”

Not at all.

Nsiia’s voice was steely. The [Bandit], who had disguised himself as a well guardian, hesitated. But Nsiia explained, for Domehead and Ksmvr’s benefit.

“I knew the previous well-guardian. An old man who kept it clean. No one else could claim to have worked here for years. Second? I doubt many Garuda would watch one well. They can fly many miles to watch over each one. Lastly–the price told me you were checking if I could pay it. Of course, since I had a Golem, you decided to kill me anyways. Tiqr has fallen, and already the scum infest the travelways!”

She drew her sword, an unenchanted weapon, but a good steel one with a ringing sound. The [Bandits] stared at her.

“She’s dangerous. That’s a big Golem.”

“Who cares? Kill her and it’ll only chase or guard.”

Bandits. Ksmvr tried to get up, but he was still too weak.

“Nsiia, take my Forceshield and bow. Domehead, put me down.”

The Golem began to obey, but Nsiia shook her head.

“They’ll be on you as a hostage, Ksmvr. Domehead, stay here. Guard Yinah and Ksmvr.”

An angry yowl as the Empress tossed the cat. Domehead hesitated as a furry figure landed on Ksmvr. He began to put Ksmvr down.

Nsiia’s head turned as the [Bandits] began to ride forwards, aiming bows to end this without danger to themselves.

“Domehead. Do you worry for me?”

“It is sensible. He guards you, not me.”

Ksmvr answered for the Golem. A light flashed in Domehead’s head. Thoughtfully, Nsiia looked at it. Then she beamed and smiled. She touched his arm since his shoulder was far too high.

“Ah, then. If I am to teach you anything, let it be war and respite. This is a lesson for war, today. These scum are a threat to small bands, to the innocent. Yet when it comes to battle…”

“They have horses. They have bows and outnumber you.”

Nsiia laughed. She hadn’t even taken his Forceshield.

“A single warrior can scatter fifty times her number! I have seen it done. Watch!

With that, she kicked her mare into a gallop. Straight at the [Bandits].

At first, they laughed. Fast as she was, she was still far distant and they did have bows, and levels enough. They formed a loose line, joking about who would hit her.

Don’t kill her! That’s a fine prize!”

One laughed. The Garuda was circling, warily, as the first shots began to range out, bow, crossbow, slings.

Most went wide. It was a single figure, riding on them, sword drawn, galloping. A few were enhanced, though. Nsiia spun her sword, a cavalryman’s sabre, and slashed down an arrow. She turned the mare and avoided a second projectile. On she came.

The [Bandits] frowned. They loosed a second volley. This time, without the benefit of Skills, most went wide again. She was riding at them fast.

“Enough. [Perpendicular Shot]!”

A [Bandit] aimed an arrow wide of Nsiia, but as it flashed past her, it suddenly turned at a ninety-degree angle and shot straight at her.

She leaned out of the saddle. Now, the [Bandits] were turning.

“Break up! Break up and surround her!”

They still hadn’t even met. Ksmvr, watching, saw Nsiia riding at the [Bandits] as they began to realize something. She was literally cutting arrows out of the air, and her speed…she could run down any single one of them on horseback.

Not a problem if they killed her, of course. But what if she killed them? Now, the woman was riding faster. She swung her sword, and he heard a shout.

As I am sovereign of these lands, you shall all die! Know me! I am Nsiia of Tiqr! Nsiia Oliphant! [Empress of Beasts]!

Silence. Then a shout of horror. The Garuda turned, and Nsiia whirled. She brought up the shortbow she had taken from Ksmvr, aimed, and loosed.

A figure dropped out of the skies. The [Bandits] watched their leader fall, and wavered. She rode at twenty, and their nerve broke. They began to scatter. One, seeing her come at him, turned, and raised his own blade.

Nsiia swept past him as her sword flashed. [Elephant’s Strength]. [Cat’s Grace]. She had fought on battlefields against armies.

She ran them down, one after another, catching them and dispensing a quick justice. Ksmvr watched her check the bodies with distaste, whistling to the mounts. They trotted over and joined her as she returned.

“That is impressive.”

“They weren’t worth the effort. Nor will they trouble this well. I won’t waste time on money or arms. But here. We have a solution, of sorts.”

She helped Domehead put Ksmvr down. The Antinium could stand, but he was mostly embarrassed by his weakness.

“I will be able to run by nightfall, Nsiia.”

“We have no time for that, Ksmvr. You will ride. Here. With a pole, and some cloth, we can make an umbrella of sorts. Use it to cover yourself and we will make sure you stay cool.”

“Ride?”

Ksmvr brightened up a bit. Nsiia smiled.

“Aye. As for your mount, this lot treated theirs poorly. Hey, four-legged kin? Do you know me?”

The mounts clustered around her, for petting, and Ksmvr saw Nsiia laugh, check their injuries, run her hands across a few, and murmur a Skill.

“I’m sorry. I have no ability to keep you all, and I do not know how far we will go. Let me cut your saddles off. Roam free! Tiqr will return.”

The Empress of Beasts blessed them, and most began to gallop off. But she held one back.

“You are the finest fellow of the lot. And a good mount for Ksmvr, I think.”

The Antinium saw an animal come over. He brightened up and raised his three petting hands. And…stopped.

“What is this?”

A giant, humped, tan…thing was staring at him with a very odd face. It bared yellowed teeth and Ksmvr backed up. Nsiia eyed him.

“Never seen a camel before, have you? He’s fine, for all they worked him ragged. And a better match for some of the places we might go. He’ll not want for water, either. They store it well.”

Ksmvr stared at the camel. He did not know if he liked this creature, and it did not know if it liked him, for all the camel clearly adored Nsiia.

“I…I will ride it, then. Hello, camel. I am Ksmvr. Pat, pat, p–”

He got to the third pat on the nose when the camel bared its teeth and spat on him. Saliva dripped from Ksmvr’s face. Nsiia started laughing.

Hah! Now here’s spirit! You shall need a name, just like Chance.”

She patted the mare’s flank. She regarded the camel.

“Spitty.”

“I will not ride this thing. Domehead can carry me.”

“Oh, no. You must ride Spitty, Ksmvr.”

The Empress of Beasts had a twinkle in her eyes. Ksmvr stared at Spitty. He found himself riding the humpy, lumpy camel as it followed Nsiia, a little tent of cloth over his head to protect him from the sun’s glare.

He hated Spitty. Off the two rode, seeking Nsiia’s army. To challenge the greatest slaver-nation in the entire world for a comrade, a friend, a teammate.

 

—-

 

Such terrible wars. Why did they have to keep fighting them? The answer was that, sometimes, history told that conflicts arose due to need, hostilities between similar peoples over finite resources or belief. Yet it did not have to be this way.

War created advancement. War also caused death and suffering on vast scales. War…was not necessary.

Why did we fight, then? Every officer like Paethex learned of previous wars and why they had ended. How peace could reign.

Conflict was not endemic to the mortal condition. At one point, entire civilizations and peoples had stopped fighting and agreed that there was no zero-sum equation. Everyone could live on an elevated level, rather than claw and fight each other to the top.

It may seem small. Perhaps it was. Yet they had done it for a hundred and eight years. A hundred and eight years of peace, out of war that each species had lived through. Complete, thorough, alliance-wide.

Then, like all stories that told such things, came Oelt-Vaar. A foreign empire who considered that peace was an option. But not a necessary one.

“Commander. Eighty six and counting. More flashing in.”

Commander Paethex was, of course, a translation. As close as she’d been able to approximate it for the stranger who called herself Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. ‘Commander’ was a translation, too, but a good one. Real-time translation was nothing to even blink at, of course.

Eight digits paused on a control panel. She could see it too. In response, the air around her changed as a primordial fight-or-flight response released a faint wave of pheromones. She was glad the air filters kept it from reaching the rest of her crew. Yet each one reacted in their own way against such odds.

They would never use them unless something went really wrong, but some checked sidearms, adjusted their own suits, rated for hard vacuum as well as combat with anything below a Threat Rating of 16…and about as useless as spit against certain foes.

Same with Thiv-stablight carbines, which could blow chunks out of mere metal and simple-alloy vehicles on their lowest-diffusion settings, and Hetshal-knives. Well, ‘knives’. She hoped that a certain Human knew how to calibrate hers. They’d had to literally write the instructions in minutes.

Words were stupid if you didn’t have an automatic translator. Again, ‘see’ was a foolish concept. It was impossible to truly see the vast distances involved, let alone at the speeds each vessel was moving. The view she had was just that; a projected view to allow her to analyze on a visual level. Destroy or hinder the programs running the analysis and they’d have to rely on only sensors.

And they needed to see. Paethex’s head turned.

“Do we have any friendly contacts?”

“Scattered, Commander.”

“Three full Victory Companies, wiped out. Commander–they’re not even bothering with hails.”

“I thought not. They must have heard of us. Maneuver. Put out a wide-ranged hail, no encryption. This is Commander Paethex of the Victory Company Delsa. Do not reinforce. Repeat, stay clear.

Even in this day and age, there was something so ludicrous about their statement that no one answered. Eighty six plus vessels of the Oelt-Vaar empire were closing, an entire war fleet. They had destroyed entire Victory Companies of ships.

Spaceships. That was another bad name, but it was what she’d used, hadn’t she? Human. Paethex thought about it as she watched them traverse the incomprehensible distance.

“We are suffering long-ranged shots…diversionary fields holding. Deploying Aerem fields, Commander. Should we try to counter?”

“No.”

They were already being hit. Paethex felt no rumble or other effects on the ship–and she had felt the hard rumble of weapons so powerful that even diffusing them distorted the entire ship. However, the enemy was firing even from outside the technical solar system limits with no clear effect.

Of course they were. If you could engineer a vessel capable of travelling from star to star, then weapons could be even better. Near-instantaneous ‘beams’ were striking them, but only a pattern-spray. Neither she nor whomever was leading the enemy fleet really expected any damage.

There were ways to deflect, neutralize, or dodge any kind of weapon. Both empires had armed their ships like a dance of move and countermove. If you trumped the enemy in one area, you could reliably take them to pieces until they adapted.

In practice, it came down to more of a battering match, and here strategy actually mattered. Paethex’s eyes narrowed. Her fingers did not tighten on the controls, but danced faster. Accordingly, her lower limbs moved. When trouble came, her people infamously did not stand and fight. They moved and she itched to race like her ship, now speeding and pushing its engines to the max.

Oelt-Vaar’s warships were larger, far more well-armored, and each had Aerem fields. They’d taken apart the alliance’s fleets in a systematic, crushing advance due to the simple scale of advancement. Attempts had been made to equalize the gap, but the difference was that of prototypes not manufactured en-masse against a standing army also developing and upgrading.

Somewhere, out there, the enemy intelligence was laughing at the single ship on attack. Flagship or not, a single Victory Company cruiser couldn’t even expect to survive five seconds. Why was it here? Anyone who read Paethex’s call would be surprised.

They were supposed to be on a wild goose chase, lightyears upon lightyears away. If anything was concerning, it was the sudden line of victories and silenced operations among Oelt-Vaar’s ships. That was why all eighty six ships calmly entered the Aerem fields.

Aerem fields. She’d tried to explain it to Ryoka. If you could move at the speed of light–and they could, when they had to go slower–fighting other ships in space was stupid. You were all moving in a different time, and if you fired anything slower, it would be literal years before the enemy even noticed it missed.

Hence, Aerem fields. A way to create a battleground that demanded a nod to maneuverability, more conventional weapons like the charged weapons now tracking her vessel.

She should have been taking Worldpact into an evasionary maneuver. That was the one thing her people’s ships had on them. She did not.

“Incoming–”

Eighty six ships fired, with slower weaponry, but ones that didn’t diffuse against simple diffraction-shields. A calculated firestorm, on all possible vectors.

It looked like the inside of a star, in every color. A deadly lightshow.

Worldpact, rechristened in its new name, had seconds before they impacted in the Aerem field. Paethex felt a lurch, a sense of inevitable death, even now. However–

Of the many differences they shared, like the first contacts with other species in the alliance, Commander Paethex had been surprised, gratified, to learn that the most basic trick in interstellar diplomacy worked. The Human was different, but they shared commonalities in biology and culture.

Both of them did smile. In their own way.

 

—-

 

Worldpact emerged from the storm of energy, unscathed. At this point, the literal intelligence commanding Oelt-Vaar was stunned into eight processes of sheer computing.

“Its shields have not been downed?”

It demanded to the crew, re-checking the sensors. What trick was this?

We supplied/projected in excess of 341.8% of what shields could/should be capable of, even with all auxiliary power supplied.

Yet Worldpact flew on. Either this was some kind of trick that had fooled all sensors–and they had hit it and it was giving off every sign it existed–or it had some kind of energy source beyond belief.

The second. The intelligence finally saw a reading that made it stop. Five sensors on its vessel actually overloaded as a panicked call went through the fleet.

Unknown energy reading beyond scale. Evasive maneuvers requested.

All this in fractions of a second. The intelligence hesitated, and fear enveloped some emotional core. Was this the reason behind the sudden wave of silence? It had been speculated that a single force could have overwhelmed nearly eight different war sectors, but it would have had to literally engage in minute-long battles before entering transit. However–

“Evade. Redeploy projectiles, mark–”

This time, the second volley lit up the field like…well, enough energy to atomize significant parts of a smaller celestial body.

And still, Worldpact accelerated. Straight towards the enemy lead cruiser. It was somehow maxing out its engines and shields. How? And that energy–why hadn’t it fired any weapons? What new ship was this?

The intelligence saw they were coming in for a ram. A tactic so old and futile compared to the many available moves you could make it beggared belief. Did they trust to their boarding party’s superiority? Why–

And then, for a second, it saw what Worldpact was carrying. A strange object, suspended in front of the other ship, contained by simple gravitational fields.

Archaic. It had to open up an actual history file. What a ludicrous thing. It projected towards the Oelt-Vaar’s vessel as Worldpact spun just past it.

–And broke through every single barrier. The intelligence saw the projected energy fields dissipate. Backup shields just blinked off and generators suddenly vented energy meant to be going into said fields. An explosion rang through a section of the ship. Then one of the menials fired a desperate message through the command structure.

“Hull br–”

 

—-

 

Of course, nothing else was said after that, or ever again. It was just a nick through armor, but when atmosphere breached at that speed, in a void, with no backup systems or countermeasures?

It was a bad way to go, sucked out a tiny gap–Paethex was glad the monitors didn’t show that. She felt the forces of their acceleration in this self-contained physics-boundary, the Aerem field. She’d ordered the engineers to disable all safety limits.

If their shields went down, they’d suffer a fate analogous to the doomed vessel currently trying to tear itself apart. But their shields would not go down. Not with a power source like this. She turned her head as one of her officers breathed a comment, an oxygen-rich expletive, filtered away quickly.

“Ship destroyed. Targeting next.”

Worldpact shot forwards. Paethex didn’t hear the wild cheering this time, but there was still that sense of incredulity. Eighty six vessels–eighty five now, began to break away, stunned, as a predator ate through their formations. How was this happening? Some incredible energy source was attached to Worldpact, and whenever it struck…

“Commander, we have a surrender hail.”

The captain’s gaze flickered. Her digits rested cautiously on the controls, taking them out of another deadly dive, leaving multiple ships behind.

Surrender? They’ve never surrendered once before. They must be aware of the previous defeats.”

“We can take the rest out before they leave the field…”

“No. We’re still under the rules of engagement. Order them to vent their koil-reserves. If we have to, we’ll make them literally remove their emplaced arms. Signal what remains of the Victory Companies; we’ll need them for disarmament.”

This time they’d be staying for a while, rather than shooting to the next front. Paethex was almost glad of it.

“Rotate the bridge crew.”

“We’re functional for another two cycles, commander.”

She nodded.

“I don’t doubt it, but save your mental actuators, officers. It may be we’ll be fighting for dozens of cycles without rest. I will address the Victory Company’s commander and download our report in brief. Prepare the public files.”

“Done. The full report is going to be the longest piece ever written in stellar history, Commander. Good luck to you.”

One of her officers, who had been on the mission that would go down in history, saluted wryly. Paethex shuddered.

“I’ll write it once the war ends. And it is my solemn promise that Worldpact will not stop fighting until the very last battle.”

Amusement ran through the group, translated as laughter by their personal communication devices. Now that the battle-alert was taken off, seals on helmets were released. Some of the non-tacticals, the bridge crew not familiar with close-combat deployment, took off their helmets at this point.

Paethex and the squad who’d survived the lands of the fae did not. In fact, it was her promoted second, Reiy-Tosiy, who checked his side.

Of course, he’d been reissued with the same standard weapon. Hetshal-knives were literally the most common denominator across alliance-ships. A standard, mass-produced weapon issued to any tacticals; they weren’t seen as needed by space crew who would fight from range, if at all.

Not cheap; it was one thing Oelt-Vaar lacked, preferring single piece, machined weapons with mechanical functionality, as opposed to the far more technologically advanced Hetshal-knives. Even so, Oelt-Vaar’s weapons would have done better than their knives where they’d gone.

And yet. Reiy-Tosiy turned to Paethex.

“Seems like a bad trade, eh, commander?”

She knew what he meant. It felt like that was what they’d done. Traded a knife for…the weapon. The alien captain nodded.

“We left that child-thing with enough of its metal to coat a small moon. Not to mention all the other minerals it wanted. And five strike ships.”

“Still. Do you think that…Ryoka…knows how the weapon works?”

If they’d had an hour, they could have cycled her through a combat tutorial. Reiy-Tosiy had talked about her more than the rest–and they’d had entire mission briefings on their brief encounter and speculation of all they’d learned, recordings, such as they were, and more. He carefully configured the Hetshal-knife into a different combat setting.

“We gave her the best instructions we could.”

They’d even resorted to drawing pictures in their desperate attempts to translate. With a day of running her linguistics in their cycles or just a bit of writing samples…Reiy nodded.

“Next time I’ll offer her my combat armor. And weapon systems. If we ever return.”

“If we return, I will personally authorize you a strike ship to trade. Her name will be written. And…if we manage to end this and find a way back, we’ll bring back something nicer instead of a knife.”

Reiy made an affirmative gesture. The crew all signed affirmative, some copying the head-bob the Human did as a joke. Paethex did not. That gesture hurt. But every one of them looked out the viewport at the weapon hanging in space, scaring Oelt-Vaar to pieces. Salvation–a war-changing device.

Paethex turned. She knew that, from afar, Oelt-Vaar probably read it as a signature that would literally destroy their sensors. Or saw it as a strange object from their antiquated past. She saw both things too, but even now…

Even now, sometimes, as she stared at it in the viewport, it still looked like a damn stick.

 

—-

 

They asked for volunteers. Volunteers, willing to risk their lives. Six, to fly to the Forgotten Wing Company.

Four, to follow the Giant.

Sentry Leader Ekrn himself had debated taking one role or the other, but he was now one of the most senior Tallguards of Feiland. So he delegated Noa and three others to the job. To his dismay, the Architects insisted on sending a civilian, a capable [Alchemist]-[Mage], with Luan.

“He may need clarification or improvisation and we cannot send [Messages], Sentry Leader. This is a dangerous mission and Alchimagus Resk is aware of the risks.”

Guidance had been firm. Ekrn couldn’t really object. This was not a time to fight.

Paeth on the Coast, the tree-civilization, had just had an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from their home. This was beyond a crisis. Ekrn was prepared for an army of Tallfolk to appear. Worse–they’d already destroyed one Fraerling settlement, and a larger one than Paeth.

Feiland’s best Tallguard had died to evacuate the city. So, yes. This was not the time to argue about one brave Fraerling risking their life.

“We need food. We need everything on the list. Whatever you can get–we need it.”

Luan nodded. The Human was one of few Ekrn had ever met, but the Fraerling wished he didn’t trust him so much. He had to, but Luan was almost too easy to ask for help.

He had a huge secret of his own, though. And Paeth was desperate.

Not, importantly, rife with famine from the sudden influx. Or overcrowded. Or even in danger from the predators who’d followed the Fraerling army.

Said predators were currently being harvested and Paeth had literally vaporized half of them. Even without that extra meat, though, they didn’t need to worry about shelter or food in the same way Luan had feared, like creating a refugee camp outside the tree.

Prepare for magical injection! Pellets planted?

“All set. Where’s our [Druid]?”

Ready to pervert nature!

A Fraerling dressed without metal or the more machined fabrics strode down one of the vast, magical growing rooms. The overseer, none other than Ilekrome himself, was observing the emergency food production.

Pellets of pre-prepared alchemical design had been inserted into beds of similarly enriched soil. It was no more than a simple ‘container’ of energy. After all, food, or at least, plants, were just different kinds of life. Less complex in some ways than a person, but you could use spells on plants.

Not create food wholesale; cornucopia had that ‘magic food’ problem. However…what if you were able to inject bare seeds with everything they needed to grow? Food, water, a substitute for light…it would grow. That was what [Farmers] knew. The only problem was time.

There was an equation someone had worked out about how much magic went into time. Ilekrome would look it up later. For now, he watched as earth-attuned magicore was dumped out, filling the area with magical radiation. The [Druid] activated his Skills, and the growing team stepped back.

The first buds of life shot out of the soil less than a minute later. And that was from frozen seeds. There was applause, but the [Farmers] were already activating their Skills for bountiful, quick harvests.

“Excellent work, everyone. Let’s fill eight silos within the week and I’ll personally throw you a celebration when this is over.”

Ilekrome went around, shaking hands. The Fraerlings nodded, turning serious.

This was all possible, of course. They’d done experiments with this in the past, neatly catalogued the method, and put it in the files until they needed it.

The reason why Paeth didn’t do this all the time was that magically-grown food tasted worse than the natural stuff–too magic-y.

More importantly, it played hell with your Allotment, the magical limit to what Paeth could disguise.

In this moment? Ilekrome strode out of the greenhouses and saw a [Geomancer] raising a wall of stone out of raw material. Forming emergency housing–Fraerlings were hefting huge objects, enhanced by strength spells. Some were literally levitating around–the supervisors and anyone with a justification.

Damn the Allotment. Paeth was like a lighthouse of magic. They’d fear a Tallfolk [Mage] would spot it, or the more serious kinds of monster, in any other time. A Hydra was not what you wanted to come looking for a bite to eat, Paeth’s defensive spells or not.

However, this was a time of crisis. So Paeth flurried about. But they were relying on Luan.

 

—-

 

“Why do you need some of the ingredients on this list so badly?”

Luan was marching through the jungle. He’d seen some of Paeth’s incredible abilities. Defensive spells, food grown overnight…Noa clung to one shoulder, and two Tallguard [Rangers] kept watch on the other shoulder. One, like Noa, was equipped for close-combat. The other, like Alchimagus Resk, was magic-oriented.

It was Resk who explained. He wasn’t nearly as old as Luan had expected. Barely forty, since he needed to be in good shape for the dangers of the outside world. Still, he was apparently Level 32 in [Alchemist].

And Level 35 in his [Mage] class.

“We need raw magic to keep Paeth energized, Luan. We have a surplus stored; if we need to activate all of our enchantments, we need more. However. Even more critical is raw magicore, Culthen clay, Sompter vine…anything that can neutralize Paeth’s magical aura.”

“To keep you hidden. But if whoever attacked the other city knows you’re here…”

“They may only have a rough estimate. Either way, Paeth must survive, Luan. Magical supplies, food…preparations for war. If you could get even a single cube of adamantium, or unprocessed ore…”

Luan really doubted he could do that, but he nodded.

“We’ll try Mithril. I’ve seen it on the markets.”

“That will do. Mithril, iron.”

They didn’t even need that much. The Fraerlings had submitted a wish list of every possible resource they could use, and told Luan they’d maxed out the numbers. They’d worried about the cost and how much he could get back to them soon.

…He’d looked at ‘twenty pounds of iron’ and thought he could do that. Even without a chest of holding, or a crappy bag of holding. Hell, he could probably carry it.

“You sure you don’t want steel?”

The Giant was carrying his new, Fraerling-enhanced scull towards the water. He was anxious, worried for Paeth, but relieved he was going to Talenqual.

The United Nations company. Daly, Ken–everyone must think I’m dead. He would need to keep Paeth’s secret, but he’d tell them what he could. However, Paeth’s desire for absolute secrecy was out the window.

Someone was razing Fraerling settlements. They were supposed to be under the Titan’s protection, even though they weren’t directly allied.

This was bad. But Luan had to admit, as he approached the piranha and crocodile-infested waters from the beach, he was still excited to see what the scull did. Fraerling-magic was on a level beyond anything you could find short of Wistram. And they’d worked hard on his scull.

Hell, the hand-crossbow by his side was so dangerous Luan was afraid to touch it. Automatically reloading, capable of firing a wooden bolt through a significant amount of a tree…he hesitated on the edge of the water.

“If a damn crocodile comes out of the water, we’re going to be in trouble.”

Resk gulped, but the Tallguard nodded.

“Just get out of the inlet as fast as you can, Human Luan. We’ll cover you. Remember–aim for the eyes. Conserve your magical ammunition. No telling what we’ll run into.”

They spoke like they were headed into Rhir itself, not Talenqual, a fairly nice city. Luan just eyed the lazy surf. Resk chattered, casting a protective spell as he anchored himself to Luan’s shoulders. Some kind of localized gravity spell on his boots that let him walk up and down Luan’s body without the need to fear falling off.

It felt like someone had heavy magnets and he was made of metal. Luan made sure not to roll his shoulders or rub his head against Resk and crush the Fraerling to death.

“No steel, Luan. It’s appreciated, but we’ve seen the quality your people come out with. Just porous. Terrible grain. We’ll take iron and refine it; it’s not hard. Now, Dwarfsteel would be excellent…”

Luan set down the scull, which was virtually weightless, and got into it. He’d push into the water; he didn’t like how quiet it was.

“We’re moving fast. Everyone ready? Anchored?”

“Grappling in place. Do what you’re going to do, Mister Luan.”

Noa’s eyes were shining with excitement. The other three Fraerlings braced as Luan put his new paddle to the sand. He gently pushed into the water.

Amazing. It was so easy to push himself forwards! Even the top-of-the-line sculls back home weren’t this lightweight. This weighed practically nothing, enchanted by magic. They had engineered it to cut through the water, the paddle to push more water than it should…

Luan glided out into the surf, but didn’t feel it trying to rock the tiny vessel. He grinned.

“This is amazing. This is–”

“Watch out!”

A Tallguard loosed an arrow as the water exploded and a Giant Crocodile came out, huge jaws open. Luan shouted.

“You bastard!”

A little explosion blew a tooth out of the mouth as one arrow hit it, but Luan didn’t try to hit the croc. He just put the paddle into the water, and pushed.

The crocodile snapped its jaws shut, thrashing, biting…water. It turned left and right, huge eyes confused. What? Where had…

The scull skipped. It actually left the water for a second. Luan, the Fraerlings, Noa, all had that open-mouthed, bug-eyed expression. Then they started screaming.

Aaaaa–

Luan hit the water and made the mistake of trying to correct himself with another full-force stroke; he thought they were about to roll. Instead, the scull auto-balanced and his second push with the oar?

Luan Khumalo. Olympian-class [Athlete], [Expert Rower], with multiple Skills already enhancing the best technique in sculling in either world. [Lesser Strength], [Power Strokes].

Scull. Nearly zero-gravity, enhanced with water resistance, balance, and durability.

Oar. Also lightweight, extremely reinforced to take on the main enchantment, which was to generate an approximately quadruple-sized ‘presence’ in the water with each stroke, to magnify the amount of water Luan could displace, and thus generate acceleration in–

A passing seagull did a double-take as a screaming man and four tiny people flew past it. It banked, swerving away. Now the apes were flying? The sky was just going downhill, it really was. Who would they allow up here next? Dogs?

Luan actually capsized his scull. Like some kind of complete rookie, he felt the water engulf him, began to roll–right before a force twisted him around and sent him whirling back upright.

Drenched, water in his ears, nose, the Human spat out seawater.

“Noa! Resk! Are you…”

Four soaked Fraerlings were still clinging to his shoulders. They stared at Luan as the boat auto-rolled him back upright. Everyone was silent as the scull serenely glided forwards, like it was on a flat lake, not the actual waves near the coast.

“I thought you said you were good at this paddling thing.”

Resk muttered after a moment of silence. Luan didn’t even correct him. He slowly, gingerly put his paddle into the water.

“No one told me this thing auto-corrects itself. This…this might be overengineered.”

“I’m going to complain when I get back.”

One of the Tallguard agreed. Gingerly, Luan pushed and the scull shot forwards. Noa gasped.

“It’s so fast!

“Too fast! I’m about to launch us with every stroke!”

Luan agreed. He was actually way too strong and the scull was like a wild animal, threatening to shoot out of the water if he put any strength into it. Nevertheless–a wild grin was on his face. He began to adjust, pushing lightly, and the scull shot forwards. Luan thought he passed an imaginary Luan in his head. The other man took one look at the Luan in his enchanted boat, shooting past him as he labored with all his best Skills working.

This is amazing. Wild, in need of adjustment, but–Luan caught himself as he laughed.

“Think we can install a cabin or something?”

Resk was muttering as he surveyed the scull for a place to sit besides Luan’s shoulders. Maybe they could? The only other place was in the waterskirt, but he really didn’t want to sit in a confined space next to Luan’s groin. He settled for another anchoring spell.

Yet the Giant was laughing. He cast about, and then recalled he’d lost a lot of his gear.

“Noa, can you get out your compass and your map? We need to head south, along the coast.”

The Fraerlings did have a good map of the region. Luan turned, and began to shoot into deeper waters.

“First stop! Talenqual!”

He smiled, then tried to temper the joy in his heart as he recalled Paeth’s plight. His friends.

They had work to do. Even so, he felt that indescribable sense of adventure in his heart. Magic. This was what he’d wanted, the moment he appeared.

 

—-

 

There was a joy to magic. Yes, like all things, if you made it your profession, if you took it in the context of politics and work, it lost its charm.

Yet it was still magic. Point at something, cast a spell, and you could levitate an object, or shoot fire from your palms or…

The problem was how hard it was to memorize, redeploy the magic in exactly the right way, and strain. One component of magic as [Mages] did it was to have absolute focus in your mind, like holding an entire calculus equation and understanding it while recreating it.

So no wonder the Earthers who came to Wistram couldn’t get into it as fast as they wanted. No ‘swish and flick’ for them.

“Well, you can do that. Sort of. If you’re a [Wizard], you can rely on enchanted gear. That makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s just not [Mage]-magic.”

“In that case, I want to be a fucking [Wizard], Harry. Not a [Mage]. How about a [Sorcerer]?”

“Uh…they’ll laugh at you. And it’s just as hard. Only, instead of knowing spells, you just think so hard–”

“Gaaaaah!”

Flynn tossed the spellbook to one side and buried his face in his hands. Instantly, Pokey, the Needlehound, nosed up to him and licked his arm. He gently petted her on the head as Elena rubbed at her face.

“It’s really unpleasant, Aaron. My head feels like it’s going to explode. How does Troy do it?”

Aaron Vanwell, or Blackmage, shrugged. He was a bit envious of Troy, to be honest.

“Someone taught him really well. He said he also saw combat, so I think he has, y’know, perspective?”

“I’ve seen combat. I still can’t ‘hold the magic’ in my head. What if I got a wand and just cast magic like that?”

“You can do that. But someone’s got to charge it up.”

“That’s what I’ll do. Sorry, I need to take a walk.”

Aaron nodded, biting back any comment as Flynn got up. George, Elena, Saif, Basil, Sang-min, Caroline, and more were part of the study group.

A lot of the Earthers had quit, though, and Aaron feared that Flynn would too. He wished Troy were here to give some advice, but he was studying at a higher level than the rest.

And to be fair, Aaron was high-level and had been here the longest. He even had tips and knowledge that all [Mages] except maybe Eldavin lacked. It was just that you still had to work hard, and not everyone was cut out for it.

“How about we all take a break and play in the adventure rooms? Or have a beach party? I’ve got a new drinks-mix from one of the [Mages].”

George suggested hopefully. Aaron bit his lip. Elena answered for him.

“If we keep taking breaks, no one’s going to level, George. You’re free to go, but this isn’t a school project or homework. It’s a class.”

Chastened, he flushed, and the [Beautician] rubbed at her temples.

“Okay, Aaron. Let’s go over [Firefly] again.”

In truth, the magic study sessions were really for those who hadn’t found their place yet. Some came to learn magic, but they already had a class. Already knew who they were, in a way. Flynn was a Bronze-rank [Beast Tamer]. Elena was a [Beautician] and she spent as much time with Sa’la as chivvying the other Earthers.

Malia, for instance, didn’t even attend the magical lessons. She was a [Thought Healer] and made it her duty to make sure Basil, Sidney, and the others were alright. They were doing a lot better now, thanks to Telim’s help.

And then there were the Earthers who didn’t just live, but thrive. Leon was the newest arrival, and he was a bit aghast when Erik, the [Actor] and ‘member’ of the Aquais faction of Wistram, handed out flyers.

“We’re putting on Elisial tonight. Anyone want to come?”

“Is there free food?”

Erik grinned.

“You show me a play without some. Don’t worry. There are silence spells and special effects.”

“You uh, know Elisial? I know the Players of Celum put it on…”

Leon murmured. Aaron glanced at him and Elena’s lips pursed, but Erik just nodded.

“We got a copy of their script.”

Some of Leon’s newfound popularity had diminished, as had his bold claims, after meeting with the Silver Swords, but he still had the amazing connections to so many things. Aaron knew he wasn’t all that. Elena, for instance, had met Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria. She hadn’t seen all of what Cara had been through–but oh, she could tell he hadn’t been as central to some of his stories as he claimed.

She didn’t out him. The others dithered over the play; there was a lot to do in Wistram, but one young woman announced she couldn’t make it.

“I’m sorry, but I have to get back to work! I’m trying to come out with a new piece for this month’s magazine, and I just have to write The [Cook] and the Centaur. Leon, tell me more about Imani.”

Caroline, the lone [Writer] of their group, and survivor of Baleros, looked at Leon and he hesitated.

“Alright, then. But um. Is it going to be another…romance?”

It’s fiction. Don’t worry, I’ll change her name!”

‘Heartslayi’ smiled as ‘Blackmage’ gave her a long look. She had come to them completely by chance. She’d actually been abducted in Baleros’ jungles, but before she was sold off, a Wistram [Mage] had found her and immediately taken her to Wistram.

She had stories aplenty, but had been cagey about other Earthers, on Elena’s immediate advice. Nevertheless, Caroline was a success story. Her romance stories, that was.

…Aaron was not sure what to think about that. He’d read her latest…piece. Which involved a love story between the Horns of Hammerad who had perished in the Village of the Dead.

Privately, he thought it was in bad taste, but Caroline already had a fan base. And even rivals.

“Are you still getting letters from Sandquen?”

“Every week. I don’t know who she is, but she keeps writing insults about my stories. It’s just like home, you know? Only slower since there’s no internet. Do you think we could get someone to help me trace who it is? She’s really getting on my nerves, but she’s not getting published, is she?”

Caroline scoffed at her unknown rival. It was as they were breaking up, heading to their respective places, that someone accosted Aaron and Saif.

A half-Elf with white hair. Not Feor. A huge, built [Grand Mage], who Aaron had been warned to stay away from by his…own mentor. Nevertheless, Grand Magus Eldavin had shot to the top of Wistram’s hierarchy, so he was allowed even in the new Earth-corridors arranged for them.

By request, Elena had petitioned for that. The factions could demand an Earther be ‘theirs’, but the Earthers wanted to stick together and it kept them from leaking secrets to the general body.

So they now had their zone, with the exception of a few people like Troy who were active students. It was like dorm life in college, complete with quarrels, drama…

But they were also part of Wistram. So Eldavin halted.

“Aaron Vanwell. I have need of you. Teura, which one is ‘Saif’?”

“Right there, Grand Magus.”

Saif gulped as the half-Elf glanced at him with his mismatched eyes.

“Ah, excellent. Young Saif, with me, please. And you Aaron. We’ll head to your rooms. Saif, fetch this ‘gun’ I’ve heard so much about.”

Elena’s head shot up as Eldavin led the way. Aaron blinked.

“Grand Magus? You wanted me?”

The half-Elf nodded, striding along, with his personal entourage of devoted [Mages]. Teura had jumped ship so fast she’d left the boat rocking. She hung on Eldavin’s words, and she wasn’t the only one.

Even Telim and Sa’la were part of the new Terras faction. Even Valeterisa. Eldavin was speaking.

“It’s past time. I’ve been occupied getting ahold of Wistram. Now? Action. Is the announcement about the boycott…?”

“Already done, Grand Magus. Fissival is already protesting.”

“Excellent. Let them. Inform the Meeting of Tribes that we–I–would personally like to assure them that if they would like to rectify our long-standing differences, we would be delighted to host no less than two hundred Gnoll students capable of arcane magic with the next semester. Assuming any of them have any magic. We might have to make [Wizards] of the lot.”

“You think they might not have the aptitude?”

“From magical suppression that extensive? It might have literally crippled their natural development. However, the announcement…”

Aaron trailed in Eldavin’s wake, like he was following a hurricane. Here was a force to be reckoned with. Yet why did Emerrhain dislike him so? He refused to tell Aaron why in their…lessons. Only that Eldavin was a complication.

To whose plans? Moreover, Emerrhain himself…

No one had ever really talked about the message sent on all the iPhones on the Summer Solstice. Sometimes Elena would stare at Aaron, but he had denied doing it. Most of the others thought it was a joke or…

Some had begun praying again. To their respective religions. In private. Aaron couldn’t talk about anything he knew, anyways. He could only help the others. If he wanted to, Emerrhain had promised he could actually get Elena off Wistram. Did Aaron want that? He felt things were actually going well. Better to be a prisoner, yet growing in ability in the safety of Wistram, than faced with some of the horrors Leon had talked about.

However, things changed so fast. Eldavin opened the door to Aaron’s room without asking. Aaron would have protested, but nothing…special…was in there.

“Grand Magus Eldavin. What are you doing in Aaron’s room?”

Eldavin turned at Elena’s sharp voice. He gave her a slight nod.

“Miss Elena. Excuse the intrusion, but I am in a hurry. Moreover, young Vanwell did mention this before…ah, there it is. Is this gun-object there too? To the battle rooms or whatever nonsense you call it.”

He turned. And he had…Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. Elena started.

The Iron Man glove.

That was what everyone called it. It could actually shoot lightning, but it had to be hooked up to a bulky magicore battery. Eldavin eyed the creation of Aaron, Archmage Naili, and to some degree, Emerrhain, with distaste.

“I see what’s been done, now. Yes, yes. A decent reinforcement spell, non-conductivity and electrical resistance, obviously, and a simple link to a [Shock Volt] spell from the magicore battery. Activate in a number of ways. How…simple. Yet I’m told it echoes some element from Earth?”

“Er…er…stories, Grand Magus. It doesn’t exist yet, but it’s one of the uh, superhero stories.”

“Ah, yes. Theoretical. But this is a version of a weapon from your world? It fires pellets, though, not metal?”

Saif had the airsoft gun that had perplexed and intimidated the [Mages] on the wrong end of it. The pellets that the [Mages] had made for it gave it more ammunition, and indeed, they had found out how to maintain it.

Just not replicate. Eldavin stared at the object with clear distaste.

“I’d like to see it in action. Teura, would you do me the favor of…?”

She was already stepping into the battle room, and let Saif do his demonstration with his Boots of Speed, tricks, zipping out of cover, firing, repositioning…

Eldavin watched as he summoned more of his apprentices. A young [Bard] had some armor–plain steel, unenchanted, unlike the painted gauntlet Aaron had worked so hard on. He had a bad feeling about what was coming next.

“I see. So Earth’s amazing tactics, which so befuddled our best battle mages, is a simple upgrade of a crossbow and the ability to use cover and move around. The age of Wistram’s name being feared on every war front is clearly long gone. No wonder that Magus Grimalkin told me he had a kill count of over three dozen.

Eldavin looked disgusted. Not at Teura, but at Saif’s amazing combat abilities. The young man saw Eldavin walk over.

“I can see what is meant now. If that object were to fire metal at the speeds described, I hardly imagine a mundane army would survive long. [Mages]? We can certainly counter that.”

“You have a thought, Grand Magus?”

Teura reappeared, and his personal cortege listened avidly. Eldavin smiled.

“Intangibility spells. Unless their munitions are enchanted, it should be a standard. We’ll bring it back. However, Earth has many unique ideas that echo, or build upon, concepts of times past. Their notions of armored vehicles…intriguing. I have to say, there is some charm to experimenting. So, young Aaron, I’m told you’ve been working on this ‘armored suit’ idea for quite some time.”

Aaron stared as Eldavin turned, holding the glove out.

“Will you talk to me about this ‘Iron Man’ concept?”

“I–I–well, it’s only an idea. But I thought if you had a suit of armor, and you could still cast magic…or just fly around…”

Elena watched as Aaron tried to explain to Eldavin. For some reason he stuttered, despite being so enthusiastic about it. Eldavin hmmed, tapping his lips.

“So a flying [Knight]. There have been those in the past. What I like is the idea of this magical battery. You see? Clearly a simple magicore battery is foolish, but a pack mounted on the rear?”

“It’s an expensive idea, Grand Magus. A single suit of that would cost gold to bronze pennies compared to even a traditional [Knight].”

Telim murmured. The High Magus liked the idea of adventure, same as Aaron. But Eldavin…why was he asking?

“Of course, High Mage Telim. But considering that it might protect a [Mage], who has spent decades in study? A single warrior can change the tides. That’s what a superhero is all about, isn’t it, Aaron?”

“Sort of.”

Eldavin smiled. It was kindly, but…Elena thought it was different from how he had acted at the start. He was less mysterious. More…active.

“Then we’ll begin. Everyone, follow through. I don’t think we need to enchant from the ground up; we’ll get some Boots of Levitation. Just so long as we keep the magical interference near zero. Teura, you lightweight that breastplate. I’ll overlay it; just keep the enchantment concise. Should I enchant Saif’s gun to enhance the output? Perhaps not if it’s meant to be demonstrated. We don’t need casualties already.”

Aaron’s mouth went dry as Eldavin pointed and a gauntlet rose. The Grand Magus hmmed, and it changed color, matching the very gauntlet he had.

“Grand Magus? What are you doing?”

Elena spoke quietly. The half-Elf turned.

“Realizing young Aaron’s project, Miss Elena. Aaron, I hope you will volunteer to trial the armor? If we can get it working, this can be one of the hearts of Wistram’s own arm of battle. Flying, [Armored Mages]. It’s been done before. They don’t cast spells, they just blast things with bound spells from the gauntlets and rely on magical batteries. Ingenious.”

Blackmage and Elena traded a look. Eldavin turned back to the suit of armor as the other [Mages] gathered around. Teura went off to get the boots. Aaron stood there.

It was one thing to make a gauntlet, to dream of it. Eldavin? He intended to realize it.

“Did you say ‘arm of battle’, Grand Magus? Wistram doesn’t have an army.”

He turned, impatient.

“Nonsense, my dear. We have a Golem army here, but we cannot control it or do anything with it. Wistram used to stride into battlefields. Well, if we are preparing for anything, be it Earth, or…anything else…”

His eyes flickered.

“We might as well prepare, shouldn’t we? Aaron, come here. How fast were you hoping to go? And ah, are there any more things about this iron-fellow you can tell me about? Any more ideas would be quite interesting. Flying planes? I don’t see a [Flying] spell being superceded for the moment and this is already one aerial project. However…”

Elena backed away. Saif had his toy gun in his hands, and it was a toy. He backed up too. Eldavin had just offered to transform it. Elena had worried and told the others to keep silent. Now here was the nightmare Cara had dreamed of, calmly making the first suit of magical armor. And that?

That was only the beginning of Eldavin’s renaissance in Wistram.

 

—-

 

When it seemed like the world was burning, when it all seemed bad. Not all hands were against you. Not all events were sad.

The misconception was about enemies. Who were their enemies? Wistram? Drakes? Dead things?

You were against some people by accident, or because you had a side. Not because they were evil. Some of them might be misguided, or simply stubborn or…

They were not all against you. Grand Magus Eldavin was so busy as he worked. Nevertheless, he had time to realize a young man’s dream, and that was how he saw it. Armored [Mages], flying around?

Sometimes you needed them. After all…he paused and thought about it.

House Veltras, backed by the Five Families, was sailing into conflict against Ailendamus. Ryoka Griffin was missing, spirited away by a superi–by a competent spellcaster. He could put two and two together.

That girl is under my protection. The half-Elf hummed. He had felt like he’d woken up. He had indeed had a revelation of sorts. But he was still T–Eldavin. That girl is under my protection.

How dare you? Whoever you are–and children? He had told Valeterisa to look into that little child’s disappearance on her way south. Too long had Wistram allowed things like Fissival’s actions to go unchecked.

There could be a better world. He knew it. Not Earth. A better world. He felt like he had seen it, before. Time now again.

 

—-

 

Who are your enemies? Who, in this wide world, are your foes?

Only a fool said they had no foes. That was a thoughtless, incredibly stupid statement. Understandable, hyperbolic, but consider this: to say you had ‘no enemies’ and you got along with everyone was to turn a blind eye to injustice.

You weren’t opposed to the act of keeping slaves? If you had no enemies, you stayed away from politics or world-events, you didn’t get to pretend terrible atrocities didn’t happen. You just stated, by inaction, you didn’t really care.

Erin Solstice had enemies. She also had great friends. Even now, though, even in death, she had taken a stand.

“Slaves are bad. No, wait. Slavery is bad. Yup. Yup.”

It might be a hard pill to swallow, but someone had to say it. And shove it down every throat, if need be. That was why some of them loved her.

The ghosts of Roshal and their like watched, narrow-eyed, thin lipped, and poor of soul. The ‘best’ of them weren’t even here, but those who were just petty enough not to sink into Riqre’s depths had no voice that Erin wanted to hear.

She sat amongst friends and companions, dead though they might be. She listened and learned and laughed.

“Gerial. Was that what Ceria was like? She’s so…different now.”

“Ah, well. That’s how we knew her. She was in a slump. So were we, in a way. Calruz was always sort of bull-headed, but he really got into trouble when he first came to Izril. He thought they’d make him Gold-rank in a month.”

“That’s Calruz…I need to see him. What should I…I say?”

The man thought. He shook his head, but not for lack of words.

You got one chance, ever. Which was terrifying because everyone forgot it, until it was too late and they were reminded. But if you got two…

“Tell that bull-headed idiot. Tell him…tell him I said…”

He leaned over and whispered. The [Innkeeper] listened. And promised to remember.

“I’ll tell him, I promise. And–and has anyone found anyone else who knows someone I know? I don’t think Mrsha’s parents are here, or…her tribe. Maybe there are some ghosts still coming?”

“If there are any, we will find them.”

Calmly, Califor replied. Erin nodded. Now was time to rest. They would go back to studying soon, but she had a day off. A day, measured by the dead.

What day is it today? Is it the fourteenth or fifteenth?

Out on the sands, a Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen seized a newly-appeared [Bandit] and shook him until he answered her. She relaxed.

“Still the same day!”

Nerrhavia’s own shade rolled her eyes at Queen Merindue.

Silly ghosts. Silly…sad ghosts, working together. Erin was aware of a great event taking place with Khelt’s rulers. They tried to keep it secret, but everyone could see the magical thingamabobby they were working on.

However, she had different goals and a job to do. Erin’s head was packed with revelations of the dead and she feared she’d forget some things. Unimportant things, like Potions of Youth, as opposed to Gerial’s last words, of course.

It was as she sat, though, that a few more ghosts introduced themselves to her. The [Witches] were aware even Erin’s ghost had limits to the knowledge she could cram into her mind. They were cutting out that portion of her learning.

“Just in case her head were to explode upon returning to her body.”

Somillune remarked. Erin Solstice hesitated.

“Hah. That’s a joke, right?”

“Most likely.”

However, one ghost did come up the steps, hobbling, frowning up at her. Erin Solstice, in the midst of asking Cawe about her family, anyone to talk to, hesitated.

“Who’s this? Someone else to help out the Khelt-people?”

Queen Khelta herself frowned down as she floated past, but shook her head.

“Not ours. Is yon figure a guest, Witch Califor?”

The Witch peered down. Her eyes blinked twice, and she looked past Khelta, sharply.

A gigantic [Witch] of tree and earth nodded.

I HAVE FOUND HIM, THOUGH IT TOOK A DOING TO CONVINCE HIM TO COME.

The ghost walking up the stairs winced, and put two fingers in his ears. Khelta blinked, and the ghosts stirred.

“Who’s that?”

A [Vision of the Desert] nudged the [Archmage of Grasses], the Gnoll who was really unhappy to hear about what those damn Drakes had done to her people. The Gnoll stroked her chin.

“I…don’t know. Perhaps he is not as important?”

On the contrary. The older ghosts had no idea, even the ones who had been [Legends]–literally–in their era. Yet all the hip, trendy new ghosts knew.

“I didn’t even think to–Califor, you sent for him?”

The Witch nodded at the recently dead. Her eyes lit on an older man, balding, grumpily stomping up the stairs and looking around. That he was old, was a meaning. Some ghosts looked like they had at the prime of their life. However they chose.

But this man clearly believed how I died is how I damn well died. He had his eyes on Erin, recognizing her as halfway between life and death as all ghosts could.

“So this is the young woman you hauled me all the way here for? Well, she doesn’t look like much. And I’m to celebrate her as the ‘one true hope’, eh? Hah.

Erin Solstice blinked as a crabby old man halted, arms folded. He wore a kind of robe, but more sensical than [Mages]. Many pockets, to hold sheafs of paper–there was a quill behind one ear, and two in various sleeves. He had ink stains on one arm, a sign his ghost was more powerful, and remembered such details.

Personality. He peered down his glasses at her.

“Um. Hello. Who are you?”

“Annoyed, miss. Annoyed that even when I’m dead, I don’t have time to work and sit alone in peace. Annoyed that you don’t have the courtesy to stand up and introduce yourself despite me coming all this way.”

Erin Solstice blinked. Then she slowly rose. She had the conflicting desire to poke fun at this old man, and to apologize.

“I’m sorry. Sort of. Uh, I’m Erin Solstice. Who are you?”

She offered him a hand. He took it, briskly, and shook it.

“Architect Drevish, formerly of Reim. At your service, miss.”

Below her, ghosts turned. The old ones had no idea what all the fuss was. But Cawe went wide-eyed, as did Gerial. Even Reim’s former king, or rather, grandfather of Flos, raised his head.

“Drevish. Drevish. Hold on. I sort of know that name. Drevish…

Erin rubbed her chin with genuine puzzlement. The [Architect] snorted. Gerial whispered.

“Erin! This is Drevish, the Architect! One of the King of Destruction’s Seven!”

Erin Solstice’s eyes widened. Below her, every [Architect], [Builder of Fables], and similarly-classed ghost looked up in deep offense. Yet the greatest [Architect] of his time had an ego to match.

“I can see they still remember me. And I’m told you own an inn of your own, Erin Solstice.”

“Yes. Um–wow. So you’re the guy who went around with that jerk? I mean–the King of Destruction?”

Erin was conflicted since she didn’t hear nice things about Flos. Drevish’s mouth quirked.

“‘That jerk?’ Hah. I can see you’re worth the travel, if only to get rid of that annoying witch.”

He nodded at the [Witch] who’d come to find him. Then he peered at Erin.

“With that said, refrain from insulting him in my presence, young woman.”

“But he’s a warmongering guy who…”

He is the King of Destruction, and you do not know him, clearly. There is a reason I served him, and if you are at all polite, I ask you to be polite. Know him before you mock him, because the tales told about Flos Reimarch range from truth exaggerated to falsehood completely. And I do not build walls out of lies.”

He had a little cane, and waved it slightly before tapping it on the ground. Erin Solstice blinked at Drevish.

“I…sorry.”

The ghosts around her were impressed. This [Architect] had done more than some royalty, including Nerrhavia, who had stormed away from Erin twice while telling her tales. Perhaps it was because Drevish was not royalty. He nodded at her.

“There is much to talk about. I am told you might need help upon living, if such a thing can be done. And perhaps you need information about my [King]. Indeed, there are things I could tell you that would…persuade him to act.”

He glanced, troubled, around this vast gathering. Califor’s eyes were on Drevish’s face. The Architect shook his head.

“I do not know if that is appropriate. I do not know if it is wise for the dead to haunt the living. And he is haunted, that fool. If Queravia were here, I would let her decide. Or…Tottenval. But I am told Tottenval might not be here, if he was lost at sea. As for Queravia…I cannot find her. Perhaps she lies on Baleros.”

“Likely so.”

Califor muttered. Drevish shook his head.

“I had hoped to meet them in time, and we had forever to reunite. But I simply sat and relaxed and before I knew it, a calamity was upon us. Simply obnoxious. Who designed death and life so?”

Erin smiled. He was so offended. Yet the old man fixed her with a gaze, as if she were a pet project and he was wondering if she was worth the effort.

“Well, I shall take stock of the situation, as always. But before that, young miss! You will sit down, as I am old and I feel tired, even though I am dead, and tell me all about your inn. What style was it? I’m told you have inherited the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Have you unearthed its secrets? Have you designed around it? What is the style of Izrilian architecture today? Please tell me you don’t have decorative pillars or I may have to simply up and leave…”

Erin stuttered. Suddenly, she was faced with the greatest challenge of her death. Which was explaining why she had separated outhouses, a weird Bird-tower, and the particulars of her inn to an [Architect] who had opinions on how stupid each part was.

“So you have a pointless hallway filled with obvious traps that everyone must proceed down and waste precious seconds of their life? A hallway that did not, in fact, save your life when you were shot by crossbows?”

“W–buh–when you say it like that it sounds stupid. But it works! I think!”

Drevish looked pained beyond belief. He was already making Erin sketch since only she could create in the world of the dead.

“If I tell you anything, you will swear to me to completely rework this abomination. It sounds like these Antinium are good [Builders]–I should have liked to meet them and studied their design. But the style? Did a [Princess] of Terandria decide to make this rubbish?”

“Now that you mention it…”

Oh, a great meeting. Oh, the dead who mattered in conjunction with the living. Erin and Drevish were arguing about Bird’s tower, but he took her by surprise, as the Giant standing sentry on Chandrar’s shores with the umbrella raised his head and called an alarm.

“No, no. If you’re going to do a watchtower, miss, you build the inn around it. See here! A central tower, three times as tall! Put Liscor’s walls to shame and mount a ballista on top.”

“…Are you sure you’re an [Architect]? Bird would love you.”

The old man smiled.

“Miss Erin Solstice. What is the point of being generic? Buildings should be perfect for their intent. They should also be grand when they need to be. Impressive! Eye-catching! Worth building. They should protect, and inspire, and make people laugh.”

She looked at him, and liked him. And wished he weren’t here to meet her, because Drevish the Architect was alright.

Then she heard the hubbub, the call to arms. That copy of the sword in the stone rose, and Erin saw all heads turn. Something was coming. Something was…

No, it wasn’t an attack.

Not yet.

Not…

Yet.

 

—-

 

It was in fact, a familiar ghost who came. Well, one of them was familiar.

“Xarkouth!”

The Void Dragonlord rested his wings, panting. He rasped as he landed in front of Khelt’s palace.

“Greetings, undead rulers.”

“Dragon.”

Khelta inclined her head a fraction of a millimeter at him. The two traded barbs, but weakly. Xarkouth shook his head.

“We barely escaped them. But not for Terandria’s ghosts in the south sallying forth–and they seemed distracted, from the presence as well as something that drew three north–even so, we barely made it.”

He had passengers. Ghosts who landed, calling out greetings. Erin, peeking down at Xarkouth and waving, heard a shout.

Glorious Calanfer be with you!

“Oh, dead gods. Terandrians.

One of the ghosts muttered. Erin just smiled and laughed. For no less than a [King] and [Queen] had come on Xarkouth’s back! And more!

“It amazes us! We thought only Baleros yet lived, but here we see sunlight and a sword to match any relic we battle the foes with! Greetings, queen of…”

The [King] did a double-take at Khelta’s clear [Necromancer] origins, but the [Queen] shoved him aside.

“From Noelictus to you, I bear words of hope and support, kin.”

Ah. Then you are well met indeed, cousin! How fares Terandria?”

Khelta kissed the cheek of the Noelictus [Queen] with delight. Xarkouth nodded at Erin.

“Mortal girl. Have they not brought you back, yet?”

“Not yet. Hey, Xark.”

The Dragonlord gave her a look. Erin grinned. Drevish harumphed quietly, taking it all in.

The ghosts were talking, conveying news, how they had held off the six with weapons that remained in death. Also, events of note.

“We come from Ailendamus, where they make war on the Dawn Concordat. A waste of time–but something happened. For a second, I swear I smelled grass and felt the wind on my face. It certainly frightened the six. It was centered in Ailendamus, in the castle.”

“Where? I have never heard of this nation.”

“Brand new. It’s swept each nation aside, and there’s a reason for that. If I could but warn my kingdom…”

Silence. Enough petty talk!”

Xarkouth bellowed and offended ghosts looked up at the Void Dragonlord. Yet he opened one wing and revealed a final ghost.

“That you have a name for the foes who assail us–I brought the news from Baleros, and there are kin there who want to speak with you. Great ghosts, Erin Solstice. However. There is news of even greater import here. They were not sure whether to tell me, these petty arguers. Seeing one of the six convinced them. Tell them what you know, [Knight].”

A single figure, far less grand than the other ghosts present, but still shining with some measure of her soul, stepped forwards and bowed. She was wide-eyed, with that look of Cawe’s, that of someone recently dead, taking it all in. She looked at Erin, then addressed the others, humbly, sinking to one knee.

“I am Dame Eclizza of Ailendamus. Great Knight, and newly fallen to the Death of Magic.”

Some of the ghosts stirred. Others muttered, ‘who’?

“Our sympathies for your death, but the Death of Chains, even the Death of Magic are not the threats that concern us. Perhaps what they hold back…but we know not details.”

It was the Rebel of String, Elucina, who called down. Dame Eclizza nodded.

“Yes, great ghosts. In this time and place, loyalty and bonds of the living fall away. I understand that now, but when the great Dragonlord came, I realized there was some knowledge I had that might aid even the greatest of you. I…heard of the girl who was not yet dead. No–I heard that a muster was being taken, to fight these six…things. There is more than resistance to be put up. There is a way to fight back.

She clenched a fist. Khelta raised her brows.

“If you mean a weapon of Ailendamus we can bring to this world…”

“No, great Majesty. I mean something else entirely. I am privy to a bit of knowledge about my great Kingdom, but far less than those…directly involved. Yet I knew enough. So when Great Xarkouth came, I journeyed to persuade one who could tell you all.”

“Thus, she came here. Listen, you arrogant fools of Chandrar. Listen.

Xarkouth’s head rose. The Great Knight Eclizza’s eyes burned.

“I died escorting one called the Wind Runner of Reizmelt to Ailendamus. She was a curious woman. A ‘thief’, or so the Duke Rhisveri of Ailendamus claimed. She had tried to steal a certain object, of whose worth even I was not aware until recently. His great treasure.

Erin Solstice choked. She knew–? But Eclizza wasn’t done.

“No one living knows, save the Duke, who is, in fact, in control of Ailendamus. Who is…not a mortal man. I did not know this. He has an object of such worth that my death was a pittance to it, in his eyes! And I cannot help but agree! I tell you this now, as it is heard among Terandria. Yet Terandria has no agents in the mortal realm.”

“What is this Duke? Not a mortal man?”

Xarkouth’s eyes glittered in dour amusement, and the ghosts of dead rulers looked offended. Yet for answer, Dame Eclizza only turned.

“I did not know the answer, milady ghosts, Miss Solstice. I only knew who to ask.”

She turned, and the last ghost approached, who had not ridden with Xarkouth. Who could not. Ghosts looked up and Khelta muttered an oath that shook the land slightly. Erin Solstice’s jaw opened wide, wide…

No one living knew what Rhisveri possessed. Ryoka knew it was there. But even the Great Knights did not know. Yet the dead? Oh, the dead knew, and they were willing to talk.

Down, out of the skies, came a figure larger than Xarkouth. Beautiful, ghostly scales, deep eyes of power.

A Wyrm. He descended, as hostility rose from the ghosts below, but the Wyrm sneered, even at Xarkouth, though they were distant cousins.

So here are the fabled ghosts of Chandrar. Well, for this journey I roused myself, and I shall accept your gratitude.”

He was not the oldest of his kind, or the grandest in death. But he had a temperament to match. Khelta called out, frowning at the arrogant Wyrm.

“Who are you, Wyrm of Terandria?”

“Second-last of my spawn. Perhaps the last true Wyrm’s get in this world. Certainly, of the last male Wyrms. For the serpent who spawned me and my kin was the last, and our sisters died young. We grew, and fought, across age to age, but withered. The last of us were great, and Dragons feared us.”

Hah.

Xarkouth muttered, but Erin was entranced by the Wyrm. He raised his head.

“I am Calthusveri. Brother of the damned Rhisveri of Ailendamus, who masquerades as a man. I died eight hundred years ago when we fought. The last two of us, over my great treasure he now hoards. An artifact of such power that even you sneering ghosts of old would wet yourself at its name.”

The sneering ghosts of old looked at the Wyrm. Yet–Erin suddenly saw a flicker in even the oldest’s eyes. Could it actually be?

“Do not delay, Calthusveri. What is so important a Dragonlord, Wyrm, and such ghosts risked their souls to cross the ocean once more to tell us of?”

The Wyrm hesitated. Then his eyes grew crafty.

“If I tell you, I would demand a favor in kind.”

“Not to use it.”

Dame Eclizza interrupted hurriedly. The Wyrm snarled at her.

“Silence, you little…! Very well. I shall tell you, since it is more common knowledge. But I expect favors in kind! From this working, perhaps. It may all be realized, and we may all benefit if we use it right. Not that it will be easy to acquire. My brother will defend it with everything, yet I hear you have a nation you can spur to fight. So. Then.”

He huffed, clearly regretting telling anyone. His eyes glittered as he glanced at Erin, but he did not care about her.

“It is more valuable than a half-dead child. More than a way to talk with the living. After all, did I not acquire it from the deepest places, from the very fingers of legend? Was it not worth kin battling kin to the death for? Yes, each of you ghosts, one yet remains. One more! One of the greatest works ever created, by one who reached the zenith of magic!

The ghosts looked as the Wyrm raised his head and told them what Rhisveri was hiding. What Ryoka Griffin had nearly stolen. Erin Solstice couldn’t believe it. It was unfair. It shouldn’t exist.

But if you had a game. If you had levels, and classes, and Skills…you also had this. At least one, from days so ancient even Dragons thought none remained. It would change everything. But who would use it?

“A Scroll of Resurrection.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Story: I bought one of those frozen deep dish pizzas which you can cook in an oven. Now the worst pizza type in the world to me.

I don’t kno