9.27 RC

(Gravesong is out now on Yonder! Read the first part of the book here!)

 

 

Some days, he still dreamed of it. Though it had not been long ago and though he had never learned to control his dreams—the man thought it came upon him like a blessing, a vision.

He regretted it. Though they told him he had done everything he could be asked, when he stood in that dream, shining like a ray of goodness down through the blood and grit he knew so well and the light, miraculously, did not tarnish and sully itself from touching him—

Wilovan felt proud. And he thought he should have been there. On that battlefield, a club in his paw. He might have died—but what a cause.

What better time for a man like him? When he rose and dressed himself, putting on casual slacks of Wyvernhide, adjusting his undershirt, jacket, and overcoat that stretched slightly across his chest, his top hat, his tie even, gifted to him by the young Rickel—

He almost wished he’d gone with Lyonette. Even if it led him to that early grave. He had not argued because she’d been right that he was no man for the battlefield; Wilovan had never worn armor. But if he could have vouchsafed his own answer, now, he might have said—

Take me. And take us away from our lives. Use us well, even if we’re to meet our ends faster. 

We’re not good men. You can’t find any where we walk. 

So he tasted it, even now. A kind of longing. And saw it in his partner’s eyes, for all his garb was less ornate by far, the thread-count of the plain brown jacket outnumbered, the simple cap outmatched by the lacework across Wilovan’s vestments, showcasing his chest.

But no less dignified, his counterpart, as they tipped their hats to each other. A regret—for all three dozen lads stood outside their home when the two exited. Each one with a cap, a purpose.

Poor boys. Poor men, too. The kinda cutthroats and thugs and brats who only knew how to win arguments with their fists. Killers, some, not worth saving.

—But they could be better. Never o’erfine. Never good, and their caps held all their sins. Yet you could clothe them well, polish them up until they slept just good enough. So Wilovan sighed. And wondered where he might have been if—

He stared up, past the open gardens and lovely rooftops of the City of Growth. Towards that magnificent tree, the natural city filled with so much of its own goodness.

And creeping vines, parasites on even a fine city such as this. Like the two staring eyes of a Drake wearing a mask. Wilovan blinked.

Ratici ducked—and the other Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings took cover. Wilovan was too slow. The crossbow bolt nailed him straight in the heart, and it was as long as a harpoon.

A Skill-enhanced bolt to kill even a monster like him. The [Assassin] was already running as the shouting began. Wilovan lay on his back.

Get him! Get him and bring him here in pieces—hats off!

A voice roared amidst the shouting—screams from people who didn’t know what was going on. Someone bent over Wilovan as he stared at the sky.

“Wilovan? Wilovan?

The Gnoll’s eyes beheld that glorious sky and the light. And he saw it running away from him, leaving for war and back for that curious city and the inn. They’d let her down like this, hadn’t they? Had they paid…

That debt? His mouth opened, and the Gnoll sighed. The rising sun passed behind a cloud. But somehow—a fragment of it stayed behind.

Wilovan sat up, and the gigantic crossbow bolt morphed into a regular-sized one. It fell, the tip blunted by the impact, and he rubbed at his chest. The Gnoll got up as the fleeing [Assassin] turned in disbelief. He brushed at his chest, and it hurt like the dickens.

But he took his partner’s hand.

“Don’t worry, Ratici—”

The Gentleman Caller smiled, and his eyes flashed. He took off his expensive coat and realized his jacket and overcoat were also torn to shreds. Ah, well.

“—[He Scratched Only Thread].”

His eyes burnt with the same glorious purpose. A fragment captured in his hat. That was enough—but even as Wilovan rose. Even then—

He envied Normen. That lucky bastard. In his dreams, Wilovan longed for that great purpose. Never once…never once had he and Ratici thought they could take off that hat and put on a shining helmet. Walk a different path.

Maybe someday. Not today. So as he rose with grit and blood in his mouth, the Gnoll looked at the young men. Even if they could all one day follow Normen—someone needed to be here. Teaching these idiots who reminded Wilovan of a younger him there was dignity, even in the dirt.

But that dream—he wouldn’t mind having it again. Wilovan put his top hat on his head and grinned into the dawn. Then he went back inside for a new suit.

 

——

 

Skills really were cheating. Poruniv of the Earthtenders got word that his expensive hit on the Gentlemen Callers had failed.

How?

He hadn’t realized the significance of Wilovan’s Skills until now. This one left him staring across his own clothing, his outfit, which resembled the last fashion craze from Terandria. All that lace—he’d strangled a man with it, but he had silk cloth, a fine amulet across his neck—

Imagine if that were like a shield, an armor from any mortal blow.

“That’s a Skill beyond what a bastard like that deserves to get. That’s…that’s Royal-type Skills. He’s not Level 50. We’d know. Someone, check him over. Now. Where’s our [Seers]?”

“Out tending the weeds, boss.”

One of the nervous members of Earthtenders spoke up. They were all part of the gang, here, and Poruniv, a large Drake with a few notable scars, but a respectable man to many who didn’t know him, glared. Earthtenders. Oteslia’s largest—and until now, only—criminal gang of note.

“Out tending the—get them!

He had no time for the colloquial sayings. Not right now. He stood up, and three figures were the only ones who didn’t flinch away.

Ecleeif, the nervous coward of a [Sorcerer].

Zanzeil, wearing his Creler-poisoned blades, his Gnollish fur patchy.

Neverwhine, the Drake [Beast Master] and his huge two-headed dog.

Most of the Earthtenders were Drakes, but they had enough Gnolls to resemble Oteslia’s population, which had the highest Gnoll-to-Drake ratio of any Walled City. They were all over Level 40, Poruniv included.

In the parlance of the gangs, that meant four Faces. Most gangs had only one or two, even the big ones. Ancestors and Cire, a Face could be Level 30+.

Yet somehow—somehow two newcomers, from the North for all they were Drake and Gnoll, had strolled into his city and were forming a rival gang that was eating away at the Earthtenders’ territory. They had thirty-two streets and were fighting across three times that. They had businesses, people had gone to back them—

And the two Gentleman Callers couldn’t be beat. Not that the Faces had clashed much.

They didn’t want to die. For all Poruniv owed the duo for their near-assassination of him, he hadn’t gone to the streets and settled this thing in person. Mostly because he was—wary—of the tricks they had.

Gentlemen Callers. Those were Faces of the North alright. He’d inquired and heard they were unto executioners for their huge gang, the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Sometimes, they executed huge heists on [Lords] no one else could.

Sometimes, they took other Faces to task. Yet even so! They were outnumbered by a huge gang. They’d begun recruiting into their own Brothers—but they should be dead.

Should be, except for Skills. Except that Poruniv had worthless subordinates like his officers. Ecleeif was a coward, Neverwhine refused to risk his damn dog, and Zanzeil didn’t trust the others enough to go after the two. Lesser thugs wouldn’t work—he’d given it his best shot, and they’d made it out of the Earthtenders’ headquarters.

“No wonder we don’t have any respect.”

Poruniv had been dining—and counting how much gold he didn’t have this month. Two months after the two Gentlemen Callers had arrived and a third of his profits were gone.

Not just because the two had taken that much territory, oh no. The rest just wasn’t being paid. Idiots were claiming they had already paid, trying to lie and cheat—and of course they did.

They were criminals. Their mistake was thinking they’d get away with it.

“Zanzeil. Take a dozen gardeners. Weed out all the people not being fruitful.”

Ecleeif blanched a bit, and the other [Rogues] hesitated.

“All of ‘em?”

“Get me fifteen big roots. Fifteen, and make it a show.”

“Damn, boss—”

Get out and go. Don’t worry about collecting any soil. We’ll deal with it next week. It’ll show up by then. Anything you pick up—keep it.”

That put a pep in the bastard’s step. Poruniv heard him hurry out—as a [Seer] hurried in. The nervous old Drake clasped a few items to his chest.

“You—you wanted to see me, Mister Poruniv?”

“Ah. Sit down, sir.”

The Drake hoped the [Seer] hadn’t heard his last comments. This Drake was just an old man who did work for the Earthtenders now and then. A rare class…but the gangs knew all the rare classes.

All the classes other people thought of as stupid or ineffective—the gangs, the criminal world knew about Blood Skills. They had more of an inkling of how terrible classes germinated. They were intelligent—

Intelligent enough to know not to clash with the law most of the time. Some gangs reveled in it. Some bastards too. Each city, each nation had a different problem.

Ironically, Oteslia’s gangs were most similar to the Blighted Kingdom’s in one major way. More than any other criminal group in all of Izril—

They were loyal. Like Rhir’s own underbelly that was allowed to exist. Loyal, for all they were never acknowledged. All this—turmoil—was drawing the attention Poruniv didn’t want, though.

Anyways.

“I have someone I need you to look into, Seer Toenir, sir. A matter of classes.”

“Oh. [Appraisal] no good?”

“Everyone has their secrets. Can you give me a rough estimate of the fellow’s class?”

The Seer hmmed.

“You know it’s never accurate. I need a description, a picture, a rough count of his levels, and, uh, whatever you know of his class. Then—I could use a fresh fish? I think—haruspicy might work.”

Poruniv signaled one of his underlings to get whatever the old Drake wanted. These things were hit-or-miss, and even the most crazed Wall Ladies didn’t often go to a [Seer]—but they had their uses.

Like [Soothsayers] and the ilk, you just had to know what to do with a vague prophecy or bit of luck. Who…

“What was that bastard’s name again?”

“Boss?”

Ecleeif was listening in—in between watching the old [Seer] at work. A [Sorcerer] like him probably loved picking up magical tricks. Poruniv waved it off irritably.

“I want his class. His class—maybe it’ll help.”

At the very least, it’d tell Poruniv what kind of nasty Skills that Gnoll might be hiding if it matched one on records. The [Seer] took a live fish and dissected it, pulling out the entrails with tools and gaining something from the smelly act.

“Let me see. Let me see. Leeeet meeee seeeeeee—-

His voice grew slower, and his nervousness decreased. Poruniv felt a slight tingle on his scales as the old Drake’s eyes unfocused and his voice slowed down. When the [Seer] was in the true state, you could tell. Then he seemed to be staring over a web of possibilities.

Wilovan. I see him. A Gnoll of great power. Mid-forties.”

“Yes, go on. What’s his class? His class old man?”

The old Drake’s throat worked as he tried to pull something past anti-[Appraisal] spells. Poruniv leaned over.

[Gentleman Thug]. Yes, a [Gentleman Thug].”

The Drake resisted the urge to hit the [Seer]. He wasn’t in the mood to hit old men, but—

Yes, we know that’s his class. It’s damn well changed or—what’s it specifically?”

It had to be a class consolidation. The [Seer] huffed—even in his trance-state, he could sense Poruniv’s impatience.

“It isn’t easy. I’m looking forwards and backwards and at ifs—I’ll pull a reading of four. Silence. Now—silence…”

He wasn’t high-level. Barely mid-twenties, so you got what you paid for, and he’d get a kick on his ass if this were all. Poruniv had met the real deal, and they—they were scary.

“Rastandius.”

He muttered, and Neverwhine perked up.

“Who’s that?”

“No one. Nevermind. A dead man, I heard. Damn it.”

Like everyone—now Poruniv had the opportunity to regret that old Human bastard’s passing. Now—Poruniv wanted answers. And he’d never get them. Ecleeif tilted his head then turned to watch the [Seer] as he caught the glower from his boss.

Poruniv had his own fates he’d once been shown. And he had been told—

Well, the damn [Soothsayer] had known too much. Especially about Cire. It must have been fourteen years ago, now. He’d tried to attach himself to the Earthtenders, but he’d overplayed his hand. After his prophecy, Poruniv had held him off a rooftop by one ankle and told him that if he ever revealed Cire’s secret—he’d drop the old man.

Again.

In hindsight, he should have gotten everything, but he had never known someone with a broken leg and shoulder to be able to run so fast. Especially not in, what, his seventies?

Cire’s secret had never been unveiled that Poruniv knew of, so he’d let it lie rather than risk it. The [Seer] in front of Poruniv now?

A lot slower and a lot less helpful.

I see the Gnoll’s class. Possibly. One of four options. I see…a [Gentleman Thug of Style].

Poruniv’s claw twitched towards his cup of purified water. Although—he had to admit it sounded roughly right. The [Seer] seemed to sense his impatience and hurried on.

“A [Marauder of Cloth]. A class of style and violence. Two comingled. He has the blessing of royalty on him.”

“That damn Skill. Alright, so maybe he’s got one. Classes, classes.

The [Seer] was whispering, trying to piece together a probable class.

Wilovan the Gentleman Caller. A…[Blackguard of the Streets, Gentleman in the Sheets].

Poruniv’s face went completely blank. He stared at the old Drake until he heard a snorting sound from Neverwhine. Poruniv was carefully aiming the cup when the [Seer]’s eyes flashed. His voice echoed—and Poruniv felt it.

True prophecy.

“[Blackguard Gentleman of the Streets]! There!

He fell backwards, gasping, and Poruniv lowered the cup. Well, well, well. What was it, a 1% chance of getting something real like that? He swore the room had trembled a bit when the [Seer] revealed it truly.

“Now that’s an odd class. You got his Skills, too?”

The old Drake nodded weakly. His eyes were re-focusing, and they’d lost the cloudy look. Desperately, he waved a claw.

“I have them. Quill. Quill…I’m forgetting—”

Quill! Then get me a list. Spread it around so we can figure out how to take that bastard down. Good work. Prepare a handsome payment for Seer Toenir.”

Poruniv exhaled. This wasn’t a complete waste of a morning after all. But he had to get rid of those two.

“…Maybe I need to send for help.”

Ecleeif looked up in alarm. That was not a good thing to say out loud, but Poruniv had to admit—as he stared glumly at Wilovan’s best Skills, he wondered if Zanzeil could take him in a straight fight, Creler-poison blades or not.

No, he couldn’t. Ancestors and Cire!

That one Skill made all the difference. How many free mortal blows was it? He’d survived an [Assassin] shooting him with a [Harpoon Bolt].

Damned Calanfer. Damn royalty.

“And damn that little bastard, Rickel! I want him dead! How has no one found him yet?

Poruniv remembered the final splinter in his scales, and his temper flared once more. Yes, those two would have been dead and this would all have been over but for one little Human! He whirled on Ecleeif, and the [Sorcerer] flinched.

“Boss! Don’t throw the cup! I’ve been searching—”

“Do I have to put Neverwhine on it again instead of guard duty? Find him—you have a dog! With two noses! How have both of you failed to track down one Human?”

“It’s a big city, boss!”

The Drake protested, covering his hound defensively. Poruniv rested one claw on his snout. Idiots. They had no vision. No real loyalty to the city, to Cire. They didn’t know what he did. He growled.

“Find them. Ecleeif, you have one week before I get mad. Neverwhine? You’re taking the fight to the Brothers. But first—get me in contact with Oteslia’s Watch Captain or their Watch Commander. I’m doing it. I’m calling in the Gallowsmen.”

The rest of the Earthtenders looked up and blanched. But Poruniv was done. He was meant for bigger things. He’d been prophesied.

He hoped that old man hadn’t lied.

 

——

 

Ecleeif was nervous when he left the Earthtenders. Well, he was a known coward. Lazy, too, but he was still a Face.

He was cunning enough to cast [Invisibility], he could suck the air out of a room, and he was actually a better stalker than Neverwhine.

Not even the Earthtenders could follow him as he slipped out of their headquarters. Nevertheless, Ecleeif still checked his tail a dozen times as he went down the streets, took several wrong turns—

Then sat down, at a café, and hissed at the young man reading a book.

We’re supposed to be meeting in the safe room!

“Relax, my man. This is way less stupid-looking than slipping into some dusty backrooms. Plus, you’re wearing a different face. And so am I.”

Rickel, the young man from Earth, had no nerves. Or at least, not for this. He sat there, a somewhat good-looking Drake—Ecleeif knew how to do Drakes—sipping from one of Oteslia’s newest fads.

Coffee. In fact, he complimented the Drake [Server] as she passed by.

“This is a great mug. Can you do a latte?”

“Of course!”

She beamed—probably because he was a regular and he tipped very generously. In fact, this was the café outside the safe house they’d been using all month, and Ecleeif had spotted him sitting out here.

“You’re crazy. This is crazy.”

“You say that, but I’m paying you.”

Rickel wasn’t too loud, but he wasn’t nervous—mostly because Ecleeif was keeping their conversation private and running an innocuous conversation in the background.

He was an expert, after all. A real Face.

He got no respect from Poruniv. His cut was smaller than Zanzeil’s and Neverwhine’s. True, because Ecleeif was lazy and he had little loyalty—

But that was also why he refused to try and fight two Faces, two monsters from the north. They were criminals! This was the Earthtenders’ gang!

They should be enjoying their wealth, not risking their lives. That was his philosophy, and at least one young man shared it.

Although…why was Ecleeif risking his life and certain death by aiding Poruniv’s enemies?

Oh yeah.

The gold. The [Sorcerer] calmed down. And as always, he tried to see if Rickel had more on him, but the young man just had a bag of a few thousand gold coins—which he passed over the table.

“I need a bag of holding back, you know.”

“I’ll put one in the safe-house.”

The gold made Ecleeif happy. Four thousand gold pieces a week! That was a sum, and he had no idea how Rickel afforded it.

The young man was a mystery, but he was on the Gentleman Caller’s side and, apparently, the side of that [Princess] who had been here. Lyonette du Marquin. He had hired Ecleeif to help foil Poruniv’s efforts.

And now, he closed his history book and grimaced.

“Krsysl Wordsmith. Now there’s a name that’s hard to pronounce. History is fascinating.”

“You think so? It’s boring as shit to me. All the hidden treasure and spells get left out.”

Rickel shrugged.

“Sort of true. I hated history when I was younger—except for the interesting people and events. But I’d read a book on history any day, here.”

“You like Izril that much?”

The [Sorcerer] dourly looked around, but he was rewarded with a huge smile from Rickel.

“This world is great.”

When he smiled like that, you could see why Poruniv had let some random Human into his gambling casino. Rickel still had his scarf from the day he’d met Wilovan and Ratici, but he’d switched his clothes for a cardigan and some casual ‘jeans’. He somehow had achieved a level of style that eclipsed Ecleeif’s own clothing-game—and Rickel was a Human, not a Drake!

He flirted with the café server as the older Drake sulked. He had an infectious laugh, and he was friendly enough to be charming.

He also had no nerves, it seemed, a lot of wealth—and at least a few levels in a class similar to Ecleeif’s. What class, exactly, was unclear—but Rickel had depths. For one thing, he was an investor in the coffee industry, which he had begun by finding the beans and securing garden spots.

Now most of the city was growing the damn stuff, but Rickel was earning a percentage of the profits via the joint-effort that Wall Lord Ilvriss, Lyonette du Marquin, and a number of others were running.

Maybe that was where the gold was coming from? Ecleeif didn’t know, but he reported what Poruniv had done this morning.

Seers. Damn. It’s always something cool. And terrifying. Could that old guy find out where I am?”

“Poruniv didn’t ask. Exact places are harder. You get a lot of worthless scale flakes from [Seers], in my experience. Asking for classes or Skills is safer.”

“Like a hints guide rather than a walkthrough. Got it…got it.”

He made no sense to Ecleeif, some of the comments. But Rickel’s eyes had lit up.

“I wonder if I could ask—no. No, there aren’t any independent [Seers] you know, are there? Ones that Poruniv would never talk to? Having him as an enemy sucks. I was just getting somewhere with my [Gambler] class, too.”

Rickel had a coin, which he flipped up and down—then added it to the tips. Ecleeif shook his head.

“The only one I can remember is some Rastandius guy who was here a decade and a half ago. Poruniv mentioned him—he was just a lieutenant back then.”

“Tell me more. And tell me everything else he said. Don’t hold back.”

Now, Rickel sat forwards, and Ecleeif tried to say everything in order. Rickel did demand that—if very little else. Ecleeif just had to keep him safe, report in, and sabotage some of the Earthtenders’ plans—carefully—and teach Rickel magic and about the underworld.

The young man was insatiable for that. Ecleeif had rather liked showing off his spells, and Rickel wanted to learn magic himself, though he had claimed [Mage] magic sounded more reliable.

“I can buy a spellbook, Ecleeif. Well, I could if I wasn’t being hunted. Maybe I should leave the city.”

“It’d be safer.”

“Yes, but then who’d help Wilovan and Ratici? Those two—I like those two.”

“I’m on their side!”

“Yeah, but you’re not reliable. Even if I kept paying you, you’d just take my money and play both sides by doing nothing.”

The [Sorcerer] opened his mouth with a glower—and decided this was definitely true. He sat back as Rickel mused over the last part.

“Gallowsmen. Gallowsmen. Who are they? Another gang, Ecleeif? Why was it so drastic, Poruniv sending for them?”

The [Sorcerer] blanched at the table.

“The Gallowsmen of Loeri. They are not a gang. The opposite. If Poruniv’s calling them in, he wants to take out the Brothers. But he’ll get the Earthtenders too!”

Rickel listened with a huge frown. The Gallowsmen were, in fact, a kind of law enforcement force from the city of Loeri.

Unlike the north, where huge gangs were multi-city, the Drake cities—even gangs—tended to be independent. So the Earthtenders ruled Oteslia—nowhere else.

In the same way, their powerful forces were sometimes unique to a city, like how you got the Yoldenites with their…colorful personality.

“The Gallowsmen hang anyone who’ve committed serious crimes. My guess is that Poruniv calls them in and sets them on the Brothers.”

“…And any Earthtenders who get caught. Wow, he must be pissed. But doesn’t he fear they’ll get him too?”

“Not Poruniv. He’s going through the Watch Captain. He’s got friends at the top of Oteslia.”

Rickel’s eyes sharpened. He took a long draft of his cup and, for some reason, glanced around.

“I bet he does. Well, that’ll be interesting—let’s talk later, Ecleeif. You sure you can’t get me in touch with one of the [Underground Merchants] here without Poruniv knowing?”

“Not without one telling Poruniv. They’re not trustworthy. Well, some are, but he can lean on them.”

Rickel sighed.

“Damn. Then charge up my illusion spells and let’s meet again. Same place, two days or earlier if something happens.”

He stood up, and Ecleeif looked around warily before leaning in.

“Are you sure Ratici and Wilovan are going to win? They’ve gained ground, but it’s them versus all the Earthtenders, and their lot is getting plucked. They might win on the streets, but not in the prisons. Poruniv has the prisons. He has the Watch! He’s got Oteslia!”

For a reply, the young man gave the [Sorcerer] a huge grin. Here was the last thing about Rickel—he jabbed a thumb at his chest.

“Yeah. But the Gentlemen Callers have me.

The [Sorcerer] stared at Rickel as the young man sauntered away, hands in his pockets. The Drake leaned out of his chair to shout.

That’s not clever! Or impressive! You’re just a kid! What do you actually have that Poruniv doesn’t, huh?”

 

——

 

Well, for one thing, Rickel knew Poruniv’s big secret.

Which was that Cire was Cire. Who, exactly, Cire was didn’t matter. Nor did Rickel actually think he wanted to know, not yet.

He might not be able to spot all the [Actors] and fake actors, but he could certainly tell when a woman in her thirties was playing someone half her age. It fooled Cire—but it was about on the level of a Hollywood set.

Like someone playing a teenage drama. And he didn’t miss how the Watch seemed to always be near Cire’s location.

You didn’t need to know a secret to know it was there—and like hell Rickel was touching the issue at hand. But Cire?

He slapped the Drake’s hands as the Human grinned.

“Cire, my guy. How’s it Archmaging?”

The Drake winced as he fanned his bronze wings.

“Rickel, you keep getting it wrong! Stop it. It’s so…terrible. No, wait, it’s cringe. Am I using that right?”

“Cringe is an artform to be appreciated, Cire. And I am all about it.”

First he slapped his palms down on Cire’s low down, then they went up and did it again, did a one-palmed high-five, and turned it into a hand-clasp and fist bump. The two of them were odd people to be friends…or not so odd.

After all, they had met when Lyonette was here, and Rickel was, if not Cire’s age of seventeen, young enough to actually mingle at twenty-one without being actually embarrassing. And Cire was important.

Maybe it was because he was the First Gardener’s kid. Maybe it was that Rafaema girl everyone also fawned over.

Maybe it didn’t matter, but Rickel just bet it did. Cire’s friends gave him fake grins—a few of the actual kids looked impressed by him, if exasperated by his inability to use slang. Cire rubbed his claws together eagerly.

“Alright, alright, what are we monking around for? Let’s do something Fetohep.

Rickel raised a brow as even some of Cire’s friends groaned at the new slang.

“Is that a new word?”

“Yep. We’re Khelting. I’ve got a bag full of gold, and I’m going to hit the city. Did you see the scrying orb broadcast?”

It was a sign of how important you actually were to get Oteslian slang made up about you. Khelting around was going to become a thing, Rickel could tell. A show of wealth.

I’m gonna Arbiter this, meant you were interfering with a dispute. Interestingly, they didn’t have much slang like—‘I’m gonna pull a Zeres’. Or, ‘that was a real Plain’s Eye thing to do’.

Rickel supposed there just wasn’t much about the Meeting of Tribes that could be encompassed by that kind of language. Not that it didn’t affect Cire and his friends.

“Let’s go, let’s go! And if we find any more of those Zeres-loving bastards, I’m going to kick their tails in this time!”

—That was about the level of Cire’s actual will. But he had been at the Meeting of Tribes. Rickel doubted he’d swung a sword—but still.

It was not a good time to be a Zeresian in Oteslia, even with the siege lifted. A Gnoll? Well—Oteslia hadn’t been the ones marching into the Meeting of Tribes. Gnolls in other Walled Cities?

Not fun.

It was all fascinating to Rickel. He almost—almost—wished he were in Manus or somewhere so he could see the real intercity dynamics up close.

He wondered if it were hardcore racism like he could make an analogy to on Earth. Then again—as a Human, he doubted he’d enjoy it.

Poor Gnolls. Amazing new world. Here he was, in the City of Growth, and the Walled City was somehow not the most interesting thing.

Admittedly, Rickel could have left, but he’d miss out on the opportunities here. Plus, he was no warrior. He was, he had to admit—

A bit frustrated.

Not by Ecleeif, not by the Gentleman Caller’s progress, but by himself. Rickel hopped onto a skateboard with Cire—and promptly fell off. He wasn’t a great skateboarder, and Cire was. Still, he headed down with the group as a Human, fearless of Poruniv’s wrath.

He’d get away if he were trailed—but no one would harm him while he was with Cire. And besides—Rickel suspected if Ecleeif couldn’t help him, then Cire could.

“Rickel, want to hang out later? My mom’s got me having a stuffy dinner with her and…and Mivifa.”

Ancestors. Mivifa of Feathers? That’s so—”

One of the real teenagers got elbowed by the fake ones. Cire didn’t look happy—and Rickel, again, didn’t know exactly why, except, perhaps, that Mivifa had once been Cire’s friend and then not?

But he smiled.

“Sure thing, Cire. Invite me over. Your place is great. Plus, your mother’s great.”

“You think so? She’s totally a monk sometimes, Rickel.”

“Eh. She’s hot.”

Dude.

 

——

 

When he was with Cire, Rickel was casual, shoving the Dragon, making jokes about his mother, getting shoved for it, flashing gold around, and seeing what Oteslia had to offer.

He was nursing a twisted ankle from trying a trick with a skateboard when he resumed his Drake guise and caught up with Ratici and Wilovan.

He was spotted, of course. The Drake [Thief] noticed him instantly, but since they liked Rickel, he was as safe as the two Gentlemen Callers as they took a break for lunch.

“How’s it going, you two?”

“Wilovan got shot this morning.”

“Another suit down.”

“Whoa. What? Can you afford more?”

Rickel had heard of it, of course, but he sat down as Wilovan regaled him with the brief tale. Ratici barely glanced at Rickel’s bag of holding.

“Funding for the suits is a small thing, as it were, Rickel. A fellow does appreciate the offer, but you don’t need to flash anything with us.”

They were rich, so Rickel shrugged.

“Just say the word, guys. How’s it going with the, uh, Brothers?”

Ratici and Wilovan exchanged a look, and Wilovan murmured.

“A few lads should have finally come down from the north. But let’s not discuss business here. This is a lunch.

He emphasized the words, and Rickel sighed. Unlike Cire or Ecleeif, the two Gentlemen Callers held Rickel at a remove. They appreciated his help—but they were separate. And—in this moment—the two were seriously considering the all-vegetarian options at the café.

“Is it…safe here?”

“We’re in a lull. Neither side wants to attract the Watch. Collection day is usually quiet.”

“Huh.”

The Earthtenders and the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were at war. They both had gangs that clashed in bloody ways, raiding each other’s safehouses, taking over streets—but it was a more civilized war than Rickel thought.

At least, in a Walled City. You rarely hauled off and stabbed someone in the streets. It happened, like their first battles and Wilovan’s assassination, but the worst thing to do would be getting a civilian killed.

For the Gentleman Callers, it was unacceptable. For the Earthtenders—the Watch would not ignore that. So you could have the two dining in the open.

True, there was a danger of poison, but Ratici was good enough to keep that from happening. He inserted a little strip into the first soup he was given.

“I can never do soups, Wilovan. Needles in the salad? Simple.”

“Soup is a weakness of yours, Ratici. But I, as a gentleman, never reproach you your weaknesses.”

Rickel loved their banter. He sat there, listening as the two mixed between complimenting the pumpkin-based soup, the raisins in the delightful salad with a refreshing vinegar dressing—sour and sweet—ribbing each other—

And talking shop. Which was why he was here.

“I heard all those Named-ranks are still fleeing to the new lands. Quite a stir, quite a stir from our delightful [Innkeeper]. Did you hear more, perchance?”

“Only a letter.”

Wilovan looked up in outrage.

“You don’t say. A letter? From Erin herself?”

Rickel really, really wanted to meet Erin. And Lyonette—who was not an Earther. He had felt really silly about it at the time, but that meant Erin Solstice was almost definitely one. The woman who lived! He really wanted to exchange notes with her, but again.

Oteslia. Ratici proffered Wilovan a letter, but snatched it back when the Gnoll reached for it.

“When you read this missive, addressed to the two of us, I might note that it came to me, Wilovan, old chap.”

“You held it back all morning?”

“You had been shot. I thought it would cheer you up.”

Wilovan snatched the letter and began to read. His furrowed brow turned into a smile.

“Ah, now that’s a pleasant missive. She has not forgotten us?”

“What an insult, Wilovan, to assume she would.”

“That is upon me, Ratici—and a poorer man to ever think it of Erin.”

They looked so contented at getting a letter from the mysterious [Innkeeper] that they sat back as if that were half the meal. Then they continued talking.

“Extraordinary that she helped the adventurers escape. I hear no less than Orchestra is upon their backs.”

“Hm. Nasty fellow, that Music Maker. A nasty fellow to cross. Who else is there with links to us?”

The [Thief] counted on his claws.

“Well, the Music Maker makes use of services. The Cheerful Lad helps everyone—”

“Of course—”

Rickel was decoding this. Ratici and Wilovan were giving him amused looks as he wrote down a few names, and Wilovan winked one huge eye in confirmation.

“—And the Luckless has debts. Speed Herself is not a pleasant one to cross, nor does she like us. A mixed bag, I’d say. The Haven doesn’t associate with many on our end.”

“No indeed. No indeed. Well, that’s as good as it may be for Miss Solstice. But now it’s my turn. I heard that Orchestra’s riled up the south. Especially their old rivals.”

The Drake had been adjusting his cap as he broke a cracker into his soup. He paused, spoon raised to his mouth, and nearly dripped some onto his immaculate handkerchief tucked into his shirt.

“You don’t say? Symphony?

Now there was a name Rickel knew. He sat up as Wilovan lowered his voice.

“They’re not after Orchestra—yet. But I did hear they took a contract. Rather unpleasant business. Word is that fellow we heard about who causes ruckuses? Was at Cellidel, Salazsar?”

“Ah, Sellme?”

“Yes. The word is that he caused such an outrage that someone posted a rather high number upon him. So high Symphony’s out and playing.

“Nasty business. Nasty business, and not the sort of thing to bring to a luncheon, Wilovan.”

Ratici patted at his mouth, and Wilovan raised a paw.

“I do apologize. I thought it was germane to the topic. The point is just that we should rather hurry to getting a nice place set up for the lads, Ratici. I can’t imagine our great friends in Poruniv’s lot are going to keep letting us walk all over their carpets.”

“Slow business, Wilovan. And you’re still talking work—”

The two were concerned. It was now that Rickel broke in. He felt filled on their talk, and of all the people in Oteslia—he did quite respect the two.

They were real. They had the style. They had the attitude—but they were also real as shit. Even Poruniv had been more of a caricature than they were.

The right folks to back. If only…Rickel were not so frustrated.

“Wilovan, Ratici. I have a question about—Symphony and that sort of thing. You know I’ve done well in the coffee business, right?”

The Gnoll brightened up at once, and the Drake grinned and nodded.

“A fine thing. A fine thing.”

Wilovan looked proud—and he wasn’t even a fan of coffee. Ratici was, but the Gnoll had staunchly stuck to tea.

It might be the biggest argument between them yet. Rickel looked between the two.

“If I can help with clothing for Wilovan or…any other way. How does one contact Symphony or spend all the kind of—the kind of remunerations one gets in a work such as this?”

He tried their style on, and Ratici chuckled with deep approval. He nodded to a young Gnoll with a cap waiting and got up.

“Be right back.”

He stood up, and Wilovan leaned over.

“It’s not the kind of thing we like to put a young man with prospects such as yourself into, Rickel. Best to stay clear.”

“I’m in it already. Plus—I’d just like to buy something interesting. I’ve been talking with Cire, you know. The nobility have their own access to—things. Auctions and so on. But I’d need to be a [Merchant] in some standing to get noticed. Even with gold, you have to have a name.”

Wilovan looked interested.

“I had heard how that worked. So above, so below. Well—I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you the basics. You see, a fellow who’s successful in our line of work doesn’t know where to go either. There are a few known groups—but you tend to be reached out to.”

“Damn. It’s always the elite reaching out to you, isn’t it?”

Rickel wasn’t surprised. Wilovan gave him a huge wink.

“Can’t be too careful. But if you were really in need—we could give you an introduction. Our names do work. Once we settle this bit of unpleasantness, we’ll do just that. For now, any surreptitious folk won’t take our side.”

Ratici reappeared and sat down as Wilovan sat upright smoothly. The Gnoll shook his head.

“Not yet. Not good to upset Poruniv if you think he’ll hold a grudge. A petty man, that.”

Ratici held up a cautionary finger.

“With decent clothing.”

“Indeed, we must give him that. Poor form, though. Poor form.”

Rickel sat back. He frowned mightily, such that even Ratici noticed it.

“Something wrong, Rickel? Are you that interested in buying something? Well—I can see a young man needing something to protect himself. We could see about it…”

He glanced at Wilovan, and the two had offered Rickel protection, but the Earther just shrugged.

“I just wonder—how do you pay for something—expensive? Are you anonymous or what?”

Ratici coughed discreetly and knowingly.

“If you want to be secret—there’s ways. Moving about the kind of coinage is tough. Again, it requires having a few nice places, a system. If we were in Invrisil, we’d take you around.”

Rickel drummed his fingers on the table.

“Damn. I mean—darn. Excuse me, you two. What a problem to have, eh?”

The two laughed. Wilovan reached out and patted him on the shoulder.

“The best kind in the world, young Rickel! The best kind.”

The young Human man smiled wanly. You said that—but how frustrating it could be!

 

——

 

Let’s assume you had money. Great.

Money was so important. Money made the world go round, and contrary to what people believed, it did correlate with happiness to a certain point.

In this world, money mattered more. In Rickel’s, there was a limit to how far money ran. Money could buy favor and bribes—but the ultra-rich ran out of yachts and houses to buy. Then they built spaceships.

Well, in this world, money was a lot more actionable, and you could even argue that the economy of scale was greater. In this world—money could buy you a Relic.

If the relic was on sale. But more than that, Rickel had realized something else.

You could not bid on the Helm of Fire if you weren’t allowed at the auction table. Similarly—let’s assume you had a lot of money. Some people might ask where it came from. And…if you tried to spend it, they noticed.

Of course, getting said money was also a trick and a half. And after nearly a hundred days of investigations—

The team looking into the Golden Triangle disaster still hadn’t found where all the money went.

 

——

 

Oteslia’s Merchant’s Guild was where several Drakes stood. One of them had a rare class—[Investigator].

It was exceedingly rare, even among Watches and similar classes. The rest were just [Guards], [Scribes], [Tax Collectors], and similar individuals appointed across Izril.

They had a northern counterpart, but they weren’t united. There were other teams that had been formed and failed by private nations, and they’d all gotten in their way.

In hindsight, Investigator Gaills reflected that they should have worked together. They should have compared information—but Humans working with Drakes?

Well, everyone had suffered. Now he stood here, at a dead end.

Oh, it was to Oteslia where his trail had led from the City of Gems. He was a son of Salazsar, and he had worked with no less than the Walled Families on matters of espionage and corporate sabotage.

He was used to this kind of thing and had Skills to convince people to talk, to establish leads. But…he had never run into something like this.

A scam, they called it. People paid for membership in the Golden Triangle, recruited other people, and were given great amounts of wealth in return. The higher you went, the more you got—and it all seemed to be working until someone called the alarm.

Then they realized all the money coming out of this scam was less than what was going in. It was only sustaining itself based on the new people recruited, who were making a loss until they moved up the ladder—by recruiting more people.

It was unsustainable. It was doomed to fail—but crucially here—the ones who had perpetrated this scheme knew it.

The ones? The one? He didn’t know. All he did know was that a hundred days later, here he stood.

“Good morning! How can we help you at Oteslia’s Merchant’s Guild? Are you here to withdraw coin? Purchase something? Speak to a [Merchant]?”

The [Receptionists] and [Greeters] at the front desk watched the small team—warily. After all, they had been questioning the staff here for three weeks, and they were empowered by the Walled Cities to get answers.

However—Merchant Itrems, from Manus, had given up. He sat there, exhaling such that Investigator Gaills wondered where all the new air was coming from.

“Gone. The trail’s gone. We were too slow—I think this is it for me. I cannot waste another month of my life here.”

A hundred days. When he said it, the mostly-Drake group nodded. They were sick of it.

Gaills? He was too. He was annoyed by his superiors asking for answers. Tired of walking and talking in circles—but when he thought of the people who’d stolen all that gold, he did get angry.

How much? Even now, he couldn’t tell because each Merchant’s Guild had been in on it. They had jumped on the scheme and funneled the gold through countless groups that hadn’t talked to each other. Whoever had done this had been—smart.

Yes, smart. They’d covered their tracks, gotten the nobility in on it—and when they sensed the walls closing in, they were nowhere to be found. They had never been here at all.

Oh—the leadership of the Golden Triangle had. Rich Drakes and Gnolls and Humans had woken up to mobs and the Watch and angry leaders demanding answers. They had rushed to ask their superiors for answers, but the ‘top’ of the Golden Triangle had gone silent, and those below had no answers.

There had been a top. Gaills saw that. And the trail did lead to Oteslia.

Once you found the people who hadn’t gone into hiding or disavowed the entire scam—the ones not dead from the retribution of the people who’d been wronged—they told you who they’d reported to.

Go up the list high enough and every ‘original’ adopter of the Golden Triangle had come from here. Oteslia. And it was here so much of the gold had gone, funneled through this very Merchant’s Guild.

So—the answer was easy, right? Find the original culprits, find who’d gone to them—find where the gold had gone.

Problem 1: Gaills’ team had found that the gold had vanished via a lockbox, one of the very ones the [Receptionist] at the counter was giving to a haughty Wall Lady. It was an enchanted key the Wall Lady had—and while she demanded an escort and porters for some huge withdrawal or deposit—

The safes were private. So, damn it, there was no one who could say who’d drawn the money out. More than one person came here cloaked or with spells for anonymity.

The Merchant’s Guild itself had enabled the gold to be withdrawn from the accounts that had had most of the gold. It hadn’t even been all gold.

That much coin? You couldn’t haul it away with a thousand bags of holding! So it had gone out in other forms.

Expensive spell scrolls, truly rare magical gemstones. Trade goods—literal magical contracts that were used as bargaining chips. Even artwork, damn it! They’d all been put in Vault #5, one of the largest—and all had been carried out, piece by piece, before the scheme collapsed.

If they ever saw some of the artwork again, like the Dawning of Zeres, made by one of the greatest [Painters] of an age—they’d have a lead. In a sense, Gaills was happy—the culprit had a lot of gold, a lot of gold, but they would have to exchange some of the gems and items at some point.

That left a trail. However—the person who had originated this Golden Pyramid scheme was still invisible to him.

Problem 2: all the first members of the Golden Triangle didn’t remember who they had dealt with. Skills, memory spells—all had failed.

Someone was being protected by Skills. Skills—and clever ideas, like a [Message] scroll to communicate with the Merchant’s Guild and make orders. Hooded cloaks, illusion spells.

There had been a few, at the start, who might have known who this person was. One Drake—a young man—had been apparently one of the first to spread the idea to three dozen of the original founders. Many had thought he was the founder.

Rellas Biscale. Investigator Gaills really thought he’d had the culprit or the answer when they finally uncovered his name. Only to find—

He was dead. The riots during the Golden Triangle disaster had turned on him. And with him went their final clue.

“We can’t just give up. At least let’s look for signs of any of the goods being sold.”

“Some were just gemstones, Gaills. Anyone can sell that, especially on the black market. They could be in any city—anywhere—if we weren’t just chasing them down here, where they hired a messenger or someone to carry the gold off!”

“No. They have to have been here. You don’t trust that much to any servant. Let alone someone for hire.”

Gaills was adamant, but his team was tired. A Gnoll shook her head.

“Okay, let’s watch for the Dawn of Zeres to appear. But until it does—we can’t grab who it is, Gaills. We’ve tried, but let’s be honest. Some of us are high-level. Merchant Itrems is Level 43!

He had shared that level over the long investigation. Everyone nodded as the Gnoll turned to Gaills.

“What are you, Level 36? I hate to say it, Gaills—but you’re the only one of us who has the right class. And you might be outlevelled. This scam—if someone was levelling from it, it went worldwide. What class, what level are they?”

The Drake felt a twisting in his stomach because he knew it was true. He had levelled twice during this investigation.

Twice—because of the scope of this crime. And he hadn’t even found the culprit! Another time, he would be celebrating a double-level in a single year after Level 30.

But if he was levelling like this from just investigating, who had done this? It was true—Itrems was not the right class to counter this kind of thing, for all his level was high.

“Can I convince you all to stay in touch, at least? I’ll ask the Wall Lords of Salazsar for permission to reach out across the High Passes. Just for this.”

The [Investigator] got murmurs of agreement, but he felt a sinking in his bones. He was so close! So close…but where had the culprit gone after this? He could have gone anywhere in the world. It could have been Roshal or…or an underground gang.

He needed something solid to go on, some motive he lacked. How had they known this would work? Why did he feel this scam, this scheme was so well-done? As if they knew how it should be done and when to run.

His senses were telling him something he could not fully understand…the Drake stood there, and his scales prickled and prickled. He looked around the Merchant’s Guild.

“Good morning, sir! Are you here to add money or take it? Oh, Mister Rickel!

“Hey there. Just adding a bit. How’s things, Beansi?”

 

——

 

The young man loitered at the front desk, watching the investigation team out of the corner of his eye. He wasn’t stupid enough to put on Ecleeif’s illusions, not here.

In truth, if he had walked over to Gaills at this very moment and confessed, the [Investigator] might have gotten most of the Golden Triangle fortune back.

Mostly because Gaills’ one big insight was one that most of the world lacked. That Rickel was running into.

How the fuck did you spend all this damn gold without someone noticing? Or rather, he was entirely willing to pull the fifty levels of removal to spend his gold. Proxies, illusions, fake accounts, all the works. But he had nowhere to shop in the first place!

He could buy a million cheap wands at a Mage’s Guild or a shop—but the real stuff? The real stuff just wasn’t available.

Rickel handed over a small pouch of coins with a smile. The Merchant’s Guild was a shitshow.

Oh, it did some things right. It took people’s gold, held it, and lent it out like a bank. But they hadn’t managed to figure out the best way to make more gold was to invest it and lie that it was still in the vaults. They didn’t have stocks…and he liked stocks.

Not because they were that useful for the world, but because he knew how they worked. Inventing that idea took time, influence—and arguably, he didn’t need to do that. He leaned on the counter with a huge sigh.

“You’ve got a little nest egg here. Are you worried, Mister Rickel?”

Beansi, one of the [Receptionists], was a chatty guy. Nice. He also knew how much was in Rickel’s accounts, and the young man gave him a wan smile.

“What’s the point of saving up if I’m just waiting for an emergency, Beansi?”

“Good point, good point—but you’re earning a tidy profit. Ever thought about becoming a [Trader]? You could buy some trade goods, add more coins in if you sell right. I took a lesson from the Golden Gnoll, you know. It’s all about making the money grow.

Rickel tried not to roll his eyes. He smiled at the slim Drake in his neat vest.

“Ah, but Beansi—where do you spend that coin?”

He felt a prickle on the back of his neck. That [Investigator] was staring at him. Beansi raised his brows.

“The Merchant’s Guild has lots of items on sale. If you were to reach a higher amount of investment, I could ask one of the [Merchants] to put you on a list. Then any big [Trader] would contact you and you could access the auction lists.”

Rickel laughed lightly.

“Not in my lifetime, Beansi. Not at this rate.”

“I guess that’s true. It’s an exclusive list—but just so you know it’s there.”

The young man gave Beansi a wan smile.

“Well, now I’ll be thinking of that all day. A special list and auctions? I’d love to be part of that. Any chance you can fit me on right now?”

“Not yet, Mister Rickel. Not yet.”

“Pity.”

Underworld it was, then. Hence Rickel trying to make his way into Poruniv’s good graces way back when. But gambling was a slow road into the big leagues. Ratici and Wilovan didn’t ask many questions of a friend.

Oteslia, Oteslia or bust. He could go to any city in the world, but the door he wanted to open needed a key. And the key was here. Rickel’s eyes twinkled as he strolled past the investigators giving up on his case.

He could hear them asking the [Receptionist] who he was. On a hunch. Good try, Investigator Gaills. But Beansi just told Merchant Itrems the truth.

“Him? Oh, he says he’ll never be on the list, but between you and me, Merchant Itrems? He might get on it this year!”

“You don’t say. Why?”

The Drake stared at Rickel as he sauntered out, and his instincts lit up—until he heard Beansi speaking brightly.

“Why, he’s the inventor of coffee! One of them, at any rate. He’s making a fortune and depositing it each week here.”

“Oh.”

Gaills sagged, but Itrems’ eyes lit up.

“You don’t say. Now that’s a young man to watch. Within a year, you said? Let me see that ledger…he’ll make it in months! We should flag him anyways if he’s so…”

Then the door closed, and Rickel sensed Gaills’ eyes leave his back. He chuckled.

Months was still too long for him, but at least that was paying off. After all—it wasn’t hard to deposit a lot of gold and claim it all came from coffee. Some of it even did.

Schemes within schemes, but he really needed access. He wondered about Erin Solstice, but from what it sounded like, she was a nice young woman. And he didn’t know how his people might react. He was on their side—but some of them could get touchy about the entire scam. Anyways—he walked off, pondering how to help Ratici and Wilovan. Move carefully. And be fifteen steps ahead.

You had to have a plan. If there was one thing that scared him—Rickel had to admit. It might be the upcoming Winter Solstice. Someone else had a game, and he didn’t want to play.

 

——

 

The last leaves were falling thick and heavy from the trees in the capital of Paranfer when Tom heard the name—

Arruif Yal.

It slipped out, unguarded, and the [Clown] let it ring about his head. For once said, the name could not be unsaid, and no matter how hard they tried, he knew it meant something.

But for context.

The name came from no less than one of the two young women who had invited him over for tea.

And yes, inviting the [Clown] who wore his face-paint day and night—who looked nothing like the kind young man who had first come to this world—was considered madness by many. For all he had supporters by the thousands, his troupe of mad, cavorting [Tricksters], [Fools], [Jesters], and, yes, [Clowns]—

Everyone knew he was crazy. The Blighted Kingdom, though, did not draw back from his madness. They reveled in it. They celebrated him, for he was a foe to the Demons.

And any weapon, from the chains of Roshal to the flesh of A’ctelios Salash to the madness of Earth, was welcome here. So long as it served well enough. [Necromancers] were practically the next-door neighbor that came for the holidays with a turkey ready for the table and an undead dog that sat and chewed on its own bones.

There were far worse. So—the two young women had Tom over. They quite liked him, which was a mystery to the giggling [Clown].

But Princess Erille and Princess Isodore, the only two remaining [Princesses] of the Blighted King, owed him their lives. More than that? He probably provided a unique role in their lives.

“Mister Tom, Mister Tom—what do you think of Lord Hayvon?”

“I think he’s a bastard, Princess Erille. Next question.”

The young [Princess] clapped her hands over her mouth, but she looked delightedly aghast. Princess Isodore made a sound and glanced at her guards.

There were eight of them, all over Level 30, and they did not bristle nor stand to attention at all times—but they were here in case of Demons.

Or Tom. The [Clown] sat there in his clashing costume of three colors, yellow, blue, and red, each vying for dominance.

He was—thin. Gaunt. He didn’t eat much, and the tea he drank didn’t do much for his frame. He had once been plump-cheeked, nervous—and kinder, stuttering even, in the brief time they had first met the ‘heroes’ of Rhir before they were sent away.

Even when he’d come back there had been some of him left. But by now—it was as if that kindness had been starved away. He had the look of the court’s finest warriors. Gaunt—and a stare that had seen so many people he’d killed.

No longer did Tom giggle at all times or project that insanity that was half-show. That, too, was refined, and he leaned on his knees, drinking from the cup. The young Erille was only ten. She’d turned ten last month, and the celebrations had engulfed the Blighted Kingdom.

King Othius the Fourth had once had many sons and daughters. None now remained except his latest two, and their lives were safeguarded—that his line might endure. It was no certain thing.

Coretine, the Blighted Queen, was last in a line of [Queens]—not one had ever been divorced. Othius was no philandering king—or to be precise, if he was that wasn’t the issue. Tom wondered if the old man just didn’t have the stamina to produce more heirs. He doubted the Blighted Kingdom would object to more potential heirs.

The Demons came after the royal line. They had been successful—and Rhir itself was a harsh land and had claimed many of the royal line.

This was hell. This was hell, and this was the bastion from which the eternal war had been fought.

Eternal being roughly six thousand years, incidentally. My, how we forgot. But it had resulted in this place. Tom, Tom the [Clown], answered Isodore’s scandalized look with a shrug. She scolded him lightly.

“You mustn’t say that of Lord Hayvon, Tom. He is one of the court and crown’s greatest allies.”

“So? He’s still a bastard. Your father’s best supporters are. He’s good at his job. That wasn’t the question.”

The [Princess] opened her mouth.

“But if word were to reach him—”

“I said it, not you. Does it even matter, Isodore? Does your father really teach you to play politics like that? Maybe it matters—but I bet if you were insane and you killed someone every single night and lay in their blood, they’d still make you [Queen]. So long as you were good at your job. Nothing matters but that. Not here.”

Tom passed a hand over his face, and now, the [Princesses]’ minders shifted. His head snapped up, and he stared with wild eyes at a nursemaid who was a warrior.

Am I wrong? Say I’m wrong.”

“Mister Tom, please. Don’t be upset. I just asked a question, Isodore. I think he’s right. Lord Hayvon is not a nice man.”

Princess Erille’s comment was innocent—but not as innocent as many children. She, like even the toddlers of this land, had a kind of adultness about them.

It came of war. It came of knowing death might come. It was also, probably, why they liked Tom.

“You say things you should not, Mister Tom. Lord Hayvon isn’t touchy, though. So I suppose it doesn’t hurt to impugn him. A Terandrian [King] would be far more touchy. That is a reason to study statecraft.”

“So study it with Terandrians. But call Hayvon a bastard to his face. That’d be hilarious.”

A huge smile spread over Tom’s face at the notion. He looked at Erille. The girl looked scandalized—and privately delighted.

“Could I?”

“Absolutely not, Erille.”

“I dare you to.”

Sir Tom!

Isodore’s raised voice prompted one of her minders to step forwards.

“Sir Tom—”

But it was too late. The [Clown]’s eyes lit up. And he pointed at Erille.

“[I Double Dare You].”

She gasped, and Isodore saw, with her Ring of Greater Appraisal, a mark appear over her head. An activated Skill! Tom had used it on—

Six of the guards jumped him. Eighteen more were at the doors, and he vanished in a swirl of light, fighting them, laughing wildly as the [Princesses] shot to their feet.

He’s used a Skill on the [Princess]! I need a Skill removal, now.

“Don’t hurt him! Stop!”

Erille was shouting—she had seen the first guard punch Tom so hard he dislocated the [Clown]’s jaw, and another had been clubbing him with the hilt of a sword.

Violence. Princess Isodore had seen far worse already, and so had Erille. The Earthers were the ones who froze up when they saw how ready the Blighted Kingdom was to act.

Stop! Do not harm Sir Tom. Stop!”

The words froze the air—and her aura worked. The [Guards] stopped—and Isodore felt them turn to her. With a kind of gratification. She heard the words they never said aloud when they looked at her.

Now there is someone who could rule.

 

——

 

Isodore ignored the pressure of her responsibility when she was with Sir Tom. Even if he did things like this. When he reappeared, his face was bloody and he was grinning. Someone had knocked a tooth out and cracked two more.

“You’ll need the crystal healing beds. No one can waste healing potions. Sir Tom, what possessed you?”

The incident was summoning more of the Blighted Kingdom’s court, the actual people in charge. Tom sat, grinning, as Erille dabbed at his face.

“It’s just a Skill. She can do or not do. But aren’t you making my people level? Fair’s fair. I’m just helping Erille level up.”

He spat blood to the side—and it landed in front of a pointed shoe. Nereshal, the [Chronomancer], came to a halt. He stared down at Tom with the disdain he had for the [Clown]—and it was echoed in spades in Tom’s look.

“Your Highnesses, we can attempt to remove the Skill—but perhaps it would be better to gain the boon. How weighty was it?”

“It—it might be worth doing.”

Isodore confessed. Not just because she wanted to see it done, but because it was from Sir Tom.

A [Clown]. And a [Hero].

He was so high-level that it mattered. A [Mad Clown], Level 35. Which was not the most fantastic level around. The Blighted Kingdom had a lot of individuals over Level 40. Their foes were far, far higher-level.

Lord Hayvon himself was over Level 60, so, alone, that class mattered little—if not for Tom’s other class.

[Hero of Laughter and Grief]. Level 21.

That…that had a weight to it. Isodore hadn’t checked recently, but Sir Richard was approaching Level 40—he might even have reached it as a [Knight]. But to the Blighted King’s courts, Isodore knew, they weighed Tom like a Level 40 warrior on his own plus his [Clown] class. A [Hero] was more than a [Knight]. It was more than perhaps a [Princess].

It stood out to her, the highest-level [Hero] that the Blighted Kingdom held. And she could see, via the ring that so few had, the Ring of Greater Appraisal—his class.

 

Thomas Trautmann. [Hero of Laughter and Grief], Level 21.

 

[Skill – Weapon Proficiency: Knives]

[Skill – Full House Throw]

[Skill – I Double Dare You]

[Skill – Impossible Dodge]

[Skill – Charisma of the Madman]

[Condition: Champion of the Blighted Lands]

[Condition: Bearer of My Vengeance]

[Unit: The Gloomless Troupe]

 

And so on. If she looked carefully, she could see the conditions hovering on Tom. They were not his Skills. Well—the madness was. The madness and luck—but some of the things upon him were not his.

The [Champion of the Blighted Lands] was her father’s Skill. It made Tom heal faster—his bloody mouth was already ceasing to bleed. He was one of the lucky thousand that could be added to Othius’ ranks.

However, that other one—that other one was not as bright, if that made sense. Even her ring couldn’t identify who placed all the Skills on Tom. That was probably the legendary [Appraisal of the World’s Eye] that would give her even more knowledge—a spell lost to time.

However, [Greater Appraisal]—and that was a spell most Archmages doubted existed—could show her what was upon Tom.

Like—for instance—what seemed to be a buff-effect from a citizen of Rhir. A grieving son or daughter or widow. It was empowering him.

He also belonged to the Gloomless Troupe, his own unit. Thus, Isodore knew more about Tom than possibly even he did. She could even see that his Skill—[I Double Dare You]—was activated.

Nereshal was angry—but Erille piped up.

“I shall do it. I don’t like Lord Hayvon, and he shall understand it is a bet.”

“Lady Erille—very well.”

It was a mark of the Blighted Kingdom that the [Chronomancer] weighed the political fallout—as opposed to the benefits of Erille answering Tom’s dare ability. It was a [Hero]’s Skill, and thus…

“I shall escort you to a private setting—”

“No! I shall go to court now and say it. Because…I have to.”

Erille looked positively delighted about her obligation, and Nereshal pursed his lips. But he couldn’t help it.

“Just so long as it does not cause an incident—I shall inform Their Majesties. No other. And it shall be on Sir Tom’s head if it goes ill. Princess Erille, at least wait until the Balerosian—Princess!

Too late, she was gone. Tom chortled as he followed Erille. Nereshal was furious—but Isodore took his arm.

He was old. Seventy years? A hundred and forty? He refused to tell her in their lessons, but only her father benefited from his great magic that could hold back time.

The [Chronomancer] could have been an Archmage of Wistram if he cared to be—but he had served the Blighted Kingdom faithfully. And she trusted him above all others. Of the royal court, she did trust Nereshal, her father’s representative in so many ways, because he was honest with her.

She wished he and Tom would get along. Isodore tried to soothe Nereshal’s quickfire temper. Once, she had been convinced she would wed him and that her father was angling for that. It had been a far more pleasant thought than Hayvon or someone from overseas.

“Nereshal, forgive Sir Tom. He is mad—but he won’t harm us. Or Erille. Or is this your Arruif Yal?

She meant it to tease him and to prove she was listening—but Nereshal’s face froze over—and Isodore realized she had said too much. None of the guards reacted—but Tom’s eyes focused on Nereshal’s look.

Another mistake in her litany of mistakes. You wouldn’t notice that word—unless you saw how Nereshal’s face drained of color slightly. Probably only Tom had seen it.

“—Your Highness jests too much.”

The [Chronomancer] recovered quickly, but as he and she well knew—a second was forever. And then it was said—and Isodore’s stomach lurched.

For it was just a name. And even she did not know the full context. Only that it had come up in the studies only a [Princess] of the Blighted Kingdom should know. In her most private of libraries only the royal family and Nereshal could access.

She had thought it was a joke on the level of some event that Hayvon or older members of the court should recognize. To see Nereshal’s face—

Arruif Yal. Then the word took on special meaning.

 

——

 

They almost missed the moment when Princess Erille marched up to Lord Hayvon. The Balerosian diplomats were no one united core. A hundred mercenary companies each could send their own representatives.

In practice, only the largest ones capable of overseas warfare visited. It still produced a throng, and they were accorded a fair bit of respect even by the Blighted King’s lower stratum of nobility, the Burnished Court.

Warriors who knew combat and blood were often valued higher than [Emissaries], for all the latter had Skills. The Blighted Kingdom was a mix of graciously welcoming and their own form of arrogance—here they waged a war against Demons on hell’s soil.

So even foreign [Diplomats] were not above honor-duels and tests of their mettle. It was customary to sometimes shock a newcomer to Rhir by showing them a Vorepillar infestation or bringing them within range of the front lines.

Naturally, Kaaz was well-loved here. The Gorgon [Pactmaker] was just talking to Lord Hayvon, who was listening attentively to a discussion about the ongoing Balerosian situation.

“—Jungle Tails does not represent us all. Nor have they yet acted as a Great Company should. They did not join the Rhir muster. If it was to keep themselves hidden, frankly, it worked too well. It’s positively Dullahan-like.”

[Long Ear] was a Skill that Isodore had gained as a child. This sniping comment was in reference to the Iron Vanguard and the Dullahans of Baleros’ north.

The rarest sight in Rhir of all the species was a Dullahan. They—were one of two major powers that had never pledged to fight for the Blighted Kingdom.

Why—even Fetohep of Khelt joined the efforts. He sent none of his undead, but a shipment of fine Kheltian arms, each hand-smithed, had noticeably and publicly gone to the [Royal Soldiers] standing at attention here.

A little gesture to show that the Blighted Kingdom was paying attention. Then again—they got little press elsewhere. A separate world that everyone focused on when the Demons gained ground.

Isodore, like her people, had mixed views on the rest of the world living in comfort and safety. No matter how much she longed for it.

At any rate, Hayvon broke off from his discussion to bow to the [Princess].

“Your Highness. What brings you here?”

The Gorgon and other Lizardfolk bowed instantly.

“Your Highness.”

Hayvon smiled at the young [Princess], whom he quite liked.

“I was just discussing matters of Baleros with our brave allies. Have you thoughts on the Dyed Lands, Princess Erille? A disaster such as this—it has been suggested other nations join in the catastrophe.”

“Not that Terandrians or Izrilians move for anyone but Rhir. Or to steal Gnollish land.”

The caustic comment came from a Lizardwoman. It went down just fine amongst the Burnished Court, but several Terandrians turned, outraged. A member of House Wellfar whirled—and the Gnoll emissaries from the Tribes sniffed and chuckled.

“We must all be allies to our neighbors, Pactmaker Troxin. Here, at least, we are united of mind. What say you, Princess?”

Erille took a deep breath, excited, and nearly tripped over her words. But her eager tones were modulated by her [Noble Diction] Skill, so even the adults were impressed by her delivery.

“I think…I think you say such things well, Lord Hayvon. You are a good ally to our neighbors in words. But you are a bastard who only claims he’ll help. You told me the Fraerlings were in danger—but you didn’t go to them. Or the Lizardfolk.”

Hayvon’s face went slack. Erille beamed with delight, and the Lizardfolk and the Burnished Court stared at each other. Then the Lizardfolk began howling with laughter.

“Your Highness. Wh—”

Hayvon began—before he heard that hysterical guffaw. He straightened, and his eyes flashed up.

“I should have known. Sir Tom’s pranks.”

“I did it!”

Erille began to glow. The mark over her head flashed as the Skill’s requirements were met—and then she hopped through the air. One of the Nagas recoiled as she did a four-foot jump.

“Erille! Lord Hayvon, forgive her. She was dared to call you a—well, as you can see.”

The [Princess] landed, pirouetted, and bowed, like a courtier, arms rising like she was dancing. It was so graceful several people began applauding.

“Ah, a challenge Skill. Amazing. It’s powerful.”

A Lamia glanced at the [Clown] pointing at Hayvon and laughing his embroidered ass off. The [Lord]’s lips compressed, but Princess Erille raised her head.

“I meant what I said, Lord Hayvon. Skill or not. The Blighted Kingdom has warriors by the thousands. We could have sent a Level 40 [Warrior] to fight for Paeth. You told me Fraerlings don’t join like the Drowned Folk and Dullahans. Or Drath.”

Hayvon coughed. Some of the visitors looked horrified by Erille’s forthrightness, others impressed. The Burnished Court flashed approval via private means. The Blighted Kingdom’s daughter could not be a shrinking violet.

“We do not weigh in on affairs between nations, Your Highness. Jungle Tails might well yet become one of the Great Companies. The Blighted Kingdom is apolitical.”

“Then we will never have Fraerling allies, Lord Hayvon. Why would we? They’re watching us through scrying orbs, and they saw that we did nothing. The same for the Dyed Lands.”

The earnest [Princess] lectured the [Lord], and he was lost for words. Isodore broke in gently.

“You don’t want to waste your Skill, Erille. How long does she have?”

“About thirty minutes.”

Hayvon answered instead of Tom; of course he knew. Erille gasped.

“I must go. Esteemed guests, forgive my departure! Not my coarse language. You shall have heard worse in the companies, I believe.”

Bemused, the Lizardfolk bowed. The Gorgon gave Erille a toothy smile she returned with all her teeth.

“What an insightful child. The language I’m used to outside of a ballroom—a delight. Your Highness, Isodore. Greetings from the Duscale Company.”

“Oh! Don’t you hold the northern frontier against the Iron Vanguard? It must be freezing, this time of year.”

And again, the Lizardfolk were surprised she knew this. Hayvon was rallying as he glared at Sir Tom.

Of note—few Earthers were allowed in the Burnished Court to talk to the guests. Tom, Richard, Emily—they were the few admitted past the [Guards].

The [Clown] was surrounded by a few interested guests, but most had heard of the madman, ready to stab you or fight. It was quite something, that they assumed he was just a Named-rank equivalent. And they were all crazy.

“Lord Hayvon, I fear I’ve offended you.”

“I had no idea Princess Erille held me in such disdain.”

The man looked actually hurt, wearing his surcoat of armor like a second skin. The ‘fifth-greatest’ [Lord] in the world was a splendid war-leader, and if not the finest duelist of the Blighted Kingdom, he’d taken points off Gold-bell [Duelists] in sparring.

His greatest Skill was the charge of his forces—where they could turn into literal bolts of lightning and race across Rhir. His forces had stormed the Demons’ lands time and time again.

Nevertheless, Erille wounded him. Isodore pursed her lips and spoke lightly, remembering her lessons.

“Say, rather, Erille is dismayed that a man of your abilities doesn’t extend his focus beyond Rhir. I know, you are quite analytical, but she loves Fraerlings.”

“Ah, but they are fine warriors. A child might see doll-sized folk—”

Lord Hayvon. I have never heard you be so uncharitable about Erille before.”

It was then, perhaps, that Hayvon realized Isodore wasn’t as disapproving of Erille’s comments as he thought. He took a deep breath.

“Have I offended your Highnesses in any way of late?”

“Merely observations. I know you are a great supporter of the cause, Lord Hayvon. But you can be—ruthless.”

She gave him a level look, and perhaps then Hayvon realized that the [Princesses] knew what he did that did not include the battlefield. Any deed in the Blighted Kingdom’s name was countenanced—but the royal family knew them all.

He bowed silently. Isodore went on after a moment.

“—Perhaps you can demonstrate your good intent to Erille. Later. For now, why don’t we speak of other things, Hayvon? I fear I’ve quite offended Nereshal, for one.”

“Oh? Your Highness surely shouldn’t take it amiss. Nereshal respects your word more than mine. Will you impress our Balerosian diplomats a moment?”

Tom was leaving. Isodore supposed their chat was over and nodded. Back to work. It was not all dull—but she was careful here, poised. Aware of her surroundings and their chat.

“I shall. But someday, I would like to meet the Dullahans. Tulm the Mithril, for instance, has been invited to the Burnished Court?”

Hayvon grimaced.

“More than once. The Iron Vanguard are as stubbornly ‘neutral’ as the rest of the Dullahans. The Drowned Crews might be more amenable to talk. Now they have a presence in Nombernaught on Izril—it would behoove them. But I fear we’re likelier to see the Drowned Folk than a Dullahan or Drathian this next century.”

She nodded, but it was odd—three species had refused to join the rest of the world’s condemnation of Demons and alliance of arms and soldiers. The Drowned Folk were, one supposed, more disorganized, and many nations viewed them as criminal, but the Dullahans?

“I can never understand it. If only to trade or use Rhir as a port of safe haven when passing north to Terandria—”

“Ah, Your Highness. The Dullahans are mighty, but like Drath, they end up secluded. One might say they’ve enclosed themselves away. The Iron Vanguard has a splendid navy, and Dullahans do not lack behind other nations for wealth or might. But they refuse to join with Rhir on the most common, most decent of issues. Thusly…”

Wait, is that why the Dullahans have so little trade and representation in other continents? Isodore had plucked a glass of water from a tray, and it paused on her lips. Lord Hayvon’s smile was sardonic.

She had known, of course, of the Dullahan isolationism and refusal to join the Blighted Kingdom’s war. Only now, like a girl revisiting an old lesson, did Isodore connect that decision to the lack of ample trade flowing through their ports.

“Fascinating. I hadn’t made that connection before, Lord Hayvon. And the same holds true of mighty Drath?”

He shrugged eloquently.

“Their fleets patrol the edges of the world. They are content to their role—but it is true that the few traders who make regular contact with them are the Dullahans—and the House of Minos, who trades with both groups. But then, the House of Minos is…touchily independent of who they choose to associate with, and they are great allies.”

“Ah. Exceptions to this situation. And the Dullahans and Drathians have never wavered?”

He lifted a glass ironically.

“Dullahans. Stubborn enough to put Drakes to shame. And Drath wants for little, or so they claim. Would that it were otherwise. As for Fraerlings—they have just been hidden, so one supposes there was never any trade to be had. Paeth now…”

Isodore feared they were about to have a riveting, four-hour discussion about the Fraerling potential and quality of their enchantments when someone approached them.

“I say, sir. Did I hear you claim Dullahans were more stubborn than Drakes? I should like to argue that point.”

“Oh, our guests from Pallass. Go on, sir?”

The annoyed Drake with the monocle interrupted the tedium, and Isodore smiled. Smiled and turned to the many people who wanted to support the Blighted Kingdom. But not give all they could to end this war.

With allies of such…dedication…no wonder her father and Nereshal and Hayvon himself placed such hopes in the [Heroes]. Then again, few were of Tom’s quality. And from what Isodore had seen—

Well. The Blighted Kingdom knew how to make warriors out of mice. Some of them had Sir Richard’s gentility or a spark like the others. She wondered how many Toms there were in the lot.

A lot might be, ah—well. Promising, for now. Isodore was slightly dismayed by how Lord Hayvon chose to encourage some of them. But he did know young men.

 

——

 

A thousand Earthers upon Rhir.

A thousand was a large number—and a small one. As armies went, Rhir could squash a thousand [Soldiers] in a second. The Death of Magic could with a single spell.

But a thousand [Heroes] had the potential to change a warfront. If only they lived. If they were not squandered this time—the fact that Richard the [Knight] had reached Level 41 within one year of coming to this world proved that [Heroes] were worth any amount of time invested.

Not only were they levelling at rates unheard of—even in war—they were a cut above regular classes.

[Heroes] gained better Skills. Sir Richard was a [Knight]—but his true class consolidation had changed to one far better than even most Level 40 [Knights] could expect.

[Knight of the Advancing Era].

When he walked around the Blighted Kingdom’s inner palace, private training grounds, and courts in armor, even passing dignitaries asked who he was. For his armor…

His armor was strange enough that even the Dwarves had desired to see it. It kept changing with every new discovery Keith made working the Blighted Kingdom’s forges. Every time the Earther [Inferno Smith] advanced his understanding of metallurgy—Richard’s armor changed.

It was like someone had prevailed upon Earth’s own industrial metallurgists and experts to create a suit of armor. As if a military government had been told to produce armor for Richard.

What they lacked in Mithril or rare metals they made up for in materials that went into his armor that gave it that outlandish look. Right now, it was bulkier and resembled a kind of space-suit crossed with a medieval knight.

Padding and thick layers of inner protection coated the insides of the armor and even covered the traditional weak points of plate mail like the armpits. It was a tough material that Keith thought was a kevlar-rubber composite of some kind.

Richard didn’t know. All he did know was that his helmet definitely had some plastic in it. Tough, military-grade stuff, probably not even sold on the market.

It meant an elephant could kick him into a wall and, even without Skills, he’d do better than with almost any unenchanted plate. It also meant that there was almost always an [Alchemist] or [Engineer] poking at Richard and trying to cut a sample off his armor.

“Sir Richard, lend us your helmet again?”

“It’s going to vanish the instant you try taking it apart.”

“Just let us study the material! We’re looking into the basis of your plastics—”

With a sigh, Richard handed over the futuristic helmet. It was indeed closer to a football helmet he remembered wearing—probably because that cushioned the head from concussions. It was spirited away, and he suspected that the [Alchemists] would try to copy some part of it for their tests.

After all—they desperately wanted plastic. Even if they could do as well with metal and magic, the Blighted Kingdom knew that every technological edge—even the means to make cheap, durable materials without wasting iron—was a boon.

They were amazingly progressive in that respect. In others? Richard didn’t know. Now helmetless, he strode through a land meant only for Earthers and the Blighted Kingdom’s most trusted staff.

It resembled a high-school. There was no getting around it. It really did. There weren’t lockers, but there were personal rooms, classrooms, and Lord Hayvon, in charge of the Earthers’ training, had even organized the feel of the academy to resemble one from Earth.

To make them feel at home? Of course, there were differences. No plastics, impressive marble instead of brick, and they studied swords and magic instead of math and science.

It was the Blighted Kingdom who learned from Earthers, and the ones who knew actual math were standing, doing equations with the most gifted [Scribes] and [Teachers] and whatnot in the Blighted Kingdom.

“No—we’ve done something wrong here. The calculator’s not following our logic. Nor is the computer. Something about our physics equations is off. Take it from the top!”

Here was the thing about having a thousand Earthers. Yes, you got idiots. Yes, you got a variance in abilities. But among the thousand—sometimes you got a Harvard-level student. Which might not be that great, actually.

Or—someone who had written a dissertation on some kind of Stephen Hawking-level math formula and was now trying to bring the Blighted Kingdom up to speed. He had no less than eight glowing laptops, all of which were loaded up with copies of every salient program for understanding math, physics, and the scientific world.

Of the thousand, only 52 laptops were in the Blighted Kingdom, and each one was accounted for. There had been 54—until an accident—and Lord Hayvon had nearly lost his mind when he realized one had been broken beyond fixing in a fight. The other had been destroyed in the chess game.

Again, they’d been clever. There were two ways to move data between computers—a personal USB stick that could hold 8 GB of data and a USB cable for the same purpose. For nearly a month, the Earthers had painstakingly copied over relevant data (and video games and porn) from computer to computer to device.

—That was, until someone realized they could just make a wireless network by converting a laptop into a server. Then it was much faster.

Right now, Thorne, or ‘Hawking 2.0’ as he was being nicknamed, was using simple programs to fact-check his math and demonstrate some concepts to the Blighted Kingdom.

After all—you could model physics using design software. Google Earth had relevant photos and maps—if you had an offline version. A calculator was capable of doing logarithmic checks, and if you combined it all…

You still couldn’t make a jet engine. But they were taking it one step at a time. The model the Blighted Kingdom was trying to work out was Quiteil’s idea.

Bastion-General Quiteil was one of the other members of the Blighted Kingdom who had enough authority to call for projects of his own. The leader of 4th Wall had taken one look at the mathematical formulas and overridden Hayvon’s initiatives to get the math into a level where they could replicate heavy industry from Earth.

He had demanded—and was getting—a computer-based simulation of physics of a trebuchet. The idea was you’d plug in coordinates, the relative draw strength of each catapult, trebuchet, and ballista as well as the ammunition, and with some variance for wind, you’d know where it would land.

If you could chain that kind of mathematical precision into a portable spell, then every siege weapon in the Blighted Kingdom would be able to hit targets they couldn’t see.

The point was, the potential was there. Just like people trying to figure out gunpowder, or Keith slowly figuring out how to find and smelt Titanium with magic creating blast furnaces capable of higher and higher melting points.

But most of the Blighted Kingdom’s efforts were dedicated to improving the industry of their nation. Advancing into the idea of production lines and so on.

In the meantime, the Earthers not so gifted in these areas like Thorne or their genius chess-player, Antal Fekete, who was teaching [Strategists] the game of chess and leveling them up, were training.

Some, like Keith, had an aptitude for smithing. Some wanted to pursue passions, like a rock climber who had climbed countless routes free solo by the time she was nineteen—the Blighted Kingdom had need of that kind of expertise.

But the majority were like Richard. They might not have the most applicable talents—but they would make fine warriors. And frankly, the Blighted Kingdom would have more Level 40 [Warriors] and [Mages] from scratch before they produced a single gas-powered engine.

It was then to them that Richard went, and his fancy high-tech armor, his own ability with the sword—it had been won in combat. Against Demons, with no help from the Blighted Kingdom, in desperation and blood.

He was glad the new Earthers didn’t have to face that. Glad that they would get a chance and not be slaughtered in the first ambush.

But damn it if they didn’t piss him off sometimes. He had attacked Tom the first time the [Clown] had scared the Earthers into taking this seriously by stabbing them. Now—well, Tom was banned from the Earthers’ classrooms, but Richard had half a mind to let him back in for a day.

Here was a sample conversation he heard when he stopped in front of Training Group #4—they were split up by aptitudes and sometimes just personalities. A group of eight were getting post-workout massages by an actual squad of [Masseuses].

Oh—that was the other thing about this place. The staff and people supporting the Earthers were beyond 5-star hotel quality. If an Earther needed something or they were one of the promising ones, they got it. And even if you weren’t at the top, Hayvon had encouraged cooperation, so this was what Richard heard.

“I scored fifteen times this week. Each time, a different girl. I am telling you, go out to the academy. They’re all over you, Milo.”

Miloslav hesitated. He looked over as one of the other guys snorted.

“Fifteen? Weak numbers. I got thirty-eight.”

“You fucker. No way.”

“Truth spell me, bitch. Ever heard of stamina potions? Or is that all you got with them?”

The first speaker rooted around for something to throw and found a pot of oil. Richard heard a shout and the [Masseuses] protesting with their charges—but lightly. They were flirting. It did look like the massage hurt like hell—a proper one did—but there was also a reason most of the group was on their front.

Hero worship. Richard was something of a student of history, so he had recognized what Hayvon was doing. This was like how Roman gladiators were treated—or he supposed—the heroes from another world.

It worked. Richard suspected—he hoped—most of the interested Rhir citizens, often [Soldiers] in training themselves, were not motivated to be interested in the Earthers. Knowing they were [Heroes] seemed to be an allure of its own.

Nevertheless, a few people were too into their celebrity status, so Richard knocked on the door.

“You all done with the massage? Time to go for a run. Then we’re sparring with the Blighted Queen’s own personal unit, the Cleansenborne. Let’s be out there in fifteen.”

“Aw, come on, Coach!”

One of the guys gave him the nickname, and Richard rolled his eyes. Because of his attitude—trying to keep everyone in line, encourage and teach them, they were calling him ‘Coach’. Emily was ‘Waterbender’ because some of the Earthers loved a certain television show, and it pissed her off.

Tom…Tom was just ‘the Clown’. No one laughed about him.

He also, frankly, got the respect Richard wanted. Team 4 were taking their time, joking about, asking when some of the staff got off work, and Richard coughed after eight minutes.

“The Blighted Queen is waiting. We’re not letting her wait.”

“Come on, we’re…”

The eager speaker who had apparently slept around fifteen times, Loreto, was getting a big head. He didn’t finish his thought—because when the staff heard that, they were out of the room and the young men had no one to flirt with.

“Shit. We just finished working out the spear-training with that [Spearmaster], Coach!”

“Suck it up. The Cleansenborne were just on 5th Wall. They fought off two Adult Crelers the Death of Magic dropped on them. You should see how good they are—and if one of you cracks a joke—”

“You’ll put Tom on us?”

One of the Earthers laughed; the others fell silent at the reminder of 5th Wall. It got attacked often by the Demons, and the Death of Magic…

They saw the images and recordings of her fighting, but they didn’t believe. Personally, Richard wondered if they should all get stabbed and, uh—bleed for an hour. Because Tom had not gently kissed any of these guys with steel. For all they bled and trained—

You had Loreto, Milo, Johnson, Jie—they had mixed levels of ability. All of them were fit by now, and Loreto kept showing off the abdominals he had never had on Earth.

That was due to a Skill, and he was going off-the-rails a bit. [Bodybuilder] instead of [Fighter]. Johnson had been a football player, so he was fitting right down a path like [Heavy Warrior].

It was better than some of the [Mage]-trainees. They didn’t have to exercise, so they were only measured on basic fitness—and how many spells they learned. Richard passed by one such group on the way out.

“Running again, guys? Have fun.”

One of the [Pyromancers] waved a bag of chips, and Jie shouted back as they jogged after Richard.

“Fuck you.”

“Send me to the front, Richard! I’m ready! I’ve got [Fireball], [Firebolt], [Flame Spray], [Firefly]—all you need is fire!

That particular cocktail of arrogance was Arden. He was styling himself, he claimed, after his favorite character from some web comic he’d read. He also thought that he had learned to min-max his character’s levels and that this was a game.

—He was Level 18 already, and so he got leeway from Hayvon as long as he proved he could level and fight. They’d see combat someday, Richard knew.

But not against Silvenia. She’d just kill them. He had nightmares from seeing her at 5th Wall. Where would they fight Demons? And how many would die?

It was Hayvon’s dilemma: the Demons did not play around at war. Even if the Earthers had support, gear, and their advanced classes—Loreto would be minced up if he went up against a Demon who actually was ready to kill.

Well—the Cleansenborne coming back and Queen Coretine herself offering to train with Teams 1-7 meant that they’d see what they were up against. Richard grinned as Team 4 joked around.

 

——

 

Richard threw up after the fourth hour. He didn’t feel bad—he was the only Earther who hadn’t thus far.

There was something about sprinting as fast as you could across the rough ground, turning around after a two hundred foot dash—doing it all the way back, doing the infamous ‘burpees’, where you squatted down, jumped up, and repeated the motion fifty times—then doing one full-contact minute against a man seven feet tall who hit you in the stomach with all his might—

That provoked a certain desire to upchuck everything you’d ever eaten and forgotten in your life.

Oh, and that was Coretine’s ‘easy’ training she put trainees through. Half of Team 4 was down, but they were being hit with buckets of water, given shots of stamina potions—or just Skills and shouting.

Up!

“I can’t. I can’t, man—”

Loreto was speaking to one of the Cleansenborne—Richard’s was letting him wipe the vomit from his mouth before continuing the spar. That was how Richard knew they liked and respected him.

The member of Shel’s Cleansenborne, led by Queen Coretine herself, was part of one of the toughest, largest, and most skilled warrior groups on Rhir. Which meant they could punch out Richard without his armor.

Coretine was watching—and she was also as tall as her personal unit. She was the warrior queen that made King Othius look tiny compared to her when they were sitting on their thrones. Then again—she often stood.

She carried a battleaxe, she had scars—even a jagged one down her cheek—and a mane of purple hair. She was also strong enough to send Richard flying even in armor, and a number of Earthers were in awe or love with her.

The Cleansenborne certainly worshiped Coretine, and new recruits and Earthers were replenishing their ranks. Half of them had been killed when Silvenia breached the walls.

The new group would be tougher, stronger—and the veterans were without mercy to the hopefuls. To the Earthers, they were kinder.

For instance—the Cleansenborne soldier did not argue with Loreto more than five sentences. But when he brought up his foot and stomped, he made sure the young man had time to roll away.

Fuck—you crazy—

The soldier kicked Loreto in the stomach and raised his fists.

“Forty seconds.”

“Sir Richard?”

“Ready. I’m ready—”

This was the wake-up call from Coretine. As per requested—even the cockiest [Swordsman] and their [Fencer], who had experience from competitive fencing—France, some kind of Olympian hopeful—were lying on the ground or dying as they ran and exercised until they literally threw up.

They’d be peeing blood tonight, especially because you didn’t heal this. There were salves and massages—no healing potions. Most would level.

Pause! Cleansenborne, rally on me. Show the trainees what it’s like to fight a Demon or an Adult Creler with your bare hands. Give me six.”

Six of the gigantic Humans—and other species—formed up. They got taller, Richard heard, and developed that superhuman physique within a year or less of joining her unit. Coretine herself took them on in a group spar.

The first time she hit someone hard enough to snap his arm around, someone fainted. But the Cleansenborne just stepped back, yanked the bones into place, and accepted a spot-treatment of potion before watching the fight.

Not that Coretine emerged unscathed. She herself had the first layer of flesh removed from one arm by a punch—and the nasty wound only got a spray of powder to keep it from being infected.

Although—by the time the workout was done, an hour later, the wound had scabbed over and begun to turn to flesh. The Blighted Queen—one of Rhir’s monsters.

“I’m never doing that again. Never.”

Loreto was gasping when they were done. Half of the Earthers had to just lie there for another hour before they could drag themselves back to the academy. Richard forbore comment—to him.

“Hapi, good going out there.”

Good?

The bug-eyed look from the Egyptian kid was followed by a stream of vomit. Or rather, water. Richard patted him on the back and nodded.

“You’re working hard. Coretine saw it.”

The Blighted Queen was already marching back to court, but she stopped and gave Richard a nod. She eyed the other Earthers, and he knew she’d be reporting to Hayvon later.

“I couldn’t keep up. I—”

Hapi was still learning English. As were a lot of the thousand Earthers; command of the language varied from where they came from. Richard spoke energetically, adjusting his [Translation] spell.

“No, but you tried. She likes it when you don’t give up. Come on, it’s going to really hurt in half an hour. But we’ll get you a massage and rest and food.”

“My stomach is lying back there. Pick it up for me?”

Richard laughed. He liked Hapi. Some of the Earthers were going to be great. Again—if you could survive this, you’d be ready for any class. Some were even ready for a battle if they had to, like a Demon attack.

Just where would it be? Others—Coretine glanced at Loreto and murmured to one of the people attending her, who was taking notes. She was definitely going to tell Hayvon who wasn’t keeping up.

And the Blighted Kingdom’s motivation was—

Well, it was something.

 

——

 

By the time Richard came back from the palace, Emily had had enough. She found the weary [Knight] and whispered to him.

“Richard, you have to talk to Hayvon. You—you smell like shit.

He was covered in sweat, smelled like puke, and dirty. The [Knight] gave Emily a look as he helped carry Hapi in.

“Emily, I’m dying. Can it wait?”

No! Remember Beclaire? And Cynthia?”

“Our [Goth]? Oh no. Is Cynthia having another panic attack?”

She was one of the old Earthers, the first wave, and she had understandably cracked a bit under the stress of seeing her friends die. Beclaire? Beclaire was a [Goth]. First of her kind, and a bit of a mystery to Hayvon, but once she’d started levelling, he’d encouraged it.

“No! Worse—she’s following Beclaire and some of the girls around like a lost kitten. And they’re getting tattoos. This is like the eighth Beclaire’s gotten this week!”

Richard’s face was totally slack as he stared at Hapi. A servant came forwards with two more to help him away. He gave Emily that blank look she did not like when she needed his support and understanding.

“Okay.”

“Not okay! They’re getting magical tattoos! Beclaire realized the [Tattooist] won’t say no, so she’s changing her ‘look’.”

“Okay. So what?”

“So—it’s terrible! They shouldn’t be tatting up just because they can! They’re—they’re losing control.”

“It’s tattoos, Emily.”

“They’re getting piercings too!”

“Okay.”

He stared at her offended look. Emily grabbed his arm.

“Do you think that’d be okay with their parents back home?”

“I don’t know. We’re not in Texas—or Mississippi, Emily. I get watching over them, but you’re not their mom.”

“We agreed to try and teach the Earthers! You’re managing the melee classes.”

“Yeah. I am. I’m not telling them not to get tattoos.”

Now they were arguing, and Richard’s face showed he was not in the mood for it. He tried to walk off, limping, towards his rooms, and she followed.

“Just have a word with them—”

“I’m not talking to them about good old Christian values like Theodore. That’s stupid.”

Richard—

They’re not even Christian. Drop it, Emily.

“Beclaire’s a Satanist!”

“So maybe she’ll level up! Hayvon would love that!”

He snapped back at her, and she forgot he was Muslim sometimes. And that despite being from America—which not all the Earthers were—he was changing. She let her arm fall, and Richard stared at her.

“Tattoos are not a problem, Emily. Nor are letting the girls drink or have fun or do whatever they need to distract themselves. What’s wrong with the piercings? What’s wrong with—if there’s something wrong, it’s making friends with Rhir’s citizens. Making actual Friendship Bracelets. That’s how Hayvon is tying us to Rhir.”

Emily hid the bracelet she’d made with one of the court [Ladies] behind her back at his pointed look.

“You’ve been talking to Tom again, haven’t you?”

“He’s got a point. Emily, I don’t care about the tattoos. You can remove them, and some of the tattoos are magical. Beclaire can put a [Death Stare] tattoo right on her face for all I care. It’ll probably make Hayvon happy. I’ve got to clean up for dinner.”

He went for his door, and Emily called out after him.

“This isn’t over! Richard—Richard. Someone has to look out for our morals.”

He paused with one crack of the door open, looking exasperated and disbelieving.

“Morals? Here? You mean, ‘morale’, right?”

They stared at each other, and Emily took a deep breath.

“Richard—you have to talk to me. We’re a couple. I don’t want us to fight. Not now.”

He stood there for a long moment, looking her up and down. And it seemed so long since they had come here together—and so different. Now, the [Knight] of the Blighted Kingdom exhaled.

“I think we should break up. We barely do more than kiss and talk about problems.”

Richard? Wh—is this about last night? I’m not ready. You’re not. I said it’s something for marriage—”

The [Knight] gave her a long look. He stared past her, around the Blighted Kingdom, and exhaled.

“Yeah. Well—I’m feeling pretty old. Let’s see other people. Good night. I mean—see you at dinner.”

Then he shut the door in her face.

 

——

 

Princess Isodore heard that Hydromancer Emily was so distraught by her breakup with Richard that she would not be attending the night’s dinner.

Isodore was eighteen now, having celebrated her birthday as well this last year.

She felt…conflicted about Emily’s distress. She had some sympathy and she liked Emily, but as she now understood Earth—and Emily—it seemed a silly thing to grieve over.

You had to remember that Emily was 19 when she came to this world. 20 now that a year had passed. True, one of the observations the Earthers had made was that years were longer here—but Emily had been a girl as Earth reckoned things.

She would have gone through ‘college’ before actually gaining a job, a kind of extended apprenticeship in Isodore’s mind. Yet she had kept her group together, been an adult beyond her years, survived things that people twice her age would have broken against.

Yet she was young. Her relationship with Richard had been the kind of dalliance she was used to in this ‘high school’, both in intimacy and depth.

The Earthers then had, at best, the sort of ‘I might die tomorrow’ romance going on between them, if any. Sincere, yes! Heartfelt, one assumed.

It was just, in the time since, some of them had changed. Richard was no longer at that stage. He had moved past the bravado of young men into something else. When he approached someone to dance or talk, the impetus behind him was different.

‘I have seen death. I like you. Do you want to do something? What can you and I offer each other? What can it become?’

He looked forwards more, or perhaps doubted the present less. That was the attitude of [Soldiers] and Isodore—no wonder he didn’t care about the morality of the Earthers. No wonder he felt it was time to move on.

Isodore herself was more like that than the other Earthers. They thought of her as being around their age.

She felt older. She was meant to rule the Blighted Kingdom, but her mistakes could cost lives. So—that night—she went to see Nereshal before they dined.

“Nereshal. Have I made a grave error in mentioning…Arruif Yal? I thought it was just a reference in one of the royal books.”

He sat there, calmer, at his work station where he was mixing some concoction for her father. Another one of the many treatments to slow age or reverse it. Even for Nereshal—it took countless resources and all his power.

He was old, but he looked young. If you were further away, he might be in his mid-thirties, with his bright hair, his youthful countenance. Only when you drew closer did you see the wrinkles, half there, and the depth of age in his eyes and how he held himself.

As a [Chronomancer], Nereshal was also between his true age and youth mentally. He could, for instance, be youthful enough to converse with Isodore and those of her age—or take measured discourse with the oldest of the Blighted Kingdom’s folk at their pace.

Time mattered. Yet he was also Othius’ servant, and that knowledge was reflected across both their gazes as he exhaled.

“I feared you had—spoken that which you should not. Arruif Yal. Please, do not mention that to me in—such parlance again, Your Highness. By all means, inquire. I thought you had begun to speak something else.”

She hesitated.

“Is it—a secret? Should I not look into it at all?”

“Oh, no, no. It is—a regrettable incident for which we have blame. Remember that if you inquire. Anyone could tell you what was done. The truth behind that incident—you may well understand simply by listening. That truth you must keep secret above all else.”

That meant it was something that the Blighted Kingdom had done that history had written differently. Isodore swallowed—it was likely akin to what Hayvon sometimes did for this nation.

But why did Nereshal speak so lightly of it? Then again, he had mentioned horrors and necessary evils to her before with the same equanimity, teaching the young [Princess] of the weight of her father’s duties.

—Yet when she had first said that word to him, unguarded, she had seen true fear and nervousness in his eyes.

She let it drop. His gaze was begging her to. Nereshal bent over his work as ancient, powdered bone dust from millenia ago swirled around him. Isodore was hurt as she stopped by the door.

“Am I not ready for your truest confidence, Nereshal? Even at my age? Even as a [Princess]?”

The old [Chronomancer]’s gaze flicked up to her, and his eyes were pale blue, so faint they looked like clouds…until you saw time sliding through them, like grains of sand. His faint hair, tinged the deep blue of sapphires from tips to roots, rose in spikes slightly as his robes adorned with the sigils of time and power flashed.

 

——

 

Nereshal saw the [Princess] Isodore standing by his open doorway, looking hurt that he so blatantly kept something from her about Arruif Yal. Even if he had told her the first truth.

—He saw her weeping, calling out incoherently and half-shattered by the news. She got up and ran as he reached for her—-

The [Chronomancer] closed the other vision of time with a blink of his eyes. He nodded to the Isodore in the doorway.

“It is for the best, Your Highness. Believe me.”

He saw too much, sometimes. Too much of if and when. Perhaps that other way was better, but what he saw told him it would be better to err on the side of caution.

She nodded and left, and he exhaled. The bone dust shuddered and lost its power as he drained the time from it.

If only he had caught himself sooner—the [Clown] had seen his face as well as Isodore. But even he could not reverse time once it was upon him. Not yet.

Yet those words. If she had said the phrase in its entirety—she could have commanded him by words only Othius was supposed to know.

Foolish. They should have worked on a better password. Yet this one…

This one meant something. Perhaps Isodore would realize the truth in time. Nereshal bent over his work.

The second reason he had been so disturbed was because when Isodore said it, he’d felt time coalesce around him.

A kind of vortex. Nereshal lifted a hand and found it still shaking, despite the youth he poured into it that made him able to dance and run like a man of thirty. Unlike others—he did not get ‘déjà vu’. But sometimes he sensed moments through his class that had happened or would happen.

“Someday, someone will say those words to me.”

Who? Where? All he knew was the significance—and he felt that shudder upon his bones, as when Fetohep had called the advent of Seamwalkers.

As if someone trod upon his very grave. Nereshal felt as sick as Richard did after training with Coretine. He suppressed the urge to vomit—and had to lean over his workstation, shaking.

What had happened? Was it just The Dyed Lands? He hurried over to a map and scattered fragments of power through the air. They shifted—literal coalesced pieces of mana, which he burned through without pause. They evaporated, but he noted the lines of force, the way the wisps turned.

Where? Where…they were moving…southeast.

That was all he could sense as he produced a compass. Southeast. Nereshal traced the roughest lines across the map and decided it could not be Terandria.

Izril? Izril’s new lands?

“Where is fate taking me? And why?”

He didn’t know, only that it called to him. Something far deeper and greater than his ability to see what might happen if he chose another path. A crossroads, perhaps.

A great divide in time itself. Nereshal shuddered—and then he clutched at his arms until they stopped shaking.

By the sin of…

If those words were said, he feared it. He feared it from Othius, from himself—but even his King would not invoke Arruif Yal that way. Only Nereshal ever taught himself that phrase, decided to remember it forever as the ultimate safeguard, the ultimate password. So if he heard it—

What would it mean?

 

——

 

The [Chronomancer] was late to the night’s banquet. Princess Isodore dined with Lord Hayvon, who seemed to be insistent on remedying the [Princess]’ apparent disdain for him.

Lord Hayvon had an eye for the Earthers, though, or rather, his magical view of them. Obviously, they could not be showcased to the diplomats and even regular Rhirian citizens.

This was not Wistram. They were far more discreet, and so he just observed via a pocket-orb the goings-on. What he saw satisfied himself.

What he saw was Loreto approaching the [Soldiers] in training, the rather attractive members of Rhir’s staff, and even a few citizens of Rhir and attempting to charm them. Well—charm as that young man understood it.

His befuddlement seemed to know no end as he was given an endless cold shoulder, colder than the icy glaciers of Cenidau. By contrast, other Earthers got a far warmer response.

It was not meant to be subtle. Nor did Hayvon particularly care about this young man—save that he was a good, and apparently noisome, example. Loreto stared at the crowd fawning over…Hayvon consulted his notes.

Hapi. Thus, he was practically carried off by a small crowd, and the young Loreto was left fuming.

Examples. Young men were easier for Hayvon to understand. He left the women and—people he didn’t understand—in the care of the Blighted Kingdom’s other experts. Quiteil was good with almost everyone in his particular way, in that sense.

Hayvon could take the simplest steel and make it into Mithril. Simple incentives, straightforward rewards. Leave the delicate touch for those who needed more consideration.

“Lord Hayvon, are you quite done snooping on the Earthers?”

Princess Isodore disapproved. She sat there as Hayvon guiltily turned off the orb.

“Your Highness, I have made error after error. But I assure you, I am always working in the Blighted Kingdom’s best interests. Why, just after we talked—no. I should apologize first. I am always Rhir’s servant.”

He meant it, too. If he quibbled with Tom or did things of his own initiative—it was simply that he thought the [Clown] had no allegiance to Rhir, and some deeds were better done quietly.

Isodore eyed him and relented after a second.

“You may be forgiven, Hayvon, if you explain to me—oh. Arruif Yal. I came across the name earlier.”

Hayvon’s fork hesitated towards his mouth. So that was what Nereshal had been bothered by? He was well aware of the public moment, so he smiled as he responded.

“A terrible incident. I believe it was the impetus for the last great war against the Demons, nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, when the Deaths of the Demon King were slain—or so we hoped.”

His lips twisted, still remembering the Death of Magic’s return. Isodore blinked.

“It was? I know my history—the Archmage of Death and Archmage of Golems themselves fought on Rhir.”

“Ye-es. According to the dramatized retelling of Archmage Eldavin.”

Whomever he really was. Hayvon did not like that Archmage, but he tapped his fingers together.

“Regardless of the true nature of the war, which your father would know of more than I—Arruif Yal was a kind of rallying cry at the time. It was a Terandrian half-Elf village, I believe.”

“What…happened to it?”

He shrugged.

“The Death of Magic. They had—apparently—found a Demon soldier who washed up upon Terandria’s shores. Incredibly, the Demon had survived the sea and predators to end up there. Near-death, I imagine, but they nursed it back to health and claimed the Demon was friendly. In vain, the Blighted Kingdom warned them of the folly of saving a Demon’s life—but Arruif Yal refused to listen. They were suborned by the Demon’s words and began taking its side.”

“Until…”

Isodore murmured quietly. A bit too forwards, but Hayvon didn’t think anyone was listening in.

“The Death of Magic wiped out their village. To the last half-Elven child. She reclaimed her Demon—and Terandria and the world’s outrage led to war. It is well Nereshal remembered it. Such actions make it clear the Deaths are not…benevolent and truly serve only the Demons’ pitiless war.”

“Yes. The Deaths.”

The [Princess]’ face was pale. Hayvon went on, ticking off points on his fingers that the Gorgon diplomat down the table might hear.

“Of late, I am reminded that the Death of Chains is not simply some…enemy of Roshal. After all, we have seen how her war against Roshal has taken many lives. A Lizardfolk village—correct me if I am wrong, but Haxpesprings? It was destroyed by her.”

The Gorgon’s head rose. He hissed loudly.

“Yes. For the crime of harboring Roshal’s own. Just harboring as guests! That Djinni fell upon them and left only a few survivors. I have heard tales of the Death of Wings’ mad strikes upon Izril and Terandria too.”

“No nation can then say they have not suffered the Demon King’s Deaths. Two are awake—let the last lie silent if she is not dead.”

Hayvon provoked a toast, standing, and the distraction let everyone focus on him—not Isodore’s waxy smile. And still—Hayvon wondered why Nereshal had apparently taken that word so seriously.

Was there more to it? He decided not to inquire—for a good while. Some things did not matter. The Blighted Kingdom…he looked around and saw a giggling [Clown] with his Gloomless Troupe. Hayvon’s lips twisted.

They had enough Earthers already. That one caused too much trouble. If the phrase Arruif Yal was enough to have swayed Nereshal’s vote, all the better. Better a Loreto by the hundred than a single Tom.

 

——

 

“You know they’re going to remember Arruif Yal. If you even breathe it, Nereshal will kill you dead.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Richard broke up with Emily. Think he’s going to fall in love with some Rhir girl? Or will our jaded [Knight] be found with a dead body in bed?”

“Richard’s not like that. Shut up.”

How would you know? You’re crazy.

His spoon was laughing at him. Tom resisted the urge to stab it into his eye. That was just what the laughing Tom in the spoon wanted, and he couldn’t get his way. Sometimes he said prescient things, like the Fool.

His people were giggling around him, and Tom nearly bent the silver spoon to end the conversation before the figure whispered to him.

“You know…you’re never going to find answers here. In the Demons’ lands, maybe. Or elsewhere. But not here. What was up with the Seamwalkers? Erin Solstice. The Singer of Terandria. Canada-man himself. Joseph Soccer Player. You’re going to find them, but the Blighted Kingdom knows they’re there too.”

“Then I guess—we race. Richard and all of us are on the same page. We’re heading to the New Lands of Izril.”

That was the plan. That was Hayvon’s plan, of course. It was almost intelligent.

If you couldn’t train the Earthers up on Demons, why not a better conflict? Like, say, exploring new lands? Tons of monsters.

“It’s stupid.”

The Tom in the silver spoon folded his arms. Or was he Thomas? He looked like the Thomas of old, not in bright clothes, fatter—happier. And mad. He paced around, then appeared on a fork instead. Tom picked it up as a [Jester] licked his ear on a dare.

He stabbed her, and the uproar drew the attention of the rest of the banquet hall. Tom ignored that as Fork-Tom spoke.

“It’s stupid because they know you’re wild. See? You can’t go around stabbing people. So why let us go? Let Richard? The Blighted Kingdom is not stupid.”

“What are you saying?”

The other Tom shrugged.

“I’m just saying—watch out. You think you’re clever?”

“Not really.”

Good. You’re stupid compared to Othius. Even Thorne is stupid. You can’t out-snake these snakes. You’re not more cunning than even Hayvon, and there are a hundred of him here. Quiteil and Hayvon and Nereshal—

“What’s your point? I’m trying to eat.”

Tom dug the fork into a pie, and the other Tom laughed at him.

“You have to be better than they are. But all you can do is be crazier. So dive deep. Deeper! Stop being the [Hero]. Pull out your eye and let’s get to the real—”

The [Clown] grabbed his other hand as it jerked for his face. He wrestled with it as his troupe laughed—but some didn’t laugh. Some wept, with face paint or with tears.

Some were beginning to understand the terribly sad truth behind the laughter. Rhir’s citizens took to the clown’s madness well.

Tom felt a piercing pain in one eye—but staggered back as he yanked his hand away. He blinked—and his eye wept tears—but he could see.

“Not this time.”

He heard laughter in his head—but it was compounded this time by the laughter in the room. The Blighted King himself was applauding.

“A performance to entertain the Burnished Court. Sir Tom, our thanks. We have an announcement, honored guests.”

Tom turned, and the Blighted King stared at him. Tom had the urge to throw a pie, even if it meant he’d be shot—but he felt himself slowly sit down.

Damn Skills. The [Clown] fought the presence pressing him into his seat as the Blighted King rose.

The Blighted Kingdom prepares to send its own ships to Izril! We shall join with the others seeking new lands—but not as aggressors. Our kingdom has been friend to all, and ever shall be. We do not meddle in the wars of our allies, no matter who they are.”

Gasps came from those who hadn’t heard—Tom snorted. As if the Blighted Kingdom hadn’t sent two waves of ships out already.

The Earthers would love this, though. Richard was dining with Queen Abdominals herself, and Coretine smiled like the edge of an executioner’s axe as Richard glanced up. Yet…Tom’s skin was prickling.

Because Othius never made big errors. He had addressed Tom—and that crazy bastard in the spoon knew things, sometimes faster than anyone else. The Blighted King nodded down the seats.

“In this hour, we shall send young and old to the new lands.”

Earthers and Rhirian citizens, to level. The Blighted King laid out the plan, briefly, but then coughed. A stage-cough where he nodded and Lord Hayvon stood. He bowed as the Blighted King spoke.

“Yet we are reminded by no less than Lord Hayvon himself, and our own daughters, that the Blighted Kingdom is oft-seen as impartial to the point of contempt. That we are poor allies to our friends abroad.”

Princess Isodore and Princess Erille looked up, surprised. And Tom’s neck tingled as Othius smiled. At Hayvon. At Nereshal, who had appeared to watch. And at his daughters.

Wait for it. Wait for it—Tom could almost see his other self dancing in the Blighted King’s eyes. Richard wanted to meet Erin or anyone else. They had talked about what would happen if they just left. Just…left.

But even Richard respected the Blighted Kingdom. Even Emily was brainwashed. Only Tom, Tom the mad [Clown], was really insane enough to take a stand.

To listen to a [Fool]’s last words. He knew too much. He was friends with Isodore and Erille. So did it really surprise him when the Blighted King smiled? Smiled with bright teeth, as if he was not filled with rot to the core?

“Therefore—we have elected to take on a cause as noble as any can be found. Sir Tom. You and your Gloomless Troupe have found little to laugh about under threat of the Death of Magic.

It was hard to fight someone who hovered a hundred miles up and threw down Crelers for fun. She had turned the 5th Wall into a dangerous battlefield—but one that wasn’t prone to letting anyone level but her side. Tom waited, his skin crawling. The Blighted King even bowed his head to him.

“Then—we shall send you, Sir Tom, our great champion of laughter and blades, and the forces of Rhir to a suitable place for your great talents. As we embark to the new lands of Izril—the Gloomless Troupe and Rhir’s forces go to aid our cousins in Baleros! To stem the Dyed Lands—a pact between continents!”

The Dyed Lands? Tom heard applause from the Balerosians and the Burnished Court first. He saw Isodore look horrified and begin speaking to Lord Hayvon—but Tom threw back his head and began laughing.

So that was it? He laughed in the Blighted King’s face. And he saw Nereshal watching him out of the corner of his eye.

So that was the trick. Richard looked at Tom, and the [Clown] laughed harder. Level or die. His insane counterpart was giving him the thumbs-up from his water glass.

Baleros, huh? He wondered if it were just him or anyone else that was inconvenient—or needed to level. His troupe was celebrating and dancing. But the [Clown] laughed until he wept.

At least he was leaving Rhir. Toss him straight into the Dyed Lands! He would live. He had to live. And the Blighted Kingdom had made one mistake. If Tom made it out of wherever they sent him, whatever tricks he played—

Well, the Earthers had no recourse but the Blighted Kingdom. But Baleros, he’d heard, had Great Companies.

It had—

Titans.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

It’s a shorter chapter and a big week. If you didn’t see it—Gravesong is finally out on Yonder! This is the first publishing group of any kind that’s worked with me, and they have published the first part of the book—and the entire thing will be available on their app.

I’ll post something on Reddit too, discussing the story, but I actually have a request here. In short—we will also have an audiobook coming out via Podium, with Gravesong being voiced by the incredible Andrea Parsneau again, and even with the songs being sung by Cara!

They are not in this version on Yonder because it turns out one year is still a short time to get copyright from the song-holders. But it’s actually in discussion, except for one crucial song.

I would like to use Everything’s Alright by Laura Shigihara, the amazingly talented game developer and composer. However, it’s been hard for the legal team to get ahold of her. I’m posting this publicly not in the hopes people annoy her or spam her, because that’ll annoy her, but just because I’d really love to use the song in Gravesong.

And yes, of course she’d be compensated for it. It’s just that I’m not certain she or her lawyers are aware we’re reaching out. So if anyone knows how to get in touch, please drop her the gentlest of feather-notes. Annoying or brigading her is the last thing I want to do, but that song is amazing, and I’d love for Cara to sing it.

Besides that? This was one of my most skillfully short-yet-compact chapters. I’m not sure if it’s the favorite one I’ve written—Fetohep, Silver Swords, and a lot of chapters are more fun. But this is what a novel tends to do—get to the point. I hope you enjoy and understand the last few chapters have been long. This was good to relax a bit on. Hope you enjoy and remember—Gravesong is out! Now where’s my movie deal?

 

 

The artwork for Gravesong is done by Stephen Sitton, an amazing artist who has a Twitch channel!

Twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/stumpyfongo

ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/stumpyfongo

Twitter: https://twitter.com/stumpyfongo

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

9.26 F

(Gravesong is out now on Yonder! Read the first part of the book here!)

 

 

The names of the dead began to ring across Izril. Such old names, they provoked echoes. In the new colony of the half-Elves, Zedalien, formerly in service to Maviola El, raised his head. The white-haired half-Elf was watching the first great tree being sown into the ground.

Well…‘sown’ implied saplings. Not a giant tree that had been literally carried in one of the colony ships. Half-Elves were clustering around it, doing everything from moisturizing the roots, making sure the soil roughly matched the new home for the tree, to even patting the tree to make sure it didn’t die of stress and the trauma of relocation.

From these first trees…the half-Elf sighed as he saw his people focus more upon the tree than, say, a port. Or houses.

The temporary magical and Skill-based housing was dueling with the berthed ships out at sea for living space. They could have been building more—although the majority of the wood they had was actually the trees they were importing—out of stone, for instance, or the odd local fauna.

But half-Elves had to have trees and a forest. He feared for the success of this colony—if only because the traditionalists and more forward-thinking half-Elf groups were already clashing about purpose.

Yet that name.

“Sprigaena.”

He said it and felt a chill running down his arms as he carried a load of stones over to begin the foundation work. Half-Elves were making a sturdy cement mixture, but a number of the older ones had abandoned their jobs. Not, this time, to protest someone cutting down a tree or harvesting the wild ocean pigs, but to speak.

“Who is Sprigaena? How does a Human claim…”

“Skystrall. Falene Skystrall made the inquiry, and she is of sound character. Who…I feel as though I know the name. I almost certainly do. But if it is who I think it is—nothing else makes sense. A ‘traitor’? Ridiculous. Queen Sprithae ruled across Terandria, the last Elf—we have that on the records. She wed one of the Humans—the Kingdom of Myth, Erribathe, claims to be a direct descendant from her, but we know that is almost certainly a lie…”

A number of the Treespeakers and their associates were in communication with home, no doubt wishing they had their private records and libraries to search through. Half-Elves were doubtless scrubbing through their records at home.

Zedalien cleared his throat to remind them to get back to work, and the half-Elves reluctantly broke up, but he heard that name again and again. Murmured, as if trying to remember…

Something.

Was it a distraction? Was this a pointless waste of time when the new lands awaited? Zedalien wavered between thoughts. After all…Maviola El’s name could be called mere history. The past influenced the present.

The ghosts of great Gnolls had raised these new lands. So—once again—the oldest names began to echo. The dead’s legacy gained weight and a presence in the world.

This was right and proper. For, as one nation knew above all others—the dead mattered. And that nation now occupied Zedalien’s thoughts. It preyed on the minds of rulers far and wide when they considered great powers and names to note. Tread careful, for this was no sleeping Giant, and they were old and knew more names of the deceased than most. What might they do? That kingdom of death and—

Well, it had been one of ghosts.

Now it stood lonely, but it grew in the thoughts of all others with every passing day.

Khelt. Glorious Khelt, Eternal Khelt. Its ruler, Fetohep, heard the name of the last Elf coming from the inn at the end of another long day.

 

——

 

Predictably, the sun set faster upon the eve of winter. It dipped below the horizon not long after most had dined, and in this city, the open shutters let the scents of the day’s fancy waft upon the breeze.

It smelled, then, of dates, sweet and newly-dried, mixed in with a bounty of white rice, changed in color by the host of spices mixed into them. That was the food of the city—there were ten thousand [Chefs] and [Cooks], or those with the passion, if not the class, but any so desiring could approach the great kitchens and receive this dish in plates and bowls without limit.

The portions would be carelessly piled over the worked gold, or bowls sometimes lined with jade or other semi-precious stones, and silverware or hand-carved objects of beautiful soft pewter or hardwoods—some actual ironwood from eras long past—were handed over.

Most so hungry ate without noticing the decor, for it was part and parcel to everything they saw, and only new visitors or immigrants to this land paused and handled the cutlery with the reverence they might accord it in another nation. But—then—if they stopped at the very dishes they ate upon, they would never stop staring.

For this was Khelt, and riches never ended. Food for any visitor was provided such that no one would die of hunger or thirst. Their cities had no true crime—any petty thefts or misdemeanors were dealt with. Murders, mugging, assault of any kind nearly unheard of over the course of decades. One had to but simply raise their voice and call out, and be safe from harm no matter where they were. This was paradise, and the capital city was a representation of that idea.

For instance, each street that led to Khelt’s palace was safe to walk but one. The great main walk of which a hundred thousand citizens might pass every single day stretched out without compromise, an arrow within the capital of Koirezune, creeping up to the two thousand stairs upon the palace’s front.

Each step glowed to eyes of magic with a warning etched tiny upon black marble, death and magic contained in miniature and linked, like an ever-expanding [Fisher]’s net in a sea  black as obsidian, the dark marble quarried from Chandrar’s lightless ore-mines of Zethe. The mines had long-since closed now, buried for fifteen hundred years, deep, with Orebu-Beetles nesting by the thousands in the forsaken tunnels.

The beetles were midnight-hewn and huge enough to drag horses to their graves, and countless [Miners] had died to quarry the stones that had once adorned every monarch’s palaces. The precious marble looked like nothing but waves of midnight, even under the sun, until the magic flared—and the spells of protection and wrath glittered like the watchful eyes of the palace upon the city below, one facade among a hundred that the palace presented to the city and its world.

Past those stairs of Chameth marble lay a jade arch worked into the hallway. No pest nor animal nor even cat dared enter lightly despite the open visage, inviting all to seemingly stroll in. Each part of the carved jade and stone bore a different language of magic, written by Drath’s great [Mages] and shipped twice across a sea filled with storms during the age of Serept.

The first of the jade archways had fallen to storms and been lost to the deeps, then recovered and placed in Nombernaught, crusted still with barnacles and coral. The second now sat here.

Through this most-used corridor lay the palace of Khelt, and this was the walk which had seen [Kings], adventurers, and commonfolk of Khelt, children tripping inwards and monarchs treading lightly surrounded by bodyguards, gazing upwards with their mortal attempts at pride.

The least-used walk twined humbly around the palace’s side-entrances, marked with redwood soaked as if wet, gleaming upwards until wavy ivy overtook floor, always twisting up over walls until they met and descended the tunnel. The vines grew constantly and—if forgotten—they covered the tunnel until they were cleared by enchanted blades.

Even then, they were beautiful acts of nature. Walls of ivy precious enough to gift or sell to those who desired the thickened fiber, sometimes pearlescent, sometimes mottled and studded with dots of color like yellow plague upon green.

The vines were never sick, the walkway out of this entrance blooming in spring and hanging regal in winter like a cloak of nature. From this tunnel, you could walk out the palace and onto the street least-used.

The garden itself was placed along the street, a stone plain upon which strange sculptures dotted the landscape. A misshapen Garuda’s beak hung, ill-shaped compared to another statue, the bird woman upon one of Khelt’s larger parks, a Named-rank Hero, Voielth Hoeneifeathers. His red-gold plumage fogged with umber brown still gleamed eight thousand years later like the feathers might blow at any second in the passing breeze. He carried the stavesword with which he had cut down the last Golem-Dragon in the age of His-Xe.

This Garuda was made of commoner granite and lesser skill, and joined nigh a hundred sculptures placed with the meanest skill. The artwork here had been made with sometimes gifted grace but never surpassing, never exceeding the meanest work elsewhere upon the city. The masterpieces littering the walks and placed at every angle without end were all superior to the pieces here. This street’s paving stones were likewise the worst in the city by far, though swept nightly by undead servants, seldom trod by the living.

Sun-worn bricks, mud-made and each hewn by fingers as tiny as the meekest dirt worms, unskilledly made against inquisitorial sun and burning air, sometimes laced with actual flame. Each brick in its form, shaped by generations of children’s hands, was never meant for actual feet to cross.

Little tyrants had molded that clay with no care to foot nor accessibility nor even basic geometry, the constraints of reality and their strainings at images only seen within their minds. They sat, half-formed and half-thought, joined as best as could be by mortar which sometimes filled the gaps like eddies of concrete in a sea of childish dreams, the creators of which are long dead and whose bones lie buried, aged, beneath this land.

Few walk here. More twisted ankles and broken legs have come from this street than any other. It is not beautiful compared to any other street, even the ones that neighbor it. Those have been made both for beauty’s sake, by masters, and to be lived in. The childish brickwork ends abruptly, and true craft begins, as if setting an example, here. The first feet past this treacherous street glow with glass and the magic of Thurthdei’s Street.

Blown glass placed over burnished coals that burn with subdued impotent heat against the night’s chill. The captive embers stared up from beetle shells of glass—paving stones rounded and joined together to form a comfortable, even surface such that one need not watch how they walked.

Aglow, the street warms the walls of Thurthdei’s Street, the homes of which rise in mimicry of the street—frosted glass it seems, each one painted in such gaudy and vivid dyes that they form walls of soft color. Newcomers often stare upon their first visit for hours on end, mesmerized like the moths and other lesser insects drawn into the hanging light-traps, and the rats and larger pests into similar humane cages which are emptied each morning into the desert.

Yet the houses are not glass like the street below but frosted ice, each one painted and held solid by magic written across the layers of walls, each one placed inwards such that two walls formed a whole that revealed not the inner lining. The words still scribbled themselves across the houses’ walls, a layer of enchantments, magical writing keeping ice from melting and the houses contained, words filling the houses unseen even if the owners themselves never read a word nor kept a single page within.

These words often affected the minds of those within so they dreamed of stories, and a hundred [Writers] had been born here, their stories sometimes written as if to drown out the words filling the houses. Thus—this street was often uncrowded and the houses lay abandoned for decades despite their proximity to the city’s center. Credit was awarded by the local magistrates for occupancy, and each week, the denizens would be checked upon and resettled if needed.

The proximity to the inner city and the street of children’s bricks was another hindrance to health and feet, and the street of ill-made bricks stretched out, a kind of treacherous garden where only a single path of sanely-made stones led a traveller through that garden of statues and a million child’s creations bearing their names.

Each one enchanted. Each one surviving time despite their owner’s best attempts to affront nature and the integrity of the fired bricks. Khelt’s children of the first ten generations under Khelta had made each clay brick.

She and her [Mages] had enchanted each one such that this street would never be torn up and the art remade, never be removed and the houses made by great [Elementalists], and the streets adjacent would be destroyed and the resources reused before the first mud-brick ever torn.

The children had made the street. The hands of Khelt’s rulers the statues. King Dolenm’s rougher hand had created the Garuda hidden away like a shame until his successors uncovered and displayed it with a pride never exhibited by the rulers—like every single creation here placed in pride in the most uncomfortable street to tread.

All of this was perfect. Perfect—and perfectly ignored by Khelt’s populace. Only occasionally would you get a [Poet] or the most bored citizen idly peering down at the stones or admiring the statues. There wasn’t much inspiration to be had here either, in truth. Not compared to the looming Jaw of Zeikhal standing watch at the borders of Khelt, for instance, or one of Khelt’s many oases in the desert, from which gleaming stones bled drops of water, life out of sandy oblivion.

Yet there was something to see here. And that something was the oddest thing yet, especially in Khelt. It was…

Bugs. Bugs and an interloper to this safe city.

A trail of beetle’s wings led a little sand-rat from outside the walls to nests of the insects placed in alcoves of buildings, lees of gutters and out across the city until they stopped upon the bronzed sands which led across Khelt. Dry and waterless until they reached a lake ever-filled from aquifers that drained water into dusty air without end.

They were notable in the city because their existence was not tolerated. Elsewhere in Khelt, the local fauna had some leeway. Even bugs.

Around the lake, for instance, flowering bushes and plants attracted all kinds of wildlife. They had been planted from seeds seven continents called native, feeding local animals, pests, and insects who flocked and fought for the bounties, unless citizens came, wherein they fled or begged for scraps depending upon their loveliness.

Beetles were not beloved now as they had been during Queen Emrist’s age, where swarms of hives—not bees—were kept. Far less lovely creatures like centipede swarms, or beetles and their ilk, had grown up around the city. Their buzzing—reportedly—filled night and dawn with a thrum that got into the head and soul more than the words of the ice-houses.

That was another ruler. And while she might have tolerated these beetles, they were an aberration to the heart of Khelt, one that would have actually attracted a crowd of fascinated citizens just to point out the oddity. Beetles, pests? How delightfully strange!

These small beetles with their sand-beige shells and orange underbellies fed upon scraps of food carelessly left-out by citizens. The beetles had no competition. The city was scoured of even flies by the enchantments. But these beetles cared neither for light nor the particular magical allure and had grown until the rat had tracked them down and devoured them without end.

Imagine it. This burgeoning swarm of the little beetles bested by a predator a hundred times their size. Casually chewing them down, helplessly, nest upon nest. The rat had gorged upon this bounty, leading it to its final place upon this ill-used street where it lay bloated and so corpulent it could not move to flee.

This rat was no pet with intelligence or foresight. It hadn’t understood how dangerous this city was for its kind. Nor did it understand how rare a sight it was that a rat not made a pet should be here in this city so incautious to pests. The sand-rat did not see what had trained generations of its predecessors away—bone-hands and nets and fists, which would hunt the streets and stamp each pest out, from the meanest beetle and numerous rat-swarms, until even mites were hunted down by glowing-eyed corpses worn to only sand-bleached bone without time or rest.

Ten thousand skeletons swept these streets each night from dusk till dawn. Yet somehow, incredibly, they had missed both beetles and this rat.

The humble sand-rat lay there, burping out beetle-viscera onto the children’s bricks. It truly was a fool of fools, an insult even to the rodential kind from which it had been spawned and meaner still in nature and majesty. Even the most pathetic vermin clinging to the sides of ships had more wherewithal and dignity than this craven rodent.

As proof—the sand-rat was oblivious to the true danger of this street. Occasionally, it would look around as one of the citizens of Khelt moved in the distance and peek its head up warily. It feared the living and not the dead.

In Khelt, that was the most idiotic of perspectives to have. The rat eyed the breathing people and never noticed the sandals, which held mummified feet that still flexed and moved.

Then again—[Assassins] had often missed the figure who paused to observe the rat outside of the palace. Even when the feet moved—the body was silent, and the whispering wind was far louder.

Each footstep was traced with purpose honed on a battlefield such that a blow from falling blade might fall next without hesitation or remorse—but the silence thereof was also born of cloth of birchsand color racing like the sandstorms banned from Khelt’s borders.

Each line of the long-sleeved tunic and pants was never-stitched, but the entire piece woven of Kolsand cloth tailored to the form who bore them, such that neither foot nor action would produce any sound louder than that of the natural world unless the bearer so intended.

A gift from the Shield Kingdom of Qualvekkaras. Expensive beyond belief in this modern age when it had been made, six hundred years ago. Yet the rulers of the Kingdom of Winds had considered it worth the expense that had taken ten decades of preparation to harvest enough Kolsand.

It had been, of course, repaid over a dozen times in Khelt’s own generosity, proving the foresight of that particular ruler.

Nor did the figure who wore this cloth gifted to him wear blade or badge of office, not in his city. His eyes were proof enough.

Two flames like the spark of an army’s torches in a midnight cavern, like defiance glowing upon a golden Dragon’s scales, burned amongst withered flesh. In eye-sockets hollowed by time. Water and wear had devoured almost every feature of the man who had been.

Nevertheless—he was Fetohep of Khelt, and he stared upon the sand-rat lying in this street as evening fell over his city, in Khelt, the great paradise of Chandrar. Fetohep, nineteenth ruler of Khelt, gazed upon the trail of beetle wings and a single survivor of the rat’s purge of the streets.

“A rat.”

That was the first thing he said after about thirty-three minutes of standing there in silence. Yes, so silently had he been standing there that the rat had never noticed him.

Nor did he employ the high-language, often florid words of his station. He could, of course, use the royal ‘we’ and speak in gracious refrain with any ruler in the world.

Even in Drathian, he had once been given a standing ovation by the Emperor of Drath’s court for a nine-minute speech welcoming them to his kingdom. But you must remember—this was Fetohep of Khelt.

Not…Fetohep the man. Death had changed Fetohep, and still, he quite remembered that, as a man, he had been less—eloquent. The heat of battle had often led him to a rougher sort of diction, and his manners now were learned, practiced, refined because of necessity.

Like all the rulers of Khelt, he had time to practice. Six hundred years made a fine speaker out of even the meanest discourse. So, his casual tone and language were meant just for him.

And the rat. Fetohep saw its head whirl around and two beady eyes bulge as they saw an undead monster staring him down with burning eyes of gold.

He watched the rat soil itself then try to drag its corpulent belly across the street laid by the founders of Khelt. Khelta herself might have enchanted those bricks.

Fetohep took appropriate action. He strode forwards without bothering to twist a ring on his fingers. He could have called for a scroll from his armory or his guards or retrieved Razzimir’s Arrows and blasted a hole through a thousand rats. He could have called the Jaw of Zeikhal to lay waste to the warren of rat-kind in unceasing war.

Fetohep bent down, scooped the rat up, and held it as it continued to excrete and squeak. He held it—then turned.

He stood in the center of his city. Khelt’s capital of Koirezune was not the most sprawling of cities, but he was probably several miles inside the city’s heart.

So Fetohep aimed up, then threw the rat. It went screaming through the air, a comet, and Fetohep wondered if it would survive.

Small creatures often did. He had once seen a Fraerling attack his company by anchoring himself to an arrow a [Bowman] shot across the battlefield. It had nearly killed the Fraerling from the sheer velocity—but the Fraerling had then wiped out an entire archery battalion before vanishing.

The life of the rat did not trouble Fetohep unduly. He was more outraged about the detritus on the street. In fact, Fetohep’s next action was to bend over and, with his fingers, remove the wings and excrement as best he could. It was mostly dry, and he carried it away.

“Rats. And beetles. Servant.

Fetohep’s eyes glowed as he entered his palace. His voice rose, and one of Khelt’s daily servants, citizens honored to be chosen for a day of work, appeared.

“Your Majesty?”

“There is detritus on the Street of Foundation. Clean it. Summon an expert in pest management. [Mage] or other class. Have them eliminate any rats or beetles. There is a…pest issue.”

The man instantly bowed. He practically sprang away with delight, Fetohep thought, at being able to do something so useful. Fetohep tossed the waste he had picked up onto the floor as he strode into his place.

Not maliciously; the other servants barely glanced at it as they shadowed their ruler. Fetohep knew every part of his palace, and the jade walks that encompassed most of the entrances to the palace…

The beetle wings and rat crap slowly began to vaporize in the bright, bright room that let the purifying magic cleanse it of toxins, dirt, and even disease. Not actual infection, but Fetohep had actually used these rooms to help contain the Yellow Rivers disease when it appeared on his borders. The family he had admitted in had been forced to camp in the hallway, and no more infections had spread.

At any point, a reasonable observer of Fetohep might well have concluded that the King of Khelt was a stickler for minor details. That he was no stranger to getting his hands dirty—and valued the legacy of his kingdom. Also, that he did not have much empathy for rodents.

All this was true. If anything—this was an understatement.

Consider Fetohep of Khelt as the rest of the world knew him. There were two faces. The first was the Fetohep that had been known—to mostly Chandrarian kingdoms and places that were just aware of the rest of the world.

He had been Fetohep, the ruler of isolationist Khelt, a rich paradise that suffered neither war nor much in the way of contact with anyone else. Rich, powerful, haughty—and completely content to let the world pass by.

Not a threat, in short, unless you were to attack him, whereupon so many undead would rise that even the King of Destruction had never gone to war with Khelt. Leave him alone and all would be well. You could sell water or goods to Khelt at great profits and…that was about it.

Fetohep of that time period—around six hundred years—had been a known quantity. Not a good one, either. He was fiercely protective of his people, and it meant he put them over others. Refugees seeking Khelt’s borders were not allowed in on pain of death. Trade was limited. Travel was forbidden to all but trusted [Merchants], and to leave Khelt was to be excommunicated forever.

Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Fetohep cared for his people, so, for instance, when the Yellow Rivers plague had swept across many cities, one family had begged to be returned to Khelt. He had allowed it and even bought a cure for them at great cost, because Khelt’s children were to be praised and cared for, even the ones who made mistakes and strayed from home.

Now, the less-happy part of that tale was that in order to gain the rare and vital cure…Fetohep had paid [Pirates] to raid ships sending the cure out. He had effectively stolen enough medication for tens of thousands to cure one family and held the rest in his vaults in case the disease spread.

He had done this without hesitation, because he was King of Khelt and Khelt must endure. That was how he had operated, and he had been a known quantity, if rarely talked about.

Now—consider the Fetohep that the rest of the world now knew. And the world did know his name. He was arguably one of the most famous monarchs to exist—perhaps more than even the Blighted King or many rulers of Terandria, Fetohep’s visage and deeds had been made known to the world in no uncertain terms.

The Fetohep of the modern day was no isolationist snob. He had marched upon Medain with an army so vast it had set the nations of Chandrar trembling. He had mocked Terandria’s [Knights], Medain’s ruler, and the power of the Claiven Earth, all great powers, and demonstrated Khelt’s war weapons and powers of old.

He had unleashed the Revenants of Khelt, all of them, and the Vizir Hecrelunn, the Half-Giants of Serept, and his will had humbled his foes.

Then he had threatened the Walled Cities of Izril as they advanced upon the Gnolls with fury and the wrath of Khelt if they did not relent. When they, predictably, ignored him, he had marched on Medain, seized a navy, and sailed upon Zeres.

After leaving a gigantic halberd made of gems embedded in their walls, Fetohep had made landfall with the King of Destruction, the King and Queen of Jecrass, the Hero of Zethe, and other famous individuals and attacked every army in sight. He had ported thousands of undead across the sea and then, only after attacking the Walled Cities’ forces, declared victory and a return home.

Oh, and he’d warned the world of a Seamwalker invasion, insulted Wistram in no uncertain terms, and rung the Dragonward bells. And annexed a third of Jecrass.

It was safe to say that Fetohep had demonstrated that Khelt was no nation of sanctimonious utopia-dwellers, and that he was an undead monarch with wisdom, strategic acumen, and enough firepower to drown half the nations around him in slag and ash—if he wanted to. And he was now active, and so it behooved anyone to walk wide of him.

Even the Walled Cities. In fact, of the accomplishments Fetohep had achieved while making war on the Walled Cities, he had actually obtained two vassal nations. The Claiven Earth and Medain had surrendered—unconditionally—and several cities had declared loyalty to Khelt.

Right now it was safe to say that, if he wanted to, Fetohep could have started an empire of his own; he practically owned the north of this region of Chandrar. Jecrass was in his debt, he owned a third of it, and two nations were so badly beaten in war they had pledged their surrender. He was a popular icon as well for being on the right side of a number of issues, at least as most of the world saw it.

Thus.

Fetohep of Khelt.

 

——

 

It turned out that undead could get headaches. It wasn’t quite the same—there were no pain receptors for Fetohep. Only magic could really harm an undead in that way.

The headache was more like a pressing annoyance, and because he wasn’t actually physically processing emotions in a chemical sense, it could build without limit. Mortals tended to have a kind of threshold for this kind of thing. At some point, their noses would bleed, they’d faint, or have a heart-attack.

He did not. Nor was he that weak. Yet, Fetohep had once been tortured by enemy soldiers after being captured in battle. He considered that agony somewhat equivalent to reading a letter from King Perric of Medain.

 

To His Exalted Majesty of Khelt,

Protector of Jecrass,

Conqueror of Medain and the Claiven Earth,

Heir to the Dragonward Bells,

Nemesis of the Walled Cities,

Savior of the Gnollish Tribes,

Esteemed Friend,

Sovereign of the Will of Khelta and Great Ruler of the Nations of Chandrar,

Horselord of the Windswept Lands…

 

There was such a thing as too many titles. Some of them were made up—some were actually able to be reasonably accorded to Fetohep. For instance, ‘Nemesis of the Walled Cities’ was pure fluff. But Perric was being interestingly cunning…or at least something like it with the last one.

‘Horselord’ was a Centaur-themed title. The Windswept Lands was how you’d refer to Chandrar. So Perric was implying that because the Nomads of Zair had pledged allegiance to him, Fetohep was a Centaur power.

The duality of Perric was this. Either he was clever enough to actually imply Fetohep’s authority had dominance over other species in a bid to Fetohep’s ego—

Or he’d told his [Historians] and other [Scribes] to just come up with as many applicable titles as possible in his letter and this was the result.

It was possibly both. Fetohep detested the ‘High King’ of the coastal kingdom of Medain, but he was not contemptuous of the man’s abilities. Not completely. You did not keep power that long without some insight.

“A King of Rats is still a king. In theory.”

Fetohep unfolded another page of the lengthy letter to get to the content, ignoring the titles. Then he folded the page. Then he unfolded another page.

Ah. Here we were. Fetohep sighed louder.

“Your statues have been greeted with multiple-day celebrations…in your honor, if you could care to dictate any holidays or…christening a warship…children named after Khelt’s rulers?”

Then the undead king stopped. He normally ignored the High King, but that last part offended him. All of these bountiful praises were being orchestrated by Perric, he knew. But that last one—

“Pen a missive to High King Perric at once. He is not to name children after Khelta. Nor any of my predecessors. Certainly not as part of some vanity.”

Fetohep tossed the scroll aside and snapped. A nervous [Scribe] bent over and instantly began writing as one of the [Mages] assigned to the palace—also very nervous—began casting an immediate [Message] spell to Medain.

“Yes, Your Majesty. If we delay, we apologize for…”

“Peace.”

Fetohep calmed himself. He forgot, sometimes, that his people were not used to his displeasure. He had been—annoyed—at his Mage’s Guild in the past, and those present were serving him as best they could.

“My displeasure is only upon the High King of Median. You are my citizens. Have peace and work at your pace.”

Relieved, the staff in his throne room bowed with huge smiles. Fetohep stared at the [Mage] with bright green hair.

“You…are Mage Efieth today, are you not? We spoke when you worked first two days ago. Have you rested or dined? And you, Scribe Joehns?”

The two looked astonished that he remembered. They bowed.

“Yes, Your Majesty! We are ready to work the rest of the night.”

“I shall not keep you that long. Your replacements will arrive in two hours. Yet your service is noted.”

They bowed, murmuring thanks, but Fetohep noted—a moment of discontent. Not anger, nor sadness, but the purity of the emotion. Efieth tried to hide it, but Fetohep had seen countless faces. His did not move, but his voice echoed.

“Speak, Efieth. Are you displeased by the service or something else?”

“Absolutely not, Your Majesty! But we could work for you more than three hours! Please, make use of it, especially for matters of state! W-with respect, Your Majesty.”

The young woman—well, she was forty—protested. They were all so young, and Fetohep suspected he had managed to get a level of relaxation out of his servants attending him that they were able to say this.

He sat upon the throne that had held thirteen rulers of Khelt before him and rested his chin upon two fingers, just so. Like diction, he had practiced posture.

Now, why would she object to this system? He had so carefully made sure he would not overwork his servants—and the fact that he needed mortal aides was purely due to how many people desired his attention. Even great relics like the floating Orb of the Diviner had limits to, say, writing out formal address.

Ah. Of course. Fetohep thought but a moment. He had seen this before. She wanted to work harder in service of something she loved. Had he not done the same thing, resented being called back when he had more to give?

“Ah. I see. Your words do not offend me, Mage Efieth. Are you of the same will, Scribe Joehns?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Fetohep lifted a hand.

“Love of your kingdom is a great thing upon you two. If you and others wish it—I may ask more of you. Your experience as you work with me will bear fruit—and I shall reward and acknowledge it.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

That smile told him he had probably done the right thing. You could be made to feel unneeded, a cog within a Golem’s unthinking, unfeeling body even if the system was designed not to burden others.

They must be allowed to push themselves. To strain and strive and try.

That was the lesson he had learned from King Izimire of Khelt. There had been times when Khelt’s protection and fulfilling of their citizen’s needs had turned into more than coddling, and provoked hedonism and a wasting of the spirit. It was very tough to find a balance, after all.

Some nations, some peoples, let people live freely, make their mistakes, and only dealt with great issues like war or famine. Magnolia Reinhart was one such deterministic approach—and he respected the fact that even her coffers were not nearly deep enough to create utopia over large scale like Khelt.

But, having the means, Khelt erred upon fulfilment for its people. Still—Fetohep did sometimes inspire his citizens to competition or rouse their spirits. He had imported games and art and the like to keep them from wasting.

These days, it felt like his citizens were more active than ever. They had seen his battle abroad, and the scrying orbs revealed a world that tantalized them. Many, Fetohep knew, were thinking of leaving the borders, but he had encouraged them to stay and hone their abilities first, promising them that they might go to Jecrass’ new colony first, to test themselves.

I shall need them. I shall need them more than ever, and these gentle pushes shall become a fearsome tug of currents upon a merciless sea. I…shall be known as that by my successors. A king harsher by need than even Khelta.

That thought struck Fetohep as he saw his two servants smiling and getting to work. It filled him with a moroseness he had scarcely encountered before. A dark gloom.

A worry.

Yet he did not show it. Fetohep merely continued sorting through his correspondence.

“Your Majesty. High King Perric apologizes…profusely—for the misunderstanding and error among his people. He wishes to assure you that the issue of naming was in error, and they were tributes to your predecessors, not children named after Khelta…”

“Yes, I have no doubt. Reassure him.”

Fetohep lifted a hand. He began writing on a [Message] scroll, then decided it was better done in person.

“Queen Bennis of Zethe.”

He spoke and waited as a spell was sent requesting communication. One of his many scrying orbs lifted, and Fetohep faced it fully, sitting tall. He only noticed—out of the corner of his vision—one of the arena matches in Nerrhavia’s Fallen concluding.

Ah, the [Gladiator] won. That was six thousand gold coins up.

He should…stop betting on those events. The Pomle matches had halted due to the war, but Nerrhavia and a few other arenas were always open.

Or should he continue if it made a profit? Fetohep knew the extent of most of his coffers. But now he wondered…he had never had to count coins before. Only how much of a yearly profit Khelt was drawing in.

The scrying orb’s connection cleared, and the Queen of Zethe appeared. The formalities took a bit—she was surprised by the King of Khelt’s greeting appropriate to Zethe’s culture. He, for his turn, noted that she referenced Queen Xierca in her address to him.

Zethe was another nation that Flos of Reim would run into should he continue expanding. Not one openly hostile to him for his previous reign or his current rise.

They had other issues. Zethe hadn’t even gone to war with Flos after the one battle in which their greatest champion had quit the field.

However, they had enough power, as a nation who had lived through calamity did. Yet it seemed Zethe’s ancient Golems and their famous spell-artillery might not need to stem Flos of Reim’s mad rampage.

If anything…the Queen of Zethe might well believe that it was Khelt she needed to fear and a Necrocracy of New Khelt.

Fetohep did his utmost to assure her this was not the case. He watched her face carefully, and the Stitch-woman’s painted expressions looked relieved, as he could see behind her facade.

“…it is our intention that Medain and the Claiven Earth not become subsidiaries of Khelt. They shall return to autonomous nations as soon as we have such assurances they shall not trouble Khelt again.”

“Your benevolence we note, King Fetohep. Your words—the integrity of such, unquestionable.”

“Please reassure any who doubt Khelt’s intentions of our neutrality. The city-states who have pledged to Khelt I have returned to their owners. It is a passing craze to seek out authority. Khelt shall not rule nations. Jecrass’ lands are but the one exception. Even Khelt thirsts for endless bounties of water.”

He hoped he was not being unsubtle in hinting that he had purely taken Jecrass’ side in the war out of greed for water. Queen Bennis clearly picked up on it, and she exhaled some colorful smoke—which was not rude in Zethe’s culture.

“We hesitated to bring up such matters indecorously ere we took our deathless cousin’s time.”

“Not at all.”

Zethe had an odd pattern of speech. The Queen was leaning into it, and she took another draft from the long, long pipe before she spoke. Wisps of black smog trailed from her lips.

“Doubte. Do you know where he resides?”

Fetohep had been prepared for this. His only response was for his flaming eyes to brighten slightly—and no matter how hard the Queen and her court tried, there was no breaking through his gambling face. Not a muscle moved as Fetohep replied in the exact same tone of voice.

“The Hero of Zethe’s matters are his own, Queen Bennis. I would not wish to supercede his will had I any inkling to the contrary.”

“Ah. Did he indicate—? No. We heard your answer and accede. Your time, Fetohep of Khelt, we trust was well spent. Per Zethe, onwards to Khelt.”

He inclined his head. Privately, as the connection broke up, Fetohep felt for Zethe.

The Hero of Zethe, Doubte, had come when his nation was in a pure crisis. Neighboring kingdoms declaring war, monster swarms, and a creeping, insidious wave of monsters heralded by the aforementioned Orebu-Beetles from Zethe had spelled doom for the kingdom.

Two monarchs killed in rapid succession—and the land cried out as it seemed it would be torn to pieces by the unrest. Then had come Doubte.

He had plunged into the mines, slain the Orebu’s Queen, won three wars, and put Zethe back on the map as a regional power. With him, a [Hero], Zethe might have become the superpower of Chandrar instead of Reim.

But he had lost his affection for his role and quit his duties, going into hiding. Now, Zethe was still riding on his achievements…but Bennis was a young queen.

Fetohep could practically see one of her [Counselors] holding up the talking points and rehearsed scroll reflected off her decorative face-paint. He wondered if she were in fear for her position—or life.

Yisame was another kind of ruler like that. Although she, at least, had survived the courts of Nerrhavia’s Fallen well enough by remaining aloof. When Fetohep looked at the many world leaders—he saw flaws.

Even in rulers considered canny, like Reclis du Marquin, or powerful figures like Archmage Feor, Tyrion Veltras—they had weaknesses. They might be fine warriors or [Mages] or leaders, but they were not strong rulers, necessarily.

And how would they be? Many were born into their roles like the King of Avel. They might have tutors, but the weight of a crown was difficult, your mistakes were amplified and your judgment clouded by your advisors, well-intentioned though they might be.

Few had Fetohep’s experience. And even he…

Even he had problems.

 

——

 

The King of Khelt spent another two hours on the affairs of state that night. If High King Perric was too noisome in showing his loyalty to the conquering king—for all Fetohep had promised to release him from the surrender with little done—

The Claiven Earth were quiet. Fetohep had not missed how many had left for the new lands, but he had not stopped them.

He was truthful when he claimed he did not want to rule. It was just—

Flos of Reim. Now there was a poor king. A pure warmonger who propelled his nation forwards upon the slicked blood of his foes. His nation was beginning to restore itself as it threw its attention south towards Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Like a predator, it would grow as it ate.

If Flos could have regained his splendor without needing to loot it, Fetohep would have applauded him. That man had no dignity—or if he did, it was all innate, the dignity of a warlord, not a king who ruled himself as well as others.

The Quarass was young; Hellios had been poorly ruled by Calliope, and worse so by her husband dreaming of glory. Fetohep had little expectations of Calliope’s son if he ever took the throne. Belchan? Belchan had fallen due to one man’s idiocy and arrogance playing politics.

Politics before people. Jecrass…Jecrass’ king, Raelt, had been a lion in disguise. But his people had needed a king.

Jecaina was more promising than Raelt. But would she rule now that her father was returned?

Fetohep rose as his two servants changed positions with their replacements. He left them to manage any incoming messages for him and walked the palace. He shouldn’t criticize other nations. It was too easy to do so and not remember they did not take the throne with a fortune of hoarded gold, artifacts, and armies of the dead.

A month had been enough to restore a modicum of order in Khelt after all this upheaval. Fetohep had needed to count expenditures, assure the other nations he was not coming after them, and crucially, settle the three tribes of Gnolls he had admitted into his lands.

And grieve the fallen.

He had done this mostly by being silent, by speaking but not acting. His actions informed Khelt, and they had returned to their utopian dream, watching the world rather than clamoring, and the other rulers had grown less wary of his forces now that they had vanished behind his borders.

In fact, the only monument to his army’s might was the Jaw of Zeikhal, one of which stood sentinel on the border of Khelt. The others were, respectively, either destroyed or stationary elsewhere.

One Jaw was at the Claiven Earth, another at Medain, and two more at Jecrass, parked upon their borders. That was all of the mightiest undead Fetohep had left at his command.

Two Jaws of Zeikhal and the Ash-Giant, Zirconia, had fallen at A’ctelios Salash. Emrist’s Scourgeriders…gone.

A number of Serept’s half-Giants also had died, and of the Revenants remaining, only Sand at Sea, the great warship and its crew, remained under Fetohep’s command.

The mightiest of warriors, His-Xe’s champion, Salui, was dead. Zeres had ended his life as he gave way to grief and rage.

Vizir Hecrelunn had vanished. So had Serept’s half-Giants. Fetohep had feared what Hecrelunn might do, but he had not heard…anything. Not yet.

More problems. And his responsibility. Yet—Fetohep had one great issue on his mind, so he summoned two people to him in the dead of night.

“Bring two, ere dawn rises. I require…Potter Pewerthe. And Farmer Colovt.”

 

——

 

Dawn in Koirezune was delightful to the citizenry. Not just because Khelt wanted for nothing and the city had new sights and entertainments.

But because of the guests.

Well, some were not guests. Some were new citizens like the Gnolls—and they had been at the center of so much!

Obviously it was a tragedy, but the Gnollish tribes were so fascinating, with their odd customs and their tales of lands far less safe than Khelt. Some found so many newcomers to Khelt upsetting, but King Fetohep had ensured the Gnolls had a place.

He had called upon his vaults and given the Chieftains of the Satest Fletching, Decles, and Gembow tribe homes wherever they chose to settle. His first gifts were the gems that pulled water from the air—when they decided upon a spot, they would have an oasis or well such that they would not want for water.

In the interim, their people were being hosted at every town and city, and new buildings had gone up to accommodate them. Naturally, the Gnolls had yurts and such of their own, but Fetohep had still needed to take a long time ensuring they were ready to be citizens of Khelt.

Namely—[Healers] to check for parasites and disease. Potions to tend any wounds, [Thought Healers] for those who had seen so much, and making sure the Gnolls wanted to stay—and that conflict would not resume.

After all. If you remembered the Meeting of Tribes, you might realize that the Decles tribe had fought for the Plain’s Eye tribe. By contrast, Gembow who had fought with the Goblin tribe, had been on the same side as Satest Fletching, led by Chieftain Zicrone, who sided with the Doombearers.

To say there was animosity…was an understatement. In fact, a number of the Decles Tribe also included white-furred Gnolls.

Plain’s Eye. Fetohep had told the survivors of Decles they would be protected and even prevailed on Herdmistress Geraeri to use her Centaurs as intermediaries between the other two tribes.

“Enough Gnolls have died. No more. If there are sins to amend and debts to pay, let it be in deed and time, not blood. I trust the [Shamans] and [Chieftains] of the tribes are wise enough to know how it may be done without more ichor. Not on Khelt’s sands.”

That was Fetohep’s speech to the Chieftains, and so the Gnolls stayed.

There were other guests too. Pewerthe woke up to hear her roommate exclaiming.

“Pewerthe, Pewerthe. Are you going to be here tonight? I have a date with Alked Fellbow’s cousin, and if you are…”

“Isn’t that the fourth date he’s had this week?”

Pewerthe grumpily sat up and yawned. She had elected to have a roommate despite the plentiful housing; their apartment was large enough with even two. But her roommate, a [Painter] named Coyue, just danced around.

“Yes—and he’s far easier to go out with than Alked himself! No one has managed that.

Khelt was an odd place to outsiders. Things like going out with the cousin of the famous Named-rank adventurer who had ridden with Fetohep to Izril was a kind of social standing. Speaking to the King, winning his favor, all mattered more than gold. Same with making something people wanted.

In a city where you could get whatever you wanted, reputation mattered. Coyue had been angling for this all day, and she was certainly pretty enough to make even Fellbow look twice. Especially since she was a Stitch-girl made of silk herself.

Pewerthe was Human. And she was hardly so fine, if only because her flesh was mortal—and she had scars, like the one visible down the back of her neck and on her arm that no potting wheel would have made.

It made her stand out—though most were simply intrigued, for scars, like everything else, were somewhat exciting. Ironically, Pewerthe’s little shop where she taught pottery to people, and made her own vases and pieces that were sometimes used, attracted little acclaim.

She was one of many citizens of Khelt, and if she had a standing, it was average. The irony of course being that if people knew she was Fetohep’s heir apparent, the mortal chosen to stand in for the King should he perish or his time be up—

Well, sometimes Coyue gave Pewerthe strange looks, and she’d asked all the questions under the sun after Fetohep had ordered Pewerthe to go to the palace when he rode for Izril. But Pewerthe had merely claimed she was entrusted to ring the Dragonward Bell.

That alone made her famous enough that when she lined up for a baked good, the Baker saw her and came out.

“Potter Pewerthe. Try this—and then persuade our guests to have a bite of my newest creation! You see?”

He had made a croissant. But the most incredible croissant Pewerthe had ever seen. The pastry was layers of delicate dough folded hundreds of times over and baked to crisp perfection.

Obviously. Everyone knew that. But what if—and hear Baker Tiyhm out—what if you inserted a layer of something between each layer? All three hundred of them? The slightest, most microscopic layer of a fresh raspberry jam, for instance, or, if you wanted very sweet, a frosting?

Then he’d cut little fresh-made pieces of dough in their own frostings and jam and decorated the croissant with a toothpick. The end result was an image of Fetohep of Khelt riding down on fleeing Drakes as stars fell from the night sky—and the raspberry jam oozed out with each bite Pewerthe took.

She loved it. The baker had labored over fifty such croissants before getting bored, and she agreed to convey one over to a group of bewildered people. Bewildered…as most guests were when they saw something so incredibly complex for little reason more than a moment’s breakfast.

“Hello. Guests of Dovive? Will you take Baker Tiyhm’s treats to eat this morning? He would be delighted—and they are quite beautiful.”

Pewerthe was a bit shy as she approached a group of men and women who were tending to some horses. They looked at her—then stared at the croissant.

“This? This is a piece of art! How much does it c—”

Every citizen of Khelt in earshot laughed at that, as they probably had for the last two weeks. The man caught himself and hesitated. Pewerthe saw the reluctant expression and leaned in.

“Please take some. It costs nothing, and it would make him pleased. More than even baking it—for His Majesty’s guests to enjoy themselves.”

“If you are sure—we will be honored.”

The [Mercenary] spoke and seemed, as always, perplexed by being here. He patted his horse and looked around.

This group of riders were twenty-one in number. They were [Mercenaries], apparently, good fighters who had served their home city of Dovive well. Why were they honored guests of Khelt?

Well, because when Fetohep of Khelt had ridden north—they had joined him. They had ridden out of their city, prepared to face horrors, and he had permitted them to join him in battle. They had not known where they were going, and six had perished on Izril’s shores.

Someone else might have overlooked them, a footnote, a single passage in Fetohep’s accomplishments. He had not. Upon returning, Fetohep had given more gold to a certain [Horse Tamer] and offered the boy and all who had rode with him the delights of Khelt.

“Has His Majesty—asked for us?”

“Not today. But eat, eat! This is my little work I hope you will enjoy.”

The baker twinkled at them, and one of the mercenaries exclaimed as he was told how it had been made.

Folded within each layer? How long did it take?”

“Ninety hours, the first time! I made so many errors—I threw away so much bad dough! The pigs I gave it to rejoiced! But then I knew how it was done, so I had a helper prepare each layer.”

“What helper would do that?”

“A skeleton. One with washed bones who has much adeptness…you see how it was easy to make more? Of course, I decorated by hand. That night, and the last week, I have been hearing [Baker class obtained]! And I keep saying, ‘no, not again’!”

Tiyhm laughed, and that was when his guests realized he was no [Baker], but a passionate amateur. And they stared more.

Such was the day of Khelt for Pewerthe, and she only reflected that they were lucky not to be Trey or Teresa Atwood. Those two—if Tiyhm would beg these brave warriors to try his pastries, the two twins would be mobbed by every passing citizen so long as it didn’t offend His Majesty. Companionship, food, entertainment—it was well known how Fetohep liked the two.

Regardless. Pewerthe could tell where a guest was staying sometimes just by the citizens who wanted to hear from them—or gain something.

“Careful, careful…don’t scare Konska. How many of you want to feed him?”

A Dullahan woman, Frieke of Khelt, was standing as children begged to pet or feed the Seahawk, who looked slightly vomitous as he was offered a hundred treats made specially for him. But Frieke seemed rather pleased by all the attention.

“Pewerthe, Pewerthe!”

The [Potter] was just about to open her shop and see if she had any students when someone ran to find her. She saw one of the rarer people in the city—someone who actually did work.

“[Magistrate] Teveti.”

The one thing Khelt needed were people who could keep peace, administer laws, and break up petty arguments. Teveti had two royal guards next to him—Skeleton Champions adorned in fine armor bearing enchanted blades. They never drew them; the halberds were purely ornamental, but it reminded people he had the authority to punish them for being in trouble.

The undead clanked to a halt behind Teveti as he panted to a stop, and Pewerthe frowned. Normally, anyone could outrun Teveti, who was out of shape. The guards seemed slower, and she wondered if he had told them to stop marching ahead of him.

Khelt’s undead could run, bake pies, and do all manner of things lesser undead were incapable of. These two stood to attention as Teveti lifted a finger.

“…sty…farmer…so now…got it?”

“No. What’s going on?”

The [Magistrate] tried again.

“His Majesty wishes you to meet him with a [Farmer] at once! I was looking for you at your apartment—go now!”

He looked at Pewerthe, and she felt a surge of apprehension. But only for a second. The [Magistrates], of everyone in the city, knew Pewerthe’s role. So she gestured at her shop.

“Can you tell anyone looking for me…?”

“Yes, yes. I’ll put up a sign you’re closed. Go now! I have a carriage coming!”

Indeed, he whistled, and a skeletal horse raced around a corner with a small, hooded carriage that citizens could use to get wherever they wanted. Even other cities. Pewerthe could have walked—but apparently Fetohep wanted her now.

It might have just been Teveti being overly-zealous, but of all people, Fetohep did not wait. So Pewerthe climbed in and found she had a guest.

“Hello. Miss…?”

“Pewerthe.”

She took the stranger’s hand and realized he was the [Farmer].

Farmer Colovt looked very nervous to be summoned to the palace, more than she, so Pewerthe sat down.

“Are you being summoned to His Majesty too?”

“Yes! Only the second time I’ve ever been graced…I hope it is because I am needed. And not in trouble.”

He looked pale as citizens with guilty consciences sometimes did. Pewerthe, as Fetohep’s heir, knew that it was often in their heads. So she smiled at him. She noticed his eyes on her scarred arm and spoke.

“[Bandits].”

“Bandits? In Khelt? Did you live near a village?”

He was astonished, and she shook her head.

“No. My family was one that left—I was allowed to return after His Majesty heard. No one survived but I.”

“Dead gods. I’m—sorry to hear that. What possessed them to leave Khelt’s borders?”

She got asked that a lot. Pewerthe’s answer was not snappish as it once was. She had heard a good answer from Fetohep, so she used it along with her own understanding.

“They wanted to see the world. And see who they were. His Majesty once did the same.”

“Oh. Oh…well, I am sorry. They’re lovely scars.”

And that was something you only heard from Khelt’s folk. But Colovt seemed like a good man, and he explained.

“His Majesty once honored me by asking me to grow peppermint as he wished for more. I dedicated eight fields to it—and he has sometimes asked me to grow certain crops. I am, by way of a class, a Level 36 [Farmer]. One of Khelt’s best who is not foreign.”

He was good. And by ‘foreign’ they meant anyone who had been offered citizenship for their Skills. Pewerthe knew there was at least one Level 40 [Farmer] who helped mass-produce crops, but Khelt had an inexhaustible source of labor, so they just needed land.

“So high! You must truly have worked hard.”

“I loved it. I grew with skeletons—then by hand. I don’t know why, but I can stand a day in my fields and come out smiling.”

Colovt was embarrassed, but Pewerthe thought he was delightful. Many of her friends flitted from passion to passion like Baker Tiyhm. They made wonderful things, but they did not level and even eschewed classes.

“I’m Pewerthe. A Level 28 [Potter].”

“So very well done! At your age? What do you make?”

He took her hand, astonished, for she was barely twenty-five years of age. Another reason Fetohep had marked her. Pewerthe smiled modestly.

“I teach, mostly. It is hard to make something that matters in Khelt. I don’t try to make something permanent. But I have baked oddities.”

“Such as?”

“Oh—I made a clay house and shelter for desert mice. I once baked the lightest pot I could so a vulture’s chick could be carried by its mother—their nest had been damaged, you see. But mostly I make water jugs and things the people from over the border need. Gifts that sell well.”

“For gold…? I know some people do that too. Make items and gift them to friends or penpals. How amazing. Do you know…why His Majesty wants me? Or you?”

Colovt was nervous again, and Pewerthe coaxed the reason for his distress out during their walk up the palace’s two thousand steps. Rows of undead stood to attention in the hot sun on the steps, but neither one paid attention.

“You see—I think it was when His Majesty rode north. You recall when the Jaw of Zeikhal rose and his armies followed?”

Farmer Colovt pointed to Khelt’s borders, and even from here, the two could see the giant bone-scorpion, ancient and stationary, half-buried in the sands. Pewerthe nodded, and Colovt leaned over.

“I was riding to the city—and it came up right in front of me. But for me, I think it would have unearthed itself. I was in the way, and His Majesty’s armies…”

Pewerthe laughed, and it was always deeper than people expected. Full—and she laughed because the poor [Farmer] thought Fetohep was angry at him for that?

She was assuring him this was not the case when Fetohep of Khelt found them. Perhaps he had been there all along, for he stepped out from admiring a painting in one of the endless hallways of the palace. This one showed rulers of old in various reposes and their glories—there were eight hundred paintings lining the walls, most done by Khelt’s citizens.

Fetohep would have just as many—and the best would adorn his hallway on that day he was succeeded. The [King] stepped forwards, and Colovt and Pewerthe jumped, for he was silent. He did not need to breathe.

“Farmer Colovt. I greet you and thank you and Pewerthe for joining me. I wished to find you two after you had breakfasted; my servants were overzealous. Do you require food? And to you, Colovt, I owe an apology.”

“M-m-m—Your Majesty?”

The man stuttered as his stomach rumbled loudly. Fetohep turned, and a servant hurried down the hallway.

“A breakfast. Pewerthe?”

“Greetings, Fetohep.”

She spoke, and Colovt goggled at her in outrage—but Fetohep had told her to be informal if she could. Pewerthe sensed this was an appropriate venue, and Fetohep nodded in approval before turning to the man.

“My apology, Colovt, is warranted. I recall the Jaws of Zeikhal endangered you in some small way when they rose. It has preyed upon me until this moment. They were needed in service to Khelt, yet I am relieved you are not harmed. You are Khelt’s greatest [Farmer] born of these lands and the only son who has risen to this level in a hundred and sixty years. Hence why I have need of your wisdom. Pewerthe is my trusted—advisor. I ask you to treat her with the respect you accord me.”

The man was lost for words. And Pewerthe noted how Fetohep spoke. He remembered too!

“I am humbled, sire. What can I do?”

His cheeks were red, and she thought tears stood out in the corners of his eyes. Fetohep turned, as if embarrassed, and gestured.

“Pray, request your breakfast. This will be a longer task. Pewerthe?”

“I have eaten, Your Majesty. A croissant.”

“Hardly fitting for a full day if memory serves. Are those not…flaky and buttery?”

Fetohep’s one quirk was that he didn’t remember food. So he often inquired what foods were and how nourishing they were. Pewerthe was convinced to have a fresh banana and cup of soup.

“And coffee. I am assured this is a ‘caffè latte’ by Teresa Atwood. The quality of it…debatable. Before I serve any important guest, I will hear your judgment. My [Gourmets] have declared it innovative, if lacking in nuance.”

Fetohep’s golden flames actually rolled slightly in their sockets. The gourmet’s tasting habits were exceptionally high, even in Khelt’s society. If anything, Pewerthe and Colovt were better metrics for foods, so they tasted the coffee gingerly.

An abundance of good food gave them a sophisticated palate, and Pewerthe grimaced.

“Too much sugar in mine, Your Majesty.”

“I can see it being a drink for work. Is it a replacement for tea?”

“One assumes. Eighteen wagons shall be distributed amongst the cities. Supply shall be limited, but I have the—berry plants ready for planting, and thirty [Gardeners] have volunteered to attempt to germinate them. Yes…that will be suitably entertaining for about fourteen days. No doubt I shall be having ‘coffee cake’ in the next month. Bean-related activities and foodstuffs.”

Something was off about Fetohep today. He was…musing to himself. Colovt didn’t notice, fascinated as he was by the newest treat, but Pewerthe glanced at Fetohep. He was also pacing a bit.

“What did Your Majesty need of us?”

Now that they had dined, Fetohep clicked his fingers.

“We shall leave for Farmer Colovt’s farm and other areas within Khelt. A carriage awaits.”

No regular horses were waiting for them when they descended the palace, but a personal carriage—and the bones of two magical horses. The dead Nightmares pawed at the ground, and when they got in, the carriage shot out of the city at lightning speed.

It only slowed once as a man raised his hand and stepped out of a crowd with a nervous family who bowed again and again. Fetohep emerged.

“Adventurer Fellbow.”

“Your Majesty.”

Colovt and Pewerthe stared at the famous Named-rank, who carried the bow he had been given by Fetohep on his back. He and his family, new to Khelt, stood in the street as the man looked at the carriage.

“Are you leaving the city? Do you wish me to accompany you, King Fetohep?”

“Not as of yet, Fellbow. As I have said—your deeds entitle you to rest. Have you spoken with Adventurer Frieke? Any others?”

Silently, the man bowed.

“Herdmistress Geraeri seems well. The—Revenants of Sand at Sea are occupied fixing the damage to their ship, but their [Captain] seems bored.”

“No doubt. Then I shall request your presence in my palace at evening. If you have the energy, we shall act through the night. This is all contingent upon your interests, Fellbow. You have earned your citizenship already. I do not require continual pledges of loyalty as Nerrhavia’s Fallen or Medain might.”

Fetohep’s golden gaze studied the Named-rank. In reply, Alked Fellbow simply bowed.

“I will rest up, then. I am merely interested in serving Khelt.”

“Well said.”

Pewerthe saw Fetohep nod to the rest of Alked’s family, greet his citizens, and step into the carriage. He sat back, and Pewerthe frowned.

“Your Majesty. What happened to the other Revenants?”

She knew about Hecrelunn and Serept’s half-Giants. The Scourgeriders…she still felt uneasy because Fetohep had told her how they had perished to quiet A’ctelios Salash.

She did not always like knowing what Khelt had to do—or that there were things even Fetohep feared. The King simply sat there.

“I do not know. The leader of the half-Giants, Thuermenon, came to me, and requested the right to leave. I granted it. Hecrelunn did not ask. Of the two, I trust Hecrelunn will be an issue. But I have little time for him.”

The third oddity. Fetohep did not like stray issues. And since Khelt ran so smoothly, he had all the time in the world to deal with even the slightest of problems.

One time, famously, he had realized that a statue of King His-Xe was not geometrically aligned in the center of a plaza. So he had the entire plaza re-bricked and then decided to move two streets and fifteen houses over two and a half feet.

Today, though—Khelt was busy. Perhaps that was why Fetohep seemed so impatient. But then—he only began speaking when he was outside of the capital. Pewerthe’s ears popped as she noticed him twisting a ring, and a veil of silence enveloped the carriage.

“What I am about to say will not leave the three of us. You, Colovt, are here due to your expertise in the matter. Pewerthe is my trusted advisor who may need to act in my stead on matters of state. She is my heir apparent, you see.”

The [Farmer] gave her a wide-eyed look. Pewerthe nodded, and Fetohep went on.

“It has come to my attention that there is an…issue within Khelt. Due to the worsening shortages of the world, trade lines across the sea—we are critically low on a resource. Steps must be taken to secure a supply. Therefore, you, Colovt, as a loyal son of Khelt, are the first I turn to.”

“Your Majesty? What are we low on?”

Khelt’s ruler leaned over in the carriage, and his voice lowered more.

“…Sweetberries.”

Pewerthe and Colovt exchanged a look. Did he mean…the red, glowing berries that were deliciously sweet, famously loved by even the Quarass, and popular in many expensive dishes?

They were a noble’s fancy, but also—Fetohep looked at Colovt.

“What do you know about them?”

“They’re…a cash crop of Baleros, Your Majesty. A farmer’s great crop. It’s beloved by the rich and poor alike for they’re filling. Tasty, too, but it’s said eight can fill a working man up half a day. Two handfuls could keep you for two days if you ration ‘em. Why, the mercenary companies use them as rations…and we’re low on them?”

“The [Bakers] have used quite a number. I would like you to tell me, candidly, what it would take to produce tens of thousands. Possibly even hundreds of thousands.”

Colovt’s jaw dropped.

“By the end of this year, Your Majesty?”

“No. Monthly. One assumes you would need more space. Fields of it. Perhaps for other crops as well? Khelt has always produced enough for itself to thrive, but we import countless crops. If we do not have the sweetberries within…two months at the minimum…”

Fetohep’s voice trailed off. Pewerthe stared at him and felt like this was the oddest conversation she’d had.

“Then what, Your Majesty?”

“—Then we shall have to do without. The same for peppermint, Colovt, and Nali-sticks. I will require your fields to produce a plethora of all such goods.”

That made the two Kheltians stare. Not because of the tall order—if anything, that fit. But the words.

‘Do without’. Inconceivable, even to Pewerthe, really. In what scenario would they do without…anything? The only thing that would bother Khelt was the lack of Eir Gel, which was a worldwide-concern.

But if it could be bought, or stolen and paid for, Khelt would have it. It did not ‘run low’ on Sweetberries. If every plantation of the bushes burned up tomorrow, Fetohep would buy the remaining supplies at a hundred gold per pound.

“I—can see why you wished to be private, Your Majesty. There will be grief and arguments across the cities if the [Bakers] think there might be a shortage.”

Sweetberries would become the instant fad—which would probably burn through Khelt’s supply. Then everyone would be talking about how it used to be so glorious to have one. They’d probably begin complaining a day after the supply ran out and talk about the ‘famines’ Khelt had endured where all they had was half the foodstuffs of the rest of the world dying in need.

Colovt rose to the challenge with a will.

“It will not be easy, Your Majesty. Even with Khelt’s resources, Sweetberries grow in far different soil and temperature…but perhaps if we irrigated it properly and we had the undead skeletons—I’m speaking out loud, forgive me.”

Fetohep lifted a hand.

“Speak and think and do what you will. I am—ignorant in the ways of farming. I have studied crop rotation, balance of fields, the pests and magical means to accelerate growth, and spoken to [Druids], but I am no expert.”

By that, he probably was an expert compared to anyone but Colovt. The man was thinking instantly.

“The—the only places I know to produce crops in great quantity, Your Majesty? If I might list them to think?”

“Yes. You think of Reim, in a sense, Noelictus, Samal, perhaps?”

Other paradises and famous breadbaskets. Colovt nodded.

“Also, the Paradise of Heiste, the Archmage’s Isle.”

“Troubled, I know now. But yes. Go on.”

The [Farmer] spread his hands.

“There’s two ways about it. Reim was—is—rich in crops so long as the King of Destruction lives. Either it’s a Skill, or like Noelictus, like Samal, it’s the richness of their soil. Noelictus thrives on death magic. Samal? Of all the ways we could copy, Your Majesty, perhaps it’d be Noelictus and Samal and the Paradise of Heiste.”

“…Khelt’s soil is less magical, and despite the buried dead, we do not harvest their power. You must clarify that thought for me.”

Fetohep placed two fingers together, listening. Colovt tried and then pulled out a wand. He must have had one just because it was useful—and probably because of his job. He drew in the air, the magical tip leaving a line he could pluck at and show them what he meant.

“Noelictus is different as far as I know, but the concept is similar. Samal and Heiste, paradises, grow within their own sanctums. Behind the key-doors or within Heiste’s growing houses. Sweetberries and many plants hate the weather of Chandrar. So in order to grow them, if we first made a vast place where they could winter and grow despite any issues…”

“Ah. Greenhouses.

Fetohep murmured a word unfamiliar to even Colovt. He lifted a hand.

“Your idea, Farmer Colovt, is doubly sound. Go on. Though I must now remark that my knowledge of these greenhouses implies a fortune in glass. A slower process, to blow enough to fill…miles of space. Many miles.”

Colovt looked surprised.

“No, Your Majesty—that is—we need not use glass. I have seen it done more simply. Walls of magic will do—you may not even see them. Just so long as the temperature and water in the air is separate from the outside…”

“Ah. Then stone might work? Or some other material?

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Fetohep seemed to brighten.

“Good. Excellent. Then, I require first the blueprints—then seeds. We have a bounty, which I have purchased from overseas. They will arrive in two weeks. I require you, Colovt, to oversee the entire production of these fields.”

Me, Your Majesty? But I don’t know how the greenhouses—these magical houses work.”

Fetohep dismissed the concerns.

“I shall not leave you wanting. You will have [Architects] and the expertise needed for the buildings—focus only upon the conditions that the seeds germinate and grow fast. Will you need to enrich the soil?”

“Yes…if I’m to produce hundreds of thousands of sweetberries per month. I don’t know if the [Bakers] could use that many, even in a frenzy, Your Majesty.”

Colovt hesitated, but Fetohep’s voice sounded like a smile.

“I will not be beholden to petty currents and the woes of a market twice, Farmer Colovt. We shall establish a vast stockpile to rectify the issue for later generations. As for enrichment of the soil…if you can permanently enrich the soil, or do so for the span of decades, I will spend what is needed. I would dislike to waste too much gold on a temporary measure for a few harvests.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. Forgive my ignorance. Permanent soil…”

The man lapsed into silence, but the carriage was slowing, and soon they were walking out across Colovt’s farms. Fetohep paused to admire the fields that Colovt already had.

“This, Colovt. I would like to expand this and these greenhouses. I will grant forty square miles to begin with—more in Jecrass, perhaps, if this succeeds.”

Forty miles? Pewerthe and Colovt’s jaws dropped. The man wiped at his brow.

“We may export Sweetberries to the rest of Chandrar, sire! Even with a stockpile. I—I can do that. I may need an army of skeletons, though.”

He laughed, looking delighted by the challenge, and why not? He was going to level. But then Pewerthe saw the final thing. The thing that made her really focus on the oddities of Fetohep’s speech, because the Revenant King stood there and he didn’t look at Colovt, but his voice developed an odd…tone.

“Ah. Yes. Colovt, I shall send to you volunteers and perhaps familiars, if the appropriate spell can be researched. I was reminded of the usage from an inn I saw recently. More crucially—do any of these nations make use of other magical tools or spells that…automate this labor?”

The [Farmer] looked blank.

“I am sure they must, in Samal and Heiste. I could inquire, Your Majesty? The skeletons do a fine job.”

“I would prefer to keep a smaller number in the fields, Colovt. War has threatened Khelt once—every skeleton might be needed, and I would not wish to keep the fields unoccupied.”

“So less skeletons…I shall ask, Your Majesty. Perhaps familiar-farming…? I know they have other techniques—may I beg leave to use a [Mage] to ask a number of [Farmers]?”

“At once, Colovt. But first, let us pick out a suitable location for this first attempt. Do you have a preference? Access to a watershed is important, and I have several maps…”

It turned out so did Colovt, and the man hurried inside his home to tell his family that the King of Khelt was here and to help on this great project. He was beaming.

Fetohep was not. For all the undead wore that rictus—somehow, Pewerthe, who had been growing more and more silent, did not think he was smiling. Nor was she.

“Fetohep. Might I have a word?”

She had noticed the spell that kept them from being overhead hadn’t waned since he put it on in the carriage. Fetohep turned to her, and his golden eyes flashed, but his tone was light.

“Do you have any views on farming I have lacked, Pewerthe? I shall ask Trey Atwood or his sister if they next visit.”

“No, Fetohep. But I did have questions about everything else. That I noticed.”

Then—she thought she did see his eyes flash approvingly. Fetohep gestured, and they walked around one field growing huge stalks of bright pumpkins and, yes, the peppermint.

“What could I have said that wasn’t innocuous?”

“Many things, Your Majesty.”

Pewerthe tried to lay them out as if she were planning a pot in her head. She spoke, counting them off.

“You claim that the currents and markets mean there are not enough sweetberries in Khelt. I have not heard of it—but I can believe it. Yet you just said there would be a shipment of seeds from Baleros. That surely means there is at least one ship who makes the journey.”

“Seeds are not berries, Pewerthe.”

The Revenant walked silently, his robes brushing the sands. His hands clasped behind his back, he looked stoic, a king of dignity. Yet Pewerthe went on.

“But why would you care, Your Majesty? Care enough to plant this many? It is one thing to fix a lack like Colovt did with peppermint. This…this is more berries than I can imagine. That would be fine in and of itself, but you suggested not using skeletons? Why that?”

“There are efficiencies beyond even undead. Much as I dislike to admit it, a Djinni can work a larger area. Or familiars, at the cost of mana, or spells.”

“You say that? In Khelt?

She challenged him, and the King of Khelt faced down the [Potter]. He did not loom or intimidate, but he seemed pleased she did not shrink to face down her ruler.

Pewerthe had seen worse. Yet a different kind of fear twisted her stomach now.

“Fetohep. Will you answer me a question truthfully?”

Then he paused, and the Revenant dipped his head slowly.

“…Yes. Of course.”

Pewerthe took a breath.

“What…what is the real reason you want sweetberries to be grown in such numbers? To not use skeletons? We have always bought whatever we wanted—if we lacked for either, it is only because the world lacks for them. Are the whims of confectioners in Khelt so crucial? Now, as Khelt is famous?”

Fetohep of Khelt stood there as the sand blew across Colovt’s farms, changing to dirt where the precious water irrigated the soil. He looked across his kingdom, back towards his shining city, and then at Pewerthe.

“Later today, Pewerthe, I will convene a few magical experts in my throne room. I will tell them—some cunning beetles have laid nests within the city that even my cleaners cannot deal with. Rats, as well. I discovered one just outside my palace this morning.”

“A…rat?”

Pewerthe couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen one. A pet was different, obviously. Fetohep nodded. His golden gaze focused on her.

“I will tell them to ward the city—perhaps to have a few volunteers hunt down the nests. A small inconvenience. Like Colovt growing his farms. And perhaps I shall hear complaints. Then, Pewerthe, I shall lie as I do not lie to you now. I shall claim they are virulent pests such as to escape even my undead. By the time the greenhouses are producing hopefully countless bushels of crops, I shall ask Colovt to switch some to common Yellats. The volunteers I send him—the children I encourage to take up the [Farmer] class—will be able to tend the fields with familiars, spells, and even Djinni.”

“Djinni?”

They had not had Djinni in Khelt—Fetohep stared past her.

“If the Shield Kingdom of Merreid will sell me any. Perhaps. If I did that, I think…this is all the future, Pewerthe. It is all in flux. But at some point, there will be complaints. There might even be a need for my citizens to eat only sweetberries, for they are filling and one of the best crops, along with Yellats, to eat.”

Something was dawning on Pewerthe. She gave voice to it as Fetohep stood there.

“But Fetohep, Your Majesty…surely something is off. Why not task your skeletons with doing it? Khelt’s protectors could turn every inch of this kingdom into farmland if we had enough water. If there are beetles, double the number of them cleaning the streets each night. Why…why not do that?”

Fetohep of Khelt stood there for a long moment, staring into the horizon. And then Pewerthe saw what he was staring at.

The Jaw of Zeikhal lay in the sand, silently staring out across Chandrar. Fetohep’s head slowly turned from it, and his golden eyes burned with an ominous—pained light.

“Ah, Pewerthe. On that day, not far off—when my citizens complain and come to me, I will first lie. Then, when I have no more left, when our enemies begin to scent blood in the water and I arm my citizens in artifacts and put them at the border and build walls—then I will tell them. I have no more to send.

The hair on the back of the [Potter]’s neck rose. She looked around—then tried to see if there were less skeletons laboring in the fields. She tried to remember, this morning, if she’d seen any but the two accompanying the [Magistrate] and the ones standing guard at the palace. Fetohep of Khelt looked at her, and Pewerthe whispered as a beaming Colovt and his family came out.

“What—what happened to them? Your Majesty?”

He spoke in proud tones, ringing with regret and glory to the fallen. Like he had when he called the end of a world, the ending of times. And—as Khelta had told him—

The ending of the lands of the dead. Fetohep looked across Khelt, and it was quiet. Quiet and empty. The citizens of Khelt’s dead lay buried by the millions. He had taken a vast army to Izril…but only a fraction of the ones who remained.

He didn’t feel them. He felt…pockets, ones animated by Khelta, by [Necromancers]. Bound in spell. But the souls were gone.

Khelt’s souls were all gone. So the King of Khelt, feared by his enemies, surrounded by admirers, stood in his kingdom and stood tall. Eyes burning gold, proudly as could be. He turned to his heir, and only to her he spoke.

“If you should succeed me onto my lonely throne, Pewerthe, and I shall try to keep you from that fate—remember this of me, I beg you. For Khelta, for the honor of the dead, our kingdom rode in glory across Chandrar. We made a difference. I could have sat upon my throne, but I did not, for the ending is the same. In this long struggle—Khelt of all nations did all, sacrificed all. I will never be prouder of the fallen. But those that remain—”

He stared at the Jaw of Zeikhal. Stared and stared and reached for it—and he couldn’t tell if it was there. If it was sentient—or if the spells were just dead. Fetohep stared at the Jaw of Zeikhal.

“—We will undergo a time of strife. Such things happen. Even to eternity.”

“What do we do, Your Majesty?”

The girl was almost fallen, almost sinking, tears in her eyes. She looked up, and her king turned. His rictus face fixed on her, his yellowed teeth, his beautiful eyes, and the King of Khelt’s voice rose. He twisted the ring on his finger and turned to the bowing farmer’s family, to his kingdom.

Smile, Pewerthe. Shine like the illusion of gold. Straight into the heavens above. Watch me, and I shall teach you how to bet a fortune of fortunes with a hand empty of even dust.”

 

——

 

So you knew, then. Why Khelt, kingdom of such greatness, was oddly quiet when any fit ruler, any mete ruler would take this time to consolidate and continue to shine.

Fetohep knew it full well. He knew that glory and fame was a fading star, an ember that would invariably burn out unless you nurtured it. It also meant that his priorities had shifted. Where once he had counted the number of foes to humble Khelt on one hand in every continent—his only danger being a coalition the size of Terandria’s Crusades, and even then, only a protracted war—

Now he craved mundane goods that might soon run out. Khelt had deep stockpiles. Yet food spoiled before gold. And the issue was not feeding his people.

The issue was keeping up the image. As soon as that image cracked…the perceptive would notice. So he could not tell his [Bakers] to stop making layered croissants or to stop Khelt’s appearance now that eyes were on them.

Not without good reason.

He had a few recourses, though. So by the time Fetohep left Farmer Colovt to his job, he had Pewerthe join him in his throne room. She listened, as she sometimes did, to his methods of diplomacy. Statescraft, the running of empire…

She was his heir. And while she might be replaced, even if she was not Khelt’s ruler, her talents would make her valuable to Khelt. Only Fetohep and the dead knew the reasons Pewerthe was a worthy successor.

One of the reasons—one—was that she was a daughter of Khelt who had seen the outside world. She was, then, both foreigner and citizen. She had survived a [Bandit] raid that had slaughtered her family and the next seven months as one of their prisoners. That she had lived—and made her way to Khelt—was not Fetohep’s doing.

He had sent a hundred and fifty riders of Khelt, armed with bow and lance from the era of Dolenm, who had styled entire legions after other cultures. The Knights of Dolenm had cut down her pursuers, the ragged remains of the ‘Sands of Cuzale’, a famous [Bandit] gang that had sprang up in the last fifteen years.

Small things to the ruler of Khelt, but Fetohep had inquired and found that their leader had been a Level 34 [Robber Baron].

Another one of those odd classes. The bandit leader and the gang had not been gentlemen thieves, though. Not at all. Their prisoners, like Pewerthe, were survivors of bloody raids and theft of people as well as gold.

How, then, did a [Potter] escape from the Sands of Cuzale and send a [Message] to Khelt asking for rescue? That was the first time Fetohep had met Pewerthe, and he had summoned her to his palace three months after she was brought to Khelt. There, under truth spell and his gaze, he had asked her the contents of her story.

For he could not believe it until he heard it and looked her in the eyes. Not that she had, by wit, cunning, and deed, brought down this gang of thieves by tricking them to fight one another—until a night came when they drew blades and slaughtered each other.

That was a worthy successor to Khelt. A silver-tongued girl straight out of stories, who had convinced the [Thieves] that she could hide secrets in the clay pots she baked, hide precious gold and loot from each other and bury it in the sands.

The irony was that she could not—had not that Skill until after she began levelling up. And the foolish thieves, in their greed to hide their stolen wealth from each other, had sowed distrust in the gang. The finger-pointing and accusations grew and grew until it spilled over into wanton bloodshed, allowing Pewerthe and some few survivors to flee.

There was cunning even the Quarass had admired when Fetohep relayed the story to her.

For all that, the [Potter] was no great warrior. She had no aptitude or passion for the blade. That was fine. Fetohep had thought she would be a splendid ruler to keep Khelt safe another two thousand years.

Now…he feared this was an age when the basest, most common talents to slaughter would be rewarded. And that should not be.

A ruler should be more than a thug. The King of Destruction inspired, among his few talents, with his martial abilities. With his capability to lead armies. Yes, with some genuine concern for his people, but there was more art to it.

“—Serpentine Matriarch of Zeres. I do not believe our nations have ever formally declared war. A cessation of hostilities is wise.”

“Yes. Wise.

Fetohep saw Pewerthe listening in and made sure to even let her get a glimpse of the angry Drake. He made no obvious gesture except to nod, occasionally, but his foot tapped out-of-sight, annoyed.

He was tired of poor rulers. Poor—this was one of the scions of Zeres? Proof hereditary descent was a mistake, and he would ask Pewerthe if she noticed the subtle signs, later, that he took as opposed to Zethe’s ruler or another monarch.

He used the ‘I’, for instance, as Drakes disliked and stumbled over using the royal ‘we’ in parlance. In addition, Fetohep took a far more direct approach, which Drakes, again, reacted better to. Give them an inch and they tended to take yards.

“Then I shall send a formal declaration between our nations to be witnessed by, ah, Manus. A fitting intermediary. After, of course, reparations are made.”

The Serpentine Matriarch stiffened upon her throne. which bore traces of her own Ancestors. Not Dragons, but close enough.

Wyrm. She even bore traces of her lineage, a different kind of Oldblood. Before she could speak, one of the Drakes muted the scrying orb. He lifted an apologetic claw, and Fetohep sighed.

Ridiculous. Offensive—but it forestalled whatever outburst the Serpentine Matriarch was about to make. She was far too young. Thirty-six years old—and her Admiralty were at least able to hold her back and talk to her quickly.

It would not do for Fetohep to be at war with Zeres, who could make trouble at sea. They, of course, feared an army of undead at their gates or another spear through the walls. When the Serpentine Matriarch returned to the orb, her smile was fake.

Unable to control her temper. Unable to lie or put the mask of friendship on. Unable to overcome her wounded pride that her army and her precious Sharkcaptain were bested. Unable to see the plight of the Gnolls when she first made war against them…

Fetohep ran a litany of her faults down as he listened. Her nation was prosperous due to trade, but he knew full well that crime in Zeres was higher. They could use their nation and create better lives for their citizens—instead of the dock-brawls that sometimes claimed lives.

They were no Savere, but was that the bar of any coastal nation? They should have, with their advantages, a thousand bright-eyed youths with great futures like Admiral Asale. The only Drake that Fetohep appreciated—mostly because he had struck Nerrhavia herself in battle. A deed few could ever boast of.

He was tapping his foot too hard, so Fetohep desisted. The Serpentine Matriarch looked like she was having scales pulled off as she agreed.

“Reparations would be…what, exactly, Your Majesty of Khelt?

Draw her in and like an angry fish—cut the slack when she thrashed. Fetohep let his eyes glow brighter for a moment.

“Why—the dead, of course, Serpentine Matriarch. Per your agreement of a cessation, I shall send suitable remuneration in gold per the soldiers Khelt has slain. My people have completed a rough tally. If Zeres would ratify it—we have estimated generously as to our forces, as Khelt was not the only army upon the field. Thereupon I shall send fifty gold pieces to the families of each soldier and a suitable gift in funereal tribute.”

“Funeral…what?”

Fetohep clarified, pretending to sound puzzled. The Drakes were exchanging quick glances.

“Incense. Often a bounty of food—for slain warriors. In this case, a forged sword or other blade, which is passed to the sons or daughters. A brooch in lieu of weaponry.”

“You’re going to send us all of this?”

The Revenant-King’s smile never wavered.

“We were not at war. The dead must have their due, and I shall see to it that the rites for the fallen arrive within two weeks if Zeres consents to escort whatever ship I send. Via Medain’s harbors, I believe.”

That would be something Perric would be happy to oblige. The Serpentine Matriarch floundered a moment then drew herself up with a slight smile.

“I suppose that would be appropriate.”

It was Asale who was watching Fetohep. The King of Khelt raised a hand. And he saw Pewerthe nod as she got it.

Intention. They might well make ‘peace’ with Zeres without the need for this. Even if he did not do this, it was likely the City of Waves would be wary about raiding supply lines to Khelt. So why go to this effort?

“Then, Matriarch of Zeres, I shall send over the specifications and tributes appropriate for the tomb. Per Zeres’ will, it matters not where it is placed exactly, but in suitable repose.”

“Tomb? A monument to the battle? We have one done. And parades…”

Asale coughed.

“I believe—Matriarch, the King of Khelt is referring to his warrior. Do you then mean Zeres should construct a tomb for your warrior—Salui of His-Xe’s reign?”

He didn’t quite know how to name the Revenant, but Fetohep’s eyes flashed approval.

“Just so.”

A tomb for a Revenant? In Zeres? The Admiralty looked at each other, but now Fetohep was speaking, as if oblivious to the consternation.

“It was the practice in His-Xe’s reign to use stones of Chameth-marble, from Zethe, and his motifs included that of scorpions and his own heraldry. I shall provide both, though Zeres’ [Architects] are no doubt surpassing. Twenty tonnes of marble may suffice? Construction does waste material in my experience.”

“Twenty tons of—”

The same marble that made up Khelt’s palace? The Serpentine Matriarch was thinking hard. And now she did show why she ruled Zeres as she replied.

“Of course, we have your Revenant’s remains laid to rest. Nothing—close to a body, but will interring the ashes do?”

No doubt they’d made sure he could not be resurrected. Fetohep thought of the raging warrior, filled with grief and a longing for battle long after his friend and king’s death. He deserved to rest in Khelt—but the ash was not the spirit.

“That will honor Khelt. As we honor Zeres. Then, we have an accord, Matriarch.”

She smiled, then, thinly. But Fetohep could see her counting the costs of that marble. He wondered how large the monument would be, in the end. And the gold for the fallen?

Largesse, when they expected naught but spit and, from fellow Drakes, ridicule. He would not treat the Dragonspeaker so, but she was not as petty.

“We agree, King Fetohep of Khelt. This has been—far more amiable than I thought. Khelt is wise.”

Fetohep smiled and sat back upon this throne.

“Your wisdom, Serpentine Matriarch, is likewise apparent to me. To your Ancestors. Peace.

 

——

 

Rulers of nations gossiped like any other, you know. If not them, then their royal courts—and even if they did not know each other, they did talk when they had a united enemy or subject of discussion.

Why, Drakes would even chat with Terandrians when it came to the—issue—of Khelt. As in, not making an enemy of the undead superpower.

So word of Khelt’s deal with Zeres would get around. Naturally, it proved what many people knew about Fetohep. A powerful warrior, insightful strategist, and leader of a paradise he might be—

He was also arrogant. Or perhaps it was just that he was so damn wealthy he would send tributes to enemy soldiers because Khelt had such ancient funereal practices on the books. There was something galling about it—the king would defeat you in battle, then pay you a fortune in courtesies.

Then again, wasn’t that to be desired? Better a gracious king than a petty one. Some rulers—like Perric—would not be half so ready to make peace as Fetohep, holding the upper hand. A ruler like Perric might well ask for pressing requirements.

Like hostages. Or brides. Or gifts. And keep asking until something changed.

Naturally, the Claiven Earth were happy to hear that Fetohep was inclined to peace, not a continued rampage. Their Treespeaker and wisest members among them had discussed the issue of their surrender to Khelt for a long time.

They were…well, let’s say they were nervous.

It was fair to say that Fetohep and Khelt in general were not the Claiven Earth’s fondest neighbors at the moment. It might be fair to say that they would welcome Flos of Reim with hugs and kisses before Fetohep if they had a choice.

But they didn’t. They’d lost and surrendered to Khelt—and in the nick of time, too. That mad [Vizir] could have thrown meteors into their forest-home.

The Herald of the Forests, their greatest [Mage]—humbled in battle. Fetohep didn’t have one Jaw of Zeikhal, he had six he could have sent into the half-Elf’s domain, and their forces, as experienced and powerful as they were…

Terrifying. But they were at peace, and Fetohep had not yet punished Medain or the Claiven Earth, and he was known to be a rich and, it seemed, still moderately peaceful ruler.

So all was well, right? Well—no.

Consider the issue. What could you give the undead who had everything? Let’s say you needed to impress upon Khelt friendship. Or Khelt was in a position to ask. What did Fetohep want?

Well…artifacts? No. He had a vault full of them. Gold? He had more gold than possibly any nation on Chandrar. Roshal might beat him and a few nations like Nerrhavia’s Fallen—maybe.

Fetohep was no [Slaver]. In fact, his nation forbade the owning of slaves. Good! The Claiven Earth were the same.

…The issue was, that meant he didn’t care for the living in servitude. Now—dead bodies? He did make use of them. Powerful dead bodies?

The Herald of the Forest, Ierwyn, tried not to think about it. Treespeaker Lastimeth had assured her that the Mage of Rivers, Joreldyn, and she had done Khelt enough of a service to mitigate some of his wrath.

She had gone to battle with Fetohep, and the warrior-king was known to appreciate acts of valor. It was just…

The Claiven Earth would have treated Fetohep warily if everything were all fine between them. Yes, they might dislike undead fiercely, but Khelt’s apparent power would have them fishing out gifts and making suitable pacts. That would be fine, not an issue.

But if you had just waged war on Khelt specifically to kill the King? If you maybe, possibly, had joined with even Medain to bring him down and had refused to make peace until the last moment and signed a contract of unconditional surrender?

Maybe you were sweating a bit. And hoping Khelt was truly as munificent as they seemed.

When Fetohep of Khelt finally prevailed on Treespeaker Lastimeth, Ierwyn thought she might have the first heart attack of her hundreds of years of life. Certainly, every important member of the Claiven Earth was flocking around the Treespeaker’s arboreal house like they were children playing with spinner toys.

They lined the bridges along the vast tree branches, some standing far below amongst the roots, shooing away the animals who tended to the forest of half-Elves with them. Annoyed monkeys poked at the older half-Elves then fled. Butterflies spiraled away, sensing the distress of their friends, and the magical sloths hung there. As they did.

The white-haired half-Elves listened as one of the young ones ferried out responses from Khelt’s ruler. The contents of his discussion were brief—and Ierwyn felt a lurch.

“Herald, he wishes to speak to you as well.”

She strode into the little building where the Treespeaker conducted affairs of state. The King of Khelt was unchanged—if anything, he seemed more surrounded by wealth than ever. He was waving aside a sample of Chameth-marble from Zethe’s mines as he glanced up.

“Herald Ierwyn. Ah, welcome. I trust your wounds have healed?”

“They were very slight, Your Majesty. I am pleased to note you are unharmed despite the furious battle. It will go down in history.”

“Such battles do.”

The King mused, not looking pleased by the compliment. He rested a hand in a bowl of what might have been something to preserve his withered skin. The Treespeaker and Ierwyn tried not to wince, looking at the undead so long. Yet he was more than a monster…would that they’d ignored Perric from the start.

Fetohep lifted a hand lanced with the glowing liquid, and the vapor left a trail of magic in the air.

“Forgive me, Herald, Treespeaker. I am passingly impolite. I have been speaking to dignitaries nonstop for nigh upon a month. This is merely a dram of magic to preserve this wearisome body. Are any other half-Elves so wounded beyond the Claiven Earth’s mighty healing? For such valiant warriors, my Potions of Regeneration may be unstoppered.”

He really was far too rich. The Herald kept her face straight.

“Our own healing is equivalent to the task, Your Majesty. I thank you…and for your forbearance given our struggles.”

“Indeed. Khelt now calls upon us, and we answer. Have you a…decision regarding our end of the war, Your Majesty?”

The Treespeaker was pale with nerves. Fetohep drummed his fingers upon his throne, looking oddly discontented.

“It has weighed upon my mind, Treespeaker, Herald. No less than eighteen of my subjects have died in this war between the Claiven Earth and Khelt. Many, many of my soldiers…and two of Serept’s own Revenant-kind. A cost as grievous as any war. I am aware the Claiven Earth has bled likewise—yet the war between our nations cannot be settled with mere words. Not now. I take the Herald’s aid in my hour of need well. Yet we were at war.”

His eyes flashed, and Ierwyn was glad she did not sweat in the face of any foe. Eighteen dead? It was ridiculous—and it also squared with Fetohep’s monumental protective attitude towards his people.

That was even commendable, but this…

“We are at your mercy, Your Majesty. What is your will?”

They could only wait. They had debated sending gifts or bribes, but decided it was futile. They had counteroffers to make. Ierwyn’s first one was to agree to serve Khelt a hundred years. She hoped it would not come to that, but depending on what he willed…

Fetohep took a long pause to dip his hand in the bowl once more before he spoke. Now he sounded—weary.

“Before I deliver my demands, I will speak once upon the battle of the Meeting of Tribes. It may well go down in history. Perhaps my name shall find itself upon record—but I trust the Gnolls and their tribes would take such pride of place, so that my name is but a footnote. I, knowing the writing of [Historians], doubt this. The battles were necessary, but the slaughter…I rule over dead and send my legions by the tens of thousands into battle without second thought. Yet the living’s wanton death preys upon me. To such little purpose. Did you have thoughts on that matter, Herald?”

Ierwyn hesitated. She spoke honestly.

“It was a shame to see it, Your Majesty. Gnolls being attacked by the Drakes, at odds with each other—the treachery of that Plain’s Eye tribe was beyond belief. I must say, personally, that regardless of anything else, had I known of what you went to stop, I would have ridden with you at any time. Especially if worse had come. Like the Seamwalkers…”

The Treespeaker glanced up, and every ear seemed to listen, but Fetohep spoke no more of the doom he had warned the world of.

“Not yet, Herald. Not yet…and you remind me once more that we are mutual allies against foes of such heinous deed. The Claiven Earth may abhor my nature as undead and my kingdom—but you have stood against true monsters again and again.”

“We are not entirely without reason as to the undead, Your Majesty…”

The Treespeaker protested lightly, but Fetohep just glanced at him, and the half-Elf fell silent. The ruler lifted a finger.

“Eighteen dead. Eighteen, and a war between us. There must be reparation. Thus, I have concluded upon my most—reasonable demands. As follows.”

He leaned forwards, and the half-Elves waited, hearts thumping. Fetohep spoke after a long moment.

“…How many fruits, nuts, and other varieties of produce come from the Claiven Earth’s own orchards? My records in trade have always imported many fine delicacies from your lands, but I am aware the majority of them are never traded.”

Fruits? The Treespeaker shot a quick glance at Ierwyn, and she felt her heart leap.

“You intend our produce, Your Majesty?”

“My subjects have an endless desire for foodstuffs. A delight I, personally, do not share.”

The Revenant’s voice was so dry it actually made Ierwyn smile. He nodded to one side, addressing a young woman in the corner of the screen.

“Just this morning, I was relayed a story of a croissant apparently enjoyed by my people. This—disruption in the seas may continue, and I have lands upon Jecrass to mind. For now, I shall consider the Claiven Earth’s debts to Khelt appeased by a contract to supply a host of its goods to my people. How else to repay the dead save sustenance which engenders new and continued life? Within the Claiven Earth’s reason, of course. Is this amenable, Treespeaker?”

“It—it will serve, especially to bridge the ruined paths between us, Your Majesty.”

The Treespeaker looked ready to swing from branches like a boy, but he managed to stay calm. Ierwyn exhaled as Fetohep nodded slowly.

“Then—let us formalize this pact with a treaty releasing the Claiven Earth from its terms of surrender. I intend to do the same to Medain—pending generous trade agreements and similar requests. Though their gardens are less…appealing than the seafood they catch.”

So that was what he wanted? Ierwyn exhaled hard. Peace! So easily bought! She wondered if Fetohep would ask for more. He would release them from their obligations as surrendered nations.

But he was still King of Khelt. The Claiven Earth had better weigh their relationship to Khelt heavily in the future. But for now—people were quietly celebrating outside. Relieved the King of Khelt was so rich that he traded oranges for laurel branches.

Ierwyn just wondered, privately—and just for a second—why Fetohep had not demanded eighteen statues of his people or a delegation to abase themselves in Khelt or a formal apology. She knew the King of Khelt, being as old as he was. He could be pettier and angrier.

Perhaps he truly did fear something larger. Either way—she was grateful.

 

——

 

Like Ierwyn, Fetohep did not sweat either. But the careful, careful diplomacy he conducted for the rest of the day with the Claiven Earth, Medain, Zeres, and the other nations he had been at odds with left even him tired.

Pewerthe was certainly exhausted, and he sent her out before he spoke to Perric, a far longer and more unctuous meeting than the Treespeaker and Herald. That man…

Well, Fetohep had what he wanted. ‘Simple foodstuffs’ in exchange for peace.

He hoped he could prevail on his people to enjoy the seafood and fruits and vegetables over their regular diets. Both nations expected Fetohep to demand more.

Well, he might. It had occurred to Fetohep that the Claiven Earth had blademasters and experts in archery—and Medain their great adventurers.

But for peace, he only wanted these tokens. Play your hand carefully. And any visitors to Khelt…

Any visitors to Khelt would see too much.

“Jecrass, perhaps. Yes, Jecrass. A suitable place to put any visitors and to…it would seem Jecaina did me a surpassing boon.”

Fetohep was musing upon the new lands he’d annexed that night. When Alked Fellbow arrived, the King of Khelt welcomed him into his palace.

“Let us sit and eat, Fellbow. Have you yet dined?”

“I could work for the rest of the night without, Your Majesty.”

The Hemp-man was not some lumbering ox of a warrior as the Stitch-folk often painted the Hemp-caste. Oh, his features were rougher due to the thick cloth made from the manes of the animals he had hunted, but he was closer to lithe than not.

Not thin—not as agile, but a nimble stalker, like how a tiger could disappear among the brush while hunting. A gifted archer. A fine warrior.

A Named-rank adventurer. Yet Fetohep bade him come to the dining room. He spoke as a servant brought out dishes and asked Fellbow’s fancy.

“Though I am dead, Fellbow, I often invite mortals to dine. It is…customary. It relaxes, it enables difficult conversation. Allow me to prevail upon your needs.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

So, Fellbow dined lightly upon bloody meats and the freshest of leaves, almost like he was a noble predator straight off the plains, pure carnivore and herbivore desires mixed. He did not seem inclined to waste time, and neither did Fetohep.

“I suspect your request to meet with me is more than mere desire to impress, Fellbow. Tell me. How did your prescience come about?”

One quick look confirmed everything. Fellbow stopped eating, reached for a cup of water—then let it rest.

“I observed your guards, Your Majesty. The ones that follow your [Magistrates] around—and the ones on the palace.”

“They have not changed unduly, surely?”

Fellbow grimaced.

“They’re slower. If I hadn’t been here before, I would never have noticed. Ever since the Meeting of Tribes, I realized they seem to react at half the speed they used to. Almost as if they’re confused. I was not sure, so I tested their reactions a few times.”

He looked up, and all his suspicions lay behind those grey eyes, like splinters of color. Fetohep? His only response was to sigh.

“You are an adventurer among pretenders to the title, Fellbow. Another reason why your services I desired so highly. Though I did not foresee this day when I reached out to you.”

“No?”

That seemed to surprise Alked. He was—Fetohep realized—slightly tense in his chair. Mostly relaxed, but as he took a long draft of water, he spoke.

“I don’t intend on revealing Khelt’s weakness. I just—wished to know the truth. I could swear upon truth stones, Your Majesty. I would not wish to be silenced if I can prove my sincerity. Nor would I betray Khelt’s trust. I am well aware of your capabilities.”

He said this all very straight-faced, watching Fetohep. Though, like everyone else, Alked Fellbow realized it was hard to tell what Fetohep was thinking. The King of Khelt’s reply was swift, though. He arched one ancient brow.

“Your worries are needless, Fellbow. I am not so poor a ruler as to even intimate the suggestion I would attempt to kill you for fear of my weakness being leaked.”

He lifted a finger as Fellbow opened his mouth to respond.

“That is no mere vanity. You are a man of action. If you planned treachery, it would be before you offered to meet me. Few scoundrels would bring up the notion of treachery themselves; their prevarication is often to cast it upon others. You do not do that.”

“I am a Named-rank adventurer and new to your kingdom, sire. I thought it was worth addressing.”

The man appeared slightly gratified. Fetohep’s eyes flashed brighter in the dim dining hall.

“Oh? For many adventurers, perhaps. Not you. You are mercenary in your jobs, but you are upfront when you cancel your contracts. Never once have you lied, cheated, or betrayed your employers. Actions speak a far louder tale, Fellbow, and your history is known to me. I looked into it before I contacted you. I know people. It is one of my few gifts.”

The Named-rank sat there and, again, was slightly stunned by the fact that an undead ruler of a nation not his own knew him better than the entire Court of Silks had. But then—that was why he had come.

That was why his suspicions being confirmed was such a terrible blow. Alked looked up, and his throat was so hoarse he had to take another drink before he could be heard.

“What…what exactly is the problem, Your Majesty?”

“The souls are gone.”

That was the root, heart, and unfixable issue in Khelt’s soul. Fetohep stood up, and silently, the two left the dining hall so they might speak more privately. Fetohep led Fellbow elsewhere—to the hall of statues.

Eighteen stood there, and it was here he had been able to hear his predecessors most clearly. Each one Fetohep gazed upon.

The eye was drawn to Serept, for they were all made to their likenesses, but he stopped at his beloved Queen Xierca’s and regarded the imperious angle of her nose. Dolenm’s had been broken once. His-Xe’s smile was quirked to one side—he had a scorpion on one shoulder, forever captured in marble.

“Even theirs?”

Fellbow stood there as Fetohep walked before each ruler. The King turned—and his eyes were dim now.

“Even theirs. But the ghosts of each citizen of Khelt—that was the loss. You see, Fellbow—they were what animated the bodies of the skeletons that lie in Khelt. I cannot call upon them. The ones you see were animated by spells of [Necromancers]. The ritual, the pact that Khelta laid down that empowers all of Khelt’s dead?”

Gone. Fellbow hesitated. He said what Pewerthe had, what any clever person would.

“But the bodies are there, Your Majesty. Is there a danger they’ll reanimate? Or—couldn’t a [Necromancer] restore your armies?”

That was the fallacy of thinking to anyone who didn’t study death-magic. Fetohep shook his head.

“I can reanimate a hundred skeletons with a click of my fingers, empowered by my status as Khelt’s king as I am, Fellbow. It is not the same. The dead will not rise unwanted—Khelta ensured that. Only the ones above-ground would be…erratic. I cannot control any of the Jaws of Zeikhal. I hope they are inactive. But one task must be to—control them. Or dismantle them, somehow, without the world watching.”

Fellbow’s pit in his stomach grew.

“And the armies won’t be the same, even if animated?”

Fetohep shook his head. He stood before Khelta, eying the coal-rimmed eyes, her staff. The great [Necromancer Queen].

“The undead a lesser [Necromancer] might raise and bind will be more erratic. But crucially, Fellbow—lesser. You have seen how the undead of Khelt can till a field, clean gutters, and even cook? The souls of Khelt’s citizens allowed that. It gave the warriors a grace upon the battlefield. It gave them loyalty and, yes, even strength to endure without end that lesser undead lacked.”

“Truly?”

Alked had never heard of that, but it made sense. For answer, Fetohep turned and bowed before Khelta.

“She, Khelta who founded all of this, knew that the soul of each body informed the mortal remains. She did not create armies of unwilling beings she slaughtered. She asked for service after death, and generations gave it. The dead are used well, for they loved this land well. She was…a great [Necromancer]. Few of her kind understood death so. But now we see a fault not even Khelta could have foreseen. For the souls are gone. And Khelt is empty. Defenseless.”

The day Fetohep summoned Alked Fellbow and made him the generous offer to become an adventurer of Khelt, the Named-rank had wondered if there was a catch.

He had expected it. He had waited for it, and it had never shown up. After a while, he had begun to realize that Fetohep meant what he had promised. That sometimes—

That there was someone who recognized worth and tried to pay it without shorting or gaining more in return. Yet now, Alked was almost relieved.

So this was the catch. He now served a nation held up by nothing inside. And for some reason, Alked felt more of a burning desire not to see Khelt fall than he had Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

“What can I do, Your Majesty? I can’t speak for Frieke, but I think she admires you. Your people do. Herdmistress Geraeri does too. Perhaps some would waver if the truth came out, but it will not come from me. What can be done?”

“Build armies. Replace our workforce with actual laborers and magic—but crucially, keep this illusion up. I shall lean upon you, Fellbow, and Pewerthe and those I can trust as never before.”

Fetohep seemed gratified by the man’s confidence. But that begged a new question from Fellbow, who now felt like some [General] preparing for a war. Did Fetohep have [Generals]? Now he needed ones.

“Your Majesty—who would be Khelt’s enemies? So I know who to watch for.”

The King of Khelt laughed. It was not a pleased laugh, just amused. He turned, and all eighteen statues seemed to have a hint of mirth about them. They got the joke.

“Fellbow. Who would be our enemies? Who not? If you are asking which nations hold a grudge—I would say the dangerous ones are Roshal, the Claiven Earth, Medain. Nations we have wronged—the Walled Cities, nations who hate undead—all of Terandria save Noelictus.”

Not a fun list. But Fetohep just shook his head.

“I do not name names. Yes, some nations spite us like Roshal, which Khelta once made mighty strife against, and would see us fall. But Khelt is…too rich. Let us say our secret leaks tomorrow. The first foe to come against us? It would be Flos of Reim.”

“…I thought he swore in blood never to take up arms against Khelt.”

Fetohep shrugged lightly.

“Even blood can be forsworn. If I were him, I would find a way or risk it. Because, Fellbow—he would have to. He would have to strike at Khelt and sack my cities or else be faced with destruction. Any nation that plunders our relics would be able to turn the tide against him.”

Alked was conscious of the bow on his back. Fetohep had gifted it to him…and he surely had more. More gold, more treasures than almost any nation. Yes, of course. Any nation would come screaming to take Khelt’s wealth.

Damn. No wonder the King of Khelt looked so worn. But then…

“You could arm your citizens with relics, Your Majesty. If it came to it.”

Fetohep shook his head.

“An army of children with relics will have them taken away. The conceit of Khelt was always its champions without end. My predecessors left other contingencies. Khelt’s palace itself could destroy an army. Razzimir’s Arrows still remain, and we have great weapons in the vaults. These are backup plans, however. Could I make mighty war on Flos of Reim if he were to attack tomorrow? The haughty Terandrians upon their steeds, wearing shells of armor like craven beetles crawling upon my sands?”

His eyes flashed as he considered his enemies descending upon Khelt.

“Yes. And I might throw their armies back four times, eight, a dozen! For they are, by and large, forces made up of this era and lesser than Khelt’s safeguards. But the armies that would have risen without end, millions upon millions of undead—are gone. No object, even the Reinhart’s famous Crown of Flowers, could match Khelt’s endless undead. From the wall of might that surrounded and enveloped every inch of Khelt—”

He lifted a clenched fist, and then it opened. The ruler of Khelt laced his hands together and then let them drift apart. Like a solid foundation becoming a net. Porous.

He himself was a warrior that Alked would have refused to try and kill in an unfair fight. But he could not be everywhere. Perhaps another king, a lesser king would claim that a hammer was all that was needed to instill fear.

But other kings did not hold the life of even a single child of Khelt above their own. Now—when they called for help. None might come.

That knowledge weighed on Fetohep, like Farmer Colovt might stare over a precious field of grain now vulnerable to swarms of pests. Rodents, nibbling, sneaking in. Raiding insects…how was he to protect it all, now? And when the great sandstorm came—he had no army to hold it back and build a wall out of bodies. No legions to pave a road over sea or drag the sky down that it might kneel.

“Then—what of the Revenants? Why did Serept’s half-Giants and the Vizir leave?

Now Fellbow was outraged both parties had gone. Right until Fetohep chuckled again.

“I doubt they knew how Khelt’s armies functioned. They knew their rulers had passed—but even the Vizir is no actual death-mage. Nor can he comprehend a world in which Khelta could ever have a flaw. I would have persuaded both to stay. Had I the time or ability to say it without ears. If possible, I will find them and ask them to return. Sand at Sea remains, and their crew will be invaluable.”

That covered most of Fellbow’s questions. They had undead…but they’d be generic undead, and Khelt had few actual [Necromancers] of talent. Fetohep had riches…and it made him a target. Khelt was famous, powerful—and fragile.

“So what now, Your Majesty? You’ve taken the time to confide in me. What can I do?”

Fetohep looked at the Named-rank adventurer, who had now become one of the pillars upon which Khelt needed to stand. He turned to face the statues, and his voice sunk low to a whisper.

“You know Pewerthe, Alked?”

“Your successor.”

The man saw Fetohep nod almost imperceptibly. The gloom in this hallway of statues could be alleviated with a thousand lights, but the two stood in darkness. The statues seemed emptier now, emptier of whatever they had been meant to hold. Fetohep reached out—and his fingers nearly brushed Xierca’s stone face.

“If I should ever perish, she must lead. The functions that raise her as a Revenant—well, I should like her to live before serving in death. But I must not fall. I must not die. I will leave her catastrophe, and this is mine to bear. Yet look upon these eighteen, Alked.”

He walked down, reciting names.

“Xierca, Izimire, Akhta, Razzimir. Zushe-Greso, Tkayl…”

He knew all eighteen. And when he reached Khelta, he walked back. And each one seemed taller than him, for all many had been shorter.

“I regret it, Alked Fellbow. I regret I am the one. Not because I am not willing, but because I am incompetent. Lesser. 3/10.”

Fellbow didn’t get that reference, nor could Fetohep truly smile. He looked at the statues.

“I am not Khelta, who could replenish our armies again and again. I do not have His-Xe’s ambitions, which led his armies to wage war like thunder—he could have rebuilt our mortal forces. Dolenm was a visionary who had the techniques of countless nations in mind—Serept forged mighty arms, and he was a warrior surpassing ten of me. Emrist’s scourges would have humbled even Roshal’s dark confidence, Xierca had thrice my age and wisdom; her pacts would have called a fourth of the world to our aid at need. Razzimir threw back Crelers…”

Each one of the rulers seemed to rise before the shrinking Revenant. Fetohep slowed.

“…I am lesser than all my predecessors and their various greatnesses. Mistake me not, Alked. I am a ruler wise enough to know his own worth. I was chosen by Xierca for this age. She did not wish another Izimire. I know…people.”

He touched his chest, as if still remembering how the heart beat.

“I know the hearts of folk and how to rule. I have studied rulership where the other of Khelt’s leaders sometimes did not. Would that I had any one of their talents instead, for this time. I would have made a fine king of peace. Not now. Not this.”

Alked listened to Fetohep talk. And he realized…the undead was having a bad dream. A terrible nightmare, the nightmare of nightmares.

This was what Fetohep had feared. What he had thought would not come to pass, but the thing every ruler since Khelta had feared.

I shall be my kingdom’s end. It shall be my fault because I was incompetent.

“It is not, Your Majesty. You—this was unavoidable. You could not have foreseen this.”

“Does it matter?”

Fetohep looked up. He turned to Alked.

“I will not stop striving until the last grain of dust in Khelt remains, the last soul. But Fellbow. I have no safety to offer you nor your family any longer. No confidence in the future. Knowing this—will you still serve Khelt? None could hold it against you if you changed your mind. My offer to you was false, though neither of us knew it at the time.”

He gazed at Alked, and the Named-rank took a deep breath. Fetohep did know people. So he should have known…the man who had slain monsters and people every day of his life since he was fourteen replied slowly.

“Your Majesty, I grew up in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. It was not kind to a Hemp-boy. But I prospered through work and blood and sweat and tears. When I came to Khelt, I thought I had won a kind of luck I never had before. But that is not why I’m here.”

He pointed down and looked at Fetohep.

“I have thrown myself behind Khelt. When you called, I went, and I rode with a [Hero] and the King of Destruction to save lives a continent away. I saw the end of an age and the kind of magic that even [Archmages] quailed at. I am not going to leave. I have one demand of you, sire. Tell me, truly and honestly. Beyond the threats to Khelt. What are we facing?

Like the hunter he was, he was straining to see the real quarry, the real monster sneaking up on them. He had not forgotten why Fetohep first raised the alarm. The King of Khelt’s eyes brightened. His reply was simple.

“Soul-devouring monsters, Fellbow. Consumers of spirit who devour even the spawn from beyond the world’s edge. Even legends. They have haunted the lands of the dead for aeons. Now—they have eaten the souls of all who ever died. Khelta told me they will come for us next. They cannot be slain with Skill nor even relics of the kind you possess. Yet they will be fought and brought down. That is our foe.”

Fellbow’s skin crawled as he tried to imagine it. He pressed Fetohep, but the King lifted a hand.

“I know—names. Names I shall never utter. I know a word that cannot be spoken. Nor can I think of it—I will show it to you, but it may injure you just to comprehend it.”

Even now, his mind was trying to blank out the way Khelta had told him to write it. Fetohep shook himself and went on as Fellbow listened.

“There are six—perhaps five, or even four or two, by now. The dead may have exacted their vengeance. But the remaining will still be threats that require our all, everyone’s all to battle.”

“Why not shout the alarm across the entire world? Unify them!”

It was only logical. In response, Fetohep shook his head.

“I have been assured that would be dangerous. The more who know, the stronger they become. And I was told…some will join them. As traitors and cowards do. But some—some will worship them.”

What that meant was beyond Alked’s ken, but the Named-rank felt the weight of Fetohep’s warning upon him. In silence, the two men stood and passed through that dark night.

Dawn would always come.

“So, Your Majesty. What is the first step? What allies…can you call upon if Khelt’s weakness is revealed? Perhaps the King of Destruction might agree to an alliance?”

Fetohep’s chin rose.

“I will not beg nor show weakness, Fellbow. We will begin with what we have. For now—Khelt changes.”

 

——

 

At dawn, Fetohep of Khelt let Alked go, weary from a night of talk. He made a proclamation, as he greeted the dawn, to his people, and it spread through Khelt.

“My people. I shall have you level.”

A crowd of crowds gathered in the place he had chosen. Not the greatest of places, but that treacherous footpath of clay bricks. There were no rats and beetles, and the ground, he knew, was uncomfortable. People shifted as they listened to him, despite their adoration.

It was fitting. Humble, yet Fetohep stood grandly as he spoke. He knew that there were probably people who would report this to the Mage’s Guild—in pride, for there were still few [Spies] in his lands. If he wanted it, he could find himself on television.

What an irony, that. Fetohep had been told he had an unsurpassing number of [Messages] and even physical letters in the night. Apparently, boatloads of letters had come across the sea, and the [Mages] had finally sorted through his royal correspondence…and he had literally thousands of letters from mundane individuals next.

He would attend to it after this. Fetohep’s speech was short and to the point.

“It is my will that the undead who have labored so long in service of us all—rest. I ask you to go and level. As [Bakers], as [Cleaners], even as common laborers in the field. Chafe your hands upon soil. Work—and sweat—and even bleed for the class you find most worthy. There is no class without merit. You have seen how Khelt impresses the rest of the world with its splendor. Now—I will make you the jewels upon Khelt’s crown to lay on Chandrar and the world’s head.”

It was not a bad speech, and they cheered him, but they would have cheered him passing wind. Nor did he lie—not exactly, not as a truth stone picked it up. Any class had merit.

…But they needed them. His subjects took his speech with a will, and his [Magistrates] and other officials gave them ideas to test—from learning the art of swords to all the things that would be needed.

At least they loved it. At least, Fetohep vowed, it would not be them working until their fingers were blistered and bloody. Not here.

He felt like this was good enough. Fellbow had offered to train the most promising of Fetohep’s subjects, organize the best trainers—and Khelt did have many high-level folk—even find worthy people to recruit from elsewhere.

So Fetohep had anticipated the worst was over, for now. He had set every ball rolling…safeguarded Khelt’s interests and hidden their weakness. Now, he could rest.

—He believed that right up until he went back to his throne room, sat down, and the most painful event thus far struck him. Struck him as he had never been wounded, even his death-wounds in battle.

Fetohep got fan-mail.

 

——

 

The letter, well, the first letter that made him realize what was happening was not poorly written.

Alright, it was. The handwriting was decent…and that was all you could say about it. Unlike the [Merchants] begging to do business, the invitations from nobility to come to some ball a continent across and maybe invite them in return or offer them citizenship, a note from Chieftain Feshi—

Fetohep had been smiling until he read this one. It began poorly.

 

Dear Your Majesty,

 

The…Fetohep knew people didn’t know how to address rulers most of the time. The endless protocols of how to write from monarch to monarch, duke to lesser lord, and so on were complex. But this? He was intrigued as he saw it was parchment, barely foolscap, not paper.

 

My name is Luresh Greenpaw. I am a Gnoll in the Greepaw Greenpaw tribe and my Chieftain is Orelighn. We have not met but I know you from the scrying orbs. You were at the Meeting of Tribes and helped the Doombearers. My tribe helped too. I wasn’t there because I’m only 11 but we were on the Doombearer’s side with Tribe Weatherfur.

You are a good person. My [Shaman] says that even if you are an undead, you are better than a lot of the Drakes and Humans. My father thinks so too. My mother says you look a bit rotten but you saved my people. Thank you.

So can you send your armies back and please protect my tribe? Chieftain Orelighn is worried we’ll be attacked by the Drakes. All the cities still hate us, and our warriors are patrolling all the time. Someone shot arrows at one of our wagons yesterday. And Khelt has lots of gold, my [Shaman] says. 

Can Greenpaw have some? Chieftain Orelighn helps us farm, and we have a crashed metal thing, but none of that made us gold. I saw how rich Khelt was and I would like to try some of the cooking you have.

Even if you can’t send food and gold, if you could stop the Drakes from attacking us, I’d sleep a lot better. 

Thank you, 

—Luresh Greenpaw

 

The King of Khelt stared at that letter for so long one of his servants asked, timidly, if all was well. Fetohep looked up after sixteen minutes.

“I…are there more letters from civilians, not [Merchants] or ‘important’ individuals? Sort them for me.”

The team of his people did. Fetohep found another letter and opened it.

 

To King Fetohep of Khelt,

Sire, I’m writing you from Taimaguros. My name I have to withhold because I fear this letter will be found. You may not know Taimaguros, but I believe a king of your wisdom can inquire. 

If you are aware—at all—of the strife between Taima and Guros, I implore you to ignore that. That…that is not what is killing our citizens.

Taima and Guros are rich. We are part of a massive empire and yet there are people, good people who work as hard as can be, nevermind what is said about us, who cannot feed ourselves. The classes of [Serfs] and [Peasants] are rife within Terandria.

When I saw Khelt’s paradise, I didn’t believe it with my own eyes. Then I looked up and saw how much gold flows into the coffers and how the laws hold down anyone of our classes. I was lucky enough to be taught how to read and write—and still, I watch my fellow people starving.

We’ve protested. We’ve begged, and soldiers of the Taimaguros Dominion have put down our requests with bloody death. I have asked for anyone to hear us—and good people do, who I will not disclose here for fear of retaliation. 

You, surely, are one such. Even the Taimaguros Dominion might listen to the King of Khelt speaking on our matters. Even a word on a scrying orb or the Queen of Arbiters weighing our case—if she asks, there are thousands for her to look into.

I know I may never set foot on Chandrar, but I hope for just a moment of the wisdom and goodness that led you to fight for another people on Izril. Thank you,

—Anonymous

 

It was probably a trap. Or fake. That was Fetohep’s first instinct as a canny ruler. But let’s assume it was fake. This one was fake.

The fourteenth letter had him calling for a rare cup of liquor fit for undead.

 

—[Mercenaries] will kill everyone in our village without us paying. Can we move to Khelt? We don’t have to live in your kingdom, but we’ll work hard. Our entire village of Lizardfolk have no one to turn to. The Great Companies don’t listen—

—a single squad of undead. Just ten of them would scare away anyone—

—[Lord] has assaulted my daughters. He denies everything, and his men have threatened my life. No one can bring him to justice, but the King of Khelt can—

—-please let us come to Khelt. If not, I can pay for my little brother to go to—

 

I saw you on the scrying orb. I think you’re a good man. 

I need your help.

They were—there were hundreds of them, and Fetohep wondered how many ships had delayed sending mail. It was still cheaper, far cheaper, to send a slow letter than a single [Message] spell. And there were [Messages] too. People with names, identities he could reasonably verify and look into.

He selected twenty for a [Spymaster] to verify and report back on. Fifty-eight letters in and Fetohep was assured that seventeen were real, the last three either false or harder to verify.

He had never considered this. In Jecaina’s scrying orb broadcast, even as prescient as he’d been—Fetohep had not realized that to invite the world’s eyes upon him was to also receive the world’s pleas.

Perhaps the other rulers had received the like. But they were mortals, with limited time and people who filtered their correspondence. Fetohep?

He read and read—and he saw the naked pleas, sometimes gagging with desperation. You could help.

He could. He could speak the name of that [Lord] who had attacked a girl, and an investigation would be launched. It would offend another sovereign nation’s dignity, but Khelt could do it.

The Greenpaw Tribe was not some vast group—a single group of a hundred undead might well scare away most forces.

He did not have a hundred undead to spare. He could not take in even a fraction of the people begging for citizenship.

Of course, Fetohep knew that. He had always been isolationist and placed Khelt’s people above all others.

It was just that he did not always see—no, he had never seen so many reaching out for aid. Nor had they ever spoken to him like this. Him, a Revenant, being begged above their sovereign lords and rulers for mercy, for a scrap of justice.

These rulers. So many letters had people who should have turned to local superiors of some kind for justice, aid, and relief. And so many impugned the character of these [Lords] and [Queens] and…

Too many were Terandrian. Terandria, that continent called so safe? Why were so many people starving or wanting for justice?

The King of Khelt stared at the pile of letters. He’d begun sorting them, unconsciously, into actionable and inactionable piles. Some people he could legitimately not help, unless he wanted to send a ship with undead across the world or hire mercenaries.

But some just required a word. A word such as ‘shame’.

Pheislant. He could address House Havrington within the hour on one of the broadcasting television stations. A five-minute address and the claims—without naming any victims—and it would be done.

But what if House Havrington retaliated? It could well become an issue with Pheislant, and they might fear Khelt. Yes, they certainly did.

…But one ship sunk and he would have to make a point. And he had no armies. He could hire mercenaries, make a show of—

The letters sat there and built up. And built up—until Fetohep had to stand away. Stand away, and stare across his city as he heard voices ringing upon his ears. He made his worst mistake, by asking one of his [Spy]-contacts to send him an image of one of the letter-senders.

Then he could think of nothing at all. Until a [Message] arrived from an important source, one directly to him. And never in his life had Fetohep ever been so grateful to be blackmailed.

 

——

 

Fetohep of Khelt looked—charitably—like someone had taken him, hung him up like a scarecrow, and beaten him with a stick for the last nine hours.

Oh, his garb was immaculate. His body unchanged. But something about the way he slumped, the vacant stare—and he was an undead, it was all technically vacant—

Something about all that had his servants fluttering to ask him if he needed something. Fetohep didn’t even have his perfect posture upon his throne.

He just…

Sat there.

Never once before, in Fetohep’s life as a mortal man or as ruler of his nation, had he ever felt so worthless.

Like the beetles the rat had devoured. This emotion, he realized, was shame. Such an odd thing to feel because they were not his people who begged him, who suffered.

Yet he was ashamed because he had the means to help and he did not. Or—had.

No, the King realized. He was ashamed for more than just the people and his inaction.

He was ashamed—outraged—that the men and women who ruled these suffering people dared to call themselves rulers. He was ashamed that their classes and levels didn’t fall from their worthless souls. They were unworthy, and if he could but punish them—

His eyes glowed, trapped lighthouses of glorious intention trapped in the sockets. He ignored his servants until Pewerthe came before him. Then the King stirred—but she just placed something in front of him.

Pewerthe, clever Pewerthe, said no great speeches to her King. The tongue of the [Potter of Secrets] had spoken enough when she saw his suffering.

Now, she placed before him a little stone that spoke, and a voice entered the silence of his throne room as his servants left.

“Hey…is this thing on? Fetohep? How’s it hanging, buddy?”

The King of Khelt’s head rose. He hesitated—and then the banked flames grew, like the fire, like a smile across the world as someone sat in her room and leaned over the speaking stone.

“Erin Solstice. You were not taught to speak to royalty?”

“Yep. But it never took. I heard from Kevin that you needed to talk. I told you—call me any time.”

“I had not thought to. Pewerthe, my heir, contacted you in my place.”

“Well, there you go, then. Smart. I told you I didn’t need to be a [Queen].”

Suddenly, Fetohep was leaning over his throne, speaking in such common parlance, even—chattily—that no one could quite believe it when they first saw it. But then, the King of Khelt had few people he regarded as equals. So no wonder Flos, Orthenon, the Herald of the Forests, the Blighted King, and all the people he had met never heard this side of him.

“I believe I had contacted you before our weekly meeting. Regarding the child.”

What did Mrsha do this time? Is she still begging for money? Mrshaaaaa—don’t run! You know what you did!

The exasperated [Innkeeper] made Fetohep chuckle.

“No. My apologies. The other child. Satar.”

“Wh—oh. Satar. Right. All them books you’re sending her. Er—as you were, Mrsha.”

Erin coughed into the scrying stone, and Fetohep decided to expand his lexicon when referring to people he was acquainted with.

“And your doings of late?”

“Um. Well, I told you the Albez stuff is mostly sorted. I just sorta laid Sprigaena down there the other day. Bam. I hit this half-Elf I know with it. She was pretty mad.”

“I believe the Claiven Earth, among other half-Elven enclaves, are in a frenzy. I did not inquire into the matter. Yet.”

“Yeah. It was a thing.”

She said that as if one said the name of Elves regularly. But despite her cheery, if not impertinent and casual tones, the [Innkeeper] and the Revenant were not silly gossipers. Fetohep did that with Kevin.

“What’s wrong, Fetohep? Your heir made it sound bad.”

He hesitated. Relating the entirety of this—of the letters needed a preface. So he began with the easier topic.

“I have just received my first—request. From someone aware of Khelt’s issues.”

“…Who?”

The voice became sharp and quiet, and Fetohep replied quickly.

“The same. The Quarass of Germina beseeched Khelt, in light of our mutual alliance during the Meeting of Tribes and the munificence of Khelt to its neighbor in the Shield Kingdom of Germina…”

“Yeah?”

“…to provide some small relief in the forms of what I took to be lumber, gold, and Water Gems—Ger’s oasis is strained by the increasing population, I gather.”

“So what did you do?”

Fetohep flicked his fingers.

“I answered her request graciously and immediately. It is a trifling favor that I am sure the Quarass will remember.”

Just like she was going to remember Khelt’s weakness. Erin Solstice huffed.

“She’s gonna keep asking, isn’t she?”

“Naturally. But as it comes to neighbors in aid…”

The Quarass was, ironically, the best and worst person to be blackmailing Khelt. Mostly because she was usually good at it. She would ask for whatever she needed—but not drain Khelt. By the same token, though—it was impossible to get her to stop.

The problem with an immortal ruler was that even if you killed her, the next Quarass would remember all your weak points and be holding a grudge. Nevertheless, as Fetohep related, that was the most pleasant part of his morning.

“I’d beat her up, if I were you. I’d be like, ‘hey! You can’t do that!’ And then she’d probably take revenge. Which is why I would have been a terrible Queen of Khelt. Like, a total Izimire.”

Fetohep actually twitched about that. His reply was thoughtful.

“That is your claim, Erin. I see how you would come to it—but I would have placed you as another Emrist. Or Heris.”

She started laughing at that, and he joined in. Because—obviously—the second and eighth rulers of Khelt had both been hugely influential. Great, glorious—and Emrist’s Scourgeriders had blasted entire nations. Heris, after Khelta had passed, had sent the Vizir Hecrelunn and her armies on a collision course with her neighbors and established Kheltian dominance for good.

It was a joke only the two of them and the Quarass would get—and the Quarass wouldn’t be laughing after what Heris had done to her armies.

Then, as Erin stopped giggling, Fetohep spoke.

“My—indisposition was not due to the situation in Khelt. Alked Fellbow was instrumental in assuaging some of my fears on that matter incidentally.”

“Told you that you could trust him. You can always trust archer-guys. Halrac, Bird, Badarrow—they’re my guys.”

Erin was smug, despite her method of vouching for people being entirely inane. Fetohep rolled the flames in his eyes, but he felt—relieved.

Relieved to talk to someone about this. The speaking stone was encrypted, but the two of them were careful to be somewhat secretive. Nevertheless, it was then that Fetohep decided he needed to tell her.

“I received letters. That was why I felt such a—dismay. May I read the first to you? It would illustrate my chagrin.”

“Sure.”

It was almost as if she knew what he would get before he did. No—it surprised her for the first few lines. He heard her gasp when he read the young Greenpaw’s letter. Then it seemed like she knew every line of why so many letters had poured in.

“It sounds like home. Only, there aren’t many Fetoheps. There are a lot of King Poos.”

“Please stop giving the High King nicknames.”

Erin chuckled, but suddenly her voice had the same strain as his. Fetohep regretted that—and more words came spilling out of him, though his lungs and throat were long since decayed.

“I regret it. I am sorry, Erin Solstice.”

“For galloping an army across a sea? For saving Mrsha’s life and everyone else’s? Don’t be silly.”

She sniffed—and Fetohep knew that these were great accomplishments. He still felt as alive as the day he had run across Chandrar, racing time to do what had to be done.

Yet now—he clenched one fist upon his throne, and his voice rose. He could not help it. The palace still echoed with his tones, and his subjects looked up. At their king’s impotent emotions. Those flames…

They were the colors that Erin thought of when she thought of Fetohep. More than glory. Not the same as happiness. Great purpose made manifest. Probably, in time—

She had yet to give that emotion a name. But it was his, in every part of his voice as he confessed.

“If Khelta had been wrong, Erin Solstice. If her prediction had not come true, I would have taken my armies and placed them across Izril rather than returning all I could to Khelt. The first thing I would have done would be to send to Magnolia Reinhart. For her, I would have built that bridge between north and south. Sent a hundred thousand laborers to realize that vision.”

He could see it, pointing his armies to march past the Walled Cities with their standards on high. Facing down the haughty Drakes, placing them around tribes and safeguarding the Gnolls’ lands.

“What else would you have done?”

Erin encouraged the undead king, and Fetohep went on, speaking from that dream that would never be.

“The next deed would be Liscor. An army—led by Salui or Hecrelunn.”

“Whoa, whoa. I don’t want—”

“As you have so pettily done, Erin Solstice, I return your ‘shush’. Silence a moment. I would pass by that inn upon the hill or tarry my forces only long enough to see Hecrelunn’s humiliation anon. Then—Khelt’s legions would pour into that dungeon and root out the last monsters. End that place and march onwards.”

Erin was just breathing, but Fetohep knew she was listening. He stared at that image. And then reality. Now, he hesitated, for even the off-chance of saying this next part was dangerous. So he couched his language and knew she understood.

“I would have used my forces to prepare for a war—that great war. I would have prepared by making Khelt the enemy of mortal foes. By destroying those it would be better never to stand with. No matter the cost—I would hammer out that alliance that even Khelta would admire. I would have done these things, you see. If only.”

His voice was so filled with regrets the [Innkeeper] was silent a moment. As if searching for things to say.

“I have let you down, Erin Solstice. And Khelta. I should have apologized to her.”

That was all he said. His head lowered, and the speaking stone threatened to slip from his fingers as Fetohep’s eyes and will faded—until a voice snapped through the speaking stone.

Don’t be disgraceful.

Fetohep jerked upright. The female voice who snapped at him sounded young—but older. It sounded—

Well it sounded a bit like Xierca, for all it was a tongue, not the tones of graceful undeath. Erin Solstice’s voice rolled around the throne room.

“Let her down? Let us down? When I despaired and the ghosts stood alone and even legends were afraid—Khelt stood with us. Khelt’s king rode across Chandrar. Not the Mages of Wistram. Not the Walled Cities. Not the Blighted Kingdom or any other. One kingdom fought alongside the dead. And you know something, Fetohep? Khelt’s finest hour wasn’t then. Your people are alive.”

“I have nothing to give them. Nor those reaching for help.”

How ridiculous. He should be encouraging her. But—everyone needed this. Erin Solstice’s voice was firm.

“You don’t? You’re Fetohep of Khelt. You are the last part of Khelt still standing—that’s more than they have. They know it. You’re better than their stupid rulers, and that’s why they’re asking.”

Erin Solstice paused, and then her voice grew softer.

“You—of them all, you would have been a fun king. Even for me.”

She didn’t linger on the words, but they touched him. Erin Solstice went on, her voice growing louder, rushing over the greatest compliment any monarch might ever receive.

“You might not have armies—but you have Khelt’s treasures. Don’t stop now. How much money did you say you had?”

“Enough to destabilize the idea of economy. I have treasures, but no arms to hold them.”

“What? Don’t you have guests? Y’know, Fetohep, it’s better to have friends than a treasury. At least, I think so. Again—bad ruler. I’d leave you all broke. You still have a lot. So, uh—buck up, alright? That means don’t give up. If Mrsha can go to school, anything’s possible.”

Fetohep realized he was sitting up again. He leaned back against his throne and, despite himself, chuckled.

“That cannot have been easy. Tell me about it.”

So she did. They spoke lighter then, and Fetohep felt more himself after that. Indeed…he thought the same held true for her. Especially when his eyes flared and he had an idea.

A poor ruler reacted to situations. He had done a lot of criticizing of late without looking in a mirror. But after speaking to her—Fetohep was reminded who he was.

Ruler of Khelt. King of Khelt. Not the egotistical vanity of someone else. A man, just a man, chosen by Khelta’s hand through the ages to be the best. So—he promised the [Innkeeper] he’d try.

 

——

 

The [Mercenaries] of Dovive arrived in the palace later that morning. They’d been beset, again, by people offering the delicate breakfasts, although today a lot of the subjects were trying their hand at new crafts with a will.

Still, the nervous group of men and women checked their stitching and clothing as they lined up. They were accorded all the hospitality of the palace and offered rooms to visit or fine food of their own to dine on while they waited.

Herdmistress Geraeri and the Gnoll Chieftains were visiting Fetohep first.

Unlike his gloom of before, the King of Khelt was sitting on his throne in dynamic fashion. One leg crossed over another, sitting with the crown of rulers upon his head as a [Fashionista] held up a series of clothing sets he sorted through.

The Centaurs of Zair were nervous—but the Herdmistress had been greatly compensated for her deeds—in levels as well as wealth. Even so, she had to wonder what Fetohep wanted this time.

“Herdmistress Geraeri, have you breakfasted as of yet?”

It was a mark of Fetohep that he did ask the people so conscientiously about something he, personally, would never have issue with. The king waited until she said that she had, then, as the Gnolls listened, he pointed at a suitable garb.

“Have it prepared within the hour. Herdmistress, will you indulge me in the way of the People of Zair with a story?”

Of all the things to ask—she recovered and bowed with a smile.

“The exchange of stories is one great custom of ours. What might I offer you?”

Fetohep rested a finger upon his emaciated lips.

“Tell me, Herdmistress—how did the People of Zair come to Chandrar? Yours are not a native people to this land. It is my understanding a rift forced your departure from Baleros.”

Her smile slipped. That was a sore point, still, but she nodded.

“It is a long and mighty tale. To do it justice, I would convene the lesser clan leaders and storytellers and make it a feasting tale of ten days over a festival. Full of anger, grief, nostalgia, and, of course, reenactments. Should I declare such a day or will you settle for a simpler version?”

The King of Khelt smiled, for she was not without her own pride and pushback. He lifted a hand and seemed to reach—part of his hand vanished as the Herdmistress saw the familiar trick, the Skill.

“My inquiry is not meant of vanity’s sake or to offend. Rather, I candidly ask, Herdmistress, for you are a citizen of Khelt. I regard you as such.”

“The People of Zair—”

She was worried because he had promised them such independence. Fetohep nodded.

“—may choose. But you have done me such services that I am compelled to ask. For you are Khelt’s great champion, Herdmistress. So I ask again—what are the People of Zair’s story? What great grievance is left unchecked? It is the same question I shall ask of the Gnolls.”

He glanced at the Chieftains. Then he withdrew what he had found.

He had offered Geraeri and her people blades to fight at the Meeting of Tribes. This time—even Fetohep’s great strength shifted in order to hold the suit of linked armor aloft. Geraeri blinked, and a Gnoll made a sound.

She had never, ever seen Adamantium chain-mail before. Let alone…her eyes widened as they went over the dangling object. Fetohep needed nine servants to hold the huge, complex piece of armor aloft. In two parts.

It was a kind of torso, helmet, and armpieces—all linked chainmail—and a barding of the same. Barding—for a horse.

Armor for a Centaur.

“It was customary for Serept to make armor for every species. This was the Adamantium piece he forged as proof of his mastery. It was gifted to a Centaur of Baleros he held in great esteem and reclaimed in ages since. Herdmistress, I have no other sets so fine, but my vaults hold many bows. Arrows and blades—yet these are the meanest of my tokens. Far better to have cornucopias and potions to heal, rather than harm. Hence my question. Do the People of Zair still have a dream left unanswered?”

He leaned over upon his throne. The golden eyes glittered—then turned to the Chieftains.

“And you, Chieftains of the Tribes—your peoples are scattered. You stand upon new lands. What will you? Gnolls have walked Chandrar’s soil. Your birthright lies scattered across Izril. Tell me a story, and if it is one that can end without death such as I abhor—then I will arm you with the means to reach the ending.”

Reach the ending? The Centaurs were looking at each other. One whispered.

“We left Baleros an age ago. Our grudge—the other clans are probably dead, some of them.”

“Ships can be arranged. But if it is deed—or reconciliation that awaits—then speak it here, and honestly, Centaur Trall. For Khelt will welcome your people if the Herdmistress settles Zair’s long exile.”

Fetohep’s flaming gaze winked as the Herdmistress was, once again, lost for words. She had to beg a moment to collect her thoughts. The Chieftains were also staring. So, Fetohep summoned the [Mercenaries] of Dovive.

“A time has come, brave warriors, for you to return home.”

“You have been beyond generous, Your Majesty. We shall remember your hospitality—and the wonders of Khelt’s paradise until the end of our days.”

Their leader bowed, but Fetohep lifted a hand.

“Hospitality. Your own bled and died on Izril, Captain Randolen. I have offered you bed and food and friendship—but not my thanks. This is Khelt’s gratitude.”

He clicked a finger, and the [Mercenaries] turned as servants strode forwards. They planted blades on the ground, and the warriors gasped.

Mithril-enchanted glaives and a set of the same metal stood on the proud servants of Khelt, who modeled the armor—a full set for each warrior.

“Your Majesty! For us?”

The King of Khelt nodded.

“It is my understanding you have served Dovive in times of strife. That—lesser enemies still dog your city. Hounds. Should I send you back armed with naught but thanks and trinkets and hear that one of the brave mortals who dared to ride with the Hero of Zethe had been laid low in battle? No. No—you shall go with armor and weapons and gold.”

“We cannot repay that, Your Majesty—”

The [Captain] was getting kicks from his company, but even a [Mercenary]’s greed could be tempered by this much magic and expense. Especially because he feared there was a catch.

Fetohep’s reply was to chuckle. He gazed at the Centaurs and Gnolls, and then pitched his voice low, in a stage-whisper.

“That you are sons and daughters of Dovive—I shall not offend you by offering you citizenship in Khelt, for you have families and your city alone you surely love.”

He ignored the looks from some of the [Mercenaries] that said they might think about it—if he offered. The King of Khelt went on.

“Dovive needs you. They need the courage it took to join me. So if I send you back, arrayed—the cities who have pledged to Khelt cannot be made part of Khelt. I shall not expand Khelt’s borders recklessly and snap up colonies here and there. Rather, I would have proud allies. If, in however long or short it takes, I should receive a familiar face leading a delegation of proud folk—I will remember Dovive’s name.”

He gestured, and the first blade he took as he rose from the throne. The King of Khelt strode down and offered the glaive to the men and women. He turned and looked at his guests.

“I have a fondness for great tales. I should like to see more told. Indulge my request, and return to your homes heads held high. Then—when we next meet, I shall listen to what you have done.

His eyes met one of the servants, and Pewerthe smiled. Then, Fetohep of Khelt returned to his throne. This was well. This was something.

—But he had more to do. Something far greater that he had come up with. Erin Solstice had heard out his idea as he worked it out, and while she would have ruled differently than he, he listened to her. She was young, and perhaps not as old as he was, and certainly less decorous.

But he trusted it when she laughed.

 

——

 

So it was that the King of Khelt appeared on the scrying orbs. He stood, having booked a time with Wistram News Network and every other television.

For he was Fetohep, and his deeds were legion. He spoke, and a world listened, for it must. Whether it hated him, whether it feared him or admired him or begged for his ear—

He was Fetohep.

They knew him, if not personally, like the little white Gnoll insisting he was her best friend as she sat in school and everyone laughed at her, or the Gnolls like the [Historian] who gathered around and watched him with great expectations—

They knew Fetohep.

He could not answer them directly, the people starving, starving for a blanket or food or security. And it showed. Perhaps, you saw the pinpoints of flame in his eye sockets, his deep regrets as a [Reporter], Drassi, introduced him.

But then they grew, grew with cunning and the knowledge he had learned as a ruler. He could not lift the world upon his shoulders. So this—is what he did.

His robes looked different today. They were golden, to match his eyes. The kind of ostentatious, flashy gold that meant a ray of light hitting them created a sunburst.

Woven truegold, which was not, actually, the most expensive of cloths he had. Yet it was the most showy that even plebian rulers and tasteless mongrels could ‘appreciate’. The High King of Medain was very impressed, for instance, at the sheer gold-cost.

Fetohep had actually replaced his crown with another one that he kept as a spare—that had a massive black diamond embedded in it. It sat too-heavy upon his head, and the flashing rings upon one hand shone as he lifted them.

It was all a show. Such acts, such deeds, might not impress the Quarass, who knew true power and taste, or even the King of Reim, who had seen it too.

But it probably did speak to a petty [Lord] or a young [King].

 

——

 

“What style.

Duke Rhisveri of Ailendamus stopped dead in his tracks as he saw King Itorin II watching the scrying orb. He had never seen someone glitter like that.

Azemith made a gagging motion in silence behind some of the nobles of Ailendamus’ court. Visophecin glared at her. He watched, wondering what Fetohep of Khelt had decided to say.

There was no reason given for the broadcast—only that he had apparently booked the time. Naturally, if it were worthless, he’d lose credibility. Somehow—the Lucifen thought Fetohep knew exactly what he was doing.

 

——

 

Tone. Posture. Intonation. He did not shout, he boomed. His voice had that sense of being loud without seeming as if he was needing to raise it. Commanding.

Even Lady Zanthia of Izril could not point out a flaw to the [Ladies] she was coaching in such things. Fetohep did not gesture wildly with his hands—he emphasized, every few sentences, using a swift, controlled motion to enhance his words.

Not even Pryde could look more arrogant. And even she stared, reluctantly, at someone who was more famous, more accomplished, than she.

Erin Solstice listened with a twinkle in her eyes. And if you were very clever, like Pisces, you could see her lips moving along with the words Fetohep projected.

 

——

 

I am Fetohep of Eternal Khelt, Nineteenth Ruler of the Necrocracy of Koirezune! Protector of Jecrass, Conqueror of Medain and the Claiven Earth—Horselord of the Windswept Lands! My titles are endless. My armies without number. I am Fetohep, King of [Kings]. Look upon my visage, ye mighty, and despair! No nation can equal mine, not in wisdom or greatness or worth of rule.

He spread his arm, and from the palace, the audience could look upon that city of art and wonders, upon streets of banked embers, past orchards blooming next to houses floating in the air. Across murals of the greatest of figures, past rooftops glittering with silver, and mage-lights like contained stars sitting just to illuminate for fancy and joy.

Fetohep turned, and his raiment flashed again.

“I have heard it said—by peonic fools of little worth or perception—that Khelt’s armies alone dignify my nation. That my paradise is merely ‘equivalent’ to a Terandrian kingdom. That I, Fetohep, am not personally superior in every way. I have reserved this moment to prove otherwise. Accompany me, and I shall demonstrate the proof of my words without question.”

He nodded to Drassi, and the [Reporter] bit back a laugh.

“Your Majesty, that is a claim! Khelt is a beautiful paradise, but how can you say you’re better than any city or nation? I think Pallass—and my home city—and about every other nation is about to call in and dispute that!”

Fetohep lifted a ringed finger.

“The proof is indisputable, Miss Drassi. Nor will I be so quaintly absurd as to compare ‘feeling’ or anything as pathetic as the weight of history. Or edifice. What makes a great ruler?”

“L-levels?”

That threw Drassi for a second. She looked at Fetohep, and he drew himself up.

Arrogance. The king was arrogant. He had always been so—but his true talent was unsurpassing arrogance. And—proving it. That was what he did to visitors of Khelt. Now, Fetohep adopted a tone that was less superior and more lecturing. He produced something from the folds of his robes like a magic trick, but it was not.

Like a [Poet] in repose, he lifted a simple object up. It was a handful of petals, the audience saw, soft and blue. The king poised there.

“Is it levels? Truly, Miss Drassi? Such a simple opinion. Should we look at strutting peacocks of rulers and compare their attire? Their personal qualities? I am a King. No. The weight of monarchs is in the value of their nations.”

“That sounds reasonable. So, do you compare that in landmass, army size, uh, the amount of gold you earn per year?”

Fetohep dismissed this.

“Another misguided notion. The worth of a ruler is reflected, surely, in the quality of his kingdom. To the wagging dogs who claim their steadings are superior to mine—I challenge anyone to do this. Via scrying orb—this is how you tell the worth of a kingdom.”

Then he opened his hand, and the flower petals flew out. They caught along a breeze that may-or-may not have been engineered by a [Mage] in the background, and everyone saw one of the petals was painted gold.

They danced upon the wind, a shower of blue, and that piece of gold flew off towards one of the many streets below. Fetohep pointed.

“There. Chance shall inform our passage. After all—when a ruler tours his nation, he must not follow pre-planned routes. When he goes, it is quietly and in disguise. So—observe.”

He clicked his fingers, and his robes changed to mundane brown. Fetohep covered his face with a scarf, like a veil, and gestured to the camera crew. He descended into the streets, following where the golden petal had landed.

What was he doing? The audience was following along as Fetohep kept up a running monologue, and now the ruler was speaking almost conversationally, but clearly.

“In any city—let alone the capital—walk the streets, unnoticed. For if a [King] is seen to be coming, all he will find is facade and false masks. But here—look at what you see. Do you see elements of crime? Do you see a [Beggar] upon the streets?”

He pointed left and right as they headed down what turned out to be a residential district. Fetohep turned, randomly, and glanced down.

“Trash upon the ground? Do you witness rodents?”

“Is that proof of being a ruler?”

“Is it not? If I searched, I could not, with will, find a starving man or woman. Nor child. Nor am I merely a king who rules from the balcony. Observe—child!”

Fetohep spotted a little boy playing alone. He was probably five, and he seemed unconcerned with danger. When he saw the camera crew—and the undead Revenant staring down at him—the boy froze.

Even knowing his king, the deathly face was probably scary. He put a finger in his mouth—but Fetohep knelt.

“Do you know who I am?”

“The King?”

The boy could speak, and he toddled over with wide eyes. He almost plucked at Fetohep’s robes before perhaps realizing he should not, but the King of Khelt offered him an arm. And the boy, recognizing the gesture, hopped into it.

“Touch what you will. Are you, perchance, bored, child? What is your name?

“Eithr?”

The boy looked uncertain, and Fetohep lifted a hand. He produced a simple object as he lifted it out of his vaults.

“Indeed so. Then take this and tell me if it spins well. Have you ever seen such a toy?”

The little spinner was painted silver, and when the boy whirled it, he watched it zoom into the air with delight. He hesitated, wanting to squirm out of Fetohep’s grip, but the ruler simply placed the boy down—then leapt up, caught the spinner as it flew over a roof, and landed.

He handed it back to the open-mouthed boy and the camera crew. Then he turned to the audience.

“If one could find a child—any child—as they walked the streets of Khelt who told me they were hungry and showed signs of starvation, I would throw myself into the sea. You, who impugn Khelt—if the youngest in your lands want for food, you are worthless maggots not worthy to be trodden under my boots.”

The little boy looked impressed as Fetohep jabbed a finger at the camera. Then the [King] bent.

“Tell me, child. Would you care to accompany me for ten minutes? Your parents…?”

“There.”

The boy pointed at a man and another man about to faint into each other’s arms. Fetohep nodded.

“Then allow me to prove another superior quality of a ruler. That—of one who can entertain even a small child by virtue of deed. Even for such a passingly short time as half an hour. A dulcimer.”

He requested the item and was handed it. Then—to everyone’s astonishment, Fetohep sat cross-legged on the ground and played a song to Eithr’s delight. He could play—and he knew the songs of the day.

Even drinking songs. Fetohep let the boy pluck on the strings, showing him how it was done.

“A ruler, Miss Drassi—should be one that can entertain a child. In his or her lands, one should not be able to find one who is hungry for more than half a day. This is but one test of a great nation such as mine.”

“T-there are more?”

For answer, Fetohep produced a ledger and offered it to the camera for inspection. It noted the neat sales and taxes accrued by a [Merchant]—one of those admitted to Khelt.

“Any document within Khelt’s treasury is immediately accessible to me. When we stand, Eithr, we will speak to this [Merchant]—and when we do, the ledger will be correct. A great ruler knows the intricacies of his own laws. Do you see now my point?”

It took some of them a while to do so. But Fetohep slowed, and to the little boy, who seemed interested, and to Drassi and the audience—and his subjects—he halted by an open well.

“Water puts out fires. It feeds a populace. It is one thing to keep a well filled—another from keeping it fouled. Yet in some cities—and I now name Taimaguros, for instance—the city of Bezbekale, I have observed, has no wells in some districts for miles. A pathetic distribution of water. How much time is wasted fetching it for families unlucky enough to live in the ignorance of the ruler’s folly? If a fire breaks out, those nearby are at the mercy of a spellcaster’s presence. Here, one may find water every four thousand feet at most.

Eithr nodded quickly as Khelt’s king rapidly insulted Taimaguros. Then moved onto another target.

“I have heard it said that some rulers are ignorant to the address of law within their nations as well. They rely on the Watch with the pure cotton-thoughtlessness of a Sariant Lamb. I? I shall demonstrate how to weigh law personally—impartially. For if I do not understand the law, how can I take to task those who induct it? The correctness of governance stems from me.”

Now did you see? Drassi was keeping up, asking questions.

“It sounds like you have an entire—plan set up.”

“I have booked Wistram’s time, Miss Drassi. You need not attend, but I shall demonstrate the qualities of fine rulership. And then—consider the most egregious examples of failure I have witnessed. Let us…speak of Pheislant’s Havrington family. Whom I was recently vouchsafed as having evaded the law on multiple counts. Of course, Terandria is far from the only continent of imperfection. In my visits to Nerrhavia’s Fallen, only my good nature and the grace of my dignity have prevented me from commenting on how they have neglected the dues of their Hemp-caste. Things as mundane as the quality of their housing.”

“Some would say, uh—not me—that it’s a free market. That you’ve gotta rely on a good [Landlord].”

And who punishes the landlords for ineptitude? I have, in fact, secured several informants who will perform a spot-tour of one of Nerrhavia Fallen’s districts in…eighteen minutes. Where we will see if we can spot a hungry individual. Or perhaps signs of decay in the foundations of a building. Not that I would expect it of a nation equivalent in stature to Khelt.

The King turned his gaze, and his golden eyes flashed.

“In fact, I have a number of cities we might ask someone with a scrying orb to tour. I have a list of nations claiming superiority over mine. Let me pick a name—unless you have a preference, Miss Drassi? Perhaps Sir Relz’s own Pallass?”

Now you got it. Nerrhavia Fallen’s courts were in a panic—but how could they know which of their countless settlements would have Fetohep’s agents in them?

Yes, he was insulting the nations he was picking out. But it wasn’t an accusation. It was…well.

Quintessential Kheltian ego. So massive it was blotting out the sun. And if you didn’t like it? He had a point. Why wasn’t that person fed? Were the cases of law he indicated correct?

But there was something else. Fetohep was speaking, slowing, and more than one puffed up shroom of outrage listened. They looked at his robes as they shifted back to purest gold, the rings and flash of magic and style, his displays of grandeur, and listened.

“A ruler prioritizes children above sheer monetary gain. One must…one must take the child firmly in hand and feed them a cookie. For how will they learn if they are not fed? Beating, neglect are the acts of barbarous brutes. These children become the foundational soldiers and crafters and adventurers of your nation. Neglect them, and you place weakness into your very kingdom. Want of food is failure. Yet fools who bring corruption into your governance are, I have heard it said, inevitable.” 

His tone mocked the very idea.

I know a hundred ways to identify a worthless bureaucrat or petty noble. The first—is promptness of thought! If they cannot tell you, on the spot, how they have spent a gold budget, they do not know. If they must rely on a servant or subordinate to tell you how a grand project will be executed or the status of it, they are ignorant to the very task they have been entrusted with.

This was it. The King had a selection of regal clothing he never wore. He had—ironically—all the time in the world, even with ruling a nation.

He did not have armies. They thought he did, but the King had none. But he had a presence. He had Khelt—

So teach them. By example, by haughty superiority if nothing else—but teach them. From arrogant Wyrms to petty [Lords]—

Show them how it should be done. The King of Khelt turned with his arms spread.

“Paradise comes slowly. But it is never impossible. I will see it done a second time. Do as I do—ask me, you who crave Khelt’s splendor. I shall answer and humiliate every flaw. Until every land is as munificent as Khelt.”

He turned and looked out upon them all. An ancient sight, searching out their worth and unveiling it like an archeologist. A million million gazes rested upon him, and the King of Khelt bore them like a cloak to his pride. Fearlessly proud of their judgement, as ever he had been. But no longer aloof.

To the girls and boys, the [Innkeeper], the little [Druid], the countless children of this world over—

He would have been a fun king. Perhaps a better uncle, or grandfather. A meddlesome undead ruler, inquiring into their health and whether they had dined yet. He belonged to that destiny, an age of gracious rule until the first thing that gave out was his flesh, and he left a hundred generations of peace and gratitude behind.

No more. The King’s eyes burned gold like the purest virtue that Erin Solstice knew when she thought of him. The expression of duty, of love and determination and will. Thence, he stood in Koirezune, in the heart of Khelt. Holding onto his shining pride and heart for as long as it still gleamed upon the sands of Chandrar.

Soon, the vermin would crawl in. The nights grow longer, and the foes grow without number, spilling bile onto his sands. The first looked upon Khelt hungrily from afar. But even when that day came—when the mountains crumbled down and the seas heaved, he would be there. Until his end, turning the tide upon itself.

That proud king heard the first ringing of the bells again. His last century, perhaps far less. His end of days. He rose to meet it with his head held high, the world trailing in his wake.

Fetohep of Khelt.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: So. In theory, I’ve still edited 3 chapters of Volume 1 despite going a teensy, a tiny bit over my projectons.

I know I harp on it every single time, but I will have this V1 rewrite done by the end of the year, at least, the first pass because it takes up too much of my writing power.

You can tell by the reduced quality of the chapters…since I began? I feel like some aren’t bad.

The point is, it’s stressful on me! And yes, rewriting probably is improving my writing level. Also, studying other authors.

I hate doing homework. And sometimes trying to improve is homework, but it’s a bad thing for a writer to stay in their specialty too long. You should expand it. Like an undead king learning to play the dulcimer and dance and stuff.

Anyways, hope you enjoy! I am headed for the end of the year and while it might not be the same bang as other volumes—Volume 9 isn’t going too badly. Right? Hmm. Well, I haven’t seen any more rogue rodents in my house. I’m gonna call that a win. pirateaba away!

 

Backseating, Corn, and Young Rags by LeChatDemon!

 

Colth and Erin by Fiore!

 

Death Card by Ravvlet!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

9.25

[The Merch Store is having a Black Friday sale! Buy stuff here!]

[The Blood of Liscor, Book 8 is out on Audible and as an e-book! Find it here!]

 

Thereafter, for a short while, as with every single time, they took a break. It was not that the days got less busy.

If anything, they were packed in with things to do. The first thing Erin Solstice did when she got back to her inn, the day when Facestealer attacked and was defeated, was sigh. She stared at the hole in the wall, which looked like a vaguely humanoid brick had smashed through it—then noticed the stress-fractures on part of her common room walls from where it had tried to break through into the garden.

“I wasn’t even here. And it still sort of exploded.”

Lady Pryde was quite upset as she gazed upon the devastation. Mostly because she hadn’t been there. Grimalkin, in between checking on the survivors, passed a stone over Erin’s head. Then he made a few notes as the white runestone glowed and produced a few flashes of color he noted.

“Hmm. Well, I’ll call it ‘inconclusive’.”

Erin gave him a strange look as Mrsha urgently bent over Ylawes Byres, shaking him. Are you dead? Are you dead?

His blonde head rose, and the most disheveled man in the world looked up. Mrsha gave him a thumbs-up of relief, and he fainted again. The inn was swarming with guests like Klbkch, [Crusaders]…and guilty Named-ranks. In the midst of it all, Erin had an odd vase and a dress she’d bought from the antique store, and somehow, that was the weirdest thing to Selys.

“Erin. You went shopping? You—and that dress looks hideous.”

She pointed to the objectionable style, which would probably have gone well with someone else in a different era on another continent. Erin Solstice wrapped the dress around the vase, put it down on a non-shattered table, and looked at Grimalkin.

“What’s inconclusive?”

He pocketed the stone.

“I was testing whether or not someone hexed you or possibly cast a second curse regarding your inn. You haven’t…gained some kind of Skill related to property destruction, have you?”

Erin gave him a sour look.

“No!”

“Ah. Well. Perhaps it is only a matter of time.”

 

——

 

It wasn’t all funny. In fact, very little of it was. People were dead. An amazingly small number given Facestealer’s danger, but he had still killed a number of Gold-rank adventurers and Antinium [Crusaders].

Anyone not lucky enough to be Ylawes Byres and his team hadn’t survived Facestealer’s attacks. The [Knight] didn’t pin down his survival on luck, either. Dawil had broken six ribs despite his armor, but he was conscious enough to explain it the next day.

“Lad’s got a thick head. House Byres has a long history of taking head-injuries. You think them Yoldenites can survive a blow to the skull? One time, one of Ylawes’ ancestors stopped a cave-in in one of their mines by letting the boulders hit his skull repeatedly.”

Erin’s mouth opened and closed. The Dwarf’s face was perfectly straight—until he snorted. He winked at Ceria, and she cackled.

“Nah. Lad’s got [Avert Mortal Blow]. It’s probably how that thing kept missing him.”

Whoa. Really?”

Dawil was checking the odd blade he’d received from the dungeon of Liscor. He was eying the bright metal, closer to white than silver, a pale sheen. A deathly sheen.

“How do you think he’s survived the battles we’ve been in? Luck? Well, he’s got more than a bit of that—and Skills too. [Luck of the Foolhardy]. Don’t tell him I told you that, though. He’s quite embarrassed about some of the Skills he’s gotten.”

That…made so much sense to Erin. Ylawes Byres did strike her as the kind of guy who’d give all his money to a [Scam Artist] and then find a bag of gold on his next mission.

A fool. Arguably, a traditional one who had, at the very least, a family history of trying to kill off an entire species. Fierre Lischelle-Drakle had a lot to say about House Byres, and so did her entire family. Also, he could be really dense when it came to his sisters. And Mrsha thought he wasn’t that cool.

An extraordinary, courageous fool who’d helped bring down a monster that entire Named-rank teams couldn’t. He had possibly helped save dozens of lives, and Vuliel Drae, Nailren, and Infinitypear and Rasktooth had stepped up when Gold-ranks fled. And that wasn’t even thinking about what would have happened if Facestealer had entered Liscor…

So of course, Erin let him rest, and while Hexel slithered around her inn, the next day and the days thereafter, she made sure he wanted for nothing. Every day he came down, looking less dazed and less dead, the guests would applaud.

“You really needn’t have them do that, Erin.”

On the sixth day, he took her aside and told her it wasn’t necessary. The [Innkeeper]’s response was to giggle.

“I never said a word, and I’m not using a Skill or an aura, Ylawes. They just like you.”

And Erin had the pleasure of seeing him turn red to his ears. But then, he quite deserved it.

They all did.

 

——

 

Infinitypear and Rasktooth had been prepared for their eviction or possibly just to pay rent after a month of staying at The Wandering Inn. After all, Lyonette had been quite clear about that. But when they came with all the coins they’d saved up, the [Princess] refused to take the money.

“But you said—”

“I know what I said, but you saved the entire inn! Don’t be silly—we should be paying you.

“Okay. How much?”

Rasktooth perked up, and the [Princess] hesitated because she hadn’t expected that. She looked around, fussed into the kitchen, and came out with a bunch of mini-cakes. Calescent followed her.

“They’re not ready! I’m practicing—”

For such a big Hobgoblin, he was very picky and nervous about the quality of the food that he served to Erin’s guests. This was his big shot, and he only relented when the two adventurers were quite clear they’d eat anything cake-related.

In the end, the two were given six mini-cakes frosted up, and they were promised access to the inn’s full menu for a while. So it was then they went down into Liscor and finally bought that hat.

A big, red one sat on Rasktooth’s head, and he put a feather that Bird had given him in it. The tricorne had very lovely black stitching and edgework, and it was a royal red.

The [Merchant] who sold the hat gave Rasktooth a discount—for one of the mini-cakes and also saving Liscor. Qwera also sold Infinitypear a shortbow since they had coins left over, and the two went hunting with Bird that very same day.

It was quite fun, although the range of all three varied. Bird had a solwood recurve he’d bought from the Hawkarrow tribe after his last few bows were damaged, with a functional draw weight of about 70 pounds before his Skills.

The actual draw weight was far more reasonable at 45 lbs. Magical wood and the [Bowyer]’s Skills made for a powerful, powerful bow, and Bird could tune that up higher.

By contrast, Infinitypear had a shortbow with a draw weight of merely 25 pounds but commendable strength given the materials and Skills.

Rasktooth had two hand-crossbows. Thus, you had Bird shooting long-range while Infinitypear and Rasktooth would run around, shooting as they got closer like two desperados. And what were they hunting?

Well, Bird kept looking for the invisible bird he claimed was around every corner or the elusive waterbird. Or a penguin that Kevin had told him about. But their real, tangible quarry which they bagged two of was the Garbichug Revolter.

And by ‘bagged’, they shot the gigantic, trash-eating pests, tossed their bodies at a Rock Crab, then into Shield Spider nests. The three and watched as the Rock Crab refused to eat the first Garbichug—and the Shield Spiders actually carried out the other Garbichug and tossed it onto the grass. It didn’t seem to decompose, even eight days later. And only then did Bird spot the mini-Garbichugs eating the corpses of the ones they’d shot and learn he had to burn them.

He announced this to Watch Captain Zevara when she came to The Wandering Inn. The Watch Captain was an erratic guest, but she had plenty of reasons to be there after the Facestealer attacks—coordinating with Invrisil, Pallass, and Riverfarm came to mind—and Erin also had very friendly rates for the Watch.

It was Lyonette’s initiative in conjunction with Imani. The [Chef] was still a friend to the inn, and upon request, she’d done some big thinking with Lyonette. The [Princess] had used her connections to the City of Growth to facilitate a new concept at the inn: cheap, filling dishes.

Oh, they had hamburgers and pizza, but those were still actually fairly intensive to make. You could do a line-assembly job, but for Calescent? Even he would get sick of flipping a hundred burgers.

So why not make something even better? Something…you could sell for cheap (but profitable) prices at a lunch or rush-hour that could feed hungry Workers or even the Watch? Lyonette wanted the [Guardsman] market. She had observed how much Relc could eat—but noted he was not always that picky about what so much as it was plentiful and good.

Therefore, Imani had done some testing and come up with the new lunch menu. One of the hits Zevara herself was chewing on was rice with curry.

…Yep. Rice. Curry. The trick was how you prepared it. A big cauldron could make rice with minimal effort, especially if you had a Skill like Calescent’s.

[Don’t Burn It]. And—[I Stirred That]. His two Skills effectively replaced a lot of the effort that went into manually making soup or rice. So his real limit was how much of the ingredients he had, the prep time, and how many cauldrons he could run simultaneously.

The end result was that he was petitioning for a kitchen upgrade, and so was Lyonette—and the inn had huge bowls of soup, curry, and other foods for cheap.

The Antinium loved the rice-based dishes, and some had their own, personal spoons to eat portions big enough for their different mouths. Long-handled, with their names on it. They loved it, and an [Engraver]-[Carpenter] in Liscor was making fantastic money selling them custom spoons. Custom spoons…and all the business to her because she was kind enough to make spoons for Antinium. There was a lesson there, but most people needed it spelled out.

Bird appeared before Zevara as she was savoring the spicy dish. Calescent had his Skill that prevented people from being too spiced-out, but he would happily turn it off for you.

His spice-levels ran from ‘Mrsha likes this’ to ‘Redfang spicy’ to ‘Void Eater Goat’ levels. That last one actually required you to eat it outside, and you had to pay for a healing potion for your tongue up front. Erin hadn’t actually seen anyone manage to down it entirely. Saliss had done a bite. Pryde had taken a mouthful and then decided she had to sit in her rooms for the next two hours. Commendably, she never made a sound, but she declined another bite.

Klbkch had made the mistake of thinking that, as an Antinium, he did not have the same issues with spice. He did.

The point was that Zevara was enjoying a really hot bite when Bird spoke. He just sat down in front of her.

“Liscor has a pest problem.”

“We have a what?”

She looked up. Of all the things to talk about—outside, the Watch was lining up for lunch. They were occupying the Floodplains in large numbers, not only because they had expanded their ranks, but because the villages and farmsteads needed more patrols.

But the real reason they were out there was because Hexel was marshaling a huge team to secure the dungeon’s openings. He was reinforcing the hole in the ground and building a ‘cap’ over it that could stop hordes of monsters from ever coming out again. Even if Facestealer tried—well, it would buy them time.

It was costing a lot, but they had Antinium and, crucially, Liscor’s support and the Council’s as well. The Shield Spider populations were down—even the Rock Crabs were learning not to try and attack the new villages. Most people had learned Erin’s blue fruit trick, but even the ones that hadn’t?

Zevara had just been over to the Lischelle-Drakle farm where they’d apparently chased one of the Rock Crabs off. Brave [Farmers]—that man Himilt had claimed they’d hit it until it ran and had not gotten hurt. She had advised him on the seed cores and possibly building some walls.

So, Zevara had thought her new focus would be crime in the expanding Liscor. Or diplomacy with other cities. Or hostile cities like Hectval…already enough on her plate.

So what was this about?

“Pests? What are you talking about?”

“Garbichug Revolters. You have them. I have killed sixteen this month. Five this last week. There will be more. They are coming. You are not prepared.”

She just stared at him as he gave her the most serious look she had ever received from him in her life. Bird had threatened war on Pallass with less intensity than this.

It was so disturbing that even when he went off to beg Erin to conjure more magical birdies for him to shoot, guilt-free, that she actually put it on top of her list.

None of the people in the Adventurer’s Guild could help her. Selys, who still worked part-time, helped Zevara pull records on the Revolters, but they were considered a Bronze-rank threat. It was, in fact, the new [Druid], Shassa, and the Ornithologist’s Association—a group of [Bird Watchers] and other people with the class—who understood Bird’s alarm. They told Zevara to issue an alert to all farmsteads and buildings to mind their trash and waste—and to lock down the sewers of Liscor. But, of course—it was too late.

 

——

 

Garbichug Revolters looked like giant, mutated ducks. They had duck-beaks and that kind of form—but they had teeth. Their skin looked either moldy or slightly putrid thanks to the excrement they loved to eat and use as a self-defense weapon. They smelled worse than that.

Oh, and they had the aggressive temperament of geese. They would attack anything they thought was weaker than them and eat anything they could.

They were not Crelers. They were cowardly and ran from almost all threats. They had the offensive power of a giant duck—which was dangerous—but a Bronze-rank team could take them out with little issue most times. A healing potion’s worth of damage at most.

The problem was, Garbichugs dodged arrows, and they were good at escaping. The other problem? They loved big sewers.

They had come to Liscor en-masse as the Shield Spiders were reduced, and their presence quickly earned them a bounty from the Adventurer’s Guild. They found their way into the sewers and began to compete with the other pests—giant rats, sewer slimes, and the larger insects.

Also, they were quite, quite immune to most deterrents. More than one [Farmer] reported trying to chase them away with the seed-core trick only to see them eat the seed core and survive.

The amount of poison in—well, it explained why their bodies were so immune to decay and why almost nothing would eat them aside from their own kind. Calescent himself had a very nasty encounter with them one day when one stuck its head through a kitchen window and began to eat off a stove top.

He promptly blew his famed death-spice into its face, and the creature just spat at him without seeming to mind the attack. Calescent punched it instead.

The sounds of a Hobgoblin charging out of his kitchen to match a Garbichug in hand-to-hand combat was a weird way to start your day. The inn shot out of their beds, and half the guests were armed—the other half retreating into the garden—when they realized it wasn’t a monster attack on the same level as Facestealer.

Ylawes Byres found Calescent covered in shallow bites, slapping another Garbichug as they tried to get at the outhouse. He drew his sword—and felt a chill run down his arm.

You needed gloves to wield the Gravesword without feeling the effects. Or—to be a [Necromancer]. Still, it was light, true, and Pelt had re-contoured the handle to fit a Human’s hands.

The first Garbichug had been ignoring Bird’s two arrows in its sides, but the instant the [Knight]’s blade kissed it, it backed up warily. It actually deflected his sword with one clawed foot and tried to spray him with more spit and dirt it kicked up, but he cut it shallowly six more times.

The sixth time, the Garbichug fell over backwards and was getting up weakly when a spear of metal went through its head. Ylawes backed up as Yvlon’s arm telescoped back into a normal hand. She flexed her arm—which had been torn in half by Facestealer nine days ago. It was almost completely recovered, and she grimaced as she eyed the gore.

Ylawes’ new sword sapped the energy of anything it cut. He aimed the blade like a wand at the second Garbichug and spoke.

“[Firebolt]!”

The conversion from death magic to other types of magic wasn’t the best, but it still produced a nasty bolt of flames the size of his hands. It sped at the Garbichug—and the monstrous bird dodged. It turned, flipped its feathered butt up at Ylawes, and then began sprinting away.

You—

Calescent was roaring in outrage. Someone raced out of her inn and threw a jar of acid. Erin Solstice nailed the fleeing bird in the back with the green acid, and Ylawes winced. He watched the bird shriek, writhe around on the ground as steam rose—

Then get back up and keep running. The steam stopped rising, and Erin’s jaw dropped.

“Wh—it’s immune to acid?

“I told you. I told you they were coming! You didn’t listen!”

Bird shouted down from above. Erin was still staring when the third Garbichug poked its head out of the restroom. This one had a mouthful of—and it was about to spray at—

Erin held up her hands to shield her face as Ylawes raised his shield, but the Garbichug never attacked. A third group had emerged, and Infinitypear raised his spear overhead. He was too far to hit the Garbichug, but he raised his spear and shouted.

“[I Have Seen It Die]!”

Ylawes saw the Garbichug’s eyes bulge—and the monster swallowed. It stared at something in horror as it saw Infinitypear—and then turned and began waddling off at top-speed.

“Good job, Infinitypear!”

Erin breathed in relief. Ylawes felt a rush counter to the Gravesword’s chill burning through him. A kind of fearless breath in his body as Infinitypear’s Skill activated.

A fitting Skill for someone who had bested Facestealer—if not necessary against the fear of Garbichugs.

Bird was loosing arrows at both Garbichugs, and Falene poked a staff out the window and sprayed the grass with [Firebolts] of her own until someone screamed at her not to set the Floodplains on fire.

Ylawes’ new sword from the dungeon was very fine—but it was out of stored power, and he didn’t feel like chasing after the Garbichug, so he just cleaned the blade. Normen, Numbtongue, and Calescent were giving decent chase, but the damn birds were so fast they gave up. And they were dodging all the ranged attacks—until someone decided to try out her new Skill.

“One side!”

Erin, Yvlon, and Ylawes turned, and the [Knight]’s left foot went icy cold as a path of ice shot down the hill, covering the grass. And then a half-Elf went down the hill.

Ceria had taken the time to put on some slippers, and she was sliding down the slick ice like a shot. Ylawes had seen this trick before—but what he hadn’t expected was to see Ceria actually using it in a combat situation.

Let alone so…his jaw dropped.

“I thought she was poor at skating. Yvlon—”

He’d seen Ceria skating, and Yvlon and Ylawes, as citizens of House Byres, had plenty of skating experience on a local lake. Ceria had, ironically, been worse than the rest of her team.

At least—she had been. But now, the [Prankster] was skating like a professional. She was adopting one of those poses Erin saw in the olympics or from professional skaters, one leg raised along with her arms. She twisted and did a double-axel spin before landing and speeding up.

Even the fleeing Garbichugs looked impressed. Ceria did a backflip, and Yvlon’s eyes narrowed.

“There is no way Ceria’s that athletic. It must be her new Skill.”

“She leveled up?”

Erin and Ylawes were astonished, but Yvlon shook her head.

“Not her main class. She won’t tell me what the new class is—but that skating. It’s annoying me. Anyone getting that feeling?”

Ylawes and Erin turned back to watch the half-Elf showing off and blowing kisses at Pisces and Ksmvr. Yes…there was something slightly obnoxious about Ceria’s new Skill—

[Mischief Skill: Wings Upon Ice].

She got the Garbichug, though. Ceria’s [Ice Spikes] at close range were fatal, and she was skating back when her Skill ran out of power. She promptly face-planted and had a bloody nose by the time she got back to the inn.

“Wbell, dat sucks. Stop labbing, Yvlon. I got the bird.”

“Healing potion, Captain Ceria?”

Ksmvr offered her a bottle, but Ceria waved it off.

“It’s just a bloody nobe, Ksmvr. We’ve gotta be sparing. Darb it.”

She groaned. Any other time, she’d happily have a healing potion, but they only had eleven bottles in the Horns.

A large number, actually. They’d geared up after coming back from Chandrar, and that was great. The only thing was—Octavia wasn’t selling healing potions anymore. You couldn’t find any at regular prices on the market, and all the adventurers had told each other not to waste any.

Thus, Ceria gloomily pinched her nose until the bleeding stopped, feeling like a Bronze-rank again. She did brighten up when breakfast was served by a grateful Calescent.

“Is a big breakfast for heroic adventurers. New food—is a lobster.”

“Calescent, you don’t serve lobsters for breakfast!”

You did for Ceria. She brightened up instantly and consented to trying Calescent’s new attempt at lobster, a dish which he readily admitted he had no experience in preparing. Still, he knew how to cook something properly, and Goblins were masters at not poisoning each other with cooking.

“Where’d we get lobsters from?”

Erin was confused, and Calescent took the Silver Swords’ order.

“You want lobster?”

His ‘heroic adventurers’ clearly still included the Silver Swords, even now, and they all demurred—they would rather have the standard breakfast, thanks.

“I’ll have an omelette today. I’d like green, red, orange, and purple bell peppers diced up, onions, cilantro, a Yellat mash, cheese, and two mushrooms to complement it. Easy on the pepper, and a tasting sauce on the side. Oh—and will you use one of the nut-based oils and duck eggs if you have them?”

Falene Skystrall’s order made Erin’s mouth fall open, but Calescent happily nodded without even bothering to take notes.

“Is good nuts. And you?”

“Pancakes. With syrup. Lad?”

“Er—the same. Falene, you don’t have to order like that.”

The two other adventurers remonstrated with Falene, who gave a Pisces-sniff.

“I rather think Chef Calescent enjoys preparing something elegant.”

“Disgusting is more like. Why not eat a salad with how much you put in that omelette? That’s not an omelette. That’s a narrow egg shell on top of all that green.”

Dawil was grousing, but good-naturedly. Erin Solstice decided she’d sit with the Silver Swords that morning.

“How’s your back doing, Ylawes? How’s them ribs, Dawil?”

“Almost as good as the ones I had last night.”

The Dwarf smacked his lips, and Ylawes rubbed at his back.

“Huh. I didn’t even notice it when I raced outside. I suppose that’s proof it’s healed.”

Great!

They hadn’t spared healing potions on the Silver Swords, but even so, healing a battle like that took a while. Erin was chatting with them as the day started.

Nine days since the Facestealer attacks, and the inn was mostly repaired. Erin had used her Skills along with Hexel, and [Partial Reconstruction] had helped close a lot of cracks on the walls. Even so, he’d warned her the foundations had shifted from Facestealer’s blows, and he’d needed to replace the wall with a hole in it.

Hexel had made the seam-lines almost invisible and used the same wood, but Erin could tell the inn was damaged. It was nothing that’d crop up in a year or two, and Hexel had stated he believed the inn would not last that long—or be rebuilt before he needed to deal with the problems existing.

She had thanked him for his confidence in her. But the truth was that Erin was counting the gold they’d pulled in of late and thinking ahead.

These days, these quieter days, Erin was focused on a few key elements. Now that her inn didn’t have a huge hole in the wall, she decided to speak to a few people as she dined with Ylawes.

“Are you going back to House Byres, Ylawes?”

He looked up from a mouthful of pancake. Ylawes grabbed a napkin and spoke, shooting a glance sideways at the other guests.

“That’s right…and I was wondering if Yvlon and Ysara wished to accompany me. With their friends, of course. It is only a few days’ ride from Riverfarm. With travel Skills, we could cut that in half.”

Erin glanced over, and Yvlon’s head rose sharply—but Ysara only glanced up from where she was eating with Qwera, Vetn, Mrsha, and Gire that morning. Yvlon was conflicted. Ysara…unenthusiastic.

“Are you gonna go with your team?”

“I’ve actually invited Vuliel Drae and Nailren’s team to go with me. And, ah—Infinitypear and Rasktooth.”

Ylawes hesitated as he glanced at his team. Falene bit her lip and didn’t speak, but her silence said as much as Dawil’s actual comment.

“It’d be good to welcome them into House Byres. Especially if we’re journeying together.”

The Silver Swords were expanding. It wasn’t finalized—not yet—but Erin glanced over at Rasktooth and Infinitypear. They looked eager. She? She saw Falene’s unspoken words, and while Erin didn’t share the half-Elf’s likely reservations, she had a few of her own.

“Got it, got it. So you, uh—you’re gonna all adventure together?”

“I’d be proud to.”

Ylawes Byres either didn’t notice or didn’t acknowledge Falene’s reservations. Erin Solstice opened her mouth—but she glanced over and remembered how strong certain species’ hearing was. So what she said, instead, was—

“Let’s hang out later, okay, Ylawes? Just as soon as I check in with the Haven and everywhere else. M’kay?”

“M’kay? Er—of course.”

Then Erin was up—she’d had her morning bisque, and she estimated she had till sometime this evening before it conked out on her and she had to rest. She was experimenting with the flavor and figuring out how to make it last longer. [Lion’s Strength] was another option, but since Bezale used scrolls, it meant that another [Mage] had to learn it. Falene, Pisces, and Ceria had all offered to add it to their lists of spells to learn.

 

——

 

Now, one of the things that had changed since the Albez and Facestealer incidents, as they were being known, was that the Haven was on the move. It had passed Invrisil, and while it still had many notable guests and more flocking to see the famous inn, it was heading south.

To Liscor. They’d be going past Liscor in fact, once the Haven got here, and the adventurers were either already moving through Pallass and heading to the new lands or content to wait for the Haven to keep moving.

Some—like Deniusth and Orchestra—were already gone. Variable Fortress had apparently decided to move out, and they would be passing through The Wandering Inn today when heading to Pallass.

Colth was one of the few adventurers not heading ahead, and a few other teams were considering their routes still. However, they were not staying at The Wandering Inn.

There was a divide since Erin’s actions at Albez. And from the Facestealer incident. Erin thought the reason Colth hadn’t shown up so much was because he was embarrassed to have let Facestealer escape. As for the other teams like Deniusth? Well—she suspected they were holding a big grudge.

Larra was cooler to Erin than their first meeting, but the two were still friendly enough for Erin to install one of her gateways in the Haven. Bribing her with a spellbook had helped, but, as the [Witches] would describe it, Erin was in competition with Larra. They weren’t hostile. They weren’t enemies, but they had different goals.

A friendly rivalry? Erin certainly wasn’t inclined to be that unfriendly, but she wondered if they’d be at odds in a more serious way later. Larra had complimented her on her inn’s defense against Facestealer—and warned her never to pull the same trick on Deniusth and the other teams again.

“The fact that you gave away the treasure from the other adventurers was wise, Erin, and I have put in as many words into the others’ heads as I think will fit. But they are adventurers. They do not take kindly to being stolen from.”

To which Erin had given her a big smile and said…

And I don’t like them murdering lower-rank adventurers, even if they are thieves. I’m sure you would have reined ‘em in.

They’re adventurers, my dear. Ever tried to rein back a flood of wild animals?

So? They’re still our guests.

That was pretty much the difference. Anyways, Erin still had the benefit of meeting the Haven’s guests, and not all of them were jerks. In fact, more adventurers were still heading south. Larra had prevailed upon her closest friends to accompany her, like Mihaela, but some were just—associates.

For instance, Erin always stared at the fellow in Larra’s inn who was sitting this morning at a table with a cup of tea in hand, reading from a newspaper over a refined breakfast. She stared and stared until the Named-rank grew so uncomfortable he put down his newspaper.

“Can I help you, Miss?”

Caleis Berkesson, the Favor of the North, was a man made out of handkerchiefs. His very face, and what ‘skin’ he showed underneath a kind of old-fashioned doublet, was made up of the cloths.

“…How do you drink like that?”

He tilted his cup up, and Erin saw the liquid pass through a ‘mouth’ of cloth. The Named-rank adventurer was made up of questions.

“Handkerchief man.”

“Please stop calling me that. It’s an effect.”

“So all the clothes, Hanky Man—”

“Please call me Handkerchief Man.”

“So all of them are from nobles you’ve helped or who like you?”

Caleis nodded. He pulled a seat out and stood until she sat down. He was—mannered.

In a way that even Deniusth or Colth were not. Some of the Named-ranks had the etiquette they learned to socialize with others in high-brow society—for Caleis, it seemed not only second-nature but intentional.

And yes, he did the pinkie-thing with the cup of tea. He inclined his head as Erin sat.

“Each one is a bit of power. A bit of—well, I suppose you’ve noticed how my class has changed me? It’s not detrimental. Or rather, it saved me. I was scarred badly from an encounter with a monster once, and this is far more preferable to how I looked.”

“What kind of monster? If that’s not private?”

The Named-rank shook his head.

“This is all a matter of history. I ran into—well, it is a bit embarrassing. But topical. I ran into an Acidfly Queen. Something local to Liscor, in fact. My encounter was much further north. It melted—”

Erin blanched, and Caleis nodded.

“Since then, I was lucky enough to gain this particular class and Skill. I was a [Noble’s Friend]—a very odd class, I know. Since then, I’ve become a [Warrior of Etiquette], an [Oathsworn of the Aristocracy], until my current class. Forgive me if I do not divulge the exact nature and level of it.”

“Whoa. That’s so—fascinating. But does that mean your power will get weaker if you head to the new lands?”

Caleis didn’t shrug but lifted a hand and gently waggled the fingers.

“Some authority is direct, but Named-adventurers can’t rely on a specific place and time. Besides—my interests in the new lands aren’t quite the same as Orchestra’s or even Eldertuin’s. I will be escorting the Five Families and other noble interests. Hence my delay—most have not yet reached even Pallass. I believe I am contracted to look out for an Ieka Imarris, House Reinhart, Terland, Wellfar…House Veltras has not yet made any direct moves that I know of, but I will check on each group regardless of a contract.”

“For free?”

The Favor smiled, or at least, his ‘lips’ moved like that.

“Levels, Innkeeper Solstice. I’m bound to my class. Supporting the interests of the North’s nobility rewards me in levels far faster than combat with monsters.”

Aha. That made all the sense to Erin. What else would attract someone at his rank? Well—she shook one gloved hand and stopped bothering him. She’d sort of gotten to know him this last week as he hadn’t been part of the original group.

The other Named-rank adventurers who’d recently appeared were nothing like any Named-rank team or individuals that Erin had ever met. They were scary, terrifying, and Erin had no idea what to make of them.

…Mostly because the Champions of the Coast were a pair of Named-rank adventurers. And they were a married couple.

Rasen and Teithde Verithe were the first two adventurers in a committed relationship that Erin Solstice had ever met. And despite being an item for twenty years apparently—they were in their forties—they had been together even before that as Bronze-rank adventurers.

If they made Erin uncomfortable with their displays of actual affection and Teithde feeding her husband breakfast, then they made the other adventurers really uncomfortable.

“So are you ever going to marry, Halrac? Come on, you can’t sit like that forever. You’re already turning grey.”

“Teithde, leave him alone.”

They were an interesting duo, too. Rasen looked more normal—at least compared to his wife. He had a huge greatsword that reminded Erin of Ulrien, but unlike Ulrien, Rasen’s greatsword accompanied a bow and a host of gear. He was apparently a great all-rounder—

And his wife was a Silver-bell [Spell Duelist]. She had a tattoo on one cheek and down her neck that looked like a flowing tide, and she introduced herself to Erin.

“I’m Teithde Cirullina Verithe Wellfar.”

Her husband looked extremely embarrassed, and Erin blinked at the first four-name person she’d ever met. Teithde had blue hair, flawless skin, and she looked like Mars or another heroine straight out of a story. Her eyes were bright, bright gold.

“Wellfar? Wow, you’re from House Wellfar?”

“Yes.”

“No. I mean—that’s unproven. Teithde—”

Rasen muttered, looking askance. Erin blinked at Teithde—and the woman rolled her eyes.

“House Wellfar denies it, but I have roots. I was the bastard daughter of—”

“Let’s not get into it. Especially with the Favor here. It’s a delight to meet you, Miss Solstice. I suppose it’s rare to see a couple adventuring?”

The two were friendly, approachable, and Erin was privately delighted to hear Teithde gently bullying Halrac. As Larra put it when she came over, the two were a sight.

“The Champions of the Coast are proof that adventurers can hold down permanent relationships. However rarely.”

“It just takes work. As much work as adventurers put into their exploring and slaying monsters. Not everyone wants to do that—and it’s hard for a Level 40 [Warrior] to acknowledge anyone else as being an equal. But you have to.”

Teithde frowned, this clearly being a sore point with her, and Rasen ducked his head. Erin was fascinated by the Champions, but again—they were one group on their way south. She hoped she would meet them again.

Erin was sure they all had the same qualities that Saliss talked about that made them ‘crazy’. But today, she was just here to meet one more person.

“Hi Larra, how’s it going? Oh, you’re pretty close to the High Passes!”

Erin turned and peered out across the slowly-moving landscape—every day they drew closer to Liscor. Larra’s smile was patient.

“The same as ever, Erin. I’m mostly preparing for our trip past the Bloodfields.”

“You’re going around it though, right?”

The older [Innkeeper] brushed at her black skin, and Erin saw a long scar running up one arm—a claw wound.

“You can never be too sure. I heard about the Adult Creler, and the Bloodfields have tricks like any death-zone regardless. I have been hiring [Mercenaries] and more [Guards].”

Now Erin looked around, she thought she did see an uptick in the armed forces here. However, Larra was a stickler for quality.

“I may ask to visit Pallass again—it’s a shame that Drake, Guardsman Relc, won’t consider an offer. Do you think there’s any chance?”

“Relc? Uh…no. I don’t think he wants to have that kind of danger in his life.”

Larra nodded understandingly. She glanced around and summoned a familiar with a crook of a finger. The spectral imp hovered as Erin looked around for Barnethei, but she only saw the busy inn. It was always busy and had some event going on, or promotion. Erin had heard that Lyonette was going to coordinate a night with the Haven—they traded guests or used Erin’s access to Invrisil to funnel guests to the Haven. It was making good money, and Erin was so glad she didn’t have to deal with it.

“Who are you looking for today?”

“Colth. And maybe Valeterisa, but mostly Colth. He’s gotta stop hiding! At the very least, everyone wants to talk about the hide and stuff.”

“I’ll have him directly. He is embarrassed, you know. He took the dead adventurers personally.”

Erin nodded, her smile growing serious, and the other adventurers looked up.

“Yeah. How—how’re the survivors?”

“The Dullahan—Griniev—would like to thank your [Server], Ishkr.”

“Oh! Should I send him over?”

“What if he worked at the Haven for a day? Lightly—and we could send over eight of our staff? As part of our shared guest night?”

Barnethei appeared, and Erin jumped. She gave the energetic, dazzling [Vice Innkeeper] a long look but then nodded slowly.

“I guess that might work—but Lyonette needs lots of help, and Ishkr—”

“Not to worry. Our staff can adapt, and we just want to toast the brave Gnoll. He’ll mostly be fawned over.”

Barnethei winked, and Erin sighed.

“Well, sure. If Ishkr agrees, okay. Can Lyonette visit too?”

She didn’t miss the [Vice Innkeeper]’s wide smile—but Erin just frowned a second as Larra interjected.

“Just so long as that little child—Mrsha—doesn’t get up to too much trouble.”

Larra’s reservations echoed Erin’s in a sense, but where Erin was dubious about Barnethei…well, Larra was right to fear Mrsha the Conveyor of Mischief. Erin smiled politely at the other two [Innkeepers] and felt like this was all what Agnes, Ulva, and Timbor had wanted to do with her back in the day.

Only now, she really was among [Innkeepers] of her level. It was not entirely unpleasant—but neither was it always fun. Yet she could accept the Mrsha part. So Erin gave the two an evil smile.

“Don’t worry about Mrsha. She’s…going to have a fun day too. Heh. Heheheheh.”

She tried Elirr’s evil laugh, but Erin really didn’t have any natural talent.

 

——

 

Mrsha du Marquin didn’t see her friends as much these days. Oh, she had new ones who were just grand.

Nanette was settling into the inn. She was still getting to know people, and she’d follow them around all day to learn how they lived. She was endlessly curious, and she’d already spent a day sitting with Selys at the Adventurer’s Guild, petting Jeckel the Wyvern at Elirr’s shop, and being a credit to her age.

Mrsha, by contrast, had thrown mudballs at passersby on the main road with Gire until they got in trouble. But Gire had a job, and she was being a Chieftain, so Mrsha had to find other great peoples.

Like Vetn, Qwera, and Ysara, who were lots of fun—but Qwera didn’t want Mrsha ‘messing around’ when they were selling goods. Vetn was bored.

“Tesy’s off causing trouble again. I’m just guarding Qwera’s shop, but I’ll head off soon—she’s nearly done her bazaar work. I won’t stay with her. You be good. Have you seen that Wer guy?”

Mrsha shook her head as she and Vetn laced up skeins of thread. He was making a ‘grab pouch’ which would wrap around something if he delicately flicked it out—and like a miniature net, secure it for later.

Mrsha really wanted a few of her own, but the process was intensive and the grab pouches broke fast. She was really just waiting for more cool people.

In other words, Visma and Ekirra.

The context of Mrsha’s development as a child was—interesting. Well, being a Doombearer, the last survivor of a tribe, being raised in Liscor and being adopted by a [Princess]—that was all within the realms of normality.

It was all within the realms of this world. But Mrsha also had, to put a fine point on it, alien tutelage. Which was the cooler way of saying that Earth’s children had also invested in her upbringing with mixed results.

She had older brothers in Numbtongue and Bird. She also had Kevin, who would tell her stories of Earth and play his many, many pirated movies or songs and relay anecdotes of various quality with Joseph and anyone else.

Erin had told Mrsha about things like the nature of gravity as it pertained to mass. She had also described airplanes.

She also told Mrsha about cotton candy, and Kevin had broken down the lore of Lord of the Rings and Halo.

Mixed results.

The point was that this was at odds with Mrsha’s two friends, Visma and Ekirra. And they too were different. Visma had a doll collection that now included Antinium and was expansive enough to have intergenerational blood feuds.

She was normal. She was growing up in Liscor—Ekirra was the Little Crabs’ star player under Joseph, and Pallass was scouting him.

Yet they were kids, and so Mrsha was waiting for a fun day of…something. There was always something to do with cool people. But they had to be cool.

Erin was not always cool. Lyonette was dubiously cool at the best of times. The Thronebearers were uncool. Cool people could always find something to do, like fishing in the koi pond, exploring, trying to get a class—

And today, Lyonette had arranged a big group of people including Mrsha’s best friends. In fact, eleven other children, two Human, the rest Gnolls and Drakes, were lined up at the door as Mrsha saw her friends arrive.

Vetn waved Mrsha off as she raced over, looking curiously at the children whom she didn’t all know. But to her great astonishment—two of the children were from Riverfarm! Prost’s daughters!

“Miss Mrsha! Hello! Are you joining us? What are we doing?”

The girls were confused, and Mrsha realized she could show them the garden and all kinds of stuff! She was delighted—and Lyonette was smiling as she nodded to Ser Dalimont, who was, for some reason, apprehensive.

“Should we fetch the nets, Your Highness?”

“Not yet…”

Mrsha’s ears caught their muttered conversation, but she was shaking paws with Ekirra.

“Mrshamrshamrsha—introduce me to these people! They smell weird. Where are they from? Did you see my game? The coach let me score two goals! What are we playing?”

Ekirra was bouncing around with energy as usual, and he was wearing his jersey—he had four copies, and some of the other Liscorian kids were looking at him with awe and jealousy.

“You played in the game. Can I be on the team?”

A younger Drake tugged on Ekirra’s tail, and he turned.

“Don’t grab my tail! And only if you’re super-good and practice hard. You should come to practice. It’s fun!”

Mrsha listened as Ekirra told the others about the best thing ever—playing soccer. He had levels, and he was very cool to the other kids. Mrsha, herself, wished Ekirra had more time to play with them.

She expected Visma to be just as happy to see them, but the Drake girl was oddly subdued.

Visma? Where have you been?

“Mom was helping the Council do something. So was I.”

The evasive answer didn’t quite register with Mrsha right away. But she was waiting for Lyonette to tell them when they had to be back or ‘stay in the inn’. Still, her instincts let her down.

“I hope you all behave yourselves, especially you, Mrsha. And Ser Dalimont will be helping mind you, so listen to him, alright?”

The [Knight] bowed, and all the children but Mrsha looked up respectfully. Mrsha just wrinkled her nose at Lyonette as they lined up behind Dalimont. Were they playing in the city on the playground? That was cool.

She wasn’t going to steal food after Mister Wailant lectured them. She was a good girl. Mrsha was curious why they all lined up and held hands. She held Ekirra’s and Visma’s as Lyonette smiled.

“Ser Dalimont will take you to your activities. Alright, Mrsha—let me know how much fun you have!”

Only then did a little bell go off in Mrsha’s head. Fun? Lyonette’s idea of ‘fun’ sucked. She twisted around and then scribbled a note.

Hey, where are we going?

They marched through the door to Liscor as Liska let them through, and Ekirra’s nose wrinkled up as he read Mrsha’s note. Some of the children were impressed; Ekirra’s literacy was worse than the other two’s, but he had had to learn to read because Mrsha could only write.

“I thought we were gonna play at your inn, Mrsha. Visma, where are we going?”

“You’ll see. We’re doing what I did yesterday.”

The Drake’s ominous comment made Mrsha’s hair stand up. She poked Visma.

Wait, what are you talking about?

Then she saw Ser Dalimont watching her out of the corner of his eye. Then Mrsha realized…they weren’t going to the playground at all. And when she saw the Drake holding her staff and waving at the children, Mrsha felt a pit open in her stomach.

Shassa Weaverweb was the opposite of cool. Ekirra glanced at Mrsha, then Visma.

“Visma, you said you were helping your mom with Council stuff. What was it?”

The little Drake girl’s head rotated slowly. She gave her two friends and the other children listening in a big, toothy grin.

“The Council made it. They call it school. And we all have to go every single day except weekends. And I had to go yesterday. Now you’re doing it too.”

Ekirra’s face went blank. But Mrsha—Mrsha’s face went pale. She tried to back away, but Visma had a hold on her paw, and Ekirra wasn’t letting go.

School? Skuul? Schuuuuuul?

Then she realized why Dalimont was there and why Lyonette had been smiling. Mrsha tried to yank away, and she howled silently.

You traitor! You sold us out!

Visma was laughing at her. Laughing and laughing as Ekirra began to panic, but the children were linked up, and Shassa was beckoning them to a classroom, a jail cell!

“We’re all going together!”

Visma pulled Mrsha into the hell of education. Mrsha tried to resist. She made a break for it, and Ser Dalimont had to carry her back, kicking and fighting and biting. Her paws latched onto the doorway, and she howled.

No! Noooooo! Noooooooooooo—

Then the door closed. And Mrsha was in school—and the passersby were extremely disturbed and decided to call the Watch just in case.

 

——

 

School. Mrsha sat in the little desks made for this prototype school and class and knew it was the end of good things.

She was going to sit here and do homework. She’d have lessons and have to do math all day. School? They were dead.

“Mrsha, it’s not that bad! Stop scaring me!”

Ekirra whined. Visma looked almost happy, the traitor. But Mrsha just wrote on the card.

We’re dead. You’re dead. You just don’t know it.

She knew school. Lessons and tests and—Mrsha clawed at her face and pulled down her eyelids as she recounted the horror of it. If you didn’t get good grades, you were in trouble! You had to sit here—for hours and—

By the time Shassa finished introducing herself to the other students, Ekirra was in a mortal horror like Mrsha. The two sat there as Shassa clapped her claws.

“I’m Shassa Weaverweb, a [Druid] from Oteslia. I am going to be teaching you all today, like we do in the City of Growth. I hope you’ll all have lots of fun and mind your manners, okay? I know some of us come from very far away, but I want us all to enjoy ourselves. If you have any questions, just raise your paw or claw or hand like this.”

She was laying out classroom etiquette, having them introduce themselves. Mrsha darkly watched Prost’s daughters tell everyone they were from Riverfarm and answer questions.

She knew the [Emperor] was a dithering fool, but this was pure treachery. This was against all that was good and proper. How could Erin allow this?

Mrsha got up and sulkily held up a card explaining who she was when called upon. Ekirra, the vacuous nincompoop, gave his spiel about soccer and how much he liked his team as if he’d forgotten what was coming upon them.

“Alright, now we know each other—let’s begin a lesson, shall we?”

Everyone looked apprehensively at Mrsha as she lay back in her chair and stared up at the ceiling. Death upon them. A death of boredom, the Goblins would call it. The other children had heard—or rather, read—Mrsha’s dire portents. So they gazed upwards in trepidation as Shassa fussed around and then produced her first prop of tedium.

“Alright. I know this is something you’ve never done before, go to class. Or have you? Miss Chimmy?”

“N-no, Miss Weaverweb. We don’t have schools as such in Riverfarm.”

The girl stood, then remembered she could sit, so she raised her arm and blushed as she replied. Shassa corrected her with a big smile.

“Thank you, Chimmy! You don’t have to raise your hand. I’m just explaining what school is. It’s a way to learn instead of apprenticeships. Every child takes lessons until they’re thirteen in Oteslia, by law. There are all kinds of lessons and [Teachers], from mathematics…”

Mrsha slumped in her chair.

“…law…”

Ekirra’s smile faded.

“…and all kinds of exciting classes and lessons. Why, you might even get a class! [Student] is a class that comes from only school. So let’s have a little sample class—if you like this, your parents will hopefully agree to send you to school and Liscor will adopt the practice. That would be wonderful—Oteslia isn’t the only place to use school education. Why, even Wistram and other nations use this method.”

Mrsha’s head rose.

Wait, this wasn’t guaranteed? If this went badly, they might free the rest of Liscor’s children from this fate?

She knew what she had to do in that moment, and Mrsha stared around the bare classroom. It was going to be hard to burn this place down, but as Erin was her witness—she would see it done.

At the very least, she’d make sure this lesson didn’t go the way these scheming [Princesses] and [Teachers] wanted. So she waited as Shassa lifted her prop for the first lesson.

“Alright! Who here knows how to string a bow? Raise your claws!”

Mrsha’s face…screwed up in confusion. She saw Chimmy and one Gnoll boy raise their paws slowly as the nervous children hesitated. Then Mrsha recalled that, yes, she too knew how to—

“How many of you have shot a bow? Has anyone ever hunted before?”

Uh…this time, only the Gnoll boy’s paw stayed up, and Mrsha realized he was a Silverfang from the tribes. Shassa asked him to stand, reintroduce himself as Kolm Silverfang, and explain that he’d once shot some arrows at a Corusdeer herd from the safety of some wagons and he knew how to sling-hunt. Mrsha was impressed. Even she had only hunted game and hares and such did not count to Gnolls.

“Sling-hunting is very convenient. It’s more economical since you just need a stone, but bow and arrows translate better across professions. We may have time to do both, but right now, I’m going to pass the bow around. I have two more—I want you to get a feel for it, and then we’ll show you how to hold them and learn how to be responsible. No one wants to hurt someone else, and you can injure someone very easily with a bow, understand? Kolm, can you tell us what the biggest animal you hunted was? Does anyone have a [Hunter] or an [Archer] in their family? Anyone they know?”

Well—the children looked at each other, and Mrsha of course knew Bird and Halrac and all the great [Archers]. She had to write out a small recount as the children were given the shortbow sized to them and shown how you held it.

“Remember—never nock an arrow when you’re facing something you don’t want to hit. Don’t aim it at anyone. ‘Nock’ is a word we use to describe loading an arrow into a string. This is how you write it.”

Shassa was demonstrating bow handling, writing the word on a chalkboard, and making sure they all got the bow safety tutorial as well. By her own admission, she was not a high-level [Teacher], but she had adopted this lesson plan from…

…wait a second…

It was only after twenty minutes of helping Visma hold the bow correctly and being shown a target they could shoot little cloth bag arrows at that Mrsha remembered they were in schuuul. She looked around apprehensively.

Where was the essay? Where was the—Shassa saw Mrsha’s look of confusion.

“We can’t shoot too much indoors or use slings in here. Don’t worry, Mrsha! We’ll be going to Celum next where we have a nice, safe place to practice shooting.”

“Are we gonna hunt, Miss Shassa?”

The [Druid] lifted a claw.

“People do hunt with bows all the time, Ekirra, but as a [Druid], I don’t wish for us to hunt without necessity. But that’s a lesson for later—we’ll be practicing on targets. Don’t worry, I’ve set them up, and we’ll even have a competition! If you’re lucky, maybe one of you will get an [Archer] class!”

“We get classes like that?”

Chimney’s eyes went round, and Shassa nodded.

“It’s rare, but if you should have a talent—alright, follow Ser Dalimont, please! Remember, bows down, and no one nock an arrow. Does anyone need to go to the restroom at the inn before we go to Celum?”

Mrsha walked with Ekirra and Visma and felt—confused. When they got back to the inn, Lyonette appeared to watch them, but she let Shassa take them to Celum. Where, as promised, there was a little archery area set up just outside of the city with logs, rocks, and other targets. The children were allowed—in groups—to shoot arrows, and Shassa watched.

She only intervened to break up arguments, stop someone from swinging a bow around and aim at another child, and to direct them at various targets. They even had slings—but only two children very far apart were allowed to whirl them.

You could slap yourself in the back of the head with the sling, too. Mrsha did just that the first time she tried over-energetically to whirl one, and she clutched at the back of her head.

“Are you bleeding? Remember, everyone, be careful.

Where’s my healing potion? Mrsha rubbed at her head, and Shassa carefully inspected the wound. She did not give Mrsha a healing potion. But she did hear Mrsha’s thoughts and cheerfully held the sling out.

“I think you’re okay, Mrsha. Pain is a wonderful lesson. I believe that’s something Druid Nalthaliarstrelous would agree on.”

Mrsha hated it when adults got smart. But she learned how to skim a stone through the air with commendable speed, and her arms were just getting tired when Shassa clapped her hands.

“Wonderful, everyone! Who’s tired?

They raised their hands, and the [Druid] laughed.

“Who’s hungry?”

More hands raised. Mrsha’s stomach rumbled, and Shassa pointed.

“Then we’ll go back to the inn and then to Riverfarm! Then—we’ll see if we can find food.”

“Find it? But the inn’s right there.”

The Drake gave Ekirra a mischievous smile.

“Yes…but Riverfarm has a great big forest. We’ll forage for some snacks. I’ve heard there are even natural sweetberries and Sage’s Grass there. Miss Lyonette has promised to give anyone who finds Sage’s Grass a cupcake for lunch.”

Wait. Wait…Mrsha saw the kids look up, and she was more confused. We’re gonna forage for food? Shassa pulled out a little book, and she led them to Riverfarm—where the first thing they did was get a lesson on what to do if you saw a monster or dangerous animal, although the [Emperor] was keeping an eye out. The next thing they looked at was a book of local fauna and how to spot a good mushroom or dubious berry.

Then they were set loose in groups of four, with Shassa, Ser Dalimont, and a volunteer from Riverfarm watching the children from afar. Mrsha picked her first blackberry and got a thorn in her paw, but she was allowed to eat anything she found—so long as it was actually edible.

And only after they’d come back, shared their haul, and Shassa was teaching them how to make a fire and cook some of the food did Mrsha see the little hamper of actual lunch they’d have once they learned how to cook it all. Then—she had to raise a paw.

“Yes, Mrsha?”

When are we going to start the school lessons?

Shassa blinked at the question—then she began laughing, and Mrsha realized—this was it. This was skuul. No, wait.

This was school. And it was entirely unlike what she’d expected. But then—Mrsha had been taught by bona-fide aliens. Foreigners to this world.

The horror-stories that Erin, Kevin, Joseph, and other malcontents of Earth’s various educational systems had related had an entirely different culture, level of industry, and requirement of their school systems. They were expected to learn algebra and progress into physics and biology—which were not inherently boring subjects.

Mrsha herself would have loved to know how this world worked—for instance, how far down the water tables went. What she hadn’t realized because the Earthers were bad teachers themselves was that education wasn’t the problem.

Sometimes you had bad teachers. A good teacher could make anything fun or, at least, easy to learn. A bad one?

In that moment, Mrsha realized one thing that she had taken for granted: Erin and Lyonette were bad teachers. She had never stopped to think of their aptitude, but they taught math like a chore. Shassa played games—she wrote ‘nock’ on the board and taught the children a word in between showing them how to draw a bow rather than Lyonette’s lessons the way she had learned it—reciting a string of words from rote.

It was not Joseph’s fault he might have had a bad science teacher, but it didn’t mean that the science or the education was faulty. And Shassa was teaching lessons of this world, things Oteslia thought every child should know.

By the time they were done with lunch, the Drake was directing them to somewhere else—and it was the inn’s own garden.

“Swimming lessons! Who here can’t swim?”

Mrsha got to cannonball into the pool with Ekirra and Visma and help the nervous children to swim for the first time. Then she learned to float on her back and three different ways to swim. Breaststroke, free crawl—of course, Shassa had different words for it.

“It’s hard to swim with fur, so you Gnolls need to learn how to tread water differently. At sea, there are riptides which pull you through the water, sometimes deep down or far out to sea! If we have the chance, we’ll find a gentle river and show you what that’s like or just a bigger lake. When you’re tired, come out on the grass, and I’ll tell you about Drowned Folk!”

By the time the midmorning turned to early evening, Mrsha was exhausted in the best of ways. When they came back to the classroom, Shassa asked them to name every known species in the world and gave them a little fact about each. Mrsha, of course, knew almost all of them perfectly, but even she hadn’t known there used to be a Halfling people.

Then their parents and family members came to pick them up. Mrsha went with Ser Dalimont as Shassa called out.

“Tomorrow, we’ll be visiting some friendly animals at Councilmember Elirr’s shop and learning how to take care of them. Then we’ll be practicing magic!”

Wh—

Mrsha walked straight into the doorway as she turned her head. All the children looked back, and the Drake winked.

“Make sure you can attend!”

In that way, she was very clever, because Mrsha almost turned right back around and demanded to learn Shassa’s arcane ways. The [Druid] did know how to tailor a lesson to convince even the most dubious families that school might not be a bad idea. As she’d told Lyonette—she’d save the mathematics classes for a bit later and make them only one part of the day.

Mrsha went away, thinking this thing might not be such a bad idea after all. But only because she’d given it her full approval. And besides—

This beat Lyonette’s lessons any day of the week.

 

——

 

While Mrsha the Scholastic was at her first day of lessons, Erin Solstice returned with Colth in tow to The Wandering Inn.

The Ultimate Supporter was subdued, but when he saw the Horns he went over to shake their hands—and the Silver Swords’—and assure them that their hard work and sacrifice had not been for nothing.

“Stalker’s hide has been fully cleansed and processed by the Haven’s own teams. Larra’s an expert at magically ensuring there’s no residual poisons or whatnot in that kind of stuff. She can’t tailor to save her life—but I’d trust her to purify anything but Creler corpses.”

“It’s only been nine days. What, does she need that much soap?”

Yvlon’s attempt at humor provoked a silence until someone realized she was joking. The [Armsmistress] had a deadpan delivery that was too good. Yvlon coughed, flushing, as Erin listened in, and a few other teams gathered around.

Colth had compensated most of his friends and the teams in gold, but the Horns were in this for the hide, and the Silver Swords were due something.

The Graveblades they’d found from Facestealer had been divided up. They were all swords, interestingly, an entire small armory of death-magic that was shaped for Drake claws. What that meant…well, Pisces had an incredible theory that the Horns believed.

In practice, the swords had gone to the other teams who’d helped do the fighting. One to Orchestra, for instance, one to other teams—of note, Griffon Hunt had gotten such a sword, and Briganda was the one happily swinging it around in lieu of her axe. No one in the Halfseekers wanted or used swords.

They were already top-tier artifacts, but the real bounty was the hide. Colth shook his head as he explained.

“Soap would ruin the hide in some cases, and nothing’s strong enough to remove a serious toxin.”

“I know, I was just making a joke—”

Yvlon flushed, and the Ultimate Supporter grinned.

“Just making sure you know I’m not messing up twice. Larra has a process. [Cleanse] is simple—but it can fail. She takes it in a room and bombards the hide from all angles with her [Arcane Familiars]. Purifying crystals, physical scraping—the works. Anything that’s removed that isn’t valuable is incinerated and disposed of. Then she runs purified water across what remains, and if she thinks there’s any contaminants, it goes back. She didn’t like Stalker’s hide or Facestealer’s, so she ran it through multiple cycles.”

“Fancy. That’s a high-level [Mage] for you.”

Ceria wanted to know the exact process and resolved to spy on Larra’s setup if she could later. Pisces frowned.

“That’s surely expensive.”

Colth shrugged.

“It is—and I took care of it. Larra’s a friend, and besides, this is all my fault.”

“It was a good plan. Right until we were all fooled.”

Ksmvr offered Colth a double-edged olive branch, and the [Supporter] grimaced.

“I should have thought of that trick. The deaths are on me—and I thank you for letting me give away the Graveblades to the affected teams. Now, though, let me report. I took the liberty of sharing the hide—or rather, letting experts inspect it because it’s so damn big. I convinced the best [Tailors] and [Leatherworkers] I could find to take a look, and I had Master Hedault pop in.”

He produced a piece of paper and read out their findings.

“Stalker’s hide has faint enchanting marks, as if it used to be a conduit for more spells. Facestealer? None besides magical damage. Both are clearly magical, artifact or relic-grade hides. Stalker’s is in remarkable condition despite the age and destruction of the head—Facestealer’s is a mess. However, testing indicates they surpass Wyvernhide quality in both cases. No one went up in scope, but I can personally guarantee Facestealer’s is rated against Tier 5 spells.”

The adventurers looked at each other. Colth went on, eyes flicking up to gauge their reactions.

“…Stalker’s hide would fit a being about as large as a small house. Even accounting for the need to process it and scrap it—it would make numerous full sets of armor, and it has an active camouflage effect. Of note—we have no bones. Neither Stalker nor Facestealer left any behind.”

“No bones?”

Pisces did move at that. They had used undead to port the corpse in their desperate pursuit of Facestealer, and he had tried to animate the dead monster—but he had chalked his failure up to its power, not the bones. Colth made a face.

“No bones in all the body. Odd, right?”

A shiver ran through the Horns. Odd…Ceria was reminded of Skinner. But Colth went on.

“Regardless—the hide seems to be fit to pass Relic-grading according to the Guild of Tailors. That’s preliminary, but it’s either relic-grade or top-tier artifact level. And we don’t have grades of relics anymore.”

He folded up the paper and looked at the others with a smile, and Pisces rubbed at one ear.

“Did I, ah…are you implying, Colth, that there might be enough of the hide to fashion a set of armor for all of us?”

He meant all five of them, including Colth. The [Supporter] raised his brows.

“Five? Possibly we could give away a set of armor—depending on how economical the hide is processed.”

A suit of Relic-class armor? Ksmvr’s mandibles were open, and Ceria whistled—then her eyes narrowed. Yvlon Byres had realized something as well, and she coughed into one fist.

“I think there’s a catch, isn’t there, Colth?”

The budding excitement waned, and the [Supporter] winked at her. He spread his hands.

“Any guesses?”

It took them a second of looking at each other, and then Dawil, who’d been listening in, grunted.

“Aha. I got it. It’s the Adamantium hammer issue.”

Ylawes opened his mouth. He had been about to ask if Larra or another team wanted the hide, but Colth nodded.

“What’s the Adamantium hammer issue?”

“The Adamantium hammer fallacy is that you can’t hammer Adamantium without an Adamantium hammer. Even Mithril deforms. But how do you make an Adamantium hammer without…”

…The ore itself? Maughin was a perfect example of that too—he had yet to even manage to heat his ingot to forging temperature. Dawil rolled his eyes.

“Which, by the way, is how they did it—they cast a lump of Adamantium and stuck it on a handle. But I assume none of those [Leatherworkers] wanted to try a shot at Stalker’s hide?”

Colth shook his head.

“The woman I asked wouldn’t even consider it, and she’s the best [Tailor] Invrisil’s got. So here’s our issue—we need an expert in working monster hide. It has tons of quirks, and it’s difficult and requires a specialized class and equipment. Either we went to First Landing—and there’s only a high-level [Tailor] there—or we find somewhere else. Anyone have a contact? Because, frankly, I know people who could do Wyverns, but not this.”

Few people had ever hunted a monster on Stalker’s level. The Silver Swords were at a loss, and Ceria, Ksmvr, Pisces, and Yvlon were all helpless. The half-Elf scratched at her head.

“You know—someone from my homeland might be able to do it. The Kingdom of Myth, Erribathe, is known for, uh—fantastic stuff. Worth a shot?”

Colth pulled a face.

“You want to send something that expensive over a continent? Let alone the fact that every [Bandit] and [Pirate] would go after it—”

“Yeah, damn.”

Ylawes Byres wondered if Gralton or House Veltras might be able to help. Famous hunters often had access to good craftspeople, but it was, in fact, a newer prospective member of his team that spoke up.

I know who to contact.”

Everyone turned—and Larr of Vuliel Drae puffed out his chest. Even Anith stared at him blankly until the Gnoll looked around and glared.

“Has everyone forgotten who I’m related to?”

“Aren’t you Hawkarrow? They do bows.”

“No, my uncle, my uncle! I tell you all the time—”

Dasha slapped her forehead.

“Of course! I always put wax in my ears when you say it! But you’re related to some important Honored Gnoll…who?”

Larr was getting angrier and angrier.

“My Uncle! Honored Shedrkh! Of Soliest Yerr! The Gnoll who made Kraken Armor!

Colth’s eyes lit up. Insill, Pekona, and Anith gasped as if this were the first time hearing it, and Larr got so mad only Nailren’s paw on his shoulder kept him from exploding.

“Now there’s a famous leatherworker. And we’re heading south—I’d hate to leave this hide with anyone short of a Gold-rank team for security or Larra’s inn. But Larr—could you contact your uncle? Or get us a way of introduction? It’s far from the new lands, but worth a shot.”

At last, Larr hesitated. He scuffed at the floor.

“I, er—my Uncle does keep up with me, but I will have to wait. Yes, I can tell him—and he will surely be interested!”

“It looks like we have a place to visit. The Gnoll Plains. Huh. I was just there.”

Ceria Springwalker cupped her chin in her hands, and her eyes twinkled. Pisces frowned at her.

“Are you suggesting we go all that way?”

“Someone’s gotta guard the hide. Besides—we might have some credit with the Gnolls. Doubly besides? It’s closer to the new lands, and if you’re set on going…”

Ceria Springwalker looked around, and Colth smiled.

“Well, that makes me feel like we’ve got a path forwards. Let me know if your plans change, but otherwise, I might count on you to make the pilgrimage south.”

Erin Solstice looked over from pretending to play a game of chess against Niers—well, she was playing, but she was listening in. She looked at the Horns, and it hit her.

Her friends were going to leave soon. Again, and once again—Erin Solstice exhaled. She hated change. No matter how good it was.

She hated the fact that they got better and shined so much. If they didn’t, maybe they could have stayed. But Erin’s eyes strayed back to the board—then she looked around for Venaz, Peki, and Merrik. And they too…had to continue onwards. So Erin only waved a hand.

“Guys—if you’re gonna go south, you might as well take the Horned One.”

She pointed, and Venaz looked around. He stared at Erin, aghast.

“…What did you call me?”

She gave him a blank face. Venaz’s superior attitude did provoke some bullying in Erin.

“Don’t like that? How about Venaz the Great and Powerful Whose Wisdom Cannot be Surpassed? The Second Coming of the Titan of Baleros? Mister Green Greatsword? Calruz 0.5? Mister Minotaur?”

The Minotaur’s look of chagrin grew and grew—especially because he had yet to take a single victory in chess off Erin. It only grew worse as he heard his classmates laughing—and then the quiet guffawing coming from the speaking stone attached to Erin’s chessboard.

Lyonette was teaching one of the little Goblins how to properly organize a serving tray so it wasn’t balanced badly. She was patiently trying to show the Goblin balance—and the Goblin was protesting that balance didn’t matter. If they stacked all the drinks on this edge, they could just carry it in the most dangerous-looking way possible.

What was life without the thrill of fear that any second your Goblin [Server] might toss an entire tray of flaming Minotaur Punches into your face? Nothing, that was what.

To be fair as well—that was the charm of The Wandering Inn. Erin’s relentless nicknaming of people, the chaos, the surprise—and let’s be fair, the poor service. You came here for the magic, the possibility of seeing something to make your day that much more unusual.

Lyonette had finally gotten Sticks—the Goblin was nicknamed Sticks—to carry the tray in a semi-logical manner when she heard the front door open and what sounded like a larger crowd blow in. She turned, smiling—and blinked.

“Hello, take any s—oh.

She started as the most colorful crowd strutted into the common room and formed a line. And they did strut.

The Haven’s serving staff had on that bright uniform that Larra had tailored in multiple colors according to the buildings they worked in. Eight of them marched forwards and nodded to Erin.

“Miss Solstice? Innkeeper Barnethei sent us over. Where would you like us?”

Their leader had frosted green tips to her hair, and she either had magic in her blood or the most unusual set of ruby-sparks in her brown eyes. Erin blinked as Lyonette looked around and realized why the inn was lagging a step behind was because Ishkr had left for his appointment at the Haven.

“Oh—er—hi!”

Flustered, Erin swung away from her regular Venaz harassment and hurried over. The staff bowed a bit then, but very shallowly. They were interesting.

Not just because they were clearly a professional staff that were sizing up the inn and guests—and Antinium and Goblins—like seasoned veterans of the service industry, but because they had a number of qualities Lyonette noticed.

Obviously, anyone who could see a Goblin or Antinium without blinking was good. This lot may have seen The Wandering Inn’s guests before, but they had a veneer that gave them a friendly attitude without going into too intimate.

Practiced, in short. Lyonette had seen the same from Calanfer’s staff, and you noticed when it was lacking in other nations or places. This lot could handle unpleasant guests without ever giving away their distaste, Lyonette bet.

However, what struck her were two things. The first was, well, their skin tone to the Terandrian. Only Kaaz and a few nations among Terandria’s kingdoms had a majority of darker skin tones that Lyonette normally associated with other continents. But like Larra, it seemed the staff was more diverse—among humanity, at least.

Second, and tangential to that, these [Servers], [Waitresses], possibly just [Staff Members], were clearly trained to wait on nobility. They had that subtlety about them. The way they drew back a foot when they bowed, how they held themselves—even rudimentary hand-gestures made Lyonette feel vaguely like she was in court.

However—they struck an interesting chord in that their bow to Erin and to Lyonette as Erin introduced her second-in-command was slight. Respectful, but not deferential. They knew who Lyonette was, but the [Princess] got a nod as if they were [Earls] meeting a [Duke]. Not staff members addressing a [Princess]—or even servants in a household.

That had to be either the difference between Izril and Terandria or Larra’s particular spin on things. Either way, it didn’t actually bother Lyonette, but she found it interesting.

Interesting as the way the staff were clearly here to spy on the inn, even if only on a personal level. They followed her around as she took charge, and she noticed their brows rising and the silent looks as they met Calescent and saw how the inn worked.

“Alright, that is the basics of—of how we run. Do you have any questions?”

The Haven’s staff shook their heads, and their leader addressed Lyonette.

“Eight of us should be enough for a crowd, Miss Marquin. Innkeeper Barnethei did say to call in reinforcements if it was needed.”

“Oh. How very generous of him.”

Possibly condescending. Lyonette had an image of that flashy [Vice Innkeeper] smiling superiorly, and she felt a flash of rivalry with the Haven. Yes, The Wandering Inn was far more humble, but it had shot up in prominence. She’d show the Haven’s staff what they had.

“Alright, then, Miss Navien, will you take the bar? Ishkr normally runs that. Three for the floor orders, two for the [Grand Theatre], and if two of you could help clean up…”

The Goblins and Antinium were hard-working, but they hadn’t figured out the flow of the inn yet. A table full of dirty dishes from a large crowd of [Guardsmen] needed washing. Lyonette hurried over to help—and one of the Haven’s staff stepped over.

“[Kitchen Delivery]. I’ll begin washing right away, Miss Marquin.”

The plates, glasses, and utensils vanished. Lyonette blinked—another of the Haven’s staff produced a cleaning cloth emblazoned with the Haven’s sigil and ran it over the table. The pieces of food that were too large to catch ran onto the floor—another had a broom already. Two passes and the table was spotless.

Lyonette gulped as the Haven’s staff spun into action. She looked around for Erin, and the [Innkeeper] was watching.

“Whoa, they’re pretty good. Do they get magical dustrags?”

Erin looked fascinated, not intimidated. The Haven’s staff were watching her as Erin socialized with her guests. Lyonette began to step up her own game, realizing she could take more time off with this crew. She wondered…what Ishkr was seeing.

She hoped Barnethei was just being friendly.

 

——

 

The truth was that the eight members of staff who’d gone to The Wandering Inn were not ordinary employees. Each one was at least Level 20+, which was high-level for service industry jobs at entry-level positions like that. In fact, three were sub-heads of their various buildings and thus over Level 30.

[Staff Manager of Cleaning], for instance. That was Navien. Barnethei had told her to take a visit to The Wandering Inn.

Because of course he wanted to show them off. It was only good manners to be as friendly as possible too, but honestly?

The Haven and The Wandering Inn were in competition. It was friendlier than most other classes, and Larra and Erin themselves weren’t putting on the sparring gloves—at least not openly. Still, two famous inns?

You had to strike a contrast. Barnethei was the [Vice Innkeeper] of the Adventurer’s Haven, but to many, he was the [Innkeeper] they thought ran the place. He was the front, and he made sure the Haven actually ran events, that everyone had a good time.

He was the Lyonette of this place, and he might quit his job within a month. Certainly, after they got past Manus his days were limited.

‘Quit’ might be too dramatic a word. Barnethei was checking his coat—royal purple today and gold-edged. It was always gold or silver filigree and such. He knew he looked like a performer, the leader of a circus or menagerie. That was entirely by design, as was the staff’s flashy dress in bright satin and faux-silk cloths; shiny without being too gaudy.

It was meant to make the Haven feel special. More than your run-of-the-mill pub or tavern. Of course, this sprang from the days when Larra was first getting started and the Haven didn’t float or have an entire complex attached to it. Still, now the Haven had a reputation to maintain.

Same with the bow-tie. Barnethei had a top-hat too that he sometimes used, but that was pretty ostentatious, even for him. When he was done, he exited his private dressing room and strode into the Haven.

Guests, esteemed friends, I’m sorry to keep you waiting! Shall we?”

His eyes twinkled. His voice was a stage-voice, and even the Players of Celum’s famous Kilkran had complimented him on his projection. As if those [Actors] were the first people to learn how to play to a crowd.

Barnethei had learned from [Bards]. In fact, Lyonette’s observation about the staff of the Haven was spot-on. They did get etiquette training, and it was actually very hard to apply for a role here.

Not just because the pay was excellent—you got all the free bread Larra produced and free food as well. But Barnethei had to know you were here for at least a year or two to justify the lessons in how to serve nobles, speech lessons, even tutoring in how you walked.

The staff were spaced around the first area he entered, which was the Haven’s outdoor deck and public areas where most people got their baskets of free bread. They had the largest kitchen here—which often churned out the bread sticks and other cheaper foods for the casuals.

‘Casuals’. The Haven’s staff had a private lexicon for the type of guests they got. The outdoor decks and such were lovely viewing places that even the best guests like Mihaela liked—they had a second floor, and the entire expanse looked out over the circular railings across wherever the Haven went. You could watch the farm building slowly float past the central Haven building, or the library—and walk across the various bridges to anywhere you liked.

The Haven had a library, farm, extended guest suites, and even a bathhouse attached to it. Larra was always adding buildings and removing them—she had a limit to how many she could make fly, and she might decide they really didn’t need a set of rooms and remodel them. But the core amenities were always the same.

Fine beds, fine food, and fine entertainment. The central Haven building had three floors, but each floor was massive. The outer guest area where they stood was the cheapest and largest, and they got progressively more impressive the further in you went.

Outside, the library and farms were always huge draws for casuals. You could pet cows, some of which were magical, and buy feed to give to little chicks or even rent a horse to ride if you hadn’t come with one from the stables. As Erin had noticed, there was an attached Mage’s Guild, Adventurer’s Guild, and even Merchant’s Guild in miniature here so you could conduct business while staying at the Haven.

[Mages] loved it here. Barnethei, surveying the outer deck, spotted a familiar figure he hadn’t been able to get rid of. He strode across the deck as a [Stellar Server] accosted him and spoke. She didn’t whisper—they spoke while walking along. Even if there was an emergency, you played it off.

“Barnethei, there’s a duel brewing in the Moments Bar.”

“Damn. Who?”

“[Lord] and some Drake. They got into it over the Veltras attack on Liscor—”

Barnethei didn’t groan, but his smile turned into a wince. Duels between noble guests were not uncommon. Though sometimes it was a matter for bodyguards. Still, they knew the rules…the Drake and Gnoll populations would cause friction.

“I’ll be there in a second. Buy me time.”

She vanished. Barnethei quickened his pace, slowing only to pat someone on the shoulder.

“Yes, the bread’s free. Hello! I’m Barnethei, the Haven’s [Vice Innkeeper]. I hope you’ll enjoy yourselves. Ask the staff or a familiar for anything.”

A smile was all it took sometimes. He often did linger and chat with someone wanting to talk—but he had to move. So he slowed for only a few steps at the tables before hurrying across a bridge. There, he called up.

“Archmage. Archmage Valeterisa. Innkeeper Larra would like you to return any books you’ve checked out.”

A figure jumped and hid a book behind her back. She was sitting on the roof of the tower-library, impressively tall and one of the larger private collections. A red-haired [Mage] standing below the tower turned around, looking guilty.

Montressa du Valeross had been trying to get her mentor to come down for the last half-hour. Valeterisa peered down at Barnethei and called out cautiously.

“I’m not done reading them. And I’m stealing nothing. I am an Archmage, you know. Montressa, I’m still an Archmage, aren’t I?”

Barnethei knew her of old—she had been a guest here when he had first been employed by Larra. So he let his tone grow slightly acerbic.

“Archmage, you have a habit of teleporting or flying away with all your books. Larra would prefer to get some of her books back before eight years have passed. In fact—you still have several books in your mansion. You may check out one book at a time.”

“I am an Archmage, Barnethei.”

“Larra’s orders. Incidentally, will you be staying here much longer?”

Valeterisa was fiddling with her glasses. She frowned as she checked her books.

“You seem to be keen on getting rid of me, Barnethei.”

He lied with a smile. And he knew she cast [Detect Truth] on everyone—but he was a [Vice Innkeeper]. He had to lie to the nobility of Izril all the time.

“Not at all. I’d just remind you that you do have a habit of turning off any spells you run into that you don’t care for. And your shadow familiars get in the way of our arcane ones, and guests mistake them for the staff. Finally, Archmage, you keep asking our staff to buy you any reagents or materials you need.”

“Aren’t I an honored guest?”

He ignored that. Technically she was, and Larra would suffer Valley’s presence for ages, but Barnethei always tried to expedite Valeterisa’s leaving if only for the staff. He was in charge of their morale, and he was allowed to move the inn.

“Consider leaving in a week? Mage Montressa, I’m sure you have work to do.”

“Archmage, we are going to be at Liscor soon, and you have that project…”

“Oh, very well. I’ll think about it.”

“And the books?”

Valeterisa grudgingly began sorting through the pile of thirty-eight she’d piled up on the roof. Barnethei decided that was a win—he’d also have to send up some familiars to clean the giant picnic she’d made with all the dishes since he was certain she was not going to do it for him.

Small potatoes, really. But here was the thing—Barnethei was passing back when one of the staff who managed the library poked her head out and gave him a relieved nod. He winked with one eye as he passed.

Colousa was a proper [Librarian]; Larra needed a dedicated one, but so far, she’d just recruited a series of lower-level ones who tended to leave after a year or two. Colousa was good, knew every book in the library, and she’d shout at a [Lord] dog-earring a book. You needed that kind of spunk in the job.

—However. Even Colousa had limits. She was terrified of the Archmage of Izril. Not least because for all of Valeterisa’s good qualities, she had levitated Colousa into the ceiling to get a book she wanted. And then left her there.

You needed to be able to dance with Dragons to rise to the top here. Well, you needed the levels too. That was part of Barnethei’s permanent issue, which was going to be compounded when he left the Haven.

He wanted talent. And talent?

The Adventurer’s Haven had all of the north’s youths to recruit from. True, they didn’t want to train up someone with no levels, and not everyone wanted a job here when you could be an adventurer—but they could poach good staff from any inn they wanted. Even so—Barnethei could replace all of his regular staff in about a week. He’d hate doing it—but he could.

He could not replace the heads of each building. The good ones, at least. Navien was one such—losing her would be like losing a foot. A Level 30+ expert in the exact class that was needed—a [Head of Cleaning] as opposed to a [Cleaner]—was a very specific role that he’d be competing with Magnolia Reinhart and every major employer over.

It was like the famous Salii paradox. If you had someone that good—you were almost bound to lose them because they’d outgrow your position. Barnethei was proof of that.

He was going to quit his role in the Haven, and Larra needed a replacement. She had yet to find one—oh, she’d have temps, but he’d be gone, and he suspected she’d have to step in and resume her role for a year or two before she found someone who could run things in his place.

However, Larra had let him go—even encouraged him—rather than double his pay or offer more incentives because she thought it was for the best. Her answer to the Salii Paradox was simple.

If they were going to leave because they were so good, why not give them your job?

Barnethei was going to quit the Haven…and start up a new inn with Larra’s blessing, a quarter of her staff, and all of her support. That was why she was moving the Haven to the new lands. He didn’t know where exactly, but when it opened, the Second Haven—his working name for it—would be one of two inns that Larra controlled.

Possibly one of dozens, in time. Barnethei had a vision. It was one Larra shared, and it was of a series of the best inns across Izril, possibly even other continents, with Larra’s name attached. Inns so good they took over the top spots in whatever region they landed in.

If Larra could expand her class and magic…if they found the right talent, they could do amazing things. It wasn’t far-fetched either.

Larra the Haven had been a Named-rank [Mage], but like Deni, like all her friends, her levelling had slowed to a crawl once she’d passed Level 40. However, she’d passed Level 50 by doing the unthinkable—gaining the [Innkeeper] class and then merging [Wizard] and [Innkeeper] together.

These days, Barnethei thought Larra leveled faster than her adventurer friends, for all they risked their lives, because running an inn was a constant. It was hard to find a challenge as a Named-rank, and you could die, as Deni’s wounds against the Kraken Eater tribe had shown.

But running an inn? Running two inns? Taking one across the continent? That was what might take Larra to Level 60. Same with Barnethei.

Hence the Haven’s decision to go south. The new lands would mean gold and levels and opportunity for Larra and Barnethei. The Haven was well-defended, the staff were excellent, and if Barnethei wanted for anything, it was just more top-tier talent.

And he thought he’d found at least one in Liscor. Even if Larra herself was disappointed. She had come to see if the new [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn might be a good replacement for Barnethei. One look at Erin Solstice had told her that The Wandering Inn wouldn’t be joining hers any time soon. She had decided Erin was just a very convenient ally.

However, Barnethei wasn’t inclined to be entirely toothless. He was sure he couldn’t steal an actual [Princess] of Calanfer—and he still wanted to know why one was working at the inn. But he could take one other person.

The Haven was not The Wandering Inn in many ways. It didn’t do ‘amiable chaos’. If you didn’t get your order within a regular, narrow window, something had gone wrong.

However, it was also far more of an attraction than Erin’s inn. The free bread was the lure for the casuals, as were the magical lightshow and the familiars. They did a lot of the dirty work behind the scenes, cleaning, delivering things, doing simple tasks as they were rather stupid.

One floated through the first hallway Barnethei strode into, through the main doors of the Haven that you saw when you came up the main ramp. Most people passed through the foyer to the right where the open-seating area was.

From the foyer, you went left for some of the more interesting rooms, or up where they had private, large-scale dining for nobles or important guests who wanted privacy. The guest-suite also stretched out from here, and Mihaela Godfrey was currently…

Barnethei slowed and saw the Guildmistress of First Landing giving him a warning look as she slowed, sweating, and a few nervous City Runners looked up. She must have taken a few under her wing.

“Keep it up. I thought you wanted to train. You—Fals? Chin up here.

Mihaela Godfrey indicated with her chin, and a pair of City Runners that Barnethei recognized grunted. Garia Strongheart and Fals were both hand-picked by Mihaela, and he memorized their faces because it meant they had a shot at being Couriers.

“Guildmistress, I see you’re teaching some prospectives?”

“Got a problem with it, Barnethei?”

She was daring him to say something, and unlike Valeterisa, Mihaela threw her weight around deliberately. Often with kicks. Barnethei smiled weakly. He noticed a few guests staring at the six Runners and Mihaela.

“Perhaps you could refrain from using the balustrade as a work-out device, Guildmistress?”

“No.”

They were hanging from the railings of the curved staircase that led up, beautiful alabaster marble by the by. Currently doing pullups. Mihaela was sweating onto the floor, and this was why Barnethei was happy about his new inn.

He’d get his own weirdos, but he wouldn’t have to deal with Larra’s old friends.

“I’ll send a cleaner, then. Larra will bill you if you break the marble.”

“It’s enchanted.”

He gave up and walked away. The truth was that Mihaela, Valeterisa, and to some extent, any Named-rank adventurers were a match for Barnethei most of the time. Anyone else?

“Innkeeper Barnethei! I was looking for you! Are we having another gentlemen’s night tonight? Soon? I have Lord Detri here and Lord Alman—Alman, have you been here? House Sanito. We were going to stop by at least once before the inn leaves the north!”

A [Lord] stopped Barnethei on his way to the Pub of Best Moments, the dedicated bar and one of Larra’s most famous rooms in the inn. He stopped, smiled, and took the [Lord]’s hand.

For the [Lord] of Izril, Lord Ilner El—one of the distant members of the famous House of El—was very congenial with Barnethei. In fact Barnethei even clapped him on the shoulders.

“For you, Lord Ilner, I will set up a private room tonight. What time and how many should I expect?”

“Oh, I think we’ll be…six? Six. Alman, you will enjoy it. Don’t worry, we’ll play for small coins at the start.”

“I’ll be skewered if I lose a fortune, Ilner.”

Barnethei knew House Sanito, and he knew that Alman Sanito had to be worried about his finances. Especially when gambling with peers. But he took the man’s hand and smiled in such a disarming way that Alman blinked with gratification as he leaned in.

“Don’t worry, Lord Sanito. The Haven offers fake-currency instead of coins. Little ‘adventure-coins’. The kind of thing adventurers would use on long expeditions. You can bet a favor or a dare instead of gold.”

Another thing from Larra’s past. It also explained why Ilner loved the ‘gentlemen’s night’ where a number of men would gather for drinks, good food, and Barnethei overseeing the event and games. It was a getaway from their wives and duties and—crucially—very cheap compared to some of the entertainments you could buy.

“You will enjoy it, Alman. On my word. Barnethei is the finest [Innkeeper] I’ve met. If you aren’t laughing within the first twenty minutes…feel free to invite any other guests, Innkeeper.”

Barnethei smiled as Ilner gave him permission to fill the room with ‘commoners’. It was going to be a challenge. You had to meet people that Ilner’s—nobility—wouldn’t rub against.

“I will have everything set up at a quarter to ten then.”

Splendid. Don’t let me keep you. Let’s get settled in then.”

They had a waiting member of staff to lead them to their rooms, and Barnethei smiled—and then sped up. He was really hoping there wasn’t any blood in the Pub of Best Moments. It would also take him a good thirty minutes to organize the gentlemen’s night…

All within spec. All within control. Barnethei’s head turned, and he saw a flurry of no less than eighteen familiars carrying the luggage of the nobles after the servants. Another was coming from the kitchens with a complimentary glass of wine for each man.

Barnethei could sense the Haven moving, and it wasn’t even rush hour yet. Above, he thought that a certain [Lady] Tetra El was having a girl’s moment with her friends away from her husband—they were probably laughing over a late lunch.

That was just food. That was just—the basics. What the Haven was known for was spectacle. For magic.

A different kind of magic than The Wandering Inn’s though. When Barnethei pushed open the double-doors to the Pub of Best Moments, he felt the air change.

A pitch of excitement rose through the room that had nothing to do with the standoff between the angry Drakes and the [Lord]. The very air felt alive, and there was a spice in it—

This was one of the rooms that the regulars, the real regulars came to. [Lords] and [Ladies]. [Merchants] and famous folk. Less adventurers than you thought. Those were the serious guests, the ones who arguably got the least from the Haven besides shelter and companionship.

But the regulars loved this place because it came from Larra’s magic—and her Skills.

This was one of the [Innkeeper] class’ greatest Skills that Barnethei had ever seen. He had gotten no room-Skills yet, probably because he was a [Vice Innkeeper] and had no place. It was an enduring grief of his because he might have gotten one already.

This…this [Pub of Best Moments] though. It sparkled. And he thought his coat took on an additional luster. He felt taller, and when he spoke—

Ladies and gentlemen, please! Remember the rules. The bar’s a place to leave our troubles behind. What seems to be the issue?”

A wave of people in dresses and coats turned, like a kind of ballroom. Extraordinarily beautiful women and the most handsome of Izril’s men stepped back, cheering him on, and he nodded to people he thought he remembered despite the masks.

You could take the most attractive people in the world—from Mars the Illusionist, Lady Wuvren, the Lord of the Dance—and they’d fit right into the crowd here.

The Haven’s regulars. Most had masks on, conventional ones that looked like a statue’s face or worked silver or gold. Some had cloth coverings or veils—but they were largely ornamental, covering only the mouth or letting the eyes peek through the masks.

They were sharply dressed too, and Barnethei’s resplendent coat seemed right at home with the finest tailoring in the north. Normally, the room was filled with conversation, laughter, and cheers—right now it was quieter.

Because of the pair of Drakes—well, the two standing with fists clenched were opposite a cluster of men. At least one was a [Lord], and he had a hand on his sword.

“Ah, Innkeeper! These—Drakes were arguing about House Veltras and the Goblin Lord. They were bringing up—”

“You sieging our city? What were you going to say, you puffed up fleshbag?”

Some of the guests gasped—but there was a lot of laughter there too. Barnethei was relieved about that. The Pub of Best Moments wasn’t a place where fights often broke out due to its nature—it was mostly between people showing off.

Indeed, the two Drakes seemed mostly defensive, though both looked ready for a brawl. If anything, the [Lord] brandishing the sword seemed unwilling to put it down and come to fisticuffs, for all neither Drake had reached for a blade.

Then again…Barnethei wouldn’t have tried either Drake with his bare fists without a really good reason. They both had scars, and one was missing half his tail. Former soldiers, Barnethei had no doubt.

Menolit and Relc had refused to back down even with the sword waving in their faces. The only thing that had saved the [Lord] from Relc taking the sword and shoving it somewhere unpleasant was the Gnoll who was interposed between the two.

Barnethei exhaled as he saw the [Bartender] waving apologetically at him and the staff keeping the crowd back. This was another room that he personally oversaw, but it needed a dedicated expert.

Normally, it was Alanna who could handle this thing—but he’d sent her off to The Wandering Inn. Yet, Barnethei’s exchange was already paying off.

For it was no less than the star of the show, Ishkr, who was standing there. The [Head Server] looked vaguely exasperated as he spotted Barnethei, but he was fearlessly blocking both sides with nothing less than a furry arm.

“Lord Coore, please, you know there are no blades allowed in the room. I would not like to ban you—let’s sheathe the blade and sort this out.”

The [Lord] hesitated as Barnethei strode over, equally fearless of the blade.

“But the honor of the north—”

“Rules are rules, Lord Coore. The Haven is very strict about them. It would be unfortunate if Innkeeper Larra were to need to invoke the [Law of the Inn]. That would certainly result in a year’s ban, or longer.”

That was all it took for the sword to hastily go back in the sheath. In fact, Coore’s supporters vanished as soon as Barnethei appeared. No one wanted to be banned from this place.

“What, we’re not fighting? Lame. I would have taken them all, Ishkr.”

Relc was disappointed, and Barnethei heard Ishkr murmuring.

“This isn’t The Wandering Inn, Relc. How did you two get in here anyways?”

“We were invited. Specially. At least, I was. Relc tagged along since I was told I could take a guest.”

Menolit adjusted his jacket haughtily. He looked around and whistled.

“Some place. And here I thought Erin was the only one with a special room.”

It took only a few minutes for Barnethei to send Lord Coore away, calmed down, with a drink on the house. Then he was approaching the Drakes.

“Gentlemen. Is this Menolit from Liscor Hunted and Senior Guardsman—no, pardon me. Spearmaster Relc?”

A few heads turned as Barnethei raised his voice slightly. People loved to listen in, and he saw Lord Coore’s head rise from his table.

“We’re allowed to be here! And yeah, that’s me. Er—you’re not that short [Innkeeper]. This place has two [Innkeepers]?”

The Drakes weren’t as up-to-date on the dynamics of both inns. Relc looked guilty, but Barnethei held out a hand and shook the Drake’s crushing grip with a huge smile.

“If you were admitted at the door, you have every right to be here, sirs. In fact, I just wanted to offer you two a drink at the bar, gratis. Free. I apologize for the commotion.”

“What? I mean—that’s great. It wasn’t our fault anyways. That guy brought up—”

Barnethei interrupted carefully as he took Menolit’s claw.

“It was no one’s fault, sirs. Let’s leave politics at the door, shall we? This is the Pub of Best Moments, and if you’re not smiling when you leave, it’s a shame all around.”

The Drake [Veteran] and owner of the rising company blinked at him. Relc hesitated and then grinned.

“Sure, so, uh—hey. What’s this place about? And why’d Menolit get a fancy invitation?”

“Well, because he’s clearly someone worth meeting. And the Haven welcomes anyone worth meeting—I believe the invitation was to all parts of the inn. The Pub of Best Moments is more informal, you see. A bar and hangout. If you two wanted a different kind of experience, we have private dining above, the balconies are for public dining…”

Barnethei rattled off a few of the areas as the Drakes listened. He gestured around the bar as he signaled to the doorwoman.

“…But this is really one of the Haven’s treasures. I’m not surprised you two found it. But please—let’s start you off right. Try on a mask if you fancy it. It’s not a requirement, but it is part of the fun.”

The two Drakes eyed the set of masks that were offered to them. Relc put on a feathered Garuda-type mask, laughing.

“What are we, putting on costumes like Erin’s Halloween thing?”

That must be some kind of Drake custom. Barnethei shook his head.

“Not at all. It’s for informality. You don’t need to use names, gentlemen. I may have given you away—which is my fault—but you don’t ask, and you don’t need to tell. Of course, the fun is also sharing stories and accomplishments.”

“Hm. I still don’t get it.”

Relc was scratching at his neck-spines, but Ishkr seemed to understand. He was staring at the bar, and he’d already found another Skill of Larra’s. Barnethei beckoned the Drakes over to the bar.

“Clear a space, please! First-timers here…if you don’t quite get it, sir, take a seat here.

He pointed to some slightly worn seats that were coveted at the bar. They were dead-center, and the [Spearmaster] clearly sensed there was something different about them. He eyed the red padding—then sat down gingerly. Relc gazed around blankly, then rolled his shoulders as if he felt a prickle running down his spine.

“What’s going to—whoa. Hey. What the—my voice!

His voice had suddenly changed. Gone up slightly while keeping the deep bass rumble. But it wasn’t just his voice. Relc looked down, and for the first time, realized his casual [Guardsman] outfit, worn leather and chainmail, had vanished.

“Wh—where’s my uniform?

Merry laughter filled the air. The guests—Humans mostly, nobles and guests who knew the Haven and had come with it—weren’t being malicious. Not here, at least. Not even to Drakes.

And not to Relc when he sat in this seat. The Drake turned, and Menolit slowly sat down next to him. The Drake looked at Relc and then at himself. Then he twisted—and exhaled.

“Oh.”

They were sitting in the first Skill that Larra the Haven had ever gained as an [Innkeeper].

[Seat: My Best Angle, My Finest Side]. Menolit looked down, and the casual jacket and clothing he had worn to the Haven was gone. In the [Pub of Best Moments], he was wearing a hand-tailored checkered jacket that showed off his chest. There were no stray threads, and the flaking dead scales along one claw had vanished.

It looked like he had applied scale cream and had worked on his appearance for hours over the last two weeks. His neck-spines were sharpened, and his boots were buffed and shone. But that was just the effect of this room.

Everyone looked good here. Hence the crowd, which looked like a vision of Izril’s finest Humans mingling without showing the imperfections. When they spoke, they didn’t stutter or hesitate. It felt as if someone had given you a silver tongue and a rod in your spine, more courage than even liquor could fortify in your veins.

But the seat…ah, that was different too. Menolit glanced down, and his tail curled around the chair. His entire tail. He looked at it, mystified, and then at Relc.

“What happened to you, Relc?”

The [Spearmaster] looked up, and Barnethei saw a slightly younger Drake, his scales flashing green, leaning on the bar. An enchanted spear rested next to him, and when he touched it—Barnethei thought he could cut down a tree with a single blow when he held it.

The Gecko of Liscor sat there, and it felt as if you had just seen him walk off the battlefield, covered in glory. Relc’s goofy look and genial face that so many took at face-value…

Even Ishkr had rarely seen the Drake that Erin Solstice knew and called friend. He wondered if this was the Relc that Erin had always known.

[Spearmaster]. Veteran of countless battles. But when Relc turned his head, they caught another side of him too.

A grinning, rueful face as he checked himself out in a small mirror placed just for that purpose. A low chuckle—and you were reminded he was older too. A father. If he’d been a Human, he might have had a beard. Relc rubbed at his chin.

“Would you look at that? I cleaned up okay, didn’t I?”

Then you could see it, the longer you stared. The kind of father who did check on his daughter. A Drake telling jokes—

Turn and turn. A [Spearmaster], a [Sergeant], wearing burnished armor where the crest of Liscor sat proudly on his chestplate. 

A Senior Guardsman, a member of the Watch who had stood in front of corruption in a city far from home.

A father doing his best.

A friend and [Guardsman] on patrol you wanted to see.

So sat Relc. On that slightly-worn bar stool, he had no bad angles no matter how you tried to see it. It was doing a lot of work right now, and Menolit looked no less good. From one side, you could see the Drake who’d fought in war until he’d been wounded so badly he had to leave. From another—the man who’d built up a company. A brave, if sometimes bluff figure—

The crowd looked at the Drakes and crowded around as they exclaimed, laughing, teasing—and Lord Coore himself stood up.

“Well, there’s a better look at you two. Another drink for the bar, upon me! And I shall apologize, especially to a [Spearmaster]. I’m something of a duelist myself, friend. What’s your name again?”

Relc glanced up—then laughed and took the man’s hand as Menolit ordered a drink from the [Bartender]. Barnethei exhaled as Ishkr eyed the chair and then stepped back, trying to fade into the crowd. But Barnethei kept an eye on him and the Drakes. They did look extraordinary so long as they sat there, and that was the allure of this room.

The chair didn’t lie.

Not exactly. You see, it was just showing you what people like Erin Solstice or a partner saw. What it took time to see, what could sometimes be hidden or what could not be seen any more. Your best angle. Every good quality you had.

And people wondered why the nobility flocked to this inn when there were rich and private establishments elsewhere. This room was famous.

The chair hadn’t always been that good, by the way. It had just been a fun one that made you look good at the start. The room and Larra’s levels had made it stronger. When Barnethei had first joined the inn, oh, twenty years ago, it had already been famous.

Why, he’d heard that people had copied the mask motif and the informal setting even in Ailendamus of all places. Their Court of Masks was different.

“So what, we don’t use names unless we want to?”

“It’s fun for anonymity’s sake. But we do tell stories. Soldiers always have some good ones when they find their way in here. I imagine you have at least one, Mister Spearmaster?”

A teasing voice replied, and Relc turned just in time to see someone, a Human woman with a mane of brown hair, seat herself across from him at the bar. He stared at her low-cut dress and hesitated. Relc realized that the two seats he and Menolit were in had a thirty-minute time limit. Small wonder; everyone wanted a turn. However, in the interim, the two Drakes were being warmly greeted. Very warmly in the case of the woman leaning over.

“Uh…I, uh—have a few. Hi. I’m R—I mean, nice to meet you.”

She chuckled like velvet rubbing together, and he jerked his eyes up and blushed. And then Relc and Menolit realized the other reason why this room was so popular.

Barnethei was circulating the room and greeting people he could recognize, masks or not. He was smoothing over any small issues people had, taking personal requests—

Entertaining the regulars. He leapt upon a table and shouted as the bar rumbled.

“Ladies, gentlemen, whomever you are, we’ll be having a display of magical lights in two hours come dusk—and we’ll give out wands and targets! Apparently, Larra’s decided to make it a hunting game, and you’ll win prizes if you can score enough points! Then, I have the pleasure to announce a gentlemen’s night as well as a ladies’ retreat—I’ll be heading the gentlemen’s night, so inquire if you would like to come. Finally, we have a set of two new drinks and the latest treats from The Wandering Inn, which we’ll be distributing in moments!”

Cheers greeted his statement. A few of the staff were bringing out bowls of popcorn and other foods that Barnethei had asked for, but pride of place was the bowl of flaming gelato—and the Minotaur’s Punch.

Glory and fire. Barnethei saw one of the staff pouring flammable alcohol onto another dish and lighting a cherry jubilee on fire. He wondered if it would start a trend. The Haven had—and fiery dishes were fun, if hazardous.

He wished he could steal the flames that Erin Solstice produced. But for now, the guests practically fought over the precious shots of glory, and Barnethei lifted the second…canister…gingerly.

“We’ll be saving this one until tonight, I think. After dinner.”

“Come on, Barnethei! What’s the second drink?”

Several people demanded to have a sip now and flashed gold—but the [Innkeeper] held it back teasingly.

“I’ve been assured this is—unfortunately—too strong for all but the best! No, I’m not lying—it’s called Rxlvn, and the Antinium made it. Aha, who wants to have it now? It’s apparently so strong it can knock someone out with a single shot. We might have a contest later.”

He winked, and the crowd cheered. This was the role Barnethei liked. Beautiful women and handsome men enjoying themselves with no thought of tomorrow.

The regulars fed the Haven’s coffers. Oh, the adventurers were the guests Larra truly cared about, and she had free bread for the regulars and entertainments for all—but the nobles of the north came to the Haven because of what Larra gave them.

When Barnethei got down from the table, the [Bartender] on duty, a woman with black skin and white sweat—pale and brighter—spoke to him. She mopped at her brow as the magical sweat showed she’d been working hard. You didn’t have sweat like that from drinking regular water.

Larra liked having a mostly female staff, and she had views on her guests for all they liked her. She was very protective of her people being harassed, and those helpful familiars could get nasty very fast if you broke the Haven’s first rule.

“Barnethei, sorry about the fight. Should we start doing toasts? We’ve got two Gold-rank teams who are willing to recount the Facestealer attack.”

“What about Colth?”

“He refused.”

Barnethei had expected that, and he turned around. He narrowed his eyes at the crowd and spotted a Gnoll trying to hide behind a cluster of people.

“Go ahead and bring Griniev in. I’ll get our guest of honor too. Did he do anything?”

“Besides stop the fight? He asked what he could do, and he’s pretty good at serving drinks. But I didn’t see any wild Skills off him. Is he going to be Alanna’s replacement or did you want to put him somewhere else?”

Everyone in the senior staff knew of Barnethei’s goals. The [Vice Innkeeper] shrugged.

“Skills don’t matter as much as personality, and if he can face down a fight within ten minutes of walking in here—make sure he doesn’t slip out, will you? Not that he will, but he’s tricky.”

Ishkr had been running from Barnethei for the last two weeks. The Gnoll gave the [Vice Innkeeper] an exasperated look, but he hadn’t refused to come here. Barnethei thought that was a good sign—although the Dullahan who strode into the room and took Ishkr’s paws before hugging him—a huge sign of affection from a Dullahan—might have been the reason.

Either way, he wanted Ishkr to hear his pitch. Barnethei looked around and saw Relc sitting at a table with who he thought was possibly one of the [Ladies] of House Merrimorn from Terandria. He laughed and lifted a flaming glass of liquor and called out to get the crowd’s attention again.

The Wandering Inn was interesting—but how could you ever beat the Haven’s magic?

 

——

 

Ishkr Coresh Silverfang hated being the center of attention. In that way, the Gnoll being toasted by the adventurers and thanked by the profusely grateful Dullahan was like Larracel herself.

Larracel Delais had never craved the spotlight, so she had installed Barnethei as the ‘innkeeper’ long ago when she realized he liked and was very good at his job. In fact, the ‘regulars’ didn’t know she was the owner of the inn. Some of them legitimately thought Barnethei was the owner. Others, that he was the real [Innkeeper] and ‘the Haven’ was the owner who rarely visited.

They did not square the humbler, shorter Larra with the imposing Named-rank [Wizard]. She added to the effect with her outfit, which made her look like the cleaning staff. In that way, she could see people unguarded and make decisions without them presenting their best selves to her.

Ironic, in her [Pub of Best Moments]. Then again, it didn’t touch her. It was her Skill, and this was her inn. She had only popped in to see if Barnethei had handled the fight—and to watch Ishkr.

She caught Barnethei as he shared a Minotaur’s Punch with some delighted [Lords] and [Ladies]. They were cheering the Sacrifice of Roses, and their eyes were wet already. The [Innkeeper] stepped away as the drink took hold and the nobles saw the past. Larra nodded at Ishkr, who was refusing a Minotaur’s Punch of his own.

“He makes little of himself. Are you sure you want him?”

“There’s a lion under that Gnoll’s fur. If I met you for the first time, Miss Larra, I might have been fooled.”

That made her smile because it was true. Then Larra eyed the flaming beverage.

“What a terrifying drink. No wonder that Erin made it if she ran into Maviola El.”

“She was a patron here, wasn’t she?”

Larra waved that off.

“Everyone from Tyrion Veltras to Ulva Terland has been here. She was never a regular. She claimed my inn lacked the heat for her. Always a flame-metaphor, that one. She detested this room as well.”

It was not hard to see why, if you knew the secret of this room and the seat. Oh—it did make for pleasant encounters. The two Drakes were melding with the nobility better than they would in any other setting. Yet—the Haven was not run just to make the nobility happy.

“How much have you sold today?”

“Let me check with Roreen.”

Barnethei stepped back and whispered with the [Bartender]. She was an interesting class—you couldn’t just be a [Bartender] in this room. Roreen was actually a former [Accountant] who had run with the Merchant’s Guild for a while. Thanks to that, she never missed an order served.

“…four hundred and eight gold pieces as of today. We’re advertising the Minotaur’s Punches as exclusives.”

“Just so long as they don’t realize Erin Solstice is selling it for a fraction.”

Or that it was cheap liquor with the flames added. A massive killing—but the nobles were misty-eyed, speaking of the Sacrifice of Roses.

Perhaps they’d been there. Perhaps they’d lost family—but Larra had been in First Landing too, and many of the faces here hadn’t been the ones who walked against the Goblin King. House Walchaís, House Valerund—those had been the houses that bled out on that battlefield.

She said none of this. Like Colth…no, his issue was different.

Larracel just let the nobility have their fine moment, their private dining, and the gentlemen’s nights that Barnethei arranged. It was Roreen who made sure all the drinks were counted and the meals, the complimentary glass of wine, the expensive linens all were added up and presented as an unobtrusive bill for her richest clients.

It was best to have an underling pay it—even the [Lords] and [Ladies] sometimes gulped at the prices they racked up. If you could charge it to House El’s [Financier], for instance, you didn’t have a fight. Then the nobility would head off happy, groan about the costs later, and come back when they had more or felt like splurging.

Larracel cared about the gold her inn made. She cared about it so much sometimes it kept her up. It was said that all Named-ranks were crazy—she had retired, so perhaps her madness was just the madness of an [Innkeeper].

The inn was, in a way, Larra’s nightmare. Oh, it generated vast profits, but the irony was that it ate away at her coffers too. For all the thousands of gold it made, she had to pay her staff—and she did pay them well!—pay Barnethei, pay the magical costs of running it.

Animals required feed. Her famous ‘free bread’ benefited from her Skills, but all the liquors, foodstuffs cost a fortune. And even if she made a massive markup—let’s say she had a hundred thousand gold.

She could sit on that hundred thousand—or use it to buy enough magicore, enchanted materials, and such to build a new building like the library. Larracel had been saving up desperately, hoping that someone would find an artifact of cornucopia.

For every valuable item or relic she recovered that added to the value and profits of the Haven, it cost a fortune to acquire—but she’d be earning more money after the purchase. Enough to buy the next great improvement or hope she leveled.

Gold and more gold. Barnethei looked slightly harassed as she pressed him about the gentlemen’s night.

“I have three [Merchants] in Invrisil I’ll reach out to. Perhaps some of the Drakes in Pallass?”

“Good.”

She was satisfied with that. But then Barnethei brought up something that made her scowl.

“I had a word with Valeterisa about—”

“Leave her be. Her young apprentice is keeping her far, far more in check than before.”

“Yes, but the staff are getting tired of her, Larra. I didn’t chase her out! And you know she’s occupying your [Law of the Inn].”

Larra had to admit, it was true. But her serious guests, the adventurers, Valley, and the others? She had told Barnethei again and again to spare no expense on them. They were her children, and Valley was a silly girl who needed someone to make sure she did things as mundane as eat food and wash her clothes.

Someday…someday she’d have enough gold. Barnethei’s new inn would double their profits if it went well—of course, there were all the startup costs, hiring new staff, the risk—

But someday, she’d have enough. Larracel the Haven had not been the hero who went into Chalence and came back as nobility. Deniusth, damn him, had done that. He’d been generous with his friends—but not enough to buy her a landed nobility.

Then again. Four million gold pieces each to the teams who’d gone in there and survived among the hundreds who had not. All that gold—barely bought a landed nobility among Deni’s spending.

Larracel didn’t want to spend that much. All her friends? The nobles who came up to her, delighted by the new drink and asking for little favors? They’d make that day easier.

Of course, she didn’t want to be noble for the sake of it. It was just that the title and class came with many perks, and using that influence, using a fortune in gold…

She was old now. Old—like Mihaela always complained they were, white-haired. But in a decade, Larra might have enough to put the Haven down. To buy enough land and places and staff—to keep the rest of her unruly children occupied.

It cost a fortune, a fortune of fortunes to keep Deniusth from going crazy. To provide for their quirks and madnesses? Larra had done the costs, and she knew it would take ten years yet. Less, if this venture in the new lands worked out. But then…

She had seen her Haven break. Seen monsters flood in, armies go through the walls, and seen too many of the people she had promised would be safe die to ever go back to dungeons. To adventure, like Deniusth. Gold came slower in her inn, but safer. Far, far safer.

She might be seventy or eighty or even ninety by the time she was ready. Then they’d truly be old. Ten years, maybe more if she found a way to buy Saliss’ Potions of Youth. Ten years and possibly, then, there would only be a handful left and their children.

But that was her dream, the Haven’s private little dream. A plot of land and enough to occupy the silly children she had left so they wouldn’t walk off and face another Facestealer. So yes—

The gold kept her up.

“…Valeterisa won’t walk off with any books. I have changed the law. No stealing the inn’s property. Do you need me to change it to violence?”

“For Lord Coore? I think it’s sorted.”

Larra nodded, relieved. Her great Skill, the [Law of the Inn], was a famous one among [Innkeepers]. With it she could compel even Valeterisa—if not to stop hoarding dozens of books.

It did not work on monsters of Facestealer’s ilk. Another thing to fear…but Larra said none of that out loud. She patted Barnethei on the shoulder as she watched Ishkr. He was bowing slightly to her.

“He’s promising, that Gnoll. If you steal him, I’ll handle Erin Solstice.”

She thought she could calm the other [Innkeeper] if she was angry. Barnethei smiled.

“Afraid we’ll lose Alanna and the others to Erin?”

Larra looked at him blankly, then the two chuckled and laughed. Larra’s inn dazzled the nobility, and they tossed gold coins down like water. Erin had fine guests…but she needed a true grist to fuel her inn. And Larra would not—would never charge Colth what she charged her regulars. Erin needed people she did not love. So Larra blew a kiss to this silly room.

May it once again make her lots of coin.

 

——

 

The top staff at the Haven were holding down The Wandering Inn’s regular crowds quite easily. Even with the Players of Liscor putting on a performance, they were easily able to coordinate with the Goblins and Antinium.

If anything, Lyonette was purely just amazed by their levels. Twice now, she’d seen one of them using a Skill to rectify a problem before it began. A raised voice from a squalling infant turned quiet. A dine-and-dasher froze until Alcaz put a hand on his shoulder.

They were unfortunately competent, and Lyonette gave up trying to direct them after it was clear they knew how to adapt to minor issues.

She almost wished Erin had caused some chaos that required her direct intervention. Just so she could show off how the inn really was.

But the [Innkeeper] herself was relaxed. She was sitting, chatting with one of the Haven’s staff.

“Whoa, so Larra’s got an entire bathhouse?”

“It’s not quite the same as Liscor’s, Miss Solstice. It’s private bathing in the larger guest suites. The piping was expensive to lay—the bathhouse proper is no hot springs as it’s too heavy to transfer. The farm is the heaviest due to the soil and animals, and Miss Larracel can barely keep it in rotation. She’d try having it roll across the ground, but there’s no way to transport something that heavy without a huge amount of magic. So she hasn’t paid for that yet.”

“Gotcha. Gotcha…so what’s the bathhouse?”

“More like a steam house, Miss Solstice. Have you ever seen…?”

Erin snapped her fingers as Alanna sat at the table, glancing at the rest of the inn. Mrsha was telling Lyonette all about her satisfactory schooling experience as the [Princess] listened in.

“I should do that. Steam…house…got it. And she’s got a library. And a farm. And she puts on magical lightshows? Did I hear you right when she said she’s copying Wailant? Hey—hey Lyonette, Mrsha! They’re gonna pass out wands and shoot targets! We should go!”

“I—er—that does sound like fun, Erin!”

Lyonette replied as heads rose and people looked around. It did sound like fun, and Mrsha brightened up. It was just—why was Erin saying the competition had something better?

She was too relaxed. She didn’t seem bothered at all! Erin was joking with Alanna.

“Hey, if she’s copying Wailant I hear that’s lots of fun. Just so long as everyone’s not naked. Because I hear that’s also a Strongheart thing.”

In fact, she was so unguarded it seemed to make even the Haven’s staff curious. Alanna glanced up as Navien passed by, and the two shared a look for a second that seemed to last slightly longer than usual. Erin Solstice blinked at them, smiling, and then poked someone passing by.

“Peggy, how’s it going? You want a break?”

“Nah. This job is easy. Not like getting leg eaten.”

The Hobgoblin grinned, and Erin smiled.

“Just so long as you’re not tired! I don’t want Rags to beat me up. Say—is she coming back soon?”

Rags had begun heading back to Goblinhome to manage it, but she had returned fairly regularly. Alanna glanced at the other staff and then smiled at Erin.

“Miss Solstice, are you planning on moving your inn or expanding it?”

“Hm? Me what now? Are you talking to Hexel? I’m thinking about adding more—but it’ll be costly. As for moving it, I can’t just put the inn on wheels. I feel like it’d roll down the hill and crash. We’re not going to the new lands, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“So—are you planning to expand or change anything in the future?”

Alanna pressed her. Erin Solstice frowned and chewed on her lip as she shrugged.

“Hm. I guess so. I mean, there is a huge remodeling job I want to save up for. Aside from that—maybe I’ll see about opening my portal door further. That’d bring in new guests. Why, are we gonna be competing with the Haven?”

The woman smiled, but oddly. She looked at Erin and then gestured around the inn.

“It’s just—you’ve reached such a high-level, Miss Solstice. The staff and I were a tiny bit curious how you got here so fast and whether you had any plans to keep on going. Innkeeper Barnethei will be starting his own inn, you know. Were you planning anything like that?”

He was what? Alarm bells rang in Lyonette’s head, and she felt a sinking feeling as she thought of Ishkr. But Erin just nodded.

“I think Larra told me that. I think I was…lucky I leveled so fast. Plus, I’ve had a lot of monster attacks. My ambitions for the inn, y’know, aren’t like Larra’s. Barnethei seems like an ambitious guy. Do you like him?”

Alanna smiled, and Lyonette sensed her gaze searching Erin up and down, puzzled.

“He is. And we do quite appreciate him—he’s worked for Larra longer than anyone else. We like the Haven, Miss Solstice. It wasn’t easy, getting to where she is. So we were just wondering…”

What is it you do? Erin’s inn had the [Grand Theatre], but it was humbler. More than that? Now Lyonette sensed the real difference between the staff—even the way Erin talked to Peggy.

Ambition. The same thing burning off Barnethei hung about the Haven’s staff, and Erin…Erin had such a polite smile on her face and looked so calm, Lyonette finally realized why the [Innkeeper] was hanging around here rather than wandering off.

“…why my inn’s sucky?”

“I’d never say—”

Alanna looked alarmed and glanced at Navien. Erin laughed.

“No! I know you didn’t mean it, but it really is ‘humble’. We just don’t have that much gold compared to the north. Plus, you’re right about me not having many scheduled entertainments. I should do more. Is your ability to talk with your eyes a Skill you get from a serving class?”

The Haven’s staff froze—until Navien raised a brooch hanging at her neck.

“Innkeeper Larra enchants our gear herself, Miss Solstice.”

“See, that’s useful. I could use a magical dustrag.”

Erin sighed longingly. Then she slapped her hands on her knees and got up. Lyonette saw Erin holding her back and wincing. The plain, brown-haired young woman hobbled about, swearing, and Lyonette suspected Erin had been cutting down on healing potion.

The Haven’s staff watched her out of the corner of their eyes, but Erin had no familiars to help her up—just Gothica, who laughed at Erin as she passed by. Her inn of three floors was mostly devoted to the common room and guest rooms.

For all the food was preserved, it was largely mundane, and there was no farm or library, and the high-level guests…

Well, it did have those. If anything, the one thing that felt familiar to Alanna and Navien and the others were the guests.

Gold-ranks, hanging out around Erin’s inn like this was the most natural thing in the world. Even Named-ranks. Lehra Ruinstrider, offering Mrsha a bit of taffy she’d just bought in Invrisil.

Ylawes Byres, rubbing at a black eye as Yvlon profusely apologized, tromping in with Vuliel Drae and the other teams. Erin Solstice looked about and called out.

“Hey, Ishkr. Didja run away?”

“I had a number of toasts. I said all I needed to to Adventurer Griniev. I wouldn’t expect Relc or Menolit to be back though, Miss Solstice. They seemed quite happy in the [Pub of Best Moments].”

“Oh! I want to visit that!”

Erin Solstice laughed. Every head spun around. And there he was. Alanna actually jerked in her seat—because she hadn’t seen Ishkr come in. Neither had Liska, who was on a short break as Inkpage took over. She stared at Ishkr as the Gnoll placed two mugs of ale on the bar, and Navien nearly leapt over the counter.

The Haven’s staff looked at him, and then they felt prickles on the backs of their necks. Alanna turned—and Erin Solstice was staring at her. The hazel eyes were wide—and then she looked like the Grandmaster of Scales for a second.

“Gotcha.”

The eyes were plain, but they twinkled with mischief. Then, and only then, Erin Solstice tilted something back on her head and you remembered her hat was made of flames.

Blue fire roiled around her fingers. It burned azure, like a Dragon’s eyes, like a nebula deep in space, flickering as Erin took her hat off for a moment and stretched. She put her hat on the table, and it burned there as the Haven’s staff slowed, and a swearing [Vice Innkeeper] looked around his bar for a Gnoll who’d vanished.

The hat burned like sadness and like something else. Because, of course, a color was deeper than one meaning, and so was a memory. Erin held her back a moment, then looked up.

“Since you’re having an employee exchange and since Ishkr’s sorta done, I’d say you all can go off-duty for an hour or two. If you want—why don’t you come with me? It’s a special occasion, but I’d say it’ll give you perspective. Plus, you should all get dinner after.”

The evening was growing later and later, and the Haven’s staff looked at each other as guests began to file towards the door for The Adventurer’s Haven. After all—all the spectacle and fun was over there. Erin Solstice winked, then she looked over.

“Hey, Ylawes. Does your team have a second?”

Dawil raised his brows as Falene stopped ordering a complex salad and sighed, mildly exasperated. But Lyonette felt the hair on the back of her neck begin to rise. And when Erin Solstice slowed down and plucked at someone’s shoulder, Lyonette felt one of those chills she sometimes got.

It ran down her arms and back. A shiver—but not of fear. Of anticipation. Erin Solstice looked down, and Lehra Ruinstrider looked up, and her eyes opened wide. She almost fell out of her seat as Stargazer’s Promise gazed upwards. Erin stuck out a hand.

“Hi there. I realize I actually never introduced myself to you. Emper, right?”

“Of the Monastery of Galam. We have spoken briefly, yes. Has Lehra done something again?”

“Please no.”

Elgrinna, the Dwarf, stood as Emper, the [Monk], took Erin’s hand. She looked at him.

“Galam? Where’s that?”

“Northeastern Chandrar. Along the coast. My monastery is small—it is hardly the same as the…Monks of Sottheim for instance.”

Emper’s hesitation said it all if you knew about Sottheim. Elgrinna chuckled.

“And I am from Dwarfhome as every Dwarf is. Suxhel?”

“Baleros.”

The Gazer didn’t elaborate, but Erin just met one of her many eyes and nodded.

“Of course. May you see with eyes unblinded.”

“Truly, without mind’s clouds. How do you know that saying?”

Erin chuckled as the Gazer [Wizard] hesitated.

“I’ve met a few Gazers in my time. Do you all have a moment? I’d like to show you something.”

The two teams looked confused as they rose. Erin waved at the Horns apologetically and called out.

“Just a small group. I guess the Haven’s staff can come. Just this once. After all—we’re showing off, aren’t we?”

She smiled at them and then tried to shoo Mrsha away, but the Gnoll had suddenly glued herself to her best-buddy Lehra. Erin sighed, but nodded.

Silver Swords. Just the three and the four of Stargazer’s Promise. Plus eight of the Haven’s Staff and a rogue Mrsha…Erin gave the Haven’s staff a second look as if regretting her promise already.

“Should I come, Erin? I can take Mrsha—sweetie, let go—

Mrsha was horizontal as Lyonette pulled, trying to dislodge the furry barnacle from Lehra’s shoulder. Erin looked at her—then Yvlon, Pisces, and around the room.

“Let’s…do this in smaller chunks. I’ll call on you another day, Lyonette. We won’t be long. Possibly. I’m probably lying. Alright, this way everyone.”

She pointed, and a door appeared. Then—and only then, Alanna looked up and shaded her eyes. After all, light was pouring into the inn.

Then she saw the [Garden of Sanctuary].

 

——

 

What the [Knight] and the Stargnoll saw and what it meant to them was—different. Alanna was one of Larra’s staff, and she knew House Byres, of course, as well as the famous Named-rank. She had a lot of context, but all she could speak to was her experience.

Which was—after a disappointing inn, the feeling that Erin Solstice had been holding back. Now, Alanna felt goosebumps as if she were walking into the Haven’s most magical rooms for the first time.

The [Garden of Sanctuary] was unlike anything she’d ever seen. Oh, a magical pocket-garden was something Larra could probably do. That wasn’t what made the Haven’s staff slow. Larracel the Haven could do almost anything with magic a modern [Mage] could, even one of the Archmages of Wistram. She could buy fantastic spells and enchantments.

So what impressed them was something impossible. And what was impossible were the falling stars.

They rained down, showers of light across a black night sky as the two teams entered the garden. Suxhel stared at them in bewilderment, same as Falene.

“Like it? I can do special effects now.”

Erin caught a glowing ray of light, bright orange, that splintered across her hand and faded. Ylawes Byres stared, but Dawil was simply chuckling in delight.

“Do we get to see the other gardens, Erin? I’ve been dying to ask. You know, that little rascal caught a koi fish and put it in a pot? It slapped Numbtongue in the face while he was playing on that device he likes so much.”

“Oh really.

Erin stared at Mrsha, and the Gnoll looked the other way as she held Lehra’s paw. They were all walking up the hill as the [Innkeeper] shook her head.

“No, not the other gardens. Although it’d be sort of fun to see if Suxhel can see through mud.”

“I have no context for that statement. May I receive it?”

The Gazer raised a hand, and Erin fluttered her fingers.

“Later. We’re doing something more important first. Something a long time coming. I know I’ve been tardy…but I didn’t want to do this, really. I guess I hafta, especially if Ylawes is going home.”

The Silver Swords looked at each other, and Lehra’s ears perked up.

“Mershi.”

Everyone looked at her, and Lehra held the Blade of Mershi. Her gauntlet was…vibrating under her paws. She stared at Erin.

“What do you know? Do you know what the blade is? Do you know—”

She was almost gagging with all her questions that she had put off. But to her disappointment, Erin shook her head.

“You know, I don’t actually know where it is, concretely. Or all of what they did. All I have are stories. Second-hand reports and such. No one…who was there told me anything. So I wasn’t lying when I posted that <Quest>.”

“Oh. Wait. How do you have second-hand reports?”

Erin shrugged.

“Dead people like to talk.”

At this point, Alanna was sure the [Innkeeper] was just conjuring illusions and lying well. Because this seemed to be going too far. Barnethei could put on a show, but he knew the difference between unreality and even the Haven’s best illusions. She began to fall out of Erin’s little trick as they passed up a hill.

The mist was just a low-tier spell. And the statues she saw…the huge amount of space was probably an illusion spell. The [Innkeeper] looked back at Lehra.

“The Crossroads are where you start.”

“But where do I find them?”

The frustrated Stargnoll cried out. Erin Solstice sighed patiently as Mrsha nodded rapidly.

“I’m sorry. I don’t actually know. I know there were a lot of ways in. Magically, with Skills even—some people said they’re all overgrown. Dangerous. But that’s where you’ll find it.”

“What, clues?”

The [Witch] turned her head, and a strand of mist floated past her face. She might have even been enjoying this—her smile vanished, and her voice seemed to come from everywhere as Alanna lost track of her.

“No. Mershi. You can’t find what was lost if it was never here to begin with. Izril was always bigger than Izril.”

Lehra ran forwards a step—and Mrsha began tugging on her paw excitedly as she had a sudden, incredible thought. Maybe—maybe—if they were talking about weird places with tons of magic and stuff—hadn’t a certain white Gnoll talked about…?

But the Stargnoll wasn’t listening. She ran forwards through the mist and cried out. Ylawes stumbled after Erin.

“Erin, where are we going—

Then he too vanished.

“Alanna. What’s going on? Is this magic or a Skill?”

“It’s just a trick.”

Alanna reassured one of her coworkers. She was convinced of it. Right until she saw Ylawes Byres had come to a halt. He had fallen—onto his behind—and he sat, holding himself up with his arms. The Stargnoll, Lehra, had frozen, and her team had drawn their swords. She held a glowing blade, coated in the Armor of Stars. Like some kind of tableau—Dawil had his broken axe raised, and Falene was backing up, holding her staff.

The Haven’s staff watched from afar as the mists parted. Mrsha hid behind Erin, but her eyes were round. Erin stood there, amidst the black sky falling with bright stars of color, and looked up at the Dragon.

He was larger than any monster that Alanna had ever seen, the statue grey—but somehow still managing to convey the shining scales and the form of the Silver Dragon.

He was larger than a house, half the size of the Haven’s main building, and he stood there. Not rearing, not with wings spread menacing like some Wyvern caught in battle.

Not like a beast at all. Instead, the Dragon sat on his haunches, like a cat almost, head raised back, snaking upwards. He had a helmet upon his head, like a [Knight]’s, and armor arrayed his body. He even had pauldrons upon his shoulders and an armored tail—graceful metal that evoked his very nature.

Yderigrisel, the last Dragon-Knight, stared down imperiously at the son of the house he had championed for countless millennia. He was haughty and proud, brave and virtuous.

Like the Haven—the statue of this dead soul caught his finest side. He was so real that as much as she tried—Alanna couldn’t claim he was fake. How…how…

Erin stared up at Yderigrisel solemnly. Solemnly, sadly, and with familiarity. She was the one to break the silence.

“Ylawes. That’s the Dragon you’re looking for, isn’t it? The Silver Knight of House Byres. He’s dead.”

The [Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon] jerked around. Everyone turned to Erin, and Lehra lowered her blade, but Mershi’s relic was screaming, a call to battle that ran through her. It sounded like—

TRAITOR.

But Ylawes? The [Knight] looked upon the end of his quest—before he had even begun it. His voice shook.

“How—how do you know—?”

“I met him. He’s dead, Ylawes. If you’re searching for his body…I don’t know where it is. But he was brave. If this helps you level or helps you search—he was a brave Dragon. I think he did terrible things, though. As terrible as the foes he helped slay. But I don’t know his story.”

Erin’s eyes glittered as she pointed, and Ylawes’ head turned to the Silver Dragon. Now…now…he thought he could hear a whisper. A whisper in his very marrow, that came from his class.

 

Seek…Dragon of knightly pride….

…where Dragons died…

…stem…Creler’s tide…

 

It was a voice that would grow louder when he slept. The next hint in—he tried to rise, to ask more questions, but he couldn’t. Erin Solstice looked at him and then jerked her head softly.

“Stay here a second. I have something else to show the rest of you.”

“Erin. Who did you meet? I mean, how did you meet…? No. The real question is—why are they gone? Are they ghosts? Or—”

Falene was the one who spoke. And it was to Falene that Erin went next. She stopped Mrsha.

“This one’s just for you, Falene. I don’t have anyone for Dawil. Sorry.”

“Sorry? I’ll just stay here with the lad—and the Dragon. I’ll, uh—settle for that.”

Dawil twisted his neck, trying to formulate a joke. But Erin just drew Falene off into the mists. When Erin came back, she was alone.

“Lehra. You guys, come with me. I don’t have…anyone special to show you, Suxhel, Elgrinna. But Lehra should at least see a few people. I never really met them up close and got to ask—well. Maybe it’ll help you level.”

Help you level? Lehra gripped Mrsha’s paw for emotional support.

“Who—who am I meeting, Erin?”

“Chieftain Seru’nial. Emper—I just want to introduce you to some great rulers and people I met. I don’t know the Monastery of Galam, but perhaps you know—”

This time, Alanna followed Erin through the mists. She kept seeing flashes as she tried to follow the [Innkeeper], and she realized she really was being let to see something she shouldn’t. Erin Solstice had pulled something out of her bag of holding and lit it.

A lantern burning with pink flames illuminated the mists like a will o’ wisp. The Haven’s staff followed Erin through what felt like darkness—and one of them grabbed the others.

“What? It’s safe.

“I—I saw a spider-person. I swear. It looked like a Centaur, but it had a spider’s parts for—”

“Don’t be silly. Don’t—”

Then they heard a howl from Lehra and froze. But the Gnoll had vanished with Elgrinna. And what they saw instead, in the brief swirl of dark clouds, was—

Falene Skystrall. She was kneeling in front of a statue that Alanna thought looked—normal. Normal, until something about the ordinary half-Elf made her heart palpitate too hard. And why was Falene weeping?

Then the mists closed in, and they found themselves standing in front of a sea of statues that had Emper bowing before them. Alanna stopped—as eighteen figures stood in a line behind a sea of faces.

The rulers of Khelt were overshadowed by Serept, the half-giant, but only in size. Erin Solstice stood with Emper, pointing out figures and asking if he knew them.

“That dude’s the King of Destruction’s grandfather. You know him?”

“I—yes. And this is—”

The Stitch-man had been lucky enough, like the rest of Lehra’s team, to see the Pub of Best Moments. Like the Haven’s staff—they had seen the best side of Lehra, not the goofball that got them into trouble and ate—and slept with—everything in sight.

The changing seat of good angles presented a hundred different viewpoints, all flattering. The statues had only one face when you saw them, and they had no color, no context.

Yet…the wind blew, and Emper shivered, though the [Monk] had [Lesser Resistance: Elements]. He shivered, because the stone eyes that stared down at him had a story he only knew in fables. Stories and illustrations and carvings, of which there were thousands.

Yes, the [Sculptors] and [Painters] and even the [Writers] had been good enough to capture aspects, even capture her as she had been. But they were still images. This felt…realer. For all the soul was gone, the body long decayed—

Queen Merindue of Nerrhavia’s Fallen stared down at the Stitch-man with the same eyes that had seen a tyrant die. They were not the same gaze that Erin had first met her with. Intrigued, kind, and pettily annoyed with sharing the land of the dead with her mortal enemy, Nerrhavia.

There were more sides to the [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, but this was somehow more and less than the Pub of Best Moments. It captured only one side of her, and Erin longed to have known the others. How did Merindue look as she laughed with a child upon her lap, as she had told Erin they did when Nerrhavia lay dead, in relief?

How did she flirt or weep or…play chess? Erin would never know, and in that sense, she envied Larra’s great Skill. But what she held was this.

The statue was a memory of someone who would never return to the lands of the living. And so, if Larra could have been here, she would have traded every Skill she had for this one of Erin’s.

The two [Innkeepers] truly did desire what the other held. But this statue—

Merindue wore no armor. Yet she wore her simple robes like a shield, a slash of something—powder—across the front. Each thread and piece of her cloth-body looked like it had been sewn for war, and her skin resembled metal as much as flesh.

“What…who’s…?”

Some of the others had no context for who this was. Emper did, and he reached out a shaking hand as he leaned upon his staff. Erin gestured to the faint material that the grey stone revealed.

“Chalk. I think. She said they put chalk on their clothing. To mark them apart from the rest of their enemies on that day. There were so many who fought against Merindue’s allies they couldn’t tell who was who. So—like the Gnolls did, they wore chalk, and she said it worked.”

“What day? Who is this?”

Suxhel thought she knew, but only when Emper turned did he confirm her question.

“This is Queen Merindue. One of the—the first rulers of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. She brought down the Immortal Tyrant, Nerrhavia.”

The statement shocked the [Wizard] into silence—she looked at Erin and then another statue in the mists. The Gazer saw one of her own kind and froze—

The Witch of Eyes stared down at her. And Suxhel was petrified. It was Alanna who spoke, feeling a chill continuing to race through her. Yet she was compelled to try and throw doubt. How could Erin know…? She pointed at Merindue and the robes.

“She has no armor. If she was fighting, why didn’t she wear any?”

“It didn’t matter, she said. Not against Nerrhavia. Not that day of days. She said…”

Erin put a hand to her forehead and laughed ruefully. She turned sadly.

“She said it wasn’t necessary for her, but I never got the full story. Like them all.”

Her head turned, and the others caught such a wave of sadness from Erin the [Innkeeper] sagged. Yet it was Emper who spoke.

“No. On the day the Immortal Tyrant died, Cotton and Silk and Hemp walked without steel. Without metal or enchanted cloth. With robes alone and plain cloth they threw themselves forwards. Armored in Skills and defiance against the Tyrant’s guardians.”

Erin’s head came up. Her hazel eyes flashed—with gratitude, with light.

“You know her story?”

Emper turned, and his head shook as he nodded. So Erin…Erin took his arm urgently.

“Then tell me. Tell me them all. Suxhel—do you know who this is?”

She pointed to the Witch of Eyes, and Suxhel looked at her as if she were crazy. But now it was Erin who stumbled forwards, desperately, hungrily. Begging them to speak as she told them what she knew.

Was it grief burning across her hat? Hope? Wonder? Something else?

It illuminated Merindue’s eyes. Those imperious eyes, which had stared down immortality and seen it die. But this place was more than the statue. It was a story.

Emper had looked upon the greatest of his people and knew her name and her greatness. Erin…Erin pointed up at Merindue.

“She has a great smile.”

And that changed—everything. Emper looked up, and Erin tried to tell him what it had looked like. It seemed, then, almost like the [Garden of Sanctuary] was listening too, to what even it lacked.

Still, Erin did not weep. Not as Falene did. The half-Elf knelt in front of her statue and knew not who it was who stared down at her with sword raised overhead. Only that her grief and guilt overflowed, and she felt it upon her—a curse. The wrath of Winter Fae.

Grief without end. And Ylawes looked up at his statue, the Silver Dragon, and wondered who the great protector had been. Who his house had been. Dawil whispered his Grandfathers’ names, and on Erin walked as Lehra howled in front of Seru’nial’s statue. With Mrsha, in front of the [Archmage of the Eternal Grasslands], Kishkeria.

We were there. We knew magic. Sadness, loss—and triumph.

The [Innkeeper]’s eyes were dry as she led Emper forwards. If anything, she looked more like a [Witch] than she had in any moment before this. Mysterious. Sad—but proud as well. Like a character out of a fable with a mysterious book. Only, hers was a garden that made people weep.

 

——

 

Nanette heard Mrsha howling from afar, but she did not go up onto the hilltop. She was playing with Nerry amidst the Sage’s Grass.

Well, ‘playing’. The Sariant Lamb was trying to drag itself up the hill, and Nanette was stopping it and avoiding being bit.

“Is—is she alright?”

Lyonette was wavering, having come into the garden. Nanette looked up at her earnestly. The Thronebearers were staring above, and their time would come. So would Lyonette’s…

Marquin was here, too.

“I think she’s fine, Miss Lyonette. The garden is terribly sad—but Witch Erin knows what she’s doing.”

“Does she? Why did she let Mrsha up there?”

The [Princess] was more dubious. To that, Nanette quoted Califor’s favorite sayings.

“Children should see wonders and magic. Terrible things. They should meet legends so they know how it was done and that it was done.

“But she’s so sad—”

Lyonette put a hand over her heart as Mrsha howled again. Nanette just smiled as she put Nerry in her lap, and the Sariant Lamb, panting, gave up and listened. Apista flew over to greet the lamb and got a tiny hoof in one side for her trouble.

Nanette separated the two and patted Apista on the head. She gave the others a bright smile.

“That’s just Miss Erin for you. Every door in her inn leads to something ridiculously happy and funny or cripplingly sad.”

The Thronebearers and Lyonette turned to the witch in silence. Down the hill, Numbtongue, laying on his back and playing the guitar for Octavia, sat up. He jerked a thumb at the witch.

“She gets it.”

 

——

 

The emotional damage of her statues might be impossible to quantify. Falene reappeared later, shaking and speechless. Lehra was wiping at her eyes, and she and Mrsha had howled in front of the Gnolls.

“Why are you doing this, Erin?”

Dawil helped up Ylawes when the [Knight] saw her reappear with the others and the staff of the Haven, dead silent. Erin looked down at him, and instead of answering right away, she sat down on the grass.

“Ylawes. I know you invited Vuliel Drae and Nailren to join your team. I think that’s great. Would you…consider not inviting Infinitypear and Rasktooth?”

“What? Why? They were incredibly brave.”

He didn’t know where the question was coming from. Not at first. Erin sat next to him.

“Yeah, they were. They’re cute kids. They were so brave—Rasktooth went to the Meeting of Tribes for me. We saw what happened. I see. So—do you think you could leave them be?”

Then he saw it. That desperately sad look in her eyes. Ylawes hesitated and looked at Erin. Then at Dawil. The Dwarf gave him no help for once, and Ylawes Byres sat there a long time, listening to Falene begin hiccuping. For some reason, that helped.

“I—I could, Erin. But I meant what I offered them. It would hurt them greatly if I turned them down. They’ve all but accepted.”

“Can I convince you to go back on your word?”

The [Knight] paused. He looked at Erin.

Of course you can. What he said, instead, came out of him like the words he’d said to Ysara. Sometimes, perhaps often, they were poor. Rarely…

“I could. But those two aren’t even adventurers. They stood up when Gold-ranks quailed. They deserve more. They were meant for more. And I think they’re too brave to sit by idly. Better to have someone watching them…”

“…than not. And time isn’t unlimited. You’re right. I just—no. You’re right.”

Erin Solstice stood up, and her face was shadowed. She looked at Ylawes and then nodded.

“Then I don’t regret showing you those statues. I only wish I had more to show.”

“You monster.”

Falene choked out. She was wiping her face on her robes—they were streaked with her makeup and tears. Erin looked at her.

“Level up, Falene. It’s all I can give you. Then—when you need help, ask me. Ask me, Lehra. If it’s potions, I’ll ask Saliss. I don’t know where—but if I can help, I will. No matter who I have to find.”

She looked at Mrsha, then, and the little Gnoll solemnly nodded. Then, and only then, Erin turned to the Haven’s staff. She addressed them, as the Silver Dragon and the statues faded into the mists, until they stood on a hilltop above the garden and realized bare hours had passed, for all it felt like days.

An [Immortal Moment].

“I’m not planning on making my business a success, Alanna, everyone. The Wandering Inn’s not really good at making money, and I don’t think even Mr. Math will help with that. Maybe. But it’s just not that kind of inn. Levels? We need more of them. All the levels. So yeah. I guess the first renovation for my inn will be a ballista. If I ever figure out how to buy one. Laken only sells trebuchets. We could use a hand—but only if you’ve got the right stuff. Speaking of which…let’s head down to the garden.”

She was glancing at the door leading out of here, and Erin raised her brows. She gestured, and the rest of the guests realized it was late, practically night. The inn was closing, and a figure walked into the common room as the last employee, the greatest employee of the inn, cleaned up.

 

——

 

The inn was closing as the [Vice Innkeeper] walked in. The Haven had more late-night events, but The Wandering Inn did have a closing time. Even if that sometimes came after midnight.

However, Lyonette had carefully funneled the remaining guests to the Haven for their lightshow event. She ran this place like a home, and she thought—correctly—that children would have a hard time sleeping with people up and about downstairs.

Mystifying. Especially from a [Princess] of Calanfer. She was just leaving coin on the tables.

That was the frustration Barnethei had with this inn. The talent. It was not hopeless—if anything, he knew more than anyone else how well this inn was placed to succeed.

It was at the center of a teleportation network as Liscor re-entered the world as a business hub. It had two new species visiting it that even the Haven couldn’t touch. It had produced Drassi, a world-famous [Reporter]!

And it had let her go. True, that might have been inevitable, but Barnethei had checked the prices. They slashed prices, so he doubted the inn was even making a profit on their Goblin and Antinium prices. They didn’t have to gouge their guests, but they could charge them more, offer them exclusive services.

That Gnoll was here as Barnethei knew he’d be. The [Innkeeper] had no idea how he’d gotten out of the Haven, especially since someone had been at the door, but he couldn’t get away.

The inn had to close, and there was a small crew closing up. Two Goblins and one of the Antinium—none of the Haven’s staff.

He wondered where they were. Possibly, Erin had let them go back to the Haven. Either way, it meant that the inn had a lot of work to do, and Ishkr was directing the apprehensive two little Goblins and the Soldier at a room of tables.

Erin’s [Grand Theatre] stretched hundreds of feet. She’d had a good number of guests tonight with the play, and while there had been active cleaning, there were scraps of food on the floor, chairs and tables pushed back—and most that had been used needed cleaning—and the last dinner-guests had left their plates.

Even Calescent was off-work, happily resting after a full day of cooking. Barnethei eyed the room and thought it would take a crew of eighteen or a smaller group of nine. Six, at minimum, with good Skills to do this in a reasonable way.

From the look of things, the Soldier had [Wider Clean] as his Skill. He was polishing about half again as much dirt around his cleaning cloth, and the Goblins were industriously swabbing down tables.

However, Ishkr didn’t seem perturbed. Barnethei heard his low voice.

“Just take the plates to the kitchen and stack them up. I’ll handle them. Then clean the tables and put the chairs up. Then we push the tables to the walls and sweep. It won’t take long.”

“Lotta tables. Lotta plates. Is this clean-death?”

One of the Goblins grumbled as the other nudged him, but Sticks went to work dutifully as Ishkr promised him it wouldn’t be.

“You’ll get to rest in an hour, I promise, Sticks. The others should be back from the Haven by then. I think there is even some of Calescent’s cookie dough you can share.”

That put a pep in their step. The other workers were swinging around the inn with more of a will as Barnethei coughed. Ishkr looked up, sighed, and the Goblins and Antinium hesitated.

“Inn’s closed. You go. Come back later.”

Sticks called out, and Barnethei chuckled.

“I’m not a guest. Looks like a lot of work. The Haven’s staff should have helped clean up, Mister Ishkr. Mind if I lend a hand?”

The Gnoll hesitated. He glanced around, then turned his back rather deliberately on the man.

“If you’d like. The Haven’s staff are with Miss Erin. This won’t take long, anyways.”

“Ah. So she often leaves you to clean up the entire inn? I heard you were working by yourself when she was—dead. An entire inn’s not a sane job for one worker. Even if it was mostly closed. And you really haven’t thought about my offer?”

The Gnoll said nothing, so Barnethei watched him work. He did know this job. Unlike the Soldier carefully putting one plate on top of the others with his clumsy hands, Ishkr piled them up, whisking utensils out of the way and dumping them on top. Then he repeated the process with two more stacks of dishes seven tall. When he was done, he picked up all three bunches in his arms.

It was an impressive sight, and if he tripped, Erin would lose a non-trivial number of her plates. Improbably, Ishkr seemed to have a kind of third arm that let him keep the three stacks of dishes steady.

Barnethei joined Ishkr without a word, rolling up his sleeves. He wasn’t above bussing tables.

“I started in the Haven cleaning tables, you know. Now, I’m about to start my own inn. Larra knows how to reward loyalty.”

“So you keep saying. And Erin doesn’t?”

The two worked side-by-side, although it was clear that Ishkr was trying to work faster so he lost Barnethei. Unfortunately—the man flipped up a plate and skimmed it into the kitchen.

“Hey! No breaking—”

Sticks’ mouth stopped moving as he saw the plate bounce off a wall and flip itself onto a stack of dirty dishes. The porcelain was completely unharmed, and Barnethei tossed six more, as if they were made of steel.

[Dishes of Steel]. A [Busboy]’s favorite Skill.

Ishkr gave Barnethei an exasperated look, so the [Vice Innkeeper] simply made a stack of nine bowls. Ishkr retaliated with twelve—and the two stacks of dishes grew impossibly tall. Sticks and the other Goblin stared as the Gnoll and Human strode to the kitchen. Their burdens were in danger of hitting the ceiling, so they had to bend over to let them clear the door jamb.

Barnethei stepped faster, his polished boots clicking over the inn’s floor like a tap-dancer. He noted that Ishkr wore plain hide sandals. Cheap—and his uniform resembled any generic [Bartender]’s.

“You never said how much she pays you. A silver an hour? Less? You and I both know you could charge by your level.”

“I like my job. It’s relaxing. I don’t need to be paid a fortune.”

Ishkr tossed the dishes into the soapy water, annoyed. He yanked them out, put them in a bucket of clean water, and tossed them onto a rack to dry. Barnethei passed his own hand over a dish, and the dirt and food vanished.

[Bound Spell: Cleanse]. He looked over to ask if Ishkr was going to wash—then he realized that the dish was clean. Ishkr dunked another into the soapy water, pulled them out—and he just had to wash the soap off.

They tore through the dishes so fast they were stepping out of the kitchen as a Goblin carried in their load of utensils. Barnethei pointed a finger at Ishkr. So that was how one Gnoll had done all the dishes! He wanted Ishkr even more, now.

“Ah—but is relaxing going to help you keep levelling?”

Barnethei saw Ishkr pause as he stacked cups high. The [Innkeeper] did the same, whisking all the tumblers down the bar. They slid across the wood and spilled drinks and stopped at the other end. He took a rag and swept it down the bar, leaving nothing behind in its wake.

“I’m looking for a challenge, Ishkr. I need a staff who can handle anything that comes at them. We’ll be in the new lands, serving adventurers and every nation in the world.”

“And you think I’ll be good enough for that?”

“I think anyone who can lure a boss monster away from the inn has what it takes. I think Erin Solstice needs you more than you need her. And I think you can see what I’m offering. You could be great. You could be serving a hundred [Lords] and [Ladies] every night.”

“I’m fine. I don’t need fame. I don’t need wealth. Besides—monsters are bad for my health.”

Ishkr dumped the last plates in the kitchen and turned, visibly annoyed, and the Goblins and Soldier looked around and realized the dishes were gone. They began to clean the tables, then put a chair up on each clean one so they could push it aside and clear the floors.

The [Vice Innkeeper] and [Head Server] strode past them, still talking.

“Monsters are the last thing I want to see. But you—you’re holding yourself back, Ishkr. I can see it. Does she even know what level you are? Come with me, and we’ll find out who you could really be.”

He swept a cloth over his table, and Ishkr did the same. Now, the Gnoll growled, and some of his fur rose as he furiously mopped at a stain.

“Is it that fun being at Larra’s inn? I saw what it was like. It’s all glamor and show.”

“So?”

“It’s about a profit. Your real guests are those nobles. How much do they spend on the inn?”

The [Innkeeper] shrugged.

“As much as they want. It’s worth it to them, and they never run low on coins. Larra’s engineered her inn to attract them.”

Fun. Your staff loves them, I can tell. Especially catering to their every whim.”

The sarcastic comment needled Barnethei. The rotations were tough—but he snapped his fingers and calmed down.

“It pays well. The gold pays for the enchantments on the inn. It pays for the farm. It pays for the magic. And my Skills come from Larra herself. Or do you think your inn’s fine as it is? It could be better.

His cleaning cloth cleaned the entire table in five point six seconds. Barnethei tossed his cloth aside as Ishkr took slightly longer. He pulled out a second cleaning cloth, slapped it on the other table—and Ishkr looked over. He frowned at the first cloth, wondering if Barnethei was offering it to him. But the fancy red cleaning cloth lifted without Barnethei touching it. It whisked over to a second table, and to the watchers’ astonishment—began to clean the mess by itself.

Barnethei winked at Ishkr.

“My [Innkeeper]’s got real magic. Does yours have automated cleaning? Familiars? How much time are you wasting manually hauling water? Don’t you want to do more?

“I’m not a talker. Drassi was a talker. Not everyone wants a job where they have to be the center of attention.”

“Then don’t be! Come with me—and find a challenge worthy of your Skills! Don’t you want to know what it’s like serving a hundred guests in a new inn in a land no one’s claimed?”

Ishkr’s paws slowed—then became a flurry. He cleaned one table and a second as his paws moved like a storm.

[Flurry Scrub]. By now, the Soldier was nudging the little Goblins and pointing in awe. Barnethei wasn’t done. He grabbed a bucket and dipped the cleaning rags into it. It came out sopping wet.

[Free Refill: Scented Soap of Taima]. He applied a light coating, then a brisk one with a cloth that was permanently wet. Ishkr glowered—but the tables were sparkling. He grudgingly did the same.

“So you have a lot of Skills and more levels than me. I don’t like you.”

“You don’t know me.”

Barnethei corrected him, and Ishkr sighed.

“I have a sister here—”

“I’ll hire her too. Or if you like, let her stay and find her own way.”

“She’s not clever enough to do that unless I stay.”

Hey. That would have really hurt Liska’s feelings if she were listening in. Barnethei laughed.

“If you’re worried about supporting her, family—”

“Don’t have any.”

The [Innkeeper] clasped hands with Ishkr’s paws for a second and leaned in.

“Then join mine. I can pay you well enough to let your sister not worry about coins. We have a staff. You met Catheis, Roreen? Do they look like they think this is a temporary job? The Haven takes care of each other. No offense to the new workers, but how many stayed on besides you? No one.”

Ishkr looked past Barnethei.

“We never had permanent staff before. This time—they’ll stay. Besides, there was always Silveran.”

“And he left. This inn pushes them out when they get too big. The [Innkeeper] builds people up and sends them away. She’s not making her inn bigger.”

“She’s got plans.”

Ishkr broke away and pointed at a piece of tobacco someone had stuck to the table in the most unpleasant of ways.

[Remove Stubborn Stain]. It vanished, and Barnethei called out at his back.

“She’s not good at her only job: making the inn better. Taking care of her staff. You were stuck here for months when she was—”

“She was dead. Don’t talk about what you don’t know.”

Ishkr’s paw jabbed warningly at Barnethei, and the man raised his hands. In silence, they cleared eight more tables in minutes and then walked back.

“Chairs?”

“Fine.”

Each chair was hoisted up backwards onto the table so the seat—which had to be cleaned—touched the table’s surface rather than the dirty legs. Ishkr lifted them easily with practice, and Barnethei saw him shove an entire table with chairs included across the inn to a wall.

That was a task the Soldier had to help the two Goblins with. Barnethei was impressed. His attitude was simpler.

He pointed—and the table moved. The chairs lifted, and the [Vice Innkeeper] flicked out a hand. He swished his wand and winked. Ishkr glared at him.

“You have to want some fancy Skills. At least a spell.”

[Magic: Advanced Telekinesis]. The Gnoll just shoved—and a table went flying and bounced off the wall. Sticks oohed.

[Heavy Push]. The [Innkeeper] and Gnoll stared at each other—then the two began moving tables faster. Ishkr with his paws, and Barnethei with magic.

“I don’t see—you doing that much better than me.”

“You haven’t seen all of my tricks.”

“Neither have you. Why would I want to go with you? Give me a reason more than gold and fame and a challenge. I get enough of all that here.”

The [Innkeeper] tossed a table aside.

“I’d give you a percentage of the profits you pulled in. In time—I’d give you an inn. You have a future with me. Or are you going to work this job when you’re sixty? Larra will teach you magic. We won’t take you for granted. Can you say the same about Erin Solstice?”

Ishkr slipped and nearly slammed his head on a table. He took a second to reply.

“She knows me. She trusts me.”

She has to give you more.

“No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t have to buy my loyalty.”

The Gnoll and Barnethei looked for another table—possibly to throw at each other because now they were glaring. Barnethei told himself to calm down—this negotiation wasn’t supposed to be hostile, but at least Ishkr was raising his voice.

It was time to clear the floor. By now, the Goblins and the Soldier were wavering, clearly unsure whether they were needed here. One offered Barnethei a mop, and the Soldier did the same.

Ishkr had one of those long, horizontal mops that you used for cleaning a wide space, and Erin’s [Grand Theatre] was longer than any area but the outdoor section of the Haven—and it was arguably still longer in sheer verticality.

A giant straightaway. You could run down it and clean it—albeit line by line. Something about this pleased Barnethei’s mind, the satisfaction of not having to think about navigating the room. He might have liked it here if he were a boy—but he was determined to show Ishkr what he was missing.

“What level are you, Ishkr? I’m Level 41. Your Skills are good, but you don’t have the spark. You’re a fantastic worker for an amazing [Innkeeper]—but she hasn’t given you what Larra has to me. I have magic and more. What can Erin give you?”

“Something the Haven’s staff can’t dream of. This inn will never be rich like yours. It doesn’t need to be. Leave me alone.”

Ishkr began running down the floor. But Barnethei was right behind him—and when Ishkr turned—he nearly slipped. Barnethei caught him by the arm—and Barnethei caught him by the other arm.

Two [Innkeepers] glanced at each other and grinned. They adjusted their hats as Ishkr got up slowly. And now—the Goblins were goggling. So were the Soldier and Lyonette and Liska and half the people peeking down the stairway, out of the garden, and from the hallway.

“Clones?”

“[I Worked Like Three Men].”

A third Barnethei grabbed a mop—and they were racing along, three-to-one. Each man had thrown off his colorful coat, revealing the white shirt beneath, stained with sweat. Because it was sweat—Barnethei ran down the inn, pushing the mop and sweeping the dirt and detritus ahead of him.

He’d put sweat into every day of the inn. Worked his way up. He glanced at Ishkr, and the Gnoll was keeping up but doing a third of Barnethei’s work.

“Don’t you want to put in the—effort? Ishkr?”

The Gnoll was like him. He’d worked a job without asking for praise, and—Barnethei gritted his teeth and sped up, pushing his legs to run across the ground.

He just wanted to reward him for it.

Ishkr deserved it. They deserved it. How long did they have to do this? Work for an [Innkeeper] in her inn—that wasn’t a dream. Every member of the staff, Barnethei to Alanna to the girls and boys starting work—

They had to have more. Their own inn. Because this was Larra’s dream that Barnethei had given over two decades for. It was time to chase his own. And Ishkr…

“Are you going to shackle yourself to your [Innkeeper] forever, Ishkr?”

He panted in three voices and heard a sigh somewhere behind him. It sounded calmer, unstrained, and as Barnethei turned his head, he heard Ishkr’s reply.

“So that’s why we don’t see eye-to-eye. You think I need to leave. I like it here. And what I get from Miss Erin is something you can’t comprehend. She could never pay me what you want from Larra. Neither can your [Innkeeper]. But I? Look at your Skill, Barnethei. Then look at mine.”

What? What was that supposed to m—

Barnethei looked over—or rather, three men turned their heads. Three clones of the same [Vice Innkeeper]. It was a Skill so rare and so useful that only a few people in all of Izril had ever mastered a version of it. The famous [Assassin] of Magnolia Reinhart, Barnethei…

The product of work and excellence. Ishkr couldn’t keep up with it, it was true. Barnethei was higher-level, and the Skill was superb. Even Larra herself couldn’t duplicate her body like that.

However—as every eye, from Lyonette holding Mrsha to the Haven’s staff peering out with Erin Solstice smiling in the garden—and the inn’s guests staring through the windows or down the stairs—the snoopers finally saw it. Liska’s jaw dropped, and Barnethei?

He slipped, and all three men nearly went crashing down on the cleaned floors before catching themselves. And Ishkr—passed him. He shot across the inn’s floor, holding his wide mop ahead of him, collecting a wave of trash. But that wasn’t the surprising part.

The Gnoll was smiling as he stood there, and his clothing wasn’t covered in sweat like the hard-working [Innkeeper]. In fact…he was standing, not running.

The Gnoll slid over the polished floorboards, balancing on his sandals. He kicked the floor lightly—and sped up. He was gliding across the inn, and he sped up as the three Barnethei’s chased him!

The Gnoll turned as he reached the far wall and deposited the line of dirt there. Then he pirouetted like a [Dancer] and kicked off the far wall. He leaned on the mop, grinning at Barnethei as he began shooting back across the floor.

Gliding. No—sliding. Skating on the floor as if it were Ceria’s ice. He kept going, pushing himself forwards, and Barnethei saw the Gnoll effortlessly spinning across the [Grand Theatre]. Even at a dead run—there was no way the [Vice Innkeeper] could catch up. Not to—

The Skill wasn’t running out. Barnethei had assumed it was a temporary one, but Ishkr kept going as the [Vice Innkeeper] slowly began losing ground in the cleaning war. Ten minutes, fifteen—twenty-three and Ishkr kept going. Then he looked around and saw just sparkling floorboards. The last of the dirt was being swept out the front of the inn by Barnethei. So Ishkr just turned to the [Vice Innkeeper].

“I don’t think you understand, Barnethei. I quite like The Wandering Inn. Its challenges aren’t the Haven’s. You can tempt me with gold and an inn—but don’t tell me your [Innkeeper] gives you more than mine. There’s something here your inn won’t have.”

“And what’s that?”

The [Vice Innkeeper] was sweating. He looked at Ishkr as the Gnoll smiled. The ‘[Head Server]’ put his mop against one wall and turned.

“Your Skills help you work better. Mine? Mine make me happy. I’ve served crazy Archmages and the Titan of Baleros. Your staff’s served a hundred thousand nobles who pay you well. But I quite liked my guests. And even the ones I hated left me something.”

He was striding towards the door. Barnethei ran after him. He reached for Ishkr’s shoulder.

“You’re too talented not to be recognized, Ishkr! Even if you don’t leave—the [Innkeeper] is wasting your potential!”

The Gnoll spun and put his hands on Barnethei’s shoulders.

“My potential? You keep talking like I’m one in a million.”

“You are. I can’t find someone of your level—someone who can stand up to a monster and even the Witch of Webs in any corner.”

Ishkr shook his head. He patted Barnethei on the shoulders and then spun the [Innkeeper] around.

“That’s where you’re wrong. You must think Drassi was born to be a [Reporter]. The truth is that she just talks a lot. If you want a great employee, someone who’ll be famous and as good as you—turn around.

Then Barnethei saw a tiny crack in the wall he’d missed and a bunch of faces peeking through the [Garden of Sanctuary]. He saw the Haven’s staff—and then looked up and saw the Horns peeking down the stairwell. Ishkr looked at them, at Ceria, at the two Goblins and Soldier having a cookie, and yes, even at Erin Solstice. He spoke as she turned redder.

“Erin Solstice’s inn isn’t a place where she finds great workers. It’s not that kind of inn. It may not be famous or rich—but I like it. I like her kindness and when she pushes people off cliffs. It is not easy or pleasant to work here sometimes—but neither is your inn because all you care about is making that profit. Erin’s inn? Erin’s inn is harder. Most employees quit, but the ones who stay? They are normal people, Barnethei. And if they stay, they become something. Anyone can be special. Much like Miss Erin herself.”

He let go of Barnethei, and the man staggered. The [Innkeeper] whirled as Ishkr stepped back to the open door. Then the Gnoll smiled.

“Even my sister might make something of herself. I doubt it, but I’ve been surprised before. And me? I don’t actually like working that hard. But I stay here—because I’ve gotten things I want. Your job is an obsession. I get off work.”

“And do what?

The man stared at him. For answer—the Gnoll touched his chest. And he used a Skill that one of the Goblins, Numbtongue, recognized.

“[Emergency Evacuation].”

A Skill for a waiter in one of the most dangerous inns you could work at. Ishkr grabbed his own vest—and tossed himself through one of the open windows. He bailed out the window so fast that Numbtongue just saw Ishkr roll out through the opening, land on his feet—

Where’s he going? After him!”

Lyonette, the other spies, and Barnethei went charging down the hallway to the front door. Normen himself had gotten Octavia and Numbtongue when they’d heard Ishkr was having a showdown with Barnethei. Obviously, they’d gone.

Everyone wanted to know what Ishkr’s secret was.

 

——

 

Ceria Springwalker was trying to lug a bowl of popcorn after her team. She was one of the last people outside, and she’d been chewing it down the entire—highly-entertaining—confrontation.

As she reached the front door though, the half-Elf stopped with a handful of greasy popcorn kernels coated with yeast in one fist. She stared out—and saw Barnethei running full-tilt after Ishkr.

For a little bit. But the man gave up, panting, as he stormed up the second hill outside of The Wandering Inn and stared after Ishkr. There was no point, after all.

He was never going to catch the Gnoll skating across another hill. Ceria’s eyes bulged as she saw Ishkr sliding, leaving a trail of grass behind him.

He was still sliding! The Gnoll was balanced like Kevin on his skateboard, arms spread—knees slightly bent. But he was moving across the Floodplains, sliding down hills and picking up speed before sliding up hills and occasionally kicking the ground to give himself a boost.

Skating. It was as if the grass, the soil—everything was coated in a layer of wax. In fact, that was exactly what was happening. Ceria realized that Ishkr wasn’t slowing down. Nor was he going to. The Skill wasn’t turning off.

[Self: Slippery Waxed Floor].

The Gnoll could even cannonball off a hill and shoot down on his back. He was—

Ksmvr spoke happily amid the silent crowd—Mrsha was freaking out, and so was Liska.

“Look, Captain Ceria. Ishkr is also better at skating than you are.”

The Ice Squirrel began choking on her popcorn. And Ishkr?

He kept going. Then he turned, because there was distant cheering going on—and embarrassed, he waved at the walls.

The Watch had seen Ishkr doing this late at night before. Like he had escaped from Facestealer—the Gnoll was shooting across the hills and valleys. When he hit the northern road being paved towards Esthelm by Hexel’s crews, the Gnoll slid across the dirt past amazed travellers. A Drake on horseback looked askance as Ishkr caught up.

His fur was blowing in the wind, and Ishkr was smiling so hugely that Liska was sure she’d never seen her older brother having so much fun.

“That rat-tailed bastard. He never said—he never—”

“Ishkr’s a private guy. He’s probably super-embarrassed. See? He’s going north. I bet Drassi knew he could do this, though.”

Liska jumped as Erin Solstice leaned on Dawil’s shoulder. She was laughing, beaming at her best employee.

“He’s got a few more cool Skills too. I think he gets them every time he meets a weird guest.”

“Like what?”

“[Magic Piercing Throw]. Oh, and he’s never late to work. I asked him about it one time, and he told me he got it from my door and just never told anyone. See? He’s tricky.”

Ishkr had vanished behind a hill and hadn’t reappeared as everyone stared after him. But Erin Solstice just straightened and, holding her back, hobbled back into the inn. Liska followed her and realized she should help Erin; the [Innkeeper]’s legs were trembling with exhaustion.

“I just need to sit down a sec. Oh, hey, Ishkr. I think the crowd’s back. And you just cleaned up, too.”

“Perhaps we could sit in the garden instead, Miss Solstice?”

Liska dropped Erin, and Ishkr glared at his sister as Erin yelped and fell over. He walked out from behind the bar, and Liska gobbled, staring back over her shoulder.

“But you—I just s—how did—”

The Gnoll sighed loudly as Mrsha came racing back in and slammed into a table as she spotted him. Erin got up, and she and the [Head Server] chorused.

“[Never Late To Work].”

“Duh.”

Ishkr smugly pointed to the bar. Then he blinked out of the air and reappeared behind it. The older brother watched his sister lose the ability to speak. Her accusatory paw pointed at him.

You—you—you—

Ishkr laughed. He threw back his head and barked a single huge laugh at his sister—then saw the guests coming back in. He looked around for somewhere to hide—but they were staring at him, and Erin Solstice caught Ishkr’s gaze.

“No getting around it anymore, Ishkr. Now the cat’s out of the bag. Mrsha’s going to be bugging you to give her rides everywhere, and Ceria’ll be competing with you all day. Hedault and Kevin too, I bet.”

“Drat.”

He didn’t look that put out, actually. Just embarrassed. The Gnoll turned as Barnethei walked in, and the [Vice Innkeeper] locked eyes with him.

Slowly, Barnethei approached the bar and realized he’d left his top-hat there. He picked it up and leaned against the counter as the Haven’s staff joined him. They looked at Erin, and she winked again. Mischievously.

When Larra heard of this…Barnethei leaned over to Ishkr.

“One question. All things aside—what is your class?”

The Gnoll eyed Barnethei, but he looked at Mrsha, lowered his voice so that most people, even the Gnolls, couldn’t hear, and whispered back.

“[Head Server of Tales and Fables]. And you?

The Human man sighed. And it was a long sigh that came out of him as he stood there.

“[Vice Innkeeper of Spells]. So that’s it.”

Erin Solstice looked between the two. She patted Barnethei on the shoulder, and he looked at her. The two of them had, interestingly, never really spoken. Perhaps because of Barnethei’s polite disdain for Erin’s methods as he saw them. But the [Magical Innkeeper] just smiled.

“Ishkr’s got a cooler class than I do. At least, I think so.”

“So says the [Witch of Second Chances].”

Ishkr muttered. Erin rolled her eyes. She spoke to Barnethei, looking him in the eyes and finding the Silver Swords, and Stargazer’s Promise behind them, watching her. Then the Horns and Colth, who had appeared as if he’d known this was a good time to show up.

“You’ll find your class in the new lands, Barnethei. I just bet you will. We all have a lot to do. And a long way to grow. Ishkr just might be doing it differently than you think.”

She turned, and the Gnoll sighed longer and louder.

“I have been working hard, Erin.”

“It’ll be different. Less keeping everything in the inn running and more…well, it’ll be hard.”

“I knew it.”

He glumly shook his head, but when he looked at Barnethei, the Gnoll raised his brows. This was his challenge. Erin Solstice reached out, and he helped her stand. She was tired, but she turned to the others.

“I’d like to rest too, but time goes on and stuff. And we will be needed for our friends in the new lands too. Barnethei’s inn—and whatever we can do.”

Then she coughed a bit, and Ishkr looked into the crowd.

“Who are you looking for right now, Erin?”

“Uh…the Silver Swords. I’ve gotta think of another way to help Lehra’s team. I knew…I met so few Gnolls. I know less about Izril than—other things. Sorta ironic, that.”

Erin had to sit down at one of the chairs and tables as Ishkr found the Gold-rank team. Then he was being hounded by Liska and several other members of the inn, most of whom wanted to know if he could extend his personal Skill to them.

“Erin? You wanted to see us?”

The Silver Swords approached somewhat hesitantly. Falene hid behind Dawil and Ylawes, glaring at Erin. She was not in the mood for more emotional damage from seeing images of her ancestors. Nor had it been clear why Erin showed her the statues. Just to make her level up? Was that how it worked?

Maybe for Ylawes’ seeking class, but not her. Erin Solstice waved them down.

“I did. Sorry for springing the statues on you, Ylawes. If I could have, I would have prefaced it with, y’know, stories.”

“Stories of the…of him?”

Ylawes shot a glance around the inn. Erin turned, and half the adventurers looked away innocently.

“Yeah. I don’t know enough about that guy. I met him briefly. And all the people who could tell me the real stories…are gone. I’d—I think I’d be able to show Pisces a lot more. Same with Lehra’s team. I only have hints. Hints and secrets, and not all of them make sense.”

She looked miserable then, and Ylawes looked at her and was reminded of a [Witch] from the stories, the hand holding random swords in lakes. And perhaps that was how one of them had looked when all they could offer was an enchanted blade and guidance.

Nothing more.

“What about me? Did you just—show me that to get a rise out of me?”

Falene was less charitable. She had looked upon that statue, and without knowing who the Elf was—felt such a wave of grief and agony that she was still flinching away from the open [Garden of Sanctuary]. As if her very blood remembered something.

In response, Erin Solstice looked up and met Falene’s gaze. She had that same…kind pitilessness that she sometimes used. The very same insistence on getting her way that could make you hate or like her.

It reminded Nanette, peeking at Erin from behind Calescent, of her mother. Of [Witches]. But Erin’s version of it was kind. It probably made the knife sharper.

“No. I showed you her statue because I didn’t really want the Silver Swords to recruit Rasktooth and Infinitypear. It’s…it might be the right thing to do. But it’ll be hard. I have—less to give Ylawes. Just clues. Just a statue and a bit of context.”

“That’s—more than anyone could dream of. Even our tapestries, even back home, I don’t think I’d find anything as real as that statue.”

Ylawes Byres murmured, and Dawil nodded. He looked at Erin.

“And no one for me?”

“If they were there—I didn’t meet them long enough. I’m sorry, Dawil.”

Erin expected the Dwarf to be disappointed, but he just smiled crookedly.

“Then that’s my story to chase down. I know where to begin…but help out Falene first, eh?”

Erin nodded. She took a breath, then looked Falene in the eyes again. The upset [Battlemage] saw Erin Solstice focus on her, and she felt uneasy.

“If you’re going to show me another statue without warning, I will cast a spell on you.”

She vowed, holding her staff at the ready. But Erin Solstice didn’t. She opened her mouth, and her tongue moved. It touched the tip of her teeth, and she closed her lips—as if holding something in. Or building something.

The inn was still buzzing, even if people were watching Erin out of the corners of their eyes. When she did speak, the word was quiet, but it somehow cut through even the loudest laughter and voices.

“Her name was Sprigaena. And they called her the Traitor of Elves.”

Falene’s fingers tightened around the staff. She fired a [Firebolt] past Erin’s left ear—unconsciously—and the [Innkeeper] ducked. But Falene and the Silver Swords were just staring at her. So the [Innkeeper] went on, leaning out of the way of Falene’s staff.

“I didn’t show you her statue to be mean. Find out…I don’t know who she was. I know part of it, but I hope you could—”

“Find out? Me? I’m no [Historian].”

“Then ask your kind. Ask the half-Elves in the colonies. I don’t care who you tell, but I thought I’d leave you in charge. Her name was Sprigaena—and I think she regretted everything she ever did. But I don’t know the history they wrote about her. Her soul is beyond saving. But maybe you can still redeem her past.”

Erin Solstice looked Falene Skystrall in the eyes, and a shiver passed across the half-Elf. A name so old it had been almost lost except…and Falene looked around and wondered who might know.

Archmage Feor? Zedalien of the House of El? The Treespeakers? And she realized why, of the two half-Elves that Erin knew and trusted, Erin had gone to her and not Ceria. The half-Elf of Gaiil-Drome sat there, shoulders hunched, as Erin Solstice exhaled.

“Yderigrisel the Silver Dragon. Sprigaena, the Last Elf. Is that loud enough for you all?”

She turned—and the guests of the inn froze. Erin raised her voice. Then she called out, to the spies that were definitely hiding outside the windows and staring at the guard-adventurer, Tessa. To the chess board that the Titan wouldn’t listen through—and to anyone else.

“I want to know their stories too. And I’ll show their statues to anyone worthy because theirs are tales that should be told. I wish Ishkr had served them. I wish they were here—so find out. I’ll say their names. All the great ones I met. Califor, Serept, Elucina—all of them in time. And each story. I want to know if they were really monsters or heroes. Velzimri…”

She stared around the inn, and some of those names landed. Octavia’s eyes nearly fell out of their sockets, and Erin exhaled.

“Even the Putrid One had a name. I’ll say them and say them again, even if it’s only so we learn from their mistakes. Even if it’s only to steal whatever they left behind. I’ll say every name but six. That’s my vengeance. Everyone deserves a legacy except for those who’ve earned only silence.”

She looked around, and then the names whispered again. And Ishkr? Ishkr stood behind the bar, leaning over it. He smiled—and wondered if ever someone who knew those names, or whose names would echo like that, would enter the inn. Surely, they would. And when they did—

He couldn’t wait to see what happened after that.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Am tired. Somehow that break didn’t end up curing much. I have 22 chapters of Volume 1 ‘due’ left by the end of the year.

Also, Christmas. Also, work. I think I am winding down on my yearly energy, but I’ll continue on as I can.

Just know that I am looking forwards to the two-week break at the start of the new year. Once again, I have written too much–I’ll do better next chapter.

That’s all we can do. Some days we slip. We go on binges of bad things to have too much of. Food, drugs, alcohol…words…

I’ve written a 33,000 word chapter, and I’ll kick this habit starting tomorrow. Don’t cry for me. I’m already dead. I think a wise man said that.

I’ll see you next chapter with more energy. For now, hope you enjoyed it.

 

 

Ishkr, Liska, and Revi by butts! Give likes and the things on Twitter. Assuming it’s still around when you read this.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/buttsarts

 

Valley, Clothing Woes, Philisophical Mrsha, and more by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

‘It’ll Grow Back’ and ‘I’ve Got You’ by pkay!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – Adventurers (Pt. 3)

[Join a free gift raffle for Blood of Liscor, the next book on Audible! Open until the 22nd of November for USA residents only.]

 

(The author is on break until November 26th! I’ll be going to things. Like a wedding. Wish me luck and rest!)

 

Monsters.

They never left. They were never gone, even in bright days, even in happy moments—they were out there, preying on people in shadows. The only difference in this world was that monsters sometimes looked like what they were supposed to.

That felt like an appropriately Nerrhavia-like thought. She had told Erin, in private, that deep down under flesh and cloth, people were not so removed from animals. So—why quibble at being a ruler who employed horrors like you did [Soldiers]?

That was her logic. If someone committed dark deeds, the question was not whether they should be punished, but what use they had. The kingdom’s needs superseded the peasant’s. Not to say that the guilty would not pay, in the end, after she had used them up.

Everyone paid, in the end.

The cold logic of the Immortal Tyrant came back to Erin Solstice as she walked through the streets of Invrisil. With an armful of books. Mrsha was balancing one on her head that read, ‘The Lightning Thief and the Eyes of Baleros, Book 11’.

One of Garia’s favorites, apparently. It was one of those adventure tales and one of the few popular books in print across the world. Nanette had Book 15 in the series.

“I didn’t know they were still coming out with books.”

“The Lightning Thief is an enduring classic. Most likely because his adventures touched every continent in the world, giving him universal celebrity. I also note that his ‘sidekicks’ and his crew of affably-written rogues and associates are also diverse. Unlike other tales, which often tokenize the other species. Krsysl Wordsmith, for instance, has an objectionable habit of making non-Drakes a supporting role at best.”

Grimalkin of Pallass carried the most books, and he was reading as he walked. Why they were carrying books instead of stuffing them in bags of holding, Erin didn’t know. Perhaps because you should carry books. It felt like you were smarter.

“Well, I dunno about all that, but any reading’s good. I just hope Lyonette lets Mrsha claim this as reading practice.”

Erin herself had a book on Fraerlings. She’d asked, and the owner of the bookstore—a rare occupation given how expensive they were—had sourced two books.

The Hidden Folk of Baleros, by Eineith Stoneshield

Or—

The Titan’s Folk, by Niers Astoragon.

She’d picked only the first one at first. Not that she didn’t trust Niers, but Erin figured she’d ask him herself. Plus, it felt weird. But in the end, Erin had bought two. Because she had enough money, and because she sorta wanted to know how the Titan talked publicly about his people.

At any rate, she had no idea the Titan had so many written texts attributed to his name. Grimalkin was more impressed by Erin’s own attitude towards reading.

“You know, with exceptions, a lot of citizens read less than a book per year. Some, despite the common literacy of Izril, are not fluent enough to read novels. I assume it’s different…where you come from?”

Erin nodded.

“Y’know, Grimalkin. It amazes me the printing press hasn’t been invented here. I know you can magically copy books, but it’s less fast. I think.”

But then—it made sense why a magical quill that slowly, slowly could copy a book halted the printing press invention. People focused on making a hundred such quills or a Golem or…they managed to create entire libraries when there were magical kingdoms, but that vanished when someone turned off the magic.

Grimalkin’s scowl grew huger.

“A device to copy words? And Troydel has been—excuse me.”

He scribbled a quick note and then looked abashed. Erin smiled, noticing.

“Hey, the printing press is one of those things even R—well, even I think is great for everyone. But good luck figuring that out. What, do you print words on a piece of paper? Well…yeah, but good luck on typewriters. What, do you have a word, connected to a button and…I’m sure it’s hard.”

Nanette was happily peeking at the book as she walked.

“Thank you for helping me find the bookstore, Miss Solstice. Magus Grimalkin.”

“You’re welcome.”

He nodded, and Erin sighed.

“Yeah! It was fun, Nanette. I think I’ll go back and buy more books once Lyonette decides on our inn-budget for the month. Besides, I was getting tired of walking in circles.”

Or to be more accurate—not finding whatever prank Nerrhavia was pulling on Erin. They had spent most of the day, and Erin’s little bird had gone silent.

“It felt like we were right on top of it. Then…it vanished.”

“Some kind of moving individual? Mrsha smelled nothing.”

Grimalkin had tried to help find whatever they were searching for until the trail vanished, but he had admitted his magical means hadn’t located it. Erin frowned.

“Maybe. Maybe we could try later. Darn.”

Despite that, it had been a fruitful outing, and Erin got to relax and talk with Grimalkin about things other than serious matters. In fact, Invrisil, the City of Adventurers, was fun to visit on its own. Much like Pallass. How about that?

One of the things Erin did notice, though, was an increased population of Drowned Folk. Not a huge increase, but from one in ten thousand, they were now one in a thousand or more. They were just…there.

“Drowned Folk. I thought they were only really common on the coasts.”

“Thanks to your door…no, Invrisil is a hub. Yet it is true, they have appeared in Zeres and the other continents, but Izril especially. They are leaving the deeps. Nombernaught has surfaced on Izril. We may see them now as trade-partners, although the Walled Cities are wary of them.”

Grimalkin always had to take it political. Erin frowned, but she admired a shrimp Drowned Woman’s antennae. Although—said Drowned Woman was looking askance at a seafood display with smaller versions of her fish-half on display.

The [Grocer] was avoiding her eyes. Mrsha was trying not to laugh. And so was the Drowned Woman, Erin suspected. She looked mortified, but Erin detected more than a whiff of humor from her, and she wondered if this was a fun prank Drowned People liked to play. Her small group were entirely straight-faced.

Then again, so was Seborn. Erin wanted to talk to them—and she had plenty of time, so why not? Still, how did you go up to strangers?

“Hey, can I get fifteen shrimp—wait, how dare you?

Erin banged a fist on the counter and gave the Drowned Woman a look of horror. The [Grocer]’s face turned pale, and the Drowned Folk began laughing.

“Now there’s someone with proper sea humor.”

One of them commented. Erin stuck out her hand, and the Drowned Folk walked over as the [Grocer] looked down and Mrsha importantly pointed to a mackerel.

“I’ll take a bunch of shrimp, [Grocer].”

The Shrimp-Woman looked completely unabashed to be eating the smaller crustaceans, and Erin shook her Human hand. There was even a half-Dullahan Drowned Man, half shark, half armored figure crusted with barnacles. Another was half-half-Elf…

Another was a half-Elf. They greeted her and Mrsha and stared at Grimalkin.

“Seas take you deep.”

Nanette got an approving look, but the Drowned Woman exclaimed.

“Is that the little white Gnoll child in the scrying orb? It can’t be. And you…you look familiar.”

Erin was still not used to being recognized randomly. She turned beet red as the half-Dullahan man’s eyes lit up.

“I’d ask to play you in chess, Innkeeper Solstice! But not if you turn into a giant with wings. So here’s two little land-legends! Can we get one of those—autographs?”

Erin was so flustered she actually gave him a scrawled signature—Mrsha, a very fine one. The Drowned Folk answered her questions with great amusement.

“Why are we here? We’re just seeing which cities are best to travel to. With Nombernaught docked, Izril is not too far to sail about. The sooner we find which cities are friendly to our kind, the better.”

“Oh! Well, Liscor’s pretty far, but it has access to Invrisil and Pallass!”

The Drowned Folk traded glances.

“So we know. If it’s friendly to our folk, it’d be a wise place to mark. Is it?”

Erin hesitated.

“We only have one Drowned Person in, like, the entire city. Seborn. You don’t kn—Mrsha, don’t kick me. Anyways. Liscor doesn’t know Drowned Folk, but it’s pretty good, and my inn’s always open.”

The half-Shark man smiled.

“Those are good words to hear spoken, Miss Solstice. Better than most.”

That was better than most? Erin blinked, but the Drowned Folk nodded at each other. The Shrimp Woman popped a smaller shrimp into her mouth and ate it, shell and all, raw.

“Perhaps we’ll visit. Though I’d watch yourself. If it’s Seborn Sailwinds, he sails on the side of the Undersea Crews. And they’re unto [Pirates], not Storm Sailors. Then again, most look at us and see [Pirates] nonetheless.”

“See, I told you people know Seborn.”

Only because he’s a Gold-rank. Stop being weird.

Mrsha held up a notecard with a huge scowl. Erin floundered until Grimalkin raised his brows.

“You know Seborn Sailwinds despite him being a land adventurer? That was my understanding of how he became famous.”

“Not for his team. Sailwinds is a famous name. Therrium Sailwinds is one of the greatest [Captains] under the sea, for all he’s a raider. He and his sons—well. Watch out for him if you ever encounter his fleets at sea, Miss Solstice.”

The Drowned Folk nodded at each other, and Erin nodded slowly in return. It looked like Seborn had a past deeper than she thought.

 

——

 

At any rate, the Drowned Folk and books made for a fine day. Such a fine day that Erin enjoyed walking with Grimalkin and Nanette and Mrsha—and Ser Dalimont—despite not finding what she was looking for.

“What if we tried it tomorrow? I think we could.”

“I’m happy to do that, Miss Solstice. Mother never took me to Invrisil much—a [Witch] is less needed here.”

And Mrsha didn’t want to take boring lessons from Lyonette! She nodded too. But to Erin’s gratification, Grimalkin hmmed, then nodded.

“That’s acceptable. I’ll meet you in the morning.”

“Grimalkin, you have time? Thanks!”

“I can make time. It’s not as if I’m constantly in demand, even with my apprentices. Besides, I understand Lady Pryde arrived with the Haven. It’s been my intention to thank her for her support of my weights projects.”

“Oh. Oh? Pryde?”

Erin bristled at the name, but Grimalkin shrugged.

“She’s been the most studious adopter of my ideas. I owe her quite a bit.”

“She’s weird. And rude. And arrogant.”

“…I believe I can accept those qualities. It would not be the first time I’ve met eclectic characters. Like Saliss.”

Grimalkin looked everywhere but Erin as he said this, and the [Innkeeper] colored. Mrsha nearly fell over laughing, and Nanette pretended not to notice—or smile—and Erin fell silent for a bit.

That was the moment, and it was a fine, good one. Erin felt like it was a nice and peaceful day as they headed back to the street where a small queue was waiting for the door. Half the people wanted Erin’s or Mrsha’s autograph, but they hurried past the two [Guards], and the door opened instantly for them, as if Liska knew they were waiting.

A fine day—right until Erin got back to her inn and saw the churned terrain from the battle with Facestealer. And heard that Albez’s dungeon had led to six fatalities and half the adventurers were on the run and headed to her door at Wailant’s farm.

Then—well. Then Erin felt Nerrhavia’s hand on her shoulder. Or the Tyrant’s tongue licking—she twitched her fingers and grimaced.

Monsters.

 

——

 

The Albez thefts.

Facestealer.

Both events were massive, but the Facestealer attack was far, far more concerning to Watch Captain Zevara and most Liscorians. The first was just an adventurer problem.

“If it can climb once, it can climb twice. And it just ate all the Watch’s attacks. I am going to tell the Council we cannot stop it and Liscor is in danger of massive casualties. The Antinium have told me they’ve fought off Facestealer before, many times—and paid for it in the hundreds or thousands of deaths. While it was in the dungeon, I was—if not content—I assumed it was just another threat. Now that we know it can climb, I need action.”

“Yes, Watch Captain. I will kill it.”

Erin returned to see Colth the Supporter standing with Watch Captain Zevara and a number of people, including Guildmistress Tekshia herself. The old Drake was eating cookies as she listened.

Zevara was the incredulous one.

“You didn’t do more than cut past its hide, Adventurer Colth. And it’s retreated into the dungeon.”

“It’s been marked, and more Named-ranks will be returning to the Haven or The Wandering Inn shortly. I intend to kill it, Watch Captain. If we fail, then it will be a threat beyond Named-rank adventurers. But there are more ways to kill something than with blades alone.”

Colth smiled tightly, but he held his ground in the face of the Watch Captain. It was Tekshia who muttered.

“Bold words. And how far will Colth the Supporter go?”

She met his eyes, and the old [Spearmaster] gazed at Colth—a gaze he returned blandly. Blandly, but for the sharp emotion Erin felt under that smile.

“Right to the next level or the end, Guildmistress. I am a Named-rank adventurer. I don’t let that kind of threat live.”

She held his gaze, and Tekshia turned towards Zevara abruptly.

“Let them try, Watch Captain.”

Zevara nodded slowly.

“I’m pulling Relc and Klbkch into reserve. Beyond that—the Watch will take precautions, but we really are…I’ll ask Commander Olesm for reinforcements. Yes. Of course.”

She seemed relieved at the thought. As if she had forgotten she now had an army to draw upon.

“Hey, guys. Is everyone alright?”

Erin looked anxiously at the Horns and the people standing around as she put her books down on a table. Everyone turned, and Zevara gave Erin an incredulous look.

“You had nothing to do with this, Miss Solstice? You weren’t even here?”

“Not everything’s my fault, Zevara. Did Facestealer really attack?”

“You missed the fight of a month, Erin. That thing—I might have nightmares.”

Ceria Springwalker grinned from a table. Erin turned red as she realized Ceria was disrobed! She had put on pants, but her top was being covered—by bandages.

Ksmvr was holding up a modesty-towel as Yvlon secured Ceria’s ribs with some bandages. The half-Elf winced.

“I cracked some ribs. Don’t worry, it’s mostly healing. Turns out Facestealer can throw dirt.”

Dirt did that to you?”

“About a few hundred pounds, yeah. Broke my barriers.”

“That kind of strength—can I hear what happened, Captain Ceria? Is there a recording?”

Grimalkin was all alert as he listened to the Horns’ recounting of the event. Erin’s blood chilled to hear how even Saliss and Colth had barely damaged it.

“Tough—but not exactly the fastest foe about. It relied on its aura, but we never got hit.”

“One hit would have been your last. Yvlon nearly got killed, and it was missing her.”

Yvlon’s arm had a chunk torn out of it. The [Armsmistress] was gulping down food, and she shook her head.

“I’ve never seen anything so tough. Even the Adult Creler was weaker. It killed the Frostmarrow Behemoth—”

“Always nice to know there’s something worse out there, eh, Pisces? No wonder we’re not ready for a <Mythical Quest>.”

Ceria grinned sardonically as she put on a shirt and looked over, but Pisces was bending over a shaken young woman sitting with streaked white face paint. Erin blinked—who was this?

“Is that a [Necromancer]?”

She blurted it out, and Grimalkin looked at her sharply—as did Zevara and Tekshia. But Pisces was comforting Ama, who had lost Rodden. He turned as Erin approached.

“Erin, this is Ama. She’s a—friend of mine from the past. I hope she’s welcome here?”

“Hello.”

Ama looked up warily, but Erin bent down kindly and offered her a hand. Ama took it and realized she was a mess of snot and tears and face paint. She searched for her mask, but Erin just took her hand and squeezed.

“Of course she is. Any friend of Pisces—well, friends—are welcome here. Ama, right? You’ve been through a lot. I’m…sorry. Just sit there, and anything you need, we’ll get, okay?”

“Thank you.”

She seemed gratified by the welcome. Erin just looked bleakly at Pisces. Someone had died, and she wasn’t here.

Really, in this moment, Erin wasn’t the principal actor of the moment. Colth, the adventurers—even Lyonette was as the [Princess] helped serve tables and restore order. Erin nodded to Rags, who was watching, and then looked around.

“Did anyone else get hurt? I thought I heard Saliss and Tessa fought?”

“I didn’t. It never got to the inn. Saliss lived.”

Tessa appeared, and Erin saw the Drake pointing. She looked over, and the [Innkeeper] sighed.

“Well, at least he’s alive. Saliss, you good?”

The Drake was lying face-first on the floorboards, much where she’d last seen him. He raised a thumb-claw, and Erin turned.

“Well. Now, will someone explain Albez to me?”

She felt like she was playing catch-up. And that was before the Titan’s students hurried in.

 

——

 

Saliss of Lights was getting tired of having to remember so many people. First the Titan’s students, now all the adventurers—at least they weren’t staying.

“We could stay and help deal with Facestealer—I mean, we will. But the Titan’s called us back to the academy.”

“You’re going back to class? What about Calruz?”

“I’m rendering my judgment—but frankly, I’m inclined to let Liscor adjudicate the matter. His behavior in the dungeon and out of it and his class are all at odds with Captain Ceria’s testimony. It is not the answer he wants, but I am not prepared to execute him.”

Venaz was speaking to her as he put a hand on his diamond greatsword. Now there was a fine weapon.

Saliss wondered if it would have harmed Facestealer. Then again—the Blade of Mershi hadn’t. He lay on the floor and appeared dead.

It was a sign the inn was getting to know him that no one paid much attention to Saliss. Ishkr put down a drink on the floor, and the Drake grunted thanks.

Amateurs.

Ishkr paused, and Saliss’ head rose.

“Not you. Them. Bunch of sprouts not ready to be corn or some farming analogy. You get it.”

Ishkr hesitated—then nodded. He walked off, and Saliss put his head down after taking a nice long sip of the blue juice. Nothing like possible poison to make a drink taste sweet.

That went for the Goblin Chieftain who kept eying him. She was intelligent—but she fit right into the mold with the Titan’s students. Saliss hoped they left rather than join whatever Colth had planned.

Colth was corn. Baby corn, but pretty tough corn. So were Viecel, Eldertuin, and Deniusth’s team, for all they had…ticks. Did corn have ticks?

The point was made in Saliss’ mind, but someone always needed clarification. In this case, it was the timid [Alchemist] who came over and poked him a few times.

“Master Saliss, Master Saliss, I’m halfway done with your latest batch. But I need you to, um, check my work? Please?”

“Drag me.”

He lifted a claw, and Octavia hesitated—until Numbtongue grunted, got up, and dragged Saliss into her workshop.

 

——

 

Octavia Cotton had been apprenticing under Saliss of Lights for a while now, albeit with a long hiatus for Erin’s death and her adventure.

She still hadn’t gotten used to the honor. Or Saliss’ ways. He lay on the floor, making her place bottles and items down and raising his head to grunt at them.

“Good. Good. That looks iffy…it’s nice having an apprentice do boring work. You ready to kill me yet?”

He meant because Octavia had been pulling up to seventeen-hour shifts to get through his massive backlog of alchemical items. The younger [Alchemist] tried to smile.

“It’s—intensive, Master Saliss. But I am learning and levelling!”

“Good. I don’t have time for this. I’m very busy, as you can see.”

Saliss put his head down, and Numbtongue stared at him. The Hob wanted to listen to the preparations for Facestealer, so he motioned to Octavia and mouthed, ‘you okay’?

She nodded, and he retreated with a look at Saliss. Even the [Bard] was fooled, but Octavia was not.

Saliss did joke and pull pranks, but never when working. He was very careful about teaching her personally how not to injure herself, and if she was working on something dangerous, he’d make her use his personal lab, which she had access to.

Frankly, she felt like between him and Xif, she had actually lucked out. She knew Saliss was very thoughtful—so Octavia squatted next to the Drake, who was just lying flat on the floor.

“Master Saliss, may I ask a question?”

“That’s one. You get two more. Call me a Djinni. Don’t forget the collar.”

That was probably a joke. Even so, Octavia chose her words carefully.

“Master Saliss…why are you lying on the floor if you’re so busy?”

“I’m thinking.”

Alright, Octavia supposed she deserved that.

“…What are you thinking about, Master Saliss?”

Then he didn’t answer, and Octavia feared he’d not respond—but Saliss’ head rose, and his eyes were sharp as he gave Octavia a look.

“[Battle Simulations].”

The Stitch-Girl blinked at him, and Saliss put his head down.

“Remember how I told you I used to be Chaldion’s student? You can get rid of anything you want—but some of what I got was useful. It’s nothing strong like…this annoying metal kid I once met. But it works.”

“What are you simulating, Master Saliss?”

The Drake grunted.

“After today? Facestealer. But I’ve been figuring something out. First that [Witch]. Xrn. No, damn it. Seamwalkers and that war—Sserys is a great benchmark. The Shark Captain’s still a rookie. More like almost-corn. Lots of almost-corn. Even you.”

“Me, Master Saliss? What’s the corn about?”

Saliss was making no sense, but Octavia tried to follow his analogy as the Drake spoke.

“Eldertuin has a [Farmer] friend. Never met him. He probably knows more about it, but I’m just looking around. Corn and not corn. I’m corn. I’m weird corn, but I’m definitely corn by now. Grimalkin’s corn, if weak corn. Erin wasn’t corn—now she is. Not battle corn, but she’s like Larracel. But the rest? You could argue Relc was retired corn. But those students of the Titan aren’t full-corn yet. Nor is that Goblin, Rags. Maybe one or two of her lieutenants are—but the real corn isn’t developed.”

He was talking about levels. Or…Named-rank adventurers? And he thought she was on her way? Octavia was excited until she realized what Saliss was saying.

“Numbtongue?”

“Haunted not-quite-corn. How’s your relationship?”

Octavia blushed.

“It’s fine. He takes me food and makes sure I wake up. Puts a blanket on me and tells me to stop.”

“Now that’s a great relationship. Good.”

“Master Saliss?”

“Hm?”

“Why are we corn? What does that make monsters?”

The Drake was silent a moment.

“…I don’t know. I didn’t think the metaphor through. But the point is, I’m realizing the inn’s got some good plants. And I’m corn. And corn doesn’t beat Seamwalkers.”

Then Octavia felt a lurch in her stomach. Saliss glanced up, and he spoke.

“My battle potions are weak. My acid’s weak. It barely did any damage to Facestealer. I can kill an army—but I can’t kill Belavierr. I need to upgrade them.”

Saliss of Lights, considered the adventurer with the highest firepower on the continent—if not the world—was saying that? The [Alchemist] put his head down.

“Here’s the thing, apprentice. Crafter-fighters have a different problem than [Warriors]. All they need is a Relic-class blade. Find one. Me? If my best potion can’t scratch this new caliber of foe—I need to invent one better. Or discover it. That’s clear.”

“Does that mean you’re headed to the new lands, master?”

That seemed like the best place to find anything new or old. Saliss just laughed.

“What am I, good at camping? No. It’s a waste of time. I’m getting back into the laboratory, apprentice. And you and I will have to work harder. I need…more powerful reagents. Damn it. I hope those Albez thieves got something. Maybe I should rob them, but—that’s it.”

He pushed himself up suddenly.

Albez. That damned [Chronomancer] had to be a multifaceted polymath, didn’t he? They’re all pretentious—all I need is to compare his inventory with mine. Reagents, Octavia.”

She knew what he meant. That was the fuel for most alchemy, like Sage’s Grass. Saliss glanced up.

“Old-era alchemy might not have had easy-access healing potions, but they had stronger stuff. Potions of Regeneration, Ryoka’s damned Haste Potion—we’re missing the booster. Probably Unicorn testicles or something. Of course, finding that’s one half the puzzle. The other half is formulas, but I need to do it. Otherwise, I’ll be throwing water at [Witches], and contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t melt them.”

Octavia understood. Saliss sat there, and Octavia saw him exhale hard.

“The new lands aren’t for me. I’ll be here, so you’d better prepare for more lessons, apprentice. Because I need your help. And…”

He looked up seriously.

“…we will both be needed. You, me, Xif, and every [Alchemist] in Pallass.”

“For creating new potions?”

He shook his head.

“The Eir Gel Reef is gone. I don’t know what happened, still—but the world’s out of our supply of healing gel. We have to find a solution.”

The two [Alchemists] looked at each other, and Octavia gulped. If there were no more healing potions…Saliss of Lights looked ahead, past Facestealer, at a battle only his class was ready for.

“It’s gonna be an ugly winter and next year.”

He sat there—expression grim and unusually tense. Until Erin Solstice came to ask him for a favor.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had listened to the reports about Albez. She knew the adventurers were coming.

Maybe they hoped to beat news of their thefts at Albez. Some of them were certainly attempting to bribe her. No less than eight [Message] spells were promising her gold if she let them through and didn’t let Deniusth or the others after.

They were in hot pursuit, but the thieves had a good march on them. Even so, Erin guessed it might be a half-hour’s difference between the two groups at most.

“The easiest thing is to not open the door. Let them sort it out. We’ll hunker down—Viceria’s putting barriers up, and we’ll let them run for it. I’d think about offering some space, but not with Named-ranks out for blood.”

Wailant had moved his door off his property due to the increased traffic, but he had liked the proximity to the inn, and so he’d put it at a local crossroads five minutes from his farm. Now, he’d moved it further so the adventurers wouldn’t endanger his farm.

“I’ll let you know what I decide, Wailant. What do you think about the thefts?

The [Pirate] gave her a sardonic look.

“You mean, what do I think, was it right or wrong? I know I’d probably try to swipe a little something, even if I didn’t do a big theft. That many artifacts? I bet you a Silver-rank team’d get gold and spit rather than a single wand. But hey, I don’t moralize when I stab someone in the ass, either.”

“Good point.”

Erin walked back through her door and stopped for a moment. Travel was out due to the Facestealer attack, so only a single Gnoll was sitting there, chewing on a hamburger. Erin glanced at her.

“Liska? How are you doing?”

The Gnoll jumped.

“Er—fine, Erin. I mean, Miss Solstice. Doing my job!”

“You’re not nervous from the attack?”

Liska tried to grin, but her eyes flickered, and Erin knew she was rattled.

“Me? No. Someone’s got to stay and keep Ishkr safe. Besides—it never got the inn. You want me to go somewhere else?”

“Not just yet. I’m just thinking. I’ll be back. Just—thanks for helping.”

“No problem. Do we get a hazard bonus?”

Erin didn’t answer that last one. She headed into the inn and asked where Saliss had gone. She thought about Grimalkin, but she didn’t want to jeopardize their relationship after they’d just started talking. Ceria was groaning.

“Guys, let me know when Deniusth and the others are here. Want to meet in the Haven? I hear they’ve got crystal healing beds.”

“I can ask Larra to give you a room. And she does have healing. Let’s meet there, alright? Pisces, how’s your friend?”

Colth nodded at the others. Erin heard Pisces murmur a reply.

“Ama will be heading back. She’s upset—we can pay and thank her later. I don’t think she’s up for an attack on Facestealer.”

“No, and her undead won’t do much. We’ll talk. You lot take some time off. If you want to chat—I’ll be in the Haven.”

Colth smiled at Pisces, and the [Necromancer]…Erin eyed Pisces and wondered why he was looking at Colth like that. There was a lot she didn’t know about. Sometimes it was fine. Ceria rubbed at her ribs.

“Well, I’m going to see you later. I’ll be going on a little date.”

“Oh, again? Have fun, Captain Ceria.”

Yvlon and Pisces nodded along—then the two of them turned back from Colth and stared. The bug-eyed expressions on the two non-Antinium members of the Horns made Ceria grin.

“What?”

“Yes, what?”

Ksmvr looked at Yvlon and Pisces, and the [Armsmistress] pointed.

“You—you—wh—”

“I’m not allowed to have private time? Can you believe these two, Ksmvr? I don’t bother you two on the dates you definitely have.”

Ceria’s impish look grew, and Yvlon and Pisces made a garbled noise until she headed off, past Erin. The [Innkeeper] gave Ceria very much the same look.

“Huh?”

 

——

 

There was a lot she didn’t know about. Case in point—Erin walked into Octavia’s shop and stared at the Drake lying on the ground.

“Um. Saliss? Do you have a moment?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

The Drake kicked his feet until he shuffled around so his face was pointing at Erin. Still staring at the floorboards.

Erin squatted down as Octavia glanced up.

“You okay? Thanks for protecting the inn.”

“Hey, don’t worry. I’ll bill you at market price for all the potions I used, how about that?”

Erin hesitated, and Saliss grinned.

“I should. But I won’t. Don’t worry about it. What’s the word on Albez? Asking me what to do?”

He was perceptive. Erin Solstice sighed and sat cross-legged on the floor.

“Octavia, can I ask a favor? Saliss, you want food?”

He cracked an eye open, and the [Alchemist] nodded.

“Oh, of course! Can I get you…?”

“Give me one of those hot sandwiches with the things in it you had for breakfast.”

“A grilled pastrami on rye, Octavia. Can I get, um…fries? Calescent’s spicy fries.”

“Sure thing.”

Octavia hurried out, and Saliss glanced up.

“Not exactly subtle. So what do you want?”

Erin bit her lip.

“I…what do you think about the Albez thing?”

“Silver-ranks and Gold-ranks stealing from competitors to the north? I wouldn’t have been that stupid. Deni’s been retired for a while. First, he underestimated the most dangerous Goblin tribe in the north. Next, he forgot that adventurers are hungry and poor, and he’s an ass. Eldertuin’s solid, and Viecel’s crazy like me and Tessa—but a different kind. That answer your question?”

It did, a bit. Erin glanced over her shoulder.

“And Colth?”

Saliss’ eyes sharpened.

“Colth’s a real Named-rank in his prime. Not too old. Grew up with legends. You want to know why Mihaela Godfrey’s here? Because she’s retired. She’s still dangerous, grouchy, and competent—but if she was in her prime, she’d be running deliveries as a Courier and kicking [Generals] in the face. Colth’s not as good as she was—but he’s the best. Notice how his first instinct was to kill Facestealer?”

“Yours wasn’t?”

Saliss shrugged. He put his head back down.

“My potions are too weak. But he’s got a better handle on it. I’ll listen if he needs a favor. Next question?”

Erin sat there.

“…If I asked you for a favor, Saliss, a sorta big one that might get you in trouble. And me—how can I pay it off?”

“Been speaking to [Witches] lately? Or the old man?”

Saliss’ head rose, and his eyes glinted. He looked at Erin, and she showed him the wicker bird on her finger.

“Been cursed? Nevermind. Erin—we don’t do favors. Not us. Just give me something. Anything from your gardens—because I need it. But say it.”

That was why she liked him. And of all of the others, she trusted Saliss. More than Grimalkin. Frankly, more than almost anyone. She didn’t know why, only that she thought, despite his secrets—she knew Saliss.

“Okay. I’ll have as much help as I can get—what do you need?”

“Whatever those bastards stole from Albez. I can’t let them have it or Deni sell it.”

“Oh? Well—that actually works. Because I need you to go into Pallass and move my portal stone. Without being stopped by Sergeant Kel or Chaldion. Right now. And do it within about forty minutes.”

That was how much time she thought they had. Saliss’ head rose slowly, and his neck spines seemed to rise.

“And where would you like me to move it, Erin?”

She knew the spot.

“There’s a place a good ways outside Pallass. Where Pallass Hunting does its work. It’s in this nice glen—there would be pretty private. And you can hit the road not far from there. If…Pallass didn’t know it was there, anyone popping out’d be pretty far away. Then I need you to move it back to Pallass.”

Saliss stared at her. His lips moved soundlessly for a second.

“Right back on the 8th Floor?”

“Yep.”

“In the checkpoint with Desk Sergeant Kel, the most friendly and relaxed of Drakes, and the Old Man’s lenient policies towards anyone who comes through on a whim?”

“Uh huh.”

“After placing it far outside Pallass’ walls?”

“Do I keep saying yes?”

Saliss just looked at Erin. Her stomach was twisting, but…she met his gaze. The Named-rank adventurer whistled.

“…How badly do you want them to level? What’s in those new lands?”

Erin bit her tongue. She didn’t answer, but Saliss swung himself up into a cross-legged position. He thought for a while.

“Deniusth might try to kill you. But let’s say we send those thieves straight into the new lands. How do you explain why you did what you did?”

Erin held out her hands and shrugged.

“Leave that to me. I’ll take all the responsibility, Saliss.”

“Humor me.”

Erin Solstice met Saliss’ eyes, and he saw her worried look turn into a colder look of—anger.

“Deniusth’s team—or he and the other Gold-ranks—killed six adventurers in cold blood. Even if they were thieves, I don’t trust him, and I don’t think that was the right call. And the rest? We need levels, Saliss. We need levels.”

It was the worst thing she’d ever done consciously. Far, far worse than plotting to destroy a Raskghar camp or…Saliss gave Erin a longer look, then nodded.

“Corn against Seamwalkers. Give me twenty minutes.”

 

——

 

Liska Coresh Silverfang had always thought Erin was sort of…boring. She knew Erin was the ‘crazy innkeeper’ who spat blood and caused trouble, but Erin hadn’t ever really impressed her in person.

She was fun-ish, and she was certainly nice and had powerful Skills, but she had always seemed to be, in Liska’s estimation of the world, sort of a law-abiding, boring person.

Much like Ishkr, her brother. This?

This was crazy. When Erin told Liska what she wanted to do and had Liska move to a series of rooms inside the inn, which Liska hadn’t known even existed, the Gnoll was alarmed.

“Wh—we’re really doing this, Miss Solstice?”

Erin was dumping items onto a table. She had a list of Lyonette’s prices, and she turned.

“Yep. Wailant! Where’s the rest of the food?”

Coming. This is crazy, Erin. I love it. It’s crazy—but that Violinist is going to kill you.”

“He could try.”

“Larra the Haven will kill you, then.”

Wailant grunted as he placed a pack full of, ironically, dried cornmeal on the table. Erin gave him a slight smile.

“No, she won’t. I think she might take my side, actually. Especially if I pay her.”

“Oh. Maybe Viceria’s right. Maybe I am a bad influence.”

Even Wailant looked askance, but Erin just nudged him.

“Nah. Seborn is worse.”

You little—we’re having a drink tonight, Miss Innkeeper. Alright, that’s the last pack I’ve got.”

The room was crowded, and Liska was about to pee. She had to run to the restroom, and she felt the door was fully-charged.

Her new Skills as a [Door Gnoll] let her sense its ambient mana levels like Erin. Liska had all kinds of cool powers.

Like knowing which entrance of the door had people waiting. The ability to calm down a crowd. And the power to…

“[Conjure Stool].”

Liska sat down as she hurried back into the private rooms. Erin glanced at the plain wooden stool.

“Uh. Is that your new power, Liska?”

“I’m a Level 6 [Door Gnoll], Miss Solstice.”

“…Cool. Can you do two?”

“No.”

The [Innkeeper] smiled. Then they went back to waiting. Erin seemed far, far more composed than Liska. Her leg jiggled as she sat at the edge of the table, but Liska was about to be incontinent with nerves.

When the adventurers did arrive, they came in a storm.

The door! The door! We’ll pay for—there!”

They came riding horses hell-for-leather, some in battered wagons showing damage from spells and arrows. More than one was looking over their shoulder even as they slowed, but they charged for the door while carrying—

Treasure. Some was in bags or even chests of holding, but Liska saw one of the Distinguished Staves holding a beautiful staff—and the area around the orb seemed so still, so calm—

The leaves were falling from trees outside the route near Wailant’s farm. One flew into the proximity of the stave as the [Mage] holding it ran—and the leaf fixed in place.

Time magic. Erin looked at the staff as the adventurers came to a halt.

“Miss Solstice! Let us through to Liscor, please! Or—Invrisil?”

“Anywhere, we’ll pay!”

“I have one place I’ll send you. And if you want—come on through. But before that, we’ll negotiate.”

Erin Solstice called through the door. Wailant was standing to the side, a hand on his own blade, but the Gold and Silver-ranks started. Erin glanced at Liska, then walked through the door. She shut it, and Liska gulped.

This was part of the plan—but it was still incredible that Erin did it. Liska waited, standing up from her stool, and paced around the room. The laden tables were filled up—she passed by jars of green acid, Erin’s travel foods, mana candies, Scaleguard Sandwiches, and bags of animal feed and provisions. Even camping supplies that Erin had asked Liska to buy as many of as possible.

When she finally felt Erin tug on her [Portal Door], Liska swung it open. She was almost certain Erin could do it herself, but the [Innkeeper] walked through with the first teams.

“Put anything you got that’s alchemical or enchanting-related on the tables.”

“Miss Solstice—”

“No buts. That’s the fee. Not all of you are even paying it.”

Erin pointed at a rough-looking man, one of the Waterborn Raiders, drenched in sweat. His eyes flickered to the door, and Erin raised a finger.

“Harm Liska or me, and that door will never open. Colth is still in this inn and the Horns and Grimalkin of Pallass. He’s big. Plus, Shriekblade is standing right behind you.”

The Waterborn Raider went white, and he whirled. Tessa tapped him on the shoulder, and he whirled again and backed up.

Liska’s nerves actually decreased as she recalled that Erin had a Named-rank as a bodyguard. The Gold-rank adventurers traded looks as more filed in.

“All of it?”

“All of it. It’s not useful where you’re going, is it? How many artifacts did you get? How many books? I’ll take any books you want to offload, too. For a price. Anything you want here—well, you’re all one buyer, so decide what you want.”

Erin indicated the supplies. The adventurers stared at her and then the supplies. Bird’s arrows, gear—one of the raiders whistled as he picked up the jar of acid. He almost opened the lid, but Erin snapped at him.

“Don’t do that. And don’t get it on your skin unless you want it melted. Hurry. I thought they were right behind you?”

The teams glanced over their shoulders, and Liska backed up as someone led a horse through the door. Erin called out.

“Pick what you want—come on through now if you’re coming! If you’re going to surrender, Wailant will give you a drink.”

“All the way past Pallass? And then to the new lands?”

It seemed to hit some of the Silver-ranks only now. Erin Solstice saw one of them turn to her.

“Can’t you send us somewhere else? Just around Liscor or…”

“The [Portal Door] doesn’t go anywhere else, sorry. And what would you do if I did? I’ll be letting Deniusth and the others through, and they’ll follow you. Like I said—if you want to give up everything you stole, stay at Wailant’s farm. I’ll transport you to my inn, and then Larra’s Haven, and the Named-ranks and Gold-ranks won’t touch you, you have my word. I can’t promise you’ll be adventurers after that, but they won’t kill you.”

And the rest? They looked at Erin’s overpriced stocks and then her map that showed a path across the trade routes to the New Lands.

“We’re going. This staff…I’ll find the half-Elves or another continent. Damn Deniusth. He didn’t even promise us a spellbook.”

The leader of the Distinguished Staves was in his fifties, but he calmly walked over to the table, began selecting gear, and tossed down some of the loot he’d stolen from Albez. Leaving his life behind.

“Captain Geith—my family.”

“Should have thought of that before you pissed off Orchestra.”

Wailant was sympathetic, but only a bit. He nodded at the other wavering adventurers.

“I can take a letter, but you’d better write quick. Free of charge, even.”

He said that as if Erin wasn’t collecting a good portion of the gear. It was the largest door tax that Liska had ever seen. She’d heard Erin complaining about Magnolia’s mandatory tax to Invrisil.

After today…Liska didn’t think Erin got to complain again.

For all of their talk, it was fast. The adventurers grabbed almost everything, and the only delay was taking through some of the animals—turning them around and sending them to the spot where Saliss was waiting outside Pallass. Liska heard him speaking to them.

“I’ve got free advice and people to talk to. Don’t be stupid, and don’t go to a Walled City. Hey, Geith. Nice staff. Good luck.”

To Liska’s surprise, she saw Erin Solstice shaking hands with the Waterborn Raiders and every adventurer who went through. Thieves or not—she took the hands of the Captain of the Waterborn Raiders.

“Don’t die out there. And if you ever do manage to make it back to Liscor, without bounty or someone after you—come here and tell me what happened.”

“You’re…alright, Innkeeper Solstice. Funny. I thought you were different.”

Erin Solstice looked the Captain of the Waterborn Raiders in the eye.

“I don’t approve of stealing, Captain. But it’s your choice. The new lands…Deniusth isn’t that charming. No matter what, it’s going to be dangerous. Good luck.

Then they were heading out, and Liska saw only seven adventurers remain, a tiny fraction of the ones going through the door. Erin could send roughly two hundred people to Pallass. By the time she closed the door, it had just enough juice to send Wailant back and deliver the seven adventurers to his farm for that promised drink.

“Pretend they’re not there, Wailant. I bet you Deni’s going to be coming for my door. He probably won’t even think they’re at your farm. Liska, is there power to let him through?”

She could check, but Liska, amusingly, seemed to be better at estimating relative to distance and place, thanks to her class. Erin just knew her door was ‘low’ and she was busy, so the Gnoll focused and answered for her.

“Just—just six more, Erin.”

“Well, let him through, but not his team. And Halrac and any captains. If Deni wants to kick up a fuss—Tessa, don’t kill anyone.”

“Yes, boss. Can I kick him?”

“Anywhere you want as long as it’s not permanent. But we’re going to be reasonable. How much did we get?”

Erin turned, and Wailant winked at her. He cast one last admiring look at the books, bottled alchemical reagents, magical crystals, and trinkets the adventurers didn’t think were the most valuable—or immediately valuable—piled on the table. Erin Solstice exhaled as the real haul—and largest share of Albez—sat in her inn. She turned to Liska, and the Gnoll stared at her.

“This room doesn’t exist, Liska. And since Wailant’s being so quiet—”

“Lips sealed, Miss Solstice. Maybe one book and a gift for Viceria?”

Erin gave him a patient look.

“Come by later. Yes, since Wailant’s being so quiet—this room doesn’t exist. Larra will maybe want to be here, but no one’s coming here without my permission. You have access to the garden—only let Saliss in here unsupervised. He’ll probably want to look stuff over.”

“Yes, Miss Solstice.”

Liska stood there, knees trembling, and then followed Erin into the garden and back towards the regular hallway of the inn. Erin made the [Portal Door] reappear, and then she turned.

“Lyonette? I have something I’d like to let you know about. Um. Colth too. Liska, just let through Deni. And if Larra wants to find me—I think her Haven’s past Invrisil, but I set up a portal stone there for now. Let her through.”

Liska sat down on the ground since her stool Skill was on cooldown. She stared at Erin’s back and listened to the sounds of the [Innkeeper] walking off. There was silence…then the sound of a [Princess] screaming.

Ishkr opened the door to the portal room as Deniusth pounded on Erin’s door in Celum, screaming for answers. Before Liska opened the door to Celum, she looked at her brother.

“Well?”

He raised his brows, and Liska pointed after Erin.

“She’s crazy. You said this job was fine! She’s crazy and cool.

“Obviously.”

Ishkr smiled at his younger sister, and Liska stared at him. Then she really, really began to wonder just what his class was. And his level.

 

——

 

“What level is Ishkr, do you think? I heard a birdie tell me that Chaldion tried to hire him—or buy his loyalty. And by that, I mean Bird told me.”

“What makes you think Ishkr’s high-level?”

“What makes you think he’s not?

“…Fair point.”

Today was a day of missing things. In an interesting way, in Invrisil, people hadn’t heard of the Facestealer attack. Larracel the Haven, the connected [Innkeeper], had heard about the Albez debacle—

But not about Colth’s plan to take down the monster. Similarly, Larra didn’t know what Erin had just done with the adventurers.

And neither did Ceria Springwalker, who was on her aforementioned date. She’d shaken off Yvlon and Pisces, who had a mountain of questions. She wondered if this counted as a prank, but really, Ceria felt like this was the most normal thing of the Horns.

Ksmvr didn’t really date. He was a kid and had a very limited understanding of how or why you did these things. That wasn’t her being mean either.

Children could occupy themselves all day with certain things. For instance, Ceria had seen Ksmvr sitting in front of a scrying orb for about seven hours. True, one could vegetate to that level—but he had been engrossed.

She didn’t think he was on the dating part of his life, was the point. Pawn now…

Pawn was interesting. Anyways, the point was that Ksmvr was out—and so were Yvlon and Pisces. Yvlon’s dates…well, Ceria wondered how well they’d gone when Yvlon was in the Silver Spears. As awkwardly as dating Ylawes, Ceria just bet.

As for Pisces—she might have expected it from him before. Not after Chandrar.

These were troublesome topics, and this was really to relax and have fun. Which Ceria was allowed to do. She was not being serious and long-term like Jelaqua with Maughin—or any relationship the Selphid engaged in, really. Ceria was glad most people got that.

The Ice Squirrel made one mistake. Silly squirrel, really. She had thought that was the only crazy thing that could happen in the inn, so she’d left and was blissfully unaware of the heist Erin had just pulled off.

She’d learn.

However, in the interim, Ceria Springwalker felt at her cracked ribs and winced. They’d heal fast due to the potion she’d been given, but she dreaded to imagine how long it would be if it had been infected. Pisces had fused the bones together to help the potion stick, but it still hurt, damn it.

[Necromancers]. Very handy for a number of reasons. Anyways, this was not the first date with this individual, nor was it serious like going to…well, Wishdrinks would be casual and fun. The Tailless Thief would be a nightmare and too expensive.

Work did follow you about, too. Her partner on the date glanced up.

“Are you really going after Facestealer? Is this the right moment for, uh—dating?”

“Let’s not talk about it. I adventure, and that’s that. If I don’t think about it, you don’t need to. Deal? Let’s try to have fun—although, let’s not break my ribs.”

“That’s…pretty good compartmentalizing. I’m just about done…”

The [Prankster]’s eyes twinkled as she watched. She’d arrived on-time, but she was being stood up for time. So she adjusted the light shirt she wore and pulled it up to expose her bandaged ribs, among other things.

“Sounds good. I’ll just count my fractures. Do you think I’m bleeding?”

Kevin looked up, did a double-take, and stared for a bit. Ceria cackled—then wondered if the circlet made her more likely to do that.

The [Engineer] closed his books and laughed. He looked at the closed door to his office.

“You are so lucky my helper wasn’t staring.”

“Why? It’s not like you can put out bad rumors about me. ‘Ceria has breasts’. Fire her from Gold-rank immediately!”

“No, it’s inappropriate in a work-environment.”

“Oh. Earth-stuff. Sounds interesting. Tell me more about it. Or do I get more poetry?”

Oh Captain, my Captain…

Kevin and Ceria chuckled. She quite liked her latest dance partner—and he was willing to try to dance. It was very informal, but she thought it was a good match. For one thing—he knew about Earth, and she was still curious about that.

You’d have to ask Kevin if he thought he got an equal benefit from the dates. They departed Kevin’s office in Solar Cycles, the little Esthelm office close to Pelt’s forge.

“So, are we going to Esthelm or…”

“I saw a cool pub in the city. They’re expanding fast. I booked a table, even.”

“Fancy. A place that books tables. So, is life working for your company actually that rewarding? And what is this about inappropriate work environments?”

“Well—aren’t there rules about not sleeping with the staff if you’re the boss?”

“Hm. Nope. It’s definitely bad form, but your world has rules and regulations for everything, doesn’t it? That’s another big difference I’ve noticed in your stories. Most [Lords] and [Ladies] wouldn’t stand for it. Actually—they probably harass the staff a lot.”

“I bet. Well—I’m not doing it. Plus, Solar Cycles is fun. I get to test our bikes, and we finally shipped out a bunch to all our waiting clients. Say, do you want to try our new dirt-bike?”

“Sure. But if I break those ribs…”

Well, Ceria did suspect that at least a few of her adventuring peers had social lives outside of work. Not poor Moore, although you never knew, but Jelaqua? Definitely. Seborn? Probably, but who knew.

Halrac, Revi? Uncertain.

Typhenous? She’d bet her circlet on it. She just wondered if he’d finally managed to woo his targets—which were apparently Witch Eloise and/or Witch Mavika.

You had to admire his balls, if he had any left.

The point was, Ceria enjoyed this for however long it would last. She glanced at Kevin slyly.

“Let me know if you get competing offers for your time.”

“Business-wise? Oh—no. I mean, I’ve been asked by a few people in Esthelm, and Bezale, but this is cool.”

Kevin seemed to regret mentioning the Minotauress, but Ceria passed a finger over her lips.

“Mouth sealed. But I’m telling you—there’s an open market for Kevins. And there are only…four.”

She meant the Antinium, and he laughed about that. Although it appeared to weigh on Kevin the fact that there were Soldiers and Workers who bore his name—and died. He was not all ‘chill’ and relaxed, but you did have to get to know someone to hear about that.

“Uh…who’s in the market for a Kevin? Not that I’m not really having fun here.”

The [Cryomancer] teased Kevin as he turned red. Ceria put her hands behind her head and whistled.

“Oh, believe me. I’d say at least a few interested parties might ask—but it’s tougher for them. How do you feel about pointed ears?”

Kevin hesitated.

“I, uh—like Falene? And would never date her.”

“Okay. Green skin?”

Oh.

Ceria watched his expression. Kevin thought about it, and Ceria laughed to herself. And wouldn’t that be interesting? She wondered what Erin would think about that. Of course, that was the last thing on Erin’s mind right now.

And frankly—if Larracel the Haven thought she’d caught up with Erin’s madness by dealing with the [Emperor]—tonight would prove they were only getting started. Ceria nudged Kevin after a while.

“No guessing. I’m just here to watch and eat popcorn if it turns out to be funny. But it’s not Ulvama.”

“Aw. I mean. Oh.”

 

——

 

The night was quiet, like the calm before storms. Like the silence in which you could forget your troubles…or brood. Some chose the former. Some—like the being that stalked below the ground of the Floodplains, did not forget. Did not forgive.

SNATCHER WAS ANGRY.

But it was also in the dungeon, nursing its light wounds. Aware that above there was at least one…adventurer and unable to strike. For now.

There were a lot of people who were angry that night, though. Like Deniusth. Or Deniusth. And Deniusth.

Other angry people included Troydel. Who knew exactly whom Ceria was dating, and he was seriously considering buying a curse from Oliyaya in Riverfarm to hex Kevin.

Kevin, living out the dream of Earth’s young men who read fantasy or played such games! Damn you, Kevin!

His fury was about a fifth of Deniusth’s. Which meant Facestealer was about 8 Troydels of wrath incarnate.

Lyonette was 1.5 Troydels, and Larracel actually reached about 3 Troydels, which was far into the realms where physical or magical violence became a possibility.

However, both calmed down a bit when Erin talked them down. Not because they appreciated Erin’s arguments about how the adventurers deserved a chance with their loot, how this would fuel the landrush, and the benefits of having lower-level teams with artifacts level.

No. They calmed down when Erin bribed them.

“I have—well, I don’t know how much, but I’d pretty much bet it’s more than even Deniusth’s Orchestra team could demand in shares. Wanna book, Larracel? You help me calm Deni down and I’ll let you pick. But Saliss is going to investigate the alchemy items.”

“You…you’re stealing from Orchestra? Are you mad?”

Despite herself, Larra the Haven was impressed. Impressed because she wasn’t sure Erin knew how dangerous Deni was—or Viecel when crossed. But Erin just folded her arms.

“Not stealing. I just refused to let Deni murder those adventurers. And he failed the truth spell when he told me he was going to let them live. I’ll give him and the other adventurers a bit of what I convinced the teams to part with.”

“And the rest?”

“They can get it if they catch up. Call it a game of tag or hide-and-seek. And then tell Deni that he might get nothing or very little now…but he might get everything later.”

Lyonette wondered if she were listening to her mother or father instead of Erin. Was she suggesting…? Larra blinked.

It was true Deni had lost all the artifacts he wanted. But he would have had to share most of the precious relics with the many teams in the dig. And with the Guild, Remendia, Laken…

But if he reclaimed all that lost treasure, he could gain…a lot of it.

In blood. Or perhaps just by convincing the teams to hand it over “peacefully” when he was in front of them with a sword.

Cold. Cold and ruthless and—Larracel glanced over and saw Deniusth pacing around outside as Colth and Eldertuin talked to him. He was so angry his voice was audible even through the stout windows.

“I’ll have a word. A pick of spellbooks?”

“Sure.”

Erin Solstice held out a hand, and Larra took it. The two [Innkeepers] locked eyes, and neither one quite smiled this time. Larra looked warier of Erin, and Erin…

…Glanced at Larra’s friends. Deni had killed two Gold-rank adventurers that morning, and she didn’t sense more than fury from him. She didn’t regret her decision.

“Much.”

There was more at stake here. There always was. When Deni came back into the inn, he refused to look at Erin—but he did listen to Colth as the Supporter spoke.

“Deni, we’re hunting a boss monster. And I’ll cut you in on whatever you want up front—Stalker’s corpse especially.”

His eyes twinkled at Erin, but the Named-rank was deadly serious as he looked at Eldertuin.

“I want it dead. Liscor wants it dead. So I’m going to pay you what you ask, but I’m calling in the favors. You, Mihaela, even Valley if she’s still around.”

“She’s treating my inn like a research lab. She’s around. Are you certain, Colth?”

The Supporter smiled as Deni’s head rose, and the leader of Orchestra looked at him. Colth turned to the Horns and nodded.

“Oh yes. Killing a monster like that—I’d say that’s the reward in itself, but we all know the levels and parts and its lair will be too. But it has to die. Are you in or not?”

Deniusth exhaled. He glanced at Erin, away—and then ground out.

“I’m in. You have a plan of attack, Colth?”

“I have eight. And we’ll take all the top-level help we can get. Saliss—I don’t know if I can get Tessa, but Saliss, the best Gold-rank teams—it’s time for a hunt.

The Ultimate Supporter looked around, eyes gleaming. The other teams looked at him. Erin had seen dungeon crawls. She’d seen raids and adventurers and monster extermination—but never a hunt.

This was going to be the hour of adventurers. And of course, it began in an inn.

It so often did.

 

——

 

The other teams returned from Albez mad, betrayed, and tired. They mostly took lodgings in the Haven, not Erin’s inn.

Their fury over Erin letting the adventurers go was slightly mitigated by the thought they all had that they could get a majority of the pilfered artifacts without having to share—and Erin doling out portions of the treasure she’d reclaimed.

Erin had, in fact, taken virtually nothing of the ‘door tax’, and a lot of the items, alchemical especially, were in Saliss’ claws or elsewhere. So she could argue she’d done very little of this in self-interest, just someone else’s interest.

In fact, Chaldion of Pallass was there in the morning, and it seemed he had decided Pallass could help recompense the losses.

“And it just so happens Pallass is doing this because Saliss of Lights has all the alchemical items he needs?”

Even Halrac had sour grapes with Erin, but the Grand Strategist was upfront as he handed a bag of gold over.

“In a sense, I’m indebted to Miss Solstice. She has done the more good in the name of alchemy—”

“—And Pallass—”

Revi muttered. Chaldion ignored her.

“—Than there would be if everything were auctioned off like the Village of the Dead raid. This is less…profitable, but I will consider this a favor for all the teams inconvenienced. In fact, Miss Solstice, would you care to have a cup of coffee and discuss the issue this morning?”

Erin stuck a tongue out at him. She had been drinking with Wailant last night after talking to most of the Gold-ranks, and she had a full day of activities. Not least going to Invrisil with Grimalkin and Nanette and Mrsha on the hunt for her curse!

“I’d love to, Chaldion, but Halrac’s right. You coulda been here earlier, but you only seem to turn up when it benefits Pallass. Or the Drakes. Not much love for the northern teams?”

The [Strategist] faltered.

“They are historically employed by the Five Families in times of war and occasionally as hostile combatants, Miss Solstice—”

“Yeah, but that cuts both ways, don’t it? Don’t expect me to always get Pallass’ back! Or tail. Being biased isn’t good. Why ask me for coffee? What about my friends? Even poor Keldrass?”

The Drake jumped as Erin pointed him out and tried to shake his head, but Chaldion protested.

“I believe I’m a regular of this inn.”

“Oh yeah? What’s Yvlon’s middle name? What’s Bird’s favorite food?”

“Bird?”

What kind of Bird? See? You only talk to me. You’ve never even said ‘hi’ to Mrsha. Pssh. Fake friends.”

Erin’s bullying of Chaldion left the Grand Strategist speechless. Mrsha held up a frowny-face notecard, but she was slightly delighted by Erin’s new attitude. Chaldion looked around, floundering.

“I think I’m quite sociable, Miss Solstice. I am pressed for time, but I know a number of guests.”

“Not me.”

Saliss raised a claw, and Chaldion glared at his grandson.

“—I would have a drink or conversation with anyone here. Even—Pisces.”

Pisces’ head turned in his seat as Chaldion pointed around, and the [Necromancer] pointed at himself.

“Me?”

“Sure. Suuure.”

Erin snorted, but her ribbing of Chaldion was light. Mainly because he was passing out gold and the adventurers were getting ready for their hunt. Colth had the lead, and Erin had decided not to linger in the inn. She would trust him to succeed—plus, Nerrhavia was getting on her nerves.

 

——

 

So Erin left the inn to the adventurers and business as usual. Similarly, there was one other duo of adventurers who had an appointment with trouble, though. An implacable force, perhaps. A guardian of old ways. An executioner, a judge and arbiter.

Klbkchhezeim the Slayer.

He sat in an office in the Free Hive. Once, it had been the only place with a desk in it, where only he was allowed. It held his work-gear, what records the Antinium needed to write down, and it was a kind of sanctuary.

A…unique place, for he was one of two True Antinium in the entire Free Hive. A sad, lonely journey.

These days, lots of Antinium had seats. There was a reading room, a room of paints, the Painted Antinium’s barracks, and he was no longer alone.

Somehow, Klbkch felt more alone. Despite having met Wrymvr, the Grand Queen again, despite the new Individuals, he felt less connected, less sure, and more tired and old than he ever had been.

Naturally, he blamed the new Antinium for this. They just weren’t as good as the old ones.

When he had been first created at the advent of the Antinium species by the First Queen, there had been a lot of improvements needed. Mistakes, costly ones, entire revolutions in their design.

But they’d been amazing Antinium. Shaped by the First Queen, not carbon-copies of Galuc. As good as Galuc was—the Antinium in Klbkch’s day could have swept Izril, and those weren’t even modern Antinium.

He had, privately, expressed these feelings to the one person besides the Free Queen worthy of his commentary. Well, besides Relc. And maybe Anand, if he were here. And Xrn, obviously, but—

He had talked to Erin. And do you know what she’d done? She’d laughed, patted him on the hand, and told him he was old.

Him. Klbkch! Yes, he was…but the implication was…she had said it like it was a failing.

You’re old, Klbkch! Be nicer to the new Antinium or I’ll get mad. You don’t remember what it was like to be young.

And he had assured her he did and remembered all his forms and his inadequacies and that even with all of them, he was simply holding the Painted Antinium to real standards. And she had called him old. Again.

Right now, Klbkch was mad. He was already irked by the Free Antinium’s new direction, but he had been changing bodies, among the Hivelands, and gone since his control had effectively been revoked. The Free Queen had assured him she had everything in hand.

Now they had a 7th Hive, even if it was more theoretical than practical. They had [Crusaders]. They had lots of Painted Antinium and a new group that had come from Liscor’s ‘Fellowship of the Inn’ as they kept calling themselves.

And guess who had to clean up the entire mess? Not Xrn. Oh, no. Klbkch sat in his office in this new Hive, as he had since the [Crusaders] had started coming back.

He had a cup of water in front of him for hydration and a piece of half-eaten bread since he could digest it. Bread. No butter on top. It was perfectly nutritious…although Klbkch had, for some reason, decided to buy bread instead of the nutritional paste the Antinium ate. The stale crust was there if he was hungry. Which he was not.

Klbkch also had sheets of paper, and he selected another and began to fill it out as the Antinium in front of him fidgeted.

“Designation.”

“Fuck you.”

Designation.

One of the other Antinium nudged the Worker.

“Lord Commander of the Centenium, Greatest Ant alive.”

Klbkch wrote down ‘Crusader 57-8’ on the piece of paper as one of the Workers whispered to him.

“Class.”

“[Crusader]. You blind?”

“Level?”

“Higher than your mother.”

Klbkch paused.

“I do not have a mother.”

“That’s what she said. Last night.”

Crusader 57 paused, and it occurred to him that the insults he’d been learning in Liscor’s army didn’t really work here. The Revalantor sighed.

Level.

“Level 21 [Spitfire Crusader].”

“Any unique Skills or abilities to report? I am going to note ‘verbal insults’ here preemptively.”

Squad 5 nervously waited for Crusader 57 to come up with a new insult. Klbkch listened and did not rise to the numerous personal attacks on his character, body, and non-existent family.

He would have dealt with this situation far differently a few months ago. But instead, Xrn had told him he had to be…gentle with these Workers and Soldiers. While unhelpfully not writing down any details about them whatsoever.

“Squad 5 is in service to the new 7th Hive of the Antinium under Prognugator…Centenium…Queen Xrn. As this is the case, I will not discuss your future within the Free Hive, and you are exempted from any further reports. You are dismissed.”

“Your face is dismissed. And ugly. Too afraid to fight me, Klbkch?”

The Revalantor’s head rose, and Squad 5 pulled Crusader 57 back. Klbkch spoke quietly.

“That would not be a concern if I were inclined to waste the Free Antinium’s resources.”

Crusader 57 just laughed at Klbkch.

“That’s supposed to be scary? You’re weak, Klbkch! Weak! Come over and fight me! You won’t! You’re useless! Let go of me, Crusader 53. I’m going to crap on his desk…

Crusader 57, despite the unpleasant dialogue, was one of the more expeditious such meetings. Klbkch suspected the Worker had seen him execute an Aberration before. If Crusader 57 turned out to become one himself…and the signs were there…well, it wasn’t his problem.

“Next.”

He’d forgotten the last part. But since Squad 5 had run, Klbkch let it slide. The next—duo—to come in made Klbkch’s hands twitch towards his side.

“Goblins are not permitted in the Hive.”

“We are sorry, Revalantor Klbkch. But he is my brother.”

“That Goblin is not your brother.”

“He is. I am here.”

Klbkch stared at Infinitypear and Rasktooth and twitched. Then he decided that since he had 259 more Antinium to go—he was going to let this slide.

“Designation.”

“Infinitypear and Rasktooth.”

Klbkch slowly, and deliberately, wrote only the first name down on the new sheet.

“Class.”

“[Adventurer].”

This time, the quill slowed a bit. This was not the typical [Crusader] group. Adventurer? Klbkch realized Infinitypear was going to mandate a second page of notes and sighed as he dipped his quill in the ink pot—but he had to admit, it was a rare class.

This was more the kind of thing the Free Queen and he had wanted from the start. Well, the [Crusaders] too, but unique classes? He nodded.

“Level?”

“I am Level 13. Rasktooth is Level 4.”

“Hmm. Low-level. I thought you participated in the Meeting of Tribes war. Most of the other Antinium, especially Battalions 1 and 6, leveled far more.”

“That was not an adventure.”

“Unique Skills?”

That meant all of them. Klbkch wrote them down, asking for details, and then glanced at Infinitypear.

“Unique gear?”

“I have a spear Guardsman Relc gave me.”

“Adamantium spear…owned by Spearmaster Lulv.”

Klbkch underlined that a few times and noted Infinitypear’s name down on a separate ledger. Perhaps they should take it from him. Yes, he’d order Infinitypear to turn it over after this interview.

He’d been tempted to make Crusader 53 do the same, but he was a fighting soldier in Xrn’s army. Klbkch drummed his fingers on the table.

“As you are not part of the 7th Hive, and you are technically Painted Antinium, you fall under Pawn’s authority. However, you are a resident of The Wandering Inn—so you are to be classified independently of these two authorities unless you place yourself under the command of any body. The Free Queen or other Hives also being acceptable. Is this clear?”

“Must I do this, Revalantor Klbkch?”

“No.”

“Oh, good. Why am I here, please?”

At least this Worker was polite. Klbkch spoke the same words again, waiting for the blank look or questions.

“Every new Individual must prove its usefulness to the Hive and submit a plan of improvement or jobs. I will cite you Silveran, who has not only leveled in a class at commendable speed, but operates a business which provides other Antinium with jobs and earns a profit, which he remits part of to the Hive. His use to the Hive is commendable and an example—you must submit a proposal now or later to justify your activities. Or else you will be assigned to another group.”

Pawn had lobbied against this, as if this were a democracy—and his Painted Antinium had a lot of leisure, but he was allowed to do that given his command. However—Infinitypear was not Pawn’s. The Worker sat there, and it was Rasktooth who raised a hand.

“Infinitypear must get a job?”

“Yes.”

Oh.

Both Antinium and Goblin looked at each other and nodded. Klbkch wondered if he should just say it like that and then wondered how much time he had wasted with his other explanations. Unfortunately, it was clear Infinitypear might be one of the hard cases.

“I do not know what I can do, Revalantor Klbkch.”

“Then I can assign you to an appropriate role as a fighter or…”

“I do not want to do that, Revalantor Klbkch. Respectfully.”

Klbkch paused in tugging out a list of names. He looked up, and if he could have glared—his mandibles came together.

“You must provide some worth to the Hive. That is my role here. Assigning you a task that will either produce something of value or let you level. Or both.”

“Oh. Can he level instead of work?”

“That…is acceptable. Do you have a proposal?”

Klbkch waited patiently as Rasktooth and Infinitypear whispered. Then they turned to him.

“I want to adventure, Revalantor Klbkch. With Rasktooth. We will go explore many places.”

“Where?”

“Izril? Baleros? Everywhere. The sea and High Passes and…”

The two grew excited at the thought. Klbkch just shook his head. He stabbed the paper in front of him with a quill, hard enough to embed the tip into the wooden desk.

“I am looking for actionable proposals. Not…fantasies. You are combat assets for the Hive, if lower-level than some of your peers.”

“But we are [Adventurers]. We want to adventure.”

Infinitypear was getting stubborn. Xrn had so many rules. Klbkch’s hand was messing up the quill.

Don’t snap at them, Klbkch. Don’t shout at them, Klbkch. Don’t throw anything at them or I’ll blast you with lightning, Klbkch.

When he was an Antinium, everything was in service to the Hives. The Queen! There was no need for this because they were united. Klbkch ground out each word as he looked at Infinitypear.

“You must have a plan of action. Something you want to do and a goal that is clearly definable and within reach.”

“But what if I do not know what I want to do or what will happen? I wish to stay with my brother.”

He is not your brother. You are Antinium.

Klbkch slammed his hands on the table and stood. Rasktooth and Infinitypear rocked backwards in their chairs, and the Antinium outside Klbkch’s office stirred as the door trembled a bit. Klbkch stared at Infinitypear—and another Worker would have turned into a trembling ball by now. But Infinitypear protectively held Rasktooth.

“He is my brother. You are wrong. We are [Adventurers]. I think you do not know what that is, Revalantor Klbkch. Respectfully.”

Klbkch stared down at Infinitypear, and for a second, he was so furious he nearly drew his swords right then and there. For a second. Then—he stared at Infinitypear and Rasktooth, who had a clawed hand on his dagger.

And the spear. The spear Relc had given Infinitypear and the Worker was holding across his chest. Klbkch looked at the duo—and something in his brain seemed to—click.

A duo. One with green skin, the other with bug-shell. Not green scales—but close enough. Klbkch calmed down as the new chemistry in his body put him into an ice-cold, reflexive state. The Silent Queen’s adjustments.

But he was still Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium. He always had been, though the body changed. And when Infinitypear said that…

Slowly, Klbkch sat down. He adjusted his papers, filed most of the finished ones, and picked up the glass of water. He sipped, took a bite of the bread, and then spoke as Infinitypear and Rasktooth watched him.

“You are incorrect, Infinitypear. I am quite familiar with the role of an [Adventurer]. Your ignorance is forgiven, because this knowledge could not possibly be rendered to you.”

Rasktooth poked the Worker’s shoulder and whispered to Infinitypear.

“He rude.”

Klbkch ignored that. He turned to the dirt wall behind him, upon which was tacked a map of Izril. He stared at it—and imagined a place far from Izril. A continent more deadly, and a land with no sun where even light sometimes vanished.

He felt as he had when he spoke to Anand and indulged the feeling rather than put it away. After all—he had time.

“…When I was first created by the First Queen of the Antinium, at the dawn of our species from the wild species we had been, she gave me my name. Klbkchhezeim. I was one of the first Centenium created. Eighth. Two had already fallen, and my role was to be independent. She designed my body to go for weeks alone—I stalked through the areas around the Hives, slaying foes. Hence my name. When new areas opened, I was the first Antinium there. I encountered magic and other creatures and learned how to deal with both.”

Rasktooth and Infinitypear—and the Workers and Soldiers outside Klbkch’s door, which was open a crack—looked at each other. Infinitypear raised a hand timidly.

“You were the eighth Centenium ever made, Revalantor Klbkch? Were Centenium Xrn and Wrymvr before you?”

“Them? Ha. Ha. Hahahahahahahaha.

Klbkch laughed like Relc and Erin did and felt like he was getting the hang of it. He looked over his shoulder.

“No. Xrn was created with the greatest achievements of the First Queen, at the end of the hundred Centenium she ever made. Wrymvr is older, but his eternal regeneration and Xrn’s magic were products of the culmination of her knowledge. He is among the oldest—but the first ten Centenium were made slowly, each one taking an age to be created. More Centenium appeared later as the Hives grew.”

“Oh. So you’re a big brother.”

Rasktooth happily replied. Klbkch…stared at him. The Goblin looked uncertain until Klbkch hesitated.

“That is not how Antinium view such things. But functionally—would that confer some degree of authority over those two?”

“Yep.”

Intriguing.

Klbkch turned around again and decided to remember that. He went on, though, indulging himself in old memories.

“There would be years when I did not see another Antinium—before we expanded. With naught but my blades, I cut down threat after threat. I was one of two Antinium to learn the art of swords and teach it to the others. You see, Antinium learned all these things and adapted, grew. The swords I bear are borne of that knowledge, and they, like my body, were refined by True Antinium techniques.”

“You taught Antinium things?”

True Antinium—of course. I would instruct War Queens and the greatest Antinium how to fight in combat. My role changed. As we delved deeper, grew to know what lay above and beyond, the Antinium Hives grew more powerful.”

“How long ago was this?”

Rasktooth waved a hand because he felt like this was pertinent information. Klbkch hesitated.

“We did not count time in the Hives in the same way, having no days or nights to mark it. By your standards, by estimations…the Creler Wars were six thousand years ago. The Hives had already been expanding, powerful by then. But we unearthed them—or rather, they were unleashed upon us. I remember that. So we are older still.”

Rasktooth’s mouth fell open, and he pointed at Infinitypear. You never said! But Infinitypear had not known.

“You’re really old, then?”

The Worker tried. Klbkch turned his head.

“The body has changed. I have not. My blades have changed. I have not. I remember different eras. I taught Mirrex the Bard the art of swordsmanship when he was made. I was old, then. I have seen the death of the First Queen. I was at the dawn of the Antinium.”

The Goblin and Antinium sat there, entranced, as Klbkch continued. He touched the swords at his sides.

“Adventuring is lonely. It is a journey into the unknown, knowing you might not come back. There is a joy to it, such as finding a species that bears no hostility to you. I once delved into the waters surrounding Rhir and nearly drowned. I sank into a nest where…”

Where the deep waters seemed to glow with rays of light that reached down even here. He was drowning, sinking—but it was a beautiful way to die.

It would take him long, for neither the pressure nor the lack of air could kill him so fast. Klbkchhezeim sank past a strand of…some great plant, so huge that it could shelter hundreds of Antinium upon one broad blade. And underneath, trapped in some bubble of air, was a hanging ecosystem of its own.

A kind of land under the plant’s broad aegis. He could not reach it—and the Centenium saw broad bulbs he thought to be infection or eggs upon the plant. Until he realized they were giant…beings with shells. They poked their heads out, and he felt a mind of such complexity only the First Queen could match them.

Then—his fall into the depths slowed, and the rays of light twisted as the curious beings down there sensed his drowning. And they lifted him up—and he encountered the first ally of Antinium.

 

——

 

“They were the ones who taught the Antinium to master their control of minds and form the Unitasis Network.”

Klbkch turned his head and saw the two [Adventurers] staring at him—and a crowd of Workers and Soldiers peeking through the door. They fled when he stared at them.

“What happened to them?”

Rasktooth’s voice was quiet, awed.

“They fled the Crelers when they first emerged. A peaceful people. No doubt as strange to the rest of the world as we are to them. That is what it means to be an adventurer. That was the lesson I learned as well—to walk with blade in hand, but to look into the mysteries I found. Wisdom and blade. Not everything must die. Nor is what is strange a threat.”

He missed those days, he remembered. When it was simpler. When the First Queen was alive, and he…he wondered what the rest of the world looked like.

When he first saw the sky—how long ago was that? When the First Queen herself stood upon the land and met the one who called himself a ‘Demon’ of Rhir.

An age passed, and he had no eyes to blink. So he saw it all. Then Klbkch looked at Infinitypear and Rasktooth.

[Adventurers].

“I want to see that.”

Infinitypear stared at the images that Klbkch had conjured. Rasktooth was nodding. The little Worker patted his knees excitedly as he rocked in his chair.

“We can go in the water. I will learn to hold my breath or swim. But it is far. And we cannot buy a hat. And we have to have a job.”

His antennae drooped, and Klbkch looked at him. Slowly, the Revalantor sat back down.

“Indeed. You have no body made by the First Queen. The magic of Drakes and other people is some small replacement, but only Relics would match the might of Centenium. Nor do you have my levels. I was Level 40 in one class and decently strong in another. And that, despite the inefficiency, places me above Named-ranks of this era with my body of old. For my body was a work of art on its own.”

The Worker and Cave Goblin looked at Klbkch. It sounded like he was telling them how hopeless their dream was…but something was different from his brusqueness of earlier.

“You would have to begin from the first point. Find artifacts, level. Learn the lessons you do not know. You hold that spear without mastery, Infinitypear. And Rasktooth cannot walk.”

“I can carry him.”

Klbkch was writing. His pen gently scritched on the parchment.

“Of course you can try. But even I did not always go alone. In these days, adventuring seldom comes with the class. Yet—they too know some of it. Adventurers often operate in teams of more than two. And only one Antinium and one Goblin have ever become adventurers. Numbtongue’s rank is more of a formality, so I exclude him.”

Rasktooth exchanged a quick glance with Infinitypear. Klkbch kept writing, and now he was doing sums.

“It is not inexpensive to become an adventurer. Their initial startup is compounded by the cost of healing, transport. To the Hive, they are a risky proposal which often loses money. Which ends in death. Knowing that—would you two still pursue that class?”

“Yes.”

“Yah.”

“I changed my answer. Yah. Yah.”

The Goblin and Antinium smiled at each other. Klbkch looked up reprovingly, and they stopped, but then he nodded. He finished writing.

“Very well.”

Hmm? They looked at him blankly. He said it as if something were decided. Klbkch lifted the piece of parchment up.

“I will consider that a plan of action. The complications abound—but if Guildmistress Tekshia accepts your position as Bronze-rank adventurers, the Hive will allocate a budget to your team. Miss Solstice will no doubt have thoughts. If you manage to party with other adventurers or complete requests or clear areas, monetary rewards and assistance from the Hive may be permitted.”

He showed them the piece of paper, and Infinitypear and Rasktooth saw that Klbkch had written in the Goblin’s name and levels below Infinitypear’s. They looked at each other.

“Bronze-rank adventurers?”

Klbkch had no eyebrows, so he raised one antennae instead.

“That is what you are intending, isn’t it?”

The duo sat there, and suddenly, it all made sense. But could they do that? Were they allowed?

Klbkch didn’t know. They might be hunted the moment they left Liscor—but he had been hunted too. If they wanted it…

Rasktooth grinned first, a mouthful of teeth, then Infinitypear lifted his mandibles. Klbkch did not smile, but he nodded.

“It seems all is in order. Next. Ah—wait, one more thing.”

He halted the pair as they rose. The two looked back warily, and Klbkch lifted another piece of paper and read from the notes Pawn and Xrn had given him.

“Before you go, ‘have I offered you a helpful and useful service today? Did I at any time make you feel uncomfortable or afraid?’”

The Goblin and Antinium traded glances. Rasktooth answered for Infinitypear.

“You scary.”

Klbkch filled in the form and noted how most of the answers seemed to congregate on one side of the little chart. He steepled his hands.

“I see. Dismissed. Next!

The data pointed one way, and Klbkch calmly ignored it. It was just data. He felt more content after speaking with the duo, though. And life was not eternally hard.

Relc was waiting for him after this, and the two had agreed to visit an Adventure Room, whatever that was, if Zevara didn’t need them on-duty at all times. Besides…Klbkch saw the door open, and he perked up.

“Ah. You.”

He knew the timid Antinium who froze as he saw Klbkch, but the Revalantor motioned him into a chair, even pulled it out for him.

“Would you like a glass of water? Sustenance?”

He had been waiting for this Individual for the last four days. The nervous figure shivered—but Klbkch just sat back down eagerly.

“I have had eighty-two complaints about you. And I note your position is highly contentious within the Free Hive. I understand your job makes other Workers and Soldiers upset. Let us discuss a budget…Furfur.

He smiled as the Worker perked up a bit. Klbkch had broad discretionary powers that Xrn and Pawn had given him. He intended to use them.

Purely for the betterment of the Hive, of course.

 

——

 

The Wandering Inn rose for a new day with more alacrity than before. It wasn’t that things were happening. Things were always happening.

But there was a sharpness in the air that had Ishkr polishing the bar tops by the time Liska raced in. The Gnoll clutched at her side.

“I…I ran here. You were still putting on your shoes!”

“Too slow.”

Ishkr looked at his younger sister, and her eyes narrowed.

“Oh, are we doing this? You want to do this, Ishkr?”

“I don’t know what ‘this’ is. I’m just doing my job.”

“I’ll do it alright. I’m on to you.”

Ishkr rolled his eyes, but Liska glowered—until Ishkr nodded at the door.

“Get ready for the Haven’s guests.”

“I know, I know.”

She stomped off since she could already sense Colth and the others waiting. However, Ishkr called out to her.

“If you see Barnethei—the other [Innkeeper]? Colorful coat, sometimes a hat? Don’t let him through.”

She turned, surprised by the injunction.

“Why?”

Ishkr grimaced.

“He’s troublesome. Hopefully he just stays away this time.”

That was background, of course. By the time Lyonette came downstairs, the two siblings were already moving around Goblins and Antinium showing up to work. Peggy was dragging Inkpaper out of Erin’s new, and tiny, library.

Gothica was being evicted from her cellar hideout by an Antinium called Rosencrantz. And yes…there was no Guildenstern. No one had volunteered to make it a duo act.

It was a good morning for most—even if everyone seemed to be waiting for Erin Solstice to show up. She had pulled big, big moves off last night, and the Thronebearers looked like they had all been sucker-punched. Even the inn’s family, who felt they should have known better…

Well, Mrsha had gone back to her old ways and put on a huge fake mustache, and she sat at the breakfast table with her paws folded. Mrsha the Godfather…the Godmother? Mrsha the Bad Guy sat there until Bird took her mustache.

“That belongs to Silverstache. Shame on you.”

Yet Erin did not immediately appear. Even as Grimalkin showed up and nodded to Nanette, who was feeding Nerry, the Sariant Lamb namesake glanced up and frowned with her cute little face.

She wondered what Erin was dreaming about when she’d peeked into the [Innkeeper]’s room. It sounded like a bad dream.

 

——

 

A hand patted Erin Solstice on the head. A beaming face smiled at her, and her mask was simply her face, painted with so many delicate layers of color that moved and shifted with affection, like a piece of living art.

“Well done, my little [Innkeeper]. My tyrant-to-be.”

Erin Solstice took a swing, and Nerrhavia glided back. She was a ghost, applauding Erin lightly, swinging forwards to seize her hands in an all-too-real grip.

Stop showing up in my dreams!

“Make me.”

She was taunting Erin. Why? This wasn’t Nerrhavia. At least—well, it was. She annoyed Queen Merindue to no end, and she was petty and spiteful, but why—

Nerrhavia!

 

——

 

Erin punched forwards, out of her bed, and landed in a tangle of flailing limbs and sheets. She rolled around—then realized she was tangled up.

“Uh.”

“Miss Solstice? Everything alright? Can I come in?”

“I’m decent! Just—can you get me out of this?”

Normen the [Knight] opened the door to find Erin being slowly strangled by her sheets. The [Innkeeper] was glaring as the Brother hesitated. But all Erin said was—

“Bad dreams. Hey, can you hand me that little wicker bird on the dresser? Oh, and my knife. Is Grimalkin below?”

“Yes, Miss Solstice.”

“Good! I’m taking him and Tessa. I’ll be back late. Mrsha can come with Nanette if they want.”

Today…was a day of reckoning. Erin stared at the ceiling, like a cloth sausage, as Normen untangled the sheets.

 

——

 

“Deni.”

“Colth, Eld. Morning.”

“Deni.”

He ignored her until Mihaela put him into a headlock. The Violinist broke free and snapped.

This is not the time, Mihaela.

“Well, say hello to me. Are you still mad about that [Innkeeper]’s trick?”

Mihaela had heard everything. Not that she’d seen the fun—she had been auditing Invrisil’s Runner’s Guild—and Celum’s. She’d heard some bad practices had cropped up. Like the Wind Runner getting her legs crushed by hostile runners?

Like Ryoka or not, a Runner’s Guild had to have principles. And Mihaela did actually do her job. Garia Strongheart had been there to see her gently dispense wisdom.

Mihaela dispensing wisdom was kicking a hole through the [Receptionist]’s counter and asking where the old Guildmaster lived. Then she tested all the City Runners who thought they were Couriers.

However, she was sorry to have missed the Albez dig, if for no other reason than she could have halted the thefts. In truth, Mihaela was on Deni’s side.

But what an odd move from Erin Solstice. No one had described her being quite that underhanded. Even Larra seemed taken aback.

Deniusth was not happy. Nor were most of the adventurers, but Deni was the one to watch. He was—impulsive.

“You’re going to take on Facestealer? Let me know when. I’ll warm up—and I need to borrow Larra’s healing beds if I’m going to move about.”

Mihaela coughed. She’d take a double-dose of her tonic. Colth nodded, and Eldertuin looked around.

“I’ll find Valley. Knowing her, she’s forgotten—oh, wait, there she is.”

Valeterisa emerged from her suite, practically being pushed out the door by the young [Mage], Montressa, who bowed, flustered, to the group of friends. Even Deni was astonished by a dressed and somewhat cognizant Valeterisa.

“That girl is good for Valeterisa. Who would have known? I would have thought any of her apprentices would starve to death when Valley locked them in a broom closet and forgot.”

“Bad joke, Deni.”

His glower returned. The Violinist began walking down the hallway, and he answered Mihaela curtly.

“I’m going to kill this ‘Face Stealer’ or whatever it is since Colth is calling in a favor. Why not? If I get a cut of whatever loot we find from this Stalker-corpse—well, I’ll do it for gold because I remember my debts. I’ll even be polite to Erin Solstice. For now.”

Mihaela glanced at Colth. He was looking more serious today than ever, which made her feel like stretching and getting ready. Colth didn’t take things lightly. But Deni’s words were too ominous to let go.

“Deni—she played like a Reinhart, it’s true, but you did murder a few adventurers.”

Thieves. She let them go, and now she’s trying to pay us back with our own treasure!”

“I know. I’m just saying, don’t fight with her. She’s backed by two Named-ranks on her own, and this isn’t the point. The New Lands are.”

The Violinist glared at Mihaela.

“Orchestra won’t forget this. Nor will any of the teams. Larra wanted to make peace? Well, Erin Solstice has earned a grudge, and I—”

His rant was cut short as Colth turned and, unexpectedly, grabbed Deni’s arm. His sword-arm, his playing arm.

“Deni, do me another favor. I have at least two. Erin? The inn? Drop it.”

“Let go of me, Colth.”

Deni jerked away as his team emerged from their rooms. Mihaela saw Colth’s grip tighten, and Deni stiffened in surprise. Colth leaned over, and his usual friendly demeanor and obsequious attitude…

Drop. It. We have a job to do.”

He let go, and a long silence followed as Mihaela eyed Colth. That was—Deni yanked himself away and stared at Colth along with everyone else. Valeterisa looked up and murmured.

“Now Colth is bullying Deni. How the times have changed.”

Strange things. Mihaela excused herself and walked off to prepare as the adventurers began to head to The Wandering Inn. She wondered what was up with Colth. Then again—he was younger, he was at the prime of his adventuring, and he might just like Erin Solstice. Or the Horns.

Or maybe he had a goal that was different from the others. They were all adults. They had their problems. Mihaela sighed as she began to stretch. If there was one thing that united them—it was a purpose.

Monsters died.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice was, perhaps tactfully, not at the inn by the time the adventurers began to muster up. Breakfast was laid out, and the Horns were ready—although they were not the principal actors here.

Ylawes Byres was just grateful for a nice bed and wash after a few days of camping at Albez. Of course, Orchestra had actually had a shower in their magical accommodations, but he had been camping.

Once more, though—Ylawes Byres was not at the center of this adventure. He accepted it this time with better grace. He hadn’t been chosen.

Falene was on a shortlist, and Dawil had been—until Colth learned his axe was broken. Ylawes had not been on any list, anywhere.

The Horns were included, all four of them, even if Ksmvr and Yvlon would be getting supporting roles at best, and Pisces and Ceria were only there to fuel spells. Colth was not apologetic about any of it.

“I want top Gold-rankers only in our specialist slots. Every [Rogue] we can get and some lineholders—but the rest will just clutter our attempts. No Silver-ranks. No gawkers at the pits, no one goes down. This is a Named-rank mission, and if anyone fouls us up, I’ll call the Adventurer’s Guild down on their heads, got it?”

The Ultimate Supporter was in his element, and he had maps and fallbacks. Ylawes listened for a while and then went over to find Vuliel Drae and Nailren’s team.

“Good morning, you all. Are you staying here?”

Insill waved at him, and the Silver-rankers smiled but were subdued.

“Well, no one’s entering the dungeon. We thought we’d rest a bit—not that we did much at Albez. Hunt Shield Spiders, maybe.”

“There’s a job working for Menolit’s adventuring group. Just saving idiots who run into Hollowstone Deceivers.”

Nailren was debating it, and Ylawes looked at them. Now that the chance for treasure was done, they were back to being Silver-ranks. Straining to get to the next level, for their big break.

He…knew how they felt. Ylawes pulled up a chair as Falene walked away from the planning.

“I am not needed, Ylawes. Hello, Anith, Nailren, everyone.”

She looked annoyed as Dawil sat with more equanimity than the others.

“Can’t fault Colth, Falene. I guess we’re staying to see if they pull it off—then to the north?”

“House Byres, Dwarfhalls Rest—then we’ll see about these new lands.”

Nailren glanced up as Ylawes agreed.

“You are going too, Captain Ylawes?”

“After a visit to my home. And the new Dwarven settlement.”

“I forgot Erin’s door makes it so easy…hrr. Buying some good gear there might make the difference. Maybe I should visit.”

“Dwarfsteel? We could use our haul from the Village of the Dead raid and gear us up, Anith.”

Dasha nodded. It was a good compromise, Ylawes knew. If you couldn’t afford enchanted gear, Dwarfsteel or other high-quality weapons were excellent stopgaps. He had been hoping they could reinforce his armor, himself.

“What if we went with you to Dwarfhall’s Rest, Captain Ylawes? If you’re going.”

“If you’d like, I could invite you to House Byres too. We welcome guests.”

The Silver-ranks perked up at this. Ylawes thought it would be a nice break from all the drama he’d been engulfed in. They were tentatively making plans, but all eyes were on Colth and his crew. They wouldn’t be able to see what happened when Colth left, but Ylawes Byres felt a pang.

It’s really not a place for the Silver Swords, is it? He had felt like they were the premier Gold-rank team taking on challenges no one else would, even if that were arrogance. Now? He felt like a Bronze-ranker again. But perhaps that was fine. After what he’d seen at Albez, Ylawes would frankly admit that he had no desire to team up with Deniusth or even most of the northern teams, even if Eldertuin hadn’t been as culpable as the others.

This was their battle.

So where was his?

 

——

 

Erin Solstice walked along Invrisil, humming. She had a knife at her belt, two acid jars in her bag of holding, and she’d taken a backup wand too. Mrsha swaggered along next to her with her kilt—red today—and her own wand in her holster.

Nanette had a wand too, but she refused to brandish it. She was counting her allowance that Lyonette had given her.

Are you sure it’s alright to give me so many coins?

She had been dismayed by the amount of money, but Lyonette had told her to buy as many books as she wanted—for the inn would use them too! The spoiling of Nanette had begun—but Erin had a task before going to the bookshop again.

The three dangerous women of various ages…were not what was clearing some of the pedestrians in front of them. Mrsha’s swagger actually decreased her walking speed, so she kept having Grimalkin nearly walk into her.

“Mrsha, please walk faster.”

The Sinew Magus didn’t look as ‘tough’, but he was surveying the street and Erin’s moving bird-charm. The little Gnoll glanced up and decided he could swagger for both.

Watching Grimalkin walk was an exercise in anatomy. It always was. He made even the biggest people look twice, and the Sinew Magus wasn’t even the most dangerous person in the group.

Tessa, fully visible, had both hands on her daggers. The scarred Drake was so menacing that half the criminals who saw her decided today was a day of rest. A peaceful holiday.

“Tessa, you don’t have to glare and hold your daggers.”

The Named-rank replied out of the corner of her mouth.

“This is my first big job. You told me there might be danger.”

“Yeah, but—I don’t actually know how much. Don’t hold the daggers, please?”

“Mm.”

Shriekblade let go of her daggers, but she stared so hard at a little baby in a stroller the baby stopped crying and played dead. They were on the hunt for Nerrhavia’s curse upon Erin.

…However, once more, Erin felt like they were going in circles. She cursed as they came to a street, and everyone looked at the little wicker bird tugging left.

“Hey. This is like—a nearly complete circle.”

“One more left and it will be. Perhaps we should speed up?”

The swagger-speed intensified, and Erin hurried down the street…only for the frantically-tugging bird to suddenly go still.

Damn.

Mrsha nodded at the bad language. Erin was too annoyed to not curse.

“This is just like last time! Is it someone running away from us?”

“I don’t think so, Miss Solstice. Or else the bird would tell us to keep going. I think something is vanishing. May I see the charm?”

Nanette peered at the little bird as Grimalkin and Tessa looked around. The [Rogue] actually leapt into the crowd, vanishing, and came back to report.

“I didn’t sense anyone. They’re either higher-level than me or it’s something else.”

“I think…we’re falling behind whatever it is. Or we’re being deliberately kept away.”

Erin Solstice growled.

“Sounds about right.”

“Who are we up against, Miss Solstice?”

Grimalkin lifted a claw as she hesitated.

“If it is secret, don’t mind me. But it might be helpful to know what we are trying to accomplish.”

He was being—careful. Polite. Erin sighed.

“Grimalkin, of all the questions I think it’d be bad to answer—this is one of them. Let’s keep going.”

The bird would reactivate soon, if yesterday and today were any indications. Grimalkin nodded, and they walked on. Mrsha pointed at a stall selling roasted chestnuts and tugged Nanette over. Erin stopped so they could buy some.

“Get some for Tessa! So…not going to ask, Grimalkin?”

She looked at him. The Sinew Magus was so loudly not asking anything she could hear it. But the Drake coughed.

“I—am trying to be a good friend of the inn, Erin. Of yours. It occurs to me that pressing you at every opportunity has been unwise and unkind.”

“Sometimes I deserve it. You didn’t even talk about me doing the Albez thing.”

He shrugged fractionally.

“Frankly—that was the kind of thing I would have advocated for. Because you did it…you had to have good reasons.”

He gave Erin a long look, and she appreciated that he got it. Erin scuffed at the ground.

“Yeah. No excuses. I did it because I thought I should. It definitely wasn’t nice.”

She waited, but the Sinew Magus just nodded.

“What else is there to say? I have noted your <Quests>. I imagine everyone has asked you about that. I—I do respect your privacy, Erin. I have theories, of course, but I will not attempt to force you to answer them.”

He seemed awkward, and the [Innkeeper] glanced up at him as Tessa tapped a young woman with a crystal hand on the shoulder. Well, she didn’t look like she had a crystal hand—or that she was right behind Erin until Tessa grabbed her.

“Get lost. Try it again and you bleed out.”

Erin and Grimalkin turned as someone fled. The [Innkeeper] looked up at Grimalkin and smiled faintly.

“Lay it on me.”

The Sinew Magus hesitated. He spoke as he watched Mrsha pointing at the chestnuts she wanted.

“—These are not questions, but my line of thinking. When I heard you posted a <Mythical Quest>, after I ascertained the phenomenon and the legitimacy, of course, I had a few thoughts. I won’t ask how you know how to post it. Or why it mirrors established <Contract> Skills and rare Skills of that nature. However—I considered the psychology.”

Tessa was already lost, so she decided to ignore Grimalkin, but Erin listened as the Magus lifted a few claws.

“You, Erin Solstice, do not act without foresight. Some might think that was simply a way to show off or—thoughtless. I do not. Why post a <Quest> to find the City of Stars? And why post a secondary quest to find the Crossroads of Izril? The two are certainly related. But it must be that this will be a net boon to all.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

The Sinew Magus watched her out of the corner of his eyes.

“Yes. But my theory was this. If we must find these two places for whatever they bring—why did Chaldion not bring this up to me? Or, to my knowledge, the Assembly of Crafts? They are disturbed about the Meeting of Tribes, the new lands, Khelt—but I do not hear of any Walled City cooperative actions aside from securing the new lands.”

“Huh. Are you sure you can tell me that?”

Grimalkin shrugged and grunted.

“This is not a secret. And you yourself, Erin, are pushing adventurers and people to the new lands. As if much of what we need to find is there. However, I do not hear of Grand Strategist Chaldion pressing Fissival for access to their Grand Librarium. I do not hear Luciva convening me or any other Drakes to form an inquiry group.”

“What’d they inquire about?”

Mrsha and Nanette came back and shared the hot food around. Grimalkin accepted a chestnut but didn’t eat. He glanced at Erin’s blank expression.

“Why, the legitimacy of these crossroads ever existing, of course. The City of Stars does have them agitated—but Wall Lord Dragial has been looking into that for decades, and whatever he found is likely collated. But the Crossroads of Izril? Erin. I know you. I believe in the <Quests>. But if I did not, I would first verify it even existed. That Chaldion, the leaders of the Walled Cities have not? That implies they know it exists. That the Wall Lords and Ladies are entirely aware of where or what it was—and how it was lost. Perhaps, that the access to this place was deliberately lost—or at least that records exist of why they are no longer used.”

This was the theory he had come up with. An exercise in logical reasoning. Grimalkin could not press Chaldion on it, but he saw Erin Solstice’s blank expression change.

She…smiled. A huge, beaming smile, and he knew she let him read her expression. But Erin Solstice’s eyes twinkled as she shrugged.

“I dunno about all that. But what does that mean?”

Grimalkin surprised her with a smile of his own.

“In that case—the question is not whether these Crossroads exist—it is how they are accessed. And if the Walled Cities are focusing on the new lands, it may be that they are hoping to find a route in. That answers some of my questions, Miss Solstice.”

“I heard it’s easier than that—there are ways even now. But it’ll be dangerous. What would you do then?”

Grimalkin pondered the question as Erin checked her bird, and they resumed walking.

“Form an appropriate group.”

“With Pallass?”

“No.”

This time, Erin did turn her head, and Grimalkin exhaled.

“No…I can fund a group and source—allies. Like-minded individuals. But I do not think Pallass is—appropriate. I’ll have to see how much I can afford to spend. If Chaldion requests my aid, that is one thing. But if this were a Drake matter, why would you post this as an open quest and not the personal quests I know you can give? What will we find? Will it break the Walled Cities or…is it the search that matters?”

He looked at her, and Erin spoke ahead of his thoughts.

“Are you leaving Pallass?”

The Sinew Magus turned his head. Ask a question, get a question—he took a deep breath and looked around Invrisil, a good city, a fine city—but a foreign one to him. Yet he thought of Pallass, and the words came deep from within his chest.

“…I have been a loyal citizen of Pallass all my days. Fought for it and supported it as best I could. Until now—I began to have questions. It was not until I saw him there, General Sserys, when I realized I was no son of the walls. Yet it is my city. And yet—even if I thought it best to take a remove, my fortunes and influence are bound up in Pallass. I am a magus alone without it, and I did not realize that until recently. Besides, where would I go? Fissival?

They both laughed at that. Yet Grimalkin felt raw—and he also felt relieved. His conclusion was not the same as Valeterisa’s. There was a chance—but not under the Cyclops alone.

He was not Pallass. But did he remember that? Did the city? Erin glanced at Grimalkin, then sighed as she stared ahead and came to a stop.

“Maybe what you need, Grimalkin, isn’t to leave. Maybe you just need a different kind of ally.”

“Such as?”

He looked at her until he realized Erin wasn’t staring at Grimalkin at all. The [Innkeeper] rolled her eyes. Then, and only then, Grimalkin felt a pressure in the air. A weight on his shoulders. His head rose, and Mrsha dropped her bag of chestnuts.

Oh. Oh! It’s you?

She made fists with her paws and glared down the street. The crowds of citizens had thinned out—as if they couldn’t stand in this particular area. Grimalkin’s head turned—and one person flanked by her own escort stood there.

Chest puffed out, looking down at Mrsha and her friends. All the arrogance in the world in those glittering eyes.

Oh? Oho. Are you approaching me? Mrsha spread her paws and slapped her chest. She stared down the other figure walking their way—and the air began to get really heavy. Mrsha felt her arms and legs grow heavy.

Are you approaching—wait a second, she’s sort of scary.

Mrsha backed up, and Nanette was already behind Erin. The two girls stared as the blonde woman stalked forwards, wearing a bright tracksuit. And showing off a lot of muscle.

Erin, Tessa, and Grimalkin held their ground. Erin felt the other aura press at her—overpowering, inflated.

Pure ego. She pushed it back, but the weight of it made Grimalkin shift. It was vanity, it was self-confidence and assurance—

It was Pryde.

She walked like she was the center of the world—and she was certainly the center of attention on the street. House Ulva’s guard stood behind her, showing off some impressive biceps. Pryde herself was just like Erin remembered.

Bobcut hair, blonde, and imperious as could be. Unlike Bethal or Wuvren or Magnolia herself, Pryde did not act like a [Lady]. But she was one, a different kind.

“There you are.”

ゴゴゴゴ. It was like a ‘dun-dun-dun’ sound in the air, the beating of blood in your ears.

The [Lady] approached as Grimalkin blinked at her. Pryde came to a halt as she glanced at Tessa, then stared down at Erin.

“The [Innkeeper] and Magus Grimalkin. I’ve been searching for you two. My. What trouble you cause. Erin Solstice.”

“Hey, Lady Pryde. What’s up with the aura? You’re scaring Nanette and Mrsha.”

Erin was forcing the [Lady]’s aura back around her, and Pryde raised her brows.

“This? My apologies. I barely notice it. Magus—I see you’ve failed to improve since the last time we met. I, on the other hand, have taken your lessons to heart. You have my thanks.”

She indicated her physique, and Erin had to admit—Pryde had gained a lot of muscle since the last time she’d come to the inn. It wasn’t as pronounced as Grimalkin’s, but it was definitely there.

Mrsha stared up at the Lady of House Ulva. This was the woman who kept competing with Grimalkin? This was what happened if you lifted those smelly weights all day?

No wonder Normen and Alcaz and Numbtongue liked that place so much. She should go there with Visma more often.

Pryde stepped forwards, and Mrsha waited for Grimalkin to attack back. Flex on her! Throw her into a building! Use your muscle power!

But the Sinew Magus seemed—taken aback. He blinked at Lady Pryde.

“Lady Pryde. You look—what an incredible display of physical conditioning. Over a few months? You must have added a third to your weight, and are your muscles adding to your aura? It feels sharper. Your training records—I have to thank you. My initiatives would have had no ground without your help.”

He held out a claw, and Pryde’s superior expression—changed to one of dismay. But she rallied and accepted his claw. She squeezed, and the Sinew Magus grunted.

“What grip strength.”

“Impressed?”

“Yes, very! What do you do to work out your hands? Squeezing balls of clay or sand was what I suggested, but this is commendable.

Again, Erin saw Pryde flounder. The [Lady]’s face went slack for a second, and she stared at Grimalkin. Nanette covered a giggle and hid behind Erin as the Sinew Magus admired Pryde’s…sinews.

“Well. It seems I have yet to overtake the strongest [Mage] in Pallass. I do—use a magicore ball to squeeze. I managed to actually tear the leather ones.”

Magicore. Genius. You know, the Yoldenites infuse their helmets with magicore, giving it that amazing durability to blows—”

The [Lady] saw the Drake’s eyes light up, and he fished out a notepad at once. She looked over, and her escort approached, seeming more wary of Tessa and Grimalkin than anyone else. Erin Solstice beamed as Pryde turned her haughty glare on her.

“Erin Solstice. You’ve been causing trouble. I commend you on the style of it, though. Your chess tournament…done well.”

She nodded, and Erin realized that Pryde had doubtless watched it. The [Lady] was not someone Erin historically liked—for her attitude or her actions—but the [Innkeeper] was warming to her faster than a kettle on the stove.

Especially because Pryde kept glancing at Grimalkin as he wrote.

“Your House Ulva statistics are exceptional, Lady Pryde.”

“Yes! We passed your Pallassian elites more often than not.”

“Of course. The competition was fierce—and rewarding.”

“It—was. A battle House Ulva won.

“Absolutely, and it has provoked the Walled Cities to continue matching your own prowess. Are these your finest…? Of course, I recognize that amazing pectoral display. Is this the record-holder for the bench-press? I would be honored, Lady Pryde, if you would come to Pallass and give a lecture to my students and [Soldiers].”

“Lecture…?”

She had clearly been expecting this encounter to go another way. Erin looked at Grimalkin with delight—then Pryde with actual sympathy. She coughed, and Grimalkin blinked at her.

“Maybe later, Grimalkin? But it’s great you know each other.”

Grimalkin started. He looked at Pryde, then seemed to recall she was not just a weight-lifter, but a [Lady] of the North. He stiffened—then blushed.

“Of course. I—was simply so used to our correspondence and the ongoing competition that I—Lady Pryde of House Ulva. My thanks as Sinew Magus of Pallass.”

He coughed, and Pryde rallied so fast that Erin Solstice was impressed despite herself. Her chin came up, and she folded her arms.

“Thanks, Sinew Magus? Odd words for someone who pioneered your theory of physical fitness. I would imagine shame at failing to improve would be more appropriate.”

Then, and only then, Grimalkin seemed to realize what she was implying. He drew himself up slowly and glanced at her—and her impressive guards. But they were eying him askance because for all Erin now felt like she was in a room with a bunch of bodybuilders, the Drake had them all beat.

“Shame…? I have yet to see my own efforts passed, Lady Pryde. Your actions and efforts are commendable. Give it a year or two, and we’ll see if you can continue your regimens.”

“My growth is extraordinary and won’t cease. You, on the other hand, Magus, have barely recovered from your admittedly exemplary battle with the Wyverns.”

“I thank you for noticing, Lady Pryde. And your notes to that effect were well taken. I note my recovery was extraordinarily fast—and as I have stated, more muscle would not be advantageous. Your escort looks incredibly fit. Can they use all their muscles in battle? Perhaps that would be wise before attempting to reach my stature.”

Mrsha stared between Pryde and Grimalkin as the two finally began to square off. She tried to flex her own chest and arms and pulled her back. Erin? Erin looked at Pryde, Grimalkin, and thought she sensed a teensy, tiny bit of regret as Pryde sneered at him. So the [Innkeeper] reached out—and grabbed their arms.

“Great! You two know each other. Lady Pryde, Grimalkin, this is Nanette, Mrsha, and Tessa. We’re going shopping and hunting for something. Want to come with?”

Lady Pryde Ulva recoiled as Grimalkin looked at her. The [Lady]’s offended look grew.

Me?

“Well, if you want to talk to Grimalkin—why not? I’m sure you have lots to discuss. And you probably know Invrisil.”

“I do—I suppose I have time. I was intending to visit Pallass anyways. Very well. Who is…ah, the white Gnoll child. And this young woman?”

Pryde noticed Nanette, Tessa, and Mrsha, and somehow, in between accepting a card from Mrsha and letting Nanette shake her hand—she looked around.

“Wait. Where are we going?”

“Uh—hunting for a curse. You do know where we are, right?”

“Oh, of course. I know where all the shops are. We—what was that?”

Lady Pryde blinked at Erin and the bird on her finger. Then she was motioning her escort to fan out, and Magus Grimalkin, prompted by Nanette, held up the bag of chestnuts.

“A healthy snack, Lady Pryde? Do you have a dietary regime your group uses?”

He offered her a chestnut. The [Lady] stared at it, then accepted it and coughed.

“I actually do. A kind of blended drink. Wuvren, Lady Wuvren, enjoys them, so I concocted my own of healthy, plant-based foods and some other ingredients—it is a huge hit in House Ulva. Many different recipes, and I am discussing selling it in restaurants or some other method. You, bring out one of the Ulva Shakes for Magus Grimalkin and company.”

One of her escort dashed back to her carriage and a cooling box, and Erin Solstice turned her head in horror.

No. Not the health smoothies! I didn’t do it! I deliberately never even mentioned them! I didn’t—

She flung up her arms, but it was too late. Ryoka was right! Ryoka was—

 

——

 

It was a search for a moving target. In Invrisil and also below.

Snatcher was roaming the dungeon, angry, angry, angry. It was thinking of how to kill them.

The building with sanctuary in it.

The adventurer. The [Necromancers]. They all had to die. But when? How?

By night, through the earth? With armies in tow? Snatcher—it had been a long time since it had to think like this. It was all one task now.

Guard Mother. Guard Mother…and it had not seen her for a long time. That was what everyone here did.

But they…they would die. It would not wait here any longer, a guardian to Mother.

How to get them, though? They were dangerous—they had Mershi’s Blade on their side.

Yet they hurt it little. Only hide. They were quick—adventurers were always quick.

If Skinner were here, or Stalker, it would be easier. The irony that Snatcher had killed Stalker…did not really occur to it.

Skinner could have led an army of armies. That was his role. But he had shrunk with age, with no more bodies but the dead. Hidden in the crypt after Stalker died.

Some other way, then. Snatcher just had to be clever. Lure them into a trap? Drag something into a trap, yes. But how? Maybe…maybe…

Maybe a tool. Yes, there were tools here, hidden behind all the traps. A lovely tool.

While it thought, it roamed. With the heads on sticks, poking around corners.

Seeing for it. Monsters never saw it. Even the other beings only saw those staring heads—and they fled.

Insects, terrified spiders, Children—all ran if they noticed the staring, rotted heads. Snatcher only took a few, if it was bored.

It had all of them in its collection. Hundreds of one species, sometimes. It craved more.

The blue one. The woman of thread. Another half-Elf, a Dwarf…the white Gnoll…

It was creeping through corridors where the Raskghar had been, looking for that Minotaur again. Another good head it had so few of—and the ones of old had begun to turn to dust, despite its best of efforts, despite the magic that should have preserved them. Well…even the magic had begun to die.

Only when Snatcher was prowling around the empty Raskghar camp, turning over ruined cots, looking to see if they had hidden in one of the hidden trap doors, did it sense something odd.

He lifted a slab of stone up and stared down into the tunnel—then Snatcher sensed them.

Auras. Flickering, so faint—it turned around.

Were they there or not? Slowly, Snatcher shuffled around. Then, it heard a voice.

—now—

Snatcher had no head to raise—but it saw the dark, almost pitch-black camp of the Raskghar suddenly bloom with light. A dozen [Light] spells rose.

[Illumination]. Snatcher didn’t raise its claws to shield its face. It turned—and then it sensed them. A dozen plus presences.

Snatcher turned—and the first spell hit it full-on.

 

——

 

[Support Casting: Intensified Magic]. [Spellbreaker’s Magic].

Link. Pump mana in—Typhenous, now, now!

[Burning Spells]! [Accelerated Spellsling]!

[Valmira’s Comet]!

The first spell hit Facestealer as the adventurers dropped their camouflage Skills. It had noticed them too soon. But they were mostly in position. Colth stood with Typhenous, Ceria, and three other [Mages], all Gold-rank. Two were part of Orchestra and Variable Fortress.

Top-level [Mages], who cast through Typhenous. Or rather, let him have the first swing. Colth called it ‘benchmarking’.

So the first spell was a known Tier 4 spell boosted by as much mana as they could pump into it without overloading the spell matrix and with Skills giving it enough firepower that Ceria wondered if it could have blown one of the giant Shield Spider mothers to bits.

It had a commendable speed to it as well. The normally-slow comet hit Facestealer like one of Typhenous’ fastballs when he played baseball. Ceria saw the glowing, red center of the comet turning to blue trailing fire strike the monster as it turned—then the world flashed.

Eat shit!

That was her additional comment. Ceria waited as Colth turned and chatter broke through her speaking stone.

Did we hit it?

Sealing off the other corridors—[Stone Wall].

Some monsters lurking down our end. We’ll take them out.

That was Halrac’s voice. It was followed by a dim explosion until his speaking stone went dead. The other teams were cordoning off this area.

A perfect spot to ambush Facestealer. They’d been dogging it for a while, and Colth had observed that few monsters liked to stay in its vicinity. Only the Crypt Worms and suits of armor ignored it—possibly because it had no interest in things without heads.

This was almost perfect. Valeterisa was speaking without much fear in her voice.

“I am still preparing. Where is the Chest of Holding? Oh, here it is. Yes, yes, Montressa, casting. Hold up your barrier. Have we killed the monster yet?”

Wait.

Colth cut all the voices short, and everyone paused. In the brief moment where the spell engulfed the room in dust and light—Ceria squinted into the cloud. A [Mage] blew the dust back as Ceria aimed her wand at—

Facestealer.

He stood there, swiveling right and left, his hide scorched by the comet. That was all. Ceria didn’t even see the scars from Colth’s blades and Saliss and Lehra’s attacks from yesterday.

“[Valmira’s Comet] has failed. Benchmarking higher. Tier 4 magic is almost completely useless. Not nullified.”

Colth spoke calmly, and Facestealer slowly turned. He focused on the five adventurers, and Colth locked ‘eyes’ with the monster.

“He’s coming. Phase 2.”

When Facestealer charged, he was so fast it took even Ceria off-guard, and she had seen him fight.

Fast. Just like how fast he could swing. The lumbering monster ran at the adventurers—but Ceria was already raising walls upon walls of ice.

It would barely slow Facestealer down, but that wasn’t the point—

The monster seemed to sense something, and it slowed as it raised a huge claw. This time, it was too slow to move.

[Piercing Shot]!

Halrac and a dozen adventurers volleyed behind Facestealer. Enchanted arrows and bolts struck it in a volley, the air flashed, and some of Ceria’s walls cracked, but Typhenous had a [Forcewall] behind them.

“Stumble, stumble, damn you—

Colth was muttering, but Facestealer just held up a claw—then turned back. It raised a claw, punched through six feet of ice—and Colth smiled at it.

That same demonic smile that Ceria thought was the most honest one he had.

I’m going to kill you.

All the kinetic force of both the comet and arrows—against all logic—didn’t make Facestealer move. He should have. It would make their lives so much easier, but either he was so heavy he should be sinking into the earth and cracking the flagstones of the dungeon or something was letting him resist pure physics.

It didn’t matter. As Facestealer turned, Halrac lifted his bow. He’d been entrusted with something. He launched one single arrow, and Facestealer whirled—lifted a claw—

Vortex arrow! Run! Run!

The [Mages] ran, and Typhenous beat everyone but Colth. Ceria felt her ice walls disappearing as the vortex tore chunks out of the magic. It sucked away magic, and it was the first Relic-class item used so far.

The first. Dead gods.

Halrac, tell me you hit it! Tell me it’s dead or hurt! We’re heading to Phase 3!”

Colth was running, leaping over a painted trap. Ceria slowed, but nothing was coming behind them—so far. Yet she heard Halrac’s terse reply.

It’s not dead. But it didn’t like that.”

“How not dead is—”

Whumph. The sound of Facestealer slamming into a wall was followed by the dust—and the blur of it moving. Ceria had never seen anyone of that size move that fast.

It slammed into the corridor the [Mages] were running down, and the half-Elf saw that Facestealer was…

Torn. No, its hide was. Colth’s brand upon it that was letting them track it was twisted slightly, as was its brown-black, matted hide. Actually, it was fairly pristine now—even the dirt had been sucked away.

It looked like someone had taken Facestealer’s skin and twisted it across its body. That—Ceria wondered what that would feel like if you did it to skin.

She bet it hurt. But that was not what you wanted to see after a vortex arrow from Rhir hit a monster.

Dead gods damn it. An Adult Creler would flinch at that!”

Orchestra’s [Mage] screamed. She stumbled, and Facestealer ran. This time—he wasn’t just charging like Yvlon running at full tilt. He had a blur, he was moving so fast. A horse’s speed? Faster?

Oh shit!

Ceria bent down. She grabbed the woman, and Facestealer was on top of them. He ran through a series of magical spikes that shot up and shattered on his body. He swung a fist as Colth turned.

Ceria!

 

——

 

Facestealer punched through Ceria and the [Mages] and actually stumbled. It swung wildly, at Colth, Typhenous—and they vanished. A few objects clattered to the ground.

Speaking stones. Snatcher stared at them and heard a voice speaking.

“It can’t tell the difference between illusions backed by aura-faking spells. Interesting.

A trick? Facestealer rotated left and right as Ceria exhaled. She hadn’t thought you could use illusions on it! But Colth had speculated that if they used fake auras…

Now the monster seemed confused. It held still—then began to lumber back the way it had come. Warily. As if it knew it was now in trouble. Just how much trouble?

Phase 3. Can’t harm it with a vortex arrow, can’t blast it with a Tier 4 spell…before we bust out our best tricks, let’s see if it has any conventional weaknesses. Valley? Now.”

A wall of stone rose on the far end of the hallway. Facestealer whirled as Ceria watched via the scrying stone they’d stuck to a wall. It began to stride towards the wall—then Valeterisa, the Archmage of Izril, cast her magic.

“[Tidal Wave]. [Floods of Gaarh Marsh]. And [Mithril Wall], thank you, Montressa.”

Facestealer saw the first wave of water coming from the wall. It held up a hand—began to approach—and then seemed to sense how many protective layers were behind it. It began to run back the way it had come. But now—

The Raskghar camp was ideal for this. It was a huge, domed room, and if you blocked in all the entrances, it was enclosed. The dungeon itself was just a box. And so Colth had asked Valeterisa to flood the box.

Even now, the monster didn’t fall as thousands of pounds of water poured around it. It ran into the center of the Raskghar camp and saw no exits. No hallways. They’d all been sealed off.

“It’s slowing. Anchor it down!

More spells hit Facestealer as one of the walls slid up. It whirled towards Typhenous and a band of [Mages] including Pisces. They had tripvine bags, [Sticky Web] spells—one even cast [Slow].

They’re not really working—

“Other side! [Archers]!”

Halrac and his group shot [Rope Arrows] and more delaying tricks. Facestealer took a step—and a strand of mithril rope from one of the top Gold-rank adventurers jerked it back, snagging it. It halted, began to tug, reached down—

And the tidal wave engulfed it.

The entire room became a blur and chaos as it filled. Ceria saw a flailing shape in the dark—and Colth whispered.

“It’s not…floating. It sinks? Can we use that? Is it going to—?”

Facestealer was anchored to the floor. But even as it tore the mithril rope away—it didn’t float. It was probably far too heavy. It flailed around in the water, then stood there.

“Oh come on. It has to breathe.

Someone, Deni, Ceria thought, said that. Yet she saw no bubbles of air as Facestealer stood there. It turned…and began striding towards where one of the magical walls was. It was slightly slower underwater, but it—it—

It’s not in distress. Valley.

Colth wasn’t giving up. Valeterisa was already on the case. Facestealer turned back as the Archmage of Izril pressed one hand through a magical barrier on the far wall. It looked at her, and she stared innocently back.

“I was told even Xrn couldn’t kill you. Fascinating. You are so terrifying I feel like running away. [Grand Lightning].”

The jolt that ran through the flooded room was more a feeling than a sight. Ceria actually saw Facestealer twitch. Valeterisa paused as it began striding towards her—fast.

“Uh oh. Ah, ah…[Blue Lightning]? [Transmutation: Water to Acid—]”

Valeterisa, run!

The Archmage of Izril stopped casting magic and hurried away as Colth cursed. The magical water and spells didn’t seem to be hurting Facestealer. But wow—it was getting pissed.

It punched through the protective walls and then turned as the water vanished. This time, Facestealer just turned and waited. It paced back into the center of the room and picked something up.

Just a lump of stone from the walls. But like before, Ceria knew how fast and hard it could throw it.

“It’s waiting. Phase 4, Colth?”

“…Wait.”

The Ultimate Supporter was crouched, masterminding the phases of attacks. His first three plans hadn’t been ones he’d sold the adventurers on as being the ultimate stopgaps—but they had assumed they would have borne a bit more fruit than this.

Even so, the Named-rank just waited as Facestealer turned. The other adventurers were getting antsy, but Colth was not.

“How does it think? Does it get mad? What does it do when—ah.”

Facestealer turned. It had apparently lost patience, and it charged after Valeterisa. Colth nodded.

“It’s time. Orchestra? Give it hell.”

Earplugs!

Typhenous grabbed Ceria’s arm, and she was already stuffing wax into her ears. Facestealer didn’t see the Archmage—she’d already teleported to safety with Montressa. What it did see was a group of performers. They sat at one end of the hallway as it halted—then ran at them.

But they were already playing. They had been playing for a while, and all one of the [Mages] had to do was cast what few buff-spells you could add to a musical attack.

[Loudness]. [Doubled Echo]. There wasn’t that much auditory magic most adventurers knew, but the acoustics of the narrow dungeon? Orchestra’s leader, Deni, looked up.

He’d been having a bad day. His teeth bared as he aimed his violin, and a trumpet swung up, drumsticks fell, and Orchestra struck their note.

[Combined Skill — Onslaught Performance: Louder Than the Sea’s Roar].

Even with their protective Skills. Even far from the center of the Skill—Ceria still went deaf. She felt the vibration go through the dungeon. Constrained by the magic. Shaking down corridors, killing the closest monsters from the sound alone.

Sound and force and—

A Skill. A Skill so powerful that even Snatcher felt it. A Skill from adventurers. It passed through the tunnels, and the warden of the steeled ones raised its head. It even reached the city within, and the thousands looked up.

It…reached Mother.

And she listened. Listened, but did not move. For Facestealer? Snatcher?

It bled.

It was upon its knees.

 

——

 

It bled red. Oozing blood through the ‘eyes’, the jagged holes in its body.

Snatcher was bleeding? It ‘looked’ down and felt itself bleed. So loud. Louder than anything it had heard since Mershi was lost.

Like the sound of the City of Shields dying.

It—it hurt. Adventurers. Real adventurers.

Pain.

Mother had heard it. But Mother…she was not like Snatcher. It was the last of the guardians.

In its way, it was stronger than her. She hid down there, hid because even she could die. It?

It had forgotten, until the blue insect, until this—that it could die too.

PAIN.

They were fleeing, the ones with sound. Fleeing backwards—but they sounded triumphant. Snatcher could have gone after them. But it got up—and turned. Then—it began to run. Run backwards, towards the other protectors. Towards the nests. But there were more of them—and now Snatcher felt it. Amidst rage, amidst the sudden warning, the intelligence that told it that this was a trap and it had to escape—

It was being hunted.

 

——

 

“You didn’t want to watch the adventurers at work? Named-ranks?

Lady Pryde was odd. Odd, despite being a [Lady] with a literal ego-aura and who thought working your quads was a valuable use of time.

She was odd because she was sort of…normal. In that she said normal-ish things.

Like, why wouldn’t you want to go see Named-ranks? When Erin had asked why Pryde had gone with the Haven, the woman had given her a strange look.

Why would I not accompany the north’s most famous inn?

If anything, it was strange how she was treating Mrsha and Erin and even Tessa—and by proxy, Nanette. As if they were important, because to Pryde, they were.

“You sure we’re not wasting your valuable time, Pryde?”

“You are the Titan’s chess partner. This child was at the Meeting of Tribes. Named-rank Adventurer Tessa—this is fitting company for me. Despite your lack of my given title. Mrsha, girl, come here.”

Pryde beckoned—then lifted Mrsha up so someone could stare at them. Mrsha gave Pryde a blank look. The [Lady] posed cooly, and the [Artist] bowed.

“I have an image, Lady Ulta.”

“Very good. Miss Solstice? We could find a chess board to sit across.”

She was an attention seeker! Mrsha was horrified—then impressed. If anything, the reason Erin wasn’t mad was because Pryde was blatant about it.

“Fame is a resource to be cultivated. I am not Wuvren, who has a dozen suitors dancing upon a finger. Nor am I Bethal, who can somehow muddle her way to success. A [Lady] should mind any number of qualities about herself. Paying for fame is simple. Aren’t you Calanfer’s Sixth Princess’ daughter?”

Mrsha stared at Pryde, and heads turned. The [Lady] saw Erin, Grimalkin, and Nanette staring at her.

“Isn’t she?”

“Wh—you can’t just say things like that!”

Erin looked around, but Pryde exhaled. Loudly.

“It’s hardly a secret. That was at the top of the dossier I paid for when I looked into your inn.”

“Who’s selling info about—well, maybe Lyonette is a bad liar!”

She’s my mom. You’re right.

Mrsha handed Pryde a note, and the [Lady] nodded. The Gnoll girl smiled a bit. Pryde gave her another look and then Magus Grimalkin a nod.

“Interesting company you keep, Magus.”

“They will never cease to amaze, Lady Ulta. Do you have other motives for being in Invrisil at the moment?”

“Besides visiting Pallass and watching the Haven go? House Ulta is considering the new lands of Izril—but I want to make sure my people aren’t attacked by Pallass or the Walled Cities. I came to negotiate. It’s difficult—Pallass has me on a waiting list to go through, and they are slow to respond. Appropriately. I wouldn’t give them passage through the north.”

Her eyes glinted with vexation despite the reasonable words coming out of her mouth.

“I could introduce you to Strategist Chaldion or an appropriate diplomat.”

Pryde tilted her head.

“I’ll take you up on that, Sinew Magus.”

Oooh. Mrsha saw Nanette brighten up. She followed the little witch’s gaze. Then Mrsha beamed.

Ooooooh. Pryde glanced at both of them, and they looked away innocently. Grimalkin didn’t quite notice. Erin…well, she was glancing at her little bird.

“Darn it. Dead again.”

“What are we doing, exactly?”

Pryde was getting impatient now that she had more things to do. She listened as Erin explained the gist of it. The [Lady] frowned.

“A curse. Was it Belavierr?”

“No…how do you know her?”

“We kicked her out of the north.”

Nanette’s head swiveled around with Mrsha and Erin’s, and they stared at Pryde. The [Lady] had to explain, briefly and entirely unsatisfactorily.

“Magnolia led the [Ladies] to deal with her. Maviola El was there—the last time I saw her in person. It happens.”

It does not just happen.

“To you, perhaps. I am a [Lady] of Izril, and that comes with requirements that most people are privileged not to know of. If it is a [Witch]…Magnolia should know.”

“It isn’t. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s not. But the curse is in a bunch of cities. Including Invrisil, Oliyaya said. And we keep wandering the streets and nearly getting to it, but it never shows up.”

“Odd. Multiple cities…and it vanishes. It almost sounds like a diffused spell, but who would go to this much work? Either that or the curse is somehow all these places simultaneously.”

Grimalkin pondered. Pryde, though, looked sharply at Erin when she heard that.

“Just which places is this…thing you’re searching for? All cities? Not towns?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re looking for something here that keeps moving? A location?”

“Maybe? Why? Do you know what it is?”

Pryde folded her arms. She stared ahead.

“…It’s unlikely it’s the exact same one. But Magnolia once took me there, and Bethal can’t stay away, the addict. I know what it might be. No wonder you can’t find it. You need an invitation.”

“An invitation? To what?”

Pryde didn’t answer. She looked around and then found one of the magical street lamps that provided illumination at night. Some places used actual lanterns—this one was graffitied by people like Grev’s gang, and they often had fliers put up.

Seldom for adventuring work, but things analogous to Erin’s home. Lost animals, job offers…Pryde began yanking pieces of paper off as she hunted for something.

“It changes if it moves from cities, but if it is here—last time we had to look at fliers in [Butcher] shops. You, children, Sinew Magus, look for an odd piece of parchment.”

Her personal escort, Erin, Nanette, Mrsha, and Grimalkin glanced at each other, and all began searching other fliers and pieces of paper in Invrisil. Erin had just pushed aside a flier asking if anyone had a 1st-edition autograph of Jasi and would they consider selling it when she saw something odd.

A brighter, more colorful piece of parchment was half-rolled up behind the mundane paper. It was expensive—and out of place because someone might well steal it just to re-use it. Unlike the tattered notes, this was an advertisement.

 

Come See Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop!

Buys and Sells Items of All Value*.

(*No refunds, no violence, no trickster or thief classes allowed.)

Served over 120 different cities across Izril and Terandria!

Come While Open!

 

The letters, accompanied by little dazzling brooches and magical wands, were splashed across the garish page. Erin was pretty sure this was what Pryde wanted.

“Hey, is it this?”

The [Lady] dropped a piece of parchment and walked over. The instant she saw it, her face turned to one of disgust.

“That’s it.”

“What is it?”

Even Grimalkin hadn’t ever seen something like this before, but Lady Pryde assured him that he might have walked past it.

“It has visited Pallass and the Walled Cities before—not that you can use it like Erin’s inn. It’s hardly that powerful. It’s more…”

She snapped her fingers, trying to explain, and Nanette clapped her hands in delight.

“It’s a magical travelling store! Like Shellbazaar, the emporium at sea! Mother told me such places still exist!”

“What? A magic store?

Erin grew excited instantly. Now it all made sense! And no wonder they hadn’t found it! Pryde nodded.

“You have to find a flyer, and then you’ll happen across it. Finding it deliberately is, according to Magnolia, more trouble than it’s worth. Only Bethal’s been able to do it. And I think it was because the owner gave up.”

“What kind of person owns it? A Djinni? Should we be prepared for trouble?”

Grimalkin was wary of this store. Tessa gripped her blades, but Pryde gave him a strange face. She looked at Erin’s wicker bird.

“I don’t know about a curse, but the owner? Well—I think he has a knife.”

Erin waited.

“An enchanted knife?”

“No.”

“Is he…high-level? To own a store like this?”

Pryde considered the question.

“Nope. It’s a hereditary store.”

“Do we need more money? Preparations if we only get one shot?”

The [Innkeeper] pressed. Pryde checked her coin pouch as Mrsha nervously held up her own money and Nanette searched her allowance. The [Lady] glanced at Erin.

“I doubt it. It should be right down the street when we turn the block.”

Sure enough, when they turned the street, wedged in one of the alleyways was an odd shop, built into the brickwork. It had a big metal door and a sign saying ‘Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop’.

It even had a little pig with a wand coming out of its mouth for a logo. Erin liked it—until she noticed the worn brickwork. And the slightly-rusty sign. Then she frowned.

This didn’t look like a Skill. Her [Garden of Sanctuary] might have had an ordinary door, but as Pryde walked up the steps and opened the door, Erin heard a mundane, jangling bell. She peered at a very old dustmat that might add more dirt than it lost, and someone called out.

“Hello. We’re open until six tonight. Please bring anything you want to the counter.”

Erin turned, and a bored man at the counter with a balding pate and a mustache that should have probably been waxed stared at her. She stared back.

“Are you Cormeng?”

He grimaced—he had an actual pinstripe suit, white and red. But it was old and worn, and any charm from the unique garment looked sad. The Human answered with a very, very tired voice as Mrsha sniffed the air and began sneezing for the dust.

“No. That’s my great-grandfather nine times over. Welcome to the store. And before you ask—no, I don’t know where anything is. If you have something to sell, I’ll appraise it, but it’s coppers and silvers, not gold unless you can prove it’s valuable.”

He had a dusty scrying orb with a crack he was watching, and Erin realized he was listening to Drassi’s broadcast. The man added as Erin looked around and realized what this place was.

“And if it’s valuable, why would you take it here?”

Then Erin looked past him and into the aisles into that Mrsha and Nanette stared with delight, Grimalkin and Pryde, with a kind of apprehension and awe of their own. But not the awe of a magical shop of wonders.

Erin stared at racks of old, very worn clothing. At gemstones on display and more jewelry than she could imagine that appeared fancy and rich—until you realized it was all cut glass. At old farming tools, rusted with age, dolls of every shape and size across hundreds of years, signs, actual signs for the buildings they belonged to were long since gone, a thousand useless maps and illustrations crammed into a bin, decidedly non-magical books like the 4th book in a series with half a torn cover, a shoe with dirt on it, fake decorative items like one of those snowglobes—without the water inside and the snow—

Erin realized what she was inside, and she stared around the largest pawn shop in the entire world. A thrift store without end, which served a few customers wandering around with the cheap jewelry in hand, willing to fork over some silver for a curiosity they’d lose interest in within the week.

“I hate this place.”

Pryde shuddered and didn’t bother to lower her voice. Mrsha and Nanette? They were delighted by the spread and bouncing to look around. The man at the counter, who tended to this store like eight generations before him, glanced up. Erin winced, but the dour shopkeeper nodded.

“Imagine working here for forty years.”

 

——

 

The shopkeeper’s name was Doren. And he was actually more fascinating than a lot of the goods inside his store.

For instance, the current owner of Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop was not actually Doren.

“It’s a family business. Cormeng made this place—with magic. He enchanted it to teleport to all the places he’d been, and he was a world traveller. That’s why it exists after he died.”

“Clever. I can sense some subtle magic here. So the actual shop is probably somewhere else. A pocket dimension, maybe. And can you go anywhere you want?”

“Nope. Just where the store actually is.”

“So you can’t portal around?”

“Nope. I can’t leave the store. I’d just end up outside where I came in. Cormeng didn’t want trouble. The store doesn’t let in [Thieves] and whatnot…no violence, no tricksters. Hence the flier.”

“Do you have security?”

He gave her a blank look. The man was worn down by his job. Apparently, he’d been twelve when he first started doing this, which made him fifty-two years old.

“No. It’s just me.”

“What if people try to hide things and steal them?”

He gave her a bleak look.

“I guess they get free stuff. What a fortune. We actually buy the fake jewelry even if no one sells us enough. Anyways, we make a profit. A large one, in fact.”

“H-how?”

Erin gazed at the trash. And it was trash. Some of it was appealing trash like the fake geodes or sparkly stuff. Mrsha already had an armful of junk she wanted. She had five bracelets with gaudy gemstones Visma would love, and Nanette was trying on clothes for size, measuring them. Erin groaned.

“Nanette! Don’t buy clothes. Someone else wore them.”

“So? They look nice! There’s fashions from all ages and all over, Miss Erin! I could get a hat and dress. If you think Miss Lyonette’d be okay with it.”

Erin thought it was fine—but the truth was, she knew thrift stores. She’d visited a big one—and while Cormeng’s Emporium was far larger, she did see a number of Invrisil customers walking around. And Drakes and Gnolls.

They didn’t seem to realize the significance. Erin turned to Doren excitedly.

“Wait, if you’re in multiple cities at once, you have guests who’d meet and mingle from different cities, different continents, even! What kind of things do they do?”

He gave her another blank look.

“Buy things? We’re not an inn. Your inn.”

He knew who she was! Erin protested.

“But what if you had a meet-and-greet—”

“That’s not the point. Cormeng’s shop is meant to be low-key. Important people don’t even come here—unless someone gives away the secret.”

He half-glared at Pryde, and she waved at him.

“Bethal’s the one obsessed with cheap junk. How much has she spent here?”

“Probably a hundred gold pieces. Cormeng is actually very popular, you know. It might only sell cheap glass—”

“—But it’s way overpriced, yeah.”

Erin suspected that Numbtongue or Earlia could get you an actual ruby gemstone that cost less than the fake ones on display. Grimalkin picked up a vase as ugly as sin and nearly dropped it. He caught it just in time, and Doren nodded.

“Between the day-sales and breakages, we make a lot. So my family doesn’t have to work. Each generation, one of us takes over the business. Guess who’s been working here every day?”

“D-do you get breaks?”

“Weekends. I used to work the entire week. Oh, and there’s another fun requirement which means only the family can do this job.”

His eyes—his eyes had once been bright, faintly red, and Erin imagined they bloomed like excited flowers in a younger boy’s gaze. They had the deadness of working customer service for four decades in a business you didn’t own for your family.

There was a depth of despair and emptiness there that even Belavierr would fear. Especially because it turned out that Doren was the most mundane person in this shop.

“I don’t have a class.”

Even Pryde and Grimalkin turned at that. Erin’s jaw dropped.

“But—why?”

Doren leaned over the counter.

“Cormeng didn’t have one. So the shop only lets someone like me open it. Get it? From the day I was a kid—well, I make good money. I can open at eight, close at six, and get weekends off. I am so happy.”

His eyes made Erin’s gaze slide sideways, and she had stared down Xarkouth. There was something off here. Even in the stores in her city—she hadn’t seen this kind of despondency. It was a job, so why…?

“You said you used to not get weekends off. What happened?”

“I collapsed.”

She stared at him, and he avoided her gaze.

“Why…why work like this if it’s not something you want to do? You don’t enjoy this. I can tell.”

“Someone’s got to. The store will be unused, and my family depends on me.”

“So let it—”

“It’ll go to someone else. Appear in front of them. We can’t let it leave the family or someone else without levels will get it. This. Is. Important. I’ll retire and someone else gets to take over the business. I’ll have plenty of time to enjoy it all.”

When? She looked at him as he struck the counter for emphasis, and Erin held back that word. She tried to ask something else. Tried to—

“But if Cormeng made this shop—he cast magic! Without levels!”

“Yep.”

“Can you cast—”

No.

“S-so, how’s the job? I mean, how’s your personal life? Got any hobbies? Got a…kid?”

Doren gave Erin a bleak smile. And now he seemed to be regretting talking to her at all because he was looking in a mirror he didn’t want to stare at.

“I sit in this shop for eight hours, five days a week. What do you think? All the attractive women are throwing themselves at…”

He gestured at his form, and to his credit, it was mostly his sedentary job. And maybe he was losing hair in the center of his head and it was spreading out in an unfortunate way, but you could do something with that. It was probably the, uh…

Despair. In fact, he gave Pryde such a long look that Erin really did feel bad for him. She bit her lip.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Doren.”

He looked at her, surprised, and shrugged.

“Thanks. But there’s worse jobs. I’ve never had to worry about being stabbed by an angry customer. Just—how would you make this better?”

He showed her the store. Gestured around at it and Erin saw his family perching on one shoulder and that promised day waiting for him. Doren confessed softly.

“It’s fun at first. It really is, and you put a lot of work into it. My aunt told me it was fun for her too. Then it becomes a job—but you can’t run away from it. Day-by-day is fine. The scrying orbs? My aunt read thousands of books. This is fine. How would you make it—”

A sound interrupted his voice.

Crash. Mrsha and Grimalkin stared at the pot, and Doren sighed.

“…That. Let me get the price.”

Erin would have loved to have a longer conversation with the man, and she hoped she would. But the crash had reminded her she was on a mission. She turned back to Doren.

“You…didn’t happen to have any weird guests about a week or so back, did you? Some—odd people? A woman, maybe?”

He did stop, then. The Sinew Magus was offering him some silver coins, and Doren glanced up sharply.

“This shop is neutral. We don’t tell tales about our customers. We don’t get high-level people inside if we can help it. You shouldn’t have found this place unless you knew about it. Magnolia Reinhart somehow found out, and we’ve had the [Ladies], but we keep to ourselves. We don’t want trouble, Miss Solstice.”

“I get that, but—did you? Because I think she left something in here that’s been bothering me.”

Slowly, Doren went back to the counter with the dustpan and tossed the shards into a bin. He looked around and lowered his voice.

“We closed shop permanently in that city. If she did something—take it out. Cormeng’s store can’t keep out…high-level folk. I don’t want to know who that was, and I’m not asking questions. Please.”

He gave her a pleading look, and Erin wondered who…or what he’d seen. She nodded.

“Can I poke around? I won’t be long.”

“We have three floors. And there’s no back rooms—it’s just more rooms. If you need to squeeze past the shoe racks, go ahead. You can walk for about five thousand feet that way.”

“Ancestors.”

Grimalkin muttered. He had trouble navigating some of the displays—this place was cramped to the point of being claustrophobic.

“Miss Erin? Do you need us to come with you?”

Nanette looked up, but Erin pointed to Tessa.

“I’m fine. I’ll go ahead and look—Mrsha, don’t buy all the cheap jewels. They’re fake.”

But they look so cool! Mrsha decided to follow Erin as the [Innkeeper] walked into the antique store.

Here was what Erin knew of such places. They had things people didn’t want to buy.

Oh, you could find tons of stuff you might theoretically buy. Like look at all these sofas! Actual sofas, some in good condition, some worn—chairs on end, tables, furniture, even dressers!

Now, before you thought about finding a high-quality Terandrian dresser that a [Lady] had once used, remember where you were. These were not the kind of items you could just refurbish a bit and have thousands of gold pieces of quality on-hand.

The dream was finding such a chair or some antique you’d take to an [Appraiser] on a network and earn tons of money for, right? That was what Erin recalled of thrift stores in her world.

Here was the thing. If it were here? Someone had already found it. Erin had remembered tons of collectible cards in the big thrift store she knew in her city. Plausibly worth a lot to collectors? Big signs from old company shops, and, oh—yes, clothing galore.

Something else that both that shop and this one had?

Dolls.

Too many of them. All in the old style of those creepy, staring faces shaped a bit too realistically—and yet not quite the real thing.

The worst ones smiled at you. Erin shuddered at one in the semi-permanent light.

“I bet you’re super creepy at night.”

“I don’t go in here at night.”

Doren called out from the desk. Even Tessa seemed weirded out. She hunched, trying to avoid a row of old toys that Mrsha was theoretically interested in. Theoretically as in—the moment she looked at them, like an old push-wagon, she was not interested in them. Tessa bumped into a doll and stared into a smiling Drake doll’s face.

She punched it.

The costs of this visit were adding up, and Erin was still following the wicker bird. It was pulling her in two spots now, and she eventually stomped past a row of urns before swerving.

“Wh—no way! I think I found it!”

Mrsha was staring blankly at a piece of paper on one of the walls. It was of different kinds of gemstones, one of those encyclopedia-something things. She wondered…who would ever buy such a thing. Did you frame that and hang it on your wall like some loser?

Maybe Numbtongue would want it. Oh, and here was one on plants, for Octavia. Like everything, it was semi-valuable, but you weren’t going to buy it.

In the same way, Erin was hunting along rows of pots and vases that looked good.

Sort of.

Not really.

They were the kind of craftsmanship you could admire and never want to put in your home. Not gregariously ugly and not good. Erin came to a stop in front of one that looked almost like the others. She frowned at the creamy vase. It had some nice coloration ruined entirely by the motif it was going for—fish scales. The potter had been good enough to do the effect in the vase—big enough for some rather large flowers?

So you had a cream-color, carp-style vase that weighed…Erin oofed.

“Ten pounds? It’s solid. And hey…there’s something in here.

She nearly dropped the vase and yanked something out. Erin almost threw it at once, and Tessa, who had drawn her blades, ready to attack a scorpion, stared.

“A finger.”

Mrsha’s head snapped around, but it wasn’t a finger. It was wax. And it looked uncannily like Erin’s finger. The [Innkeeper] stared at it.

“What the—”

“It’s a curse focus!”

Nanette had a dress in her arms. She pushed forwards excitedly and somewhat alarmed. Erin prodded the finger, but it didn’t hurt.

“It’s like voodoo magic. Does it—is it harming me?”

“It’s probably how you’re being cursed, Miss Erin. You should destroy it at once.”

“Any particular way?”

“Crush it?”

Erin clenched her fist. The wax was delicate and weak. As soon as she began deforming the wax, the charm stopped moving towards it. And Erin felt her finger, which had been the source of Nerrhavia’s unwanted curse—stop tingling.

Her middle finger kept going. Erin looked around.

“Wow. That was simple. There must be another one here.”

She put the vase back and followed the charm. But now, Erin was thinking. What…what was going on?

Nerrhavia had been haunting her dreams for a week. Annoyingly—after the first few dreams, she’d just appeared and harassed Erin. That was really annoying, and so was the feeling of her fingers from the curse. The occasional lick was bad enough, but now that she was here, Erin had just destroyed the charm.

This was a lot of work for no payoff. Erin’s paranoia mounted, but she hadn’t sensed any duplicity from Doren. If this were a trap, it was a stupid one.

So what’s going on here? Nerrhavia was supposed to be really smart.

As she hunted, Erin saw Nanette, Mrsha, and even Tessa finding things they might buy. The Named-rank adventurer had found a fake sword.

“You like fake swords, Tessa?”

“No.”

She tried to hide it behind her back. But the purely ornamental sword…the Named-rank showed it to Erin.

“It looks nice.”

“Yeah, sort of. Why do you want it?”

“To hang it somewhere? That’s what you do.”

Erin opened her mouth. She supposed Tessa had a point.

“Well, I don’t like thrift stores. So there’s not much for me to buy. I used to play card games, y’know. I had that phase. I would go to this store and buy them, but there’s never anything valuable here.”

Mrsha and Nanette looked at her, and even Tessa listened. Erin strolled through memory lane.

“My city had one big store, you see. And when I went there, I’d hunt for ages for a good card or something rare like a real gem. But you never find it. Because it’s a thrift store.”

What about my treasure?

Mrsha held up a fake pink diamond. Erin sighed.

“Yeah, I did that too, Mrsha. And bought stuff like Nanette. But…oh, I think we’re here.”

She came to a stand of dresses and rifled through them. Erin stared at the dresses and saw one that was dirty-pink and had a bright green thread lining the pockets. That was the only beautiful thing in the entire dress—the brown buttons did no favors. Erin shuddered as she reached into a pocket and pulled out another finger.

“I just don’t get this. There! Curse done!”

She threw the finger down and stomped on it. The curse vanished, and the bird went still. Erin wondered if Nerrhavia might appear in her dreams tonight. She doubted it.

But this was too easy. Think, Erin, think!

“At least buy something, Erin. The dress is, um…there are some dresses that look nice.”

Nanette urged her, but Erin shook her head. She was turning away from the dress. This store was depressing. It was like the opposite of her inn. The depressing store, and Doren—she wished he had a bit of magic.

“Doren, I’m done.”

When she made her way to the counter, the man looked relieved.

“Thanks. Was it anything—dangerous?”

“Nah. Just a prank. Say, you should come to my inn sometime.”

“I can’t—”

“Oh, right. Location. Well—come to Liscor. Do you serve Liscor?”

He checked a list.

“…No. It’s not impossible, but it wasn’t good business, I heard. I could.”

She gave him a big smile.

“Think about it. I’ll bring you some food, special delivery.”

He looked at her, and the man shrugged.

“That sounds nice. Maybe I will. But don’t make a fuss. My job’s fine. In fact—now that you cleared up that woman’s trouble, I think we’ll go back to normal.”

His eyes slid sideways, and Erin looked at him. She wondered if he’d ever go to Liscor. She suspected he was lying to her face. Erin gazed at Grimalkin and Pryde, and the two were discussing going to Pallass.

“…have my estates. Your company could stay there.”

“Intriguing. I will find an inn.”

“I see.”

“However, I may visit.”

Doren followed Erin’s glance. And even without her Skills, she sensed a wave of jealousy and despondency off him. Yet Erin looked at Pryde and Grimalkin, and she wanted to smile. As much as Mrsha and Nanette were doing as Pryde glared at them.

It was a good thing. Erin looked around the store and called out to a Drake gazing blankly at all the fake jewels.

“Excuse me, where are you from?”

“Huh? Oh—I’m just—down the street. Tyss Street.”

“Tyss Street where?”

The Drake gave Erin a long, long look.

“The city? Dessieth District?”

“What city’s that, exactly? You know, you’re in a magical shop.”

“I’m what?

“Miss, please.

Doren looked aggravated as the Drake freaked out. He glared at the [Innkeeper] as Erin explained, and she was definitely banned along with everyone here. But Erin concluded by introducing herself, and the Drake gobbled.

“You’re—you’re the Human on the scrying orb? I’m in Liscor? But I’m all the way down on the coast—”

“No way. Are you east or west?”

“I—we were the northern-most city on the west coast. The Hivelands are north of us. Cabbenest.”

No way! I’ll look you up later! This is so cool!”

Erin and the Drake turned to look at Doren. He glowered hugely and raised his voice as the other customers looked around.

“It doesn’t matter. No one can leave except via the spot they came through. And before you try it, you can’t do anything funny like trade items. This is not that kind of shop.

Erin Solstice looked at him, and the man gave her an actual glare with fire in it. As if—daring her to bring something special into his shop. The Drake looked just as disappointed, and so Erin stuck out her hand.

“Well, even if that’s true, I met someone cool. Who’re you, Miss?”

“Arensspe?”

“Oh! I’m Erin. See—we met each other, Doren.”

“I’m sure the world will remember it.”

He sneered at her. Erin’s eyes narrowed. She looked around, and Magus Grimalkin was writing down an inn for Pryde. Erin snatched his journal.

“Grimalkin, lend me that quill and a page. Doren, how much for…that sign?”

He glanced at a large sign with the name Gorbel’s Sailing Salts. It was huge, wide, and propped up on the wall.

“Eighteen gold pieces.”

Eighteen gold—it’s—fine. Here.”

Erin slapped the gold on the counter. The man looked frankly shocked and glanced at the sign.

“You want help bringing it out?”

“Nope. Just leave it there.”

“But—”

“I bought it. Just leave it there. Now…how do you, uh, spell Arensspe?”

Erin conferred with the Drake and then stuck the piece of paper to the board. Mrsha and Nanette oohed, and the other clients—including the ones just coming in—noticed the tacked on piece of paper. Doren stared at it then Erin.

 

Erin Solstice of Liscor and Arensspe from Cabbenest. 

“Come visit my inn! I’ll give you a free meal!”

—Erin

“I thought this was a normal store. Are Antinium really living in Liscor?”

—Arensspe

 

“What is this?”

The shopkeeper looked nervous—and confused. But Erin just beamed at him.

“It’s proof I was here. And that you had two really cool, ultra neat guests!”

Arensspe stared at Erin.

“I’m a [Net Weaver].”

Two amazingly cool guests. And I’ve left a message for people. If anyone tells me that they saw it—why, they might come to my inn! Or Cabbenest, wherever that is!”

“We mostly deal in fish. It’s a pretty boring city, honestly.”

The point is that we were here. And that people should know they met interesting folk. Or what was the point of coming in here? Cheap jewels? This stupid stuff?”

Erin gestured at the pile of fake gemstones that Mrsha had in a basket and was going to buy. Arensspe was warming to the theme and nodding, and behind her, a man exclaimed.

“Wait, I’m not in First Landing is what you’re saying? Dead gods, I just saw the Wind Runner and now the [Innkeeper].”

Erin and Mrsha’s heads rotated so fast they nearly cracked. A Drake was rubbing at his eyes.

“I’m in Zeres! Wait—let me write something down!”

People wanted to mark they were here. Erin looked at Doren, and he stared at her. He looked at the signboard.

“What are you doing? Are you trying to give me something? I don’t want it. This is a quiet shop.”

His hands were trembling on the counter. Erin Solstice stopped then and looked at him. She was reminded of the adventurers’ faces, because he had something similar here.

“…If you don’t like it, take it down when I leave. Honest, I’m not going to bully you into keeping it. But I think it’s neat. I think this shop is cool. I just don’t want you to feel like it’s—a prison. Besides, there is something cool here. Behind the junk.”

She looked around Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop, and Doren gazed at her. When he looked up, perhaps it was like he had first come to this place, as a very young boy, and wandered through the shelves. He looked at the signboard and then at Mrsha’s jewels. Slowly, he began sorting them.

“I don’t know why that woman came here. Or what led you here. But there’s nothing valuable here.”

He lifted a fake pearl, and Arensspe pointed to it.

“Except that. That’s a pearl.”

Erin and Doren looked at it. Erin shrugged.

“Yeah, it looks nice. No wonder Visma will like it, Mrsha. But it’s way too big to be the real thing. Unless there are giant clams…okay, but it’s purple.”

“Yeah.”

The [Net Weaver] stared at it. Doren was about to price it at fifteen silver. Slowly, his hand paused over the register, and Erin’s head swiveled back.

“Pearls aren’t purple, right guys?”

Grimalkin and Pryde turned to look at it. Mrsha hurriedly slapped down a gold coin and grabbed the pearl.

Great doing business with you, buddy.

Doren held onto it.

“I, uh—think I’ll hold onto that sale. Give me that—”

Erin Solstice stared at the pearl. Which, but for Arensspe’s comment, would have been a literal gem in the rough. Grimalkin made an offer on it at the same time as Pryde—one for magic, the other because it looked good. They stared at each other as Mrsha, howling, tried to claim she’d already bought it.

Then Erin looked back into the store. Her neck tingled, and her fingers too.

Nerrhavia never does anything without a reason.

“I, uh, think I need to go find something to buy. Two things. I’ll be back soon.”

She returned later, as the shop began an auction over the pearl and people talked and put their names on the board, with a dress stuffed into a vase. Pryde looked over at Erin and grimaced.

“Your taste is about as good as Bethal’s.”

“Hey!”

Erin juggled the two items as Doren checked them, gave her a suspicious look, then sold her them for a gold piece and two silver. He’d already gotten the pearl, so she kept her face straight as she wondered…if she should ask Saliss or someone to take a look at these.

When he got back from adventuring.

 

——

 

Saliss of Lights stood in the dungeon of Liscor. He hated dungeons.

Dungeons were not controlled environments. Dungeons were where his potions and Skills did the least good, sometimes.

Dungeons were selfish places, and the monsters living there didn’t threaten many people. Dungeons were for treasure, and the Named-rank Adventurer had better uses for his life than to risk it in some hole.

“—but you’re an exception, aren’t you? Hello there. I’m Saliss of Lights. Do you remember me?”

The adventurer closest to Erin Solstice—they both thought they resembled each other—glanced up. He was still naked. But then, so was his opponent.

Steam was baking off Facestealer’s brown hide. It was charred—but the mark of Roshal still burned. It wouldn’t come off. It was etched in the skin, and only cutting it loose would stop the tracking.

People had done worse to escape Roshal. Saliss’ lips curled. Colth.

This dungeon, Roshal’s brand staring him in the face, and the lumbering figure wading through lava—even if it was magical? Saliss had been having a bad day for a week.

Maybe this would make him feel better.

“Clear the area! Saliss is heading in!”

Colth the Supporter was a clever kid. Nine different schemes had damaged Facestealer—enough that Saliss could see that pale yellow-white bone underneath the hide. If memory served—even Xrn hadn’t been able to do more than that until the monster damaged her head.

Well, Colth’s plans also revolved around him adding to the Skills of everyone he partied with. Saliss felt more settling on him.

[Support Skill: Enhanced Concoctions]. [Support Skill: Retreat of the Skirmisher].

The Drake tossed up a vial.

“I’m going in.”

He flicked it forwards, and Facestealer charged. It swung its arms wildly, running at Saliss so fast he suspected it could catch someone on horseback.

Faster than it looked, and it had tricks. It was still trying to paralyze him, but Saliss was immune to that. What made his scales prickle with danger was the certainty that the monster was only trying to get away, to lose them in the tunnels. What happened when they backed it up?

—Colth’s plan. Phase #10 was Saliss. And it was just Saliss. The Drake grinned as he threw the first vial.

Facestealer actually caught it, a tiny fastball delicately held between two massive claws. The glass should have shattered at a child’s touch, but the monster grabbed it and began to throw it back.

[Remote Detonation]. The vial exploded. The liquid covered Facestealer, and it halted. It—tried to remove the liquid for a second, then resumed its charge at Saliss. He saw a claw coming for him.

Saliss—

[Flask: Directional Force]. He aimed it at Facestealer and then broke the Alchemist’s Fireball on his chest.

The explosion didn’t hurt. It was just fire. But the kick sent him flying like a ragdoll, away from Facestealer. So fast that even the monster couldn’t keep up. Facestealer swiped, missed Saliss, then noticed the jars glued to the walls, ceiling, and fl—

The spark was its body and the liquid. Or rather, those were the catalysts. The other jars activated, and Saliss looked up as he heard the chatter.

What was—

Ah. Ah, I really don’t like you. Saliss ignored the voices as he watched one of his nastier concoctions engulf Facestealer. But he already felt like it wasn’t going to kill it.

I made this one to kill Wrymvr the Deathless. It’s not going to work on him either. Not yet.

The [Alchemist] had seen that no spells, not water, not Valeterisa’s lightning, no elements had gone through Facestealer’s hide. Pure force like the Vortex Arrow had—and sound had been the real weapon against it.

He suspected that Facestealer’s organs—or whatever it was—was protected by that bone shell and hide. Proof against elements and even death-magic like the stuff Pisces used. Saliss could try to compete with Valeterisa, and he could probably generate a bolt of lightning in excess of her best spells.

…But why bother? He wanted to kill this thing. In theory—even Wrymvr, even a top-tier monster like Facestealer—

Well, he was pretty sure it didn’t enjoy this. Good use of six thousand, two hundred and twenty-nine gold pieces.

The jar contained a soluble dust from the Izrilian city of Port Isle, famous for its odd, twisted dimensional properties. The Fabledust could be used for a lot of things, mostly killing yourself or being lost forever. [Mages] had never managed to make it that useful except in small, small quantities, and it was very useful then.

Saliss had put far too much in that jar, turned it into a liquid you couldn’t remove that clung to you—and then started a warp-reaction on Facestealer. But he’d gotten it wrong. So in theory—

Facestealer was aglow with that changing light of Port Isle, a brown like no color Saliss had ever seen, not turgid nor mundane but a deep color with more depth than any tree’s bark, basking it in color—

Trying to pull it halfway across the continent. Silly Saliss. He really should have made the reaction work. All his experiments showed that this generated enough pulling force to yank mithril chains in half like they were made of string.

Crack. Crack. Crackcrackcrackcrack—at first, Saliss thought it was working. Then he realized the monster was being held against the Dungeon’s wall and that the dungeon itself was breaking.

Not Facestealer. But it was off the ground, and the adventurers were gasping. It was the first time the monster had done more than stumble.

“Come on, break, damn you. What are you made of?”

Saliss began throwing alchemical items. Big boom. Big boom. Big—

Thwoom—

The third explosion kicked him without a potion nearby. Saliss landed, looked up, and saw both his alchemical creations fizzling out. He stared through the smoke of his reactions and saw something stumbling forwards.

…Well, it looks unhappy. Saliss primed a Frost Wyvern flask made of their dead corpses. It had about the same cold as that damn Wyvern Lord. He stared grimly at the lumbering monster as it looked at him and then tried to run the way it came.

Got any more bright ideas, Colth?

 

——

 

Snatcher was beyond fury. It was going to kill them, all of them. All the intruders and—

It ran.

It ran from the naked Drake. It tried to flee towards the city, towards Mother. The other, lesser defenders were attacking, but only when Snatcher was among the many would it be safe.

Right now, it was being hunted.

That last—attack—had hurt. Hurt, but not as badly as the sound.

They hurt Snatcher.

IT COULD DIE.

Yet not easily. Not yet. Snatcher ran because it knew this was their battle. On their terms. Its fury was mixed with fear, but it took more to kill Snatcher.

Falling stars could not. Foes without end could not.

They didn’t even know how it had been made.

If it could just—get away—then it would have the chance to kill them all. Pick them off, one by one. All it had to do was hide

Snatcher ran. It could sense the naked Drake pursuing it, but warily—and they were blocking off more tunnels. It turned left and sensed more chains, more blocking spells.

They had no idea what it could do.

[Reconfigure Aura: Haste].

Dead gods! It’s—

How were they finding it? Four times now, Snatcher had escaped them, using monsters as distractions, slipping away into the darkness. Each time, they came after it, laying a trap.

How…?

That smiling adventurer. Snatcher remembered that sigil it had seen. It felt not the wounds on its hide.

But—

ROSHAL.

It remembered a trick of old. And Snatcher realized it had to be tricky itself. So long it had been that it had forgotten danger. Forgotten—cruelty. How to fight foes as great as it.

How to wage war.

YOU DO NOT KNOW MOTHER. YOU DO NOT KNOW WHERE YOU STAND. YOU—

They couldn’t even catch it, now. Snatcher charged towards the city, gloating. They had some tricks, but they were weak. It was going to get away. Get aw—

Then it heard a cough and slowed. Snatcher had no head to turn, so it swiveled its body about. And it had not sensed her—

Mihaela Godfrey jogged next to the monster. She stared up at it, her white hair blowing with the speed of their travel, and Snatcher swung.

 

——

 

The Courier of Izril was on the ground. Colth ran as Deniusth, Eldertuin, Viecel, and the other top-level adventurers raced past the Horns.

Ksmvr was slicing up Face-Eater Moths as he heard Colth shout.

Phase 13! Skip the rest—support Mihaela! Get into position! We’re using the Flying Fortress formation.”

The Named-rank adventurers surged forwards as Facestealer slowed and attacked Mihaela. She? She dodged.

“You run like crap. [Wall Run]—[Mithril Axe Kick].

The Guildmistress of First Landing leapt back so fast she made Snatcher feel slow, even with the aura. She ran up a wall, kicked off it—and her foot connected with Snatcher’s head.

It—didn’t stumble, and the impact made Mihaela grimace. She pushed off it and felt like she was trying to push off a mountain. It swiped again at her, and she landed.

“Nothing?”

She was no adventurer, but she had adventured—run into Chalence, fought monsters, Antinium, everything. This thing was raising all the warning signs in the back of her head.

Chalence’s final boss monster flinched at that.

Facestealer did not. What was it made of? She saw the hide was torn further from Saliss’ attacks. If it were skin, it would be in danger of bleeding out from the sheer volume of damage. She saw red—leaking around the cuts that the other adventurers had left.

“Lehra, pin it down. Mihaela, the Flying Fortress!”

“I hear you. It’s—”

Facestealer lunged, and Mihaela bit back her comment about it being slow. She dodged backwards again and realized it was trying to back her into a wall.

[I Took Eight Steps Like Thunder]—

The sound of it made the dungeon echo, but she dodged under the claw and saw the other positioned, swinging into—

Close. She really was too old for this. Mihaela’s lungs burned. Don’t cough. Don’t cough—

Don’t slow down. Facestealer whirled, and the Guildmistress gripped her trump card, the Wand of Lightning Bolts. But she had to save it—

A figure in armor charged past her and slammed into Facestealer. Lehra Ruinstrider shouted as the Blade of Mershi actually scored Facestealer’s hide, and it backed up. It raised a claw—and struck her.

“Lehra!”

The Gnoll went crashing past Mihaela, but she survived the blow thanks to the spells Suxhel and the others had added to her. She got up shakily—but Facestealer didn’t go after her.

It feared her relic. It was trying to run again. It was getting far too close to that inner city for comfort. Mihaela, breathing hard, looked past Facestealer. It was watching her, but she sensed something oddly…

Maybe it was just her. She had too much experience with it from First Landing, from being a Guildmistress and a Runner.

Was it contempt Mihaela sensed? Contempt, for her Skills, her own speed, and even Lehra? She got a distinct wariness—but this thing seemed to be gauging them. As if it thought it was going to escape and come back.

As if even Orchestra hadn’t hurt it that badly.

She coughed into her hand. Blood, and it hadn’t even struck her. Mihaela’s lungs were burning as they always did when she worked too hard. She sensed Facestealer’s blank face and those two gaping holes—staring at her.

“You’re not going to keep on smiling. Back up, kid.”

Lehra got to her feet shakily. She kept a glowing buckler raised as Facestealer turned. Then…saw the group blocking its way towards those giant stone gates that led to the inner city.

Orchestra. Viecel the Gambler was hanging back, but Eldertuin was standing in the way of Facestealer. He had his famous shield planted, and behind him stood Colth. And at the back—Valeterisa.

Just like old times. There was only one person missing—and she appeared as she blew past Facestealer. Mihaela Godfrey.

A Courier, Named-rank adventurers, and an Archmage of Wistram. Their ranks had changed since Chalence. Their ages. There wasn’t Dorreg or Caulette to foul things up.

Facestealer halted and began to look around. Behind it, Lehra Ruinstrider held her ground as Saliss of Lights appeared, juggling vials.

Boxed in. Facestealer stepped towards the Gnoll and Drake—then faced the Haven’s Named-ranks. As if it were reluctant to flee like this.

That—was its mistake. Mihaela inhaled and prayed for a breath of fresh air down here.

“Ready? Valley—Deni, give us a tune and some magic. Brat?”

Colth the Supporter held up a thumb. He turned and smiled at Facestealer—and then it did begin to charge. Down the long hallway, but it was too slow.

It had been too slow the moment they got into formation. Now, Mihaela’s blood roared. And she heard Valeterisa chanting.

“[Speed Spell]. [Dual Cast: Grand Lightning]. [Haste]—oh wait, you can’t haste Mihaela anymore—”

As she cast, Orchestra struck up a tune. They played a Terandrian waltz—then kicked it into their impromptu covers of the song.

Fast—faster—Deniusth’s bow began to sing across the violin he held. The Gold-bell Violinist played so fast he’d once made an ordinary violin smoke from the speed. Orchestra was playing—

A song for speed.

“[Ballad of the Courier of Izril]!”

Once, it had just been [Speed Melody]. Mihaela turned as she felt her blood accelerate in her veins. Eldertuin braced as Facestealer came at him.

The Fortress of Terlands was staring down the monster, for all he was only half its size even with his armor and shield. His eyes locked on Facestealer’s exposed eye-pits like a wall, and the monster hesitated.

Did it see—? Too late.

Colth looked at Mihaela, and his own face was lit up by Orchestra’s Skill. She saw him whisper and knew the words even if they were moving so fast that sound was slowing.

[Copy Skill: Transfer Momentum].

Mihaela began running. She sprinted forwards with Colth, but they were like Street Runners pacing ahead of the real Courier. Waiting—waiting—

Valeterisa raised her staff, and her eyes glowed. She spoke as she aimed straight down the corridor.

[Grand Lightning]!

Two bolts exploded from her, and Colth and Mihaela activated their Skills. The bolts of lightning slowed, and Valeterisa admired the bolts of electricity that had suddenly, somehow—

Come to a stop. All their speed drained away by—

[Transfer Momentum]. Colth and Mihaela sped up. They became twin blurs so fast that the world vanished except for them. So fast that Facestealer was just registering what was happening as Viecel shouted.

[All or Nothing Charge]—

Then Mihaela sprinted. Next to Colth, who kept up with her, impossibly, almost as fast, straining his Skills as they ran with lightning in their blood. Not at Facestealer, oh no.

At the most immovable force in their team. He was waiting, his back entrusted to them. And like she had so many times—Mihaela leapt. Colth came behind Eldertuin, lower, like a football player from another world, and his shoulder struck Eldertuin as Mihaela timed her kick to his back. Colth activated his next trump card.

[Encore Skill]. [Transfer Momentum]!

Eldertuin and Mihaela and Colth shared one moment in the pure world that only she belonged to. The place where [The Courier’s Last Road] lay.

Speed. Then Mihaela dropped, and Colth stumbled against nothing. Because all their energy had transferred, again—

Straight into their friend. 

Facestealer didn’t even react. Mihaela barely saw it happen. Eldertuin, flying—launched by the impact of his friends, braced behind his shield. Activating all his Skills, his skin turning to Adamantium—

He hit Facestealer shield-first, and Saliss and Lehra took cover. Mihaela saw it all. She saw the shockwave first as the two struck. It rippled through the dungeon and cracked the walls in half, a line sending spiderwebs of broken masonry through the enchanted stone.

The air moved. Dust and debris blew across the hallways, so fast that it was like shrapnel and cut Lehra’s fur and silenced Orchestra’s song. The sound it made echoed for miles in the earth, and the Gold-adventurers clapped their hands to their ears.

Facestealer. Facestealer—

Reeled backwards. It stumbled eight steps and came to a halt as Eldertuin fell, shaking.

“Eld! On your feet! Back, b—”

Colth’s shout of despair was too fast. Mihaela raised a hand as she saw what Eldertuin did. The Fortress got to his feet and drew his sword. For the sound was loud and filled the dungeon.

Crack.

Facestealer’s head, above the eyes, was bowed in. Mihaela saw, past the hide blown away—the yellow-white bone was cracked. It bled from the wound and, incredulously, the monster raised its claws to it.

Then she felt it.

Fear. It turned to run, stumbling, and Eldertuin’s sword dug into its back. Facestealer whirled, and Deniusth stabbed his rapier-bow into its side. He couldn’t cut through the hide, but the monster slashed at him with a claw. Mihaela yanked Deniusth back as Colth howled.

“Charge! [Bane Blades]!”

He leapt on its back, digging his swords in, and Eldertuin took a blow that sent him reeling backwards, but his shield refused to break. He set himself and charged forwards again as Lehra struck Facestealer from the other side with a hammer.

It was shielding its head. One-handed, Facestealer swung a fist into the dungeon wall, and debris shot out like a deadly spray. It had to lower the other hand to block one of Saliss’ flasks, and the explosion cooked Mihaela’s skin.

Take it down!

Facestealer’s arms swung wildly. It caught Colth—and Eldertuin appeared, taking the blow for his friend. The Fortress went flying this time, and another adventurer took his place.

The Gambler. Viecel lifted a handaxe and spoke as Facestealer turned. Mihaela thought it was making a sound. Like a—scream? So faint—

[Mutual Bet]. [We Both Win, We Both Lose]. I bet my head.”

The monster ripped off Viecel’s head. The Selphid’s body stumbled, and that axe came up. He swung, and Mihaela saw the axe sink into Facestealer’s bone and lodge there. The monster recoiled, and Viecel tore the axe away as he stumbled back.

“Oh dear. Oh dear—Larra, things are going badly—”

Valeterisa was raising and lowering her staff, unable to get a bead on Facestealer—but more Gold-ranks were charging. Now the monster was swinging just to clear them and get away. Away—

A rift opened in front of it as it tossed Colth aside. Lehra was trying to hold it back, but she was being dragged along. She let go as Saliss yanked her back—because the hallway was glowing. Facestealer looked up, and a familiar rift appeared as Mihaela dodged back.

Larracel the Haven.

[Fire Support: Inferno Light Arrows]. They were a foot wide, some of them, and the burning hail struck Facestealer as it flinched—then ran forwards, through the storm, towards Orchestra.

“Don’t let it run!”

Deniusth was behind Facestealer, using it for cover from Larra’s spells. He lifted his blade.

[Sound Sundering Cut].

He slashed at Facestealer’s back as the monster kept going. Eldertuin was on his feet, and Colth leapt again, cutting more strips of hide off Facestealer.

Don’t let it heal! Slow it—hit the broken bone!”

He twisted around Facestealer, swords aiming for that weak spot even as it tried to grab him, fearlessly trying to pry out the bones and expose the gap. A gap—into which all the fire and magic that Facestealer had resisted thus far would—

Colth’s sword swung towards a chunk of misaligned bone like a chisel. Then Mihaela saw his sword twist out of his hands. Viecel’s arm swerved, and the Violinist had to grab the hilt of his blade. Eldertuin swore, and Mihaela saw Lehra jerk and Saliss drop his potions and kick one away.

“What the—”

[Aura of Disarming]. Mihaela looked left and right and then saw Orchestra losing control of their blades. Only Lehra and Viecel managed to hold onto theirs; Valeterisa dropped her staff and bent over it.

“Oh dear. Oh—”

Facestealer brought down a fist, and Mihaela tackled Valeterisa out of the way.

Larra! Teleport Valeterisa out! Now! Colth—

He wasn’t listening. The adventurers were in disarray, and Facestealer was running towards those damn doors. Only a handful of adventurers were trying to stop it as they reached for their dropped weapons.

One of them was a woman who needed no sword. Yvlon Byres screamed and charged Facestealer, heedless of the danger. She punched at it, striking towards the face as Colth leapt on the monster’s back, pounding, his arms plated with metal—

Copying Yvlon? He hammered at Facestealer’s back, then caught himself as his pupils dilated and he practically spat frothing saliva. Colth let go.

“No—that’s a bad copy—”

He looked down as Facestealer grabbed one of Yvlon’s arms as it extended, trying to rip at the misaligned, cracked face. It tore off her hand, and the berserk [Armsmistress] punched it with her other hand. Facestealer recoiled. It tried to escape, and Yvlon ran after it—

Stop! Byres—”

Colth grabbed her, and her arms nearly stabbed him, turning into barbs. But he stopped her.

“[Fall Back]! You’re exposing yourself—fall back and regroup! Now!

He turned, and the adventurers backed up. Ceria was firing spells at Facestealer’s back with the other [Mages], and Halrac tried to ricochet an arrow at its head, but the monster fled past those doors.

Into the city.

Colth picked up his swords, looking at Yvlon’s arms. She—wasn’t bleeding. She stared at the stump and grunted as Ksmvr grabbed her, holding a healing potion.

“It’s just my arm, Ksmvr. It’ll grow back.”

“You’ve got a blood Skill. You’re a liability.”

Yvlon’s head snapped up as Colth pointed at her. She opened her mouth—but the Ultimate Supporter whirled.

“It’s heading into the city. We need to go after it. We broke its bones—Orchestra, I need you to get ready. Can you use your big Skill again? Because we’ll be fighting off those hordes. We’re moving now!

“Stalker’s body is in there too.”

Pisces observed, panting, as he re-sheathed his rapier. Colth glanced at him, then Ceria.

“And an army. I want summoning spells, your behemoth—form up fast. If it runs, it might try to hide or find support. If it hides, we’re safe. Not if it decides the safest place is with a horde of monsters to give it cover. Damn it. I should have slowed it—”

“We cracked it. Our best trick—cracked its head.”

“More than anything else. What the hell is it made of? I felt like I nearly broke my arms and the shield…”

Eldertuin was checking the relic. Viecel waved a hand.

“I need another body. My Skill definitely worked—but I wasn’t going to risk more.”

“Raskghar body coming up. What’s the plan? Yank those bones out with our bare hands? How many auras does it have? We should have brought an aura-specialist with us.”

Jelaqua Ivirith was shaking with adrenaline. Everyone stared at the city. And Ceria had a thought.

“Guys. There’s something else in there. If it goes to the…Mother of Graves I’ve heard about—we should not follow.”

Everyone turned to her, and Colth glanced up. He met Ceria’s eyes as Deniusth swore.

“Let’s get it before it comes to that. Move.

 

——

 

They had broken its bones.

THEY HAD BROKEN ITS BONES.

Nothing had done that since—

NOTHING HAD DONE THAT SINCE—

Snatcher was bleeding. It was wounded.

It could die.

They were in the city. The many were coming after them, but they would not stop. Not relent. It knew that, and it hated them.

They would suffer. All of them. The adventurers were creeping through the alleyways and streets as some of them caused a distraction. Stalker’s body. They were surrounding it, waging a war with fire and blade.

Stealing Stalker’s body? They could not. They could not! The many were furious.

Stalker…

The body did not matter. It had taken the trophy that mattered. Mother did not matter, even if she was in more danger than she had ever been. All that mattered was vengeance.

It was running. Moving as fast as it could as the adventurers slowly tracked it down. How long would it take them to close in?

Forty minutes? They took some time to regroup. Then more, to enter the city and cause a diversion and break the many off. An hour and a half, then? Its bones would not re-knit that soon.

But it would have its vengeance. Now…Snatcher ran as fast as it could. It would have—

SUFFERING.

 

——

 

They were tracking him through the streets. Across the city. Colth the Supporter lifted a finger as the roar of battle in the distance made Deniusth turn back. Eldertuin hefted his shield as the [Supporter] pointed, and Mihaela took up a position. The Gold-rank teams were staying behind to secure the corpse and draw off the horrific beings in this place.

It was close. Hiding down one of the streets with a small group of the red, fleshy things. They…they seemed to wander in packs. Or eat something. Mihaela’s stomach was lurching.

She felt like something had gone wrong. They should have boxed in Facestealer after the last ambush. They had wounded it, possibly given it a fatal weakness, but they were in this city, and she could tell Colth had not wanted this.

He’d still planned for it, even enough to secure Stalker’s corpse, but they had only Orchestra, Variable Fortress, himself, and Mihaela.

Valeterisa had been ordered to stay at the Haven. Larra was helping rain spells down with the Gold-ranks, but this was a gamble. And Colth did not gamble like Viecel.

“We move in now. Eldertuin grabs with Saliss.”

Saliss nodded. He had his transformative tonic ready, and Lehra Ruinstrider was shaking with nerves. She, Mihaela, and Colth had a more dangerous job than that.

Rip out one of those bone chunks, and Deniusth and Orchestra finished the job. Saliss had lent Colth a bunch of acid and poisons to hopefully filter through that gap in the armor. If he had to, Viecel would make his biggest bet. If Facestealer reached this ‘Mother’ or if it had another trick—they fell back.

“See it?”

Halrac was taking overwatch on a building, but he didn’t have an angle on Facestealer. It might know they were there. The [Bowman of Loss] loaded the second and only other Vortex Arrow the teams had into his bow.

“Ready?”

There was no point to asking that. Mihaela looked at Colth, and he rose with an expression she hadn’t seen before in his eyes.

A Named-rank adventurer. He leapt out of cover as Eldertuin raised his shield. Deniusth played a note on his violin as Orchestra rose—but they were all slower than Mihaela. She raced around the street corner and stopped.

“Death or glory!”

Viecel howled. He lunged as Colth lifted his blades. Then slowed. The fleshy, monstrous people of the street looked up. Halrac’s arrow never landed amongst them—but one of Orchestra’s [Mages] unloaded a [Fireball] into their group.

The fire and their screams were followed by several more spells. Mihaela saw three dozen forms recoiling, being cut down by more arrows. She didn’t so much as raise a fist or foot. She—and the other adventurers—were looking for Facestealer.

And they saw him. Saw…

Part of him. Colth’s face had gone still. That smile of a man courting death was on his lips—but it had frozen there. Deni, Viecel, Eldertuin—the adventurers and Mihaela Godfrey stared at Facestealer. Or rather—

His hide.

It looked like a cloak of rags. Bloody, filthy—charred with damage and covered in red. It was draped like a gruesome mask over one of the red, naked monsters inhabiting this place. The brand of Roshal was glowing upon the hide.

“It ripped off its skin?”

Someone whispered in horror. Colth spun on his heels. He looked around—then seized his speaking stone.

“Horns! Fall back!”

“We have Stalker’s body—”

“Facestealer’s removed its skin! It could be right on top of you! Fall back! Everyone, back!”

Suddenly, the voices were filled with panic. Colth looked around, and Mihaela saw Deni trying to activate a teleportation scroll.

“Colth—teleportation’s not working this deep.”

Where is he? Where is—

Halrac loosed mundane arrows as the Named-ranks fell back, shouting at the Gold-ranks to regroup. Mihaela was tensed, ready to run as soon as she heard screams.

But they never came. The adventurers surged back around Stalker’s corpse. Mihaela barely glanced at the massive beast. They had gotten it untangled from the pillar, and it was so large they would have to drag it back or cut it up somehow; the largest bag of holding they had wouldn’t have fit it!

That was secondary. Their entire goal in this dungeon—the Horns were looking around, and Ceria’s ice-fortress was glittering as the half-Elf held back the lesser monsters.

“Where is it? It should have jumped us by now.”

Yvlon said what was on everyone’s mind. If this was an ambush—was it going to unleash something?

“No monster hordes—if it uses the Shield Spider nest or—”

Seborn was glancing about, left and right. Moore stared at the red-bodied citizens of this place throwing themselves into a killing zone fearlessly. But there weren’t more than usual—if anything, they seemed to have been cleared out by the distraction.

Ceria’s pale eyes gazed at the monsters, the lack of an ambush—and then at Colth. He had retrieved Snatcher’s hide. He stared at it, and Ceria wondered how pissed off you had to be to remove your own skin.

How…mad…her eyes kept flickering. What would she do if she were intelligent enough to figure out how to escape the tracking spell? Hide, bide her time to strike back?

But what if she was crazy enough to attack Liscor on her own anyways? And all—all the most dangerous people were right here—

Ceria’s head snapped up. She whirled.

“It’s not here. We have to go back. Now! Warn them! Warn the inn! Get Larra to Liscor now—it’s going after Liscor and the inn!

All the adventurers looked up. Then Mihaela began running, but they were buried in the dungeon. And Facestealer?

Facestealer had been running for a long time. Now it was climbing. Climbing and climbing as its bloody body rose once more.

My skin. Take my skin. Take my skin. Crack my bones.

I will have your little ones. I will creep into your homes.

A claw of bone rose over the edge of the pit, and it heard the horns begin to blare. Snatcher rose—and part of it rejoiced at that sound.

I WIN.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice was in Invrisil when the alarm sounded. She was far from her inn. And it was quick.

Oh, it was fast. Everyone in the inn was still listening to the scattered reports from the adventurers. The last Lyonette du Marquin had heard, Facestealer was wounded and they were pursuing it into the inner city.

She was keeping herself distracted, waiting tables and reading a proposal sent to parents asking them to volunteer their children for a new initiative in Liscor.

When she heard the horns from the walls and the ringing of gongs, she felt her stomach lurch. Then she felt it.

As a claw touched the grass—the [Dangersenses] of every single person in Liscor began to scream. Scream—but it was too late.

Facestealer is coming! It’s coming—

Ylawes Byres looked up from a plate of fries. He slowly reached for his shield and sword. Everyone else was frozen.

“What? What’s that? Colth is below with the others. They can’t all have—”

The Captain of the Solar Strikes laughed. A number of Gold-rank teams were in the inn, as well as Silver-ranks. They got up and looked outside.

What they saw was a repeat of a nightmare the inn had had. Only this time—a bad dream grew into a far more horrific reality.

Facestealer was standing, facing Liscor. Ylawes saw the cracked bone of its head, but it stood there, yellow-white bone drenched in crimson. It was smooth, unnaturally smooth—as if the bone had no joints.

As if that were just another protective layer. Two staring pits were its ‘eyes’, and it stood there, arms spread, as spells and arrows rained down around it.

As if mocking Liscor. For a minute, it stood—then it turned towards the gates. To the inn. As if choosing which one to go after first.

“Falene. Dawil…”

Ylawes’ voice had caught in his chest. The Gold-rank adventurers had frozen up—but they moved first. They stared at this monster, which had eluded the Named-ranks. What did you do when it taunted them so?

Of course they went. Ylawes Byres drew his sword. He put his helmet on with one hand—and the Silver Swords charged onto the grass with the other teams. He charged the monster—

And he thought he heard it laughing.

 

——

 

It knew it. It knew it.

IT TRICKED THEM.

These were not like the smiling adventurer. All the dangerous ones, the woman made of speed, the man holding the shield of the trespassers—the Gnoll wielding the memory of stars—

THESE WERE EASY.

Snatcher, Snatcher! The song rang through its head. How they sang and wept of it. For these?

It saw the first warrior slow. His chest was emblazoned like the sun, and he held a glowing mace. He charged…and fell over. Like a toy.

That was so simple. This Human couldn’t even ignore…paralysis.

Snatcher bent down and plucked a head like a grape. It heard the voices then, screams. Arrows lashed it. Spells struck it as if to pierce its shattered bone.

Oh, they had shattered it.

BUT THEY KNEW IT NOT.

Its bones. It saw a [Knight] wearing armor stumble, then raise a shield. He shouted, and Snatcher struck his shield with a fist. The man crumpled—until a Dwarf struck It from the side, shouting.

These ignored its paralysis. Thanks to the half-Elf bombarding it with weak spells.

It could not even feel them. Snatcher ignored both man and Dwarf. It bent down and pulled the head off another. A Dullahan screamed at it, screamed in horror, and Snatcher put him in the bag. Dullahans were the best. They still lived, sometimes for a long, long time.

It ignored the [Knight]. It ignored the Dwarf. They struck it and knew it not.

They knew not Snatcher’s purpose.

They knew not the Mother.

They knew not its city.

They knew not its sins.

THEY DID NOT EVEN KNOW HOW IT WAS MADE.

Snatcher was ebullient. It stood there and let the man with the sword strike it, shielding his face. Yes. Strike me again and again. Strike me.

THEY MADE MY BONES OUT OF THEIR ANCESTORS.

It stood there until the sword tried to touch the crack in its head. Then Snatcher lost patience. It raised a hand and brought it down, and the [Knight]’s shield bent despite his Skills. But he tried to rise, sword flailing.

Snatcher seized him up and saw just a man. Just a man behind the helmet, a boring little man without magic, one of many. So Snatcher threw him. It turned and threw him over the walls of the city and then looked to the building on the hill.

The little people were fleeing. Snatcher hit the Dwarf too hard and watched him bounce over a hill. The half-Elf fled, and the other ‘adventurers’ ran, sobbing, away. Snatcher decided it would be all of them, inside.

SANCTUARY.

It hated that place. This time—it would enter.

 

——

 

…Thought he saw past the crack, and he was afraid to know. Terrified. Ashamed.

The world was spinning. He thought he saw a Drake staring at him below…on a wall. Then the [Knight] realized he was flying and tried to raise his—

He hit something. A roof, and the stone broke as well as his armor and body. He hit it and hit a canopy and hit the ground and lay there.

His helmet was dented. People were screaming, calling for the army, the Watch.

Ylawes! Ylawes!

Someone found him. The man had forgotten his name, forgotten his class—he looked up at a stranger and remembered she was his sister.

He forgot why he was supposed to be at odds with her. She grabbed him as a golden Gnoll appeared.

“Something threw him. Something threw—

“It’s a monster. The monster. It’s Facestealer—get inside—”

“The Watch and army is coming. Where—where are the [Crusaders]?”

A babble of voices. Ylawes tried to speak and ended up throwing up. There was too much red there. Someone grabbed a potion and forced it into his mouth. He spat half it up too—and then remembered.

He had been in a fight.

“It’s Facestealer. Where—where’s—”

It’s headed to the inn! Sound the alarms!

Ylawes looked at Ysara and found she was holding him up. He looked around.

“Where’s my sword?”

He knew where his shield was. Bent around his broken arm. His sword? His sister and Qwera looked at him incredulously.

Ylawes, don’t be mad. That thing—we need an army. Where did the Named-ranks go?”

“Tricked.”

She didn’t understand. There was no time to explain. Ylawes tried to stumble towards the gates. He found they were closed and looked around.

“I have to—they’re fighting.”

“Who is?”

Ylawes Byres stared at Ysara. She helped him up the walls, and the [Knight] looked out.

“The adventurers. They’re…”

He looked out and saw Facestealer. It was walking towards The Wandering Inn. What Ylawes didn’t see—were adventurers.

The Solar Strikes were half gone. But there were more Gold and Silver-ranks. They were…

Standing far away. Some were banging on the gates, demanding to be let in. They weren’t fighting. Ylawes looked around and saw Falene running their way. Where was Dawil?

“I have to stop it.”

“You’ll die. You’re not a match for it. Named-ranks aren’t.”

Ylawes looked at her sister.

“I have to stop it.”

The brother and sister looked at each other, and once more, they didn’t understand each other. Ysara Byres tightened her grip on her brother’s shoulder.

“You won’t be able to do a thing, Ylawes.”

He gave her a blank look as vomit dribbled from a corner of his mouth.

“That’s not the point.”

 

——

 

Numbtongue stood. He saw the Thronebearers rising and pulling Lyonette towards the garden’s door.

“The portal—”

“Get to the garden. Now!”

It was coming. So fast that Liska appeared as Ishkr dragged her into the common room. They had seconds. The Hobgoblin stared down at the Dragonblood Crystal blade.

It won’t do any good. Take my hand.

Reiss whispered. Numbtongue didn’t. Not yet. He looked around, and a figure appeared.

“Normen, let go, let—”

“Crossbows won’t work. Bird’s been shooting at it all day.”

A flurry of voices. The Hobgoblin set himself at the door. He had seen the adventurers run. And they were allowed to. It was a very practical thing—but this was his inn.

His home.

He was just glad that Erin wasn’t here. And Mrsha.

Panic. Lyonette was looking at the guests, but she was ushering them into the door. Menolit, the regulars and guests. Into the garden.

Numbtongue hesitated. He saw someone else setting himself. Despite the fact that he had only a practice sword, Normen looked at him.

“Numbtongue! What are you—”

Facestealer knocked on the inn’s door and broke it. He raised a fist, and Numbtongue heard thunder, and the inn shook from the impact. The monster stopped as it saw the long hallway. As if amused.

The inn had seen this before. This day—the Thronebearers were dragging Lyonette towards the garden.

“Princess!”

“We’ll come in a second.”

Numbtongue really wished Saliss were here. He saw Octavia emerge from her shop, holding a shaking acid jar in one hand. But Lyonette was screaming at him.

“Don’t be a fool!”

“Someone’s got to fight it.”

Numbtongue…Numbtongue was afraid of it. He was afraid it could get into the garden. Erin had told him it wasn’t impenetrable.

He felt like he was dreaming, but it wasn’t Hectval’s soldiers this time. The Hobgoblin lifted the blade. Let’s do this properly. He looked at Normen.

“Run. You’re not ready.”

“No.”

Normen was trying to force Alcaz into the door. Bird had come down with bow in hand and—and they saw it all. The [Princess], the Hobgoblin, the brave Antinium and Brothers.

Not this time. Someone shoved another guest into the door and spoke.

“None of you are ready. Not this time. I’ll greet our guest.”

Numbtongue turned, confused. Lyonette’s face whitened.

“What?”

A forgotten figure in the chaos stood there. He shoved his sister into the door, and the Hobgoblin, the [Knight], the Bird all turned. Numbtongue looked at him.

“You can’t stop that.”

“That’s not my job. But you—”

A paw grabbed Numbtongue’s shoulder. The Hobgoblin tensed—but there was just a gentle pull. And then—

Numbtongue!

Lyonette screamed his name. The Hobgoblin felt the world spin—and he landed on his back.

On the grass—with a buzzing bee jetting over his head. He looked around—and nearly stabbed Octavia as she nearly landed on him.

What the—he saw Normen go flying through the doorway, and Alcaz, and heard a voice.

“—ncy Evacuation].”

Then someone slammed the door—and turned. Numbtongue leapt to his feet as he saw a glimpse of that person who had also been there.

 

——

 

Snatcher smashed into the inn and raised its claws. It looked around, for no one had escaped through the windows and doors. As if it had given them time. As if they could r—

The inn was empty. The monster peered around the huge room—and it sensed…maybe one person here. But no more.

Where were they? Ah. Of course.

Sanctuary. It turned and grasped at a wall. Hunted across the blank boards—until it found the door it had never been able to open.

They were all in there. A [Princess], a princess with red hair. Men and women with bright armor. Even a Goblin with a crystal blade. A girl of cloth.

So many. So frightened. The warriors stood in front of the door—and there was even a tiny Goblin who aimed a crossbow at its face. A lot of Goblins, actually. They chanted at it, and Snatcher reached for them.

Its claws scraped at that door. Frustrated, Snatcher seized the doorknob and pulled.

No door had ever resisted its touch. But this one did. It pulled—then pulled hard.

The inn trembled. Somewhere—an [Innkeeper]’s head rose. She had felt it come in. She was running—but she’d never make it.

Let me in. Let me in. LET ME IN.

Snatcher raised a fist and struck the door. Those inside flinched back from it. They could not attack it. And it could not get—

It struck the door, and the inn shook. Again. Snatcher drew back its head of Dragonbone and smashed it into the door and that invisible barrier. Again and again, until it heard the floorboards begin to crack and the beams shift warningly.

And the [Innkeeper] felt it. She cried out, and the inn began to tremble. Snatcher hesitated as it sensed an aura surround it.

Like wrath. Like fury. The aura told it to leave.

Snatcher ignored it. It raised a fist and hit the door so hard the hill shifted. Those inside drew back. Its next blow they felt in the streets of Liscor.

Snatcher raised a fist—

The [Innkeeper] took off her hat. She came to a halt, panting, and her hat glowed with fire. She tipped it up—and what lay beneath it were days of wonder.

It fist rose, and Snatcher put its strength behind it. The wrath of a city—until it saw the light.

It flickered into being, and Snatcher turned. Confused, attracted by the beautiful little glow. It stared left—and a fish made of spectral blue, a long fin, flew into the air around it.

What? A light spell? A silly little spell…Snatcher felt the inn cast it. It nosed around Snatcher, and it vaguely grabbed the spell and broke it to pieces.

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t magic, and it didn’t care. It wasn’t like the beautiful heads in its sack, one screaming and sobbing still. Its…

Wait, why was its sack on the table? Snatcher looked at the sack. It felt at its side. Then—more of the strange little fish appeared. A long eel of green floated past it, and a red shark, a small sand shark appeared. Snatcher ignored them—until it felt a sting on its bones. It looked down, and a lamprey was biting it.

Biting…its bones? Snatcher crushed the fish. Then felt a tiny, tiny impact as something lashed its face. The eel. And the shark was biting at it. The glowing fish—

Began to glow ominously and more and more appeared. Dozens. Hundreds.

They began to attack as the fishies became less playful and more enraged. Snatcher swatted at them as they tried to scorch its bones. They hurt it not! But they—they did feel like something.

Old magic. Different magic. Witch magic. It stung like the Gnolls and their tribes. Stung—but it turned back to the garden. Break it. Break it into a thousand thousand pieces and what lay beyond—

The attacking spell-swarm could not distract it. The horns from the city could not. They could not hurt it—but the mug that bounced off its head thonked louder than the other sounds. And the voice…

The voice was thought-provoking.

“You’ll never get into that garden. You are a guest of this inn—and you are not welcome. In the [Innkeeper]’s place—kindly get lost.”

Snatcher paused with its fist raised. It turned. Who dared?

A shaking Gnoll was standing behind the bar. He looked terrified—and he was not beautifully white or unique.

But Snatcher decided to kill him first. Because he was part of this place. And his head…it turned. The Gnoll was still speaking, and Snatcher listened.

“This time. This time—I was here.”

Then he turned, and Snatcher lunged.

 

——

 

Watch Captain Zevara didn’t blame Erin this time. She blamed herself for trusting the Named-ranks. And she thought they’d done their best. But sometimes—

Sometimes.

“Form ranks! Your job is not to die but to hold it off! Understand?”

The [Guards] were shaking in their boots, but Gold-rank adventurers had run and they hadn’t—yet. She was proud of them.

The inn…the inn was silent. Zevara was afraid, but two figures were running towards it ahead of the Watch. and behind her, she heard the sounds of a prayer. The Watch Captain turned to the inn as she waited for another tremor—and saw something.

One of the windows near the side of the inn opened. The Watch slowed as someone bailed out the window.

Ishkr exited the inn with all the speed and athleticism of someone who was in mortal fear of his life. The Watch pointed, and Zevara’s heart lurched.

Isn’t that—the [Head Serv—]

A wall exploded. Snatcher came through it like a thing out of a cartoon—but there was nothing funny, only terrifying about it bursting through the reinforced wood like it was paper. It went after Ishkr, and the Watch howled.

Run! Run—wrong way, idiot!

It wasn’t his fault—Ishkr was racing away from that monster as fast as he could, with no thought for going towards Liscor.

He was a dead Gnoll. Facestealer was so fast that Zevara doubted she could outrace it on horseback. She turned to see where Klbkch and Relc w—

“No way. He’s outrunning it! Or not outrunning—”

Zevara’s head turned. The Watch stared. She stared. Ishkr was moving across the Floodplains. Even Facestealer seemed confounded as it blurred after him.

“What is…how is he doing that? Did we know he could do—”

The chase across the plains took less than thirty seconds. Ishkr disappeared over a hill as Facestealer chased him, catching up—and then reappeared, looking around.

What the—the monster actually hammered the ground with its bone fists, looking so frustrated—then it whirled back to the inn, and Zevara saw—

 

——

 

Lyonette was arguing with Numbtongue not to go and check outside. It was too dangerous! The garden had been shaking.

They were staring at the garden door when it opened—and Numbtongue nearly stabbed Ishkr. The Gnoll flung himself into the inn, crawled around to slam the door, and lay there, panting.

“I’m done. I’m done. I bought all the time I could.”

They all stared at him as the Gnoll clutched at his chest. Numbtongue looked at Lyonette, Liska—even Rags was seriously impressed.

What the hell just happened?

 

——

 

Skills.

Snatcher ran back towards the inn, so enraged by this—this trickery that it didn’t notice the others until they were right on top of it. It ignored the insect and Drake as it charged at the inn. This time, Snatcher would destroy it, piece by piece, and break that d—

“[Triple Thrust]!”

Something hit it in the cracked part of its bones, and Snatcher recoiled. It whirled—and the Drake’s spear struck it again. Hard.

Snatcher’s hand went up to shield its bones. Another one? How many were there? It recognized the spear, the stance.

[Spearmaster]? Annoying. Not a good one—but it planted itself, and the insect had blades this time. Like the other one. Neither fell down with its [Aura of Paralysis].

All of you, die. Snatcher swung, and the Drake dodged back. His spear lashed out again, like a part of his body. Towards the cracked bone.

Snatcher cared not. But for the cracked bone—this Drake would hurt it not. It lunged—and two blades kissed its back and took a sliver out of its bones.

Snatcher froze. A voice spoke behind it, sounding—happy.

“[Recaptured Sublimity]. Ready, partner?”

“Let’s get him.”

The Drake lifted his spear—and Snatcher whirled. It saw a blur of blades—and felt a nick in its bones. What was that sword? What was that sword? This wasn’t like the other one. It was faster. It looked different.

Snatcher wanted its head, but it had a question first.

Who…are you?

It looked at something as old as it, perhaps. And that something laughed.

A spear struck Snatcher in the back—and it deflected a blade. Fast—Snatcher’s claws whirled. It was slow. Slow—it felt those blades kiss it a dozen times in a second.

No more. 

NO MORE.

[Aura of Disarming]. The Drake lost his spear, and the blades twisted in the grips of the insect. They struggled—even if the insect held the blades, they wanted to be free every second. Snatcher raised a fist—

 

——

 

“Relc Punch!”

The Drake hit the monster in the face. It seemed stunned, but it punched back, and the Drake ducked back. His fist ached—but the incredulous monster took a swing at him, and Klbkch tapped it on the shoulder.

It swung around, and his punch made the bones shift in the monster’s face. It recoiled, and Relc kicked it. They were—

It was fast. But so were they. The Antinium and Drake dogpiled the monster. It was twice their height, but it was stupidly built. Every time it swung around to one, the other would begin hitting it in the back. And their fists—

Relc saw the bone shift. He punched it in those cracked bones and was rewarded with a red seepage. Klbkch was even faster. He calmly hammered on Snatcher’s back—and the monster turned.

The Drake was laughing. He could hear the horns blowing, but they were doing it! Didn’t anyone just think about attacking from two sides? He saw the dumb rectangle of bones turning its two hollow sockets at him, those claws of bone swinging fast—but not fast enough for a [Spearmaster]. He even knew the reach. Relc dodged back as Klbkch sped up.

 

——

 

Faster, faster. He had seen foes like this. The Slayer was hitting Facestealer with all the force in his body. He could sense his foe quailing—and Klbkch was reaching for something he had lost.

[Recaptured Sublimity]. He was going back in time, and Relc was shouting, mocking the clumsy foe. A claw shot out, and the Drake leaned back—stumbled—

Huh?

Klkbkch ducked. There was no way that Facestealer should h—

He dodged one claw that came at him fast. Another—a—flash of bone—

Third—?

Then Klbkch leapt back. Someone stumbled. Relc stepped back, eyes wide. He clasped a claw to his neck.

“That’s…not fair.”

The Slayer and the Gecko looked at Facestealer. Klbkch stared at the—arms of bone. The long, clawing arms that weren’t attached to that odd, rectangular body any longer. Something—crawled across Facestealer’s body. Bones re-shaping. Lengthening.

Bone-teeth opened and closed. An alien head, cylindrical and misshapen, uncannily off, turned left and right. Long limbs—a quadrupedal body.

It was changing. But that wasn’t what made Klbkch halt his attack. He turned—and saw how the arms were longer, thinner—and one claw as sharp as anything was covered in…blood…

Facestealer looked at Relc, and the Drake felt at the cut so deep and wide it went straight down across his neck and left a gap. Blood was gushing from it.

“Ow.”

He stumbled. Facestealer raised its claws—and Klbkch rammed a blade into its back. It didn’t go in far—but the monster recoiled. It turned that alien head to bite—and Klbkch caught it. He slammed the jaws shut, forced them back, and punched.

Crack. The spider web across its chest—the damaged spot was its chest now, as the bones shifted place—grew. The monster backed up, and Klbkch advanced.

“Relc. Your potions. Relc?”

He deflected a claw—this time, the earth moved when he hit it. The monster was backing up. And Relc was—

Lying down—

Klbkch saw the Drake collapsing. He hesitated—and the changing Facestealer backed up. It crawled backwards, and Klbkch looked at it. His Skill—

He ran at Relc, yanked him up, and reached for a potion. Facestealer was headed to the inn. Relc was gasping.

“I got nicked—”

“I’ve got you.”

But the inn! Now, Facestealer was crawling, like some insect crossed with an alien, fangs gnashing. It was wearing a shell of bone. Klbkch held Relc’s blood in, pouring the potion. He let the monster go.

After all—

The faithful were in its way.

 

——

 

They were coming, one after another. But none of them beat it. That…that insect…

It disturbed Snatcher, but it was no longer dangerous. The Skill ran out. More bugs in armor blocked Snatcher’s way.

They could not harm it. Death, death, death.

It charged them, claws reaching to pluck their heads. To teach them—

“—[Weapon of Faith].”

A mace rose, glowing, and a [Templar] set himself. Snatcher wavered. And a mace that shone with more than magic struck its claw. The [Crusaders] charged, and Snatcher wavered as the blades of a new kind of warrior hit it.

The [Templar] rained blows on Snatcher’s arms and body as it backed up—then stared at the gleaming Dragonbone. At the sudden—

Snatcher ripped off his head. The [Crusaders] froze, and one raised a shield empowered by f—

A claw tore through it. Snatcher threw the bodies aside as the Antinium broke up. They stared at it, and Snatcher roared, for it had given itself a mouth.

Bones gnashed. It turned, green blood covering it. Now—its fury reached a new zenith.

THIS? THIS? YOU THINK THIS IS ENOUGH?

I KNOW THIS TRICK.

A [Crusader] with a bow launched an arrow made of faith—and it snapped on Snatcher’s contempt. Then they felt it, and their powers quailed.

MOTHER. MOTHER. MOTHER!

Bugs, fleeing in disarray. The two warriors, one dragging the other back. Any more? Snatcher looked around and saw a half-child with flaming breath leading worthless soldiers.

Who else? Who else would dare? Did you not see the dead? The monster’s outrage grew, for they did not see it. They did not know it, and so they did not cower or run or beg. And that was its largest fault, its greatest weakness.

 

——

 

It had—forgotten.

Forgotten they would never stop.

Oh, many of them would. Many already had.

Ylawes Byres stood at the gate that was opened a crack to give Zevara’s Watch a retreat route. Klbkch was standing over Relc as a [Healer] bent, checking on the Drake.

“What are you doing? Standing there?”

Klbkch turned guiltily, but it was not him that Ylawes was addressing. Ysara no longer needed to prop him up. The Gold-ranks and Silver-ranks stared as the [Knight] looked around.

“Where’s Dawil? What are you doing? We have to get out there.”

Falene emerged, supporting Dawil. The Dwarf’s armor was rent down the chest, but he was alive.

“Lad…”

Ylawes turned to him, but the Dwarf just raised his hammer.

“Next time, we’ve gotta duck. What’s our plan?”

The [Knight] turned, and for all Falene shuddered—she was right there. But when he looked around, the other Captains and adventurers stared at him as if he were crazy.

“You want us to take that thing on? Byres, Orchestra couldn’t bring it—”

Are you adventurers? That is our responsibility. Who’s with me?”

Spit flew from the [Knight]’s mouth, and he felt himself shaking. He turned to Ysara.

“Lend me your sword.”

Ylawes!”

He turned and stared at Facestealer. And he—

He was not the only one.

 

——

 

Waters were pouring from the heavens. Waters without end—Zevara was trying to drown the bastard, not knowing it had been tried. Or just delay the monster.

“She’s activated a failsafe. She can’t do that!”

“Shut up.”

“But—”

“[Senators]—out of here.”

Chaldion of Pallass growled. He watched as a small lake formed around the inn—but the monster was just walking underwater.

The Watch Captain hadn’t done that for the Face-Eater Moth attacks. It was one of her few safeguards against an Antinium attack—a Tier 6 spell.

Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she thought Facestealer was a greater threat.

“Grand Strategist, we are ready to sortie. But the door is down. Do we have permission to engage?”

Chaldion was sitting outside the door on the 8th Floor as General Duln waited. The [Strategist] exhaled as he smoked a cigar. His third one. The door was down—and he suspected they were inside the garden.

“If it opens—do not engage. Give me a window to use [Path to Victory]. Keep Saliss alive. And the [Innkeeper].”

“Yessir.”

He was waiting.

 

——

 

They were waiting for him. And the cost? It weighed in their bones, like Mihaela Godfrey, running for the surface.

Tekshia Shivertail leaned on her spear as she stood at Liscor’s gates. Waiting for the monster to approach as the Watch fell back. She doubted she could do better than Relc—but was she fleeing?

The Dwarf stood at the door in Esthelm, and his voice seemed to rumble like the High Passes above. He smoldered with a weary guilt and flame.

He was no warrior—but Master Pelt of Esthelm called out as Kevin and his apprentice, Emessa, tried to reason with him.

“If it takes a master of steel and stone, I’ll slay that creature of bone. I fear no monster, and I have held living flame. Tell them, my grandfathers, the day I redeemed my name!”

He struck the door, but it was silent.

Open it, [Innkeeper], and set one wrong in this world to right!

No matter what the cost—the Dwarf raged and waited.

 

——

 

Did Snatcher feel it? A thousand foes, gnawing at its shell, its stolen bones? It was turning as the [Crusaders] regrouped in the Hive’s hidden tunnels.

The Silver Swords were exiting the city, and two teams broke from the silent adventurers to join them.

The Pride of Kelia and Vuliel Drae. They were Silver-rankers—but they struck each one of the Beriad like a blow to the heart.

That was honor. That was—

Adventurers. Ylawes Byres carried his sister’s sword, and his shield-arm would not work, but he called to the monster as the Antinium watched.

Turn, monster!

Facestealer stopped at the entrance to the inn, and one sinuous head made of lengths of bone turned back. It looked nothing like the old form. Here was a creature to creep through windows, squeeze into houses at night. A monster of nightmares. It regarded Ylawes with little interest, but the [Knight] screamed, his voice hoarse and breaking.

Turn around! By House Byres and Izril, we will see you dead. Turn around by Liscor. By the Five Families! By—Yderigrisel, I swear I will cut you down.”

A hand froze on the opening to the inn, a flicker of recognition made even Facestealer halt. As if it recalled that name and was…offended.

That [Knight] deserved an army at his back. But the [Crusaders]’ faith broke upon that thing—as if it were armored in more than mere bone. As if—they had felt—it had faith of its own, twisted and dark.

“Queen Xrn, Queen Xrn, please lead us to battle.”

The Beriad and 3rd Battalion were ready—but they were holding back as Artur and the other leaders beseeched the one individual who could harm Facestealer. Who had—and who watched the fighting above.

“No. I forbade Klbkch to enter battle. He disobeyed. You may do battle. I will not.”

Xrn’s voice was touched by the colors swirling in her head and black rage at Facestealer. But she held back.

Why?

Artur was confused, and the Small Queen stared at him. Her eyes shone with beautiful, magical light—and a colder confidence than Olesm had yet reached. She pointed with her staff at the monster.

“Level well.”

 

——

 

Cold ice. A [Knight]’s fury. He charged across the open ground at Facestealer, though the monster’s aura tried to stop his limbs.

He was not alone. Dasha was running behind Dawil, and Anith and Falene’s spells rained down along with Nailren’s arrows, but Facestealer snapped the ropes and nets without even slowing.

Nevermind that reinforcements might be coming. Ylawes did not go for that. He did not go in hopes of inspiring or for the glory or levels.

He went because he had to. And two teams joined him. The [Knight] ran—and the [Innkeeper] saw him.

She stopped, gasping for breath in the street as she tried to get back to her door, and saw him standing at the edge of her inn. Erin Solstice’s magic and hat and inn couldn’t slow that thing down.

It knew her garden. Her aura clashed with Facestealer’s, letting Vuliel Drae and The Pride of Kelia move—but it was like a mountain. An old, buried mountain of sins.

Ylawes. Erin cried out and raised her hand. You idiot. You—brave fool. She did not always like him, but he?

He deserved more. So she threw up her hand and shouted to the sky.

“[Boon of the Guest: Yderigrisel]!”

Mrsha slammed into Erin from behind, and Grimalkin and Pryde turned in confusion. They didn’t know that name, perhaps, but—Erin strained and felt a void where she should have felt the Skill working.

He had never been a guest at her inn. But she had been his guest. 

“No—no—damn it—[Boon of the Guest: The Silver Dragon-Knight]. Come on!

She slammed a fist into her shin. Then Erin’s head rose. Falene was glowing with Lyonette’s boon, so Erin shouted.

“Dawil—[Boon of the Guest: Pelt]!”

A Dwarf gasped as his hammer rose—but it swung and bounced against the monster’s armor without doing a thing. He backed away and reached down to his belt, which hummed—

And he drew a blade remade. For a second, for a battle. The Dwarf stared at the axe—and threw. It cut into that bone and shattered again—and Facestealer went for the Dwarf. It seized him up as Falene shouted and hit Ylawes as the [Knight] charged it.

Down the [Knight] went, tumbling down the hill, helmet dented, and he rose before he came to consciousness. Facestealer was raging at the things chipping what should not be damaged. Dawil’s head jerked under a claw—

“[Oil Spray]!”

He slipped out. Insill ran as Pekona slashed and dodged one of Facestealer’s claws. It was…weaker in this form, although it slashed so fast with another claw it ripped out a strip of her flesh and left it dangling. The monster advanced as she stumbled back, and someone stabbed it in the face.

And again—the metal tip of the conical spear left the tiniest dimple in the bone. But it did mark it.

“Run! Run, brother!”

Infinitypear lowered the spear and ran as Rasktooth shot his hand-crossbow into Facestealer’s armor—then threw an acid jar. Neither did much, but the monster pursued them before it was struck by Ylawes.

The adventurers were relieved by a sudden army of [Crusaders]. They charged up the slope but did not surround the monster. They attacked, raining crossbow bolts, letting the Beriad and 3rd Company hammer it—and fell back as the monster lanced through their armor. Green blood…

“Ylawes, Ylawes, slow down.”

The [Knight] nearly fell over as the adventurers rallied. He was almost aglow with battle fury—but he halted.

“We can’t—we can’t kill it.”

Maybe Pelt could, or a higher-level fighter, but the cracks in the bone armor needed to be expanded. Prying a chunk loose? All but impossible with Facestealer’s every blow rending all but the toughest armor.

“Where are the Named-ranks?”

In the dungeon. Ylawes shook his head. He gazed at the inn and realized Erin’s door must not be working if everyone were in the garden.

“That death-death-death-death head monster! Facestealer. No one kills it! Not Raskghar, not Minotaur, not traps, not everything in the empty nest! It kills everything.

A voice was urgently telling everyone that. Ysara had said the same, and Ylawes ignored it—until he saw Infinitypear and Rasktooth. The Cave Goblin was babbling.

“Dungeon only way. You hide and run, and it go to trap room and gets stuck. Never seen it change. Except when it kill too many. Can’t be killed.

“What? Trap rooms?”

Then Ylawes remembered—Numbtongue had trapped it once with the Redfangs. It had broken free but—

Facestealer was not going to relent. It was forcing back the [Crusaders], who retreated, healing up, and Ylawes—Ylawes’ eyes flickered.

“Wait. Wait…I remember something from the dungeon. I have a—plan.”

Dawil and Falene, panting and wiping blood from their eyes, looked at him. Ylawes had read Colth’s warnings—the Named-ranks were still fighting their way back up in the dungeon. But time? Maybe they could buy time or even—

“You—”

He whirled, and Infinitypear and Rasktooth jumped. What were they doing here? Ylawes stared.

“Who are you?”

“[Adventurers]. We fight. That is bad-bad monster. Killed many of my people. Can’t be killed. It killed Stalker. All that? Just bone. Armor.”

Rasktooth saw the other adventurers look at him, and Ylawes realized that Colth had neglected one thing with his adventurer’s bias. He hadn’t asked the one expert on Facestealer. More than Calruz. More than Numbtongue…

“Does it have a weakspot? Never mind that—you—you came from the dungeon. How well do you know it? What’s your—name?”

Ylawes floundered. Rasktooth gave him a bug-eyed look.

“I am Rasktooth. This is Infinitypear. I know every part of the dungeon where I was.”

That—wasn’t perfect, but Ylawes looked at the monster. He wasn’t as—clever as some Captains, he knew. He had a straightforward approach to things, which people mocked. But he did have more experience fighting monsters than even most of the northern teams.

This was a giant Elemental—well, a Creler-type monster right now. But he had noticed one weak spot just now and from Colth’s testimonials.

“I was in the dungeon too. I remember seeing—do you know where this is?”

He spoke, and Rasktooth nodded instantly as Dawil raised his brows. Anith looked incredulous, but Rasktooth was confident.

“I know where that is. Every Goblin.”

“How far away is it from—”

“Not far. You want to take it there? It never goes.”

“Ylawes, we can’t lure that thing! It’s after Erin’s inn!”

That was true. The [Knight] turned.

“Falene, draw it off. Can you?”

She obligingly shot a shower of fiery bolts into Facestealer’s back, and it ignored the spells. Ylawes banged on his shield, trying to draw it away, insult it.

In Yderigrisel’s name—face me, monster!

This time, the monster just turned—then went back to Erin’s inn. It was pounding on the portal door now, as if sensing that Erin was trying to keep it closed. It punched through one of the walls, exposing the hidden kill-rooms in the hallway, and then lurched back towards the common room.

Towards the garden. Facestealer ignored the Antinium. It ignored the Silver Swords. It wanted to start with the garden—then kill everything attacking it. Then the city.

Then—

Facestealer halted. Its sinuous head turned, and it broke off from the door. It turned—and then began to crawl out of a hole in the inn it had chased Ishkr through. Ylawes followed it.

What? Something had drawn Facestealer off. He looked over—and saw the figure. Ylawes Byres looked at the Silver Swords and then the other adventurers.

“We have to stop it. Or—follow me.”

He began running back towards the crack in the earth, and to his amazement—they followed. Silver-ranks, chasing down a boss monster.

Adventurers.

And who were the duo running towards the chasm, sliding down the ropes? [Adventurers] too. A Goblin and an Antinium, being chased by Facestealer itself as the disbelieving Liscor watched. The monster abandoned the inn. It abandoned the fight.

It just went after the two. Or rather…one of them. There it was. There she was. Plain as day. I found you—and this time—

Facestealer chased the beautiful head. It was whole again, which was even better! That lovely, lovely…blue-painted Antinium head. Rasktooth was blue too, with the paint dyes, and he looked at Ylawes as the [Knight] charged at him.

You sure? The [Knight] raced past Facestealer and shouted as it lunged.

Let go!

The Antinium and Cave Goblin looked down the hundred plus foot drop—and the [Knight] jumped into the pit, face-first.

Oh fuuuuu—

Dasha wasn’t that committed and slowed down, but Insill and Larr ran into her, and she went careening into the pit. Nailren’s team halted, but the Gnoll leapt after Anith and Pekona—and Falene shouted as Dawil plunged after them.

“[Mass Featherfaaaaaaaaaaa—]”

 

——

 

Snatcher landed after the adventurers. And the blue insect. She wasn’t casting magic. She was weak. She looked…different…but it could not resist.

This was all her fault. It blamed her. It wanted her head. Such a beautiful head. Such a beautiful color. And the inn—

The inn bothered Snatcher. It reminded it of great dangers, so it retreated from the above. It felt the grudges and hatred of dangerous things up there.

DAMN THEM.

It would creep up in darkness instead. Use the monsters. Use Mother’s tricks if it had to, and tools. It was not going to relent until it had enough heads to fill every part of its vault, the entire nest it had cleared—and all the other three as well.

Until heads lined every part of this dungeon. Snatcher did not fear the adventurers. They had failed.

They had all failed!

THEY COULD HURT IT NOT.

Already, the Dragonbone of its shell was knitting. Already—and they had used their best against it. Snatcher was annoyed as it crawled after the adventurers. They were racing through the dungeon, its home, as if to escape it.

It knew every corner and aspect and trap. The only problem was—Snatcher was slower in this form, meant to creep and bite and claw.

It shifted back to the one it liked so much, which could run amazingly fast. That took time—and to Snatcher’s displeasure, these adventurers did not run into traps.

They navigated this dungeon almost as if they knew it. Leaping around dangerous, hidden sigils, avoiding ambush sites and dead-ends. Even taking shortcuts—

That little green thing. The Goblin. It clung to the blue one’s head, pointing and screeching as Snatcher ran. A strange group.

A beautiful dog-person with black fur. A wonderful head such as Snatcher had never had once.

A woman with one hand and a blade from far-off lands older than even its city.

A boring Drake with black scales, and a Gnoll with a bow, a woman with a beard.

A second Gnoll, a [Chieftain], loosing arrows at monsters to keep them back.

A Dwarf with a broken blade that had cut even its armor.

A half-Elf from the Isle of Mages, a child in magic, but a child of magic, everfair.

And that [Knight]. That [Knight], racing behind the two, the Cave Goblin and the blue one with the spear, shouting the name of a traitor, bearing the shield—like that fortress of a man—of the trespassers, the ones upon the shores to the north. Newcomers claiming this land as their own.

They came to a halt as Snatcher slowed, in a room with many exits but no way out. It had caught up, and its [Aura of Haste] was beyond them.

It was beyond them. Snatcher advanced around a circular room it remembered…though it had changed. A dais of stone stood in the center, and beyond it, the [Knight] stood. He looked around. As such fools did, he spoke.

“…We fight. We have done all we can. You are all the finest adventurers…”

His voice trailed off. They turned, then. And Snatcher looked at them. It saw nothing of value.

Nothing brave, as they charged, spreading out. It threw the first Gnoll into a wall hard enough to crack bones, broke a sword in twain with a single swipe. It stood as the half-Elf threw spells into its claws and looked around for the blue one.

Where was she? Where was…

Snatcher saw Infinitypear slowly scrubbing the blue paint they used on the Antinium figurines off his shell. The ordinary, mundane brown-black of the Antinium’s carapace registered in Snatcher’s gaze at last, like the fake layers peeling off a decidedly not 1st-edition unique item in the world’s most debauched collector’s hands.

Then it raged—and Ylawes Byres raised his sword.

Force him back! Force—

They charged. A screaming Cave Goblin and a jabbing spear, knocked flying by one enraged hand. A broken-armed [Knight]—Snatcher swatted the woman with a beard and stepped back. It reached out for the fallen Antinium’s head to squeeze

And tripped.

Crack. The sound was faint, and Snatcher minded it not because it was not its body. Except…it tripped.

It—

Was it a blow from a Giant? No. Was it a great spell from an [Archmage]? No.

Those things harmed it. But no warrior here had that power. So why was it—

Falling? Suddenly, Snatcher’s arms were flailing and Snatcher understood it not.

Something fell around it. Bits of wood. Bits of fake wood, a Skill—dissolving as the fake floor vanished. But what had it f—

Then Snatcher recognized what engulfed it. It touched Snatcher not—but it was sinking. Sinking in…

Water.

And it realized it had been fighting in one of the dungeon’s well rooms, that deep well which it had never paid attention to for it drank not. But it fed Mother’s creatures and Snatcher—

It was sinking in the center of the well.

 

——

 

The vast, deep well had no bottom that Rasktooth could see as he dragged himself on his front over to the lip of it. No one had ever seen the bottom, and it was so wide across it could feed thousands of disgusting monsters.

Even the larvae and other monsters had fled Facestealer’s wrath—but the great monster of the dungeon had not noticed that the well had vanished in its avarice and then rage.

Mostly because…a Drake had covered it up with a fake floor.

Insill.

Insill—the [Rogue]. He stared down at the sinking shape, incredulous.

“That worked? That w—”

Back! We bought time. We have to leave.”

Ylawes Byres had seen better days. Everyone jerked up, and Nailren grabbed Larr.

“On your feet, brat.”

Dasha was unconscious, and Pekona gave up slapping her awake and just hauled her up with Anith.

“How—how long do we have?”

Anith was speaking around a mouth bruised, and he felt like he’d lost at least one tooth. Ylawes looked little better, and his face was puffy, his arm broken and his armor ripped up. They looked at Rasktooth.

“How deep does the well go?”

The Cave Goblin frowned.

“When big horned man—Calruz—came—he made Raskghar dive. Then he tied stone to rope and tossed.”

“And?”

The Cave Goblin shrugged.

“Too deep. More than thousand feet. More than Raskghar or Cave Goblin dives.

Everyone stared down into the well. Ylawes Byres blinked. He peered down—and Falene threw a light spell down, down…

“It can’t swim. It’s sinking like a rock. Do you think it—”

Facestealer was still visible as it sunk, and they saw it flailing. Flailing and flailing and…suddenly, Ylawes realized something.

“Does anyone have [Dangersense]? I do.”

Rasktooth lifted a claw, and so did Larr.

“Is it going off?”

The other two looked at each other, and Rasktooth tapped his head. Ylawes felt some danger from the dungeon—but the sirens blaring every second in the back of his mind? Larr’s jaw dropped. Slowly, Falene stared down.

[Eagle Eyes]. It’s…still sinking. How far down does this well go? Did the Raskghar see anything?”

Rasktooth innocently smiled.

“Minotaur horn man sent four down. One went one hundred. One went two hundred. One went a thousand. With amulet that lets them breathe water like air. The last one never came back. Well goes down, down, down. Like all the water above. Down.”

Everyone looked up, and Ylawes Byres remembered.

“The Floodplains…flood every spring. I always wondered where the water goes.”

“Sometimes, dungeon floods. Goes down here.”

“What, through the wells? But where do the wells go?”

Dawil looked incredulously at Rasktooth, and Infinitypear decided he had better stand back from the well. The Cave Goblin stared down—then spat into the well.

“Looks like—very far for stupid monster.”

The adventurers gazed at each other. Wait—Facestealer wasn’t even visible now, even by Falene’s eyes. Dawil fished around and found a stone.

“Falene. Can you track this with a simple spell?”

“Sure.”

She tossed it down—and they waited. Falene counted. Everyone began bandaging their wounds. Dasha woke up, and Ylawes Byres sat down, despite the danger, and fished around in his bag of holding on a hunch.

“One thousand…two thousand…three thousand…”

Then Falene gasped.

Eight th—it’s gone.”

“What was that?”

Dawil looked up, and Falene Skystrall shook her head.

“It’s out of my range. It was going down slowly and then—something pulled it down. Something fast.

Everyone stared into the well, and Rasktooth whistled.

 

——

 

Snatcher was in the water, but the water hurt it not.

It did not need air. It had been made to protect Mother. To guard this city.

This…

City of Graves.

And they had made it to destroy Dragons. It had done that. It had survived Mershi’s wrath. So it did not fear the water, but it tried to flail over to one side of the stone walls sloping down, down…

They had dug down deep when they made this place, to protect it from siege. Down and down, they said, to find out where the water went.

Snatcher cared not. Even when they had made it listen and obey—their questions were not its. In time, they had all simply listened to Mother.

It was nearly over to one of the well walls. It would take it a long time, days, perhaps, to climb. It had sunk fast, as heavy as it was. Snatcher reached out a claw.

That [Knight] died. They all died. This group especially. It would take their heads and then all the others. It would wake Mother. It would—

The claw missed the stone wall. Snatcher saw it end—and stared as the last enchanted bricks vanished. Then it looked around and saw something so few ever had. And it remembered…

When they saw what it had done, when they hated us all—they buried us. A fitting end for our deeds, in this warm, dark grave. And we waited, and Mother waited.

The Walled City of Graves had sunken into the earth, and it had not cared. But the parts remained, and the builders dug deep, deep, and built a place in readiness for the day they were found. Yet this…

They had dug so deep, these wells, thousands of feet. To answer the question where the water went. And Snatcher saw the answer. It saw…no wall to grab onto. It looked around, and the current began to pull it. Faster. Faster…and then it panicked.

Then it feared.

What is this? What is—

It descended into a place only clever Gnomes and dead gods had ever known. Deeper and deeper.

Down.

Down.

Down.

Downdowndowndowndowndowndowndown—

 

——

 

Ylawes Byres stood at the edge of the well. And he sensed no more danger. Falene had done her experiment again…and whatever this well led to, it was so fathomlessly deep her magic could not explore it.

“I think we won.”

It was Dasha who said it, and no one believed her, even her. But then they sort of felt it.

An incredulous—relief sweeping hold of them. Ylawes looked at Infinitypear, and the shaking Antinium poked the well. Then he tossed another stone down and watched it go.

“You fucking idiot.”

Larr looked at Nailren, but the [Chieftain] just looked down the well.

You idiot. You can’t swim, and that’s how you lost?”

He tossed in more stones and watched them sink. The Dwarf looked down and then snapped his fingers as he realized something.

“Dead gods, it’s like the Earth Elemental. Lad—is that what you thought of?”

“The what?”

Anith looked up, and Ylawes nodded shakily.

“The first monster Dawil and I ever beat was an Earth Elemental. But we had—bad gear. I’d chipped my blades on it, and Dawil’s axe was lodged in its chest, so we ended up tricking it into a pit. Then we threw rocks at it for eight hours. You don’t have to beat a monster. I thought we could just send it down and buy time for the other adventurers by covering the top. Or turning the water to ice or something.”

“We did it? We did it?

Pekona was staring at Ylawes, but Falene exhaled. She looked around—and to everyone’s surprise, whooped. The half-Elf punched the air and fiddled with her broken glasses.

“Take—take that, Ceria! Our team beat the monster Named-ranks couldn’t!”

She put her hands on her hips and looked around. Falene’s face was flushed, and suddenly, Dawil began laughing, but not at her for once.

“We did it! We did it! We’re going to level up!

Insill shouted, and Larr grabbed him.

“We’re? You’re going to level up! You trapped a boss-monster—”

Everyone began shouting—until they realized that this was the dungeon. They lowered their voices, and Ylawes Byres stared into the well. He wobbled—and his bones ached and he was pretty sure someone had to help him back to the entrance or he’d pass out.

But between that moment of victory, incredulity—he hesitated.

For he did not know his path forwards, but he looked at the Silver-rank teams—and Rasktooth and Infinitypear—and felt a kind of certainty dawn on him.

But first—first—he did this for perhaps the last time. The last time until he figured things out. Nevertheless—he felt right.

Slowly, Ylawes Byres took out something he always carried about. A tradition, really. It was a small bag of powder, bright silver dust. Dawil blinked—and Ylawes dumped the entire bag into the well.

“It’s not connected to Liscor.”

He turned to the Dwarf. Dawil glanced at him, and Rasktooth spat again. The adventurers looked at each other, and a few more tossed in rocks. Ylawes slowly raised a middle finger and wondered what Mrsha got out of it.

“That is for you.”

He told Facestealer, wherever it was sinking. Then he looked over. Someone was clambering over the lid of the well.

“Pekona, Insill, make sure I don’t fall in. I’m going to piss in the well. No, wait. I can think of something better.”

Larr was unbuckling his belt. Anith dragged him back.

“You idiot, that’s disgusting. And too far.”

 

——

 

That was how Mihaela Godfrey found them. Larr, squatting over the well, and half of them lapsing into unconsciousness. She stopped, listened—and made them repeat everything five times.

That was how they emerged as well, to the disbelief of the teams, the armies lined up, and even Erin Solstice herself.

There was, of course—more to say. More to do, and explanations and inquiry into the well—and an instant resolution to hire Hexel to put a damn cap on the rift and make sure this wasn’t going to happen again.

Ylawes Byres mostly passed in and out of consciousness for a bit. Until he woke up and Erin Solstice was sitting there.

“Heard anything interesting?”

He nodded, and she handed him a drink. He moistened his lips and then realized it was a Minotaur’s Punch. Glorious fire.

It was reflected in her eyes and hat, and she saw his expression.

“I can get you something else, but it feels—fitting. You’re a real adventurer.”

Coming from her—Ylawes Byres sat there for a bit.

“I’m going home. And then to the new lands—and on a journey to find something. Someone. Maybe you know where to look.”

“Oh? I’ll help. But it doesn’t sound like you know quite where you’re going. I could show you a statue or two, though.”

The [Knight] shook his head, not quite picking up on what Erin was saying. He glanced around—and saw the adventurers, looking embarrassed, askance—and Ceria Springwalker, talking about the giant corpse they’d gotten.

—and Facestealer’s hide, if we trust that. But guess what we found?”

Numbtongue scratched at his head.

“…A monster?”

“No, under the Raskghar camp. Before we ambushed that bastard, he lifted up this huge block of stone, and Eldertuin managed to lift it on the way back. Calruz had no idea he was sleeping on top of—well, I think we’ll give at least one to the Silver Swords.”

One what? Ylawes glanced up, and Ceria pointed to a bunch of blades that Pisces was making everyone stay back from. Hedault was staring at them, and Ama, Pisces, and the [Enchanter] were pretty sure that they were high-quality death magic blades. With odd handles made for claws.

An armory of weapons from whatever…place this had been. Ylawes realized that Erin was staring at him and forgot her question.

“Where we’re going? I never do. But I think…where are Vuliel Drae? Nailren and—Rasktooth and Infinitypear?”

He looked around, and Erin got them for him. The [Knight] saw the two [Adventurers], the Silver-rank teams, and finished his thought. He talked with Falene and Dawil for a moment, but neither one had any objections.

“I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know what our task is—and I can’t promise a lot of treasure. But if we go to the new lands or—wherever adventure takes us—”

He lost focus. This was not the mindset for a speech, and he was pretty sure he had a concussion. They looked at him blankly, and he stared at the Goblin and Antinium especially as Erin’s eyes lit up. Ylawes Byres took a breath.

“What I am trying to say is—if you wish, I would like to invite you to join my team. The Silver Swords. Three is a small number anyways.”

Yvlon’s head swung around, and Insill’s mouth opened.

“Us? Who?”

“All of you.”

Erin answered for Ylawes, and Rasktooth grinned and began to congratulate Anith’s team and Nailren’s—until he saw Ylawes looking at him. And he and Infinitypear exchanged a sudden glance, and Ylawes—

Well. He decided now was a suitable time to pass out. And that night, among the voices that he heard, one said this:

 

[Conditions Met: Knight → Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon!]

[Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon Level 37!]

[Skill — Name of Dragons: Yderigrisel]

[Skill — Aura of Protection obtained!]

[Skill — Legacy: Find the Dragon’s Grave obtained!]

[Skill — Sword and Shield Art: The Knight Charged With Wings of Steel obtained!]

[Skill — Negate Spell obtained!]

 

[Conditions Met: Adventurer → Horrorbane Adventurer obtained!]

[Horrorbane Adventurer Level 16!]

[Skill — Immunity: Fear obtained!]

[Skill — Tidal Jab obtained!]

[Skill — I Have Seen It Die obtained!]

 

[Conditions Met: Trap Rogue → Pitfall Trapmaster Saboteur obtained!]

[Pitfall Trapmaster Saboteur Level 28!]

[Skill Change — Pitfall Trap → Pit of Many Deaths obtained!]

[Skill — Trap: Masterful Concealment obtained!]

[Skill — Mithril Caltrops obtained!]

[Skill — Incredible Leap obtained!]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Join the giveaway in celebration of Book 8, the blood of Liscor coming out! It’s got prizes!

I did little editing this time, could you tell? I fit everything I wanted into the third part because I am on break…

And I probably should have made it four parts. Here are my thoughts.

I am on break. I am death. I played God of War: Ragnarok, and I was so mad I wrote a 6,000 word essay on it while writing this chapter.

Because the story was so bad.

We all make mistakes. I fear I will leave this chapter and post it with a number of things I could do better, but this is a web serial, and I am trying to balance quality with not missing my updates.

It’s…less forgivable in a million-dollar budget game when you have, I presume, an editing team and countless eyes on a story like that. Seriously—it’s bad. But perhaps you can’t see it because all the other parts are good and the ending is where things fall apart. As it normally goes, anyways.

I will spare you my rants, and I hope this was enough word for now. We will see more later—there is always more to see, and process, but I am done. The side story arc was this, and was it worth it? Let me know. Thanks.

 

 

Shellbazaar by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 

Gnolls and Erin’s True Power Level by butts!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/buttsarts

 

Chapter Sketch by Artsynada!

 


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Interlude – Adventurers (Pt. 2)

Adventurers in Albez, digging. Adventurers in Liscor, tossing skeletons into the chasm.

Adventurers everywhere. However, it wasn’t all about them.

While they were up and spending every waking moment in search of treasure, the party that Lyonette had started was still going on in multiple cities. More than three days had passed—this was the seventh, actually. By now, Liscor’s Council was really hinting that everyone should get back to work.

Gently, though, because there certainly was profit being made here. Every time it seemed like the party was winding down, someone else came by.

In this case—Riverfarm and a host of Humans flooded through Erin Solstice’s door. So, rather than a party, it was more like a week-long festival where you could take a break from work and see something new. Instead of a [Princess]’ plan, it was spontaneous.

Today, as every day, you could wake up in The Wandering Inn, and the first thing you might hear would be the scampering of paws. Breakfast would already be hot and fresh, and adventurers and guests would slowly emerge from their rooms, trained to follow the smell and head downstairs.

Goblin and Antinium workers were already up and still looked bemused as they went downstairs, wearing uniforms with the paw print and inn logos on them. A Hobgoblin with one foot was hopping as she tried to attach a peg-leg to her…leg.

New employees. Erin Solstice knew all their names by now, but the rest of the guests were still somewhat—unfamiliar with them. Not that the Goblins and Antinium had to do more than take food out.

The power of Ishkr meant that the inn was still handling the increased waves of guests, but it was also fair to say that the Antinium and Goblins had begun to pull some serious weight.

For instance, the Hob, one of the two the inn had been sent by Rags, was used to ordering silly Goblins around. She poked one, and that Goblin got to clean the outhouses. Another Goblin got to check the basement for pests like mice or insects. A third Goblin got to draw water from the well.

Her name, or nickname, was, somewhat pointedly, ‘Peggy’. Because of the leg. She had apparently lost it in a battle; another former Redfang who Rags had decided could be of better use in the inn.

The other Hobgoblin was male, and he got a fourth elbow to the guts because he was Mountain City tribe…and he was reading a damn book. At work! He closed it with a grunt and scowled—but he would often be reading in a corner. Unlike Peggy, this Goblin, Inkpaper, was a known slacker in the Flooded Waters tribe. Rags…somewhat approved of him, but had still given him to be Erin’s headache anyways.

There were more Workers and Goblins, of course, and even some Soldiers. They headed to work—or breakfast and relaxation until their shift started.

Breaaaaakfast! I hate bisque! Bezale, do you have that [Lion’s Strength] spell I asked for? Cast it on me! I will never bisque again!”

The Minotauress sighed, but Erin Solstice started her day with a big smile for all her guests, and they were legion. Gothica emerged from the basement where she’d installed a bed, Relc stomped downstairs with one boot on, and Pisces yawned his way over to a table where Colth and the Horns were sitting.

I’m late for work! I’m late, and Captain Z and Klb are going to kill me! Where’s my boot? Can I get breakfast—

“Gothica, please stop sleeping in the basement.”

“Up yours, Ishkr.”

“Well, here’s our [Necromancer]. Day three of skeleton exploring, eh? Let’s see if we can get past those damn monsters. I swear, they’re targeting us. Pisces, want to send down the first skeleton group and see how far they get?”

The grumpy [Necromancer] flicked his hand, and the bones of multiple skeletons rose outside the pit and began to rope down as a scrying orb glowed to life on the table as the adventurers ate. Today was biscuit and gravy day, and everyone got a big pot to share and dip fresh bread into.

“Yum. Big yum, Calescent. Numbtongue, there you are. Is Octavia dead?”

The Hobgoblin looked over and hastily yanked Octavia’s face out of her bowl of pottage.

“…Octavia.”

“Huh? I’m working, Master Saliss!

She jerked, grabbed a full salt-shaker, and dumped it into her bowl. Then Octavia blinked around, looked at Numbtongue, and put her face on her plate and went back to sleep.

Erin sighed and grimaced as she wiped her hands on her pants.

“How’s Riverfarm doing? Ishkr?”

The Gnoll appeared with breakfast for their table.

“I think Liska sent over today’s negotiators and let in a bunch of guests to Liscor already.”

“Wow, they’re up early. I may go back again. How’s things? Nanette? Where’s…”

This was The Wandering Inn—the new inn’s morning. If you wanted, you could stick around and listen to Erin or wait for something funny to happen.

But why wait when there was so much outside? The adventurers were already groaning at their table. The instant a skeleton opened one of the doors, a hand had reached through and ripped off a skull.

“Facestealer! Back them up! Back them—”

A wave of monsters was pouring out the shutters. Yvlon pounded a hand on the table and almost got up.

“That’s it. I’m going down there—”

“That thing’s holding a real grudge. Hold on. Let’s grab some arrows and clear the monsters out if they’re at the bottom of the chasm. Skeleton wave two? Maybe via the trapped entrances?”

Colth was scratching at his chin and checking on how far Albez’s excavations were going. They, at least, could make consistent forwards progress, no matter how much dirt they had to move.

And the rest of the guests were heading outside. Some lined up for the door, but most didn’t bother waiting. Liska was opening and shutting the door, grumpy and yawning.

“Door has 84 people left until it resets. One hour and forty-eight minutes until reset! Priority to diplomats or important people.”

“Am I important people? I’ve gotta get to work!”

Relc tried to shove past a group heading to Invrisil. Liska sighed and changed the door to Liscor.

“Liscor’s practically no mana charge. Go on through. But hurry up anyone going—I’ve got thirteen people waiting in Invrisil! Hey! [Form a Line].

The grumpy Gnoll snapped, and the crowd actually did just that. She was Liska, and she was mad mostly because she was getting good at her job.

In fact…the [Door Gnoll] really resented her class. Door Gnoll? Doorman?

Her powers included making people wait in line, checking on how much mana Erin had, and efficiently sending people to their destination.

Worst class ever.

Anyways, she let through a few more guests into Liscor, and the crowd muttered as they saw the Goblins and Antinium—but only the ones in the crowd not from Liscor. And in the city?

They were the least notable of all, because the sights continued. The first thing that hit the visitors was the fair.

People were still buying the Antinium dolls, and a booth to paint them was letting people—children and adults—color them.

Of course, by now, it wasn’t just Antinium. Someone had just come out with a miniature image of Forount, and people were queuing up to buy paint for the fleshy skin tones and metal armor.

Quality ranged from ‘lurid’ to highly realistic. Some people just used about four colors for the entire figurine, and a few had figured out how to begin adding shading and even weathering to the armor with knives and had created amazingly vivid versions of the [Brigadier].

Behind them, the impromptu bazaar in Shivertail Plaza was turning into a larger version of Market Street. The temporary stalls had been reinforced, and a lot of families—or the [Cooks] and people responsible for meals in said families—were inspecting a lot of cheap, good-looking produce from Riverfarm.

Cleverly, the [Emperor] had decided to offer samples of products based on said food, so you could also eat if you lined up. Not to be outdone, local farmers and the [Pirate], Wailant, had also put their goods on offer.

Drakle-Lischelle Products: Fresh, Highest-Quality Mutton, Pork, on sale.

That was one of the stalls doing good business that the guests of The Wandering Inn passed by. A bored-looking Rivel and old Bamer were manning the stall, and a Gnoll and Drake were shoving each other in line.

“Krshia! You’re supposed to be at the Council meeting.”

“So are you, Lism. I thought you were ‘attending to emergency business’ before we met.”

“Well…you didn’t say you were coming here! I need to run my stall.”

“So do I. Shoo.”

Lism trying to out-shove Krshia was fun enough for some people to watch the Drake versus the Gnoll woman—she was taller and heavier than he was by a good margin. But then it started.

 

“♪ Oooooooh~ ♫”

 

A group of voices began to rise in the distance. Heads turned, and Lism groaned.

“Oh, Ancestors. It’s them again.”

Everyone looked around, and there they were, occupying a little stage that was used for speeches or performances. Even Lism didn’t try to stop them, just stared with resignation—because the Council had approved them and everything.

Worse, they were growing in number. One of The Wandering Inn’s Workers not on duty practically ran over and joined a throng of people standing together. Drakes with odd helmets, local Liscorians being branded as menaces by their neighbors, and visitors from abroad.

The Yoldenites began to sing. And the choir began, once again, to sing another mass-chorus of the Yoldenite’s national anthem. Then all the best songs, north and south, that a group of voices could get up to.

It was free music. And you had to admit—it was a good outlet for a lot of [Singers]. The fact that a Worker had joined in?

Well, that was something new. But back to the point.

“Magical amulets on sale! Straight from the Meeting of Tribes and the Gaarh Marsh tribe—never suffer a bug bite again. Or what about a bracelet? [Lesser Strength]!

“[Lesser Strength]?”

A lot of people looked over at that. Regardless of profession—the Golden Gnoll, Qwera, was unveiling another hot item. She had actually not put these bracelets out until today. She had told her customers, candidly, to check back every day or they might miss her new item.

Right now, the [Merchant] was showing everyone an astonishing price tag.

“Five hundred gold pieces per. And before you turn away, this is a bracelet on par with a Skill most [Warriors] train for! I have twenty bracelets, and the price goes up the less I have. Do I have any takers?”

She made her first sale within a minute. Whereupon the price did go up, and the rush that followed…

Well, that was just one good on display, and it was pricey, the lot of it. Qwera did stock goods for people who didn’t have lots of gold to throw around, but one of the most tempting options—a snazzy hat with [Far Sight] on it, a blue tricorne—was still twenty-two gold coins.

A lot of money, but not impossible for a good [Hunter] or someone with a lucrative job to pay for, let alone a successful [Trader] or someone like a Guildmaster. One of Qwera’s [Stall Keepers] eyed the guests from The Wandering Inn, but since Qwera was staying there, the Drake replied curtly.

“No touching—we’ve got a stock of six. Different colors. If you can’t afford it, then come back tomorrow. We’re unlikely to sell all six by then.”

If you can afford it. The tone of the Drake suggested this was unlikely, and the disappointed guests stared at the hat.

Twenty-two gold coins? A lot, a lot. But what were you to do? Not everyone was as rich as Mrsha. A lot of the fun items on display would be sold to even Goblins and Antinium for the right price. But if you didn’t have that price…

In the inn, the adventurers were after the big stuff. A monster’s corpse. In Albez, adventurers were honing in on some stairs buried deep, shifting dirt and stone—a slow process to dig a hundred feet down. Even at their fastest, with magic, they’d barely gone more than twenty feet in a day.

Which was, to be fair, a lot of down, especially through rock. Gold-rank adventurers. Named-ranks. But as two guests of The Wandering Inn looked at each other, they exited Liscor, past the [Guards] who eyed them with only mild interest. They wandered out onto the Floodplains, and one patted the other on the head and pointed past two waving antennae.

“Adventure time?”

Adventure. Yah.”

The other figure marched off, carrying the first on his shoulders. The one doing the carrying was an Antinium, and he had a tall spear and clothing, not bare carapace. Even chainmail, and the one on top cackled and waved at the surprised Humans coming from Esthelm.

He was a small, grey-skinned Goblin, and he had a necklace of huge fangs and his own set of baggy clothing, but no hat. A hat would really improve his look, both felt, especially one to complement one of the crossbows from the inn he carried.

The two had no ranks. They weren’t Bronze-rank, they weren’t Silver or Gold and certainly not Named-rank, though they had names.

Infinitypear and Rasktooth had no guild registration—but they were certainly…

[Adventurers]. The two ran out past Liscor’s walls. Or—one did.

Rasktooth’s legs didn’t work anymore. They hadn’t since the battle at the Meeting of Tribes, but he sat on Infinitypear’s shoulders, pointing out spots for the Worker to march to. Infinitypear’s spear was high-quality, and the [Shopkeeper] and the [Guards] had eyed that.

One of the Watch’s [Guards] muttered to the other at the gates.

“…That wasn’t an enchanted spear that Worker was carrying, was it? It looked, uh—shiny.”

“Maybe a low-grade enchantment?”

The Gnoll frowned at her colleague. They both stared at Infinitypear’s spear and didn’t recognize the sigil burned into the wood or the conical tip made of Adamantium.

Spearmaster Lulv had lost his spear. Right now, Infinitypear was using it as a walking staff. But it also doubled as a pretty good weapon in the Antinium’s opinion.

Adventure. What would today bring? The two had no idea what it would be, but they were sure they could find it. Rasktooth looked around. He spotted a Rock Crab scurrying across the grass, a stand of dangerous boom-trees far in the distance, and inhaled the fresh air as the High Passes began to light up with the sun.

“Want to beat up spiders, Infinitypear?”

“Nah. Let’s find treasure. Gold pieces. Seven more.”

They had fifteen gold pieces, a huge amount from previous adventures. They had bested the racoon and found a treasure buried in a pouch on their first adventure. They had picked up the fallen [Merchant]’s pouch on the run with the Titan and gotten a reward for it.

They had fought in the Meeting of Tribes and survived a war between five plus armies and had stolen Spearmaster Lulv’s spear.

Then, they’d uncovered five silver coins and an old dagger buried under the blue fruit trees where Erin got her fruits. And beaten up eight Shield Spiders.

They’d had some great adventures, hadn’t they? This time, Infinitypear took them towards the caves as Rasktooth fed him an apple he’d snatched from the breakfast table. He cut it up, handed a piece down, and crunched on one himself.

“Enchanted hat is just for me, Infinitypear? What about you?”

“I don’t know. Don’t care. Hat is good.”

“You sure?”

“Yah, yah.”

Rasktooth patted him on the head. They liked that word, ‘yah’. A combination between yes and yeah. The Goblin grinned.

“Yah, you good. But what about other Antinium? You don’t want to go to your Hive? Sing?”

He was hinting. Infinitypear took him everywhere, but he knew the [Crusaders] were back in the Hives. They were everywhere, and the Free Hive was important, and Infinitypear was hanging out with the Goblin.

“It’s okay. All Painted Antinium and Individuals have to report in the Hive. Later, later. Doesn’t matter.”

Infinitypear airily wandered away from the Hive, and Rasktooth looked down at him.

“You not bored with me, Infinitypear? You can say.”

“No. We brothers. I said I would carry you places. Liscor…other places. Far, far away.”

The Antinium [Adventurer] looked up. Rasktooth patted him on the head.

They had met during the Fellowship of the Inn, on their quest to save Mrsha. It had been chance that they grew to be friends, but Rasktooth and Infinitypear…understood each other.

Neither one had known the outside world until it came to them. For Infinitypear, as one of the Antinium who was lucky enough to be painted by Pawn’s new ways. For Rasktooth?

The five Redfangs had killed the Raskghar who ruled them and set the Cave Goblins free. When he had first looked up at the sky, the Cave Goblin had sworn never to go back to the dungeon. And Infinitypear had gazed into the wild world beyond Liscor with the Titan leading them and realized how much more there was.

“Am I heavy, Infinitypear? You’re an [Adventurer].”

“So are you.”

The Cave Goblin nodded.

“Yes. But…other lands is far. Very far. You don’t have to carry me. The inn is nice. Has lots of food.”

“I will carry you. We are brothers. Yeah?”

“…Yah.”

Sometimes, Rasktooth said silly things like that. He had paid a high price for going to save Mrsha. As high as Apista, and she was flying again. The Antinium ignored the suggestions.

They had a connection deeper than either one had figured out how to say. But they liked the words.

Brothers. A thing that Numbtongue had taught them. Rasktooth looked up and swung his crossbow up as they headed to their first cave. He sniffed the air.

[Hound’s Nose].

His Skills were different than Infinitypear’s. The Cave Goblin sniffed and muttered.

“Smells like foxes.”

“We kill foxes? Sell pelts?”

The two thought about that. Rasktooth thought he heard scrabbling and wondered if there were a family of them in there. Liscor’s fox population was small, and they had bright orange fur.

“Nah.”

“Naaaah. Want to try feeding foxes?”

“Good idea. You got food instead of this apple?”

“Dried meat in my pouch. Do foxes eat apples?”

They spent the next fifteen minutes trying to lure a fox out by tossing treats into the cave and making fox-like noises. No fox came out, but the two were heading away when Rasktooth saw a little shape dart out and grab the food. A cute little one!

This was a pretty darn good adventure already. Then Infinitypear was marching to the next cave. And his pace seemed to pick up, despite the pack he wore and the spear and armor and Rasktooth.

[Spirit of the Wild]. The further he got from Liscor, the more energized he got. Plus…

[Find Roads Less Travelled]. Rasktooth cackled as he spotted a promising hill in the distance and a crack in one of the cliff faces bordering the Floodplains. He pointed ahead and aimed the crossbow at a Shield Spider pit he spotted. Liscor was fun enough for now. But Infinitypear wanted to see the sea and everything beyond it.

Rasktooth wondered if they’d be together when Infinitypear did. He hoped so. But today, they quested for enough gold to get that hat. It was a pretty good day.

 

——

 

Rasktooth and Infinitypear were the happiest adventurers in the entire region. The Horns of Hammerad—were not.

Pisces glumly stared at a bag of shattered bones and powder that Ksmvr and Yvlon came up with. They ascended the ropes cautiously as Ceria covered their exit with Colth.

“Okay, the dungeon really doesn’t like us. It definitely knows the skeletons are foreign. How many did we send?”

“Eight. Eight, and I think I found the iron armor we put on our leader.”

Colth waved a mangled piece of metal with a hole in it. A suit of enchanted armor had punched straight through it.

Pisces tossed the scrap metal aside and shook his head.

“I’m running out of bones. At least—bones I can use for lesser skeletons. Why is this so difficult?

In fairness, the Horns had done some good work. They’d found four Raskghar camps or spots that Ceria had thought they’d used as outposts. They had expanded the map that the other adventurers had used incredibly far, if narrowly, hoping to find the inner city—

But their progress had stalled because it felt like every monster in the dungeon and Facestealer itself were after the skeletons. Almost as if…it or something else had taken notice of the intrusions and decided to do something about it.

“We could go down there?”

Ceria suggested mildly. Colth made a face.

“I don’t really want to take down that Facestealer thing when it’s waiting for us, do you?”

“Ah, point. At least it’s too heavy to climb the ropes.”

They suspected it had tried, multiple times, but the adventurers didn’t just leave the ropes attached—and the one time something had jerked the rope when Yvlon lowered it down, it had snapped it clear of the anchors.

The possibility of that horror just waiting for them to descend was a good incentive not to head down, but Pisces was getting sick of rebuilding skeletons.

“This is…I agree this is the safest, most expedient option, Colth, and you can control one or two skeletons while you’re helping me.”

The [Supporter] had been practicing and looked up as Pisces rubbed his forehead.

“However, this is extremely taxing to send undead so far into the dungeon. I have a headache, and we’ve only done two waves.”

“Maybe take a break on it, then, Pisces. The last thing we want is for you to snap or get tired. How about I do a skeleton run from the traps? Facestealer doesn’t seem to want to go through that area. It just takes longer.”

Pisces nodded, and Ceria looked at Ksmvr and Yvlon, who had less to do.

“Sounds good. I know it’s slow—so how about we take a little break? I’ll help Colth navigate. Yvlon?”

“Ksmvr and I will head to the markets, then. I want to find some good saddles. Even if we use undead horses—and I really don’t know if we want to chariot-ride across Izril—we have to have good saddles.”

“And food. I will keep inquiring as to the best food supplies to take. If we go on a long adventure into lands hither-to unexplored.”

Yvlon sighed.

“Yes, if.”

“If. Hypothetically. Theoretically. In reference to Comrade Pisces’—”

“Yeah, yeah. We get it.”

Ceria rolled her eyes, but fondly, and Pisces bit his tongue. Neither Yvlon nor Ksmvr had said they were going outright yet, but Colth glanced at Ceria and then at Pisces.

They hadn’t answered his statements about going to the new lands—but they were acting as if they would. Pisces grouched back to the inn, rubbing at his head.

 

——

 

It was odd, you had to admit, for The Wandering Inn to have a routine. Even a temporary one. Yet it seemed like some of the excitement had left, and Erin Solstice realized four whole days had passed without her causing some kind of incident.

Not to say something wasn’t happening. Oh, no. Liscor and Riverfarm were negotiating, and there was important stuff in the works for the Horns and elsewhere.

“No luck, Pisces?”

“Monsters and whatnot, Erin. Monsters and whatnot.”

“Almost makes you want a Toren, huh?”

He gave her a wan smile.

“Not quite—but I’m starting to see the appeal of a stronger undead. Maybe I should work on it. But, argh, I just don’t have the right bones.”

“Don’t you have all those fancy bones from the Gargoyles and…?”

Erin waggled her fingers, and he shrugged.

“Oh, Gargoyle bones. Yes. But I was hoping for some real, high-quality ones. You see, there’s bone and…I can see I’m losing you.”

Erin was edging towards the stairs.

“What? N-no, I’m just, uh—I’d love to hear you talk about bones for thirty minutes, but I’ve got this thing I’m going to do and—has anyone seen Nanette?”

Pisces rolled his eyes and waved Erin off as he sat down. Erin looked about, and the truth was, these quieter days were just fine.

Larra’s inn was still moving south to Liscor. The adventurers were about to get their due excitement. It was only a matter of time. The new lands waited.

Wasn’t this fine? Yes, it was. In fact, Erin only had one—two concerns, really. She wiped her hand on her apron as she walked around the inn. That one problem was—

Nanette.

Mrsha the Exceptionally Welcoming abandoned the table where she had been taking lessons on palace dynamics from Lyonette and Ser Sest. The [Princess] sighed loudly, but she let Mrsha go because the girl had a good reason.

Nanette. Like Calescent, but even more so—the witch was the inn’s newest member of the family. She was Erin’s responsibility, and the [Innkeeper] had realized she needed to be mindful of Nanette in a way she hadn’t with Mrsha.

Not just because Nanette needed support. Not just because Erin had promised. The truth was—Nanette was a pretty resourceful girl and older than Mrsha.

But that wasn’t perfect. Nanette deserved more. The problem was, ironically, that if Erin didn’t bear Nanette in mind, the young witch would take care of herself.

 

——

 

Nanette was in The Wandering Inn, but it took Erin a while to find the young witch. Mostly because Nanette stood at the highest part of the inn. Or rather—just below it. She called up the stairs into the tower as a Worker peered down at her.

“Hello, Mister Bird?”

“Hello, girl witch Nanette. Is something wrong? Are we under attack by monsters or armies?”

“No, Mister Bird. May I come up into your tower?”

The Worker considered this. He had begun locking his tower, and he had a big sign that said ‘Only Birds Allowed’ on the door. But Nanette was peering up at him, and he stared at her round cheeks and earnest face.

“You ask permission. This is good and wise. Let me see. Do you have tribute?”

The Worker sat on his tower perch, listening to the hustle and bustle of the inn below. Above it all, a bucket of arrows sitting by him as he fiddled with his bow. Nanette fished in her pockets.

“I have a speckled green egg shell I found in Riverfarm. A baby bird hatched out of it, and it was blue.”

“Oh. Oho. This is a worthy tribute. You may ascend.”

Bird grandly waved, and she came up the stairs. She presented him with the egg, in a few pieces, but glued back together, and Bird admired his gift.

“Very good. Very good. I, Bird, accept your tribute. As I am an emperor of my tower.”

“Are you an emperor, Mister Bird?”

He thought about it.

“I have too many classes as it is. So no, not an [Emperor], just a ruler of my tower. Which I must zealously guard. Did you want to survey my domain?”

He pointed around the tower, and Nanette admired the view. In all four directions, she could see the sky and the landscape of the Floodplains. Only the walls of Liscor had a better view. And the [Guards] didn’t get to sit down much.

“May I sit for a bit, Mister Bird?”

“Oh, of course. Have my seat.”

Bird stood up, and Nanette refused—but eventually sat as Bird stared out at the people coming through the gates. He said nothing at all, and Nanette watched him.

So this was Bird’s life. He sat, the wind blowing on his face, and watched it all, sometimes without speaking for an entire day. And he seemed happy.

He didn’t shoot as many birds these days. Just the ones that mattered. Bird was surprised that Nanette didn’t say much—Mrsha chattered, despite being mute. But Nanette seemed to understand how Bird liked things.

Or perhaps she was doing what a witch did and learning before judging. Yet Nanette had brought something, and she timidly offered it to Bird as she placed a kettle on the ledge of his tower.

“Would you like some tea, Mister Bird?”

“Oh? Oh. That would be nice. I have decided I am a tea person. Coffee is too fast. Also, it tastes bitter.”

“When did you decide that, Mister Bird?”

Nanette poured them two cups, and Bird took one. He sipped it gingerly—Antinium had to use straws because they had no lips, but he seemed very pleased nonetheless by the steaming cup.

“Just now. Aha. This tea tastes like what I imagine flowers taste like but they do not. They are also too bitter.”

Nanette laughed. She blew on her cup and sipped it, for it was growing cold, and she and Bird felt very, very pleased. So much so that Bird pointed something out to Nanette.

There were a number of mundane and magical birds that only a true watcher of the skies could observe. He pointed out a dove-tailed swallow, bright red, flashing through the air. He had hunted them before, but this one was performing several aerial feats.

Loop-de-loops in the air at high speed. Each one graceful, spiraling into the next. Bird pointed it out to Nanette.

“That bird is called a Redfin Swallow. It comes from northern Izril around the Vail Forest. It is a graceful bird that has a lot of friends where it nests. Unlike the Garbichug Revolter, which is the most disgraceful not-a-bird because it neither flies nor tastes good and eats waste. Which is over there.”

He indicated the nasty-looking bird, four feet tall, drooling, with teeth in its ‘beak’ and a ragged plume of filthy feathers. The garbage-eating pest was a hazard that Liscor paid Bird to shoot—but not even he would eat one.

Nanette wrinkled her nose at the famous pest, but then she admired the Redfin. Bird watched it glide in a loop over the Garbichug’s head. It insulted the monstrous bird, who would eat sewer waste or other birds or their eggs if it could climb their trees.

Tswah! Tswee—that was the kind of sound the Redfin made if Bird had to do anything as inelegant as translate bird-speak to words. The Garbichug made a sound like an explosive meal going through a digestive system in reply and snapped its mouth open.

Bird drew an arrow and loosed it. The Garbichug was over eight hundred feet away, but Bird had the Skills and aim to hit it. The arrow sped at the bird-monster—and the Garbichug ducked.

“I hate you.”

Bird shook his fist at the Garbichug, and it turned and flipped up its tail at Nanette and Bird. That gesture was bad enough—then it began to defecate.

“Ignore it. Nanette, do you know why the Redfin flies like that?”

Bird stared up at the Redfin, still swirling through the air. It was not ideal for getting anywhere, and he wasn’t shooting arrows at it. Nanette frowned. There was no visible mate, so…

“Because it wants to? For fun? Because the Redfin is happy?”

Bird looked at Nanette. He put out a hand and patted her gingerly on the shoulder.

“I see you are wiser than Erin. No wonder you are teaching her witchcraft.”

She laughed and ducked her head, and Bird and she went back to watching the landscape, ignoring the Garbichug. It was eating its own waste. It would spit it out at attackers later.

Bird had a new hobby, and he confessed it to Nanette as some visitors came up towards the inn. A Human was wearing a huge, rose-shaped hat, which really did look like a rose from above. It had multiple folds of cloth, had to weigh eight pounds, and was two feet high.

…Presumably, it was some latest style, but the woman looked about to take it off when Bird rose from his tower, cupped two hands to his mandibles, and screamed down at her.

YOU THERE!

She jumped, saw an Antinium staring at her, and froze. The guests looked up as Bird screamed down at the woman.

“I…LIKE…YOUR…HAT!”

The Human stared up at him, checked her hat, and waved back and said something neither Bird nor Nanette quite heard. Bird sat back down as she continued on her way, bemused. He stared at the sky, then at Nanette.

“I am in a quandary of thought, Nanette. Every day, I dive deeper into my new class. I am a [Liar].”

She blinked at him, and Bird went on. He stared blankly at the hatted woman.

“I lie important lies. About her hat. Which is trash. It does not even belong in a garden. Why do I lie? I have been thinking—I lie because I wish to level. I lie about the truth because the lie in itself makes someone’s day better. It must be a good lie, or what is the point?”

She listened to Bird’s philosophy, which sometimes he spoke to the Workers who came to hear him. Bird, the [Hunter]. The [Liar].

By the time Erin found them, Nanette and Bird had been sitting for nearly fifty minutes. Bird was smiling, and he looked at Nanette—then at the Garbichug edging towards the road in hopes of scaring some of the travellers for food. It was watching him—he’d fired eight shots at it so far, and it kept dodging. Bird looked at Nanette, then turned around so the Garbichug was in the opposite direction. Then he looked straight at it.

“I’m looking in the other direction. I’m looking that way.”

Nanette politely looked the way he was pointing. Bird’s head never moved—but the Garbichug eyed him, then began a waddle-charge to the road as one of the [Guards] shouted and they began to stride out to chase it off.

Bird’s bow flashed up, and he loosed an arrow. The Garbichug looked up just in time for Bird to shoot it through the head. It flopped backwards as he fired three more arrows into its head.

“That was a lie, you idiot. I lied!

Bird shouted down at the dead Garbichug. Nanette was vaguely impressed. She had no idea a [Liar] could do that.

Erin was less impressed.

“Bird, you’re not gonna eat that thing, are you? There you are, Nanette! I’m going to Riverfarm to meet the [Witches]. You want to come?”

The young witch looked over and thought as Bird gave Erin a look of horror and indignation.

“Riverfarm, Miss Erin? I might pass.”

“Oh—okay. But do you want to do anything? I could go into Liscor or…”

“I’m fine, Miss Erin. I’m sitting with Bird. He’s very kind.”

“Ah. Well—that’s great. Yeah. If you want anything, just ask, okay?”

Nanette nodded politely. Erin gave Bird a look, and he saluted her.

“I cannot read your eyes, Erin.”

“Be nice, Bird.”

Erin didn’t quite know what else to say. She tromped downstairs as Nanette and Bird sat there, peaceful. After a while, Bird murmured to Nanette.

“Do you have any good lies, Miss Nanette?”

“Hm. My mother said the worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Then the best ones must be something else.”

“Oh, interesting. Interesting. Then tell me a good lie—and about birds. You see, I am a columnist for the newspaper, and I must know lots about birds. The Garbichug was a native bird of Rhir that no one wanted. It is actually over thirty thousand years old and predates the Blighted Kingdom. No one bred it nor did they spread them to other continents because anyone thought they were a good idea. The stupid birds swim. They are clever enough to dodge arrows, and they survive too well, so every continent has them. In the Rihal Imperium, Garbichugs were cultivated as a war animal and unleashed on their foes, which earned them international censure…”

 

——

 

“Not going to take Nanette to Riverfarm, Erin?”

“Nah. She’s listening to Bird talk about bird-history. Which is like the one thing he doesn’t lie about and he’s somehow qualified to talk about. I guess I’m going alone. Unless anyone else wants to come? It’s not a two-day trip. Anyone?”

Erin looked around, but Octavia had work, Numbtongue was looking over from where Badarrow and Snapjaw were preparing for a Wyvern ride with Icecube so they could all go mining, and Lyonette was trying to run the inn.

“Do you need to go to Riverfarm, Erin? I am sure His Majesty is negotiating—delicately.”

Which means don’t mess it up. But Erin just flapped a hand at Lyonette.

“It’s not that. I’m going to speak to the [Witches].”

“Oh. Oh? Well—Mrsha might be interested. Ser Dalimont could take you both if you’re good. Mrsha?”

The girl was thinking. Either she stayed here and Lyonette gave her lessons and the inn had to do its thing or she went into the city and had fun—but Visma was busy painting her dolls. Nanette was sitting with Bird, and Gire was being an adult-Chieftain.

And what were the odds Erin did something crazy? Mrsha decided to bet on Erin. She marched on over as Ser Dalimont nodded. Erin sighed.

“It might not be that much fun, Mrsha.”

The girl shrugged. Worst came to worst, she could play with Riverfarm’s kids or see what Traffle was doing.

Traffle, the nickname for the first Elemental of Law with its glowing eye, who often glared at misbehaving people. Like Mrsha and Erin.

 

——

 

In fact, Traffle was one of the reasons Riverfarm was so popular. A strange creature like it was—all metal and magic—was enough for people to point at it. Some wanted to prove they’d been here, and Laken had begun asking Mister Helm to make, with a [Painter]’s help, little keyrings with Traffle’s likeness on it.

And he’d asked Nesor to figure out a way to make magic pictures accessible for all. If you could do a scrying spell and record that—why not an image?

Well, progress marched forwards, and Traffle scuttled on its legs, followed by a crowd of fascinated tourists. Erin saw the light it was based on flashing colors—and it was one of three already.

“Miss Solstice. Good morning to you. Are you here to meet His Majesty? He is wrapped up in talks, but if you have any—designs—we would, as always, appreciate knowing in advance.”

Lady Rie spotted Erin within minutes of her coming through the door. Well, the guards who were watching the door had probably found her.

“I’m not causing trouble! I’m just, uh, looking for a [Witch] or two, Lady Rie.”

“Ah, well then. Witch Eloise and Hedag are advising His Majesty, but may I help you find another Witch?”

“I guess. Agratha or Oliyaya?”

Rie smiled and found one of her people to escort Erin and Mrsha down the brick street. Erin huffed a bit at the implication she was going to cause trouble—but even here, people noticed Erin.

The crazy innkeeper. The one who nearly flooded Riverfarm. Mrsha patted Erin on the leg solemnly. She knew what it was like to be stigmatized as a monster who caused trouble.

In Erin’s case, Mrsha felt it might be justified.

 

——

 

“Witch Erin! My, and little Mrsha too? To what do I owe the pleasure? Come in, sit, sit.”

That bright and cheery greeting belonged to Witch Agratha, the [Witch] of normalcy and friendly cooperation.

…Which was why it was so disconcerting to hear it from Witch Oliyaya of all people. The hook-nosed stereotype of a [Witch] cackled gently as she admitted Erin, Mrsha, and Dalimont into her abode.

As Erin had noted, if Agratha was friendly, Oliyaya was her inverse and liked being the bad [Witch] in stories. However—she seemed to like both Erin and Mrsha well enough.

Especially Mrsha, in fact. The [Witch] pulled Mrsha’s cheek gently as the Gnoll somewhat respectfully climbed into a seat.

“A troublemaker after my black heart. Burned down any homes yet?”

“Don’t give her any ideas, Witch Oliyaya. Lyonette’d kill me.”

Yeah, she was a good girl! Mrsha held up a card, but Oliyaya just laughed at her.

“A girl or young woman must be free to cause trouble. Run rampant! Anyone who tells you to sit and plait skirts and mind your manners is a fool. You, my girl, if you haven’t burnt at least one house down by the time you’re a woman, you’ve wasted your life.”

She gave Mrsha a serious look, and Dalimont bit his tongue. Mrsha had to really think about this one.

“Surely it would behoove Miss Mrsha to have some manners, Witch Oliyaya? With greatest respect.”

“And what would you know, [Knight]? Did you, as a lad, ever break a window or a cup by throwing rocks? Wrestling in the mud? Pulling the tail on donkeys? Always a good way to break a jaw early.”

Oliyaya tapped Dalimont hard on the chest, and the [Knight] regretted his comment.

“…As a boy, I was indiscreet, Witch Oliyaya—”

“Then a girl should be just as much so. Especially this one. Now, let my apprentices fetch you some tea. Witch Erin—your hat is upon your head, and I greet thee.”

Then Oliyaya tipped her hat with its staring eyes, and Erin reached up and lifted a hat made of flame. Erin looked at Oliyaya and began to get a sense of what made the other [Witch] tick.

“Thanks, Oliyaya. How’s business?”

The old woman shrugged.

“I am a [Witch] of cities, now. Larger, with more emotions to use in forming hexes. Grudges that run deep—but so many people! The old magic may suffer, but I admit—gold has its uses. Just the other day, I sold a charm to attract lice to a very nice young woman.”

Dalimont winced. Oliyaya slapped his knee with a long ladle—she had a cauldron on.

“A comment from you, [Knight], and I will ask if lacing a rival’s birthday cake with shards of glass is more or less foul than my charms. And then I will eject you from my domain. Nastiness must have an outlet, and sometimes the punishment is deserved. Do you know that young woman’s reason to curse another? I thought not.”

The [Knight] decided he’d be quiet for the duration of this visit. Erin gave him a side-eye.

“Do they really do that in Terandria?”

“There’s foulest sorts of all kinds anywhere. Noble classes and squabbles means they go to extremes more often than not. Ask Eloise—or do you think she’s not used daggers while drinking tea? What can I help you with, Witch Erin?”

Then Mrsha realized she hadn’t actually known why Erin wanted to meet [Witches] again. Her last encounters, while fruitful, had been—fraught. Why again so soon?

The girl noticed Erin Solstice doing something for the third time this morning. The [Innkeeper]—who, despite her rest Skills, didn’t look as fully rested as she could be—wiped the fingers of her right hand on her shirt.

The gesture did not escape Mrsha this time, or Oliyaya. Erin lifted her hands and spoke hesitantly.

“Oliyaya, I’ve been having this, uh—problem. And I’m not positive, but—is there a way to tell if someone’s messing with your dreams? Or if you’ve been cursed?”

The other [Witch] raised her brows.

“You’ve come to the right [Witch], Erin. Only Mavika or perhaps Alevica could help you as well—tell me what you dream of. Coise, my bag of tricks.”

Her apprentice, one of three, brought Oliyaya her bag of holding as Erin hesitated.

“It’s…someone in my dreams who’s bothering me. I’m pretty sure they’re there. I don’t wanna say specifics, but it’s very vivid. And it’s been bothering me when I wake, too. It wasn’t so bad, but they’re harassing me more and more. Probably because I kicked them.”

Mrsha and Dalimont sat up and looked at Erin in astonishment, but Oliyaya was already at work.

“Ah, a bully who knows the old ways of hexing and dream-speak. Interesting.”

She took a little bag that looked like it was made of silver cloth and poured in a number of substances.

“Your inn and level should protect you as much as that hat on your head, Witch Erin. But I suppose even Belavierr could be hexed—and you don’t weave protections, eh?”

“Nope. I thought about sleeping in my garden, but I felt like that wasn’t a long-term solution. And it feels like running away.”

“Well said! You should take what’s under your hat and build some great magics.”

“You think so? I’ve been pondering what to do first.”

“Protections before anything else. If you need help, come to us—but first, let’s see how badly this interloper is meddling. Here is a little bag—but before you touch it, can you tell me what I’ve done?”

Oliyaya put the silver-cloth bag on the table, and Erin hesitated as she reached for it. Like another [Witch]’s style, Mrsha realized this was a test or teaching. And Agratha explained—Oliyaya tested.

“Hm. Well, uh, I’m not an expert, but Nanette has had a few talks with me, and I know the basics. My guess is that you put a bit of craft into an object that lets you focus your magic.”

“Like all witchcraft. What did I do?”

Erin floundered, then she eyed the bag and peered inside.

“Silver. Silver’s like a natural de-curse and purifying thingy. You put silver in here and powdered Sage’s Grass? Aloe vera…I don’t know the others.”

Erin had seen the familiar plant, but Oliyaya nodded.

“Spider plant and aloe vera—plants that purify, yes. But the trick is to have meaning as well as natural plants with such qualities. I also placed in that pouch the shoe-dirt of an honest man. Riverfarm has a number of them, helpfully. Men and women. And lastly, a piece of quartz which glows.”

She showed Erin the final lynchpin of the curse-bag, and the stone glowed serenely.

“Now put it around your head—or fingers—and we will see if it reacts to ill-intent.”

Erin Solstice did just that. She draped the silver bag around her neck, and Mrsha wondered if it would do anything fantastic or just change color after a while. Witch magic was hard to…

Oliyaya seemed to be expecting a slow reaction, so she was reaching over for the kettle of tea. So did Erin, and the two were thus very surprised by the odd smell that replaced the various herbs in Oliyaya’s cottage in mere minutes as Oliyaya was pouring tea. The [Witch] glanced up, and Erin lifted the bag and her nose wrinkled.

“Hm. I would have told you to wait until we finished a cup. Or keep it on you a day. Dump it on the table?”

Slowly, Erin did, then turned the bag inside-out. Even Oliyaya’s apprentices muttered—and the [Witch] eyed the contents of the bag.

All the herbs had shriveled up. The Sage’s Grass powder turned black, and the crystal was dead and cracked. Indeed, even the inside of the silver bag had tarnished black.

“Ah. Well. That is a curse indeed. Although…hm.”

Oliyaya sifted through the contents and, to Mrsha’s mild horror, picked up the dirt from the honest man’s shoe and tasted it. She spat and took a sip of tea—then spat that out too.

“…Not the most ill of intent. Even so, someone put a lot of power behind that hex that haunts you, Miss Solstice. Too much, I daresay. It’s both crude and well-done, as if a master-mason used expensive materials for a primitive design.”

“What now? I could send to my Order for a counteragent, Miss Solstice, but the Thronebearers would need access to the keep…”

Dalimont offered, but Oliyaya snorted.

“Thronebearers? Yonder sits a [Witch] amongst a coven of Izril’s [Witches], Ser Knight. Begone from my cottage! Although—that holds true of all of us. We do not let our own suffer hexes. Come, Erin. We’ll find Mavika and get to work on our own.”

Erin looked relieved as she stood, and Mrsha leapt from her chair and nodded to one of the apprentices with excitement.

She knew it. She knew Erin wouldn’t let her down.

 

——

 

…The ritual of the [Witches] to find out what was going on with Erin was the most boring thing Mrsha had ever seen.

Oliyaya shook a cup full of dice painted with letters and numbers and rolled them out onto a table. She organized them together into an anagram as Witch Mavika placed a crawling bug on a map of Izril and let a raven, blindfolded, peck at it until it was eaten. Then she marked the spot.

Witch Alevica was there too as a final expert in curses—if not lifting them—and she, frowning, tied a piece of string to Erin’s finger and then let it dangle with a little coin tied to the other end. The coin began to twitch in various directions as Alevica placed a compass over it.

Y’all suck.

Mrsha held up the card, and Oliyaya laughed at her.

“Did you think we were all excitement, little Mrsha? Go elsewhere, for this is fascinating if you have half a head! Look, Mavika…I’ve rolled nineteen times, and nary a one makes sense. Nineteen names, or so I glean. I recognize a few as cities and towns—”

“And so goes my chart. Izril—but it makes no sense. Either the spell is trickier than we have thought—or another trick, twicely wrought.”

Mavika hunched over her map of Izril, and it had fourteen different dots—all scattered, seemingly at random. Alevica shrugged.

“Witch Oliyaya, Witch Mavika, you’re better at location divining than I am. All I get are tugs in every which-way—but none of them consistent.”

“So you can’t locate where the hex is coming from? I, uh—I think it might be hard, regardless. Isn’t stopping it more important?”

Erin took the string off her finger. But Mavika, Oliyaya, and even Alevica shook their heads. They stood in the place where the Summer Solstice had taken place, a place of power, and while the rituals were low-key, they still had a thrum of magic in the air.

Three to help Erin, place, and none were poor [Witches]. There was magic enough here, if not showy.

Yet…

“It is not that, Witch Erin. You may not sense it as the loci, but we would halt this magic against you if we could not divine the source. The issue is—whomever has hexed you is not hiding. But we find the source everywhere. And look—this is no coincidence.”

Erin glanced at Mavika’s paper and Oliyaya’s word-anagrams. She had begun to spell out names, and each one was different—but they were proper nouns.

The names of cities. And Mavika’s crow had hit more-or-less exactly on where cities were overlaid on the map of Izril.

“…Huh?”

“Either this hex is spread across dozens of cities or there is a trick involved. The focus of it is material…but it is not moving, yet somehow diversified.”

“Weird. Weird. She—no. It’s tricky, isn’t it? I knew it would be. Beating annoying people always is.”

Erin glumly stared at the map, but Mavika scratched at her chin.

“Finding the source of this curse may be easier than we think. After all, if it does not hide or flee, the answer may be equally easy. We simply need to find the closest source.”

“Ah, then a direct locating spell, not one that lets us roam? Alevica, you would do well for a focus. You Runners go in straight lines—give us your socks or a sprig from your broom.”

Master—

Alevica backed up, and Erin lifted a hand with Mrsha.

“Can we have the broom? Not the socks.”

The next eleven minutes were infinitely more fascinating than the previous thirty-eight had been. Watching Oliyaya and Mavika steal a not-inconsiderable amount of bristles from Alevica’s flying broom was funny.

Watching them call in Eloise and Agratha for their compatible skillsets was fascinating. Because what the five [Witches] did—with Erin’s help even—was to weave a little wicker-bird out of Alevica’s broom-thistles. In the center of it, they placed the ruined bag of charms and then tied it to Erin’s fingers that bothered her.

“Now, it will lock onto the closest one of these many odd phenomena, my dear. What you find will depend on what we do next. I would advise you to bring a cudgel and perhaps some thick cloth robes. And a few friends.”

Agratha gave Erin some kindly advice as Erin peered at the bird. It kept turning so its beak faced one direction even if you tried to spin it the other way.

“A dowsing charm. Oh my gosh, it’s so cool!”

That impressed her? The [Witches] traded a glance, but Erin loved the way the little bird would always turn to face its target. Because it was not magnetic or a trick—it was pure magic.

Simple magic, but to Erin…

“If that impresses you, we could make another one so the little rascal never escapes your notice.”

Oliyaya grinned at Mrsha, who looked alarmed and backed up. Erin shook her head, smiling, and looked around.

“Well, I have a curse to find! I’d, uh—well, thank you. And thanks so much for doing this!”

She began to nod or bow—then she reached up and tipped her hat, and the [Witches] smiled because that was an infinitely better gesture. They tipped their hats at her in reply.

“Witch Erin, for a fellow [Witch], we make time. And for you, we also offer you a discount.”

“Thank y—huh?”

Oliyaya was conferring with Alevica and Mavika and Eloise, and Agratha looked interested too as she wrote down a sum.

“Gold will do, or a favor. But the gold is nice.”

The [Witch] handed Erin an estimation, and the [Innkeeper]—sighed.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice’s journey to Riverfarm did not take too long, but it was her mission after that which would get interesting. Nor did she take Agratha’s warning lightly.

At the same time as Erin was getting to work, though, Pisces was glowering a hole into a wall. Mostly because he felt like the dungeon was winning.

Facestealer haunted the halls. And it had a grudge out for his skeletons. Pisces, now with the understanding that Toren had lived for a while in the dungeon in all probability—suspected the grudge was against both adventurers and skeletons.

But what irked him was that he was a Level 38 [Necromancer], practically on the cusp of truly hitting a benchmark in power, and he could barely get a few skeletons down the corridors.

The problem was—Pisces hated to admit it, but he was rusty.

Not since Chandrar or even the Village of the Dead raid. Pisces realized that he was actually a bit—behind in necromancy.

Oh, he could raise an undead warbear or a Bone Behemoth faster than Ama could dream of. He had helped create a Frostmarrow Behemoth and could animate large numbers of the undead.

Yet—Sillias had proven that necromancy was not just mass-animating undead. If anything, that was Az’kerash’s method, and Pisces had once criticized even the Necromancer for his lack of ingenuity.

Dead gods, where had Gewilena’s spark gone? His own intelligence and wit? Pisces was scribbling on a piece of paper, shaking his head.

Skeletons. What am I, Colth?

The [Supporter] was getting on Pisces’ nerves a bit with his upbeat attitude—and the way Pisces thought that Colth was distinctly copying him and learning his tricks. As if he thought he knew real necromancy.

Well, Pisces had already come up with a few ideas now he’d taken a break and stopped following Colth’s lead. They had gotten far in four days doing the same trick…time to escalate their tactics.

Bone Crawlers. The same undead that the Horns had run into with other adventurers could crawl up the walls. Would Facestealer even grab them? Pisces doubted it could jump or climb. Then again, there might be aerial traps…

It didn’t matter. You could create undead for any situation. Speed…what about mice-undead? Yes, a lot of them! And then Pisces could make something even faster.

What if…

What if you took a wheel and attached a skeleton to it? A spinning wheel-skeleton?

No. No, that was stupid. Plus, it’d be unable to turn. Pisces drew over that concept with a frown.

“Another cup of this coffee, Ishkr? I clearly need it.”

He was furiously sketching a better undead…what if he just animated a damn horse and had it race through the dungeon? Pisces was even sorting through his bones and beginning to engineer a new skeleton off the design—

“Pisces, no undead in the inn! You’re disturbing the customers.

“Miss Lyonette—”

The [Princess] scowled at him and pointed at the other customers, who were eying the piles of bone.

“No. Your rooms or somewhere else, Pisces. Away from the inn.”

“But this is—”

No. Erin may put up with it, but I will not.”

Scowling, the [Necromancer] rose. All these impositions on his time! It would take ages to perfect a new undead, anyways.

“We are not made of time before the Albez teams come back, Miss Lyonette. I hear they’re nearly at the door to Albez, and if we lose our prize, Ceria, no, Yvlon will be—”

“Less upset than me?”

The [Princess] faced him down, and Pisces opened his mouth. He eyed Lyonette and thought about the odds of talking her down. Pisces huffed out of the common room.

His rooms, then. Damn. But he wouldn’t be able to come up with a Bone Crawler by night, would he? It would have to be mice and undead-men.

Alas. If only Colth could do more than control a few skeletons. Granted, it was impressive he could do it at that range, but Pisces had seen how well his skeletons were controlled. Dodging traps was hard enough to manipulate a skeleton into doing.

It was like…well, using the scrying orbs, as cheap and convenient as it was, was unlike how Pisces controlled his undead. It was rather like Numbtongue’s video games. The Hobgoblin had expressed an interest in taking control of Pisces’ skeletons when he saw how it was going, but Pisces couldn’t give him control.

He wished he could, but only a [Necromancer] could directly control the undead, and Facestealer was fast. Traps, other monsters…

If only he had a faster skeleton. Pisces’ feet slowed as he turned away from the stairs.

Or…help…

No.

It was a bad idea. They’d never—she’d never agree. Right? After all…well, she had one of her skeletons. Scottie? If he just borrowed that alone—

Pisces tapped his fingers together and stared at a wall as Saliss and, surprisingly, Grimalkin trooped past him for the common room. Saliss waved a claw a few times in front of Pisces’ face, but then shrugged, walked on, and stuck a piece of paper on Pisces’ back.

“I, ah, need a quick trip to Invrisil, Miss Liska. Priority. Adventuring business. And I may have one or two people on the return.”

Liska sighed—but she nodded and adjusted the dial as Pisces walked over to the door. Erin opened the door and then decided to engage Pisces in conversation. The line of people waiting groaned as Erin delayed them further. This was the problem with privately-owned teleportation services.

“Pisces! What’re you doing? How’s the dungeoning? Lose more not-Torens?”

“Sadly, yes. But I may have an—unorthodox solution.”

“The best kind? I’m going to check out a curse. I guess I’ll take you off the guard-list. Eh, I’m sure I can get someone else to help out. Maybe Tessa. But she stabs people dead.”

“Ah, good l—a what?”

But she was already wandering off. Pisces stared after her and shrugged. He waited for Invrisil—then turned as someone booted him as hard as she could.

“Mrsha!”

He glowered, and the Gnoll girl innocently pointed at Pisces’ back. He turned—and found the piece of parchment that Saliss had stuck to his robes.

It said, ‘kick me’. 

Pisces saw Mrsha innocently smirk. She turned—and he stuck it to her back-fur. Pisces watched as Mrsha looked around in horror at the crowd, and Ekirra stuck his head out of line. She fled.

 

——

 

Snatcher was not getting tired of this. It knew there was nothing in the worthless heads it took from the undead. Not like the one with purple flames for eyes.

It didn’t care. Like petty malevolence, it was destroying all the annoying undead one by one. Even as they came in groups and divided—it hunted them down.

Perhaps it was instinct. Perhaps Snatcher somehow knew they would make it angrier. But it lurked in the dungeon with the active suits of enchanted armor and didn’t even destroy them. The pitiful defender of this place, in service to Mother—the force that controlled the army of armored warriors—also knew the undead were intruding.

But where one was diligent, Snatcher was petty. And it was aware that there were…adventurers above.

But it was a long way up, and it was not unaware of the risks. It had been damaged by the blue thing. For that head, it would risk much—but not for no reason.

Right now, it was simply—if not enjoying, then welcoming attempts to frustrate the adventurers.

Like a kind of game to show them how worthless their undead were, it had even let them re-close the steel shutters. Once they passed through—the undead would die.

Two attempts this day. Snatcher did know time, if vaguely. Once, it had known so much more. Rules—all the foolish rules, its duty—

That was in the past. Now, it waited and sensed four shutters open simultaneously. So the undead were splitting up, were they? It sensed little rodent undead, and…

Twenty larger ones?

Skeletons? How was that happening? It didn’t matter—Snatcher sensed the armored figures spreading out, heading to catch the undead. They would never make it to their destination, the city within. The dungeon was wide, and the skeletons were clumsy, slow.

These were facts.

So Snatcher crept forwards, not even bothering with the heads. Not for this fake thing. And it sensed one skeleton emerging from the shutters to face it.

The unluckiest skeleton, then. Snatcher strode forwards contemptuously—until he sensed something.

Something odd and unusual. This skeleton was no living being. It had no…

Soul.

And Snatcher knew souls. This was, like the others, a creation guided by another intelligence. A [Necromancer]. Snatcher knew that too. Yet this skeleton was better-made than the others. And a foreign presence controlled it, not the clumsy one and the more adept one from before.

If anything—this was in the middle of the two’s abilities. Still weak. But Snatcher halted not because of the power behind this force—but how the skeleton moved.

It stood there, arms outstretched, as if welcoming Snatcher into a huge hug. Legs spread so confidently, jaw agape, that the last guardian of this place felt—offended.

A mocking pose. The skeleton waited as Snatcher regarded it—then it clearly decided that Snatcher was too slow. The boss monster held perfectly still.

A rectangular, uncanny silhouette in the darkness. A brown leather body with two vertical sockets with no true eyes, just wounds in the face. Long, crushing arms that made claws. No mouth. No face.

Snatcher. And this skeleton…this arrogant throwback that had no true craft or power behind it? Not like this place had once been—

Snatcher charged. So fast the skeleton jerked back. A hand shot out—and the skeleton ducked.

Snatcher missed. The skeleton rolled sideways and sprang to its feet. Snatcher turned. It hadn’t seen the other skeletons do that—

Another fist swung towards the wall, and enchanted stone cracked. But the skeleton wasn’t there.

Scottie the Scout Skeleton ducked down. And as Facestealer looked down and raised a fist, it saw the skeleton put one leg forwards and lean on it, the other leg back, two hands splayed, skeletal fingers supporting it.

Like…

A City Runner about to—

Sprint. The fist hit the dungeon’s floor, and Scottie ran. He took off, arms and legs flying, as Snatcher looked up and began to lumber after him.

Fast—but Scottie was faster. And the traps? Snatcher expected it to run into the traps—until it saw something that surprised it.

The skeleton didn’t bother to hop the complicated pattern to escape this trap, nor did it walk through the traps that would make anything but Snatcher explode from the inside out—it kept running and then veered left.

Onto the wall. The skeleton’s feet glued to the stones, and it ran for ten paces—along the wall—then dropped onto the floor. It was still running as Facestealer slowed, realizing it would never catch the skeleton by speed alone.

—Above the dungeon, a [Necromancer] was whooping and laughing at Pisces’ face. Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr were watching an excited group of ‘admirers’ and Ama and Pisces. Yvlon was counting with a sickly smile on her face, and Colth was blinking.

But Ama, masked face and hood and all, was smiling. And the undead were racing through the dungeon as Pisces ruefully watched, but with a heart pounding full of excitement and yes, even fun.

Snatcher?

Snatcher began to get angrier.

 

——

 

What did adventuring mean to you? Was it a job or a calling? Was it for a purpose like finding power?

Should it be fun? Surely, it should. Or why call it that? All the danger, all the grit, the taste of fear-vomit in your mouth, and the burning of your lungs as you held in your blood through a seeping wound in your side—

If you weren’t alive then, if that didn’t mean something, why would anyone do it?

A pack of skeletons raced through Liscor’s dungeon, adventuring in a style no one in the world practiced today but that [Necromancers] of old had once used in their adventures.

A Goblin and Antinium duo happened upon a great big cave and mound of dirt along part of the High Passes, and it was so strange because it looked like a stone plug had been inserted into the top. It…thrummed as they got closer.

And the teams in Albez dug.

In fact, Albez’s dungeon was the most boring, safest, and most tedious adventure Ylawes Byres had ever had. Four days of waking up, watching Remendia’s hired diggers at work, occasionally shifting dirt himself, and, well, socializing with other adventurers.

Socializing in itself was not Ylawes’ complaint. It was the pecking order, the showing off, the competition and squabbling between teams that made him feel like he was at a social convention as House Byres among the northern nobility.

If he were at Liscor, he could train with a sword, ask even Pisces, even Numbtongue perhaps, to practice with. Here?

“Byres, come on! It was a mistake, a mistake!

The Captain of the Waterborn Raiders called out as Ylawes walked away from the dueling space they’d set up. He shook out his gauntlet, and someone caught him.

“Lad, you need a healing potion?”

“My gauntlet caught most of it. I don’t think the metal’s torn.”

“Bastard.”

Nailren’s comment was followed by a glare, but the Waterborn Raiders were mocking Ylawes. The [Knight]’s skin felt torn under his armor, but he’d dodged most of the Skill.

“Couldn’t take losing in a fair fight? Skills in a duel?”

Someone jeered at them, and the Waterborn Raider’s Captain turned red.

“Dasha, shut up.”

Insill whispered as the Gold-rank Captain glared at the Silver-rank team of Vuliel Drae. But Dasha was right, and a lot of adventurers began jeering the Waterborn Raiders’ Captain themselves.

“Anith, please tell Dasha to stop. I brought it upon myself, dueling other adventurers for practice.”

Ylawes yanked off his gauntlet and saw his skin was only a bit torn.

“What was that move? It felt like he wrenched my arm around.”

“[Riptide Cut]. Looked painful.”

Dawil offered a potion, but Ylawes held up a hand.

“Save it. It’s not like they’re that cheap.”

He grimaced, flexing his hand, and instantly regretted the comment—it was hurting more by the second. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and offered him a jar.

Pekona showed Ylawes a very…natural jar of ointment.

“Soothes pain and helps heal. Not very magical. Want it?”

“Thank you.”

The cream did have some kind of pain-numbing quality, and Ylawes smiled as he felt the pain recede.

“What is this for?”

Not healing injuries you get in practice. Pekona swears by it—apparently, healing potions are bad for training.”

“Well, she’s right there. Thank you.”

Vuliel Drae and Nailren’s team clustered around Ylawes as the conversations died down and the Waterborn Raiders skulked off. Everyone was just bored—well, the Raiders had an axe to grind—but the truth was this was a terrible adventure.

“I almost wish I were in Liscor’s dungeon.”

Insill murmured; Nailren glared, and Larr, the Gnoll teammate, kicked Insill.

“Kidding!”

The Drake [Rogue] looked guilty, as he did every time the Face-Eater Moth disaster was brought up. Ylawes was one of the few adventurers—and only Gold-rank team—that tolerated Vuliel Drae’s presence.

He felt they were properly remorseful. He couldn’t say if they’d paid for their mistakes, but they’d gone into the Village of the Dead, and he liked the quirky team.

Anith, the Jackal Beastkin, was like a Falene with more fur, very analytical. Falene had not appreciated the comparison and frozen his bedroll solid.

Dasha was not a female Dawil, because she tried too hard to play into her half-Dwarven ancestry, but she was outspoken and brave—and a fairly competent craftswoman before she’d become an adventurer. She, apparently, was a Level 21 [Baker].

Insill was the most timid [Rogue] that Ylawes had ever met, but he seemed to be the glue that held together his team—he was the one who helped other people, and he was actually adept enough to set traps.

Seborn and a lot of [Rogues] that Ylawes had met didn’t go in for setting traps that much. But Larr, their [Ranger], was also an adept multi-tasker. Notably, Larr was also a member of the Hawkarrow tribe—same as Nailren. But he was also related to the Soliest Yerr tribe’s most prized craftsman, Honored Shedrkh, and Larr often asked to send pelts of monsters back to him.

They had depth. That was the point. Get to know someone and they had depth. Like Nailren’s team, actually. They came from the Fletchsing tribe, a subclan of the famous Hawkarrow Tribe, and had fought in the Meeting of Tribes with Mrsha’s alliance. Ylawes didn’t know all the details, but Nailren had escorted the Antinium Soldier back and had plans to head to the new lands.

His teammates were all actually new, apparently. Which surprised and embarrassed Ylawes because he thought he would recognize different Gnolls—but no one really did. No wonder they weren’t the most social—after returning from Liscor, the six Gnolls had all traded places with different Gnolls that Nailren picked up. All above Level 20—which meant that Nailren was running an adventuring team scam.

Well, the Guild would call it that. The truth was that for a Silver-rank team, a bunch of Level 20+ [Hunters] was good enough. Apparently, Nailren’s team was part of his tribe’s way of training promising recruits. Their Chieftain, Eitha, sent him the ones she wanted trained up.

That made Nailren far more interesting to Ylawes. He was apparently a good enough leader to direct the ever-changing Gnoll team into keeping a rather good reputation as a Silver-rank team. And they’d gone into Liscor’s dungeon more than once.

Nailren was also fascinating in that he and Larr came from the same tribe, but Larr had never heard of the Fletchsing clan and kept giving Nailren questions about home.

“So, how is Chieftain Eitha doing?”

“Recovering from her wounds in the Meeting of Tribes.”

Nailren nodded as they sat down, and the Gnolls from the Hawkarrrow tribe all nodded. Larr squatted down, frowning.

“And your Chieftain? Of the Fletchsing tribe?”

“Hrr. Doing just fine.”

“You’ve all checked on them?”

Larr glanced too-casually at the other Gnolls, and one of Nailren’s ‘adventurers’ glanced up.

“Me? I’ve never met the Fletchsing Chieftain. I didn’t know we had a subclan until Chieftain Eitha told us.”

“Hrm. Hrrr. Interesting. Interesting.

Larr edged forwards, glaring at Nailren until the Gnoll’s nose was practically embedded in Nailren’s cheek. The Silver-rank Captain pushed him back.

“You are young, Larr, yes? Stop nosing around and go back to the Hawkarrow tribe and ask to know. Just because you are Shedrkh’s nephew does not mean you need to know everything.”

Ylawes watched the interaction with some amusement as Anith grabbed his teammate and muttered to Larr. Insill, as always, tried to soothe tensions, even if Nailren looked amused more than anything.

“Sorry about Larr. He’s just been away from home—but hey, if we get something out of this dungeon, maybe we’ll visit! Help out. I mean—we’ve all promised to visit his tribe.”

Nailren looked amused at the black-scaled Drake.

“You might not be the most welcome at the moment, Insill—but then, your team seems good, yes? Not a bad idea. If we ever get that staircase.”

He nodded to the huge hole and the teams of [Diggers]. It looked like their bucket-system for hauling up dirt had slowed again.

Ylawes hadn’t realized how deep the dungeon was until he remembered Emperor Laken said ‘a hundred feet’. A hundred damn feet down was…insane.

This secret part of Albez was clearly a secret even when the city had been intact and unburied. Digging that far down, even with magic? The deeper you went, the narrower the hole got and harder it was to excavate dirt. Rocks, soil, and roots had slowed down the teams immensely. Even with magic, the fact that they were nearing the staircase after four days showed how hard Deniusth had pushed the excavation work.

However—the Named-rank Violinist and the other Named-ranks were as happy as could be. They kept congratulating Griffon Hunt and had promised Halrac a share of any artifacts, apparently.

The same hadn’t been said for Ylawes’ team or Vuliel Drae and The Pride of Kelia, despite them helping. It was also probably why the Waterborn Raiders looked so sour.

No one wanted to leave, but they all had a feeling that if there were artifacts or relics, the other teams might get gold instead.

“Don’t mind the Raiders. I heard they’re just upset that the Named-ranks will ‘pull a Ceria’. Their words, not mine.”

“I thought Ceria was quite fair with the Village of the Dead raiders. Didn’t you all get a big payout?”

Nailren shrugged and looked at Anith. The Silver-rank Captain frowned and indicated his team. They had a few magical artifacts, and they hadn’t exactly seemed pressed for gold.

“We were paid very generously. I don’t know what he is talking about. Dasha has an enchanted axe straight from Hedault, and Pekona paid for a new sword from Drath—”

“I can’t hold the old one.”

The one-armed [Sword Dancer] was the last member of Vuliel Drae, but Ylawes didn’t know much about her other than her origins—and silence. She had lost a hand during the Village of the Dead raid and paid a higher price than most survivors. However—she didn’t complain, and she was apparently still adventuring. He thought she kept sneaking away from her team in the middle of the night, but he didn’t know if that was his imagination.

“So what’s the Raiders’ problem?”

Larr looked up, and Nailren grinned. He tapped one ear, and the Gnoll murmured.

“This is just a rumor, but some of the teams complaining have…ties. To the gangs or other interesting groups.”

Ylawes knew the Waterborn Raiders were former…[Raiders], but his scowl grew. Dawil just rubbed his beard, and Dasha copied him, much to his annoyance.

“Oh? So what do they know?”

“Word is, some of them asked Savere in Chandrar where Ceria’s relic is. They claim they don’t have it, and the Siren’s got a grudge the size of the High Passes against Ceria. So the Raiders think…”

“Ah, of course. And now they’re getting nothing for sitting around on their asses?”

“Some people are never happy, eh?”

Nailren chuckled. The truth was that was what most teams were doing, and if they got a hundred gold coins for doing that—it would be a fortune for Silver-ranks and more than anyone deserved.

“This adventure sucks.”

Ylawes was gratified to hear one of Nailren’s teammates say it. The Gnoll tossed a bit of dirt at a female [Huntress].

“Patience, Kelthe. Getting paid to sit around is also adventuring. But it’s truly boring, I agree.”

He glanced at Ylawes, and the Silver Swords’ Captain grimaced.

“Want to spar? I won’t use Skills.”

Pekona offered, but Ylawes was done for the day. Insill glanced at the dig-site.

“I hear they think we’ll reach the door by today. Deniusth and Eldertuin were going around telling all the [Rogues] and [Mages] who know enchantments to get ready to de-trap the place. No one wants to burn up the loot like the Horns did. But there might be monsters or guardians. Should we…prepare for a fight?”

Ylawes glanced at the [Rogue]. He pointed to Falene, who was reading a spellbook with Moore and working on a new spell—the constant activity of [Mages].

“Falene could cast a few buffs if we know we’re about to fight, but Dawil and I are ready. What does Vuliel Drae do? The Pride?”

His team was, admittedly, famous for their ability to charge into a fight any second. They’d survived Gargoyle ambushes where other teams would need preparation time. Nailren hmmed.

“I could dig us into the rocks above the dig site. But I don’t know what’s coming out. Plus, I doubt positioning will help us with our arrows. Not compared to Halrac’s enchanted ones or a Named-rank. Your team, Anith?”

“That would be mostly Insill.”

Everyone turned to the [Rogue], and he raised a claw.

“I could dig a hole. And put a pit trap in it.”

Ylawes stared at him. The [Rogue] colored under his black scales.

“Really fast! I just, uh—I need a hole first. Because of my Skill. [Deploy Pit Trap]. But it’s only the cover. It’s a convincing cover, though. See?”

Nothing would do for him then to show Ylawes on a tiny divot in the road. Insill had to set it up, which looked like him pulling a tarp out of midair and arranging it for about a minute or two. When he was done, a bit of fake earth only slightly noticeable if you stared at the edges would hide a treacherous…

Ylawes stepped on it, and it sank alarmingly—about a foot.

“Interesting trap. Does it work a lot?”

“Well—I got it after the Village of the Dead raid, and it’s not much use in dungeons since I can’t dig holes. Or against most monsters. But it’ll be really useful if we run into—”

Anith looked up mildly, and his lips twitched.

“Crelers? They climb holes.”

Dasha nodded.

“Ogres will just get stuck. You can’t dig a hole big enough to trap their foot, Insill.”

“Most species can climb holes.”

Larr added. Pekona raised a hand.

“Pit traps don’t kill most things.”

Stop bullying me!

This was clearly a running gag. Vuliel Drae’s humor was one of the things that kept Ylawes here. He smiled—and then heard a shout.

It’s time! Everyone up! Everyone up! We see the door!

Every adventurer looked around—and then they were suddenly all on their feet. Deniusth was standing by the entrance to the hole and bellowing.

Hold it, hold it—don’t crowd around! You idiots, you’re too fast! Back away from that door! Anyone touches it and I’ll kill them after whatever comes out does!

He was shouting down into the hole as dozens of adventurers clustered dangerously around the edge—in fact, they were in jeopardy of collapsing the edges on the [Diggers].

Eldertuin solved the problem by striking his shield with his sword.

Silence!

The gong of sound made everyone wince and look at him. The Fortress gave crisp orders as Viecel grinned—and the Selphid’s new body waggled four fingers. He’d been betting every day that this would be the day they got to the treasure.

“Everyone, stand back. [Geomancers], [Mages], forwards. We are not going down this hole. We’ll adjust it into a ramp. We need it wide, and we need to prepare. Team Captains, to us. Everyone else, it’ll be an hour yet, or two!”

He glanced at the sky.

“Plenty of time before evening.”

Excitement filled the air as Ylawes looked at Dawil.

“Looks like this is it. Get Falene and set up with Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers?”

“What about our Silver-rankers?”

“That too. Anith, Nailren, coming?”

The Silver-rank Captains hesitated and looked gratified Ylawes was including them. The Gold-rank Captain pushed forwards, and the other Captains made way for the three. But for Ylawes, Anith and Nailren would have had to hang back, so many teams were gathered around Eldertuin.

He was including Halrac, Deniusth, and, surprisingly, Jelaqua in a small circle giving orders. Behind them, Moore and other experts were reshaping the hole, burning up mana to widen it.

“We’ll have a ramp down to the entrance, but we are not going in. Whatever’s down there, if there’s monsters or anything, it comes up to us. The worst thing we can do is bunch up and make our numbers-advantage useless.”

Eldertuin was giving solid, reasonable strategic analysis to the others. Deniusth was practically dancing from foot-to-foot, but he was nodding.

“What can we expect?”

“If it’s like Ceria’s trap? Magical doors that put you into kill-rooms and an Elemental guardian.”

“Nasty. But we can beat a single elemental. However—we have to get this treasure without triggering a trap. So our best [Rogues] head down there and analyze the door. Then [Mages]. Who’s the best at enchantment breaking?”

“Uh…we’ve got an expert in the Distinguished Staves. Ylawes—where’s—Ylawes, isn’t Falene Wistram-trained?”

Everyone looked at him, and Ylawes shook his head.

“She is—but she’s a [Battlemage]. We’d defer to any experts.”

“That would be me.”

To Ylawes’ surprise, Typhenous raised a hand. The old man stroked his beard with a huge smile.

“I have seen a lot of trap spells in my time. I may not be technical enough to remove them—but I can tell they’re there. More importantly, I can usually tell if a specialist will succeed or fail at removing the trap.”

“That’s good. That’s essential. If we can’t remove the magic or trap at any point, I am willing to send to Invrisil for experts. Hedault himself.”

Deniusth was telling the crowd, and everyone agreed. However, the excitement was palpable, and Eldertuin spoke.

“Then we send down the first team. Who has [Lesser Teleport] scrolls? Deni, I know your team has them. Lend the squad that investigates the door a scroll—though it’s faster to just run up the ramp, maybe.”

“We’ll put archers with sight lines on the door, but only Level 20+ experts and above. No friendly fire! Who’s got [Stoneskin] spells…?”

 

——

 

It was a flurry of orders and contingencies in the thirty-three minutes it took to reconfigure the ramp. Moore backed up, sweating, and Ylawes heard him audibly tell Jelaqua he was ‘spent’ on mana unless he wanted to risk mana burn.

“Wow, they pushed some of our [Mages] hard.”

The hole in the ground had shifted into a long, sloping ramp. But by the looks of it, it had taken out thirteen [Mages], some Gold-ranks. Even a member of Orchestra was lying down.

“Should we let them rest before we try the door?”

That was the smart thing to do. Falene had used half her magic—but Dawil just glanced at the eager teams, including the Raiders.

“Everyone’s raring to go, Falene. Besides—I think we might be overkill. Or if we’re not, then a dozen [Mages] won’t make a difference.”

That was fairly true. Ylawes knew the Village of the Dead raid had pulled in more teams to take it on than most events in modern adventuring history—but there were more teams here. Including Named-ranks.

“Just stick together. Vuliel Drae, I know we haven’t practiced, but if Nailren covers our group, just have your team stick to our flanks. The Silver Swords are good at fighting in the center.”

“Even Mage Falene?”

Anith was surprised, but Falene was already casting barrier spells. She smiled archly.

“I am a [Battlemage], Captain Anith. If I realize I’m in trouble, I’ll teleport to safety.”

“Yes, as you can see, she’s the bravest member of the Silver Swords.”

Dawil rolled his eyes. Seborn, Typhenous, and three other experts were walking down towards the door as the civilians ran far, far back to the waiting wagons and horses. Falene reddened.

“I would like you to try fighting monsters with nothing more than enchanted robes, Dawil, then question my bravery.”

“Falene, Dawil—”

They were looking bad in front of the Silver-ranks. Dawil shot back with a huge grin.

“Done. I’ll do it in your robes—without underwear either.”

“You wretched, cave-dwelling homunculus—”

“Door’s opening!”

“What?”

Everyone looked up. It had been seconds since the adventurers went down, but the first thing Ylawes saw was Seborn, followed by Typhenous, running like a natural athlete, arms and legs pumping, coming up the ramp.

“It sensed us! It sensed—it’s a trap!”

Then Ylawes felt his skin prickle and [Dangersense] Skills began activating. The air hummed—and a voice filled with wrath echoed up from below. A recording.

“YOU ARE NOT THRESK. ALL WHO SCHEME TO PILFER THE LABORATORY OF UDATRON WILL DIE.”

“Oh shit.”

Insill raised his shield, and Ylawes’ head rose. Thresk? Wasn’t that the one who Ceria’s team found?

But there was no time to ask more. He saw a flash from the ramp’s entrance, then Halrac loosed an arrow that thumped with an explosion. The Gold-rank Captain shouted.

Elementals! Dozens of—

“What did he just say?”

Dawil looked up in time for the first howling gale of air to billow up, a Wind Elemental in full fury—followed by a raging being of flames and more of both kinds. Ylawes saw bodies of stone charging up the ramps as [Mages] began to fire, and he counted—

“Water, Fire, Earth, Wind—Elementals?

Falene looked horrified. Which told Ylawes that binding so many powerful Elementals, even if they weren’t on the level of the Gnolls’ Khoteizetrough, was far beyond her capabilities. Ylawes wavered between charging from their second line and holding. Some teams that had begun to race forwards were pulling back, but it was Deniusth who shouted.

Eldertuin, hold down the ground! Orchestra—concert time!

Twenty-seven Elementals appeared from the trapped laboratory. Twenty-seven, where Ceria’s team had nearly fallen to one. But they had been Silver-ranks at the time.

This time—they had Named-rank teams. Ylawes didn’t see Eldertuin and Viecel among the fighting as it broke out with the huge Water and Earth Elementals, each seven to nine feet tall, emerging and swinging at the nearest adventurer—but he saw them surround Variable Fortress, drawn in by Eldertuin’s Skills.

Yet Deniusth’s team, Orchestra—Ylawes had never seen them fight so far. He expected Deni to show off his golden bell, but he didn’t. Instead, the Named-rank team stood in place. Some were even sitting down.

Gores, the Trumpet of the Battlefield, and Deni, the Violinist, stood in front of their band of fourteen. Fourteen, and some were Gold-ranks or even, Ylawes had heard, Silver-ranks.

What mattered to Orchestra was how good you were with an instrument. He saw a cello-player sitting next to a drummer who held only enchanted sticks—the world was his drums.

Deniusth began playing on his violin as the first notes echoed from Gores’ horn. They played in perfect synchronization, and Ylawes recognized the tune.

The Five Families’ Ballad—Return to New Home. The tune they had played since they had come to Izril.

The first few bars of the song let the rest of the team join in. The drummer beat the first few notes on the stones as the Elementals rose. An Air Elemental conjured a deadly-looking orb of compressed air and drew an arm back to throw it.

Was it shaped like a Drake or a Human? Or a…Gnoll…? Ylawes didn’t know, because then Deni’s bow began to scream upon the violin’s strings. He played louder—and the crescendo of sound rose so fast that Ylawes’ ears popped. He saw the trumpet swing up—and Orchestra’s instruments glowed.

The next thing Ylawes saw was a hole in the clouds. He lowered his hands as the ripple continued through the air. Sound and force—

Half the Elementals in the air vanished. Orchestra’s Combined Skill was angled up, and whatever sound they’d played wasn’t directed at Ylawes, thankfully. Nevertheless, he saw the cone of projected sound clip part of the ridge over Albez.

It hit the stone, and the stones cracked, shattered to pieces, and went flying like shrapnel. Of the Elementals—the Flame Elementals just winked out. Ylawes swore he saw a crystal heart of an Air Elemental explode.

Dead gods!

“[Combined Skill — Onslaught Performance: Louder Than the Sea’s Roar]. Orchestra, get them!”

Deniusth lowered his bow with a flourish, saluted the other adventurers—then his team broke up. The Violinist leapt up, impossibly high with magic, and played on his violin.

Sharp sounds. So sharp that they cut through the flames of one of the Flame Elementals—exposing that glowing core. Deniusth caught himself on a foothold in midair, and his violin bow lanced out like a rapier, striking the core through the center. It shattered, and he whirled back.

The trumpeter, Gores, just aimed his trumpet like some kind of weapon and blew another note. It had so much sonic force that it sent another Air Elemental reeling backwards—and Halrac shot it through the heart.

“That’s Named-ranks?”

Insill’s jaw was open—until Ylawes grabbed him.

“Heads up. They’re coming!‘

An Earth Elemental charged their way, and Ylawes raised his shield, gritting his teeth.

“[Shield of Valor]!”

A hammer’s blow from a fist bounced off his glowing shield, and the three teams surrounded the Earth Elemental. Falene shot a dozen Tier 2 spells into it at close-range, but it did little more than chip at the enchanted stone. Dawil swung his hammer into a leg, cursed, reached for his broken axe—

It’s harder than regular stone!

“Arrows not working—[Piercing Arrow].”

Nailren hit it in the forehead. The Earth Elemental’s forehead cracked slightly, and the rest of his team pelted it with arrows and stared in dismay. Ylawes backed up, deflecting another blow without his Skill—

It was strong! Stronger than a Gargoyle or a Troll. The [Knight] cursed, and Anith spoke.

“[Arrows of Light]. Dasha, support Ylawes and Dawil! Pekona—”

“[Lightning Iai].”

A flash and shock along his arm. Pekona drew her curved blade and slashed into the Earth Elemental’s arm as it swung again—but like his, her cut was shallow. Insill appeared at the Elemental’s back—stabbed once, then hopped away.

It was too tough! Dawil yanked Dasha out of the way as the Earth Elemental kicked, and Ylawes hoped Falene had a better spell.

The Silver Swords didn’t need to come up with one. Nailren took one look at the Earth Elemental as his team’s arrows uselessly rained over it, and he called out.

Switch to ropes. Loop the arm! [Rope Arrow]—get me an anchor.”

His team dropped their bows, and Nailren shot one arrow under the Earth Elemental’s arm.

“[Loop Shot]—web it down.

He seized the loop of rope he’d secured as the arrow wrapped around the arm. The Gnoll seized it—and was nearly dragged off his feet. But his team grabbed the rope, and another threw a loop on the Earth Elemental’s other arm. Ylawes, blocking the swings, saw the Earth Elemental turn—but eight Gnolls including Larr suddenly were hauling on one arm. It stumbled, and Dawil pointed.

Right leg!

While Larr had the left arm, he, Dasha, and Ylawes began to hammer on the right leg, breaking it at the joints. The Earth Elemental roared like grinding stones and began to heave the Gnolls off their feet—until it nearly fell over.

“[Muddy Ground].”

It was sinking. Its other leg was sinking as Anith turned the ground to mud, and Falene conjured more bindings of light. The enraged Earth Elemental had only one arm to swing, and it flailed at the adventurers—until Insill threw a ball of mud at its face.

“Hah! Blinded! [Mud Throw]—”

He ducked a swinging arm and backed up, wide-eyed.

It doesn’t need eyes!

“Idiot. Move—[Heron’s Wing Slash].”

Pekona leapt forwards, and Ylawes leaned back as her cut sprayed his armor and helmet with shards. He got one in his eye and cursed—but he heard a groan. When Ylawes could see, he saw the Earth Elemental’s leg collapsing. It was falling over!

With only one leg to support it, the Earth Elemental fell backwards and landed on its back with a tremble. Nailren’s team lost control of the rope, but he shouted for them to drag it down and anchor it to stones. And that left the warriors with an opening to hit it as hard as they wanted.

“Good!”

The [Knight] lifted his sword and charged in.

“[Shield Breaker]!”

He swung his shield’s edge into the Elemental’s chest, where he thought the heart should be, and the stone cracked. Dawil joined him as Ylawes raised his sword for his best Skill—

Silver Swords, back it up! Back up!

The [Knight] aborted his final charge. He looked over—and Dasha ducked out of the way.

“[All or Nothing Charge]! Eld—”

Viecel the Gambler pointed, and Eldertuin the Fortress raced past Ylawes. The Gold-rank Adventurer saw the older man raise not his sword, but his tower shield in both hands—like an improvised maul, the edge pointed down—

“[Hammer of the Ogre].”

This time, the [Knight] lifted his shield and saved his face from the spray of stones. Dasha shouted in pain, but when Ylawes looked up—he saw the Earth Elemental was split in two. The pieces were stirring—until Eldertuin bent down and yanked something glowing out of the chest.

“Elemental down.”

He turned, nodded to the [Knight], and Ylawes Byres felt a flicker of envy, admiration—he saluted Eldertuin the Fortress, and the man smiled, even as his head was turning for another threat. Ylawes whirled—and there were no more Elementals.

The fight was already over.

 

——

 

It turned out that in the lineup of elementals, the Earth Elementals were the only ones who’d lasted more than a few seconds in the face of so much adventurer firepower. Air, Flame, and Water Elementals were dangerous foes that could drown you, suck the air out of your lungs, or burn even steel as Yvlon had once found.

…They weren’t much good against five Tier 4 spells hitting them at once. With Orchestra’s Skill, the adventurers had literally overwhelmed most of the others.

Mind you, that was not to say it had been a bloodless battle. Several adventurers had broken bones in the first swings of the Elementals, and one Silver-rank was so badly burned she was being rushed to a [Healer].

“Twenty-seven Elementals. And Ceria’s team only ran into one?”

“Might have been a higher-grade one in the confines of the other [Mage]’s secret armory. It apparently burned artifacts up—these weren’t that hot. Tough, though. Imagine being a single Gold-rank team and running into this many? What happened, you lot? I thought you were going to check the door.

The adventurers, in the aftermath of the fight, were harvesting the pieces of the Elementals’ cores, the only really valuable part of them. Maybe the Water Elementals’ water—but it was just mud in the ground now.

“We never got the chance. Turns out there was a huge detection spell that was scanning us for something. Probably an amulet to prove we were allowed in.”

Seborn shook his head as Typhenous peered down at the open doorway. The Plague Mage nodded.

“Regrettable—but unfortunately, we didn’t have the right angle. If we were doing this again, I would suggest tunneling from the side to avoid the spell and cloaking ourselves before approaching.”

“Well, we got the Elementals. Pretty sizable, dangerous lot. Which means this is probably a lot better than one armory.”

Deniusth was excited. He’d taken down six Elementals after his Skill, but Typhenous lifted a hand.

“As a matter of fact—no. Captain Deniusth, I think we were lucky.”

“How so?”

Typhenous pointed down where the first [Rogues] were very cautiously shining lights and spells into the laboratory of…Udatron. A name that some of the more historical adventurers were looking up as they spoke.

“I believe there were more elementals. Twenty-seven? An odd number. Look at this.”

He showed the others something odd—a sparking, but mostly dead, Elemental core. Ylawes felt the static in the air.

Lightning Elemental?

“It must not have been able to endure however long it was here. Perhaps there were other Elementals—there are a number of cores on the ground.”

“That’s worth a lot of money to Wistram. Damn—then how long has this place been hidden? How long does a Lightning Elemental last?”

No one knew, but Deniusth was eying the [Rogues], and they were very, very apprehensive about what they were doing. Yet…

Well, again, Ylawes had a sense of let-down. Not because the laboratory was not well-guarded or that it seemed to be empty—some people were staring inside and practically salivating at what they could glimpse.

No, there were just too many adventurers. Not that he wanted an honorable fight against Elementals, but they’d steamrolled the opposition.

By the same token, though…he felt badly that the Horns weren’t here. Yet they would have never found this place but for Griffon Hunt.

What had they found, though? Who was Udatron? It turned out there were some answers.

The Captain of the Distinguished Staves was a local [Historian] of sorts. He excitedly confirmed the name from a history of Albez.

“Udatron. I knew that name was familiar! Udatron and Thresk, two of the greatest [Mages] of Albez while it was a magical community. Warmage Thresk and Chronomancer Udatron were a duo who fought in the magical conflicts Albez took part in. Udatron vanished during a battle, it says, and he was presumed dead, but no one ever found the corpse.”

“Not unusual in high-powered magical duels.”

Falene murmured, and Ylawes nodded. But the Captain went on—

“Thresk, it was said, never believed his friend was dead, which led to his increasing paranoia and reclusiveness until he passed. If Ceria’s team really did find his armory close to this spot—it only makes sense this might be Udatron’s laboratory.”

“A time-mage’s laboratory? This is wonderful.

Deniusth’s eyes lit up. Dawil groaned.

“Oh no. Time magic? What kind of traps does he have?”

That sobered everyone in earshot. Ylawes Byres adjusted his sword and shield nervously, but it was in the hands of the adventurers, now.

“What do they see in that laboratory?”

“Well…a lot of magical paraphernalia. A small library—”

Deniusth’s smile grew wider with each report from one of the [Scouts] down there. The Gold-rank [Scout] was practically dancing as he pointed. Ylawes and the top-level teams stood around, listening to descriptions of the insides.

Anith and Nailren hung back, and one of the other team Captains drew them aside, perhaps to salvage more pieces from the Earth Elementals. Ylawes felt guilty, seeing the Silver-rank’s wryer expressions. And again, it was hurry up and wait because all of this had better not be an illusion—or trapped. But the Named-ranks were not about to lose this, and the [Rogues] were taking it at a snail’s pace.

“No signs of any big traps, but we’re going in slowly. Maybe…maybe this laboratory only had the door guards?”

“Elementals were Thresk’s magic. Perhaps this Udatron never set up defenses or reactivated them if he died in battle?”

“Maybe—but we can see something in the back. I think…there’s an armory back there. A laboratory, a mage’s library, and an armory.”

Everyone looked at each other, and Ylawes, despite himself, found the final reason why you adventured as Deniusth grabbed one of his teammates in delight.

The loot.

 

——

 

“They think there’s how much there? A…a lab? And how many books…? Yeah, from the age of Albez. And there were only twenty-seven—and they just found it thanks to Halrac’s team? Deni’s backflipping. Great. There wouldn’t happen to be some horrible time-magic trap that killed a few adventurers? No? I’m not wishing it on you, Revi. I’m just—well, we’ll take a share. Thanks.”

Ceria Springwalker didn’t quite scowl, but the Horns of Hammerad definitely grew quiet when they heard about Albez’s second treasure haul. The [Necromancers] looked up, agog, and Colth sighed.

“Well—that monster hide had better be good, or I won’t hear the end of it from Deni for a decade. No going back.”

Their map was expanding, but it seemed like they were tracing a kind of actual layout of the dungeon’s maze. And if Colth was plotting things out right, then they could tell where the four huge pillar-rooms full of monster nests were. Which then implied that the city and Stalker’s corpse was in the center of the four sections. Which meant…

Which meant the adventurers were really mad about all the amazing treasure that Albez’s group had dug up. Because even if they were going to get the hide of some amazingly powerful boss monster, some people wanted it all.

Fair. The Wandering Inn was abuzz with the news, and the treasure might really change things, especially the books if they were spellbooks. What kind of artifacts would Udatron, a great [Chronomancer], have? What magical equipment? Alchemical items?

No one knew, and it was all great. Udatron, a name without context in this modern age. For everyone save, perhaps, someone like an ancient Dragon—if Thresk and Udatron had ever been important enough to be on his radar. Which they had not.

Or…

Erin Solstice propped her chin up on her hand and stared silently out a window. She remembered that name. She remembered…a man, among many, summoned to safeguard time itself.

She didn’t know his story or anything else about what his laboratory might hold. So she said nothing, but at least one person noticed Erin’s wistful look.

Grimalkin of Pallass didn’t reach for a notepad. Some things he could simply remember. And besides—he’d begun wondering if the Eyes of Pallass had access to his home. He had a very in-depth security system, but there was always someone better.

He sat in the inn, thinking. A figure in repose, like some statue made to represent the physical body in all of its prime condition. Grimalkin the Sinew Magus. Grimalkin the Fist.

A famous [Mage]. A renowned one. He had fought in wars, bested [Mages] and enemy officers in combat—he had even dueled Archmage Feor. True, he had been mocked for his physical magic theory by a number of communities, but he had a lot of authority in Drake military systems.

Yet, as Grimalkin quietly sat, eating some couscous, he felt embarrassed. Here, at least. Because Grimalkin…

Felt rather as though he’d made a fool of himself. At least where The Wandering Inn and Erin were concerned.

Consider it from his perspective. He was used to people asking for favors from someone of his level. He had found The Wandering Inn very useful, if only because Erin had knowledge about health and musculature that he lacked from her world, and she was indeed engaging in her own right.

But Grimalkin had begun to keep a reserve after he felt that he was becoming one of ‘Erin’s friends’, a resource that she could call upon. He…was aware of how she could change and influence events, but he had determined that he did not want to be a piece in her game, especially because she was not, well, not important enough to keep sequestering his aid.

He had made a point to tell her that, to draw a line. He was a representative of Pallass, and she could not simply run rampant and call on him at will. That had been before she died, of course.

That had been before her body just happened to be the vessel for General Sserys of Liscor, oh, and Fetohep of Khelt made landfall on Izril and challenged the Walled Cities, in part, for her. And she learned how to post <Quests>. And let’s not forget being the best chess player in the world, the Titan’s chess partner, and she knew Foliana, Valeterisa, Larracel, the Wind Runner…

It seemed to Grimalkin that he had made a mistake. Or perhaps just fallen into a trap of his own design. From him being the person she was prevailing upon, he now felt…the opposite might be true.

And he was embarrassed. Embarrassed, because the proverbial shoe was upon the other foot, and now he had all the questions and she had answers and he saw the irony. He saw the fault in himself, and he was embarrassed.

Introspection was a virtue, but a painful one. Doubly painful because Erin was still…generating mysteries. He’d thought ever since he solved the Earth part of her background he would stop adding more questions to his list of Erin-quandaries.

But why did she know Udatron’s name? Why did he think she knew more about what the adventurers had found than she was letting on?

And did he deserve to know? Grimalkin sat there, chewing the pebbles of gluten and appreciating the dish. Imani had clearly made it.

“Well, I’m glad the Albez teams are finding treasure. I think. Hopefully no one throws open a time paradox again.”

Erin spoke lightly and turned from the adventurers hard at work. Grimalkin’s claw twitched as if he were reaching for a quill. The problem was that she was actually a very, very hard-to-read person. Chance words…could just be that.

Again?

Yet where Grimalkin before would have pressed her for answers, now the Sinew Magus had to wonder something.

Am I the unworthy one? Is she playing a game where I’m blundering around like the fool?

By rights, he should ask for her time, but he felt rooted in place. Not everyone was.

“Erin, are you done with your task in Riverfarm? I could use you making more magical foods.”

“Later, Lyonette. I’m actually going on another errand. Can I take Mrsha?”

“I—how dangerous is it?”

“Um—not very?”

“Really, then let me ask Ser Dalimont. Why do you have a bird tied to your finger?”

“It’s a charm. Geeze, Lyonette. You act like you’ve never seen a curse-sensing charm before. Say, where’s Nanette? Is she still sitting with Bird?”

The [Princess] looked about, and Grimalkin remembered someone mentioning the inn’s new guest. Again, he wasn’t regular enough to realize that this Nanette was a new part of the family.

I’m missing out. What else had he missed? Grimalkin looked around and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Mrsha seemed unchanged; although, he could no longer confirm this via [Appraisal]. Saliss was lying front-first on the floorboards, possibly unconscious, the [Bard] wasn’t here, a little lamb was staring at him from the basement d—

Grimalkin stared at Nerry. The lamb ducked down. Then poked its head up innocently, as if it were playing hide-and-seek. Unlike Nanette, the inn’s second new addition was deliberately keeping out of sight. Besides, Ishkr fed her whenever Nerry needed food.

Lyonette didn’t notice the lamb snooping on them. She turned about.

“I…no. She wasn’t up there when I took Bird lunch.”

“Well, maybe I’ll find her first. Saliss? Are you dead?”

He raised one claw up behind him, and Erin shrugged.

“Cool. Grimalkin! Hi! Do you need something?”

And there it was. The Drake knew she had seen him, and he sighed. Embarrassed, he straightened his spine and nodded at her.

“Not much of your time, Miss Solstice. If you can spare it.”

She gave him an odd look, and he wondered if her new class allowed her to sense his emotions—and she had already been good at that.

“Well, I’m sorta busy, but I’ve got time. Want to find Nanette with me? Mrsha, get yourself some lunch. You too, Dalimont. Can you make me a sandwich? I think I want to chase down this curse.”

Mrsha scampered off with the [Knight] as Grimalkin rose. Erin smiled at him, and he tried one on for size.

“I notice you are up on your feet, Erin. With a [Lion’s Strength] spell.”

“Gonna lecture me about using magic?”

“…No.”

He was tempted to, but the Sinew Magus let it slide. Erin cast around the inn.

“Locate Nanette. Locate…aha. She’s in the garden. Duh. Come on. How’s it been, Grimalkin? How’s things in Pallass now that the Meeting of Tribes has ended?”

He followed her to the open door and felt a nostalgic sense as he spoke.

“Pallass has not suffered unduly from the war, culturally or militarily. I understand there are Gnollish riots in some of the other cities. Not that Fissival had many, but there were protests in Zeres. Manus had them. Briefly.”

“City of War, huh?”

“I don’t believe they were dispersed with unnecessary force.”

“Just dispersed.”

He wasn’t going to defend that. Grimalkin walked with Erin around the garden and noticed more trees growing, but Erin was looking around, and her head rose.

“Ah. She’s up. And how’re you?”

“Adequate. I have been communicating with Ferkr, mostly. She may return to Pallass—but her future seems to be among the tribes. I have been sending her spellbooks, a curriculum, weight sets—”

“Isn’t she your apprentice? I thought she wasn’t ready to be a [Mage] yet.”

“She is possibly the finest apprentice I have ever trained. And I had little to do with that.”

Erin slowed as he ascended the hill. She looked at Grimalkin, and those words were true and close to his heart.

“She did the right thing. Didn’t she? You’re proud of her?”

The Sinew Magus straightened his back once more. He exhaled and felt his chest tighten.

“Immensely. That was entirely her character.”

“Yeah, but you taught her. You get a bit of credit for that, don’t you think?”

He felt gratified by that. Grimalkin ducked his head as Erin led him up the hill. She could be kind indeed.

She could be thoughtless. Well, Erin had too much to do, it wasn’t fair to say this was entirely her fault. But…

Nanette had free rein of The Wandering Inn. She was allowed to go anywhere, and the inn was safe. The family knew about the dangers of Erin’s other gardens, but Nanette had been told about that. She was intelligent and wise enough to occupy herself.

But someone—someone really should have warned her about the hill. It had slipped their minds.

 

——

 

That was how Erin and Grimalkin found her. She had been here for a while. Head raised, two brown braids hanging down the back of her neck. Her blue robes pooled around her legs in the grass.

Nanette was sitting, looking up at someone as if her legs had collapsed. As if they had no more strength to give. Her face was not blank—but it wasn’t torn by tears or grief.

It was just—stunned. Too stunned to properly register…

Erin put her hands over her mouth, and Grimalkin lowered his head. For there, standing with one hand on her hat, peering into the distance, was a tall woman. A [Witch], looking ahead as she so often did. Stern, but not unkind.

She stood alone, next to a tree, in this quiet place where mist clung to the ground. Nanette said nothing until she noticed Erin standing there.

“Nanette. I—oh no. Didn’t I tell you—didn’t someone—”

Erin looked around, but this was all her fault. Yet Nanette just looked up.

“I realized what this place was when I found it. Bird told me.”

Bird?

“Don’t be mad at him. He said it was a good place. I just…I didn’t realize my mother was here.”

Nanette looked up. Erin gazed around, and a scampering little girl ran up the hill with a sandwich. Mrsha dropped it when she saw Nanette and the statue and looked horrified.

“Nanette, I’m so sorry. I should have told you—warned you—”

The [Innkeeper] walked forwards, and Nanette shook her head. She looked up, and her round face stared at her mother’s. Longingly. Lost…but also with a kind of relief.

“She looks like I remember her. No, Miss Erin. Don’t apologize. I’m glad she’s here. It means…it means you remember her. She should be remembered.”

“Yes. She should.”

The little witch looked at Erin, and she understood what this Skill meant…more than most. She took a slow breath as a little Gnoll girl guiltily walked over.

“I’m fine. Really. It’s just…”

She looked up, and her brown eyes shimmered a bit. Nanette wiped at them.

“I’m allowed to cry, aren’t I?”

Tears trickled down her cheeks, and Erin looked so guilty nothing could be done. Nothing—but for Mrsha to hug Nanette. Erin bent down, and the little witch cried for a while.

Then she stood and nearly fell on her butt when she saw the giant Drake. He nodded at her.

“Miss Nanette. We have not met. I am Magus Grimalkin of Pallass. An acquaintance of the inn.”

“Oh. How do you do? I’m sorry, sir.”

“Not at all. I apologize for disturbing you.”

Nanette looked back at the statue, but she had been there long enough. Erin led her down the hill as Grimalkin picked up the sandwich.

I’m so—Nanette, come on, let’s get lunch. Lyonette, uh—uh—she was at the hill. And I didn’t tell her—

They returned to the common room, and everyone saw Nanette’s red eyes. Numbtongue looked up, and Lyonette gasped. Guiltily, the inn’s family gathered around except for Bird, who had done nothing wrong.

“I’m fine, really. I’ve been enjoying poking around.”

“Well—we need to be with you more, and you need to tell us what you want to do, Nanette! I mean it. How’s your room?”

“Very nice.”

“How’s…the food?”

Calescent looked worried until Nanette smiled at him.

“It’s all fine. I can’t ask for more, Miss Erin. Truly. I know you’re busy.”

“Is there anything you could possibly want?”

“Well…”

Shyly, the girl looked around. She kicked her legs as Mrsha handed the sandwich to Erin.

“…I was wondering if there were any books in the inn. Numbtongue has a few, but I like books. Mother would always take me to a library if there were one in the places we visited.”

Books! That’s it! Let’s get books! I’ve been meaning to get them anyways!”

Erin threw up her hands instantly, and Lyonette nodded.

“I’ll give you a budget.”

Guiltily, the inn’s family rushed about as Nanette protested they didn’t need to get—Grimalkin cleared his throat.

“If you’re looking for books, Miss Solstice, I recommend Invrisil or Pallass to buy them. I could list a few titles.”

“Thanks, Grimalkin. Why don’t we go now, Nanette? You and me, huh? I was meaning to go on a trip too—we can take Mrsha and get books, Lyonette. To Invrisil, I think.”

The [Princess] blinked, but one look at Nanette and she agreed. Erin decided they’d have a quick lunch, but she looked at Grimalkin—

“You wanna come? We can talk if it’s something you need to talk about.”

He hesitated, then nodded.

“Why not?”

That was how he, Nanette, Ser Dalimont, Erin, and Mrsha ended up going for a walk into Invrisil. After a pastrami on rye sandwich.

 

——

 

“Like my new door?”

“It’s certainly a choice.”

Erin rolled her eyes as Liska operated the [Portal Door]. It worked like the last one, but instead of a cheap system with stones, it had a window that showed you what lay on the other side, and the dial was beautiful, made of metal, and swung from icon to icon burned into the wood. Invrisil’s looked like the City of Adventurers’ crest, the same for Pallass and Liscor. Celum’s wasn’t one of the city—it was a little pirate’s flag and a bit of growing wheat.

“Wailant’s Farm, see? The sigils just appeared. I think, uh—they look like what I’m feeling.”

“Ah. So Riverfarm is a crown over a stylized piece of feces?”

“…I should probably change that.”

Erin rubbed at the door’s sigil as if she could erase it. Grimalkin eyed the door and frowned.

“I don’t see more than eight symbols. I thought the old door had more connections than that.”

“Me too! But here—let’s go to Invrisil, and you can see what’s weird.”

Erin opened the door, hopped through, and they appeared in a street in Invrisil. A crowd was waiting, but as a few guests piled through past Grimalkin, Nanette looking around in delight, the door vanished.

Grimalkin turned, and to his bemusement, he saw something in its place. An…engraved stone, much like a druidic marker or some ancient waystone, was embedded in the paving stones.

“Fascinating. A gateway marker.”

“Yup! I think it only works places I know. So, uh…everywhere I haven’t been? I can’t open it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I now need to go somewhere to set up a marker.”

“Indeed. Not an upgrade.”

Erin put her hands on her hips and glowered.

“Well, guess what? You can’t steal this! Go on! Try! You can’t! People have been trying to move it all day. But only if I say you can, you can. See?”

That was useful for security, and Grimalkin gave her that. The stone was still heavy when she let him pick it up, and Mrsha and Nanette could barely lift it before he had to take it from them.

“Very useful—but again, the original door had a number of uses on its own. Yet you can transport how many people here?”

“Two hundred. Every two hours.”

“Incredible.”

Nanette whispered. Grimalkin nodded. If Erin visited more spots, she could doubtless install her gateway there too. He wondered how likely that was.

At any rate, they moved on as Erin asked where to go first. At least Ser Dalimont knew the city, and there were a number of good bookstores Grimalkin had requested books from. He was just about to direct her to the first one when he noticed something.

“Erin. Did you say that was a charm to sense a curse?”

Erin blinked down at the little wicker bird hanging from her fingers. She raised it—and Nanette peered at it.

“Oh, Oliyaya’s work. It’s moving that way. Very strongly, too.”

Erin Solstice’s eyes widened, and she saw the wicker bird pulling, pulling her down a street to her right. She looked at it, and Ser Dalimont hesitated.

“Miss Solstice, Witch Agratha did indicate this might be dangerous. Now is not the time?”

The [Innkeeper] nodded, but her eyes swung to Grimalkin.

“We do have Grimalkin. What if we just—checked? This is a big city, and I doubt, uh—I doubt it’ll be dangerous in the most dangerous of senses. I’ve just got this curse on me, Grimalkin.”

“As one does?”

Erin winced, but Nanette smiled.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing where the bird leads. It sounds exciting. And if it goes somewhere dangerous, we can turn back. You can always turn back.”

“Hey, that’s right! I’ve never done that. Well, it’s time for books and curses! Follow the bird!”

Off they went. Grimalkin realized they were going on an adventure. Funnily enough…he didn’t mind. After all, he had once resented it because it felt like Erin was making use of his power to her ends.

These days—he saw her glance at him and wondered who was going to help who.

 

——

 

The cave was…

Buzzing.

Infinitypear and Rasktooth hesitated as they saw how it had been blocked off. They had been wandering around it for a while, and save for the odd stone plug on top, clearly designed to be removed, it was sealed.

“What is this, Infinitypear? Magic buzzing cave?”

“No. Bees.”

“Oh.”

Rasktooth didn’t really know bees, having lived in a cave all his life. Thus, he wasn’t really afraid as the only bee he knew was Apista, and she was nice. Infinitypear had also never been stung by a bee—small bees would never pierce his carapace.

They were less wary than they should be. But the two [Adventurers] were debating unplugging the gap.

“Is this stupid, Infinitypear?”

“Yah. But maybe lots of Apistas stuck in there? We should free them.”

Since the plug was on top of the cave’s roof and Infinitypear had a clumsier Worker’s body, Rasktooth was climbing up there with his arms and prodding at the stone plug. The buzzing…seemed to thrum through the stone, and Rasktooth wondered if this was a bad idea.

Maybe just a peek? He wondered how secure the lid of the plug was. Slowly, Rasktooth lifted the plug and—

It popped right out. It was so light and so unattached that the Cave Goblin shifted it away from the hole instantly. He overbalanced, and Infinitypear ran around the cave to catch him—but Rasktooth caught himself.

“Hey! This plug isn’t on at all!”

“Oh? What’s—”

Then the buzzing grew louder, and Rasktooth froze. He tried to put the plug back, but too late.

Ashfire Bees blew out of the tunnel in a swarm. Nearly a hundred of them flew up in a mass, and Infinitypear looked up—

And then thought of how big Apista’s stinger was. How dangerous she might be if she were mad. Rasktooth was flailing, covering his face as they descended—

Stop!

The Ashfire Bees halted, covering the Cave Goblin, and their stingers did not jab into his flesh. They were filthy, covered in—something strange—and—

And a second swarm of bees flurried around, bright yellow and black. More Ashfire Bees as the first one retreated back into the cave.

What was going on? Infinitypear and Rasktooth froze as the second swarm landed around the roof of the cave, and the dirty bees from within crawled around the entrance. They were rubbing antennae…kissing? But who had spoken? Where had the other bees come from?

The answer appeared as four buckets were slowly placed down and a bit of sugary water sloshed between the buckets. Both bee nests descended, and a figure raised one of their hands as all four buckets fed the two Hives.

“This is dangerous. You are not Miss Mrsha. Did she hire you to take my job?”

Rasktooth blinked, and Infinitypear brightened.

“Grass Shell!”

The [Shaman] backed away as the two bee colonies devoured the sugar buckets. He looked like a plant. More grass had grown on his shell, even a flower or two. A bee landed on his shell and began to suck nectar out of it.

“The bees in this cave are angry-angry. They will sting you. The new bees don’t go in. Except if they are needed. Something bad is there. The new bees feed this one. See?”

He pointed to the ‘kissing’ bees, and Rasktooth and Infinitypear saw they were actually doing what bees did—trading nectar and food.

“You have a job feeding bees?”

“Yes. A Drake did it last time, but he overcharged, so I took his job. Is it my turn to lose my job?”

Grass Shell looked resigned to the whims of economic fate, but Rasktooth and Infinitypear assured him they were just adventuring. The [Shaman] brightened up.

“Oh. Then I am happy. I am feeding the bees. I am allowed to buy sugar and water and things bees eat and put them here every week.”

“What’s in the cave?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did new hive come from?”

Rasktooth decided he was afraid of bees—especially the Ashfire Bees who were flying around and eating from the Floodplains’ flowers. Grass Shell shrugged.

“I don’t know. They flew here? I feed them too.”

“Why?”

Both [Adventurers] had many questions, but Grass Shell just puffed out his chest proudly as he put his hands on his hips.

“Because I am a [Shaman]. A [Beekeeper Shaman].”

The Goblin and Antinium looked at each other. Rasktooth held up a hand.

“Is that a good class?”

Grass Shell pondered the question.

“I get free honey.”

“Ooh. Good class.”

“Yes.”

This adventure had nearly ended in calamity, but it turned out to end in free honey. Grass Shell didn’t collect any from the angry Hive of dirty bees, and they actually pulled the plug back into place. Rather, he knew that the other Ashfire Bees were starting hives, and so he gave Rasktooth and Infinitypear a taste of a small jar he was allowed to harvest. It was so sweet it gave the two adventurers energy to race off—after thanking Grass Shell for his treat.

So many caves! Dangerous caves. Let’s not go to bee-cave again.

“Yah, yah.”

Rasktooth agreed as they wandered on. Infinitypear pointed to a new crack in the rock, so thin he could barely squeeze into it. Rasktooth, with his skin-body, would have had less trouble, but Infinitypear wondered if he could widen the gap.

It looked like it went into the mountain and down. Down deep, if Infinitypear were right—he tapped on the crack and heard an echo deep, deep down.

“Ooh. Big crack. Think we should go in?”

“No.”

The Antinium didn’t notice how Rasktooth had frozen on his shoulders. He peered down and wondered why his [Dangersense] was humming.

“Maybe a big drop? Maybe just a look—”

“Don’t go in there.”

Infinitypear halted—and Rasktooth stared into the crack in the mountain. The Worker slowly backed up. He tilted his head up to look at Rasktooth.

“Why?”

The Cave Goblin just stared at the crack in the rocks.

“The dungeon is down there. Bad death. Death…this is where Numbtongue went. Redfangs. Shield Spiders’ nest is here. And worse things. Below.

Infinitypear backed up fast. Shield Spiders? As in the entire nest of them? He looked at Rasktooth, alarmed.

“I thought adventurers sealed it.”

“They sealed some parts. This goes to Shield Spider nests.”

“How do you know?”

The Cave Goblin glared down at Infinitypear.

“I know. I live in dungeon all my life. I know everywhere in it. Even death-death-death city. Even metal armor place. Don’t go in. Stay away. Bad things are down there. Bad…things.”

He was so adamant that Infinitypear marched away. Somewhat upset, the two [Adventurers] slowed.

Bad things had happened there. Rasktooth didn’t look like he was in the mood for adventure any more.

“We go home now?”

Infinitypear pointed timidly at the inn, and Rasktooth nodded silently. They trooped back to the city.

Some adventures were too much for them. Too dark—and they wanted good adventures. Both of them knew they might not have a choice. Erin had promised them free food for a month, and what would happen after that?

What would they do? Infinitypear had worried—but as he neared the inn, that worry coalesced. He didn’t want to abandon Rasktooth—but he was still a Worker.

“Infinitypear. Before you go to the inn, you have to come with me.”

Grass Shell was on his way back, but he wasn’t headed to the inn. Infinitypear slowed as Rasktooth, who had been silent, looked up.

“Why?”

“Because we have been ordered. Remember? We go to the Free Hive. Revalantor Klbkch wants us.”

Then Infinitypear felt his heart sink. Rasktooth looked at Infinitypear as the Worker pointed to the inn.

“Let me put Rasktooth in a seat.”

“No. I go with?”

The Cave Goblin patted Infinitypear on the head. Because he felt the Worker tremble when Grass Shell said that name. He knew what Klbkch did to Workers he didn’t like. To Aberrations.

“That is not permitted.”

Grass Shell hesitated. Infinitypear’s antennae waved.

“There is no rule against Goblins in the Hive.”

“I’m pretty sure there is.”

Grass Shell muttered, but then the three were heading into the Hive of the Free Antinium via Erin’s basement. Perchance for destiny. But it was not one they wanted.

Everyone knew how a Worker’s story ended. The same for Cave Goblins like Rasktooth. The two [Adventurers]…

They wanted something more. Something better.

But the Slayer awaited.

 

——

 

A skeleton ran past a gateway deep in the dungeon. A barred door—and barred from the outside. As if it were there to keep something in.

Armored figures and Crypt Worms halted at the edge of the tunnels. They hesitated, and a few passed the barrier.

A writhing worm lashed out with arm-whips, screaming as it tried to tag the skeleton. But the figure—flew. It was running like a track champion from another world, and as it sensed the whips coming up, someone shouted.

Jump!

The skeleton leapt, both arms rising, a long-distance leap that carried it to safety. Then it touched down and began to cartwheel forwards. It sounded like it was laughing—but that was just the voices.

“We did it! Get the maps!”

The skeleton was dancing in place, raising its arms as the confused monsters looked on. The fact that it did celebrate—was because it deserved to. That was the difference between this undead and the mindless ones who walked the dungeon.

This skeleton began doing back-flips. And the voices continued.

Make it flip them off. Look, that Crypt Worm actually looks sad. Can your skeletons spit, Ama?

“I have heard throwing feces is a valid tactic. But I have not been allowed to keep a storage unit.”

“Ksmvr—who tells you this kind of stuff?”

“Bird.”

There the skeleton stood as the monsters, even the suits of armor with no flesh to break or lose—looked up. The Crypt Worms writhed forwards uncertainly, then turned to head back to the gates. The other monsters retreated, and the skeleton’s head slowly swiveled.

The celebration stopped.

“Dead gods. That’s…a lot of them. Ama, can you outr—they’re fast. Ceria, were they always that fast?”

“I—yes? We had a hundred Raskghar, sometimes. Ama, can your skeleton find Stalker? He’s in a plaza.”

All the skeleton had to do was climb one of the buildings, but shapes were emerging from the houses. Thousands of them, bounding across the streets, screaming—

Fleshy beings with no clothing, vaguely humanoid. Filled with missing holes and red, glistening flesh.

“A’ctelios Salash looks more inviting.”

Another voice cut in, and Colth’s tones were strained. The skeleton itself didn’t waste time arguing. Nor did its controller speak as she guided it to one of the buildings. It leapt up, caught a roof ledge, hauled itself up, and then leapt onto a balcony. From there, it ran at a wall of another house, kicked off it, and yanked itself up a window. Boosting itself up higher—

This is amazing. I had no idea skeletons could move—they’re coming up. Pisces, you taking notes?

“I am.”

This building afforded the skeleton a view of the entire area, and what it showed was…a city so vast it really did match Pallass. Then, the voices were silent. Only one spoke, cool, but trembling.

“I think we’d better save this image for someone more important to review. Chaldion, perhaps. There. There’s Stalker’s corpse.”

The swiveling skeleton stopped. The inhabitants of this place were climbing, but the skeleton pointed, and its finger saw a plaza not too far from here and a familiar monument.

“This must have been the exact same door we came through. I can even sort of see Stalker’s corpse around the monument.”

Yvlon grunted.

“I can’t. No…wait, is that a bloodstain? That plaza—compare it to Shivertail Plaza. That monument. Ceria, how big is this corpse?”

“Big enough that no bag of holding is going to cover it.”

Colth remarked, and there was excitement in his tone—and wariness. But the last voice broke in gently.

“Ama. We’ve found it. But I don’t think your skeleton…Scottie, is going to make it.”

The skeleton stood there on the tower’s roof, looking down at the screaming maws of teeth and thrashing tails and limbs from the things bel