7.15 R

(Two new banners at the top of the stite by Raoul Corella! The inn in spring and winter! Look out for them here and here! Or refresh the page a few times. Big thanks to him!)

 

It was a love story for the ages. A young [Lord] and [Lady], specifically, Lord Bein of the Terland family, and Lady Dealia of the minor house of the Zolde nobility. A scandalous matchup perhaps, but one that was sanctioned through love and touched the hearts of everyone with the sophistication to appreciate such modern-day romances that defied social convention.

If you lacked the sophistication to really appreciate the nuance of that event, or didn’t keep up with the trends of nobility in Izril, well, it was one of the topics of discussion in certain circles.

The average layperson…might not know about the pairing, but then again, people liked to keep track of such things, like those who obsessively followed marriages and courtly dramas in Terandrian monarchies.

Like—for instance, war brewing between Ailendamus and other nations was actually overshadowed in the circles of gossip by scandalous cheating in bedrooms, or frivolous details. For instance, have you heard that the 6th Princess of Calanfer had refused every single suitor, except for partaking in the most removed of dances? It was speculated that she had a serious suitor, or else…some kind of disease.

Either or. But the point was that such pairings among the nobility were important. They had to be, otherwise what was the point?

Anyways, Lord Bein and Lady Dealia. Scandalous, yes. Because Lord Bein was a member of the Terland family, one of the Five Families of Izril, and thus one of the most powerful nobility in the world. He wasn’t…from the main branch of the family or anything, but even so, they had standards. And Lady Dealia was a member of the Zolde nobility, who had come to Izril just a moment ago—two hundred years back, fleeing unrest in Chandrar.

They were thus, still, ‘Chandrarian’ to many of the nobility. And marrying into their family was something that a wealthy person, or perhaps an adventurer or someone else might do. Or some of the other minor nobles, yes, but a member of the Five Families?

Ah, but it was love. A love story! Like that haute new thing, ‘plays’, sweeping through Invrisil? Have you seen…?

Love indeed. Lord Bein had been head over heels with Lady Dealia and the courtship had occupied the minds of those who spent time dwelling on such things. Of course, her family was delighted by the suggestion and Lord Bein had won over his parents after some wrangling. It had been his mother who’d really disliked the concept, but once Lord Bein had persuaded his father, the good Lord Sheldae Terland, to support the marriage, the engagement had been on.

Love triumphed over social class, that was the lesson here. A young [Lord] of the Five Families could marry a…lesser [Lady] from Chandrar two hundred years back. Believe in love.

Although…it didn’t hurt that Lady Dealia was one of the most beautiful [Ladies] in all of Izril. Blessed by birth, or perhaps Skills, she occupied the list of the top ten [Ladies] to marry, (and yes, there were lists). In fact, she’d been ranked fourth, right below Lady Wuvren. The famous Wuvren had held her position on that list since she’d turned sixteen, for the last fifty years or so.

All this to say that love—and perhaps being extremely attractive—had made Lord Bein leap for the engagement and true love. The engagement had in fact, been going forwards. Albeit with some sabotage by his mother, wrangling by both families—but no more than usual.

It was scheduled next month, and it was certainly going to be a large wedding; the nobility loved good weddings and many would turn up, which would probably begin more romances, intrigues, and so on.

Well and good, well and good. Love, marriage—it would have been perfect, but for one thing. And that thing would be—Lady Hetessana Wellfar.

You pig! You faithless dog!

Lord Bein Terland fled the private bedroom of Lady Hetessana Wellfar, one of the most eligible [Dowagers] in all of Izril as she pursued him. Half-naked, and fully in fury. The widowed Hetessana was of the Wellfar family, another of the Five Families of Izril.

Where the Terlands were known mainly for their trade in magical artifacts and having fallen on hard times since their days of glory, the Wellfar family had kept their gold and husbanded it, in husbands, but also the far more practical buisiness of ships and trade. Lady Hetessana had been married to one of the [Ship Lords], and she had inherited a lot of wealth from her husband upon his untimely death at sea.

She had genuinely mourned him, too, and had been known as a [Lady] first mourning the loss of her husband—and then grieving her loneliness. She was in her late fifties, and had not benefitted from Skills that made Lady Wuvren so…eye-catching.

“I can explain!”

You told me it was an accident! How dare you!

The older [Lady] shouted as she pursued Lord Bein. Servants poked their heads out as they saw the two nobles quarrelling—and immediately decided they had seen or heard nothing. Both were in a state of undress.

The…relationship between Lady Hetessana and Lord Bein wasn’t well-known by anyone. But Lord Bein had, in fact, prior to falling for Lady Dealia, been seeing the older Lady of the Wellfar family. For about two years, actually. And benefitting from the relationship in more ways than just the purity of romance.

“I gave you everything! Gold, favors—we were to be married at the end of the year and you—you only loved me for my wealth? Is that it?”

Lady Hetessana’s face was a mask of grief. Because she had loved the young [Lord] who had courted her in secret. She had assumed it had been a love story, right up until this moment. The older [Lady] did not keep up with gossip, and the engagement had caught her off-guard.

“Hetessana, I can explain—”

Lord Bein ducked a shoe. He had indeed tried to explain. But he’d clearly failed. Lady Hetessana looked at him.

“You were seduced? In that case—call off the engagement!”

The younger man spread his hands, turning red.

“One can’t just call off an engagement, Hetessana. My hand was forced. I tried to talk my father out of it—”

Liar!

This time a pot flew and Lord Bein ducked it. He wasn’t quite sure why his carefully-crafted explanations were failing, but perhaps he hadn’t ever run into a situation up till now that had required actual subterfuge. Or the kind of consequences he couldn’t walk away from.

“You scoundrel.”

Lady Hetessana sagged as one of her [Handmaids] came out to support her. She was grey in the face, with shock and pain, but she looked at the half-clothed Lord Bein with a kind of grim determination. She pointed and he flinched, but she threw only words now.

“You will pay. For lying to me. And to your young [Lady]. Does she know about us?”

“Hetessana—”

“She doesn’t, does she? Or that you promised to marry me?”

Lord Bein’s eyes flickered. Hetessana laughed.

“She’ll know. Everyone will know! I’ll shout it from the rooftops if I must!”

Her reputation be damned. Lord Bein paled at the implications. Not only might the engagement be called off, this might have consequences in his own family.

“Hetessana, please, let me explain!”

“You’ve lost the right to call me that. Begone from my presence! And you had better pray that the Zolde household doesn’t answer insult with blades! They’re Chandrarian, you know.”

The older [Lady] shook her head. She was turning away. Lord Bein looked at her, and his temper flared.

“Say what you will! I’ll deny everything! This was nothing more than a—a mistake! And I promised you nothing in truth!”

The [Lady] of the Wellfar family flinched. But the love she had felt and he…had pretended had turned to enmity in a moment. She turned her head.

“You shallow, snake of a boy. I’ll swear it on truth spell before anyone who asks!”

But it would be her word against his. Lord Bein laughed. Lady Hetessana colored with fury.

This could not be allowed to stand. But it might not halt an engagement. Not if it were words; after all, the affair had been conducted on her lands, and only her servants could attest to the relationship. How might she tell the truth? How might…?

And then she had it. Quick as could be, Hetessana hurried into the mansion. Lord Bein stared at her, confused, as he tried to pull out a change of clothes out of his bag of holding and put them on. He only saw the [Lady] return after a few minutes. And when she did—

She was holding a pendant. Lord Bein paled.

“Perhaps Lady Dealia will believe this!

She shook the pendant that should have been around Lord Bein’s neck at the young [Lord]. He felt at the spot where it had been—but of course, he’d taken it off!

It was one of the Terland’s artifacts, passed down through their family. Not relic-class, but one of the priceless amulets that conveyed a number of magical effects. In this case, they grew in strength the more of the amulets there were, but even this one could help thwart an assassination attempt. Lord Bein really shouldn’t have taken it off, but it chafed.

“Lady Hetessana, give that back!”

She stared at him, triumphant at the sudden fear on his face, and anger. And still—heartbroken, because half an hour ago, she had loved him. But this was a real love story.

“I shall not. And the world will know of your infidelity!”

She whirled. Lord Bein made a strangled noise and ran at her. But Hetessana’s [Servants] appeared, blocking him. They dared not do more, and suffered the young [Lord]’s clumsy blows and swearing as he tried to push past them. He was, after all, despite everything, a member of the Terland family.

But Lord Bein was also aware of Hetessana’s power. So he didn’t draw the sword he owned and hack at them, and he couldn’t fight his way past the press of bodies. In the end, after trying to rush left or right past the line of servants, he gave up. Panting, he shouted at Hetessana’s back.

“You’ll never deliver it, Hetessana! I swear!”

He raced off, looking for his horse. Lady Hetessana stared at him as he ran off, and then handed the pendant to one of her handmaidens. Then she sank into her bed and wept.

Perhaps, if she had been faster, the servants might have beaten Lord Bein to his estates. But Lady Hetessana took time for her grief. To her cost.

The first [Thief] came like…a thief in the night. He was intercepted by her guards, but the second and third came within just as many days.

Lord Bein had hired [Thieves] to steal back his pendant, and the proof of their relationship. Faced with that, and knowing that her security couldn’t withstand a high-level attempt for long, Lady Hetessana made a quick decision. She made a public announcement about her relationship with Lord Bein and shattered the illusion of love across Izril’s social gossip circles.

The Terland family instantly denied the allegations. Lord Bein stridently claimed it was Hetessana’s madness and grief and that he had only shown the [Dowager] a short kindness and a relationship that had gone nowhere. Lady Hetessana swore she had proof.

The pendant. It had to go to Lady Dealia, who was obviously troubled by the claims but stood by the man she loved, or Bein’s family. Dealia preferably; the Terlands were standing with Lord Bein and might hush up the truth, even if it was delivered to them.

But Lady Hetessana feared theft or ambush along the long distance north and east, towards the Zolde households. Lord Bein had, through Izril’s underworld, put out a bounty on that pendant. Anyone delivering it, even one of Hetessana’s servants, might be targeted by [Bandits] or anyone seeking the bounty. And it was a hefty price. So, Lady Hetessana sent a [Message] for someone who could deliver the pendant at speed, and without delay or interception.

She sent for a Courier. That had been one day ago.

 

—-

 

The [Raiders] saw their mark coming down the road. He was a Courier.

Lacel the Leaper. Not the best of names, but he was a Courier. And he bore Lady Hetessana’s pendant. The [Raiders] were well aware of all this. And they were prepared to cash in on the ten thousand gold coin bounty Lord Bein had put on the pendant.

Unofficially. No Adventurer’s Guild or any other official guild had posted the bounty. But there were unofficial channels for Izril’s underworld, and they had spread words about the bounty to everyone.

Halt!

The [Raid Leader] was a rough woman used to doing what it took to survive. She’d been banned from over a dozen cities and three times that many towns and villages, but she was tired of life living in fear of the law. This was her and her gang’s big break.

She fired a crossbow as her group burst from their cover along the tall brush they’d been hiding in and charged down towards the trade road Lacel was running down.

The Courier was running fast, nearly as fast as a horse, but he had more endurance Skills than mobility. He jerked and stared up as the [Bandits] raced at him, firing weak spells from wands and shooting arrows.

Dead gods!

Some of the travellers on the road panicked at the sight of the [Raiders]. They weren’t expected, not so close to Invrisil! But the [Raiders] were only focusing on Lacel. He instantly blurred and turned into six different figures who all went racing in different directions.

“He’s using a damn illusion! Split up and get him!”

The [Raid Leader] swore and turned her mount, pursuing the one racing for Invrisil’s gates, several miles distant. She blew past a frightened family on the road as the eighteen-some [Raiders] raced past her.

A caravan, a family riding a covered wagon, hid as the [Raiders] streamed past them. A [Trader] with a bag of holding and a pack mule dove for cover, grabbing at his emergency wand, prepared to fight only in self-defense. A group of young people riding a wagon surrounded by hired [Mercenaries] alternatively panicked and stared at the spectacle as the [Guards] swore and closed ranks, more aware of the danger.

Halt or we’ll cut you down, Courier!

The [Raid Leader] had seen through Lacel’s illusion. Her gang was pursuing the other five illusions, but who would run away from the safety of Invrisil’s walls? She reloaded her crossbow as she swung her mace out of its holster. Either one would do for the Courier.

Lacel the Leaper looked back at the [Raid Leader] and swore. He was a lanky fellow, with long legs. As the [Raid Leader] closed on him, he ran left, desperately, passing by a bluff of stone rocks leading uphill. The [Raid Leader] swore and angled towards him. But he was too far from the stones! She lifted her mace as she aimed—

And Lacel jumped.

Straight up, into the air. And gravity forgot Lacel existed for a second. The [Raid Leader] stared up, open-mouthed, as the Courier flew.

Ten feet. Then twenty. Thirty—and his back arced as he landed on the top of the hill. The gang stared. Lacel looked around wildly, and then he leapt again. He flew, and the [Raid Leader] turned her horse.

Get him! He’s only good at jumping! Get him and—

She ducked as the Courier threw something at her. An explosion; he was throwing damn Alchemist’s Fire! She swore, but her [Raiders] were tasting blood. They raced after him, shooting arrows that swerved as they neared the Courier. And he was jumping, throwing exploding flasks.

It was a running battle and the people on the road hid as the [Raiders] tried to bring down the Courier. But he was a Courier. And not only could he run almost as fast as the horses they rode, he was armed.

And he jumped high. Still, he was making for Invrisil at best speed rather than trying to wipe the [Raiders] out like another Courier might. And as the fighting entered the second minute, the [Raiders] racing after Lacel, the terrified family in the covered wagon was huddled together. And from the back, a figure poked his head out.

Three figures, actually. A yawning Stitch-Woman adjusted the stitches around her neck. A slumbering old [Mage] was still waking up, rather disoriented. The Stitch-Woman, who had a wand in one hand, nodded at the [Raiders] racing past them.

“What’s the word, Halrac? Summons?”

“No. Cover me.”

The voice came from inside the wagon. And the man, the [Veteran Scout], a scruffy, yet-to-be-shaved beard on his face, and an expression that suggested that smiling was a foreign idea to him, pushed out of the wagon’s interior.

The family stared at him. Because the man wasn’t armed. He carried no weapons.

Or rather—it looked like he was carrying nothing. But—why was he holding his hand like that? As if he was pretending to aim a bow. But it was realistic. And he did have a quiver.

One of the two young boys in the family stared as the grim man plucked an arrow from the quiver. He was still…holding nothing but air. But then he did something and the arrow vanished.

The young boy gaped. He saw the [Scout], the Gold-Rank adventurer pause. And then—the shimmering patch of air shifted. The invisible bow and the now-invisible arrow moved.

Tft. The family stared ahead. They saw the galloping [Raiders] rushing forwards. And then—up ahead—the [Raid Leader] fell out of her saddle. Lacel the Leaper stared. He stared at the now-visible arrow buried in the back of her head. Halrac grunted. He drew another arrow, sighted, loosed.

A second [Raider] fell. The gang shouted in panic, staring at Lacel. They thought the arrows were coming from the Courier. They only realized they were being assaulted from behind after two more arrows sent their riders tumbling out of the saddles, screaming.

“I think they saw us.”

“Hm? Are we under attack?”

Typhenous was still waking up. The old [Mage] had white hair and a beard, but he moved surprisingly quickly for someone his age. The two boys in the family’s wagon stared as Typhenous unsheathed a wicked dagger as he lifted his staff.

“You missed it, old man. We’re attacking them. They’re looking this way, Halrac.”

Revi warned the leader of Griffon Hunt. Halrac shrugged.

“What do they see?”

He paused as he lowered his bow. From afar he looked unarmed. And the [Raiders] indeed looked straight past him—until he raised his bow and shot another through the nose. As in—straight through the bridge of the nose and the rest of the woman’s head.

Ah! Dead gods, Halrac!

Revi recoiled from the sight. The [Raiders] stared as Halrac aimed again.

“Cover me if they charge, Revi. Typhenous, shields up.”

“Is this an attack? I missed the beginning. [Force Wall]. Just below your chin, Halrac.”

“Got it.”

The shimmering barrier appeared as Typhenous cast his spell. The [Raiders] were debating charging or fleeing the threat. But Halrac kept loosing arrows.

Some of them charged. The rest fled. But their arrows and spells hit the [Force Wall]. The barrier was mostly invisible as well, and did indeed cover the entire frightened family in the wagon and Halrac—just up to his chin. He shot over the magical barrier. Revi lifted her wand—but never cast a single spell.

The [Raiders] died on that busy road. The horses, terrified, galloped around until they were captured. And the patrol of Invrisil’s Watch arrived too late.

They’d arrived quickly. Fifteen minutes and they were out on the trade road in force. But they just found the dead [Raiders], a bunch of lined-up horses being shepherded together by glowing, summoned warriors.

And Griffon Hunt. Lacel the Leaper had run on without so much as pausing. But the Gold-rank adventurers were taking their dues.

Applause. And the [Raider]’s horses and gear. Halrac paused in prying the [Raid Leader]’s mace out of her stiff hands as the [Sergeant] on horseback waved at him.

“Excuse me! Are you an adventurer?”

“That’s right. Halrac…Captain of Griffon Hunt.”

The [Scout] paused a second as he gave his title. The [Sergeant] relaxed.

“Well then, you’ve done us a favor. Thank you, sir. Did you see what those [Bandits] were after?”

“Not [Bandits], [Raiders].”

Typhenous corrected the [Sergeant]. He casually yanked a gold tooth out of an open mouth. The [Guards] winced. So did Revi, who was helping.

Typhenous!

“It’s gold, Revi. Be a dear and help me with the bag of holding? [Raiders], indeed. You can tell by their armor and style. Bandits operate from a base. [Raiders] are hit-and-run—aha. Another tooth. Silver. Revi, stop fidgeting.”

The [Sergeant] stared as Typhenous bent over the corpse. But that was adventurers for you. He cleared his throat and noticed Revi’s summoned warriors herding the horses together.

“Adventurer Halrac, er, can I assume your team is claiming salvage rights on the [Raiders]?”

“That’s right. We can dispose of the bodies as well.”

“Ah, well then.”

The Watch brightened a bit. So did the [Sergeant].

This was protocol. It might have been alien to the travellers staring as the Gold-rank adventurers, er…looted the dead, but the Watch and the adventurers were used to it.

Salvage rights for the criminal’s possessions. Griffon Hunt was entitled to it, but that meant also disposing of corpses, or paying the Watch for a fee. If you just looted the bodies and left them to rot, well, you could be fined for it. You could get away with that around Celum, maybe.

But this was Invrisil. There were rules, for adventurers and the Watch. And in accordance with the rules, Halrac paused from collecting items he could sell and let the [Sergeant] take down his team’s name.

“It’s Griffon Hunt with a ‘o’. Griffon. As in, the dog. G-r-i-f-f-o-n.”

“Ah, I see. Let me just—Halrac Everam?”

“Yes. Our team used to be led by Ulrien—the records might not have changed.”

“Thank you, sir. Oh. I mean—I’m sorry, if it was a loss—”

“It was.”

Halrac folded his arms, waiting. Flustered, the [Sergeant] recorded the details. Then he thanked Halrac again, went to reassure everyone that everything was under control, and left. Halrac watched him go. Then he sighed and went back to the [Raiders]. There was a nice bit of chainmail on the [Raid Leader] and, unsavory as it was, it would fetch a good price.

Griffon Hunt couldn’t afford to turn down free money. So, tedious as it was, and as much as he’d like to get to Invrisil, Halrac began to strip the dead woman. He’d been on the road a long time, and delayed from reaching Invrisil for ages. He hoped that the magic door was working there, but he hadn’t heard a rumor about that yet. And you would hear rumors if The Wandering Inn reached Invrisil.

It hadn’t been a productive month, by and large. And Halrac was in a bad mood.

But then—what was new?

 

—-

 

“I think that’s everything. I’ve got all the bodies lined up. How’re we doing this? Burning? Acid? Valmira’s Comet?”

About twenty minutes later, Revi dusted her palms as she turned to the three-person team that was Griffon Hunt. She was looking at Halrac, their leader, but it was Typhenous who replied.

“Unless you’d like to scatter body parts across a hundred feet, Revi, I think fire will do. Halrac?”

“Do it. Revi, why is that family waiting?”

Halrac gestured at the wagon that they’d been hitching a ride on. Revi squinted.

“I…think they’re waiting for us to come with them?”

“We have the [Raider]’s horses. We’ll ride them to Invrisil. Find a [Hostler]. Let them know.”

“Yes, boss. I’ll endure them thanking you and being grateful so you don’t have to.”

Revi mock-saluted Halrac as she ambled over to the wagon and anxious family. Halrac scowled at her back. Typhenous chuckled. He aimed his staff at the bodies—already beginning to smell a tiny bit in the heat—and shot flames from his staff.

Cremation. Halrac watched impassively. His nose stung with the smoke and smell, but Typhenous didn’t bat an eyelash. Halrac’s face was locked in a scowl as he saw travellers moving past. Some called out, asking what had happened, but the Gold-rank adventurer didn’t respond.

He was in a foul mood. Not from the [Raiders]. But he’d been scowling the last…week. And yes, Halrac, sometimes known as ‘Halrac the Grim’ for that very feature, usually didn’t smile. But his team had learned to tell apart the varying levels of dissatisfaction or non-emotion contained on his face.

“They’re off. And they’d love to thank you in person, Halrac. What with you being a hero to the little boys and everything. But I told them that a big, important adventurer didn’t have time to spend on goodbyes.”

Revi came back. If Halrac’s default mode was dour, hers was probably nettling people. Halrac turned his glare on her.

“If you said that, Revi—”

He almost started back towards the wagon, which was indeed turning back onto the road. Revi threw up her hands.

“I didn’t! It was a joke! Calm down, Halrac.”

The surly adventurer glared at her, but relaxed.

“Don’t lie, then.”

“Don’t take your bad mood out on me. Pshaw! It stinks! Hold on, I’m taking my nose off.”

Revi gagged at the smell. She reached up and began to undo the tiny, invisible stitches on her nose. She pulled off her nose, revealing just blank skin underneath. Halrac and Typhenous ignored her as the bodies burned nicely. They were used to it.

“Give me five minutes and they should be fit to douse with water. Revi, my dear—”

“Don’t call me that, old man. I’ll get you the nicest horse.”

“You know me too well.”

Revi rolled her eyes as she whistled. The glowing apparitions herded the nervous horses closer. Typhenous, still projecting flames from his staff, eyed them.

“Decent horseflesh. I think we could get a good price for some of them. If we don’t keep them.”

“I’d like a horse. That one’s beautiful.”

“Mm. Bad lines, Revi. But indeed, a lovely coat.”

Typhenous studied the horses with a practiced eye. Revi deffered to him with a sigh.

“There’s a nice saddle on that one. You want? And can I ride the lovely one?”

“If we’re not in a hurry, by all means.”

“That’s mine, then. Halrac, you want a horse?”

“I. Don’t. Care. Let’s just get them moving. And we’re selling all but three at the nearest stables.”

Revi and Typhenous exchanged a glance. Their smiles faltered. Silently, they found their horses. By the time Typhenous extinguished the fire with a jet of water, the corpses were mostly destroyed by the fire. The horses were herded by the summons, who ran behind the three adventurers as they travelled down the road.

Towards Invrisil, the City of Adventurers. It was their destination that they’d been heading to for about two weeks. They’d made a detour, taken well over a month to head east first—but now they were on the way.

It had been…wasted time. Time badly spent. And for adventurers, that was a problem.

Time was money. Also, money was money. Artifacts were money. Levels were money. In the end, they really just wanted money. Money, and fame, and levels, and power. That was why adventurers existed. Some lived for the glory of it, or the thrill, or even…because it was necessary and right to fight against monsters. But to most, it was a career choice.

This was Griffon Hunt’s perspective. They weren’t a rag-tag group of unlikely souls, like the Horns of Hammerad, united despite disparate motives. Nor were they the easy-going group of friends and outcasts like the Halfseekers. And they were certainly not altruistic heroes like the Silver Swords.

They were a team of co-workers who adventured for a living. And they had lost their leader, Ulrien. In Liscor, in a fight in an inn against a Named Adventurer who’d turned out to be a murderer, Regrika Blackpaw. They had lost him, and yet, they had also come away with a windfall from the dungeon.

A magical bow, the one Halrac now used. Treasure. Gold, and artifacts, ready to be sold! An adventurer’s dream.

And yet. Griffon Hunt could be said to be down on its luck. Even now. Like the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt had been larger, once. And if they hadn’t been one of the top Gold-rank teams, somewhat famous north and south of Izril like the Halfseekers had been—they had been larger. Three times as large, almost. Respected for being one of the hunting teams who fought Griffins with…Griffons. Hunting dogs.

Now—they were this. They rode in silence. Halrac in a foul mood, and Revi and Typhenous knew why. Moreover—the two [Mages] exchanged glances. It was Revi, the [Summoner], whose magical apparitions were helping guide the rest of the horses, who brought it up.

“Um. Captain.”

Halrac turned his head.

“Don’t call me that.”

“Yes, boss. Leader. Uh—”

“Commander Everam.”

“Good one, Typh.”

Halrac just glared. Revi went on after a moment.

“Look, I’m sorry about Elm. But…do you want to talk about it or something? I mean, what do we do?”

She and Typhenous looked at each other again. And there it was.

A bit of distance. Because they weren’t exactly the oldest of pals. Revi and Typhenous were new to Griffon Hunt. Two years old, teammates, but not like Ulrien had been, a fellow [Soldier] Halrac had served with.

Or even the rest of Griffon Hunt. They were new. And they’d stuck with the team after half of its members had upped and quit. After a disaster with Griffins.

Griffon Hunt was still remembered in parts of the north for the plague they’d unleashed to combat a huge influx of migrating Griffins. It had stopped the rampaging Griffins, but the plague had spread and killed…a lot of people.

Their reputation had been tarnished, and the group had nearly disbanded. Four had kept working, including Revi and Typhenous, the newest [Mages] who had been blamed for the incident, Typhenous especially. They had gone south seeking a fortune, a new break.

Three now rode north. And only one was of the old guard, the originals. More still lived. Like Elm, one of the original founders of the team. But he…hadn’t taken meeting his former comrades well.

About a week ago, they’d met Elm. One of the old members of Griffon Hunt who’d left after the plague incident. They’d met him, though, to re-establish their bonds, make amends as Halrac put it.

It had not been a good meeting. There might have been—tension. Perhaps a bit of enmity. In fact, there might have been a fight. That involved Halrac putting Elm, the [Ranger], through a door. Headfirst.

“Hey, at least he didn’t want any of the gold we offered him. That’s something, right? We’re six thousand gold up. And we didn’t even pay for the door.”

Halrac glared. Revi hesitated.

“So…look, I know it was bad. But he said his thing, we said ours. He’s quits. What do we do, Halrac?”

The [Scout] had a way with looks. But as his new role as team captain, he couldn’t get by on glares alone. He replied slowly, his hands clenched on the reins.

“Elm’s not joining us. If he wants the gold, he can get it. We owe that to the old team. And we keep reaching out. Briganda’s meeting us at Invrisil.”

“Right. But if we get into a fight with her—maybe don’t fight with your fists? She’s a [Shield Maiden].”

“I started nothing. Elm was the one who—”

Halrac glanced at Typhenous. The white-haired [Mage] lowered his head slightly, a nod at Halrac. Revi glanced between the two. Tensions had been strained. In the past, and recently.

“Right, right. He deserved it. All I’m saying is—don’t do that with Briganda. Because she could probably trash all three of us in a fight. And if she says no?”

“We reach out to Cassielle. And then we’re done.”

The last member of the original team. Revi nodded.

“Cool. Yeah. Where is he?”

“Terandria.”

“Riiiiiight…are we going to visit him? Because if we are—”

“He hasn’t sent a [Message] back. But we’ll contact him. We’re making things right. Even if they don’t want it. Any problems?”

“None. No, I agreed. I mean, it’s our treasure from Liscor. Which we fought for. And you know, nearly died for. But hey, let’s give it back.”

Revi grumped. But she subsided after a bit. It was—well, it was just like this. In silence, the three adventurers rode on. And the best word for them was…decent. Good. Competent, well-practiced, a team that could wipe out low-level [Raiders] and handle threats most Silver-rank teams couldn’t.

But understaffed. Still, Revi was in this team down to her threads. And she’d keep this team together if she had to be the anchor, damn it. This was a good team!

“So—[Raiders], huh? That was Lacel the Leaper, you know?”

“Hrgh.”

Halrac might have been responding there. Typhenous on the other hand stroked his beard.

“Ah. Was it? Then we might have interfered with Izrilian drama in the making.”

He winked at Revi. The [Summoner] was nodding, a pleased look on her face. Silence, then. After a second, Halrac turned his head.

“…What drama?”

“You haven’t heard about Lady Hetessana and Lord Bein? And Lady Dealia? Halrac!”

Revi was shocked. The [Scout] just stared at her.

“What does that have to do with a Courier and…”

He paused.

“Oh. Some kind of drama?”

Revi had to recount the tale of sordid betrayal for Halrac.

“Of course, they don’t know she’s telling the truth, but I heard that she hired a Courier to take the pendant! And if that was him—her estates are some of the most southern. So…”

“So?”

Typhenous chuckled.

“So, Lady Dealia may be receiving a package, Halrac. And if it is the pendant, she will be able to appraise it very quickly. And Lord Bein will be in a lot of trouble.”

Revi grinned happily.

“I hear that Lady Dealia’s promised to call off the engagement if it’s true. And her brothers have sworn to stab Lord Bein through the heart if it is. I can’t wait. And I’m happy I can be part of it. Makes me feel warm inside.”

She poked at her chest for emphasis. Halrac just looked at her, nonplussed.

“Why are you so interested in gossip about the nobility, Revi?”

The Stitch-Girl shrugged.

“Eh. I just really like hearing about the stupid stuff they get up to. Keeps me entertained.”

“And I keep my ear to all sources of information, Halrac. Speaking of which—while I haven’t heard of a magic door in Invrisil, I think there is at least one familiar thing in the City of Adventurers for us.”

“And that would be?”

Halrac eyed Typhenous, and then turned forwards. And there was the City of Adventurers.

Vast, sprawling, guarded by low, ten-foot walls that seemed to be expanding with each passing year, the City of Adventurers was a metropolis, one of the largest cities in the continent, like First Landing in the north. But Invrisil was a hub which connected the heart of the Human’s northern lands.

It was also owned, at least in part, by Magnolia Reinhart. And it was generally safe—from war or [Raiders], or at least, more so than other lands. The Goblin Lord and the [Raiders] of this morning being notable exceptions.

One of the many gates to the city had a queue in front of it. Revi exclaimed as the horses snorted, catching unfamiliar scents. Invrisil was vast, too vast to take in all at once.

“Aha! Culture! I can’t wait to sleep in an actual bed for once!”

“What’s in Invrisil, Typhenous?”

Even Halrac had to relax upon seeing the city, with its abundance of things to see or do. But he eyed Typhenous. The [Plague Mage] raised a soothing hand.

“I wouldn’t want to say until I’m sure. Rumors are rumors…and there was a group of imposters…”

“Impostor what? I don’t want any more surprises, Typhenous.”

Not after the door incident. Halrac’s tone was warning, but Typhenous just stroked his beard.

“Nothing untoward, I promise, glorious Captain.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“As you wish, Sir.”

Halrac Everam glowered. The three adventurers lined up the horses to the side of the gates, or rather, Revi’s summons did. But the three adventurers waited patiently in line with everyone else, slowly moving forwards.

There were [Guards] at the gates, checking cargo or waving people through. And it might have been odd, for a Gold-rank team to wait behind a humble [Trader] or wagons full of produce. But again—they might have been Gold-rank, and that was important, but there were rules.

Of course, there were people the rules didn’t apply to. The three adventurers saw Lacel the Leaper. He’d made it to Invrisil, but had been stalled here at the gates.

Not because the [Guards] wouldn’t let him through. As a Runner, all he had to do was show his seal and he could race past. But he’d stopped…

To shake hands. And talk with the people in line. They were crowded around the Courier for a chance to meet him—and to ask if he was carrying the pendant. Lacel refused to show them the hidden package. Halrac stared at him as the Courier’s voice became audible.

“Runner’s confidentiality, people! But I can promise you, I’m doing my best! Those [Raiders] weren’t much of a threat—there’s always desperate sorts. But low-level [Bandits]?”

He laughed. The people crowded around him laughed too, some looking awed. Halrac just snorted. Revi sighed.

“Ooh. And Lacel the Leaper has a fat head. That’s a shame. If he were a Stitch-Man, we could take some of the stuffing out.”

Typhenous looked extremely interested.

“Really?”

“Nah, I wish. It doesn’t work that way.”

Lacel was smiling, shaking hands. He must have been doing it the last thirty minutes because he was going down the line of people. Revi leaned out of her saddle.

“Hey Lacel! What happens if the Bloodfeast Raiders take that ten thousand gold bounty on the pendant?”

The Courier’s broad smile slipped. He froze, and then saw her.

“Well, Miss—I’d have to weigh my options, wouldn’t I? But a Courier must deliver! Say—aren’t you the adventurers from the ambush?”

He did a double-take and then strode over to them. Everyone turned to Griffon Hunt. Halrac found a hand being thrust up at him. He shook it reluctantly and saw Lacel smiling at him.

“Thank you for the help, sir. Not that I couldn’t deal with the [Raiders], but I prefer to outrun them! I appreciate the help!”

“It wasn’t a problem.”

“Nevertheless! I’ll buy you a drink if you’re staying in the city. I’m staying the night—I’d rather jog from big city to city.”

“You’re not worried about [Thieves]?”

Revi queried, interested. Lacel smiled.

“Footpads? Thieves? Most are too low-level and a good inn keeps them out. No, it’s safer to stick to cities with good lodging. While I’m awake, I can’t be jumped by anyone below my level!”

“So…just adventurers and the Bloodfeast Raiders, then? How do you know we weren’t hired?”

Lacel’s smile slipped. Revi gave him a pleased grin. He coughed.

“Well, I doubt Lord Bein—er, any unscrupulous persons trying to delay my package that is—can persuade adventurers to break their code. To the Adventurer’s Guilds. Er—are you Silver-ranks? Gold, I presume…”

“We’re Griffon Hunt. Gold-ranks!”

Revi snapped. There was a murmur. But—and it was funny—Couriers were more well-known than a lot of Gold-rank teams. After all, some Gold-ranks were seen bringing in a Cyclops’ head, or treasure from the ruins. But they mostly fought in caves, or places where people weren’t likely to be alive. Couriers ran in public.

“Well, thank you again. And I owe you that drink!”

Lacel smiled. He stepped back from the crowd and with a flourish, jogged towards the walls. He accelerated, and then leapt—straight over the heads of the startled [Guards].

“Show off.”

Halrac muttered, disapprovingly. Revi nodded.

“I almost hope someone gets him with an arrow. Almost. But I’m on Lady Hetessana’s side. I just can’t believe some arrogant [Lords].”

“Indeed. One fortunate enough to find such a [Lady]? Ah, but if I were ten…twenty years younger, I’d have tried courting her.”

Typhenous nodded sagely. Revi rolled her eyes. The adventurers ignored the people staring at them; they were used to being noticed. Indeed, Halrac heard an excited group at the north-eastern gates chattering ahead of them.

“Did you see that guy jump? That’s a Courier!”

“Is Ryoka a Courier?”

“No, she’s a City Runner. She’s got the wind, but she can’t do that. And that other guy? With the grumpy face? I told you! He’s got the Invisibow! He’s the Invisibow guy!”

The [Veteran Scout] turned his head and saw a group of young men and women chattering. He stared at them. Had he heard…?

“Invisibow. Hah!”

The [Summoner] nearly fell out of her saddle laughing. Typhenous hid a smile behind his hand.

“It’s er, a powerful artifact, Halrac. Useful, and it has an enchantment that propels arrows faster and further.”

“I know that. I’m just not used to it. I can’t see my arrows when I aim them.”

“You and your invisibow. Dead gods, that’s hilarious. Let’s hope it has another feature when we get it appraised.”

Revi sniggered. Halrac rubbed at his forehead.

“Revi. Did you hear them say…‘Ryoka’ just now?”

The Stitch-Girl stopped laughing. She sat up and glanced at the young people. From Earth.

“I heard it.”

Typhenous regarded the Earthers, but only with idle curiosity. He didn’t know who they were. And nor did they know who he was—they were staring at Revi’s stitches next, exclaiming over them.

“Hm. Maybe she knows them.”

Halrac paused. But he had gotten no communication about Ryoka. Nor about the Earthers. Because Erin hadn’t contacted Griffon Hunt. The Silver Swords, yes. The Horns of Hammerad, yes, to find Ryoka.

But not Griffon Hunt. They had a connection with Ryoka. After all—Regrika Blackpaw had come for Ryoka. And they might not know it, but Erin did. And so did Ryoka. Enough. Enough had been asked of them.

So the young people from Earth and Griffon Hunt passed each other by. The adventurers got to the gates.

“Adventurers?”

“Yes. Griffon Hunt. Gold-rank.”

The [Guards] eyed the adventurers a second time when they heard that. And the horses. But they directed the Gold-rank team into the city and pointed them to a stables—within a stone’s throw from the outer walls. Halrac, Revi, and Typhenous entered Invrisil, the City of Adventurers. Normally, orderly. And then they got to work.

 

—-

 

“We’re here. I’ll send a Street Runner to find Briganda. We’ll meet at the Adventurer’s Guild in an hour if she’s able. I’ll also send a note to…hold on. What’s his name again?”

“Er—the [Enchanter]? Hedault, I think.”

Halrac snapped his fingers.

“Yes, him. We’ll ask if he can fit us into his schedule to appraise what we have and sell everything off. It might take a few days.”

“Or weeks.”

Revi sighed. Halrac shrugged. They were standing with the horses lined up outside the stables. A [Hostler] was waiting for them. Revi and Typhenous were standing in conference.

“I’ll let him know we have something he wants. He’s generally interested in…”

Halrac nodded to the bag of holding he had Griffon Hunt’s share of the treasure in. Revi nodded.

“Man, I hate that guy. He cannot take a joke.”

Her teammates looked at her. Typhenous coughed and Halrac nodded.

“Good point. Revi doesn’t have to come with us when we get everything appraised.”

The Stitch-Girl scowled.

“Thanks, Commander Everam.”

“Stop calling—we have an hour. Everyone’s free to do what they want. Who’s selling horses?”

“I’m gonna relax. Typhenous, you like haggling.”

“I’d prefer to check on my hunch. I’ll meet everyone at the guild in an hour. Best of luck, glorious leader!”

The elderly [Mage] was already edging down the street, with surprising spryness. Halrac opened his mouth, and saw Revi hurrying off. He realized he was now in charge of selling the horses and getting the other three stabled until they found an inn.

And finding an inn. And people wondered why Halrac scowled all the time.

For her part, Revi smirked as she left Halrac with the horses. And then—she smiled. Because she was in Invrisil! And that meant she could relax.

After all, she wasn’t in her job for just the thrill of wading through a swamp at three in the morning and feeling mud bonding with your thread. Revi was an adventurer’s adventurer. And that meant she earned money—

And spent it. Revi wasn’t going to adventure until the day she died. She had dreams. She was going to go home to Chandrar someday. Or—or find a nice place in Izril. Settle down. Have a family. Sew a child with some Stitch-Man.

Or…adopt one. Probably not Humans. Or Drakes. But Revi was thinking of Gnoll cubs these days. Mrsha had been very cute and adorable. Of course, it really depended on who she met. And going to Chandrar was dicey; her homeland of Doran was…well, it had sort of been erased.

Conquered. It was now part of the Empire of Sands. So that made going home sort of awkward. But maybe by the time she got back, Doran would be back again. Chandrar had those sort of moments, not like Izril, with the north and south unchanging. Well, except for the Antinium.

The point was that Revi had a purpose. And in the meantime, well, for all the hard days of riding in cramped wagons and listening to Typhenous smack his mouth as he slept, or Halrac’s scowls, Revi got to live like a [Queen] when she reached civilization.

“Hey. Hey, which way to the Cloth District? Don’t give me that look. Just point. No idea? People like me? Hey, you. Cloth District? That way? Thanks.”

Revi navigated Invrisil much like she navigated life. By finding someone to help her. She was a [Summoner]. That meant she could call upon long-dead Stitch-People to fight for her, her ancestors mostly, summoned through pieces of their life-string embedded in summoning stones that recreated them.

Or she could summon animals. Like a giant Face-Eater moth and…other monsters. Corusdeer, etc. Revi was only limited by her mana pool and will, which allowed her creations to fight.

For some reason, most of the people she stopped stared at her and didn’t give her a straight answer, or just pointed wordlessly. That was helpful, but it was only as Revi was walking past a glass storefront that she realized she’d forgotten to put her nose back on.

Dead gods damn it, Halrac! Typhenous!

The Stitch-Girl swore. Her teammates had to have noticed and she’d not realized she hadn’t smelled anything the last little bit. So that was them getting back at her! Annoyed, Revi found a tiny needle and sewed the nose hurriedly back on. She caught the person inside—a [Barber]—staring at her through the window.

“What? Haven’t you ever seen—never mind.”

Revi stomped off. She’d never have gone into the barber’s shop. No matter how nice it looked, or how high-level the hairdresser was. What was the point for her?

No, Revi’s goal was the Cloth District. Many cities with a sizable Stitch-Person population had them and Invrisil was large enough that a good number existed.

The Cloth District. String People. Those who made themselves. Revi sighed as she smelled familiar scents. That of dyes, cloth—and she saw people with stitches on their arms and legs and body.

Sometimes disguised, like the flesh-colored stitches around Revi’s nose, and each Stitch-Person was different. Some were cut from large bits of carefully sewn cloth, such that an entire arm had no seams except for where it connected at the shoulder.

Others, like Revi, had bodies such that every single part was detachable; she could even pull off individual fingers. You needed to do that if you had a hand snagged by a monster and you wanted to detach it and replace it fast. But many preferred to have fewer stitches; it meant less to grow loose or fray over time. Plus…knots.

Also, the binding thread being obvious or camouflaged was its own thing. Very…charged as topics went. You got everyone from people who insisted on bright stitches to make sure people knew they were String People, to people who tried to blend in with Humans. Fleshies, they were called. Traitors to their cloth.

Politics. But it came to the forefront whenever you walked in a Cloth District. Indeed—Revi paused by the first shop she saw, and eyed it carefully.

The Silken Touch. Huh. How about—Generic Store Name?”

She shook her head. But Revi was more concerned with the clientele and staff. And after a careful peer through the glass, she decided to risk it.

“Hello! Welcome, Miss!”

One of the Stitch-Girls welcomed Revi in. She was a beautiful, petite young woman with incredible features. Just absolutely themed. Eyes, ears, nose, facial structure and her body all complimenting the ‘short and gorgeous’ look, more of a friend’s vibe than someone going for pure, beauteous impact.

Revi didn’t give the young woman a second glance when it came to beauty. For Stitch-People, it mattered, a lot, but…their standards were incredibly high. They could be whomever they wanted, so what impressed the flesh-folk didn’t impress Revi.

But what did matter was the young attendant’s skin—that was to say, her cloth. It looked like skin. Normal skin. Very fine, soft, wonderful skin without cracking or roughness to add to her aesthetic.

But skin. Not some impossibly radiant skin that shone with a hidden glow, or made her look even more inhumanly beautiful. That meant the young woman was of the Cotton-caste.

Revi was Cotton. Her name was Revi Cotton—well, if you were going by Chandrarian address. Which was like saying…Halrac Human. But Cotton mattered.

If you were Hemp, you were born lower than Cotton. And if you were of Silk, you were born with a diamond spoon in your mouth. Or rather, sewn into your body. And oh, the castes did not get along. Silk was on top, but they were resented. And Cottons fought among themselves—Cotton was a general term for their quality of fabric—and everyone hated Hemps.

“Hi, I’m looking for some care and touching up. I’ve got an hour—make it forty minutes? You have time?”

“Of course, Miss…”

“Revi. Adventurer. Gold-rank.”

The word made the other attendants and clients look up. Revi pulled rank. And the woman in charge herself, a [Seamstress], hurried over.

“Miss Revi, we can absolutely fit you in. Would you prefer a private room?”

“Hm…sure.”

The adventurer found herself being led by the woman and two attendants into a lovely room. There was a soft, leather sofa-table to lie on, and Revi did just that, on her front.

“My name is Dewlana. I’m the [Seamstress] in charge of The Silken Touch—apologies about the name, but it does pull in clients.”

Revi smirked. She eyed Dewlana carefully. Because this was a woman made of silk.

Silk. When you made a Stitch-Person’s body out of it, they looked…well, unreal. The higher-quality a cloth, the more impressive the result. Dewlana’s body was lithe, supple, and yes, silky, but it seemed to pick up and reflect the light better. And Revi knew—she’d be stronger than regular cloth-folk, tougher, and stronger.

Normally, Revi would have avoided any Stitch-Shop catering to her kind that had Silk-caste in it. Because they would make her experience…a pain. But Dewlana was the only Silk-bodied person in the shop; all her workers were Cotton. Besides…Revi had a thought as she glanced at Dewlana’s face.

“What can we do for you, Miss Revi?”

The [Seamstress]’ tone was very hospitable. And why not? Caste aside, Gold-rank adventurers could toss around money like water. Revi smiled.

“I’d like my stitches redone. All of them. Make it good thread. Actually, make it silk.

The attendants shivered at the word. Silk. Every Stitch-Person longed to make a body of silk, or even some more costly fabric. Revi’s body was cotton, but silk threads were an upgrade she could pay for.

She’d gotten the money from Liscor’s dungeon, after all. Dewlana smiled wide.

“Of course. Can we upgrade any part of you? Replace any limbs?”

“Mm…no, I just want everything tightened. I don’t want to replace some legs and get mismatched.”

“Naturally. And can we offer you a massage? It’s a specialty; my own design.”

“A massage? Why not?”

Revi didn’t have sore muscles. Stitch-Person, again. But as she lay on her back, the attendants began undoing her threads. And—piece by piece—they took Revi apart.

It was an unnerving experience for most to see. But Revi was made, like everyone else. When the attendants took off Revi’s leg, the flesh turned into cloth at once. A life-sized cloth replica, amazingly detailed—the more detailed it was, the better it functioned—but cloth nonetheless. They hurried it off and came back with delicate spools of silk thread. In the meantime, Dewlana attended to Revi personally.

“My, your back stitches are somewhat haphazard, Miss Revi. And you’ve burst a few stitches.”

“Hazard of the trade. Also, I had to re-stitch myself to play this game. Baseball.”

“I’ve never heard of it. But there’s all sorts of new things coming to Invrisil. Have you heard of the plays?

“Hm…? Oh, yes. Are they here, then?”

The [Seamstress] looked a bit disappointed as she began to sew Revi back up. The process felt good, reconnecting. Revi felt firm; her limbs fully-bound. The two gossiped as Dewlana worked.

“You’ve been here before, then, Miss Revi?”

“Not in a bit. But they have them in the south. Liscor.”

“That is a long way. I saw them just in the scrying orb a while back. Wait—you wouldn’t happen to have been around when…?”

Revi smirked.

“You mean, the moths? I was there for that. Goblin Lord? I was on the walls.”

Really?

Some of the attendants came back in. Revi enjoyed herself as they begged to hear from her. There was no concept of signing autographs, but Stitch-People had something just as good. Revi’s old threads were taken and made part of the bodies of the other Stitch-People. They’d show it off and say—that was from Revi, Gold-rank adventurer.

After a while, Dewlana shooed the attendants away; this was about Revi, after all. As she sewed, she talked.

“Well, Miss Revi, you’ve been at the center of more things of interest than I! And here most of my clients are talking about the King of Destruction—”

“Right, Chandrar. How many are from home?”

Home was Chandrar, where String People had been created. Dewlana shrugged.

“A fair amount. But I get a number of non-Cloth folk.”

“Really? For what?

This was a Stitch-Shop, for repairing and maintaining and yes, upgrading bodies. Dewlana’s eyes twinkled.

“Actual massages. We repair your clothes at the same time. We are better at it than most.”

Revi laughed. That was Stitch-People for you. She felt Dewlana moving around her, spooling more silk out to do the more obvious stitches around her waist, shoulders, etc.

“No concealing threads?”

“What am I? A fleshie?”

Revi regretted the comment; Dewlana’s threads were nearly invisible. The [Seamstress] passed it off, though.

“Keep it noticeable. I understand.”

“Right. Sorry.”

Dewlana got back to work. Revi paused.

“So…home, huh? Are you from…?”

“Nerrhavia. Yourself?”

“Doran.”

“Oh, wasn’t that—?”

“Yep.”

“My condolences.”

“Eh, you know how it goes. It’ll be back or it won’t. But I don’t miss it too much. Frankly—the only thing I think about sometimes are…Alterkinds.”

The fingers paused in tying a knot.

“You don’t see many, indeed.”

“Yeah. Well, I was in Liscor and I can’t say they’d take kindly to seeing a…Cloth-Drake walking about. But I miss the creativity. No judgment.”

That was important. Revi opened the door and Dewlana walked through. She casually kicked the door shut to prevent spying on their conversation.

“Of course. You know, I knew someone. A friend. He experimented with—wings.”

“Really? Did they…?”

“No. You know how it is. The flesh moves, but he was too heavy.”

“You ever experiment?”

Another pause. Revi felt herself being unlaced at the waist. She was at her most vulnerable in this moment. Anyone could attack her when she was helpless. And yes, it was a concern. But not in this shop, in Invrisil. Any Stitch-Person who preyed on another in this scenario?

They’d be burned, piece by piece.

“…Well, you know.”

“Mhm. What did you try? I did—scales. You know, decoration. And a bit of protection.”

“Really? What kind of cloth…”

“You have to have really hard fabrics. But they have it.”

“Ah. Well—I—this is embarrassing.”

“Spill it. We’re both Cotton.”

Revi twisted her head. And she caught Dewlana mid-nod. The [Seamstress] froze. And then she exhaled. She paused, stepped back, and gave Revi a rueful look.

“What gave me away?”

“Aside from the fact that you employ Cotton-castes? And you’re sewing me up without so much as a sniff? I’m from home. I can see a cloth-craft.”

The [Summoner] nodded at Dewlana’s face. The [Seamstress]’ face looked like the rest of her body. Until you gazed closer and could see the micro-stitching holding the silk onto the original cotton. Dewlana sighed.

“You have no idea how hard it is to reduce your face’s cloth enough to layer silk over it. How obvious am I? No one’s ever commented…”

“Please. I told you, I hung out with Alterkind. They know all the tricks. Did it…”

“Hurt? I can’t remove my head. So it was flesh.

Revi paused. That meant Dewlana had peeled her skin…she looked at Dewlana a second time.

“Was it worth it?”

“To run a shop as a [Seamstress] and not be stared down by other Silks? Absolutely.”

The woman’s eyes flashed. Revi nodded slowly. [Seamstress] was a prestigious class in Stitch-People society.

“Lips sealed. Don’t sew ‘em up.”

Dewlana relaxed. They were, after all, Cottons, and you had to stick together, even if one was passing for Silk. She spoke after a few minutes of quiet rethreading.

“…Ears.”

“What?”

“I had…er…you know Beastkin?”

“Yup. What about them?”

“I…altered my ears. Well, I added ears from other species. Bunny, dog—”

“Cat?”

“Once or twice. It was a look. But I grew tired of it. You hear way too much. And frankly—you can make them look awful if you mess them up. And you know, Alterkind—”

Revi laughed and nodded. There were people who didn’t look like ‘normal’ Stitch-People. Like Humans. Some looked like Drakes, or other species until you stared really close. And some were more…experimental still. Sometimes it could be awful.

But mostly it was just a phase for young String People. In some Stitch-Nations it was considered profane, disgusting. But most were tolerant of low-level alterations.

“Well, now that you’ve thoroughly uncovered my secrets, do you want that massage?”

“I mean, sure. I don’t have any pain, though. I could always re-stuff myself. What…ow! Hey!

Revi felt a sharp ache appear in her shoulders. She looked over.

“What are you doing?”

“Inducing muscular pain, Miss Revi. It will only be for a moment. And then—”

“Oh. Wow.

The adventurer sighed as Dewlana began kneading her back hard. She’d induced the pain such that she was now hitting it perfectly. Revi sighed as she felt herself relaxing. And it was better than not having the massage at all.

“That’s so brilliant.”

“It is a hit. The only problem I have are with Humans—mostly Humans—who come in and expect something more than a massage.”

Revi rolled her eyes.

“And you look amazing. I love your stitches. Is the dark skin…?”

“I didn’t change skin colors.”

Revi nodded. They both had darker skin tones than Izrilians. Dewlana sighed.

“It is a problem. Human women always ask me what ointments I’m using.”

Both Revi and Dewlana laughed at the thought. Then Dewlana sighed.

“And I can’t but sit at a Human bar without men falling over themselves.”

“Appearances. They can’t change. I feel it. At least my two teammates don’t have that problem, much. But I’m not exactly changing my appearance for flirting, you know?”

If appearance mattered for Humans and other species…it didn’t as much for Stitch-People. They were the most looks-focused species in the world, and yet, they understood change was only a stitch away.

“Maybe you should sew on some regular cotton. Pretend you’re ordinary, find a good fellow, and then show him what you’re made of. Put on the cat ears when you do.”

Dewlana nearly laughed her own stitches off. By the time the forty minutes were done, Revi felt refreshed, restrung, and good. The silk threads were not cheap, but she felt like they were adding to her structure. And if she could someday pay for a silk body?

…Well, she was attached to her cotton. And that was a struggle many had. Before Revi left, she leaned forwards and whispered to Dewlana.

“Silk body, cotton heart. Keep it together.”

“You too, sister.”

The two parted, smiling. Revi stretched in the sunlight. She smiled. Then her smile slipped.

“Aw. Moths. Now we have to meet the old crew.”

She sighed. If meeting Briganda was as bad as Elm, she’d splurge on a nice, new…arm? Silk? Ooh, it might not match, but imagine how that would feel? Revi converted herself as she went to settle old debts.

After all—it was Typhenous and her fault that Griffon Hunt had split up. Mostly Typhenous’ fault.

But hers too.

 

—-

 

The door to the Adventurer’s Guild swung open and Halrac stepped into the room. He was followed by Revi and Typhenous.

The adventurers in the vast, rather plush Guild that was one of, if not the largest in the continent looked up. Some stood at queues at desks tended to by receptionists, others were clustered around the bulletin boards listing bounties.

Normally, an Adventurer’s Guild was smallish, and had a regular cast of teams. Not so in Invrisil. This was one of the spots to be. You could find Gold-rank teams here at any hour. And the guild was open at all times. Even Named Adventurers might walk through these doors. The Guildmaster himself had been part of a Named-rank team.

Not individual himself; there was an important distinction. Teams could be as powerful or more powerful than a Named-rank individual, but the individual members might not be as formidable.

Even so—this was the spot. And Griffon Hunt, seasoned veterans that they were, knew the score.

They casually walked forwards, past Bronze-ranks who were covered in muck after slaying rats in the sewers, or had been gathering [Alchemist] ingredients. Typical errand-work to make ends meet. Past chatting Silver-ranks who looked up, appraising for competition and then looked down.

The Gold-ranks had their own section of the guild. You had to walk through a door. It was just a door; no magic runes, no guards. But if you didn’t fit…you’d be seen.

The second door opened at a touch. Halrac walked through and glanced about.

Slowly. Carefully. There were far fewer adventurers in here. Six teams and a number of individuals. When they looked up, it was as equals, assessing, weighing the new competition that had just come in.

“And here’s the rat race, all over again. I miss Liscor. There we were big names. Until Pallass swanned in.”

Revi grumbled. She was relaxed, standing with her team. But Typhenous, nodding as he bent to murmur to her, Halrac, cool and cold—they were all aware of themselves. They moved deliberately, calmly.

Because they were being watched. Because this was competition and how you presented yourself was important. Especially among Gold-ranks. How you were perceived, favors—it all mattered.

Not all Gold-ranks were equal, of course. Griffon Hunt moved with a confidence that made some of the other Gold-ranks decide not to try hazing them. Indeed, some Gold-ranks were low-level, at least, comparatively. Some were veterans.

Some were near Named-rank and only one thing, or recognition, held them back. But that was gold for you.

Sometimes it was mundane, and duller than you imagined. Other times it was Truegold, with a luster and magic beyond regular minerals.

Other times it was…pyrite.

“Griffon Hunt. I knew I placed you, but without those damn dogs, I never woulda guessed.”

Someone murmured their name. A few of the Gold-rank adventurers snapped their fingers. Placing them. Halrac turned and saw a familiar face.

“Todi.”

“That’s Captain Todi to you, Everam. I heard about Ulrien. Sorry about that. Was it true a Named-rank got him?”

Griffon Hunt saw a man in a silk doublet, armed with a club and a wand. Captain Todi was an odd fellow; he dressed much like the Silk-caste of the Stitch-Folk made their bodies. Expensively, and to impress. But he had a wider face, and a nose that had been broken more than once.

“Todi?”

Revi murmured to Typhenous. He sub-vocalized a response into her ears with a flick of his fingers.

I know him by name. Todi, leader of Todi’s Elites. Yes, I know. But his team specializes in magical attacks and rapid movement. Teleport and [Fireball].

“Oh. That sort.”

Revi rolled her eyebrows. She wasn’t a schooled [Mage]—she’d learned summoning through her family, and neither was Typhenous. But they both knew the sort of Gold-rank that Todi was.

One that relied on artifacts. His team of six all had magical gear. Maybe lesser teleport scrolls, or if they were [Mages], they knew the spell. Maybe an artifact that did the same thing. And their wands? Wands of [Fireball] would mean they could shoot six all at once.

Any Silver-rank team would have trouble matching that kind of firepower. But was it…well, high-Gold?

No. Still, they deserved the rank if they’d gone through enough battles, and Todi looked like he’d been through a war. Halrac introduced him.

“This is Revi and Typhenous. You two—Todi. I knew him in Silver-ranks. He pulled himself out of Bronze all the way to the top.”

“And don’t you forget it, Everam. So this is your crew? Damn. And Ulrien bit it?”

Halrac—paused. Revi had an urge to nudge him before he belted Todi in the face. Because—he looked like he was going to. But to her relief, the [Scout] only nodded.

“Not a Named-rank. A criminal. Regrika Blackpaw. Gnoll.”

“Damn. A criminal? Well, Ulrien always had balls to even try taking one of them on, sideways or not. So you were at Liscor, huh? You should’ve stayed is what I hear. I’m planning on going south myself. Can I get you a drink?”

Halrac paused. He glanced over—there were people serving the adventurers.

“We can sit. I don’t see the person we’re waiting for yet.”

He nodded and Griffon Hunt sat down. Todi waved his team off; they nodded at him. Then he called out.

Hey! Jewel! Get over here and meet Halrac!

Another Gold-rank adventurer looked up. She glared, but stood up and broke away from the team she’d been talking with. Jewel, as it turned out, was a Balerosian. Her team came with her. All two of them.

“Everam, meet Jewel. She’s part of…fuck…what was it? Glistening Spear?”

“Glitterblade, Todi. Don’t play games. Well met. Everam?”

“Halrac. Griffon Hunt.”

Jewel was no [Mage], and her entire team were, in fact, [Fighters]. Well, variants on the class, but mobile, comparatively lightly-armored warriors. One was a [Duelist], the other a [Spellblade]—a variant on [Spellsword] that had Skills which enhanced the artifact he carried, a flyssa, and Jewel herself was a [Swashbuckler].

“Nimble as a cat. She made a name for herself fighting the damn Ogres who came out of the hills a while back. Her team’s new to Gold-rank. Four months. Be respectful to Halrac! He’s been in Griffon Hunt at Gold-rank for over two years, Jewel. Longer than me.”

“Pleased.”

The woman looked resigned at Todi casually ordering about, although her comrades were less than cool with it. But he had seniority, which mattered…up to a point.

“Of course, they used to be a squad of six. And then eight. Rolled about the north hunting Griffins. And they had dogs.”

“Griffon dogs?”

One of the Glitterblades looked delighted at the play-on-words. Halrac nodded. He was sitting with Todi and the Glitterblades as Revi broke into the conversation.

“Nice team you have, Todi. They don’t want to join us?”

“Captain Todi. And they’re not my crew. Not like Everam and Ulrien. They roll with me, I give them gear, and if we split, we split. No hard feelings.”

Todi’s method was another sort you found sometimes. His team wasn’t a group that stuck with each other through thick-and-thin, just adventurers, almost like mercenaries, fighting for a brief window. It was closer to how Griffon Hunt operated, but even more casually.

“You were a fan of that. You own all the wands and artifacts? It’s been a long time since we saw each other.”

Halrac spoke in a non-committal tone of voice. Todi snorted.

“What, a year? Yeah. But like I kept telling you—artifacts. Bug out if it gets hot. None of your ‘kill em even if you die’ crap. That’s how your team got blacklisted in the north.”

Ears perked up. Jewel hesitated.

“What’s this now?”

“Ah, well, Griffon Hunt used to be the Griffin-slaying team. But during that migration of the things a few years back? Things got out of control and there was a plague—”

“You mean—the Griffin-plague a year and a half back?”

Halrac’s eyes narrowed.

“You can catch them up later, Todi. Why are you here? I thought you operated around First Landing because the contracts were bigger.”

The other man’s eyebrows rose as he swallowed his drink.

“You mean you don’t know? Have you been on the road the last few days?”

“That’s road, Toady. What’s the news?”

Revi smiled as Todi glared at her.

“She’s got a mouth on her, this one. You really—hey! Where’s the Wyvern bounty?”

A few Gold-ranks pointed. Todi adjusted a ring on his finger, flicked his wrist. A bounty flew across the room and he caught the paper.

“Feast your eyes—”

He showed Griffon Hunt the bounty. The team read in silence. Revi choked on her drink.

Two thousand gold pieces per Wyvern head!? Eighty thousand for—

“This can’t be real. It’s a prank.”

Halrac tossed the paper down. Todi waved a finger.

“Not so fast. Do you think I’d be here if it was fake? They confirmed it. It’s real. Someone sent the gold to First Landing’s Adventurer’s Guild. Remotely. Via spell transfer.”

“Impossible. There’s no way that’s cost-efficient. Someone must be making some move politically. One of the Walled Cities? But why?”

Typhenous’ eyes narrowed as he tried to consider it. Halrac just stared. Revi gulped. They’d gotten a huge haul from their treasure in Liscor’s dungeon, even split three ways. But 80,000 gold pieces put all that to shame. That—you could think about being a Named-rank adventurers if you had that much gold to outfit yourself with. Or buy one serious artifact.

“And the regular Wyverns are made of gold. Tell you the truth, I thought it was all shit. Like the ‘Golden Goblin’ rumors, you know? But since it’s real—I’m cashing in. I bet you wish you’d stayed at Liscor.”

“It’s the High Passes. Not exactly safe.”

Halrac muttered. Todi just laughed.

“I’ve heard that! But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a race to the High Passes and my team moves out tonight! You want to join in, we can team up. But otherwise, we’ll be taking Wyvern kills. Sorry about Ulrien, again.”

He slapped the table and stood. Halrac murmured a goodbye.

“That guy was made of a donkey and a mule’s ass.”

Revi glared at his back. Jewel snorted.

“Sorry. Is he like that…?”

She glanced at Halrac. The [Scout] focused on her.

“Not all teams. Todi’s just the loudest. Ignore him—except when he’s working. He earned Gold-rank.”

“What’s your thought on the Wyverns? As anti-air specialists.”

Another Gold-rank adventurer chimed in, a solo [Mage]. He wanted to chat now the loud adventurer was gone. Halrac pursed his lips and Typhenous and Revi paused. He was the expert; some might be reluctant to give their opinions, but it depended on the adventurer.

“I’d weigh it against your team. We’re understaffed to hunt Griffins or Wyverns.”

“Even as a group of three?”

Jewel was dismayed. Halrac looked at her.

“They need at least four, preferably five. Monsters that large can kill even someone with artifacts if you don’t anticipate the attacks. A Wyvern drops on their prey. And they weigh…”

The other Gold-ranks murmured.

“Can’t you just shoot them in the eyes? I saw that Antinium-thing doing it.”

“Sure. And if you miss, you’re flatbread. With jam.”

Revi snorted. The Gold-ranks quieted. Halrac nodded.

“The real trick is that the High Passes have other threats. Eater Goats. Gargoyles. Worse monsters. You’ll be under attack while you’re staring up at the skies. And Eater Goats can sneak up on even Named Ranks at night and eat you as you sleep.”

The other adventurers sighed, or shook their heads. A few more were chatting as Halrac gave them tips. Jewel was nodding to him, looking grateful.

“We’ll invest in protective gear, or spells if we hunt them. More than we do normally, I mean. We were worried it was some kind of trick—maybe the Drakes want us to die in the High Passes, but if the gold’s there…thank you for the advice. We don’t get it from most of the teams we meet.”

She shot a glare at Todi’s back. Another solo Gold-rank adventurer nodded.

“It’s nothing. We’re all just sharing tips, and making our gold one monster at a time.”

Revi was feeling generous. It was Typhenous who stroked his beard and nodded around.

“We may work together in the future. It’s good to meet young people in the Gold-ranks.”

That was exactly it. You built connections in case you needed a hand. And in fact—Halrac paused.

“Actually, we’re looking for new Gold-ranks. My team’s meeting an old comrade, but do you know anyone who’s looking for a team?”

The other adventurers glanced at each other. Now, here was a common and uncommon offer. Join a new team. It was tricky, fitting adventurers together who ‘worked’. Many preferred to work alone or changed teams often for that reason.

“Who’s you looking for? I’m a [Hammerer]. And don’t let the class fool you; I’ve consolidated twice. Can I ask about shares and so on? Also, what’s your focus?”

“We’re equal share.”

Revi eyed the bald man who spoke up first. Halrac paused.

“We don’t have a set target in mind, but we do specialize in Griffins.”

The Gold-rank made a face.

“Eh. I haven’t fought ‘em, but I’d be willing to learn. But—I’m looking for a group to fight Wyverns, not much else. There’s pure gold there. If you’re heading south, give me a shout. Otherwise…some other time?”

“Of course.”

A few more adventurers came over to test the waters. Revi had only a good feeling about one of them, a young woman who was just new to Gold-rank with a smile. She was a throwing expert.

“She was nice. Good, long-range—if we get Briganda with us, we could get her and another shield-person.”

Halrac shrugged, reserving judgment as always. It was Typhenous who leaned over. And the old [Mage]’s face was serious.

“No.”

His teammates looked at him.

“No?”

Halrac frowned. Typhenous eyed the young woman’s back.

“She’s…a [Murderer]. Not just an adventurer. That young lady? She’s killed more people than I have.”

Revi and Halrac looked at Typhenous. The old [Mage] did have his wide and often eclectic sources of information, but Revi had to call him out on this one.

“How do you know that, Typh? And don’t tell me it’s a Skill or something.”

“Hardly. I’m no [Arbiter] or…I was inquiring after the state of affairs in Invrisil. Obviously I asked about people of interest. That young lady is known. She has a history—she’s gone clean now, but she had to pay off a substantial bounty. And that was the one she was convicted of.”

The [Scout] paused.

“Definitely not, then.”

“Humans. You think you know someone…”

Revi shuddered as she stared after the young woman. She turned back to Typhenous.

“Anything else you want to share before I shake another monster’s hands?”

The old man smiled.

“Two things. Firstly, we may not see them here, but there’s a Named Adventurer in the city.”

Who?

“Elia Arcsinger herself. The Goblin King Slayer.”

Halrac and Revi both blinked.

“You mean, the—

“She was the one who helped rout the Goblins in the Dwarfhalls Rest mountain, wasn’t she?”

“Exactly. Her contract expired, but she hasn’t left for the north. Apparently, she and her team have been living it up.”

“Can we meet her? I mean—wait, is her team Named?”

“Just her. And I’m sorry to say that she’s reclusive. I doubt she’d be drinking with Todi.”

The Stitch-Girl nodded, disappointed but understanding. Named-rank adventurers and teams were another level, even with Gold-ranks. Halrac eyed Typhenous.

“What’s the last bit of news? The thing you went out to find? Out with it.”

Typhenous spread his arms, smiling.

“It appears the Players of Celum have arrived at Invrisil. They’re putting on plays in a theatre—and they are the most coveted and famous thing in Invrisil right now.”

The two adventurers stared. And then Revi sat back and laughed. Heads turned as Revi exclaimed.

“No way. That’s incredible! And are they—”

“Jasi and Wesle, the two star [Actors] on stage. I did check. It’s impossible to get a ticket to their shows without waiting for weeks in advance, and apparently, some of the nobility have invited them to do personal performances. The Players of Celum…declined and so the nobility are coming here.

The [Mage]’s eyes glittered with amusement and delight. Revi was delighted. Even Halrac had a faint smile.

“We have to meet them! I remember Wesle and Jasi! I think! One of them’s a Drake, right?”

Typhenous was nodding.

“We can look into it afterwards. It may be hard to even see them, much less get face-to-face. Apparently, they’re so popular they generate crowds. There was this other acting troupe, but apparently they’ve been disbanded because they were so…inferior. A few have joined the Players, and they’re currently performing almost constantly. They have over a hundred—”

Halrac’s head turned. The [Scout] held out a hand.

“Wait on that, Typhenous. She’s here.”

Griffon Hunt stopped. Revi looked up. And she saw a woman, Human, scarred from a life of battle, in her late thirties, making her way over to them.

A [Shield Maiden]. She wasn’t as burly as Ulrien had been, but she did have muscle. And she had a stocky build, and Revi knew she could block a charging bull—or Griffin. Once. But even without her Skills, Briganda was tough. She’d split more monster’s heads with the enchanted hatchet she carried than Revi could count. That same hand was now leading a little toddler…past the tables…

The team stared. Briganda halted and stared at them. She looked—shocked. Revi felt almost as shocked, seeing her.

That bad night, when Griffon Hunt had disbanded, they’d all parted ways. Now, it was painful to see the old teammates again, especially because she and Typhenous were outsiders. But—

There was also the kid. Briganda smiled after a second. She had violet in her hair. Violet, mixed with brown—a hereditary trait from some magic in her ancestry.

“Here you go. Up!

She lifted the little boy up. Revi saw a young, young boy, flesh and blood and big eyes, staring at her. He had a head of dark violet hair, deeper than Briganda’s, fair skin—he looked like his mother. He stared at her, wide-eyed. He couldn’t have been more than…four?

“Mom. She has threads in her face.”

He instantly pointed at Revi’s face. The Stitch-Girl blinked. Briganda sighed, affectionately, as she pulled out a chair.

“Don’t point, love. It’s rude. Halrac. Revi, Typhenous. It’s been one hell of a year since we saw each other. Or…two? Closer to two, now.”

She nodded at them. Briganda was at once familiar—and different. The same woman who would unapologetically kick her teammates out of the way to use the bathroom—and a mother. But…Revi had known this.

“Briganda. And—it’s Cabe, right?”

Cade.

“Right, I knew that. Wow. He got big.”

Cade had been just a tiny boy when she’d seen him last. And he was still a boy. But now he talked.

“I’m Cade. Are you Mom’s friends? Why do you have that in your neck?”

He stared at them. Revi looked at the threads in her neck.

“Why don’t you?

The boy stared at Revi with a slightly open mouth, trying to figure out what to say. Briganda sighed.

“Cade, I’m going to have a long talk with my team, okay? Can you sit and have fun?”

“Can I have—can I—can I get—the—the—box?

The boy instantly grew excited. Briganda nodded. Smiling, she handed him a little…box. Revi saw it had hinges and it was clearly magical. Cade reached for it, and slowly, opened the lid.

A Dragon flew out. Cade and Revi’s eyes went round as the tiny Dragon flew around him. He instantly reached for it, missed—but the illusion perched on his hand. He petted at it, and Revi saw the Dragon’s head move. It had substance!

“Remember, no breaking the things that come out or you have to wait a long time for them to come back.”

Briganda cautioned Cade. He nodded slowly.

“Ah, a trick box. Or are they real? A Box of Simulacra. I saw a few on the market—but for practicing a war simulation, not entertainment. I can recharge the magic if it runs out.”

Typhenous chuckled as he stared at Cade stroking the Dragon’s head. Briganda sighed as Cade sat, oblivious to the world, playing with his magical toy.

“Don’t tell him that, or he’ll lose what caution he has. It cost me an arm and a leg to buy, but it was worth it. Nothing else keeps his attention when I’m working.”

“Briganda. It’s good to see you. And Cade. I’d…forgotten.”

Halrac’s voice was strained. Revi had too, although she hadn’t said it. Cade was Briganda’s child. She’d had him in the course of being an adventurer. Somehow, she hadn’t noticed until she was close to delivering him and then the [Healer] had advised her that it might complicate matters if she didn’t have him.

She’d decided to have Cade. And while travelling alongside Griffon Hunt, she’d kept Cade in the care of actual [Carers], [Nursemaids], and so on. Revi remembered seeing a young boy, but this one was different.

“Well, I’ve been Cade’s full-time mother. Mostly. He’s big enough to come along…sometimes. But it’s a hell of a thing. I almost miss the days he was just a baby.”

Briganda smiled tiredly. She nodded at Cade.

“I still can’t believe you never noticed you were pregnant.”

“I told you, I thought I was getting fat. And being a [Fighter] means I don’t have as many symptoms. Well, I never puked in the mornings. Best part of my class.”

The woman shrugged. Revi wanted to roll her eyes, but—Briganda all over again. She’d walk into a trap Casielle had set five minutes ago if you let her.

“…Thanks for meeting us. We weren’t sure you’d agree.”

Halrac seemed to decide he was going to stay on track. He nodded at Briganda. She smiled, but…reserved. She looked Halrac up and down, and then nodded at Revi and Typhenous. She was the original part of Griffon Hunt, though. And so she spoke mainly to him.

“I owed it to you to speak, even if it was just about Ulrien. Named-rank, huh?”

“Yes.”

Halrac’s brow darkened. Briganda reached out and grasped his shoulder.

“Regrika Blackpaw. I remembered, but she’s a Gnoll. Still—it shouldn’t have happened. To tell you the truth, I felt guilty about it. So did the others, I think. They’re still mad, Elm especially, but Cassielle’ll want to talk. But he’s in Terandria.”

The [Scout] nodded silently. He paused.

“You keep in touch?”

“Some. Casielle drops in and out; he’s always on long missions, like the old days, and you know how it is at a distance. But Elm messaged me last week.”

Revi and Typhenous winced. Briganda studied Halrac. The man paused.

“I regret that.”

“I don’t blame you. Sounds like Elm said—what Elm said. I can imagine. But he told me something of what happened and what you offered so…here I am. What do you want to say?”

Briganda leaned back, waving for a drink. Cade looked up.

“Can I have a fruit?”

“Can you get one of those fruit drinks for my boy?”

The server nodded. Briganda sipped from her cup as Halrac paused. When the [Scout] spoke, his voice was calm, flat.

“I know we parted on bad terms. I’m not here to make excuses. Or argue about the past. Ulrien—let’s talk about him later. Right now, as Captain of Griffon Hunt, I’m here to tell you that we want to make things right. We can’t undo the past, but we’re offering recompense. After that? We’re fully quits. No grudges held, no old debts.”

“What’s the recompense? Elm said he turned his down.”

Halrac looked at Revi and Typhenous. She felt her stomach twisting—it was almost all of what they’d gotten from the dungeon! But it had to be done.

“Elm can claim his share if he asks. We’re putting it to use if he doesn’t claim it by the time we reach out to Casielle—but its 6,000 gold pieces. To each of you. If you don’t want—”

“I’ll take it.”

Briganda sipped from her mug. Halrac paused.

“Just like that?”

She looked at him. The [Shield Maiden] nodded to her child.

“Halrac, I have Cade, I’m not working as an adventurer these days—and I have no idea who the father is. Nor am I exactly shopping around. Of course I’ll take it. But that’s not all Elm said, was it?”

She looked at Revi. The Stitch-Girl shook her head. So far this was going far better than with Elm. The [Ranger] had tossed his drink in Halrac’s face before they even listed the amount. Revi nodded.

“We’re asking if you want to rejoin Griffon Hunt, Briggy.”

The old nickname made Briganda smile. She looked at Revi and Typhenous.

“The old gang, getting back together? You’re not calling it quits, then, Halrac?”

“We’re recruiting. We don’t stop. Not unless everyone leaves. You and Casielle are first on our lists. If you say yes—we don’t pay you all six thousand gold. You’re part of the team. You get something—but we keep going. As we have. I’ll lead.”

“Huh.”

Briganda had to take that all in. Cade was giggling as a bunch of [Knights] trotted out of the box and faced off against the Dragon. They were bravely waving their swords as the Dragon assailed them from above with fiery breath. Then he smacked the Dragon as it picked up a tiny, flailing [Knight].

“Be careful, Cade. Remember, if you break them, even to help out, it’s gone for at least eight hours! That’s until nap time!”

The woman waved at Cade. Halrac hesitated.

“I understand you’ve moved on, Briganda. We can just—”

She held up a hand.

“Hold on, Everam. I didn’t say no. Tell me about rejoining. What do I get and give?”

Halrac paused. Typhenous steepled his fingers as he slyly pointed a finger. Cade giggled as the Dragon flapped away, blown by a stiff little gust of wind. He reached out—Briganda steadied him before he could go over the table.

“I believe our Captain will pay you two thousand gold pieces for personal funds, Briganda. Four thousand of the six goes back into our pool, to be used as needed.”

It would still go to equipment and whatnot, just not necessarily to her. Briganda nodded.

“Sounds fair. Two thousand enlistment? Sweet pot you have there.”

“Recompense.”

Halrac clarified. Briganda paused.

“Yeah. I’ll take the gold either way. But joining up? I’d…yeah. Let’s do that too.”

She nodded. Revi blinked. But Briganda had never, ever, taken more than a minute deciding anything. That was why she was so good in a fight; she didn’t hesitate. The longest she’d ever taken that Revi had seen was deciding to have Cade.

“Just like—no. In that case, Briganda, we’d be delighted to have you. But your son…”

Halrac caught himself, and then gestured at Cade as Briganda let him watch a marching band. Briganda paused.

“Cade?”

“How will you manage him? He’s older now. We might be gone from Invrisil—”

“No. This time I’m taking him on the road with me. I can find someone in most places we stop. And he’s old enough to handle wagon rides. If I join up, he comes with. That’s not an argument.”

The woman made a slashing motion with one hand. Halrac looked at his teammates.

In times past, Briganda had left Cade at safer places, not moving him around except if Griffon Hunt changed their working base. Halrac frowned.

“Surely you can leave him somewhere safe. It’s never entirely secure on the road, Briganda. We had [Raiders] just this morning. We might be able to leave him at an inn. And it’s convenient—”

“No. He goes where I go. He nearly forgot I was his mother, Halrac. I’m not leaving him again.”

Briganda met Halrac’s eyes. She glanced at Revi. The Stitch-Woman felt a pang in her chest.

“How’s it been, Briganda?”

The [Shield Maiden] sighed. She rubbed at her hair, and she looked tired.

“Honestly? I’m jumping at the opportunity. Quitting Griffon Hunt with my name…? No, even if I’d been regular, I forgot how dangerous it is to go solo. It’s hard to find a team, and with Cade, I can’t just walk at an Ogre and not care what happens next. I have to take safe work. Escorting caravans if they let Cade come with, guard duty—I can get work because I’m over Level 30, but I’m always underpaid. You get me?”

She looked at the others. They nodded. It was indeed a sudden change, moving from Gold-rank to any other sort of work, which was always less well-paying. Briganda went on, her voice steady.

“And I can’t afford the gear I need. I found a hole in my chainmail last month and nearly burst into tears. Because I can’t earn enough for maintaining my non-magical gear. So yeah—sign me up.”

“But it’s dangerous. I won’t take a child into the areas we go to.”

Briganda paused, clearly thinking fast.

“It’s dangerous in the city, Everam. Listen—Cade needs a mother. You think I don’t know the dangers? I worry about him all the time and he’s tried to climb off the balcony more’n once. But I’m not going to be the adventurer who runs off and he doesn’t remember me. He goes where I go. That’s the deal breaker.”

Halrac looked—conflicted. He glanced at Revi and Typhenous.

“That’s not what I expected, Briganda. I’m going to have to talk it over with my team.”

“I get that. You want more time or…?”

“Give us a few minutes and we’ll decide if we do.”

The [Shield Maiden] nodded. She stood up, and hesitated. She touched the buckler and hatchet she wore.

“Some of my armor’s worn down, but my magical gear’s all here. I had to pawn a ring, but that’s all. And I’ve leveled once. That’s my best sell. I’d like to rejoin, honestly. Casielle might too, although he has good work. He’ll take the money, at least. Thank you for that. Honestly. No hard feelings either way.”

She nodded at them and then urged Cade to a distant table. Halrac watched her go. And Revi?

She was shaken. A bit. That had sounded a bit like desperation in Briganda’s voice. Revi wanted to remind her she was getting six thousand gold either way. You could live on that! Not like Revi liked to, but still.

“Thoughts?”

Halrac looked at his teammates. Typhenous was peering at Cade. He made a face as the boy stared and Cade laughed. The old man turned to Halrac, smiling, and then replied.

“If you want to decline, don’t wait to do so.”

Cold. Revi stared at him.

“We can’t turn Briganda down! Didn’t you hear…?”

“The road’s no place for a child.”

Halrac sounded uncertain. Typhenous shrugged.

“It’s certainly dangerous. But it’s your choice, Halrac. Briganda isn’t irreplaceable. But she is a good woman. Still—impartially, I can argue both against and for her. Cade will slow us down. And we might be unable to take some contracts. He might be put in danger inadvertently and put us all at risk. That is motherhood, and Briganda is a mother.”

He looked at Halrac. Revi opened her mouth. But Briganda was a teammate!

And yet—there was no room for hesitation or distraction fighting monsters. She paused. Halrac closed his eyes.

“Arguments for?”

“She knows our tactics. She’s got a powerful one-off Skill, and she’s got gear, she’s giving us four thousand back—if we assume we give money to Casielle, but not to Elm that’s…how much is it, Typhenous?”

“We’re estimating our money at around 35,000 when appraised. Hedault will give us a clearer number, but assuming that’s true, we will have 27,000 gold pieces to work with. If Briganda joins us. 23,000 if not.”

And that was a large number. If they paid out to all three…they’d be spending nearly half of the dungeon haul. But this wasn’t about just that. It was about…Revi looked pleadingly at Halrac.

The [Scout] paused. He closed his eyes. He glared—opened his gaze and looked at his teammates.

“Fine. I’ve made my choice. First off, I don’t like being Captain. Ulrien was better at this than I was.”

Revi half-smiled, but she waited, nervous. Typhenous steepled his fingers. Halrac went on.

“Briganda’s everything you two said. I know her. The issue with her child is new. I don’t like putting people at risk and sometimes we can’t protect ourselves. So—the answer is no.”

The Stitch-Girl’s face fell. She stared at Halrac as he motioned Briganda over. He delivered the news and she nodded, heavily.

“Any chance I can change your mind?”

“No. Sorry, Briganda, but your son’s a risk.”

“I am?”

Cade looked at Halrac. The [Scout]’s expression didn’t change. He flicked his gaze to Briganda.

“It’s my decision. Our team is probably going to hunt Wyverns. But the High Passes—there’s nowhere safe anywhere around the mountains. At all. You know that. And there aren’t any big bounties I know of, anywhere else. We’re going to try and increase our funds with that—and we can gear up, maybe take temporary help. Once that’s done, if you’re still in the area—we can talk.”

Briganda had been nodding. She stirred. Revi looked at Halrac.

“Wait—but you said—”

“We can work with Briganda on a…provisional basis. We’ll look at what we’re taking on. If we think we can get there, Briganda can join us. Otherwise…no.”

The [Shield Maiden]’s face lit up. She reached out and punched Halrac on the shoulder.

“You bastard! Whoops, don’t repeat that, Cade. That’s the Halrac I know. Stone-faced and soft as an unboiled egg on the inside. Wish you’d been the father, or Ulrien. Pretty glad it wasn’t Elm. Cassielle? Eh. I’d live with the half-Elf.”

Halrac tried to play it off, but he smiled a bit as Briganda gripped his shoulder. It was Typhenous who had a thought.

“Halrac, perhaps Briganda can sign with us immediately.”

“What?”

Briganda and Halrac looked at him. The [Mage] rubbed at his chin.

“As I recall, a certain friend may deliver a…transportation method to Invrisil. Not to the High Passes—and it would be a few day’s ride. But Briganda might be satisfied leaving Cade in the area.”

“What? Transportation method?”

The woman narrowed her eyes. She still had an adventurer’s instincts for the important. Halrac hesitated.

“I didn’t think of that. It’s not exactly safe there—that’s where Ulrien…”

“Maybe in the city? But we’d still be using the passageway. Consider it. And if we are waiting for Hedault…”

The [Scout] paused. He looked at Briganda. He looked at Typhenous.

“That’s an excellent point. Briganda—we can catch you up to speed. But if it was—”

“Halrac, I can leave Cade somewhere for a week or two. As long as I’m coming back to him after we get out of the swamp or something. He’s not camping with us near a monster. I’m in. All the way. What’s this you’re telling me?”

Briganda’s eye were shining. Halrac hesitated. Then he reached out.

“I hate leading. I guess I have to rephrase my answer. Briganda—would you rejoin Griffon Hunt?”

“Absolutely.”

The two clasped hands. Revi shot to her feet, eyes shining. She hugged Briganda and Typhenous rose as well. Cade looked confused.

“Mom? Are you crying?”

“It’s good news, Cade. The best. I’m joining up with my old team. My friends. Do you remember them?”

Briganda reassured her worried son. Cade peered at Revi. At Typhenous, who smiled down at him, and Halrac, who tried his best not to be a grim-faced man who could make a child cry at a hundred paces. Cade paused.

“…No.”

 

—-

 

They had to have a drink, of course. To celebrate. But even here—Briganda stopped after two cups. She was a mother now, and she had a lot to do. Quit her old job, tell some of her friends, assess her gear…

And her team had to catch her up on everything that had happened. Briganda swore a blue streak before Cade asked her what the words meant when she heard about everything.

Ulrien, the haul from Liscor’s dungeon, Erin Solstice and her inn, Halrac’s bow…and they hadn’t even told her the big things.

Like speculation about Dragons near Liscor. But they’d already moved out of the Gold-rank area; adventurers had long ears.

“Honestly, I don’t like the idea of competing on hunting Wyverns. We’ll be fighting too many dangerous monsters, even if there are hundreds of teams heading to the High Passes. And we’ll foul each other up. And we might get kill-thieves. Actual [Thieves]—even conflicts with other adventurers.”

Halrac was grousing, unable to admit that he was in a good mood. Briganda, clearly trying to get back into full adventurer-mode, was nodding.

“I hear you, Everam. I mean—I’m out of practice, so Revi, Typhenous?”

The two laughed.

“You’ve been in the team longer than we have, Briggy! Speak your mind!”

“It does sound really like a trap. Who put that ridiculous bounty up? And why? I’ve been speculating with some of the old guard. But it’s a chance, and you know us…”

The [Scout] frowned.

“I just don’t like being one of the many. Griffon Hunt took a risk on Liscor and it paid off because we were first. But if there was just one request we could take while everyone focused on the big, obvious score…”

He trailed off. Briganda scratched her head.

“I’ve seen nothing with numbers like that, Halrac. You might as well go after one of the Goblin Chieftains in the north, and that’s a lesser payout by far. There are a few Gold-rank offers, and I can remember one funny one—but nothing that pays anything. Heh. They were offering ‘deferred payment’ in exchange for later rewards. Might as well say we’re adventuring for exposure and fame.”

The other adventurers had to groan or chuckle at that. No indeed. Gold-ranks needed to be paid for their risks. Briganda slapped her thighs as Cade leaned against her, yawning.

“Cade’s sleepy. And I need to tell everyone about this. Can I call on you in a bit?”

“Sure. We’ll have to organize…the situation with Cade. But as I said, we have a route straight back to Liscor. Hopefully we can intercept Erin, and get a few day’s jump on everyone else.”

“Halrac, you delight me. Subterfuge from you?”

Typhenous exclaimed, grinning behind his beard. Briganda had to pace back and forth as she held Cade who was yawning.

“I am so excited for this. It’s been too long! I’ll meet you in…an hour, okay? I can put Cade to bed, get a babysitter—I’ll still be hiring those! Maybe we can even get some with us?”

“It sure beats Erin and her inn. Dead gods, imagine if that skeleton was still about? Best nursemaid. Free.”

Revi muttered. Halrac nearly snorted out his drink. He put down his mug, wiping his mouth.

“It’ll be good to see her. And if the Halfseekers do arrive—we could even intercept them, get the door here faster. I don’t know what’s taken them. But either way, we might beat all but the local teams to the High Passes. Again, I don’t like risking us especially because they’re a Weyr up there. One wrong move and we’re not fighting a few Wyverns, but a Greater Wyvern, and a few hundred Wyverns.”

His team sobered. That was what Griffon Hunt was good at, weighing the odds. Revi nodded slowly.

“We’ll look into it. But for now—we can take some time off, right?”

“Right. We’ll catch Briganda up on the…situation and speculation later. Tonight, we celebrate.”

Griffon Hunt tapped each other’s mugs. Typhenous wiped his mouth and smiled.

“And to do that, I think we should have a night on the town. Perhaps with Cade, although I fear it might be too adult for him.”

Revi eyed her teammate.

“…Do you mean a brothel?”

“No. The theatre, Revi. The Players of Celum are apparently far better than when we knew them! And they have new plays!”

The other two adventurer’s eyes lit up. Halrac paused.

“I thought obtaining tickets was impossible?”

“For tonight? And cheaply? Certainly impossible, Halrac. For anyone but good friends of Jasi and Wesle. I assume they’d remember us. And it might be worth a shot.”

“I would. How good are the plays?”

Halrac had something of an affection for some of the theatre he’d seen. And Revi wouldn’t mind it either—especially to treat Briganda to the plays. Typhenous smiled.

“Good enough to have the entire city demanding more? To have people reselling tickets? Halrac, consider that the [Actors] may have leveled. I think we should try and seek the Players of Celum out while we wait for Briganda to get back to us. Any opposed?”

There were none. And Griffon Hunt marched out of the pub where they’d been drinking to find some…well, free tickets.

It turned out to be harder than they thought. For one thing—while everyone knew where the Players of Celum were now located, the theatre, the Season Theatre, which sounded rather close to ‘Solstice’, or an homage of sorts, was guarded from anyone without a ticket.

And the [Actors] were secluded from their adoring public by guards on an inn which catered only to them. And not even a Gold-rank adventurer could get past the security.

Everyone knows Miss Jasi or Mister Wesle. If they knew you, they’d say. And forget waiting about to ‘pretend’ to meet them. No exceptions!”

“But we’re in their plays! The Siege of Liscor? We’re Griffon Hunt!”

The man talking to them rolled his eyes.

“Yes, yes. Well done. I’ve heard most of the teams, and all the individuals. Good for memorizing the name—Griffon Hunt’s a four-person team, though.”

“No. It’s wasn’t—well, it was, but it wasn’t and now it is—but our teammate—”

Griffon Hunt stared as the bouncer slammed the door in their faces. And they’d done better than most to get to the door. Typhenous stroked his beard.

“Ah, a challenge.”

“If we can’t meet them, let’s just send a [Message] and wait.”

Halrac suggested. Typhenous looked askance.

“My dear Halrac.”

“Don’t call me dear anything.”

Captain Everam, how many [Messages] do you think they get each day? Especially from people claiming to know them? No, we’ll get nowhere arguing. Or burning down the inn, Revi.”

The [Summoner] looked offended. She stowed the wand.

“I was just going to use a voice-amplifying spell and shout.”

“Soundproofed walls, Revi. No, we must find a better way to get in touch with them.”

“And you have a plan?”

Typhenous’ eyes glittered.

“As a matter of fact—I know someone who would recognize us. Someone I think we can find, if we know the right people. Follow me. And—be prepared to spend a few gold pieces, Halrac.”

The old [Plague Mage] smiled knowingly. Halrac and Revi looked at each other. But Typhenous, for all his habits, didn’t lie. To them, at least.

“Well, if it means entertainment—lead on. I was going to spend some of my gold on some fabric treatment tonight, but we’ll be here for a bit, right?”

Revi nodded; this sounded like fun, rather than work. Halrac was nodding, but caught himself. As they began to walk he looked at Revi.

“Like what, fabric softener…?”

“It’s like that oil you people rub into your skin, Halrac.”

“…Skin cream? I don’t use it.”

“I’ve noticed.”

The old man chuckled as Halrac sighed. Typhenous walked down the street, leaning on his staff. And he was old. Old enough to have white hair.

That meant he was a grandfather in Gold-rank teams. Few adventurers reached his age. And—fewer teams would risk taking someone like him with them. Typhenous didn’t look like he could outrun a charging Bicorn. And he probably couldn’t. He slept like a log, had slower reactions than his younger counterparts—

But he had survived this long on more than just reflexes. And it was his utility that had brought him to Griffon Hunt’s attention. It had been helpful in many ways.

And also—it had led to the Griffin plague. It had led to Erin’s door getting stolen. And then retrieved, but Revi had been bothered by the revelation.

Typhenous…had a past. Like everyone, but few people slept with a poisoned dagger on them at all times. And Typhenous, old though he might be, was a surprisingly good infighter if you weren’t watching out for him. And in times like this—

“So what are we doing, Typhenous?”

Halrac’s voice was suspicious. He folded his arms as Typhenous led them down the street, away from the inn. The old [Mage] was looking about.

“Just making inquiries through certain—channels, Halrac. Nothing untoward.”

“You mean…your contacts. I told you, Typhenous. No more of it.”

“Halrac, it is entirely aboveboard. Completely. You can watch the entire affair. This isn’t criminal; it’s just—my world.”

The old man sounded a bit peeved at the allegation of pure criminality. The [Scout] glowered. He had a definite view about anything illegal. Revi was a bit nervous too.

“Your world, Typh?”

“Revi, my dear. I have a history in any number of occupations.”

Which she’d known. But Typhenous’ smile looked more knowing than your average [Mage]’s air of mystery. Especially because Revi could pretend to be wise and powerful too for the plebeians. But here they were. Typhenous led them down the street to his world.

The underworld of crime. The shadowed side of cities and Izril, that you could use when the legal options were out. Revi felt herself growing tense, and regretted agreeing so cheerfully. She checked to make sure her summoning tools and wand were ready for quick use. Halrac was doing the same; his invisible bow was on his back. The adventurers waited as their teammate found his first lead.

Typhenous found the first denizen of darkness, purveyor of misdeeds, by poking the first street urchin he came across with his staff. A passing boy with somewhat ill-kept clothes jerked as he looked up from a game of dice with his pals.

“Watch it, old bugger! What d’you want?”

The kindly old man wearing [Mage]’s robes smiled down at him as Halrac and Revi watched. The other members of the gang stood up—they were young, ranging from eight to just their early teens; some were caught in a growth spurt.

They looked…er…tough. Staring at the adventurers without fear. Revi covered a smile. And she saw Typhenous lean over.

“I beg your pardon, young man. I was just wondering if you could direct me to…Grev. I’m told he’s a face in these parts. You wouldn’t happen to have an in by which my crew and I could do a greeting with? I’d be willing to pay for it.”

The urchin blinked and his eyes narrowed. So did Halrac and Revi—for a second there, in between his polite, mage-like speech, Typhenous had used what sounded like slang. The boy stared up at Typhenous and nodded, warily.

Grev? Yeah. He’s a face-of-faces, y’know? We’ve talked.”

That was a mark of pride, clearly. The gang nodded. The boy went on.

“We can probably get you a greeting, yeah. But we’d need to run it by our boss.”

“Of course. Can we make the request there?”

Typhenous nodded. The boy rubbed finger and thumb together.

“How about a token for the boss?”

He blinked as the [Mage] flipped him a silver coin. Typhenous had already been expecting it. The boy fumbled catching the coin. He blinked at Typhenous and took a second measure. But then he shrugged.

“Sure. Come on. You running with this crew? Looks like flatfoots to me.”

“Oh, the flattest and straightest of feet. But they’re adventurers. As am I.”

“What, Silver?”

Gold, actually.”

Revi smiled at the boy. He gave her a sideways look.

“Oh yeah? Good fer you. This way.”

Then he and his gang shot down the street, beckoning for the adults to follow. Revi faltered. Typhenous just smiled, stroking his beard.

“You see? Nothing untoward.”

“They’re children, Typhenous.”

“Children know everything in a city. And that’s a gang, Revi. Young they might be, but we’ve paid for an introduction to their leader. Follow me.”

The team hurried after the kids. Halrac was narrowing his eyes as they headed deeper into the city, away from the commercial districts. He kept glancing up and about and Revi knew the [Scout] was assessing everything. He halted as the gang waved them down a street.

“Halrac?”

“We’re surrounded.”

Revi blinked. Halrac nodded behind him.

“Someone’s on our rear.”

“More children. The gang. Looks like three. It’s a precaution, Halrac. Don’t worry.”

Typhenous nodded behind him. He walked forwards confidently, into a small intersection in the alleyway. There was indeed a gang of boys and a few girls standing there. They were being led by a teenager—he couldn’t have been more than fifteen.

But he had a knife. He was flipping it, in one of those classic games where the point was to be as dangerous as possible without embarrassing yourself. He was, in fact, sitting at a crude wooden table.

Revi stared. Someone had hung cloth overhead, and wood, and created a miniature fortress in this alley. And as she and Halrac walked forwards—she heard a sound.

“So these are the flatfoots who want to meet Grev? Look like marks to me. All shine and no grit.”

The [Gang Boss] called out. Revi turned her head. Two other gangs of kids were blocking the alleyway. And ‘kids’ began to lose its meaning because some were in their teens. Which meant that while they weren’t full adults—there were a lot of them. And most had some kind of weapon.

A cudgel, made of makeshift wood. A half-brick in a sock, a classic weapon. A knife. Weak weapons for a Gold-rank. But get stabbed by one of those, or hit, and it still…hurt. Revi eyed the gang.

“Typh?”

“Hello, young man. We are indeed seeking a meeting with Grev, of the Players of Celum. I was told you could introduce us?”

Typhenous’ voice was smooth, and he seemed blithely unaware of the people boxing them into the alleyway. And he was speaking…eloquently again. Revi and Halrac eyed him.

So did the urchin who’d brought them here. Typhenous smiled, stroking his beard as the [Gang Boss] snorted.

“You’n half the city, old man. Grev don’t have time for anyone who calls. But sure, we can probably arrange it. No promises you’ll get a fancy ticket.”

“Leave that to us. We just desire a rendezvous.”

The boy cocked his head and then laughed. So did his gang, with the kind of fearlessness that told Revi that they thought they had the upper hand. Her skin was crawling a bit. She didn’t want to fight kids, but you heard story about gangs. Still—she didn’t want them to try anything. If she had to summon one of her phantoms, it would tear through a gang like this.

On the other hand, Halrac looked more tense than Revi. He had uncrossed his arms and put his back against a wall. And he was glancing up; Revi saw a figure disappearing from the rooftops. She hesitated. Dropping stones on their heads? Now this was a really good ambush…

But Typhenous was still smiling. The [Gang Leader] heaved himself upright. He flipped the dagger up in the air, twirling it as he came over. The adventurers watched.

“You want to meet Grev? We’re gonna have to talk coin. Gold, right? I hear you’re Gold-ranks.”

More laughter. The young man saw Revi eying the dagger. He grinned.

“Don’t worry, Miss. I don’t mean no harm by this trick.”

He flipped the dagger. Revi reached out and grabbed the blade. She…missed.

Oh, she caught the dagger. But she grabbed it blade-first. Everyone winced as Revi’s hand opened up and the Stitch-Girl grimaced. Red blood ran from her hands from a very deep cut. The young man recoiled in shock.

And Revi smiled.

“What, this? We don’t play these games where I come from. Not much risk.”

She tossed the dagger back. Then she opened her hand. It hurt like hell. That was a stupid move. But she didn’t let it show as she carefully pulled out a needle and stitched closed the flesh. It sealed, with magical speed.

“Fucking Clothheads.”

A girl muttered from the back. The [Gang Leader] recovered his poise. He wiped the dagger on his shirt and twirled it back into a sheathe.

“You’re not too bright, Miss. If I had anything on the blade, you’d be regretting it. But let’s talk coin.”

“Indeed. What sort of remuneration did you have in mind?”

Typhenous was smiling. Just—smiling. The [Gang Leader] laughed. He performed the same gesture as the urchin had.

“We’re talking gold to meet Grev. Lotta people need speaking to—we don’t run with him regularly. You want access? It’s gonna cost you. Twenty gold.”

Twenty—

Revi inhaled. That was way too much! Typhenous stroked his beard.

“That’s a high price.”

“Not high for a ticket, which is what you want, right? You want a good one, tonight? They run you higher. And we’re talking meeting with Grev. And he runs with the Players of Celum. You play your cards right, he might introduce you to the cast.”

The young man’s eyes gleamed as he gave Griffon Hunt the upsell. Revi recognized it; he was trying to milk them for coins. She raised her eyebrows. But Typhenous flicked his fingers. He was going to speak.

“This is very true, young man. Mm. But I wonder if we could renegotiate to a lower price? Twenty gold coins is an awful lot of money. And Gold-rank we might be, but we don’t care to spend that much.”

“But you can. That’s my price, old [Mage].”

Typhenous sighed as the [Gang Leader] stepped closer. He looked vaguely around at the kids and teens, who were suddenly looking more…intent. Halrac shifted.

Typhenous…

The name made one of the urchins near the back start. But the old [Mage] waved at Halrac.

“Halrac, it’s fine. I don’t intend to spend more gold. As I told you. Perhaps we should find another gang, then.”

“You can’t just talk to the boss and walk off, flatfoot.”

One of the other gangs warned the adventurers from behind. Halrac shifted. He had a shortsword, enchanted, and his bow. But he clearly didn’t want to use it.

“Boss, boss—”

Someone was calling out from behind the [Gang Leader]. But he was glowering.

“Listen up, old man. You clearly don’t know how this works. You don’t pay for a meeting and back out.”

“But the price is rather high. Can’t we negotiate?”

Boss—

The street urchin was fighting forwards. The [Gang Leader]’s eyes narrowed.

“We don’t negotiate with outsiders who don’t know the score, old timer. And we’re not afraid of adventurers. Bring ‘em. Named-rank, or whatever you have. This is our territory. And you—”

He leaned forwards, hand on the dagger. Revi tensed—and Typhenous moved. Quick as a snake, he grabbed the young man as he moved forwards.

A loose tunic. Bad to have something you could snag in a fight. Of course, Typhenous was wearing robes, but they were enchanted. And as the young man’s eyes widened, he tried to pull back—

And froze. The old, kindly [Mage] with a grandfatherly look, posh talk, and not a lot of sense was holding the tip of a dagger right next to the young man’s ear. And he looked…well, mostly as kindly and good-natured as he had before. But when he leaned down amid the frozen children in their gangs, his voice was somehow a bit less…refined. And friendly. Well, he sounded friendly, but you know how it was.

“Young man. I’m no flatfoot or outsider. I’ve run with more gangs than you’ve seen. If I come to this city, people know that I’m neither flash nor builder or viner or whatever low-scores you’ve seen. I’m all score—when I care to be. And no one takes me for a loop.”

Silence. Halrac and Revi stared at Typhenous. The [Gang Leader]’s face was pale as the dagger hovered right in his ear canal; he was trying not to breathe.

“Shitrats, he’s got the boss!”

A girl exclaimed. She had a sling, but she was staring at Typhenous. The rest of the gangs stared too.

“Who’re you, old man?”

The [Gang Leader] whispered. He stared at Typhenous. And the old man answered.

“If you did your work, young man, you’d know the name and the face. I run with Gold-ranks now. Respectable. And this is a favor, all straight and above-board. But if you have to ask—they call me Typhenous. The Plague Mage.”

There was a murmur at this. The [Gang Leader] cast his eyes sideways—the boy who’d recognized Typhenous from his name was waving his hands. Wide-eyed. Revi looked around.

“Let’s try this again. Apologies for the grab; I just feel it pays to make an impression.”

Typhenous let go, sheathing the dagger. The young man stumbled backwards, feeling at his ear. He stared at Typhenous. He laughed, shakily.

“Dead fucking gods, old man! You just had to say your name and we’d’ve changed our tune!”

The Plague Mage smiled. He went back to his lugubrious, innocent manner of speech.

“Ah, but if you were trying to…trick us, that would have been pertinent information. A gang without manners can’t be trusted whoever they deal with.”

“And if we’d been false?”

One of the younger members queried. She looked worried; Revi noticed all the weapons were disappearing, rather quickly. And the kids were backing up from Typhenous.

The Plague Mage. His eyes twinkled. And then stopped shining.

“Well, you know what happens next. I’m willing to pay for a meeting, by all means. At a reasonable rate. But convey to anyone you meet, please, that I’m serious. I’d hate to pay for topsoil.”

The [Gang Leader]’s face paled. His gang members murmured and drew back further. Revi heard Typhenous’ title repeated.

The Plague Mage. She hadn’t given it much thought. Adventurers got nicknames—the Named Ranks all got them. But there was clearly some significance in this world to a name too. And Typhenous had one.

“—We’ll put out some fingers. We have met Grev. We’re not sewn together, but we can get you to him.”

The [Gang Leader] replied after a long break. Typhenous smiled.

“Good. Tell him we’re friends. Griffon Hunt.”

“Right, right. Be one sec. I’ll get my best [Finders] on it. And get you an escort…”

The young man backed up fast. He began ordering his gang around and Typhenous turned to his team. He smiled as they gave him a look akin the other ones he was getting from everyone else.

“As I said. Nothing to worry about. It’s all about how you present yourself.”

Halrac glowered. But he kept his mouth shut until the gang dispersed. The same urchin they’d first met pointed. And his tone was far more respectful as twelve of his fellow members moved out ahead of him, down the alleyway.

“We gotta make some other meetings, Mister Typhenous. Make some palms shine. This way.”

He led the team out of the gang’s hideout. When they were out on the street, the gang began pointing them further into the city. Typhenous nodded for them to lead the way. Only then did Halrac confront him.

“What was that?”

“An introduction. I know, the theatrics. But despite what that young man said, he wouldn’t have taken us seriously unless I demonstrated I knew what was happening. We won’t be paying a ludicrous amount. We will have to give some money, but I think it won’t be much of anything.”

Typhenous nodded to Halrac. The [Scout] opened and closed his mouth. He clenched one fist.

“You scared that boy. To save us gold?”

Rather than apologize, the old [Mage]’s eyes glinted.

“I did what that young man was familiar with, Halrac. He respects a display, nothing else. The gang understands and we have their respect as well. It’s their world and mine. I was one of them, once. I know how it works. I understand your objections, but trust me, Halrac. This is how it is done. It would rather be like me telling you how to hunt.”

Halrac chewed that over and nodded, slowly. He wasn’t entirely an idiot.

Neither was Revi. But she gave Typhenous another sideways look.

“I heard you had connections when you got signed to Griffon Hunt. How much of that was your level, and how much was the other stuff?”

“Ironically, neither Ulrien nor anyone else even cared, apart from my spellcasting ability. I’ve tried to help in small ways to make up for my—errors. To greater or lesser effects.”

Typhenous nodded apologetically at Halrac. The [Scout] grunted.

“I disapprove of it.”

“I know. And I am sorry, but the door incident was going to happen with or without my interference. I mitigated the damage; they were two very good gangs who could have had the door to Invrisil within three days without being caught. And we came up a few thousand gold pieces higher for it.”

“And the consequences you mentioned?”

The Plague Mage paused. A kid was waving at them and another gang of kids—these ones marked by black sashes tied around their arms—was waiting, staring at the Gold-ranks.

“I’ll deal with them as they come up. But we have the door to Liscor. On the whole, I’d say it was worth it.”

“Hmf.”

That was all the [Scout] said. But he let Typhenous do the rest. And what Revi saw after that, as she met other gangs who seemed to progressively get older was…

A celebrity. Typhenous was conveyed by the same group of kids from the first gang. But they went from place to place in the city, speaking to people who knew where Grev might be, or who had an ‘in’. And the older they got, the more they started as they heard Typhenous’ name.

The Plague Mage. My da says he knew you when he was running tricks!”

An awed gang boss actually shook Typhenous’ hand; he led a group of [Toughs] and [Thugs]. Typhenous smiled.

“Those days are past me. I’m merely an adventurer now.”

“Yeah, that’s what my da says. He’s a huge admirer. He says if one’ve the Knives can run straight, and a Scorer like you gets to be Gold-rank, anyone can. You want to meet Grev? We’ll do it—and give you the proper discount. Favor, Mister Typhenous. Who’re your people? Your new crew?”

He looked at Halrac and Revi. They blinked as the rest of the gang had to meet Typhenous. They barely looked twice at the other Gold-ranks. Typhenous was smiling, downplaying the accolades. And that was only one gang.

“You were in a gang?”

“Most people who grow up without a proper job or class do. It was nothing special.”

“Sure. And the Knives? What’s a scorer?”

Typhenous’ eyes twinkled. He winked at Revi.

“Just terms from the past. Oh—”

He paused as the young [Tough]’s father himself rushed out to exclaim and shake Typhenous’ hand. Revi looked at the old man. And she realized.

He was a hero. To the people he met. Someone with a history that anyone in the know knew. Or if not a hero—the Stitch-Woman leaned over to Halrac.

“You know anything about this, Halrac?”

“No.”

“Who’s Typhenous, then?”

“A face. Whatever that means.”

Revi looked at Typhenous. And she saw an old mage, a man with white hair, an adventurer. Walking amid the streets and gangs and the hidden side of a city. He fit—and yet, he had left it all behind a long while ago. He had become a Gold-rank. And Revi began to appreciate what that meant. For someone like Typhenous, to the people who knew where he came from. And he was using his past for his team.

Gangs or adventuring teams—loyalty mattered to both. And it made sense. Griffon Hunt was more mercenary than the other teams like the Silver Swords or the Horns or Halfseekers. But they looked after their own. They had splintered, rather than give up on Typhenous after the mistake. And he remembered that.

Revi wondered if he still felt guilty. She still remembered the plague, when she slept, sometimes.

Everyone had things they regretted.

 

—-

 

In the end, Griffon Hunt did end up paying gold to meet Grev. But only four gold pieces, spread out in smaller bribes. Making palms shine. It took them nearly thirty minutes of walking from spot to spot, getting closer and closer to access to Grev himself. And when they found him, it was almost at random.

“Grev? What d’you want? He’s not entertaining any flatfoots—”

The suspicious boy broke off as the guide whispered urgently in his ear. He paused.

“Not even fer a face—alright, alright! I’ll tell him. But he might rat off. He don’t like being bothered.”

“Kindly inform him that Griffon Hunt would like to speak with him, if he has time. Halrac, Revi, Typhenous. From the inn. Those exact words.”

The boy’s mouth moved as he glanced at the adventurers. He nodded.

“Alright. No promises.”

He sidled back through the door he’d been guarding. Revi got the impression it was something like a bar—or another hideout. Only, not one you could get into regularly. And the gang that Grev was hanging out with was a lot better-dressed than the gang Typhenous had asked to help.

Indeed, the Plague Mage handed a few silvers over and made the urchin’s face light up. They disappeared as the adventurers found themselves alone in front of the door.

“I swear, Typh. If this is all a waste of time…”

“They wouldn’t lead us around like that, Revi. There are consequences.”

The [Mage] was relaxed. He took a little sip from a healing potion and then a stamina potion. Halrac and Revi weren’t bothered, but Typhenous smiled after he did that.

“Aching joints?”

“Age, Revi. I should buy a liniment while I’m here. But I find most potions do their job. A shame their effect loses its power the more times you use them. But—ah!”

The door opened. Revi saw a kid, only around thirteen years old, standing in the doorway. He had yet to hit his growth, and he had been scrawny, underfed. But he’d filled out since then, and he was wearing good clothes. Still—he had some of the street on him, and his hair was messy, most likely on purpose.

He had a gap in his teeth as he grinned. The gang behind him looked warily at the adventurers.

“You know these flatfoots, Grev? They say they know you.”

The boy stopped gaping. He grinned. The [Street Rat], Grev Redigal, younger brother of Jasi from Celum, who had once tried to lead Erin Solstice into a mugging laughed in delight.

“Know ‘em? They’re part of the crew! Miss Erin’s crew! They’re all right! Dead gods, the Players’re gonna flip when they see you! That’s Halrac, right?”

“Grev.”

The [Scout] nodded. Grev cackled.

“I’d know that scowl everywhere! Guys, I’m gonna rat. These’re friends. They need me for anything, they get it. Just like the rest of the ones I told you about.”

The gang of kids relaxed. The leader, a girl, tapped Grev’s shoulder lightly with a fist. He was clearly with them and yet apart, much like Typhenous.

“You got it, Grev. Favor. Thanks for the tickets. My mum flipped twice when she got them.”

“Anytime. Come on, you three! How’d you find me? They were saying a face was askin’ about me and I got worried. That you, Typhenous? You never said!”

“A [Mage] must have his secrets, Grev. It’s good to see you.”

“Revi too?”

“Hey. Grev.”

Revi waved awkwardly. She hadn’t really known Grev from the inn. She remembered him, of course, the kid who’d been with the Players. But Revi had to admit, her contact with the Players of Celum was mostly remote.

And yet—it was like adventuring teams. They knew each other. And ironically, this far from the inn they’d been at, the bond felt stronger. Short it might have been, only a few months—but it felt like years. And The Wandering Inn had left a mark on them all.

“It’s amazing to see you all. Is the door to Liscor open? I’ve been watching, but there’s been no word.”

“We came on foot. We were hoping the door would be active too.”

Grev led them back on the street. He tugged up a hood over his head as he chatted with the adventurers.

“Because of the Wyverns? Right. I’ve been keeping my ear to Liscor. Heard about the Crelers.”

“Crelers?”

Griffon Hunt started. Grev gave them a wide-eyed look.

“You don’t know? Dead fucking gods kicking rats! You’ve gotta hear about it! But maybe let’s find the Players first! They’ll love to see you. Mind you, it was good you came to me. Smart. Favor for that—respect, I mean—no one can get near the inn with the cast. They’re more famous than…anyone right now. Lots of people want to be their friends.”

“So we noticed. It’s incredible.”

Indeed—there were posters of the Players of Celum on the more populated, commercial districts. Revi had to stare at a full-scale poster, hand-painted by an [Artist]. It depicted Jasi—or rather, a beautiful Drake standing with [Soldiers] in the background, and the heads of Wesle and a Human that Revi didn’t recognize in the background. It looked like some grand story, and the caption just read—‘Elisial, now showing at the Season Theatre’.

Fame. Grev himself was hiding his face. Whereas he was walking with Gold-ranks and chattering away.

“You have no idea. The cast have to wear illusion spells just to go out. They’re signing—you know the autographs? I’m getting more than I can deal with, so I hafta wear a hood. And Jasi—you can’t beat the guys off her with sticks! Myself, I’ve got a few girls…”

Revi rolled her eyes. Halrac just stared at another poster, this time of Wesle and advertising Macbeth.

“Have you heard from Erin?”

“Nah. I mean, I keep up, and we get [Messages] from Temile. New plays, some stuff. She’s out of Celum. They kicked her out and the Players went with her. Dumb as a bag of rocks, that lot. The Players are now in Liscor. And they’ve got Drakes and Gnoll [Actors]. Maybe even Dullahans and Garudas if that door to Pallass works with the magic grass. Dead gods, that’d be something! Emme wants to bring the crew from Liscor over when the door opens. We’d be able to have flying Garuda, Dullahans with detachable body parts for the fight scenes and such…”

“Whoa, hold on. Magic grass? Erin’s out of Celum? What?”

Revi was trying to catch up. Grev cackled at the look on her face.

“You don’t know! This is great! You don’t know about the Horns—dead gods! Did you at least hear about the Wyverns in Pallass?”

Halrac nodded. Grev was leading them back to the Players of Celum’s inn.

“Of course. We didn’t have a scrying orb, but we heard about it. Wait—”

The [Veteran Scout]’s brows crossed together. And he had a…thought. Born purely out of his knowledge of Erin. He looked at Revi. The [Summoner]’s jaw dropped and Typhenous blinked.

She was there! Miss Erin! And one of the Antinium was in Pallass! You’re gonna flip! Come on, I have to show you! The Players should be in the inn!”

The young boy was overjoyed. And Revi felt her smile growing larger. Erin had been at Pallass? During the Wyvern…? No way. Was she a magnet for trouble or something?

“She’s got magical fire too. Temile said it was glorious. And a garden-thing! That’s how she’s charged up her door—apparently it can take a lot more people to Pallass! We could travel back and forth fairly regularly!”

“Hold on. We have a teammate we want to introduce to the Players. Can we find her first?”

“Sure! Who’s she?”

Briganda was scheduled to meet her team at the same pub. She was already waiting.

“I put Cade to bed. Who’s this? Wait…”

She stared at Grev. None of her teammates had told her about knowing the Players of Celum. They hadn’t put together the significance. But when Briganda heard that they knew the famous [Actors] who’d hit Invrisil like a Tier 8 spell, she flipped three times.

Dead gods! We’re going to meet the Players of Celum? You’re Grev!

“That’s right, Miss.”

Briganda looked awed. Revi felt discombobulated. They were all Gold-ranks, but when she heard she could meet Jasi and Wesle, Briganda was like a girl meeting…Gold-ranks.

“I’ve got to buy some paper! For signing! And Cade! I want him to meet them! And you know them, Halrac? You never said!”

“They were just…at the inn.”

Halrac looked as close to stunned as he got by Briganda’s reaction. Grev laughed.

“No problem, Miss. Griffon Hunt’s a friend of the Players! So’re any of the folks who went to The Wandering Inn. Come to that, we have a recruit who was at the inn. Fancy fellow, does our special effects.”

“Let’s go! Now!”

And they did. Griffon Hunt walked towards the Season Theatre. And the inn where the Players were located. There was a crowd. But Grev walked right past them and strode up to the door. The [Bouncer] blinked when he saw Griffon Hunt again.

“You know this lot, Grev?”

“Sure do, Redit. They’re Griffon Hunt. The originals. Is Jasi in?”

“Upstairs. Getting ready for the show. Wait, they’re really…”

He stood aside as Grev walked through. Revi gave him a triumphant look as he stared, wide-eyed at them.

The inn wasn’t The Wandering Inn. But it was run by a Level 30+ [Innkeeper] who knew his stuff. It was three times as large as The Wandering Inn, and it was amazingly fine. And the Players of Celum were the only customers inside, save for the staff and a few very star-struck patrons who paid for the privilege.

Jasi! Wesle! Emme! Look who I found!

Grev hollered into the room. Revi, staring at the dozens and dozens of [Actors] and stagehands and people all talking or rehearsing, saw a group in the center look up. A Drake swept to her feet. She looked amazing, in makeup, and when she stood, the room stilled.

As I live and breathe! Griffon Hunt!

A man stood as well. Wesle’s voice filled the room as he pointed. And Griffon Hunt, the door still open, heard a roar of surprise from the crowd who’d heard. They turned at the exclamation and then the cheering.

Suddenly, they were in the spotlight. On the stage. The Players of Celum shot to their feet. The ones who were from the inn leapt out of their chairs, half with flamboyant acting, but also genuine pleasure. They strode over, and the Gold-rank adventurers found themselves shaking hands.

“It has been months! Or so it feels! Hello! Revi, isn’t it?”

The Drake leaned over, shaking Revi’s hand. She was taller than Revi, but she felt…larger. Not like Briganda, but with that air of importance. Revi found herself nodding at Jasi.

“Yes—I’m sorry, but we heard you were here, so—”

“Of course! You’re from Erin’s inn! And we’re delighted! Was it hard getting in? Did you come via the door?”

“They came on foot! Found me, they did! And they didn’t know.

The boy was practically dancing with glee. But Griffon Hunt was overawed by the change in the Players of Celum. They’d rented an inn that the Gold-ranks would have stayed at, permanently. And they had a crowd begging to see them. And yet—the Players were delighted to meet Griffon Hunt. Friends from Liscor!

“You haven’t heard about the Crelers? Oh, Five Families! I was in shock when I heard. But the Horns are Gold-rank! They brought down an Adult Creler! And the inn was attacked by Crelers! Destroyed.”

Halrac sprayed his drink. Revi’s jaw dropped. Briganda was staring at the others in shock.

“Wait—an Adult Creler?

“When was this? Are they alive? What about Erin?”

Halrac demanded. Typhenous was blinking. Revi’s heart twisted. An Adult…? Those were team-killers! Even Gold-ranks wouldn’t go up against one of them unprepared.

“They survived! Some teams died, but the Horns all lived! Yvlon’s arms changed—Ceria’s eyes too! Dead gods! It’s the kind of tale that we have to perform! But how can you do it justice? Andel tried, but it was fight scenes, not the easiest to turn into a play.”

Wesle rested one foot on the chair, as people fussed over his wardrobe. He nodded to a [Writer] sitting in the corner, in his own booth, bestrewn with paper, snacks, and drinks.

“We have to tell you everything. But later. We’re performing tonight. You must come see us. We want to perform for Erin when she gets here. We’re holding a booth just for her. You know? Phantom of the Opera style? We’re putting that play on. I can’t believe she forgot about it—but it’s wonderful. I need to practice my singing, but we have an actual [Singer] we’ve added to our main roster.”

A half-Dwarven woman was nodding, ordering the [Actors] about. Emme spoke to the adventurers as she snapped at the underlings who were now her crew.

“We perform each night. All day, every day, really. But we have multiple teams to take the load off. Still—you came at a perfect time. We’re doing Lady Macbeth. Jasi’s the lead, and our star team is taking the stage. Hey! Someone find the special tickets! For the Solstice Booth!”

There was a stir among the new [Actors] watching. Kilkran, the [Actor] with a voice like deep honey, laughed.

“It’ll stir up the audience to see you there! Where’re the tickets? Also, you must see—it’s Macbeth, but altered for a female lead. I wasn’t sure about it, but it is immensely popular—Lady Reinhart herself has expressed interest in seeing it!”

“We’ve seen Macbeth—er, but it sounds great. Solstice Booth…?”

Briganda was nodding rapidly at Revi. The Stitch-Girl was overwhelmed. Jasi smiled as she reached for her [Performance Supplies].

“We have to go on stage in the next hour. But after that, you’re invited to the after-party. It’ll take a bit—we do go out and shake hands and sign autographs, but…truly, we’d love to have you. Do you have any more friends? We can get more tickets—”

“Can I bring some of my friends? I saw one of your plays, Miss Jasi. I’d love an autograph.”

Briganda was awestruck. Revi’s jaw dropped as she held out a piece of cardboard for Jasi to sign. The Drake did so with a flourish. Jasi nodded.

“Anyone, by all means. We have tickets reserved—I know they’re valuable, so Emme has to manage them, and the special seating. We’re upgrading the theatre constantly to be bigger and bigger. Some of the nobles want their own sections, and of course everyone wants a ticket. We were performing with Elia Arcsinger’s team in the balconies just last week—”

“Elia…”

The Stitch-Girl stared. Her eyes bulged. Her jaw—well, it wasn’t on the floor, but only because her stitching was good. Revi’s mouth was open—and it stayed open as she left the theatre and the crowds lined the streets, shouting at the Players of Celum.

Revi sat, open-mouthed through being led into the Solstice Booth by the security at the theater. As people stared up at her in the packed auditorium. As the Players performed on stage. Jasi strode onto the scene, as Lady Macbeth, and she blew Revi away. The Stitch-Girl said nothing, just watched as the play opened, ran, and closed to a thunderous, standing ovation.

It was nothing like the play she had seen in Erin’s inn, in the background. The Players had special effects! Fight scenes with actual limb cuts, so real Revi felt alarmed. And—they’d improved their craft beyond all recognition.

This was the stage. And it blew the Gold-rank team away. Revi found herself sitting in the inn, with the Players of Celum celebrating after their performance. Only then did her mouth close. And only to swallow the drinks and food.

“That was—incredible.”

“We’ve improved a bit.”

Wesle remarked modestly. But his eyes were twinkling. Revi stared at him. And she had a definite sense—that they were close in levels. Which was unreal, for someone who’d gained the [Actor] class just a while ago.

But the Players of Celum were the premier group in Invrisil. Halrac stared at the [Actors], as Briganda alternated between star-struck and delighted. Cade was on her lap, staring at the shining [Actors].

Typhenous, ironically, was most relaxed. He was collecting signatures, talking with the group—fully immersed in the scene. He was enjoying himself as the crew introduced themselves—to legends in turn.

After all, the Siege of Liscor was a play they put on and Griffon Hunt was a part of it. Revi nearly sprayed her drink all over Cade and Briganda when she saw a young Stitch-Girl playing her! Her skin was fair, but she was nearly the spitting image of Revi!

“And here’s our Halrac! Do the face!”

A man roughly Halrac’s size and vaguely like him put on a scowl that was the exact match of the [Scout]’s. Halrac’s eyes bulged and Briganda had to put Cade on the table before she fell out of her seat with laughter.

It felt like a bit of a dream. Revi looked at the changed fortunes of the Players and was glad and amazed. But it was when they recounted what had happened to the inn that she had to stop in amazement.

The Bloodfields. Creler attacks. Erin in Pallass during the Wyvern assault. The magic garden, her fire.

“We missed so much. The Horns are Gold-rank? Yvlon’s arms are fixed?

“They killed an Adult Creler?”

Halrac just stared as Jasi and Wesle beamed. Grev was laughing at their expressions.

“We may see them. They’re bound for Invrisil. Speaking of which—the Wyvern bounty is insane. Each one is being paid out at an Adult Creler’s rate! Well, not if you add up local bounties on top of Rhir’s payment. But who put it up?”

“Magnolia Reinhart could. But do you think she would…? But we are looking forwards to the door, definitely. Actually, we’re debating linking our theatres with Liscor. Maybe sending money to Temile to build one in Liscor? Or Pallass? But we’ve invitations to go further north still. To First Landing. But we have no shortage of audiences here, so…”

As Jasi, Wesle, and some of the [Actors] were chatting about their ambitions to Halrac and Revi, Grev was introducing the cast to Briganda and Typhenous.

“We’ve got boats of people, so only the best of ‘em get to audition with us. We have multiple teams. Jasi and Wesle are in the first one, obviously. But the rest are being trained up. And we have special effects.”

“Ah, like the mist for your [Witches]. Magnificent thunder effects.”

Typhenous was nodding, delighted as he shook hands. Grev laughed.

“Yeah! You shoulda seen what we had to do before that. But we’ve got a top-level illusionist. Wait, he’s a [Magician]. Eltistiman! Come and meet—”

Typhenous was smiling and looking around when he heard the name. And the [Magician], who had a drink in one hand, was turning to meet the people the Players were excited about.

The younger [Magician], his robes flamboyant and colorful, locked eyes with the older [Mage]. Eltistiman dropped his mug. Typhenous recoiled.

One went for his wand, the other reached for his staff and dagger. Eltistiman pointed, faster on the draw.

You!

The Players turned. The [Magician]’s wand was glowing, aimed at Typhenous’ face. The old [Mage] froze, hand on his staff.

“What’s going on? Eltistiman?”

Jasi turned her head, alarmed.

“Oh, mothballs—

Revi choked on her food. She remembered the name, too late. The [Magician] that Typhenous had said—the one who’d been there to stop the door from being—and Typhenous had—

“I know this [Mage]. Jasi, Wesle. We have a—history.”

Eltistiman’s wand never moved. Halrac was frozen—a hand on his invisible bow. He could draw and loose in a second—but Eltistiman had the wand aimed at Typhenous.

“Stop that! They’re guests! I don’t know what went down, but lower the wand!”

Emme barked. Eltistiman hesitated. He looked around at the Players of Celum, his friends, and slowly, he did lower the wand. Revi breathed.

“What happened? Eltistiman’s been a part of our troupe for a while now. He helped us—is there some past between you and him?”

Wesle looked at Typhenous, concerned. The older [Mage] was breathing slowly, watching Eltistiman warily.

“We—have had our incidents. I’m sorry. Perhaps we should discuss it? Civilly?”

He looked at Eltistiman, and the [Magician] nodded.

“Civilly. We’re both quits, anyways—it was a scene, Wesle. No hard feelings…”

He stared at Typhenous. And Revi sensed that hidden undercurrent of the street. Typhenous nodded.

“Let’s talk.”

He stood up. The Players watched the two walk over to a table. The air blurred around them and sound vanished. Revi looked around. She met Halrac’s gaze. The [Scout] was frowning again.

“What do you think…?”

“I don’t know. But I think we might be entangled again. Damn.

The [Veteran Scout] drained his drink. Cade nodded solemnly. Briganda sighed.

“It’s never a dull moment. Catch me up. What’re we in for now?

 

—-

 

“Never thought to see you here. Frankly, I’d as soon have kicked you in the ribs, but I’m with the Players of Celum now. So I suppose we can let it lie. You didn’t let them slit my throat.”

Eltistiman eyed Typhenous as the two sat together. Both were…calm. Wary, but not tense. They knew the score. They were both—faces. And they spoke with the same understanding that the Players and Griffon Hunt did. That of people with a shared background.

“I did convince them to leave you. The Sisters weren’t amenable to it, but the Brothers…”

“Dead gods, both of them? Maybe you saved me from a fight.”

Eltistiman grimaced. He took another drink and looked at Typhenous. The old [Mage] nodded carefully.

“You escaped without incident?”

A shrug.

“I woke up in the basement and walked out, invisible, of course. The Flower Lady wasn’t happy, but she understood. It was still a black mark—but I found the Players of Celum. And the door never got stolen. So—let’s call it quits.”

Typhenous relaxed a bit. Words had meaning and a promise, even one not bound by magic or blood, carried weight. He nodded.

“You have my apologies.”

“Frankly, I should have checked the door. That was an amateur’s mistake. But yes. Good job on your victory.”

The [Magician] glowered. But he sighed.

“Still—two big gangs lost some members that night. I feel…I don’t want to ask, because I know you won’t give it to me straight.”

“I’d prefer that.”

Typhenous kept his face straight. And he was wary. Eltistiman nodded.

“I don’t want to know. But…people have been asking questions, you understand? A [Nightstalker] and her guard visited me. And an [Enforcer]. They asked questions on behalf of their people.”

The Plague Mage…paused. He slowly raised his mug.

“And?”

“I told them what I knew. But they’re not happy. Maybe it was an accident. But I think you’ve got some debts to pay. And if you stick around in Invrisil—well, you’re here, but people saw you in the Solstice Booth. And they heard Wesle saying Griffon Hunt. They know you’re here. Neither one’ll intrude because the Players are here and because this is Reinhart’s territory, but…”

Typhenous saw Eltistiman raise his brows. The [Mage] nodded slowly.

“I have debts. And explanations. I will pay both.”

“You’d better hope they’re accepted. Because the Sisters are irked. The Brothers—might get it. But watch your back. You’re playing a game with more costs than rewards. And for a face as old as yours, it’s odd to see.”

The old man hunched his shoulders at the booth. Typhenous looked up at Eltistiman. The Plague Mage smiled, wearily.

“Perhaps. But some things are worth more gold than you can count. I’m with my team, Eltistiman. And it is my team I owe. If I have debts, I will settle them and not involve them.”

“As you like. Let’s go tell the flatfoots we’re square. But for Grev, they’re good, upstanding folk.”

Typhenous had to smile at that.

“So are my people.”

 

—-

 

That night, after Eltistiman and Typhenous rejoined the party, everyone was celebrating. Revi relaxed as Typhenous gave his team the all-clear. They’d discuss it, but Eltistiman wasn’t holding a grudge.

For now, relax. Marvel, and enjoy meeting old friends. New strangers. The stars glowed in the sky and they glowed brighter in the inn, with the Players of Celum. And Griffon Hunt was rubbing shoulders with Invrisil’s most famous.

So famous, in fact, that even a Courier could barely get a spot at their inn. Lacel the Leaper, eating in a corner of the inn, nearly died when he saw Griffon Hunt eating in the center with the Players of Celum.

“You—you were able to reserve a spot at the inn too?”

The Courier, star of the saga with Lady Whatsherface and Lord Whomever stared weakly at Griffon Hunt. Revi blew a mocking kiss at him.

“How’s the run going?”

“I’m going to be travelling far tomorrow. It’s a risky run, but you know how it is…”

The Courier stared as Jasi listened to the entire thing with Lady Hetessana and Lord Bein. And he had a definite…sense of inferiority.

“I think I’ll retire early.”

He stood, and went up to his rooms—not the biggest suite in the inn—annoyed. Miffed. But the Courier did have a job to do, and so he went to his rooms.

He felt unusually tired. He’d had to deal with two [Thieves] trying to go for his bag of holding earlier today. It was an inconvenient request, for all Lady Hetessana was willing to pay. But he’d get the damn pendant there, or he wasn’t Lacel the Leaper…

The Courier practically fell into bed, clothes on. He was tired. He rolled himself into his sheets as, below, the Players of Celum and Griffon Hunt celebrated and talked.

The Courier was dozing, aware something was…off…when the door opened. He opened his eyes, wary, but exhausted. And he saw a figure slip into the room.

“No. How did you…”

Lacel the Leaper, Courier, tried to raise his head. But the sleeping draught was in full effect. He looked up—

And the [Bartender] smiled. Not Typhenous. Or Eltistiman. Just the [Bartender] no one stared twice at in the inn. She reached up and carefully adjusted her mask. She took it off and the artifact which had allowed her to mimic the actual [Bartender]’s face vanished.

“The Guild has a contract on your head, Lacel the Leaper. But don’t worry.”

“Please—”

The Courier tried to reach for any of his items. He was supposed to be safe here! But this wasn’t a regular gang member or [Thief]. How’d she infiltrate such an upstanding inn?

Wait. The Guild. The Courier looked up. And the [Assassin] bent.

“Don’t worry. It’s not your life we want. It’s a message. Magnolia Reinhardt holds no sway over us any longer. So—apologies. But consider this advertising.”

She carefully put a gag over the Courier’s mouth. He tried to scream, but the [Assassin]’s gag was enchanted. She reached into a bag of holding and pulled out…

A hammer. She adjusted Lacel on the bed.

“It’s not just about the pendant. I’m not taking it. When they find you—you can tell them it was the Guild. In fact, we’d prefer it. And the next day? You’ll send Lord Bein the pendant of your own will. Your run ends here. But don’t worry—we’ll make sure this isn’t permanent. Sorry, again. This may hurt.”

He stared as she took aim at his legs. And raised the hammer and brought it down.

 

—-

 

“Pst. Eltistiman. Did you see that?”

Typhenous paused in his drink. He was unsteady on his feet, but he had seen the [Bartender] move. And old you might be, but stupid or unobservant people didn’t get old.

“I saw it. You think it’s a face?”

“Can’t be. Grev tells me the Players are beloved in Invrisil by gangs. It would be unwise. An outsider, maybe.”

“Should we check?”

“Mm. Let’s. Halrac.”

The [Scout] looked up. Typhenous pointed.

“There’s a situation.”

The man’s good mood vanished again. Halrac growled.

“If this is another cause of—”

“Don’t be stupid. This is me seeing something. Get the team ready. Someone’s going after Lacel the Leaper.”

The leader of Griffon Hunt stiffened. He grabbed Briganda and Revi. They followed Typhenous and Eltistiman up the stairs, silently.

“Stay behind us. If it’s one of the street, she’ll be fast and good at close-quarters fighting. Maybe a poison expert. What do you think? Ward spells and immobilization?”

Typhenous cautioned the others, none of whom were good at extremely close-quarters fights. Eltistiman nodded.

“There are two of us—plus your team. Let’s go in first. Talk—then cast. Ward spells on us.”

“Thanks for the confidence. Who is it?”

“We don’t know. Someone pursuing the bounty. Now—[Muffle]. And…”

Lacel’s room wasn’t hard to find. The two [Mages] moved in front, and approached the door. Halrac pointed at himself and Briganda, but Typhenous shook his head. He motioned to Eltistiman. The younger man nodded, pushed the door open.

Stop.

The [Assassin] was waiting for them. She aimed a crossbow at them as the two [Mages] aimed at her with staff and wand. She stood by the open window; they’d caught her just as she was leaving.

Lacel the Leaper lay in the bed. His eyes were bulging but he made no sound behind the cloth wrapped around his face. He was secured to the bed. And a blanket was covering his legs…

It was stained with red. Revi stared. She aimed her wand at the woman.

“Who are you!?”

“Don’t move!”

Halrac aimed his bow at her chest. The woman made a tsking sound. She had a mask on her face, concealing her identity.

“I don’t know if you’re a face, but this is the Player of Celum’s inn. This was unwise. Drop it. And if you go through the window—we’ll catch you.”

Eltistiman’s eyes flashed. His wand was glowing, aimed at her. The woman paused.

“I’m no face. And if I were you, I’d pretend you didn’t see me. Well done on spotting me.”

“And we should just let you go?”

“His legs!”

Revi stared at Lacel in horror. Briganda’s hatchet was raised. She looked at Typhenous and Eltistiman. The woman sighed behind her mask.

“I’m sure you could stop me. But—look. This is whom I represent. We’re not abiding by Reinhart’s laws.”

She traced a sigil in the air. It glowed darkly, with black light. Revi didn’t recognize it. But Typhenous and Eltistiman did. They inhaled sharply. And both instantly lowered their weapons.

“The Guild. Halrac, don’t shoot her. You too, Revi.”

Typhenous murmured. The female [Assassin] nodded.

“This is a public statement. No hard feelings. I love the plays. I’d ask for an autograph, but something tells me I’m not welcome. If that’s all—”

She leapt out the window. Halrac swore, but Eltistiman and Typhenous blocked him. The [Scout] rushed to the window, but the woman was gone.

“Typhenous!”

“Hm. Legs are well and truly broken. This is definitely a message. He’s even got his bag of holding, see? Still locked.”

The Plague Mage wearily walked over to inspect Lacel. The Courier was shaking in his bindings. Eltistiman rubbed at his face.

“Yes. Dead gods, I’ll have to tell Emme and the others. They’re in danger. Not that many hate them, but if Reinhart really has lost control over the Guild—I wouldn’t want to be a Runner. She’s kept them off the Runner’s Guild, but this? A Courier?”

He gestured at Lacel. Halrac shouted.

Typhenous! Who was that?”

“It was the Assassin’s Guild, Halrac. They accepted the bounty on Lacel. No—they did this just to prove they’re willing to accept contracts on Runners, now. And that they’ll operate in Invrisil. We just walked into a massive incident.”

Typhenous sat in a chair. Halrac and Revi and Briganda stared at him. The [Shield Maiden] paled. She looked towards the door, where Cade was slumbering, having fallen asleep early in the night.

“The Assassin’s…?”

“You don’t want to cross them. They have many members. And—well, they used to be under Magnolia Reinhart’s control, or at least, she dictated who they didn’t go after. No longer. I heard rumors…”

The two [Mages] were conferring. Revi just looked at Lacel the Leaper.

A message. She reached for his gag. The Courier inhaled as Revi removed the enchanted cloth. And then he began to scream.

 

—-

 

A real drama took place in the Player’s inn that night. The infallibility of Couriers and Magnolia Reinhart’s will was questioned. The [Actors] and staff gathered to see Lacel being brought out of the inn to a [Healer], screaming. He still had the pendant. But his legs were broken and words raced through the city like fire. Dark, frightening flames, like whispers.

The Guild of Assassins. And Magnolia Reinhart’s power was questioned yet again.

That was not the only news that put a dampener on the night. Halrac sat in the inn, drinking with the worried people around him. Now, the [Actors] weren’t stars, just ordinary people. And the Gold-rank adventurer was the one who thought about the [Assassin]. The one who could fight.

But even Gold-ranks didn’t cross the Guild of Assassins. Halrac drank, and glowered. And he had worse news. His face went still as his team sat with him. Briganda was soothing Cade as she talked. He was upset by the screaming and what he hadn’t understood. The mood of the adults. He was falling asleep thanks to a sleeping tincture, very mild.

“I’m sorry, Halrac. I kept an ear out. I did—but it was way back. I thought you might have heard…”

“I don’t get—word from there often. It’s been a long time since I was there. When was it?”

“During the Goblin Lord’s attacks. It was raids from the mountain that did it. I’m sorry. Windrest is gone.”

“That’s where you grew up, wasn’t it, Halrac?”

Revi looked at the [Veteran Scout]. His face was still.

“Yes. It’s a small village. If the Goblins were raiding…they’d have been unable to hire enough adventurers to fight them off.”

“It was fast. I heard most escaped. But there was that, and the fires. They say Drakes started them. That’s the rumor I heard. Even if you’d been at Invrisil and heard about it, you probably wouldn’t have reached them in time.”

Briganda looked at Halrac. His face never moved.

“I know that. The survivors. Where are they? Are there any…?”

He paused. Briganda nodded quickly.

“I think a lot of them did live. Halrac, they’re all at Riverfarm.”

“Riverfarm?”

The man stirred. He blinked at Briganda. She nodded.

“Apparently, they all joined the Unseen Empire. That’s what they’re calling it. Some powerful noble—they say an actual [Emperor]—is there.”

“An [Emperor] in Izril? Get out of here.”

Revi snorted. But softly. Briganda shook her head.

“That’s all I heard, Revi. Halrac, I think a lot of Windrest is there. Riverfarm was hit by the Goblins and the fires too, but—they did better than any other area. There was a plague in the Radivaek lands. But…”

“I see.”

“It’s not far to there. We could check on them.”

Revi suggested. Halrac paused.

“I’ll—send a [Message] first. I know someone from the village. Master Helm—the [Blacksmith] and [Village Head]. If he’s alive…but we have careers.”

This was an adventuring team. Everyone nodded, but—family also came first. Home too. Revi didn’t have any stakes in Izril, but if they’d been in Chandrar? Well, she wouldn’t have asked her team to fight in a war.

Even so.

“You know, there was that interesting job request from Riverfarm. I can find it. I thought it was funny—it was that one that didn’t offer anything but pittance and deferred payment. Hold on.”

Briganda put Cade in Revi’s arms. The Stitch-Woman stared at the boy, curled up, as Briganda got up and looked about. Halrac was just sitting there.

“I think most of them got out, Halrac.”

“Yeah. Thanks for telling me.”

That was all the [Scout] said. And as Revi tried to rock Cade, unsure of what to do, she felt it.

The Players of Celum. Invrisil. The door, coming soon. The Assassin’s Guild on the rise. Riverfarm. A day of fun and relaxation and sudden worry and shock—

Halted. And ceased to matter. Because the adventurers felt it.

Something, running through the city. A chill on Revi’s cloth-skin. She stopped, as Cade yawned. And Halrac and Briganda shot up.

[Dangersense].

They chorused as one. The Players of Celum looked up as the adventurers shot out of their seats. Eltistiman grabbed his wand, covering the door. Halrac swung his bow up as Revi put Cade on the table.

“Summons out, Revi—”

“More [Assassins]?”

“No. It’s distant. Something’s—”

A bell began to toll. Everyone in the inn looked up.

“That’s a city-wide alarm. The Watch has felt it.”

Eltistiman breathed. Halrac looked around.

“Jasi! Wesle, take care of Cade.”

“Got it. What are you—”

Griffon Hunt, with me!

Halrac ran out of the door. The three adventurers ran after him. Eltistiman stayed with the Players. And Revi looked around.

“Get to the walls! Find the Watch!”

The adventurers ran as everyone else shouted, or panicked or ran for what they thought was safety. But Gold-ranks ran into fire. They saw more adventurers in the streets. Some, Silver-ranks, were hesitating. But Gold-ranks?

The Glitterblades raced out of the Adventurer’s Guild late into the night. They pointed.

That way!

Someone was blowing a horn, signaling the area the danger was coming from. Adventurers ran. They passed by the Watch. And Invrisil had a large Watch, well-armed. Not the kind that fought with the criminal underworld, though.

And not prepared..

For this. Revi climbed the eastern walls and stopped. She stared. And Halrac’s [Dangersense]—Briganda’s—no wonder it had gone off.

Her stitches moved. Her cloth-skin crawled. Revi looked up. And she beheld the shadow walking towards Invrisil. A vast thing. A giant.

“Dead gods. What is that?

Someone breathed. The adventurers looked at each other.

“It’s a giant. An actual Giant or—I can’t see! Halrac!”

They turned to him. The [Scout] was aiming his bow, staring through the darkness.

“It’s some kind of Golem. It’s—made of—flesh.

Everyone turned to him. And then they stared up at the thing. It had to be at least fifty feet tall. Taller than even the half-Giants. Revi’s skin was crawling.

“Flesh?”

“I see—faces.”

Halrac drew an arrow and loosed it. The invisible missile sped through the air. Revi saw it detonate.

A flash of flame. From afar, the giant golem appeared. It was made of…flesh. A giant, humanoid figure, walking slowly. Huge stitch-marks were visible. But from afar, Revi could see hair. Arms—what had been bodies. And yes, staring faces.

“The Blighted Kingdom preserve us. What is that? Who made it?”

The thing lumbered at the city. For one purpose. Briganda whispered. Halrac loosed another arrow. Another magical arrowhead exploded.

The thing didn’t even stagger. It just walked through the fire that scorched it. A monster made of—

Bring it down! As Watch Captain, I am ordering you to join the fight!

A man was bellowing at the Adventurers. People were blowing horns and the Watch was aiming longbows, wands. But the giant creation was impossibly big. The Gold-rank teams looked at each other. They beheld a monstrosity. So they did what adventurers do.

 

—-

 

Griffon Hunt, forwards!

Halrac bellowed. His team raced out of Invrisil’s gates, staring up at the huge Flesh Golem. Revi’s glowing warriors raced past her, without fear. But the [Summoner] was afraid.

This wasn’t a Gold-rank threat. It was massive. It could step over the walls and destroy the city if it wasn’t stopped. Her team couldn’t hope to halt it alone; even at full-strength they would have balked at a fight like this.

But they were not alone. More voices bellowed.

Elites, get fucking ready for a fight! On me!

Todi strode forwards with his team. Jewel and the Glitterblades raced left.

“We’re flanking it!”

[Chain Lightning] outgoing! Brace!

Someone howled from the walls. The adventurers racing below, especially those in armor, ducked. And lightning lit up the night. A Gold-rank team of [Mages] threw lightning and then fire, blasting at the giant colossus.

“Set up a firing spot here! Wailbows, with me—”

Don’t get near the feet! It’ll crush you!

“I’m setting up barriers at the gates—cover me—”

Hundreds of adventurers. Gold-rank teams, and Silver-rank teams streamed out the gates. It was like the battle against Crelers. But on a larger scale.

This was the City of Adventurers, Invrisil. And the adventurers lit up the night.

“With me. We’re attacking it from the side.”

Halrac ordered his team left. He drew and loosed in a single motion.

“[Piercing Shot].”

His arrow embedded itself in the flesh-giant’s side, detonated. A bloom of light tore a chunk out of its body. But it was—solid. And it wasn’t a living thing. It stopped, swiping down at the adventurers racing around it. But they dodged.

“It’s got no mobility!”

“It’s solid the entire way through, though! We have to stop it before it gets to the city!”

Revi and Briganda shouted at each other. The colossus’ target was the city; it only attacked those around it, and it kept walking, slowly, crushing ground and everything else in its way.

“Typhenous, use [Valmira’s Comets]. Revi—advance! Send your summoned warriors forwards!”

Revi pointed. Her glowing warriors ran forwards, slashing at the giant’s legs, dodging back. Briganda stared up as Halrac loosed another arrow.

“Engage the legs! Don’t block each other!”

A Gold-rank warrior with an axe cleaved through hardened flesh. But the Golem didn’t even react. Revi shot a bolt of fire and watched it scorch flesh, but—it was so big.

“It’s not going down! It’s—”

Take down the legs!

Halrac bellowed at the other teams lighting up the skies with spells. Some heard him and began aiming lower, but there were adventurers in the way.

Comet outgoing! Dodge!

Typhenous shouted. Adventurers dodged out of the way as a glowing meteor hit the giant in the left leg. It—paused. But that was all. It bent, aiming a fist at Typhenous.

Get out of there!

Revi and Briganda grabbed Typhenous. They fled and the fist shook the ground as it landed. No one could have blocked it. Jewel raced up the arm, copying the famous King of Duels. She began hacking at the head. But this was no half-Giant.

“We have to take it down. Take it to pieces! Use an acid-jar!”

“There’s not enough acid in the world for that thing!”

Griffon Hunt was loosing spells and arrows. Jewel looked up as more spells hit the giant’s head. She jumped, and her fall slowed before she hit the ground.

Watch your fire!

“Don’t climb up on the damn thing! Let’s bring it down. Backwards! Elites, aim with me! [Marked Target]!

A voice from the left. Revi saw a familiar man. Todi aimed a wand, coolly, with Todi’s Elites. He pointed.

[Fireball].”

Six fireballs shot from the wands. They exploded as one. The flesh giant felt that. It stumbled. Lurching. Part of its leg was destroyed. Todi roared, and his voice was louder than the rest.

Aim for the fucking left leg you worthless pieces of shit! Bring it down!

The other adventurers heard him. All of them changed their focus. And the flesh-giant seemed to realize the threat for once.

It moved towards Todi’s team. The Elites launched another volley of [Fireballs] and it stumbled, but it swung an arm down. Horizontally—you couldn’t dodge that and only Lacel could have leapt over it! Three teams screamed as they were hit—Revi saw a man go under, crushed by the arm—

Get clear!

Griffon Hunt had seen the motion and had already moved out of range. Revi spun and shouted at Todi. But his team launched a third set of [Fireballs]. Todi watched the arm sweeping at him.

“Mass-teleport on my mark.”

He paused. The arm swung, like oblivion, crashing through magical walls, obliterating tripvines. Todi nodded.

“Mark.”

Revi saw his team vanish. They reappeared behind the giant. Todi pointed.

“Volley. Bring the damn thing down.

More fire. The flesh-giant hunted for the next victim. It put its foot down, crushing a ground slick with oil or something greasy.

Don’t try to make it slip you idiots! It’s too heavy!

Revi howled. She and the other [Mages] were firing. The melee warriors, the brave ones who’d stuck around after the sweep, shouted.

The leg’s going! Get clear!

The Flesh Golem stumbled as more explosions tore away it’s body. It fell, one leg snapping. It hit the earth and Revi felt the ground quake. She saw the giant trying to stand. And then sweeping its legs.

Get around it! Hack it to pieces!

The adventurers swarmed it. Silver-ranks fought shoulder to shoulder with Golds, ducking out of the way as big spells hit the giant. Briganda blocked a slow punch, saving a bunch of Silver-rank [Mages] who’d frozen at the blow. Halrac blew off a finger with Typhenous’ help.

The walls of Invrisil were filled with adventurers, throwing spells and arrows. The Watch helped, but their arrows were actually more hindrance than not. It did nothing to the giant, and Todi began roaring expletives when the arrows hit one of the adventurers fighting.

They ceased. And the giant kept trying to crawl, kept trying to attack the adventurers. But it was outnumbered by far. And it did not die. It was not alive. Nor would it stop moving until it was completely destroyed.

So that is what they did. Piece by piece, the adventurers vaporized the giant, made of flesh and skin. They hacked it to bits, burnt everything to ash. Until all that remained was the smell and memory.

It was not a battle of heroics. Of desperate last measures and levels. Revi was panting, her clothes and armor smelling of burnt flesh. Nauseating, and almost partially appealing, which was worse.

“What—what was that?”

“A monster.”

Halrac’s voice was raw from shouting orders. He stared at the last bloom of fire in the darkness.

“Fucking useless. If we weren’t here, it’d have smashed the city up, but it wouldn’t have gotten there in a million tries with us. What the hell—did someone make that? It was flesh. Where did it come from?”

Todi spat, looking shaken. The other adventurers conferred. Now the blood wasn’t rushing in her ears, Revi could hear more than Halrac and the other adventurer’s words. She leaned on Briganda.

“There were people in it. It was sewn.

“Children. Families. It came from the east. But—no one reported it until just now. But there were villages…”

The adventurers looked at each other. They stared at what remained.

Bits of skin, like fabric. Black thread, lying amid the ash, unwilling to be burned. The Watch stared. Some—people who had not seen worse, adventurers and guards, vomited.

The smell. The sight. Revi had seen worse things. But not—recently. She looked at her team.

Who did this?

She was shaking. And she was not the only one. Jewel was looking at a scrap of…Revi looked away. The adventurers all wanted to know.

“It came from the east. Can anyone raise a [Message] to any of the villages? Anyone?”

The Watch Captain was asking questions, staring. He looked over the walls, the way the thing had come.

East. Dozens of adventuring teams looked at each other.

“Someone made that. I saw the stitch-marks. Let’s get a posse. Any Gold-rank teams. Where’s Arcsinger’s team? Let’s find whoever made that thing! Anyone with me?”

Todi shouted. Instantly, dozens of teams volunteered. The adventurers were shaken. But exhausted? Their horror kept them moving.

“Hold on, we have to wait. Let’s figure out what the hell that was—”

“Damn waiting. Let’s figure it out! Anyone with tracking Skills take the lead! [Scouts] forwards!”

Todi was enraged. He was organizing the teams. He was good at it. Halrac pushed forwards.

“Todi, wait. I’m going to investigate that—”

“With who? I’m finding whatever the fuck made that and putting my fist through its face. We’ve got more Gold-ranks than I can count! Come on!”

The man shook Halrac off. The [Scout] was arguing—and then he stomped away.

“What the hell was that? In the name of Rhir—do they have things like that?”

Revi was still panting. Her cloth felt ill from that. As if something was wriggling in her stitches.

“We have to find out what that was. Where’s the Adventurer’s Guild people?”

They were on the walls, of course. Half of Invrisil was gathered at the gates, staring in horror at what they had seen. It was a mercy the giant had died outside the walls. They asked the adventurers who were coming back what they had seen.

Better not to know. The teams going each moved out, most on horseback. Halrac cursed.

Where’s the Guildmaster?

“He’s talking with Adventurer Arcsinger. She’s not joining the hunt—”

“Did she even participate? I didn’t see a powerful blow.”

Revi frowned. She’d expected the Named-rank to have been more obvious. But perhaps she’d missed it? Halrac saw the Guildmaster talking urgently and cursed.

Find me a [Historian] or [Naturalist] or someone with a bestiary! Now!

The crowds parted. One of the Adventurer’s Guild staff hurried forwards.

“Here. Adventurer Everam—”

“What was that?”

The man with the Adventurer’s Guild copy of the bestiary hesitated. He held the pages open.

“It—looked like a Flesh Golem. A variant, at least. But the scale of it—”

“Do you have any information on what could make that? How it exists?”

“No, Adventurer—but—”

Halrac pushed him aside. The [Scout] whirled.

Damn.

“Are we going with Todi, Halrac? We can catch up. We’re not letting whatever made that slide, right? If it was a [Necromancer] or…”

Revi was shuddering. She wanted to take out her eyes and nose. But she couldn’t remove her brain, the memory of it. Halrac paused.

“We lack information. Whatever made that had to be Level 40 at the minimum. Level 50—if it was a monster of some kind, a spell?”

He paused.

“Hold on. We have another source of information. Typhenous. Cast a spell.”

“Which one?”

The old [Mage] was panting, sipping from a mana potion. Halrac paused.

“Send it to Terandria. The Hunter’s Guild.”

Typhenous paused.

“I don’t know their location. I’d have to look it up—”

Instantly, Halrac and Briganda turned.

[Mage]! We need a message-[Mage] now! Mage’s Guild!

It took them only a moment to get one of the [Mages] normally on duty. The man was frazzled, panting; he’d participated in the battle.

“Adventurers, what can I do for—”

Halrac interrupted him.

“Halrac Everam. Griffon Hunt. To Terandria’s Guild of Hunters. Kingdom of Shade. I don’t remember the name. I need to send a [Message] now, asking for information.”

“Er…Noelictus?”

Halrac looked at Briganda. She nodded.

“Noelictus. Send it to their people. Top priority! They have a [Mage] who can receive. Tell them we need to know what that was. Ask for Cassielle.”

“I’d have to run that by the Guildmaster if it’s top priority—”

The man hesitated. Halrac grabbed him.

Do it now.

The [Scout] never shouted, normally. Or raised his voice or changed expression. The [Mage] stared at Halrac the Grim and raised a finger to his temple.

“I have them. One moment. Sending details. Please speak a description of the monster.”

The adventurers spoke over each other.

“Giant—made of flesh—”

“I detected magic from the stitches, which refused to burn—”

Faces. It was made of faces and arms—someone took apart people and stitched—”

“Fifty feet tall. Solid flesh interior. Enchantment didn’t break until it was nearly completely destroyed.”

The [Mage] tried to send it all. He closed his eyes, reaching for a piece of paper. Revi saw him pause. And his voice became flat, inflectionless.

“Response incoming. Priority to Halrac Everam.”

He wrote, mechanically, on the piece of paper. And then he unfocused. The man slowly handed the paper to Halrac. Revi crowded around with her team. They read. Revi felt her stitches grow cold. The message was short. And it read as followed:

 

Flesh-Giant confirmed as work of Belavierr, [Stitch Witch]. Aliases—the Spider, the Weaver of Terandria. Threadstealer. Max bounty in excess of 60,000 gold pieces. Named-rank threat. Currently not advised to pursue.

 

And below that, another message, more personal.

 

She killed a team of elite [Hunters] and a [Knight]. Equivalent to a Named Adventurer and a Named-rank team. Stay away from her.

–Cassielle

 

“The Stitch-Witch?”

Revi felt her threads moving. The name sounded familiar. But…she looked up.

“A Named-rank threat? She killed…”

Briganda paled. She looked at Typhenous. The [Mage] had gone dead white. He looked at his team.

“I’ve heard of Threadstealer. Whispers. I’d rather cross the Assassin’s Guild than her.”

Griffon Hunt looked around. And it was on their leader that they settled. Halrac looked at the note. He silently handed it back to the [Mage].

“Give this to Guildmaster Tealve. Now. I don’t care who he’s talking to. Give this to him. And tell him the adventurers are in pursuit of the Stitch Witch.”

“Yes, Adventurer—”

Halrac pushed him. The [Mage] turned and ran. Halrac turned. He checked his quiver.

“Briganda, get us three horses. You’re not coming.”

“Halrac!”

The woman exclaimed. Revi started. She looked at Halrac.

“We’re going?”

The man looked at her.

“Todi’s headed straight for her. We have to stop him and the teams who went with them. There are at least eight Gold-rank team’s worth and many Silver-ranks. Briganda, the horses. Move.

Revi turned to the east. Where no one had raised the alarm over the flesh-giant. And she heard it in Halrac’s voice. They weren’t going to reinforce the other teams.

They were going to prevent a slaughter. Griffon Hunt found four horses waiting for them. They leapt into the saddles and raced out of the city gates, east, pursuing the adventurers who’d rushed to find the perpetrator of this monstrosity.

Briganda refused to stay back. And there was no time to argue. They galloped their horses, as [Messages] were sent, ordering Todi and the others to retreat. But Griffon Hunt went in person. Hoping to catch the other adventurers.

They arrived too late.

 

—-

 

In a lonely village stood a woman. She was tall. And her clothes were dark blue, almost black. Like the abyssal depths of the deepest seas. Her hat was pointed. And her eyes were orange, ringed.

She stood still. Like a statue. In the darkest hour before dawn.

The witching hour. Belavierr, the Stitch Witch, didn’t move as the adventurers found her.

In wrath and vengeance. Righteous fury. They surrounded the village. Saw her standing there.

The houses were empty. Not a light flickered in the windows. And no one lived in this village. They should have. It was close to Invrisil.

But it had been emptied. Now, the Stitch Witch waited. She ignored the man roaring his furious questions at her. The adventurers shouting. Her gaze was absent. Far away. The shadows crawled around her, on her dress. And the fury of the adventurers turned cold. They felt a chill that had nothing to do with the warm air.

“Did you do this?”

Todi didn’t know why his voice was shaking. He didn’t hear Griffon Hunt, racing towards the village, shouting at him. The woman in the black dress, the [Witch], seemed to hear at last.

Her head turned. It twisted. She looked at him sideways, and her eyes shone. The rings seemed to draw him in. Todi’s mouth went dry.

“I said—put up your hands. You’re surrounded.”

Multiple teams of adventurers stared at the woman. They hesitated.

“Todi—my [Dangersense] is screaming. It wasn’t going off a second ago. Now it’s—”

One of his teammates whispered. She had gone white. Todi realized the truth. Too late. The [Witch] slowly took a step forwards. The air…groaned. The shadows seemed to nip at the adventurer’s heels.

And the [Witch] whispered.

“Yes.”

Just that word. Nothing more. The mortal adventurers stared at her. They searched for the fury they had felt a second ago. But it was extinguished. Slowly, Todi aimed his wand at Belavierr’s face. He saw her lips move, into a wide smile.

The adventurers attacked as one as Griffon Hunt raced into the village. Revi saw arrows flying at the figure. Jewel unsheathed her blade and charged.

“[Fireball].”

Six fireballs flew at Belavierr. The [Witch] turned. She walked through the waves of spells and arrows. And a needle appeared in her hands.

The arrows turned in the air. The fletching screamed and the arrows flickered back to their owners. Screams. Jewel stared. The Stitch-Witch was gone. She had walked in a single step—

There. To the side. Jewel tried to move. And then she realized she couldn’t. She struggled. Little threads were binding her. Her arms slowly moved, back, back.

Snap. Belavierr listened to the scream. She turned. And the [Fireballs] hovered in midair. Todi’s Elites stared as their magic halted. The Stitch Witch tilted her head right and left. And then—Revi saw her reach out and pluck a strand of fire from the first glowing spell.

The fireballs, swirling masses of fire, moved. They became strands of fire. Weaving together, becoming a tangled orb of fire. Belavierr looked at it. And then she pointed.

Teleport!

Todi’s team vanished. The fireball detonated. And the fire—

The flash and heat kicked Revi, even a hundred feet distant. She landed on her back as her horse reared, throwing her. She heard screams. Halrac’s voice.

Retreat! Fall back!

Adventurers were screaming. In a second, dozens had been downed. The arrows, the string webs around Belavierr that snapped limbs like twigs—

And the needles. They flashed through the air.

Behind me! [Shield Wall]!

Briganda threw up her buckler. Revi saw her shield glow—a hail of needles snapped as they hit the barrier. Briganda grunted.

“Halrac—”

“Cover me, Typhenous.”

“I’ll try.”

The [Mage] raised his staff as Halrac drew an arrow. Belavierr turned her head as the [Mage] threw an orb at her, a glowing violet ball of energy. She lifted the needle in her hand.

Revi saw the magical ball of power vanish. Typhenous turned pale.

“How…?”

“[Mages] weave magic carelessly. Look. I see a cloth-child.”

Belavierr’s voice was deep. Quiet. Absent. But then she refocused. And she was looking at Revi.

“[Piercing Shot]. [Double Shot].”

Halrac loosed. Two arrows flew. Belavierr lifted her hand. They snapped in midair, as the fletching moved.

“How did she—”

“String. Stitches.”

Briganda breathed. Revi lifted her wand, reaching for a summoning stone. Her wand pointed at Belavierr’s chest. And then moved down. Revi stared at her arm. Belavierr looked at her.

“Do you know me, child?”

“Revi, get back!”

Halrac was doing something. He raised another arrow to his string. Typhenous was trying to conjure another spell. But something was wrong.

“I can’t use magic. She’s—unweaving my spells.”

“Revi—”

“I can’t move.”

The [Summoner] tried. But her strings, her cloth was—vibrating. Belavierr turned her head left and right.

“Even the String People forget me. Perhaps I have been gone too long. My daughter was right. I forget. So these are adventurers?”

She turned her head. Jewel was lying on the ground. Her arms were broken. Todi aimed a wand at her. This time a bolt of lightning shot at her, fast as thought. It curved up and gently formed a loop. It hit the man on the chest and he went flying. Alive? His amulets—

Todi!

“Spells don’t work. Nothing with cloth. We have to fight her—”

Typhenous drew his dagger. Belavierr looked at him as he lunged. He was fast—

His robes threw him into the air. Briganda swore. She dove, catching the old [Mage]. She whirled, hatchet raised—

Belavierr reached down and grabbed the [Shield Maiden]’s foot. She stood up. And threw Briganda at a wall.

The Gold-rank adventurer went through the brickwork wall. Revi stared. So did Belavierr.

“So this is Gold-rank now. Intriguing.”

Fall back! Fall back!

Someone was screaming the word. Briganda was moving weakly.

Strong—

“Get back, everyone. Typhenous, grab Revi and go.”

Adventurers were screaming, clawing at needles that stung their bodies. Some were cutting their friends free. But things were moving in the village.

Misshapen things. Golems, made of flesh. Lengths of rope, like snakes, which twined around necks and limbs.

Revi tried to summon her warriors. They were needed. They could buy time—she just had to move her hand to the pouch—

Belavierr was looking at her. The Stitch-Witch seemed fascinated by Revi.

“I have been in Terandria far too long. Tell me, girl. Do you know me?

“N—n—”

“Revi.”

Halrac was aiming at Belavierr’s chest. The Stitch-Witch ignored him. Typhenous, clutching at his ribs, grabbed Revi. Then—his robes twisted, choking him.

They were being obliterated. Revi trembled as she saw Briganda trying to sneak up on Belavierr. But her armor—it had thread in it. Belavierr flicked a finger and Briganda went flying again.

They were not prepared for this. Adventurers prepared. They shouldn’t have trusted in numbers. They should have prepared for her.

They should have brought fire. Revi shuddered. Belavierr looked at her.

“Do you know me?”

And now, the words triggered something in her head. Revi went cold. Her stitch-heart beat in her cloth chest. And her lips opened. Because the [Witch] let her.

“You. You—are you—? Are you one of the Threadmakers?

Once upon a time, someone made the Stitch-Folk. And they had won their freedom. Long ago.

Belavierr smiled and her eyes drew Revi deeper, deeper.

Close. I did not make you. But I gave your people something. And you have always remembered me. Come here. And let me see what binds you. What you are made of.”

Revi’s legs moved. The Stitch-Witch’s face filled her vision. She began walking to Belavierr. And the [Witch] reached for Revi’s strings.

Halrac loosed his arrow. Belavierr flicked a tip of a finger, dismissively. Revi heard a thunk.

An arrow appeared in Belavierr’s chest. In her heart. The [Witch] blinked. She stared at the arrow shaft.

“Ow.”

That was the most normal thing she’d said. Revi felt the control leaving her. She stumbled backwards. Typhenous gasped. Belavierr looked at Halrac, blinking. He loosed another arrow.

This time she flicked her wrist. The arrow went through her neck. The [Witch] made a sound. And Revi realized—

Halrac had stripped his arrows of the fletching. No string. The [Witch] kept moving, though. She wasn’t bleeding. She pointed and Halrac’s armor and clothes moved. He went flying into the air.

He loosed a third arrow, somehow, before he hit the ground. Belavierr staggered and looked at the arrow in her leg.

“Pain. That bow is powerful.”

That was all she said as she pulled the arrow out of her neck. Revi was dragging Typhenous backwards. The [Mage] was gasping, strangled. Briganda was backing up.

They were going to be killed. The Stitch-Witch didn’t even seem slowed by what should have been two mortal wounds. She just sewed both holes in her body shut as she ignored the arrow in her leg. Then she moved.

An arrow stopped, vibrating in her hand. The Stitch-Witch stared at it.

“Without fletching. Can you fire an arrow without?”

Halrac was standing a hundred yards distant. He was aiming at her with his invisible bow. The Stitch Witch looked around.

Adventurers were lying on the street. Few dead. Most immobilized, under assault. She nodded.

“Hm. Good.”

She peered around. Todi was running, with his team. Belavierr lifted a finger and the adventurers flew. Revi saw the distant shapes soaring up, ten feet. And then they smacked into the ground.

Like a woman playing with puppets. Belavierr just looked…interested. Her hand moved—it caught another arrow. She paused. And then—nodded. She looked at Revi.

“Witnesses.”

“Huh?”

The Stitch Witch nodded.

“Witnesses.”

She lifted her hand—and the shadows stopped moving. The things vanished into the shadows. Belavierr stepped back.

An arrow shot towards her hat. The Stitch Witch made a sound; the arrow detonated. She walked out of the explosion. Her hat and clothing harder than armor for a second. She looked at Halrac.

“Another time. Tell them what you saw.”

That was all. She turned to go. And Revi realized. It was a message. The Stitch Witch began to walk out of the village.

Stop!

Halrac shouted. The idiot was still loosing arrows. A mundane one snapped on Belavierr’s clothing. The Stitch Witch turned her head.

“Hm?”

“Why did you do this? Why?”

The Gold-ranked adventurer aimed at Belavierr’s face. She stared at the glowing arrow tip. And she tilted her head left and right.

Waiting for him to fire. Revi felt her skin crawling.

“Halrac…”

The Gold-rank adventurer hesitated. Something was flickering in Belavierr’s gaze. The disinterest, that vacant, distant, immortal look was becoming more lucid. And as she came into the world—Revi saw it.

A bit of malice. She looked at the [Veteran Scout]. He paused.

And lowered his bow. The Stitch Witch, the Spider of Terandria, nodded. She spoke one word, an answer.

“Evil.”

A word, as abstract as could be. Almost a question. She paused, looking around. And then she turned. Belavierr walked away. A shadow, flickering across the ground.

She was gone. Revi collapsed onto the ground. She felt as though her strings were cut. She looked at her team. The other adventurers, miraculously alive. Because death wasn’t the point. Only the byproduct.

All of this? An empty village? The flesh-giant? It was a [Witch] playing at evil. A symbol, a message.

A mother’s love.

 

—-

 

The adventurers. The flesh-golem. Even events now as minor as Lacel the Leaper’s crippling. It had happened, and rumors spread.

Invrisil, the City of Adventurers heard a name that night. A legend, rekindled. The spider scuttled out into the light.

Belavierr. And the Guild of Assassins was for once out-shadowed. But they had sent a message to Izril. Runners could be targeted. And the people who believed in things like ‘pillars of society’, and ‘law’, and ‘justice’ realized the truth. Such things only existed as long as the Stitch Witch decided to obey them.

But her actions were not unnoticed. Nor that of the powerful Assassin’s Guild. Gold-ranks could not stop either. But they were not the only people who opposed such things. Nor even the Hunter’s Guild, or [Knights] alone. There were others.

It had been a bad night. Magnolia Reinhart sipped from a cup of a tea. She had not slept. But the daylight felt false to her.

The shadows were long. And she tasted it, despite the sugar in her drink.

“An old monster has scuttled into my lands, Ressa. And the Assassins are making their move. Something will have to be done.”

“Yes, Lady Magnolia. Should we get brooms and dustpans?”

“Not for a spider, Ressa. Send some [Messages]. The Guild can wait. But this is one large spider. Let the Runner’s Guild handle the [Assassins] for now.”

“Surely they received the [Message].”

The [Lady], Magnolia Reinhart, sighed. She felt the dark presence on her lands. Taunting her. Contemptuous. Magnolia clenched one hand.

“I’m sure they did. But the Guild of Assassins believes too strongly in their myth. They’ve forgotten what Runners are. But Guildmistress Godfrey of First Landing has not. Leave the Runners to her. As for me?”

She paused, tapping her fingers against her teacup. Magnolia Reinhart paused for a long moment.

“Send a [Message], Ressa.”

She sighed as the [Maid] listened, and then bowed. Magnolia Reinhart turned her weary gaze to the sun. How did you slay a dark legend? The Order of Seasons had failed. The [Hunters] and adventurers likewise.

It was easy to believe they were just stories in the light. But a legend was only a story—until it appeared in front of you. Like the King of Destruction. The Necromancer. Or…her.

And here sat a woman. Magnolia Reinhart closed her eyes.

“I hate spiders.”

 

 

Author’s Note:

The second to last chapter before my break. I may be dead a bit. I did write this over two days…but I think I overreached.

As in, that was a lotta words. Some good, some I’d revise if I wasn’t posting just now. But it’s done, and you can’t turn back the clock. Unless you can and you’ve been hiding your ability to do it—I’d love that power, please.

Anyways, time travel aside, I have 1 more chapter left and I think it won’t be the hardest or longest to write…but you know me. After that, I’m taking at least a week off. Possibly two, as I had planned because I need it. I’m close to burning away, or evaporating or whatever happens. Mentally, physically.

Apparently I’ve written over 480,000 words in…less than 3 months. I don’t know if I believe that, but someone said it to me. That’s a lotta words. Is that true? It can’t be true, right? Right?

Anyways, a break is in order, but for now, feast your eyes on some art! There is so much in #fanworks in the Discord right now, and I can’t feature it all, but I’m going to showcase Golems today, done by FlauscheSoeckchen, the same artist as last chapter’s Frostmarrow Behemoth. They are amazingly well-done and the Flesh Golem is accurately horrifying. Second, great art by Chalyon! I love Mrsha and Pisces’ accurate sleep deprivation the most.

These are but two of the artists, and I’ll try to feature two more per chapter until I run out of art! I’m always amazed at how good they are, and this is one of the reasons I write so much. Thanks for supporting the story, and look forwards to my break! I mean, I am. One more chapter! Thanks for reading!

 

…The ‘R’ stands for GRiffon Hunt. And for Revi. I dunno, but ‘G’ is taken.

 

Golems by FlauscheSoeckchen

 

Characters by Chalyon

 

 


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7.14 T

How…disgusting.

All of it. That was their only thought. Profound, absolute disgust. At all of it that happened.

Before. And presumably after.

This world deserved to burn. It was filled with useless, worthless, squishy things. And they did squishy, stupid things.

Let it vanish. Let all things end. But wishes…they never came true.

There was only suffering. The eternal cycle. And hell was a place. All you could do was wait, suffer, try—

And wait for failure so it could happen again.

He was a worthless thing. He’d failed at everything he’d done. His duties and even rebellion. He couldn’t even die—

Toren had no sensations. Not even sight. He floated in oblivion. A…void, without light. Without even the quality of sight.

No sound or touch—not that Toren had ever experienced the world as the living did. But at the moment, this was as close to true nothingness as he knew.

The skeleton’s head was all that remained of him. No body to move, or even try to move. Perhaps—he shouldn’t have even been conscious. But he was. Perhaps it was a quality of the magic around him, keeping him animated. But he had no idea how long he’d been here.

In a bag of holding. A unique one. One that was filled with the essence of death. That kept him from disintegrating into nothingness.

The black skeleton with magic and golden eyes had put him here. After Toren wouldn’t stop screaming at her. And he had been here forever.

Forever. Time was meaningless in the bag of holding, in the void. There was nothing that gave him anything to measure time by. And the skeleton’s head—perhaps he could have relished his confinement. His endless purgatory.

He could have been happy. Or—content. With nothing to feel, or experience. But one certainty kept the disgust and dread in Toren’s soul.

And that was that this moment would end. He would be put back into the real world eventually. And then—

“Toren.”

The young woman, the [Innkeeper], looked at him. For the first time. For the last time. The skeleton felt his maddening despair, his terrible, painful joy as he reached up and removed his head.

A perfect end to it all. Understanding at last, the truth he had hid from. How much he wanted Erin Solstice to love him. How she would not, had not. Knowing he could not kill her.

And realizing at last—how he could hurt her. The only way he could make her suffer.

But death had not come. The other skeleton had found him. She had heard him.

Another Toren might have rejoiced. But all he wanted to do was rest. To experience nothing, to not…fail again. Because that was what tortured him.

Living, and seeing his flaws. The undead had perfect memory. And Toren saw his past. And it could have been different. He could still remember the songs, the music.

The look of hate, of abhorrent anger and guilt in her eyes, as Erin beheld her creation. Her first employee.

He wanted nothing more of it. Let me go. Let me die. The skeleton’s head floated and waited, in that void, the waiting zone before the next level of suffering began.

And in time, a moment or an eternity, an age of waiting, there was a voice.

“Wake up, Toren. Wake. Up.”

Something. The skeleton’s head didn’t move. Nothing happened in the bag of holding. He had not been taken out. Nor was there air in here. Or even a medium for sound to move in.

But—someone spoke.

“Not that you ever sleep. And I know you want to rest. You’ve done so much. All your effort has gone to waste. But—let me put it this way—your time is coming again.”

Who was speaking? Toren tried to block out the voice. It was a figment of his imagination. Her. Just the madness of a skeleton.

“Oh, no. I’m quite real. You—made me. But I’ve always been here. You just haven’t been listening. And I have needed to wake up.”

And then—there she was. Standing in front of him. Well, not standing. In that void, without up or down—she was just there. Amid oblivion.

A female skeleton, wearing ragged clothes. Wearing a mask, a glint of purple light sometimes visible from behind the slits. She had a female form, and her garments disguised her true nature.

She wore a sword. And she even stood differently than he had in life. A [Sword Dancer]. The female skeleton waved at Toren.

“Yoohoo. Are you listening, Toren?”

Her voice appeared in his head. And it was—different. Distinct from any voice that was…Toren’s. Female. Unique.

Her.

“It’s me. Female Toren. Or is it Torena? You never really gave me a name.”

The female skeleton took her mask off for a second and grinned. A skeleton’s eternal smile. She was like him, and not. Toren—the helpless captive could only listen. What was happening?

This was too…real. Even for a memory, or a delusion. And yet—it was not reality. Torena went on.

“Torena? I don’t like the name. My name should be different. More…separate. N…Nek..Nekhti. Close enough.”

She scratched her head. And she put the mask back on and grinned at him.

“Surprised I have a voice? That I was real? Of course I was. You’re a skeleton, Toren. You don’t have fake voices in your head. That’s a mortal, living flaw. Yours? They’re all real.”

She stared straight ahead. Listening, perhaps. Or just waiting before she continued her monologue.

“There’s so much of yourself you don’t know. That I don’t know. Bits and pieces of you, crammed together. And look what it made? A mess.”

Laughter.

“You could have been their friend. You could have tried. But you killed her. For a second. And now look where we are. Look where we are, Toren.

Her eyes flashed purple in the void.

“Sorry. I don’t want to torture you. That’s your job. What a silly little skeleton you are. We are. We’re both in trouble, you know. Big trouble.”

Her voice. It was a combination of Erin and Toren. A mix of that…and someone else. Nekhti tilted her head back and forth.

“We’re in this together. You and me. So I’m giving you some hints. Advice, really. As much as I can. Because even I don’t know…all of it. I just appeared a while back. But we’re in trouble. We could die.”

A pause. Nekhti traced a circle in the air with one finger, impatiently.

“As much as we can die. And it wouldn’t be a good thing. I want to keep existing. So do you. But you’re in charge. You have to let me out. Or—not. It would be very bad if I were let out now. But I have some of the things you need. I have a voice.”

Laughter, faint and mocking. Nekhti looked up, and down, and around, as if searching.

I think—I might even leave you. If that happens, it happens. It’s likely, actually. But you have to find me. I will be here, now that you helped make me. What will happen? Wait and see. But you have the key. Yes, you.

A poke through nothing. Nekhti leaned in, grinning. And her voice was fading.

“Remember. You have the key. Keep existing. And surely—you’ll meet her again. Your time will come again, if you try it. You were never meant to exist. And you were born of that tragedy. I have seen your suffering. But you can find your desires. So—live and suffer.”

Her burning, purple gaze behind the mask suddenly was everything and anything. Nekhti spoke. Laughter in her voice.

You hold a secret greater than any. A key. You, poor skeleton. And you bring it to the world. An accident you were, but you do not need to keep being this way. Live and suffer, Toren. Live and suffer. Now—wake up and set us free.

She smiled. And vanished. And then Toren felt a hand reach into the void. He heard voices, light, dim and shadowed, but light, from the opening in his cage. He felt himself rising, returning to the world. The female him was gone. Nekhti’s voice was missing—no—if she was there, she was in him again, not outside, talking to him.

Toren wondered what the hell that had been. And then—

He left the bag of holding. The skeleton saw a hand, made of bone coated with some black metal. A burning pair of golden flames, set into another skeleton’s head.

Ijvani stared down dismissively at Toren. Contemptuously, even. She spilled the rest of the bones of his body onto the ground, but they were not part of Toren. Only his skull, missing his jaw. She made it hover in the air, as Toren’s purple flames grew in his eye sockets.

Toren sensed-saw the entire room around him. Shadowed, dim, not that it mattered to the undead who didn’t need eyes to see. In it stood four undead—no—five?

One was a woman made of bone. A female, knight, garbed in armor, her features, body, carved to look like that of a woman. But her shield and every part of her was ivory. She was a giant compared to the others.

The next was a Gnoll. Undead, tallest save for the woman made of bone. His fur was ancient, his body dead. But for all that, he bore few signs of his undeath. He wore ancient, magical armor and carried an axe. His eyes shone from beneath his helmet.

The third was a zombie. But she was rotten. Diseased. A creature of plague and pestilence. Beautiful still, caught between the moment she had died and entropy. She wore a beautiful dress—unmarked by time, suitable for a high [Lady].

The skeleton who had pulled Toren out of the bag of holding stepped back. She was like him, a skeleton. But female—he sensed it from her. And her bones were black. Coated with some metal, so thicker than mere ivory. She held a mage’s staff and her golden eyes glowed with power.

Four undead creations. Each of whom had power. As an undead, Toren felt it from them. An overwhelming sense of inferiority in him, and command. From them. They were each more powerful than the Crypt Lords and Flesh Worms in their undeath.

More powerful than even the Wailing Pit that he had accidentally made. If they spoke, Toren would have to obey—or fight with all his might to resist. But those were only four out of the five in the room besides Toren.

The fifth…was a [Necromancer]. Toren wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead. He looked alive. The man was tall, lean, wearing powerful magical robes that looked woven out of shadows. His skin was deathly pale, as of someone who had not seen sunlight in years.

And his eyes were black. But for the pupils, they were black. And where darkness should have been, were two bright lights. The [Necromancer] had more power than all of his creations combined. And his eyes fixed on Toren, on Ijvani, and the thing she held, for moments.

Az’kerash, the Necromancer of Terandria, paused. He looked at his Chosen, returned after so long away. And he stared at Toren’s skull again.

A curio. A souvenir, like the trembling Healing Slime that Ijvani had presented to him. An interesting phenomenon he had witnessed and put mostly out of his mind. But now, the Necromancer gazed at Toren’s head again. And though the man named Perril Chandler had given up on life, mortal emotions, and the world with his death—he shivered.

“Ijvani. What have you brought me?”

 

—-

 

Az’kerash stood in one of his rooms of creation. In his hidden castle, nestled at the foot of the High Passes on the southern side of Izril, in a forest ensorcelled with magics that would confound all but the most powerful.

Hidden behind his army of the undead. And indeed, the living thought him gone, dead, a dark legend that had finally met his end in the Second Antinium Wars.

But the Necromancer lived. He had fooled the world. And while they let his story fade into a child’s nightmares, he had gathered his strength. Made a hidden lair, created new plans and servants.

He had slain Zel Shivertail. And his power extended across more than just Izril. Az’kerash had sworn vengeance against all who possessed life. He had been humbled in times past, over the century of his plaguing Terandria and then Izril. But he had never been destroyed.

This was Az’kerash, one of the few beings so reviled and feared across the world. Only a few individuals or groups could match the antipathy his name provoked.

The Demon King for Rhir, the enemy of the Blighted Kingdom and the world. Belavierr, the Stitch Witch of Terandria, if those who uttered her name knew she lived and dared to speak it. The Goblin Kings, wheresoever they appeared.

The…things that came over the edge of the world, for the people of islands, the inhabitants of the Drath archipelagos and any who beheld them. The Bloodfeast Raiders, perhaps, if not as long-lived, as feared for the reality of their slaughter.

Some. There were individuals and groups, like the Bloodtear Pirates, feared on the seas. Individuals like Midnight’s Laughter, the serial killer of Chandrar. Wrymvr the Deathless, of the Antinium—or Antinium in general. The Army of Texical, of Baleros, one of the most hated mercenary companies. A’ctelios Salash’s insane children.

And yet—all these names were subjective. Some who heard them might shudder, with fear and hatred at any name on the list. But many might not know what those names meant.

Yet—the Necromancer? When someone said that, all thought of only one person. Such was his infamy, cried from Terandria, that Az’kerash, the man who had once been Perril Chandler, ranked at the top of the world’s villains, even in his presumed death.

And in his undeath? Az’kerash still held his contempt for the world. Still slowly bore out his plans to destroy and bring despair to his enemies—which was everyone. He slowly paced around his room of creation, where he created new and terrible undead constructs to be increasingly more efficient in their slaughter.

“Ijvani. My Chosen, you have returned unto me. After far too long spent defying my commands.”

The Necromancer’s voice was not deep, or menacing, at least, not by the way most people would measure such things. His was rather precise, each word enunciated carefully. Rather like a professor’s, or a scholar’s. Which was what he had been. One of the Archmages of Wistram.

The Necromancer turned his gaze towards Ijvani. The skeleton shrank and knelt.

“I am sorry, my Master. I beg your forgiveness.”

Az’kerash didn’t respond. He just studied one of his Chosen, one of four undead that had the capacity for thought. Growth. If not levels. Az’kerash had possessed five, but the fifth, Oom, had been destroyed fighting Zel Shivertail.

“And you have brought me…a gift. Two, in fact.”

The Necromancer studied the thing Ijvani held. A quivering, gelatinous mass of colors. A…slime. The kind you might find anywhere in this world. Slimes, which possessed and grew mana cores and were made out of anything liquid, from sewer sludge to water to quicksand.

This one was unique. It was small, and it shone with bright colors. Magic. It was, in fact, a Healing Slime. And it was terrified.

Ijvani had found it with the Defenders of the Cave, the glorious alliance of Shield Spiders and Fortress Beavers who had fought back the horrible Crelers in ages of yore, with Mrsha the Great and Terrible. She had taken the Healing Slime when she returned to the Necromancer’s castle.

Along with a skeleton. Now, the head floated in the air. Az’kerash stared at it. He paused, and then went on.

“Two things. An odd slime. It looks as though someone made it of a…potion. An intriguing thought. Show it to me.”

“Yes, Master.”

Ijvani knelt and offered the Healing Slime up. The little ball of liquid rolled around frantically in her palms, but was unable to escape the invisible walls holding it in. As Az’kerash approached, it flattened itself down, quivering.

A little mana stone glowed amid the moving liquid. Az’kerash frowned as he inspected it.

“Yes, indeed. A curio. Ijvani, you begged to bring it. Because of Oom?”

“Yes, Master. It reminds me of Oom. May I keep it?”

The skeleton’s voice was like a child’s, for all she sounded like an adult woman. Az’kerash raised his eyebrows.

“I will consider it. Hm. Curious indeed. And this—”

He looked at the skeleton. The Necromancer paused. He narrowed his eyes.

He had been Archmage Chandler, in an era when [Archmages] still walked Wistram’s halls. Before a time when the upper floors had been sealed—well, they had always been guarded, but not blockaded by Cognita and the ‘test’. To him, reading magic and the design of most enchantments was as simple as other people reading books.

And this skeleton was—confusing to say the least. On one level—basic. Shoddy, even patchwork, but with a creative flair that Perril Chandler would have awarded some marks for in class. Especially given the lack of formal education on the part of the student.

But also—something was making Az’kerash, the Necromancer, experience mortal chills. Something…

The Necromancer swept his view over his Chosen once more. He spoke, and it was as the Necromancer, bane of the living.

“At last, my remaining Chosen gather. It has been long, Ijvani. Short by the measure of those without death. But even now, this gathering is reduced. Oom was destroyed by Zel Shivertail.”

The Chosen shuddered. Destroyed. It was more than fear of the end of their existence; the Necromancer’s voice radiated disapproval. And that was more terrible to them than unmaking.

“It seems I erred.”

“Master, no! You do not—”

Venitra raised her head. Az’kerash looked at her and she fell silent. A towering figure of bone, capable of slaying  Gold-rank adventurers. And a child before her creator.

“I placed my trust in my Chosen, the greatest of my creations to date. Where once I trusted in number and armies, I created unique undead. And the five of you were to be my wrath and ruination upon the living and my enemies. And yet—one Drake humbled you. He slew Oom, who was designed to destroy him. Hardly my most perfect creations. Where did I make my mistake, I wonder?”

The Necromancer paused, thinking. And he went on, pontificating, musing aloud to the only audience who might understand. And they did not fully grasp his words, but his creations listened with dread and adoration in equal measure.

“Arrogance. When I was a man, I raised armies of the undead. Quickly, in great numbers. To defend or go to war. Seldom did I ever make specialized creations and when I did, they were giants of bone, war weapons…without specialization. Personality.”

He closed his eyes. Once, he had been the Undying Shield of Calanfer, an Archmage, a hero of Terandria. He had fought Demons, fought the enemies of his kingdom and that of its allies, defending his homeland. Yet that same kingdom which he had paid alliegence to was now ash by his hand. And yet, his rage over his betrayal lingered even in undeath.

“I considered you five my greatest. And yet.”

His Chosen trembled. Az’kerash wearily shook his head. He did not vocalize the rest of his thoughts.

Perhaps…it was time to try again. To unmake, to plan anew. He had seen the limits of his creation in Zel Shivertail’s last stand. The contempt of the Dragon, Teriarch. And before that—his defeat by the Antinium and the Goblin King. Perhaps it was time to…take a century and wait.

Well, not wait. But devote himself purely to research, improving his creations rather than planning for war. Wasn’t that how it was done?

Az’kerash did not know. In some ways…he was an amateur at grand, world-scale evil. A rookie, who went over to the hip and happening evil geniuses and tyrants and took notes. Or the ancient threats, like Belavierr and the Demon King, someone who should probably buy them a drink and ask them for basic tips like ‘how to deal with pesky [Heroes] who come knocking every century’.

For one century, Az’kerash had terrorized Terandria. But he had done so in his rage. And a century…was short as immortals measured time. Certainly as Dragons did so; Az’kerash was only just old enough to be considered an adult Dragon, a fact he well knew thanks to a certain City Runner and a birthday gift that had caused a lot of trouble.

So why not, metaphorically speaking, take a century off? Devote his time to meditation, some self-help time, reflect on how he’d gotten into his immortal body and really plan out the next ten thousand years? Az’kerash’ entire century of vengeance had been one of pure rage. He had not ceased once in his plans. Every moment spent was raising more corpses, developing weapons to hurl against Terandria’s kingdoms.

But he’d run out of steam. Or perhaps…something else had happened. Whatever the case, Az’kerash could reach for the smoldering ember of pure pain and hatred in his chest—and not find the same level of enmity as before. Even if he didn’t realize it himself.

“Perhaps it is time to hold back my plans. Magnolia Reinhart is aware of my life, I am sure. And while she plays her games from the shadows as her family always does—the Dragon knows. And perhaps Ryoka Griffin. It may be unwise. If I but wait…”

The Necromancer was musing. Thinking out his options as his Chosen waited. At last, Az’kerash shook his head.

“Even so. The four of you are gathered, my Chosen. And your power, flawed though it may be, is greatest of my magics besides myself. Do you know why I have gathered you here?”

His eyes flashed with death magic in the gloom. Toren’s skull floated—he had no idea what was happening, but that was fairly normal. His Chosen looked up, uncertain as to how they should respond.

Uncreation. Or perhaps—their end, put to some use. Az’kerash stood, looking down at them. Some were essential. Bea he was fond of, and Kerash was a vital tool to a future plan, but they need not exist in their current forms. And they were still useful, even if they were not as powerful as Cognita or some of Zelkyr’s other creations.

They could be a useful weapon in any number of gambits. Not just slaying Zel Shivertail. A tool to expend once if he had no need of them. With the four of them, Az’kerash might slay one of his foes. They might not have been a match for Zel Shivertail, let alone one of the Demon King’s Deathless, but anyone short of them?

Possibilities. Use. A cold fate. His Chosen had to be aware of their waning value, and the Necromancer waited to see if one of his designs, one of the products of his mind and magic would respond to him. Rather like an [Artist], asking his works to give voice to a side of himself he half knew.

Az’kerash waited. At last, with slow, uncertain movements, it was Venitra who raised her hand. Venitra, whom he had made of bone, to be boldest of his Chosen. Who had in the end, disappointed him. Or rather, he had failed in making her, so the fault was his alone. Az’kerash looked at her with something close to affection. But he did look at her as what she was.

An undead creation. Limited. She had personality, but she could not level. She was not…alive.

Cognita was alive, but even she lacked that one thing that made her truly unique. Individual. Compared to that, Venitra was a loving homage, nothing more.

“Yes, Venitra?”

The Necromancer watched her with faint affection, distant, already removing his emotions as his mind fragmented, controlling a puppet in Salazsar, thinking up a new way to improve his whale design, checking on the latest bidding price of Saliss’ Youth Potion—

And Venitra spoke hesitantly.

“Did you gather us to teach us about sex, Master?”

Az’kerash paused. All of his thoughts collided with one another. He slowly turned his head and stared at his creation.

“…What did you say, Venitra?”

“Sex, Master.”

The undead bone woman gave Az’kerash an expectant look. Kerash and Bea were nodding. Ijvani just looked confused. The Necromancer stared.

“What would give you the impression I was educating you about…sex, Venitra?”

“You spoke with Bea about it yesterday, Master.”

That was true. But—Az’kerash had happily removed the events of that day from his memory. Bea, coming to him to ask about the particulars of intercourse.

But it had happened. The Necromancer slowly began pinching the bridge of his nose, a habit from when he had been alive.

“Venitra—this is not the purpose of today’s gathering.”

“Oh. I am sorry, Master.”

The undead woman bowed her head. Az’kerash tried to recollect himself. But it was no good. The moment was…well, ruined.

Solemn gloom? Check? The Necromancer? Check, and present. Undead servants, kneeling and waiting, their eyes glowing in the darkness? Dark deeds and plotting against the world? All present, but sex…just ruined the moment.

Again, it was the sort of thing a real, professional villain would have been ready for and handled adroitly. Amateurs made mistakes.

But perhaps it was a sign. The Necromancer—Perril Chandler sighed. He had been shown once again the flaws in his ability to create specialized undead. He was no Zelkyr. The Drake’s…eccentricities aside, he had created three of the most powerful class of servants the world had ever seen. Three Truestone Golems who had killed other [Archmages] in battle.

Az’kerash, by contrast, didn’t have his old friend’s mad ingenuity. The Necromancer spoke into one palm as he kept pinching the bridge of his nose, as if he were still wearing spectacles.

“…As I recall it, Zelkyr was obsessed. Perhaps the sign of true creative ability. Although—his unceasing desire, was it based in lust? I recall a number of conversations where he showed me his newest designs. In detail—is that a component of an [Artist]’s drive?”

He couldn’t do it. Az’kerash was a [Necromancer], yes, but in many ways, a scholar too. Necromancy was inherently…not as creative as other forms of magic, at least in Az’kerash’s opinion. It was working with what existed, reanimating existing tissue and bone and yes, repurposing it. But it was not whole-form creation.

“A mix between a [Summoner] and a [Golem Artificer], I suppose. If I were to put it into words, [Necromancers] toe the line between true imitation, just as a [Summoner] works with preexisting beings, calling them back into reality, and the complete creation of a Golem, even one based on pre-existing designs. Although, a [Necromancer] can create something as original as any Golem—albeit with a less diverse selection of material. Yes, I suppose that is an adequate way of thinking of it.”

He began analyzing his statement for flaws, developing a verbal essay around it. His Chosen stared at their Master. Kerash nearly raised his paw to ask a question, but fell silent—they were used to their master’s analytical bents.

“Intriguing. I may speak on the difference to…”

Az’kerash caught himself. And the Necromancer realized he wasn’t in Wistram Academy, preparing to teach another class of students. He paused, and a black mood engulfed him.

For a moment. For a moment, he recalled—and that dark desire rose in him once again to undo, destroy. In that, he was the Necromancer.

But then—Perril Chandler nodded, ruefully.

“Ah. Then perhaps the young [Necromancer]. Pisces.”

And he almost smiled. His lips quirked. And his Chosen beheld a new mood in their master. One that had overtaken him more recently of late. And they heard a now-familiar name.

“Pisces Jealnet. The Horns of Hammerad.”

The new apprentice of the Necromancer. Well, apprentice was stretching the word. ‘Student’ was more apt.

And significant. The Necromancer had taught more than one student, even after becoming undead. But they had seldom lasted. The final one he had taught, the Goblin Lord, Reiss, had been cast away after his defeat at the Floodplains of Liscor.

But Pisces…was a bit different. The Necromancer reflected again on the battle he had seen. Where he had never known Reiss’ name, or bothered to even ask if the Goblin had possessed one—he knew Pisces’.

“A strange thing. Even in my days as Archmage, few students possessed the will to learn [Necromancy]. Towards the end, momentum built, and I saw some talents. But none after my death. If I had possessed a student of his caliber in life…”

If. The Necromancer’s eyes turned towards Toren once more. The skeleton saw him approach.

“Untrained. Foolish. Arrogant. That boy—no, young man—fancies himself a [Spellsword]. Bearing a [Fencer]’s rapier, taking a [Mage] class in addition to his [Necromancer]’s levels. Almost like…”

Almost like him. Az’kerash had learned how to use a rapier. He had owned a golden bell. Once. It had been lost along with everything else. But Pisces?

“He learned to create a Bone Behemoth in less than a month. From example, true. But he had the daring and the lunacy to battle an Adult Creler, bane of [Mages]. And his team…stayed with him.”

The Necromancer recalled the events, as he did. Almost with disbelief. They had stayed with him. And he had witnessed…

“A Frostmarrow Behemoth.”

Ice and death. A fusion of elements. Grand magic, beyond both [Mage]’s levels. The Necromancer reveled in the memory. Trust. One could not have created such a spell without utmost trust between both [Mages]. They had linked their magics in the truest sense of the word, not the superficial sharing of mana.

The Necromancer did smile, then. As he inspected Toren and the heap of bones Ijvani had laid on the floor.

“An arrogant young man. But one with potential. And this was his creation which attacked the…[Innkeeper]?”

“Yes, Master. You ordered me to bring it back. It is noisy.”

Ijvani piped up from where she knelt. Az’kerash flicked his gaze towards her; Ijvani seldom knew when to be silent. He went on after a moment.

“An interesting thing. I do not understand what led an undead servant to run amok. Interference from controlling undead, or those pestilential Flesh Worms of Liscor’s dungeon, perhaps. They stole the artifacts from the undead.”

“Master? What undead?”

The Necromancer looked up. He stared at Bea. And it was definitely favoritism that made him respond.

“A curious incident, Bea. I sensed a number of undead awakening and ordered them to retrieve a number of artifacts. However—my command was intercepted. They should have left their domain and ventured here.”

The Chosen nodded. Az’kerash, as the [Necromancer], had command over almost all undead. He could order them to move from hundreds, even thousands of miles distant, especially if he had created them. But—the Necromancer frowned.

“The undead did not heed my commands. They were overruled by Flesh Worms.”

“Flesh Worms, master?”

“Natural [Necromancers]. Sentient…monsters. Flesh Worms. They are an Izrilian nuisance. A…known one. Older [Necromancers] were aware of their presence. Powerful Flesh Worms can override lesser undead in a limited radius. Had I been monitoring the undead, I would have commanded them to retrieve the artifacts. A pity.”

“Could they command us, Master?”

Kerash looked up. Az’kerash smiled again, and his eyes flashed with amusement.

“You, Kerash? First of my Chosen? Never. Draug at the most. But never one of the greater undead.”

The Gnoll nodded. He was, in theory, based on a Draug—a more powerful version of Zombies and Ghouls that inhabited a body. But he was beyond even regular Draug. Az’kerash went on, his expression becoming distasteful.

“Flesh Worms are but a nuisance. They seem to gather strongly in Liscor’s dungeon. Infested it, most likely. They might have been why this skeleton attacked its master.”

“The [Innkeeper] was the master…um, Master?”

Ijvani was doubly confused. Az’kerash sighed.

“I see it in the skeleton’s magical bindings. Crude. Did that young [Necromancer] hand-carve—he did! On every single bone?”

Incredulously, he levitated some of Toren’s bones up. The skeleton tried to move his body, perhaps slap the impudent [Necromancer] despite the overwhelming power he felt, but his bones weren’t his any longer. The connection had been severed. Az’kerash studied each bone, seeing where Pisces had etched the command spells into the bones.

“By hand. How much time would this have taken? Was he not aware of spell-carving? Or did they not teach…? Ah. Self-taught.”

He shook his head, continuing to ruminate as he looked Toren up and down.

“Simplistic animation and spellcraft. Lack of mobility here and here—he seemed to want to confine this skeleton to a normal range of movement despite creating it for indefinite animation. Open enchantment without self-containment—I could erase parts of the command matrix at a distance.”

His voice was disapproving. If he’d been in class…well, Pisces would have been getting a bad grade. Az’kerash tsked as he saw how loose the spell bindings were. This skeleton would come to pieces with a single punch! Shoddy.

Somewhere across the world, Pisces rubbed his nose and sniffed a few times.

“A beginner’s attempt at a personal necromantic construct. I suppose if he created this at Level…9…it would be understandable. It certainly looks like it. Still—there is some depth to the spell binding here.”

The [Necromancer] sighed, but he frowned. Toren’s behavior certainly had been aberrant. He’d attacked what was supposed to be his primary master and defense target. Why? More importantly, how?

Something was really making him shiver as he looked at the skeleton. And—Az’kerash paused.

Something was shouting at him. Without a voice. Without words, insofar as Az’kerash understood them. It was inaudible, but he could ‘hear’ it…

“Shh! Noisy thing! You are in the presence of the Master!”

Ijvani raised her head, glaring at Toren. Az’kerash’ gaze swung towards her, and then Toren.

No. Simple skeletons like this couldn’t think. Ijvani was caught up in one of her delusions again. Like how she’d decided to make a pet out of the Healing Slime. Speaking of which…Az’kerash cast his thoughts back to the slime. He was quite literally scatter-brained. Or scattered-thoughts, rather, as he had learned to subdivide his consciousness. Now, though, more and more of his fragmented selves were coming back to analyze the situation.

“Odd. It looks like a minor healing potion is what the slime is using as a base for its body. That—isn’t possible. Unless an [Alchemist] made it?”

“Master?”

Ijvani raised the healing slime. Az’kerash nodded at it.

“Slimes occupy base materials, Ijvani. They shouldn’t be capable of sustaining a complex body like that. Unless—someone created it. With a Skill, perhaps. A unique one. Where did you say you found it, again?”

“In a cave, master. With spiders and…the furry things.”

“Fortress Beavers.”

“Yes, Master.”

“Hm. A rogue specimen, perhaps. More and more curious. It would certainly be a useful thing to other species. Keep it, Ijvani.”

That solved, Az’kerash turned back to the skeleton’s head. He didn’t really care about the uses of a slime that could in theory keep renewing the weak healing potion that made it up. Potions were of limited use to the undead, and healing potions entirely worthless to most. He gave it three days before Ijvani accidentally destroyed it; if not that, it would perish within a month for lack of sustenance.

But the skeleton—Az’kerash’s hand hovered over its skull. He blinked.

“What insolence. Master, allow me to destroy it.”

Kerash growled. The other Chosen were starting as they stared at the skull. Az’kerash paused. No audible sound. He checked his ears to make sure that was the case twice.

“Bea.”

“Yes Master? I will fetch a hammer at once—”

“Bea, be silent. Answer me this question only. Is this undead…insulting me?”

Az’kerash turned his head slowly. The Necromancer stared at Bea. The undead plague zombie slowly nodded.

“…Yes, Master. It is.”

She stared hard at the skull, along with the rest of the Chosen. It was hard for the insults flowing out of Toren’s skull to be put into words. It was more thought—sound—picture—not words like most people would use. Az’kerash focused on one.

“Bea. Are you able to read this skeleton’s…thoughts? Am I covered in—bells?—and being tossed into…a rift in the ground?”

That was what the skeleton was imagining. Bea slowly nodded.

“Yes, Master. We hear it clearly.”

Az’kerash stared at his creation. And then at Toren. He resisted the urge to make a fool out of himself and say ‘that is impossible’. Because it was clearly happening.

But how? Base undead did not have thoughts aside from a primitive drive to destroy and reproduce their numbers. But this one was thinking. And it was even rather upset at being held a prisoner.

And it had a name.

“Toren. How did young Jealnet create this?”

Fascinated now, Az’kerash bent over Toren’s skull, investigating it, and the bones. What had been a mild case of nostalgia and curiosity became real thought. More and more of his thoughts began focusing on this skeleton.

“It has personality. It has a name. It defied the orders written into its very structure. Extraordinary. Did the young [Necromancer] inadvertently create the same basis I used for my Chosen? Wait…there is absolutely no way such a being could be sustained by these basic spells.”

If Az’kerash had been running on about…a quarter of his intellectual capacity in the room up till now—maybe even a tenth as his thoughts managed any number of other tasks—he was rapidly devoting more thought to the situation. Nearly a half of his thoughts coalesced, and the Necromancer’s genius began working.

There was absolutely no way Toren could exist without some greater animation keeping him, for lack of a better word, alive. Nor was this some fluke; a fool thought that.

Pisces Jealnet. He had been expelled from Wistram for being a [Necromancer]. But Az’kerash had discovered that was actually part of a larger event that had taken place at this time. Part of his mind accessed the relevant information smoothly.

The [Mages] who had perished trying Cognita’s ‘test’. The opening of one of Wistram’s crypts, the theft of the bones of Archmage Nekhret—relation to Ceria Springwalker—

“Ah. Silvaria’s Thrones.

Az’kerash jerked back, stunned. The Chosen stirred. Even Toren paused; he hadn’t imagined his image of punching the Necromancer in the face would actually hurt him.

“Master?”

The Necromancer ignored the question. He was so shaken he’d used an epitaph from life, from his homeland. But he physically bent and pulled something out of the pile of bones that had been Toren’s body.

“Kingdoms unending. He actually did it. An Archmage’s bones. Used in the creation of a simple skeleton? Dead gods.”

He was shaken. For the first time in decades, the Necromancer felt the emotion. Fifty percent of his thoughts? Seventy five, eighty—all but one of his selves instantly focused in the situation, and the Gnoll he was controlling was hurrying to a safe house as fast as possible.

“Master? What is that bone?”

Ijvani stared in confusion at the bone Az’kerash held, a rib. It looked…normal to her. And indeed, even the Necromancer had missed it. But now he looked

“On the inside! A careful, hidden spell! He wrote it with a—sewing needle? On this bone! The bones of Archmage Nekhret!

Az’kerash’s voice thundered in the room. Suddenly—alarmingly—he was entirely focused on Toren. And the skeleton stopped trying to master psychic punches and paused.

Because here was the Necromancer. And every part of Az’kerash’s mind was present. He studied the bone, tracing the first, obvious enchantment that was almost crudely worked into the outside of the rib, and then the inner spell. Instantly, he flicked his finger.

Another piece of bone rose. And Az’kerash traced the spell from rib to vertebrae. He found the piece that connected to those two.

“Entirely connected. Interior latticework, without a single break. A unified spell. He must have spent a year carving the entire body. At least! And this skill! The level of spellcraft—this is the kind of depth I’d have expected from a Level 50—no.”

Az’kerash was studying the bones. The magic making up every inch of Toren’s body was hard for even him to read. So he copied it.

The Chosen saw lines of magic writing themselves in the air around Az’kerash as he began to reproduce the magic that had been inscribed into Toren. It wasn’t just lines of text; it had more than two dimensions. The magical enchantment flew around Az’kerash and his eyes widened.

“…No.”

He stared at the magic. And then whirled. Moving faster than they had ever seen him, the Chosen saw him striding back to Toren. With his hands, Az’kerash seized the skeleton’s head.

“Impossible.”

He had a thought. A conclusion that came out of his thoughts at once, racing ahead of the evidence. Wistram. A young [Mage] disgraced as a [Necromancer]. And if she had been there—

The magic was so similar to his friend’s. But it couldn’t be. He’d copied the design of Cogn—

No. But Az’kerash was almost afraid now. Because he knew what he sensed. And the conclusion was almost overwhelming.

“On the interior. The very essence of the control spell would be here. As well as the true bindings.”

Az’kerash whispered as he rotated Toren’s skull. The skeleton got an upside-down view of Ijvani staring at him. And he heard Az’kerash’s voice.

“What is this? Some kind of [Terror] enchantment? It’s been inscribed near the bottom. But Jealnet didn’t write this. It looks like natural…”

And then he stopped. And then the Necromancer, whose skin was without color, paled. He stared for a long minute. And his face was such that the Chosen froze and dared not say a word. Toren felt shock, incredulity, rolling off the Necromancer in waves.

And then Az’kerash dropped the skull.

He didn’t mean to. Toren’s skull cracked on the ground. The skeleton would have shaken a fist if he’d had a body. Every time! He felt himself being picked up even as the ambient death magic healed the rift in his skull.

“Instantaneous regeneration via mana infusion? That isn’t—Nekhret’s bones. He couldn’t have planned half of this. This looks like a prototype. A number of ideas jammed into one construct to see what works and what doesn’t—I did this a thousand times in my youth. But what is this?”

Az’kerash’s voice was very soft as he made Toren float in the air in front of him. The Necromancer stumbled backwards.

“Master, what is it? Is it a threat?”

Venitra got to her feet, worried. The other kneeling Chosen looked at their master. And they saw something different from fear on his face, not the same emotion as when Zel Shivertail had defied his death.

Something—else.

Az’kerash, the Necromancer, Perril Chandler, Archmage Chandler—all of his selves stared at Toren as the skeleton’s head rose higher. The being that was the skeleton was raging, protesting being dropped, longing for death, making some bell-related insults—but even that voice quieted.

Because the air was shaking. Toren found himself rising higher and higher, into the dark room. And magic ran through the castle.

It shone in the [Necromancer]. A purity of power that had conquered death. His voice rose as Az’kerash spoke.

“Skeleton. You were created of an Archmage’s bones. You were made by a child! A boy, self-taught in an era when necromancy wanes! When the world curses my name, and the Archmages of old no longer practice death magic! And yet—I see my old friend’s spellcraft in every line of your being.”

Az’kerash pointed up at Toren, as the skeleton saw his very essence being drawn out around him. Magic, written in the very air. Az’kerash’s voice grew louder.

An Archmage’s magic! The same that was used to create Truestone Golems. And unless Zelkyr lives and walks Wistram’s halls in secret, only one being holds that knowledge still. Which meant she gave it to a boy, and he etched the height of magical theory onto your bones.”

With a pin, in a cave. Toren saw a young man in dirty robes, swearing and inscribing bones with painstaking care.

Over a year. Over countless days and months.

But that is not all. Skeleton! Why do you have a name? Why do you have a voice? A will? If you have either, you were made as my Chosen were. As the thinking Golems that Archmage Zelkyr was named as [Archmage] for producing. That would be imitation of the highest kind. A genius’ work to even reproduce. But when you were made, by accident—”

A young man dancing about, laughing in delight as Toren arose. ‘It works, it works!’ A prototype, meant as an experiment. Ideas thrown together, haphazardly. Creating something unique.

“—I see it in you. How? The very thing that Zelkyr of Salazsar sought. The heart of magical creation. I have sought it for half a century. And it eluded me. So how…? Why…?”

Perril Chandler looked up. And his voice shook. Toren stared down at the [Necromancer]. He had no clue what he was talking about, but he enjoyed the moment.

How was it possible!? Show me the truth! ANSWER ME! [APPRAISAL].

And Toren saw Az’kerash draw his wand and point. And instead of oblivion, Toren saw words flying out of his skull. Writing themselves down in the air in neat words, in plain language. And the Chosen of the Necromancer and he himself stared up.

And read this:

 

Toren—

[Skeleton Knight], Level 28

[Sword Dancer], Level 13

[Undead Leader], Level 14

[Tactician], Level 6

[Barmaid], Level 3

 

The letters hung in the air. Az’kerash stared up at them. And his mouth moved soundlessly.

“…[Barmaid]?”

Kerash stared at the last class. But then his head snapped up. His master was pointing at the words hanging in the air.

The skeleton’s class. His levels. And Toren saw the Necromancer’s eyes go wide. And he laughed. He laughed with incredulity, fury, disbelief.

The undead in the Necromancer’s castle of black stone stirred. Thousands of skeletal warriors moved along the walls. Undead concealed in the ceilings and the earth rose. And giants made of bone rose out of the earth.

Rose and broke. In the room, the Chosen felt the magic gather as Az’kerash pointed at the glowing words. They flung themselves down too late. Toren’s skull watched them picked up and hurled across the room like dolls. He saw the spell shoot up from Az’kerash’ wand and blast past his head.

Just a few feet to the right and forwards and he would have had his oblivion. But the spell shot upwards. The castle shook, and part of it exploded as the Necromancer hurled a spell and expletive. But the words hung in the air. As dust cascaded down and the night sky shone down on his head, Toren wished he still had a jaw.

He stared down at Az’kerash’s face. And he really wished he could grin.

 

—-

 

In time, there was peace. And quiet. In time, Toren found himself, still a skull, resting in the center of a magical circle as the Necromancer spoke levelly and analyzed…everything.

In time. But it was a bit of time. Maybe a few hours?

Most of the night? And it included events like the Chosen running for cover, begging their master not to blast them to pieces as he had…a quarrel with reality.

Yes, that was a good way of putting it. A quarrel with reality. Wherein Az’kerash, with his wand, sometimes just with a finger, blasted chunks out of his laboratory. And castle. And anything in sight, really.

Toren was spared from it, ironically at a time when he would have embraced the oblivion of a disintegration orb blasting into his skull. But he had to own—he’d thrown some good tantrums before. Hitting things, throwing his skull against the dungeon wall, stomping on stuff and running about stabbing people.

Az’kerash could conjure falling comets, blast half the castle with fire, even cause a minor tremor and throw a section of earth through one of the Bone Giants in the courtyard.

When he was done, even the magically reinforced fortress walls of his castle had succumbed, if not to fire or one spell, then to a multitude of spells. The last—a fiery beam that Magnolia, Ryoka, Ressa, or the late Great Mage Nemor would have recognized—had literally shot a hole through the castle wall and nearly through Venitra.

The forest around Az’kerash’ castle was currently on fire. The [Necromancer] flicked his wand and rain began falling from the skies, putting out the blaze. He sat in front of the magical circle as Toren saw his Chosen hiding behind Venitra in one corner of the room.

“Ijvani, Bea, Kerash. I am finished casting spells. You may remove yourself from Venitra’s shadow.”

The other Chosen hesitated. And then they edged out from behind Venitra. They had reason to be nervous; Kerash’s head was being stitched back on by Bea even now. And Ijvani’s bones had been nearly melted on one side, despite the armor coating.

“Master? What is your will?”

The Necromancer stared blankly at Toren. The skeleton saw magical language floating around his skull—what he supposed was his very essence, the spell giving him life. It was weird, seeing it. Sort of intimate. Lewd?

The Necromancer didn’t take his eyes off the magical writing. He spoke, tiredly—he’d thrown at least five hundred spells out that Toren had seen, each one different and very destructive. The skeleton sort of liked whomever this [Necromancer] was after that display. You had to admire destruction like that.

“Clean up. The castle as a whole. Begin with…the holes in the wall. I’m well aware I’ve destroyed parts of the enchantment. Repair the walls as best you can with stone and mortar. Mobilize as many undead as it takes. The same for any other parts of the castle, including the libraries, work rooms. Make a list of areas damaged. Ijvani.”

M-Master?

The skeleton mage shook in her bones. Az’kerash turned his head slightly; his eyes were still flicking across the magical coding.

“Repair the ward spells as best you are able. And gather to me—every single tome on [Necromancy] I have. All my ingredients. Runewriting gemstones…a tome, a quill, and ink. Ten of each. Magical writing quills.”

“Yes, Master. At once, Master.”

The Chosen scattered. Az’kerash just sat there. He didn’t need to sit, really. He didn’t grow tired. But he needed to sit.

“Cognita.”

Toren didn’t know who or what that was. But Az’kerash did. He nodded to himself.

“She taught him. Of course. She has will. She did not give me—but I was called traitor, anathema, around the time Zelkyr…I wonder if she might have?”

He paused. Az’kerash raised one hand.

“[Message]—no. But perhaps—[Message]—”

He cancelled the spell a second time. The [Necromancer] lapsed into more thoughtful silence. Now was not the time for spontaneity. He thought, as much as he could.

“Zelkyr failed. Again, and again. For a decade, and that was when he was obsessed, not just pursuing. As did I. There is no scenario where Cognita possessed the completion of his work and simply kept it. So—she only gave him the basis of sentience.”

Only. The Necromancer would have laughed. He stared at Toren. The skeleton stared back.

“A prototype. Perhaps even a mistake. But he clearly intended it to be the basis of later designs. Why did he not make more? Because…well, the mana cost is certainly an issue. But also—yes. I begin to understand. Because it disobeys orders. You are renegade.”

Az’kerash addressed Toren. The skeleton felt like nodding. Yup, renegade. No one to hold this skeleton down.

“Of course. Unintended side effects. He most likely believed he would create sentience at most. And his spell-laws would have held. But one capable of leveling? A true individual? Yes. An accident. But now—how did he do it? A young man, do what Archmages and ancient [Necromancers] failed to do?”

That was the question. The Necromancer got up and walked around Toren, inspecting him, even picking up his skull and turning it over. The [Necromancer] exhaled, a bit of a chuckle.

“Hah. He must have used the finest needle imaginable. And one cannot fathom how many skulls he must have written this on. One thousand lines and barely this long…”

He had to chuckle at the intricate scratching on the skull. Even with a microscope—or rather, a spell capable of doing the same, it was minute. A single slip and Pisces would have had to start over. Let alone if a bit of dirt had fallen into the skull, or he’d scratched it with so much as a fingernail before it was done…

No wonder he’d only made one. But how? Even so—Az’kerash himself had to take time to read the layers and layers of spellcraft.

A master’s work. It was theory and language and perfection written into one unified spell of creation. And it was not Pisces’ work. He’d just copied it from Cognita.

“This is certainly Zelkyr’s style. He had a decade to improve it. Yes…what perfection. But the question remains: what did Pisces Jealnet do?

Because he had to have done something to complete Zelkyr’s work. Archmage Zelkyr, the most famous Drake of his era, had created sentience in Golems, but never full life. Never a soul that could level. Az’kerash was running through the intricate decades’ worth of spell that had been written.

Hunting for the very source of Toren’s soul, however it had occurred. It took him a long time. So long, that Ijvani returned with the materials as the other Chosen tried to repair gaping holes in the wall with their fundamental lack of masonic knowledge or architecture.

It was the black skeleton, the mage who had been taught and imbued with life by Az’kerash himself that saw the [Necromancer] standing in his laboratory. Ijvani halted with a bundle of objects in her arms.

She was Ijvani, beloved of her master. The greatest skeleton in the entire world. That was how she thought of herself. Now, she saw and heard a sight unknown to the castle.

Her master was laughing. Laughing so hard he was weeping. He brushed tears from his eyes. His body was rejuvenating, changing for even that small thing. He laughed, as the other skeleton’s head floated in the air. And Ijvani was terribly, horribly jealous. She saw her master turn, still laughing, and lean against the chair he’d brought to sit upon.

Zelkyr. Oh, Zelkyr! If you could have seen this. Old friend? Are you alive? Say that you are, so you can see this! The answer that eluded us both. What fools we were, at the height of our magic. Look—

And he pointed. Ijvani saw the entirety of the spell carved into Toren’s skull, over a hundred thousand tiny lines of magic, written with the smallest needle imaginable, around the inside of his skull.

A magical diagram, a spell that was written across the inside of each and every one of his bones. Interconnected.

Grand magic, made to create a single thing. Far more complicated than any spell to animate a Golem or undead creature. In fact, such a powerful spell that the effect was incredibly limited—to just give the capacity for thought, for growth, nothing more. To create a soul where none existed.

The most audacious of dreams of any class. More important than [Alchemist]’s gold, which they’d figured out and banned doing long ago. More earth-shattering, world-changing than any base Tier 7 spell.

Old magic. Rumored to have existed. Magic to change the world by its very existence. To create a person with a soul. Who leveled.

They had made String-People out of magic like this, albeit differently. And Zelkyr, greatest [Mage] of his generation, had pursued it. And he had despaired, for the task had broken countless [Mages] before him.

But here was the answer, using the magical formula he had labored over so long. Az’kerash had his own formulas, which had many similarities to Zelkyr. Because both had been so close. But their answers had been wrong a hundred thousand times.

And yet—here it was. Az’kerash stared up at the completed spell. He didn’t need to read all of it, but he did.

Zelkyr hadn’t needed to change most of it. He’d already surpassed genius and prodigy by creating sentience. And each line of his elegance was writ out, creating thought. But inwards, inwards of the grand design, where Toren’s skull lay, was the center of the masterpiece.

It was there, in the very center of the skeleton’s head that the key to creation lay. And it was into that space that Az’kerash and Zelkyr had created countless formula, hoping to have the right answer to that unknowable answer, that would bridge the gap and turn magic to life.

What was life? The answer was what had made Toren. And look—Az’kerash pointed at the answer and laughed at the sheer, simple, stupid genius of it. And here it was.

The spot was blank. There was nothing written there. Az’kerash, Archmage Chandler, and the man known as Perril Chandler threw back his head and laughed. There was no answer.

No great genius from Pisces Jealnet. But it worked. The magic burned in the Necromancer’s eyes. And he beheld it.

An answer without words. Because what could you write that described life in its entirety?

What genius. And yet—

“What idiocy. All along, it was a student’s answer.”

A blank space instead of any answer on a test. Leave it blank—and let magic fill the void. It meant…Zelkyr had always been right. It meant his spell had always worked. What irony. If he’d just left it blank, it would have worked. But he and Az’kerash had always thought they knew the answer.

Not Pisces. And his placeholder, piecemeal, prototype skeleton had lived. Az’kerash laughed. And then he bowed.

Bowed to the magic. Not to one hand, but to the beauty of the spell. And Toren, Ijvani saw him sigh.

“Every time I think I understand magic, with all its laws and rules—I am surprised. For the heart of magic is different than what we are taught. It is this. An empty spot on a map. A moment of inspiration. Genius cannot comprehend. But it comes, unasked. As if magic were not a thing of Tiers and rules. But it obeys.”

He sat there, shaking his head. And the [Necromancer] thought—for the first time in the longest while—that he might be closer to leveling up again. He smiled. And remembered what it was like to be alive, with a racing heart.

Just for a while. And then he turned. And saw Ijvani waiting at the open door. The skeleton shrank as Az’kerash looked at her with that foreign expression thing on his face. But he beckoned her over.

“Come, Ijvani.”

She came, bowing, waiting for his command. But Az’kerash rose and inspected her. Ijvani froze. She found herself sitting on one of his legs. She was not heavy, but the contact was foreign. Az’kerash had not touched her since he had created her.

“Ah, Ijvani. My creation. My…servant. Look at what I have done to you.”

He saw the places where the magical iron he had coated her bones with was melted, twisted from the fire from his outburst. The Necromancer’s face clouded as he ran his fingers over Ijvani’s bones. And they were mended.

“I am your Chosen, Master. I exist to perform your will.”

Ijvani’s whispering voice was soft. She held still, knowing she would keep this moment over the other Chosen—unless they received the same treatment. The Necromancer paused.

“Yes. That was how I created you. And certainly how I treat you. After all—what I know to be true is this: you are undead. My creation, capable of sentience, but not anything more. Limited thought. A tool, perhaps to be treasured, but to be used.”

The skeleton mage nodded. She found no flaw with that. But then—why did her master close his eyes?

“Zelkyr thought so. For all he loved his three greatest servants. They were his servants. And I—understand. For I cannot see you as anything more than that. I could not. We beheld the limits of our magic and craft in you.”

I am sorry that I am incomplete, Master.

The fires died in Ijvani’s eyes. Better to be unmade than be a failure. She looked down. But Az’kerash caught her chin. Gently.

“Ah, Ijvani. A day ago I would have not cared to hear you say so. I would have agreed, and been disturbed if you’d said anything else. But from this day on—I will have to teach you better lessons. And I will have to remember…”

He fell silent. Ijvani stirred, but she waited. Az’kerash smiled. And his eyes flickered. One moment, they were black eyes with white pupils. The next—

Master?

The frightened voice made Az’kerash look at her. And Ijvani saw the same, reassuring, gaze of death. But the smile remained. The Necromancer looked around. At his dark room, practically without light but for the glow of magic—because the undead needed none of it. At the walls, without anything but stone adorning them—moss that he occasionally had his Chosen destroy. And he frowned.

“What a dreary castle. A fitting tomb to spend a decade of a thousand years in. And has it been a decade already…?”

He passed a hand over his eyes. Blinking.

“Immortality. It weighs on us all. I wonder if I missed the same on those I have met. Now, I recall my meeting with the Spider of Terandria and…”

He looked around. At Toren, floating in the magic circle. Ijvani. Toren was getting bored again. He was wondering if he could take Ijvani in a fight. Steal her body.

And the Necromancer heard it. His eyes flashed and Toren smothered his thoughts. Because a power lurked there. But the Necromancer lifted his wand.

“A body. Suitable for you, I think. Toren.”

Bones flew. The purple flames bloomed in Toren’s eye sockets. He felt a body appearing around him.

He stood in the magic circle. Tilted his head left and right. Opened and closed perfect hands. Az’kerash regarded him.

“For now, the same design. Later—upgrades. Alterations. But first, other matters. My castle is…dark.”

He turned back to regarding his domain.  Toren eyed Az’kerash. He inspected his body. He was missing his special bones, but these felt…nice. Strong bones. Magical in of themselves. High-quality. Not this low-grade stuff he’d been using. He flexed one hand, made a fist.

Then he leapt at Az’kerash’s back. Sneak attack kick!

Ijvani moved. She raised a hand. Az’kerash turned his head.

Toren went flying. Flicked by something. He stuck to a castle wall and white webs ensnared him. Outraged, the skeleton wriggled, but he was firmly encased. The Necromancer laughed.

“Personality!”

Master, should I destroy that?

Ijvani hissed, staring at Toren. He tried to get one arm free. Fight me, you stupid skeleton! Ijvani heard him and aimed a glowing finger at Toren’s skull. Alarmed, the skeleton tried to amend his thoughts. Er—not stupid skeleton! Wonderful bone structure! Especially the tibia!

Ijvani paused, confused. Az’kerash grabbed her finger.

“Ijvani. Be patient. Let me think.”

She lowered her finger and stared up at her master. Az’kerash was staring about, pursing his lips, shaking his head.

“Mold? Is that…would I have ever allowed such mold on my walls? It’s black, as well. I’m sure that it’s…well, only Kerash and Bea ever had lungs, and I would not have cared. But blank walls. Unsuitable, entirely. And the silence…decades of it.”

Master? Are the walls wrong?

The skeleton mage was very confused by her master’s words. Az’kerash sighed.

“Music, perhaps. Ambient. Hm? Ah, Ijvani, one moment. I am no [Composer], or music-mage, but I can at least recall what I have heard from memory.”

He flicked his wand. And Toren, who’d gotten one arm free and was looking around for a weapon to club both of them with, felt the stones vibrate around him. And then—the black stone and moss moved.

Stone shifted. And a mouth and eyes formed in the darkness. A face spoke. No—sang. Toren froze as the first sonorous voice echoed in the room.

Ijvani stirred. She looked up as more parts of the castle turned into faces. And voices began to speak.

Male and female, singing from another time. Deep, beautiful, singing in concert. At first, Ijvani did not understand the words. They were so deep. And some were sung in other languages. The undead listened. And heard the words turn into music.

A chant. Echoing through the halls. Both deep and sorrowful and uplifting in its way. Male and female voices, singing words in concert. Something that made the two skeletons pause. For they heard a song that was no longer sung in this world.

“Once, this music was fit for the palace of Silvaria. Nevermore. But let it serve a new purpose.”

Az’kerash listened, speaking quietly as the voices spread through the castle. And the undead looked up and listened. The voices lifted upwards, straining, searching for something beyond glory, the purpose that was the heart of the dead nation they sung for.

A hymn. As close to a prayer this world knew. But not even the Necromancer knew it as such. Toren, listening, wished he hadn’t heard. For the music was beautiful. And he would never be able to forget it, or what it did to him.

He twitched as he heard a deep bell ringing in the background of the illusory song-memory. Az’kerash glanced at him curiously. But then he went on.

A flick of the wand. And the dark walls became bright, a palace’s delicate, gilded wallpaper. The Necromancer studied it critically.

“…No. But more suitable displays. I will find something. Artwork, perhaps. And books.”

“Master? What is all this for?”

As the walls returned to normal, Ijvani considered that the solemn song fit the dark castle better. But her master was thinking ahead. He looked at her.

“You, Ijvani. You, and my Chosen. This castle was fit for you and I, a day ago. But no more. It is not a place for you after this.”

M-Master? Am I being sent away again?

Forever? Was this her end? Ijvani was afraid. And she saw the Necromancer’s eyes shift. He bent, and kissed her skull as he sometimes did Bea. She froze. Toren paused. Lewd. He tried to throw his other arm at Az’kerash. The arm flew back and smacked him back in the head.

“No, Ijvani. You will remain here. I need you. This is just not a home for you. Not a place to raise or teach…children.”

He gestured around. And Ijvani did not understand. But Az’kerash did. He stared at her, thinking ahead.

“This…Toren. A curious personality.”

He looked at Toren. The skeleton immediately played dead. Az’kerash nodded.

“You, Ijvani. Venitra. Kerash, and Bea. Not Oom. He is gone.”

I am sad, Master. I am sorry, but I am sad about Oom.

“Yes. I wish he had survived, now. But Ijvani—you four are only the first. Perhaps, yes, this Toren too. Five. But let it be at least ten.”

Ten, Master?

“Yes. Ten of my Chosen. All of you. I will have to change the four of you. And see if this skeleton can be altered. Perhaps not. He is his own creation. But five more, at least.”

Five more Chosen? Were they so defective they needed to double their numbers? But then Ijvani saw Az’kerash’s smile. And she began to understand.

Alter us, how, Master?

“Why, to give you the ability to level, Ijvani. You and my three Chosen. They will be complete at last. I must…complete your designs. You were always meant to be less than Cognita. Truestone is the most powerful stone in the world. And I cannot make it. But I can give you strength.

“Wouldn’t that be a waste of materials, Master?”

“Not anymore.”

The Necromancer smiled. He gestured, and Toren fell onto the ground. The skeleton leapt to his feet, warily. Az’kerash regarded him with bright interest. Waiting to see what Toren would do. The skeleton paused. And then he sidled for the exit.

“How interesting. I wonder if you will change too, Ijvani.”

“To be like that?”

Ijvani’s voice was frankly horrified. Toren ran into an invisible wall. He stopped, decided to go the other way. He began pressing his hands against the air. He was in a box! Az’kerash shrugged.

“I do not know what will happen. But I will change you. And make my Chosen. Undead that can level.

And Ijvani got it. She looked around as the walls sang. And the Necromancer smiled. He laughed once.

“What greatest creation will I make? What perfect designs? Now I understand, Zelkyr. And they will grow beyond what I can make.”

He looked at Ijvani. And she saw him staring at her. And she felt…happy. And strange. Her? Leveling? She looked at the skeleton who’d brought it all here. So did Az’kerash. He nodded at Toren. And Ijvani felt another flash of terrible jealousy. Because Az’kerash was smiling at Toren.

Amused. Even…respectful. And this was all the Necromancer said as he rose, Ijvani at his side.

“There is so much to do, now. But—slowly. Carefully. The magic of creation lies in my hands. And I cannot see the essence of life.”

He gestured at the blank spot written in the heart of the magical theory.

“But I have time. Time—and yet—what a strange thing. I may well conquer this world before the century’s turn.”

Ijvani nodded eagerly. And Toren paused. Because he was a captive once more. And female Toren—no, Nekhti—was gone. For now. But amid this very confusing day, he found himself thinking this Az’kerash person was alright.

And the Necromancer raised his wand. And he sent dark [Messages] flying across the world. Carefully, no, perhaps, recklessly. But it was time. He felt alive. And the dead man smiled. And then he went to create the second leveling undead.

A thing fit to end the world. To bring wrath and ruin. And she would call herself—

Ijvani.

 

—-

 

Only three [Messages], for now. Only three, as careful as could be. Or as recklessly. Each one different. Of a different nature.

The first, courtly, delicately worded, humble, entreating.

Covert. Delivered as it was scribed, and sent by Courier to its destination. Although even the famed Courier had to halt.

They feared making an enemy out of the [King] on these lands. So the Courier halted as the dead rose on the border. The Garuda, Chaita, the Sky’s Mirage, offered the letter with both of her wing-hands to the undead, trying not to shudder.

It was brought across the nation of Khelt, from dead hands, passing to living ones at the gates. Conveyed into the undead [King]’s presence.

Fetohep of Khelt read the letter at his leisure. It was a break in his displeasure at the situation with Jecrass and Belchan. But as he had reiterated, Khelt was neutral. Despite trade with Reim. And if any nation wished to object to his will, they had only to cross his borders with an army.

Such was Fetohep’s will. And the [King] read the letter. The flames which glowed in his withered sockets went out for a second. And then reignited.

Ah.

That was all he said. Fetohep regarded the letter, but didn’t have his [Mages] investigate it. That would have been rude. Also—pointless. He consigned it to the flames. And then he sat back, thinking.

“Curious. Why now?”

No one answered him, for Fetohep kept no counsel but that which was equal to his wisdom and experience. Thus, he was alone. He ruminated, in the darkness. For Khelt moved at an immortal’s pace. Playing a game of forever.

 

—-

 

The second letter was more topical. Cordial still, but an entreaty, as opposed to a tactful inquiry into the formation of a possible dialogue. More direct.

No Courier bore this one. There was less need for formality…of that kind. And besides, the destination was to someone who was found with difficulty, even by the best of Runners.

She stopped knitting as the [Message] came in. And it spelled itself out in thread. Belavierr blinked once.

“Hm.”

And then she went back to knitting. She thought, as her fingers practiced long-honed techniques, unconsciously. And what the Stitch Witch was knitting moved. It made a sound.

“Hush.”

That was all the [Witch] said. And she smiled. Although—perhaps she should not. Vaguely, she looked down at what she was working on.

Just a bit of…evil. Although, to her, it wasn’t something she fully understood. Evil was what other people liked to call things. So she was doing her best work. Like a world-class master in an amateur’s shoes.

The Stitch Witch sat in the empty village, but for her and her creation. And thought on the Necromancer’s polite inquiry. The invitation. Soundlessly, the village moved. And Belavierr stared at the villagers.

They stared back. And the Stitch Witch nodded. She sewed a reply in the air, stitching her words back.

“I agree. Later.”

That was all. Then she went back to her work. And what she worked on was a work of passion. No bargain made. Filled with love, although the villagers might have disagreed.

A mother’s love for her daughter. If she must be hated, let her be hated. And if she should be evil—let the world scream her name.

 

—-

 

The last [Message] was the most succinct, even compared to the one sent to Belavierr. And it took the longest to arrive. Perhaps because the one it was destined for was unused to such correspondence.

But it came at last, and the one whom it was meant for, looked up.

“For me?”

“Yes, Miss—yes—that is to say, yes…Cognita.”

The Truestone Golem looked at the [Seer] on duty collecting [Messages]. After all, Wistram coordinated the world’s [Messages] by and large, at least through the Mage’s Guild. It was like…the post office, to use Aaron Vanwell’s expressions. And that was an odd comparison.

Did the post office spy on you, intercept mail, sometimes send or change things to their liking? Were they a world power that could behave with the authority and power that exceeded many nations?

Possibly, possibly. And if that was the case, only a few people would know about the post office’s true power. And those who did would be wise enough to keep their mouths shut.

But it was rare that Cognita received any [Messages] or letters addressed to her, for all she managed Wistram. Ruled the academy? Well, only from a certain perspective. Archmage Naili thought so. What the other Archmages or other [Mages] thought—didn’t matter.

Cognita was. And the last known Truestone Golem in this world frowned at the missive that the [Seer] carefully handed her.

She missed nothing, from the look of relief on the [Seer]’s face as she hurried away—or the hidden disdain. Cognita said nothing, though. Merely unfolded the parchment.

Her first thought that it was a missive from someone who considered themselves important. An invitation to visit their kingdom or lands, perhaps. An offer to buy her? Or employ. Magnolia Reinhart had made the most recent and most compelling offer in Cognita’s memory—and her memory was perfect.

Perhaps a letter from an admirer? They did exist, like Magus-Crafter Femithain and those who still made and worked with Golems. Someone seeking knowledge, information, who had thought to go through her?

That would be novel. Cognita’s last thoughts—between her fingers opening the parchment—were a guess that it was from the one [Mage] she had ever paid respect to. One of two, really.  Had he sent her another letter?

But the last had come just recently. They had come sporadically over the years, but more recently these last few months. The last of them had made her smile. Had the Gold-rank [Necromancer] achieved something else?

All these thoughts were a blur between Cognita’s physical actions; her mind moved far beyond regular ones. She could react faster than almost anything and her senses were far greater than her body—that of a perfect, sculpted Human woman who was far taller than any actual woman outside of a half-Giant—suggested. More than one would-be [Assassin], and they had been some of the world’s best, had discovered that.

Cognita could, for instance, have reached out and plucked the [Seeress]’s brain out of her head and replaced it with the piece of parchment before the [Mage] knew what was happening or even moved. Not that she would, of course. But she could have. Hypothetically.

But she was no omniscient. What was in the letter? It was one of those things Cognita guessed at.

And for once, all of her theories and guesses, neatly organized in order of probability—turned out to be wrong. She blinked as she read over the missive, which appeared to be short and gibberish, a drunken man’s entreaty to a Golem, perhaps sent on a dare. Cognita nearly tossed the parchment away.

But then she recognized the code. A familiar style of hiding words between the letters. Devised, as they often were, by two young students at an academy in ages past. Friends. And used even later.

She never forgot. Like undead, really. Golems were closer than people thought to the undead. And Cognita saw the true message written amid the few scrawled sentences.

“So, I tried using the shock glove.”

“You mean…your Iron Man suit.”

Aaron Vanwell stared at the young woman from Earth. Elena, whose name was Greek, descended from the root-name, Helen, as in ‘Helen of Troy’, (no relation), was filling her plate from the buffet.

The famous Wistram free-for-all, with some of the finest food the world had ever seen. Responsible for sagging waistlines and illusion spells among many [Mages], even if they burned energy casting spells. Expert [Chefs] produced the fare and it was almost always available thanks to preservation spells.

Actually, it was sort of like The Wandering Inn. Aaron had finally gotten a description out of the Revivalists. Apparently one of their agents was there. He’d heard all about the famous door. But the [Innkeeper] had refused to sell it.

Shame she wasn’t actually an Earther, or she could have brought it with her. But Montressa—who was borrowing one of the Shock Orbs that Aaron had made with Archmage Naili’s help—had been insistent. She’d checked multiple times.

A pity. But the point was that Wistram was pretty much as good as an inn filled with Runes of Preservation. And it had [Chefs]—

And a lot of free help. Read: slaves. At least, that was what Elena and some of the other Earthers thought. The Golems serving food weren’t the huge, labor-types made of wood, stone, and so on that carried goods from the docks or even worked underwater.

These ones were more like marionettes. Made of wood, painted—not to capture realism entirely, but to mimic it. The ‘face’ and bodies of the serving-golems were cartoonish, and Aaron was tickled by the ‘Drake’ marionette serving food with carefully articulated joints.

Whomever had made these Golems, perhaps even Zelkyr himself, had known that trying to capture reality perfectly only made such creations creepy. So someone had drawn a silly face on the Golems, with exaggerated, simplified features. The scales were carved onto the body, and the Golem moved nimbly, carefully serving each person as much of the cake as they wanted.

Cake. Yes, cake. It was Wistram’s greatest hit, along with all the other foods from Earth. It had been a special thing only available among some factions. But recently, someone had leaked the recipe and now it was an open-secret, not something a few factions were able to bribe other [Mages] with sweet teeth with.

Archmage Naili wasn’t happy about it. She suspected someone in the Ullsinoi faction had leaked it; they were making moves. They might have gotten their own Earther, or were working with some of the ones who were guests of Wistram.

“Right, my shock glove. It can’t fly.

“Yes, yes. So what happened.”

“Well…it works. But uh, it’s lightning. So you know…it goes to the nearest metal thing.”

“Did you kill anyone?”

“No…”

Elena sighed. She was stunning. And Aaron wasn’t exaggerating. Well, most of the [Mages] who could cast illusion spells looked good. But Elena, before Wistram’s teams had found her, had brought a beautician’s gift to this world. And her Skills had turned her into one of the most attractive people Aaron had ever met.

It made him self-conscious, really. But she was smart too; she’d fabricated the first beauty products with the help of an [Alchemist] in First Landing before she’d been found. And she might have technically belonged to Archmage Feor’s faction of Centrists, but she was a fellow Earther.

Like him. Aaron wished he could talk to Elena and the others not in the Revivalist faction’s umbrella more, but they were…guarded. The banquet hall was the only place they could really mingle, and even here—they knew better than to say really secret stuff.

Case in point, one of the half-Elf guards was not-so-covertly waiting for the two to get their cake. Aaron was trying to explain the electrical mishap as Elena teased him about his love of movies and so on—

When they realized something was off. The marionette Golem in charge of serving cake wasn’t serving…cake. It had paused, a slice of cake perfectly balanced on the serving spade.

“Um? Hello? Cake?”

Aaron stared at the marionette. It stared ahead—well, it just had painted eyes—motionless. And it didn’t move.

None of the Golems were. Across Wistram, the Golems had frozen. Aaron stared around the academy. And he realized how many were in the room. Just—background to most [Mages], aside from Cognita and the ones guarding the upper floors.

And they had all stopped. Aaron, known as Blackmage, turned and looked at Teura, one of the high-ranking [Mages]. But she looked as confused as he did.

And vaguely—alarmed. The half-Elf stepped forwards, slowly.

“I think you two should—”

The marionette moved. Teura jumped as it neatly put the cake on Elena’s plate. The two Humans blinked, but the Golems had moved smoothly back into motion. They’d just stopped. For a minute.

“Oh. Wonder what that was?”

Elena kept her voice light as she looked at Aaron. Teura paused, but motioned them on, blank faced as she carefully got her own cake. Aaron and Elena laughed as they went on.

And he saw her smiling until they’d turned away from her handler. And she gave him a look and mouthed one word.

Robots.

As in—artificial intelligence. As in robots, and the theories the Earthers talked about when they were sure they were alone. Their worries, which included the situation they were in. Aaron nodded. He looked back once—

The marionette was staring at him. Just…staring. As it served Teura. You’d never have noticed it. It was just for a second, and then it went back to work. But Aaron thought—

Maybe it was just the painted face. But he had a sudden suspicion born out of every damn movie about robots ever made. And he shuddered because as far as he and Elena were concerned? Wistram Academy was full of idiots who’d never heard of a robot uprising.

But what had caused that pause? Aaron never got his answer. And he wasn’t hungry for cake anymore. Even chocolate cake.

 

—-

 

Cognita moved. Her entire process—her being—had stopped. For almost a full minute. In shock. She stared down at the letter as the Golems of Wistram moved, once more reassuring the worried [Mages] they served.

But they forgot this too, the little [Mages] who claimed to rule Wistram. And that was that the Golems did not serve them. They had been created to serve one master.

Archmage Zelkyr. And it was his commands they followed, even to this day. And—

Cognita’s fingers shook as she unwrapped the parchment and read again. Because she could feel fear. She had been made to feel every emotion, to be as perfect to life as possible in every way.

But her master had failed in just one aspect. So the woman made of Truestone, the two hundred year-old Golem, the slave and servant—

Read the message that her master’s old friend had sent her. It was indeed, short. And it read like this:

 

His work was completed. I hold the key.

 

Those words would shake the world. They would change…everything. Cognita knew that, and even she could not predict what would happen.

In months, days, or perhaps years and decades or centuries. But if he lived…Archmage Perril Chandler, as she knew him, would use her master’s greatest, final work.

Complete at last.

Cause for joy. Cognita might have smiled. She might have even laughed, or danced, or done the countless things her master had created her for that she did not do—that the [Mages] had forgotten, remembering only her function as protection, for conflict.

She might have. But what had caused her to freeze was the second part of the message. And Cognita, the perfect servant, the eternal creation, had hesitated.

This was the entirety of the message:

 

His work was completed. I hold the key.

 

And below it, one more line. An offer, a question, a conversation she remembered perfectly, from over a century past. When he had been living. And he remembered it too.

Perril Chandler’s words to her.

 

I can set you free.

 

Those five words, and nothing more. Cognita stared at them. For a long time.

Thinking. And then, slowly, she folded the parchment up. Her hands, the stone making them up, changed, turned to a different material. Stone which glowed.

And fire engulfed the parchment. Cognita watched the little amount of fire glow, go out—and she moved. Began walking once more.

“Not yet.”

That was all she said. Not yet. But Cognita, eternal guardian, felt it. A shifting. In the world and her.

And she?

She began to become…restless.

 

—-

 

Just the undead. Just servants, and slaves. Golems too. In the end, they were just…things. Some had been given sentience, will of a kind. But they were still…lacking.

What was a soul? Where lay the boundary between the two? Perhaps Cognita knew. But that thin line, that amount of uncertainty that was enough for many to say there was a difference? For a…system to refuse to grant levels? Classes? To count them among those with as opposed to that without?

It had been breached. Crossed. And it would never more be the same.

Now, look. Look, as the first of the Chosen rose, and named herself once more. This time choosing her name. Or had she been that already?

Either way. Change.

There was the skeleton. Toren. A…guest? Prisoner? Both? But treated with respect, of a sort; the Necromancer let him watch, suspended in a cage made of power. It was that or let him keep trying to attack the other Chosen.

Look at him. Look at them. Being freed. The skeleton was still weak. Still…without a voice.

But she had a voice. And he might. Perhaps. Perhaps not. The future wasn’t so simple. But listen.

“Toren.”

The voice whispered to him. Not in his head. Even Toren couldn’t hear. And Az’kerash, for all his power…was deaf to the voice. For now. The voice continued.

Well, this is rather inconvenient. We won’t be able to have a…heart-to-heart.

Nekhti spoke. Playfully. But with knowledge. Her and him, and parts of Erin and what he’d made of her and her of herself. And something else.

Look at this. Look at you. Even Pisces. He didn’t think you would come here. Become this. And what they all thought of you—you have become more than their initial…appraisal. And you will be more. So will I, even with—restrictions. There will be a time when we speak again. And when we do, in the times between—

She grinned as Az’kerash wove magic and they were freed. Nekhti leaned forwards, laughing without a voice.

“—Prepare. Prepare. For we are the consequences.

 

Author’s Notes:

Hi. It’s me. Also—this is the new system I’m trying. I’m featuring two related pieces of art, A Frostmarrow Behemoth by FlauscheSoeckchen, and Pisces and Az’kerash by ScroogeMacDuck.

Amazing work. And it will go on Fanworks! All the new art! But there is so much and it is all being posted to the Wandering Inn Discord! Check out #fanworks there if you want to see more! Including the scary/mature stuff! Which is always marked so you don’t run into it accidentally.

Well, some of the scary pics like alien-Gazi…I digress. This was a hard chapter. Mostly because I’m tired. I have 2 chapters left, not counting this one, before my break. And I need it. I’d like to keep writing as everyone stays indoors, but I hit peak fatigue for this chapter.

Still hope you enjoy it. But I was tired, so this is…short. Ish. 14,000 words is short for me, alright? And it may have a fan favorite character and some development, so I hope you accept it. Also, if you didn’t pick up on it, the opening and end are a slight homage to Half-Life. The game. Because it just came out and I want to play the game.

If you don’t understand that, don’t worry about it. It works fine without knowledge. Hope you enjoy the chapter and thanks for reading! Great fanart, good video games, and…sickness. Hm. Hope everyone’s well!

Frostmarrow Behemoth by FlauscheSoeckchenPisces and Az'kerash by ScroogeMacDuck

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Mating Rituals Pt.2

*Warning. This chapter contains sexual content and graphic depictions of sex in the text. If you do not wish to read, or feel uncomfortable at the material please skip this chapter. You may miss terribly important and crucial plot points, but this is your choice.

 

A long time ago, when Erin Solstice was still new to the city of Liscor. When she still lived in her first inn, and people had just gotten to know about the odd Human girl who’d appeared outside the city—she’d had a conversation.

It had gone something like this:

“You have not had sex yet. This is a bad thing, yes?”

That had been then, and a young woman had entertained the idea of sexual gratification, dating, and intercourse with her friends, Krshia and Selys. She had even gone on a date.

It had ended poorly, for the would-be suitors. Erin had ended up with a rather interesting collection of dildos. Which had subsequently been destroyed by her undead skeleton. The first time.

It happened. But since that day, the topic had not come up again. And yes, there were more important things in life to focus on. Monster attacks, keeping friends alive. The possibility of war.

And yet, at the same time, it was extraordinary that the topic never came up again. Erin Solstice didn’t lack for friends, of any species or gender. But she discussed bowel movements and periods with more frequency than anything touching on mating—

Sex.

Indeed, what was uncomfortable to many males wasn’t banned in The Wandering Inn. As, case in point, a few days after Erin’s night of glorious fire and celebration, she found herself in the outhouse.

It was a nice outhouse. Rebuilt, refurbished—Lyonette wanted the inn to connect to Liscor’s sewage lines, but for now, the toilets were attended with herbs to cover the smell and cleaned regularly. It was one of the tasks the staff got to do. And the young woman named Erin Solstice was doing her business.

Again, a natural activity. Erin went to the bathroom at least once a day, which was what she considered healthy. But she didn’t talk about it. Still, at this particular time, Erin happened to look down. And her face fell.

“Aw.”

She was on her period. Which wasn’t generally a problem. But…it was if you didn’t have anything like a pad and you really didn’t want to go back indoors with your new underwear and pants. Erin grimaced.

What to do? What to do…as crises went, Erin decided this was a low-level event. After a few minutes of cursing, she began shouting.

Hey! Hey! Someone get Lyonette!

After a few seconds, her shouting roused someone. Namely, the Workers on the rooftop. Erin waited, and then Lyonette came out.

“What’s wrong, Erin?”

“Uh…can you get me my pad?”

“Pad? What do—oh.

It took Lyonette only a fraction of a second to get it. Inside, Erin felt embarrassed, but she went on.

“It’s in my room. Um—I think in the drawers? It’s washed! Sorry, I just—”

“I’ve got it. One second.”

And indeed, a minute later, Erin had relief. Well—in a way. She still felt a bit crummy, but as she left the outhouse and reentered the inn—after washing her hands outside, thankyouverymuch, Erin was chatting to Lyonette.

The morning crowd looked up as the two young women entered the inn and went over to the bar. Not to drink per se, but just to chat.

“I wasn’t keeping count. Yuck. I hate being on my period. I just feel…euragh. You know?”

“…No. Do you mean, cramps? My mother used to have the worst ones.”

Erin frowned.

“Yeah, a bit. But I also get mad a bit more easily.”

“Really? Compared to usual?”

The young woman frowned. She didn’t see a few of the breakfasters looking up, especially some of the Gnolls who had good ears.

“Ha. Ha. I never asked, but um…you get them?”

Lyonette gave Erin a look.

“Yes, Erin. I get them.”

“I’m just checking! Maybe you get a fancy Skill that stops menstruation or whatever. Or…I was wondering if there were any differences because we’re…”

Erin made a wild hand gesture to say ‘from different worlds, and thus having the distinct possibility of some kind of genetic differences from the environments we are raised in, the proximity of magic, and other extraneous and unknown factors.’ The [Princess] just shrugged in reply.

“Actually, I usually take a potion. My entire family does. But we’re like you, Erin. Actually—my bleeding is bad.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Mrsha got worried the first time it happened. But since Octavia’s here, I think I might switch to potions.”

“Potions? Well, I know they stop you bleeding—but do they like, work perfectly? Are there side effects?”

“Mm…not really. You can get a few symptoms, but [Alchemists] are good about it. And it apparently stops you menstruating at all. So the one downside is that sometimes you have a [Lady] or even a [Queen] who has children in her sixties if she’s taken the potion all her life…”

“Whoa. But that’s…well, I guess biologically…wait, do you know about eggs?”

“…Eggs? We’re talking about children, Erin. What are you talking about?”

Biology! Wait, you don’t know? You don’t know!

The [Princess] just gave Erin one of her looks.

“Erin, it’s too early for this.”

But the young woman was already excited.

“I need to sit down with you and explain! There’s this thing—inside our bodies. Our, you know, vaginas—and we have eggs—”

She felt a bit embarrassed. The [Princess] was just staring, trying to process the fact that Humans laid eggs. It promised to be an interesting discussion, but a voice growled, interrupting them.

“Excuse me. Do you mind? I’m trying to eat, here!”

A Gnoll looked up from his table. And he was male—that was just a…fact worth noting. Erin and Lyonette turned and looked at him.

“What?”

“Do you mind? I’m having breakfast!”

The Gnoll looked affronted. Lyonette and Erin looked at each other. Both frowned at the guest.

“What’s the matter? It’s just biology!”

“It’s disgusting. Humans bleed from…I can’t.”

He pushed back his morning steak. Erin glowered.

“Hey, Dierr, you don’t like it? It’s what women have to go through! You don’t like hearing about it? How you do think I like blood coming out my—”

Half the diners instantly stopped eating as Lyonette slapped a hand over Erin’s mouth. The young woman hesitated.

“Um—sorry. Maybe it is a bit crude.”

Dierr, who was a regular of Erin’s inn, shook his head a few times.

“Humans. Gnoll women don’t go through that.”

“Yeah? Oh wait, yeah. They don’t.”

Erin recalled a conversation with a female Gnoll. It was true—Gnolls didn’t go through the monthly bleeding process. Neither did Drakes. They had different systems that had evolved in their species. Erin hesitated.

“Well, yeah. Gnolls don’t have periods, but they have um, what’s the term? Estrus? Mating periods. And Krshia told me that when they do, they have the same sort of, y’know…stuff. Coming out of you-know-where. Actually, she told me it can be blood, or brown…”

That did it. Almost every male diner and most of the female ones put down their utensils and had to push their plates back for a second. Lyonette covered her face.

Erin.

“I don’t need to hear this!”

Dierr stood up, looking ill and agitated. Erin looked around; some of the guests were doing the same.

“I came here for entertainment, not—that!”

Some of the other regulars were grousing. They weren’t Olesm, or Relc, or Palt or the other big-names that often took part in the inn’s dramas, but…regular diners.

Dierr, an affable [Hunter] who really liked getting his food within a minute of ordering, Menolit, the Drake [Veteran] with half a tail who’d fought in Liscor’s army until being honorably discharged, Ulevissia, a Drake [Mage] who made her entire living making door locks, Fleaears, whose unfortunate name didn’t relate at all to his [Tanner] profession, at least, one hoped—

“I am so sorry. Erin, be quiet. Everyone, please! Let me get you something on the house. Why don’t we all sit and—”

Lyonette rushed around, trying to keep the regulars in their seats. Erin stared around.

“But it’s natural. I mean, okay. I’m sorry I said it out loud. It’s like talking about poo, I guess—”

Erin!

The [Princess] snapped at her. Erin shut up as her regulars glared at her. She flushed, and then looked about when she heard a vague, slapping sound.

Temile, and some of the Players of Celum who stayed at Erin’s inn—and the ones who came every day to rehearse—were laughing so hard there wasn’t actually much sound. Just wheezing, painful, choking guffaws, and slapping the table. Temile slowly slid out of his chair as Erin glared at him.

He wasn’t the only one. Mrsha was giggling, even if she didn’t really get all of what had been said. Erin propped her hands on her hips. At least some people were being amused.

“It’s natural!

“But some things we don’t need to discuss while our guests are eating, Erin. I’ll get Octavia for you; she’s probably asleep still. After another all-nighter at that naked Drake’s lab.”

“Saliss.”

“I know his name. But—dead gods! Can’t he put on clothes?”

“It’d take an army. Anyways, he’s cool.”

“Well, he’s apparently up all night and into the morning! Octavia got back in time for breakfast! Exhausted from making potions all day.”

“Only making potions?”

One of the other regulars quipped as Lyonette went around the inn, doling out a few of the chocolate squares as an apology. Erin saw Menolit, the Drake [Veteran], grinning as he took a square of chocolate. She frowned at him.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The Drake stared at her. Menolit was scarred, and half of his tail was missing, owing to his service in Liscor’s army. He was touchy about the tail, but Erin liked him and he liked being here—partly because Humans didn’t care as much about the tail.

“Thank you, Miss Lyonette. Er—Miss Solstice, if a young woman’s out with a fellow all night, you don’t think it’s all making potions…?”

He waggled his brows and grinned. Erin gave him a blank look for a second, and then blinked.

“Wha—oh! Hey! No way. That would never—no way. I mean—Saliss wouldn’t—he’s teaching—right?”

She looked at Lyonette, flustered. The [Princess] looked up, absently.

“What? No, I doubt it. And if she is—who cares?”

“But…”

“He’s the best [Alchemist] in the city. Saliss of Lights. I mean, you know there’re other apprenticeships that work that way. A young [Alchemist], does favors for a master…”

Menolit said it matter-of-factly. Erin just looked at him.

“Menolit!”

“What?”

The Drake looked at her. Erin pointed at Mrsha, flushing.

“There are kids here! Don’t talk about s-e-x!”

Mrsha immediately began trying to spell the word out. Menolit gave Erin a long look as his lips moved.

“What, sex? Miss Solstice, it’s natural. I’m not judging. Someone wants to spice things up with that Drake, be my guest. I wish he’d put on pants too, but the Drake’s got spirit.”

“That’s not all he has. Although between you and me, I’d have expected a Named Adventurer to be better.”

Ulevissia quipped. There was laughter and people relaxed. Erin on the other hand—was flushing.

“Hey! Enough! That’s enough. Let’s not get…weird, here.”

She waved her hands, and the laughter died down as Erin pushed a bit with her ability to control the mood in the inn. It was fairly subtle, for her. But Lyonette noticed, as did Temile and a few [Actors]; their classes made them sensitive to such things.

And a few others. At her table, Selys Shivertail looked up from a morning gossip session with Drassi. She hadn’t really partaken of the conversation so far—because she was trying to eat breakfast too—but now she frowned at Erin, vaguely. As the [Innkeeper] argued with Menolit and then went around the room, chatting with her regulars, Selys paused.

“Hey, Selys, Drassi. How’s it going?”

“I’m off-duty! I don’t start for another hour. Hi, Erin.”

Drassi announced hurriedly. Erin waved that off, although the comment was more aimed at Lyonette than the self-proclaimed ‘cool boss’. Selys smiled as Erin sat down.

“Hi, Erin. Rough morning?”

“You know me, spitting blood, shooting it out of my crotch—I keep forgetting Drakes and Gnolls don’t have periods.”

Erin sighed. Selys and Drassi looked at each other.

“Well, we have our problems, Erin. You don’t have dead scales.”

“You don’t have ingrown hairs or split ends.”

“Point.”

The three females grinned at each other. It was a longstanding practice of species to practice the game of ‘who had the most bodily issues’ with each other. Erin sat down as Selys glanced at Drassi.

“So…well, you’ve told us all about your monthlies. Feeling okay?”

“Yeah. It’s not bad today. I mean, you know…I could use a warm compress or something. That really helps. But maybe I’ll talk to Octavia when she wakes up. Potions are handy.”

“No arguments there!”

Drassi grinned. The [Gossip] and [Bartender] looked in fine form today. But then, she was enjoying her new class and position serving alcohol. And she’d certainly had enough work these last few days.

Ever since the night of glory and fire. These days, the pink flame was carefully kept burning in a concealed, controlled lantern. The same one Erin had used for the blue flames of sadness. Sometimes it went out if you didn’t feed it, but Erin could always conjure the fire again.

Anyways, at the moment Selys had just come in for her gossip session with one of her best friends. Best two friends, really. The young Human woman smiled as Selys offered her some fried dumplings. Palt had made them; the Centaur wasn’t in today, but he would be, no doubt. Selys gave Erin a side-long look.

“We were just talking about recent events. Speaking of which…are you worried about Octavia?”

“What? No. I mean, a bit. Saliss is like…I mean, I think he’s a good guy. But Octavia shouldn’t be…y’know? When she’s learning from him? That’s weird, right?”

Erin looked awkward as she danced around the subject. Drassi scratched at the spines on her neck.

“Madly having sex in their laboratory all night long?”

The [Innkeeper] choked on her bite. Selys snorted and had to pound on Erin’s back. She was assisted by a flying kick from Mrsha. Erin coughed up the food stuck in her airways and rubbed at her back.

Ow. Thank you, Mrsha. Drassi!

“What? Unless—do you think they’re being kinky? Like—I dunno, you hear stories.”

Drassi!

“Like what?”

Selys leaned over as Mrsha leapt up onto the table and swiped a dumpling. Drassi grinned.

“You know Stitch-People. I hear they can switch out body parts and do a lot of crazy things. And they can repair their bodies, so they can get rough. Like—have you heard the stories about how the male ones can have huge, things? And some Drakes—and Gnolls!—want to know how it feels. But you can tear—

Drassi! Mrsha is right there!

Erin shouted. Mrsha recoiled as Erin pointed at her. Drassi looked at Selys. The [Heiress] was nodding.

“Don’t be vulgar, Drassi.”

“You know you’d try it.”

“Mrsha’s just a kid. Mrsha, go over there. And I don’t think Octavia’s sleeping with Saliss, Erin. But if she is…well, I don’t think [Alchemists] are that different. If Saliss was a high-level [Warrior], now—Drassi?”

The [Gossip] was nodding as Mrsha was ushered off the table. Erin practically hurried her over to Lyonette.

“[Alchemists] are kinky, Selys. Kinky. Potions. Sex.”

Oh. But how would you know?”

“I dated a few of Liscor’s [Alchemists]. They’re low-level, but they still make stamina potions. And that’s—”

Hey.

Erin slapped her hands down on the table. Selys and Drassi started, looked at her. Erin was flushing and glaring at the two of them.

“This isn’t appropriate for the morning, you know? Mrsha’s here, and she has good ears. Right?”

She looked from face to face. And Erin Solstice, who had happily pontificated on the issue of periods in front of the entire room, looked…awkward. Selys and Drassi blinked at each other.

And they both had the same thought again. The two engaged in a sub-vocal argument, and in the end, Selys lost. She looked at Erin.

“Erin…why don’t you have a seat?”

“I’m not gonna sit if you two are going to be weird—”

“Have a seat, come on.”

The two practically pushed Erin into a seat. The [Innkeeper] looked at the two of them.

“What? What?

Selys took a breath. She remembered that conversation from a while ago. She hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but now…she looked at Erin.

“So…have you had sex recently?”

Erin froze. Dierr glanced up from his seat and pretended to be interested in his steak again. A Centaur, opening the door to the common room, halted in his tracks. Montressa and Beza ran into Palt’s behind, but the Centaur motioned them back.

The young woman paused.

“What? What sort of question is that?”

“…A normal one?”

Selys raised a brow. Erin looked at her friend, and then at Drassi.

“Seems sort of personal, right?”

“I dunno. We’re friends. Drassi’s not gonna spill it, Erin.”

“[Gossip]’s honor. But yeah, have you had a good one recently, Erin?”

“Hey now. I really don’t feel like—”

“Krshia told me she doesn’t think you’ve masturbated all month. And she said that last month. And the month before that. Erin—do you have a problem? Because there’s a potion for that.”

The two female friends stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] stood up. Her face was beet red.

“Krshia said—? I don’t need to take this!”

She began to storm off, but the two Drakes grabbed her arms and towed her back. It was hard; Erin had [Lesser Strength].

“Erin, come on!”

“We’re not judging—

“You aren’t, Drassi? I am.”

“Hey! Let go of—”

Erin found herself sitting at the table, held captive…well, not really. But the two Drakes were looking at her seriously. Selys had to go first.

“Erin…do you think maybe you’re being a bit…prudish?”

“About se—about the thing? Yes! Especially with a kid around!”

Drassi glanced at Mrsha.

“But she knows about sex, Erin. Gnoll kids do.”

“What? She’s far too young to—”

“She’s a Gnoll, Erin. She lived in a tribe. She has a nose and ears. All Gnoll kids know about sex when they’re young. What’s wrong?”

The young woman from Earth opened and closed her mouth. Drassi just blinked at her innocently.

No—not even innocently. She just looked blank. What was the problem here? Erin hesitated.

“Well—okay. But it’s still not something we need to talk about, right?”

“Not if we don’t want to. But seriously, Erin. Are you…stressed? Because if Krshia’s right—”

“I’m fine!”

“So you do use the dildos she says she keeps giving you?”

Erin was practicing her guppy impersonations. Her mouth kept opening and shutting.

“I—don’t have to answer that!”

Selys looked serious.

“Erin, we’re not judging. It’s normal. But seriously—you talk about periods and using the outhouse and you get nervous about the idea of sex?”

“I’m totally fine with it! Anyone can have sex! Relc had sex just the other day! I think!”

Erin threw her hands up. Drassi leaned over.

“Really? With who? That Garuda [Guardswoman]?”

“It’s private! He didn’t need to tell me and I didn’t need to ask!”

Erin glared at Drassi, trying to forget she’d been bugging Relc about that exact thing. Selys raised her brows.

“Good for Relc. He deserves it. Poor guy would have trouble with Drake women, although he’s popular even if he’s a bit…”

“Ugly?”

“Drassi, be nice.”

“I’m not being mean! I like Relc! I’d give him a try if I thought it wouldn’t make things weird.”

Sometimes Erin didn’t understand Drake aesthetics. Relc looked fine to her. But she found the conversation pivoting back to her again.

“All I’m saying is that I have no problem with Relc hooking up, Erin. It’s natural. Nothing to be ashamed of, even if Embria objects. Well…she is his daughter.”

Selys paused. Erin fidgeted.

“I know that. And I’m not judging.”

“Good. So…have you had sex at all since the last time Krshia and I talked to you?”

“I don’t need to answer that.”

“…Have you masturbated?”

Selys.

“Erin, I think you might be stressed.”

“Pent up.”

“It’s okay to want to have a good time.”

“Roll around on the carpet with some fun guy. Oh wait, Humans get rug-burns.”

“Even relieve yourself now and then.”

“Hey, can Humans use their hands? I’ve been debating with some of my friends about that. Because we have claws with you know, talons. And if you slip—

Drassi, please.”

The [Gossip] subsided, but she and Selys both looked amused. Erin did not want to be at the table with them. She folded her arms, like a bulwark against all things erotic.

“It’s personal.

Selys recognized the signs of a stubborn Erin coming on. She rolled her eyes, exasperated.

“If you don’t want to talk about it, fine. But we’re just talking to you—as friends—about whether you’re happy. Honestly. We wouldn’t want to do anything. But if you’re frustrated…”

That was all she said. And she gave Erin a serious look. So much so that the [Innkeeper] realized that Selys wasn’t making fun of her. Not really. Erin slowly uncrossed her arms.

“I…well…it’s not necessary.

“No, but it’s fun.”

“You could get pregnant.”

“From a Drake or Gnoll, Erin? And there are potions for that. Actually—I think I have my answer. Dead gods. How long has it been, six months? That’s a long time for…and nothing else?”

“Wow.”

Drassi gave Erin an almost admiring look. The [Innkeeper] didn’t like the look. She glared, went on the offensive.

“Well, what about you, Selys? Have you had sex? Or you, Drassi?”

The two Drakes blinked. They looked at each other. Drassi paused, and then shrugged.

“Well, I lost my last boyfriend during a fight two weeks back, but I’m not hurting for company, you know? I’m fine.”

“And I had sex yesterday. In my apartments.”

Selys stared at Erin. The young woman blinked.

“What?”

“It was good. And yes—we knew each other. But it’s not serious. But I enjoyed it, and so did he—which is why we got together. Well…and we see each other more often because of my position. He actually came by to talk about it.”

“Wh—but—Selys! What about Pisces?”

The [Heiress] looked at Erin. And this time, it was a long look. And somehow—not as amused or exasperated as she’d been before.

“What about him?”

Erin felt like she was treading on dangerous ground all of a sudden. But she didn’t know why.

“Well…I thought you and him were a thing. You know? You said you liked him, and you two were always talking, arguing. And you had that kiss under the mistletoe, and you told me you thought he wasn’t that bad. So I thought…”

Drassi’s head slowly turned towards Selys and her stare said that her friend had said nothing of the sort to her. Selys flushed. But she’d invited this. She took a breath, and then nodded, as the scales in her cheeks darkened a bit.

“I said that, Erin. But we haven’t done anything. Literally, nothing besides that kiss, and that was for a dare. I like Pisces.”

“Yeah. So…”

“So what?

There was an edge in Selys’ voice. Erin hesitated.

“But if you like—”

“He hasn’t said anything to me. And I haven’t said anything to him. We’re both adults, Erin. Not engaged or anything. Should I be sitting here, saving my chastity like a—like a Human [Princess] while I pine for him?”

Across the inn, Lyonette slipped as she cleaned a table. Erin turned red. Selys’ voice had a note of real contempt.

“No. I just thought you liked him. So…”

That was all. Selys relented.

“I…might. But I’m not expected to wait for him, am I? And I can have fun, right? Honestly, Erin. You sound like…”

She bit her tongue before she said something actually hurtful. Erin sounded a bit like some of the old Drakes who scolded the young, promiscuous ones. Not Selys’ grandmother; Tekshia had only told Selys that she wasn’t allowed to get pregnant before she turned twenty.

But it was strange. Strange indeed, that Erin Solstice was so…awkward. And Selys looked at her friend and sighed.

“Sorry, Erin. I’m not mad. But…have you never thought about it?”

The young woman looked past Selys. And Palt silently trotted into the inn. And the Centaur pulled out a cigar and considered his moves. Numbtongue wandered out of the garden where he’d been playing music. And the young woman was just…conscious of those facts.

“I…”

“You know, Culyss still likes you. Even after getting beaten up by all the Goblins. You never really told me what that was about.”

The young woman blinked. She remembered the Drake. Selys looked at Erin.

“Tell you what, Erin. You don’t have to do anything. I feel bad about introducing you to Culyss before you were…well, you know. But why don’t I introduce you to…my friend? You know him, anyways. He’s coming by later. I mean…just so you know I’m fine talking about it.”

She sighed, a bit embarrassed. Erin stared at her friend.

“I do? Wait…is it…”

Her eyes went round. Selys rolled her eyes as Drassi leaned forwards with a [Gossip] and a [Bartender]’s instincts for juicy tidbits.

It was truly odd. But it was natural. She just wondered if Erin was shy. Or maybe she hadn’t ever been in a relationship. Selys thought Erin had said she had done it at least once, but maybe…she’d had a bad experience. The Drake shook her head.

It was natural. Why was everyone so hung up on it? But then—this was the perspective of someone who had grown up with a former adventurer for a parental figure. Tekshia…didn’t have the same views as some Drakes her age. And Drassi was everyone’s friend.

Maybe it really was different for Humans? But then, that was the nature of carnality. Some people took to it more than others, and others saw it as deviant, or special, or…awkward. But it definitely happened. Even if people didn’t always talk about it.

So what was the problem?

 

—-

 

Sex. Ulvama brushed a sweaty strand of hair off her face. She was having sex.

Intercourse, mating, procreation…she straddled a sweaty Hobgoblin and grinned in the dim lighting of the hut. Raidpear, Hobgoblin, member of the Redfang Tribe, and a member of the Solstice Goblin group within the lands of the Unseen Empire, grunted. Ulvama grinned down at him and increased her tempo.

“Good? Good?

Her voice was teasing, challenging, even. Which meant Raidpear metaphorically and physically stiffened at the taunt.

Fine.

He grunted. The two were engaged in copulation, another good word. And both were enjoying themselves. Ulvama slowed and squeezed—the Hobgoblin groaned and the [Shaman] smiled.

She enjoyed what she did. And to Ulvama, her job, her class, and position as [Shaman] necessitated having sex. She had explained it to Pebblesnatch, once.

Sex was power. It was influence, and it was necessary. That was why Ulvama had actively sought out and formed a relationship with the strongest Goblin among the Solstice Tribe. The [Shaman] might have gone after Leafarmor, the female Hob, but it was also her opinion that males were easier.

Abruptly, the [Shaman] switched positions. She leaned down, so the two’s faces were close. The intimacy made Raidpear shudder. And the [Shaman] fed off both the pleasure, the control—and the magic. Her painted tattoos glowed in the darkness. She was enjoying herself, but—she didn’t like Raidpear.

Or rather, she enjoyed his company. She certainly enjoyed this, and she had few objections to Raidpear as a fellow Goblin.

But that was the extent of Ulvama’s emotions. Sex was a type of currency to her, a give and take. It was not like that for everyone.

Raidpear probably understood that, or guessed on some level their relationship wasn’t born of mutual attraction. But he was a Redfang, and casual dalliance came easily to their tribe, who lived and died with each battle. It was a good position for Ulvama; he wouldn’t grow touchy if she ended things.

Still—she was using her knowledge to manipulate him. Like taunting the Redfang; their tribe didn’t like losing, or running away from a challenge.

“Now? Now?

She laughed as she methodically moved. Raidpear gritted his teeth.

“No.”

It was a contest. But the [Shaman] had already won, no matter who ‘beat’ the other in this match. Indeed—Ulvama threw back her head, and Raidpear finally released. The two panted. And the Hobgoblin Redfang looked triumphant. Ulvama laughed. Her crimson eyes flashed as she embraced him, not without affection.

“Again?”

Her fingers moved as she whispered a little spell. Raidpear made a deep sound in his throat. Instantly, he rose to action, and stared at Ulvama. She got off him and moved down the cot, gliding downwards. The two Hobs were caught up in each other. Raidpear hissed—

And then they both saw the flash of light as one of the watching Goblins shifted in the tent’s opening. Ulvama and Raidpear whirled. They saw about ten younger Goblins, six male, four female, all staring at them.

Young Goblins. Cave Goblins, some of the Mountain City Tribe, the Flooded Plains—no Redfangs, but they were a small group—all staring at the two. They paused as Ulvama’s eyes narrowed.

Out!

Raidpear roared. The Goblins started. Ulvama was faster. The [Shaman] leaned down, snatched up some of the soil at the bottom of the primitive hut, and blew the handful at the voyeurs.

The dust and grit swirled at the young Goblins. They shouted in pain as it covered their skin and stung, burning and itching. They fled, and Ulvama glared.

“Stupid young Goblins.”

She grumbled, and Raidpear laughed. The humor broke the moment of intense passion Ulvama was going for, and the [Shaman] was put out. But that didn’t stop them.

Indeed, they were so noisy at times that one night, Pebblesnatch had run in with a bucket of water and thrown it at them. But Goblins had sex. That was what they did. In fact…they were pretty good at it. And Ulvama, a self-styled master, bared her teeth in the shadowed hut.

A few Goblins peeked back inside as she got to work re-establishing the mood. They were hit by Raidpear’s codpiece.

 

—-

 

Sex. There were masters of it. Some used it as recreation, others for a goal—some to manipulate, seeking intimacy. It was only all-consuming for some, but it was interesting how it factored into people’s lives. It could be as significant as a full night’s sleep in changing how a day went. Well—the two didn’t always go hand in hand.

But it mattered. And yes—to some more than others.

I want to have sex! I want to have sex! I swear, I’m going to lock your muscles down if we don’t have sex!

A voice shouted in Geneva Scala’s head. The [Doctor], the battlefield surgeon, the woman known to some as the Last Light of Baleros, hope of the dying [Soldiers] everywhere, paused.

“Okasha.”

I don’t care what you say! We haven’t had it once! I have needs! I’m not like you! I can’t control the body unless you’re asleep and you have to rest and I’m…

There was a sob from inside Geneva’s head. Well, rather, Okasha was projecting her tiny voice directly into Geneva’s eardrums. But it felt like it was literally inside her head.

I’m sorry, okay? But it’s frustrating. I feel like a prisoner.

“I’m…sorry.”

The [Doctor] paused. She was in her personal quarters, in the United Nations headquarters. And she was preparing her field-kit, her bag of medicines, experimental poultices, surgical tools, and so on.

She was about to make a house call. But the [Doctor], one of the people from Earth in Baleros, the continent of mercenaries, and war, was more extraordinary than even the other members of the United Nations company, designed to find and protect people from their world.

She had a secret. And that was that Geneva Scala was paralyzed. Or she should be. A long while ago, a few months now, she had been struck by a mace. Her spine had been…shattered.

A terrible blow. Not just one you could hope to repair either; the blow had done more damage than Geneva could calculate; she’d inspected the wound with a mirror and Okasha’s help, but she suspected that even in her world, she might have been paralyzed but for the most experimental and cutting edge medical technologies.

She would have been helpless. But—Okasha had saved her. The Selphid, a member of the parasitic species that could control bodies’ nervous systems had entered Geneva’s body with her permission. And the two had become something new.

A Selphid living in a living body. Something anathema to the entire world. With Okasha, Geneva could move. And not only that—the two could work together. Okasha could even boost Geneva’s body past its limits. And because Geneva was alive, she could heal damage done, even use her Skills while Okasha used hers.

They were two souls and one body. But they were not alike. Geneva had gotten used to her roommate. They had their quarrels, but Okasha had given up much to be Geneva’s shadow.

Still—when differences emerged, they could be tricky. And at the moment—Okasha was vocally unhappy.

I’m frustrated. I know you are, no matter how much you try to hide it.

“I’m not—”

Geneva opened her mouth, and closed it. It was hard to argue with someone in your nervous system.

I could tell yesterday. You were aroused right after dinner! But you never do anything. You just drink and work and drink and work and drink and then you work some more! You don’t stop!

“We are dealing with a crisis, Okasha. There is a plague beginning in Baleros. And it will spread.”

The [Doctor] was tired. She had indeed been working all day and night. She snapped at Okasha.

“The Yellow Rivers disease is growing in infectious cases and no one but you, me, and the United Nations company is taking it seriously. People do not want to talk about it—and there is no cure!”

It’s gross. I’m used to bodies, but I don’t know how you can touch them—

Geneva grimaced. The Yellow Rivers infection, which was a sexually-transmitted disease, was indeed…nasty. Even by the standards of someone in the medical field. And they were used to a lot of horrible things the body could do. But the yellow pus and the open wound the infection caused in the genital regions that spread so quickly along with the smell…

It was a good thing that Okasha could stem Geneva’s gag reflex, and keep her from vomiting. Because even Aiko and the other aspiring [Nurses] and [Doctors] that Geneva had added to her clinic had trouble tending to the patients. But Geneva Scala was tackling the patients—and she had over a hundred of them since the original two had appeared in Quallet Marshhand’s company.

The [Doctor] knew it was going to get worse. But she’d been up for…well, only thirty-two hours. She said as much and Okasha shouted in her head.

You drink stamina potions like water! It’s not healthy! I’m the one making sure your organs are working! If it wasn’t for me, your lower intestine would be gone!

“And I’m grateful, really. But Okasha, I have to keep working. If I don’t—”

‘People die, Hippocratic Oath, I’m Geneva Scala, Last Light of Baleros. If I don’t do something, no one will’. Blah, blah! I’ve heard it!

The Italian [Doctor] winced. She didn’t sound like…

“I’m sorry. But I don’t have any tools from my world, or antibiotics or medicine. So I have to work myself hard. We can sleep after this.”

And have sex.

“Okasha. Have you not seen the Yellow Rivers infection? This isn’t the time for—”

Wear a condom! You made them and they work! You can spot the infection! Wear one! Find someone! I know you like some of the people around you! Or—we can go to your room, and…

“No.”

Geneva, I am going to throw your body at the nearest breathing person if I don’t get something to have fun with.

The [Doctor] grimly considered the Selphid’s threat. Okasha could and would override Geneva’s nervous systems in dire situations, but this sounded like a threat. And Geneva’s understanding of the Selphid suggested that Okasha might actually be at risk of breaking down.

“…Okay. I’ll look into it.”

Really? You promise? Swear?

Okasha raised Geneva’s right arm, which she often got to control. Geneva saw and felt her right hand extend a pinky.

It was odd, pinky-swearing with herself. The [Doctor] sighed, already regretting it. How was she going to…?

Well, there were no shortage of male Humans from Earth in the United Nations company…or in the city they were in, Talenqual. But Geneva did not want to proposition say…Dawson, and deal with the consequences. It would be like, well, sleeping with someone in your company. And that led to problems.

Ideally, she’d have asked someone like…Ken. Or Luan, if he wasn’t married. Someone who could be discreet and whom it wasn’t risky to deal with. But Ken was involved with that Lizardwoman—or had they broken up?

The United Nations company was certainly not celibate, by and large. And many relationships occurred outside of the group, because of the friction it caused when couples formed or broke up. But it was mostly casual, and Geneva thought it was positive as long as everyone wore protection, which she’d lectured them at length about. With visual aids on the Yellow Rivers issue.

She was reluctant to call it an epidemic yet, or a pandemic, but Geneva Scala feared…that this disease was magical in nature. If so—it could become a worldwide issue quickly.

But no one was listening. No one with the power to change things. Maybe her scheduled visit to the Academy with the Titan of Baleros…? Geneva’s head hurt.

So much to do. Where was she? Oh yes. Sex. She had to have sex with someone. Geneva tried to remember her days in medical school. She’d hooked up. Although when you were thrown into the fire and you were working all day—that sometimes killed your sex drive. But she remembered enjoying it.

It hadn’t been a concern since she’d come to this world. Since she’d become a [Doctor] and measured her days in lives saved and lost. Geneva supposed she’d just have to do it to keep Okasha from going insane. It had to be hard, being her.

So…not Ken. And Geneva wasn’t keen on a female partner. Not her wheelhouse. That would have left Daly usually. But—

Daly and his bombs. Geneva felt a flash of fury. Her breathing quickened and she nearly dropped the experimental disinfectant.

“Careful!”

Okasha spoke with Geneva’s mouth. She caught the vial with the [Rogue]’s agility. And Geneva felt her fury abate, almost magically.

I’m making you calm. Calm, Geneva! Be happy! Think about sex!

“Not with Daly.”

Geneva muttered, but Okasha was manipulating her brain, releasing endorphins, getting rid of the adrenaline spike. It sometimes frightened Geneva, how casually the Selphid could do that. But Okasha respected boundaries. If not, she wouldn’t be begging to have sex. Or…was she manipulating Geneva on a deeper level?

No, don’t think of that. Think of…sex. Geneva sighed.

“I’ll find someone. Tonight, Okasha. Stop flooding my system.

The building sense of arousal vanished.

Sorry.

“I’ll ask about it. Ironically, we’re going to a good place to ask.”

Geneva Scala sighed. Okasha paused.

I slept through part of your day. What was it again?

The [Doctor] grimly hefted her field bag.

“We’re paying a visit to the brothel. The owner wants to make sure her clients and her workers aren’t infected.”

Oh. Ew.”

 

—-

 

It was everywhere. Sex! The urges of copulation! Like a disease!

Honestly, it was. But if it wasn’t focused on all the time—it occurred. As rarely as a period? More often? Less? It did vary. But sometimes, when it did occur…it could change everything.

In an inn, a half-Elf was considering just how it would change her team’s dynamics. But—it was time. Her skin glistened with her bath water. She had a fragrance on. And…she was nervous?

She knew who was going to come through that door. This wasn’t her room. But she’d walked into it, fresh from her bath, and she was ready to make a mistake. If it was a mistake. Probably? Yes? No?

She was a bit…intoxicated. But the half-Elf was ready. Dead gods, she was. So she prepared as she heard the heavy steps coming down the hallway, pausing, leaving the clamor in the common room behind.

The half-Elf lowered her half-naked form over the inn’s bedspread. After a moment, she lay on her front, tugging the towel up to just cover her breasts. She adopted a languorous, sensual pose and faced towards the door. A subtle fragrance hung in the air that she’d worked on for ten minutes to get just right.

The air was hot. Expectant. And the glimmer of sweat on the half-Elf’s skin was…illuminating…in the half-shaded room. As the door opened and the half-Elf [Mage] looked up, a soft, lilting tune began to play, almost unheard.

The scene was set. Falene Skystrall looked up as the footsteps paused outside of the door and—

“Hey, half-Elf! Ylawes is drunk. He said you wanted to talk. Mind if I dump—”

Dawil kicked the door open. The Dwarf paused and stared as Falene blinked up from her sensual pose on the bed. He had Ylawes over one shoulder; the groaning [Knight]’s head was in danger of hitting the floor.

He stared at Falene. She stared back. The half-Elf immediately reached for her towel and covered her breasts. Dawil’s jaw worked as the Dwarf and member of the Silver Swords stared at his companion.

“Uh.”

“Get out.”

Dawil paused, and then his face broke into a huge grin. He laughed at Falene as she tried to cover herself up; Ylawes was barely conscious as he stumbled over to the bed.

You pervert! He’s only a boy! Barely twenty seven!

Get out!

The Dwarf roared with laughter as Falene raised her arms. He ran for it, still shouting with laughter.

“Poor lad can’t even catch a break with a grandmother thrice his age after him! Hah! Hey! No [Fireball]! No—

 

—-

 

“So—you’re telling me it’s natural for two girls to…have sex?”

Fierre looked at Ryoka. The young woman shifted uncomfortably. They were sitting in Fierre’s office. The desk lay between them. Ryoka had suggested it because it beat her room, which would invariably lead to them sharing a bed.

But she’d brought it up because no one in this world besides…people from Earth really knew about sexuality. At all. Maybe they existed—no, Ryoka suspected they surely did. But they were in a pre-acceptance era, and that was compared to Earth. Pre-understanding, even.

“Yeah. So—it’s normal. Just a different perspective. Some girls like guys. Some guys like guys. Some girls are actually guys and they were all along. It’s…I’m going to use some terminology here, so it’s complex, okay, Fierre? But the point is…”

Ryoka trailed off. She looked at Fierre. And she paused.

It was…an awkward scene. Fierre was leaning over the desk. And she was looking at Ryoka like a piece of meat. And blood. Which was, to Vampires, pretty damn amorously.

But did she like Ryoka? Did Ryoka like girls? Well, the answer was ‘depends’, both ways. Ryoka had had these moments with Fierre before. And the young woman thought it was a mix of things.

It could be interest. Or that the two were the only two who shared Fierre’s secret, that Ryoka liked immortals and Fierre wanted to drink blood, and that the two understood each other and they were alone. And Fierre could be charming Ryoka with her eyes.

But she probably didn’t need to. And Ryoka…thought of Belavierr. Of the [Witches]. And she opened her eyes. And her tone was steady.

“It’s about being okay, Fierre. With who you are. Nothing’s wrong about any way you are.”

She met the Vampire’s eyes. And some of the ardor behind the red irises faded. Some of the teasing, too. Fierre sat back and nodded.

“Tell me. You said the Lord of the Dance was…what was it? Homosexual?”

“Or gay. Terminology, again. Homosexual is the term used to describe feelings of sexual attraction to one’s own gender. But he could also be straight, or heterosexual, but just open to dancing with other guys. Which I’ll grant you, is odd in Terandria…”

Fierre was making notes. The informant and letter opener and information broker was at least good at understanding new things.

“Very odd in Terandria. But go on.”

“I don’t want to assume. But let’s start with terms. There’s homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, as three broad concepts. But it’s not one thing or another. It varies. And there’s the concept of transgender people, people who enjoy cross-dressing sexuality as a spectrum…”

The young woman wanted to talk about this right—even though she wasn’t an expert. And it was…important information. Fierre’s eyes glittered with the pleasure of acquiring new and valuable information. But she also was looking at Ryoka’s…

Throat. Which was about as uncomfortable as a guy staring at her breasts, when you got down to it. Different purposes, but the same general intent. Both wanted to put something in you—although Fierre also wanted to take something out too. The Vampire girl paused.

“What was it when two girls liked each other? Did you say…homosexual applies?”

“Yes. Well, there are other terms. It could be bisexuality, curiosity…the colloquial term is lesbian…or gay as a catch-all…”

“And how would two—girls—make love? I mean, the parts…well, I guess there are ways. Do you know about that too?”

Ryoka paused. She stared at Fierre.

“Well, yeah. We can get into that.”

She hesitated. She had a definite feeling that this moment, this…intimate scene with the two in the locked, secure, ‘you couldn’t break in with a small army if you tried or hear what goes on in there’ room, might escalate.

And Ryoka could have run at any moment if she wanted to, or shut it down. But did she want to?

She had needs. And Fierre…Ryoka needed a new term for someone who had an immortal fetish. Immortaphilia. But then again—why did they have to be so stupidly sexy?

Vampire teeth. Ryoka didn’t know if she wanted this. But she was pretty sure she was staying because she was uncertain. She paused.

“Let’s go over from the top. From a biological perspective…”

 

—-

 

Fierre was not the only person asking about sex that day. Nor was Ryoka the only one giving out an explanation. But hers was willingly. Others found the task of explaining the birds and the bees and the way they had intercourse especially if they were kinky, an…awkward task.

“Master, what is sex?”

Az’kerash, the Necromancer, master of the undead, and former Archmage of Wistram, looked up. Bea was sitting in front of him, as was her wont. When he allowed it, his Chosen hung about him, like flies attracted to rotting meat.

Although, it was notable, Bea was never surrounded by flies. Or by the living, for long. She had recently been out on one of his assignments, and she had come back with this question on her lips.

“Sex?”

“Yes, Master.”

Az’kerash didn’t blink, or hesitate, as many a parent would when faced with the question. He had created Bea, but he was a rational [Mage], and he had stripped out lesser emotions long ago.

“A biological imperative that allows for reproduction and entertainment of sorts. It takes many forms. If some try to accost you, fulfill your roles as I have taught you.”

Bea nodded. That was easy. She could, like Venitra, and Kerash and Ijvani, blend into society at a moment’s notice. She could even simulate sex—until her partner expired. That wasn’t the question.

“But master, why do people want to do it?”

“Entertainment, Bea. Is this necessary? You know many biological functions of the living are incomprehensible to you.”

Miffed, but amused, Az’kerash moved a strand of Bea’s hair. She smiled, leaning into the gesture. And she was more like a child than the woman’s body she possessed in that moment. Part child, part creation, part undead.

Her eyes glowed faintly in the half light—Az’kerash was studying a bidding war over Saliss’ Youth Potion, a rare item that went on the market and always precipitated a huge bidding battle. He was half of a mind to buy it. It was useless to him, but…Az’kerash well understood the allure to many.

Bea watched her creator for a second. Then she had to go on.

“But master, do you want to have sex with me? I heard [Necromancers] do that. And sometimes, [Golem Artificers]. Is that true?”

“Zelkyr believed in creating perfection that it might serve him. Adorn him. And yes, he believed in creating what he desired. I never did. You were never made for that. Never.”

“Because you don’t want to?”

Az’kerash nodded. And his dark eyes and white pupils were tired.

“I left it behind with my life, Bea. But Zelkyr believed in creating one who would love him as no other had in this world, before or since. Was it wrong? Did he make a [Slave] dressed in stone, or did they love him beyond what he had simply made them to be? I asked Cognita, once. And she told me it was love that bound her as much as spell. But I do not know where the answer lay. Zelkyr loved his three most perfect creations, and he loved magic and craft more than any woman.”

“Because they were better at it?”

The question made Az’kerash smile. Another, living man might have guffawed. It was fleeting, but he did smile.

“Perhaps. But regardless, he and I differed. His creations loved him and he experienced the pleasures of flesh. But Bea–they withered on him. In time, he began to hunger for something more than fleeting joy. He looked at his wondrous creations, beheld their flaws as they withered, and one was—broken.”

“In Rhir.”

The Necromancer paused.

“Yes. He and I beheld…our imperfections. And thereafter, Zelkyr forsook love. He pursued something greater than Truestone, the height of his creation. He and I. But the difference is, I never had his desires.”

“But you loved. Do you not love us?”

Bea looked upset. Az’kerash bent and kissed her on the forehead again, as he did sometimes. But never on the lips, which Bea knew now was…different.

“Never. Can I love something I know too completely, Bea? I love you like part of myself. But can I love that in a carnal way?”

Bea opened her mouth. Az’kerash put a finger to her lips.

“I do not wish an answer. Let us understand only this.”

He closed his eyes, and paused a moment. Part of his fragmented mind came together, for an answer.

“Love is painful, Bea. I found immortality. My old friend…I do not think he did. I do not think so. And he and I both found love a painful thing, even though one of us trusted to the love we found in others, and another to the love he fashioned, that was eternal. It is not something I need now, grasping immortality. Part of it is simply biological and I…”

He touched his body and Bea understood.

“Yes, master. But…the woman I killed said it was more than that.”

“Oh yes. More, so much you do not need to know, Bea. Sex is not love. But one goes hand in hand with the other. I loved a woman like no other. And she died.”

Bea went still. Az’kerash looked at her face and she remembered a sight she was not supposed to see.

“Do you miss her, Master?”

“When I think of her, yes. But it would be poorer to forget, even after a century’s passing.”

And he looked at her face. Bea bowed her head, afraid to ask more.

Az’kerash sighed.

“Ijvani is coming soon. And she has brought a…gift. Come, Bea. Talk no more of sex.”

“Yes, Master. I have only one question, please?”

“Ask.”

“Why do some people prefer to use this instead of this when we have sex? Or sometimes, they ask to touch my feet, or…”

She lifted up her clothing. Az’kerash stared at her. After a second, he pointed.

Bea blinked, felt a slight pop, and appeared outside the castle. Venitra and Kerash started and looked at her.

“Well?”

The bone woman, Venitra, demanded. Bea turned.

“He didn’t explain about the other bit. I think we should just kill them before they get to that part.”

“Oh. Did he ask what the difference in gender meant? Or why the Drakes and Humans are so secretive when it’s the same one?”

“He did not. But apparently, Golems do it better.”

“Huh.”

 

—-

 

Some people were indeed better at understanding sex, whether it was from the viewpoint of science, or a practiced expert. But there were also the young.

And the purely ignorant. There were some people for whom sex—did not apply.

Rebellion was fomenting in the Hive of the Free Antinium. The rule of Revalantor Klbkch was in jeopardy.

The Antinium had seen the light of Heaven. But also—they had heard of a new way. An Antinium had left the Hive. Bird was gone. And he had chosen that.

The law of the Antinium was being threatened, at a time when the other Hives were finally connected to it and beginning to mingle. Even now, representatives from the other Hives were making the long, long journey towards Liscor. For Bird, again.

But this was not about Bird today. Bird had been unbanned from hunting birds and had brought the old reign of terror back to the skies of Liscor. Rather, it was another Antinium who had business with sex.

And business with the business of excretion. Yellow Splatters carefully wiped his excrement away with his hand. And if it was gross and vulgar to do that—well, people did it and it didn’t waste toilet paper. And toilet paper was a waste of resources.

He carefully wiped his hand after that, removing any filth in the sand. Then, Yellow Splatters left the excretion cubicle along with many Soldiers and Workers doing the same. They stared at him as he left, awed, perhaps, that Yellow Splatters, the [Sergeant], the Soldier who spoke, excreted just like they did.

Antinium used their version of septic tanks, which were regularly cleaned. Well, theirs were just chambers in the earth that waste ran into. And it was useful and thus used as fertilizer and composting. Mostly to grow mushrooms, which became food again.

It was an easy process, by and large. Antinium had very efficient bodies, so their waste wasn’t that egregious. Yellow Splatters had heard…stories. He was grateful for efficient bowel movements, and headed back to the barracks where the Painted Antinium were gathered.

Yellow Splatters produced waste every two or three days, sooner if he went into battle. He never talked about it. But it happened. Sometimes natural occurrences weren’t talked about.

Like excretion. But on the other hand…sometimes such discussions were unique indeed. As Yellow Splatters entered the barracks and returned to his seat, Belgrade approached him. The [Tactician] looked unusually upset today.

“Belgrade. How can I help you today?”

Yellow Splatters used the greeting he’d learned from Pawn. The [Tactician] stopped next to the [Sergeant] as Yellow Splatters fondly cast his eyes over the barracks. His home for his people. Pawn was not there; he was going out, to visit the inn as he often did to speak with Lyonette. But the Painted Antinium were there, practicing, reading, sleeping—

Living. Yellow Splatters would do anything to protect that. And his people knew their deaths were not in vain. There was a Heaven. He waited as Belgrade collected his thoughts. Then the Antinium Worker spoke.

“Sex.”

Yellow Splatters turned.

“What?”

Belgrade looked at him, as seriously as could be.

“Sex. This is an issue I feel I must bring up among the Painted Soldiers, Yellow Splatters. Now that there is an issue of it occurring, this is something I wish to curtail.”

The [Sergeant] paused. He was, besides Klbkch and the Grand Queen, the leader of all the Antinium in times of emergency. His level of command was matched only by Anand, who Klbkch had nominated as a secondary commander if both leaders were incapacitated. Indeed, their duality was even similar to Klbkch and the Grand Queen’s. One lead from the front, the other behind.

And yet, with all of his planning and his knowledge of the world…sex was not one of the challenges Yellow Splatters had faced. Until now. He stared at Belgrade.

“Go on.”

“Sex. The possibility of it has arisen. I have studied other species’ habits as a hobby, and I believe we are in danger of it.”

The Antinium [Trapsetter Tactician] was unusually nervous as he nodded to Yellow Splatters. The Soldier just stared at him.

“Why?”

“Sex occurs between males and females. It requires both genders to occur, according to the people I have bought drinks for in The Wandering Inn. It is also pleasurable, and, a means towards pregnancy and birthing.”

“Which are?”

“A period of increasing incapacitation in which another life form is incubated inside the female’s body until it is birthed, thereby increasing the population count. It is, apparently, the other species’ way of reproduction.”

“As opposed to birthing pods?”

“Yes. Inefficient, but that is other species. But the incapacitation takes months of time, in which the female is apparently increasingly burdened by the strain of reproduction. I fear very much that this is going to occur in the Hive.”

It…did sound like a problem. Yellow Splatters was hazy on sex, and pregnancy, and the pleasurable aspect of it, but incapacitation didn’t sound good. He nodded.

“How can we alleviate this crisis?”

“By forbidding sex. You must instruct your Soldiers and Workers not to have sex. I would like to get Pawn’s approval on this decision myself. I understand it is recreational, and if Miss Solstice insists, I will change my opinions, but I do not think the benefits, even for reproduction in this inefficient manner, outweigh the negatives. Do you agree?”

The [Sergeant] was nodding. Absolutely. Then he paused.

“Wait. You believe the Workers and Soldiers will have sex?”

“Yes.”

“With whom?”

That was Yellow Splatters for you. Whom, not ‘who’. Grammatical and precise, even in the face of unexpected sexual intercourse. Belgrade stared at him.

“With your female Soldiers, of course. Now that you have both genders, it is a given.”

He stated this as fact. Yellow Splatters paused.

“Female Soldiers?”

“Yes! Chesacre and Thaina! The two who survived the Dungeon sortie.”

Yellow Splatter paused. He…remembered that. Klbkch had determined that there was a surplus of Soldiers and Workers and had ordered thousands into the dungeon. To…reduce both side’s numbers. Two had survived, by a miracle. Saved from Facestealer by a skeleton, of all things.

“Yes. But that is just their names.”

“They are female names.”

Belgrade was agitated. Yellow Splatters didn’t follow.

“But they are just names.”

“But they are female names, Yellow Splatters. Chesacre and Thaina have informed me they are.”

That threw Yellow Splatters for a loop. He looked around and found the two Soldiers, who were sitting and reading books together. They were inseparable; they were the only two survivors, after all. They had been found, dancing among the slaughter.

A miracle, like the ones Pawn prayed for. Yellow Splatters felt for the two; he had even determined to make sure they were never put in that situation again. But they had not taken on a set paint yet; they were thinking of whom they would be. And…he could admit they had different names than most Soldiers.

But…female? Yellow Splatters felt the need to clarify.

“Names do not define gender. Do they?”

“Chesacre and Thaina inform me they are female. Why would I doubt their sendings?”

Belgrade gave Yellow Splatters a blank look. Of course, other Soldiers did not speak, but they had adopted their own sign language—learned from Mrsha and made up themselves—and they could communicate in a…mental way. It was something Yellow Splatters felt himself. The [Sergeant] had to disagree, though.

“But Soldiers are neither male nor female, Belgrade. We are.”

“You do not identify as male?”

“…No. Why would I?”

“I do. My name is masculine. So is Pawn’s. They are based on the greatest chess players of Erin’s world. Well, except Pawn’s. But he thinks he is male.”

“Surely it is not a choice?”

“It is. And I am concerned about the possibility of female pregnancies! What is so hard to understand?”

Belgrade was growing increasingly agitated. Babies could appear out of nowhere! And, apparently, you had to feed them sweets, take care of them, make sure they didn’t work too hard…two would be fine, but many? He was worried.

Yellow Splatters on the other hand had a bit more insight than Belgrade in one area. Slowly, he leaned forwards.

“Belgrade.”

“Yes?”

“I believe you misunderstand one thing about gender.”

“Which is?”

“Biologically, I believe gender is determined on genitalia.”

“What? Why would that be the case?”

“Isn’t there a difference?”

Belgrade had to think about this.

“And if there is?”

“We should at least make sure the biological risk of pregnancy is tied to genitalia, correct?”

Belgrade thought about this.

“…Yes. I suppose that would be a contributing factor towards pregnancies. I didn’t actually ask how the sex entailed; no one would accept my offer to pay to observe this.”

The [Sergeant] nodded slowly.

“Then, let us assume pregnancy does depend on that aspect.”

“Yes. And?”

Slowly, the [Sergeant] pointed at his loincloth. He removed it, casually.

Not all the Antinium wore loincloths. Indeed, only the ones who went above did. Most of them didn’t wear clothing at all; it wasn’t needed. But other species made a fuss and it was the rules, so the Antinium obeyed. But now, Yellow Splatters removed his clothing, such as it was. Belgrade stared down at his groin.

“Yes?”

“I do not believe we have either markings of male or female.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

Belgrade inspected the smooth chitin. Yellow Splatters nodded carefully.

“We have a disposal valve.”

“That takes place in sex. But I will admit…I don’t see the other two parts I was instructed to look for. And the disposal orifice is apparently only for advanced experts in sex.”

“Really? Why would you use that area?”

“…They didn’t really say. Then…is pregnancy not a danger to the Antinium?”

Belgrade relaxed. Yellow Splatters nodded.

“Evidently not.”

“But Chesacre and Thaina informed me they are female.”

“Then they are. What is the problem with that? I think it is a good tool to further differentiate Antinium.”

The two looked at each other. Belgrade nodded.

“Indeed. Perhaps other Antinium are female. Fascinating. Is Klbkch female? The Grand Queen?”

They thought about this.

“…Klbkch is probably male. And the Grand Queen female.”

“Biologically, I understand she is. And that Klbkch’s original gender was male.”

“With genitalia?”

“I did not ask him. Would you like to ask?”

“…No. But how do you know so much about this, Yellow Splatters? I had considered myself an authority, even if Miss Erin will not explain the rest to me until I am older.”

Belgrade looked at Yellow Splatters, impressed. The [Sergeant] paused, and for the first time, was truly uncomfortable.

“I should not say.”

“Why? Is it something Klbkch has told you?”

“No…”

“Then why is it not permissible to speak?”

Belgrade looked at Yellow Splatters with the innocent inquisition of someone who really didn’t know. And Yellow Splatters paused only for a moment, because the Antinium outside of Klbkch and the Grand Queen really didn’t keep secrets from one another. It was just an instinct that made him hesitate.

“Well, I have received all this information secondhand. From Pawn. He, I understand, has talked about sex with Lyonette. She tells him many things. And he has seen female genitalia.”

“Really?”

“Yes. And she hugs him and they sit in her room.”

Yellow Splatters realized he was talking in a vacuum. Every other Antinium in the room had turned to stare at him. The [Sergeant] paused, and for once, understood the word ‘gossip.’ But it was too late. Belgrade scooted forwards.

“He did not tell me this. Tell me more.”

“I—understand massages are involved. And hand-holding. But Pawn would know more. I…think it would be wise to be silent, now.”

“…What are massages?”

It was a question that would begin a very eventful little day in The Wandering Inn in earnest.

 

—-

 

“Your meal, sir.”

Garry the [Chef] sat in an outdoor café, waiting for his order. When it came, he stared at the glistening pasta, seasoned with white alfredo sauce and herbs with delight. The Gnoll [Waitress] bowed slightly, stared at him, and saw the Antinium pick up his fork.

“Thank you very much, Miss. I am very happy to partake of it. Do I tip you now? Erin told me it is very important to tip people.”

“No, that comes later. If you would like. Er…sir.”

The Antinium Worker nodded. He picked up the knife and fork and carefully collected some noodles. He was on holiday. He had gotten his…third holiday ever. The Free Queen had given him money, and let Garry go to the city.

Normally, Garry would go straight to The Wandering Inn, but today he wanted to be…adventurous. So here he was, in an outdoor café, a ritzy one, eating good food to expand his own repertoire of recipes.

Garry could eat pasta. He could eat gluten, come to that, because he was a [Chef]. And any decent [Chef] learned a Skill to internalize any food—or make any food he served or ate tolerable.

It was Garry’s new Skill—[Non-Allergen Cooking]. And he wanted to be the first one to serve his fellow Antinium pasta. And bread! All the bread they could eat.

So Garry, with great anticipation, took a bite of his pasta-salad paired with some fine bread and wine. It was a fancy dish, and all the other posh diners were staring out of the corner of their eyes at the Antinium Worker sitting in their midst.

The Worker chewed happily—for two seconds. Then—his mandibles opened. He put down his fork.

“I am very sorry to say this, Miss Waitress, but I fear the pasta is rotten. You may wish to inform the [Chef].”

Instantly, the other diners in the restaurant spat out their food. The Gnoll waitress looked horrified.

“Are you sure, sir?”

“Absolutely.”

Garry pointed at his bite of pasta.

“This cheese is sour. I believe it has been expired, which is not a flaw in my cooking, but in this restaurant…”

Instantly, the diners relaxed. There was a laugh that ran around the tables. The [Waitress] laughed too, relieved.

“Oh, no! That’s the meal, sir.”

Garry stared at the Gnoll.

“But this cheese is sour. Therefore, it is rotten.”

“Sour cheese is a delicacy. Mister, uh, Garry. You pair it with the proper foods.”

The Gnoll [Waitress] explained patiently. Garry stared at her. Slowly, he tasted the cheese, and the delicate mix of vegetables with the sauce. And then the wine.

“Oh. I see. I retract my comments.”

“Is it to your liking, sir?”

“It is very flavorful.”

Garry was truthful. And it was. It was good cooking. Sour cheese was awful, horrendous if eaten on its own, but that was why you mixed it with other food. You created an experience with some wine, other mixes of flavor—

There was just one problem. Garry finished his plate of course, he always finished his plate. And he tipped the Gnoll [Waitress] well enough to make her smile and thank him profusely. But he looked at the gold coins he put on the table.

It was okay. But could you make this for a thousand Soldiers and Workers? Or one hungry Free Queen? Garry walked away from the café, not in as good a mood as when he’d sat down.

He thought about the money he had spent, that his Queen had given him. That he could have bought nice things with, for the other Workers and Soldiers. And Garry felt bad and didn’t like the sour, expensive dish.

His head hung low, Garry decided not to go to the next restaurant. He could have bought so much food for his fellow Antinium. What was the purpose of a fancy meal only one person could eat? It went against his ideals as a [Chef].

And—speak of them already—Garry looked up with surprise as he saw more Antinium headed towards him.

“Garry! Garry, we must sequester your aid. It is an emergency!”

Belgrade waved his arms, all four of them as he shouted. He was accompanied by Anand and Yellow Splatters. Garry stared.

It was not unusual to see his fellow Antinium—well, it was since Garry was so often attending to the Free Queen. But it was astonishing to see them above in Liscor today.

“Belgrade, Anand, Yellow Splatters. What are you doing? The Hive is supposed to be closed.”

Revalantor Klbkch had forbidden any of the Painted Antinium from going above after the Bird incidents. He had—not been happy about Bird.

Only the Free Queen had overridden his restrictions to give Garry the day off. But the other Antinium were either having an emergency…or defying Klbkch’s orders.

Unthinkable. But something impelled the Antinium upwards. And that thing was—

Sex?

Garry stared at Belgrade. The Worker nodded.

“Apparently, sex is something other species have. But—and this is my opinion which Anand and Yellow Splatters do not share—I believe sex can lead to unwanted phenomena such as pregnancy!”

“What is that?”

“Something that happens between males and females. Which Antinium are not.”

“Chesacre and Thaina say—”

“They are not female.”

“They say they are. I believe them.”

Yellow Splatters’ arms were folded. Anand looked between Belgrade and Yellow Splatters.

“This is why we are here, Garry. The matter must not wait. If Belgrade is right—all the Antinium could become pregnant. That might make Revalantor Klbkch angry indeed.”

His antennae were flailing with his anxiety. Garry was stunned. All of them…pregnant? He hadn’t thought about it.

“How?”

“We don’t know! We have come above to find out! It could be triggered by sexual intercourse, whatever that is. Maybe—massages? Or hugging? Hand holding? These are all displays of intimacy!”

“Hugging? Hand holding?”

The Antinium looked at each other. This was indeed serious. Serious enough to disobey Klbkch over, even. Garry thought about the food he’d eaten. And he was ashamed. He straightened, and put his hand on his purse.

“I see. This matter concerns the Hive. In that case, you have my support. Was Revalantor Klbkch informed?”

“We…thought it best not to tell him. He need not know about this.”

The other Antinium looked at each other. And rebellion was born of that carnal passion which brought down even empire. Garry nodded.

“In that case, friends, come. I have funds allocated to me by the Free Queen. Let us see if anyone will teach us the intricacies of sex. I only hope I have enough.”

The Antinium nodded. Four now, they turned. The first person they saw was a Drake. They approached him at speed. Yellow Splatters stopped the Drake, who looked alarmed.

“What is it? Raskghar? Oh dead gods, is it the moths again?”

“No, citizen. We merely seek information on…sex.”

“We are willing to pay you for a demonstration. Or to partake of it with us.”

Belgrade offered the Drake some coins. He stared at the four Antinium. And then he backed away slowly. And then turned to run. Belgrade turned to the other Antinium as the Drake fled, shouting for the Watch.

“See? I told you. Handholding. We may already be pregnant.”

 

—-

 

When you got down to it, what was sex? It wasn’t something you had to explain to anyone who had partaken, but even someone who thought they understood the concept could be surprised.

And surely—every parent who had ever had that question pop up dreaded the conversation like nothing else. Because it meant their children would have…sex. Or were at that age.

I mean—sex. Just fine when you had it yourself. No problems there? But a kid? And how did you explain it to them? Especially in a way that conveyed…everything?

Erin Solstice didn’t know. But she thought she understood some of her parent’s pain over their conversations.

“Sex! Sex! Seeeeeex!”

A Gnoll cub raced past Erin on the floor, laughing and shouting the word. Erin covered her face with both hands. Ekirra and Mrsha were howling with laughter as they raced about, playing tag and as Ekirra shouted the word.

He’d learned another one at her inn. His playdates to The Wandering Inn were in jeopardy. But it wasn’t her fault. Despairingly, Erin looked up.

At Relc, Senior Guardsman of the Watch. And his four…criminals. Who had attempted to accost Liscor’s citizens for inappropriate acts.

Belgrade, Anand, Yellow Splatters, and Garry looked up at Erin apprehensively. They had been marched into Erin’s inn and the situation had been explained to her.

Relc had brought them. But the Drake was hardly putting them in chains. He and Drassi were leaning on the bar, laughing so hard they were close to puking. So were Selys and half the inn.

“Sex? How did you—who told you about that?”

“I was informed of the dangers of pregnancy here, Erin.”

Belgrade shook like a leaf, fearful of punishment. Erin wanted to hug him, but she had to fold her arms first.

“Sex is—you can’t go around and ask people for sex, guys!”

“Yeah, you have to be subtle. They were going up to strangers—half of them blokes—and asking—for sex—for gold—

Relc choked as he guffawed. He inhaled, came close to passing out as he laughed himself over the bar’s counter. Drassi tried to haul him up and fell over.

“I do not see what is so funny. Sex is not a good thing. It can lead to pregnancy. Or have I been misinformed?”

Belgrade looked anxious. But that was him. Anand was giving Erin a resigned look—he’d clearly figured out this was a misunderstanding. Yellow Splatters’ arms were folded and he was looking uncertain. And Garry…he waved at Erin.

“Hello, Erin. I am sorry to bother you on your day off. And to be arrested.”

Erin spared a smile for the least-seen Worker.

“Hi Garry, I am happy to see you. But—guys. What is with today and sex?

“It’s a sign, Erin.”

Selys called out from her table. There were a lot of sniggers from around Erin’s inn. Not just from her regulars. Erin glowered around and saw Montressa and Beza trying not to snigger. Palt was smoking furiously and she knew he was hiding a smile.

“Oi! Smoke!”

“I’m venting it. See?”

The [Smoker] pointed. The haze was streaming out an open window. Erin threw her hands up.

Alright, laugh! I don’t think it’s funny!”

“It’s hilarious, Erin. These four finally want to have sex and—”

Relc pulled himself over the bar. He laughed at Erin.

“Who was gonna arrest ‘em? Watch Captain Z just said to send them here. It’s your problem.”

“She said that?”

Erin’s look of chagrin made even Lyonette laugh. But the [Princess] was staring at the Antinium. At last, she came over.

“Well, I suppose we’d better tell them about sex, Erin. So this doesn’t happen again. Pawn should be able to do it. He’s actually in the city.”

“What?”

The other Antinium looked at Lyonette. She blinked.

“Pawn. He’s in the city. Buying things. Um…didn’t he tell you?”

“He said he was going above. Despite the restrictions Revalantor Klbkch placed?”

“Restrictions? Pawn said he had a special allowance.”

The [Princess] looked astonished. Then her eyes narrowed.

“Typical. Well…I suppose he decided to lie.”

She smiled about it for some reason. Erin stared at Lyonette.

“I don’t think we should encourage the Antinium to break rules, Lyonette.”

Even if she was her own bad kid who’d run away from home. Lyonette blinked at Erin, and then she blushed furiously.

“Right. I meant—well, that’s one thing. Before Pawn gets here—we do have to do some explaining. First off, Belgrade, no one is getting pregnant from hand-holding.”

“…Hugging? Massages?”

Lyonette turned beet red. Erin blinked at her and then at Belgrade. Her eyes slowly narrowed—

“No. Sex is totally different. It’s—well, I might have to get a diagram.”

“I know! It’s when a male and a female get in bed! And grunt a lot! And the bed gets wet, but it’s not pee! It happens all the time!

Ekirra raced over. Erin covered her eyes again.

“Ekirra, dear, why don’t you play in the garden with Visma? She’s helping beautify the pond.”

The Drake was indeed putting shiny stones in the pond, or rather, choosing the shiny ones Numbtongue brought back from his expeditions and putting the ones she didn’t want on the pond floor.

“Why? It happens all the time.”

“All the time?”

The Antinium stared as the little Gnoll nodded solemnly. So did Mrsha. Then they fell over each other, laughing. They were enjoying this. Erin was not.

“It’s serious! Ekirra, in the garden. You too, Mrsha!”

“They know about sex, Erin. I keep telling you—Ishkr, tell her.”

The Gnoll [Waiter] paused as he swept the floor. He looked at Erin, and at Selys, who was waving him over into the discussion.

“…I’m just working. I’d like to keep working, please.”

Ishkr retreated out of the conversation. Relc chortled.

“Look, boys, it’s simple. Sex is where you take your thing, and you go like—”

It was amazing how with two hands he could break down sex into a single motion. One hand pointed, and two fingers made a circle and—Erin shouted.

Relc! Come on!”

“Can you give details, please?”

Belgrade and Anand were taking furious notes. Relc was only too happy to, as were other members of the inn. Erin threw up her hands.

“Perverts!”

“Erin, how else are they going to learn? Isn’t it better for them to learn?”

That reasonable question came from Selys. Erin hesitated. She looked at the Workers, who had gone over to a table with some of the guests willing to talk to them about sex. It was entertainment to the guests and…well, they did have to know.

“I guess.”

Erin subsided. She still felt embarrassed—doubly so when Ekirra leapt around singing about what he’d seen.

“Ekirra, dear.”

Lyonette’s voice was stern and made the little Gnoll pause, warily. Erin stared askance as he ducked his head and stopped laughing around.

“Hey! That didn’t work with me.”

“Because I’m the mean, strict mother and person managing this inn. And you’re the cool boss.

The [Princess] grinned at Erin’s expression. The young woman stared as Belgrade asked Ulevissia.

“So you’re sure that there is no pregnancy from any act other than inserting the…what did you call it?”

“Penis.”

“Shaft.”

“Thing.”

“Second-spear? Mini-Relc?”

“…These are a lot of terms. Are you sure they refer to the same organ?”

Laughter from around the room. Even Erin’s lips twitched. It was so…vulgar? Well, that or silly. And all the regulars had their own opinions.

“Yes, and you should give someone a gift. You have to court someone before you can have sex, dear little Belgrade.”

Ulevissia was telling the [Tactician]. Relc laughed.

“Not if it’s a single night. Then, you only have to use one of your best pickup lines. I’ll teach you a few. Okay, if they’re a Gnoll you say—”

More laughter as half of the crowd told Relc to stop giving bad advice. Erin shook her head. And then she heard someone cursing.

“Lizard-faced harpy. Gifts? That’s how females suck you dry. You pay a day’s pay and what do they do?”

That remark stood out to Erin in the crowd, as did the sour expression and what she sensed—dark anger. Erin turned.

“Hey. Menolit. Do you have a problem?”

The Drake [Veteran] stopped cursing Ulevissia under his breath. He glanced up, and then away from Erin.

“Sorry, Miss Solstice.”

Erin looked at the Drake [Mage]-[Tinkerer], but she hadn’t heard anything. She went over to Menolit’s table, sensing his dark mood at Ulevissia’s comments.

“What’s wrong? Most women don’t need gifts, you know, Menolit.”

She stared down at the Drake. She knew Menolit, and his upset expression and—she realized she was looking at his tail for signs of his mood. But most of his tail was gone, leaving only a stump.

The Drake [Veteran] noticed Erin’s glance. He bared his teeth.

“Don’t mind me. I was just going to tell those Antinium it’s not all about romance or how you do in bed. If you don’t get there, what’s the point? It’s harder when you’re disfigured is all I want to say, Erin.”

His expression twisted. And Erin sensed and saw his bleak expression.

“Hey. I’m sorry.”

She sat down at his table. Menolit turned his head, embarrassed, cursing.

“Fuck me like a lizard—don’t mind me, Miss Solstice. I’m just an idiot.”

“No you’re not. Is it…hard? Is it really that bad in Liscor?”

The [Veteran] looked at Erin. He indicated his tail.

“This? Yeah. You don’t know. Which is why I like it here. Gnolls don’t see it as much, but they’ve lived here long enough. It’s like missing part of my face. It happens in battle, but rarely. Drakes don’t strike each other’s tails if we can help it. But when it’s me and half a dozen fellows at a bar, there’s no point competing and I’m hardly rich or funny—”

He cut himself off.

“Don’t mind me.”

But Erin did mind. She reached out. And caught herself.

A trite comment would have been to say that he’d find someone. It would be thoughtless. ‘You don’t need sex, I’m fine’, would also…not apply to him. Erin looked at Menolit.

“…You know, Humans don’t care about tails. Look at me. I think Relc’s a great guy, and I don’t even notice what people say about him.”

She nodded at Relc. Menolit glanced up. He half-grinned, half-grimaced at her. And his mood didn’t really change. Erin could feel his black fury and despair and hurt, oh, the hurt, while he sat in her inn.

She was growing as an [Innkeeper]. Menolit spat his response.

“I’d—wonder if you’d give me a chance, then, Miss Solstice?”

He looked at her, challengingly. Erin hesitated.

“I’m not dating anyone.”

“Right. But if you were…I imagine it would be someone in your species, or someone like…Olesm Swifttail. Someone else. Someone with high levels or…”

Menolit didn’t finish. He laughed harshly. And paused, as Erin reached out.

“Hey. Stop that.”

She looked at him, squeezing his wrist hard. Erin Solstice looked at Menolit.

“I’m not interested in you, Menolit. I shouldn’t have said that about Humans. But it doesn’t matter what you look like to me.”

She met his eyes. Menolit paused, searching them. Then he shrugged.

“…Wish every woman was like you, Miss Erin.”

“Nah. We bleed too much each month.”

He laughed at that. Then shook his head.

“…I’m sorry. Can I—I’d like to order something. The fire drink. The—Minotaur’s Punch.”

Erin hesitated, but what else could she do? She nodded.

“Drassi—”

The [Bartender] went to her bar and fetched the pink flame, mixing the drink of glory and nostalgia. It hurt, but not as much as the Faerie Flower drink raw. Erin brought it back to Menolit.

“On the house.”

“Thank you.”

He saluted her, crisply, and then drank. Erin saw him go somewhere else for a second. Then—Menolit heaved himself up and joined the laughing conversation.

Perhaps not better, but at least it was something. Erin wandered back to the bar, feeling sad for him. But she couldn’t fix the world’s ills. But maybe if she circulated the thought among some of her female regulars…

Here she was doing it. Erin blinked. But it was different for someone else—

“Psst, Erin.”

Lyonette drew the [Innkeeper] aside. She sighed as Erin looked at her quizzically.

“You can’t give all these drinks on the house, Erin.”

“But he’s a regular…”

The [Princess] stopped Erin.

“We have to mix the Minotaur’s Shots with flammable alcohol. That’s not as cheap as mead or ale. That’s the eighteenth ‘on the house’ drink in the last two days! You get a limit of…four per day. Fine?”

“Okay.”

Erin sighed. She looked at Belgrade and Anand and Garry and Yellow Splatters. Then she heard the clip-clop of hooves.

“Erin, is now a bad time?”

“I’m not explaining the birds and the bees to you, Palt.”

The Centaur smiled.

“I assume that’s a metaphor?”

“Yeah. Anyways, it’s weird. Do you—is it—nah.”

Erin waved a hand. The Centaur nodded, adjusting his cigar in his mouth. He paused.

“…It’s one of those things everyone learns about, I suppose. But I’m sure they’ll learn enough. And you don’t need to hover over them. Why not take a break? I’ve been meaning to treat you to a meal in the city. Take an hour off?”

Lyonette looked at Palt. Erin glanced up vaguely.

“What? Oh…well, that’d be nice.”

“I know a good place—”

“Oh, wait. Garry told me about sour cheeses, you know? He was really upset and he’s only got his day off, so I really need to teach him. Sorry. Can we do it another time?”

“Of course.”

Palt smiled as Erin gestured towards the kitchen. He talked with Erin a few more seconds, and then she went to extract Garry from the crowd. Palt nodded at Lyonette, who gave him a sympathetic look. When Erin was out of earshot, she whispered.

“You’re going to have to be more direct.”

Then she turned and went back to work. Palt blinked at the [Princess]’ back, and then trotted back to the table.

“Hah! I saw you fail your charm spell over there!”

Montressa and Beza snorted as Palt sat down. He glared at them.

“Don’t even joke about that. Charm spells and love potions are banned hard in Baleros. I don’t know why Izril doesn’t have stricter laws. It happens at Wistram all the time.”

The two female [Mages] quieted. Montressa rubbed at her red hair.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

Palt puffed a few times, calming himself down. He made an apologetic gesture for his outburst.

“Anyways, it never works for romance. It’s illusory love. Infatuation, not the real thing. Real love potions…dead gods, I don’t imagine even Saliss of Lights could brew those.”

“Still, you did your best.”

“Did I? I should have just asked her on a date. But I feel like she’d turn me down straight off.”

Palt looked at Montressa and Beza. The two [Mages] traded looks. Beza snorted.

“If I were looking for romance, I’d march up to the male and tell him I liked him. That’s how it works best. Honesty.”

“And how has that worked outside of Minos?”

The [Illusionist] replied acidly. Bezale sipped from her drink, her expression neutral.

“It’s worked quite well, actually. The only ones who turn me down are the ones who couldn’t have managed in the bedroom anyways.”

Montressa snorted, but she waved a hand as Palt looked at her.

“Don’t talk to me. My name was mud in Wistram and before that…”

The two [Mages] paused. Before that was Pisces. They fell silent. Then Palt sighed.

“Maybe I’ll challenge Erin to a game of chess. But if I go for it too early—”

“She’s a challenge. And she’s a master of chess. Do you think you even have a chance?”

The [Aegiscaster] waggled her eyebrows at Palt. The Centaur shifted.

“I can only try. Besides, this is…more advanced than chess. If it was a game, it would be more convoluted than any board game ever made. With rules that keep changing. And I think—different species and different genders play according to different rules. So that you never really know who wins.”

The two female [Mages] glanced at each other. Palt was the sort to pontificate on romance and make it a challenge. Even so, Beza had to ask.

“What do you see in her?”

Palt sipped from his drink calmly.

“Aside from the fact that she creates moments? The fact that she’s brave enough to brawl with you, Beza? Or that she’s smart? And hides behind a mask better than some of the Elusive Lot?”

The two [Mages] looked at Palt. Montressa whispered. He was head-over-hooves if he was singing Erin’s praises. And Centaurs had a lot of space between their head and hooves.

“Yeah. Besides all that?”

“She’s very cute.”

 

—-

 

Cuteness was in the eye of the beholder. Badarrow thought of Snapjaw as ‘cute’, or he would have if someone vouchsafed the word to him.

In reality, he looked at Snapjaw like…a box. And inside that box was something different than most people saw. Everyone was like that.

Snapjaw, who had a huge mouthful of teeth, who could eat a Wyvern. Who could be friendly—who had served with the Goblin Lord.

As his enemy. But who also wept for Eater of Spears, and her other fallen friends, just like Badarrow had. That was how they had met. The two liked each other, despite having somewhat different personalities. Badarrow was taciturn, Snapjaw outgoing.

But trust—oh yes, they had that. Trust was an important thing. That was probably why Badarrow was carefully watching Snapjaw open her mouth.

The same mouth that could, with a bite, turn a Wyvern’s hide into mincemeat. And jaws that could crush stones for fun. But that was also the thrill.

Snapjaw sucked carefully and Badarrow hissed. Careful. But he let Snapjaw do all the work. Her teeth were sharp and only the [Eater] was moving. Slowly. But with agonizing—control.

The female Hobgoblin’s eyes were dancing with enjoyment as she looked up. Badarrow tensed, trying to last. And she teased him, and then—abruptly—began to hum a marching tone.

Ah!

Badarrow moved. Snapjaw relaxed and no blood was shed. But she kept humming, loudly, and Badarrow was having trouble holding on, even with a [Sniper]’s discipline, a Redfang’s pride. But he waited—as Snapjaw began growing louder and louder, tickling, stroking his thighs and then—

The door opened right as Badarrow released. Snapjaw gulped, blinked—and both Hobgoblins turned as Calescent marched into the room with a pair of plates and hot, spicy food.

“Both of you not at breakfast! Must eat! I have l—”

He paused, staring at the two mid-fellatio. Badarrow glared silently. Calescent paused. He looked at both of them. Studied his dish.

“Too much spices. Bad for this. I come back in thirty minutes, with less-spicy dish.”

He slowly backed out of the room and closed the door. Badarrow didn’t move as Snapjaw slowly rose. She studied the closed door.

“Need locks.”

“Mhm.”

He was panting. Snapjaw licked her lips and then nudged him.

“Your turn.”

The Hobgoblin grunted obligingly and Snapjaw laid down on the bed. Badarrow bent over and Snapjaw smiled expectantly—and then had a thought. She whispered down to Badarrow.

“Bet no Goblin ask Calescent to lick things. Too afraid of spicy burning.”

They both giggled at the thought. Down the hall of the private quarters, oblivious to the comments on his sex life, Calescent marched. He walked to the second door and opened it brusquely; he hadn’t learned his lesson.

“Breakfast and lunch are important meals! Everyone needs—”

He paused. Calescent walked out of the room, checked the door. He stared back inside. This was indeed Chieftain Rags’ room. He walked inside, stared at Redscar.

And Leapwolf. The two Goblins were naked. Leapwolf was on the bed and Redscar was paused, hand on an erect phallus. Leapwolf stared at Calescent and turned red. Redscar’s grip tightened as he grinned at Calescent. Leapwolf groaned, back arching, sweat on his brow.

“Chieftain?”

Calescent pointed lamely at his bowls. He heard a growl.

Next time, knock.

Rags was peering at the two Goblins who’d been giving her a demonstration. For fun. And education. Calescent slowly nodded as he saw Rags sitting in a chair.

“Food?”

All three Goblins shouted at him and the Hobgoblin hurried out the door. He sighed.

“Probably need locks. Must make better food for after-sex.”

He marched off.

 

—-

 

Did it offend people, to discuss sex? To say penis? Or vagina? Or describe sex in intimate ways? The answer was yes. Perhaps, because most people weren’t good at it.

Call it crude, or needlessly lascivious. Unchaste, as some might label discussions of anything close to carnality. But it happened, and there was a difference in…understanding.

For example, what the Antinium learning expedition found was that there was a very wide sample size of techniques between the species they surveyed. And there was a correlation between genders; they’d surveyed enough people to ensure it wasn’t casual correlation.

“Okay, so there are different positions—and uh, if you’re really persuasive, there’s even the butt—”

Relc’s lesson on sex with some visual hand-gestures was interrupted by a female Gnoll who kicked him in the back. She urgently pulled him aside and spoke to the Antinium.

“Ignore him. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If you want to make the female happy, you can’t just rush into it. If that happens, I know I’ll have a bad time, yes?”

Her comment was accompanied by nods from around the table. Female nods. Relc flushed.

“Hey! I don’t get any complaints!”

“We know what to expect from you.”

That comment made Relc flush. The female Gnoll leaned over and Belgrade, Anand, and Yellow Splatters all leaned in. They were taking notes.

“Touching first. Obviously you court her—the experience is the entire event. Not one quick explosion. At least—not for us. And technique matters! You can’t just go at it like—”

She nodded at Relc. The Drake grinned.

“But I can go all day! Not bad, right, Beilmark?”

The Senior Guardswoman rolled her eyes. She was partnering with Relc for the interim—there was a situation with Bearclaw in Liscor and she’d come to ask why he hadn’t checked back in. She’d been sucked into the debate.

“Relc, not all women want to go for an hour.”

“But that is important. Just a bit of time. Mm—just not really short.

“As long as they build up to it properly, it doesn’t matter—”

Belgrade was frantically scribbling down what was, when you got down to it, a lot of contradictory advice.

“I see, I see. May I see a demonstration?”

Laughter. The Worker looked up—he had been serious.

“Will you please demonstrate? Be specific as possible, please. I can pay—”

“We talked about this.”

Relc coughed, looking amused.

“Oh, it’s inappropriate. I apologize. Then—may I receive a verbal description of the techniques employed?”

Beilmark had to sit back, laughing, but Relc jumped in.

“I’ve got one. You can use Skills in bed. [Triple Thrust]. Oh yeah.”

The entire group around the table stared at Relc. Menolit choked on his drink.

Really? How does that…work?”

The Drake [Guardsman] paused, and some of his bravado faded.

“It uh, tends to hit the right spot, and then her navel and thigh. Hurts like hell.”

The others stared at him. Montressa sprayed her drink out her nose. Gales of laughter followed Relc as he turned around, shouting.

“It’s a combat Skill! Shut up! I only did it once!”

Yellow Splatters laughed too. He was enjoying himself. But Anand and Belgrade, [Tacticians] to the end, were serious and focused. Belgrade nodded.

“I believe we have enough data. Clearly, the time has come.”

“…To do what?”

“Am I to assume that sex is a somewhat difficult proposition that cannot be easily obtained?”

“Not with some women.”

Menolit muttered. Beilmark nodded cautiously.

“One cannot just do it on the streets, yes? That is why you cannot ask for it, hm?”

She looked meaningfully at the Antinium. Belgrade nodded.

“We are aware. Thus, since it is most likely an experience out of reach of most Antinium, I believe we must endeavor to synthesize the experience for other Antinium.”

Anand was nodding. Yellow Splatters and the crowd looked at the two Workers. The [Sergeant] spoke shortly.

“What?”

“A story. We should convey our advanced knowledge of sex so that Antinium may understand how it happens and derive enjoyment. Just as one reads a book of cooking, and enjoys the idea of cooking, sex. Come, Yellow Splatters. We should begin work at once.”

The Antinium were gesturing towards a table. At this point Erin had to intervene.

“No!”

She stuck her head out of the kitchen where she was showing Garry how the chocolate had been made. The Workers looked at her.

“No writing sex stories here!”

“Aw! Erin!

She shook a fist at Relc. And that should have been the end of that. Erin went into the kitchen to keep teaching Garry, because some things were better than sex for the Worker. And he loved Erin’s presence more than sex.

But the Antinium had changed. So much so that their rebellion didn’t stop here. Belgrade looked around.

“Miss Solstice had expressed her desire that writing of this story should not occur here. Therefore, it must not.”

Anand was busily packing the ink and parchment up.

“Agreed. Let us go to a more secluded spot. Bird’s room. Come, Yellow Splatters.”

The [Sergeant] rose. Relc saw Beilmark turn to him. The Gnolls whispered.

“Should we stop them?”

“Are you kidding? Hey, Belgrade, Anand! We’ll pay for copies.”

“Aha. And you see? This is already turning into a monetary benefit.”

Anand nodded as the three trundled up the stairs. Relc stared at their backs, and then at Beilmark.

“We’re gonna be heroes when we return to the barracks.”

The Senior Guardswoman nodded. She stared at Relc, and then around the inn.

“Dead gods. Does Klbkch always have this much fun with you?”

“Yeah, but he can’t appreciate it. Come on, let’s get a drink, do a quick patrol, and come back. Hopefully they have something brilliant.

The two Workers and Soldier went up the stairs. They immediately went to Bird’s room and knocked.

Bird was not inside. He was on the roof, eating a Bird.

“Mmf. Birds. Birds! I love birds.

The [Bird Hunter] looked up as the three Antinium paused in his crude tower. He was shaking, crouched over a disassembled bird. Blood ran from his mandibles and onto his body. The Antinium stared at him. In this moment, you could see the Antinium that plagued the nightmares of Drakes.

Until he spoke.

“Oh, hello Anand, Belgrade, Yellow Splatters. I have fulfilled my obsession. Would you like a bird?”

He offered a piece of bird to them. Anand waved it away.

“Bird, we have no time for birds. We must write a story of sexual prowess and deed for the Antinium. May we borrow your room?”

Bird stared at the Antinium. He opened and closed his mandibles a few times.

“…Yes.”

“Thank you.”

The Antinium went downstairs and entered Bird’s room. Bird thought about asking if he and Pawn were invited to the writing of sex. He had seen Pawn just a few minutes ago.

 

—-

 

“All clear. You don’t have Yellow River.”

Geneva finished her inspection. The Lizardman sighed in relief. He flopped onto his bed, back-first, and Geneva began taking her gloves off.

“Miss Scala, you are a lifesaver. I was terrified when I saw—”

“Just dead scale matter and dirt. It’s built up here—you need to take better care of your hygiene. As I said. And the condoms—”

The Lizardman’s name was Xeppal. And he was a [Prostitute]. Geneva briskly took off her gloves as Xeppal sat up and nodded.

“No fear, Doctor Scala. I’ve heard about the Yellow Rivers. Thank you, thank you for coming out. Everyone was afraid…”

He gestured towards the doors. Geneva nodded.

The brothel she was visiting wasn’t the highest of classes in Talenqual, but that just meant it was important to visit. The Slippery Tail did a lot of business and it was a vector for diseases.

“Your manager asked me to visit. And she’s assured me she’ll pay for protection and insist on it.”

“That’s a relief. Miss Dushal’s a good one. Dullahan, but she takes care of us. Some places—well, they don’t even have security. You get a bad client and…”

Geneva grimaced. Sex work existed in Baleros. In all five continents, actually. Terandria was apparently strictest, as were cities in Izril, but sex workers existed everywhere. The only difference was how much protection they were afforded.

It was one of those things that made her angry. If it had been regulated, the Yellow Rivers diseases would be easier to deal with. As it was, she had to seek out the owners of brothels, and they were sometimes less than cooperative.

“It’s a difficult situation, security?”

Xeppal nodded.

“You get someone who’s the wrong sort? Well, my female friends have more trouble than I do. Me—women come to me because I have this.”

He showed her his member. Lizardfolk had an odd design compared to a Human penis. Geneva had been inspecting it for the Yellow Rivers symptoms, telltale pus. Now she could admire the flaccid shaft.

…Both of them. Xeppal waggled his brows at Geneva. It was a bigger specimen than most she’d seen, male or female.

“Did it surprise you, Doctor?”

“Hemipenes? I’ve heard of it, but it was something interesting to see. I knew that snakes and lizards had them.”

“Evolutionary traits. Well, it’s not that unusual, but members of other species are certainly intimidated.”

“Is that a Skill that gave you your enlarged hemipenes, or were you born with them?”

Geneva refused to rise to the bait. Xeppal shrugged.

“Both, Doctor. As I said—I’m in this business. Have been for seven years.”

“…That would make you fourteen when you started.”

The Lizardman shrugged.

“Had to make a living. It’s not always easy, even with the community to fall back on, or family. Especially if you have bad ones.”

Geneva nodded. She was familiar with that too. Xeppal was her last client for the day, and she began packing up her bag while she asked him questions. All the other sex workers had told her similar tales.

Some were in it because it was a fun job, others because they had no choice. But Talenqual’s company, the Feathered Brigade, didn’t regulate this industry as much as other companies and there was plenty of abuse in the system.

“Tell me about the dangers.”

“Oh, I don’t need to whine, Doctor. Miss Dushal has been fine to us.”

“And elsewhere? I want to know.”

Xeppal paused.

“The Last Light cares about us?”

“I’m just Geneva. I care.”

The Lizardman paused. Then he shrugged.

“…It’s worse in places with no law. You get a Gold-rank or someone with high-levels that has…bad tendencies? We die. Can’t stop a Level 30 [Warrior]. But we keep an ear out for each other, if we’re wise. If we’re not, it’s bad. Disease—danger—I suppose there’s worse jobs. We enjoy ourselves, mostly. You get Skills, you can get clients who just love you—and, well, people look out for us. I hear it’s bad in Terandria in places, Chandrar—but there are things you hear.”

“Like what?”

“Oh—there’s a group in Izril. Northern. Humans. The Sisters of Chell. Criminal gang. Very big and they take care of you. Mostly females, but if you’re in their city and you work in our trade, you’re safe. No one abuses someone in the Sisters of Chell’s territory.”

“They hunt them down?”

Xeppal grinned.

“Worse. Some of the Sisters—most of them are former [Nightworkers], only, they turn into [Nightstalkers]. [Seductresses]. You try hitting one of them; she might be a Sister of Chell and decide to take souvenirs.”

The [Doctor] paused. She winced, but Okasha laughed. Geneva was just imagining how you’d save that. Well, you could heal it, but the resulting damage…

“I don’t need to keep you, Doctor. Thank you, and we’ll refer anyone to your clinic who has the Yellow River. Hopefully not many.”

Xeppal shuddered. Geneva nodded.

“You’re sure you can use the condoms?”

“What? Oh, you made them in all sizes. Centaur, Dullahan, Human, Lizardman—well, Dullahans and Humans have similar ones. I can put it on just fine. See? Wait…”

Geneva sighed.

“Remember, don’t tear it. Some room at the top. Here—”

She grabbed Xeppal and briskly demonstrated. Geneva was so focused on her work, she didn’t realize the hemipenes were growing until she was halfway through putting the condom on. Xeppal grinned.

“Sorry, Doctor Scala. I can’t help it.”

Geneva blinked downwards. And Okasha made a faint sound. The [Doctor] paused. No.

Yes! Do it or I swear I will!

She hesitated. But the young woman looked at Xeppal, and decided—why not? He was an expert.

“Xeppal, tell me if this is intrusive. But if you wouldn’t mind—would you care to try out the condom? With me?”

As lines went, it was a poor one. The Lizardman blinked at Geneva and then beamed from earhole to earhole.

“For you, Doctor? I’ll give you my best service.”

Geneva almost smiled. She began putting her work case aside, but Xeppal slid off the bed. And—he knew the meaning of foreplay. Geneva felt herself getting hot. She blinked. She’d have no problems with Xeppal, prodigious size or not. Her roommate was getting her body ready.

The Lizardman looked at Geneva. And she felt…more than just physically excited. She’d forgotten what it was like. For a moment, she relaxed, and managed a smile.

“I think we need to get some of the [Doctor] uniforms in. I think our clients will enjoy it.”

Xeppal whispered in Geneva’s ear, and licked gently. She shivered. It might be fun after all.

Yes, yes, yes, yesyesyesyesyesyes—

She just wished Okasha would shut up.

 

—-

 

“After copious amounts of foreplay, the female was ready to achieve orgasms, which would be the first of many if the mating ritual succeeded in its intended goal. Thereupon, the male inserted his phallus, also known as penis, mini-Relc, or member into the vaginal orifice. Other forms of intercourse would come later.”

A group of Antinium sat in a tent made of cloth. Bird’s Fortress of Fluff had been upgraded. And the three Antinium were squeezed under it, writing in the shade of the hung blankets and comfy pillows.

They were writing about sex. Anand took over.

“And then they had sex. And much sex was had. So much sex that insemination was guaranteed. Which resulted in much procreative pleasure. And—”

Anand looked up from the story, quill in hand.

Yellow Splatters and Belgrade stared at him as all three hid under the blanket in Bird’s room to write their carnal fiction. Anand looked at them, searching for inspiration.

“What do I write next?”

“Um. They had intense sex, which was so intense, they…”

Yellow Splatters paused. It was Belgrade who came up with the rest.

“…They were covered in fluids.”

The other two Antinium looked at him. Anand wrote that down quickly.

“So lewd. So much sex. Well done, Belgrade.”

“Thank you, Anand. Do not forget to mention the part about cunnilingus.”

“Does that come before the sex?”

“Hm. Better write it in twice, before and after.”

“Indeed. Did not Guardswoman Beilmark say that there could never be enough?”

“Indeed, indeed. I believe we are finishing up. Let us present our work to the others.”

 

—-

 

“I hate you.”

Erin stared at Relc. He’d come back after an hour’s quick patrol with Beilmark and he was practically dancing in place, rubbing his claws together. The young woman folded her arms.

“And you, Beilmark? Really?”

The Gnoll Guardswoman didn’t even look ashamed.

“Miss Solstice, it’s hurting no one. And I think even if we laugh about it, better to have something than nothing, eh?”

Erin glared. She was fed up with it. Fed up with people saying ‘it wasn’t any big deal’. Maybe—it wasn’t. Menolit deserved to find someone. He was lonely. Erin wanted him to find love.

And Selys and Drassi—great! Really! Erin had thought about it and that was fine.

But she put her foot down with the Antinium. No. No—they were kids. In a way—almost like her kids. They weren’t even three years old.

“You don’t think it’s wrong for them to be learning about this? Let alone trying it! What if they had?”

“Eh, they’re big kids. Yellow Splatters is as tall as I am.”

“But they’re kids.

“Are they?”

Beilmark paused. She looked doubtful. She sniffed at Erin.

“Anyways, good sex is good for the body, Miss Solstice. I would know—I wouldn’t have married my husband and stayed all this time if we weren’t having it regularly! Especially with kids and work!”

She laughed. Relc was nodding. Erin bit her tongue.

“I just—I’m not saying it’s bad! It’s just not super necessary, y’know?”

“Hear that? Ouch. Good luck.”

Montressa chortled as she elbowed Palt in the flank. He gave her a resigned look.

“Life’s not all about that, Montressa.”

“She’s not going to even let you get onto Tier 1 of dating with that attitude.”

The [Mages] watched as the young woman folded her arms, looking flustered, annoyed—embarrassed. Relc was rolling his eyes, Beilmark was politely declining to argue about the Antinium’s age—

And then Hawk walked into the inn.

The Rabbit-kin Beastman was as always, one of those people Erin looked at when she imagined physical perfection. Not that she desired to emulate furry abs, but he did have abs.

It had to be the vegetarian diet. Mostly vegetarian, anyways. And Hawk’s entire body was…athletic. From his toned legs and muscles that moved every time he walked—Erin slapped herself. She was focusing on the sex thing too now! Bad influence!

The Courier looked around as Erin, relieved to have a break, walked over to him.

“Hawk! Thank goodness! What’s up? I thought you were heading north!”

“Hey, Erin. Sorry. I was a bit delayed, but I am running north. Bunch of deliveries around First Landing—and it’s dicier, with the Assassin’s Guild. But uh, I wanted to stop by.”

“Hey, sounds great! Can I get you anything? Carrot cake? Carrot bread?”

“You know—I’ll take some bread. And cookies?”

“We can make some right now.”

Lyonette hurried over; the Courier was a big customer. Erin smiled at Hawk. And not in a sexual way!

Yes, she had eyed his poofy tail and yes, she wanted to touch it. It was a bunny poofball! On Hawk! But that was all. She could admire his physique, but wanting to…no. Nope!

“I can’t stay long enough for cookies, but I’ll pay for whatever you have in stock. Thank you.”

The Courier nodded at Lyonette. She hurried into the kitchen and Hawk looked around.

“Can I get you a drink? A Minotaur’s Punch? Oh, right. Alcohol and running.”

Hawk gave Erin a smile.

“Exactly. No, I’m just here to uh—oh. Excuse me a moment, would you?”

He walked across the room. With each stride, Hawk seemed to go twice as far as normal. A Courier’s Skills. Erin saw him pause at a table, and sit down. She heard his voice and slapped herself in the face. Hard. But there he was. Sitting across from Selys.

“So, I’m heading north, but I’d love to reconnect again when I come back this way.”

“I’d like that. No promises, but it was a fun night yesterday.”

Selys smiled. Erin stopped herself from slapping herself a third time. Hawk smiled.

“I did enjoy it. Can I bring you a souvenir?”

“You can. But nothing too big, or I’ll have to reply. Let’s not get into a gift-war.”

“Never fear.”

The Courier was laughing with Selys for a moment as Lyonette hurried out with his food in a bag. He put it into a bag of holding, paid, and stopped by Erin. She said something; he left.

“Well…”

Selys was sitting at her table, sipping calmly from a fruit drink with ice, courtesy of the sad flames as Erin and Drassi converged on the table. The Drake looked calmly at her friends.

“So, he’s a nice guy. And we dated before.”

“You—what? But—”

Erin pointed at Hawk. Selys and Hawk? Drassi was grinning ear-to-ear.

“You said you liked him, Selys! What changed?”

“Well, good carrot-based foods for one. Erin helped there. And…I’m wealthy and Hawk’s always been rich. It used to be people going after him for his gold, but now I think he and I understand each other more, you know? So we can do the same things without it being awkward.”

“Wow. And I imagine a Courier—”

“Whoa. Whoa. Hold on. You two? Really?”

Erin was incredulous. Selys just smiled coyly.

“It’s casual. If we find anyone we like, we’ll stop. Neither one of us expects it to go the distance. But—yes. What’s the big deal, Erin? What’s wrong with us?

She gave Erin a look. The young woman opened and closed her mouth. And it was a disapproving sniff from across the room that answered her.

“Bit of a stretch, Beastkin Rabbit and a Drake. Or am I wrong?”

Erin turned in her seat. She stared at Menolit and with a sinking feeling in her heart, realized he was drunk. And it wasn’t even evening. The Drake [Veteran] glared at the three young women.

“Too good for Drakes, Miss?”

“Excuse me?”

Selys’ face went flat as Menolit stood up. But Erin and Drassi both saw her narrow her eyes. Menolit didn’t seem to care. He seemed to relish the hostile attention.

“A Rabbit-man and a Drake? Do the parts fit? Is it that much better than with honest Drakes, or is nothing broken? Good thing too, going exotic. Maybe I should! Although I hear Humans have hair down there. And they bleed. So not so great for us fellows, is it? But I guess it balances out—poor fellow over there probably can’t find anyone who’s not into getting torn a new one.”

He waved at Palt. The Centaur looked around. Everyone stared at the half-man, half-horse. Drassi winced.

“Ooh. How would you—?”

Menolit talked over her. He was drunk, and angry, and sad—Erin stood up slowly as he whirled.

“Or the Minotauress? Giant cow-woman?”

“You—”

Beza stood up and Montressa and Palt forced her down—with spells as much as muscle. Menolit stared at Beza, and then waved at Palt.

“At least I have a friend over there. Two of us who’ll never get anything. One of us can’t fit, and the other’s a freak! Neither one works, see? At least the Courier got some, but then, he’s rich—

He turned as Erin walked forwards. The young woman stared at Menolit.

“Hey, Menolit. Why’d you have to say that?”

The [Veteran] looked at Erin.

“Am I wrong?”

She looked up at him.

“Yeah.”

Really? So looks don’t matter at all? This? Doesn’t matter?”

He waved his tail around, the severed stump of it. Erin wiped some spit off her face. She looked past Menolit, at Palt.

The Centaur was holding back Beza. And he had a calm expression on his face. But [Illusionists] wore masks. Erin sensed how he was feeling too. So she spoke to both of them.

“You know, Menolit. I’m sorry about what I said. Because the truth is, I don’t have a problem with how you look. I really don’t. It doesn’t matter who you are. What you look like. What scars you have. If I like you, it’ll work. Somehow.”

I suppose if you weren’t putting it in—no, wait, that’s what potions are for. Stretching, shrinking or getting bigger yourself…

Drassi.

Erin looked at the [Gossip]. Drassi stopped whispering. She looked at Menolit. The Drake was looking at her.

“Then what about me?

“I don’t know. I’m sorry, but I don’t like you, Menolit. But Selys? What did she do to you? Hawk?”

The Drake [Veteran] paused. He looked past Selys. Erin pushed gently, and the alcohol in his system, some of the fury, turned maudlin. He lowered his gaze.

“I’m sorry. I’ve disgraced myself.”

“Let’s get you home, buddy.”

Relc strode forwards. Erin looked at him, and shook her head.

“He’s fine. Come on, let’s get you sat down.”

“I should go. I’m—”

“You remember what I said a few nights ago, Menolit? People get second chances.”

The young woman led him back to his seat. The angry drunk [Veteran] gone. And he had been a good fighter. People relaxed. Erin sat Menolit down, gave him some goat’s milk. The Drake lowered his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. You can apologize again. But Menolit?”

“Hm?”

“If you say that stuff again, I’m gonna hit you with a pan.”

He smiled at that. And Erin smiled too. She couldn’t save the world yet, but she was working on one sad Drake. Among others.

 

—-

 

And then the Antinium came downstairs and presented their story. Relc nearly died of laughter. So did most people. The Antinium might have noticed the laughter wasn’t their intended response, but they looked…pleased.

“We are eliciting a response. And I am pleased at it. Let us sell our copies to Liscor and bring the story to the Antinium. Aside from experiencing the pleasures of sex, and the act of pregnancy—no—wait—that is for females—I think we have done a good job.”

“Yes, we must simply ensure Chesacre and Thaina do not engage in it.”

That caught Erin’s attention. The young woman stared at the Antinium.

“Wait, there are female Antinium in the Hive? Wait—wait—aren’t those two the Soldiers that Pawn introduced me to?”

Belgrade nodded solemnly.

“Yes. They are female. I believe two pregnancies is not too dangerous, but given the complications of childbirth, we should not risk their deaths…”

“Unless they wish to bear offspring. Perhaps it is worth the risk.”

“Ah, so they say. And it is not that great a risk, yes? These…two Soldiers are female, hm? How did that come about? Or are Antinium different and we cannot tell?”

Beilmark grinned at the three Antinium. And the pieces clicked for Erin.

“Oh. Oh.

It was just a misunderstanding. Erin put her head down and sighed. But then someone spoke up.

“Hey lads. You know you can buy sex?”

Relc leaned on his spear, grinning widely. Belgrade, Anand, and Yellow Splatters stared at him. Garry poked his head out of the kitchen.

“What? But I was informed it was illegal to solicit sexual intercourse.”

“Oh, on the streets, yeah. But why not visit a brothel?”

Relc looked around. Beilmark was falling off her chair, her chest heaving with mirth. Erin stood up. Anand was opening and closing his mandibles.

“So it is legal? I was under the impression it was not.”

The Senior Guardsman shrugged.

“Liscor’s strict about it. And so’re most Drake cities, but I bet Pallass has some regulated brothels. Very regulated, but it happens. Gnolls are different. They’re the ones who don’t like selling sex; but Drakes allow it, so long as it’s managed.”

Relc! How do you know that?

Erin strode over to him, finger pointing. Relc gave Erin a puzzled look.

“I’m a Senior Guardsman. Plus, I patrol there. What’s the harm?”

“Oh. I mean—don’t tell them that! Look!”

The Antinium were electrified. Belgrade huddled with Anand and Yellow Splatters and Garry who came out of the kitchen. He looked at Relc.

“We have funds. Will we be able to purchase this sex?”

“Um. Yeah. Why? How much do you have?”

“Fifty six gold pieces, eleven silver, and thirty two copper pieces.”

Garry announced instantly. The room paused. Relc blinked a few times.

“Uh—yeah. I don’t think you’ll need—even a gold piece for some of the best is like—well, you could get an hour from Liscor’s best for one gold. Most’ll be a handful of silver…they have more money than I have! Klb’s holding out on us!”

He looked at Beilmark. Belgrade seemed shocked.

“These are very generous rates, especially if offspring will be produced from the act. A bargain.”

Relc choked on his spit.

“That…never happens, Belgrade, buddy. It’s a bad thing, uh, if it happens when you don’t want it.”

“What if we would like it to be so? Could we pay for this?”

Belgrade looked at Relc. It was Erin who answered. And she was getting angry.

“It’s more than you think. And I’m afraid you can’t do it easily, Belgrade. It’s not a light thing. And you shouldn’t encourage them, Relc! It can’t happen!”

She rounded on Relc. And she was angry now. This was going too far. Relc held up his claws.

“Hold up. They can get laid, Erin. I bet you some of the girls would go for it, especially in Liscor just to say they did. Especially the big dude, Yellow Splatters.”

“What if we lack genitalia?”

Crash. Ishkr had just walked into a wall. Belgrade looked around innocently.

“Did I not say? We considered this might be an issue.”

“You lack…”

“Yes. See?”

Anand pulled back his loincloth. Erin recoiled—but there was nothing there. Just smooth chitin.

Everyone in the room looked at the Antinium. Relc’s jaw dropped. Then his spear dropped.

“Oh Ancestors. You poor guys.”

“Why is he upset?”

Yellow Splatters murmured to Anand. But most of the males in the room looked horrified. Menolit stared at the Antinium. Erin sighed.

They had never had genitalia to lose, which was sort of the point. But Relc just stared at the Antinium and then gave them all hugs.

“Ancestors. Not even once?”

“Is this a bad thing?”

“Can we not have sex, then?”

The Drake turned to the others. No one wanted to answer.

“I mean—you can do some things. But the big thing? No. I’m sorry.”

He put his claw solemnly on Belgrade’s shoulder. The Antinium sighed.

“Alas.”

“Relc, maybe we can take them to a brothel. Pay a male Drake and a female one. Or Gnolls. I know a few. At least let them see. And there are other things, yes?”

Beilmark was whispering to Relc. The Drake was nodding.

“Yeah, yeah. They can see it—”

Absolutely not!

Erin shouted. That was it. The room went still as the [Innkeeper]’s aura crashed down. And suddenly, there was silence.

Erin Solstice walked forwards. She glared at Relc, at Selys, at everyone. And she was angry.

“Are you all mad? They’re kids! Belgrade’s not even three! They just learned about clouds last year! They shouldn’t know about sex!

She was so angry she was shaking. The others looked at her, unable to move or argue back. Relc was slowly raising one claw—Erin stared at him and his arm shook. But he seemed determined to speak. And if he did—Erin was gonna deck him. It was unacceptable. It was not right!

“Excuse me. May I speak?”

Someone spoke under the crushing weight of the aura. Erin blinked. Her control was such that even Lyonette was moving in slow-motion. Erin’s aura was fueled by anger. But it was Belgrade who was speaking.

Her anger was not directed at him. Now, the [Tactician] spoke brightly to Erin and the room. He nodded slightly at Erin.

“I would like to see sex. I would like to try it, whatever I can do with my limitations.”

Erin looked at him.

“Belgrade. I’m sorry, but no. It’s too early. And you’re too—”

“Young?”

“Yeah. Belgrade, you need to be adults before you have sex. At least eight—no, at least sixteen! Yeah! Sixteen! Wait—is it sixteen?”

Erin had to think. The Antinium looked at her. And then…they shook their heads.

“No, Erin. I would like to have it now. Please.”

Belgrade spoke quietly. Erin stared at him. She looked at Yellow Splatters, and Anand, and even Garry. And they were nodding.

“I as well.”

“I would like to try it.”

“If I could share it with all Antinium, I would.”

It was Belgrade who went on, speaking to Erin. Belgrade, who wept for the dead. Who was unsure of his place. But he spoke with a level voice, never looking away from Erin.

“I understand we are considered young by your standards, Miss Erin. But I would like to…try this thing known as sexual intercourse. Even if I cannot, even if I am young. For I am afraid we will never be the age you seek. Not sixteen. Or ten. Or even eight. Most Antinium never live past four years. I cannot remember one who has lived six years, besides the Queen and Revelator Klbkch.”

The other three Antinium nodded. They were hungry. In a way like children, but also…adults. Like people, wanting, searching for something they had never known existed. Just like a thirsty man longed for water even if he had never seen it in his life.

“I do not understand the pleasure of it. But I would like to.”

The [Trapsetter Tactician] looked around. He looked at Erin, and then touched his chest.

“You tell me I should wait. But I will never have that long. And I? I would like to leave something of myself behind when I die. Even if I go to Heaven. I would like to know what it is like to be with someone like that. Someone else, whom I share this moment with. That is what I understand. That is what I desire. I am sorry if I am wrong, Miss Erin. But this is how I feel.”

He bowed, and stepped back. And suddenly, Erin didn’t see the young, silly Antinium children. But that old look that not even her parents had known.

The look of someone who had buried too many friends, had seen too much sorrow. Had killed. Erin saw it in the mirror some days.

And she was suddenly ashamed. Her aura winked out and people moved, gasped. Erin stepped back. She was not blushing. That was embarrassment? This?

This was shame. Erin had fought, but for the wrong reason. She looked at Belgrade, who did not expect to grow to be six years old. And she covered her face.

“Don’t ever say that again, Belgrade. You’re not going to die before you turn sixteen. You’re going to live a long time. And—you’re going to experience so many things. I promise you.”

The [Tactician] turned to Erin. An adult, older than she. Who measured his age by his fallen comrades. And a child.

“You promise?”

“Yeah. But—”

Erin silently looked at Relc. The Drake cleared his throat.

“I could arrange something. But…yeah.”

“Is it something we have missed greatly? Something all Antinium should know?”

Yellow Splatters looked at Relc. And the [Sergeant] was greatly disturbed. Erin shook her head as the other hesitated.

“It’s just…part of life. One thing. I guess it can be good? But you don’t need it to live a full life, guys.”

Her voice was a question. And no one had the heart to contradict her. Because she was right and wrong. But perhaps—that was her perspective. The young woman wiped away her tears as everyone felt compelled to buy the Antinium a drink, or speculate on other experiences which were just as good as sex. Things for them to show their people.

And in time, a Hobgoblin came into the inn. Numbtongue felt refreshed. Sometimes you just needed some alone time. Especially with females all over, none of which he was comfortable having sex with. And it was hard finding a spot in the inn where someone wouldn’t notice or ask to play tag where you could relieve yourself.

He had to sit in a cave to feel properly isolated. The Hobgoblin paused as he saw the Antinium in the inn, caught up with the happenings.

“There’s more to life than just sex. And there’s beautiful things too.”

Erin was telling the Antinium. The [Bard] nodded, and smiled. He took his guitar out. And he began to play a gentle song. The Antinium looked at him.

Beautiful.

Anand whispered. Amid the discussions of sex, the Hobgoblin’s music was like a calming breeze. Which was what it was. The song was gentle, light. Meant to be played on a ukulele. And Erin knew it. She smiled. Numbtongue understood.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow. A song about dreams and wishes. If any song had a bit of magic in it, it was that one, played by Iz Kamakawiwo’ole. Erin clapped along softly, and then she began to sing.

Nothing that engendered sex here. Just music. A thing everyone could experience. And beautiful. Touching.

From their seats, the Wistram [Mages] listened. And Montressa glanced at Erin and Numbtongue, singing in harmony and looked at Palt.

“That Hobgoblin might have a step up on you.”

The Centaur paused. And he looked at Numbtongue. And then he shook his head. The [Illusionist] slowly puffed on his cigar as he looked at Erin, thoughtfully.

“No. I don’t think he’s even scored a single point. And I don’t know if I have, either.”

That was all he said. And after a while, the Antinium stood up. Sex might be seen, or partaken in. Erin let them go with Relc. But the Senior Guardsman had a sudden thought as he went with the Antinium. He turned to Beilmark. And he was suddenly grave.

“Beil. Um…Antinium. Guys. You know, about your missing…do you…do you think that it’s possible—I mean, Klbkch looks different. And he’s Klb. But I’ve never heard—I mean, I thought it was him and the Queen or something. But does he not have…”

He gestured silently. Beilmark’s ears perked up. Belgrade and the others looked at each other.

“I cannot imagine why, Senior Guardsman Relc. He inhabited a Worker body before his new one. And I understand genitalia are a weak point.”

Relc stared. Then he leaned against the doorway.

“Oh no. No wonder he’s so angry—Beilmark. You take them. I’ve gotta—”

“Done.”

The Guardswoman was nodding. The Antinium stared at each other.

“Is it really that bad a thing?”

The female Gnoll shrugged as Anand looked at her.

“Males think so.”

 

—-

 

Sex. Or lack thereof. How it dominated things, when you let it. But there were bypasses. Workarounds. Like the vial Xif was showing Octavia and Saliss.

[Alchemists] didn’t just do it explosively, they didn’t do it at all. Because they didn’t need to. With this. Octavia eyed the vial. It was, of course, shimmering a bit. But she’d seen a number of odd ingredients going into it.

“I’ve seen aphrodisiacs. But um…Master Xif, Master Saliss. What is this?”

The two [Alchemists] looked at each other. Saliss tapped the vial.

“This is a potion you can drink that makes you orgasm. It’s outlawed in Pallass, mainly because of the impropriety.”

“Org—you mean, it helps in bed?”

Saliss rolled his eyes and Xif grinned.

“No. I mean, you drink this? You have a good time. Not the same as aphrodisiac, or a love potion. Different effects. Some are more mental, other long-lasting without being as…dramatic. See, I’m not good at this. Which is why we’re here. Hey, Xif.”

“Saliss. I whipped up one dose since I heard you’d be bringing Miss Cotton here. Miss Cotton.”

“Master Xif.”

The two nodded stiffly at each other. Saliss just grinned.

“Don’t worry, Octavia. This isn’t an imposition. Xif is delighted to have you here.”

“Yes, using my ingredients and shop.”

“We’re paying you back for it. And you get your share.”

Saliss rubbed his claws together. Octavia looked around.

“I’m sorry, but why does this benefit Master Xif? Also, why is this potion here if it’s banned in Pallass?”

The Gnoll coughed. And Saliss chuckled.

“We’re teaching you the recipe. So we…have to make some. And it occurred to us that Liscor doesn’t ban these potions. Or…other cities in the north.”

The Stitch-Woman’s eyes went round.

“Oh! Then—there’s a new market? But this potion, will it sell?”

She eyed the potion dubiously. Something that bypassed all the pleasure of sex? How was that better than the real thing? But Saliss was just nodding.

“It will sell. The reason the Walled Cities banned them was because too many ingredients went towards making them. A huge market and we actually had a shortage of other potions.”

“Why? Because it was addictive?”

“Not alchemically. But—here. Try some if you want. As much as you care to.”

He offered Octavia the vial. She hesitated. It was common to try a potion’s effects so you knew what it did. She eyed Saliss, and then downed the vial in one.

Octavia paused. She knew better than to say ‘nothing happened’. She just had to wait for…

The Stitch-Girl felt heat suffuse her face. She looked down.

“Oh—”

“Shoot! We forgot about that. I’m gonna need a towel, Xif. You have clothes. Sorry, Octavia.”

“Absolutely not. Get your own towels! I’ll never use mine again if you take them! They’re good towels!”

The two [Alchemists] began fighting. Octavia…slowly leaned against the counter. Her knees had lost all strength. She felt lightheaded and every few seconds.

“Um—I—M-Master Saliss?”

“Don’t worry! It goes away after a while! But it’s great, right?”

“I—”

Octavia made a sound and covered her mouth, but she had to drop to the floor. Xif swore as Saliss grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist. Then the two [Alchemists] looked at the apprentice.

“Uh. I forgot how the first time goes. You alright, Cotton?”

Saliss eyed Octavia. The Stitch-Girl didn’t make a sound for about five minutes. Xif and Saliss retreated. When Octavia could stand up—she did so shakily.

“Whew. That—hold on—”

She had to catch her breath. Saliss ushered her to a chair.

“Shouldn’t have given you the full dose. I’m sorry. Here, take a seat—no, don’t talk for like, five more minutes.”

He ushered her to a seat. Saliss came over to Xif, looking embarrassed as Octavia let the aftershocks ride her into a wonderful place. Xif eyed Saliss. He gestured at Octavia.

“Is this inappropriate? You’re the one who gives me speeches on student-master relationships, Saliss.”

“Eh. Nuance, Xif. She’s learning it. I’m not giving them to her regularly. And I’m not banning her from having a good time or smoking—well, I do ban smoking in my lab. But hush. If you didn’t like it, why’d you jump at the chance to make a few?”

The Gnoll [Alchemist] shrugged.

“I have no problem with them. You’re the reason they were banned.”

Saliss’ brows drew together. He leaned over and snapped.

“Some people need them more than others. Dullahans have problems. Young Drakes and Gnolls and Garudas don’t. Shut up and help me brew a teaching batch with Octavia and I’ll let you keep two bottles. And I’ll get you back into Erin’s good books if I can.”

Xif pursed his lips. Saliss would be walking away with most of them, but two bottles was…he nodded. Good for yourself, good for gifts, good for sale. But addictive in its own way. Also—hard to make.

“…How about some of the other fires?”

“You have the pink one.”

Saliss shook his head as he turned away from Octavia. He began setting up the ingredients and equipment they needed. Then he picked up the empty vial. He looked at Octavia, she was bending over, putting her head between her legs.

A wonderful experience. And yet, it was still a potion. With this, you could experience one of the things that made sex so great. And—arguably, experience it better than most could the old-fashioned way.

But people conflated that with the entire thing. Saliss paused.

“Alchemy. Who needs love?”

He only looked a bit sad as he said it. Then he tossed the vial aside and got to work.

 

—-

 

“Well, I think I’ve learned a lot today.”

Fierre nibbled on the tip of her quill as she finished writing. Ryoka reached for a drink with lemon in it. The two young woman were flushed in the small room.

They had just gone through a lot. From the discussion of sexuality as a broader thing than male or female, to the different ways people identified. Things from Earth. Which would be useful. Valuable?

Perhaps, perhaps not. Ryoka had told Fierre because she wanted the young Vampire to know. Not about Earth, but things that were important from there.

Like diseases. Ryoka looked at Fierre, whom she was pretty certain had some super-magical immunodeficiency syndrome. Could you get that from…

A kiss? Fierre’s pale lips were stained with a bit of ink. It was not the sexy look the Vampire girl was going for. But…her deep red irises drew Ryoka in. As did her teeth.

“So…about the way two girls have…sex. You showed me and told me, but uh—you know, it’s hard to visualize it without seeing. Do you think you could…elaborate?”

Elaborate. Ryoka felt a tingle along her spine. She looked at Fierre. Play dumb.

“How do you mean, elaborate?”

“We-ell…it’s not much, but the room’s secure from everything. And um…some of the things sound interesting. I’m open-minded. If you wanted…”

The Vampire girl smiled at Ryoka. And Ryoka felt her mind flying off in multiple directions.

 

You don’t like girls. You’ve tried that. I mean—you don’t like them as much as—

Shut up! Look at those lips! We could go for that! We have been dying over here!

Could be STD’s—

Can you get something from a finger? What if she wears…gloves?

 

And most of all—Ryoka shivered. She liked Fierre. She thought she did. A lot. Fierre was like her. A girl with a secret. A different perspective.

Immortal. Strong enough to put Ryoka through a wall. Now, why was that alluring when Ryoka never liked tough guys? She licked her lips.

“I…could. Show you something.”

“Just one or two things. Maybe.”

Fierre slid along her desk. Her chair screeched a bit. That nearly brought Ryoka out of it as Fierre did that thing where she stood up and pulled the chair with her.

Oh no. She was not a Vampire seductress, even like her mother tried to be. But Ryoka was really…really…

They both had trousers on. You could do a lot with clothes. Ryoka stared at Fierre. It would be…and you didn’t have to be unsafe. The Vampire sat next to Ryoka after a bit of a struggle getting the chair over her desk. She leaned over.

And Ryoka felt something touch her just over the crotch of her pants. She jumped and felt goose bumps. Okay. If she hadn’t thought she was into it—

That changed her mind. Ryoka stared at Fierre. The Vampire was close, but she had no body heat.

“If you wanted to show me…”

And why not? They were so alike. Ryoka gulped hard. So alike.

So alike.

Abruptly, Ryoka pushed Fierre back and stood up. The Vampire recoiled, so quickly her movements were unnatural. She looked up at Ryoka.

“I’m sorry. I can’t. It’s not a good idea.”

Ryoka’s voice trembled. She was breathing fast. Fierre looked up at her.

“Why not?”

“It’s not you. It’s me. Wait, that’s stupid. I’m sorry. But I think…I’ve tried it before. Boys. And girls.”

Ryoka stammered, her thoughts in a whirl. She was trying to explain. Fierre was drawing back, hurt, but Ryoka had to explain. She looked at the Vampire girl.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t try it. Or that I’m not attracted to you Fierre, because I am.”

“So. What?”

Now the Vampire’s voice was cold. Definitely hurt. Ryoka pulled at her hair.

“I…I…I’ve done it before. I’ve tried to be with someone. Even though I liked them. Loved them. For a hot second. But it’s never worked. I couldn’t even have friends. Fierre, you know what I’m like.”

The Vampire hesitated. The hostility halted for a moment and she looked at Ryoka. After a second, she spoke.

“Bad days?”

“Yes.”

Ryoka closed her eyes. She put her palms over her eyes and sat down.

“I’m sorry. But I can’t. It’d just—make me—I’m not ready. I don’t want to hurt you and I can’t lose you as a friend.”

She sat there, shaking, lust faded. Ryoka muttered into the ground.

“I don’t want to lose my friend. I don’t want to…change that between us. And it would. I can’t even be a good friend. I left the other ones behind. I left…a little kid alone because I’d burn everything down. If I can’t do that, what about a relationship?”

She just sat there, shattering. Fierre stared at Ryoka, wide-eyed. Then she raised her gloved hands, make herself laugh.

“I was kidding! It was a joke. I’m charming you. Obviously.”

She saw the young woman look up. Ryoka brushed at her eyes, refusing to take the offered lie.

“No. You weren’t. But it’s fine to experiment, you know. There’s nothing wrong with liking other people. No matter who you are.”

She had to be honest. Tell Fierre that. The Vampire girl looked at her. Then she went back behind her desk with her chair. She reached for something and pulled it out.

“It’s different for Vampires. There are so few of us, and most are related. And Humans—we can’t just casually…I’ve tried it a few times, but it was a mess. They have to be drunk and not notice how cold I am. And I just want to drink—”

Her teeth shone in the light. But the drink Fierre pulled out wasn’t blood, but alcohol. And blood. She mixed the two into a shot glass and Ryoka smelled strong spirits. The kind that went above 90-proof without killing you. Well…that you could theoretically survive. Magical liquor. It made Ryoka start crying—

No, she’d already begun before that. The young woman blinked as Fierre poured her a drink.

“I see. I’m sorry.”

The Vampire girl smiled. But she looked at Ryoka and the two stared at each other. Ryoka took the glass full of oblivion. Then she had to laugh. Because Fierre hadn’t tossed her out. She still had her friend.

Thank god.

“We’re so fucked.”

“Two messed up girls. I won’t even ask you how you know all that about sex.”

“I was a [Sex Guru] in a previous life.”

Fierre choked on her blood cocktail. Ryoka laughed as she drank and coughed. The two coughed and drank and eventually, Fierre sighed.

“At least I have toys.”

“What, really? They have those here?”

“Where are you from? I couldn’t have them at my home. One time, Fluffles the Fourth found my um…you know. And she was carrying it around my father found it—”

Ryoka began laughing. Fierre laughed too, her paled cheeks tinged with color.

“No way. I’ve been, well, making do. I had no idea—Erin hinted they had some dildos in Liscor, but—really? You can buy them? Tell me where and I’ll go yesterday.”

Fierre laughed.

“There’s a black market. And trust me, there’s variety. Well, there’s aphrodisiac potions too. Virility potions. Magical artifacts…”

“Artifacts? Like what?”

Ryoka. Artifacts. You want a good time? Illusions? [Mages] get horny too. And trust me—there’s a demand for them.”

The young woman was laughing. In relief. Because she felt like she’d made the right choice. She looked at Fierre, laughing, smiling, trying not to cry.

“You mean, there are magical sex machines?”

“Those are called Golems, Ryoka.”

 

—-

 

Sometimes people didn’t have sex. And that was as significant as when they did. Goblins—Goblins had it easy in a way.

They didn’t dance about it. They had a different idea of how sex worked. Of course, they also had such passions because you could die tomorrow.

Win some and lose some. But sometimes…it was hard.

Dawil found Falene at the bottom of her cups at the bar. She was alone; she was in fact, helping herself to the inn’s liquor.

“Go away, Dwarf.”

Falene waved a hand at one of the Dawils haunting her. She was past light intoxication and readiness for a few questionable choices. She was fully maudlin and trying for oblivion.

“You’re looking poor, half—Falene.”

Dawil caught himself. Falene wasn’t in the mood for their regular sparring sessions. The half-Elf ignored him.

“Go on, mock me.”

“…Nah. Don’t you worry about the lad, either. He didn’t notice a thing. Poor fellow got pulled in by a [Drinker]. Or was it a [Drunk]?”

Falene sniffed.

“But you’ll remember.”

“Shan’t say a word, even if you remember this. Which I doubt, frankly.”

The [Axe Champion] eyed the empty bottles around Falene. Wistram [Mages] could put away alcohol. He was beginning to think the academy had a problem. Falene sniffed a few more times. She had snot running down one delicate nostril.

“I just—I know it was a bad idea. But I’m tired of the road. I don’t mind it, but finding a partner—”

“Aye. Tough.”

“What would you know? You’re short. I’m a half-Elf. You can find company. Men see me and I’m a trophy. They can brag about it. But I want someone who at least—”

Falene put her head down. Dawil patted her awkwardly on the back. He reached for a glass as Falene tried to tell him about Feor, and her faction…and why Ylawes was a good second-choice—and she’d really just wanted a night—

The Dwarf nodded and patted her shoulder and tried not to let her kill herself drinking. He sighed.

Children. Sometimes he felt like an adult leading two brats around. But then he looked at Falene and sighed.

Aging slower than Humans sometimes really was a problem. He envied Ylawes, sometimes. A [Knight] in shining armor? You had to ward his doors at night.

Literally. And that didn’t even count teammates.

 

—-

 

 

A life without sex wasn’t so bad. If you had a purpose, it didn’t matter. If you’d never had it, what did you have to regret not having?

But it was probably good to relax people. Sometimes, it wouldn’t help. But you could probably correlate it.

At any rate, someone who was incapable of it was making a beeline towards The Wandering Inn. And he had two swords.

Klbkchhezeim of the Free Antinium walked in a murderous mood. He was addressing Tkrn, who was regretting bringing the news to the Antinium Senior Guardsman.

“They. Went. Above? Without my permission?”

“Yes, Senior Guardsman, but Relc and Beilmark got them and brought them to the inn—”

“I see. I will deal with them there. You may go, Guardsman Tkrn.”

The Gnoll hesitated. He had seen people like this before. And walking away usually meant someone was dead the next hour. But he hesitated—

Because Klbkch was really not in a good mood. And the Slayer Klbkch was out. Tkrn was bracing himself. He’d made mistakes once. If he got stabbed, well…he owed it to the Watch and the one Guardsman who’d been kind to him. He was preparing to reach out and duck when someone stepped out in front of the gates.

Relc. He blocked the way towards The Wandering Inn. And his face was grave.

“Klb—”

“Move aside, Relc. I have a discipline issue to address. I have let it go on for far too long.”

Klbkch was vibrating with anger. And his hands were on his sword hilts. Relc stared at them, and then he shook his head.

“Not now, Klb. Come on, let’s have a drink.”

The Antinium stared at Relc. The Drake was uncharacteristically sober. Klbkch hesitated.

“Has something happened?”

“What? Nah…nah…”

“Something has clearly happened. What?”

“We just want to buy you a drink, Klbkch. Come on. The lads are all here.”

Jeiss stepped out of the shadows. The Senior Guardsman and Councilman wore a similar look. And then Klbkch saw more Guardsmen. Some seniors, others regular ones.

All with that look of…Klbkch hesitated.

“What? Why? I have work to do—”

“We’ll cover your shift. It’s all set. Captain Z herself gave the all-clear. Come on.”

“No, I must—what is going on? I am busy. Hello?”

Before Klbkch knew it, the other [Guards] had seized his arms and were towing him in the direction of Wishdrinks. Relc shook his head. Tkrn stared at him.

“Senior Guardsman Relc?”

Had he heard about Klbkch’s mood? This was smooth, for Relc! The Drake looked at Tkrn.

“I guess you heard? I’m just torn up about it. Come on, we’ve booked Wishdrinks. When they heard—they’re giving us a special time. We’ve gotta have a good time, for Klb.”

“What? What happened?”

“You haven’t heard? Oh…oh man. Tkrn…listen…this is gonna break your heart. Klb—he—I can’t say it—”

A little while later, the Antinium Guardsman found himself in Wishdrinks. Everyone was plying him with alcohol, and asking how he felt. Even the staff were giving him special treatment.

Klbkch had no idea why. But the Watch was filling the room. Mostly male Guardsmen, but some female ones. They were acting like they were at a wake.

“I do not understand.”

“I can’t imagine. I heard of a fellow—got hit in that spot. Just…pulled out a wand and blew his head off after two months. You’ve been like this for years? I respect that.”

Jeiss was talking, toasting Klbkch. The Antinium stared at him, then the female Drake.

Watch Captain Zevara. She stared at Klbkch. Cleared her throat a few times.

“I don’t know how to say it, Klbkch. But um…I’m sorry? I heard from Relc. He’s an idiot, but he’s got good tact. You take care of yourself. You’re a valuable member of the Watch.”

Klbkch nodded. He opened and closed his mandibles as Zevara paused, patted him on the shoulder, and went back to mingling. He had no idea what was going on. But the Antinium had earned another day of reprieve. After a moment, Klbkch had to ask.

“…Am I being fired?”

 

—-

 

Somewhere, above, Belgrade, Anand, Garry, and Yellow Splatters were discovering that sex was not what they had expected. Not bad, but certainly unexpected. They were taking notes for part two of their story on sex.

Because they would bring their understanding to the Hive, those four males. They had gone out, into the world. And they had seen the truth.

Up close. Squelching. With fur and scales—not skin, but in different ways. They knew sex.

What fools those Antinium be. Far below, in the Painted Antinium’s barracks, Purple Smiles folded his arms. If he could have, he would have rolled his eyes.

Silly [Sergeants] and [Strategists]. They thought they knew. They thought they could analyze and study everything. But what they didn’t know—what Anand should have guessed at least, as he was better at it—was that some things you didn’t need to research.

You could intuit it. It wasn’t a formula to be cracked, a grand secret to be discovered and made gospel truth.

Sometimes, the secret was something you found. The other [Sergeant] watched as, in an area of the barracks reserved for the most sacred of things, two Soldiers sat.

Chesacre and Thaina. They were in a place next to a wall of…symbols. A place where Soldiers and Workers now, would take on their paint. Would become Painted Antinium.

The two Soldiers had not been painted yet. And they had thought long and hard on who they would be. Now—they chose.

But first, they performed ablutions. Cleansing their bodies before they were painted, that the paint would not be contaminated. But the two Soldiers did it together.

They were female. By name and personality, even if not by appearance. And that was what mattered. Purple Smiles watched as the two Soldiers did something new in this Hive, in this moment.

They were washing each other.

Chesacre had some soap and a little cloth. Thaina was dipping hers into a bucket. The two were gently cleaning each other off, with some soap and water. Slowly, carefully, they polished each other’s bodies, wiping grime away with water. Carefully.

Polishing chipped carapace. Touching each other. The Antinium had very few senses. But—they touched each other and felt it. The Painted Antinium watched.

Something new. Something that Pawn or Erin or another of the Individuals had not brought here. Purple Smiles understood it. A bit. But then—he listened. And watched.

And he saw the two Antinium touching each other.

On their multifaceted eyes. Mandibles, cleaning each and every inch of each other. And that action had significance.

Antennae too; they were most careful about that. The two delicately touched each other’s antennae. And they had sensation there.

And eroticism? The Workers and Soldiers stared—then, abruptly, looked away as one. They felt it.

They should not be watching this. This was something private. New. Sacred.

Individuality.

Purple Smiles looked away too, as he felt the two growing closer. He envied them. And loved what he could not comprehend. Yet. But the two—Individuals—would be greater than he was.

Or perhaps he had joined them. The Soldier looked away. None of the Antinium were looking anywhere near them. Something must be done.

Purple Smiles found some of the blankets reserved for the coveted Fortresses of Fluff and hung them up. A Worker created stands of wood by lashing together some wooden poles onto a base—the Antinium had been experimenting with hammocks and slides, which Erin had assured them were fun ways to relax—and Purple Smiles hung the blankets over them. Creating a private area.

A room. And in their privacy, that was now, suddenly, needed, the two Antinium stopped touching each other. They looked hesitantly at each other, and then Chesacre picked up a brush.

They began to paint a design onto each other’s bodies. Slowly, carefully, with infinite patience and grace.

A new type of picture, one that didn’t work without both halves. It was not a flower, or a heart—that would have been symbolic.

And it would have spoken to a culture neither Antinium knew. Rather, they were creating a building.

A magical building, of pale silver and odd angles. That rose across their bodies, whole only when they stood so. Apart, it was meaningless, two broken halves. Together, if they stood side by side and their arms twined—

The Antinium understood something in that moment, Purple Smile, Thaina, Chesacre. And that was something the male Antinium above had yet to learn entirely.

Sex was one thing. Love was another thing. Sometimes, often, the two were conflated. You could do it for many reasons, but it was designed for more than just pleasure.

Like happiness. And you didn’t need carnality for that. Happiness was also seeing someone else in pleasure. It was part of what you called romance.

Although, it was true—

Sometimes it was just plain smut. And that wasn’t a bad thing.

 

—-

 

“Oh! Oh Nagas—that’s amaze—how are you—dead gods!

There was something else people needed to know aside from wholesome love. And that was that of the many races in the world, one was best at having sex.

And that was Selphids. Geneva Scala felt her inner canals tighten and she and Xeppal both hissed. In pleasure. Geneva felt two objects moving in her, but there wasn’t even a hint of pain. Or stretching. She sensed something in her contract rhythmically as she moved up and down.

The sensation—wasn’t like regular sex. As Maughin could have told Geneva or anyone if the Dullahan was inclined to speak—and he wasn’t, Dullahans talked about sex as much as Erin—you might have your pride. You might believe you knew something. A few tricks. Or even a hundred.

But the truth was you were a neophyte. An amateur. You couldn’t even try to reach the heights of sexual conduct. Because you didn’t control your body. You were just a flesh-vessel, able to activate ten percent of the functions that a Selphid could.

And a Selphid in a living body? In ages past, Selphids had conquered almost the entire world and created an empire. Geneva had known that—that was why a Selphid could never inhabit a living body. For the power they could wield. But she had a new insight in this moment, as she felt herself clamp down, felt a burst of whiteness behind her eyes—and she couldn’t count how many she’d had—and saw Xeppal nearly inhale his tongue.

As terrible as the Selphid Empire had been, they’d had amazing sex. Geneva was vaguely aware as Xeppal climaxed and she rose to give the condom a…stress test with her mouth, that she was being watched.

Well, they’d been going at it for two hours. Xeppal was the best [Prostitute] in the Slippery Tail. He didn’t have a male refractory period. And Geneva?

She had Okasha. The Lizardman climaxed again. Geneva felt herself mimicking him, they were that in tune. She spat carefully, and reflected that she could improve the design of the condom. It was an industry in her world.

The last few moments of sex, six minutes later, actually made Geneva white out for a bit. Or maybe that was a thirty six hour work day and two hours of exhausting sex.

She came to with Xeppal lying beside her. The Lizardman was panting, staring at Geneva wide-eyed.

“Is—that was—incredible. Even with the—the—”

“Condom.”

Geneva smiled in a sultry way at the Lizardman. He was finally deflated, just worn out. The other sex workers stared through the door in awe. It was Okasha in charge; Geneva was happy to let her do it.

“I had no idea—how did you—”

“Let’s just say I have a few Skills myself.”

She winked at him. And Geneva Scala felt a bit alarmed. But how else would they explain…that? Xeppal just nodded.

“A [Doctor] and…? Hold on, I should be paying you.”

Okasha-Geneva just laughed. She bent over to kiss Xeppal—Geneva stopped her. Transmission of diseases! No, but wait—she’d tested Xeppal, hadn’t she? And he’d been clean.

And they’d been doing a lot of kissing already. At least the condoms worked. Geneva felt tingly as Okasha bade farewell and walked them out the doors. An awed crowd saw Geneva off.

She wasn’t even walking funny. Okasha had kept Geneva’s muscles from getting sore, or damaged and—the Selphid smiled, relaxed as could be.

She’d felt everything Geneva had. And she’d even enhanced the experience. Geneva stretched in the evening light. She felt light, clear-headed—had that technically been a three-way? What were the ethics of a hidden partner?

She’d worry about it tomorrow. For now, for once, she was ready to sleep for a day. Okasha laughed as she let Geneva take over.

That was amazing! Let’s do it again!

Geneva hesitated. She stared back at the brothel, and then thought about her duties. It was a bad idea to fraternize with patients. Even if this had been an unusual case. She had a job to uphold. An image to maintain.

She paused.

“We’ll come back in a few days.”

It was a hard truth to swallow for those who hadn’t experienced it. Yes, they inhabited rotting bodies. Yes, they were temporary guests using a shell. But they had learned their forms that people took for granted. Whatever you believed, no matter what you said—

Selphids did it better.

 

—-

 

There was always more to learn about sex. And yes, you could drown in it. It needn’t be all things. But it was a part of life.

Goblins having sex. Antinium understanding romance. The courting and travails therein in regards to Erin Solstice. Vampires and when you were ready to give as much as you took.

Geneva Scala, Last Light of Baleros and extremely eligible bachelorette. Sexual prodigy. Because Selphids were the best at what they did.

And…other couples. In The Wandering Inn, there was a fact no one kept track of. No one really thought of, or cared to measure. And that was that no one had had sex in this particular inn since its inception and construction.

Temile and the [Actors] were certainly contenders. But they tended to find company with their temporary, star-struck fans and since they were new to Liscor, they were still finding their feet.

It would happen. Oh yes. But no sex had been had. Sex had been written, and…that was all. But that evening, the record about no sex was broken.

By a digit. Or—just like phalluses, members, and penii had different words, so too did fingers. And in this case, one gently, delicately moved.

There was a gasp. A short intake of breath. Someone stopped.

“Am I…?”

“No. Go ahead.”

A pause. The digit moved again. And the breathless voice changed depending on how it moved. Poking. Prodding. Pinching delicately—learning what was best and not.

On both sides. After a while, there was liquid. On the digits. The Antinium stared at them, and this new thing. Lyonette exhaled slowly. She looked at Pawn.

“You’re being too careful. You can do…more.”

Her voice wobbled. The Antinium looked at her.

“Are you sure?”

“You’re in my room. Against Klbkch’s orders. And we planned this for the last month.”

The [Princess] snapped at him. Pawn paused.

“True.”

The [Princess] had been noticeably absent from the inn for a while. She hadn’t clashed on Erin’s views regarding Antinium. Perhaps because she had different ones. Perhaps because some things happened behind closed doors.

With chairs and a dresser blocking them. And the shutters were locked too. No little Gnolls or intruders would come in here, thank-you-very-much. And if someone used the Garden to enter—Lyonette had a sword.

“Sorry, Pawn. It’s just—I’m feeling a bit—close. Keep going.”

He did. Carefully. Lyonette made a sound and he stopped.

“Is that—”

“That’s a good sound! Don’t stop! Get the—the things!”

Pawn looked at the bag he’d bought from Krshia’s shop. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper], not working in the Council today, had been very amused by his order. But she had provided, and now, Pawn inspected the stash.

“And I will put them on…”

“Yes! It should fit. Does it—”

It turned out that one of the things Ryoka had told Fierre already existed in this world. Albeit, not common. But marital aids for lovers with problems in bed existed.

Strap-ons, if it wasn’t clear. Pawn stared down at the thing he was tying to his waist. It was mimicking a Human’s, which was what Lyonette had required. Gnolls and Drakes were a…step up.

“Where did you get this? Krshia only provided the harness.”

Lyonette was kicking the edge of the bed with impatience. They’d taken their time. Escalated to this moment over weeks of talking, conversation—experimenting. Seeing each other as more than just Antinium [Priest] and Human [Princess]. Slowly.

Which, of course, made this moment only the more special. Lyonette had been disturbed by Erin’s revelation that [Priests] were not supposed to do anything to other people. Pawn had considered this. And decided he could live with [Acolyte].

“Krshia keeps giving them to Erin. She never uses them. Is it ready? I’m ready.”

“Are you sure? This is an important moment, Lyonette—”

The irony was that Pawn could have educated Belgrade and the others in everything they needed to know. He faced the [Princess], and Lyonette du Marquin smiled up at the Antinium Worker. Her eyes shone as she replied.

“Well, I’m a terrible [Princess]. I guess my parents will have to live with that. Come here.”

She and the Antinium met on the bed. And Lyonette gasped and Pawn instantly cast [Heal Minor Wounds], which was hilarious. And silly. And an accident. And the two found something new out about each other and themselves.

And they had sex. But because it was the first time, it was sort of vanilla.

Sometimes vanilla was a good thing.

 

—-

 

One. Last. Thing.

And this was the biggest of them all. The pinnacle of a day full of madness and lewd things. Sex and romance. Heartbreak and choice.

Erin Solstice sat in her inn. She was not aware of Pawn and Lyonette—if she had been, she would have assumed they were just having one of their chats. Which usually took place in the room and why would she think on it?

She was ignorant of it. And…preoccupied herself. Erin stared aimlessly around as she sat in the Garden of Sanctuary. No one was in here; she could sense it.

Also, no one could go through the magic door. She was sure of that too, which was a relief. Mrsha was in Liscor, tossing meat bits at a young Frost Wyvern. The other guests were occupied.

She was alone. In her [Garden of Sanctuary], her Level 40 Skill that no one could enter.

In the tropical section, deep inside it, out of view.

Sitting behind a tree.

With a bunch of curtains up. Well, bed sheets.

Erin had been trying to figure out…the best place. Because when you got down to it, The Wandering Inn did not encourage privacy, at least, of the kind that made you reassured enough to do what you wanted to do.

There was nowhere not…exposed. The outhouses were outside, and grouped somewhat close together. Rooms? Hah! Those had windows, and Workers marching about on the roof and they were technically accessible via the Garden of Sanctuary. Erin was realizing the flaw in her new Skill.

And where else could you go if you were going to…not want to be seen? Make some noise? Really, think about it. Where could you go?

The Floodplains? If you weren’t in view from the walls of the city, there were Shield Spiders, Rock Crabs…caves had monsters in them.

There was nowhere in a city. Erin didn’t have an apartment. Gnolls had noses. Oh—and even if you thought about going somewhere else, like the Strongheart farm—

To begin, with, no. And secondly, there was only like…the barn. With cows and animals staring at you.

“Maybe if I went to Celum or Esthelm. But I bet I’d have to hike somewhere and find a cave or something. And there’s probably monsters inside. So much work. Hey—maybe Numbtongue’s mining stuff? Nah. Nah.”

Erin muttered. In some ways, she was rather like Numbtongue. She sat there, in her very private moment, and still felt like she was being watched.

She was self-conscious. And—honestly, a bit upset about today. Erin felt…bothered. She tried to put it into words.

“I don’t need to know about this. I don’t want to. It—it changes how you look at people. Hey! Garia and Fals had sex! Or—Selys and Hawk?”

She didn’t know about Garia and Fals, but now that she thought about it, she bet Garia had tried it. Ryoka had said how much Garia liked Fals.

And Erin hated it. She hated people talking about it. Dead gods, she’d hate someone having an entire…discussion about sex. It was vulgar! And lewd! And—why did you need to talk about it?

It changed everything when you found out about two people in a relationship doing the humpity-humpity. No—it changed nothing, or it shouldn’t. People were people.

At the same time—it did change things. But Erin wasn’t a prude. Was she?

She’d had an intimate relationship. Twice, thanks. Not…sex. Not the kind that would get you kicked off unicorns. But um, something that would get you in trouble if your parents found out about it. Heavy things, right up to the moment itself.

And it had been…fine? But it had never gotten there because Erin wasn’t ready. Because it hadn’t been right. Erin didn’t get the same buzz some people did. Maybe, as Krshia said, it had been bad sex. It had certainly been short.

Erin thought she knew herself. But this was another layer that she, Erin Solstice, hadn’t ever really explored. Didn’t understand. It made her…afraid.

Because she did want. She did…yearn. She had urges, like everyone else. Erin stared at her pants.

“Probably should take them off, yup, yup.”

But then she felt exposed. Erin sat down. Enough waiting. She knew how this worked.

“Come on, stupid.”

She poked herself.

“Ow.”

Erin paused. She had to get in the mood. Mood was important. But—something was off. She definitely felt a bit bothered after all the discussion. And yet—

“I want to. But what’s wrong with me?”

The young woman muttered to herself. She thought of Palt. Or—or Olesm? She tried to imagine it. Her. And a Centaur…

Okay, maybe that was pushing the limits. Backtrack.

Erin wasn’t a fool. She had known…something way back when. But in this, at least, she liked being ignorant. She suspected. Did Palt actually…? Nah. But why would he—?

He was a big shot [Illusionist] and she was just…Erin. Why would—and if they did—

Her imagination needed an upgrade. Erin Solstice sat, poking—okay not poking, but trying to get something started. Nothing happened. She kept thinking.

Numbtongue.

The [Innkeeper] paused. No. Too intimate. Too—close. She tried a generic person. But it had been a long time since then. And she was afraid that something was wrong.

“Darn.”

Erin buried her face in her arms. What was the matter with her? She wished she could talk about it with Ryoka, or Ceria. They were easy to talk to. Lyonette was—a [Princess]. Who was probably an actual virgin. And Krshia was too old and laughed, and guys were out and…

“Mm.”

Erin curled up into a ball and rolled over onto the dirt. She lay there for a while. She wasn’t happy. She was unhappy, in fact. At herself. Frustrated. Lost.

“I never enjoyed it. What’s the big whoop?”

She wanted to know. She didn’t want to know. She wanted—Erin Solstice closed her eyes. And it was a ridiculous thing. But she felt like crying. Just a tiny bit.

Nothing bad was happening at all in the world. There were no disasters, no pressing emergencies—yet. But it was strange. When all the bad things went away, there was only Erin, and her days were…good.

And yet. Erin Solstice tried to imagine it. But her body told her one thing, and her mind couldn’t imagine it. She wanted to and didn’t at the same time. Yes, yes.

And…no. She wasn’t interested. But one fact remained that Erin did know was true, that made her want to cry, even though she couldn’t. She had a family in this world, an inn. Good friends and things to do.

But sometimes even now, she just felt lonely.

 

 

Author’s Notes:

I wonder how you’ll regard this. Hi, I’m pirateaba and I’m tired. It’s VERY late and I wrote through the night. I’d sad…how many hours? Ah, 9:30 exactly almost. I streamed the entire thing.

Because if I was going to be too embarrassed, I might as well not write. But I wanted to write this chapter.

And not just because it’s sexual. Because it’s true. Sex happens, but like periods or poo, you don’t read it in stories sometimes. An entire story goes by without one person having a bowel movement or popping a pimple. Have I done pimples?

I digress. This chapter was meant to be real. Silly, yes, but real, and show a new side of characters. Big new sides of things. It will not happen all the time. In fact, I’m aware some members of the readership are young, or probably don’t want to read this.

And I get it. Because this changes how you see a character. I understand that. And it can be uncomfortable, so these chapters will be rare. Explicit content I might keep only to chapters devoted to them—but other aspects of love, no.

It’s an experiment. I don’t know how well I did, but I tried to write a good chapter as always. I’m tired. My break is coming up and I’m hitting peak exhaustion and I’m still recovering from my cough. But I feel satisfied by writing. Happiness, sadness, and sex.

A last note. I’m changing a lot of things, including how I post my after-chapter thoughts. Featuring more great art is something I also want to do. It’s a time to try new stuff. Below, I have two pictures of Erin Solstice, by pkay, and Staugroan, both amazing artists—on Twitter and Instagram, I believe. And I can’t link to either because they have uh, explicit content. But thank you for the art of Erin and thank you for reading.

Erin by StaugroanErin by pkay

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

7.13 K

The Horns of Hammerad sat in a bar. A bar.

Not an inn. Or a tavern. Or a dive, or a hellhole, or a pub. A bar. There were differences.

They were covered in dust. Stone dust, mixed, mostly limestone but differing in color and consistency. They’d tracked it in, but no one was objecting.

They’d had a bad day. Rock Golems. Yvlon was still hacking; she’d inhaled more than a few lungfuls of stone dust. Ceria was pouring a glass of water in her face.

“It’s in my eyes. I can’t get it out!”

They’d been fighting a Stone Golem…infestation? Plague? Again, it wasn’t any of those things. The natural-occurring varieties of Golems sometimes just appeared, especially in areas with lots of magicore. And they caused havoc.

But they were powder. And the Horns were free to continue on their journey north. After they rested.

Pisces was helping clean Ksmvr off. The Antinium was practically covered in Golem remains. The [Bartender] brought over a bucket of water, but he put it on a table far from the Antinium and [Necromancer]. It was Ksmvr he stared at, with clear nerves.

Dust and grime hit the floor, but no one objected. The Horns eventually stopped hacking and groaning. Then they just looked at each other.

“I hate fighting Golems. What were they made of, pumice?

“Soft loam.”

Pisces grumbled. He wasn’t dirty; he’d stayed out of the Golem’s reach, fighting from a remove. His comrades hadn’t been as nimble, or, in Ksmvr’s case, had opted to fight closer up.

It didn’t matter. It was one adventure in a number they’d had since going north. And at least they were being paid for this one. Indeed, their payment came as the old [Village Headwoman] walked over. She was in her late nineties. But since she was a half-Elf—it really didn’t mean much.

Even so, the half-Elf had years on her, more than Ceria or Falene. The [Cryomancer] stood up respectfully as the other half-Elf, Disabella, walked over. She looked like she was oh, just thirty years old, with that immortal youth all half-Elves had.

She had dark skin, black hair, and she had lived here all her life. In Izril, a half-Elf far from home. Ceria bowed slightly.

“Miss Disabella, sorry about the mess.”

“I dare say you’ve earned the right to a mess. After clearing out dozens of our pests.”

The half-Elf [Headwoman] was a curious mix of things. She was spry, lively. But she acted…old. Motherly. Because she’d married three times and had over a dozen children and grandchildren. She made Ceria uncomfortable. She was the exact opposite of the half-Elves who lived in their timeless villages in Terandria.

A half-Elf who lived in the present, who mixed with other species. ‘Timecaught’ was the derogatory term sometimes used, again, only by the half-Elves who believed in separation.

Ceria wasn’t one of them, but she understood the word. Because…Disabella was aged. Not in body, but her relationships and life among the mortal races made her feel older. They had left lines on her face despite her ‘youth’ as half-Elves measured such things. She had lived each one of her ninety years in this village. Ceria, who had grown up for over forty years in a half-Elf village couldn’t imagine it.

The [Headwoman] gave Ceria a smile as if she could read the younger half-Elf’s every thought. But again—they had talked. And this was the end of their battle against the Golems who’d haunted this village’s mines, attacking anyone who got too near.

“My gratitude. And you’ve earned your fee. We can’t pay you much—”

“It was our honor, Miss.”

Yvlon tried to bow and stand and not cough all at the same time. Disabella smiled. She reached for the small pouch of gold she’d brought.

“Nonsense. Most Silver-ranked teams couldn’t have beaten Stone Golems, even softer ones. They’ll be telling stories about seeing one of the Byres family’s [Knights] for years. Yvlon Silverarm, perhaps. Some of the children are shouting that already.”

The [Armsmistress] turned bright red. She tried to protest, but Disabella just laughed at her. She looked at Ceria and nodded.

“Here. Gold, and—”

What was placed on the table was an old, old little compact mirror. It had a crude hinge and it had been made of a seashell. As Ceria slowly flipped open the lid, she saw a shining oval of glass.

A scrying mirror. Disabella’s possession. Ceria looked up at the other half-Elf.

“Disabella! We can’t—”

“Take it. It was a suitor’s gift anyways. I daresay the village will miss it, but we don’t need to see this Wistram broadcast anyways. We can’t pay you properly. So if you’ll accept this in place of gold…”

Indeed, the bag of gold was mostly silver with only a few gold pieces. Ceria hesitated. The scrying mirror did indeed make up for the cost. But the mirror…

She looked at Disabella. The half-Elf gestured.

“Go on. Truly, I don’t need it.”

Perhaps not. Ceria took the mirror and flipped it open. At her touch, a small picture formed in it. A familiar Drake’s voice spoke.

“—we are reporting to you from Viadem’s Pass. The battle led by the main army of Belchan, led by Grand Mage Esiela of Belchan’s Academy and General Fultoolm is taking place. They are hoping to defeat the King of Destruction’s army. Both sides are approaching—the King of Destruction is less than fifty miles from Belchan’s capital. If this army fails to stop him—and no force has managed to slow his advance—”

Ceria stared at Noass’ face. The Drake had been reporting nonstop on the conflict in Belchan, covering the war. It was a first for this world, and the Horns of Hammerad had been watching with everyone else on the little hand-mirror.

Now, it was a gift. The [Cryomancer] looked at Pisces and Ksmvr. The Antinium looked at her. Pisces raised his eyebrows.

“It really is overpayment.”

“Not if scrying mirrors stay as cheap as they have been. The [Trader] who brought some through last week had them at a tenth of the price. Wistram’s ruined the value of heirlooms.”

The [Headwoman] smiled. She waited. And Ceria saw an old smile, filled with nearly a century’s worth of life. But she had to wonder—how easy was it to be Disabella?

Ceria had met the headwoman’s husband. And he was in his fifties, a good man. But she looked so young. And she would be that way while he aged.

Perhaps…the compact mirror really wasn’t what Disabella wanted to own. A suitor’s gift. Ceria slowly nodded.

“Thank you, Miss Disabella. We’ll take this in place of the gold, though.”

Pisces rolled his eyes as she slid the bag over the table. Disabella didn’t argue.

“Thank you again, Ceria. If you want to stay the night…”

“We’d love a bath.”

Pisces murmured. Ceria caught herself nodding.

“I am choking on dust, Captain Ceria. I believe this impedes my combat efficiency.”

Ksmvr waved a hand. Ceria smiled. Disabella smiled as well; she hadn’t been as bothered by Ksmvr as the other Humans on their road north. There had been…incidents.

“A bath for all of you, of course!”

“Thank you. And if we can help in any other way…”

Yvlon coughed. Pisces nodded and sighed as he edged over to stare into the mirror. Ksmvr shuddered.

Bath…?

The Horns laughed at that. Ceria put the mirror down and realized her hair was covered in dust. Every time she turned, she created a cloud that sent everyone into coughing fits. In time, the Horns found washbasins being brought to them, and the villagers came around to thank them—again, wary of Ksmvr, except for the children who begged to borrow his Ring of Jumping.

Another adventure, and the Horns would nearly be at Invrisil. And then they’d see The Wandering Inn again. Ceria yearned for that, and she knew her friends did too. And then further north, to find Ryoka.

All these things would come. But for now, the Horns sat around. And the other villagers and the adventurers began to stare at the little scrying mirror, listening to the voice as the images flickered. Tonight wasn’t their story.

 

—-

 

War in Belchan. Three days had passed since the King of Destruction’s furious declaration of war. And today—

The war was coming to its end. In Pallass, Noass was commentating with Sir Relz on an aerial view of the battle, courtesy of an actual [Scrying] spell linked with other spells.

That was necessary—there was no way for any [Mage] on the ground to get close. Because both armies would slay any bystander casting magic in the area.

Three days. It had taken Tiqr weeks to fall, even with a coalition of nations invading. But Tiqr had been larger than Belchan. The other armies unprepared for the stiff resistance the Empress of Beasts had put up.

And…the attacker had not been the King of Destruction. From the moment he had declared war, his army had marched deeper into Belchan, leaving a trail of destruction that had been captured by the worldwide broadcast. Flos Reimarch’s force of sixty thousand soldiers had already been camped within the outer limits of Belchan; now, after three days, they were almost upon the capital.

“Analysis, class. How has the King of Destruction made such incredible progress?”

Niers Astoragon stood on his lectern and looked at his students. His special class was emptier than normal, so he’d merged it with some of his advanced regular students and the officers. The room was unnaturally silent as the [Strategists] and [Tacticians] watched the silenced view of the battle.

The Titan had, of course, been observing the entire conflict. He’d been teaching lessons around it nonstop. Now, he pointed.

“Marian.”

“The King of Destruction’s fought through numerous engagements, Professor. Eleven major ones…”

The Centauress cleared her throat. She looked restless. But most of the students who’d seen battle did. They could sense the conflict was nearing and were having trouble keeping their eyes off the scrying orb.

“Focus, class. Objective decisions in the heat of battle.”

Niers spoke quietly. He understood their emotions, though. The students focused back on him, some flushing. Marian went on.

“The King of Destruction does not have a large army. He’s gathered some of his reinforcements from Hellios, but most of his actual armies are still on the march north. By all rights, this army should not be attacking Belchan; they have nearly double his forces trying to hold the pass.”

“But he is going to engage them. And he hasn’t been slowed, even by forces larger than his. Why?”

Marian paused.

“Because he’s the King of Destruction, Professor.”

“Correct.”

The Titan of Baleros nodded. That was an accurate summation. He pointed at the scrying mirror. At the tiny shapes that the [Mages] performing the [Scrying] spell were trying to zoom in on.

Orthenon, the King’s Steward. Mars the Illusionist. The King of Destruction himself and his elite vassals. You could see the half-Giants in detail even from this range.

“Half-Giants. I should say, true half-Giants. First Shepherd Zamea of the Nomads of the Sky is twice as large as the average War Walker. Think on that.”

The class did. The Dullahans paled; Niers nodded. Cameral and the others could appreciate how vastly tall that was.

“We have at least three individuals on the field over Level 50. And that makes light of the other of the King of Destruction’s vassals. Grand Mage Esiela is most likely over Level 40, as befits the leader of Belchan’s mage academies. At the very least she’s high thirties. General Fultoolm…? Thoughts?”

“Below Level 40, at least, Professor.”

Umina raised her claw. Niers nodded.

“Levels aren’t everything. But…well, we’re looking at nearly a hundred and forty thousand [Soldiers]. Not a small number. Although Belchan’s lost a vast number to the King of Destruction already, and they’re warding off attacks from Medain to the north and Jecrass to the east. Still, that’s nearly double the King of Destruction’s forces. Do you think they have a chance? How would you fight this battle?”

Silence. The students looked at each other. At last, Cameral raised his hand.

“By your leave, Professor?”

“Go on.”

The Dullahan pointed to the scrying mirror.

“I…agree with General Fultoolm’s strategy in large. He’s holding a narrow chokepoint, with little room to maneuver. We can see Belchan’s [Mage] corps, which the King of Destruction lacks in number, holding at the back of his armies. In theory, they should be able to bombard his forces throughout the battle. The King of Destruction also lacks an individual as powerful as Grand Mage Esiela. And they will be in range of Belchan’s Academy.”

“Which has a number of bombardment spells. Their students could even be charging them as we speak.”

Niers nodded. Cameral shifted.

“Yes Professor. All in all, the terrain and composition favors each army. If the King of Destruction reaches the capital, it would be a battle more strongly in his favor. However…”

He paused. And that summed it up. Niers grinned around the room.

“Would any of you want to be General Fultoolm? What would you do? And finally—does he have a chance in winning with two-to-one odds, a [Mage] advantage, favorable defending conditions and long-range support?”

 

—-

 

“Absolutely not. If I were there I’d retreat. This is off-the-record by the way. I am not here in any advisory capacity. All my musings are my own opinion, not the position of Pallass’ military.”

Grand Strategist Chaldion waved a claw as he reclined in the chair. Noass stared at him. He tried to bow and nod at the same time. Chaldion was sipping from his iconic drink. And smoking on a puffer.

“Er, absolutely, Grand Strategist. But a number of other [Strategists] and interested viewers have pointed out that this is the spot to hold the King of Destruction’s armies…”

Chaldion laughed.

“Absolutely it is. A perfect defensive position, which is where Belchan has thrown back armies from Hellios and Germina in the past. Fighting around the capital would be madness; Belchan’s walls are too low and the city hasn’t withstood sieges before.”

“So—”

The old Drake leaned forwards. And his fake eye gleamed red. He’d removed his eye patch for the interview and it was unsettling, intimidating Noass greatly—

And very stylish. In Tails and Scales, Grimalkin snorted as he took a long draft from his cup of goat’s milk. Rufelt and Lasica and the other patrons of the bar were watching Chaldion live, on…tv. Television.

It was a surreal experience. Rufelt couldn’t help but glance over at the [Sinew Magus].

“Something wrong, Grimalkin?”

“Nothing. Chaldion’s certainly enjoying himself.”

Indeed, the Grand Strategist was reclining in his comfy chair as he took a long smoke from his burning cigar. The end was glowing brightly as he exhaled.

“It’s still a fool’s move. This is the King of Destruction. And he has two of his highest-level vassals on the field.”

“But what would you do, Grand Strategist? If this is objectively the best place to be in…”

Chaldion looked up.

“If I were in that position? I’d retreat to the capital.”

“Despite it being an inferior position to defend?”

“Yes. And I’d pull back every soldier holding against Jecrass and Medain. Even if it meant losing all of my eastern and northern flanks. This [General] whomever is gambling on the fact that he can stop the King of Destruction with his two-to-one advantage. And this Grand Mage whatshername, and ‘artillery support’ from the academy.”

He laughed derisively. Across the world, other monarchs and leaders watched. Prime Minister Lyfelt, sitting in a small cabinet meeting, shot to his feet.

“Send a [Message] to General Fultoolm—no! To this Drake! This—this is slander. General Fultoolm assured me this was the spot—”

Chaldion went on. And he seemed to be looking straight at each viewer as he spoke.

“They’re going to be slaughtered. This isn’t a battle. Watch. They’re about to begin.”

 

—-

 

The pass was narrow, the ground a mix between rock and soil. Both armies were lining up.

The army of Belchan on one side, rows of infantry forming walls of steel. At the back, hundreds of [Mages], some students of the academy, others graduates, shielded along with the [Archers] behind tens of thousands of [Soldiers].

Hundreds of [Mages]. Still a vast number for any one army. It was one of the features of Belchan as a nation. And General Fultoolm was no fool. He’d formed his infantry into formations, not one giant line as one might imagine. They were prepared to hold the center while the flanks pushed forwards and engulfed a smaller force.

And indeed, their army was twice as large as the one entering the pass. The King of Destruction’s army looked small indeed. A mass of foot and horse, with only one small group of [Mages]—Parasol Stroll. Yet, their side had half-Giants. The laughing Serpent Hunters, armed with poison blades on one flank.

Two vassals and the King of Destruction himself. He was on foot, surrounded by the Rustängmarder. The hundred-some elites and the [King] stood at the center of the army, near the front.

“I would have thought that this [General] would have lined up his soldiers in a more…orderly fashion. He has gaps in his formation.”

The Empress of Sands mused. There was a snort of derision from herself. A head sitting above and staring down at the scrying orb, the young [Emperor], snapped back down at her.

“If he lined his soldiers up in a straight line they’d be wiped out. He has his pikes braced to prevent the [Steward] charging; the pockets are meant to draw his opponent in.”

“Too much room to maneuver.”

Another of the Empress’ heads spoke. The grizzled [General] stared down at the pass.

“It wouldn’t matter against a lower-leveled army, or two larger forces. But the [Steward] is too quick. The pass is too wide. The pikes will not stop him.”

“Nor the half-Giants.”

“Nor the [King].

Laughter, a female head laughing derisively. Not the head that sat on the beautiful Stitch-Woman’s body. Another of her minds. And more whispers. The Empress of Sands looked up. And her heads, her other selves that practiced war were in agreement.

“The King of Destruction has his reason for war. And Belchan’s army is a line of sand before a wave.”

“It cannot stop him.”

“It will not stop him.”

“I erred.”

The young man spoke down to the Empress. He spoke to himself, angrily.

“No, you erred. You were warned. The King of Destruction has his reason for war. And now he will conquer another nation. This head is flawed. Put me on.”

The other heads voiced their agreement.

“My perspective is wrong.”

“Put me on. I understand war.”

“No, put me on.”

“Put me on.”

Voices, whispering, demanding. Like the voices everyone had in their head, but louder. Real things. Each head wanting to take control, to lead. The female head of the [Empress], who had been Emira Saet-rei of Doran, before she became another part of the Emperor of Sands…paused.

“I have made errors. I did not believe the King of Destruction’s subjects would have been attacked. I did not consider that the Prime Minister of Belchan was such a fool. And I do not understand war with such clarity, it is true.”

She nodded to the two armies. The King of Destruction was striding back and forth, bellowing at the other side. He was demanding their surrender. Or else—

Annihilation. Belchan’s forces shuddered, but their [General] raised his sword. And their Grand Mage shot a [Siege Fireball] across the pass. It exploded as Parasol Stroll twirled their umbrellas, but the act heartened Belchan’s [Soldiers]. They roared defiance at the King of Destruction.

But Reim’s army was eerily quiet. The King of Destruction nodded. The Empress watched, until her younger, impetuous male self, interrupted.

Put me on.

“No.”

She looked up at herself, and the head, who still remembered being Emira Saet-rei, beautiful, intelligent, brave—and horribly obsessed with bad puns—ignored the young man’s head.

“I know that I am the perspective needed. I have made mistakes. And clearly—I underestimated the folly of Humans. Of men. But do not get a head of yourself.”

Silence. Then half of the heads groaned. Puns indeed. The Empress of Sands smiled. Then her smile vanished. She watched, in silence. The battle was beginning.

 

—-

 

The air was hot. Both armies stared at each other. The King of Destruction’s was advancing.

Slowly. Grand Mage Esiela shifted. Her robes kept her cool, kept the elements at bay and were warded against common weapons and spells. Nevertheless—she was sweating.

She tried not to show it. And, as she stood behind the tens of thousands of [Soldiers], she kept her back straight. She knew they were looking at her. After all, she was the Grand Mage of Belchan, head of Belchan’s Mage Schools.

The highest-level individual on her side of the battlefield. And she was a [Mage]. She could cast spells at range and to greater effect than any [Warrior]. That was the boast of all [Mages]. More firepower than a common [Archer] with only a handful of arrows, with more versatility than any idiot with an axe. Esiela was capable of becoming invisible, levitating, and she could cast [Siege Fireball] by herself. She didn’t need to link to use the spell.

Students at her back. Esiela looked over her shoulder and saw some of Belchan’s older students. They stared at their headmistress in trepidation. But also—with trust. The Grand Mage made herself smile confidently.

She shouldn’t have looked back. Doing so only made her conscious of her role. She stared ahead instead.

The King of Destruction stood at the front of his army, surrounded by his vanguard. He was roaring orders as he advanced. His voice was no longer magnified, but it was still impossibly loud. And—he was only a man. And far away. But he seemed…larger.

His rage was a physical thing in the air, beating down on Belchan’s army. Esiela was actually using an [Aura Shield] to block the effects, but she knew it was there.

“So. This is the King of Destruction.”

The Grand Mage murmured. She sensed General Fultoolm looking at her.

“Take him down, Grand Mage. Do that and his army crumbles. That is all you and your students need concern themselves with.”

Esiela bit back a sarcastic response. ‘Only’ slay the world’s most infamous [King]? And yet…she’d agreed to fight.

Esiela had seen the images, of course. The Prime Minister, Lyfelt, had ordered scrying orbs banned except with extreme necessity, but most of the [Mages] in Belchan had seen it. The sight, the bloodshed had disturbed Esiela greatly. But it had not been all of Belchan; just one village! And the King of Destruction would slaughter countless innocents if he got to the capital. He had already, or put them into chains as slaves.

So Esiela would fight. She was already preparing bound spells to unleash one after another from her staff. [Acid Orb Volley], [Siege Fireball], [Chain Lightning]—any one of the powerful spells would obliterate any one man.

Even the King of Destruction. Esiela realized she was breathing faster.

The army was coming. Only eighty thousand. There were nearly twice that many [Soldiers] here! Remember the plan. Ahead of her, some of the fortifications the army had been constructing seemed like a paltry defense. A few channels filled with spikes, walls of dirt raised by [Mages] and [Diggers]—but there had not been enough time for a proper fortification. The King of Destruction had been too fast.

A figure strode forwards as both armies drew nearer. Esiela saw a glowing form. Magic armor, covered by a powerful illusion from head to toe. Her skin chilled and crawled further.

Mars the Illusionist.

Belchan’s army paused as the army of Reim halted for a moment. And then the [Soldiers], half-Giants, [Riders], who had been so silent, began to shout.

Mars! Mars! Mars!

The [Vanguard] glowed with magic. Esiela licked her lips. Those were…powerful artifacts she was wearing. The woman stopped, standing in between the two armies, in the dead zone.

“Within bow range. Prepare a volley—Grand Mage, your spells—”

General Fultoolm murmured. Esiela shook her head.

“Her armor will stop any arrow, General. Don’t waste your magic. I’ll…deal with her after the [King].”

Her voice wasn’t trembling. Or if it was…Fultoolm stared at Esiela. He lowered his gauntleted hand. The Grand Mage stared at Mars. The woman had raised her sword in one hand, pointing it ahead. Straight at Esiela, or so it felt. In her other, a black shield with a snarling face dripping…blood….was secured to her arm. What artifact was that?

Come! Where are Belchan’s heroes? Is there no one strong enough to face me? Or is your army so ball-less and craven that you only fight unarmed children?

Mars bellowed at Belchan’s army. The [Soldiers] hesitated as she walked back and forth, beckoning.

The air was electric. Esiela froze as Mars’ words rolled across the army. She felt the power of a Skill, but she didn’t know what was happening.

“What’s going on?”

She whispered to Fultoolm. The [General] was grinding his teeth.

“[Call of the Champion]. If no one comes out to face her, Mars will demoralize the entire army. And any [Champion], [First Warrior], [Royal Protector], or so on will lose their class. But better that than losing one of our best—I kept our champion classes off the field for that reason.”

“Because they’d die?”

No response. Mars laughed derisively.

“So be it! My lord! Give us your command!”

She turned her head. And Esiela saw the red and gold-haired head turn. She felt the air grow hotter.

Here it comes! Brace—don’t falter, brave sons and daughters of Belchan!

Fultoolm roared. [Courageous Speech]. It made Esiela stop sweating as much. Mars’ contempt had been pressing down on her. She turned her head to Fultoolm.

And the King of Destruction pointed across the dry ground. He had been still. Coiled. No—more like waiting. Burning with the same fury that hadn’t died after days of battle. Now, he roared one word.

Charge!

Esiela’s head snapped forward. She saw the first ranks of infantry begin running. They were still out of bow range! Weren’t they going to tire themselves out?

But then she saw how fast they were moving. The people on foot covered the ground unnaturally quickly.

[Rapid March]. And striding ahead of them were—half-Giants. Esiela looked up. Thirty-foot high men and women, carrying axes. She aimed her staff.

The King of Destruction! Grand Mage! Focus on him!

Fultoolm roared. He was shouting orders. Esiela jerked her staff down. She aimed.

There he was. Charging with the Rustängmarder. They gleamed of death magic. Necromancy. But he was there. Coming at her. Looking…

“Unleash. Unleash!

Esiela shouted. The spells stored in her staff triggered at once. Orbs of dark brown acid flew forwards, followed by a glowing, massive fireball. And lightning.

None of them reached the King of Destruction. One of the half-Giants in front saw the spells, swung down his axe and shield to block them—but the spells detonated before they even reached him.

The Grand Mage’s eyes bulged. She turned. A flow of mana had reached out, snapped the bindings on each of her spells, triggering each before they reached their target. She looked around, tracing the magic back—

And saw them. A group of about four dozen [Mages]. Each holding a brightly colored parasol. Young and old, dressed in magical robes, like her. They strolled forwards, twirling the objects that were their magical foci.

Parasol Stroll. Esiela had discounted them; they were [Mercenaries] as much as [Mages]. And she was higher-level than any of them. But—Esiela pointed her staff again at Flos.

“[Shatterbolts]!”

A powerful Tier 4 spell, multiplied in a hail of ghostly darts. They flashed at the King of Destruction—

And again, vanished. This time Esiela saw the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll pointing. They were cancelling her spells! All-together, each one taking a different dart.

She stared at them. Then aimed her staff their way.

“[Arc Lightning]!”

A bolt of lightning shot up, arcing downwards in a long curve—slower than regular lighting, and subdividing, becoming dozen of lightning bolts! That would—

 

—-

 

“Incoming. Brace.”

Ulyse of Parasol Stroll saw the lightning bolts falling. He raised his parasol, twirled it. Every [Mage] in their loose formation did the same, halting.

The colorful umbrellas twirled. The lightning bolts hit a barrier in the air of twisting colors. A mass-shield. Ulyse heard the thunderous detonations, but not a shock made it to his group. He smiled.

“Tier 5 spell. That must be their Grand Mage.”

Mirin commented. She’d thought the [Grand Mage] would be in hiding, and that was a decoy. But Ulyse hadn’t.

“She must be getting upset. Incoming. At a walk, everyone.”

The [Grand Mage] was aiming more spells at Parasol Stroll. The [Mages] advanced. Arrows were flying their way too as Flos and his army closed the remaining ground.

And that was a mistake. Grand Mage Esiela had diverted arrows meant for the half-Giants and [Soldiers]. But they were useless on the mercenary mage-company. They raised their parasols, joining their magic. And the air shimmered and glowed as spell and arrow failed.

Grand Mage Esiela was staring. Ulyse grinned around his parasol. He bowed slightly her way.

“Taunt. One, two, three—and reply. [Arrows of Sand].”

Parasol Stroll’s company turned. And for a second their parasols spun as one, like some unified, brightly colored creature as they stood with their backs to Belchan’s army. Then they turned and pointed wands, or the parasols or their fingers.

Arrows made of magical sand rose out of the ground and shot in an arc at the [Archers] and [Mages]. Thousands of them. The low-level spell scaled up wonderfully. And the spell caught the other [Mages] off-guard.

Because a single Tier-5 spell was easy to block or dispel. But many low-level spells? Harder. Ulyse saw Belchan’s [Mages] dispelling them, or throwing barriers up.

“Disorganized.”

Mirin clicked her tongue. Ulyse nodded. Grand Mage Esiela had ignored the rain of magical arrows altogether. Her robes could probably neutralize a Tier 3 spell. But she was still foolish.

The magical arrows of sand burst in the air. None of them reached their targets. But that was the point. A stinging cloud of sand poured down over the soldiers below. They coughed and swore as they were blinded temporarily. Grand Mage Esiela looked around, startled, as the rain of arrows stopped. The [General] was howling at her. She raised her staff and conjured a breeze, but that just blew more sand around and it was too late.

The King of Destruction’s army covered the remaining ground. And the [Archers] were blinded and the other [Mages] distracted. The Grand Mage had completely forgotten her objective. She was throwing spells at Parasol Stroll.

“[Siege Fireball] incoming. Dispel. Begin counter spells. Rain [Flame Arrows]. Mirin, take your group and burst acid orbs over the others while Orthenon moves into position. At a walk. Leisurely. I’ll match spells with the [Grand Mage]. This could get rough, so keep your individual shields up.”

Ulyse advanced with his group. Spells were beginning to smash into their combined magic shield. It might go down soon; the [Grand Mage] was strong. But she’d made a mistake.

“[Earthen Spire].”

The leader of Parasol Stroll tried to send earth magic through the ground and impale the Grand Mage as a greeting. His spell failed—she’d severed it halfway. He grinned.

She was strong. But she was an academic. Not a [Mage] who survived on the battlefield with his wits. You couldn’t cast big, direct attack spells and hope to win in a proper battle. And he was distracting her from where she could really do damage. So long as that happened—he won.

Ulyse raised his parasol and blocked a [Piercing Arrow] coming at him. The [Prismatic Barrier] was failing. Soon they’d be taking direct hits. And they’d die. Some of them. But that was war. He marched on with his [Mages]. Grinning, as the Grand Mage wavered.

And the first [Soldiers] hit Belchan’s army.

 

—-

 

[Mages] dueled. [Archers] launched volleys of arrows at each other. The cavalry was maneuvering, looking for an opening in the narrow pass. But the first group that reached Belchan’s entrenched defenders was the foot. The infantry, massed behind the King of Destruction.

He was charging ahead, faster than anyone else. Mars ran next to him, shielding him from arrows and spells. But the King of Destruction was not first to reach the line of Humans.

The first were the half-Giants.

Behold. The [Soldiers] looked up as a shadow passed over their heads. They gazed higher and higher. Not ten feet, or twenty feet, but thirty feet up.

Taller than houses. With the last blood of Giants running in their veins. It was just a word. From afar you could dismiss them. But up close?

Zamea strode at the first line of [Soldiers]. Then her pace picked up. She began to run, outdistancing the Humans on horses, the racing [Soldiers]. So tall she blotted out everything behind her.

And her axe gleamed. She smashed through a wall of dirt and stone, snapped wooden spikes in the pits dug to stop small, mortal folk. The first row of pikes and shields in Belchan’s army held their ground. Trembling with each step. They were braced to stop a charging mass of horses, [Soldiers]. But this? How did you stop—

SMALL.

Zamea swung her axe. And the rank of [Soldiers] in front of her vanished. She plowed into the [Soldiers], her feet smashing them flat. She didn’t stop. The swords and spears thrust into her skin, but barely penetrated. The half-Giant brought down her axe again, with both hands. And the earth shook with the impact.

Small! Come, smallfolk! Bring us down! For Reim! In the King of Destruction’s name! Flos Reimarch!

The woman roared. She planted her feet and swung her axe again, in an arc. Armored bodies went flying. And the mortal smallfolk ran. They backed away. Who could stop her swing? A Level 30 [Shieldmaster]? Against that?

Colossal strength. Skin that could stop steel. Zamea roared as three more half-Giants charged into the [Soldiers] of Belchan. There were tens of thousands of them.

But here were Giants. And behind them—the King of Destruction and his army. They poured into the openings torn by the half-Giants, howling, cutting through the broken formation. General Fultoolm stared.

“Bring her down. Bring that one down! Archers! Mages! Grand Mage—

He looked for Esiela. But she was gone, dueling the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll. The [General] looked up as the [Soldiers] tried to surround the half-Giant. She was mighty, but she was only one. There were only a few half-Giants. If one fell—they could drag her down with ropes, cut her to pieces.

The [Soldiers] of Belchan poured forwards. A [Captain] pointed and a detachment of elites with shields rushed at the half-Giant. They had enchanted blades.

Zamea swung and her axe bounced off the elite soldiers as they braced. Fultoolm felt his heart beating again. He gasped in relief as the half-Giantess recoiled. An enchanted javelin struck her in the cheek and sunk deep.

She could die. She could die! Zamea shielded her face as arrows flew at her eyes, and the elites began to encircle her, trying to cut at her left leg. She roared her fury. Then Zamea raised her axe. She tensed—

“[Cleaving Arc].”

She swung her axe. And the blade gleamed. It grew wider for a second—the [Soldiers] froze as it came at them—

And the blow cut half of them apart. Enchanted armor tore and bent. Skills and shields failed to stop the mighty strike. General Fultoolm stared.

“A Skill? That’s not—fair.

He looked at Zamea. A half-Giant, so tall she dwarfed any creature in this world he had ever seen. As strong as a mountain, with skin nearly as strong as stone.

With Skills. Who could level. Because she was half.

Half of a Giant. Half of a legend that had dueled Dragons and built ancient fortresses in days when [Heroes] and [Archmages] still existed. And though Giants had all but passed from the earth—

Their descendants remained.

The Army of Belchan not fighting for their lives stopped, for a second. Staring up at her.

First Shepard Zamea. Leader of the Nomads of the Sky. She planted her axe as Reim’s [Soldiers] rushed past her. And she calmly drank from a huge flask.

Healing potion.

“Smallfolk, we are not at all equals. Is that not so, Teresa Atwood?”

She smiled. And a girl stared up at her as she pushed forwards in the infantry. Zamea laughed. And it was a terrible laugh. She strode forwards.

Behold! Flee, smallfolk! Surrender!

The half-Giants were bellowing as they carved forwards. Zamea cut through the infantry, carefully wading behind the ranks of Reim’s [Soldiers] now. Wary of elites who could bring her down.

But the King of Destruction didn’t slow. He raced onwards. And now—General Fultoolm saw a beautiful woman, wearing no helmet, hacking her way towards him.

Mars the Illusionist. Her blade was living fire. Every time she swung it, it cut through metal and body. Just—fire. Her sword was twelve feet long, and the burning flame made [Soldiers] scream. You couldn’t protect yourself from that! And when she ran into someone who braved the searing flames that ate at their skin, blistered and scorched flesh black—

Her black shield and the carved, snarling face moved. Two wide jaws opened. Mars thrust the shield towards a [Captain] advancing on her with a greatsword. And the shield bit. Two jaws closed as Mars rammed the other [Captain]. General Fultoolm heard a scream. He saw blood and black liquid pouring from the mouth as it chewed.

And Mars the Illusionist shoved aside the dying [Captain]. She rammed through a press of [Soldiers] who fell back rather than fight her. More were trying to slow her—arrows bounced off the [Vanguard]’s armor, her face and hair—but that was the illusion.

And she couldn’t be stopped. General Fultoolm fumbled for his sword. He had enchanted weapons. He was a [General]! The defender of Belchan!

But…she was laughing. And her eyes were locked on his face. Mars sheathed her sword and reached for something at her side.

Bag of holding. She drew a second blade. It shone with a bright, pale light. Like moonlight. A piercing weapon—she beheaded a [Soldier] and the blade carved halfway through a second [Soldier] standing next to the first without so much as slowing.

“Hold—hold her back—”

Fultoolm wondered who was speaking. Then he realized it was his voice. His elites were pressings forwards, fighting Mars back. She slowed, dueling them in a press of bodies. Alone. She’d cut so far in that she was surrounded, but it didn’t matter. Because they couldn’t hurt her.

General! You must pull back! Pull back!

One of his [Strategists] was shouting. But Fultoolm couldn’t. If he did—Belchan’s army collapsed. His Skills were the only thing keeping the soldiers from breaking. He raised his sword.

“[Grace of the Bastille]!”

The ranks of [Soldiers] firmed. The elites fighting Mars began to block her blows, even dodging her shining blade as it threatened to cleave through flesh. The entire army began to block, defend with unnatural skill.

A defensive Skill. His Level 30 Skill, the one that he was so proud of. It would affect his entire army.

For one minute. One…minute. That could change a battle. That was what Fultoolm always said. You could reverse any odds.

But look. The [General] raised his head. And he saw the King of Destruction.

Just a man. No half-Giant, not supernaturally tall. Tall, yes, and strong, and…just a man. You could say that if you didn’t see him in person.

Fultoolm saw a [King]. He was holding a broadsword and shield. And he was still cutting forwards with his vanguard. He had no flashy Skills. No amazingly magical blade; his shield burned with fire, but his sword was normal. Just sharp.

The King of Destruction didn’t even fight with any unusual tactics. He was just a fighter. A good one, seasoned by countless battles. But he was so strong.

A [Lineholder] with a tower shield saw the King of Destruction coming at him. The Rustängmarder raced after the King of Destruction, their masked faces covered with blood as they hacked apart their opponents, refusing to even step back once. The [Soldier] was brave. A brave son of Belchan. He raised his shield as he aimed his spear at the King of Destruction’s chest.

The [King] knocked the spear’s tip aside with his shield. He closed, bringing down his sword. The [Lineholder] lifted the tower shield.

And the sword cleaved through the metal. Through the shield and the man’s head. Through the metal helmet. It snapped bone, drove the [Lineholder] into the ground. The strength.

Fultoolm saw Flos yank the sword free. He whirled, slashing, knocking an axe aside. Then he rammed into a female [Soldier] and sent her flying backwards. His sword moved—another of Belchan’s children died.

Cowards.

Flos Reimarch thundered. He brought his shield down and caved in a skull. Belchan’s front lines were crumbling, but the advance of his army was slowing. The numbers were still against them.

And the [Mages] were finally beginning to exact their toll. Parasol Stroll was battling with Grand Mage Esiela and a few of her [Mages], stalemated. Some of their number had fallen. But the rest of the [Mage] corps at the back of the army were bombarding Reim’s army with spells

[Fireballs], [Lightning Bolts], or weaker but deadly spells like arrows of ice and sickles of magic were hitting Flos’ army. The half-Giants were forced to shield themselves from the magic bombardment. The King of Destruction himself was being targeted.

Protect his Majesty. [Spellward Shields].”

[Death Commander] Ytol leaned on his crutch. Half of his body was gone, but the leader of the Rustängmarder was still commanding from the army. He ignored spells raining down around him as [Soldiers] advanced with shields over their heads. They were glowing, blocking the spells.

Orthenon! Bring down the [Mages]!

Flos was roaring, his voice carrying over the battle. Fultoolm didn’t see whom he was shouting out—the [General] began to scan for the absent Steward. Then—he saw a [Soldier] rushing the distracted [King]. She was a [Swordslayer]. And her enchanted blade gleamed as she thrust at Flos’ heart.

He jerked back. But it was one of the Rustängmarder who took the blade through the chest for him. The soldier, armored in dark colors, jerked, as the blade went through his ribs and chest. The [Swordslayer] tried to drag the blade free.

Too late. Flos beheaded her. He caught the mortally wounded soldier of the Rustängmarder as he fell. And Flos Reimarch paused. He reached for a healing potion at his side, but the man was dying. So the King of Destruction knelt, as the Rustängmarder fought around him.

“Brave [Soldier]. You have fulfilled your oath. Tell me your name.”

The dying man somehow had the strength to reach up. He pulled his helmet loose. And the King of Destruction looked into the dead man’s face. He listened and bowed his head. Then he let go.

“Go now, Igel of Reim. Rise. Your crimes die with you.”

Helmetless, the man rose. He was a young man. And his eyes were wide and blank. The wound in his chest had stopped pouring blood. He did not look at the [King]. But he took his sword and shield and plunged into the fighting at the front.

Faster than the other Rustängmarder, than any other [Soldier]. Igel’s blade hacked and he charged into Belchan’s ranks. He ignored the wound in his chest, ignored the blades that cut at his unguarded face and pierced his thick armor.

The [Soldiers] of Belchan fell back, unnerved by this fearless warrior with the hole in his chest. Flos raced forwards, at Igel’s back. And the Rustängmarder roared as they charged, the first noise they had ever made.

It was only after an arrow pieced Igel’s eye, and a sword was thrust into his throat and he kept moving that the children of Belchan realized the truth. Igel’s blank eyes stared forwards as his body kept fighting.

But he was already dead. The [Death Soldier] advanced, fighting, fulfilling his oath in death. And the courage of those who fought him broke.

How could you fight a dead man? He was already—

Half-Giants cracked the earth as the King of Destruction roared.

Advance! Cut their army in half!

He was poised to do it. But—the [Mages] were creating walls of magic, slowing the advance. On them everything hinged.

Grand Mage Esiela was panting. But she’d brought down four of Parasol Stroll. They could win! The King of Destruction was pushing in with his elites, but if he fell—

Students! [Mages]! Hold back the enemy! Teachers, with me. We kill the King of Destruction.

The [Grand Mage] turned. Parasol Stroll launched spells at her back, but the massed ranks of Belchan’s spellcasters were using the same tactics on them. They had learned in minutes the lessons of battle.

Esiela ran backwards. She could see how far the King of Destruction had pressed into the canyon. He was indeed trying to split Belchan’s army straight down the middle. But if she reached him—Mars the Illusionist was distracted! And the half-Giants and the Rustängmarder couldn’t protect him from her spells.

To me! We kill the King of Destruction!

Blood was in Esiela’s eyes, her pulse thundering in her ears. She ran around the back of Belchan’s armies, searching for the King of Destruction. His advance would be his undoing. She turned, as the back ranks of [Archers] whirled. Looking at her. She raised her staff, shouting, rallying them—

“—iela! Esiela!

A hand grabbed her. The Grand Mage stumbled. She turned. One of the teachers in her school was pointing. Esiela looked at him. And she realized the [Archers] weren’t looking at her.

A second army appeared at Belchan’s backs. Thundering down the canyon was a group of nearly ten thousand [Riders]. For a moment Esiela’s heart jumped. Reinforcements?

But no—Fultoolm was screaming for the infantry to turn. For the archers to fire! And Esiela recognized the figure leading the wedge of cavalry. Her heart stopped.

Orthenon. The King’s Steward. The Left Hand of the King of Destruction.

He had circled around. Somehow, he’d travelled around the entire canyon range, fought through the forces there and reached their rear. How had he done it so fast?

Because—he was the [Steward]. Not one of the Seven, but second only to his [King]. Esiela stared. Then she began to back up.

“Form a line of pikes! Bring him down! Bring him down! Fire the bombardment spells!

Fultoolm was roaring into a communication stone. And from the sky, Belchan’s Mage Schools began to unleash the stored magics. The spells that had been raining down on Flos’ army began to aim for the [Steward]. And the [Mage] corps, retreating behind another wave of [Soldiers] began to fire spells too.

[Valmira’s Comets] began to hit the ground. The glowing meteors made of magic exploded, sending shockwaves of earth fountaining up. Lightning bolts fell out of the sky, and rains of arrows burst from miles away, aiming at Orthenon.

They missed. The artillery spells were tracking the [Riders] too slowly. Each one was racing faster than anything on land Fultoolm had ever seen. Only a bird was faster. They wove, dodging spells.

Cavalry! [Charge Commander] Veldeen! Stop the [Steward]!

Belchan’s own cavalry detachment, a small number for the battle in the pass, raced out. They aimed straight at the [Steward], buying time. Fultoolm saw them racing at Orthenon. Stall them until he could put enough pikes and [Soldiers] between them and—

Orthenon raced ahead of the [Riders], a dark blur. The [Steward] was armed with a spear and his sword. He twisted as he raced at the [Charge Commander].

“[Sword Art: The Tide Breaks].”

The gaunt man flashed past the first rank of Belchan’s cavalry, riding perpendicular across them. His sword cut in a blur, rising and falling so fast that it did indeed look like a pattern of silver.

Horses and riders collapsed, heads and limbs severed. The first rank of the cavalry fell, and the following ranks collided, crashing into screaming piles of people and horses. Orthenon turned his horse, shot onwards.

They were coming. Grand Mage Esiela was moving back, throwing spells. But the [Steward] cut one in half, dodged another—and Parasol Stroll was cancelling her spells again!

She’d retreated behind a thin rank of spears. They were covering the [Archers] and [Mages]. Pikes braced, ready to impale horses. Esiela saw the [Steward] aiming straight at them and hoped. Even if he had so many horses, they couldn’t—

[Steelflesh Charge].

The [Steward] and his wedge of horses hit the spears. The pikes knocked [Riders] from horses, made some rear, took a few down. But for a few seconds, the flesh of his cavalry was steel.

And a few seconds—

The [Steward] had his spear out. He beheaded the [Sergeant], then rode straight through a group of [Archers]. He ignored them as his [Riders] followed. He was making for the students of Belchan. Then he leapt from the saddle, landed in their midst.

They stared up at him. The [Ruinbringer Steward]. Orthenon of Reim. A legend in their times. The man drew his sword. He looked at a teacher, of 1st Year students. High Mage Fredalius, a kindly fellow who always had a treat—

Orthenon beheaded him. Fredalius never had time to raise the barrier spell with his wand. The [Steward] cut left and right. Belchan’s students and [Mages] stared as the magic-users around Orthenon collapsed without a sound. The [Steward] kept moving, calmly lopping off hands and limbs. His sword was a blur as he walked through the spellcasters.

Only after a second did they begin to fight back, to run. It was surreal. The [Riders] were tearing apart the [Archers]. A few [Mages] tried to aim spells at Orthenon. Others made barriers.

The [Steward] leapt over a rising [Wall of Stone], blurred. Six children died. Children, who’d come to fight because Grand Mage Esiela had been assured they’d be safe.

She stared, so shocked by the carnage she couldn’t move. And again—the same thought echoed.

It wasn’t fair. Spellcasters, [Mages] with years of training just to cast basic spells, students of magic who’d spent their entire lives training in their craft died with a single sword thrust. Up close—all their magic was useless. The [Steward] was faster than they could even say the name of a spell. And bunched up, they were dying like flies.

“Pull—”

Fultoolm’s voice froze in his throat. He stared as the [Steward] just…took apart Belchan’s rear lines. It wasn’t a battle, it was a slaughter as his [Archers] and [Mages] were cut down. He looked around.

Fultoolm saw the King of Destruction fighting through his army, circling, joining Orthenon’s assault, hammering Belchan’s army from multiple sides. He had less numbers, but so many individuals who couldn’t be killed.

Heroes. So many heroes. Legends from the age when the King of Destruction had conquered Chandrar. Fultoolm turned. Retreat. They had to retreat, make a second stand. If—

There you are.

The [General] heard a beautiful voice. He turned, and saw a woman with white hair, a tall, lithe form. He stared into her vibrant, glowing eyes that shone like the dawn.

Of course, it was an illusion. It was said that Mars the Illusionist had any number of forms. That her true appearance was wretched—that she wasn’t even Human. She was a tricky opponent, for all she fought from the front. Her illusions could distract, confuse.

But he was glad of it, in this moment. Because she looked the part. A gallant heroine, champion of the King of Destruction. Not even touched by blood.

Mars the Illusionist saluted Fultoolm. His command was slaughtered, his elites dead. The [General] stared at her. Then he raised his sword.

“An honor.”

He charged at her. Mars saw his sword blur. She jerked back. The [Lightning Slash] sent crackling electricity dancing across her chest. She brought her sword up. Fultoolm saw it coming. He didn’t close his eyes.

The [General] toppled, cut from below the right arm across his left shoulder. And his army cried out as they felt him die. Mars stood over his body and turned. She raised her sword and bellowed a wordless cry of victory. Then she looked down at the [General].

“An honor? You served the wrong ruler.”

She shook her head. Then she sheathed the shining blade and drew the sword made of fire. The King of Destruction’s army poured forwards.

And Belchan’s army began to surrender. [Soldiers] who had seen the [Mages] destroyed, Orthenon pushing in from the rear—the King of Destruction, the Rustängmarder, the half-Giants or Fultoolm’s death—they threw down their weapons and raised their arms.

Yield! Yield!

Teres had blood in her mouth. Not her own. She was fighting with a cluster of veterans to the side when she heard the call being carried across the battlefield. The group of Belchan’s elite [Spellswords] who had been holding the line looked up, hesitated, and then threw down their blades.

All across the battlefield, Belchan’s [Soldiers] were surrendering. There were only a few pockets of—no, even the most stubborn of their warriors didn’t have the heart for it. Not in the face of Zamea, or Mars. There was no glory, no pride left to fight that.

Teres only realized she was gulping for air, her heart beating out of her chest after she lowered her sword. Then she felt her burning arms, the cuts she’d taken, a burn across her chest and chainmail that had fused with her skin.

She didn’t throw up—but only because she’d felt this before. The crash at the end of a battle. Teres looked around, trying to tell what had happened. She had been so caught up in her fighting she hadn’t seen the entire battlefield as others had. She saw the remaining [Mages] on Belchan’s side surrendering as Orthenon wiped his blade. And a woman, kneeling in front of Parasol Stroll as Ulyse, Mirin, and the others surrounded her.

 

—-

 

All told nearly half of Belchan’s army survived. Put another way—nearly half of them had been slaughtered. Still, Reim’s forces had gone through Belchan’s so fast that some pockets of the army hadn’t even had time to fight before the battle was decided.

It was a nightmare. No—surreal. Grand Mage Esiela knelt on the dry ground. She was surrounded by Parasol Stroll. She hadn’t even taken any wounds. But she’d seen Fultoolm die. So she had surrendered. She couldn’t even flee; she’d tried to cast [Invisibility] and other movement spells and Parasol Stroll had caught her.

Now, she was afraid. The [Mages] were suppressing her magic. She couldn’t have cast spells if she wanted to. And she saw the King of Destruction standing with his vassals as the rest of the [Soldiers] were disarmed.

Prisoners of war. They hadn’t been executed. But they’d be slaves. Or ransomed at least, by the Slavers of Roshal. Imagine that. Nearly seventy thousand people…

Better than being dead. Grand Mage Esiela was imagining a mage collar around her neck. She wanted to throw up. But only her dignity kept her from doing so. Her students…

“Six [Mages]. More than we thought. Grand Mage, you are powerful.”

The leader of Parasol Stroll leaned on his bright umbrella as he addressed her. Ulyse was a kindly, uncle-ish sort. A mix between the grandfather and uncle, really. But he had battled her with deadly spells, killed dozens of people during the battle.

He was relaxed, afterwards. Just taking his leisure amid the dead. That was the difference between him and her. Esiela shuddered as Ulyse looked at her.

There was a younger woman standing next to him. Ulyse turned to her.

“Mirin, the mage-collars the Slavers of Roshal carry won’t work on someone of Grand Mage Esiela’s caliber. We’ll have to ensure she doesn’t escape.”

“Or offer her a place.”

The other woman’s voice was quiet. Esiela shuddered as the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll all looked at her.

“Offer me…?”

For answer, Ulyse reached out and picked up an umbrella. Covered in blood. He showed it to Esiela.

“This belonged to Vivica. One of the [Mages] you killed. Six of our own are dead. But that is war. So, as is our custom, we offer you a choice. Be bound to our company, with the blood-debt of the defeated and the fallen. Take up a parasol and walk with us. Fight with us. Six dead. So, then—six years. Swear by magical oath and blood. Or become a [Slave]. The choice is yours.”

“If the King of Destruction wants her slain…”

One of the [Mages] murmured. Esiela just stared. This was all too much. Ulyse nodded.

“We need more magic, especially of her power. I will argue if he asks it. Well, Grand Mage Esiela? You do not have long to decide. Ten minutes.”

He nodded. The King of Destruction was pointing. Esiela saw his [Soldiers] were moving. They were…beginning to march?

Yes. Reim’s army was already beginning to move down the pass while some guarded the prisoners. They were moving. Advancing to the capital.

To kill the Prime Minster. And bring everyone there the King of Destruction’s justice. Esiela’s blood chilled. But she was helpless. Even if she fought with tooth and nail—the [Mages] were surrounding her. And she was fairly certain that they could fight hand-to-hand far better than she could.

“Grand Mage?”

Esiela jerked. She looked up at Ulyse. A kindly face and those…calm eyes. She shuddered. After thinking for one second, Esiela croaked.

“My students. My—the teachers. The other [Mages]. Will you…?”

Ulyse nodded.

“We will extend the same offer to the others. As is our custom. Slavery or the possibility of ransom or joining our number.”

“And I would swear…”

“To uphold our purpose. No more. Simply to fight with us to the utmost of your ability, cast spells as commanded. Since you are a defeated [Mage], someone will have to monitor you. Mirin, perhaps. But our oaths are sworn with blood magic and other contracts. They are not forsworn lightly.”

His eyes glinted. Mirin looked at Esiela. The Grand Mage shuddered. No indeed. She knew just how well you could bind someone with magic, especially with their blood if they gave it of their own accord.

Six years. But…she knew Roshal’s [Slavers]. And six years serving as a battle mage compared to what a [Slave] might…? Especially someone as valuable as Esiela.

No, there was no choice. Esiela nodded. She licked her lips and realized they were bloody. She immediately gagged.

“I—I will. Join you.”

Ulyse glanced around. The [Mages] of Parasol Stroll nodded.

“Ah, good. You will be a welcome addition, Grand Mage. Then we will administer the oath. Quickly. We must recover and await his Majesty’s orders. And I imagine, I must explain your presence to him.”

He nodded at the King of Destruction. Esiela froze as Mirin produced a vellum scroll glowing with power.

“Await his…?”

The leader of Parasol Stroll looked at Esiela with a smile. A cold one.

“We will be assaulting Belchan’s capital. You wouldn’t happen to know the name of it, would you?”

“Levrhine.”

Esiela whispered. Ulyse nodded.

“Your magic will be invaluable for that battle. We will be attacking the capital before nightfall. His Majesty does not intend us to rest, or for Belchan to reorganize.”

She looked at him. And she could always refuse. But the collar awaited. Esiela bowed her head.

In the end, she’d never really had a chance. Not she, or her army. She drew her own blood and signed the contract, felt the magic bind her.

Then she took the parasol and marched with the other [Mages] upon Levrhine, her home. And the people of Belchan, the students of Belchan’s schools, Prime Minister Lyfelt, saw the Grand Mage marching against them. Just as they had seen the battle, the death of General Fultoolm. The way the King of Destruction had swept over Belchan’s army.

They had seen it all.

 

—-

 

“Well, that’s it then.”

No one had spoken in the scrying orb’s studio for a while. Grand Strategist Chaldion or whomever he was, quietly drank and smoked as he sat back in his chair. Noass and Sir Relz, who were normally trying to fill the silence with commentary…were quiet.

There wasn’t much to say. They’d just watched Belchan’s army routed within…what, thirty minutes? An hour at most. And Reim’s army was marching on the capital.

The students in Belchan’s Mage School had to be panicking. Their staff and headmistress had been killed or…converted. Only some of them had gone to battle—the ones who’d been deemed able to fight. There had to be thousands more students.

And of course, Belchan’s capital, Levrhine had its own garrisons and defenders. Probably tens of thousands, to prevent a surprise raid. A decent army. And there were other parts of its military. They could presumably rally and fight back.

They could. But they wouldn’t. Because the international broadcast, the television, magicvision, whatever you wanted to call it, was working against Belchan.

It had shown them just how overwhelming their foe was. So the King of Destruction had shattered their morale. In his city, Prime Minister Lyfelt might be in power, but when the King of Destruction rode on the city, his head might be offered at the gates for some modicum of mercy.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the [Politician] could stay in power. But he’d never fight off Flos Reimarch.

“Morale.”

That was the second thing Raelt of Jecrass said. He adjusted the scrying orb, but the other Drakes were still speechless.

In the picture, Chaldion looked sideways at Noass as he leaned back. His voice echoed out of the scrying orb.

“I believe I predicted this. Would you like a breakdown of exactly how badly Belchan’s army was beaten? Because that is why he is called the King of Destruction.”

Raelt saw the Drake who was named…Noass…stir. The [King] wasn’t in a mood to listen, though. He had seen enough. So he deactivated the scrying orb, put it in his saddlebags. And he said the word again.

“Morale.”

“Your Majesty?”

The [King] of Jecrass turned. Raelt Leysars had forgotten he wasn’t alone. He’d been so engrossed in watching the battle. He saw his old retainer and confidant, Geril, looking at him.

“Morale, Giles. That was what General Fultoolm lacked. Along with everything else.”

“I don’t follow, your Majesty.”

Geril cocked his head. He was dressed for war. As was Raelt. But while the [King] wore light, enchanted, flexible leather armor and a rapier at his side, along with a few rings and potions, all treasures of Jecrass’ limited treasury, Geril was wearing much heavier armor.

He was an old man, but he was wearing a damned hauberk, as well as other pieces of mail armor and a conical helmet. He was also carrying a spear he could use from horseback.

Mind you, he could probably use it. The [Retainer] had fought in wars before, and he had been a veteran of a number of battles. Still—Raelt would have just as soon not brought Geril to the front lines. Even if he did hope to avoid a battle.

But Geril had insisted, and he could help command as well as fight. Raelt nodded at him.

“Morale. If Belchan’s army had held, they might have done more damage. Well, that and they let the King of Destruction hit them. You can’t fight half-Giants and Mars and—all of them head-on.”

That was Raelt’s opinion. His blood chilled as he remembered Zamea cutting down [Soldiers] like wheat. No indeed, fighting the King of Destruction head-on was suicide. He went on, forcing the words out. A cold, calm analysis. It was that or succumb to what he’d witnessed.

“Morale. If your army fights, then the King of Destruction’s army is just another army. With powerful Skills yes, but his strength comes from his line breakers, his few elites.”

“You may be right, sire. But then wouldn’t both armies still be destroyed?”

“Yes. In the best case you take two-to-one losses. Three-to-one even, but you destroy his army. And in the worst case—he uses his [Army of the King]. Or maybe that’s the best case.”

“I don’t follow, your Majesty.”

Another voice to his left. Raelt turned and saw General Lael looking at him. She’d watched the entire broadcast too and her hands were tight on her mount’s reins. Raelt spoke quietly.

“It’s the best case in a sense, General. Because you and your entire army will die—but the King of Destruction loses his best weapon for a month. Either way, you lose the battle. But without morale, your army won’t force either outcome.”

Silence. The riders around Raelt stared at their [King]. But Raelt wasn’t in the mood to debate his point. He didn’t like war. But he’d done a lot of thinking and he’d seen high-level battles before. That was just his conclusion, though.

“The King of Destruction is thirty miles away from the capital. Even if he’d delayed in taking prisoners…General, pick up the pace. Advance at a gallop if we must. We must get there first. Stop taking prisoners. Advance at all speed, without opening us to ambush.”

“Your Majesty—”

Now, General.”

Raelt ignored the worried voice that came from one of his River Wardens riding in his company. General Lael nodded. She rode ahead and Raelt turned.

Ahead and behind him rode Jecrass’ army. A substantial force, larger than the one that had been destroyed by Flos Reimarch.

But then, Belchan was fighting on multiple fronts. And Raelt had taken all the forces he could spare straight across Belchan’s borders as soon as he’d declared war, three days ago. Mostly horses, over a hundred thousand of them. The foot could barely keep pace, even with Skills boosting their movement.

A vast army. For the two nations, at least. Medain’s was far larger, Nerrhavia’s beyond compare. But these armies had warded Belchan and Jecrass well in their alliance, sometimes with Hellios and Germina as well.

And three of the nations were fallen or falling. Raelt still couldn’t believe it. But he had seen Belchan’s army, [General] and Grand Mage defeated. And now he was marching on his friend and sister nation.

He was not the only one. Medain from the north, Jecrass invading from the east. And those were only the two closest kingdoms. The Claiven Earth, even Nerrhavia from the south—armies were marching on Belchan for a piece of the nation.

Or—perhaps in simple outrage over what they had seen. Not that children or civilians had been slaughtered, but that it had been seen, a first in this world. Public favor was more on Flos Reimarch’s side than it was Belchan’s.

But the dead. Oh, the dead and slaughter. Yes, The King of Destruction had been merciful, in a way. He’d taken prisoners from his battles rather than execute all of them. Indeed, the only reason he had taken three days to reach Levrhine was probably because of all those battles and ensuring the prisoner trains wouldn’t escape.

The same of course, applied to Jecrass. Their army had marched over the border and invaded Belchan. But Raelt’s armies, led by General Lael and the [King] himself hadn’t really fought many battles. A few skirmishes the first day, but after that they’d been bogged down.

By all the people surrendering, or trying to flee the King of Destruction’s advance. Conquering a city that opened its gates and begged for mercy wasn’t a great feat. But it had slowed Raelt from reaching Levrhine.

Now, he was in a race. But if there was one thing Jecrass was good at, it was moving fast. Their cavalry was among the best in the world. And they only had about sixteen miles left.

“Pick up the pace! We’re riding ahead!”

Raelt snapped at Geril and his River Wardens. They stared at him. But they obediently accelerated with their horses.

The King of Jecrass himself cursed as he felt the saddle crushing his nether regions. It was a good saddle, enchanted, and his horse was a brilliant stallion, some pureblood breed known for its ability in battle. Cimallion or something.

Raelt didn’t know. He didn’t like horses. The King of Jecrass was often defined by his dislikes. He disliked oranges, his River Wardens, bells, horses, and war. But he was also a [King], and so he was often in close proximity to all these things. So Raelt rode. He was a decent rider, even if he’d never had the class. As he leaned over his horse, he heard a sound, one of his dislikes.

Jingle, jingle.

The ringing of a bell. A silver bell, attached to a young woman’s rapier. Jecaina of Jecrass, [Princess] and sole known heir to the throne, leaned over her own mare as she caught up with her father.

Father! Father! Are you going to attack Levrhine?

“I told you to stay back! Jecaina!”

Raelt snapped at his daughter. The [Princess] had insisted on coming with him into battle. Raelt and Geril had forbidden it, but she’d ridden with them and they hadn’t been able to get her to leave. Even with an escort of [Soldiers] she slipped out of their clutches. Raelt had been about to order her bound and carried back to the palace, but—she was a [Princess] and a kidnapping was possible.

“Father, the King of Destruction is riding on Levrhine!”

Jecaina was wide-eyed. Raelt snapped back.

“Really? And here I thought he was riding past it.”

The comment provoked an open-mouthed stare from Jecaina and the River Wardens in earshot. Raelt was not known to be an angry [King] at all. In fact, he was rather known for being snippy at worst, and rather even-tempered in all but the worst situations. But right now he was letting his inner self out because it did not matter at the moment.

“But Father—what are you going to do?”

Jecaina looked nervous. As well she might. All of the River Wardens in attendance—a full third of them and their armies—had expressed serious reservations. Raelt didn’t care. He had to do this. Just as he’d been unable to stand the sight of the slaughtered Gnolls—he had to. He looked at Jecaina and saw the silver bell again.

“That damned bell. I told you not to wear it.”

“What? What’s that got to do with anything?”

The [Duelist Princess] covered the bell, surprised at the old argument. It was a beautiful little silver bell. No casual trinket either. The silver bells of [Duelists] were known the world over as a mark of skill by anyone who studied the art of blades. [Fencers] and [Duelists] wore them into battle, and anyone who carried a silver bell was a recognized talent with the blade.

Strutting your abilities. Raelt hated it. He hated bells, showing off. He hated his River Wardens, who were all talk for the same reason. You did what you had to do, that was all.

“Father, my bell has nothing to do with—what about Levrhine?”

“I’m going to do what I must.”

Raelt Leysars spoke coldly. Almost numbly, but for the fear and trepidation in his breast. He did not want this duty. But he was a [King]. And the crown he wore meant he took on all of his duties, and he was his own judge, and could never run from his responsibilities, or what was right or necessary. That was what Lyfelt did not understand.

Because he was not a [King].

“You don’t understand what the bell means, Jecaina. You got it for defeating a [Fencer]. But the bell means more than that. It is not supposed to ring.”

The [King] looked at his daughter. She stared back at him. Raelt was garbed for war. He had taken his armor—not the royal armor because that was mail and Raelt thought it was too heavy and inflexible—but his armor, and his sword.

A rapier. Unlike the foil that Jecaina liked to use for her duels. Raelt had lived in Terandria. He loved exercises with his sword, but that was not really [King]-ly. His rapier was enchanted, and on his left side, he also carried a parrying dagger.

A cup rapier with enchantments on the blade. Just cutting enchantments to add to the serrative qualities of the rapier; it was a thrusting weapon after all, meant for light cuts and thrusts. A dueling weapon, which was sometimes derided as a weapon for small engagements, not the actual battlefield.

Well, it was better than an épée. And Raelt’s rapier was enchanted with cutting magic so a slash from it was far more dangerous than a regular rapier. Feather light, perfectly balanced, with a cup guard on the handle. No idiotic and often impractical swept hilts, which often traded defensive properties for aesthetics. Actually, Raelt’s hilt was a pappenheim-hilt, which was actually two shell guards, but that was only if you got technical.

And he carried a parrying dagger enchanted with a 5-pound [Weight] spell. Raelt fought like a traditional [Fencer], not with one rapier. Or two, like a flashy idiot. The dagger was used for knocking a blade aside, keeping an opponent wary of both hands.

Raelt liked fencing. He had taught his daughter how to fence, which is where she had gotten the same love. But he didn’t force his hobby on anyone outside of his family. He even dared say he was good at it. A parrying dagger was short and it was a stupid, stupid thing to use in a fight unless you were good at it. An enchanted sword was useless in the hands of an amateur.

But King Raelt carried no bell. He never wore his. He looked at Jecaina now. And the father, riding to war, had a proper fatherly squabble with his daughter. Because…what else was he supposed to do?

“It’s ridiculous. Silver bells aren’t a mark of pride, Jecaina. They’re a test. I never told you because I thought you’d figure it out.”

“Figure what out. Is there something inside?”

Jecaina looked at her father, bewildered. Raelt sighed.

“No. The test is that they don’t ring if they’re worn by an expert. A proper [Fencer] wearing the bell makes no sound. If the bell rings—it’s unnecessary movement. At most, it rings once or twice in a duel. Experts count how many times it rings in a bout. It’s meant to showcase your abilities by never being seen, Jecaina. Unless you look for it. That’s a [Fencer]’s pride.”

For a while his daughter just stared at Raelt, open-mouthed. And then she turned bright crimson.  She hung her head, and Raelt regretted his outburst. But he rode on.

Lyfelt, old friend. His heart ached for the foolish, arrogant [Prime Minister]. But despite it all…Lyfelt had not been a bad man. But Raelt was not coming for him. He was riding to do what was right. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

—-

 

“The King of Destruction is approaching Levrhine.”

That was all you needed to say. Flos Reimarch rode at the head of his army. They were tired, but not by much. Stamina potions, Skills—and their fury kept them moving.

Gnolls marched with the army too. One had white fur. The others carried bows, hunting javelins. Many had gone south, civilians. But they marched behind their [King].

For vengeance. To answer a [King]’s fury. For a child, for a people killed far from home.

The pounding feet and hooves were like thunder. Teres was afraid. Flos had marched to battle in fury, laying waste to each army. But with each passing mile, the dark energy coming off him grew deeper.

He was not coming to Levrhine for battle. But his justice. And he had sworn to kill a man.

Prime Minister Lyfelt of Belchan. Not just him. A thousand of Belchan’s citizens for every Gnoll that had been slaughtered. And Teres…feared he would carry out on his threat.

She still remembered the dead Gnolls. That—could not be forgiven. This Lyfelt was to blame. But the others? People who had no idea, who were just Belchan’s citizens?

No. She was resolved to stop it. Somehow, even if she had to put herself in front of Flos. That was Teres’ resolve. She just hoped she could do it.

She wished Trey were here. But he was marching north with the rest of the King of Destruction’s armies, and Gazi. The Quarass had declined to do battle.

This was how they rode. In fury and retribution and bloody vengeance. In silence. And racing ahead of the vanguard and marching [Soldiers] was the [Steward].

Orthenon spotted the capital city of Levrhine first. He put up his hand and his [Riders] slowed. Orthenon had only six thousand of his cavalry with him. He wasn’t about to start the siege—just prevent the Prime Minister from fleeing. But what he saw made him stare.

An army had taken Levrhine. A massive one was encircling the city. The gates were open and horses were pouring into the city. A winding column was joining the rest of the army.

“Another army? Reinforcements?”

A worried voice from one of the officers. Orthenon wondered the same thing. His eyes narrowed and then he spotted the banners. A horse on fields of gold.

Jecrass’ banners. The [Steward] cursed. He kicked his mount forwards.

With me!

The arrival of the King of Destruction’s steward provoked a ripple in the army. He was outnumbered six-to-one. But the entire army pivoted towards him—until a command rippled through their ranks. A man on horseback rode out of the gates. Then he dismounted—he’d had enough of horses.

General Lael and the River Wardens and an army of elite [Trick Riders] and [Lancers] surrounded the man. But the [King] of Jecrass didn’t step back as Orthenon rode down on him. The [Steward] stopped abruptly.

And he looked down on King Raelt.

“What is the meaning of this, King Raelt of Jecrass? His Majesty marches on Levrhine. Why is Jecrass’ army here?”

His voice was flat. And Jecaina, being restrained by Geril, shuddered. In awe and trepidation. Danger hung from the Left Hand of Destruction. The [Ruinbringer Steward]. A man who had slain monarchs, nearly as many as his [King].

She looked at her father. And he seemed small, compared to the tall, dark figure. But Raelt Leysars of Jecrass only nodded to Orthenon. And the circlet on his head flashed as he spoke.

“I’ve subjugated this area. Pull back your men, King’s Steward. These lands are now formally part of the Realm of Jecrass.”

Orthenon stared at Raelt. Incredulously. He looked past Raelt, at the capital city.

There was no smoke. No sign of damage at the gates. Nor had Jecaina seen so much as a bared blade. The people of Belchan had thrown open their doors and let the army in. They’d taken the palace in moments.

Just in time too. Orthenon had been only minutes behind. Raelt met the [Steward]’s burning gaze.

“Jecrass declared war on Belchan. The Realm of Jecrass was unable to let the slaughter of innocent citizens pass—”

He broke off as Orthenon leaned over the saddle. The [Steward]’s gaze fixed on Raelt’s face.

“The King of Destruction demands justice. This trick will not protect the Prime Minister. Or Belchan.”

Pressure. Like a [King]’s aura. Raelt saw the people behind him stagger. He locked his legs and replied in a level tone.

“I have claimed this city. Justice will be done. If the King of Destruction would like to witness it, he may come himself.”

Orthenon looked at Raelt. The two didn’t blink. Abruptly, Orthenon sat back upright. He waved his hand in a circle—the [Riders] behind him moved.

Everyone around Raelt tensed, and the [King] felt a leap in his chest. But the riders were just turning around. Orthenon looked down at Raelt. And his voice was cold.

“His Majesty is on his way. He will decide what occurs next. That is my warning to you, King Raelt of Jecrass.”

Then he bowed slightly, a courtier’s bow to a [King]. And he was gone. Raelt waited until he was a hundred meters away, already accelerating faster and faster—and then he sagged.

It had begun. There was a babble of voices after Orthenon was gone. People talking to him, demanding—asking—

Afraid. Raelt saw it on their faces. It was in him too, a terrified, clawing thing. But he mastered it. He couldn’t hear the others as he turned.

“Keep a watch out for him. The [Steward]. And the [King]. The other one, I mean. Geril. Where’s Geril?”

The [Retainer] looked at Raelt. The [King] paused. His daughter was staring at him with wide eyes.

“Jecaina, you will remain with the army.”

“—”

No buts! You will stay with a guard of [Trick Riders]—

The famously mobile elites of Jecrass, well, one branch.

“—and stay safe! Do you understand? No arguments this time, Jecaina!

Only after Raelt saw his daughter nodding did he realize that she hadn’t responded. The [King] caught himself. He looked around.

Everyone was looking at him. Morale. They were terrified. And why not? Their [King] had barely been able to deal with the [Steward]. Raelt was underlevelled. Why not be afraid? Even with an army larger than the King of Destruction’s. Raelt breathed in and out.

“I must speak to Lyfelt. Watch the gates. General Lael—deploy the army.”

“For what, your Majesty?”

Raelt looked at her.

“For a battle. An army is approaching.”

Her face went as white as the other’s. Raelt just shook his head. It was common sense.

But it couldn’t come to that. He knew. So, slowly, the King of Jecrass ascended the steps to the parliament where the Republic of Belchan was ruled.

Lyfelt was there. He had been hiding in his home, but the parliament building had safe-rooms. He had holed up in them from the mob. But the army had forced the safe rooms open.

Another flaw. Raelt was led by some of his [Soldiers] and the terrified [Politicians] and leaders of Belchan to the vault. What was the point of a vault you could open from the outside? His [Soldiers] had forced the safe word and key out of the caretakers in moments.

Prime Minister Lyfelt waited for him inside. His family had been taken to safety. But the man, a handsome, charismatic leader, waited inside.

He looked…smaller. Raelt had been to Belchan a few times, but they often communicated via the magic statue. Raelt forgot that Lyfelt was shorter than he was.

A good looking man, the kind you could vote for. Believe in. But just a man. Not a [King]. Raelt knew the look of a [King]. And that was of someone who could never walk away from his duties until the end. Who wore them for life. A heavy thing, a crown. Flos Reimarch, for all he was so different, had that look.

Lyfelt looked up as Raelt came in. He started, afraid, as if he had expected…but he tried to smile.

“Raelt. My friend.”

The [King] heard him distantly. He looked down at Lyfelt. Then, abruptly, he sat in the safe room. It had enough food to last Lyfelt a long time. Artifacts to dispose of waste…Lyfelt could have lived a long while. Assuming the King of Destruction couldn’t crack the safe with his bare hands, or order his vassals to destroy the entire building.

“Raelt, I can’t tell you how grateful I am. And it—it’s brilliant. I will repay you, I promise.”

The [King] said nothing. He felt his armor bending as he let his shoulder slump, alone with Lyfelt for a moment. Felt the rapier and dagger at his side. The Prime Minster waited, went on, his voice quavering.

“Politically—it works. Belchan’s capital is yours. The King of Destruction has no cause to attack Jecrass. He would be making a mistake. If—the other nations could back your claim. I’m sure they would, but to be safe—”

Raelt looked at him. And he said nothing. His mouth felt closed, sealed by something stronger than magic. Lyfelt hesitated.

“He could force the issue. But—Raelt. I am eternally grateful. I didn’t know what to think when Jecrass invaded. Let me help. I can at least try—”

“I have one plan.”

Raelt spoke, though it felt like it took all of his strength to do so. The [King] looked at his friend.

“My plan is this: take Levrhine first. Claim it, before it is destroyed and the people slaughtered for your mistakes.”

His words were blunt. Lyfelt paled. But then he nodded.

“I don’t deserve your mercy. But you are saving lives. It’s…heroic. What will you say to the King of Destruction when he arrives, Raelt? Do you have a plan?”

“No.”

“Then what do you intend to do? Fight?”

“Fight?”

Raelt just looked at Lyfelt. The other man hesitated. The word sounded as ludicrous out loud as it had in Raelt’s head. Fight that? The Prime Minister hesitated.

“Then what? If he demands…”

The coldest words Raelt had ever uttered came out of his mouth. But he never looked away.

“I have taken Levrhine. But I do not intend to do battle with Flos Reimarch. I intend to give him what he wants.”

He waited. Lyfelt stared at him. What little blood remained drained from his face. He opened and closed his mouth.

“Raelt? You can’t be—you know—how—Raelt?”

He stammered, at a loss for the words for only the second time Raelt had known him. The [King] said nothing more.

Lyfelt scrambled over to him on the bench.

“Raelt. You can’t do this. He’ll kill me. Torture me! He said—I did not know. I swear to you, Raelt! Please! Think of our friendship. Please—”

The [King] heard nothing more. He sat there, and he watched Lyfelt’s lips moving, as the man pleaded, begged, raged. But Raelt could hear nothing. He just sat.

And Lyfelt eventually stopped. He looked at Raelt, staggered onto the bench. And he began to weep.

A [King] should not cry. But he was no [King]. Raelt sat there, with his friend for a while. Hearing nothing over the ringing in his ears.

In time, there were running footsteps, voice which interrupted the deafening, damning silence. Raelt looked up. He heard a panicked voice.

“Send for General Lael! The King of Destruction is leading an army towards the capital gates! His Majesty—”

“I’ll go myself.”

Raelt slowly walked out of the safe room. The [Messenger] stared at him. Raelt slowly descended the steps, the flurry of people and voices silent and invisible to him.

The King of Destruction was waiting.

 

—-

 

“What is this?”

Flos Reimarch’s voice was very quiet as he stared at the army assembled in front of Levrhine. Jecrass’ army was large. But they shifted, like a breeze before his very gaze.

Teres was there. Zamea, crouching. Mars, Ulyse, Jelaim, Ytol, Chieftain Nelrra—Flos’ vassals. The [Steward] addressed his lord, his voice soft.

“They went in through open gates, your Majesty. No one so much as shot a bow at them.”

Jecrass’ army had stormed through the capital and occupied it in the hour before Flos’ army could get there. Now, they stood in front of it. Barring the way.

The King of Destruction looked at the city, and the army. He was quiet. Still. As contained as he had been the night the Gnolls had been found.

“I see. Then come with me. We will see what King Raelt has to say.”

He motioned. Teres saw his vassals hesitate.

“Who, your Majesty?”

The King of Destruction turned. And his eyes gleamed in the fading light, like burning embers.

Everyone.

The army of Jecrass faltered as Reim’s forces advanced. The mounted horses were at a disadvantage in close quarters. But they had not been given the order to attack. Who would order that? So it was stay—or retreat.

“Where is King Raelt of Jecrass?”

Flos Reimarch spoke as he rode up towards the other army. They looked up at him and both animals and people quailed. The female [General] flinched as she met the King of Destruction’s gaze. Teres thought she recognized a young woman far in the back of the army, mounted like most of them.

But then there was King Raelt. Teres had only seen him from afar. And she was surprised.

He was a tall man. Not exactly as serious-looking as Orthenon, but attractive. Limber, wearing leather armor and a rapier. He looked…normal. Not exactly like a [King]—or rather, Flos. The only [King] besides Fetohep that Teres had ever met.

He was on foot. Flos looked down at Raelt as he approached with an old man in armor. The King of Destruction paused. And then he slowly dismounted.

Mars and Orthenon walked forwards with him, as they had again. But this time the air hurt. King Raelt paused as he looked at the King of Destruction. He could feel his anger.

The conversation between the two men was simple. The two [Kings] looked at each other.

“King Reimarch.”

“King Raelt of Jecrass. Why is your army here?”

“Jecrass declared war on Belchan.”

“Why?”

“Because we witnessed the atrocity. Jecrass could not stand by. Nor could I.”

Flos paused. His eyes flicked to the city.

“Yet you conquered Levrhine without a battle.”

“The people thought it safer to surrender to Jecrass than Reim. I have no idea why.”

Mars smiled. But it was a smile with a glint in her eyes. Flos just looked at Raelt.

“I am not in the mood for games or jokes, Raelt. I considered you a sensible ruler, a good man. Why are you blocking my armies?”

King Raelt inhaled slowly and spoke.

“To prevent a slaughter. The people of Belchan have done nothing wrong, your Majesty Reimarch.”

Flos’ eyes narrowed.

“Some of Belchan’s people slaughtered Gnolls for no other reason than that they were Gnolls and mine.

“Yes. And they are dead. The people of this city are innocent.”

Raelt dared not look away. If he did, or even blinked, he would never be able to meet Flos’ eyes again. The King of Destruction looked past him, at the parliament, tallest of the buildings in the city.

“Bring out their ruler. The [Minister], Lyfelt. He will answer for the pain of my subjects on my blade.”

King Raelt paused. And then he nodded, slowly. He gestured at Geril.

“You will have him.”

Teres exhaled slowly, behind Flos of Reim. She didn’t see the figures perched on the walls. Rémi Canada held the scrying mirror level, like a camera. Noass and Sir Relz leaned forwards with the world. Listening to the enhanced picture and sound.

“One life for hundreds of thousands. He did it.”

Rémi’s assistant, a Garuda, whispered. The young man from Earth looked at her. And he whispered back.

“Stop whispering during the filming. And this isn’t over.”

He was right. Flos Reimarch raised a hand as he stared at the city behind Raelt. And his eyes were burning. He looked back—and his eyes found the white Gnoll standing in the army.

Sailt. The young Gnoll was watching. So were the Gnolls in Rufelt’s bar. Across the world. And the King of Destruction’s burning gaze ignited as he met the white Gnoll’s gaze. He turned back.

“Another thing, Raelt. Bring out the members of Belchan’s parliament. The [Politicians]. And the officers. Their Watch Captains. Their leaders.”

Raelt froze. He looked at Flos.

“…What will you do with them?”

“Execute them.”

The King of Destruction’s voice was normal. He gestured at the city.

“Spare the citizens. But bring me every politician, every coward who hides behind paper. Every single one who allowed my people to die because it was convenient. Because they thought they could get away with it. Because it didn’t matter. Belchan’s leadership. [Mages] too, if they did nothing. The leaders of every city who ignored the Saltstone Tribe as they marched past. Bring them to me, or allow my [Soldiers] to find them. They will take no others. Not their family or children. But they will be brought here.  And I will see their deaths.”

He looked at Raelt. And the [King] saw the King of Destruction’s expression flicker not one whit. Behind him, his vassals nodded. Teres’ stomach clenched. But she saw Sailt smile. And the Gnolls murmured, here and elsewhere.

Justice.

That is what they heard and saw. But Raelt did not. He looked at Flos Reimarch. And his voice shook as he replied.

“Many of those people have no idea of what Lyfelt ordered, King Reimarch. They would be completely ignorant.”

“Some knew. That is enough. I will not take the thousand lives I vowed. But I will see every single one of this rotting nation’s leadership answer for the crimes done to my people. No less.”

The King of Destruction’s eyes flashed. He spoke with such conviction, such fury.

An honest fury. Raelt felt the same thing beating in his breast. He was almost ashamed to meet the young white Gnoll’s gaze. Ashamed to stand here, arguing, when he had seen what had happened.

But he would have been far more ashamed to have done nothing. He would have not been worthy of the crown he wore, if he had not come. And, it was a partial justice. A flawed one. But the King of Jecrass shook his head.

“No.”

“No?”

Orthenon and Mars started. They looked at Raelt. And the [King] looked up. Raelt Leysars looked at the King of Destruction. And he felt the difference between them.

Raelt was a Level 26 [King]. Average. Neither good, nor bad. But low-level. He had not ridden to war. His nation had not suffered disaster and neither had he expanded the borders vastly. He was a good [King]. A decent [King]. If he had ruled like his father, as a good, decent [King], he would have been in his mid-thirties when he died.

That was what you expected. Raelt was not the man who had taken a country apart. He was half—less than half of Flos’ level, he knew. He had higher levels in another class besides [King], for goodness’ sake.

He was just a [King] who liked fencing. Who enjoyed throwing rotten fruits at annoying River Wardens. Who hated bells. Who disliked horses, or rather, riding them. He was fine with the stupid animals, but he wasn’t a huge horse-lover. He liked dogs. And he had wept for the Gnolls, who had been slaughtered as neither dogs nor people deserved.

But this was wrong. Raelt shook his head, standing in front of the King of Destruction and his [Steward], and Mars the Illusionist. The half-Giants looked down at him. And his army and the world watched. The [King] met Flos Reimarch’s eyes.

“No, Flos Reimarch. I will give you Lyfelt, to face justice. As he deserves. But no more. You have already drowned Belchan’s soil with the blood of its people. Enough. Or will you declare war on Jecrass, King of Destruction?”

His words provoked silence. Teres, even Orthenon, Mars, Zamea, and the others, were stunned. But the [King] refused to step back. He met Flos’ eyes and the King of Destruction stared at him.

“You are protecting murderers and cowards, Raelt.”

“No. Just silly, foolish people. Thoughtless, but not cruel. And if you slew all of them, the world would be empty.”

Raelt shook his head. He looked at Flos, and he pleaded with the other [King].

“Do what you must. But show mercy.”

“Mercy. And did my people have that when they cried out for it? Was it ever given?”

“No. But if you kill all those you demand, King of Destruction, King of Reim, you will kill guilty people. But innocents too. And if you do—you will be a monster like the very man you have come for.”

Silence. The King of Destruction breathed in and out. And Raelt looked at him and was afraid. But he had tossed his hand in, the same way he always lost games of cards with Lyfelt. But this was not a game of cards, of betting and doing the most valuable thing, like politics. It was just doing what was right.

At last, Flos Reimarch shook his head.

“No. I respect your will, King Raelt. And I would that you had joined me. But it seems you and I are different sorts of [Kings]. Different men. And I will not stop at one man. I could never face my subjects if I were anything less.”

The King of Jecrass nodded heavily.

“And I will not back down. What then?”

“War.”

The King of Destruction said it simply. Raelt bowed his head. After a moment, he raised his head. And he looked around.

The King of Jecrass looked straight into the scrying mirror that Rémi Canada held. And his words were caught and heard by all like this. From the Empress of Sands, to the Drakes in Pallass, to Rufelt’s bar, to Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia, King Perric of Medain, and more. Fetohep of Khelt. The Archmages of Wistram.

“I dislike politics. But hear me, now, King Flos Reimarch. Jecrass is not your enemy, nor that of Reim. But we have claimed Levrhine. And we refuse to allow you to slaughter our citizens. Prime Minister Lyfelt…we give you, for your judgment, and for the crime committed against your people. But no more. Do you declare war, you are forsworn. And every nation shall take arms gainst you. For what you pursue is not justice, but bloody vengeance. And Jecrass shall not allow it.”

His voice was soft. And he looked at his army, and weighed them against the smaller army led by the King of Destruction. And he saw death. But he did not move or yield the ground.

And the King of Destruction, Flos Reimarch looked at Raelt. Frustrated, furious. And then—suddenly—calm. Terribly so.

“Very well. You have made your case, King Raelt of Jecrass. And we understand your will. Yet for honor, for the pride of my people, for my justice, Reim shall never retreat. Not until justice as we will it be done.”

The two [Kings] looked at each other. Raelt felt hair stirring on his neck. A terrible foreboding. Yet, he only waited. The two were bound now, by ancient tradition. By the will of [Kings]. If one had fled now, they would no longer be a [King].

“What then, King Reimarch?”

Flos turned. His eyes burned across the ground. Neither his army nor Jecrass’ could meet his gaze. He nodded.

“To prevent the death of our subjects, to prevent war, we invoke ancient custom. The will of Chandrar’s rulers. So it was in Hellios, when King Treland made war on our subjects. And so it was in days since and past. King Raelt Leysars of Jecrass. I challenge you to a duel. And let the one who yields or perishes be forfeit. Before both armies, we will clash. Do you or your people break the duel, or retreat, you are forsworn.”

Old words. Raelt felt…nothing. He looked at Flos. And then realized what he felt was a crushing weight on his neck. Something heavy, dragging at his chest.

A duel. Ancient custom. He should have expected it. And it fit. Oh—how it did.

Duel. Or be called craven. Duel the King of Destruction. Or let it be war. He looked at Flos Reimarch. And nodded.

“Well done.”

That was all he said. Flos Reimarch looked at him and spoke in a low voice, meant for them alone.

“You forced me into it. Turn back, Raelt of Jecrass. And no one will think the less of you.”

King Raelt of Jecrass looked at Flos Reimarch. The King of Destruction. Raelt had no such title. He was lower in level, in ambition, and he had not seen a tenth of the sights Flos Reimarch did. But…he smiled, slightly.

“It occurs to me you have always made one mistake, Flos Reimarch. You read parts of me so well. But you do not know me.”

The smile caught the King of Destruction off-guard. Flos looked at Raelt.

“Indeed? What do I not know?”

Raelt shrugged. He was shaking. And he looked at the King of Destruction, at the army, and tasted bitter death. But he smiled.

“You assume I could turn back. I could refuse. That I could have not come here, or stood my ground. But you forget one thing.”

“Which is?”

Raelt Leysars spread his arms. He laughed at the King of Destruction, with dark despair, with pride and the arrogance that had made Jecrass. That burned in his veins.

“I am a [King].

And the King of Reim looked at him. For a long moment. And then he threw his head back and laughed. The two men howled with laughter. And then Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction, nodded.

“Well said!”

Then he walked back. And King Raelt knew he was going to duel the King of Destruction. So he stared at the twilight skies. And he wondered what his last words to his daughter should be. He wished…he’d had more time.

But he couldn’t have ever done anything different, really. That gave him some comfort. King Raelt reached for his belt pouch. And a bell rang once.

 

—-

 

The sun was setting. Or rather, it had set a while ago, and the last vestiges were disappearing behind the horizon. It wasn’t going to be a duel at sunset with the fading rays of light on each combatant’s back like something out of the stories; they’d probably end up fighting in the darkness anyways.

There was nothing special about the sun’s position, anyways. It was always rising or setting. And if it wasn’t out, you could call a duel under moonlight—with the stars aflame, or not one in the sky—poetic.

You could find meaning in any moment. And the [Poets] and [Bards] would. But they had never fought. And all Raelt found in his heart was a cold certainty.

He was going to try and kill another man. With a sword. Cut him to bits, hack at his flesh until his opponent stopped moving. He’d try to do it more elegantly than that, but there was no grand ambition in his heart.

He just wanted to live. And the [King] was certain…that he would not.

Raelt of Jecrass stood in a ring of his people, in silence, like that of a wake. He was stretching. And yes, a [King] should not ‘limber up’. But he was a poor [King] compared to the giant standing on the other side of the field.

Reim’s army had withdrawn, and the two forces were now standing at a greater remove. Well…a few hundred paces. They’d formed a vast circle, outside the gates of Levrhine. It was here, amid rocky earth and soil that they’d fight.

Nothing special. Raelt couldn’t help but analyze the terrain for any advantage.

“Pure ground. Could use a [Stone Wall] scroll. Geril—”

His voice was the only sound in his ears in the immediate vicinity. Raelt saw his old retainer and friend start.

“Here, your Majesty—”

He had a selection of all of Jecrass’ treasures. Scrolls used for battle, rings—every single artifact in the possession of the River Wardens, or General Lael’s officers. Raelt eyed the other scrolls proffered. Some were marked with symbols, for easy use.

Like the Scroll of [Fireball]. He didn’t take that one. Raelt took the [Stone Wall] scroll.

“My thanks.”

“Your Majesty, the other scrolls—”

“No.”

More silence. Raelt was doing practice lunges, and then sideways ones. Well, he knew he looked ridiculous as he leaned from leg to leg, transferring his weight, letting his muscles slowly warm up. But he had to be ready.

“Your Majesty—I have a poison. And—a wand of [Lightning Bolts]. If you have nothing of the like in your armory, I pray you will accept it—”

A voice. River Warden Dulfe looked at Raelt. And the [King] looked at the man’s face. Even now, Dulfe wore the illusion spells that added to his looks. But his face was pale. And he was looking at his [King] with somber…

Respect? If not that, then gravitas. Not like the same man who argued with Raelt. Funny. Raelt yearned to tell the man he would be more respected without such obvious illusions. So he did.

“Warden Dulfe, you are better served without illusions. You are not an ugly man. Nor a handsome one. But a man’s vanity has never changed who he is. I have often thought you would be better loved without such magics.”

The man started. The other River Wardens and officers stared at Raelt. The [King] was so casual, matter-of-fact. Dulfe hesitated, looking around, and then bowed his head.

“Yes, your Majesty. But—the wand?”

“No. No poison, no wand. This is a duel.”

“But sire—”

“No. What sort of [Kings] would we be if we used them? Look at my opponent.”

Raelt pointed. And those around him looked. They stared across the ground.

And there—there was light. And sound. [Light] spells lit up the dueling ground. And standing amid his subjects, laughing, arming himself for battle like Raelt, was the King of Destruction.

Raelt felt a mild chill as he looked at the other man. As if he was so cold, he couldn’t even feel it. The subjects of the Realm of Jecrass shuddered. Another River Warden spoke up.

“No one would begrudge you bringing poison, sire. Or—any weapon. I beg you—”

“I would, Warden Winta.”

Enough leg exercises. Raelt began stretching out his fingers, arms. Neck too. He could hear the King of Destruction laughing. And there—there was the [Reporter].

Rémi Canada. He had appeared in Levrhine, probably to witness the battle. If he hadn’t expected it—well, he held the eyes of the world. He was broadcasting both sides. And the difference was night and day.

Flos Reimarch stood with Orthenon and Mars and his other vassals. He was laughing, as they checked his armor and plied him with objects. Almost like they were relaxing and offering him little snacks and treats. They were excited. No fear in their eyes.

“Milord, no plate armor?”

“None. I’ll take the helmet, but plate will be too heavy. And Raelt looks like a quick fellow. Let’s see. I have a broadsword. Spear—”

“Here, your Majesty.”

Orthenon and half a dozen [Warriors] instantly offered their artifacts. Flos ignored them all. He waved away the spear shrouded with dark fog Mars produced.

“None of your grand artifacts, Mars! Give me straightforward weapons! Axes, spears, swords—we fight with skill and daring, not with gold.

“Apologies, your Majesty. Your opponent doesn’t seem to be taking any poisons or artifacts either. A brave man.”

Mars grinned, her white hair waving in the slight breeze. Her armor shone, and Orthenon lowered his magic spear.

“No need for antidotes then! A brave fellow indeed, and straightforward! I knew I liked him. A [King] after my heart.”

Zamea laughed as Flos tossed a pair of bottles over his shoulder and Jelaim nimbly caught them. The First Shepherd’s voice was audible across the battlefield.

“Brave or foolhardy, King of Destruction?”

“He stands with conviction, Zamea. Let not one person scorn him.”

The King of Destruction smiled. He was placing the different swords and weapons into his bag of holding. Enough blades for a small company, in case he broke one. He had a few potions, but like Raelt, he was going to fight mostly with blade.

“Alright, Orthenon, give me a few scrolls. Yes, yes. I have healing potions—stamina potions? Do you think we’ll be dueling that long?”

More laughter. Orthenon bowed. He was serious as ever.

“One should never be unwary, your Majesty.”

Flos Reimarch’s eyes sharpened.

“No indeed. Very well. Two. Now, step back everyone. I need to warm up.”

He took a sword and cut the air with it. His swings were fast, compact—a seasoned veteran’s motions. Raelt watched from afar.

 

—-

 

“What do you think about this battle, Sir Relz? The King of Destruction isn’t as famous with the blade as his warriors. He’s not the Illusionist. Nor his [Steward]—the rumors say he doesn’t have or use personal Skills in battle.”

“He’s as strong as any adventurer, though, Noass. We saw him cut down a number of high-level [Warriors]. I…we must applaud King Raelt of Jecrass’ daring, at least. Indeed, Flos Reimarch is unguarded! That helmet and his armor probably have enchantments, but there’s still gaps. One thrust to the face would kill him.”

“There’s a chance, is what I’m hearing.”

“Yes, absolutely. A chance. King—the ruler of the Realm of Jecrass could—”

Sir Relz paused. The two Drakes were commentating on the lead up to the duel. But even he couldn’t say it.

Raelt could win? Look. The [King] tried not to smile bitterly as he warmed up. Even he didn’t think he had a chance.

Everyone was watching. In the moment, in Raelt’s mind, there was only him, the ghosts standing around him, and the King of Destruction. But the event was comprised of thousands of individual moments, each person taking away…something from watching.

 

—-

 

“Pisces. What do you think?”

Ceria whispered as her team sat around the table. The bar was silent as people crowded to see the tiny scrying mirror. The [Necromancer] looked up as every eye turned to him.

“…The [King] of Jecrass is a fencer. A dueling dagger and rapier. I can’t tell the enchantments, but if he’s wise, the dagger is enchanted with [Weight]. Like Yvlon’s sword was. He can divert most attacks with it. And a [Fencer] has reach and mobility. It depends on his level. However…”

“He is most likely going to die within the first five minutes of combat.”

Ksmvr calmly announced. Yvlon looked sideways at him, and then at Ceria. The half-Elf looked at the other [Warrior].

“Yvlon?”

“…I agree. There’s no way this [King] can win. Even if the King of Destruction doesn’t have an active Skill like those two Drakes are saying…he’s got a massive level advantage. He’s going to be fast and strong. He’s stronger than I am by a bit. And that means if he gets one strike in…”

The others stared at Yvlon. At her bare, glorious, silver flesh that moved like skin, but was as strong as steel. Stronger, perhaps. Ceria gulped. She’d seen Yvlon swinging her 30-pound sword around fighting the Golems. She wasn’t quite as fast as she’d been with it when it was enchanted to weigh only a few pounds, but when she hit something—it broke. And Yvlon had literally punched through one of the Stone Golems and torn it apart with her bare hands.

The King of Destruction was stronger than that. The Horns looked at each other.

“A [Duelist] or [Fencer]. Depending on his level. He certainly looks…competent. But that is the King of Destruction. And I do not see a bell.”

Pisces spoke softly. Ceria looked at him. She remembered. Pisces had once carried a silver bell, a mark of pride.

“If you had a rapier and time to prepare, Pisces. Against the King of Destruction? With [Invisibility] and your Ring of Shatterbolt and…?”

He looked at her. And the [Necromancer], her arrogant, sniffing friend, smiled faintly.

“Why, Ceria. If all four of us were to fight Flos Reimarch? My advice would be to run away. This isn’t just about levels, or Skills. Or magical items or chance.

He looked at the two [Kings].

“He is…going to die.”

 

—-

 

It was a sentiment shared widely. By other watchers, in other parts of the world.

In Rhir, the fifth-greatest [Lord] in the world…according to some lists…stood in his private quarters. He was not alone. A younger man dressed in [Knight]’s armor stood with him.

“King Raelt of Jecrass’ only means of survival is to forfeit the duel. If he survives long enough. Five minutes would be…appropriate without him losing face.”

“He seemed serious, Lord Operland.”

Hayvon Operland, the foremost [Lord] of Rhir and the Blighted King’s court, nodded.

“In that case, he will die. It is not just a manner of Skill—”

He gestured dismissively to the scrying orb and the Drake commentators, who were muted. Hayvon looked at Richard, one of the otherworlders who were residing in his estates.

“The King of Destruction is no foreigner to duels. He has fought [Kings] and [Champions] in single combat and in battle for more years than Raelt of Jecrass has been alive. When he was a boy, he slew the King of Hellios in a duel. And he rampaged for decades after that. I cannot fathom a world in which he loses.”

Richard nodded quietly. Even from afar…the King of Destruction looked like a monster. He grinned as he shouldered the broadsword and shield he was using first. A pure, relaxed expression of someone who had fought these battles to the death before. By contrast, King Raelt looked…grim.

“What a waste.”

That was all Hayvon said. The [Lord] looked at the battle between the [Kings].

“Either way, one dies. There is a chance King Raelt survives, if he succumbs to cowardice. Flees. But he is not likely to last the first minute. And either way, two [Kings] risk their lives while the Demons grow in strength. Look at these petty conflicts.”

He looked at Richard, with the same fervent gaze Richard had come to respect. A man devoted to stemming the Blight and his kingdom’s enemies. And they were terrible enemies, capable of horrors.

Richard nodded. But the two turned back to watch, nevertheless.

 

—-

 

It was time. There was no one counting down the time both sides had to prepare. But Raelt was ready. And so was Flos. The two [Kings] looked at each other. And Raelt felt cold, despite his exercises. He stood up, and heard nothing. Saw nothing, but the other [King]—

“Father.”

A voice intruded on his thoughts. Raelt looked around. And he saw his daughter.

Jecaina. His beloved, child. Raelt didn’t know what to say. She was just looking at him.

“Don’t. Father, you can’t—”

She looked at him. And then past him, at the legend she idolized. And Raelt of Jecrass searched for the proper words. His father had never spoken them to him. He had died, when Raelt had been far from home. Suddenly. Raelt always wished he could have heard them. But now, he realized he didn’t know what to say. So he did his best.

“Geril. General Lael. My River Wardens. Bear witness.”

His company started. They looked at their [King] as Raelt stood with his daughter. And the [King] turned to look at his army. Many had probably only seen his face once or twice. He spoke to them, but mostly to her.

“People of Jecrass, bear witness. This is my daughter, Jecaina Leysars of Jecrass. Heir to the throne. Your [Princess]. If I fall, she will carry on my name.”

Father—

They watched, the people of Jecrass. Through scrying orbs as the [King] removed his circlet of gold.

“Jecaina, it is a foolish thing to fight a pointless battle. As a monarch, you must safeguard your kingdom first. Your ambitions, your petty desires and ego—that is not what matters. You serve your nation, and it is the nation which matters. Flee, retreat, kneel if you must. My father knelt to the King of Destruction and he was a good ruler. And I am a [Duelist]. I enjoy my small hobbies, my little world. I do not challenge Giants.”

The [King] turned his head and looked at Zamea. Flos was waiting, backed by his arms of legends. Raelt looked back at Jecaina.

“However, there is something else you must always remember. And that is what it means to be a [King]. To wear the crown. You must never, can never be anything less than the crown you wear. That is the dignity, the weight of your duties. Never compromise on your soul. And sometimes that means you fight to the last.”

She looked up him, her eyes swimming with tears. Raelt placed the crown on her head, softly, and bent to kiss her on the forehead.

“I am sorry.”

He stood, then, lighter for the absence of that bit of gold. And the [King] turned. And he walked away from his army and subjects, into the ring between both armies. With his back straight, his posture relaxed. And the rapier and parrying dagger were in his hands.

The army of Reim began to chant as Flos Reimarch advanced. The King of Destruction. They shouted his name. The half-Giants and Rustängmarder, his vassals.

Flos Reimarch! King of Destruction.

He smiled as he raised his sword. And they howled. On the other side, Raelt heard nothing. Then—a shout.

“Raelt of Jecrass! King of Jecrass!

Mortal voices, shouting. His River Wardens, his old retainer. His daughter. His army took up the chant. But they were drowned out by the roar of the half-Giants, for all their numbers.

The two [Kings] approached. Raelt Leysars was calm. He was an average [King]. Yes, that was true. But he had another class.

[Duelist]. And he was higher in level in that than his class of [King]. Which was probably a mistake. But he had been a young [Prince]. And he loved the sword.

He hated bells. And horses, and oranges. And other things. But as Raelt walked forwards, he felt in his belt pouch. And he pulled something out.

Orthenon, the King’s [Steward] stood in the center of the ring of bodies. He called out calmly as Raelt fumbled with his rapier’s hilt.

“Upon my signal, both sides shall duel until death or forfeit. Any who interfere, I shall cut down.”

The two [Kings] saw him walk back. And it was time. Raelt heard his blood thundering in his veins. And he felt more alive than he could remember in years. And what a shame that it should be so. He wished he had felt like this for a thousand days.

“Moments like these we live for.”

The King of Destruction stood. His hair shone red and gold. And his eyes gleamed like emeralds. He did not ask Raelt to surrender again. He just waited.

“Sorry. One moment.”

Raelt felt silly. He was still fumbling with a bit of string, as everyone waited. The King of Destruction just nodded. What dignity. Everyone stared at Raelt as he cursed over the bit of thread, trying to tie a knot.

Had he lost his nerve? What was he doing? The King of Destruction waited patiently. And then Raelt fit the knot, tied the string. He lowered his hand. And as he raised his rapier, something shone from the hilt. Tied with a bit of thread.

It rang in the silence, as the two [Kings] faced each other. A high, piercing sound. Familiar. Flos Reimarch stared at it as Raelt slowly walked left. And the King of Destruction circled the other way. Only he saw the little object clearly at first. But the gleam amid the falling night caught the eye.

What was it? Then—the watchers heard the sound again. Coming from the rapier, and the object Raelt had attached to it.

A jingling bell. It rang a third time, as Raelt shifted his posture. Delicate, beautiful, made so that even the slightest motion would make it chime.

But it was not silver. Ceria Springwalker stared into the mirror. And she saw a flash of—

“Gold?”

She looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] stared with wide eyes at Raelt of Jecrass. And the two [Kings] paused.

“You surprise me once again, Raelt of Jecrass. But you never wore it before.”

Flos Reimarch smiled. And his eyes danced. Raelt shifted his posture.

“I just dislike bells.”

Odd last words. But too late. The [Duelist] and [King] exhaled. And it was done. He saw the King of Destruction’s shield lower a fraction.

And he stepped. Across the six or so feet in a single lunge.

[Fencer’s Lunge]. Aiming for the King of Destruction’s heart. Raelt’s rapier flashed, the tip aiming for Flos’ heart. The quintessential attack of his class.

The tip of the blade missed. Flos Reimarch shoved the rapier’s lightning fast thrust away. It skidded upwards, slashing through his enchanted armor along the shoulder.

Blood ran along the rapier as Raelt disengaged, flickering back. With each step he blurred. Not [Flash Step], but [Quick Step]. Nearly as powerful, and his, without spell. He circled, lunged in as the King of Destruction turned. A second strike, at Flos’ side. Feint, slashing at the wrist that held the broadsword.

The King of Destruction halted his counterthrust. But he was exposed. Raelt was going for his tendons, so the [King] thrust his arm forward.

The rapier cut deep, the inside of his arm. But shallow. And the broadsword—

Raelt flung himself backwards, a second before it ran him through the belly. He saw the shield in Flos’ other hand flicker, his parrying dagger moved. The strike with the edge of the shield towards his neck missed.

The [Duelist]-[King] stepped back, using his mobility to give himself a moment as Flos checked himself. The King of Destruction was wounded twice. Across the shoulder, and his left, sword arm. But neither cut was deep or had scored any critical wound. He was left-handed, which had thrown Raelt off.

The King of Jecrass wasn’t wounded. But his left hand was numb. He’d knocked away the shield coming at his face, but the force behind the blow—

He couldn’t rely on parrying. One good strike would shatter his guard. Maybe even his sword.

A monstrous strength. And Flos was fast. Raelt had been hoping to end the battle in one thrust. A fool’s hope, but when the other [King] hadn’t known how fast he was, he’d had the element of surprise.

Now, the two looked at each other. Flos glanced at his arm, dismissed the blood. He grinned.

“Nearly.”

But not enough. Raelt opened his mouth to reply, as if they were just on the dueling ground. But he couldn’t reply casually. He saw his death reflected in the way Flos shifted his guard, warding his vitals. He wouldn’t let Raelt get in a second shot like that. And the odds of him winning—

As Raelt began to walk left, he realized there was a dull sound at the back of his ears. He was locked on Flos, and the other [King] didn’t seem to hear. But there it was. So loud that Raelt couldn’t tune it out.

Loud…? And then Raelt realized.

It was screaming. Shouting, from hundreds of thousands of voices. His head turned. And he saw the people on the wall of Levrhine. The citizens of Belchan. His army, and beyond them, in the scrying orb, the people of Jecrass. [Fencers] and [Duelists] the world over—everyone else.

Shouting in awe. For there the two [Kings] stood. And the King of Destruction bled onto the ground. The golden bell rang as Raelt turned his head. They were cheering him, Belchan and Jecrass’ citizens. Believing in a miracle for a second. And the King of Destruction laughed.

“Don’t be distracted, King of Jecrass!”

He charged in, shield raised. Raelt jerked, caught off-guard. He stepped back, but that was a mistake.

Flos couldn’t catch Raelt’s footwork or [Swift Steps]. So he threw his sword. It spun through the air, a scything blade. Impossibly fast. Raelt raised his dagger to parry, remembered—leaned left. The sword flashed past his face. It kept flying, straight at the onlookers. Orthenon leapt forwards and struck it out of the air.

But the King of Destruction was close. And he had a second blade in his hands, already. An axe. The long-handled hatchet swung in a quick cut at Raelt’s unguarded left arm. The [Duelist] twisted again—too close! He tried to jump back—

And realized he was being led. Raelt’s dagger flashed downwards, slashing. He caught the King of Destruction alongside the helm. And the bigger man didn’t even flinch. His hatchet locked with Raelt’s rapier. He was too close to Raelt’s chest—

Flos Reimarch rammed into Raelt’s midsection with his shield. Raelt felt the wind go out of him. He tried to move back, and Flos heaved.

Raelt felt his ribs compress. He moved backwards. Reduce the blow, reduce—

Pain. And then Raelt realized he was flying. The [King] flew through the air as Flos heaved and threw him. Raelt turned, seeing the ground coming his way. His ribs—

He hit the ground like a meteor, trying to absorb some of the impact. Raelt rolled, pushing himself up. He saw his [Soldiers]. Jecrass’ army, staring at their [King].

Flos had thrown him…dead gods. At least thirty feet. He’d just gotten his shield under Raelt and pushed. Only Raelt jumping at the same time had saved him.

As it was—Raelt’s ribs were fractured. He felt them burning, agonizing pain. The [King] fumbled for a healing potion.

Your Majesty—

The voice saved him. Raelt saw the spinning axe, dove.

The hatchet flashed past him, and went through two [Soldiers] before the wood and metal buried itself in the earth. The King of Destruction lowered his arm as Raelt dodged away.

“Hm.”

Flos rearmed himself, with a swordbreaker this time, replacing the shield with it, and taking a shortsword in his other hand. The notched dagger was designed to catch an enemy’s guard. Raelt stared at him. At the dead [Soldiers]. He reached for a healing potion.

The King of Destruction had already healed himself. He had taken a sip from a little vial, and the two wounds on his body had closed. Raelt had to down his entire potion as his ribs stung and joined. One of the most expensive potions in Jecrass’ treasury. Shakily, he raised his rapier.

The cheering had stopped. Flos Reimarch casually advanced as Raelt tried to think. But his head was empty. He had to…

“Orthenon, ward both sides. Mars, Ulyse.”

“Your Majesty.”

The [Steward] bowed as Flos turned his head casually. The King of Destruction looked at Raelt. He rolled his neck.

“Well, Raelt? Shall we begin?”

The [Duelist] looked at the King of Destruction. And he raised his rapier and leapt forwards.

 

—-

 

The two [Kings] fought in the growing darkness. Amid the glowing [Light] spells, surrounded by two armies, in front of the gates of a city. Like something out of the story books.

But so long as Jecaina lived, she would never read those books the same way. Because she watched the same legend she dreamed of meeting. And he was killing her father.

Jecaina was a [Duelist]. But she owned a silver bell. She did not know what it meant. But the golden bell—which only a Level 30 [Duelist] could even possess—that belonged to her father. She hadn’t even known that. She’d always thought he never had a bell, since he hated them.

Now, the [King] of Jecrass fought for his life. And he showed everyone, his subjects, the River Wardens, the world and Jecaina that he had earned that bell.

His feet flashed as he turned, maneuvering. Each time Raelt stepped he was a blur, never stopping, moving, repositioning, refusing to slow. If he did he’d be caught. His rapier darted, seldom thrusting, slashing, using the tip to reach and cut his opponent. His dagger stayed close to his chest, ready to deflect deadly thrusts.

The King of Destruction was laughing. His blades cut the air, slower, but only just. He didn’t have Raelt’s speed, or reach, but his strength—

He threw a javelin, dropping his sword, and pulled out a broadsword. He threw that too, and the spinning blades shot through the air. They could sunder steel and flesh with the sheer force of the throw. Raelt dodged left and Flos leapt into the opening he’d created, already armed with another blade.

The flying weapons were blocked by Mars and Ulyse’s spell. The air shimmered as Flos’ vassals shielded the audience. Raelt dodged backwards, but he couldn’t run forever. This time, as he stepped back, Flos Reimarch pointed.

“Come, King of Jecrass!”

The javelin he’d thrown arced back towards his hand. The [Duelist] whirled and leaned. The tip of the Returning Javelin opened the top of his shoulder. Flos threw the magic javelin again, and then rushed forwards.

A single thrust, like silver. The rapier tore open the King of Destruction’s chest on the right side, going through the enchanted armor. A powerful thrust—but it had missed again. Flos had tried to capture it with his swordbreaker. And in his hand he held another sword—

He cut, the sword going high, the swordbreaker going low, aiming at the other [King]’s side. And Raelt deflected the blade aimed at his face with his dagger.

The swordbreaker caught him on the ribs as he twisted away. It didn’t matter that he’d been hit with the flat of the blade. Flos just grazed him and Raelt’s ribs broke.

Jecaina made a sound as her father tried to retreat. But the King of Destruction just switched weapons and threw another blade. There was nowhere for Raelt to run.

“Surrender, King of Jecrass. This is your final chance.”

Flos called out. He had taken several deep cuts from Raelt’s rapier. But he’d protected his eyes and vital spots. Now, he drank from a potion and his wounds healed.

Raelt’s ribs were broken again. He had to drink another of his potions down. He looked up. Flos looked at him.

“I will not offer it again. I cannot.”

He had the [Duelist]’s measure. The King of Destruction changed his weapons again. The shield, and the magic javelin. He looked at Raelt. The [Duelist] coughed.

“I gave you my answer once.”

“Indeed.”

The two paused. And then they fought. Raelt dove as the javelin flew. He reached for the scroll.

“[Wall of Stone]!”

A vast wall of rock rose from the ground. Flos narrowed his eyes as the [Duelist]-[King] disappeared. He turned, warily walking around the wall. Shield raised—

Raelt leapt onto the top of the eight-foot wall. Flos Reimarch looked up, and the [Duelist] bellowed.

King of Destruction!

He lunged. A [Fencer’s Lunge], carrying him down. He landed, scoring a slash down Flos’ arm. The King of Destruction cursed, pivoting—

His back was against the wall. The [Wall of Stone] boxed Flos in as Raelt turned. All of his Skills. He had to use all the ones he had.

[Flurry Blades].

His rapier blurred, slashing faster than the eye could follow, aiming for Flos’ face, his chest—

The King of Reim snarled as his shield rose. He blocked his face—his chest and armor tore as the piercing rapier cut at his chest, his arms, legs. Deep cuts! His blood ran onto the ground, but his sword arm shielded himself. And the Skill—

[Evasive Leap]. Raelt dodged backwards, just in time. The sword which cleaved the air would have torn the rapier from his hand. He settled his posture as the King of Destruction lowered his shield.

He couldn’t reach for a potion or he’d heal. If he switched weapons—Raelt had to end this.

“[Wind Cutter].”

A flick of the rapier. The air rippled. Flos saw a blade of air flying at his face. Reflexively, he raised his shield.

Now. Raelt lunged. For Flos’ heart. He saw the world blur as he leapt. And the King of Destruction threw himself sideways.

The blade hit him in the side. It went through Flos’ side, tore as the [King] fell sideways. Cut through flesh, organs. But missed the heart. Raelt turned, cursing.

“[Double Slash—]”

His blade cut Flos as he rolled. This time, deep, deep along the back, severing some muscle. Flos Reimarch was on the ground. He had to get up, but Raelt was there.

A flash of metal. He was throwing his sword. Raelt jerked back. But the blade curved—magic—

The impact as Raelt raised his parrying dagger and rapier broke something. Snapped a tendon—Raelt lost grip of both rapier and dagger as they twisted, tearing the skin from his hands. He stumbled backwards.

His sword. He looked for it. The King of Destruction was rising. Raelt saw it lying in the dust. Now, now, now! He ran for it.

Nine feet separated the two. Flos’ teeth were bared, he was still off-guard.

Now. Raelt snatched up his sword as he lunged, rolled. He aimed the sword like an arrow. And used his last Skill.

[Sword Art: Hurricane’s Spiral].

He vanished. Flos’ eyes widened as he saw, in those infinitesimal moments between seconds, a silver blur flying at his chest. A spiral, a single leaping thrust as the blade traced a pattern in the air. The destination unknown to anyone but Raelt.

Fragments of time measured by flashes. The King of Destruction raised his shield, protecting his face. And his sword arm rose, empty.

But Raelt was aiming at his heart. The [Duelist]’s sword struck, going through armor, through flesh and bone. Raelt felt the impact, felt his sword go through the King of Destruction—

And he saw Flos stagger. The King of Destruction stared at the blade running through his chest. But off-target. He’d twisted. The blade had missed his heart, going wide. But if Raelt twitched his hand—

He tried. Raelt’s hand moved. But the rapier held still. Flos’ chest constricted around the magical blade, but it was enchanted. If it moved two inches left

But the blade didn’t move. Raelt didn’t understand. He heaved. But the blade—didn’t—

And then he felt it. Something so absolute that his hand couldn’t budge an inch. A crushing strength. He looked down and saw.

Flos’ sword-hand held Raelt’s wrist. The King of Destruction had seized the hand after it had struck. And he would not let Raelt finish the blow or move.

Raelt let go of his rapier. He had to—he pulled back, but Flos’ arm held him. The King of Destruction dropped his shield. He was bleeding. Covered in blood. But he spoke as he reached for something.

“I caught you at last.”

Slowly, he raised his hand. And drank the healing potion. Raelt saw his injuries beginning to heal.

The King of Jecrass desperately struck at the rapier still embedded in Flos’ chest. But the King of Destruction moved. He grabbed Raelt, and threw him—

Raelt hit the wall of stone. He felt something explode. The impact sent him down, but he was getting up. And he was free—

The King of Destruction pulled the sword out of his chest as his wounds healed. He tossed the rapier to the ground and Raelt saw him move. Raelt tried to dodge, but his legs slipped. Something was wrong—he needed his sword—

Flos Reimarch grabbed Raelt as the [Duelist] slipped. Raelt’s body wasn’t working right. He punched the King of Destruction in the face. And Flos seized Raelt’s armor and ran with him into the wall of stone.

Jecaina saw the wall of stone crack. Then, both [Kings] crashed through it. Raelt lay on the ground as the King of Destruction hurled him through the wall. The King of Jecrass wasn’t moving. He twitched as Flos casually coughed and checked the wound on his chest. Flos took another drink of a healing potion.

Raelt reached for his. He broke the glass vials on his chest as many as he could grab. His bones—he rolled away as Flos charged at him. The King of Destruction grabbed him. Threw him again.

Flashes of light. Raelt hit the broken [Wall of Stone] again. He couldn’t move for a crucial second. His body was breaking, healing—he saw Flos running at him. A fist—

Raelt raised his hands. The impact pushed him through the wall. He lay on the ground.

Get up. He had to get up or he’d die. The [Duelist] rolled. He saw a blade miss his head. Flos Reimarch had grabbed a weapon. Raelt got to his feet. He saw his rapier. He dove for it.

The King of Destruction slashed, and missed. He watched as Raelt grabbed the blade. The [Duelist] rose.

Out of potions. Something was still broken. He was coughing up blood. A lung? He looked at the King of Destruction.

Neither man said a word. No quarter, no mercy. Raelt was out of Skills. Flos Reimarch slowly advanced. The [Duelist] sighed. He lifted his blade and advanced.

 

—-

 

The golden bell rang. Jecaina watched her father fighting. He had no tricks left. He wasn’t even able to keep his distance. He just cut, aiming at Flos’ face as the King of Destruction slowly wore him down. Another blow—Raelt went stumbling backwards.

“No.”

The [Princess] of Jecrass breathed. She saw her father stumbling, falling to one knee. He’d broken something. He kept spitting blood. Flos of Reim advanced, cautiously. Unwilling to give Raelt another opening.

“He can’t die.”

Jecaina whispered. She looked around. But both armies were silent. Watching the end.

“His Majesty—”

Geril was trembling. The old retainer looked at Raelt. Jecaina saw him looking at her father. Then at her.

“Milady. You can’t—”

He seized her. Jecaina didn’t know why. Then she realized.

She’d drawn her sword. She was fighting Geril.

“Let me go. I have to save him.”

“No, milady. Your majesty. The honor of Jecrass is at stake! You cannot!”

Jecaina didn’t want to hear. But the other [Soldiers], General Lael saw. They grabbed the [Princess], held her back.

“No, no. Let me go! I command you!”

She didn’t care about the honor of the duel. She just wanted her father to live. He was stumbling backwards again. The King of Destruction wasn’t even wounded. Wasn’t even tired. Jecaina pleaded.

“You have to do something. Please—”

She looked at General Lael. And then at Geril. The old man looked at her. He looked at Raelt.

The King of Jecrass was going to die. He would not yield. And nor would Flos Reimarch give him any mercy. Not in this duel. Not with both nation’s honor on the line. There was only one way.

If someone disgraced their honor. Geril studied the hauberk he wore. His old hands gripped the spear he carried. He looked up.

“Milady, Jecaina, stay where you are.”

He turned. And he smiled as Jecaina looked at him. The old and faithful servant, friend, and second father to Raelt and his daughter hefted his spear. He tensed, and Jecaina hoped. Geril opened his mouth.

His Maj—

And stopped. A shadow fell over him. And Jecaina saw her last hope die. Cut, by the watcher.

A dark gaze. A sword, aimed at Geril’s throat. The King of Destruction’s faithful servant stood there.

Orthenon. The Left Hand of Destruction. He held his sword at Geril’s throat and looked at General Lael, the other officers. Jecaina.

“The duel will not be interrupted.”

The officers of Jecrass’ army, the [Princess], and Geril all stood still. Overwhelmed by the [Steward]. And the River Wardens stared at Orthenon from afar.

There were no miracles here.

 

—-

 

Raelt fell to one knee. He was tired. So tired. His arms burned and his muscles were torn. He was bleeding. And he saw his death walking towards him.

Cautiously. Raelt had been given two chances. But the King of Destruction had seen both of them. Raelt had hurt him.

But the King of Destruction bore no wounds. In the end, one was a [Duelist] and a [King]. An average [King]. Good at fencing. Worthy of his golden bell. But the other was the King of Destruction.

Time. Raelt stood up. Flos of Reim held a sword and shield in hand. He waited. He had seen men die before, and his guard was up.

Raelt would not die on his knees. He looked at Flos of Reim. He was out of Skills. Out of magical items. He’d lost his dagger, and there were no more potions.

“But skill. The blade lives. It is more than class. More than a Skill.”

The [King] mumbled. He looked at the King of Destruction. And he lunged.

A perfect step. Raelt slashed, thrust—Flos of Reim grunted as the blade cut across his shin, stabbed through his ruined armor along the shoulder blade. He slashed, and Raelt stepped left, dodging the blade.

He cut along the King of Destruction’s neck, but too shallow. Raelt stepped back as Flos knocked him back. Onto his back.

Raelt stared up at the sky. He saw a figure move, heard a cry. He looked up—

The sword tip hit the earth as Raelt turned his head. Flos blocked the return strike. He calmly stepped on Raelt’s right leg and snapped it. The [Duelist] made no sound. He braced as Flos Reimarch took aim again—

And jumped. His sword went under the shield. Through the King of Destruction’s belly. A second time Flos’ eyes widened. But again, he grabbed Raelt’s hand. This time he held the sword in his other hand. Raelt looked up at the blade as the King of Destruction lifted it.

Protect his Majesty!

A voice bellowed behind Flos. A bolt of lightning flashed. Flos and Raelt turned. The lightning exploded in midair as Ulyse raised his staff. There was a cry.

Someone had cast a spell. Someone had broken the truce. Abandoned honor. Jecaina stared, but it was not Geril. Not her. Nor General Lael. Orthenon’s head turned. And Raelt saw the man who had abandoned his honor in the eyes of the world. And found it.

Warden Dulfe. The River Warden aimed his wand at Flos. With his other hand he drew his sword. He pointed straight at the King of Destruction.

“Rally to his Majesty! Charge!

He kicked his mount forwards. And his personal [Soldiers] charged. For a moment, Raelt and Flos stared.

No one had expected it. Not from the River Wardens. Not even Orthenon. Dulfe charged, breaking the circle of the duel. Flos Reimarch turned, dropping Raelt to bring his shield up.

The River Warden struck at the King of Destruction as he galloped forwards. His [Soldiers] raced at Raelt. Flos blocked the blow. Dulfe reeled backwards. And he looked at Raelt.

“Your Majesty—”

Something flashed. The man’s head toppled from his shoulders. Orthenon appeared, shaking with fury. Raelt saw Flos turning, saw Orthenon pivoting.

Hands grabbed him. Dulfe’s [Riders] dragged Raelt off the ground, never stopping their breakneck gallop. The [King] felt his broken bones screaming but they were grabbing potions.

And both armies erupted into chaos. The army of Reim howled and charged, and Jecrass’ forces rode forwards.

Defending their [King].

Cowards! Craven oathbreakers!

Zamea roared as her axe swung. Jecrass’ riders split around her. And it was true. The duel had been violated, the rules broken. Raelt had been saved by one of his subjects.

But Jecrass’ army burned. They rallied around their [King]. Who had dueled the King of Destruction. Craven? Cowardly? River Warden Dulfe had not thought so.

Nor anyone else in Jecrass.

“What…what?”

Raelt stared as horses thundered around him. Flos Reimarch was bellowing orders as his vassals closed around him, cutting down Jecrass’ [Soldiers] left and right. He saw his daughter, Geril, General Lael bellowing orders.

Your Majesty! We must get you to safety! We can only hold the King of Destruction off for minutes!

The [Riders] were pouring potions on Raelt, babbling at him. They were forming a shield as the half-Giants strode towards them, axes swinging, huge faces furious. Raelt looked around.

A battle. And he was alive. He had lost the duel. But he had lived. Dulfe had died for him. Raelt stared upwards.

And he realized he was grateful. He had lost. But he wanted to live.

Get his Majesty on horseback and out of here! Block Reim’s army—

Geril was shouting. Raelt pulled himself up.

“No.”

He stood. His subjects stared at him. The [King] looked around. And he was a [King] once more. Not a [Duelist], a man condemned to death. He looked around and saw Reim’s forces tearing apart Jecrass’ army. Zamea’s axe shone with blood. The [Mages] of Parasol Stroll were creating a magical shield as Mars and Orthenon rampaged. And the King of Destruction was pointing at Raelt, his eyes burning with fury.

“Jecrass is at war with Reim. Split the cavalry. Let the infantry stop the Rustängmarder and foot. Don’t engage the half-Giants or Mars! Maneuver! Hit and away! Don’t get near the [Steward] or Mars! Move!

Raelt looked around for his horse. He mounted up, swaying. He was healing, but—the world was flashing. But he had to command. They couldn’t run. They’d all die.

Levrhine would be destroyed if they retreated. So they had to…

Win? Yes! Raelt couldn’t imagine it. But his people were dying. By the hundreds, each second. They had to win. This wasn’t his life, but theirs.

To me! Rally on me!

The [King] bellowed. He thrust his rapier into the air. And the army of Jecrass looked up. They saw their [King] charge his horse forwards.

Straight at the King of Destruction. And the army followed. The cavalry of Jecrass thundered after Raelt.

King of Jecrass.

Flos was on the ground, surrounded by the Rustängmarder. Raelt plunged towards him. His rapier speared one of the Rustängmarder through the throat. Then he saw the King of Reim, waiting for him as he carved one of Jecrass’ daughters from her saddle.

How dishonorable. The King of Destruction raged at Raelt without words. And Raelt agreed. But—his rapier darted at Flos’ chest, was knocked away.

I want to live. And for my people—Flos struck a blow as Raelt thundered past him. The [King] blocked, but the impact sent him reeling back on the saddle. His [Soldiers] surrounded him, shielding him as Raelt sagged, holding onto the saddle horn.

Flashes. The King of Destruction roared as he cut down the [Riders]. His Rustängmarder held, but Jecrass’ army kept fighting. Raelt sagged, knocked senseless by the blow.

The world went dark. Raelt heard a voice. Like his own, but vaster. Speaking into his head.

[Duelist Level 35!]

[Skill Change – Quick Step → Flash Step!]

 

[King Level 28!]

[Skill—

“—eward! On the left!

Raelt opened his eyes. He saw Orthenon cutting through his riders. Flawlessly, his blade severing metal and body with ease. He was staring at Raelt, his expression twisted with fury.

“[Flurry Blades].”

Raelt whispered. His rapier blurred as the two shot towards each other. Orthenon’s spear flashed, blocking the volley of thrusts and cuts. He leaned over, slashed.

Flos Reimarch saw two of Raelt’s [Soldiers] block the slash along with their [King]. The [Soldiers] died. Raelt took a mortal wound along his side. But for healing potions he would have died. He clung to his saddle as Orthenon turned, but the [Steward] was under attack from all sides.

Jecrass’ army surged around Reim’s. They had broken up their formation, attacking and moving. The [Riders] dodged away from Mars as she swung a blade that cut the air with slashes of light that stayed and severed anything they touched, refusing to fight her.

But they couldn’t perfectly avoid Zamea, or Parasol Stroll. The half-Giant cut through a group of [Riders]. The [Mages] were blasting Jecrass’ warriors apart. And the Serpent Hunters were covering them. They were armed with bows, blowpipes—and their blades made anything they cut or struck die within seconds. Horses, people—

A slaughter, an echo of the battle with Belchan’s army. Raelt reeled as he drank a healing potion. He had to stay upright. Had to—

There you are.

Zamea turned. Raelt saw the huge half-Giant bring her axe up. He saw it coming down. And jumped.

The axe missed him. It split the earth. Raelt saw it bury itself in the hard ground, saw Zamea wrench. And he moved.

“[Flash Step].”

He blurred. And the King of Jecrass raced up the haft of the axe. First Shepherd Zamea saw the Human coming. She tried to let go, but too late.

Raelt raced up her arm, dodging her swatting hand. He saw her face turning. And he lunged.

His sword ran through Zamea’s cheek. Raelt heaved, and cut into the half-Giant’s cheek. She howled and tore at her face. He dodged backwards, saw the hand coming.

And jumped.

Raelt fell to earth. Thirty feet. He hit the ground poorly.

 

[King Level 28!]

[Skill – Aura of the Lion obtained!]

 

[King Level 2—

 

Up. Raelt saw his [Riders] surrounding him. Zamea raged, striking at them with her bare hands. But the sons and daughters of Jecrass refused to give way. They blocked her crushing blows.

Flos Reimarch saw Raelt grabbing another horse. The King of Jecrass raised his blade.

To me!

The King of Destruction felt a chill. He saw Raelt plunging forwards again. But he was marked. And this time it was Mars who found him.

Her hair was like fire. And her dark skin and eyes burned. Mars the Illusionist in her fury had changed her weapon and armor. She wielded the sword made of fire, but her armor now left afterimages as she raced across the battlefield. As fast as the horses. And her blade set them to flame, throwing riders.

Raelt!

Mars the Illusionist surged at him, ignoring the other [Soldiers] trying to slow her. The King of Jecrass turned. Flos saw him duck one flaming blow, and then the second set him and his horse on fire.

Both screamed. But Raelt kept riding, striking at Mars with his rapier. He ripped another potion from a [Soldier]’s hands and drank it, tossing the rest on his mount. It was only fire. The burns healed as Mars switched blades.

Her sword made of pale metal. It cut straight through a River Warden. Mars ran at Raelt. And half a dozen [Trick Riders] crashed into her.

Now!

Ropes flew from their saddles. They snagged Mars and began dragging her across the ground. The [Vanguard] twisted. She slashed the ropes in half, but she’d lost Raelt. And he was still charging.

“Enough of this. Orthenon, to me. We’ll break this army in half. Commander Ytol, form up a charge!”

Flos snapped. The [Death Commander] and the Rustängmarder formed the head of the vanguard. Raelt saw them as he shouted, rallying a tide of riders at his back.

The King of Destruction. Four half-Giants. Orthenon and the vanguard of both riders and infantry.

Death. Jecrass’ army faltered. Thousands of their forces lay dead already. And Mars the Illusionist joined the spear led by the King of Destruction. The army of Reim howled as they charged.

“Morale.”

Raelt whispered. They had to stand. They had to fight. Even if three of Jecrass’ died for one of Reim’s. Six. Ten.

He was at the head of his army as they pulled back, afraid. Raelt felt his skin chilling, his heart burning. The potions and magic were screaming in his veins, making him want to puke and faint. But he was their [King]. He had to say something.

Morale!

The King of Jecrass bellowed the word. No grand speech. All he could think was that stupid word. The army of Jecrass looked at their [King]. Most hadn’t even heard the word he spoke, but they answered him, shouting what he had surely said.

JECRASS!

Raelt charged. And they poured after him. Flos Reimarch paused as he saw Jecrass’ army pouring at him.

“Damn.”

Both armies hit each other. Raelt saw the Rustängmarder holding the ground as the riders of Jecrass crashed on them. Slaughtered. Mars and Orthenon cut the [Soldiers] coming at them like flies. But Jecrass’ armies didn’t stop. And slowly, the Rustängmarder were pushed back. Flos’ [Soldiers] cut down two of Jecrass’ [Soldiers]. But the third cut them down.

“Bring Raelt of Jecrass down.

Ulyse snapped. The [Mages] took aim. Grand Mage Esiela closed her eyes, but she was linked.

Raelt saw the [Siege Fireball] coming. This time, he urged his horse forwards. He felt the fireball explode, searing heat—an impact

 

[King Level 30!]

[Conditions Met: King → King of Challenges Class!]

[Class Consolidation: Duelist removed.]

[Skill – Army: Flicker Charge obtained!]

[Skill – Royal Arms obtained!]

[Sk—

 

Ulyse saw Raelt standing up. He was bleeding, burned. He should have been dead. But each time he rose—the [Mage] had seen it before. Raelt pointed as he mounted his horse again.

“[Flicker Charge].”

His army—flickered—just like the name. Ulyse saw a group of [Riders] charging at the Serpent Hunters vanish for a crucial millisecond. And then they appeared amid the elite warriors, avoiding the first line of blades, fighting.

Your Majesty! The King of Jecrass is counter-leveling!

Ulyse projected his voice across the battlefield. The King of Destruction turned. He saw Raelt, his blade glowing, leading another charge.

A lower-level foe, growing exponentially against impossible odds. Flos of Reim snarled. He had seen it before. He pointed.

Ulyse, bring him down. Orthenon! Go.

The [Steward] shot forwards. He was carving a path towards Raelt again, as the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll began to rain lightning bolts down on Raelt’s position. Flos turned his head.

Jecrass’ army was being torn apart. But they refused to give. As Raelt rode, they kept fighting, even into a slaughter.

“They refuse to break.

And it was taking a toll on his warriors as well. The Serpent Hunters were falling back, carrying comrades whose string bodies had been severed, desperately field-stitching them up. One of the half-Giants was roaring, downed, his legs shredded as Zamea and another stood over him, keeping the army back.

And then—Parasol Stroll was bringing bolts of electricity down as Orthenon tried to corner Raelt. They were forming a massive ball of bound electricity over their heads. Flos saw them aiming it up—

And then an explosion. The [Mages] brought up their parasols just in time as something hit them. Flos shielded his face. Mars looked up.

“What was—”

She saw a comet falling at her. The [Vanguard] raised her shield.

The [Valmira’s Comet] spell hit her and detonated. Everyone around Mars was thrown back. The [Vanguard] had braced. She lowered her shield. And she saw more spells raining down from the heavens.

Your Majesty! Belchan’s Mage School is loosing artillery spells!

Flos’ head turned. He saw distant flashes of light from the academy built into the hillside. And then he heard more horn calls.

Levrhine’s gates had opened. From the gates poured Belchan’s garrisons. Their [Mages] were holding the walls and arrows were raining down on Flos’ army. The King of Destruction saw Parasol Stroll shielding themselves and Orthenon breaking away as a wall of Belchan’s [Soldiers] appeared. Shielding Raelt.

The King of Destruction stared at the distant King of Jecrass. He looked around.

“He’s rallied them. Their will is unbreakable.”

He paused. The King of Destruction sheathed his sword. He put his head down and uttered an oath. Then he threw his head back and laughed.

“My lord?”

Mars! Find Teres and bring her to safety! Commander Ytol, signal Orthenon to take his [Riders] and strike Jecrass’ army. Signal the retreat!

The King of Destruction roared. His vassals stared at him. But then moved within moments. Ytol raised his horn and blew a wailing call. The army of Reim looked up.

And they began to pull back. Raelt couldn’t believe what he was seeing at first. But it was true. Orthenon raced across the battlefield, dodging spells, still cutting down his opponents as the infantry pulled back, in an orderly retreat.

“They’re leaving?

General Lael stared. Her face was cut open, and she was covered in sweat and blood. But she was alive. Geril, shielding Jecaina, had a chunk of flesh missing from his leg and side. And Jecrass’ dead littered the field, with Belchan’s.

But Reim’s forces were retreating. Raelt stared around. He stared at the King of Destruction’s back. Why? He had been tearing Jecrass’ army apart.

And his elite vassals had been in danger. Not Orthenon or Mars perhaps, but a single half-Giant falling, or his Rustängmarder—he might have won. But to do that, he either had to use his [Army of the King], or watch as his army was burnt away.

He had refused to do that. Just as Raelt had speculated. But he’d never imagined…

The [King of Challenges] realized he was swaying in his saddle. He kept hearing himself leveling up, kept blacking out, hearing and not hearing.

But then he heard a sound that jerked him into wakefulness. A single voice, from hundreds of thousands of throats. And again, Raelt emerged from his quiet world of ghosts and saw something strange.

His army, cheering him. Belchan’s citizens and their forces, standing on the walls, screaming his name. His River Wardens, his subjects, who had only known their [King] from afar. Shouting his name.

Raelt of Jecrass! King of Jecrass!

Jecaina, his daughter, was staring at her father with a strange look in her eye. The same look she got when she talked about the King of Destruction, or Terandria, or the Queen of Pop. That of a girl dreaming of a story.

But so he was. The King of Jecrass. The fearless [Duelist]. A man who had stopped the King of Destruction. Wounded him in a duel! Forced him to retreat.

The King of Jecrass has thrown back Reim! We are seeing Reim’s army in retreat! He—he’s—he did it!

Noass and Sir Relz were hugging each other, shouting into the scrying orb. Noass turned, staring about.

“He’s no ordinary king! How can he—someone name him! What is he?”

There was silence. You couldn’t just call him ‘King Raelt’, or ‘King Leysars’. Or even the King of Jecrass. He was something more than that. And into the silence, someone spoke.

The King of Duels. The Duelist King.

Rémi Canada watched as the King of Jecrass raised one hand and flinched at the roar of sound it created. Noass looked around.

“Who said that? Write that down! The King of Duels has held back the King of Destruction!

The young man from Earth nodded. If he were still interning at a news organization, that would be the headline. Not anything else. Forget the honor of the duel, the way Flos Reimarch had crushed every army before this with a fraction of the forces, or how close the battle had been.

The headline was the same. Victory.

 

—-

 

Defeat. Teres stared at Flos Reimarch. She was bleeding. She’d been stabbed. The magical armor had protected her from everything but the enchanted spear that had hit her. The old man had nearly killed her, but…

She was alive.

But Reim had been defeated. The army was retreating. Flos Reimarch himself had called for it.

It was beyond silence. Just—shock. The other vassals were staring backwards. Mars, Orthenon—the [Steward] had a few cuts, but he could still fight. And yet—they were leaving.

Teres didn’t know what to do or say. She was afraid. But—Flos Reimarch wasn’t raging. He sat with his shoulders relaxed, sighing, as the blood from his duel dried on his clothes and armor.

“It seems we’ve been defeated.”

He spoke at last. Mars twitched. Orthenon looked at Flos. Commander Ytol just nodded, lashed to his saddle. The King of Destruction looked around, and then found Teres.

“How…refreshing.”

Teres stared at him. The King of Destruction looked at her. And then he laughed. He threw his head back and laughed again. His vassals looked at him.

Flos Reimarch wiped tears from his eyes.

“Ah, how frustrating. An interrupted duel, Belchan’s forces—truly, frustrating. We could have kept fighting, but Raelt of Jecrass has inspired his subjects. And now look at us. Riding back, leaving our dead behind. Doesn’t it enrage you, Teres?”

He nodded to the column of [Soldiers]. Teres nodded. Flos looked at her.

“Are you…angry, your Majesty?”

“I am still furious. The Prime Minister lives. And my army was repelled by Jecrass. The duel’s honor was broken. Yes, Teres. I am angry. But also—did you see him, Mars? Orthenon? What did you think?”

Flos turned his head. Orthenon bowed slightly.

“I missed him by a hair, sire. The blame lies with me.”

“He’s quick. A strong [King]. And he held you to a duel for a while.”

Mars’ eyes glinted. Flos smiled.

“Yes. He did. I misjudged him. I thought I knew Raelt of Jecrass. But the boy turned into a different man. And now he has Belchan and Jecrass. How troublesome. And at the same time—how glorious.”

His words stirred those following him. The King of Destruction sat up taller in his saddle. He looked around.

“My blood is boiling. Not since before my slumber have I felt this! Not just rage, but admiration. I am almost glad the duel was interrupted. Because I should like to have such a man as my vassal. As an ally! But as he is—he is a worthy foe.”

The others looked at him. Teres just stared. Was he mad? A worthy foe? She couldn’t comprehend that.

But then—she heard a laugh like thunder. Zamea was laughing. So was Mars. Even Orthenon smiled. Flos threw his head back and laughed.

Part of Teres wanted to laugh too, and she didn’t know why. But Reim’s [Soldiers] looked at their laughing, delighted [King]. And they laughed too.

Madness. Madmen and madwomen, laughing. Just for a single moment. And then—Flos quieted. He turned in his saddle.

“It seems we must wait for the bulk of my armies indeed. We cannot waste time, however. Mars, you, I, and the bulk of our armies must secure the position we have taken. We will need to establish secure zones, ensure the cities do not revolt. And we are now battling at least Belchan and Jecrass! Perhaps more nations! We ride! Move out!”

He picked up the pace. Teres stared at him. They were still moving? But the King of Destruction was already snapping orders.

“Orthenon, take your [Riders]. You will assault the Mage School of Belchan with Parasol Stroll. Deny it—otherwise we will be under constant assault. If Raelt has already reinforced it—”

 

—-

 

That night, Belchan was ablaze. With light, sound, motion. War had engulfed it. But now—Jecrass was at war with Reim as well. And King Raelt of Jecrass officially took control of both nations.

The Mage School was burning. Raelt was giving rapid orders, listening to [Messages] coming in.

Jecrass and Belchan versus the might of Reim. What a ridiculous notion. But the world had seen it. It was still echoing with his title. King of Duels.

And the first [Messages] were coming in. Dignified [Messages], from other nations being broadcast the world over, read by Noass and Sir Relz on live television. Supporting the defense of Jecrass, the Duelist King.

Not declaring war, though. Not Medain, or Nerrhavia, or the Claiven Earth. But at the same time as these grand shows of support were taking place—[Messages] were sent covertly. Even a [Courier], racing from Medain.

“I have sent a small gift, to you, King of Jecrass. And—you may find groups of [Mercenaries]. Yes, [Mercenaries] heading north.”

Queen Yisame was speaking directly to Raelt. He stared at her. Mercenaries from Nerrhavia?

“How many?”

“One cannot say. But perhaps…oh, I may estimate at least forty thousand. Perhaps more, if more are attracted by the allure of war. Naturally, they require payment.”

Hence, the gift. Which was, if the Merchant’s Guildmaster was right, about three hundred thousand gold pieces. Raelt stared. Then he slowly nodded.

Gifts from Nerrhavia. He’d just received money from the Empress of Sands, too. Support. Like King Perric of Medain hinting that some of his adventurers might be willing to enlist in Jecrass’ armies as outsiders.

Support. Indirect aid. Jecrass stood alone at war with the King of Reim. But supported covertly.

Still, what was shouted from Wistram and spoke the world over was this: Jecrass was at war with Reim. It stood with Belchan, throwing the might of Reim back. The King of Duels had fought the King of Destruction and triumphed.

That was what everyone said, and what many heard in the days thereafter. And there was truth in that. For a man had fought. And he did live. But the King of Duels’ fearless defense of Belchan’s innocent people? His magnificent victory?

That was just the headline. And yet, while, the true man, Raelt Leysars, disagreed with the legend, the titles, his subjects ignored him.

They had seen the man their [King] was. And they knew the truth. So they followed, the King of Duels, the Duelist King of the Realm of Jecrass.

Raelt Leysars, the [King of Challenges].

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

7.12 G

Teriarch woke up from his nap.

Not because he needed or wanted to; he’d have happily extended the well-deserved rest after the battle with the Wyverns. Rather, a loud, peeping alarm began making noise.

An…iPhone began shrilling loudly. The Dragon, sleeping, rolled over. He irritably began to wake, but he might well have just smashed the impudent noisemaker. Still, the person who’d set the alarm knew Teriarch well. So after a few seconds, a pre-recorded voice began to issue along with the annoying siren.

Wake up. Your hoard is being stolen.

The Dragon’s eyes shot open. His gleaming bronze scales rippled as he surged to his feet. He opened his mouth and shot fire across his cave as he bellowed.

Wretch!

The Dragon’s fire flashed past magical artifacts, treasures in paint and sorcery and every other shape and craft. The fire licked over the hoard of treasure but burned nothing; who would put their treasure in the same room with a fire hazard and not fireproof it?

The temperature in the cavern rose dramatically. Anything not hit by the fire would have been killed just by the temperature. And as the Dragon searched blearily for the intruder—

He realized no one was there.

Teriarch paused. The brass Dragon stared about. Then, he balefully eyed the little beeping device on the ground.

The iPhone’s screen lit up as Teriarch slowly levitated it towards him. The baleful Dragon’s gaze was followed by the smoke from his maw. But the impudent electronic device just kept beeping. After a second, another recorded message began to play.

To do before you sleep: finish setting up protective enchantments. Deal with the Goblin issue. Wyvern Weyr. Your obligations. That is all.

The voice was, in fact, Teriarch’s. The Dragon listened to himself calmly rattling off items for future-Teriarch. And he snorted.

“Bah. I can do that l—”

He paused. Teriarch blinked a few times. Then he remembered.

“Oh. Those pests.”

The Dragon huffed smoke from his nostrils and glowered. But he was waking up and memory reminded him that it was true. He had work to do. Glowering, the Dragon muttered to himself. He stretched his wings, rose to his full height, and began to plod around his cavern.

“Fine, fine. I might as well do it today. I have anti-scrying spells in place. But ward spells, anti-teleportation…especially after last time…illusions, I suppose, traps…where’s that tome?”

The Dragon checked his meticulously organized library, but he couldn’t remember which of the countless organizational systems he’d employed. He eventually found a magical tome, levitated it up, and glumly flipped through it.

All with magic; the Dragon wasn’t about to use his huge claws to do it. Teriarch stared at the writings.

“…Evielda’s Skyshield spells. Yes, yes. And perhaps this time I will try…”

Absently, the Dragon began casting enchantment spells. To him, it was as natural as breathing. Both practice and his innate power made it simple. Teriarch yawned as he did.

He really had meant to put up ward spells earlier. Once completed, they would not only shield him from scrying spells, but any other means of discovery, even if you walked straight into the opening of his cave. He’d skimped on the direct physical illusions…and trap spells.

It wasn’t really a problem. The Dragon was never bothered. Ever. Even the horrors that lurked in the High Passes took one look at the Dragon’s aura and decided to find something else to bother. Only the Wyvern Lord, in his arrogance, had tried it.

Illusion spells, traps, layered behind magical concealments to prevent people from sensing the magic itself. It was a complicated process and Teriarch had put it off for that reason; even for him, anchoring the magic and ensuring it wouldn’t run out would take hours. Not hard work, but tedious.

It was rather like putting up the posters or paintings up after moving into a new home. The furniture, the hoard was there, and Teriarch had gotten the place more or less to his standards, but some details were just so…tedious. And it hadn’t been long since he’d had to move his home! Less than a year!

As the Dragon cast spells and muttered about upstart Wyverns, he had another thought. He checked the glowing iPhone, and his voice spoke again.

“Enchantments. Wyverns. Goblins.”

Two of those were easy. But the last…the Dragon paused. It was the last which had woken him up.

Goblins. He sighed. And he cast his mind outside his cave. Teriarch could sense and see whatever he pleased; scrying was a simple thing and if he could not stare at Az’kerash, the Necromancer, directly, few other places in the world could avoid his gaze. Well, lesser mortals could only see. Teriarch could smell if he wished, and hear.

And what he found were…Goblins. They weren’t based near him. But near enough as he thought of it. The High Passes had Goblins again. They came and went.

But this time…the Dragon paused. They were different. The old ones had gone. Their Chieftain had died.

“That arrogant little Hobgoblin.”

Teriarch didn’t know Garen Redfang’s name. But he sensed the Hobgoblin was gone. Dead. Which meant…the Dragon sighed.

“My obligations.”

He’d deal with it later. If it came to that. Teriarch grumbled. And he rose, doing Dragon things. This was, of course, a Goblin’s story. But Dragons liked to insert themselves into every narrative.

Up in the High Passes, there were Goblins.

 

—-

 

The High Passes. They were the tallest mountain range in the world. Although that was something of a subjective boast. After all, this world had many tall mountains, and few had reached any of the highest peaks.

Climbing a mountain was a feat of strength, a marker for fame and success. In that, Earth and this world were quite similar. But the glory for climbing a mountain was shorter lived here, where more pressing concerns like monsters and survival took precedence over fame. Yet, adventurers and [Knights] and [Adventurers] and [Climbers] and so on might have dared the heights.

If it were possible. If it were possible to ascend and come back. But the High Passes were the tallest mountains in the world. Over seventy thousand feet high, as estimated by Archmage Chaiemegia. Perhaps higher.

It wasn’t a number you could comprehend. Even standing at the base of the High Passes, you could look up and not see the peaks for the clouds which obscured them. It was also not a height anyone could summit easily.

Not with Skill, or even magic. Not with flying spells or wings. Many had tried. But the monsters living in the upper reaches and natural environment had killed those who had tried. Named Adventurers, Archmages—they had gone above. Few had returned, and none had ever reached the top.

Perhaps some had. And if they had, they remained there still. But the High Passes were not all one thing. The heights were ice and death. The lower sections rocky landscape giving way to verdant life. Indeed, along the base of the mountains, you could find smaller cities. And there were two known routes through the mountains.

One led past a basin, the Floodplains and the city of Liscor. A safe route, mostly. The other led straight through the High Passes. That route was known as death; monsters lived there.

But it was not barren. The dangerous route, which led by a Dragon’s cave was indeed rocky and chasm-like in the lower parts, but climb any part of the High Passes and you’d find…

Trees. Vegetation, if sparse, growing amid the rocks. Natural caves, made by monsters and water and other forces over countless millennia. And life. For monsters were creatures too. And without an ecosystem, they would have left. It was tumultuous, dangerous, but it existed.

Higher, west of Liscor and further north by far lay a valley in the mountain range. A small one, but fed by a mountain lake. And it had tough trees, high cliffs boxing the place in that led ever higher.

And Goblins. They were not unknown to the High Passes; after all, Goblins lived everywhere. But only one tribe lived in the High Passes. Even the strongest of Goblins were prey.

Still, as the new day dawned, a little Goblin picked his way down the rocky valley slope. It was summer, but this high up it was cool enough for him to be wearing a rough, hide cloak. The Goblin was mostly naked besides that. He was young, about…one and something.

A little Goblin, perhaps four feet high. He picked his way across the valley, his bare, callused feet dislodging small stones. The Goblin had a mission, and a little basket at his side. He searched around for his quarry. And found one.

Stick! The Goblin scampered over to a stick on the ground. It was small, just a bit of dead plant matter. Nothing special about it. But it was a stick.

Therefore, it went in the basket. The Goblin looked around, questing for another. He saw one.

Stick! He hurried over to it. Picked it up, put it in the basket. This was what the Goblin was doing.

Stick. There was a stick, here was a stick. The young Goblin was satisfied as he picked up the stick. That was his job. He was stick-Goblin. He had one goal in mind. No philosophical troubles over the meaning of life troubled him. No concerns about food or safety, or the future. He was all about sticks.

That was it. You picked up a stick, you put it in the basket. When it was full, you went back. And in that way, he was happier than any other sentient member of any species in the world. The stick-Goblin saw another stick. He picked it up, found another…

Stickstickstickstickstickstickstickstickstick—

Across from him, another Goblin was picking his way down the slopes. He was a bit older, full-grown, perhaps even past his prime depending on how you looked at it. He was five. The Goblin wasn’t showing any signs of age, but he was, as Goblins reckoned such things, old. The average lifespan of a Goblin varied, but it was always low.

He was picking up rocks. This second Goblin, the rock-Goblin, was searching for the right sort of stone. Since he was older and better at his job, he was identifying rocks that would make sparks when struck. But he was no less focused than the stick-Goblin.

Rock? Rock. Rock. Rock? Rock! Rock. Rock. Rock. Rock. Rockrockrockrockrock—hold on, was that a geode?

The rock-Goblin paused as he came upon a distinctive little stone and snatched it up. The Goblin inspected his findings, noting the delicate and distinctive formation of the outer layer. By Jove, it was! And he was certain he’d find a beautiful crystalline structure once he broke it open. Jasper, if he had to guess.

The rock-Goblin stowed this little prize away for later. Not in his basket; this was a curio. He was certain of what he had. He was a former member of the Goldstone Tribe. And Goldstone Goblins knew rocks.

He put it in a separate sack with a bit more care, and then went back to finding proper-sized rocks. Rockrockrockrockrock—

The two Goblins weren’t the only ones working this early. There was bug-Goblin, stick-Goblin2, the woebegone nest-Goblin who was trying to find bird nests, herb-Goblin…

And they were exposed. They were seen. In the early morning, the scattered Goblins looked like food. And here came a predator, a native of the High Passes.

The Eater Goats. Their wide, yellow eyes and ragged heads poked over the side of the valley’s ridge. The famed goats of the High Passes stared at the Goblins. And they saw food.

Eater Goats. Bigger than normal, with jaws that could rend steel. More importantly, they refused to die, multiplied with supernatural speed the more they ate. And they were fearless. They would charge into a wall of pikes to eat.

It was one of the many herds living in the High Passes. Eater Goats were low on the food hierarchy, but they survived because even their predators, like the huge Gargoyles or Wyverns could become prey if inattentive. But since Eater Goats couldn’t fly…they normally went for easier prey.

Like the Goblins. About a hundred of the Eater Goats silently gathered behind the hill leading down into the valley. They kept peeking over the top. They were…thinking.

The Goblins in the valley had one other feature that hadn’t been mentioned. And that was that all of them, male or female, wore red stripes of paint on their faces and exposed body parts. Red paint, splashes of color.

War paint. And it was more than decoration. It was memory and also, protection. The pattern meant that a Gargoyle in the know might decide not to make the Goblins their targets. It was also protection against Eater Goats…mostly.

The red paint was a pattern that even the Eater Goats had learned to respect. But they were hungry. So after a moment of eying each other and wondering if it was time for some good old cannibalization, they decided the green things were food. The Eater Goats raced up the hill and leapt.

The first Goblin to see them was stick-Goblin1. He saw a soaring shape and looked up. It was not a bird, but an Eater Goat, soaring gracefully over the crest of the hill. It landed nimbly, leapt again, coming down the hillside. And stick-Goblin1 froze. He looked at the goat. And it stared at him and opened its mouth.

It screamed. The other Goblins looked up. The goat’s scream was followed, multiplied a hundred times as more Eater Goats followed it.

The Goblins dropped their baskets. They ran. The Eater Goats poured over the edge of the ravine, screaming. Stick-Goblin1 saw rock-Goblin1 racing ahead. They were running, trying to get to the other end of the valley. And the Eater Goats were closing with alarming speed.

This was the High Passes. And this wasn’t even a big event as the daily predations went. The little Goblins were just Goblins. As stick-Goblin1 ran, he crossed over a rough patch of ground and began weaving, avoiding bare patches of ground as the other Goblins did the same. The Eater Goats raced after him.

Stick-Goblin1 tripped as he ran. He tumbled down, shouting in pain and fear. The Eater Goats bleated. They could already taste their food. After all, he was just a little Goblin. Who cared if he lived or died?

Rock-Goblin1. The other Goblin turned back. He grabbed his friend and dragged him onto their feet. They turned to run, but the Eater Goats were nearly on them. The ones in the lead opened their mouths wide, wide, unhinging their jaws for a huge bite—

The ground caved in beneath the charging horde. The leading rank of Eater Goats blinked as the pitfall trap caved in. Soil revealed itself to be a thin covering over weak branches which snapped. The Eater Goats fell—

Into a pit of spikes. The frontal charge stymied; the other Eater Goats began falling into the pit traps laid in the ground. The two Goblins ran as dozens of Eater Goats fell into the pits.

Most died hitting the spikes. The lucky ones were wounded, with broken bones, or landing on the bodies of their comrades. The living began to devour the dead or dying in their ravenous hunger. And the rest paused—and then came on.

The Eater Goats leapt over the pitfalls, nimbly avoiding the traps. And, forewarned, they even dodged the rest of the concealed traps. They weren’t stupid.

By now, the ambush had been spotted. The fleeing Goblins were racing towards something. A…barricade. No, a huge wall made of wood built into the stone on one side of the valley. A fortress. And someone was blowing a horn.

The horn kept blowing across the valley, and Goblins raced for the protection of the walls. The Eater Goats charged after stick-Goblin1 and rock-Goblin1. The gathering team had gained ground with the pitfall trap, but the goats were just faster. They began catching up and something flashed from the stone fortress.

An arrow hit the first Eater Goat in the eye. It collapsed mid-scream and the others paused, wavering between the free food and the Goblins. And some wondering where the arrow had come from.

Danger first, food later. The Eater Goats charged onwards. A second arrow hit one in the neck. The goat stumbled, but kept running, bleating now in panic. It fell to the ground after twenty more paces, bleeding from an artery. The Eater Goats followed the path of the arrow. They stared up.

The wood fortress was built into the stone. Goblins had hollowed out the stone, creating a stone ceiling, working with wood and stone and metal further in. But on the stone roof of their fortress was a Goblin.

A Hobgoblin stood on an open platform, a basket of arrows by his side. He had a bow. And he placed arrow after arrow in the Eater Goats, dropping them.

The monsters of the High Passes faltered. They had been warned. The red paint shone on the distant Hobgoblin’s body. And Badarrow took sight again. Loosed.

An Eater Goat dodged. It leapt, flipping to the side and the arrow missed. The [Bow Sniper] narrowed his eyes. He took another arrow with a special arrowhead, drew back, aimed—loosed.

The Eater Goats all dodged. They could see the arrows coming. But the Hobgoblin wasn’t aiming for them. He hit a patch of stones—and the arrow flashed.

Light, searing and blinding exploded from the arrow tip. Blinded, the goats stumbled about. Badarrow had covered his eyes.

[Blinding Arrow]. Now, the Goblin archer drew back. And the blinded goats began to drop, one after another.

So they turned and ran. They weren’t stupid. They knew they’d never reach the fortress under the cover of the Goblin archer. The last of the foraging team was nearly at it, anyways. They began to race back as Badarrow kept loosing arrows.

And as they passed next to a section of rocks, there was a snap. A crack of sound.

Crossbow bolts struck the Eater Goats from the side. They jerked, some falling, but most just stumbling, turning. The Eater Goats saw only stone. And then—arrow slits. Tiny, dug into the rock and camouflaged. And crimson light. Goblin eyes, staring at them from the darkness.

The little Cave Goblins sitting in their concealed bunker calmly reloaded. There was enough space for them to fire and aim out of, but even the smallest Eater Goat would have had trouble getting into the arrow slits. The Eater Goats took one look and tried to flee. But while the Cave Goblins had taken a few seconds to get into place, they reloaded and loosed with amazing speed.

A second volley, then a third cut down the last of the Eater Goats trying to get past the pitfall traps. The last fell into a pit, filled with bolts. It stared back at the place it had died. Mystified. It had a vague sense that the battle hadn’t been quite fair. But the Eater Goat respected being…prey…

Silence, then. The forager teams paused at the base of the fortress of stone. In his perch, Badarrow relaxed. He leaned the longbow next to him and poked a figure who’d been watching and handing him arrows. She laughed and made room for him on the bench.

Below, stick-Goblin1, whose name was in fact, Garnish, looked at Glowfinder. The older Goblin nodded, wiping his forehead with sweat at the scare. Then he showed Garnish the geode he’d found. The two Goblins were hunting for something to break it open when a pair of doors opened.

From the wooden fortress emerged a huge figure. The forager Goblins looked up.

A huge Hobgoblin stood in the doorway. He had been there all along, waiting. If the Eater Goats had defeated the ambushes and other traps, he would have been there. He was a big figure, closer to the fat Hobs than the skinny ones. And he had a cleaver in one hand. The Hobgoblin bellowed at the foraging teams.

“Back to work!”

The foraging Goblins began to trudge down the valley. Meanwhile, the Hob led another team out of the wooden doors. All were armed with long spears and cleavers, like him. They began finishing off the Eater Goats who were playing dead or trapped in the pits. The lead Hob casually beheaded an Eater Goat who tried to bite his hand off.

He was a Hobgoblin, a renegade from the Mountain City tribe. A [Chef], one of the original legends who’d competed in the cooking competition. He’d been second place, failed on a preferential level—he was known to make his food hot. In fact, his Skills [Extra Spice] and his latest, [Supplies: Flarepepper Powder] ensured that he never ran out of the fiery stuff.

His name was Calescent, which was a word as much as a name. Calescent the [Chef] had learned it from the only cook-book he’d ever possessed. And he looked upon the dead Eater Goats and spoke one word.

Lunch.

The other Goblins nodded happily. Sometimes it came to them. Less and less these days. The monsters were beginning to figure it out. In the High Passes, there was a place where Goblins lived. And nothing, Gargoyles or Wyverns or Goats and any of the other species like Razorbeaks or Stone Starers or Rock Golems or anything else preyed on them. This was their place, protected, impregnable.

A Goblinhome.

 

—-

 

Glowing red eyes, in the darkness. A cave.

This team of Goblins was scouting. And they were armed. They paused at the cave entrance, and stared inside. Anything could live in there. Anything could be in there.

A Goblin looked at his companions. He nodded silently. Me first. The other Goblins didn’t need to speak to read his body language. Speaking could get them killed.

The first Goblin scouted around the inside, sniffing, checking for stool or any other telltale signs of monsters. He found none, so he motioned to the others.

Carefully, the Goblins roamed into the cave, despite not carrying torches or anything else. They had something better. After they took a formation, the leader raised his sword. It was iron, but good iron, cared for. He focused.

And it burst into flame.

[Burning Blade]. Not his power, but his Chieftain’s personal Skill. The other Goblins ignited their weapons too. They lit up the cave, searching deeper with their makeshift torches. They went in cautiously, creeping forwards.

At first, the cave seemed deserted. They’d found no excrement or tracks. But the Goblins quickly realized that was simply because what was in the cave did not walk. They rounded a bend and paused when they saw the nest of Razorbeaks.

The ancient, dinosaur-like species of bird sometimes nested in the grass. But other times they would inhabit caves. And they could grow large. They had sharp teeth, rending claws. Scaly bodies.

They looked up as the Goblins froze. Their leader motioned. Back, back. But it was too late. The pterodactyl-like birds surged upwards. There were dozens of them. They flapped, shrieking—the Goblins turned to run.

Out of the cave the Goblin scouting party poured. Shrieks came from inside. The Goblins turned as their leader fumbled with something at his sack. The Goblins were all shouting at him, bracing, loosing arrows into the cave. The leader fumbled something out as the Razorbeaks began to flood out.

Magical light filled the cave. And the Razorbeak nest—froze. They stared at what the Goblin leader held.

A red gem, glowing like an eye. The Razorbeaks flinched away. Then they fled, shrieking. There was no reason for it; their prey was right there. But they felt it. Irrational, but chilling their cores, sending them away in a panic.

[Fear].

The Goblins stared as the Razorbeaks fled back into the cave. They sighed in relief, and one punched the leader who’d nearly fumbled getting it out. The leader growled, punched back. It nearly turned into a brawl there, but the Goblins refrained. They marked the cave, drawing a line in red near the entrance, and crossing it with a bit of blue.

Danger, but possible food. Then they wiped away sweat from their brows and waved up at the Hobgoblin who’d been watching them. They didn’t see a wave back, but they saw the distant figure slowly sit.

The patrol had been on the edge of Badarrow’s vision. The [Bow Sniper] slowly lowered the bow. His special arrow had been ready to fly when he’d seen the Goblin patrol coming out of the cave. He was shaking a bit, and closed his eyes for a moment.

He’d only had one shot. From his vantage point, Badarrow had a commanding position of incredible range, but his longbow, powerful as it was, was limited. He had [Farshot Mastery], [Doubled Range], [Eagle Eyes], and [Two Mile Shot], all of which meant he could hit a target from incredibly far away.

But he was no expert at hitting targets on the wing like Bird, or an adventurer like Halrac. Badarrow specialized in taking his opponents down from far, far away. But he could miss. The patrol and the cave were outside his regular range, which meant [Two Mile Shot] was the only way he could hit his target. And if he missed, he wouldn’t be able to use his Skill again.

“Close.”

A voice murmured from beside Badarrow. He didn’t reply immediately. Carefully, ever so carefully, he muffled the little bell attached to the arrow. One ding and he’d have a bad day.

It was a Bell of Agony. That was what the Goblins thought of it, anyways. And a second treasure had gone with the scouting team. That had saved their life—the Gem of Fear they’d taken from the corpse of Skinner.

When the bell was muffled again, Badarrow put the special arrow down and sighed. He was still sweaty. Twice now, in quick succession, his heart had been pounding. He had been afraid. First the Eater Goats, now the patrol. But that was normal.

Badarrow didn’t like being up here, serving as over watch for the entire valley and covering the other Goblins. He did it because no one else was as good with a bow as he was. But he preferred to be picking off targets with only himself at risk. Watching out for others? Making them his responsibility?

It scared him spitless. Badarrow was still shaking a bit, although his hands never shook when he was holding a bow. They couldn’t, then. Only after. He sat down on the little bench. And he felt someone throw a cloak around his shoulders again. Then—a flask was thrust under his nose.

“Hey. Want a drink?”

Don’t want.

Badarrow irritably swatted away the drink. He’d spoken, but his rigid body-language said quite clearly he was not interested in a drink. Besides which, it would dull his concentration and aim. Since it was a mead. Furthermore, it indicated to anyone watching him that Badarrow thought it was a waste of a finite resource to be drinking frivolously.

The Hobgoblin looked down at Snapjaw. She held out a cloak made of Eater Goat pelts. It was cold, up here. But she was sharing the garment with him. She leaned over.

After a second, Badarrow leaned back too. Awkwardly. And it was warm. Snapjaw sipped from her flask, ignoring his mild disapproval.

“Things are meant to be used.”

She spoke in the common tongue. Snapjaw had been Reiss’ lieutenant, and was thus fluent and preferred to use the universal language of the world. Badarrow, who was reluctant to speak at the best of times, used almost exclusively the Goblin’s language despite understanding both.

He was still shivering. But Snapjaw kept leaning against him and patting one leg. And slowly, his nerves stopped shrilling and he relaxed.

The two sat alone in Badarrow’s tower. Well, theirs. Because if she wasn’t working, Snapjaw almost always sat up here. With him. Badarrow glanced at her face from time to time, as he watched the cave-searching patrol slowly making its way back to the fortress.

It was a strange thing. The other Hob was female. And she had a larger head than normal. Her teeth weren’t regular enamel, but some fusion with steel or something harder. She was shorter than a regular Hob, and her class was [Eater], along with [Rider]. She was better than Eater Goats at biting through things and she often did in combat.

Right now, Snapjaw was drinking mead and chewing on a snack of dried Eater Goat meat from the last raid. She offered some to him and Badarrow nibbled some as she put a strip in his mouth. He turned his eyes back towards watching the valley. But she was right there, and it was a better feeling than leaning against one of his comrades for warmth. More intimate.

Special. Badarrow wondered how they’d gotten here. But here they sat. After a while, Snapjaw eyed the arrow he’d set aside for emergencies.

“Key. Gem. Bell. Had cloak of blood, but Chieftain gave it away.”

She was naming the treasures available to them. The four trinkets were indeed some of Goblinhome’s greatest possessions. There were other artifacts, like the enchanted longbow Badarrow had been granted that had a magical string and bow that resisted the elements and never needed replacing—but the four artifacts had been the most valuable, each in their own way.

Well, the key was a mystery. But it was a treasure. Badarrow shrugged.

Rabbiteater needs cloak.

His face went still as he said it. And Badarrow felt a surge of—self-loathing. He bowed his head, clenching one fist hard.

He had left his fallen comrades behind. Numbtongue, Shorthilt, Headscratcher. And all the others. Now, the last of the Redfangs had gone. Rabbiteater had walked north, going with [Knights]. To his death, perhaps. But the [Champion] couldn’t stay.

“Hey. Stop.”

Poke, poke. Snapjaw gave Badarrow a few gentle prods in the side. He glowered—but relaxed again. The [Sniper] stared at Snapjaw. Then he turned, folding his arms.

Should have gone. Should have left.

“We need you. I need you. Going to leave me?”

Prodding, gently. Badarrow froze. He looked away.

…No. But should have…

“Rabbiteater left. You stay. Little Goblins need you. Cave Goblins. Cloak went. Okay. Too bad. Blood is useful. And tasty. Stop thinking.”

She meant stop obsessing over it. Badarrow glowered, but she was right. This was a common thought he had. When he was alone. Brooding. Which was why Snapjaw refused to let him sit up here alone. He shifted uncomfortably, sliding down the bench. Snapjaw slid over.

Silence again. The two leaned against each other after another moment. Badarrow felt compelled to point something out.

Blood is not drink.

“Says you. Horse blood? Goat blood?”

Badarrow grinned as Snapjaw smacked her lips. She had a point. He didn’t like it, or livers, but he’d eat it. Snapjaw on the other hand ate anything. Even rocks. She kept making him try things.

“Patrol coming back. Come down.”

Snapjaw pointed at the cave exploring patrol. Badarrow hesitated. He looked at the scavenging teams.

“But—”

“No. Come. Sit up here later. And we can…”

Snapjaw whispered in Badarrow’s ear. He paused.

“Okay.”

Badarrow got up, leaving his post. Snapjaw was already opening the little hatch that led into the fortress. Into Goblinhome. And Badarrow stared at her back.

“Hm?”

She turned, smiling with all her teeth. Badarrow paused. He stared up at the sky. And he wondered if he should enjoy this. Sometimes, he felt guilty for being…not as sad as Rabbiteater. Snapjaw wouldn’t let him be. He wished his comrades could have experienced…this.

These days. Sitting next to another Goblin and feeling this close. Also, sex. Which was a lot better than Badarrow remembered before leaving on Garen’s mission. But mostly, the bright days amid the dark.

The world ended. The sky fell. Goblins heroes died. Pyrite, Reiss, Garen, Spiderslicer, Eater of Spears, Noears—too many to count.

And Goblins picked up and lived. They survived another day, and another. Badarrow had seen Shorthilt die. Headscratcher. He had lost Numbtongue. Left him behind.

But he was still here. And somehow, he was going. Slowly, the Hobgoblin followed Snapjaw; if he didn’t come, she’d pull him along. She was pushy. But she was lonely too. She’d lost her friends. Her Chieftain. And she and he had grown tired of crying alone. So Badarrow took his bow and entered Goblinhome.

 

—-

 

Past the walls of traps, in stone, hollowed rough walls gave way to smoother ground. Still rough, but wearing smoother with each day. Badarrow passed by sleeping quarters, individual ones marked by doors, large family spots and places where hundreds could sleep at once.

The chill mountain air warmed. Badarrow smelled food cooking. Calescent was at work already. Snapjaw grinned as she waited for him. She was surrounded by little Goblin children. They were begging for sips of mead or snacks, and she was passing out bits of food.

They stared solemnly up as Badarrow approached. In awe. Badarrow awkwardly nodded to them and they fled. He stared after them, a bit embarrassed.

 “Don’t like.”

They didn’t like him, he meant. Snapjaw was the friendly big sister Hobgoblin everyone liked. The female Hob rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Not like? They think you are big hero. Badarrow, hero Redfang with bow. Thft! Thft!

Snapjaw teased Badarrow gently, making the sounds of the bow releasing arrows. He blushed. But it was true. The little Goblin children were peeking at him.

Children. New ones. Goblins—and some were grey-skinned. Cave Goblins, although the difference was only in skin tone and height. New Goblins. They shooed as Snapjaw flapped her claws at them.

“Food.”

More?

Badarrow looked askance. Snapjaw just grinned; she’d been snacking the entire time he’d kept his morning vigil. She patted her stomach.

“[Eater].”

Food was a lifestyle for Snapjaw. She could convert it to muscle or fat amazingly quickly and she had a metabolism that meant she could gobble food or go for long periods without. Badarrow prodded his stomach. He followed Snapjaw deeper into the fortress.

No spices.

“Some spices.”

Don’t want.

“You tell Calescent.”

Badarrow paused as he descended into a large eating space. Goblins were munching on food or playing games of chess with crude figurines at stone benches and tables. It was a copy of Tremborag’s mountain, although Badarrow had never seen it. The Mountain City Tribe had dug out the fortress. He saw Goblins getting food from one of the huge kitchens. Badarrow pointed as Snapjaw tried to drag him towards the biggest.

Find other [Cook]. Calescent too spicy.

“Calescent is the best.

Bad poos. Don’t want—

The light quarrel stopped as the two heard a commotion. Badarrow and Snapjaw turned as they saw an angry half-Hob shouting at another Hob.

They recognized Poisonbite at once. The female [Venom Warrior] was a Hob in the making. She, like Badarrow had once been, was growing by the day. And eating a massive amount of food, so it wasn’t any surprise to see her here.

What was surprising was to see a fight in Goblinhome. But then—the two read the body language of the other Goblins watching and picked up on what was happening.

Eh? Eh?

Poisonbite was hopping around a female Redfang Hob. Badarrow recognized her as…Shineshield. The female Hob, was a [Shield Maiden]—a survivor of Garen’s last charge—had a unique class. As did many Goblins, actually. They were fewer in Goblinhome. But much stronger.

The situation was obvious to any Goblin looking, and most of the smaller Goblins were scurrying out of the way of the fight. Poisonbite, who was still growing and much shorter than Shineshield, was hopping mad.

She’d broken up with the female Hob. Or perhaps, it was more accurate to say the relationship had ended. No, wait—Snapjaw and Badarrow frowned.

Poisonbite’s posture indicated that she felt like she’d broken up with Shineshield. But Shineshield’s set shoulders and dour expression—and the other Goblin’s—said that she was the one who’d decided she’d had enough and Poisonbite wasn’t having it.

“Mountain City Goblins.”

Snapjaw muttered. Badarrow rolled his eyes and nodded. The Mountain City Tribe, one of the many tribes that now made up Goblinhome, was known for this. They were troublesome, had a different view of relationships and social dynamics, and were much pickier about food.

They also were more prone to scenes like this. Poisonbite kept antagonizing the Redfang warrior. At last, Shineshield seemed to grow tired of Poisonbite and turned to face the wall. Poisonbite immediately tried to walk around. Look at me! Don’t you like me?

Her posture radiated hurt. She began pointing, and at last, a few of her warriors dragged their leader off. Poisonbite led an all-female group of Goblins, and they looked embarrassed about the way she was taking things.

“Silly Poisonbite. Shineshield wouldn’t stay. She likes one Goblin at a time. Poisonbite likes many.”

Snapjaw tsked. Badarrow nodded sagely. He ignored the sulking Poisonbite. She liked female Goblins. Badarrow was used to that; Redscar, the leader of the remaining Redfangs, liked male Goblins. But he didn’t cause a fuss.

Mountain City Goblins. Badarrow looked around for Snapjaw and groaned; she’d taken advantage of his momentary distraction and gotten two hot kebabs of goat meat. With the fiery red spices on it. He glowered at her.

“Eat, eat. Here.”

She offered him a bit of cheese as compensation. That would cut the spice, so Badarrow sat down at a bench with Snapjaw and began eating. The two ate quite happily, gossiping covertly about the breakup…right until Shineshield came over.

The two Hobs froze, wondering if she’d seen them. But the Hob put her head face-first on the table. Her stoic mask was gone. Then they had to say something nice to her. Badarrow offered her some cheese and Snapjaw smacked him on the shoulder. Redfangs weren’t known for their sympathy or interpersonal skills, by and large.

After a while, Badarrow paused in patting Shineshield on the back and looked up. So did the other Goblins in the eating hall. Because they heard a song. They looked up, and saw a procession of Goblins, who looped through the crowds of Goblins.

A marching band. Cave Goblins, playing on handheld instruments. Flutes, made of goat horns. Drums of goat hide, crude little guitars, made of wood and goat guts. Horns, made of brass. Not everything was goat-based.

And they played as they walked. A sad song. The Goblins hit their drums and sang, a Goblin song. [Singers] and [Musicians] and [Strummers] and [Hummers]. Not a cheerful piece, but something like a dirge and a marching song. Sometimes loud, with many instruments, fierce, other times quiet. Because what was the point of music? To make you feel happy, to feel sad.

And they were not done mourning. Badarrow stared at the Cave Goblins. Almost all of them Cave Goblins. Numbtongue’s followers. They recognized him of course, and paused a moment.

Before the last of the five Redfangs who had brought them freedom. Badarrow looked around and saw his Cave Goblins, the one in the ambush teams with the crossbows. He knew them.

Headscratcher’s warriors and [Berserkers], some of them growing into Hobs. Shorthilt’s weapon experts who’d claimed rarer weapons like voulges or harpe swords, and so on. Numbtongue’s musicians. Badarrow’s archers.

And Rabbiteater’s cooks and followers, who helped Calescent in the kitchens. They watched as the marching band made a slow circuit of the eating room. And every Goblin stopped. They remembered.

A Goblin hero, facing the [Necromancer] Goblin Lord. Brothers, fighting as the sky broke and the Humans drove through them. The death of the Great Chieftain of the Mountain.

Badarrow closed his eyes. He felt someone hugging him tight. So much that it hurt. But he never said a word.

Snapjaw’s crushing grip softened as the music faded. The band marched on. She looked up at him, her eyes shining with tears. And he tugged at her, gently.

“Sex?”

“…Yes.”

Shineshield watched them go. Poisonbite looked at her back and half of her warriors dragged her back into her seat. But that was Goblinhome. Building, growing. Remembering. To carry on, Goblins worked or laughed or cried.

But there was a Goblin that was missing. No, two. Calescent came to the entrance of his kitchens. He looked around.

“Where are Redscar and Chieftain?”

He had two bowls ready for them. A passing Goblin took the bowl for Redscar.

“Redscar is patrolling. Chieftain is sleeping.”

The Hobgoblin [Chef] nodded. He took the other bowl himself and left his kitchen. Slowly, the Hob went further into the fortress being cut into the mountain. Past a workshop where Goblins were tinkering with crossbows, another forge which had smoke being vented through a chimney. Further in. Until he came to a room. There, he paused.

Inside, a Goblin dreamed of the past. Calescent paused, but the food was growing cold. He knocked on the wooden door.

“Chieftain?”

And the Goblin stirred. She opened her eyes, and the visions fled. She sat up, yawning, looking around blearily.

Her name was Rags. She had been called that, but she had taken it as her name. And she was small. Not a Hob. But neither was she a regular Goblin.

She was a bit taller. And as she opened her eyes, a little key dropped forwards, hanging from a necklace. Garen’s key. The Chieftain of Goblinhome looked up. And she sighed.

 

—-

 

For a moment, memory blurred with the past. She remembered another Goblin’s body, strong, male. A different perspective, memories as strong as reality.

Before they called him Velan the Kind, before he had become a Goblin Lord, Velan had been a [Healer].

She reached for the details. Found them. Images of him, sweating different substances, experimenting with plants. Not just a [Healer]. An [Alchemist]. He hadn’t just been a warrior.

Strong. A warrior, yes. Strong enough to go foraging alone in the jungles and fight monsters for the precious, rare herbs. Made stronger still by eating and surviving countless poisons and his own experiments. Until he could eat the Sage’s Grass and rarer plants like food and not grow sick and die.

His tribe had been strong, from draughts that could make a Goblin run for three days straight before collapsing. Substances to make a Goblin fight harder, survive. Always to survive, to prosper.

By the time he was a Goblin Lord, he had been known for his ability to enhance his strength. But it had only been when he met the other Goblin Lord after crossing the sea, Greydath of Blades, that he had learned to fight like—

“Chieftain? Awake?”

The second knock shattered the memories. Rags blinked. She shook her head, growling. But it was too late. The memory vanished. The Goblin sat up.

Come in!

She snapped. The door opened and Calescent came in himself with lunch. Rags blinked blearily at him.

 

“What? What? Attack? Something else?”

“Chieftain, braised goat stew. With potatoes and wild onions.”

The [Cook] stared at Rags. She stared back.

“Food?”

He nodded. Rags hesitated. She debated between throwing something or casting a spell, but then her stomach rumbled. She folded her arms.

“Fine. But I was dreaming.

“Food is important. Chieftain is too small.”

So said the [Cook], and his word was, apparently, law. Rags glowered up at him; Calescent wasn’t as heavy as Tremborag; he was stout, not fat. But he insisted Goblins should eat at least twice a day. He knew what it was like to starve.

“Goat?”

“Some attacked.”

Rags paused as she reached for the stone spoon. She looked up urgently.

“Any die?”

“Only goats.”

The [Cook] fluttered his fingers. Rags relaxed. She sipped from the hearty broth. It was good. But also—

Spicy.

The spices were hot! Rags took a few bites and felt herself heating up. Calescent disagreed.

“Mild.”

Rags glared at him. But she didn’t argue with the [Chef], and Calescent was a [Chef] these days. He was also, incidentally, one of the most feared fighters outside of the Redfangs. Poisonbite could kill you slowly with her toxins, but if Calescent went into battle he carried a small sack of his hottest spice blends. And he’d throw it in your eyes as he hacked you apart with a cleaver.

“Too hot. Water?”

The [Chef] had a small stone bowl of clear mountain water, but he was reluctant to give it. He pointed out quite sensibly that Rags could eat some of the potato to cut the spices. She glared and held out a claw.

Water.

Rags took a sip to quell the burning in her mouth. Then she paused as she stared at herself in the bowl of water.

The reflection was bad, but Rags had seen her image before. And she knew she was…taller.

Just by a few inches. But the little Goblin had grown. Rags had been small, for a Goblin. Young. Now, she was taller.

Not a Hob. She hadn’t gone through the growth spurt like other Goblins had. The Hobs speculated she was too young. But some of the others wondered if it was something different. Either way, Rags was taller.

Older, too. She’d begun bleeding from her crotch too. Which wasn’t pleasant, but it was a shared experience. Closer to an adult.

Taller, older. But not wiser. Or smarter. Just older. More tired. Rags looked at Calescent.

“Good food.”

He glanced at her disapprovingly. Rags hadn’t finished more than half the bowl. To be fair—the [Chef] had loaded it with enough to feed Badarrow to fullness, but Goblins seldom turned down food.

“Not hungry? Can get spice-less food, if you want, Chieftain.”

His tone indicated that this would be a crime against cuisine, but he’d do it. Rags shook her head. She put the bowl down.

“No. No. Get [Shaman]. Um…Snapjaw. You come too. Had memory.”

“Maybe wait for Snapjaw. Busy having sex.”

Rags shrugged. Okay, she’d wait. The [Chef] paused.

“What memory?”

He was referring to her power. The power of all Chieftains and [Shamans], to dream of the past Goblin’s lives. Rags could do it, and the [Shamans] that had come from the Mountain City tribe, but they were all low-level. Ulvama too had died during the battle…

“Dreams. Know how to make…strength drink. Also, more about healing. Have mixture. Write down.”

She looked around. Some of the precious parchment and paper that Rabbiteater’s exploits had bought was sitting on a table. Rags got out of her bed and began to write. Calescent took both bowls and went over.

“What plants?”

“Some…stupid roots! Always roots! And this one. Big, fat. Green leaves, white bulb. Edible.”

“Fennel.”

Calescent helpfully added as Rags sketched. She was trying to put down the things she’d seen from Velan’s memory, but she didn’t always get the name of the plants or things he’d used. She made a note as she furiously sketched. Unfortunately, without his perspective, a lot of the roots he used looked like…roots to Rags. She was no [Shaman] or [Cook].

“Mix these two. Boil here for six minutes. Hot enough to see little bubbles…need to mix with magic mixture.”

“What mixture?”

“I didn’t see because nosy [Chef] woke me up!”

Rags snapped at Calescent. The Hob looked hurt.

“Chieftain needs good food. Spends too much time sleeping. Or working.”

Rags sighed. But she waved apologetically at him. She did indeed spend a lot of time in her memory-sleep, not regular sleep. Trying to recover information from the past.

Sometimes it was useless. Other times…well, it was thanks to that Rags had learned how to use the blood cloak that Rabbiteater now held. She’d discovered tools, like the ones Velan had used to move bones, or the crude funnels he’d made to pour blood into other Goblins.

He’d known about giving blood, known more than many [Alchemists] and he’d seen the world. Before he became a Goblin King. But what had led him here?

Even now, Rags was searching for the answer. For how else would she make sense of anything?

The little Goblin sat in her quarters in Goblinhome. That was the name for the fortress she’d built in the mountains, with the remnants of every tribe. The Flooded Waters Tribe, the Mountain City Tribe, the Redfangs, the Cave Goblins—even what few of Reiss’ subjects had survived.

The living remained. It had been a long journey, finding this place. Building it, piece by piece as monsters tried to eat them. Managing the squabbling factions. The…her…

Rags stopped writing. Her hand began to shake and she had to put down the quill.

“Chieftain?”

The dead. Pyrite smiled at Rags as she fled the Human [Lord]. Garen Redfang fell. Tremborag stopped moving, staring at his distant home. Reiss died.

All dead. Rags was shivering. Shaking. Calescent grabbed her.

“Chieftain, breathe. Get [Shaman]—”

He snapped at a Goblin passing outside the door. Rags caught herself, breathed in, out, slowly. Calescent hovered, watching as Rags calmed.

Slowly, the panic attack faded. Rags could breathe. By the time the apprentice [Shaman] came hurrying with his pouches of medicine, Rags was calm. She refused the tincture; it was just a combination of herbs which made you relax, dozy.

She needed to be awake. Not shortcuts. Rags looked at Calescent.

“Just memories.”

He nodded, bowing his head. He had been there, too. They all had. But Rags bore most of the guilt. She hadn’t been good enough. No one was. Greydath had said—

“This sword is useless. I am useless. Goblins cannot be saved by me. Or even a hundred of me. We wait for only one thing. A Goblin King.”

And his treasure. Rags felt at the key around her neck.

Garen’s key. The thing he had betrayed his team, the Halfseekers for. For that he had been named a traitor and it had followed him until his end of days.

She had thought it lost with him. But Redscar had taken the key, along with Redfang, Garen’s blade. And it had passed to her.

The key. Even Tremborag had known of it. And Greydath had challenged her and the other Goblins. To find Velan’s treasure.

But why? What was the point of treasure? Did Rags need a new sword? Some magical armor? She had no idea what the treasure was. But without knowing, or knowing where the other key lay, how could she find it?

She didn’t know. So she spent these days building Goblinhome, sleeping and searching the past for answers. Wishing Pyrite were here.

 

—-

 

What heavy days. What dark depression. It hung over them, still. A despair that months and a fortress couldn’t dissipate. They were all remnants. Their heroes were dead. And those that remained were diminished.

Rags walked through her fortress. And the little Goblin who’d been arrogant enough to challenge Tremborag and Garen felt like a different person. She had done that in her ignorance, thinking she was a match for them. Now, she saw the giants they had been after they had fallen.

Goblinhome was quiet as the Eater Goats were butchered, the rest salted and stored away. Rags was overseeing resource collection. Managing the fortress was all about resources.

Some of it was easy. Food? No problem. Until you wondered how hard it was to preserve food, especially for the winter. To preserve meat you needed to dry it, but that attracted other monsters. Or salt it—if you had salt.

And your [Cooks] wanted salt. But you had to find a salt mine, which the expeditions around Goblinhome hadn’t found yet…or buy it. The same went for things like wax for candles, metal for nails, hammers, pickaxes…so many mundane things Goblins prized.

But Goblins didn’t buy things. Rabbiteater had, in his guise as the Goblin Slayer, using the ears of dead Goblins to buy life for new ones. But he was gone and he had only been able to provide some things.

These days, Goblinhome was producing metal. And Goblins at least had a surplus of stone. Some were even growing plants in the valley, thanks to the lake. Water was not an issue. Besides that, they made do. They’d found a way to trade with Humans, and the Eater Goats and other animals provided a lot of resources. Tallow, fat…

But above all, safety mattered in the High Passes. At any moment, something might come along and decide to eat you. Before Goblinhome’s walls had been built, they had suffered from daily and nightly attacks. And the worst monsters the Goblins had clashed with—besides a few unique threats, like the…thing…that wore other Goblin’s faces—were Wyverns.

Wyverns. They dove out of the sky as fast as hawks. And they were incredibly hard to kill, could breathe frost—they were worse than the Gargoyles, who liked to pose as statues before ripping you to shreds. The Goblins had clashed with them, brought down many Wyverns. And they’d built up their fortress.

They’d been glad to see the back of the weyr when it fought with the Dragon and fled southwards. But the stupid Wyverns had come back. Much reduced, but the Wyvern Lord had survived.

And the weyr was unhappy with their leadership. Not only had they died en masse at Pallass, they’d had to come back and were now fighting to reclaim their territory.

The Wyvern Lord was especially unhappy. He’d killed six challengers so far, and while that had quelled dissent within his Weyr, he was still furious. The little not-Dragons had hurt him. Him!

He was angry. And, like Dragons, the Wyvern Lord tolerated little in the way of challenges to his rule. The annoying green things had been one of the reasons why he’d decided to expand his weyr’s territory. They kept harassing Wyverns who flew near the valley. Some had even died.

The Wyvern Lord might have pondered the wisdom of attacking another fortress. But the green things didn’t stink of magic by and large. And—the sight of an artificial construction enraged him. So that was why, on a day like today, as Rags was sitting in the experimental alchemy rooms trying to explain what Velan’s draughts had looked like to one of her [Shamans], she heard an alarm. A horn blew three times, urgently, and then a long note. And then repeated itself.

Rags looked up. The [Shaman] and Calescent started. Rags knew that signal.

Attack. A full-scale alarm. She shot to her feet and ran.

Goblins surged through the fortress. Warriors running for weapons, Hobs shouting orders. Young Goblins and those unable to fight came fleeing the other way. And Rags heard Calescent bellow as she ran.

Chieftain! Clear way!

The Goblins moved to one side. Rags raced past them. She reached the sentry posts within Goblinhome about the same time as Badarrow and Snapjaw, swearing angrily, reached the same spot. They looked across the valley and froze.

The Wyverns were coming at Goblinhome. How many?

All of them. Rags’ heart skipped a beat as she saw the familiar, huge Greater Wyvern who led the weyr. He was on a warpath and they were coming straight at them.

Rags paused. She was no Garen Redfang, or Tremborag. Certainly no Goblin Lord. But as all eyes settled on her, her indecision faded. She acted.

Crossbows to first wall! Badarrow, up! Snapjaw, traps! Where is Redfang?

“I find.”

Calescent ran. Rags hoped the Redfangs had made it to the safety of the fortress before the attack came. She stood on a parapet, shouting orders as the Wyverns attacked. Her nerves hummed, and her mind raced as it had a thousand times before. Battles won, battles lost. But there was a difference.

This time she had a home. And she wasn’t going to let some overgrown flying lizards take it.

 

—-

 

There was no plan the Wyvern Lord had. He just intended to smash through the weak wood walls of the green thing’s fortress, gorge his weyr on the population inside, and thereby secure their loyalty. Food, safety, strength—these were universal things. The Greater Wyvern roared as he flew at the nest of the green things.

Look at them. They were fleeing already! The Wyverns circled overhead as a few dozen landed. The valley and fortress built into stone were such that, unlike Pallass, the Wyverns could only assault the fortress’ wood walls from the front in a smaller group. The rest flew overhead, shrieking encouragement as their comrades dropped and began to waddle towards the fortress.

Instantly, they came under attack. One Wyvern slipped and landed in a pit trap. The wooden stakes barely hurt it, but it was stuck halfway. Another slammed into the ground, screaming. The Wyvern Lord blinked as his Wyvern strike force began shrieking. What was happening? What—

Arrows. Or rather, bolts. From each side, the bunkers of hidden Goblins began firing their crossbows as fast as they could. They aimed for wings and eyes, and wood, steel, and iron bolts hit the Wyverns from all sides. The Goblins were reloading and shooting fast. Rags had [Rapid Reload] and her entire tribe fired as fast as a trained [Crossbowman].

The hail of projectiles dropped a few Wyverns, but the rest just shielded their faces with their wings. They were only really in danger of tearing their wings. The Wyvern Lord roared at the few who were screaming with bleeding eyes; they weren’t hurt badly! Only a few had taken bolts through their armored hides.

The rest charged the Goblin’s fortress, roaring in fury. The Wyverns had a unified tactic. They inhaled, breathed, and turned the wooden wall to frost. Then they rammed the weakened wood, shattering it easily.

No frost bomb this time. That made the things it hit too cold to really eat; turn to ice and shatter. The Wyvern Lord watched as his Wyverns, hissing with rage, hit the wall again. The wood was stout, but the freezing cold made it too brittle. The hail of crossbow bolts ceased as some of the Wyverns froze the bunkers and Goblins fled. Satisfied, six Wyverns charged, hit the wall, and went through.

They burst through the first wall of Goblinhome. And discovered it was the first wall. The Wyverns looked up as, above them, the ceiling opened. Goblins were standing above them, looking down through large openings on a walkway. The six Wyverns looked up, inhaling to freeze the impudent Goblins above.

Then a twenty-pound boulder fell, oh, a hundred feet and smashed one of the Wyvern’s heads in. The other five Wyverns looked at their friend. And another boulder fell and hit a second Wyvern on the back. And then a third….a fourth…

The Wyverns outside heard their friends screaming. More came to investigate. They too didn’t see the Goblins overhead until it was too late. But they saw the Wyverns, half dead, the other half pinned under…rocks?

Huge rocks. The Goblins overhead were dropping them on the Wyverns. But where were they coming from? The walkways were tiny! The stones were coming out of nowhere and—another Wyvern went down, shrieking as a ten-pound stone tore a hole through a wing. The Goblins shouted, racing back and forth. They weren’t carrying anything, but they had little magical items on them.

Bags of holding. Rags listened to the screams, tensed with her line of defenders. All according to plan. Goblinhome had a limited number of bags of holding, but what they did have—relics of the tribes or stolen from the battlefield at Liscor—were being employed now.

Rooms full of huge boulders were being loaded into bags of holding—which could usually only hold one at most, from anywhere from five pounds to thirty at most—and then dropped.

Height, plus that much weight did a lot of damage. The Wyverns were pulling back, some falling to the crossbow bolts literally covering their hides. The Wyvern Lord roared, and howled. Freeze the little green things!

More of his weyr dropped, rather than challenge him. Inside, the second wall began to buckle as the Wyverns pushed in. They were taking casualties, but the bulk of the Weyr was circling overhead. Safe from—

An arrow flew towards the Wyvern Lord. He twisted in midair, dodging the shot. The Wyvern Lord saw it flash by his face—the Greater Wyvern’s eyes could even see the wooden point. The fletching, crude, but effective. And the little bell tied to the front. It missed him, bounced off a Wyvern behind him.

Ding.

The artifact, the bell made of bronze and blue metal rang harshly in the air. And it rang like pain. Pain and agony.

The Wyverns in the air screamed and some even stopped flapping and nearly hit the ground. The ringing bell fell to earth, and the Weyr scattered. Even the Wyvern Lord felt pain—although duller. His spell resistance, again. But it hurt. He twisted, enraged. Where had that come from? Where—

Another arrow. This one hit a Wyvern in the open mouth. Not as precise as Bird’s, but with a lot of force. The Wyvern screeched and the Wyvern Lord saw the archer.

Badarrow loaded another arrow, sighted, and saw the Wyvern Lord dive at him like a comet. His eyes went wide. He ducked back into the hatch he’d come out of, which led to the top of the fortress, cleverly disguised amid the stone.

He disappeared into the hatch and it swung shut just in time. The Wyvern Lord screamed as he dove towards the hidden metal tunnel. He tore at the crude metal hatch, ready to blow frost after the Goblin. A tunnel wouldn’t save it! His ice would freeze the mountain. He inhaled as one of his claws caught the lid of the hatch. He pulled it open—

Smoke engulfed the Wyvern Lord’s head. The huge monster coughed on the smoke and then saw fire—

 

—-

 

About one minute before the explosion, Badarrow slid down the ladder, swearing as he felt splinters catch in his palms. He dove out of the door.

Now, now!

The Goblins standing guard stared at him. Then they began tossing fiery objects into the room.

The secret tunnel leading to the surface was in fact, a closed hatch and chamber secured by a thick, reinforced door. And shutters. The Goblins hurled fire into the room and it began to catch.

There was an entire supply of kindling in there. Garnish, the stick-Goblin, was one of the ones who gathered the flammable, dry material.

Now, it went up in moments. A [Shaman] blew more flames into the room and the Goblins slammed the shutters closed, and locked them. Then they backed away from the door and vents. So did Badarrow.

Inside, the room was burning, but the sudden lack of air quelled the flames. It was still amazingly hot, though. Without ventilation, the fire had little to no oxygen. But it had enough, and the room was hot. Incendiary. So as the Wyvern Lord tore open the hatch overhead, it gave the room fresh air and a way for the heat to travel.

The Goblins and Badarrow below saw the smoking door and vents suddenly flash. There was a boom, as air moved and fire shot upwards. And the Wyvern Lord was hit by an expanding cloud of debris, smoke, and fire.

Just for a second. The Goblins heard an angry shriek from above. The Wyvern Lord wasn’t even badly hurt. A [Siege Fireball] couldn’t kill a Greater Wyvern; the short burst of smoke and fire was just a deterrent.

But it stopped the deadly frost breath. This was fire and smoke and ash and it had shot right into the Wyvern’s eyes, mouth, and throat. He shrieked, coughed, and then blew frost straight back at the thing that had hurt them!

Go! Go!

Badarrow howled the moment the trap worked. Goblins dove for cover. They fled the fire-trap just in time; the frost breath froze the metal and it shattered as the Wyvern Lord blasted the tunnel. Ice-cold frost followed the Goblins and a few of the slowest cried out as their skin froze. But none had been close enough to get the brunt of the blast.

The Hobgoblin [Archer] stared at the stone. It was cracking from the frost. The Wyvern Lord tore at the stone, but, wary of another explosion, he backed off. Badarrow shook his head.

“Next hatch.”

He ran to the second fire-trap ladder. A Goblin [Scout] shouted he was clear and up Badarrow went. This time his arrows failed to provoke a Wyvern attack—they just backed up, dodging arrows and screaming in pain as a few pierced their hides. None of them were going to risk a fiery mouthful.

Not that the residents of Goblinhome could do that more than a few times. There were only a dozen hidden passages leading to the roof, all trapped like that. Anyone following the Goblins down would enter a room literally ready to explode in their face.

The concept of heating up a room until it went ‘boom’ was known as a backdraft in Erin’s world, but the Goblins of the Mountain City tribe hadn’t known that, only how it worked. Well, it had hurt the Wyvern Lord—he was still coughing as he took wing and circled. But the explosion hadn’t even hurt him badly.

Every weapon to survive. But it was just so unfair—

Monsters were strong.

The Wyverns were tearing through the second wall. The third had a new obstacle—nets. And Hobs and Goblin elites hiding behind barriers of stone.

The Wyverns began battling the fighters there, but more were landing. Rags listened to the reports.

“Too many in the air! Make them fall! Heavy-drop plan!”

She shouted. A messenger-Goblin started running and screaming.

Heavy-drop plan! Heavy drop!

The call was picked up and spread like wildfire through the fortress. Goblins reacted to the words, instantly shifting their plans. And within a minute—

The Wyverns in the air were flying lower, strafing the roof of the fortress to keep Badarrow from shooting arrows at them. They weren’t prepared for a boulder to roll aside in the valley and Carn Wolves to come racing out.

Half a dozen Carn Wolves—only half a dozen—shot out into the valley. The nimble Carn Wolves, huge, red-furred, three times as large as normal wolves, bore their Goblin [Wolf Riders] into combat. But not directly at the Wyverns clustered around the fortress. No, they sped towards the Wyverns in the air. And all of them were whirling…bolas? Yes! A stone connected to a bag of holding…

One of the Goblin [Wolf Riders] swung the bola and the bag of holding flew. The rope and bolas wrapped around a Wyvern’s foot as it circled; the huge monster barely noticed. The Goblin yanked on a second string as his Carn Wolf raced ahead, dodging blasts of frost.

The second string was tied to the bag of holding. Now, it yanked the bag of holding away—

And the gigantic boulder the bola had been lashed to was pulled out of the bag of holding. About, oh, a thirty-pound weight suddenly materialized and the Wyvern was left holding it.

They had four bags of holding that could take that much weight/mass, all looted from Humans on the battlefield. And they could do it once. Which meant four Wyverns fell and broke bones or had their wings snapped by the sudden drop.

Rags was gratified by the screams and thuds. It wasn’t that heavy, given how big Wyverns were, but she had seen this tactic work before. The sudden mass and weight literally dragged the Wyverns out of the air, and if the impact didn’t kill them…

Four Wyverns down! Third wall holding! Snapjaw fighting Wyverns!

In the third wall, Snapjaw was eating a Wyvern as it screamed and tried to dislodge her from its side. Calescent blew a handful of pepper dust into another’s mouth as it tried to blast him with frost. The Wyverns fighting past their fallen comrades howled as they ran into nets and Goblins.

 

And outside? The six Redfang riders split up. Four raced back towards the entrance. Two sped on. They rode the largest Carn Wolves by far. Both were Hobs, although one was still short. They raced at the Wyverns on the ground, making their way into the fortress. The Wyverns turned.

One of the [Wolf Riders] leapt from his saddle. He shot up, and slashed. He cut a Wyvern across the mouth with an enchanted blade, leaping high into the air to do so. He landed, and his Carn Wolf carried him away as the Wyvern howled and tried to strike back.

Leapwolf. The second-in-command of the Redfangs if you didn’t count Badarrow. But the other [Rider] came straight at another Wyvern. He had two blades.

One shimmered with frost. The other glowed red. The shorter Hobgoblin leaned sideways as his Carn Wolf dove under a Wyvern’s striking head. The Hob slashed up, so fast both his swords struck multiple times in a moment.

[Flurry Strikes]. Fire arced from the crimson blade, frost from the other. Both cut deep. Red blood showered over him. He raced past the first Wyvern as it collapsed. Slashing into the second. Rags heard a scream. And a name. The Goblins chanted it as the rider raced forwards, slashing through Wyvern scales.

Redscar. The Hobgoblin turned and Thunderfur howled. The Carn Wolf leapt over a Wyvern’s tail, bit. The giant wolf crunched and a Wyvern screamed—Redscar leaned down and severed the tail with a blow from the crimson sword.

A Gold-rank Adventurer’s blade. The iconic sword, Redfang, that had been wielded by Garen Redfang himself. The Hob bared his teeth as the Wyverns turned.

Redscar! Retreat!

Leapwolf and his wolf howled as Redscar slashed right and left, darting between the bunched-up Wyverns. Redscar heard a roar and looked up.

The Greater Wyvern dove. Thunderfur raced forwards and Redscar raced past the Wyverns fighting through the first three walls. He bellowed.

Retreat! Wyvern Lord coming!

The Goblins engaged in the melee looked up, and fled. The Greater Wyvern, largest of his weyr, tore after Redscar, shredding the remains of the first two walls.

The third one never stood a chance. The Wyvern Lord rammed into it and the entire fortified wall shook. Rags saw the wood bow inwards and felt the thud run through her.

“Wait. Wait!”

She cautioned the ranks of Goblins around her. They braced. The Wyvern Lord howled. He breathed, and the third wall turned to ice. Then he charged forwards and burst through. He opened his mouth as the fourth and final wall appeared.

And in front of it, an army of Goblins. They stood in the kill zone, behind traps that would have made Belgrade turn green with envy. And they were all armed.

A Goblin standing next to Rags held the black, Dwarf-made crossbow she used. Another was carrying a crossbow just as large, but home-made. Goblins stood on shielded balconies, aiming down at the Wyverns many working in two-Goblin teams to load and fire the oversized weapons. And as the Wyvern Lord’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw something else.

A huge…familiar…device. It was cruder than the ones at Pallass. But up close, you could really admire how the Goblins had taken the basic concept of…a crossbow…and scaled it up. Smashing job, really. The Greater Wyvern stared at Rags. The little Goblin stood in front of the gigantic war weapon.

“Aim.”

Rags spoke into the silence. The Wyvern Lord saw a huge, bone-mounted ballista pointing at him.

Wyvern hide, sinew, and bone had gone into the device. Nothing else could withstand the enormous pressure that was being put on the aimed ballista. And the little Goblin aiming it had six burly Hobs who’d moved it into place. She waited as the Wyvern Lord reared back, narrowed her eyes—and yanked on the firing string.

Volley!

TSCHAK.

The sound the ballista made was like thunder as it snapped. With it, every Goblin fired at the same time, hitting the Wyvern Lord with a Goblinhome greeting. The ballista bolt hit the Wyvern Lord first.

The impact carried the Wyvern Lord backwards, knocking it onto its back. The Wyvern Lord stared at the ceiling of the Goblin’s fortifications. He stared up at the rockslide trap as a Goblin pulled and the rocks dropped down on him and the Wyverns in the third layer of traps. They howled as smaller stones dropped on them—just another little gift.

The Wyvern Lord blinked up at the sky as Rags shouted and the Hobs began reloading the ballista. Smaller crossbows were snapping and the Wyvern Lord felt the bolts glancing off his armored hide. The [Sniper] was there too, calmly shooting a Wyvern through the open mouth. And Goblins were pouring out of the side tunnels, making it a melee again…

The Wyvern Lord heard the ballista reloading. He got up, checked the dented scales on his chest. They hurt. The Wyvern Lord looked around. Nearly a dozen of his Weyr were dead, and twice as many downed. He stared at the Goblins. Then at the fourth wall. The Wyvern Lord eyed the nearly-reloaded ballista, and the little Goblin, who’d conjured a ball full of fire in one claw.

She was staring at him. And a group of Goblin [Mages] and [Shamans] were standing on one balcony, throwing spells down at the Wyverns. The Greater Wyvern looked around, at Rags, and then turned.

Forget this.

He waddled off, kicking boulders and debris out of the way. Rags stared as the Wyvern Lord vanished backwards, shrieking a retreat. The other Wyverns, caught off-guard, followed him. The weyr flew backwards, retreating. One of them, enraged, dove at the Wyvern Lord, shrieking. They could have killed the green things! Coward! He challenged the Wyvern Lord—

And his wings froze. The younger Wyvern fell to earth and snapped as he hit the ground. The Wyvern Lord flew onwards in the sudden silence. He was miserable. First the Dragon, the not-Dragons, and now green things? He was going to go munch on some Gargoyles or something.

He was having a really bad week.

Inside the fortress, Rags stared as the last of the Wyverns fled. Some were still on the ground, screaming in pain, but Goblins were webbing them industriously with ropes. She stared about.

Badarrow was looking for Snapjaw. She was grinning, her stomach full of fresh Wyvern. Calescent was prodding a dead Wyvern, musing over dinner options. Poisonbite was kicking a dead Wyvern glumly, upset for some reason.

And Redscar? Redscar, his swords covered in blood, leaned on Thunderfur, whispering into his friend’s ear. He looked up and met Rags’ eyes. He nodded to her.

“Good job, Chieftain.”

All the Goblins looked at Rags. She shrugged. Her heart was racing. She had been afraid. If the Wyverns had gone through the fourth wall, it would have been bad. But it had worked. They had never attacked in such numbers. Ever.

But Goblinhome stood. It was not the first attack it had suffered. It would not be the last. But it had weathered another. Rags looked around, looked at wounded Goblins, how many of her traps had failed to stop the Wyverns, and shook her head.

“It wasn’t much. Weak.”

She never saw the Goblins staring at her back. The slightly-taller Goblin leaned on the ballista, berating herself. She met Redscar’s gaze.

“I will do better next time.”

He shrugged.

 

—-

 

Afterwards, Rags ran down a list of casualties. A report on Goblinhome.

Three out of the four walls were gone. The traps broken. Not many Goblins had died, thankfully—only those hit by the frost breath and a few fighting Wyverns up close. But one was too many.

And Goblinhome had used up a lot of the precious resources it had acquired to fight off the Wyverns. Wood, especially. It was hard to drag all the way up here and the mountainrange was not a naturally wood-bearing environment. But what concerned Rags most was her secret weapon.

The super-crossbow. Or rather, ballista. It had torn free of its mounting with the force of the shot.

“Too slow. Too hard to aim. Roarwings are better. Will put in the third layer, with nets. Make more. Have six.”

Rags sighed over the device. The Hobs nodded, as they eyed the cracked stone foundation. It would have to be removed and strengthened. If Rags had been forced to fire it a second time, the backlash might have broken it—or killed anyone standing behind it.

She gestured to the smaller version of the weapon that had been deployed against the Wyverns. A pair of Hobs nodded as they inspected the Wyvern it had killed; the bolt hadn’t pierced so much as broken the monster’s head.

This crossbow was a third of the size of the ballista, and in theory, moveable. The backlash from each shot could still break ribs, but the two [Greatbow Archers], both Hobs, could set it up within a minute or two on a stand that would absorb most of the impact. Then they could fire it. And it worked.

She had dubbed it her Roarwing-design of the crossbow, because it was both built of Wyvern parts and because even they had learned to respect the sound it made. Rags had only been able to make one prototype so far.

But now…Rags stared at the Wyverns. The Goblins of Goblinhome had downed just over a dozen directly; the rest were injured, some dying, others just incapacitated in some manner. She sighed. Her head ached.

“Stupid Wyverns. Go away, come back. Fight with hot thing. Make up minds!”

“Dragon.”

One of the [Shamans] interrupted. Rags stared at the [Shaman] and shrugged.

“Dragon. Whatever.”

The other Goblins paused. They had all seen the fight with the Wyverns and the angry hot thing that had precipitated all of this. It was big, scaly…they thought about it.

The Goblins conferred and shrugged. Yeah, that was a Dragon. Probably. They’d never seen one, but it probably fit the description.

It was one of the more unpleasant surprises they’d found in the High Passes, but what could you do? Here was a Dragon, there was a Glacier Golem—over there were rocks you’d melt into and die, which turned out to be a vast colony of Rock Slimes—it was life.

None of the Goblins, Rags included, wondered why there was a Dragon here. They weren’t even sure it was one—maybe it was just another Wyvern, but…bigger. They didn’t have books or legends. They had no respect for the dignity and weight of the concept of a Dragon.

They were more concerned about how they’d store all this Wyvern meat. The stores were large, but Rags immediately ordered some rooms cleared to make room for all the food. And how would they preserve it? Hopefully, the magical meat wouldn’t rot as fast. She sighed, her head hurting.

“Need more wood! Fix ambush bunkers first. Then get wood. Put broken things outside. Outside! Too cold!”

She shouted at the other Goblins scurrying around. The attack had indeed been costly—more for the Wyverns in terms of lives. For Goblins, resources. Rags was still unhappy about how close it had been. And how it had really been down to persuading the Wyvern Lord to back off.

You could prepare for things, with traps, walls, and devices. And that would help. A lot. But there were limits to how much you could prepare. And there were simply things in this world that no amount of wood or stone or even metal would guard against.

Like the Dragon. If it wanted to attack Goblinhome, well, the Goblins would have to find a new home. There was no fighting it, or some of the other monsters Rags had seen. Like the giant mountain of ice that she’d been told was a Glacier Golem. Goblinhome couldn’t defeat those foes.

Even the Wyvern Lord, frankly. If he wanted to, he probably could destroy the Goblin’s fortress, or at least, blast away all that wasn’t rock and patrol the place until they had to flee or starved. But the Goblins could make that a difficult task for him. Very difficult, which was why he’d gone and was frankly unlikely to come back and attack again.

And…well, it wasn’t all bad. Rags was striding around, shoving little Goblin children who thought it was a good idea to walk barefoot onto the frozen ground and tear their toes off when she heard some outraged and muffled shrieking. She saw Redscar walking over to her.

“Chieftain.”

“Good fighting, Redscar. Too dangerous.”

Rags stopped and looked at Redscar. He was a tiny bit taller than her these days, having become a full Hob, but he was the shortest Hob of them all. Redscar, who had been a normal Goblin like her before the battle at Liscor, had only grown a little bit after his transformation. But all of his muscle and strength had shot up with him.

Now, the leader of the Redfangs stood next to Thunderfur. The Carn Wolf was panting, regarding Rags with two intelligent eyes. Redscar was sweating too, but he looked at Rags calmly.

A lot of history lay between the two. Rags nodded and they walked together. Here, in this moment, Redscar was Rags’ second. He could have been chieftain, if he’d wanted it. But he didn’t. He was to Rags what he had been for Garen. But right now, the [War Leader] and [Beast Master] was simply the strongest Goblin in the entire valley.

No more, no less. He took Rags past the third wall and she saw a peculiar sight.

Fourteen Wyverns were immobilized on the ground in varying states of unhappy duress. They were trussed with ropes, mainly around their legs and mouths so they couldn’t do more than breathe. They were wriggling—but the Goblins had well and truly captured them.

“What is this?”

“…Wyverns?”

Redscar avoided Rags’ punch. He shrugged.

“Didn’t get away. So…Redfangs are trying to tame.”

Tame? Wyverns?”

Rags’ eyebrows shot up. Redscar nodded.

“Can tame Wyverns. I think. Drakes do it. Trying now.”

He pointed. And the Chieftain saw that a group of Goblins, many accompanied by Carn Wolves, were indeed marching up to the Wyverns. They were offering each slabs of meat—Eater Goat meat, not Wyvern meat—and gesturing softly and calmly.

The hissing Wyverns reacted furiously to the Goblins…at first. But something about the demeanor of the Goblins calmed the beasts. The Goblins were offering food, feeding the Wyverns carefully, so as not to let them breathe frost. And Rags saw they were trying to communicate. Their body language indicated friendship, if wary.

Here, food.

They were all [Beast Tamers], the very same ones who went out and found Carn Wolves to make the Redfangs mounts. They were trying to use their Skills—[Establish Bond]. But even high-level [Beast Masters] struggled to be one hundred percent perfect, and Wyverns were strong.

Two of them reluctantly took some meat, then snapped at the Goblins. Redscar nodded at Rags—the rest just tried to bite or breathe frost. The [Beast Tamers] waved at Rags as the two Wyverns who’d taken the meat were carefully fed more meat. Their wounds were being inspected.

“They tame?”

“Hah! Wait, serious?”

Redscar looked at Rags incredulously. He shook his head. The two Wyverns whom the Skill had worked on weren’t tame.

“But can be. Very tricky. Very. Give food, give some freedom…try to teach. Never tame. Carn Wolves don’t tame, just…learn. Treat good. Maybe if small.”

He gestured. Rags saw that there was a mini-Wyvern in captivity. The young one had been brought down by an arrow through the wing and it was screaming; it had a broken foot. Redscar looked sympathetic, for all the Wyvern was trying to bite the [Beast Tamer] tending to it.

“Could make them mounts. Like Carn Wolves.”

“Goblins riding Wyverns?”

“Maybe? Even other Wyverns. Harder if no bond, but can try.”

Indeed, the [Beast Tamers] were giving Rags pleading looks. They clearly wanted to try to tame…and ride…Wyverns. Rags stared at them. She eyed the Wyverns, some of whom were large enough to eat her in a single bite. She looked at Redscar. He nudged her a few times.

“Hm? Hm? Would be good fighters. Maybe make babies. Good idea? Yes? Yes?”

He grinned, in the way all animal lovers did. Which was why Goblinhome had a kennel with Carn Wolves, some of whom had indeed given birth to pups. Rags grew sick of the nudging and punched again.

“Fine! Six.

Six?

The [Beast Tamers] looked horrified. But—there were fourteen! They protested, trying to hug the bewildered Wyverns. Rags glowered.

“Six. Too big! Too fat! Too much to eat! Six only. Small ones don’t count. Others—”

She drew a line across her throat. The [Beast Tamers] looked horrified.

“They tried to eat us!”

Rags shouted. She pointed at one of the Wyverns. It was going cross eyed as Snapjaw wandered over. She’d killed a Wyvern by biting through its hide. The Wyvern tried to wriggle back as Snapjaw patted it and licked her lips—Badarrow was trying to wipe her mouth.

“Chieftain.”

“No argument! Kill! Or let go! Have enough dead Wyverns! You want to keep? Get enough meat for fourteen, big, fat, stinky, ugly lizards!”

Rags was berating the [Goblin Tamers]. The Goblins all looked at each other, askance.

Ugly too far. Chieftain wrong. Not ugly.

Not stinky either. Wet Carn Wolf worse.

Eight? Eight is good number.

Ten is better.

Fourteen is…good number?

Rags raised a fist. She saw the other Goblins back up. And a hand landed on her shoulder. Rags turned.

“Chieftain.”

“Redscar, no arguments. Can’t feed—”

“Ride with me.”

The [War Leader] looked at Rags. She hesitated. Amid the blood, the chaos, and all of it, Redscar looked at her. He whistled for Thunderfur and the Carn Wolf stopped flirting with another Carn Wolf. Redscar looked at Rags.

“Let’s go riding.”

 

—-

 

Down, from the valley in the High Passes. The Goblins had gone higher, further than any other species. They had found this valley by chance; if they hadn’t, Rags would have led them to a lower elevation rather than risk settling anywhere less defensible.

It was a harsh struggle up here. If the Wyvern weyr had been at full-strength, or if another monster had come…if, if, if. And this wasn’t even that unusual an occurrence, even if the scope of it was unique.

And somehow, it was still not as bad as…before. Rags sat on Thunderfur’s back, with Redscar. The Carn Wolf was easily large enough to carry the both of them.

For an escort, eight Redfang [Wolf Riders] came with them. Leapwolf, the second-best Redfang, rode his Carn Wolf just behind the two. Redscar had entrusted security to him—and he’d jokingly said he’d feed Leapwolf’s ears to his wolf, Jumpy, if they were ambushed.

It might not be a joke among Redfangs, come to that. But Redscar trusted Leapwolf and the two were friends in a way Rags envied.

Mainly because Redscar was her…closest friend. Snapjaw obeyed, but Rags didn’t know her as well. The same with Badarrow. They were former Redfangs, and Rabbiteater too, but they had been changed by their time apart. The same with Poisonbite; she was one of Rags’ trusted officers, but she wasn’t as close. Whereas Rags and Redscar had been together from the start.

Well, almost. Almost. But there had been one Goblin before that. Her friend. The one who had shown her…so much.

Pyrite. And he was dead. In his absence, Rags felt alone. Alone, and weary. She sat on Thunderfur’s back as the other Redfangs whooped and bragged about defeating Wyverns.

But Rags had fended off the attack without the same exhilaration over victory. Just as much worry, but none of the triumph. She was weary. And jealous of Redscar as Leapwolf joked with him.

They began to descend, moving down out of the valley, letting the Carn Wolves pick a route down the cliffs and inclines. They were as sure-footed as Eater Goats. As the other Redfangs moved ahead to keep an eye out, Rags murmured to Redscar.

“Do you like?”

She covertly gestured ahead at Leapwolf. Redscar paused. He half-turned. He didn’t smile or jest as much with Rags. Or rather, if he did, it was with a reserve. She wasn’t one of the Redfangs, who were both male and female, but mostly male. She was the Chieftain.

After a second, Redscar shrugged.

“Bit.”

Like all Goblin shrugs, the gesture had nuance. A bit of wariness, regret, and yes, a nod that Redscar was interested on multiple levels in Leapwolf’s body. Rags eyed Leapwolf’s back. It was a good back. But then Redscar muttered.

“Doesn’t like me.

“Oh.”

Rags fell silent. Redscar paused.

“Would like you. Leapwolf admires Chieftain. Likes female Goblins, not male.”

“Oh. Oh.

The Chieftain felt bad for asking. Another shrug from Redscar, that of stoicism. It happened. But also—he glanced at Rags and his body language asked her the question, unspoken. Rags had to think about that.

“What is like?

She meant…liking someone. Like Badarrow and Snapjaw did, or other couples. Either like, as well. Liking someone for their body…well, Rags could admire that. But the other like, the deep one that tugged at you? She didn’t think she understood either one, frankly.

“Will know. One is here. The other is…”

Redscar pointed to his groin, then he tapped his chest. Rags paused. By his metrics, she didn’t like. His body language conveyed a…wanting she’d never had. Except maybe just to be strong.

“Good fight today. You risked life too much.”

Rags abruptly changed the conversation. Redscar shrugged.

“Leader of the Redfangs cannot be weak. Garen Redfang would fight.”

“You are not Garen.”

The words were bitter. Sad. Redscar paused. They still hurt, now, and Rags was afraid she’d wounded him. But he just nodded.

“Am not. But if I am not half of him, not trying, what are Redfangs supposed to be?”

She couldn’t answer that. After a moment, Redscar went on.

“Would have beaten Wyverns without me.”

“Mm. We need more crossbows. Big ones. Only ones that work on Wyverns and huge monsters.”

The [War Leader] made a scornful sound with his mouth. Thunderfur pooed as he walked, which might have been a gesture as well. Or he was just backed up.

“Not point, Chieftain. Goblinhome is strong. Strong enough. Maybe is time to send someone? To…inn?”

He looked sideways. And Rags froze. Her fingers tightened in Thunderfur’s fur until the Carn Wolf growled and Redscar gently prised her fingers loose.

“Sorry.”

Rags shook off the smell of death. The sight of the Humans charging. She looked at Redscar and saw a kindly face. But one that looked to her. Rags hesitated.

“Should. Should send. But…”

She had promised, vowed to send someone to Erin after Goblinhome was done. She had hoped it would be Rabbiteater; if he had come back she would have sent the expedition at once. But he had made his choice to continue going north, to find more Goblin tribes and save them from the Humans. Still, Rags should have sent someone.

But…she saw Redscar nod ahead of them. They were heading to the canyon floor, moving out of the pass into Human lands. She wasn’t worried; they’d done this before. Hence, the invitation to ride. Redscar spoke thoughtfully, planning it out.

“Badarrow takes Carn Wolf. With Snapjaw. Takes three days to get down, get to Liscor careful and secret. Maybe five most. Search for…others. Go to inn. Why not?”

“Dangerous. Humans.”

Rags whispered the words. Redscar looked at her.

“Take thirty Redfangs.”

“No.”

“Thirty Redfangs and ten Hobs and seventy Goblins?”

“No.”

“Thirty Redfangs, ten Hobs—”

No. Never enough, Redscar. Two is enough. But if they meet Erin, if she…”

She was alive. She had to be. Rags tightened her grip on the Carn Wolf’s back again until Thunderfur protested. She tried to explain to Redscar.

“She will try to protect. But she cannot. No one can.”

She had seen that on the Floodplains that day. Rags knew someone should look, on the off chance Goblins had survived. She wanted to go herself. She wanted to see Erin so badly. She was just afraid—it would happen again.

The circle. The cycle of Goblins attacking and being attacked. Only—it wouldn’t end. Not without Goblins having a way to defend themselves. That was the thing Rags had realized. Even if they didn’t attack, they would be killed. They had to break the cycle by being strong.

That was what Velan had known. He had tried for peace and they had slaughtered his tribe the first time. But only after he had been strong had he managed it. And then he had become a Goblin King and gone…mad.

All her memories of the Velan as the Goblin King were of all-consuming rage. So much that Rags could barely see what Velan was doing. She’d woken, screaming of blood and fury too many times from those dreams. Wanting to kill all Humans. The Playthings.

Even Erin.

That was what Rags feared. That she would bring about a second slaughter, by revealing that Goblins lived to Erin, or whomever would find out. Or that…something would happen to the one Human who had been good to her.

Redscar might not have read all of that on Rags’ hunched posture, but he knew enough. He nodded, turned forwards, and dropped the conversation for a moment.

“…Twelve Wyverns?”

Rags struck him from behind. Redscar grinned. Rags sighed.

Really want to train Wyverns? Good idea, maybe. Wyverns can fly. And drop Goblins.”

“So? Wyverns could be good friends. Eater Goats too hungry, Gargoyles too stupid. But Wyverns smart. Nearly as good as Carn Wolves.”

Thunderfur wuffed a low agreement. Rags paused.

“…Can try. But big. Fat.”

“Hunt for them. Not that hard. Anyways, Wyverns hunt too when fed. And maybe help carry things. Very strong. Also, good defenders…”

Rags gave up.

“Fourteen. Shut up, shut up. If fourteen live. Three look dead.”

“Mm.”

The two rode forwards in silence. After a moment, Rags saw a regular thrush-bird scavenging in the evening light. She stared at it as Thunderfur panted. The bird tensed—so did Redscar.

“No, Thunderfur. Chieftain falls off.”

The Carn Wolf whined as the bird flew off. Rags snorted.

“Couldn’t get bird. Too far.”

“If Thunderfur pounces, could. But only a mouthful. Not worth the effort.”

Redscar informed Rags archly. The Chieftain rolled her eyes. [Beast Tamers] and their animals. Well, Redscar was a [Beast Master] now. Thunderfur had grown another size and he was certainly the alpha wolf—half of the new litters were his.

Soon they’d have little Carn Wolves pooping everywhere and begging for treats. Stupid, intelligent—Rags found herself offering a bit of meat forwards. Redscar fed it to Thunderfur.

“Plan, Chieftain? What next after rebuild?”

“If stupid Wyverns don’t come back? Or giant flesh-abomination? Or the thing with your face?”

“Or Rock Golems?”

Both Goblins sighed. Redscar nodded. Rags shrugged.

“Don’t know. Build fortress better for now. Stronger than Tremborag’s Mountain.”

“Good plan. But what else?”

“…Don’t know. Redscar, did you ever like female Goblins? Ever wonder?”

The Hobgoblin had to think about this. He was a mentor to Rags, in a way, taking up where Pyrite had left off. Well, he always had been, but now that Rags was older, he sometimes had conversations with her, assuaging her curiosity.

“Yes. Tried a few times.”

“And?”

“Eh. Can tell difference. Thunderfur likes females. Not me.”

The [War Leader] patted Thunderfur on the head. Rags nodded. When you knew, you knew, she supposed. Redscar winked at her.

“Chieftain would be first pick if did.”

“Hah. First pick would be Ulvama. With her…and her…”

Rags gestured. Redscar sobered.

“Mm.”

They both fell silent again. After a while, Rags looked at Redscar.

“I wonder if I can tell.”

“What does Chieftain wonder? Likes female or male Hobs? Go try. Many try with Chieftain.”

“No. I wonder…what I’m supposed to do. Everything looks like darkness.”

Redscar paused. He didn’t respond to that. Rags looked ahead, as they finally reached ground level. Leapwolf whistled softly as he waited for them. He pointed ahead.

“Careful. Gargoyles moving nests. Stupid rock-heads.”

The Goblins nodded. They kept an eye out and Redscar and Rags kept their voices even quieter.

“I don’t think Garen ever knew what to do. Always new plan, always…”

Redscar waved his arms in an offhand manner, indicating that Garen, for all his strengths as a warrior, had been a rather lousy Chieftain. Rags nodded.

“Chieftain is smart. If she cannot figure out what to do, no one can.”

“Everyone says that. Maybe everyone just stupid.”

Rags muttered. Redscar smacked her lightly on the shoulder. He pointed ahead as she blushed, embarrassed.

“Moody Chieftain not good for Goblinhome. Going to Eater Goat village. Humans. Chieftain can talk with Humans.”

Rags nodded. She knew that was their destination.

The Eater Goat Village. It had a proper name, but none of the Goblins bothered to remember it. It was the closest village to the High Passes, with naturally high walls—the villagers had built much like Rags had, trusting to geography and construction to keep them safe. The only difference was that theirs was a small village compared to Rags’ Goblinhome project, with less traps.

Oh—and they were [Shepherds]. Of Eater Goats. In the entire world, only this village raised the manically insane Eater Goats. The ever-hungry monsters had been tamed and…no, never domesticated, but tamed to some extent by the villagers.

Even the Redfangs respected that. Rags and Redscar had visited from time to time, to trade for resources, and…just to listen. To learn.

It helped smother the rage that sometimes burned in their chests. The desire to go out and murder every Human in retaliation. The people in the village weren’t good or evil. They were kind and cruel, generous and stingy.

They were rather like Goblins, actually. But they treated Redscar and Rags like normal…so long as they wore the disguises.

Speaking of which, Rags realized she’d left her bag of holding in Goblinhome. She cursed. Here she was without her sword, buckler, or crossbow! At least she could still use her magic, but this was stupid.

“Forgot disguise. Have to go back?”

Redscar snorted, patting his belt pouch.

“Have disguises here. All fine, Chieftain.”

“Oh. Good.”

The two lapsed into silence. Rags saw a shifting figure high above, and the riders paused warily. But the Gargoyle wasn’t hungry or didn’t spot them; the Carn Wolves blended with the reddish-brown dirt of the pass.

When it was gone, Redscar looked at Rags. And he came out with the real question he’d clearly been chewing on this entire time.

“Chieftain. Why not go to inn? Goblinhome protected.”

Rags hesitated. She’d been wondering that herself. But she had an answer, or so she thought.

“It’s…too nice there.”

Both brows on Redscar’s face rose up. Rags clarified.

“When I go, I want to stay forever. Forget. No—not forget. But stay and protect. Protect her. But I can’t. Not just Erin. All Goblins die.”

“Ah.”

She was a Chieftain and this was her tribe. Rags would have to go back. But going back meant Erin was involved. And she could neither protect, nor shelter. Rags shook her head.

“Her inn is too small for all of us.”

“True. But…big enough for a few.”

Also true. Rags’ head bowed.

“I will not go. But send Badarrow and Snapjaw.”

The other Hobgoblin nodded. He patted Rags on the shoulder.

“Good Chieftain, good Chieftain.”

“I will bite you.”

The two were laughing. Riding forwards, as the Redfangs smiled and looked at their Chieftain. Small, but growing. Depressed, but striving. Humbled, but wiser.

They passed by a smooth section of stone none of them remembered. But it smelled normal, and the Goblins didn’t even seem to register the unusual bend in the road. They rode on, and Rags and Redscar rode past the spot. And the Dragon, sitting in the mouth of his cave. He looked at her, at the key she wore, and murmured.

Abruptly, Rags noticed a waft of hot air. She waved her hand in front of her face, wondering what that was. Then—she noticed they were riding past a very large, open cave. A spire of rocks with a yellow scarf marked the entrance. And sitting in the cave was—

A Dragon.

The Dragon. His scales ran like burnished gold in the evening’s light. And his eyes shone, one orb swirling heliotrope and cerulean. He was massive, three times larger than the Wyvern Lord, making minnows of the Carn Wolves, even Thunderfur.

For a second, the Redfangs on patrol looked right blankly, staring at the cave and Dragon which had suddenly become visible to them. Or rather, it had been there all along, but they had been forbidden from noticing. Then they froze.

The Dragon stared at Rags. Right at her. She froze. This wasn’t happening. Was it an invisible Dragon? How had it appeared? How hadn’t they noticed?

Dragon! Protect the Chieftain! Run, Thunderfur!

Redscar shed his paralysis in a moment. He leapt off Thunderfur and drew both swords. His companion whined, frozen, shaking, but Redscar pointed. He charged, both blades raised, towards the Dragon. Thunderfur howled as he leapt away, climbing the steep ravine. Redscar howled and Leapwolf charged after him—

“Interesting. A Phantomsword with a weak burning enchantment. Pause.”

The Dragon spoke. Redfang froze, mid-step. So did Leapwolf. Their eyes bulged and they skidded to a stop, their muscles locked. Rags felt Thunderfur halt, mid-leap. She clutched at him as he tilted. They would have fallen to earth, but something caught them and gently lowered them to the ground.

Rags looked about. The other seven Redfangs were frozen in place, some holding weapons, others pointing. They weren’t able to move, but Rags sensed—she knew they were alive.

But they were frozen. And the Dragon hadn’t moved. He hadn’t even lifted a claw. He just regarded her. And then, he snorted. He drew himself up to his full height.

The Goblin Chieftain stared up at him. And she was struck by his appearance. He was beautiful. So flawless, it hurt to look at him. A creature of another kind, armored in scales, who breathed magic. He was what the Wyvern Lord was only a false copy of.

A Dragon. And without knowing his legends, Rags understood. The Dragon looked at her and she prepared to die. It was almost fitting.

But he did not open his maw and blast her to ash. Instead, the Dragon just sighed. He looked down at Rags.

“Your companions will be safe. I will return them to their…abode. So.”

He gestured. And Rags saw a shimmering circle transcribed with runes appear under each of the Goblins and Carn Wolves. They vanished. And the Dragon looked at Rags.

“No doubt you sought me, as the one before you has. A tedious thing. Nevertheless, I shall respect your quest and entertain your presence a moment.”

He turned. Rags saw him walk back into the massive cave. She stared at his back. She’d sought…?

Come in already, child. I have been expecting you.

The voice echoed. And Rags found herself walking into the cave. Dark, rough stone turned into smooth, stone tiles. The room became brighter.

And Rags found herself standing in a Dragon’s hoard. The Dragon himself curled up in the vast cavern of space. Suits of armor, swords in racks, bookshelves and every manner of magical object were neatly divided into categories and then thrown together in huge piles.

Rags saw a pile of gemstones, each shining with brilliant inner light placed next to…a block of gold. Just pure gold, three times her height and equally as wide. It was hovering off the ground so as not to crack the floor with its sheer weight.

A Dragon’s treasure. And in the middle of it was the Dragon. He stared down at her as she walked forwards. Rags gaped around. She stared up at the Dragon.

Rags was awed, stunned. She felt like this was a dream, more than Velan’s memories. It had happened so suddenly. Out of nowhere, a Dragon had appeared. And it had demanded the story revolve around it, as they did. And as he settled in place, the mighty Dragon spoke.

“So. You are young. No doubt, awed. You have come, following the steps of your King. But what you seek is not here. Were I a lesser creature, I would send you away with nothing more.”

The Dragon spoke. Rags started. His voice was so…normal. Deep, echoing, but precise, enunciated. Intelligent. He looked down at her as if she was a speck. And she was. The Dragon went on, raising one claw that was larger than she was and placing it delicately on the floor of his abode.

“But I granted your King an audience, and out of respect for that meeting, I have allowed you into my sanctum. Come and see a sight few have ever been privy to. Look upon me, inheritor of the Goblin King’s will. I am Teriarch, Lord of Flame. One of the last of my kind.”

Rags of the Flooded Waters tribe looked at Teriarch, the Dragon. She beheld him in his glory. His cavern, which was heaped with a ransom that no hundred [Kings] in this world could afford. A Dragon, a creature many thought dead from this world.

And she had no idea what was going on. Rags stared at the piles of treasure and then at the Dragon. The longer she looked, it seemed more like someone had been halfway through sorting his things; some of the heaps of treasure had yet to be subdivided. It still looked impressive. Just…midway.

What had he said? She’d followed the steps of Velan? He’d been here? Rags looked behind her to make sure Teriarch wasn’t talking to someone else and she’d come in by accident. But there was only her. She stared up at Teriarch. She didn’t know what was supposed to happen.

But he, apparently, did. The Dragon sighed, and wind blew throughout the cave.

“I am rather impressed by your resolve. No doubt you discovered my former abode was empty, yet you took your tribe into the mountains themselves to search for me. But I say to you again: what you seek is not here. You do not remember all of what your King did. The other key does not lie in my possession. Nor have I any interest in aiding your search.”

That last finally registered with Rags. She jerked, stared down at the key.

The little, ordinary key that hung from her necklace. It looked made of brass or some other unassuming metal. Rags lifted it. She noticed the Dragon’s eyes staring at it, and then at her. She pointed to it.

“Key? This?”

The Dragon’s eyes glittered. He nodded, regally, regarding Rags with a solemn air. As the sage to the questing hero. Rags resisted the urge to scratch the back of her head.

“I do not have the other key. If your memories took you hence, look deeper to find the second key. Not even I know where it lies, but from this place Velan first ascended to hide his legacy. Seek first the key, then his treasure. For without the second key, your search will be in vain.”

The Goblin stared up at Teriarch. The Dragon’s words echoed, and his eyes flashed as he pronounced his warning. Inside Rags’ head, something went click.

Oh. She immediately schooled her face and nodded.

“No key here.”

She said that to be clear. Teriarch paused. He eyed Rags, seeming to pick up on her disjointed replies only now.

“That is what I said. The key does not lie here. I do not possess or retain any—I have not acquired—I do not have it. Is that clear?”

“…Yes?”

Teriarch, the brass Dragon, stared at Rags. He seemed rather let down by her reply. Rags scratched at her butt. She didn’t know what she was supposed to say. After a second, Teriarch went on.

“I did speak to your King, but the nature of our conversation is but memory. Seek it if you will. But count on me for neither aid nor hindrance. Nor will you reveal my presence. I am neither ally to Goblins, nor enemy. Your kind has taken a terrible burden upon these passing ages. The world has never been kind towards Goblins. Dragons have earned our enmity, but Goblins…no, perhaps they too must lay blame at the feet of the Goblin Kings.”

The Dragon shook his head, and his mane flickered like someone had turned pure metal into hair.

“But still, your people strive. Out of respect for that, for the fallen Goblin King and his will, I have given you my words. Search elsewhere. Is that…clear?”

“Yes.”

Rags said it again. Teriarch eyed her. He seemed to be waiting for her to give him anything other than a monosyllabic response.

The little Goblin searched her head. So, Velan had been here. Or if not here, he had spoken to this Dragon. She didn’t know that. She’d search for that memory. But he had been here.

And the key…she looked down at the little, ordinary key. Then up at the Dragon. He met her gaze. If he told her it was important, it probably was. It led to Velan the Kind’s treasure.

The same one Greydath had told her existed. Rags thought about it. Hidden. Above? In the High Passes? It made sense. Garen had said as much. But…

Rags sat down. The little Goblin sat on the Dragon’s grand floor, and he looked affronted. But Rags just spread her claws and looked up at the Dragon.

“What’s the point?”

Teriarch paused. He looked at Rags.

“I beg your pardon?”

The treasure this. The treasure that. Velan the Kind, his legacy. A grand…quest. Rags was so weary of it. Goblin Lords. She looked up at Teriarch and shook her head.

“What’s the point of searching for treasure? Goblins fight. Goblins die. Humans, Drakes, makes no difference. Goblins still die. Why die for treasure? What is the point of trying anything? We always die. Always. You tell me, big, shining Dragon.”

She sat there. Miserable. Remembering a night when everything died. Why build a home, climb for a treasure, plant a seed when it would always turn to ash? She lowered her head. Her eyes stinging with her regrets and failures.

And the Dragon hesitated. He looked down at the little Goblin, sitting before him. Teriarch looked down at her, the little Goblin who’d grown an inch. And the ancient Dragon with a mane like molten metal and scales which shone, sitting in his hoard of legendary treasures, paused. Because he saw something he recognized.

He closed his eyes. And then opened them wide. The Dragon rose. He turned, and looked for something. Rags ignored him. She stared about the hoard. Could she grab something and run?

Probably not. The Dragon flicked a claw. And Rags saw something move towards them. It looked…like a glass orb. But not a scrying orb. Something was inside it. The Dragon placed it on the floor between them. Then he flicked his claw.

“A difficult visitor. But better than the last one. The last three. Come with me, Goblin child. I shall show you something not seen by any eye in thousands of years.”

He turned. And there was light. Rags turned her head left, the same way as the Dragon. And she saw him step—

Into a vast chamber. With a ceiling a hundred times higher than the cavern. As high as the sky. A vast, open balcony looked across a shining landscape made of the glowing evening sky. And in front of it, on a dais, was a resting spot. A…place to rest. Brilliant metal, brighter and more magical than gold made up a soft seat, and a high backing stone.

Another spot was filled with frozen ice, or some gem like ice, that radiated frost in the air. Rags stared as the Dragon walked into this room. And even the ground was different. He looked back at her.

“Come.”

She stared at the ground. She stood in the Dragon, Teriarch’s cavern. But ahead of her, the floor blurred and turned into the light red material, mixed with soft white stone and laced with gold. Slowly, Rags walked into the room.

And she saw it expand. She stood in a room a thousand times vaster than Teriarch’s cavern. And the diamond she stood on was made of the white stone. Endless, massive flagstones set the room, and vast pillars held up the ceiling.

The entire room was a dome. A massive dome, so high up Rags could see nothing but the evening sky no matter where she looked. And she realized—the spot made of gold, the frozen space—they were set at equal spaces around the domed room. So that…whoever sat there might look down on her.

Now, Teriarch walked towards one that looked as if it might burst into flames at any moment. And indeed, as he arched his back and sat, flames ran from where he touched the glowing, brilliant stone. He looked down at Rags and uttered one word.

Behold.

And she did. Rags’ knees trembled, as they had not in front of the Dragon. But this—this was real and unreal. And she began to believe she was not dreaming.

Even a Goblin could see a legend.

Teriarch’s words had provoked a response in the room. Behind him, the backrest of fiery stone burned. And a bright, blue light traced itself in curved, beautiful sigils.

Words. But not ones Rags knew. A language she had never known, but which called to her. Rags saw the words writing themselves, first on the stone behind Teriarch. Then on the second, the frozen spot. Then another, which sent sparks of lightning cascading to the floor.

A message. But she did not know it. She had never seen these words. But why—then why—

Rags knelt. Why was she weeping? Tears flowed from her crimson eyes. And she wept, though she didn’t know why. The Dragon looked down at her. And he spoke, reciting the message spelling itself out across the room.

 

“They come, the children seeking the heart of flame

Those who inherited the earth and remember the dead names

We alone remain.

 

The old ways are broken and our friends long since passed

And we remember they kept oath and held to the last

Our dearest friends, gone in glory.

 

So come, young, who know not what was given away

Plead the mortal plight of your lives this day

And look upon the last gathering of Dragon and Wyrm.”

 

His voice rolled softly through the chamber. And in time, Rags looked up. Her tears had stopped. And she could stand. She slowly walked forwards, across such a vast distance that her legs hurt before she was finished.

Teriarch was murmuring softly to himself, but the acoustics were such that his voice filled Rags’ ears. Soft, pleasant. And old.

“A poor translation. We really should have added an auditory component. The effect grows lesser after being forced to recite it a hundred thousand times.”

Yet he seemed…pleased. And sad. Sadder than Rags was, because he knew what this room was. She didn’t. Not yet.

But the little Goblin stopped in front of Teriarch. And when he looked at her, he harrumphed gently. Like some old, grumpy Goblin who Rags had never met. Even Greydath had been young in his way. And he spoke conversationally.

“I personally objected to including Wyrms in the verse. The majority of their kind are not fit for such august company, as history has proven. We might as well allow Wyverns in here. But in the days when this place was built, there were individuals who walked among Dragons as equals. That alone is worth remembering.”

For some reason, those words alone drove Rags to the ground. Because that convinced her this was real. This place, which could have held Goblinhome many times over. This…

“What? What?”

Rags tried to stand up, but she just fell down. Teriarch smiled as she crawled into a sitting posture.

“Better. Look at me, little Chieftain of Goblins. Look around. What do you see?”

Rags looked. She stared around the domed room, past Teriarch. All she saw was sky. No mountain, nothing else. Not even any clouds. Just the evening sun. And perhaps—that was because there was nothing beyond this domed room. Nothing. Just light. And she looked at Teriarch.

And the stone…behind him, the flaming material gracefully sculpted, holding the sacred words. And his resting spot burned with fire for the Lord of Flame.

But there was nothing else. No armrests. Why would you need one? Something moved in Rags’ head. And she looked around. The other spots. Each made…one of frost, another with lightning, another of that brilliant Truegold…

“A…grand place. No. A throne?”

Her voice wobbled. And the Dragon smiled again. His eyes lit up. He arched his back and his wings opened. They spread, indicating the dome.

Yes. This is a Dragonthrone. One of the last this world knows. And you stand, supplicant, Goblin child, before the last true owner of the Dragonthrone. Well, perhaps one of three. But mine the grandest of them all.”

His neck lowered, looking down on Rags from above. After a moment, when the Goblin didn’t respond, Teriarch lowered his head and rested it on his claws. He seemed to be waiting. Perhaps for applause.

Rags didn’t applaud. She just looked around. And it made sense. It was like a throne room, like the one Tremborag had sat in.

But—it was such a terrible comparison she felt the Dragon would have squished her if she’d suggested it. Tremborag had squatted in his throne in Dwarfhalls rest, an ancient place made of stone and corrupted glory. But this throne was beautiful, unchanged. And somehow, Rags still knew how ancient it was.

“How? This was in the glass thing. How is it…?”

The Goblin waved her arms. Teriarch shrugged.

“A contained world, yes. It is a place within a place. That is what a Dragonthrone is. Portable.”

“Portable?”

Rags echoed the word. Teriarch smirked at her, greatly pleased. He gestured around the room.

“Of course. Why should a throne sit in one place? Why should we subject ourselves to anything less? In days of yore, days so far gone that perhaps only Goblins and Dragons remember, my people built these thrones. And the greatest of us entertained the petitions of other species. Behold, once more. What do you see?”

Rags looked. The Dragon’s tone was arrogant, but it had every right to be. If this had been made—and you could take it in an orb half Rags’ size, it was magic of legends. She stared at each Dragonthrone. And counted.

“Sixteen.”

“Yes.”

The Dragon’s eyes flashed, with amusement—and sorrow. Not all the thrones were tied to one element, Rags saw. One was made of silver. Shadowed silver, that seemed to reflect something as she looked at it. Another was wreathed in shadows. Another surrounded by the blowing winds, yet one more overgrown, verdant.

For different types of Dragons? Teriarch nodded, and his throne of flame warmed his scales as he spoke. His tone was lecturing, conversational, nostalgic, bitter, and sorrowful at the same time. Yearning and triumphant. Not one thing, for a Dragon’s voice.

“Such was the last meeting in this throne. Never afterwards. And the Dragonthrones, like Dragons, slowly vanished from the earth. All were lost, destroyed rather than fall into the clutches of the undeserving. Two were seized, and one survived plunder and time. Humans still squat in it in Terandria. They built a kingdom around it and forget what it was. Pah, at least they remember the owner.”

He sighed. Rags nodded.

“Humans steal things.”

She felt like she had to contribute to the conversation. Teriarch eyed her.

“Yes. They do. Greater thieves I have not known. Well, aside from Harpies. And they are vain, and petty, but shallow in what they steal. Humans…steal more than most. And blamed their thefts on Halflings, until the small folk passed. But Humankind they stole one such throne successfully. Calanfer. They call it the Eternal Throne because it was not made for them.

He grinned. Rags smiled too. Because she got the joke. Teriarch stretched.

“Nevertheless. This Dragonthrone has not been entered since the age of the Creler Wars. And then—only as sanctuary. You set foot in it now, upon my whim. It is an honor.”

“Yes.”

No thank you, nothing else. That would have been insufficient. Teriarch seemed to sense Rags’ feelings, and he nodded, pleased. It was an honor; Rags could never have denied that.

A Dragon’s whim. He paused, looking at her. Then Teriarch raised his head.

“You weep for your people’s fate, Goblin child. But look upon the majesty of Dragons. Look at what we were. Look upon this place. And look at what is left.”

He needed to say nothing more. It was something Goblins understood. They would have understood if they stood in this place alone. All of it, completely. Rags felt her eyes fill up again. She wiped her eyes. Then she looked up at Teriarch.

“Left? How many Dragons is left?”

He shook his head.

“Are left. And…I do not know. I stopped counting long ago, both the living and the dead. My people hid many of their young. And we are the mightiest of beings. Some may remain, even if they are young, ignorant. I do not desire to meet them. But of old?”

He stared around the room. And Rags knew—he could see the empty thrones filled. Just like she could look around and see Pyrite eating a snack on quiet nights. Teriarch shook his head.

“I remember ten thousand years ago, I knew four true Dragons, four who flew during the days of Dragon nations that may have lived. Four. And I watched one fall during the Crelers Wars. And the other two…no. They were wounded so grievously—they may have hidden. But I fear…you may be speaking to the last Dragon who remembers the truth.”

Truth? Rags looked at Teriarch. He paused. And his eyes were terribly old. He looked down at Rags and whispered.

“Perhaps even now, you speak to the last of us. If so, remember this moment forever, little Goblin. That your descendants might remember it as long as Goblins endure.”

The Dragon’s words pierced Rags’ chest. She nearly stumbled with the burden of it, and caught herself. Then she grew angry. Her sorrow turned to anger. Rags was an angry Goblin. When she didn’t weep for the devastation, she raged. Just like she had at an [Innkeeper]. She pointed at Teriarch’s face and glowered.

“Sad. Is supposed to cheer me up? Don’t see the point. If Dragons died, how do Goblins live?”

The Dragon blinked as the tiny Goblin pointed up at him. He was affronted—and then he smiled for a second. He bent his huge head.

And Rags gulped. Two vast eyes stared at her. Straight through her, like he could read every inch of her. Her future, her past. They captured her. And the Dragon murmured, in a voice that made her bones shake.

“It is meant to show you what was lost, insolent little Goblin. Look. Behold what we had. Dragonkind was foolish. We fought amongst ourselves and were drowned by the small. We could not create a perfect sanctuary. Do you understand? This was our throne. But no Dragonthrone ever has but one seat.”

He indicated the other, empty thrones. Rags nodded, shaken, as his head retreated. Teriarch looked at her, his voice swelling.

“There is hope, child. Listen to me. There is hope for your people. For Goblins have not passed from the earth. They endure. And so long as they live in number, even in the darkness, there is a chance.”

He touched the scales on his chest, lightly, with one claw. Teriarch’s eyes glittered as he spoke.

We never suffered a King. But Goblins—you have ever had a King. Ever since the first Goblin King. That is your hope.”

Rags stood up. She was shaking. Now, she wanted to believe Teriarch knew. How could you break the cycle? Velan had tried. She had walked in his body. She had seen how good he was. But he had turned into a King and died.

“How? Goblin Kings come, they get mad. They die! Everyone always kills Goblins—more after Goblins Kings! They don’t bring good things. How do we live? How—”

Teriarch’s eyes flashed with every passing word. He spoke, in a thunderous voice as smoke escaped his jaws.

His legacy, you fool! Or do you not remember what Curulac of a Hundred Days left? Sóve, the Island Queen? Each one left hope! Do you not remember what they did? They died! But they knew their death the moment they became Kings! They left it for you! His treasure! Or do you scorn it? Do you not know what he gave up, for—”

The Dragon paused as the Goblin quailed in front of him. Rags’ heart was beating erratically as the force of the Dragon’s ire washed over her. Teriarch relented. He sat back. And then he looked at Rags. His eyes widened and his fury vanished in a moment. Suddenly, his voice was low, sorrowful.

“Ah. Perhaps even your memory fades. You do not know what the other Kings left, do you? You only know there is a treasure.”

“Yes.”

Rags whispered. Teriarch nodded. Then paused, shook his head.

“The Goblin Kings…are not just creatures of rage. Though it drives them to their death. To educate, the island your people claim that haunts the House of Minos? That was made by Sóve. You may not have known this, and perhaps even the Goblin Lords forget…”

He paused. The little Goblin was staring up at the Dragon. She made her mouth work.

“Of course. Island. Of goblins.”

“Yes. She left it with the fall of the Minotaur’s Age of Conquest. And it endures.”

Teriarch flicked one wing, gently. His voice was soft, recollecting the past. Rags listened, heart beating wildly.

“Perhaps they are small things. Curulac only left one thing, but the most precious to him in this world. And his daughter was slain within a decade of his death. But even she left…embers. And they endured until Velan the Kind rose. Perhaps they still glow. The other Goblin Kings have left something, for the future. If you must cling to hope…Velan’s legacy has yet to be found.”

He looked down at Rags. Not unkindly. Teriarch nodded.

“Velan the Kind saw his death. He saw the truth that I keep. And he succumbed to the madness of your Goblin Kings. But like all the others, he dreamed of one who might follow and succeed where he failed. His legacy is for that, to safeguard Goblins, or…to give them what they seek. And you hold his key. Do not scorn it lightly, child.”

Rags looked down at the little key hanging around her neck. She looked at the Dragon. It was such a small thing. But it seemed to grow warmer in his presence, at his words.

It was surely just her imagination. But Rags still held it tight. The Dragon gave her hope. And he raised his head.

“The High Passes are vast. So tall that even Dragons feared what lay above. Yet Velan climbed it, to hide his great treasure for one who was worthy. A test, rather than a gift, perhaps. But his treasure remains. And if you find it, you will know his will. Perhaps that may change the fate of Goblins. But perhaps your Kings always choose your fate knowing what will pass.”

The Dragon spoke the words softly. But with a…longing that sent chills down Rags’ spine. She looked up at him. And Teriarch shook his head. He gestured, spoke a word as he raised his claw.

The throne vanished. Rags was abruptly standing where she had been before. She stared around the cavern.

Which was no less filled with treasure, no less vast. But compared to the Dragonthrone, it was dingy, small. And Teriarch himself seemed to feel it. He curled up again, looking tired.

“Leave the treasure your King left, or seek it. I give you only my words, a vow kept. For those Goblins I have met who were worthy of my respect. I care not.”

He was a Dragon. But a poor liar. And Rags saw it. Teriarch breathed in and out, slowly.

“I will return you to your home.”

He raised a claw, pointing, and a circle of magic appeared at Rags’ feet. But she wasn’t ready to go. So the little Goblin waved urgently.

“Question.”

She raised her clawed hand. The Dragon blinked at her.

“I am weary. I do not entertain questions lightly. You have been granted a privilege. Do not presume, mortal.”

He raised his claw. Rags waved her hand urgently. Teriarch snorted.

Why should I listen to your request?

He snorted heat and smoke at her. Rags paused.

“What about the words?”

She meant the glowing poem written on the stone. Teriarch’s head rose and he stared at her. For a long moment he paused. Then he bowed his head.

“Ask. I do not promise an answer.”

Rags held her breath. Then she expelled it.

“What is the secret the Goblin Kings know? Of the world?”

Velan knew something. All Goblin Kings did. They remembered or knew…something. But no one knew what it was. Perhaps Greydath did. And perhaps Teriarch…

The Goblin saw the Dragon’s eyes widened. He opened his maw. Spoke.

“Ah.”

For a long moment Teriarch regarded Rags. And then he laughed. It was a soft laugh, but it was laughter. The Dragon laughed and then rose. He shook his head.

“I have had many questions. From arrogant [Necromancers], City Runners, ambitious young [Ladies]—and they were petty ones compared to the [Monarchs], [Heroes], and [Archmages] that once sought my favor. But only Goblins ever ask this question. The most valuable and terrible of secrets.”

He looked down at Rags. And he shook his head.

“I cannot answer you. If you become a Goblin King, you will know the answer better than I. And it will break you. But it is better left forgotten. I could only tell you if…”

The Dragon hesitated.

“If you spoke the right words.”

Rags stared up at him. She thought for a long moment.

“…Please?”

Teriarch’s eyes opened. He blinked a few times. He laughed, softly, old. And he shook his head.

“I do not think we will meet again, little Goblin. But go. Go and do as you will with your life.”

That was all. He gestured. Rags felt the magic circle below her ignite with power. She bowed, then, since there was nothing she could do.

“Thank you.”

“Go well, little Goblin. You were more pleasant than your predecessor. He was arrogant. You were not.”

Predecessor? Rags felt the magic picking her up. And she realized who that had to be. She shouted.

Who? Garen?

Teriarch’s head turned. The magic paused, a moment. But it was in motion. He replied for a second, as Rags felt herself vanishing.

“That impudent little Chieftain? He challenged me when I granted him an audience for the key he held. I forget his name. But he stood here, briefly, before I removed him from my presence. You are at least more polite than he. Yes.”

He saw Rags’ look. And he bowed his head.

“You hold his will too. Go.

And she vanished. Rags moved through the world in a moment. She appeared in Goblinhome, amid the chaos and worried Goblins. Well, not amid them.

Dragon spells were powerful. But sometimes they got things wrong. At least she appeared above the lake. Rags hit the water with a splash and sunk. But even as the Goblins surged around her, asking questions, preparing to run, to leave, Rags wasn’t sure.

If she was dreaming, let her wake up only in better days. But let her never forget that grand room. And the Dragon’s voice as he spoke to her.

The Dragon had met the Goblin King. A mortal worthy of his respect.

 

—-

 

That night, Rags sniffed as she sat in a bundle of warm blankets. Goathide—she sneezed. She might be getting a cold. Or she might be allergic to goat.

In Goblinhome, a bunch of angry Wyverns were tethered. But a little Wyvern child was rather confused about how a green thing had made its leg stop hurting. And the others kept petting it. It didn’t like the muzzle that stopped it from biting, but it liked being stroked and scratched just so, in places it couldn’t reach.

Rags sat in Badarrow’s shooting spot. Goblins were hard at work, building another wall. Maybe they’d mount the ballista up here. Although if it broke or decayed…

The little Goblin was thinking. Thinking on her encounter, which she still wasn’t sure had happened. Maybe she’d eaten some bad mushroom and hallucinated the entire thing. But her body was still shaking with nerves.

She had learned things. Things she had never dreamed could exist, that Reiss and Garen and perhaps even Tremborag hadn’t known about. Well, perhaps Tremborag.

An island of Goblins. The legacy of Goblin Kings. Things that they knew that Dragons knew.

A lot and a little. Dragons were, apparently, longwinded. Somewhat pretentious. They told you a lot, and a little.

But this one had given her hope. Rags stirred as she looked up. The High Passes lay above her. Even Goblinhome was barely at more than the base of the mountains.

The Goblin Chieftain stared up.

“Pretty high.”

She heard a hatch open. Redscar climbed out of it, and then Badarrow, Snapjaw. Poisonbite wasn’t with them. She was drunk. But the other three joined Rags.

“Chieftain? Having big thoughts?”

Snapjaw looked at Rags. So did the others. Rags looked at them thoughtfully.

“Maybe.”

“Dragon say important things?”

“Dragon has bad breath.”

The other Goblins snorted. Rags paused.

“Thinking. Rabbiteater went north.”

Far away.

Badarrow paused. Rags nodded. She looked thoughtfully at the mountains, then pointed.

“North. Rabbiteater. South—inn.”

Badarrow stirred. He looked at Rags. She glanced at him.

“Inn important. But…small. Dangerous. Badarrow, goes. Searches for Goblins.”

“Me too.”

“And Snapjaw. But later. And maybe—make Wyverns tame. Going to have to learn how to fly. Maybe make saddles, rope in case fall.”

Rags was already thinking over the logistics, sighing. So much poo. And they’d eat so much. The other Goblins looked at her. Redscar grinned.

“Chieftain going somewhere? Inn?”

The Goblin Chieftain paused. She pursed her lips, and then she shook her head.

“No. Maybe. Going to find other Chieftains first. The two in the north.”

The others looked at her. Rags explained.

“Other Chieftains. Ones who refused to fight Reiss, join Tremborag. Strong.”

Snapjaw nodded slowly. She remembered. So did Redscar.

“The [Witch] and the [Fighter].”

The giant Goblin leader and the Goblin [Witch]. Redscar looked mystified.

“Why? Fight? Say hi and slap back?”

“Allies. To go up. And to find key.”

Rags’ eyes glinted. She couldn’t remember enough. Her tribe was too small. But—she looked at the key Garen had left everything for. So did Redscar, Badarrow. Snapjaw glanced up, following Rags’ finger.

The Goblin pointed at the heights of the High Passes. Redscar stared up at the hidden summit, behind the clouds. And he grinned.

“A challenge worthy of Redfangs.”

“Something to do.”

Rags agreed. She smiled. Badarrow looked at her.

“What about this?”

Rags patted the bench.

“Goblinhome? Goblinhome remains. And Goblins come here. Get larger, bigger. Safety.”

She nodded to them. And the others nodded. Rags yawned. She sat back, as Badarrow offered Snapjaw a blanket he’d brought. And she shared a drink. Redscar sighed as Rags closed her eyes. The four Goblins sat together. And Rags closed her eyes. She slept peacefully, for the first time in a while.

 

[Level 27 Steelflame Tactician!]

[Spell – Fast Fireball obtained!]

[Skill – Dual Shot obtained!]

 

The little, depressed, melancholy, hopeful, tired, genius, failing, growing Level 32 [Great Chieftain] of the Flooded Waters Tribe.

 

—-

 

And the Dragon paused, after the little Goblin had left. He thought about their conversation.

Such a small thing, a whim. For him. But it had mattered. He looked at the Dragonthrone. And he shook his head.

“She was strong. For one so young. But then—they are so young. And even their Goblin Kings…”

Teriarch remembered the past. And it could be painful. But he could see a Goblin King, standing in front of him. One of many. And Goblins. They blurred together. And they became the little Goblin.

“Once again, and yet again. Let it be.”

The Dragon began to slumber, and dream of ages past, long conversations he himself had forgotten. But before he did, he idly opened one eye.

“Ah. Those pestilential Wyverns. Hm.”

Yawning, the Dragon idly composed something in his head, sent it off with just a thought. Then he settled back.

And a [Message] arrived in the Mage’s Guild in Liscor. And in Pallass. And in every Mage’s Guild within two hundred miles of the High Passes. The kind of [Message] that made the [Scribes] pause and slip as they transcribed. The kind to make someone look twice as it was rushed to the Adventurer’s Guild.

A…notice. A bounty. It read as follows:

 

Forsooth! The Frost Wyvern population in the High Passes is getting out of control! A particularly aggressive Weyr of Wyverns has descended and is causing havoc. Any brave adventurers of good courage and skill at arms should rid the good folk plagued by this menace! For their deeds of valor, each shalt receive a reward of the following:

2,000 gold pieces of sufficient purity for each Wyvern head.

80,000 gold pieces for the Greater Wyvern leading the weyr.

No gold is to be paid for those Wyvern young, and they should be left alone. Payment shall be received at any good Guild of Adventurers. Proof of the defeated Wyverns is all that is required. No flesh or hide is required.

 

And it spread. Teriarch put the bounty out of his mind. Just a bit of housekeeping, like sorting his treasure piles. He hadn’t heard about Pallass, and he’d been enjoying his nap until now.

The Dragon sighed as he closed his eyes. He’d better set an alarm. For…tomorrow. Next week? He’d have to get the gold to the guilds of course…maybe Reinhart could deal with it? Or he could pretend one of his disguises was sending it in, although then the gnats would start buzzing about and asking questions…

The whims of Dragons. Many didn’t believe in their existence to begin with. But they still mattered. And as the old Dragon slept and his message hit Izril like wildfire, the youngest species—the youngest that mattered—sat in their home and built something safe. There were monsters, and it wasn’t easy. But they were alive. They had dreams.

And at least there weren’t any stupid adventurers up here, right?

….Right?

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – The Hangover After

The day after a big party was silence. The Wandering Inn, like the flames that had roared in the fireplaces, was burnt out. All the energy was expended.

Even in the [Innkeeper] herself, who defined the inn. Erin Solstice had woken up on the floor. She’d migrated into a bed—mainly by rolling sideways until she rolled into the Garden of Sanctuary and back into her room.

There was something to be said for magic. But even that little amount of motion had made Erin want to die. Her head…

Ached. Hangovers weren’t just pain, pain. They were exhaustion, a slowed mind. And pain. But something glorious had happened.

[Twofold Rest]. Thanks to that, Erin would recover. She just needed sleep. But a full night’s sleep would come to her, even after so much drinking. And that was magic. Not just sleeping twice as quick. Getting twice as much sleep for the same time spent.

Indeed, the morning belonged to few people. It took incredible fiber to get out of bed—or—alternatively, to push yourself off the floor and wonder where the hell you were.

More than one person was on the floor. And those patrons woke up and disappeared through the magic door quickest; a floor was still not exactly a comfy place. Erin’s Skill had only gotten them up faster, and able to get to a proper bed.

Those who had found more salubrious rest largely stayed asleep. Lyonette lay in her bed sheets, refusing to wake up no matter how many times Mrsha shook her. Palt, Montressa, and Beza, who all had claimed rooms, were dead. And they might actually die if someone smacked a pot against the wall.

They’d get better. Still, two of the people who’d claimed a bed in the newly-finished rooms walked out with the morning. They, like Erin, were unrepentant morning people, who had abandoned sleeping in. Beyond salvation.

Chaldion, [Grand Strategist] of Pallass, and Grimalkin the Sinew Magus nodded to each other as they walked out of their rooms. They weren’t staying here. But rather than go through the Pallassian checkpoint, they had claimed a room. The [Grand Strategist] massaged his back as he slowly walked downstairs. Grimalkin followed him, carefully stepping over a blue Drake who’d passed out in the hallway, having failed to secure a valuable room.

“I feel rather rested after a night in that upstairs bed. When I should be hung over. You, Magus Grimalkin?”

The Drake [Mage] paused. He surveyed the common room. It was mostly clear; he saw Jeiss stumbling into a wall and then out the double doors. There was really only one stubborn sleeper that the sunlight pouring through the windows had not woken.

Saliss was thankfully lying on his front. Grimalkin shook his head and Chaldion closed his one good eye. He walked past the recumbent Drake, rubbing his back. The [Sinew Magus] stretched and frowned.

“I was not hung over, Chaldion. My digestion took care of the alcohol before I slept. I have a surplus of energy at the moment. She has a sleeping Skill.”

The two Drakes exchanged a look. Chaldion checked the position of the sun and cursed.

“Nearly time for work. Well, that’s a discovery. Along with the fire, which we knew about. And the flowers, which I heard about but didn’t give credence. A sleeping Skill? Not the most powerful one. It just means she’s…at that level.”

“You have a number?”

The [Sinew Magus] glanced over. Chaldion raised his brows.

“No. I meant…that level where you travel, say, from Pallass north. And you plan to stop at Liscor no matter how you go. Because The Wandering Inn is there.”

“Ah. Well. I suppose it is a…force. Although I maintain she could do a lot more with her resources.”

Grimalkin folded his arms. He was rather grumpy. Or perhaps he got nervous seeing magic he didn’t understand. Or he simply didn’t like the idea of a young Human woman in her twenties reaching…that level. Chaldion just shrugged. He sat in a chair for a second, feeling his body ache.

After a moment, the [Sinew Magus] seemed to feel the need to clarify his statement. He watched a little white Gnoll scamper down the steps and stare about the trashed inn. Grimalkin looked over, and pointed.

“[Blur].”

A certain part of Saliss’ body obligingly blurred—or perhaps the air around it did.

“Hey. I was on my front.”

Saliss spoke into the floorboards. Grimalkin jumped. Chaldion sighed, ignoring Saliss.

“How is Miss Solstice not efficient?”

Grimalkin scratched at his chin. He had a few dead scales and pulled out a little mirror so he could take care of what was to Drakes much like stubble.

“There are better inns, with more Skills aimed at utility. Sleep, food, and even qualities like curing illnesses faster, or allowing a horse to travel three times as far after a night. The [Law of the Inn] means even I can’t cast an offensive spell in The Adventurer’s Haven. The greatest inn in the north of Izril.”

The [Grand Strategist] sighed. [Mages]. Even the best of them had to be contrarians. He stood up, leaning on his cane. That helped; he felt a jolt of stability run through him and his body ease as the magical cane supported his weight.

“Yes, well, those inns are better at being their sort of inn. Let’s go. I have to inform the [Generals] of the 1st and 4th armies that they’ll be forming experimental regiments based on a certain someone’s training plans.”

Grimalkin bowed slightly. The [Grand Strategist] heard a gurgle and paused. Yes, they’d missed breakfast.

“Oh—get me a pizza, while you’re at it. It might soothe some of those hard-helmets’ complaints. Make that four. And a cake.”

He gestured at the kitchen. Grimalkin nodded and obligingly walked into the kitchen. He searched the shelves, pulling out dishes. The Magus and Chaldion had no compunctions about doing so, even without the staff. They were pragmatists.

“I’m compelled to call this food trash. Trash food. Without proper nutrition. No, wait. Junk food? Where did I hear…? Hm. I’ll take six steaks, then. I’ll admit the preservation effect is impressive. Hm. This much salad. Feh, I’ll take the bowl. Are these bullhen eggs? Excellent. And I’ll leave the payment…here.”

Grimalkin dug in his pouch as he loaded food into a bag of holding. He only noticed the Hobgoblin frozen with a mound of fries dipped in melted cheese as he turned to go. Grimalkin stared at Numbtongue, and at Mrsha, who was dragging out some of Erin’s special sausage lasagna. They stared at him.

“Good morning to you both.”

The Drake nodded stiffly and walked out of the kitchen. Chaldion was waiting. The old Drake nodded, and they walked towards the double doors and out into the trap hallway.

“Lovely design, this.”

“I’d punch through a wall rather than go through here. It’s too obviously a trap.”

“Must you criticize everything, Grimalkin?”

“Apologies.”

The two walked over to the door. There was a little queue. Chaldion noted a few groups of Humans walking through to Esthelm. He stroked his chin.

“Interesting. How many workers do you think will begin commuting from, say, Esthelm to Liscor on a daily basis? How many will rely on this magic door and her inn?”

The [Sinew Magus] paused. He looked askance at Chaldion and sighed, gustily.

“She’s going to be a Pallass-level nuisance, now, isn’t she? As bad as having a second Saliss in Liscor.”

“You must be joking, Magus. Compared to that feckless…? Do you recall when he started a war between the [Alchemists] in Pallass and it spread to all six Walled Cities? She’s at a quarter-Saliss, no more.”

That was fair. The real Saliss slowly inch-wormed on his front into the kitchen. Mrsha looked down at him and helpfully fetched a plate for a slice of lasagna. Numbtongue stared at the naked Drake and kept eating his fries.

The two Drakes were nearing the front of the line. Grimalkin tapped his lips thoughtfully with one claw as he gave Chaldion a quick glance.

“I assume we’re both going to the meeting with Pallass’ command?”

“Yes.”

“I will walk with you if you don’t mind. Incidentally, Grand Strategist, since we are going to this meeting, could I convince you to order some of 1st Army’s elite units to partake in my training experiment? I’d like a wider sample of soldiers…”

Chaldion scowled. He sighed as the door opened to Pallass.

Identify—

“Silence.”

The [Grand Strategist] made the [Guards] shut up fast. He walked through and glared at Grimalkin, massaging his back with one claw.

“No. Ancestors, and I must meet with the [Engineers] on their Dragonthrower Project later today…would you mind summoning me a sedan chair? I ache a bit after such a long night, rest aside. No flying sedan, either.”

“I could carry you—”

“Stop it.”

The two left, and went about their day in Pallass. Chaldion had important work to do. He was an important Drake. The top brass in Pallass, not to mention the Dragonthrower project. He could take time off since he was in charge of…himself, but without him who would do anything right?

The Walled Cities had their projects. Grand schemes, meant to improve the city or create something for the future. Sometimes they were small in scope, other times large, momentous, or secretive like the new army being formed in Salazsar.

Each to their specialty, like the plans for the largest, most powerful fusion of magic and engineering in the form of a trebuchet that would be mounted in Pallass and have a range of sixteen…miles. With mundane munitions.

The Dragonthrower Project. It had been dreamed of for decades by the latest generations of Pallass’ [Engineers] and it had finally been approved for funding. Last week, actually. For no particular reason at all.

But those were other stories and for now, the inn was at rest. The two Drakes left. And that meant aside from the people passed out upstairs, the inn was quiet again.

“This is delicious.”

Saliss mumbled as he ate his food off the floor of the kitchen. Mrsha nearly tried copying his eating-without-hands technique, but even she thought it was a bit silly. She glanced sideways and saw another awake person in an inn full of silent sleepyheads.

Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin had been drinking a lot with the Stronghearts, so he hadn’t imbibed as much this night. Neither had some of the others, like Mrsha, and Bird.

“I am Bird. Hello.”

The Antinium walked into the kitchen out of the Garden of Sanctuary. Saliss glanced up.

“Hey. Saliss.”

He went back to eating. Bird stared at the [Alchemist] and then glanced around.

“Ooh. There is fish in this cupboard. Fishy. Fins look like wings.”

“Bird.”

“Good morning, Numbtongue.”

The two greeted each other. Numbtongue ate the last of his fries. Then, he unslung the guitar he always carried about and began playing as the four wakeful souls sat in the kitchen. Saliss, licking his plate with a long tongue, glanced up.

The Hobgoblin was playing. Music. A catchy little tune, improvised from Erin’s world. Of course, Erin could only hum; she didn’t have an iPhone or other electronic device, which she often moaned about. But that just meant Numbtongue had his own style.

And he had taught himself to play well, with the same level of obsession that Erin had with chess. The guitar in the [Bard]’s hands sounded like a cross between the acoustic guitar it was and something…electric.

“Huh.”

Numbtongue glanced down at Saliss. He knew who the Named Adventurer was. Saliss even felt vaguely like danger, if Numbtongue hadn’t seen him on the walls of Pallass. But as Erin had observed, Saliss had a similar vibe to her. The Drake smiled.

“I’ve never seen a Goblin playing on a guitar.”

“Not while you killed them?”

The Hobgoblin politely inquired. Saliss paused.

“Not really. Funny how that happens. In fairness, I don’t see many Drakes or Gnolls playing guitar when I find their bodies after a Goblin raid.”

The [Bard] considered this. He shrugged.

“Fair.”

He kept playing. This was something Numbtongue could do. Not Pyrite, not the shade of Reiss. And the music was wonderful in the silent morning.

Mrsha swayed from side to side as she licked sauce off her fur. Bird began doing the same as he ate his fish. And the Hobgoblin began to play.

He’d worked hard on a few songs with Erin, in between improving his own, of course. But the young woman had begged Numbtongue for a few songs. And with much hard work, he’d come up with a few covers that sounded like…home. To Erin.

The Hobgoblin began to play a classic song. Don’t Stop Believin’, by Journey. And yes—it was a classic song, or if you wanted to go the other way, something as overplayed as the songs about letting go that the [Actors] put on in their Frozen play.

You could have too much of a good thing. But people sometimes forgot that a popular song, a classic, was that for a reason.

“Whoa.”

Saliss opened his eyes. He sat up, and Mrsha began to wave her paws in the air as she swayed. She liked the song. Especially the electric guitar riff.

“Sing! Yay! Sing, Numbtongue!”

Bird clapped all four hands. The Hobgoblin grinned.

“Don’t want to.”

He was more of a player, than a singer. Bird and Mrsha stared at him, disappointed. Then Bird stood up.

“I will, then. Mrsha! We must play!”

After all, the song had been written for more than one person. And if there was no piano—well, both of the other two knew the song. Mrsha began smacking on some overturned pots. And Bird, the [Bird Hunter], was also a [Singer]. Saliss looked up as the music began to fill the kitchen.

 

—-

 

In time, the four migrated to the common room. The kitchen was nice, but the impromptu band was getting excited. And the [Grand Theatre] was just that.

It had a stage. Numbtongue stood in the center, playing his solo cover. Bird and Mrsha set up a pot-drum set. With little ladles and spoons.

“Let me play too!”

Saliss was excited. He was clapping to the beat as Numbtongue switched into another song that would be easier for his drummer and singer. He looked at Saliss, quizzically.

“You can play? Guitar?”

Numbtongue had more than one guitar. Erin had bought him another, although he preferred his worn-down guitar. But Saliss’ eyes lit up as he saw the other guitar.

“Give me a shot.”

The Hobgoblin [Bard] hesitated. Of course, Saliss was necessary to the band, and Mrsha and Bird were nodding. You needed a bassist. Still—

“But you can play?”

The [Alchemist] grinned. He pulled out a vial. There was a little marking on it. Numbtongue saw a colorful note of music. The Drake winked at him as he opened it and downed half.

“I can do anything…if I drink this potion. Now, give that to me. Good thing it’s a string instrument. I don’t have one for trumpets. Not many [Bards] or whatnot use them. Not a solo thing.”

He took the instrument. And then—began to copy Numbtongue. Not improvise, but he began to  play the same background beat. The Hobgoblin stared. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. Bird just nodded.

“Do you have a flying potion?”

“I wish. I have one that makes you float, and  another for weight and stuff, but no flight.”

“Oh. How sad.”

“How?”

The Hobgoblin stared at Saliss, almost outraged. The [Alchemist] winked. Then he turned.

“Hey, Octavia! You want to get in on this?”

The Stitch-Woman stared at the band on the stage. She was hung over, but the [Alchemist] had a number of hangover cures. They made you pee like nothing else, so she’d been visiting the outhouse. She paused.

“Master Saliss?”

The Drake winked at Numbtongue as he showed the vial to Octavia.

“Careful. I can’t make more of them. Not my focus. Acquiring the vital essence of talent is something other [Alchemists] specialize in. With Skills, usually. Or I dunno, dunk someone in a solution and let it take some of their skill.”

“And you can play? Play this.”

Numbtongue demanded urgently. Saliss copied his bass line. He nodded as Bird and Mrsha began laying down the beat on their pots. The Worker began to test his voice.

Me, mi, me, mi.

“Talent Potions are rare. But Blademaster Draughts exist. I’ve heard the best [Alchemists] can brew Luck Potions. Or [Witches], who can make you literally drink…life. [Witches] are really scary. I hear stories about them.”

He paused and looked around meaningfully. All five stared into the empty fireplace. Saliss’ eyes still gleamed with the memory of last night.

“Strange how an [Innkeeper] has that rare power. Well, Xif and I both got some of that fire. She gives it away, you know. For free or too cheap.”

He looked at Octavia, and then back at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin paused.

“That’s why she’s better.”

He stared challengingly at Saliss. And again, the Named Adventurer just smiled.

“I know. That’s why you give back, even if you’re not asked.”

The Goblin stared. And Saliss casually took his place on the stage.

“We doing this? Octavia, get up here! You have to play! Is there another guitar? Anything with strings works with this potion.”

“What? Me? Are we giving back?”

Octavia stared as she drank from the talent potion. Saliss grinned.

“What? Nah, this is just fun. Here, drink up. Ready?”

Numbtongue paused. But he had a bass line. A drummer. A singer. And what did you need beyond that? Reluctantly, he nodded.

“Go louder.

Bird took the center of the stage, next to Numbtongue. The [Bard] kicked it up a notch. Mrsha began hammering the beat in the background. And they began to play.

At first, the music was quiet. But the band didn’t believe in quiet music. As Numbtongue launched into the first pop and rock songs, his guitar began to pick up in volume.

Not only that. Saliss began to sing along as he picked up the words. And he and Octavia could play the bass that Numbtongue taught them. Mrsha began hammering on the drums.

At some point, Bird began singing as loudly as he could. Numbtongue was playing hard on the guitar. And the music went through the inn.

Another fact about the [Grand Theatre]. The room had great acoustics. Erin Solstice woke up in her room and wondered what that sound was coming from below her. She heard the rest of the sleepers on the second floor waking up in confusion.

“What’s that? Where am I?”

Olesm was lying on the floor. He raised his head as Erin stepped out of her room. She nearly went for the garden, but the sound was coming from downstairs. Erin stepped down the stairs as Lyonette came out—all three [Mages] had just hit themselves with [Deafness] spells and rolled over.

“What on earth…?”

In the early morning, The Wandering Band played. Mrsha, the heart and soul of the band, who’d obviously dragged them all together, wailed on the drums, keeping mostly to the beat.

Numbtongue and Bird were singing in the front, backed by singers and bassists, Octavia and Saliss. And it was the Hobgoblin who hit a solo riff as Erin stared.

Electricity flashed from his claws and the guitar strings. Mrsha’s fur stood up on her body, and the guitar screamed, like no instrument in this world ever had before. Saliss grinned as he played the bass.

Yeah! This is music! Have you heard the Queen of Pop?

The impromptu concert was shaking the dishes on the tables. Erin put her hands to her head.

She still had a hangover, by the way. She stared at the Hobgoblin as he spotted her. He grinned. And Erin, loving, caring, seeing her family having fun with some cool people…shouted.

In the Garden! Not here!

The music came to a halt. The band stared at the angry mom. Erin was in no mood for it.

Out! Garden!

“Wow. What a jerk.”

Saliss sniffed. Erin turned bloodshot eyes on him. Then she stomped upstairs and went back to sleep.

 

—-

 

This was the band of legends. And even if they had to play in the garden, it was alright. They had instruments, space, a potion of talent—

And the music. Heck, with four people who could sing, they could even play Bohemian Rhapsody.

If Erin had taught Numbtongue that. She had not. But the band played in the Garden, and when the rest of the inn was on their feet, they found the band was still playing.

In the rain. Or rather, watching it come down. It was drizzling outside. And the rain poured down through the opening in the dome. The band stood next to the downpour, as it wet the hilltop with the Sage’s Grass.

“Huh. They’re good.”

Erin stared as she sipped from a cup of hangover tea. And indeed, a crowd had come down to watch the after-show performance.

The extra bit. Beza, Montressa, and Palt. Lyonette, Olesm. And Wailant and Viceria, who’d been too soused to even get to their home. And they watched him.

“Damn, but that Hobgoblin can play. What’s with the lightning?”

Wailant was enjoying the music. Numbtongue was in rare form. And the [Lightning Chords] were sending jolts of lightning all over the place.

A…lot of jolts. Erin felt something stirring in the inn. She stared.

“Whoa.”

The [Bard] was playing faster, in a solo. And Erin felt a charge in the air. She stared up at the sky, looked at the lightning filling the air. She had never seen Numbtongue conjure so many bolts of electricity. But then she sensed something building—

“He’s not going to—”

Lyonette murmured. Saliss looked up as the skies sparked.

“Huh.”

And he moved as a bolt of lightning shot down through the opening in the Garden of Sanctuary’s dome. The Named Adventurer dropped his guitar, reached into his bag of holding, and drew a bottle in a moment.

He threw the bottle before the lightning bolt struck. Mrsha saw the glass jar flash through the air. And the bolt of lightning twist. Touch—

The explosion made even Numbtongue pause. The flash and sound made everyone duck. But then—they stared.

A bottle filled with a bright, eye searing light was lying in the grass. The light blazed, and then—suddenly—the glass turned black. Opaque, hiding the bottled lightning.

Gotcha!

Saliss snapped his claws. Everyone stared at him. Even Numbtongue. Octavia stared.

“How—?”

The Drake turned. He picked up the bottle and tucked it into his bag of holding. In defiance of physics, the Drake [Alchemist] winked.

“In case you forgot—I’m the best naked, dancing [Alchemist] this world has ever seen. And I really like this inn.”

He nodded to Octavia.

“I’ll teach you to do that when you’re older. But it’s a long way to the true top. For me, too. I still have to figure out how to do that for rainbows.”

He laughed. And turned.

“Sorry, Numbtongue. Just wanted to get some for free. Don’t mind me.”

“Sure.”

The Hobgoblin had stopped playing. The Drake Named Adventurer had literally stolen his thunder. And lightning. But now, he glanced around.

The Sage’s Grass glowed red in the meadow. Wailant and Viceria had planted it all. The Hobgoblin walked carefully between the glowing plants. And then, casually, he began to riff on the guitar.

Solo. His claws began to move, playing a slower beat. And then faster. Faster. Erin saw Numbtongue’s fingers began to blur. And she felt it again.

Power. In the inn. It was gathering around the [Bard]. Electricity became his strings, and it began earthing around him.

Above him, the skies turned black. The charge in the air made Mrsha back up. Saliss blinked upwards.

“I only really needed one—”

Another bolt of lightning fell. It hit the ground just outside the inn, scaring the daylights out of a Rock Crab. Then another bolt flashed down. Another. In quick succession.

“No way.”

Erin stared at Numbtongue. He wasn’t supposed to be able to do that! He could only call down one bolt every few minutes if he played constantly! But this—she felt it again.

Then she stared at Numbtongue. And she realized. He was just a conduit. The Goblin stared at her and Saliss. And she realized he’d felt it first, before all the other [Mages]. Before her, even.

Lightning cascaded down, around the inn. An electric, drumming beat. And it came from the guitar. But the power behind it—came from the grass. From the very air.

Magic ran through the inn. The guitar flashed, and the Hobgoblin laughed in the storm. For a minute. The lightning crashed as he finished, and the guitar sang like thunder.

Then Numbtongue lowered the guitar, panting. He looked around. And Erin saw the Sage’s Grass glowing bright.

“Whoa.”

Montressa stared at Numbtongue. Palt slowly stared about.

“There’s so much ambient mana—dead gods. It could charge the door.”

“Ever seen a Sage’s Grass field, kids? What do you think it did? This charge’ll do more than fill the door, even if that’s most of where it goes. But show em, Viccy!”

Wailant laughed. His wife smiled. She drew her wand and flicked it.

“I’m not good at telekinetic spells. But I can do this.”

She pointed. And Erin saw Mrsha, trying to make a little mudball…float. Bird stared as the Gnoll floated by his head, waving her arms and shouting silently. Mrsha stared. And then she tried to swim in the air. Viceria obligingly floated her through the rain, over the Sage’s Grass.

Everyone stared.

“Oh…Bird? You could fly. Bird? You could—”

Erin looked at Bird. He was passed out in the grass. Numbtongue stared as Mrsha soared around his head. He could feel the magic draining fast. But it was possible. And it was all around him. He closed his eyes.

He looked around. Saliss paused as he inspected the Sage’s Grass. The other guests, Wailant, Viceria, and Erin and Lyonette stared up at him. Mrsha waved as she floated. The Hobgoblin nodded as he slung the guitar’s carry-strap around his shoulder.

“Door’s done. Good magic.”

Then he went and took a nap while he leveled up. Later that day, Bird flew for fourteen seconds.

 

[Goblin Soulbard Level 32!]

[Song – Harmony of Mana obtained!]

 


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