6.61 L

It had been a long time. And much had happened. But as always, the inn stood. The building had weathered grief and turmoil. And again, they returned. Rebuilding in a place that seemed filled with strife at times.

But that was the nature of the world. And many who had come here still saw this place as safety, comfort. And perhaps that was because the young woman who had built this place remembered what it meant to live in a place where danger was a still-more distant memory. If so, it was her ambition to bring that here. And she failed again and again, but never stopped trying.

Perhaps it was vainglorious to dream of it. Perhaps the lighting of a candle in the darkness just attracted things from the shadows. But he didn’t care. He had been so long from this place, his home.

And now he was back. Bird sat in his small, new tower on top of the inn and smiled. His tower was nothing more than a few planks nailed together; the inn had yet to be rebuilt. He could sense other Antinium burrowing around the base of the hill, enlarging the very foundation the inn would be constructed on first. But it didn’t matter. Bird had his tower. He was home.

And he was happy. Two days had passed since the [Mages] from Wistram had arrived. And the third day since passed like this: Bird sat in his tower. And he was not alone.

A Gnoll cub sat with him, watching the sun rise. Mrsha wagged her tail, keeping inside the confines of the ‘tower’. She had been warned very strictly about climbing out on the roof. Bird glanced at her.

Mrsha was not a bird. But she was small as some of them and she tended to attract some of them. He had hoped some of the Razorbeaks—what Erin called dino-birds and he called scale-birds—would try to carry her off. But they were afraid of him and stayed far from Liscor and the inn. Even so, he liked the young Gnoll’s company.

“La, la, la. Singing in the day makes birds happy. I am a peaceful Bird, and I like birds.”

The Antinium’s voice was soothing. He was Bird. And that meant he was both [Bird Hunter] and [Singer]. His voice carried out, across the Floodplains. And while the lyrics were nonsensical, silly, they were also soothing. Mrsha leaned against one leg, listening. She relaxed just listening to Bird. And he sang.

In the beautiful day, the cheerful little ditty lured movement towards the inn. Animals poked their head out of the grass. Squirrels, some grasshoppers hopping frantically away from said squirrels, and in time, birds. They were wary, but the singing didn’t bother them like most artificial sounds.

They knew, in a primal way, the danger of course, but the area around the inn was verdant with life. There were bugs and animals to feast on! The nearby city kept this place free of dangerous monsters, and for some reason, only birds were absent from the nearby environs. Which meant their prey tended to flourish in this region.

A few smaller birds flew about the inn, chirping warily. But the song continued, a happy tune. So the birds flew lower. Some began to hunt their breakfast. And others began to sing along.

Abruptly, the song stopped. There was a twang, a squawk, and the sound of desperate wings. More musical twangs. From her tower, Mrsha watched birds drop out of the sky. She looked up at Bird. He began humming happily.

[Lure Song]. [Prey Sense]. The Antinium Worker had leveled up in his unique specialization. So much so that it was now common for regular [Hunters] to go west out of Liscor because no one was going to catch much with Bird around the inn. The Antinium waited, but the birds, having seen their distant comrades disappear, decided not to come over again. Bird nodded to himself.

Mrsha stared at the ground. There were four dead birds, but Bird didn’t seem too interested in grabbing them just yet.

“Miss Erin tells me if I want them cooked, I must get them at once before other things eat them. Like bugs and little worms and other things. But I like keeping some in my room. They are nice when squishy.”

Bird looked at Mrsha. The little Gnoll wrinkled her nose and shook her head. Bird tilted his.

“No? But squishy is good. Sometimes they are runny.”

Mrsha mimed gagging. Bird shrugged.

“Runny can be good.”

He watched Mrsha make a complex and nuanced thought in sign language about getting sick. The Antinium paused.

“I will go pick them up later. But there are many birds and I do not want to miss one. See?”

He pointed. In the distance, Mrsha saw birds. But flying far, far out of bowshot, even for Bird. He aimed an arrow with two of his arms as he spoke conversationally to Mrsha. Two more were holding arrows. She had seen Bird fire and regular [Archers] couldn’t keep up with how fast he could shoot with four arms. And a good [Bowman] could shoot fast.

“Those birds are very far away. I have [Long Range Shot] and [Homing Shot], but sometimes they dodge. See?”

So saying, Bird casually drew back and loosed. Mrsha’s keen eyes saw an arrow speeding across the ground at a bird nearly three hundred feet distant. It was an impressive shot, even with a Skill! She lost track of it for a second, but the bird it was targeting dove and the homing missile flashed over its head.

“See? The arrow curves, but I missed to begin with. I asked Halrac and he said I needed to predict better. And shoot faster. So they must be closer. I am a poor [Archer]. Yes. Halrac is very good at shooting. So was Badarrow. I miss Badarrow.”

Bird complained cheerfully, as if missing a three-hundred foot target moving on the wing by barely a foot was something to be ashamed of. Perhaps it was, for him. The Worker watched the bird he’d shot at flee and pointed with an arrow.

“That is a red-bird.”

The red-crested robin flew low across the Floodplains, in fear for its life. Bird’s hands twitched, but it was too far away, too wary. Mrsha nodded. After a moment she patted Bird’s quiver. He handed her an arrow.

“I make them myself, see?”

Mrsha eyed the arrows. They were wood, pointed tips crudely sharpened. Some weren’t even straight. And they were fletched with beautiful feathers. She stared accusingly at Bird. It hurt the Gnoll to see. Bird happily took the arrow back.

“Miss Erin says I may buy arrows with my salary. That will be nice. I have many feathers, and sometimes the [Fletcher] asks to buy them. But I need feathers for my arrows and my new fortress of fluff, so I have not been able to sell them. If I may buy arrows, I can then sell feathers. And buy more arrows.”

Below, the little Gnoll opened her mouth. Bird’s logic made Mrsha long for the ability to speak—or to burrow her head into a pillow for a second. Instead, she peeked over the edge of the tower as Bird pointed. He was showing her distant birds; they had an excellent view from the roof of the inn.

“There are scale-birds in the air over there. They are hard to shoot with my arrows. Which is why I wish for new ones. I must use [Piercing Shot] or hit them in the eyes. That is hard. Ooh. There is a big-bird. See? That is a blue-bird. And another red-bird! That is a green-bird.”

Mrsha stared at the Cyprail Grasstalker, which she recognized by its camouflaged appearance, but also by the distinctive two pale white-yellow long tail feathers on its backside it would wiggle in the grass to attract smaller birds or insects—upon which it would turn and consume its prey. She looked up at Bird. The [Archer] nodded solemnly, watching it.

“It is a green bird. That is why I call it that. It tastes good. Sometimes there is a second lunch inside of it, still wriggling. It is a nice bird to shoot because it hides and holds still if you do not watch it. All you have to do is turn around and go pew. See?”

The Gnoll cub nodded as well. She was learning a lot today. Not about names, but watching Bird turn his back on the Grasstalker, wait for five minutes as the bird hid itself in the grass, and then whirl and nail it from eighty feet away with a perfect shot was an education in itself.

Mind you, he cheated; he had a little bit of glass which he’d stuck some black cloth to, to make a crude mirror. But that was a lesson in hunting every bit as good as a proper Stone Spears [Hunter] from her tribe! She watched as Bird hummed.

“That is a good bird. I will eat it. Let us go get birds!”

Mrsha nodded eagerly. But then Bird eyed her.

“I forget. You are not allowed to go running about. So I will go instead.”

Mrsha’s face fell. But Lyonette had given orders. And not even Bird would overrule her.

Carefully, the Antinium left his tower and walked over the inn’s roof. He had a little ladder he’d installed. He could have just gone down through the inn, but he claimed this was easier.

Mrsha privately thought he just didn’t want Erin fussing over his ‘squishy birds’ when he brought them into his room. And to be fair, it wasn’t as if his room was unclean! Bird was very meticulous in storing his things. And if the ‘squishy birds’ attracted bugs, well…Bird ate them.

The Antinium came back with five dead Birds. He pulled the arrows out and Mrsha sniffed his kills. Bird nodded and offered her a white tail feather.

“This is good. Everything is good. Should we eat now?”

Mrsha’s wagging tail made the Worker’s mandibles open and rise in a smile. They headed down into the inn. Mrsha listened to the hustle and bustle coming down from below. The inn was lively, the [Actors] were preparing for tonight—she hid behind Bird as they came down and she saw/smelled the set.

They had their new play all ready. It was The Shining, adapted for the stage. Mrsha had seen it once, despite it being shown at a time when all good Gnolls should be in bed. She’d snuck down to listen to the late-viewing, intrigued by Lyonette and Erin’s injunction against watching. The audience had been enthralled, and the [Actors] had done a good job.

Too good. Mrsha hadn’t been sleeping well. And she’d stared at her door all night, waiting for the crazy Human to batter it down with an axe and put her head through. Lyonette had noticed Mrsha’s sleeplessness of course, and Mrsha had got a scolding.

At least now the [Actors] were just setting up. But Mrsha hid behind Bird as he trundled into the living room. There were also more people than usual; word had gotten around and the morning crowd was lively, asking if they could get an earlier performance or if the Players of Celum would be putting on the show multiple times so they could show friends or family.

“Bird! Mrsha!”

And in the inn, there was Erin Solstice. She was attending to the tables, or rather, relaxing with some of her guests while the staff did most of the attending. But she saw Bird and Mrsha and got up. The Worker waved at Erin and presented his somewhat gruesome armful of corpses.

“Hello, Erin. I have come down for food. I would like to eat this bird, please.”

Erin blinked as he waved the Cyprail Grasstalker at her. She looked down at Mrsha and the Gnoll immediately hid behind her legs; she’d spotted the [Actor] who played the crazy Human. She knew it was an act, but she still got nervous. Erin bent down and gave Mrsha a little cuddle, then she stood up.

“No problem, Bird. I’ll have it whipped up in no time! Fried? Maybe. I just have to prepare it. Ew.”

She sighed, eying the bird. Then she brightened.

“Oh, wait! Ishkr! I need you to pluck and gut the bird!”

Ishkr looked up. The Gnoll didn’t sigh or complain. He just trotted over.

“Yes, Miss Erin. Do you want the other birds prepared too?”

“Bird?”

“No. I will put them in my room.”

Bird. I told you about letting them rot!”

“I…won’t let them rot?”

The Worker turned his head, avoiding Erin’s narrowed eyes. The [Innkeeper] hesitated.

“Just the big, green one, Ishkr. Can you let me know when it’s ready to cook? And keep the feathers! For Bird.”

“Yes, Erin.”

The Gnoll took the bird outside. Erin turned happily back to Bird.

“Come on, Bird. Sit down! And you too, Mrsha. Are you still afraid of Temile? I told you, he’s playing Jack! And you shouldn’t have watched! Do you want Temile to come over? No? Okay, then sit with me.”

She sat down at a table where a huge Drake was eating breakfast. He glanced up over the six eggs and rash of bacon he was eating by himself, but made no comment. He stared longer when Bird sat down. Mrsha patted the table, smelling the air, reassured in Erin’s arms.

The young woman shook her head as Ishkr trotted back in with the plucked bird and a pawful of feathers. He dropped the feathers off at the table and Bird sorted them into one of his belt pouches. Then Ishkr took the bird into the kitchen for further preparation. Erin looked around.

“Did you know that you have to remove the entrails from stuff? Otherwise you get what they ate. Like, bugs and stuff. I had no idea before I started cooking.”

Grimalkin looked up from his seat and gave Erin a look. So did half the Gnolls in the room, including Mrsha. Erin spread her arms innocently.

“I didn’t know! I had this horrible incident where—well, never mind.”

“Miss Solstice, you sound like a Drake from one of the Walled Cities at times. Where did you grow up, exactly?”

The [Sinew Magus] eyed Erin over his breakfast. She waggled a finger at him.

“Aha! Not telling! You’re not getting me so easily, Grimalkin! How’s the food?”

“Decent, thank you. I do appreciate quantity over quality given how much I eat, so your inn is helpful in this regard. And your refusal to answer questions about your home just proves how significant the information is. Thank you.”

Erin paused. Her jaw worked. Mrsha sniffed the eggs indignantly. Decent? Grimalkin noticed her glare.

“Miss Solstice is a good cook. But she’s hardly an expert. She can fry an egg almost perfectly. But I don’t believe she knows her way around seasonings. Stop giving me that look. Ask Miss Lasica for her eggs and you’ll know what I mean. I’m not being disparaging. Just honest.”

Mrsha turned up her nose. Erin winced. She patted Mrsha’s head soothingly.

“Don’t be upset, Mrsha. Grimalkin’s just honest. Like a pan across the back of the head.”

“I try not to twist the truth just to stroke other people’s ego. We should understand our capabilities and limitations realistically, Miss Solstice.”

“Miss Erin, the bird is ready for cooking.”

Ishkr poked his head out of the kitchen before Erin could reply. She looked up and turned to Bird.

“How much do you want, Bird?”

Bird waved a hand eagerly.

“I would like the bird, please, Erin. And two unborn birds.”

Grimalkin paused, his mouth full of a boiled egg. Erin blinked at Bird.

“But you already had breakfast, Bird. You want to eat the entire…bird?”

He nodded seriously.

“I desire to be spoiled greatly. Please assist me in this endeavor. I believe Mrsha would also like spoiling if there is enough to be shared.”

The Gnoll cub brightened up. Erin frowned.

“Well—maybe a bit for Mrsha. And I guess since you’re still back, you can have as much as you want. What am I saying? If you don’t throw it up, you can have all you can eat, Bird! I’ve never seen a fat Antinium. Except for your Queen.”

“She is very fat. Yay. Yay!”

Bird’s voice rose along with his hands as he threw all four up. Giggling, Mrsha copied him. Erin laughed in delight.

“Bird, you’re so silly! Even more than I remember! Were you always like this?”

“Silly?”

“Yeah. Why’re you so silly and not serious like all the other Workers?”

Erin meant it as a joke, but Bird took it seriously. He tilted his head thoughtfully and then replied.

“Of course I am silly, Erin. And I must be silly, not seriously happy or fun, but dignified. If it was not good and fun to be silly, and if silly was not silly, I would not be.”

For a second Erin and Mrsha stared at him. That almost made sense this time. At last, Erin got up.

“Okay, you win. Bird for Bird! I’ll be back in a few minutes. Grimalkin—”

“I will be here. We’ll continue our conversation when you return. Will you send a pitcher of water to the table?”

“Done!”

Erin left. Grimalkin got his water and drank half the pitcher in one go, pouring it into a cup and downing it to Mrsha’s amazement. He was explaining the benefits of proper water consumption and the dangers of overconsumption when Erin came back out. She’d diced the bird into cubes and scrambled some eggs into the dish. And seasoned it! She pointed out the red pepper flakes, the onions, and other seasonings to Grimalkin. He just shrugged.

Mrsha wagged her tail as Erin gave her a teensy portion and Bird got the rest. He happily began shoveling the food into his mouth; it was a mound of meat. Mrsha tried to make her portion last; Bird let no one steal his food if it was made out of bird. She chewed one soft cube happily as Erin turned back to Grimalkin.

“Bird, I take it back. That’s a lot of meat. I left half of the bird in the kitchen if you’re still hungry, but I don’t want you spoiling lunch! You can eat it later if you want. Now, Grimalkin, you were talking about Wistram.”

“Right. As I said, I’m not helping you with the [Mages]. Wistram takes care of their own and weighing in on this bounty with Pisces is not in my interests. The Academy can put pressure on Pallass if they so choose. Which they will, and which is why I won’t entangle myself further in this mess than I already have.”

The Drake spoke crisply, patting his mouth with a napkin. Erin’s face fell.

“What? But come on, Grimalkin! You saw those jerks!”

“I told you. The Watch should have handled the situation. And legally, the Wistram team is now cleared of all charges. You can try to clear the bounty placed on your friend’s head, but I can tell you now: Wistram Academy won’t hear your request without a lot of internal support. Which you don’t have. And your unique brand of…persuasion is unlikely to work on the Academy.”

Erin folded her arms, frowning. Mrsha copied her.

“But they’re jerks!

“Which means what, exactly, Miss Solstice? I’ve heard Miss Montressa’s complaint and it is valid. Your friend, Pisces Jealnet is a wanted criminal. A petty one, so Wistram is clearly biased, but they have legal right to pursue him, if not for the charges involving accidental slaughter, and false claims to being a Wistram [Mage] which I notice they’ve amended. But he has committed crimes.”

“Yeah, but they want to put him in a box and imprison him! Maybe kill him!”

“That is what foreign powers do, Miss Solstice. Walled Cities are the same. Realistically, the only way you’ll be able to force this team to abandon their pursuit is to convince the members to abandon the cause and retract the bounty—or put Wistram in a position where the public opinion is against their handling of the case. They’ve already offended Liscor, which does help you, but the Academy will weigh that against getting their way.”

Erin drummed her fingers on the table as Grimalkin reached for another egg. She passed him a saltshaker and he briskly salted and peppered the egg before eating half in a single bite.

“I don’t like it. And yeah, you’ve said that my feelings don’t matter! I got it! How can Wistram bully Zevara and Liscor, though? It bothers you, right?”

“Insofar as I dislike the practice. But Pallass has done the same. Do I believe it’s an overreach of Wistram’s powers that other nations and cities will take notice of, especially in light of Tiqr? Yes, of course. But right now, they can still do as they please.”

Mrsha fidgeted. This conversation was hard to follow, but she appreciated being able to listen to it. Erin absently patted her head. Bird was ignoring both as he hummed about bird meat under his breath and ate.

“How do they get away with it? I mean, being so powerful?”

Grimalkin paused.

“In general? Wistram is a powerful institution, Miss Solstice. They have a huge amount of magical talent, high-level individuals, artifacts, and a superior defensive position. They are a nation, albeit tiny in terms of landmass. But they have countless political allies, alliances, and respect for their position. Of course, they’ve amassed this by taking rare and powerful artifacts and spellbooks wherever they appear, buying, or…acquiring what they want. Usually they follow legal routes, but they won’t hesitate to use their influence, as in this case. You see?”

Erin frowned darkly.

“Seems shady. And no one’s stopped them?”

Grimalkin smiled, looking amused.

“Miss Solstice. Wistram Academy does what any nation does, as I said. It’s why they’re the premier magical school. Fissival does exactly the same sort of thing; it’s just that Wistram does it better.”

“So why’d Wistram beat Fissival? Is it older?”

“No, actually. But it eclipsed Fissival because…the Draconae Scholarium is a Drake institution, Miss Solstice. And it is also a Walled City, and geographically bound to Izril. Wistram is far more open, and while hardly apolitical, it doesn’t represent one species’ interests above others. With that said, the Academy is mostly invested in itself, but I’ve reflected on the benefits. I still prefer Fissival and I’ve no intention of becoming a member of Wistram, but there it is. Are your questions answered?”

“I guess. Thanks for giving it to me straight, Grimalkin. You sure you won’t…?”

“No.”

Erin sighed again. She’d had Grimalkin in this morning for consultation, but not too fruitfully by the look of it. Mrsha looked at Bird, wondering if he had any thoughts. He whispered to Mrsha, but not too quietly.

“Do you think there are magic birds at Wistram?”

Grimalkin and Erin both looked at the Worker. The Drake glowered. He still didn’t like any of the Antinium. He reached for his last egg, checked himself, and spoke.

“Antinium. Are you as simple as you seem to be, or are you as deceptive as Miss Erin? Because I’m rapidly losing patience either way.”

Bird looked up at Grimalkin. Erin glowered, but the Worker replied cheerfully.

“I am as simple as I choose to be. I am a Bird and I am free to be me.”

Grimalkin stared at Bird. Then he rose and popped the last boiled egg into his mouth.

“Well, I’m done. Miss Solstice, I have to get back to work. I’m quite busy at the moment with the weights and my students.”

“Oh. Thanks. I mean—thanks for coming out here and explaining, after helping with Pisces’ bones and everything. I wish you could…never mind.”

Erin got to her feet. The [Sinew Magus] nodded at her as he walked over to the magic door. Mrsha followed her conversation from the table with her ears.

“Don’t take it the wrong way, Miss Solstice. But there is very little incentive for me to make an enemy out of the academy. Your leverage of friendship has limits and I’d caution you to avoid putting them in danger too.”

“I don’t—why do you help me, then? Are we friends?”

Grimalkin paused by the door as he reached for a cloak. It was raining in Pallass.

“You intrigue me, Miss Solstice, but we’re not friends. I hardly know you. But I am grateful for the information you’ve given me. And it’s in my interests to keep up a good relationship. I’m certain you have more to tell me that you’re holding onto. A better way to implement the treadmills you talked about, for instance. I’ve tried to make a magical one, but mass-production is different. Well, that only matters in places where mobility is restricted, so it’s low on my list. Nevertheless, if you’d present me with something worth taking on Wistram Academy for, I’m willing to do all I can.”

Erin blew out her cheeks.

“I—no.”

“In that case, it’s a pleasure, Miss Solstice. I must be off. Grimalkin, entering Pallass!”

The Drake thrust open the door after nodding to Erin. The [Guards] on the other side shot to attention.

“Magus, sir! You’re cleared for entry!”

He left. Erin wandered back to the table and sat next to Mrsha. She sighed and the Gnoll patted her leg anxiously. Erin forced a smile.

“It’s okay, Mrsha. I didn’t expect Grimalkin to do too much. He said he wasn’t going to move the moon—moons—for me. Which is fair! I ask a lot. I still have to thank Seborn and Moore for getting hurt to help me; I’ll make them something tonight. Grimalkin has a point. I just wish…”

She hesitated. Mrsha looked around. There were a few Gnolls in the inn, but none seemed to be listening to their table. Adults had trouble focusing on individual conversations if there was a lot of background noise; Mrsha could generally tell if they were listening in. Her ears were still really good.

She covertly made a special sign; an orb with her paws. It meant ‘Earth’. She pointed at the door, flexed an arm, made her question-gesture, and waited. Erin took a second to unravel what Mrsha had said.

“Oh? Give him what he wants from…home? I thought about it, but I don’t know if I know—well, there are a few things. Monkey bars, burpies, all kindsa stuff. But I don’t want to give him too much. So I guess…I’m going to try other stuff first, okay Mrsha? But I’ll do it if I need to. The Horns can also deal with it; we’ll play it by ear.”

Mrsha nodded. Erin sighed and looked at Bird. He glanced up. The Worker stared at Mrsha and Erin as he chewed, then spoke.

“Garry wished to come to be employed as a [Cook], but the Queen refused. I am supposed to tell you, Erin.”

She blinked at him.

“Thank you, Bird.”

He nodded and went back to his meal. Mrsha pushed back her empty bowl. Now she wanted to run about! Maybe play in Liscor? She conveyed that to Erin and the young woman nodded.

“I can take you to the playground! We’ll do that, Mrsha! Or—darn. I have to cook. Lyonette wants those cookies done. Drat. Oh well; I’m banned from playing in the playground anyways. Drassi! Can you take Mrsha into Liscor to play?”

The Drake [Barmaid], [Gossip], and now [Bartender] looked up as she mopped up a spilled drink. She brightened and came over.

“Sure can, Erin! Hello, Mrsha! You want to go to the climbing playground? Ooh, or the flat one?”

Mrsha nodded eagerly and Erin smiled.

“Have her back by lunch, alright? And uh, can you find out what the Wistram [Mages] are doing? Keep asking about them?”

The [Gossip] laughed, amused.

“Erin, Erin…I’m already doing that! They’re the talk of the city! Do you want to know what they’re doing now?”

“Wait, you already know?”

Erin stared at Drassi. The Drake nodded.

“They’re doing business. They’ve set up—well, the Minotauress, Bezale, has. The others are going around to do their business.”

“In Liscor? Business like what? Don’t people know what they did? Why’re they giving them money?”

Erin was outraged. Drassi rolled her eyes.

“Erin, they’re [Mages]. From Wistram. And each one’s a specialist! They’re selling good stuff! Hey, I can get you something if you don’t want to talk to them. I just want to take a look.”

Erin paused. She looked at Mrsha and the Gnoll sat up with interest. Erin hesitated, and then looked at Drassi.

“…What kind of stuff?”

 

—-

 

Montressa du Valeross inspected the walls from the battlements, trying to ignore the glares she was getting. It took a long time, but she did a thorough job and turned to the surly Drake [Strategist] at last.

“I don’t see much degradation of the spells, Strategist Olesm. As you said, the gates’ wards have been breached, and the spell’s frayed on the stonework there. I’ll recommend the [Enchanter] make an early visit this year to repair the damage done. I can give you an estimate if you’d like?”

“That would be welcome, Lady du Valeross.”

“Montressa, please.”

The [Aegiscaster] smiled at Olesm as she began to quote numbers. The Drake didn’t return it. He scribbled down the information on a bit of parchment without a word. Montressa bit her lip.

“Is there anything else?”

“Nothing, Miss Montressa. The city thanks you for your help.”

“In that case, I’ll continue my work. If you have any need of our assistance, let us know.”

Olesm nodded stiffly. He accompanied Montressa down the steps and saw her off at street-level. She knew he was watching her back as he left—and a few [Guards] were tailing her as she walked down the street. Montressa tried not to grimace as she rejoined her team. Isceil was there, wearing a surly look.

“Well?”

“I did the inspection. I made my recommendations. That’s it. They don’t like us, but at least we’re still allowed to do our consultation work.”

“For free.”

The [Oldblood Magus] growled as he walked with Montressa. The young woman sighed.

“We don’t charge for inspections, Isceil. We’re trying to generate some goodwill, which is why I didn’t take you on the walls. Are you done with business for the day?”

“Nearly. I’m preparing the gift now.”

“Did you do much business?”

“Some. A bit of gold. But there aren’t many Oldbloods in the city, so I don’t have much to earn. Bezale’s still down selling her scrolls. Ulinde’s gone off and Palt’s selling his…stuff.”

“I told him not to! The Watch will come down on him like—we’re not causing more trouble!”

Montressa glared. Isceil raised his claws.

“He says he’s just sticking to legal stuff. He checked with the Watch. Don’t bite my tail off!”

Glowering, Montressa kept walking.

“Let’s find Beza. I have to fix two wards today. If you help, I’ll give you a quarter of the fee.”

“I might. How bad is it?”

“Broken runes. Spell burnt through part of a matrix. It’ll take like an hour to fix both if we work together, I think.”

“Hmpf. How much do I get?”

“One gold coin and two silver?”

“Pass.”

Montressa sighed again. That was good money! But not for a [Mage] from Wistram for an hour’s work. Today was business for the Wistram team, which meant they all had something to sell. Their services. If you were specialized—or just knew a bunch of spells most [Mages] were incapable of—you could make good money wherever you went.

Each had something to sell, but not all of Montressa’s team made the same amount of money. She was an expert in wards and protective spells, so her income was steady, low, and predictable. Montressa fixed things. Most spells, be they wards, runes, or any sort of enchantment, like the ones on Liscor’s very walls, would degrade over time.

Montressa wasn’t good enough to fix Liscor’s walls, but she could mend most common wards. It was a common practice for Wistram [Mages] stopping by a city, and people had sought her out as soon as they’d known she was offering the service; she might be the only able [Mage] they’d see in half a year, or the entire year.

“At least they’re going to see us, despite the incident with the Watch. Drakes take that seriously.”

Isceil offered the first positive comment in two days. Montressa glanced at him. She felt as annoyed and angry as he seemed. She tried to erase the expression from her face. Make a good impression.

That was part of the strictly-worded orders she’d had from the Revivalist faction. They’d bailed Montressa and her team out of their trouble, but the [Mages] were in hot water back at the academy. It was part of why Montressa was charging low for her services and trying to be pleasant to Liscor’s inhabitants. She nodded to Isceil gratefully.

“True. And your remedies for the Oldbloods have to help. How were your customers?”

The Drake’s indignant posture unstiffened a bit. He nodded at Montressa.

“Grateful. They always are. It was mainly just medication for their problems. A Frostling needed a warming tonic; scale rot on some of the old Drakes. A few have bad symptoms, like the Drake you met who kept wheezing. I sorted them out.”

Montressa nodded, genuinely curious. Isceil was an [Oldblood Magus], so his specialization was in the powers of his species. He had no wings, but he’d been born with the ability to breathe frost, a breath attack courtesy of his Dragon-heritage. She knew it made his body temperature lower than normal, and she’d seen him walking about in winter with barely any clothes on. But the same symptoms meant he couldn’t handle heat well without cooling himself. And other Drakes experienced even more drastic symptoms.

“Is it all due to them having Oldblood traits?”

“Some of it is. Shortness of breath, coughing—that’s generally some form of dragonbreath gone wrong. Some people don’t even know they have the problem. But scale rot’s general; you just get that when you get older. The really bad stuff is when dragonbreath goes out of control. That’s how you get Scorchlings or Frostlings like that kid. They heat up or get too cold and they don’t have the resistance you’re supposed to have.”

“So what happens?”

“They get frostbite. Or their scales burn off them. It’s better if there’s someone like me around, but we can’t fix too much. At my level, anyways.”

Isceil kicked across the street, looking upset and muttering. Montressa nodded.

“What happens if it’s lightning? Or acid? Sorry, am I asking…?”

“Yeah. What happens with lightning is they have heart attacks. Or they have fits. And acid? Their stomach melts. Best case is they have ulcers. Worst case is that the baby in the mother dissolves and takes her with it, Montressa.

Isceil glared at her. The [Aegiscaster] raised her hands. She’d put her staff and lightning orb away; it seemed provocative.

“I’m sorry. I know it’s serious.”

The Drake calmed down after a few more seconds of walking. He muttered as he felt in his bag of holding.

“It’s fine. Non-Drakes don’t know about it. Sorry I snapped. Anyways, I got most of the bad ones; anyone who’s been alive this long knows to seek me out. I’ll see if anyone else is waiting. But I have that tonic for the Watch Captain.”

“Zevara. I’ll deliver it to her if you don’t want to.”

Isceil nodded and handed her the potion. It was sealed in a dark flask; it must be light-sensitive, Montressa guessed.

“She hates my guts. The instructions are right there; she’ll know how to use it.”

“What’s her problem? Coughing?”

“Bad lungs. She can breathe fire, but her lungs can’t take the smoke she’s generating.”

Montressa shuddered.

“Yeah. I’ll get it to her. Where’d Beza say she was setting up?”

“Trader’s End. This way.”

The two [Mages] found the Minotauress at work in the busy street full of [Merchants]. Unlike Ulinde and Montressa, the other three [Mages], Isceil, Beza, and Palt, were all specialists whose craft meant they had products they could sell.

By now, Montressa had stopped at a few dozen settlements while travelling to Liscor, and she knew how much all of her friends made. Isceil had been virtually cut off from any income while coming south, aside from doing generalist work, but Beza and Palt had made money. And of the two, Beza made the most.

“Twenty [Light] scrolls, then. Look, they’re cheap so I’m giving you them practically at a loss. They’re not worth the parchment they’re made on! This is what the light spell looks like—that’s what you get. I’ll have them by tonight. But I’m not making sixty of them!”

They could hear Beza’s impatient voice haggling with a [Merchant] before they even saw her. The Minotauress had been selling her products all day and yesterday—to [Merchants] and [Traders] more than pedestrians. She was a [Spellscribe] and her scrolls were in high-demand. They were single-use spells anyone could activate.

The only thing that kept everyone from having scrolls was how expensive even a single one was. Montressa eyed the gold the [Merchant] reluctantly passed over. Isceil snorted.

“A gold piece for a [Light] scroll? You’ve got to be pulling my tail!”

“It’s nearly that just to make one. Beza’s got to use magical ink and the parchment has to be the right quality too.”

“Even so, who’s buying one of those?”

“Anyone who wants a pretty [Light] like that.”

Montressa nodded to the [Light] spell that Beza was showing around. It was a pretty prism made up of different colors of light all joined together, slowly rotating around in the palm of her hand. Isceil raised his brows.

“What’s that for? Dinner parties?”

“Something for the rich. And it does look good. I wonder how she figured out that design?”

“Probably traded it for a few secrets back in Wistram. Hey, Beza! You done?”

The Minotauress was noting down the order on a piece of paper. She looked up and nodded to Montressa and Isceil.

“You two. I’m up to my horns in orders; I’ll be here a while still. Did the City Watch let you onto the walls, Montressa?”

“Barely. How’s business?”

“I’m making money. People don’t get many scrolls here, so my stock of low-level spells and convenience spells is all sold out and I’m backlogged for the next three days. My higher-tier scrolls on the other hand…I had a buyer, but he’s not taking any!”

Beza waved a disgusted hand at part of the stall she’d set up. There was a small rack of scrolls the Minotauress watched like a hawk, and a [Trader] perusing them with interest. A few adventurers were also present, murmuring and checking their coin purses as they debated.

Montressa recognized the different auras of bound magic in the scrolls. Few people were interested in the combat-variety of scrolls Beza had to offer, but that was what the [Spellscribe] specialized in.

“You seem like you have a good number of adventurers.”

“They buy one or two scrolls, tops. Even Gold-ranks. I sold a bit, but I want a big order. But the one [Merchant] who’ll buy from me, won’t. He’s over there.”

She pointed. Montressa looked past a wagon at a [Merchant] who was attending to his own wares. He was eying Beza’s selection, but he hadn’t come over.

“What’s the problem?”

“I don’t know. I’m going to ask. Watch my stall for me?”

“What if I have to sell something?”

“Sell it!”

Beza thrust her bag of holding at Isceil. He swore and pushed his own into her hands.

“Don’t do that! You know someone can’t have two bags of holding at the same time!”

“Quit whining. The holding enchantments won’t react that fast.”

“You want to risk it? Because every time you do that, we risk all imploding—

Montressa slapped a hand over Isceil’s mouth as Beza strode away. The [Trader] gave her a wide-eyed look and edged backwards. Montressa followed Beza as the Minotauress strode over to the [Merchant].

Even in business, Beza was straightforward, but she adopted a somewhat humble manner. Which meant she didn’t grab the [Merchant] by the collar, but instead stopped and nodded brusquely at him.

“Merchant Farri Slightly? My name is Bezale of Maweil. I am a [Spellscribe], a graduate of Wistram. I notice you haven’t come over to inspect my wares. Is something holding you back?”

The [Merchant] looked up at Bezale and smiled. Politely, Montressa, thought. He held out a hand and took the Minotauress’ crushing grip with barely a wince.

“Miss Bezale! It is a pleasure. I regret to say that I’m not in the market for your scrolls at the moment. I do know of you; my contacts spoke of your scrolls, quite glowingly. One can never have too many [Stoneskin] and [Haste] scrolls and they sell like mad among adventurers.”

The Minotauress gave him a mystified nod. She was quite proud of the scrolls; even in Wistram, scroll scribing was a rarer specialization. And it was hard for most [Mages] to scribe a higher-Tier spell. Generally, the thought was that you had to be capable of casting two tiers higher than the spell you wanted to scribe; it was why Tier 5+ scrolls were rare as could be. Montressa was curious why this [Merchant] wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity to do business as well.

“Exactly! And I have more spells on offer too. Tier 4 scrolls! You won’t have an opportunity like this any time soon. We can do business, unless there’s a problem?”

The man didn’t look poor if all the auras coming from his cart were any indication. Farri smiled, but again with that reserve and spread his hands apologetically.

“Mage Bezale, I must confess, I’m in a tricky position. I had every intention of placing a large order with you, but I’m afraid recent events have forced me to rethink the opportunity.”

Beza’s jaw worked for a second and she glanced at Montressa.

“May I ask why?”

“It really is a personal matter, Miss Bezale. I wouldn’t wish to—”

Farri caught himself.

“Actually, I think it would be fair to say. I’m certain my client would wish you to know. And it is a client that I don’t wish to offend, Miss Bezale. And Lady du Valeross, is it?”

He bowed to Montressa. She nodded at him, confused. But she had a sinking feeling.

“That’s correct. Who is your client?”

The [Merchant] gave her a larger grin.

“Ah, well, she’s new to her money, but I value my relationship with her. I have no doubt she’ll be a valuable customer in years to come, and I wouldn’t want to offend her in any way. And I’m led to believe she would be very upset at my doing business with Miss Bezale here.”

“And your client’s name is…?”

“Miss Selys Shivertail. Owner of the Heartflame Breastplate. I…understand you had an altercation with her?”

Farri leaned against the side of his wagon. It was a bit unprofessional, but there was a glint in his eyes that told Montressa that she wouldn’t be shopping at his cart. Beza wavered.

“Wait. She was the Drake…?”

“Did someone say the Heartflame Breastplate? I’ve been dying to take a look at it! It’s here, in Liscor, right?”

Isceil appeared next to them, tail wagging eagerly. Montressa felt a lump in her stomach. She turned to Isceil.

“Uh—Isceil. Remember the Drake that Palt uh—remember her? Turns out that was the owner of the Heartflame Breastplate.”

“And the niece of Zel Shivertail. And the granddaughter of the Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild.”

Farri threw in helpfully. Beza closed her eyes. Isceil’s tail stopped wagging.

Her? But she was with that bastard Human—”

“Merchant Farri, we had a reason for the incident in question. And we paid off our fine with the Watch. I am extremely sorry for Miss Shivertail’s involvement, but we were pursuing a wanted criminal. If we can still talk about the possibility of—”

Beza looked desperate, but Farri was just shaking his head.

Miss Shivertail is a valued client. And I’m afraid I can’t consider the possibility of business, Miss Bezale. I do wish you a good day! But if you’ll excuse me…”

He ushered the three [Mages] away from his cart. Bezale stepped back. Isceil looked at Montressa, shock written across his face. The [Aegiscaster] felt it herself.

“The Heartflame Breastplate? And that—she had it? The one who was screaming at us?”

“I wanted to see it. I heard you could rent it! My faction wanted to see if she’d consider any offer for it…Archmage Naili is not going to be happy.”

“And I’m out hundreds of gold pieces! Possibly thousands! Damn, damn—”

Beza stomped back to her stall, furious. She whirled as her friends followed her.

“That [Necromancer] has been nothing but trouble, Montressa!”

“You knew we were going after him! Don’t blame me!”

“We should have contacted the Watch!”

“That’s what I—”

Isceil faltered as Beza and Montressa glared at him. He raised his claws in a conciliatory manner.

“Okay, look. We all made mistakes. But what are we going to do? We can’t go after that Pisces in the city—”

Montressa wove a [Hush] spell around them. She glared, turning her head in case one of the [Guards] could read lips.

“We’re going after him, Isceil. And we’ll get him. He won’t stay in Liscor forever. We grab him, and we get the door and Miss Solstice. Those are our orders.”

“We do that and the City Watch will be all over us. And that damn Drake with the spear’s dangerous. I don’t agree that kidnapping her is in our best interests, Montressa.”

Beza folded her arms. Montressa glared up at her.

“How would you do it?”

“Get the [Necromancer] outside the city. That’s simple. Liscor can’t force us to give him back. The Academy will back us on that. Convince Miss Solstice to come with us.”

“Fat chance of that. That damn Human fleshbag threw curry in my eyes! Do you have any idea how much it hurts? I’m with Montressa, let’s kidnap her.”

“You want to try that with Grimalkin of Pallass around?”

The [Mages] fell silent. Montressa glared, clenching her fists.

“We’re getting Pisces. Agreed?”

Beza and Isceil nodded. Montressa took a breath.

“In that case, we’ll debate how to go about Miss Solstice. But the Horns of Hammerad are easier. When they leave Liscor’s jurisdiction, they’re fair game. And guess what? I heard they’re working a job in the Bloodfields.”

Beza’s brows rose.

“Really?”

“Oh yes. In fact, they’re doing the job for Liscor.”

“We can’t go after them there! That’s just as bad, Montressa.”

Isceil argued. Montressa looked at him.

“Of course I agree with that. But they’ll be away from the inn. So if we had a plan—”

She looked at the other two. Beza frowned, eying her waiting customers.

“We’re debating this. Palt and Ulinde will have something to say. It’s all so damn complex. Excuse me! I’m sorry for the delay. One minute please!”

She poked her head out of the magical veil of silence. Isceil frowned.

“Beza’s right. It’s hard. The Bloodfields. Well, I’ve always wanted to see them. How dangerous is this job the adventurers are taking, Montressa?”

“Just escort. I’m going to ask more tonight. But I want to consider it. Or even…well, we’ll talk it over. Where’s Palt and Ulinde?”

“He ran off. Still blubbering about the Halfseekers. As for Palt? You know him. He finds his customers in alleyways.”

Montressa frowned, still worried.

“Just so long as he doesn’t get arrested.”

“Him? Never.”

 

—-

 

Palt had lost the [Guards] following him. It wasn’t hard. Just a few good illusion spells and he vanished, his scent disappeared, his tracks in the dirt disappeared, and the [Guards] who followed him found out they’d been tailing an illusion for the last three minutes. It would have been longer, but the fake Palt had walked through someone.

It didn’t matter. The Centaur was an [Illusionist] and he was good at his job. He was also considering the Erin problem. Not the Pisces one; he was done with being kicked in the face and he had no personal hoof in the [Necromancer] situation. But Erin? His faction was very interested in acquiring at least one Earther.

The Centaur considered the issue. He was part of Montressa’s team and she was a friend. He’d known Calvaron vaguely, and gotten to know Montressa when she and Beatrice formed their secret-broker duo. She was a good sort, but the Pisces incident had cast a shadow over her career. Being friends with two former students, one of whom had been a [Necromancer] and responsible for all those deaths had made her an outcast.

Well, Montressa was haunted, but Palt was still loyal to the Ullsinoi faction. And they wanted an Earther. If he, Palt, got her to join them on his own, that would be a huge feather in his cap.

“Or a cigar in mouth. Hey, you lot. Anyone want tobacco? Dreamleaf? Dreamleaf’s illegal here, right? I’ve got warded packets; smellproof.”

The Centaur looked around. He was not, contrary to what Isceil thought, in an alleyway. Who did business there? In a city full of Gnolls, that was a stupid, stupid idea. He couldn’t believe his team hadn’t even gotten rid of the blood smell. Palt had, and he’d assumed they’d been smart enough to do the same. But then, none of his teammates ever danced with the law. And Palt could do a jig, even with four hooves.

“Hey. I’ll take some of the dreamleaf. This is really, really good.”

A Gnoll drifted over to Palt. She looked really happy; she was trying one of his rolls of the potent stuff. It wasn’t marijuana, or whatever the Earthers called it. Palt had talked with some of them and apparently you smoked the buds of the plant they liked. With dreamleaf, you smoked the leaves; you could roll one up and smoke it. And you dreamed really nice things, hence the name.

“How much do you want?”

“How much for…for ten of these puffers?”

Palt frowned.

“Eight silver per. So that’s…four gold.”

“Four gold? I can’t afford that!”

The Gnoll looked dismayed. Palt sighed. It was sheer robbery, he knew. You could get like, ten dreamleaf leaves per silver piece in the right spots in Baleros. But he was far from Baleros and his supply was limited, so it was actually reasonable in that sense.

“You won’t get better prices anytime soon. Worse, in fact. And you can smoke one of them all day. If you make it last, one can do you for a week. Just smoke it before you sleep. How many?”

“…Two. For the pouches. My brother’ll smell it otherwise.”

The Gnoll fished in her money purse. Others drifted over. Drakes, Gnolls—rich and poor alike. Palt had a select clientele and they knew how to find him. The little apartment he’d convinced the owner to let him use for four joints was cramped, but that helped.

He was sharing his goods, giving free samples, and enjoying himself. In truth, most of his income came from people with coin, but Palt wasn’t about to let poor folks miss out on what he had to offer. He’d been poor, once.

Now the Centaur decided it was time to wrap things up. Before he announced he was leaving in fifteen minutes he took a huge drag on his spliff. He inhaled the smoke into his lungs, and then exhaled, thinking of a Skill. He blew a cloud of smoke and everyone in a fifteen foot radius shared his vibe. And they were good vibes.

Palt was a [Smoker]. Most people knew classes were more than a casual hobby; your class had to define you in some small way for you to obtain it. You had to want it. Even so, they would have doubted you could make your life revolve around smoking or imbibing substances.

They were wrong, of course. The Centaur did good business after that, waving away the pleas for him to stay. He trotted out of the apartment, telling his clients they had ten minutes before his spells wore off to make themselves scarce. He even used a spell to erase the odors and smoke clinging to fur and scales in the room. Nothing like getting half the people arrested to make a bad name for yourself.

“Let’s see. Nice gold profits. Wonder how Beza made out. I’ve got to get more stuff. I can get more for sure in…Oteslia. Damn. Drake cities suck.”

Palt trotted down the street, heading towards the western gates. His [Guards] still hadn’t caught up with him, and the [Illusionist] enjoyed imagining their irritation. Still, he was mostly thinking about good impressions. He had to make them. Palt was ambitious in his own way, and if he could…

It was a shame Erin Solstice didn’t smoke a thing. Not a thing! She’d refused the bag he’d tried to give to her, kicked him out of the inn for his role in abducting her friends. He couldn’t fault her for that, honestly. But a bit of help would have…helped a lot in making amends.

“Would it be a bad idea to accidentally blow some smoke around? Yes. Probably. That’s a good way to lose all your teeth, Palt.”

The Centaur wasn’t taking Erin Solstice lightly, either. Some of his customers had stories about her. So this time, Palt carefully entered Erin’s inn and watched, invisible and scentless and soundless.

She still noticed him. That was the fascinating thing; he saw her head turn as he followed a pair of laughing young Drakes into the inn. She had to be high-level. Higher than any other Earther. He trotted over to one side, watching.

Nice inn. Friendly young Human. Why couldn’t we have stopped here first? Dead gods. Let’s see.

Palt was timing how long it took Erin to locate him. She went back to speaking with the Antinium for a minute, an absent frown on her face. He shuddered, eying the Antinium, but Palt tried not to judge. Friendly. He wanted to be Erin’s friend. He fished in his belt pouch.

Two minutes. After two minutes, Erin Solstice got up and began wandering her inn. She definitely knew something was off. Palt knew he was teaching her to locate him a second time, but he just needed to know how good she was the first time. Just in case. After a minute, she began homing in on him. Before she could figure out more, Palt coughed and sent a [Whisper] towards her.

Miss Solstice. It’s me. Palt. The Centaur. Can we chat?

She jumped and her eyes narrowed. Palt appeared in a corner of the room and she stared at him.

“You! You can’t just—”

“Miss Solstice, please! I’m just trying not to be killed the instant I walk in. Which I understand is a possibility. Before you say anything—may I offer you this? It’s a gift, but a better one than last time.”

The Centaur came forwards with something in his hands. Erin blinked down at it.

“What’s this?”

“Saffron. Cinnamon. Nali-sticks. Some turmeric…I thought it’d be a small addition to your kitchen.”

“What? Saffron? What’s nali?”

Erin’s aggrieved expression turned to one of curiosity. Palt quickly explained, his heart beating faster. He finished with presenting the bundle to her in a flourish.

“It’s just a small gift. A small apology! From me, on behalf of my friends, but mainly me. May I at least stand in your inn?”

He looked entreatingly at Erin. She frowned, her mouth open.

“I—you can’t buy me off! I’m not forgiving you for what you did to Selys and the Horns—”

“Not at all, Miss Erin. Not at all. I take full responsibility. If they come in, I’ll leave. But can we speak? We’ve gotten off on the wrong hoof. I disagree with Montressa going after your friend without alerting the Watch or talking it over. She was sure he’d run for it—and she’s afraid of him. Terrified. We talked about the nightmares?”

“Yes. Yes we did.”

Erin narrowed her eyes at him. But Palt was hopeful; she’d sought him out the first time. After a moment, she jerked her head to the kitchen.

“Come on. You can put the spices in there. That’s a lot of saffron. Isn’t it expensive?”

It was a lot. Palt’s heart sank when he realized Erin had no idea how much the gift was worth. Then again, maybe that helped. He trotted after her, trying to be affable. He wished he could smoke, but she had a Gnoll cub and they were sensitive to smoke. She was sniffing at him with curiosity; she probably smelled all kinds of things on him, despite his spells.

“It’s a bit. But I know good spices are hard to get around Liscor. It’s from my own stash, Miss Solstice. I carry a lot of…herbs.”

“I bet you do. But you can’t smoke saffron, can you?”

Oh, my dear Human, if only you knew the things I’ll smoke. Palt kept his face straight.

“That’s not generally how I use it. But I’m a bit of a [Cook]—amateur, only six levels. Where should I put it?”

“Over there. And if you turn invisible again, I’m throwing a pan next time.”

“Duly noted. I apologize again.”

“And you are leaving if the Horns come in. Or Selys. Or Seborn and Moore. But you can sit at a table. Do you—do Centaurs have chairs?”

Palt frowned.

“Not generally, no. I’ll sit on cushions or the ground. Thank you for your hospitality, Miss Solstice.”

She eyed him up and down.

“I wouldn’t give you any, but Wistram’s trying to bully Pisces. Or get him killed. So we’ll talk. You’re the only [Mage] I’ll talk to out of your stupid team.”

The Centaur heaved a sigh of relief. Success! He followed Erin to a table and sat down with her. He was going to be the most charming, helpful, and friendly he could be. He spread his hands.

“Anything you want, Miss Solstice. I’d like to solve this myself. If you have any questions, to begin with—”

He stopped and stared as something buzzed past his head. Palt’s head ducked so fast he nearly slammed it on the table.

“Miss Solstice! There’s a huge bee in your inn!”

“What? Oh, that’s just Apista.”

“An Ashfire Bee?

Palt stared at Erin in horror. He looked at the bee, noting the enhanced stinger on its backside. No one he’d talked to had warned him about that! He shouldn’t even be surprised, but he eyed it nervously.

“Don’t worry about it! She’s a pet. One of my [Barmaids] owns her. See?”

The Ashfire Bee landed by a window, on a box of flowers. Palt nodded shakily. He turned back to Erin, trying to collect himself—

And then his head slowly swung back around towards the box of flowers. They were yellow, golden, short. Palt would have dismissed them outright, but something in him took notice. An aspect of his class. Not the [Illusionist]. Not the [Cook]. But the [Smoker].

Palt stared at the flowers. Erin was saying something.

“So, look. About the bounty. Is there any way you can get it removed? It’s not fair, and it’ll get people going after Pisces. Hello? Hello. Are you listening to…”

The flowers. Palt stared, forgetting everything for a moment. He stared at the bright yellow buds, golden, watching the Ashfire Bee sip from one. Every instinct in Palt’s body was telling him to smoke it. Or maybe boil it in some peppermint oil extract. You could take it in droplets or—or maybe some goat’s butter. Yes, heat it up, and bake it into…

“Hey!”

Erin poked Palt. He jumped.

“Don’t kill me! Yes! What? Oh!”

He stared at her. The [Innkeeper] stared at him, and followed his gaze. Palt grinned shakily.

“I apologize. I was distracted. But those…flowers. They wouldn’t happen to be interesting in any way, Miss Solstice?”

“Oh no. Oh no. Not again. Those are my flowers. You stay away from them! They’re mine!

Erin shot to her feet. Some of her customers looked up, amused. A Gnoll sitting next to them glanced up as she shook a finger at Palt. He raised his hands.

“Miss Solstice! I’m just asking. I have no idea what they are. But…I er, would like to find out.”

She narrowed his eyes at him.

“Because you’re a stoner.

He had no idea what the word meant—well, he was pretty sure—but she said it like it was an insult. Palt sighed.

“Miss Solstice, there’s nothing dangerous about what I do. I smoke good things.”

“You do drugs! Drugs are bad! Mostly!”

Erin looked uncertain about her own point, but Mrsha was watching. Palt spread his hands.

“Some. But the ones I smoke are usually just good. They make people feel better. And if some people do stronger stuff—well, it’s usually only them it affects. Is there anything wrong in making someone feel good?”

“Well—that’s not the point! I don’t want any in my inn—except for the flowers—and alcohol and—”

Erin hesitated. She looked at Palt.

“Those are my flowers. And dangerous. Actually dangerous, I think.”

“Miss Solstice, I am a [Smoker]. If you’d let me, I’ll take any risk. And I’ll pay you handsomely for the flowers. Beautifully, even.”

Erin stared at Palt as he looked at her, seriously as could be. She raked her hands through her hair. This is not the conversation she wanted! But she had to ask.

“There’s a [Smoker] class? Seriously?”

Palt nodded. He couldn’t take his eyes off the flowers.

“I knew a Lizardgirl, back in Baleros. She could take selpage—that’s a drug, pretty illegal and dangerous—and go for over an hour on one dose. And enhance the effects. Some even use it in battle or…I just smoke. There are some downsides to a few…a lot of the really good—strong ones. Whatever. I know what I thought. Miss Solstice, if I could buy—”

She folded her arms and shook her head.

“Two thousand gold pieces.”

“For one planter box!?”

Palt looked incredulous. Some of the patrons sniggered; they’d heard this before. Erin glared.

“For one bulb. Not the entire flower.”

“What? But that’s—fine.”

Dismayed, Palt realized there was a history here. He let it go, reluctantly, but he was determined to wear her down. If he could have just a few to try—but maybe another day. He turned back to Erin as she sat down.

“My apologies, Miss Solstice. I’m happy to talk about my classes and clear up any misconceptions you want. Or make you a small gift—it’s completely fine. I have something to chew if you—”

She gave him a long look.

“Let’s just talk about Pisces’ fine, okay?”

“Absolutely.”

 

—-

 

The two began talking, and the inn’s patrons went back to their drinks since the Centaur wasn’t going to explode or do anything interesting. But after the regular flow of the inn resumed, someone stood up.

The Gnoll sitting across from Erin and Palt. He wasn’t a regular and he was young. But he’d come to this inn twice now for a purpose. He’d been intending to go after something else, but Palt’s brief exchange with Erin had changed his mind.

In fairness, it was odd no one had come here already. But the inn held a lot of dangers, Relc being a big one. The Gnoll sidled over to the windows with the plant boxes, very casual about how he moved. He’d already paid for his drink, and he was loitering, waiting for a moment.

He was also afraid of Apista, so he went to one of the planter boxes away from where she was clinging to the glass of a window. The Gnoll [Thief] waited for his moment, and then swiftly, his hands blurring with speed, ripped out two pawful of the flowers and stuffed them into a belt pouch.

Apista saw him. He was quick, but she saw everything through her compound eyes. She might have stopped it, but she was experiencing a high that Palt would have failed to even see if he’d looked up on his best day. She wondered what a nose felt like.

The [Thief] hurried away from the box and towards the door, and then caught himself. He moved slowly, casually. And at her table, Erin’s head turned. She stared around, focused on the planter boxes, and her eyes narrowed. But then Erin made a mistake. She’d sensed the theft, but not the thief, so she came to the wrong conclusion. She turned and glared at Palt.

“You thief! You stole my flowers!

“What? No I didn’t!”

At the table the Centaur leaned back as Erin made a fist. The Gnoll [Thief] jumped and hurried for the door. Erin was grabbing at Palt’s shirt and he was protesting—and then Mrsha sat up. She threw her cup, bouncing it off Erin’s arm. The [Innkeeper] turned and Mrsha pointed.

At the dirt trail and the Gnoll going for the door. Erin’s eyes went wide.

“[Thief]! Someone stop him!”

Her patrons looked up. A Drake—the [Veteran] with half a tail, Menolit, grabbed for him, but the [Thief] dodged around him. He scrambled for the door, setting it to Liscor. Erin was charging towards him with Ishkr and Lyonette had grabbed Mrsha as she ran out of the kitchen, but it was too late. The Gnoll disappeared through the door.

 

—-

 

Lyonette du Marquin watched as Erin paced around the inn. She was talking fast, grabbing potions out of her emergency supply box and setting them on the table.

“We’re going to need Mrsha, Lyonette. I promise she’ll be safe! We’ll get the Horns to go with her when they get back. Or—or Moore and Seborn and me!”

“Erin.”

“Then again, that’s way too long! We need to go now! But maybe—is Bevussa or anyone else at the Adventurer’s Guild?”

“Erin, listen—”

“Ishkr can’t fight, so it’ll be me. Bird, too—if we go now, it’s only him and Palt. But if it’s us three—”

Erin!

Lyonette shouted. Erin stopped and turned back. The Centaur [Illusionist] blinked. Bird was flexing his bow, and Erin looked up. She opened her mouth as Lyonette held Mrsha, and the [Princess] glared at the young woman.

“Erin, what are you doing?”

“Going to catch that thief! I can’t let him get away, Lyonette!”

“Right. But why are you doing it?”

“Because I have to. Look, it’s fine. Palt says he’ll come—”

“If I can smoke one of the flowers. Just one.

“—and Bird. And I’ll be safe! You can go to the Adventurer’s Guild—or Drassi. We’ll put the flower boxes upstairs for now and—”

“Just call the Watch. You don’t have to do this yourself and make a huge…”

Erin Solstice!

Lyonette’s second shout stopped Erin again. Lyonette fixed Erin with a look as Erin looked up.

“Erin, this isn’t your job. Call the Watch. Don’t go out and start trouble with…this!”

The younger woman waved at the potions on the table, the frying pan, kitchen knives, acid jar…

The [Innkeeper] paused. She stared at Lyonette. And a metaphorical light bulb went off behind her eyes.

“Oh. I forgot I could do that.”

Lyonette sighed. But she nodded in relief.

“Okay. Ishkr? Go find a [Guard]. Everyone else? Back to your seats! I’ll move the flower beds upstairs.”

Everyone stared at her. The guests sighed. Someone muttered from the back.

“This inn’s no fun anymore.”

“I heard that!”

 

—-

 

“There has been a crime committed in the establishment known as The Wandering Inn. A [Thief] has stolen an item of indeterminate value—golden flowers which are suspected of magical properties. Estimated value per flower may be as high as two hundred individual pieces. The [Thief] is Gnollish, young, male, light blonde fur. He has a seven minute lead and his threat rating is deemed negligible. As Senior Guardsman, you two will follow me, with additional reinforcement if necessary, is any of this unclear?”

Klbkch turned and regarded the two Gnoll [Guards] standing before him. Tkrn and a female Gnoll, both members of Liscor’s City Watch, shook their heads. Klbkch spoke crisply as Erin hovered behind him.

“In that case, we will begin our pursuit. Rest assured, Miss Solstice, we will do our utmost to recover your stolen goods.”

He nodded to the [Innkeeper]. She smiled, looking relieved.

“Thanks, Klbkch! Mrsha says she can smell the flowers. She thinks she can track the trail. If you need to—”

“Rest assured, Miss Erin. The Watch has ample ability to track the quarry ourselves. This is not a matter in which we would endanger civilians.”

Klbkch gestured at the two Gnolls. Erin nodded.

“Okay. Cool?”

She looked like she wanted to follow the Watch as they marched out of the inn. Tkrn was just relieved she hadn’t noticed it was him. The Gnoll’s ears were flat; Mrsha had been staring at him when he’d reported to the scene of the crime. The worst part was that she’d looked afraid, not angry.

“This is your second week on the job, is it not, Junior Guardswoman Jerci?”

The Antinium addressed the female Gnoll as they emerged onto the street in Liscor’s city. The female Gnoll jumped and glanced up at the Antinium. Warily; that showed she was new. She had an earring in her right ear and she’d dyed her fur black, creating artful slashes down one arm.

None of that was against Watch regulations, but it definitely made her look young; no one who served in the Watch long bothered with dyes since it would just get messed up. And the earring would catch in a fight. Tkrn would have warned this female Gnoll, but—he hesitated as she snapped a salute.

“Yes, Senior Guardsman Klbkch. I just completed my mandatory training, sir!”

She stared down at the Antinium, clearly uneasy at working with him. Not afraid; Jerci was clearly a native of Liscor, but it was one thing to know the Antinium were in your city, and another to interact with one.

Until recently, Klbkch had been the only Antinium who had a name. Or spoke. And Tkrn still remembered the rules about Antinium he’d been taught. Don’t ask their names, tell them what to do—don’t go near the Hive entrance for any reason.

But the times were changing. Klbkch nodded briskly.

“In that case, I will attempt to educate you while we begin pursuit. Junior Guardsman Tkrn, will you begin locating the [Thief]!”

“Yes, Senior Guardsman!”

Tkrn snapped to attention. He flushed as Jerci glanced sideways at him. He inhaled, trying to find the [Thief]’s scent in the air. He could smell the soil from Erin’s pots, and the flowers, but he wasn’t as good as a Plains Gnoll, much less a child like Mrsha. Even so.

“The trail’s there, but faint, Senior Guardsman. This way.”

He pointed. Klbkch nodded.

“Junior Guardswoman Jerci, do you confirm the scent?”

“I do, Senior Guardsman.”

Jerci nodded, not glancing Tkrn’s way. If she was leery of Klbkch, she didn’t even acknowledge Tkrn’s presence. She was a fellow Gnoll, but she refused to so much as look at the other Gnoll. Tkrn lowered his head.

He was in disgrace. Most people didn’t know why; they wouldn’t have guessed it, looking at him, as he led the way down the street after the [Thief]’s smell. But Tkrn felt like his crime was written in paint on his face.

During the last days of Liscor’s election, Tkrn had been—he’d participated in, but tried to halt—he’d been party to the torture and attempted murder of a prisoner. Calruz, the Minotaur. The incident had been largely hushed up, but all the Gnolls knew. And so did the Watch. The [Guards] who had participated in the crime had all been fired—save for Tkrn. And the civilians had been jailed, ironically in the very prison that had held Calruz. It wasn’t the hardest sentence, but some [Guards] who’d served in the Watch for as many as eight years had been let go.

Tkrn was the one exception, and some days he felt like he’d have preferred to have been fired with the rest of them. But he’d tried to stop the torture and the execution at the end. And protect Mrsha when she’d appeared in the prison. When the [Guards] had resisted arrest, he’d helped take them down. That was the only reason he still had a job. The only reason, Captain Zevara had said.

Honored Krshia had appealed his case personally. Even so, Tkrn’s pay was almost nothing for the next month, he’d been demoted to the lowest-level of [Guardsman]—like he was a new recruit, and he was on his last chance. He couldn’t even resume his regular duties, hence being assigned to today’s patrol under Klbkch’s direction.

The Antinium strode down the street, following Tkrn. They were moving fast; not at a run, but almost. Tkrn shouted.

“Watch in pursuit! Clear the way!”

Pedestrians obligingly stepped out of his path. He scented the air—this time Jerci pointed.

“That way.”

She glared challengingly at him. Klbkch turned to Tkrn and the Gnoll nodded. He hurried down a side street, and glanced sideways at Jerci. The female Gnoll he was working with was new. She kept staring at Klbkch when she thought the Antinium wasn’t looking. And glaring at him. He wanted to say something, but she’d rebuffed him twice when he’d tried to talk.

Klbkch was the first to speak as they entered another street and headed left.

“Guardswoman Jerci, what is your combat rating?”

“Um, basic, Senior Guardsman. I have no classes outside of [Guard] and [Soldier] at Level 1.”

“Understood. If there is combat, place yourself behind Guardsman Tkrn or I.”

“Yes, Senior Guardsman. W-will there be fighting?”

She looked nervous as she put a paw on the baton she’d been issued. Tkrn had a sword and a club himself. He knew she had to be nervous; the Watch drilled their new recruits until they were decent enough to swing a baton, but until Jerci had a lot more training, she wouldn’t be ready to take on anything stronger than a Shield Spider. Hence why Junior Guards weren’t allowed to patrol outside of squads.

Klbkch shook his head briskly.

“Doubtful. The [Thief] is not likely to put up resistance.”

“Yes, Senior Guardsman. May I ask a question?”

“Go ahead.”

Up another street. Tkrn’s eyes narrowed. They were heading southeast. And if he was right, the poorer area of Liscor.

“Why aren’t we running, Senior Guardsman? This [Thief] could be far away.”

“Yes, Junior Guardswoman Jerci. But Liscor is a finite space. We will not rush into a trap, nor exhaust ourselves if a chase is needed. The [Thief] will not flee out of any gate, and so they will eventually be found if the scent trail endures.”

“Yes, Senior Guardsman. I see. And if we find him? I’m not issued with a truth stone, and the [Guardswoman] who taught me said we needed—”

“I have the [Detect Guilt] Skill among a few others. It is useful in determining guilt. However, my ability is easily foiled by high-level criminals. Regardless, we are allowed to make arrests based on our judgment.”

“Yes, Senior Guardsman.”

They were all basic questions. Stupid ones, really, the kind that Tkrn had asked in his first year of training. He glanced back at Klbkch.

“This way, Senior Guardsman.”

The Gnolls moved fast, and Klbkch followed them with ease. He wore two silvery swords at his side and his movement was graceful. He stopped as Tkrn came to an alley and swore.

“Guardsman Tkrn.”

“The trail goes into here, Guardsman. But—”

Tkrn gestured. The alleyway had only one end. But no one was there. Tkrn advanced, paw on his club, but he knew what had happened already. Seeing the small mound of soil just confirmed it.

“The [Thief]’s scent-duped us, Senior Guardsman.”

“I see. Do you have any direct clues?”

“None. Not a bit of fur or anything.”

Frustrated, Tkrn studied the alleyway. Jerci looked confused as she stared at Tkrn and at Klbkch.

“Scent-duped…?”

“Colloquial slang, Junior Guardswoman Jerci. Gnoll [Guards] use it to refer to a [Thief] who has dropped a scent-bomb or used some other trick to eradicate their smell. Or created a false trail.”

“This one wasn’t false. But he got rid of the soil and dropped something on him. Probably a smell-destroying potion.”

Tkrn rubbed his nose. Why did [Alchemists] sell them? Oh, right. Because living with horrible smells in a city would drive Gnolls crazy otherwise. Klbkch studied the alleyway and then walked out into the street. Some of the residents looked sideways at Tkrn and Klbkch and accelerated their pace.

Liscor was a fairly safe city, but there was always crime. And being a [Guardsman] meant you learned a lot about people. Tkrn could recognize faces and recite crimes, both petty and…not. It meant a lot of the Watch formed friendships within the Watch. And it also meant his disgrace cut deeper. Tkrn looked sideways at Klbkch, wondering if the Antinium would accept his opinion.

“Senior Guardsman, your orders?”

“Attempt to pick up the scent, Guardsman Tkrn, Guardswoman Jerci. I will canvass the street. Guardswoman Jerci, observe how I work.”

The Gnolls nodded. They listened and sniffed hard, but the [Thief] was canny. A fellow Gnoll knew how to disguise their scent. Meanwhile, Klbkch was stopping Drakes and Gnolls. His questions were short and polite.

“Good morning, sir. We are in pursuit of a criminal. Did you observe a Gnoll male, about nineteen years of age, blonde fur, exiting or entering this alley?”

“Good morning, ma’am. No, you are not in any trouble. I would simply like to ask—”

“Have you smelled any Gnoll bearing flowers in the last ten minutes, Miss?”

Gnolls and Drakes shook their heads. One had smelled flowers, but they’d been lilacs. Klbkch returned to the two [Guards].

“Very well, let us analyze the situation. I was lied to thrice in my questioning, but no incident pertains to the theft in my judgment. The [Thief]’s proximity to this area indicates to me that he is attempting to unload his items as quickly as possible, hence a [Fence] or other contact in the area. Given the nature of his goods, I believe there are four [Fences] in Liscor who would do business with him. We may pursue each [Fence] directly and follow any rumors of a [Theft], or attempt to locate nearby criminals; the Gnoll [Thief] may have made use of a safe house.”

Both Gnolls blinked at him. Tkrn was impressed, but used to it; Jerci looked amazed. Klbkch glanced at Tkrn.

“Guardsman Tkrn. Your opinion?”

“I—I think the Gnoll’s in hiding, Senior Guardsman. He knows Relc goes to The Wandering Inn and if he thinks Relc’s on his tail, he’s not going to try to sell quickly.”

“I agree. Guardswoman Jerci? State any thoughts you have without fear of judgment.”

“Um—um—is Relc with you, Senior Guardsman Klbkch? I thought you two were partners.”

Klbkch shook his head.

“Senior Guardsman Relc is enjoying his scheduled vacation due to scheduling conflicts. Very well. In that case, I accede to Guardsman Tkrn’s line of reasoning. One moment. Before we leave, let us conduct one last search of the alleyway. Tkrn, instruct Guardswoman Jerci about bolt hole and invisibility protocol.”

So saying, Klbkch’s antennae began to wave and he stepped back. Tkrn stared, but then he turned to Jerci. She gave him an unfriendly look. Tkrn tried to smile.

“Invisibility protocol is searching the alleyway in case we think our quarry is invisible, Guardswoman Jerci. We move so they can’t slip around us section by section. Like—”

“I know how to do it.”

Jerci ignored him trying to show her. Tkrn’s tail drooped. Silently, he moved like she did, keeping his arms outstretched, low to the ground so that he wouldn’t miss the [Thief] if they were crouching. He really doubted the [Thief] was stuck to a wall and above them, but he checked high too as he moved slowly down the alleyway.

“No sewer entrances. No disguised bolt holes I can see, or hidden doors.”

“There wouldn’t be any here. Right?”

Jerci looked scornful. It was Klbkch who spoke up; his antennae were still moving in an oddly rhythmic fashion.

“Advanced [Thieves] may make use of completely invisible rooms, trap doors, and so on, Guardswoman Jerci. The Watch actively pursues such hideouts, but they are known to exist. The suggestion is improbable given the estimated level of our [Thief], but not impossible.”

“Oh. Sorry, Senior Guardsman.”

“I am not the one you should be apologizing to.”

Tkrn glanced up at Klbkch. Jerci blushed beneath her fur and muttered something that sounded like an apology to Tkrn. The two Gnolls returned to the Antinium and he nodded.

“We will abandon direct pursuit of the [Thief] for the moment. Junior Guardswoman Jerci, if need be we would call for backup in the form of a [Guard] experienced in tracking at this stage, but there are other leads to follow. I have a lead. There is a meeting of…criminals two blocks southeast. Follow me.”

Tkrn and Jerci stared at Klbkch. Jerci glanced at Tkrn, and he shrugged, mystified. How had Klbkch known that? But then again, why not? Klbkch was a Senior Guardsman, and that meant he was the best the Watch had to offer.

He had information sources, experience, and a professional demeanor. He was also the fourth-best [Guardsman] in the city when it came to combat prowess. And that had been before he’d changed bodies! Tkrn had seldom worked with him, but now he saw why the Antinium was so well thought-of.

“How do you know about the criminals, Senior Guardsman Klbkch?”

“A [Guard] will cultivate their information sources and Skills, Guardswoman Jerci.”

That wasn’t an answer, Tkrn realized. But then Klbkch was raising a hand, slowing as he came to a series of older buildings. This was close as Liscor had to a slum; some abandoned buildings that hadn’t been repaired, owned by [Landlords] who didn’t care so much as long as they got something for their properties.

The door Klbkch had stopped at had no lights from beneath the cracks, nor sound from within that Tkrn could hear. Nevertheless, it was the one. Klbkch turned his head and drew a single finger across his mandibles. That was code for ‘silence’. Jerci and Tkrn fell silent. Tkrn tapped his side.

Ready for combat. But don’t draw. Tkrn grabbed Jerci’s paw and shook her head. She tried to glare, but she was suddenly nervous. Klbkch signed they should hold back. Then he turned the door, and knocked on it.

“Liscor’s City Watch. Senior Guardsman Klbkch, to investigate a crime. Open the door.”

His voice rang overly loud in the streets. Tkrn uneasily looked around. He realized this small street was empty; the residents had cleared out in front of the Watch. The hairs all over his body tried to stand up. The Watch ruled in Liscor, not crime, like in some cities. Even so, you could get jumped…

The door remained closed. Klbkch made a clicking sound.

“Refusal to cooperate with the Watch is a felony. We are aware of your presence. All six of you. Two Gnolls, four Drakes. If you do not open this door within five—”

The door opened. A big Gnoll appeared in the doorway. Not he—she. Tkrn gulped; he noticed the steel-clawed knuckles on one paw. A Gnoll wearing that could shred anything she swung at.

“We haven’t done anything.”

Klbkch didn’t’ step back. He pointed at the claw-knuckles.

“Open display of a weapon is forbidden. Please remove the knuckles now. You are not under arrest…Miss Bearclaw. Nor are your associates. I am inquiring into a theft unrelated to your activities.”

The Gnoll stared. She looked over her shoulder and Tkrn’s sharp ears heard a muffled curse from within. Bearclaw backed up. Her fur was dark brown, mixed with red. It wasn’t neatly combed, and Tkrn thought he saw long, uneven patches amid the fur. Scars, hidden by the fur. Lots of them. Tkrn was thinking fast as she narrowed her eyes.

Bearclaw. She looked like trouble, so she had to be a career criminal. Not some [Thug]. The Watch would remember someone like her—she had to be new to Liscor.

New indeed, because she looked like she might go for Klbkch rather than drop the knuckles. She sniffed and her eyes fell on Tkrn and Jerci. The presence of two other [Guards] didn’t seem to faze her, but she was wary of Klbkch. The Antinium watched her, hands on his waist.

“Miss Bearclaw, I will give you five seconds to comply. Remove the knuckles. Now.”

“Bearclaw—”

A voice from within. The Gnoll whirled, snarling.

Fine.

She slammed the door. Tkrn exhaled, looking at Klbkch. The Antinium glanced back. He nodded at Jerci, who looked very nervous.

“My assumption was inaccurate. I would have called for backup if I was aware of Miss Bearclaw, Junior Guardswoman.”

“Yes, Senior Guardsman? Should we—”

The door thrust open. Bearclaw loomed again, but bereft of the metal knuckles. It didn’t fill Tkrn with comfort, but a Drake was standing behind her. Tkrn recognized the Drake.

“Mister Soot.”

Klbkch greeted one of the city’s more notorious [Fences]. The ashy-scaled Drake glared at him.

“Senior Guardsman Klbkch, we’ve done nothing wrong. We’re just having a civilized meeting. What do you want?”

“Simply an inquiry. Something was stolen at The Wandering Inn thirty minutes ago. A Gnoll [Thief], blonde fur, young. We would like to know where he is.”

“What’d he steal?”

Bearclaw grinned, exposing her teeth behind Mister Soot. The Drake nudged her, then he smiled unconvincingly at Klbkch.

“I’m certain I have no idea where the [Thief]—”

“Mister Soot. Any help you would be willing to give our investigation would be welcome. Lies are a waste of time.”

“I’m certain—”

“If I am not satisfied with my answer, I may find a reason to enter your abode and look around. Purely on the grounds of furthering my investigation.”

Bearclaw’s grin turned into a snarl of alarm. Mister Soot paused. He stared at Klbkch and then at Tkrn and Jerci. The Antinium lowered his hands a tiny bit towards his sword hilts. The Drake inhaled, and then snapped.

“Alright, alright! You didn’t hear it from me. Where’d you lose him?”

“Thericiam Avenue.”

Tkrn breathed. Mister Soot glared at him. His eyes lids flickered.

“Try Saucy’s Bar. That’s all I know. Is that enough?”

“Yes.”

“Then get l—”

The huge Gnoll slammed the door before Tkrn heard the rest. Jerci and Tkrn winced, and Klbkch stepped back. He looked at them.

“Saucy’s Bar?”

“Saucy, the Drake owner?”

“Ah, of course. Miss Saurisi. Very well, patrol, with me. Guardswoman Jerci, don’t look back over your shoulder.”

Klbkch strode down the street. Tkrn was only too happy to follow. His [Dangersense] was going off. Indeed, Klbkch wasted no time. When they were six streets away he paused and turned to them.

“That was an error on my part, Guardswoman Jerci. I did not intend to take you into such a dangerous encounter. I had assumed Mister Soot was meeting with his associates. I was unfamiliar with this Miss Bearclaw. Guardsman Tkrn, did you take note of her scent?”

“Yes, Senior Guardsman. I have it.”

Tkrn rubbed his nose. Klbkch nodded briskly. At this point the young Gnoll burst out.

“What was that back there, Senior Guardsman?”

She was shaking with nerves. Jerci looked at both [Guards]. Klbkch’s head turned to Tkrn.

“This is speculation, but I believe Mister Soot was welcoming Bearclaw into Liscor. I would mark her as a wanted criminal. Would you agree, Guardsman Tkrn?”

“Oh yes. She looks like a Plains Gnoll. Criminal. Did you see her scars?”

“Indeed. It was my miscalculation and I placed both of you in danger. Had Senior Guardsman Relc been with me, we would have attempted to question or apprehend Bearclaw over pursuit of the [Thief]. Given your presence, I decided to pursue the safer lead. We will begin investigation of Bearclaw at once, however, upon our return to the Watch barracks.”

Jerci gulped. She was beginning to realize how close they’d come to a fight.

“W—should we have called for backup?”

“Right there? With two Gnolls? They’d have gutted us before a patrol got here.”

Klbkch nodded.

“Even if we sounded an alarm after retreating, we would have no time to pursue Mister Soot and his associates. By now, they will have vacated the room and left us no trace.”

“How did you know they were there, Klbkch?”

Tkrn looked at Klbkch. The Antinium turned his head.

“I had a piece of information, Tkrn. But we are wasting time. To Miss Saucy’s. Relc and I will find Bearclaw another day.”

“Could you take her?”

The Gnolls followed Klbkch. The Antinium looked back at Tkrn and nodded.

“I would not wish to place you two in danger. Mister Soot is also armed. The situation did not favor us. That was all.”

Jerci’s eyes went wide. She stared as Klbkch walked faster, leading the way to Saucy’s Bar, a place Tkrn knew fairly well. The Gnoll whispered to Jerci.

“He’s the best [Swordsman] in the city. Even better than Jeiss is with his blade.”

“Guardsman Tkrn, gossip is frowned upon.”

“Sorry.”

 

—-

 

Saucy’s Bar was another test for Klbkch’s patrol. It was a dive, and it could have held any number of people who wouldn’t be fans of the Watch. So Klbkch ordered the Gnolls to stay outside with instructions to blow their whistles if they heard a commotion.

“I can’t believe he’s going in alone. Is he crazy?”

“He normally goes into places with Relc. They could tear this bar apart together.”

But alone? Tkrn had to admit, he wasn’t sure if Klbkch was insane. He listened, hearing Klbkch’s voice from within and a flustered female Drake. Saucy herself. But there was no fight. Klbkch walked out five minutes later.

“I have a name and a location. Reric Feltpaw. He lives nearby. He entered this bar fifteen minutes ago and attempted to locate a buyer for the flowers he stole from Miss Solstice.”

“Wait, he did? But that’s so stupid.

Klbkch shrugged slightly.

“It appeared to be a spur of the moment theft. This [Thief] was also unprepared to make his sale. Intriguingly, we may have prevented said sale by encountering Mister Soot; he is the nearest [Fence] capable of taking the goods.”

“And he sold this [Thief] out rather than get involved himself.”

Jerci’s eyes widened in comprehension. Tkrn nodded, spelling out the rest.

“Especially because Bearclaw would have started a fight and he’d have been arrested on attempted murder charges.”

“Exactly. Our fortune was in locating Mister Soot after losing the trail, Junior Guardswoman Jerci. Had Relc and I been in pursuit, he would have attempted to succeed in the foot chase and we would have confronted Bearclaw. But in regular patrols, I would caution you to avoid such situations without a superiority of force. This is a representation of Watch work, not an example to be followed. Is that clear?”

“As glass, Senior Guardsman. What do we do now?”

Jerci smiled, relaxing at last. Klbkch opened his mandibles and raised them slightly.

“Now? We apprehend the criminal.”

 

—-

 

The door to Reric’s apartment was closed and locked. Tkrn shrugged; he could hear movement inside. No doubt he was being smelled and heard from within. He took a deep breath, then pounded on the door.

“This is the Watch! Open up!”

He heard a sound, an indrawn breath, and then flurried movement. Tkrn stepped back, ready for the door to burst open. But Reric didn’t come out the front.

He went out the window. There was no crash of glass. In fact the Gnoll quickly and quietly slipped out the window into the alleyway, neatly evading Tkrn—

And running into Jerci and Klbkch, who were poised at the alleyway. The [Thief] saw Jerci’s as she sprang out and dodged around her with an oath. Klbkch stuck out a foot and Reric went flying.

“Next time, Guardswoman Jerci, I would advise you to rush him. You may apprehend the [Thief] now.”

“Yes, Senior—”

Jerci fell on the [Thief], tackling him and placing a knee in his back. By the time Tkrn had raced to the alleyway, the [Thief] was groaning and kneeling, Jerci on top. Klbkch nodded to Tkrn and addressed the fallen Gnoll.

“You are under arrest for petty theft. Junior Guardsman Tkrn, Junior Guardswoman Jerci. Are you confident in your ability to transport the prisoner to the barracks?”

“Yes, Senior Guardsman!”

Tkrn saluted as Jerci looked up. She stammered an affirmative and Klbkch stepped back.

“Then do so, with the correct protocol. From the beginning.”

He didn’t leave, but he watched without lifting a hand to help or saying a word, his arms crossed. Tkrn cuffed the Gnoll, showing Jerci how to make sure he didn’t get away before they could place his paws in manacles. He called out an explanation to the few citizens who wanted to know what had gone on, collected Erin’s flowers from Reric’s belt, and then Jerci and Tkrn marched the [Thief] towards the Watch house.

Klbkch watched, nodding as Jerci helped Tkrn. He only corrected them once.

“Junior Guardswoman Jerci, protocol for [Guards] in the City Watch is to allow as few [Guards] as necessary to accompany the prisoner. Your position should be back and to the side, to better react and watch for other possible crimes or interferences with Junior Guardsman Tkrn.”

“Oh. I—where do I go?”

Flustered, Jerci moved back. Klbkch pointed and she stood there, flushing. She reached for her baton, and then looked at Klbkch questioningly.

“Should I draw my weapon, Senior Guardsman?”

The Antinium shook his head patiently as Tkrn wrenched up the [Thief]’s arms, cutting off a whining protest.

“This is only a precaution. If you believe you are in any danger, Junior Guardswoman, you should immediately request backup and hold your position or secure a safer location depending on the threat presented.”

“I see, sir. Then…”

Jerci glanced at Tkrn. He stared at Klbkch, but the Antinium had gone back to observational mode. Well, Tkrn had handled arrests. He shot a glance at her over his shoulder as Reric whimpered; they were heading into populated streets and some of Liscor’s citizens were staring at the [Thief] as he was marched forwards.

“Guardswoman, will you clear the way?”

“Oh. Right. Um—Watch delivering a criminal! Stand aside, please!”

They made good progress after that. Tkrn watched with some satisfaction as Reric was thrown into the holding cell and he presented the flowers that had been the object of his desires. Klbkch was filling out paperwork with the [Guardswoman] in charge. Beilmark. She was on desk duty, which was rare for a Senior Guardswoman, but Tkrn supposed her partner, Jeiss, was on the Council duty.

“We are also reporting the presence of a possible career criminal known as Bearclaw. I estimate her to be anywhere from Level 20 to Level 30 and quite dangerous. She was armed with a claw-knuckle and meeting with Mister Soot down Greas street.”

Beilmark swore and growled.

“Soot’s got her? Dead gods, of all the times for Relc not to be your partner! What do you think, [Thug]?”

“Possibly. But she seemed to be a leader of sorts. She may be attempting to secure some item. Or form a gang. I did not wish to attempt to apprehend her with Guardsman Tkrn and Junior Guardsman Jerci present.”

“I’ll alert the patrols. Does one of you have her scent?”

Tkrn gulped.

“I do, Senior Guardswoman Beilmark.”

The Gnoll woman eyed Tkrn and his ears flattened. But Klbkch spoke crisply.

“Is that all, Beilmark? I must sign out; my shift is ending.”

“Oh, that’s all, Klbkch. I’ll take this to the Captain. She’s not going to be pleased about this.”

“Is her mood that much worse than usual?”

Klbkch was undoing his Watch armor. Beilmark grinned, familiar with him.

“One of the Wistram [Mages] came by. The Human, with a gift for the Watch Captain.”

“Ah. Well, perhaps the knowledge that this Bearclaw is linked to Mister Soot will calm her. He would be implicated with her crimes if the link can be found.”

“That’d make my day. What was the meeting about?”

“Arming his associates with wands. And some of the illicit substances imported by Palt the Centaur. Dreamleaf. Not worth pursuing.”

“You sure we can’t get him for that?”

Klbkch paused and shook his head.

“The Watch Captain will not wish to fight Wistram over the issue. I would keep it between us.”

Beilmark sighed.

“Go on, then.”

Klbkch returned to Jerci and Tkrn. The female Gnoll was staring at him, and she jumped to attention as he addressed her.

“Guardswoman Jerci, do you believe this patrol was instructional?”

“Yes, sir! I learned a lot!”

She bared her teeth in a Gnoll’s grin. Klbkch smiled slightly, then looked past her.

“Good. And in the future, Junior Guardswoman Jerci, your companion, Junior Guardsman Tkrn, would be more competent than I in law enforcement as it pertains to Gnolls. He has served in the Watch for over a year and two months. You may ask him about such details on your patrol. The Market Street patrol, Guardsman Tkrn.”

It was one of the easier patrols, where the worst was [Pickpockets], arguments, and petty theft. But Tkrn stared at Klbkch along with Jerci.

“Patrol? But Senior Guardsman, two Junior Guards can’t patrol by themselves…”

The Antinium shook his head. Beilmark was looking up from her desk, and Klbkch raised his voice, addressing the Watch in the barracks as he stared at Tkrn.

“Junior Guardsman Tkrn. Your demotion does not affect your competence. Watch Captain Zevara had found issue with your understanding of the ethics of your duties, not your ability to carry out orders. Continue your patrol. I must sign out.”

“Thanks.”

Tkrn whispered the word. Klbkch nodded at him and returned to the desk to fill out his name and time. Tkrn stepped back and looked at Beilmark. She raised her eyebrows and waved him out.

Klbkch strode out of the Watch barracks, done with his shift. Jerci and Tkrn followed. And that was it. He hadn’t said a word about the jail incident like Beilmark and Jeiss had. Or…anyone else. Tkrn stared longingly at Klbkch’s back. He’d even stood up for Tkrn.

Jerci looked just as impressed. She followed Tkrn as he walked down the street, nodding to people who called out to him. She was so distracted she forgot herself and spoke to him.

“Wow. I thought he was supposed to be part of the worst Senior Guard pairing in the city.”

Tkrn grinned absently.

“That’s Relc you’re thinking of. It’s because Klbkch is his partner that they work. And to be fair, they’re the best at taking down dangerous problems. That’s normally how they’re assigned. Relc’s like…the Watch’s not-so-secret weapon.”

He saw her glance sideways at him, and then bare her teeth in a challenge. Tkrn’s heart sank, but then Jerci jerked her head towards the street.

“Well? You’re my senior. Explain things since we have to patrol together.”

They began to walk together. Tkrn found himself talking to Jerci. She was still snappish, but she was asking questions now, all the ones he remembered wanting to ask. Most were familiar and she ended up taking her ear piercing out, but then she threw a new one at him.

“What about the inn? The inn. Everyone tells me there’s special protocols I should follow.”

Tkrn blinked. Then he grinned. He shook his head. Jerci looked suspiciously at him.

“What’s so funny?”

“That’s just a joke they play on the rookies. There’s no special protocol. She’s just…Erin, yeah? You see that Human do anything, you call it in. And no one goes to the inn without a full squad’s worth of support if there’s trouble. Usually we just send Relc in. With that said, there’s lots of competition for patrolling the area around the inn so we won’t be able to get that slot.”

“Why?”

“Free. Food.”

Oh.

“You and I should go to the inn after your patrol ends. You’re new, so she’ll give you something on the house. If you ask right, and it’s not Lyonette, she might even give you something to take back and share with your friends or family.”

Jerci brightened.

“Really? I hear it’s expensive.”

“For some of it, like ice cream, yeah. But regular food is good and cheap. And there are plays. Want to go?”

“I—sure. Hey. Listen. Everyone’s talking about it, but no one has the full story. So—can I ask what really happened in the prison?”

Tkrn hesitated and his stomach twisted as Jerci looked at him. But it was the question he had to answer. No, one he wanted to answer. And no one had asked until now. He took a deep breath.

“What really happened? Short is I screwed up, no? I mean, yeah? Long of it is hard.”

“Well, we’ve got a patrol. Tell me. It was about the Minotaur, right? And the Raskghar.

“Yeah. All the old Gnolls are really upset about them. And I—I made a mistake. Because I was listening to them and I didn’t behave like a [Guardsman] should. What happened was this.”

Tkrn began to speak as they walked along. It hurt, like plucking a thorn, but the pain was cathartic. He saw Jerci glancing at him, listening. Judging, but listening. Tkrn walked through Liscor, listening to the city about him, and wondered what crazy thing that Human would do next. But then, Erin wasn’t all of Liscor. Bearclaw, Klbkch, the Watch—there was more to life than her. She just made things even more interesting.

Tkrn exhaled. And he felt a bit better.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – Talia

The roads of Izril were not made of stone. In most places, they were dirt, packed and worn smooth by travel, but prey to the elements. It was a sign that Izril had not yet been fully developed. Far from it. While the Drakes and Gnolls occupied most of southern Izril, the Humans who had taken the north had yet to fully claim every part of their half.

Like Baleros, the deserts of Chandrar, and the highest mountains, deepest valleys and caverns and of course, the vast sea, parts of the world were simply unknown. A place for [Explorers] and [Travellers] to seek, or the truest sort of adventurers. The ones who actually earned the class, [Adventurer].

And yet, perhaps it wasn’t that Izril lay unclaimed, but that what had once been occupied land had reverted to wilderness over the passing of countless years. For once, Dragons had flown Izril’s skies. Once, the north had held Walled Cities of their own. But they were long gone. And so Izril was untamed and the roads were dirt by decay as much as vastness.

Not so in Terandria. Many roads were stone, owing to the ancient kingdoms which endured. Memory and tradition in Terandria mattered more. So the roads were stone. In Chandrar, some roads were stone, but the relentless sand and deserts wore down even the most sturdy edifices. And in Baleros? The jungle encroached, and where civilization reigned, there were fine trade routes, meticulously maintained, modern. And where there was jungle, a dirt road was a luxury.

Rhir had roads only behind the walls. If the Demons had roads, well, Talia Kallinad had never heard. Surely they must. But the [Summer Knight], elder sister to Wil Kallinad and potentially heir to the Kallinad family if she married, had never visited Rhir. Someday she would. As a member of the Order of Seasons, she had sworn to champion righteous causes and fight monsters and evil wherever she found it.

As a Knight of the Summer she was even more dedicated to that ideal than her peers. Her nature was fire and heat. The Summer Knights burned like their season, shining brightly and challenging monsters wherever they roamed.

Perhaps it was silly, an old ideal. [Knights]? Crusades? To many, Talia’s class and the ideals of her Order were older, a relic of bygone days when Dragons were plentiful. But there was still a place in the world for [Knights], Talia knew, and not just on Terandria.

And yet, here she was. The young woman’s head dipped, and she gazed down at the horse she was riding. The mare was unaccustomed to her and prone to drifting left across the dirt road. Talia absently corrected her, regretting that her warhorse, a mare trained to fight alongside her mistress, was thousands of miles distant, in the Order of Seasons. But Talia had left the Order, and the road back was long.

Long, and painful. She glanced to one side and saw a flash of silver and green. A [Knight] rode to her left. Not a [Summer Knight] as she was, but a fellow member of the Order of Seasons. He was a [Spring Knight], sworn to the Season of Spring.

Normally, the youngest season, generally comprised of junior knights who were finding their path, were overeager, ready to do what was necessary, as befitted their nature. But at the moment, the young [Knight]’s head was bowed. Like Talia, he was not wearing a helmet, and she could see the anger and shame written across his features. And it was mirrored across the rest of their company.

Nineteen. Thirteen of them were clad in spring’s bright colors, and six in the shining gold and orange and yellow of summer. That was how many [Knights] rode down the dirt trail. Each wore the armor of their Season, spring and summer, and each was armed for battle. Spears, javelins, morning stars, swords, shields, lances—their equipment was as varied as could be.

They were experts in combat, and indeed, the few travellers they met stared at so many [Knights]. But the Order of Seasons was not riding on a grand crusade. For one thing, most of their horses were poorly trained for combat, having been bought from the nearest stables. For another—Talia’s hand clenched as she gently steered the mare back on track—they had been on said grand crusade against evil. And they had…failed.

Nearly a week past, the Order of Seasons had gone to war with one of the greatest enemies of their Order. The Stitch Witch, Belavierr, who had haunted Terandria past the reach of any living memory. To slay her, Ser Reim and a group of [Hunters] had come from Terandria, making use of a grand magic to travel across the world and slay her. Talia and the rest of the [Knights] had come after them, to fight Belavierr’s creations and safeguard Ser Reim and the [Hunters] until they could slay Belavierr.

They had failed. Failed, for treachery had ended the [Hunters]. And the Stitch Witch had threatened the Order of Seasons while keeping hostages to ensure her survival. Ser Reim had died trying to slay her. And so Talia and the rest of the Order had been forced to watch as Belavierr walked away. They had been ordered to avoid pursuing her and return home.

That was the background that led Talia and her company riding across Izril’s dirt roads. Each had fought Belavierr’s minions. Some bore new scars; Talia herself had a nearly-perfectly healed scar on her left leg, from an enchanted arrow that had gone straight through the plain, unenchanted steel of her armor. She didn’t begrudge the slight line of a scar at all, but she was tormented by her failure.

Ser Reim was dead. The [Hunters] were dead. And here she was, thousands of miles from home having failed to slay Belavierr. All that effort and magic and lives! Wasted for nothing!

Her companions shared Talia’s mood. To say they were discontented was to fail to describe their mood in every sense of the word. In fact, in the last seven days, they had barely spoken. But at last, one of them began to speak.

“Brothers and sisters, what shall we say upon our return? I cannot think of how I shall look at my comrades. Nor do I feel worthy of the crest I bear.”

Talia looked up and saw a dark-skinned man, Ser Raist of the Season of Summer, gesturing at his shield. The radiant sigil upon his armor shone in the light as he shifted on his horse.

For a moment, the other [Knights] looked up, surprised at the voice after so much silence. But then they turned to Ser Raist. Talia gritted her teeth. Raist was newest to the Season of Summer out of all six [Summer Knights] present, including herself. She wished he hadn’t voiced his opinions so; it was the kind of thing one of the Spring Knights would have said.

The Season of Summer was like an older sibling to the Season of Spring, usually, and their [Knights] tried to be mentors and teachers, at least in the art of war and valor to their juniors. Still, he was a fellow member of her Season, so she respected his opinion and nodded at him.

“Your guilt is shared among us all, Ser Raist. But as to how we shall return—surely you jest? We must return speaking of what we have seen! Shouting the glory of the battle we witnessed, the treachery and failure. But above all—the glory of it.”

“The glory, Dame Talia? I saw no glory. Only a traitor and the death of one of our finest. I beheld evil, and it haunts me.”

That came from a Spring Knight. Dame Ingrela. She was nearly Talia’s age, but a junior in terms of knighthood; she had taken longer to earn her shield. She looked at Talia, respectful, but haunted. Many of the Spring Knights did; Talia glanced to her side and another [Knight] wearing bright colors of summer shook his head.

Ser Lorell, the most senior of their group, looked around. A few strands of white ran through his beard, but he was hale as the youngest of them. He raised his voice as he echoed Talia’s sentiments.

“Dame Ingrela, I have seen the same evil as you have. And it troubles me as much as any present. But Dame Talia is right. We have seen a story! And we have battled a legend, albeit dark! That alone is worthy of song. When we return, let us speak of that battle!”

He was about to say more, but met Talia and the other Summer Knight’s eyes meaningfully. The only other female Summer Knight, Dame Chise, shook her head meaningfully. Ser Raist and the Knights of the Spring didn’t understand yet, and the lesson should be driven home, not spelled out weakly.

Another [Knight] wearing green was next to speak. He bowed in his saddle, but his face was bleak.

“With respect, Ser Lorell, I would be ashamed to boast of my feats on the battlefield. Or any of our company, as much as it shames me to say. To think we prided ourselves on holding back the Stitch Witch’s creations! Yet, her true aims struck our very heart. But for our failure, Ser Reim might have triumphed. Instead, he lies dead! And the [Hunters]—”

He choked on his words. The other [Knights] bowed their heads. So did Talia, for a moment. They had fought, it was true. It hurt, to think that their battle throughout the night would never be told. Talia still remembered fighting side-by-side with her sisters and brothers as creatures both undead and made of cloth assailed her.

They had held the ground for hours in the darkness, fighting an army of creatures. It was a tale equal to any battle Talia had ever fought in! But in truth, that had just been a diversion, barely worthy of a paragraph, a sentence.

The true tale had been of Ser Reim. Of the [Hunters] and the traitor. Of the Stitch Witch and her daughter. Talia and the other Knights of Seasons had been petty actors on a stage of history. And Belavierr had lived to continue walking down her dark path.

“How can you speak of songs, Ser Lorell? Should we not be castigated for our failures instead? I would resign my shield and arms if the Spring’s Warden demanded it of me.”

Dame Ingrela was shaking her head, her face bleak. Talia looked at Lorell. He waited a beat for anyone else to voice their opinions, and then replied in a steady voice.

“I say we should sing of it, Dame Ingrela! Sing of the evil we witnessed, and shout of the battles we fought and saw done! Or will you say that Ser Reim died a failure? Should we look to our own failures first and speak of woe and terror, or remember the champion who died? What of Dame Essa, or Ser Valliad? Ser Zahil? Ser Pitres? Will you call their deaths wasted?”

The question hit the younger [Knight] and the others riding with them. Talia saw Ingrela’s face drain of color.

“I would never! I—”

Lorell held up a hand. Metal shone off his gauntlet.

“I know you thought only of our failures when you spoke, Dame Ingrela. But remember, all of you. We bear our sins and shortcomings with earned weight. But to sully the valor of our fallen companions? No. When we return, speak first of the heroism you saw. Reflect on your guilt afterwards.”

His words silenced the group. Shame flooded any number of faces. Ingrela ducked her head.

“I have much to learn still, Ser Lorell, Dame Talia.”

“No more than I.”

Ser Raist looked even more flushed. He bowed from his saddle, his face full of chagrin. Talia smiled.

“Don’t fear, Ser Raist. I learned the very same lesson on my first campaign. And if there is anything to be taken from this tragedy—and it is one, a failure so deep it cuts me to the quick—let it be lessons such as these. Let it be levels, that we might not fail a second time.”

All nodded at that. One of the younger Spring Knights, emboldened by Talia’s words, shot up and raised a fist into the air.

“Ser Reim of Summer was a finer [Knight] than many could dream of becoming. Ere we return, let us tell his story to those worthy of hearing it. Let his valor not fade into distant memory and be forgotten!”

“Hold, Ser Eldein.”

Lorell cautioned the young man as some of the other Spring Knights shouted agreement. The others looked at him. The [Summer Knight] looked unhappy as he shook his head.

“I fear that while we may speak of Belavierr to our brethren in the Order, we must keep silent elsewhere. The Stitch Witch draws power from rumor and fear. Those who know of her might well call on her services, make pacts with her in hopes of furthering their lives. Shameful as it must be, the lives of those who have fallen must fade from the memory of most.”

Ser Eldein’s face fell. Talia felt bad for him; he was new to his shield and practically bursting with youthful vigor. He touched the mace at his side, and his face was frustrated.

“For fourteen years, I have trained. Since the age of six! I gained my first level when I was but eight, through the hardest of labors. And I have attempted to improve my skill of arms each passing day since. I won my right to the Order of Spring! And while I know I am poor of levels and equipment, I would face a Demon-kind Giant or a Dragon if my Order called me. I volunteered to lay my life down that Ser Reim would end such an evil. And yet.”

He turned around, meeting Talia’s eyes for a second and he looked at his companions. Ser Eldein pointed over his shoulder.

“I beheld my mortal folly in the gaze of that thing. She conjured an army in but a single night and though she burned and was killed dozens of times, death did not claim her. What is valor, what is honor and courage before that? It is not fair.”

No one could speak for a moment in the face of that. It was true. True, and yet—Ser Lorell replied again, speaking for experience among the older members of the party.

“Life, Ser Eldein, is not fair. Monsters beset the lands, even in Terandria, where our Order is strongest. They multiply in the darkness. And the hearts of men and women—”

“And other species.”

Talia murmured, recalling her visit to Baleros, to Daquin. That had been a different sort of battle, but she wished she’d stayed with Wil and fought the Iron Vanguard a hundred more times. Better that—and she missed her brother. She was proud of him, of course! But she hadn’t seen him for three years before that point. Her duties as a [Knight] kept her from home; the Order of Seasons was her new home.

Ser Lorell glanced at Talia, a bit annoyed by her comment. He went on, stiffly.

“—fester and corrupt. Nations make war. Magic may cause death untold. In the face of it all, the world does seem bleak. But we stand in the face of it. You may well be a blade of grass in front of the scythe, Ser Eldein, and I but a single mote of light in the darkness. But together, we will challenge any foe. It is that or give in without battle. And that is not how I choose to live.”

Dame Chise leaned over her horse. A radiance seemed to bloom around her, even in the shadows of the treetops they were passing under. She was always lit by such light; Talia admired the effect, even if she thought Dame Chise used it too often.

“Remember this day and grow from it. Do you think the Spring’s Warden would falter before such a foe, even one as ancient as the Stitch Witch? Or Knight-Commander Calirn himself? I say to you, I have seen the greatest of our order and they blaze in life as much as Ser Reim did in his final moments. Belavierr escapes death this day, but this is not over. Remember this, Ser Eldein. Forge yourself anew from the memory of it.”

Abashed, the young [Knight] nodded. Lorell clapped his hands together, startling his horse. He looked at the other [Knights], authority ringing in his voice.

“Let’s not speak more of this, brothers and sisters. We have far yet to travel! Ser Eldein, surely something of our current surroundings brings you joy?”

The young man hesitated, but then he nodded.

“Perhaps the thought of more species joining our Order, Ser Lorell. Dame Talia, are you suggesting we recruit from beyond Terandria?”

He relaxed, and some of the [Knights] around him laughed. They rode closer, losing the fugue that had engulfed them. Similarly, the [Knights] abandoned the elevated speech of their order that they adopted, becoming more casual in private.

Talia shrugged.

“I have often thought of it. Drakes and other species lack for [Knights] in large. Why shouldn’t we recruit from them? Each species has their talents. Dame Ingrela, you were at Daquin with some of your fellow Knights of Spring. Didn’t you admire the Iron Vanguard’s resilience?”

“And cursed them. That was a hard-fought battle, for all it was meant to be practice. And I confess, other species have abilities we Humans lack. The Dullahans were especially tenacious.”

Dame Ingrela agreed. Across from her, Ser Thornst, a [Spring Knight], but a veteran one, looked amused.

“Dullahans? One might call every member of their species a [Knight], if not in training or virtue. The armor they wear is part of their bodies, is it not? They seem a mighty species.”

Dame Chise nodded grudgingly.

“They are that. I have fought them on the battlefield proper, and I say they are among the most resilient of species to face. I am told that once, they were considered natural enemies of Dragons. More so than even our orders. Each one wears armor, after all. They were born dragon slayers.”

“Even so, they are a dour lot.”

“Then make them [Winter Knights]! They surely fit in with our coldest Season. I’ve a mind to make a bet who would smile listening to jokes first, one of the Knights of Winter, or—”

A few of the other [Knights] laughed, scandalized. Talia grinned hugely. Ser Lorell was more disapproving, but he glanced at Talia instead.

“Would you consent to having a Selphid in our ranks, then, Dame Talia?”

His voice was disapproving, indicating his thoughts on the matter. Talia’s chin rose. The Order of Seasons were all comrades in arms, but that didn’t meant they always got along, and she’d argued this with her companions many times before.

“Why not? What stops a Selphid from showing as much valor as any Human, Ser Lorell? Besides, it has happened thrice in our order’s history. Once it ended in disgrace. Once in valor. And once, the Selphid, who was Ser Chalica, or Dame Chalica, the records do not indicate which, died in glorious battle holding the Order of Season’s very gates when our enemies brought a vast army against us. Chalica of Spring, they were. And they held the gates until the bodies of their enemies piled up like logs before the axe.”

“One incidence of treachery out of three is hardly reassuring. One in ten thousand of our Order ever compromises their honor.”

Ser Lorell pointed out patiently. Talia tossed her head.

“A faulty argument, Ser Lorell. If we had more Selphids, I truly doubt one in three would be false. Why not let them apply?”

The man shrugged, annoyed by the strident tone in Talia’s voice.  He turned, addressing the younger [Knights].

“Even so, the Order of Seasons takes in limited numbers each year. Do we then petition recruiters to travel to Izril, or Baleros or other locations? We already receive enough applicants from Terandria—almost too many! Let us not crowd our ranks with any not deserving of the honor. Such incidents can be the end of a [Knight] order. Remember the lesson of the Crowlende Order.”

Talia folded her arms, but didn’t say anything more. By her side, Dame Chise leaned over and continued the conversation quietly.

“Your fascination stems from the company your brother keeps, does it not, Lady Talia?”

“Perhaps! What of it? I’m proud of Wil. He’s proven there’s more to be gained from other species than not! You know he won a question from the Titan of Baleros?”

“I have heard you speak of it a few dozen times, Lady Talia.”

The other [Knights] looked amused. Talia was either Dame Talia for her rank, or Lady Talia for her heritage. Talia smiled, embarrassed.

“Even so. I have not heard what Wil’s question will be, but he has promised to make it one that favors the Kallinad household?”

“Not the Order of Seasons? We committed over a hundred [Knights] to Daquin! That was not without cost!”

Someone sounded scandalized. Talia shook her head.

“All the costs were paid by House Kallinad, Ser Welte. And Kallinad is a generous supporter of the Order of Seasons. Moreover, we displayed our prowess in battle the world over, did we not? There are recordings of our own facing off against the Iron Vanguard! It was a victory!”

“A victory, aye. But sometimes I worry that our Order commits too broadly. We send lances of [Knights] out, but there was a time when we marched in legions!”

A grizzled veteran [Summer Knight] spoke sourly. Dame Chise shook her head, pursing her lips.

“And kept our own armies. That bears too closely to the foundation of a nation. Our Order has not made war on a nation ourselves in over twelve decades. We fight alongside nations of course, but challenging a kingdom for injustices is entirely different. I pray that function of our Order is never called upon. But recently…”

She trailed off. Ser Eldein spoke up, his cheeks flushed.

“Ailendamus is pursuing war. If they continue their wars of aggression, we may be well forced to choose a side. And I would argue this among any of our peers—it is not in our interest to support a nation seeking to enlarge itself even further!”

Talia coughed and shook her head. It didn’t matter usually, but nationality did influence some of the [Knights] and it was a known fact that Ser Eldein hailed from Calanfer, which was historically opposed to Ailendamus.

“No arguments there, Ser Eldein, but that is not our place to discuss. Nor wise to utter aloud; we are sworn protectors of order, not political creatures.”

The [Spring Knight] flushed and bowed in his saddle towards Talia.

“My apologies, Dame Talia.”

“Perhaps we would be best suited by action. We have a long way to go to First Landing and the harbor back. I am hesitant to race our horses, but if the road is clear, we shall force a quicker pace. Dame Talia, why not scout ahead with Ser Eldein and see if there are any travellers ahead we might disturb?”

Ser Lorell coughed. Talia shot him a glance, but then she ducked her head.

“As you say, Ser Lorell. Ser Eldein?”

She urged her mare forwards and Ser Eldein followed her. They rode faster, breaking ahead of the trotting company. Talia waited until they were a good two hundred paces down the road, and then nodded at Ser Eldein it was okay to speak.

“I don’t believe Ser Lorell appreciates your views on other species, Dame Talia. I apologize if I have put Ser Lorell against you, and for my thoughtless words.”

Eldein’s face was a bit flushed. He was young, with a spray of dark hair, nearly black. He might have been a [Farmer]’s son; he was definitely common-born, unlike Talia and Lorell. Talia smiled at him.

“It’s a point of contention, Ser Eldein. Old arguments. I respect Ser Lorell’s experience, of course. But we rarely work together; he and I were simply volunteers Knight-Commander Calirn chose to ride to Ser Reim’s defense. Call me Talia, by all means, Eldein.”

“Naturally. And it is an honor to ride with you, Talia. Your rise through the Season of Spring is well known! In truth, you have just as much authority as Ser Lorell, at least, I and some of the others think so. Nobility aside; he cannot claim to have fought in a war! But you have!”

“Just minor ones. It’s not an indication of leadership, Eldein.”

Talia grinned, embarrassed, and Eldein tilted his head towards her.

“Even so. Is age the only qualifier?”

The young woman paused and shook her head.

“Perhaps, but I’m hardly a prodigy. I was simply suited for the Season of Summer, and the Spring’s Watcher knew it. No more; I’m not about to challenge Ser Lorell’s authority. He is a solid leader.”

And we’re not riding into battle. Both [Knights] nodded silently. It wasn’t nearly as bad as politics between, say, noble houses or kingdoms, but there was some inner maneuvering in the Order of Seasons. Never too bad; a rivalry between Seasons or a disagreement about…qualification, or how another [Knight] conducted themselves. It wouldn’t come to that with Talia and Ser Lorell. She just didn’t like him that much.

The quick pace of the two [Knights] had led them out of the forest. Now, they saw a few travellers on the road, but nothing that would keep the Order of Seasons from a faster clip. Talia was just about to suggest they return back to Ser Lorell when Ser Eldein pointed.

“There’s a traveller. We might as well ask for news; we’ve been starved since passing through the forests these last two days. And no one was in the mood for it earlier. Shall I?”

“If you’d like. It would certainly distract the conversation. But remember, these are Izril folk, Eldein. Treat them with respect.”

Eldein nodded. He rode forwards and waved a hand at another man on horseback.

“Hail, my good man and thy harvests be blessed! Hast thou time spare to converse with knights-errant upon our ceaseless quests?”

He glanced back at Talia. She covered her face.

“Dead gods, Ser Eldein…”

The traveller looked at Eldein as he drew up his horse. His jaw worked and at last he spoke.

“What’re you on about? Harvests? I’m a [Shoemaker], not a [Farmer]!”

“A figure of speech, sir. Have you time to speak?”

“About harvests?”

Ser Eldein faltered. He was used to Terandria, where people were used to [Knights] and usually had some manner of respect for the class. The [Shoemaker] looked at Eldein, clearly worried that the [Spring Knight] was touched in the head.

“No, Sir Shoemaker. I—we are simply hoping you could speak to us of any news.”

The man’s face cleared and he took off his hat to wipe at his brow. The days were getting warmer; Talia could feel summer in the air.

“Oh. Why didn’t you say so? You want to know what’s happening? Well, monsters, that’s what! Wait, are you going after them or haven’t you heard?”

Talia sat up straighter on her horse. Ser Eldein leaned forwards.

“We have been travelling the last seven-day. What’s this about monsters, Sir Shoemaker?”

“My name’s Belic. Not Sir—seven-day? You mean, a week? Well, if you don’t know—there are Ogres about! I’ve been trying to get back home south; I should have never come north, not with them about!”

“Ogres?”

Talia rode forwards. Belic turned to her and she bowed.

“Mister Belic?”

“That’s right. Who are you lot?”

Belic had caught sight of the group of [Knights] riding up the road. He goggled. It wasn’t that strange a sight in Terandria, but apparently nineteen [Knights] was in Izril. Talia nodded to the rest of the Order of Seasons.

“We are [Knights] from Terandria, sir. The Order of Seasons. What’s this about Ogres? Ser Lorell!”

She waved and the older [Summer Knight] spurred his horse forwards. Belic blinked, already looking slightly overwhelmed. He stared at the colorful armor Talia and Lorell wore and then scratched at his balding head.

“Well—it’s Ogres. Lots of ‘em! You didn’t hear? It’s been the talk of the road all the way from—have you been camping the entire way here?”

Talia coughed.

“We…travelled here quickly. There are Ogres attacking this area? A band of them?”

“More than a band! A damn clan came out of the hills! First it was just a single band, but more and more have been attacking. Lady Magnolia Reinhart has placed a bounty on their heads! Twelve for each head at first. But when the others came, she put it up to sixty three! There’s a three thousand eight hundred coin bounty on the head of their leaders!”

“Sizeable for Ogres.”

Lorell murmured, his brows shooting up. Talia agreed, doing quick math.

“Ogres don’t have high numbers, but even a hundred would be a tidy sum. Have there been that many?”

“Dozens in each group. And yes, Miss Knight, there’ve been plenty of adventurers. But you know Ogres—they’re huge! Most of the Silver-ranks buggered off when they heard how many there were, so the Gold-ranks came for the money. Three groups have been driven off, but the last two forced a Gold-rank team, the Dividenblades, to retreat with a casualty! And killed dozens in a pitched battle with Silver-ranks and a militia outside the city of Phaust!”

“This is more than just a lone raid, Ser Lorell.”

Talia looked at the [Summer Knight]. He was nodding.

“Sir Belic, how dire is the situation? Is anyone doing anything to root out this threat?”

The [Shoemaker] frowned.

“Aside from the adventurers? They’ve pushed back the worst of it and all the outlying villages and such are either barricaded up or empty. Them Ogres only attacked outlying areas. They’re close to Ulta lands. I reckon if they get closer to Invrisil, Lady Reinhart’ll up the bounty or have them all assassinated.”

“But no one is pursing the monsters?”

Ser Eldein looked shocked. Belic gave him a sideways glance.

“They’ll get got soon. Or get lost.”

“But they should be hunted down at once! Ser Lorell, if this was Terandria, a dozen knighthood orders would be dispatching their own to deal with these monsters at once!”

“Izril is different, Ser Eldein. The local nobility protect their lands. And adventurers take on the duties of [Knights]. Which means their safety is weighed against the coin they earn.”

Dame Chise frowned disapprovingly. Belic gave her an odd look.

“It works well enough, Miss Knight. Aside from idiots on the road and the first victims, not many folk are dying. It’s locking down some parts, but a Gold-rank team will finish the job.”

“Or perhaps we will.”

Talia murmured. She looked up and met Ser Lorell’s eyes. He hesitated.

“We have instructions to return to the headquarters, Dame Talia.”

“Surely the Order of Seasons does not ignore monsters wherever they may be!”

Ser Eldein protested. Ser Lorell frowned.

“We do not. But we are ill-equipped for a battle with an entire clan, Ser Eldein. We wear steel; due to the ritual, we were only able to bring…”

He eyed Belic. The [Shoemaker] helpfully shrugged.

“The Gold-ranks seem to be doing a good job. If you want to find the Ogres, anyone’d be able to tell you where the dangerous spots are. Myself, I’m going far away. Good to see you [Knights]. Means the road’s probably clear. Good day to you!”

The Order of Seasons watched him ride off. Then they congregated, arguing fiercely.

“A delay to hunt monsters is almost foolhardy, Dame Talia—”

“If but a single innocent dies, Ser Lorell? Is it not our duty to at least inquire if they’re being hunted?”

He exhaled, but couldn’t argue with that. Lorell turned to Talia’s left.

“Dame Chise, your thoughts?”

“We could alter our path. Let us ask if these Ogres are still a threat at large. If they are, we bear towards them. If not, we continue. Either way, we still lose little more than a few days.”

Lorell nodded. So it was agreed. The [Knights] began riding faster. The next traveller they came across didn’t know about where the Ogres were, but he could point them towards Ulta lands.

“Ulta. Some noble [Lady] rules them?”

Talia frowned. Ser Eldein nodded.

“They’re but a day’s ride away. We could reach the outermost edge and inquire further.”

“We shall, then. Dame Chise, will you aid our speed?”

“Certainly. [First to Battle]!”

The [Summer Knight] raised her morning star. And the company of [Knights] accelerated down the road. They might have been slow on their return home, but with a purpose in mind, they moved faster. It was just a rumor for now; the Ogres might have been dealt with. But Talia rode at the head of the company next to Eldein, urging her horse to move faster.

Even if there was a chance, the Order of Seasons would investigate. If they could save a life by effort, none would be spared.

That was what it meant to be a [Knight].

 

—-

 

The first town the [Knights] came to by the time lanterns were lit and they had to slow to avoid accident on the road was fairly prosperous. The company rode in fast, looking for a tavern or inn to get the newest information. Their horses were tired, but the Spring Knights would rub them down and mix a bit of stamina potion into their feed.

As they headed towards the largest tavern, Ser Lorell in the lead, the [Knights] cut off a [Farmer] in their hurry to reach the stables. The man riding the wagon took offense to the group of [Riders].

Oi. Mind yourself, you idiots! I’m riding here!”

He roared at the [Knights]. Talia was impressed; it took guts to shout at a group of nearly twenty armed people, even if he’d spotted the crests that marked them as [Knights] in the darkness.

Affronted, Ser Lorell pulled up and inclined his head.

“Our apologies, sir. But we are [Knights], investigating word of Ogres—”

“And you think that gives you the right to cut me off? Out of the way!”

The enraged man waved a fist at Ser Lorell. Caught off-guard, the [Summer Knight] hesitated, and then moved his horse out of the way. The Order of Seasons parted and the [Farmer] rolled past them. They stared at him as he glared.

“Next time, obey the rules of the road! Idiots.”

He disappeared down the street. Talia bit her lip, glancing at Ser Lorell’s slack face. That had been an odd experience! Lady Chise was the first to speak.

“This is the domain of House Ulta, a noble family. And these are the lands of Lady Pryde. It seems her people are equally…spirited.”

“So it seems.”

Ser Lorell shook himself. Then he briskly dismounted. Talia followed suit. Soon, all but six of the [Spring Knights] were walking into the tavern. They had a more amicable greeting this time.

“My word! So many [Knights]? What can I do for you, ladies, gentlemen? My name is Keida. Will you be wanting food? Rooms for the night?”

“Good evening, good mistress. A repast would be welcome. But any information about this Ogre scourge is what we seek. How dire are the attacks? Do you know their location or if anything is being done to stop them?”

Miss Keida frowned as she had tables dragged together for the [Knights].

“The Ogres? A horrible mess. Lady Pryde will sort them out, I’ve no doubt. But there’s a few big groups left. All northeast of us, thank goodness. Three day’s ride. Will you be having that food?”

Lorell looked at Talia and Chise and nodded. That was much too far even if they’d been minded to push. The [Knights] began sitting down. Miss Keida was a friendly woman, and her husband got to work at once preparing a meal for so many. The [Tavern Owner] began talking with her guests and the odd incident with the [Farmer] outside came up as a matter of course.

“That would be Mister Chalt, [Knights]. He’s an odd sort. Keeps to himself, but he comes into market time to time. He lacks manners, but there was no ill will in it!”

Keima assured Ser Lorell. The [Knight] paused.

“He was particularly insistent on his way, though, Miss Keima.”

“Shouldn’t he be? He had the right of way. And he insisted on that. It’s a matter of dignity.”

“Hm. Even so—I’ve been told this is land owned by House Ulta. And the ruling [Lady] is…”

“Lady Pryde. We’re all her subjects. People of Pryde. Which means people of pride, Mister Lorell. Be it [Farmer] or [Shepherd], we won’t give up the right of way so easily. I daresay Chalt would have if you’d been in a hurry, but not to stable your horses!”

The glint in Miss Keida’s eyes made Talia love her in an instant. Lorell looked embarrassed. He coughed.

“People of Pride?”

“That’s right. Pride rules in Ulta lands. Pride in what you do, and who you are. Chalt, now, he’s a good example of that. Respected! More than most [Merchants] or rich folk without a lick of dignity; I daresay he could have married well if he wasn’t such a recluse.”

“But he has pride in being…alone? In being insistent on his right to the road? In being a [Farmer]?”

Raist looked mystified as he took a drink of water. Some intriguing smells were wafting from the kitchen. Mistress Keida gave the [Knight] an odd look in reply.

“Pride takes many forms, sirs and madams. It need not be on display. Lady Pryde only asks us to do what fulfills us. Not to live hollow lives. For instance, my boy is aiming to be an adventurer. I wouldn’t dare stop him. I’d be too ashamed to look anyone in the eye! But I am a mother.”

“And adventuring is a dangerous life. Risky. You won’t stop your son from trying?”

Talia replied. Miss Keida nodded.

“Of course! If I did, who would he be?”

The [Knights] glanced at each other. Chise cleared her throat.

“But Miss Keida, what if your son fails? Say he wished to be a [Merchant] but had not the class or any capital. Would you let him pursue that ambition?”

“Of course! Better to do what he wants than not try. If he fails, he’ll pick himself up and try again. If he doesn’t, then he was never meant to be an adventurer to begin with. Oh, I think your food’s ready. I won’t be a moment!”

Miss Keida smiled and disappeared into the kitchen. Raist raised his eyebrows as he looked around the table.

“Seems this entire region acts as their [Lady] does. Ambition and pride over caution and humility.”

The other [Knights] shushed him, but many clearly agreed. Talia liked the idea. She’d heard [Ladies] and [Lords] could shape their domains after them, but Terandrian nobility were still subjects of their monarchs, however powerful. Izril however, had no royalty.

Except for the [Emperor]. Talia wished she could have met him. But then she was distracted by the meal.

“I have enough for everyone and seconds waiting! No, I can take it out myself, and my [Barmaids]! That’s what we get paid for!”

Miss Keida scolded the [Knights] trying to rise and take the dishes. She placed them down with flourishes, beaming. Talia looked at the food, her stomach rumbling. Then she paused.

“All of it’s from our stocks! The salt’s from the Ulta salt mines—the finest in Izril! Pure salt, lovely brines—my husband’s personal recipe. Enjoy!”

The [Tavern Owner]’s cheerful voice hovered in the air. The Terandrian [Knight] stared down at their repast. It was…pickled eggs. Salted pork. Beets—yes, pickled. Some filling dumplings, also made with what seemed to be primarily preserved foods. And pickles. Pickled walnuts, which had turned black from the brine, served on blue cheese—

Salt. Talia looked up, trying to smile. She came from a coastal duchy, but she was used to sea food. Not pickled foods. And indeed, most of the Terandrians weren’t used to so much…pickling. The abundance of magic meant that you could get fresh food; pickles were nice, but pickled foods were an acquired taste.

The only thing that was there to cut the salt was some goat’s milk and fruits. And bread. The Order of Seasons stared at the meal with no small measure of chagrin. They exchanged covert looks, chivalry fighting with taste buds.

The [Tavern Owner] beamed, gesturing at the spread.

“All favorites among the Ulta region! You won’t get better anywhere in the town. And if I might add, good [Knights]? You’ll want to stock up on salt if you’ve a mind to be passing south or east of here. There’s a trade war on, and Lady Pryde’s stated there will be no trade in those directions until proper apology is made.”

“A trade war?”

Lorell murmured, prodding at a huge pickle. Raise was ordering more alcohol. Miss Keida nodded. She frowned darkly.

“They insulted Lady Pryde! Gave her a black rose. As if she hadn’t fought the Goblin King at First Landing! Well, they’ll pay for that. All of them! No salt is going to Reicch, or anywhere north of Veltaim. Unless they’ve got preservation runes, we’ll see how long their stores last without salt!”

“They could always smoke—”

Talia kicked Ser Eldein under the table. She gulped as Miss Keida retreated to get some more drinks for the table. She looked up and met Ser Lorell’s eyes. He was in agreement with her in this, at least. But all the [Knight] did was slowly pick up a cup.

“’Twould be rude to demand a different repast. This is their food.”

“Pride.”

Talia agreed glumly. The Order of Seasons braced themselves. Ser Eldein sighed.

“Pride and salt.

 

—-

 

Fifteen minutes later, Ser Eldein put down his fork and regarded the empty plates. He turned, and with supreme force of will, smiled at the hovering [Tavern Owner].

“A truly filling repast, Mistress Keida.”

“Do you need seconds?”

“No.”

The chorus came from the entire table. The [Knights] were full, Talia included, but at what cost? To distract the generous Miss Keida and her [Brine Cook] husband, they began asking questions about the Ogres.

“Well, Lady Pryde won’t let them attack anyone on her lands. I’ve heard she’s setting off after one war band, but there’s two big ones left. The first is led by their leader, very large, over fifty in total. The second’s smaller, but no less dangerous. Thirty-odd Ogres.”

“Thirty? We number nineteen. It shouldn’t be too dangerous a battle.”

Ingrela mused out loud. Ser Lorell frowned.

“Ogres are strong, Dame Ingrela. Not as thick-skinned as Trolls, but more numerous. What separates them from half-Giants?”

“Their breath?”

That came from Talia. A few chuckles and a glare from Lorell followed. He began a lecture; he was well-studied, at least. Talia reflected that it was Lorell’s specialty; he had a position training many [Knights] in their Season as a mentor. Like her, he hadn’t flinched from a real battle, but he could get…teacherly at times. And she was no student. The Knights of the Spring listened closely, though.

“Trolls are more squat. Tougher, sometimes magical. Ogres are humanoid, albeit monstrous. More intelligent than Trolls. Far, far less civilized than half-Giants, who are but people overgrown. Ogres can be reasoned with and they use tools, or so I have heard from Autumn Knights. But then, even Goblins and Trolls can communicate.”

“Few can. These are clearly monsters.”

Dame Chise’s comments were met by nods all around. Ser Eldein just looked confused.

“Reason with Goblins? With a Troll? Why would one ever do that?”

Ser Thornst clicked his tongue reprovingly.

“Diplomacy is the other edge of the sword we wield, Ser Eldein. Seldom on monsters. But if you ever meet a Dragon, you would be wise to try words first. Not all are evil.”

“Dragons, yes, but Ogres?

“I do not believe we will be negotiating with these ones. Not after what they’ve done. Ser Lorell?”

Talia’s calm voice made the other [Knight] look up. Ser Lorell nodded calmly.

“With Dame Chise’s Skill, we may reach them in two days. Perhaps more. Perhaps less. When we do, if they are not dealt with, we will hunt them down ourselves.”

“A worthy task!”

Miss Keida had come back. She clapped her hands and nodded approvingly. There was something regal in the way she treated the [Knights]; pride again. But she looked at Talia warningly.

“A word of caution though, Sir and Lady [Knights]. The Ogres are thirty, but I’ve heard they had Goblins too. You might be fighting a lot more.”

She saw a few smiles on the faces of the Order of Seasons. Ser Eldein coughed.

“Miss Keida, your concern does you credit. But we can handle a few Goblins. How many are there? Three dozen? Fifty? If there are any Hobs, we will consider them on rank with the Ogres, but the Ogres are the true threat.”

“Strong foes. If we were less in number or under leveled I would hesitate at the fight. Even so, we will be cautious. How many Goblins do you think there are, Miss Keida?”

The [Tavern Owner] shrugged.

“What I heard was that the Ogre clan had a Goblin tribe. The second war band is thirty Ogres, but who counts Goblins? There were a lot, or so the rumors claimed. You might be fighting sixty. Or hundreds.”

 

—-

 

That night, the Order of Seasons slept. They rose with dawn and departed. They moved quickly, following reports of attacks, riding down the road faster than all but Runners and the swiftest horses. But the grim truth was that they were too slow. They had been too slow to save every victim. Before they had come to Izril, the Ogres had struck. And they would strike again before the [Knights] reached them. But that was a reality even the most chivalrous [Knight] had to accept, if not make peace with. Monsters were everywhere.

Usually, and in big cities, they were a distant thing. But to those who lived closer to the wilderness, monsters were a fact of life, like [Bandits], a natural disaster, a wolf attack. Usually they were sporadic unless you lived truly close to a dangerous location. And sometimes, the monsters overflowed and came out. And they tore the illusion of peace to shreds.

That night, they came out of the hills like thunder. Fifty seven strong, racing down on the villages closest to the hills first, and then taking roads, attacking travellers, anything that caught their eye or fancy.

Ogres. A species everyone had heard of, but few had actually seen. They were not the fiercest species around, or possessed of the worst attributes to battle against. But they were imposing. And there were many of them. They raced down the slopes, roaring, armed with steel and pilfered weapons.

Any traveller idiotic enough to be on the roads ran, hearing the terrible bellows. But they were too slow. The Ogres descended, catching horses, tearing into houses and smashing wood and stone with crushing blows from their clubs and fists.

The smallest was over six feet in height. The largest nearly ten. And they were not thin either; they were heavyset, their fat overlaying muscle. Each one would have been equal of Moore. Or larger. But if half-Giants, or rather, quarter-Giants were what Gnolls were, capable of leveling and classes, Ogres were then Raskghar.

The few [Warriors] and people with levels trying to fight them off found they were outmatched. A single Ogre was equal to a Silver-rank adventurer, and short of a powerful bowshot to the head, their skin and the armor they wore made arrows barely more than a nuisance. They had the strength and endurance of monsters, but they fought like men. And they moved fast!

The Ogres struck like lightning, ravaging a village of Lanchestret, which had been forewarned of their attack. They found few victims; the villagers had already fled. A few, a foolhardy hermit, an elderly couple, died in their homes. A pair of travellers on the road met the same fate. The Ogres would have tormented them, but their leader’s snarls and bellowed orders kept them moving. They grabbed all of value, food, animals, and raced back towards the foothills, the Eldessale Foothills, to be precise, where their clan was located.

The foothills alone stretched nearly five hundred miles, not in one stretch, but creating a separation between the eastern coast and the upper-central eastern area of Izril. They had not been widely settled owing to the much easier lowlands. So the Ogres had grown in the hills, adjacent to civilization. There had been incidents before. A single Ogre. A band. Adventurers had removed the threat or the Ogre had vanished. They were one monster among many. Now though, they raided.

The first war band was led by a giant among their kind. A Chief, who wielded a magical hammer stained with blood. He urged his followers to pillage as much as they could. He was furious; the Humans had fought back, killing other groups of his clan. His personal group was one of two remaining.

The second was from a small Ogre clan. They were only thirty in number, but they had Goblins, a tribe they’d enslaved. The Ogre Chief might have considered warring with them, but the Humans were easier targets. So he pillaged. He wanted women, magic, and weapons in that order!

But he was smart enough to know that venturing too far from the foothills might mean death. Thus far the Chief had kept his war band away from more populated Human lands. But this village had been as empty as the last three! Food wasn’t all his clan craved, so, impatient, the Chief ordered his tribe to move north. Towards richer lands. They crossed into the Ulta region.

On the second night, the Ogres hit a farmstead, and then a village. They tore into the place, and the Humans who hadn’t fled died—or wished they had. The Ogres laughed as they retreated towards their hills, taking spoils with them. They weren’t about to stop; emboldened, the Chief was determined to take as much back with him to make up for his losses. He knew the other Ogre group, his rivals, were doing the same, so he and his warriors were already looping back for another raid that night.

On the third day, the first band met Pryde.

 

—-

 

The Ogres were eating a [Merchant] and his [Guards] on the road as the sun rose. The foolish female [Merchant] had taken the risk of the road, judging her escort strong enough to deter the Ogres. They hadn’t been. And she had cut her throat as the Ogres crushed the low-leveled Humans into paste.

That annoyed the war Chief. Two of the [Guards] had been female too, but his warriors had crushed their bodies in their bloodlust. He kicked the corpse of the [Merchant] and snarled.

“Open boxes!”

His warriors looked up from the horses they were eating fresh. A pair smashed the contents of the wagons. The Chief stared down at the boxes of rich spices and snarled. He kicked one over.

Magic!

He didn’t want spice! Part of him knew that the females would make better food out of it, but the Chief wanted a new magical item. He had his hammer, but it wasn’t as good as the other Chief’s club! The other Ogres ducked out of range as the Chief swung his fists angrily, looking for something to hit.

Then they heard the horns. The Ogres jerked up, staring at the sky. A warbling blast echoed from the west. And then the south. They looked at their Chief. He stared upwards and bared his teeth.

Humans.

They were coming. Last time it had been Gold-ranks. Tough to kill, but with precious magic. This time it sounded like many. The Chief hesitated. He wasn’t about to bother fighting an army.

“Go! Go!

He snarled and the Ogres grabbed what they could carry. They were retreating to the hills. They’d fall on the Humans if they had a moment, disappear otherwise. They weren’t stupid.

But then, neither were the Humans. No sooner had the Ogres began to lope across the ground, fast as any horse, than they heard horns to the east, cutting them off. They instantly switched north. And the horns blew a fourth time.

The Chief halted, breathing hard, looking around him. Each side? How many were there? His mind told him not that many; so many Humans were easy to spot. There was a trick! But which horns were the real ones?

“That way!”

He roared, pointing northwest. Away from the foothills. The Ogres followed him, fifty six streaming after their leader. They were more than a match for an army three times their size. Even the adventurers had fled them! They raced forwards—

And met Lady Pryde’s army. Over a hundred Humans marched behind their [Lady]. They roared as the Ogres stopped, and the [Scouts] deploying false horns stopped blowing. They had coerced the Ogre Chief, tricking him with Skills. Now, the army spread out. The Ogre Chief’s eyes widened incredulously.

Only a hundred? His lips moved as he counted and he looked over his shoulder. But this was it. Barely a hundred Humans against his sixty! He snarled with fury at how they’d underestimated them—but then he brightened.

There were females among the Humans. He could see them beneath their helmets. And even better—his eyes alighted on a woman wearing no armor but a pale yellow-and-lilac dress. He stared at her flawless skin and his groin itched.

“Her. Take that one. Alive! Or I smash your heads!”

He pointed. The other Ogres needed no encouragement. They grinned, advancing. The Humans deployed, spreading out. They had an odd formation; they were fighting along the road, next to some rocky ground that would favor them, but rather than retreat, they’d formed an enveloping position. Half stayed back, and the Chief saw they were armed with longbows. Dangerous, but that left barely fifty Humans to stop more Ogres!

Ogres! Lay down your arms! If you do, Lady Pryde Ulta guarantees your deaths will be swift! Flee and we will cut you down! You have trespassed on Ulta land and your fate is sealed!

A voice bellowed at the oncoming war band. A man wearing a bright helmet with a feather was armed with javelins and standing behind a pair of Humans with shields. The [Lady] was hanging back, staring fearlessly at the Ogres. The Chief stared at her, resisting the urge to rub his crotch. He laughed and pointed.

Kill them. Take the females!

The Ogres charged. They needed no great speeches. The Humans had clearly wanted one, though. They were off-guard for a moment. The man with the feather rode back.

“[Archers]! Focus your targets! [Shieldwall Warriors], brace!

The Ogres came at them. They covered the hundreds of feet in moments, racing forwards. The [Archers] had only one chance to loose. They did.

The Chief raised a hand, blocking the arrows aimed at his face. He roared as he felt hot flashes of pain across his body, piercing the crude mail he wore. He turned his head, seeing two Ogres fall. The big bows hurt! But it was two. Far too many, but they were closing.

The man with the feather was raising one of the javelins. Aiming at the Ogres. Forewarned, the Chief ducked behind one of the foremost Ogres and saw the Human shout.

“[Twister Spear]!”

The javelin flew. It spiraled with such force and speed that the Ogre in front of the Chief had no time to dodge. The metal tip of the javelin tore into his chest, and the rotation splintered bone and flesh. The Chief swore as the Ogre fell, dead.

“That one!”

He roared, pointing at the Human with the javelins. He surged forwards. The Human was reaching for another javelin. He threw and another Ogre fell. But then the Ogres were on the first line of Humans. And it was all—

The first Ogre hit the Humans with the oversized tower shields. The club struck at the braced Human and rebounded with a gong of sound. The Ogre stopped, startled, and the Human backed up. She—a large woman whose face was set and grim behind her helmet—backed up, forming a line with her comrades. The [Archers] loosed, hitting the Ogre in the chest. His friends charged past the Ogre. They hit the shields, but their weapons didn’t sweep aside the smaller Humans.

It was like hitting rocks! The charge of the Ogres stopped as the shield-bearing Humans stopped them cold! And the arrows singing from the back ranks were tearing into the Ogres. They battered the Humans, but it was an even match. And the Humans had ranged weapons pelting the Ogre clan.

The Chief roared his fury. He shoved one of the warriors in front of him back, feeling more arrows scoring his arms. He raised his hammer and brought it down on the [Shieldwall Warrior] in front of him. The man raised his shield, whispering a Skill.

“[Fortified Block]—”

The hammer struck the metal with a crash. A bloom of black magic cascaded outwards from the Chief’s hammer. Death magic, striking the Humans and Ogres around them. The Ogres backed up and the Humans groaned. The Chief grinned, delighting in his special weapon. But the Human hadn’t fallen. His Skill had blocked even the Chief’s strike. His knees shook, though. He tried to back up, but the Chief, enraged, kicked past the shield.

There was no second Skill to save the man. He went tumbling backwards and the hammer fell a second time. The Chief felt the crunch, and swung the hammer sideways. Another Human died as the hammer screamed and emitted a burst of blackness. The Chief fought past the front line and the Ogres poured after him.

Reposition! [Swift Redeployment]!

The man with the feather shouted desperately. The Humans abandoned their position, retreating, blocking most of the Ogres and reforming a line. But the breach around the Chief was widening. The huge Ogre swung his hammer and pointed.

“Them! Them!

He wanted the leader and the archers. And the woman. They were unguarded. He surged forwards. The [Lady] watched him as the man with the feathered helmet snarled, throwing another javelin that took an Ogre down. But the Chief came on.

“Milady Ulta, let me—”

“No. Stand down, Beshard. [Archers], kill the other Ogres.”

Lady Pryde Ulta raised one hand. She dismounted from her horse and strode forwards. The Chief stared as she met him, the [Archers] harrying the Ogres around him. Then his lips twisted into a savage grin.

“Human. Female. I like you.”

He loomed over her, ignoring the fighting around him, the screaming Humans and Ogres. He expected the [Lady] to run and shriek. But she stared up at him without fear, only contempt.

Lady Pryde Ulta was a tall woman, and her hair was black. Her cheekbones were high, her posture as imperious as her voice. She pointed up at the Chief, and her voice snapped across the battlefield.

“Ogre. For what you’ve done to my lands, you deserve death. Do your species a credit and die without a fuss!”

He stared at her. Pryde’s chin was tilted. She stared up at him. The Ogre Chief blinked. And then he laughed savagely. He struck his chest, watching her and the man with the feathered helmet behind her.

“I am leader of my clan! Strong. And you—you are mine. This is mine! We—we’ll eat your men and take you. I’ll have you and fuck you until you break. Unless you make me happy. Then I’ll keep you.”

Evil. The words echoed, and the Humans who heard it shuddered with fury. Some of the [Archers] raised their bows, but the Ogres were advancing, and only the desperate fighting kept them back. Lady Pryde’s eyes narrowed. She looked up at the Chief and shook her head slightly. And still, she did not run or look to the other Humans for aid.

“Beast, you would not survive a minute with me, let alone a night. Amusing as it would be to conquer your puny tribe and turn them into vassals, you are far too unsightly for a consort.”

The Chief had not expected that. He flushed with rage. Then he grabbed for the [Lady] with his free hand. His hand shot to her chest—then jerked down.

Something grabbed the Ogre! Something invisible! Around the woman, the grass turned flat, crushed by the same pressure that was pulling the Ogre down. He stumbled, roared.

Weight. Gravity. Pryde raised her hand.

“[Pride is Weight].”

The force crushed the Chief down. It would have killed most Humans; and the weight was more intense the closer he got to Pryde. But he was an Ogre! The monster roared, lifting an arm. Furious now, he raised his hammer. He forgot about his lust and swung with all his might.

Death! The hammer fell downwards. The Humans cried out, and the man with the feathered helm turned. But Beshard was too slow. The Chieftain hit Pryde with a blow that shook the earth. He saw black magic blast outwards and raised his hammer. Instantly, he regretted turning her to paste. The Ogre straightened, feeling the pressure of gravity leave him—

And Pryde was standing right there. The Ogre Chief stared. Lady Pryde Ulta stared down at her dress, annoyed. The fabric had torn across her chest, as had her undergarments. The Ogre saw a flash of pale skin. She eyed her exposed chest, and then looked up at the Ogre. She put her hands on her hips and smiled, mockingly.

“Too much woman to handle, Ogre?”

He gaped. Then he looked at his hammer. Beshard pointed.

“Take the Chieftain down! [Archers]!

Arrows flew. Now they stung the Chief. He stumbled back, feeling the heavy impacts in his chest. Snarling, he grabbed a healing potion and mashed it in his mouth, swallowing liquid and glass. The wounds healed, but the Chief realized too late that his Ogres were falling. He had to kill the lady and the archers! But there she stood. She had taken a blow from his hammer. How?

The Chief raised his hammer. This time he swung with every fiber of his being. The roar that left his lips made the Ogres look up. They saw their Chieftain strike Lady Pryde. The impact and death magic made the world shake. But when the dust cleared, there she stood.

“How?”

The Ogre Chief stared. Pryde smiled archly.

“[Pride is Unbreakable]. You made a mistake coming here, beast. Die quickly.”

She raised a hand as the Ogre Chief swore at her and swung. The Ogres of his clan saw her raise a hand and block the hammer a third time. And their morale broke. Beshard threw his javelin as the Ogre Chief stared at Pryde.

The cast did not kill the huge Ogre. Nor did the next twenty arrows. But the second javelin, the hail of arrows that struck the Chief and the fleeing Ogres did. The Chief died on the ground. He tried to raise his hammer, but all he could do was stare at Pryde. She stood over him, her dress ruined, but her skin still flawless. She looked down at him.

“You were not worthy of one Skill, Ogre.”

He tried to reply. But there was really nothing left to say. The Ogre died, his mouth pooling with blood. Lady Pryde looked down at him.

The road was filled with Ogre bodies. Some Human, but aside from a few points where Ogres had broken through, the line had held. There were a dozen dead, twice as many wounded, some with shattered bones. But the Humans had routed the Ogres. And the last of them died, brought down a hundred paces from the longbows. Lady Pryde listened as her soldiers issued a huge cheer.

“Lady Pryde! Are you wounded?”

Beshard strode over to his [Lady]. The [Javelineer] and Master of Arms of the Ulta household looked at Pryde. She blinked down at him, and some of the intensity about her faded. Pryde nodded. Then she glanced down at her body. Her dress was ripped across the bodice, down the navel. Exposing, well…everything. The look of haughty contempt faded from the woman’s face and she flushed.

“Oh, I’m exposed. Beshard—”

“My cloak, milady.”

The man instantly unfastened his cloth and Pryde seized the garment. She hid behind it.

“Thank you, Beshard. Are the soldiers well? The injured?”

“Twelve dead, Lady Pryde. The rest have been healed and bones set for a [Healer]. We have won a grand victory! The Ogres are dead!”

The words stirred a cheer from the [Soldiers]. But Lady Pryde only looked dismayed.

“Twelve dead? Too many! Oh, Beshard. Should I have taken twice as many soldiers?”

Her voice was hesitant, guilty. Far from the imperiousness of before. But Beshard knew his [Lady] and his tone was soothing.

“Not at all, Lady Pryde. They would have fled a larger force. And Ogres are a fearsome threat. This is a grand victory; their spine has been broken! Should we pursue the second force, they will be all but crushed! But let us return and mend wounds for today.”

“Yes, of course. Your judgment is sound, Beshard. And allow me to convey my thanks to the brave souls who fought here today.”

The [Lady] inclined her head. Humbly. It was so uncharacteristic that some of the soldiers stared at Pryde. But the ones who knew the [Lady] and her abilities shook their heads.

The dead were seen to and the Ogre bodies left for later. They might become undead, but another group would see to their disposal. Lady Pryde had more important things to do than oversee a cremation. And indeed, her company rode back down the road in high spirits. Pryde was smiling, but she seemed smaller in her skin.

For a moment. But the [Soldiers] riding with Beshard began chanting her name.

Pryde! Pryde!

“The [Lady] of Ulta! Pryde has slain the Ogres!”

They were returning down the road. And soon, they came across more travellers. They had scarcely missed the warriors marching down the road, and they let up a cheer when they heard the Ogres had been killed! Pryde flushed at first, sitting on her horse’s back with the cloak preserving her modesty. But that was temporary.

[Pride is Unbreakable]. And too, [Pride is Weight]. Lady Pryde embodied her namesake. She was a close friend of Magnolia Reinhart, but Pryde was no one’s inferior. And soon, the cheers stopped flushing her cheeks. Pryde’s back began to straighten, and the reservoir of ego she had spent in battle returned.

By the time the company was riding down the road leading to Ultase, the largest city of the Ulta lands founded by Pryde’s ancestors, the woman was riding at the head of her group. Her cloak was tossed back, her chin raised. She raised a hand, waving at the cheering crowds following her company. Her [Soldiers] still shouted her name, rejoicing at their [Lady]’s return to normality.

And Pryde abandoned the cloak. Or rather, she wore it properly, around her shoulders rather than covering her front. She didn’t bother to have her dress fixed either. Men and women stared, some for different reasons than pure admiration. But Pryde ignored both. She rode down the streets as her citizens turned out to cheer their beloved [Lady].

“Lady Pryde, if you would wish it, we could find a suitable replacement dress for you. Or hire a [Seamstress]—”

Beshard was more conscious of his [Lady]’s nudity. Pryde turned her head, staring down at Beshard, astonished.

“Halt my return for such a menial task? Or wear garments out of, what, embarrassment, Beshard? Out of the question! We ride on! Have that Ogre’s head displayed—and the hammer he wielded! Let my people know the Ogres will never touch my lands!”

The man bowed as Pryde’s eyes flashed. This was Pryde. Nudity, like shame, bounced off her ego. She rode ahead, possibly luxuriating in the envy, admiration, and stares she received. She raised an arm, holding out a hand to a young boy gaping with his mouth open.

“A [Lady] is a [Lady] in every moment. Whether naked or clothed. Lady Zanthia might say something like that. I personally care not. And shame is not something I feel for my body!”

She nodded at a young girl—possibly the boy’s sister—staring up at her. The girl beamed and waved and Pryde smiled. Beshard sighed. But it was true. This was the Ulta region. And like Pryde, the people believed that pride was a virtue above all others. It dictated society and even after eight years in her service, the Chandrarian man still found it disconcerting. And he was a Stitch-Man, used to swapping body parts!

He tugged at some strings on his cotton-flesh arm that had come loose from throwing the javelins in battle.

“You will encourage your subjects, Lady Pryde. We already have complaints about the nudity.”

“What of it? If they wish to walk around naked, or run, let them. I find it amusing.”

Pryde smiled. It was true that in her lands, there was a population of…nudists. A rarity in any nation, but that was hardly the least of the eccentricities of the Ultanese people. She rode on, waving to her subjects. After a moment, some of her [Soldiers] bowed. The [Longbow Archer], a woman with a flush on her face as she tried to speak to Pryde’s face, spoke.

“You weren’t serious about vassalizing Ogres, Lady Pryde? I heard you say as much to the Chieftain. That would be like Goblins!”

Lady Pryde smiled.

“It was a passing comment. But I did think of it. I’ve heard of Trolls being trainable. Wuvren claims she charmed one, once. But I changed my mind the instant I saw the Ogres. They are far too foul. One wonders what their females are like. Capable of more, I hope.”

The longbowwoman looked at Beshard and he shook his head. It would be like Lady Pryde to try that. He was relieved the Ogres hadn’t surrendered. Pryde, like many [Ladies] was willful, but she was especially bad. She’d once imported a Griffin in hopes of being able to ride it around. And she was still seeking any edge that would establish her superiority over her fellow nobles.

“Lady Pryde, I’m sure your victory will be the talk of the land for a week to come.”

Beshard tried to stoke his [Lady]’s ego. Pryde pursed her lips.

“Perhaps. But I have a mind to destroy this second Ogre band by the end of the week at least! Magnolia has let the adventurers do their work, but too slowly. She is laissez-faire. I demand results.”

The [Javelineer Commander] groaned, but internally. Externally he only bowed.

“I shall see to locating the second band. Your [Scouts] will find them, milady. But may I request we return our dead and wounded? We may need to alter tactics as your shield line is weakened.”

“If we must. I admit, the Ogre with the hammer was a decent bit of entertainment. Find the other Ogres, Beshard.”

“And perhaps we might replace your dress from the wardrobe?”

“Perhaps.”

The company rode back into the town they’d left this morning to thunderous cheers. News had spread, and an impromptu parade greeted Pryde. She took it as her due, and Beshard conferred with the [Scouts] as she retired to the inn. By the time Pryde emerged in a new dress, Beshard had news.

“Lady Ulta, the second band of Ogres may not be a threat.”

“Oh? Have they fled after hearing news of the first group’s demise already?”

Lady Pryde was dining on a pickled egg; the outer parts had been dyed green by the brine, making it colorful and bright. Beshard repressed a shudder. Ultanese food was also a different thing. He turned to the [Scout] and the man shook his head.

“I do not believe they’ve heard of your victory yet, Lady Pryde. Rather, they’re being hunted. By [Knights]! A group of them has pledged to end the Ogres and they’re close to clashing.”

The [Lady] looked up sharply. Her eyes glinted.

“[Knights]? I sent for no knights! Are they from Bethal? Bethal’s [Knights]? On my land, hunting the Ogres without permission?”

Beshard winced.

“No, Lady Ulta. The Ogres are outside your domain. The [Knights] are merely passing through. And they are not the Knights of the Petal. I understand this is a Terandrian group. The Order of Seasons, apparently.”

Pryde’s eyebrows shot up.

“The Order of Seasons? That is unusual. They must be on some crusade of sorts. Nevertheless, they did not inform me of their presence.”

She looked peeved, drumming her painted fingernails on the table. Beshard waited. Pryde had a temper. She could be the epitome of grace. Or furious if she felt she’d been slighted.

Thankfully, she might have still been recovering her full reservoir of pride or sated from her victory, for the [Lady] only nodded sharply.

“Let them take the second group, then. I have assuaged my curiosity and dealt with the Ogres troubling my lands. Magnolia will clean up the rest. Tell me if the Order of Seasons fails. And have them greet me once they are finished with their task. Now, I think I shall take a bath. That Ogre had remarkably foul breath! Summon my [Handmaidens]! Where are they? Entertaining themselves, no doubt. And I am minded to throw a fête in celebration. See to it, Beshard.”

The man sighed. It wasn’t easy being Pryde’s servant all the time. But—he saw the woman smile. And he couldn’t help but copy the expression. It was like serving a second sun. He bowed deeply.

“Your will be done, Lady Pryde!”

And she only smiled.

“Of course.”

 

—-

 

The second band of Ogres took two days to track from where the Order of Seasons had begun their search. It wasn’t the difficulty of finding them that posed a challenge at first, but covering the ground the Ogres had on them.

They were quick! Ogres could move as far as a horse in a day if they were inclined and this band had trusted to speed, striking here and fleeing before they were caught. They had a surprising amount of discipline; they looted what they wanted and retreated fast rather than wasting time.

But Talia and her companions had Skills and fresh mounts. More importantly, each [Knight] knew that every passing hour was another dead soul. So they rode, and rode hard. By the time Lady Pryde’s victory reached them, they were certain the Ogres were within the area they were riding through.

“Oh, aye. The Ogres’re up ahead. In the hills, I’ve no doubt. They attacked Crimsal just yesterday. Might come this way. Might not. If they’ve heard about the group that got wiped on Ulta lands, they might flee right off. Be a shame now you lot are here; I’d rest easier knowing they were all dead.”

The [Hermit] who spoke to Lady Talia gestured to the Eldessale Foothills in the distance. Talia bit the inside of her cheek.

“I hope so, sir. We don’t have the time to hunt for their base in such a wide area. But should you not flee the area? We intend to pursue the Ogres, but we cannot guarantee your safety.”

The old man grinned at Talia and laughed.

“Don’t you worry! My home’s concealed by Skills and I’ve got more’n one bolt hole. I wouldn’t have let you know I was here but for the fact that you’re [Knights]. Thought you were here for the Ogres. Maybe you can get them before that other loon gets killed.”

“Other?”

Talia paused. Ser Lorell was waiting for news impatiently as some of the other [Knights] scouted for information. She turned back to the [Hermit]. He nodded sagely, pointing up ahead.

“Thought you knew? He went past my hut not a day ago. On foot. Went off after the Ogres, same as you.”

“A fellow [Knight Errant]? Either he’s one of Izril’s finest or he underestimates his foe.”

Talia was alarmed. The [Hermit] shrugged.

“Think he’s mad, Sirs and Lady [Knights]! He might not even know about the Ogres; it was Goblins he was after! You haven’t heard of him? A fellow in armor, smells to stink he does. Rarely speaks—hunts Goblins day and night? He’s gained a reputation since he arrived! Came from the south, so he did! Out of nowhere!”

“Not at all. Who is this? An adventurer? A [Knight]?”

The [Hermit] paused and shook his head. He lowered his voice.

“Either or neither, Miss Knight. All I know is that he hates Goblins with a passion. They call him the Goblin Slayer.

The name sparked something in Talia’s mind. She nodded slowly.

“Interesting. Thank you for the information, sir. We may try to catch this person, lest he run afoul of so many Ogres.”

“He wasn’t mounted, so you’ve a chance. Best hunting! Let me know if those Ogres get killed. I hate them. Ever seen their shits on the ground? Worst things. Splashy.”

Talia Kallinad left the [Hermit] behind and reported to Ser Lorell. Ser Eldein, Dame Ingrela, and two other [Knights] returned as well. They confirmed the Ogres were up ahead, but the news about the other [Knight] alarmed Ser Lorell.

“I know Izril has a few orders, but I cannot say there are any great [Knights] to my knowledge. And it would take a great [Knight] such as Teresa the Giant or Ser Alonaid, the [Bow Knight] to face such a horde alone. If this ‘Goblin Slayer’ is hunting Goblins, we should find them.”

“Agreed. Do we ride down the road or take to the foothills, Ser Lorell?”

The Summer Knight hesitated. Talia waited, knowing what she’d order. Ser Eldein glanced sideways at her, but Ser Lorell made up his mind after a moment.

“The foothills. The Ogres won’t stick to the roads after the last group was defeated. They will be more opportunistic. Or do you disagree?”

He stared at Talia. She inclined her head slightly.

“Not at all, Ser Lorell.”

“Then we ride. Mount up! Dame Chise, Ser Raise, in front! Dame Talia, Ser Thornst, choose four and scout.”

The [Knights] took off fast. They were wary of ambush and Talia chose Eldein and a fellow [Summer Knight] to ride ahead, but she knew speed was of the essence. Her Order couldn’t afford to spend a month tracking the Ogres down if they fled into the foothills. She urged her mount into the forest surrounding the foothills, picking a path upwards.

“Gah! My steed can’t handle the terrain. Dame Talia, I fear he’ll break an ankle.”

Ser Eldein cried out as they passed through more dense trees with gnarled roots and stones. Ser Thornst nodded.

“I as well. We’ll have to go on foot unless we have [Steady Hooves] for our mounts or the like.”

Talia frowned, but it was true. And the foothills would be just as bad for riding.

“Dismount, then. Let Ser Lorell know; Ser Thornst, will you take the horses back? You have a way with them.”

Ser Eldein was junior, but it was true. Thornst nodded.

“Of course. I imagine Dame Chise will keep her mount, and perhaps Ser Aldon. But I shall bring the rest back.”

“We’ll have to send them back to a town or village. The Ogres might well go after them.”

Ser Eldein commented as Talia dismounted. The young woman nodded, grimacing.

“I imagine we’ll have to send one of our own back. Or perhaps the [Hermit] could—”

She broke off and raised a gauntleted hand. Ser Eldein fell silent at once. Off their mounts, the two [Knights] heard a sound up ahead. Rustling. They grabbed their weapons, alert. Talia motioned and the two spread out. They were hardly camouflaged with their bright metal armor, but they moved quietly, advancing. Talia rounded a tree and saw the Goblin Slayer.

Her first impression of him was of a kneeling figure. His armor was plain, but perfectly kept. He wore a full-visored helm, concealing his features. And his body was likewise covered, from head to toe.

That was like most [Knights]. But where Talia and Ser Eldein’s armor was polished and bright, painted in the colors of their Season, the Goblin Slayer’s armor was grimy. Not a single part shone. He smelled of dirt too, and Talia caught a foreign whiff from him that made her nose wrinkle. The Goblin Slayer was crouched, immobile as he studied a body on the ground.

A Goblin. It’s head had been split open and it was at least a day dead. The smell was foul and rotten. The Goblin Slayer knelt over it, inspecting the corpse. He had an intensity to even his posture as he remained still. Like a coiled spring, ready to explode if need be. But what stood out to her was the way he reacted to their presence. He looked up silently and she felt his gaze, hidden behind his helmet.

He had known they were here. The armored figure said nothing. He waited. Then, slowly, he stood and stowed the knife he’d been holding in one gauntleted hand. He turned, and reached for the pack on the ground. He looked back at the [Knights] and said not one word.

It was unnatural. Talia felt her skin prick slightly. Ser Eldein wavered and lowered his sword. He called out after a few seconds of silence.

“Well met, stranger! Are you hunting monsters? I am Ser Eldein of the Order of Seasons! This is Dame Talia, likewise of the Order of Seasons! May we know your name and purpose?”

The figure looked up. He stared at Ser Eldein, again, a bit too long. At last, he nodded and said one word.

Goblins.

His tone was guttural, hoarse, as if strained from misuse. He seemed content with that reply. Talia saw him stowing something in a belt pouch. She saw a flash of green and realized what it was.

Ears. He’d cut off the ears of the Goblin corpse. Or—just one. The head had been nearly destroyed by the blow. She saw Ser Eldein react with disgust. That wasn’t a practice of [Knights], but adventurers. Dame Talia was more diplomatic. She sheathed her sword and smiled.

“Are you Sir Goblin Slayer? My company was informed you were hunting the Ogres. As we are. There is a war band of thirty in the area. Thirty Ogres—a fearsome danger to the local citizens. Are you pursuing them?”

The Goblin Slayer looked up. He nodded once.

“Ogres and Goblins.”

“Pardon me?”

Talia frowned. The voice came out of the helmet.

“Ogres. And Goblins. They have Goblins. This is one of theirs.”

He gestured down at the corpse. Dame Talia blinked. She looked sideways at Ser Eldein.

“We’re told they number thirty in total, Ser Knight. Are you intending to battle them alone?”

He shrugged.

“Yes.”

Another pause. Ser Eldein frowned.

“But there are thirty Ogres.”

“And Goblins. I hunt Goblins. So I hunt them.”

With that said, the Goblin Slayer turned and began to walk away from Talia. She called out.

“Ser Knight, wait!”

He paused and turned back towards her. She cleared her throat. Someone was moving towards them. Ser Thornst, perhaps.

“Will you wait a moment? My company is behind me. We too hunt the Ogres. And Goblins. Might we pool information?”

The armored figure considered her request. Slowly, he nodded.

“Fine.”

Talia nodded to Ser Eldein. The other [Knight] sheathed his blade and turned. Ser Thornst stopped when he saw the Goblin Slayer, but the rest of the company converged on the spot in minutes. Ser Lorell blinked as well and covered his nose with a handkerchief; the other [Knights] looked at the body with disgust. And at the Goblin Slayer with suspicion.

“Well met, Ser Knight. Are you the Goblin Slayer we have heard about? I understand you are following the trail of the Ogres. A worthy cause. Might I know your name and order?”

Ser Lorell greeted the Goblin Slayer cordially. They were all on foot, but for Dame Chaise and Ser Aldon. Talia watched as the dark visor swung towards Ser Lorell. The Goblin Slayer paused for a long moment.

“I hunt Goblins. Call me what you want. I am not a [Knight].”

That was all he said. Ser Lorell faltered.

“Then you are hunting the Ogres?”

“Yes.”

“Alone?”

“Yes.”

“Are you…”

Are you a Gold-rank adventurer? Or Named? Or just mad? Ser Lorell was clearly thinking that. Talia was sure she’d never heard of a ‘Goblin Slayer’ as a Named Adventurer, excluding Elia Arcslinger of course. After a moment, she broke in.

“Do you believe the Ogres are in this area, Sir Slayer? We have tracked them by sightings and their attacks.”

“They are that way.”

The Goblin Slayer pointed, through the trees to the base of the hills. Ser Thornst frowned.

“You tracked them?”

“Here. And there.”

“Let me see.”

One of the other [Spring Knights] who had a tracking Skill moved forwards. He squatted by the body and studied the tracks in the ground. It was all dirt to Talia, but he seemed to agree. As he noted the stiffness of the Goblin corpse, Talia stepped back with Chise, Thornst, and Lorell to confer. The senior [Summer Knights] eyed the Goblin Slayer. He was watching them all.

“What an odd warrior. Not a [Knight], clearly. But he has the armor of one. That’s good steel. New. Quite mobile as well.”

Ser Thornst nodded to the Goblin Slayer’s armor. Indeed, he wore light armor, not as heavy as some of the [Knights], but it covered his body, allowing for superior movement. Talia knew a well-fitted suit of armor was like a second skin. A trained [Knight] could run, jump, swim, and climb in it with ease. Ser Lorell frowned darkly.

“He seems to match the description of this ‘Goblin Slayer’. I did hear a rumor of him on the road earlier. But he did not state he was such. An imposter, perhaps?”

“His armor is meticulously maintained, for all of the smell. They’re not all one set, though.”

Dame Chise studied the armored figure. Talia agreed. The armor was good beneath the dirt. Ser Lorell pursed his lips.

“He seems to be pursuing the Goblins. Should we insist on taking precedence?”

“Would he agree? This isn’t Terandria, Ser Lorell.”

“Nevertheless, we are nineteen.”

“If he’s an adventurer, he might object…”

“I’ll speak to him. Perhaps he can tell us more.”

Talia backed out of the conversation and moved over to the Goblin Slayer. He was speaking to the [Spring Knight]. Ser Shait was speaking.

“I count a large group. I’d say…fifty? More? Moving in the direction of the hills, indeed. That squares with the thirty-some Ogres. The Goblins…”

“Twenty five. Males and females. No Hobs. Few Goblins are with the Ogres.”

The Goblin Slayer’s voice made the [Knights] look up. Ser Eldein blinked.

“You can count so accurately, sir?”

The helmeted head moved towards him.

“I know Goblins. Twenty five.”

A specialized class for hunting Goblins, perhaps. Talia had met [Hunters] like the [Witch Hunters] who were like that. She had never met one that killed just Goblins. She studied the silent figure as Ser Eldein paused.

“No Hobs? Ah, Hobgoblins. Is that unusual, Sir Slayer?”

She squatted down next to the Goblin Slayer, steeling her stomach against the smell of the body. It had yet to truly stink. The Goblin Slayer paused.

“Hobs rarely appear in slave tribes. Goblins move too slow for Ogres. Tracks also show the same.”

“Slave tribes?”

“Yes. This is one. Goblins obey larger monsters. Twenty five for fighting came this way. Thirty Ogres. This one was one of them.”

“Why did it die? An accident? Its head looks—”

“Crushed. Ogre club.”

The Goblin Slayer dispassionately pointed. Talia nodded. Even she could read that much.

“And you’re sure of the count?”

“Fifteen female. Ten male.”

“More female than male?”

Ser Thornst had come over. He frowned. For answer, the Goblin Slayer pulled at the dead Goblin’s loincloth. The [Knights] recoiled.

“Sir Slayer!”

“Look. Female.”

Talia averted her gaze.

“That is unseemly.”

“The Goblin’s dead. Angered the Ogres. Probably.”

The cold voice from behind the helmet could have been staring at a rock on the ground. There was something almost…Golem-like about the Goblin Slayer. Talia got the sense of incredible focus from him. He was interested in only one thing. The Goblins. He gave her the impression of resenting even this delay.

Sir Lorell frowned. He’d come over, still covering his nose as he stared down at the female Goblin in confusion.

“Wouldn’t Ogres leave females behind? The bestiary states that few female Ogres fight in their raiding parties. Would that not hold the same for Goblins?”

“No. Ogres get bored.”

Talia recoiled. It took some of the [Knights] longer to understand what the Goblin Slayer meant. Ser Lorell took a full minute, and then he paled.

“But that’s—”

“Another reason to do away with them. Not that Goblins are different. This band has killed dozens. Sir Slayer, we are hunting them like you. May I ask what you intend to do when you find this band of monsters?”

The Goblin Slayer looked at Talia. His voice was calm.

“Track them to their lair. Kill them there. Can’t fight in the open. Ogres run too quickly.”

“Kill all of them?”

“Yes.”

“By y—how?”

“One by one.”

It was like talking to a mildly communicative rock. Talia shook her head. She looked around, gauging the response of the other [Knights]. Most looked suspicious, but Dame Chise was nodding to the tracks. The Goblin Slayer was better at tracking than their company; they hadn’t been assembled for their tracking Skills, only to slay Belavierr. Talia took a breath.

“And if nineteen [Knights] were to do battle alongside you, Sir Slayer? Our quarry is the Ogres and Goblins both. Let us join forces.”

The offer took both the Goblin Slayer and Ser Lorell off-guard. He drew Talia back as the Goblin Slayer paused.

“Dame Talia!”

“He’s set on his quarry and he can track the monsters, Ser Lorell. It makes sense.”

“Can we trust him?”

The [Summer Knight] looked at the Goblin Slayer with great distrust. Talia shrugged. She beckoned and a [Spring Knight] hurried over.

“What do you see, Ser Thaime? Can you appraise him?”

The man nodded. He stared at the Goblin Slayer and Talia saw his lips move silently. He used a Skill. [Measure of Valor]. After a moment, he looked up at Ser Lorell and Talia and nodded.

Lorell frowned.

“Well, Ser Thaime? His worth?”

“High. ‘Tis not akin to one of our order, but high nonetheless. I see deception, guilt of failure, and the mark of cowardice upon him, but no heinous crimes.”

The answer surprised Lorell. Talia too, honestly. Lorell raised his eyebrows incredulously.

“You’re sure? What of cowardice?”

Ser Thaime shrugged. His Skill allowed him to see the worth of an individual—at least, as a [Knight] judged such things. It wasn’t a foolproof Skill; there were honorable [Thieves], and lauded adventurers who held dark secrets. But it was a good measure the Order of Seasons liked to use.

“Cowardice in valor, Ser Lorell. I have seen the like upon our Grandmaster, the Summer’s Champion. Those who fled a battlefield at the last look so to me. As a whole, I call yon Sir Slayer a man of valor.”

“Is that so.”

Ser Lorell looked unhappy, but Talia smiled. She nodded to the other [Knights].

“Deception is well explained by how he acts. Cloaking himself in the blood and scent of Goblins? Exterminating them as they sleep? Hardly the act of a [Knight]. But he fights for a good cause. I say we pool our might of arms lest we foul each other accidentally.”

Ser Eldein and a few of the other [Knights] nodded agreement. Ser Lorell looked around but Talia knew she had the support of most of the others. He nodded grudgingly.

“Very well. You may extend the invitation.”

Talia already had. She approached the Goblin Slayer. He had folded his arms.

“I kill Goblins alone.”

“With respect, Sir Slayer, these Ogres are more than a small band of Goblins. I am told the rest of their clan and an entire Goblin tribe nests of the hills.”

“Yes. I will hunt them too.”

Talia nodded patiently. She gestured to the rest of the Order.

“But that is our charge as well. And since we have pledged to rid the world of these Ogres, we will not cease. Will you give up your hunt and entrust the burden of defeating these monsters to us, Sir Slayer?”

“No. There are Goblins. I hunt them.”

“So it is. Then let us work together. Or else we will endanger our causes by working apart.”

It was well-said, and after a moment the Goblin Slayer reluctantly nodded.

“Fine. We hunt together. Follow me.”

With that, he turned and began walking through the forest. The Order of Seasons started, but as Talia nodded, they trooped after the Goblin Slayer. He looked displeased—at least, behind his helmet. Talia strode forwards with Ser Eldein to walk alongside him.

“Sir Slayer—”

“Noisy.”

“What?”

Eldein looked affronted. The [Knights] were moving with a minimum of crackling footsteps in the underbrush. The Goblin Slayer looked at him.

“Noisy. Your [Knights] are noisy. Your armor is too loud. Too bright. And you smell. The Ogres won’t let you catch them.”

“Perhaps if we are too close, Sir Slayer. But we are used to the wilderness.”

Talia smiled, a bit annoyed by the blunt criticism. The Goblin Slayer shook his head.

“No. You smell. They are downwind. They will smell you. Use this.”

He paused and took something from his belt. Talia and Eldein recoiled when they saw a dried, stinking—

“Is that a foot?

“Goblin’s foot. Smells like a Goblin. Put it on armor.”

“Absolutely not!”

Eldein backed up. The other [Knights] gagged at the sight of the body part. Talia stared at the Goblin Slayer. That explained his unique odor.

“You camouflage yourself by smell, Sir Slayer?”

“Goblins smell metal. I go ahead. You all stay back. Or use this.”

He offered it to Talia. She hesitated. She could see Ser Lorell shaking his head, but after a moment she took the body part. She shuddered despite wearing gauntlets.

“What must I do?”

“Wipe it over your armor. Dirt too.”

The Goblin Slayer bent and smeared dirt on her breastplate. Talia stared at the dirt, but she knew it made sense. Some [Knights] in her Order took the same precautions. Just not the foot!

It took her a minute to do as the Goblin Slayer bid. He sniffed her, and then nodded. Ser Eldein did likewise, but he refused to put the foot on his armor. The Goblin Slayer relented; the dirt was enough.

“We’ll scout ahead, Ser Lorell.”

The [Summer Knight] rolled his eyes, but let Talia, Eldein, and the Goblin Slayer move ahead. They were following the tracks. Some were obvious, like an Ogre blundering into a bush and uprooting them, but the Goblin Slayer noticed more. He was pointing out piles of stool.

“Ate here. Six hours, perhaps.”

“You seem very knowledgeable, Sir Slayer.”

Talia didn’t bend down to inspect the still-damp stool. The Goblin Slayer straightened.

“I hunt Goblins.”

“So you said. But it seems an odd occupation. Goblins are hardly profitable creatures for adventurers, are they, Sir Slayer?”

Ser Eldein muttered. The Goblin Slayer looked up.

“Perhaps.”

“You seem to have garnered a reputation, sir. May I ask if you have a reason to hunting Goblins to exclusion?”

Talia looked at the Goblin Slayer. He stared straight back and she felt a chill. He hadn’t removed his helmet the entire time. In fact, he’d drunk through a straw. Perhaps it was paranoia, although Talia had put her own helmet on since they were hot on the heels of the Ogres. The Goblin Slayer nodded.

“I have my reasons. Let’s go.”

The two [Knights] fell silent, looking at each other. The Goblin Slayer was hardly talkative despite Talia’s best efforts to engage him. But how much did she need to know? It wasn’t hard to understand.

Here was a man who hunted Goblins. Why? You could imagine any number of reasons. None of them pretty. But his single-minded devotion to the cause spoke to Talia of a grudge. She wanted to know what it was. He interested her.

They were moving uphill when the Goblin Slayer grabbed Talia’s arm. She stopped as he yanked her back.

“What—”

“Stop. A trap.”

He’d found something. In the trees, a metal spike embedded in wood. It was poised to swing down once Talia hit the nearly-invisible trigger. She shuddered, eyeing it as the Goblin Slayer climbed up. He was as mobile as she’d thought! He came down with it. Ser Eldein looked appalled.

“What is that?”

“Goblin trap. Ogres must have told them to set it up. They have a camp near here.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. Ogres don’t use traps. Goblins do.”

“I’ve never heard of Goblin traps! And I’ve eradicated a tribe before.”

The helmeted head slowly swung towards Ser Eldein.

“Some Goblins use traps.”

That was that. The [Knight] paused. Talia frowned.

“Will there be more traps?”

“Probably.”

So saying, the Goblin Slayer put the trap in a bag of holding and took the tripwire and other parts of the trap. That surprised Talia. As they stopped to warn Ser Lorell and the other [Knights], the [Summer Knight] frowned.

“Traps? These seem primitive.”

“Even so, night is falling. We should not venture forwards so near to the Ogre’s camp and risk alerting them and falling into traps.”

Dame Chise cautioned the group. Talia glanced sideways at the Goblin Slayer. He was staring up at the fading sun.

“Sir Slayer?”

“I can see traps. But the Goblins can see at night. Better to wait for dawn.”

Since I have to put up with you. Some of the Order of Seasons frowned, but they eventually agreed. Ser Lorell ordered a camp struck and sentries posted. The [Knights] made a small, smokeless fire and ate travel rations. Talia had hoped the Goblin Slayer would join them, but the adventurer sat far from the fire. He’d taken the trap he’d found out and was working on something beside it. Talia walked over.

“Sir Slayer, what are you—”

She paused when she saw the second trap. It was a net, the kind [Fishers] might use in a river or stream. The Goblin Slayer was attaching metal shards to the net, tying them into place. Each was a wickedly sharp blade. The Goblin Slayer walked over to a span of trees and anchored the net into place. Anyone rushing through incautiously would run straight into it. Then he grabbed the Goblin trap and began rearming it at another point in the trees.

The Order of Seasons had seen what he was doing. Ser Eldein protested.

“That is not a chivalrous weapon! Sir Slayer, we do not need traps! We are hunting the Ogres!”

“They might attack. Goblins would.”

“Do they know we’re here? We’ve had no signs of them and we’ve kept quiet.”

Dame Chise looked skeptical. The Goblin Slayer just pointed to the fire as a reply. Ser Lorell flushed; he’d been the one to insist on a fire.

“This is an overabundance of caution. Our sentries are well-positioned.”

“And now they have traps.”

Ser Lorell’s mouth worked and he gave up.

“As you will! I shall take third watch. Everyone, to your positions. Let us at least rest well for tomorrow’s encounter. Sir Slayer may set up all the traps he wishes.”

So he did. As the Order of Seasons settled down, pulling gear out of their bags of holding, Talia saw the Goblin Slayer set up eight more traps.

“You take many precautions, sir.”

“I have to. I work alone.”

The Goblin Slayer looked up and looked at Talia. He seemed uneasy at her company. Of course, he was used to isolation. She hesitated.

“You have a number of items in your bag of holding. Traps. I see you use a shortsword. Do you have any other weapons?”

He paused.

“I have another trick. I will use it when we fight if needed.”

“Will you not take supper with us?”

“No.”

Talia conveyed his words to Ser Lorell. The [Knight] grunted sourly, eating from the pot. The fire truly was smokeless, and the light contained by the glade, but some of the [Knights] had taken the Goblin Slayer’s precautions seriously. They were checking their weapons and making sure they lay next to them where they slept.

“Let this adventurer do what he wills, Dame Talia. We shall see his mettle tomorrow.”

He gestured to the Goblin Slayer. The armored figure ate alone, in the darkness far from the fire. Talia kept glancing his way. Ser Eldein sat next to Talia as she ate some stew seasoned with bits of pickled herring.

“You seem intrigued by Sir Slayer, Dame Talia.”

“Just interested, Ser Eldein. He reminds me of the [Hunters] from Terandria. They are much like him.”

The [Spring Knight] nodded, but looked perplexed. Talia smiled.

“Oh, very well. I have another reason. You know that I am a [Lady]?”

“In upbringing, perhaps, but I call you a fellow [Knight] above all.”

His words made Talia smile. She shook her head.

“I mean that I have the class. And I have few Skills I gained before becoming a [Squire]. One of them tells me yon Goblin Slayer is a person of interest.”

“Oh. What is the name of the Skill, if it is not secret?”

It was, but Talia didn’t mind sharing among her comrades.

“It is called [Mark of Worth]. Some [Commanders] and [Leaders] have something like it. In my case, it would help me choose worthy retainers. Not necessarily trustworthy ones, but it does help. I sometimes see such people. There were a few in Riverfarm, for instance.”

“Like the Stitch Witch?”

Talia’s smile vanished.

“Oh yes. Worth comes in many forms. To me, I see notable figures. I wonder what makes this Goblin Slayer so important. Perhaps he is capable of killing thirty Ogres over time.”

“We shall see. Ah, but I have second watch. I should sleep.”

Talia nodded. She bedded down, noting that the Goblin Slayer had vanished. She thought his silhouette might be leaning against a tree. Paranoia? Or…

Her thoughts drifted off and Talia let herself relax. She slept, knowing her watch was nearest to dawn. The [Knights] relaxed, trading off watches with the sentries in the darkness. The fire’s embers had long been extinguished and the forest was silent.

The Ogres fell upon the camp in the night. They might have swept through the heart of the camp and slumbering [Knights] but for the sentries. And the traps. The [Sentries] shouted the alarm seconds before the monsters hit the camp.

The first Goblin crashed into the net full of blades and screamed. Talia lurched out of her bedroll, grabbing for her sword. An Ogre hit the plank with a spike and shouted with pain. That brief window was all the time she needed to roll to her feet. Ser Eldein struggled out of his bedroll, tearing the fabric, swearing, grabbing at his sword.

The monsters had thought they could overrun the Humans despite the alarm, but they had never met trained [Knights]. And the Order of Seasons was used to watchfulness in the field. In moments they were on their feet.

Attack! Rally to me! [Summer Knights], forwards! [Spring Knights] to the flanks!

Ser Lorell’s voice rose above the din. In the darkness, Talia unsheathed her blade. It glowed in the darkness. And then she saw them.

Ogres. Thirty of them streamed into the glade, battling the [Sentries]. They were huge, dwarfing the Humans! And around them raced smaller shapes. Goblins, green, their eyes glowing crimson as they hurled themselves forwards. The [Knights] charged with wild cries. They were wearing their armor, like the Goblin Slayer.

Talia saw a huge Ogre leading the group. Like the Chieftain that Pryde had encountered, this was the biggest yet. He carried a huge club, with dozens of tiny blades embedded in the wood. He roared as he swung and Dame Chise rolled out of the way; she went for her horse, rearing and screaming as Goblins swarmed around it.

Leader! Knights of the Summer, to me! Bring down that Ogre with the club!”

Ser Lorell roared as he pointed at the Ogre. Around him, the Order of Seasons engaged. The [Spring Knights] leapt forwards, attacking, dodging, blocking, trained warriors used to a melee. But the higher-level [Knights], including Talia, stopped. She raised her sword, watching an Ogre charging towards her. She shouted and focused the heat of her fury into her blade.

“As the Summer blazes, let my foes fear the sun! [Aura Blade]!

The plain steel sword began to heat up. Then it glowed. First red, then orange, and then yellow. And then white-hot! The glow illuminated the dark clearing and the Ogre shielded his face. Talia felt the heat of the blade and swung it; the searing metal sliced the air, leaving an afterimage. But she was used to it.

Ser Lorell had done the same, only with his shield. Dame Chise, Ser Thornst—all the senior members were shouting Skills. Concentrating their aura.

That was what the Order of Seasons were. Aura specialists, [Knights] who embodied the fury of their season. Now the Summer Knights copied Talia. Armor began to blaze with heat, or radiate light that blinded their foes in the night. Talia swung her white-hot blade, slashing with it as she guarded her left with her shield.

Her first jab took the Ogre in the side. He was wearing patchwork leather, but the blade went through the crude armor and the Ogre screamed. A slight scratch hurt far more and he recoiled. His club lost its trajectory and struck Talia’s shield.

It was still a heavy blow, but she threw it aside. She would have slashed again, but a Goblin attacked from her left. Talia slashed left, turning, and the Goblin screamed as the blade cut across his chest, burning skin and armor. She caught the Goblin’s hatchet and the weapon burst into flame, forcing the Goblin to drop it!

The heat didn’t make the metal any weaker. And it was hot. Talia might have lacked the ability to become a burning fireball like the senior [Knights] of her season, let alone reach the levels Ser Reim and the Summer’s Champion could, but her sword was still as deadly as many enchanted weapons. One touch would ignite or sear flesh beyond recognition. That held true of the Ogres’ and Goblin’s weapons too.

“Ser Eldein! To me!”

Talia backed up and saw the [Spring Knight] fighting in a whirlwind, eight Goblins lunging at once at him. His armor took many of the blows, but the Ogres were a deadly threat. While the Goblins distracted, they went in for crushing blows that would kill most of the Order of Seasons if not blocked or dodged.

“Dame Talia, your left!”

Talia spun. She cut and the Ogre reeled back, wary of her blade. He was good, and he had a shield of his own, but Talia was trained. She stepped in and Eldein warded her flank and cut. Her sword dipped, feinting, and then speared the Ogre through the leg.

Smoke and a scream. The Ogre lashed out at her, but Talia moved back. Now he was crippled and she and Eldein backed up, battling the Goblins, pushing another Ogre back. Eldein grunted as he blocked a heavy strike from an Ogre. His knees buckled, but he remained standing. A Goblin slashed across his legs, finding a weak spot in his armor. He cried out and Talia beheaded the Goblin.

“Potion.”

The [Knight] grabbed it, drank, and spun, before the monsters could capitalize on his injury. He turned.

“Dead gods! Dame Talia, the Goblin Slayer!”

“Where?”

Talia whirled. She’d forgotten about their companion. While the Order of Seasons had grouped up, the Goblin Slayer had been alone! She turned—

And saw him fighting. The Goblin Slayer rolled, avoiding an Ogre swinging a bastard sword one-handed. The Goblin Slayer rose, running the Ogre through the back of his knee. The blow went through the kneecap. The Ogre went down, screaming, and the Goblin Slayer turned. He backhanded a Goblin running at him and leapt forwards. He didn’t go for the Ogre’s throat; avoiding the flailing arms, he cut the Ogre on the leg. Opening an artery. Then he leapt back.

A Goblin ran at him. The Goblin Slayer ran it through. The Goblin jerked. Without hesitation, the Goblin Slayer kicked him off the blade. He whirled. This time he punched a Goblin off her feet. He didn’t hesitate to use his fists or feet rather than waste time getting his blade into position. He went for a second Ogre.

“The legs! Take them from the legs! Group up!”

Talia shouted at Eldein and the [Knights] around them. She fought towards the Goblin Slayer, trying to come to his aid. He was alone, dodging from every direction. And he was good! Good as any [Knight], but he and the Order of Seasons were outnumbered. Talia was shouting his name when she heard a cry and her own name.

Dame Talia! Your left!

She turned and saw the Ogre Chief. He was swinging his club, clearing a huge space as three [Knights] tried to bring him down. Talia joined Ser Eldein, lunging forwards, trying to slash at this Ogre, but he was wearing armor on his lower half as well as his upper and he was quicker than the other Ogres. His huge club was too much of a threat. The [Knights] feinted around him. Then Ser Eldein, impatient, or spotting an opportunity, leapt forwards. He slashed, catching the Ogre on the side. The monster roared and swung his club in a tight arc, incredibly fast.

The blow hit Ser Eldein straight in the chest. He went flying backwards, his chest plate dented, bleeding from the metal embedded in the club.

Ser Eldein!

Talia saw the two other [Knights] leap forwards, shields raised, covering her. She battered aside a Goblin standing over Ser Eldein with her shield, reached for him. He was lying on the ground, weakly reaching for his belt.

His potions. They’d smashed. Talia grabbed one from her belt. She smashed it on his chest, watching the liquid mix with his blood. She waited, crouched over him. His ribs were most likely broken. Her potion wouldn’t stop that. When he healed, they’d move him to safety—

The blood didn’t stop. Talia stared down. Eldein was staring at his chest.

“The potion.”

She reached for another.

“Here! Drink!”

This time Ser Eldein accepted it. He fumbled with the cork. His lips were pale. Talia slashed at a Goblin, swearing. An Ogre hurled a stone at her and she blocked it. She looked down as Dame Chise rode down on the Ogre, lance raised. Eldein was drinking. But as he lowered the potion, the blood running from his ruined chest plate didn’t stop.

“What—”

“I’m bleeding.”

The young man gasped. Talia reached for him.

“The potions—they’re defective? Or—”

Then she saw it. A glimmer of metal in his ruined armor. Talia froze. Ser Eldein’s unfocused gaze fell upon the same object and stopped.

It was just a triangle of metal. Thin. Sharp as anything. It had been part of the Ogre Chief’s club. But it was no regular piece of metal.

An Evercut Arrow. Talia stared at the arrowhead that had broken off and lodged in Ser Eldein’s chest. She recognized the distinctive look. It was a powerful weapon, one that healing potions couldn’t fix.

Slowly, she looked at Ser Eldein. Then at the Ogre Chief. He was laughing, having cut other [Knights] with savage swings from his clubs. They were falling back, shouting as they realized what she had.

“Evercut Arrows! Watch yourselves!”

Ser Eldein’s eyes widened as Talia screamed. He looked down at his chest. And then up at her. She stared at him. And then at the Ogres. How had they known? But they were not just mindless beasts.

They were monsters, but they adapted. The Ogre war leader swung his club and the [Knights], forewarned, retreated. Talia looked down. Eldein looked at her. His face was white, draining of blood. But his voice was suddenly calm.

“I am cut, Talia. Mortally. Spring ends.”

“No. We can find a way to heal you. Sear the wounds closed! That works!”

Talia raised her blade. But Eldein shook his head. Slowly, he stood. Blood ran down his armor, covering the colors of spring.

“Too late.”

“Ser Eldein!”

She reached for him. The young man caught Talia. His grip was so weak.

“Let me fight. Let me die standing.”

He could barely raise his sword. But Talia looked in his eyes and saw the truth. Slowly, she turned. The world slowed around them as the [Knights] raised their blades.

Ogres and Goblins. They assailed the Order of Seasons. They came at Eldein, seeing his weakness. Talia took the left, circling, hacking at Goblins, screaming. Ser Eldein raised his shield, uttering a cry.

The Ogre had a mace. And a second one, a flail. Talia ducked the swinging ball of spikes. She slashed at the Ogre’s side, cutting deep. Her sword seared flesh; the giant warrior screamed, but the cut was shallow. She dodged back, slicing at a leg. The Ogre with a flail made a huge swing. Talia ducked, feeling it pass over her head.

And the Goblin Slayer leapt. He stabbed a long dagger deep in the Ogre’s side. The monster howled and turned, staggering. Talia looked back. Ser Eldein was fighting the one with the mace. He raised his shield. And his eyes found her.

The Ogre with the mace swung. A crushing blow. It broke past Eldein’s guard. The blow sent him down and crushed his helmet and shoulder on the right side. Talia cried out and attacked from the side, in the opening Eldein had given her. She struck home. Her blade pierced the Ogre deep in the chest and flesh charred. The Ogre jerked and collapsed, his innards smoking. Gone.

So was Eldein. Talia saw only a still body. She nearly ran to him, but then she turned. The Goblin Slayer was fighting the other Ogre! She whirled—

The Ogre was dead. Talia stared as the Goblin Slayer lowered his blade. He’d killed the Ogre himself! Talia saw the beast’s chest and broken chainmail rent by a terrific blow. A Skill?

There was no time to ask. Talia heard a roar. The Ogre Chief was forcing the [Knights] back. His club kept them at bay. Talia saw the Goblin Slayer look up. He focused on the Ogre.

“Dangerous.”

“Sir Slayer! The Ogre! Do you have a bow? Can you strike it from afar? I can concentrate my aura, but—”

The Ogre was too big! Talia saw the Goblin Slayer hesitate.

“I can kill the Ogre. Sneak attack. Other [Knights] must get clear! Can you distract it?”

“Yes! Seasons, fall back!

Talia shouted. So saying, she raised her blade. The white-hot blade grew even brighter as the Ogre Chief turned. He shaded his face, coming at them. Talia saw the Goblin Slayer reach for his side. He lifted something—she squinted to see.

“What is it?”

“Axe.”

The Goblin Slayer raised the jade and gold axe. The jade edge glowed and Talia saw a magical edge appear, expanding, giving the axe a head three times as large as below. The glowing green blade shimmered as the Goblin Slayer lifted over his head—then threw it at the Ogre.

A scythe of magic cut across the glade. It spun through a Goblin. The rotating magical edge slashed towards the Ogre Chief. His eyes widened and the Ogre raised an arm to shield himself. Too late. The magical axe cut into the Ogre’s arm, cutting it nearly in half!

The beast screamed—and the Goblin Slayer ran. He had his shortsword. He planted the sword in the Ogre’s stomach, twisting the blade. Talia slashed, cutting at the legs, and a third [Knight] ran the screaming monster through the back from horseback. The lance ended the scream. The Ogre fell, dropping the deadly club.

The battle ended with the Chieftain’s fall. The Ogres began to flee, what few remained. And the Goblins ran. There were only a dozen left. The Order of Seasons began to pursue.

“Pursue the Goblins! We’ll cut as many down—”

Ser Lorell’s raised voice was cut off by the Goblin Slayer.

“No.”

The [Knights] halted, confused. The Goblin Slayer pointed.

“No. They’re going back to their tribe. Let them.”

The Order of Seasons paused. Talia saw Lorell open his mouth. Then there was a cry.

“Ser Eldein!”

The [Knights] turned. The light of battle went out in Talia abruptly. She lowered her sword and closed her eyes.

“Ah.”

 

—-

 

Ser Eldein had died fighting. He had given his life to let Talia slay an Ogre. The Evercut Arrows had already been his death. All of these things were facts. It didn’t change that he was dead.

They buried him where he had fallen. They could have taken his remains back. And Talia did take his sword and shield. But that wasn’t the way of the Order of Seasons. Instead, the [Knights] dug a grave. They placed weapons around his grave and laid their comrade to rest there. There was no face left for Talia; they draped a cloth over his head.

Ser Lorell’s face was grave. He and some of the other [Knights] still bled, but none had fallen. The Order had given a ferocious fight with the Goblin Slayer. With potions, they had beaten the Ogres. Only Ser Eldein had fallen. But it was already too much. Talia wept silently as Ser Lorell spoke before the Order of Seasons gathered around the simple grave.

“All things pass. As spring passes we wither. Summer’s glory fades. Autumn’s twilight deepens into darkness. And even the silence of winter must end. Yet the passing of time remembers glory. And so long as time continues, we remember. Ser Eldein, we return you to spring’s embrace. Your name shall not be forgotten so long as all who stand here live!”

“Spring ends.”

The [Knights] murmured. The Knights of Spring laid their brother to rest first. They stepped back, raising their blades. Many were weeping too.

Spring ends!

The Goblin Slayer watched. He stood alone, an outsider. But he had fought with them. As each [Knight] paid their last respects, Talia rose from Eldein’s grave.

“You fought with all the courage of Spring and Summer, friend. I will not forget you.”

She hadn’t prettier words to say. She turned. And saw the Goblin Slayer retreating. But she caught him as he began to move back.

“Look. Sir Slayer, look.”

He turned. And stopped. Where Ser Eldein had been buried, as the fresh dirt still settled, something was happening. Shoots of grass rose from the soil. Flowers, growing, budding, opening.

The grave was blooming. The Order of Seasons watched, breathless. Talia had seen it before. But the moment still made her heart hurt. Ser Eldein’s grave slowly bloomed, and a flash of color rose in the bloody clearing. Amid the death and carnage, something beautiful emerged. Growing.

It was not magic. The grave blossomed. The plants, native to Terandria, grew, not to maturity, but close. Spring’s scent hovered in the air.

Then it stopped. The flowers blew in a sudden breeze, suddenly fresh, but mortal. The mystery faded. Talia breathed again. She looked at the Goblin Slayer. The bloody helmet turned towards her.

“What was that?”

She smiled, and wiped at her face. Slowly, Ser Lorell raised his head. And his eyes shimmered with tears. Talia nodded at him and bowed her head. She spoke one word.

“Spring.”

 

—-

 

They burned the Goblin bodies. And then the Ogres. It was a horrible task, even with the [Summer Knight]’s ability to call fire. But a necessity. While they did that, Dame Chise, the Goblin Slayer, and Talia went after the Goblins. They came back with news.

“There’s a tribe of them in the foothills. The Goblin Slayer reckons at least eighty. Possible as many as two hundred.”

“Not a small tribe!”

Ser Thornst clenched his fist. The Goblin Slayer shook his head.

“Small. Weak. Many died fighting adventurers. It was probably eight hundred. Ogres made them fight.”

“Well, the rest shall die. It seems we have one last task ahead of us, brothers, sisters.”

Ser Lorell’s face was grim. Talia nodded, but it was the Goblin Slayer who shook his head.

“No.”

The Order of Seasons stared at him, perplexed. He had been accorded far more respect for his feats in battle. Ser Lorell worked his jaw.

“But Sir Goblin Slayer—”

“I will hunt them. Myself.”

The [Knights] stared at him. Dame Ingrela looked incredulous.

“With all due respect, Sir Slayer, we did not come all this way to leave a job undone.”

“No. I will finish it. I promise.”

The Goblin Slayer looked at her. Ingrela frowned. It was Talia who spoke up.

“Sir Slayer, why do you insist on doing it alone? At least give us reason for your motives.”

The armored figure paused. When he spoke, it was succinctly.

“[Knights] fight well. But you fight battles. Some Goblins will escape. I will not let Goblins escape when I hunt.”

The Order of Seasons exchanged glances. Ser Lorell’s voice was confused.

“So what if a few Goblins escape, Sir Goblin Slayer? They may rebuild, but Goblins are impossible to eradicate. It would be quicker to—”

The helmet turned.

“Do you want to know…how Goblin Lords are made?”

The company of [Knights] fell silent. All eyes focused on the Goblin Slayer. He spoke slowly. But this time the words came more fluently. As if he’d said this before. No—they came from the heart. The grating voice echoed as Talia looked at him, his hunched figure.

“It happens like this. There is always a tribe. Always Goblins. And adventurers hunt Goblins. Or [Knights]. Or an army. Doesn’t matter. They kill them. All but one or two. Because Goblins hide.”

He looked up, meeting eyes with his visor. The [Knights] listened, silent. The Goblin Slayer’s voice darkened.

“And that one Goblin that lives? It remembers. It learns. Usually it still dies. But sometimes it lives. And then it grows older. Gets stronger. It never forgets. That Goblin becomes a Hobgoblin. And then a Chieftain. And then a Goblin Lord. If it is strong enough. It remembers. And it seeks vengeance.

“The survivor.”

Talia murmured. The helmet swung towards her.

“Yes. Few can become Goblin Lords or Chieftains. Few can become Hobs. But a Goblin that sees its tribe die. That Goblin has a reason to become one. So if you want to stop Goblin Lords? You kill every Goblin in a tribe.”

“The one that remains seeks—”

Dame Chise looked at the Goblin Slayer. And then she glanced at her companions. Slowly, the Order of Seasons nodded. The Goblin Slayer missed the looks they gave each other. But then Ser Lorell stood.

“Your point is made, Sir Slayer. If you are certain you need no help—”

“There will be no Goblins.”

The voice was flat. Talia saw Ser Lorell nod. The older [Knight] looked at the Goblin Slayer. And there was some sympathy there. It was an easy story, after all.

“In that case, we shall return. We would extend the hospitality of the road to you, Sir Slayer. At least rest a day before tackling this tribe. Unless they’ll move?”

“No. The Ogres will make them stay.”

“Then come with us.”

Talia reached for the Goblin Slayer. He moved back, and she lowered her hand. She stared at the dark visor and inclined her head slowly.

“It would be an honor, Sir Slayer. Let us at share our company and speak to Ser Eldein’s valor a moment longer.”

She thought he’d refuse. But at Ser Eldein’s name, the Goblin Slayer turned to look at the grave. Then he nodded.

“Fine.”

 

—-

 

The company was subdued at first, returning the way they’d come through the forest. They found their mounts and the Goblin Slayer was offered Ser Eldein’s mount. He refused, and instead trotted along. It didn’t matter; the Order of Seasons kept their pace slow.

They mourned Ser Eldein. But he had died well. So instead they praised them, taking a lesson from earlier that week. And many were interested in the Goblin Slayer. Talia walked alongside him as he kept pace with the horses. Dame Chise wanted to know what the magical axe was. He let her inspect it and the woman nodded in appreciation.

“Jade and gold. Or perhaps truegold. The kind the Dwarves and master [Smiths] can shape. I think the enchantment is a light form construct. Brittle, yet sharp as any steel. Worthy of any full [Knight] of the Summer. A fine weapon, Sir Slayer. Where did you come by it?”

“I took it from a Hobgoblin.”

Of course. The [Knights] nodded. Ser Thornst eyed the blade.

“Why did you not use it before? I grant you that it would have endangered those around you had you swung it carelessly.”

“Sneak attack. Advantage.”

Talia snorted. She lifted a hand in apology as the metal helmet looked at her.

“Is everything for advantage in combat, Sir Slayer?”

He thought about the question seriously.

“Yes.”

The Order of Seasons returned to the nearest village inhabited they’d passed through this morning. There was only a small inn, but the people turned out to hear that the Ogres were dead. And they feasted the [Knights] accordingly. Talia tried to smile as they gathered around, thanking her comrades. But her heart ached for Ser Eldein.

The one figure who stood alone was the Goblin Slayer. But the villagers knew him too. A dog barked furiously at the armored figure before the owner pulled him away.

“Sorry about that, Sir Slayer! So you got the Goblins and the Ogres? We’ll send word to the Adventurer’s Guild if we get a Runner sooner than you leave!”

“Some Goblins are left. I will finish them. Tonight.”

The Goblin Slayer’s voice was level. Talia eyed the angry dog. The man, the [Innkeeper], apologized.

“Sorry. Bessy smells the Goblins.”

“Perhaps a bath is in order, then?”

The other [Knights] looked anxious at the thought. They had cleaned off the worst of the gore, but their armor stank from sweat, entrails, and so on. The Goblin Slayer was the worst of the lot. The [Innkeeper] was only too happy to offer them baths. Talia accepted happily, but the Goblin Slayer shook his head. He grabbed a bucket and doused himself twice before beginning to rub dirt into his armor.

“Will you not drink with us, Sir Slayer? We will be toasting Ser Eldein into the night.”

“No. Sorry.”

The [Knights] sighed, but only Talia was truly disappointed. They began to tell the story of the battle and Ser Eldein to the villagers, and Talia and the female [Knights] followed the [Innkeeper]’s wife to the outdoor baths that were the pride of the inn.

“That Goblin Slayer is a truly odd character. But skilled. I wonder if he was a [Knight]. He spoke of loss. I think he is to Goblins what he claimed the survivors might become to Humans.”

Dame Chise spoke slowly as she shed her armor. Talia nodded. Dame Ingrela shook her head, eying the hot water with anticipation. She looked at the other female [Knights].

“An odd sort. But valiant. We might have taken more wounds from that club. As it was, we have lost yet another of our Order. Ser Eldein.”

“Too many. And yet, this is what it means to be a [Knight].”

Talia murmured. Her companions agreed. They lowered themselves into the hot water after scrubbing themselves with cold buckets, luxuriating in the steam. Talia looked skywards. Night had fallen.

“I hope Sir Slayer truly can dispose of a Goblin tribe alone, though.”

“With that axe and his skills? He might. But in truth, Dame Talia, I am relieved he did not allow Ser Lorell to order us to aid him. He may well fight any number of their warriors, but in the end, he will kill each Goblin in that tribe. And I have done so. They are children and mothers. It is not chivalry to do that.”

Dame Chise’s face was troubled. Talia looked at her and nodded slowly. She had never participated in an extermination of a Goblin tribe. Ingrela looked like she might object, but at last, she sank into the hot water up to her lips. Talia looked to the night sky and imagined the armored figure prowling the darkness. She thought of the intensity of his tone and shuddered.

“Someone must. But what hate drove him to be so, I wonder?”

“One can only wonder, Dame Talia. One can only wonder.”

 

—-

 

The Goblins of the Rolling Rocks tribe knew death was coming when the remains of the warriors who had gone with the Ogres returned. The Ogres who ruled over their tribe had been killed. Their Chief defeated. Not just him; the other Ogre clans who inhabited parts of the hills had been broken by the Humans too.

Broken, but not destroyed. The Ogre clans were in disarray as few of their warriors returned, withdrawing further into the foothills. But they had some plunder and loot. And so they withdrew, fearing the adventurers that would surely come. And to buy them time they ordered their slaves to remain.

The Goblins. They were a fine bulwark against pursuers. The Rolling Rocks tribe had fought alongside the Ogres against adventurers, died by the hundreds. Now two hundred remained. They would have fled, but the new Ogre Chief promised to kill and eat them if even one ran. So they waited.

They had a good spot in the hills. A rocky pass where they could fight from. The Goblins were waiting. They knew the [Knights] had killed the Ogres. They were waiting for them. When they came, the warriors would fight and the rest would flee. Into caves. If they hid really well, some might survive and the Ogres wouldn’t kill all of them.

That was the only hope they had. And it was so little. But they clung to that. Because what else did they have?

Nothing. The Goblins—not a single Hob existed in the Rolling Rocks tribe—waited. They could smell nothing, though the wind was blowing their way. But they knew something was coming through the forest.

They had seen him. A [Knight]. Or—no, his armor was too dirty. And he moved more stealthily than anyone but the [Rogue] adventurers. The Goblins shuddered, holding their crude weapons.

Here came death. But they waited. He was just one. They could hide in the caves. Hold him off? Maybe. But then they saw a flicker in the forests. The Goblins with arrows aimed. One loosed, and an arrow fell short.

A shadow moved among the trees. The Goblin tribe froze. And from the darkness, as if he had been born of it, the Goblin Slayer emerged.

They knew his name. Oh yes. Goblins had heard it. An adventurer who killed Goblins. Who left none behind. They shuddered. Some screamed. He walked out of the darkness, the shadows clinging to him. Only blackness lay behind his visor. He stopped, out of bow-range and stared up at the Goblins. They waited.

Death. His gaze pierced them. They waited longer, forgetting to breathe. One Goblin fell off her rock, unconscious. The Goblin Slayer took a step. The Goblins raised their weapons. He looked up at them.

And then he took off his helmet. It came off slowly, and the Goblins stared. They stared. And then they screamed. Goblins dropped their weapons. Some fell to their knees. They stared at the figure who stood below them. They screamed, a shriek so loud it tore the sky. Not of fear. But of another emotion.

Slowly, the Goblin Slayer looked up at the Goblins. Worn, desperate. Afraid. His people. His crimson eyes burned with tears. Rabbiteater raised his gauntleted hand. And the Goblins of the Rolling Rocks tribe flooded down the hill. If he was a traitor, let them die. But let them see! They reached for him. Looking at his armor. His face.

A Hobgoblin. Rabbiteater knelt. And his eyes burned crimson. And he looked at them.

I’m sorry.

He spoke in their tongue. He had killed some of them. But the Ogres enslaving them were dead. The Goblins stared at him. Reaching out to touch his face, his head, his ears. To make sure he was real.

This was the true Goblin Slayer. He spoke to them. He bowed his head. And then he pointed. The Goblins listened, their eyes wide. They turned their heads, scrambling up rocks to see. Looking south and west. Towards distant mountains.

The High Passes. And then they came back down, looking at Rabbiteater. He spoke. And that night, the Rolling Rocks tribe vanished. When Talia and the [Knights] awoke the next day, Rabbiteater walked into the village with the helmet locked into place on his head. And he showed them Goblin ears. And he listened to them cheer his name.

The Goblin Slayer.

 

—-

 

The Goblin Slayer was in the inn the next day, which surprised everyone, Talia included. But she was glad to see him. He had arrived past dawn, apparently. But if he’d smelled of blood or been covered in it, he’d washed himself.

He smelled a bit better by day, which was a relief for everyone. Still, the odor of blood, soil, and that faint bestial smell of Goblin clung to him. Still, the Goblin Slayer’s armor was clean, or at least not covered in soil. The [Knights] welcomed him as the [Innkeeper] offered him a drink.

With a straw. The Goblin Slayer had refused to take his helmet off. When asked, he had refused politely.

“I have sworn a vow. And my face is not…pleasant.”

Rabbiteater lied as he sipped from his drink. Both excuses usually worked. The Order of Seasons nodded slowly. They were impressed by vows. They seemed to think he’d taken one, or that he was extremely hideous from his scars. Both were sort of true. Rabbiteater had vowed never to take his helmet off in a Human town. And he didn’t want to find out what they’d do if they saw his green skin.

“You finished the Goblin tribe in a single night, Sir Slayer?”

The [Summer Knight], Dame Talia, looked at Rabbiteater. He shrugged.

“Yes. Here.”

He showed her a bunch of ears. He had them in a bag of holding. She stared at them, looking a bit nauseous. Another [Knight], Ser Lorell, shook his head. But they accepted that. They always did, and no one ever bothered asking how old the ears were. Humans were blind as rocks.

 

—-

 

“He must be a [Hunter], or a specialist in fighting Goblins. As some are experts in fighting monsters, or certain enemies.”

Dame Chise whispered to Talia as the Goblin Slayer politely ignored requests from the villagers wanting to know how the Goblins had met their end. Talia nodded. Even in the inn, the Goblin Slayer was fascinating. He was so silent. Mysterious. Which attracted both men and women, wanting to know who the person behind the helmet was. She turned in her seat and addressed Ser Lorell.

“Are we bound north, Ser Lorell?”

“In time. I’m in no hurry to rush. Let us spend a day in contemplation of Ser Eldein.”

The [Summer Knight] was grave and the company nodded. Talia closed her eyes as she thought of Ser Eldein. She would and had mourned him. But then she looked at the Goblin Slayer. There was time enough to speak to him as well.

 

—-

 

For Rabbiteater’s part, words were hard. He’d learned a lot, but he was still economical with them. He was no…Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin’s heart clenched at the thought of his friend. Numbtongue, Shorthilt, Headscratcher…all gone. It had been months since that day. But he remembered. He never forgot.

In time, he rose from the table and left the inn. The [Knights] were taking their ease in the village this morning after their battle with the Ogres. Rabbiteater kept glancing at them through his helmet. They were good fighters. And they’d used auras. But for the one [Knight], they’d taken apart a group of Ogre warriors and Goblins without losses. That was hard to do.

He was wary of them, though, so he did business instead. The [Innkeeper] beamed at him as he counted coins into the man’s palm. Silver. Rabbiteater had learned the value of coins too.

“Your generosity, Sir Goblin Slayer, is too much! Please, I can’t accept any coin. You’ve rid us of Ogres and Goblins both. Please—it’s all on the house!”

Rabbiteater stared at the man. They did this all the time, when he told them the Goblins were ‘dead’. He hesitated, then spoke in a low voice, straining it to sound more ‘Human’.

“Thank you.”

That was it. He didn’t trust himself to say more, but the Humans never asked for a longer conversation. The [Innkeeper] backed away, smiling, telling Rabbiteater he was welcome back anytime!

Rabbiteater nodded. He turned, ignored the angry dog—they hated his guts since they knew what he was—and walked out of the inn. He had work to do. He didn’t stay in Human settlements long, just enough to do what had to be done. Rabbiteater only wished the female [Knight], Talia would leave him alone.

 

—-

 

Talia found the Goblin Slayer at the local smithy. He was perusing the local steel. It wasn’t guaranteed that you could find steel—let alone high-quality stuff, so Talia understood his interest. He was tapping on each bar of steel as the impatient [Blacksmith] held his distance—and his nose.

“Will you have any of it, Sir Slayer?”

“Yes. Four. And iron.”

The armored man pointed. His words were short, but the [Smith] nodded and packed up the ingots. The Goblin Slayer paid in gold. Fascinated, Talia watched.

“Are you fashioning more traps and your own arms, Sir Slayer?”

The Goblin Slayer looked up. He paused. Talia wasn’t the only person interested in him. The [Smith] looked sideways as he got out the Goblin Slayer’s second order; Talia saw a bunch of interesting items. Screws, hinges—a lot of it looked like household goods!

“…Yes. I make traps. It’s all…useful.”

Talia couldn’t imagine how some of the items worked, but she thought about the net he’d used and agreed.

“That is not how the Order of Seasons fights, is it, Dame Ingrela?”

The young [Spring Knight] shook her head. She’d come after Talia. She eyed the Goblin Slayer.

“No, but [Hunters] used such traps. Tell me, Sir Slayer. I have been thinking on it—why do you use a plain shortsword instead of enchanted weapons? Surely your axe would be a far better weapon for general use than plain steel.”

The Goblin Slayer paused. Inside his helmet, Rabbiteater bit his tongue. The reason he didn’t use his axe was because it shouldn’t belong to him. If anyone remembered it from the battle with the Goblin Lord—he saw the interested faces around him and fumbled for an answer.

“Enchanted weapons are…dangerous. For hunting Goblins.”

Rabbiteater lied desperately. He saw Talia’s brows shoot up.

“Really?”

“…Yes?”

Talia stared at the Goblin Slayer. She’d never heard that! But then Ingrela made a sound and Talia, the [Blacksmith], and Rabbiteater looked at her. She nodded slowly.

“I can understand it. Consider, Dame Talia, what might happen if he were to wear such a weapon openly. It would give his opponent information—and allow for detection in battle. Magical armor likewise.”

“Of course! I hadn’t considered it. Apologies, Sir Slayer. We of the Order of Seasons do not generally employ stealth. Much less my Season of Summer. I imagine you must answer such questions constantly.”

Talia looked apologetically at Rabbiteater. The Hobgoblin stared at the [Knights]. Really? But even the [Blacksmith] was nodding as another [Knight] chimed in, stroking his beard. Ser Thornst was pretending to study a blade as he glanced sidelong at the Goblin Slayer.

“I have heard it said that Knight-Commander Calirn uses naught but ordinary steel at times, to give himself a challenge that he might level up. There are reasons for it.”

“Right. Thank you.”

The ‘Goblin Slayer’ was sweating bullets. He collected his gear from the [Blacksmith] and hurried off. The [Knights] watched him go—this time to a [Seamstress] waiting for him with a bundle of cloth. Talia watched him taking small pads and shoving them into a bag of holding.

“Bandages, mayhap? He seems determined not to rely on potions.”

“After seeing the Ogre with the Evercut Arrows, I find that prudent. He’s clearly experienced in fighting Goblins.”

Ser Thornst nodded. It was Ingrela who sighed.

“And yet, I cannot help but feel for him. Did you understand the meaning in his comments about enchanted weapons, Talia, Thornst?”

They looked at her. Ingrela explained.

“It is true enchanted gear alerts a wary foe. But most of all? When he falls, each item Sir Slayer bears will be a weapon the Goblins can use against their next victims. ‘Tis a measure of resolve. Bravery, I call it.”

Thornst sobered. Talia looked back at the Goblin Slayer, struck again. She murmured.

“Indeed. He has put his life into his cause. No wonder he is so successful at his trade.”

“Not just that, Sir and Lady [Knights]. He’s become famous in all sorts of places. Where he goes, Goblins die like flies. Everyone’s talking of him. We already knew who he was when he walked into our village. A lone adventurer, fighting back the Goblins. Damn good thing after the Goblin Lord. It’s an honor to help him, for all he stinks of, well, Goblin.

The [Blacksmith] nodded knowingly. The Order of Seasons agreed, watching the Goblin Slayer solemnly. They respected those who followed a cause similar to their own.

Rabbiteater, not able to hear any of it, tried to resist the urge to scratch his groin. The armor got stuffy. He really wished they would stop following him around.

 

—-

 

The Order of Seasons insisted on accompanying the Goblin Slayer to the next town. It was north of here, and it was on their way. The Goblin Slayer walked, but quickly, so the Order of Seasons kept him company. He was still taciturn, but by now he seemed to have resigned himself to their company, especially Talia’s. She was trying to understand him, or at least, learn more about him.

“‘Goblin Slayer’ is a poor nickname. Have you any name you would be willing to share? Or is your identity sworn to secrecy as much as your visage?”

The Goblin Slayer paused.

“My name doesn’t matter.”

“Surely it does! A [Knight]’s deeds should be cried out.”

“I’m not a [Knight]. Killing Goblins is not…amazing.”

“Even so, you seem more [Knight] than mere adventurer. Have you had training? You fight with more expertise than a self-taught warrior.”

The Goblin Slayer shrugged uncomfortably.

“I have trained.”

“Ah, I knew it. With your skill at arms, you might well enlist in an order, Sir Slayer! The life of an adventurer may suit you in your quest, but the backing of an order would do you no harm.”

The Goblin Slayer could only shrug again in reply.

“I work alone. People die around me. Friends.”

There was a heavy note in his voice. And that spoke of truth. Talia looked at Thornst and the man shut his mouth. But even Ser Lorell was nodding covertly. More pieces of the puzzle. Talia was wondering what ill-fated battle had led the Goblin Slayer to his quest. Perhaps he had fought at Liscor? Or been prey to the Goblin Lord’s army. Or maybe his desire stemmed from an even older conflict. Velan the Kind, perhaps?

They reached a larger town, and Talia got to see the Goblin Slayer enter the Adventure’s Guild. The [Receptionist] at the desk knew him. They stared as he poured Goblin ears onto the desk.

“Enough! Sir Slayer, enough! We don’t need to count—dead gods, you wiped out another tribe? We could as easily use a [Detect Truth] spell!”

The man at the desk looked at the Goblin Slayer, slightly appalled, but mostly awed. The other adventurers, Silver-ranks and Bronze, gave the Goblin Slayer their own stares and respectful nods. The Goblin Slayer paused.

“This is proof.”

“And so it is, sir. I can collect your bounty after I er, count…”

The man helplessly waved for help. A few adventurers got up. One of them, a Silver-rank [Fencer], leaned against the counter.

“You took them out yourself, Slayer? Dead gods, and I thought my team was good!”

“I had help.”

The Goblin Slayer looked back at Talia and some of the [Knights]. The adventurers exclaimed when they saw the Order of Seasons and they were impressed as the [Knights] introduced themselves. A bit wary, even; some of the Silver-rank teams looked embarrassed as they eyed the shining armor the [Knights] wore.

“You know the Goblin Slayer, Sir Mells?”

The young [Fencer] flushed.

“Just Mells. I’ve seen him about. I’d like to say he’s a friend, but he’s driven. He comes and goes; in truth, my team saw him in the south. He walked into the guild one day and dropped a huge bag of Goblin ears! That’s all he hunts, practically. Did you say you saw him fight? He’s never partnered up with anyone so far.”

“Indeed. He was a fierce warrior in battle. We wondered if he’d do us the honor of accompanying us north.”

Talia’s voice made the Goblin Slayer look up. He stared at her as she explained.

“We ride north, towards First Landing, or perhaps to any port if chivalry demands we travel elsewhere. We are returning to our headquarters, in Terandria. But your cause is just, Sir Slayer, and we would speak to you of chivalry.”

Her fellow [Knights] were nodding. The Goblin Slayer spoke to them. He could only hesitate and shake his head.

“I don’t work in teams.”

“Consider it, Sir Slayer! We travel onwards at speed come tomorrow. But your talents are wasted as a mere—”

Ser Lorell caught himself, looking around. He coughed.

“That is to say, your task is a noble one. And the path of a [Knight] is one of worth! Let us at least speak to you of valor.”

He waited. Talia held her breath. But all the armored figure did was nod.

“I’ll think about it. Tell you tomorrow.”

She hoped he’d agree as they rested that night in the town. He was fascinating to her.

 

—-

 

That night, Rabbiteater left the town through the main gates. He didn’t need to skulk. The [Sentries] waved him past after one glance. One of them called out good-naturedly.

“Patrolling, Goblin Slayer? We’ve got our eyes on the horizon!”

Rabbiteater raised a silent hand in reply. One of the other [Sentries] nudged his friend.

“Let him go. He always does this. Can’t be too cautious.”

The Hobgoblin walked out of the town. And then he began running when he was out of sight of the walls. It took him nearly two hours to reach the meeting spot, and when he did, he was late.

Last night, he’d found the Rolling Rocks tribe. They’d left without a trace, which had fooled the Humans, but they could hardly make the long trek south without help. Which was why they’d been found by the second Hobgoblin after Rabbiteater had signaled him. He was waiting for Rabbiteater, along with another companion.

They were both mounted. Rabbiteater paused as he heard the growl, but the Carn Wolves sat patiently, recognizing him as a Redfang. Badarrow slid to the ground where he’d been keeping watch; he’d spotted Rabbiteater from far away.

The Hobgoblin [Sniper] didn’t smile as he saw Rabbiteater. Like his friend, he hadn’t smiled since…that day. But he grabbed Rabbiteater’s arm, squeezing the [Champion]’s arm. Rabbiteater, the [Champion]. To this day, the Hobgoblin felt he didn’t deserve the class.

A [Champion] would not have let his friends die. But he had a job. So Rabbiteater followed Badarrow to the small camp. There was no fire; Goblins weren’t that obvious. A second figure stood up. She was less familiar to Rabbiteater, for all they’d gotten to know each other. He just nodded at Snapjaw as she crunched some bone in her mouth.

Rolling Rocks tribe safe?

Safe. Good camp that way. Are quiet. Snapjaw lead south. Ogres dead?

Badarrow grunted as he offered Rabbiteater some raw meat. Rabbiteater nodded, accepting the food. It was hard to eat, even in private. He tore off a bite, chewed, swallowed.

Dead. [Knights] helped.

Peh. We could kill. And Rolling Rocks tribe.

Snapjaw spat. The plan had been for her and Badarrow to back Rabbiteater up and rally the Goblins to overthrow the Ogres. Rabbiteater just shrugged. He traced the ground with a metal foot.

Killed Goblins.

The two Hobs just nodded. Sometimes it happened. Badarrow looked at his friend. After a moment, he reached for a bag of holding. There were only a few available, but he, Snapjaw, and Rabbiteater all carried one. It was one of the first things Rabbiteater had bought with the gold he’d earned from his job.

Here.

He pulled out a larger bag from within the bag of holding. Rabbiteater didn’t need to know what it held, but he looked anyways. Goblin ears. Dozens of them. He stared at them, then closed the bag. Snapjaw cracked a bone between her teeth. Rabbiteater stared at Badarrow.

More Goblins dead?

Some dead. Less, now. Chieftain find good place.

Rabbiteater nodded slowly. He added them to his own collection. He had many Goblin ears. Hundreds of ears, in fact. He hadn’t sold them all at once. Many were from dead Goblins in Rag’s tribe. They weren’t using the ears when they died, and the money—even if it was only a copper coin per pair of ears—bought the Flooded Water tribe what they needed to survive.

The rest were from the battlefield. From the dead. After a moment, Rabbiteater began pulling objects out of his bag of holding. He switched to the common tongue, what Erin called ‘English’ to speak.

“Here. I have potions. Take this too. It’s steel Chieftain wanted. Good…quality…ore.”

He was no Numbtongue, but he had learned how to say some things. Use contractions, for one. Snapjaw had taught him, having learned from Reiss himself. Badarrow grunted. He wasn’t as good as Rabbiteater so he stayed in the Goblin tongue.

Good. Smells good. What this?

“Steel. Iron. Pickaxes. Potions. Screws. Nails. Wiping things…”

Rags wanted any number of items. Badarrow nodded until he came to the cloth objects that Rabbiteater had ordered. He prodded one and stared at Rabbiteater.

What this? Not bandages.

“Don’t know. Female Goblins want.”

Rabbiteater shrugged. He looked at Snapjaw. She took one and felt the fabric happily.

“For blood. Better wipe. Softer.

For butt?

Badarrow looked blank. Snapjaw glared at him.

“No! Other place!”

“Huh.”

The three Hobgoblins paused a moment. Rabbiteater silently unloaded his bag of holding and Badarrow and Snapjaw divided the load. It was a good haul; he’d spent the money he earned well. After a moment, he pointed back the way he’d come.

“Stay away from Order of Seasons. Smells like weather.”

“What kind of death are they?”

Snapjaw looked up. Her crimson eyes glinted. Rabbiteater paused. He switched to the Goblin tongue then, to more accurately approximate their fighting strength in their terms.

Screaming, fighting, cornered death. Maybe worse death.

Badarrow nodded. He inspected his bow, glanced up. After a long pause, Rabbiteater looked at him. Reluctantly, he asked the real question he knew Badarrow wanted him to ask. It was written in every line of his posture, and Goblins spoke with bodies as much as words.

“Chieftain say anything?”

Both Hobs nodded. Badarrow glanced up at Rabbiteater. He tried to smile, but he had never been used to it. And Rabbiteater’s heart was missing since the battle. He’d left it in an inn, in the past. He shouldn’t have run. He should have died—

“She say ‘good work’. And—can come back if want.”

“I don’t want to.”

The two Hobs paused, then nodded. Rabbiteater sat down. They sat too. One of the Carn Wolves sniffed and Snapjaw threw him part of the bone she was eating. Rabbiteater stared at nothing. Then he looked up.

“Redscar?”

“Strong. Good.”

Another nod. Rabbiteater had no more questions. After a moment, Badarrow looked around.

Lots of Humans. Hard to hide. What do?

Rabbiteater hesitated. But the answer came out of him before he knew what he was saying.

“Going north. Find more Goblins. Go around. Maybe go with [Knights].”

Both Hobgoblins sat up, their postures and expressions radiating shock. Incredulity. Badarrow looked at Rabbiteater.

No! Bad idea! Dangerous! Discover-death. Surrounded death!

“Don’t care. Humans don’t see.”

“Dogs smell! I smell! Bad idea. Bad. You come back—”

“No.”

Rabbiteater resisted Snapjaw’s arm. She stared at him. Her head was bigger than normal and her mouth was huge. She could bite through a Gargoyle’s skin with her metallic teeth. Rabbiteater met her eyes, and then looked away. He stood up.

“I’m going. Tell Chieftain I’ll get her what she wants. Pretend to be Goblin Slayer. Go with [Knights]. Don’t come back. Too dangerous.”

For them. But he didn’t care. The [Champion] stood alone, his armor gleaming thanks to his Skills. But his expression was bleak. He reached for his helmet and put it on. Wearing a false identity.

Lost.

The Goblin Slayer began to walk away from his friends. After a moment, Badarrow stood up. He shouted, breaking the silence, ignoring the danger.

“Rabbiteater!”

The visor turned back to him. Snapjaw scrambled up a rock and stared around. Badarrow walked down towards Rabbiteater. The [Sniper] hesitated. Then he reached out, grabbed Rabbiteater’s shoulder.

“Chieftain say when fortress finished in mountains, go back to inn. Secret. Few.”

For a moment Rabbiteater’s heart leapt. Go back? But then—he turned away. Yanked free of Badarrow. He shook his head. Once, and then again. He wasn’t trying to forget a young woman, a happy place, warm smells and laughter. It was that which kept him going. He would never forget. He looked back at Badarrow.

“Not me. Not strong enough. Not going back. Greydath was right.”

That was all. Badarrow watched as Rabbiteater turned away. But he shouted one last thing.

Rabbiteater! Take!

The Hobgoblin turned. Something wet hit him in the face. He stared at it. A flowing cloak unfolded in his arms. He stared at Badarrow.

“Chieftain doesn’t want?”

The Hobgoblin shrugged. Snapjaw hopped down and strode over.

“Chieftain gets other blood. This save Goblins. Many. Now it save you. You go. But come back! Understand?”

She pulled something out. A crude funnel. She tapped it.

“Here. Put in arm. Blood go in if cut. Feel better. Not too much!”

Badarrow nodded. He took the crimson cloak and stared at it. And the past, a dead Goblin’s blood, flowed in his claws. Shorthilt. For a second Rabbiteater’s head went white. He saw death. He saw his friend in his arms. Then he put the cloak on and bowed his head. He looked up at Badarrow and hesitated. But then he turned and walked away.

The two Hobgoblins watched him go in silence. Then, slowly, they mounted the Carn Wolves. And rode south. Back towards home. A Goblin’s home, beginning in the mountains, in secret.

Goblinhome.

 

—-

 

About legends. Legends were ten-a-copper-penny. And most were fake, like the Last Light of Baleros being able to heal any wound, or the legend of the Titan’s height. Or that Humans could shoot blood on command. But some, most, had a grain of truth to them. You could hear them, in every part of the world. Of extraordinary people, events.

The crazy Human who lived around Liscor. The inn that kept moving that had doors that went everywhere. A tale of an [Emperor] who lived in a humble village. A story of a [Singer] who captivated tens of thousands and sang like no other. A [Hero], a monster, a slayer of Demons on Rhir. A pair of twins, one cunning, the other fierce, who were part of the King of Destruction’s new Seven.

And here, a Goblin Slayer. A [Knight], or perhaps an adventurer who hunted Goblins. Who killed them as vengeance for Velan, for the Goblin Lord, Reiss.

The next day dawned bright and early. Talia Kallinad smiled as she saw the Goblin Slayer waiting for them in the bottom of the inn. She knew his response, but it cheered the Order of Seasons when they heard it. They had grown from distrust to acceptance with the Goblin Slayer over their short journey together. And while he refused to share his identity, he said one thing that made Talia’s heart surge.

“I have a name. I would like to be called.”

“Really? Pray, tell us.”

Rabbiteater hesitated. But at last, he spoke.

“Solstice.”

The name meant little to the [Knights]. But it filled him with a surge of indescribable emotion. He didn’t deserve it. But if he could have picked any last name, any in the world…

Talia smiled.

“Sir Solstice, it is! Better than Sir Goblin Slayer! Let’s ride, indeed!”

“For a bit. If it is good.”

“We insist on it.”

Even Ser Lorell was welcoming. As the Goblin Slayer settled his bill, Dame Chise gave the group a significant look and addressed Talia.

“I know who Sir Slayer is, Dame Talia. Not Human.”

Really?

Every [Knight] turned, and then affected nonchalance as the Goblin Slayer looked over. Chise lowered her voice.

“No. I pondered it last night. And today confirmed it.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense, Chise! What’s the identity of Sir Solstice, if not Human?”

The [Summer Knight] looked at the Goblin Slayer. She gestured at his back.

“Consider his tracking ability. His refusal to show us but a glimpse of his visage—and now, since last night, I espied a few tufts of hair on his armor that had not been there yesterday. Dark, reddish fur.”

It took Talia a moment. Then her eyes went round.

“A Gnoll?

“Impossible!”

“Is it?”

“But he fights like one of us! His martial abilities—Gnolls are not [Knights]!”

Ser Thornst raised a finger, frowning.

“Hold on. It may strain credulity, but I distinctly recall our order receiving a request from a Gnoll in Izril last year. He wished to know whether we might accept him—”

“No.”

“Yes! And he was refused, on the grounds of age and talent. He was fully-grown, far past the age of any normal [Squire] and to merit such an invitation and the expense of bringing him so far, we would have to have been assured of some great troth of talent. Even so, the Fall Sentinel expressed his regrets for the decision and debated issuing an offer—if the Gnolls were to obtain the prequisite levels in the [Warrior] class and suitable acts of valor.”

The Order of Seasons fell silent. Ser Lorell murmured, eyebrows raised.

“No wonder dogs don’t like him.”

Talia looked up. The Goblin Slayer was coming this way.

“Whoever he is, he is valorous. I saw that myself. Sir Solstice, will you ride with us today? We’ll make no fast progress on foot!”

The Goblin Slayer paused.

“Horses? I don’t ride well.”

“Can you not ride a horse?”

Talia saw the armored figure shake his head slowly.

“I have not much practice with…horses.”

Told you—”

“Shh!”

The company left the inn. Outside, Talia showed Sir Solstice how to mount. He listened, and then looked at her as she offered him Ser Eldein’s horse to use.

“Why?”

“Why what, sir?”

“Why help me? Why want my company?”

The question was blunt, but she’d expected that. Talia paused, and looked back at her fellow [Knights]. She did love them, for all they were different. She glanced down at the Goblin Slayer and replied seriously.

“Honor is a hard thing, Sir Solstice. And valor is not seen enough in this world. Is it so strange for us to welcome the company of one who has either?”

“You think I have it?”

“You fight well. And I believe you when you speak of loss. More than that, sir? It’s just a feeling.”

The Hobgoblin stared up at the female [Knight] in silence. Then, slowly, he drew something from his pack and put it around his shoulders. Talia blinked at the crimson cloak of blood.

“What’s that? An artifact? I thought you didn’t use them, Sir Solstice.”

“This one came from a…friend.”

Rabbiteater put it around his shoulders. A cloak made of liquid. The crimson blood moved like fabric as Rabbiteater slowly swung himself onto the horse’s back. It was different from a Carn Wolf and the horse shifted uncomfortably, smelling both Goblin and blood.

He cut an impressive figure. The [Knights] looked at him. They smiled, and Rabbiteater looked around. His voice was…quiet as he looked at Talia.

“Is it okay?”

“What?”

Rabbiteater paused. He gestured, awkwardly, at the [Knights], treating him with courtesy. At the [Innkeeper], who’d come out to bid him farewell. At the Humans who smiled and called his name. At the fake him. The image of a person who slaughtered Goblins. But mostly, he was talking about himself.

“Is it okay to be happy? Even when friends die? I should not feel happy. But I do. The world hurts. It is cruel. Good dies. But still. Even though I am…am I allowed to want to smile?”

His voice was lost. Small. And Talia was struck silent. She cleared her throat. And then she nodded. She reached out and grabbed his arm. The Hobgoblin looked at her as she drew closer. Talia nodded.

“Yes. You are right. The world is cruel. Sometimes, darkness overwhelms even the best of us. I have seen it. Good men like Ser Eldein die and few mourn him! Yes, the world is cruel. And our friends die. But we must live for them. Or else how would we honor their passing?”

The words echoed, and the Order of Seasons nodded. Rabbiteater looked at Talia, and she thought she saw a face behind the visor. A glimpse. Or perhaps it was simply him she saw, his true self. But then he drew back. Talia spoke, her words clear and carrying.

“Ser Solstice, know this. If you champion justice, you are a [Knight]. That is what I see in you. So long as your cause is just, your heart unwavering, and you live with honor, I will be your ally. I will stand with you.”

The words were fitting, and the Order of Seasons echoed her. But Sir Solstice, the Goblin Slayer, Rabbiteater, looked at Talia. With such a deep gaze that even behind the visor, Talia felt it. Loss and grief unimaginable. Sacrifice. That invisible stare held it all, overflowing. And Talia felt embarrassed to speak such bold words, as if she were but a squire speaking to a full [Knight].

But then Sir Solstice, the Goblin Slayer, the strange warrior who was not a [Knight], nodded. He looked at Talia and his voice was lighter, for a moment. As if she’d taken a burden from his shoulders with words alone.

“Someday. I will ask if you remember that.”

“I will never forget, nor break that vow.”

Talia offered him a gauntleted hand and he squeezed it hard. She smiled, and the [Knights] around her straightened, adding their voices to the triumphant chorus. Rabbiteater listened, and then followed the company north.

Let the dice fall where they might. He turned his head towards the sun. And he tried to smile.

 

[Champion Level 28!]

[Skill – Steelcut Sunder obtained!]

 

[Knight Class Obtained!]

[Knight Level 2!]

[Skill – Reinforced Armor (Steel) obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Riding obtained!]

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.60

“Tell me something, Ylawes. You’re a [Knight], right? In that case, don’t you have an order or society or whatever? They’re all over Terandria, but you’ve never talked about one.”

Dawil twisted on his saddle to address Ylawes. The Dwarf peered at his friend, leader, and junior in years. Ylawes looked up, caught with a mouthful of sandwich.

He was eating a local delicacy. That was to say, toasted baguette-like bread packed with all manner of vegetables—succulent, like roasted butternut squash lathered with actual butter, finely chopped green onions, carrots—all of which were generally roasted or fried in fats. This was because at no point had anyone seen fit to add meat to the bagel, instead trusting to the natural goodness of the warming meal.

It was more like eating a pocket-dinner than your typical sandwich. Dawil watched Ylawes chew and swallow. After a moment, the [Knight] wiped at his mouth; he’d taken off his gauntlets to eat. Then he looked at Dawil.

“What?”

“Your order, lad! Where’s your knighthood order?”

Ylawes gave Dawil a long and blank look as he fumbled with his water flask. He uncorked it, took a swig, and wiped at his clean shaven jaw.

“I don’t have one. It’s not mandatory, you know.”

“Really? I thought it was.”

The [Knight] gave Dawil a pained look. The two were riding horses. Ylawes rode a proud charger, a properly-trained stallion suited to combat. It wasn’t his personal mount; he’d purchased it at the last town they’d been through from one of the ubiquitous stables that crossed Izril. It was a lucky find; some other [Rider] must have been forced to sell their horse and Ylawes had paid in gold at once to have it.

Dawil was riding a pony. It was a good pony, suited to long-distance travel. Plus, ponies were good for their endurance, intelligence, and they needed less expensive feed than some horses. Plus, they were short which was good because Dawil, as a Dwarf, was short. Not that short; he was still over five feet tall, but it did cut a comical sight, him riding next to Ylawes much higher up.

The [Knight] frowned down at Dawil. Dawil frowned at Ylawes’ lunch. The [Knight] paused.

“Dawil, you’ve known me for what, six years?”

The Dwarf scratched his beard.

“Yeah.”

“And not once have I ever mentioned my order. Or returned there. And you’ve been to my home. You’ve met my family. And insulted my parents.”

“That was an accident. It could have been a compliment.”

“Asking if my father was taking a new wife is not…”

“Your mother was pleased.”

Ylawes shook his head.

“My point is that not once have I ever mentioned an order.”

“Yeah.”

“So doesn’t that answer the question already?”

Dawil gave Ylawes a long look. At last, the Dwarf shrugged.

“Okay, why don’t you have an order?”

The [Knight] sighed. But it was a clear day, the road was long and slightly overgrown, and they were done with their latest mission. Ylawes still had a bit of rust on his armor and he frowned at it. He took another bite of his sandwich as he absently tried to find a cloth with his other hand.

They’d been fighting Metalbite Slimes. Not good for adventurers carrying armor, but the slimes had been multiplying in an iron ore mine and the nearby village was desperate to have them gone so their [Miners] could get back to work. And the Silver Swords championed causes like that, even at a cost.

Ylawes was tired from fighting with a quarterstaff—he wasn’t about to risk his sword against Metalbite Slimes, enchanted or not! He rubbed at his armor with the cloth, praying the enchanted metal hadn’t lost too much of its enchantment or metal.

“It’s just not necessary, Dawil. I’ll grant you that I could have joined an order, but I never needed to.”

“What, they let you become a [Knight] just cause you walked up with fancy armor and a shield?”

The Dwarf laughed. He was hunting for his lunch. His pony looked up as he fished a carrot from his saddlebags. The Dwarf stared at it and fed it to the pony. Ylawes shook his head.

“I’m a [Lord]’s son. I practiced with weapons growing up, I have my own vow to defend people where I can—I fulfilled the spirit of my class. I never needed an order. With that said, I’ve had offers.”

“I don’t doubt it. Knight orders were always recruiting back in Terandria. Send your child to become a [Knight]! If they’re talented. And noble. Or just rich.”

Dawil snorted. He came up with a sandwich loaded with bacon. Ylawes eyed it. The Dwarf saw the look.

“My sandwich. You can eat your plants.”

“I don’t want it. But did you have to badger the poor village to kill a pig for you?”

“I paid. And they were only happy to do it! We rid their mines of slimes, Ylawes.”

“They had perfectly good sandwiches. This is delicious.”

Dawil shook his head.

“It’s all vegetables. That’s not a sandwich. That’s bread on a salad. This is a sandwich, like those ones Erin used to make. Truegold and sparksilver, I miss that inn! Those hamburgers and steaks whenever I wanted it?”

He sighed longingly and took a huge bite of his sandwich. Ylawes shook his head.

“We’ll visit again. Maybe if our road takes us towards Celum.”

“Yeah. So you can bother your sister again.”

The armored man frowned at his friend.

“I like to think we did more than that, Dawil. We fought monsters, nearly saw a war—and helped Yvlon and her team.”

“And ate like [Kings]!”

The Dwarf sighed. He nudged his pony back towards the road.

“So, about orders…you’ve never thought of joining one?”

Ylawes raised his brows.

“Should I? The downsides largely outweigh the benefits to me. There are a few on Izril, but you’d know more, coming from Terandria.”

“True! I guess they do tie you down, mostly. How many’re on Izril worth talking about?”

“The Knights of the Petal, the Order of Clairei Fields, the Durengal—not many.”

“Huh. We’ve got like…a hundred.”

Ylawes nearly choked on his sandwich. He coughed and took a drink of water.

“That many?”

“What? It’s a big continent. Why does Izril have so few?

“Because we don’t live in the era of [Kings] and castles. Izril doesn’t have kingdoms either. Humans may have come to Izril thousands of years ago, but we’re still new to the continent. Well, a bit. Besides, we trust to adventurers and the local nobility to keep the peace. In that sense, they’re probably better here than on Terandria.”

“True. That’s why I moved to Izril. Terandria you have to compete with the Hunter’s Guild and those idiots wearing armor.”

“[Knights].”

“Yeah.”

“Of which I’m one.”

“That’s what I said. Anyways, you should give it a thought, Ylawes. Some of the orders have benefits.”

The [Knight] paused.

“Such as?”

“Well, have you heard of the Irriven Redbloods?”

“No. Why are they called Redbloods? Wouldn’t it be ‘Bluebloods’?”

The Dwarf grinned as he slurped up some bacon.

“Nope. Redbloods. It’s because they’re made totally of non-noble applicants. In fact, that’s why they formed. A knighthood that provides arms and armor for their members and holds themselves to the highest standard of excellence. Lots of orders have perks. Ancient weapons, support in battle, even men-at-arms to fight with you. If you were one of the big orders like the Redbloods, you could sleep some places free, earn items from your order for completing grand deeds—”

“Except that I’m not in Terandria, I’m actually noble, and knighthood orders demand loyalty and don’t usually let their members roam around freely.”

Dawil paused.

“True. But some let their members go on crusades. I’m just asking! Ever fancy taking a bit of paint to that armor and joining the Rose Knights?”

Ylawes kept eating.

“No. What’s brought this on, Dawil?”

The Dwarf scratched his head. He’d taken his helmet off and his hair was still a bit damp from the sweat of combat.

“Nostalgia, I guess. It’s been a long time since I went home. I was wondering if you’d ever wanted to visit Terandria.”

The young man blinked, caught off-guard by the suggestion.

“Me?”

The Dwarf nodded complacently.

“Well, we’re a team, aren’t we? I can’t just run off for a few months and leave you with that half-wit. And Terandria’s safer, but there’s always work for Gold-rank teams. We could visit the mountains, maybe buy some new weapons, even visit said half-wit’s home while we’re at it…”

Ylawes winced and glanced ahead. After a moment he paused.

“I’d never thought of it. Certainly, it’s an option…”

“Think on it. I like Izril, but I want to be back on Terandria in the next, oh, five years.”

Ylawes smiled faintly.

“You have my word on that. But that’s still a roundabout way of asking me, with knighthood orders as the premise.”

The Dwarf shrugged.

“Oh, I just like talking about them. They’re like nose hairs, you know? Each one different and in a different place.”

“That’s disgusting!”

“Well, some are interesting! They all do different things and while some are for one kingdom, a lot are autonomous. [Knights], they have their own culture. They duel each other, get into fights—totally different from Izril! For you, it’s a class, but over there it’s culture.

Ylawes finished his sandwich and looked at Dawil.

“Really? I’ve met other [Knights], including some of the Order of the Petal, but as you say, it’s just a class here. What happens in Terandria?”

“All kinds of things! Some knighthood orders start wars, or go on grand quests! Surely you’ve heard about the time the Order of the Thirsting Veil quested for thirty years to retrieve the Scepter of Krakens? Or—how about the Order of Seasons participating in Daquin’s game with the Titan of Baleros?”

“I heard about that last one. But as I say, you only hear some stories about other continents. What’s this about the—”

Ylawes and Dawil were chatting animatedly now, and as a consequence, riding a bit faster. Their horse and pony caught up to the rider ahead. She turned in the saddle and the third member of the Silver Swords, who had been listening to their chatter with half a pointed ear, turned her delicate features at last and glared.

“Would you two mind? I’m on a call right now!”

The two other Gold-rank adventurers slowed and gave Falene abashed looks. Well, Ylawes did. Dawil just rolled his eyes.

“You’ve been talking for the last half-hour, Falene Pointyears. Why can’t we talk?”

“Be silent I’m…no, Bashea, I do apologize. My teammates are speaking. Males. And adventurers. Quite ill-mannered. Do forgive me.”

The half-Elf [Battlemage] flicked her fingers at the [Axe Champion] and [Knight]. Ylawes sensed the silence engulf Falene and her horse. He looked at Dawil. The Dwarf cupped his hands to his mouth.

If you could do that before, why didn’t you, half-Elf? I’ll tell you. It’s because you’re nosy!

His shout startled several grouse nesting ahead of them. It was so loud in fact, that it must have been audible even through Falene’s weak silence spell. She turned and glared at him. Dawil settled back happily. Ylawes gave him a look.

“Do you have to bother Falene at every opportunity, Dawil?”

“Yes. Because she’ll keep her nose so high in the air she’ll end up smacking her head against her horse’s arse if I don’t.”

Ylawes had to snort and looked away quickly. Dawil nodded. But then Ylawes turned back.

“Still. She’s on an important call.”

Dawil looked at Ylawes sidelong. After a moment he reached out and patted Ylawes’ knee.

“There’s nothing my words can do to ruin whatever Falene’s asking about, lad.”

“Don’t call me lad. You’re thirty. By Dwarf standards, you’re younger than me.”

The Dwarf ignored that.

“The trouble’s dealt with. Miss Springwalker informed us after they got rid of those Wistram [Mages]. Plus, she’s not the one they’re after. Your sister, I mean. She’s fine.”

Ylawes clenched one fist.

“It seems like the Horns can’t catch a break. I understand going after Pisces for…his [Necromancy], but attacking an adventuring team in Liscor? That’s criminal! And my sister? If we weren’t so far away—”

“That’s Wistram for you. Don’t worry about it. Yvlon’s fine.”

“Her arms are still damaged. Ceria didn’t say anything about them.”

“They’re fine.”

Dawil was a good liar. Ylawes made his horse trot a bit faster, restless. The Dwarf opened his mouth, and then closed it.

For a while, the Silver Swords rode in silence. The Human and Dwarf watched Falene speaking in her bubble of silence until at last she finished. They knew she was done because she took a finger from her temple and straightened; beyond that, there was no flicker of visible magic. The sound of Falene’s mare walking abruptly returned to the world as the half-Elf released her spell.

Falene was scowling, a rare open expression of displeasure when she finished speaking with her contact in Wistram. She looked at her companions and shook her head.

“I’ve just completed my discussion with my fellow [Mages] in Wistram, Ylawes.”

“And? Can you reverse this bounty on Pisces? Or do something about this team stalking the Horns of Hammerad?”

The [Knight] leaned over his saddle. Falene just pursed her lips.

“No. And, apparently, my influence isn’t even enough to merit a conversation with someone higher-placed in the Revivalist faction, let alone an Archmage!”

Dawil and Ylawes exchanged a glance. The Revivalist name was foreign to them, but they did know the basics about Wistram.

“What’s the issue?”

“Aside from the fact that Wistram was very reticent to give me any details about Ceria and Pisces until now? Oh, simply a blanket ban on any information regarding this Wistram team! Bashea—my friend—assured me that they were acting in Wistram’s best interests, but she wouldn’t tell me why Wistram had sent five full [Mages] all the way to Liscor! In fact, she kept hinting that I should return to the academy to learn more!”

The half-Elf, always dignified, or at least, invested in keeping up that bit of half-Elven myth, flicked her hands angrily. If it was Ceria, she would have spat or cursed. Dawil raised his brows.

“This Bashea doesn’t trust your spell, Falene?”

“She should! It’s our personal [Message] variant. She and I studied together! We were roommates! She’d tell me anything—but something has her silent. I asked about recent events in Wistram and she kept telling me to come back. Something’s happened in Wistram.”

“Does it involve my sister and her team?”

Ylawes was worried. Falene sighed, turning to him.

“I doubt it, Ylawes. But it frustrates me. Perhaps I should go back. Six years is a short time for so much to change in the academy, but…well, perhaps it would be a worthwhile trip. If you plan on going to Terandria, that is.”

“Aha! I knew you were listening in!”

Falene flicked her fingers and shot a bit of colored smoke into Dawil’s face. He swore and waved it away. Ylawes looked at his two friends.

“Maybe. But it’s my sister I’m worried about, Falene. Ceria contacted you.”

“Yes. By Mage’s Guild, so I cannot even send her a [Message] back directly. She really must learn that spell. But then, she is only a third-year student. Something else Wistram did not tell me the first time!”

Falene gritted her teeth. then she sighed again.

“I’m afraid I cannot help you, Ylawes. Or her. The faction backing Montressa du Valeross’ team is the Revivalists, and they’re at odds with my faction, the Centrists. I put in a few strongly-worded remarks, but I’m afraid that won’t change anything.”

She looked frustrated, and not even Dawil made a crack this time. Ylawes clenched his jaw, helpless. Falene paused. And a slight smile played over her lips. Dawil frowned.

“What?”

“If it’s any consolation, I might have been unable to help, but apparently there is someone in Wistram who took objection to the treatment of Ceria and Pisces. Amusingly—it had little to do with them being hunted and all with the terminology of the bounty on Pisces.”

“Really? Why?”

Ylawes tried to recall the bounty Yvlon had recited. It had certainly cast Pisces in a bad light, but he couldn’t think what had upset this [Mage] in Wistram. Falene tapped her lips, smiling.

“Have I ever mentioned the…keeper of Wistram? You know that we employ Golems for many menial tasks.”

“Sure. You kept mentioning how one of them would be better than me.”

Dawil grunted. Falene nodded.

“Well, the leader of these Golems is…sentient. And disturbing as she may be, she is invaluable to Wistram. A very troubling figure, but one even the Archmages must treat against. Her name is Cognita.”

“A Golem has a name? And it thinks?”

Ylawes had heard of that, vaguely. Falene nodded. She hesitated, and then smiled.

“The nuance is hard to grasp as I was not there for the incident, but I gather that while Pisces Jealnet and Ceria Springwalker were exiled, Cognita granted them the authority to call themselves graduates. However, the bounty on the two claims both are not, as did Wistram’s team.”

Dawil and Ylawes looked blankly at Falene. Neither one understood the half-Elf’s amusement.

“So?”

The half-Elf looked from face to face and sighed at her companions.

“So. She apparently objected to the inaccuracy.”

“So? Aren’t the Revivalists led by an Archmage? One of the lizards, right?”

“Archmage Nailihuaile. Yes. And I understand Cognita objected to her. Personally.”

Ylawes began to catch onto Falene’s smile. He looked at the half-Elf.

“What, exactly, did this Golem—this Cognita’s objection entail?”

“Well—”

 

—-

 

Aaron Vanwell, known to some as Blackmage, guest of Wistram Academy—first guest that was, since other Earthers had been found and returned to the academy—was working on a new construction. A battery, fueled by both magic and the science of his world.

Magitech. He was using crystals formed of magicore exposed to almost pure mana, worth a fortune, while trying to combine it with the principles of a lead-acid battery, which he’d engineered with some of the other Earther’s help. The breakthrough was one that surpassed both individual technologies.

With the ingenious magic of Wistram’s [Mages] and the superior—vastly superior energy-hoarding qualities of materials from this world, they’d combined it with the technology of batteries, the understanding of electrical polarity to create something that could charge lightning spells.

They’d created an artifact, in fact. Something so powerful even the Archmage who’d helped Aaron make the orb, the Lamia Archmage Nailihuaile, had been impressed. Even given the expensive costs of making so many prototypes!

And that wasn’t all. With more people from Earth, Aaron’s world had opened up. He was no longer a single captive, but one of many. He was working on a plan. An idea to combine more Earth-technology with this world’s resources. He carefully, carefully, began to insert the new battery he’d made—miniaturized from the orb that Montressa had taken for field testing—into the armored glove painted red and gold of course—

The door slammed open. Aaron jumped and the battery went flying. Archmage Nailihuaile, also known as Naili, caught the sealed battery in the air with a wave of her staff. Then she looked at Aaron.

“Hey! I’m gonna borrow your bed, alright?”

“What? Archmage Naili? Is everything ok—”

Aaron blinked as the Lamia, her scales translucent in places, glowing with accumulated magic, slithered over to his bed. In one hand she carried the Serkonian Lance, treasure of the Lizardfolk, which could create a magical field where she could effortlessly link spells, change the very nature of mana in the air, and also fire devastating lances of magic, hence the name. He’d also seen her use it as a backscratcher.

Now Naili tossed the staff under the bed and bend over, wriggling under Aaron’s bed. He stared at her tail.

“Um, Naili—”

“I’m not here! Shh! If she knocks, I’m not here!”

The Lamia waved frantically at Aaron. Bemused, he turned towards the door. The Lamia Archmage was by far the most relaxed of the four Archmages in Wistram. Feor and Viltach were older and far more…stately. Naili by contrast was lighthearted, joking that just because she’d grown older and become an Archmage, it didn’t mean she had to be stuck-up and crotchety. It made her popular. By contrast, the fourth Archmage, Amerys—

Someone knocked hard on the door. Aaron jumped and saw the bed jump. He looked at the door and heard a voice.

Deep, smooth. Without hesitation or flaw, like the owner.

“Archmage Nailihuaile. I would speak to you. Aaron Vanwell, will you open the door please?”

Cognita. Aaron looked at his bed. He hesitated. The Truestone Golem, warden or perhaps caretaker of Wistram, one of the most powerful constructs ever built, was standing outside his door. He was fascinated by her. And a little frightened.

He knew what the final test of Zelkyr was. And he had beheld the four guardian Golems, of which Cognita was fifth and most deadly. Even so, he raised his voice.

“Um…she’s not here, Cognita—”

“Aaron Vanwell. Open this door.”

The young man paused. He slowly got up. From under the bed, Naili shouted.

“I’m busy, Cognita! I told you—”

“This matter will not wait. Open the door, Aaron Vanwell. I would dislike damaging it.”

The [Mage]/[Engineer] hesitated. Naili shouted.

“I’m really busy! I’m uh, having sex!”

Aaron stared at the bed. There was silence from outside. And then Cognita punched a hole through the door.

It wasn’t like a movie, where the door exploded outwards. Cognita hit the door so fast and hard her fist went through the wood, sending only a small pocket of wood flying across the room. Aaron jumped—and Cognita’s arm twisted. It gently unlocked the door and pulled it open.

“I didn’t even lock the door!”

Aaron protested. Cognita slowly moved the door open.

“It was enchanted to stay closed unless the lock was turned, Aaron Vanwell. It will be replaced. Please step aside.”

She walked into the room. Aaron did exactly what Cognita said; she had a way with words. Or perhaps it was simply her presence.

To behold Cognita was to see art come to life. Eight feet tall, carved of pure white stone, finer than even marble, Cognita looked like the height of perfection, a statue of a woman made beautiful beyond belief. And yet, she had a quality that went beyond even statues, for she was alive. The folds of her dress, sculpted of stone, moved as she walked, and the stone of her body moved like flesh and cloth.

She was perfection, made by an [Archmage] thought dead to the world. Archmage Zelkyr, who had ordered her to protect Wistram and test every [Mage] who might ascend to the higher floors where he had once gone and never come back from. Cognita had held Wistram thusly for over a century. She was beautiful.

And terrifying. Especially to the [Mages] who knew her test that no one had ever undertaken and lived. She walked towards Aaron’s bed without hesitation.

“Archmage Nailihuaile. We must speak. Now.”

Reluctantly, a scaled hand poked out of the bed. Aaron saw Naili drag herself out, grumbling. She slithered upright, staff in hand and looked at Cognita warily.

“I was busy.”

“This will not wait. As I stated when you fled—”

“I had to go to the bathroom?”

“—when you fled, Pisces and Ceria Springwalker are graduates of Wistram. [Mages] of Wistram. To claim otherwise goes against the authority placed in me. I gave them that right.”

Naili twisted her staff in her hands. She looked at Aaron and he knew he should leave. He backed towards the door, but slowly. He wanted to watch. Secrets were currency in Wistram and this was probably big.

“Montressa and her team made a mistake.”

“Her team attacked the two [Mages] on the pretext that they were not [Mages] of Wistram. That is an error, as is the bounty placed on Pisces. It must be rectified.”

The Lamia looked restless, glancing towards the door and curling up her long, serpentine lower half.

“Really? But that’s so much work. You know, we’d have to send a correction, make a tiny update, and after Tiqr, that’s really not—”

“Archmage Nailihuaile. That was not a request.”

Aaron froze. Cognita’s voice was almost always perfectly level, without the variance in tone that came to people with lungs or mortality. But the calm threat that appeared in her tone was anything but soothing.

He saw Naili look up. Aaron expected the Archmage to…well, he didn’t know. Protest, or deflect. But he saw Naili’s expression change as Cognita looked down at her. Her carefree smile vanished and she stood a bit taller, though she was far shorter than Cognita.

“It was an accident, Cognita. Do you want me to pull Montressa’s team as well?”

“Their pretense is false.”

The Star Lamia shook her head.

“Only the part about them not being Wistram’s [Mages]. They were expelled, after all. And Pisces committed a serious crime.”

“Is Wistram now accustomed to changing sentences passed?”

Cognita’s voice was ominous. Naili looked up at her and bared her teeth.

“No. But Pisces Jealnet committed more crimes since leaving Wistram. Which gives us every right to apprehend him.”

The Truestone Golem looked down at Naili and Aaron swore he saw her raise an eyebrow a fraction. She did not look pleased, but her tone was neutral again.

“That is your reasoning. Which you are entitled too, Archmage. However, Mage Pisces and Mage Ceria are graduates of Wistram. So I have named them. I would request that detail be changed.”

“You want me to make a correction and send it to every Mage’s Guild in Izril? Over something so trivial?”

Cognita nodded once.

“Wistram’s Archmages are within their rights to act how they please in almost any situation. This is not one of them. I am a servant of the academy. And its keeper.”

Archmage Nailihuaile paused. She looked up at Cognita for a long moment. Aaron had seen Naili annoyed, laughing—petty and childish too. But in this moment, she reminded him of Feor, whose faction Aaron had managed to evade. Feor’s faction had custody of some of the Earthers. It wasn’t that Aaron couldn’t talk with them, but it was…complicated.

Naili’s voice grew softer. She looked up at Cognita and then slowly tightened her grip on her staff.

“Out of curiosity, what would happen if I refused to honor your request?”

Aaron saw her eyes narrow. The serpentine pupils contracted and Naili’s posture sunk, as if she was coiling up to strike. Not like a Drake with fury and rage from their distant ancestors. This was cold and calculating. Dangerous.

Cognita stared down at Naili. She did not react, but her tone grew a touch deeper.

“I would be forced to insist. If you wish to voice your objections, Archmage, please do so.”

For a second, the air in the room pressurized. Aaron, sensitive to magic, felt a wave coming off Naili that turned his knees to jelly. For a moment, the Archmage didn’t look playful at all, or afraid. She looked up at Cognita and the Truestone Golem stared back. Waiting.

And then—Naili threw up her arms, laughing.

“Kidding!”

The magical presence vanished. Aaron stared as she slithered past Cognita, sighing.

“So scary! Jeeze, if I have to do it, I have to do it. Alright, fine. Feor’s going to be so mad at me. Viltach too…but I guess we all know who’s really in charge of Wistram, huh?”

She glanced over her shoulder at Cognita. The Truestone Golem ignored the jibe. She walked after Aaron.

“The [Mages] of Wistram control the academy’s will, Archmage Nailihuaile. I am simply the academy’s protector and test. I object to one issue. The right of Wistram to imprison its own [Mages] is their prerogative. I only ask for consistency in Wistram’s rulings. And acknowledgement of truth.”

Aaron heard a light laugh from Naili as she waved her staff at his door. The wood flew back into place, resealing the door. She turned to Cognita with a big smile.

“You say that, Cognita, but sometimes I wonder if you don’t have those fingers on the scales. All our scales. Admit it, don’t you change what happens sometimes? Why are you working so hard for Pisces? Aren’t you a teensy bit biased?”

This time, Aaron saw Cognita react. The barb must have landed or something else displeased the Golem. Because Cognita’s marble eyes narrowed just a fraction.

“I would appreciate my neutrality remaining unquestioned, Archmage Nailihuaile. That the Golems of Wistram take no sides beyond the covenant we have been given by our creator is to all faction’s advantages. Insinuations to the contrary are troubling.”

“Oh yeah? But how could you prove that I’m wrong?”

Cognita looked down at Naili. After a moment, she spoke.

“If I truly wished to change Wistram as I pleased, I would listen to Archmage Amerys’ requests to free her. I respect the will of the academy. Archmage, please do not test my respect.”

Naili froze. She looked back up at Cognita. Then she silently opened the door and slithered out. Aaron let out a huge breath as he watched Naili go. Cognita turned and nodded to him.

“Aaron Vanwell. I apologize for the disruption.”

“Uh—no problem, Cognita.”

The young man watched Cognita go. Breathless, he stared at her back. Then, slowly, he stared down at the unfinished gauntlet on the table and the battery. He hesitated.

There were four Archmages in Wistram at this moment. Not three. Aaron knew it because he was in Naili’s personal circle in a sense. A guest in one, but privy to knowledge. He understood the significance of this knowledge, even if what he understood was how much he didn’t understand. But he knew Archmage Amerys was present.

He’d met her just once. And she was no Cognita, no ageless Golem who guarded the secrets of magic with death as the consequence of failure. She was just a Human woman. But he had met her.

She scared him greatly. He wondered if a magictech gauntlet, the technology he was developing, would work in the cell where she was being kept. It was just a thought. But Blackmage, Aaron Vanwell, knew he was a prisoner.

Him and all the others. There were eighteen so far. And nine more found and on the way. They were prisoners. Or guests. Well-treated. But he hadn’t been allowed to leave the island. In truth, he wasn’t sure if Naili and her faction were friends. If he agreed with everything Wistram was doing; he and the other Earthers were guests. There had been talk of letting them try to be adventurers, or visit other places—with supervision.

He wondered about the King of Destruction. And whether lightning worked on Cognita. Naili said it didn’t. But she was also asking him to build a lot more than a lightning orb. A projector, for one, so everyone could watch movies. She was addicted to the movies on the Earther’s devices. But she also wanted more. So did Feor, Viltach—all the factions that had ‘claimed’ an Earther.

What was one person to do amid it all? Wait. Learn. And listen. Slowly, Aaron bent over the glove and inserted the battery. He stared at it. And for a moment, all the thoughts that weighted on him vanished. The glove was ready. Contained in one palm was harnessed lightning. Enough to fuel at least one or two spells.

Aaron stared at the bright metal. The power emanating from the magical battery. Then he put it on. He flexed the glove, lifted it up and lightning crackled, arcing through the air where he’d created a magical path for it to follow. He took a deep breath. Intrigue, danger. But this world was still so cool. He looked around, but no one was there.

And you had to say it once.

“I am Iron M—”

 

—-

 

The actions in one location rippled to the next. In a way few could ever understand, small actions in one place could affect grand narratives in others. Sometimes, a grain of sand could change the course of history.

Other times it couldn’t. It was just a grain of sand. Actually, in most cases grains of sand didn’t affect much, unless they flew into the eye of conquerors at just the right moment to make him blink and fail to parry a blow, or the edge of the cliff. You couldn’t tell. That was the point. Who knew what grand schemes or petty conflicts would change everything? That was the Butterfly Effect, the terrible truth of causality and the whims of fate.

While running, Ryoka ate a bug. It had nothing to do with anything, except that she’d been asking the wind to blow in her face to cool her down and it had included a bug.

It was a bad bug, though. Ryoka knew the moment it hit her throat that it was alive, big, and wanted out. She paused, gagging, and felt it squirming, fluttering its wings as the moisture in her throat caught it. It scratched at her as she clawed at her mouth and then her waist for water.

By her side, Ryoka’s companion looked at her, worried as the City Runner danced about, half-screaming. The first mouthful of water nearly washed the bug further down Ryoka’s throat and only pissed it off. Ryoka spat, gagging. And swallowed it.

“Oh god.”

She clutched her stomach. But it was too late. The bug went down and it went down hard. Ryoka debated putting her finger down her throat and making it come back up, but she decided to drink the bug down.

It felt like it fought the entire way to her stomach. Ryoka gulped and gulped as her travel buddy watched her worriedly. At last, Ryoka exhaled, and spat so the awful taste came out of her mouth. It came out with a wing. Ryoka stared at it. Her friend licked her lips and opened her mouth.

“Don’t say a word.”

Ryoka glared at her companion. She got no response, which relieved her. She began running again. After a moment, her companion followed.

“Damn bugs.”

That was the most eventful thing that had happened today. Ryoka’s pace slowed as she reached a town, or maybe a city in the distance. She’d come far. And been running for days. She peered ahead and pointed to the gates.

“Looks like this might be a good place for the night. What do you think?”

Her running partner regarded the town. Ryoka waited for a response.

“Fine. I guess it’s good enough.”

She ran towards the gates. Silently, her companion followed. It was an amiable silence, though, and Ryoka had gotten used to it.

It had been a week since Riverfarm. Since Belavierr. Since…everything. Ryoka Griffin still felt like she’d walked out of a fairytale. And why not?

A week ago, she’d met [Witches]. She’d seen a monster. Or perhaps the most Human woman she’d ever met. She’d seen tragedy, met an old friend. Outrun fire.

And made some friends. Given that she’d nearly died several times, been burned terribly, and also added to her list of regrets that would haunt her until her death, Ryoka considered it was a pretty fair trade.

Friends were nice. And perhaps one ran with her now. Ryoka wasn’t decided. It wasn’t that she was biased about other species, but…well…some people could be annoying.

The first inn Ryoka came to was called Salubrious Sleephome. Tickled by either the word or the terrible name, Ryoka went in. To her surprise, she found it was a nice inn, and the [Innkeeper] was on the floor with his staff, who actually had a decent crowd.

Travellers, mainly. The town she’d come to lay to the north of Invrisil and a bit west—it was a good trading route for some trips and so adventurers, [Traders], and so on were stopping here for the night. The [Innkeeper] was a tall man, who greeted the runner girl and her friend warily.

“Miss Runner! I’m delighted to have a City Runner as a guest. But your friend…”

“She’ll mind her manners. I can tie her up if you want.”

Ryoka kept a straight face as her companion expressed pure disdain for the idea. The [Innkeeper] hesitated.

“Well, I think it’ll be fine. If she behaves herself. You two want to eat together? And a room for the night, or are you still running?”

The young Asian woman grimaced.

“I’m done for the day. And I’ll take one room; we’ll share it. What’s on the menu, can I ask? And uh—can I also ask about the name of this inn? The ‘Salubrious Sleephome’? I haven’t seen someone use the word ‘salubrious’…ever.”

The man beamed at her.

“You know the meaning? Pride and fortune, I thought I’d never meet anyone who was so well-read!”

Ryoka ducked her head. She would have deflected or maybe not even engaged a few months ago, but now she smiled.

“I like books.”

“As do I. I’m actually something of a [Reader]. Between you and me, it’s my passion.”

“Really? There’s a [Reader] class?”

The man winked at her, and suddenly they were friends. He escorted Ryoka and her friend to a table near a roaring fire; she was glad of it, despite the heat.

“Only naturally! [Writers] can’t exist without [Readers]. And before you ask, yes, there are benefits to the class! Mainly centered around reading, but the knowledge of books can be surprisingly powerful! I have one Skill that allows me to translate things I’ve read into semi-competent actions!”

“What? You have to be kidding!”

The man’s eyes danced.

“I became an [Innkeeper] after reading a book on cooking. Thirty one, actually! I can’t copy the techniques perfectly, but I can create…oh, a quarter’s worth of the actual thing? And with practice, that’s enough to allow me to cook a great deal! And that’s not all! Fencing, magic—it’s all more accessible thanks to my class! But I will own, it’s not a useful class as say, a pure [Warrior] or [Mage]. But I can live in the pages. They come to life! Have you ever wanted to stand on a battlefield?”

Ryoka paused.

“I did once. But I’ve seen the real thing and I can’t say I want to now.”

The [Innkeeper], who was named Quin, paused for a moment and grew serious.

“Ah, that is true. But a battlefield in stories is different. Incredible to behold! Or—sometimes—a terrible mess. Confused and as impressive as watching children flailing around with sticks. It all depends on the quality of the [Writer], you see. Good writers make the story come to life. Bad ones…but look at me drone on! If you’d like to take a book, I offer them to my guests so long as you treat them with respect.”

“That’s amazing.”

Ryoka smiled at Quin. He nodded, and opened his mouth to continue. But at that moment, Ryoka’s companion whined loudly. Runner and [Innkeeper] looked down.

“Sorry about my friend. Shush, you!”

“No, no. I’m being a poor host. Miss…Ryoka, was it? My kitchen is open to you! And I have a large menu! I may be a poorer [Cook], but I can make any dish I’ve read about and I’ve taught my [Cook] all the good recipes. Will you have a menu?”

“I will. Oh—”

Ryoka blinked at the vast menu, and the carefully hand-written words on each. She noted only some of the guests were bothering with the menu; reading might be somewhat universal to an extent, but few took to it like Quin. She eyed the page and pointed.

“What’s the Eldishfish and glossberry sauce taste like?”

“Served with some potatoes and a bit of whatever greens we have on hand this time of year. Eldishfish is rather tough, but flavorful. Glossberries? Vibrant, tart—decently sweet. A good combination.”

“I’ll have that, then.”

“And your companion, Miss Runner?”

Quin might have been the [Innkeeper], but he had a [Cook] and a staff, although he was waiting on Ryoka himself.

“She’s fine. Just give her water and food. Some dried meat? Don’t be worried about her biting.”

Ryoka glanced down at her companion. Said companion looked up at her and whoofed. Quin nodded.

“One moment! I simply must come back and talk to you about books!”

He bustled off and Ryoka stared down at her companion. It was not Charlay. Although her friend did have four legs. And a tail. And she was certainly as fast as Charlay, probably. But Ryoka had to admit, there were some differences. For one, Charlay was a Centaur. And her travel buddy was…

A dog. She was panting and sitting up. Well-trained too; despite the smells in the air, she only sniffed a few times. The wary [Servers] and other guests eyed her, but they were reassured when the dog made no move towards them after a few minutes.

Which was good too, because the dog was huge. Ryoka had seen big dogs before, the ones that looked like they hadn’t forgotten their wolf ancestors. This dog was a match for any one of them. Her tail thwapping the floor and her happy panting on Ryoka’s leg made the runner girl smile despite herself.

“Stop drooling. I’ll feed you. Do you need to go to the bathroom? Toilet? Hm, Mousey?”

Mousey the dog looked up at her. Ryoka realized the [Server] bringing a bowl of water and cup was staring and sat upright, blushing hard. She’d grown used to talking to Mousey on the road.

How Ryoka Griffin had come to be running with a dog was a long story. Or a short one. It wasn’t that long, but context dictated that anyone Ryoka Griffin told the story to be told about her hatred for dogs.

Well, not hatred. She didn’t want them killed, but she didn’t like dogs. Dogs were fast. They bit. And she had used to hate any owner who kept their dog off a leash like anyone who ever ran, let alone ran barefoot did. Dogs could be dangerous.

Ryoka didn’t like dogs. She’d never wanted one. Cats, now cats Ryoka liked. She’d had cats. But, well…

In the days since leaving Riverfarm, Ryoka had run back. Back towards Reizmelt. Away from Laken and the [Witches]. She had seen Belavierr for whom she was. She had talked to Laken, gotten some assurances about the Goblin prisoners. She would return, if only to see what he continued to do, but in truth, she couldn’t stay.

She had spent too long in Riverfarm, in a world that wasn’t hers. She didn’t belong there. She liked parts of Riverfarm. She liked Wiskeria, and Durene, and the [Witches]. Her heart still ached for Nanette. The young [Witch] had said nothing to Ryoka when the girl left. She sat, staring at nothing. And the Goblins—

But Ryoka didn’t know if they knew Erin’s name. She did not know them. And—she had agreed with Laken. Wrong though it was, if they fled, they would die. She would let the [Emperor] try his plan. As for the rest?

She was simply tired. Laken’s world was filled with dangers worthy of an [Emperor]. He had a [Lord]—Yitton Byres—as a travelling buddy! It wasn’t the world for a City Runner. Ryoka had left.

“I forgot to talk to Lord Byres. Well, what would I say? I punched your daughter once and she nearly died in Liscor because…he knows she’s alright. I think.”

Ryoka remarked to Mousey. The dog licked her leg. Ryoka yelped.

“Stop that, you!”

She tried not to smile. She didn’t like Mousey. But the dog had been with her nearly a week. Ryoka had thought it would be such a trial, but the two year-old dog had been a perfect companion. Far better than a Centaur. But Ryoka already missed Charlay.

Charlay had bid Ryoka farewell days earlier. The Centauress had to go too; she’d stayed with Ryoka through fire and fury, but now she was restless.

“Plus, I’m faster than you. I could take Mousey, but Ryoka’s too slow. Isn’t she? Yes she is!”

“Stop talking to me like that. And if you pet my head I’ll bite you.”

The Centauress laughed. She trotted down the crossroads, pointing ahead and circling. She regarded Ryoka with a smile, cocksure and impetuous. Not arrogant so much.

“I’ve gotta go, Ryoka. My city misses me! Who’ll be the top runner without me? Besides, it was fun, but I need a break! You attract trouble. I’ll go do some regular deliveries and find you again in a bit. Or we’ll see each other on the road! Count on it, Pukey!”

“Sure, Dusty.”

The Centauress glared at Ryoka and flipped her off. The young woman waved a dismissive hand. Charlay trotted away. Then she galloped back and gave Ryoka a hug.

“I’ll see you soon. You were pretty brave.”

“You too. I’ll look for you in on the road.”

Despite herself, Ryoka felt her eyes sting. Which was silly. But Charlay was…it was so odd, but Ryoka remembered to hug back. The Centauress sniffed.

“You jerk! You have to cry too! It’s what friends do!”

Friends. The word made Ryoka smile. Strange, but true. She glanced up as the [Server] hurried out.

“I’ve got some meat scraps here. Mostly gristle, but we’ve a few bones. Chicken bones, mainly…”

“Raw? I can’t give her cooked bones. They’ll splinter.”

Ryoka had been told that, along with a lot of other information for the trip. The [Server] nodded.

“Sure. She’ll eat them.”

The [Server] nervously put the bowl on the table and Ryoka put it on the floor. Mousy stood up, practically drooling over the bowl, but she looked to Ryoka first. The young woman gave her a nod.

“Eat, Mousey. Kalde.

The dog dug her face into the bowl and began devouring the food. Quin came out as the [Server] exclaimed.

“She’s so big. Where did you get her?”

“She’s from Radivaek kennels, isn’t she? There’s no finer place for dogs on the continent. But she’s a mighty specimen even so. Was that a special command you gave her?”

Quin gave Ryoka a knowing look. The City Runner nodded.

“Her name’s Mousey. That’s a signal that means she’s allowed to eat. She won’t eat without.”

Mousey perked up her eats and licked her chops as she stared up. She looked at Ryoka, Quin, and the entranced [Server] and went back down to her bowl. Her tail thumpthumpthumped the ground.

“Can I touch her?”

“Scratch her belly.”

Ryoka smiled as the [Server] bent. Quin made a sound—clearly thinking of hygiene or his customers—but the [Server] was already scratching and Mousey tried to roll over and eat at the same time. She panted, and Ryoka tried not to smile.

Ryoka didn’t like dogs. But she’d found a small place in her heart for her companion. Especially after she’d seen Lord Gralton and the Radivaek lands the Oldblood Drakes had attacked.

 

—-

 

Lord Gralton Radivaek had been called more beast than man. Wild, savage, a barbarian compared to many [Lords]. And that he was a [Dog Lord] only added to his image of some neanderthal of a man, rabid, unpredictable. That was what Ryoka had heard of him.

But it was unfair. Rumor had twisted fact and exaggerated truth. For when Ryoka Griffin visited Gralton’s lands after three days of travelling north from Riverfarm with Charlay, she found him in his kennels.

He was kneeling, his head bowed, as he tended to his dogs. She saw his bare shoulders, the rougher, stained clothing. She could smell him as she paused in the kennels and the [Servants] announced her. Charlay was staying away; she’d borne Eloise here when the [Witches] had flown to Gralton’s aide. She didn’t want to return.

She said it was too sad.

Lord Gralton raised his head as he held a dog, a puppy barely a few months old. It was wheezing, coughing as he fed it. Goat’s milk, letting it lap up the liquid a bit at a time and cough.

The [Dog Lord]’s eyes were red. He had been weeping. His voice was rough as he stared at Ryoka.

“You? What do you want?”

“His Majesty sends his regards.”

Ryoka stopped, hesitating. She bowed slightly. She had not bowed to Bethal. Or Magnolia. But it wasn’t Gralton who demanded it. It was the silent dogs. The half-empty kennels.

Lord Radivaek’s grief.

Riverfarm had been ravaged by fire. Though the village itself had been spared, the Oldblood Drake who had infiltrated the area had sown discord, pitted the [Witches] against [Knights] from Terandria, and let loose a firestorm that had destroyed villages, farms, and so much more. It would be years before the area began to recover, but perhaps with Laken it might recover sooner. But that Drake had been but one of many.

They had targeted the nobility’s lands. And while Ryoka and Riverfarm had thwarted the Drake attacking their lands, other areas had not been so lucky. A Drake had come to Lord Gralton’s lands while he had been absent. But it had not spread fire. Instead, the weapon had been plague.

And poison.

The puppy wheezed again as Lord Gralton stood. He was a big man, and Ryoka saw a bit of that wildness in his eyes. Fury too; no wonder the [Servants] had announced her and fled. But mostly grief. He stared at her.

“You’re that City Runner that Laken said he could trust. Griffin.”

“Ryoka Griffin, Lord Gralton. That’s right. Laken sends his regards. Riverfarm is secure. They have the Drake’s body. He—asks if you need assistance.”

“No. The [Witches] already left. Said there was nothing more they could do. You—you’re not much for someone an [Emperor] trusts. What do you want? Just coming to deliver a message? If so, get—”

Gralton growled, but the puppy in his arms coughed again. Ryoka heard it, deep, wheezing. She saw Gralton lower his head. Instantly, his growing anger changed.

“Does it hurt? Here. More milk?”

He cradled the puppy, offering it more to drink. The puppy whined, a soft sound. Gralton bent his head. Ryoka looked at him as the little dog buried its head into the crook of his arm. Coughing. He rocked it, until it began to breathe slower. Sleeping. Only then did Gralton look up and his fury was extinguished. Wordlessly, he walked over to a little bed and laid the puppy there.

The kennels were like no animal rescue or even shelter Ryoka had ever met. No rows of cages obviously, but Gralton had built a paradise for dogs. Some sections were neatly divided to allow breeds to be cordoned off or allow aggressive or troubled dogs space, but there was also space for dogs to run, toys like leather balls, beds, brushes of all kinds for fur, even an area for training, equipped with well-worn padded armguards and dummies made of straw to be attacked.

The kennel was massive, and it could have housed hundreds of dogs without even crowding them. It had a massive staff too, trained to handle the canines from raising them to caring for their medical needs and training them, whether as shepherds, companions, or for battle.

But while Ryoka was certain the kennel was usually full of life and probably, barking dogs playing or running about, it was deathly silent here. Only a few attendants were present, tending to quiet dogs. And the animals were silent, huddled together.

Death had swept through this place. Gralton turned to Ryoka, wiping roughly at his eyes. Ryoka looked at the puppy, still laboring to breathe.

“Poison?”

“That damned Drake. It got the wells. It got the water—put poison in the air—no one noticed. Damn idiots! The dogs knew. But the Drake must’ve flown about. Lost the scent. I got it after Laken told me it was there. But it was too late. Lots of people died. But the dogs. They had no part in this! Those bastard Drakes. I’ll kill them. All of them!”

Gralton’s hands clenched and unclenched. He would have roared, but the dogs in the kennel were watching their master. A few came up and Ryoka uneasily backed away. Gralton gave her a sharp look, noting her unease. Then he bent, smiling, and scratched a dog who came up, panting.

“You don’t like dogs.”

It wasn’t a question. Ryoka shuffled her bare feet.

“I have a history with them. Some have tried to bite me.”

“That’s because they’re poorly trained. Or their owners are worthless. These ones won’t bite unless they think you’re a threat. And they deserve more. I should never have left. Damn Godart and Byres. If I’d rode north without them—!”

One of the dogs flinched back from Gralton’s voice. The [Lord] instantly lowered it.

“I’m sorry. Here. Come here, Mousey.”

The dog leapt into his arms, panting, licking his face. Ryoka stared at Gralton. He was a different man with animals. Her, he stared at, with a lot more intelligence than she’d been led to expect.

“Then again, I’d never have known it was Drakes. Damn thing was invisible.”

“You…got the Drake?”

“My dogs did. Shame I didn’t have a head. But we know. The Drakes will pay.”

Gralton’s eyes narrowed. Ryoka paused. He was patting the dogs, letting them circle around him. Lean in. It was strange. But Ryoka felt like she was at a wake, like the one Riverfarm had held for their dead. The dogs knew what had happened. Just like the people. They were mourning.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? You bring the Drakes? I heard you helped with the [Witches]. And if they hadn’t been here—that other Centauress, she outside?”

“Charlay? Yes.”

“Huh. In that case, stay if you want. Those damn [Witches]—helped. The old one, with the medicines and tea? Lots of the little ones wouldn’t have lived if not for her. They might even last longer, thanks to her brews.”

Some wouldn’t. Ryoka saw that too. Some of the dogs had lived, but barely. Poison and plague had cut lifespans, damaged lungs. But if Gralton was half-beast, the man part of him could be grateful. Or the dog part. And she felt for him. How could you not? After a moment, Ryoka felt a head on her knee and jumped.

One of the dogs—Mousey—was staring up at her. The dog was panting, and she looked interested in Ryoka, but her tail wasn’t wagging. After a moment, the young woman bent. She held a hand out and gingerly reached for the dog’s head to pat it. Mousey stepped back and Gralton snapped.

“Don’t do that!”

Ryoka froze. Gralton glared at her.

“Greet her first. Mousey, seddigore. Let the dog get to know you. She’s battle-trained; don’t scratch her head first off! That’s asserting dominance and warhounds don’t like that. Dead gods, woman, don’t you know anything about dogs?”

“Sorry. What do I do?”

“Hold your hand out. A fist, not an open palm. Hold still. Let her sniff you. There—keep low, don’t stare her in the eyes. If she lets you, pet her belly. And don’t raise your voice.”

“Like you?”

The young woman glanced up. Gralton snorted.

“They’re used to me. They understand me. They don’t know you. And you smell like a bunch of things they don’t know about. [Witches], for one.”

Ryoka Griffin glanced up, startled. Gralton just stared at her. Not a dog trapped in a man’s body, oh no. But a man who’d learned something of dogs. She wondered just how good his nose was. She wondered what Skills a [Dog Lord] gained.

“So Laken’s rebuilding?”

“That’s right. Yitton Byres is still there, but he’ll ride towards his estates within the week. Laken is organizing his village. There are a lot of refugees.”

Hundreds already. Possibly thousands. More people were coming to Riverfarm, which had survived the fires. Also because they’d heard there was work. Safety. Despite the [Witches]. Gralton grunted.

“Fine. What about the Goblins?”

He looked sideways at Ryoka, fishing in a belt pouch for a treat. The young woman paused.

“They’re separated from Riverfarm. Laken is having them watched, but they have their own area. They haven’t all run away.”

“So there’s a point to how long we took getting back. Fine.”

The [Dog Lord] sat, scratching a huge—Ryoka had to think it was a wolf, although the dog looked more like a bulldog. But was massive. It came over and Gralton laughed as it walked right up to him. He looked up after a while, and saw Mousey was rolled over as Ryoka scratched her belly.

“You staying? It’s late.”

“If you’ll have us, we’d take a bed. We wouldn’t want to—”

“Stay, then.”

Gralton snorted. Ryoka shut up. After a while, Charlay trotted in. She looked around.

“Oh. They’re better now. Hey, Gralton.”

“Centaur. Watch your hooves.”

Ryoka found herself sitting with Charlay and Gralton as more dogs came over. They were warier of Ryoka than Charlay. There was a bright intelligence in their eyes, more so than even dogs in Ryoka’s world. Gralton just snorted when he saw Ryoka’s surprise.

“I’m a [Dog Lord], woman. You think that’s a pretty name? [Beast Trainers] turn their animals smart. Strong. My hounds think. They remember a friend and they aren’t idiots. See?”

He nodded at Charlay. A bunch of dogs were mobbing her for attention, licking her. The Centauress was giggling.

“Stop that! Stop that! I feel like I’m going to be eaten! Hey, wait—that’s my tail! Back off or I’ll kick!”

Ryoka found herself smiling. Then she looked at Gralton. He almost smiled back. She looked at him, amid his half-empty kennels and the dogs and ducked her head.

“If we’re imposing—”

“Stay. I owe Laken for the [Witches]. You uncomfortable around dogs?”

He jerked his head at her, a challenge. Ryoka hesitated.

“These ones are alright. And I do know a team of adventurers who own dogs.”

“Really? Which ones?”

A light appeared in Gralton’s eyes. Ryoka shrugged.

“The Pithfire Hounds.”

“Never heard of ‘em. Silver-ranks? Bronze?”

“Silver. I ran a delivery for them once. They…lost a dog fighting monsters. Their entire team got hurt. It was just—”

The [Dog Lord] raised his head.

“Did the dogs do the fighting while the adventurers stayed back? Or did they run and let the dogs stay back?”

He stared at Ryoka. Her mouth went dry.

“No. All of them were fighting. And another dog survived. They like dogs. They’ve been grieving their friend. It was an emergency. Wailer Frogs.”

It occurred to Ryoka that whenever she talked, she tended to have a big mouth. Charlay had said as much. Gralton relaxed slightly, listening to the explanation of the battle. He looked at Ryoka again.

“You run emergency deliveries to adventurers. Makes sense why Laken called for you. Here—feed Mousey this. And tell her—kalde. That means she can eat.”

Ryoka did. Much to her surprise, she found herself sitting after an hour, playing with dogs, and then throwing a ball. They didn’t live in the kennels; in fact they often ran outside, hunting or playing. Gralton allowed them to do just that, and after a while, Ryoka realized she was staying the night with Charlay.

Lord Gralton ate there, in the kennels, sharing his meal with any of the dogs who wandered over. He’d barely left it since returning home, apparently. He relished the company of the animals. Not exactly as equals—Ryoka saw him calmly stop an overeager husky who kept trying to jump up on her. He led them as naturally as breathing. And he was kind to them.

Humans not so much. Gralton gave orders like a [Lord] and he ruled—Ryoka heard him snapping about redigging wells that night—but he clearly loved animals more than people. Still, he had a soft spot if you looked.

“You’re still the worst person with dogs I’ve ever seen. You have to be dominant. My hounds will walk all over you.”

He informed Ryoka as he reprimanded another over-aggressive dog. She flushed, but Gralton was looking at her speculatively. And when she left the next day, he gave her a gift.

 

—-

 

“So the dog’s yours?”

“I’m just delivering her. Her name’s Mousey, by the way.”

Mousey? She’s so adorable!”

The dinner with Quin was mostly filled with talk of books—most of which Ryoka had never heard of—and Mousey. The dog attracted attention. And she was trained. Gralton had assured Ryoka she wouldn’t spook or disobey commands, but Ryoka was impressed. If anything, she’d been the one who needed coaching when he let Mousey go with her.

“I’m going north still. Towards Reizmelt.”

“Really? You wouldn’t happen to be willing to carry a delivery north, would you? I have a letter I’ve been meaning to send up towards First Landing…”

Quin looked sideways at Ryoka. It was a common question, so the City Runner just smiled.

“I can drop it off at the Runner’s Guild there if you have it by morning. If anyone else has a delivery north, I can run it that way.”

She slept that night in the Salubrious Sleephome. Mousey curled up on the floor, and after a moment, Ryoka opened one eye.

“You can climb up if you want. Up, Mousey?”

The dog looked up and then leapt onto Ryoka’s bed. The City Runner looked around, embarrassed. It was odd, having an animal with you.

“Don’t get used to it. You’re a delivery. I’m not keeping a pet.”

Then she closed her eyes. She still didn’t like—

Mousey sneezed on Ryoka’s face. The City Runner opened her eyes and the dog licked her face once.

“Don’t push it.”

 

—-

 

Reizmelt looked like Ryoka had remembered it. But it was strangely inviting after all this time. The City Runner slowed her pace as she ran through the gates. It had been a long run. She inhaled as Mousey, panting happily, wagged her tail. What neither runner nor dog were prepared for were the shouts from atop the gates.

“Oi! Wind Runner!”

Ryoka glanced up, startled. Some of the [Guards] on duty were waving down at her. She blinked and then raised a hand. They usually never stopped her.

“Something wrong?”

“Nothing wrong! But where’ve you been blowing off to? Haven’t had a breeze like this in a while! And where’d you get the dog?”

The woman on the gates shouted down at Ryoka. The young woman blinked, and then grinned.

“From Lord Gralton! Say, are the Pithfire Hounds in Reizmelt?”

“I saw them just today! Mind blowing us a breeze? It’s getting hotter around here! Summer’s beginning!”

A gust of fresh air hit the battlements of the wall and the [Guard] laughed. Ryoka waved as she ran into the city, bemused, but feeling—good. But that wasn’t the first time people called out to her. Let alone the last!

“Wind Runner! Wind Runner!”

Children who spotted Ryoka went shooting after her, begging for a breeze to go surfing down the streets. A few people Ryoka recognized waved at her and asked about the dog. Ryoka found herself slowing, explaining. So many people seemed to remember her. Mousey panted, letting people pat her or offer her treats.

It took a while for Ryoka to get to the Huntress’ Haven. When she did, she found Mad Madain sitting in his inn. It was empty, as usual. The man was removing meat from the bones of a deer he’d killed on a table. He looked up as Ryoka came in and blinked.

“Well, if it isn’t Miss Windy and—a dog?”

He stared at Mousey. The dog stared back and opened her mouth. Her eyes locked on Madain’s bones and the blood and meat. Ryoka blinked.

“Hi, Madain. I’m back. Don’t worry about the dog. She’s not staying long. Is Fierre here? Alber still around?”

“Yeah, they’re somewhere. What’s with the dog?”

“She’s a delivery.”

“Huh.”

Madain stared at Mousey. He looked at the dead deer.

“Is it hungry? Want a bone?”

Ryoka smiled as he picked up a large thighbone and tossed it at Mousey. It hit the floorboards and the dog stared at it, and then at Ryoka.

Kalde, Mousey. Go on.”

The dog leapt on the bone. Madain blinked. He stared at Ryoka.

“I heard you went on a big delivery. Bunch of crap down south. You alive? Missing any more fingers?”

Good old Madain. Ryoka waggled her right hand at him and then lifted one of her remaining digits. The [Innkeeper]-adventurer stared at her and then laughed.

“Your room’s upstairs. Piss off!”

One of his good days, then. Ryoka nodded and headed upstairs. Mousey followed her with the bone. Ryoka shucked off some of her gear and stared about her room. It was untouched. Madain hadn’t even bothered to change her sheets. She sighed. But then she smiled.

“I’m back.”

Mousey wagged her tail for emphasis. Ryoka paused and looked at her. Then she smiled.

“Time to complete my delivery, huh, Mousey? Don’t worry, you’ll like them. Come on!”

 

—-

 

“Ryoka Griffin?”

Levil, Captain of the Pithfire Hounds and [Pyromancer], looked up and gasped when the door to the Adventurer’s Guild in Reizmelt swung open. A few other teams glanced up. They stared at Ryoka. And then at the dog. Then Lamont, their [Warrior], freshly healed, shot to his feet.

“Miss Griffin! Hey, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt’s back!”

The rest of Pithfire Hounds shot to their feet. They came over, Lamont first. The [Warrior] reached out and clasped Ryoka’s hand. She blinked at him.

“Lamont, right?”

“That’s right. I still haven’t thanked you for saving my life. Miss Griffin, I owe you everything.”

“You’re back on your feet? But your ribs—”

The last time she had seen him, Lamont’s ribcage had been smashed, courtesy of the Wailer Frogs. The [Warrior] thumped his chest.

“I’m freshly healed—my chest is good as new! If there’s anything I can do—”

He was shoved aside by another adventurer, Bram. The [Beast Tamer] was accompanied by the remaining dog of the Pithfire Hounds.

“Miss Griffin, it’s good to see you back! We’d thought you’d switched towns, you’ve been gone so long! We heard all about your run to Walta. And who is this gorgeous creature?”

He squatted down, looking at Mousey. She sniffed him, but warily. Ryoka bent down.

“Mousey, seddigore. Seddigore.

That meant ‘friend’. Ally. It was what Gralton had used to introduce Mousey to Ryoka.

The dog wagged her tail as the Pithfire Hounds approached, reassured by the word. Makki, the wolfhound belonging to the adventuring team, went still at the sight of the bigger dog. Levil whistled.

“Dead gods, but it’s good to see you, Ryoka! And that dog’s a beauty!”

“I’ll say. And a proper giant too! Makki’s small compared to her!”

Ulica, Keima, and Tally, the three other members of the group, all came over. Ryoka shook hands as the rest of the adventurers squatted down. They were all dog-people. Makki held back as Bram gently introduced the two. She sniffed Makki warily; the larger dog looked to Ryoka and got another seddigore before she sniffed back.

“What’s her breed, do you know? Oh, and where’ve you been, Ryoka?”

Levil couldn’t take his eyes off Mousey. Ryoka smiled.

“She’s an Aldasian-breed mixed with a Izrilian bulldog. Apparently.”

“Aldasians? Dead gods, those are Mothbear killers! Where’d you buy her, Ryoka? Is she your bodyguard on runs, now? Mind you, she’d be good at it. Mousey, you said her name was?”

Keima exclaimed. She was feeling heavy muscle under Mousey’s fur. The dog happily flopped over as the other adventurers gave her a good scratching. She still looked up, panting at Ryoka as the City Runner inhaled. She looked at Levil and his team.

“She’s from Lord Gralton Radivaek. His personal kennels. She’s not mine, actually. I’m just delivering her. Actually, Levil…everyone. She’s for you.”

The Pithfire Hounds froze. They stared up at Ryoka. Levil blinked.

“For us?

Ryoka nodded. She looked from face to face, feeling a coil of anxiety in her stomach.

“I know your team was missing a dog after the frogs. And I thought…well, I mentioned it since I was running through Radivaek lands. And I was thinking—”

Too late, Ryoka realized that she hadn’t asked Levil and the others if they wanted another dog. She should have, but it had slipped her mind when Gralton made her the offer! She began to panic.

“Look, I knew that Dassa was really special to you. And I don’t want to replace her! I just wanted to—Lord Gralton heard about your team and—I’m sorry, I should have asked. It was—”

Levil smiled. He stood up and hugged Ryoka. She blinked and relaxed. The [Pyromancer] was beaming.

“Dead gods, Ryoka! Don’t apologize! It’s a wonderful gift. We’ll treasure her. From Lord Gralton’s own kennels? We talked about adding a hound to our team like that!”

His team was nodding. Tally looked stunned. The [Ranger] stared at Mousey.

“From Lord Gralton? But he trains the best dogs in the world! The continent, at least! Hey, everyone! Did you hear that?”

Some more adventurers were coming over. They exclaimed as they heard from Tally about Mousey. Ryoka was blushing, but relieved. Bram was beaming.

“An Aldasian warhound? She’s worth a fortune! And she’s smart! Lord Gralton sent her to us?

Everyone looked at Ryoka. She flushed.

“He’s a big dog lover. Keep her safe, alright?”

Levil nodded solemnly with the rest of his team.

“We’ll do that. Don’t worry, Ryoka. Dassa was the only dog we ever lost. And it was only because we were on the verge of getting wiped that she was in a position like that.”

Bram nodded as well.

“It’s a dangerous life, like being a hunting dog, Miss Ryoka, but not too much more dangerous. Few dogs are big enough to fight monsters directly, it’s true. And it’s dangerous for them, without armor and whatnot. I hear Carn Wolves can be trained, but those are wolves, with fur like steel. But dogs fight smart. They go for the flanks and they can even dodge spells. It’s not always…safe. But if they get hurt, it’s because we were all in danger of dying. I promise you.”

“I know. And I know she’ll love it.”

“You got Lord Gralton to give us a dog just like that? And you brought her all the way here?”

“It—yes?”

Ryoka blinked as Keima hugged her fiercely. Levil grabbed Ryoka around the shoulders. Embarrassed, the City Runner tried to flee.

“It was just—well, just something I thought I’d do—”

“We have to buy you a drink! And we’re in your favor again, Miss Wind Runner! Tell us where you’ve been? You can stop, can’t you? You haven’t been in Reizmelt for ages!”

“I’d love to. But I need to make one more stop. Tonight. Why don’t we all go to the Huntress’ Haven? I have to check in at the Runner’s Guild and let them know I’m back for emergency deliveries…”

Ryoka couldn’t handle all the genuine affection being thrown her way. She retreated towards the door. Levil’s team protested, but Levil held them back.

“Tonight, then!”

Ryoka nodded. She was about to leave when she noticed something. Mousey was trotting after her, head held high, looking expectant. Ryoka paused.

“Oh. Right. Mousey?”

She squatted down and looked at the dog. Mousey wagged her tail, ready for action. Ryoka hesitated. Gralton had shown her how to do this too.

“Mousey, seddigore. Krakka. Seddigore. Understand?”

She gestured and Levil came over. The adventurer knelt and Ryoka showed Mousey his fist. The dog sniffed it.

Krakka. Seddigore.

But Mousey kept staring at Ryoka. The City Runner hesitated. She looked at Levil.

“She’s yours. Keep her safe. She’s a really…good dog.”

The [Pyromancer] nodded. He watched as Ryoka got up and backed away towards the door. Mousey looked up.

She followed Ryoka. The City Runner froze. She pointed back at the Pithfire Hounds. They were all watching Ryoka, with mixed expressions. Ryoka bent down again and scratched under Mousey’s chin.

“No, Mousey. Sit. Turt. Turt. This is your team, now. Seddigore, see?”

She got up slowly. The dog whined. She followed Ryoka a half-step and then looked at the Pithfire hounds. Ryoka felt a pain in her chest. She turned her back.

“I have to go. They’ll take good care of you.”

She began to walk towards the door and heard a bark. Mousey was never supposed to bark; it was part of her training. She looked back and the dog stared at her. Ryoka pointed.

Turt. Goodbye.”

She kept walking. Mousey stared at her back, and then up at Levil. The [Pyromancer] smiled and the dog stared at him, reassured. But then she stared at Ryoka.

“I have to go. I can’t keep a dog. I don’t even like them.”

The City Runner muttered, avoiding everyone’s gazes. She made her way towards the door. She’d never thought this would be the hard part. But Gralton had warned her not to get attached. And she wasn’t. Slowly, Ryoka walked out of the Adventurer’s Guild and leaned against the door.

“I hate dogs.”

 

—-

 

That night, Ryoka Griffin saw Mousey again. The dog looked up at her, and then came over to be petted. But there was separation, of sorts. The Pithfire Hounds were already familiar with her, and Makki and Mousey, the two dogs, were both roaming around the inn.

Mad Madain wasn’t used to the crowd. But he tolerated the people and entertained himself by throwing bones for the dogs to catch. Ryoka Griffin smiled a bit as she saw Mousey’s head go up, watching the bones fly. Levil had to remember to give her the kalde command to eat.

“She’s better-trained than Makki. I hear those dog-commands are so they don’t take wrong orders in the field. We’re going to have to practice with her, but she’s going to be a welcome member of the team. We owe you greatly, Ryoka. And we’ll stop by with Mousey as much as we can.”

Ryoka nodded. She turned away from Mousey for a moment. Alber was eating at one table. She’d seen him plying his [Fistfighter] trade this evening. He looked up and nodded to her.

“Ryoka.”

“Hey, Alber. Anything new happen?”

The young man paused. He shook his head. After a moment, he looked at her.

“Nice to see you.”

He went back to eating. Ryoka smiled. Some things didn’t change, and after all the greetings she’d gotten, this was almost a relief.

But some things had changed. Ryoka looked around. She still hadn’t seen one person in Reizmelt, the person she’d been most eager to meet.

“Is Fierre in the city? Or has she gone home, does anyone know?”

“She’s here. Saw her this morning and she paid for the week. Probably working in her secret job.”

Madain grunted. Ryoka looked at him. Fierre’s status as an opener and broker of secrets was known in the inn—the Pithfire Hounds looked confused.

“Is she still working there, do you think?”

“Probably. Girl has more customers. Should charge her more rent.”

“Maybe I’ll go visit her. Levil, it was great catching up, but…”

The [Pyromancer] was nodding.

“Anytime, Ryoka. You’ve got Runner business?”

“And Fierre’s a—friend.”

Ryoka smiled at him. She nodded towards the door, only a bit unsteady after the three drinks she’d had.

“I’ll just duck out. We’ll come back if she’s done for the day. See you—”

“Hold on, she’s not in her old spot.”

Madain interrupted. The [Innkeeper] looked at Ryoka as she paused. He grinned, and looked at Alber. The [Fistfighter] looked up, not as amused by the secret knowledge they shared.

“What?”

“It got blown up. Her last spot. Fierre’s in a new place. Don’t know where it is myself. You’ll have to ask around.”

What? Her door got—by what? Who?”

The former adventurer shrugged.

“Heard it was a bunch of sewing needles. Girl must have pissed off someone. Maybe that [Witch] she was talking about.”

Ryoka stared at Madain, open-mouthed with horror. Then she turned and sprinted out of the inn. Levil looked at Madain.

“But she’s okay. Fierre, I mean?”

“Oh, sure. Right as rain. Probably had some good healing potions. Way I heard it, she has some high-level defensive Skill. But she’s totally fine.”

“You could have told Ryoka that.”

Mad Madain grinned at Levil.

“So?”

 

—-

 

Fierre was working in her new office when there was a pounding at the door. The Vampire girl froze and stared around her room.

It was larger than the previous cubby that had been large enough only for her desk and a cabinet. This new place was located in a less…upstanding part of town, but it was made up for by the thick stone walls, all warded, and the new door.

Twice as thick as the last one and enchanted with more than just protection spells. Even the hail of needles that had gone through the first one would have trouble with this one. Fierre had been organizing her expanded file cabinets. Now she sank back in her chair.

The pounding wasn’t any of her code knocks. Fierre doubted whoever was on the other side could get in, but just in case, she reached for one of her emergency tools. It wasn’t for her; she’d rather get arrested or deal with whoever was on the other side herself. But she had a bag of holding she’d shove her files into and then toss under a concealment charm to keep hidden.

It was a last resort. But for now, Fierre kept silent. She waited, as whomever was pounding on the other side shouted something.

“Fierre? Fierre? It’s me! Ryoka!”

The voice jerked the Vampire girl upright. Ryoka? She stared at the door and rose. But then she hesitated.

It could be a trick. Warily, Fierre stalked over to the door and murmured a word. A porthole appeared in the metal, allowing her to see through the metal. She saw a familiar face, anxiously hammering on the door. Fierre hesitated.

“Ryoka?”

“Yes!”

“What’s the password?”

Ryoka paused. Fierre saw her hesitate.

“Uh—”

The Vampire girl grinned. She threw open the door.

“Come in! Ryoka!”

The City Runner entered Fierre’s new office and stared about. The Vampire girl hadn’t decorated, so her new office was like the last one—a room to conduct secret business in. Even so, there were some trappings of Fierre’s success.

For one thing, a tiny scrying mirror, secured in a soundproof box when Fierre wasn’t using it. And another—a list of bounties on the wall, for information, items, people. Unofficial and official. But what was most impressive was Fierre’s information network.

She had three huge cabinets, and several maps now, showing everything from the influence of the underworld to trade routes. She had a copy of the Adventurer’s Guild bestiary, a list of every [Mage]’s Guild across Izril—and a bunch of unofficial contacts—and a list of favors owed, to her or to others.

“It’s amazing what gold can get you. I spent over half of it, but this is the result! It’s put me on a new level. Now I have a network and I can actually leverage some influence! I’m a name, Ryoka. And I—”

Fierre caught herself. She was babbling as Ryoka sat in front of her desk, staring at all the papers Fierre had pulled out. The Vampire girl stopped and looked at Ryoka. And her exuberance faded.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? I should be apologizing to you, Fierre. I should never have asked about Belavierr. You nearly died!”

Ryoka looked up. She was still stunned by everything that was new. She hadn’t known about Belavierr’s curse on Fierre. The Vampire girl shook her head.

“No. It was my fault for being careless. Ryoka—the Order of Seasons came because of me.”

The City Runner nodded. She’d worked that out as the two caught up. She inhaled, and bowed her head.

“I know. I wish you hadn’t said anything.”

“I was angry. After I got hit by that curse, I lost my temper and—I’m so sorry.”

Fierre bit her lip. Her pointed teeth dug into her pale flesh. In her room she was more uncovered than anywhere else, so Ryoka could see her pale, bloodless skin. But she had blood; Ryoka had heard at the Runner’s Guild how bad the devastation had been at her office. People were of the opinion that Fierre had barely survived the needles thanks to her door and healing potions and some lucky Skills, but Ryoka knew better.

“I’m sorry. Belavierr was—I’ve seen those needle storms she conjures. Did it—did it hurt?”

The Vampire girl’s pause told Ryoka enough.

“Not much. You know I’m tough. If the needles had been silver, I would have died. But regular metal and wood?”

She tried to shrug casually. It didn’t fool Ryoka. Fierre stared at her friend.

“What about you? You met her. I know the Order of Seasons…failed. And the Drakes! Did you see any of it?”

“All of it. Yeah, I met Belavierr. She was…”

Ryoka hesitated. She searched for words to describe the ringed gaze, the [Witch] who had forgotten how to be Human. In the end she shook her head.

“…A monster. I thought she wasn’t. But she was a monster. The Order of Seasons was right to go after her. I think. I don’t know. If she was anything, it was true to herself. And she did love someone. Her daughter. It’s just that she cares for nothing else. She was—a monster. Not like you or me. In the end, I wanted to like her. But I couldn’t accept what she did.”

Ryoka bowed her head. She looked at Fierre. The Vampire hesitated. You or me. She sat down at her desk.

“I’m still sorry. I wish I’d caught more, quicker. The Drakes. I never expected that. I should have! It came from Manus, the attacks. Retaliation for Liscor.”

“I figured. You know what’ll happen next?”

“Retaliation from the Humans. In time. At the very least, they’ll be sending a bigger army next year to the Bloodfields. They might be too busy with Magnolia Reinhart’s trade war and infighting, but they’re not going to forget this. Then again, the Drakes did a lot of damage economically. It’ll take time to recover.”

“Well, I don’t think Gralton will forget. Or anyone else.”

Fierre nodded. She wanted to ask Ryoka why the girl smelled like dog. And if she really was partners with Dustrider Charlay, like the report coming from Walta claimed. And so much more.

Ryoka wanted to ask too. But she had come a long way. So she sat a moment, sighing. Here, in this office, she could relax. She looked up, and saw two red eyes. Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle waited. And Ryoka eventually sat up and smiled.

“Some run, huh?”

“Yeah. You know, your ratings have shot up since that run to Walta. Going to Riverfarm didn’t hurt you either, although it’s mostly reputation-based.”

“I have good ratings?”

“Oh yes. You’re getting some attention because you know the fabled [Emperor]. And doing a run for Lord Gralton didn’t hurt either, let alone Lady Bethal. You made your way back here quickly too. Have you…gotten better at using the wind?”

Fierre glanced up at Ryoka. The Wind Runner rested her arms on her knees.

“A bit. How do you know?”

“I have a report claiming you stopped a tornado. Made out of fire.”

Ryoka smiled briefly. Her left foot twitched unconsciously.

“I didn’t stop it. I turned it. I knew I could. Or at least, I thought I could.”

“But if you could do that—did you level up? I mean, I know you don’t. But did you…gain more power?”

The broker watched Ryoka carefully. The City Runner paused.

“Maybe. I don’t level up. But I think I can ask the wind to do more. That’s all. It was a tornado made out of fire, Fierre. I thought it was like hell. There were flames everywhere. And I knew I had to do something. I thought I’d burn up. But I had to try.

Fierre shuddered. Fire was one of the ways Vampires died. She watched as Ryoka went on. The Asian girl’s face was faraway.

“The wind was different than I’ve ever seen it. Than I could have ever imagined. That’s why I can control it better. Because of what I saw. [Mages] study and try to understand. I guess the secret with me is going out into the world. Witnessing. Experiencing.”

She looked up abruptly and forced a smile. And then—abruptly—stopped forcing it. She leaned back and let out a genuine expletive.

Fuck. I’ve seen some insane stuff, Fierre!”

The Vampire girl laughed. Because that was Ryoka. Unguarded, the young woman grinned at the Vampire girl. Fierre raised an eyebrow.

“Tell me about it, already! I want to know how bad it was. I visited home and even my father said Belavierr was way too dangerous to mess with. We know about her, you know.”

“Vampires? Why doesn’t that surprise me? Dead gods, Fierre. She was insane. I can’t even describe—”

Ryoka sat forwards, trying to explain what it was like meeting Belavierr the first time. The way she stood so unnaturally and spoke. Fierre listened, jotting down some notes, but mainly hearing Ryoka speak. Talking in her own turn.

“Nothing much’s happened around Reizmelt since you’ve been gone. But you remember those Ogre raids a while back? A band of them coming out of the hills, to the east? Southeast, that is, a good eighty miles. Well, it’s gotten worse. There are multiple bands of them. The bounty’s been upped, but it’s a dangerous area at the moment. I really don’t recommend running there, but there’s gold to be made.”

“Damn. I’ve never seen Ogres. Is it bad?”

“Well, they’re crossing over into Lady Pryde’s domain. Magnolia Reinhart has interests in the region, but the Ogres were hitting unclaimed territory up until now. Some groups got wiped out by adventurers, but there’s two bands you do not want to mess with. Speaking of which—the trade war is biting the lands opposed to Magnolia Reinhart hard. You could earn big money if you can break the Skill she’s got going on.”

“I don’t mess with her, thanks.”

Ryoka spread her arms. Fierre eyed the City Runner for a moment, but she held onto that tidbit and went on, consulting her notes.

“Well, if you don’t like that, I have news from Liscor. A team of Wistram [Mages] got spanked hard. I’ll tell you all about it when I have more solid information—you’re always asking about Liscor, right?”

“I have friends down there. Anyone hurt?”

“No one died. It’s just funny to hear about. Oh, and there’s a bounty, but it’s small sheep, honestly. Wistram had to correct it, which is weird—they sent out a mass-correction. I’ll grab a copy. Let’s see. Some adventurer is killing Goblins too, in the same area as the Ogres. No, wait, a [Knight]. Not just a few; he’s taken out multiple tribes. They call him the Goblin Slayer.

Ryoka blinked.

“The what?”

“Goblin Slayer. Anyways, it’s just a rumor.”

For a second the young woman looked unhappy. But then she shook her head.

“Anything else?”

“Big? No. I mean, I could go on all day, but that’s all the really interesting stuff. Oh, and one more thing.”

Fierre grinned slightly as she pulled out a piece of paper from the bottom of her file. She presented it to Ryoka with a flourish; she’d been holding onto it.

“I found what you were looking for. I put some money into it.”

Ryoka froze. She stared down at the paper.

“You found them?”

“It wasn’t easy. But they are working as adventurers. And you’re right—they’ve got Magnolia Reinhart backing them. Or some of her staff, I think. I had to tiptoe carefully to get their location but this is it. Semi-permanent; they’ve been seen there the last month.”

Fierre tapped the address she’d written down, and all the other notes. She watched Ryoka’s face change. The young woman inhaled.

“You never said why you wanted them.”

“I—need to meet them. I’d explain, Fierre, but it’s really personal. They’re there?”

“I’d be careful, Ryoka. They’re Magnolia Reinhart’s staff. You said you didn’t mess with her.”

“Yeah. But this is different. I’ll be careful. But…”

Ryoka was staring down at the names. Fierre didn’t understand what her fascination was with a group of Bronze-rank Humans. But then…she waited, watching Ryoka’s face. Hearing her blood flow accelerate. Fierre licked her lips and then caught herself.

At last, Ryoka Griffin looked up. She stared at Fierre, and then put down the paper. She looked at it again, but then slid it over to Fierre.

“Later. I’ll deal with it later. You know, the Pithfire Hounds are at Madain’s inn. And I said I’d try to be back. Fierre, it’s good to see you.”

“You too, Ryoka.”

The Vampire girl grinned. Ryoka smiled and then hesitated. She looked sidelong at Fierre.

“Do you want to go back and have a drink? Talk some more? Can Vampires even get drunk?”

The Vampire girl grinned wickedly.

“Want to find out?”

Then her face fell. She hesitated and Fierre looked towards the door.

“Oh, but I don’t like drinking in crowds. I mean, I would, but with the teeth…”

Ryoka paused. She looked at Fierre as the girl—who was older than her, in fact—sighed. Longingly. Fierre had a wistful look in her eyes. And Ryoka thought of her friends.

Erin. Mrsha. Ceria. Yvlon? Fals. Garia. She had left them all behind. But now, here, she had more friends.

Wiskeria. Alevica? But surely, Charlay. And Levil and his team. Lupp. But her first friend, the person she’d found herself missing because they understood each other sat right here.

Fierre. Ryoka had missed her friend. And she hadn’t known until recently what it was like to miss someone like that. You couldn’t miss what you’d never had. Now, though, she sat back down and put her bare feet up on Fierre’s desk. The Vampire girl stared at them.

“Your feet are incredibly dirty, Ryoka.”

“Sorry.”

Ryoka didn’t take them down. She grinned at Fierre and gestured around the sealed and warded room.

“You don’t like drinking in public? Let’s drink in your new office, then. That’s got to be the most private place in the world.”

Fierre blinked.

“But I work here!”

“So? You own this place now, right? Why not? Unless Vampires can’t get drunk?”

The broker blinked. But then she grinned wickedly, with all her teeth. It was a smile like a Drake’s, but this one was reassuring.

“Oh, we can. It’s just a bit harder. And I know a good spot. Want to grab a bottle?”

“Sure. And let’s say hi to the Pithfire Hounds. You can meet Mousey. The dog.”

Ryoka stood up. Fierre walked over to the door and held it open. She looked at Ryoka and the City Runner looked around as a cool wind blew in from Reizmelt. She sighed as she looked at Fierre.

“It’s good to be back.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.59

“Watch Captain Zevara, are you aware of how many services Wistram provides for Liscor’s army and the city itself?”

Wing Commander Embria knew the voice that snapped out of the speaking stone in Watch Captain Zevara’s claw. She winced and shuffled her feet; she would have looked away, but what would be the point? She stood in the Watch Commander’s office and listened. Wincing.

After the first burst of sound, the voice was quieter, but Watch Captain Zevara’s replies were audible from where Embria stood.

“I—no, ma’am. The situation—no, High Strategist. Yes, but—it was clearly—no. Yes, I understand. I—given the situation—yes. However—yes. I’ll bear the High Command’s wishes—thank you.”

Zevara’s expression said a world, as did her writhing tail, but her tone was deferential. Embria winced as Zevara put down the speaking stone. She handed it to Embria, who silently took the valuable magical item. Wing Commander Embria opened her mouth, noted Zevara’s expression—and the smoke—and fled.

Watch Captain Zevara listened to Embria close the door and pound downstairs at double-time for a few seconds. Then she gave vent to her emotions. She pounded a fist on her desktop and shouted a number of words that brought one of the [Guards] running. They were still on edge, but Watch Captain Zevara’s glare made the [Guardswoman] close the door and wait until Zevara had vented her metaphorical and literal fire.

“Watch Captain, do you have orders?”

“Yes. Come in, Guardswoman.”

Zevara slumped as the female Drake opened the door cautiously. The [Guardswoman] stood to attention and Zevara looked up.

“The [Mage] prisoners from Wistram. Where are they now and what’s their condition?”

“Stable, Watch Captain. They’ve all been treated and healed—the Minotaur has a hairline fracture on her jaw and the Drake and Human both have bone chips from the arrows. The Selphid’s body is uh, destroyed, but it’s been healed. As for the Centaur—a few cracked ribs, but all healing.”

That meant they were practically fine. Healing potions—low grade ones—couldn’t heal bones, but everything else from arrow wounds to gashes would be closed. Zevara nodded grimly.

“Are they awake?”

“Yes, Watch Captain. We have them in the mage cells and we’re still in the process of cataloguing their gear.”

“Fine. Release them.”

“Watch Captain?”

The Drake froze. She eyed Zevara as if she suspected her superior were under a spell. But Zevara still had the detection charm on one wrist and the stupid little Human face was smiling, a sign of no mental enchantments on her. Zevara glared and spat the words like poison.

“Release them. That’s an order straight from the High Command. I want their belongings returned, and them marched…damn, here. Get the Horns of Hammerad here, and Miss Solstice and Magus Grimalkin if he’s so inclined. And anyone else! But keep them apart until I return, got it? And make sure Relc and Senior Guardsman Klbkch are there to keep order!”

“Yes, Watch Captain. Where will you be in the meantime?”

The Drake [Guardswoman] saluted reflexively. Zevara got up. The [Guardswoman] stared at her, confused. Zevara shook her head in reply. She stomped towards the door.

“I need to see the Council.”

 

—-

 

Liscor’s Council met. In fact, they were already meeting when Zevara strode into the council room. They didn’t waste time. At least, the real Council, the ones who made the decisions, didn’t.

They were Elirr, Raekea, and Krshia, who were in a sense, the Gnollish party. And on the other side were Lism, Jeiss, and Alonna, as well as Tismel and Zalaiss, who represented Drakes. Those were the official battle lines. But there was a third party known as the ‘Council who wants to get things done and resents the really expensive and idiot practices of the previous Councils’ party, which consisted of everyone but Tismel and Zalaiss.

It was a source of much tension, mainly from Tismel and Zalaiss. But both were conspicuously absent today—indeed, they rarely showed up. They lacked the votes to sway all but contentious issues and Zalaiss was either drunk when she arrived, or she and Tismel were with the old Council, relaying the current one’s decisions or trying to think up something that didn’t involve getting past Relc and his fist.

For now, the current Council ruled and they were active. But Watch Captain Zevara’s presence was their concern of the moment. And it had to be said, none of them were happy either.

“They did what in my city?”

Lism’s bellow echoed throughout the conference room. Krshia, Elirr, and Raekea clapped their paws to their ears, glaring. But Lism was furious. Almost as furious as Krshia. She leaned forwards, addressing Zevara.

“And we’re letting them go? All of this was decided without our input? Already?”

“That’s right, Councilmembers. I am simply informing you of my decisions, which were all undertaken under my own authority as Watch Captain.”

Zevara stared straight past Lism’s head, speaking to everyone and no one. Olesm, standing by the door, winced. But he was also staring.

Wistram’s [Mages] had tried to abduct the Horns of Hammerad? Ceria? And they’d done it in public—and hexed Selys and started a fight at Erin’s inn? No, wait—Olesm checked his notes. Erin had started the fight.

Either way, it was a disaster. Not for Liscor, but for Wistram. Or so Olesm had assumed. But Zevara’s next statement had all the Councilmembers staring.

“I have ordered the Wistram team’s immediate release, and their items will be restored to them. They will…not…be banned from Liscor, although they will be under the strictest surveillance. I will personally make that clear to them—”

“But you’re letting them stay? And you’re releasing them from prison? Why in the name of the Ancestors would you do that, Watch Captain?”

Lism’s fist hit the table furiously. He glared at Zevara. Alonna, sitting beside him, was silent, her arms folded. Lism glared at Zevara.

“They ensorcelled Miss Shivertail? That’s illegal! They should be fined, then beaten with sticks, and then exiled for good! Not given a slap on the wrist and—”

“Lism, shut up, you. Let Watch Captain Zevara explain herself. I am sure she has a reason. And I am more curious about this bounty Alonna mentioned, yes?”

Krshia glared at Lism. He opened his mouth, but Olesm cut in. His job, rather than to drag the Council from topic to topic, was to keep them from quarrelling, which was much easier.

“On that note, Councilmembers? I have a record of the bounty from the Mage’s Guild. Here are copies—”

He passed them out, and then stepped back and offered Zevara a copy. She shook her head, lashing her tail. Olesm stepped back and read from his. His stomach twisted in the silence.

“A two thousand coin bounty? That is high.

Raekea’s brows shot up. She stared at the parchment and then up at the others. Jeiss shook his head absently. The Senior Guardsman muttered.

“Not for an adventurer. Olesm, is this right?”

“Yes, Councilmember Jeiss.”

“I could live on two thousand gold pieces for years!”

Lism croaked faintly. Jeiss shrugged.

“It’s a lot, but I’ve seen ones in the tens of thousands for Gold-ranks. That’s usual. Silver-ranks go from a few hundred to a few thousand—but aside from idiots, this one won’t attract too many [Bounty Hunters] unless they’re in the area.”

“Do we have to worry about that, then?”

“Pisces? This is on Pisces?”

Krshia stared at the parchment. Zevara nodded shortly.

“Allow me to explain. Allegedly, this [Mage] team was sent here to apprehend the adventurer known as Pisces…Jealnet, and his companion, Ceria Springwalker, as criminals to be tried in Wistram.”

Jealnet?

Krshia blinked and then focused on Zevara. The other Councilmembers did too. Zevara went on, pacing back and forth.

“Wistram has explained the actions its team took as hunting a fugitive, a criminal. Pisces Jealnet. He has a list of verified crimes, some of which I am aware of, and his team was apprehended when they refused to give him up. I understand Ceria Springwalker, the leader of his team, was also sought by Wistram.”

“Legally? I know Ceria. What has she done?”

Krshia interrupted. Zevara shook her head, looking frustrated.

“The [Message] I received skimmed over Miss Springwalker’s crimes aside from impersonating a [Mage] of Wistram, but I received a rather extensive report on Pisces. He is, as many of you know, a [Necromancer], but he has a long list of minor crimes from many, many Humans cities. Everything from extortion to burglary to blackmail and the usual [Necromancer] crimes. Joining a coven, grave robbing, animation of the undead—”

“And we allowed someone like that to roam free in Liscor? Watch Commander, this individual is an adventurer in Liscor, yes? I thought I saw them at the parade? Why hasn’t our Watch arrested them?”

Raekea looked appalled, as did Lism. Zevara frowned in reply.

“He had several extortion charges around Liscor, but he paid off his debt and was allowed to enter the city. I was not aware of the charges from other cities, or I might have considered barring him from entry, but…”

She hesitated and Jeiss coughed. He looked around the table and explained.

“Councilmembers, those are crimes committed in Human lands. We don’t usually share criminal information aside from major threats because their Watch Captains aren’t as organized as ours. Besides, Drake law allows for some felons to enter a Drake city even if they’ve been convicted in other cities. This Pisces wasn’t a major criminal. We might have watched him and done spot-checks if we suspected him of thievery under truth spell, though.”

Zevara nodded.

“We did. Rigorously. And he passed each one, as well as provided some services for the city, so the Watch didn’t consider him a threat. However, in addition to his petty crimes, there is one of serious concern. Pisces Jealnet was allegedly responsible for the deaths of over sixty [Mages] in Wistram due to a case of rampant necromancy, for which he was expelled.”

“Dead gods. And that’s accurate?”

“Wistram claims so.”

The Council murmured. Lism looked skeptical and angry, Alonna was tracing on the table with one claw—Jeiss just looked at Zevara. The Gnolls did too, waiting for the shoe to drop.

“So, Wistram’s team pursued a fugitive. A former student from their Academy. But why didn’t they apprehended him when he committed this heinous crime? Don’t tell me he evaded all of their [Archmages] and whatnot all this time.”

Raekea looked around, and her gaze settled on the [Strategist] in the room. The rest of the Council turned to Olesm expectantly and Zevara glanced at him. Olesm avoided everyone’s gaze as he stared at the parchment in his claws. He kept his voice steady.

“I investigated that, Councilmembers. According to one of the [Mages] from Wistram—the Centaur, Palt—I was told that he was allowed to go free until he started committing crimes once more. Apparently, Wistram didn’t want to make his trial public knowledge, but his continued activities drew their attention. He did, in fact, have a trial to begin with, but apparently it was a very complicated moment and he was allowed to go free, albeit as an expelled student.”

“Until Wistram decided it wanted him back. Wonderful. So that’s why they’re here. I’m still waiting to hear why they’re suddenly allowed to dance out of prison! We don’t let anyone do that! No one, not even that Human.

Lism folded his arms furiously. Zevara bit her tongue. She looked up and grudgingly replied.

“Councilmember Lism, I was prepared to let Wistram’s [Mages] rot in prison. And I am still intending to file a public complaint with the Walled Cities! However—it has been made clear to me that it would not be wise to keep Wistram’s team.”

“By who? If they threatened—”

By the High Command, Councilmember.”

The room fell silent. Zevara looked around. She was breathing hard, her eyes narrowed with helpless anger.

“You may recall that Liscor’s walls are enchanted. And we also rely on a number of services provided by [Mages]. So too does Liscor’s army. High Command informed me of this fact, and gave me specific instructions regarding the treatment of Wistram’s team.”

“But that—wait, High Command spoke to you?”

“Through Wing Commander Embria, yes. Not twenty minutes ago.”

Zevara glanced sideways at Olesm and he winced. He could imagine what that was like. High Command didn’t waste time. And they liked to yell.

The Council looked outraged. Jeiss smacked the desk with his claws.

“They went over our heads? This is a matter for the city, not the army! The City Watch—”

“Answers to the army in military matters. Which this is. Senior Guardsman—I mean, Councilmember Jeiss—our [High Strategist] made it clear that Wistram is threatening to cut off a number of services! Including maintaining the very walls keeping our city from being destroyed during the spring rains!”

And then there was silence. Lism looked to his left and right. Alonna met his gaze, palely, and nodded. The hair on Krshia’s neck was standing up. She looked at Zevara.

“They would do that? They said that?”

“Not in so many words. But the future cooperation with Liscor and so on depend on their team being released. High Command gave me an order. I’m carrying it out because I don’t feel like trying Wistram on the matter of the city’s security over one group of [Mages]. I have their word their team won’t cause more trouble in the city. If they do, I have every intention of arresting them. But—they will be set free.”

Zevara glared around. She looked so frustrated and furious that Olesm felt bad for her. Lism stared at the Watch Captain, and then rounded on the female Drake on his left.

“Alonna, why is your Mage’s Guild working for Wistram? And why in the name of the Ancestors are they putting a bounty on this Pisces person?”

Alonna, who had been silent, drew herself up as everyone looked at her. The Drake [Mage] was flushing slightly, but she kept her voice level as she replied to Lism.

“First of all, we’re Liscor’s guild, but we’re affiliated with Wistram. Every Mage’s Guild is; we can organize ourselves as we want from city to city, but to get information, news, to coordinate a lot of what we do, we have to all go through a central authority. Every Guild does or we’re stuck talking to each other like a long string of…of…”

She clicked her claws, trying to find the words. Elirr raised a paw.

“Gnoll howls?”

Alonna paused.

“I was going to say, a string of beads. Or maybe a cobweb? We need a central guild to coordinate [Message] spells and so forth, is my point. And that’s Wistram. I’m not from Wistram, but my Guild does have to distribute information from the academy. Including this.”

Alonna tapped the bounty sheet. Krshia growled under her breath.

“But this is pure vengeance! And it is a bounty after the fact, yes? Necrophilia? Is this true?”

“Bounties generally have to be verified before they’re put up.”

Jeiss muttered uneasily. Olesm cleared his throat.

“Yes. However, Councilmember Jeiss, the group that usually does the verification is…”

“Wistram.”

Lism finished the sentence flatly. He was catching on. The Council looked at each other. After a moment, Elirr growled.

“This is disgusting, no? I do not know this Pisces’ past, but he fought with Ceria Springwalker against the Raskghar. And against Skinner and the moths!”

“Their team was responsible for the dungeon—”

“That wasn’t their fault! Don’t you dare, Lism.”

To Olesm’s surprise, it wasn’t Krshia who interrupted, but Alonna. She glared at Lism and he subsided. He looked at Zevara.

“This is intimidation, Watch Captain. Intimidation, bypassing Liscor’s laws—and I’ll give you besmirching this Pisces’ name. Even if it’s with the truth. This is unacceptable. Why are we allowing it?”

He looked from Alonna to Zevara. The [Mage] shook her head, looking frustrated.

“Aside from the fact that they have High Command’s earholes, Lism? Let me put it to you this way. I could refuse to distribute the bounty, just like Watch Captain Zevara could refuse to release the Wistram [Mages]. And if we do, one of the things Wistram can do is direct other Mage’s Guilds to ignore Liscor’s guild.”

A pause. Raekea blinked.

“By ignore…”

“I mean, we can’t communicate with a Mage’s Guild anywhere else. Or our [Messages] get shoved to the bottom of the piles, delivered last.”

“They can’t do that! Can they?”

“Let’s just say that there are nations in which the Mage’s Guild works well and places where they don’t. Wistram’s autonomous, but they have their demands.”

Everyone digested this. Lism’s tail was smacking his chair legs. He stood up, glaring around the conference room.

“First Tiqr, now this. Does anyone else feel like Wistram’s got too much influence? I never thought of it before, but—”

He slapped the table, glaring.

“This is exactly what I’m talking about when I talk about non-Liscorian interference! Liscor has to bow to these jumped-up [Mages]? After they assaulted one of our citizens in our city and started a fight in city limits?”

“Generally, Wistram’s been seen as a positive force worldwide, Uncle. Stabilizing. And just.”

Olesm murmured. Lism gave him an incredulous look. Olesm shrugged.

“I’m not trying to defend them. But I’d like to point out that aside from the threat—which wasn’t communicated to you directly, was it, Watch Captain Zevara?”

“No. High Command didn’t mince words, however.”

Zevara folded her arms. Olesm nodded.

“Then, Wistram can justify itself by claiming that Pisces is a criminal. A murderer, or at least, responsible for a number of crimes. Where they erred was in attacking Liscor’s citizens and going after the rest of his team. But again, they’re using Liscor’s laws against us. They did pay our fines. Instantly. That’s three thousand gold pieces.”

Elirr was sipping from a cup. He choked on his drink. Lism’s head snapped around.

“Say what? You fined them how much, Watch Captain?”

“Captain, misuse of magic and assault plus attack spells and assault on a team would still only be—”

Jeiss was counting up the fine in his own head. Zevara looked a bit embarrassed.

“I levied an appropriate fine for emotional distress and the use of Watch assets, like an attack spell from the walls. They…paid it. Instantly.”

“Three thousand gold pieces?”

“It’s nothing to them. They could have paid ten times that and never blinked.”

Alonna muttered. Krshia saw Lism’s eyes focus.

“Well, in that case—”

He paused and gritted his teeth.

“—Do we have a choice here, Watch Captain Zevara?”

“No sir. I’m simply reporting my actions to the Council.”

Zevara gave Lism an unhappy look. Krshia broke in, looking around.

“Watch Captain Zevara levied a heavy fine, Councilmembers. Wistram paid it without blinking, yes? And all this pressure—does it not bother all of us that they are so willing to manipulate the law for their ends?”

“But what do we do? If there was even a hint they’d refuse to maintain the spells on our walls—damn. Damn, damn, damn—”

Lism began shredding the parchment in front of him. Raekea growled nervously.

“So what is to be done? If this team is free, will they not continue attacking this team?”

“Not in my city. They’ll be under watch, I promise you that, Councilmembers. But I can’t extend my jurisdiction outside of Liscor. Also, none of these adventurers are Liscor’s citizens. And two—at least one of them have committed crimes in other cities, albeit Human ones.”

Watch Captain Zevara looked around. Jeiss looked sick.

“So we get to watch them strut around, Captain Zevara?”

“I don’t like it either, Jeiss. But it seems like that’s what we’re being told.”

Lism’s eyes flashed. He looked around at the Council. Krshia, Elirr, Raekea, Alonna, Jeiss, Olesm, all met his eyes. Zevara was staring down at the floor. Lism’s tail lashed—and then grew still.

“Okay. We let the Wistram [Mages] do what they want. If they keep to our laws, we’ll let this team, the Horns of Hammerad, deal with this mess themselves. We don’t interfere. And maybe we hope that crazy Human makes their heads explode. But Liscor will take Wistram’s money and tuck our tails.”

Everyone stared at him. Krshia opened her mouth and Lism glared at her.

“We’ve been got, Silverfang. I know when to walk away. This is like a Level 50 [Merchant] holding us over a barrel with a bunch of [Thugs] at his back. You want to try another deal?”

She closed her mouth and shook her head after a moment.

“No. No, I agree with that.”

“Good.”

Lism looked around steadily. He raised a claw.

“In that case, I motion to allow Watch Captain Zevara to go back and make whatever preparations she needs. By all means, impress upon Wistram’s team the severity of the laws, Watch Captain. And put them under watch.”

Zevara nodded. She blinked at Lism, and then saluted.

“Councilmembers, thank you for your time.”

Olesm held open the door as she strode out, back towards the Watch House. He stared at Lism. Everyone did. The Drake [Shopkeeper] was too calm. Lism nodded as he carefully arranged the bits of parchment. Then he looked up.

“Well, onto new business. We can put the gold to good use. The Bloodfields project is underway, and I understand the Adventurer’s Guild is already preparing for renovations. I do hope Miss Selys will be well after her incident. And that her grandmother doesn’t try to kill the Wistram team. That would be a crime. Perhaps we should send someone to inform her tactfully of what’s happened?”

“Dead gods, that’s a good point. She’ll murder them. We should stop that.”

Jeiss looked wistful. Lism nodded impatiently.

“But that would be a crime, Jeiss. How shall we do it?”

Krshia was studying Lism. She smiled.

“Send…yes, send our [Negotiator]. Teliv.”

Olesm winced. He felt bad for his friend. Elirr thoughtfully stroked his chin.

“With wine. Or something stronger, yes? Wistram’s fine can pay for that. And give her a cat. She cannot run with a cat. Or dogs. She likes dogs more. Teliv, he can stop at my shop for a puppy or a few for the telling. I have a litter.”

He glanced around at everyone’s expression.

“What? She does.”

Lism nodded. He looked at Olesm, still cool as a [Cryomancer].

“See to it, nephew? Now, onto new business. I motion to send a [Message]—damn. No. Send a City Runner—no, send Hawk to Fissival. With a direct message for the Draconae Scholarium.”

The Councilmembers glanced at him. Olesm looked up as he jotted down notes. Raekea frowned.

“What for?”

Lism’s eyes glinted.

“To ask about having their college replace Wistram’s services, of course. And while we’re at it, Alonna, can we send a covert [Message]—damn, or do we have to use City Runners for all this? Can we ask about if anyone else has had issues with Wistram? I’d put forwards a motion to cosign Watch Captain Zevara’s complaint and make it public. Send it around. In fact, is any other nation or city having our issues? We should open a discussion.”

 

—-

 

Zevara left the politics of the Council behind. She stalked through the streets of Liscor, furious. So angry she couldn’t bear it. But she moved quickly, to give vent to her emotions, but also because she knew Wistram’s team would be in the same building as Erin Solstice and the team they’d tried to kidnap.

In retrospect, that had been a stupid decision, but Zevara needed to explain herself. And she felt as embarrassed, as wrong as she ever had been. But that was politics. It overruled what was right and decent. It wasn’t something Zevara thought should be part of the Watch. So she strode back to the Watch barracks.

As it happened, Wistram’s team had already been released from jail. And Erin Solstice, her friends, and the Horns of Hammerad had likewise been summoned. Someone was already screaming as Zevara pushed into the Watch barracks.

It wasn’t Erin or the Horns. They were being kept in Zevara’s office. The Wistram team was on the ground floor. And it was Selys Shivertail who’d found them.

You filthy eggsucking Creler sacks! You monstrous, disgusting—let go of me! I’ll kill them!

The Drake was fighting the Gnoll [Guardsman] holding her. Montressa, Palt, Isceil, Ulinde, and Beza were all watching the Drake warily as she fought to swing at them. Selys was shouting, her voice raw, furious. But she was crying too. Zevara stopped for a moment.

“How dare you. How dare—why are they free? I want them executed! I want them tossed in the cells! You—

She went for something at her side. An expensive bag of holding. Zevara saw Selys draw something out.

Wand!

The Wistram team reacted in instant alarm as Selys tried to aim it at Palt. Montressa raised her staff and the City Watch instantly aimed their bows at her. She froze and the Gnoll holding Selys grabbed at her arm.

“Don’t, Miss Selys—”

“Gotcha!”

Relc yanked Selys’ arm up. She struggled, but the Drake held her—surprisingly gently. He pulled Selys back.

“Hey, Selys. No casting spells.”

“Let go of me, Relc—let go—”

“Come on. Let’s go upstairs. Erin’s there. Oh, hey, Captain Z.”

Relc paused as he saw Zevara. The Watch Captain saw Selys whirl.

“Zevara? Why are—”

“Miss Selys.”

Zevara nodded at her awkwardly. She studied the Wistram [Mages]. They were standing still, surrounded by a bunch of hostile [Guards]. But they didn’t look…nervous. Zevara eyed all five. The Drake looked like simmering fury, as did the Minotaur.

The Human—Montressa du Valeross? A [Lady], then. She looked caught between shock and fear and anger. The Selphid was shivering. She was wearing—Zevara recoiled slightly—a rather decayed Human body. A bad one, too. Whoever the Human had been, he’d been on the south side of unfit and rather unpleasant to look at. Cheap Selphid body. But the Selphid was still shaking.

As for the Centaur, he was smoking something. Zevara stared at it and inhaled the distinctive smell of a narcotic, which Liscor generally defined as anything you could smoke. The Centaur noticed Zevara’s stare and hurriedly snatched the spliff from his lips.

“Zevara?”

Selys was staring at Watch Captain Zevara. The Drake turned to her.

“Miss Selys. I apologize for the distress you’ve suffered. I want you to know that I am personally keeping an eye on these…[Mages], and they will be arrested and dealt with should they commit another misstep in Liscor. They have been fined and some of that money will go to you.”

“What? But they’re here—

Zevara couldn’t meet Selys’ eyes. She saw the Drake smirk out of the corner of her vision. She felt the urge to turn her head and cough a fireball. She spoke slowly.

“This team is being…released.”

What? You can’t do that! That’s not right! They cast a spell on me! I had to watch them beat Pisces! And I couldn’t do a thing! I didn’t even care! How dare you! That’s not right! Zevara! You can’t—”

Selys began to struggle and Relc and the Gnoll gently grabbed her. The Watch Captain looked at Relc. For once, he did all she could ask of him.

“Alright, Selys. Let’s go upstairs. Come on. I know—I know, I wanna blast them too, but—come on. Geils, help me get her up—”

They practically carried Selys upstairs. She was still screaming curses. At Zevara now. The Watch Captain watched her go, and then she turned.

The [Mages] were watching her. The Drake was still smirking. The Centaur kicked him and he stopped, but the entire team—yes, not nervous at all. They were angry or upset, but not at her. They knew they were going free. Zevara gritted her teeth. She strode forwards.

“You. Wistram [Mages]. Your fines have been paid. You’ll be…free to go. But mark my words. If you break even the smallest rule in Liscor, I will arrest you and put you straight back in prison!”

The [Guards] stirred uneasily and looked at Zevara. She glared at the [Mages]. They didn’t look surprised. Montressa bowed slightly. She nearly smiled, but she didn’t quite manage to complete the expression.

“Watch Captain, allow us to apologize profusely for the—the misunderstanding that took place earlier today. I’m deeply pleased that Wistram was able to smooth over this incident—”

“Incident? We were attacked! We should be pressing charges—”

Isceil began, incensed, but the others shushed him. Zevara was twitching. Montressa smiled, insincerely. Her grip was tight on the staff.

“—We will be pressing no charges, of course. But—has Wistram spoken with your High Command regarding the situation around Pisces Jealnet? He is a fugitive. With a bounty at this moment.”

Zevara just stared at the young woman.

“How do you know that?”

“We are in communication with Wistram—”

“You put the bounty on his head?”

Montressa hesitated.

“Wistram monitors its teams closely. We are able to correspond regarding issues. Pisces Jealnet is a wanted criminal—”

She shut up as Zevara raised a claw. The Watch Captain spoke slowly.

“The only thing your academy persuaded me to do was let you go. As far as I’m concerned, you are all first-time offenders whose fines were paid. If you break a law in my city, I will arrest you. And if you cast any spells like you did this evening, I will order my [Guards] to use lethal force!”

Zevara saw Isceil open his mouth and pointed at him. Smoke was fuming from her maw, but she kept on going.

“Secondly, I do not accept Wistram’s damn bounty on Pisces Jealnet or any of the allegations against the Horns of Hammerad! If you attack them anywhere within the city or so much as waylay them, I will arrest you! Is that clear?”

“That’s not right!”

The Minotaur burst out. She was taller than anyone else in the room and she reminded Zevara too much of Calruz. Well—there were a number of differences. For one thing, Calruz was honorable. Zevara spun on her.

“This is not a debate! If you lay so much as a claw on Pisces Jealnet or his team, or anyone else in the city, you will be arrested, regardless of what the academy can do! Is that clear?

“He’s a murderer and a criminal. Do you even know who you’re sheltering?”

Montressa stared at Zevara. Her face was pale; she was unaccustomed to being shouted at. Zevara looked past her dismissively.

“I’ve reviewed his case and interviewed a witness to the actual event. Miss Springwalker swears under truth spell that Pisces J—that the accident in question was truly an accident and not homicide. Since he has paid off his crimes in Liscor, he is protected by our laws. If you attempt to arrest him within the city limits, I will be forced to jail you for unlawful impersonation of the City Watch.”

“But he’s committed other crimes!”

Isceil pointed that out hotly. Zevara looked at him.

“And? He’s paid off his bounty in Liscor.”

“But Wistram has a right to detain international criminals! We are accorded that right in almost every nation in the world!”

Montressa cried out furiously. Zevara looked at her, and then inhaled. Every [Guard] in the room, Drake and Gnoll, were already covering their ears.

In that case, Wistram should have consulted with Liscor’s City Watch before they attempted to arrest someone!

The Wistram [Mages] stared at Zevara. She exhaled smoke.

“You have no rights here. I do not recognize Wistram’s authority in my city. So. You’re free to go because Wistram Academy has insisted. But cast a single enchantment on someone—attack anyone—loiter in one square for too long, and you will be arrested. Everyone in or around the city is under my—the Watch’s protection, citizen or not.”

“But—”

This time Montressa felt Ulinde and Palt both nudge her and fell quiet. Zevara was giving her a happy, bright smile that was triggering a few [Dangersenses] in the room. Even Montressa could sense when it was a bad time to speak. Zevara waited. Then she purred at the group of Wistram [Mages].

“For your information, The Wandering Inn is considered part of Liscor. You and your team are free, Lady Montressa, but in the interest of time, I will be debriefing your victims upstairs. After that, you will all be present to make clear the issue is resolved, and then you will be escorted out of my sight. Thank you for your time, and I hope you have a wonderful time in Liscor.”

She turned, still vibrating with fury. Zevara began to stalk towards the stairs. Palt looked at Montressa and she gripped her staff so hard her knuckles turned white. Her friends were looking at her. Montressa was frustrated, furious—almost as much as Zevara was, but for different reasons. This wasn’t right! This wasn’t fair!

And then she was afraid. She looked at Beza. Upstairs. She could feel him there, a surge of death magic. The Minotauress gripped her shoulder and squeezed it.

Everyone was silent as Zevara conferred with an officer and began to walk upstairs. Montressa stared at the Oldblood Drake’s back. What was wrong with her? What was—she turned her head as Isceil muttered under his breath.

“Stupid, inbred failure of an Oldblood! Can’t even breathe fire, that incompetent, female—”

Palt slapped a hand over his mouth too late. Zevara stopped on the stairs. She turned her head and Montressa saw her look at Isceil. The [Oldblood Magus] saw Zevara inhale and Montressa raised a shield—

 

—-

 

Something was burning downstairs. It smelled like smoke. When Erin Solstice, the Horns of Hammerad, Selys, the Halfseekers, and Relc all came back downstairs, following Zevara, they saw the scorched floorboards. The [Guards], cleaning up a few black marks on the walls. Klbkch, standing with two hands on his sword hilts.

And the [Mages]. All five of them. Erin felt a clenching in her stomach, even though Zevara had told her why they were free. She’d told them twenty minutes ago. Upstairs.

There had been some shouting. A lot of it, actually. People had taken turns, Erin included, but Zevara had outshouted them all. The Wistram team was being released and that was that. Outrage over what they’d done, to the Horns, to Pisces especially, apparently it didn’t matter.

Here they stood. Erin’s hands clenched instinctively. They had no right to stare at the people coming down so…so self-righteously. As if they were the victims, or the ones in the right. Erin saw Klbkch straighten.

“Watch Captain.”

“Senior Guardsman Klbkch. You just arrived?”

“I apologize for the delay. I had to see to an incident in the Hives. Facestealer.”

Erin felt a chill. Zevara paused.

“Your message mentioned it. Tell me later. Have the criminals given you any trouble?”

“No, Watch Captain.”

Klbkch’s voice was cool. Erin didn’t miss the way the [Mages] stared at him. The Drake was pursing his lips as if to spit, but one look at Zevara and he swallowed instead. And despite Klbkch being Antinium, perhaps he was the only one who could have kept order. The other [Guards] were looking hostile. But Klbkch was calm. He noted the people trooping down the stairs.

“Will we be releasing the criminals, Watch Captain?”

“Not yet.”

Zevara folded her arms. She was looking upstairs. The Halfseekers and Relc were coming down behind Erin. Ulinde flinched as Seborn stared at him. Jelaqua wasn’t even looking her way. Moore, even Moore, was staring at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] was flushing, but everyone was waiting for the last team to come down the stairs. Zevara spoke slowly.

“I’ve made the situation clear to both teams. But I want to be sure my orders are understood. Anyone who breaks the law in my city will be arrested. So. These two teams will say whatever they have to say. If they feel like breaking my laws, we’ll find out.”

Klbkch nodded.

“Understood, Watch Captain. Guards—fall back. Ranged weapons to that side of the room. Spread out here, here—you eight, return to your duty or sign out. In case of mass-attack spells, fall back and take cover. Relc and I will deal with any eventuality. Aim for the Drake and Centaur first.”

The Wistram [Mages] stared at him as the Antinium calmly motioned to the Watch. With tight grins, some of them dispersed while others took up more tactical positions. Palt paled and Isceil stared at Klbkch. Relc walked over.

“Hey Klb, you missed a hell of a fight.”

“As did you. I believe my opponent was decidedly more dangerous. Relc, how was your day?”

“Well, I got to act. It was all part of Erin’s plan. And I stabbed a few stupid [Mages], but I didn’t get to kill any—psst! Erin! Over here!”

The two Senior Guardsman stood against one wall and chatted. Erin walked over to them, and Klbkch smiled at her.

“Erin. It has been a while.”

“Hi, Klbkch. Yeah. It’s been a heck of a day—”

The Wistram [Mages] stared at the trio, nonplussed. Zevara almost smiled for a moment, but the conversation between the three was background noise. She looked up as the four adventurers came down the stairs, slowly.

The Horns of Hammerad. They were all on their feet. All awake. Night had fallen since they’d been freed from the Silent Box. And their wounds—

Well, they were all whole. Yvlon’s arm had been corrected, Ceria and Ksmvr were healed and Pisces—

He looked fine. Fine, whole. But he was pale. And he came behind his companions. He looked weighed down. As he raised his head though, Erin saw his eyes. And she paused as she leaned on Ksmvr’s shoulder. She shivered.

She had never seen him look like that. Not even at the start. But Erin knew that look. She had seen it in a mirror. Pisces stared down at the Wistram [Mages], and Erin knew he was thinking of how to kill each one exactly.

The [Mages] reacted to the Horns. The Minotaur stared at Ceria, and so did Palt, frowning at Ceria. The half-Elf’s expression was still, but she walked towards Montressa and the others slowly. And she never looked away from her old friend. But then all eyes swung towards Pisces and they stared at him with hostility. Hatred. Rage.

But Montressa froze. Erin turned towards her and she saw the young woman shudder. Erin frowned. But then Ceria spoke.

“Mons. It’s been a long time.”

The young woman’s face went white. Montressa du Valeross looked at Ceria. And then color returned to her face. She glared at Ceria.

“How dare you call me that? How dare—

She gripped her staff and everyone tensed. Beza and Ulinde grabbed Montressa from either side.

“Montressa—”

The [Aegiscaster] caught herself. She stared at Ceria. The half-Elf was shaking. She pointed her bone hand at Montressa. Looking at her and the other [Mages].

“Is that really you? After all this time. I—we met for all of five seconds and you put me in a Silent Box? How could you? We were friends! You attacked us! You nearly killed Pisces—”

She pointed at Pisces. Montressa’s face went paler as her eyes flicked to him, and then returned to Ceria. She interrupted, her voice harsh, fingers tightening on the staff.

“After all this time how dare I? How dare you? I knew what you’d done, but I had to see it to believe it!”

She pointed at Ceria, her voice rising with rage.

How dare you join him? How dare you do it after all he did? He killed Calvaron! He’s responsible for everything! He used your master’s body to unleash the things that killed—how dare you? You’re as evil as he is.”

Again, she looked at Pisces. He didn’t move at the accusation that made Ceria turn white. He was just staring at the ground, silent, pale. Erin worried for him. Ceria pointed at Pisces, her voice trembling.

“I’ve changed! And so has he! That was years ago, when we were young! It was an accident!

Accident?

The hiss came from Isceil, but Beza put an arm out. Montressa and Ceria were alone in the world as they argued. She glared at Ceria.

“He killed our friends. Because of him Calvaron’s dead! Beatrice and I never forgot, but you? You leave, and then you decide to join up with him—to pretend to be a Wistram [Mage] when you didn’t even pass your half of the classes—[Mage] of Wistram? You liar!”

Ceria jerked, flinching.

“I earned the right to call myself that!”

“You’re no graduate. You have no right!”

I have every right! Wistram’s full of cowards who won’t try the test! Illphres knew what the true path to magic was! If the Archmages had any courage, they would have gone with her! Instead, you all hide and pretend you’re not being ruled by Cognita!”

“Better than a monster who uses dead bodies to kill all of his friends  and the traitor who chose him over everyone else!”

Montressa’s voice rose until all the Gnolls were covering their ears. Ceria was no less loud. They were screaming at each other. Erin stared at Ceria. Wistram. She knew the story. Relc just looked at Klbkch and the Antinium shrugged. To them it was funny. To Ceria—

“You’re attacking us for leaving? Attacking Pisces? We were allowed to leave! Wistram let both of us go because it was an accident! Why didn’t you throw us both in prison then? I didn’t do anything? I just told that idiotic group of [Mages] with their wands up their asses how I felt!”

“You’re helping the same bastard who killed over three dozen [Mages]! Why shouldn’t we arrest him?”

“He was exiled! The trial finished! You can’t overturn it!”

Ceria shot back at Isceil. Beza folded her arms and retorted.

“That was because a non-[Mage] interfered with the Council’s deliberations.”

“Cognita vouched for him. She asked the Council not to execute Pisces and they did! They can’t change their minds!”

The Wistram team hesitated. Montressa was biting her lip, eyes furious. Ceria was no less mad. Isceil and Beza exchanged a glance; Palt was just watching and chewing on something—Ulinde was still quaking, under the gaze of the Halfseekers. Isceil retorted at last.

“Whatever the case, you two aren’t [Mages] of Wistram and you’ve claimed to be. For that alone, you’ve committed a crime.”

The half-Elf’s eyes blazed. She opened her mouth, and then grew strangely calm. She looked at Isceil.

“Tell that to Cognita. I dare you. She gave us that right. Go on, tell her. Does she know you’re saying that?”

The Drake paled, for reasons only a few people in the room understood. Ceria was looking victorious when Palt raised a hand. As if he were in class, he raised his voice, breaking into the argument.

“Excuse me. I’d like to clarify something. The reasoning Wistram has for going after Pisces Jealnet isn’t due to his expulsion. It’s what he’s done after he left. He’s committed petty crimes, stolen, used Wistram’s name, and broken laws across Izril. His subsequent crimes have put Wistram in a bad light. Anyone claiming to be a graduate of Wistram who behaves as he’s done will be dealt with.”

His calm tone silenced Ceria for a moment. Then she rounded on Montressa.

“That’s your excuse? Because you’re too afraid of Cognita to overturn the exile?”

“We’re not afraid of—”

Beza began to retort, but Zevara bellowed.

Enough!

The Watch Captain was louder than all the [Mages]. They looked at her. Ceria and Montressa were panting. Zevara shook her head as Beilmark, standing beside her, took her paws off her ears with a sigh. Zevara glared around at both Ceria and the Wistram [Mages].

“Clearly, you all have your own history. I’m not being paid to listen to it. Understand this.  Whatever your…issues, you will obey Liscor’s laws. You two can argue for all I care—when it’s not night and in public! But you’ll do no more or I’ll feed you to Rock Crabs. Got it?”

Both Ceria and Montressa looked at Zevara. Ceria hesitated, but then jerked her head away. Montressa nodded. Her eyes darted at Pisces. He was still looking at the ground. Yvlon and Ksmvr, who’d been silent, looked up. Yvlon reached for her sword hilt.

“So we have to take that? They attacked us, Watch Captain Zevara. What did we do?”

Zevara glanced at Yvlon.

“By right, Miss Byres, you’re entitled to part of the fine. It will go to you, and to Mister…to Ksmvr. As well as Miss Selys. But I cannot allow you to seek vengeance.”

Ksmvr tilted his head.

“So, Wistram is able to pay to subvert the law? This is an intriguing piece of information. I did not know Drake cities had such a loophole in their legal system.”

“We don’t—”

One of the [Guards] began, outraged, as Zevara’s face flushed. Klbkch held up a hand.

“Ksmvr. Silence.”

The Antinium quivered and Yvlon gave Klbkch a dark look. Zevara shot Klbkch a mixed glance and turned.

“I have been ordered to drop the Wistram case. I will enforce the law as I see fit, which does not allow for bloody feuds! Miss Selys, your part of the fine—”

“I don’t want it. And I don’t want them in Liscor.”

Selys pointed a trembling claw at the Wistram team. A few of them had the grace to look ashamed. Too few by half. One of them was Palt, ironically. Erin narrowed her eyes as Zevara…fidgeted. She looked like she hated everything about her life right now.

“Unfortunately, Miss Selys, I must give them a second chance. Which means Lady du Valeross and her companions are allowed to reside in Liscor. However, if they cast another illicit spell or threaten one of Liscor’s citizens, they will be instantly expelled from Liscor. I’m sorry. That’s all I can do.”

“I get it.”

Selys looked at Zevara with disgust and turned away. She looked at Pisces and then around. She met Erin’s eyes.

“I—I need to go. I can’t stay here. They’re disgusting. I have to go. I have to—”

She was out the door, stumbling. Zevara glanced around.

“You two. Escort Miss Shivertail wherever she needs to go.”

Two [Guards] left. Zevara looked around.

“If that’s all—”

“Just like that? What about our teams? What about Erin’s inn?”

Jelaqua broke into the conversation, furious. She was wearing a Drake body rather than her Raskghar one, but a big one. Zevara turned to face her.

“A portion of the bounty—”

“You can’t just pay this away! Those little punks attacked my team! They’re not walking off when I’m through with them!”

“You will contain yourself, Miss Ivirith. No one is above the law—”

“Except for Wistram, apparently! This isn’t right! I want—”

“I challenge you to a duel.”

The voice came from behind Zevara. She turned. Jelaqua looked past her. Pisces had moved at last. He was still pale. But as he raised his head, Erin saw the same look in his eyes. Montressa moved back a step. Pisces stared past her. He was shaking as he pointed a finger at Isceil.

“I challenge you to a duel. Isceil, is it?”

The Drake blinked. Zevara spun.

“Pisces—”

She stopped as he looked up. The [Necromancer] stood alone in the Watch barracks. His team was with him, but the way Pisces held himself was aloof. His face was pale. He spoke through bloodless lips, addressing Zevara, the [Mages].

“I have been attacked. Kidnapped. In Liscor, unprovoked. False allegations have been laid against me. And those who committed the crimes walk free because Wistram Academy demands it be so. There is no justice in that. I demand satisfaction. A legal duel.”

Zevara hesitated and stepped back.

“False? We only told the world what you really are. And why should I accept a duel from a filthy [Necromancer]? You’re not worth scraping my boots on.”

Isceil sneered at Pisces, but his actions betrayed his words. He reached for the wand at his side. Palt glanced at Isceil. Montressa was hesitating, but Pisces looked right past her. And Pisces smiled with that terrible look in his eyes.

“A coward who bested you when I was fighting all of your pathetic team. Come, Drake. Let us have a proper duel. One to the death. Seen and witnessed by all present. Come, coward. Or is the ‘best duelist in all of Fissival’ too afraid to battle an exile?”

Isceil’s scales flushed. He drew his wand.

“You fleshbag bastard. I’ll—”

“Don’t!”

The word came from Ulinde. She—no, he grabbed Isceil’s arm. The older man wrestled with the Drake—his body was an incongruous sight among the younger [Mages].

“Let go of me! I’ll kill him! I’ll settle this now—”

Isceil fought her, cursing, but Montressa whirled as well.

“Don’t be an idiot, Isceil! He has that [Shatterbolt] ring and he’s too quick!”

“I’ll take off my magical items. Come and fight me, you coward. Or you, Minotaur. Or are you only able to do battle when you outnumber me five-to-one?”

Pisces’ voice was taunting. Beza stiffened and hesitated. Palt muttered something to her and her eyes flashed. She looked towards Zevara.

“Are duels legal in Liscor?”

“They’re old, but traditional. I’d allow it.”

Zevara was breathing hard. She looked at Pisces. He was coiled up. Erin saw another figure move.

In that case, me too. A duel to the death. I challenge any one of you.

Seborn stepped forwards. The Drowned Man looked ready to kill. Jelaqua and Moore stirred, but the half-Giant didn’t move as Jelaqua shook her head at him. They didn’t stop their friend.

Ironically, Seborn’s words made Isceil pause and Beza check herself. They stared at him, and then at Pisces. The Wistram [Mages] hesitated. Erin had to admit, they weren’t complete idiots. Just almost.

“I can take him—”

Isceil looked between Seborn and Pisces. Beza gritted her teeth. Montressa was whispering and Erin clearly heard one bit from Palt, who was doing the same.

“—Gold-rank [Rogue]. Risking your life on a duel—”

The [Mages] conferred, but Erin saw the answer before Isceil looked up. He tried to scoff as he turned away from Pisces.

“I don’t need to sully myself by dueling a worthless [Necromancer].”

“Nor do you deserve a fair duel. I refuse. I have no quarrel with you either, Drowned Man. Our skirmish was accidental.”

Beza addressed Seborn, her cheeks flushed. The [Rogue]’s eyes narrowed.

“Coward.”

Beza’s head jerked and Isceil flushed. But they turned away. Pisces stared at their backs. He was shaking. Yvlon tried to put a hand on his shoulder, but he knocked her arm away. Ksmvr looked at Ceria. She was silent. No one had seen Pisces this furious. His voice was low, piercing.

“I’ve known Lizardpeople with more courage. No wonder Fissival let you leave. And no wonder the House of Minos let such a coward flee their isles!”

Relc whistled. Some of the [Guards] murmured. The Minotaur and Drake whirled as they walked towards the door. They went for Pisces.

“No! I said stop!

Montressa held up a hand and a barrier shimmered forth, blocking Beza’s charge. She and Isceil hit the barrier that appeared in the air. Not a [Force Wall], all shimmering air, but something amethyst, but thinner. Erin stared at it. It was strong, though; Beza slammed a fist, creating ripples and shouted.

“Let me take him, Montressa!”

“Don’t let him provoke you! Walk away, Beza! That is an order!”

From the side, Relc was nudging Klbkch. The Antinium calmly nodded as he stomped on Relc’s foot.

“Stop poking me, Relc. I see. Ah, ward spells. Your difficulty in apprehending them makes sense.”

“Right? Could you take her out, Klb? I’m definitely going for her first next time.”

The Senior Guardsman shrugged.

“Perhaps. I have some experience in the matter. Tactically….”

Their conversation went unheard amidst the shouting from the [Mages]. Montressa pushed Beza back, and Ulinde had Isceil’s arms as Palt blocked the others. Pisces was watching them. Montressa shoved at Beza and the Minotauress grudgingly stepped back. At last she looked up and met Pisces’ eyes.

She stopped. Her face paled. If she had blazed at Ceria, suddenly she was cold. She stared at Pisces and stepped through her own barrier. He looked at her. There was no nostalgia there. Just hate. And Erin saw that flicker of fear on Montressa’s face again before she pushed it down.

“Montressa du Valeross. It has been a long time.”

Pisces’ voice still quivered. Montressa looked at him.

“You monster. I can’t believe you have the nerve to walk around after what you did. Let alone call yourself an adventurer.”

“Me? As opposed to Wistram, high and mighty and beyond contempt? There is more blood on the Academy’s hands than I could ever spill.”

Pisces’ eyes narrowed. Montressa hesitated. He was better than Ceria.

“Wistram never murdered my friends. You killed Calvaron. With your petty jealousy. By defiling the bodies of the others! You—you disgusting worm. Wistram never should have taken you in. We should have never believed your lies. But that’s what you and all your kind are. Monsters. If you had any decency, you’d surrender rather than drag everyone down with you. But that’s what you always do, isn’t it?”

The young man’s face went pale. Montressa was good at using words like weapons too. He stared at her. And Erin saw him snap.

“Calvaron? That pathetic fool? I barely noticed when he died. And if he perished, it only proves what a worthless mage he was!”

Pisces!

Ceria shouted. Montressa stumbled back. She’d gone dead white. Erin had thought she couldn’t hate Pisces any more. But he wasn’t done.

“You call me a monster. You want to see a monster? I will show you one.

He advanced. And his voice was growing deeper. He was growing taller. His features were distorting, his face rotting. Erin saw the [Guards] react, raising their weapons, but Palt held up a hand.

“Illusion spell!”

“Stop that! That’s illegal under Liscor’s laws! Isn’t it?”

Beza barked. Pisces was looming, and shadows were filling the barracks. Erin remembered this spell. A noxious, rotting scent wafted through the air. Montressa backed up until her back was to the barrier, eyes wide. The Wistram [Mages] lifted their wands, but hesitated, looking towards Zevara. The Watch Captain folded her arms.

“Illusory spells are permitted in public areas of Liscor as well as private ones if the individual owns or has acquired permissions to cast such magics. Public-area illusions are sanctioned if they are not unduly disruptive or provocative. I see no issue, do you, Senior Guardswoman Beilmark?”

She glanced over her shoulder at the Gnoll. Beilmark rubbed at her nose, but then grinned savagely.

“Everyone needs a few undead now and then, Watch Captain.”

“You can’t do that! You—”

Whatever Isceil was shouting was cut off by a sound. It was bestial, no, unearthly. Foreign. Erin saw the looming shape bending over Montressa. It wasn’t Pisces any more. It was a corpse. Some monster, bloated and stretched in death. Rotting flesh. Gaping jaws, flashing through the shadows. Burning eyes. It loomed over Montressa and the smell—she heard several people gagging.

“Really good illusion.”

Relc whispered to Klbkch, covering his face. The Antinium nodded.

Is this what you want to see?

Pisces’ voice thundered in the barracks. He reached for Montressa with dripping claws. Blood ran from his sockets. Erin expected Montressa to raise her staff, cast a spell—but the young woman was frozen. She stumbled backwards, through her barrier.

“Stop it. Go away! Stop it!”

“Montressa, it’s only an illusion. Stop this!”

Beza grabbed her friend. Montressa flailed wildly and the Minotauress had to let go. Beza spun and barked at Zevara; the Watch Captain was looking away. Pisces advanced. His claws went through Montressa’s barrier, reaching for her.

Stop it!

She shrieked at him, screaming as loudly as she could. Beza and the others were shouting as well, holding Montressa and Palt was waving a hand, trying to dispel the illusion.  Relc jumped forwards and jabbed the Centaur in the flank. Palt jerked back and Relc shouted cheerfully.

“You’re not sanctioned! No spells!”

Enough!

Beza reached for a scroll. She swung through the illusion, but it was centered on Montressa. She was trying to flee, turning, screaming. Running for the door. The [Guards], and most of the others watching looked satisfied. But Ceria was watching Montressa and Pisces with a horrified look. Erin saw the look on Montressa’s face.

Terror. The young woman stumbled for the door. But clawing hands erupted from the earth. She backed away from the spectral zombies as they reached for her. She turned and Pisces howled at her.

I will drag you down, Montressa du Valeross. I will show you what a monster I can be.

Stop! Please!

Montressa backed up. She’d forgotten the staff in her hands. She stared at Pisces. The thing opened its maw and bent towards her. And Montressa screamed.

It was a real scream, the kind that wasn’t forced. It was raw, pure, terrified—Erin saw Montressa drop the staff. She raised her hands and a barrier appeared. It knocked back her friends, trying to shield her. Three walls of shining light, gold and white appeared as Montressa sank to the floor.

It enveloped her, a pyramid of magic. She curled up in the center of it. Montressa buried her face in her legs as she drew them to her. And Erin heard her began to cry.

She began to sob, sitting on the ground, curled up in the center of the pyramid-shaped barrier spell. Pisces paused. The illusion stopped and the wailing, snarling sounds halted. Montressa’s friends pounded on the barrier. But the young woman heard nothing. She was crying. Tears ran down her face and she curled up in the middle of the spell, oblivious.

Crying. Like a small child, rocking back and forth, closing her eyes so as not to see. It was no act. Erin looked at Montressa sobbing. And whatever she had been feeling turned suddenly to guilt. She had hurt Pisces. But he was—

She looked at the thing he’d conjured. A nightmare, the undead. It scared her too. For a second the thing hovered there.

Then the illusion spell vanished. Pisces stood in the same place he had been. He stared at Montressa. She didn’t even realize the spell had gone. She was still crying as her friends pressed their hands against the barrier, unable to touch her. Calling out to her.

“Montressa, it’s an illusion. You’re safe!”

Isceil was banging on the barrier. Ulinde was jabbing him wand.

“It’s a spell! We’ll protect you!”

“[Dispel Magic]. [Dispel]—it’s no good. It’s her personal emergency spell.”

Palt looked at Beza. She hammered on the barrier.

“Montressa! Mon—”

She looked up. Slowly, she turned around the room. The Watch, the adventurers—some looked vindictive. Others, like Erin, couldn’t revel. But Pisces was still staring. And he met Beza’s eyes. The Minotauress stared at him and her gaze went past him to his team. Beza looked at Pisces again and spat.

“You monster.”

He didn’t reply. His hands were clenched. Montressa never moved. She just sat there, rocking and crying. Zevara looked at Beilmark, and then at Pisces. And Erin heard the word unspoken.

[Necromancer].

At last, Ceria moved. She looked away from Montressa, at her team.

“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

Slowly, they walked away. The Halfseekers followed. Erin waited, looking back at Montressa. Then she followed Pisces as he stalked out of the barracks. He ignored his team trying to talk to him.

He didn’t look back once.

 

—-

 

Az’kerash, Peril Chandler, the Necromancer who defined all of his class, stood alone. He inhabited his castle filled with undead, his creations, some of them sentient. But he too was alone. He stood in his work room, creating.

As was customary, his thoughts were split. Most were aimed at the thing he was working on. A mass of organs and muscle, twisting, perfecting a motion before being grafted to bone just so. But Az’kerash was also aware of the world, if only tangentially. Part of his mind was keeping alert to worldwide events, points of interest. They were like distant lights on the shores of his mind. If one glowed bright enough, more of his thoughts converged.

They did so now. One of Az’kerash’s thoughts caught a mass-transmission from Wistram. It usually meant an emergency. He absently caught one of the [Messages], intercepting it. It wasn’t hard with the right setup. [Message] spells had never been made for secrecy.

“What is the alert? Some calamity? No.”

Az’kerash frowned. Not a calamity. His mind was assailed by countless words. He parsed a few, absently, and shook his head. Most of his concentration was still on the moving tendons, reattaching themselves, configuring for more strength, more durability.

“A bounty?”

It wasn’t important if it was a bounty. Perhaps some new criminal. The Bloodfeast Raiders adding a new member. If the reward was truly ludicrous—but no, it was miniscule. Not worth his time. Still, it was being sent out across Izril, so Az’kerash absently intoned a spell.

“[Scribe Thoughts].”

A quill and a bit of paper soared towards him from a distant table. The paper flattened itself on the air, as if on a hard surface and the quill began to write at once, needing no inkpot. The quill danced upon the paper, noting the [Message] spell directly from Az’kerash’s mind. Thus, it would remain without the need for Az’kerash to spend thought on immediately.

There. The Necromancer refocused completely on his work. He was building muscle out of raw flesh, literally shaping muscle fiber and stripping his work of useless features like nerves. It was optimization of the body. Complex, even for him. But once perfected, such creations could be duplicated.

The art of creation lay at the heart of necromancy. It was what few grasped. First came simple animation. Then improvisation of the form. Then—the peak of his art—creating something new, something superior to anything life could dream. Az’kerash focused—and then his eyes caught a word on the paper hovering in front of him.

“Ah.”

He stopped. The twisting shape in front of him hovered. The Necromancer’s thoughts refocused. He stared at the bounty poster. He had recognized a name.

Pisces. Where had he—? The Necromancer blinked.

“The young [Necromancer]? A bounty from Wistram?”

He lowered his hands. The paper flew towards him and he took it. He read, and his thoughts converged. Memory began understanding.

Pizza. The undead rat. The Bone Behemoth. And—Az’kerash blinked.

“A bounty. An expelled student from…Wistram? These crimes…what is this?”

He was confused. But only for a moment. At once, Az’kerash began scanning, spreading his thoughts. In the room, a skeletal rat sat up and looked around. But Pisces wasn’t there. Az’kerash frowned.

“Bea.”

A figure jumped. Bea was spying on Az’kerash. She hesitated, and then hurried forwards.

“Master?”

“Something is transpiring in Liscor. Yes, most likely Liscor. Send an inquiry through the Mage’s Guild. Masquerade as Elden Veis. Repeat the inquiry through the local [Information Brokers]. I will make my own investigation. Report back at once.”

“Yes, Master. What am I asking about?”

“This.”

Az’kerash handed her the bounty poster. Bea took it, confused. It was a miniscule bounty. She had seen her master interested in some of the high rewards—he had once ordered her to claim one. But this? She didn’t question though, and rushed off.

It took her thirty minutes to make her inquiries, using the [Message] artifacts to pretend to be a concerned [Merchant] asking about the new bounty. In the meantime, Az’kerash had learned what there was to know.

“A team of [Mages] from Wistram is in Liscor, Master.”

“Yes.”

Az’kerash’s eyes flashed. Bea shuddered. Few things could make her master angry, but a mention of his former home was one. Az’kerash reviewed the information she had brought him, adding it to his own.

“So. This Pisces was once a student at Wistram. He suggested as much, but I assumed he had failed to graduate. But this? He broke into the crypt and was expelled? Nekhret’s bones? Even when I was Archmage, I would not have dreamed to…audacious.”

He was reviewing the information, analyzing it. Pisces’ reason for expulsion lay in his head. Bea saw the Necromancer reacting. Looking…excited.

“Master? Did this [Necromancer] break Wistram’s laws?”

“More than that. He tried to rob an Archmage’s tomb! I would have dreamed of doing the same. If I were still a [Mage] of Wistram, that is. It is simply foolhardy, now. Of course her crypt was warded. But I almost admire the audacity! Nekhret. Yes. Her bones would be…useful. Does he still have them?”

Az’kerash tapped his lips. Bea looked up at him innocently. She knew the answer, but she asked anyways.

“The bones of Archmages are valuable, master?”

She luxuriated in the lessons Az’kerash sometimes gave her. Bea could see Venitra peeking in on her and Az’kerash, looking jealous. The Necromancer smiled absently.

“Yes, Bea. However, they are for now…out of reach. Even were I inclined to raise an army and attempt to assail Wistram, I have little wish to battle Zelkyr’s creations. Cognita would be troublesome, especially with the so-called ‘Archmages’ on her side. Wistram’s ancient defenses are more to be feared than the current generation of [Mages], though. But if this Pisces has Nekhret’s bones still—he did not mention them.”

“He is in trouble.”

Bea observed. Az’kerash paused.

“Yes. Wistram has sent one of their hunter teams after him. I am reviewing—[Aegiscaster]. [Spellscribe]? [Spellslinger]. [Oldblood Magus] and [Illusionist]. An odd mixture. Not suited to simple apprehension. Not the [Spellscribe] or the [Oldblood Magus]. Perhaps simple arrogance. Five, though. They could certainly capture him. But they were detained for breaking Liscor’s laws?”

That amused him greatly. Bea smiled along.

“Will you help him, Master? This Pisces?”

Az’kerash paused. He frowned.

“No. He is not my apprentice. It is not necessary or expedient to aid him, especially given Wistram’s interest in him. I simply wish to know why they sent a bounty on him after the fact. Ah—manipulation. But why—Bea, the bounty.”

The plague zombie woman gave him the paper again, pouting a bit. She was going to hoard it, along with all the other things he touched. She had a collection, along with the rest of the Chosen. Az’kerash studied the paper. And then he focused on more details.

“Necrophilia? Pisces Jealnet. Petty thievery—of course. Of course.

He cast the paper aside. Bea scuttled after it and snatched it up. But when she looked up, her Master was no longer amused. He stood there, staring at nothing. Somewhere in the white pupils, in his deathless gaze and voice, heat emerged. Az’kerash paced. And now he was angry. More information appeared in his mind and his voice grew thunderous.

“A former friend? Classmates. And this—this is a campaign. Sent to every city across Izril? He will have nowhere to hide. A friend.”

Bea trembled. Az’kerash turned. He stared blindly past her. In the inn, the rat appeared in the common room. He saw Pisces, sitting amid his team. The young man’s face was white. Rage, fury, pain—Az’kerash read it and remembered. He clenched his hands. Then his face smoothed. He waved the image away and stood in the dark workroom.

Alone. But he whispered to Pisces.

“I could have told you that this day would come. See how they turn on you, boy. See how they besmirch your name. It is what they do. They will drag you down, as they do with all who don’t fit in. This is only how it begins. Someday, they will all leave you. Your love, your friends. They will show you who they truly are.”

Az’kerash stood there. And Bea saw the pain on his face. She approached, timidly, and offered the bounty poster. The Necromancer looked at it. And the pain—Bea regretted giving it to him at once. Because she saw actual pain on his face. He bowed his head, touching the parchment upon which Pisces Jealnet’s crime and history had been written in ink. And black flame burned from his fingertips, consuming the parchments and ink, turning to ash.

“I know. They did the same to me. Feor. He was a student when I was stripped of my titles. Is he behind it? Or another of those petty children who play at magic?”

Bea fled as Az’kerash stood there. She couldn’t bear to watch her Master’s face. But she lingered at the entrance of his work room. Venitra glared at Bea. But then they both went back to watching their Master.

For a few seconds—an eternity to the Necromancer, who almost never stopped working—he paused. Then he looked up. He stared at his creation in the air. With an irritated wave, he froze it in place. And then he turned.

“What was the rest of his crimes? Who was he? This Montressa du Valeross. Terandrian. Of course. But what—they have to have records. They haven’t forgotten that much.”

Venitra, and Bea, peeking around the corner of his work room, saw an unusual sight. Az’kerash paced back and forth, his eyes flickering. He had halted work, and now, invisible, they sensed him spreading his awareness elsewhere. Seeking knowledge.

He was pursuing the information by puppet, by magic spell, using old systems of magic to retrieve what he wanted through Mage’s Guild, through anonymous [Message]. It did not take Az’kerash long to find what he sought. He had contacts everywhere and he knew Wistram. The Academy that traded on secrets gave everything Az’kerash wanted. Story and rumor. Fact. The Necromancer pursued it all.

An hour later he was reading. Sitting in his quarters. His Chosen were all there. Peeking at him. Kerash, Bea, Venitra, all were entranced. Like flowers, they hated their master’s sorrow and gloom. They raged with him, felt his pain. But other emotions, those rare flashes of amusement or even joy—they were everything to the undead.

And they saw something unique now. Az’kerash read, entirely focused. They heard a laugh and exchanged glances of wonder.

The Necromancer was reading a transcript. Not of the time when Pisces had been expelled. Az’kerash had already read that and laughed at hearing Cognita’s words. No, now he read an earlier speech a young man had given to the Council, defending his use of [Necromancy].

“You spoke my name in front of them? In front of that petty congregation?”

He laughed. The sound was unfamiliar, and unpracticed coming from him. He had almost forgotten how. But it came out now, unbidden. He let the parchment float in front of him, reading it. Laughing again.

I wish I had been there! ‘Necromancy is the equal of any other magical school!’ To say that before—my Chosen. Stop hiding and read if you will.”

Az’kerash duplicated the paper with a flick of the hand. His Chosen jumped, but they grabbed at the papers eagerly. Bea read the transcript of Pisces’ speech. His defense of necromancy. Her eyes lit on one passage. What he had said of Az’kerash.

He gazed deeper into the heart of magic than any but the greatest [Archmages] before him. Once, a young man had proclaimed that before the gatekeepers of magic. Bea felt…something rise inside of her. She did not know this young man. But for those words alone, for a smile she had never seen, she loved the one who had said it.

“He called you a monster, Master.”

Venitra had focused on something else. Her grip tightened, tearing the soft paper. Az’kerash shook his head. He stared absently at his copy. And his eyes were faraway. Almost longing.

“He did not belong in Wistram. But where would he have gone? I see it all now. Friends. Well liked. A [Fencer]! Until they knew what he was. Did he copy me? Pisces Jealnet. Where were you a hundred years ago?”

Speechless, his Chosen looked at Az’kerash. He was smiling. Until his attention went back to the common room. Pisces was arguing with his friends. Az’kerash saw his pinched face, his hunched shoulders. Saw rage and helpless fury. Pride, broken and bleeding.

The Necromancer stopped smiling. He bowed his head. And suddenly, he was ancient again. His words bitter.

“They will bring you down, Pisces Jealnet. This is their way. This is why we are few. Fetohep. I. So few others. Fewer still worthy of respect. Who see what necromancy could be.”

He cared about this Pisces. Bea traded wondering looks with Kerash. Venitra was still angry about the thing Pisces had said. But her master saw something in the young man. Az’kerash closed his eyes.

“The Wistram team will not stop. This Montressa du Valeross will hunt him down. Unless he kills her first. And Wistram will never cease. His team—Ceria Springwalker? What did she—”

His eyes flickered.

“Her master. Illphres? A peer of the Siren of Savere. Ice magic. She must have been a permanent resident of the academy. But she dared Cognita’s…I see.”

He looked up.

“Brave. Foolish. But she dared it. And her apprentice left. So a [Mage] with the true heart of Wistram dies and her apprentice is forced to leave! This is what Wistram has become! Zelkyr. Is this what you intended?”

The room shook as Az’kerash stood. His Chosen fled. The Necromancer looked around the room. His fury dissipated in a moment.

“But she and he joined the same team. How…odd. She will turn on him too. They will poison her. But…”

He sank back down.

“A team of Wistram’s [Mages]. Does the academy desire Pisces this greatly? Or perhaps this Montressa has a grudge. Even so, this much effort.”

His brows snapped together.

“They’ve sent more teams. What are they doing? I must investigate this.”

The Necromancer traced a finger in the air, writing a note to himself. It followed him, a glimmering magical thought as he turned his head.

“There is no incentive for me to aid the young [Necromancer]. Not with Wistram there. However.”

He paused.

“Liscor. I wonder. Where is…Ijvani?”

Az’kerash looked around. An old thought resurfaced. Not one he’d bothered committing to note form or pursuing. But now, Az’kerash was reminded.

“Still absent? But Zel Shivertail’s death was months—has she gotten lost? Ijvani.”

He put his fingers to his temples. Across hundreds of miles, his thoughts flew. In a cave, a sulky skeleton sat up. Az’kerash frowned. He spoke crisply.

“Ijvani. Ijvani, why are you sitting in a cave?”

He listened to the babbled response. Bea, creeping back, saw her Master talking. She envied Ijvani, even as she looked at Venitra.

“She’s in trouble.

Gleefully, the other Chosen nodded. Az’kerash was frowning, a sure sign of his wrath. His voice snapped.

“You—I am not an illusion. What are you holding? Is that…Ijvani, be silent. Good. Now listen to me. You are not to return yet. Remain where you are; I require you to set up a surveillance spell. Carefully. Grimalkin of Pallass among others may detect a lesser spell. Ijvani? Why are there beavers…

 

—-

 

The world moved. In big ways, and small ways. The bounty on Pisces went out across the world. And it was barely a blip in the grand scheme of things. Mage’s Guilds across Izril took note of the bounty, the [Scribes] on duty noting the details, forwarding it to relevant areas, largely unconcerned. Few cared, although some would read the report with disgust. But who would meet this fellow? Few, if any, surely.

It didn’t matter. And yet, it did. To the one the bounty concerned, it mattered greatly. The report went to the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor. To the Watch. To anyone who wanted to know. It was a poster on the wall of the Mage’s Guild.

It was gleeful, the way they reported it. Pisces Jealnet, son of Padurn Jealnet. Accused of necrophilia, petty thievery—

Erin wanted to tear up the parchment. But she kept reading. The malice, the pure malice in the writing made her put it down after a second. She couldn’t go on. The bounty accused Pisces of necrophilia, theft, petty assault, murder—it made him out to be a criminal. Not even a grand one. But—she looked up and saw him at his table. Reading the same bounty.

What hurt most of all was the name. Jealnet. If you didn’t understand Terandria, or Pisces, it wouldn’t have been so significant. Erin didn’t understand it fully, but Lyonette helped her explain. It was a common name. And the way they wrote of him.

Pisces Jealnet, son of Padurn Jealnet, [Fencer]. Common-born of Terandria; family in service to the House Dultel.

A son of a [Fencer] in the employ of the nobility. Commoner. A nobody. Nobody special. In ink, it tore apart part of Pisces. Erin saw it. Saw it hitting him.

“He could almost pass for nobility. He has some of the styling. He fails in other ways, but I could believe he was a fourth son or something.”

Lyonette murmured as she swept the floor. Erin had reconstructed some of the broken tables and chairs; the rest were waiting for her Skill to recharge. The inn was quiet. Only a few people were there. The Halfseekers, talking quietly, trying to soothe Seborn. A few regulars. The Horns. Mrsha, staring at the Horns.

And the adventurers. They were at the center of silent attention. Everyone in the inn had read the bounty poster. Everyone was not quite watching Pisces. He sat there, at the center of it all.

“He never said his last name. Not ever.”

“Of course not. It would have given him away if you knew anything of Terandria. You could have even placed where he grew up with a few inquiries.”

The [Princess] looked at Pisces. Erin bit her tongue. Did it matter? No. Yes! Pisces loved being enigmatic. He loved pretending to be someone. But this poster laid out his life’s story. It said he was just a petty [Necromancer]. It was wrong. But Wistram had shouted it across all of Izril and put a bounty on Pisces’ head.

It made her hate the Wistram team. But Erin also remembered Montressa weeping. That didn’t dull her anger, but it was something else. Even so.

“Pisces Jealnet.”

It sounded wrong. Pisces was Pisces, not…Pisces Jealnet. In a way, Erin knew that hurt Pisces more than any beating could. His cheeks were stained and he was hunched in his seat. As withdrawn as he had been at the start.

“They can’t do this. A bounty?”

Ceria was exclaiming over the poster. She looked furious. She kept glancing at Pisces. He’d said nothing on the way back to the inn, even up till now. She looked at Yvlon.

“We won’t be able to go anywhere! With a two thousand gold bounty? Every idiot will be going after Pisces.”

“Can’t we pay it off? Not that I want to give those damn [Mages] anything. But at least it would solve the issue.”

“No good. Not with Wistram. You can pay off some bounties. Baleros lets you cancel a bounty with coin, and Drake cities let you clear fines, but Wistram won’t accept our gold. Damn them.”

Ceria shook her head. She looked at Pisces again.

“I understand these allegations are false. Are they not, Comrade Pisces? In this case, this is slander unbecoming of the academy.”

Ksmvr waved the parchment at Pisces. The [Necromancer] looked up. Ceria spoke for him.

“It’s false! Mostly, Ksmvr. But Wistram can say whatever they want. Damn, damn—they forced Liscor to let them go!”

“Are you surprised? The Academy does what it wants, Springwalker. This is—typical of them.”

Pisces’ voice grated. He jerked his hand; the parchment dropped to the table. His team stared at him, concerned. Yvlon looked at Pisces.

“Pisces, it’s completely wrong. Anyone who knows you—”

“And what of the countless thousands who don’t? My name is sullied forever. As Wistram pleases! I should have expected this. It matters not. I—I care not for the opinion of the uneducated masses.”

Pisces jerked his chair back. Yvlon reached for his arm.

“We’ll do something about this.”

“What, pray?

He snapped at her. Yvlon hesitated.

“We’ll do something. Look, Ksmvr, throw away the posters. We’re all exhausted. Pisces, you’re pale as a sheet. You’re still not recovered. The [Healer] told you to rest.”

“She told us all to rest. You especially, Yvlon.”

The armored woman froze. Ceria looked at her. In the anger of meeting Montressa, she’d all but forgotten. Now, she looked at Yvlon’s arms. At the metal gauntlets covering…

“Yvlon. Take your armor off.”

The [Wounded Warrior] hesitated. She looked at Ceria and glanced at Pisces.

“We don’t need to do this now, Ceria. Pisces is—”

“Yvlon. That’s an order.”

The woman paused. Then she looked back at Ceria and slowly undid the gauntlets on one arm. Ksmvr helped her take off her vambrace, the rest of the metal.

A…smell filled the nearby air. It was mostly medicinal. A thick poultice. But behind that—Ceria stared. She’d seen it before when the [Healer] set Yvlon’s dislocated arm. But now?

Bone stared up at Ceria. Bone anchored into flesh. What flesh there was left. Yvlon’s arm was—Ceria remembered what it had been.

Torn, destroyed in parts by the metal that had melded with her bones. But it had still looked like an arm. Now, bone had been grafted onto the weak arm. Flesh was torn, infected, oozing pus around parts of the place where metal had rubbed against skin. Ceria smelled it, gagged—

Yvlon put the gauntlets back over her skin. She mumbled, avoiding Ceria’s stare. Even Pisces looked shocked by the sight.

“It’s fine. It’s just infected. The [Healer] says the poultice is working and I can use a healing potion once it clears. It’s—”

What the fuck is that, Yvlon?

Ceria hit the table as she rose. The half-Elf stared at her friend. Yvlon went still as the entire inn looked at Ceria. She glanced around and everyone pretended to look elsewhere. Ceria lowered herself, shaking.

“You didn’t tell me! Your arm is a mess! I’ve seen better—it doesn’t look like an arm! And that bone! What the hell is—”

She looked at Pisces. He didn’t respond. Yvlon shook her head.

“It’s—to support my bones. Remember how they kept on breaking? Well, this makes it so I can swing a sword. It helps, Ceria Even the [Healer] agreed.”

“When she stopped shouting, yes.”

Both Ceria and Yvlon looked at Ksmvr. Ceria opened her mouth.

“You—you asked Pisces to do that?”

“I did. I asked, Ceria. And I haven’t had a reason to regret it. The infection’s not from the bones. It’s just—there. And I don’t feel it. It’s fine. I can move my arms.”

To demonstrate, Yvlon lifted the shoulder that had been dislocated. Ceria hissed.

“Don’t do that! You couldn’t use a potion! Those muscles are torn!”

“I can’t feel them. Ceria, I’m fine.

“You’re as far from fine as Pisces is!”

The half-Elf snapped back. She looked at Yvlon. The woman had folded her arms. Ceria stared at Ksmvr and Pisces.

“You didn’t tell me. Why didn’t you tell me? I’m your Captain, Yvlon! Pisces knew. And Ksmvr? Did everyone know about Yvlon’s arms but me?”

Yvlon avoided Ceria’s gaze. Ksmvr raised one hand helpfully.

“I knew because I have an inadequate sense of personal privacy, Captain Ceria. My finding out was unintentional on Yvlon’s part.”

“But you knew. And I didn’t because, what, you don’t trust me?”

“I didn’t tell you because you’d react exactly like this. Ceria, what do you want me to do?”

Yvlon glared at Ceria, her cheeks flushed. The half-Elf folded her arms.

“Get help. You can’t continue like this. We need to find you a [Healer]—”

“To do what? They couldn’t even fix my arms! Pisces did. I don’t need to sit around while the [Healers] tell me there’s nothing else they can do. I’m an adventurer, Ceria.”

“Not with those arms.”

The woman’s hands tightened on the table.

“It’s what I want to do.”

“And I should just let you?”

“It’s my choice.”

“Not if you’re killing yourself—”

What else should I do, then?

Ceria rocked back. Yvlon’s raised voice prompted movement. Erin hurried over.

“Hey, guys. Do you need anything…?”

“No, Erin. Sorry. We’re fine.”

“It’s totally cool. I get it. If you need a drink, or food? Anything you want tonight.”

“I’m not hungry. Not right now.”

“Got it. Just say when…”

Erin looked at Pisces and hesitated. But for once the energetic [Innkeeper] didn’t say anything. The Horns watched her retreat and whisper to Lyonette. Ceria buried her head in her hands.

“How did this happen?”

“The Wistram team had been pursuing Comrade Pisces for a long time. I believe they ambushed us in an effective, if ill-considered move. We were saved by their inappropriate understanding of Liscorian law and their arrogance. And Mrsha’s nose and Miss Erin.”

Ksmvr looked around the table. Ceria nodded dully.

“Montressa. Dead gods. I haven’t seen her for years. And that’s what she turned into? She’s completely different than the Mons I knew. And—what has she been doing? Those spells! That staff and orb! I didn’t get a chance to ask.”

“Not much opportunity to ask with her screaming at you.”

Yvlon reached for a mug of water. She gritted her teeth. Ceria looked up.

“Yeah. Yeah. They’re—those bastards got us. Not a second time. And we’re safe in Liscor.”

“But there’s a bounty on my head. And I am sure Montressa will not rest until I am captured.”

Pisces looked up. He had a ghastly smile on his face. Ceria hesitated.

“We’ll do something about it.”

What?

He stared at her. She hesitated.

“We’ll get the bounty overturned. Appeal it! It’s not right. Maybe Watch Captain Zevara can vouch for us?”

Pisces made a disgusted noise and turned away. Ceria looked around desperately. Yvlon was looking at Pisces sympathetically. Ceria had a thought.

“I’ll—I’ll reach out to Falene. She’s a graduate. Maybe she can help.”

“I will speak to someone as well. She will see something is done if anything. But nothing will change the bounty.”

Pisces muttered darkly. Ceria stared at him. She opened her mouth. She wanted to say something.

“About Montressa. She was really—”

Pisces looked up. The half-Elf wavered. She fell silent. Yvlon looked at Ksmvr. He’d opened his mandibles. She slowly nudged him and he closed them and looked at her. The whirling silence grew deeper around the Horns of Hammerad.

 

—-

 

Across the inn, Erin twisted her hands in her cooking apron. Lyonette was feeding Mrsha dinner at the bar. The Gnoll cub whined in the back of her throat, but Lyonette was soothing her.

“Not yet, Mrsha dear. They’re busy. Everyone’s a bit—just eat your dinner. You can go cheer up Moore, okay?”

She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] hadn’t taken her eyes off the Horns. She longed to go over, to smile—but it wouldn’t have been genuine. Erin wanted to do something. But she knew that she might make things worse. What could she do?

It was like a puzzle, one of the ones where you had a specific shape that could fit in a whole. That was how Erin would have described it. She muttered as she saw Pisces snap something at Ceria.

“Food? No. Cake? Spaghetti? No. Alcohol?”

She paused and eyed the Horns.

“No. Mrsha? No. Faerie flower drink? No.”

“Erin?”

Lyonette looked at her. Erin turned her head, blinking. Mrsha looked up quizzically. Erin silently shook her head.

“It’s nothing.”

She turned her head back to the Horns. She saw Pisces’ face. But nothing fit. So she just watched.

 

—-

 

Ceria was hesitating, biting her lip. Ksmvr had cleared away the posters, but it hung over them. She could see Gnolls and Drakes glancing at Pisces. And his name hung in her head.

Pisces Jealnet. She had never known his name. And she’d been in the academy with him! All this time—she hesitated, clearing her throat.

“Pisces, if you want to talk about it—”

Pisces’ head jerked up. His cheeks were still flushed. He clenched his hands in his robes.

“Talk? About what, pray tell?”

His tone was beyond acerbic. Ceria could feel the hurt in every line of it. She hesitated.

“Look, the bounty’s wrong. We know the academy’s lying. Erin knows it. We all know it. But if you want to talk—about Montressa? About…”

His eyes narrowed dangerously.

“About my name? Or the spurious allegations? Are you wondering if any of them are accurate?”

“No! Not at all! It’s just—”

Ceria raised her hands defensively. Pisces stared at her.

“Just what?”

“Look—I know some of it’s not true, but I know you committed some crimes. And we never knew your name. Montressa appearing out of nowhere was a shock. But she—you know she has a reason to—”

“To beat me into unconsciousness? To cast a spell on Selys and kidnap you all?”

The half-Elf wavered. But she had to say it.

“Yes.”

He stared at her. Yvlon opened her mouth and Ceria rushed on.

“Not to attack us! But she was there, Pisces. You know what she must have thought. We never got to speak with her. Look, I’m saying she’s wrong. But she had a reason to hate you. I’m absolutely against her. You heard me shouting! But let’s talk about it, okay?”

“What is there to discuss? She is after me. If you would avoid Wistram’s ire—”

“We’re not abandoning you, Pisces. You’re a teammate.”

Yvlon spoke quietly. Pisces looked at her. He half-rose.

“And so I should confess all my sins, is that it?”

“No! Pisces! Just tell us—we just want to know the truth.”

“You can read it. I don’t owe you explanations!”

The [Necromancer] was furious. He got up. Ceria rose with him.

“Pisces, just talk to us—”

“Comrade Pisces, it would be best to share information at this time. The communication of information with your peers will help us better aid you. Captain Ceria is only inquiring about your wellbeing.”

Ksmvr piped up, looking at Pisces. The [Necromancer] flushed. Ceria saw him open his mouth and snap down at Ksmvr.

“My peers? Where are they? If I find anyone worthy of sharing my thoughts with, I will be pleasantly surprised!”

The Antinium flinched. He stared up at Pisces and then looked down.

“Oh. I am sorry for presuming.”

“Pisces! Apologize to Ksmvr!”

Yvlon shot to her feet. She glared at Pisces. He was flushed as he glared at her. The armored woman narrowed her eyes.

“You’re out of line. Who cares if you’re common-born? You’re overreacting. We know the bounty poster is false. You don’t have to take it out on Ksmvr because you’re embarrassed we know you’re not from an aristocratic house! It doesn’t matter!”

It was the wrong thing to say. Pisces’s eyes widened. He stared at Yvlon for one second and then spoke.

“Spoken like a noble child.”

Yvlon’s cheeks went white. She sat down abruptly and said not a word more. Ceria stared at Pisces. Those cutting words. She clenched her fists.

“You jackass! We put ourselves on the line trying to help you! We’re your team! Don’t we deserve at least some answers—”

“Why? So you can lecture me on how wrong I am? Turn up your nose until you have need of my abilities?”

Pisces whirled on Ceria. She took a step back.

“I—you know Montressa has a reason for her fury! You know that, Pisces! I’m angrier than anyone about what she did! But you have to remember what happened! She does! She broke down when she saw the undead illusion! Pisces! Calvaron and all the others—”

“What of them?”

Ceria had to say it.

“It was your fault they died. It was an accident, but they died. You know why Montressa blames you. I’ve forgiven you. But it was still your fault. If you won’t admit that—you’re every bit the monster that Minotauress called you.”

The table went silent. The room went silent. Everyone stared at Ceria. Pisces looked at her. He was shaking. When he opened his mouth, his voice was wavering. But not with guilt. Not with regret. With pure rage.

“I don’t regret it now. Not at all. I meant every word I said. Calvaron? I don’t even recall his face. I only wish that curse had killed all of Wistram! All of them and—”

Ceria punched him in the face. If it was a movie, it should have been a slap. But Ceria was an adventurer. Pisces’ head jerked back and he stumbled, nearly falling into his chair. Ksmvr caught him, but Pisces struck his hand away. Silently, he looked at Ceria.

She was breathing hard, staring at him, appalled by what she’d done.

“Pisces, I—”

He whirled and strode away. Ceria saw him storming up the stairs to his room. Erin was frozen at the bar. Lyonette stared at Pisces. Mrsha was gone.

In the silence afterwards, Ceria looked at Yvlon and Ksmvr. She worked her mouth silently.

“I—damn it. Dead gods damn it.”

She sat back down. Why did she say it? Now? But Pisces had been—her team sat around her. And the mood in the air was like filth, like bitterness given form. Ceria wanted to go back and break her fist on Montressa and her team. She hated them. Hated Pisces for being him. She sat there—

 

—-

 

Erin saw it all. And still, she hesitated. She could see herself going over to the team, or following Pisces. And…she had seen it before. She remembered a young woman. Ryoka. But this was even worse. She ached for Pisces. And for the Horns. She tried to do something. But nothing fit.

A square peg in a round hole. Or…a complicated mess, that no one shining bullet could solve. Nothing Erin had. She got up, abruptly.

“I’m going out. Lyonette, keep an eye on the inn.”

“Sure. Mrsha? Where’d she go? Mrsha?”

Lyonette looked around distractedly. Her voice was low. Erin walked towards the door. The inn was silent. No one wanted to speak loudly. It was a mood in the air, that even she couldn’t lift. It hung around the Horns of Hammerad, but it hadn’t originated from them.

It spread like rot. They had brought it with them. Wistram’s [Mages]. Montressa’s team. Hatred and anger. Regret. Pain. Suffering. They had brought it out of Ceria and Pisces’ pasts, and what was worst was that there was truth, a reason behind the hatred. Erin walked out of her inn and into Liscor, searching. Feeling it spreading.

The past caught up with the present and brought only misery.

 

—-

 

“So. It’s true. I heard you were here, but I had to see it to believe it.”

Calruz of Hammerad jerked to wakefulness at the harsh voice. He sat up in his cell. The one-armed Minotaur looked around, blearily, caught off-guard by the voice. It was deep, female. Not like even the female Gnolls. He looked up, blinking in the light coming from the magical barrier of his cell.

And stared. Bezale, the [Scrollscribe], stared down at Calruz from across the barrier to her cell. She stood proudly, her robes hanging around her muscular form. Few of Minos were unfit; it was considered a mark of disgrace. She was hardly as trained as a true Minotaur [Warrior]; even in his cell, Calruz was stronger. But she was…whole.

Two arms. And a proud bearing. Her horns wore caps of precious metal. And her eyes flashed with disgust. For him. Calruz stared at her and realized he was on his back. The one-armed Minotaur struggled up.

His two rats, Haldagaz, Vanquisher of Foes, almost pure white and male, and Rhata, Trident-Guardian, the grey female one, crawled up his chest and fled into their bucket-home at the unfamiliar intruder. Calruz sat up, pushing himself up with his arm.

His one arm. The right was gone. Torn away, leaving only a stump. The unknown Minotauress stared at it, dismissively. Calruz’ jaw worked. He couldn’t believe it.

“Who—”

His breath caught. He tried again.

“Who are you?”

“Is that how you greet a Minotaur?”

She snapped at him. The words triggered memory. Calruz blinked. Reflexively, he surged to his feet.

“Calruz of Hammerad. Well met, kindred!”

He held an arm out, as if he could reach through the barrier and grab her arm. The Minotauress stared at him. She spoke slowly.

“Bezale of Maweil.”

She did not greet him. Nor did she make any move. Calruz slowly lowered his arm. Now he was awake, he was confused. And…afraid. Confusion came first. He stared at her.

“Bezale of—it’s been so long since I’ve seen one of our kind. Especially around here! Are you a fellow adventurer? What’s a seafarer from Maweil doing in Liscor?”

Beza ignored his questions. She looked Calruz up and down. He wore ragged pants and a rough tunic, fairly dirty despite Calruz’s attempts to keep it clean, worn from constant use. His fur was matted. She snorted, disgust ringing clear in her words.

“I came to arrest a criminal. And see to the execution of justice. I couldn’t believe it when I heard. One of the House of Minos, losing his mind? Betraying his team? Kidnapping civilians? Murdering them?”

Calruz froze. She knew. And she had come here to judge. He opened his mouth.

“Bezale of Maweil. I have—”

“Be silent. You are a disgrace.”

Calruz closed his mouth. Bezale paced back and forth in front of his cell.

“I couldn’t believe it. One of our kind? Reduced to this? Look at you. You’re more pathetic than I could have imagined. Why are you here? You’ve been judged guilty. Why hasn’t Liscor executed you? You’d be dead in any port of Minos within the day for your crimes! Well? Answer!

The Minotaur spoke slowly. He closed his eyes, trying to breathe. Explain, though part of him agreed with every word.

“I could have been ensorcelled. I am still not sure if I was—”

“You are not.”

He froze. His heart stopped. Beza looked at him and shook her head.

“I cast [Detect Magic] the instant I saw you. There is none about you, save for the magic in the cell.”

“The Watch Captain of this city believes the spell may be more complex than that. She believes I may be innocent.”

Calruz protested. He watched Beza. She twitched when he mentioned Zevara. What was going on? She glared at him and spat. It hit the barrier and fizzled.

“Excuse. You are a coward who fears death!”

“I do not.”

Calruz’ growled. Even as a captive, even as he was, that strung what remained of his pride. Beza sneered at him.

“You’ve been prisoner for months! Any self-respecting warrior would have done what’s right. Ensorcelled? By what? You murdered Gnolls. Children. I heard all about your crimes. Because of you, the people of this city feared me.

The Minotaur [Prisoner] looked down. He clenched his one hand.

“I have no excuse, kindred. But the Watch Captain refuses to grant me death. She believes in me. So I remain.”

“You have no right to call me kindred. And I know what needs to be done.”

Beza’s voice was very cold. She stared at Calruz. She was taller than he was. She nodded down the length of the prison and then stepped forwards. He looked up as she whispered to him.

“I’ll find a way to smuggle in a knife to you. You do the proper thing.”

“But that’s—”

He jerked. She glared at him and pounded a fist on the barrier to his cell. The light flashed, but didn’t even waver.

“That’s the honorable thing to do! You should have done it long ago, coward. Look at you, sleeping with rats? What’s next? I’ll get the knife in. Bribe the guards, perhaps. It won’t take me more than a day or two.”

She turned away dismissively. Calruz stared at her back. He couldn’t bear it any longer. He spoke up, angrily.

“I have a question. Are you an arbiter of the isles? You did not announce yourselves as such. Do you have that authority?”

Beza turned. She hesitated, which was answer enough.

“I have the right of every Minos to judge another! I came here because I heard you’d disgraced our kind!”

Calruz’ eyes narrowed. So, not the arbiter he’d feared. Still—a thought occurred to him. He stared at Beza.

“Who did you come here to apprehend?”

She paused. He stared at her.

Who?

“Do not make demands of me, traitor.”

She glared at him. But Calruz was unwavering. After a moment, Beza spat.

“A member of your team. Pisces Jealnet. A [Necromancer]. If I thought you could sink no lower, I was wrong. That he claims to be part of a team that calls itself the ‘Horns of Hammerad’? Ludicrous!”

Calruz’s stomach twisted. Pisces? What had he done? No, Ceria had told him something of Pisces’ past. He stepped forwards, towards the magical barrier that kept him caged.

“Did you capture him?”

“We did. But thanks to the laws of this pathetic city he was released. He won’t escape us a second time. Him or the team protecting him.”

Bezale snarled. She was angry. She’d come here angry; Calruz could see it from the red seeping into her eyes. He growled.

“His team? If you touched Ceria Springwalker—”

“You’ll do what?”

Beza stared at Calruz. He didn’t reply. He was breathing hard. Now he understood. Beza spoke slowly.

“I will say this for your honor, Calruz of Hammerad. Kill yourself.”

“No. I do not know that I am guilty. And I will not be judged by you.

Calruz snarled at her. She’d come for Ceria? Attacking his team? He felt the rage building. Beza snapped at him.

“Coward. You are a coward. Just as much as your team. All of you should have fought to the last in the crypt, instead of fleeing! You, the Antinium, that half-Elf and the broken woman. And the [Necromancer]. All of you are a disgrace.”

The Minotaur saw red. Literally; blood began to fill his gaze. He stepped up to the barrier until he could feel it tingling his muzzle, the fur on his chest. He spoke through the fury building in him.

“Tell me, Bezale of Maweil. How did you win the honor of passage from our home?”

She stared at him.

“I won my right by my skill at magic. By my talent.”

Calruz nodded. Then he reached out. His eyes turned red as he pushed at the magical cell’s barrier with one hand. The magic burned his palm. Beza jerked back. But Calruz didn’t care. The Minotaur raised his voice.

“I won my right by skill at arms! By bravery, by daring! I was an adventurer. And I disgraced myself. I betrayed my team. All this is true. But—”

He stared at her. Calruz gritted his teeth as his palm smoked and burnt.

“But I’d rather sell myself into slavery than take lessons about honor from someone who has no idea what it means to be an adventurer. If you touch Ceria Springwalker, she will break you and whomever you brought with you.”

Beza stared at Calruz, her face twisted with disgust.

“Spoken like the truest of cravens. The House of Minos will hear from me. Hammerad will know their son’s treachery and cowardice!”

She spun. Beza strode from the prison. Calruz bellowed after her, his voice echoing in the prison. The [Guards] rushed forwards, but they stopped when they saw Beza striding away. Calruz stared at Beza until she was out of sight. Then he felt the pain.

His palm was raw, the magic taking it to bits. The Minotaur stopping pushing at the cell wall. He sank to the floor. The pain was there, but it was barely noticeable to him compared to the agony in his heart. He bowed his head.

In the silence, no one made a sound. No one, except for a small, grey shape which crept out of the bucket in the back of the cell. A last Daughter of the Grainsack. The little rat crawled across the floor and up Calruz’s side. She crawled up onto his left arm and sniffed at his raw palm.

The rat wriggled her whiskers as her brother came out of hiding. Calruz stared down at her. He shook his head in silent response to the unspoken query.

“Just a fellow Minotaur, Rhata. She will tell the isles. I wish she had the right to judge. I wish I knew.”

He stroked the little rat’s head. And he refused to listen to the voices that told him to kill it. And his voice, that told him to kill himself.

Misery.

 

—-

 

Palt, the Centaur [Illusionist], hated his life. He trotted through Liscor, aware that he had tails. Not the one on his behind, but [Guards]. Liscor’s Watch was following him, even after he’d split from Montressa and the others. It wasn’t a good time to be around Montressa, anyways.

She was still mostly incoherent after the illusion the [Necromancer], Pisces, had conjured. Palt was impressed himself; it had been an ugly spell. Isceil and Ulinde were keeping Montressa company in the inn they’d rented and Beza had strode off to do something. Palt was by himself, but he wasn’t alone.

He was talking to someone, using a [Communication] spell. It was advanced stuff, but he was a full [Mage] of Wistram and if he wasn’t specialized in combat magic like his peers, he was well-versed in a number of magics. Right now he was giving a report to someone in Wistram. His superiors. He had no doubt Beza and the others were all doing the same and getting chewed out too.

“Yes, well, she’s too focused on Pisces. I know Wistram is stretched thin trying to follow up on all the leads with the guests, but the Revivalists shouldn’t have pushed to put Montressa in charge of this team. She might be best of all of us, but she’s too young.”

The Centaur listened to the response. He winced, and fumbled for a cigar. No dreamleaf or anything stronger; the Watch had also told him he couldn’t smoke anything illegal—which was practically everything—within Liscor’s walls. Grumpily, the Centaur lit up with a flick of his fingers and replied.

“Yes, of course. Yes, I’ll try—I’m certain. One of the guests. It’s all donkey dung now, though. She’s a close friend of the team we attacked. No, I could not stop it! I’ll try. Yes. Please convey my regards to Master [Phantasmal Trickster].”

The person on the other end, another [Illusionist] in her sixth year he knew, replied shortly.

“I’ll do that. But they’re mad, Palt. Liscor’s considered important and having to send out a bounty and getting in trouble after Tiqr—”

“It’s not my fault! I’m not in charge! Take it up with the Revivalists—they put Montressa in charge! What was I supposed to do?”

“You’re representing our interests. Just try not to break any more laws. And don’t smoke anything in Liscor! Got it?”

Palt paused with the cigar in his lips.

“Of course.”

“You’re smoking something right now, aren’t you? If you get us in trouble, no one’s bailing you out.”

“I’ve got it! Tell Master [Phantasmal Trickster]—”

“I’ll tell them. Just remember what I said.”

“Got it. Bye.”

Palt fell the magic spell dissipate. Grumpily, he trotted faster, smoking hard and muttering under his breath. He could sense his tails moving faster. Gnolls, probably. He hoped they coughed on his cigar smoke.

The Centaur was angry. Angry at Montressa, at that damn Watch Captain who’d had him kicked and beaten up—and at himself for taking this stupid mission. He’d volunteered! What had he been thinking?

He sighed as he puffed away, trotting for the sheer necessity of moving his body. He ignored the Drakes and Gnolls this late at night. He had to think.

His faction had not been pleased with the news and they’d demanded an explanation of the events. They’d bailed him out of course; Wistram didn’t abandon their own, but there would be consequences. Few for Palt for all he’d been involved; he could only imagine what Montressa’s call had been like. But Palt had been reminded of his duties—to Wistram, yes, but to his faction, Ullsinoi, as well.

Some factions in Wistram were small. More like…well, more like entire schools of magic than ideologies like the Revivalists. Palt belonged to a small one, a little under a hundred members, actually. The Ullsinoi faction wasn’t huge, but they had clout where it mattered.

They were also very secretive, made up almost entirely of the illusion school of magic. It gave their [Mages]…peculiarities, especially in how they interacted. For instance, Palt didn’t even know half of the names of the master [Illusionists] in his faction. You just referred to them by nicknames, or classes, like his own master, Master [Phantasmal Trickster]. Palt didn’t even know the gender of his master, if they even had one. They liked to change their illusion and theirs was so complete Palt still couldn’t see through them.

It was hard being in the Ullsinoi faction—everyone was full of tricks, some of them really stupid, like the name of their faction. You couldn’t even get in if you didn’t figure out the idiotic joke within the first ten minutes of hearing the name. Frankly, that was probably a good bar to set anyways. But they had real interests, ones Palt agreed with. And now he’d have to carry them out. Somehow.

The Centaur gritted his teeth, chewing the cigar. He’d have to help repair the mess Montressa had made. She was obsessed with Pisces. Small wonder for what he’d done, but still. This was a disaster. Now they had the Watch on their tails, the [Innkeeper] they were supposed to make a priority hated their guts and they’d caused trouble for Wistram. What was he supposed to do? Maybe—

The Centaur was so preoccupied he didn’t see the shape making a beeline towards him. He only saw the figure too late and stopped before he ran her over.

“Pardon m—”

He looked down and saw Erin Solstice. She stared up at him. The Centaur dropped his cigar and reared.

Gyaaah! Don’t hurt me!”

He turned to run. Erin grabbed Palt’s tail as he tried to cast [Invisibility]. He nearly kicked her!

“Hold on, hold on! I’m not gonna stab you!”

“That’s a specific threat! Let go of my tail!”

Palt whirled. Erin let go and he trotted backwards. His watchers had stopped, warily. Palt eyed Erin. He knew what she’d done! She’d stabbed Beza and nearly killed Isceil with a pot of sauce! He backed up, but she followed.

“We’re allowed to be in Liscor! If you attack me—”

“Oh, be shush, you. I’m not gonna hurt you. But if you cast a spell on me, I’ll stab you.”

Erin put a hand on the knife at her belt. Palt raised his hands instantly.

“No magic! I’ve done nothing! I wasn’t even part of the group that attacked your friend! My name’s Palt! I’m sorry for everything! I’m just here to help find you lot.”

He winced. Damn! Gnolls! He cast a [Hush] spell around him and Erin. She stared up at him.

“Yeah. I heard. But you cast a spell on Selys.”

“I—look, Montressa’s my leader. I have to obey her. I know it was bad. But [Mind Blank] doesn’t harm her.”

“Pisces is her friend. She watched you beat him up.”

“I didn’t do a thing.”

“Except cast the spell.”

He looked at her and trotted back a few steps.

“Please don’t stab me. I’ll apologize to her. Really.”

“You’d better. Her grandmother was a Gold-rank adventurer. She’ll kill you.”

Palt paled. Old people with high levels were the worst.

“I’ll do that. Miss Erin, is it? I’m very sorry. On behalf of Wistram, I apologize. My team is filled with idiots. But that Pisces fellow is wanted by Wistram. I was there when the undead came and slaughtered a bunch of [Mages].”

“Yeah. I heard about that. But he was let go. They had a trial. So why’s Wistram after him? Is it just Montressa?”

Palt shuffled his hooves. He stared down at Erin. He had a sense she was high-level. She had a certain intensity about her. He felt a surge of trepidation. And hope. She was speaking to him. So the Centaur made an ingratiating gesture. He rummaged in his saddlebags.

“Miss Solstice? Again, I’m very sorry. If I can make it up to you at all—allow me to introduce myself. I’m Palt, an [Illusionist]. My team was sent to escort you back to Wistram. I realize that holds little weight, but allow me to—may I make you a gift? I have some dreamleaf, which I understand your people call uh, marjinaula.”

“Marijuana? Wait, you mean weed?

Erin recoiled as he offered her some dried leaves. Palt faltered.

“Wait, are you one of the people who don’t like it?”

“No! Are you a stoner?”

“Damn—er—well, that was an offer of good faith! It’s relaxing! I have tobacco—”

The Centaur realized he was digging himself further in. He stopped and spread his hands.

“Let me try again. Again. Anything you want, Miss Solstice, I can offer. I have a number of uh, aids for my magic. Relaxing. And I’m here to help. Truly. If there’s anything I can do, name it.”

He waited. Erin Solstice looked Palt up and down. He waited. At last, Erin nodded. She looked at Palt and spoke slowly.

“Tell me about…Montressa.”

 

—-

 

Pisces slammed into his room, unable to speak properly with fury. He kicked the first pile of bones he saw, scattering them across the room, and then turned and blasted the wall with a few bolts of magic. Erin’s reinforced walls took the spells with little more than scorch marks. Pisces whirled around and bellowed.

“Those idiots. Fools! They were never good enough for my company. I should have never wasted my time on them.”

He tore across the room, looking for something else to break. The Bone Behemoth was gone, as well as the spell that Az’kerash had inscribed on its skull. But the notes of both had been recorded and Pisces had been studying them. Until today. Until his outing with Selys. Pisces stared down at his notes and then threw everything off his desk.

Quill, inkpot, paper, all of it went flying. Pisces strode around the room, shouting and cursing.

“This entire inn can burn. Everything and everyone in it!”

His name! They’d released his name! Those pustulant, arrogant, spineless fools in Wistram! His name. And a bounty—

Pisces pointed a finger. This time electric shots hit the far wall, bouncing off the window. He uttered his fury, wishing he could have stabbed that idiotic Drake through the head. Or the Minotauress. He remembered every kick, how they’d beaten him down. And they’d walked free! He should have killed them. The Centaur, the Selphid—

Montressa. Pisces stopped. He was panting. Her. She dared to come here and—he remembered the look on her face.

“Calvaron. He deserved it. They all did. All of their hidebound…

Pisces paused. Then he turned his head. He remembered a Centaur, laughing and welcoming him into Wistram. He pushed down the emotion, remembering the others.

Too much. Enough. Pisces was done. He—he felt at his ribs. They were mending. But he still felt the pinpoints of pain if he pressed. He closed his eyes, and his bones began to mend. A [Necromancer] could do that to himself; he couldn’t snap bones at will, because other people had too much inbuilt resistance to those kinds of spells. But he could heal himself. No one else could do that, save for the highest-level [Healers] or spells or potions. He relished the thought of Wistram’s team suffering their fractured bones.

Just another thing they scorned him for. Them, and all the others. Even Ceria. How dare she? And Yvlon? He saw the way the others had looked at him. Necrophilia. They believed it. They were all trash. Worthless. Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr—Selys—Erin—

Pisces stopped. But the fury was overwhelming him. He stood in the center of his room, his eyes burning. His breath came in gasps. He hated them. They had ruined his life. It was always so. Always and always. He could trust no one.

Slowly, Pisces spoke. He had run so hot he was now cold. The words came out of him, slowly, bitterly, oozing toxins with every syllable.

“I care nothing for the living. They are all dust to me. I have seen the nature of humanity and it is rotten decay. Petty souls dragging each other down into eternity. Let them all die. Let them—”

The words were a litany. A curse. He had said that once. Az’kerash. When he renounced his humanity during his trial. Pisces had always read those words. Now, he believed them. Pisces searched for the little rat. He raised his arms. Let it all end! He’d leave. He’d leave and show them who he really was. He turned, looking—

And Pisces heard a small sound. A small, tiny whimper. He froze. It wasn’t coming from the rat perched on his dresser. No. It was a living sound, fueled by lungs. And it came from under his bed.

Something was under there. Snuffling. Pisces froze. He bent down and then he saw her.

A white shape. A little Gnoll, staring at him. Mrsha. She’d slunk into his room. Hidden under his bed. She was crying. Pisces stared at her. He opened his mouth. Fury talked for him.

“Get out. Get out! I don’t want to play! I don’t want—”

He pointed towards the door, raising his voice. Mrsha hid her face. Something rolled out in front of her. Pisces was about to shout. Then he saw what she’d been holding.

It was…a stick. Pointed at one end, easily grippable in one hand. Not a stick, in fact. He saw the magic in it. A wand. The wand Mrsha had stolen from him ages ago.

His wand. And tied to it, clumsily, with a Gnoll’s paws, a little yellow flower. Mrsha had been holding it in her paw. Now she sniveled, her nose and eyes running. She hid her face, scooting back under her bed, away from the furious Pisces. The wand was knocked further towards Pisces. The little golden flower was bent, the petals slightly bruised.

The [Necromancer] stared at the wand. He looked at it. And at Mrsha, wiping at her tears. He bent slowly, and she shivered away from him. Crying. She was crying because he’d shouted at her. Because he was shouting in general.

Because of what had happened. Pisces looked down at the wand. He looked at the little Gnoll. And suddenly, the fury went out of him. He was ashamed.

“Mrsha—”

She crawled away from him, to the furthest corner under the bed. Pisces sat down slowly. He was still angry. So angry he would have killed Isceil if the Drake popped into the room this moment. But anger burned hot only so long. Shame—now, shame grew. And Pisces’ conscience finally caught up with his mouth. He remembered what he’d said.

To Ceria. To Yvlon. To Ksmvr. To his team. Pisces stared ahead dully. They’d deserved it. That was what part of him whispered. They doubted him. They never trusted him. Not really. Yvlon had always looked at him with suspicion. Ceria still held his past against him.

But Yvlon had asked him to fix her arms. And Ceria had forgiven him. Pisces tried to be angry. But he couldn’t help but remember as he stared down at the flower, around his room. They had gone through Albez. He had gone into the crypts for her. They were his team.

He hadn’t wanted it! It had been a thing of convenience! But—they’d welcomed him. Erin had. And Ksmvr. Pisces felt his eyes stinging. Of all people, to say that to him. Almost as bad as—

He looked down. Mrsha had put her paws over her eyes and water was trickling down into her white fur. She didn’t move as he slowly got up. Pisces hesitated, knelt, picked up the wand.

“Mrsha. I’m not angry.”

She quivered, her back to him. Her tail didn’t move and she held still. Pisces looked at the wand.

“Is that a gift for me? It’s quite thoughtful. I did not mean to shout at you. Will you come out?”

Not a response. Mrsha was crying. And she’d been the one who knew he and the others were captured. Erin had told him. If it weren’t for her, he might have been in the box. And he’d shouted at her.

Pisces felt a lump in his throat. He opened his mouth, searching for something to coax her out. And the words came out. What he really meant.

“I’m sorry.”

Mrsha stopped crying. She turned her head slowly. Pisces looked at her.

“I’m sorry for shouting. I truly am, Mrsha. I didn’t mean it. I was angry. But I should never have shouted at you. Will you come out? Thank you for the flower.”

The Gnoll stared at him. Her eyes were running. She looked at Pisces, and he imagined a cat. Or a dog. But then she shot out of the bed and leapt at him. And she hugged him. No pet could do that.

A child. Pisces sat back as Mrsha rammed into him. She buried her head into his robes. For a moment, he stared at her, but then, gingerly, he put his arms around her. Lifted her into his lap. Patted her head. She began to punch at his side, weakly.

“I’m sorry. I was just—it was the bounty and—I’m sorry. I should never have said that. Forgive me?”

He stopped making excuses. Mrsha wiped her face in his robes. She looked up at him, eyes still overflowing. Pisces rubbed at his eyes. And then he began to cry.

“I knew they’d do this. I knew, but—I’ve been trying. And this is what happens. I tried. I never meant for that! Any of it!”

He tried to stop. But they kept coming out. Frustrated, angry. And hurt. Oh, it hurt. Almost as much as hurting other people. But not enough. Mrsha stared up at Pisces. Then she sat up.

She licked his cheek and hugged him. He stared at her, feeling her feet on his lap. It was such an odd feeling. He’d had…Erin hug him? Or Selys? Maybe? In moments of excitement. But never like this. He gently patted her on the back as she blew her nose on his robes.

“I’m alright. You helped save me, didn’t you? It was brave of you. You are…my heroine.”

She looked up. Pisces saw Mrsha point downstairs. Of course. She’d heard everything. She looked at him, tearful. He didn’t need sign language to know what she meant.

“Yes. I should. I—I said very mean things, didn’t I?”

She stared at him and nearly bit his hand. He snatched his fingers away.

“Bad things. I was angry. I’ll apologize.”

She tried to tug him towards the door. Pisces held still and shook his head.

“In—in twenty minutes. I will go down then. To let tempers cool.”

He was prevaricating. In truth, now Pisces was embarrassed. So incredibly so that he couldn’t face the others. Mrsha stared at Pisces. Then she sat down and stared at him.

That was worse. The Gnoll’s stare went right through Pisces. And he sat there, recalling exactly what he’d said. To Ceria most of all. He tried to wait, to clear his mind.

He couldn’t bear it for more than ten minutes. Pisces got up, and opened his door. Mrsha followed him out into the hallway. Down the steps.

They were all there. The common room looked up as Pisces stopped at the foot of the stairs, and then quickly looked to their drinks. The Horns sat there, looking at Pisces and then away. It felt like an age since he’s shouted at them. Ten minutes? Twenty, including his tantrum? Pisces hesitated.

Then he walked towards them. Mrsha was in his arms. Lyonette hurried over.

“Mrsha! Were you bothering—”

She halted, looking at Pisces. He turned towards her.

“She didn’t bother me. Mrsha—”

He placed Mrsha down on the floor. She watched as he walked over to the table. Ceria was drinking. Yvlon was sitting with Ksmvr, eating. Both looked up silently. Ksmvr looked down at once. Yvlon stared past Pisces, her face completely blank.

And Ceria? She looked at the young man and then turned away. Drinking deeply. Pisces stared down at the table. He took a deep breath. And then another. And another.

On the fourth breath, the words came out in a rush.

“I’m—sorry. Ceria, Yvlon. Ksmvr. I am sorry. I didn’t mean what I said. I spoke in anger.”

“Oh yeah? What a surprise.”

Ceria didn’t look at him. Pisces hesitated. Yvlon looked up. She glanced at Ceria, and then at Ksmvr.

“It was a heated moment. We let things get away from us, Ceria.

“I forgive you for all my trauma, Comrade Pisces.”

Ksmvr sat up, looking relieved. Pisces almost smiled at him. Almost. Tentatively, he pulled out a chair. Ceria didn’t kick it away from him as he sat, which was good. He saw Yvlon looking at him.

“I’m sorry.”

Rare words from him. She nodded slowly. She was still angry, he knew. And Ceria. But the half-Elf was biting her lips.

It was easy, then, for Pisces to imagine saying something and inviting sympathy. In a bit they might talk. In a few days, the incident might be behind them. Tempers had been high. But right now—

His throat constricted. That was what he could do. What Pisces did. But the young man bit his lip. After a moment, he looked around, catching Ceria’s eye, Yvlon’s look. Ksmvr’s stare. Pisces hesitated, and then put his hands on the table. He spoke over the thundering of his heart.

“My name, my true name, is Pisces Jealnet. It’s a commoner’s name. I was born in Terandria. In the Kingdom of Ailendamus. If you know if it, it’s a major nation. Sprawling. I was raised in House Dultel, one of the minor nobility. Not as a noble. My father was a [Fencer] employed by the [Lord]. I grew up in the household, well, around it.”

Ceria’s head snapped up. She turned, wide-eyed, and caught Pisces’ look. Yvlon blinked. Ksmvr began rummaging in his bag for a quill. Pisces looked at his team. He had never said this to anyone. The words came out of him, first slowly, like drawing a splinter, and then faster and faster.

“It’s true. My father was Padurn Jealnet. My mother Enica. They’re both alive, I think. They were when I left. I ran away from home. Because I was a [Necromancer]. I did steal to earn a living—I stole, used magic and sleight of hand to earn enough gold to pay the price of admission to Wistram. All that is true.”

“Pisces—”

Ceria looked at him. Pisces looked back. He was trembling, with nerves this time. He tried to steady his voice as he usually did. And failed.

“I always tried to hint at having aristocratic roots. Or some past beyond normal. The truth is that there’s not much. I learned to fence from my father, but I hated it. I found I had talent at magic. But my father wanted me to follow in his footsteps. He wasn’t a terrible man. He was strict. But he was a [Fencer]. Not the best, but good. He owned a silver bell, a mark of skill. I stole it when I ran away. I thought I earned it; I bested him when I fled. I used magic, you see. But I never gained the [Fencer] class. I didn’t want to be one.”

“You don’t have to tell us this.”

Yvlon’s voice was sympathetic. She was looking at Pisces. He jerked, shook his head. Ksmvr was taking notes and eating with his free hands.

“Let there be truth. It’s already out. So—here is the truth. You should know.”

He looked at his friends. It was all he could give. They watched him, without judgment. Waiting. So Pisces began from the beginning.

“Once upon a time, I did want to be a [Fencer]. A [Spellsword], at least. I trained every day. You know most children don’t gain their classes until they turn fourteen? Well, it was around that time when I was about to level. I could already fight better than my father’s other students. He was proud of me. And then I met her.”

Pisces traced on the table, conjuring images from his past. He still remembered. And his team listened. Slowly, Erin walked back into the inn. And the young woman inhaled and smiled. Something was lifting. Pisces went on.

“I met a [Necromancer]. And she was beautiful. She had made a work of art. A—a perfect thing. I can’t describe it. It looked like nothing I have ever seen in this world. Not Human, for all she made it out of bone. A creature that nature never envisioned. Disturbing. Captivating. Beautiful and terrible. I spoke to her in the month before she died. And I found that I was gifted in magic. Not just magic, but necromancy. And my life changed.”

When you got down to it, it was a simple tale. Pisces didn’t even need to recite it all to Ceria and Yvlon at least. He did for Ksmvr’s sake. Living a lie, finding his first class—his obsession with the dead, trying to make something like his mentor had. Finding beauty in death. Because there was beauty there! A terrible one, but something alluring.

Death is not any more evil than life; it is what we make of it. She had told him that. And he had watched her die. But she had set him on her path.

Continuing. Beginning to rebel against his father, quarrelling. Revealing his talents as a [Mage] and attracting the approval of the Dultel’s [Lord], being tutored. One day—being found out. Defeating his father.

Fleeing. From there, crime. Learning to read lips, pickpocket. Finding other [Mages], even other [Necromancers], before and after Wistram. But always, always, thinking of himself as apart. Necromancy wasn’t a tool to be used to amass power or conjure servants, to kill. Not just that. It was more. Finding fascination with Az’kerash, the last [Necromancer] of legend who had poisoned the class in the eyes of the world.

And then—Wistram. Meeting Ceria. Finding a true friend. Until she found out who he was. Becoming an outcast once more. In desperation, trying to rob Nekhret’s tomb. Using the very corpses of Ceria’s master and the others to break the wards. Unleashing death on Wistram.

Ceria looked at Pisces as he paused. His throat was parched. He coughed, and someone appeared at their table. Erin Solstice. She handed Pisces a mug.

“Want milk?”

He took it, gratefully. Erin began to drift away, but Ceria looked at her.

“You can stay, Erin. Right, Pisces?”

“Surely.”

Erin hesitated, and then sat down. Pisces drank, coughed, and drank again. He spoke.

“Calvaron was my friend. He never scorned me. Just kept away after everyone found out who I was. He did help me. And he died when I broke the ward on Nekhret’s tomb. It was my fault. And I regret his death. It was my fault.”

That needed to be said. Ceria nodded. She squeezed Pisces’ arm and he looked at her.

“Montressa has a reason to hunt me.”

“Cognita said it best. [Mages] have made worse mistakes and been expelled. The Council held you to the same standard. Her standard. Montressa can hate you. Hate me. But it was a mistake.”

Yvlon and Ksmvr nodded. Pisces stared past them. Erin waved a hand and they all looked at her.

“You know, she has nightmares. Almost every night, unless she uses a [Sleep] spell. Or a [Calm] spell or something. I heard it from Palt.”

“Who?”

“The Centaur. He told me a bit about Montressa.”

The Horns stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked down and twiddled her thumbs. She spoke quietly.

“She watched someone get killed. Right in front of her. She was there. That’s why she…but I bet you knew that.”

She looked at Pisces. He nodded heavily.

“She has a reason.”

“But not enough. If you did it for a reason, that’s one thing. She hated you because you were a [Necromancer]. That’s another.”

Pisces jumped. He looked around. Someone else was listening to his story. He saw a green, light-scaled Drake, listening. Lyonette and Mrsha were standing with her. Pisces stood up unconsciously.

Selys. She looked at Pisces. Her eyes were red too. She reached out and hugged him.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t do a thing.”

“You couldn’t have done anything.”

“But—”

Selys was shaking her head. Ceria saw another Drake past her. This one had blue scales. She narrowed her eyes. Then she stood up and went over to him.

Olesm hunched furtively at his table. He was wearing a hat and a coat, but his scales were as obvious as the sun. He looked around.

“Ceria. I uh—”

“Olesm.”

Ceria stared down at him. The [Strategist] flinched. They had spoken after Lism’s campaign against Calruz. Selys hadn’t noticed him, but Erin had. She shrugged at Selys. Olesm licked his lips nervously. He opened his mouth, and looked at Ceria.

“Look, I know—I know you probably hate my guts. But I had to see if you were okay. Do you need a healing potion? I heard Yvlon’s arms weren’t good. So I bought an anti-infection poultice. It’s better than a potion. And…”

He shut up as Ceria stared down at him. The [Strategist] hung his head.

“I’m sorry too. I thought you should know this. One of the [Mages], the Minotauress, went to see Calruz.”

“She did?”

Ceria turned pale. Olesm raised his claws.

“Don’t worry! He’s fine. She left. I doubled the guard on the prison just to be sure. The cell can’t be pierced by magic anyways. But I—I’ll go. I just wanted—”

Ceria looked down at Olesm. She wanted to say a lot, but in the end she just grabbed his shoulder.

“Come here.”

She towed him over to the table. Selys was sitting, and Mrsha was sitting on her lap. Pisces looked up at Ceria and Selys glared. But she let him sit.

And they listened.

“I have joined cults. I have met other [Necromancers]. Stolen. Lied. Killed rarely. And never without cause. But it’s true. I have done much that is wrong, but none more so than in Wistram.”

Pisces looked around the table. Ceria nodded heavily, but her shoulders felt lighter. She heard an exclamation near the door and looked up. Yvlon tensed.

“Not now.”

Erin leapt to her feet. The door to Liscor had opened and five familiar faces had entered the inn. Everyone froze as Montressa du Valeross and her team entered.

“Aw, no! Take cover!”

One of the Drake regulars hunkered down behind his table. The rest of the guests began to scatter. Erin glared.

“Oh no. You’re not allowed in here! This is my inn! Lyonette, where’s that death-curry?”

She reached for her knife. Palt raised his hands hurriedly.

“Peace! We just want to speak—”

“Not to me! Get out! This is private property!”

Erin pointed towards the door. The Wistram team paused. Isceil’s eyes flashed, but Pisces got up. He slowly walked towards Montressa.

All of the [Mages] drew their weapons. Erin yanked her knife out. But it was Jelaqua who leaned out from her table.

“If anyone casts a spell, I’ll smash their heads in.”

The Wistram team paused. They lowered their weapons. Montressa stared at Pisces. Her face was pale. Pisces looked at her, and then turned. He addressed her and the room.

“I made a terrible mistake once. And because of it, people died. I never intended it. I just wanted to prove there was a place for me at Wistram. I loved it there. Before people knew who I was. I wish they had not adored my mask so much.”

What? Is that—”

Isceil’s voice was muffled as Palt pointed a finger at him. Pisces went on. Now he was only looking at Montressa, at her eyes. Hate and fear and hurt. All mixed into one.

“I’ve done many things. I’ve hurt people. Stolen. I’ve lied. To myself most of all. And I will pay for those crimes.”

She blinked. The Wistram [Mages] stared at Pisces. Beza spoke slowly.

“Does that mean you’re surrendering?”

Ceria shot to her feet. Yvlon caught her. Pisces shook his head.

“No. I will not submit to Wistram. Nor will I go back. I was judged, by one who knew the follies of [Mages] more than any other. Rightly or wrongly—I do not wish to rot in a cell or die.”

“You deserve it.”

Montressa whispered. She shook as she stared at Pisces. He hesitated. Then he bowed his head.

“I’m sorry Montressa. I never meant it. Never forgive me. But know that I never meant it.”

He looked at her. Then he turned and walked away. Still as a statue, the Wistram [Mages] watched him go. Erin exhaled. Montressa’s expression had changed not one bit. But around Pisces, in him, she thought she saw something disappear. Something heavy. He still had guilt on him, but it wasn’t an anchor anymore.

“You did the right thing, Pisces. Thanks for telling us who you were. Someday I’ll have to tell you about my life in return.”

Yvlon raised her cup as Pisces sat down. He smiled, shakily.

“Are they still staring at me?”

“Like daggers.”

“Let them. Or kick them out. They might be Wistram, but this is Liscor. And The Wandering Inn! They can’t do anything here!-”

Selys looked savagely at the [Mages]. She turned as Erin zipped past her. The young woman was conferring with Lyonette. Then Erin looked up.

“Found it!”

She threw open a trap door and hurried into the basement. The Horns, bemused, but sensing something, heard Erin shouting.

“Hey Numbtongue! What are you doing down there? Practicing your guitar? Help me find that soap Lyonette bought! And come upstairs!”

Erin raced back up, a bunch of powder in one bucket. Lyonette was already dragging a copper tub they used for washing out. Bemused, the crowd in the inn watched.

“Here it comes. Here it comes…”

Relc rubbed his claws at one table. Klbkch drank agreeably.

“I have missed this.”

Erin was mixing up water and the powder. She put a hand in.

“Wow, that’s soapy! No wonder—okay, get a mop! Ishkr!”

The Horns turned back to each other for a moment as Ishkr grabbed a mop and Erin hurried across the floor with it, shouting. It was a familiar scene. But this time Pisces knew it was engineered. That didn’t change what it meant.

“I’m sorry for what I said.”

“I’m sorry for doubting you. I know you’ve changed. And I…should have been a better friend in Wistram. Have I ever said that to you?”

Ceria looked at Pisces. He exhaled. Yvlon looked between them.

“Well, I’m sorry I didn’t talk about my arms. But this team means everything to me. I can’t give it up. I can’t quit.”

She reached out. Ceria put her hand on top of Yvlon’s gauntlet. Pisces reached out and placed it on top of hers. Ksmvr looked around.

“I am sorry I have no significant secrets I have withheld from you all. I am sorry for being substandard.”

“Ksmvr! You’re the best of us.”

The Antinium put two hands on the pile. The Horns looked at each other. Pisces tried to pretend his eyes were only itchy.

“You realize Wistram will keep hunting me. Montressa and her team will not let this rest. I could go.”

All four hands tightened on his. His team looked at him and Yvlon shook her head.

“The Horns of Hammerad don’t abandon their own so easily.”

“You’re not getting away that easily.”

“This is the only place where I belong. Where would I be if you left, Comrade Pisces?”

The [Necromancer] stared around. He bowed slightly.

“It’s an honor.”

They smiled and his heart leapt. And then—here it came. Pisces heard a shout. A strum of music from a guitar. He looked up and saw Erin. She was running down the center of her long common room. Then she leapt, flailing her arms. The momentum carried her forwards, across the slick, soaped floor.

She slid past them on her socks. The Horns stared at Erin.

Wheeee—ohgodIcan’tstop!

Laughing, Erin slid past them. Pisces inhaled, recalling. Ceria started laughing. The inn’s patrons stared. Then they saw a Gnoll cub sliding forwards on her belly, like a penguin. An Ashfire Bee clung to her head, fanning her wings for speed desperately.

“It’s like an ice rink! Or something! Watch out, Mrsha! Don’t smack your head!”

Erin laughed as she spun backwards. She tried to spin on one foot like a ballerina, but wiped out. The guests of her inn looked at each other. One of the Drakes nudged his companion.

“What you do you think? I think four out of ten. I expected food.”

“I’m not sliding. I could break a hip!”

The older Gnoll protested. But some of the guests were getting up. Relc was already on his feet.

“Alright! Let me try! Here I go!

He flung himself across the floor, so fast that he was a blur as he shot past the Horns. He crashed into a wall, but rolled over, laughing. More people were getting on their feet and Erin began warning them not to copy Relc. Mrsha went spinning around on her rear, giggling silently.

Pisces chanced a glance towards the magic door. The Wistram team was still standing there. Staring. He sat back, but then saw someone rising out of the corner of his eye.

“Well, it was fun one time.”

Yvlon rose to her feet. Pisces stared at her. So did Ceria.

“Wait. Here? In front of—whoa! Tree rot!

Yvlon spun Ceria’s chair out. The floor was so slick that the chair’s legs slid across the smooth floor. Ceria went screaming across the floor, clutching to the chair as people leapt aside. Yvlon looked at Pisces. He stared at her.

“Well? Are you with your team, Pisces?”

He looked at her. Serious Yvlon. Then Pisces shook his head and abandoned what he used to think of as his dignity. He stood up.

“Observe. Ksmvr? A push.”

He balanced on his chair with one leg. The Antinium looked at Pisces, and then heaved.

“Hey! No chairs! Whoa!”

Erin saw Pisces flash past her, balanced on one leg on the chair. Mrsha shot after him. Yvlon and Ksmvr slid past them.

“This inn is full of children!”

Beza stared at the people in the inn. She looked at the Horns, seeing Ceria point and turn the area of the inn even slicker with ice. She slid forwards, followed by Pisces, Ksmvr, Yvlon, Mrsha, Moore—

It was a moment in the inn. Just a single one, late at night. It was stupid, dangerous—and childish. The Horns knew it, but they took part anyways. They slid across the floor, chuckling. And then laughing. Not because they’d forgotten about what had happened or what the future held. But because you had to laugh. Or you’d die.

And the [Mages] from Wistram watched. It wasn’t that the Horns had forgotten them. But they refused to let them dictate their night. Montressa’s hand was tight on her staff. She watched. Isceil looked uncertainly at her, at Relc throwing Klbkch across the floor.

“They’re insane. All of them.”

Ulinde looked at the Halfseekers, heartbroken. At last, Beza turned.

“Come on. Let’s go.”

She turned. The team moved back through the door in silence. They stood outside as Beza closed the door. The laughter from the inn behind them was replaced by silence. The night. Montressa shivered. She looked at the others. Palt, glancing over his shoulder, Isceil, his tail lashing. Beza’s folded arms. Ulinde’s miserable face.

“This isn’t over. We’re capturing both Erin and him. We’ll get them. We’ll—”

Her voice broke. She turned. She looked back at the door. In the distance, past Liscor’s walls, an inn was lit up on a hilltop. And if you listened, you might still hear the laughter. For a moment Montressa remembered a laughing half-Elf and a young man. And her heart hurt. Then she shook her head.

She wiped at her eyes and walked away.

 

—-

 

Bird sat on a little tower on top of the inn. The roof was still not completed and the inn’s projected expansions were unfinished. As was his tower. Erin had promised him a new one. But since it wasn’t there yet, he’d built his own.

The Worker happily sat in the small circle of nailed-up boards and stared up at the night sky. The dark-birds were out. They had forgotten he was here. He could hear them squeaking. Erin called them bats. He called them dark-birds. The Worker watched them flit about.

Below, in the inn, he could hear laughter. Partying. Twice now, Erin had come up to ask if he wanted to come down. But he had refused. He sat up in his tower and hummed.

“La, la. I am back. I am home. And home is where I roam. Home. Not alone. I am back and I am happy. For I am Bird and Bird is me.”

He raised his bow and an arrow. With a twang he released and a bat landed on the roof, skewered. The bats above him fled as Bird began loosing arrows.

And lo, the age of peace upon those with wings ended, and the time of great death returned. The hunter of the skies had returned and all who flew trembled at his presence. Bird raised his mandibles.

“It is good to be home.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.58

“We’re going to help you go home.”

Erin Solstice stared at the young woman, the Human [Mage] who smiled and held out a hand towards her. Her eyes went wide, and her mind went blank. She felt the veil of silence around them, which cut off all sound. Even the other [Mages] at the table couldn’t hear what Montressa was saying.

And even had she not been stunned, Erin would probably not have noticed the little black cube with the silver door painted on one side that held the Horns of Hammerad. She would not have known what had transpired. She might have guessed, had she known Montressa du Valeross’ name, pieced it together with her knowledge of Pisces and Ceria’s past. But she was distracted. The pretty young woman with bright red hair smiled at her and brought back a memory, a dream.

Home.

 

—-

 

It was raining in Baleros. Probably. And there were all kinds of nasty insects, monsters—and you had to deal with mercenary armies, companies, and that was where Lizardpeople lived. Not that Zevara bought into the hating them thing. Even so, sometimes she looked at Watch Captain applications for other continents.

Baleros didn’t have Watch Captain as a standard job, but there were parallels. You could get paid well, have respect—it would take a while, but someone with Zevara’s resume might be able to swing it.

Maybe then she wouldn’t have to deal with idiots walking into her office. The Watch Captain glared over her desk at the Centaur. Palt. He’d talked his way in here, but unfortunately, she couldn’t fault the Gnoll on duty down below for letting him up here.

“Let me get this straight. You’re here to tell me—after the fact—that you’re part of a team of [Mages] sent by Wistram to apprehend a wanted criminal? And that you already did catch your quarry in a magical duel in the city? Oh, and that your team is already elsewhere and your team’s leader did not choose to visit me herself?”

The Centaur shuffled his hooves. Palt, the [Illusionist] and subject of Zevara’s wrath, really wished he had something to smoke. Still, he put on his best smile and spread his arms wide, peaceably, trying not to paw the floorboards nervously with a hoof.

“It’s my sincere regret, Watch Captain, but we’ve been hunting this particular criminal for months. It’s been a long journey and my leader would have contacted you at once! But we just arrived and we saw the fugitive with one of your civilians and out of concern—”

“You arrested someone in my city. With, what? A criminal record? I don’t recall any—I don’t recall more than four individuals in this city with outstanding bounties, and none of them are enforceable within Liscor’s walls! None of them recent, either!”

Zevara was reaching for a drawer in her desk, glaring up at Palt. He hesitated. He was under the influence of two charm spells, but all that seemed to be doing was slowing the boil of the Drake’s temper in front of him.

“Watch Captain, the matter is somewhat private. Wistram did not put out a formal bounty on the individual—”

The Drake’s head snapped up.

“You mean, you arrested a civilian with no criminal record?”

Palt subvocalized another spell, [Soothing Presence]. It didn’t seem to work that much, but Zevara’s claws stopped digging into the desk. Verbally, he smiled weakly.

“Not just a civilian, Watch Captain. Not a member of Liscor either. An adventurer, in fact. And they are a known criminal—I can refer you to several cities with an outstanding bounty on their head.”

The Watch Captain stared at Palt. She didn’t know why she hadn’t arrested him or thrown her out one of her windows. She—paused. A thought occurred to her, born out of training and she glanced surreptitiously at her claw. Then she pulled open a desk. Of all the damn times to—

“This is a matter of Wistram Academy’s interests, Watch Captain. And we are extremely sorry to have infringed upon Liscor’s laws, but a [Mage] crime should be solved by [Mages]. Of course, my team and I are fully prepared to recompense the city for any damages caused. There were um, some other incidents regarding a second fugitive by association.”

“Such as?”

The Centaur had such a soothing voice. Zevara almost wanted to sit back and let him tell his side of things. She was looking. Let’s see—second drawer down—she pulled out a neatly-folded handkerchief and grimaced. She needed to organize her things, but—Palt was nodding.

“A—small conflict in a bar. We have the rest of the individual’s team in custody, and there was some damage to the bar itself. The patrons might be waking up as we speak.”

Zevara’s head slowly rose.

“You trashed a bar? Where was the Watch?”

Palt squirmed.

“We took ah, magical measures to avoid a larger conflict. And there’s the matter of a civilian we had to pacify—the fugitive we apprehended was in danger of threatening her or taking her hostage. He’s done so in the past.”

Zevara’s claw nudged aside a spare ink pot. There. She pulled something out, stared at it. She hated the stupid thing. Whomever the [Enchanter] had been, they had made the most insanely idiotic little face—Human, even worse, it looked like a fleshy pig smiling at her—and attached it to the charm. She refused to wear it most of the time. Still. She absently wrapped it around her claw, keeping her hands under the desk.

“You…cast a spell on a citizen?”

“Only one to keep her out of trouble! She’s quite safe, I can assure you. She’s downstairs, with your exemplary Watch. You may inspect her as I remove the enchantment. And I will of course, pay for any distress caused—and the damages—and furnish you with a report from Wistram on the individual we apprehended.”

He wasn’t telling her the name. But he sounded so polite…and she was feeling calmer than she had in weeks! Zevara almost smiled as the Centaur gave her a soothing, deferential nod. She glanced down under the table—

And the little, smiling face had turned into a horror-mask of fury. Zevara paused. She looked up at Palt. Her eyes narrowed and silently, she bit her tongue, drawing blood. Below the desk she silently kicked her biggest toe into the side.

The agony made her eyes water. And her head clear. Zevara slowly looked up. Palt was smiling at her. She smiled back, slowly lowering the charm back into the desk drawer.

“Tell me, Mage Palt. And I would like to say, Wistram’s [Mages] are guests of the city—I did call for some help—”

“Which we’re only too willing to provide, Watch Captain!”

Palt sighed in relief. Zevara nodded slowly. She watched him.

“Who is the citizen below? Are you aware? And who was arrested? An adventurer and their team?”

The Centaur paused, but Zevara looked very calm. He gave her another smile just to be sure.

“The individual calls herself Selys Shivertail. She’s quite calm, but I thought this was the place to undo the spell. And ah, we arrested an individual known as Pisces Jealnet. A [Necromancer] who is also responsible for the death of dozens of Wistram’s [Mages]. His team is likewise in our custody, but two of them will be released shortly. You have my—Wistram’s word, Watch Captain Zevara.”

The Drake’s brows shot up. She stared at Palt.

Pisces?

“You know of him?”

“He’s a murderer?”

“Responsible for deaths, certainly. I will be only too happy to ask the academy to list his full crimes, Watch Captain. But my team is waiting—may I ask you to accompany me in soothing the Drake? She will need the matter explained, but I’m only too happy to use a [Calm] spell. And then we can discuss the matter of damages—for your time, we’d be only too willing to make a sizable contribution to the Watch? As a matter of gratitude?”

He smiled again. Zevara paused. She stared at Palt, and then nodded slowly.

“By all means. It is Wistram Academy we’re talking about.”

The [Illusionist] Centaur smiled, relieved, as she stood and gestured for him to follow. At last! If he was lucky, he might get to go to the inn and have something to eat before everyone else was done. They owed him large for this. He wondered if the [Innkeeper], Erin Solstice, really was one of the people they were seeking. His stomach rumbled as he absently twiddled his fingers, undoing a spell.

Below, in the Watch Barracks, Selys Shivertail sat up. Her absent gaze focused, and she sat up fast, nearly head-butting Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, who had been waving a paw in front of her face and asking slow questions. She looked around wildly. And then she began to scream.

In Zevara’s office, Palt winced. He probably should have been down there and used a calming spell first. He began to weave one, for the entire Watch house. He cast it, exhaling hard. But he was a [Fairday Illusionist], and good times were his specialty. If he was smoking something the effect would have been even stronger.

As it was, the scream lowered in intensity. Palt sighed as he turned and Watch Captain Zevara stood.

“I think some explanations are in order, Watch Captain.”

“Oh, certainly, Magus Palt. After you?”

He nodded. Montressa owed him large for this. He was really, really hungry. He trotted for the door—

 

—-

 

There were four [Mages] in The Wandering Inn. Well, four real [Mages]. That was an important distinction. Anyone could call themselves a [Mage] or teach themselves magic like the [Hedge Mage] casting poor illusion spells around the [Actors] on stage, but only a few knew how to use magic.

Four such sat here now. They were all full [Mages] of Wistram. Experts in their field of magic and agents of the academy. They did what needed doing, what few others could. And one of those things was this.

“I can’t believe it. There are more people from Earth? In Wistram?”

Erin was speaking to Montressa. Her eyes were wide, and she was standing with the other [Mage] in a small veil of silence. Montressa’s companions, the Selphid Ulinde, Isceil, the Oldblood Drake, and the Minotauress known as Beza all watched. They couldn’t see the entire conversation; it was muted to them too, but they could guess.

They’d seen it before. Erin looked unsteady, so Montressa held out a hand, steadying her. The young woman stared at her. She said something. Ulinde leaned over to Isceil.

“Bet she’s asking how many there are. Or if they know what’s happening back in her wor—”

Isceil’s tail slapped at her and Ulinde shut up. Beza also gave the Selphid a glare and Ulinde cringed.

“Ulinde.”

“Sorry! I’m just rattled from earlier. I still have a hole in my head! It’s letting air in!”

The Selphid raised her claws, pointing at the hole in her skull. Isceil made a disgusted sound and looked away.

“Cover that up. And remember, don’t say anything without a [Hush] spell or greater in effect!”

Then he smirked.

“Still, I do think she’s asking about that. Ancestors, we have to shepherd this Human all the way to a port?”

“Or hire a carriage. In that case we can send two with her while the other three check on someone else. Or ask Wistram to send an escort. It will take some doing, but we have time.”

Beza leaned back, munching on some french fries. Isceil made a face.

“Whatever it takes, I suppose. We should just be grateful this one’s not crying and clinging to us. Speaking of which—”

He glanced around the inn and stared pointedly at the Hobgoblin sitting with his book, the [Actors] on stage, and then the rather lively room of guests being served by an active staff. Isceil hesitated.

“—this inn is fairly prosperous. Do you think this Human runs it? Herself? She has to have gotten it from someone or perhaps she’s getting help.”

“People seemed to think she was in charge, Isceil. What’s wrong? Don’t you like the fries?”

Ulinde reached for some. Isceil shot up.

“Get your claws off my fries. They’re on my plate, Ulinde. See? Mine. And this…‘guest’ is the best we’ve seen so far.”

“Agreed. But some of them have to have done well. I heard there are Terandrian teams searching for one that’s a [Hunter]. And another—the singer, you know?”

Isceil and Ulinde nodded. The Selphid sighed longingly.

Lucky. I have some of her songs. If it weren’t for us coming here to meet the Halfseekers, I’d have gone to Terandria.”

“Better that than Baleros. Imagine hunting for guests in the jungles? They’re probably all dead. Or eaten by Lizardpeople.”

“What is it with you Drakes and Lizardpeople?”

Beza looked a bit disapproving as she reached for another fry and found they were all gone. Isceil folded his arms; Montressa was blinking as Erin waved her hands about, pointing at the young [Barmaid] who’d served the table, the Hobgoblin, and the little white Gnoll who was being chased off, a meatball in her mouth, from a table of adult Gnolls.

“They’re copycats. And they giggle all the time. They’re idiotic, they insult us, and historically they were on the side of the Dullahans—”

“They live on Baleros! They’re a different species—how are you like them? They’re good natured, they tell jokes about Drakes instead of outright insulting your species like you do to them, and they were against Dragons—

“They have stupid wing-flaps on their heads! They look like—walking flowers!”

“You mean, neck frills? But they’re so colorful! Besides, you have spines. Isn’t that—”

Ulinde jumped as Isceil brought one fist down.

It is nothing alike.

Beza rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything. Ulinde was smacking her lips; even deteriorated, her taste buds had liked that meal. She eyed Montressa as the [Mage] stepped back and tapped her staff on the ground. The silence enfolding her and Erin faded and the two’s voices faded in.

“Okay. I have to go. But we have to talk! Are you going anywhere? I have empty rooms! You can stay here tonight!”

Montressa was nodding, smiling beneficently as Erin looked around. Some of the [Actors] were waving at her and Temile was hurrying her way.

“Erin! Miss Erin! I hate to bother you, but the [Seamstress] must ask you a few questions.”

“Um, coming, Temile!”

Erin called distractedly to the [Actor]. She turned back to Montressa. Her eyes were still wide.

“Will you—”

Montressa ducked her head, smiling.

“Of course. We’ll stay right here. We can discuss staying—as I said, Wistram will find a solution and I will consult with my superiors at once. But perhaps it would be more appropriate to talk in private? After dinner?”

“Yes! Absolutely!”

The [Innkeeper] nodded again. She turned and then swiveled around.

“Oh! Right! You want food, right?”

The [Mages] brightened up. Work was one thing, and seeing their good deeds another, but food was food and [Mages] from Wistram loved food.

“Absolutely! We can order from the menu.”

“Sure! Or—you know, I can get you what you wanted. Hamburgers. Cheeseburgers. We have actual curry too. I mean, I have the ingredients, but I’ve never made it.”

Really?

All the [Mages] looked interested. Beza nudged Ulinde; she’d heard of the dishes, but they hadn’t been replicated yet—or at least, not for the consumption of people not actively working with the Earthworlders at Wistram.

It was a known secret, although you had to be a full [Mage] of Wistram and fairly well-connected in influence or secrets to know more. Ulinde, Beza, Palt, Isceil, and Montressa all had enough clout to know something, although Montressa probably knew the most.

She was a secret-broker after all, partnered with Beatrice. And fairly high-placed in her faction, the Revivalists. All of the young [Mages] were; they were the best of their years, prodigies. They didn’t think of themselves like that of course, but they were definitely above most of their peers.

“What is this cur-rhee?

Isceil looked suspiciously at Erin. She smiled, her eyes flicking from face to face. She really was handling the news well. Beza was impressed, but then again, maybe she was in shock. That had happened too, with that young girl they picked up in First Landing…

“Curry? It’s um, well, it’s like…a stew! Except more…you know what? It’s like a thick stew you put over other food. It’s very good—I can make it vegetable, but it usually has meat. It’s spicy generally—”

“Spicy?”

Isceil’s eyes lit up. He nodded before Erin could continue.

“I’ll have a bowl, then. Or plate.”

“Curry and rice, then. And everyone else?”

Beza looked at Ulinde. She shrugged.

“Can we share a…curry?”

Erin beamed.

“Sure, I’ll make a big pot. Can I get you appetizers?”

“More of these potato-things.”

“French fries! Sure! And let me get you some condiments. Curry will be a bit since it needs to be actually made—wanna hamburger or pizza or something before it comes out? It’s filling but—”

“We’ll take it. We’re still waiting on Palt, anyways.”

The [Mages] brightened at the assortment of food Erin was describing. They were hungry from spellcasting and with the exception of Beza who regarded fat as a sin and Ulinde, who inhabited anybody she chose, all of them were used to good eating. And they had large appetites; magic-users burned energy like no one’s business. Erin nodded, backing away and calling orders at a passing Gnoll. They watched as she hurried towards the impatient [Actor], still glancing over her shoulder.

“She bolted. How’d she take it, Montressa?”

“Very well. She didn’t panic or anything. We’ll need to convince her to leave the inn, actually.”

Montressa sighed as she placed the staff on the table. The floating copper orb hovering around it slowed and hovered in midair. She nodded at Erin.

“I told her about Aaron and the others. And the safety of Wistram, but—she actually owns this inn.”

“Seriously?”

Isceil blinked. Montressa nodded.

“Not only that. She told me that little Gnoll’s her ward and she’s employing the staff here—and that the Goblin’s her guest!”

“Dead gods.”

Beza turned and stared at the Hobgoblin darkly. She saw Erin talking to the [Actor], waving her hands and stabbing with a knife, pantomiming something—he was backing away. Ulinde looked concerned.

“That might be a problem. What’d you say, Montressa?”

“That we’d take the Gnoll and her uh, keeper, the [Barmaid]. Even consider the Hobgoblin if it came to it.”

“You can’t be serious.”

The Minotauress’ head turned around. Montressa grimaced.

“She said they were her family! I’ll need to talk to Wistram. Tomorrow. It might be harder to persuade her than we thought.”

“I’m not travelling with a Goblin. Just toss a [Charm] spell on the [Innkeeper] and let’s go. Or have you forgotten we have…”

Isceil’s eyes narrowed as he nodded at the black cube on Montressa’s belt. She adjusted her robes, concealing it.

“I haven’t. But you know our orders. We need to maintain good relationships, and that means we can’t just charm someone. We’ll try diplomacy. And if it comes to it, Palt will be the one casting spells. He can do it subtlety, Isceil.”

Ulinde glanced around the inn. It really was hopping. She saw Erin Solstice talking to the [Actor], and then pausing by the Hobgoblin’s table as the [Barmaid], Lyonette came over. Erin was gesturing at their table.

“Wait, is she telling it about us?”

Beza was instantly alarmed. Montressa waved a hand.

“Don’t worry. She’s probably just reassuring it since you’re here, Beza. She took my warning seriously; she’s desperate to go back home, she said.”

“Well, she’d better leave the Hobgoblin. Did she say if she knew any other guests? That would be a victory for our team.”

Isceil looked at Montressa. The [Mage] shook her head instantly.

“She didn’t know anyone, she said. Pity, but she is fairly well cut off, even with the door. She started this inn, you know. Found it abandoned; fixed it up.”

“I can see that. She’s quite a nice personality. Simple; engaging—perfect for an [Innkeeper]. Not like some of the guests.”

Ulinde smiled. Montressa nodded, relaxed. She waved at Isceil as the Hobgoblin, not even looking at their table, immediately went back to his book.

“Let her be, Isceil. She’s taking it in. And this is a fascinating inn.”

“Did you tell her about the Horns, Montressa?”

A look flashed across Montressa’s face.

“No. And I told her my name was Elenope. We’ll tell her the truth—later. Once she’s decided to come to Wistram. She must not know what…Pisces…was. Or he tricked her. Probably that. He’s always been good at deceiving people.”

Her hand unconsciously went to her staff. Beza patted her on the shoulder.

“Relax, Montressa. I agree with everything you’ve said. Still, an inn, employees—it might be harder to persuade her.”

Montressa shrugged.

“We’ll get Palt’s opinion. Tonight, we eat and make a good impression—stay here, perhaps. We’ll sort out the rest later. If we need to stay here longer than a few days, I’ll send this via Courier.”

She tapped the Silent Box. The other three [Mages] nodded slowly. Montressa’s face had tightened. Beza held out a hand.

“I can watch it—”

“I have it.”

That was that. The [Mages] changed topics as the food arrived. Isceil blinked as a pizza appeared, thin-crust, along with more fries and condiments.

“It’s not even been a minute!”

“Sorry about that. We’re busy. Don’t fill up; Erin’s making a huge pot of that orange stuff in the kitchen! Say, I hear a Centaur’s coming, right? Actually, will this be enough food? Between a Centaur and a Minotaur—”

Drassi apologized, then grinned at Beza. The Minotaur didn’t look insulted.

“I could eat half this round thing and have room. And my companions are pigs.”

“Don’t make me transform you. Dead gods, is this all cheese?

Isceil looked dismayed. Montressa raised a knife and fork, intrigued. Drassi laughed.

“You eat it by claw! And let me know if you want refills!”

“Hah, you couldn’t transform an ant, Isceil. You’re all magical breath and nothing else. Hot air, mostly!”

“I can breathe two elements at once and each one I choose, Beza. What can you do? Read a scroll?”

“Remind me who lost to the exiled disgrace? You said you could take him in less than a minute.”

“I was winning—that [Shatterbolt] would never be used in a duel in the Academy—”

The [Mages] were talking lively. Montressa was exclaiming over the pizza with Ulinde.

“This would go amazingly at one of the room parties. With some ale? And these fries!

They were stuffing themselves. Ulinde nodded energetically. Then she ducked. Isceil stopped arguing with Beza and froze.

“That’s a damn bee the size of my face hovering next to your head, Beza!”

What?

Reflexively, Beza swatted, then saw Apista and froze. The Ashfire Bee buzzed the table. A voice called out and Lyonette stormed past.

“Apista! Don’t you dare! Sorry about that, everyone. That’s my um, pet. Apista, go over there! Over there!

She waved and the bee buzzed away, sad as could be. For she was not a bee that was free. Free to eat the delicious fries with their salt! The Wistram [Mages] stared as she alit on a row of flower boxes. Isceil stared.

“What was that?

Beza rolled her eyes.

“Ashfire Bee, Isceil. Haven’t you ever taken a lesson on monstrous creatures? At least read a book on Izril’s fauna.”

Coursework didn’t stop when you graduated. You could spend eight years and then continue learning as an apprentice to a senior [Mage] and then join a research group where you were just another peer hitting the books or searching for ways to improve your magic. Of course, not everyone did that. Some, like Montressa, had no teacher, or had halted the bulk of their studies after graduation to pursue other activities.

Isceil just looked incredulous.

“A bee, a Hobgoblin—and I’ve never seen a Gnoll with white fur! What’s next, dancing Fraerlings in the attic?”

“Oh, hush. This inn’s got it all. I want to see these [Actors] that Erin mentioned.”

Montressa was smiling to herself. Erin had gone back to work; she looked preoccupied as she talked to the [Actors]. Drassi hurried past the Wistram [Mage]’s table. Beza caught a fragment of her conversation.

“Hey, Ishkr, have you seen the Horns? If you have, send Ceria and Pisces to Erin—”

The Minotauress stiffened, but Montressa didn’t seem to have heard. Beza relaxed as she saw the Gnoll shake her head. Drassi sighed.

“I’d better find them. No, it’s an order…”

The Minotauress cleared her throat to distract Montressa in case she heard. She nodded towards the table with Numbtongue at it as her friends looked at her.

“A damn Hobgoblin. That’s not just a danger or a pet, you know. I can’t believe it.”

“Steady, Beza. It’s just one. There are four—five of us. We’re a Gold-rank team by ourselves.”

Isceil rolled his eyes. Beza glared at him.

“They’re no joke! Izril just had a Goblin Lord. One. I know what I’m talking about when I say you cannot trust Goblins. You don’t know what they’re really like. In the isles—”

The Drake was opening and closing his mouth and right claw, imitating Beza speaking as he rolled his eyes. She swung at him, and not jokingly. He leaned back, swearing. Beza glared at him, and then at the young woman. Erin waved back, smiling; she’d been staring their way. Ulinde laughed.

“She’s terrible at this! Montressa!”

“Don’t. I like her. We’ll have a talk; she’s not going to make any big mistakes, and if she does? Palt can use a memory spell.”

“When we bring Erin Solstice back with us, I’ll need to speak to her about them.”

Beza grumbled as she folded her arms. The other [Mages] sighed, but they went back to finishing the pizza as an opening and soon Isceil was calling for a refill. They were relaxed, and never noticed Erin’s worried looks at them, or Drassi going into Celum to ask Octavia—and then into Liscor.

 

—-

 

Erin was worried. Her mind was spinning. People from Wistram were here? They wanted her to come with them? All the way to Wistram? She had no idea what to do! Fortunately, the young [Mage] had let her go, but Erin had to talk to Pisces. Not about more people from Earth existing, maybe, but at least about Wistram! Of all the times for him to be gone! And Ryoka too! She was worried because she didn’t know what to say to the Wistram team.

Even so, it was only partly worry, to Erin. Mostly it was longing. Expectation. Fear. Hope—the Horns of Hammerad didn’t show up as the dinner crowd truly arrived, but the inn was busy and they could be out on the town. They’d be back sometime, and Erin would talk to them then, get some feedback about Wistram. But they were there to take her home. Erin felt her heart beating faster, wondering what she should do.

Home?

Home. It called to her, and Erin kept glancing back at the [Mages]. To distract herself, she set about really impressing them and getting that curry ready! She actually had rice, thanks to Lasica and Rufelt! It grew on Baleros, but also, apparently, Oteslia, and the [Chef] had given her a bag.

Erin was boiling it in the kitchen, swearing as she hunted for the spices and all the right stuff that her [Advanced Cooking] told her was essential in a proper curry. She was going to make one plate that was super spicy for the Drake and maybe Minotaur and some regular spice—still very hot—for everyone else. Everyone would love it!

Outside, the [Actors] were getting into their routine. They were doing My Fair Lady followed by Macbeth due to popular demand, but tomorrow they’d be trying horror. They were already booked all morning to have their lead Norman Bates really work up an unhealthy Oedipus-voyeur complex.

Erin couldn’t wait. She smiled as she cooked, trying to think, sticking her head out now and then for a telltale sniff or pointy pair of ears or Antinium with three arms. Yvlon was least distinctive, sadly, even with her lovely hair.

In the common room, the [Mages] were enjoying themselves no end. Barely twenty minutes had passed, but they’d already eaten one pizza and were now drinking before a second course as they snacked on some of Erin’s other treats. Erin had given the staff the intelligence that the Wistram [Mages] were priority guests, and so they were getting fed—and fed well!

“Palt is going to kill us when he realizes what he’s missed. You think he’s done with that Watch Captain yet?”

Isceil burped as he replied to Montressa. The young woman was laughing, in good spirits at last.

“Bah, he’ll be there at least an hour. Watch Captains are jumped up in local cities. Little tyrants. Frankly, it’s easier up north in your Human cities. They’re all corrupt and you can just bribe them.”

“That’s Izril’s cities, Isceil. In Terandria, we get respect. Even help.”

Montressa wagged a finger at Isceil. The Drake rolled his eyes.

“Spare me. I’m not a Revivalist and I’m not a teat-sucking Human.”

“At least you’re not a Libertarian. Imagine one of them on our team?”

“They’d never come. We’re going to Izril, not Terandria, and no one but Montressa’s Human. And she’s better than most of her species.”

“Thank you, Isceil.”

Montressa replied drily. She was drinking when she spotted a tiny white-furred shape prowling around the tables to their left. Mrsha was surprisingly hard to spot thanks to her Skills, but the white-furred Gnoll wasn’t exactly camouflaged.

“Oh! Who’s this?”

Entranced, and not a little bit drunk, Ulinde leaned over her chair and waved at Mrsha. The Gnoll happily trotted over, giving them her ‘I am starving and you had better feed me’ look. She was immediately handed a bit of hamburger and chowed it down. Montressa and Ulinde bent over her, enraptured.

“I forgot how cute kids were! Least of all Gnoll kids! There’s only that baby Dullahan that Council Mage Redelia had and it’s ugly. And I’ve never seen a Gnoll baby!”

“No wonder, with how they get on at Wistram. Boycotting us because only one in ten thousand can cast magic at all. And she’s not a dog, Ulinde. Stop that!”

Beza scolded Ulinde. The Selphid watched as Mrsha leapt and snatched the hamburger bite from her dangling claws with both paws. The Minotauress hesitated.

“Hello little one. I—”

She was hesitating to touch Mrsha, wary of her huge size compared to the small Gnoll. Mrsha didn’t mind; she leapt and snagged a bit of Beza’s hamburger, winning the Minotauress’ instant respect for her audacity. The Gnoll was insatiably curious—about the copper floating orb and Montressa’s staff—and Ulinde’s two wands.

“Whoops! Don’t take those! You could hurt yourself!”

The Selphid batted away Mrsha. The Gnoll looked disappointed. She was sniffing around them, wagging her tail. Lyonette hurried over.

“I’m so sorry. Is Mrsha bothering you? Mrsha! Are you begging scraps, young miss? That is no way for a lady to behave—”

“It’s fine, we like it! Can she not talk?”

Laughing, Montressa and the others assured Lyonette. Even Isceil waved a begrudging hand. Mrsha was signing something with her paws and pointing to Lyonette. Embarrassed, the [Princess] bent, watched carefully, and looked up. The [Mages], curious to a fault, watched.

“Mrsha can’t speak. But she can communicate with her paws. She’s asking—I apologize for her again, she’s not getting a full dinner tonight! She’s asking why you have two wands, Miss Ulinde?”

The Selphid’s eyes brightened. Or something in them brightened. She smiled at Mrsha.

“That’s because I’m a [Spellslinger]. See these wands? I can cast two spells at once! Pew, pew, pew! I can show you—”

“Not in the inn, Ulinde.”

Montressa tugged her friend down. She smiled at Mrsha and explained to both.

“Ulinde’s a [Spellslinger]. Isceil’s an [Oldblood Magus]—he uses the power of his bloodline. Beza’s our [Spellscribe]—completely different, she writes down magic on a scroll and uses it from there. Palt’s our [Illusionist]—he’s still busy—and I’m a [Aegiscaster]. That means I’m specialized in barrier spells.”

“Wow.”

Lyonette’s eyes widened. Mrsha was looking up with awe at the group. Isceil’s chest inflated and he smoothed his spines.

“Well, we are Wistram’s [Mages].”

“That’s so many specialized classes. You know, we have two graduates from Wistram here as well. They’re not back yet, but I’ll introduce them, shall I? And Mrsha loves magic. She…”

Lyonette looked at Mrsha and paused. The Wistram [Mages] all glanced at each other fast. Montressa’s face had clouded again. Beza broke into the silence with a smile.

“We’d love to meet them. We don’t know everyone, but when they arrive, send them over, by all means!”

She nodded at the others and mouthed a word as Lyonette smiled. Palt. Definitely Palt. He knew all kinds of spells. Distraction—even memory-altering ones. Montressa nodded back tightly.

Lyonette hadn’t noticed. She was wincing as Erin shouted from the kitchen.

I need a taste tester! My tongue hurts! Do we have any yogurt?

“I have to go. Sorry again about Mrsha—do you want anything else? Erin’s still working on the curry—Mrsha, come on!”

“I’m good for the moment. Some more drinks and I’ll be ready to eat.”

Isceil patted his stomach. Montressa nodded. Mrsha was reluctant to go. She dragged at the floor as Lyonette tried to lift her.

“You can leave Mrsha. She’s cute! Hello, little one.”

Montressa waved at Mrsha. The Gnoll smiled and sniffed again.

“And she’s not afraid of Selphids!”

Ulinde was delighted. Lyonette hesitated, but Erin was screaming about a burned tongue so she hurried off after a stern reminder that Mrsha was eating her dinner. The Gnoll let Beza, Montressa, and Ulinde pamper her. Isceil just looked disgusted. He folded his arms.

“Females. I should have gone with Palt.”

“Want me to switch to a male body, Isceil?”

Ulinde laughed at Isceil. Like many Selphids, she changed gender by her body. Isceil looked disgusted.

“That rotting corpse? You need to find another one.”

“I’m running out! Do you know how hard it is to find good bodies anywhere that’s not Baleros?”

“Don’t tell me.”

Mrsha bit at a fry Beza tentatively held out to her. She was circling around Montressa and surreptitiously eying the food. Her nose twitched and she sneezed as Isceil flicked some pepper over the edge of the table. She fled.

“You ass!

Beza punched Isceil on the shoulder. She watched, heartbroken, as Mrsha scurried over to Lyonette, whining a complaint. The [Princess] bent, frowning.

“What’s that? What? Hm…wait—”

She glanced up at their table. Isceil hunched his shoulders as Ulinde and Montressa glared at him.

“It’s just pepper!”

“You don’t throw that at a child! Much less a Gnoll! If she comes over, apologize!”

“Ancestors damn it, quit being so sensitive! She’s fine, see?”

Isceil’s voice was distinctly relieved as Lyonette smiled and patted Mrsha’s head.

“Oh, fine. Tell Erin. Ishkr! Where are you? Did Drassi already leave to go look for…? Well, you’ll have to do. No—no arguments! Listen—”

Beza sighed as she watched Mrsha and Lyonette hurry off. She was feeling at her scroll pouch.

“I still need to scribe two more scrolls.”

“Do it later. You have multiple copies, don’t you?”

“Yes. But it’s the principle of the thing. I can’t cast magic without a scroll. You know my natural magic pool is too low for regular spellcasting.”

Her friends looked up. That was a touchy subject for Beza usually. She hadn’t been blessed with the natural talents her peers had, so she’d developed this class. By infusing a scroll with mana and laboriously writing the spell on it, she could activate a spell fast as—if not faster than other [Mages], but in return she had to provide effort and money to cast a single spell. Ulinde looked sympathetic.

“How much does it cost for proper blank scrolls?”

“Too much. Let alone liquid gemstone for writing or magicore?”

Beza grimaced. She turned hopefully as Mrsha came trotting out of the kitchen. Lyonette hurried over. She called out as they passed the mages’ table.

“Mrsha, come on! We’re going shopping! Erin’s out of—ground beef! Let’s go to the [Butchers] and I’ll buy you a snack!”

The Gnoll brightened up. Montressa glanced at Beza as she watched Lyonette adjust the door. Ishkr went after them—he set the door to yellow—a location they hadn’t seen before. Montressa raised her eyebrows—the label read ‘Pallass’. Then she looked at Beza.

“But don’t you earn a lot for scrolls, Beza? And you can make more! That’s your entire class!”

“There’s still the time cost, the cost of materials, finding the right buyers—especially if the market is oversaturated! People don’t use spell scrolls every day! I might be rich, but it’s work!”

Beza pounded the table, frustrated. Ulinde and Isceil didn’t look sympathetic.

“At least you can sell your spells. Ulinde and I are combat classes. And we’re not adventurers. Yet. My funding is a lot less than…”

“You think you’ll become an adventurer, Isceil?”

“For a bit? To earn some artifacts and gold? Gold-ranks do earn an enticing amount and I could see myself taking a sabbatical for a few years.”

The Drake looked thoughtful as he stroked his chin. Beza laughed.

“You? Gold-rank?”

“Why not? I’m not Silver. The only thing stopping me is having to put up with a bunch of idiots the entire time…”

“Well, we could be an adventuring team.”

Ulinde looked at the others as Montressa raised her brows.

“Why not? It would be fun! Tell you what, on the way back north, I’ll pop into the Adventurer’s Guilds. If I see something that looks fun or profitable—we take it!”

“It could be good training.”

Beza mused. Montressa shrugged.

“We’ll talk about it. Dead gods, is Palt not here yet?”

Half an hour—no, forty minutes had passed. Isceil waved a lazy claw.

“He’s probably just explaining everything. He’ll have to go through the ranks first—after finding the Watch Barracks—he’ll have stopped for a smoke—”

“Well, he’d better not wait too long or I’m not saving him any of this curry. Where is it?”

Erin had been out twenty minutes ago saying it was nearly done and that she was just waiting on the rice. Since then, the inn had grown more quiet. Beza glanced around—and then Ulinde grabbed her. Hard.

“Oh dead gods. Beza!”

“Ulinde, calm down. I’m trying to watch this ‘play’.”

Montressa complained as she stared at the stage. Beza growled agreement, but Ulinde’s eyes were wide. She was pointing past them, at a duo who’d just entered the inn.

“But Beza! That’s Seborn and Moore! Two of the Halfseekers! That must mean Jelaqua Ivirith is somewhere around here!”

All the [Mages] glanced around. Sure enough, a half-Giant and Drowned Man were walking into the inn. They glanced around impassively, then sat at a table close to the Wistram [Mage]’s. Ulinde started trembling.

“I—I have to talk to them. Come with me?”

She looked at her friends. Isceil was patting his stomach, trying to figure out how much more he could eat. Montressa and Beza were watching the [Actors]. They’d begun Macbeth, but a new cast was on stage. The lead, a [General] played by a Drake, was contemplating treason…

“Go yourself Ulinde, I want to watch this.”

“I can’t! I’ll freeze up! Please? Isceil!”

The Drake snorted. He was watching the play now, and glancing towards the kitchen.

“Go yourself, Ulinde. You’re a Wistram [Mage]! That half-Giant’s not even as good as you are. See his magical flow? They should be coming to you! Where’s the curry, already?”

Beza glanced up. She’d been saving room too and the alcohol was making her peckish. She looked around and to her surprise, realized the dinner rush had in fact been a vacuum.

The inn was surprisingly uncrowded. A pair of Gnolls got up and walked towards the door as the [Mages] glanced around.

“Still delayed. Erin’s in the kitchen, still.”

“Maybe dinner’s later around here.”

“Or the inn isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I knew she wasn’t as successful as everyone said. Not for a guest. Late curry—”

“You just ate two meal’s worth. Give Erin time. I bet she has to simmer the curry or something. Now, shush. This is amazing.

Montressa shook her head. She stared back towards the stage. The Drake there was giving the performance of his life. He held a claw out, staring at a spectral illusion one of the [Mages] behind stage was conjuring. Montressa knew it was an illusion, but the performance still had her watching, spellbound.

Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle towards my claw? Come, let me touch thee. I have thee not, yet I see thee still. Art thou an illusion of magic sensible to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation proceeding from heat-oppressed brain? I see thee are not magic but for—

“He’s quite good. This is a fascinating performance! As good as any [Bards] or [Performers] I’ve ever seen!”

The [Aegiscaster] whispered to Beza. The Minotauress nodded silently. Isceil had to grudgingly agree as Ulinde got up, sat down, and got up again.

“Drake’s as ugly as sin, though.”

“Really? I can’t tell.”

“Take it from me. No wonder he’s betraying his [King]; no one’s going to make him an [Heir].”

Isceil pointed at the Drake’s face and tail. Montressa and Beza couldn’t see it. The Minotauress eyed the Drake appreciatively.

“At least he looks the part. I mean, in body shape. That’s a proper [General]’s build.”

She nodded to his bulging forearms. The Drake was indeed built far better than any other [Actor] on stage. The Wistram [Mages] watched, spellbound, until a growl made Beza look around.

“Excuse me? Excuse me!”

She signaled to Drassi, who’d returned to the inn. The Drake jumped and then came over with a big smile.

“Y-yes? Can I help you?”

“We’re still waiting on the ‘ca-ree’. Is Miss Erin still working on it?”

“What? I’ll ask.”

The Drake blinked. She hurried into the kitchen.

“Curry. Sorry, it’s new and we’re making up a fresh batch. Extra spicy. It should be out in just a moment!”

“We can wait.”

Beza nodded at Isceil. He sighed, loudly, but then Erin poked her head out of the kitchen. She waved at the Wistram [Mages] and they waved back.

“It must be nearly ready. I bet it’ll be too spicy, Isceil.”

“Hah! I’ll eat the entire plate as she serves it, without a drink or anything else. How much?”

“Two small secrets?”

“Done.”

The [Mages] nodded at each other. Erin was talking to Drassi. She was glancing towards the magical door. The Gnoll, Ishkr, was standing by it waved at her and shook his head, holding up four of his paws. After a moment, Erin hurried into the kitchen. The Wistram Mages went back to watching…until they realized ten minutes had come and gone.

“Come on, what’s the hold up? Everyone else is eating.”

Isceil’s tail was lashing the ground. Montressa sighed.

“I think she messed it up.”

“You think? What’s so hard about it? I’m going to complain!”

“You idiot, Isceil! She’s our guest!

“I’m still hungry!”

He snapped back. Montressa sighed.

“Maybe we should get Palt first. He’ll be mad we started without him and maybe the Watch Captain needs more soothing. How about this? Isceil, you get Palt. Beza, you and Ulinde say hi to the Halfseekers—”

“Oh, yesyesyes, thank you!”

Ulinde jumped up, quivering with nerves. Montressa nodded as she reached for her staff.

“And I’ll ask Erin what’s wrong with the curry. We can always have the rest of her food. And I think she mentioned ice cream? That’s a Terandrian delicacy!”

Her friends nodded. Isceil was only grumbling a tiny bit as he got up and began navigating towards the door. But before they reached the door, Erin Solstice hurried out of the kitchen.

“Alright! Alright, sorry for the wait!”

She had a steaming pot full of curry, and Drassi was carrying one filled with rice. The Drake put the pot on the table and looked at Erin.

“Anything else, Erin?”

“Nope. Go find Lyonette, Drassi. Tell her I’m starting dinner!”

Erin smiled at Drassi, and then she looked at the Wistram [Mages]. Isceil hurried back to the table, Palt forgotten. Montressa looked into the pot; she could smell the spices from here.

“Whoo! Hot! I can still see it bubbling! Miss Erin, give me a full plate. A good helping; it’s spicy, I take it?”

Isceil was impatient. Erin smiled at him, putting down rice first and then a big helping of curry on top. The Drake licked his lips, seeing meat among the thick sauce.

“Super spicy!”

“Can we cool it down? I’m not looking to breathe fire.”

Beza looked warily at the hot curry. Erin smiled.

“Sure! Just one thing before we start.”

She set down the pot before Isceil could dig into his plate. Montressa nearly objected; they hadn’t been served, but Erin was looking at her. She glanced around, but all she saw were a few [Actors] on stage, the two Halfseekers—barely anyone else. The Hobgoblin was lounging against the bar, tuning a guitar, but he was alone. The inn was—

“What is it, Miss Solstice?”

Isceil was practically panting with anticipation. He loved spices. Erin looked at him and then smiled.

“I was just thinking. I have some people from Wistram in my inn. I didn’t tell you because one of them’s a jerk and both of them have a past with the academy.”

“Oh.”

Montressa’s face froze. Beza carefully watched her friend, and then put a false smile on her face as she turned to Erin.

“Don’t worry, Miss Solstice, we’re completely fine with any…incidents that might have occurred between your friends. What are their names?”

“Oh, Todam and Shelia. One’s a Human, the other one’s a half-Elf.”

“Todam and—”

All the Wistram [Mages] looked surprised. Montressa’s eyes flicked up and Beza had the same thought. Aliases, of course. She shook her head, smiling.

“Never heard of them, but I’m sure we’d love to meet them.”

“Sounds great!”

Erin beamed. She moved back as Isceil dug a fork into his plate, too hungry to wait. She reached for the pot and then paused.

“Say, do you know someone named Ceria? Or Pisces, or Yvlon or Ksmvr?”

Beza blinked. She’d relaxed. Too soon, as it turned out, and the moment of surprise ran around the table. Erin watched them. Her bright, happy smile stopped on her face.

And then it vanished. She looked down at them.

“Thought so. Mrsha says you smell like their blood. What did you do with them?”

“I—”

The [Mages] froze. They looked at Montressa, and she stared at Erin. She took too long to answer. Isceil sneered.

“They got what they deserved. You didn’t know this, but one of them was a [Necromancer]—”

He got no further. Erin grabbed him by the head. She slammed his face into the plate full of curry.

The Drake screamed. He dragged himself back, clawing at his eyes. The curry was hot, physically and in taste. It burned his eyes. Calmly, Erin stepped back. She grabbed the pot and dumped it over him.

Dead gods!

Beza pushed herself back. She stood—and Erin hit her with the pot as hard as she could. The Minotaur sat back down.

“What are you doing!?”

My eyes! That Human bitch—

Montressa grabbed her staff as Ulinde went for her wands. Beza roared with fury as she stood. She got no further than that.

From the bar, the Hobgoblin abandoned his guitar. He launched himself across the inn. Numbtongue leapt over the table and kicked Beza out of her chair as she rose. The Minotaur crashed to the ground and Numbtongue followed, kicking, punching at her as she tried to rise.

The other three [Mages] shot to their feet. Isceil, howling, pointed a wand at Erin, barely able to see. He roared.

“[Lightning Orb]!”

The inn was almost empty. The guests had already left, as had most of the staff. At the back of the room, the [Actors] fled backstage. But the Drake seized a spear that had been lying among the props and leapt to the floor, bellowing.

“Erin! Get back!”

She dodged the spell as a crackling orb of lightning shot past her shoulder. Relc slashed at it and cut the orb in half as he charged.

Senior Guardsman! Put down your weapons or I’ll put you through that table!

Montressa pivoted. She called out desperately; Erin was watching Isceil as he tried to aim at her.

“Miss Solstice, we don’t want to fight! We had to apprehend—”

Montressa saw Erin swing at Isceil’s face. The Drake raised an arm to block, snarling. She hit him in the stomach with her other hand.

Where are they?

“The Horns are alive! Put down your weapons, now, or we’ll be forced to hurt you!”

Ulinde called out. She looked at the Halfseekers, and then at Relc. He was charging across the inn’s floor, knocking tables and chairs aside. She turned, aiming both wands at him.

“[Binding—]”

Seborn appeared at her back. Ulinde half-turned, but the [Rogue] was faster. He appeared out of the shadow and grabbed the Selphid, yanking them backwards. His blade glowed like fire. With one arm he choked Ulinde, keeping her steady. The other stabbed the dagger through her chest.

Ulinde!

Seborn’s dagger plunged in and out of the Selphid’s chest, so fast that his hand was a blur. When he let her go, her chest was perforated, seared by the flaming enchantment. Montressa turned white. Ulinde swayed, and one arm came up.

“—Burst].”

The explosion hurled Erin and Seborn backwards. She stumbled back and Relc caught her, pulling her away. Seborn flipped backwards, landing next to the half-Giant. Seborn cursed.

“Damn, I missed the real body. Moore!”

“I’m up. Jelaqua isn’t here. The plan?”

“Take the Human!”

“Get back, Erin!”

Relc yanked Erin backwards. Montressa raised her staff, seeing Beza swinging at Numbtongue. This was happening too fast! How had she known? Mrsha?

Isceil wiped curry out of his eyes. He roared as he inhaled.

“Everyone duck! I’m breathing!”

Fire and lightning shot from his maw. The [Oldblood Mage] turned, sweeping his magical breath across the room. The flames and lightning bounced off Montressa’s barrier as the other [Mages] leapt out of the way. Erin shouted as Relc pulled her back, shielding her as he slashed with his spear, cutting the magical fire and lighting.

The Halfseekers dove. Moore groaned and Seborn swore; a bolt of the electricity had hit his side.

“I’m hit! Moore—”

He was already moving. The Wistram [Mages] turned. No more time for words. Beza swung at Numbtongue and he lashed out, striking her across the chest. Seborn lunged at Ulinde and she jumped backwards, firing her spells.

“I’ve got the Drake!”

Relc roared as he leapt sideways, abandoning Erin behind cover. He dodged as Isceil’s spells came after him. Seborn slashed at Ulinde; the Selphid was babbling despite her destroyed chest.

“Oh, no, no, please! I’m a huge fan, we can explain—”

She fired from both wands and Seborn twisted, vanishing with a curse among the shadows. Ulinde sprayed spells, trying to keep him at bay. He lunged in—sliced through a quarter of her throat. It would have killed anyone but a Selphid.

Four versus four—Moore looked down at Montressa.

“Surrender. And tell us what you did with the Horns of Hammerad.”

Montressa du Valeross looked up. Her surprise turned to fury. She raised her staff, the enchanted jewel glowing, contrasting to the plain wooden quarterstaff Moore held.

Surrender?

The half-Giant sighed. He pointed his staff at Montressa.

“[Stone Spray—”

The spell failed to appear. The half-Giant tried again. Montressa raised her staff and struck the ground.

“[Mana Disruption].”

Moore’s spells failed. He stared at her. Then he swung his staff. It came at Montressa from the side, slower as the half-Giant pulled his blow. Montressa didn’t move.

The quarterstaff hit the air and the air moved, rippling with the impact. Moore stared as the glimmering barrier around Montressa appeared, violet, translucent light. Montressa pointed her staff and Moore raised one hand.

“[Incendiary Darts]!”

The fiery needles struck the half-Giant. He howled. This time he brought down the staff with all his might. The wood struck the barrier and Montressa saw the magic ripple.

The staff broke. Montressa looked at Moore. He blinked and she pointed her staff.

“[Reduced Lightning Bolt]”

The copper orb hovering around her staff discharged. Moore screamed and Seborn heard. He and Ulinde were dodging around the inn. The Selphid could push her body to move faster than all but Seborn, but she couldn’t lose him. She desperately tried to fire spells from both wands, but the [Rogue] was a shadow, leaping, dodging—

Cutting her. He had cut Ulinde across the face, arms legs—deep blows some severing bones. But nothing to kill a Selphid. Montressa pointed at him.

“[Force Wall].”

The leaping shadow hit the shimmering barrier that appeared and Seborn stumbled back. Ulinde took that moment and pointed both wands.

“[Aerial Burst]!”

It caught him, but the [Rogue] was already tumbling, flipping sideways with the force of the blast. He began to leap backwards, but Ulinde leapt.

Anyone but a Selphid [Mage] would have been too slow. But Ulinde was Rampaging. The Selphid’s body moved as fast as Seborn, and her second dueling wand touched his chest.

“[Reduced Fireball]!”

Like Montressa’s spell, the fireball wasn’t as powerful as it could have been. But it still burst with a fiery bloom. Seborn went flying. His armor had soaked up most of the smaller explosion, but he was still thrown across the room. Ulinde pounced on him as he struggled to his feet. She pointed both wands at him.

“[Binding Ropes]!”

The magical ropes encircled Seborn. He kept moving, trying to break free. Ulinde shouted at him. He was cursing as the magical ropes tightened around his arms and legs.

“Just stop moving! I’ll have to hurt you otherwise—”

Across the room, Relc dove and Isceil’s breath blasted three tables and the chairs apart. The Drake was spitting lightning and frost now! Relc bellowed as he turned.

“Senior Guardsman! Surrender and lie on the ground with your hands over your head or I’ll—”

Isceil shot a ray of fire at Relc’s chest. The Drake spun his spear and cut the ray with the tip of his spear. It dissipated. Relc’s eyes narrowed. He turned and saw Seborn and Moore, down. His eyes widened as he spotted the half-Giant’s smoking chest. He whirled.

Fine.

Isceil was panting for breath. He raised his wand as Relc charged.

“[Stone Arm—”

The Gecko of Liscor slashed once. The thick stone appearing over Isceil’s scales vanished. The Drake stopped. He stared down at the spear and the spreading red slash across his stomach. Relc had pulled the blow, but it had still opened Isceil’s scales.

“Oh.”

He tried to raise his wand. Relc’s fist hit him in the face. The bigger Drake drew his head back as Isceil staggered, and then head-butted the [Mage]. Something in Isceil’s face went crack.

Relc waited as the Drake screamed. Isceil was still trying to raise his wand. Relc shrugged, swung fist with all of his weight behind it. The blow lifted Isceil as it hit him right across his cut stomach. The Drake turned white under his scales and passed out. Relc kicked him in the groin and turned.

“Anti-magic spear! He got Isceil!”

Ulinde screamed a warning. Montressa had already seen. The [Mage] raised her staff, retreating as she reinforced her barrier. Relc narrowed his eyes. He glanced at Moore and Seborn.

“You two suck.”

“[Flame Ray]! [Ice Spike]!”

Ulinde took advantage of the moment of distraction. Her spells shot at Relc. He leaned out of the way of the flaming beam and slashed. The [Ice Spike] didn’t even shatter; it just vanished as he cut it in half. Montressa gulped.

“We’re [Mages] of Wi—

Relc kicked a chair at her face. It shattered against the barrier and she flinched. Relc leapt and his spear jabbed at her stomach. It slashed through the first ward and he cursed as it sank into the second.

“[Flame Swathe]!”

“[Ropes of Binding]!”

The Drake jumped backwards as flames roared from Montressa’s staff. He slashed down the four ropes Ulinde shot at him. She leapt to one side and he blurred and kicked her in midair.

“Whoop, nope.”

Something crunched around her pelvis. Ulinde made a sound and went crashing backwards, but then she was on her feet. Relc groaned.

“Damn. Selphids.”

He turned, raised his spear too late. The [Lightning Bolt] struck him and hurled him over the back of a table. Montressa lowered her staff. She saw the figure curse, leap to his feet, and roar.

That hurt.

“Spell resistance?”

Montressa turned pale. The [Guardsman] charged her and she shot another bolt of lightning from her staff. This time, somehow, he blocked the bolt of lightning! Relc ducked behind a table, then leapt, slashing a spell aimed at him as he maneuvered around Ulinde. Montressa backed up, desperately conjuring more protections.

“[Wall of Light]. [Steelcage]. Ulinde, back off! He’s too fast! Beza, get over here!”

The Minotauress was dueling Numbtongue next to the kitchens. She and Numbtongue swung; she had size and weight on him, but he was pressing her back! She stared as he caught a fist and kicked her in the kneecap. She felt something crunch.

“How—”

The Hobgoblin hit her again, through her raised hands. Montressa’s head snapped back. She roared and grabbed two scrolls on her belt.

[Steel Body]. [Haste]!

The enchantments took hold as Numbtongue backed up. Beza charged him, head down. He pirouetted, letting her move past him. His eyes unfocused. Beza turned. She swung at him, her every moment enhanced. And he—

Dodged. The Hobgoblin leaned to one side as her fist passed by his ear. He stepped in and punched her in the stomach. Beza barely felt it. She kicked at him, enraged. He lifted his arm, catching her leg and heaving up.

Down she went. Beza hit the ground, surprised more than stunned, and then tried to get up. She met Numbtongue’s foot as the Hobgoblin kicked her as hard as he could. Beza’s head snapped back and she howled.

The Hobgoblin rubbed at one foot.

“Huh.”

Beza got to her feet and lunged. The Hobgoblin made a whuffing sound and swung. Beza’s head snapped back and she went crashing backwards.

[Power Strike]. The Hobgoblin watched her get up and walked around the bar. He came back with two bottles. He smashed one across Beza’s face, the burning liquid searing his eyes. He tried the other one and smacked his lips.

Pyrite.

Erin watched from the side, ducking back from the spells Relc was dodging. She pointed at Beza.

“I’ve got her, NumbPyrite! Get her!”

Beza roared. Her eyes were red with fury, but she felt a huge pressure weigh down on her as Pyrite in Numbtongue’s body smashed the second bottle across her face. His claw jabbed towards an eye and she recoiled. She felt sluggish! But she was [Hasted]! How—

Erin pointed at her, concentrating. Beza roared as she came at Erin. Pyrite tripped her. This time he leapt on her back and tried to twist her arm up, but Beza’s [Steel Body] made even that difficult. Annoyed, the Hobgoblin looked around. Beza swung at him as he danced a back. He avoided her every swing as she came at him, keeping her just out of range, just out of range—

Then he flipped up the fallen pot Erin had used for curry and slammed it over Beza’s head. The horns pierced the bottom, and the pot stuck. Beza screamed, but Pyrite was hesitating. He grabbed a chair, smashed it across Beza’s head as she struggled to remove the pot—kicked her in the stomach—and then sighed. He looked at Erin.

“Can’t stop without killing. Acid?”

Beza tore the pot free. She looked down at Pyrite and charged. He jumped out of the way. He punched Beza in the back of the head, tackled her, sending her skidding across the slippery floor—

And his time ran out. One minute. Pyrite cursed—and Numbtongue stumbled. Beza swung and caught him across the ribs. The Hobgoblin stumbled back. Beza turned to Erin and lifted a scroll. The [Innkeeper] froze; her concentration wavered.

“Uh oh—”

“[Arrows of Light]!”

Erin dove as the arrows shredded the table she’d been hiding behind. Beza whirled. Numbtongue rose, looking for his guitar. It was at the bar. He squared himself, narrowing his eyes as he raised his fists. Beza roared, moving impossibly fast—

You? Do you need help?

The Hobgoblin’s head turned. Who had—

Numbtongue went crashing backwards as Beza struck him too quickly for Erin to see. The Hobgoblin struggled to get up—and met a second fist to the chest. He collapsed, and Beza reached for him, strangling him.

Erin screamed.

Numbtongue!

She stabbed Beza. The Minotaur felt the searing pain in her side and looked down. Her enchanted body had been pierced! The kitchen knife stuck out of her side, two inches in. She looked up, and her eyes were crimson. Like a Goblin’s eyes. Erin backed up as the Minotaur tore the knife free. The [Innkeeper] raised her fists.

“[Minotaur Punch]! [Minotaur Punch]!

The first punch hit Beza in the ribs. The second in the stomach. The Minotauress let her have both hits. She stared down at Erin and spat. Saliva and rum from the bottle Pyrite had hit her with. She shook her head.

“That hurts a bit. But it’s just an imitation. Who taught you that?”

“I learned it from a real Minotaur.”

Erin saw Beza’s eyes narrow. She saw the punch and ducked—but too slow. Beza struck Erin across the face and Erin stumbled. Her mouth was bloody. She got back up. Aura? Could she do something other than weigh Beza down? Where was—

The Minotaur grabbed her head with one huge hand. Erin punched at her, but Beza was unmovable.

“[Numbing Touch].”

Erin sagged. She made a sound as Beza let go.

“Huh—”

She hit the ground, a sack of bones and flesh, unable to move. Beza turned. She hesitated, looking at the unconscious Numbtongue, and then saw Relc stabbing Ulinde. His spear went right through her stomach, but she kept moving, twisting off it and shooting spells.

Why the hell won’t you stop moving?

Drake!

Beza roared and Relc turned. He blocked another spell from Montressa and shouted.

You suck too, Numbtongue!

He whirled his spear and Beza hesitated. She eyed the spear and raised her fists, gesturing.

“Come on, Drake. Drop your spear and let’s see how good you are!”

Relc stared at her.

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I’m holding back.”

He spun, pointing the spear at Montressa. She paused. Relc looked around. Ulinde, Beza, Montressa, and he was surrounded. Worse, Isceil was groaning and everyone was unconscious or ensorcelled. Relc sighed.

“Put down your weapons. Or I’ll start killing you instead of holding back.”

The Wistram [Mages] stared at him. Ulinde’s mouth moved incredulously. Beza lost her temper. She roared at Relc, spittle flying.

Surrender? You have no idea who you’re fighting! I’m the best at hand-to-hand combat in all of Wistram! I’m—

A presence behind her. The [Spellscribe] whirled. A huge Drake stared up at her. He was a bit shorter, but only big. And he was even more muscular than she was. He shook his head as Erin got up groggily, helped by a pale Raskghar, trembling with fury—

“Wistram’s standards must be even lower than I remember. Grimalkin. Strongest [Mage] in Pallass.”

Grimalk—

Beza jerked backwards. The Drake swung. She saw a huge, scaly fist and threw up her guard—

 

—-

 

“I’m so glad to have your assistance, Watch Captain. If you’ll follow me?”

Palt trotted from Zevara’s office. She smiled.

“Certainly, Wistram’s representative!”

She followed him down the steps. She had something in her hand. A whistle, made of tin. Palt didn’t notice her as he trotted down the steps, using the handrails for guidance. Zevara put the whistle in her lips and blew it. It made no sound.

“I hope Miss Selys wasn’t too—upset. I trust we can amicably explain the situation. As I said, Wistram is willing to make a very generous donation—and recompense her for her trauma, of course!”

Palt murmured over his shoulder as he slowly reached the bottom of the steps. Zevara gave him a bright smile.

“Let’s go see, shall we?”

The Centaur trotted past the empty receptionist’s desk. He looked around the barracks, straightened his vest—

Get him!

The Watch hit him as he entered the barracks. Gnolls and Drakes yanked him off his hooves. Beilmark smashed a club across Palt’s face as he fell.

The Centaur didn’t even have time to utter a spell. The Gnolls and Drakes hit him with batons and clubs from both sides. He screamed once before they brought him down. Zevara shouted as the [Guards] made sure the [Mage] was unconscious.

“Enough!”

They stopped kicking him. Senior Guardswoman Beilmark growled, her fur standing on end.

“What was it, Watch Captain? He said he was a [Mage] from Wistram—”

“Maybe he was. He cast an enchantment on me. And he attacked—”

He attacked Pisces!

Selys pushed her way forwards. She was shouting and crying. Zevara turned to her.

“There were five of them! They—they said they were from Wistram. He wasn’t moving when—they put him in a box! And then they got the others! Ceria, Ksmvr, Yvlon—I saw it all! I was under a spell!”

Guards!

Zevara had heard enough. She bellowed and Liscor’s Watch looked at her. The Watch Captain turned. Palt’s spell had gone and all that was left was the kind of fury that was so overwhelming it was calm. Zevara turned.

“There are four [Mages] in the city that assaulted Miss Selys Shivertail and took a Silver-rank team hostage! I want the rest of them found now and arrested! Get an anti-mage team, Beilmark! Find Relc, Klbkch—get Jeiss and the other Senior Guards too! There’s no telling what levels they are, but they’re not leaving the city! I want this done quietly, without them getting a chance to loose any more spells—”

“Kill or take alive, Watch Captain?”

Beilmark growled. A Gnoll was growling as the [Guards] grabbed weapons. Another went for a bell.

“Alive unless they threaten you, Senior Guardsman. Belay that bell, guardsman! No alarms! Spread out! I want eyes on the walls—”

A thought hit Zevara. No, a certainty. She strode out of the Watch House. Selys and the Watch followed her. Zevara looked towards the east and cursed.

“Get that squad together, Beilmark. You five! Get to the eastern wall! Run! Check to see if there’s any activity around the inn!”

She ran. Selys stopped only to kick Palt in the face before she was hot on Zevara’s tail.

 

—-

 

Beza the Minotauress was lying down. She realized it only when it turned out the wall was floorboards. She blinked.

“Huh? Why am I on the floor?”

That was what she tried to say. But it didn’t come out. Grimalkin squatted down and rolled her over. Beza stared up at him. He inspected her jaw and shrugged.

“Concussion. I didn’t break the jaw. I’m getting better at not doing that. Then again, Minotaur’s jaws are tough. Miss Solstice? [Dispel Magic].”

“Whuh—”

Erin jerked as the numbness left her. She stood, turning.

“Numbtongue!”

“Not hurt. Cracked bones. I’ll see to him. Are there any more?”

Grimalkin nodded at Beza. She was still staring at the ceiling, trying to say something. Erin looked around.

“There’s one in the city—they were going to leave—Seborn! Moore!”

“Alive. The half-Giant’s wounded.”

Grimalkin looked around the inn. His tone was conversational. Montressa was screaming something at Relc as he sliced closer. He was so casual. Erin tried to grab at him, but her arms were still hard to move.

“They were gonna—”

“I heard. You’re lucky I was coming to tutor Miss Springwalker. I got the message from your Gnoll at the same time as Miss Ivirith.”

“Miss—”

Ulinde was firing spells, at Relc, screaming as she aimed two at Grimalkin. He blocked them with one claw. She whirled as something moved. A huge, Gnoll-like beast was bent over Moore. It raised its head. Ulinde froze.

No Gnoll looked like that. But what was it? Then she saw the dead eyes. And she knew.

Jelaqua leapt. She caught Ulinde, ignoring the spells that burned holes into her Raskghar body. She snarled. Ulinde screamed.

“I—I’m—I can explain! I’m—I’m a huge fan, Miss Ivirith. B-but—”

“Shut up.

The Selphid [Mage] did. She stared at Jelaqua, trembling. The Raskghar’s mouth opened.

“Hey. You know what’s going to happen next?”

“Wh—”

Pain.

The two crashed across the inn. Montressa, spinning, screamed as she saw her friend.

Ulinde!

Jelaqua was ramming the younger Selphid’s head into a wall. Two blows and the skull caved in. But there was no brain. The broken face jerked backwards, trying to utter a spell around a shattered jaw. Jelaqua grabbed Ulinde by a leg and swung her into the wall.

Bones broke. The Selphid [Mage] made a sound like a bag of dirt hitting the ground. Again. And again—

A spear at Montressa’s chest. Relc cursed and backed up. Montressa uttered a spell and he cut it as the scythe swung at his chest.

“How many barriers do you have?

Stop! We are [Mages] from Wistram! We’re—”

Montressa looked around. Ulinde’s head was gone. She was lying on the ground. Her chest had been torn open and something orange was oozing into her. Another Selphid. Ulinde was screaming with her real body.

The [Aegiscaster] looked around. She saw Beza, struggling to sit up, throwing up. Isceil, bloody, down. And then Grimalkin. He stood up as Erin poured a healing potion on Numbtongue’s jaw.

“You. [Barrier Mage]. Drop the staff.”

Montressa looked around. Then she ran. Relc exclaimed as she fled out the doors. He looked at Erin.

“You alright?”

“Fine!”

The former [Sergeant] spotted her bloody mouth and his eyes narrowed. He nodded at the [Sinew Magus] as Grimalkin strode towards the door.

“Hey, Grimalkin.”

“Relc. What is this, a Wistram thief team? Did they try to steal the door?”

“Apparently they got the Horns. There’s blood. No sign of the Horns; Lyonette got me. She was trying to find Klb and more Gold-ranks, but they must’ve been away. I had a heck of a time not killing them. Watch the Human. She’s the best. Lightning spells from that orb-thing. The Drake was Oldblood with two breath attacks.”

Grimalkin nodded. The two walked outside. Montressa was fleeing down the hill. She’d gotten far, but she wasn’t fit. She was gasping as she tried to summit the second slope, running to Liscor.

Hey! Stop or we’ll break your legs!

Relc bellowed after Montressa. She whirled with a scream.

Stay away!

Magical arrows shot from her staff and lightning flashed at the inn. Relc spun his spear, but Grimalkin raised a claw, preempting Montressa’s spells.

“[Barrier of Wind].”

The lightning struck the barrier and it exploded. The [Sinew] Magus swatted away an arrow that was flying at his mouth; the rest he ignored. Relc punched one and growled.

“I really want to hit her.”

He leapt down the hill, rushing at Montressa. She went pale and planted her staff in the ground. This time the ruby gemstone flashed illuminating the dark landscape.

“[Five-Fold Arcane Barrier]. [Chain Lightning]!

Relc’s eyes widened. He dodged, slicing, but this time he was too slow. The layered ward sprang around Montressa at the same time as the orb unleashed something like true lightning. It hit Relc—no, his spear had caught it—Grimalkin saw Relc blur backwards, and then leap backwards. Grimalkin surged down the hill and met him. Relc appeared, clutching at his arm. There was a crater marring his scales. He swore a blue streak.

“I got tagged. I hate Tier 4 spells! What the hell’s that?

He pointed. Grimalkin eyed the magical wards surrounding Montressa. Grudgingly, Grimalkin uncrossed his arms.

“That’s a Tier 4 spell—layered. I could hit that pretty hard.”

Stay back!

Montressa screamed at the two Drakes, her face pale with exhaustion. She was fumbling for a mana potion and dropped it. Relc laughed, and then grimaced, clutching at a smoking black spot on one arm.

“Amateur! She didn’t even have that in her belt! Ow!”

“How’s your arm?”

Grimalkin looked at Relc. The [Guardsman] growled.

“I got most of it with my spear. Damn, damn—I hate lightning. Hey, I can’t break more than one of those stupid shields at a time. My spear doesn’t go through ‘em all. I could get three with [Triple Thrust], but that—”

Both of them looked up as Montressa pointed her staff. Grimalkin raised his arm.

“Hm. [Resistance to Lightning]. [Force Shield].”

This time the lightning bolts burst on the shield. Arcs of electricity hit Relc and Grimalkin, but the enchantment meant the bolts did little more than tickle. Relc sighed.

“Ooh, nice.”

“Thank you.”

“You want to go up there and hit her? I’m fed up with eating spells.”

Grimalkin paused. He was watching Montressa with narrowed eyes.

“That’s a good barrier spell. She must be a specialist.”

He shouted up at Montressa.

Human. Put down that staff! Release your mana or I will come up there! I am Grimalkin of Pallass and this is the Gecko of Liscor!”

“Aw, don’t say—”

Don’t come any closer! I’m a [Mage] of Wistram! I’ve done nothing wrong!”

Montressa’s voice was hoarse. Grimalkin raised his brows.

“I’d surrender, Miss [Mage]. I’d prefer not to kill any more [Mages] from Wistram right now. You’ve attacked innocent people in Liscor. Put down your staff now.

“Yeah! You’re under arrest! You’d better pray the Horns are alright! Surrender and you won’t be harmed!”

He turned to Grimalkin and lowered his voice.

“If they’re dead, we’ll probably feed them to Shield Spiders. If Erin doesn’t kill them.”

Montressa hadn’t heard the last part, but her eyes bulged as Grimalkin began walking casually up towards her. She shrieked at him and Relc.

“For what? We apprehended criminals!

The Drakes paused. Grimalkin was frowning. He looked at Relc. Montressa desperately seized onto that.

“We explained to your Watch Captain why we’re here! We did nothing wrong!

Grimalkin glanced back at Relc questioningly. The [Guardsman] paled.

“Oh shit. Did she?”

Liar!

Erin burst out of The Wandering Inn. She was panting. She pointed down at Montressa and shouted at Relc and Grimalkin.

“They did something to the Horns of Hammerad! Mrsha said she smelled their blood.

“Wait. You attacked a group of [Mages] just based on that?”

Grimalkin folded his arms. Relc scratched at the back of his head.

“Yeah, sort of shoddy evidence. Oh shit. Maybe—”

“We only captured them! They’re alive! But that monster—that—that murderer! The [Necromancer]! Pisces! He’s a monster!”

Montressa shouted up at Erin. She aimed her staff at the [Innkeeper] and it began to glow. Relc lifted his spear, aiming it. Grimalkin’s brows snapped together.

“Drop the staff. You won’t get a second chance.”

He lifted a fist. Montressa wavered. She looked at Erin. She looked down at Grimalkin. Relc was dodging around the hill, circling as he advanced. Suddenly he looked up. Stared at Liscor’s walls. Then he ran. Grimalkin glanced up as Relc bellowed at him.

Incoming! Get clear—

Atop Liscor’s walls, a spell was forming. Magic coalesced, blobbed together, and then shaped itself. A shimmering, purple-white comet tinged with brilliant blue shot down from the heavens. Montressa turned, and her eyes went wide. The spell was huge. She threw up her arms, mouthing a spell—

The explosion and impact of the comet striking the ground next to Montressa’s barriers was followed a second later by a kick that sent Erin stumbling backwards. Relc and Grimalkin didn’t move. The two Drakes braced and Erin looked around wildly. She was half-blind and her ears were ringing from the sound. What happened? What had—

She realized what had happened as she stared at Liscor, and then at the hill where Montressa had been standing. A spell. From atop one of Liscor’s walls. Someone had fired it! She looked down at the hill—

 

—-

 

“Direct hit on the hill, Watch Captain!”

“Good.”

Watch Captain Zevara lowered the command scroll tied to the wall’s inbuilt spells. The rest of the Watch stared at her, keeping a respectful distance. She squinted down at the hill.

“The [Mage]?”

“Alive, Watch Captain. Her barriers—held the blast.”

A Gnoll gulped as he pointed. Zevara stared at the shimmering shield surrounding Montressa.

“Huh. I should have hit her directly, then. Send a team down, now.”

 

—-

 

Grimalkin brushed at dirt from his scales. Relc was swearing, cupping a claw to one of his earholes. Grimalkin stared up at the hilltop. Despite himself, he was impressed.

“Hm. She is one of Wistram’s better [Mages]. That only got four of her barriers. A pure defensive expert; the orb’s got good synergy. You know, I could adapt this tactic. Where are my notes?”

Montressa was lying face-flat on the hilltop. The bombardment spell from Liscor’s walls had knocked her flat, barriers or not. She looked up, nose bloody, and tried to get up. Drakes and Gnolls were advancing from Liscor, running across the uneven terrain. She pointed a staff at Grimalkin and Relc as they climbed.

“[Flame Veil]! Stay back! This isn’t right! I said, stay back! [Chain Lightning]!

This time Grimalkin caught the spell as Relc raised his spear. The lightning struck both spear and the [Sinew Magus]’s arm; it flared, thundering, and both he and Relc stepped back. Unharmed. It was mostly from curiosity at this point; Montressa was swaying, but both Drakes eyed the orb floating around her staff.

“What the hell is that orb? Some kind of artifact?”

“She’s dual-casting from it. No—the spells are linked to the orb. All lightning-based. Some kind of artifact?”

Montressa swung her staff, aiming at both Drakes. Relc sighed.

“Seriously, drop it. Or I will break something. I’m almost as mad as Captain Z.”

“I’m a Wistram—

Grimalkin’s eye twitched.

“Young woman. Say that one more time and I will hurt you.”

Relc, Grimalkin! Watch your backs!

The two Drakes turned. Relc and Grimalkin saw a shape appear in the door. Jelaqua roared, grabbing what remained of Ulinde’s corpse. She was still grappling with Ulinde, immobilizing her—part of her real body was seeped into the [Mage]’s wrecked corpse and it was twitching, signs of an internal battle. But that meant neither she nor the two immobilized Halfseekers or Numbtongue could stop—

Nobody move!

Isceil held a wand to Erin’s face. She was struggling, in the grip of Beza. The Minotaur looked unsteady, but she was holding Erin, ignoring the [Innkeeper] kicking at her and Isceil. The shout stopped the [Guards] rushing towards Montressa. Relc groaned and Grimalkin sighed.

“Should have broken the jaw.”

“Erin!”

Stay back!

Isceil’s eyes were wild as Relc began to storm up the hill. Grimalkin held up a claw, catching Relc.

“Relc, hold off the [Barrier Mage]. I’ll stop those two. Let the [Innkeeper] go, [Mages].”

He strode up the hill, ignoring Isceil’s shouts. The Drake’s wand emitted a jet of fire and Erin shouted. Grimalkin stopped. His voice was a roar, as loud as when Erin had first met him.

“I am Grimalkin of Pallass! You—Drake, and you, Minotaur. Let her go or you’ll find yourself on a watch list across all of Izril. And you, Minotauress! Where’s your honor?”

The Drake and Minotaur hesitated. Isceil gritted his teeth as Beza clenched one hand unsteadily. Isceil shouted back.

“Let us go! We’re from Wistram! We have rights—”

You’re under arrest! Lay down your weapons or we will shoot you! [Archers]!

Beilmark howled as she arrived. The [Guards] with her leveled their weapons. The [Mages] froze. Beza called out.

“Montressa, tell them! We’re hunting criminals!

“That changes nothing about this situation. Lay. Down. Your. Weapons.”

Grimalkin was losing patience. Montressa shouted at him.

“We’re from Wistram! What part of that you don’t you understand? The Academy sent us to—”

“[Piercing Shot].”

Someone loosed an arrow. Beilmark jerked. The arrow flew, straight and true. On the hilltop, Montressa, Relc, Grimalkin—and the watching Isceil, Beza, and Erin all saw the arrow fly. Straight at Montressa du Valeross as she looked around.

The arrow went straight through her shoulder. Montressa spun with the impact. Her mouth was wide open, gaping. She stumbled. Isceil’s eyes went wide.

“Mont—”

A second arrow sprouted from the arm holding the wand to Erin’s face. He jerked screaming. Beza raised her arm. An arrow appeared in her left shoulder. Then her right. And then one more in her left forearm. She stared down at the arrows as Erin stumbled away from her, ducking reflexively.

Erin heard a soft hiss, and a thunk. Then a scream. The Minotaur stared down at an arrow sticking out of her abdomen. Another arrow hit Isceil in the knee.

What was happening? The [Guards] took cover reflexively, shouting at each other. Relc and Grimalkin stared around, pinpointing the [Archer].

And then—there was a song. A warbling voice, cheerful, singing, accompanied by the flight of arrows. Thock, thock, thock. Erin’s eyes widened.

La, la, arrow here, arrow there. Should I shoot to kill? Or should I not? This are very complicated thoughts. Shoot, shoot, shot.

Bird stood on a hill and drew back on his beloved, new bow. He was singing, drawing arrows and loosing with all four arms. Two more arrows shot from his bow. One struck Isceil in the other knee and he dropped. The other hit Montressa’s arm as she raised her wand. She went white and her eyes rolled up in her head. Beza was on her knees. Bird kept firing.

“Stop! Stop!

Beilmark howled it, but Bird was still loosing arrows. Grimalkin moved to block the arrow shooting at Beza. Relc was quicker. He slashed with his spear and an arrow snapped in midair.

Bird, stop!

The rain of arrows obligingly ceased. In the silence, as the [Mages] lay on the ground and everyone, Zevara, the [Guards], Grimalkin, and Relc all stared, Bird marched up the hill.

He had a new bow. And his carapace looked—new. Undamaged with the nicks and damage older Workers and Soldiers accumulated. More than that, he had four arms. Two legs. He was whole. He paused as Erin stared at him. Both of them ignored the [Mages]. After a moment, Bird raised a hand.

“Hello, Erin. I am Bird. Did you forget about me?”

Bird?

The Worker paused uncertainly.

“Is that a yes? I am Bird. I have a room here. And I used to have a tower. It was exploded by a Goblin. With a sword. May I have it back?”

He pointed up at the roof of the inn, still not finished. Bird paused. And he looked at Erin. His mandibles opened and closed.

“Do you remember me?”

Erin reached out, her eyes filling with tears. She hugged him, laughing. Bird held stock still, and then he patted her on the head with one of his hands.

“Is this a yes? Or a no?”

“Of course I missed you, Bird. I tried to visit! Where were you?”

“Healing.”

The Worker stared at Erin. She laughed, and he kicked at the ground. She heard a groan and looked down. Beza’s eyes were nearly rolled up in her head. Bird paused.

“I’m home. Who are these people? Bad people?”

“I—”

And then the inn was crowded. Zevara slammed out of the door of the inn, having used the magic door. Erin turned as the Watch Captain stared around.

“What in the name of the Ancestors was that? Senior Guardsman Relc? Front and center!”

She bellowed as [Guards] streamed out. They dropped on the [Mages], grabbing wands and their possessions as more trained bows on them. Erin saw Relc jogging up the hill.

“Hi Watch Captain—”

Senior Guardsman Relc! Explain this before I take that spear and shove it up your tailpipe!

Zevara bellowed in his face. Erin hadn’t heard her this mad in a long time, and never not at her. Bird looked at her and she hugged him. He sighed.

“I am much cuddled. Are there any birds left? I have missed them.”

“Watch Captain, I uh, was responding to a distress call—”

“Why in the name of the Ancestors was I not informed?

“It was an emergency, Watch Captain. Lyonette found me first, and then she ran to see you—”

“We were busy dealing with the Centaur situation, Watch Captain.”

One of the [Guards] winced as Zevara rounded on him. She stared at the door—and then as it burst open.

Move! I heard—by the walls!

Keldrass and Bevussa burst into the inn. Zevara stared at them and shouted.

“Keep them clear! No—shut up, Relc! Someone find Miss Lyonette before she calls half the city on this inn!”

“Is Lyonette okay? I sent everyone out of the inn! And I tried to tell you all, but it was hard and I was looking for Relc and the Gold-ranks—oh no! There’s one more [Mage]!”

Erin was panting, wiping at her bloody mouth. Beilmark shook her head.

“Miss Lyonette wasn’t in the barracks. She must have missed the excitement. There’s a Centaur in custody.”

“Put all these [Mages] in a magic-warded cell! Patch them up first—[Healers]! And get me Guildmistress Alonna!”

Zevara was roaring, looking for someone to take her fury out on. But the [Mages] weren’t even conscious. Jelaqua dropped what looked like a side of meat in front of the [Guards]. Everyone recoiled.

“Dead?”

“Selphid.”

Jelaqua growled. The Gnolls backed up as the Raskghar-body rolled its shoulders. The…remains of the corpse that was Ulinde was making a sound, but not with any part of the body. It came from inside and sounded a bit like sobbing; a buzzing, bubbling sound.

“I dealt with this one. It’s not causing any more trouble. And I was nice after what they did to my team.”

The Gold-rank Selphid looked around. Moore was sitting up, prodding at his chest, and Seborn was helping him up, supporting one arm. Relc snorted as he saw Numbtongue leaning against the bar.

“That was a terrible fight. Those stupid [Mages] were using spells and I was afraid to hit them too hard. So was everyone else.”

Zevara’s lips compressed. She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] was unsteady on her feet.

“Miss Solstice. Explain this to me. I met one of the Wistram [Mages] who informed me he attacked and abducted Pisces, and the rest of his team after enchanting Miss Selys.”

Selys! Is she alright? The Horns—”

Zevara held up a claw. She was looking around.

“Magus Grimalkin?”

“Here.”

The Drake loomed and the Watch respectfully backed up. Grimalkin’s arms were folded and he looked extremely displeased. Zevara nodded to him, modulating her bark.

“Magus Grimalkin, thank you for your help.”

“What I gave. I’m still trying to ascertain what just occurred. Has a crime been committed or not, Watch Captain? I dislike being the first resort for Miss Solstice as well. Miss Erin, Watch Captain Zevara was the first person you should have informed if you suspected danger to your friends.”

“But—”

Erin hesitated as Grimalkin glared at her. Surprisingly, it was Zevara who came to her aid, shaking her head.

“To my knowledge, it was completely illegal, Magus Grimalkin. They ensorcelled one of Liscor’s citizens and attacked an adventurer team in my city without provocation. They apparently also used a spell on an entire bar! Miss Selys was apparently a witness to it all, but—apathetic until the enchantment was released.”

A furious murmur ran through the Watch. Relc spat, hitting Montressa as someone dragged her past him. Grimalkin’s frown deepened.

“Mind-blanking spells. This is typical Wistram arrogance. Which doesn’t change the fact that they had a reason to go after the Horns of Hammerad, Watch Captain. I’d like to know what that was. Regardless, I’m satisfied on the count of their guilt. Wistram has done this before. Not in Pallass, but elsewhere, certainly.”

He looked at Zevara and she bared her teeth.

“I’m aware of that. But no one casts spells on Liscor’s citizens. Moreover, I want to know what exactly the Horns of Hammerad have done to incur Wistram’s wrath. Casting mass-attack spells like [Chain Lightning] in the vicinity of Liscor around civilians is another felony, although I assume they didn’t start the fight?”

“Are they alive?”

Zevara nodded as Erin looked at them anxiously.

“That’s what I heard. The Centaur mentioned apprehending them, but I don’t see them anywhere. We will find them, Miss Solstice. Now explain to me how you knew they’d attacked the Horns of Hammerad.”

Erin pointed back into the inn.

“Mrsha smelled blood on them. Blood from the Horns of Hammerad.”

“And you believed her?”

One of the Drake [Guards] was skeptical, but all the Gnolls—as well as Zevara and Grimalkin—didn’t seem bothered.

“Junior Guardsman Silt, the ability of Gnolls to detect blood is a recognized aspect of law enforcement. Your colleagues are allowed to make credible investigations into violence based on what they smell. Miss Solstice acted beyond her rights as a…citizen of Liscor, but we’ll discuss that later.”

It looked like it cost Zevara to say that last. Grimalkin raised his brows as she turned to her officers.

“Well, that settles it. Senior Guardswoman Beilmark? Take some Gnolls and track down the Horns with Relc—”

“There won’t be a need for that, Watch Captain. If I’m right, your search would only end up right back here.”

Grimalkin interrupted. He looked at the [Mages]; a [Healer] was seeing to them and cursing at Bird’s arrows. Bird stared at Bevussa and waved. Numbtongue stared at Bird. Bird waved at him too. Grimalkin strode over to Montressa and peered at her belt, then bent and came up with the black cube.

“Ah, I thought so. This team is very typical of the academy.”

He showed the object around. Erin stared at it.

“What is it?”

“A Silent Box. It’s a mage-prison developed by Wistram. A kind of contained space—very old artifacts, similar to Bags of Holding but much, much more advanced. I tried using the same methods myself. This team must have wanted their quarry badly to be sent with one of these.”

“They’re in there?

Even Zevara looked shocked. Grimalkin nodded, grimacing.

“Simple enough. It’s like a Bag of Holding, not like an actual dimension you can walk into. I just have to release them. It’s fairly intuitive if…”

He touched the door and it shone. Grimalkin reached in—or perhaps the box expanded to fit his hands—and suddenly four figures were lying on the ground. Ceria sat up. Her eyes went wide, refocusing in the dimmer light.

Stop! Montress—”

She raised her skeletal hand, ice crystallizing around her finger. Grimalkin jerked her hand up and the [Ice Spike] shot into the air. Zevara swore and recoiled. Yvlon swung muzzily, her arm still twisted. Ksmvr jerked.

“—war. If they are hurt, the Antinium—”

He stopped and stared around. Ceria blinked at Grimalkin and her eyes went wide. The [Sinew Magus] nodded at her and then instantly focused on Yvlon. She was staring around wildly.

“Where are we? What—”

Pisces!

Erin shouted. Everyone, Horns, adventurers, and [Guards] turned. A white mass of robes lay on the ground. But it was deceptive. Pisces’ enchanted robes were the only clean thing about him. The rest—Erin stared down. His face was swollen, and bloody.

He wasn’t moving.

“Pisces?”

She reached for him. Grimalkin grabbed her hand. He waved an arm and something pushed everyone back. Only the [Healer] and he were close. Grimalkin’s claw hovered over Pisces’ face.

“Still unconscious. He’s badly beaten. I detect bone chips—broken bones here—ruptured blood vessels—”

“Magus Grimalkin, I have localized tonics—”

“Good. You’re familiar with multiple fractures in bones? Right here. Here. There’s blood and swelling here—how localized are your tonics?”

The [Sinew Magus] was calm as could be as he knelt over Pisces. Erin pressed against the barrier, desperate to get closer. It trembled and she fell through. Grimalkin looked up, annoyed.

“Turn off your aura, Miss Solstice. Don’t interfere with my spells. This is a delicate process.”

“My—is he going to be alright?”

“Silent Boxes preserve those who are captured as they were. Time passes very slowly; these injuries are fresh. Stand back and let us work.”

Erin did as Grimalkin bent. Ceria was babbling to Zevara.

“I—we tried to talk! But if we started throwing deadly spells—”

“I’ll send a team to the bar. Was anyone else hurt?”

“No. Just Pisces. The rest of the adventurers were incapacitated. But someone check on Ksmvr.”

Yvlon grabbed Ksmvr. The Worker was still smoking from the electrical burns he’d taken. He shook his head as a second [Healer] looked at him.

“I am functional. Yvlon. Someone must see to you.”

“What?”

The woman looked at him. Slowly, Zevara pointed.

“Your arm’s dislocated.”

Yvlon looked down. Her armor had been twisted. Ceria gasped as she saw—Yvlon covered the gap as the [Healer] ran over.

“It’s fine. Just dislocated. Swollen. A bit of infection. It’s—”

Erin saw Yvlon being led away. Ksmvr followed her, leaving Ceria behind. She watched as the [Healer] reduced Pisces’ swelling and Grimalkin straightened. He nodded at Erin.

“He should be fine. They left him alive on purpose.”

Erin exhaled, but Ceria was shaking. She pointed at the unconscious four [Mages] and ice began forming around her hand. Grimalkin moved between her and the [Mages]. The half-Elf’s face was white.

“They jumped us. It was Montressa and some [Mages] from Wistram. How dare they? We didn’t do anything! They—”

“You know her?”

Ceria looked up. She nodded in response to Zevara’s question.

“That’s Montressa du Valeross. She was a classmate of ours in Wistram, years ago. She’s…she’s all grown up.”

Erin’s eyes widened. Ceria stared down at Montressa’s face. Zevara cursed.

“So they are official [Mages] from Wistram? Dead gods damn it. This just got a lot more complicated.”

“What are you going to do?”

Erin looked at Zevara. She wanted to—the fight in the inn still hadn’t left her. Her friends had gotten hurt! More of her friends! She wanted to kick the downed [Mages]. Even Bird’s arrows sticking out of them didn’t make her feel better. She was so angry—she could barely remember being this furious before. Zevara glanced at her and the Watch Captain’s tone softened.

“Let the [Healers] see to you. Magus Grimalkin, will you sign off on my report? I need to make an immediate statement and to query Wistram.”

“Of course.”

Grimalkin nodded. Ceria stared around as Zevara strode past them, shouting more orders. Now it was silent, Erin could see Seborn drinking from behind the bar. Moore was feeling at his chest as Jelaqua hugged him.

“I was shut down. My magic—”

“It wasn’t you, Moore. I wasn’t there.”

“I should have gone for the kill. You alright, Moore?”

Numbtongue was sitting down, being tended to by Mrsha and Lyonette. The Gnoll was licking him as Lyonette checked him over. Erin stared around her inn. It was trashed; tables and chairs obliterated by spells. Some of the [Actors] were peeking out from behind the backstage.

Like before. It was a familiar scene, but different. Erin shook with anger. This wasn’t right. She looked at Ceria and her mouth worked silently. At last, she pointed to Montressa.

“That’s your friend, Ceria?”

“She was.”

The half-Elf sat down on the floor, watching the [Healer] tend to Pisces. She shook her head and covered her face.

“She was a long time ago.”

 

—-

 

Fury. Zevara expelled it in bursts of air. They might have been sentences. Or curses that only happened to sound like words. She was bellowing at a terrified [Scribe], standing in the Mage’s Guild, flanked by an entire squad of her [Guards]. The [Mage] on duty and Guildmistress Alonna were both present, communicating with Liscor. Councilmember or not—Zevara kept bellowing.

“—demand an immediate explanation for this!

“Yes, Watch Captain, but Wistram—”

Zevara’s fist made the [Scribe] and everything on the counter jump.

Directly to whomever’s in authority! I don’t care about Wistram’s protocols! This is an assault and a violation of Wistram’s neutrality.”

“Yes, Watch Captain. Wistram says—”

The Watch Captain was in direct communication with Wistram. Or rather, she was still shouting invectives as if they could pass via [Message].

“Wistram had no authority to make an arrest in Liscor! Moreover, they used mind-alteration spells on a citizen of the city—I am charging them with assault on a citizen, use of dangerous magics in a public area and against a member of the Watch, attempted abduction of adventurers—”

“Watch Captain!”

The [Scribe]’s voice was loud enough to match Zevara’s, perhaps from sheer self-survival. The Watch Captain paused and stared at the [Scribe]. The female Gnoll cringed, but she lifted a scroll where she’d been transcribing replies.

“Wistram has heard your complaint, Watch Captain. They are taking this very seriously. Archmage Naili has been informed, and one of their Council Mages is sending replies!”

“Oh—well, you may convey to them my extreme displeasure!

Zevara was caught off-guard for a second. The [Scribe] winced, but she was reading from the [Messages].

“Of course, Watch Captain, but Wistram would like to know—are their [Mages] alive? They would like to communicate with Mage Montressa, or if she is incapacitated—”

They do not get to set demands! This was an attack! All five [Mages] are under arrest!”

The [Scribe] watched Alonna and the Drake [Mage] sending that. Her quill blurred—she was autocopying a response somehow.

“Watch Captain, Wistram is deeply sorry for the incident. They want you to know that their team was pursuing a fugitive—”

Pisces? He’s not a threat! He doesn’t have a record! He paid his bounty!”

“—an extremely dangerous individual! Convicted across multiple cities—”

“Petty offences! Where does it say he’s a murderer? I never received that report and believe me, we checked!”

“—Wistram’s own logs—”

If there’s no bounty, it’s not a damn crime and he’s not a criminal! As far as I’m concerned, this was an adventurer and the Adventurer’s Guild will be informed! Not just Liscor’s—this is a group of Wistram’s [Mages] attacking an adventurer! For reasons they did not deign to inform me, in a city—and then going after his team!”

“Ceria Springwalker—”

Zevara hissed. The [Scribe] shut up. Zevara spoke very slowly.

“Tell Wistram this: they had no cause to attack Pisces without public record of crimes and a bounty worthy of this action! They had no right to take the law into their hands in my city without informing me. Their [Mages] are guilty of assault, illicit use of magics—they will be held and charged! Severely! And I will be lodging a formal notice with the Adventurer’s Guilds, as well as sending a copy of my complaints to the Walled Cities, Liscor’s High Command, Liscor’s Council and—”

She couldn’t think of anything else. Zevara finished, pounding the desk.

“Wistram’s [Mages] will be held until their full fine is paid, upon which they will be exiled from Liscor! Is that clear?”

The [Scribe] was cowed. Zevara relaxed, realizing she wasn’t really yelling at the young Gnoll. She was just doing her job. The Watch Captain paused, and cleared her throat.

“Apologies for yelling.”

“No problem, Watch Captain.”

The Gnoll should have won an award for the smile she gave Zevara. She glanced sideways; the two [Mages] were transmitting Zevara’s words. The Watch Captain stepped back. She wanted to pace, or curse.

Ancestors, she knew Pisces was trouble. She was even curious herself what he’d done to make Wistram so mad. But for all the trouble he’d caused, she distinctly remembered him fighting Face-Eater Moths and conjuring the rainstorm. And fighting the Raskghar! And Skinner.

She was angry at Wistram. Zevara had always considered the Academy, well, useful, if an occasional irritant. She didn’t think of them, really. They were just there, like the Mage’s Guild. Sometimes they had requests, but they were always simple enough and their [Mages] had been, until this moment, snooty, expensive, but effective.

Now this? Zevara waited for a response. She was hoping for something deeply apologetic, although nothing could soothe her temper. But that was where she made a mistake.

Because she didn’t know Wistram. She didn’t know it at all. And one of the things Zevara should have, might have needed to know, was this: Wistram Academy was many things. Insular, arrogant, magical, guarded, jealous—any number of things. But what it wasn’t good at was folding.

When Wistram wanted something and something turned out to be a problem, the Academy didn’t back away and beg forgiveness. It doubled down.

“Watch Captain, Wistram has a response.”

After a few minutes the [Scribe] looked up. She was biting one lip as she read. Zevara’s tail lashed the floor impatiently.

“Well?”

“They’ll pay the fine.”

“…What?”

The Gnoll looked up, cringing at Zevara’s expression.

“They’ll pay the fine for Mage Montressa’s team. All of it.”

“I haven’t set a fine!”

“No, Watch Captain. But the [Message] says…they’ll pay it. And they would like Mage Montressa released at your earliest convenience.”

My earliest…you tell whoever’s sending the [Message] to take that request and ram it so far up their own—”

“There’s more.”

Like a [Captain] sailing into the heart of a maelstrom, the [Scribe] went on doggedly, determined to see the worst through. She was scribing faster, and she began reading as she wrote.

“Incoming alert! Bounty on Pisces Jealnet. Alive. Full list of crimes incoming. Estimated threat level: Level 26 [Necromancer]. Bounty price—two thousand gold pieces, claimable at any Wistram-directed Mage’s Guild. Bounty being forwarded to all cities across Izril. Description…”

Zevara stared at the [Scribe] in horror.

“Wait, what are you doing? You can’t do that! Countermand that [Message]!”

The Gnoll gave her a wretched look.

“It’s a mass-update to the Mage’s Guilds, Watch Captain. There’s more. A biography on Pisces Jealnet, son of Padurn Jealnet, [Fencer]. Common-born of Terandria; family in service to the House Dultel. Accused of [Necromancy]; fled. Accused of petty thievery and necrophilia. Became [Mage] of Wistram under false pretenses, expelled for grave robbing and related deaths of 46 [Mages]. Status as Wistram graduate not ratified by Wistram’s Council or Archmages…”

It came on and on. Zevara had to take a step back. She stared at the [Scribe]. The Gnoll’s face was pale and tight as she was speaking. Zevara looked around. And then someone tapped her on the shoulder. Zevara turned.

Wing Commander Embria looked unhappily at Zevara as she held up a glowing communication stone. She held it out.

“Watch Captain. High Command wishes to speak to you now.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.57

The Bloodfields waited. Yvlon Byres strode down the street towards The Wandering Inn with her team, following Bevussa Slenderscale, Captain of the Wings of the Pallass. That was, unless the Wings of Pallass were talking to Drakes in a walled city. To the investors and influential Drakes, Issa was in fact the team’s captain and Bevussa was the pretty Garuda, what a wonderful show of inclusivity, my word yes.

But while the Horns of Hammerad left the city, anyone with eyes and the ability to count would note that only three of them were walking together. The fourth member of the current team was conspicuously absent. Pisces, the [Necromancer], wasn’t among the adventurers. Nor, as Erin Solstice discovered, was he in her inn, studying, as was his wont.

In fact, he was walking through Liscor at the same time as his team, albeit removed from them. Pisces was walking next to a shorter Drake, whose light green scales were flashing in the sunlight. She was dressed colorfully, at odds with Pisces’ white, plain robes.

The two were walking together, talking. Arguing, perhaps, but still in each other’s company. They were going shopping.

“I don’t know why you’re so upset. It’s not as if I forced you to leave the inn. We’re on a small outing. It’s a favor to me. Can you not act as though I’m sacrificing your mother?”

Selys’ tone was annoyed as she glanced up at Pisces. He sniffed, a feature which all of his friends were well acquainted with. His tone was far more acerbic than hers.

“Of course. A simple excursion which merited dragging me away from my pressing studies!”

“You could have said no.”

The Drake reminded Pisces sharply. He paused and glowered, but then sullenly turned his head.

“I consider it a favor.”

“Well, then, be pleasant. Ancestors, why do you have to be so snippy? You’re like a child sometimes, you know that, Pisces?”

He inhaled, his cheeks flushing with outrage. The two were moving down the street, drawing amused or annoyed glances—mainly from Gnolls passing them by. The problem with a heated argument was that a Gnoll could follow it for at least a block or two if they didn’t tune it out. This one had been going for five minutes.

But unusually to anyone who knew Pisces, he didn’t respond with a scathing remark or look. Partly because Selys was more than capable of firing back. But partly because, well—he sighed.

“My apologies. I’ve simply been low on sleep these last few days, Selys.”

She nodded, accepting Pisces’ mild look of chagrin. There it was. The Pisces that few people could command to appear. It was like he had two faces, the sneering one he often presented, and the one who could actually apologize. That Pisces only appeared for his friends; everyone else had to work past the first Pisces. Few did. The two stopped arguing and settled down, slowing the pace of their walk.

“More undead construction issues? You kept moaning about how crossbow skeletons are impossible last time we talked.”

“What? Oh, that. That was an experiment. Partially successful I’ll have you know. But my current issues are far more complex. I ah, have two projects going on. Studying, really.”

“Stuck on another spell? It’s like [Mages] have to study all their lives just to use their fancy magic. Worse than [Warriors]. I couldn’t handle it.”

The [Necromancer] sniffed and caught himself. He shrugged awkwardly.

“It’s true that magic is extremely time-intensive, but a spell once learned is there forever, so long as your memory remains. Far better than muscles which turns to fat in no time, or so I feel. I’m not stuck either. On the contrary, I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. The techniques I’m studying are masterful. In a single creation! And there is a spell—but I have yet to master it. I am close! But it takes time and effort, which I am sadly wasting here.”

He glanced sideways at Selys, inviting some form of apology for the imposition. She was unfazed.

“Well, I won’t keep you long. Like I said, you volunteered. I could do this alone, but I don’t know much about magical items. If you really want, I can ask Ceria or maybe Moore—”

“Those two? Let’s not be imprudent. With respect to their talents, I am the most well-versed in enchantments and the economics of magical items.”

Pisces straightened his robes haughtily. Selys rolled her eyes, but she smiled. They were walking down one of the higher-end districts in Liscor, passing into a section far removed from Market Street, the quintessential spot for all your shopping needs. No, if everyone passed through Market Street for some reason or another in the course of a week, this street was reserved for more specific clientele.

It didn’t mean it was deserted; far from it! In fact, even at this time of day, people who weren’t working were gathered around the carts and wagons to browse. But while some would certainly come away with some trinkets, there were only a few big buyers, and the [Merchants] were waiting for each.

“Here we are. Trader’s End. Have you ever been here before?”

“Once or twice.”

Pisces observed the street with interest. Trader’s End was based in a northern section of the city, in a cul de sac that led off from a larger street. It was close to the gates, allowing [Traders], but more usually, [Merchants] to drive in their wagons and caravans for the day, park, conduct business, and then drive off when their work was finished.

However, contrary to the name, this wasn’t a place for mass-produced goods like fruits, or iron ore. It might have been once, but now this was the location to buy exotics. Liscor didn’t get a huge number of traders or merchants from north or south, and so all of them who did public business were here.

Selys could see specific wagons and [Merchants] all calling out, inviting the most well-dressed Gnolls and Drakes to peruse their goods. She’d been here three times now and she knew the score. The [Merchants] would do business with people who had enough coin for a few items—a broach, some cloth, an interesting item here or there—but they really wanted people like…her.

It was an odd thought. She was Selys Shivertail, [Heiress]. Selys still felt like the same old Selys who had to count her coins before going out partying. But now instead of mostly silver in the hidden bag at the back of her cupboard, she had a magical vault storing gold. A lot of gold.

“I take it the Heartflame Armor has continued to earn you revenue?”

Pisces was looking towards a [Merchant] selling books, and another who had magical items on display. Selys fidgeted, uncomfortable at mentioning it within Gnollish earshot.

“It’s not bad. Keldrass and his team rented the armor. I thought they’d stop when he got the Raskghar armor, but he stills pays me to let him wear it. Apparently it’s really helpful if they’re worried about traps.”

“No doubt it is also a matter of vanity.”

“No doubt. And I had gold already; I didn’t spend too much. So…I’m looking for some stuff. Protections, like I told you. I’m getting a bit worried, you know? I mean, I’ve got a vault, but what about me?

Pisces nodded, glancing at Selys. She wasn’t exactly an adventurer, and she’d had one experience of being kidnapped. More than that, she’d survived any number of disasters around Liscor and she hadn’t decided on this shopping trip lightly. He made a gesture towards the waiting wagons.

“Well then, I suppose my presence is warranted. Have you any specific [Merchant] in mind?”

“Oh yes. He sent a message saying he was in the area. I’ve bought from him before and I think he’s fairly trustworthy. But you’re here to help me get the best deals. He’s right there. I think he sees us, actually. Try to be polite, Pisces.”

“One can attempt even the impossible.”

Selys tried not to smile. She did enjoy Pisces’ comments. Still, she gave him a warning glance and walked forwards. The [Merchant] was already spreading his arms in welcome, and Selys saw a familiar seat had been pulled up. Farri Slightly, the thirty-something year old [Merchant], was smiling as he stepped forwards to greet Selys.

“Miss Selys Shivertail, it is a delight to see you! I’m so glad you had a chance to peruse my wares—come, sit! Is this your friend? Another chair, and a cup! Hello, hello!”

“Hello, Farri.”

The [Heiress] grinned as the [Merchant] turned to Pisces, giving him a full-toothed smile in the fashion of the Drakes. Pisces hesitated, and then took the proffered hand, shaking it and murmuring his name. Farri had both seated in an instant. He was, to Selys, something of a friend.

“You do make the extra trip to Liscor worth it, Miss Shivertail. It’s all about cost, you know, but one good client makes up for a great number of miles. I hope all the objects I’ve sold you are working well?”

“Very well. I especially liked the cooling charm in my room. It doesn’t work all night, but it’s just enough to get me to sleep.”

Selys leaned back, accepting a glass from a pitcher that Farri poured himself. Pisces blinked as he was offered another goblet. Farri peered at Pisces, smiling still.

“And who is your friend? An adventurer?”

“Oh, this is Pisces. He’s a [Mage], actually. I brought him along because I was hoping to buy some of those protection-type items we were discussing last time, Farri.”

The [Merchant]’s face instantly grew more guarded. He smiled at Pisces; the [Necromancer] gave him a polite smile back.

“Well, I’m charmed! An adventurer, did you say? What rank? Silver? Gold?”

“Silver. I am, in fact, a member of the Horns of Hammerad. Perhaps you’ve heard of our conquest of Albez?”

Selys felt just a twinge of unease. Oh no, he was doing it again. Farri blinked and paused.

“I—can’t say I have. But then, I haven’t heard of the latest adventuring accomplishments. A successful dungeon run, was it? My sincere congratulations.”

“It was in fact a few months—”

Pisces shut up as Selys’ tail flicked over to slap at the back of his legs. Farri paused, and Pisces, flushing, went quiet. Selys sighed.

“I trust his judgment, Farri. Pisces graduated from Wistram. He’s just here to give me advice.”

“Oh? Oh, a Wistram [Mage]? Naturally, that’s the best source. By all means, its small wonder you’d ask for that kind of advice. Well, if its magical protections you’d like, why don’t I bring out a display? Unless you had something in particular in mind?”

Looking only a bit flustered, Farri gestured to one of his helpers selling from the wagon and Selys saw the Drake disappear inside. The [Merchant] smiled at Selys; Pisces was impassive. Selys tried to poke his ankle with her tail, but she missed.

“I’m not sure what the best item is, Farri. Really, I’m just…worried about my protection. And my stuff. I know the vault you gave me is great, but what about me? My home? Not to mention monsters and such. If you had any—any good items, I’d love to know. Pisces, you too.”

The [Necromancer] paused, and Farri’s eyes brightened.

“Well, that is a range of objects. And I see we have some coming out now! Bear in mind that I have a larger stock—I can even ask for some of the very expensive items I don’t dare bring on the road be sent via Courier. I assume you don’t wish to spend too much gold, Miss Selys?”

“Well—I have a bit to spend.”

Selys squirmed. She knew how much Farri charged and how much she had. She didn’t earn a lot of gold even renting out her armor, not by the standards of magical item sales. But Farri was smiling and nodding understandingly.

“Completely understandable! Well, let’s begin with some simple but decisive items. For instance, how about this ring? A standard among adventurers. An Arrowguard Ring. Guaranteed to deflect one arrow before needing time to recharge.”

He offered Selys a little ring and she leaned forwards. Now this was exciting. She’d always come to see magical items like this before, but now she was actually able to buy some. She peered at the little arrow carved into the ring. Pisces inspected it, sipping from his cup. The ring was wooden, but someone had filled the arrow with gemstone, and it sparkled green.

“It’s pretty! But it’s made of wood—is that bad? I know more common materials don’t hold enchantments well.”

She was a [Receptionist] for the Adventurer’s guild, and she’d picked up a few things, even if that wasn’t her forte. Farri dismissed her concerns with a wave of the hand.

“For a powerful enchantment, certainly, but wood augmented with this cat’s eye—see the subtle line in the gem?—is more than adequate. It’s yew, in fact, which actually aids with the sympathetic magic. I don’t pretend to know all the details, but anything short of a Skill-augmented shot or one from point-blank will swerve upon hitting you.”

“Oh, that is good. And it recharges?”

Farri smiled.

“Only naturally! You can certainly afford this one, Miss Selys. It takes about three days or so to recharge on ambient mana, but that’s more than enough time, unless you’re being shot at regularly, isn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

She was nodding, but both the Drake and Farri were watching Pisces out of the corner of their eyes. His face was impassive, so Farri went on after the slightest of pauses.

“I can recommend you this ring to start with. It’s low in magical interference, so let’s say you have this ring to start with. And then we’ll add—”

“Ludicrous.”

Pisces’ voice interrupted the [Merchant] flatly. Selys felt her tail curl reflexively. Farri stopped. He turned to Pisces, raising his brows politely.

“Ah, you had an objection, Mister Pisces?”

“An objection? You could say so, yes. Or rather, contempt for the farcical nature of offering Selys that bauble with any actual intent of guarding her wellbeing.”

Pisces placed the cup down and leaned forwards. He gave Farri a dismissive look and sniffed. Selys closed her eyes. Damn it. Then she opened them and glared at Pisces warningly.

“Pisces, what are you talking about? The ring looks fine to me! Farri just offered it to begin with—”

“I’m well aware. But it’s still a disingenuous offer, Selys. Allow me to explain.”

The [Necromancer] pointed to the ring as he lifted his own hand. On his fingers sat two rings, both magical. He pointed to one—and Farri winced.

“This is a true Arrowguard ring, Selys. Our estimable [Merchant], Mister Farri, must have missed it on my person. It can deflect multiple arrows, recharges in the span of a day, and has saved my life before. I can well imagine that it would cost you a considerable amount of gold if you were to buy it—which would be a foolish idea. I could lend you the ring, but it would be as useless to you as the ring sitting before you.”

Selys stared at Pisces. His tone was beyond condescending, but it wasn’t aimed at her. Farri was reddening.

“Why?”

Pisces flicked his hand dismissively.

“Simply because Arrowguard Rings aren’t useful to you, Selys. Consider this. You, if you had my ring, could avoid an arrow shot by an average [Bowman]. Or even three or four such arrows! It would protect you from assassination, yes?”

“That’s the point. So?”

“So? How will you avoid the fifth arrow? Let alone fight or avoid this would-be attacker?”

Selys paused.

“Well, I’d have another ring, obviously. Right, Farri?”

“Absolutely. I have a number of them, in fact. All complimentary.”

Pisces sneered. He looked at Selys and shook his head.

“Why do you need them, Selys? Consider this: who is out to shoot you? Kidnap you, perhaps. Mug? Yes, again. But how many enemies with bows are going to loose arrows at you in the course of your incredibly dangerous job? And with that said, what will this ring avail you in a combat situation besides saving you from one arrow and nothing more?”

He had a point. But the way he made it was so classically Pisces—Selys bit her tongue and her tail lashed angrily as Farri held up a hand. He looked stiffly at the [Necromancer] as he swept the ring back.

“I can see your point, Mister Pisces. However, I can assure you that this is a precaution many of my clients take—[Assassins] are more frequent in Human lands—”

“Then why one ring which cannot deflect Skill-based shots? If the goal is to protect, that ring is useless for all but the most middling adventurers. Subpar, for any actual protection; I cannot imagine a single client fearful of assassination that would actually buy that particular ring. If you have a better stock, let us see that, or nothing at all.”

The [Merchant] was turning even redder. That was it, Selys stood up before Farri could lose his polite façade or his caravan guards or helpers could jump in. Pisces wasn’t keeping his voice down and Farri’s embarrassment was being broadcasted in a wide arc. The Drake [Receptionist] turned to Pisces and spoke in a tight voice.

“Farri, please excuse me for a moment. Pisces, would you come with me?”

“Certainly, Miss Selys.”

Farri nodded tightly to her. Selys glared at Pisces. He was reaching for his cup, but he got up and followed her down the street. She saw Farri sitting still before she whirled and glared at Pisces.

“What was that? What the hell was that, Pisces?”

He raised his brows.

“Excuse me? I was simply expressing my genuine opinion—”

Selys’ claw poked straight through his robes and into his chest. He yelped in pain and tried to retreat. She advanced, tail lashing.

“Don’t lie. That was the rudest you’ve ever been! Farri is a friend of mine! He helped me the first time I was here—”

“Oh, how altruistic. No doubt he did it out of goodwill—”

“Shut up! Why did you bite his head off with the first ring?”

Pisces raised his hands, glaring back at Selys.

“It was a worthless ring, Selys! The man was clearly trying to offload a semi-worthless ring onto you—”

“So? That’s what [Merchants] do! I wasn’t going to buy it! You’re here to help me make those decisions!”

“Well, I expedited that process. So?”

The young man folded his arms, looking infuriatingly wounded. Selys was so furious she could barely speak. She looked down and stomped—Pisces drew his foot back in time.

“You idiot! You were being the most egg-headed, Ancestors-damned—you know what you did! That wasn’t polite, and that wasn’t fair. Do you just hate Farri? Is that it? Did he slap you when I wasn’t looking? If you used that tone on Erin or insulted her half as much, she’d punch you and kick you out of her inn!”

Pisces turned red. He folded his arms defensively, and his tone became even more arch.

“I’m simply expressing my opinion. Should I mince words? I’ve seen people like your ‘friend’, Farri, Selys. They can be as charming as they want. But I have my opinion and I know I am correct. This is who I am.”

Selys strode forwards and poked Pisces—he retreated again, looking angrier himself.

“Oh yeah? Well, it’s annoying. No one likes it! I know you can be better than that, Pisces. You don’t call me an idiot three times for having a stupid thought or I wouldn’t speak to you!”

“Well, that’s because I respect your opinion. And it was not always that case! Should I be warm and genuine to everyone?”

“It’d help if you tried!

Selys knew people were watching them argue. She should have taken this further away, but her cheeks were hot and she was close to hissing at him. Pisces looked equally displeased. He sniffed again.

“Would you have me pretend to be someone else? To falsify my true nature?”

Yes!

The word exploded from Selys’ mouth. That caught him off-guard. Pisces paused and looked sideways at Selys. He opened his mouth, but she poked a claw at him.

“Don’t look at me as if I’ve grown a second tail! Listen to me.”

She took a deep breath, calming herself. When she spoke, she spoke as if she was a [Receptionist], lecturing a new coworker, or an adventurer.

“You’re insufferable. No, be quiet. You are. You know it. I know it. You have the most abrasive personality in the entire world because you do it on purpose. You don’t behave like a person around anyone you don’t like. But guess what? That’s childish. You don’t like acting nice? Everyone acts, Pisces.”

She saw him opening his mouth, but she kept rolling. Give Pisces a moment and he’d derail or deflect. He was very good at that. But Selys had grown up with Tekshia Shivertail and you couldn’t say a word if you didn’t learn how to talk over someone.

“Erin does it, Lyonette—everyone from little Mrsha to my grandmother! You think Erin doesn’t hate some people’s guts, or Mrsha’s always cute and cuddly? She does it to get spoiled and get attention!”

“Erin or Mrsha?”

Selys nearly laughed, but she kept glaring.

“That’s very funny. But don’t change the subject! I act all the time whenever I have to deal with an obnoxious adventurer, or one who keeps sniffing and calling everyone idiots using big words! I know you can be charming, Pisces. I’ve seen you do it! You can be likable if you try!”

She looked at him. He hesitated and uncrossed his arms.

“Well, of course I can be. But this—”

She cut him off again.

“I don’t care. I really don’t, Pisces. You know you’re doing it on purpose and all it makes you is enemies. It might be work. So what? Being your friend is a lot of work, especially right now. Do you understand?”

She looked at him pleadingly. And this time she saw Pisces flush. He looked away, genuinely embarrassed. Selys reached out and grabbed his arm.

“Just try. Be nice. Don’t do it to people you like. Start with likable and just keep going! Please? I’m going back to Farri. You can leave if you want, but I’d appreciate you being there.”

She turned around, heart beating fast, embarrassed, but feeling better for saying it. She began to walk slowly back towards Farri. She was hoping—listening—

After four steps, Pisces caught up with her. He adjusted his robes, face flushed. Selys looked at him. He hesitated, and ducked his head.

“Let me speak first, please. Was—was that a Skill, by any chance?”

He looked at her. She smiled and wagged her tail a bit.

“[Incisive Comment]. Useful for a [Receptionist] getting something into a thick-head’s skull. I do have some Skills, you know.”

He smiled slightly. As Selys returned to Farri, she saw Pisces square his shoulders. For a moment he looked pained, then, as Farri stood up, Pisces strode forwards. He gave Farri a sincere look of regret and bowed.

“Mister Farri, please allow me to apologize.”

“What?”

The [Merchant] looked as startled as Selys. She watched as Pisces, bowing apologetically, held up his hands.

“I just had a conversation with Selys. I must apologize for my behavior. I mistook you for—well, Selys has explained how much you’ve helped her out. I was concerned on her behalf, and I confess I’ve met too many [Merchants] of bad character before. But I came here ready to pick a fight and—I sincerely beg your forgiveness.”

Farri was taken aback. He looked at Selys, and she closed her mouth and gave him a nod just in time. The [Merchant] blinked, and then smiled slightly.

“No harm done! I was about to apologize myself, Mister Pisces. You had a point—although it was slightly painful. The ring is fairly hard to place, but I offered it to Miss Selys as an opening bid—why don’t we sit? Something else to drink? Let us restart our conversation.”

“Thank you.”

Pisces nodded and sat down. Selys shot him a glance as she sat too and Farri fussed over their cups. He was sitting forwards, not with that kind of false sincerity you saw in desperate young Gnolls and Drakes on a first date, the kind that reeked of fake attention, but simply alert. If it was an act—

“Well, I have to admit, the rings are a tricky sale. You need multiple complimentary effects to ward against a number of threats. But it’s a tried and tested method for any adventurer. But I can see you are thinking of Miss Selys specifically. And you do know something about enchantments.”

Farri was speaking as he reached for his cup and drank a bit. Selys did too. Pisces nodded. He spread his hands.

“Without disrespect, Merchant Farri—yes. I am a [Mage] of Wistram, as I said. And I studied enchanting; it’s not a false claim to state that I know synergistic uses of enchantments. Selys asked me to accompany her and I accepted; as much to deter her from making a poor purchase. I’m sure you know about the kind of deals a [Merchant] can force with their Skills? I’m not accusing you of using any, but as I said, I was prepared for it.”

The [Merchant] nodded slowly, assessing Pisces. He was watching the young man as carefully as Selys was out of the corner of her eyes. He didn’t quite buy Pisces’ sudden new demeanor as well.

“Fair, fair. And you are her, ah, friend?”

His tone left a huge room for Selys to insert any modifier she choose. The Drake didn’t choose to do so. Pisces nodded.

“A friend, yes. The same one who wants her to spend all the gold she needs on personal protections, but not on her friends. Or me. Or on poor spells or ones where she pays ten times its actual worth.”

He said that with such conviction that even Selys was impressed. And Farri—both Pisces and Selys saw his eyes flick to a ring on his finger. Selys saw nothing, but he apparently did. And from the way he smiled—

But of course Pisces was telling the truth. He had the Horns of Hammerad’s windfall, the same that had given Selys a lot of her money.

“You are fairly wealthy yourself, sir, if my Skills don’t betray me. Still, that’s a sincere statement.”

The [Merchant] was clearly analyzing him as he’d done to Selys the first time and what he saw impressed him. He gestured to his wagons.

“Go on then, Mister Pisces—or may I call you Pisces? My wares are free for your perusal. If you object to the standard protections, what would you say Miss Shivertail requires in the way of security?”

It was a challenge, albeit a polite one. Pisces nodded. He leaned forwards, resting his chin on two fingers and looked at Selys and Farri together.

“I’ll be brief. Selys, you came here for personal protections. My thoughts on the matter are as follows. Firstly, Selys, you don’t need some elaborate ward system on your home. It’s too expensive to install, overkill for a low-level [Thief] and a master will slip through the gaps. And there are always gaps, believe me. Unless you paid for an expert [Wardmaster] or [Enchanter]—it’s pointless. However, that’s actually to your benefit because what you need to protect is so concentrated.”

He raised three fingers and ticked them off.

“You have three things of value you need protecting. Firstly, your gold. I’ve seen your magical vault and there are better versions you could acquire, or more static defenses you could add. Secondly, you need personal enchanted items. But not necessarily rings. Lastly, anti-theft measures for the Heartflame Breastplate. That last will be the most difficult by far, but I see Merchant Farri has all you need in the way of personal protections.”

Selys and Farri both raised their brows. Selys nodded.

“That’s a good point, Pisces. I didn’t think about it, but my home doesn’t have anything too important in it. But if you don’t mean rings, then what?”

The [Necromancer] smiled.

“I may be wrong, but my first instinct is potions and a wand. Perhaps one magical item. Mister Farri, your thoughts?”

The [Merchant] was nodding. Selys wasn’t sure what was so intelligent about what Pisces had said; it seemed obvious to her if not rings, but Farri gave Pisces a friendly smile.

“Single-use or rechargeable? Self-charging?”

Rechargeable?

Pisces actually laughed, and not in a condescending way. Farri laughed too, and nodded.

“Let me get some. I think I see your point, Pisces.”

He stood up and hurried into his wagon. Selys raised her brows and Pisces shook his head as he leaned over to explain.

“A common misconception. Most people would prefer to buy a rechargeable item that can be used again and again, but such items are vastly more expensive than a single-use item, and if you’re not a [Mage], recharging them is tedious! Far better to buy a single-use invisibility item.”

He gestured back to the wagon. Farri was nodding, and he’d already come back. This time he had a catalogue of neatly written potions and items. He stood next to Pisces as the [Necromancer] showed her the list.

“Given the threats to you, Selys, I would recommend a custom-made potion that turns you invisible or better yet, gives you an armored effect as well as defends you. A simple point-and-use wand would also be appropriate. You don’t need rings. If you’re in danger of assault or another monster attack, you can use the items once and replenish them.”

“Fair enough. So what’s good? And why can’t I get this from Octavia?”

“She doesn’t make the type of advanced potions you would need.”

Farri was nodding.

“I buy from Pallass as well as the best [Alchemists]. Some potions even come from other continents! I personally recommend an invisibility potion. And a stone skin potion?”

Pisces was nodding.

“Given that Miss Selys is sometimes in the company of others, though, I think a Scroll of Lesser Teleport bound to, say, her home would be most useful, Merchant Farri. When I am solvent myself, it will be one of the first items I suggest my team purchase.”

“And for a wand? [Arrow of Light]?”

“Not powerful enough. The Watch is fairly competent in Liscor. If Selys is worried about low-level threats, she should carry a Tripvine bag and a whistle. Or just scream for help. Inexpensive. Given that monsters seem to assail Liscor with distressing frequency—do you have a Wand of [Forcewalls]? Or perhaps a Wand of [Lightning Bolts]?”

Farri inhaled and Selys sat up.

“Those are expensive wands. I have both, as it happens. But isn’t that fairly overkill?”

Pisces smiled grimly.

“Have you heard about Skinner, Merchant Farri? I don’t believe wands are enough of a safeguard myself. Rather, I think what Selys needs is a few of Erin’s acid jars in her bag of holding, all the items I listed—and a wand that will be useful in such situations. For her everyday comfort? Simply a tracking spell woven into her bag of holding if it doesn’t have one already. We must save the most money for her Heartflame Armor; I’m surprised [Thieves] haven’t gone after it already, but Liscor is a poor home for the truly powerful thief gangs. Tell me, are you familiar with Seer’s Lodestone dust? The kind that never fades? Rather than prevent, I would prefer to find if someone takes her possessions.”

The man paused and Selys looked up. Farri nodded slowly. He looked respectful, and Pisces paused to let him reply. The [Merchant] eyed Pisces, and then smiled.

“If I might say so, your spending ability matches Miss Shivertail’s, Mister Pisces. I’m counting—is it a joint fund for your team?”

“Prying, Merchant Farri?”

Pisces seemed amused. Farri smiled and bowed a bit from the waist.

“A [Merchant] does what one must.”

The young man shook his head.

“I’m afraid I cannot spend anything myself. My team does have some money. But we’ve not yet converted it to gold—”

“A task I’m all too willing to handle myself. And if that’s not convenient, we can also witness a very fair deal at the Merchant’s Guild where I issue you, say, twenty percent credit of what I think you’re able to spend?”

The man didn’t wait for Pisces to respond. He clapped his hands and his assistants rushed out. He smiled at Pisces and Selys.

“Ah, but I forget my client! Miss Selys, pardon me. Allow me to bring out some of my rarer potions and outline some you may be interested in. Potions, scrolls—and er, what was this you mentioned about acid jars?”

 

—-

 

She still couldn’t tell if he was acting. Selys glanced sideways at Pisces as the two strolled back down the street. Nearly three hours had passed, and they’d passed quickly! Selys’ bladder was a bit full, but she had enjoyed herself. She looked sideways at Pisces as he walked beside her. He wasn’t scowling and he hadn’t dropped the good-natured, neutral expression he’d worn after bidding Farri goodbye.

“He didn’t manage to make you buy anything.”

“No. And I’m quite surprised I got away. Almost as much as he was!”

Pisces chuckled to himself. Selys was impressed too; Farri had his Skills and he’d sold Selys nearly twelve hundred gold’s worth of items, all of which would be delivered to her apartment; he was adding the tracking charm to her bag of holding.

It had been a successful outing. Pisces was nodding to himself, clearly pleased at his efforts. His throat was a bit hoarse, but he walked along, chatting much more lightheartedly than this morning.

“A fair [Merchant], I think. Ultimately self-interested, but fair to his clients. Did you see him glancing at his hand?”

“I did, but I didn’t see a truth stone flashing.”

The [Necromancer] smiled knowingly.

“I believe he painted over one of the gems. The one on his ring finger? He concealed it so it would only shine towards him. Clever.”

He chuckled to himself. Selys had to pause and check her tail. Then she looked at the young man thoughtfully.

“You know, Pisces, you’re very likable when you try to be.”

He paused.

“I suppose I made an effort today.”

“More than that. I think Farri actually liked talking to you, and that was after your first encounter! Was it an act?”

The [Necromancer] flicked his fingers.

“The best act is genuine emotion, Selys.”

“That doesn’t answer my question. Fine. Be mysterious. But why don’t you do that all the time? You’d be popular if you tried!”

Hadn’t Ceria once mentioned that Pisces had once been that likable? Selys remembered Erin relating some of his history. But the young man just shook his head and some of his cheer faded.

“Not everyone is worth the effort.”

“Maybe more people would be if you tried. You didn’t hate Farri, did you? Be honest. Or do I have to buy a truth ring?”

Pisces hesitated.

“I suppose he was a good man. As far as [Merchants] go. I have met poor ones. And he was…decent. Yes. Perhaps I did. But as I said, not everyone…”

They walked out of Trader’s End, moving back towards The Wandering Inn to the eastern gates, but really ambling, talking. The street was lively and Selys saw people going to and from work. Some hunted, others mined the safe deposits at the base of the High Passes…Liscor wasn’t rich and it did have to import at times. But there was wealth to be had here. The Floodplains could feed a large population of animals, mostly wild, and as such, the wary [Hunter] or [Trapper] could feast on Razorbeaks, birds, Corusdeer—so long as they avoided Rock Crabs.

“It’s just that I don’t see the need to put on a front when the act of repelling someone precludes further conversation that would be meaningless. Moreover, it is far simpler for fools to dislike me rather than assume false affection and be twice-scorned and even more vengeful.”

“Then don’t scorn them, Pisces. What’s so hard about that?”

“I cannot abide fools, Selys. And sometimes, the objectionable actions of some halfwits simply pulls it out of me—”

“Every second of the day?”

They passed by a pale-scaled Drake chatting with a Centaur. It was such an odd sight Selys had to look twice. Pisces was still talking and didn’t notice. Selys stared at the Centaur. He had something in his mouth. A tube? No, a cigar. She’d seen some adventurers and rich Drakes smoking the stuff, but it was pricey! And the Watch had a dim view of most drugs; not that Liscor was exactly thriving in the black market. But that might change.

“So you’re going to help Liscor expand the road to Pallass, huh? That’ll mean we get a lot more visitors and trade year-round. As it is, we get lots of traffic from the south during the fall and winter, and sporadic traffic all year from the Humans.”

Pisces sniffed, but lightly as he munched on a Gnoll-treat. Not the hamburgers Erin had introduced like a plague onto the street vendors, but a simple Gnoll treat—different cuts of meat, all cooked to various degrees, cushioned in a bit of wrapping paper. You ate slice by slice or an entire meaty bite; Selys snagged a cut of pork and chewed it happily. Drakes and Gnolls, being mostly carnivorous, didn’t go for bread as much as Humans. Pisces sighed.

“Ceria did mention she was scouting out the Bloodfields. Another activity I’ll be forced to take part in, I suppose. Clearing a trade route to Pallass is a temporary occupation. Needlessly tedious for how much it pays, but it will keep my team busy. In truth, once the Halfseekers finally get to Invrisil we will be spending some time there.”

Selys paused and looked at him.

“That’ll take a bit. But when it happens, it’ll be as far as Pallass, right? Hard to visit.”

Pisces paused, chewing, and shrugged.

“Not too difficult. We can simply charge the door. But yes—I imagine we will attempt to take more requests around Invrisil. There simply isn’t much high-level work around Liscor besides the dungeon.”

“Right. And you’re not going into the dungeon.”

“Yes.”

“Well—that’ll be fun. Maybe I’ll visit Invrisil. I’ve been meaning to visit Pallass, but with the mana constraints on the door—”

Pisces blinked, and then nodded a bit.

“Yes. Yes, I’m sure Erin would want to visit too. And it is a notable city to visit. When that day comes, I will certainly suggest the idea. But with the Halfseekers—”

They wandered left, down a street. This time Pisces spotted a Minotaur and nudged Selys. The huge bull-person was studying a display of books, ignoring the looks from Drakes and Gnolls around him. She gasped.

“There’s another Minotaur in Liscor? I had no idea! Do you think he knows about Calruz?”

“She. And one imagines someone has told her by now.”

“No. She?

Selys was incredulous. Pisces coughed, looking amused.

“Note the mammaries?”

It took Selys a moment to figure out what he meant. Then she stared.

“Breasts? Oh. I thought they were just uh, muscles for a second. She looks like Calruz!”

Pisces snorted, averting his gaze as they walked away from the Minotaurs lest she hear. He glanced absently at her.

“Minotaurs are rather statuesque. I gather there’s no physical difference between their genders in terms of body mass. Like Gnolls and Garuda. However, I’m amazed you didn’t notice the obvious.”

She slapped his leg with her tail, grinning.

“That’s not where Drakes look first. We check out the tail. And that’s not a feature most Drakes have like…well, like Humans!”

“But Drakes are mammals. They have live births and ah, the same reproductive basics as Humans to most extents, despite your relationship with Dragons. I always wondered why you called your young ‘hatchlings’.”

The Drake eyed him for a long moment.

“…How do you know that?”

“I study dead bodies for a living, Selys. What would you expect?”

“Well—it’s creepy that you know so much. And we honor our Ancestors or something. What should we call them? Scalelings? Actually…”

Pisces snorted. He’d finished his snack and was absently tucking the bit of trash in his bag of holding. Selys smelled something foreign on the wind. The Centaur she’d seen earlier trotted by her. Still smoking on the whatever-it-was. It smelled almost sweet to her, but the smoke made her wave at her face. Pisces frowned as the Centaur trotted past.

“There’s another thing I didn’t think I’d see. Minotaur, Centaur—all we need now is a Gazer or a Fraerling and we’ve nearly seen all the species if you add in Pallass.”

Selys commented to Pisces, but he wasn’t listening. He sniffed the air as the Centaur passed by. Selys coughed. There was something…foreign about the smell coming from whatever he was smoking. Totally different from wood smoke. Pisces frowned after the Centaur, and then glanced at the pale Drake hurrying after him.

“Hm. A Selphid and a Centaur? I wonder if they’re mercenaries? Both are…[Mages].”

“A Selphid? Are you sure? She could be pale-scaled. It must be a Baleros team or something. Hey, if they appear in the Adventurer’s Guild I’ll tell you about it. Speaking of which—how’s Jelaqua? You said the Halfseekers aren’t making any progress getting to Invrisil. Is it because of her and Maughin?”

Pisces nodded, refocusing on Selys.

“As I understand it, Seborn is taking issue with Jelaqua’s ongoing relationship with Maughin. He dislikes working while she enjoys herself. Rather seriously, it seems.”

“But all they have to do is walk. What’s got his tail in a twist? No, wait. I think I know. It could be because he’s a former [Pirate]. They’re touchy about stuff like that. They’re not [Sailors]. In fact, some crews have tyrannical [Captains], but others will revolt rather than let someone do that to them.”

Pisces blinked as Selys came out with that. He looked at her sideways, much the same way Farri had glanced at him.

“You know a lot about a seafaring class for someone who has never left Liscor.”

“I study up on classes. It’s my job. You’re not the only person with useless trivia.”

“Hardly useless. But I agree—it’s somewhat personal to Seborn. Frankly, I think he simply resents the prospect that it might be serious. And the discord it causes with Moore—”

“Poor Moore. I heard him talking about finding someone.”

“One can hardly miss it, given his natural volume.”

“Don’t you dare let on you know

“Do I look like Drassi, pray?”

The two were laughing when Selys paused. She looked around, struck by a thought. Ahead of her, a Drake was walking besides a young woman with a hood thrown up on her head. They were the only people on the street; Selys looked around, frowning. The Drake passed her by, his back straight, and Selys glanced around surreptitiously. But no one was nearby. Even so, she walked a bit closer to Pisces.

“Um, Pisces. When the Horns go to Invrisil, I was thinking. It’s um—about my class. And the breastplate. If you’re heading north—well, it could be south too, or far, far away. But I think it’s on Izril—can we talk in private?”

She hadn’t told anyone this, not even Pisces yet. But he’d helped her with the Heartflame Breastplate. The [Necromancer]’s eyes sharpened and he glanced around like she had to telltale Gnolls. But then he paused.

“We are alone.”

He stopped slowly. And Selys did too. At first she didn’t know what the odd tone in Pisces’ voice was. But then she looked around and realized he was right. The street was empty. Almost completely empty, but for a few people, like the Centaur trotting ahead of them and the two they’d just passed. Selys stared around.

“That’s not right. Where’s everyone gone? You can’t find an empty street in Liscor for gold—oh no, do you think Erin’s done something again?”

Pisces was frowning. He looked around, and then turned to squint ahead. Selys was about to suggest they check on Erin when a voice called out from behind.

“Pisces Jealnet?”

Pisces turned his head slightly. Selys saw him glance distractedly at speaker. It was the Drake. Selys paused. And then her eyes widened.

“Did he say—”

Selys saw Pisces’ head whip round. He stared at the Drake who’d spoken. The Drake had turned in the street. He was staring at Pisces. His scales were dark black with a hint of blue in them. His gaze was direct. He bared his teeth as his companion, hooded, stepped back.

“Pisces Jealnet. Son of Padurn Jealnet, [Fencer]. Ex-[Mage] of Wistram. Expelled. Wanted for multiple crimes. Is that you?”

And suddenly, Selys felt a bell ringing in her head. She didn’t have [Dangersense]. But she didn’t need to. She looked around and suddenly saw something. Down the street, the Centaur and Selphid had turned. The Selphid was wearing a female Drake’s body. The Centaur exhaled, the dark smoke trickling upwards. Selys turned back and saw another figure walking around a corner.

The Minotauress. She strode forwards. And her eyes were locked on Pisces.

“Pisces—what’s going—”

“Get behind me.”

He whispered. Selys saw his hand reaching for his side. Towards his rapier—she heard a curse.

It was missing. He hadn’t come with her prepared for a fight. And—Selys realized as her own claws drifted towards her belt—her bag of holding was with Farri. She backed up, staring at the Centaur and Selphid behind them.

The street was empty but for Pisces, Selys, and the strangers. There were five of them. Now, they abandoned all pretense. The Drake reached for his side. A bag of holding. He drew a wand, the tip already aflame, the wand made of obsidian. In his other hand he equipped a buckler.

“Oh, Ancestors—”

“Do you have any magical items? Anything?”

“I have a belt-knife!”

Another curse. Now Pisces and Selys stared around. And Selys realized something else.

They were all [Mages].

Here they came. A pale-faced Selphid, lifting two wands with both hands. A Minotaur, cracking her neck and knuckles. The Centaur, still smoking whatever was in his mouth. The speaker, a Drake, sneering as he pointed a translucent crystal wand and held up a glimmering buckler. And a hooded—Selys blinked. Where had that one gone?

“Pisces—”

It wasn’t a mugging. They were all focused on Pisces, not her. Selys’ tail was trying to curl into knots. She saw the Drake approaching with the Minotauress on his left; from the other side, the Centaur and Selphid were doing likewise. They had a confident walk; they knew what they were doing. Her voice squeaked as she tried to shout.

“Hey! This is Liscor! You can’t just—stop right there or I’ll call the Watch! Who are you? What do you want?”

“He knows. Let the Drake go, Pisces Jealnet. Step aside, Miss Drake. You don’t know who you’re standing next to.”

The Minotauress pointed. Selys found a spark of outrage. This wasn’t happening! This couldn’t be happening! Not in Liscor! Not here! Where was everyone? The Watch? Defiantly, she stepped forwards. Pisces hissed at her.

“Selys—”

“Who are you people? Answer me! Stop right there! Hey! Hey, I need the Watch—

Selys began to shout, cupping her claws to her mouth, trying to raise someone’s attention. Anyone! She turned and saw the Centaur flick his joint. He pointed it at her and spoke.

“[Mind Blank].”

She recoiled, saw Pisces curse, reach for her. And Selys…

 

—-

 

Stopped. The female Drake stopped in the street, mid-recoil as Pisces grabbed her arm.

“Selys!”

But it was too late. The Drake looked around vacantly. The light, the spark in her eyes, it had all faded. She stood there, swaying, and then looked at Pisces. After a moment she frowned vaguely.

“Me?”

He stared at her, and then whirled as the Centaur spoke again.

“[Mind—]”

Pisces threw up his mental shields, drawing on his magic and circulating it through his body as he bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. He tasted iron and felt a push at his mind. But [Mages] were better able to resist mind spells and Pisces had practice. He turned, hand grasping again for the rapier he did not have. Selys was behind him; she hadn’t reacted; she was just staring ahead blankly.

“Let her go. The Drake’s not part of this.”

The Minotauress called out again. They were surrounding him, two on each side. Pisces looked up. He stared at Selys’ face and then turned. His voice snapped in the silence.

“Who are you? What do you want with me?”

“You know who we are.”

The Drake was watching him. Pisces glanced behind him. Selphid and Centaur. They hadn’t said a word, but the magic hung heavy in the air. The Drake made an impatient gesture.

“Hands behind your head. Kneel down and put your face on the ground. No magic.”

Pisces licked his lips. He took a step back, half-pivoting.

“I am a Silver-rank adventurer—”

“Don’t play games. We know who you are. Wistram wants you.”

The Drake aimed his wand, raising his buckler. The tip of his wand sparked. The Minotauress just shook her head.

“And here I thought he’d be harder to find. More like a rat. No moves, [Necromancer]. We know all your spells.”

“I can assure you—”

The Drake’s eyes narrowed. His wand sparked and a ray of fire shot forwards. Pisces jerked—but the fiery beam went past his left shoulder and struck the cobblestones. The ground turned red and stone cracked.

“Enough talk! The next one goes through your leg. Surrender or we’ll do this the easy way.”

“I have done nothing—”

Pisces flinched from the second ray as it shot past his right leg. The Minotauress glanced at her companion and he nodded. They advanced.

“Last chance.”

The Drake warned. He was tracking Pisces as the young man moved back. They were closing in. Pisces tensed. Selys was walking to his left. She absently stared around, and then wandered down the street.

“Do I have work? I thought I was…”

Closer and closer. The Selphid and Centaur moved forwards a step, but the Drake and Minotauress were still advancing. Pisces froze. And all of the [Mages] on the street paused. They were eight feet apart. Then six—

And then Pisces turned and leapt for a side alley. The Drake cursed and his wand shot webs. But a bit off-target. Pisces dashed forwards—and the Minotauress caught him. She was quick! She raised one huge hand, swinging. Pisces turned—

Don’t hurt me!

He threw up both hands, shrinking down. The Minotauress stopped the blow and the Drake raised his wand, aborting a second spell. He blinked down as Pisces cowered, trembling before the second blow.

“I surrender! No violence! Please! I can assure you, I’ve done nothing wrong—”

“Shut up! Drop your wand.”

“He doesn’t have any, Isceil.”

The Minotauress stared at Pisces. She was still holding him, but now she let go. Pisces fell to his knees. He raised both hands, putting them behind his head. There were tears in his eyes.

“I—I’ve done nothing wrong against Wistram. If there’s some issue, I have gold! Let’s talk this over! Whatever you might have been told, I’m completely reformed. Good magi, a bit of kindness—”

“Shut. Up.”

Pisces’ babbling stopped. His eyes were wide as he trembled. The Drake, Isceil, lowered his wand, looking disgusted. He glanced at the Minotauress. She had the same expression on her face. The Selphid and Centaur [Mage] hesitated, but both trotted closer.

“I can’t believe this. Are you sure this is the right one?”

He turned. The Selphid nodded, glancing about. She stared at Pisces as he turned, a terrified expression on his face.

“Wow. He really gave up instantly. I thought he had some spine, based on all the reports.”

“Consider this. If it’s gold you want—”

Shut up. Ancestors damn it. Well, we got him. Let’s capture this idiot already.”

The Drake folded his arms. Pisces threw himself forwards.

“Wait—wait!”

“Hands behind your head!”

The Minotauress snapped. She stepped back and reached for her belt. Pisces immediately got up and put his hands back up. He stared as she pulled something from her belt.

“Whatever Wistram Academy might think of me, I’ve reformed! Truly! If you intend to capture me, my record is clean in Liscor, I swear!”

“Hah. Can you believe this?”

The Selphid looked amused. The Drake just spat. He nodded towards his companion.

“Don’t try to weasel out of this, [Necromancer]. Now, put your hands up and get in the box.”

He looked towards the Minotauress. Pisces froze as she withdrew a black cube from her belt. It was perfectly black, without detail save for a single, etched door drawn in pale silver on one side. His eyes went wide and he leaned back as she aimed it at him.

“What is—”

“It’s a Silent Box. We’re not idiots. Get in.”

The Minotauress leaned forwards. Pisces backed up.

“No! I’m innocent! Please, can’t we negotiate?

He threw himself to the side, avoiding the front of the cube. The Drake cursed, kicking at him as Pisces scrambled towards him, clutching at his legs.

“Get off! Don’t make me hex you, you little—Beza, just capture this piece of waste already!”

He lifted a leg to kick at Pisces. The Minotauress growled, reaching for Pisces with one hand. And then her eyes widened.

Watch out!

Pisces sprang upwards. He slashed at the Drake’s throat with one hand, snarling, and the Oldblood Drake made a sound. His head jerked backwards. But for Bezha’s warning, the bone blade would have cut his throat. As it was, Pisces slashed the edge and turned. He vanished, fleeing with long steps that blinked him across the ground.

[Bone Shiv]. [Flash Step]. The [Mages] shouted as Pisces dashed down the street. He got five steps, leapt, and vanished in midair. The Drake turned, cursing.

“That bastard! Where’d he—”

The Centaur took the rollup from his mouth and blew a cloud of smoke. Casually, he exhaled it and the smoke turned bright, pink, glittering particles sweeping forwards in a rush of air.

“He’s still here. [Glitterdust Storm].”

The pink shimmering cloud blew forwards and settled across the street. It caught Selys and she blinked, staring at the bright particles that stuck to her.

“Shiny.”

She muttered. Behind her, the particles stuck to a shape in the air. Pisces reappeared, coughing, as the Centaur pointed at him.

“Got him.”

The [Necromancer] looked around wildly. His [Invisibility] spell had been purged! And—he turned, stumbling, and [Flash Stepped] backwards. But somehow, he couldn’t flee down the street. He found himself stumbling backwards, towards the [Mages].

They were aiming at him now. The Drake raised his wand and roared. He blasted a ray of fire and Pisces ducked out of the way. The Drake’s wand ignited, and the Minotauress grabbed his arm.

“You idiot, that Drake’s still in the way!”

“I’ve got her.”

The Selphid dashed forwards and tugged at Selys. Pisces froze. Something was wrong. He turned around. The street swam behind him. He whirled as another ray of magic shot at him and dodged left. The Drake was clutching at his throat. The Minotauress clenched a fist, pulling out a scroll.

“Isceil, do you need a potion? I’ve got him—”

I’m fine. Don’t you dare, Beza! The rest of you, back off!”

Isceil hissed. His companions looked at him as he advanced, his wand aimed at Pisces’ heart. The Drake’s tail lashed furiously. His throat was still bleeding, but no more than superficially. He narrowed his eyes at Pisces.

“Not bad. If I were twice as slow, you’d have got me. Everyone, stay back. I’ll take him. Alone.”

“Really?”

Shut up, Beza. You. [Necromancer]. You’re not getting away.”

The Drake aimed his wand at Pisces. The young man paused. His head felt thick. But he still sneered. He raised his hand and a rapier of bone appeared, the bones flowing from his bag of holding.

“Is this a challenge? For a group of Wistram’s cowards, I didn’t expect any honor among them.”

The comment made the female Minotaur’s eyes begin to turn red. She opened her mouth, but the Drake laughed.

“That’s better! I was hoping you’d fight back. Beza, he’s mine.”

He sneered as Pisces flicked his bone rapier. The [Necromancer] walked to one side, rapier raised in a [Fencer]’s position. Isceil had no weapon save for his wand, but he didn’t look concerned. He flicked his wand as he kept his buckler high.

“I heard you were a good duelist back in your day. I’m one of Fissival’s best. If I’d have transferred to Wistram, people wouldn’t remember you at all.”

Pisces’ eyes narrowed.

“So you are from Wistram?”

The Drake looked at him.

“Of course we are. We’re—”

He swore and raised his shield, twisting. Pisces’ lunge carried him across the street. He missed, his rapier deflecting off the Drake’s buckler. Isceil pointed.

“[Flame Scythe]!”

He swung the wand fast, an arc of blue flame cutting. Pisces was already gone. He reappeared, panting. The heat of the flames cutting through the air was intense. The Drake spat curses.

“You cowardly—”

He jerked as Pisces dove left. The [Necromancer] blasted fire at his face, spun, [Flash Stepped] around the Drake, and fired a [Stone Dart] at his side. The Drake twisted. The flames he dispelled, but the stone dart shot at him from his wand-side. He twisted—

And the stone dart exploded in midair. Pisces paused. The Drake lifted his wand. The returning spell exploded outwards, a shower of purple missiles that homed in on Pisces. The [Necromancer] leapt backwards, but the missiles pursued him. He vanished, threw up a [Barrier of Air]—the explosion sent him stumbling back a step.

Pisces pointed a finger and lightning, volts of electricity crackled forwards. Again, they vanished before touching the Drake. This time Isceil just sneered. Pisces saw an amulet on his chest flashing. It was absorbing the Tier 2 spells!

“That’s it? You could take on fourth-year students, but not—”

He slashed with his wand. A sword of light cut at the air, but Pisces’ reach was longer. The [Necromancer] leapt forwards, slashing with his rapier, stabbing, vanishing backwards. This time he raised his hand and a bloom of light flashed in the Drake’s eyes. Isceil cursed, spoke a word. Pisces saw the barrier appear and [Flash Stepped] left. He lunged in, saw the Drake pointing his wand behind him, right at Pisces.

“[Flame Spray].”

This time the fire caught Pisces. He shouted in pain, leaping backwards, his robes and hair burning. Pisces shot frozen air, blasting his skin, ignoring the blisters forming. The Drake crowed, but cursed as he felt at one arm. Pisces had cut him above the arm in the clash on his buckler arm.

Isceil’s companions watched the magical duel calmly. The Minotauress was shouting clenching her hands, watching Pisces warily—the Selphid and Centaur were more casual. The smoking Centaur called out as he watched the Drake raise his buckler.

“Having trouble, Isceil? He’s not bad!”

Shut your damn mouth, Palt!

The Drake roared back. He shot a flurry of spells at Pisces, curving them and aiming where Pisces would be. The [Necromancer] disappeared backwards, throwing his own spells, but defensively. The Selphid watched with interest. The Drake’s body the Selphid was wearing held two wands and she was flicking them as she analyzed the duel.

“This Human really is as good as Beatrice said. I never saw him duel, but he’s quick! [Fencer]?”

“Maybe. But Isceil will win.”

The Centaur nodded knowingly. He watched as Pisces retreated backwards. The [Mage] had conjured his [Barrier of Air] again. But the Drake shattered it with a single spell. Pisces fell back, panting. He stared at the Drake, poised, ready to dodge. Isceil aimed at him, eyes narrowed, and the two froze for a second.

Pisces’ mind was whirling as he stared at his opponent. He was good. And the buckler had some kind of spell that was drawing Pisces’ attention and attacks. Every time Pisces lunged—the [Necromancer] glanced at the other three [Mages]. Isceil’s eyes narrowed. His wand shot a scythe of flames horizontally.

“Your opponent’s here!

“Damn it, Isceil! We’re right here!”

The Selphid leapt forwards and cut the flames in two as they shot. Pisces had already ducked under the fire, but Isceil had been aiming for that. Grinning, the Drake aimed at the crouched [Necromancer]. He saw Pisces flick one hand and a ring flashed. A bolt of magic shot towards Isceil’s face. The overconfident Drake blinked.

“Isceil! Dodge!”

The voice that rang out came from the side. Isceil’s eyes widened. He raised his bucker, caught the edge of the [Shatterbolt] on the rim of his shield. His buckler trembled as the magical spell hit it. It glowed, cracked, and exploded. The Drake howled.

“My shield!

“Isceil!”

His friends cried out in shock. The Drake raised his wand, whipping around wildly for Pisces, but the [Necromancer] was gone. He was—Beza pointed.

“Damn, he’s running! Get him!”

Pisces was dashing at them. The Selphid, Centaur, and Minotaur all reacted. The Selphid leapt backwards, out of the way of a slash. Beza swung barehanded, but Pisces leapt past her. He [Flash Stepped] forwards zipping forwards with each step—

And found himself facing the other way. Pisces stumbled. He was running towards the [Mages] again! He saw the Selphid raising her wands, unguarded, and leapt forwards.

“Oh rot—”

A hail of missiles hit Pisces from the side. It was like being hit by heavy, sharp punches. Pisces staggered. The Centaur!

“I’ve got you covered. [Light Arrow].”

He was pointing at Pisces with both hands. Bolts of light appeared at his fingertips and flew at Pisces. They shot from his fingers as fast as rain. Pisces dodged backwards, but again, he found himself stumbling as he tried to get down the street. At last, his frantic mind connected the dots.

He was under an illusion spell. The [Necromancer] twisted, snarling. The Centaur’s lit joint puffed. And the cloud turned orange as he blew a smoke ring.

“He’s trying to break my illusion. Anyone want to stop him? Anyone?”

“I’ve got this.”

“He’s my prey!”

Isceil was running forwards. But the Minotauress had had enough. She strode forwards. Pisces narrowed his eyes. The Centaur trotted backwards, watching Pisces carefully. The [Necromancer] dodged left and Beza cursed.

“Damn. [Haste]—”

She blurred. Now it was her versus Pisces and the Minotaur was fast. Pisces backed up as the female Minotaur came at him. She stepped in—not a blind rush, but a boxer’s stance. She swung, fast and compact, but each swing missed him. He slashed out; she blocked with one arm. His swing didn’t even break her flesh!

“[Steel Body]. Ulinde?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

The Selphid appeared behind Pisces. Now it was two-on-one. No, three. The [Necromancer] turned. He grabbed his bag of holding and threw it.

Rise!

Bones spilled from the bag, assembling upwards. A hand reached for the Selphid. She turned, raised her wands.

“No you don’t! [Ray of Force]. [Aerial Burst].”

The Bone Horror exploded as the spells sent the bones flying. They rained down around the street. Pisces stared at the Selphid. They smiled in the Drake’s body and leapt.

“[Flame Scythe]. [Stone Spray]!”

Fire and stone. Pisces dodged backwards. But he was too slow. This time the fragments of stone struck his leg, drawing blood. He stumbled, his skin blistering. The Minotaur raised a hand.

“Ulinde, we want him alive.”

“It’s only Tier 2 spells, Beza—”

Ulinde, Beza! Back off!

The Drake bellowed as he aimed at Pisces. The Minotauress turned on him angrily.

“Isceil, finish it if you’re so bothered. But if you can’t catch him—”

“He won’t dodge this.”

Pisces saw the Drake lower his wand. The [Necromancer] leaned on his good leg, ready to dash. He inhaled raggedly. What was coming? If he couldn’t flee, he had to send a message to Ceria, take out the Centaur and—

Isceil inhaled. Pisces whirled. Oldblood Drake. He dodged left, prepared for an attack. But what issued from the Drake’s mouth was a stream of frost. An ice-type? But then Pisces saw the ice was a cloud. An expanding black cloud—

Darkness and ice? The [Necromancer] paused for a crucial second as the cloud curved around him. Too late, he realized it wasn’t aimed at him, but cutting off his back—he tried to dodge left, but the swath of magical bolts caught him. Three stuck him and he stumbled backwards. Freezing ice and sapping darkness from the cloud struck his back.

“Got him.”

Burning pain. Pisces’ body spasmed. He cried out; the bolts had torn his flesh. He looked up as the Drake leveled his wand. His body was slowing. Freezing. The four [Mages] watched him.

“Surrender.”

The Minotauress called out. Pisces coughed. He said nothing. Isceil’s eyes narrowed.

“[Hail of—]”

Pisces raised his hand and flicked it at the [Mages]. All four recoiled, but the [Shatterbolt] spell didn’t come. The ring on Pisces’ finger was still recharging. But that opening was all he needed.

Pisces leapt forwards, his rapier extended, aiming straight for the Drake’s open mouth. A [Fencer]’s lunge. He stepped through the cloud, but the magical breath couldn’t touch him for more than a moment. And his bone rapier was aimed straight for the Drake’s open mouth.

It was less than a split second, a [Flash Step]. In that way memory has of catching up to action, Pisces saw the Drake’s eyes widen, him try to move. But it was too late. The rapier’s tip aimed at his mouth—

And Pisces slammed into something. So hard that he felt his arm crack and his rapier skid twisting out of his hands. He recoiled, and then fell backwards, stunned by the impact. He’d hit—

Isceil was cursing. He raised his wand, but his spell struck the magical barrier protecting him and dissipated harmlessly. He whirled.

And the fifth [Mage] stepped forwards, shedding her own [Invisibility] spell. Her voice was low as she moved forwards, the staff in her hands glowing.

“Step back, Isceil. Now.”

“I had that! I—”

The hooded head turned towards him. The Drake swallowed his fury, lowered his wand. Pisces scrambled for his rapier. He tried to get up, but he was winded. He looked up, biding his time. The fifth mage wore a dark hood. But now, she pulled it back and looked down at him.

She had bright red hair, fizzy, fair, Terandrian features. She was young, a bit younger than he was, but only by year or so. Her eyes were pale, saffron and topaz. She stared down at Pisces and spoke. Her voice was lower than he remembered. But so familiar.

“Hello, Pisces. Remember me?”

The [Necromancer] froze. He stared up at her. His eyes widened and his mind went blank for a second. He looked at the young woman as her companions, her team spread out behind her.

Drake. Selphid. Centaur. Minotauress. They all bore the marks of Wistram, but Pisces knew none of them. But her? He knew her. The young [Mage] leaned on her stave.

Her staff was something like marble, a hexagonal base ending with a hoop-like design at the head. Inside the ring hovered a red gemstone. But what drew the eye was the strange, polished orb hovering around the staff. It looked like a ball of…copper? Yet, Pisces had only eyes for her face. He spoke sharply. A pained name. Memory.

“Montres—”

“[Lightning Bolt].”

The magic flashed from the orb, not the staff. The thunder rolled and broke. The other [Mages] winced, but when the flash and sound cleared, Pisces was trying to get up. He’d shielded himself even from that, but—

Pisces rose. This time a fist swung at his face. He jerked, but it spun him on his back. The Minotauress watched as his head cracked the paving stones. She stood over him. The Drake advanced, aiming a wand down at Pisces. Montressa du Valeross watched.

“Give up. Now.”

“Montr—”

The Drake’s foot flashed out and stomped on Pisces’ hand as he reached for his rapier. The [Necromancer] shouted in pain. Now there were three. Selphid, Drake, Minotauress. Beza leaned down. Her horns were capped with an ornamental tip of silver and gemstone. She spoke once.

“Give up.”

Pisces stared up at them. The [Mages] waited. He looked past them at Montressa. Right at her. He inhaled once, clutching at his chest. And spoke.

“No.”

He rose. This time there was no duel. He slashed, a knife of bone appearing in his hands. The Minotauress struck him in the stomach and he folded, gagging. The Selphid knocked his legs out from behind and the Drake [Mage] stepped forwards and kicked him in the face. Pisces stabbed at his leg, drawing blood. Isceil hissed.

“That’s it.”

He kicked Pisces again. The [Necromancer] slashed at him until Beza ripped the blade from his hands. But he refused to surrender. He snarled, then, biting, clawing, magic swirling and breaking unformed as they interrupted his spellcasting.

Selys Shivertail stood in the street where the Selphid had dragged her. She watched, vaguely, as the three magic users surrounded the young man on the ground. Some part of her was troubled. But the rest of her couldn’t find the words to explain why it hurt. The [Mages] didn’t bother with spells anymore. They just hit Pisces, again and again. The sounds bothered Selys, heavy thumps. Blows. Curses. But her vacant eyes never looked away.

They didn’t stop as long as he was moving. And he refused to stop. The Centaur looked away, inhaling deeply and blowing out smoke. When it was finally over, they stepped back. The Drake’s eyes were alight with fury. The Minotaurs’ disdainful. The Selphid looked disgusted.

And Montressa? She stepped over to the young man, as the Drake wiped off a spatter of blood and spat. And she stared down at him with hatred as she drew the Silent Box. Pisces never moved as Montressa bent.

Hatred and fear.

 

—-

 

Yvlon Byres had never been to Wishdrinks, but she’d heard all about the reputation of the bar. And it was well-deserved. For, when she visited it at last, she found it was not only the most popular bar in Liscor, but it had a waiting list.

So the adventurers went to a normal tavern instead. The alcohol was cheap, and they were sitting around, drinking and talking. Humans, mostly. Ksmvr was there, and Ceria, but it was mostly the old adventurers. Stan. Alais. Walt. Kammy, who was ‘Kam’ to everyone. And more. Silver-rank adventurers Yvlon had met once or twice before, or whom she’d heard of.

They were talking, laughing, telling stories, and toasting each other. It was somber and funny. Mostly funny, actually—Yvlon was laughing. She couldn’t help it.

“So then—then I saw Gerial and Ceria trying to drag Calruz up the stairs. They were all too drunk, and so the Minotaur kept on falling backwards and those two idiots weren’t about to pull him up themselves. So they just left him on the stairwell. But here’s the best part: they forgot to clean him up, so he still had all the crap on him. And the tavern’s dog—it must have gotten through the door with some of its buddies, because it began eating all the scraps on him. And then it began puking and crapping on Calruz, so when we got down the next day, we found him covered in—”

A roar of laughter followed Walt’s story. Yvlon snorted, more disgusted than amused, and she saw Ceria bury her head in her hands, blushing. But also laughing.

“Dead gods. This is why we don’t work with your team, Walt! And you’re one to talk. I remember one time we had to find you after you went drinking and we found you in a pigsty, spooning with a pig!”

Kam coughed on her drink and Walt laughed. He was already deeply into his cups, and it wasn’t even near dinner yet. But then—Yvlon’s head was also clouded. They’d been drinking. Talking about the past.

“Those were the good old days. Remember when we were all just out of Bronze-rank? Your team jumped out of it fast, Ceria. That damn bull was too strong and you had those ice shards—”

“Ice spikes. I still have them. Yeah. If only I’d had my [Ice Walls]. That’d have been really useful. In the crypt.”

The other adventurers sobered a bit. Ceria had related the tale, the real tale of what had gone down in the crypt with Yvlon’s help. It hadn’t been easy, hence the drinks. But they weren’t the only ones.

“Undead. They get you. My team and the Ghouls—it was a bad hand. Cervial would’ve never opened that door. That thing—Skinner? It must have come out. It was a trap. I—well, we heard differently.”

Stan leaned on the counter. He hadn’t drunk as much as the others, being the oldest save for Ceria. He looked around and the others nodded. Kam made a disgusted noise.

“I never believed it. I knew Ceria and Calruz and everyone else. You shouldn’t have listened to those other adventurers, Stan. They’re not team captains. You know what Terrica did after I booted her from the team for getting us into that ambush? She complained. Filed a report at the Adventurer’s Guild saying that I cut her out of her fair share. Unjustly.”

“Bitch.”

Walt missed his mug. Some of the other team leaders nodded.

“She really walked your team into a full ambush?”

“She was either drunk, or she’d been taking some of those powders. Or…I don’t know. I thought I could trust her.”

“I lost two friends on a [Bandit] mission three years back. Just bad luck. I was taking point. That was an honest mistake, but that’s why I resigned as captain. There’s some truth to the folks who’re angry at the Horns. And your team, Kam. But let’s be clear: it was a mistake. Both situations could’ve been avoided, sure. But no one wanted either incident. We’ll correct anyone we hear spreading false rumors.”

Pelico, a [Rogue] adventurer nodded seriously. The other adventurers nodded too. Yvlon had to raise her mug, nodding gratefully.

“I’ll drink to that. And again—that fight in the Adventurer’s Guild? That was my fault.”

“We provoked it. Tempers were hot. It was Albez, really. Pure jealously over that. As well as not hearing anything after Liscor and getting your side of the story.”

Alais muttered into her cup. Stan nodded gravely, and he raised his cup.

“To mistakes. We’ve all made a few.”

The adventurers drank. Yvlon saw Ksmvr drinking quietly; the Antinium had been listening rather than sharing his own stories, of which he had few. Now he rose.

“Excuse me. I must excrete.”

Walt choked on his drink. Yvlon heard laughter from the others.

“Ksmvr! Don’t tell us that!”

The Antinium tilted his head.

“But I will be away for a longer period than normal. The typical toilet is ill-configured to dispose of my waste. I must find a proper receptacle.”

He wandered off. Yvlon heard Walt choking and laughing, but then the other adveturers leaned in. Kam looked at Yvlon and Ceria.

“Alright, since we can ask now—tell me honestly, you two. Is he really okay to have on your team? I couldn’t believe you had an Antinium on your team. I thought they were these mindless killing machines.”

The others nodded. Yvlon looked at Ceria, and spoke up first.

“Ksmvr’s odd. But he’s one of the most loyal teammates I’ve ever had. The Antinium are strange, but some of them are just like us. Just a bit different.”

“Different how?”

“Well, he doesn’t understand a lot of things. He lived in the Hive all his life. He’s actually three years old.”

“Dead gods. Seriously?”

“Yes, but listen, Kam, everyone. He’s the kind of teammate you want. Ksmvr’s the most trustworthy friend I know. If anything, we have to take care of him because he’ll put his life on the line before ours. He thinks he’s expendable compared to us; he’d lay his life down in a heartbeat.”

Pelico bit his lip.

“Damn. That’s some loyalty. I’ve had companions like that. They don’t last long.”

“Don’t worry about him. That fellow’s a demon in combat. Did we tell you about the [Bandit] story? He took out an entire group of them. By himself!”

What? I didn’t hear about this!”

Everyone looked at Stan. He was nodding, looking at Yvlon and Ceria for confirmation.

“I didn’t see it all, but—well, it was after the fight. Yvlon and Ceria here had just been hauled off to the jail—”

“Because they’d brawled with us. That other one too. Pisces?”

Alais muttered, flushing. Yvlon nodded. Kam glanced up sharply.

“The [Necromancer]. Tell us about him. You’re actually working with one? After Liscor?”

“He saved Ceria’s life. Went into the crypt, Kam.”

“Talk about him later! What’s this about the [Bandits]?”

Walt interrupted impatiently. Stan was nodding, and Yvlon was leaning over to whisper with Kam when the [Mages] walked into the tavern. Five of them. At first, no one noticed, but Ceria glanced up muzzily, sensing the magical energy. So did another team captain.

Ulinde, the Selphid, glanced around, and then spotted Ceria at the bar. She pointed the half-Elf out.

“That her, Montressa?”

“Yes.”

The Centaur named Palt was lighting a new roll. He sucked on it and blew out more smoke.

“She’s got companions. Want to wait?”

“Adventurers. They look like Silver-ranks. We can handle them. Let’s not waste time.”

Beza snorted. She still looked at Montressa first. The [Mage] nodded and they all walked forwards.

Ceria Springwalker.

Isceil interrupted Stan’s story at the bar. The adventurers turned, most blinking as they saw the five [Mages]. Ceria looked up. She focused on the Drake’s face first.

“Huh? That’s me. Do I know you?”

“No. But you know her.

The Drake jerked his head over to the young woman. Ceria turned. Yvlon saw her pause uncertainly. And then Ceria dropped her mug.

Mons? Montressa?

She jerked out of her seat, standing up unsteadily. Montressa gave Ceria a flat, long stare.

“That’s me. Hello, Ceria. Is your team here?”

“I—Montressa? How did you get here? Tree rot! Is that you?”

Ceria stared unsteadily at Montressa and then went to pinch herself. Yvlon stared. She’d heard Ceria’s tale of her days in Wistram and she vaguely recalled the name. Alais blinked around. She could sense the [Mages] too. She sat up a bit and her tone was respectful.

“Who’s this Ceria? An old friend?”

“I—yes?”

The half-Elf blinked uncertainly at Mons. Worriedly, Yvlon thought. But she smiled and gestured around to Yvlon.

“Everyone, this is Montressa. Montressa, it’s good to see you. Yvlon—meet Montressa. You remember me telling you about her? This is Yvlon, one of my teammates. I—”

She paused. Montressa was just staring at Ceria. Looking the half-Elf up and down. And—Yvlon was rapidly sobering—there was absolutely no warmth in her eyes. Much the opposite. The other [Mages] looked equally…

Slowly, the adventurers put down their cups and all turned. They could all feel it in the air. Ceria’s smile faltered.

“Mons? I have a team. The Horns of Hammerad. And…you know who’s on my team?”

“An old friend. I know. Pisces. I just met him. But I never thought you’d be working with him. Looks like you really haven’t changed.”

Montressa spoke quietly. She stared at Ceria. Yvlon felt her skin crawling. Beside her, Kam gave Yvlon a slow nudge.

“What? You met Pisces?”

“I did. My team and I are all [Mages] from Wistram. We’re here on a mission. We just apprehended Pisces for his crimes. He’ll stand trial in Wistram.”

The room froze over. Ceria stared at Montressa, blinking, not quite comprehending. Her smile vanished. She looked at Montressa, then the other four [Mages].

“What? But—hold on, we were kicked out. The Council exiled us. You can’t—wait, where’s Pisces?”

“What did you do with him?”

Yvlon slowly got up. She was still wearing her armor. She stared at the Minotauress. She was big. Taller than Calruz, even. Although Calruz had been burlier. This Minotaur was wearing robes. A Minotaur [Mage]? She still looked stronger than Walt.

“We put him in a Silent Box. He resisted. You’re on his team, Ceria. Wistram’s decided you owe the academy an explanation for why you’re consorting with him. So you’re coming as well. You won’t be a prisoner if you come quietly. Surrender if you know what’s good for you.”

The half-Elf just stared at Montressa. She looked disbelieving for a moment. But the Drake was shifting his weight. The seated adventurers were surreptitiously shifting their weight. Stan called out, his voice friendly, but wary. The [Bartender] had already ducked backwards, away from the bar.

“Hold on here. I don’t know what this is about, but let’s all be reasonable here. You’re all [Mages]? Why don’t we sit down, discuss this—”

“Shut up, Human. All of you adventurers, stay out of this. This is Wistram’s business. Wistram Academy. If we need to, we’ll deal with all of you as well.”

The Drake snapped at him. That was the wrong thing to say. Walt got up.

“Listen, you pissant Drake. I’ve had it up to here with—”

He froze as Isceil drew his wand. Ulinde’s appeared in her hands as well, aiming at the bar of adventurers. Everyone froze.

“Hold on! You can’t start a fight in the middle of the city! The Watch will—”

Kam croaked nervously. Montressa ignored her. She was still staring at Ceria, but now her gaze flicked to Yvlon.

“Is this your teammate? Does she know what you and Pisces did?”

“Mons?”

Don’t call me that. Does she know what Pisces is? What he’s done? How could you work with him?”

Yvlon stepped forwards. The attention of all the [Mages] shifted on her. She settled herself. Her nerves were fizzing. She checked one arm unconsciously as she looked at Montressa.

“I know who Pisces is. He’s a friend. Where is he? Did you hurt him?”

“This doesn’t concern you. Your Captain and the [Necromancer] are criminals. Walk away.”

The Minotauress informed Yvlon, glaring. Yvlon looked at her.

“Where is Pisces. Answer me.”

“Right here.”

Montressa shifted her robes and let go of her staff. It stayed upright as she pointed to a little black cube. Yvlon stared at it as Ceria inhaled.

“You didn’t—”

“Let him go. Now.”

Yvlon reached for her sword. Alais said something, but Yvlon’s eyes were locked on Montressa. The Selphid raised her wand warningly.

“Don’t. You’re all out leveled. Let Ceria Springwalker go and she’ll come back with us.”

“This isn’t happening. Montressa, let me explain. Did you talk to Pisces? What happened?”

Ceria was laughing, her eyes wide with disbelief. She looked at Montressa, but the young Human woman never blinked. She stared back at Ceria, and Yvlon’s hand found the hilt of her sword.

“What did you do?”

“We don’t want a fight. Let’s talk this over. Yvlon, this isn’t the Adventurer’s Guild. Ceria.”

Stan’s voice was uncertain. Yvlon hesitated. But Ceria just stared at Montressa. She gulped.

“I know that, Stan. But—Mons? Why is my [Dangersense] going off? What did you do with Pisces?

The young woman paused. Then she turned her head and nodded at the Drake and Minotaur on her left.

“Last chance.”

Yvlon drew her sword. Behind his companions, the Centaur grabbed at something.

“[Intangible Snatch].”

Yvlon felt her sword hilt vanish. She gaped and saw him holding the blade, half unsheathed. The Drake pointed his wand.

“[Stone Fist]!”

Yvlon dove as a block of stone blasted past her and smashed into the bar. The room exploded into violence. The adventurers surged up from their chairs. Half of them already had weapons in their hands, but the Selphid was faster. Ulinde leapt forwards, pointing both her wands at the adventurers.

“[Sticky Webs]!”

Spider webbing, nets of it, shot out and hit most of the adventures where they sat. They cried out, struggling, but the Centaur was pointing calmly from face to face.

“[Black Shroud]. [Sleep]. [Sticky Webs]—”

He and the Selphid struck the adventures in their seats, immobilizing some of them. Walt slumped, his eyes fluttering. Ceria was on her feet.

Montressa!

She raised her wand, pointing with her skeletal hand. Frost shimmering around both, but Isceil pointed his wand at her.

“You’re outmatched, half-Elf. Don’t even try it.”

Ceria hesitated. Yvlon surged to her feet, looking for a weapon. Anything! She turned—and Beza charged her. The Minotauress knocked Yvlon off her feet. The [Wounded Warrior] tumbled backwards, crashing onto the ground. Beza raised a fist.

“Give up.”

“No fighting! No fighting! Someone call the W—”

The [Bartender] was halfway towards the door, but there was a shimmering barrier there. The Centaur pointed and the Drake collapsed, eyes rolling up in his head. Ceria looked at Yvlon. From the ground, Yvlon looked up. Montressa looked at Ceria.

“Well?”

Ceria shouted.

[Ice—]

A barrier of ice exploded from the ground as she shot a spray of snow into the Drake’s face. He cursed and pointed at the expanding barrier of frozen water.

The wall of ice exploded. Ceria gaped and saw him pointing his wand. She dodged, but too late. The bolt of magic hit her in the chest and slammed her against the bar. She flailed there, breathless. The Drake hit her with a second spell before she could move. Ceria felt the world disappear for a moment. Her ears were ringing. She stared upwards, mouthing wordlessly. She couldn’t breathe.

Montressa stood over her. Yvlon was on her feet, but she’d been caught. Beza had her arm. The Minotauress was twisting it up ruthlessly. Ceria was downed—Isceil was stabbing his wand into her chest and it was draining her of energy. Yvlon cursed as she fought to get free, but Beza had leverage on her. She growled as the other [Mages] looked at Ceria.

“Walk away, Miss Human. Both of your teammates are under arrest. You’re free to go; don’t make us incapacitate you.”

“Let go of Ceria!”

Yvlon wrenched, but her right arm was caught. Beza sighed as she adjusted her grip and looked at Montressa.

“I’ve got this. You can’t get free, Human.”

Yvlon twisted. She was bent over, held at an awkward angle, but she could still hit at Beza. She swung a fist into the Minotaur’s stomach, but it was weak. Beza didn’t even move. She looked embarrassed as she twisted Yvlon’s arm up further.

“Just give up. Even Minotaur [Mages] can outfight your average [Warrior]. And I’m specialized in hand-to-hand combat.”

“Yvlon.”

Ceria croaked weakly. Yvlon saw her friend’s hand jerking as she weakly grasped at the wand. The obsidian was sparking where it touched her chest. Montressa was lifting the black cube, advancing on her. Yvlon Byres saw crimson. She howled in fury and wrenched.

Her arm moved. Yvlon turned and slammed her head into Beza’s chin. The Minotaur stumbled back she looked stunned. Yvlon spun. She kicked, catching the Minotaur in the stomach. It felt like she was hitting a rock! She caught herself, lashed out. Her right arm didn’t move, but her left struck Beza across the face. Her armored fist drew blood this time. Yvlon punched. Her right arm wasn’t moving!

“Beza!”

Her friends were raising their wands. Yvlon turned, one of her arms raised. Beza stumbled backwards, but caught herself. She held up a hand. Then she stared at Yvlon. The [Wounded Warrior] turned to her. The Minotauress stared.

“You—you just dislocated your arm.”

Yvlon blinked. She stared down at her left arm. She saw her arm was twisted, the elbow bent in into it poked at her side. She stared at it. She hadn’t felt a thing. Then she looked up.

“So?”

The Human woman charged the Minotaur. Beza blocked the first punch; Yvlon kneed her in the chest and heard the Minotaur grunt. She swung, catching Beza across the ribs. The Minotaur punched back and hit Yvlon across the face. Yvlon reeled back and hit Beza with all her weight on the left side. The Minotaur reeled back.

“Use [Steel Body]! Don’t just duke it out, you idiot!”

Isceil was shouting at Beza, but she refused to retreat. Yvlon swung again—this time the Minotaur blocked and lashed out. She hit Yvlon on the chest this time; the armor took the impact and Yvlon slid back.

She tried to move her other arm and felt her muscles tearing. But she didn’t feel it. She charged and rammed into the Minotaur. She reached down and yanked at the leg she found. Beza stumbled, cursing, and Yvlon lifted.

The Minotaur went down and Yvlon leapt on her. Beza tried to utter a spell as she raised her hands. Too late. Yvlon was on top of her. One handed, she pounded at the Minotaur’s face. Beza roared.

“Get—”

“[Binding Cords]!”

Behind Yvlon, Montressa pointed her staff. Yvlon jerked as the spell hit her. Ropes appeared and swirled around the [Warrior] as she tried to fight. But then she was struggling, cursing on the ground. Beza rose, eyes red with fury and rounded on Montressa.

“That was my fight!”

“Oh yeah? You did about as well as Isceil. You should have enchanted yourself, Beza. We don’t have time for this.”

The Selphid shook her head. Beza was furious, but she calmed as Montressa glared at her. She turned back to Yvlon.

“I’m sorry about that.”

“You coward. You—”

“[Soporifics Dust].”

The Centaur trotted over and waved a hand over Yvlon. She cursed, but her movements grew slower. She resisted the spell for nearly a minute, swearing at Beza, but the Centaur just kept the spores of yellow-green powder drifting down on her and eventually Yvlon slowed.

The [Mages] stood in silence. Ceria was limp, unconscious, as Isceil stepped back. He looked at the adventurers, most of whom were out and then at Beza. She was wiping blood from one nostril.

“Alright, we got the half-Elf. Are we taking the other one too?”

“We have to. But where’s the fourth? Did anyone see the Antinium?”

The [Mages] all shook their heads. Montressa glanced around warily. Ulinde was frowning.

“Well, we don’t have to get anyone besides Pisces and Ceria, right? Maybe we—”

Thunk. Ulinde stopped talking and rocked backwards. A crossbow bolt had appeared in the side of her head, just above her ear. She stumbled backwards. Beza’s eyes went wide. She spun—a crossbow bolt struck her in the chest. She stared at it.

Dead gods!

Isceil raised his wand. The third crossbow bolt shattered, cracking the magical barrier that appeared around him. The fourth broke it, but the bolt snapped and only the fragments hit him. He raised his wand and Ksmvr fired the fifth crossbow. It snapped through the Drake’s arm, sending the wand flying. He aimed the sixth one.

He had Crossbow Stan’s bag of holding. Ksmvr stood behind the bar where he’d been hidden and pointed it at Montressa. Straight at her stomach. She was still stunned. He pulled the trigger and the crossbow fired. The bolt sped at Montressa and lodged in the air.

Ksmvr paused. That was a good barrier spell. Montressa jerked, looked at him, and pointed her staff.

“[Binding Rop—]”

The Antinium leapt sideways. He moved unnaturally fast, hopping from his hiding place and bouncing off a wall. He leapt again, landing, and now he had his weapons in hand. He darted at Beza first. His Flamecoat Dagger set her alight and she howled.

Beza! [Dispel Magic]!

The flames went out as fast as they’d appeared. Ksmvr saw Montressa pointing her staff and dodged around her. He lunged. Shortsword, Forceshield in his other two hands. He collided with the shield and his enchanted shortsword struck—something. But it didn’t break.

“Damn, the Antinium—”

The Drake pointed his wand. Ksmvr raised his Forceshield and the spell burst. He felt the impact, but smoothly dodged backwards. The Minotaur swung at him and he stabbed her in the side. Yvlon was asleep, the adventurers were incapacitated. The Centaur was rearing back, alarmed. Not used to combat for all his abilities. Hamstring. Ksmvr, darted forwards—

Ulinde caught him. The Selphid stared at Ksmvr, the crossbow bolt still buried to the shaft in her head. Ksmvr stared at her. His mandibles opened.

“How?”

“Selphid.”

Oh. He swung his dagger and shortsword. She uttered a word.

[Shock Veil].

The electricity coursed through Ksmvr. He still completed the swing, but he just hacked into dead flesh. The Selphid kept her grip and Ksmvr spasmed. He tried to move, to step back, but then he collapsed. Ulinde put a hand on his chest as Ksmvr fell to the ground of the tavern. He curled up as the electricity kept running through him. The adventurers saw him trying to move. Shaking. Stopping.

“Ulinde! That’s an Antinium! If we kill one—”

“I know! I know.”

The electricity stopped. Ulinde stepped back. She felt at the crossbow bolt and grimaced, then turned to Beza.

“I know. I just hate being shot and that scared me. Are you alight?”

The Minotauress drank a healing potion and growled.

“I’m fine. Where did it come from?”

“It must have been in the back. He nearly got me. That filthy—”

Isceil glared at Ksmvr, his hand witching as he drank his own potion. He nearly lifted his wand, but Montressa stopped him.

“You should have put up a barrier. You too, Beza. It was your own carelessness and both of you nearly died because of it. Be careful. This isn’t Wistram and we’re supposed to be professional! Now, let’s finish what we came here to do.”

She looked around as Isceil fell silent, flushing and lashing his tail. The bar was silent, but some adventurers were still awake. Immobilized. Alais was breathing hard as she fought against the webs. She was afraid to use her lightning magic.

“You can’t do this. They’re adventurers!

“They’re criminals. Shut up. Montressa, capture the Antinium. It’s making me uneasy.”

Isceil snapped at her. He pointed at the other four [Mages].

“Didn’t you hear where we’re from? Wistram Academy. Don’t worry; we’ll release the Antinium and [Warrior] later. But the two [Mages] are both criminals. They’ve committed a number of crimes, including impersonating real Wistram [Mages].”

“Real…? You still can’t—don’t touch Ceria!”

Alais struggled, but she was held captive. Montressa was lifting the black box and before Alais’ horrified eyes, the half-Elf vanished, turning into motes of black light that flowed into the box and the silver doorway. Ulinde yanked the bolt out of her head, grimacing.

“Barbed? Damn it. Listen, they’ll be fine. It’s just a prison. Look, this is all legal.”

Legal? You attacked an adventuring team in Liscor! You—”

Ulinde ignored Alais. She looked around impatiently.

“Oh, forget it. Palt?”

The Centaur nodded. He blew some smoke out and raised his hands, pointing at the conscious adventurers.

“[Wave of Vacan—]”

When Alais awoke next, she was lying on the floor. The [Sticky Webs] binding her were gone, and it was nightfall. The [Mages] were all long gone. And so were Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr.

 

—-

 

The [Mages] left the bar quietly. The street was still full of pedestrians, but no one had noticed the fight. Indeed, no one even glanced at the tavern; Palt’s spell was still active, distracting attention away from it. The Centaur was first to exit; he waited for the rest of his companions.

Isceil was rubbing his arm, swearing.

“It hurts. Damn it, it got my bone. The healing potion got some, but—”

“Tough it out. That was embarrassing.”

Beza was unsympathetic. Her fur was still singed, but she was looking embarrassed.

“We could have had perfect takedowns. But you nearly got stabbed and you lost your shield. I didn’t expect that Human woman to dislocate her shoulder.”

“He broke it! What was that spell?”

“[Shatterbolt]. That’s a dangerous artifact. Think we can pull it off him?”

Ulinde looked excitedly at Montressa. The young woman was leaning on her staff. She didn’t look happy. Instead, she touched the black cube and looked around.

Palt, Ulinde, Beza, and Isceil. They were all young [Mages] from Wistram, but full [Mages]. Top of their years. And she was their leader. She shook her head and adjusted her hood.

“Later. Palt, where’s the Drake you used [Mind Blank] on?”

“I left her over there. She’s got a veil on her; no one’s bothering her.”

Palt nodded to a Drake standing vacantly to the side. Selys Shivertail was still unfocused. The Centaur eyed her, and then turned to Montressa.

“It’ll wear off in an hour. I hit her with a good one.”

“Any side effects?”

“Besides amnesia? No. You want me to dispel it? And what about the bar? They’ll all wake up in there after an hour or two as well. Want me to hold the concealing enchantments on it?”

Montressa nodded absently. Ulinde looked nervously at her.

“We’re breaking a lot of rules, here, Mons. I know this is personal, but—”

She broke off as Montressa’s head snapped up. The young woman glared at Ulinde. Her arm was shaking as it clutched the staff around which the copper orb was slowly rotating.

“It’s Montressa, Ulinde. Not Mons. Remember that. And we’re within our rights to hunt fugitives from Wistram. Isn’t that what you said, Isceil?”

The Drake grimaced, still rubbing at his wrist.

“We should probably have talked to the Watch Captain of the city. But you insisted we go after the [Necromancer] when we saw him.”

“He was about to notice us. He’s not an idiot. We shouldn’t have approached. But we got him. We got him and it’s done. We can make apologies later and pay for damages. If this was a city up north or in Terandria, we’d be fine, probably. How much different is Liscor, Isceil?”

He shrugged, looking annoyed.

“I don’t know! I grew up in Fissival, far from here. And frankly, Liscor’s always been isolated. It’s a border city; it was out of touch before the Antinium settled a damn Hive here.”

“Well, someone needs to go see the Watch Captain and explain matters. And pay for the bar we trashed.”

Beza, or Bezale, the Minotaur, folded her arms. She was fishing around in her bag of holding and now she produced a few scrolls. She eyed them.

“And I need to scribe another [Steel Body] and [Haste] scroll.”

“Being a [Spellscribe] must suck.”

“Not as much as being an [Oldblood Magus] who lost to a third-year student who was expelled, Isceil. So much for the dueling master.”

“I—shut up.

The Drake clenched both claws, too furious for a reply. Montressa shook her head.

“I told you he was dangerous. He’s avoided capture from all the other teams who found him for a reason. Enough. We still have work. But someone has to talk to the Watch Captain.”

“Not me.”

Beza looked up instantly. Ulinde echoed her. Everyone turned to look at Isceil. He glared.

“What?”

Palt exhaled; he was still smoking. It was almost perpetual if you knew him.

“You’re a Drake, Isceil.”

“So? Why do I have to talk to some petty Watch Captain? You do it Palt.”

“What? I don’t want to.”

“You didn’t help during the capture.”

“Not my job.”

The Centaur looked affronted, but he sensed Isceil’s mood. He looked at Montressa, and she paused.

“You are the best at negotiations, Palt.”

The Centaur sighed loudly. Ulinde patted him on the flank.

“Just slap on [Arlell’s Articulation] and [Charming Visage]. If she’s got magic detection spells, do something non-magical and charming. You’re the [Illusionist]. I’m a Selphid, there’s that thing with the Minotaur, Isceil’s mad and Mons is the boss. There’s only you.”

“I don’t know why I agreed to come with you all. Fine. Where’s this Watch Captain? Oh, and give me the gold bag, Mons. I might have to pay a lot.”

Palt sighed. Mons handed him a pouch and he took it. Isceil looked around.

“I don’t know where the Watch barracks is. Go ask a [Guardsman] and they’ll point it to you.”

Thanks.

The Centaur snorted and trotted off in a huff. Isceil shouted after his back.

“And put out that stupid roll-up! It’s illegal to have cloudleaf in most Drake cities! Let alone whatever you put in that thing.”

He saw Palt turn his head and glare before marching back. Montressa looked at Beza and the Minotauress shook her head hopelessly. Palt spat the smoking roll from his lips and caught it magically in the air. He glared at Isceil.

“First of all, it’s not a ‘roll-up’. And neither is it a ‘joint’. This is a spliff, hence the tobacco leaves I’ve added to the cloudleaves. It’s quite good.”

“Really? Then I’ll have one.”

Isceil moderated his tone and reached for it. Palt made it vanish and the Drake glared at him.

“No. You want one? Pay up. These aren’t cheap and I can’t buy more ingredients easily in Drake cities. [Alchemists] charge far too much around here.”

“Just get out of here.”

The Drake rudely turned his back. Palt trotted off huffily. His companions watched him go. After a second, Beza snorted.

“Spliff? What is that? Some new concoction?”

“He probably learned it from the guests.”

Ulinde nodded knowingly at the others. Beza paused.

“Oh, right. Them.”

There was a thoughtful pause. Everyone knew something, but the only person who knew a lot was…they all glanced at the young woman. Montressa was still looking at the black cube that now held the Horns of Hammerad. She glanced up as Beza addressed her casually.

“The Ea—I mean, uh, Aaron helped you make your attack orb, right, Montressa?”

Montressa looked up and frowned.

“Yes. But he didn’t say what’s in it and I’m not letting you open it up. It’s experimental. Are you all finished? Let’s go, then.”

She looked around, shoulders hunched. Ulinde exchanged a glance with Isceil and the Drake forgot his ire for a second. Beza looked at her friend, concerned. She paused, and her tone grew softer.

“Montressa, I know you’ve been on edge. But relax. You got him.”

She gestured at the black cube, the Silent Box that she’d passed to Montressa.

“It’s over, Montressa. If you want, I’ll take the box—”

“No. I’ve got it.”

Montressa replied quickly. Her face was taut as she touched the cube and then her hand flew away. Ulinde saw Beza look at her and shrugged helplessly. Isceil grinned.

“Maybe you’ll stop having those nightmares, eh?”

Montressa glared at him along with the other two female [Mages]. Isceil’s smile vanished.

“What? Why are you biting my tail off? We did it! Fine, it was messy, but we got the murderer. And his team. Why’s she still mad?”

He pointed accusingly at Montressa. The young woman paused. She took a deep breath. Then she nodded. She tried to smile.

“Yes. Yes. I did. Thank you. All of you. But we’re not done here. We do have more tasks, remember?”

“Finding ‘L’, investigating the [Emperor]—and getting the magic door from Liscor as well as investigating that report of a…guest. We had to skip the [Emperor] and ‘L’ because of that Oldblood raid. Thank goodness for Wistram’s intelligence.”

Beza nodded briskly. Isceil was nodding too.

“Alright, so the door and this Human. Where is it? I’ll be glad to use the thing; we had to march all the way to Liscor so we didn’t run into—”

He nodded at the cube on Montressa’s belt. She nodded absently and pulled out a folded bit of paper. She studied it.

“Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper]. We’re investigating her and we want the magic door in her inn.”

“Ooh, two for one. Hey, is that the inn people were talking about? The one the [Guards] warned us did weird stuff? And in Celum? And Esthelm?”

Ulinde brightened up. Montressa nodded, smiling a bit. The brooding, anxious mood that had engulfed her the closer they’d come to the source of her fears was lightening, and all her friends were glad to see it. They began walking through the streets, talking.

“I think it’s the eastern gate. That’s what they said, right?”

“Yup. Inn on a hill. I can’t wait to see the magic door. Think the Archmages can disenchant it and copy the spell?”

“Maybe? Archmage Naili thinks she can. Although why we don’t have a teleportation spell like this—”

“Upper floors, probably. She was experimenting with the ones we know, and she’s coming close, but she wants a perfect copy. Imagine having a bunch of them in Wistram?”

“What if the [Innkeeper] really is like…Aaron? I hear she’s crazy. She can spit blood, she kills Shield Spiders with her bare hands, and she took down a gang in Celum all by herself!”

“That’s an exaggeration. But remember the battle with the Face-Eater moths? I want to talk to her.”

Beza was grinning, excited by the idea. Mons smiled.

“If she is, we’ll need to split up, maybe, or ask for retrieval. We still have to investigate the [Emperor] and ‘L’, so don’t relax yet.”

The others nodded, but Ulinde piped up. The Selphid was rubbing her hands together eagerly.

“Okay, we get the door, but we have to stay here a few days, okay? The Halfseekers are around Liscor last I heard. I have to meet Jelaqua Ivirith. Don’t say anything, Isceil! She’s my hero!

Beza nodded as Isceil rolled his eyes. The Minotauress glanced around darkly, noting the unfriendly stares Gnolls and Drakes were giving her.

“I have some business here too. But let’s visit this inn, first. I’m hungry, and I hear this Erin Solstice serves interesting food.”

“Let me go first, though. And remember—the Horns stayed at her inn. So not a word about them. We need to be careful, so that means you keep your mouth shut, Beza. And you, Isceil. And Ulinde. Palt’s the only one I trust, actually.”

“Thanks, Montressa.”

The others laughed, relaxing. They found the magical door and inspected it for a while. There was a queue lined up, mostly Drakes and Gnolls. A few of them recoiled from Beza before they realized she wasn’t Calruz; the Minotauress folded her arms darkly. But then, after less than four minutes of waiting, the door opened.

“Sorry for the delay! Come on in! Anyone travelling to Celum? Esthelm?”

A friendly Drake waved the crowd in. The [Mages] blinked in surprise, but they entered the warm, inviting inn. On the far end of the long room, there were [Actors] setting up on stage. The tables were full of guests, and servers carrying hot food were coming in and out of the kitchen, serving at terrific speed! Montressa smiled and looked around. Then her eye fell on a sign over the bar.

No Killing Goblins. She pointed it out and the [Mages] all blinked. Beza stiffened when she saw the Hobgoblin, but before the [Mages] could wait, a young woman was guiding them to the a table.

“Right here. Table for four? Five? A Centaur?”

Lyonette blinked at Montressa. The [Mage] blinked back. Lyonette’s hair was nearly as red at hers; that was a rarer sight on Izril, as opposed to the old Terandrian bloodlines. But she was too preoccupied with explaining about Palt.

“Not to worry! We can get some pillows and we do have larger chairs for your friend. Miss Minotaur? If you’d like to sit here—Drassi? Where are the chairs we use for Moore? We need one!”

“This is good!”

Despite himself, Isceil looked pleased as they sat and found an appetizer already appearing on their table. He stared at the long tubes of potato.

“What are these?”

“French fries. Complimentary! Try some—this is a small basket, but I can give you a larger portion if you order. With condiments!”

Lyonette smiled. She completely missed the way Montressa and the other [Mages] sat up at the word ‘French’. Ulinde inspected the fries.

“Aw, they look good. I wish my taste buds weren’t half-decayed. Hey, Montressa, I might need to switch it out.”

“Don’t talk to me, Ulinde. I want to eat. I think this is our place, Mons. Where’s the [Innkeeper].”

“I’ll ask.”

Beza leaned back and waved at the young woman who was coming back with drinks. Lyonette looked surprised.

“Erin? She’s talking with some of our [Actors]. They’re going to perform in a bit—a classic, Macbeth, but she’s trying to teach them a new performance. Horror. Do you know about our plays?”

Fascinated, the [Mages] shook their heads. Montressa leaned forwards as Lyonette explained that they were now doing a horror-themed lineup, including classics like Psycho, and The Shining. Erin had found new ways to adapt her world’s work into this one and she was monetizing plagiarism.

“Well, if you stay for another night, we’ll have a performance for you to see! I’m afraid we don’t have many rooms open; the inn’s under construction by the Antinium. I don’t want to bother Erin…”

“Would you mind if we talked? I’d like to make—a special order. For the table? We’d be willing to pay d—triple.”

Lyonette’s eyes lit up.

“I’ll see what I can do!”

She hurried off. Montressa sat up a bit. Isceil turned to Beza.

“Ten gold says it’s just a regular Human. Maybe met one of the guests.”

“Ten gold? Are you mad? It’s got to be her.”

“I think it’s too much of a coincidence. I’m playing the long odds. Give me ten-to-one odds.”

“…Deal.”

The [Mages] waited, munching down on the fries and looking around. A white Gnoll cub was prowling around, trying to steal or beg snacks. And the Hobgoblin was strumming on a guitar. Montressa felt the hair at the back of her neck stir. She turned as a young woman hurried over away from the stage.

“Hi there! My name’s Erin Solstice! Welcome to my inn! Lyonette said you have a special order? Hey, are you all [Mages]?”

She had an infectious smile and a welcoming personality. Even Isceil relaxed. Erin looked at Beza.

“And a Minotaur and a Selphid? Whoa! Cool!”

It put a smile on Beza and Ulinde’s faces. Montressa smiled too. She paused as the others introduced themselves. Erin turned to her.

“And you are? No—wait. Let me get your order first. Lyonette said you wanted something specific?”

Montressa nodded carefully. She’d spotted the menu over the bar and her heart was racing. She was sure. Isceil was an idiot for not having read it. She spoke slowly, looking at Erin. Watching her face.

“I am. I think you might have some of this but—do you have anything like an American cheeseburger? Or perhaps an Indian curry? Anything Chinese?

She was prepared to go on. But she didn’t need to. Erin was smiling at first, but then she paused. Her eyes widened. Her jaw dropped and she stared at Montressa.

“I—I—are you—”

Yes. Montressa knew it. Beza smiled and nudged Ulinde. The Selphid was grinning. Isceil just leaned back, rolling his eyes and cursing as he spotted the menu. He drew a sigil in the air with his wand. A hush enveloped the table as Montressa stood. Erin was gaping at her. But Montressa was used to it. She nodded to Erin, smiling reassuringly.

“Miss Erin Solstice, we’re [Mages] sent by Wistram looking for people from Earth. You are from Earth, aren’t you?”

“I—yes.”

Erin hesitated, but there was no point denying it. Her shock was proof enough. Montressa nodded. She smiled and reached out.

“We’re here to take you home to the others.”

“Others?”

The Wistram [Mages] all smiled at Erin. And Montressa felt her heart lighten. After the grief and pain of seeing the monster and Ceria—at least this was good. She nodded, glad to be the bearer of good news.

“That’s right. There are others. They’re all at Wistram. Miss Erin Solstice, we’d like to bring you to Wistram. To meet other people from Earth. And not just that. We’re going to help you go home.”

 


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