7.49

(I am taking my monthly 2-update break and will be back on the 3rd of October for Patreons, and the 6th for regular readers!)

 

The skies, as if enraged as the world was, opened up. Rain began to fall. First in showers, then, with the suddenness of weather, vast downpours.

To Mrsha, it looked as if the world were drowning once more, just like during the spring. She stood on her tiptoes, solemnly peering out a window. Then she gave the little purple-berry flowers a bit of water. She patted one on its head and looked around.

Apista buzzed over, clearly nervous, and clung to Mrsha’s head. The two stared out the window again.

“Wow. That’s one big storm.”

Erin whistled as she wiped the sleep out of her eyes. She looked at the downpour, and then at Mrsha. Patiently, the [Innkeeper] waited for Mrsha to hand her a card.

Uh huh.

Erin turned it over blankly. Mrsha waved an impatient paw to have it back. Then she went over to stare out at the rain again.

“Lotsa rain.”

Erin Solstice felt moved to continue the conversation. Apista and Mrsha stared up at her. The water was running down the grass and floodplains, trickling into the valleys and buffeting the walls of Liscor. Mrsha saw the wind blow so hard that the [Guards] on the wall had to brace against the sudden wall of air and water.

It was that sort of day. It had not been a terrible one when Mrsha woke up. Nor was it a ‘bad’ day now. Just…solemn. It was not a day to wake up with by leaping on Numbtongue’s stomach and having him chase you downstairs.

Rainy days were important. Mrsha felt it in the air. She looked up and thought—

This was a big storm.

 

—-

 

At the same time that morning, Octavia Cotton was returning home from Pallass. She’d been hard at work under her master, Saliss of Lights. He’d actually called her in, like an actual apprentice to help him.

“You. Hands. Make this.”

That was essentially what the sleep-deprived Drake had said, but it had been more garbled. She’d figured out what he wanted; much like the master-alchemists of Nerrhavia, the Drake had forgotten actual words and impatiently pointed and screamed until she helped him.

In this case—she’d been managing nearly two dozen burners, each with a distilled liquid. Saliss had been mass-isolating one of his ingredients, preparing dozens of base liquids for experimentation. He was on to something; the feverish way he was working told Octavia that.

And he’d been using little, yellow flowers. Octavia had been given a specialized mask as well; Saliss had created a heavy helmet with glass lenses instead of a visor. It had another unusual feature at the mouth. A jar had been attached, or rather, soldered into place.

It was an old adventuring reliable; the Jar of Air which was really a compressed spell like a Bag of Holding. They used it to explore areas with noxious gases.

She’d helped for six hours before Saliss had waved her off. Octavia was now stumbling out of Pallass when the Drake found her.

“Octavia Cotton?”

“That’s me.”

She was yawning. The Drake was one of Pallass’ bureaucracy. One of those nice-smiling [Negotiators], or [Administrators]…he had a suit. Octavia saw him striding over as he hurriedly shuffled his documents.

“Miss Cotton, I’m relieved I caught you. My name is Wispel. I’m here on behalf of the Assembly of Crafts. I’m quite pleased to tell you: your workshop is ready.”

“My what?”

The Stitchgirl [Alchemist] blinked at the Drake. He smiled.

“Your personal laboratory, Miss Cotton. It was just fast-tracked through our application queue. We have a four-year contract here. As our records show…you applied six years ago.”

“I did? I did.

Octavia’s eyes widened. She thought she’d been turned down, or ignored. Wispel nodded.

“At the time, you were rejected, Miss Cotton. But pending our yearly evaluation of talented young [Alchemists]—you have been selected for our honorary Alchemium Scholaris place. That’s a fully-stocked laboratory and home in the City of Inventions. Rent free on both. You will also receive a monthly stipend, discounts on all alchemical supplies, and a grant budget of—let me see—3,200 gold pieces per year.”

Octavia’s jaw dropped. She wanted to pull off her ears and clean them, and she would have if she wasn’t outside.

“I? Me? But that’s—”

It was huge. The Drake was smiling; he might have been expecting her to burst into tears. When she did not, he coughed.

“I have the entire contract here. Just sign, Miss Octavia, and we’ll go through the formalization process. There’s a few steps; magical contracts and all, but—”

“Wait. This is a huge honor, really.”

Octavia had to hold up a hand. Her head was spinning. But this wasn’t her first day on the job. Saliss had told her about stuff like this. And she was from Nerrhavia.

“Is that a mage-contract?”

Yes…just to ensure you’ll be a registered Alchemist of Pallass.

Alchemist of—oh. Now, Octavia blinked. She remembered a similar discussion among other junior [Alchemists]; she had never been offered one, but she knew exactly what this was.

“You want me to move to Pallass? And sell everything through the city?”

Wispel’s smile didn’t change.

“Your achievements have won you a place, Miss Cotton. Our highest prize for young [Alchemists].”

It was, too. Octavia knew all the awards Pallass gave. Not their highest—Saliss had a far larger budget and so on. But for someone her age? Her level?

She would have jumped for joy, or stuffed her legs and spine so she could do a backflip a year ago. Today? Octavia was still tempted. She looked over her shoulder and bit her lip.

“This is a huge honor. But—it might not be right for me?”

“W-what?”

Wispel was still smiling. But it had taken on that waxy sheen of someone who had run into an unexpected issue. Like someone who found an invisible brick right where they liked to put their head every morning.

“I’m hugely honored. But I actually just moved to a new shop in Liscor. The Wandering Inn, actually. And the benefits…”

The young [Alchemist] spread her arms. Wispel stuttered.

“But Miss—Miss Octavia, this is a Pallassian grant. The City of Inventions is the dream of countless [Alchemists]! The Alchemium—

He saw Octavia step forwards. She clasped his hands, giving her best sales-smile.

“Huge. Honor. But I’ve had so many breakthroughs in Celum and…Liscor. Tell you what. Let me think about it. The offer is really generous. A lab and a home? But I already have a room and a shop in The Wandering Inn. And three thousand gold per year—”

“With a stipend!”

“—still sort of low. Thank you so much—”

The skies opened up over Pallass, drowning out the rest of Octavia’s words. Wispel shielded the valuable papers.

“But—wait! Miss Octavia!”

“Thank you! I’ll consider any counteroffers! Must go! Don’t slip!”

The [Alchemist] hurried off as everyone in the streets shot under awnings. She was beaming as she ran and Wispel was left standing in the downpour. Just—beaming. Part of her wanted to go back and accept it. But—look at her now. In a position to turn down the City of Inventions?

Why now, though? That was interesting. Octavia got her answer as soon as she returned to the inn and found a [Message] waiting for her. No—half a dozen. She stumbled into the inn.

Hot milk! Since we’re out of chocolate! Hot milk with—regular honey. Wow. We’ve lost so much good stuff.”

Erin sighed and shook her head as she welcomed her guests with mugs of free milk, warmed by the fire. Octavia gulped at hers.

“Thanks, Erin.”

“Have a towel.”

The [Innkeeper] smiled. Octavia wiped at her hair and shoulders. More guests were coming through, all wet and soaked. They smiled as hot towels were offered and the merry fires in the fireplaces offered drying heat.

“How was Pallass? You didn’t come back for dinner. Did you starve again? What about Saliss? Do I have to throw something at his door?”

Erin had a vaguely accusing look on her face. Octavia bit her lip.

“I’m fine, Erin! I ate! And I’m sure Master Saliss…I think…he might actually need food. But I ate l—dinner!”

“Uh huh. Numbtongue! Octavia’s dying!

The Hobgoblin looked up from the fire. He’d been outside, training, when the skies had been unkind enough to dump on him. He waved at Octavia and jerked a thumb at the kitchen.

“Breakfast. Something hot?”

“Oh—Numbtongue. Sure? I mean—I guess I could eat.”

The Hobgoblin nodded. He got up, walked into the kitchen, and came out a minute later. Imani had chased him out from his regular purloining of whatever he found in the cupboards.

“Imani will make food. Something hot. Spicy.”

“Sounds really good. Hey—the funniest thing happened in Pallass just now.”

Imani! Can I get something for Saliss? I’m going to kick his door until he takes it! Thanks!

Erin shouted into the kitchen. She was distracted, and found Octavia telling Numbtongue about the encounter.

“Wait, you aren’t going, are you? You’ll die. Seriously. Without us to feed you.”

The [Bard] half-grinned, but he was watching Octavia. The [Alchemist] wiped water out of her eyes as she shook her head.

“I’m not that shallow, Erin—I mean, it’s tempting. But I wouldn’t just up and leave. Not after all you’ve done for me.”

“Aw. Thank you, Octavia.”

Numbtongue smiled and nodded. Octavia was a bit embarrassed; it hadn’t always been like this. She went on as Ishkr put a pair of bowls in front of her and Numbtongue.

“From Imani. She calls it…b—b—I have to ask again. Apologies, Miss Erin. Would you like one?”

“No problem, Ishkr. What is it?”

Erin peered at the bowl of…it looked at first like porridge, but it was clearly at least a bit oily. It looked to her like a giant bowl of dip. Imani and Palt had both taken over the kitchens from her.

“It’s beans. Very finely mixed. Lots of spices. Imani made it for me last shift. She says it’s good for cold weather.”

“Huh. Well, whatdya know? I’m good, Ishkr. I ate with Mrsha and Lyonette.”

Numbtongue dipped a spoon into the bowl and began to eat. He chewed, swallowed, and smiled. True, his palate was a Goblin’s, but he had grown a bit pickier of late. Octavia followed him with goodwill. The hot food warmed her up.

“You know, I bet those jerks are gonna copy this. Well, good luck because I didn’t make it!”

Erin looked around triumphantly; sure enough, a number of the bowls of bessara were going around to each table. Although that might have just been people ordering Chef’s Choice or the Meal of the Hour.

“Huh. They never ordered Chef’s Choice when I was around.”

The [Innkeeper] grumped off as Imani shouted that the Saliss-order was ready. She vanished through the door to the hallway as Octavia ate.

“Why did Pallass want you today?”

Numbtongue asked after both had eaten enough to stave off their initial famine. Octavia looked around for a napkin, then showed him the [Messages].

“Look at this. Remember my fungus?”

“Mhm.”

“Well—it’s finally gotten to Zeres and they tested it and its working.

He raised his brows, smiling. It was huge—distant news. Yellow Rivers had never hit Liscor. But it was one of the issues Drassi’s new segment talked about; the growing epidemic affecting coastal nations, mainly.

“What about the medicine to…Baleros?”

Octavia sorted through the messages.

“No word yet—oh! They want more of it! This—I can’t even fulfill it! Oh wow. Oh wow. This—this is from their [Admiral of Supply]. That’s—that’s the biggest official in Zeres!”

“Mhm. Congratulations. Is there hot pepper?”

Numbtongue looked around for the bowl of dried hot flakes. He didn’t get it. Octavia saw the order and the prices Zeres was willing to pay per pound…her head spun. She got up.

“I have to—”

“Eat.”

Numbtongue caught her arm. The [Alchemist] protested.

“But Numbtongue!”

“Eat first. Fight later.”

The sage advice calmed Octavia down. She sat, mind racing. She was going to level from this! She was going to be rich! And famous! And she owed it to…

“Erin?”

The Stitchgirl looked around for Erin, but the [Innkeeper] was gone. Octavia sat there—and then read the other [Messages].

“Grower’s License for Oteslia—stuff me with satin! I—oh. Oh. That’s not good.”

The Hobgoblin looked up. He was trying to figure out if he should say ‘effusive’ in congratulating Octavia. He wasn’t quite sure how to use it after reading it in a book.

‘You did effusively well?’ Just…wasn’t quite right. He’d have to ask Kevin what it meant.

“What’s wrong?”

“The…shipment to Baleros? To this Geneva?”

“Mhm? Something happen to the Courier?”

Octavia read slowly.

“Not to him…but this is…”

She looked out the window. Mrsha was outside. People were staring out the windows. The little Gnoll was standing just outside the inn, arms stretched high into the sky as the rain pelted her. She was laughing, silently, ignoring Lyonette calling her in.

To her, it was a wondrous sight. Neither good nor evil, but impressive. The rain fell harder and Numbtongue waited.

“What?”

“It’s run into trouble. I need to tell Erin—or Lyonette. And—it says a copy of this was sent to Geneva.”

“What’s wrong?”

The Hobgoblin stood. Octavia distractedly pointed.

“Trouble at sea. Everyone wants the medicine. But Tritel’s writing—it’s the weather.”

She pointed to the window. Numbtongue looked up. It was raining here and in Pallass. But so what? He glanced at the windows as Bird joined Mrsha, praying for water birds. And the rain fell harder.

 

—-

 

The first shipment of Octavia’s Occillium product had reached Zeres. The name had stuck, despite efforts to change it. The fungus, an equivalent to Penicillin, possibly even broader than its Earth-equivalent, was a cure.

To what extent was unknown. But it was a broad-spectrum antibacterial cure.

It was what people suffering from Yellow Rivers needed. It could be grown; Zeres and Oteslia were already cultivating as much as they could. On pumpkins…other legumes, which was what the mold took to.

All good news. And thanks to The Wandering Inn and Erin Solstice—or ‘Joseph’—the medicine had been carried at top-speed by Tritel and Ci, the Moonlight Rider to the nearest port. There, surely, it would reach Talenqual so the Last Light of Baleros could fully develop guidelines for its use with [Healers] across the world, right? Surely it was that easy?

What an insult to the sea. The land-voyage might have been plagued by monsters, [Bandits], and other hazards for the Moonlight Rider. But the sea…[Pirates] and monsters aside, the greatest threat of the sea could be just…

The weather.

The winds were picking up outside The Wandering Inn as Erin asked for Palt to charm the second mirror she’d bought in the common room for some temporary news.

They were gales outside of the United Nations headquarters as Geneva Scala stared into the mirror one of the Selphids had produced. The same weather—only more wind and less rain here.

Everyone was taking cover. There was a real danger of the more poorly-built wooden structures of Talenqual—not exactly the stone city of Drakes—blowing away. And flying debris traveling at that speed? Well, no one wanted their cause of death to be ‘roof shingles’.

The cure. Geneva was—distraught. Despite Idis’ best attempts to soothe her. She’d been tracking their progress. And the latest [Message] from the Moonlight Rider was devastating.

 

From Tritel and Ci:

Regarding delivery of Yellow Rivers Cure to Talenqual, Baleros from Liscor, Izril.

No Couriers at port-city of Altvil willing to take delivery/present.

Entrusted three samples to three [Captains].

Two vessels impounded, one traveling past Pheislant, the other towards Chandrar to avoid storms at sea.

One vessel currently still at sea after passing Wistram. The Waverider’s Wake making for nearest Balerosian harbor.

Worsening weather putting delivery in jeopardy. Storm at sea. [Harbormaster] fears possibility of magical storm.

Attempting to send more samples securely. Possibly by magic.

 

It was a choppy [Message]. Geneva didn’t understand why until the Selphid [Mage] explained.

“It had to be resent nearly two dozen times, Doctor Scala.”

“The spell? Why?”

“The—spells were lost. Parts arrived fragmented. There is some interference at sea; other magical events have been known to cause this.”

Lost? Geneva hadn’t heard the [Message] spell could be lost. And indeed—she saw the scrying orb was flickering.

“Oh come on. Bad reception in this world? That was the one thing we didn’t have to deal with!”

Dawson shouted over the comments of the rest of the company. Everyone was indoors; work was cancelled due to the storm.

“Er…Geneva.”

The [Doctor] turned. Daly was standing there. They both hesitated, but the Bushranger’s Captain nodded at the transcribed [Message].

“What news?”

“Two of the ships didn’t make it. Or they’re—impounded.

“What?”

“Here.”

Geneva handed Daly the letter. He read it and looked up sharply.

“Impounded? Why’s it written like that?”

It wasn’t clear to Geneva at first. But she had a sinking suspicion. And her answer came as the scrying orb flickered to life. Because today’s topic—even more than the war progressing against Reim was overshadowed. When the patchy image finally appeared, a familiar newscaster was sitting at the desk with Noass.

—errors, we apologize. Our broadc—ference. We are attempting to stabilize—unavoidable.

The image cleared up a bit and Drassi swam into view. Geneva watched her, anxiously. Somehow that Drake was connected to ‘Joseph’. She looked into the camera as she read down the day’s top stories.

“I’m Drassi from Liscor. With me is Noass from Pallass. War in Chandrar is mounting as dozens, yes, dozens of armies are marching on Reim. Important news regarding a cure for the Yellow Rivers disease coming from trials in Zeres!”

Geneva! That’s the mold!

The [Doctor] felt a leap in her chest. It was working? She clenched her hands. But that was Zeres. There was no cure in…Drassi continued.

“…Ailendamus’ formal announcement of war and reports of attacks on neutral ships at sea. We’ll get to all this soon. But first? The weather.

 

—-

 

Ryoka Griffin stood outside, staring up at the sky as Mrsha had done. But unlike the little Gnoll, she was…listening. Or rather, staring at something.

Fierre’s family was in the process of…cleansing. Their well was being dismantled. They were checking everything, trying to source new groundwater. Thinking about where they might go.

But like good [Farmers] and [Herders], they had stopped immediately once the winds and rains began to make sure their animals were safe. Fierre was grabbing Fluffles the Sixth when she saw Ryoka standing in the open field.

“Ryoka! Get inside! The wind’s picking up!”

Reizmelt, Talenqual, and Liscor. No—it was weakest in Reizmelt, far inland. But because it was Ryoka, it mattered. She was staring far to the west. And she sensed it.

It was an angry wind. Ryoka felt it—like the edges of some vast, terrifying being on the edge of consciousness.

“What’s…? Why are you so…?”

She was murmuring to the wind, trying to understand. Ryoka felt powerful winds high above; it was merely ‘really windy’ at ground level. And the wind—sensed her. Ryoka was standing in the field, and she had forgotten Ivolethe’s warning.

The wind was not always her friend.

Fierre felt the wind howl. She whirled—and heard a shout. Ryoka was snatched off the ground as if the hand of an invisible giant had come down.

Ryoka!

Holy—

Ryoka flailed. But the wind had suddenly focused on her. It blew her off the ground like—like a leaf. She was snatched up into the air with terrifying speed.

She might have gone soaring into the skies, but Fierre and Rivel were already leaping with the reactions only a Vampire could have. They seized her, dragging her down at the legs. As it was—they only slowed a bit before the winds pulled.

“Fierre! Rivel!”

Himilt saw them. He looked around for a rope, and saw the wind change. One second it was trying to snatch Ryoka up—then it swung them down.

The wind cracked all three into the ground like the end of a whip. Himilt raced towards the impact. He heard a cry of pain—Ryoka was lying with his son and daughter.

“My arm—”

Rivel’s face was a grimace. His arm had gone first, twisting and snapping. He wrenched it around and it began to knit. Fierre had a gash on her arm from landing on a stone.

“Miss Ryoka?”

The Vampire father stopped. Ryoka was gasping.

“I think—my ribs—”

She was wheezing. Ryoka listened for the telltale whistle—there wasn’t any. But something felt damaged. She lay there—until Himilt grabbed her.

“You can’t stay out here. That was either a freak gale or this is a storm to be remembered. Inside the keep, all of you!”

They carried her in. When Ryoka had her breath, she shook her head at last.

“The storm’s not here. It’s far away. It was just me. I tried to talk to the wind. It—it’s pissed.

“What is?”

Fierre looked at Ryoka. Her friend’s face was practically white. Ryoka looked up at the storm through an open window before Colfa closed the shutters.

She had never felt the wind so angry. Once—it had been raging in Riverfarm, fed by the blazes. She had dared it to chase her in a fiery vortex. But this time—it was all-consuming.

“I don’t know. Something…someone pissed off the wind. Can you do that?”

Fierre traded looks with her family. From anyone but Ryoka, she would have suspected a head-injury. But then—their neighbor, another [Farmer], made it to the keep with his entire family of eleven. Ryoka was stunned and wary—until she realized that Himilt had invited them.

“There’s nowhere safe! The winds’ll pick up even stronger. Everything’s lashed down, but this is better than the root cellar. My thanks, Himilt.”

The [Farmer] slapped the Vampire on the shoulder. Himilt just nodded. Colfa helped lift some of the crying children off the wagon, soothing them with their mother and the older children.

“Get your family in, Menam. Anyone hurt? We nearly lost Miss Ryoka to the winds.”

“Dead gods! That must have been some gale! Nothing as bad—damn magic. Here—you know that broadcast from Pallass? I have a scrying mirror. Tiny—but it works. Take a look!”

The man showed Himilt, Ryoka, and the others the very same thing that was playing out on scrying mirrors worldwide.

 

—-

 

Drassi spoke slowly into the camera. The Drake [Reporter] was unusually somber.

“This storm is High Magic, as well as a Sympathetic storm. Everyone near a coast—any coast—is advised to seek shelter. I’m sorry—it’s not even a storm. It’s a—what’s the word, Noass?”

“Typhoon, Drassi. This is a Magical Typhoon. Wistram has named it Typhoon Erannda. All indications are that it originated from deep waters just off the shores of Terandria. Unfortunately, as they tend to do, it’s centered on Wistram. We’re projecting its path; it’s going to cut right down the trade-routes connecting each continent.”

The Drakes were tracing the swirling vortex down the map with magical illusions. The typhoon was passing towards the center of all the continents—deep water, where only one notable structure existed.

Wistram Academy. Also—the fastest way from Izril to Baleros or Chandrar to Terandria.

“A magical typhoon? I’ve never heard the word, Noass. Can we explain to the viewers what this is?”

The older Drake nodded.

“To put it simply, Miss Drassi, a typhoon is an…enhanced storm. Think of it as this giant spiral of weather. It’s most common around Baleros; its extreme winds and water and the continent of Baleros’ humidity helps create the conditions where they occur. Well—it is the hottest time of year. Warm waters, strong winds—this is what happens.”

Drassi nodded.

“But magical typhoon? Sympathetic storm?”

The [Commentator] cast one eye towards the side.

“It means this storm has picked up magic, Drassi. To the viewers at home—it is raining in Pallass at the moment despite the Walled City being inland almost as far as you can get. That’s because the magical resonance is triggering downpours around the world. You’ve heard of a storm that comes once a century? That’s a sympathetic storm with high magic. When mana enters the storm, we can see everything a normal typhoon has…intensify.

“That…doesn’t sound great, Noass.”

“It isn’t, Drassi. Fortunately, those inland won’t see more than sympathetic rains—then clear skies. But at sea? [Sailors] beware. Come to that—I don’t think anyone will be putting out to sea.”

The former-[Gossip] nodded.

“Let’s talk about how big this storm is and how it happened. According to my information here…”

She shuffled her notes.

“The monsoon season in Baleros has only added to the storm’s fury. It’s picking up now…and growing at alarming speed. Experts are saying that [Clear Skies] spells employed by ships during their exodus from Baleros have added to the typhoon’s fury by suppressing localized rains and winds. This entire month and early spring—ships use the spell to ensure they travel easily. We saw a few big, mundane storms, but the mana in the air apparently led to the conditions for a magical typhoon. Noass, is that irresponsible on the part of the ship’s [Captains] and [Weather Mages]?”

 

—-

 

In The Wandering Inn, both Wailant Strongheart and Seborn Sailwinds grimaced.

“Idiots.”

The Drowned Man nodded to the [Pirate]-[Farmer]’s comment. Erin looked at them; a soaked Mrsha was lying in front of the fire. Half-drowned on land.

“What does that mean, Wailant?”

“Too many idiots cast [Clear Skies]—that just delays the storm. Makes it worse when it does hit. Your Antinium could tell you that. Too many idiots called the rain and now their entire area’s dry as a beached whale.”

The [Farmer] growled. Seborn agreed. The Halfseekers had stopped in the inn. On business, apparently.

They should have known better. It’s the same for landfolk. It’s like stopping fires in forests. Deadwood builds up and then the next big fire wipes out everything.

“Uh…”

Erin knew about that. She turned back to the oceanic equivalent. Jelaqua was wiping water out of her hair.

“Of all the days! Right when we were visiting the [Seamstress] in Invrisil! Think she’ll be able to book us?”

“I think so, Jelaqua. It’ll be fine. [Seamstresses] work indoors. Usually.”

Ulinde soothed her captain and fellow Selphid. Erin blinked. Jelaqua seemed…unusually high-strung today for the laid-back adventurer.

“Hey, Jelaqua, what’s the matter? I thought an [Iron Tempest] would like rain, right?”

“It’s [Steel Tempest], thanks. I upgraded my class.”

“Oh! Congrats—”

Moore let Mrsha climb onto his shoulder and drip. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and the half-Giant smiled.

“Hello Mrsha. I’m sorry we haven’t visited. We’ve been busy. Jelaqua is upset because we need suits and a dress adjusted for the ball two days from now.”

“Ball? What ball? I haven’t heard of a ball!”

Lyonette looked around. Seborn rolled his eyes. Ulinde explained.

“It’s a Pallassian thing. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard, Lyonette. It’s a Dullahan’s ball. Or rather…gathering?”

“Ball. And Maughin’s going to be there. And so am I, if I have to swim! We’re going! Erin, I need your door!”

Jelaqua hauled herself upright. Seborn sighed.

I’ll catch up after a few dr—

The Selphid dragged him out of his chair.

“Oh no you don’t! We’re not missing our appointment! Come on!”

Erin watched them go. Moore put Mrsha down and tapped her on the forehead with a finger; all the water fell off her fur and she smiled up at him. Then he left with his team.

It was just a reminder that not everyone cared about…this kind of thing. And Jelaqua had leveled? Erin made a note to bake her a cake. Or rather, get Imani to bake a cake. She was a [Cook] already; Erin was just…lazy.

Back to the news, Noass was giving a defense of the practice of weather spells.

“…no formalized body, you see, Drassi. Wistram has had its guidelines, but since each ship claims a different nation, not all of whom recognize the Weatherspell Pact—”

He coughed into a fist as someone off-screen directed him to get back to the point. The Drake pointed at the map.

“Magical Typhoon Erannda is now…affecting a thousand miles of sea, and is expected to keep growing. It’s bearing down directly on Wistram Academy, homing in on the magic. The—the academy’s shielding spells should weather the storm, but we have no idea where it’ll bounce next. Magical storms are feeding both off wind and so on, as well as magic.

Drassi nodded.

“We’ll keep you updated as we go to other stories. Remember—if you’re in a coastal region, stay in shelter! Speaking of which—the coastal kingdom of Medain, run by that rat-king—”

Drassi.

“Oh, fine. Medain’s lost three cities. Apparently—they’ve been sacked by the Illusionist and the Steward, Orthenon. Even as the King of Destruction’s armies are falling back…”

The topic turned away from the typhoon. But it concerned Erin. Especially because…she looked at the message she’d gotten from Tritel and Ci.

“That explains why he’s so worried about the delivery. But it doesn’t explain ‘impounded ships’. What’s this about?”

“I think I know, Erin.”

Lyonette came over with an unhappy expression. Drassi and Noass had yet to get to that segment. But the [Princess] explained as Geneva Scala was informed of the same.

 

—-

News coverage was a funny thing. Drassi’s takedown of Noass and Sir Relz on the Yellow Rivers was news in itself. Journalism fighting journalism.

Yet now, there was a cure. Occillium—Octavia nearly fainted into Numbtongue’s arms when she saw her mold featured by [Healers] in Zeres who had cured patients using it.

However—they had overdosed. Wasted their supply. They weren’t [Doctors]; there were no standardized measurements or application procedure. Half had just fed the mold to their patients before trying the topical application as Geneva recommended.

They had mismanaged a limited supply. So they were desperate for more, even as it was being grown with the Walled City’s resources. And to be fair—they proved that the Occillium worked.

It still gave Geneva ulcers, or it would have if Idis wasn’t on stomach-patrol. And the worst part was that the triumphant news about the ‘cure’…missed some important facts.

Firstly, that only Zeres and Drake cities and a few Human ones had access to the mold. And that the disease had not originated in Izril. It was getting worse in Terandria, Chandrar…and especially Baleros. They were far, far more desperate for the mold.

Hence the impounded ships. Two [Captains] had taken their cargo across the safer routes north and south of Izril, moving along the coast and passing by Terandria and Rhir, or across Chandrar and up to Baleros.

Neither ship had made it. They had not been sunk—but their cargos had been searched and the mold seized.

By Ailendamus and Medain, respectively. Both nations’ rulers had seized it. Medain’s out of desperation; Yellow Rivers ran in its ports. Ailendamus to deny it to Pheislant and other coastal nations.

Drassi reported on the segment. There was ‘worldwide outrage’. But the long and short of it was that every nation wanted that medicine. Worse—the coverage announced that fact.

Occillium was now worth many times its weight in gold. Since…it was a mold. And didn’t weigh a lot.

An inevitable response followed. Geneva wrote back desperately to both Joseph and the Moonlight Rider. The [Message] was choppy; the [Mage] had to resend it over thirty times. The magical storm could, apparently, destroy spells that tried to go through it, or twist them.

 

From Talenqual:

We are in desperate need of Occillium mold samples. Even a single case that can be cultivated.

It must reach Baleros. We are waiting on The Waverider’s Wake. Please arrange more transport.

Urgent. The Yellow Rivers disease is mutating and patients are dying as symptoms intensify.

 

She saw it in her clinics now, more than ever. There were now two in Talenqual. One, a mass-treatment and isolation facility, a burgeoning two-story building staffed by Selphid [Nurses] and volunteers like the helpful Lizardgirl who’d become one of the managers.

The second…was intensive care, for the most seriously ill or those showing secondary symptoms. Geneva’s work was being picked up by other [Healers] on the front; they wrote in every day now, and unlike Zeres’ [Healers], they followed her guidelines to the letter.

They were all desperate for the mold. In the meantime—Geneva tried to steal as many seconds as she could.

“Doctor. One of our serious patients is a Dullahan.”

“Where’s the information?”

“Here.”

It was something Umina saw that impressed her. She had not come up with the system of writing down each patient’s information, everything from gender to weight to symptoms—it was organization and most [Healers] did not employ it.

That Geneva Scala had insisted on it, implemented it with perfect understanding spoke to Umina of someone who treated countless patients. It was so…polished. She didn’t even need to be here as Geneva read from the clipboard. But she stayed. This was important.

The [Doctor] passed a hand across her face.

“This…this is a child. He didn’t contract the disease via intercourse or even contact?”

“Not what his family claims.”

“What if they lied? Did you subject them to a truth crystal—oh.”

Geneva saw the checked box. She looked at Umina.

“Thank you. Urrexa?”

“Uh…yes.”

Umina forgot which fake-name she was using. She kept switching them and Geneva was so tired she didn’t seem to notice. The Dullahan family had sworn by truth crystal that the boy—and he was very young, barely more than seven—had contracted the disease without touching or being more intimate with anyone who was sick.

Given how widespread knowledge of the epidemic was and how sudden and severe the symptoms—Umina had believed them without the crystal.

Geneva read the details—twice. She began to feel sick again. No other family members showing symptoms. That might rule out water supply…she would have to ask for more details. She looked up at Umina.

“Alright. I want protective gear on everyone who treats this Dullahan. This—this could be airborne.”

The Lizardgirl gulped. That was the worst-case possibility for Geneva. The Yellow Rivers disease was already highly contagious by liquid, hence the gear that each [Nurse] needed. And they were still falling sick. But if it got worse?

The Dullahan boy was armored in steel. Beautiful steel, worked by a master.

“Hello, [Doctor].”

He looked solemnly up at her as his head rested on a stand. He was coughing and—Geneva read from the clipboard—he had pus-filled sores on his body. It wasn’t visible because he was still wearing his armor—but the armor had to come off and he needed treatment.

Over 70% of Dullahans were dying because they refused to have their armor removed and the infection dressed.

The disease was mutating. His family had all wanted to be there, but only the two parents were allowed to wait in a room separate from this quarantined one. Geneva had asked them repeated questions. Like their son, they were armored in fine, decorative steel. Rich, in short.

Geneva hadn’t wanted to know any of that from them. She’d just quizzed them to make sure the young Dullahan had not directly interacted with anyone other than possible airborne contamination or some water source she hadn’t uncovered yet.

With the boy she was kinder.

“Hello. Seql, isn’t it? I am Geneva Scala. A [Doctor].”

“I know, Doctor Scala. They call you the Last Light of Baleros.”

He looked solemnly up towards her. So much unlike Human children—and like some of them as well. A child. He knew how sick he was.

Slowly, Geneva sat down.

“Some people call me that, Seql. But I can’t work miracles. I wish…I could. Do you know why you’re here?”

“I have Yellow Rivers.”

She nodded.

“Seql. I know this might be hard—but I’m going to have to ask you to take off your armor. And I might have to ask you some personal questions. It’s very important you answer me truthfully, do you understand?”

She had a little truth-stone. Seql nodded.

“I know. I didn’t touch anyone, [Doctor]. I promise.”

The stone glowed white. That was ‘truth’ for this stone.

“You can’t think of anything, Seql?”

Her visor was in the way. She must have looked like some huge, helmeted monster with only part of her face showing. But perhaps that was more reassuring to a Dullahan boy. He lay still; his parents had told Geneva he was in a great deal of pain. She’d already asked Umina to bring painkillers and anesthesia.

“I…I can’t. I went for a walk. Someone was coughing and our [Bodyguards] told me we had to return. That was…”

That was it. That was what the boy believed. Geneva nodded. She’d press him later for more clues. But if it was…

“Let’s take off that armor, Seql. I can help you. Let me know if I’m hurting you…”

She made no sound as the armor came away. But inside of her, Idis did.

The Yellow Rivers disease was moving faster. The boy had pus-filled sores in clumps. He was coughing—at least his head was separate from his body. It was very bad.

The first patients Geneva had treated were just weakened from the disease, which could kill without proper rest, water, attention to the infected areas. This? This would kill a healthy adult, let alone a child.

The [Doctor] had experience, though. More experience than anyone else in this world. So she worked. Seql made very little sounds as she gave him a painkilling tonic and got to work. He was being brave.

“Doctor. Am I going to die?”

She knew he would ask. And she had been bracing for it. Geneva took a deep breath.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen, Seql. I, and everyone working here. Your parents as well.”

His brow creased.

“Is that a ‘yes’?”

Geneva sat there for a moment, the antiseptic liquids drying on her gloves. She had cleaned his injuries. She could slow the disease by sitting with him, sleeping in this place. But some patients died because even with the bacteria halted, their systems were simply so compromised.

“I am going to do my best, Seql. But the odds of you surviving are low. I want you to understand there is a cure.”

“I know.”

There was hope in his eyes. Geneva nodded slowly.

“…But it’s taking time in getting here. I’m going to make you as well as I can until it arrives. But I need it.”

“My…parents said they’ll help. They brought me here because everyone said you were the best.”

The boy informed her. Geneva nodded slowly.

“I’m going to turn your body over. We need to get at your back, Seql. Where are you from?”

He made a slight sound.

“Radlrn.”

“Oh? I don’t know that city. What do your parents do, Seql?”

“They own the city.”

The [Doctor]’s hands stopped moving for a moment.

“Excuse me?”

Seql watched his own treatment and closed his eyes.

“They own the city. They’re part of the Iron Vanguard. We came from up north. Very far, Doctor Geneva. What should I tell them?”

The [Doctor] paused, then gently applied more of the poultice to his injuries.

“I’ll talk to them. Just know, Seql—that you should say anything you want to say to them. I will do my best.”

He nodded. His eyes were full of tears. Geneva gently turned his head away so he could cry in peace. When she stepped out of the room, and cleaned herself, and removed the armor, the two parents were there.

“I cannot do anything other than slow the Yellow Rivers disease in Seql. I will be in this unit day and night. But we need the cure.”

The father and mother were very reserved. Not uncaring—they stood together, in their armor that had failed to protect them against the smallest foe. The mother looked at Geneva.

“I am told, Doctor Geneva, that there is a complication in procuring this…medicine..”

“Yes, Miss Rederr. I do not have it. It is being sent from Izril—but the ships have encountered delays.”

“Ships? If you need ships—we are of the Iron Vanguard. Please, tell us what we can do.”

Geneva looked up at the desperate parents. For their son—they listened as she gave them the port-city and Tritel’s name.

The next message, sent within an hour from Tritel, was reported on by Drassi twenty minutes later. Because she had been in The Wandering Inn during her break and she’d heard Erin reading it.

 

From Tritel and Ci:

Regarding delivery of Yellow Rivers Cure to Talenqual, Baleros.

Iron Vanguard, Forgotten Wing, Maelstrom’s Howling, have all posted bounty on delivery of cure.

Samples being sent by way of Terandria and Chandrar while news awaited of Waverider’s progress.

Counter-bounties raised by Khelt, Pheislant, and five other nations for medicine as well. Samples sent to other nations already may be at risk.

Attempting to secure other means of transport.

 

So Geneva slept, waiting for more news. Not because she wanted to, but because Idis flooded her mind with impulses lulling her to sleep as she had for the last few days. She rested, as above her, the sick patients, including Seql, waited.

 

—-

 

“Geneva?”

It was Idis who woke her. The Selphid quietly waited for Geneva; she had been piloting Geneva’s body as the [Doctor] slept.

When Geneva’s mind took over, she saw a single [Message] waiting for her.

 

From Tritel:

Report. The Waverider’s Wake has gone down with all hands at sea. Wistram reports scrying ship’s demise.

Unable to send medicine by magic or air.

Sending more samples around typhoon.

Requesting Sea Couriers.

 

—-

 

The cure reached Terandria and Chandrar. Or rather—ships already in-progress were intercepted at sea, their cargos seized.

Tritel had been canny. He had deliberately given each [Captain] a single crate, promising payment only when the delivery had been made—and a generous sum. Each delivery was noted by the Seafarer’s Guild, the arm of the [Storm Captain] fleets and alliances of navies and nations.

However. Some [Captains] still sold their valuable cargo. Others were loyal and true, for all the good it did.

“…ships known to frequent Savere’s ports have seized the third shipment. The Siren denies involvement, but samples are already appearing on the black markets…Roshal…cultivating their own…Khelt…Ailendamus’ blockade continues as…

The other nations had their hands on the cure. Some paid [Pirates] or Undersea Crews or even [Storm Captains] willing to be privateers to acquire the medicine.

For instance, Fetohep of Khelt had obtained a sample of the cure. Former citizens of Khelt—one family—had begged to return home. He had granted their plea and obtained the valuable medicine for their single family.

And because of his love of his subjects, Balerosians were dying. Not one sample had made it along either coast; Baleros was directly opposite Izril and the only way aside from a coastal route was through the eye of Typhoon Erannda.

What a name. Wistram had begun a practice of naming the typhoons, a new practice they had picked up from…somewhere. Now—they braced as the typhoon came at them, drawn to the magic of the academy.

Already, the winds had battered the bubble of calm around Wistram. Inside was a placid harbor, the sun shining, clear air for hundreds of feet around the citadel of [Mages]. Beyond the bubble?

Archmage Feor saw a wave crashing down, hundreds of feet high. The water was blown far, far above the still waters around the Academy, protected by the magical bubble. The wind was blowing so fiercely waterspouts and even shoals of fish were moving around the edges of the field.

That was all from afar, nearly a hundred miles away. His [Raven Eyes] spell showed him that, along with a scrying mirror for another viewing angle. The waves around the academy were storm-lashed—but survivable. For now.

The Typhoon had yet to unleash its full fury. Even if it did—Wistram would be safe. The [Weather Mages] who had created the spell had designed it to withstand anything in the world, even a hundred tsunamis.

However. There was a problem. The [Archmage] glanced to the south. There—somewhere out there—was a ship.

“How soon until the Emerald Signet reaches the isle?”

“Eighteen minutes, the [Captain] claims.”

“They’re moving too slowly.”

Three Archmages stood on one of the highest balconies [Mages] could still walk on. Above them, the academy’s heights lay shrouded in mists. Feor looked south. A single ship had continued on as the others, full of potential applicants, turned back. He could even see and hear the ship as it fought forwards thanks to the scrying spell.

 

—-

 

Trey and Flynn were below, braced as the ship rocked, threatening to throw anyone not bolted down. The young man heard Flynn praying; he just held onto his staff.

“You’re not shitting yourself in this storm, mate?”

“Not yet!”

Trey shouted back. Flynn’s eyes were wide and he was holding the whimpering Pointy, his dog, to his chest, despite her occasionally stabbing him with her quills.

But Trey was—calmer. Not calm. But he kept fingering a scar on his throat. Remembering a backpack. He still had the camera.

“I won’t die here. Not until I burn their city to the ground.”

You said it!

Flynn shouted back. Trey nodded. It wasn’t his moment. Above—the [Storm Sailors] were fighting a battle against the enemy they feared most.

“Cap’n! We’re going to be destroyed! I just saw a wave ten times the size of our ship! We’ll be flying if we continue on!”

Inky was screaming at Captain Lasc. It was not hyperbole, for once. The winds were picking up. Ahead of them—she saw a distant waterspout. But between the vast waves was a shining bubble, daylight.

The Isle of Mages.

“We have to turn back, Captain!”

The [Storm Captain] finally roared a response. He had tied himself to the wheel and was fighting. Fighting to keep his ship moving forwards.

“We’ll either get there or the storm’ll tear us to bits before we’re halfway to land! We never had a choice, Second Mate! Full ahead! Until Krakens fly! Each one of you will be a [Storm Sailor] come dawn!

The crew of the Emerald Signet roared as they fought for every second, keeping the ship upright. A wave slammed them down and the entire ship groaned. Inky stared ahead at the glowing bubble in the sea.

 

—-

 

They weren’t going to make it. So the academy’s Archmages determined. The distant ship was already in danger of capsizing with every second.

“There’s more mana swirling around in that vortex than every [Mage] in Wistram could produce.”

Archmage Viltach stared at the distant storm, opposite the Emerald Signet. Feor nodded. Nature humbled. He felt the mana in the air—streaming away from him even as he conjured some around him. The storm was eating it all up.

And using it. Magical lightning—not the natural kind, but bolts of every color—struck. There was a waterspout reaching to the sky flashing with internal lightning, electrocuting any hapless creature sucked into it.

“Amerys would fly into the center of it to harness the power.”

Nailihuaile commented as she stared at the storm. Feor glared at her. The Lamia shrugged.

“Well, she would. Are we doing this or not?”

“With me.”

Feor curtly extended a wand. The Star Lamia lowered her staff and touched the tip of her relic, the Serkonian Lance, to it. Viltach lowered his wand.

The typhoon was moving so fast. It was going to hit the academy and then ‘bounce’. A crude word for saying that it would be deflected by the spell protecting Wistram and go spinning into an unknown direction. It was something…Wistram’s [Mages] didn’t like talking about and the news coverage had been short on explaining.

But the ship had two children from another world. So Feor closed his eyes. Below—more [Mages] were joining hands or catalysts, adding their magic to the flow in the citadel.

“Link! Reinforce the Weatherward! Extend it!

The Archmage drew upon the spell. He might not have the class—but he was still Archmage of Wistram.

The bubble twisted in the air as the magical typhoon’s full fury hit Wistram. And the bubble—collapsed. In front of Feor, the protection spell retreated until the storm and lashing waves were a hundred feet in front of the isle. Fifty.

“We’re pulling the Weatherward in too close! Stop, you fool!”

Viltach howled. But Feor was extending the bubble of calm southwards, trying to catch the Emerald Signet.

Lightning struck at the bubble of peace. Now—the furthest edge of the typhoon struck the edge of Wistram’s isle. Feor saw the very edge of the isle vanish. He strained.

The ship was nearly in the bubble. Nearly—Feor saw the veil in front of him thinning.

“Uh…do we back up?”

Nailihuaile tried to step back. But they were linked. The Weatherward was stretched to its maximum, creating a corridor of safety nearly three miles southwards. The Emerald Signet sailed forwards, their crew cheering.

But the first edge of the typhoon was hitting Wistram. And the lightning—the magical lightning was threatening to pierce the Weatherward in its thinnest place. Feor saw the lightning striking, once, twice—hundreds of times at him, as if the storm knew he was the focus point of the magic! It was going to—

He was about to pull the Weatherward back and risk the Emerald Signet when he saw the figure striding along an empty balcony that extended into the storm. A giant. No—a woman.

Cognita. Her body was first that plain white marble. Flawless ivory. Then—Feor saw her change.

The Truestone Golem walked into the edge of the storm, just past the Weatherward’s boundaries. But she did not go flying. She anchored herself. And her body turned into a brilliant, golden crystal.

He had seen that crystal once before. During the incident with the undead—Feor saw the lightning sparking from the material that was now Cognita. Then—

For a moment the magic pulsed. And the magical lightning struck one point with a blinding flash.

Cognita’s body flashed. For a moment, the Truestone absorbed the entirety of the magical lightning. Feor saw it travelling inside of her, condensing into a spark like the sun. Cognita pointed her finger. The Archmages were silent, watching. Spellbound. What was Cognita pointing at?

There. In the heart of the magical typhoon. Something—moved. Feor and Viltach recoiled. Nailihuaile braced.

Something…flew past Wistram, through the rain and winds. It could have been a fish, swept up by the gales that could pick up ships and trees and hurl them around. But—

Feor saw wings.

Cognita aimed her finger at whatever it was. He heard her voice, even through the howling.

“Begone from this place.”

She discharged the bound energies she had just absorbed. The flash and thunder was deafening. The bolt of raw electricity-mana cut a hole through the storm.

The shape vanished. Whether Cognita had even hit it or scared it off or killed it—Feor couldn’t have said. He turned his head.

The Emerald Signet sailed slowly into Wistram’s harbor. With it, the Weatherward reverted to its usual shape. The typhoon roared around the isle. But then—it was moving away. Rebounding off the Weatherward. It moved out into sea—towards…

“Baleros. Moving slower. But that’s ill-luck.”

Viltach calmly checked his sextant and shook his head. Feor was breathing hard; the spell had taken its toll. He watched Cognita turn. She met his eyes once—then strode down the balcony.

To greet the new students.

 

—-

 

The Moonlight Rider to the Last Light of Baleros:

Wistram cannot send samples via magic. No flying carpets are available from Chandrar.

All ships sent with samples so far have been intercepted. Running out of cure.

No conventional ship has a chance of passing Typhoon Erannda.

Seeking Couriers to brave the journey.

 

They had expressed their sympathies. But Wistram could barely send a [Message] or scrying spell through the storm, much less teleport a package. The odds of interference were too great.

Similarly, other magical means were doomed. A Djinni, for instance, immune to almost all conventional attacks, would risk true death in the storm and no owner would risk their servant thusly.

Geneva Scala despaired. The other nations had snatched the cure. They promised to send it to Baleros—when they were done with their samples and had more to send or sell. Either way.

Magical Typhoon Erannda was closing on Baleros. Slowly—but it was grounding even the Iron Vanguard’s best ships, which might have tried to escort more samples to Baleros or make the trip themselves.

Their only hope was Couriers. Not one had volunteered to take the delivery. They were Couriers who crossed the sea—but Sea Couriers were rarer than land-couriers, given how many ships could perform the same task. And it was either brave interception by navies of other nations, a suicide run, or go through the storm.

Death either way. Some still tried because of the need. Geneva’s heart had leapt at this morning’s message.

 

[Storm Captain] Oresta has agreed to deliver cure. Braving magical typhoon. Watch for Izril’s Splendid Stars.

 

And then:

 

Izril’s Splendid Stars has gone down at sea. All hands but two lost.

 

No ordinary ship could brave that storm. The [Storm Captain] had done her best; the wind had seized her ship, even with the sails furled and stowed, and thrown it like a toy.

“Could a Drowned Ship make it?”

“The sea has to be as dangerous below as above. The currents are impossibly strong. The magical typhoon is creating whirlpools, waterspouts—even an underwater ship would be destroyed if it ran into either one.”

The others’ quiet discussions filled her with nothing but despair. And it wasn’t for her that Geneva grieved.

The Drake’s commentary was frank.

“This storm is going to last at least a week. Possibly weeks, or as long as a month! The longest typhoon on record was a magical giant—the storm which marked the end of the Faertrade Era—which landed on Chandrar and changed the climate and landscape for six months! All our experts claim this one isn’t nearly as powerful, but if there is any high-level [Mage] or unsecured artifact or mana spot, we are asking everyone to avoid leaking mana into the storm! Meanwhile, there is no immediate cure bound for Baleros…we are making an appeal for all you other nations to stop stealing the damn cure. Couriers! If there is anyone—let go of me!”

Drassi was pulled off-camera.

Only one person seemed…hopeful. That was Seql himself. Geneva gave him the news. The boy was lying in bed; she had slept the night and stayed as close as she could to the extremely sick, but her aura could only go so far. But he had time…just not enough time to wait out the storm.

But he refused to give up hope like some of the others. Despite the news filtering in. He lay in his bed as Geneva delivered the bad news.

“I know someone who can take the cure, Doctor Geneva.”

“Who?”

“My friend. He’s the best Runner in the world. And my friend. He’s probably coming to deliver the cure and hasn’t gotten here yet. I will wait for him.”

The Last Light of Baleros looked at Seql. Two parts of her warred; the part that wanted to give him hope, and the part of her that did not want to lie to her patients.

“I’m sure he’ll try, Seql.”

That was what she came out with at the end. The Dullahan boy looked at her, calmly. He began coughing.

“He will. He is my friend. He—”

He had to pause as the coughing rendered him unable to breathe. Geneva had a Jar of Air—there were no inhalers. But Seql stopped and after he’d caught his breath, he gasped.

“He made me a promise when I was first sick to find a medicine and cure me. He’ll come.”

Geneva said nothing. She didn’t want to lie. She left Seql there, and had to step outside. Just for a moment. It all seemed so…bleak. After two days of the storm—no, all the pettiness. It should have been here already. But nations and rulers had done what the storm had not.

The [Doctor] was sitting there, unable to do anything but go in and halt the spread of the disease when she heard a shout.

It was Daly. He ran down the street, waving something.

Geneva! We got a [Message] through the storm! Look! Look!

It was in his voice. Geneva looked up. She saw the hastily-scribbled lines as she grabbed at the [Message] from Tritel. They burned across her vision. She read with shaky hands.

 

From Tritel:

The Hundredfriends Courier has accepted delivery of the cure to Baleros.

The Waterbear of Cerun has pledged to deliver medicine.

Shellbazaar and The Four Winds of Teral will brave the storm.

Sea Couriers outbound.

 

Geneva looked up. She shouted up at the closed window, loud enough for him to hear, and she heard, faintly, Seql’s laughter.

She should have believed. It was true—there were petty people. Selfish people. But there were also—brave people. Friends and heroes.

They were coming. Not around the storm, risking interception or delays, but straight through it.

Couriers.

 

—-

 

It was raining in Liscor. Hard. Mrsha saw the Floodplains beginning to fill again, after the second day.

She stared solemnly upwards, hoping it would stop. Because—because—the storm was wonderful here. But it was doing bad things at sea.

Very bad things. Erin was worried. But Couriers were making the delivery.

“Who are they?”

“Two are ships. Shellbazaar and The Four Winds of Teral are. But I don’t know the rest. Where’s Wailant? He or Seborn would know. Where’s Seborn?”

“Preparing for that fancy ball. They’re learning how to dance.”

“Oh. Cool.”

The little Gnoll stared upwards. Then she went to go watch the scrying orb. But the Wistram broadcast had refused to cover even the fact that four Couriers were outbound. News might have leaked—but they could all be scried—if they escaped the storm, that was.

Not even a [Scrying] spell could penetrate the magical typhoon.

Two guests came to The Wandering Inn that day to remember. Three if you counted Maviola. But she was a friend.

And her time was over halfway up. The [Lady] stared out at the rain. She stood there, wondering. Now? Today? She—her hands shook and she clasped them to make them calm.

She had to go. The [Lady Firestarter] turned. The rains had made the world dark. One last spark. It was a madness within her. She could count the sand falling…

She could delay as long as she wanted, lulled by this beautiful place and moment. But time was not so kind. She turned—

And Saliss booped her on the nose. The Named Adventurer swayed as Maviola did; only he nearly fell down.

“Saliss?”

Maviola stared at him. So did Erin, Mrsha, even Nalthaliarstrelous, eyebrows raised. Some of Pallass’ [Guard] had even come after Saliss, they were so worried. A first-level alarm had been sounded in the Walled City and for once, it wasn’t Erin’s fault.

Saliss was wearing pants.

To be more accurate—workpants. Clearly enchanted, stained pants, the kind the [Alchemist] used when even his natural Skills weren’t enough.

“What? What?”

Saliss picked himself back up. He swayed. His eyes were beyond bloodshot. There was more bloodshot than eyeball.

“Master Saliss! Master Saliss—”

Someone was hurrying around him, trying to get his attention. Saliss swiped at the Drake—one of the sales-experts he actually worked with and who helped manage his finances.

“What? Go away! I told you—its work pants! Even I have them! Stop freaking—hey, you.”

He fell down again. The Drake tried to pick him up.

“Master Saliss, you need rest. And also—consider the antidote, please! It would raise your reputation—”

The Drake tried to shove the other Drake and managed to push himself off his feet. He growled at the ceiling.

“Don’t bother me with stuff like that. Xif can make antidotes! I’m—working on something.”

“The client is offering—”

The broker-Drake looked around and whispered into Saliss’ earhole. The Named Adventurer had been taking a quick nap; he cracked one eye open.

“Huh. That’s not bad, actually. Blowfish poison? Drowned Folk? What Selphid? Oh, those children?”

He sat up, rubbing at his face. Then flopped over and went to sleep again. Maviola just stared at him.

It was not the moment. Not her story at this moment, anyways. It belonged to the sea. The storm. And perhaps Saliss himself knew that. Because all he did was pat her on the shoulder.

“…Hi. Okay. Where’s a bed?”

“You can uh—use one upstairs.”

“Heck, I’d sleep in the [Garden]. Ooh! Let me sleep in the garden! In the sun!”

“It’s raining.”

“Whatever. I won’t drown.”

Erin stared at the Drake’s trousers. Saliss’ head lolled. He let Erin help him into the garden; she paused to boot the sycophant-Drake when he tried to follow.

When he was gone, Nalthaliarstrelous turned to Mrsha.

“Little land friend. I came to check on the Shield Spiders. Soon—this place will be fit for wildlife again. A terrible deed I did. But one that gives life and takes it. Are you well?”

Mrsha handed him a card. The [Druid] read it.

Hi.

The cards were…shorter than her sign language. But he didn’t need to read her paws or the card. They were [Druids]. The old man’s face crinkled into a smile. Then he frowned.

“You are worried. Why? Sea?”

He glanced dismissively at the scrying orb.

“Oh, the cure.”

The [Druid] paused.

“The cure. So petty nations are squabbling over it, eh? And the brave go against a storm any [Druid] would run from? That is typical. But our kind will grow more in Oteslia.”

Mrsha nodded sadly. But the poor people in Baleros! Nalthaliarstrelous’ brow wrinkled. It was wrong to say he cared only about animals; he just weighed them the same as people. Higher—in cases where people had the power to be good or mean and they were mean.

“I see, I see. Well, perhaps there is something I can do. There are [Druids] everywhere, you know. If you need a sample…come with me, little one. We’ll look at nests. Then I shall see what may be done.”

She looked up hopefully. He nodded to her. Lyonette tackled Mrsha before she managed to get out the door and slammed it in Nalthaliarstrelous’ face.

When she was sure, sure everyone was looking elsewhere, like at the [Princess] facing off against the [Druid] for custody of her child, Maviola El took a step back. She put a hand over her rapidly-beating heart. She had been convinced it would stop. For the first time since she’d taken the Potion of Youth—she feared her body would betray her again.

She went to one of the unused private dining rooms and slipped a hand into her pocket. Then she pulled out the thing Saliss had put there.

The glow was not yellow or gold. Certainly not viridian. It just looked like—

Liquid sunshine. The [Lady] stared at it. The Drake had written one thing on the label, in a sloppy scrawl.

 

Drink me.

 

—-

 

In the Garden of Sanctuary, Saliss straightened. He was no less tired. No less bloodshot. But he looked at Erin and stood up.

“I need every flower you can give me, Erin. And I need to grow more.”

“What? What about the—”

He kicked past her.

Damn the pants! Where are the flowers?

The [Alchemist] was shaking with energy. He hadn’t slept since before the typhoon had begun. Stamina potions and energy tonics were his blood. He turned to Erin.

“Don’t give Xif another one. You want a friend? Give me those flowers. And I’ll help Maviola and you.”

He took a few frantic breaths.

“They’re…where did you get them?”

She looked at him. It was just…Erin’s mind ran over what she was about to think. Just flowers that could look like gold coins? Or put to sleep an entire hive of Ashfire Bees? That made you see things when you drank them?

“Where are they from? Erin? This is important. Where? They’re not even fully-grown.”

She looked at Saliss.

“Avalon?”

The [Innkeeper] felt her heart racing. The little flowers waved as the storm battered them. A field of gold. From…Saliss stared at her.

“What do they do?”

Maviola raised the potion to her lips. She hesitated—and drank.

That was one story. In the Garden, the rain fell in a torrent unending.

The storm was getting worse.

 

—-

 

Sea Couriers outbound.

They called him the Hundredfriends Courier. As if he only had a hundred. His tiny craft crested the first wave and he felt the impact as it broke. But he was braced. His hands were on the wheel, but the waves were already growing larger than the last one.

The man called out. His skin shone for a second. Then a form broke through the waters ahead. An intelligent eye, a massive shape. He raised a scroll and the giant figure glowed for a moment.

“[Haste]. Go, Arveil!”

The glowing Nelgaunt surged through the waves. It seized the tethers and pulled the Courier’s ship along. The great beast—friend of ships—was named Arveil. It had come from the Courier’s arm, where he had been resting.

His name was Seve-Alrelious. His skin was dark, from the suns on his homeland of Chandrar. But he had left the sands long ago. Now—shining from the magical ink drawn on his body were—tattoos. Some were glowing ink, stationary, showing the places he had been, people he had met.

But some moved. They changed position on his skin, animals, six dolphins swimming across his leg. A staring monkey. Living beings.

Each one a friend, a companion met at sea. Given life by magic. They moved on his skin, protected from the predators and lashing rains that even they feared.

The Nelgaunt took the ship forwards, guiding it more surely than Seve could. Through the waves. It was what had given him his name, and power. Each friend had been made ink, that they might not die, in the Empire of Drath.

He was the Courier they spoke of, who was never alone. [Worldtraveller Inkfriend], a class of his own.

He had three crates of the cure. The last samples had been entrusted to them. Now, Seve looked ahead. The Nelgaunt did not fear the waves which were already thirty feet tall. Nor did Seve. But his journey would lead him straight through the magical typhoon. He was moving across the ocean fast, fighting to travel by memory; there were no stars yet and the sun was invisible in the rain-lashed clouds.

He was heading for Igawiz’s Jet—or the Idiot’s Jet as it was known. The Hundredfriends Courier had to reach Baleros quickest and this was the only way.

Igawiz’ Jet was infamous to anyone who travelled the sea. The vast ocean that lay between continents meant that unenchanted ships could take months to cross the ocean. Enchanted ships with canny [Captains] and Skills could do it in under a week, but trade was never easy. Monsters, [Pirates]…the fastest routes were invaluable.

So, in antiquity, the Archmage Igawiz had been longsighted enough to actually permanently alter the ocean’s geography such that an incredibly powerful current shot boats across the current. In places they would travel at over a hundred miles per hour with the water alone.

However. That meant the wind would crack your sails if it was moving slower than the boat. At that speed, even the flying surf was like arrows.

Igawiz had learned that in the first attempted crossing. Now—only the extremely confident used that current.

Or Couriers. With it even a non-Skill, unenchanted—ship could cross the Baleros-Izril route in a fraction of the time it took. If the sheer speed of their travel and monsters didn’t kill them.

Baleros to Izril this way wouldn’t take long. But it was perilous even without storms or enemies. Seve’s record in the crossing was two days by the jet. With his enchanted sailboat, wind spells, and his companions pulling him under the effects of spells, he would outdistance almost all land-Couriers over the course of a day.

And as luck might have it, he was moving even faster thanks to the weather. Typhoon Erannda was moving in a vortex and the Courier had plotted a path that dragged him with the storm. He just had to move away from the edge and he’d slingshot.

The storm would only intensify the closer he got to the jungle-continent. Yet, Seve was going through it, rather than around. Speed was of the essence. He would make the delivery or perish in the crossing.

They had sworn it. The Waterbear had come with Seve; and two more Courier-ships as well. She had not done it for glory; neither had Seve.

The great Bearkin Courier of Baleros had sworn to deliver the cure for those of the Beastkin tribes who had fallen sick or die trying. And nothing had killed her in this world yet. Not even an Adult Creler at sea.

Seve had not faced Creler nests at sea more than once. Between the storm and those nests…well, he’d prefer the nests.

Crelers could not drag you down into a whirlpool to the very depths of the sea and hold you there. Seve feared that, or waterspouts, the tornados that could snatch up his craft. He might survive falling from the sky—but not the lightning bolts that would cook him in the boiling water.

He was going around the center of the storm where those horrors lay. Even so—the waves were picking up.

Arveil! Take us on the edge of the jet! The waves will crack the ship at top speed!

The Nelgaunt heard and adjusted his course. Seve fought the wheel. Then—he saw a valley suddenly appear ahead of them.

Seve-Alrelious looked up. The next wave looked like one of the Walled Cities, appearing out of the darkness.

By the c—

He reached for a gem at his side as Arveil made a deep sound of alarm. The wave was crashing down on the tiny vessel. The World’s Pact disappeared under a shadow. The Courier raised the glowing, green gem and shouted.

[Forceshield]!

The bound spell burst from the gemstone a second before the wave hit the World’s Pact. The tiny vessel rocked and Seve-Alrelious felt the barrier-stone explode and the shards pepper his enchanted skin.

Water cascaded down the ship. One wave down. The Nelgaunt strove to take the ship up with the waves, to prevent another such impact.

“Don’t worry about us, Arveil! I’ll protect the ship! Just take us forwards! We cannot falter here. We promised them the cure!

Seve called out to the Nelgaunt and felt the creature accelerate, churning through the waves under the [Haste] spell. Once more, they plunged forwards. The Courier gritted his teeth. Then—from afar he heard and felt the first roar in the waters.

His blood ran cold. The Nelgaunt froze and turned its head towards him. Without a word—the Hundredfriends Courier raised his arm. The Nelgaunt vanished and a glowing tattoo of Arveil appeared on his arm.

The Courier was suddenly fighting alone. Just in time; he saw a huge form break the surface a moment before he heard a second roar. A vast, sinuous body, many times longer than a warship, if not as wide—a huge head, razor teeth—

Sea Serpents were hunting amid the storm. They might be feasting on whales or other creatures. Seve swore; it was an entire nest of them! Then—he heard another cry. A shriek in the waters. And he realized something that made him go still.

The Sea Serpents weren’t hunting. They were fleeing—

It broke the waves in half. Seve saw it—something impossibly vast. It shot across the waters, changing the ocean as it caught one of the fleeing serpents. The tendril dragged the screaming monster down. The thing was so huge—Seve didn’t know how far away the main body was. How deep.

“Guardians of the Sea, shield us.”

The Sea Serpents scattered, evading the one predator which they didn’t dare even fight. The glowing animals were silent, even their glow fading on the Hundredfriends Courier.

The waves bobbed his ship, tossing it. But Seve dared use no magic. No Skills. He looked down and felt something moving in the storm. He whispered.

“Stay quiet, the Deeps. Lower the sail. So Krakens come—beware.

His fingers reached for a [Message] scroll. The Courier sent a single burst through the storm, burning through a dozen scrolls to get the words through.

 

Hundredfriends Courier to Talenqual—Krakens have awakened. The delivery is in jeopardy. Proceeding by sail alone. All craft: beware. Krakens at sea.

 

The other Couriers received the [Message]. Krakens at sea. Still, they continued. They carried a cargo worth its weight in lives. Beyond value.

Their journey was being watched. Others picked up the [Message], its destination and recipients.

They traced the [Message] spell and began to close in as well.

 

—-

 

Another day of rain. Mrsha solemnly clasped her paws in front of her and prayed for rain to stop.

Pawn had taught her how. He said sometimes it didn’t work, sometimes it might. But he said it mattered either way. It made Mrsha feel better.

Krakens at sea. The Couriers had all entered the storm with the last of the cure. Tritel had done his job; gone above and beyond, really. He was leaving.

Moore was arguing with Jelaqua about going to a stupid ball. Mrsha had heard Lyonette trying to get an invitation, but Pawn wouldn’t have ever been invited so she’d given up. It was for Dullahans, anyways.

The little Gnoll hoped the Couriers would do well. She had written a letter to Ryoka telling her about everything. They could have used Ryoka’s magic. But Krakens were huge. Palt had scared her, telling her how big they were. Like…the High Passes.

Mrsha hadn’t slept until she’d crawled into Erin’s bed. The [Innkeeper] had hugged her to sleep, then thrown a pillow at Palt the next day.

Magic. Things were happening in the inn too. Big stories, small ones. But Mrsha was hoping the Couriers got through.

Behind her, something interrupted her from her staring at the rain. Mrsha turned her head and blinked.

A baby crawled across the inn’s floor. Mrsha stared at it. The baby was Human, tiny, and had red…hair…

“Whose baby is that?”

Maviola El stared at the crawling infant. Mrsha looked up. Oh. The [Lady] looked around as the baby crawled past her.

She looked—different. Mrsha stared at Maviola, then the baby. She narrowed her eyes at Maviola. Was she…? Mrsha sniffed a few times and Maviola winked at her.

There you are! How did you get so fast?”

The mother hurried after the baby and Mrsha hopped off the windowsill to scold her. A baby? In her inn? Didn’t this mother know what happened around here?

 

—-

 

That evening, Mrsha watched the coverage of the delivery with everyone else. It was news.

But there was no word from any of the ships at sea save for a single scrying spell that managed to get through the storm. Wistram had an image of one of the Couriers; the Waterbear, for all of eleven seconds.

The viewers saw a huge figure, a Bearkin, larger than even a Raskghar, fighting at the helm of her vessel. Her fur was drenched and they saw a flash of light as a spell activated. The ship shot forwards—then stopped.

It began to rise out of the water. The Waterbear looked back. She looked around, but no turning of the wheel or trick of sails could stop what was happening next.

Her ship was moving up into the sky as the waterspout bore down on her. The image saw her ship rising higher, disappearing into a whirlwind of water. Then—nothing.

 

—-

 

They were encountering danger at sea.

The Hundredfriends Courier hadn’t slept for an entire day. He looked over his shoulder. Six dolphins were dragging his ship ahead; larger than the rest of their kind, even armored with a lightweight scaling.

His head swiveled as he heard a roar from underwater. It was echoed; Seve-Alrelious swore. He looked ahead. But he had lost his way in the pursuit. There was only the clouded skies, the tossing sea. Another wave nearly knocked him off his feet as he raised his arm.

One of the magical tattoos glowed. The Courier screamed as the image of a little, waving suit of armor and face moved.

“[Steelfriend’s Pact]! Take us there!

The light moved. Seve pointed.

“There!”

The Dolphins surged forwards, pulling the World’s Pact ahead. The Courier heard another roar from behind. His pursuer had seen the light. He turned as more of his friends swam to guard their rear. The pact with Seql was still shining bright. The Courier took a deep breath.

“Tombhome, take me back one day.”

He saw a long form cutting through the water. The Courier raised the arm and the Steelfriend’s tattoo unleashed its magic.

Skin like steel!

The first Sea Serpent broke through the wave, maw opened wide. The dolphins dragged the ship onwards as a Nelgaunt and smaller serpent turned to fight. Seve lifted a hunting spear, the rope fastened around his waist and leapt into the waves as the glowing monkey, Erek—took the wheel. The World’s Pact fled even as the Hundredfriends fought, returning to the ship as blood colored the waters. Theirs and the serpent’s.

A dire thing. Seve hauled himself back in the boat as the first serpent writhed, too injured to dare attacking again. But it was one of many. He called for speed.

More were coming.

 

—-

 

Another day passed. Silence from all four Couriers—no—three. Geneva had to oversee the cremation of two in the intensive-care facility. Seql refused to give up hope. He had a scrying orb in his room and he watched it all hours.

“He will come. I just have to wait, so I don’t let him down.”

He was growing weaker. Geneva had placed him in one of the two healing crystal beds, and it was the only thing keeping his strength up.

Three days since the Couriers had passed ended in silence. Just—Geneva listening to the coughing from her patients. The Iron Vanguard was patrolling along the coast, but they could not go to sea as the magical typhoon was still oncoming. And they had reported other ships in the waters.

[Pirates]. Drowned Ships? Geneva Scala performed her rounds.

 

—-

 

On the fourth day—a ball took place in Pallass. The Halfseekers attended.

It was a Dullahan’s formality; a ball on one of their holidays—not a universally-recognized one, and not a Pallassian vacation. Nevertheless—Dullahans across the city took a break on that day. And many attended this ball.

“It’s not a ball. Stop calling it that, Seborn.”

We dance, eat, and mingle. It’s a damned ball.

“Stop swearing! We’re guests of honor!”

Jelaqua would have punched Seborn, but for the fact that she was wearing a dress, long arm-length gloves that had come straight from the best [Seamstress] in Invrisil, and she didn’t want to disturb one part of her costly outfit. Plus, Seborn would have dodged.

Yes, the Couriers were now four days at sea and there was no word of them. Yes, the magical typhoon was still ongoing. Yes, Yellow Rivers was still plaguing many cities.

But the event was still taking place. Was it as important as life-saving medicine being transported through the worst storm in decades?

No…but both things still occurred.

If it’s not a ball, what is it, Jelaqua?

Seborn irritably adjusted the suit, tailored specifically for his human and crab-half. He looked sharp, and Moore and Ulinde were both outfitted in suits of their own. Ulinde had taken the body of a male Drake. Jelaqua…had been more calculating.

“A Walking-Waltz of Baleros. It is a Dullahan tradition, Seborn. You should be respectful.”

Moore kept his voice low as they entered the vast room booked for the occasion. Hundreds of Dullahans were present, all armored in their best attire. Most gleamed in steel suits with decoration; some had more expensive alloys, or, rarely, cloth armor or some other material instead.

“Remember, speak to the most expensive Dullahan first. Don’t make any rude comments—don’t slap them on the back!”

Jelaqua was fretful. Seborn rolled his eyes. Only she did that. He didn’t want to be here.

The Halfseekers were guests for two reasons: firstly, Jelaqua was from Baleros. They might have actually been invited just for that and their status as adventurers. Other Gold-rank teams were present too. But the second was simpler.

“Oh! Look at that. There’s Maughin.”

Jelaqua jumped. She stared ahead. The giant [Blacksmith] stood with a group of important Dullahans, his self-forged armor gleaming. He stood taller than anyone else in the room but Moore; a few of the Dullahans were taller than average, but no War Walkers were present.

“Maughin.”

The Selphid gulped. She had prepared for this event for over a week, fretted over it. That was why their attendance mattered.

Heads turned as the Halfseekers were quietly announced; unlike some Human events, there was no shouting here.

There was, however, music. It was very much like a ball. With some…changes.

“Ah.”

Seborn saw Moore start and elbowed him. The half-Giant’s surprise was understandable. The Dullahan bodies were dancing, or getting food. Meanwhile, their heads rested in social circles, talking to each other on padded cushions.

It was the kind of thing only Dullahans could do.

“I’m—I’m going to Maughin. You all behave. Alright?”

Jelaqua walked forwards slowly as her team watched her go. This wasn’t their big event. But it was for her. Dullahans were turning their heads across the floor to look at her.

A Selphid. And Maughin politely took his head from the social circle he was in. Both body and head went to meet Jelaqua and they smiled at each other.

They were still together, after all this time. That was the…cause of the attention. Seborn glowered about. It had not been easy for Jelaqua or Maughin. Many Dullahans had assumed the fling would be that. And today, well, the relationship was on trial in this public event.

This was a mistake. Jelaqua looks like she’s going to vomit.

“Well, it’s fine. We don’t throw up much.”

Ulinde missed the point. She looked around, more relaxed than Seborn. Certainly more than Moore.

“Should we—find something to eat? We’re just standing here. Or do we join one of the…”

He eyed the Dullahan’s heads. They would definitely be outsiders there. Ulinde shrugged.

“We can’t socialize the same as Dullahans. I could remove my head, but it won’t talk—”

Shut up, both of you. Let’s find a drink.

Seborn led them away, towards one of the tables set up with food. He was watching Jelaqua as she greeted Maughin. Here—she was playing by the Dullahan’s rules. No kissing. No overt displays of affection—certainly not her hugging the Dullahan or chattering as she used to. It had annoyed Seborn on other days. Today, he was hoping she impressed the Dullahans.

I wish I were back at sea. Then we could just sink the bastards.

He muttered. Seborn thought he’d been so quiet only his team would hear, but Moore made a sound and looked past him.

“I wouldn’t say that around other Dullahans if I were you, Seborn.”

The [Rogue] whirled. He saw a four-legged [Mage] standing there, sipping from a cocktail. Palt winked at Seborn.

“Palt? You’re here?”

Ulinde was astonished. The Centaur [Illusionist] nodded.

“Ulinde—I’m from Baleros. Of course I got the invitation. I decided to attend. I er—brought a guest too. Not sure we’ll do much dancing, but she asked to come with when Erin—”

He coughed. The Halfseekers looked past him at Imani. The girl was staring around, and shuffling towards Palt. It surprised them to see her there, but the two were in the foreigner’s group, on the outside of the actual socialization.

“Hello, Imani.”

Moore gave her a smile as he looked around. Imani looked relieved as she nodded to him, very Dullahan-like. The Halfseekers were on display as well. Palt was most at home here—he had lived among Dullahans before.

“Well, now that we’re here. We should dance a few times. I’ve got four left hooves—but that’s never stopped me.”

“Is it complex, Palt? Jelaqua had us memorizing dances…”

The Centaur laughed quietly and waved it away.

“Ulinde, this is a walking-waltz, not a Terandrian thing. Dullahans made it so you can dance in armor. It’s not hard. See?”

He nodded across the room. There was Jelaqua and Maughin. After a moment, they’d gone onto the floor to share the first dance, as couples should. Her team watched.

Jelaqua and Maughin. The [Blacksmith] looked used to the attention. Indeed, he was one of the more important Dullahans in Pallass. He could do little wrong among his people. Jelaqua?

The opposite. If silent hostility was a spell—it was about Tier 5 and directed on the Selphid. Palt watched Jelaqua sympathetically. This was her test.

“Jelaqua Ivirith. It is good to see you. Your attire is lovely.”

“It’s hardly armor. Thanks, Maughin.”

Her lips moved very little as she smiled up at him. The giant Dullahan and Selphid walked along the slow-moving pairs; the music was indeed meant for a very slow kind of dance. A harpsichord was playing along with the stringed instruments Balerosian and Dullahan music was known for. The cellist who had played for Tails and Scales was among the Dullahan performers.

Eyes were on Jelaqua, judging her for her performance here. That was why the Selphid had worked so hard on the last few days. She had even had to choose which body to wear.

It would have been a travesty to wear a Dullahan’s body, especially since it could no longer magically separate. The same went for a Raskghar, for all that made her tall and almost comparable to Maughin. In the end, Jelaqua had mulled it over and taken a female Human’s body, one of the few she had kept.

From the Siege of Liscor. It was an outsider’s form. That she acknowledged it openly won her some slow nods from Dullahans for the honestly of it. She’d chosen the tallest Human she could, but she was still mismatched with Maughin. He carried his head lower so they could talk, but it was still…

Jelaqua was afraid. Fear gripped her, a mortal terror, in the Gold-rank adventurer. It was so easy to kill monsters or risk her life. This was far scarier to her. Far harder. After all—she was a Selphid, unwanted among other species, especially as a partner.

She kept her chin raised, but she couldn’t suppress the faint orange blush in her skin. It glowed beneath the magical makeup that gave her skin a living flush.

Maughin made no comment on that. But, like Jelaqua, he was aware his words and actions were being watched.

“You look full of life, Jelaqua.”

She blushed deeper at the compliment.

“It’s just the makeup. S-shall we?”

The [Smith] nodded. He put his head on his shoulders, fastening it tight. Jelaqua saw he was the only Dullahan who was actually fully on the ballroom floor. The others were all able to socialize.

“Sorry. Let’s make it a quick dance.”

“These things shouldn’t be rushed, Jelaqua.”

He was right. That would just make them look bad if they didn’t take their time. Jelaqua flushed deeper. All eyes on her, she stepped out with Maughin, following the slow flow on the floor.

This was how the walking waltz took place between partners. They took each other’s arms gently, walking in a slow circle first, and then joined the slow procession. There was eloquence to it, but it was hardly the swift rotation, the complex pivots of Terandrian, Human waltzes. No one was about to try lifting each other into the air when both sides wore metal armor.

It was indeed something that didn’t take practice. Once you were in it, the pattern of the slow dance was obvious.

“So—so, is there anyone in particular I should meet? I’ve talked with your friends—maybe the [Diplomat] from the Iron Vanguard?”

“There’s no obligation, Jelaqua. You’re…trembling.”

“Am I? I’m just excited. Panicked? I never said that.”

The Selphid tried not to chatter. Their voices were low, as the headless bodies moved around them. They completed a circuit of the room; the inner pairs moved counterclockwise to the outside flow.

“You have nothing to worry about, Jelaqua Ivirith. Have you not attended the walking waltzes in Baleros? At least once or twice, surely.”

“Once or twice. But never as…a partner. Only a guest of honor. I don’t want to make a mistake, Maughin. I could ruin your reputation.”

The Selphid whispered. The Dullahan calmly looked around the room. Other Dullahans pretended to be engrossed in conversation, or eating.

“I see. Is that why you haven’t come to the forge the last four days?”

“We shouldn’t see each other before the walking-waltz.”

“That’s an old tradition, Jelaqua. No one observes it in Pallass. Who told you that?”

“I…just wanted to be traditional. Look, Maughin. I think we’re done. We can go mingle now. I’ll go to the other adventurers.”

The Dullahan’s head-platforms were, by design or unhappy coincidence, below the average head-level. It was…physically awkward to stand there and chat with the heads as a non-Dullahan. Jelaqua looked at the Halfseekers, standing by the food tables. She turned to leave the waltz.

Maughin stopped her. The [Smith] saw Jelaqua look back up at him. Her inner body was still faintly orange, running in lines through the pale body she wore.

“Jelaqua. There is no need for you to excuse yourself.”

“But your head should be…”

Maughin was conspicuously absent from the socialization. Kept, by his Selphid partner. The disapproving looks were obvious to both. The [Smith] looked around and shook his head.

He took her hands, gently.

“This event is for couples, Jelaqua. I never intended to socialize alone. They may wait until we are done.”

He lead her into another circuit of the dance. The Dullahans stirred, seeing Maughin keeping his head in place. Jelaqua could have danced with his torso, but he ignored the carrier who offered him a pillow to remove his head to be borne to the others.

“Wait? For how long?”

“As long as we take. Metal does not hurry, and neither shall we.”

Maughin ignored the stares. He remained there, with Jelaqua. For one movement around the room, and then the slow drift the other way as the music changed.

Twice, the carrier came to suggest Maughin join the social circles. Twice he refused. After ten minutes—it became obvious the [Smith] wasn’t going to leave Jelaqua. She stared up at him and he smiled.

Palt whistled. The Centaur saw the other Dullahans hesitating. It could have gone either way for the [Smith].

Could have—until another Dullahan [Smith]’s body walked over to the circle and excused himself. He placed his head on his shoulders and joined the dance as a whole. Someone else copied him.

Lorent, the [Sharpener]. He moved over to speak with Jelaqua and Maughin with his partner as they circulated the room. That precipitated a rush. Well—a slow movement. Soon, the Dullahans were dancing like…

Humans. Or any other species. Jelaqua looked up at Maughin with wondering eyes. He winked at her. She quietly laughed. And then—took his hand.

“I think our legs are tired. Come on.”

Fearlessly now, she took his hand and led him forwards to another group who had been standing apart.

Bevussa and the other adventurers. Maughin was reserved as the adventurers immediately bowed to the famed smith. But Jelaqua elbowed Bevussa and Keldrass with a laugh before she caught herself.

“Enough bowing! You all know Maughin. We’re here to have a grand time. Let us in. Don’t act all stiff—Maughin’s a Dullahan. He won’t tell your embarrassing secrets. Who’s shedding scales? Feathers, Bevussa?”

The Dullahan, standing among three Gold-rank teams, was at first quiet. Jelaqua was the one who drew him out of his armor. He smiled, even removed his head to chuckle and speak at head-height for the others.

Soon, she and the teams were laughing and talking before they rejoined the dance floor, Dullahans and non-Dullahans. When they stood together thereafter, it was relaxed. Jelaqua smiling, Maughin nodding to friends, introducing her, talking.

The solemn confidence of Dullahans, the goodwill of Selphids. They made a wonderful pair.

Moore turned away. It hurt to see, as happy as he was for Jelaqua. He was envious of…he looked at Maughin. And then down at the others in the room.

I guess we’ve got no excuse not to dance.

Seborn growled. He was standing with the adventurers, but more and more were entering the fray, so to speak. Palt and Imani were already on the very edge, trying to make his four legs work to limited success.

Normally, a Dullahan’s head would go to another and ask for the dance and their bodies would link up. Since both were attached in this moment—Seborn saw several pairs sharing a circuit of the room.

Two female Dullahans and an adventurer asked Seborn. With ill-grace but a certain elegance of footwork, he accepted. He came back to see Moore miserably standing like a statue.

Moore. Ask someone to dance with you.

The [Rogue] whispered to Moore. The half-Giant shook his head.

“I can’t, Seborn. I’ll stand out.”

Don’t be an idiot. Maughin is right there. And he’s wearing damn armor. Tell you what. I’ll ask the next person who bothers me to—

“Absolutely not!”

Moore nearly raised his voice. He looked mortified by the idea. Seborn snapped his claw quietly in irritation. This was the brothel-conversation all over again.

“I’ll dance with you, Moore.”

Ulinde offered. The Selphid had danced with six partners already. Seborn and Moore looked at Ulinde. The Selphid was in a male Drake’s body, wearing a suit. Moore’s face said it all.

“Thank you, but I’m not good at dancing, anyways. You should have fun, Ulinde. I’ll just…”

“Magus Moore? Would you care to walk the floor with this Dullahan?”

The adventurers turned. A female Dullahan wearing one of the ceramic armors that were all-decoration had approached with a friend. The other one invited Ulinde. Moore turned white.

“I uh—”

He looked at Seborn. The [Rogue] nodded with a smile to the Dullahan and whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

Go. Or I’ll have to dance with you.

The half-Giant [Green Mage] hesitated. But he bowed, hesitantly. And followed the Dullahan onto the floor.

It’s not hard. Don’t trip, Moore. You’ve danced over trap runes. Don’t trip…

Seborn muttered under his breath as he watched Moore with considerably more anxiety than Jelaqua. Moore looked as though he’d forgotten how his legs worked. But it was not hard. The Dullahan girl was very graceful in her own way. They entered the floor and Jelaqua turned, seeing her friend.

Moore began stumbling along. He regained his footing—walked slowly. But his face, first white, had started turning red as the fires of an undersea volcano. The [Rogue] saw the half-Giant turning his head, seeing the smaller dancers…then snapping back to his partner.

He was distracted. Increasingly more distraught. Seborn watched, internally and externally cursing as the half-Giant radiated uncertainly.

Moore got halfway across the circuit when he bumped into another partner. Just the tiniest of nudges. He immediately whirled and began apologizing. Which not only slowed the dancers behind but—

Kraken shit.

Seborn saw Moore moving back from the confused Dullahan he was dancing with. He stepped away, shaking his head, face flushed.

“Moore! You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s fine—

Jelaqua and Maughin followed Moore off the floor. The half-Giant looked like he was trying to cast [Invisibility].

“I shouldn’t dance, Jelaqua! I’m far too large. I’ll just stand here. Please—tell Miss Xerca I’m sorry and—”

He saw the Dullahan coming and froze up. Seborn stepped forwards—to kick Moore or help him apologize, he wasn’t sure. His friend looked miserable. About to burst into tears.

It was Maughin who turned to Moore and placed an armored hand on his shoulder. Moore started as the [Smith], the only person his size, looked Moore in the eye.

“Friend Moore, you are too self-conscious. Jelaqua and I dance together. Why should you stand alone?”

“I’m—”

The Dullahan shook his head. He gestured towards the floor. The dancers were spreading out. Some were even waving at Moore. The half-Giant saw a Centaur moving around the room, murmuring to them.

“This dance was meant for War Walkers to spend time with the smallest of their kindred. We grow into our armor. You are not overtall here, friend. It would be an honor to dance with Jelaqua’s team. Join us.”

Maughin solemnly placed a hand on Moore’s shoulder. Jelaqua took Maughin’s arm. Ulinde had his partner—Seborn saw Bevussa flutter over. She winked at him as Palt and Imani joined.

“Adventurer Moore? Would you care to continue our walk?”

The female Dullahan walked over. Moore looked around.

“But—”

We’ll be around you. If you trip, you’ll fall on one of us. I’ve got your back, Moore.

Bevussa nodded. Seborn saw the half-Giant take a deep breath. He bowed, shakily to the Dullahan.

“I…will, Miss Xerca.”

The four pairs entered the slow waltz. Moore was shaking, but Palt was waiting. The [Illusionist] had a merry look in his eyes. He and Imani were standing together—the spaced-out dancers calmed Moore down. But he was still a giant with Maughin and that bothered him most.

He looked around—and his friends stood around him. The [Green Mage] hesitated, and then he took a slow, steadying breath. He raised his arm and gently took the Dullahan’s.

Seborn exhaled softly. And he saw Palt smile. The Centaur [Illusionist] raised his wand and flicked it.

“A spell for courage, half-Giant.”

The [Rogue] saw—Bevussa staring at him. And he suddenly felt larger. He looked around, blinking. Suddenly—the dancers were all as tall as Maughin and Moore. The half-Giant looked around. There was laughing, brief applause. Palt took a bow and held out an arm to Imani.

“Well? You’re looking normal to us.”

Moore didn’t reply. He just blinked misty eyes and turned. The half-Giant danced, average among his peers.

The Walking-Waltz of Pallass’ Dullahans lasted for hours. Moore danced sixteen more times. It was, all things considered, a success that left most attending in good spirits.

It had nothing to do with the Couriers at sea except that it happened around the same time.

 

—-

 

Seve-Alrelious watched his enchanted spear go down with the serpent. His palms were torn by the struggle.

The magic of his tattoos was fading. Four of his comrades lay dark against his skin. Not dead, but resting.

When he died, they would be freed. They might perish in this storm. Or to the hunters.

The clutch of Sea Serpents brought down Arveil. The Nelgaunt, a cross between a catfish and a whale in appearance, fought the lashing shapes as the serpents wrapped around the smaller creature, biting, constricting him. But the tearing jaws and snapping teeth found only air as Arveil vanished.

It made the Sea Serpents even angrier. They were hungry, having been chased from their hunting by the Kraken. They tore at the Armershed Dolphins. The pod fought, diving and leaping until they were defeated.

Sixteen. The Hundredfriends Courier fired a single spell into the storm, heedless of the danger it might attract. Half the serpents pursued the illusion he conjured, finding purchase in the fake ship’s hull. The Tier 5 spell distracted them, even scratched their scaly hides. But it vanished all too soon.

“The cure must reach Talenqual. We have sworn it, Erek.”

The ape stared at Seve, and nodded solemnly. The Courier looked at the lashing shapes pursuing the World’s Pact. Soon—the [Gale Winds] spell would run out. They’d been forced off Igawiz’s Jet after two days of encounters with the increasingly vicious nest.

They were so close. Seve looked at the glowing primate, who had steered the ship as he fought. Then he slowly removed the cure from the bag of holding.

“…If it comes to it, Erek, cling to Arveil’s back. He might flee.”

The ape made a sound as he watched Seve working. The Courier was taking the watertight crates filled with the precious mold. Tying them to…

An anchor. It would sink. And the second object he added to the tight nets was a beacon—a mana stone enchanted to be as obvious as possible to anyone who sensed mana.

It might attract a monster. But they would hopefully sense nothing edible. Seve made it ready. He looked behind him.

The wind spell ran out. The World’s Pact slowed. Seve drew the enchanted dagger he carried as a backup. Erek made a hooting sound and slapped his chest as the serpents roared.

“Tombhome guide me back one day.”

Seve-Alrelious thought of his city. He waited, as the waves grew taller. The last of his companions—some not suited for combat in water at all, leapt from his skin. A lion with glowing fangs. A trio of birds, each with feathers like jewels.

An angry ape, a Human from A’ctelios Salash armed with a dagger. The sea serpents closed in.

Seve heard a howl running through the waters. He braced—and a huge head emerged from the waters. Huge jaws of ivory snapped. Massive, ancient teeth tearing, biting.

The Hundredfriends Courier saw the—fish?—burst out of the water. A Sea Serpent’s neck in its jaws. The serpent was writhing, screaming as its purple-red blood stained the waters.

Dead gods!

The Courier raised an arm as the two shapes landed and the water created another wave that swept his ship. Erek twisted the wheel; Seve felt them cresting a wave. He saw the serpent fighting—and then a second bone-fish emerge from the waves. It rammed into another serpent.

“What manner of monster is that?

The first thought Seve had was that it was some kind of shark-whale with bone armor. Then he had a darker thought.

A giant undead mega-shark? He saw the thing surface again—and now, glimpsed a glowing light in the eyes.

Undead! It’s—

Seve’s despair was a second behind a realization. That wasn’t a burning flame of the undead. It was a gentler light. The thing was—

The giant bone-ship snapped again and the serpent it was biting screamed and writhed out of its jaws at last. The ship turned, moving like a fish, the bones and…ancient hide of the ship moving like it had in life. Its eyes glowed—but not with death magic. Seve saw the flicker of magic.

The water boiled around the other serpents, forcing them back. There were two ships, attacking with the jaws of a long-dead giant predator. And from inside the vessels came more spells. The water boiled—one of the serpents was blasted back by a geyser. And then came lightning, forking down from the skies. It struck the serpents, driving them back.

The Hundredfriends Courier saw the serpents fleeing. Neither ship pursued; they cut towards him. But of course—he was laughing now—they wouldn’t have killed the serpents.

They were [Druids].

The first ship of the [Sea Druids] rose out of the water, like a Drowned Ship. The jaws opened and he saw a figure standing in the entrance. The Drowned Man had a trident instead of a staff. He was a huge figure and he bellowed at Seve.

Courier. We have heard of your mission. The Sea’s Shepherds will escort you to land.

Who had called them? The Courier didn’t know. But he and his companions were celebrating. Erek actually jumped ship to swing himself up onto the [Druid]’s bone-ship, with his endless curiosity. The two ships flanked the World’s Pact as they conjured a current to speed them forwards.

“Why did you come, friends of the Guardians of the Sea?”

Seve was honestly confused. He had expected other ships. But not the [Sea Druids]. Their leader gave him a grave look as he examined Erek’s opened mouth; the ape had a toothache.

“We are guardians of all life. Not just animals, but people. One of our order on land alerted us to your cause. You have them to thank.”

“One of you? But who?”

 

—-

 

Nalthaliarstrelous visited the inn himself. Mrsha sat up as he looked at her. Then she leapt up and jumped on his chest to give him a hug. It took the two longer to explain to the others why she was so happy.

And then—they broke through the typhoon. Wistram’s reception was still poor and the flickering image on the scrying orb was poor despite the academy being out of the storm’s center.

But there they were. Sailing through still-raging waters, ahead of the slow-moving typhoon. Two ships of bone, flanking the small World’s Pact. Racing for Talenqual.

“That’s him!

Geneva shouted. Daly held the scrying orb higher, as if trying to get a better reception. The Hundredfriends Courier had made it. A Courier had braved the storm.

 

—-

 

And—it was not one, but four. Ryoka Griffin and Fierre stopped the cleanup of the Lischelle-Drakle farm to see.

Two more ships emerged from the storm within hours of the Hundredfriends Courier.

A four-masted ship, each one blown by the winds harnessed by the Four Winds of Teral, the faithful ship that had delivered for two centuries, in war and peace. And—next to it, an undersea vessel, surfacing, pulled by the giant Cerobster—the Courier and trading vessel of the Drowned Folk—Shellbazaar.

They had gone together, sheltering each other in the storm. Now—they raced towards the Iron Vanguard’s escort, daring a trio of ships which had been circling the storm to come after them. The Saverian [Pirates] hesitated.

The [Captain] of the Four Winds was a Selphid. She bellowed a message as her ship aimed spells and bows at the [Pirates] peeling away.

We are coming. Make ports ready for cure.

The Drowned Man [Captain] of Shellbazaar nodded and saluted her. His ship launched a harpoon through one of the [Pirate]’s sails from the single ballista they carried. The giant Cerobster snapped its claws as it swam, aided by the headwind.

“Let nothing in the world stop this delivery.”

Four Couriers. Two ships, one, the Hundredfriends Courier escorted by the [Sea Druids]. The last—was the Waterbear of Cerun.

She was alive. Ryoka saw her doggedly paddling through waves, keeping her head above the water as the [Scrying] spells found her. The Iron Vanguard was on an intercept course—but so were dozens of ships.

Four ships bearing a [Pirate]’s flag reached her first. Ryoka’s hands were clenched as Noass identified them.

The Bloodtear Pirates. Famed for their ruthlessness to their enemies. The Waterbear snapped and growled as they came closer. Ryoka saw the [Pirates] slinging down ropes, nets. She saw them haul the Courier up. And what they did to her—

 

—-

 

The Siren of Savere watched the Bloodtear [Pirates] and the Waterbear. They were…toasting her with drinks until the waterlogged Courier was nearly sick. The Bloodtear Pirates turned their ships, aiming for the nearest port. They were cheering on the Courier as they chased Savere’s warships out of the way.

“Those damn idiots. I forgot that they’re as insane as my sister! That’s gold!

The Bloodtear Pirates didn’t care. They admired those who did the impossible. The Waterbear finally knocked a mug out of one of the [Captain]’s hands and leapt into the water. She swam into the harbor as the [Pirates] fled.

 

—-

 

They had made it. The first to Talenqual’s port was the Hundredfriends Courier himself. He leapt onto the docks as the [Sea Druids] turned their ships. Geneva was waiting in her clinic. Smiling. Luan and Daly helped clear the way for the Courier to run up the harbor and through the city.

Ryoka Griffin watched the other three Couriers making for major ports with their precious cargo. Some would go to the sick—the rest would be grown as fast as possible.

“That’s what it means to be a Courier.”

Her heart was still racing. Ryoka looked at Fierre. That was a Courier. Not just speed. Not just levels or equipment. It was the kind of delivery she respected. More than waking the Archmage of Izril—doing the impossible for a cause.

Geneva Scala met Seql’s friend. He was exhausted, wounded. But he had come, just as he promised. She still made him wait, despite him wanting to go in to his friend. So he shouted and the Dullahan boy looked up.

It was…a lesson, for Geneva. A bit of hope. When good people worked together—in this world—they could make miracles. Perhaps in any world. The [Doctor] slowly measured the first dosage of the cure, documenting methodology, doses, instructing the other [Healers] across Baleros to do the same.

The disease was not cured. But there was hope. Geneva Scala let out a breath she’d been holding for a long time. After a while—she relaxed, and went to sleep.

 

—-

 

The Erannda Delivery, as it was dubbed by Wistram, was one for the history books. Sensational news, a real feel-good story. A testament to working together, even by [Pirates] and [Druids]. The earned reputation of Couriers, especially Sea Couriers.

The cure had reached Baleros. It was not an instant-fix, like a magical panacea—and even they had a few flaws sometimes—but the Last Light of Baleros could begin fighting back. She, with her Skills, had been able to stalemate the bacteria. Now, she could eradicate it.

Tyrion Veltras had no cure. The news and coverage of a continent’s woes was bitter to him. His sons were sick. The medicine, the antidote to what left them weaker day by day—he knew what could save them. But obtaining it was…

Good people working together could create miracles. So the opposite was true. He stood in his keep, looking at the Circle of Thorn’s message.

Twenty six [Alchemist] and [Healers]’ heads had been sent to him. The rest answered his calls with only silence. The Lord of House Veltras called for aid.

And heard only silence.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I’ve been running low on steam. Time for my usual break!

Interestingly…I had another chapter planned for this. A much easier one. This was me going for broke. Because the concept grabbed me. Not just the desperate delivery amid a storm, but the ball. The two…in the same chapter?

Because they go together, obviously. I’m quite mentally tired. But I’ll be back to full-strength—hopefully—after the break. And get Volume 3 done as an e-book! Sheesh!

But I hope you enjoyed it. As always. The risk with web serials is that you really only get one chance with the readers who are following along. Revisions can make it better, but each chapter is a first-take. Probably not the best for a lot of writing. But it is…immediate. Still, we all get to wait for two updates. And that’s to make sure quality doesn’t slip too much! Like pants.

I’m going to rest for a bit. See you next time!

 

We have two amazing artists to feature today! pkay and mg! Both of them have created a lot of art which I feature on stream, but have shamefully neglected to feature in after-chapter thoughts because of all the different artists! Here’s the art they’ve come up with since their last feature! Much love to them!

 

[Minotaur Punch], Excalibur?, lightning Goblins and more by pkay!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/peekay

 

Walled Cities, [Minotaur Punch], Goblins, card games, and Crelers by Mg!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/henodus2

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/henodus2

 

 


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(A Wandering Inn reader has written their own story, Melas on RoyalRoad! Check it out here and congratulations to hitting the Top 10 on trending, delta201! )

 

Thereafter. These were the headlines spoken and written in large font across the world.

From Wistram News Network and their subsidiary, the Pallassian Times, the Liscorian Gazette, Chandrar International, the Terandrian Tribunal—

That last one was very interesting. Now there were three international newspapers in circulation. The headline and bylines from Chandrar International, as written by the Editor-in-Chief, Rémi Canada, read as follows:

Clash at Medain.

Reim’s armies in retreat; 5 warships return to the House of Minos; [Pirate Captain] Rasea Zecrew sails under Savere’s flag; 17 nations and counting declare war on the King of Destruction; King of Duels captured.

It was the kind of title that had multiple subheadings and required the entire newspaper (aside from the business, magical news, and funnies sections) to explain fully.

Interestingly, as the internal sales figures per-newspaper, per new reader went, Chandrar International happened to have the weakest initial sales within the first five hours of printing. The Terandrian Tribunal, and the Pallassian Times were both more well-known and circulated.

But by the end of the day, people were requesting Rémi Canada’s newspaper from Runner’s Guilds, who were printing and providing copies as part of their service. The reasons cited by customers were the layout of the [Journalist]’s newspaper, more impartial reporting, attention to detail, and the fame of the Editor-in-Chief himself.

And, lest it be unremarked upon, the income of that many sales of newspapers across the world was no small thing. The larger two continental newspapers, already with competition in Liscor in Izril’s case, had large backers. But Rémi’s newspaper had already paid for itself and the equipment and salaries of its employees by the time the day ended.

Of course—the war of media was not the most important thing happening, except to the organizations involved. There was, after all—

A war. Multiple ones. Seventeen nations had declared when Rémi finalized the newspaper. Twenty by the time he began the second day’s first draft.

 

“Yet, as any keen observer will note, a state of war has existed within Chandrar already. The declarations by nations such as Nerrhavia’s Fallen cannot surprise anyone, least of all the [King] of Reim himself. It is a sign that each nation believes Reim’s aura of invincibility has finally faded.

Time will reveal whether this is correct. What is true is that the [Army of the King] has been used and for the first time, Reim’s armies have tasted a true defeat at the hands of the House of Minos and one [Pirate Captain]’s intervention…a timely, perhaps incredibly coordinated series of events.”

 

They weren’t the most scorching of words. Rather, Rémi had laid out the battle piece by piece without the victorious tones of the other two newspapers. Impartial, reasoned—it was why his newspaper was doing better.

Teresa Atwood wouldn’t have minded it, even though she was on the losing side. But the fact that someone was reading it over her shoulder was sending chills up her spine.

The King of Destruction waited for Teres to turn the page. She didn’t want to.

“Go on, Teres. It’s certainly the most objective take so far. Or are you still reading?”

Flos Reimarch was calmer today. Scarce hours had passed and dawn had just turned into morning. The King of Destruction had stopped raging.

Now, he sat, weary in his saddle, as his army rode from Medain’s borders. They had not halted to rest beyond healing injuries even though they had just fought the battle that the newspapers were reporting on.

They had too far to go to rest. Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the Claiven Earth, Medain, and nations as distant as Savere and A’ctelios had declared war. But—some like A’ctelios had already declared war.

The difference was that they were marching. Reim had its spies and informants, and Orthenon had reported that A’ctelios had sent its war band from the Carven City; Nerrhavia’s Fallen was mobilizing armies in the plural…

“…‘a moment to test the legend of the King of Destruction.’ Well written, that fellow. Another of your Earth-folk.”

“I think so, your Majesty.”

Teres was nervous. Flos just nodded.

“It will be defense, now. As he says. The last time so many nations declared war on me was when I had unified most of Chandrar. Then—it was multiple continents. The Walled Cities, Balerosian companies, half of Terandria…well, they had tried to stymie me before but with less unity. A time to test the legend indeed.”

Teres just nodded. She was nervous. Flos was too calm, now. He looked to the side.

His army was silent on the march. Last time, after Jecrass, he had invigorated them with a speech. Today though, it seemed as though Flos had no bright spot to find.

They had been defeated. By a [Pirate], by the armies of Minos…and the great Skill of the King of Destruction had been wasted, in a sense. Oh, General Ozem and his armies were dead or fleeing back across the sea. But Rasea Zecrew had killed Ulyse, stopped Reim’s army from seizing Medain and the King of Duels.

“Your Majesty…”

“You only call me ‘your Majesty’ when you want something or you’re nervous of me, Teres. You needn’t be. I have been humbled. But I know where to direct my wrath.”

Teres saw Flos’ head turn towards her. She nodded tightly.

“Then—what happens next?”

“A few things. While we ride, a few things. It’s been long enough. Let’s check on Orthenon.”

The two turned slightly back. The [Steward] was sitting in one of the wagons. No horse for him; he could ride, but the [Healer] and [Necromancer] had been in agreement. He needed to keep his hand as steady as possible.

“Will your fingers keep their strength and dexterity, my steward?”

“I think so, your Majesty. They’re already rejoined. [Death Keeper]?”

The Rustängmarder’s [Necromancer] and specialist bowed as he sat with the [Steward].

“The tissue has not rotted. The bones have not been destroyed. I will check the muscle again—but it is not my specialty. The [Healer] has done all she can.”

“Do so, then. Orthenon, I have need of you.”

The [Steward] nodded and held out his arm. Teres watched uneasily as the [Death Keeper] ran his hands along the place where two of Orthenon’s fingers had been severed by Rasea. The Rustängmarder’s [Necromancer] had reattached it. It was one of the reasons their mercenary company was so dangerous; they could reattach limbs with death magic.

“Be careful. If you feel any pain or stiffness, this may require an expert beyond either of us.”

That was all he said to Orthenon. The [Steward] nodded and stood.

“Your will, my [King]?”

The [Steward] was easier to read than the King of Destruction at the moment. He was angry. Teres saw it in his expressionless face. Knowing Orthenon—he might have felt responsible for failing to stop Rasea, or predict her attack.

The King of Destruction nodded.

“With me. Mars.

He didn’t have to raise his voice for the Illusionist to appear. She wore the defeat differently than Orthenon. Her eyes were a bit red. Tears of frustration. She’d shed them for failing to stop Ozem and failing to kill or capture the High King.

Flos regarded both of them levelly and nodded.

“We ride ahead.”

They moved forwards a bit. No one protested. Ytol was managing the army’s retreat; he had already sent [Riders] ahead to link up with the rest of the army and split. They had to defend the parts of Belchan they’d taken, Hellios, Germina, Reim…

Too many spots. And Medain was hostile too; the High King had declared war as soon as he’d retreated to his capital. No one had attacked the army yet; wounded or not, they had just fought an intense battle and leveled. And Mars and Orthenon were here, along with Zamea and the battered elites.

Ulyse was dead. Two half-Giants had fallen. Zamea’s leg was broken; she was audibly cursing as she hobbled to keep up with the army. The Rustängmarder, Flos’ vanguard and hammer, were down to twelve.

Disaster. Flos himself did not belabor the point.

“Mars, open your personal armory. Any weapon you can do without—place it with Ytol. We need the Sorcelled Blades. Every officer and magical blade we can spare will go to that unit.”

“Yes, sire.”

Mars nodded. Orthenon looked at Flos.

“Where will they fight?”

“With you. I’ll have you lead just them, Orthenon. We’ll need the cavalry in other spots; you’ll take that unit and move from battlefield to battlefield. Don’t lose a single one. Attack, keep moving and keep the enemy guessing. You’ll need anti-divination spells. Take one of Parasol Stroll’s [Mages].”

“About that, sire. With Ulyse gone…who leads them? Mirin? She’s with Trey. And Esiela is under blood-oath. But can she be trusted?”

Mars looked concerned. Flos glanced backwards.

“Place her with me. The Nomads of the Sky I will give to Ytol. He will move to Reim to reinforce Venith and Maresar at once. You’ll stay in the north, Mars. Hold back the Claiven Earth and Medain. I cannot trust anyone else to fight the adventurers and [Archers].”

They’d kill half-Giants, who were too large targets. Mars just nodded.

“Very well. And yourself, your Majesty?”

The King of Destruction looked around.

“I…will stay in the north with Ytol. We will need to fight here. Once we reach Jecrass’ lands, we will split, Ytol and I. Before that—I will lead our armies on Jecrass’ capital and take it.”

The others stirred. Teres’ mouth fell open.

“You still want to fight?

Flos looked at her.

“I swore to avenge the Gnolls. That [Prime Minister], Lyfelt, still lives. Since Raelt of Jecrass is no longer free, I will offer his daughter one chance to fulfill his terms. Otherwise—I will finish the war in Jecrass if I can. Fall back otherwise and continue fighting. Either way—I complete my vow.”

“But we’re at war with every other nation in Chandrar around us! You want to fight Jecrass? They’ll be at war with Medain!”

It made sense not to fight the one nation they could probably make peace with. The King of Destruction had a different opinion, though.

“I swore a mighty oath, Teres. I swore it by the dead, who had come for my protection. I did not make war on Belchan and then Jecrass solely for politics. Lyfelt will die. And if the Gnoll tribes demand it—I will fulfill my promise for a thousand heads for every one that was slain. I made them a promise.”

He had already killed so many of Belchan’s people. And he’d just fought the Minotaurs a day ago in the bloodiest engagement Teres had ever seen. Flos Reimarch met her gaze, and turned his head.

“Since High King Perric decided to declare war before we’d left his borders, we’ll strike him. Mars—Orthenon—the border city ahead of us. Trevlt? Take it.”

The King’s Steward and the Illusionist looked up. They nodded, almost relaxing.

“Don’t kill civilians. Rout the defenders; the Nomads will help sack the city with two thousand horse. Go.”

“Your will, your Majesty!”

Mars’ eyes glittered. Orthenon bowed, a thin, bitter smile on his face. Teres opened and closed her mouth. She saw them turn, riding north towards a city on the horizon.

“Destroy…?”

“It won’t have more than a dozen Level 30 individuals. If it has someone unexpected, they’ll fall back. Mars could—and has—taken a city herself. They can’t hurt her. And Orthenon is too intelligent to put himself in jeopardy. Moreover—it will relieve their failures.”

The King of Destruction looked ahead. He dismissed the city as if it were already burning.

“Come, Teres. We have to ride faster if we’re yet to assault Jecrass before they have time to spirit that damned [Prime Minister] away. Enough moping.”

He rode faster. Teres shouted after his back.

“Haven’t you had enough?

Flos of Reim looked at her. He cast a glance back towards the battlefield, and shook his head.

“What should I do now? Give up? Sue for peace with my enemies baying for my blood? Teresa. It is time to turn the borders to blood and fire. And when I reach the House of Minos and Savere—I will repay yesterday a thousand times over.”

Such different worlds. Teres slowed down as she saw that difference more plainly, at last. He had seen greater battles, bloodier, more devastating. The events of yesterday had affected the King of Destruction least. But everyone else had watched and seen.

Their reactions were more telling.

 

—-

 

The King of Destruction’s war with the House of Minos was revealing on several levels. Firstly—if you were in the Titan’s class, it was, as he pointed out, an example of levels versus numbers.

“The Minotaurs just gave the King of Destruction his first real defeat. They did it with an incredibly small force, but high-leveled veterans and incredibly powerful siege weapons. It proves that the King of Destruction’s army is still fundamentally flawed. He has some of his old vassals but his army is full of holes. Miss Angelica, one flaw. Five seconds to respond.”

He pointed. The [Princess] gulped and blurted the first thing that came to mind.

“[Mages]?”

The Titan nodded and she relaxed.

“Good. No [Mages]. He has a few; not enough to shield his army, let alone Amerys of the Seven. Another flaw. You.”

A student flinched.

“Uh—uh—uh—”

“People die when a [Strategist] takes too long, Mister Iril! You! Flaw!

“High-level [Archers[?”

“Good! We didn’t see those. These are the easy ones. Next?”

“Um—Garuda? Takhatres of the Seven was fighting the Empress…”

Yes. The Minotaurs would have never tried that with an army of Garuda in the skies. They’d have destroyed the artillery. But General Ozem would have never landed if he’d thought there was even a whiff of Garuda in the air. This is what I keep telling you all: pick your battles. And make sure the enemy can’t!”

The Titan was expounding on the battle and aftermath with unusual vigor, even for him. He was…restless. They called him Professor, here. But one look at him reminded his students that Niers Astoragon was first a [Strategist]. Like the King of Destruction—he saw battle and it lit something up in him.

Synergy. At least, between those two. A…sympathetic reaction across the world. The consequence of the live coverage via scrying spells. When people watched—what had occurred in that one place in Chandrar suddenly affected events the world over.

For some—it was a conversation topic, a lesson, a moment’s entertainment. But the effect was more dramatic in other places.

 

—-

 

“Incredible. The Order of Seasons might well crusade to Chandrar. The Grandmaster might have ordered us already if it weren’t for the situation with Ailendamus.”

Talia exhaled slowly and the [Knights] around her began murmuring. Rabbiteater just shook his head.

A massive battle. Far larger than the ones even Redfangs could have conceived of. And powerful weapons. He felt full of nervous energy just seeing it.

“Strong Minotaurs.”

That was his comment to Talia. She smiled at him.

“That’s all you have to say, Ser Solstice?”

He shrugged, embarrassed.

“[Pirates] were the most clever. Good tactics.”

Hit-and-run. The Redfangs fought like that. Talia pursed her lips. She thought it was dishonorable. But the [Pirates] had lost, what, three people total? It made sense to hit the enemy where they couldn’t hit you back. In a fight with unarmored enemies, every single Redfang went for a groin-kick against male opponents. Or stab.

“Want to practice fighting?”

Just like the others, Rabbiteater was restless. Talia nodded, and they found an open space on the deck to practice. In that, the [Knights] and Redfangs were very much alike.

The theory was known as the ‘domino effect’ on Earth. The battle and subsequent declarations of war had…eased a pressure on the world. The looming threat of the King of Destruction in the background. So many nations suddenly going to war was like a mental cascade. A catalyst.

It had unexpected consequences. Rabbiteater was hefting a practice axe; he still needed to master Headscratcher’s gold-jade battleaxe. Talia was warming up when her head turned.

Ship to port! No—ships!

The watcher on the crow’s nest shouted down. The [Captain] of the vessel, and some of the crew and [Knights] went to the railing. Rabbiteater was focused—until he heard a shout.

“That flag. Those are Ailendamus’ ships!”

Talia and Rabbiteater looked sideways. The Hobgoblin saw, waving from one ship, a…bow. Some kind of stylized bow with a lance instead of an arrow. Then he heard a shout.

They’re moving to intercept—

“Starboard! Raise our colors! This is a transport ship, not a—”

Rabbiteater saw a flicker in the air. He jumped forwards and thrust the axe out. Talia recoiled and heard a thunk.

The first arrow stuck in the wooden practice weapon. The Goblin whirled. Two of Ailendamus’ ships were coming from the port side.

“This is a peaceful vessel! We are not Pheislant’s or a Terandrian nation! Do you hear me?

The [Captain] roared. But a second volley of arrows was coming. The crew and [Knights] took cover. And then Rabbiteater heard a roar from one of the [Knights of the Spring].

Talia! Ailendamus has crossed the border of Kilav. It’s war!

“What? But—”

The [Summer Knight]’s head swung around. It was too soon! Grandmaster Calirn hadn’t predicted war for another month, at least! But Ailendamus had struck before even they were perhaps ready, much less their enemies.

Synchronicity.

Ailendamus declared war on the Dawn Concordat as its armies marched over the border of Kilav and its ships began to blockade nations such as Pheislant.

Rabbiteater decided he actually wanted to go back home.

 

—-

 

Magus-Crafter Femithain was found half the time enjoying a civilized brew of stamina-potion in his cup in the open terrace of his personal quarters in Delicrel, the temporary ‘capital’ of the Illivere League. That was because it was made up of smaller crafter-states, who elected their Magus-Crafter periodically.

Femithain had been in power for a long time, which was a sign of confidence in the other crafter-states. In more contentious times, they might replace the Magus-Crafter every six months. But Femithain had kept everything running smoothly.

Like clockwork. Which was how the Illivere League liked it. In truth—there wasn’t as much politicking as in, say, Belchan.

Which was why half the time Femithain drank straight stamina-potion instead of tea or a lesser product to start his day. The other half of the time, he could be found face-down on a desk, having fallen unconscious after drafting new designs for Golems in his workshop all night long.

There was a copy of Chandrar International on his table on the veranda. Appropriate, since he’d been one of the financiers. Femithain picked it up and read.

He nearly fell out of his seat.

“The King of Destruction lost a battle?”

He hadn’t known. He’d been working on his personal bodyguard-Golems last night for hours after midnight. He read quickly, nearly forgetting to drink the stamina potion.

“Yes. Even with his [Army of the King]. Savere intervened. The Siren’s sister.”

Femithain realized he had a guest. Or…prisoner of war, if you wanted to be accurate.

She was certainly a prisoner. You could tell by…Femithain eyed Nsiia’s clothing for a second and was distracted, but kept reading as he reached for whatever the staff had placed in front of him for sustenance.

Definitely a prisoner. Savere had asked. Nerrhavia had asked. The [Empress of Beasts] was 100% a prisoner and you couldn’t go higher than that, could you?

You could tell. She had her own private quarters—she lived under house arrest. Housekeeping—er, jailors—kept a close eye on her in case she was hungry or something.

This was clearly a jailbreak. Like last time. Nsiia had probably overwhelmed the guard-Golems by walking past them, or cunningly hopped over her terraced porch to visit Femithain in the morning.

He was probably in fear of his life. Femithain realized there was half an ostrich’s egg in front of him.

“What is this?”

He eyed the fat omelette. Nsiia shrugged.

“I asked for one so your [Chef] made it for both of us. Have you read everything?”

She was aware Femithain liked to have a full possession of the facts before deciding anything. The man adjusted his spectacles.

“Almost. Would you like a towel? I assume you’ve been swimming.”

“This morning.”

She’d jumped in the Magus-Crafter’s pools, a luxury he himself availed himself of…once a year.

Illivere was not a paradise, even if they’d applied for the position to…whomever decided such things. It was simply a nation based on Golem-labor, which meant that they had, like Khelt, done away with most menial tasks.

Golems tilled the fields and [Farmers] only had to harvest and manage the areas since harvesting was hard for all but Golems with fine dexterity. Golems hauled water, provided ‘free’ transportation, labor, and so on.

It wasn’t perfect. If you didn’t own a Golem, you were almost certainly poor. However, Femithain and wise Magus-Crafters before him had concluded that rebellions of the poor were bad for business and health and so on. So there were institutions in place such that anyone could have cheap food, a place to sleep, guaranteed work, and so on.

The lower classes, with the Golems, provided the true elites—the [Golem Artisans], Crafter-Magi, and so on, time to create more servants and perfect their craft. Live in opulence too. But most of the hereditary families were…interesting.

A few did tend towards excess, but the ones like Femithain were just Golem-addicts. Whether by breeding or culture, Illivere had created within their elite the drive to improve their nation, even if it was only in the production of more high-end Golems.

Anyways…definitely-a-prisoner Nsiia was here for breakfast. She sat in front of Femithain, waiting for him to put down the newspaper.

“The King of Destruction is at war with…Nerrhavia, Savere, Medain…ah.”

The ah was a realization on Femithain’s part. This was bad for Reim. Also—it explained another thing.

He lowered the newspaper. Nsiia nodded as she leaned on the table, her skin glistening from the water in his pools, drying in the sun’s heat.

“Flos Reimarch and Reim go to war with so many nations. He has allies. Such as Savere was. But we are too scattered. Too weak. He needs support.”

Something else needed structural support. The former [Empress] was, in fact, topless. Femithain looked at her. And then he raised the newspaper and checked the count of nations.

“And Illivere would be a timely ally. I see, I see. So no towel, then?”

Nsiia scowled. She’d tried this before. Femithain was completely immune as far as she could tell. He might have the self-control and force of will she had respected in him during the war. Or—he might have only been interested if she was five feet taller and made out of obsidian, or jade, or some other Golem-material.

She wasn’t sure yet.

“You won’t consider it? Eat your food. Your servants worry about you.”

Femithain lifted a finger as he continued reading.

“Staff, actually. They’re employed. Different from [Servants]. They seem happy you’re around.”

“Because I make sure you’re not starving in your workshop. And because they have someone to pamper.”

The Magus-Crafter didn’t respond to that. He did, however, begin eating when she pushed the plate in front of him. Nsiia left at some point; she’d interrupt him when she wanted or he’d get back to her after he had calculated how Illivere fell into this situation.

“Not war with Reim.”

Femithain heard a sigh from Nsiia. She had climbed onto the crossed beams that formed a ‘roof’ over the veranda. Purely ornamental; the spells kept out rain.

Ordinarily, during her harsh captivity full of deprivations, sadistic torture, like having to fill her own water pitcher at night, and indignities on the parts of her captors—being ignored by Femithain—Nsiia prowled around like, well, the [Empress of Beasts] of Tiqr.

She was a captive. And even if the other bits were exaggerated to placate the Siren of Savere—she couldn’t leave. She was guarded—for her protection. The Siren wanted her enemy, and the other nations would have happily disposed of the leader of Tiqr, who continued to resist even after being conquered.

“No war with Reim. Is this bias?”

Femithain continued thinking from below. He was aware his budding friendship with Nsiia might influence his decisions. However—after analyzing his own decision, he concluded that was a safe decision.

Illivere did not need to declare war. The other nations might pressure them to, but Reim was far away. A war declaration could be made at need and ignored, but there was no need to do so just to follow suit. Moreover, war with Reim would keep the other nations from bothering with Illivere.

And…if Reim did come out ahead, there was a decided importance to not being on the King of Destruction’s bad side.

“That does not mean we will help Reim now, no matter what you request, Nsiia.”

The former [Empress] sunbathed above him. She had caused quite a stir. At least three dozen younger [Crafters] had dedicated Golems to her, made in her image and the warrior-queen had her own admirers of both male and females alike.

She struck a chord with the restless young. Femithain heard Nsiia moving.

“And I have nothing to persuade you with?”

He considered this.

“Not in any immediate sense, no.”

He heard a sigh from above. Nsiia sat up. Femithain listened. She was dangerously intelligent; he’d lost more than one board game against her despite being ranked among the Top 100 in his nation consistently. She was a polite, even amenable guest so far. But he still had her watched.

“You know, we won’t sit idly. I waited for him to rise faster. He let me down. But if I had my nation, I would still follow him over all these other nations. The others won’t rest now, either.”

“What others?”

“His allies. The King of Destruction has not a tenth of the vassals I think are loyal to him. The Mad Ones…the full strength of the Rustängmarder…this may force them to move.”

“We shall see.”

The Magus-Crafter had an enchantment which allowed his spectacles to reflect more than they should have. He pretended to read while he watched the reflection of her above him. Nsiia spoke to the skies.

“Illivere stands at a crossroads, Femithain. They will force you in the end, as they did me.”

Words of caution. Femithain did not forget. Nor did he take Nsiia lightly.

“That may be, [Empress]. But I work for my nation. For now—Illivere has little to gain and everything to lose from allying with Reim.”

He saw her shift and glanced away for her modesty, not his. Perhaps that was why she employed the tactic.

“Golems are Illivere’s blood, like the animals of Tiqr. I understand this now. Your nation pursues these…creations more than gold or blood or power.”

“They are all to us, Nsiia. They are art and purpose.”

“If you could be a Golem—would you?”

The question threw Femithain. Nsiia looked down at him, her eyes sharp. He was off-guard, and the reply slipped out of him.

“Not if it were the ones I make.”

“Ah.”

Her eyes narrowed. She said nothing more as Femithain rose.

“I need to call together the Crafters. We will need to make a public statement at the very least. Empress…”

He looked around. She was gone. That worried Femithain, a bit. He had stopped Nsiia’s covert attempts to suborn his staff into helping her contact her people—by telling them to stop and confronting her directly. But she was a caged beast. And like any animal in a menagerie—she wanted to be free.

Femithain liked and respected Nsiia. But Illivere was his responsibility. He hoped she would not force his hand. For now—he rose, leaving the omelette half-finished.

Therein lay his mistake. When he was gone, Nsiia swung herself up onto the balcony again. She had climbed all over her palace as a girl and she used to ride her beloved friend, Thef. She missed him every day. Wept for him still.

But the former [Empress] could not lie about forever. Nor…was she a fool.

“Here. Here, Teska.”

She raised her hand and a bird fluttered down. A red bird, related to a finch. The Largebeaked Marraw was her friend. She had trained him for the last month in secret. She rubbed at his head. Then she carefully tied the little bit of parchment onto his claw.

“Go, go. Find Vasraf.”

Maybe he’d make it. But Femithain was savvy enough to watch the skies. Either way—Nsiia had learned from playing board games with Femithain that you always had a backup plan. A second layer.

So, knowing full well the Magus-Crafter was gone and his servants would never dare enter his workshop, Nsiia padded barefoot into his private area. She looked around.

“Mhm.”

Her eyes glowed, capable of dark vision like an animal. Nsiia moved around some objects. Femithain was tidy and untidy; in his inspiration he…forgot things. Didn’t keep the perfect inventory until he sorted and requested more.

He’d find himself missing some enchanted stone, a pair of the premade control inscriptions. Bits and pieces he’d never notice; Nsiia carried them off. She was quite smart. It was new to her, but she was feeding off the most accomplished [Golem Artificer] in all of Illivere.

Anyways, the Empress had to hope the King of Destruction survived. But at least she was leveling.

Nsiia of Tiqr. [Golem Maker], Level 14.

 

—-

 

Behind the scenes. Unimportant. Ailendamus’ declaration of war was so sudden that Wistram News Network was still covering two issues after the battle.

“So—so you’re saying your attack on the King of Destruction was purely your decision, Captain Rasea Zecrew?”

The very nervous Wistram [Mage] had been hauled up in a skiff. And it was surprising—but totally in the nature of her character that Rasea Zecrew had instantly agreed to an interview.

“That’s right. It was my idea! If there’s a foe for the Illuminary to fight, why not go after the King of Destruction himself? All my idea.”

She winked into the camera. The Drake [Mage] opened and closed his mouth a few times.

“And uh—you’re not worried about reprisals? For your ship or Savere? You are related to the Siren. And the King of Destruction is known for his long memory.”

“If he can catch the Illuminary, he can object to my face! As for my sister—she can take care of herself! I’m a [Pirate]; my business is loot and glory! And that’s why—I’m saying if there’s any brave soul out there, seek us out! The Illuminary is always looking for new crew!”

Rasea laughed. Her glowing eye flashed again.

She kept striking poses, using a crate to plant her foot and brandish her sword. The [Mage] swished his tail.

“But Captain Rasea, it seems as though your attack was quite premeditated. Will you swear by truth spell—hey! Get your claws off the scrying mirror. Hey. Hey—

Something was thrust in front of the [Mage]. It was—a flier. Or perhaps a poster, the same as the ones the crew and friends of the Illuminary were putting up in ports.

 

Looking for mayhem? Treasure? Glorious death? Join Rasea Zecrew and the legendary crew of the Illuminary*!

*Applicants must be at least Level 30 or higher. Survival not guaranteed.

 

It had a stylized image of Rasea with her sword, smiling winsomely at the viewer. The audience heard the [Mage] arguing with the [Pirates], who were thrusting the poster at the viewer. There was a shout.

And we’re better than those snotty Bloodtear Pirates or the Underseas Crews! Join us and—

The image cut out. One of the Drakes in the broadcasting studio coughed. Sir Relz cleared his throat.

“Well—I think that’s all we’ll get from Captain Rasea. Enigmatic motives…we certainly don’t endorse that poster. [Pirates], eh, er, Miss Drassi?”

“Absolutely, Sir Relz. Absolutely.”

The other Drake was threatening Noass and Sir Relz’s duo. People writing in found Drassi and the other Drakes more entertaining than both of the [Commentators]. Speaking of which…Sir Relz looked at Drassi.

“I think since we’ve lost our ah, [Mage] with Captain Rasea—I hope the fellow is alright—we should move to a complaint lodged against our broadcast yesterday. Miss Drassi? I will see what this news from Terandria is—”

He stood up. The view panned to Drassi. She cleared her throat.

“Right. Hi, everyone! This is Drassi from Liscor, your favorite female [Reporter]! Because I’m the only one regularly employed. So…listen. I try to say things like I see them. And yesterday, during our coverage of the huge war with the King of Destruction, I made some comments about the kidnapping of Princess Jecaina of Jecrass and Medain.”

The view flashed to a few scenes in the corner of the screen, reminding readers of the events. It had been one comment among many. The clip was helpfully replayed for the audience as Drassi scowled at the kidnapping in progress.

 

“That’s right. Here’s what we know. This rat—”

“High King Perric.”

“Yeah. This rat-king kidnaps the [King] of Jecrass’ daughter. And now Raelt is in hot pursuit.”

 

In the present, Drassi cleared her throat and sat up.

“Medain’s launched a formal complaint with Wistram News Network over my language.”

Oh yes. Among all of what had happened, High King Perric had, in his wisdom, found the time to object to that singular moment.

A lesser ruler might not have cared. A weaker [King] might have ignored the slight, or dismissed it. But a [High King] demanded an apology. That was what set apart the men from the children.

Drassi sat in front of the scrying mirror and folded her claws as she looked sincerely into the camera.

“I’d just like to address the audience now. Firstly—I’d like to apologize to Medain and the [High King] Perric and you viewers out there. I used inappropriate language in the heat of the moment. Upon reflection…”

She took a deep breath. Her eyes were glittering, and you might be able to mistake it for tears of remorse if you didn’t see her violently lashing tail under the desk. But Wistram had been adamant. Drassi saw Noass glaring at her from the side. She took another breath.

“…Upon reflection, my phrasing and…and conduct was unprofessional. I apologize for that. I should have said ‘that rat bastard is kidnapping a [Princess], not rat-king’.”

Noass’ face froze. Drassi leaned forwards. He tried to cut the feed, but was stopped by the production crew who were getting a sense for good drama. Drassi leaned forwards.

“I’m supposed to apologize to this [High King]? Why? Listen—they told me I have to say sorry so we don’t ‘offend Medain’. Offend them for what? Speaking the truth? That’s why I got my position! I’m going to put my tail on the line when I say this: kidnapping is bad. I know that’s a hard position to take, but someone’s got to say it. Medain kidnapped Jecrass’ [Princess]. Everything else aside—that was a pretty rat-bastard move, right? Am I going to apologize for it? No! And if this [High King] objects—”

Noass dove onto the screen and tried to shove Drassi off. A pushing war ensued and two assistants appeared on screen and finally dragged both off. Furious arguments could be heard in the background until the view cut to Ailendamus’ ruler, King Itorin II, who was sitting while one of his subjects read a formal declaration of war.

“The news gets weirder and weirder every day, I swear.”

Erin Solstice looked away from the scrying orb at last. She wondered if this meant Drassi wasn’t going to make the night-shift. She didn’t even know why Drassi worked two jobs—the [Gossip] claimed it was to keep abreast of the fun stuff.

The Wandering Inn had a TV installed. It was functionally one of those diners that always had a television with a sports game. Which Erin found ironic, because it already had the Players of Celum. She looked around at the rapt audience now watching the war in Ailendamus.

It made Erin’s stomach hurt a bit. Well, she and everyone else had watched the battle with the King of Destruction. And while it hadn’t made Erin want to grab a hammer and hit someone…it had affected her as well.

“So this is how art gets replaced with television, huh? Not on my watch! Palt—we’re moving the mirror! Turn off the spell!”

The huge, six-foot mirror turned blank. It wasn’t perfect glass; it would have been really expensive if Erin had bought one of those. The glass was warped in places and had bubbles from the cooling process. But it was still good enough to turn into a scrying mirror.

A temporary one. Erin had a small, permanently-enchanted mirror, but even with Wistram making more, they cost too much! So Palt, being Palt, had come up with a great suggestion.

Enchant a mirror with the [Scrying] spell. Oh, it would wear off, but if you had, say, an [Illusionist] around, you had a free feature-size broadcast!

Boos came from around the common room as the mirror went dark. Erin saw someone raise a fist and shake it at her threateningly. She glared at Mrsha.

“It’s not off! Someone help me take it to the rec-room. No—no, wait! One of the spares! We’ll have that be the TV room. And we’ll put in like…couches. Blankets! Popcorn half-off! But not here! The Players of Celum are putting on a show!”

She pointed at the stage. Temile waved at her, mouthing a ‘thank you’; he had indeed been competing with the scrying mirror these last few days.

And in fact, Erin didn’t have to lift the mirror down from the wall. Ishkr was already standing on a table. He nodded to the staff.

“You three, help me carry this.”

“Thanks, Ishkr.”

Erin gave the Gnoll a thumbs-up. He nodded to her as they carried the mirror past. Erin had a prescient thought and looked around.

No running around near the mirror!

Mrsha stopped mid-run after Ekirra. The two Gnolls watched the mirror go past and Erin folded her arms.

Someone looks like she has a lot of energy!”

The little Gnoll nodded rapidly. She hadn’t been allowed to watch the gory broadcast in its entirety, but she’d caught the mood of the room. Erin’s heart was still pounding.

Minotaurs. [Pirates]. She…took a breath.

“Okay. Mrsha? Why don’t you go into the Garden and…”

She whispered into the Gnoll’s ear. Mrsha’s eyes turned round. She looked up at Erin.

Really?

She held up a card. Erin nodded.

“They’re nearly ready. You can go…and so can Ekirra, I guess.”

He wasn’t going to figure out what it was. And his parents or others would just assume it was Erin being…Erin. The [Innkeeper] nodded.

Synchronicity. It had been a simple idea. She’d gotten it while watching the King of Destruction’s battle. She wasn’t the only one who’d been—inspired.

As Erin walked towards the Garden of Sanctuary, she saw Embria and some of 4th Company sitting together.

“Hey…Embria. What’s up?”

“Miss Solstice.”

The Drake hesitated, but ducked her head. Some of her command were sitting around. They looked just as amped by the scene as she was.

“…oh sure, destructive, but you try that on Pallass’ walls against emplaced siege weapons and see what happens. What stood out to me was that damn ship. All the Skills and enchantments on it? How do you fight that?”

“Lightbridge and fight on the deck. Duh. You tell me what you can’t solve with lightbridge—oh, hello, Miss Solstice.”

The [Soldiers] looked at Erin. She waved at Embria.

“Uh…just saying hi. You all good? Want some more food?”

“We could use a few drinks—”

A Gnoll elbowed one of the Drakes in the side.

“Stow it, Lieutenant. We’re patrolling tomorrow, remember?”

“Oh, right.”

“We’re fine, Miss Erin. Thank you.”

Erin nodded. Cool, cool. She kept the smile on her face. Embria was perfectly normal with her, even if the two weren’t exactly bloviating all the time. But there was some awkwardness, still.

“Uh huh. Great, great. Um…any word from Relc yet?”

The young Drake hesitated.

“Not…yet. But he’s probably still travelling. Without Skills or a dedicated…”

“Ah. Cool. Well, I haven’t heard anything. Just let me know. And let Ishkr know if you want anything! Play tonight! Uh…”

Erin backed up. She looked around. Not many people were in the inn.

Well, that wasn’t right. Not many people she counted as friends or acquaintances were in the inn. There were plenty of guests…

But the other Earthers, Selys, some of the Antinium, and now Maviola were in Area 51. That was what Erin was calling it.

Or maybe ‘the safe zone’. Or—or—she ran out of cool names for it. It wasn’t a Skill. It was just an idea she’d had.

Something big. Erin walked into the Garden of Sanctuary, leaving only a few of her ‘special’ guests in the common room. Few people even looked twice; they knew they weren’t allowed into the [Garden]. Lyonette had considered paid tours, but Erin had shot it down. A few watched Erin, though.

A pair of gentlemen with hats. Three of the food-spies. And…Ferris.

The Gnoll had a thought. And it was this.

“Is it actually her?”

He didn’t vocalize that. Not entirely. But the [Infiltrator] was coming to another conclusion after time at The Wandering Inn.

He had been sent to obtain Erin Solstice. A task he had not realized would be so arduous. She was as stubborn as a rock. Or a Dragon. And unfortunately, she was so well-connected that spiriting her away was an impossible venture.

No, despite Rafaema’s growing impatience, Ferris had seen no way. But he was beginning to think his failure was a good thing. Because—Ferris now believed Erin Solstice was not the mastermind behind The Wandering Inn and the events in Liscor.

His eyes turned past her, towards someone who was busily signing for packages.

“…Cleared to go through Invrisil. And you—Silveran—please put up a sign on that room? The one with the mirror? Um, ‘Viewing Room’. Yes, write that there and put it up. Thank you.”

She turned to a timid Worker. A Worker Antinium with silver antennae—hence the nickname, Silveran. An employee of the inn.

Ferris’ eyes almost narrowed, but he kept his face blank and friendly. Look at her. There…

Was a [Princess].

It was beyond obvious to an expert like Ferris. Her demeanor, accent, and the fact that she lacked an anti-appraisal ring all told him that. [Princess].

In fact, the 6th Princess of Calanfer. Right here. Lyonette kept staring at the news about Ailendamus. She’d hidden her reaction well. But he’d seen the worry and fear on her face as it broke.

She was behind The Wandering Inn. Erin? She was a mascot.

It all made sense to Ferris. Think of it. What had he seen Erin do? A number of insane things. But she didn’t run her inn. Lyonette? She’d negotiated with him on behalf of his company. She was the one who organized everything.

The power behind the throne. No, the power of the throne. Aha! The Gnoll was changing targets.

And to be fair, it was an obvious conclusion. The amazing part was that the Gnoll wasn’t completely right, and instead, half-wrong.

He followed Lyonette as the [Princess] looked around, realized she was free for half a second, and hurried after Erin into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Alas, Ferris had tried to enter a dozen different ways and the Skill had foiled him. It was a top-grade Skill. And if Ferris had been even better at his job, or more specialized in a different class, he would have noticed something else.

But he didn’t.

 

—-

 

Inside the [Garden of Sanctuary], Lyonette du Marquin found Numbtongue and Bird and Mrsha.

“Where’s Erin?”

“In her secret spot.”

Numbtongue answered shortly. He was practicing with his sword. Lyonette was now a regular disciple of Zevara’s, and she recognized good swordsmanship when she saw it.

He was performing a complex set of maneuvers, cutting the grass with tight, elegant swings. Nothing big and fancy; that was what an amateur did and it got you killed.

Numbtongue was also smiling. It might have been him—or the ghost who was delighting over his blade. Lyonette didn’t know about that of course. Nor did she see Reiss grumpily sitting on the grass, watching.

“You’re in a good mood. I’m going after Erin. You don’t want to come?”

“No. Too much repeating. Will go later. More fun, here.”

The Hobgoblin grunted at the [Princess]. Oddly, he didn’t use Numbtongue’s good grammar and diction. He sounded like—

Shorthilt. But Lyonette was too distracted to ask why. The Hobgoblin smiled as the sword flashed through the air. He was so artful that even Mrsha had stopped for a moment to admire—although she was not allowed anywhere near the glittering blade, of course.

Someone else sat in the [Garden], immune to the lures of the secret Erin had been working on. He rose now as Lyonette hurried in.

“Lyonette. Lyonette! I have a request!”

The [Princess] looked up. Bird ran down the hill and nearly tumbled down the slope.

“Bird! What are you doing here?”

“I am creating bird-nests. You see?”

He showed her something. Lyonette stared at the little nest of twigs he’d made. And then one of the birdhouses.

“You. You, Bird, are making bird-houses?”

“Yes. To cultivate more birds so they are not all dead. The [Druids] have shown me the way. I must kill birds and allow more birds to reproduce. Otherwise—there will one day be no birds.”

The Worker solemnly placed one of his nests back in the pile. Lyonette opened and closed her mouth.

“That’s very intelligent of you, Bird. What did you want? Help putting your nests up?”

“Oh, no. I can do that myself and the other Workers will help me. No, Lyonette. I would like you to buy something for me. Please?”

“You have an allowance, Bird.”

The [Princess] smiled. The Worker waved his antennae as he gestured at the coin pouch at his side.

“I know. I cannot find it in the market. And I am not allowed in Pallass, which I am sure has them for sale. If I give you money, can you buy it for me?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll put it on the list. What is it?”

At least he was being responsible now. Bird smiled broadly.

“I would like a ballista. Like the one on the scrying orb. Thank you!”

The [Princess]’s head slowly turned back to him.

“A ballista?”

“Yes! It does not have to have enchanted ammunition; that would destroy the birds. But with one like the ones the Minotaurs have, I can probably hunt the scale-birds.”

“Wyverns?”

Yes! How much more money do I need?”

Bird showed Lyonette the money in his pouch. Lyonette stared at him and heard a snort. Shorthilt’s time was up and Numbtongue was silently cracking up as he clutched at his stomach.

“Bird…you cannot have a ballista. We can’t even buy one.”

“What? Why not?”

“They’re too expensive. What am I saying? We are not mounting a ballista on the inn!

Zevara would kill her. Bird looked at Lyonette, antennae quivering. Then he sat down, lay on his shelled back, and began to wave his arms and legs.

“I want a ballista! Waaah! Waaaah! Am I being annoying? I will do this until I get one! I want a ballista!

“Bird. Stop that!”

Lyonette snapped at Bird. He didn’t stop. Lyonette closed her eyes. Think, think…aha! Bird-logic!

“Bird, we cannot buy a ballista because they are not for sale! Pallass does not sell them! They’re too uh, valuable!”

Bird stopped flailing and crying. He sat up.

“Are you sure? You are not lying, are you, Lyonette? I would be hurt if you were.”

“I’m not, Bird. Swear on a truth spell. We can’t get a ballista. And if we could—I would still say no. Because it’s dangerous, and it’s a siege weapon, and what am I doing arguing about this? The answer is no.

Lyonette pointed down at him. Bird folded all four arms sullenly.

“Is that clear, Bird? No going into Pallass and asking.”

“I will not.”

“What was that?”

“I will not go into Pallass, Lyonette.”

“Good.”

The [Princess] sighed. Then she heard the giggling and looked to one side. Mrsha and Numbtongue were lying on the ground, pounding it with their fists, laughing their butts off.

“Very funny. Well, Miss Mrsha, if it’s so funny, maybe you don’t need to visit Erin’s secret place with the others? I hear they’re having lots of fun, but if someone would rather be here…

Mrsha leapt up in alarm. She ran to grab Ekirra—who was sniffing the cocoa tree for more chocolate—and tugged him back towards the door. Lyonette nodded to Numbtongue.

“We’ll be gone for a bit. Let us know if anything comes up.”

“Sure. Will do.”

The Hobgoblin lay down in the grass, still chuckling. Bird was muttering to himself as Lyonette, Mrsha, and Ekirra vanished through the door. For a moment there was music—Numbtongue’s ears perked up. He began to sit up.

“…ballista would be useful for defense. Everyone needs a ballista. It is very unfair that Pallass will not share…”

“Coming, Bird?”

Numbtongue pointed towards the wall. Bird didn’t answer. Numbtongue left him to sulk. He walked down the hill and heard a small voice from the [Bird Hunter].

Fine then. I will build one myself.”

Numbtongue looked backwards. It was the most ominous thing he had ever heard Bird say. He hesitated. But—he would really have liked a ballista too. So he pretended he didn’t hear it and walked through the door.

 

—-

 

Lyonette, Mrsha, Ekirra and then Numbtongue all walked through the Garden of Sanctuary’s door. They reappeared back in The Wandering Inn, as Erin had done. But they were not…accessible…to the other guests.

Erin Solstice’s new secret. Obviously—the people who’d helped her with it knew. And her guests. But it had been ferreted out by some of her semi-permanent guests.

Ferris hadn’t noticed. But there was an expert, as it were, among even those intelligent sorts. Grimalkin, Saliss, Ferris…they were good.

Ratici though, he’d seen it at once. He had left the rec room, and since there was no Numbtongue, and Miss Erin had vanished into the safe Garden of Sanctuary, Wilovan went to find his friend.

“Ratici. What are you doing?”

The [Thief] looked around as Wilovan stood next to him. The shorter Drake adjusted his cap.

“Wilovan, if I were to vouchsafe a theory to you, would you consider it?”

“Naturally, dear fellow.”

“Well then, allow me to make a few…well, what would you think of this wall?”

The Drake gestured to a blank wall in the hallway. Wilovan eyed it, knocked on the wood, and sniffed. It was just a wall. Ratici kept staring at it.

“…Not immediately hollow. I smell and hear nothing, and given the condition of my senses over yours, I would be inclined to say it is just a wall, Ratici, if I were not given to trust your Skills over mine.”

“Right, right. The thing is, Wilovan, I have noticed a few things. The first thing is that there’s no door here.”

“…Customary of walls, Ratici.”

The Drake nodded. He scratched at his chin.

“But there was. Two days ago, there was a door here.”

The Gnoll had been distracted, wondering if this was some long analogy towards the power of the nobility vis-a-vis the working class. Now—his eyes sharpened.

“Ah. You recall that quite clearly, Ratici?”

“Force of habit, Wilovan. Force of habit. And I can’t help but notice something else. There is no door or window, but my understanding of the layout of the inn—and my Skills are telling there is a space beyond there, Wilovan.”

“There are spaces we cannot see, Ratici.”

The Gnoll said this, but he was mostly teasing. Ratici gave him an irritated look.

“Yes, Wilovan. But I mean there are no entryways into here. Not from above. Or below. Or any other way.”

“Oh. My, oh my.”

“Reminds you of a few tricks of the trade, doesn’t it, Wilovan?”

“Indeed it does, Ratici. Indeed it does.”

Typhenous and Griffon Hunt would have been familiar with the idea Ratici was floating as well. Both Gnoll and Drake gave each other a significant look.

“You hear nothing?”

“Something…vibrations if I use the Longear’s Charm. But I’ve been rather casual.”

“It’s not our place to…pry. The Tallman’s order is just defensive, Ratici, and he’s hinting that we’ll be relieved soon.”

The [Thief] nodded. Wilovan adjusted his jacket. Neither one said it. Of course, it was just an observation. Of course they weren’t being paid to investigate. But they were [Thief] and [Thug].

They really, really wanted to know what was inside.

 

—-

 

As Wilovan, Ratici, and people with secrets over the years had observed, it was nothing new Erin Solstice had come up with. She’d just put her own take on it.

There were no doors here. No windows. The hallway connecting three semi-spacious rooms together was part of a new part of the inn. Now—closed off. To a purpose.

No door existed but when you asked for it. And only the truest friends, the trusted companions of the inn could open the door. You could try to break a wall of course—but good luck. The inn was stronger than the first two versions. Even Moore would have trouble just breaking down a wall.

Of course, a master-[Thief] could just teleport in with the right Skill or scroll, or use a few other tricks to gain entry. But it was an impressive blockade. And thanks to a certain [Innkeeper]—even Ratici wasn’t willing to risk detection.

Not even all of the people who were allowed in the [Garden of Sanctuary] had been told this place existed, so they themselves couldn’t enter. Olesm, for one, was someone without knowledge. And what lay in that room? What…secrets?

Well, among other things, at the moment…one of the few guests who was allowed in here, who had been asked to come, was Selys Shivertail. And Maviola El. They stood together, a drink in hand. And they saw…

Erin, Rose, Galina, Numbtongue, and Kevin all sauntered down the hallway, singing. Music blasted from the laptop on the chair. Erin and Kevin knew the song; Troy and Leon didn’t. Joseph had refused to participate even after hearing it twice.

They were lip-synching the song. Well—Numbtongue was singing along with Erin. Selys had paused with a mouthful of blue fruit juice. Maviola was laughing.

Mrsha was trying to copy them. The first song ended and the group broke off laughing. Instantly—a second song began to play. Mrsha’s ears perked up. She began waving her arms and dancing.

We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel was blasting from Kevin’s bad speakers on his laptop. The female Drake watched as Numbtongue flawlessly sang along to the song. Erin got two verses in and gave up.

This…was Erin’s secret rooms. And in it, there was one rule which she had bent and jumped over that was finally broken. Palt trotted out into the hallway; he was prohibited from smoking here where there were no windows. But he’d been working with Troy on a project. The young man had been very helpful. And they had finally, with colored clay, made a proper model.

“Aha! See? This is a proper model. This is Earth, Mrsha. And this is the sun—see how it’s bigger? Thanks, Troy!”

Erin led Mrsha into the room where the miniature solar system was set up. Mrsha stared suspiciously at the huge yellow ball. Troy took a picture on his smartphone as he wiped his clay-covered hands.

“No problem, Erin.”

The three rooms didn’t have a purpose yet. They were to keep the various artifacts that helped explain…things. Like a model of the solar system. A world map. Not of this world, but home. Erin Solstice stood in her secret area, a clubhouse—

For Earth. And the first two inductees who hadn’t figured it all out or known already—looked at Erin Solstice.

Selys and Maviola. Palt didn’t count. Maviola sorta didn’t count, but this was it.

Earth. And Kevin came back and played the first song again. Another classic, playing on the speakers.

The Longest Time. And back the lip-synching group came, dancing down the hall. Mrsha was clapping her paws excitedly, equally amused and entertained. She didn’t know why, but she really liked the idea of lip-synching.

Selys stared at the glowing laptop. Then at the models of…she looked at a world map that was completely inaccurate to her understanding of how maps looked, as well as the basic shapes of continents.

“Huh?”

It was classic of Erin that her idea of easing Selys and Maviola into the idea of Earth was singing pop songs and letting them figure it out while she threw a little party.

With—Earth foods. Ekirra was licking from a little milkshake and dancing along; he didn’t care as long as he got free food. But here was some popcorn, a pizza—and all the Earthers were here.

“This is a great idea. We kept on getting in trouble for playing music or games in the inn—even in our rooms. All of Hexel’s Lizardfolk keep asking what we’re doing. But this is perfect!

Leon exclaimed. He was taking a few pictures on his smartphone too. This was a group project, after all. Erin had asked Rose to help draw the world map, and even the collaborative ‘knowledge board’ was ironically neither Troy nor Leon’s idea. It had lists of nations on Earth, famous mathematical equations, scientific factoids…

The question was: how long until the penny dropped? And it was a penny, in this place. Selys was practically cross-eyed as she stared around, trying to piece it together.

Maviola El knew. She would have known the instant the second song played, singing about a hundred events and people and places that she had no reference on. She should have known the moment she saw one of the little devices the young people carried. Material, products, machinery that she, the leader of House El, had never seen before.

“Okay! Let’s do a dance from home! Who can moonwalk? Kevin, didn’t you say you could?”

“That’s Joseph! Go on, show them, Joseph!”

“Aw.”

The young man from Spain looked around. He really didn’t want to. But he reluctantly did it past the world map. He’d marked his home country there, with a golden pin.

Home. Maviola looked at it. There was even one of those helpful little scales that approximated distance—and then proceeded to convert miles to kilometers.

Palt was watching her, Maviola knew. Selys was shaking her head.

“I…wait a second. Wait a second…”

Maviola looked around as Erin tried to start a conga line and half of her guests refused. She was acting extra-silly, even by her standards. And she kept glancing at Selys and Maviola. The [Lady Firestarter] felt Erin’s thoughts, as if she were speaking them aloud.

Do you see? Can you figure it out?

“Okay, who wants to play games?”

Kevin turned off the music as it became apparent no one wanted to copy Erin’s silly dances. The others began eating or talking about what else they could add to the room. After all; the marveling was done for the Earthers.

Erin had closed off this section and begun the ‘Earth zone’ project yesterday. After the battle with the King of Destruction had been broadcast.

Resonance. Maviola El felt it in her bones too.

“I’m running out of time.”

She should have left. But two things kept her here. Things worth dying for.

A chance. Saliss of Lights had promised her a chance and she was needed for the Summer Solstice. There was too much yet to do.

Second—this.

“So…this is Earth.”

She wandered over to the orb of clay and bent down, then looked at the world map.

“It’s blue and green?”

“That’s what it looks like.”

Maviola gave Erin a long stare. The young woman nibbled on a carrot stick.

“You couldn’t possibly know that, Erin.”

“Can too. We have pictures.”

“Of what?”

“Earth.”

What?

It was impossible for Maviola to wrap her mind around. Not only did the orb mystify her, but the fact that Earth could be rendered into a picture?

“If that’s land—it is covered in grass? How do you know it’s green? Why aren’t your skins all green. Is the soil green?”

“No! It’s like—from above, all the stuff looks green. I mean, the picture is more real. Hey Kevin! Kevin, stop playing Halo with Numbtongue! Show Maviola the picture of Earth!”

Erin broke up the video-gaming and demanded a picture of Earth. Maviola El saw a rotating orb. She made a sound, as a composite Earth, brought to life from software and images taken from afar appeared on screen.

“Oh.”

That was all she said. Selys stared at the image. She put a claw to her head.

“What…what am I looking at, Erin? Is this it? This?”

She stared at the knowledge-board.

 

Earth.

 

Below it were bits and pieces. The young people hadn’t laid it out perfectly; they’d tried, but none of them were prepared to organize all the understanding and history of Earth. Especially not to outsiders.

 

Science/Math—

E = mc2. ‘E’ stands for energy. ‘m’ is mass. ‘c’ is the speed of light.

Gravity is AROUND 10 meters per second.

            –You’re an idiot. It’s 9.8, and meters per second per second. Rose.

The Human body has 206 bones.

Titanium.

Speed is relative.

            –That’s what the formula says. Kevin.

 

And so on. It was infighting, arguments about what people remembered correctly, crossing’s out, revisions…there was another section simply titled ‘Religion’. Selys read from the list.

It was dawning on her, slowly. An inescapable realization. Selys put her head in her claws. Mrsha was looking at sketches Imani and Galina had done of famous images from home.

Maviola El looked at Palt. His eyes were glittering. It was larger than she had imagined.

She had seen it in Erin’s memories. Knowledge of who Erin was, her past. But the entirety of it…

At the end of her lifespan, the old woman looked up and felt like a child finally realizing there was something beyond the clouds. Beyond the sky.

She didn’t want to die.

“I thought—I—this is a joke, right? I thought Erin was just from one of the paradises. A—she was actually the daughter of someone rich. This—why is it round?

“Ah, that’s because of gravity. You see, gravity works like…”

Troy began to helpfully explain. He had practice. Selys stared at him as he tried to show her how tiny she was compared to the model of Earth. Less than a speck of dust.

She began to hyperventilate. Erin edged over.

“Selys? You okay?”

She had expected her friend to react strongly. But—Erin had assumed some of her friends knew. Now though, Selys began to giggle. Then laugh hysterically. She threw up her claws and screamed.

Aaaaaaaah!

Then she ran for the door. Erin followed her.

Selys! Wait!

Maviola felt like a bit of hysterical laughter was called for herself. She looked down at Mrsha. The little Gnoll girl was so calm. Children could accept this more easily—or perhaps she didn’t understand, fully.

Palt had been told before. He was just watching Troy and Leon working with Galina and Joseph on a periodic table, arguing about what went where. They were more motivated by Erin than Magnolia to do this. This was a legacy of their knowledge. Home.

Numbtongue? The Hobgoblin had already known. And besides—he was a Goblin. Able to adapt, fully willing to believe that there were things he hadn’t been told.

Lyonette du Marquin walked over.

“Maviola? Are you…alright? Do you want to sit down?”

“I may need to. But I will kindly refuse.”

She was not going to faint or run screaming. Maviola locked her knees and took a few breaths. Then she looked at Lyonette.

“What else is there to see? Something…else?”

The [Princess]’ eyes flickered. She pointed to the third room.

“Come with me. This room is for…ideas. The big ones. It’s the one you should see.”

She led Maviola past the room with science, history, across from the other room with maps, globes, some of Kevin’s blueprints. One held concrete information, the other, physical representations.

The last was simply pictures. Well-drawn, by those with talent or crude, some of the pictures Erin used to teach Mrsha with. A few were copied from electronic devices, hand-traced. The last few—rendered in astonishing detail. Maviola recognized a [Mage]’s ability to illustrate a scene from memory. Palt had copied a few scenes the others had shown him.

What she saw here was Earth’s achievements. Not the knowledge that made up their world, but the end result. The things that were so commonplace to Erin and the others.

A plane flew in blue skies, surrounded by poofy clouds over the land. Erin had made a little model out of clay.

An elevator, like the ones of Pallass, had been drawn up by Leon and Troy, who had asked the others for help figuring out how the entire system worked.

A car, driving. Outrunning a horse and horse-drawn buggy with speeds it could reach listed.

A depiction of how the internet worked—next to a crude battery. ‘Doesn’t work like that’ had been scrawled on the side by Leon.

Helicopters, surgical tools, microscopes, computers, Maviola walked across the wall. Then she stopped where Lyonette was.

She looked up at a diagram labeled ‘Tank’. Next to an illustration of a ‘Gun’. She tried to understand it. Then—Erin had drawn this. It looked like a mushroom. Or a cloud. Maviola read the little illustration.

“Ah.”

She tried to imagine something like that. What grade of spell? Tier…Tier 8? Tier 7…a few Tier 7…

“A crossbow that can shoot further, faster, without needing to reload. It can hurl bits of metal through armor, hundreds of ‘shots’ per second. The big ones can apparently destroy castle walls in a single shot. That thing? It can fly and shoot those things. So fast it breaks the air or something.”

Lyonette whispered as she looked up at a fighter jet. Maviola El nodded solemnly. At last—she understood.

So this was another world. She abruptly sat down.

“I…I could use that chair, Lyonette.”

 

—-

 

Erin got Selys back after five minutes. Which was a good thing; she had created her secret rooms to educate her friends, contain knowledge. But it did have one weakness, and Maviola had realized it after she grew lightheaded—not just because of the realization of Earth.

There was no air if the [Garden of Sanctuary] wasn’t open.

Everyone gasped for air as Erin led Selys back in. The [Innkeeper] realized she’d been keeping the door under her control.

“Ooh. Um. Maybe we need a window or two, Lyonette?”

“I think so. Or just some vents. I’ll ask Belgrade to adjust the rooms later. We could have a door…just locked. Maybe a secret one?”

“That’d be great.

Leon kicked Troy covertly. Maviola’s eyes flickered left, but she was distracted. Mrsha led Ekirra out of the secret rooms; he was still licking his milkshake cup, oblivious.

But there it was. Selys was still breathing hard.

“I’m sorry, Selys. I thought you knew almost all of it. I think…some of the others do. The Halfseekers know everything but what Earth is…and the Horns do—or Pisces and Ceria do. Especially Pisces. Can’t trust that invisible dude. And then there’s Eldavin…Krshia…Klbkch? I have no idea if Relc knows. Olesm knows something, but he’s not allowed in here, Maviola.”

“Understood.”

The [Lady] looked at Erin. Selys was gulping for air.

“I’m going to throw up. I’m—I’m—”

She looked around, eyes wide. Imani saw and came over to Selys. She held the Drake’s clawed hand gently.

“I think she’s having a panic attack. Palt?”

“[Calm]. Good idea, Imani.”

The [Illusionist] trotted over. Erin smiled briefly.

“…And Wistram knows. Montressa and Bezale. And…there are more of us.”

“More of you? Where?”

“Baleros. Geneva.”

Oh.

There was another map of this world with a few tentative pins. Like all lost peoples, the Earthers were trying to find each other. One pin in Wistram labeled ‘Blackmage and Others’. Another in Terandria. The Singer. A pin for ‘Geneva and Friends’. One in Chandrar labeled ‘Rémi Canada’. There were a few more pins, from Rose’s memory of the text chat.

Ryoka in Reizmelt. Erin stared at the map. She had one pin she could add. But the [Emperor] was a secret for now. Palt knew about Geneva and the others already.

Selys was calming down. Mrsha climbed into her lap and gave her a hug. Not everything from Earth was huge. Erin had had the right idea, only she’d executed too much of it at once. Mrsha showed Selys a toy.

“What’s this?”

It was a hand copter. A little helicopter’s blades attached to a wooden pole. The kind you spun with friction and watched sail away. Kevin had thought it up and somehow gotten Pelt to help make one during one of their collaboration sessions.

Ekirra was playing with one and Bird was chasing after it, screaming about flying in the Garden. Selys saw Mrsha spin it and stared as it took off. Kevin looked proud as the Gnoll leapt off to chase after her new favorite toy.

“Oh!”

She calmed down a bit more. Maviola was calmer, too. She took it all in. It would take her more processing. But right now—one question weighed large on her mind.

“Why now? Why today?”

She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] sat next to Maviola.

“Well, Selys knew something. And so do a lot of people. I thought it’d be good to tell them at last.”

“Today?”

Maviola raised an eyebrow. Erin stared ahead as she swung her legs on a bench.

“Okay, maybe it had something to do with that [King] and the war we just saw. I get…nervous. When I see big armies and people killing each other.”

Her hand clenched reflexively. Maviola looked at the [Innkeeper], who had fought in a battle. Seen more combat than many [Soldiers] her age.

“I can well understand that. But telling me? Telling your friends? What is the purpose, Erin?”

The young woman looked up.

“It’s one of those things. Dangerous things. Ryoka might kill me for this. But…you should know. I thought guns and stuff were really bad. But after I saw that I realized: this inn can’t stop an army. I thought it could, this time. But a real army? The walls would fall down, even after all the hard work Lyonette’s put into them.”

“Mm. But that’s true of any wall. First Landing was nearly broken by the Goblin King. There is no wall that cannot be broken. Even the Blighted King knows this.”

Maviola had seen her sieges. She understood the fear. Erin nodded.

“That’s why you probably stop the army before it gets there. I…made this room for people I can trust. Right now, that’s Krshia, when she can get here, you, Selys. Pawn. Belgrade, Bird, Numbtongue…”

She hesitated over a finger or two. Then closed her hand.

“There are others. Like Saliss. Or…Klbkch. I’d like to show them this room. But—you saw the scary room.”

“I did. Thank you for trusting me.”

“Well, we did share magical fire and stuff. I think that’s a good reason to trust each other.”

Erin smiled. Maviola laughed. Then she looked around.

Ah.

It did make sense. There sat Selys. Still shaking a bit with comprehension. But as much an aunt to Mrsha as anyone. Her grandmother was Tekshia Shivertail. Selys herself was rich. A fine ally.

Numbtongue? The Hobgoblin had depth. The curious Bird, Pawn, Palt…

Fine protectors and allies, all. Maviola nodded approvingly. If anyone, she stood out. Erin looked sideways at the fiery [Lady] and then came out with it.

“So…is there anyone else like you? That I could even think of showing this room to?”

“Me? What do you mean by that?”

Maviola tilted her head, eyes thoughtful. Erin hesitated. She bit her tongue and spoke carefully.

“A…someone who tries to help other people?”

“You mean, like you. Not like me.”

The [Innkeeper] raised one eyebrow at Maviola. She got a serious look in return.

“Erin Solstice. This isn’t who Maviola El was in many stages of her life. If we had met and I knew your secret forty years ago—I would have used it to make my family stronger. Like Saliss of Lights or Klbkch the Slayer might do. Or anyone else.”

The [Lady] wanted to impress the danger onto Erin. She saw Erin meet her gaze and realize—she didn’t need to.

“I know that. But I know you now. I wouldn’t have risked it otherwise.”

“Well said.”

Maviola sighed. Then she thought of Erin’s question.

“People like me? Allies you could trust to be…? There are a few. A while ago—I’d have been surer and given you a decent list. With this Circle of Thorns business…and this world has shifted.”

“What’s the Circle of Thorns?”

The [Lady Firestarter]’s eyes went wide. She turned to Erin.

“Oh. You have no idea. Magnolia…they nearly killed her.”

Magnolia?

It took the time for Selys to stand up, shakily wander into the ‘scary room’, and go back to sit down for Maviola to explain. Numbtongue was playing on the laptop as Mrsha begged for a chance. She kept shaking his arm to throw off his aim and the Hobgoblin was, for once, vexed with her as he swatted at the Gnoll.

“No way. There are people like that out there?”

Erin’s expression was taut. Maviola nodded.

“It’s an old group. But they’ve grown like a weed. It makes…me giving you names harder. And I don’t know the children as well as I knew their parents. For instance, oh, thirty years back I’d have said House Byres would always be your ally. But Yitton is not his father or mother. He’s a bit more hidebound. His offspring are very decent sorts. Yet House Byres isn’t as powerful as it was. But a list…”

She had to think. Maviola El closed her eyes.

“I’ll have to write another letter. Keep it somewhere safe. And if ever you need it—House El will honor it.”

“Thank you.”

That was what Erin wanted. Maviola nodded.

“You can’t trust all of my family. Fulviolo was a good man—my brother. I think Deilan—the new patriarch—has some of his spirit. But he is leader first, good man second. That is how it is with most of the Five Families. But good folk…if you are in fear of your life, go to Tyrion Veltras.”

Him? But—”

Maviola raised a hand, cutting Erin off.

“That fool would put himself between death to do the ‘right thing’ as he sees it. What that ‘right thing’ is, though…if you fear for your life, Erin Solstice. And he will use your knowledge like a weapon. It’s all he knows. Now, if it’s less than that…go to Soloun Veltras. A relative of the main family. He’s a recluse—but your little [Druid] is the sort he hangs out with. Another trustworthy name? Hm. Of the Five Families—there’s a good Wellfar in Hetessana. You may hear about her failed romances, but she is still kindly. Lonely, but…”

Erin had a piece of paper. She wrote down the names and locations of the people Maviola told her about. And Selys slowly looked around at the other Earthers. Rose came to sit by her, and Imani stood with Palt, ready to swoop in, talking about home.

Perhaps it was a little thing. But if you looked at Erin Solstice—the fact that she had decided to do this of her own volition was the extraordinary bit. She looked north, writing down names of powerful people. She had seen the King of Destruction. Her reaction was not to go to war, but to safeguard. Yet, she did react.

 

—-

 

It was a smaller Drake city, bordering one of the Gnoll plains whose walls were tall. And the defenders were actually relatively experienced, like Liscor’s Watch.

They had a [Fort General], who shouted down to the milling shapes below. They were out of bow and spell-range. He sneered down at them as his tail lashed.

“You savages! We’ve thrown back your tribes year after year! You still want to fight? We made peace with your tribe three years back! Do contracts mean nothing to you?”

He heard growling from beyond. And the Chieftain of the Woven Bladegrass tribe, new, younger, howled her answer back.

You do not tell us when to make peace, Drake! The tribes are gathering!

And they would make a gift worthy of it. The Woven Bladegrass tribe had watched the war in Chandrar. The [Fort General] was inhaling to reply. Then he saw a group of thirty charging the walls.

You barbarians! Fill them with arrows!

The [Archers] loosed one volley, then two. But the huge figures—not one fell. The [Fort General] heard howling. His eyes focused on their armor and he swore.

Keep them from the walls! Keep them—

He should have been watching the Gnoll [Warriors]. It was still a lucky shot. But the javelin flew hundreds of feet, struck the Drake, and carried him backwards. The Drakes along the wall felt the Skills boosting them vanish.

 

—-

 

Little events like that. It was like…brushfire. Sparks, given life by a larger battle. What it was, was people turning to one another and saying ‘did you see that?’

An ant could live happily forever, unless it learned of the mountain. Of course—Az’kerash had long known of the heights of the mountains. Even as an Archmage of Wistram, he had beheld greater foes. Heights even he and his friend has failed to reach.

“Of mortal men, he might be one of the most dangerous. Of mortal men. The Deaths of Rhir are greater threats. Yet that mortal man…Shivertail was one such.”

And how did you defeat foes like that? To the [Necromancer], it was only by patience. He paused a moment, waiting for a reply. But both of his Chosen had nothing to say. Bea and Ijvani were still…as he had made them.

His new Chosen might exceed them since he would give them the desire to learn and understand. He hoped they could learn from the curious Toren. Az’kerash sighed.

His other guest did not respond. The Necromancer watched her.

“Have you challenged such before, Witch Belavierr?”

Only then did she look up from her sewing. Az’kerash saw her knitting death magic. It was another great work. Collaboration between the two. She spoke, briefly.

“Yes.”

Then she went back to her work. Az’kerash sat there, parts of him mentally counting the declarations of war.

The Woven Bladegrass tribe has attacked…sacked the city of Lequiss. War with Ailendamus—unprovoked attacks on vessels friendly to Pheislant, Calanfer…

Belavierr was a poor conversationalist. And despite his…situation, Az’kerash had been a remarkable conversationalist. Immortality and isolation had helped him forget. But the man had remembered himself so he was a bit disappointed. His apprentice, perhaps…

“Have you any thoughts at all, Belavierr?”

She raised her hatted head and stared ahead blankly. Her fingers never stopped dancing, creating a web of magic and thread that even Az’kerash could not entangle.

“I know which creation I would like.”

That surprised him. The Necromancer hesitated and cast his eyes over his Chosen. They shifted.

“Speak, then, Belavierr. As our agreement goes. We may…negotiate.”

She looked at him and he was reminded of pacts with [Witches]. Belavierr smiled.

“I will tell you what I want when the moment is right. You ask of slaying great [Kings] and foes, [Necromancer]?”

“I do.”

The two looked at each other. Belavierr’s smile grew as the rings in her eyes seemed to expand, revealing another depth, another layer.

“Wait. Wait to strike.”

There was another meaning behind her words. He considered the meaning grimly. Then rose to attend to other business, elsewhere. His Chosen followed him and Belavierr was left alone to work.

The problem with finding his heart…was that it beat so loudly he could not pass the years away.

 

—-

 

A similar sentiment was espoused by Archmage Nailihuaile in a public debate with Archmage Feor. It had been called in a semi-public setting and the two Archmages spoke as Wistram’s [Mages] listened in.

It was the talk of the academy. Feor had not accused Archmage Nailihuaile of…anything in particular. Certainly not hiring Rasea Zecrew to attack the King of Destruction.

This debate was simply over Wistram’s unity. And unity being the theme—he had the opportunity to censor the Archmage. And she the opportunity to defend herself.

The academy listened as Feor made his case. The half-Elf concluded with a ringing refutation of…disunity.

“The academy is made up of countless individuals, Archmage Nailihuaile. But when the world hears the name ‘Wistram’, they know we act in unity. Without haste or infighting. Just as no linked spell can be performed alone, the Academy must be in unity.”

He stared down at the shorter Lamia as his supporters and the listeners murmured agreement. Some were palpably nervous.

Archmage Naili was not. And when she drew herself up, she smiled with a predator’s grin.

“Archmage Feor. I appreciate your candor. But if I might rebut one point: if we’re talking about unity, I quite agree that a united front is necessary. However—I can’t think of anything I’ve done to ruin the unity of the academy.”

Scandalous! The murmur ran through the auditorium before Feor spoke. He looked at the Lamia.

“Truly, Archmage?”

“Not at all.”

She met his eyes. Then the Lamia smiled brightly, and gave an almost childish laugh.

“Oh, wait. Do you mean that little incident? I wouldn’t call that—dissidence, Feor. I really wouldn’t.”

“What, then?”

The half-Elf was ready to pounce. But he should have been watching Naili closer. Because the Lamia was coiled up and anyone who knew serpents knew she was ready to strike. And now she did.

“Feor. Let’s talk about something other than ‘unity’. Let’s talk about—enemies. Let me tell you about how I grew up. I grew up as a little Lizardgirl in a swamp-village. Not rich, not with mentors or help. I had no idea how to cast magic. I had to buy my first spellbook with the money I earned.”

She gave a pointed look at Feor, who came from a half-Elf village, and Viltach in the audience. The Human man, a son of a noble family, scowled at her.

A susurration ran through the audience.

“Is this necessary, Archmage? We are all aware—”

Feor sighed, but Naili cut him off.

“The point was, Feor, I used to earn money trapping young Hydras. That was how I became a Lamia. I hunted them with traps and fire, then magic. And I learned something, before I came to Wistram. Enemies. When you have an enemy, if it’s an animal, a monster, or someone else—you don’t wait for them to regenerate. You don’t wait for them to grow, or attack first. You attack your enemy when they’re weak. When they’re sleeping, bleeding, off-balance. And you go for the kill.”

Her serpentine eyes narrowed and she stood taller. The audience murmured and Feor realized some of Wistram’s more militant [Mages] or the ones opposed to the King of Destruction were looking her way.

“That does not excuse your actions, Archmagus.”

“But it is not disloyal to Wistram, Feor. Which is why we’re debating. Unless…there’s another reason you’d like to call me to order?”

Naili fluttered her eyes at him and the half-Elf glared at her. She knew exactly what she was doing. The Star Lamia went on.

“As far as I’m concerned, Wistram is united in its opposition to…enemies. And I capitalized on information to aid the academy at no cost to ourselves! We know exactly where the enemy is. We know what they’re doing. Wistram need not go to war. But when they show a weak spot—strike. Strike again! Or do we wait and let the ‘hydra’ grow another head, like last time?”

Silence—then applause. Feor grimly considered his next point. Wistram was famous for being opposed, not actively engaged in conflicts. He longed to ask her: if this is how she viewed fighting the King of Destruction, striking him with Wistram’s coverage and influence…did she think fighting the Antinium, Rhir, would work in this way?

But he couldn’t bring that up in this public forum. And Naili’s scales were glowing. She was riding a wave of support. After all—she had helped defeat the King of Destruction. It was a secret only to idiots. And now they’d seen him bleed, Wistram Academy was wondering how many more knives they could bring to bear.

Feor should have been more concerned for his own reputation than Naili’s. The King of Destruction had risen to power while he was Archmage—and then Wistram had done nothing at all.

The tide was turning.

 

—-

 

War and strategy. That was most of what the battle produced. In a few—preparation, safeguarding. Because what you saw depended on whom you were.

For some—it was not the humbling of the King of Destruction, the opportunity, or even the might of other nations that stood out. But the sacrifice.

The honor. Integrity.

A good death.

Watch Captain Zevara stormed back into her office so fast the desk-sergeant didn’t see her face. Which was well. The Watch Captain was not supposed to have red eyes. She was furious—but not at herself. At a fool, rather.

He sat in his cell. They had different viewpoints, that was all. And they had cut each other with arguments, both equally right and wrong. She cared more for his life than he did.

“Somehow, she still thinks I’m innocent. But you understand, don’t you?”

Calruz spoke to Haldagaz. The male rat nibbled on his fingernails. Rhata was more understanding. She perched on his knee, as she liked to do, standing up on two legs, even. She’d do that unless he was doing pushups or gone on one of his monster-slaying tasks.

He was grateful to Zevara. But she was wrong.

“The only thing wrong with me—is me. And the longer I sit here, the longer we are all trapped. Look at you two. You deserve better.”

If the Children of the Grain Sack could have answered the one-armed Minotaur, perhaps, perhaps they might have said he was what had kept them from death. They might have said that to them, this cell with food and a kind hand was all they needed.

But rats were not Minotaurs. And he had seen General Ozem and the House of Minos stand and fight. And die, for that word.

“Honor.”

Zevara didn’t understand. She thought—had said in fury—that Minotaurs clung to the word like antiquated [Knights] of old. That it was something killing them, not worth dying for.

“It’s not that, Rhata. Honor is an ideal. Something to pursue. It is not worth dying for. It is worth living by. Ozem, the King of Minotaurs, looked at the King of Destruction and saw the death he brings. For that, they fought against him. Even died. Perhaps—perhaps Ozem was less than altruistic. He was one of our kind who lived for battle. But he found a way to channel his life to a deed that was done in service of the world. All of that is what we summarize by a single word. ‘Honor’. Valor.”

The rat nibbled at his fur, licking at the salt of his sweat. Calruz petted her head. She nuzzled his hand. The words came more easily now that he wasn’t arguing.

Like always, they came better after the hot words had been exchanged. He could finally explain when it was too late.

“I do not want to die. No—that isn’t true. I feel…I feel as though I have not been punished. I have committed great crimes. And imprisonment? It does not match my crime. Perhaps if I was a Drake or Gnoll, I could accept it. But I was raised by the House of Minos’ rules. I have asked to be punished as we sentence each other. I know it is an irony to ask that. But…”

He looked around and shook his head.

“Perhaps this is the greater punishment.”

Rhata squeaked.

“Except for you and Haldagaz. Greater and lesser, Rhata.”

Calruz amended his statement. He sat there.

“But I wish to perform a deed like that. I could enter the heart of the dungeon. Fight to my last against…anything. I would walk the Bloodfields until my death and delay the growth of that blight another second. Another inch. But let me die like that. Don’t let me—drag her down with me.”

He sat there, head bowed. Rhata crawled up his arm and sat on his shoulder. She pooped on his fur. It could have been a sign of solidarity.

After a while, Calruz received another visitor. She stood in front of his cell. He looked up at her.

“I regret showing it to you, Calruz of Hammerad. I did not mean to torture you with that knowledge.”

Beza looked past Calruz. He rose, and looked at her.

“It was neither torture nor injustice, Bezale of Maweil. It was an honor to see.”

“Yes.”

The two stood there, Bezale awkwardly. She always remembered her first conversation with him. But now…

“I spoke with the Watch Captain. She will not let me do as General Ozem did with the criminals of Minos.”

“She said the same thing to me.”

“Ah.”

Calruz hadn’t been aware Bezale had petitioned Zevara. Perhaps that was why she had snapped at him so quickly when he’d brought it up. They stood there.

“I…”

Beza didn’t know what to say. She had tested the Minotaur and he had no magic in him that would have made him insane. But somehow—she was beginning to doubt that his dishonor had come from himself alone. She was starting to believe the Drake.

Nevertheless, the proof was in the past. And as Calruz had said—there was no other evidence. Just a Drake’s…affection. A regard for his innocence.

“Bezale. Would you do me a service?”

The [Spellscribe] started.

“Perhaps. What is it?”

Calruz looked at her. Then he stood straighter.

“You have done me a service by showing me the House of Minos’ stand against the King of Destruction. And Zevara has…allowed me to see the world passing as well. Perhaps there is a way to resolve this. I would ask that you send a [Message] for me.”

The Minotauress’ eyes sharpened.

“The House of Minos is far away, Calruz. To whom would you send it?”

“Someone with the right to judge. Which neither you nor I have.”

The [Spellscribe] realized what he meant. She sighed. Then she nodded to him, almost a bow.

“Yes, Calruz of Hammerad. I will take your letter.”

So he spoke, and she wrote. And the letter was sent.

Calruz fed Rhata a grape.

 

—-

 

Venaz of Hammerad put down the letter he had received. The news was good and bad.

“There is a cure!”

The others were celebrating. And the Minotaur himself was smiling. Yet—the cure was not easy.

“It needs to be applied in doses. Yerra’s too small to take the antitoxin. And it needs to be made. They’re asking the best [Alchemist] in Pallass to make it up. That’s either…Xif the Multicolored or Saliss of Lights.”

“Try for Saliss.”

Wil was sleep-deprived; he had been frantic these last few days. But at last, he might be able to rest. The battle was far from over; they had private rooms in Oteslia that were warded and guarded, but the Diamond Swords of Serept were still a target. And the medicine was costly.

“This…this is excellent news. How long will the antidote take?”

“Depends on the alchemist. I will ask my tribe to help petition Saliss of Lights. He would be better at antidotes as an adventurer and have more Skills that ensure it works and give it potency. But we did it, yes?”

Feshi was grinning. Even Yerra’s cries were silent; she was sleeping thanks to the draught the [Healers] had made for a Selphid.

Venaz smiled. He saw Merrik and Peki high-fiving. They were all still energized by the battle. Venaz himself had had to run three laps around Oteslia before he stopped shouting and challenging everyone in sight to a sparring match he knew would end poorly.

His blood still boiled. He would have liked to be there. Ozem might have been able to save some of the army if he had.

If they had gone to Chandrar first…but Yerra mattered more. And now—Merrik saw Venaz fold the letter up.

“What’s that? Bad news?”

“Not…really. A member of the House of Minos has written to me, Merrik. The letter was—impressive. I think I am needed, as a representative of Hammerad. An arbiter.”

The Minotaur struggled to put the missive into words. The others looked at him.

“Arbiter?”

“One who metes out justice.”

Wil explained to Peki. Venaz nodded slowly.

Calruz of Hammerad.

“It may be that I need to go to Pallass.”

“We could go there directly. Some of the ingredients from Oteslia are needed though…and Yerra’s too sick to move. If one of the [Alchemists] makes the cure for the first few doses, we can go north for the full batch. What does this Minotaur want you to do, Venaz?”

The [Strategist] clenched his fist and turned away. It was a magnificent plea, from one son of Hammerad to another. The sender, Bezale, had added her own words. He had to go there, see the whole truth. But if the letter was accurate—Venaz took a long breath.

He wants me to help him die.

 

—-

 

One last group was powerfully affected by the news from Chandrar. Or rather—one last one that took direct action.

Everyone saw it. Everyone from the Death of Magic, who watched and laughed, to the Seer of Steel, to Emir Yazdil, the Grand Magus, Magnolia Reinhart as she sat on the famed warship and evacuated her staff away from danger…

But this last people saw and moved because of what they had seen.

“So those two armies could be considered among the best this world has to offer. What do you think, Wrymvr? Could you kill the Illusionist?”

The Slayer stood with the vast Antinium in the auspices of the Twisted Hive. Not with Anand; the [Strategist] and the Painted Antinium feared this place. Klbkch saw their reasons. But here was a second Centenium and a Queen who had given everything for victory.

Wrymvr’s answer came not in words, but in the link they shared, the three of them.

(Yes.)

Klbkchhezeim raised his mandibles and opened them. He laughed, a fluttering sound.

It was a joke. Also—certainty there. He had missed that.

“We have been here too long. Look how these other nations grow stronger. An entire continent—three could reinforce Izril. We have been stalemated here. Had we taken Izril, I would be content.”

The Slayer rejoined the council of war with Wrymvr and the Twisted Queen. And he received nothing but affirmation from the two of them.

“What. You say is all. We. Have concluded. Klbkchhezeim.”

The words came painfully from the Twisted Queen’s mandibles. At the same time, her sending was far more eloquent, betraying the intact mind in the ruined body.

(Yet we lack a way to cross the sea. We are landlocked and of every nation in the world, the Walled Cities are among the most unassailable.)

“We should have landed on Terandria.”

That was the plan. Of course—any continent would have worked if not for the damn water.

(Minotaurs. Dangerous weapons for ships. Not on land.)

Wrymvr projected an image of their enchanted weapons destroying countless, fragile wooden vessels. Klbkch nodded. That was where they’d be strongest. An army of True Antinium…wouldn’t fear the artillery barrage as much as other species. If linked, they’d just dodge each shell with a thousand eyes and minds working at once.

[Army of the King] bothered Klbkch more. And the [Pirate]’s ship.

“The Illuminary puts a hole in Xrn’s plans and ours. It is clear that ship could destroy any vessel we seize. So even if we sailed from First Landing after stealing a craft…any high-level [Captain] could sink our vessel.”

(True. There is no way to win at sea against experts. Only Wrymvr has survived the depths.)

“Have there been attempts to create water-capable Antinium?”

Klbkch knew the answer even as the Twisted Queen lowered her one free mandible.

“Mine have all. Failed. However the. Other Queens may have attempted it. If. So. They failed likewise.”

The Slayer nodded. He stalked back and forth.

“Perhaps, then, we must either hire a [Pirate] of Rasea’s caliber—or threaten them—or obtain these scrolls. Greater Teleportation.”

They’d never been able to find them, despite finally learning of a relic with that grade of magic. Wrymvr echoed Klbkch’s frustration.

(You will be alone. Magic cannot steal me.)

“Xrn and I could move faster. But we would need at least…five. Or three, if we sent just me.”

(Xrn is stronger. We would send her if we had three.)

Klbkch smacked Wrymvr in one of his glowing eyes. It hurt Klbkch’s hand; the eyes were shielded.

(You have picked up odd habits, Klbkchhezeim.)

“I learned it from Relc.”

“What is. A Relc?”

 

—-

 

A similar conversation was happening elsewhere. In other Hives, that was. Xrn was excited. She had a longer view than Klbkch and Wrymvr.

“I will try a Tier 4 spell next.”

Prognugator Xrn. I do not feel safe!

“Just stand there! You are perfectly warded! You should survive even if your Skill fails!”

Xrn happily called out. Pawn shook as he raised his staff. His miracle created a barrier in the air.

“Skills. The Antinium will not lose so easily next time.”

They were stress-testing his Skills. The [Holy Barrier] made Xrn very happy. She lifted her staff.

“Ready? I will use a standard spell. One, two…”

“Prognugator Xrn, I am very—”

“[Siege Fireball]!”

She was an optimist. Pawn’s barrier actually held. But it winked out a moment after the blast and the fire raining down still made Pawn run screaming in terror. In fairness—she had been throwing spells straight at him for the last five minutes.

 

—-

 

Other Queens were less sanguine about the whole ‘extremely powerful Human [King] and Minotaur army’ thing. The Grand Queen had called one of her conferences to debate the issue. The Free Queen, Flying Queen and Silent Queen were all invited to discuss the issue.

For once, the Armored Queen had declined. She sat, largest of the Queens, painfully recumbent with Anand and a number of the Painted Antinium. Of course, she had seen the battle; so had Anand.

He was still vibrating with the battle. He wanted those siege weapons. He wanted Skills like those! He wanted a boat with the same level of reinforcement as Miss Erin’s inn! It was almost like the image Belgrade had drawn up, of putting the inn on wheels and using it as a mobile fortress.

But he was aware of the danger. These were the enemy’s weapons, and the Antinium Queens beheld the army the House of Minos could send against them and were rightly wary. Like the King of Destruction, much of their army was low-level fighters, overwhelming in number, but helpless against enemies like Mars or high-level veterans.

In this case, the sight had sent all the Antinium into heavy-planning modalities. Except for the Armored Queen. She was with the Painted Antinium. Anand kept glancing up at her and since she was kind—he had ranked her #1 on the kindness factor among the other Queens, with the Twisted Queen receiving #6—he dared to ask a question.

“Should you not be in conversation with the Grand Queen, Armored Queen?”

“The discussion is pointless, Strategist Anand. I am familiar with such meetings. They are unproductive. The enemy has shown their strength. This is more valuable.”

The Armored Queen watched as her Workers scurried around one of the Painted Antinium. Goat, one of the Soldiers, was holding out his arms.

He was being fitted with armor. Of course, he was the same size as all the others, but this was a custom-job. The best steel for the Painted Soldiers; more imperfect iron or even wood, stone, and other suits went to more expendable Armored Antinium.

The Grand Queen still reserved her enchanted pieces for her Prognugators, but Anand was touched at the gesture.

“Is it suitable? Does it clash with…the nature of this Soldier’s paint?”

The Armored Queen was pleased as Goat flexed his armored body and hopped up and down. The other Painted Antinium clustered around him, patting at the armor, visibly impressed. Anand studied Goat’s reaction.

“If Goat has permission to paint the armor, I believe he will be quite pleased. Is that not so, Goat?”

The Soldier looked up and he radiated approval with his four thumbs-up. He could do another goat! It was like a second shell! The Armored Queen nodded.

“This is well. I will issue you your own armor. Chainmail, I think. Enchanted. Assets of your nature must be protected, Anand.”

“Thank you, my Queen!”

The [Strategist] was touched by the gesture. The Armored Queen nodded. She had a collection of enchanted gear, traded for with the other Hives. It was either bought from [Merchants] daring to trade with Antinium—and there were some!—or taken from enemies killed in combat.

“Klbkchhezeim has furnished you with some gear. However, this should aid your survivability. It is regrettable there is only one Xrn. Her enchantments would double the Armored Antinium’s strength. But the Grand Queen used her for her project.”

The Armored Queen lamented as Anand tried on some chainmail. It only marginally increased his weight and he was quite pleased by it. He nodded a few times.

“I quite admired the Armored Antinium’s production, my Queen. An army of Armored Antinium is a significant battle threat.”

“It has been a long labor. Creation of steel is…difficult. Many failures were born. However, we have created steel. Would that my Prognugators had your innovation.”

The Armored Queen bent. She did not lower her voice. Anand saw the other Armored Prognugators staring at him. Not…enviously. Just with a keen understanding that they lacked what he had. He felt badly, for some reason.

But then, Anand consoled himself that Klbkch was proud of him. He stood taller. It had been some good days. Despite all the hurtful things some Drakes had said about his memorial. The Queens had been upset too.

Still—if the [Strategist]’s triumphs had pleased her, the Armored Queen now sat bitterly. She rubbed her palps together, her voice low.

“Manufacturing. Armor has been made. But what use is a superior force that cannot strike against the enemy? The sea is an impossible barricade. It will allow for reinforcements to arrive continuously and the enemy remains unassailable.”

It was a problem. Anand nodded a few times. He’d read the book on the Antinium Wars by Krsysl Wordsmith and other commentaries as well.

“The sea is a significant weakness, my Queen. Have you attempted to circumnavigate the issue?”

“Yes. Many attempts were made by every Hive. We have all failed. A Shaper Queen might have been able to create an Antinium—I recall ones who were able to survive and operate in water, but we kept few of them. There was no need.

“Really, Armored Queen?”

The huge Queen nodded.

“It is a lack of Skill in the current Queens, not an insurmountable barrier. But it is beyond our skill levels. It is possible, but it is like placing hopes in the Flying Queen creating actual flight-capable Antinium.”

“Ah. So the only method is ships.”

“Yes. And ships…we are not a water-based species. We seized the fleet from Rhir because we knew they had them. But how will we return to Rhir or fight at sea?”

The Armored Queen struck the ground in ponderous fury. Her Prognugators tried to soothe her helpless fury. Anand on the other hand just thought about it.

“Well, we could teleport over the sea. Miss Erin’s door lacks the range, but perhaps there are more powerful teleportation objects.”

The Armored Queen looked up. Anand spoke as if he were an eager student and she, the [Teacher] who had assigned him the question with extra credit, rather than an issue haunting their entire species.

“Teleportation will not carry armies.”

“I see, I see. Well then, flight carries the same issue, but there are flying carpets. And Bird may one day gain a Skill that allows him to fly. But in regards to vast transport, it does seem like the ocean must be crossed. Perhaps freezing the water with ice magic like Miss Ceria? But boats are the most expedient answer.”

“We have no boats.”

The Armored Queen’s voice was a touch…petulant. She did not like Anand’s optimism. She had borne this weight for decades! She almost wanted his soul to be crushed like hers.

Anand looked around. And then he clasped two hands together.

“Well then. Let’s make some.”

“What?”

The [Strategist] gave the Armored Queen a blank look.

“You have created steel, my Queen. Why not create a ship?”

She opened and closed her mandibles.

“The Hivelands are not near any open body of water. The Drakes destroyed all the lakes and rivers to drown us. There is a coast to the west, but it was retaken by Drake cities after the peace.”

“But there is water?”

Even Antinium needed it. The Armored Queen hesitated.

“Groundwater, yes.”

“Excellent, excellent. And you can fill up a bag of holding with water. I once heard Pisces tell Miss Erin that he once stole water out of a well doing that. And we have wood. And metal. Surely your forges can make nails? Or Miss Erin’s screwies?”

“This is all possible, Strategist Anand. But how would we make ships? We are on land.”

The Armored Queen was bewildered. Anand just smiled up at her.

“Experiment, my Queen. Would you like me to explain my idea? I wouldn’t even need much. Just a thousand Workers and perhaps a hundred Soldiers for a day and some of your Hive’s space as well as the use of two forges and your lumber reserves. Er…that is a lot, actually.”

He hesitated. But this was the difference between Klbkch and the Armored Queen. She regarded Anand, then leaned down and spoke with her huge mandibles.

Granted.

 

—-

 

Klbkch was going over one of the hypothetical plans the Twisted Queen and Wrymvr had come up with. It was beyond audacious.

He liked it. But the fact remained that the issue was always the sea. He was going down the list of options—all of which led to a conflict the Antinium did not necessarily want yet

When he heard the news.

(Your [Strategist] is causing a commotion, Klbkchhezeim. The other Queens are in uproar.)

The Twisted Queen had picked up on the other Queens talking. Klbkch groaned. He strode up from the Hive, already gnashing his mandibles.

“What is Anand doing?”

Klbkch didn’t bother checking with the mirror. He just ran from the Twisted Hive to the other Hives. He could cover the vast distance quickly and besides, the Antinium had dug almost the entire area of the Hivelands. That they had not expanded further was due to subterranean threats and their treaties.

[Recaptured Sublimity].

Klbkch slowed down from the blur that had shot across the dry ground five minutes later. Wrymvr caught up and landed with a screech in front of Klbkch.

(Get on. You are slow.)

Klbkch leapt onto his back and hung on as Wrymvr took off.

(If I had my own body, you’d never have caught me.)

(I didn’t die.)

Klbkch tried to stab Wrymvr in one of his wings. The huge Antinium spun upside down and Klbkch had to hang on or drop.

They landed at one of the entrances to the Armored Hive thirty minutes later. Klbkch jumped down and Wrymvr landed with another screech.

Armored Antinium scurried around in a panic as two of the Centenium strode down the vast tunnels. Klbkch was ready to apologize, scold Anand, or…

His mind went blank as, finally, he and Wrymvr emerged in a low, deep underground level of the Armored Hive and he saw what Anand had wrought.

“It is madness! Madness! Tell him to stop! He will drown us all!”

“It will not work. Surely. This is not a replication. Is it? There is a difference in salinity content among—”

“Strategist Anand. What are you doing?

The Antinium looked up. He stood at the other end of the…underground basin. Klbkch would have run over to him. But a vast pool of death lay in the way.

Water. The [Strategist] had tapped one of the groundwater aquifers. Now—he had created a huge, hollow area with a very deep area. A…makeshift sea.

The Antinium around him were clearly terrified. And the [Strategist] himself was trembling. But he had a rope tied around his waist—multiple ropes in fact, held by teams of Painted Antinium ready to drag him back if he fell in. Now, he spoke to the irate Queens.

“My Queens. This is an experiment. I have permission of the Armored Queen. Watch.”

He had worked on this while Klbkch and Wrymvr made their way here. Now—the [Strategist] pushed something out onto the vast reservoir of dark water.

It was too small for Klbkch to see at first. And true—it was no saltwater ocean, but some of the Antinium began fanning the water to simulate waves.

And now—came the tiny object, bobbing, splashed a bit by the water. But failing to sink. Klbkch and Wrymvr saw it floating across Anand’s testing ground.

“This will be the first of many. We will attempt larger versions. But this falls in line with the Armored Antinium’s methods, Armored Queen. It can be done. We just need to practice. See?”

Anand pointed. The Armored Queen had dragged herself down to see this. She ignored the pain in her torn abdomen and saw what Klbkch did.

A little, bobbing ship, carved out of wood. It had some terrified black dots on it.

Actual ants. The ship touched Klbkch’s side of the reservoir as the fanning stopped. He looked down at the ship. He picked it up. An ant ran up his arm and he flicked it off, absently. Water dripped from the boat.

Klbkch stared at Anand. The [Strategist] waved at him. Did I do good? Klbkch looked up at Wrymvr. The Centenium regarded the boat.

(Too small for me.)

“For now.”

Only an Antinium capable of individual thought could make new things like this. And no Queen would have the time or insanity to try it, not after they had seen their species die at sea. But Anand? He excitedly hopped up and down and nearly fell into the drink. Klbkch saw the Painted Antinium haul him back frantically.

He might dare it. Klbkch looked at Anand. He looked at the boat in his hand. Slowly, conscious that Xrn was probably watching through the mirror, he held up a hand.

He gave Anand a slow thumbs-up.

“Very…well done, Anand. Continue with this project. Please.”

Anand beamed like the sun. Klbkch took the boat to stare at it with Wrymvr. This…changed things. Meanwhile, Anand happily had two of the Armored Antinium’s Prognugators and crews of Workers help him with his first prototypes. The other Queens announced they were sending their Prognugators, at least one per Hive, for this project.

Boats. Ships. It was, when you got down to it, a bit of sticky stuff, some cloth, wood, and metal to make a floating thing. Anand had books. He had a place to experiment. He also had all of Liscor to draw upon; he could probably ask Belgrade to buy one of the spring fishing-boats and send it here. Anand was confident. Klbkch had told him it was a good idea.

How hard could it be?

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Another chapter where we see what happened the day after! Like—after all those big movie battles, someone has to pick up the severed limbs, right?

Right. Anyways, I’m still recovering from the big chapter, but I hope you enjoyed this one! My week-off is coming up, but I think we’ve got a few more chapters until then. I don’t know what else there is to say for me.

There are intense chapters, and relaxing chapters. I could—perhaps I SHOULD write a chapter just about Nsiia’s captivity. That short break you got was part of what her side story that I occasionally offered would be. I can write it of my own volition! It just doesn’t always make sense to do every perspective, as fun as they can be.

I’m spoiled for choice and some chapters are never written because they run out of time. And that’s fine. I have to make the call of what to linger on and what moves forwards the story. Let me know what you like, and as always, thanks for reading!

Today’s art is the last Chandrar-themed piece, once again by Enuryn! It’s the Carven City, A’ctelios! I’d say this is the days of grandeur, not as dark as it can be. But A’ctelios Salash as the Quarass knew it. Still uh…not the best vacation spot. Unless you like lots of meat. Give Enuryn lots of praise!

 

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/enuryn

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Enuryn_Nat

 

A’ctelios, the Carven City by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 

 


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Jecrass’ tired army had raced across their nation and then the border of Medain’s kingdom for nearly a day. They had used every movement-Skill available, run alongside their mounts and used potions to keep both rider and animal alive.

They were exhausted. Medain’s heavy cavalry was fresh, having ridden from the capital for less than four hours; even if it had been at top speed, the difference was obvious.

Jecrass’ army was still riding towards their [Princess], staggered. Medain’s army, led by their High King, was marching straight at the conflict where Jecrass’ ruler, Raelt, the King of Duels, was fighting.

The outcome of a full-fledged battle was clear. The only option Jecrass had was to secure their [Princess] and retreat. They could outrun Medain’s infantry-heavy army. But Princess Jecaina was still surrounded by Medain’s forces. The surprise attack by the Minotaurs had prevented them from taking her away before both forces met. But the [Riders] from Jecrass were exhausted.

Even so. A rare wing of Jecrass’ army peeled away and met a group of [Armor Knights] as both sides shot towards the melee. They had galloped after the faster [Trick Riders] fighting in a knot around the King of Duels.

Heavy riders! [Lancers]—bring them down!

One of the [Knight-Captains] from Medain saw the breakaway group—barely more than four hundred strong. He sent an equal number of lancers. From afar, it was apparent that the other group was armed with axes and shields. They had to be tired; he was confident his [Lancers] would bring them down in the first clash.

The lancers of Medain shot towards their foe, shouting as they came.

High King Perric and the Golden Ranks! The Kingdom of Adventurers!

Jecrass’ [Riders] were silent. Too tired to even raise a battle cry perhaps. The [Knight-Captain] was so distracted by the melee with the [Princess]—he was ordering his forces forwards to get her back to the safety of Medain’s army. He’d fought in wars before and knew Jecrass had the advantage in cavalry-clashes. And the other detachment was slower than most of the elite [Trick Riders]. They were…

He heard a strange sound coming from the oncoming heavy-riders. A furious…bellowing. It wasn’t a sound a Human made. Or…a horse. It sounded like—

Cows. Or rather—he turned his head too late. And then realized how large the enemy’s horses were. And saw the armored heads and horns of the bicorns too late. He watched both sides accelerating, suddenly—uneasy.

[Arrow Formation]! [Furious Charge]! [Doubled Impact]!

The [Lance Leader] called out as both sides charged straight at each other. The Bicorn’s leader said nothing at all. The animals looked—fresh—for creatures that had ridden countless miles. No, that wasn’t right.

They looked pissed. Medain’s [Lancers] shot forwards. And as both sides were about to collide—the Bicorn-riders flickered. They flashed past the lances aimed at rider and horse. Then they crashed into the enemy’s horses. The bicorns hit the warhorses and downed riders and horse in screaming impacts.

Jecrass’ [Riders] swung their long-handled axes down, hacking. And their magical animals trampled and savaged their opponents. They charged, ignoring spears, pikes—the bull-horses were fearless in combat, almost uncontrollable!

And in the heart of the battle—the [King of Challenges] fought. His [Trick Riders] cut around him, slashing through gaps in their opponent’s armor, ducking, dodging, but pressing onwards.

Towards the [Princess], struggling against her captors as they tried to break free of the melee and retreat.

High King Perric was heading straight for Jecaina. Locked onto Raelt. The King of Jecrass was a whirlwind, killing [Knights], enemy [Commanders] as he howled like some beast. But—the High King’s attention was also dragged away by the second force moving alongside his army. His army slowed, half-turning to face the unexpected force, smaller in number, which had foiled his plans.

 

—-

 

Minotaurs. They marched from the coast, the tiny, distant warships. Bare thousands of them, compared to the other armies on the field. But two of them had killed Gold-rank adventurers with a single throw. Now—they were marching. Moving towards another distant army, which had come to do battle with both Medain and Jecrass.

The King of Destruction’s army was still spilling out of the border between Jecrass and Medain, the Lion’s Valley, where so many battles had ended in stalemate. But their furious advance had likewise…slowed.

The House of Minos had come. It was so surprising to those on the field—even to many watching by scrying orb.

“Students? This is what we would call a ‘messy battle.’”

Niers Astoragon was watching with his class. The entire damn world was, he had no doubt. He looked up briefly.

“Rearrange the board. And while we do—does anyone have an insight as to why a Minotaurian army has just landed against the King of Destruction? Remember your history and political lessons. I’m waiting for a good answer.”

He knew. And so did some of his students. A girl raised her hand.

“Princess Angelica.”

The Titan of Baleros nodded to one of his new students. She was in the elite class that Umina, Marian, Venaz, and so many others enjoyed. But a new summer class, since most of Niers’ oldest students were…on assignment. The [Princess] ducked her head.

“They um—I know why they’re fighting, Professor. My…my kingdom funded them. Along with a number of Terandrian kingdoms.”

Some of the other students eyed Angelica, reminded she was royalty. Rare, even for Niers Astoragon; he had taught only six other members of royalty. But he treated her the same as the others.

“Very good. But for full marks, Princess Angelica, I would have liked to hear that aside from the Kingdom of Morein and two thirds of Terandria’s kingdoms, the House of Minos also received funding from Izril’s nobility—and two Walled Cities and a number of Balerosian nations. To do war with the King of Destruction. I was wondering when they’d show up.”

The other students looked astounded. Niers sighed.

“Information networks. We’ll move it up on your curriculum. It’s a [Mercenary]’s best tactic, asking for multiple sides to pay for the same thing. I would have been tempted to copy the House of Minos—if I had a damn armada.

He sighed. But then he pointed at the battle.

“Now—watch. You’re about to see something special. The House of Minos fights in a unique way. And—they have a significant history with the King of Destruction. Can anyone remember why?”

 

—-

 

The King of Destruction’s rise and downfall was an incomplete story to Teres. She had heard it from the people who had been there, including Flos Reimarch himself. But they were unreliable sources, emphasizing smaller details, telling parts of a whole.

This is what she knew. When he had left Chandrar to make war on the world, the King of Destruction had sent his armies to two continents that had tried to assail him on Chandrar.

Baleros, and Izril. He sent Amerys to the south of Izril, hoping to lock down the Drake Walled Cities. She had besieged Zeres as he sent more forces with Takhatres to aid her and possibly find allies in the Gnolls.

To Baleros, the King of Destruction had seen a greater threat in the Great Companies of Baleros. So—he had sent his [Gambler of Fates], Queravia and made for her with the bulk of his army. She had landed first after storms at sea which had delayed his fleet. There she had made a stand.

And died. The Titan of Baleros had slain her. But perhaps—history might have been different if reinforcements had arrived in time. That they had not was due to two battles at sea. The King of Destruction was weak on the ocean, having little experience there compared to his land offensives.

Two navies had fought his. The first—from Rhir. The Blighted King’s warriors had destroyed the reinforcements bound for Izril. The second army had ambushed the King of Destruction.

Minotaurs. They had nearly destroyed his fleets; but for the sacrifice of Tottenval, the Gardener, they might have killed Flos himself. That was what Teres knew.

The King of Destruction had never spoken about Minotaurs. Now—he stared at the distant army.

“Milord. They bear the House of Minos’ standards.”

“Of course they do. Order Orthenon back from entering the battle. I want him to flank them; tell him to check for any other forces lurking out of sight.”

Flos’ voice was quiet. Mars nodded.

“Your Majesty. Do we advance on them or fall back?”

Death Commander Ytol spoke. Like Mars—he had gone still at the sight of the Minotaurs. It made Teres’ hair stand up. She had never heard one of Flos’ officers suggest a retreat.

Perhaps—because they had never thought it was necessary before. She looked at Mars. Normally, the [Vanguard] was always spoiling for a fight and laughing, even drinking before battle. This time, she looked intense. She began checking her armor and weapons.

“Retreat, Ytol? With two nations fighting before us?”

Flos answered the Death Commander quietly. Ytol glanced at the army.

“We did not prepare for a battle with Minotaurs, your Majesty.”

The King of Destruction’s jaw worked. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the distant Minotaurs.

“The one with that axe killed three Gold-ranks. I know that weapon. I think I remember him. From the battle at sea.”

“Check for Prince Khedal or the King of Minotaurs. Sire, if one or both are here—”

“I said—advance, Ytol. Spread out. Let’s see what they brought to fight me.”

The King of Destruction’s hands tightened on his horse’s reins. Mars glanced at Ytol and nodded. Blank-faced, the man bowed.

“F—your Majesty? Why are they here?”

Teres saw Flos look at her and flinched. He blinked and smiled—but it changed nothing. The King of Destruction sat up slightly.

“I never knew their hearts, Teresa Atwood. They attacked me once at sea, declaring war though I had chosen to avoid fighting them. As for why—perhaps just that they put themselves against me. To the death. They ended my dream once. I would like to return the favor now.”

Teres saw him turn ahead, and then the air was full of orders and she was only in the way. She rode, seeing the other army marching at them. A tiny force compared to the vanguard the King of Destruction had brought to fight both nations at once.

And yet—they disturbed her.

Why had they come?

 

—-

 

As was often said, the world watched. Noass and Drassi were commentating. At one point, the [Gossip] turned [Reporter] just threw her notes up in the air.

They did not understand. They were Drakes, being advised by Wistram. Minotaurs seldom entered the academy.

But there were Minotaurs across the world who saw.

“Checkmate.”

Rhata pushed the piece forwards with her nose. Zevara stared down at the grey rat, affronted. Haldagaz nibbled on a cracker. Neither rat had played chess, of course, although Calruz had taught them to move pieces.

The Minotaur sat across from the Drake, at the barrier of his cell. Zevara scowled. It was a custom of theirs, now, to have moments like this.

“I give. How is the monster-clearing work going? I didn’t get to check with you yesterday.”

Grumpily, Zevara folded her arms. Calruz scratched at his chin. He looked more…alive, since she had made part of his imprisonment fighting monsters.

“I—”

The dungeon’s door blew open. Zevara heard loud voices raised in argument. She spun, putting her hand on the sword. Calruz straightened as Rhata and Haldagaz leapt onto his shoulders in alarm.

It was Bezale. She came down the dungeon.

“What is the meaning of—”

Calruz of Hammerad. You have to see this.”

Bezale stopped in front of his cell, panting. Two of the [Guard] followed, weapons trained on her. She was unarmed. But she did have a scrying orb in hand. Calruz blinked at her.

“Why are you here?”

Zevara was about to order the Minotauress to put down the orb. She kept tabs on who visited Calruz. Erin, Olesm—and yes, Bezale, twice—but the Minotauress had put aside everything. She thrust the orb urgently forwards. This went beyond criminality. Minotaur looked at Minotaur.

Look.

Calruz saw the scrying orb, the gesticulating Drakes. And then the distant army, marching towards the King of Destruction. The view cut to [Mages] on the ground, trying to call out to the Minotaurs who ignored them. His eyes widened.

The House of Minos.

“They’ve gone to war.”

He saw Bezale nod. She stood there, then looked around. Zevara blinked at Bezale.

“Why did you come?”

“Our home has gone to war. Prisoner—whoever. This matters.”

The [Spellscribe] answered her succinctly. Then she sat down, cross-legged. Calruz copied her. Zevara looked at them. Both Minotaurs—

 

—-

 

—Were watching. Venaz stood there, in front of the scrying orb, eyes locked onto it.

Wil was gone, still waiting for the [Alchemist] to come back with the results of the poison-test he’d performed on Yerranola. But the other [Strategists] were there.

“Grandfather’s beards. Minotaurs? You know about this, Venaz?”

“Of course. I didn’t expect them to show up now…”

Venaz answered Merrik without looking away. Peki and Feshi glanced up. The Gnoll growled softly.

“The House of Minos. But why did they come? I heard about the payment—some of the tribes gave money too. But why oppose the King of Destruction so fiercely? Did he attack them?”

“He never did. Minotaurs attacked him.”

Peki squinted at Venaz. He glanced at her and nodded.

“Our King decreed it. Just like this time—she’s…hold on. Get out of the way, you stupid Drakes! Show me—ah.

He bent down, snorting, as the image turned to the two Minotaurs leading the small army again. Venaz made a sound.

“She sent them. Of course.”

“Who?”

The huge Minotaur in front was clearly a [General]. Unlike the younger Minotaurs striding behind him in ranks, the one in front wore a battered, bronze-ish armor, clearly enchanted from the way it seemed to glitter oddly in the light, even with no rays of sun hitting it directly. He stood proudly, holding the axe he’d thrown as well as carrying a huge two-handed battleaxe. But he was—old.

His fur and mane had turned grey. That was the real clue. In fact…Feshi thought the other one, a Minotauress, looked just as elderly.

“They’ve finally found a place to bring the fight to the King of Destruction. Looks like…a lot of Sharphorns. And [Lineholders]. Yes…it makes sense. The idiots—where’s the artillery?”

That was all Venaz said. His friends watched him.

“Who’re the Minotaurs, Venaz?”

Merrik squinted at the orb. Venaz started. He looked at them and then shook his head.

“I forget you wouldn’t know. Anyone of the House of Minos would…they have to be watching. They’d have informed the King once they made their decision to land. They’re all watching.”

 

—-

 

Venaz was right.

From the House of Minos, they gathered to look into the scrying orbs. Minotaurs, young and old, most on their island, but across the world—from Calruz and Bezale in Liscor’s prison, to the throne of the House of Minos.

Prince Khedal folded his arms as he watched the advance of the Minotaurs from their warships.

“They mean to bring the fight to the King of Destruction, my liege. His forces have slowed; it may be another hour before they enter into range.”

“What of the battle between Jecrass and Medain?”

The voice that came from the throne was female. Khedal glanced at the battle dismissively. He turned his head.

“Both sides are adding forces to the fight but neither one is triumphing, my King. Medain’s main army is growing closer. Should our forces…?”

“No. They will have the King of Destruction to contend with. And stop calling me, ‘my King’, brother.”

She sat on the throne. The King of the House of Minos, since it was a royal title, not bound by distinction of gender.

The King of Minotaurs. Prince Khedal nodded. They were bound by blood.

“The young [Prince] will be disappointed you forbade him from joining General Ozem’s forces.”

“He isn’t ready.”

That was all his mother said. Khedal nodded. He looked down at the forces below. Four armies, three of them of Chandrar. His hands clenched and unclenched, and the [Prince] wished he were there. He growled into the orb.

“Fight gloriously, Humans. You owe your opponents no less.”

 

—-

 

Reim’s army had slowed their advance. They were moving away from the battle with Jecrass’ army and Medain’s. High King Perric was clearly wary of both armies since he’d slowed his forces to create offensive lines against either one pressing at him.

But he needn’t have worried. Both the King of Destruction and Minotaurs were locked on each other. The Minotaurs were advancing faster, away from their ships.

It was a curious tactical move. But the King of Minotaurs did not order the [General] to abort. It was his battle. And indeed—it was forcing Flos’ hand.

“They’re trying to advance on us. So if we fall back we’ll be caught in the pass.”

That was Jelaim’s frank assessment. He wasn’t one of the commanders around Flos, but he shared their insight here. He shook his head, baring his teeth.

“But we outnumber them by…”

Teres was astounded. She heard the count coming in; Orthenon had sped along the coast, checking for ambushes or tricks. As far as he could tell—there were none.

“Your Majesty, Orthenon believes this is the entirety of their force not counting the skeleton crews holding their warships.”

“And how many landed?”

The King of Destruction looked ahead. The elevation dropped to sea level from the pass, so they could actually see the distant ships.

Teres saw the huge sails, and thought they were massive. Not as large as her world’s—but close. For a medieval-type ship? Possibly as large as Earth had ever made.

Warships. Six of them. The House of Minos had built vast vessels with reinforced hulls—the kind made for battles with sea serpents and bombardments from other ships at sea. Magically reinforced woods, steel-plated bows.

Each one could hold about a thousand Minotaur [Warriors] in addition to the skeleton crew. Now—all six had disembarked their forces.

But that—was such a strange number as Teres heard it.

Six thousand Minotaurs? They were outnumbered at least fourteen-to-one. She expected Flos Reimarch to laugh. She nearly scoffed aloud until something made Teres shiver.

That was like how Flos had fought Jecrass.

 

—-

 

Still—their army puzzled the armchair [Strategists], the viewers from afar. Noass spoke loudly into the scrying orb as Niers motioned for him to be muted.

“No horse complement. No…archers? What kind of an army is this? Drassi, as a bit of a [Strategist] myself, I have to say that this looks more and more like a bl—”

He was mercifully silenced. The Titan raised his head.

“Anyone share that Drake’s opinion?”

His new students shifted. They were still too nervous to freely vouch their opinions and anyways—they rightly suspected this question was a trap.

“It—it is an unusual composition, Professor. The King of Destruction has a famous cavalry-leader in his [Steward], as well as powerful [Mages] and archers. Um—they don’t seem to have many [Mages] either.”

A half-Elf put up his hand defiantly. He was from Terandria. Niers nodded.

“All fair. But this is what you’re missing. They have an advantage few armies carry, especially in those numbers.”

He pointed. Artillery. His students looked at the odd contraptions. Only the Drakes and Princess Angelica were intimately familiar with them.

Weapons of war. It wasn’t unknown; far from it. But when a [Mage] could cast [Siege Fireball], why carry around ammunition and weaponry? The process of building them was a secret known widely only to Drakes and Minotaurs. Now, Niers eyed the siege weapons on the field, being pulled by their teams.

Eighteen ballistae. Seven catapults.

Another hand rose. This time from the [Princess] again.

“Not trebuchets, Professor? Even the Drakes have them.”

The Titan didn’t raise his head.

“Venaz would be able to tell you, Princess Angelica, that trebuchets are poor weapons for combat on an open field. They’re meant for besieging. Moreover—these are Minotaur-class artillery. Do you recall how they fought at sea?”

He meant the battle with the [Strategists] and their encounter with Prince Khedal’s warship. The others nodded. The Titan stared at the orb.

“There you go.”

He did not elaborate. Now, Niers looked at the Minotaur leading the army. As much as the types of warriors that had been brought…the question remained who led them.

 

—-

 

“We took gold to strike against him…it feels like years ago. But the House of Minos could not attack immediately, inland as Reim was. General Ozem must have seized the moment to strike.”

Venaz pointed into the orb at the old Minotaur leading the rest. Feshi narrowed her eyes.

“He must be mad. Or extremely high-level. There are two of the King’s Seven there—if you count Orthenon. And the King of Destruction himself.”

“And he has his famous Skill. What are they hoping to do? How good is this General Ozem, Venaz?”

Merrik added. Like Noass, and some of Niers’ class, he shared the Drake’s skepticism. This looked like a poor fight. The Minotaur rubbed at his chin.

“Ozem? His class is [Onslaught General]. He is not the House of Minos’ best leader. But he is…the oldest. He has seen more battle than anyone in this city. He’d be…74 years old the last time his name-day was called. The Minotauress by his side? First of Horns, Neriha of Hammerad. She is only a few years younger than Ozem. My region’s greatest champion. I had the honor of taking six lessons from her.”

“You said they took artillery, but that’s a small number, even for that many Minotaurs, Venaz.”

Feshi pointed out. Peki nodded. Eighteen ballistae and seven catapults…was twenty five. She was bad with math. She expected more. Venaz just shook his head.

“Ozem knows his business better than me.”

He saw the image flicker back to the [Commentators]. And indeed, Queen Yisame, the Empress of Sands, Wistram Academy, so many others…were watching as they made their portentous statements.

The Minotaurs on the ground, their motives, strategy, was all watched from afar. But—it was a changing world. A brave, or idiotic, [Mage] struggled across the ground after them, hoping for an interview. Everyone saw through the scrying orb she was carrying her approaching the ranks of Minotaurs, calling out.

 

—-

 

“Excuse me! Excuse me, I’m from Wistram! I’d like an interview!”

The woman’s voice quavered a bit. And it made the marching [General] look up. The drumming beat of feet had been the only sound aside from his thoughts and the beating of his heart. Now—he looked at the [Mage] waving at him.

“Who is that, Ozem?”

The Minotauress, taller than he was, squinted at the Human [Mage]. She was First of Horns, Neriha of Hammerad, the [Champion] who had come with his army.

Her eyes were going in her advancing age. She squinted at the [Mage]; the Minotaurs on foot strode past her, ignoring her attempts to keep up. The Human looked comically small next to them.

Most Minotaurs were above six feet tall, even without their horns and they could be far naturally taller. They were stronger as well—like the bicorns versus regular warhorses.

“Excuse me! I’m from Wistram—”

The vanguard around Ozem swung down their weapons in a moment and the [Mage] stopped. But she held out the scrying orb as if it was a flag of peace, or some relic-class artifact.

General Ozem of Maweil had served the House of Minos for decades. He couldn’t remember ever seeing something as strange as this. Of course—he knew what she was about.

“It’s the [Mages] with their scrying network. They probably want to speak with us for their interviews.”

“Ah.”

That was all Neriha said. The two Minotaurs kept walking.

Excuse me! Please wait—the world is watching—I’d like an interview—Commentator Noass and Miss Drassi…

The [Mage] panted after them. The Minotaurs were striding ahead, aided by Ozem’s movement Skill. [Army: Longstriders].

They were making for the King of Destruction, who’d halted to spread out and create an organized front against the Minotaurs. Wise of him. Ozem calculated it would still be another hour or two before they approached him.

Medain and Jecrass were still fighting. Part of him longed to enter that fray. But he had a single task. The [General] had a thought. He turned to Neriha as the two walked. He carried the axe—still bloodstained—that he had used to kill Gold-ranks in a single throw. Of course, Neriha was an expert at throwing weapons, but Ozem was not. Yet the blade he held had gone true.

It was a gift, from the King of Minotaurs. For now.

“This means we are being broadcast to the House of Minos and the world at large, Neriha.”

“Hm. That does make one feel good.”

She smiled. The two ignored the [Mage] herself, but she was allowed to follow at a jog, panting, unable to fully catch up even with the [Haste] spell on her. The two talked as old friends did, of countless campaigns. Their conversation was even audible from the scrying orb; they took little attention to the plaintive [Mage].

“The lines for warrior-applicants will be long in Etrerra-Valar today.”

Few people knew what that meant. Drassi looked at Noass and he was searching through an encyclopedia on the House of Minos—and there were few.

But Minotaurs understood. Etrerra-Valar was the main harbor of the House of Minos. Warrior-applicants were the volunteers for the army.

The House of Minos was a paradise. Its standing army was all volunteers. No conscription necessary. And rather than [Soldiers]—most were [Warriors] in class. An important distinction, in many ways.

A strange land. Hitherto unknown to many of the public consciousness, like the Drathian Empire. Minotaurs existed, and you might see them, especially at sea.

But look now and listen.

“Excuse me—do you have a word for the viewers at home? Can I ask why the House of Minos has decided to—hello?”

The [Mage] jogged next to some younger Minotaurs, bearing axes and shields. Very few swords compared to some armies; there were axes, hammers among some of the older Minotaurs, but little in the way of spears or swords, a mainstay in other armies. No horses. No bows.

The young Minotaur glanced once at the [Mage], and then walked straight ahead, in ranks, with the others next to him. Curiously—the older Minotaurs in the front and the ones lugging the artillery had decorated their horns. The bulk of the army—their horns were just white ivory.

Sharphorns. You could feel their excitement, the way they nearly broke formation with their eagerness as the older veterans maintained the pace.

“Untested Sharphorns.”

Neriha snorted, but affectionately, casting a glance backwards. Ozem nodded. Four thousand of the House of Minos’ [Warriors] were new. Two thousand were complete veterans, like him and Neriha.

Excuse me, General Ozem!”

The [Mage] had finally caught up with the [General] again. She had that exasperated tone in her voice that suggested she was the one who was owed something. Ozem glanced at her.

“May I ask why you’re attacking the King of Destruction?”

“Our King ordered it.”

The [General] spoke briefly. The [Mage] fell behind and then hurried after him.

“Can you elaborate, [General]? We’d appreciate a few words if you could spare them—what do you feel the odds are for your victory? Are you sure this is the—”

“They’re so noisy.”

Neriha glanced back at the [Mage]. Ozem nodded. The King of Minos had ordered him to take the battle to the King of Destruction and fulfill their contract. But…that was just an excuse.

He had volunteered and known she would appoint him and Neriha. He could have sat down and explained all this to the Wistram [Mage], taken a break from his advance on the King of Destruction just to talk to her.

But she didn’t deserve it. If those watching did not know his name or his past or why he had come here—they did not have the right to know. So Ozem looked ahead. He saw the King of Destruction’s army spreading out, setting themselves on higher ground at the base of the pass.

Infantry, spread out in an enveloping formation to the left and right. Unlike a battle with two armies of either side, an echelon formation or any other type had little point. They just needed to surround the Minotaurs.

The [Steward] was circling from the side. Ozem was watching him. [Mages]…behind the King of Destruction’s lines, with archers. He wasn’t trying a unique maneuver. Besides—

His Gambler was dead. Now there was a [Strategist] Ozem would have loved to see on the field, as much as the Titan of Baleros. The half-Giants were moving to the sides as well; they’d join the flanking maneuver to avoid running through infantry no doubt.

He had time to adjust to them; both sides were still far out of range. Ozem saw all of this as the [Mage] pestered him, trying to get him to respond.

She was annoying. So the [General] decided to silence her. He raised his axe.

And began to sing.

The [Mage] jerked in surprise. But Ozem’s voice was alone for a moment. As if they had expected it, waiting, the other Minotaurs joined him.

Each one knew the song. Young and old, male and female, they marched as they sang. Passing by the dying [Soldiers] from Jecrass and Medain, towards the King of Destruction. Reim’s army could hear them, in the distance.

It was a song anyone who came from the House of Minos knew. Home.

 

From days of war and wrath we ran

Exiled from every land

Searching for our honor lost

And found the House of Minos’ sands.

 

In days of old our savage kind

Lost our pride and lost our minds

To keep our wisdom the King decreed:

This land was ours as fate designed.

 

By rock and sand the holds arose

And the House of Minos built its throne

Maweil sails and Beriad creates

Hammerad protects and Samad grows.

 

Now watch and wait, and guard this land

That never may dishonor stand

When the King calls our fleets to war

We remind the world of our names once more.

 

From the House of Minos we march to war

And the axes rise and fall once more

Until the last horn will break

Let nations tremble and empire quake!”

 

—-

 

Each to their own. Venaz and Calruz saw Minotaurs within the ranks of the Sharphorns and one of the old vanguards swung up their blades. And they joined in.

 

“Where does the warrior fall?

What end see I, large or small?

Laugh at death, and stand ever tall!

From the House of Minos, Hammerad calls.”

 

Each to a holding. Maweil was next, Bezale’s home, and Ozem’s.

 

“We sail until the world’s end

Bring death to foe and aid to friend

Those whom the House of Minos offend

Maweil’s sails your doom portends.”

 

Perhaps then—the others understood. Zevara looked at Calruz and Bezale and saw part of it. She sat there, next to his cell.

As he marched, General Ozem smiled. It was quiet again. He looked forwards, to the King of Destruction.

It would be glorious. Both armies slowly advanced towards each other over many miles. And behind them—almost as an afterthought—the battle between Jecrass and Medain reached its zenith.

 

—-

 

Princess Jecaina of Jecrass saw war in its entirety for the first time. She saw battle—not as [Soldiers] returning home, wounded, triumphant, or absent—but as her father had known it.

“Fall back! To the High King! Rally on me!

“Forwards! Guard the [Princess]!”

Men and women crashed around her, horses impaling themselves on pikes, their riders falling from saddles, hacking at each other. There was no finesse here, no patterns of attack and defense except on a larger scale.

The [Soldiers] were packed so tightly in places by both sides pressing forwards that they had no room to maneuver. They were literally shoved into their enemy’s swords by those behind them.

All for her. Jecaina saw a [Soldier] reaching for her, only to be taken down by a spear-cast from afar. She cried out in horror—until she saw the golden wave on his chest and realized he’d been a [Soldier] from Medain.

She had picked up a shortsword from the ground. It felt so heavy and awkward rather than the foil or rapier she carried. But she swung it, knocking down a blade coming at her. She found a shield covered in gore and hesitated—then she seized it.

The [Princess]! Secure the—

They didn’t even know where she was. The fighting rounded on the shouter, a [Knight-Captain] desperately fighting forwards. The [Princess] raised her buckler. For a moment she stared in horror at someone’s intestines, still stuck to the rim.

Then—a screaming [Knight] charged her and she brought the shield up and felt the shock of impact as he swung a mace. She lashed out, hacking at his helmet and armor. She tried to step back—collided with someone who threw her forwards.

He was right. Jecaina couldn’t use her footwork. And the other [Knight] just kept charging at her, trying to pull aside her shield and bring his mace down on her body for a killing blow. If he knew she was the [Princess] of Jecrass—the battle had driven him to madness.

“[Fencer’s Riposte]!”

An opening. Jecaina’s blade flicked across the opening as the mace rebounded. If the other [Knight] had possessed a shield; but it had been torn from his arm.

Her shortsword caught him in the tiniest of gaps between helmet and armor. His gorget failed him. Jecaina felt the sick impact—and pulled her sword back.

He clutched at a throat spilling crimson. But he still attacked her—or tried to. Jecaina brought her sword down on his helmet, like a hammer. She struck again and again, crying out.

He fell limp. Jecaina stood over him, shuddering. Just for a second—

She had killed someone. Not a monster. A person.

Her. She had killed…her. Jecaina looked at the female [Knight] and realized that. Then someone grabbed her.

“[Pr—]”

She slashed at the person grabbing her. The [Soldier] stumbled, staring down at the gash in his armor. Jecrass’ armor.

“Oh.”

Jecaina lowered her blade in shock. The [Soldier] fumbled desperately. For a potion.

“[Princess] J—”

His chest exploded in a gout of fire. Jecaina saw the short spear run the [Soldier] through as the enchanted tip burst through armor and flesh. A [Warrior] in armor painted with gold-leaf pointed at her.

The [Princess] is here! Rally on me!

Medain’s Golden Ranks carved through the [Soldiers] around her. Former adventurers, wielding the same artifacts they’d possessed in their career. Compared to that—Jecaina struck forwards in a quick stab. She saw the [Warrior] step back and his spear whirled.

“[Overcut Arc]!”

The fiery tip sheared through her unenchanted sword. Jecaina stumbled backwards as the Gold-rank advanced. Even compared to Medain’s [Knights], they were in another class.

To the [Princess]!

A figure burst through the crowd. A warrior mounted on a fiery horse. Jecaina recognized it. Nightmare. The horse was dark, possessed of incredible night-vision and stealth; a carnivorous predator.

The enchanted barding was aflame. The horse screamed and charged. The Gold-rank adventurer brought up his spear and swore.

“[Phantom Spearwall]!”

Jecaina saw the horse charge forwards onto the spectral spears. They pierced the animal’s hide and it screamed. But then—it kept moving. Jecaina saw the mouth open and razor teeth biting at the adventurer.

Nightmare! Get over here!

The rider struck at the adventurer with a spear and the two exchanged blows as more of Medain’s elites moved forwards. The rider turned.

“Princess! That way!”

He pointed and the Gold-rank jabbed. Jecaina saw a burst of fire. She turned—and ran. She heard a voice, saw, for a moment, at the center of the fighting, a figure on foot.

Jecaina!

Raelt of Jecrass was fighting without his horse. He had his parrying dagger and sword; both were covered up to the hilts in red. He looked—Jecaina saw his head turning.

Father!

She shouted—and felt an impact on her back. Jecaina turned; one of the Golden Ranks had thrown something.

A net. The adventurer grinned as he hauled her back.

To me! We’ve got the [Princess]!

The battle turned around Jecaina in a moment. But—she saw Jecrass’ [Riders] plunging forwards, fighting in the press. But they were light cavalry! They weren’t meant for a fight like this. And half were on foot. Which meant they’d lost their mounts.

Medain’s army had finally caught up. Now—the Golden Ranks and fastest of their infantry were amid the fighting. Jecaina fought wildly, but the net thrower’s bindings were like steel. She was dragged backwards, into their grip again.

So helpless. Jecaina wanted to shout. One Gold-rank—or even two! But an army surrounded her. She was dragged backwards as Medain’s ranks closed around her.

Then she saw a tall man. Not as tall as her father. He had a crown, and he was strong, armored in numerous artifacts and surrounded by the Golden Ranks, his elites. High King Perric looked down at Jecaina with a triumphant look on his face.

“Princess Jecaina. You have inconvenienced us quite a bit.”

High King Perric gestured to his soldiers.

“Take her to the capital at once. Force Jecrass’ soldiers back. Don’t tear them completely to bits. We need their army to take on the King of Destruction.”

Let go of me! You have no right, you coward!”

Jecaina fought the hands around her. Perric looked at her with a flash of anger at that last word. But he turned past her.

“Amplify my voice. Raelt of Jecrass! Your daughter is my captive! Pull your forces back now!

His words boomed across the battlefield. Jecrass’ soldiers stopped fighting and saw, at last, Jecaina being dragged onto a horse. The Golden Ranks surrounding her. She saw a man on the ground look up. His circlet of gold—her father met her eyes.

“There you are.”

Raelt muttered. He’d been so worried, looking for her among the bodies, the fighting. So—he stumbled forwards.

“Your Majesty—”

Geril was next to him. The old retainer had fought through everything to stay with him. General Lael? She might be in the fighting. Or dead. Raelt didn’t know. Right now—he didn’t care.

There she was.

King Perric frowned as he saw Raelt stumbling forwards. The man looked half-dead, covered in blood and wounds.

King Leysars, you will turn your army to do battle with the King of Destruction! Your daughter is—

Could he even hear him? Perric raised his voice. And he saw the King of Duel’s eyes turn towards him.

Perric.

Raelt came to a stop. He seemed to take in the odds only now. Medain’s elites, standing fresh and ready and Jecrass’ exhausted army.

The King of Destruction had managed to transport a vast army with him. But Raelt’s desperate riders hadn’t a chance. Not against Medain’s full army.

The Gold-ranks were cheering their leader, one of them. The High King drew his enchanted sword, the Wavebreaker of Medain, a heirloom of his house, and pointed it at Raelt. He wore a Ring of Ironskin along with the Greater Arrowguard Ring, and an Amulet of Solidity, which could resist both aura and spell. His boots were [Haste]-capable for two minutes. His armor…

Raelt pointed his rapier at Perric.

“Fight me, you little coward.”

His voice was unenchanted. But it was loud enough. The cheering stopped. High King Perric looked down at Raelt. The [King of Challenges] swayed on his feet.

“You are in no position to make demands. I—we say again—”

Fight me, Perric. And I’ll kill you like the pig you are.

The [King of Challenges] began to walk forwards. His soldiers advanced. He was looking at Jecaina. She tried to call out to him.

“Father, don’t—”

“Don’t be a fool! She’s my prisoner! Her life is in my hands!”

Raelt was just looking at Jecaina. Perric put his sword out, towards Jecaina. The King of Jecrass looked at his daughter. Then up at the King of Medain.

“You cannot have her. I said, I challenge you, Perric. As [Kings]! Fight me!

He roared. And his army shouted.

Challenge! Duel!

The High King hesitated. He was armed in twelve artifacts, each more powerful than the last. Raelt looked dead. But…he had brought the King of Destruction near to death. Twice. More than that…

“You’ve forsworn yourself in a duel before, King Leysars. You have no right. Turn your army now and—

The King of Duels stared at his daughter. Then the Golden Ranks. They were tensed, wary. Each one was a former Gold-rank adventurer. And they had a sixth sense about what might come next.

Not easy foes. They were fully prepared to fall back with Jecaina and their [King] rather than fight. And Raelt had no more tricks. No more River Wardens, either, not with him.

His daughter. Raelt shook his head slightly. Behind him was the King of Destruction’s army. They might be able to crush Medain’s forces. But they would have to take the capital in a siege first, if Medain’s army had Jecaina. And Flos had sworn his oath.

If the Minotaurs weren’t here…if he had noticed earlier, or made peace earlier.

If, if, if. Raelt’s life was plagued by those kinds of things. A ruler, no, a [King] was haunted by them, no matter what they did. His head bowed.

The King of Duels turned away, lowering his rapier and dagger. The High King smiled. Jecaina stirred. She saw Raelt walking, his posture light, relaxed.

Perfect. She opened her mouth. But.

She wanted to be saved.

Her father looked back. Her father. Her dad. King Perric of Medain might have sired children dozens of times with all his wives. But he was no parent.

Jecaina saw Raelt neatly turn, his body compact, moving on his heel. He raised his rapier as he took a step, as if to bow or kneel.

The [King of Challenges] vanished. He stepped across the distance between himself and Jecaina. Covered it in a moment.

A [Fencer’s Lunge]. He buried the rapier in the head of the Gold-rank who held Jecaina. Enchanted rapier piercing through Skill and artifact.

[Royal Arms]. The other Golden Ranks recoiled, crying out. Raelt withdrew the sword.

“[Triple Slash].”

He cut across a second Gold-rank adventurer, aiming at one covered in leather armor. Enchanted, but leather. Blood flew.

You fool. Capture him! Him and his daughter!

Perric reacted first. His Golden Ranks closed in. They were, after all, Gold—

A [King] looked at them. He was, after all, a [King].

[Flurry Blades]. Both his rapier and dagger moved. An adventurer threw himself sideways to avoid. Jecaina saw Raelt spin, seeking another target.

He moved away from a slashing blade with [Flash Step], moving out of range. His rapier flickered. The air moved. [Wind Cutter] took the woman in the eyes.

“Go.”

The King of Duels slapped the horse’s side. Jecaina looked down at him. And then realized—the Gold-ranks around her had fallen back, to take cover. She felt the horse start, then move.

Stop him!

The High King saw it all and roared. His Golden Ranks surged forwards.

Horselords and Jecrass! For the King of Duels!

The [Soldiers] charged. They broke forwards, on foot, on horse, and Jecaina thought she saw them glowing. Just for a moment. It came from her father. Men and women seemed larger. And they fell upon Medain’s army like—like—

[Aura of the Lion]. Jecaina’s horse made a furious sound. It planted its front hooves and suddenly kicked.

A Gold-rank [Warrior] had been grabbing for her. He had dozens of Skills, possibly with [Ironskin] or [Greater Endurance]…

The horse’s hooves still kicked him in the face. Raelt saw another grabbing for Jecaina’s leg. He stepped over and ran the man through the chest.

Someone knocked him aside. A woman with a shield. Raelt tried to drag the rapier free—but it was caught in the screaming adventurer. So he let go of it.

“I’ve got him! I’ve got—”

The [King] leapt. He wrenched her shield down and swept his parrying dagger across her throat. The Gold-rank shouted and one of her rings flashed.

The blade turned. Raelt’s vision spun as she buffeted him with her shield. She was strong! He dragged his dagger up and stabbed again.

Again, the ring flashed, turning the blow. So Raelt pushed the blade—slowly—through the woman’s throat as she hit him with the hilt of her sword. He cut left.

The High King and the Golden Ranks saw the former Gold-rank adventurer clutching at her throat. And again, the [King of Challenges] stabbed. Again and again.

The man was supposed to be a [Fencer]. He picked up the woman’s sword as more of the Golden Ranks closed in. He brought it down on a helm, covering his daughter.

Seize her.

The High King rode forwards at last. He went for Jecaina, cutting through the [Soldiers] who were throwing themselves forwards like insane [Berserkers]. He saw her riding, trying to break through as another, common [Soldier] blocked her way—

And there was Raelt again. He had a hatchet this time. He brought it down on the man’s shoulder. He rose, stumbling—someone had shot an arrow through his shoulder.

“Perric.”

He looked up. The High King hesitated. He tried to maneuver past Raelt. Jecaina—the King of Duels was blocking the way. The Golden Ranks held back, their bravado challenged and found wanting.

They were afraid to die. Raelt was breathing hard. He looked back, once.

Geril was grabbing at Jecaina. The old [Retainer] looked back once.

“Your Majesty—”

A wall of Medain’s [Soldiers] stood between the [King] and his escape. But he just smiled. Or bared his teeth.

“Fight me, Perric.”

The High King hesitated. He saw Raelt lunge.

A beast made of a man hacked at the Golden Ranks. It bit off a man’s ear and buried a dagger in a woman’s eye. They dragged it back, but it kept fighting. It screamed his name.

The High King fled. He chased the daughter, riding forwards. Jecrass’ army was broken. Many still fought, but the rest were falling back, trying to protect their [Princess].

Ride! Ride!

Geril was shouting in Jecaina’s ear. She looked back once. The High King was pursuing her with his Golden Ranks. He was…his army had encircled Jecrass’. They slowed as they fought clear. Just a bit closer, a bit…

“I have you at last!”

The High King caught up with her. He swung his sword sideways and Jecaina reached for a sword she didn’t have. The enchanted blade sheared through the [Soldier] who brought up his shield to guard her.

A copy of her father. The High King raised his sword again, to behead her horse.

“[Full Power Blow].”

Geril hit the High King with his halberd. His blade glanced off Perric’s armor and the High King recoiled. He whirled his blade.

Wretch!

He cut Geril once and Jecaina cried out. The old retainer’s eyes flickered.

“[Bellhammer’s Impact].”

He hit the High King again. This time the impact nearly took the High King off his horse. His mount reared—and Jecaina’s horse finally won clear of the press of bodies. She rode, Geril right behind her.

Stop her! I command you! Stop—”

Perric’s voice sounded behind her, more distant with each word. Jecaina saw more of the Golden Ranks following. Twice—they tried for her. She fended them off with a blade she seized at last from one of the [Soldiers] protecting her. But it was Geril who fended them off.

[My Life, My King]…

He murmured and brought the halberd down, forcing a Gold-rank to reel backwards. The second blow cut a man to the quick.

The old man forced the pursuers back, and Jecrass’ horses did the rest. Arrows aimed for her mount, but the others covered her. Geril actually caught an arrow.

He had never seemed stronger. Unstoppable, even by the Golden Ranks. Jecaina was looking back.

Father—

Raelt hadn’t followed them. She’d thought—thought he would break free, follow them.

“Captured, my lady. You must ride. Jecrass needs her—her [Queen].”

Geril rode with them, almost sedately. He looked at her. She turned to him.

“Me? But I—”

“Without the [King], you must replace him. That man is not worthy of ruling Jecrass. Your father…could not have abided by your imprisonment.”

“It was my fault, though.”

Jecaina’s eyes stung. She felt something bop her on the head. Gently. The haft of Geril’s halberd. He shook his head at his charge.

“Not at all, your Majesty. These things—you mustn’t blame yourself. Now go on, Jecaina. My lovely child. They’re waiting for you.”

“Go? But what about—”

The old retainer was gone. Jecaina looked back and saw his horse galloping next to her. She stopped. But the other seized her and carried her onwards. He was gone. He’d been dead the moment the High King swung his sword.

She fled, tears in her eyes. The King of Jecrass lay in chains, and the High King looked ahead and told himself—it was fine. He had Jecrass’ ruler. All that remained was the King of Destruction.

Tragedy, loss, the King of Duel’s capture, it had all happened before the other two armies had met. As Jecaina fled, the second battle began ahead of her.

 

—-

 

News of the battle between Medain and Jecrass reached Reim’s army as the Minotaur’s force finally came within range. They seemed both huge and small—giant bull-people, but so few. Jecaina saw them in tight formation around their two-dozen artillery pieces.

Laughably small compared to the huge vanguard that Flos had marched north with his and Orthenon’s Skills. In the distance, Medain’s army was reforming. Battered—but vast.

“They’ll threaten our flanks soon, milord. If the battle with the House of Minos drags on…we’ll be outnumbered. Apparently, King Raelt freed his daughter before falling into captivity.”

“We will rescue the King of Jecrass, then. Our mission has just changed slightly. As for our flanks—pull up those two battalions there—we’ll keep two thousand horse in reserve to ward off a charge—but this battle should be over before he can reach us.”

Indeed, even Jecrass’ fleeing, broken army had yet to reach the impending battlefield. They were travelling wide anyways; Jecrass was still at war with Reim.

It was the House of Minos who now advanced.

“Your orders, your Majesty?”

Flos of Reim looked ahead. At General Ozem.

“I think it is him. I recognize that armor. He was on one of the warships. Do you remember, Mars?”

The Illusionist hesitated. Then she ducked her head.

“Always, lord. But this isn’t the time to be lost in the past. They are a dangerous foe.”

“I know that. But permit me my memory. I swore upon my waking that I would settle things with the King of Minotaurs. This…will be a fine first step. Is all in readiness?”

He turned his head and regarded his army.

“Ready, King of Destruction.”

Shepherd Zamea boomed, shouldering her vast axe.

“The Rustängmarder stand ready to march. But your advance will be slower than the rest of the army’s sire. That is my command.”

[Death Commander] Ytol bowed. The King of Destruction flicked his eyes to him, but nodded shortly.

“The Serpent Hunters are prepared.”

Jelaim called out.

“Parasol Stroll will begin spellcasting as soon as they are within range.”

Ulyse and [Grand Mage] Esiela stood at the front, their catalysts shimmering with power. Flos nodded at them. Then he looked ahead.

“My [Steward].”

Orthenon raised his spear. He was circling, ready to charge the Minotaur’s flanks and their siege weapons.

Last, the King of Destruction looked at the two riding with him.

“You will stay back, Teres. I have battled the Minotaurs in their strength only once. But—I think this engagement will be too dangerous for you yet.”

“B—”

Teres caught herself, and then nodded. She rode backwards, stationing herself with Ytol. She saw the wariness in Flos’ eyes.

“The last time we fought them, they barely had time to open up with those damn war weapons of theirs. It was all boarding action, aside from their damn King’s axes destroying ships. It’s giving me an uneasy feeling. As well as that axe their leader’s carrying. It’s a Gold-rank slayer. Stick with the Rustängmarder, your majesty.”

Mars the Illusionist was last. He nodded at her advice.

“I don’t intend to give them any advantage, Mars. First them—then this High King. Now, my Illusionist—will you do me the honors of beginning this battle with your challenge?”

She smiled.

“I would accept nothing less.”

Mars the Illusionist rode through the ranks, at the head of the army. The [Soldiers] slowed. And Teres heard their cheer again. Flos began it himself.

Mars! Mars the Illusionist! Mars of Reim!”

She dismounted from her horse as she reached the head of the army and began to stride forwards on foot to the cheers. Across from his army, the House of Minos’ force had slowed and begun their final preparations.

 

—-

 

“We are nearly within range, General Ozem. Your targets?”

The Minotaur who spoke was lamed. One of his arms was shriveled, deformed, unable to function. He was the [Master of Artillery].

“The [Steward]. Then—target the half-Giants. The catapults are to attack the bulk of the army on foot. Honor to you, Nervhetti.”

The [General] replied and the Minotaur grinned. He clasped his good hand to his breast.

“A privilege, General Ozem!”

He stepped back and almost all was ready. The annoying [Mage] had fallen back to what she considered to be a safe distance. Ozem looked forwards.

Neriha, the First Horn, was shading her eyes to squint ahead.

“You know, I don’t think this King of Destruction has seen our artillery perform.”

“Last time we boarded him too fast. We would have taken him in combat—until the Gardener overwhelmed our warships.”

She grunted.

“Ah, yes. That brave Beastkin. How many ships did the [Gardener] of Reim down?”

“Three?”

Ozem couldn’t remember. He should have—but he was focused ahead.

“You can stop the Illusionist?”

“We’ll find out. The fact that our [King] is watching me is actually somewhat worrying, Ozem. I feel quite nervous!”

The two Minotaurs looked at each other. And then they burst out laughing. They weren’t the only ones. The old veterans in Ozem’s vanguard laughed at this as well. The Sharphorns in the ranks, the green [Warriors] who hadn’t seen many battles—they were all at least Level 16, but that was something a child could boast of—were too stiff by comparison.

“Ah, Neriha, I’ll miss this. Don’t let her slay you.”

Ozem saw the Minotauress grin. Then—he saw the Illusionist making her way through the ranks and his blood began to hum. Even in the ambush, she had slain so many of the House of Minos’ warriors.

Mars the Illusionist. One of the greatest living warriors this world had to offer. It was useless to compare her to the other Named Adventurers and legendary fighters of their time. Even Neriha. Anything before they met was useless speculation. And the [Vanguard] of the King of Destruction had left countless ‘legends’ in the ground.

The chant began from Reim. The Minotaurs were silent—until their [General] faced them. He had a compulsion to speak, a rare one.

“Master of Artillery. Hold fire until the Illusionist’s challenge and my signal.”

His voice was a steady shout, audible to all. Even the distant [Mage]. The Master of Artillery raised his hand in acknowledgement. General Ozem looked across the Minotaurs.

“I feel nostalgic, looking at this army. Not that we have ever faced the King of Destruction on land. Like Neriha, I feel slightly nervous. I have never fought before an audience besides my foe.”

The veterans chuckled and the Sharphorns listened to the old [Onslaught General], untensing a bit at the humor. Ozem waited. Then he looked back.

“The House of Minos has taken gold and jewels to do battle with the King of Destruction. Supplies, food, artifacts—[Mercenary]’s pay to battle Reim. To some—that is what the House of Minos is. But we did not make war the first time for payment. Nor this.”

He looked back and pointed. His other hand still held the sacred axe, the relic gifted to him.

“Look there, young Sharphorns. You see our enemy. A man. But a [King]. Perhaps the greatest of Human rulers you will ever meet. Do not scorn him. The House of Minos never made war because we found the King of Destruction dishonorable or a weak foe.”

Ozem shook his head. His horns, decorated with his victories in battle from the beginning—slaying a century-old Hobgoblin, their oldest foe—gleamed.

“No. She made war to halt a man—a Human man—who would rule this world unchecked. So we ended the King of Destruction’s dream and put him into slumber! So once, now again. The House of Minos shall suffer no tyrant.”

At this, there was some sporadic cheering, again from the Sharphorns. Those who knew better were silent. Ozem waited.

“But. That is not why we are here.”

He gestured to the two thousand veterans of countless battles. Most were as old as Ozem himself. They grinned behind their scars, hefting weapons they had known better than any lover. Ozem looked at Neriha and she grinned. He pointed back, towards the warships and their distant homes and bellowed to them.

“We are the ones who cannot live in peace. Brothers and sisters, we are the House of Minos’ failures! Because we find rest in only battle. And—because we could not find a glorious death and lived far too long! We must thank our King—and the King of Destruction—that this is our battlefield! And if we dare to win again, we will return to the House of Minos as failures once more!”

Now they laughed, the old ones. They cheered raggedly. Each one was like Ozem. Addicted to battle. Married to war. The King of Minotaurs had called for warriors to fight the King of Destruction here and win her victory with the Sharphorns. Ozem and Neriha had answered her. He would have begged for an opportunity like this.

Because he was going to win. Ozem had not sailed across the oceans, waited for months on ships while the High King threw petulant fits—just to lose in front of the watching world. He turned and spread his arms, laughing. Greeting the army in front of him like an old friend.

King of Destruction. You kept us waiting far too long.”

 

—-

 

The arrogance of Minotaurs.

“Honor bound fools. They’re forgetting his greatest weapon. You shouldn’t have paid him.”

The angry voice came from one of her heads. The Empress of Sands watched. She was still in control of herself.

“Oh be quiet. I’m sure this Minotaur [General] has everything planned.”

“They’re making a mistake.”

She turned to look at the old man.

“It’s all in your head.”

Groans from around the room. The other heads hated her puns. But they watched. Now—both armies were stationary. Reim’s army crept forwards slightly. They were entering into the lines of fire. The best [Archers] and spells could travel as much as a mile—the [Grand Mage] could certainly hit the Minotaurs from that range.

But Reim’s forces held their fire. Because of the single, glorious figure striding forwards. Hair streaming behind her—like fire today. Tall, beautiful—her favorite form for war. And they called her name.

 

—-

 

Mars the Illusionist. One of the King’s Seven. Ozem saw Neriha tense.

“Steady.”

He murmured. The [Vanguard] had crossed the open ground to halfway between both armies. Half a mile away; he saw the magic gathering around some of the [Mages] behind the King of Destruction’s army. So powerful and concentrated it began to become visible as the raw power warped space.

He held his ground. If Reim had its traditions—so did the House of Minos. They waited, as the [Vanguard] stopped. Then Mars struck her shield.

The sound was not loud—but irresistible. It carried—a noise that travelled across the battlefield and reached every Minotaur in the army. Even if they had covered their ears, they would have heard it.

Minotaurs!

 

—-

 

The Illusionist’s voice was a roar suddenly. Teres started as the chanting stopped around her. Mars planted her sword and bellowed at them.

I am the Champion of the King of Destruction! If there are any brave enough in the House of Minos to fight me, step forwards or be forsworn as cowards! And I will show you how a true [Warrior] fights!

The House of Minos’ army shuddered at the taunt, the challenge. Teres recognized the Skill.

Like she had done at the battle with Belchan’s army, Mars was using one of her Skills.

[Call of the Champion]. She had done it to Jecrass’ armies and not been answered. If they failed to send a champion, the Skill would demoralize them.

And if they sent a [Champion]—Flos had told Teres once that only three people had ever dueled Mars and lived in this fashion.

The Illusionist’s shout rippled across the army of six thousand. She waited, hair blowing in an imaginary breeze. The myth of the King of Destruction, waiting for her opponent.

 

—-

 

Neriha’s eyes were locked on Mars. Ozem felt his blood boiling as he stared at her. And then—came Mars’ answer.

 

—-

 

Fight me, Illusionist!

A Minotauress raised her axe and bellowed into the sky. The Illusionist turned. The [Vanguard] saw a Minotaur—female, step forwards and point her axe at her. She readied herself.

Then—Neriha bellowed.

No, fight me, Illusionist!

The First Horn of Hammerad raised her weapon to the sky. Mars blinked. Then she saw the [General], Ozem, bellowing.

Challenge me, Mars the Illusionist!

Fight me, Illusionist!

Another Minotaur answered her call. And then another. Sharphorns and veterans bellowed, answering her challenge. Each one trying to take up her call.

Every one of them. An army without fear looked at the Illusionist. Each one ready to fight her. They bellowed as one.

Challenge me, Illusionist!

For the first time in her life, Mars had too many opponents. The House of Minos stomped the ground, roaring as they lifted their weapons.

 

—-

 

General Ozem laughed. Mars the Illusionist had never seen an army of Minotaurs! He raised a hand and there was silence.

“If only there were an army of the Illusionist to fight! Alas. I have her opponents here. Step forwards!

Sixteen Minotaurs stepped forwards. Each one was armed with a single fine weapon. Axe, sword, club—one only with fighting gauntlets. They turned to the [General]. Expectant. Eager.

“You. Your name.”

The Minotaur faced the army. He raised his arm.

“I am Lewril of Maweil!”

Go forth.

Ozem nodded to him. The Minotaur strode across the ground as the army shouted his name. He strode at first—then burst into a trot. The Illusionist waited for him. Ready.

The Minotaur was huge. Nearly seven feet and a half. Ozem knew him. The sword he carried—he was good with it. And young. He burst into a sprint two hundred paces away from Mars.

“Sloppy.”

Neriha watched. He might have wasted energy—but Lewril was cannier than his charge indicated. As he closed with Mars—he dug his sword into the ground for a moment, throwing up a cloud of dirt.

A Skill. From half a mile away, Ozem saw him leap sideways. Sword lashing out—

Mars burst out of the cloud and her sword flashed. Elongating.

She beheaded Lewril in a single stroke.

 

—-

 

The Minotaur’s cheers stopped. Reim’s army cheered and laughed. The Minotaur had gone down in a single blow! Teres saw Mars lifting her bloody blade, calling out.

“Was that your best? Send me your next [Champion]!”

She saw the House of Minos’ army pause—and then a second Minotaur strode forwards. No—Teres heard a higher timbre—Minotauress. She shouted her name and then charged. This time—Mar shot forwards to meet her.

Teres waited in silence as the two warriors charged. The Minotauress was bellowing—she had a spear. She lunged forwards—Mars could have taken the impact on her armor. But she slid under and slashed the Minotauress across the belly.

A cry of pain. And then—the sword flashed again.

A second head fell to the ground.

More cheering. The Minotaurs were silent. And then—Teres saw a third warrior bellowing his name.

“They have to be mad.”

She was incredulous. Were they…trying to tire her out? Or really, were all six thousand going to challenge her one after another? She looked at Ytol. The [Death Commander] shrugged.

“If they think she’ll tire—Mars has killed dozens upon dozens when one army tried it. Strange though—I didn’t think Minotaurs would stoop to that.”

Neither did Teres. But she saw the third Minotaur charge. Mars was closer now, so the clash occurred in less than a minute this time. Again, the Minotaurs cheered loudly until their warrior died. This time Mars hamstrung him and speared him in the chest. He tried to attack her even as he died.

But die he did. Reim’s forces cheered and laughed. Until the fourth warrior shouted her name.

“This is a trap.”

That was Teres’ intuition. She hadn’t missed the artillery. She looked at Ytol. His face was grim.

“If it is, milady Mars can survive until the [Steward] charges. Wait.”

The fourth warrior landed a single blow. Teres groaned as the flail struck Mars once—Ytol just shook his head as she cut across the Minotauress’ chest.

“She wouldn’t even have felt it. One stamina potion—she won’t need one for at least thirty more duels. Not if they end like this. She has countless Skills, milady Teres.”

Then why? Reim’s cheering grew staggered. Because it was almost—embarrassing—how fast the Minotaurs died. But morale couldn’t be higher. If the Minotaurs were trying to prove they were unafraid of death—

Mars might have sensed the mood or a trap, because she strode backwards, blade in the air. Another challenger made his long way across the half-mile towards her.

She cut him down. Fifth. Then sixth. Seventh…

Perhaps it was demoralizing them. Reim’s army was impatient—and almost disturbed by the sight of eight Minotaurs now dying in a single engagement. But then the King of Destruction laughed.

Come, House of Minos! We grow bored! Don’t let Mars have all the fun!

He roared. Instantly—the confusion turned to confidence once more. The House of Minos didn’t reply. They just cheered the ninth warrior who moved from their ranks to close the gap.

Both armies watched the ninth challenger die. Then the tenth. Eleventh…Teres saw Mars bang on her shield.

Is that all? Send them two at a time! Three! I’ll take your entire army on!

The Minotaurs paused. Then—Teres saw five Minotaurs striding forwards. She hissed.

“Ytol—”

Come on!

Mars was laughing. Mockingly, she pointed her sword. And the [General] nodded.

Five Minotaurs shouted their names and came at her. This time—they spread out. Ready to strike at her from all sides. They charged, spreading out—

They died so fast Teres didn’t have time to be worried. Mars used a Skill—her blade flashed around and the Minotaurs strove to attack her. Their weapons bounced off her armor.

“She used a Skill!”

“She’ll get that one back after six minutes. I don’t understand it.”

Mars was lifting her sword to Reim’s cheers. Now the army of six thousand was down sixteen Minotaurs. Teres was worried. They were doing something. Then—

She heard cheering.

 

—-

 

The Minotaurs were cheering. They shouted the names of the fallen. Sixteen Minotaurs had attacked the Illusionist. Sixteen had died.

Ozem bellowed as he raised the axe of the Minotaur King over his head. His voice reached the orb, the Illusionist, and the Minotaurs.

“The lawbreakers have challenged the Illusionist! Their shame is ended in glorious battle! Honor has been upheld.

The Humans milled about. Even the Illusionist and the King of Destruction looked confused. Lawbreakers? The House of Minos had sent prisoners to fight the Illusionist?

Of course. Neriha sighed.

“I hope they haven’t tired her out.”

“She is a seasoned warrior. By the time we meet, she will have use of all her Skills.”

“Good.”

General Ozem nodded. He had fulfilled every duty he had. Save for perhaps two. First—the axe he carried. Second—the Sharphorns.

Third, and just for him: victory. He looked at the King of Destruction’s army. The Illusionist had faltered, perhaps unsure of whether this had been mockery. It was not from Ozem. He was grateful to her. There could be no greater glory. Each criminal had been given an honorable death with the world to see.

How wonderful. But he was so tired of waiting! So the Minotaur [General] raised his axe.

“Now, to war. Hold your ground, [Warriors] of the House of Minos! Master of Artillery. Open fire.

The battle began in silence as Reim’s army hesitated. Parasol Stroll focused their magic. The King of Destruction frowned.

Then the first bombardment began.

 

—-

 

The Minotaurs had adopted a strange, close-knit formation around their two dozen siege weapons. They looked like an island compared to the sea of Reim’s army. Ozem had deployed the older veterans to several points. At his vanguard, several groups in reserve behind the Sharphorns—and the rest to the rear and flanks.

Warding them against the King’s Steward, who was prepared to attack any opening. Orthenon had indeed been riding with a heavy vanguard of his own, but he had yet to find any opening in the formation which he could exploit with a lightning-fast charge.

Now—at the Minotaur [General]’s order, he saw the artillery crews in the army moving. Their weapons were spaced out, given a large amount of room to turn and fire without fear of hitting the warriors around them.

It was the [Master of Artillery] who had the honor of firing the first shot. He stood with his ballista, and carefully selected an item from the racks that had been set up, drawn from the portable Chest of Holding—a box enchanted like the smaller bags.

The [Master of Artillery] was younger than Ozem and Neriha, but again, he had seen countless wars. Yet—his blood had never raced more than today. His arm was steady, however.

His other arm was lamed from birth. Disqualifying for a craftsman or a regular warrior. Yet in the House of Minos—all could find a place. He could not load the ballista alone. But his aim and will directed it. The crew of loaders were his hands and feet.

No one fought alone in their army.

Now, the Minotaur picked up the first bolt he had chosen, and inserted it into the groove where it fit perfectly. The entire action was smooth, even unconscious. It took him one long step and pivot; he could perform the maneuver even in darkness or blinded.

He would move faster, soon. The Minotaurs around him, the [Loaders], waited, braced. They were poised by the cranks—the ballista needed winding after each shot, unlike magic or bows. The complexity of the machine, its fickleness, not to mention the space it needed and time to set up were reasons other races didn’t bother with them.

More fools, they. The [Master of Artillery] had overseen the building of this ballista. Each piece of wood, from deshwood trees of the House of Minos, carefully cultivated, were soaked until fully inundated with the alchemical liquid meant to keep the timber flexible. Then—enchanted. The strain of the fibers of enchanted string locked into place would have shattered an unenchanted weapon.

A mile away, the King of Destruction’s army waited. The [Master of Artillery] placed the bolt, and adjusted his aim. He had the right of the first shot. All was in readiness. But for a moment—the Minotaur admired the weapon once more.

The ballista bolt the [Master of Artillery] selected with his good hand was no ordinary bolt. The ones fired from lesser instruments might be wood, or crude iron, propelled at incredible speed, but nothing more.

Not so from the House of Minos’ armories. This one was a product of countless hours of work.

A masterpiece. The tip of the bolt was whalebone, inscribed with runes bought from Deríthal-Vel. Each tracing of the [Runesmith]’s craft was given power by lining the runes with melted gemstone infused with magic. And the whalebone itself was hollowed; packed with an explosive mixture made by an [Alchemist] of at least Level 30.

The shaft of the bolt was likewise inscribed, this time with enchantments by [Mages] who had traced guidance and flight spells along with lightweight sigils—weak but effective, meant only for a single use. The shaft was made of deshwood, without flaw, carved for this purpose.

The entire object was a minor artifact that Rhir or any nation would have been proud to use. A piece of art on the part of the artisans who had made it. Even the House of Minos seldom brought out large quantities of such ammunition.

The [Master of Artillery] placed it reverentially in the ballista. Today was a special day. The first bolt he took his time with, aiming as the [General] bade. He sighted—[Time of the Archer] gave him the luxury of concentrating, lining up his shot. Elevation, the speed and angle of the wind, even the movement of the other army were all part of his calculations.

It took him only a moment. Then the Minotaur fired.

The first bolt had no Skills beyond the ones affecting his aim. The ballista tore the air with the sound it made. Like thunder.

The King of Destruction looked up. The [Master of Artillery] had his assignments. But he couldn’t resist it. The glowing shot traced an arc through the air, flying high, cutting through the air.

 

—-

 

“Oh no.”

Teresa Atwood heard the distant sound. Her eyes traced the glowing projectile as it rose and fell. But—then she heard a sound.

Thump. The other ballistae were firing. Flos Reimarch’s head rose.

“That range…”

“[Fortified Shields]. Brace! Shepherd Zamea, guard your kin!”

Death Commander Ytol bellowed. Shields rose. Eighteen ballistae had fired—six were aimed at Orthenon’s cavalry, which split, avoiding the projectiles. And seven catapults…but where was…?

 

—-

 

The Master of Artillery saw the catapults firing. He felt the reverberation. But Reim’s army might not have even seen the dark shell they launched. It rose and broke into pieces even as it flew. The Minotaur saw—for a moment—tiny, glowing orbs. Filled with the same volatile mixtures. Breaking up, spreading out.

He grinned. But there was no time to watch them land.

Reload.

“[Instantaneous Reload]!”

The first [Loader] snapped. The Minotaurs stepped back as the ballista rearmed itself. The [Master of Artillery] already had a second enchanted bolt, identical to the first. He adjusted his aim…

Thump. The [Loaders] waited only a beat for the siege weapon to rock with the impact. Then they seized the cranks and heaved.

The ballistae rearmed itself. Across from him, the catapult crews had seized the arm. Six Minotaurs dragged it down with a roar, anchoring it. The Minotauress in charge, the [Catapult Mistress], adjusted her aim slightly. The arm of the catapult tore the air again. The Minotaurs dragged it down. Four seconds later—the catapult loosed.

The ballistae were slower—but only just. The crews worked with relentless efficiency, loading and firing. They put six more shots into the air before the first bolt landed.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump—

It sounded like the beating of his heart. The [Master of Artillery] was in motion, aiming, loosing—his world was readjusting, finding new targets. Feeling the strain of his weapon unloading. And then, at last, finally—he saw the first bolt land.

 

—-

 

It was coming straight for the King of Destruction. Flos Reimarch looked up.

“[Bulwark Shield].”

One of the Rustängmarder called out. Parasol Stroll’s [Mages] were already casting. Three of them pointed up.

“[Arcane Barrier]!”

A shimmering, concave arc formed in the air. Teres saw the glowing bolt falling, falling—

It struck the magic in the air and detonated. Teres saw a flash of violet light and white. Two brilliant colors, blinding—

The impact made everyone duck. Flos of Reim shielded his face. The [Mages] cried out.

“The force—

Brace!

Ytol’s voice rang out again. And the other bolts struck. They landed across the army. And this time—there was no magical shield to stop them.

Teres saw one land fifty feet away. It missed striking the ranks of [Soldiers], hitting the earth. There—it detonated.

She saw a flash of green and red this time. Like fireworks.

The explosion consumed dozens of people around it. The rest were thrown back like toys. Teresa stared.

“But that’s…”

Shields up! Archers—[Interception Fire]!

The [Death Commander] was looking up. More objects were falling. Orbs—like alchemical flasks, bursting across Reim’s army, landing in unpredictable showers. Where they fell, they exploded.

Like grenades. Teres heard screams, deafening blasts. And then the second volley struck. Teres saw the volley ripple across Reim’s army. Then—a second one.

Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump—the siege weapons were reloading and firing as fast as they had at sea. Only this time—they were using enchanted munitions.

Hold your ground! Keep your shields raised!

Ytol was bellowing, somehow audible among the explosions. The [Soldiers] were panicking. It was the King of Destruction himself who overrode the order.

Advance! Spread out and advance! Parasol Stroll—block those weapons and attack!

The [Mages] and [Archers] began to reply as more glowing barriers appeared in the air. Reim’s army began to spread out, staggering themselves. Suddenly—the mile of distance looked far too far.

“Orthenon!”

The King of Destruction raised his voice from his vanguard of Rustängmarder. Teres saw the [Steward] in the distance. His cavalry had split, avoiding the bolts launched at him. He couldn’t have missed the destruction. Now—he was charging.

 

—-

 

“The King’s Steward is coming. [Lineholders], push him back.

General Ozem hadn’t moved. He saw the wing of cavalry pushing on them from the left. He hadn’t given Orthenon an opening, but the [Steward] must have decided the artillery had to die now.

 

—-

 

The [Master of Artillery] changed his aim from the half-Giants. They were raising shields, some of them blocking the ballistae bolts coming at them, but most were able to dodge at this range. Now—he aimed at the riders.

Here came the King of Destruction’s Left Hand. The [Ruinbringer Steward] raised his spear as he raced across the ground. He used a Skill.

[Vanguard of the King, the Phantom Storm]. Ghostly riders appeared around him. A second army to join the living, famed warriors of old! The [Master of Artillery] saw them charging towards the old [Lineholders] braced for the impact. He swung the ballista, checked the [Steward]’s progress. This time—he used his Skill.

[Twin Swallows, Fly]. [Doubled Acceleration]. [Invisible Bolt].”

The ballista thumped.

 

—-

 

Orthenon saw the siege weapon firing. But he didn’t s—

His spear moved. The first invisible bolt he struck from afar. His spear extending to touch it nearly thirty feet distant. But there were two.

[Perfect Dodge]. He slid down across the saddle, leaning to avoid the projectile. Orthenon felt the teeth-rattling impact behind him. He turned his head—

The ghosts from his Skills vanished. The mortal men and women did not. Horses reared; Humans lay in the crater caused by the explosion. Orthenon twisted; he saw the [Master of Artillery] aiming again.

“[Twin Lances of Ruin]! Go, go!

His forces split, accelerating as if on the charge, but they weren’t even at the Minotaur’s line. They narrowly dodged a second volley; two thirds of the ballistae were aiming at them and several catapults. They tore open the ground as Orthenon’s forces charged. He raced through a bursting orb, feeling the freezing cold for a second—

His eyes were locked on the [Master of Artillery]. He was below the arc the Minotaur could safely fire. Now—the first ranks of Minotaurs were waiting.

Veterans. [Lineholders]. Orthenon raised his spear.

“[Steelflesh Charge]! [Spear Art: The Falling Sparks]—”

His forces hit the first line of [Lineholders]. The Minotaurs, armed with axe and shield—stopped the charge.

“[The Line Holds].”

The [Lineholder Captain] saw half a dozen of his kin die as the [Steward] struck them. He raised his shield; a ghost struck at him and the impact drove his feet into the earth. But he refused to move.

The [Riders] and the [Steward] tried to push past the first rank of Minotaurs, into the Sharphorns. They pushed—

The lines held. Orthenon had killed the first Minotaurs with his spear art. He put his spear through a grey-maned Minotaur’s neck and slashed left. But still—she swung at him. She knocked back a second [Rider], fighting—he plunged in, spear whirling.

Another death. His spear was flickering out, like the sparks from a grindstone’s wheel, landing among Minotaurs with a reach far beyond what the man should have had. Each one he killed or mortally wounded.

Still, they refused to fall. The [Lineholder Captain]—no—each one kept fighting. The Minotaur that Orthenon had slain cut at him, roaring without a voice. Orthenon stabbed him again.

It was like trying to ride through a wall. Even the ghosts of his Skill had to spread out, finding no gap in the veteran’s formation.

Elites. Orthenon cursed.

Circle! Fall back and circle!

The riders behind turned, unable to join the charge. He fell back and the dead Minotaurs pushed forwards. They kept fighting for seconds…minutes…only after they had thrown back his charge did they fall.

From the rear—the second group of [Riders] had met a similar wall. But without the [Steward]—the [Lineholders] had fallen back in two places, inviting the cavalry forwards and then stopping their charge. The Sharphorns and other Minotaurs pressed in, hacking apart the first ranks of horse before they could fall back.

With me!

The [Steward] fell back. He struck twice more, each time meeting Minotaurs who refused to yield. And the ballistae began firing at point blank.

 

—-

 

“He’s…retreating?”

Teresa saw the [Steward] falling back. The living were riding back with him, weaving, dodging the artillery’s fire. The ghosts still assailed the Minotaurs from all sides, bloodying them. But Orthenon was pulling back.

He’d failed to break their lines alone. The King of Destruction was shouting.

Cover the ground! With me!

His army was trying to reach the Minotaur’s lines before the artillery could resume their onslaught. Orthenon had bought them a few minutes with his charge. But the [Master of Artillery] had swung his weapon back towards the King of Destruction. Again—he launched a fortune of fortunes of ammunition at the King of Destruction’s army. No.

Ural!

The bellow came from above. One of the half-Giants screamed. A glowing bolt had hit her in the shoulder, tearing her flesh down to the bone. Even her skin—Zamea raised her axe, blocking a second bolt.

They were aiming at the half-Giants. The Nomads of the Sky fell behind. Flos Reimarch saw a half-Giant flailing, screaming as a barrage from a catapult set his body aflame with alchemical fire.

Zamea, guard your people! Hold your ground!

The half-Giantess looked up, eyes blazing. But the Nomads began to fall back.

 

—-

 

“To the Master of Artillery: keep the half-Giants from advancing.”

General Ozem saw the full force of Reim’s army coming. Now, the [Steward] was circling. He’d hit them again in conjunction with the main army.

And still—the House of Minos’ lines didn’t move. The artillery was launching more deadly salvos across Reim’s forces and at the half-Giants, the riders. But the Minotaurs had yet to fight save on the flanks.

“The Illusionist is coming.”

Neriha spoke. Ozem saw her leading the charge on his position. He reached out. The First Horn clasped his arm.

Fight gloriously, Neriha.

She raised her axe and threw it. The [Vanguard] raised her shield and the impact rang. Neriha charged to the roars of the army.

And now Reim’s forces were unloading their fury onto the House of Minos.

Shields.

Ozem raised his own as the arrows began landing. The Minotaurs waited. The [Onslaught General] saw a flicker of magic.

 

—-

 

Parasol Stroll.

“[Siege Fireball]. [Chain Lightning]. [Acid Orbs]—”

[Grand Mage] Esiela was linked. Ulyse and a dozen [Mages] cast the spells with her as the focal point. She unloaded the first wave of spells at the Minotaurs. Magical artillery to match the ones that had punished Reim’s army.

The first spells were aimed straight at General Ozem. Esiela saw a vast ball of fire shooting at the enemy. Slow enough to dodge. But not bunched up as they were! She saw the old Minotaurs in front raising tower shields. The fire bloomed—

And vanished.

 

—-

 

“[Spellbreaker Guard].”

The [Elite Bodyguard] of General Ozem caught the first spells on their shields. Ozem felt the heat, heard the sizzle of ozone. Minotaurs groaned, bellowing with pain.

They couldn’t block the spells perfectly. Yet—the magic failed to reach him. He saw the second rank of spells change targets.

 

—-

 

“[Chain Lightning].”

This time the lightning ran through a group of the younger Minotaurs. Esiela saw their bodies illuminate, jerk. She aimed her staff again as more than half failed to rise, even as their comrades dragged them back, trying to apply potions.

“Volley [Acid Orbs] up. Rain it down on them.”

Ulyse’s order. Esiela obeyed. She aimed at another group, aiming up to arc the spells.

Her hand—dragged itself down. Esiela found herself aiming straight at the [General]’s Minotaurs again. She struggled.

“Ulyse! I can’t—”

“[Shieldtaunt]. Continue launching spells. Break link and reform on me.”

The old [Mage] hissed. Several of the Minotaurs were striking their shields, and Esiela couldn’t aim at anyone but them.

Flos’ army was doing the same. As the artillery continued its bombardment, [Riders] and [Shieldbearers] and other experts began to bait fire away from the main army. Both sides were struggling to take the targets off each other. And still—the Minotaurs refused to move.

 

—-

 

They were taking casualties now. But General Ozem refused to give the order.

Hold your ground. We are winning this exchange. If we wait long enough, the Humans will run out of magic and arrows!”

His vanguard laughed. It was true; the King of Destruction’s [Mages] and [Archers] couldn’t match the House of Minos’ siege weapons.

For now. The [Master of Artillery] was going to run out of his enchanted ammunition. But the King of Destruction didn’t know how many more volleys he’d endure.

He was coming. And now Ozem’s blood howled.

“Wait. Wait.

The Illusionist met Neriha first. The First Horn had another axe—two of them, one in each hand. Ozem saw the [Vanguard] accelerating, her own artifacts glowing.

The two hit each other in an instant. Neriha’s axes lashed out in a flurry of blows. Mars’ sword cut the air. [Grand Slash]. Both warriors staggered back; Mars checked herself. Her armor had held. Neriha regarded the cut on her side which had torn the hide armor. She laughed and her second move was to strike at Mars with an overhead blow. The [Vanguard] raised her shield—

Ozem looked away. The flash of light from Neriha’s Skill was blinding. He turned back and saw the two striking at each other. And at last—at last—

They were here. The King of Destruction in his vanguard of  Rustängmarder advanced in behind the first two waves. Ozem stirred.

“Greathammers of Hammerad. You will engage the King of Destruction. Sharphorns, advance.

The first rank of Minotaurs moved past the [Lineholders]. They were singing.

Hammerad calls.

They raised the huge, one-handed hammers each one carried, along with the tower shields. To their side, Ozem’s vanguard was waiting.

“[General]. Where is our target?”

With me. Axebearers of Maweil, you have the honor of the first contact. To the ends of the world, Maweil sails! Forwards!”

Ozem of Maweil raised his axe. The Axebearers strode forwards.

The King of Destruction!

The Humans howled. They flooded across the ground as the oldest Minotaurs walked at them, each one bearing a two-handed battleaxe. The Sharphorns followed.

Closer. Ozem saw the King of Destruction bellowing his fury. The artillery boomed. The [Onslaught General] bared his teeth.

The Axebearers met the Human horde staggered, spread out. The Humans advanced shields up. They looked up.

Up, at the sons and daughters of Minos. The Minotaurs towered above them and swung down their axes. The first one spoke.

“[Whirlwind Cleave].”

She stepped forwards and swung her axe. The enchanted edge swung horizontally, in a vast arc. And the [Soldiers] of Reim died.

“[Hammer Blow].”

The Minotaur standing down the line brought down his axe. The impact was like a small detonation. He swung his axe up, looked around. The Humans stared at their dead comrades in front of him, tried to push forwards.

“[Great Swing].”

The [Veteran Axebearer] used a second Skill. Five Humans vanished and he brought his axe back. Almost perfunctorily, he raised an arm.

“[Phantom Bracer].”

He blocked the javelin’s throw aimed at his chest. And then stepped backwards. The Humans rushing at him saw the Axebearer move back into line.

The House of Minos!

The Sharphorns charged with the veteran. They brought their weapons down in huge blows, their full weight and strength behind them. The Minotaur moved forwards again. He looked around—there.

A [Lieutenant], behind the bodies. The Axebearer charged at her.

[Impact Rush]. He knocked the [Soldiers] backwards then brought his axe down. She looked up. The Minotaur’s axe struck her. He fell backwards again, into line, hunting for his target.

Up and down the lines, the Axebearers advanced with the Sharphorns. Ozem saw them crashing forwards and Reim’s momentum stop. The King of Destruction saw his first lines evaporate. He looked at Ozem and the [General] nodded.

It was a difference of species and levels. Reim’s soldiers were probably high-level. They might have been one of the strongest regular armies.

The House of Minos had sent its veterans. The Axebearers were all Level 30 or higher. They might have ten levels, twenty on the regular [Soldiers]. And the Sharphorns were all [Warriors] who had trained for this moment.

They crashed through the Humans and then their momentum slowed as the battle lines stabilized. As the Axebearers used their Skills up and had to fight without, the numbers stabilized. But the lines held.

Now the catapults were launching directly into the press of bodies past the first lines. They were still firing as the ballistae pressed at the [Riders] and half-Giants. The regular [Soldiers] ran into the House of Minos’ forces and could not make progress.

But he could. So could she. Ozem saw Neriha battling Mars the Illusionist. And she—

Was already losing. The [Vanguard] shrugged off a furious blow on her shoulder. Her armor had taken Neriha’s strike without even denting. And the Illusionist cut Neriha again. The [Champion] faltered as her skin turned pale from where the life-sapping blade touched her.

“Five minutes, Neriha.”

Ozem whispered. He looked to the side. The second legend.

Orthenon the Steward crashed against the [Lineholders] once more. They held. But they were dying. The [Steward]’s forces were charging, pulling back, and charging again, trying to ram forwards. Sharphorns were moving forwards to supplement the dying veterans.

His comrades. But still—the [Steward] was slowed.

That left just the King of Destruction. He made for Ozem with a roar as the ranks parted and his Rustängmarder vanguard and the Serpent Hunters hit the House of Minos.

 

—-

 

Ozem!

The King of Destruction charged. His vassals could no longer keep him back. He carried sword and shield, and heavy armor. His Rustängmarder, the [Death Warriors], pushed forwards, fighting grimly.

The first Minotaur that the King of Destruction met roared and brought up his shield. He struck with his axe—

And the King of Destruction staggered. Flos Reimarch was a tall man. As Humans went, taller. Stronger.

But Minotaurs were larger still. Flos shoved away the axe. The Minotaur rammed him with his shield, trying to bring his axe down again. The [King] raised his sword—

And split his foe from shoulder to stomach. He—was stronger. And the fury of the Minotaurs around him was an echo of the King of Destruction’s fury.

Face me, Ozem!

Flos roared. The [General] was still waiting. He saw the King of Destruction coming. An Axebearer saw Flos, tried to charge at him.

Jelaim threw one of his knives and struck the Minotauress on her unguarded arm. She faltered, roared in fury. The Rustängmarder blocked her, fearlessly fending off her blows. And she was weakening…weakening…

By the time Flos reached her, the [Death Warriors] had cut her down. Jelaim’s Stitchwarriors were using their poisoned weapons, supplementing the King of Destruction’s advance.

Flos Reimarch looked around and roared.

“Has Orthenon not taken the damn artillery yet? Jelaim! Find those catapults and smash them to pieces or capture them!

He still heard the explosions which were tearing his army apart. Jelaim opened his mouth to respond and turned.

Your Majesty! The [General]—

Ozem was pointing at him. Flos whirled. The young Minotaurs were falling back. He saw another group of veterans coming forwards.

“Rustängmarder. Guard your [King].”

The [Death Captain] spoke calmly. The King of Destruction turned to Jelaim. The Serpent Hunter’s leader was wavering.

Go.

The King of Destruction’s vanguard met the Greathammers of Hammerad. The Minotaurs—were laughing. Maniacs obsessed with war. Like the King of Destruction, but his fury had consumed even the joy of battle.

The Rustängmarder were silent. The first [Death Warrior] raised his shield as a Minotaur with a hammer—a one-handed maul with a flat, crushing edge, brought it up.

“[Perfect Bl—]”

The Minotaur ran into him with his larger shield. [Stunning Bash]. The dark-armored warrior recoiled, stunned. Before he could move, the hammer fell.

The [Death Warrior]’s head and part of his torso crumpled. He fell. His comrades moved back as the Greathammers swung into him.

And—the [Death Warrior] did not rise. He had sworn to fight in life and death. But there wasn’t enough of his corpse to reanimate.

Armor tore as the Greathammers swung. Metal, even enchanted metal was crushed. Bones broken. Flos of Reim saw Minotaurs falling. Going down to his elites. But both sides were falling evenly—no—the hundred or so Rustängmarder were falling behind.

“This is your honor? Tottenval was my Gardener. He took no lives.”

The King of Destruction murmured. He saw a Greathammer plunge through the fighting. The Minotaur’s blow came first.

The [King] nearly fell. His armor and arm cracked. But he shoved aside the hammer. His return stroke rammed the enchanted blade into the Minotaur’s armor. The huge warrior roared. He and the King of Destruction traded another blow. Flos Reimarch was howling.

The Minotaur—fell. The Humans around them cheered as Flos Reimarch pointed.

To me. Crush these Minotaurs! [Royal Vanguard]!

Regular [Soldiers] charged alongside the [Death Warriors]. The Greathammers met them, refusing to retreat.

 

—-

 

Both sides were burning away. The House of Minos was fully engaged on all flanks. The [Riders] under Orthenon were circling—and he was cutting in.

The Greathammers of Hammerad were falling. But so was the King of Destruction’s vanguard. His Skill—and the numbers were taking their toll on the front.

Ozem saw it all. The Minotaur’s strength was great. But they were still vastly outnumbered. Still—their artillery sang. For a moment, the half-Giants were kept away.

Now was the time. Ozem pointed.

“At last. With me, my old friends! We can finally fight.

He plunged into the fighting as his personal command followed him with a roar. The King of Destruction was occupied, Orthenon still slowed.

Neriha was dying. But the Illusionist had yet to kill her. Ozem plunged towards his target, the one he had known was his from the start. Behind him the House of Minos fought, trying to hold Reim’s forces back.

Then the Serpent Hunters and Orthenon’s forces reached the first ballista.

 

—-

 

The [Master of Artillery] saw them overwhelming the [Loaders] in the distance. The ballista on the flank was in danger of being taken or destroyed! He saw Stitch-Warriors knifing the [Loaders] who fought back with their side arms. Falling.

The [Catapult Mistress] fell backwards, a dagger in her chest, poisoned. She raised her voice.

Maweil’s sails, guide me h—

The [Master of Artillery] saw a bloom as every enchanted munitions she had left detonated at once. Reim’s forces—and the Minotaurs around her vanished.

Orthenon had been plunging towards a second catapult. But he slowed as he saw the destruction. Fearlessly, the weapon aimed at him.

“This is how we die, Humans.”

The [Master of Artillery] laughed. He fired again. He had one job. Keep the half-Giants back. He saw them retreating another hundred feet.

He was almost out of enchanted ammunition. But he’d saved one last bolt. Until the end, then. He saw General Ozem moving forwards at last.

[Elite Bodyguards]. Axebearers. Greathammers. [Veteran Lineholders]. The highest-level, most elite Minotaurs that Ozem had under his command. Nearly two hundred of them. He had held them until he had his opening. Saved every Skill. Now—the [Onslaught General] pointed.

There.

He and his vanguard moved forwards suddenly. So fast that it caught everyone off-guard. The younger warriors fell back, moving aside to let them pass. The [General] picked up speed. He carried the axe that had killed the Gold-ranks. His battleaxe—the weapon he normally used—was still on his back.

The throwing axe. General Ozem hefted it.

“This is one of the twin Axehorns of Minos. Her Majesty gave it to me. I must return it to her.”

The personal weapon of the King of Minos. He lifted it up now.

It was not his Skill. But he had borrowed it with her weapon.

[Axe of the Gigant].

He lifted the weapon, aimed—threw. The [Soldiers] looked up as he aimed at his target. The House of Minos’ [Warriors] roared.

For a moment, an axe worthy of a Giant spun through the air. Zamea saw it land, carving its way through the army towards its target. She saw the [Onslaught General] and his vanguard charging.

 

—-

 

My King—

Orthenon spun. He had sensed the Skill. He broke off his attack on the artillery. Frowning.

 

—-

 

Damn you!

Neriha laughed. She had Mars. The [Vanguard] struggled, her sword stabbing. Blades cut at the First Horn. Illusions sprung into half-reality. Neriha’s face was a mask of blood. But she was gloating.

I’ve won, Illusionist. I’ve won.”

She had Mars in a huge bear hug. She had dropped her axes. Mars stabbed her repeatedly, but the Minotauress had seized her and refused to let go. Mars was cursing. Ozem was—he was—

Aiming at her [King]? No—Mars saw his trajectory and realize. Not at Flos. She struggled. But it was too late.

 

—-

 

“Do you see where he’s aiming?”

The Titan looked up. No one answered him. He looked down at the battlefield. It was so obvious to him.

 

—-

 

Flos of Reim turned. He saw the axe clear a path. And the [Onslaught General] was charging now. He hit his target as he crashed into the army.

Away from Orthenon. Too far for the immobilized Mars to reach him in time to stop.

Past the King of Destruction.

Straight into the heart of the regular [Soldiers] and infantry. Away from the King of Destruction’s vanguard. The Serpent Hunters. Even Parasol Stroll.

General Ozem’s Minotaurs appeared in the middle of the destruction caught by the giant axe. Teres had seen it land a hundred feet ahead of her. And then—suddenly—the [General] was there. He grabbed the axe as it returned to him and put it in his belt. Then he pointed ahead.

“Wipe them out. [Vanguard: Cleaving Arcs]. [March of the Invincible]. [Vanguard: Haste]. Charge.

His elite Minotaurs drew their weapons. And they charged at…Reim’s [Soldiers]. Teres saw a Minotaur swing his axe and kill a dozen men and women in a single, vast swing.

Unenchanted spears broke on a [Juggernaut Warrior]’s armor as he just ran forwards, swinging his blade. The [General] had drawn his battleaxe. He swung it and Teresa saw the edge turning metal molten where he struck. He was a whirlwind. His entire vanguard was.

[Ironskin]. [Enhanced Strength]. [Greater Toughness]. His great Skill, [March of the Invincible] turned his command into a force that could have fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the King of Destruction and all his elites for a time. But Ozem hadn’t used it on Flos Reimarch, or Mars, or Orthenon.

He was using it on Flos’ low-level [Soldiers]. His Minotaurs were rampaging. Every time one swung their weapon, multiple [Soldiers] died.

“The army.”

Teres saw the [Soldiers] that Flos had protected across his entire Belchan and Jecrass campaign, in the midst of leveling—dying. The [General] was heading at him, cutting straight through the bulk of the army as his artillery struck to the sides.

“[Formation: Reinforced Armor]! [Rapid Retreat]. [Immobile Ranks]. [Redirect Arrows]. Focus on the [General]!

Commander Ytol was shouting, using every one of his Skills. He pointed at the oncoming [General] as he maneuvered the horse.

“Milady Teres, retreat.

“I—I—”

Teres was transfixed. The [General] had spotted Ytol and her. He was pointing. Six of the Minotaurs swung towards them, swinging their weapons too fast to see. They were coming.

 

—-

 

“Excellent! Those Minotaurs are fulfilling their promise!”

High King Perric of Medain was gloating. He’d taken a risk and his army had abandoned their pursuit of Jecrass to pivot. Now—they were marching along Reim’s exposed flank. In less than twenty minutes they’d be able to fully flank the King of Destruction! He was already sending his cavalry forwards to keep the Minotaurs from folding.

He saw the [General] going straight into the King of Destruction’s army. Too cowardly to take on the King of Destruction or one of his vassals? It didn’t matter. The High King pressed his [Soldiers] forwards faster, ignoring his [General]’s warnings.

There was one more thing to remember.

 

—-

 

Teresa!

The King of Destruction bellowed. He saw the [General] moving towards her. He probably had no idea who she was. Just that Ytol was there. The young woman had drawn her sword.

His [Soldiers] were fleeing. Reim’s nigh-unbreakable morale up till now had been shattered by Ozem’s attack. The ones assaulted by his vanguard were trying to flee.

Stopping Teres and Ytol from escaping. The [Death Commander] had drawn his blade. They were making a stand with the forces around them.

Protect her!

The King of Destruction looked around.

Parasol Stroll tried to cast spells at Ozem. But—the [Master of Artillery] had found them. Three of the [Mages] disappeared as a bolt landed among them, nearly destroying Esiela’s personal barrier.

Orthenon was fighting the [Lineholders] who refused to let him leave. Mars finally hacked apart Neriha’s arm. The Minotauress was dead. But she had never let go.

The King of Destruction tried to surge backwards. But there were the Greathammers.

Bring the King of Destruction down. [Thunderstrike Impact].”

One brought his hammer down and Flos Reimarch went deaf. He lost his footing—went down.

The Rustängmarder around him were fighting. The [King] pulled himself up as he saw a body fall to the ground. He looked up and a Minotaur grinned at him. Flos raised his shield.

This time, the blow broke the enchantment. The [King] fell back as he slashed. But the Greathammer was immune to pain. Both of them were warriors. They’d fight to the death.

The [Soldiers] around Flos charged—and were cleared by a vast swing. The King of Destruction snarled. He saw the Minotaur swing his hammer up.

 

—-

 

Teresa saw the [Onslaught General] coming. She drew her sword as Ytol rode forwards.

“Milady Teres, that way.”

He pointed. One of the Minotaurs broke off as Teres tried to ride left, through the press of bodies. The female Minotaur had a greatsword, the Minotaur [Elite Bodyguard]. She swung—Teres brought up her sword.

“[Flawless Parry]—”

The impact was too powerful for her Skill. Teres saw the sword meet her desperate attempt to parry. Her hand went numb. The blade sheared through her horse—

She landed on the ground. Breathless. The Minotauress whirled her sword.

“[Sword Art: Kraken’s Tendrils Lash].”

Teres heard screams, bodies falling. She raised her sword feebly. The Minotauress looked down at her as Ozem roared a challenge at Ytol. Teres saw the Minotauress raise her sword. She heard a voice. Faint, but perfectly audible in her ears.

“[Army of the King].”

Something—moved through the King of Destruction’s army. The world changed. Teresa Atwood heard a voice, as the Minotauress’ eyes flickered. That voice, speaking in her head. She looked up.

 

—-

 

General Ozem saw the Minotauress raising her sword to bring it down on the young woman the King of Destruction seemed to care about. The [King] was down. The Minotauress brought her greatsword down.

The King of Destruction used his Skill.

The Minotauress recoiled. Ozem saw a [Soldier], a common [Spearman], leap into her, burying his spear through her armor. He heard the Skill. Saw it.

[Army of the King]. The King of Destruction’s…Ozem brought up his axe and blocked a blow from the [Death Commander]. Suddenly—his vanguard’s momentum slowed. Ozem heard his [Dangersense] going off. He bared his teeth. The [Soldiers] of Reim looked up as their [King]’s Skill ran through them. They turned. Ozem saw the Minotauress yank the spear out of her chest, striking at the [Spearman] who dodged with unnatural grace.

Then the young woman rose. Her sword slashed, and a shadowy flicker cut the Minotauress as well. It parted her armor and the Minotauress staggered. The young Human stepped forwards and drove her blade home. Ozem looked around.

 

—-

 

[The Army of the King]. The words ran through her head. Different. If Teres had to describe them—she would call them radiant.

 

[Temporary Level 35 Trained Bladeswoman!]

[Skill – Shadowcut Blade obtained!]

[Skill – Acrobat’s Form obtained!]

[Skill – Sword: Keening Edge obtained!]

[Skill – Enhanced Strength obtained!]

 

The words burned. Teres’ body came alive.

Eight levels. He had given her eight levels and the Skills to go with it. She raised her head. Her sword had cut the Minotauress in a moment. She felt stronger—faster, even with Skills aside.

It wasn’t just her. The [Soldiers] around her surged forwards. Suddenly—they were on even footing with all but the best of the Minotaurs! And the Skill affected them all.

General Ozem backed away from [Death Commander] Ytol, trading blows with the man. Now his force was outnumbered against a foe on even ground. No—Teres looked at a [Soldier] who had been just Level 11. He had gained more levels than she.

 

—-

 

The Greathammer Minotaur was lanced from a dozen blades. Flos Reimarch stood up. He wiped at his bloody mouth.

“[Army of the King]. We are men and women who fight Minotaurs, monsters and great foes. This is why I am [King]. Come, House of Minos. If you wished to see my wrath—now you shall. Kill them all.”

His [Soldiers] poured forwards. It was, as many had said, a Skill with so many limits. But when he used it, his army was invincible.

For one battle.

 

—-

 

The tide had turned. Ozem felt his army shudder as the King of Destruction’s army turned into a sea of elite monsters. He backed up, his battleaxe swinging. Strong they might be, but they had not earned these levels!

But there were so many. Medain’s army had halted its advance. They were turning, instantly going from offense to retreat.

It had happened at last. The [Army of the King] had been forced. The King of Destruction had used his greatest trump card. He would be bereft of it for a crucial month.

But he would destroy any foe on this battlefield. The Sharphorns were suddenly under-leveled and outnumbered. The veterans fell back, trading blows as equals now. Ozem looked around.

And finally—he laughed.

I win, King of Destruction! This is the House of Minos’ victory!

He roared. The Minotaurs around him heard his cheer and bellowed as well. They fell, laughing.

Sound the retreat! [Lineholders], hold back Reim’s army!

The [General] turned. The Humans looked up at him, not comprehending. Perhaps the one-legged [Death Commander], tied to his saddle, understood. He stared darkly at Ozem, unwilling to risk his life.

He had won. General Ozem had forced the King of Destruction’s hand. All of it, the sacrifice of Neriha, the death of his brothers and sisters—

“Let the world celebrate their victories in the days that follow. Today, it was the House of Minos who took on the King of Destruction’s army.”

The [General] bared his teeth. Only one thing remained, now.

Fall back. Sharphorns, to the ships!

The order went out across the army. The House of Minos’ soldiers pulled back. The young, those new to war were in full retreat. A quarter of them had fallen already; but the veterans were yanking them out of their battle-fury. Ordering them behind them.

“We will make a stand here. Carve through the King of Destruction’s army and buy the young time to make for the ships! Unleash the artillery without limit!

Ozem’s voice was a roar. His comrades of old shouted as they fought alone among the sea of Humans. Here they died! The [General] spun, his battleaxe laying left and right. They cut at him; he broke a healing potion against his flesh.

General!

Someone seized him. A [Venerable Warrior]—in his eighties, older than Ozem himself!

“Galran! Come to die together?”

Ozem’s eyes were red with bloodfury at last. The old Minotaur grabbed him. His eyes were red too. But he could still think. He pointed back.

“Someone must lead the retreat! [General], that last task is yours. Go. Go!

The Minotaur did not want to. Someone slashed at Galran and the Minotaur roared. He brought his maul down.

The last duty is yours. The young might yet live! We will cut you a path!”

They had a future. Ozem hesitated. He saw the Sharphorns moving back. But slower—they needed his Skills. He looked at his comrades.

“You have given me victory, friends. Die well.”

They turned their backs to him, fighting. Ozem ran through enemy [Soldiers], hacking, fighting to escape. They pierced his armor—but another potion bought him time. Behind him—Galran and the Minotaurs made a stand.

 

—-

 

The House of Minos was retreating. Reim’s army poured forwards. They were slowed; the Minotaurs buried deep within their ranks fought until they were brought down. And they died slowly, with the weight of their levels and age keeping them fighting long past their lifespans.

But they did die. It was inevitable. And finally—the Minotaur’s artillery was silenced. The [Mages] overwhelmed them with spells.

The [Master of Artillery] struck the bolt against his ballista as the enemy closed in around him. It was the last explosion. And it bought time.

The Sharphorns and the last of Ozem’s veterans fell back with the [General] himself. They were pursued.

Flos’ army was reforming. Now—the King of Destruction had demanded a mount. His Rustängmarder had been torn down to a dozen, including Ytol. One of the half-Giants lay wounded. The Serpent Hunters had taken fierce casualties, and five of Parasol Stroll had died.

And he had used his Skill. The King of Destruction’s fury was palpable.

Run them down. Not one of the Minotaurs will live.”

Orthenon was already in pursuit. The Minotaurs were moving as fast as possible. Ozem was using every Skill to hasten their progress back to the coastline. But it was far to go.

Another army was in full-retreat as well. Medain’s army was hurrying back to their capital.

“Milord. The King of Jecrass.”

“I know!”

Flos Reimarch snapped. He looked at Medain’s army.

“Kill the Minotaurs. Then we will wipe out Medain’s army. The [Army of the King] will not rest until this battle is done. Take the foot, Mars. Kill High King Perric and bring me his head.”

His forces split. The cavalry and half-Giants raced after the House of Minos. And High King Perric’s forces saw a horde of fast-moving infantry closing.

Leave the heavy foot behind! Golden Ranks, with me!

He began to race for the capital. But the King of Destruction’s army was nearly as fast as horses, some of them. Both forces ran for the coastline, the beaches, the distant Minotaur warships and the capital’s walls.

General Ozem looked back and saw the King of Destruction and the [Steward] riding on him. He looked at his army.

He had won. They had won a great victory.

Now, it was time to die.

 

—-

 

They ran. Sprinted, without regard for their endurance. They were trying to outrun horses.

Ozem ran with them. Every inch of him longed to have been with his comrades. But he had a duty. Honor and duty.

The young. He should have fought closer to the coastline. The House of Minos had asked for those unafraid to die. But these—they had a future.

“Sharphorns. Drop armor. Drop secondary weapons. Drop shields!”

His voice made the Minotaurs hesitate. Then the younger Minotaurs dropped their gear. Shields, armor, throwing axes—everything. They carried only one weapon.

Run! Pick up the pace! Who is the highest commander living?

General!

A young voice. A [Sea Captain]—she slowed.

“Your name!”

He knew it, vaguely. The Minotauress carried a long axe.

“Seler of Maweil!”

She saw the old Minotaur grin.

“Good. When I fall, you will take command. Get your force to the ships if possible. If not—”

Ozem!

The roar came from behind them. Both Minotaurs looked back.

The King of Destruction was coming. Orthenon was shooting at the Minotaur’s side. The [General] raised his voice.

[Lineholders], make your stand here!

The last of the Minotaurs turned. They formed a shield, waiting. The King of Destruction could have raced past them. But he was too furious. He came at them as the Minotaurs began to sing.

 

From the House of Minos we march to war

And the axes rise and fall once more…

 

The younger Minotaurs slowed as they looked back. Their instincts told them to stay. Not to flee! But the [General] roared at them.

Retreat! Are you [Warriors] or beasts? The House of Minos has need of every axe! Run!”

They ran. The [Lineholders] sang as they clashed with the King of Destruction. They bought precious minutes.

[Longstriders]. [Fearless Charge]. [Vigor of Champions]—he was not a [General] who had the Skills for speed.

“[Vanguard: Haste]! Go!

His last Skill was ready to use. The Minotaurs blurred. But the King of Destruction had countless vassals capable of matching that speed. Ozem looked back.

Wipe them out. Orthenon—take those ships!

The King of Destruction was ordering the [Ruinbringer Steward] ahead, to take the warships. The skeleton crew would fight—but if they needed to, they would have to retreat.

Alas. The [Steward] flashed past them with a smaller group. Ozem didn’t know if the Sharphorns or crews would be able to fight him off long enough to escape. It didn’t matter.

The King of Destruction was nearly upon them. Now—Ozem turned. He planted his feet on the ground.

“Greathammers, Axes of Maweil. This is where we stand. All of you—with me.”

The veterans stopped. Seler of Maweil looked back.

“[General]!”

“This is strategy, Seler of Maweil. I am blessed to be both [Soldier] and [General]. I see the glory of both! Go! May you return to the House of Minos. Now, my brothers and sisters—let us bring the King of Destruction down!”

The last of them joined Ozem as he drew his battleaxe and waited. The King of Destruction slowed. His [Death Commander] rode with him. And that young woman. He was intelligent, at least. If he charged—Ozem would kill him.

For a heartbeat, the King of Destruction looked at Ozem. Then he led his army forwards with a roar. General Ozem ran across the ground with a roar.

Behind him, the ship’s sails blew in the wind.

 

—-

 

The Minotaurs were outnumbered, wounded, and exhausted from running for nearly an hour. The Sharphorns were close to the ships. Close enough to be running over dunes and onto sand, at least.

But the Steward was nearly upon them and the warships. And the King of Destruction’s vanguard not far behind. Ozem’s forces held them at bay for a minute.

Five minutes. The King of Destruction’s riders could not all press together; that gave the Minotaurs the advantage. They besieged the knot of Minotaurs, loosing arrows and spells.

The old Minotaurs fell slowly. They drank potions, shielding each other, overlapping Skills. Taunting their foes to close combat.

Fourteen minutes. It was down to a melee. Flos Reimarch had charged Ozem, and the two met as Mars’ forces neared the capital with Medain’s army still fleeing. Those left behind had surrendered rather than fight.

Wretches!

Zamea brought down her axe. A group of Minotaurs disappeared. The half-Giants had caught up with the [Riders]. Ozem saw them tearing forwards, striding past his forces.

Out of potions. The [General]’s armor was torn. Bloody. He saw the King of Destruction raging forwards, killing the last of his [Bodyguards].

“Ozem.”

“King of Destruction.”

The Minotaur raised his ruined battleaxe, the edge damaged, enchantment broken. He charged forwards and Flos rode down on him.

Loose.

[Death Commander] Ytol’s voice was clipped. Eight bows sang. Ozem staggered. Flos’ head turned—but then they clashed. The Minotaur swung his axe—the [King] knocked the blade aside and swung it down.

He looked at Ozem’s blank eyes. The Minotaur grabbed at the blade and the King of Destruction let go. Ozem stepped forwards—

Loose.

Ytol spoke and the bows loosed again. He had seen high-level [Warriors] die. Ozem lashed around him with the blade. But the Humans had fallen back.

Ytol!

The King of Destruction was enraged. But the [Onslaught General] just laughed.

“Well done.”

He tried to say that to Ytol. The [Death Commander] saluted him.

The Minotaur wished he had the energy to fight beyond death. But—the arrows struck him again. With the last…pulled…

…return…

 

—-

 

The [General] collapsed, the throwing axe in his hands. Arrows had taken his life. Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction, was trembling with fury. Even so—the Minotaur had deserved better.

“The Minotaurs are within five miles of their ships, your Majesty. Orthenon will catch them before then.”

“One moment.”

Flos dismounted and strode over. The axe in Ozem’s hands. He recognized it.

“The Minotaur King’s weapon.”

He reached for it. It wasn’t even held tightly in Ozem’s grasp. Flos lifted it up—then his arm jerked.

Something was…pulling the axe. Like it had returned to Ozem’s hand time and time again. The King of Destruction yanked it back towards him. And he felt—

The King of Minotaurs reached out for her axe. The King of Destruction’s arm bulged as he tried to hold onto it.

“Your Majesty!”

Several [Riders] came forwards. Flos gritted his teeth.

“I will see you dead.”

He spoke to the air. The King of Minotaurs said nothing at all. She stood, and pulled. The blade she had given to Ozem—slowly moved back through the air. Towards her.

Flos Reimarch’s feet left the ground. Teres saw dozens of people jump and try to pull him down.

“Your Majesty! Let go!

The King of Destruction refused to. But he could not use his strength in this tug-of-war. He rose higher. Higher. He looked down and cursed.

Inreza!

He bellowed once—and then let go. He landed heavily. The Minotaur King’s axe soared through the air as she relaxed. The King of Destruction picked himself up.

“The last of her army dies.”

 

—-

 

The warship’s sails were painted red by the fading light. Seler heard shouting. She gave one last order.

Maweil’s Third Axes will turn and stand!

They did. The [Steward] rode down on them with his escort. The ships were so close…

But the remaining thousand Sharphorns would never make it. Less than four miles…but the [Steward] was upon them.

Seler had failed General Ozem. The knowledge was bitter, but she took heart. They ran—until the [Steward] slew the last Minotaur and came on again. The King of Destruction was not far behind.

“Warriors of Minos. Here we stand. Turn.

The Minotaurs turned. The [Steward] slowed. The last thousand Sharphorns placed themselves in the sand. Seler raised her axe and bellowed at the warships.

Return to the House of Minos!

No one would be joining them. She heard a distant bellow from the ships as she turned. Once more—the House of Minos’ [Warriors] sang.

 

“We sail until the world’s end

Bring death to foe and aid to friend.”

 

Seler joined the warriors of Maweil. She saw the [Steward] slowing.

 

—-

 

They were singing again. The House of Minos’ last [Warriors] faced the Steward of the King of Destruction. Orthenon held up a hand. He saw the warships unfurling their sails.

“Lord Orthenon, do we attack?”

“The warships will repel us before we are able to stop them. Wait for his Majesty. He will want to be here.”

The King of Destruction was only a minute behind them. The [Ruinbringer Steward] saw the Minotaurs spreading out on the sand. For a glorious, honorable death. He wasn’t interested in them.

He felt…uneasy. The [Army of the King] had been used. The Emperor of Sands, Reim’s countless enemies would not miss this opportunity. But there was an opportunity here.

Medain’s army. Orthenon’s head turned. They were still not at their capital. Countless [Soldiers] had surrendered. But Mars—

Yes. Orthenon calculated it. She’d catch High King Perric. And he could surrender or die; the Illusionist would capture him.

Medain might fall today, if all was well. And Jecrass as well. That might turn a victory out of this costly battle. Orthenon cared not for the Minotaurs here. They were young. He might have let them go, but the King of Destruction would not. Their deaths were meaningless.

“Lord Orthenon—”

One of his [Riders] interrupted Orthenon watching the fleeing High King. He looked ahead at the pointing finger. The white sails had turned crimson.

All seven of them. He frowned.

“A warship is coming.”

The [Rider] pointed. Orthenon stared at a distant ship.

“Reinforcements?”

“They’ll have to make it here. Wait for his Majesty. We’ll finish the Minotaurs first.”

One of Medain’s fleet, perhaps. The [Steward] turned back. Then looked forwards again. The ship was making for the coast at speed. Faster than the Minotaur’s warships, which had slowed.

“It’s…going to ground itself.”

Orthenon stared at the distant ship. He had been raised in the Empire of Drath. The King of Destruction was shouting, pointing at the Minotaurs. Orthenon felt…his…instincts…

Your Majesty. Fall back! Fall—

He turned. The enemy warship was landing. It was coming on faster, and faster. It was going to run ashore. And then he saw the light.

The distant ship began glowing.

Only one ship in the world did that. The ship began to shine. And still—it didn’t stop.

“Prepare for irregular reinforcements! With me!”

The [Steward] raced towards the shore. The Illuminary shot forwards. He saw a woman with a huge, classic [Pirate]’s hat standing at the prow of her ship.

Captain Rasea Zecrew. One of the most famous [Pirates] in the world.

 

—-

 

She was crying. The [Pirate Lady] kept sniffing and dabbing at her eyes as the wind howled around her. Her ship was headed straight for the shore.

“What a time to be alive. Look there. There’s the legend of this era.

She pointed. The King of Destruction had noticed her at last. Her crew was laughing. Cheering. The [Helmsman] took them forwards as the winds blew into the sails and the Illuminary picked up more speed.

“The King of Destruction. I wish I had been born when he was at his strongest.”

Rasea brushed a tear out of her eyes. Then she pointed.

“Okay, enough crying. Full speed ahead!

The Illuminary shot past the Minotaurian warships, the startled Sharphorns. Onto the beach, towards the King of Destruction, the advancing [Stewards], the half-Giants.

The [Pirate]’s ship went aground—and then kept going. Orthenon stared as the ship shot over the first hundred meters of beach. The waters came with it. No—he saw something pushing the ship.

“A w—turn! Turn and—

The Illuminary shot over the beach towards the cavalry. They tried to split in front of the [Pirate]’s ship. And it kept going! The wave had left the ocean and was rolling under the ship, pushing it!

[The Eternal Wave]! Get them, lads! Open fire!”

Rasea Zecrew laughed as her ship split the riders in twain. Horses and [Soldiers] screamed as the waters sucked them under. She saw the [Helmsman] spin the wheel.

Orthenon saw an arrow pointing at him. He flung himself left a second before the stolen ballista fired. The Illuminary started spitting projectiles like a Minotaurian warship.

Seler and the Sharphorns stared as the Illuminary shot onto the beach, turning. The King of Destruction’s momentum slowed. And Flos Reimarch saw the fastest ship in the world coming right at…

Your Majesty! Watch out! Turn! Turn!

Teres heard Ytol shouting. She saw the King of Destruction galloping left, across the sand. The Illuminary turned—

And ran him over. The King of Destruction and his horse vanished beneath the wave and prow of the ship.

 

—-

 

“Hey, did we just run him over?”

Rasea looked around as her ship cut straight through the King of Destruction’s army. She shrugged.

“I hope he’s not dead. Alright, lads! Just like we practiced! [Mark Target]! [Ship: Homing Missiles]! Fire!

Magical bolts began shooting from the Illuminary’s sides. They shot upwards at a huge figure.

A half-Giant. Zamea staggered as the first volley hit her. One of the ballistae boomed and struck her in the navel.

They’re big, Captain!

Well shoot them harder! Helmsman, port, turn to port! We’re running out of water!

The ship swung left and the wave carried it across the beach. It shot back towards the sea as it kept firing. Rasea looked around.

“Here they come!”

Kill them!

The [Shepherd] and half a dozen half-Giants were charging at the ship. Rasea saw one blocking their way.

“[Ship: Burst of Speed]!”

It shot past the half-Giant as he tried to block them and missed. There was no faster ship! And her crew was one of the most feared.

Rasea was laughing. She grabbed a rope.

“Here we go—swing the boom!”

The [Helmsman] obeyed. Rasea leapt—and the rope swung her up. She arced with half a dozen of her crew, landed. The half-Giant looked at the figures on his shoulders.

Rasea stabbed him in the eye. Her crew cut the half-Giant across the neck, and then leapt. The circling Illuminary caught them.

“What—what is she doing?

The [Pirate Captain] was assailing the army. The King of Destruction was nowhere to be seen! Teres stared. Then she saw the Illuminary coming back this way.

Formation—

Ytol hesitated. What formation did you take against a charging ship? He changed orders.

Scatter! Evade them!

Again, the pirate ship sailed onto dry land. Past the Minotaurs. They were making for the warships. Rasea’s ballistae sang again and another half-Giant cried out.

Alright, I think we got them! Anyone see the King of Destruction?

The [Pirates] shook their heads. Rasea pointed.

“That way! Straight for the capital!”

Medain’s army was fleeing through the gates. But the Illusionist was fighting the Golden Ranks. Now—the Illuminary swung left. It shot across the coastline as Orthenon galloped after it. Rasea walked across the decks.

“Where’s the good ballista?”

She saw one of the [Pirates] waving. The [Pirate Captain] seized the ballista, waited.

Spells incoming!

The King of Destruction’s army had seen the Illuminary’s attack. Parasol Stroll and the [Archers] were shooting arrows and launching spells. But again—the ship was moving so fast. It was an army of one!

“[Ship: Armor-piercing Shot].”

Rasea aimed the ballista and fired it. The bolt struck Mars in the chest and sent her flying. High King Perric backed up as he saw the ship coming his way.

Try to run him over too!

The Illuminary swung close, but it was running out of speed. [The Eternal Wave] was vanishing. It swung back as the High King fled through the gates.

Rasea was laughing. Mars the Illusionist swore and charged after the ship, but she was on foot. Parasol Stroll was launching fireballs and spells at the ship.

Ulyse snarled. He saw the ship passing by—then turn. The [Mages] put up a barrier—but the ship shot past them towards the tide again, to pick up more momentum. He whirled to Esiela.

“Punch a hole through their hull! Aim for…”

Someone landed on the ground. She’d swung off the ship. Amid the wet ground, Rasea Zecrew drew her sword. Eighteen [Pirates] had joined her. Selphids, a Gnoll, a Centaur with two crossbows—

Ulyse whirled.

“Are you mad? The King of Destruction will hunt you down for this!

The Drowned Woman’s fish-half lit up. Half-Anglerfish. Rasea grinned with her pointed teeth.

“I’m hoping he’ll try. What’s life without a challenge? Say—do you think this will make him angry? [Antimagic Blade].”

“[Forcew—]”

Esiela saw Ulyse raise his staff. Rasea stabbed him through the throat. She spun, cutting down another [Mage]. Then she winked.

“Here comes the Illusionist! Alright, go!

The Illuminary shot past them again. The [Pirates] seized the ropes and were hauled up. Two didn’t make it. A spell snared one and Mars hacked another apart at the waist. She turned—but the wave knocked her and Esiela over. Drenched in water, the [Grand Mage] stared down at Ulyse’s blank face.

They’re all after us now, Captain. What’s the plan?

“Keep fighting until it gets too hot! Swing us back towards the Illusionist. I want to see—wait!”

The [Pirate Captain] whirled. She saw the horse racing, riderless next to her vessel, a moment before the [Steward] pulled himself up on the deck.

He had dropped his spear. He drew his sword now.

“You are all dead.”

Orthenon’s voice was cold. He alone had managed to catch the [Pirate]’s ship. He unsheathed his blade.

The Illuminary’s crew grinned. Rasea turned.

“I always wanted to see how good you were, King’s Steward! But I don’t think you brought enough friends.

One of the [Pirates] brought up a wand and loosed a spell. Orthenon pivoted. He cut the spell—then leapt across the decks. The [Pirate] slashed—Orthenon ran him through and put his back to the railing. But he’d wasted too much time.

“[Ship: Slippery Decks].”

Rasea raised her hand. The surface of the Illuminary’s decks turned oily. Orthenon’s footing slipped. And every [Pirate] with a clear shot unloaded bows, spells, and crossbows.

A ballista fired across the ship. It blew apart the railing; the [Steward] was gone. He was backing up, slashing at six [Pirates] including Rasea herself who were pressing him from all sides. He snarled—

“[Sword Art: The—]”

[Fireball]!

The [Pirates] fighting him dove backwards as one shot the spell. The [Steward] cut through the fireball. Rasea leapt into the gap. Stabbing—

He was quick. She blinked and stumbled backwards. He’d slashed her chest right open. The [Pirates] shot again and the [Steward] blurred backwards. Rasea raised a potion to her trembling lips.

“Kraken’s blood, that was close.”

She laughed. The [Ruinbringer Steward] had cut down another [Pirate]. But—they were so high-level. He slid across the decks, striking at them. Rasea tilted her head. She looked ahead and nodded at the [Helmsman]. She leapt—

The ship rammed into Zamea’s leg and the half-Giantess screamed in agony. The impact knocked everyone who wasn’t prepared for it off their feet. Which was a quarter of her crew. And Orthenon. He stumbled.

Rasea Zecrew leapt for him. She brought down her sword and the [Steward] pivoted. He blocked her strike, cut one of the Centaur’s crossbow bolts in half. He grabbed the railing. Rasea brought her sword down.

“[Flash Cut].”

She was aiming for his chest. The [Steward] saw the blow and raised his hand. Rasea changed the angle of the cut.

Orthenon’s forefinger and middle finger fell to the deck. The [Steward]’s face twisted with pain and fury. His blade blurred—Rasea’s stomach opened. She stepped back, clutching at her guts to hold them in.

Get—

He was gone. He’d taken his fingers too. Rasea swore and looked around. Then she ducked as something struck the mast.

Reim’s army was attacking the ship. One of the half-Giants hurled a huge stone. It tore through one of the sails.

“I think we have their attention, Captain!”

Some of the [Pirates] were loosing arrows at the [Army of the King]. They were actually clinging to the ship, trying to board it as the wave swept the foot soldiers around. Rasea saw Zamea raise her axe and throw it.

“[Evasive Turn]!”

The [Helmsman] dodged the huge axe. Rasea saw the Illusionist on horseback, coming their way.

“I think you’re right, Vree. Well then. All hands, brace! [Helmsman]—get us out of here!”

The Illuminary turned again. It shot back into the surf. And then—out to sea. Rasea heard an enraged bellow from the half-Giants. She waved at them.

Reim’s army watched the Illuminary go. Then—they realized the [Pirates] were still firing the ship-mounted weapons as they sped away. The land-based army fell back in disarray.

Where’s his Majesty?

Teres stared at the [Pirate]’s ship. The Minotaur’s warships were sailing into the distance. With the Sharphorns. But Rasea’s ship was still turning. Trying to hit the half-Giants who were grimly retreating.

“Ulyse is dead. Where is King Reimarch?

Orthenon rode towards them. He was covered in saltwater. And…his right hand was missing two fingers. Teres gasped. Ytol looked around.

The King of Destruction pulled himself out of the surf. Flos Reimarch looked around. He was shaking with fury. The Illuminary had nearly drowned him.

Savere’s [Pirates]? I will crush Savere and the Siren!

The King of Destruction would have remained on the beach as the Illuminary kept firing. But they had no way of catching or boarding the ship. And—the House of Minos was gone and Medain’s army had retreated to the walls.

With the High King and the King of Jecrass. Worse—Teres felt the strength of the [Army of the King] leaving her. The King of Destruction was raving with fury. Orthenon pressed a bandage against his hand.

“We have to reattach them. Get the [Healer] and sew them on. Maybe…”

Mars was looking around. Reim’s army was milling around in confusion. They had been…

Defeated? But all of their opponents had fled the field! And yet—Teres looked at the King of Destruction, swearing vengeance on Savere and Rasea Zecrew. The battered army. Then, one of the remaining [Mages] stepped away from the shell-shocked Esiela.

“Your Majesty.”

Flos Reimarch turned with a snarl. The next words made him go still.

“Nerrhavia’s Fallen has just declared war on Reim. So have the Claiven Earth, Savere…and a dozen other nations.”

Ytol looked up. Mars silently wiped at her face. Orthenon looked southwards, towards distant Reim. Hellios, Germina—all of their seized lands were now neighbors to nations which had declared war.

Silently, the King of Destruction removed his helmet and threw it into the sand. He took a deep breath…and then he sighed.

“Orthenon?”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

The [Steward] bowed, gravely. Teres saw Flos shake his head.

“Tell Takhatres to recall from his campaign against the Empire of Sands. I can no longer do without his tribe here. And prepare the army to move. We must…safeguard our borders.”

He looked back to sea. Darkly, breathing hard. Then he shook his head.

“But how did she know I would be there? And why?”

 

—-

 

Rasea Zecrew was laughing. She’d never been happier. The Illuminary had gone after one of the House of Minos’ warships and they’d stolen its armaments. Now, they were safely at sea.

Nothing could spoil her mood. She’d made an enemy of the King of Destruction, her sister, Revine Zecrew, the Siren of Savere was screaming at her, and the Illuminary had just become the most famous [Pirate] ship and crew in the world.

There were no downsides here. She turned and tipped her hat as she waved for someone to mute her sister’s ravings. She hadn’t ordered the Illuminary to go to war.

But someone had hired her. Rasea would have frankly done it for the joy of it. But she’d taken a lesson from the House of Minos. Why do something for free when you could be paid?

“If the King of Destruction gives us another run at him, we’ll keep fighting. But I assume this is enough for our pay?”

“Quite. You will find your payment at the following coordinates. A pleasure, Captain Rasea.”

The voice was distorted by magic. Or someone muffling their voice with a scarf. It didn’t matter. Rasea was pretty certain she knew who had hired her.

“Well, contact our ship if you’d like any more…favors.

The [Pirate Lady] didn’t hear a response. She turned away.

“Alright, lads. Let’s go get the rest of our pay. Then—whoever levels most gets a cask of the finest drink we’ve got! Here’s to pricking the King of Destruction himself! We’d better get our full pay. Or I’ll sail right over to Wistram and burn their isle down!”

Her crew cheered. And the Illuminary set sail once more. Rasea sighed. It was a good day, a glorious day. The person on the other end had tried to pretend they were the Elusive Lot. But the Elusive Lot was more entertaining than that. Rasea shook her head.

“That’s one mean Lamia.”

Then she set sail as half of Chandrar made war on Reim. The House of Minos had done its duty. The King of Destruction had suffered his first—real defeat.

The King of Duels was Medain’s prisoner, leaving only his daughter to rule. And as High King Perric reflected after a few, bracing drinks—

It had gone mostly according to his plan.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Well, this chapter was stressful to write! Lots of moving parts! Like…a clock. And I couldn’t make a clock.

But I did plan the battle with [Pirates], surprise Minotaurs, the [Army of the King], and mean Lamias from the beginning. Like other events, the pieces have shifted, but the event remains.

With this—the Jecrass-Reim arc is done in one sense. And the story continues! Did you enjoy the chaos? Do you have a newfound appreciation for ships? Let me know. I’m going to rest. I quite need it, but I think, for a chapter or two at least, I can relax.

Thanks for reading! The art of today will be a remix of old art! Apparently, CarolCM’s black-and-white pictures were actually very colorful! This is the before-and-after of changing the brightness settings. Also, we have an amazing piece by QYJO of the Horns of Hammerad! Pre-metal arms. Give them lots of love and see you next time!

 

Amerys and Mars, recolorized by CarolCM! (Thanks to Enyavar)!

 

The Horns of Hammerad by QYJO!

QYJO – https://qyjo.in/

Dr.replig8r (Artist) – https://instagram.com/vineethharidasan

 


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(The Living Library is an app with a number of interactive stories! A friend of mine, Quill, has finished The Sorcerer’s Tower—give it a read if you’re looking for more stories!)

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Vampires were dying. It would be wrong to say they’d been betrayed, though perhaps it felt like it to them.

Tricked? Yes. Deceived, certainly. They had been outwitted. Cornered and routed in a war, through a medium they had no idea they were even fighting in.

The cunning of House Byres, their foes—had done the work of a million silver blades. It had been so effective that the attackers had forgotten that they were even driving their enemy to death.

But no one was admiring the genius overlong. Ironically—only the Vampires and one young woman who was their ally even knew what was happening. And those who were old enough to remember when the plan had been put forwards, of course.

He had been there. But he was gone. On an adventure to the home of [Mages]. So the question now became, simply—what was the future of Vampires? Obviously they were a disparate group, full of individuals. But, as a whole, was there a smart move? A logically sound escape?

Where, if not Izril, could they live? That was one of the questions Vampires asked in the days that followed. However—to those who remembered, like Himilt and Bamer, some options were instantly off the table. The trouble with being a Vampire…was that you had a history.

 

—-

 

“Vampires?”

His eyes narrowed. Or rather—golden flame reduced, like distant twin suns, into pinpricks. Fetohep of Khelt turned his head. And expressed his thoughts about Vampires thusly.

He rose from his seat, a chair placed so that in every room of his palace, the ruler of Khelt would not be without a throne. The Human standing before him saw the Undead King of Khelt rise, and turned his emaciated head towards the night. His voice rose and the legions of armored undead around his palace stirred.

“Vampires? Fetch me my armaments of the sun! Bear unto me proof of their existence and I shall arm the armies of Khelt with precious wood and silver and pile the sands with the corpses of the bloodstealers until even the most depraved of [Warlords] would turn away and beg for mercy.”

He almost began to pace, so caught up in the brief flash of fury. But then Fetohep caught himself and looked towards the intruder in his domain. His guest.

“Where did you see their presence, Teresa Atwood?”

He regarded the young woman, freshly bathed and free of the stench and dirt of battle—for the moment. She had arrived and just been ushered into his presence. She waved her hands at him frantically.

“No—no! I didn’t see Vampires! I just asked about them!”

“Oh.”

Fetohep hesitated. Then he sat back down.

“I see. But the fact that you speak of such filth tells me you know of them. From…your world? Have they invaded there?”

“No. They’re just a my—well…I thought they were just stories.”

Teresa didn’t know what was true anymore. She looked at Fetohep.

“So…Vampires are real?”

“Were real. Perhaps their taint lives on.”

Annoyed, the ruler gestured and his goblet was filled with the essence of mana and death. Teres was given a sweet wine as she sat. Fetohep of Khelt rested a hand for a moment over the edge of his dining room throne-chair.

“You come to me asking of their nature, or their history, Teresa Atwood? Naturally, I am the most logical choice, even beyond the Quarass in this regard. For that perspicacity, I shall entertain a brief conversation on the subject of…Vampires.”

Teresa opened and closed her mouth, but before she could get in a word in edgewise, Fetohep went on.

“Yes. They existed. Yes. They were a scourge upon Chandrar too. But Human memory being what it is—what do you perceive to be a Vampire, Teresa Atwood?”

“Um…pale. Sunlight kills them. Strong, fast, they…can heal from terrible wounds? You can’t even kill them without silver, or a stake to the heart, or garlic…”

Fetohep had been waving her on. He stopped her there.

“False. Garlic is anathema, but hardly their death. And a lesser Vampire could be slain without their greatest weaknesses. Still—close enough. What else?”

“Vampires need blood to live. They…can turn other people into Vampires. Actually, they can turn other people into slaves, or Vampires. They can command animals, turn into mist, bats, uh, hypnotize you with their eyes. They have no reflection…”

That was about the most obvious stuff. Teres tried to think of anything else. And because she was standing in front of the King of Khelt whom she did not like—and the feeling was mutual—she added one more ‘fact’.

“Oh, and they sparkle in the sunlight. Just—glitter away.”

Fetohep paused in drinking from his goblet. He eyed Teres’ straight face.

“…That is not my understanding of a Vampire’s powers. But your grasp of their basic strengths and weaknesses is acceptable. They do indeed have abilities beyond their—species. A Vampire appears at first glance to enhance and give strength to anyone who accepts their ‘gift’. The allure has drawn more than a few like you to them, begging for their version of immortality and power.”

“And that’s a bad thing, right?”

Teres sighed. There was always a catch. Always! She was ready for a big speech about it. Fetohep just shrugged.

“Perhaps only to those Vampires prey upon. I am not one to speak. Khelt’s rulers persist thanks to our bargain of undeath. A Vampire is—by some measures—a superior being. Their weaknesses multiply, but so do their strengths. Such is the allure of their power—especially when honed by blood—that even the Quarass sought to drink of their strength in several of her incarnations.”

Really? Then why do you seem to hate them so much?”

Teres sat forwards. Okay—Vampirism wasn’t off the table! This might be a productive day after all. Fetohep looked at her.

“Simply that such a race is superior, Teresa Atwood. And like every species thus empowered—they have ruled this world. When Vampires claimed their eternal night, they devoured the people of Khelt like every other. You have seen war. You have seen slavery. Vampires would make slaves of the world. They delighted in suffering.”

“…Oh. But—but they didn’t succeed, right? I’ve been studying history. Orthenon’s taught me when he had time. I know about the old empires. Every species seems to have done it. Half-Elves, Selphids, Minotaurs…Drakes…”

“Not all species. And it is important to remember, Teresa Atwood, that not all empires were of the same length or atrocity. If my ire is directed to Vampires—it is because I have read of their wars of conquest. They held Chandrar only briefly. And they never will again, so long as I exist or Khelt remembers the past.”

Fetohep rose and looked out the window. Teres sat back. If there was one thing Fetohep was good at—it was storytelling.

“What did happen, then?”

The [King] hesitated. But it was late, and while he could have performed any number of functions, Teresa was the only outsider to Khelt present. He would have still usually dismissed her.

…But Trey Atwood was gone. And he had told Fetohep it was a true parting. The Ruler of Khelt was just—bored. So he answered Teres’ question.

“At the height of their power, Vampires did try to claim each continent in turn. Rhir proved inhospitable for their kind. Terandria fought bitter, unrelenting wars as Vampires corrupted even their lines of kings. They infested Izril, ruling that continent in force. Baleros and Chandrar—less so.”

“Why Baleros and Chandrar less?”

Teres imagined the vast land of Baleros, from the jungles to the plains and frozen north. Fetohep tapped a finger against the glass, dislodging a tiny desert-moth drawn to the light of his chambers. His servants stood silently, waiting on his every desire.

Dead gods, he was so bored.

“Dullahans proved too obdurate as blood-slaves and they built their bodies out of silver. Centaurs suffered, as did Humans and Lizardfolk especially given their numbers, but the Naga and greater Lizardfolk united their peoples against Vampires. However, it was Selphids who truly drove them from the land. One parasite was enough.”

He waited for Teres to remark on this bit of irony, or ask a question. Trey would have. But his sister just went ‘mhm’ in a slightly disinterested tone. She was not half the guest her brother was.

Still, she was listening, so Fetohep moved through his palace and issued an order. Within the palace of Khelt’s vaults, silent guardians stirred, heeding his will.

“Chandrar fared better than Baleros, in truth. The scourge of Vampires came here and they began to corrupt, for a while. Chandrar is possessed of less vegetation, and despite the searing sun, the nights suited their kind well. However, the Shield Kingdoms of Chandrar numbered nine in those ages. When the true corruption of Vampire’s power was revealed, the armies of Khelt fell upon their kind with Germina, A’ctelios’ hordes, and every other nation in Chandrar.”

Teresa sat up slightly.

“What, just like that?”

“To trivialize a vast, unrelenting war that makes a mockery of Reim’s petty conflict with Jecrass? Yes. Such is a summary of history.

The young woman stuck her tongue out at Fetohep’s back and folded her arms. It felt like sitting in the company of one of her teachers, every second. Only, her teachers hadn’t threatened to cut off her head when they were mad. Most of them.

“Just like that.”

Fetohep stared out the window of perfectly blown glass. Not one imperfection would have been tolerated, not in Khelt. Not a single bubble or distortion. His gaze flickered.

“Let me tell you what ‘just like that’ looked like, Teresa Atwood. When the world rose against Vampires, the Quarass of Germina was possessed by their power. Her Champion of Ger sacrificed his life to convince her of the corruption of such power. Thus awakened, she understood the need to rid her nation of this influence. In herself—no less. So she drank poison that would have blackened the insides of Dragons and flew to the greatest of their lairs. There—she poisoned their bloodwells with her own ichor. She let the lesser spawn die by the thousands, and fought for hours against her kin until they brought her down and tore her to pieces.”

Teresa gulped. The little Quarass had done that in her past life? Fetohep looked over his shoulder.

“That was the prelude. As the Quarass was reborn, she led a true army from Germina and proceeded to stake and eradicate every last Vampire in the lair left alive. To warn the others, she had the rest executed by burning them from the toes upwards in molten stone. You would do well to remember that the next time you annoy her.”

Teres decided she didn’t want the snack the servant was offering her—a fancy version of a sundae, with a hand-baked wafer and whipped cream made from a magical cow or something. She always felt like she gained weight when she visited Khelt.

Fetohep turned forwards, slightly pleased by her reaction.

“So ended Vampires. They were driven first from our continent, then Baleros and Terandria. Izril was last. If there are Vampires—they shall not gain a foothold again so long as I live. We suffer no more overlords. Why do you ask? Have you proof of their existence?”

Fetohep ended the little history lesson there. He turned to look at Teres, expectant. Concerned, as a ruler. Surely something had prompted this question. Some sign.

Teresa Atwood shrugged.

“No. I just thought it would be cool. How about werewolves, then?”

The ruler of Khelt stared at Teres. After a moment he shook his head and looked past her.

“…Where is your sibling? I find his company far more agreeable.”

“On special business. Don’t ask me where. I’m not allowed to say. Flos didn’t even have him fight in the war—not that he needs to. We’re in peace talks. Which is why I’m here. He told me to take a break and placate you.”

Teres folded her arms. Fetohep eyed her.

“In that, the King of Destruction miscalculates both our natures greatly.”

“You said it. Okay—question. I know you’ve probably forgotten, but…what’s the most attractive species in the world? I’m just curious. Or—the most sensual or something?”

“Centaurs.”

Teresa blinked. She peered at Fetohep, but his poker face, as it were, was invincible. She had no idea if he was messing with her or not.

“Would you like me to summon a Centaur for companionship to see the truth of my statement? There are a number within Khelt.”

“Wh—no!

Fetohep nodded.

“Then come with me. I think there is something that may interest you, for whatever reason you brought Vampires up. Servants, leave us.”

He led Teres out of the dining room. The young woman walked down the vast hallways as lights grew to illuminate their passage.

Down she walked, down staircases and ramps. The King of Khelt ignored her questions and proceeded at a steady pace. He walked past hundreds of paintings of the most important figures of their age, each created by the greatest [Artist] of that era. Some stared after Teres, or moved.

The King of Khelt passed by an artwork that spanned an entire hallway so vast that it took Teres twelve minutes of jogging to get to the other end of. It was so cold—but she could have walked into the painting and made a snowball. She wished Trey was here; it wasn’t fun by herself.

Down, they went, taking a magical elevator that passed by a suite that one of Khelt’s kings had filled with treasures to impress one of his guests and found too odious to remove. Down, past—

The point was they went a long ways. Until they passed by a set of vast doors so tall that Teres nearly hurt her neck trying to stare up.

“Where…where are we?”

“The armory of Khelt. I have had a weapon forged for battling Vampires brought out. Now—I shall show you its function. This way.

A pair of undead guardians with glowing eyes put something around Fetohep’s form. A…crystalline armor set, hollow, made of some strange material that let Teres see what looked like a swirling mass of storm clouds compressed to a razor’s thinness inside the armor.

Fetohep led her back to the elevator. Teres groaned, and he looked at her as he stepped onto the floating platform.

“We will take the direct route back, not the scenic one. To the rooftops.”

“The scenic—

Teres’ stomach stayed on the armory floor. The rest of her shot up with Fetohep on the magical platform.

Fetohep stepped out onto a balcony, one of many on his palace’s roofs. This gave him a commanding view of his magnificent city of wonders and the vast desert beyond, some of it turned green by Khelt’s vast water stores. Teres hugged the ground behind him.

He was quite pleased by that.

“Now, look up, Teresa Atwood. You asked a question only out of curiosity. But here is my answer. If there were Vampires who dared to try to invade Chandrar once more, I would slay them thusly.”

Fetohep raised his hands and clapped them once. Teres, opening her mouth to shout something at Fetohep about safety regulations and elevator speeds—saw the clouds swirling in the crystal armor move. They parted—

And the sun came out. Fetohep’s armor did not merely…glow. Or illuminate. The sun itself shone from his armor.

Blinding. The people of Khelt looked up, wondering why the sun had suddenly risen. So bright was the light that Teres couldn’t s—

No, she could see. She should have been blinded. But somehow, everything was thrown into clearer relief, not just made dazzling. She dared to look up and saw him.

“A true [King] does not need to even look at his foe, much less stir himself for lesser foes.”

Fetohep shone as he stood there. His armor unleashed the contained radiation of the sun’s light like a beacon, illuminating the night for miles around.

He looked down at her. Teres stared at his armor.

“It—it’s beautiful.”

The magical fire in Fetohep’s sockets flickered. He had only meant to impress on Teres his power. This armor could slay a legion of lesser Vampires. But she stared at the workmanship of the armor as much as the magic.

“It is a masterpiece, isn’t it? Another creation of Serept.”

“Oh! The creator of the Diamond Swords? I saw them on the scrying orb! And you! He made these too?”

Fetohep gestured and the light went out. He eyed Teres to see if she was being facetious again, but she looked fascinated.

“Only naturally. Serept was a Smithing-King, who in life reached a level few [Blacksmiths] dared to imagine. He worked to forge crystalline artifacts—it was something of a motif. He took it to extremes—the Diamond Swords, armor made of quartz, battleaxes forged from a single ruby, and so on and so on…the more garish of his creations I hesitate to display. Some have made their way into the world, but I have a collection.”

“Can I—can I see it?

Fetohep looked at Teres as she scrambled up eagerly.

“You have an appreciation for craftsmanship?”

“I love it. Wait. Do you have other artifacts I can see?”

“Countless thousands. Come with me.”

The two looked at each other as they descended once more. Fetohep casually removed the armor—treating it with a warrior’s courtesy. This unexpected connection over weaponry was startling and not altogether pleasing to either. As they descended at a slower pace—Fetohep could have actually made the dais descend so fast Teres would free-fall—she looked at him.

“You were…probably kidding about the Centaurs. And I see that Vampires wouldn’t uh, take Khelt easily. Or at all if they’re smart.”

Fetohep lifted one hand in agknowledgement, waiting. Teres bit her lip.

“But seriously. If you hate Vampires but know you can beat them—is there a species you…fear?

The undead king paused. He inspected Teres’ face, then replied softly.

“Drakes.”

She snorted. But this time, Fetohep looked completely serious.

“My answer is serious, Teresa Atwood. Drakes and their ancestors, the Dragons, are the reason the Shield Kingdoms came to be. When they united, they drove Gnolls to hide beneath the earth. They made such war that legends were made of the nations who opposed them and lived. Neither you nor I have witnessed dragonfire pouring from a hundred thousand Drakes. And that was but the children. Working together with their parents, the Dragons, they were virtually unstoppable.”

“Oh. But Orthenon says that his M—Flos nearly got to Izril. He says that if they’d landed and reinforced Amerys, they might have really pushed the Drakes back.”

Fetohep flicked this assertion away like a bug.

“Certainly in the modern day, Drakes are weaker. And that is for the best. Their weakness comes from infighting. Teresa Atwood, the reason behind the Drake hegemony’s fall can be summed up simply. The only reason Drakes ever lost and Dragons were finally destroyed was that they began to battle each other. If they had not—a thousand Khelts would have fallen before them. It is nothing but realism to acknowledge this fact.”

“Oh, I see.”

Teresa fell silent. After a while, she looked at the vast palace they passed by and sighed.

“What is it?”

Fetohep saw her look up, almost wistfully.

“It seems like all the big battles and empires and legends were before us, doesn’t it?”

Fetohep shook his head slightly.

“The young always say such things. In this case, the—heights of power may be less than they were. That is true. But do not be so wistful. Here is a lesson from me. Be very grateful, Teresa Atwood, that Flos Reimarch is the name that shakes the hearts of millions. In the days we spoke of, he would be an average [King], possibly a good one compared to his peers. But nothing more.”

“And what about you?”

Teresa looked up challengingly. She saw Fetohep’s yellowed teeth in his preserved skull grinning at her. The King of Khelt spoke.

“I? A weak king of the undead. Difficult to invade, rich, wise, certainly. But weak once past the borders of my nation. The reason Khelt is the power it is today, Teresa Atwood, is because we kept all that other nations lost. Now, let us talk of lighter things. This way, you will see the most ridiculous item Serept ever forged. A halberd for a giant.”

A door opened. Teres’ jaw dropped.

“That’s not real. There are so many gems—why would you make something like this?

“I think it was a bet. Another lesson—the most excessive things usually are the product of some bet. If you will follow me…”

 

—-

 

Teresa Atwood didn’t really hate Fetohep. Rather, it was accurate to say that she didn’t understand or gel with him.

Trey now—Trey was good at being impressed, especially by history and his clear respect for the [King] was what Fetohep liked. There was something else as well—Trey was better at treating Fetohep like a person.

Teres’ version of that was to poke Fetohep or Flos, needle them. Flos enjoyed that more than Fetohep.

But mainly—the difference was that if Trey got along with Fetohep and the Quarass better, Teres was more at home with Flos. Because the King of Destruction for all his power and vassals was the sort of person who’d happily bivouac and spend the day on campaign. The other two rulers—when Teres stood with Fetohep, she was reminded who he was.

It wasn’t just the sundae, prepared by a [Chef] from the finest of ingredients at her whim. That was close to Earth—even if Earth’s accessibility was a product of globalized markets and innovations in freezing, transportation, and manufacture while Khelt’s was just incredible skill and wealth. You could get a sundae in each world, even if Khelt’s was better in every way.

But another to see Fetohep’s treasures. An enchanted, jeweled halberd made for a giant. Even Zamea would have had trouble lifting it.

Moreover…Fetohep’s conversation with Teres about weaponry meant that they were actually engaged in a lively, agreeable dialogue for once. The last time she’d been here to ‘entertain’ him, he’d ended up demonstrating his abilities with a sword and Teres had been thoroughly smacked around, despite her levels and Orthenon’s training.

This time? Night had long since fallen, but the first time Teres yawned, she was handed a small goblet. She blinked at it.

“A revitalizing draught. Drink it if you wish to continue our conversation.”

Fetohep saw Teres drink, grimacing, but the tonic wasn’t unpleasant. For once, it tasted refreshing—even fruity! She blinked.

“What is this? A stamina potion?”

She felt her exhaustion just—vanish. Not like stamina potions where you were given a shot of energy but had to pay the piper in the end. Fetohep nodded to the servant and he stepped away, bowing.

“A Potion of Revitalization. Somewhat more impressive than…stamina potions. Let us continue onwards.”

Teres smacked her lips.

“Wh—how much does one cost?”

“Mm. I do not count numbers. But I would estimate, at least eighty gold coins? Then again, the level of [Alchemists] varies. Once, Sage’s Grass was so expensive…”

Fetohep walked on. Teres stopped licking her lips, appalled.

“Isn’t—isn’t that expensive? I mean—I know you’re rich, your Majesty…”

He looked amused.

“What is wealth, if not to be used in munificence, Teresa Atwood? Certainly, it is well to acquire and preserve it. Yet I am Ruler of Khelt. My visitors, of which I have entertained few, will never leave my realm without singing praises of my hospitality. Have I not said it? Anything you might wish can be granted here. You and your brother are curiously reluctant to accept my gifts. Well—I gifted him a few small favors the last time we parted.”

“Favors? Like what?”

“Ah, a spell tome. A few liquid draughts. And as I perceived his garb was nothing more than mundane cloth—a fitting set of clothing to go with his staff.”

“Enchanted?”

“Do I possess articles of clothing that are not magical in some way? This way to observe some quite interesting chariots. I believe each one comes from a different era of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, beginning at the empire’s inception. All taken from enemy commanders in battle or acquired by similar means.”

Teres bit her lip on a snarky reply. She hesitated, staring at Fetohep’s back.

“If—do you have a bunch of magical swords I could borrow?”

The king stopped and Teres saw him glance back at her sword.

“Hm. The King’s Steward gave you that blade, did he not?”

“Yes…”

Teres felt embarrassed because it was a good sword. Enchanted with a few low-grade enchantments. Fetohep flicked his fingers.

“If I believed Orthenon or Flos of Reim was so impoverished, I would grant you a blade. But a low-grade enchantment has a point. If you allow the sword to do your fighting, you will not level.”

“That’s what Orthenon said.”

Teres sighed. She wanted one of Mars’ swords, though. Fetohep nodded sagely.

“If it were possible to buy levels…power from wealth is expressed in artifacts, in Drath, consumables, and so on. But levels cannot be stolen. I will give you no blade. However, if you wish it, I will certainly avail you of some decent clothing.”

Teres looked down at her travel clothing. She looked up quickly.

“Really?”

The ruler was already ahead of her.

“I shall schedule Khelt’s finest [Fashionista] to attend to you. You are no doubt required to return to Jecrass soon; by the time you leave, you will have a wardrobe of clothing more suited to formal events such as these. Do you have a preference of cloth?”

“Uh…”

“Provide samples of silks, satins, magical cloths—shockwool and so forth—for Teresa Atwood’s perusal.”

The king turned to the hovering servant, who hurried away. Teres blinked. The contemptuous wealth of a king. But Fetohep wasn’t simply careless with it. As she thanked him, embarrassed, his preserved, corpse’s face turned to her.

“Your thanks are not required, Teresa Atwood. However, if you would like to express your gratitude—tell me of your brother. I understand his purpose is secret. Yet I have never once betrayed another’s trust.”

Teres bit her lip. She hesitated. But as Fetohep well knew, reciprocity was a very Human need.  So she hesitated, and after looking around as if anyone could have spied on them in Fetohep’s domain, leaned forwards.

“I don’t know all of what he’s doing. It’s something Gazi spoke to Flos about. All I know…is that she’s gone. And Trey and two of Parasol Stroll’s [Mages] are heading to a harbor in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

The flames glowed in Fetohep’s sockets. And he came to a conclusion he had already reached when Trey had accepted his gifts. But suspicion and knowing were two important distinctions. He sighed and gestured—Teres blinked as Fetohep stopped leaning upon her with his will, subtly.

“Ah. Thank you, Teresa Atwood. Perhaps we should cut this tour of my wonders short. They are numberless, and the decisions of clothing may take you many hours. If they are to be prepared ere your departure, it would be best to start now.”

“Thank you. Are you certain I’ll be going, your Majesty?”

He nodded once more.

“The King of Destruction will no doubt require it. The war with Jecrass reaches its end. These peace talks will not last overlong and that boy is unlikely to have the patience to dance overlong on diplomacy. Nor does he need to.”

“It’d be a welcome end. We’ve been fighting for ages. The King of Duels put up a huge fight.”

Teres sighed. She was worn by battle, changed by it. When they had first met, Fetohep had seen a young woman, brash and confident. Now—she no longer flaunted the sword she carried. It was just a tool—and she had learned how to kill men and women with it.

Fetohep felt vaguely sorry for Teres. But that was what Flos Reimarch gave his subjects. Teres was confident in her ability to kill and perhaps, better for it. Yet few of Khelt’s children needed ever learn such lessons.

As to her statement, he just shook his head.

“I have followed the war in Jecrass and Belchan, Teresa Atwood. It is a conflict worth noting if only for the duels. I have—an interest in such things. Pomle has proven quite interesting in that regard…I digress. However, the outcome of the war was never in doubt.”

Teres squinted up at Fetohep as they walked upwards, towards the surface.

“You think so? King Raelt killed one of Zamea’s people by himself.”

He nodded again.

“And he has proven himself a fierce beast hiding behind the cloth of a [King]. One wonders what he might have been if aroused to fury beforehand in wars with Medain. But King Perric never pushed Raelt of Jecrass so far. No—this ‘King of Duels’ is fierce. But he is one man. And he fights an army led by the people whom stories were told about decades ago. One lion versus a pride of them is not a fair battle, or entertaining to see.”

“True. I just wish it had been over faster.”

Teres twisted her lips. Again Fetohep admonished her.

“Flos Reimarch was in no hurry to end the war. His armies have leveled from the fighting which ever favored him. If he wanted to end it—he would have used his greatest Skill. You have not seen him truly rampage, Teresa Atwood. I pray you remember that when you return to his side.”

She glanced up at him, suspiciously.

“Never rampaged…? I was there at Belchan when he threatened to execute the Prime Minister and hundreds of people.”

The undead king’s eyes flashed.

“That is only the beginning of why they call him King of Destruction. The reason no other nation interfered directly in the war with Jecrass and Reim outside of covert support is that they are still afraid of his Skill. But it is a single hammer he may use; once exhausted it takes too long to wield again. While it is unused, others tremble.”

Teresa glanced up again, narrowing her eyes. What did Fetohep mean by that? He just regarded her.

“Is he going to have to use it soon, your Majesty?”

“In this war? Doubtful.”

That was all Fetohep said. He ushered Teresa out of his presence and retired to his quarters. He was a king of a nation secluded from others, famously independent. But that did not mean Fetohep was out of touch with the world around him. Far from it. He consulted the news coming to him through various channels. And—directed more of them across the ocean. Towards that ancient place.

The home of Mages.

 

—-

 

The ruler of Khelt was not the only one who missed Trey Atwood these days. The strange young man, who could be endearing or aggravating, was nonetheless…a friend to a number of people.

Even if he was a foreigner. Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin could have used him now, though. There was something about Trey that was reliable.

She could talk to him without being berated as if she was the ass of some disobedient mule in the middle of a sandstorm. Everyone else in her clan—especially those older than her—refused to listen. Nawal was in that uncomfortable position of being Clan Tannousin’s best [Smith], as well as being a woman, and younger than most of her venerable elders.

It created an imbalance in the relationships. When she had to speak, they sometimes ignored her. When she needed council, it was given as orders rather than advice.

Well—she spoke now, taking the full authority and responsibility of her position. And Nawal couldn’t help but feel bitter that her aunt, Bezhavil, Silmak, the ‘official head’, and Hesseif were all standing behind her letting her lie.

“Lord Venith, Lady Maresar, our work progresses slowly but surely. The forging of Naq-Alrama steel requires many steps, as you know. We may only work by blue moon and now—in this stage—the radiance of the sun at its zenith. Of course, in the times when we are not working, we will produce more blades to the King of Destruction.”

She waited, heart pounding, as the married couple left in charge of Reim itself and the kingdom while the King of Destruction was on campaign looked at each other. It was the stern Venith who responded with a slight bow.

“That is not strictly necessary, Blacksmith Nawalishifra. Reim is grateful for all the blades of the quality your clan produces. If you create more, his Majesty will pay you for each one, of course. But the Naq-Alrama blades are most important. Take whatever time is necessary.”

“Of course, Lord Venith. We swear to repay his Majesty’s forbearance, and let our water skins turn to poison if we fail this great trust.”

Nawal nearly wilted in relief. She babbled a great promise and felt Bezhavil kick the back of her heels, but both women kept their veils up. Silmak and Hesseif’s faces were perfectly blank and composed as they backed away.

Lady Maresar, the former [Bandit Lord]’s eyes, followed Nawal as they left the room. The [Blacksmith] sweated as she tried to walk normally. It had been Maresar who had asked about the odd hammering that happened only when the sun was at its peak at midday.

Hammering in the sun? Now we have to pretend to do something every day! You idiot, Silmak! They’ll never know the difference? I told you we should have kept pretending we were working in secret, rather than ‘showing’ our work!”

When they were safely in their rooms in the palace, Nawal rounded on the [Shaman]. Her cousin looked guilty, but shook his head as he replied.

“At least they accepted our words. We just have to appease them. Make more blades.”

“More pure steel? It’s hardly worth the time!”

Nawal tore her veil off and stomped on it. The others stirred as she stalked about.

“We should—should just tell them! Tell his Majesty.”

“Nawalishifra! Tell him after we have eaten and drank for months of his hospitality?”

Bezhavil looked appalled. And afraid. Everyone knew the King of Destruction’s terrible wrath, and even if all the legends were not true—they had all seen the scrying orb at Belchan. They knew he was prepared to make good his threats.

“We are only making this worse. We can wait for Trey Atwood no longer. I agree with Nawali.”

Hesseif spoke slowly and heavily. Nawal looked at the clan’s best fighter they had sent. Silmak chewed his lip and shook his head.

“We have already kept up the ruse, though. Let us forge more blades for the King of Destruction. Perhaps, if enough of the ores can be found within the month…”

“I forge another ingot? Are you mad, Silmak? That delays us another two months! We cannot wait that long! The King of Destruction is no fool! He and his Steward know how long Naq-Alrama steel takes to forge.”

Nawal looked around, despairingly. It was Bezhavil who spoke, slowly.

“Then, Nawali, we must claim that it is your youth and inexperience as a female smith that delays us. You must tell the King of Destruction that.”

The female [Blacksmith] looked at her aunt, and around the room.

“You want me to tarnish my pride?”

“Better than that of the dead or Clan Tannousin.”

For a second, Nawal looked at her aunt and cousin. Then she looked at Hesseif. He couldn’t meet her eyes. In shame. She turned and stormed from the room.

 

—-

 

She’d forgotten her veil. Nawal felt exposed, so she covered her face as she hurried to the rooms they had been allotted. Perfectly dark, without a trace of light—the ideal conditions for forging Naq-Alrama steel, except when moonlight or other shades of light were needed.

There was no point now, though. Nawal pushed past four of Clan Tannousin’s guards who let no one but their people inside. She ignored their looks and sank to her knees.

Her clan’s honor. And—these lies! This was not why she had learned to swing a hammer!

“I wish you were here, Trey Atwood. To make sense of it. At least I would not need to lie to you.”

Nawalishifra spoke bitterly. Her clan had hoped to use him to deliver the message. But he had been gone to A’ctelios Salash so long, as well as Khelt. And then—they had heard he was not returning to Reim. So their plans and their stalling had forced them to add to the lies.

Venith and Maresar believed that they had been forging the King of Destruction’s Naq-Alrama steel sword for the last month. And they had, ever since Nawalishifra had returned with an idea in her mind of what to make for him. They had carefully begun the hundreds of steps in the ritual to even prepare the ingots for smithing. They had softened the metal that had been hardened by even the slightest ambient daylight, created a proper receptacle for the moonlight bath, as well as meticulously calculated every portion of metal the King’s blade would require.

The last two full moons, Nawalishifra had brought the metal out, to purify first, and then forge in the moonlight bath, a process that required speed as even under moonlight, Naq-Alrama steel hardened quickly. It would take her weeks of hammering, softening, and hammering again until the final forge, where fire would speak for the first and last time before daylight finished the process.

But then she would have produced a blade worthy of even the King of Destruction. One to cut magic like water and give new life to their clan. Nawalishifra had been prepared for that moment. She had forged over eighty pieces of Naq-Alrama metal before—twice as many as other smiths needed before they were allowed to attempt it solo.

She had been ready. The metal had not been. Nawalishifra had brought her hammer down the first time on the softened metal, still so strong as to require her full strength to even move—

And this was the result.

Nawal knelt in front of the broken ingot of Naq-Alrama metal. It was—shattered. Like glass, if you struck it with a hammer. Moonlight had hardened the pieces that the clan had gathered; now they were individually harder than regular steel.

But no one would soften the broken metal so it could be reforged again. There was no point.

A seam in the metal. Air. Nawal saw it now; and no one could have seen it before. It had permeated the perfect ingot, such that it was no longer one unbroken piece of metal. When she had brought her hammer down—she had shattered it like crystal.

In other metal, it wouldn’t matter. Steel? You could work with that, as embarrassing as a mistake it would be. Nawal wouldn’t have accepted such a mistake in her own ingots, but she could have done it.

But Naq-Alrama steel was one thing. To break it, you had to produce enough force to shatter the entire blade. That was why it did not bend and why the few blades that had ever been broken seemed to explode. It was also why it was so hard to forge; the ingot had to be perfect.

And this one was flawed. Nawal stared dully at the metal. She reached out to touch a shard; cut herself. She stared at the blood on the glistening metal.

“Father. Your pride has killed us.”

He had been the one to forge these last ingots, with his last energy. She had helped him, but he was the one who had to watch for air, for these imperfections in the process, day in, day out. Had he known? Was that why he had died and left them to sell the metal instead of the finished product?

Nawalishifra didn’t want to believe it. But it made a terrible sense. Imagine if they had sold it? If her goat of a brother had managed to find a buyer? The metal would have broken even if they’d done it perfectly, but Clan Tannousin could have claimed that there was a fault in the smith who had tried it.

It was such a perfect excuse that she almost believed it. She did not want to believe her father could have done that.

But look. The metal was ruined. Nawal’s head rested against the stone floor. The other ingots were similarly marred. Air in the metal. She had shattered each one with a hammer in her fury and despair.

What—what did they do now? They could only pretend for so long. Nawal raised her head, slowly. She wiped at her eyes. The war with Jecrass was ending. Soon—the King of Destruction would be returning and his mind would turn to his promised blades. When that day came—Nawal feared she would end up taking responsibility for the failure she had not known existed. That she could have never prevented.

She wished Trey was here. He would not have expected that of her.

Everyone else did.

 

—-

 

As for himself, Trey Atwood was nervous. He did wish he could have said goodbye. To Nawal, for instance, or the Quarass. He hadn’t seen her since they parted ways after A’ctelios. And it felt like he might be going away for a while.

If Gazi’s plan worked—a good while. Trey was nervous as he stared at the glittering, emerald bay.

The water was actually green, not blue, due to a trick of the light or some mineral content in the waters. It was beautiful and looked like it would be an amazing break from the heat.

But few people were in the water, despite the busy harbor. That was because Nerrhavia’s Fallen was a kingdom made of String People, and they didn’t like getting wet that much. It made their cloth rot or shrink.

Trey would have tried it, but he was under orders to keep a low profile. So he tugged his hood down and drank some water. Wearing a hood would have made him stand out more, frankly.

It was hot. Trey felt a blessed coolness blowing around him and blinked. He turned his head—and Mirin, the second-in-command of Parasol Stroll, waggled her fingers.

“Cooling spell. You need to remember to use magic, Trey Atwood.”

She smiled at him as he ducked his head. Trey adjusted his grip on his staff; his palms were sweaty.

“That’s why I’m going, right, Mirin? Thank you for bringing me here. You too, Palke.”

The male [Mage] nodded. The two had been Trey’s escort the long way south through Nerrhavia’s Fallen from Reim. It had been a pleasant journey, uneventful, with them teaching Trey magic.

He missed Gazi’s company, though, or the Quarasses’, for all they could be…terrifying. And horrible. Palke and Mirin were quite kind, but neither of them had that knowingness about them when they talked about the highest forms of magic.

Still—here they were. Trey stared at the boat and the docks.

“Do you have everything? Would you like to go over the plan again?”

Mirin looked at Trey. He gulped, shook his head.

“No. I have the memory cantrip you taught me, Mirin. I’ll—I’ll be fine.”

But as he bade them farewell and walked stiffly down the docks, Trey felt like this was more and more insane. He saw a queue of people ahead of him, waiting to board the ship. This was separate from the cargo being loaded on the other side; these were all passengers.

Like Trey, there were a lot of nervous young people. Even children! As young as seven. Trey saw a boy, a Stitchboy, solemnly listening to his well-dressed father giving him instructions.

“…Sayzil. Remember? Sayzil. He and I were friends. He will know you; I’ve written ahead. And take this.”

The boy gasped as his father offered him something. Trey saw the glitter of magic and for a moment he felt as if the bay rippled.

Water magic. Some water-wand. Not with a bound spell, but a catalyst-wand with some water-based magical substance.

“Thank you, father!”

The boy bowed, and then he and his father embraced. Trey looked away. The dock was full of scenes like this.

“Next!”

A voice from the bored [Mage] in front made the others stir. No one stepped forwards immediately; they still had things to say.

Trey walked forwards, heart pounding. The [Mage] sighed as he went down the list.

“Name?”

“T—Troy Atlas.”

Trey nearly fumbled the first step. The [Mage] ran down the list.

“Troy, Troy…aha. No mage-picture…can you tell me the city you came from, Mister Troy?”

“Er—Hellios.”

“Alright. And your age?”

“Six—no, it’s seventeen now.”

The [Mage] nodded. He glanced up. He made a little sign and looked at Trey.

“Do you swear you are the person bound for Wistram Academy?”

Trey caught his breath, but in relief. Mirin and Palke had worried about the wording of this, but—Trey nodded.

“I am.”

The [Mage] studied the truth spell and nodded. He forced a smile and pointed to the ship.

“Very well. Your cabin will be assigned to you. Welcome, Mister Atlas.”

Trey exhaled slowly. He boarded the ship, walking up the gangplank. He knew Mirin and Palke were watching, but he gave them no sign.

The first step was done. Trey saw a [Sailor] pointing with a yawn towards the belowdecks.

“That way, Mister Student, sir.”

“T-thank you?”

Trey nearly stumbled as he stared at her. She was a [Sailor], like all the other ones working on decks, loading cargo, swearing at each other. But this woman…had an octopus tentacle for a leg. She had a swaying walk.

“No problem, sir. Hey, Captain! We shoving off by evening or what? We’re dying of boredom here!”

The [Storm Sailor], Inky, saluted. She shouted at the [Captain] busy coordinating the loading of cargo and people.

Captain Lasc, aboard his repaired ship, turned.

“You want to dance with Lord Seagrass, the Undersea Crews, and half the [Pirates] in the sea, Second Mate Inky? This is steady pay and until we get everything re-enchanted and the crew up to snuff, I don’t want to hear complaining! Get back to work!

Inky grimaced. She waved Trey onwards.

“I knew I should have jumped ship at Zeres! Would’ve been more fun than running a passenger barge!”

“Hah! On your toes, Inky! I heard one of the ships going to Wistram got attacked by a Sea Serpent once! Had to be bailed out by the Archmage of Lightning herself!”

“What, only one?

The [Storm Sailors] laughed in good humor as Trey walked down the deck. So this was the Emerald Signet? The same ship that had been in the scrying orb? That Fetohep had been on? He’d told Trey all about it.

Trey wondered what telling Inky and the Captain would have netted him. A drink or a boot off the ship? Either way—it didn’t matter.

“Troy Atlas?”

A second [Mage] was waiting belowdecks. Troy nodded and she pointed.

“Take a room. It’s shared space until we get to Wistram. And that’s four days if we get the right current and with wind spells; twice that if we run into delays.”

She had a bored expression, like the other recruiter. Trey looked at the identical cabins.

“Which one…?”

“Any empty one.”

The [Mage]—a Drake—gave him a disinterested look. Trey was doing his best not to stare at the spines on her neck or her scales, which were a pale purple. He looked around, and before he could pick at random, someone stuck out a hand from one of the open cabins and waved.

“Hey, we’ve got room for at least one more in here.”

The [Mage]’s head snapped up.

“That’s not necessary, sir. We can arrange for a private bunk—”

“Oh, go on. No sense in making other people double up, is there? Long as he’s alright with my friend—hey buddy!”

Someone called cheerfully. Trey stepped forwards and saw a young man lounging on a bed as something rustled around below the bunk. He waved as the Wistram [Mage] bit her lip and swished her tail.

“You afraid of dogs, mate?”

“Er. No?”

The stranger gave Trey a thumbs-up. He had an interesting accent. For instance, ‘go on’ had been turned into ‘gwan’, and…Trey’s eyes flickered towards the worn jacket and clothing. And the logo in colors this world didn’t possess.

“Mister—Mister Flynn, there’s really no need—”

“’S fine. Don’t worry about it. Hey, nice to meet you. The name’s Flynn. Flynn Patel.”

The young man offered a hand. Trey shook it, glancing at whatever was rustling under the bed.

“—Troy Atlas. Nice to meet you.”

Flynn had darker skin than Trey’s, and tanned. He was more muscular as well and older. He had left his hat on the bunk. His eyes looked Trey up and down.

The young man knew he had no signs of Earth on him from his clothing. He carried a magical staff, the one taken from the [Geomancer], and Fetohep had gifted him a shirt and trousers that were both enchanted. He looked like the son of a lesser noble house, and he even carried a few other magical artifacts.

“Nice staff. What, are you a student for this Wistram Academy?”

“That’s right. I’m an aspiring [Mage]. Aren’t you?”

Trey knew the answer before Flynn grinned and sat down on the bunk. Trey would have to sleep above on either side of the small cabin; someone had messed up the bunk opposite Flynn’s.

“Not exactly. I’d love to learn magic. But uh—I was recruited. I don’t know a lick about magic. I’ve been roughing it around here for the last few months. Say…Troy Atlas. That’s an interesting name.”

“Really?”

Trey gave Flynn a blank look. And his heart began racing. Here it was. What did he do?

Gazi had given him a set of goals, a lot of minute details, but from here on out—Trey was on his own. She couldn’t help him—at least—not like this. So he had a decision to make.

“It’s not that unusual a name. Where I come from.”

Trey sat back as casually as he could. Flynn studied him as the rustling thing under his bunk made a weird, growling noise.

“Really? Everyone I’ve met is Zenra Silk, or Meura Hemp.”

“You mean, Stitchfolk. That’s common in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Flynn Patel is sort of interesting too.”

The young man ducked his head. Now he was watching Trey.

“Well, my mother’s…from another country. India. Ever heard of it?”

Trey feigned ignorance. His heart was beating out of his chest. But—it was also fun. He kept the smile from moving across his face.

“No…no, not really. Is that on Terandria or Izril? Baleros? I haven’t been to the other continents before.”

He saw Flynn deflate. He sat back against his bunk, shaking his head.

“Nah, further than that, friend. Way further. Never mind. Sorry, thought you and I might have been from about the same place. So you’re a student?”

He looked at Trey, still polite, even if his hopes were dashed. Trey nodded.

“That’s right. I’m hoping to learn more magic. I’ve got a few levels in [Mage]. I’m a [Sand Mage], actually.”

Flynn sat back up.

“Really? Know any spells?”

“A few. Not many I can show you here—oh! But I can show you a few tiny sand-Golems. Here, give me a sec.”

Trey fumbled with his bag of holding. Flynn leaned forwards and Trey couldn’t resist. Now. He glanced up.

“So. Flynn Patel. When did your family move to Australia?”

He saw Flynn blink—and then his eyes went round. His jaw dropped. He stared at Trey’s face, and Trey burst into a shaky grin of his own. Flynn punched Trey’s shoulder and then shot to his feet.

I knew it! You bastard, you had me thinking—god! Hey! Hey, I found another one!”

He shot to his feet and went to the door of his cabin. Trey heard him shouting as the young man called out to the female Drake.

“Hey! I found—”

And here we go. Trey took a breath while no one was watching, then put an astonished look back on his face. It wasn’t too hard. And it was a common emotion.

The Drake [Mage]’s exasperated look became one of shock and excitement as Flynn pointed at Trey. She nearly dropped the clipboard as she hurried over to him.

“Another one? Are you from—America?

The Drake stared at Trey with a far different expression than before. Flynn shook his head.

“Naw. He sounds like the United Kingdom, am I right? I’m from Australia! Melbourne, myself!”

“Er…yes. I came here because I heard about the football game—and other things. I uh—thought there was a chance…does Wistram have more people from Earth? Home, I mean?”

“I need to send a [Message]. That’s—you’re absolutely right, Mister Atlas. Just sit here and we’ll take you to more of your people. Please—be careful about what you say. And you, Mister Flynn.”

The Drake gave the young Australian man a look. He was too jubilant to notice. He dragged Trey back into the cabin.

“I knew it. No one has a name like that. How’d you find out? Where did you land? No—wait. Have you met anyone else? I’ve been searching for my mates, but no one’s heard of them.”

Flynn looked at Trey as the young man sat down. Trey took a deep breath.

“I’m from Hellios, actually…”

“Where?”

“North of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. North of Reim.”

“Reim, Reim…that’s the kingdom everyone’s talking about, right?”

Trey nodded. There was a lot of catch up on, but he was appraising the outcomes of his decision at the same time as his conversation. He’d been meaning to reveal himself when he got to the isle; that was step two of the plan. But this was more natural.

The ship had moved into a slow, swaying progress out of the harbor and was picking up speed as the two finished understanding where the other had come from. Flynn shook his head, grinning.

“So, you helped this fellow out and this—this [King] of Khelt gave you the fancy items?”

“Something like that. What about you?”

“Me? I’ve been running about Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Working as an adventurer, hunting, even making things. Anything to earn enough money to survive. It was tough, the first bit. I had to beg for water, but I got my feet under me. I was just trying to make money and get to Silver-rank when I saw the game on television. Soccer. I asked at the Mage’s Guild and they had me on a ship before I could blink!”

The football game. Trey sighed. Flynn seemed in good spirits for someone who’d had to survive on his wits alone, even fighting monsters the last few months.

But perhaps that was because of his companion. The snuffling under Flynn’s bunk turned into a shape at last as Flynn broke out some dried meat and shared it around. It was spiced, and made Trey’s mouth water pleasantly. And drawn by the smell, a long-nosed dog wuffed by Trey’s foot.

“Gah!”

“Oh, don’t mind Pricky. She’s just hungry. Here you go, girl. Troy, meet my partner and the only reason I’m still alive. Pricky, say hi.”

Flynn offered the meat to the strange animal that came out of the bunk. Trey looked down and saw…well, he thought it was a dog.

It looked like one. A longer muzzle, almost like a triangle, and small mouth. The dog was just a bit below midsized, with a dark brown coat. She looked fairly strong and she had sharp teeth. But what was confusing about her was…her hair.

It was spiky. There was just no other word for it. The hair seemed to clump together into tufts that looked sharp to the touch. And as Prickly noticed Trey, the hairs stirred and rose a bit.

“Er—Flynn? What is that?”

“Her? This is Pricky, a Needlehound. It’s like if a cactus crossed with a regular dog. She’s the first friendly animal I met. Was dying of thirst in the heat. I gave her some water and then—bam [Beast Tamer]. I was looking for a Pokeball at the shops, you know? Go on, give her a scratch. Prickly, this is a friend. Friend.

Flynn laughed. He carefully smoothed Pricky’s fur one way, telling Trey to carefully touch her. Trey did so—and he found the fur was soft. It moved around his fingers.

“Her hair’s like a porcupine, only a lot more complex. If she’s mad or doesn’t like you—they turn into spines. She just has to rub you wrong and you’re in trouble. They can get sharp; she brought down this Bicorn by jumping on its back and just shredding the poor bugger. With me and anyone else though, there’s no reason to worry.”

Pricky was the one on the opposite bunk. That was out of necessity; even as her master, Flynn couldn’t sleep with her without the danger of her accidentally triggering her needle-hairs in her sleep.

“I hope this ‘Academy of Mages’ has enough room for her to run about. I hear it’s just one island. But I couldn’t leave her behind. I’d have gone mad without her looking after me, monsters aside.”

Flynn rubbed her ears affectionately. The dog rolled over, making a ‘frrrfhh’ sound in the back of her throat.

“So you just heard about Wistram?”

The [Beast Tamer] nodded. He seemed excited by the prospect of going there.

“It’s a relief there’s somewhere we can go. And—I’m hoping to find some friends there. Or news of what the hell happened on Earth. Where did you come from?”

“England. I was just…walking down the street with my—myself. And then I was here.”

Flynn glanced up.

“Huh. Did you hear about other people going missing? Was there any—sign?”

“No. Not at all. I just—appeared suddenly. What about you?”

The smile went away from Flynn’s face. He sat on the bunk, folding his hands between his legs as Prickly went back under the bunk. There was food, refreshments, anything the two young men wanted thanks to the Wistram [Mages]. Trey was certain they’d be four to a room and less well-attended if they hadn’t been from Earth.

“…I didn’t know what the hell was happening. But yeah. There was a sign. See—the thing is, I’m not sure if they’re here. Or…alive. But I was with my friends when it happened. A small group. I saw ‘em go. I was going to take a piss and I’d just come back when I saw someone vanish.

Trey blinked. He hadn’t met anyone else from Earth.

“Vanish?”

“Yup. Just there one second. Gone the next. You’ve not seen anyone else. But—his name’s Daly—he was just gone. No sound, nothing else.”

“What happened next?”

Trey leaned forwards, urgently. Flynn shook his head.

“I started shouting and asking if anyone else had seen. No one else had even noticed. They just thought Daly had gone off somewhere. I was trying to explain when I saw two more go. Then people began shouting. I ran about, trying to find them. I was just going for security when—”

He raised his hands and lowered them.

“In the middle of an airport. Fucking hell, man. There must have been cameras! But no one came after me. And I’m not sure—you arrived in Hellios? How far north is that?”

“A long ways.”

Flynn nodded absently.

“That means they could be anywhere. Or…they ran into something nasty. I saw some real monsters out there. The [Mages] don’t know. But if there’s a chance…and I can get help, I’m going to find it at this Wistram place. Hopefully.”

He looked up at Trey, serious now. The young man slowly nodded.

Flynn was odd to Trey. Older, but younger at the same time. He had been an adventurer, treated this world like it was part-game. Trey had seen a war. And fortunately or not—he’d arrived in the King of Destruction’s throne room.

Even their motivations for going were different. But they were going together. Trey sat in the cabin, as Flynn asked him questions about magic, his experiences. The young man practiced lying on his first person who wasn’t Mirin or Palke.  And he felt himself leaving Chandrar and everyone he knew and cared about far behind. Heading across the sea.

With a purpose, though. A great one. Trey closed his eyes.

Wistram Academy awaited.

 

—-

 

Trey Atwood, Teresa Atwood, Nawalishifra, Fetohep of Khelt. One left Chandrar, and the others in their way lived and shaped it, however small. Yet their fates were tied to one man, one kingdom.

The next day, Teresa Atwood rode north at all speed. It would take her several days to return to the front. But that was fine.

The war was paused. Jecrass and Reim had halted the conflict that had raged across Jecrass and Belchan’s borders until Raelt had pulled his armies back, ceding the south and west of his lands to Reim’s advance. More than that—after his second attempt to bring the King of Destruction down, he had sent a [Messenger] under the flag of peace.

He had asked the King of Destruction his terms for Jecrass’ surrender.

That was the kind of news that made Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Medain, and every other nation opposed to the King of Destruction extremely nervous. Undesirable news, to say the least. However, it wasn’t being reported loudly from Wistram News Network. A glorious battle against the odds was good television. The peace negotiations—no.

That was how the Academy felt, at least, and they controlled the broadcasts. So attention across the world was turned to the incident in Baleros, football, and so on. That didn’t stop reality from occurring, of course. It just changed public perception.

Suing for peace. Jecrass was on the back foot and everyone knew it. The instant Raelt had begun the negotiations, the auxiliaries and irregular forces including the mercenaries from other nations had all but disappeared. Some remained in the cities, but they refused to fight.

Reim could have advanced and pressed the negotiations as they laid siege to the capital. But they didn’t. Fortuitously—a rainstorm had battered the north, coming off the coast of Medain. And the unexpected days of downpour upon Jecrass’ flatlands had stopped Reim’s army in their tracks.

“Rain!”

Flos of Reim laughed as he looked up at the sky. It was bewildering for Jecrass’ forces, but Reim’s army, from the far drier nation, had stopped just to admire the weather. They had helmets collecting rainwater, or were just watching the rainbows created as droplets fell from the skies.

Rain was something to be marveled at, not fought under. It was a difference of cultures, even between two close Chandrarian nations. Indeed, Flos was frankly envious of Jecrass, which had grass to graze on and feed the horses and cattle it was so known for.

“I forget, sometimes, how much water these coastal nations get. Medain is rich with water; King Perric has never faced a drought.”

He took a sip of water, letting some of it run through his hair. He shook himself as Teres shielded her face. Four days later, and Reim was still enjoying the water.

“You should come to England. I’ve had enough of rain. It gets dreary.”

“Would that I could get tired of it! Ah, well, if I conquer Baleros or Izril, I’m sure it will lose its appeal.”

The King of Destruction sighed. He motioned Teres over.

“I see your time with Fetohep has done you well. Is that new clothing I see?”

“Yes. He gave it to me as a gift.”

Nothing less than the finest clothing in Teres’ wardrobes. In fact, shockwool cotton had gone into her dress. Far from creating more static, it ensured she’d never shock herself accidentally. And it was very comfortable.

Flos just nodded. He pursed his lips and frowned, dragging each word out.

“Fetohep is generous. There. I said it. That—delightfully stubborn pile of bones has his good qualities. I’m glad he released you to me in time though, Teres. I want you to be here when we take Jecrass.”

“So it’s a done deal?”

Teres was surprised. She hadn’t gotten much news on the road from Flos’ escort. He ran a finger down the map in his tent. Mars, Death Commander Ytol, everyone was there, if not in the tent. Zamea for instance was sitting in the rain, grumpy because there was no covering fit for her. Parasol Stroll was endeavoring to cast a mass-shield spell over the half-Giants’ heads.

“If Raelt wants to pursue the war, I’ll happily march on the capital and destroy it. But it seems his backers have disappeared. And our strength is concentrated here. He did very well keeping us from advancing, but if it comes to it—I will take Orthenon, Mars, Zamea, and the bulk of our army and smash his capital. Then we can do the dreary fighting across Jecrass. I’d prefer to avoid that. And I think—so would Raelt.”

Teres nodded. She had a vague grasp of the strategy involved now, and even if she didn’t—she’d seen what happened when all of the King of Destruction’s commanders joined him in the same battle.

“So what do we do while we wait?”

“Relax? Play this football game? I keep kicking the ball too damn hard. I’m more interested in this ‘baseball’. From Earth. But the [Tailors] have yet to create a uniform that suits me.”

The King of Destruction clicked his fingers impatiently. Off the battlefield, he was prone to his flights of fancy once more.

“We stopped for the warm rain and to give the army a break. Relax, Teresa. Orthenon is conducting the negotiations. If you’d like—we can plot which nation is most likely to declare war next. I’m hoping Medain will. Then we can swing north, take Medain, and deal with the Claiven Earth before Nerrhavia moves.”

He cheerfully tapped the two sprawling nations on the map. Teres raised her brows.

“Just like that? From Jecrass to Medain?”

“Jecrass was a surprise, Teres! Medain won’t be that hard if we play it right.”

Mars laughed. She was good-naturedly sitting and checking her weapons. Today, she had a flashy mohawk; a new illusion based on Earth’s styles. Colored bright purple, though.

She was a contrast to Death Commander Ytol. One-armed, and one-legged, his punishment for ‘desertion’, the man bowed to Teres as if she were of Mars’ rank.

“Medain is a powerful coastal nation ruled by High King Perric. But his army is reliant on adventurers, many of them Gold-rank.”

“The Kingdom of Adventurers. You know, I’d love to explore some of their magical dungeons. A shame they’re almost completely explored. The monsters respawn, but the treasures do not.”

Flos sighed, his eyes twinkling. Teres raised her brows.

“Didn’t you say that the Gold-ranks are really strong, your Majesty? You’re only as strong as a Gold-rank adventurer without gear. And a ‘High King’ sounds better than a…[King].”

Half of the vassals in the room coughed or looked scandalized. Mars and Flos just laughed. The King of Destruction ran a hand through his wet hair.

“True! But adventurers are limited in number. Kill twenty and two hundred run for their lives. If it comes to a fight—and I think I can insult Perric enough that he declares war on us—we’ll just kill a few teams and the rest won’t stick around. More to the point—Medain’s army isn’t half as mobile as Jecrass. It’ll be one big battle where we kill the High King. He’s strong, and he was a good adventurer. But he’s about…Raelt’s level of [King].”

“Really? But—”

Ulyse of Parasol Stroll coughed into one hand.

“Lady Teres, High King is a name given to King Perric because he rules over a defacto, smaller kingdom. One of his coastal holdings. It is a more powerful class…but not by that much.”

“Indeed. Before this battle, I’d have put Perric far above Raelt in levels and strength. Now? Raelt might be the better fighter of the two, and Jecrass’ people have fought like Manticores, each and every one!”

Flos’ eyes glittered. He looked out of his war room tent and shook his head.

“Medain isn’t a nation I fear. The half-Elves of the Claiven Earth? I’d rather settle with them than have to take their forests. Without the Mad Ones or Amerys or the Order of Glass—I’d hate to fight in the trees without a way to rob them of their cover. Have you ever seen half-Elves melded into trees loosing arrows at you in the middle of a fog from all sides? Disgusting. We might have to see if your world has any useful tricks to fight that kind of foe.”

He shuddered. The others nodded and Teres sighed, nodding. She looked outside at the rain.

“It is beautiful. Why were you so surprised by the rainfall?”

Flos just shrugged.

“I don’t know Jecrass well. I knew it had a good number of rivers, but I didn’t think it got storms like these.”

That surprised Teres.

“But it’s only two nations over! Surely you’d visited…?”

He shook his head.

“As a boy, perhaps. But I started my war of conquest early. Jecrass became a vassal-state of Reim without resistance early into my campaign. Its warhorses fed my armies—a fine boon. But I didn’t stay here at all. I could tell you more about the west, or south where I had difficulty and spent years on campaign. It is a beautiful land. I wish Raelt and I had not come to blows. But we have. And now we shall be done with it. One way or another.”

He leaned on the table, then. And his brow darkened. Teres caught her breath, because she remembered.

“The—negotiations. Are you still asking for the same thing? Belchan’s…?”

Flos looked. He met her gaze coolly. And he shook his head a fraction.

“The Prime Minster? Those who slew the Gnolls who came for my protection? Teresa Atwood. We have gone to war over our differences, Raelt and I. Those are the first of my demands. Now I ask for far more. I will have it—or I will march on his capital. But do not think of it today. Come. Let us sit in the rain.”

 

—-

 

Surrender was different from peace. And the terms of defeat—Raelt had fought wars against Medain, other nations before. He knew how to sue for peace, negotiate.

But he had never…surrendered. And he found it simpler and harder before. Because he had little to negotiate on.

“Prime Minster Lyfelt’s head. All those in his government responsible for the safety and conduct of the King of Destruction’s refugees…? That’s too open-ended. How am I even supposed to decide who that is?”

“That is his Majesty’s will. If you would like me to, I will name each position.”

“And they die.”

Orthenon, the King’s Steward, nodded. Just a slight tilt of the head. He did not blink, or give any sign that it bothered him. Raelt sat there, thinking.

It was just him and Orthenon in one of the small guest rooms in Raelt’s palace. It was…too small, too quaint to hold Orthenon, the Left Hand of the King of Destruction.

But that was how it worked. Raelt had sued for peace, and Orthenon had come himself as the King’s emissary. If he feared treachery or poison—well, Raelt was the one who had more to worry about.

That was the first way surrender looked different from a peace treaty. Orthenon had refused lesser negotiators. He wanted to speak to Raelt alone. Also—this wasn’t as much a discussion as a one-sided offer.

“This is not negotiable, King Raelt.”

The man knew that. But his crown felt so heavy. He had gone to war for this. Because it was wrong.

But now—it was his entire kingdom or the same. Raelt had seen the writing on the wall as Warden Winta died. He could fight—and send his people to the slaughter. Or sue for peace.

“We are running out of time, your Majesty. The contract has been waiting the last four days.”

“I know.”

Raelt murmured. They had worked on this for four days while the rains began. He would not get a fifth. Raelt knew that perfectly well because he had called for the rains. Not with a Skill—he hadn’t been fortunate enough to get them. But he’d requested a favor and Queen Yisame had granted it.

To buy time. To negotiate. He could still back out. Raelt read down the agreement. The…personal demands were at the bottom. The rest was simpler, and he and Orthenon had dickered on the points, but the Steward had mainly only consulted Raelt.

It had been refreshingly simple. Jecrass would cede nearly a quarter of its lands, mainly the borders, to Reim. It would become, in effect, a vassal kingdom, bound by the magical contract to pay tribute. It would not be allowed to declare war, a portion of its resources, soldiers, sent to Reim for a duration of fifteen years, pending renegotiation…

It was really, a very neat contract. Raelt was surprised at the generosity of some of it. For instance—he got to live if he agreed to the peace. Jecaina wouldn’t be held for ransom.

“King Reimarch trusts me a great deal to let me live.”

Orthenon’s eyes flickered.

“His Majesty respects valor in combat. The magic will bind you, King Raelt. The exchange of hostages?”

Hostages. They were dead. Lyfelt, his officials…Raelt looked up. This was where the ‘negotiations’ got hard. Because he had no cards to play. Nothing to threaten Flos with and both men knew it. However—

“Not his family. Or the families of the officials.”

“Excuse me?”

The Steward’s face was cold. Raelt inhaled slowly. He pressed two fingers together.

“Not. Their families. They’re surely innocent of his Majesty’s wrath.”

“This is not a negotiation. His Majesty—”

Raelt actually raised his voice to the living legend sitting across from him.

“I am aware of his Majesty’s fury. However. I would remind King Reimarch that he did not demand their families at Belchan. Nor could Lyfelt’s family conceivably be held to blame; how could they have known?”

That was a new addition to the terms. Orthenon frowned.

“His Majesty did not consider slaying each family member outright. But they will foment rebellion against him.”

“I’m aware, Steward Orthenon. But they will be twice as likely to attack Reim in captivity, even if they are not slain. For the—the appearance of it. Let me take charge of them. I will prevent them from seeking retribution.”

The Steward frowned darkly. He stood up, and walked to the windows, regarding the rain. Four Scrolls of Weatherchange had done that. A small fortune, to awe Reim’s armies.

“…The contract will need to be amended. The section under ‘Obligations of the Crown’.”

Raelt nodded and took a breath. And he remembered as he haggled with Orthenon over the terms that Lyfelt died. His officials died, the instant Raelt signed.

It was a bloody peace worthy of the King of Destruction. But what choice did he have?

As Orthenon left that evening to collect his ruler’s will, he turned to Raelt.

“The contract will be signed by dawn tomorrow, your Majesty. Or King Reimarch will break off the peace negotiations. I will return before midnight at the latest with the final draft.”

“I understand.”

Raelt met the man’s eyes. Then he let Orthenon leave. The trembling servants stepped aside as the Steward left the palace and rode like an arrow towards the King of Destruction’s camp, just visible in the distance.

Then Raelt went to consult his other option.

 

—–

 

“If I refuse the contract, it will be war unrelenting. He is within range of my capital. Within a day, it will be a siege—and since my walls are not exactly those of the Blighted Kingdom or a Walled City of Izril, it will be fighting in the streets by noon at the latest! And still, you won’t guarantee a declaration of war?”

Raelt looked at the three figures in the mirror that could convince him to continue the fight. One was a half-Elf, the Speaker of the Trees for Claiven Earth, someone Raelt didn’t know. It didn’t matter—the position wasn’t permanent among them.

The other two were rulers. One was High King Perric of Medain, haughty as he sat in his throne. The second? Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the major power to the south of Reim, surrounded by a war council.

Each one ruled a nation more powerful than Jecrass. Each one had an army of note. Nerrhavia’s Fallen was of course a major power of Chandrar, vast and influential, ruled by String People.

The Claiven Earth by contrast was small, reclusive—but incredibly dangerous. The half-Elves had settled their nation long ago, coming from Terandria, even growing a forest along the coast. Even the King of Destruction had chosen to make peace rather than fight them to the last during his first rise to power.

And the last—Medain. Raelt knew the ruler, High King Perric, and the country very well. Medain was an aggressive coastal nation. The Kingdom of Adventurers, who possessed a strong army supplemented by active and retired adventurers. It was he who led the discussions.

“Jecrass cannot make peace, of course. Reim’s ambitions must not be tolerated.”

He said it as if he were giving orders to Raelt. The ruler of Jecrass said nothing. High King Perric drummed his fingers on the armrest of his throne.

“You have petitioned our nations for reinforcements, King Leysars.”

“Not petitioned, your Majesty Perric. Demanded.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. He and Raelt glared at each other. Not once had Raelt used the ‘High King’ title; he refused to give the larger man even that small satisfaction.

High King Perric had tried to invade both Jecrass and Belchan in years past. More than that—Raelt just detested the man, who had been a Gold-rank Captain before taking the throne. He had an ego to match Flos Reimarch.

But he might save Jecrass. Deliberately, Raelt looked past him towards Queen Yisame and the Speaker of Trees.

“And not from one nation either. If I am to refuse the peace treaty, I must have reinforcements from all three nations at once. Nothing short of that will stop the King of Destruction. As I have said, your Majesty.”

He nodded at Yisame. She stirred, looking guilty, but one of her members of the war council spoke.

He was perhaps an [Earl], or some equivalent rank in Nerrhavia’s fallen. But he looked down his nose at Raelt as he spoke for the [Queen].

“Her Majesty has provided her assurances that reinforcements shall arrive, King Raelt of Jecrass.”

“Assurances I have received before.”

“Nerrhavia has sent countless chariots—”

“Not an army.”

Raelt ignored the man. He looked past the String People at the half-Elf standing alone. The Speaker of Trees inclined his head.

“Our archers failed to meet your expectations, King Leysars?”

“They performed to the best of their abilities, Speaker of the Trees. But—it was not what was needed. To fight the King of Destruction, I need three armies. So yes! It is not enough! I need an army. And if I am to turn down the King of Destruction in this hour of peace—there will be no second agreement. All three nations must sign a pact of war. A contract, to come to Jecrass’ defense!”

The other rulers stirred. Raelt clenched his fists. He had gone back and forth with them on this point and none of them wanted this last bit.

They were happy to talk. They had been talking since he’d announced he was suing for peace. None of the nations wanted that. But a formal contract, sealed by magic? They’d have to fight with him in an actual war.

There was still a chance. High King Perric shifted in his throne.

“I see no reason to object. Medain has abstained from the hostilities so far because the conflict did not threaten our borders. But I would be willing to march on Reim and curtain the King of Destruction if I had a sufficient reason.”

There he went again. He never said ‘no’, because that was cowardly. But he always demanded the other two nations agree. So—Raelt turned to the Speaker of Trees.

“The King of Destruction is not that easy a foe. The Claiven Earth do not prefer to die on foreign soil. However…his conquest of Belchan and Jecrass would give him too much power. It depends on whether unity can be reached.”

The Speaker of the Trees glanced sideways. And it rested on Nerrhavia.

Nerrhavia, was the problem. The war council was murmuring, one speaking to the [Queen]. Yisame had said not a word. She raised a hand and one of the other Stitch Folk spoke up.

“King Leysars, her majesty of course agrees Reim must be stopped. And Nerrhavia’s Fallen is prepared to act in concord with other nations.”

Raelt waited. But that was all. He narrowed his eyes.

“Medain has already given its assurances. King Leysars, it falls to you to rebuff the King of Destruction. Since we are all in agreement…”

Perric scowled at the scrying mirror. They were dancing again.

“I want a contract of war. Spelling out your determination in ink and magic, King Perric.

The King of Medain’s’ eyes flashed. He leaned over his throne and snapped.

“For a nation so pressed, you are in little position to make demands, Raelt—”

Enough. Enough of it. Medain, Perric, was not the problem.

Raelt spun. He pointed directly at Queen Yisame, addressing her and to hell with the niceties of it all.

“Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen! I have yet to hear you speak. Let alone receive even your assurances that if I go to war against a foe I cannot defeat, Nerrhavia will come to my aid!”

“King Leysars. Her Majesty—”

Raelt looked at the Stitch-Man.

“Be silent. I am addressing Queen Yisame.”

He looked at the woman. She blinked uneasily as Raelt turned towards her.

“Your Majesty, Are we [King] and [Queen], or ruler and vassal? Because I am unaccustomed to speaking to those lesser than me as if they were equals.”

He heard a squawk from the Stitch-Man, the [Earl]-[General] or whatever his rank was. Yisame actually jumped in her seat. She blinked at him—and then she rose to her feet.

“Your Majesty of Jecrass. We give you our solemn word that Jecrass shall not stand alone. Surely that is enough?”

She implied that a formal contract was rudeness, with the hint of incredulity in her voice, the way she looked at him. So well he almost believed it. But he had known Lyfelt and while the [Prime Minister] had not been a woman, he’d played the same game.

“Your word, your Majesty?”

Raelt laughed, and he heard the note of hysteria in it. He shook his head.

“I took you at your word when I began my war against Reim. You sent me charioteers who refused to obey orders, gold, [Mercenaries]—all of which I thank you for—but you sent me no armies. Nothing capable of pushing back the King of Destruction. Now—you say to me that Nerrhavia’s armies will be there, on the field.”

He pointed out his window, at the distant speck of Reim’s armies.

“Where were you yesterday, Queen Yisame? Where was Nerrhavia in the days before that? When I struck the King of Destruction’s heart, and his armies stopped, the battle might have been won if Nerrhavia’s armies stood with us. Your word, Queen Yisame, is not enough.”

He stood then, weary, and looked at his audience.

“Either I have an assurance that Jecrass not fall alone, or I will accept Flos of Reim’s bloody treaty, though I will condemn a foolish man, a shortsighted man, but still a halfway decent man to death, and all those who served under him.”

They stared at him. King Perric’s eyes burning with annoyance, Yisame’s shocked, the Speaker of the Tree’s considering, weighing. Each one turned to regard the other.

“A moment, Raelt of Jecrass. We must confer.”

Yisame broke the silence. The mirrors flickered out. Raelt sagged.

This was it. It felt like only a second passed—though it might have been minutes—before his numb mind was awakened. There stood Yisame, Perric, and the Speaker of Trees, united. He looked at their faces for what he thought was a simple answer.

And they surprised him. Yisame smiled down at the [King of Challenges] and she gave the most miniscule of bows.

“King Leysars of Jecrass. You will have your treaty.”

He blinked, stunned. But then High King Perric was announcing he was having the treaty drawn up and the Speaker of Trees was nodding. It was done.

 

—-

 

Now he had two options. Raelt excused himself as the other three rulers began spelling out the exact terms of the war. It was rude—but he was beyond rudeness.

Two paths lay in front of him. One was peace, the death of his friend and innocent people and vassalization.

The second was a war, with three nations at his back. A more unclear future. Raelt studied the rough of the contract.

Did Jecrass have the strength for it? Certainly—it would be a long and bitter war, even if won. He would have to abandon the capital; the King of Destruction would hit them within hours of his peace treaty being refused.

But it could be done. Raelt walked through his familiar palace. All the corridors which had been so small and pressing and familiar when his only worry was fighting Medain or Hellios, and dealing with his treacherous River Wardens.

It was treachery that weighed on the mind. Raelt didn’t trust Perric, and he wasn’t sure Yisame could be fully trusted either.

“But a contract. They have to obey.”

Raelt murmured. Three nations fighting Reim…

The palace was quiet, to Raelt. Like when he had challenged the King of Destruction—it wasn’t that no one was speaking or moving. Rather, it was full of commotion. People receiving the contract, issuing orders regarding the army stationed in the capital, servants hurrying to and fro—

People afraid, seeing the King of Destruction poised to attack. But Raelt walked in silence. Only one thing mattered.

“…majesty. Your Majesty.”

A voice interrupted him. Raelt turned and saw Geril. His old, trusted retainer was tentatively plucking at his sleeve.

Raelt realized he was walking down the Sunset Retreat Corridor, absently tracing the path he used to take to throw oranges at people. And Geril had found him. He must have been speaking for a while and Raelt hadn’t heard.

“Geril? What is it?”

The [King] turned blankly. The old man hesitated. The stress of war had worn Raelt. People no longer approached him as easily and they looked—nervous when they looked at him. Or awed, like Jecaina and some of the River Wardens.

The [King] finally looks like a King. Raelt found it a bitter irony. Geril ducked his head.

“Your Majesty, an incident in the capital. A small skirmish between our people and some of Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s warriors.”

Normally, it would have been a diplomatic incident and a headache for Raelt. But the war had stripped away those kinds of duties. Today, he just gave Geril a blank, even peeved look.

“Over what? Why are you coming to me about it? Have one of the River Wardens arrest or discipline whoever it is.”

The retainer hesitated.

“Sire. The instigator was, ah…”

He turned and Raelt saw a sullen young woman being escorted by some of Jecrass’ [Trick Riders] towards him.

Ah. You couldn’t discipline someone above your rank.

Princess Jecaina of Jecrass had a scrape on her cheek and a banged knuckle. Raelt listened, with that pained feeling of a father as Geril explained.

“Six [Master Charioteers] were drinking, sire, and Princess Jecaina objected to their remarks. She…challenged them to a duel. Then, when they refused, started a brawl with several of her friends. [Soldiers] nearby joined in, as did more of Nerrhavia’s soldiers…”

“How many wounded?”

“In need of healing potions? Only—six.”

Six? Jecaina flushed. She burst out.

“They were insulting you, father! And the crown!”

Raelt looked at his daughter.

“Insulting me?”

Geril flushed. So did Jecaina. She looked away from Raelt.

“They said—they said no real king would have given up the battlefield. As if you hadn’t been fighting the King of Destruction for nearly a month! And they called you a coward!”

“I gave up the borders. They’re Nerrhavia’s people. Free to say what they want. Isn’t…isn’t [Master Chariot] a noble title, Geril?”

“Those awarded the class usually are of the lowest noble rank in Nerrhavia, sire. It’s an extremely negligible title as Nerrhavia counts them—”

Wonderful.

Raelt’s head hurt. He looked at Jecaina.

“You’ll make an apology to Nerrhavia’s [General], Jecaina. Geril, find whoever that is. Anyone hurt? Heal them up and keep them separate.”

Father!

Jecaina pursued Raelt as Geril bowed. The King of Jecrass let his daughter follow him. That roaring was back in his ears—but he heard her.

“Jecaina Leysars. Why did you start a fight with our allies?”

She gulped as he looked at her.

“But—but they insulted you. The honor of Jecrass, father…”

The [King of Challenges] gave her such a blank stare that Jecaina trailed off.

“Have you been hanging around the River Warden’s children again?”

“Only a bit. With—I’m not allowed to fight. So why not?”

“Because you’d die.”

Raelt muttered. He saw Jecaina turn red. She stared furiously at him. Again, Raelt gave her a long look and Jecaina hesitated.

This wasn’t how their father-daughter talks normally went. Normally it was Jecaina who had no time to talk to Raelt. This time…

“Nerrhavia’s chariots are part of our army—for now, Jecaina. If they decide to ride off because you insulted them—”

“They insulted us first! And what good have they done? It’s only a fraction of the army Nerrhavia could have sent! You said that y—”

“Jecaina!”

Raelt grabbed his daughter’s shoulders. She stared at him wide-eyed. Raelt gave her a tiny shake. He released her, and took a breath. He tried to think, to explain.

“I understand. I understand you’re angry. I don’t appreciate being called a coward. Even to my back. But you cannot challenge random [Master Charioteers] to a duel and cause a brawl! You are a [Princess].”

“But our honor…”

Raelt tasted the word on his tongue.

“Honor. Jecaina, if honor could be besmirched by words, no one would have any left. I know you’re trying to defend me. But Jecrass doesn’t need a—a [Warrior Princess]. It needs you to be a calming influence. Someone to look up to. I thought…you did well when I was gone.”

His daughter looked up at him.

“I did?”

“I heard from Geril. You—you went to wounded [Soldiers] and helped raise spirits. I was proud of that. This? You don’t need to defend me, Jecaina. There’s nothing Nerrhavia’s soldiers can do to me that exceeds what Reim’s might.”

Her head lowered. Raelt looked at his daughter and felt wretched. Here he was, giving her a lecture on failure. He looked around.

“…I know I haven’t had much time to speak. My every waking moment’s consumed with these negotiations. The Steward, the other rulers…”

He had a thought and forced a smile.

“Orthenon, the King’s Steward in the palace. At least you got to see him, eh?”

Jecaina had dreamed of meeting the King of Destruction, of pledging her sword to him. Raelt saw her look up. But none of that old enthusiasm was there.

“I did. I wish he hadn’t come.”

Raelt’s forced smile fell away. He stood there, tiredly.

“Me too, Jecaina.”

What was he to say? Raelt wished he’d actually taken a wife, been married. Jecaina, his adopted daughter…he felt like he’d failed her. Especially now. What kind of a kingdom was he going to leave her?

Raelt cast about. And because he didn’t know what to say—he felt for his side.

“Are you free? Let’s go to the practice courts.”

She blinked at him. Jecaina wore her own dueling sword, a copy of the one Raelt carried. She’d…stopped wearing the silver bell, Raelt realized. He’d been used to hearing it chiming wherever she went.

“Now? Do you have time?”

Raelt did not. He had to decide whether the King of Destruction was to be accepted, or the contract of war. He hadn’t really expected the others to agree. But they had.

“Of course. Just for a bout or two.”

They walked down the hallways of the palace, father and daughter. Like this—they could pretend it was peace. Raelt nodded to servants who bowed to him, staring as if they hadn’t served him all his life.

King of Duels. The man who’d fought the King of Destruction twice. Stabbed him through the heart.

Jecaina had the same look in her eyes when she stepped onto the empty practice courts. Raelt drew his sword.

“Do you have the deflection bracers on?”

It was a magical artifact [Fencers] and [Duelists] used. It could deflect a few strikes. It didn’t really work in combat; if anything touched you, it depleted the magic. But the ones Jecaina wore could deflect two to five strikes with the practice rapiers.

“Yes.”

Raelt put his own on. He took a position across from Jecaina. The rapier felt light in his hand as he drew the parrying dagger he used. He didn’t care about the audience of servants, soldiers, and so on.

This was his life. This was what he was good at. Every day he practiced lunges, or thought of swordplay while sitting on his throne. And—what a waste. It hadn’t protected Jecrass. Hadn’t slain the King of Destruction. He had given all he had to his daughter.

And it was just this. She walked across from him, her body balanced, moving on the balls of her feet, watching his posture, the way he held her sword. This was all—

He stepped in. Normally Jecaina would first, but she was hesitant.

[King of Challenges]. She deflected his first thrust wildly, as if expecting him to have the strength of a Minotaur. Raelt slid forwards as Jecaina tried to bring her wide blade back. He caught her slash with his parrying dagger, slashed once.

“Point.”

A cut across her chest. The audience sighed. Raelt looked at Jecaina as she took a few breaths.

“Breathe. You’re off today.”

“You—but you’re so much better.”

She made him smile. Her father looked down at Jecaina and shook his head.

“You’ve never said that before!”

“But you dueled the King of Dest—

Jecaina made a startled sound and leapt back as Raelt slashed at her face. She backed up and her body took over as Raelt slashed furiously.

One, two, three, four—Raelt felt every heavy swing deflected and then Jecaina lanced at his chest. He knocked the blade down, stepped back.

“Jecaina. It’s me. I might have leveled—but you’ve dueled me since you were a girl. Nothing’s changed. See?”

He stepped forwards, this time Jecaina stopped overthinking her blade. The two danced backwards, first Raelt on the attack, then falling back as Jecaina began using her flurry-Skills.

It was familiar. Raelt was concentrating hard and not at all. He was aware, for instance, of the audience growing excited. Both he and Jecaina practiced an aggressive style. There was little waiting; the two knew each other so they didn’t test each other but went into bursts of attack and defense.

“Point!”

Raelt felt a cut across his upper arm as his guard lowered. People cheered; Jecaina lowered her blade.

“You let me have that.”

“I was careless.”

“But you have a golden—”

Raelt looked up. So that was why she felt off. He shook his head.

“It’s just a metal, Jecaina. You knew I was good. And bells—more than a few [Fencers] with the golden bell have lost to a bladesman with silver, or nothing at all. In a battle, you can’t ever tell.”

“Then—am I good at fighting?”

The King of Jecrass looked at the [Duelist Princess].

“Of course you are.”

“But you won’t let me fight.”

“Yes…because it’s too dangerous.”

But—

“Jecaina. If you had a gold bell, I wouldn’t want you to fight. You don’t need to. You’re Jecrass’ [Princess]. You don’t need to be me.

“I want to. I want to fight. I don’t want to be here—being useless!”

She slashed viciously, through the air. Raelt realized he’d done her a disservice. He shook his head.

“Jecaina. You’re not weak. But war isn’t fencing. It’s not a tidy duel. It’s too easy to die. That’s why I have a bodyguard. More than that—if you were captured—”

She deflated.

“I know. It’s just…everyone else is fighting.”

“Let’s have another bout. I have time.”

He glanced at the sky. The sun was setting. Yisame was no doubt waiting for him, and Perric and the Speaker of Trees.

Well, to Rhir’s hell with them. This was more important. The two went three more rounds. Raelt scored three more points; he didn’t hold back. It was what Jecaina wanted; she looked satisfied, even though she’d lost each clash. The last one had been close.

“So—if I had gone to Terandria, do you think I’d have done well?”

Raelt was sipping from some water. He blinked at his sweaty daughter. The courtyard was protected from some of the rain, but it kept blowing in and making the ground slippery.

“Terandria? You’d do terribly there, Jecaina.”

What? But you said—

He grinned and stepped. A fencer’s lunge. Jecaina yelped as he struck her stomach. He’d nearly speared her through the gut.

“Bracer’s dead. Grab a new one.”

She stomped off as Raelt took another sip of water. When she came back, Raelt shook his head.

“Terandrian [Fencers] and [Duelists]—have a different style, Jecaina. Point-based. It’s similar to how we fight, but they use lighter swords. Much lighter, for the…sport of it. It’s not meant for combat. You’d lose in points due to the style of it. I taught you to win a fight, not a competition.”

“Oh. But why learn a sport?”

That was what Raelt had thought. He shrugged.

“It’s more for the nobility. No risk of injury. Fencing…fencing isn’t a good style for mass battles. We require space, where most [Soldiers] fight in close formations, with armor, shields—that’s why people call [Fencers] snobbish, or outdated to actual combat. A nobleman’s Skill.”

“It worked pretty well against the King of Destruction.

He smiled.

“True. Now—if you want to win either sport or a fight, you need better footwork.”

“It’s good enough!”

“It’s predictable. You always circle left. See? Now show me some unpredictability…”

 

—-

 

It cost him an hour. But it was worth the price of it to see Jecaina smile, to feel light and free. Raelt wiped at the sweat and rainwater on his brow.

“Thanks, father.”

“We’ll have more chances to practice soon. Stay out of trouble until then, or I’ll take away your foil.”

He lied to her. He wasn’t sure. But it was worth it to see her smile. Raelt watched her walk off to get clean. He probably didn’t have time to. Well, it wasn’t like the others could smell him through the scrying mirror.

Time to decide. Raelt…closed his eyes. War or peace?

“Geril. Where is…Lyfelt?”

The [Prime Minister] and his family were a guest of Raelt’s. A guest…but Lyfelt was under guard. He could neither run nor be harmed. Raelt had intended it to protect his friend from the wrath of his people. But now—it felt like he was holding Lyfelt to die.

“In his quarters, your Majesty.”

“I should talk to him.”

It was a bad idea. Raelt felt he’d be swayed to continue the war. But he was compelled to.

And—damn it. He had been right. This entire war’s start felt like ages ago, but he had been right! Flos Reimarch had been prepared to execute innocent people! Over an atrocity, yes. The death of those poor Gnolls. But he had still been wrong.

Yet, that felt like an old reason. They were past it. Now it was war. Raelt sighed.

“Take me to…”

“Your Majesty! A visitor has come to the palace!”

Raelt turned. A [Servant] was hurrying towards him. Geril intercepted him.

“Who? The King’s Steward?”

Had he gotten word about the secret pact? Raelt’s heart began to race. But the visitor’s name astounded both him and Geril.

“No, sire. It’s—the Quarass of Germina.

 

—-

 

The Quarass of Germina walked through the palace’s gates, unmolested by the guards or anyone else. She left her escort behind and walked forwards. She had given her word she had come in peace, and Raelt had allowed her entrance.

After all—the Quarass had sworn it by Ger. And as she walked through the palace of Jecrass, she received a far different welcome than she might have gotten in Reim. If Trey Atwood had been there—he would have understood at once.

It was the distance of friendship, and history. The King of Destruction respected little of tradition. It was why he clashed with Fetohep, and treated the Quarass as a wary ally. Reim had dealt with Germina from a remove for most of his reign, an uneasy subordinate given the last Quarass’ personality.

But Jecrass had long been neighbors to the Shield Kingdom of Germina. So as the Quarass walked through the palace, she was besieged.

By [Servants], folk, old and young. They came to her, begging, offering praise, looking for…

“Great Quarass—my son walks with a limp, and he’s but six years. His leg was twisted in birth. Is there any way to fix…?”

“Quarass, the brewing of the draught to stop bleeding—my mother knew it, but the recipe was lost in a fire. Is it…?”

“Should we be growing yellats again this year or another crop? We’ve had smaller harvests each year for the last four, but…”

The girl walked among them, dressed in fine clothing, but so young. Until you looked at her eyes and saw the old being looking back.

It could terrify or disturb. But that force was a kindly one, here. She spoke to an old, perplexed [Nursemaid], repeating the list of ingredients for the birthing tonic. She turned to the [Farmer].

“You have taken too much from the fields. Plant beans, or a leafy product instead of yellats for at least two years. As for you, your son’s leg can be corrected, but it requires a [Healer] experienced in realigning flesh. Try…”

That was how Raelt found her. Dispensing Germina’s greatest treasure, her wisdom, to his people.

“Quarass of Germina. I greet you in the name of Jecrass. I regret that I did not have time to prepare a proper reception. We are at war. May I ask why you have come?”

The [King] sketched a wary bow. The Quarass inclined her head to him.

“King Leysars, I come in peace. Not at the command of the King of Destruction. Indeed—I only seek to rest here an hour or two at most before continuing my journey.”

“Where to, Quarass?”

“Northwards. I have no stake in this war. But curiosity and the bond between Jecrass and Germina compelled me to seek you out. Will you offer me the shade of your roofs?”

Raelt flushed and nodded.

“The shade of Jecrass and its rivers bid you welcome, Quarass. Geril, make her escort welcome. I will receive the Quarass…on the balcony.”

The girl gave him a small nod. Geril nodded and hurried off. The King of Jecrass bowed and gestured. The two walked together. It was the first time Raelt had met this Quarass. But she was always her. Just different.

The balcony was a small place, fit for receiving other dignitaries. The wind could be chilling, but the rain was kept out by a small enchantment and it was pleasant.

Rain fell across Jecrass as the two sat there. It was a bit cold, so Raelt called for a coat of fur; the Quarass was dressed for a ride.

“Your presence, Quarass, is welcome. As always. I ah—offer my condolences for your death. And congratulate you on your rebirth.”

She flicked her fingers delicately. The girl was so young. But the Quarass spoke as she had when she was an older woman.

“My death was fortuitous, but thank you, King Leysars. You have my sympathies for this war. Will your daughter be joining us?”

Raelt hesitated. Jecaina would want to ask a large number of questions neither he nor the Quarass had time for.

“No…but if you’d permit it, Geril would be a welcome accompaniment. And I offer you refreshments, of course. Will you take a meal? Or simply a drink?”

It was an infraction for another ruler to have a servant present as company, but not with the Quarass. She smiled.

“Geril? Yes, it would be welcome to speak with him a third time. And I would be gratified to eat.”

“What will you have?”

She pondered for a moment as a third chair was brought in. And there Geril came. He bowed and she smiled up at him.

“Geril. You have aged well. As boy, then man, now older. It is well done, your service to Jecrass.”

“You honor me, your Majesty.”

The old retainer had a small but delighted look on his face, a rarity. It was the kind of compliment you had written on your tombstone. Because the Quarass had known Geril across three lifetimes.

“I think I shall have estreke almeat.”

“A fine choice. I’ll have some myself, Geril. Not much…”

Raelt was not hungry. And he was a bit surprised by the Quarass’ choice.

“It’s a rather plain dish, your Majesty…”

She smiled and Geril laughed.

“It is traditional for the Quarass to order it.”

“Really? The last Quarass—”

The current Quarass of Germina made another flicking motion with her fingers. She sighed.

“The last Quarass broke from many of Germina’s traditions. I must apologize for her actions. The Quarass you see before you now, Raelt Leysars, is the one I would have preferred during the King of Destruction’s reawakening.”

He nodded. There had been two Quarasses; although he had been too young to remember the first one. But the second had risen to power under…shady circumstances. The old Quarass might have not died of old age.

“The last Quarass was difficult, if you’ll excuse me, Quarass. Much cruder and less gracious. I did not care for her one bit and I was quite relieved when I heard you had changed.”

“Geril!”

But the young Quarass just nodded and sighed.

“Thank you, Geril. I recall all her memories. It was unfortunate—her killing the second-Quarass-before-me. By poison.”

Raelt coughed on the sip he’d just taken from a goblet.

“Er…I had heard such.”

He didn’t know all of what made the Quarass the Quarass, but he knew enough. She nodded.

“It was troublesome. Not only did she inherit her mother’s disaffection for her, the Quarass-before-me was also a fool. Addicted to a few of Chandrar’s drugs and without the will to quit them.”

“Terrible, I’m sure.”

She smiled at Raelt’s uncertain look.

“The Quarass is always the Quarass, King Leysars. But half of what I am is who I was before I became me. Do you understand?”

He did, in a way. The current Quarass gestured to herself.

“What does this Quarass seem to you, King Leysars?”

“I’ve known you only for a few minutes, Quarass. But—more confident than the last one. Certainly more daring.”

That pleased her. The Quarass steepled her fingers and nodded.

“Yes. Braver, certainly. It was pure chance that this child became me. But fortunate. Did you know—before I was summoned, this child had one event of note in her life? One night, as her father slept, she, waking by chance, saw a poisonous viper that sometimes plague Germina’s houses. It was prepared to bite, and her father would not wake. So she found her father’s dagger and killed it. It bit her four times and but for the antidote, she might have died.”

It was strange, to hear the Quarass talk about the girl she had been. Raelt listened raptly as the Quarass pulled up her sleeve and showed him faded scars on her arms.

“That was the caliber of the girl who became me. And no one but her father knew the story of it. Pure chance. That is the flaw of the Quarass; the true character of who becomes me is never fully known.”

“I see. So in the case of the previous Quarass…”

“If I was a fool, a fool I remain, even with my memories. It is why a wise Quarass decides her successor. Chance led Germina poorly in the Quarass-before-me. This time I hope it has been more gracious.”

Both Geril and Raelt nodded. She was as fascinating as ever. Even the previous Quarass, as haughty as she had been, had captivated the room. Raelt turned.

“Ah, the estreke.

It was a common dish that the Quarass had ordered. Popular, certainly, and tasty. Raelt liked it himself, but you’d never see it at a banquet.

Estreke almeat. It was a dish of nomads, popular among [Shepherds] and the like. They took stringy, tough meat from lamb, or beef, generally, even horse, and cut it into small strips to be grilled. Then, a heavy cheese sauce mixed with melted butter was poured on top.

For the taste, the pure quill of it—rich demáy root-tree juice mixed in to give it that succulent flavor, all over yellats for the spice and filling. Cheap—plentiful, and the dish could go with flatbread as well on the road.

The three were offered a single pot and they dipped bread as they ate. The Quarass had a good appetite, but she looked wistful as she chewed.

“Delicious as always. I have gone to many nations, but this meal is best eaten in Jecrass.”

“You’ve had it before, Quarass? Er—”

Raelt saw Geril cover a smile and flushed. That was a stupid question to ask the Quarass. She just smiled.

“It brings back fond memories, King Leysars. The first nomad-kings of Jecrass offered me this very dish when we met. Ever since, I have tried to eat it with the ruler of Jecrass once.”

“I see. Well, I am honored…”

Raelt chewed slowly and savored the bite. It did fill him up; he realized he’d eaten poorly—that was to say not at all—this morning.

“May I ask now, Quarass, why you have come? Even on a journey, it is unlike you to intercede in a moment like this. We might well be under siege come the morrow.”

She gave him a knowing look.

“Or at peace. You stand, Raelt Leysars, at a crossroads. And this Quarass would like to speak, whether it changes nothing or everything. But before I speak of that—let us sit. And remember peace. Such things are best savored with meals.”

She was right. Raelt ducked his head. It was Geril who spoke up.

“Ah, peace, Quarass? I remember it fondly. Jecrass under the King Raelt and his father has been kind to me.”

She nodded.

“There have been far poorer days Jecrass has known. I myself recall the horse fairs with great fondness of these last few decades.”

Yes. Peace. Raelt closed his eyes. In peace, Jecrass looked so different from now. Today—it was all just moving battle lines, fortifications, armies fighting.

But without war, Jecrass was wonderful. He complained about the River Wardens, oranges, and rebellious daughters…but the King of Jecrass knew the good parts as well.

Horse fairs, with mundane and magical beasts attracted visitors from across the world who bid on the best animals. Jecrass, fed by rivers and storms like these, was a wonderful land to ride about in. Snow would even frost the ground lightly in the winters.

“I suppose there won’t be time to visit Hellios or Germina come fall.”

He spoke regretfully. The Quarass nodded.

“Not for some time to come.”

It was tradition, when no wars were taking place, for Belchan, Hellios, Jecrass, and Germina’s peoples to cross borders and trade with each season. Each nation had a specialty; for instance, summers belonged to Jecrass in bloom. Magical goods came from Belchan and they had one of their large winter celebrations each year.

In fall, it was best to go to Germina, to trade for pieces of art. Ger’s mud-brick city was beautiful then, and you could wait there for a chance to petition the Quarass for a bit of wisdom. In the spring, go to Hellios for the Celebration of Stone—to find the best [Masons] or [Builders] with their designs…

Raelt had taken Jecaina as a girl to Belchan to watch the mage-lights. That had been her first sight of real magic, back when he was a new father and she was toddling around.

Those were good years. Now—he opened his eyes and saw the distant smoke from Flos’ war camps. And—the Quarass.

She was just watching him. Her conversation with Geril had ended as he thought.

“You remind me of the past, Quarass. Do you think it’s wise that I sue for peace?”

The Quarass gave Raelt a small nod.

“You may think so, King Leysars. But I only wish to give you…perspective. Those years were indeed bountiful. But as I say—Jecrass has known poorer. Neither you nor Geril remember the Creler Wars. But it was a bitter time indeed for Jecrass. Many took root in the soil. The horses and horsepeople died in droves, unable to flee the swarms.”

Raelt shuddered. Crelers were still a threat, albeit mercifully rare.

“What of Germina? I know the Shield Kingdoms fought back…”

She made a bitter face.

“Complacency drove every nation to folly in those times. Yes, Germina rallied. But it was a bitter lesson I learned once more. My poisons did little to the spawn of Rhir and they taught me there was more to learn of corrosion and decay. If I had been wiser…I would have prepared. Before every great war, there are usually signs. Had I heeded them, I would have risen to the occasion as I had in lifetimes before, forged Germina into a weapon. For the darkest wars require a light for others to rally around. That is my purpose.”

She spoke strangely. Raelt looked at her.

“You speak as if there is another war coming, Quarass. Jecrass is at war. And Germina lost its war with Reim.”

She smiled thinly.

“True. Both our kingdoms have known Reim’s strength. But that—is not what I refer to. With respect, Raelt Leysars…this is not the war that I dream of.”

She looked past him. Raelt’s hairs stirred and Geril looked troubled. A greater war than this? One that made her think of the Creler wars…

“Then what? If a dark war needs a light, someone to rally around, is Flos Reimarch that [King]? Is that why you made peace with him?”

She flicked her hands again.

“I had little choice in that. I speak of the future and past, Raelt Leysars. Not always of the present. Since that is what weighs on you—yes. Let us speak of peace and war. Medain, the Claiven Earth, and Nerrhavia have reached out to you to continue your war.”

Raelt’s hand jerked on his goblet. Geril sat up.

“Have you—have you told—?”

The Quarass looked levelly at Raelt and shook her head.

“I have neither told Flos Reimarch nor concrete proof of this. It is just…familiar. Have they given you assurances of their determination?”

Raelt’s mouth worked. The Quarass knew. Even without inside knowledge? He hesitated, and she touched her chest and made a small sign.

“I swear by Ger not to reveal what I know. I am, in this moment, the Quarass of Germina, Raelt Leysars. If you seek my knowledge, ask. If not, I will go.”

He hesitated. But then nodded.

“A contract. I forced them to agree. They will all sign a magical contract to go to war. Declare war. If they do—I will turn down the King of Destruction’s peace offer and continue to fight.”

“Your Majesty…”

Geril was troubled. But he had no counsel to give. Raelt stood up and walked to the balcony. The rain trickled down an invisible barrier.

“What would you say to that, Quarass? It might destroy this nation I was given to rule by my father. But Lyfelt need not die for it. Innocent people might not need to die for it. And—that was why I started this damn war! What was the point, if I make peace?”

He clenched a fist. Staring west. The Quarass sat at her table, dabbing at her mouth. Raelt waited, almost hoping she had no wisdom. But what she said was this:

“You still believe you can win.”

Raelt jerked. He turned back and saw her looking at him. That knowing look pierced him through.

“You believe you can defeat the King of Destruction. That is why you waver, Raelt Leysars. You possess the will to fight.”

“I—if Jecrass kneels—”

“Is it your nation and people you fear for, or your pride?”

“Quarass!”

Geril made a choked noise. The girl did not look at him. She sat lightly, meeting Raelt’s dark gaze.

“This is not an insult, Raelt Leysars. But a question. The world beheld that the King of Jecrass was no mewling lamb but a wolf with a golden bell on the day they called you King of Duels. Even the King of Destruction was surprised. Yet the one who was surprised most, I think, was you.”

He hesitated.

“I—was. By myself. I didn’t think I had it in me. Am I hungering for war?”

She tilted her head left and right, shook it.

“Not precisely. But war burns in your blood. You have an aptitude for it. And young men, even at your age, are loath to quit when blood is spilled. But you are also correct—the war can yet be won. Yet does ego force your decision, or your crown?”

“Your Majesty. I…I wish you had not gone to Terandria.”

It was Geril, who spoke up unexpectedly. The old retainer looked at the Quarass and Raelt and spoke. He heavily gestured towards Raelt’s crown. Raelt blinked.

“Why, Geril?”

“Your father, wanted you to be safe, sire. While the King of Destruction marched, he sent you to learn fencing, to be safe abroad. It was…a father’s concern.”

Raelt had considered the same to Jecaina. He nodded, uncomprehending.

“It made me the fencer I was. Was that wrong, Geril?”

“Perhaps he should have let you join the King of Destruction’s army. Or stay in Chandrar, at least, your Majesty. You might not have discovered your strengths so late. Perhaps—you might have been a [King] as great as Flos Reimarch, able to stave off his advance then. Forgive me. It’s an old man’s thoughts.”

Geril shook his head, troubled. It troubled Raelt too. He turned away.

“I’m not set either way, Geril. Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Medain, and the Claiven Earth…the King of Destruction never took the Claiven Earth and Nerrhavia joined him rather than fight overlong. What do you think, Quarass? If I force them into signing a contract…could they disobey it? A clear, magical injunction to make war?”

That was his fear. He looked back at the Quarass. She raised her brows.

“The clear wording? No. But there is war and war, King Raelt. They could send only half an army. Still—the King of Destruction would not take it lightly either way. That would give Jecrass hope.”

Raelt nodded. It was Flos’ reaction that he was counting upon. You couldn’t make war lightly against him. The Quarass tapped her glass with a nail and it was refilled. She drank, went on.

“However. If you ask my knowledge—I think all three nations will make war with great effort. They will send proper armies and do great battle against Reim.”

“You think so?”

Raelt and Geril looked at the Quarass, with hope. She looked over her cup of juice at them levelly.

“Of course. If they sign—they will make such war. But. King Raelt. They will make furious battle here. Because you are what will halt the King of Destruction’s advance.”

And then he saw it. Of course, Medain’s armies and the Claiven Earth would fight. And the war would spill over their borders. But here—it would be here.

“Jecrass will be torn by this great war. You may win or lose. But it is because you are King of Duels, the ruler that can stop the King of Destruction even at great cost that they count on.”

Could he bear that? That…Raelt looked over his city, his palace. They would have to abandon it the first day, retreat, fight defensive battles until the other armies struck. Even then—it would be a long war of retreat and advance. Could he order Jecrass forwards?

“What is my other option, Quarass? Give up a third of my kingdom? Become a subordinate? Let Lyfelt and the others die? What would that make me?”

A [King].

She spoke severely. Raelt turned.

“A good [King] lets innocent people die?”

The Quarass slapped the table.

“For your nation? For your daughter and line? A good king would have damned ten times their number to death if it was for the best. Did you make war, King Raelt, for principle or practicality?”

“Principle.”

She nodded. The child waved a hand at him.

“That is where we differ. You are a kind [King], Raelt of Jecrass. That is good for peace. But war? When this conflict started, do you know what I would have done?”

“Tell me.”

Raelt gritted his teeth. The Quarass pointed south.

“I would have not fought the King of Destruction so. I would have taken ten thousand, twenty thousand of my fastest [Riders] and sent them south. To Hellios, Germina, and Reim most of all. Split them up, sent them in every direction to avoid detection.”

Raiding parties. The Quarass’ eyes glittered as she leaned forwards.

“I would have sent Jecrass’ cavalry forth scorching villages, towns, inciting cities to riot. Anywhere that did not declare against the King of Destruction I would have erased and slaughtered, to force the King of Destruction to defend as well as attack.”

“You would have slaughtered innocent people.”

She nodded.

“It appalls you. But consider that it would have worked. Make a mockery of his protection by heaping a village of corpses up and Flos Reimarch would take the bait. You could bait him to attack or defend. You never considered it. Because you are a good king. I would have enraged the King of Destruction, were I you. And I would have used poison.”

Raelt hung his head. It was true.

“So my decision? I am not asking you to choose, Quarass. But what would you do if you were me? Not King of Jecrass. But…a ‘good king’. One who’s conscience will weigh heavily on him no matter what he does?”

Either way, good people died to no reason. The Quarass thought for a moment. Then she stood up. She beckoned, and Raelt walked over. He leaned down and she whispered in his ear.

He expected some sage advice. Some platitude. But the Quarass just whispered to him.

“Whichever answer you can live with. Look ahead, and see how fate branches. Whichever route you can accept—which you will not wail and bemoan the rest of your life—that is the one to choose.”

Raelt straightened. He looked down at her, and the Quarass smiled. He felt…lighter. It was obvious, but when she put it like that—he knew. He had known.

“Thank you, Quarass.”

“I shall be on my way. You have much to do, Raelt of Jecrass. And I must go north. Farewell. I hope we will meet again.”

She nodded to him. He bowed, and the girl slipped from her seat and walked, barefoot, away. Geril escorted her, looking at his [King]. Raelt of Jecrass stood there for a second.

Then he walked away, to make his decision.

 

—-

 

“We are prepared to sign the contract. Publicly.”

Queen Yisame stood in the room, visible on the scrying mirror. High King Perric from the scrying orb. The Speaker of Trees in another, smaller mirror.

“Before Wistram?”

“Before Wistram and the world. My armies are preparing to advance. We’ll sweep across the border and into Belchan and liberate it.”

Perric waited in front of a grand table with two of his [Generals]. He had a [Mage] from Wistram ready to broadcast the announcement and he was royally annoyed—because Queen Yisame would sign first. He had argued that point the last hour, but it was done.

Raelt nodded. He took a breath as his version of the contract was laid before him. One of the [Mages] in Queen Yisame’s court coughed.

“We need a [Mage] to begin the broadcast on Jecrass’ side, your Majesty. And a ten minute wait for the event to be introduced…”

“Ten minutes? For those Drakes from Pallass? I will do it myself!”

Perric scowled. Raelt saw the Wistram [Mages] conferring and hurrying about as the other rulers had that pained look of people trying to be important while having no idea what was going on.

He smiled. And bowed to Queen Yisame.

“Your Majesty, that will not be necessary. I have made my choice. Jecrass…will not continue war with Reim. I intend to sign his contract.”

Perric froze with one hand on the table. Yisame looked at him. The Speaker of Trees sighed.

Ridiculous! You cannot back out now! My armies are on the move!”

Perric shouted. Raelt ignored him. Yisame looked gravely at Raelt.

“I understand your friend—Lyfelt of Belchan—will die as part of this contract. And other innocents.”

He nodded slowly.

“Yes, your Majesty. I will bear that responsibility. But I weighed each choice. And I can no longer ask my people to fight the King of Destruction. They have suffered too much. I…am sorry.”

Her eyes flickered. For a moment, the Stitch-Woman looked at Raelt and he saw some kind of understanding in her eyes. Then she stepped back as one of her attendants flicked a fan across her body and face.

“If that is your will, King Leysars, we shall abide.”

Her mirror turned off. The Speaker of Trees nodded.

“You have made your choice, King Leysars. We will not begrudge you it.”

He bowed and Raelt nodded. The last was King Perric.

Raelt. You cannot make peace! I will not allow it! Reim will swallow Jecrass whole! Don’t be a coward!

The man raged at Raelt. The [King] of Jecrass looked at Perric.

“You know, Perric, you’re in no position to give me orders. And I rather disliked you anyways. This conversation is over. Goodbye.”

Raelt! Don’t y—

The King of Jecrass turned off the mirror with some satisfaction. Then he sat back.

He was shaking. But it was done. And it was the right decision. The Quarass…it had been Jecaina as well. Wondering if she would have to fight. Warden Dulfe, Winta…

They had sacrificed so much. For nothing? Raelt shook his head. He would make sure it wasn’t for nothing. But it was enough. He…he hated Flos for what he had done. But the man had made war for the Gnolls. Raelt hated Flos for his strength, his armies.

But he wasn’t a man Raelt loathed. That was a crucial difference. Raelt had tried to kill him twice.

“Enough is enough. I’m sorry, Lyfelt. I’m…”

The [King] had the hardest task of all now. He sat there for a moment. Because next—when he rose—he would have to wait the night away until Orthenon came by at midnight. And until that moment—he would have to tell his friend he was letting him die.

When he rose. So Raelt sat a while. Wishing he could weep, rather than feel relieved.

 

—-

 

It was over. The black screen on the scrying orbs around the world suddenly turned back to Noass and Sir Relz launching into their next segment.

—sorry for the technical glitch, folks. Just a minor…minor event on our end. Now, er—I think—think we have a guest—

The Drake was clearly frazzled. But recovering, looking for a guest—

—yes! Er—you there. We have an excellent [Sweeper], a real tale of the common working—Gnoll. You sir, what’s your name?

A rather bewildered Gnoll was pushed in front of the camera. Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the Claiven Earth, Medain’s armies were given the order to stop mustering.

It was ov—

High King Perric’s fist smashed the scrying orb. His magical gauntlets absorbed the backlash as the contained magic detonated.

That worthless wretch!

He bellowed. His [Generals] ducked as he hurled the props he’d been holding, one of them the royal scepter of Medain, across the room. They backed up towards the doors.

“Your M—”

Get out!

The High King raged. The [Mages], his officers, all fled. The seething man stood there, gripping the table hard.

The nerve of Raelt of Jecrass! That pissant little [King] wasn’t in the position to give orders!

High King Perric wore, for anyone counting, a record twelve artifacts on his person. Each perfectly balanced so that the magical leakage was at the threshold. In his estimation, which he had made widely known, his artifacts and levels as a [King] placed him at the rank of Named Adventurer.

…But the Adventurer’s Guilds outside of Medain had refused to grant him that title. It was one of the things in life that eternally infuriated Perric.

He never forgot such slights. He was [High King], and knew what was due to him. Wistram, Jecrass, the Adventurer’s Guilds…

And Raelt Leysars. Perric strode back and forth. He was no fool. He knew what this meant.

Raelt was doing this to spite him. It was obvious. The [King] was going to kneel in order to give Flos Reimarch an undivided south. And who was next?

Medain. Perric cast his eyes across the war maps. The King of Destruction’s peace or not—it was obvious. Medain was too rich, and it would provide the King of Destruction with a coastline at last! He’d find some reason, moan about his worthless refugees, and then attack.

“If that damn coward hadn’t decided—”

It had all been lining up! Perric’s armies would have swept in and taken parts of Belchan and Jecrass, fortified the passes, and let the Claiven Earth and Nerrhavia’s Fallen batter at Reim before advancing. This had been perfect.

Until Raelt had caved. Now, Perric was looking at a defensive war. He didn’t like it.

“Unacceptable.”

The man considered his options. He had to worry about the damn half-Elves to the west, sometimes enemies. Weak coastal nations to the east. Jecrass and Belchan had been weaker, but stubborn neighbors forever. But Reim was a powerhouse. And…

“Your Majesty?”

The [Servant] flinched as he looked up. One of his many wives. The Lizardwoman. She pointed, terrified.

“The—ambassador is here again. The House of M—”

“They do not have my permission! Tell them to begone! I will not be disturbed!”

Perric thundered. His wife fled. He looked down at the map.

“Pests!”

Everyone thought they could just march across his land. The King of Destruction’s decree about his ‘refugees’ had incensed Perric. But this was not the time for a direct war. Flos was…not a better [King] than Perric. Maybe higher in level—for now—but Perric was younger, and he had greater vision. Flos was a savage. Perric would eclipse him—he just needed more vassals like the Seven.

No, no, no. Perric was the one true [King] among all these half-baked men. And a true [King] did not allow his plans to fold so easily. Perric’s eyes narrowed.

He’d suspected Raelt might surrender. He had a few tricks left.

High King Perric had been an adventurer. And a good adventurer always had contingency plans. You looked at the weak points of your opponents. And Raelt was his opponent. So—then.

Servant!

The door opened. Perric turned.

“Send a [Message]. How many Gold-rank teams are stationed in Jecrass’ capital at this moment? Find me the most mobile one. And tell them…”

He had another plan. The High King gave his orders then sat back. He ordered some wine, suddenly in good spirits. Yes, this was salvageable. All they needed was a few hour’s head start. And then…he chuckled.

“Get me the Wistram [Mages] and tell them they must remain within the capital. And send a [Message] to Queen Yisame and the Speaker of Trees.”

Raelt Leysars was about to change his mind.

 

—-

 

The mood in the capital was quiet. Jecaina Leysars walked down the streets, restless, prone to prowling as everyone who knew her was well aware.

She didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. Peace—hopefully. But what then? Lyfelt—her father’s friend—would die for that peace. And so many people had died.

If they ceded part of Jecrass, what happened? Jecaina felt miserable. And useless. Never mind that she had dueled her father, she wished she was a better [Princess].

A commotion made her raise her head. By law, the capital was under martial law. Most of the civilians had been evacuated, in fact. But [Soldiers] were soldiers. And given that there were multiple foreign forces in the capital—brawls or arguments were common.

She suspected two nations of causing the most trouble. So Jecaina was prepared for the rowdy group of adventurers shouting, clearly drunk, in a standoff with some wary City Guards.

“No real [King] would run away with his tail between his legs! Jecrass—Jecrass—the King of Duels is nothing more than a coward. The King of Adventurers wouldn’t run!

Jecaina’s hands clenched as she saw a Gold-rank adventurer, swaying and sneering into a Watch Captain’s face. The man was scowling, hand on his belt—but away from his club.

They were Gold-ranks. And this was a City Watch. For all intents and purposes, it was like watching adults being confronted by a gaggle of children.

Unfair. And the others were shouting insults. Jecaina had no idea why they were here—this was far from the entertainment district. But they were waving mugs and laughing as they called out insults.

“We came here to fight, not run away!”

Another called out—then they caught sight of Jecaina as she strode forwards. The [Duelist Princess] had her rapier on her, but she didn’t draw it.

“What is going on here?”

“Your Highness!”

The Watch Captain looked both alarmed and relieved. He gestured at the team of Gold-ranks—the Silvereyed Sables, if Jecaina remembered correctly. From Medain.

“This lot showed up and started a ruckus just a few minutes ago. Started insulting his Majesty—”

“Insulting? Hah! We’re just telling the truth!”

One of the Gold-ranks called out. They laughed. If they recognized Jecaina, none of them showed it. One of them swayed against her companion and he buffeted her. She straightened slightly, rubbing at her ribs, then slouched over again.

Jecaina eyed them.

“You’re the Silvereyes, right?”

“That’s right. And who’re you?”

“I am Princess Jecaina Leysars of Jecrass. By my father’s order, this city is under martial law. Drinking and disorderly conduct are unlawful. Go back to your abode.”

“And why should we? What’s the point? There’ll be peace tomorrow. Peace, bought by your father selling out his nation! Like the coward he is!”

The leader of the Silvereyes pointed at Jecaina. She felt a flash of heat run through them. Her hand reached for her side and they tensed.

“Your Majesty—”

The Watch Captain was alarmed. Jecaina forced her hand away from her side. She remembered her father’s warning. But—it was hard to take that from them.

“Your team is willing to insult Jecrass’ crown, when your [King] hasn’t even deigned to declare war? Moreover—his contribution to the war is half a dozen Gold-rank teams who haven’t stayed in any battle till the end before fleeing!”

The Gold-ranks flushed. The [Captain] opened his mouth hotly.

“We fight smart! If Jecrass was half as intelligent, it wouldn’t need to throw away your ‘elite’ [Trick Riders] like flies before muck!”

This time Jecaina’s fury turned her pale. The [Trick Riders]? They were beloved of Jecrass! A class that could level in times of peace or war—their performances were famed! And they had fought Mars, Orthenon—charged into battle without fear!

“How dare you? You haven’t sacrificed anything! You walk around, putting on airs—I thought Medain sent adventurers, not cowards with egos like Drakes!”

The Silvereyes glowered. There was a bark of laughter from the [Guards]. The leader put a hand on his side. He carried a shortsword and small shield.

“Those are fighting words. Put your money where your mouth is, ‘Princess’. And we’ll show you exactly how good we are. Come on, unless you’re afraid of taking a cut from a real warrior? Where were you when we were fighting?”

The [Princess] drew her sword before she could think. All her frustration, her guilt, was brought out by that mocking statement. The [Guard] stirred.

“[Princess]! Your father—”

The Watch Captain stepped back as two of the Silvereyes drew their weapons and blocked him. The leader challenged Jecaina, steps unsteady at first, but then surefooted.

“Come on! Neither of us needs to get hurt! Unless you’re not a quarter of the fighter your father ‘claims’ to be!”

Jecaina hesitated. The Gold-rank looked more sober by the second. And even if he was a hothead and drunk—he was good.

She could beat him, though. He was still overconfident and Raelt had taught her everything she’d known. She had beaten Gold-ranks in duels before. She stepped forwards—

You don’t need to be me.

Her father’s voice halted her mid-step. Jecaina hesitated. She bit her lip—hard. Then she lowered her sword.

“What’s wrong?  Come on, coward! Or is the King of Duel’s daughter going to run away from a challenge?”

Each word pricked her like a nettle. But Jecaina slowly rammed the rapier back into its sheathe. The Silvereyes stirred. She shook her head slowly, looked at the Watch Captain, and stepped back.

“I don’t need to prove anything to you. Nor is this the place.”

She took a few breaths. It was hard—but this felt right. It had felt good to challenge the Nerrhavian [Charioteers]. But this—she looked at the uncertain Gold-rank Captain.

“If you want to challenge me, do it when there isn’t an army on our doorstep. As [Princess] of Jecrass, I order you to stop disturbing the peace or you will be arrested!”

He wavered. His team looked at each other and a few cursed, throwing down their mugs. Jecaina blinked at the hollow sound they made. And she wasn’t certain what came next.

But the Watch Captain was smiling. He bowed slightly to Jecaina, a man who’d had cause to report her more than once.

“Well done, your Majesty. You heard Princess Jecaina. Clear off or this will involve the army and your superiors!”

The rest of the [Guards] nodded. Jecaina felt…taller. She nodded and saw the Gold-rank Captain look at his team of eight. He swore under his breath as he lowered his sword.

“Okay. We do this the hard way. Now!

Jecaina saw his hand flicker. She blinked—and was diving.

Get down!

The Watch started as the [Mage] among the Gold-ranks lifted his staff. Jecaina saw a flash—

Lightning crackled across the street. It struck the [Guards], arcing across Jecaina for a moment. But her ring protected her. She felt the Watch Captain cry out as they hit the ground.

Felt, but did not hear. Her ears were suddenly stuffed with cotton. Jecaina got up, and saw the Gold-ranks charging.

What are you doing?

She tried to scream at them. Jecaina drew her sword, slowly, as all nine attacked the remaining [Guards]. She slashed at the Captain, and he backed up as she cut him across the collarbone, cutting through his armor with her enchanted sword. But—she spun left, and then saw the two [Riders] coming down the side street.

A second Gold-rank team. The Watch Captain stared down at the arrow in his chest and tried to stand. Jecaina looked around. She slashed, backing up, trying to shout—but there was no sound.

Her father was right. Battles weren’t duels.

The Gold-rank adventurers fought for a minute. The [Princess] was good. But they were used to fighting all kinds of foes.

The third arrow dropped her. One had taken her in the leg, and the other two were sleeping arrows.

“That did not go according to plan!”

One of them spoke as the [Silence] spell wore off. The leader of the Silvereyes swore.

“Shut up. Hide the bodies. And ride! We need at least six hour’s head start! You lot—start spreading the story.”

The second team nodded. The Silvereyes raced for the covered wagon and set the horses into motion. The fastest mounts they could get. The rest took to the horses and rode out of Jecrass’ gates.

No one stopped them or checked the wagon. It was just another disgruntled Gold-rank team leaving for Medain. The Captain of the Silvereyes watched his teammate tending to the wounded [Princess]. Her refusal to fight had been a surprise, but it had worked out.

“Pick up speed!”

“[Eleventh Hour Wheels]!”

The [Driver] called out. The Captain felt the wagon pick up speed.

High King Perric had his [Princess]. They were going to be rich.

 

—-

 

Princess Jecaina was gone. Now came the question: who would notice her absence?

Raelt Leysars of Jecrass…did not ask about his daughter. He sat in the private, guest quarters with Prime Minister Lyfelt. As his friend wept and begged. Why would Raelt have worried about his daughter?

General Lael and Geril were next. The [General] was busy overseeing the army. If they went to war—but they wouldn’t. She felt relieved. She wasn’t drinking—yet. But when the treaty was signed and the King of Destruction’s army was marching off, she was going to drink for the next month.

She had leveled, but she never wanted to experience this kind of war again.

“General Lael. Do you know where Princess Jecaina is?”

She turned. Geril had walked into the war room, looking for the [Princess]. The old retainer was past his bedtime, but he was checking Jecaina’s haunts.

Lael usually suffered the [Princess]’ presence, but she informed Geril that she wasn’t here.

“Why?”

“Oh, the servants said she went for a walk in the city but hasn’t returned.”

“She might be drinking or out with her friends.”

Geril sighed. It was a common pastime of Jecaina’s. She was a good [Princess]; she made the rounds of the city, speaking to soldiers, being there, seen, while her father fought the war. But a young woman was still restless and had to be doubly upset that she wasn’t allowed to fight.

“Most likely.”

“We have a surplus of hands. I could inquire after her.”

Lael offered. Geril hesitated.

“It’s not necessary. She does hate to be monitored. But maybe…”

He lapsed into silence. Lael turned to a junior officer.

“Just send a [Message] to the Watch or the [Commander] in the city.”

They waited. A response came back after about ten minutes.

“Apparently, the [Princess] was involved in an argument with a Gold-rank team. Flawless Riposte. About the honor of Jecrass. That’s what a Gold-rank team is saying.”

“Argh.”

Lael closed her eyes. Geril shook his head wearily.

“I will find her—his Majesty doesn’t need to know until—”

“Ah, General?”

The officer clarified. Lael nodded.

“There was an altercation. But it didn’t come to blows. They’re all at a tavern. The [Princess] is, ah, carousing with the team. They settled their differences.”

“Oh? You have eyes on her?”

The officer conferred.

“Everyone can see her toasting Medain and talking, [General]. The Gold-ranks have bought the pub so no one else is allowed in. Should I…?”

“No, no. It was just an old man’s worry. I thought…that’s far better.”

Geril shook his head, clearly relieved. Lael nodded.

“Just keep an eye on the pub. If there’s a fight, let me know. You should rest, Geril…”

“I’ll do that. I don’t know what kept me up. Just a [Retainer] being fussy…”

The old man let Lael usher him out of the war room. He tried to tell himself his nerves were just that. Jecaina was fine. Meeting Gold-rank adventurers was, for a spirited girl like her, exactly the thing she needed to relax.

He went back to his room and had troubled dreams. Troubled—but he asked no more questions of her. Neither did Lael. Which meant the Silvereyes had an hour after leaving Jecrass’ gates.

Two hours.

King Raelt left Lyfelt’s rooms as the man screamed at him to ‘get out’. He leaned against a wall. It was late. Orthenon would be coming. He thought—briefly—of finding Geril or Jecaina.

But they would be asleep. So the [King] ordered a cup of goat’s milk and went to the practice courts to wait.

Three hours.

Four h—

 

—-

 

The Quarass of Germina was riding north. Covertly. Aside from Jecrass’ ruler, no one actually knew she was heading north. Flos Reimarch might know her general whereabouts—but Medain’s ruler did not.

And she intended to keep it that way. Her business was private. The Quarass was yawning.

“Damn children’s bodies.”

She remarked. Her escort said nothing, but was attentive to her needs. The Quarass was considering dozing for a while and bemoaning that a flying carpet was too obvious when she saw the wagon pass them on the road.

Ger’s vipers!

One of her bodyguards swore as the wagon thundered by. A small group of [Riders] shouted for Germina’s small group to get out of the way. The Quarass twitched her reins, calming her horse. Her eyes flicked to the wagon.

And she had several thoughts. She recognized the magical nature of the artifacts so placed the adventurers at once. And she identified their accents. Medain. Her eyes narrowed as she sensed one last thing.

An aura. Faint, but coming from the wagon. Disturbed. And certainly out of place. Moreover, the speed, the way the adventurers were shouting…

She had seen the like before. A thousand thousand times. The Quarass drew herself up in the saddle.

After them! Stop that wagon!

Her bodyguard jerked into motion. They were Germina’s people and asked no questions.

Halt in the name of the Quarass!

The [First Warrior] roared. He spurred his horse and the adventurers looked back to see Germina’s warriors coming after them.

Dead gods damnit! Go, go! [Lightning Bolt]!

One of them shouted. The [Mage] shot lightning backwards. The Quarass saw the magic—reflexively raised her hand to catch and redirect the magic, and remembered.

She couldn’t cast that kind of magic right now.

Quarass!

Her bodyguards threw themselves forwards. One blocked the spell with a magical shield and the bolt dissipated. The rest streamed after the adventurers.

Protect the Quarass! Slay them!

The Quarass, cursing, saw her people covering her. She heard screams, more crackling lightning—then it was over.

One of the adventurers, the [Mage], was down. A spear had gone through her chest. Another adventurer had been de-horsed and had surrendered. But the rest were fleeing, having stymied Germina’s riders. A group of her people were pursuing—but the adventurers had too large a lead.

Enchanted wagon wheels. The Quarass eyed the pursuit and calculated the odds of the [First Warrior] taking on the rest of them. Virtually…

“Pull back!”

She raised her hand and the order was relayed. The warriors fell backwards. The Quarass studied her side’s casualties and the last adventurer.

“Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! I’m working on behalf of Medain’s crown!”

The woman was babbling, terrified. The Quarass pointed down as she rode her pony forwards.

“You. Who was in that wagon? The [King] or [Princess]?”

“Wh—I don’t—”

The adventuress turned pale. The Quarass read her expression and cursed.

“Send a [Message] to Jecrass at once. Tell them—their [Princess] has been kidnapped!

She whirled. Her escort swirled. The Quarass looked ahead. She hadn’t predicted this. Her knowledge wasn’t infallible. But she knew men like High King Perric. This…she shook her head.

This was a stupid move. It threw everything into chaos. If she had not been here, it might have worked. Now? She saw the [Message] go out, flitting towards the sleepy [General] Lael and the restless [King of Challenges].

Raelt Leysars heard the frantic shouting. He blinked a few times, a cup of goat’s milk in his hand. Then he dropped it.

And went insane.

 

—-

 

High King Perric was having a grand time. The wine was good and it had been nearly four hours since the abduction had gone off. The plan was perfect.

“You see? A day’s lead will take them far out of reach. I have an escort waiting at the border in any case. King Raelt will declare war come daybreak. I will demand his presence…in three more hours.”

Three more hours and they’d be all but uncatchable, even by Jecrass vaunted horsemen. After all—Perric didn’t have to have the [Princess] here to enforce his demands. Once they were across the border, she’d be within his grasp anyways.

He was speaking to one of his top [Generals], going over the plan. The man nodded. He cleared his throat nervously.

“What if the [Princess]—er, that is to say, what if Princess Leysars is less than cooperative, sire?”

The High King gave the man a blank look over his goblet.

“So? She is a political captive. She will remain here as a guarantee of Raelt’s continued fighting. And if she objects—in my experience, even the most stubborn woman teaches herself courtesy after a while.”

“Do you intend to marry her, High King?”

“Perhaps.”

Perric would think on it after another cup of wine. Everything was going well—

Right up until the [Servant] broke his good mood.

“Your Majesty. The Silvereye Sables report a clash with strangers on the road!”

“Who?”

The High King frowned. The [Messenger] had no answers. Just that two were dead. But the wagon was intact and the [Princess] secure. The Silvereyes were accelerating and begging for an escort.

“Brigands, perhaps, your majesty.”

“Hmf. The reinforcements at the border will kill anyone who interferes. If they come under attack—sally forth and reinforce them. But covertly! Dead gods, you fools. This has to be—”

Your Majesty! Jecrass’ army is on the move! King Raelt has left the capital and he is riding at the border! He—he’s declared war!

Perric dropped the goblet.

 

—-

 

“What?”

Flos Reimarch blinked blearily at Teres, who’d come to wake him.

“The army’s moving!”

She had seen it from afar as the [Scouts] sounded the alarm. In the distance, thousands, tens of thousands of [Riders] were streaking from the capital.

“That makes no sense. Prepare for battle. If he thinks a sneak attack will work, we’re dug in…”

The King of Destruction was confused in his sleep. But as he rose and burst from his tents, his eyes narrowed.

“That’s not an organized formation. Orthenon! What happened to the negotiations?”

“I haven’t left.”

The Steward rode towards Flos. He had been preparing to leave. The King of Destruction whirled.

“Someone find out what is happening. I…”

His eyes turned towards the capital which was blowing horns, and the army shooting north. His head swiveled and he grinned, his teeth shining by moonlight.

“I sense something interesting. An opportunity.”

 

—-

 

Perric!

Raelt howled. He had never hated a man before. Disliked them. His River Wardens—who had turned out to be brave. He thought he had hated Flos Reimarch.

But no—this was hate. Raelt shot across the ground, his horse riding full-tilt.

Your Majesty! Y—

They were riding around him. General Lael, Geril—they were trying to catch up. Raelt had been first out of the palace and the city gates. Only the [Trick Riders] and those with riding Skills were catching up.

Faster! Find them!

The Quarass’ [Message] had lit his blood on fire. An adventuring team, a Gold-rank team had kidnapped his daughter! They had four hours nearly on him and they were making for Medain’s border.

Perric was trying to abduct Jecaina. Raelt needed no explanations as to why. That man—if he touched Jecaina, tried to add her to his harem of species—

Raelt was going to murder Perric. Then the Gold-rank team. He dug his heels into the horse’s sides. Faster. Faster! It raced forwards, fueled by his rage.

Raelt. Desist! Your daughter is in my grasp!

Raelt’s head turned. One of his [Trick Riders] had a small scrying mirror. And there he was.

Perric! Release my daughter or I’ll cut your head off and feed it to the worms!

The man howled at the High King. Perric hesitated. He had not seen Raelt like this. He braced himself.

“Your daughter is already across the border! Halt your advance if you want her unharmed. This is what is going to happen. You are going to declare war on the King of Destruction and—”

Perric. I am going to kill you!

The High King tried to say something. Raelt’s hand blurred. The [Trick Rider] recoiled as the tip of the rapier punched through the scrying mirror.

Faster! Anyone with Skills, find those adventurers and cut them off!

“[Ride Commander], forwards!

General Lael shouted. One of Jecrass’ commanders raced to the head of the vanguard. He shouted.

“[Lightning Hooves]!”

The horses around Raelt and the [Trick Riders] accelerated. For a minute—two—eight—they blazed across the road. Then the Skill wore off.

Back! Next commander!

A [Captain of the Horse] replaced the [Ride Commander]. Behind them, other officers were using their Skills, frantically burning away the ground. Raelt felt a second Skill boosting him, across the other ones. But it wasn’t enough.

Raelt pushed them faster. Faster!

The sun rose and began to set. The four hour’s lead shrank.

 

—-

 

They were going to be caught. Jecrass’ army was storming towards the border and as fast as they were, even the Gold-rank team famed for their mobility was being caught.

It was still nearly a day’s ride to Medain’s capital. When his [Strategist] came to him with the calculations, High King Perric sat there for a second. Then he rose.

“General Bullan. Mobilize the army. We ride forwards!”

“The nearest army is—”

Perric knocked the man to the side.

“The capital’s forces, you fool! I’ll secure the [Princess] myself! Move! Summon the Golden Ranks of Medain!

His personal vanguard, made up of Gold-ranks, mostly retired. Medain’s army began to pivot, away from the strategic points at Belchan’s border and towards the reinforcements now streaking towards the border.

The sun rose higher and began to fall. As it did—the wagon with Princess Jecaina reached the border. And the rest of the world began to take notice.

 

—-

 

“An abduction?”

Queen Yisame was likewise bleary-eyed, but her war council had given her time to make herself presentable. They caught herself up to speed. Or rather, the scrying orb did.

Wistram was aware of this. How not, when Jecrass’ capital had seen their entire mounted army shooting north towards the border?  They had no plan—they had left the capital practically undefended! She stared at the image.

“That is King Raelt of Jecrass we’re seeing, ladies and gentlemen.”

Noass was looking around, wide-eyed. Drassi was sitting next to him—they’d grabbed her instead of Sir Relz, who was drunk.

“That’s right. Here’s what we know. This rat—”

“High King Perric.”

“Yeah. This rat-king kidnaps the [King] of Jecrass’ daughter. And now Raelt is in hot pursuit.”

“Er—that’s—”

“What? That’s what I think. What kind of monster kidnaps a daughter? The question is: can they get her?”

Both Drakes stared at the scrying orb. They were overlaying a map and calculating speeds. Jecrass’ army was the fastest in the world. But the adventurers had four hour’s lead and they knew what would happen if they were caught.

“What will happen? Answer!”

Yisame looked around. One of her [Strategists] spoke.

“Your Majesty, we estimate the team will reach the border before Jecrass’ army and their [King]. However—High King Perric’s forces are mobilized further to the west. Even if they march at all speed—it will be the capital’s army who is able to fully take captivity of the [Princess] first.”

Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s ruler looked at the map. That meant from the border to the capital or wherever the army caught the Gold-ranks—there was time.

“How many agents do we have in Medain?”

The war council looked at each other.

“Several, your Majesty. What is their aim?”

Yisame hesitated. One of her [Generals] bowed.

“My Glorious Queen who rules over the vastest land—if I may say it, this is to Nerrhavia’s advantage. If Jecrass continues the war…”

He hesitated. Queen Yisame seldom interrupted her war council. Now—they waited. Yisame bit her lip. She did not gainsay her strategist and generals often. However…

“I—we dislike Medain’s ruler. High King Perric has made an enemy of public opinion and Jecrass. Begin a condemnation which we shall deliver at soonest convenience.”

The servants bustled about. But the war council waited.

“And of our agents?”

Yisame met her [General]’s eyes, took a consensus of the room. She held up a delicate hand.

“We shall observe.”

Which meant…the others nodded in satisfaction. Yisame turned. She looked at the orb.

“Bring it to our chambers. We shall leave the strategy to you.”

She knew what her war council preferred. So the ruler of Nerrhavia let them plan. And she carried the orb to her room and watched. She and her subordinates differed in who she preferred to win. And as dawn began to break—she saw the wagon racing north, towards the capital on the coast.

Pursued.

 

—-

 

Late evening had fallen as the first [Trick Rider] raced over the hills that began to turn to dunes if you went further north to the ocean beyond. Medain had lovely beaches, a prosperous inland. It was a powerful nation, fed by waters and trade.

Princess J—

The Gold-rank team’s [Archer] shot the screaming [Trick Rider] from the saddle. Another followed, and one of them threw a Tripvine Bag.

“[Evasive Leap]!”

The horse leapt over the exploding vines. The [Trick Rider] shot at them. Two Gold-ranks peeled off with half a dozen of the [Riders] that Perric had sent to help the abduction.

The Jecrassian [Soldier] put his blade into one [Rider]’s chest and brought down a horse before they cut him down. The wagon thundered on.

“Dead gods, where is the army?

An escort of less than a hundred rode with the Silvereyes. That was all Perric had thought was needed. And it would have been enough—if the Quarass hadn’t spotted the wagon.

But now Jecrass’ entire army was coming over the border. Led by the King of Duels himself. He’d cut the border guard to ribbons and he was coming.

“His Majesty is coming straight at us with the capital’s army and the Golden Ranks of Medain!”

The adventurers in the wagon heard the news and shouted in relief. Jecaina lay there, hog-tied, struggling. They ignored her. In the distance—Medain’s army was streaming forwards, trying to keep to their formations.

They were stymied by the fact that Perric favored heavy infantry with mage and archer support, the exact opposite of Jecrass’ mobile army. And then—in the distance he appeared.

Jecaina!

The Gold-ranks in the wagon jerked as they heard the King of Duels’ howl. They flogged the horses desperately, but the belabored animals had nothing left to give.

And the [King of Challenges] was coming. Raelt’s voice was raw and he had ridden for hours. His horse…the animal was reaching the end of its endurance even with the potions he had given it.

But he saw the wagon in the distance, streaming towards the capital. It was passing across a plateau; the border between Jecrass and Medain lay behind, a narrow pass. The guards Medain had posted were dead.

Now—the coast lay beyond. In the far, far distance, the shining sea. And the capital of Medain beyond, where the High King reigned.

Forwards!

General Lael shouted. Thousands of the cavalry followed their [King]. But in the distance—there was High King Perric and his army.

Secure that wagon! Once it’s in our hands, force Raelt of Jecrass back!

The [King] saw a distant dot of the wagon. And his army—fresh, far outnumbering Jecrass’—marched forwards. Medain’s army. King Perric had deployed his farther across Jecrass’ borders, far too far to recall in time. But he had the army of Medain’s capital to call upon. They’d sallied forth in neat, organized formation, marching at a slower pace southwards.

However—High King Perric’s heavy cavalry were riding forth ahead of his infantry. Thousands of them—making for the wagon.

It was simple if you saw it from above, like Niers Astoragon, the Wistram broadcast. At the rate of travel by the wagon with an oncoming speed from Medain’s army while being pursued by Jecrass’ at a velocity of—

The wagon was going to reach Medain’s forces before Raelt’s main army. And Medain’s forces were fresh. All they had to do was keep the wagon moving and it would be behind Perric’s army and in the capital.

It was going to—

Another [Trick Rider] charged the escort of a hundred. This time he was close enough. An arrow struck his horse and it screamed. But the man pointed. And vanished.

[Flicker Charge].

The Gold-ranks ran through the place he had been. The [Lancers] missed. The [Trick Rider] was at the wagon. He saw the Silvereyes’ leader aiming a wand.

“Horses forgive me.”

The man spoke. Jecaina saw his blade flash. The horses screamed. And the wagon skidded as the animals fell. The wheels snapped and the entire carriage spilled to the side.

The [Trick Rider] vanished in a spray of acid, crying out as he was surrounded. The Gold-ranks in the wagon were thrown as the vehicle crashed. Jecaina was knocked across the wagon.

But her bonds were loosened. The [Duelist Princess] struggled. She kicked, got one leg free. She was lying on her back. The door. She had to—

Get her!

The Gold-rank Captain grabbed her. He was dizzy; his head was bleeding. Jecaina kicked him in the face, her hands still bound. She struggled towards the door. Crawled out. The wagon was tilted, stopped—Jecaina struggled out of one door.

Stop her!

One of the Gold-ranks kicked her in the side. Jecaina felt the impact, struggled forwards—someone brought down the hilt of their sword on her head. she kept moving until three more people hit her and she stopped.

Pick her up and get her on the horses—

More of Jecrass’ riders were coming. They charged into the desperate adventurers and Medain’s [Soldiers], dying to slow them down.

Full march. Move faster!

High King Perric saw the wagon stop and the group, unable to advance. Now—if you calculated the speed—

Jecrass’ army was coming. The High King felt a knot in his stomach. Damn Raelt. This was not how the plan was supposed to work!

But it would work. If they just got her. The High King was so preoccupied with the skirmish around the [Princess] that he didn’t hear the [General] until the man had to grab Perric’s arm.

High King! More forces are coming from the south!

“I know that! Once we have the [Princess]—”

“No—sire! It’s not Jecrass. It’s—the King of Destruction.

Perric slowly lowered the magnifying binoculars. And he turned his head south.

 

—-

 

The King of Destruction’s army was on the move. [Rapid March] let them move at twice the normal speed of any army. Not fast enough to catch horses. But—his entire vanguard was on the move.

They’d abandoned their war camp. Now, Shepherd Zamea and the half-Giants marched alongside the Serpent Hunters. The Rustängmarder were formed around the King of Destruction and Parasol Stroll.

Teres rode next to Mars.

They were coming. Flos Reimarch’s actions were a mystery to Perric at first.

“The capital was open! He could have taken it!”

And in that he misjudged Flos, just like Raelt. The King of Destruction was after bigger prey.

“Milord, you swore an oath to not make war unjustly!”

The [Vanguard] reminded her liege. Orthenon was riding ahead, chasing after Raelt and Jecaina.

“Nonsense, Mars. I’m just pursuing my foe. And—someone who kidnaps a [Princess], well—I think we should demand she be returned to King Raelt. Then we can sort out this terrible business of war.”

The Illusionist grinned.

“And if High King Perric objects?”

“I’m sure he’s a reasonable man. And if he’s not willing to hand over the Princess of Jecrass at once—well, that would be terrible.

The King of Destruction looked ahead. And his army laughed. Now—now Perric was counting troops.

He had his capital’s army. Flos had his vanguard with the King’s Steward and the Illusionist. They were still several hours behind Jecrass’ forces, but they were crossing the border too. The High King made a rapid decision.

Get the [Princess]. Raelt will turn and fight! Capture her! Put a sword to her throat and if he doesn’t turn now—

He roared. Raelt was in sight of the wagon now.

It was like a picture out of stories. The desperate [King], riding at the head of his army, through the night to save his daughter. The shining army of Medain, poised for battle with the [High King] and his elites.

In the distance, the King of Destruction’s army, moving out from a pass between valleys. Laughing, ready for war.

A story. But Raelt just wanted his daughter back. He had never been more afraid. He saw the fighting around her. But he didn’t see her.

The distant coast was illuminating as the sun set. The wind blew a few sails in the distance. Raelt gasped for air.

There!

Jecaina!

She was hanging limp. The Gold-rank Captain and two of his surviving adventurers had taken horses. They were fighting clear. Moving towards the heavy [Lancers] and [Knights] bearing down on them.

Too late. Too late! Raelt saw the Gold-rank turn. His sword was at Jecaina’s throat. The [King of Challenges] screamed. He aimed his blade. Closer and he’d step across the distance.

Stop or she dies!

The Gold-rank of the Silvereyes was terrified. He dug his blade into Jecaina’s throat until blood ran. Raelt hesitated. But his army was coming. They had to get to her.

“I said—”

The Gold-rank saw that the [King] was willing to risk it, or too mad with rage and fear to slow. So he changed his grip. He lifted Jecaina’s wrist—

And dug his sword’s blade into her hand. Raelt saw the blade shear into her hand.

Stop.

He slowed. The Gold-rank Captain was tensed. Ready to cut through her sword arm. He looked over his shoulder as Jecrass’ army slowed.

It was enough.

“We have archers, sire…”

Raelt held up a hand. The others were poised around the Gold-rank Captain. To cut at Jecaina. The heartless monsters. Could the arrows bring them all down before…?

The Captain glanced over his shoulder. The first [Lancers] streamed towards him, less than a hundred paces away. He laughed as he saw the [King of Challenges] just standing there. Jecaina’s hand bled, limply, as the unconscious [Princess] lay there.

“Let’s go!”

He turned, racing towards, the High King’s army. Jecrass’ forces hesitated. Waiting. Looking at their [King].

Another impossible choice. Her hand or…? Raelt heard horns blowing. The King of Destruction’s army, far behind. Perhaps—perhaps—he looked over his shoulder.

At Flos Reimarch. The King of Destruction was watching through the scrying orb.

“Wait, Raelt. Wait, and I will give you your daughter.”

He spoke, as if to convince Raelt, though no spell connected the two. High King Perric was shouting.

Turn your army and fight him! We have her!

The first [Lancer] reached the Gold-rank Captain. He reached for Jecaina. The Gold-rank [Captain] gasped with relief. He lifted the [Princess], lifting his sword away and Raelt made a sound of despair. He saw a flicker—

The [Lancer] disappeared. The Gold-rank adventurer blinked. He stared forwards.

The warrior’s armor was split in twain, as was his body. He slid from the horse. And there was silence.

 

—-

 

“Mars?”

Teres turned in her saddle. She poked at the [Vanguard], Mars the Illusionist. Mars blinked back at her.

“What?”

Flos Reimarch looked ahead.

“Orthenon?”

 

—-

 

The Steward slowed.

“What?”

 

—-

 

“Who—”

The Gold-rank Captain reached for Jecaina. Then he saw what had split the [Lancer] in twain—moving. It was…

An axe. It rose into the air, red with blood, dripping gore and floated backwards. Spinning back into the hand that had thrown it. And then the hand moved and threw—again.

The adventurer next to the Gold-rank Captain vanished. She made not a sound. He spun, tracking the weapon as it flew back.

“I’m warning you! I have—”

“[Perfect Throw]. [Homing Arc].”

He heard the distant voice. The adventurer tried to duck. The second axe took him off at the chest. Blood ran down onto Jecaina’s face and woke her up. She stirred, then cried out in horror.

No—

The last adventurer reached for her. And the axe struck again.

Medain’s forces fell back, crying out. The [Throwers] were from so far away! And the angle—it came from neither the King of Destruction’s forces, nor Jecrass’. Or Medain’s.

High King Perric’s head slowly turned. He traced the arc and saw a figure standing on the dunes. The sun rose as the figure hurled the axe, clearing the area around Jecaina.

“Honor shall be upheld.”

He stood on the dunes. Behind him—the evening sun set and set the sails aglow. The Minotaur raised his hand and the axe flew into it. He pointed.

“Advance.”

More figures marched over the dunes. Away from the warships in the distance. Unwelcome guests.

“But I didn’t give them permission to land.”

High King Perric spoke distantly. The Minotaurs ignored him. They marched forwards as Raelt’s army pivoted. Medain’s forces moved towards Jecaina. Jecrass met Medain.

The Minotaurs moved past the battle.

“Do we interfere, General? The artillery is assembled and ready to fire.”

The second thrower spoke to the commander. The Minotaur raised his horned head and glanced at the conflict. He shook his head slightly.

“We have given the King of Jecrass his opportunity. Our foe lies ahead.”

He pointed. The King of Destruction’s army.

 

—-

 

Orthenon slowed. His hand tightened on the spear he carried.

Flos Reimarch’s smile faded away. He looked ahead. Mars shifted. She looked…nervous. The King of Destruction stared ahead and Teres remembered the stories of how his conquest had…ended. She heard his voice.

“Minotaurs.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

It’s not perfect. But that’s what it looked like in my head, roughly speaking. I did a lot of words this time. Next chapter—falling action. Or rising. Wait—climax? I need to study plot arcs again.

I hope you enjoyed it! This is…the Jecrass-Reim war’s arc. We could have gone to Liscor, but I thought this was better for me. It had a lot of buildup. But I hope the whole piece looks at least a little glorious.

Speaking of glorious—this is the art I’m going to feature today. Enuryn’s Dragonthrone, featuring a tiny Rags and Teriarch! It’s so beautiful it’s become one of my desktop wallpapers. Give him lots of appreciation!

…The next chapter awaits. Too long in the future for you, too soon for my hands! Thanks for reading!

 

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/enuryn

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Enuryn_Nat

 

Dragonthrone by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

7.45

Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle was sick. No—

Dying. Her father sat by her bed. He had seen it before. He held her hand tightly. Too tightly; he realized he would have snapped a non-Vampire’s bones. He released his grip, but sat there.

Himilt Drakle had seen it before. In children. Adults. They passed like this, if disease or accident didn’t take them. And it was hard to kill a Vampire.

But this—this was how the curse Balmer spoke of took them.

“It hurts. It hurts!

Serafierre was muttering, half-awake, half-unconscious. She writhed in the bed.

“What hurts, Fierre? What happened?”

Himilt waited, but Fierre was unable to speak. Her face—normally as pale as snow—was flushed. Her body was warm. For a Vampire—that was a fever. More than that, she was in pain.

She had vomited twice. Now—she grabbed at the sheets, shredding them as her fingers became claws. Her strength as she gripped Himilt’s hand was enormous. But whatever she fought, she was helpless. Her father sat there, until he heard from afar the sound of footfalls.

The rest of his family were silent and light-footed. The labored breathing, the voice—Himilt sniffed the air. He knew Ryoka Griffin had entered the old castle that was his family’s home and farm before she burst into the room.

“Fierre?”

Ryoka Griffin saw her friend lying in the bed, next to her father. Himilt was wearing dark, working clothes, full-body like the rest of his family to protect him from the sun.

Fierre was running a fever and a rash like Colfa’s ran up and down her body. She—cried out as Ryoka caught her breath. His neck was still puffy, the sign of thyroid cancer on Earth. Beyond that—he sat still, his red eyes fixed on his daughter. He barely glanced up at Ryoka as she took in her friend.

This morning, before dawn, Fierre had been full of life as she left the Unmarked Carriage. Now, she was comatose. Not even conscious.

“Colfa found you.”

Himilt looked up and Ryoka felt a chill. The Vampire’s eyes were very cold. He sat still, holding his daughter’s hand.

“Yes, I—”

Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle burst into the room. Ryoka had only gotten here first because Colfa and the other two Vampires, Bamer and Rivel, had been helping her buy potions and alchemical ingredients in Reizmelt.

What have you done to my daughter?

The first time Colfa had met Ryoka, she had put on airs, spoken vith the traditional accvent that was quite silly to Ryoka, and played at being Vampiric royalty.

Now—she dropped the accent. She sounded like Lupp, or another [Farmer], which is what she was. A Vampire [Shepherdess]—Colfa had been one of the Lischelle family, who were like royalty among herders and farmers—who had given away her levels and humanity to become a Vampire.

Her pretense was gone, now. Colfa lifted Ryoka up and slammed her into the stone walls of Fierre’s room. Ryoka felt a burst of pain and her head went white as Colfa’s claws dug into her skin, piercing flesh with ease.

The woman’s eyes glowed in the night and candlelight. Ryoka felt the Vampire pressing her into the wall. She could push Ryoka until the Human was paste.

That was a Vampire. Ryoka felt Colfa smack her into the wall and then shake her impatiently, like a doll.

“Well? Answer me! She said you cured her! What did you do? What did you give her—

“Colfa. She can’t respond.”

Himilt rose. He grabbed his wife’s arm, and she tried to shake him off before she let him pull her back. They moved so fast. Ryoka dropped, stumbling, and caught herself.

“What did you do to her?”

Colfa inhaled. Ryoka gasped for air as Bamer and Rivel returned.

Four Vampires stood in Fierre’s room, over their stricken kin. They looked at Ryoka.

“We brought the medicine, Colfa. Herbs, iceweed—potions. Where do you want them?”

“Put them here. I need to mix them.”

Colfa answered distantly. She was waiting. They all were. Ryoka coughed, gulped. And spoke as she looked at her friend.

“I thought—I thought I cured her. Made her better. Cured her of whatever was making her sick, I mean. I gave her a panacea.”

“A what?”

Rivel snorted. Fierre’s older brother glared suspiciously at Ryoka. Bamer just shook his head. He was old—not related to Fierre. Someone who lived with Himilt, Colfa, Rivel, and Fierre and worked their farm.

“There is no cure. You gave her poison.”

“No! I’m sure it was—she was healthy the last few days! She took the medicine two—three days ago and she was fine. It made her stronger, faster. She said she felt better than she ever had in her life. She was more allergic to garlic though. And the sun nearly killed her—”

The Vampires in the room exchanged a quick glance. Himilt stirred.

“She mentioned that. She tossed you across the field, Rivel. She wasn’t that strong before.”

“Impossible. She was just a bit stronger.”

Fierre’s brother scoffed, but he looked conflicted. Himilt shook his head. He looked at Bamer, then Ryoka.

“She was telling us she fought Golems in this—island she went to. With her bare hands.”

“She did. She was so much better. And her cough disappeared. I thought…what happened?”

Colfa took a few deep breaths as she went to check on Fierre’s temperature. She looked up at Ryoka, her fury abated—at least for the moment.

“Fierre came just before dawn. She said you had given her some strange medicine and she’d been—cured. Of her sickness. She ran about and she was better! We were all astonished. She told us what had happened, some of it, said she’d taken your blood by accident, ate and drank with us, and then—felt poorly.”

“When?”

Colfa looked at her husband. Himilt scratched at his neck.

“Barely midday. She thought it was exhaustion at first, or the sunlight—it did burn her far worse than us when she was careless. She lay down—when I went to check on her an hour later, she was warm. She got worse and worse until Colfa went to find you.”

The young woman listened, trying to make sense of it all. Bamer scratched at his chin. His eyes flicked to Ryoka again.

“I didn’t believe it. A cure for Vampires? That’s the stuff of stories. I thought she’d just had a strength potion or something that made her feel better.”

“No. It was real. I’m sure of it. I—the person who gave it to me wouldn’t have lied. And he was one of the few people who’d have a cure-all.”

“Who? What was it? Tell us—”

Again, Himilt put a hand out.

“Colfa. Whatever the case, Miss Griffin, Fierre is ill. Do you have more of whatever you gave her? Do you know what ails her?”

“I don’t. She drank it all. Can I—can I touch her?”

Himilt nodded. The others stood back. Ryoka bent over Fierre.

“Fierre? Are you awake? Can you hear me? What happened?”

A groan was her only answer. Fierre’s eyes were open, and sweat beaded her forehead. She looked—Human. She even felt warm to the touch—just a normal person’s body head. But for a Vampire…

“Did she do anything strange? Did she eat or drink anything out of the ordinary?”

Ryoka looked at Fierre’s family. They all shook their heads.

“She did nothing out of the ordinary. We thought it had to be something that had happened on her trip.”

“Maybe…but what?”

Ryoka could imagine ten thousand scenarios where something in Valeterisa’s trapped mansion caught up with Fierre. But…why not Ryoka as well? It made no sense.

She was panicking, Ryoka knew. She slapped her cheeks.

The facts. Stick to the facts, you idiot. And the facts were—Fierre was sick. She had been cured. And now she was sick.

Something had made her unwell. Find what that was. Ryoka stood up. She looked around, meeting their eyes. Colfa and Himilt’s last.

“I didn’t do this. At least, not on purpose. I was sure what I gave Fierre would help. If I’m wrong, I’ll pay for it. But I don’t think I am. I think something happened to Fierre, when she got here or just before. We need to find out what that is. Cure Fierre, if possible. Have you given her a potion?”

“That was the first thing we tried! I bought what I could in Reizmelt—there are some [Healer]’s remedies that help us.”

“Okay. Okay. Then—can you show me where Fierre was? What she ate and what she did, step by step?”

“Why?”

Rivel glared at Ryoka. The young woman gave him an odd look.

“I need to see exactly what Fierre did. Each and every thing! Any one of those things could be the culprit here.”

It was a logical, orderly way of looking at the problem. Rivel hesitated and Himilt nodded. His eyes focused on Ryoka, searching her like the first time they had met.

“We can do that. I’ll show you around. Bamer—help Colfa. Anything you know, any old stories. Rivel, you stay with Fierre.”

“I still think it’s this ‘cure’. How are you so certain? Do you know what was in this potion?”

It was fair to ask. Ryoka felt flushed, as she looked down at Fierre.

“No. But I am certain.”

“Then who made it? What grade of potion was it? If you have no idea, how can you be so sure? Fierre is a—a Vampire. Not a Human.”

“I know that! But the person who gave it to me was certain it would cure anyone. He gave me a panacea. A relic-class potion. He—it was a Grand Mage of Wistram.”

The others traded looks. Colfa inhaled and exhaled as her eyes flickered.

“How do you kn—would that even—why d—baaaah.

The ‘baaah’ made Ryoka jump. It hadn’t actually come from Colfa. Rather—just behind her and lower to the ground.

A sheep had wandered into Fierre’s room. A familiar sheep with a luxurious coat.

“Fluffles? Get out! This isn’t the time!”

Ryoka stared at the sheep as Colfa pointed. She forgot that Fierre’s family really were good, local farmers. And that their livestock had a habit of wandering indoors.

Fluffles the Sixth baahed until Colfa pushed him out of the room with her foot. She turned back to Ryoka, but Fluffles had reminded everyone.

“Be sure. I need to mix up a tonic. It—be sure! Himilt, deal with the Human. Bamer, come with me!”

She swept out of the room. Ryoka heard another baaah as the sheep was carried away. She turned to Himilt.

“I—let’s go. I need to know what Fierre did.”

“Are you sure her sickness came from here?”

The father looked at Ryoka. She didn’t.

“No. I need to make a list of everything Fierre did. She was almost never out of sight—we even slept in the same carriage. The carriage, damn. And the island…I’ll make a list. I have paper—no—”

Ryoka cursed again. No paper or quills or ink in her bag of holding! She’d tossed everything out to make room for the magical items she’d taken from Valeterisa’s mansion. The Vampire farmer shook his head.

“We have paper and ink. Come with me. Rivel—shout if Fierre gets worse.”

The two strode from the room. Ryoka was taking deep breaths. Focus. Write it all down. Be logical about this. It’s not bad. She’s just feverish. She’s going to be okay. Focus—

The two strode through the night. Himilt was quick and silent, Ryoka muttering. They saw light flickering through the old keep, distant voices from Colfa and Bamer, the sounds of the awake animals—just Fluffles, really.

Not much sound. House Lischelle-Drakle was silent. Ryoka felt like the living, noisy intruder. She hurried after Himilt as he passed by an open part of the keep, where the hallway’s wall had just—collapsed. Grass and nature had intruded.

“Ow!”

Himilt turned. Ryoka was hopping on one foot; she’d stepped on a burr. He eyed her bare feet. Then his head swung around.

“Wait. Someone is coming.”

He held up a hand. Ryoka froze. She didn’t hear or see anything at first. But Himilt’s senses were keen. And soon—she heard galloping hooves.

Figures raced up the road, talking loudly in the distance. Ryoka saw…four. Three people on horseback, one short, another with a glint of metal, and one on foot. Her heart sank.

The Silver Swords and Salamani. They dismounted as Himilt turned to Ryoka.

“Your friends?”

“The—the Silver Swords. And Salamani, a Courier. They must have followed—”

Ryoka saw Himilt’s face change. His red eyes flickered and he looked around.  He spoke one word.

Byres.

He split from Ryoka as she ran outside, cursing. The complicated night got worse. Ryoka’s friend, a Vampire, lay sick of something. And here came a son of Vampire hunters.

 

—-

 

Earlier on the same day Fierre fell sick, Lord Tyrion Veltras was demanding answers of his family’s personal [Healer].

The woman was good. Level 36—the best of the region and a friend of House Veltras. She was especially adept at treating injuries that had been allowed to fester, a necessity for anyone who treated [Warriors].

But she was good at disease, and Tyrion had summoned her without fear when Sammial had fallen ill. He had expected her to pronounce the boy well—maybe with a resurgence of the shortness of breath he’d had when he was young.

Instead—Sammial had fallen into a coma where he struggled for each breath as his airways closed within a day. Something was terribly wrong.

“Lord Veltras. I can’t understand it. No disease outside of a magical one would work this fast. Did your son ingest anything? Touch some plant, for instance?”

The [Lord] turned to Ullim. The [Majordomo] shook his head.

“Lord Sammial stayed indoors all day, milord. Except for one point where he went to market…but I’d swear there was nothing out of the ordinary there.”

“Inquire if anyone was selling some rare item. We must be thorough, Lord Veltras. Your son is breathing, but if he has inhaled or touched something, I must know of it!”

The [Healer] was as close to the scientific method as most people who didn’t have Ryoka’s knowledge. Lord Veltras ordered Ullim and the [Majordomo] sent [Messengers] racing from the keep.

“What is wrong with him, exactly?”

“Closed throat—fever—he’s coughing, which makes it worse. It could be any number of things, Lord Veltras. You must stand back. If it’s infectious…I may need more of my supplies from my shop.”

“I will have whatever you need delivered.”

The [Lord] strode from the room and paced impatiently outside the hallway. He was a man of action. He did not like things like disease, which you could not take a sword to. Tyrion turned on the sixth back-and-forth in front of Sammial’s room.

“Jericha, my horse. I will go to the market and inquire myself.”

He snapped as he saw his aide striding towards him. Jericha, normally quick to anticipate his needs, didn’t nod or hurry off. She just stopped.

Her eyes were wide, and her face pale.

“Lord Veltras. You have a guest.”

Tyrion failed to take notice of her expression at first.

“Inform them I’ll meet whoever it is later. My horse—”

“Lord Veltras. You should meet with this person. She—she claims to be an [Assassin] from the Assassin’s Guild.”

The Lord of House Veltras spun. He reached for his sword and his mind flashed to an obvious connection. He snarled—until Jericha spoke again.

“Milord Tyrion. Forgive me. But…ten minutes before she arrived—Lord Hethon fell ill. He claimed it was a stomachache. I went to secure him after the woman arrived. He isn’t responding.”

Tyrion’s hand found his sword’s hilt as a cold certainty gripped him. He looked at Jericha, and her face.

“The [Healer]. Where is the [Assassin]?”

She told him. Then she yanked the door open to Sammial’s room. Tyrion walked through the halls of his keep.

His sword was drawn. Ullim, running to find him, saw the Lord of House Veltras walking past servants, guards—with one intent.

The [Assassin] was sitting in the first guest room, calm as you please. She looked up as Tyrion burst through the doors. He pointed his sword at her.

“What have you done?”

This hired killer did not come with any disguise or pretense. Ironically—that meant she wore a mask. It was painted a dark green, with only a single rose in the center, and two slits for eyes. She sat in dark clothing, fiddling with a dagger.

“Lord Tyrion Veltras. The Circle of Thorns is displeased.”

That was all the woman said. She did not rise, or flinch as Tyrion drew back his blade. The words came curtly from Tyrion’s mouth.

“What poison did you use? Where is the cure? Answer me, or you die this second.”

The masked face turned towards him. This [Assassin]’s voice was cool.

“I do not have the cure for the poison I gave your sons. Both of them, I might add. And if you kill me—one of them dies.”

The [Lord]’s arm tensed. It would be so easy to bring it down. So—he forced the blade away, grabbed for a ring.

“You lie.”

“I do not. I poisoned your sons. They will die without the cure. I do not have the cure. And the Circle will exact vengeance if my blood is spilled, or a single hair on my head is harmed.”

Each sentence the woman pronounced made her outline glow true in Tyrion’s vision. He hesitated.

“You know the poison.”

Her mask tilted the other way.

“If you are thinking of having me tortured, Lord Veltras, go ahead. Do you think my employers tell me the nature of the tools I use?”

That was neither lie nor truth. She might know. But—Tyrion hesitated.

If it was someone other than Sammial or Hethon, he might have taken her bet. But his sons. He had promised to keep them safe.

“What have you done? Does your Circle want to die that badly? If my sons die, I will raze your Guild—”

“Sheathe your sword, Lord Veltras. And sit down.”

The woman just stared at him. The [Lord]’s knuckles whitened on his sword hilt. After a moment, he made up his mind. He slammed the sword into its sheathe.

“Tell me why you came.”

“Sit down.”

She didn’t move. Tyrion’s jaw tightened with a creak.

“Lord Veltras?”

Ullim and Jericha had returned. Both were armed. Tyrion looked over his shoulder.

“Ullim. Secure Hethon and Sammial. Post every guard you have. Scour the keep for more intruders! Anyone you suspect—check their identities!”

“The [Healer]—”

Do it!

Ullim hurried away. Jericha didn’t leave. She had a wand and sword in hand. She looked at the [Assassin].

“Your servant may remain, Lord Veltras. Sit. Down.”

The [Assassin] didn’t care about Jericha. She just waited until the [Lord] sat. He stared at her, but even if looks could kill—she had warned him.

The [Assassin] did not beat about the bush after Tyrion had sat. She just sat forwards and put her dagger away.

“Lord Tyrion Veltras. The Circle of Thorns has elected me as their messenger to bring you a second…offer. Or rather, an exchange. Your son’s lives and your family and your people’s safety for your cooperation.”

“I gave them my answer. I do not deal with traitors of Izril and cowards.”

Tyrion’s voice was taut. The [Assassin] looked at him.

“And here is the Circle’s response. Did you really think you could interfere with their business with no consequences, Lord Veltras?”

He said nothing. The [Assassin] sat back and folded her hands behind her head with a sigh. The effrontery enraged Jericha. She pointed her wand at the [Assassin].

“What do you want? Speak your business!”

“Neither son will die of the poison I gave them today. Or even tomorrow. They may last a week, or a month at the most. But I have never known a full-grown man, Minotaur, or other species to live longer than that. And the cure is beyond your [Healer].”

The [Assassin]’s voice was quiet. Tyrion waited, tense. Now—his nerves were humming.

“I will find a cure.”

“You will try. But you will not succeed. The Circle will not allow you to cure your sons, Lord Veltras. No one will save your sons but our agents. Happily—the Circle is quite reasonable. Your sons need not die. Merely sign this contract I have been entrusted with and they will be healed, within the hour.”

A scroll was produced. Tyrion didn’t move; Jericha snatched it out of the air as the [Assassin] tossed it forwards.

“This is—a Blood Oath Contract? Ridiculous!

Jericha recoiled. Tyrion knew what she was speaking about—vaguely. It was a grade of magical contract, enforced by blood magic. Extremely difficult to bypass, if at all.

“What does it say, Jericha?”

He hadn’t looked away from the woman. Tyrion was thinking. He heard Jericha read, mutter an oath.

“Lord Veltras—”

“Jericha.”

She gulped. Then she read, slowly.

“…It’s a simple contract, Lord Veltras. Without room to change the terms, which demand that you never raise your blade against or oppose the Circle of Thorns or any of their agents. That you fight and command the armies they give you. And you reveal no secret of theirs or their agents, again.”

“Three promises. The Circle would have let you swear a lesser oath and rewarded you for it before, Lord Veltras. Now—this is the terms of your lineage.”

The [Assassin] waited, calmly. She had been chosen to enforce this threat, and she waited to see what the [Lord] did. Rage against her, threaten her pointlessly; if he acted like a fool she had been empowered to punish him.

But Tyrion Veltras did nothing. He just sat there. And when he looked at her, his face was expressionless.

“So that is your threat? The lives of my sons for my obedience, like some leashed dog?”

She hesitated. She had been given to understand that Lord Tyrion’s one weakness was his family. But there was nothing on his face.

“That is the Circle’s ultimatum, Lord Veltras. You may try to find an antidote. But the Circle will—”

“I see.”

Tyrion stood up. He looked at the [Assassin], then towards Jericha.

“See this…woman out of my keep, Jericha. Don’t harm her unless she gives you a reason to.”

“Lord Veltras. The Circle will not be—”

Tyrion strode out of the room. The [Assassin] hesitated as Jericha looked at her. The retainer’s hand clenched the scroll tightly. The female [Assassin] pointed at it.

“I wouldn’t destroy that if I were you. That is your [Lord]’s only chance. Tell him that.”

Jericha hesitated. She raised her wand as she put the scroll in her belt.

“You heard Lord Veltras. Begone.

The [Assassin] rose. A bit worried. She debated arguing—but Jericha had her orders. And the [Assassin] had given the ultimatum. Briefly, she considered that the Circle might have made a mistake. If Tyrion Veltras was willing to let his sons die, they would have removed their only hold on him.

But if he did hold any affection for them—he would sign the scroll. She was sure either way that Tyrion was calling for [Alchemists] or other experts even now. But this time—the Circle had accounted for that. She left the keep as Hethon and Sammial lay sick. Unaware that in the Circle’s game and designs—there was one last card to play. And that Tyrion Veltras reached for it now.

 

—-

 

One card if you were someone who liked card games. An extra die if you played dice. If you played chess…a queen in your back pocket or something?

Analogies were silly things. But it was fair to say it like that. Even the Circle of Thorns, even the plight facing Ryoka and afflicting Fierre—there was an easy solution, a cheap, almost unfair one.

Lord Tyrion didn’t know it—but he reached out to the person who could provide it now. And Ryoka went to the source.

Magnolia Reinhart’s family were famed for their use of poisons and the [Lady] was the most resourceful woman in all of Izril. Ryoka stood by Falene and begged the half-Elf.

“Please. Just send it. Say it’s from Ryoka Griffin and that my friend is hurt. I know he can help. He’ll listen to me.”

“Grand Magus Eldavin. You know Grand Magus Eldavin?”

The half-Elf [Battlemage] was frankly incredulous. She hadn’t been at The Wandering Inn to see the ‘Grand Magus’ in person, but word had spread. Ryoka nodded.

“I…I ran a delivery for him. He doesn’t owe me a favor—not exactly. But he’ll listen. Please.”

Himilt’s head rose slightly. He was standing in his fields, apart from the Silver Swords who had come with Salamani to see what had drawn Ryoka away. Dawil glanced at Ylawes and Salamani blinked.

 The pieces came together. For other people. They came to the wrong conclusion for the right reasons.

Fierre’s cure. Ryoka’s strange, Erin-like connections. The rumors about her delivering to the High Passes, the Wyvern bounty.

A Grand Magus. Oh, the misunderstandings. Ryoka was oblivious to it as everyone else put the pieces together and kept their silence, redoubling their interest in the moment.

“Very well, I’m sending the [Message] as follows. ‘To Grand Magus Eldavin, sender: Ryoka Griffin. Urgent…’”

 

—-

 

So too from Tyrion Veltras as well, towards Magnolia Reinhart. It was the kind of thing the Circle of Thorns may have understood could happen. They might have figured on Magnolia Reinhart’s interference—even expected it after the assassination attempt.

But a Dragon? Dragons were cheating. On the [Messages] came, two for sickness and answers. They moved through the world at the speed of magic, which could be instantaneous or slow.

Instantaneous in this case. They travelled—and the spells disintegrated. Severed, before they even reached their target. After all—you could trace where a [Message] spell was received. So they never arrived.

“Two more in the interception net. Someone’s trying to trace you. Or me.”

Teriarch raised his head and narrowed his eyes. Magnolia Reinhart stood in his cave.

“Let them send [Messages] after I’m gone, Teriarch. The world will know soon.”

The Dragon lowered his head. He looked at the woman. Even now—she had yet to recover from the shock of it.

Sacra was dead. Her carriage had been attacked on the road, blatantly, and the best [Assassins] of northern Izril had nearly taken her head. The Dragon hesitated. He coughed into one claw.

“So. Ahem, I assume you will be well-protected once you leave my cave? As I said, interference…”

He trailed off. It was hard to make excuses after he had teleported her out of danger. But the [Lady] looked up at her friend.

“I will be safe, Teriarch. Until I arrive in Drake lands—I will be at sea. The Velistrane awaits me in harbor.”

“Hm. Well, that would do it so long as you keep your staff vigilant. Make sure of that, [Maid].”

The Dragon focused on Ressa. The [Maid]-[Assassin] just nodded. Her eyes flicked to the side.

“The carriage…”

“The primary version is destroyed. Or taken. Whoever took it removed the tracking spells. But your backup is fixed. I…reinforced some of the magic. As for your servant…”

Teriarch scratched at his neck. He looked past Ressa.

A [Butler] stood. Reynold looked down at his legs, his face blank. They were quite different. The Dragon spoke, almost apologetically.

“I didn’t teleport your legs, Human.”

He neglected to mention that he wasn’t about to give the man a potion that could regenerate his legs. That was frankly worth as much as Magnolia’s damn carriage, if not more.

“Lord Dragon, they are exquisite. Thank you.”

Reynold bowed precisely. He did not smile; his face didn’t move. He’d been like that since waking up after being saved. He paused, then looked up.

“Sacra’s remains…”

“I found nothing.”

“I see.”

“We will find them. This is not over, Reynold.”

Magnolia Reinhart stood there. She exhaled. Then she glanced up at Teriarch.

“Old man. Dear friend. It’s time for me to go. I fear I’ve been put on the back foot for now.”

“You—you’re sure you don’t need some help? Not that I’d give it, of course…”

The Dragon saw her smile. The [Lady] shook her head.

“It’s a poor thing to rely on Dragons too much. Someone quite crotchety said that.”

The Dragon exhaled hot air on Magnolia.

“I think it was quite a wise statement. As you wish. You will appear right outside the city gates as if it were a [Lesser Teleport] spell. As I’ve said—be wary of the Walled Cities. They’ve changed.”

“I will, Teriarch. Thank you.”

Magnolia Reinhart nodded. She smiled at Teriarch. He harrumphed once more. But she was right.

There was more that was said. But in the end—the Dragon cast a spell. The three vanished, along with the repaired secondary carriage.

Teriarch lay back down. He was tired. More mentally than physically—but a good deal of the latter himself. He thought about his actions, self-reflecting. Critiquing. Another [Message] spell came and was severed at the root.

Many of them, in fact. Teriarch could see the senders. Not the contents of the [Message], but the mages themselves.

“Some half-Elf…hah. Someone from Invrisil—that [Enchanter] fellow? Drake from Pallass—has to be that young Grimalkin. Wistram, Wistram, Wistram…”

He snorted as the senders found they were sending to nothing and their spells were collapsing. The Dragon sighed.

“I’ve been too active. Or rather, Grand Mage Eldavin has. Yes, too active by far. This is what interfering gets you. Busybodies like flies. Time enough for it to stop. I don’t need this. Time…for isolation.”

Magnolia had made her decision. She was going to the Walled Cities. He had helped her. Now, interest in him was too great. The Dragon prepared to cast a spell. A truly powerful one. He found an [Archmage]’s staff, snorted as he hunted around.

“Where’s that damn book? Let’s see. Staff here, stave there—”

Magical wands and other artifacts floated up like they were lesser components of a spell. The Dragon sighed.

Enough was enough. There were adventurers in the High Passes and while they wouldn’t break through his cave’s barrier that easily—there was a chance. This spell…had only ever been broken once.

“By that damn [Innkeeper]. But there’s a reason for that. Other worlds. Hah! At least those Winter Sprites won’t be getting in.”

The Dragon muttered. Once this spell was cast—nothing would reach him. Not allies. Not enemies. Seclusion absolute.

It was necessary. He was growing attached. Too attached by far. The Brass Dragon hesitated as he cast the magic, setting up the spell. He could leave a little loophole, after all.

For…a [Lady] or her servants. Or a young woman? The Dragon thought about this. He thought about himself. He thought about them.

He thought about how his kind died.

He left no loopholes for others. Only he could end the spell, or a power greater than the spell itself. The Dragon murmured old words of magic. Dozens of artifacts shone as he drew on their power, weaving isolation around him.

It was done. The Dragon lay, panting, as he sealed himself away from the world. No more aid. No more miracles. It had to be done.

He would devote himself to only one thing. The Dragon lay there, sighing, as he flipped open a tiny laptop. He clicked a few buttons. Then saw the screen flicker off.

The laptop shut down. He had no need of it for a while, and keeping it recharged was annoying, even for a Dragon. The other electronics went to a spot in his neatly-organized cave, pride of place, but stored for now.

“All done.”

Teriarch checked his cave one last time. He felt vaguely pleased, as someone who had finally sorted out an incredibly messy room felt upon seeing it brought to order. And of course—he was loathe to go and upset it again.

“No more Izril for a while. No Magnolia—no Griffin. They can take care of themselves. They must. This world neither needs me nor benefits from my interference. They can only rise by themselves.”

The Dragon told himself that. He thought of Ryoka’s grand plans. The Summer Solstice. Drat. He’d forgotten about that! He hesitated.

But it was too late. He’d cast the spell and breaking it would be problematic, even for him. So the Dragon lay there.

His breathing slowed. He rested his head on his claws.

Yes. It was for the best, even if accidental. He’d have delayed casting the spell if he recalled. But sometimes…you had to…let…

Teriarch’s consciousness dwindled. The Dragon’s body slumbered. He never heard Ryoka’s pleas, and Magnolia was in no place to help Tyrion Veltras.

So it was. The Dragon closed his eyes and slept.

 

—-

 

Grand Magus Eldavin opened his eyes slowly. He grimaced and felt at his back. It was an odd sensation to him. Lying on your backs. The things other species came up with.

“Let’s see. Body check. Hm. Hmm…”

The old half-Elf got up and stretched. He reached one arm up, experimentally touched his toes and swayed back and forth.

It felt good. Sensation was there, even pain when he poked himself.

No aches and pains. Well, what idiot would make a body for himself possessed by some venereal disease or afflictions? Eldavin felt sharp.

Limited, but sharp. After all, a half-Elf’s brain, however complex couldn’t handle a Dragon’s intellect. Let alone the need to disguise his magic.

Eldavin recalled Teriarch. But—in a while he’d not need to fear referring to himself as a Dragon or Teriarch. That was the danger with really good simulacra spells. You could lose yourself. But—the danger was far less with his body secure.

He did a few hops, nearly tripped over his robes, and cursed. The Grand Magus windmilled his arms, caught himself, and looked around swiftly to see if anyone had noticed. But no one had.

The half-Elf looked around as his eyes adjusted and his mind adjusted to the different way of seeing.

The secret laboratory of the Grand Magus was well-stocked. He’d put a number of lesser artifacts inside, completed the guise with some half-finished spells and some of the 2nd-edition books. He walked about, practicing the motion until it was effortless.

“Mm. Body check complete. Clothing check? Undergarments…yes. Do I wear…? No, brassieres are for females. Usually.”

He snorted. Eldavin scratched at his head, and then flicked his hand.

“Better cast some spell. Can’t have burglars breaking in. Now, if I wanted to go to a harbor—er…”

He was in the High Passes. So…the half-Elf pulled at one lip. North or south? Well, he’d have to make the journey on foot until he could hire transport. What a pain, what a pain.

The Grand Mage cast about with his senses. He felt no connection to his cave. The spell was working. He’d left no loopholes except for himself. And his entire self was right here.

He could have slept. A year ago, he might have. He’d been preparing for it after Erin Solstice had accidentally broken the enchantment last time. But the world had changed in a year.

Eldavin began tossing some things into his bag of holding. Gold, some books for the journey—

Wrymblood and fire! I should have packed the laptop!

He shouted as he threw a book down. And it was hidden behind more enchantments than he could break as a pitiful Grand Mage! The half-Elf kicked around his secret home and tripped over his robes again. He picked himself up, swearing.

“—beard. This is fine. I’ll manage. Let’s see. I might as well send a [Message] telling them I’m coming.”

He stood up, grabbed the bag of holding and stormed from the cave. He was leaving. And as Teriarch had concluded—the Dragon was done interfering with Izril.

But that did not mean he had removed himself completely. Grand Magus Eldavin was bound for one place he had not returned to in…well, ages.

Wistram Academy. They were at the center of this phenomenon affecting the world and something had to be done. The Dragon—no, half-Elf—had decided to put his claw—finger on the scales as it were.

“Time to go on a journey. They had better still have that buffet.”

The Grand Magus looked around the laboratory. He adjusted his robes and walked from his cave. Into the High Passes. He scared the living daylights out of a team of adventurers.

“Good day to you.”

Eldavin nodded to them. Todi’s Elites stared at the famed Grand Mage as he walked past them, oblivious. The half-Elf walked on, already getting used to the primitive method of locomotion. He hummed under his breath. It would be a pleasant experience, eating food, speaking, limiting himself this way. Finding company…well, that got old millennia ago. He wanted to see what Wistram was these days.

It was an adventure. The Grand Mage walked on. After a moment, he smiled as he shaded his eyes to look up at the sun. He reflexively cast a few privacy spells as he muttered.

“Reminds me of that movie-thing I saw.”

What was that quote about wizards that Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin kept repeating? Something about arriving? Well, Teriarch had meant what he said to Magnolia. But there was another saying he had.

“A Dragon can do what he damn well pleases.”

He walked onwards, looking ahead. Until he tripped.

 

—-

 

There was no aid from Dragons that night. Or in the desperate hours later. Ryoka knelt by her friend. Fierre was feverish. Muttering. She’d rejected the water, gulping it down, spitting it up—along with blood.

Something was wrong. But what? Teriarch wasn’t there to provide an easy answer. Maybe he’d heard Ryoka—but made good on his threat at last. She had been relying on him, going to him as the first resort.

But oh—this once? Ryoka whispered as Fierre groaned with pain.

“I’ve let too many people down before, Fierre. I promise, I’ll find out what’s wrong.”

She rose. Himilt was waiting. Ylawes, Dawil, Falene, and Salamani had no idea what was wrong, but Ryoka had put them on the wrong track—going into Reizmelt to search for clues about a ‘magical disease’ or some poison that Fierre might have run into.

“Let’s make that list, Himilt. I’ll do the carriage—you walk me through Fierre’s day.”

As the night deepened, Ryoka began to search for clues to unravel this mystery. She followed Himilt as he began walking his home with her.

Racing to find what was wrong with her friend with no idea of the time limit or the malady involved.

 

—-

 

Ryoka Griffin was at war with time. And time was not her ally. The sun rose too quickly as she worked, night turning into day.

The sun shone down brightly on a tree bordering a forest. A tree like any other.

Like no other. It was a Special Tree. Because it belonged to the one Antinium landowner the world had ever known. He clambered upwards, hopping from branch to branch and landing lightly.

He was a [Skirmisher], and he had a ring that allowed him to leap with ease. Now, he paused on a wide branch and found something.

A bird’s nest. The bird had evacuated the instant it saw the giant insect heading its way, abandoning its young in a shocking display of pragmatism or cowardice. Now, the Antinium’s antennae twitched as he checked the nest and found three eggs.

“Aha. The fruit of the land! A magnificent harvest!”

Ksmvr happily collected the three eggs into his bag of holding and investigated the rest of the tree.

His tree. He even had a deed to it. It was signed by Yvlon Byres, granting him the rights in perpetuity to the tree.

It…probably wasn’t legally binding, but Pisces was stymied from pointing that out by Ceria’s foot, which tended to hit his shins whenever he tried.

Now, the Antinium waved down at Pisces from the tree’s branches. The [Necromancer] waved back as he chewed on some cracked walnuts.

“Pisces, I have obtained a magnificent bounty of goods from my landed estates!”

“Wonders never cease, Ksmvr.”

The [Necromancer] felt Ksmvr land with a thump as the Antinium hopped down. Ksmvr saw Pisces’ snack.

“Comrade—”

He caught himself.

Pisces, would you care to enter into a trade agreement for your produce? I have three eggs. I will trade one for your walnuts.”

Pisces thought about this. He handed over half his walnuts and received an egg.

“This trade agreement is struck. I have now concluded diplomacy. I must make war to enlarge my estate.”

At that, Ceria started laughing so hard she nearly fell out of the branches of the tree she’d been lounging in. She caught herself and swung to the ground.

The half-Elf was very nimble in the trees, having grown up in a forest herself. She landed next to Pisces. The descendant of apes had stayed put, thank-you-very-much. He slapped her hand down as she reached for some walnuts.

“Hey! As your captain, I order you to give me your walnuts, Pisces.”

The [Cryomancer] glared at Pisces. He edged away from her radiating cold.

“I respectfully decline.”

“I will give you my walnuts, Captain—I mean, Friend Ceria. And I will give you one egg for some ice cubes. I wish to crunch them.”

“Ooh! An egg! Sure thing, Ksmvr. How’s being a member of the landed gentry treating you?”

The [Skirmisher] stood tall, regarding his tree.

“The burdens weigh heavily, Captain Ceria. I have been plagued by fears of beavers, termites, and other calamities striking my tree last night. Yet I find the rewards to be fruitful. Here is your egg. Thank you for the ice.”

He happily crunched some of the ice cubes Ceria made out of water from her flask in his mandibles. Ceria took the egg, sniffed it, then cracked it and tilted her mouth. She ate the egg raw and saw Pisces grimace.

What? You’re afraid of raw egg?

“After the last time we got sick? Yes. And that’s a raw egg, Ceria. Haven’t you heard of frying your food?”

The half-Elf shrugged, licking her fingers. She chewed for a second before replying.

“I used to live in a forest. I ate bugs and raw eggs when I needed food. Er…Ksmvr, I don’t mind, but you know these aren’t cooking eggs? There’s birds in them.”

Pisces turned pale. He shoved the egg back towards Ksmvr, who tilted his head sideways.

“I rather thought the added meat was the increase in value, Ceria. Do you not want your egg, Pisces?”

No! And here I thought half-Elves were civilized. May we go? I haven’t had breakfast yet.”

Pisces grumbled. Ceria shrugged. They had trooped out here this morning at Ksmvr’s insistence, to check on his personal tree. Now they walked back towards the Byres estates.

“I have a tree! I must exploit it somehow. I wonder if the sap is edible? Perhaps I can entice more birds to settle there. In exchange for the eggs.”

“But Ksmvr, if you eat the eggs, the birds can’t reproduce.”

The Antinium went still. Then he grabbed the two remaining eggs.

“I must return these to the nest! Excuse me! I should not eat my tenants!”

He raced back towards the tree. Ceria looked guilty as Pisces snorted. They saw the Antinium bounding upwards.

“He’s having so much fun with that tree. Don’t you dare tell him the contract’s invalid. Yvlon signed it anyways and her parents don’t care.”

“I just wanted to tell Ksmvr because a [Woodcutter] might fell it quite accidentally.”

“Well—we can ask Yvlon to have it marked or something! Look how happy it makes him!”

The two waved at Ksmvr, who was loudly remitting the unborn offspring back into the custody of the bird. He was…like a kid.

Ksmvr could be quite serious and pragmatic, but when he acted like this, you remembered that he was two—perhaps three—Ksmvr forgot when he was born.

The three Horns of Hammerad strolled back to the small keep surrounded by the moat. House Byres, an old, reduced family who were known for silver and their code of honor. It was something, even if it was a small noble house. After all, all three had adventured with Yvlon for a while and she talked about her heritage seldom.

“So…how hilarious do you think breakfast is going to be? Scale of one to ten?”

“Numbers fail to express the hilarity to me.”

Pisces smiled. He strode along, relaxed. Ceria was just as calm as she swung her skeletal hand up to scratch at her head.

For all intents and purposes, the Horns of Hammerad were on break. There wasn’t much to do in House Byres. Oh, they’d convinced a few Corusdeer to stop attacking a field in one of the rare non-violent encounters the Horns had ever had. They’d even performed a few other tasks with magic—but it was free work. They didn’t ask for money from Yvlon’s people.

“This really is a nice place. Not as developed as some woods, but it’s pretty safe. Not rich, but not poor. It’s…nice.”

Pisces nodded and Ksmvr happily looked around. House Byres was one of those places in the world where you didn’t have to worry about stuff like Rock Crabs wandering about, or was economically poor or interestingly magical.

“No wonder Yvlon wanted to get away from here.”

Pisces commented. Ceria scowled.

“Be nice.”

“Haven’t I been the model of politeness, despite the clear aversion Lord Byres has for me?”

The [Ice Mage] grunted. Pisces had been rather restrained.

“Keep it up. I don’t get why Yvlon wants to leave so b—good morning, Lady Shallel!

The half-Elf broke off and waved to the [Lady] who was waving towards them at the opened gates and drawbridge of the keep. Shallel Byres, unusual because her name did not start with ‘Y’, nodded to the three adventurers as they walked across the drawbridge.

“Hello, Miss Ceria. Mister Pisces, and Mister Ksmvr. Breakfast is ready and Yvlon was asking after you.”

All three adventurers brightened. The Horns of Hammerad were united in that they liked food—if anything, it was their fourth member waiting in the dining room, Yvlon, who was the odd one out in that regard.

Certainly, this morning she only poked at her breakfast. Among the items was a boiled egg that Ceria regarded guiltily. But the food was hot, filling, made by a decent [Cook] who found satisfaction in being the personal employee of a minor noble house.

“Good morning to you.”

Yitton Byres sat at the table with his daughter, eating formally with silverware. His nod was a tad uncomfortable; not for Ceria, but rather for Pisces and Ksmvr. It was a tossup which he disliked more, the [Necromancer] or the Antinium. But Pisces had observed that Lord Yitton was unfailingly polite, if as distant as possible.

That was House Byres. Formality, honor, and silver. The [Necromancer] eyed the actual silver silverware. He resisted the urge to pocket a knife or two. He was above that, but he was still sort of tempted.

“I trust you’ve all slept well? And you—ah, Ksmvr—you seem to enjoy your tree?”

Shallel Byres was interesting to Pisces. She was clearly a [Lady]; posture, manners, and a few of her Skills had indicated that. It took a special sort of woman to smile at an Antinium as guilelessly as she did. Or maybe she was genuinely at ease around him, which made her even more unique.

Terandrian accent. Pisces sipped from some milk as Ksmvr spoke about the bird’s nest. When he got to Ceria eating one of his tenants, Yvlon nearly choked on her bite of bread. Yitton and Shallel looked at Ceria, and the half-Elf blushed.

“Er…sorry. I get peckish.”

Pisces nearly snorted milk out his nose at the unintentional pun. Ceria kicked him as hard as she could and his eyes watered up. Shallel had to have observed the slapstick, but she just smiled at Ceria.

“I’m familiar with half-Elf customs, Miss Ceria. You must have been from a more rural village, is that right?”

Ceria blinked with surprise and then smiled.

“That’s right! Well, sort of. I got kicked out so I lived more on the land. Do you know much about half-Elves, Lady Shallel?”

“Mother’s from Terandria, Ceria.”

Yvlon muttered. The first things she’d said all day since greeting her team. She looked…like she was sulking. Which delighted Pisces, frankly. He sat back, enjoying some butter on his bread as he listened.

“That’s right. I grew up in the big cities, but I knew a few half-Elves. As much as any Terandrian Human.”

“Oh right, you mentioned that. Then how did you get to Izril?”

Shallel sighed as Yitton coughed. There was a mischievous look in her eye as she replied.

“Well, I married into money of course! I was the daughter of a very minor noble house. Terandria has a…mm…a group of young [Ladies] whose entire purpose is to earn a large dowry or marry upwards, or to the right sort of gentleman. I’m sure you’re familiar with us, Mister Pisces?”

She directed that to Pisces. The [Necromancer] blinked.

“I am. Er—it seems that your marriage wasn’t entirely motivated by material wealth, though. Most [Ladies] wouldn’t marry outside of Terandria for any amount of gold.”

Shallel laughed.

“True. It was more of mutual affection when I met Yitton. But let’s not pretend I didn’t meet him out of purely romantic reasons. You had better watch out yourself, Pisces. And you, Miss Ceria. Mm…Ksmvr might be immune, but you are all three Gold-ranks. Lovely young men or women will be tossing themselves at you. Ylawes has done well, but Yvlon would delight me if she brought back someone suitable.”

Yvlon turned red, and Yitton coughed. He was a bit red across the ears himself.

“I think we’re drifting off-topic, Shallel.”

“As you like, Yitton.”

The woman smiled. She was far more conversational than the two more formal Byres. Pisces was already delighted at Yvlon’s discomfort so he added to it as best he could.

“I must say, for my part Lady Byres, I’ve been touched by your welcome. I truly feel as though Yvlon is family, and I must respect your willingness to let me, a [Necromancer], under you roof—”

Ceria’s kick this time was audible across the table. Pisces doubled over as Yitton stopped eating and Yvlon covered her face with her metallic hand.

Shallel didn’t blink.

“A teammate of Yvlon’s is not some random stranger, Mister Pisces. I’m told you saved Yvlon’s life multiple times and she speaks highly of you. We couldn’t simply turn away someone like that on the basis of his class, could we?”

It was Pisces’ turn to blush slightly as he rubbed at his leg. Yitton cleared his throat once more, avoiding looking directly at Pisces. He clearly had a different opinion.

“Yvlon’s accomplishments are certainly profound. Slaying an Adult Creler at her age? I can’t name more than a dozen Gold-rank teams who’ve accomplished the same. And as a Silver-rank…that’s the stuff stories are written of.”

“It was just a rank. We were already Gold-rank, father.”

Yvlon blushed as Yitton looked at her. Shallel smiled.

“Nonsense. Ylawes himself hasn’t ever gone up against an Adult Creler. He tells me all the time what an accomplishment it is. You even have a title from Rhir! Hell’s Wardens. You’re far too modest, Yvlon.”

“House Byres will boast about it for generations, certainly. It’s the kind of accomplishment I wish I’d had as a young man. But it’s one thing to dream, another to do it.”

Yitton nodded. He was sparing with Ceria, Ksmvr, and Pisces—speaking mostly to Ceria at the last few meals. But he wasn’t as recalcitrant with his daughter.

The young [Silversteel Armsmistress] herself turned crimson at the praise offered from both parents in front of her team. She shifted in her chair.

“It was a team-effort. Without the other teams—we’d have all died. I was just one adventurer.“

“But you did carve into the Adult Creler’s brain by yourself, Yvlon. I would place your combat contribution near the top, if not instrumental to our victory.”

Ksmvr added at the precisely wrong moment.

“Yes, we can’t overstate your bravery, Yvlon. You even told us all to run.”

Pisces drawled. Yvlon gave him a glare that threatened a punching.

“Not to mention you just lost your arm and you told Pisces to reattach it so you could keep fighting!”

Even Ceria joined in the teasing. Although she went too far—Yitton glanced at his daughter’s arm and Shallel’s smile wavered.

“You were exceptionally brave, Yvlon. Is it wrong to praise courage where we see it? Family or not—valor is valor.”

Yitton Byres nodded and Yvlon’s tomato-qualities increased. It interested Pisces no end.

Obviously, he and Ceria and even Ksmvr had been aware of Yvlon’s reluctance to go home. They’d speculated, but none of them had known quite why Yvlon wanted to avoid her family. And at least part of the answer was now clear: Yvlon’s parents, far from being the distant nobility, were dotingly proud of their daughter’s accomplishments.

More than even Pisces expected. As breakfast wrapped up and the plates were taken away by the few servants, Shallel turned to Yvlon.

“You and your team will have time to talk about all your accomplishments and laud the other contributors to your victory, Yvlon. We’ve asked Lenisa to come by to put your victory to verse.”

“Oh no. Mother—please. We don’t need—”

“Too late! I know how you are with the storytelling, Yvlon, but it’s not about you. The other villages and towns want to hear about your battle in details and I’m sure your teammates would enjoy it! Please send in Lenisa.”

Pisces blinked as an older woman in her late fifties was shown into the room. Lenisa, as it turned out, was a rather flashy woman with a flair for big gestures. She had a hint of dramatis that he respected. And she fit her class.

“I, am a [Storyteller] for House Byres. It is my role, honored adventurers, to put the deeds of Lord Ylawes and Lady Yvlon to verse! And such stories will go to every village and town under the aegis of House Byres—even further! They’ve reached even Invrisil. And I have no doubt that your victory as Silver-rank adventurers over an Adult Creler will be my greatest work yet!”

The woman had notes ready for the taking, and even an [Artist] to take portraits of all the Horns of Hammerad.

Pisces was delighted. Yvlon looked like she wanted to sit in Ksmvr’s tree and hide.

“What? Free advertisements? Yvlon! You didn’t say your parents had hired a [Storyteller] just for us!”

Ceria whispered to her friend. Yvlon gave her a wretched look.

“They didn’t. Lenisa is a family friend. They’ve hired her for every single victory I’ve ever won, starting when I was Bronze-rank.”

“W—really? That sounds great!”

“It’s not.

But before Yvlon could elaborate, Lenisa had taken over the dining room.

“We’ll need individual accounts, but please, tell me everything. As many details as you have in you! What the Bloodfields look like, events leading up to the battle—I ah, understand we might need to take some narrative liberties here.”

She glanced at Yitton, and then Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s eyes narrowed.

“About what, pray?”

“Oh, the undead. I understand there was a bone—giant? Some undead…creation utilized in the battle?”

“You mean, the Frostmarrow Behemoth that saved our lives? Yes, Ceria and Pisces conjured it.”

Yvlon replied, glancing at Yitton. He affected not to notice. Lenisa scribbled a note on her parchment.

“Frost and ice? Well, we can emphasize the ice a bit. How about ‘a creation of frost and bone for dire purpose awoketh’…I can workshop that later. Now, Miss Byres, you know how I like to do things! Horns of Hammerad, it is such an honor to make a tale of Lady Yvlon’s comrades!”

The [Storyteller] beamed at the three Gold-rank adventurers and Yvlon. Ceria blinked. There was something—almost scary about how enthusiastically Lenisa said that. Not even a hint of the irony Pisces would have injected into every syllable.

When House Byres’ subjects claimed to love their noble family, they really meant it. Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr saw the admiring glances the young [Artist] kept giving Yvlon—as much awe as infatuation—as they gave an accounting of the battle. The Horns became modest almost as a defense mechanism; Lenisa exaggerated everything she heard until modesty helped them reach an almost-accurate truth.

“So…you do this for every battle Yvlon wins?”

“All of the major ones, of course. Why, haven’t you heard any of them? I sent Miss Yvlon the copies—I have everything here if you’d like to look! Here—this is the first story I ever ran, in verse! The Mothbear’s End and Yvlon Byres’ First Quest!

She showed the Horns of Hammerad a small, bound, illustrated tale recounting a Bronze-rank Yvlon Byres with the Silver Spears slaying a Mothbear plaguing a village in the Byres lands. The illustration had a flowing-haired Yvlon battling a tremendously big Mothbear.

Pisces made a sound. Yvlon closed her eyes as Ksmvr clicked approvingly.

“With an enemy this large, Yvlon was no doubt deserving of at least this much praise! That is the largest Mothbear I have ever seen, nearly half again as large as the average member of its species. It must be fourteen feet tall. For a Bronze-rank adventurer, this is quite a feat.”

“It wasn’t that tall, Ksmvr.”

Yvlon replied in a low voice. Lenisa laughed.

“I exaggerated only a bit, Mister, uh, Mister Kiss-rem-vier. Is that how you pronounce your name?”

“No, not at all.”

Pisces and Ceria exchanged a look. They were enjoying this look into Yvlon’s life. To them, it was hilarious seeing the stoic, often serious member of their group squirm. They saw Shallel smiling as she watched the proceedings.

“When you three have the portraits done, we’ll add them to the gallery. It’s a shame you can’t stay longer or we’d pay for a mage-picture.”

All three adventurers looked up. Yvlon closed her eyes.

 

—-

 

Mage-pictures were almost completely-perfect images a [Mage] could capture. They could even move if you paid for them. It was expensive, but even a minor [Lord] could afford them.

House Byres had an entire gallery devoted to their three children. They told a fascinating story to Pisces. For one thing—he stopped finding everything so funny.

It might not be obvious to Shallel, or Yitton, the doting parents they were, or even Lenisa, but if you looked down the gallery, you saw something.

“Yvlon, Ylawes…and this must be Ysara, correct?”

Pisces pointed at the third, unfamiliar girl captured across the stages of her life up to early adulthood. Yvlon moved in one of the mage-pictures, swinging a sword, captured in perpetuity by the [Mage] or [Illusionist] or whomever had drawn the picture out with magic.

“That’s right. Ysara didn’t take to the [Warrior] class although she was the most gifted of the three, frankly. A genius with a sword—but she’s a [Merchant].”

Shallel looked just a hint uncomfortable as she passed by Ysara’s portraits. Indeed—they ended right as she seemed to be in her early twenties. But Ylawes and Yvlon had far more. It seemed that every year, their parents had paid for one picture, even if not a mage-picture.

It told a story. Ylawes was always the dutiful warrior, captured in some warrior’s pose—in later years, with a Griffin’s head, or his teammates, only the last few years being Dawil and Falene. Yvlon—

In her first pictures, she was an enthusiastic girl, swinging a sword with poor posture but energy. Pisces, who had been trained as a [Fencer], had seen Ysara’s almost-perfect form. He had no doubt she had been one of those geniuses you hated to meet on the dueling grounds.

Yvlon though—no. Until she was in her early teens, she was, like the others, practicing swordsmanship. Then—for about four years—she was holding books, smiling but not quite capturing genuine happiness as the mage-artist captured her in more thoughtful poses.

“She got back into her sword training when she was around seventeen. See?”

There the training resumed, but Yvlon’s smile turned more into concentration. Nor—did she turn up with her trophies, monsters slain, like Ysara and Ylawes. Except for one image.

She stood with her sword planted in the dirt next to a Mothbear’s head. A much smaller Mothbear than the illustration indicated. Yvlon didn’t smile, so the artist had made her more somber, reflective.

Pisces was certain Yvlon at that time had not been willing to smile, no matter how much coaxing she’d received. He looked at her now and saw a reflection from the pictures on Yvlon’s face.

Shame.

 

—-

 

“We’re delighted for you to stay as long as you like, Yvlon. Indeed—I hope you’d remain to perform some of the traditional rites. Ylawes has been absent so I put them off, but you’ve returned at a good time. Your companions are much welcomed as well. Miss Springwalker, we have you to thank for helping us build that dam so quickly.”

A while later, after Lenisa had gone away to put the battle with the Adult Creler to verse, Lord Yitton spoke with the others in the parlor.

“It was nothing, Lord Byres.”

Ceria smiled and waved a hand, abashed as he bowed slightly to her. A dam had nearly collapsed and Ceria had helped freeze the entire place up so it could be repaired.

“It is quite gracious of you nonetheless. As I said, your team is welcome to stay or work around House Byres as long as you like, Yvlon. I must ask that you refrain from even practicing with these…undead, however.”

Yitton turned to Pisces, bringing up the incident from yesterday at last. Yvlon frowned.

“It was just one undead bear, father.”

“Yes…”

The [Lord] looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s smile was frosty.

“Quite under my control, Lord Byres. There was nothing to worry about. I apologize for alarming one of your people.”

“I quite understand, Mister Pisces. However. My subjects are terrified of the undead. I ask you as Lord of House Byres to not summon such monsters in my lands except at greatest need. I have heard Yvlon’s reassurances that you can control them. Nevertheless, I object personally and morally to their existence, as well as a class that utilizes them.”

The [Lord] met Pisces’ eyes. The [Necromancer] began to sniff, saw Yvlon and Ceria wincing out of the corner of his eyes, and surprised them all by bowing slightly.

“As you will, Lord Byres. Refraining from using my magic is simple enough.”

Yitton nodded to him and that was the second thing he said to Pisces all day. After he had gone, the Horns went for a walk. Yvlon needed it and they wanted to privacy to speak.

House Byres’ lands were nice. Picturesque, in that old knightly-way. You could just imagine some of the people working the fields looking up and seeing a [Knight] on his way to fight some evil monster.

“Ylawes must just fit in here.”

Ceria had been thinking the same thing. Yvlon just shrugged as she kicked around moodily. In the distance, children and people looked up, waving at Yvlon who had to wave back and staring at her arms. Everyone had been in uproar when they’d seen her new arms—but they’d accepted it with startling ease. Perhaps because it was a sign Yvlon Byres had stayed true to her house.

“Silver and steel, huh?”

The half-Elf glanced at Yvlon. The woman nodded.

“Honest as steel, pure as silver. That’s the Byres tradition.”

“Rude as a muddy toad slapping you in the face, you mean. You okay, Pisces? Lord Byres was pretty direct.”

The [Necromancer] shrugged moodily.

“He’s far from the first person I’ve met to hold such beliefs. And he was rather cordial about it; he could have been far ruder. I will live. You on the other hand, look quite unwell, Yvlon.”

He turned to the [Armsmistress]. Yvlon rubbed at her arms, clenching and unclenching her metal hands and staring at them as she did quite often these days.

“I—I’m sorry if I’ve been unsociable, everyone. But I really do want to leave as soon as we can without upsetting my parents.”

The others exchanged a quick glance. Ksmvr’s mandibles opened and closed.

“But why, Yvlon? Your parents seem very nice to me. I have no frame of reference for this statement, but I will make it anyways.”

Yvlon smiled.

“It’s—complicated, Ksmvr. Family often is. I like my parents, and Ylawes and Ysara, of course. It’s just that I’m not always at home around them. Do you understand what I mean?”

“No. But this is normal. You are not at home in your home.”

Ksmvr skipped ahead, thinking. The others waited; educating Ksmvr about the world was a full-time job they were all used to. He came back and looked at Yvlon and Ceria and Pisces.

“May I share my interesting observations, please?”

“Go ahead, Ksmvr. This should be quite illuminating.”

Pisces smirked. Ksmvr nodded. He tilted his head one way and then another and then spoke.

“I have never had a family. I was created to lead Antinium and replace Prognugator Klbkch. I was made to die and be replaced. It seems to me that families among other species treasure new life with an excess of value on the young. This is not a bad thing.”

The other’s smiles faded. That was Ksmvr for you. One moment he was childish, the next moment he stabbed you in the gut and let you bleed. Pisces looked at Ceria and Yvlon, at a loss, and it was the half-Elf who reached out.

“Almost right. You have a family now, Ksmvr.”

“Yes you do. And as far as I’m concerned, you could be my little brother. House Byres is your house, Ksmvr.”

Yvlon smiled and squeezed Ksmvr’s shoulder gently. He looked at her, antennae moving with suppressed emotion. He opened and closed his mandibles.

“…May I have two trees?”

Everyone laughed. Yvlon nodded.

“Why don’t you go pick one out?”

“I’ll help if you want, Ksmvr. I know good trees. We can find another bird’s nest.”

“Really?”

Ceria waved at Pisces and Yvlon, mouthing silently. She didn’t say anything specific, but it was more of a ‘I’ll go with him to make sure no one else freaks out or he doesn’t scare someone and have them attack him’, kind of thing. Pisces and Yvlon nodded as Ksmvr and Ceria ran off, babbling about bark or something inane.

“Well?”

The [Necromancer] turned to Yvlon as they strolled along. She grimaced.

“…If I complain, do you promise not to repeat what I said in front of my family?”

“Yvlon, Yvlon. I mock you, but I don’t reveal secrets.”

Pisces tsked, hurt. Yvlon rolled her eyes, but she relaxed a bit.

“Then—what do you think of my family?”

“To quote Ksmvr, they are ‘nice’. Quite proud parents. Very proud. One might say excessively so.”

The blonde-haired woman’s face said it all. Yvlon rubbed at the place where her metal shoulder merged with her skin.

“—If you tell them, or Ylawes, I’ll break your fingers. But I hate it here. You saw that collection of my ‘achievements’? They’ve always been like this. Me, Ysara, Ylawes—they’re so proud. Which is good. I was so happy—until I realized I didn’t deserve it. That Mothbear? Ysara killed an Ogre Chieftain and five Ogres in battle when she was my age. Ylawes fought a Griffin and beat it by himself to save a [Farmer].”

“Achievement isn’t an objective thing.”

Yvlon stopped walking and looked at Pisces.

You’re telling me that, Pisces? You?”

His lips twisted.

“Very well. Say rather you stood in the shadow of two quite talented older siblings. That isn’t unusual.”

Yvlon ran a hand through her bright hair.

“I know. I know—but it’s been like this all my life. I lived in Ysara’s shadow, and then Ylawes’. His Silver Swords—I copied him, but I was never half as accomplished as he was. And my parents doted on both of us. I felt like I earned nothing properly—especially because I was always Lady Yvlon around here.”

She gestured at her chest, as if she wore the armor she was normally never without. At home she wore just an ordinary set of clothing and looked much smaller without.

“I got my armor and weapons from my family—even for my entire team! So I went south to Celum to actually achieve something. And you know what happened next.”

Pisces nodded. He had seen the covered image near the end of Yvlon’s gallery that Shallel had carefully not brought up. The original Silver Spears. Yvlon had spent a while there when she’d first returned home.

“Well, as you said, family is complicated. I find it all amusing of course—”

“Of course.”

“—but when we leave, we needn’t speak of it again except to humiliate you at our convenience.”

Yvlon glowered and raised a fist, but she smiled as Pisces edged away. She looked back at her home and nodded to him.

“I feel like a fool back home, that’s all. What about you, Pisces? You…do you miss your home?”

It was a loaded question. Especially because Yvlon knew a bit. Pisces hesitated. A while back he’d have side-stepped the question or lied. But he was working on keeping secrets. He rolled his shoulders and reached for the rapier he carried.

“Rather a different experience than yours, Yvlon. I was never good enough. Lazy, arrogant, a half-made [Fencer] who embarrassed his father at every turn…I rather feel he disliked me.”

Yvlon’s face changed as Pisces stared ahead. She coughed, and replied slowly.

“—I understand that my complaining wears thin, especially compared to other’s experiences. I’m sorry.”

Pisces sniffed. He hated genuine emotion. He made his tone light and careless.

“Well, I will accept your apology of course, but I rather feel as though I had the better deal of it. My father made it easy to ignore his condemnation. Your parents set the bar of Yvlon Byres’ accomplishments so high it was practically out of reach for the girl herself. That you touched it is worthy of praise.”

Yvlon blinked and eyed Pisces. Her lips quirked.

“Worthy of praise. Thanks.”

The [Necromancer] turned his head away, feeling the slightest of blushes and fighting it.

“You should find Ceria or Ksmvr to utter such praise. Or that [Storyteller], of course.”

“Naturally.”

Funnily, they understood each other fairly well these days, Yvlon and Pisces. Each of the Horns of Hammerad had their own relationship to each other. Yvlon and Ksmvr’s was as deep as Ceria’s and Pisces’ for instance, but the other connections had unexpected harmony at times. Yvlon looked ahead.

“Tell me more about undead, Pisces. You keep complaining that undead could make House Byres better. How?”

Pisces nearly tripped over a stone. He looked at Yvlon.

“You want me to expound on the undead? Here?”

She gave him a calm look.

“My father’s anti-undead. I’m not. My views on necromancy are different. Remember who fixed up my arms? You keep telling us about Khelt, which uses undead. What—would you make them mine silver or something?”

The [Necromancer] scratched at his messy hair.

“Well, silver is a rare problem. The metal would affect the spells, but I was uh, being more hyperbolic in my ire than anything. The truth is that I’ve seen undead employed as laborers and it isn’t a flawless solution. It would take some work to implement, actually. Previous iterations have failed.”

The [Armsmistress] looked sidelong at her friend.

“Really? Do tell.

There was no help for it. Pisces sighed. They knew his last name, anyways. Pisces Jealnet, son of nobody famous in particular. He coughed into his sleeve, going back, deciding what to tell and what was still too personal.

“It’s nothing special. You know some of it already. I belonged to a…cabal in Terandria. While I was growing, before I left for Wistram. They were a group of [Necromancers]—and a few other irregulars with similar interests. They taught me necromancy. I ran away from home to join them. I don’t know—I doubt if they are still extant. I have never inquired. Some members may remain.”

“Mhm. And?”

Pisces scratched at his head. She didn’t even blink at him having been part of a [Necromancer] cult in Terandria. He almost missed the outrage and shock of the old days.

“We lived in hiding, learning, teaching each other, experimenting. And, well, among other things, we ran a—a sort of commune, you might say. And we even had a farm.”

Yvlon stopped again.

“You. Had a farm. Run by undead?”

She was trying not to laugh. Pisces folded his arms sullenly.

“Is it hard to imagine? Of course, we were emulating Khelt. And Az’kerash, who had created similar places in Terandria before he was reviled. Ours was quite small; only a few hundred undead at most. Undead tilled the fields, performed menial chores, even mined and cut wood. It was an experiment.”

“It sounds like it failed. What was the cause?”

“Er…”

“Wait, let me guess. Infighting? Undead going rampant? No—creating stronger undead by all the death magic?”

She had been listening to his lectures to Ksmvr! Pisces smiled. Then he was embarrassed again.

“Er…wild dogs.”

The blonde-haired woman just stared. Pisces threw up his hands.

“They’d attack the skeletons for bones! It got so that we had to ward the undead and patrol the commune. Zombies started rotting and attracted birds, insects, and so forth—we even lost a Ghoul to the wildlife one time. And the undead would lose their binding spells, wander off, or do something inane like cut down every tree in a ten mile radius until we caught up to it…”

Yvlon started laughing. Ceria and Ksmvr, who came back from finding his second tree, saw the warrior woman doubled over in mirth as Pisces glowered at her. They started laughing too, not even knowing why at first.

Yvlon Byres wiped tears from her eyes when she was done. Pisces was glowering.

“We were all low-level. Our best member was just reaching Level 30 when I left, and he was better at combat, mass-raising undead rather than customization. I could design a far better one now. It might even be useful. But I will desist while I’m on Lord Yitton’s lands.”

Yvlon fell silent. She nodded slowly.

“Thanks, Pisces.”

The [Necromancer] sniffed in reply and waved it away. He thought that was that. But the short conversation with Yvlon had clarified how she really felt. In a way—it was a mistake to let her unbottle her feelings. Because ‘you couldn’t put the skeleton back in the flesh suit’, as one of his former [Necromancer] friends had used to say. It came to a tipping point when Lord Yitton wanted them to participate in the first Byres tradition.

 

—-

 

“It’s just a minor custom, but House Byres always breaks and shares the first loaf of bread from a harvest among themselves. Yvlon, you should take part. It would honor the village to have a Gold-rank adventurer participate.”

“Not to mention you haven’t been back in nearly two years.”

Shallel added. Yvlon sighed.

“We’re just eating bread, father.”

“It’s traditional and it shows our appreciation.”

Yitton gave his daughter a stern look. Ceria broke in, smiling awkwardly.

“I’d love to come and wouldn’t mind having something to eat, right you guys?”

Ksmvr and Pisces nodded, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Yitton hesitated and glanced at the two. He coughed into a fist.

“—Perhaps it would be best if Yvlon were to come alone. It is a Byres tradition. More frankly—the presence of a [Necromancer] and one of the…Antinium would be disruptive.”

Ah. He was doing it again. Pisces rolled his eyes, but without real rancor; eating bread was only something Ksmvr enjoyed.

“Father. Pisces is part of my team.

Yvlon’s brows twitched. It was a warning sign to anyone on her team. Shallel gave her husband a similar look.

“I’m sure the Horns of Hammerad would be welcome, Yitton.”

“But this is a traditional meal. The people know about Mister Pisces…they might feel as though the first baking were—unclean. With all due respect, Shallel…”

Pisces saw Yvlon raise one of her metal arms. She brought her fist down on the dining room table. Hard.

The thump made everything on the ancient wood surface jump. And—cracked the table itself.

Yvlon hadn’t meant to do that, Pisces was sure. She and everyone else stared at the impact and crack that had broken the family’s possible heirloom.

“Yvlon!”

Yitton went pale with fury. But Yvlon was already furious. Fury replaced her look of guilt.

“That’s enough, father! If you don’t want Pisces or Ksmvr around, you needn’t ask for me!”

She pushed herself up. Yitton hesitated.

“I am only explaining—”

“You’re insulting him to his face. That’s not honesty. That’s just rudeness! I know you don’t like [Necromancers]. But you could at least try.

“Yvlon, really. I’m quite used to—”

“Shut up, Pisces.”

He put up his hands and backed away as Yvlon glared at him. She rounded on her father. Yitton looked startled at the confrontational note in his daughter’s voice.

“Yvlon, you’ve seen what [Necromancers] have done. Ylawes’ team has fought any number of them. Shallel told you stories about Az’kerash.”

“And? What does that have to do with my teammate? Not every [Necromancer] is evil, father! Pisces is a friend. He’s saved my life. He is not always honorable. But he has never been evil.”

The Lord of House Byres looked like he wanted to debate that point, but present company made him hesitate. He stiffly inclined his head to his daughter.

“…You have every right to believe that, Yvlon. But the fact remains that any incidents that occur will be your responsibility. Are you prepared for that? I have never seen an undead creation that did not seem to want me dead.”

He looked at Pisces. Yvlon ground her teeth.

“I’m responsible for any accidents that occur? Aren’t we all? If you want to talk about responsibility—what about you marching on Liscor with an army ready to slaughter the Drakes and Gnolls there?”

Ceria, Pisces, and Ksmvr’s head swung back towards Yitton. He hesitated.

“Yvlon. I did what I felt was best for the realm. I did not know you were there. Lord Tyrion’s motives were unknown to us all. On the face of it, we hunted a Goblin Lord.”

“And you did a fine job of slaughtering them.”

“You speak as if that weren’t the point. There was a Goblin Lord, Yvlon.”

“They’re not all monsters!”

Shallel made a sound. Yvlon glared around the table.

“They’re not. I’ve met some of them that spoke and thought and were—more honorable than some [Lords] and [Ladies] I could name! They’re a people. It took me meeting them in person to find that out. But why has no one else in the Byres family ever figured that out?”

Yitton was just shaking his head.

“You sound like Emperor Godart, Yvlon. This—this notion isn’t unique. But I’ve told him exactly what I will tell you: Goblins, individually…may have the ability to reason. They may have honor. But no Goblin King has ever made anything than unrelenting war. Velan was known as Velan the Kind before he broke every vow and forswore his honor to destroy nations.”

“That—may be true.”

Yvlon hesitated. Pisces wasn’t in this debate, but he reflected that Yvlon was arguing uphill. [Necromancers] and Goblins weren’t the best peoples to defend historically.

“The point is that you’re insulting my team! Pisces and Ksmvr because of their species and class! Not who they are! Enough, father.”

“I’m only pointing out dangerous elements in your life as I see it, Yvlon. No Byres in living memory has ever allied with a [Necromancer]. And the Antinium? Have you forgotten your history? Our House rode against the Antinium in both wars!”

At last, Yitton’s voice grew heated. Pisces slowly reached for his bag of snacks. Well now, Lord Byres was finally saying what he really felt.

“So the enemy’s always the enemy? No wonder we can’t make peace with the Drakes! You’re more stubborn than they are!”

“Yvlon! Mind your manners!”

Shallel spoke up, shocked. Yvlon turned her head.

“Why? Should I say how I feel politely? How’s this? I’ve never been more appalled by the slippage of House Byres’ morals when it comes to the hypocrisy I see in giving fellow Humans like Lord Tyrion the benefit of the doubt while castigating Pisces and Ksmvr!”

“That’s enough, young lady. You’re embarrassing yourself in front of our guests and your team.”

Yitton’s voice was cold as he looked at the Horns. Ksmvr waved at him. Yvlon flushed.

“They’ve seen worse! I don’t need to be perfect around them! And I’m not Ylawes, father! I’m starting to think Ysara was right! No wonder she left!”

The [Lord] stood abruptly. He strode from the room without another word.

“Yitton!”

Shallel got to her feet. She gave Yvlon a look with so many layers Pisces had to catalogue them and then hurried after Yitton.

Yvlon stayed where she was. Pisces saw her pale face turn red in the silence that followed. He chewed on a walnut. As family arguments went—that went right up with his altercations with his father. But he didn’t say that.

“—I think it’s time to go. Sorry you all had to see that.”

The [Armsmistress] muttered. She looked around at her team. She turned.

“Let me grab my things. We’ll just go and—”

“Don’t be silly. You can’t leave now!”

Ceria barred her way. The [Cryomancer] looked just as embarrassed at having Yvlon air her grievances in her presence, but she was firm.

“You can’t just run off. You will regret it, Yvlon. Take it from me.”

The woman looked down at the half-Elf. Ceria pointed towards where Yvlon’s parents had gone.

“You’ll regret it if you don’t talk to them.”

“You—er—you’re speaking from experience?”

Yvlon looked around, ears still red. Pisces shrugged. He’d been quite glad to walk away from his family, but Ceria had a different perspective. She nodded as she tried to turn Yvlon around.

“I ran off after shouting at my parents. I regret that. My parents are still alive…but I wonder if they remember I’m gone.”

“Remember you’re gone?”

The woman was sufficiently distracted by that to abandon her flight. Ceria nodded. She and Ksmvr tugged Yvlon back to the dining table and got her to sit down. Ceria smiled.

“Half-Elf village. Removed from time. They could be doing the same routine and still setting the table expecting me to come in. I’m from the Village of the Spring. Hence the name. Springwalker? There’s Springwaters, Everspring—half-Elves have stupid naming conventions. I…the last time I was there I stormed out and I was kicked out of the village a day later. I never got to say goodbye. You don’t want that.”

“I—I’m sorry, Pisces, Ksmvr. I only meant to get my father to stop insulting you. The rest of that…”

“Why don’t we go for a little walk again? You can speak with your parents in peace.”

Pisces spoke up at last. Yvlon gave him a grateful look and nodded. Pisces put away his snack and motioned with his head. The other two Horns followed him out.

Yvlon sat there, embarrassed, restless, guilty—looking at the cracked dining room table. It would need a [Repair] spell; hopefully the old wood could be fixed with magic. Sometimes, if the damage was too great or the material too advanced, the spell failed…

“Yvlon? Oh, thank goodness. You’re still here. I feared you’d run off like you used to.”

Shallel returned a few minutes later. Yvlon jumped and then colored again. Her mother had returned. The [Lady] walked back towards the table and regarded the damage.

“Sorry. I didn’t realize I’d hit it so hard.”

“Tables are tables, Yvlon. We’ll have a [Mage] come and look at it. Or the [Carpenter]. Old Della is still working.”

“Uh huh. Maybe she can make a brace or something.”

Shallel nodded. She looked at Yvlon and then cleared her throat as she sat back down.

“Your father’s gone for a walk. I think when he returns you’ll both be calm enough to talk.”

Yvlon started. She wondered if Yitton’s walk would have him run into her team. Either way…she nodded and sat there.

“I—I’m sorry for shouting all that. I should have said it to begin with. But there was the banquet and there was never a good moment.”

Her mother smoothed her skirts.

“I think it was overdue. I wish it could have been more tactfully done, but I’m sure Ylawes will want to have one of his ‘one-on-one’ chats with his father in no uncertain terms either. He was quite unhappy in the letter he sent.”

“Ylawes was?”

The youngest Byres blinked. She had never heard Ylawes utter anything but praise for her father. Shallel nodded.

“He prefers to express his discontent privately. He’s very much like Yitton that way, Yvlon. Did you think they never argued?”

“I’ve never heard him do it once. Only Ysara—”

Yvlon fell silent, fidgeting with her arms. She ran her fingers over the metal flesh. Shallel sighed. She looked at Yvlon’s changed skin and shook her head.

“I was quite unhappy when I learned about it myself, Yvlon. I spoke to Yitton—but he’s as stubborn as any Byres. He’s had a few changes of opinion, but a [Necromancer] and one of the Antinium was too much for him. Wait. I think he’ll apologize to your team and we’ll see what happens next.”

Yvlon nodded. Her mother had always been the mediator of the family, especially when Ysara was still around. Yvlon rubbed at her arms again, and Shallel noticed.

“There’s a lot we haven’t had time to talk about, Yvlon. Or should I say, that you’ve been reluctant to bring up. Your arms for one.”

The young woman flinched.

“They’re fine. I didn’t want to worry you. That’s why I pretended nothing had happened.”

“Mhm. That’s quite believable.”

Shallel saw her daughter flush again. Yvlon hesitated, bit her lip, and then pointed at her arms.

“They don’t look—unnatural to you? They don’t bother you? Really?”

The [Lady] looked at Yvlon’s arms, inspecting the metallic, silvery gleam of them for a while. She met Yvlon’s eyes and shook her head slowly.

“You’re my daughter, Yvlon. Of course I was shocked. But they’re beautiful. Just like you. I was far more worried when I heard you’d been injured—possibly permanently. This is far better than what Ylawes described, I think. Do they disturb you?

Yvlon hung her head. Her grievances with her father, the mixed feelings over returning home—and her arms. She spoke, looking around for her team. She hadn’t said this to them. But her mother—Yvlon looked up and nodded.

“I don’t feel Human, mother. I—I was crippled. This is better. But I feel like I’m part-Golem or something. I’m afraid. I feel like I was given my strength! I didn’t earn it—”

“Oh Yvlon. Come here.”

Shallel rose and went over to her daughter. She embraced Yvlon, closing her eyes so Yvlon wouldn’t see her unshed tears. It was Yvlon who needed reassurance.

Coming home was hard. Yvlon stared at the arms that appalled her so much, some nights she couldn’t sleep. She hadn’t told her team that.

 

—-

 

When the Horns of Hammerad returned, Yvlon was better. She and Shallel had spoken, frankly at last, and Yvlon felt calmer for it.

Yitton still hadn’t returned, but Yvlon was content to let him wait. She turned to her team.

“I have an idea. Why don’t we do the traditional Byres activities? Father can join us for the bread and some of the other things—but some of the rituals are things I’d normally do alone. Or with my team.”

Shallel nodded approvingly as Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr exchanged looks. The Antinium [Skirmisher] raised one tentative hand.

“What do these rituals consist of, Yvlon? Will our proficiency matter to the success?”

Yvlon smiled.

“Not at all, Ksmvr. It’s mostly just old traditions. And—well, it’s vaguely entertaining to do some of them. You get free food a lot of the time. How about it?”

Her team conferred. It sounded like a fine activity to all of them, especially if it helped Yvlon reconcile. So they stood up and followed her as she led them deeper into the keep.

Pisces dawdled a bit to see if he could [Repair] the table, but he concluded the parts needed to be joined as seamlessly as possible and that he might lack the nuance of the spell. He found Yvlon standing at a large door made of, curiously, stone and silver inlays. The crest of her house was etched into the door and it looked like one of the most reinforced parts of the keep.

“What’s this?”

Yvlon pushed the door open for an answer. Pisces saw a room—mostly empty—where armor, weaponry, and more would have been hung. At the moment—it had enough arms and armor for about two dozen fighters at most. Although—he had to note—the metal was the same silver-steel alloy that Yvlon and Ylawes used.

“The Byres armory. Not much to see, right? This is for the family only; the house guard have a different area. This is our ancestral vault, heritage of all Byres descendants, and so on.”

The woman waved a hand with the vagueness of someone who had seen it a hundred times. Pisces looked around the room.

“Wow. It’s magnificent. And old! Are those historical battles or something?”

Ceria pointed to faded stonework on the walls. Pisces saw traces of paint, but only the etchings themselves had remained, showing battles with [Knights] and other monsters. Yvlon nodded, embarrassed.

“It’s a Byres tradition, writing down our accomplishments. Those were our ancestors, the ones who built the keep.”

“So that’s where your parents get it from! We should hang the Mothbear picture right here!”

Ceria teased. Yvlon shoved her with one arm, smiling. She looked around the room. It really was empty compared to what it could hold.

“You can tell we’ve declined. I used to think this place was so grand—but, well, House Byres is a fraction of how large it was.”

“Don’t you have more members of your House than just your brother and sister?”

Pisces pointed out. Yvlon nodded.

“Oh, sure. Extended family. They live all over the place. You met some of them in the banquet. But we used to be a huge noble house. This was an armory for all our [Warriors]—now it’s only the main family that keeps the tradition of having at least one [Warrior] per generation.”

“Ah. And the armor?”

Yvlon walked over to the sets of glittering armor. It too was a bit of an illusion. The metal was silver and steel, but it wasn’t enchanted—and perhaps only on the same level as your average steel worked by a [Blacksmith]. Locally forged, in short, not a Pelt-masterpiece or something from Pallass’ forges.

“All of our artifacts were sold, or lost their magic over the years. But—we still have this tradition. Silver and steel. Our alloy. Ylawes’ breastplate is made of the stuff. My armor and weapons too. We’re supposed to always keep enough sets of armor and weapons to fight with. In case they’re needed.”

“Ooh. This is quite lovely, Yvlon. I admire the aesthetic beauty of your armor and weaponry. Perhaps not their efficacy in combat, but certainly their luster.”

Ksmvr tested one of the blades on his arm. Yvlon sighed.

“Silver and steel isn’t actually stronger than just steel, Ksmvr. These are specialty weapons and armor. Good for killing—oh, lots of monsters that are mostly dead.”

“Like what?”

Pisces frowned. He normally loved to have the answer to that, but he only vaguely recalled the answer. Yvlon shrugged.

“Eh. Some types of monsters are weak against silver. Shape changers, mostly. Ever heard of…Vampires?”

“Nope.”

“I have. Er—a bloodsucking monster in antiquity, weren’t they? Mostly based on Izril.”

Yvlon nodded.

“That’s right. And House Byres used to slay them. Since they’re dead—we’re no longer needed. Us and a few other houses keep up the traditions, though. I know all the other old slaying families—childhood friends. There’s the Artien House—actually, if we ever pass by, you should meet Delanay. He used to come over to play all the time and his family takes the old traditions even more seriously than father…anyways, here’s the first tradition. The tithe.”

She walked over to something at the far end of the room. It was a pedestal with a bowl under it before some great mural of battle. Pisces, squinting, saw figures on one side with hints of silver paint battling rather bestial figures on the others. He saw fangs, claws—then heard the clink of metal.

Yvlon had pulled out her money pouch. Now, she counted gold coins into the small bowl on the pedestal. She knelt there, then rose, looking embarrassed.

“I suppose father or mother will use it to have a replacement set made—or for repairs. Traditionally—those pledged to House Byres would come by and tithe some of their earnings. So there’s no point to—”

“Shush. Be respectful.”

Ksmvr came before Yvlon and solemnly put some coins in the pedestal. He copied Yvlon, kneeling before the old mural.

“Yes, Yvlon. You are quite ruining the solemnity of the moment.”

It was worth a gold coin to see Yvlon’s face. Even Ceria did the same. Yvlon smacked both their heads with her hand. Not Ksmvr. He was actually serious.

“Fine. If you want to donate to our house, be my guests. That’s the first tradition over with. Second—the cleansing rites.”

“What’s that about?”

Ceria sneezed; the armory was a bit dusty. Yvlon smiled.

“You’ll actually enjoy this. Come on.”

She led them to another spot in the keep. This time, towards a small bathing area. Pisces blinked. Ceria whistled.

Silver baths?

The basins of the outdoor tubs and small, natural hot spring were made of silver. They glowed even in the daytime. Yvlon smiled.

“We’re supposed to bathe here for an hour. Right after we arrive, actually.”

“But it’s midday. You mean we take a bath in the sun?”

Ceria squinted up. Yvlon nodded.

“Yep. That’s part of the ritual. Oh—and you have to be naked.”

Pisces looked up. Ceria stared at him and then at Yvlon. The woman coughed.

“In separate areas, Pisces. You go over there.”

“Ah.”

Alas.

That was how they found themselves sitting in the bubbling water, relaxing in the sun. Ceria and Yvlon on one side, Pisces and Ksmvr on the other, blocked by a dividing wall.

“You have ancestral hot springs. In a silver basin.

Ceria poked at the waters. There was nothing special about them, unlike some magical hot springs she’d heard of, but it was a beautiful place. Yvlon relaxed, her arms shining in the sun along with the rest of the metal that made up this place.

“I used to think everyone had baths like this. A lot of the people in House Byres have silver bathtubs, you know. Heirlooms.”

“Your land is so weird. And obsessed with silver.”

“Tell me about it.”

On the other side of the baths, Pisces was relaxing. Only a bit disappointed by the fact that he was alone. He cracked one eye open as he sighed in the hot waters.

“Ksmvr? You really needn’t get in…”

The Antinium was rocking back and forth, naked—but yet to put one foot in the hot springs.

“I am not afraid of water. Or being cooked alive in my own juices because I cannot regulate my internal body temperature. I am not afraid of water. Or—”

“Maybe just put one foot in the hot springs?”

Pisces suggested. Ksmvr nearly collapsed in relief. He paddled the water with his feet as he sat at the edge of the hot springs and he and Pisces just sat there in silence. Until Ksmvr asked a question.

“It seems Yvlon was quite reluctant to go home because of her family issues. Ceria has family issues. I am given to understand you have family issues.”

“It’s an endemic problem among non-Antinium, Ksmvr. Especially adventurers. We—and I am using the term generally here—don’t tend to get along with families of a more conservative lifestyle.”

Pisces sighed as he leaned back. He could get used to this. Ksmvr nodded a few times.

“Do you wish to visit your family like Ceria, Pisces? I would like to return to the Free Hive someday, but I am excommunicated.”

The [Necromancer] opened his eyes and sat up in the water. He looked at Ksmvr and hesitated.

“I’ve thought of it. Someday, perhaps. Returning home would be dangerous. But there is an allure to it. Still—Terandria is quite a ways away.”

Ksmvr nodded.

“But you wish to. Then I shall come with you when that day arrives. Even if I must cross…the ocean.

He shuddered. Pisces smiled.

“That’s far in the future, Ksmvr, even if I should decide to do it.”

“All the more reason to plan ahead, Comrade Pisces.”

The [Necromancer] laughed.

“Well said, Friend Ksmvr!”

On the other side, Ceria and Yvlon wondered what was making the other two laugh. Ceria turned to Yvlon.

“This really is fun. I’m glad we came here, Yvlon. Despite family fighting and all.”

Yvlon nodded slowly. She was feeling better too. This was a good resting point. They hadn’t had many of them; Erin’s inn might count, but ‘restful’ and ‘Erin Solstice’ were a bit hard to reconcile as ideas.

“I think a few more days and we can leave without upsetting my parents. What comes after this? That dead village Pisces wants us to investigate?”

Ceria waved her skeletal hand in the air.

“Maybe. We’ll play it by ear. We’re new Gold-ranks. We have to make a name for ourselves! Let’s just relax. Then we’ll aim for Named Rank.”

Yvlon had to laugh. They’d been Silver-ranks for years and Gold-rank had been an all-consuming passion for them. Now? She relaxed.

“Onwards and upwards, right, Ceria?”

The half-Elf winked at her friend. She frowned at the hot water; her aura was making it lukewarm. She concentrated—and the bubbling resumed. Ceria submerged herself up to her neck.

“We’re adventurers. Let’s go kill something. Right after we do a few more traditional rituals. Is a massage traditional?”

“Not at all. Want me to try?”

Yvlon, eyes still closed, flexed one of her metal hands. The hand turned…spiky. Little metal barbs ready to cut apart anything Yvlon touched. Ceria eyed it.

“…Pass.”

 

—-

 

The sun was shining. The sheep were making happy sounds in the pastures.

Fierre was dying.

Ryoka Griffin sat there, head in her hands, hair spilling down around her face. She looked down at the list of everything Fierre had done, from when she had left Reizmelt and gone with Ryoka to the Archmage’s isle to now. Then she looked at her friend.

Fierre had stopped muttering and thrashing as the sun rose. The room was dark, devoid of sunlight obviously, with only a magical [Light] spell Ryoka had cast for illumination. Now, she just lay there.

But it wasn’t sleep. Her breathing was growing weaker. Ryoka checked her pulse again.

“Too warm.”

That was all Colfa said. The Vampire mother sat there. She applied ice to Fierre’s head, frozen with a spell. Trying to lower Fierre’s temperature to what should be cold skin for a Vampire. She wiped sweat from Fierre’s brow.

Ryoka’s friend looked so…Human as she lay there. Her eyes were closed, and her hands had been neatly folded. Ryoka wished Colfa hadn’t done that. It seemed like defeat.

“What—what have I missed?”

Colfa glanced at Ryoka. The young woman ran down the list. Colfa reapplied the ice, tried to give Fierre some water.

The Vampire girl had taken some of the sheep’s blood that Fierre’s family lived on, some water—but she was sick, throwing up—and none of the tinctures Colfa had tried to give her daughter had any effect.

Whatever was attacking Fierre—it was getting worse. Now, Ryoka heard Fierre breathing weakly.

“Say it again.”

Ryoka read dully.

Reizmelt. Djinni’s carriage. Ate magical food and drink with me. Panacea. Struck by sunlight; exposed to garlic. Would any of that—”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

Himilt spoke up. The farmer sat there, in his dark clothing, head bowed. Not asleep, but unmoving. Thinking.

“Did she eat the garlic?”

“No. She had a reaction to it—but it was thrown out.”

“Then it wouldn’t affect her. Garlic only causes suffering. I’ve never heard of a Vampire dying of it. Bamer’s stories never mentioned it. Physical sickness, yes. Not this.”

Ryoka made another note on the list.

“Sunlight?”

She knew the answer even as Colfa looked at her. The woman had even tested it.

“Sunlight burns us. If Fierre was…cured…it would have set her ablaze within moments, as you said. But as soon as we return to shadows we begin to heal.”

No point in asking again and again. Ryoka ran down the list.

“She passed over the ocean…she was really seasick.”

“Nothing to do with her heritage.”

Let’s see. Spells, fighting across the isle…nothing out of the ordinary so far. Ryoka bit her lip. Her mind was…fogged. She hadn’t slept since yesterday, before dawn. But she had to focus. Figure it out. She found the next suspicious entry on her list.

“Mirrors in the Archmage’s mansion? Fighting Golems? The—the air that put me to sleep? [Insanity] spells?”

“Nothing like that would do this. Perhaps whatever put you to sleep—but I cannot believe it would have lingered in her body and only affected her now.”

Colfa shook her head. Fierre made a sound and all three started. Ryoka saw Colfa touch her daughter’s head.

“She’s getting warmer. What. Else?”

“Imprisonment. Collecting artifacts, leaving the mansion. Meeting the Archmage. Eating some food—my rations and carrots and bad tea.”

Himilt opened his eyes as Ryoka paused.

“Fierre used to eat raw meat. Bloody. I know a Vampire who ate foul, rotten flesh and never suffered for it. Nothing like that could harm her.”

Ryoka tapped at her lips.

“After that we left…”

She felt like she was missing something. But—it had been an entire day’s journey back to Reizmelt so whatever had happened still had taken a long time.

“When she returned here—Fierre told you what had happened. Tell me if I’m missing anything. She ate in the dining room. Anything unusual?”

“Fluffle’s blood. Two days old. We all had it, though.”

The sheep? Ryoka blinked, but that was why the Lischelle-Drakle family raised their animals. The perfect cover, and apparently the animals didn’t mind the bleeding much. Ryoka bit her lip.

“Anything else?”

“We had some wine. Fierre was thirsty—the magical food didn’t fill her up, so she had wine and water. Then she took a bath to wash the grime of the road away. She went out with the animals—fought Rivel—”

“Did he injure her?”

Himilt shook his head.

“She threw him across the field. That was when we started to believe. Bamer had us all listening to stories. Colfa was making food for lunch—”

“Food?”

“Blood sausage.”

“Oh. And then?”

“Fierre went back to her room, feeling unwell. She lay down—and that’s when she began feeling sick. We thought it was exhaustion so we gave her a stamina potion. Then—a tiny bit of healing potion. But it neither made her better or worse.”

“If it was an infection—”

We don’t get infections!

Colfa hissed at Ryoka, baring her teeth. Ryoka flinched. She looked at the woman’s arm.

“But your rash—”

“It’s not from an injury. It’s just…”

The woman trailed off. She looked at Himilt and he spoke. It was the same grim conclusion that Bamer had already come to, that Fierre’s parents believed to be the root of the cause.

“The malady.”

Ryoka lowered the notepad. She thought there was something…something she had forgotten. But she needed to know.

“Look. We tested the wine. Rivel’s dead drunk. We tried the blood—”

Bamer had done that. He was full, but completely fine. And everything else couldn’t be tested, except through Ryoka and Salamani who had done exactly what Fierre had in the Unmarked Carriage. Ryoka clenched one hand.

“Tell me about the—the curse afflicting Vampires, please.”

Himilt and Colfa looked at each other slowly. Colfa rose.

“I’m going to see to the…guests. Himilt, tell Ryoka. If Fierre becomes worse—tell me.”

A look flashed between them, so fast Ryoka didn’t understand. But she felt it.

Colfa left the room, to inquire after the only other non-Vampires here. The Silver Swords. They had come back empty-handed with Salamani, and were now dozing. Himilt walked over and sat at Fierre’s bedside.

Ryoka approached Fierre from the other side. She reached out for her friend, felt at her head. Fierre was now warmer than the average Human should be. For a Vampire that was a fever of…Ryoka felt her stomach twisting.

She wasn’t going to die. You didn’t die after being cured! Not on a day like this. Ryoka was going to find the solution. She was going to…

Why hadn’t she found it yet? Ryoka fumbled for a stamina potion, gulped it down. But it could only give her energy, not solve her lack of sleep, her panicking mind.

“What’s the malady, Himilt?”

The father sat there, head bowed. His eyes flickered up to Ryoka and down to his daughter. When he replied, it was in a low voice.

“These are Vampire secrets, Ryoka Griffin.”

“I know, but—”

The eyes moved upwards. Ryoka felt a shock run through her. Colfa had eyes that could mesmerize. Himilt’s held her for a moment, with nothing but force of will.

“For Fierre, I will tell you all our secrets. But what happens next, Ryoka Griffin—for good or ill—will never leave this land. You have brought one of House Byres here. One of our greatest enemies. I am warning you only once. We may resort to—desperation—for Fierre. If he uncovers our secret, he and his entire team will never leave. You will need to keep him away.”

Ryoka gulped. The idea of a farmer killing an entire Gold-rank team and perhaps Salamani as well was ludicrous. Himilt though…four Vampires?

“I’ll do what it takes.”

Himilt only nodded.

“The beginning, then. Bamer could tell you more, but he likes to exaggerate. I know the story my mother and father told me. Once, we were Vampires. The same kind you seem to know about. Powerful, varied—with the ability to change forms, cast magic, command lesser beings. It was said the greatest of us feared only dragonfire and could even stand and defy the sun.”

The City Runner felt a tingle run across her skin, even now. It was like listening to Teriarch speak of his past. Himilt nodded.

“We were legion. But like so many empires, we grew overconfident. Our enemies fought us—and we waged a long war against them. We won and lost—that’s not the point. The true ending was when the sickness, the malady, the curse or whatever it was began.”

He reached for his side, uncorked a flask of water and drank. Just water; not blood. Vampires were not undead. Just biological beings with magic, on a different setting than Humans. They wouldn’t be able to fall sick otherwise. Ryoka wondered…was it an autoimmune disease, like the one she knew from Earth? She glanced at Himilt’s neck. He nodded, touching it.

“One of the symptoms. Colfa has a rash—she became a Vampire late in life. She might outlive us all. Bamer, Rivel, Fierre—they were all born with the signs. Back to the beginning. We lost many powers in the first generations when the sickness became noticeable. We fell ill—and we do not succumb to poison or disease. But we fell ill. Our strength waned, as did the weaknesses of our bodies. Many fell ill at once and died raving of the pain of whatever ailed us. Those who survived—were afflicted.”

“And no cure? Not even one?”

He shook his head.

“Of course not. Everything was attempted. And before you ask—yes. Everything. We did not go into hiding right away. The first Vampires so cursed drank the blood of countless thousands but it availed them little. They turned to magic, alchemy—nothing worked. In six generations—we no longer derived the power from the blood of Izril’s mortals. Within eight generations, the affliction stabilized. We live short lives, but we can at least stand under the sun or touch silver.”

Decipher what it meant. The root of what he was saying was that whatever it was was…hereditary? A disease so powerful that it ate away at Vampires? Yes…it did match a disease. But Ryoka wasn’t certain.

Teriarch was the clue. He had hinted that his panacea would cure Fierre—but not the root of the problem. If she could be reinfected—and why was she worse?

“What about my panacea? I have to believe there was at least one artifact like that. Even if it was rare.”

Himilt paused, and his eyes flickered. Fierre stirred—fell still.

“Yes. Great magics did stave off the illness for a while. But it led to this. Those cured fell ill faster. Something crept up on us.”

This time the chill made Ryoka shudder. She saw Himilt glance at her for a second. Could he sense her beating heart? Ryoka looked down at her list.

“I need to figure out what I’ve forgotten. What I’m missing. How long does Fierre have?”

“I don’t know.”

Ryoka stared at Himilt. She looked at his daughter and felt a surge of anger. She had been racing around and Himilt and the others had been helping her. But as the sun rose and Ryoka’s hypotheses had failed, they had grown silent. Given up.

“Don’t just sit there! We need to act! Fierre can still be saved!”

Again, Himilt’s eyes flashed like blood and Ryoka froze. There was real wrath there. And something else.

“She will be. I am not sitting idly, Ryoka Griffin. If Fierre should grow worse…Colfa is resolved. But I will ensure Fierre does not die.”

Something about the way he said that made Ryoka hesitate. A little light bulb flicked on in her head.

Who had said it? Not the Archmage. The Djinni.

Karsaeu. She had said…Ryoka closed her eyes.

“Royal blood! I could—get some?”

Her eyes snapped open. Himilt blinked.

“What?”

How far was Riverfarm? No—The Wandering Inn. Did Laken even count? Ryoka whirled back to Fierre.

“Royal blood. Could it—could it bring a Vampire back? Someone—the Djinni—she said that she’d kill Fierre so dead that not even royal blood would bring her back. Does that mean it could revive her?”

The older Vampire blinked. Then—he shook his head. Ryoka’s face fell.

“I don’t know how old this Djinni is. But she’s only half-right. Death is not so easily reversed. The blood of royalty—changes us. But it cannot bring back the dead alone.”

Ryoka deflated.

“Oh. Then—what will you do?”

Fierre’s father sat there, stroking his daughter’s hand. He looked down at her with a soft look in his eyes.

“Its easy. If something is killing her—she only needs to grow stronger.”

It took Ryoka only a second to understand why he said it like that. She slowly rose and looked at Himilt’s back. He didn’t turn towards her.

“What—what do you mean by that, Himilt?”

He shook his head slowly.

“Ryoka Griffin, you have no idea what Vampires are. You know the stories. But not the truth. You didn’t make her a true Vampire. You just cured her of her sickness, the same sickness that took away our true power. But strength is sacrifice. If she is a true Vampire—she can grow stronger the one way I know.”

Ryoka should have felt afraid for herself. But she wasn’t. The look Colfa had given Himilt. The way he was acting. The silence from Rivel and Bamer…she whispered her conclusion.

“She has to drink other Vampire’s blood?”

His silence was everything. Ryoka was right, about this, at least. She gulped.

“Fierre said—she told me once she used to have more siblings. But they died. Does that mean…?”

Himilt spun. His fangs were visible as he snapped.

No. Do you think we fed them to each other? No. It would have done nothing. Vampires as sick as we cannot take each other’s strength. But Fierre. If she is better…”

He fell silent again. Ryoka breathed once more. But then she saw Himilt’s certainty. He believed Ryoka. Colfa didn’t and neither did Bamer, not quite. But Himilt believed Fierre was better. He was going to…

The father looked up at Ryoka. His eyes were red and tired. He shook his head slowly as he sat by Fierre.

“You know so much, when even our foes have forgotten most of what we were. Who are you, stranger? Why did you bring death upon my family?”

The words hit her like an avalanche. Ryoka Griffin stumbled backwards. She saw Mihaela Godfrey looking at her. Krshia. Mrsha—

She had tried to help. Ryoka turned and fled.

 

—-

 

“Ryoka?”

The young woman was panting outside, in the sun. Ylawes was exhausted. But he saw her fleeing Fierre’s room, white-faced. Now—Ryoka stood there.

“What—why do they always die?

She looked up at him. The [Knight] hesitated.

“You can’t blame yourself, Miss Ryoka.”

“I can. Fierre was fine until I tried to help her. I—what am I missing. What happened?

Ylawes looked around helplessly.

“It’s some kind of magical sickness, as far as I understand it, correct?”

Ryoka didn’t bother correcting him. Ylawes ran a hand through his fair hair.

“It had to have come from Archmage Valeterisa’s isle. I’ve heard stories about her. She—experiments. Salamani went through everything that could have hurt Fierre. But it has to have been something that occurred when he wasn’t with you.”

The man gestured towards the keep.

“He—he’s fallen asleep. He was running to [Alchemists], looking for a cure. Don’t blame him. But Salamani did remember—when you were first brought to the cells, before you woke up, your friend was distraught. She said she attacked you.”

The room of insanity. Ryoka’s head slowly rose. Yes…she recalled that. And—and something else.

Fierre had drank her blood. Not just that. Ryoka shot upright.

The fucking rats.

“The rats?”

Ylawes blinked. Ryoka whirled.

“I know what it could be! I forgot!”

The green rats Fierre had been snacking on! They had to be—plague rats? Radioactive? Ryoka’s mind was racing a mile a minute. She hesitated, torn—then she raced for the kitchen.

“Colfa! I know what made Fierre sick!”

The woman spun. She was making food for her guests, being the only former Human among her family who had possessed a strong interest in cooking.

“What? Tell me!”

“Rats. Fierre was in the isle. And she ate rats…they might have been poisoned! I bet Valeterisa has damn poison rats or something! Or—it could be me. Fierre. She drank my blood.”

Ryoka babbled an explanation. Colfa’s eyes widened. She glanced over Ryoka’s shoulder; Ylawes was hurrying after them.

“What’s wrong with your blood?”

“I’m—”

I’m from another world. Ryoka knew it had to be one or the other. That was the only thing Fierre had imbibed that was out of the ordinary that no one else had!

“We need to figure out which it was. If it was one or the other…”

“We don’t have these rats. Was there something off about them?”

“They were green.”

Green? And Fierre ate them?”

Colfa was horrified. Ryoka cursed. If only they had…

“Wait. Waitaminute. Ylawes—”

She caught the [Knight] as he peeked in. Ryoka looked around.

“I—think I know what’s wrong with Fierre.”

“What?”

“Rats. She uh—ate some green rats.”

“What, ate them?”

The [Knight] was horrified. Ryoka nodded rapidly. It was close to the truth! She looked around and turned to Colfa. The mother was eying Ryoka’s neck. She covered her mouth with her hand as she turned to the [Knight].

“Perhaps you can ask about rat-related diseases, Adventurer Ylawes?”

“I’m sure there are hundreds. Let me wake Falene.”

The appalled young man backed away. Ryoka’s mind was spinning.

“I think—I think—Fierre might have saved some rats as a snack. In her bag of holding!”

“That sounds like her. Her bag of holding…follow me.

Colfa blurred. Ylawes raised his head and stared as she zipped out of the kitchen and down the halls of her keep. She was moving too fast. But neither she nor Ryoka was in the right state of mind.

Fierre’s bag of holding was lying in the bathroom—she’d forgotten to take it with her. Colfa and Ryoka found it after about eight minutes of running around and cursing.

“Let’s see. Artifacts, scrolls, potions—fuck.

Ryoka grabbed a handful of sludge. Colfa recoiled and held her nose.

“What is that?

“Fierre threw up into the bag of holding. It’s everywhere. Ugh, ugh…here!”

Ryoka pulled out a green rat, freshly dead and smelling only a bit from the bag of holding. Colfa recoiled.

“She ate that?”

“She said they were tasty. Here—”

Ryoka tried to shove the rat into Colfa’s mouth. The woman slapped Ryoka’s hand down.

“I’ll see what blood it has. But it could be yours, you said? Why did Fierre drain your blood?”

“It was an accident. Here—”

Ryoka fumbled with a knife. She slashed across her wrist. Colfa froze in the act of washing the rat.

Blood ran down Ryoka’s arm. She thrust it at the Vampires.

“Here.”

“Are you mad?”

“I’ll drink a healing potion! Just—”

What would they do if it was Ryoka’s blood? Or the rat? The young woman hesitated, but Colfa looked at her and nodded. She grabbed Ryoka’s arm and lapped up the blood. Then she tore open the rat and bit the flesh.

For a moment she was savage, her teeth tearing apart fur and meat. Ryoka backed away as Colfa’s eyes glowed. She swallowed, wiping at her mouth.

“Ryoka? Falene says she thinks—Ryoka?”

The two women jumped. Ylawes poked his head into the bathroom. He saw Ryoka gulping a healing potion, the bloody dagger in hand.

“Ylawes! This is a bathroom!”

“I’m terribly sorry!

The [Knight] pulled his head back at once, blushing. Ryoka couldn’t believe the [Knight] would be that…

Ylawes looked Colfa and Ryoka up and down as they left a moment later.

“What happened to your wrist, Ryoka?”

Colfa’s mouth and clothing was free of blood. Ryoka hesitated.

“I—was trying to dissect the rat and slipped. But we think it might be the rat. What—what did Falene find out?”

“A number of diseases. None that match Fierre’s condition yet, but I wanted to ask if you had a rat.”

“Yes…here.”

Ryoka handed Ylawes a spare green rat. He took it in his gauntleted hands, very gingerly, and nodded.

“Let me…give this to Falene. Thank you.”

He looked back just once. At Ryoka’s wrist. She felt trepidation. But then she turned to Colfa.

“It might take a day or two to see if you’re sick, though. Damn, damn—”

“I’m not sick. Nor will I be.”

The Vampire spoke softly. Ryoka looked at her.

“You can’t be sure—”

“I’ve had animal blood before. The rat tasted no different. I’ve drank the blood of rabid animals—and sick ones. I can tell the difference. Unless that [Knight]’s friend can find poison in it—neither you nor the rat were the cause. Your blood tastes different, for that matter. And I have drunk Human blood.”

Ryoka blinked. Colfa was staring at her.

“I…could it make you sick?”

“No. It just tastes different. Believe me—I thought you might be right. But the more I think of it—even if Fierre was eating poisoned rats, so what? Fluffles the Fifth ate a bunch of poison once and we drank his blood. None of us were sick; it just tasted foul.”

Poor Fluffles the Fifth. Ryoka thought that distantly…then her stomach clenched. And her certainty turned to despair once more. Especially when she went to find Falene and the [Battlemage] held up the rat in a leather-gloved hand.

“No poison. It’s just a rat. Why anyone would eat a rat is beyond me, but there you go.”

“I could see eating a rat. I bet Ceria would give it a bite. You too good for rats, Pointy?”

Dawil muttered. Falene glowered at him, but their heart wasn’t in it. The Silver Swords saw Ryoka put her head down.

She’d failed. Ryoka had no more clues left! Only the Unseen Carriage and she was almost certain that Karsaeu wouldn’t have fed Fierre poisoned magic food. What was there left? Ryoka had tried being scientific about it! She’d tried—

“What’s that smell?”

Falene covered her nose. Ryoka raised her head.

“Sorry. It’s uh, puke. Fierre’s bag of holding had…she threw up in…”

She stared at her hand. Then sniffed at the black gunk there. Ylawes and Falene gagged a bit. So did Ryoka. But she stared.

“She threw this up when she took…”

The panacea. Here was something Fierre’s body had rejected. Ryoka remembered the stream of black vomit so clearly. And it was still here, preserved by the bag of holding.

“Look, Miss Griffin. I said a lot of stuff about rats. But if you’re that hungry, I’ll make you some food.”

Dawil looked nervous as Ryoka stared at her hand. But the young woman was muttering.

“…Gotta be a clue. I just need to isolate…microscope. Microscope.

She looked up. Colfa saw hope reignite in Ryoka’s eyes. She looked around, wildly, galvanized by an idea. Then she stared straight ahead. Ylawes, Dawil, Colfa, all followed her gaze.

Ryoka Griffin stared at Falene. At Falene’s face. At something perched on her nose.

“Falene. I need your glasses. And I need you to cast some spells.”

“What?”

The half-Elf protectively covered her face. But then Ryoka grabbed for the spectacles and snapped them in half. She needed a microscope. This time—she was certain.

The answer lay before her. Just too small to see.

 

—-

 

A microscope was an incredibly powerful tool of the modern age. Also—simple in concept to design. Ryoka didn’t know how to create a high-powered version. But she remember a simple do-it-yourself school project. All you needed was a tube, some black cloth or paper, and two lenses…

And if you couldn’t engineer something perfectly out of a bunch of leaves and sticks, use magic. Falene, after she had been prevented from murdering Ryoka with her bare hands, was incensed.

“You need to magnify your vision? I can do that with a spell! [Farsight]!”

“That’s not what I need. I need way more magnification than this. You—uh—you can [Repair] the glasses, right? I’ll pay for them!”

“I’ll pay for them if they’re that expensive. Come off it, Skystrall. Ryoka, what do you need?”

Ryoka had assembled the crude microscope and was trying to get the lenses to work. Falene made a sound of disgust, but she tapped Ryoka’s temples next to her right eye.

“[Farsight]. How’s that? Your right eye—”

Aah!

Ryoka’s eye burst into tears at the sudden magnification. It was beyond disorienting—but then she looked through the microscope and blinked.

“I think—I think—[Light]—”

A harsh white light appeared from beneath the sample tray. Which was, in fact, a windowpane upon which Ryoka had heaped a bunch of Fierre’s dried puke. The others crowded around as Ryoka sifted through the black vomit. She had a pair of tweezers used for extracting ticks from the animals and long brush.

“I think it’s working! I can see—”

Tiny particles. No doubt food, gastric acids. Ryoka began sifting through it. She thought…she saw something odd.

“I might need some water. Something to dilute this. And—and a bucket. We can’t throw anything away. But we can isolate different parts, right?”

No one else had any idea what Ryoka was talking about. But even if she dissolved part of the vomit, as long as she kept the liquid, all the components were there. And part of Ryoka…part of her had a suspicion.

“I can get the water. Dawil, let’s haul some up. Where’s your well, Miss Colfa?”

“That way. There’s a bucket there…here. I’ll find more.”

Colfa strode off. Falene pinched at her nose and backed up, muttering about the cost of good spectacles.

All the pieces were there. Ryoka stared at black particles swirling together. She took the water Colfa had on hand and mixed it with a first sample, leaving some for control. But…but now she was perfectly calm. Terrified. But calm.

This time she was certain. The clues were there. She saw it. It was specks of blackness as she washed the dark waters, isolating what wasn’t food or easily dissolvable. Black…but that made sense, didn’t it?

It tarnished. But where did it come from?

 

—-

 

“Okay, we broke the first loaf of fresh bread, we exchanged drinks—walked the lands to check for impurity, and made an offering of silver at the shrine-thingy. Weird name. Shrine. Shrine.

The Horns of Hammerad were still doing traditional Byres activities. Ceria kept sounding out the word; it wasn’t one she was familiar with. Yvlon nodded.

“It’s a rare word. But that’s what we call it.”

“And why an offering of silver?”

Pisces had helped place the nuggets of silver on the little dais. He looked quizzically at Yvlon. She scratched at her head, smiling a bit.

“That was for the Silver Dragon, Yderigrisel. If you can believe it.”

The Horns smacked into each other as they all stopped.

“The what?

Ceria stared back at the overgrown shrine. Yvlon shrugged.

“It’s an ancient pact. Tradition at this point. House Byres used to be friends with a Dragon. But it died millennia ago. There’s a ‘legend’ that says Yderigrisel will come back in our hour of need. But uh—it won’t.”

“Why are you so certain? This is amazing!

Ceria was astounded. Yvlon smiled sadly. She shook her head.

“We’re certain because it came back already. During the Creler wars. Yderigrisel came back to fight the Crelers—and died. The greatest tragedy of House Byres.”

“Oh.”

The others fell silent, digesting this. Ksmvr opened and closed his mandibles, wondering if he should bring up other, living Dragons. Or at least, one. But he felt that was rude to the memory of this one.

The others walked on as Yvlon led them forwards. Ceria shook her head. Their day had been all these traditions, most of which had been, as Yvlon put it, mildly entertaining.

“You have so much history. Half-Elf villages are older than most Human lineages, even some kingdoms. But we do the same thing for thousands of years. I used to live in a cottage over two thousand years old, you know. It kept being repaired and the wood regrown.”

“Why the past tense?”

Pisces kept glancing back at the silver. If the Dragon was dead…he had a project for a silver skeleton in mind. Ceria flushed.

“I uh, burned it down when I started learning magic. It was one of the reasons I got kicked out of my village. But let’s not talk about that. What’s next, Yvlon?”

“Uh…just one or two more things. Let’s see. Follow me.”

Yvlon led her team forwards. Towards the keep. And a small structure.

 

—-

 

“What’re you doing, lad? More of your old family’s rituals? This isn’t the time.”

“It’s good luck, Dawil. Here—let’s get the water.”

The son of House Byres paused next to the well and fumbled for his bag of holding. Dawil frowned.

“Oh, you were doing that in Reizmelt. That…what do you call it again?”

“I’ve done this at least fifty times, Dawil. Try to remember. It’s called—”

 

—-

 

“Well seeding. It won’t take long. Father and Ylawes do it all the time—Ylawes even does it when he goes around Izril. It’s all ceremony, old ties with the cities and all that.”

Yvlon had a small bag in her hand. She had to borrow it from the keep. Pisces peered at it.

“What is that?”

“Silver dust. You toss a bit into each well. A tiny bit.”

Yvlon stopped Pisces.

“Too much is bad. Turns your skin blue-grey. My great aunt died of it. We know all about silver poisoning. Just a tiny bit. You do it at every well you come to.”

“Why?”

Ceria scratched at her head. Yvlon gave her a blank shrug.

“Tradition. It’s supposed to bring good luck, ward the land, and so on. I guess it’d scare away some monsters. Not Crelers, but…okay, we’re done. Who wants snacks?”

They walked off. Pisces felt like the moment had been significant for some reason.

“I have never heard of this tradition, Yvlon. How long has your family been doing it?”

“Oh, as long as I can remember. We’re not supposed to talk about it. We have lots of stuff like that. For instance—we can never hold a gathering of the family at night or under a roof. We have to always meet in the sun. And nude sunbathing is encouraged. There’s a painting I used to see as a child that mother put away of—stop leering, Pisces.”

The Horns laughed and walked away. Unconcerned. But…

There it was.

 

—-

 

Silver. Ryoka kept washing the granules, inspecting it. It wasn’t shiny, glittering stuff like you expected—until you remembered that silver tarnished when it touched sulfur. And if it had been in someone’s stomach or their body…

Ryoka had collected as much of the black stuff Fierre had expelled. And now—she wasn’t sure if Fierre had thrown up, or just regurgitated what was making her sick.

Because there it was. Maybe a gram of it at most. Ryoka had no doubt washed some of it away or lost the rest. But it had been in her.

“Silver.”

She looked up. Falene had gone to wash herself after Ryoka had accidentally splashed her and Salamani. Now, it was just Colfa. The woman stared at Ryoka.

Her face—well, a Vampire always looked bloodless. But Colfa swayed on her feet.

“But—but how? Fierre wouldn’t eat that.”

“She couldn’t. Not straight up. But…what if she—what if all of you had been eating it, or—or getting it somehow? Over the years? What if…?”

Ryoka’s head was in her hands. It was so obvious in hindsight. She looked at the concentrated pile of it.

Silver. A lifetime’s supply of ingestion. She looked at Colfa.

“I know—I know it might hurt. But if you could touch it? Please?”

The woman hesitated. They had to know. She reached out and slowly touched the pile. It was black and smushed as her finger touched it, wet—

Colfa cried out. Ryoka saw her clutch at her finger. And the skin was raw, torn, bleeding from where she had pressed her finger forwards.

And that had been just a touch. Ryoka looked at the silver.

A gram of silver, spread across your entire body. It wouldn’t…kill you. Even if you were a Vampire. But it was poison in your very blood. And it wouldn’t ever leave you. Not without great magic. And even if you got rid of it…

“There’s silver on your land. That’s why Fierre’s in a coma. I did cure her. And she came back and—”

Where was it? Ryoka felt like she already knew. But all the pieces were falling together. She even had a thought. And here came Dawil and Ylawes.

“Sorry we’re late. The lad had to perform one of his rituals. But we’ve got water. Mind, it’s got a bit of silver in it. Not enough to make you sick. At least House Byres knows about that…”

The Dwarf hefted a huge bucket onto the table. He looked between Ryoka and Colfa. And Ylawes? He met Ryoka’s eyes, blankly at first. But then he saw her glance at Colfa.

“Something wrong?”

“No. Not at all…do you…?”

Do you do this often, Ylawes? Ryoka’s lips were numb. The [Knight] nodded slowly. Even an idiot wouldn’t have missed the way Colfa was looking at him. And Ylawes—was no idiot.

“This is an extraordinary household, Miss Colfa. Ryoka.”

He glanced at her irises. Brown. And then at Colfa’s. The [Knight] shifted. He was wearing his silver and steel armor. Colfa drew back slightly as he moved—almost coincidentally next to him.

“I—do not appreciate adventurers performing strange rituals in my home, Mister Ylawes.”

“Told you, lad. Ask first.

Dawil grunted, cheerfully oblivious. Ylawes ducked his head. He studied Colfa.

“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Colfa. It’s a tradition among my House.”

“I see. Well, I am entirely grateful for your assistance. But I find your actions—disturbing. Perhaps you would care to remove yourself?”

The [Knight] paused as Dawil sighed.

“Naturally, Miss Colfa. But if there’s anything I can do to help Miss Fierre, I would feel better in remaining.”

Colfa’s eyes narrowed. She was—shaking. Ryoka couldn’t imagine what she was feeling. Especially since she had put the pieces together. Ylawes was in danger.

Or was it Colfa? The [Knight] was just studying Colfa. Ryoka saw the young man running through a checklist.

Pale hair. Bloodless skin. Red eyes. Heavy clothing, an aversion to sunlight…Colfa was keeping her mouth from opening wide, but my, what large canines she had.

But what proof did he have? How old were the legends of Vampires? Then again…Colfa was about to snap. Ryoka saw it. She hesitated, ready to jump forwards. But if Colfa tossed her like a ragdoll, that was proof in itself.

“Excuse me, Sir Knight. But I think my wife is overwrought. Please, excuse us.”

A voice. Ylawes turned. Ryoka, Colfa, Dawil—saw Himilt standing there. The Vampire, Fierre’s father, tugged at the scarf around his misshapen neck.

He looked like a farmer. Pale of skin, red-eyed. But a farmer. Ryoka saw Ylawes hesitate.

“I’m terribly sorry to intrude, sir. It’s just—”

His eyes flicked back to Colfa. Himilt walked forwards. Ryoka was afraid. Dawil was muttering, eying the [Knight] who was being uncharacteristically rude. Himilt—Ryoka pivoted, wondering what to do.

The Vampire farmer stopped in front of Ylawes. Ryoka tensed. She saw Himilt swing up his hand.

He held it out. Ylawes blinked. Slowly, he reached out with his gauntleted hand. Colfa and Ryoka’s eyes locked on Himilt and Ylawes.

He was wearing silver armor. Himilt didn’t blink. He took Ylawes’ hand and shook it. His hand was gloved. Ryoka waited for steam. For a sign…Himilt clasped Ylawes’ hand with his other hand. He even smiled, faintly.

“Apologies, Sir [Knight]. My family has a bad history with adventurers. Bad sorts who took our coin and walked off. I know House Byres; silver, correct?”

“That’s our export, Mister Himilt, was it?”

“Yes.”

The man lowered his hand. Ylawes blinked at his gauntlet. He inspected it, then looked at Himilt. Then he colored and bowed slightly.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir. We’ll remove ourselves.”

He looked at Ryoka, and then Colfa, but Himilt even walked him towards the door. He stepped into the light for a moment, adjusting his hat with his gloves. Ylawes dragged a confused Falene and Dawil away. He looked back once or twice, but he was so embarrassed that he nearly tripped over himself in leaving.

Himilt saw Ylawes off. He even made a point at lingering in the sun before he stepped inside. Ryoka and Colfa caught him as he collapsed.

Your hands!

The man dragged the farmer’s gloves he’d donned off his hands. Colfa and Ryoka gasped.

His skin had disintegrated down to muscle, even bone in parts. The Vampire’s skin was torn, as if it had tried to crawl away from the silver armor. He knelt there, sweating, as Ryoka stood over him.

When he looked up at Ryoka, his face was twisted by pain. Himilt forced the words out.

“I heard. What do we do now?”

Ryoka turned. In the shadows, two more Vampires appeared. Rivel, eyes wide and furious as he stared after the Silver Swords. Bamer, clutching at his chest. Staring down at the veins where his death flowed. Ryoka felt the Vampire’s world shaking.

But she had to save Fierre first. The City Runner closed her eyes. Thinking.

“The well is poisoned. The groundwater is laced with silver. That means everything that comes from it—”

She heard a moan. And Ryoka felt it.

Look at how they killed them. With poison in the water, the ground.

How clever. House Byres had won. They had won in such an easy way. Not with grand [Knights] and armies. Just—a tradition. A bit of silver here, there.

Poison in the wells.

Nothing was safe. Nothing. Water—crops grown? Everything and everyone in Izril, perhaps. Everywhere the wells had been seeded. Ryoka looked around.

“The blood. Your sheep drink from those wells. Your food as well. Fierre needs—”

She trailed off. Ryoka started again, piecing it all together.

“It must—she must have drunk blood from your animals. And the party—she washed herself with water from your wells. You put ice on her forehead. The tinctures were made with water. Everything you have. Your crops, your animals—all of it comes from the water here.”

Colfa made a sound. She looked around, eyes wide. The rash running down her arm…that’s why they were sick. It wasn’t a disease. Heavy metals in their blood, making them weaker. That’s why they had such short lifespans. Thyroid cancer…

“What is safe?

Ryoka felt Colfa shaking her. She inhaled slowly.

“River water. They couldn’t poison that the same way…if they went upriver—no, it’d be safer. Ocean water…rainwater! Anywhere House Byres wouldn’t have access to! We have to wash Fierre—she’s got silver on her skin!

“River water. There’s a river near here. Rivel. Get water. Run.

The young Vampire vanished, running for a bucket and umbrella. Bamer kicked over the water that Ylawes and Dawil had drawn with an oath.

“I’ll kill them. We’ll call every family and end House Byres once and for all—”

“Bamer. Enough. Fierre is what matters.”

Himilt stopped the old Vampire. He looked at Ryoka, then around. At his wife, his son, who had paused for a moment at Bamer’s words. Himilt spoke slowly. Deliberately, as his hands healed.

“Fierre is what matters. We—we are all dead.”

The five moved into action. Ryoka shook Salamani awake. The slumbering Courier blinked at her.

“Distilled water?”

“For a potion! Get it from the [Alchemist], please? As much as you can?”

“On it!”

He leapt up. Ryoka turned to Colfa.

“Even afterwards…you’ll need to drink.”

“Our crops. The sheep…it’s too late for us.”

The mother nearly sat down. Then she rose again. Rivel was back with a bucket filled with water.

“I washed it in the river. But are you sure it’s…?”

He held the bucket away from him. Ryoka didn’t know.

“I think your home has a higher concentration of silver in the wells. Wells…it’s just collecting there over time. A river would have far less, if the Byres’ even do it. The best thing would be to desalinate ocean water or collect rainwater. We could build a solar still or use magic…fuck, let’s just boil this and collect the steam!”

She had the Vampires boil the water into steam and collect the drops of water. That was obvious! Now—Ryoka was thinking. She went to Colfa.

“Wash Fierre from head to toe. Don’t use soap—wait. I might have something from Liscor. I doubt House Byres ever got down there. Use no products made in the north! Here—”

She handed the woman a half-used bar of soap she’d bought in Liscor. Ryoka was going down the list. Not toothpaste, not potions…

“Is there time for Fierre?”

Ryoka turned to Himilt.

“If she’s that sick…she must have a stronger reaction because she was cured. You all have an immunity. That was why you survived. And that’s why she kept throwing up! Colfa! We need to make Fierre vomit! Give her as much pure water as you can and get her to spit it up! We need to flush her system! And—charcoal! Burned charcoal!”

That was a way to remove poison, wasn’t it? Activated charcoal! Ryoka thought.

“Can Vampires get sick from eating charcoal?”

“I doubt it. We can drink most poisons. Just not silver.”

Bamer shook his head. Ryoka nodded.

“Then feed Fierre burned charcoal! Lots of it! If it can’t kill her—”

Magical immune systems. If it couldn’t kill Fierre, Ryoka would shovel a detoxifying agent down her throat! Himilt and Colfa took Fierre into the bathroom to wash her and try to purge her system. It was a disgusting process. Ryoka heard Fierre retching…the young woman helped Bamer boil more water. She raced about as Salamani ran back with distilled water and was sent on a useless errand—he was a distraction.

It worked. That was all there was to it. Fierre had ingested silver, washed herself with it, but Ryoka’s desperate treatments worked. The Vampire flushed her system over the course of the next few hours. Ryoka knew it was working because she heard Fierre’s groggy voice as the girl regained consciousness.

“What happened?”

She was going to live. Ryoka collapsed with relief. That was all. She had…done it.

Fierre wouldn’t die today. Ryoka closed her eyes.

So. That was what Teriarch had known. He had known the Vampires were poisoned. And he had done nothing. How cruel. And how like the Dragon. He had given her a hint by accident, though. And Fierre would live. But her family…

“Ryoka. There’s a problem.”

The young woman started. She looked up.

Colfa’s dress was messy. But her daughter was alive. The Vampire mother looked relieved. Grateful, as she stared at the Human who had saved her daughter. Uncovered the truth. Just…concerned.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Fierre’s well. But—she’s starved for blood. She threw up all the blood she drank. And all our stores—everything we have is tainted. We could go into Reizmelt and find a [Butcher]—but how do we know…?”

How did they know that the blood there wasn’t the product of animals fed on Reizmelt’s well water? Monster blood? Animal blood? Did they find a deer or something and hope it had never drunk from silver-tainted water?

Ryoka didn’t know. She bit her lip.

“Maybe cow’s blood? Find one that’s usually grazing near rivers, I guess. Or…oh.”

She looked up. Colfa looked down at Ryoka.

“Where were you born, Ryoka Griffin?”

Earth. And yes, Ryoka had lived on well water, water from Izril for the last year. But that wasn’t a lifetime of living here. If there was anyone…Ryoka Griffin saw the unspoken question.

“I…”

“Fierre is starving. We can stop her. But if you’re willing—she’ll go into a frenzy soon.”

For a moment, the City Runner hesitated. But what was the alternative? She had done all this for her friend.

“Take me to her.”

 

—-

 

Fierre was alive. But she was restrained. By her father. He was keeping her pinned as she writhed. Not with pain—but hunger. Her eyes had turned red and she was biting.

“I’m hungry! Blood! Blood! Where’s Fluffles?

That took the scary right out of her—well, a bit. Ryoka saw Fierre stare at Ryoka. She licked her lips.

“Fierre. Control yourself. Ryoka’s agreed to give you blood.”

“Human blood?”

Even in her ravening state, Fierre glanced at her father. He looked at Ryoka, hesitating. She waited. Her heart was racing. She remembered Fierre attacking her in the mansion. That had been terrifying. She knew how strong Fierre was. But Colfa was right here.

“Is it safe, Himilt?”

“Fierre wouldn’t turn you. Neither Colfa or I would allow it. And it’s not a simple process. But there’s something else. If she’s cured…”

Colfa started. Ryoka saw her eyes flicker to Fierre and then Ryoka. Himilt gave his wife another unspoken look. This one significant. He stared at Ryoka, hard.

“We’ll deal with what happens. Nothing…terribly…bad will happen to you, Miss Griffin. I don’t think from giving blood once. If the stories are true.”

That didn’t reassure Ryoka at all. But she nodded, tightly.

“Food.”

Fierre sat up. Colfa took Himilt’s place as he stepped back. He closed the door as Colfa held her daughter, struggling to keep Fierre back.

“Remember. Do not drink quickly. Slowly. Just enough to hold you until we find more blood.”

“What—what do I do?”

Colfa hesitated. She was unsure, Ryoka realized. Her family didn’t usually drink blood.

“When Himilt turned me…sit there. Bare your neck and tilt your head…yes. Fierre? Slowly.”

She relaxed her grip. Ryoka sat there, terrified, sensing Fierre sniffing.

“She’s…not that appetizing. I’m not hungry for her.”

The Vampire muttered. Ryoka stirred.

“Thanks.”

“It’s not that. It’s something…”

Fierre trailed off. She licked her lips. Her stomach growled.

“Can I really bite you, Ryoka?”

“Yes, Fierre. Go ahead. You’re hungry.”

The City Runner saw the Vampire hovering. Colfa was watching. And then—Fierre grabbed Ryoka’s neck. Gently. She bit. Ryoka gasped as she felt a sharp pain. Then nothing.

She cracked open one eye, unclenching her fists. Strange. Ryoka felt Fierre there. She even felt the sensation of pressure on her neck. Blood pumping…she heard her heart beating, rapidly. But no pain.

It felt—Ryoka felt a sensation run down her body.

Tingling. Ryoka twitched. She searched for pain, but there wasn’t any this time. Just an unbearable tingling. It felt good, actually. And it was intensifying.

Her head felt light. Ryoka sagged. Her head went blank. All she heard was the blood pounding in her head.

Huh. No wonder Vampires got away with this. They weren’t—weren’t like mosquitoes at all. Ryoka could do this forever. The tingling was turning into—she was drifting and—

“Serafierre, enough.

A voice spoke at the edge of Ryoka’s hazy consciousness. A hand interrupted the drain, the unbearable, wonderful feeling.

Fierre pulled away with reluctance, licking her lips. Ryoka collapsed. The world went dark; she must have blanked out for a second because Fierre was helping her sit up.

“Ryoka? Thank you.”

The Vampire girl was alive. If anything, it was Ryoka who was pale and disoriented. Fierre offered Ryoka a healing potion. The young woman drank. She looked at her friend, watching her anxiously.

“I’m so glad.”

Ryoka reached out and grabbed Fierre. The Vampire felt the Human hug her, fiercely. Then Ryoka sat back. She took a drink from the healing potion.

Then she passed out. At last—

She could rest.

 

—-

 

But the world was changed for it.

They rode away in silence. Dawil kept glancing at Ylawes. At last, the Dwarf broke the silence.

“Alight, lad. You’ve never acted like that before. You always ask for permission before doing that well-thingy. And most [Mayors] are happy to let you. But what in the name of the Grandfather’s beards was that?”

Falene nodded. She’d been caught up on what had occurred and she was looking just as dubious. Ylawes shook his head. His cheeks were still flushed.

“I—thought that—it was just a hunch. I feel like a complete fool, Dawil. But that family…tell me. Have you ever heard of the legend of Vampires?”

The half-Elf’s ears perked up. Dawil frowned and shook his head.

“Never. What’re they?”

“An old foe. My family used to fight them. They used to rule Izril. They looked just like us. But they had pointed teeth, they drank blood…they were monsters in disguise. There were signs. Reddish pupils, pale skin, fangs, and they feared sunlight and silver.”

Dawil half-twisted in his saddle.

“You’re pulling my leg, Byres. That’s got to be the dumbest thing…red pupils? I know half a dozen [Mages] who have weird colors in their eyes.”

“I know. But the way they were acting…I was almost certain. Ryoka cut her wrist—apparently—and that mother…”

The [Knight] sighed. Falene tapped her lips.

“What proved they weren’t?”

“Himilt. He shook my hand.”

Ylawes regarded his gauntlets. Dawil raised his brows.

“These Vampires allergic to common courtesy or something?”

“No, it’s my armor. Silver and steel alloy. A Vampire shouldn’t have even been able to touch me according to the stories. And they are just stories these days. I’ve embarrassed us. I hope Ryoka calls on us if she needs help.”

The young man turned ahead, shaking his head. Dawil glanced back at the Lischelle-Drakle farm in the distance.

“If it wasn’t a story, let’s say. How’d you feel about a girl with sick parents being these blood-folk?”

Ylawes looked blank.

“Vampires were evil monsters without conscience or remorse. They hid among us, pretending to their emotions. So no. I don’t believe that would apply here, Dawil. These are just…good folk. A bit odd, but…”

He fell silent. The seed of suspicion was there. Ylawes hesitated.

“Falene. Can you…send me a [Message]?”

“Of course. To whom?”

The [Knight] hesitated. He’d investigated. But there was someone who knew more than he did, or his father.

“Delanay d’Artien. He’s a childhood friend. Just…ask him to get in touch with me.”

Dawil glanced up sharply. But Ylawes said nothing more. Falene nodded. After a moment, the [Axe Champion] cleared his throat.

“Just don’t do anything you’d regret, Ylawes. They seemed like good folk. And we’re adventurers, not busybodies. Ever onwards. Are we done with Reizmelt and Ryoka Griffin?”

Ylawes started from his thoughts. He nodded slowly, looking at his team.

“Let’s stay a few days to make sure Miss Fierre is well and to see about the artifacts. Maybe we could even go towards Invrisil and see this Master Pelt, Dawil. If he’s that skilled…”

“So we came all the way here just to turn around? Fine by me.”

The Dwarf snorted. Ylawes just shrugged. They didn’t have a set destination. That was the Silver Sword’s way. It was Falene who interrupted.

“If we don’t have pressing business, Ylawes, I have a petition.”

“Go on, Falene.”

The [Battlemage] tapped a finger against her lips as she adjusted her fixed spectacles. What a curious contraption Ryoka Griffin had made. So quickly, too. A ‘microscope’. Falene prided herself on her lexicon of knowledge. And she had never heard that word…she spoke to her team.

“I think we should pay a visit to Wistram Academy. All of us. Something of significance has occurred there and only by going in person will we know the truth. No one, not even my friends, will tell me what has occurred.”

“Wistram? That’s a boat voyage.”

“Consider it. We could at least head towards a port.”

“Of course, Falene.”

The Silvers Swords rode onwards, each with their own thoughts. Ylawes, thinking of his friend, who used to, as a child, be so into investigations for his family’s foes. Falene tilting her head, thinking of Wistram, her home, Ryoka…a few other individuals.

Dawil fingered his axe and thought of Pelt, the disgrace. Also—what he was going to eat for lunch. But their suspicions and hunches were only a fraction of the truths unveiled today. For others—it was a far simpler conclusion.

 

—-

 

“We are dead. Silver runs in our veins.”

Himilt val Lischelle-Drakle stood in his family’s keep. Not the place where his line had originated. The Drakle family had moved from place to place, keeping out of sight. Hiding, hoping to live in peace.

But they had been dying, attacked by their enemies even in hiding. By what even their senses couldn’t detect.

Silver in the wells. Fierre was pale. She looked at her mother, her brother, Bamer, and her father. All afflicted by signs of a weakened immune system.

There was no panacea left. Ryoka wondered if eating charcoal would help. But it was part of them. And now—Fierre’s family was aware of what was killing them.

“Not a curse. House Byres. The Humans. Who came up with it?”

Bamer was muttering. Himilt was watching him. When he spoke, it was to Ryoka as well as his kin.

“Long ago, our kind ruled Izril. No people are innocent of crimes. Yet those committed by Vampires made even the other species of the world draw back in revulsion and horror. I have heard those stories.”

“So this is all just?

Rivel shouted. Himilt looked at his son and shook his head. His eyes glowed faintly.

“Never. I would never have allowed it. I would have never remained here. Never—started a family if I knew this was our fate.”

He looked at Colfa. She reached for him.

“There is nothing to regret there. Just the enemies of our kind. And now we know.”

The farmer nodded. He looked around, at Bamer, Rivel, and Colfa. And it was to them he spoke, excluding Fierre.

So we die. Our enemy triumphed by turning the land against us. In the days that come, we must decide what will happen next.”

“Father.”

Serafierre croaked. She looked smaller. Her pride as a Vampire run up against the magnitude of the hatred for her kind. The cunning. Himilt looked at her. He almost smiled. He looked at Fierre, and then Ryoka.

“One of us will live. A Human has saved her life and given her a future. Thank you, Miss Griffin. I will not forget this. Nor will our kind. You are a friend to Vampires. And perhaps—not for this generation but the next—perhaps there is hope.”

“Where? Where can we go?”

Bamer crouched, his face bitter. Himilt looked out the window.

“Where Byres did not wander. Where water comes from few wells. Perhaps not even Izril. We will have to decide. As a family—and as a people. It will be divisive. Many will want to retaliate. But this day we know the truth. For now…rest.”

He said that to Fierre and Ryoka. Both were recovering. Ryoka lay back down. Fierre went to bed. She was still dizzy—still sick from her near death experience. Colfa, going to check on her, heard her daughter muttering as she sipped from the purified water that her family would have to use from now on.

“Still hungry.”

“We’ll get you pure blood soon, Fierre. Ryoka’s agreed to help you. Rest.”

She had a future. Colfa held Fierre gently. The girl murmured, falling into sleep.

“Tasty. But. I’m still hungry. Ryoka doesn’t have it.”

She slept.

 

—-

 

Cures. Sickness. Family. The Vampire lived. Her family knew what ailed them.

The Horns of Hammerad walked the lands of House Byres and Yvlon reconciled a bit of her issues with her family. At least—a bit.

Lord Tyrion Veltras had no such luxuries. He sat in the room where Hethon and Sammial lay, guarded by House Veltras’ most elite warriors. Jericha and three dozen [Mages] had fortified this place.

But it was too late. They were ill. Hethon breathed shallowly; Sammial was coughing, almost unable to breathe.

The [Assassin] had left the blood-contract behind. As well as the warning. The cure would escape Tyrion Veltras. The Circle of Thorns would damn his attempts.

The [Healer] and three of the best [Alchemists] locally were poring through encyclopedias of poison and antidote, searching for the symptoms and cure—if there was one. Tyrion Veltras was reaching out to anyone he could think of. He refused to kneel, not to the Circle.

“Milord? It’s late. We can watch over Lord Hethon and Sammial.”

Jericha approached Tyrion tentatively, holding a ball of [Light]. She saw Tyrion’s head rise slowly.

“I will cure them. And when I do—you will take Hethon and Sammial to Terandria. Then I will hunt down this Circle of Thorns and put them to death by my own hand. Every last one.”

“Yes, Lord Veltras.”

She bowed. Tyrion went back to sitting. But his fury—he listened to Sammial coughing, Hethon’s labored breaths.

A scroll lay in front of him. The words glowed in the darkness. Tyrion sat there, staring at the contract and the terms.

Helpless.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I am done! This was a longer chapter, plagued by exhaustion. Exhaustion…I was running a large sleep-debt which I’ve mostly paid off.

I hope this chapter is good despite it! The chapters where all the little hints draw together are always hard. I wish I had something cool to say. Cool things happened this week! I got to type and the person on the screen responded!

Oh—and someone’s making food based on The Wandering Inn! They made Drake-style meatballs and silkap, the Gnollish treat! That is so amazing. There are all kinds of great fans.

And speaking of, I’ll leave you with a beautiful image of another immortal being of old. Dragons, Vampires…and the Treant, drawn by Enuryn the [Naturalist]! Give them lots of praise for this amazing, mystical being!

Thanks for reading! Tune in next time where I hopefully have perfect sleep! But either way, the story continues!

 

https://ko-fi.com/enuryn

https://twitter.com/Enuryn_Nat

 


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7.44

Names and titles. It was something, to be known by other people. Be it a local hero or an internationally-recognized name. It was also…strange, to be that person.

Named Adventurers. [Kings]. Archmages…few others could understand the feeling. It meant something. The list of names was always changing. And today—a few more names flashed across the consciousness of countless minds. They might not remain, but for a moment—many people knew the names of individuals they had never met.

The first was Ryoka Griffin. In conjunction with an old name—the Archmage of Izril, Valeterisa.

The Wind Runner of Reizmelt had awoken her. That was a feat no one had accomplished in ten years. It put her on the list. And the thing about fame was that it was an ebb and flow. Ryoka had made smaller impacts before.

The Runner who had delivered to the High Passes. A Human who could conjure the wind. Her delivery for Lady Bethal…

This was the most notable achievement of hers yet. So—those who paid attention to Runners out of necessity or just interest marked her name and recalled her past instances of fame. They might remember her next time, or decide to hire her.

It was how a career, a legend was made. Piece by piece. And it was the smaller appendage on the big news: the Archmage of Izril had returned.

…That piece of information was not reported by Wistram News Network that morning. Nor was the ongoing war with Jecrass and Reim. Frankly—it was a sign.

A sign that nothing of ‘note’ had happened in the war beyond more battles that favored Reim; Raelt had retreated and ceded his borderlands to the King of Destruction. And also that the public didn’t want to watch that kind of war. Rather—two events were both featured this morning, one planned, one unplanned.

The first was a battle in Baleros. Lest the world forget—Chandrar was not the only continent with wars of note.

This was only a single battle. But it was notable in that way of things. Names and titles.

The Bannermare of Baleros has—has engaged Tulm the Mithril. We are reporting live with aerial footage thanks to our Garuda [Reporter] on scene. Our new Balerosian wing—ahem—of Wistram News Network, rather. Kerik, what can you tell us about what we’re seeing?

It was weird. Erin Solstice had grown up on Earth watching television and the news. She wasn’t a huge TV person, but it had been part of her life. Of course—television had faded in favor of computers, tablets, and the easy internet. But television was familiar.

And here she was in her inn, watching the news on the scrying orb over breakfast. People kept  complaining it was too small, but Erin wasn’t shelling out for a huge mirror like Rufelt’s—yet.

Not when she had Palt. The [Illusionist] had projected the scrying orb’s image onto a wall and everyone was watching as breakfast was eaten in silence. Mrsha silently ate from a bowl of berries and yogurt with a spoon, learning a new pastime.

…It wasn’t exactly kid-friendly. It was a battle. The two sides—one comprised of horse-people and some Lizardfolk and Humans, the other almost all Dullahan—were squaring off against each other. Erin saw the battle from above as whomever was flying and broadcasting the event tried to keep the ‘camera’ steady.

Hello, Sir Relz! This is Kerik! It was an unexpected clash! This appeared to be a border conflict between Maelstrom’s Howling and the Iron Vanguard—but it grew into an actual conflict with the Bannermare’s arrival! Neither side has launched arrows or spells  yet, but you can see they’re maneuvering.

Trying to outflank each other. The Centaurs are more lightly-armed than the Dullahan forces, but they have mobility. One of those classic Balerosian ‘sword-wand-bow’ battles, right, Noass?

Exactly, Sir Relz. And we have two second-in-commands for both Great Companies. This—this could be a huge event. Tulm the Mithril vs the Bannermare. Both younger leaders who might well lead their company after the Seer of Steel or Fellstrider retires…

The two Drakes were commentating the battle. Erin scowled at them and then frowned.

“The Bannermare of Baleros. Where have I heard that before?”

It was Palt who answered. The Centaur was trotting nervously, clearly invested in the battle on the continent Erin had only ever heard about. It looked…very plains-y, at least this area.

“She’s the daughter of Gwelin Fellstrider. One of the highest-leveled Centaurs in the world—certainly for her age! She’s known as the Bannermare of Baleros—or the Battle Hymnist. She’s—look!”

The Centaurs had been circling the Dullahans who were sitting in net formations, ready to be charged at. They were being led by a glowing figure in the center of the defensive lines.

Tulm the Mithril. Erin had seen the Games at Daquin. So she remembered his name. Now—both sides opened fire and clashed.

From above, Erin saw the battle unfolding like…a video game. She shuddered as she saw the Dullahans on the right flank explode as Centaur [Mages] unleashed a volley of spells and an entire wing of the army plunged forwards.

She had lived through a battle and the distant conflict felt too pretty from above. But there was blood on the ground.

Centaurs vs Dullahans. Erin had no context for the battle. Nor did most of the people in The Wandering Inn. Palt, a native, had to explain.

“It’s territory conflict. The Iron Vanguard is always encroaching on Centaur lands. Maelstrom’s Howling protects the plains, but the Iron Vanguard builds forts and keeps ‘claiming’ more territory year by year. Normally it’s just a standoff—but the Bannermare must want to push them back!”

“Who’s going to win, then?”

Erin looked around for Olesm or Belgrade, but neither one was here. Fortunately—she had no end of armchair [Strategists] willing to tell her exactly how the battle would go, including Sir Relz and Noass.

“It’s Centaurs vs Dullahans, Erin. Fast-moving cavalry—”

“Excuse me, Montressa.”

Palt glowered. The [Aegiscaster] blushed.

“Sorry—I meant, Centaurs, versus heavy infantry Dullahans. Normally, there’s a break through the Dullahan formation or the Centaurs have to retreat.”

“In a straight conflict, Centaurs always lose.”

Menolit put in. Palt glowered around, yet his attention was on the screen.

Normally we’d expect the Bannermare to quickly charge in, but you can see she’s just circling with her vanguard.

Wary of Tulm the Mithril no doubt. The main force of Maelstrom’s Howling is being pushed back by a strong Dullahan line—Humans and Lizardfolk can’t hold with Centaurs against that kind of armor even if the spells are making a difference. But this is Tulm the Mithril—yep, here we go.

A mist rose from the battlefield. And magic—died. Erin saw the Centaurs retreating. She didn’t think they were losing that badly. Until she heard from the projection a sound.

Marching footsteps.

The image cut to someone on the ground, staring at the fog-laden battlefield ahead. The Bannermare’s army was in full-retreat. Why? Then—something cut through the mists. Dullahan [Soldiers] marched below in ranks. And between them strode—

Giants. War Walkers. Sixteen of them.

That’s…where were they hiding? They must have been camouflaged somehow. I’m instantly identifying Xol of Ingrilt, one of the highest-leveled War Walkers in the Iron Vanguard, and—fifteen others?

The Bannermare and her forces fell back as the War Walkers advanced on the infantry. But Tulm refused to move too far ahead. The War Walkers turned, raising huge shields to protect themselves from arrow fire. They were watching one group of Centaurs.

Erin saw a female Centaur, holding a banner. She raced at the head of the line of Centaurs.

The Bannermare of Baleros. She was racing across the ground, so fast that even the best Dullahan [Archers] couldn’t strike her with arrows. Her elites were moving around Tulm’s army. Looking for a point in.

But of course—the [Strategist] knew that was what was going to happen. He’d arrayed pikes which constantly shifted, giving inviting gaps that would close if anyone charged in.

Stalemate. And all the time the Dullahans were attacking the magic-less Centaurs who couldn’t win a war against a foe armored from head-to-toe.

I don’t think the Bannermare can delay any longer. Her vanguard is as strong as any heavy cavalry unit with her Skills! But the longer she circles, the more of her soldiers she loses. Is she going to retreat? This standoff is just losing her side soldiers. It might be a mark of her inexperience, frankly. She has a class equivalent to a [Banner Carrier]—not exactly a [Strategist], or even a [General]—

“Hey. I think I nearly got that class once.”

Erin saw Lyonette turn to stare at her with Montressa. The [Innkeeper] watched.

“I can’t watch this. What do you think will happen, Erin? You know chess, right?”

Palt was so nervous. It was strange—but then, Erin supposed it was like Relc or Selys watching Liscor’s army fighting a battle. This was his people. He turned to her and she gave him a blank look.

“I’m not good at strategy, Palt. I don’t do…that. It’s messy. No taking turns. It’s just…action. Punch the other person in the face as fast as you can, y’know?”

“What would you do here?”

Erin shrugged.

“Not fight? Or I’d…not fight that. Dudes in armor. Seems tough. I’d have like, twice as many soldiers and a trap.”

“Maybe—”

A sound. Noass broke off from his conversation with Sir Relz about battle tactics and the Bannermare’s youth. He squinted.

What is that sound? It’s coming from—Kerik, is there something in the air around you?

The view shook as the Garuda turned his head.

I don’t see anything. I—oh.”

The ‘oh’ was soft. And it came as the strange sound became obvious.

Crunch, crunch. It was the sound…of someone munching on something. Some dried chip-like substance. And Erin, the audience—saw someone sitting in the air next to the Garuda.

A Squirrel. She was sitting on a carpet that hung in midair. She had been invisible. Now, she stared into the camera.

“Mm. Hello. This is a trap.”

“Foliana, you don’t tell people it’s a trap. You’ve ruined the moment. Just—just go.

Someone spoke up. Erin squinted. She saw Palt throw up his hands.

“Oh, dead gods! It’s him!

Palt rushed forwards, blocking Erin’s view. Erin craned her neck.

“Who’s that? I can’t see anything. Move, Palt!”

Someone stood on top of Foliana’s head for a second. Then—the entire image swung as the Garuda whirled.

Five more carpets hung in the air, motionless over the battlefield. Tulm the Mithril looked up as Niers Astoragon and Foliana waved down at him. The Dullahan’s calm expression turned to fury and worry in a second.

The Titan’s chortle was audible, but only that as the Garuda [Reporter] fled from the arrows shooting upwards.

“It was worth waiting for four days up here to see that. Alright—drop ‘em! Then let’s go.”

The five carpets heaved objects out of bags of holding onto the Dullahans below. Erin saw flashes—explosions covering the tightly-knit Dullahan lines.

But—but the magic can’t work with Tulm’s Skill…

Alchemical weapons. I—was this all a collaboration? Are we seeing two Great Companies teaming up on the Iron Vanguard? Dead gods! And here she goes—

The Dullahan ranks were in chaos. As the five carpets flew out of the range of the Dullahan bows, their jobs done, the Bannermare charged. Straight into the opening Niers had created, at Tulm the Mithril.

Erin saw the battle turn into chaos. She didn’t see all of it—she had to pee.

When she left the outhouse, it was mostly over. Thanks to the Titan of Baleros whom Erin hadn’t seen, the Dullahans had been defeated. They were retreating as the Bannermare harried them—from the threat of Niers Astoragon and Foliana as much as the erasure of their battle lines.

Tulm the Mithril survived. And he even saved the majority of his army—apparently he’d used his warlord skill or something.

Palt was raving about it, more excited than anyone else. To Erin—it was just a battle. Over territory no less. And it had implications for Baleros—not Izril.

She had seen several battles like that from WNN, some from Chandrar—others border fights in Terandria, a war between nobility in Chandrar in some kingdom…it wasn’t her thing.

But the sudden broadcast of the battle with the Bannermare of Baleros was winding down. Erin heard flutes, a hopping beat as she washed her hands and reentered her inn. Her ears perked up.

“What is that?

It was…the Bannermare. Her escort had more than just an aptitude for fighting. They were playing music as she led a parade, celebrating the battle. Erin saw the Centauress dancing, prancing to the beat as she mocked the retreating Tulm.

“She’s considered the most eligible bachelorette in Baleros, you know. I met her once.”

Palt sighed. Erin saw the image turn to Sir Relz and Noass. The monocled Drake was talking.

We’ll have more details on casualties, fallout, and perhaps an interview with the Titan or the Bannermare for you after the break. Now—back to our scheduled event with…our [Reporter]. Miss Drassi?

The Drake bared his teeth in something that could be called a smile. And the image cut back. Everyone in the inn sat up.

“It’s happening! Someone go into Liscor and tell the others!”

The inn grew excited. Erin glanced out a window. It was weird that everyone was so excited to see it on TV. But…well…she saw a Drake standing outside, on an area of flat ground a few hundred paces away. She was waving at a Gnoll holding a scrying orb.

In the inn, on-screen, Drassi smiled into the camera.

Thanks, Sir Relz. This is Drassi from Liscor! Reporting in! We had a little break for the battle coverage—everyone was watching the scrying orb. But I’m pleased to announce the first inter-city football game is about to begin! Pallass vs Liscor! I’ll be commentating!

And there it was. Erin stared at the soccer game. Two teams, vying to kick the ball through the goals set up in the Floodplains—terraformed for a flat playing field. Liscor’s team had Drakes, Gnolls, and two Humans.

Pallass’ team had Garuda, a single Dullahan in the goal, Drakes and Gnolls. They were all dressed in uniforms; each team had been practicing non-stop since the game had been announced.

There were packed stands filled with Liscor’s residents and Pallass’. They’d come yesterday to let the door recharge—even some [Senators]. Erin saw the Watch patrolling the area outside of the field as they watched to make sure no Rock Crabs or other monsters interfered.

“Weird. I didn’t even have anything to do with it this time.”

Erin mumbled as she heard Drassi eagerly introducing both sides’ players. The audience was cheering—both teams were comprised of Pallass and Liscor’s citizens.

Even a pair of Gold-rank adventurers from Pallass, which had caused a fight when it was announced. But this was a game—and there were no rules on who could compete. There were rules on the usage of magic, potions, and everything else that had been worked out over the last few weeks, but not on Skills.

And Pallass wanted to win. So their team was made up mostly of fliers—Oldblood Drakes and Garuda and they’d given their team the finest training.

Except for one thing. And that was the captain of Liscor’s team.

Joseph. Someone else who’s name was suddenly known the world over. He had done nothing as provocative as waking an Archmage. But he had brought soccer to this world.

“And last we have Joseph Ortega, the inventor of soccer—excuse me, football! He came up with the rules of this very fun game in conjunction with Wistram Academy. Huh. I didn’t know that. For more details, consult with any Wistram alumnus about the rules or equipment for the game!”

Drassi read from the script she’d been handed. That…fact…was quite interesting if you were listening hard for it. Erin’s own eyes narrowed, but it passed unnoticed by most. The game was starting and Pallass had the kickoff. Erin heard a roar from the crowd as the Drake captain from Pallass—a former Gold-rank [Warrior] launched the ball at Joseph’s team.

“Here we go! Just like we practiced!”

Joseph blocked the ball with his chest. Erin saw Liscor’s team running ahead. Spreading out—it was familiar to her as someone who’d seen a few soccer games.

By contrast, Pallass’ team made a beeline for the ball, over half charging for it.

“Oh wow! Pallass’ team wants to get the ball in the air! We have Casil from Pallass diving—no, Joseph passes it ahead to Rumerk!”

The Gnolls from Liscor and Pallass cheered as the Gnoll dribbled the ball around one of Pallass’ player. The Gold-rank was fast, but Rumerk passed the ball through his legs, and the former adventurer had to stop or smash into the Gnoll. Rumerk kicked it down the pitch towards a Drake no one was guarding.

Go! Go!

Ekirra was cheering from the temporary bleachers. He was wearing a Liscorian uniform—Ekirra was a member of the little league and Joseph’s soccer class.

Pallass’ team doubled back on the Drake. They were fast, with Skills boosting their reflexes. But…they weren’t soccer players.

Now!

A Garuda fluttered upwards as the Liscorian player kicked the ball up. The other fliers from Pallass flew back, ready to kick the ball through the air—

A Gnoll jumped and kicked the ball down and across the pitch. It flashed below the fliers and shot towards Joseph. The Human’s leg blurred.

[Flash Kick]!

The ball flickered. Erin blinked—she saw the Dullahan land on the ground. But the ball had curved as Joseph kicked it. It bounced out of the net. There was silence—then a roar.

Goal!

The bleachers erupted into cheers. Liscorians were in uproar—Pallass’ audience sat there in shock. They hadn’t seen Liscor’s team practicing. Erin had seen that particular trick a dozen times.

The fliers, flustered, regrouped as they were given the kick-off. This time they tried to juggle the ball in the air. A Garuda flew up as a Gnoll kicked the ball. She kicked it towards an Oldblood Drake—

[High Jump]!

A Drake headed the ball out of the air. It went flying and Liscor’s team on the ground passed it around Pallass’ players in a flash. Erin saw the ball go flying into the goal—heard a roar from outside, and then an echo of it from inside the inn a few seconds later.

Another goal! Not surprising—Pallass seems to think the air was the right way to go, but it’s too easy to knock it out of the air and then where are you? No one on the ground means you’re in trouble! 2-0!

It was going to be ugly for Pallass. They had stronger individual players, as Joseph had told Erin. But they had yet to understand how soccer worked as well as someone who had grown up playing the game. Teamwork, passing…Erin sat in her inn, smiling as Liscor cheered their team beating a Walled City.

She hadn’t done anything to make this happen. In fact, The Wandering Inn wasn’t even selling food. People had seen Erin making a small fortune at the baseball game and soccer games before, so every hawker and street vendor in Liscor as well as many restaurants, inns, and pubs were all catering with food.

Can I have money for food?

Mrsha held up a note, pleadingly. Lyonette looked exasperated.

“Why do you want to buy food, Mrsha? We’re an inn!”

“It’s the experience of it, Lyonette. Come on, how about two silver? Three? Okay, three, if you share with Ekirra and Visma.”

Erin laughed. It was a fun day. She handed the coins over as Lyonette rolled her eyes. The [Princess] let Ishkr pass out food to the audience who wanted to watch the game from the inn. She went to sit with Pawn and the Antinium on the roof of the inn.

 

—-

 

Soccer. On the field, Joseph shone as he led his players forwards towards the disoriented Pallassian team. A while ago he had been constantly drunk, disillusioned—well, it wasn’t like soccer had solved everything.

But it had given him a purpose. Erin had helped him find it, in less than a month, while Magnolia Reinhart had let Joseph and the others just…waste away their time and potential. Deliberately, perhaps.

It was notable, though, that a soccer game was tied for a battle between three of the Great Companies of Baleros in the news. But then again—that was how the news worked.

Ryoka Griffin stared at the image with Fierre, Salamani, and…Archmage Valeterisa. She hadn’t seen Erin, which was good, only Joseph.

“So this is now normal? Mass-broadcast via scrying orb? How strange. How strange. A useful concept, but…why did the academy come up with it? I must ask.”

Valeterisa was muttering to herself. The Archmage of Izril was distracted—Ryoka saw her flick a wrist.

“Memo—ask Feor about mass scrying spell. Television? No, Nailihuaile.”

A hovering quill scribbled furiously on a bit of paper. Then a note with the exact words in neat scrawl flew up and floated around Valeterisa’s head. The Archmage of Izril turned to stare at the game of soccer again.

Pallass was getting destroyed. The Dullahan was the wrong person to have in the goal. Ryoka wasn’t a huge soccer expert, but even with his ability to detach his limbs (which meant no soccer ball hitting his head which was watching from behind the goal), the Dullahan was just too slow in his armor.

Joseph hadn’t had time to teach Liscor’s team that many soccer techniques or strategies, so he’d gone with a good, basic one: passing from player to player before scoring instead of just charging the goal like Pallass’ team did. It meant half the time they got to the goal they scored.

“A new game too. Football. Foot ball. Hmm. How interesting. What else has happened aside from the King of Destruction waking up? That’s inconvenient. I wonder if Amerys is an Archmage? That would be—inconvenient. They said they were going to vote on it right when I left…”

Valeterisa was a woman from the wrong time. She had spent over a decade in isolation, working by herself, ignoring the world. Now she was…conscious…she had a lot to catch up on.

Ryoka eyed Valeterisa. She didn’t know what to make of the Archmage of Izril. She wasn’t trying to kill Ryoka, Fierre, or Salamani, which was a plus, but she was…

Odd. Ryoka was put in mind of a scientist—or rather, a caricature or stereotype of a scientist. Someone concerned with data, logic, to an absurd degree. Only, replace science with magic and that was Valeterisa.

For instance—the Archmage had been peeved to discover the three burning down her island and attacking her mansion. But after they’d explained why they were here, she’d thought about it—and then told them to come in and explain what had happened in the last decade.

Now they were here. In Valeterisa’ actual home—which was past countless layers of traps and so on. They’d teleported in; only Valeterisa or those with the right combination could enter her abode.

“Strange. Um. Oh, here it is. Let’s see. Merchant Guild reports…that’s a lot of money. Message, message…hm, so many people seemed to want me over the last decade.”

Valeterisa was flicking her hand in the air, dismissing dozens of glowing lines which appeared, writing themselves out. She was multi-tasking—glancing at the orb, writing responses—dividing her mind up.

That was what had kept her like this, apparently. Valeterisa had been grateful for being ‘woken up’, enough so that she’d forgiven the fire and attack on her home. Her reaction had been strange.

“At least three dozen people died trying to reach you, Archmage Valeterisa.”

Salamani the Mage Runner’s smile was forced. He stared at the Archmage. For a moment guilt flickered across Valeterisa’s expression. Then her face went blank.

“[Calm]. I did make it explicitly clear that I was not to be disturbed. I will apologize about it. But really…I came to this island to be left alone. That’s how it works. If the fake illusion didn’t chase intruders away—you know, I feel bad about them. I could donate some money to families or something. How much gold do I have? Memo—”

Ryoka felt a nudge at her side. She saw Fierre glancing at her. The Vampire mouthed.

Is she insane?

The young woman just shrugged. Valeterisa seemed more scatterbrained than insane. Actually—she seemed quite sheltered.

Salamani glanced at Ryoka and Fierre and coughed again.

“Archmage, I hate to bring this up since I did agree to the job. But I have to repeat—delicately—that I nearly died trying to reach you. There was evidence that many had starved to death in your prison.”

“Ah, of course. I forgot to tell the familiars to feed them. Little errors like that are how systems break. And placing the runes in an unguarded area. How did you break out again?”

Valeterisa glanced up, saw the glares from all three, and sighed.

“Oh. Right. I am sorry about that. Er…have some food. Food.

She clapped her hands and Ryoka saw a shadowy—thing—float towards her. It was all-shadow, and thus hard to even focus on. The Shadow Familiar was bearing a plate of…Ryoka eyed the very stale tea and raw carrots.

“What is this?”

“F-food? I had a garden set up and the familiars pull from my stockpiles. I have been eating…I think…I was going to wear a Ring of Nourishment, but they’re not perfect and I needed no magical interference from artifacts.”

Valeterisa looked unconvinced herself. She took a carrot and sipped at a cup of tea. Her face fell.

“That’s disgusting. Did I eat this the entire time? Wait…wait…[Recall Memories]. Oh. Oh my. That’s a lot of raw vegetables…and I hate potatoes!”

Ryoka looked at Salamani. The Mage Runner’s slitted eyes were rolled up in his head. He looked at Ryoka and then cleared his throat.

“Archmage—”

“Ah!”

She started and snapped her fingers. Salamani tensed warily; as did Ryoka and Fierre. Valeterisa wasn’t—reassuring to be around. But the Archmage of Izril swung around and smiled.

“How about this. You can keep the uh, possessions of everyone who came here? That’s a suitable…reward, isn’t it? I’m sure it’s quite valuable, some of it. Yes, yes. And I’ll commend your names to the Runner’s Guild.”

Valeterisa looked from face to face and hers fell slightly.

“No?”

The City Runner hesitated. She had a feeling about Valeterisa. So she looked the woman in the eyes.

Valeterisa had grey hair, but she seemed to have staved off aging. She was thin—especially since she’d lived on tea and vegetables for the last ten plus years—but she mostly reminded Ryoka of a curious bird, peering around, looking surprised.

When she had been about to kill them, though, she had been quite…cold. Ryoka remembered that too. She licked her lips before gesturing at Fierre and Salamani.

“Archmage…we nearly died. I’m not mad about that—I did volunteer for the risk. But your mansion and traps…they’ve killed dozens of people.”

The Archmage’s eyes flickered. She tapped her chest. Ryoka saw Salamani grimace at her. Valeterisa inhaled and exhaled.

“How about a larger tip? I could give you a few wands. Or enchant something…”

“Archmage. People died because of you. They died of starvation. Alone.”

Valeterisa stared at Ryoka and then turned away.

“I—”

She raised a trembling hand and Ryoka reached out. She felt a shock—snatched her hand back before touching Valeterisa. Her fingertips were burned.

But it worked. Valeterisa flinched. And her eyes filled up.

I didn’t mean to. I just—I was trying to protect my work! The last time they hired a [Rogue] and stole my research. It was—oh, Ancestors. Those poor people!”

She sniffed. A familiar handed her a handkerchief. Valeterisa wiped her eyes and promptly got a decade’s worth of dust in her eyes.

“She is so weird!”

Fierre whispered to Ryoka as Valeterisa cursed and conjured some water. Salamani shook his head.

“I’ve heard stories, but she went into seclusion when I was still a City Runner, let alone a graduate of Wistram…they say she’s the best at magical theory. Not combat or politics or anything else.”

Ryoka had no idea about Wistram politics. She turned to Salamani.

“Well, our job is done. Assuming we get out of here alive…”

They all eyed the sniffing Valeterisa. Ryoka hesitated.

“…we can get paid.”

“You mean, you can. I gave you all the credit to Lady Ieka. And I still owe you a debt, Miss Ryoka Griffin. Speaking of which—you should tell me if you want to call it in, anytime. I could try to persuade the Runner’s Guild to give you a Courier’s certification as part of it. I think few people would argue.”

Salamani smiled at Ryoka. She blinked at the Courier.

“No, really, Courier Salamani—”

The [Mage] waved a finger.

“It’s Salamani. And as far as I’m concerned, I owe you and Miss Fierre my entire life. I’d never have escaped the way you two did. I take that seriously. You name it. If you want—I’ll run with you to wherever you’re staying and give you all the artifacts I took.”

Fierre nearly spat out the bad tea she’d been drinking. Ryoka’s eyes widened.

“What? No—we can’t even carry all of it! You have your share, Salamani…Fierre and I are rich. We don’t need more!”

They were still wearing the prisoner’s gear, armed to the teeth even after throwing a riot in front of the Archmage’s abode. Salamani looked at Ryoka drily.

“Then I’m twice in your debt, Ryoka.”

She opened her mouth and he pointed at her.

“Don’t pretend that’s just goodwill. You and I both know how much money we’re wearing. I’m serious about giving what I’m carrying to you. Mind you—I won’t turn it down. It’s far more than Ieka would have paid me. But I mean it. You need anything, you call for Salamani.”

The City Runner was about to protest. She wanted to say he didn’t need to do that. That it wasn’t all he was making it out to be.

But she knew that was—untrue. She and Fierre and Salamani had survived an Archmage’s traps and woken her up. Valeterisa’s mansion was like a proto-dungeon, even more dangerous because it was maintained.

It was just embarrassing and awkward for Ryoka to be the recipient of genuine gratitude or emotion.

“Well…thank you, Salamani. You helped us too. But I’ll remember that.”

“And me. This was the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Fierre smiled. Her smile faltered as Salamani and Ryoka gave her a look.

“Well, it was. I felt alive. I’m still shaking!”

The Mage Runner laughed and swept back his hair.

“Me too, honestly. Dead gods, but that was a rare experience for even a Courier. We woke the Archmage of Izril!”

“And I’m grateful. Really.”

Someone sniffed. The three jumped.

Valeterisa was wiping her eyes with a clean handkerchief. She blew her nose.

“Ancestors. I hate emotion. I…I really did let those people die, didn’t I? And I would have stayed like that, dividing my thoughts up again and again. I owe you three a lot. I shall repay it too. Somehow. And here I thought [Parallel Thinking] was a Skill without flaw. I wonder how Archmage Chandler dealt with it? I might have spent another ten years trying to perfect the spell. I’ve missed so much…”

Ryoka was stunned, half by what Valeterisa had said, half by the implications. Wait. [Parallel Thought] was a Skill? Archmage Chandler? The Necromancer?

“What spell?”

Fierre’s had focused on the last bit. So had Salamani. They looked at Valeterisa. She sighed.

“I should explain, shouldn’t I? It’s why I was secluded here. I thought that if I had time—a year or two at most—to work on it, I could finish my project. See what happened? That’s what you get for not setting deadlines.”

She waved her hand around as if to indicate ‘whoops’, and saw the three looks. Valeterisa blushed. She coughed,

“Ahem. What was your question? Ah, yes. I was working on a spell. No—a theorem. Um, it would have been a revolutionary rediscovery. Even the proper [Archmages] of a thousand years ago didn’t know the spell. Not Zelkyr—but he was a [Golem Artificer]. Different disciplines. The point is it’s the lynchpin—cornerstone?—stepping stone?—building block of higher magic. Creating magical dimensions is possible, but rudimentary without constant management or this spell.”

She even talked like she had ten different trains of thoughts at once. Ryoka sussed out the important bits.

“What theorem, Archmage?”

“Oh. It’s very simple. Automated spellcasting. I was working so long on it—but I couldn’t bridge the final gap. It took me four  years to assemble the right spell matrices—and the rest of the time was trying to bridge the final gap. It’s so frustrating. Plate!

Valeterisa reached out. A familiar dropped a porcelain plate in her hand. She threw it down. It shattered on the floor and she kicked at it. After a moment, the plate rose and repaired itself.

“Isn’t that…automated spellcasting?”

Ryoka eyed the plate as the familiar bore it away. Valeterisa sighed.

“No. I know it looks the same to non-mages. And you can easily approximate automated spellcasting. That was a familiar equipped with a [Repair] spell bound into the mansion. But if I had the right spell—it would have auto-cast from my mana upon sensing the plate breaking, without the need for rules. It’s a lost magic, though. A fundamental building block no one else is willing to pursue. They’re all busy with…politics. Infighting. Eating cake.”

Salamani nodded as if that were obvious. Valeterisa peered at him.

“Wait. Are you from Wistram?”

“Yes, Archmage Valeterisa. I graduated about sixteen years back.”

“Oh! What schools?”

“Combat magic, physical spells, enchantment…those were my primaries, although I dabbled in some summoning and runecraft and I had an interest in astromancy.”

“Oh. One of the adventurer specializations. Are all the Archmages the same? Feor? Nailihuaile? Er…V—V—”

“Viltach?”

Valeterisa snapped her fingers.

“[Recall Memory]. Yes! I quite hate him so I keep erasing his name. What about Amerys? She came to the academy and we were going to make her Archmage. But if this King of Destruction is awake again…”

Salamani hesitated and glanced at Ryoka and Fierre. Particularly at Fierre, who was taking notes, having borrowed Valeterisa’s quill.

“I think that’s a matter for the academy, Archmage.”

“Oh. Politics.”

Valeterisa sighed. She looked at Ryoka and Fierre.

“And you two are strange. So strange. You—are you Human? And are you Human?”

She pointed at Fierre first who actually jumped three feet into the air and turned—well, she couldn’t turn paler. And then Valeterisa pointed at Ryoka.

“That’s—private, Archmage. Neither of us are quite usual. But who is?”

Ryoka smiled and saw Salamani tap one eye and wink. Valeterisa scratched at her head.

“Oh. That sounds like a rebuke. Am I being rude? I’m being rude, aren’t I. I just recall you two did so well in the first few layers of my defenses. I wish I’d saved the memory, but I wanted to conserve space. Er…I didn’t meant to be rude. I just wondered if the little one—[Recall Memory]—Fierre, was part-Gnoll or something. I’ve met them where I grew up.”

“That’s private.”

Fierre hid behind Ryoka. The taller girl blinked at Valeterisa.

“Where you grew up…?”

Valeterisa nodded, looking around. She picked up a carrot and ate as she replied.

“I’m hungry. This is horrible. Mhm. I grew up in Fissival. The City of Magic, you know? But I went to Wistram.”

Really?

Ryoka was startled. She dug in her pouch reflexively and offered the Archmage some rations. Valeterisa shrugged and then saw the flatbread and dried cheese. She brightened.

“Oh! That looks better! Familiars—do we have anything that’s not a vegetable? Exclude rotten foods. Would you all like to eat too? Or sit?”

“I…sure?”

Ryoka found herself sitting in a small dining room with Valeterisa, Salamani, and Fierre. They knew it was a dining room only Valeterisa normally used because the rich wood was worn and so was the chair where she sat. A decade of sitting in the exact same spot.

“Make food. Food. I’m sorry. They’re terrible at specific instructions. In the past, [Mages] had far more intelligent familiars. I thought about summoned beings, but they take too much mana and Shadow Familiars can make food. But usually only boiling pasta. And don’t ask them to put in sauce; they always put in everything.”

“Are they…alive?”

“Well, they can run out of magic and die. But they’re more like…limited sentience. Not like undead, which have a purpose even if you don’t give them orders. Shadow familiars are a complex darkness-based spell derived from Golems—you see, the spell differs when it comes to intentional learning, which Golems were actually made with. Have you met Cognita? She’s a version of that ideal taken to the extreme. If you ever opened her root magical matrices, which she’s never let me do, I think you’d find that there’s actually a potentiality for interpretation of orders, which is where the shadow familiars differ. They were created by Noelyeen, a [Mage] of Chandrar around eight thousand years ago to my understanding, although he might have based that on previous—”

The words washed over the three like the ocean. Ryoka, Fierre, and Salamani were each intelligent in their own way. Salamani had even graduated from Wistram. Fierre opened envelopes and traded secrets for a living and Ryoka liked to think she’d had a decent education and was sharp enough to grasp most theories.

Valeterisa was beyond any of that. And—she didn’t lay out things like a good [Teacher] might, with a coherent ending, beginning, and narrative flow. She just followed her own convoluted thoughts, breaking off, clarifying, making anecdotal evidence…

“—so pasta is the most they can do. Although I have had wonderful experiences asking them to ‘lightly char’ meat. They get it cooked right sixty percent of the time.”

“I see. Er, Archmage Valeterisa, what will you do now?”

Ryoka rubbed at one ear. The Archmage stopped nibbling at some extremely al dente pasta with Ryoka’s bread and cheese.

“Get back to work?”

She saw their expressions and clarified.

“Once I deal with all these messages and fix up my mansion and so forth. I have so many of them…and a number of commitments I should honor. Consult memo.”

The pieces of paper fluttered down from the collection around her head. Valeterisa read them, sending most back up but incinerating six notes.

“Yes. Recompense the dead, connect with Wistram…oh, and at the top of my list is checking my income. If I have enough money to spare, I should see what there is to buy. I have an account with the Merchant’s Guild. I hope they don’t think I’m dead. And that I have money.”

She looked nervous about that last part. Ryoka looked at Salamani.

“Er…you are an Archmage, Valeterisa?”

“Oh yes. But I’m bad with money. I spend it on what I need—so I sometimes have to take jobs. And sometimes I’m tricked! People lie to me! An Archmage!”

“Shocking.”

Fierre muttered. Salamani snorted and pretended to cough into his robes. Valeterisa nodded, sighing.

“Tracking down the last [Merchant] who tricked me was difficult. But I found him and made an example and they stopped after that. It was a very disgusting way to die too. I still lose my appetite unless I forget. I’ve blocked the memory but I think it had to do with worms.”

Ryoka stopped chewing on her crunchy pasta. Fierre stopped giggling. Valeterisa ate on, calmly.

“As to your question, Miss Ryoka Griffin—no, two things. Firstly, I will contact Ieka Imarris. She did well to contact me. I would expect nothing less of my niece.”

“Your—”

“Secondly, may I have some of your hair? All of it? I feel like something about you is…interesting.”

Valeterisa craned her neck back and forth to stare at Ryoka. She went on.

“I’d prefer flesh and blood or something else, but hair will do. I will pay you for it. Um…a hundred gold? If I have gold. Familiars, find out how much gold I have.”

A shadow floated away and Ryoka tried not to protectively cover her hair.

“Archmage, I’m not interested in selling my hair.”

“Really? Can I convince you otherwise? I feel like you might have some discovery in your blood.”

“Absolutely not.”

“I could insist. I am an Archmage. Your help would fuel magical discovery.”

Valeterisa looked at Ryoka with what might have been an attempt at sternness. Ryoka edged back in her seat.

“What have you discovered or made so far, Archmage Valeterisa?”

She looked hurt.

“All kinds of things! I do enchantments, mostly. Or scrolls—anything to make money. Why, the last thing I did was…was…[Recall Memory]. Aha! I helped design some Kaalblades, based on an old design for the House of El. Oh! I wonder if the profits will have come in already? Maviola hasn’t sent a [Message]…no, wait, she has. Sort through all fifty six, in order of date…”

Valeterisa sat back, looking excited. Salamani winced at ‘House of El’ and ‘profits’. Ryoka felt her head explode.

Maviola? No way—but Erin had said—just a coincidence. Just…

And like that, Ryoka Griffin remembered.

The Summer Solstice. Time was running out. But—if Erin was to be believed, she had found a member of the Five Great Families. With Magnolia, that was two.

One more and they could do it! But she had to continue coordinating with Laken. Pay him a visit on top of the letter. And—

Ryoka stood. The absent woman looked up as Ryoka took a breath.

“Archmage Valeterisa. I’m afraid I’m not willing to sell you any of my hair. Or blood. I’m uh, attached to the body parts I have left.”

She showed the Archmage her right hand. Valeterisa pursed her lips.

“I wouldn’t want a finger…well, I’d want one, but I wouldn’t ask for one unless you were willing to pay—but very well. I suppose I owe you a debt of gratitude. Erm. Yes. I am very grateful. Is there anything I can do for you three…Runners? Rest assured, I will recall this debt. Memo—debt of gratitude to Ryoka, Fierre, Salamani…”

She looked at them with the clear effort of trying to look grateful, but hoping that they didn’t actually demand something. Ryoka glanced at Salamani and Fierre.

Valeterisa gave Ryoka mixed signals. On one hand, she looked defenseless, gullible. On the other—she mentioned worms, she had made the most evil set of traps Ryoka had ever seen and she could be unsettling. Ryoka thought about it and felt at her full bag of holding.

“You know what, Archmage Valeterisa? You can ship the rest of the uh, magical scrolls and potions we left to Reizmelt for us. And then you can direct us to the exit. Maybe with a boat?”

The Archmage brightened. She nodded, clapped her hands for her familiars, and Ryoka breathed a sigh of relief. She looked at Fierre and Salamani and they smiled.

Ow!

Ryoka clapped a hand to the back of her head. A Shadow Familiar hovered away with a few strands of her hair. Valeterisa innocently turned her head.

 

—-

 

A while later, Archmage Valeterisa watched the three set sail in a little boat from the island. The rats tried to hitch a ride, as the island was now half-scorched; Ryoka kicked them into the water, reminded of all the invasive species on Earth.

Valeterisa had summoned the boat from the coastal village with a spell and she had replied to other [Messages]. Wistram was abuzz. The world—or parts of Izril knew.

The Archmage of Izril had returned.

The woman had remained, although Ryoka, Fierre, and Salamani had tried to get her to come with them. Quite hard, actually; they were all clearly worried she’d relapse into her slumber.

They needn’t have feared. But Valeterisa had insisted on staying and she was an Archmage.

She wished she could have made them stay. Well—she could have, but she was grateful.

And also—curious.

Not of Salamani. Valeterisa had read his magical abilities like a book and dismissed him. No, it was of Ryoka and Fierre and just who they were that interested Valeterisa.

She had lied. She was cleverer than most people thought. Valeterisa had hit some of her talking points for first introductions, like the [Merchant] whom she had caused to be infested with worms for double-crossing her. Valeterisa did not like Wistram’s politics and backstabbing, but she had survived there to become Archmage.

And she had lied about her memory of the traps. Ryoka Griffin and Fierre Nolastnamegiven were both odd. Neither had magical power in the ordinary sense, but Ryoka had used wind to great effect and Valeterisa was doubtful any Skill could do what she had done. She had a different kind of magic.

Fierre? Valeterisa was already investigating with one of her parallel thoughts what kind of species could have that much resilience, strength…and didn’t show up in mirrors. There was one match—two if you stretched a criteria. But that would be odd.

Oh—and one more thing. Neither Ryoka nor Fierre had any levels.

“So interesting.”

Valeterisa would have loved to keep them. But gratitude wasn’t unknown to her. She would remember Ryoka’s name, oh yes. She had added Ryoka to her priority memos. Everything about Ryoka, from her extraordinarily well-crafted bag of holding to her origin—Drathian?—to the query of why she ran around with bare feet was interesting.

But Valeterisa had much to do. So she contented herself with waiting. Because—after all—Ieka had sent Ryoka Griffin. The young woman was exactly Ieka’s type. Legged, tall, female…

Human women had never done much for Valeterisa. Due to her home, she had been more aroused by scales—and even then only physically. She had only two great loves, and that was Archmage Zelkyr and Archmage Chandler, the last two great [Archmages] worthy of the title the world had ever known. Valeterisa pursued their shades, and no lesser figure.

Besides. Ieka would help Valeterisa in so many ways. They were a good team, the two. The Archmage of Izril had helped her niece so much when Ieka was in Wistram, both before and after. The poor girl had always been getting into trouble with her interest in other women. Secrets held over Ieka’s head…Valeterisa helped her niece, and Ieka took care of messy politics.

Now Valeterisa was back, she would make up the lost time to Ieka. The Archmage of Izril cast a spell.

“Ieka? Hello. It’s me. Valeterisa. Have you forgotten me? It seems I was away for a while…don’t shout, Ieka…”

 

—-

 

When they were away from the Archmage’s Isle, Fierre hugged Ryoka so tightly that the young woman was left breathless. Fierre actually lifted her a bit off the ground.

“We did it. We did it!

She jumped up and down with Ryoka in her arms. And the smile grew on Ryoka and Salamani’s faces.

They had done it. They were alive. And—

They had done it. A task worthy of a legend. Wake the Archmage of Izril.

“Just one left. And maybe…maybe Ieka can help. We did it.”

“And we’re rich! Ryoka, we have to get this all appraised! We have armor, weapons—I could be an adventurer! Gold-rank by virtue of enchanted items alone!”

And you have a fabulous, famous Courier in your debt.”

Salamani added. He was grinning from ear to ear.

“This is the kind of thing that makes Couriers, Ryoka, Fierre. And believe me—I’ll be telling this story for free drinks everywhere I go. When I’m not paying for the entire room, that is.”

He reached out and clasped Ryoka’s arm.

“I mean it. I don’t want to dwell on the point, but—”

“I know. Let’s—just get back to civilization. You might actually be able to help me, Salamani. If you knew one of the Five Great Houses—er, Terland, Wellfar, or Veltras that is.”

The Courier’s gaze sharpened as they left the boat. The [Fisher] snorted after them, having heard the entire conversation. He folded his arms, glaring at the three.

“Oi! Not even a tip?”

Salamani bounced a gold coin off his chest. The three walked on, feeling dizzy, high on reality—a feeling Ryoka had only known a few times before. She loved it. She did love adventure. There was probably something wrong with her, but Ryoka was just the kind of person who’d jump off a cliff into the sea. Or parasail. Or…

Word was spreading. Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt had done it. Her name was out there. As the three walked through the night towards the village, debating how to get back, they were met with an interesting sight.

“—can keep up with you. It’s Ryoka who’ll fall behind. We could run to the nearest town and—oh.

Fierre blinked. Salamani’s wand was in his hand faster than Ryoka could blink. But neither young woman tensed.

A black coach stood in front of the road. A familiar one. And the driver was certainly familiar.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My employer has decided to give you a free ride, gratis. Won’t you step inside for a personal, expedited trip back to Reizmelt or wherever you’d like?”

The Djinni, Karsaeu-Dequoa, or Karsy if you were Termin, gave Ryoka and Fierre a huge, pained smile. She was half-bowed, the front of the coach open.

“Fierre, Ryoka. Did you tell anyone you were coming here? That’s—not a normal person. I don’t even know if that’s a Human woman.”

Salamani drew back. Ryoka and Fierre exchanged a look.

“Her employer must have heard the news already. Karsaeu’s not dangerous, Salamani. I think. Fierre?”

“I…think we can take the coach. The Unmarked Coach has a reputation to uphold. Just watch what you say.”

“Got it. It beats walking or running. I am dead and the sun’ll be the death of us.”

“That’s true. I’m exhausted too.”

Salamani didn’t pick up on that last, but Fierre punched Ryoka lightly in the side as they piled into the wagon.

“Can I interest you in any refreshments? If I can do anything to make your ride more comfortable, please, let me know!”

The coach was changed. Salamani exclaimed at the three beds and comfortable table, plush seats…

“Dead gods! How have I never heard of this service?”

“It’s a secret, Salamani.”

“Wh—oh. Got it. You two are full of surprises, aren’t you?”

The three sat back. Mindful of Fierre’s words, Ryoka sat back as the Unmarked Coach trundled forwards. She eyed the magical food and knew it was made of Karsy—or her magic—but she couldn’t help herself.

The three scarfed the food down. After they had eaten—or tricked their bodies into thinking the magical food was nourishment, Karsaeu’s face appeared in the open door slot.

“Was your trip satisfactory, esteemed guests?

She looked like she wanted to rip her tongue out and beat them to death with it. Ryoka eyed the Djinni’s strained smile, and took pity on her.

“If you have to ask us what we did, Karsaeu, we woke the Archmage of Izril up. Valeterisa’s alive and well. Er—alive. She didn’t complete her project. And that’s about all.”

Fierre opened her mouth, but closed it thoughtfully. Karsaeu eyed Ryoka. Then she nodded abruptly and relaxed.

“…Thank you. Go to sleep.”

The little panel slid shut. Ryoka sat back. She, Fierre, and Salamani looked at each other.

“I’m guessing it’s wrong to ask about the employer? Got it, got it…let’s talk later. I—”

Salamani caught himself in a huge yawn. Before she knew it, Ryoka was yawning too. She, Fierre, and Salamani lay back. Before they knew it—they were asleep. The Unmarked Coach travelled on. When Ryoka woke up—

They were at Reizmelt.

 

—-

 

“Dead gods, that was fast!”

Fierre exclaimed. The Unmarked Coach had beaten the sun. That was…close to Magnolia Reinhart’s carriage levels of fast! Speaking of which—Ryoka had only heard about that as Fierre got the news while eating breakfast.

Ryoka’s head was spinning. Magnolia Reinhart had been attacked? And saved by Tyrion Veltras?

And Teriarch. Only he could have teleported her out. There was no recording of the attack, but the details were spelled out.

“This continent’s going to change after today. If she wasn’t at war with the Assassin’s Guild now—I’d hide if I was one of them. Then again—maybe Reinhart’s in trouble. The gentry of Izril are like sharks. They smell blood or weakness and you’re dead.”

Fierre and Ryoka nodded. They looked around. Karsy was already closing the door to the carriage.

“See you. Thanks for not being annoying. I enjoyed the silence.”

She slammed the door and drove off. Ryoka waved after her, smiling. She liked Karsaeu.

And now they were back. That was magic for you. A neat end to an adventure…well, the Unmarked Coach had made the journey trivial.

“It’s vehicles like that which make me feel like I’m not worthy of being a Courier. Then again—there’s only one of them and always more deliveries for us.”

Salamani said what Ryoka was thinking. The Mage Runner rolled his shoulders, yawning.

“Now what?”

He looked at Fierre and Ryoka. The two hesitated.

There was so much that could be said. Ryoka could run around screaming, talk to Fierre about the moment when she’d gone insane and reassure her, get all her artifacts appraised, curl up into a ball and shake for a while at the near-death situations, get drunk, get a proper meal in her, capitalize on Ieka’s goodwill and Salamani’s to find the last great ruler of the land for the Solstice, arrange some other stuff for the party…

Fierre looked just as unprepared for the question. The older Courier took pity on them both.

“The first thing I do after I’ve done something great or nearly died is go home to my family. Girlfriend if I have one…since we broke up, that’s not an issue. Then I have something to eat, sleep if I need to, and then get to work. It’s finding an [Enchanter] to see what you’ve got, talking to Lady Ieka, and registering the run at the Runner’s Guild.”

“I know just the [Enchanter]. And I’m too far from…home. Maybe in Invrisil I can combine them. I can do the Runner’s Guild and Lady Ieka, though. Let them know I’m here.”

Ryoka took a few breaths. She looked at Fierre.

“Why don’t you go home, Fierre? I’m sure your family wants to know you’re back.”

“Me? But—well, okay.”

Fierre hesitated. But she flexed one arm and eyed the lightening skies.

“I have a lot to tell them. Ryoka. You are invited for dinner. Be there. Evening. We’re going to have to talk about a lot.”

The two grinned at each other. Fierre left, waving at Ryoka and running with considerable speed.

“If she’s not a Runner, she’s wasted.”

Salamani commented. He grinned and winked at Ryoka.

“Don’t worry. I know something’s up. Not sure what, but not many young women are like her. Or you, Ryoka.”

“I don’t need you to stick around, Salamani. Er—not that I want to get rid of you! It’s just—no need for your debt yet.”

Ryoka flushed. The Courier laughed.

“I appreciate you being honest. How about this? Let’s get to the Guild, make a report—and it’s going to take at least an hour with truth spells—and then you can tell me about the Five Families. I don’t have a big ‘in’ with them; I’ve done deliveries, but I can listen.”

“Sounds good.”

Ryoka smiled. They trotted towards the Runner’s Guild. Ryoka didn’t know what to say. Salamani was just making light chatter.

“The amount of gear we have is insane. Frankly, you’re at Courier-level if you keep the wands and scrolls, which I advise you to do. You can make any [Bandit] group sweat hard with that alone. As for the equipment—it’s a tossup what you keep and sell. We’re not adventurers and sometimes [Thieves] go after us. Do you have a place to store your gold?”

“Um. No. But I could put it at the Merchant’s Guild, right?”

The Courier nodded.

“With that kind of gold you don’t keep it. One Level 40 [Thief] and you’ll be sunk. Frankly, we need to be careful when we go to Invrisil. Actually—sleep with one eye open if we can’t store the gear before getting to Invrisil.”

“Do you—do you think we should give some of it back to the deceased? I mean…”

The Mage Runner sighed.

“Some gold, maybe. But charity? I don’t think giving back the items is a good…precedent. Tends to backfire.”

“Right. So…what? Am I just going to wear enchanted armor?”

Salamani saw her expression.

“You’re going to be the most well-armored Runner for a hundred miles. And yes. Unless it’s too heavy. We. Are. Rich. Mind you—I’m going to sell most of my gear because it interferes with spellcasting, especially heavy armor. But I’m buying a spell tome with, what, a Tier 6 spell? If I can…the next few months might just be me running around with my nose in a book!”

Ryoka laughed. The two pushed into Reizmelt’s Runner’s Guild and Ryoka inhaled. Here and there and back again. It felt strange.

The Runner’s Guild was, as always, slightly full, even at the crack of dawn. Ryoka saw the [Receptionist], Alime, at the desk and smiled.

“Alime!”

There was only one person in line in front of them so Ryoka slowed, embarrassed. Don’t get a big head. She was going to go to Invrisil—maybe with Fierre?—right after this. Maybe Ieka was still there, but Ryoka wanted to tell Erin. And Mrsha! And maybe Erin needed a suit of armor.

Scratch that—some of the artifacts needed to go to Erin. Not the sword. The thought of Erin with a sword was a terrible one.

Ryoka saw Alime glance up at her. The [Receptionist]’s eyes widened.

“Ryoka? There you are! What timing! Actually—”

She cut off. Ryoka saw the person in front of her, someone with short, silverfish hair, turn her head. It was an older woman. Tall, long-legged like most Runners. She turned her head and Salamani blinked.

“Whoa. Now there’s a meeting. Hey! Guildmistress, it’s me!”

“Salamani? Didn’t expect to see you here.”

The woman’s voice was lower than you might expect. Rugged. She coughed. But her eyes only flicked to Salamani once. She was looking at Ryoka.

The City Runner hesitated. Something about the look the older woman was giving her made her feel—uneasy. Salamani was oblivious.

“You’d not believe what just happened. But let me start from the beginning. The Archmage of Izril is awake! The delivery is done! And not thanks to me—I owe my life to her. Ryoka Griffin.”

“Really? The Archmage of Izril. Huh. About time someone did that. That’s a Courier’s errand, though. Ryoka Griffin. City Runner, right?”

“That’s right. I’m sorry. Have we met?”

Something about the woman was making Ryoka’s heart flutter in her chest. She felt…terribly unwell all of a sudden. Salamani blinked.

“Dead gods, you don’t know? Haven’t you been to First Landing?”

First Landing.

“Never.”

The young woman whispered. And now she was staring at the old woman. The Guildmistress of First Landing had violet eyes, but very dark and tinged with a shocking pattern of yellow. The two never looked away as Salamani grinned.

“Ryoka, let me introduce you. This is the Guildmistress of First Landing. A legend among Couriers—”

“Mihaela Godfrey.”

Ryoka Griffin whispered. The Mage Runner heard the note in her voice. Finally, he caught on and looked at Valceif’s mother.

Mihaela stood there, looking Ryoka up and down. She nodded, tersely. Her expression—

She was probably in her late fifties. But her hair was white or perhaps silver. She had more lines than Ryoka would have expected. More scars, too. She looked like the most in-shape woman her age that Ryoka had ever met, though. A marathon runner.

And her eyes never left Ryoka’s. Salamani looked at Mihaela.

“Guildmistress? Something wrong?”

“Not at all, Salamani. I came here to meet Ryoka Griffin specifically. Thanks for introducing us. Now. Get lost.”

Mihaela turned her head to glance at the Mage Runner. She looked at Ryoka.

“Step outside and we’ll have a chat, Ryoka.”

The young woman turned, feeling…she stumbled. Salamani blocked the way.

“Mihaela. What’s up?”

He smiled. But it wasn’t a smile. Mihaela looked at his arm. But Ryoka whispered.

“Let her go, Salamani. She has business with me. Valceif—I knew Valceif. He helped me out.”

“But he—”

Salamani’s eyes flickered and widened. Mihaela pushed his arm out of the way.

“Yes. He died. Let’s go for a run, Ryoka Griffin. Step outside.”

 

—-

 

In more important news, Tyrion Veltras was the most significant person in Izril at this moment. His actions, his very existence had changed northern Izril’s fate, perhaps all of Izril’s. What he did was watched. His actions had already spoken louder than anything.

And what he was doing was extraordinary. Surprising—shocking.

The Lord of House Veltras was training on the tilting grounds again this morning. He was going to go hawking later this day, or visit Lord Pellmia on a social errand—which was inevitably practical given that Tyrion did not enjoy such activities if it was just to sit and talk.

It was so surprising because of what he had done just a day before. Rescued Magnolia Reinhart, fought the Assassin’s Guild and placed himself against the elusive Circle of Thorns.

To anyone who knew Tyrion—it wasn’t that surprising, just exasperating. He regarded what he had done as just and necessary. Never mind that Ullim, Jericha, even his sons gave him looks mixed between awe and incredulity.

“Jericha. I’m minded to go riding. Just for an hour.”

“At once, Lord Veltras.”

The [Lord] nodded. He’d normally go for a long ride around his estates at those insane speeds only he could match. It was no exaggeration to say he was probably one of the fastest Humans in the world, certainly on Izril. Mounted, he could catch Magnolia’s famed carriage—and since it was destroyed, he was now peerless.

There were other famed Humans known for their speed, of course. Like Mihaela Godfrey. But she wasn’t known for pure speed…Tyrion was.

Tyrion was breaking in a new warhorse since his beloved steed had died. It was a mark of the man how he had disposed of his horse’s remains. Gelden, the horse, had been butchered and the meat given to the dogs. Because it was a waste of good horseflesh to do otherwise.

The bones Tyrion had kept and buried himself. All this was pure Tyrion. He had downplayed his battle with the [Assassins] to Hethon who had been agog at the story. In fact, he was training because he was so annoyed with the battle itself.

The ride would settle his nerves. But not too far. Tyrion turned as Jericha rode up towards him.

“How is Sammial doing?”

Ullim was looking after Sammial. The boy had a summer cold, fever and coughing. Jericha smiled slightly, reassuring Tyrion who had given no sign of worry.

“He’s resting. I believe he wants to hear more stories of his father, but Ullim is keeping him entertained.”

“Good. Have the [Healer] standing by if his coughing gets worse. His lungs were always weak.”

Sammial had been possessed by coughing fits when he was younger. Perhaps this was a resurgence. Tyrion rode with Jericha and a small escort, defying his peers of Izril to find anything different in his behavior. He had made his choice. There had never been another option.

 

—-

 

Reizmelt now. No one was looking at Reizmelt hard. But they would. Oh, it was about to become news. Just like the game of football. Bigger than the Bannermare and Baleros.

Because of her. Because her name was in the news. And—while few noticed, some remembered.

They gathered in the rally spot twenty miles outside of Reizmelt. Laughing, joking. A different group—only two were the same as last time.

“Alright, who called the Bloodfeast?”

One of them teleported into the spot. And there they were.

The Bloodfeast Raiders. One of them—the one on a carpet—raised a hand.

“This is a special occasion. We’re after prey.

“Oh?”

The others stirred. The carpet-rider nodded.

“We thought this Runner was dead. The name is Ryoka Griffin. Two of our members are very interested in her. Take her alive. Reizmelt? That’s all your discretion.”

They grinned and laughed. The Bloodfeast Raiders were eleven this time. They were mostly…younger. But one of their members was older. It was the difference of a decade. As they prepared for their entry and place in the news, which they would love and which would galvanize the other raiders—the older member raised a hand.

“Hold up. I just received a [Message]. There’s heat in Reizmelt. A Gold-rank team. A Courier. And…fuck.

The others stopped. They looked at him as the older member put a finger to his temple.

“Mihaela Godfrey.”

“The Guildmistress of First Landing? What is she doing here?

The other raiders were confused. Some were excited—others wary. A Courier and a Gold-rank team? They had killed Gold-ranks before. But that last name—the senior member of the Raiders raised a hand.

“Abort. The Bloodfeast is cancelled.”

What?

The carpet-rider was furious. He pointed at the city in the distance.

“We could turn Reizmelt to ash! There are eleven of us! You think we’re afraid of a Courier or Gold-ranks? We—”

He fell silent as the oldest Bloodfeast Raider whirled and put a knife at his throat. The others fell silent, wary, listening.

“I said, the Bloodfeast is cancelled. Mihaela Godfrey isn’t someone you can outrun. Either you kill her or she’ll get one of us. You want to go there? Let me know. Because if you compromise the Raiders, we’ll kill you now rather than let you rat us out. Well?”

“No.”

The other Raider held still, his eyes flashing with fury. The senior member turned and looked around.

“The Bloodfeast is canceled. Get lost.”

The eleven broke up, annoyed, furious. But no one died today. No one made trouble as they left, covertly as they came. It had happened before. A Named Rank adventurer or team—Tyrion Veltras on the move. The Bloodfeast Raiders didn’t fuck with that kind of person.

Including Mihaela Godfrey.

 

—-

 

She stood outside the Runner’s Guild, listening. One of those people you might meet once. That your father might say he’d met. A living legend in our times, like Zel Shivertail had been.

The Courier who had outrun everything in the First Antinium War. When the Walled Cities had been under siege, as the Antinium overran Izril—only one Runner had kept delivering potions, secret battle plans, missives.

“Mihaela Godfrey. I’m sure of it. That’s the Unstoppable Messenger of Izril, right there. Dead gods. Mother has her autograph.”

Ylawes Byres peeked at the Guildmistress of First Landing with his team. The Silver Swords had heard the buzz; they’d been loitering in Reizmelt after finding that Ryoka Griffin had already been found by Erin. Killing monsters, enjoying the break—

Now they saw Ryoka and Mihaela and Salamani all standing together with onlookers watching covertly from afar, like the Gold-ranks. Ryoka’s face was…twisted. Mihaela’s could have been stone. Salamani looked worried, tense.

None of that escaped Ylawes. The [Knight] scratched at his clean-shaven chin. He’d been hoping to meet Mihaela. But this was another entry in the ‘Ryoka Griffin’ events, which seemed to tie into the ‘Erin Solstice’ madness.

“I thought she seldom ran deliveries anymore. Move it, Pointy Ears. I can’t see!”

Dawil growled as he stood on his tip-toes. Falene adjusted her spectacles.

“She’s mostly retired. But yes. That’s certainly her. Why does Ryoka Griffin know her?”

The Silver Swords exchanged a glance. Dawil sighed.

“You know, this is Erin Solstice all over again. Hey, you know if we’d stayed around Liscor we might have been able to commission Pelt, the master-smith to make us gear? Or—or bought potions from Saliss of Lights? Or we’d be getting those fat Wyvern bounties!”

“Erin wasn’t responsible for all of that, Dawil.”

“Yeah? And I’m a Minotaur in disguise. I’m just saying—first Erin, now this Ryoka. Stick with the crazy Humans, lad. That’s where the interesting stuff is.”

Ylawes shook his head. He didn’t know Ryoka well. She was standoffish. Friendly—but no Erin. Still—he glanced towards the crowd.

“Is that it? You can’t tell me?”

Mihaela’s voice was quiet. Her arms were folded; Ryoka flinched.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. He—he was helping me. I was under a spell, but I can’t say more than that.”

“Mihaela—”

“Be quiet, Salamani. This doesn’t involve you.”

The Mage Runner fell silent. He was visibly uneasy. Mihaela…walked around Ryoka. She had that swiftness Ylawes recognized. A passive movement Skill. She coughed once, a deep, wet cough.

“I heard Valceif had met a City Runner. That was how he lost his charm. I waited for you to come north. And here you are. You sent a [Message] to me saying Valceif’s death was your fault.”

“Who?”

The Silver Swords looked at each other. Valceif? Ylawes recognized the name. Falene blinked.

“That’s—Valceif Godfrey. Courier. Mihaela’s…oh no.”

They looked forwards, realizing what this moment was. Ylawes felt the tension in the street intensify suddenly as everyone caught on. The onlookers backed up.

“It was my fault. I was under a spell and Valceif helped break it. But I can’t—”

“Really? You can’t tell me why Valceif lost the charm that would have kept him alive?”

Mihaela stepped forwards. She was taller than Ryoka. She looked down at the young woman. Ryoka hesitated again. But she didn’t step back. She just nodded. She couldn’t run from her responsibility. She had been prepared for this moment since she had asked to notify Valceif’s family of her responsibility.

“I’m sorry. But it’s not my secret to give away. It’s…the Runner’s code.”

Salamani made a sound. Mihaela’s eyes narrowed.

Really. What integrity, for a Runner.”

There was nothing for Ryoka to say. She waited as Mihaela looked her up and down. The Guildmistress stared at Ryoka, and then straightened.

“Well then. I suppose if it’s the Runner’s code of integrity. There’s nothing to say. That’s that.”

Ryoka started. But Salamani—he just watched Mihaela, licking her lips. The Guildmistress stepped back.

“That was personal business. Now. Ryoka Griffin of Celum. The ‘Wind Runner of Reizmelt’. Today is your lucky day.”

Mihaela smiled. Ryoka said nothing. Mihaela—even after meeting her for five minutes—was not someone to whom a smile and ‘good news’ came naturally. The Guildmistress waited for a second and then went on.

“Your achievements have been logged. The Runner’s Guild has certified you at base Courier speed and you have performed a number of impressive deliveries. Thus—you are being considered for certification as a Courier. I’ve come to personally check your abilities.”

“Courier?”

The word ran around the street. Some of Reizmelt’s runners, the Silver Swords, they stirred. That was huge news. It was deserved too—especially in light of Ryoka’s gear, which no one knew about but Salamani.

But the Mage Runner looked even more nervous.

“You, Mihaela? Is that—that necessary?”

“Shut up, Salamani. One more word and I’ll make you a Street Runner.”

Mihaela looked at Salamani. Ryoka thought it was just an empty threat until she saw Salamani turn pale. The Guildmistress looked back at Ryoka.

“Congratulations, Ryoka Griffin.”

She waited. Ryoka made her dry mouth work.

“I—I don’t think I’m ready to be a Courier, Guildmistress Mihaela.”

“Really? Well, we’ll find out. It’s just a few tests of your running speed, other abilities. Oh—and combat competence. I won’t take up much of your time. Let’s start with combat.”

Mihaela.

The Guildmistress ignored Salamani. She gestured at Ryoka.

“I’m told you’re a good hand-to-hand fighter. Go ahead and show me how you’d defend yourself if I was a [Bandit].”

“Guildmistress—”

Attack me. Or I’ll attack you.

Mihaela waited. Ryoka Griffin looked around. She was tense. Part of her was telling her to kick Mihaela as hard as she could and run like hell. Fight—the air was heavy.

But no. No running, and no…Ryoka raised her hands.

“I can’t just attack you, Guildmistress. I—”

“You can defend yourself, then. Here I go.”

Mihaela raised a fist. Reflexively, Ryoka brought up her hands. She saw a blur, heard a shout.

Mihaela, don’t—

Something hit Ryoka in the jaw. It felt like a hammer. Ryoka stumbled, caught hers—

A blow to her sides. She doubled over, reflexively. Then a third punch landed before Ryoka could blink.

She was on the ground. Ryoka tasted blood in her mouth. Her head was ringing. She—Ryoka tasted blood. What was—was—?

“Silver and steel!”

Ylawes exclaimed. He’d seen all of it. The Guildmistress had punched Ryoka in the jaw before the young woman could even raise her hands. Then she’d hit Ryoka in the side and while Ryoka was folded up, Mihaela had hit her in the back of the head.

Ryoka was lying on the ground, blood coming from her mouth. Mihaela stood over her.

“Not good. Get up and we’ll try again.”

“Guildmistress! Enough!”

Salamani blocked her, arms outstretched. Ryoka might not even have heard Mihaela; she was trying to get up, clearly dizzy.

“Salamani. You’re starting to annoy me.”

Mihaela saw Ryoka pushing herself up. The City Runner looked around muzzily.

“Wh—dr—”

She was fumbling for a potion. Mihaela pointed at Ryoka’s belt, with a friendly…smile.

“Heal up. This is just a test.”

Ryoka spat, gagging on the blood, and drank from the potion. Some of the dizziness and confusion faded. She spat again.

“I—”

“All healed up? Let’s try again.”

This time Salamani tried to stop her. Ylawes saw it. But however fast the Mage Runner was—and he was quick—Mihaela was faster. She blurred down, ducking Salamani’s hand. Ryoka bl—

Her feet left the ground for a second as Mihaela hit her in the ribs. Ylawes heard something crack. Ryoka fell down and doubled over, clutching at her chest.

“Healing potion. Let’s try again.”

Mihaela stood over her. Salamani whirled.

“Mihaela! Enough!

It was enough for Ylawes too. He strode forwards. Dawil grabbed for him, cursing.

“Lad—this isn’t a good idea—”

“Guildmistress Godfrey. Isn’t this enough? Ryoka can’t defend herself.”

Ylawes saw Mihaela turn. She looked at him blankly, then Falene and Dawil. The half-Elf hissed with annoyance as she and Dawil joined their captain. But what else was there to do? To Ylawes, nothing.

He blocked Mihaela as Ryoka reached for a high-grade potion, still on the ground. Mihaela looked at Ylawes.

“Who are you? This is Runner’s Guild business, [Knight]. Out of my way.”

She looked around. Some of Reizmelt’s citizens were staring at the Wind Runner, who was part of their city, even if she was only new by a few months. But they were hesitating. They had all seen Mihaela move.

Ylawes felt his skin crawling. But he blocked Mihaela, with Salamani as Falene and Dawil took up his back.

“Guildmistress, I am Ylawes of House Byres. Captain of the Silver Swords. I don’t believe this is just or fair to Miss Griffin. I understand you have reason for anger against Miss Griffin. But please—”

“Get out of my way.”

Mihaela looked past him at Ryoka. The City Runner was looking up.

“That’s right. Get up, Ryoka. Show me your abilities.”

Mihaela smiled again. Kindly. Ylawes slowly reached for his shield.

“Guildmistress.”

She looked up at him.

“I’m warning you, boy. I know your mother. Get out of my way or I’ll remove you. You too, Salamani.”

“Oh no.”

That came from Dawil. He had already drawn his hammer. He was just looking at Mihaela. So was Ylawes.

If there was a Named-rank version of Couriers—that was Mihaela Godfrey. But the [Knight] gritted his teeth.

“No, Guildmistress. Enough. This is not honorable.”

Mihaela said nothing. She just narrowed her eyes.

“Mihaela. Ryoka saved my life. Enough.”

Salamani had drawn his wand. Falene took a few steps back. She pointed at Ryoka.

“[Forcewall: Bubble].”

A shimmering wall formed around Ryoka. Mihaela sighed. Dawil groaned.

“Oh no.”

“Dawil, would you stop saying t—”

Ylawes half-turned his head. Mihaela stepped forwards and hit him in the jaw. He stumbled as his head went blank. Without his Skills he would have dropped like a log. As it was—Mihaela slapped down Salamani as he shouted.

[Stick—

She stepped back. Ylawes stumbled upright, drawing his sword and shield. Falene aimed her staff at Mihaela. Dawil raised his hammer with a curse. Salamani was moving, aiming a wand and reaching for something at his belt.

Ryoka Griffin saw it all. She even saw the Pithfire Hounds charging at Mihaela from behind. Makki and Mousey, the two dogs, and Levi, Bram, Lamont, Tally, Keima, Ullica, as well as the Silver Swords, Salamani, and two idiots in the crowd who thought this was a good idea—all of them rushed Mihaela.

It was like slow motion. That surge of adrenaline where time took it easy. Ryoka saw Mihaela moving, stepping back.

She walked backwards, the only one moving at normal speed in this moment. So fast. But she didn’t attack. She reached for her belt and plucked something from her waist.

A wand. She looked at Ryoka, glancing down with her cold eyes. Violet torn by yellow. She could have been a Dragon if the two irises were mismatched.

She was just Human. Just…Mihaela raised the wand as Ylawes lunged, shield raised. Falene, Salamani, casting. She said something that lingered in Ryoka’s ears.

“[Transfer Momentum]. [Lightning Bolt].

The wand flashed. Ryoka saw something. A flash of light. A—an arc of electricity.

Hanging in the air. For one second, two, Ryoka saw the bolt of lightning coalescing, trying to discharge the stored energy. But it hung in the air, virtually without any momentum, until it finally exhausted the charge and grounded itself on the street with a flash of light. But slowly. All of the blinding speed of the electricity had been stolen away.

A flash of light. Ryoka heard the thunder. She felt the [Forcewall] explode and something hammered her onto the ground.

Ylawes, Dawil, Falene, all went flying. So did Salamani and everyone around Mihaela. They landed on the ground, each struck by a single blow. Ryoka lay there, stunned.

The street was silent. Mihaela stood there, coughing, amid the fallen figures. She looked at Ryoka.

The Courier of the First Antinium Wars.

“Get up. Your test isn’t done.”

The young woman could have begged. Or curled up, tried to run. She looked up, then found the strength to push at the ground. Ryoka Griffin stood, then followed Mihaela as the woman pointed. She went to accept Mihaela’s wrath.

Her punishment.

 

—-

 

“Again, I’ve got to thank you. That charm you had—I want to repay you somehow. It was extremely expensive.”

“Like I said, forget about it. It’s one favor from a Runner to another.”

“Still. It’s not a small thing. A thousand gold coins—”

“Ryoka, we’re Runners. When one of us needs help, other Runners give what they can. If we need someone to help carry a delivery, we ask. Because we are alike, you and I. Today you needed help; tomorrow I might be the one in trouble, or someone else. I’m just paying back favors I received in the past.”

 

It felt like a long time ago. Ryoka remembered Valceif. Not strongly. He hadn’t been someone whom she’d known as long as Fals or Garia. But she did remember him.

“Get up again.”

Ryoka uncurled. She got up. Her arms shook. They did not want to carry her up. Mihaela waited.

“Healing potion.”

The City Runner stared at her, muzzily. The Guildmistress pointed.

“Heal yourself up. Now. Attack me.”

There was nothing to do but obey. The potion tasted like blood. Ryoka—swung. Fast, desperately.

Mihaela hit her just hard enough. Not hard enough to make Ryoka faint or to kill or break her bones like twigs. Just hard enough to—Ryoka clutched at her side, making a faint sound of pain.

“Let’s try again. Why don’t you show me your best kick? I’m told you can hit pretty well.”

The Guildmistress smiled down at Ryoka. There was no one to interfere; they were outside of Reizmelt. Mihaela had led Ryoka away so they couldn’t be interrupted.

She seemed…kindly. Right up until she hit Ryoka or you looked at her eyes. Ryoka was panting, sweating.

“Okay. Okay…”

She couldn’t run. This was—what she deserved. It actually felt like a relief. Finally—someone was hitting her.

Brunkr had died because Venitra and Ijvani had followed her. The Stone Spears tribe had been slaughtered because of the Goblin Lord that Az’kerash had ordered to attack them. Periss had followed Ryoka to her death. Ivolethe—

She couldn’t die. Ryoka stood up. This time she went back in time. A roundhouse kick towards Mihaela. Ryoka remembered Calruz—

On the ground. Mihaela was twisting her arm up.

“Show me. Wind magic, right? Show me or I’ll break your arm.

“Stop—”

Ryoka tried to twist. Mihaela pulled the arm up and Ryoka screamed.

The wind blew. Mihaela went flying. She caught herself—

“[Transfer Momentum].”

The wind dropped her, suddenly sapped of fury. The Guildmistress blurred over to Ryoka.

“You could have done that from the start. Get up. This time attack me like you mean it or I will kill you.”

Ryoka got to her feet. She thrust a hand out.

“Wind—”

Mihaela blurred left. Ryoka felt the wind howling. It blew at Mihaela. Desperately, Ryoka let it blow sand, a storm of grit and rocks and leaves and dust—

The Guildmistress ran around the storm as the cloud of sand blasted towards her. She was too fast! Her final blow made Ryoka double over and then retch.

Was this how she died? No—she couldn’t! But Mihaela was too fast. If Ryoka tried—

It was just a beating so far. Ryoka got to her hands and knees, spitting to clear her mouth. She looked up.

“And that’s all?”

The woman folded her arms. Her grey hair blew in the weak wind. Ryoka whispered.

“Yes.”

“I see. Stand up.”

Ryoka did, fumbling for the healing potion. Mihaela let her drink it. She coughed into one hand, reflexively, one of those light coughs that you got instead of the full-throated one, and scowled.

“The combat test is over. Not exactly Courier-level. Now, the speed test. Show me your fastest sprint.”

The young woman looked blankly at Mihaela. The woman pointed.

“Go on. From here to those trees. Fast as you can. Imagine I’m about to shoot an arrow at your back.”

Ryoka flinched. But Mihaela produced no bow. She just waited, tapping her foot.

“Wh—run?”

“I said, sprint. Didn’t you hear me?”

Mihaela’s eyes flashed. The young woman hesitated. Then she set herself into a sprinter’s position, waited—

Go already!

Ryoka ran. As if she were on the track and field, doing a 400-meter dash. She felt slow. Aside from the fact that her body was healing every blow Mihaela had given her for the last twenty minutes—she had seen speed.

Skill. There was no way to match Mihaela. She had taken the speed of a damn bolt of lightning and she could outrun the wind itself! Ryoka strained for every step, feeling like she was in jello—

Mihaela zipped past her as Ryoka nearly reached the tree. The Guildmistress stood there.

“Slow. You can’t boost your speed?”

“W—with a potion or…”

Ryoka gasped for air. She might have shattered a state record with that run. But it was still upwards of forty seconds at least, even with the wind at her back. Mihaela might have taken less than ten. With her Skill? Less than a second?

Unfair. But Ryoka didn’t say it. Mihaela was the highest-leveled Runner that Ryoka had ever met.

“But no Skills. No…anything. You’re fast on your feet. You actually have good running form. Long legs—and that’s it. Half the City Runners in First Landing could leave you in the dust.”

Mihaela shook her head. She looked at Ryoka and then turned.

“You know Laiss? Small city, thirty miles south of here?”

“Y-yeah.”

“We’re running there. Do your best. This is a priority-delivery. An…antidote. Lives are on the line. Every minute you waste, someone dies. Got it? Show me your best.”

Ryoka gulped. She hesitated, then nodded.

“Okay.”

Mihaela folded her arms.

“Well? Go!

The young woman turned and ran. She felt worthless, especially as she saw Mihaela appear next to her, watching her sidelong as Ryoka ran just a hair slower than her max sprint. Within the first four minutes, Ryoka needed a stamina potion to continue her top speed. With one she could match the best marathon runners; but even then. Mihaela just jogged next to Ryoka.

[Double Step]. [Enhanced Movement]. [No Air Resistance]? Ryoka was just guessing. She ran as hard as she could.

She knew what Mihaela was doing. The Guildmistress looked impatient after the first five minutes and she jogged slightly ahead of Ryoka as the wind blew at their backs. Ryoka didn’t think Mihaela even needed to curse at her or tell her how worthless she was—she hadn’t done it yet, but Ryoka felt that way just running next to her.

She had made a choice. She had made a lot of mistakes. Now—someone had come to collect. Simple as that. Ryoka faltered.

They are dying. Run, you worthless idiot! Are you a City Runner or some cowardly puke of an adventurer? Run!”

Ryoka faltered and then picked up speed. She gasped for air. The wind blew harder, but Ryoka wasn’t able to make it gale. She had one last trick. The folded cloth in her bag of holding. But—she’d probably die. She could not control the wind perfectly at the best of times. And now—

“Stop, stop. I’ve seen enough. We’ll take forever to get there at this rate. And this is your best? With lives on the line, you need a potion or spell to eclipse that?”

Mihaela stopped. Ryoka slowed, and, panting, nodded.

“Yes.”

The Guildmistress pushed a hand through her short-cropped hair.

“Dead fucking gods. I shouldn’t expect anything less from someone without a class, but—I thought you had something. A bit of wind magic or whatever that is isn’t enough. Even the weakest Courier could destroy you without magical items.”

“I—uh—”

Ryoka froze as Mihaela looked at her. The Guildmistress folded her arms.

“You don’t have anti-[Appraisal] spells. Your idea of fighting is punching someone with your bare hands without Skills. You can command the wind which is something. Beyond that? You’d fail First Landing’s Courier-test even if it wasn’t me.”

“I know. I know. I’m slow.”

Ryoka lowered her head. She waited for Mihaela to hit her again. The Guildmistress unclenched one hand. A muscle stood out in her jaw.

“This is a waste of my time. I could have saved the effort.”

“I’m sorry.”

What else could she say? Ryoka knew Mihaela’s wrath wasn’t expended. Not even a fraction of it. She bowed her head. Mihaela looked down at her.

“Pathetic. Show me something. Why you? Show me what was worth Valceif wasting his charm on! Show me—”

She shook her head. Ryoka looked up. The Guildmistress looked past her. Ryoka felt her throat lock up.

“I can’t. I’m sorry. I can make the wind blow harder sometimes. But I’m not—a Courier. Valceif shouldn’t have helped me. I’m so s—”

“Would you stop apologizing?”

The City Runner hung her head. She waited once more. Mihaela looked down at her. She turned away.

“What a waste of my time. I shouldn’t have bothered.”

She turned and walked away. Ryoka’s head rose.

“Wait! If you—I won’t do anything. Just—just let me have it. Whatever you want. I deserve it.”

The Guildmistress of First Landing looked back at Ryoka, her eyebrows raised. Ryoka flinched. She expected another blow. But Mihaela just turned back and snorted. She began jogging without another word.

The City Runner tried to follow her. Mihaela ignored Ryoka’s voice. She jogged, contemptuously moving just past Ryoka’s top speed. Letting the Runner try to catch up. But—no. Mihaela was done. She took a breath, trying to calm the fury running through her.

The breath caught. Mihaela began coughing. She slowed, thumping at her chest. For a minute, she had to cough and nearly run in place.

“Guildmistress?”

Ryoka caught up. She saw Mihaela reaching for something. A vial. The woman uncorked it, took a sip. Looked back at Ryoka and scowled.

“We’re done here. You failed. I’m going home.”

She turned and began running again. Ryoka ran after her. No. If Mihaela had beaten her unconscious, that would be one thing. If Ryoka could explain in any way—as much as she could without talking about Teriarch—that was another.

Ryoka wanted Mihaela to vent whatever fury she had. This? This wasn’t anything.

“Mihaela! Please—wait!”

The woman picked up speed. But she began coughing again. It was some kind of attack. Ryoka saw Mihaela grasping at her chest.

Yellow Rivers? No—wasn’t there a cure? And besides—this wasn’t the symptoms of that. It looked like—an asthma attack. Or close. But Mihaela didn’t slow.

Damn. Get lost!”

She ran on. This time Ryoka ran as hard as she could. But Mihaela was pulling away. And then—the older woman spoke. To lose Ryoka, she spoke a Skill. A truly powerful Skill.

 

—-

 

Mihaela was done. She didn’t know what she had expected, but Ryoka Griffin had splendidly betrayed it all. She hadn’t been what the Guildmistress wanted, in either direction.

She was done. The Courier coughed again. Her damned lungs. So—to leave, to outrun Ryoka, she used a Skill.

Her greatest Skill. The one she had gotten at Level 50. She had gotten another capstone Skill since—and possibly more powerful.

But this was the most significant of her life. She had never been more honored by a Skill before or since. Mihaela whispered it now.

“[The Courier’s Last Road].”

And she ran into another world.

It was the same as the first time she had run here, lungs burning, dying. Mihaela Godfrey inhaled and felt her lungs clear. The grass and trees around her vanished. The land around Reizmelt—gone.

There was only the road. It stretched ahead in a world with almost no terrain. Just flat ground. No sun. But there was light—of a kind. Ambient, coming from everything and nothing.

The Courier’s Road. A road that many had run down, passed from the greatest Runners of each generation. The safest place. Here—Mihaela breathed. She ran on, covering ground in the other world at impossible speed. She felt light. She could run forever here.

It was only after a few moments that Mihaela realized she wasn’t alone. She looked back; the intrusion was noticeable in this place, impossible to miss. Someone had violated this sacred ground.

Ryoka Griffin. She had followed Mihaela into the Courier’s Road. The Guildmistress scowled. It was possible, especially to those around her when she opened the way through. But—Ryoka wouldn’t stay.

Because there was no air for her to breathe. Mihaela saw Ryoka clutching at her throat, realizing that this land was not meant for her. It was dark to those who did not run the Courier’s Road. No light. Nothing—Ryoka stared around, lost.

Mihaela slowed, watching. If Ryoka did not turn around—she died. Like the Antinium. Like so many enemies of Couriers. Many had died on this road; she had seen them.

Couriers, who had ended their lives running here. This was a glorious place. A terrible place. Mihaela saw Ryoka staggering. Falling to her knees as her lungs tried to inhale nothing.

“Leave.”

Mihaela spoke, one of the few times words had ever been spoken here. She saw Ryoka Griffin look up. She was crawling—forwards.

She was going to die. Mihaela watched. There would be no aid, no drawing back from her. Not here. She saw Ryoka collapsing—then—suddenly, raise her head.

She stood. Mihaela saw the young woman inhale, slowly. Closing her eyes. She could not see. But she was breathing.

“Impossible.”

The Courier stared. Then she felt it. Something blew on her face. The woman jerked in surprise, even fear.

Wind. But there was no wind here! The Courier’s Road was breezeless unless she willed it! It was—she felt the wind blowing against her. Weakly at first, then stronger.

Harsher. Ryoka ran, stumbling, unable to see the ground or anything else. But running towards Mihaela, breathing, following the wind. Mihaela turned. She felt the wind blowing, daring her onwards.

The woman looked back. Ryoka ran on, through the dark oblivion. Through the land that had claimed an army of Mihaela’s foes in decades past. No one had ever remained in the Courier’s Road for more than ten minutes. But she ran.

 

—-

 

There was nothing. Not light. Not sound. Ryoka ran on. She had heard Mihaela’s voice once, but that was all. She felt like she was dead.

Only the sensation of her feet striking the ground was real. This…this was like a dream. But she had to find Mihaela. Talk to her. It couldn’t end like this. Ryoka was terrified as she ran, but the flat world continued forever.

Until there was light. She stumbled, shielding her gaze. But then—she saw it.

A light in the skies. A barren world, like a drawing. Just a single road, stretching forwards into oblivion. In the distance—a few things. A tree, standing in not dirt but pale nothingness. A fallen shape. A…stick? They were impossibly far away, but stood out because there was nothing else there to see.

The Courier’s Road. And there stood Mihaela Godfrey. She looked at Ryoka as the wind blew, letting Ryoka breathe. The City Runner did not know where it came from. Only that the wind had answered her.

She slowed as she ran towards Mihaela. There was no telling what distance was, here. But the woman waited. She looked Ryoka up and down, from head to her bare feet. And at last—the woman’s look was no longer hostile.

It was—had been—disappointment. Disgust and hatred, but mainly disappointment. Now—Mihaela looked at Ryoka Griffin. And she nodded. She spoke, and gave sound to the world where Ryoka had ceased to hear even the beating of her own heart.

“Okay. Let’s talk.”

 

—-

 

“It’s called The Courier’s Last Road. It’s made of a Skill. Only one person has access to it. Me. In the past—other runners ran there. Together, perhaps. No one else is worthy of it today, it seems.”

Mihaela Godfrey spoke as she stood on a small bluff of rocks. Ryoka had no idea where they were. In some lovely grassland, far north of Reizmelt.

What had taken them only a short while in the Courier’s Road had allowed them to bypass countless miles in this world. It was a Skill worthy of Mihaela Godfrey. But—like the [Garden of Sanctuary]—it was not hers alone.

“Who made it?”

“I don’t know. But I’ve seen traces of others there. Bodies—possessions. Even memorials. They lie scattered across our world. Even in the sea. I could run to Terandria with this Skill. I’ve seen…things in Courier’s Road where the sea would be. So Runners crossed the world using this Skill.”

“Really? Then—why haven’t you?”

Ryoka heard Mihaela cough. The woman coughed almost consistently, every few minutes. She took a drink from her vial, grimacing. She didn’t look at Ryoka.

But they were talking. About the Courier’s Road, first.

“There’s danger. Anyone can enter the Courier’s Road. Anyone. As I pass by—you can step into the world. Most can’t breathe or see—but I’ve been attacked. And if I slow, especially to rest or sleep—I reenter this world. You want to try that at sea?”

“Oh.”

Ryoka sat on the rocks. Mihaela looked down at her.

“You called the wind. Only I can do that. How?”

“It’s my power. I was…given a gift. It’s not magic—at least, not the kind [Mages] use.”

“Huh.”

That was all Mihaela said. She looked down at Ryoka. The City Runner braced for something…but Mihaela just shook her head. She walked past Ryoka and said one word.

“If.”

“If?”

The Guildmistress looked across the grass, towards a real, paved road where Ryoka could see people travelling. On horses, wagons…she saw only one person not on the road. Running.

A City Runner. The two watched the distant figure jogging on his or her journey. Mihaela nodded.

“If. If it was a few months ago we had met, when Val’s death was fresh. You would have died.”

Ryoka was silent. The woman went on.

“If you had tried to run when I met you, or hadn’t looked so damn guilty—if you hadn’t remembered who he was, I would have made sure you couldn’t walk again. If you hadn’t sent that message and I’d listened to the rumors—or if I was more vengeful—”

“I deserve it. Anything—”

“Shut up. What does beating a City Runner to death do for me or Valceif? Why is it your fault alone? He could have bought a charm before he went on a run. He didn’t. That was his responsibility and he was careless. That’s how Runners die. I knew it. And I taught him that.”

Ryoka closed her mouth slowly. Now—she felt guilty. She’d been pursuing Mihaela to get her to unload all her grief over her son’s death. As if Ryoka had killed him.

She hadn’t even known where or how he died, really. Mihaela looked at Ryoka.

“You can use the wind. You’re also an idiot. Few people live without levels. There are some. That Drake in Zeres, one of their Admirals. Mostly though—people like you never become anything. The gap is too wide. You’re pathetic as well. But I can see why Valceif liked you.”

Ryoka hung her head. She didn’t know what to say.

“He really did help me. I can’t—”

“Shut up. I almost liked you until you opened your mouth.”

The young woman was silent. Mihaela looked past her, at the road back north.

“I could see liking you. If you had been just some snotty City Runner who made it to First Landing and Valceif was alive…yeah. But I will never like you. Still. There’s nothing here for me. I knew that.”

She shook her head. Ryoka bit her lip. Mihaela went on. She clenched her fists and then stared at her hands.

“Valceif was killed by some no-name [Bandits] with a [Sleep] spell. He’s dead. My son. All that time…he would have eclipsed me. He would have been a great Courier. He already was, at his age! What am I supposed to do with this fury? It’s not for you. It’s wasted on you.”

She turned to look at Ryoka and shook her head. Ryoka searched for proper words. Not reflexive, guilt-laden words that invited all the blame.

“He—was the first Courier I really met who took the time to talk to me. He gave me good advice, taught me what it was to be a Runner. Pay it forwards. That’s why he helped me out. Because of all the favors other Runners did him.”

Mihaela blinked. Then she smiled.

“That sounds like the kind of stupid thing my boy would have said. Runner’s Guild politics.”

She turned ahead, facing the breeze. Mihaela coughed. Took another sip.

“You’re his legacy. You and all the other idiots he ever helped out. I don’t like you, Ryoka Griffin. And I mean what I said. You’re no Courier. You could be—but you’re too weak. And we must be strong. Valceif should have stayed a City Runner a while longer.”

The young woman from Earth hung her head. Mihaela coughed again. Ryoka looked up at her.

“Mihaela. I’m sorry if everyone knows, but—”

“Yes, I’m sick. Shut up about it. I have a potion. That’s why I’m retired. Can’t run like I used to.”

Ryoka bit her lip.

“Is it—? If it’s something like uh, asthma—that’s where you cough a lot, you’re short on breath—if you were born with it, I could help. I know some tricks from my home.”

The Guildmistress glanced at Ryoka and shook her head wordlessly. She coughed into her hand.

“I wasn’t born with this. And you can’t help me. Not unless you can fix years of damage. I got this on my last run during the First Antinium Wars. One of them did this to me. Wrymvr the Deathless. He couldn’t stick in the Courier’s Road. But he got me.”

Ryoka felt a lurch in her stomach. She saw Mihaela cough again, her lungs rattling with poison—or the aftereffects that had damaged her body permanently. She tapped her chest.

“It’s in here. Even the Healer of Tenbault can’t remove the poison, just restore the flesh. It’s a lesson. I’m the greatest Courier of Izril. And I’ll die of this. We all die. Val…myself…Salamani nearly bit it at the Archmage’s damn mansion, did he?”

“I—yes.”

“We all die. That’s our fate. But the run is glorious.”

Mihaela looked ahead, and then shook her head. She looked back at Ryoka. Not angrily. She—Ryoka and Mihaela might have wished it could be that simple. Blame it all on one person.

If only life was that easy. If only Val could have been brought back or avenged. Ryoka saw Mihaela turn.

“I’m going home. Not a waste of time after all. You failed your Courier’s test. But—Ryoka Griffin is certified as a City Runner. And if those idiots at Celum and Invrisil keep barking about her record, I will break their legs.”

She walked forwards, hopped down off the rocks. Ryoka rose to her feet, wanting to say something. But all she did was stand there.

Mihaela Godfrey turned once. She looked up at Ryoka Griffin and nodded. The young woman called down to her.

“The Courier’s Road is beautiful. I’ve never envied a Skill before. But I wish I could run there.”

“Val’s buried there. He’ll be there forever. I couldn’t give him anything else.”

Mihaela turned away. She raised her hand.

“I just wanted to hit you a few times. Thanks for that. See you.”

She jogged away. Slowly, at first, and then running. Ryoka saw the world shift—and for a moment she saw that glorious, eternal road. Then Mihaela was gone.

Ryoka Griffin sat there. She wept for Valceif for a while. But she hadn’t known him long. She wished…Ryoka stood up. Then she went home to Reizmelt.

 

—-

 

“Ryoka! You’re alive! Thank goodness!”

Salamani and the others rushed towards Ryoka when she returned, jogging slowly. Ryoka felt sick, battered, weary—but better.

“Is that surprising? Mihaela wasn’t about to kill me.”

Salamani gave her an odd look.

“You think so? She’s famous for her short temper. No one makes her angry, even other Couriers. Even the Assassin’s Guild walks lightly around her.”

Ryoka thought of Mihaela’s stunt with the lightning bolt and then the Courier’s Road. She eyed Ylawes, who had a lump on his head and Falene’s black eye, nearly healed.

“I can see that. Thank you for trying to stop her.”

“We—didn’t do anything. But I’m sincerely glad you’re alright, Miss Griffin.”

Ylawes looked sheepish as he rubbed at his head. Bruised egos for the Gold-rank team. They looked strangely at Ryoka.

“You’re very calm for someone who just had the snot kicked out of her.”

Dawil pointed out. Ryoka smiled crookedly.

“I’ve had worse days. Today was actually—good in a way.”

Everyone exchanged a glance. The worst part was that Ryoka sounded so casual about it. Makki and Mousey came over to be petted and to lick Ryoka.

It was one of those days. Bittersweet, unexpected. Painful—but Mihaela had come and gone. In truth—Ryoka realized now that the Guildmistress had probably dealt with Valceif’s death long before Ryoka had come to Reizmelt. She had probably indeed only stopped by to kick Ryoka’s ass for a bit.

The City Runner could respect that. In a way…she could envy Mihaela’s retirement. Not the damaged lungs, but a retirement where she just went around scaring the hell out of people and beating up anyone she didn’t like before running off into another dimension. Yeah, yeah.

Ryoka was scratching Mousey’s ears as the huge Aldasian Warhound panted happily.

“Well…what next?”

She looked at Salamani. The Mage Runner hesitated.

“Lie down, curl up into a ball and shake for a bit?”

The two laughed as the Silver Swords gave them a weird look. Dawil rubbed his hands together.

“Or—and hear me out—I hear you’ve got a lot of magical gear. What if we made a few bids on some of it?”

Ryoka saw Falene and Ylawes scowl at their friend, but she laughed.

“Why not? But I have to get most of it appraised at Invrisil.”

“Perhaps. Or you could let a certified Wistram-[Mage] do it for you. I doubt anyone was carrying cursed gear. So I’m perfectly capable of divining basic enchantments.”

Falene adjusted her spectacles. Ylawes coughed into one gauntleted hand.

“Er—mostly. You missed the Curse of Sticking enchantment that one time. I had that shield glued to my hand for a month.”

The [Battlemage] colored. Salamani raised his eyebrows.

“Certified Wistram [Mage] here as well. I suppose Miss Falene has a point. Why don’t we rest, Ryoka? You’re probably a bit…unsteady.”

Ryoka reflected that she might have a concussion. Although it seemed Mihaela had been careful to only damage her slightly. She nodded.

“The Huntress’ Haven. Drinks on me. Er…yeah. Yeah. Let’s all go.”

“Perhaps not Master Madain’s inn?”

Ylawes looked uncomfortable. Ryoka glanced at him and then nodded.

“Uh—maybe, now that I think about it. He’s sort of—”

“Insane? Short-tempered? Persistently drunk? And dirty?”

Falene wrinkled her nose. Ryoka smiled.

“And he has his bad qualities.”

The unlikely group trouped into Reizmelt, asking the Pithfire Hounds—who were in awe of the Silver Swords and Salamani—about good inns to have a night off. Ryoka was trying to explain she and Mihaela had really dealt with the issue peaceably. The Silver Swords were extending their stay another day to negotiate about the artifacts; they’d cleared all the big bounties around Reizmelt in the last three days.

The sun was setting and Ryoka was sitting at the table with the Courier and adventurers when the door to the Scheming Golem opened. Ryoka looked up.

“Oh shit. Fierre. I forgot! I’m so sorry, there was this—”

It wasn’t Fierre. Ryoka blinked, because the black clothing, the hood—all of it was reminiscent of Fierre. But the owner was taller. Similar, with a lithe form, pale skin, and hair bordering on white.

Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle looked like the stereotype of Vampires she clearly loved. Her long clothing concealed the rash on her arm. Right now, she wore none of her haughty façade that the farmer and expert shepherdess normally wore.

“Colfa? What’s—”

The woman saw Ryoka and strode up to her with incredible speed. Her eyes glowed red as she glanced at Ylawes, then grabbed Ryoka with bone-crushing force. The City Runner gasped as Colfa hauled her up with ease.

“What did you do?

Colfa hissed at Ryoka, too furious to conceal her fangs. Ylawes didn’t see; Colfa was holding Ryoka in front of her, shaking her.

“What? Colfa—”

“Who is this?”

“A friend! Stop—Colfa, what’s wrong? Where’s Fierre?”

Ryoka’s heart lurched. Colfa was distraught—and the doors blew open to reveal Bamer and Rivel, both members of the Drakle clan that lived in Fierre’s ancestral, ruined home.

“She’s sick! She came back, telling us you’d cured her. Then—she fell sick within hours! She’s barely alive. What did you do?

The Vampire’s fingers dug into Ryoka’s neck. Ryoka gasped for air.

“Miss. Ryoka has been with us all day. Please—”

Colfa recoiled with a cry from Ylawes’ touch. He blinked; Ryoka stared at the [Knight]’s gauntlets.

Silver and steel. The son of House Byres was innocently worried. Colfa recoiled from him and looked at Ryoka. Bamer and Rivel drew back.

“Fierre is sick. What. Did. You. Do?”

Colfa looked at Ryoka Griffin. The young woman’s mouth was dry. She stood up.

“I—I don’t know. I thought she was better. Please. Take me to her.”

Fierre’s mother hesitated. She opened and closed her hands, desperately. Bamer looked at Ryoka and nodded.

“Come. Hurry. Colfa, help Rivel get everything you can think of from the alchemist. You, girl. With me.”

It had been such a good day. Ryoka ran into the street, shouting at the Silver Swords to stay. Salamani as well. She ran after the Vampires as they moved with incredible speed.

What was wrong with Fierre? She had been so healthy this morning! She had been looking forwards to going home. What had happened?

Why couldn’t she ever have one good day? Ryoka closed her eyes and ran into the night. And she knew—whatever was wrong lay at the heart of what was afflicting Vampires.

Parents. Mihaela Godfrey stopped at her son’s grave in a world where nothing would ever disturb it. Colfa ran through the night, back to her husband who stood over his daughter.

Cured. Feverish. Barely breathing and screaming with pain for a reason he could not understand. Calling out for her friend, Ryoka.

 

—-

 

Tyrion Veltras found that night that Sammial was doing worse. By morning—his son was barely responsive. He lay, fighting for breath. The [Healer] couldn’t understand it.

The second [Assassin] came to call later that day.

 

 

 

Author’s Note: The end. For now! But this is a story with a continuation! What will happen to Fierre? Why is she sick? Does Ryoka ever get her gear appraised?

I don’t do many cliffhangers like this. Of course, all of The Wandering Inn is ongoing, but  this is more direct than usual. I feel like a TV Show. But you only have to wait uh, three days. Two days if you watch the stream.

Lots longer if you’re a current Public reader. No time at all if you’re from the future of when this was written! Time is weird.

Anyways. That’s all from me! A shorter chapter! But I hope, an entertaining one. For today—I think it’s time to show a long-overdue picture commissioned by fans of The Wandering Inn, drawn by Stephanie Chen! It’s this beautiful image of Erin and Lyonette! Give them lots of love and as always, thanks for reading!

See you next time on The Wandering Inn!

 

https://www.instagram.com/stpchn/

https://www.youtube.com/c/stephaniechen

https://www.deviantart.com/stephaniechn

 

Lyonette and Erin by Stephanie Chen, commissioned by Yarrick, Rat, Richi, and Gorexn!

 


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(The Wandering Inn now has an official Twitter for announcing releases and sharing fanart! It’s at https://twitter.com/WanderingInn – consider subscribing if you have a Twitter! I don’t use the pirateaba one, but this will be active!)

 

It began with gambling.

Numbtongue was sipping from a cup of Blue Tea while he read the morning’s newspaper. The Liscorian Gazette delivered to The Wandering Inn, and he’d gotten to love reading it, especially with the crosswords that Erin had helped Olesm make. There had been an incident with a [Librarian] in Pallass—but that was below the level of ordinary events in The Wandering Inn. He was relaxing.

Blue Tea—an Erin invention that only someone like Magnolia could love.

At least it was blue. Also, possibly poisonous. Previous experiments had not gone well.

It was a low-effort addition to her ‘magical foods’ menu. Blue Tea…gave you a super-blue tongue for about a day. Erin had made it to prank Lasica. The [Chef] had not been amused. Saliss, and many others, had.

As the Hobgoblin drank, someone walked up to him and handed him a card. Mrsha. The Hobgoblin [Soulbard] took it and read.

You’re mean.

He turned the card over and looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll girl scowled up at him. She was holding her head, which still hurt. She glared up at him and the Hobgoblin saw two more little glares from Visma and Ekirra.

“You asked for it.”

He gave Mrsha a singularly unsympathetic look. As was her wont, the Gnoll had decided that along with being a [Druid] and [Wizard] and possibly a [Princess], she also wanted to be a fabulous [Warrior].

She had asked Numbtongue to train her. Which he had, in the way of the Redfangs. He had gently hit Mrsha and her friends until they decided that they really didn’t want to level that badly.

“[Warrior] class is not for you. Redfang Goblins hit and get hit. Cute Gnolls are too weak.”

Mrsha glowered at Numbtongue. She walked off in a huff as the [Bard] went back to his post-breakfast reading and drink.

He was getting soft. Used to the comforts of the inn. For instance—Numbtongue of last year would have been on edge all the time. Even with Headscratcher, Badarrow, Bugear…

No, Bugear had never made it here. Numbtongue blinked. Even with Rabbiteater and Shorthilt—he had never been completely relaxed. But these days?

He didn’t even blink when the Silver-Rank adventurer slid into a seat across from him. It was still rare, but Captain Earlia of Gemhammer wasn’t exactly new to The Wandering Inn.

“Hey Numbtongue…er, you have a minute?”

“Sure.”

He put down his newspaper. The former [Mining Leader] shifted in her seat. She looked—embarrassed, but she came out with it quickly, looking around for watching eyes. Few people gave Numbtongue a second glance except for the newcomers. They tended to be directed to the dozen or so signs that hung around the inn that all said the same thing.

“Er—it’s just that we’re on break. From the dungeon, I mean. Fea slipped when we were removing this trap; laid her arm open to the bone and we ran into some Armorbite slimes. Nasty. Our gear’s getting repaired, so we’re sick of the dungeon for a while.”

“Mhm.”

“So…we were thinking about doing some old-fashioned mining. There’s plenty of deposits if we stick to the area around Liscor’s valley. Uh—we were wondering if you had any good spots?”

The [Bard] blinked. He glanced at Earlia. The Human woman looked embarrassed.

They had traded mining talk a few times. Gemhammer, along with a small group, was aware of Numbtongue’s uncanny mining ability. Well—anyone who saw Mrsha’s silver ball, which was literally silver, or Numbtongue tossing uncut rubies at Octavia knew the Hobgoblin had talent.

Pyrite’s talent. Decades of knowledge given to Numbtongue. Earlia swallowed.

“We’d uh, give you a fifteen—twenty percent cut of what we mine. And if we could borrow that door of yours…”

“Sure. Good vein in the cave next to door. Watch out for something in the cave. Think it’s acid maggots or something.”

Earlia blinked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin nodded to her.

“Wh—really? We’ll go in hard. Might not leave you much. Twenty percent?”

“Sure. I can always find another cave.”

The Silver-rank Captain blinked, but then she was rising, shaking Numbtongue’s hand. He repeated the warning about the maggots—he thought they were the junior version of Acid Flies and he’d been watching out for the Acid Fly Mother, which was apparently…big. But a team of adventurers could handle that, especially [Miners] who knew the dangers.

Earlia promised to tell him what they found later that day and headed off. Numbtongue sipped from his tea. He saw Mrsha sticking her tongue out at him. He stuck out his blue tongue and she giggled so hard she fell onto the floor.

His days were like this. Placid. But Numbtongue had…ambitions of his own. He had developed a hobby. An expensive one, such that he actually wanted 20% of whatever Earlia dug up. After he finished his leisurely cup of tea, the Hobgoblin rose.

And walked into the inn’s new recreation room.

The rec room had been one of the unused rooms, formerly just a private dining area that Lyonette had asked for when the inn was built. Like Octavia, it now had a purpose.

There was a weights room, a private chapel for the Antinium, Stitchworks, an in-progress small bathing room, if only for the aforementioned workouts and so Mrsha stopped bathing in the garden’s pond, and the rec room.

The rec room had a pool table. No ping pong table yet. But a pool table, and a table where cards, dice, was all encouraged. No magical cards yet. Erin had commissioned a deck based on Earth’s world, as well as some lovely bone dice. The rec room had a pair of Humans from Celum in it this morning, playing a Drake—Menolit.

The Humans gave Numbtongue an odd look, but just watched him go over to the table. Menolit ignored Numbtongue as he lined up a shot. Numbtongue sat at the gambling table. And he opened a purse and dropped an ante into the center.

Two silver coins and a rough sapphire sat on the table. The Human’s eyes locked onto the gems and some of the guests in the hallways were drawn by the glitter. Numbtongue smiled to himself.

Gambling was his new hobby. He was no [Gambler]—yet. He was unlikely to get the class, although he was open to it—for him it was an expensive pastime. Not because Numbtongue loved games of probability either. Erin was more suited to the games than he was, for all she didn’t like it. She had taught him all about how to play poker, or count cards, all the unsporting tricks of someone who wanted to win.

Money was of no object. Numbtongue waited for his first opponents, who weren’t long in coming. He reassured them he was fine with downgrading to a four-copper ante—but he left the sapphire in. For ‘fun’.

And soon—he had a game. With Humans. Drakes. Gnolls. Even Dullahans and Garuda from Pallass, on the rare occasions they came in. That was the secret.

Even now, people rarely approached Numbtongue. Earlia was a good example of that. He had few friends, and most of the people he knew weren’t regulars. The Horns were far away. The Hobgoblin was fine with that, but he sometimes wished for Erin’s instant approachability, or Mrsha’s way of endearing herself to people even when she stole food.

He was a Goblin so it was harder. The [Bard] had thought about the issue and he had borrowed a trick from the famous Golden Goblin of the High Passes.

He lost the sapphire in the first bet, but the others stayed in the game. Because every dozen rounds, Numbtongue would add a lump of something—silver, some ore he’d picked up—the iron interested [Smiths]—and in doing so, bought company.

Everyone wanted to win money off the Goblin, who obviously didn’t know how to gamble or what money was worth if he was just throwing it around. They became friendlier, whether genuinely or just so they could sit around. They chatted, and Numbtongue usually won more than he lost.

“So—you’ve been staying here a few months. Er—ever tried Rock Crab?”

A Drake coughed as he looked at the Hobgoblin. Numbtongue regarded his three 2’s and raised his brows.

“Mm. Once. Not very good.”

“Ah, well, they’re not like saltwater crabs. The trick is the blood. Blue, right? You have to bleed ‘em or it’s as foul as Shield Spiders.”

“Really? Fold.”

A Gnoll sat back, looking interested. Numbtongue made a note to try some. The Drake launched into a story as he upped the ante. Numbtongue was fairly certain he would win. And he liked this table so he wasn’t going to cheat.

Sometimes he cheated.

 

—-

 

At the same time as Numbtongue was enjoying his new pastime, a duo with hats entered The Wandering Inn from Invrisil. They were both yawning; they’d had a late night of it.

“Oh! Ratici and Wilovan, right? I can sit you down—anything to eat?”

“Er…perhaps some tea with a sandwich, Miss? And we should be exceptionally grateful for the strongest pot you have.”

Wilovan tipped his hat to the Gnoll [Server]. She knew him; the Gnoll and Drake were regulars at this point. Ratici did the same, despite his foul mood and exhaustion. There was such a thing as good manners and no excuse for lacking them.

The two Gentlemen Callers seated themselves. Ratici yawned into a claw. Wilovan sniffed the air. It was the Drake who said it.

“Wilovan, you know I’m not one to complain…so I’d appreciate it if you were to take my next words with that in mind.”

“I have seen you stabbed and say nary a word, Ratici. Go on.”

The Drake [Thief] nodded, looking reassured. He drummed a claw on the table as their food arrived, hot, fresh, and fast. He enjoyed that.

“I have to say this inn is a fine place, Wilovan. A fine place. One I’d not mind visiting on our regular rounds about Izril. However—a fine place can grate on the nerves, especially with nothing to do but sit and eat.”

Wilovan adjusted his tall hat as he looked around.

“I take your point, Ratici.”

They were…bored. They had to sit here, day in and day out. They could engage in extracurricular activities, as they had last night in Invrisil. But their time was mostly devoted to getting fat and sitting here.

“Of course, we are being remunerated in no small way to sit and eat, Ratici. One might feel that it’s unfair to complain.”

Ratici made an uncharitable noise.

[Lords] get paid to sit and eat, Wilovan. Are we that sort? I’m saying—the Tallman is paying well, but this is ridiculous.”

The Gnoll [Thug] had to agree. The pay was good, excellent, even, but the problem was…

“If we could just split up, and make this a proper security operation, I’d be fine with leaving a Brother here. Even five. But…”

The Drake nodded. They looked around for Erin Solstice; the young woman wasn’t immediately visible. And they shared a thought which was too ungentlemanly to voice aloud.

But this inn was insane.

When they’d accepted the Tallman of Baleros’ invitation to guard the inn, the Gentlemen Callers had assumed there was some ongoing threat. Monsters? No problem. Rival gangs? Well, they’d done for that small group in Liscor. But the two had learned to their displeasure that the problem wasn’t one thing—it was Erin Solstice.

She…attracted trouble. Normally, the callers would leave the inn, stay in the city, and only come running if someone screamed for help. But in The Wandering Inn—trouble could appear in five seconds, especially with the magic door.

“Perhaps we should tell the Tallman we’re cancelling the contract. Return the remainder of his fee.”

“It’s a thought, Ratici. Let’s eat first. No sense deciding on an empty stomach.”

The Drake nodded restlessly. He had vouched his displeasure and his partnership with Wilovan was such that the Gnoll took it seriously. They’d make a decision today. They weren’t ones to wait about.

The cup of tea woke both men up—and their bladders. Ratici stood.

“Excuse me. Be back in a moment. Wilovan, if you’d care to trade off, we could take turns having a nap…”

“I wouldn’t say no.”

The Drake [Thief] nodded and walked out of the inn. These days they had to have one person right in the inn at all times. The riots had proved that Erin Solstice was beyond willing to risk her neck. It hadn’t gotten to the point where they wanted to sleep under the same roof; they could attract trouble themselves. But it was boring.

The [Thief] noticed everything as he walked past the other guests, through the inn. He was a master-class, a [Gentleman Thief] beyond compare. He could tag almost everything.

Concealed acid jar in that table leg. Better not break it in a fight.

Crossbow in the hidden wall-compartment there. And there.

Block of cheese the Gnoll had hidden and forgotten. Ants were into it. Actual ants. A pity.

Dagger under the floorboards. Dead gods, that Goblin was paranoid.

He sensed these things. He couldn’t help it. The only thing Ratici couldn’t see through was the door to the Garden of Sanctuary. It drove him crazy. That—and the Named Adventurer’s bag of holding. Ratici was frankly amazed at some of the levels of people who came through this inn. But boredom was b—

Gold nugget on the table. He backtracked and stared through the open door. He saw Numbtongue tossing down his cards.

“Anyone for another game?”

“I’m out.”

Menolit collected the gold nugget with relish. Numbtongue reached for his bag of holding for something else to offer. Some of the others were rising too, grumbling and checking their money pouches.

He looked around—and there was a Drake with a cap.

“Me, sir. If you’re willing to play a game, I should be quite delighted to play cards. What’s the game?”

Ratici appeared at the table before the rest of the gamblers had even made up their minds. He smiled at Numbtongue and didn’t look at the Hobgoblin’s bag of holding, which had—

If it was possible for a [Thief] to be in hell, it was Ratici, knowing he couldn’t steal that bag of holding the Goblin was carrying. But, dead gods, he was going to get some of that if he had to win it! The Drake produced a worn set of magical cards and Numbtongue sat forwards.

“You have magic cards?”

“I do indeed. And you are…Numbtongue?”

They had never really met. The Hobgoblin nodded.

“I don’t know magic card games. But I can play…”

He placed a silver coin on the table. And after a moment, added a little stoppered vial.

Full of gold dust. Instantly, the table was full. Ratici’s grin widened. He was going to get that gold. And the blue diamond the Hobgoblin was carrying. To that end, he showed the Hobgoblin all the cards.

“Let’s play Seaman’s Vault. You know all the cards? Same commands. You say Ivet to activate this one—see? Invisible card in your hand, free to play…you can keep it between rounds…”

He was so engaged in drawing the Hobgoblin in that Ratici made one mistake. Numbtongue glanced at how relaxed the Drake [Thief] was around him, even with the softener of the gold dust vial. He smiled himself. Until the Drake won the next three rounds of cards.

 

—-

 

Wilovan found Ratici cheating on the fourth round. The [Thug] sighed.

“Room for one more? Excuse me, gentlemen. And you, sir? I believe we’ve seen each other about. My name is Wilovan, sir.”

“Numbtongue.”

The Hobgoblin nodded as the Gnoll tipped his cap. But he was distracted. Ratici smiled as he checked his cards. He had…nothing. But he shifted and subtly checked the other cards. One glowed to him—well, not exactly, but it had an aura. Two cards down in the deck—

Aha!

Everyone was distracted as a crowing Menolit won another game of pool. Ratici’s clawed hand moved so fast only Wilovan saw it return.

Suddenly, he had a pair. And he had switched one of the cards in his hand with the one he wanted.

A master [Thief] could win against people who didn’t know he was playing. Wilovan scowled at Ratici. His friend hadn’t come back to the table, so Wilovan had tipped and gone after him. Now he was being unsporting.

It was as close to violating their personal code of conduct as either got. Wilovan sighed as he was dealt in.

“Mister Numbtongue, I have to warn you, my companion, Ratici here, is something of a [Gambler]. He should have announced it.”

“No wonder. He swept the table three times! I’m out!”

A Human player threw down her cards in disgust. Fea; she’d been convalescing after her injury. Numbtongue frowned, but he nodded cautiously at Wilovan.

The hat-Gnoll was just as convivial to Numbtongue as Ratici. Or rather—there was no wariness in either. That made them more approachable.

“I’m not a [Gambler]. Is it a good class?”

“Focused. One finds one lives on the odds. I personally find it tiring, but it’s more common in big cities. There have even been adventurers who gamble using luck-Skills. Such as Ratici loves to employ.”

“How is that fair? Raise one silver.”

A Drake grumbled. Ratici matched the bet. Wilovan sighed. Ratici couldn’t win everything, but he could always figure out how to steal himself a pair, or even two-pair. He couldn’t tell what card he stole—just that it was something he wanted. He checked his hand.

“Nothing. Fold. And to answer your question, Miss…”

“Drassi. I came here to relax, not lose everything.”

She glowered. Wilovan raised his brows.

“Aren’t you the new [Reporter] on the broadcast?”

“That’s right! No autographs. Especially not to him.

Drassi glared at Ratici. Wilovan tipped his hat.

“My pardons, Miss. To answer your question—a good [Gambler] is checked by his opponents. [Mages] and their predictive spells, a good [Rogue] might steal—quite uncouth, but it happens.”

“All is fair in the nature of the game, Wilovan. If there was a cap on Skills it should have been announced.”

Ratici was shameless. The Gnoll and other Human both folded. Numbtongue…hesitated.

The Drake had won the last three games and even if money didn’t matter, Numbtongue still liked winning. So he narrowed his eyes.

“He stole a second card. He’s been stealing the entire time.”

Reiss folded his arms. The Goblin Lord did not appreciate being used in this way. But he had no real choice; Numbtongue bound him here. Reiss—and Pyrite—both believed that the [Bard] himself had summoned them. Perhaps, as Pyrite had mused in his minute of time in this world, they were not the original article, but a copy—a memory that Numbtongue utilized.

Either way—Reiss was useful.

“His pair loses to yours. Don’t look away from the deck; that’s when he steals.”

Numbtongue listened to the advice. He matched the bet and stayed in. Ratici coughed; one of the pool player’s daggers dropped off his belt with a loud clatter.

Numbtongue kept his eyes on the table as everyone else looked around. Wilovan raised his brows in delight.

“Alright, show ‘em…aw, damn. Numbtongue wins. And I am out!

The Hobgoblin chortled as he swept up the pot. Drassi stood with a sigh. Ratici narrowed his eyes and Wilovan smiled.

“Well, even a [Gambler]’s luck runs out, eh, Ratici.”

“That might be, Wilovan. That might be. You can’t win them all. Another round, Mister Numbtongue? I’d be willing to put money back. Even that gold dust vial.”

Wilovan’s brows shot up. Gold dust vial? He was not immune to the lure of lucre either. He leaned forwards as Numbtongue grinned. The [Thief] locked eyes with the cheating Hobgoblin.

Reiss sighed as Wilovan palmed the invisible card Ratici had slipped him.

The game was afoot in earnest.

 

—-

 

Eight rounds later, Numbtongue threw down his cards in disgust and pushed over a gold coin. He’d lost that one. But he’d won three.

“You’re quite a fine player, sir.”

Wilovan and Ratici grinned at the Goblin. They were still in the game—everyone else wised up after a hand or two.

Both sides were cheating nonstop. Numbtongue was impressed. The [Thief] could steal a card even while being stared at. And the other fellow—the burly Gnoll—memorized his cards after one look and played them face down, so Reiss couldn’t tell what they were.

For their parts, Ratici and Wilovan were enjoying themselves. They loved to gamble so this room was a wonderful diversion. But what made them interested was the Hobgoblin. They had no idea how the hell he was reading the other hands. They’d assumed—correctly—it was a Skill, rather than magic, but they couldn’t sense it.

“One more round?”

Ratici wheedled. Numbtongue still hadn’t produced the blue diamond. The Hobgoblin hesitated.

“I might stop.”

He had a limit on how much he gambled each day since he had to go out and find more precious minerals. The [Thief] was visibly disappointed.

“What about a drink? We could get back to it…”

He practically followed Numbtongue back into the inn. It was so surprising Numbtongue immediately acquiesced.

“Here.”

He went over to the bar and helped himself to an ale. No one stopped him and Ratici and Wilovan took a mug after a moment. They sat together at a table. Numbtongue looked from face to face.

“You don’t mind Goblins?”

The two blinked as if only realizing he was a Hobgoblin now. Ratici shrugged. Wilovan touched his hat with a furry finger.

“Let’s just say it doesn’t bother us insofar as we’re all able to play a game together, sir. If you were a menacing sort on the road we might be justifiably leery.

But they didn’t look like it. And Numbtongue, now free of the concentration of the game and having Reiss help him figure out his odds of winning based on the cards at play, realized something.

The hats were familiar. He narrowed his crimson eyes as Ratici ordered some snacks to go with the drinks. The two were so relaxed, so fearless…where had he seen the hats before? He felt like the duo’s way of talking was familiar too. But from where?

“You’re getting soft. They’re the same as the ones from Celum.”

Reiss stood there. Numbtongue’s eyes widened.

They were friends of the [Enforcer]. The hat-men! He looked up, suddenly tense. He saw Wilovan pause in drinking and Ratici’s eyes narrow. They were too perceptive.

“Something we say alarm you, sir? I was just asking if you preferred an ale…”

“No. Not that. You two are…Brothers? Why are you here?

Numbtongue’s hand slowly fell towards his waist. Towards the glorious new sword Pelt had made for him. He could cut steel in twain with it. But suddenly—the [Bard] didn’t feel safe.

Wilovan didn’t move. He just eyed Numbtongue. He had a polished little club at his side, a rather harmless weapon for a world in which a sword was an ordinary sidearm. But Numbtongue suddenly felt he was in great danger.

Look at the way he moves. Both of them. The [Thief] is so fast you can’t see him steal cards. He can steal your sword at this range and put a dagger in your chest. If you have to fight—the only way to kill someone like that is to grab him and never let go. Bite his throat out and pray he underestimates you. The other one’s strong, though. [Enhanced Strength] looks like that. Kill the [Thief] and use the sword on him…

Pyrite’s memories were precise. Numbtongue tensed. Neither Gentleman Caller moved.

“We seem to have alarmed you, sir.”

Wilovan very slowly reached for his belt. Numbtongue froze—and saw the Gnoll slowly pull out something.

A pipe. Wilovan lit it, puffed a few times. Erin had grudgingly reversed her ban on smoking indoors so long as people sat next to an opened window due to Palt-pressure.

“Now, why would someone think that, Wilovan?”

Ratici sat back, looking equally calm. The Gnoll blew a bit of smoke out the window, past the bee who was collecting some nectar. Apista waved an antennae at Numbtongue. He didn’t notice. Rude Goblin.

Wilovan spoke to the ceiling.

“Well now. We may have happened upon a report concerning a fellow who, insofar as we understand it, ran afoul of our group. But since such a fellow would be understandably at odds with most folks, we did not hold him accountable for that particular bit of unpleasantness. That might be why, wouldn’t it, Ratici? But such a fellow wouldn’t have cause to be nervous, I expect.”

The Drake took over, nodding and looking past Numbtongue.

“Not at all. Our issue would be with whomever led our group to such an unfortunate incident. Which we have, in fact, settled with. Of course, if such a fellow were to keep doing things that were inconveniencing, well, our understanding would become rapidly unpleasant on our side, so to speak.”

When he finally understood what they were saying, the [Bard] relaxed slightly. The two Gentlemen Callers winked at him. The Hobgoblin looked at them.

“Why are you here every day, then?”

“Let’s just say we’re here on business. Business which involves nothing of harm to you or this inn and a great deal of help if the need should arise. Swear on a truth stone if you have one. Why don’t we drink and if you’re so uncomfortable, we go our separate ways with nothing more said of it?”

The Gnoll met his eyes. Numbtongue hesitated.

By rights he should tell Erin and…let her do her thing. But then again—the two could be serious trouble. Let it slide? The Hobgoblin hesitated.

Something made him ask a question rather than go find Erin and trigger an event. The way the two were so casual.

“Why…are you two not afraid of me?”

Ratici snorted. Wilovan blinked.

“Should we be, sir? Ah—then again…”

He studied Numbtongue casually.

“Let’s just say we’ve met good folks like yourself before, Mister Numbtongue.”

Really?

The [Bard]’s jaw dropped. Reiss’ jaw dropped. Pyrite wasn’t surprised. The Gnoll closed one eye.

“If you understand the peculiarities of where my companion, Ratici and I work, sir, you’d understand that our sort doesn’t always stand by the law. Not sure if you do; Goblins er, don’t know much of other societies. Most of them.”

“I know a…bit.”

Numbtongue hesitated. He knew they were criminals. But the [Bard] knew only a bit more than your average Antinium. Crime among Goblins was different. Ratici chewed on a fry.

“Let’s just say this, friend. Where we work, all sorts can find employment. Even types most’d call ‘monsters’. Those who do not level can sometimes still think. And Goblins can do both.”

“Really? Then in cities—there are Goblins?”

The two Gentlemen Callers exchanged a glance. They rather liked this odd Goblin. But they might have said too much. Wilovan sighed as he adjusted his hat and gave Numbtongue a grave look.

“The sort whom you might meet in a bustling city ain’t the sort you’d want to make friends with, Mister Numbtongue. No indeed.”

“But—but they exist? In cities?”

The Hobgoblin was awestruck. He had grown up in the sewers of a city, but that had been the closest any Goblin had gotten to living in a city aside from Garen Redfang’s legendary exploits. Or so he thought.

But the world was vast. And Wilovan’s gaze was steady and honest—as honest as a crook got as he smiled. He raised a mug in a toast to a new friend as Ratici chuckled.

“Well now, haven’t you heard the old saying? Goblins can be found everywhere. Funny that you’d not believe it yourself. Believe me, friend. Everywhere means everywhere.

 

—-

 

There were three types of Goblins in this world. They w—

Actually, there were lots more than three types of Goblins. Even if you divided along the most basic lines, they differed. And that wasn’t even going into the differences between a Cave Goblin or a Mountain Goblin.

Goblins came in so many different kinds of forms. Why, even their basic…forms came in more than three kinds. You had your basic Goblin, Hobgoblins, Fomirelins—although Goblins forgot or differed in what they called them; Great Goblin was another word for them—and…

There were three ways you could arbitrarily categorize Goblins in this world. In a manner that mattered to Goblins, of course.

The first kind of Goblin was rare. Unheard of, as alien to Numbtongue as organized crime—no—even more incomprehensible.

A ship of them sailed across the ocean, through dark waters. A ship crewed by Goblins. The same one that [Strategists] had once met over Kraken’s Pass.

Even amid the myriad of sights on the sea, this was a rare one. And if you knew why they sailed—any non-Goblin ship would be twice as afraid.

The Goblins on the ship were decent sailors. ‘Decent’ in that they knew everything about how ships worked, the sails, navigating the currents—but only a handful had classes in sailing.

The rest were different. Passengers who helped out and followed orders with that uncanny Goblin teamwork that allowed them to be competent at sea.

Even so—they had gone a long way. To avoid major shipping lanes and other ships or stay out of range they could be identified was no easy mission. They sailed at night, through fog, even dangerous areas like Kraken’s Pass.

But it would be wrong to say the Goblins were afraid of a fight. Very wrong. They were just wary. And as it happened—their circuitous route had created a very unusual event, that even they took note of.

Their [Shaman]’s shoulders was covered with moss which actually grew on his green skin. Some of the other Hobgoblins had similar markings; lichen had actually become a second skin or armor. They were among the best the crew had to offer; and it was almost half-Hobgoblin, half-Goblin.

Now, one of the most elite Hobgoblin warriors offered the best rations they had taken from the last ship they’d sunk. Wine, vittles—even [Pirates] relied on stored goods, even with bags of holding unless they were really high-level.