Interlude – Adventurers (Pt. 3)

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(The author is on break until November 26th! I’ll be going to things. Like a wedding. Wish me luck and rest!)

 

Monsters.

They never left. They were never gone, even in bright days, even in happy moments—they were out there, preying on people in shadows. The only difference in this world was that monsters sometimes looked like what they were supposed to.

That felt like an appropriately Nerrhavia-like thought. She had told Erin, in private, that deep down under flesh and cloth, people were not so removed from animals. So—why quibble at being a ruler who employed horrors like you did [Soldiers]?

That was her logic. If someone committed dark deeds, the question was not whether they should be punished, but what use they had. The kingdom’s needs superseded the peasant’s. Not to say that the guilty would not pay, in the end, after she had used them up.

Everyone paid, in the end.

The cold logic of the Immortal Tyrant came back to Erin Solstice as she walked through the streets of Invrisil. With an armful of books. Mrsha was balancing one on her head that read, ‘The Lightning Thief and the Eyes of Baleros, Book 11’.

One of Garia’s favorites, apparently. It was one of those adventure tales and one of the few popular books in print across the world. Nanette had Book 15 in the series.

“I didn’t know they were still coming out with books.”

“The Lightning Thief is an enduring classic. Most likely because his adventures touched every continent in the world, giving him universal celebrity. I also note that his ‘sidekicks’ and his crew of affably-written rogues and associates are also diverse. Unlike other tales, which often tokenize the other species. Krsysl Wordsmith, for instance, has an objectionable habit of making non-Drakes a supporting role at best.”

Grimalkin of Pallass carried the most books, and he was reading as he walked. Why they were carrying books instead of stuffing them in bags of holding, Erin didn’t know. Perhaps because you should carry books. It felt like you were smarter.

“Well, I dunno about all that, but any reading’s good. I just hope Lyonette lets Mrsha claim this as reading practice.”

Erin herself had a book on Fraerlings. She’d asked, and the owner of the bookstore—a rare occupation given how expensive they were—had sourced two books.

The Hidden Folk of Baleros, by Eineith Stoneshield

Or—

The Titan’s Folk, by Niers Astoragon.

She’d picked only the first one at first. Not that she didn’t trust Niers, but Erin figured she’d ask him herself. Plus, it felt weird. But in the end, Erin had bought two. Because she had enough money, and because she sorta wanted to know how the Titan talked publicly about his people.

At any rate, she had no idea the Titan had so many written texts attributed to his name. Grimalkin was more impressed by Erin’s own attitude towards reading.

“You know, with exceptions, a lot of citizens read less than a book per year. Some, despite the common literacy of Izril, are not fluent enough to read novels. I assume it’s different…where you come from?”

Erin nodded.

“Y’know, Grimalkin. It amazes me the printing press hasn’t been invented here. I know you can magically copy books, but it’s less fast. I think.”

But then—it made sense why a magical quill that slowly, slowly could copy a book halted the printing press invention. People focused on making a hundred such quills or a Golem or…they managed to create entire libraries when there were magical kingdoms, but that vanished when someone turned off the magic.

Grimalkin’s scowl grew huger.

“A device to copy words? And Troydel has been—excuse me.”

He scribbled a quick note and then looked abashed. Erin smiled, noticing.

“Hey, the printing press is one of those things even R—well, even I think is great for everyone. But good luck figuring that out. What, do you print words on a piece of paper? Well…yeah, but good luck on typewriters. What, do you have a word, connected to a button and…I’m sure it’s hard.”

Nanette was happily peeking at the book as she walked.

“Thank you for helping me find the bookstore, Miss Solstice. Magus Grimalkin.”

“You’re welcome.”

He nodded, and Erin sighed.

“Yeah! It was fun, Nanette. I think I’ll go back and buy more books once Lyonette decides on our inn-budget for the month. Besides, I was getting tired of walking in circles.”

Or to be more accurate—not finding whatever prank Nerrhavia was pulling on Erin. They had spent most of the day, and Erin’s little bird had gone silent.

“It felt like we were right on top of it. Then…it vanished.”

“Some kind of moving individual? Mrsha smelled nothing.”

Grimalkin had tried to help find whatever they were searching for until the trail vanished, but he had admitted his magical means hadn’t located it. Erin frowned.

“Maybe. Maybe we could try later. Darn.”

Despite that, it had been a fruitful outing, and Erin got to relax and talk with Grimalkin about things other than serious matters. In fact, Invrisil, the City of Adventurers, was fun to visit on its own. Much like Pallass. How about that?

One of the things Erin did notice, though, was an increased population of Drowned Folk. Not a huge increase, but from one in ten thousand, they were now one in a thousand or more. They were just…there.

“Drowned Folk. I thought they were only really common on the coasts.”

“Thanks to your door…no, Invrisil is a hub. Yet it is true, they have appeared in Zeres and the other continents, but Izril especially. They are leaving the deeps. Nombernaught has surfaced on Izril. We may see them now as trade-partners, although the Walled Cities are wary of them.”

Grimalkin always had to take it political. Erin frowned, but she admired a shrimp Drowned Woman’s antennae. Although—said Drowned Woman was looking askance at a seafood display with smaller versions of her fish-half on display.

The [Grocer] was avoiding her eyes. Mrsha was trying not to laugh. And so was the Drowned Woman, Erin suspected. She looked mortified, but Erin detected more than a whiff of humor from her, and she wondered if this was a fun prank Drowned People liked to play. Her small group were entirely straight-faced.

Then again, so was Seborn. Erin wanted to talk to them—and she had plenty of time, so why not? Still, how did you go up to strangers?

“Hey, can I get fifteen shrimp—wait, how dare you?

Erin banged a fist on the counter and gave the Drowned Woman a look of horror. The [Grocer]’s face turned pale, and the Drowned Folk began laughing.

“Now there’s someone with proper sea humor.”

One of them commented. Erin stuck out her hand, and the Drowned Folk walked over as the [Grocer] looked down and Mrsha importantly pointed to a mackerel.

“I’ll take a bunch of shrimp, [Grocer].”

The Shrimp-Woman looked completely unabashed to be eating the smaller crustaceans, and Erin shook her Human hand. There was even a half-Dullahan Drowned Man, half shark, half armored figure crusted with barnacles. Another was half-half-Elf…

Another was a half-Elf. They greeted her and Mrsha and stared at Grimalkin.

“Seas take you deep.”

Nanette got an approving look, but the Drowned Woman exclaimed.

“Is that the little white Gnoll child in the scrying orb? It can’t be. And you…you look familiar.”

Erin was still not used to being recognized randomly. She turned beet red as the half-Dullahan man’s eyes lit up.

“I’d ask to play you in chess, Innkeeper Solstice! But not if you turn into a giant with wings. So here’s two little land-legends! Can we get one of those—autographs?”

Erin was so flustered she actually gave him a scrawled signature—Mrsha, a very fine one. The Drowned Folk answered her questions with great amusement.

“Why are we here? We’re just seeing which cities are best to travel to. With Nombernaught docked, Izril is not too far to sail about. The sooner we find which cities are friendly to our kind, the better.”

“Oh! Well, Liscor’s pretty far, but it has access to Invrisil and Pallass!”

The Drowned Folk traded glances.

“So we know. If it’s friendly to our folk, it’d be a wise place to mark. Is it?”

Erin hesitated.

“We only have one Drowned Person in, like, the entire city. Seborn. You don’t kn—Mrsha, don’t kick me. Anyways. Liscor doesn’t know Drowned Folk, but it’s pretty good, and my inn’s always open.”

The half-Shark man smiled.

“Those are good words to hear spoken, Miss Solstice. Better than most.”

That was better than most? Erin blinked, but the Drowned Folk nodded at each other. The Shrimp Woman popped a smaller shrimp into her mouth and ate it, shell and all, raw.

“Perhaps we’ll visit. Though I’d watch yourself. If it’s Seborn Sailwinds, he sails on the side of the Undersea Crews. And they’re unto [Pirates], not Storm Sailors. Then again, most look at us and see [Pirates] nonetheless.”

“See, I told you people know Seborn.”

Only because he’s a Gold-rank. Stop being weird.

Mrsha held up a notecard with a huge scowl. Erin floundered until Grimalkin raised his brows.

“You know Seborn Sailwinds despite him being a land adventurer? That was my understanding of how he became famous.”

“Not for his team. Sailwinds is a famous name. Therrium Sailwinds is one of the greatest [Captains] under the sea, for all he’s a raider. He and his sons—well. Watch out for him if you ever encounter his fleets at sea, Miss Solstice.”

The Drowned Folk nodded at each other, and Erin nodded slowly in return. It looked like Seborn had a past deeper than she thought.

 

——

 

At any rate, the Drowned Folk and books made for a fine day. Such a fine day that Erin enjoyed walking with Grimalkin and Nanette and Mrsha—and Ser Dalimont—despite not finding what she was looking for.

“What if we tried it tomorrow? I think we could.”

“I’m happy to do that, Miss Solstice. Mother never took me to Invrisil much—a [Witch] is less needed here.”

And Mrsha didn’t want to take boring lessons from Lyonette! She nodded too. But to Erin’s gratification, Grimalkin hmmed, then nodded.

“That’s acceptable. I’ll meet you in the morning.”

“Grimalkin, you have time? Thanks!”

“I can make time. It’s not as if I’m constantly in demand, even with my apprentices. Besides, I understand Lady Pryde arrived with the Haven. It’s been my intention to thank her for her support of my weights projects.”

“Oh. Oh? Pryde?”

Erin bristled at the name, but Grimalkin shrugged.

“She’s been the most studious adopter of my ideas. I owe her quite a bit.”

“She’s weird. And rude. And arrogant.”

“…I believe I can accept those qualities. It would not be the first time I’ve met eclectic characters. Like Saliss.”

Grimalkin looked everywhere but Erin as he said this, and the [Innkeeper] colored. Mrsha nearly fell over laughing, and Nanette pretended not to notice—or smile—and Erin fell silent for a bit.

That was the moment, and it was a fine, good one. Erin felt like it was a nice and peaceful day as they headed back to the street where a small queue was waiting for the door. Half the people wanted Erin’s or Mrsha’s autograph, but they hurried past the two [Guards], and the door opened instantly for them, as if Liska knew they were waiting.

A fine day—right until Erin got back to her inn and saw the churned terrain from the battle with Facestealer. And heard that Albez’s dungeon had led to six fatalities and half the adventurers were on the run and headed to her door at Wailant’s farm.

Then—well. Then Erin felt Nerrhavia’s hand on her shoulder. Or the Tyrant’s tongue licking—she twitched her fingers and grimaced.

Monsters.

 

——

 

The Albez thefts.

Facestealer.

Both events were massive, but the Facestealer attack was far, far more concerning to Watch Captain Zevara and most Liscorians. The first was just an adventurer problem.

“If it can climb once, it can climb twice. And it just ate all the Watch’s attacks. I am going to tell the Council we cannot stop it and Liscor is in danger of massive casualties. The Antinium have told me they’ve fought off Facestealer before, many times—and paid for it in the hundreds or thousands of deaths. While it was in the dungeon, I was—if not content—I assumed it was just another threat. Now that we know it can climb, I need action.”

“Yes, Watch Captain. I will kill it.”

Erin returned to see Colth the Supporter standing with Watch Captain Zevara and a number of people, including Guildmistress Tekshia herself. The old Drake was eating cookies as she listened.

Zevara was the incredulous one.

“You didn’t do more than cut past its hide, Adventurer Colth. And it’s retreated into the dungeon.”

“It’s been marked, and more Named-ranks will be returning to the Haven or The Wandering Inn shortly. I intend to kill it, Watch Captain. If we fail, then it will be a threat beyond Named-rank adventurers. But there are more ways to kill something than with blades alone.”

Colth smiled tightly, but he held his ground in the face of the Watch Captain. It was Tekshia who muttered.

“Bold words. And how far will Colth the Supporter go?”

She met his eyes, and the old [Spearmaster] gazed at Colth—a gaze he returned blandly. Blandly, but for the sharp emotion Erin felt under that smile.

“Right to the next level or the end, Guildmistress. I am a Named-rank adventurer. I don’t let that kind of threat live.”

She held his gaze, and Tekshia turned towards Zevara abruptly.

“Let them try, Watch Captain.”

Zevara nodded slowly.

“I’m pulling Relc and Klbkch into reserve. Beyond that—the Watch will take precautions, but we really are…I’ll ask Commander Olesm for reinforcements. Yes. Of course.”

She seemed relieved at the thought. As if she had forgotten she now had an army to draw upon.

“Hey, guys. Is everyone alright?”

Erin looked anxiously at the Horns and the people standing around as she put her books down on a table. Everyone turned, and Zevara gave Erin an incredulous look.

“You had nothing to do with this, Miss Solstice? You weren’t even here?”

“Not everything’s my fault, Zevara. Did Facestealer really attack?”

“You missed the fight of a month, Erin. That thing—I might have nightmares.”

Ceria Springwalker grinned from a table. Erin turned red as she realized Ceria was disrobed! She had put on pants, but her top was being covered—by bandages.

Ksmvr was holding up a modesty-towel as Yvlon secured Ceria’s ribs with some bandages. The half-Elf winced.

“I cracked some ribs. Don’t worry, it’s mostly healing. Turns out Facestealer can throw dirt.”

Dirt did that to you?”

“About a few hundred pounds, yeah. Broke my barriers.”

“That kind of strength—can I hear what happened, Captain Ceria? Is there a recording?”

Grimalkin was all alert as he listened to the Horns’ recounting of the event. Erin’s blood chilled to hear how even Saliss and Colth had barely damaged it.

“Tough—but not exactly the fastest foe about. It relied on its aura, but we never got hit.”

“One hit would have been your last. Yvlon nearly got killed, and it was missing her.”

Yvlon’s arm had a chunk torn out of it. The [Armsmistress] was gulping down food, and she shook her head.

“I’ve never seen anything so tough. Even the Adult Creler was weaker. It killed the Frostmarrow Behemoth—”

“Always nice to know there’s something worse out there, eh, Pisces? No wonder we’re not ready for a <Mythical Quest>.”

Ceria grinned sardonically as she put on a shirt and looked over, but Pisces was bending over a shaken young woman sitting with streaked white face paint. Erin blinked—who was this?

“Is that a [Necromancer]?”

She blurted it out, and Grimalkin looked at her sharply—as did Zevara and Tekshia. But Pisces was comforting Ama, who had lost Rodden. He turned as Erin approached.

“Erin, this is Ama. She’s a—friend of mine from the past. I hope she’s welcome here?”

“Hello.”

Ama looked up warily, but Erin bent down kindly and offered her a hand. Ama took it and realized she was a mess of snot and tears and face paint. She searched for her mask, but Erin just took her hand and squeezed.

“Of course she is. Any friend of Pisces—well, friends—are welcome here. Ama, right? You’ve been through a lot. I’m…sorry. Just sit there, and anything you need, we’ll get, okay?”

“Thank you.”

She seemed gratified by the welcome. Erin just looked bleakly at Pisces. Someone had died, and she wasn’t here.

Really, in this moment, Erin wasn’t the principal actor of the moment. Colth, the adventurers—even Lyonette was as the [Princess] helped serve tables and restore order. Erin nodded to Rags, who was watching, and then looked around.

“Did anyone else get hurt? I thought I heard Saliss and Tessa fought?”

“I didn’t. It never got to the inn. Saliss lived.”

Tessa appeared, and Erin saw the Drake pointing. She looked over, and the [Innkeeper] sighed.

“Well, at least he’s alive. Saliss, you good?”

The Drake was lying face-first on the floorboards, much where she’d last seen him. He raised a thumb-claw, and Erin turned.

“Well. Now, will someone explain Albez to me?”

She felt like she was playing catch-up. And that was before the Titan’s students hurried in.

 

——

 

Saliss of Lights was getting tired of having to remember so many people. First the Titan’s students, now all the adventurers—at least they weren’t staying.

“We could stay and help deal with Facestealer—I mean, we will. But the Titan’s called us back to the academy.”

“You’re going back to class? What about Calruz?”

“I’m rendering my judgment—but frankly, I’m inclined to let Liscor adjudicate the matter. His behavior in the dungeon and out of it and his class are all at odds with Captain Ceria’s testimony. It is not the answer he wants, but I am not prepared to execute him.”

Venaz was speaking to her as he put a hand on his diamond greatsword. Now there was a fine weapon.

Saliss wondered if it would have harmed Facestealer. Then again—the Blade of Mershi hadn’t. He lay on the floor and appeared dead.

It was a sign the inn was getting to know him that no one paid much attention to Saliss. Ishkr put down a drink on the floor, and the Drake grunted thanks.

Amateurs.

Ishkr paused, and Saliss’ head rose.

“Not you. Them. Bunch of sprouts not ready to be corn or some farming analogy. You get it.”

Ishkr hesitated—then nodded. He walked off, and Saliss put his head down after taking a nice long sip of the blue juice. Nothing like possible poison to make a drink taste sweet.

That went for the Goblin Chieftain who kept eying him. She was intelligent—but she fit right into the mold with the Titan’s students. Saliss hoped they left rather than join whatever Colth had planned.

Colth was corn. Baby corn, but pretty tough corn. So were Viecel, Eldertuin, and Deniusth’s team, for all they had…ticks. Did corn have ticks?

The point was made in Saliss’ mind, but someone always needed clarification. In this case, it was the timid [Alchemist] who came over and poked him a few times.

“Master Saliss, Master Saliss, I’m halfway done with your latest batch. But I need you to, um, check my work? Please?”

“Drag me.”

He lifted a claw, and Octavia hesitated—until Numbtongue grunted, got up, and dragged Saliss into her workshop.

 

——

 

Octavia Cotton had been apprenticing under Saliss of Lights for a while now, albeit with a long hiatus for Erin’s death and her adventure.

She still hadn’t gotten used to the honor. Or Saliss’ ways. He lay on the floor, making her place bottles and items down and raising his head to grunt at them.

“Good. Good. That looks iffy…it’s nice having an apprentice do boring work. You ready to kill me yet?”

He meant because Octavia had been pulling up to seventeen-hour shifts to get through his massive backlog of alchemical items. The younger [Alchemist] tried to smile.

“It’s—intensive, Master Saliss. But I am learning and levelling!”

“Good. I don’t have time for this. I’m very busy, as you can see.”

Saliss put his head down, and Numbtongue stared at him. The Hob wanted to listen to the preparations for Facestealer, so he motioned to Octavia and mouthed, ‘you okay’?

She nodded, and he retreated with a look at Saliss. Even the [Bard] was fooled, but Octavia was not.

Saliss did joke and pull pranks, but never when working. He was very careful about teaching her personally how not to injure herself, and if she was working on something dangerous, he’d make her use his personal lab, which she had access to.

Frankly, she felt like between him and Xif, she had actually lucked out. She knew Saliss was very thoughtful—so Octavia squatted next to the Drake, who was just lying flat on the floor.

“Master Saliss, may I ask a question?”

“That’s one. You get two more. Call me a Djinni. Don’t forget the collar.”

That was probably a joke. Even so, Octavia chose her words carefully.

“Master Saliss…why are you lying on the floor if you’re so busy?”

“I’m thinking.”

Alright, Octavia supposed she deserved that.

“…What are you thinking about, Master Saliss?”

Then he didn’t answer, and Octavia feared he’d not respond—but Saliss’ head rose, and his eyes were sharp as he gave Octavia a look.

“[Battle Simulations].”

The Stitch-Girl blinked at him, and Saliss put his head down.

“Remember how I told you I used to be Chaldion’s student? You can get rid of anything you want—but some of what I got was useful. It’s nothing strong like…this annoying metal kid I once met. But it works.”

“What are you simulating, Master Saliss?”

The Drake grunted.

“After today? Facestealer. But I’ve been figuring something out. First that [Witch]. Xrn. No, damn it. Seamwalkers and that war—Sserys is a great benchmark. The Shark Captain’s still a rookie. More like almost-corn. Lots of almost-corn. Even you.”

“Me, Master Saliss? What’s the corn about?”

Saliss was making no sense, but Octavia tried to follow his analogy as the Drake spoke.

“Eldertuin has a [Farmer] friend. Never met him. He probably knows more about it, but I’m just looking around. Corn and not corn. I’m corn. I’m weird corn, but I’m definitely corn by now. Grimalkin’s corn, if weak corn. Erin wasn’t corn—now she is. Not battle corn, but she’s like Larracel. But the rest? You could argue Relc was retired corn. But those students of the Titan aren’t full-corn yet. Nor is that Goblin, Rags. Maybe one or two of her lieutenants are—but the real corn isn’t developed.”

He was talking about levels. Or…Named-rank adventurers? And he thought she was on her way? Octavia was excited until she realized what Saliss was saying.

“Numbtongue?”

“Haunted not-quite-corn. How’s your relationship?”

Octavia blushed.

“It’s fine. He takes me food and makes sure I wake up. Puts a blanket on me and tells me to stop.”

“Now that’s a great relationship. Good.”

“Master Saliss?”

“Hm?”

“Why are we corn? What does that make monsters?”

The Drake was silent a moment.

“…I don’t know. I didn’t think the metaphor through. But the point is, I’m realizing the inn’s got some good plants. And I’m corn. And corn doesn’t beat Seamwalkers.”

Then Octavia felt a lurch in her stomach. Saliss glanced up, and he spoke.

“My battle potions are weak. My acid’s weak. It barely did any damage to Facestealer. I can kill an army—but I can’t kill Belavierr. I need to upgrade them.”

Saliss of Lights, considered the adventurer with the highest firepower on the continent—if not the world—was saying that? The [Alchemist] put his head down.

“Here’s the thing, apprentice. Crafter-fighters have a different problem than [Warriors]. All they need is a Relic-class blade. Find one. Me? If my best potion can’t scratch this new caliber of foe—I need to invent one better. Or discover it. That’s clear.”

“Does that mean you’re headed to the new lands, master?”

That seemed like the best place to find anything new or old. Saliss just laughed.

“What am I, good at camping? No. It’s a waste of time. I’m getting back into the laboratory, apprentice. And you and I will have to work harder. I need…more powerful reagents. Damn it. I hope those Albez thieves got something. Maybe I should rob them, but—that’s it.”

He pushed himself up suddenly.

Albez. That damned [Chronomancer] had to be a multifaceted polymath, didn’t he? They’re all pretentious—all I need is to compare his inventory with mine. Reagents, Octavia.”

She knew what he meant. That was the fuel for most alchemy, like Sage’s Grass. Saliss glanced up.

“Old-era alchemy might not have had easy-access healing potions, but they had stronger stuff. Potions of Regeneration, Ryoka’s damned Haste Potion—we’re missing the booster. Probably Unicorn testicles or something. Of course, finding that’s one half the puzzle. The other half is formulas, but I need to do it. Otherwise, I’ll be throwing water at [Witches], and contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t melt them.”

Octavia understood. Saliss sat there, and Octavia saw him exhale hard.

“The new lands aren’t for me. I’ll be here, so you’d better prepare for more lessons, apprentice. Because I need your help. And…”

He looked up seriously.

“…we will both be needed. You, me, Xif, and every [Alchemist] in Pallass.”

“For creating new potions?”

He shook his head.

“The Eir Gel Reef is gone. I don’t know what happened, still—but the world’s out of our supply of healing gel. We have to find a solution.”

The two [Alchemists] looked at each other, and Octavia gulped. If there were no more healing potions…Saliss of Lights looked ahead, past Facestealer, at a battle only his class was ready for.

“It’s gonna be an ugly winter and next year.”

He sat there—expression grim and unusually tense. Until Erin Solstice came to ask him for a favor.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had listened to the reports about Albez. She knew the adventurers were coming.

Maybe they hoped to beat news of their thefts at Albez. Some of them were certainly attempting to bribe her. No less than eight [Message] spells were promising her gold if she let them through and didn’t let Deniusth or the others after.

They were in hot pursuit, but the thieves had a good march on them. Even so, Erin guessed it might be a half-hour’s difference between the two groups at most.

“The easiest thing is to not open the door. Let them sort it out. We’ll hunker down—Viceria’s putting barriers up, and we’ll let them run for it. I’d think about offering some space, but not with Named-ranks out for blood.”

Wailant had moved his door off his property due to the increased traffic, but he had liked the proximity to the inn, and so he’d put it at a local crossroads five minutes from his farm. Now, he’d moved it further so the adventurers wouldn’t endanger his farm.

“I’ll let you know what I decide, Wailant. What do you think about the thefts?

The [Pirate] gave her a sardonic look.

“You mean, what do I think, was it right or wrong? I know I’d probably try to swipe a little something, even if I didn’t do a big theft. That many artifacts? I bet you a Silver-rank team’d get gold and spit rather than a single wand. But hey, I don’t moralize when I stab someone in the ass, either.”

“Good point.”

Erin walked back through her door and stopped for a moment. Travel was out due to the Facestealer attack, so only a single Gnoll was sitting there, chewing on a hamburger. Erin glanced at her.

“Liska? How are you doing?”

The Gnoll jumped.

“Er—fine, Erin. I mean, Miss Solstice. Doing my job!”

“You’re not nervous from the attack?”

Liska tried to grin, but her eyes flickered, and Erin knew she was rattled.

“Me? No. Someone’s got to stay and keep Ishkr safe. Besides—it never got the inn. You want me to go somewhere else?”

“Not just yet. I’m just thinking. I’ll be back. Just—thanks for helping.”

“No problem. Do we get a hazard bonus?”

Erin didn’t answer that last one. She headed into the inn and asked where Saliss had gone. She thought about Grimalkin, but she didn’t want to jeopardize their relationship after they’d just started talking. Ceria was groaning.

“Guys, let me know when Deniusth and the others are here. Want to meet in the Haven? I hear they’ve got crystal healing beds.”

“I can ask Larra to give you a room. And she does have healing. Let’s meet there, alright? Pisces, how’s your friend?”

Colth nodded at the others. Erin heard Pisces murmur a reply.

“Ama will be heading back. She’s upset—we can pay and thank her later. I don’t think she’s up for an attack on Facestealer.”

“No, and her undead won’t do much. We’ll talk. You lot take some time off. If you want to chat—I’ll be in the Haven.”

Colth smiled at Pisces, and the [Necromancer]…Erin eyed Pisces and wondered why he was looking at Colth like that. There was a lot she didn’t know about. Sometimes it was fine. Ceria rubbed at her ribs.

“Well, I’m going to see you later. I’ll be going on a little date.”

“Oh, again? Have fun, Captain Ceria.”

Yvlon and Pisces nodded along—then the two of them turned back from Colth and stared. The bug-eyed expressions on the two non-Antinium members of the Horns made Ceria grin.

“What?”

“Yes, what?”

Ksmvr looked at Yvlon and Pisces, and the [Armsmistress] pointed.

“You—you—wh—”

“I’m not allowed to have private time? Can you believe these two, Ksmvr? I don’t bother you two on the dates you definitely have.”

Ceria’s impish look grew, and Yvlon and Pisces made a garbled noise until she headed off, past Erin. The [Innkeeper] gave Ceria very much the same look.

“Huh?”

 

——

 

There was a lot she didn’t know about. Case in point—Erin walked into Octavia’s shop and stared at the Drake lying on the ground.

“Um. Saliss? Do you have a moment?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

The Drake kicked his feet until he shuffled around so his face was pointing at Erin. Still staring at the floorboards.

Erin squatted down as Octavia glanced up.

“You okay? Thanks for protecting the inn.”

“Hey, don’t worry. I’ll bill you at market price for all the potions I used, how about that?”

Erin hesitated, and Saliss grinned.

“I should. But I won’t. Don’t worry about it. What’s the word on Albez? Asking me what to do?”

He was perceptive. Erin Solstice sighed and sat cross-legged on the floor.

“Octavia, can I ask a favor? Saliss, you want food?”

He cracked an eye open, and the [Alchemist] nodded.

“Oh, of course! Can I get you…?”

“Give me one of those hot sandwiches with the things in it you had for breakfast.”

“A grilled pastrami on rye, Octavia. Can I get, um…fries? Calescent’s spicy fries.”

“Sure thing.”

Octavia hurried out, and Saliss glanced up.

“Not exactly subtle. So what do you want?”

Erin bit her lip.

“I…what do you think about the Albez thing?”

“Silver-ranks and Gold-ranks stealing from competitors to the north? I wouldn’t have been that stupid. Deni’s been retired for a while. First, he underestimated the most dangerous Goblin tribe in the north. Next, he forgot that adventurers are hungry and poor, and he’s an ass. Eldertuin’s solid, and Viecel’s crazy like me and Tessa—but a different kind. That answer your question?”

It did, a bit. Erin glanced over her shoulder.

“And Colth?”

Saliss’ eyes sharpened.

“Colth’s a real Named-rank in his prime. Not too old. Grew up with legends. You want to know why Mihaela Godfrey’s here? Because she’s retired. She’s still dangerous, grouchy, and competent—but if she was in her prime, she’d be running deliveries as a Courier and kicking [Generals] in the face. Colth’s not as good as she was—but he’s the best. Notice how his first instinct was to kill Facestealer?”

“Yours wasn’t?”

Saliss shrugged. He put his head back down.

“My potions are too weak. But he’s got a better handle on it. I’ll listen if he needs a favor. Next question?”

Erin sat there.

“…If I asked you for a favor, Saliss, a sorta big one that might get you in trouble. And me—how can I pay it off?”

“Been speaking to [Witches] lately? Or the old man?”

Saliss’ head rose, and his eyes glinted. He looked at Erin, and she showed him the wicker bird on her finger.

“Been cursed? Nevermind. Erin—we don’t do favors. Not us. Just give me something. Anything from your gardens—because I need it. But say it.”

That was why she liked him. And of all of the others, she trusted Saliss. More than Grimalkin. Frankly, more than almost anyone. She didn’t know why, only that she thought, despite his secrets—she knew Saliss.

“Okay. I’ll have as much help as I can get—what do you need?”

“Whatever those bastards stole from Albez. I can’t let them have it or Deni sell it.”

“Oh? Well—that actually works. Because I need you to go into Pallass and move my portal stone. Without being stopped by Sergeant Kel or Chaldion. Right now. And do it within about forty minutes.”

That was how much time she thought they had. Saliss’ head rose slowly, and his neck spines seemed to rise.

“And where would you like me to move it, Erin?”

She knew the spot.

“There’s a place a good ways outside Pallass. Where Pallass Hunting does its work. It’s in this nice glen—there would be pretty private. And you can hit the road not far from there. If…Pallass didn’t know it was there, anyone popping out’d be pretty far away. Then I need you to move it back to Pallass.”

Saliss stared at her. His lips moved soundlessly for a second.

“Right back on the 8th Floor?”

“Yep.”

“In the checkpoint with Desk Sergeant Kel, the most friendly and relaxed of Drakes, and the Old Man’s lenient policies towards anyone who comes through on a whim?”

“Uh huh.”

“After placing it far outside Pallass’ walls?”

“Do I keep saying yes?”

Saliss just looked at Erin. Her stomach was twisting, but…she met his gaze. The Named-rank adventurer whistled.

“…How badly do you want them to level? What’s in those new lands?”

Erin bit her tongue. She didn’t answer, but Saliss swung himself up into a cross-legged position. He thought for a while.

“Deniusth might try to kill you. But let’s say we send those thieves straight into the new lands. How do you explain why you did what you did?”

Erin held out her hands and shrugged.

“Leave that to me. I’ll take all the responsibility, Saliss.”

“Humor me.”

Erin Solstice met Saliss’ eyes, and he saw her worried look turn into a colder look of—anger.

“Deniusth’s team—or he and the other Gold-ranks—killed six adventurers in cold blood. Even if they were thieves, I don’t trust him, and I don’t think that was the right call. And the rest? We need levels, Saliss. We need levels.”

It was the worst thing she’d ever done consciously. Far, far worse than plotting to destroy a Raskghar camp or…Saliss gave Erin a longer look, then nodded.

“Corn against Seamwalkers. Give me twenty minutes.”

 

——

 

Liska Coresh Silverfang had always thought Erin was sort of…boring. She knew Erin was the ‘crazy innkeeper’ who spat blood and caused trouble, but Erin hadn’t ever really impressed her in person.

She was fun-ish, and she was certainly nice and had powerful Skills, but she had always seemed to be, in Liska’s estimation of the world, sort of a law-abiding, boring person.

Much like Ishkr, her brother. This?

This was crazy. When Erin told Liska what she wanted to do and had Liska move to a series of rooms inside the inn, which Liska hadn’t known even existed, the Gnoll was alarmed.

“Wh—we’re really doing this, Miss Solstice?”

Erin was dumping items onto a table. She had a list of Lyonette’s prices, and she turned.

“Yep. Wailant! Where’s the rest of the food?”

Coming. This is crazy, Erin. I love it. It’s crazy—but that Violinist is going to kill you.”

“He could try.”

“Larra the Haven will kill you, then.”

Wailant grunted as he placed a pack full of, ironically, dried cornmeal on the table. Erin gave him a slight smile.

“No, she won’t. I think she might take my side, actually. Especially if I pay her.”

“Oh. Maybe Viceria’s right. Maybe I am a bad influence.”

Even Wailant looked askance, but Erin just nudged him.

“Nah. Seborn is worse.”

You little—we’re having a drink tonight, Miss Innkeeper. Alright, that’s the last pack I’ve got.”

The room was crowded, and Liska was about to pee. She had to run to the restroom, and she felt the door was fully-charged.

Her new Skills as a [Door Gnoll] let her sense its ambient mana levels like Erin. Liska had all kinds of cool powers.

Like knowing which entrance of the door had people waiting. The ability to calm down a crowd. And the power to…

“[Conjure Stool].”

Liska sat down as she hurried back into the private rooms. Erin glanced at the plain wooden stool.

“Uh. Is that your new power, Liska?”

“I’m a Level 6 [Door Gnoll], Miss Solstice.”

“…Cool. Can you do two?”

“No.”

The [Innkeeper] smiled. Then they went back to waiting. Erin seemed far, far more composed than Liska. Her leg jiggled as she sat at the edge of the table, but Liska was about to be incontinent with nerves.

When the adventurers did arrive, they came in a storm.

The door! The door! We’ll pay for—there!”

They came riding horses hell-for-leather, some in battered wagons showing damage from spells and arrows. More than one was looking over their shoulder even as they slowed, but they charged for the door while carrying—

Treasure. Some was in bags or even chests of holding, but Liska saw one of the Distinguished Staves holding a beautiful staff—and the area around the orb seemed so still, so calm—

The leaves were falling from trees outside the route near Wailant’s farm. One flew into the proximity of the stave as the [Mage] holding it ran—and the leaf fixed in place.

Time magic. Erin looked at the staff as the adventurers came to a halt.

“Miss Solstice! Let us through to Liscor, please! Or—Invrisil?”

“Anywhere, we’ll pay!”

“I have one place I’ll send you. And if you want—come on through. But before that, we’ll negotiate.”

Erin Solstice called through the door. Wailant was standing to the side, a hand on his own blade, but the Gold and Silver-ranks started. Erin glanced at Liska, then walked through the door. She shut it, and Liska gulped.

This was part of the plan—but it was still incredible that Erin did it. Liska waited, standing up from her stool, and paced around the room. The laden tables were filled up—she passed by jars of green acid, Erin’s travel foods, mana candies, Scaleguard Sandwiches, and bags of animal feed and provisions. Even camping supplies that Erin had asked Liska to buy as many of as possible.

When she finally felt Erin tug on her [Portal Door], Liska swung it open. She was almost certain Erin could do it herself, but the [Innkeeper] walked through with the first teams.

“Put anything you got that’s alchemical or enchanting-related on the tables.”

“Miss Solstice—”

“No buts. That’s the fee. Not all of you are even paying it.”

Erin pointed at a rough-looking man, one of the Waterborn Raiders, drenched in sweat. His eyes flickered to the door, and Erin raised a finger.

“Harm Liska or me, and that door will never open. Colth is still in this inn and the Horns and Grimalkin of Pallass. He’s big. Plus, Shriekblade is standing right behind you.”

The Waterborn Raider went white, and he whirled. Tessa tapped him on the shoulder, and he whirled again and backed up.

Liska’s nerves actually decreased as she recalled that Erin had a Named-rank as a bodyguard. The Gold-rank adventurers traded looks as more filed in.

“All of it?”

“All of it. It’s not useful where you’re going, is it? How many artifacts did you get? How many books? I’ll take any books you want to offload, too. For a price. Anything you want here—well, you’re all one buyer, so decide what you want.”

Erin indicated the supplies. The adventurers stared at her and then the supplies. Bird’s arrows, gear—one of the raiders whistled as he picked up the jar of acid. He almost opened the lid, but Erin snapped at him.

“Don’t do that. And don’t get it on your skin unless you want it melted. Hurry. I thought they were right behind you?”

The teams glanced over their shoulders, and Liska backed up as someone led a horse through the door. Erin called out.

“Pick what you want—come on through now if you’re coming! If you’re going to surrender, Wailant will give you a drink.”

“All the way past Pallass? And then to the new lands?”

It seemed to hit some of the Silver-ranks only now. Erin Solstice saw one of them turn to her.

“Can’t you send us somewhere else? Just around Liscor or…”

“The [Portal Door] doesn’t go anywhere else, sorry. And what would you do if I did? I’ll be letting Deniusth and the others through, and they’ll follow you. Like I said—if you want to give up everything you stole, stay at Wailant’s farm. I’ll transport you to my inn, and then Larra’s Haven, and the Named-ranks and Gold-ranks won’t touch you, you have my word. I can’t promise you’ll be adventurers after that, but they won’t kill you.”

And the rest? They looked at Erin’s overpriced stocks and then her map that showed a path across the trade routes to the New Lands.

“We’re going. This staff…I’ll find the half-Elves or another continent. Damn Deniusth. He didn’t even promise us a spellbook.”

The leader of the Distinguished Staves was in his fifties, but he calmly walked over to the table, began selecting gear, and tossed down some of the loot he’d stolen from Albez. Leaving his life behind.

“Captain Geith—my family.”

“Should have thought of that before you pissed off Orchestra.”

Wailant was sympathetic, but only a bit. He nodded at the other wavering adventurers.

“I can take a letter, but you’d better write quick. Free of charge, even.”

He said that as if Erin wasn’t collecting a good portion of the gear. It was the largest door tax that Liska had ever seen. She’d heard Erin complaining about Magnolia’s mandatory tax to Invrisil.

After today…Liska didn’t think Erin got to complain again.

For all of their talk, it was fast. The adventurers grabbed almost everything, and the only delay was taking through some of the animals—turning them around and sending them to the spot where Saliss was waiting outside Pallass. Liska heard him speaking to them.

“I’ve got free advice and people to talk to. Don’t be stupid, and don’t go to a Walled City. Hey, Geith. Nice staff. Good luck.”

To Liska’s surprise, she saw Erin Solstice shaking hands with the Waterborn Raiders and every adventurer who went through. Thieves or not—she took the hands of the Captain of the Waterborn Raiders.

“Don’t die out there. And if you ever do manage to make it back to Liscor, without bounty or someone after you—come here and tell me what happened.”

“You’re…alright, Innkeeper Solstice. Funny. I thought you were different.”

Erin Solstice looked the Captain of the Waterborn Raiders in the eye.

“I don’t approve of stealing, Captain. But it’s your choice. The new lands…Deniusth isn’t that charming. No matter what, it’s going to be dangerous. Good luck.

Then they were heading out, and Liska saw only seven adventurers remain, a tiny fraction of the ones going through the door. Erin could send roughly two hundred people to Pallass. By the time she closed the door, it had just enough juice to send Wailant back and deliver the seven adventurers to his farm for that promised drink.

“Pretend they’re not there, Wailant. I bet you Deni’s going to be coming for my door. He probably won’t even think they’re at your farm. Liska, is there power to let him through?”

She could check, but Liska, amusingly, seemed to be better at estimating relative to distance and place, thanks to her class. Erin just knew her door was ‘low’ and she was busy, so the Gnoll focused and answered for her.

“Just—just six more, Erin.”

“Well, let him through, but not his team. And Halrac and any captains. If Deni wants to kick up a fuss—Tessa, don’t kill anyone.”

“Yes, boss. Can I kick him?”

“Anywhere you want as long as it’s not permanent. But we’re going to be reasonable. How much did we get?”

Erin turned, and Wailant winked at her. He cast one last admiring look at the books, bottled alchemical reagents, magical crystals, and trinkets the adventurers didn’t think were the most valuable—or immediately valuable—piled on the table. Erin Solstice exhaled as the real haul—and largest share of Albez—sat in her inn. She turned to Liska, and the Gnoll stared at her.

“This room doesn’t exist, Liska. And since Wailant’s being so quiet—”

“Lips sealed, Miss Solstice. Maybe one book and a gift for Viceria?”

Erin gave him a patient look.

“Come by later. Yes, since Wailant’s being so quiet—this room doesn’t exist. Larra will maybe want to be here, but no one’s coming here without my permission. You have access to the garden—only let Saliss in here unsupervised. He’ll probably want to look stuff over.”

“Yes, Miss Solstice.”

Liska stood there, knees trembling, and then followed Erin into the garden and back towards the regular hallway of the inn. Erin made the [Portal Door] reappear, and then she turned.

“Lyonette? I have something I’d like to let you know about. Um. Colth too. Liska, just let through Deni. And if Larra wants to find me—I think her Haven’s past Invrisil, but I set up a portal stone there for now. Let her through.”

Liska sat down on the ground since her stool Skill was on cooldown. She stared at Erin’s back and listened to the sounds of the [Innkeeper] walking off. There was silence…then the sound of a [Princess] screaming.

Ishkr opened the door to the portal room as Deniusth pounded on Erin’s door in Celum, screaming for answers. Before Liska opened the door to Celum, she looked at her brother.

“Well?”

He raised his brows, and Liska pointed after Erin.

“She’s crazy. You said this job was fine! She’s crazy and cool.

“Obviously.”

Ishkr smiled at his younger sister, and Liska stared at him. Then she really, really began to wonder just what his class was. And his level.

 

——

 

“What level is Ishkr, do you think? I heard a birdie tell me that Chaldion tried to hire him—or buy his loyalty. And by that, I mean Bird told me.”

“What makes you think Ishkr’s high-level?”

“What makes you think he’s not?

“…Fair point.”

Today was a day of missing things. In an interesting way, in Invrisil, people hadn’t heard of the Facestealer attack. Larracel the Haven, the connected [Innkeeper], had heard about the Albez debacle—

But not about Colth’s plan to take down the monster. Similarly, Larra didn’t know what Erin had just done with the adventurers.

And neither did Ceria Springwalker, who was on her aforementioned date. She’d shaken off Yvlon and Pisces, who had a mountain of questions. She wondered if this counted as a prank, but really, Ceria felt like this was the most normal thing of the Horns.

Ksmvr didn’t really date. He was a kid and had a very limited understanding of how or why you did these things. That wasn’t her being mean either.

Children could occupy themselves all day with certain things. For instance, Ceria had seen Ksmvr sitting in front of a scrying orb for about seven hours. True, one could vegetate to that level—but he had been engrossed.

She didn’t think he was on the dating part of his life, was the point. Pawn now…

Pawn was interesting. Anyways, the point was that Ksmvr was out—and so were Yvlon and Pisces. Yvlon’s dates…well, Ceria wondered how well they’d gone when Yvlon was in the Silver Spears. As awkwardly as dating Ylawes, Ceria just bet.

As for Pisces—she might have expected it from him before. Not after Chandrar.

These were troublesome topics, and this was really to relax and have fun. Which Ceria was allowed to do. She was not being serious and long-term like Jelaqua with Maughin—or any relationship the Selphid engaged in, really. Ceria was glad most people got that.

The Ice Squirrel made one mistake. Silly squirrel, really. She had thought that was the only crazy thing that could happen in the inn, so she’d left and was blissfully unaware of the heist Erin had just pulled off.

She’d learn.

However, in the interim, Ceria Springwalker felt at her cracked ribs and winced. They’d heal fast due to the potion she’d been given, but she dreaded to imagine how long it would be if it had been infected. Pisces had fused the bones together to help the potion stick, but it still hurt, damn it.

[Necromancers]. Very handy for a number of reasons. Anyways, this was not the first date with this individual, nor was it serious like going to…well, Wishdrinks would be casual and fun. The Tailless Thief would be a nightmare and too expensive.

Work did follow you about, too. Her partner on the date glanced up.

“Are you really going after Facestealer? Is this the right moment for, uh—dating?”

“Let’s not talk about it. I adventure, and that’s that. If I don’t think about it, you don’t need to. Deal? Let’s try to have fun—although, let’s not break my ribs.”

“That’s…pretty good compartmentalizing. I’m just about done…”

The [Prankster]’s eyes twinkled as she watched. She’d arrived on-time, but she was being stood up for time. So she adjusted the light shirt she wore and pulled it up to expose her bandaged ribs, among other things.

“Sounds good. I’ll just count my fractures. Do you think I’m bleeding?”

Kevin looked up, did a double-take, and stared for a bit. Ceria cackled—then wondered if the circlet made her more likely to do that.

The [Engineer] closed his books and laughed. He looked at the closed door to his office.

“You are so lucky my helper wasn’t staring.”

“Why? It’s not like you can put out bad rumors about me. ‘Ceria has breasts’. Fire her from Gold-rank immediately!”

“No, it’s inappropriate in a work-environment.”

“Oh. Earth-stuff. Sounds interesting. Tell me more about it. Or do I get more poetry?”

Oh Captain, my Captain…

Kevin and Ceria chuckled. She quite liked her latest dance partner—and he was willing to try to dance. It was very informal, but she thought it was a good match. For one thing—he knew about Earth, and she was still curious about that.

You’d have to ask Kevin if he thought he got an equal benefit from the dates. They departed Kevin’s office in Solar Cycles, the little Esthelm office close to Pelt’s forge.

“So, are we going to Esthelm or…”

“I saw a cool pub in the city. They’re expanding fast. I booked a table, even.”

“Fancy. A place that books tables. So, is life working for your company actually that rewarding? And what is this about inappropriate work environments?”

“Well—aren’t there rules about not sleeping with the staff if you’re the boss?”

“Hm. Nope. It’s definitely bad form, but your world has rules and regulations for everything, doesn’t it? That’s another big difference I’ve noticed in your stories. Most [Lords] and [Ladies] wouldn’t stand for it. Actually—they probably harass the staff a lot.”

“I bet. Well—I’m not doing it. Plus, Solar Cycles is fun. I get to test our bikes, and we finally shipped out a bunch to all our waiting clients. Say, do you want to try our new dirt-bike?”

“Sure. But if I break those ribs…”

Well, Ceria did suspect that at least a few of her adventuring peers had social lives outside of work. Not poor Moore, although you never knew, but Jelaqua? Definitely. Seborn? Probably, but who knew.

Halrac, Revi? Uncertain.

Typhenous? She’d bet her circlet on it. She just wondered if he’d finally managed to woo his targets—which were apparently Witch Eloise and/or Witch Mavika.

You had to admire his balls, if he had any left.

The point was, Ceria enjoyed this for however long it would last. She glanced at Kevin slyly.

“Let me know if you get competing offers for your time.”

“Business-wise? Oh—no. I mean, I’ve been asked by a few people in Esthelm, and Bezale, but this is cool.”

Kevin seemed to regret mentioning the Minotauress, but Ceria passed a finger over her lips.

“Mouth sealed. But I’m telling you—there’s an open market for Kevins. And there are only…four.”

She meant the Antinium, and he laughed about that. Although it appeared to weigh on Kevin the fact that there were Soldiers and Workers who bore his name—and died. He was not all ‘chill’ and relaxed, but you did have to get to know someone to hear about that.

“Uh…who’s in the market for a Kevin? Not that I’m not really having fun here.”

The [Cryomancer] teased Kevin as he turned red. Ceria put her hands behind her head and whistled.

“Oh, believe me. I’d say at least a few interested parties might ask—but it’s tougher for them. How do you feel about pointed ears?”

Kevin hesitated.

“I, uh—like Falene? And would never date her.”

“Okay. Green skin?”

Oh.

Ceria watched his expression. Kevin thought about it, and Ceria laughed to herself. And wouldn’t that be interesting? She wondered what Erin would think about that. Of course, that was the last thing on Erin’s mind right now.

And frankly—if Larracel the Haven thought she’d caught up with Erin’s madness by dealing with the [Emperor]—tonight would prove they were only getting started. Ceria nudged Kevin after a while.

“No guessing. I’m just here to watch and eat popcorn if it turns out to be funny. But it’s not Ulvama.”

“Aw. I mean. Oh.”

 

——

 

The night was quiet, like the calm before storms. Like the silence in which you could forget your troubles…or brood. Some chose the former. Some—like the being that stalked below the ground of the Floodplains, did not forget. Did not forgive.

SNATCHER WAS ANGRY.

But it was also in the dungeon, nursing its light wounds. Aware that above there was at least one…adventurer and unable to strike. For now.

There were a lot of people who were angry that night, though. Like Deniusth. Or Deniusth. And Deniusth.

Other angry people included Troydel. Who knew exactly whom Ceria was dating, and he was seriously considering buying a curse from Oliyaya in Riverfarm to hex Kevin.

Kevin, living out the dream of Earth’s young men who read fantasy or played such games! Damn you, Kevin!

His fury was about a fifth of Deniusth’s. Which meant Facestealer was about 8 Troydels of wrath incarnate.

Lyonette was 1.5 Troydels, and Larracel actually reached about 3 Troydels, which was far into the realms where physical or magical violence became a possibility.

However, both calmed down a bit when Erin talked them down. Not because they appreciated Erin’s arguments about how the adventurers deserved a chance with their loot, how this would fuel the landrush, and the benefits of having lower-level teams with artifacts level.

No. They calmed down when Erin bribed them.

“I have—well, I don’t know how much, but I’d pretty much bet it’s more than even Deniusth’s Orchestra team could demand in shares. Wanna book, Larracel? You help me calm Deni down and I’ll let you pick. But Saliss is going to investigate the alchemy items.”

“You…you’re stealing from Orchestra? Are you mad?”

Despite herself, Larra the Haven was impressed. Impressed because she wasn’t sure Erin knew how dangerous Deni was—or Viecel when crossed. But Erin just folded her arms.

“Not stealing. I just refused to let Deni murder those adventurers. And he failed the truth spell when he told me he was going to let them live. I’ll give him and the other adventurers a bit of what I convinced the teams to part with.”

“And the rest?”

“They can get it if they catch up. Call it a game of tag or hide-and-seek. And then tell Deni that he might get nothing or very little now…but he might get everything later.”

Lyonette wondered if she were listening to her mother or father instead of Erin. Was she suggesting…? Larra blinked.

It was true Deni had lost all the artifacts he wanted. But he would have had to share most of the precious relics with the many teams in the dig. And with the Guild, Remendia, Laken…

But if he reclaimed all that lost treasure, he could gain…a lot of it.

In blood. Or perhaps just by convincing the teams to hand it over “peacefully” when he was in front of them with a sword.

Cold. Cold and ruthless and—Larracel glanced over and saw Deniusth pacing around outside as Colth and Eldertuin talked to him. He was so angry his voice was audible even through the stout windows.

“I’ll have a word. A pick of spellbooks?”

“Sure.”

Erin Solstice held out a hand, and Larra took it. The two [Innkeepers] locked eyes, and neither one quite smiled this time. Larra looked warier of Erin, and Erin…

…Glanced at Larra’s friends. Deni had killed two Gold-rank adventurers that morning, and she didn’t sense more than fury from him. She didn’t regret her decision.

“Much.”

There was more at stake here. There always was. When Deni came back into the inn, he refused to look at Erin—but he did listen to Colth as the Supporter spoke.

“Deni, we’re hunting a boss monster. And I’ll cut you in on whatever you want up front—Stalker’s corpse especially.”

His eyes twinkled at Erin, but the Named-rank was deadly serious as he looked at Eldertuin.

“I want it dead. Liscor wants it dead. So I’m going to pay you what you ask, but I’m calling in the favors. You, Mihaela, even Valley if she’s still around.”

“She’s treating my inn like a research lab. She’s around. Are you certain, Colth?”

The Supporter smiled as Deni’s head rose, and the leader of Orchestra looked at him. Colth turned to the Horns and nodded.

“Oh yes. Killing a monster like that—I’d say that’s the reward in itself, but we all know the levels and parts and its lair will be too. But it has to die. Are you in or not?”

Deniusth exhaled. He glanced at Erin, away—and then ground out.

“I’m in. You have a plan of attack, Colth?”

“I have eight. And we’ll take all the top-level help we can get. Saliss—I don’t know if I can get Tessa, but Saliss, the best Gold-rank teams—it’s time for a hunt.

The Ultimate Supporter looked around, eyes gleaming. The other teams looked at him. Erin had seen dungeon crawls. She’d seen raids and adventurers and monster extermination—but never a hunt.

This was going to be the hour of adventurers. And of course, it began in an inn.

It so often did.

 

——

 

The other teams returned from Albez mad, betrayed, and tired. They mostly took lodgings in the Haven, not Erin’s inn.

Their fury over Erin letting the adventurers go was slightly mitigated by the thought they all had that they could get a majority of the pilfered artifacts without having to share—and Erin doling out portions of the treasure she’d reclaimed.

Erin had, in fact, taken virtually nothing of the ‘door tax’, and a lot of the items, alchemical especially, were in Saliss’ claws or elsewhere. So she could argue she’d done very little of this in self-interest, just someone else’s interest.

In fact, Chaldion of Pallass was there in the morning, and it seemed he had decided Pallass could help recompense the losses.

“And it just so happens Pallass is doing this because Saliss of Lights has all the alchemical items he needs?”

Even Halrac had sour grapes with Erin, but the Grand Strategist was upfront as he handed a bag of gold over.

“In a sense, I’m indebted to Miss Solstice. She has done the more good in the name of alchemy—”

“—And Pallass—”

Revi muttered. Chaldion ignored her.

“—Than there would be if everything were auctioned off like the Village of the Dead raid. This is less…profitable, but I will consider this a favor for all the teams inconvenienced. In fact, Miss Solstice, would you care to have a cup of coffee and discuss the issue this morning?”

Erin stuck a tongue out at him. She had been drinking with Wailant last night after talking to most of the Gold-ranks, and she had a full day of activities. Not least going to Invrisil with Grimalkin and Nanette and Mrsha on the hunt for her curse!

“I’d love to, Chaldion, but Halrac’s right. You coulda been here earlier, but you only seem to turn up when it benefits Pallass. Or the Drakes. Not much love for the northern teams?”

The [Strategist] faltered.

“They are historically employed by the Five Families in times of war and occasionally as hostile combatants, Miss Solstice—”

“Yeah, but that cuts both ways, don’t it? Don’t expect me to always get Pallass’ back! Or tail. Being biased isn’t good. Why ask me for coffee? What about my friends? Even poor Keldrass?”

The Drake jumped as Erin pointed him out and tried to shake his head, but Chaldion protested.

“I believe I’m a regular of this inn.”

“Oh yeah? What’s Yvlon’s middle name? What’s Bird’s favorite food?”

“Bird?”

What kind of Bird? See? You only talk to me. You’ve never even said ‘hi’ to Mrsha. Pssh. Fake friends.”

Erin’s bullying of Chaldion left the Grand Strategist speechless. Mrsha held up a frowny-face notecard, but she was slightly delighted by Erin’s new attitude. Chaldion looked around, floundering.

“I think I’m quite sociable, Miss Solstice. I am pressed for time, but I know a number of guests.”

“Not me.”

Saliss raised a claw, and Chaldion glared at his grandson.

“—I would have a drink or conversation with anyone here. Even—Pisces.”

Pisces’ head turned in his seat as Chaldion pointed around, and the [Necromancer] pointed at himself.

“Me?”

“Sure. Suuure.”

Erin snorted, but her ribbing of Chaldion was light. Mainly because he was passing out gold and the adventurers were getting ready for their hunt. Colth had the lead, and Erin had decided not to linger in the inn. She would trust him to succeed—plus, Nerrhavia was getting on her nerves.

 

——

 

So Erin left the inn to the adventurers and business as usual. Similarly, there was one other duo of adventurers who had an appointment with trouble, though. An implacable force, perhaps. A guardian of old ways. An executioner, a judge and arbiter.

Klbkchhezeim the Slayer.

He sat in an office in the Free Hive. Once, it had been the only place with a desk in it, where only he was allowed. It held his work-gear, what records the Antinium needed to write down, and it was a kind of sanctuary.

A…unique place, for he was one of two True Antinium in the entire Free Hive. A sad, lonely journey.

These days, lots of Antinium had seats. There was a reading room, a room of paints, the Painted Antinium’s barracks, and he was no longer alone.

Somehow, Klbkch felt more alone. Despite having met Wrymvr, the Grand Queen again, despite the new Individuals, he felt less connected, less sure, and more tired and old than he ever had been.

Naturally, he blamed the new Antinium for this. They just weren’t as good as the old ones.

When he had been first created at the advent of the Antinium species by the First Queen, there had been a lot of improvements needed. Mistakes, costly ones, entire revolutions in their design.

But they’d been amazing Antinium. Shaped by the First Queen, not carbon-copies of Galuc. As good as Galuc was—the Antinium in Klbkch’s day could have swept Izril, and those weren’t even modern Antinium.

He had, privately, expressed these feelings to the one person besides the Free Queen worthy of his commentary. Well, besides Relc. And maybe Anand, if he were here. And Xrn, obviously, but—

He had talked to Erin. And do you know what she’d done? She’d laughed, patted him on the hand, and told him he was old.

Him. Klbkch! Yes, he was…but the implication was…she had said it like it was a failing.

You’re old, Klbkch! Be nicer to the new Antinium or I’ll get mad. You don’t remember what it was like to be young.

And he had assured her he did and remembered all his forms and his inadequacies and that even with all of them, he was simply holding the Painted Antinium to real standards. And she had called him old. Again.

Right now, Klbkch was mad. He was already irked by the Free Antinium’s new direction, but he had been changing bodies, among the Hivelands, and gone since his control had effectively been revoked. The Free Queen had assured him she had everything in hand.

Now they had a 7th Hive, even if it was more theoretical than practical. They had [Crusaders]. They had lots of Painted Antinium and a new group that had come from Liscor’s ‘Fellowship of the Inn’ as they kept calling themselves.

And guess who had to clean up the entire mess? Not Xrn. Oh, no. Klbkch sat in his office in this new Hive, as he had since the [Crusaders] had started coming back.

He had a cup of water in front of him for hydration and a piece of half-eaten bread since he could digest it. Bread. No butter on top. It was perfectly nutritious…although Klbkch had, for some reason, decided to buy bread instead of the nutritional paste the Antinium ate. The stale crust was there if he was hungry. Which he was not.

Klbkch also had sheets of paper, and he selected another and began to fill it out as the Antinium in front of him fidgeted.

“Designation.”

“Fuck you.”

Designation.

One of the other Antinium nudged the Worker.

“Lord Commander of the Centenium, Greatest Ant alive.”

Klbkch wrote down ‘Crusader 57-8’ on the piece of paper as one of the Workers whispered to him.

“Class.”

“[Crusader]. You blind?”

“Level?”

“Higher than your mother.”

Klbkch paused.

“I do not have a mother.”

“That’s what she said. Last night.”

Crusader 57 paused, and it occurred to him that the insults he’d been learning in Liscor’s army didn’t really work here. The Revalantor sighed.

Level.

“Level 21 [Spitfire Crusader].”

“Any unique Skills or abilities to report? I am going to note ‘verbal insults’ here preemptively.”

Squad 5 nervously waited for Crusader 57 to come up with a new insult. Klbkch listened and did not rise to the numerous personal attacks on his character, body, and non-existent family.

He would have dealt with this situation far differently a few months ago. But instead, Xrn had told him he had to be…gentle with these Workers and Soldiers. While unhelpfully not writing down any details about them whatsoever.

“Squad 5 is in service to the new 7th Hive of the Antinium under Prognugator…Centenium…Queen Xrn. As this is the case, I will not discuss your future within the Free Hive, and you are exempted from any further reports. You are dismissed.”

“Your face is dismissed. And ugly. Too afraid to fight me, Klbkch?”

The Revalantor’s head rose, and Squad 5 pulled Crusader 57 back. Klbkch spoke quietly.

“That would not be a concern if I were inclined to waste the Free Antinium’s resources.”

Crusader 57 just laughed at Klbkch.

“That’s supposed to be scary? You’re weak, Klbkch! Weak! Come over and fight me! You won’t! You’re useless! Let go of me, Crusader 53. I’m going to crap on his desk…

Crusader 57, despite the unpleasant dialogue, was one of the more expeditious such meetings. Klbkch suspected the Worker had seen him execute an Aberration before. If Crusader 57 turned out to become one himself…and the signs were there…well, it wasn’t his problem.

“Next.”

He’d forgotten the last part. But since Squad 5 had run, Klbkch let it slide. The next—duo—to come in made Klbkch’s hands twitch towards his side.

“Goblins are not permitted in the Hive.”

“We are sorry, Revalantor Klbkch. But he is my brother.”

“That Goblin is not your brother.”

“He is. I am here.”

Klbkch stared at Infinitypear and Rasktooth and twitched. Then he decided that since he had 259 more Antinium to go—he was going to let this slide.

“Designation.”

“Infinitypear and Rasktooth.”

Klbkch slowly, and deliberately, wrote only the first name down on the new sheet.

“Class.”

“[Adventurer].”

This time, the quill slowed a bit. This was not the typical [Crusader] group. Adventurer? Klbkch realized Infinitypear was going to mandate a second page of notes and sighed as he dipped his quill in the ink pot—but he had to admit, it was a rare class.

This was more the kind of thing the Free Queen and he had wanted from the start. Well, the [Crusaders] too, but unique classes? He nodded.

“Level?”

“I am Level 13. Rasktooth is Level 4.”

“Hmm. Low-level. I thought you participated in the Meeting of Tribes war. Most of the other Antinium, especially Battalions 1 and 6, leveled far more.”

“That was not an adventure.”

“Unique Skills?”

That meant all of them. Klbkch wrote them down, asking for details, and then glanced at Infinitypear.

“Unique gear?”

“I have a spear Guardsman Relc gave me.”

“Adamantium spear…owned by Spearmaster Lulv.”

Klbkch underlined that a few times and noted Infinitypear’s name down on a separate ledger. Perhaps they should take it from him. Yes, he’d order Infinitypear to turn it over after this interview.

He’d been tempted to make Crusader 53 do the same, but he was a fighting soldier in Xrn’s army. Klbkch drummed his fingers on the table.

“As you are not part of the 7th Hive, and you are technically Painted Antinium, you fall under Pawn’s authority. However, you are a resident of The Wandering Inn—so you are to be classified independently of these two authorities unless you place yourself under the command of any body. The Free Queen or other Hives also being acceptable. Is this clear?”

“Must I do this, Revalantor Klbkch?”

“No.”

“Oh, good. Why am I here, please?”

At least this Worker was polite. Klbkch spoke the same words again, waiting for the blank look or questions.

“Every new Individual must prove its usefulness to the Hive and submit a plan of improvement or jobs. I will cite you Silveran, who has not only leveled in a class at commendable speed, but operates a business which provides other Antinium with jobs and earns a profit, which he remits part of to the Hive. His use to the Hive is commendable and an example—you must submit a proposal now or later to justify your activities. Or else you will be assigned to another group.”

Pawn had lobbied against this, as if this were a democracy—and his Painted Antinium had a lot of leisure, but he was allowed to do that given his command. However—Infinitypear was not Pawn’s. The Worker sat there, and it was Rasktooth who raised a hand.

“Infinitypear must get a job?”

“Yes.”

Oh.

Both Antinium and Goblin looked at each other and nodded. Klbkch wondered if he should just say it like that and then wondered how much time he had wasted with his other explanations. Unfortunately, it was clear Infinitypear might be one of the hard cases.

“I do not know what I can do, Revalantor Klbkch.”

“Then I can assign you to an appropriate role as a fighter or…”

“I do not want to do that, Revalantor Klbkch. Respectfully.”

Klbkch paused in tugging out a list of names. He looked up, and if he could have glared—his mandibles came together.

“You must provide some worth to the Hive. That is my role here. Assigning you a task that will either produce something of value or let you level. Or both.”

“Oh. Can he level instead of work?”

“That…is acceptable. Do you have a proposal?”

Klbkch waited patiently as Rasktooth and Infinitypear whispered. Then they turned to him.

“I want to adventure, Revalantor Klbkch. With Rasktooth. We will go explore many places.”

“Where?”

“Izril? Baleros? Everywhere. The sea and High Passes and…”

The two grew excited at the thought. Klbkch just shook his head. He stabbed the paper in front of him with a quill, hard enough to embed the tip into the wooden desk.

“I am looking for actionable proposals. Not…fantasies. You are combat assets for the Hive, if lower-level than some of your peers.”

“But we are [Adventurers]. We want to adventure.”

Infinitypear was getting stubborn. Xrn had so many rules. Klbkch’s hand was messing up the quill.

Don’t snap at them, Klbkch. Don’t shout at them, Klbkch. Don’t throw anything at them or I’ll blast you with lightning, Klbkch.

When he was an Antinium, everything was in service to the Hives. The Queen! There was no need for this because they were united. Klbkch ground out each word as he looked at Infinitypear.

“You must have a plan of action. Something you want to do and a goal that is clearly definable and within reach.”

“But what if I do not know what I want to do or what will happen? I wish to stay with my brother.”

He is not your brother. You are Antinium.

Klbkch slammed his hands on the table and stood. Rasktooth and Infinitypear rocked backwards in their chairs, and the Antinium outside Klbkch’s office stirred as the door trembled a bit. Klbkch stared at Infinitypear—and another Worker would have turned into a trembling ball by now. But Infinitypear protectively held Rasktooth.

“He is my brother. You are wrong. We are [Adventurers]. I think you do not know what that is, Revalantor Klbkch. Respectfully.”

Klbkch stared down at Infinitypear, and for a second, he was so furious he nearly drew his swords right then and there. For a second. Then—he stared at Infinitypear and Rasktooth, who had a clawed hand on his dagger.

And the spear. The spear Relc had given Infinitypear and the Worker was holding across his chest. Klbkch looked at the duo—and something in his brain seemed to—click.

A duo. One with green skin, the other with bug-shell. Not green scales—but close enough. Klbkch calmed down as the new chemistry in his body put him into an ice-cold, reflexive state. The Silent Queen’s adjustments.

But he was still Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium. He always had been, though the body changed. And when Infinitypear said that…

Slowly, Klbkch sat down. He adjusted his papers, filed most of the finished ones, and picked up the glass of water. He sipped, took a bite of the bread, and then spoke as Infinitypear and Rasktooth watched him.

“You are incorrect, Infinitypear. I am quite familiar with the role of an [Adventurer]. Your ignorance is forgiven, because this knowledge could not possibly be rendered to you.”

Rasktooth poked the Worker’s shoulder and whispered to Infinitypear.

“He rude.”

Klbkch ignored that. He turned to the dirt wall behind him, upon which was tacked a map of Izril. He stared at it—and imagined a place far from Izril. A continent more deadly, and a land with no sun where even light sometimes vanished.

He felt as he had when he spoke to Anand and indulged the feeling rather than put it away. After all—he had time.

“…When I was first created by the First Queen of the Antinium, at the dawn of our species from the wild species we had been, she gave me my name. Klbkchhezeim. I was one of the first Centenium created. Eighth. Two had already fallen, and my role was to be independent. She designed my body to go for weeks alone—I stalked through the areas around the Hives, slaying foes. Hence my name. When new areas opened, I was the first Antinium there. I encountered magic and other creatures and learned how to deal with both.”

Rasktooth and Infinitypear—and the Workers and Soldiers outside Klbkch’s door, which was open a crack—looked at each other. Infinitypear raised a hand timidly.

“You were the eighth Centenium ever made, Revalantor Klbkch? Were Centenium Xrn and Wrymvr before you?”

“Them? Ha. Ha. Hahahahahahahaha.

Klbkch laughed like Relc and Erin did and felt like he was getting the hang of it. He looked over his shoulder.

“No. Xrn was created with the greatest achievements of the First Queen, at the end of the hundred Centenium she ever made. Wrymvr is older, but his eternal regeneration and Xrn’s magic were products of the culmination of her knowledge. He is among the oldest—but the first ten Centenium were made slowly, each one taking an age to be created. More Centenium appeared later as the Hives grew.”

“Oh. So you’re a big brother.”

Rasktooth happily replied. Klbkch…stared at him. The Goblin looked uncertain until Klbkch hesitated.

“That is not how Antinium view such things. But functionally—would that confer some degree of authority over those two?”

“Yep.”

Intriguing.

Klbkch turned around again and decided to remember that. He went on, though, indulging himself in old memories.

“There would be years when I did not see another Antinium—before we expanded. With naught but my blades, I cut down threat after threat. I was one of two Antinium to learn the art of swords and teach it to the others. You see, Antinium learned all these things and adapted, grew. The swords I bear are borne of that knowledge, and they, like my body, were refined by True Antinium techniques.”

“You taught Antinium things?”

True Antinium—of course. I would instruct War Queens and the greatest Antinium how to fight in combat. My role changed. As we delved deeper, grew to know what lay above and beyond, the Antinium Hives grew more powerful.”

“How long ago was this?”

Rasktooth waved a hand because he felt like this was pertinent information. Klbkch hesitated.

“We did not count time in the Hives in the same way, having no days or nights to mark it. By your standards, by estimations…the Creler Wars were six thousand years ago. The Hives had already been expanding, powerful by then. But we unearthed them—or rather, they were unleashed upon us. I remember that. So we are older still.”

Rasktooth’s mouth fell open, and he pointed at Infinitypear. You never said! But Infinitypear had not known.

“You’re really old, then?”

The Worker tried. Klbkch turned his head.

“The body has changed. I have not. My blades have changed. I have not. I remember different eras. I taught Mirrex the Bard the art of swordsmanship when he was made. I was old, then. I have seen the death of the First Queen. I was at the dawn of the Antinium.”

The Goblin and Antinium sat there, entranced, as Klbkch continued. He touched the swords at his sides.

“Adventuring is lonely. It is a journey into the unknown, knowing you might not come back. There is a joy to it, such as finding a species that bears no hostility to you. I once delved into the waters surrounding Rhir and nearly drowned. I sank into a nest where…”

Where the deep waters seemed to glow with rays of light that reached down even here. He was drowning, sinking—but it was a beautiful way to die.

It would take him long, for neither the pressure nor the lack of air could kill him so fast. Klbkchhezeim sank past a strand of…some great plant, so huge that it could shelter hundreds of Antinium upon one broad blade. And underneath, trapped in some bubble of air, was a hanging ecosystem of its own.

A kind of land under the plant’s broad aegis. He could not reach it—and the Centenium saw broad bulbs he thought to be infection or eggs upon the plant. Until he realized they were giant…beings with shells. They poked their heads out, and he felt a mind of such complexity only the First Queen could match them.

Then—his fall into the depths slowed, and the rays of light twisted as the curious beings down there sensed his drowning. And they lifted him up—and he encountered the first ally of Antinium.

 

——

 

“They were the ones who taught the Antinium to master their control of minds and form the Unitasis Network.”

Klbkch turned his head and saw the two [Adventurers] staring at him—and a crowd of Workers and Soldiers peeking through the door. They fled when he stared at them.

“What happened to them?”

Rasktooth’s voice was quiet, awed.

“They fled the Crelers when they first emerged. A peaceful people. No doubt as strange to the rest of the world as we are to them. That is what it means to be an adventurer. That was the lesson I learned as well—to walk with blade in hand, but to look into the mysteries I found. Wisdom and blade. Not everything must die. Nor is what is strange a threat.”

He missed those days, he remembered. When it was simpler. When the First Queen was alive, and he…he wondered what the rest of the world looked like.

When he first saw the sky—how long ago was that? When the First Queen herself stood upon the land and met the one who called himself a ‘Demon’ of Rhir.

An age passed, and he had no eyes to blink. So he saw it all. Then Klbkch looked at Infinitypear and Rasktooth.

[Adventurers].

“I want to see that.”

Infinitypear stared at the images that Klbkch had conjured. Rasktooth was nodding. The little Worker patted his knees excitedly as he rocked in his chair.

“We can go in the water. I will learn to hold my breath or swim. But it is far. And we cannot buy a hat. And we have to have a job.”

His antennae drooped, and Klbkch looked at him. Slowly, the Revalantor sat back down.

“Indeed. You have no body made by the First Queen. The magic of Drakes and other people is some small replacement, but only Relics would match the might of Centenium. Nor do you have my levels. I was Level 40 in one class and decently strong in another. And that, despite the inefficiency, places me above Named-ranks of this era with my body of old. For my body was a work of art on its own.”

The Worker and Cave Goblin looked at Klbkch. It sounded like he was telling them how hopeless their dream was…but something was different from his brusqueness of earlier.

“You would have to begin from the first point. Find artifacts, level. Learn the lessons you do not know. You hold that spear without mastery, Infinitypear. And Rasktooth cannot walk.”

“I can carry him.”

Klbkch was writing. His pen gently scritched on the parchment.

“Of course you can try. But even I did not always go alone. In these days, adventuring seldom comes with the class. Yet—they too know some of it. Adventurers often operate in teams of more than two. And only one Antinium and one Goblin have ever become adventurers. Numbtongue’s rank is more of a formality, so I exclude him.”

Rasktooth exchanged a quick glance with Infinitypear. Klkbch kept writing, and now he was doing sums.

“It is not inexpensive to become an adventurer. Their initial startup is compounded by the cost of healing, transport. To the Hive, they are a risky proposal which often loses money. Which ends in death. Knowing that—would you two still pursue that class?”

“Yes.”

“Yah.”

“I changed my answer. Yah. Yah.”

The Goblin and Antinium smiled at each other. Klbkch looked up reprovingly, and they stopped, but then he nodded. He finished writing.

“Very well.”

Hmm? They looked at him blankly. He said it as if something were decided. Klbkch lifted the piece of parchment up.

“I will consider that a plan of action. The complications abound—but if Guildmistress Tekshia accepts your position as Bronze-rank adventurers, the Hive will allocate a budget to your team. Miss Solstice will no doubt have thoughts. If you manage to party with other adventurers or complete requests or clear areas, monetary rewards and assistance from the Hive may be permitted.”

He showed them the piece of paper, and Infinitypear and Rasktooth saw that Klbkch had written in the Goblin’s name and levels below Infinitypear’s. They looked at each other.

“Bronze-rank adventurers?”

Klbkch had no eyebrows, so he raised one antennae instead.

“That is what you are intending, isn’t it?”

The duo sat there, and suddenly, it all made sense. But could they do that? Were they allowed?

Klbkch didn’t know. They might be hunted the moment they left Liscor—but he had been hunted too. If they wanted it…

Rasktooth grinned first, a mouthful of teeth, then Infinitypear lifted his mandibles. Klbkch did not smile, but he nodded.

“It seems all is in order. Next. Ah—wait, one more thing.”

He halted the pair as they rose. The two looked back warily, and Klbkch lifted another piece of paper and read from the notes Pawn and Xrn had given him.

“Before you go, ‘have I offered you a helpful and useful service today? Did I at any time make you feel uncomfortable or afraid?’”

The Goblin and Antinium traded glances. Rasktooth answered for Infinitypear.

“You scary.”

Klbkch filled in the form and noted how most of the answers seemed to congregate on one side of the little chart. He steepled his hands.

“I see. Dismissed. Next!

The data pointed one way, and Klbkch calmly ignored it. It was just data. He felt more content after speaking with the duo, though. And life was not eternally hard.

Relc was waiting for him after this, and the two had agreed to visit an Adventure Room, whatever that was, if Zevara didn’t need them on-duty at all times. Besides…Klbkch saw the door open, and he perked up.

“Ah. You.”

He knew the timid Antinium who froze as he saw Klbkch, but the Revalantor motioned him into a chair, even pulled it out for him.

“Would you like a glass of water? Sustenance?”

He had been waiting for this Individual for the last four days. The nervous figure shivered—but Klbkch just sat back down eagerly.

“I have had eighty-two complaints about you. And I note your position is highly contentious within the Free Hive. I understand your job makes other Workers and Soldiers upset. Let us discuss a budget…Furfur.

He smiled as the Worker perked up a bit. Klbkch had broad discretionary powers that Xrn and Pawn had given him. He intended to use them.

Purely for the betterment of the Hive, of course.

 

——

 

The Wandering Inn rose for a new day with more alacrity than before. It wasn’t that things were happening. Things were always happening.

But there was a sharpness in the air that had Ishkr polishing the bar tops by the time Liska raced in. The Gnoll clutched at her side.

“I…I ran here. You were still putting on your shoes!”

“Too slow.”

Ishkr looked at his younger sister, and her eyes narrowed.

“Oh, are we doing this? You want to do this, Ishkr?”

“I don’t know what ‘this’ is. I’m just doing my job.”

“I’ll do it alright. I’m on to you.”

Ishkr rolled his eyes, but Liska glowered—until Ishkr nodded at the door.

“Get ready for the Haven’s guests.”

“I know, I know.”

She stomped off since she could already sense Colth and the others waiting. However, Ishkr called out to her.

“If you see Barnethei—the other [Innkeeper]? Colorful coat, sometimes a hat? Don’t let him through.”

She turned, surprised by the injunction.

“Why?”

Ishkr grimaced.

“He’s troublesome. Hopefully he just stays away this time.”

That was background, of course. By the time Lyonette came downstairs, the two siblings were already moving around Goblins and Antinium showing up to work. Peggy was dragging Inkpaper out of Erin’s new, and tiny, library.

Gothica was being evicted from her cellar hideout by an Antinium called Rosencrantz. And yes…there was no Guildenstern. No one had volunteered to make it a duo act.

It was a good morning for most—even if everyone seemed to be waiting for Erin Solstice to show up. She had pulled big, big moves off last night, and the Thronebearers looked like they had all been sucker-punched. Even the inn’s family, who felt they should have known better…

Well, Mrsha had gone back to her old ways and put on a huge fake mustache, and she sat at the breakfast table with her paws folded. Mrsha the Godfather…the Godmother? Mrsha the Bad Guy sat there until Bird took her mustache.

“That belongs to Silverstache. Shame on you.”

Yet Erin did not immediately appear. Even as Grimalkin showed up and nodded to Nanette, who was feeding Nerry, the Sariant Lamb namesake glanced up and frowned with her cute little face.

She wondered what Erin was dreaming about when she’d peeked into the [Innkeeper]’s room. It sounded like a bad dream.

 

——

 

A hand patted Erin Solstice on the head. A beaming face smiled at her, and her mask was simply her face, painted with so many delicate layers of color that moved and shifted with affection, like a piece of living art.

“Well done, my little [Innkeeper]. My tyrant-to-be.”

Erin Solstice took a swing, and Nerrhavia glided back. She was a ghost, applauding Erin lightly, swinging forwards to seize her hands in an all-too-real grip.

Stop showing up in my dreams!

“Make me.”

She was taunting Erin. Why? This wasn’t Nerrhavia. At least—well, it was. She annoyed Queen Merindue to no end, and she was petty and spiteful, but why—

Nerrhavia!

 

——

 

Erin punched forwards, out of her bed, and landed in a tangle of flailing limbs and sheets. She rolled around—then realized she was tangled up.

“Uh.”

“Miss Solstice? Everything alright? Can I come in?”

“I’m decent! Just—can you get me out of this?”

Normen the [Knight] opened the door to find Erin being slowly strangled by her sheets. The [Innkeeper] was glaring as the Brother hesitated. But all Erin said was—

“Bad dreams. Hey, can you hand me that little wicker bird on the dresser? Oh, and my knife. Is Grimalkin below?”

“Yes, Miss Solstice.”

“Good! I’m taking him and Tessa. I’ll be back late. Mrsha can come with Nanette if they want.”

Today…was a day of reckoning. Erin stared at the ceiling, like a cloth sausage, as Normen untangled the sheets.

 

——

 

“Deni.”

“Colth, Eld. Morning.”

“Deni.”

He ignored her until Mihaela put him into a headlock. The Violinist broke free and snapped.

This is not the time, Mihaela.

“Well, say hello to me. Are you still mad about that [Innkeeper]’s trick?”

Mihaela had heard everything. Not that she’d seen the fun—she had been auditing Invrisil’s Runner’s Guild—and Celum’s. She’d heard some bad practices had cropped up. Like the Wind Runner getting her legs crushed by hostile runners?

Like Ryoka or not, a Runner’s Guild had to have principles. And Mihaela did actually do her job. Garia Strongheart had been there to see her gently dispense wisdom.

Mihaela dispensing wisdom was kicking a hole through the [Receptionist]’s counter and asking where the old Guildmaster lived. Then she tested all the City Runners who thought they were Couriers.

However, she was sorry to have missed the Albez dig, if for no other reason than she could have halted the thefts. In truth, Mihaela was on Deni’s side.

But what an odd move from Erin Solstice. No one had described her being quite that underhanded. Even Larra seemed taken aback.

Deniusth was not happy. Nor were most of the adventurers, but Deni was the one to watch. He was—impulsive.

“You’re going to take on Facestealer? Let me know when. I’ll warm up—and I need to borrow Larra’s healing beds if I’m going to move about.”

Mihaela coughed. She’d take a double-dose of her tonic. Colth nodded, and Eldertuin looked around.

“I’ll find Valley. Knowing her, she’s forgotten—oh, wait, there she is.”

Valeterisa emerged from her suite, practically being pushed out the door by the young [Mage], Montressa, who bowed, flustered, to the group of friends. Even Deni was astonished by a dressed and somewhat cognizant Valeterisa.

“That girl is good for Valeterisa. Who would have known? I would have thought any of her apprentices would starve to death when Valley locked them in a broom closet and forgot.”

“Bad joke, Deni.”

His glower returned. The Violinist began walking down the hallway, and he answered Mihaela curtly.

“I’m going to kill this ‘Face Stealer’ or whatever it is since Colth is calling in a favor. Why not? If I get a cut of whatever loot we find from this Stalker-corpse—well, I’ll do it for gold because I remember my debts. I’ll even be polite to Erin Solstice. For now.”

Mihaela glanced at Colth. He was looking more serious today than ever, which made her feel like stretching and getting ready. Colth didn’t take things lightly. But Deni’s words were too ominous to let go.

“Deni—she played like a Reinhart, it’s true, but you did murder a few adventurers.”

Thieves. She let them go, and now she’s trying to pay us back with our own treasure!”

“I know. I’m just saying, don’t fight with her. She’s backed by two Named-ranks on her own, and this isn’t the point. The New Lands are.”

The Violinist glared at Mihaela.

“Orchestra won’t forget this. Nor will any of the teams. Larra wanted to make peace? Well, Erin Solstice has earned a grudge, and I—”

His rant was cut short as Colth turned and, unexpectedly, grabbed Deni’s arm. His sword-arm, his playing arm.

“Deni, do me another favor. I have at least two. Erin? The inn? Drop it.”

“Let go of me, Colth.”

Deni jerked away as his team emerged from their rooms. Mihaela saw Colth’s grip tighten, and Deni stiffened in surprise. Colth leaned over, and his usual friendly demeanor and obsequious attitude…

Drop. It. We have a job to do.”

He let go, and a long silence followed as Mihaela eyed Colth. That was—Deni yanked himself away and stared at Colth along with everyone else. Valeterisa looked up and murmured.

“Now Colth is bullying Deni. How the times have changed.”

Strange things. Mihaela excused herself and walked off to prepare as the adventurers began to head to The Wandering Inn. She wondered what was up with Colth. Then again—he was younger, he was at the prime of his adventuring, and he might just like Erin Solstice. Or the Horns.

Or maybe he had a goal that was different from the others. They were all adults. They had their problems. Mihaela sighed as she began to stretch. If there was one thing that united them—it was a purpose.

Monsters died.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice was, perhaps tactfully, not at the inn by the time the adventurers began to muster up. Breakfast was laid out, and the Horns were ready—although they were not the principal actors here.

Ylawes Byres was just grateful for a nice bed and wash after a few days of camping at Albez. Of course, Orchestra had actually had a shower in their magical accommodations, but he had been camping.

Once more, though—Ylawes Byres was not at the center of this adventure. He accepted it this time with better grace. He hadn’t been chosen.

Falene was on a shortlist, and Dawil had been—until Colth learned his axe was broken. Ylawes had not been on any list, anywhere.

The Horns were included, all four of them, even if Ksmvr and Yvlon would be getting supporting roles at best, and Pisces and Ceria were only there to fuel spells. Colth was not apologetic about any of it.

“I want top Gold-rankers only in our specialist slots. Every [Rogue] we can get and some lineholders—but the rest will just clutter our attempts. No Silver-ranks. No gawkers at the pits, no one goes down. This is a Named-rank mission, and if anyone fouls us up, I’ll call the Adventurer’s Guild down on their heads, got it?”

The Ultimate Supporter was in his element, and he had maps and fallbacks. Ylawes listened for a while and then went over to find Vuliel Drae and Nailren’s team.

“Good morning, you all. Are you staying here?”

Insill waved at him, and the Silver-rankers smiled but were subdued.

“Well, no one’s entering the dungeon. We thought we’d rest a bit—not that we did much at Albez. Hunt Shield Spiders, maybe.”

“There’s a job working for Menolit’s adventuring group. Just saving idiots who run into Hollowstone Deceivers.”

Nailren was debating it, and Ylawes looked at them. Now that the chance for treasure was done, they were back to being Silver-ranks. Straining to get to the next level, for their big break.

He…knew how they felt. Ylawes pulled up a chair as Falene walked away from the planning.

“I am not needed, Ylawes. Hello, Anith, Nailren, everyone.”

She looked annoyed as Dawil sat with more equanimity than the others.

“Can’t fault Colth, Falene. I guess we’re staying to see if they pull it off—then to the north?”

“House Byres, Dwarfhalls Rest—then we’ll see about these new lands.”

Nailren glanced up as Ylawes agreed.

“You are going too, Captain Ylawes?”

“After a visit to my home. And the new Dwarven settlement.”

“I forgot Erin’s door makes it so easy…hrr. Buying some good gear there might make the difference. Maybe I should visit.”

“Dwarfsteel? We could use our haul from the Village of the Dead raid and gear us up, Anith.”

Dasha nodded. It was a good compromise, Ylawes knew. If you couldn’t afford enchanted gear, Dwarfsteel or other high-quality weapons were excellent stopgaps. He had been hoping they could reinforce his armor, himself.

“What if we went with you to Dwarfhall’s Rest, Captain Ylawes? If you’re going.”

“If you’d like, I could invite you to House Byres too. We welcome guests.”

The Silver-ranks perked up at this. Ylawes thought it would be a nice break from all the drama he’d been engulfed in. They were tentatively making plans, but all eyes were on Colth and his crew. They wouldn’t be able to see what happened when Colth left, but Ylawes Byres felt a pang.

It’s really not a place for the Silver Swords, is it? He had felt like they were the premier Gold-rank team taking on challenges no one else would, even if that were arrogance. Now? He felt like a Bronze-ranker again. But perhaps that was fine. After what he’d seen at Albez, Ylawes would frankly admit that he had no desire to team up with Deniusth or even most of the northern teams, even if Eldertuin hadn’t been as culpable as the others.

This was their battle.

So where was his?

 

——

 

Erin Solstice walked along Invrisil, humming. She had a knife at her belt, two acid jars in her bag of holding, and she’d taken a backup wand too. Mrsha swaggered along next to her with her kilt—red today—and her own wand in her holster.

Nanette had a wand too, but she refused to brandish it. She was counting her allowance that Lyonette had given her.

Are you sure it’s alright to give me so many coins?

She had been dismayed by the amount of money, but Lyonette had told her to buy as many books as she wanted—for the inn would use them too! The spoiling of Nanette had begun—but Erin had a task before going to the bookshop again.

The three dangerous women of various ages…were not what was clearing some of the pedestrians in front of them. Mrsha’s swagger actually decreased her walking speed, so she kept having Grimalkin nearly walk into her.

“Mrsha, please walk faster.”

The Sinew Magus didn’t look as ‘tough’, but he was surveying the street and Erin’s moving bird-charm. The little Gnoll glanced up and decided he could swagger for both.

Watching Grimalkin walk was an exercise in anatomy. It always was. He made even the biggest people look twice, and the Sinew Magus wasn’t even the most dangerous person in the group.

Tessa, fully visible, had both hands on her daggers. The scarred Drake was so menacing that half the criminals who saw her decided today was a day of rest. A peaceful holiday.

“Tessa, you don’t have to glare and hold your daggers.”

The Named-rank replied out of the corner of her mouth.

“This is my first big job. You told me there might be danger.”

“Yeah, but—I don’t actually know how much. Don’t hold the daggers, please?”

“Mm.”

Shriekblade let go of her daggers, but she stared so hard at a little baby in a stroller the baby stopped crying and played dead. They were on the hunt for Nerrhavia’s curse upon Erin.

…However, once more, Erin felt like they were going in circles. She cursed as they came to a street, and everyone looked at the little wicker bird tugging left.

“Hey. This is like—a nearly complete circle.”

“One more left and it will be. Perhaps we should speed up?”

The swagger-speed intensified, and Erin hurried down the street…only for the frantically-tugging bird to suddenly go still.

Damn.

Mrsha nodded at the bad language. Erin was too annoyed to not curse.

“This is just like last time! Is it someone running away from us?”

“I don’t think so, Miss Solstice. Or else the bird would tell us to keep going. I think something is vanishing. May I see the charm?”

Nanette peered at the little bird as Grimalkin and Tessa looked around. The [Rogue] actually leapt into the crowd, vanishing, and came back to report.

“I didn’t sense anyone. They’re either higher-level than me or it’s something else.”

“I think…we’re falling behind whatever it is. Or we’re being deliberately kept away.”

Erin Solstice growled.

“Sounds about right.”

“Who are we up against, Miss Solstice?”

Grimalkin lifted a claw as she hesitated.

“If it is secret, don’t mind me. But it might be helpful to know what we are trying to accomplish.”

He was being—careful. Polite. Erin sighed.

“Grimalkin, of all the questions I think it’d be bad to answer—this is one of them. Let’s keep going.”

The bird would reactivate soon, if yesterday and today were any indications. Grimalkin nodded, and they walked on. Mrsha pointed at a stall selling roasted chestnuts and tugged Nanette over. Erin stopped so they could buy some.

“Get some for Tessa! So…not going to ask, Grimalkin?”

She looked at him. The Sinew Magus was so loudly not asking anything she could hear it. But the Drake coughed.

“I—am trying to be a good friend of the inn, Erin. Of yours. It occurs to me that pressing you at every opportunity has been unwise and unkind.”

“Sometimes I deserve it. You didn’t even talk about me doing the Albez thing.”

He shrugged fractionally.

“Frankly—that was the kind of thing I would have advocated for. Because you did it…you had to have good reasons.”

He gave Erin a long look, and she appreciated that he got it. Erin scuffed at the ground.

“Yeah. No excuses. I did it because I thought I should. It definitely wasn’t nice.”

She waited, but the Sinew Magus just nodded.

“What else is there to say? I have noted your <Quests>. I imagine everyone has asked you about that. I—I do respect your privacy, Erin. I have theories, of course, but I will not attempt to force you to answer them.”

He seemed awkward, and the [Innkeeper] glanced up at him as Tessa tapped a young woman with a crystal hand on the shoulder. Well, she didn’t look like she had a crystal hand—or that she was right behind Erin until Tessa grabbed her.

“Get lost. Try it again and you bleed out.”

Erin and Grimalkin turned as someone fled. The [Innkeeper] looked up at Grimalkin and smiled faintly.

“Lay it on me.”

The Sinew Magus hesitated. He spoke as he watched Mrsha pointing at the chestnuts she wanted.

“—These are not questions, but my line of thinking. When I heard you posted a <Mythical Quest>, after I ascertained the phenomenon and the legitimacy, of course, I had a few thoughts. I won’t ask how you know how to post it. Or why it mirrors established <Contract> Skills and rare Skills of that nature. However—I considered the psychology.”

Tessa was already lost, so she decided to ignore Grimalkin, but Erin listened as the Magus lifted a few claws.

“You, Erin Solstice, do not act without foresight. Some might think that was simply a way to show off or—thoughtless. I do not. Why post a <Quest> to find the City of Stars? And why post a secondary quest to find the Crossroads of Izril? The two are certainly related. But it must be that this will be a net boon to all.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

The Sinew Magus watched her out of the corner of his eyes.

“Yes. But my theory was this. If we must find these two places for whatever they bring—why did Chaldion not bring this up to me? Or, to my knowledge, the Assembly of Crafts? They are disturbed about the Meeting of Tribes, the new lands, Khelt—but I do not hear of any Walled City cooperative actions aside from securing the new lands.”

“Huh. Are you sure you can tell me that?”

Grimalkin shrugged and grunted.

“This is not a secret. And you yourself, Erin, are pushing adventurers and people to the new lands. As if much of what we need to find is there. However, I do not hear of Grand Strategist Chaldion pressing Fissival for access to their Grand Librarium. I do not hear Luciva convening me or any other Drakes to form an inquiry group.”

“What’d they inquire about?”

Mrsha and Nanette came back and shared the hot food around. Grimalkin accepted a chestnut but didn’t eat. He glanced at Erin’s blank expression.

“Why, the legitimacy of these crossroads ever existing, of course. The City of Stars does have them agitated—but Wall Lord Dragial has been looking into that for decades, and whatever he found is likely collated. But the Crossroads of Izril? Erin. I know you. I believe in the <Quests>. But if I did not, I would first verify it even existed. That Chaldion, the leaders of the Walled Cities have not? That implies they know it exists. That the Wall Lords and Ladies are entirely aware of where or what it was—and how it was lost. Perhaps, that the access to this place was deliberately lost—or at least that records exist of why they are no longer used.”

This was the theory he had come up with. An exercise in logical reasoning. Grimalkin could not press Chaldion on it, but he saw Erin Solstice’s blank expression change.

She…smiled. A huge, beaming smile, and he knew she let him read her expression. But Erin Solstice’s eyes twinkled as she shrugged.

“I dunno about all that. But what does that mean?”

Grimalkin surprised her with a smile of his own.

“In that case—the question is not whether these Crossroads exist—it is how they are accessed. And if the Walled Cities are focusing on the new lands, it may be that they are hoping to find a route in. That answers some of my questions, Miss Solstice.”

“I heard it’s easier than that—there are ways even now. But it’ll be dangerous. What would you do then?”

Grimalkin pondered the question as Erin checked her bird, and they resumed walking.

“Form an appropriate group.”

“With Pallass?”

“No.”

This time, Erin did turn her head, and Grimalkin exhaled.

“No…I can fund a group and source—allies. Like-minded individuals. But I do not think Pallass is—appropriate. I’ll have to see how much I can afford to spend. If Chaldion requests my aid, that is one thing. But if this were a Drake matter, why would you post this as an open quest and not the personal quests I know you can give? What will we find? Will it break the Walled Cities or…is it the search that matters?”

He looked at her, and Erin spoke ahead of his thoughts.

“Are you leaving Pallass?”

The Sinew Magus turned his head. Ask a question, get a question—he took a deep breath and looked around Invrisil, a good city, a fine city—but a foreign one to him. Yet he thought of Pallass, and the words came deep from within his chest.

“…I have been a loyal citizen of Pallass all my days. Fought for it and supported it as best I could. Until now—I began to have questions. It was not until I saw him there, General Sserys, when I realized I was no son of the walls. Yet it is my city. And yet—even if I thought it best to take a remove, my fortunes and influence are bound up in Pallass. I am a magus alone without it, and I did not realize that until recently. Besides, where would I go? Fissival?

They both laughed at that. Yet Grimalkin felt raw—and he also felt relieved. His conclusion was not the same as Valeterisa’s. There was a chance—but not under the Cyclops alone.

He was not Pallass. But did he remember that? Did the city? Erin glanced at Grimalkin, then sighed as she stared ahead and came to a stop.

“Maybe what you need, Grimalkin, isn’t to leave. Maybe you just need a different kind of ally.”

“Such as?”

He looked at her until he realized Erin wasn’t staring at Grimalkin at all. The [Innkeeper] rolled her eyes. Then, and only then, Grimalkin felt a pressure in the air. A weight on his shoulders. His head rose, and Mrsha dropped her bag of chestnuts.

Oh. Oh! It’s you?

She made fists with her paws and glared down the street. The crowds of citizens had thinned out—as if they couldn’t stand in this particular area. Grimalkin’s head turned—and one person flanked by her own escort stood there.

Chest puffed out, looking down at Mrsha and her friends. All the arrogance in the world in those glittering eyes.

Oh? Oho. Are you approaching me? Mrsha spread her paws and slapped her chest. She stared down the other figure walking their way—and the air began to get really heavy. Mrsha felt her arms and legs grow heavy.

Are you approaching—wait a second, she’s sort of scary.

Mrsha backed up, and Nanette was already behind Erin. The two girls stared as the blonde woman stalked forwards, wearing a bright tracksuit. And showing off a lot of muscle.

Erin, Tessa, and Grimalkin held their ground. Erin felt the other aura press at her—overpowering, inflated.

Pure ego. She pushed it back, but the weight of it made Grimalkin shift. It was vanity, it was self-confidence and assurance—

It was Pryde.

She walked like she was the center of the world—and she was certainly the center of attention on the street. House Ulva’s guard stood behind her, showing off some impressive biceps. Pryde herself was just like Erin remembered.

Bobcut hair, blonde, and imperious as could be. Unlike Bethal or Wuvren or Magnolia herself, Pryde did not act like a [Lady]. But she was one, a different kind.

“There you are.”

ゴゴゴゴ. It was like a ‘dun-dun-dun’ sound in the air, the beating of blood in your ears.

The [Lady] approached as Grimalkin blinked at her. Pryde came to a halt as she glanced at Tessa, then stared down at Erin.

“The [Innkeeper] and Magus Grimalkin. I’ve been searching for you two. My. What trouble you cause. Erin Solstice.”

“Hey, Lady Pryde. What’s up with the aura? You’re scaring Nanette and Mrsha.”

Erin was forcing the [Lady]’s aura back around her, and Pryde raised her brows.

“This? My apologies. I barely notice it. Magus—I see you’ve failed to improve since the last time we met. I, on the other hand, have taken your lessons to heart. You have my thanks.”

She indicated her physique, and Erin had to admit—Pryde had gained a lot of muscle since the last time she’d come to the inn. It wasn’t as pronounced as Grimalkin’s, but it was definitely there.

Mrsha stared up at the Lady of House Ulva. This was the woman who kept competing with Grimalkin? This was what happened if you lifted those smelly weights all day?

No wonder Normen and Alcaz and Numbtongue liked that place so much. She should go there with Visma more often.

Pryde stepped forwards, and Mrsha waited for Grimalkin to attack back. Flex on her! Throw her into a building! Use your muscle power!

But the Sinew Magus seemed—taken aback. He blinked at Lady Pryde.

“Lady Pryde. You look—what an incredible display of physical conditioning. Over a few months? You must have added a third to your weight, and are your muscles adding to your aura? It feels sharper. Your training records—I have to thank you. My initiatives would have had no ground without your help.”

He held out a claw, and Pryde’s superior expression—changed to one of dismay. But she rallied and accepted his claw. She squeezed, and the Sinew Magus grunted.

“What grip strength.”

“Impressed?”

“Yes, very! What do you do to work out your hands? Squeezing balls of clay or sand was what I suggested, but this is commendable.

Again, Erin saw Pryde flounder. The [Lady]’s face went slack for a second, and she stared at Grimalkin. Nanette covered a giggle and hid behind Erin as the Sinew Magus admired Pryde’s…sinews.

“Well. It seems I have yet to overtake the strongest [Mage] in Pallass. I do—use a magicore ball to squeeze. I managed to actually tear the leather ones.”

Magicore. Genius. You know, the Yoldenites infuse their helmets with magicore, giving it that amazing durability to blows—”

The [Lady] saw the Drake’s eyes light up, and he fished out a notepad at once. She looked over, and her escort approached, seeming more wary of Tessa and Grimalkin than anyone else. Erin Solstice beamed as Pryde turned her haughty glare on her.

“Erin Solstice. You’ve been causing trouble. I commend you on the style of it, though. Your chess tournament…done well.”

She nodded, and Erin realized that Pryde had doubtless watched it. The [Lady] was not someone Erin historically liked—for her attitude or her actions—but the [Innkeeper] was warming to her faster than a kettle on the stove.

Especially because Pryde kept glancing at Grimalkin as he wrote.

“Your House Ulva statistics are exceptional, Lady Pryde.”

“Yes! We passed your Pallassian elites more often than not.”

“Of course. The competition was fierce—and rewarding.”

“It—was. A battle House Ulva won.

“Absolutely, and it has provoked the Walled Cities to continue matching your own prowess. Are these your finest…? Of course, I recognize that amazing pectoral display. Is this the record-holder for the bench-press? I would be honored, Lady Pryde, if you would come to Pallass and give a lecture to my students and [Soldiers].”

“Lecture…?”

She had clearly been expecting this encounter to go another way. Erin looked at Grimalkin with delight—then Pryde with actual sympathy. She coughed, and Grimalkin blinked at her.

“Maybe later, Grimalkin? But it’s great you know each other.”

Grimalkin started. He looked at Pryde, then seemed to recall she was not just a weight-lifter, but a [Lady] of the North. He stiffened—then blushed.

“Of course. I—was simply so used to our correspondence and the ongoing competition that I—Lady Pryde of House Ulva. My thanks as Sinew Magus of Pallass.”

He coughed, and Pryde rallied so fast that Erin Solstice was impressed despite herself. Her chin came up, and she folded her arms.

“Thanks, Sinew Magus? Odd words for someone who pioneered your theory of physical fitness. I would imagine shame at failing to improve would be more appropriate.”

Then, and only then, Grimalkin seemed to realize what she was implying. He drew himself up slowly and glanced at her—and her impressive guards. But they were eying him askance because for all Erin now felt like she was in a room with a bunch of bodybuilders, the Drake had them all beat.

“Shame…? I have yet to see my own efforts passed, Lady Pryde. Your actions and efforts are commendable. Give it a year or two, and we’ll see if you can continue your regimens.”

“My growth is extraordinary and won’t cease. You, on the other hand, Magus, have barely recovered from your admittedly exemplary battle with the Wyverns.”

“I thank you for noticing, Lady Pryde. And your notes to that effect were well taken. I note my recovery was extraordinarily fast—and as I have stated, more muscle would not be advantageous. Your escort looks incredibly fit. Can they use all their muscles in battle? Perhaps that would be wise before attempting to reach my stature.”

Mrsha stared between Pryde and Grimalkin as the two finally began to square off. She tried to flex her own chest and arms and pulled her back. Erin? Erin looked at Pryde, Grimalkin, and thought she sensed a teensy, tiny bit of regret as Pryde sneered at him. So the [Innkeeper] reached out—and grabbed their arms.

“Great! You two know each other. Lady Pryde, Grimalkin, this is Nanette, Mrsha, and Tessa. We’re going shopping and hunting for something. Want to come with?”

Lady Pryde Ulva recoiled as Grimalkin looked at her. The [Lady]’s offended look grew.

Me?

“Well, if you want to talk to Grimalkin—why not? I’m sure you have lots to discuss. And you probably know Invrisil.”

“I do—I suppose I have time. I was intending to visit Pallass anyways. Very well. Who is…ah, the white Gnoll child. And this young woman?”

Pryde noticed Nanette, Tessa, and Mrsha, and somehow, in between accepting a card from Mrsha and letting Nanette shake her hand—she looked around.

“Wait. Where are we going?”

“Uh—hunting for a curse. You do know where we are, right?”

“Oh, of course. I know where all the shops are. We—what was that?”

Lady Pryde blinked at Erin and the bird on her finger. Then she was motioning her escort to fan out, and Magus Grimalkin, prompted by Nanette, held up the bag of chestnuts.

“A healthy snack, Lady Pryde? Do you have a dietary regime your group uses?”

He offered her a chestnut. The [Lady] stared at it, then accepted it and coughed.

“I actually do. A kind of blended drink. Wuvren, Lady Wuvren, enjoys them, so I concocted my own of healthy, plant-based foods and some other ingredients—it is a huge hit in House Ulva. Many different recipes, and I am discussing selling it in restaurants or some other method. You, bring out one of the Ulva Shakes for Magus Grimalkin and company.”

One of her escort dashed back to her carriage and a cooling box, and Erin Solstice turned her head in horror.

No. Not the health smoothies! I didn’t do it! I deliberately never even mentioned them! I didn’t—

She flung up her arms, but it was too late. Ryoka was right! Ryoka was—

 

——

 

It was a search for a moving target. In Invrisil and also below.

Snatcher was roaming the dungeon, angry, angry, angry. It was thinking of how to kill them.

The building with sanctuary in it.

The adventurer. The [Necromancers]. They all had to die. But when? How?

By night, through the earth? With armies in tow? Snatcher—it had been a long time since it had to think like this. It was all one task now.

Guard Mother. Guard Mother…and it had not seen her for a long time. That was what everyone here did.

But they…they would die. It would not wait here any longer, a guardian to Mother.

How to get them, though? They were dangerous—they had Mershi’s Blade on their side.

Yet they hurt it little. Only hide. They were quick—adventurers were always quick.

If Skinner were here, or Stalker, it would be easier. The irony that Snatcher had killed Stalker…did not really occur to it.

Skinner could have led an army of armies. That was his role. But he had shrunk with age, with no more bodies but the dead. Hidden in the crypt after Stalker died.

Some other way, then. Snatcher just had to be clever. Lure them into a trap? Drag something into a trap, yes. But how? Maybe…maybe…

Maybe a tool. Yes, there were tools here, hidden behind all the traps. A lovely tool.

While it thought, it roamed. With the heads on sticks, poking around corners.

Seeing for it. Monsters never saw it. Even the other beings only saw those staring heads—and they fled.

Insects, terrified spiders, Children—all ran if they noticed the staring, rotted heads. Snatcher only took a few, if it was bored.

It had all of them in its collection. Hundreds of one species, sometimes. It craved more.

The blue one. The woman of thread. Another half-Elf, a Dwarf…the white Gnoll…

It was creeping through corridors where the Raskghar had been, looking for that Minotaur again. Another good head it had so few of—and the ones of old had begun to turn to dust, despite its best of efforts, despite the magic that should have preserved them. Well…even the magic had begun to die.

Only when Snatcher was prowling around the empty Raskghar camp, turning over ruined cots, looking to see if they had hidden in one of the hidden trap doors, did it sense something odd.

He lifted a slab of stone up and stared down into the tunnel—then Snatcher sensed them.

Auras. Flickering, so faint—it turned around.

Were they there or not? Slowly, Snatcher shuffled around. Then, it heard a voice.

—now—

Snatcher had no head to raise—but it saw the dark, almost pitch-black camp of the Raskghar suddenly bloom with light. A dozen [Light] spells rose.

[Illumination]. Snatcher didn’t raise its claws to shield its face. It turned—and then it sensed them. A dozen plus presences.

Snatcher turned—and the first spell hit it full-on.

 

——

 

[Support Casting: Intensified Magic]. [Spellbreaker’s Magic].

Link. Pump mana in—Typhenous, now, now!

[Burning Spells]! [Accelerated Spellsling]!

[Valmira’s Comet]!

The first spell hit Facestealer as the adventurers dropped their camouflage Skills. It had noticed them too soon. But they were mostly in position. Colth stood with Typhenous, Ceria, and three other [Mages], all Gold-rank. Two were part of Orchestra and Variable Fortress.

Top-level [Mages], who cast through Typhenous. Or rather, let him have the first swing. Colth called it ‘benchmarking’.

So the first spell was a known Tier 4 spell boosted by as much mana as they could pump into it without overloading the spell matrix and with Skills giving it enough firepower that Ceria wondered if it could have blown one of the giant Shield Spider mothers to bits.

It had a commendable speed to it as well. The normally-slow comet hit Facestealer like one of Typhenous’ fastballs when he played baseball. Ceria saw the glowing, red center of the comet turning to blue trailing fire strike the monster as it turned—then the world flashed.

Eat shit!

That was her additional comment. Ceria waited as Colth turned and chatter broke through her speaking stone.

Did we hit it?

Sealing off the other corridors—[Stone Wall].

Some monsters lurking down our end. We’ll take them out.

That was Halrac’s voice. It was followed by a dim explosion until his speaking stone went dead. The other teams were cordoning off this area.

A perfect spot to ambush Facestealer. They’d been dogging it for a while, and Colth had observed that few monsters liked to stay in its vicinity. Only the Crypt Worms and suits of armor ignored it—possibly because it had no interest in things without heads.

This was almost perfect. Valeterisa was speaking without much fear in her voice.

“I am still preparing. Where is the Chest of Holding? Oh, here it is. Yes, yes, Montressa, casting. Hold up your barrier. Have we killed the monster yet?”

Wait.

Colth cut all the voices short, and everyone paused. In the brief moment where the spell engulfed the room in dust and light—Ceria squinted into the cloud. A [Mage] blew the dust back as Ceria aimed her wand at—

Facestealer.

He stood there, swiveling right and left, his hide scorched by the comet. That was all. Ceria didn’t even see the scars from Colth’s blades and Saliss and Lehra’s attacks from yesterday.

“[Valmira’s Comet] has failed. Benchmarking higher. Tier 4 magic is almost completely useless. Not nullified.”

Colth spoke calmly, and Facestealer slowly turned. He focused on the five adventurers, and Colth locked ‘eyes’ with the monster.

“He’s coming. Phase 2.”

When Facestealer charged, he was so fast it took even Ceria off-guard, and she had seen him fight.

Fast. Just like how fast he could swing. The lumbering monster ran at the adventurers—but Ceria was already raising walls upon walls of ice.

It would barely slow Facestealer down, but that wasn’t the point—

The monster seemed to sense something, and it slowed as it raised a huge claw. This time, it was too slow to move.

[Piercing Shot]!

Halrac and a dozen adventurers volleyed behind Facestealer. Enchanted arrows and bolts struck it in a volley, the air flashed, and some of Ceria’s walls cracked, but Typhenous had a [Forcewall] behind them.

“Stumble, stumble, damn you—

Colth was muttering, but Facestealer just held up a claw—then turned back. It raised a claw, punched through six feet of ice—and Colth smiled at it.

That same demonic smile that Ceria thought was the most honest one he had.

I’m going to kill you.

All the kinetic force of both the comet and arrows—against all logic—didn’t make Facestealer move. He should have. It would make their lives so much easier, but either he was so heavy he should be sinking into the earth and cracking the flagstones of the dungeon or something was letting him resist pure physics.

It didn’t matter. As Facestealer turned, Halrac lifted his bow. He’d been entrusted with something. He launched one single arrow, and Facestealer whirled—lifted a claw—

Vortex arrow! Run! Run!

The [Mages] ran, and Typhenous beat everyone but Colth. Ceria felt her ice walls disappearing as the vortex tore chunks out of the magic. It sucked away magic, and it was the first Relic-class item used so far.

The first. Dead gods.

Halrac, tell me you hit it! Tell me it’s dead or hurt! We’re heading to Phase 3!”

Colth was running, leaping over a painted trap. Ceria slowed, but nothing was coming behind them—so far. Yet she heard Halrac’s terse reply.

It’s not dead. But it didn’t like that.”

“How not dead is—”

Whumph. The sound of Facestealer slamming into a wall was followed by the dust—and the blur of it moving. Ceria had never seen anyone of that size move that fast.

It slammed into the corridor the [Mages] were running down, and the half-Elf saw that Facestealer was…

Torn. No, its hide was. Colth’s brand upon it that was letting them track it was twisted slightly, as was its brown-black, matted hide. Actually, it was fairly pristine now—even the dirt had been sucked away.

It looked like someone had taken Facestealer’s skin and twisted it across its body. That—Ceria wondered what that would feel like if you did it to skin.

She bet it hurt. But that was not what you wanted to see after a vortex arrow from Rhir hit a monster.

Dead gods damn it. An Adult Creler would flinch at that!”

Orchestra’s [Mage] screamed. She stumbled, and Facestealer ran. This time—he wasn’t just charging like Yvlon running at full tilt. He had a blur, he was moving so fast. A horse’s speed? Faster?

Oh shit!

Ceria bent down. She grabbed the woman, and Facestealer was on top of them. He ran through a series of magical spikes that shot up and shattered on his body. He swung a fist as Colth turned.

Ceria!

 

——

 

Facestealer punched through Ceria and the [Mages] and actually stumbled. It swung wildly, at Colth, Typhenous—and they vanished. A few objects clattered to the ground.

Speaking stones. Snatcher stared at them and heard a voice speaking.

“It can’t tell the difference between illusions backed by aura-faking spells. Interesting.

A trick? Facestealer rotated left and right as Ceria exhaled. She hadn’t thought you could use illusions on it! But Colth had speculated that if they used fake auras…

Now the monster seemed confused. It held still—then began to lumber back the way it had come. Warily. As if it knew it was now in trouble. Just how much trouble?

Phase 3. Can’t harm it with a vortex arrow, can’t blast it with a Tier 4 spell…before we bust out our best tricks, let’s see if it has any conventional weaknesses. Valley? Now.”

A wall of stone rose on the far end of the hallway. Facestealer whirled as Ceria watched via the scrying stone they’d stuck to a wall. It began to stride towards the wall—then Valeterisa, the Archmage of Izril, cast her magic.

“[Tidal Wave]. [Floods of Gaarh Marsh]. And [Mithril Wall], thank you, Montressa.”

Facestealer saw the first wave of water coming from the wall. It held up a hand—began to approach—and then seemed to sense how many protective layers were behind it. It began to run back the way it had come. But now—

The Raskghar camp was ideal for this. It was a huge, domed room, and if you blocked in all the entrances, it was enclosed. The dungeon itself was just a box. And so Colth had asked Valeterisa to flood the box.

Even now, the monster didn’t fall as thousands of pounds of water poured around it. It ran into the center of the Raskghar camp and saw no exits. No hallways. They’d all been sealed off.

“It’s slowing. Anchor it down!

More spells hit Facestealer as one of the walls slid up. It whirled towards Typhenous and a band of [Mages] including Pisces. They had tripvine bags, [Sticky Web] spells—one even cast [Slow].

They’re not really working—

“Other side! [Archers]!”

Halrac and his group shot [Rope Arrows] and more delaying tricks. Facestealer took a step—and a strand of mithril rope from one of the top Gold-rank adventurers jerked it back, snagging it. It halted, began to tug, reached down—

And the tidal wave engulfed it.

The entire room became a blur and chaos as it filled. Ceria saw a flailing shape in the dark—and Colth whispered.

“It’s not…floating. It sinks? Can we use that? Is it going to—?”

Facestealer was anchored to the floor. But even as it tore the mithril rope away—it didn’t float. It was probably far too heavy. It flailed around in the water, then stood there.

“Oh come on. It has to breathe.

Someone, Deni, Ceria thought, said that. Yet she saw no bubbles of air as Facestealer stood there. It turned…and began striding towards where one of the magical walls was. It was slightly slower underwater, but it—it—

It’s not in distress. Valley.

Colth wasn’t giving up. Valeterisa was already on the case. Facestealer turned back as the Archmage of Izril pressed one hand through a magical barrier on the far wall. It looked at her, and she stared innocently back.

“I was told even Xrn couldn’t kill you. Fascinating. You are so terrifying I feel like running away. [Grand Lightning].”

The jolt that ran through the flooded room was more a feeling than a sight. Ceria actually saw Facestealer twitch. Valeterisa paused as it began striding towards her—fast.

“Uh oh. Ah, ah…[Blue Lightning]? [Transmutation: Water to Acid—]”

Valeterisa, run!

The Archmage of Izril stopped casting magic and hurried away as Colth cursed. The magical water and spells didn’t seem to be hurting Facestealer. But wow—it was getting pissed.

It punched through the protective walls and then turned as the water vanished. This time, Facestealer just turned and waited. It paced back into the center of the room and picked something up.

Just a lump of stone from the walls. But like before, Ceria knew how fast and hard it could throw it.

“It’s waiting. Phase 4, Colth?”

“…Wait.”

The Ultimate Supporter was crouched, masterminding the phases of attacks. His first three plans hadn’t been ones he’d sold the adventurers on as being the ultimate stopgaps—but they had assumed they would have borne a bit more fruit than this.

Even so, the Named-rank just waited as Facestealer turned. The other adventurers were getting antsy, but Colth was not.

“How does it think? Does it get mad? What does it do when—ah.”

Facestealer turned. It had apparently lost patience, and it charged after Valeterisa. Colth nodded.

“It’s time. Orchestra? Give it hell.”

Earplugs!

Typhenous grabbed Ceria’s arm, and she was already stuffing wax into her ears. Facestealer didn’t see the Archmage—she’d already teleported to safety with Montressa. What it did see was a group of performers. They sat at one end of the hallway as it halted—then ran at them.

But they were already playing. They had been playing for a while, and all one of the [Mages] had to do was cast what few buff-spells you could add to a musical attack.

[Loudness]. [Doubled Echo]. There wasn’t that much auditory magic most adventurers knew, but the acoustics of the narrow dungeon? Orchestra’s leader, Deni, looked up.

He’d been having a bad day. His teeth bared as he aimed his violin, and a trumpet swung up, drumsticks fell, and Orchestra struck their note.

[Combined Skill — Onslaught Performance: Louder Than the Sea’s Roar].

Even with their protective Skills. Even far from the center of the Skill—Ceria still went deaf. She felt the vibration go through the dungeon. Constrained by the magic. Shaking down corridors, killing the closest monsters from the sound alone.

Sound and force and—

A Skill. A Skill so powerful that even Snatcher felt it. A Skill from adventurers. It passed through the tunnels, and the warden of the steeled ones raised its head. It even reached the city within, and the thousands looked up.

It…reached Mother.

And she listened. Listened, but did not move. For Facestealer? Snatcher?

It bled.

It was upon its knees.

 

——

 

It bled red. Oozing blood through the ‘eyes’, the jagged holes in its body.

Snatcher was bleeding? It ‘looked’ down and felt itself bleed. So loud. Louder than anything it had heard since Mershi was lost.

Like the sound of the City of Shields dying.

It—it hurt. Adventurers. Real adventurers.

Pain.

Mother had heard it. But Mother…she was not like Snatcher. It was the last of the guardians.

In its way, it was stronger than her. She hid down there, hid because even she could die. It?

It had forgotten, until the blue insect, until this—that it could die too.

PAIN.

They were fleeing, the ones with sound. Fleeing backwards—but they sounded triumphant. Snatcher could have gone after them. But it got up—and turned. Then—it began to run. Run backwards, towards the other protectors. Towards the nests. But there were more of them—and now Snatcher felt it. Amidst rage, amidst the sudden warning, the intelligence that told it that this was a trap and it had to escape—

It was being hunted.

 

——

 

“You didn’t want to watch the adventurers at work? Named-ranks?

Lady Pryde was odd. Odd, despite being a [Lady] with a literal ego-aura and who thought working your quads was a valuable use of time.

She was odd because she was sort of…normal. In that she said normal-ish things.

Like, why wouldn’t you want to go see Named-ranks? When Erin had asked why Pryde had gone with the Haven, the woman had given her a strange look.

Why would I not accompany the north’s most famous inn?

If anything, it was strange how she was treating Mrsha and Erin and even Tessa—and by proxy, Nanette. As if they were important, because to Pryde, they were.

“You sure we’re not wasting your valuable time, Pryde?”

“You are the Titan’s chess partner. This child was at the Meeting of Tribes. Named-rank Adventurer Tessa—this is fitting company for me. Despite your lack of my given title. Mrsha, girl, come here.”

Pryde beckoned—then lifted Mrsha up so someone could stare at them. Mrsha gave Pryde a blank look. The [Lady] posed cooly, and the [Artist] bowed.

“I have an image, Lady Ulta.”

“Very good. Miss Solstice? We could find a chess board to sit across.”

She was an attention seeker! Mrsha was horrified—then impressed. If anything, the reason Erin wasn’t mad was because Pryde was blatant about it.

“Fame is a resource to be cultivated. I am not Wuvren, who has a dozen suitors dancing upon a finger. Nor am I Bethal, who can somehow muddle her way to success. A [Lady] should mind any number of qualities about herself. Paying for fame is simple. Aren’t you Calanfer’s Sixth Princess’ daughter?”

Mrsha stared at Pryde, and heads turned. The [Lady] saw Erin, Grimalkin, and Nanette staring at her.

“Isn’t she?”

“Wh—you can’t just say things like that!”

Erin looked around, but Pryde exhaled. Loudly.

“It’s hardly a secret. That was at the top of the dossier I paid for when I looked into your inn.”

“Who’s selling info about—well, maybe Lyonette is a bad liar!”

She’s my mom. You’re right.

Mrsha handed Pryde a note, and the [Lady] nodded. The Gnoll girl smiled a bit. Pryde gave her another look and then Magus Grimalkin a nod.

“Interesting company you keep, Magus.”

“They will never cease to amaze, Lady Ulta. Do you have other motives for being in Invrisil at the moment?”

“Besides visiting Pallass and watching the Haven go? House Ulta is considering the new lands of Izril—but I want to make sure my people aren’t attacked by Pallass or the Walled Cities. I came to negotiate. It’s difficult—Pallass has me on a waiting list to go through, and they are slow to respond. Appropriately. I wouldn’t give them passage through the north.”

Her eyes glinted with vexation despite the reasonable words coming out of her mouth.

“I could introduce you to Strategist Chaldion or an appropriate diplomat.”

Pryde tilted her head.

“I’ll take you up on that, Sinew Magus.”

Oooh. Mrsha saw Nanette brighten up. She followed the little witch’s gaze. Then Mrsha beamed.

Ooooooh. Pryde glanced at both of them, and they looked away innocently. Grimalkin didn’t quite notice. Erin…well, she was glancing at her little bird.

“Darn it. Dead again.”

“What are we doing, exactly?”

Pryde was getting impatient now that she had more things to do. She listened as Erin explained the gist of it. The [Lady] frowned.

“A curse. Was it Belavierr?”

“No…how do you know her?”

“We kicked her out of the north.”

Nanette’s head swiveled around with Mrsha and Erin’s, and they stared at Pryde. The [Lady] had to explain, briefly and entirely unsatisfactorily.

“Magnolia led the [Ladies] to deal with her. Maviola El was there—the last time I saw her in person. It happens.”

It does not just happen.

“To you, perhaps. I am a [Lady] of Izril, and that comes with requirements that most people are privileged not to know of. If it is a [Witch]…Magnolia should know.”

“It isn’t. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s not. But the curse is in a bunch of cities. Including Invrisil, Oliyaya said. And we keep wandering the streets and nearly getting to it, but it never shows up.”

“Odd. Multiple cities…and it vanishes. It almost sounds like a diffused spell, but who would go to this much work? Either that or the curse is somehow all these places simultaneously.”

Grimalkin pondered. Pryde, though, looked sharply at Erin when she heard that.

“Just which places is this…thing you’re searching for? All cities? Not towns?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re looking for something here that keeps moving? A location?”

“Maybe? Why? Do you know what it is?”

Pryde folded her arms. She stared ahead.

“…It’s unlikely it’s the exact same one. But Magnolia once took me there, and Bethal can’t stay away, the addict. I know what it might be. No wonder you can’t find it. You need an invitation.”

“An invitation? To what?”

Pryde didn’t answer. She looked around and then found one of the magical street lamps that provided illumination at night. Some places used actual lanterns—this one was graffitied by people like Grev’s gang, and they often had fliers put up.

Seldom for adventuring work, but things analogous to Erin’s home. Lost animals, job offers…Pryde began yanking pieces of paper off as she hunted for something.

“It changes if it moves from cities, but if it is here—last time we had to look at fliers in [Butcher] shops. You, children, Sinew Magus, look for an odd piece of parchment.”

Her personal escort, Erin, Nanette, Mrsha, and Grimalkin glanced at each other, and all began searching other fliers and pieces of paper in Invrisil. Erin had just pushed aside a flier asking if anyone had a 1st-edition autograph of Jasi and would they consider selling it when she saw something odd.

A brighter, more colorful piece of parchment was half-rolled up behind the mundane paper. It was expensive—and out of place because someone might well steal it just to re-use it. Unlike the tattered notes, this was an advertisement.

 

Come See Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop!

Buys and Sells Items of All Value*.

(*No refunds, no violence, no trickster or thief classes allowed.)

Served over 120 different cities across Izril and Terandria!

Come While Open!

 

The letters, accompanied by little dazzling brooches and magical wands, were splashed across the garish page. Erin was pretty sure this was what Pryde wanted.

“Hey, is it this?”

The [Lady] dropped a piece of parchment and walked over. The instant she saw it, her face turned to one of disgust.

“That’s it.”

“What is it?”

Even Grimalkin hadn’t ever seen something like this before, but Lady Pryde assured him that he might have walked past it.

“It has visited Pallass and the Walled Cities before—not that you can use it like Erin’s inn. It’s hardly that powerful. It’s more…”

She snapped her fingers, trying to explain, and Nanette clapped her hands in delight.

“It’s a magical travelling store! Like Shellbazaar, the emporium at sea! Mother told me such places still exist!”

“What? A magic store?

Erin grew excited instantly. Now it all made sense! And no wonder they hadn’t found it! Pryde nodded.

“You have to find a flyer, and then you’ll happen across it. Finding it deliberately is, according to Magnolia, more trouble than it’s worth. Only Bethal’s been able to do it. And I think it was because the owner gave up.”

“What kind of person owns it? A Djinni? Should we be prepared for trouble?”

Grimalkin was wary of this store. Tessa gripped her blades, but Pryde gave him a strange face. She looked at Erin’s wicker bird.

“I don’t know about a curse, but the owner? Well—I think he has a knife.”

Erin waited.

“An enchanted knife?”

“No.”

“Is he…high-level? To own a store like this?”

Pryde considered the question.

“Nope. It’s a hereditary store.”

“Do we need more money? Preparations if we only get one shot?”

The [Innkeeper] pressed. Pryde checked her coin pouch as Mrsha nervously held up her own money and Nanette searched her allowance. The [Lady] glanced at Erin.

“I doubt it. It should be right down the street when we turn the block.”

Sure enough, when they turned the street, wedged in one of the alleyways was an odd shop, built into the brickwork. It had a big metal door and a sign saying ‘Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop’.

It even had a little pig with a wand coming out of its mouth for a logo. Erin liked it—until she noticed the worn brickwork. And the slightly-rusty sign. Then she frowned.

This didn’t look like a Skill. Her [Garden of Sanctuary] might have had an ordinary door, but as Pryde walked up the steps and opened the door, Erin heard a mundane, jangling bell. She peered at a very old dustmat that might add more dirt than it lost, and someone called out.

“Hello. We’re open until six tonight. Please bring anything you want to the counter.”

Erin turned, and a bored man at the counter with a balding pate and a mustache that should have probably been waxed stared at her. She stared back.

“Are you Cormeng?”

He grimaced—he had an actual pinstripe suit, white and red. But it was old and worn, and any charm from the unique garment looked sad. The Human answered with a very, very tired voice as Mrsha sniffed the air and began sneezing for the dust.

“No. That’s my great-grandfather nine times over. Welcome to the store. And before you ask—no, I don’t know where anything is. If you have something to sell, I’ll appraise it, but it’s coppers and silvers, not gold unless you can prove it’s valuable.”

He had a dusty scrying orb with a crack he was watching, and Erin realized he was listening to Drassi’s broadcast. The man added as Erin looked around and realized what this place was.

“And if it’s valuable, why would you take it here?”

Then Erin looked past him and into the aisles into that Mrsha and Nanette stared with delight, Grimalkin and Pryde, with a kind of apprehension and awe of their own. But not the awe of a magical shop of wonders.

Erin stared at racks of old, very worn clothing. At gemstones on display and more jewelry than she could imagine that appeared fancy and rich—until you realized it was all cut glass. At old farming tools, rusted with age, dolls of every shape and size across hundreds of years, signs, actual signs for the buildings they belonged to were long since gone, a thousand useless maps and illustrations crammed into a bin, decidedly non-magical books like the 4th book in a series with half a torn cover, a shoe with dirt on it, fake decorative items like one of those snowglobes—without the water inside and the snow—

Erin realized what she was inside, and she stared around the largest pawn shop in the entire world. A thrift store without end, which served a few customers wandering around with the cheap jewelry in hand, willing to fork over some silver for a curiosity they’d lose interest in within the week.

“I hate this place.”

Pryde shuddered and didn’t bother to lower her voice. Mrsha and Nanette? They were delighted by the spread and bouncing to look around. The man at the counter, who tended to this store like eight generations before him, glanced up. Erin winced, but the dour shopkeeper nodded.

“Imagine working here for forty years.”

 

——

 

The shopkeeper’s name was Doren. And he was actually more fascinating than a lot of the goods inside his store.

For instance, the current owner of Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop was not actually Doren.

“It’s a family business. Cormeng made this place—with magic. He enchanted it to teleport to all the places he’d been, and he was a world traveller. That’s why it exists after he died.”

“Clever. I can sense some subtle magic here. So the actual shop is probably somewhere else. A pocket dimension, maybe. And can you go anywhere you want?”

“Nope. Just where the store actually is.”

“So you can’t portal around?”

“Nope. I can’t leave the store. I’d just end up outside where I came in. Cormeng didn’t want trouble. The store doesn’t let in [Thieves] and whatnot…no violence, no tricksters. Hence the flier.”

“Do you have security?”

He gave her a blank look. The man was worn down by his job. Apparently, he’d been twelve when he first started doing this, which made him fifty-two years old.

“No. It’s just me.”

“What if people try to hide things and steal them?”

He gave her a bleak look.

“I guess they get free stuff. What a fortune. We actually buy the fake jewelry even if no one sells us enough. Anyways, we make a profit. A large one, in fact.”

“H-how?”

Erin gazed at the trash. And it was trash. Some of it was appealing trash like the fake geodes or sparkly stuff. Mrsha already had an armful of junk she wanted. She had five bracelets with gaudy gemstones Visma would love, and Nanette was trying on clothes for size, measuring them. Erin groaned.

“Nanette! Don’t buy clothes. Someone else wore them.”

“So? They look nice! There’s fashions from all ages and all over, Miss Erin! I could get a hat and dress. If you think Miss Lyonette’d be okay with it.”

Erin thought it was fine—but the truth was, she knew thrift stores. She’d visited a big one—and while Cormeng’s Emporium was far larger, she did see a number of Invrisil customers walking around. And Drakes and Gnolls.

They didn’t seem to realize the significance. Erin turned to Doren excitedly.

“Wait, if you’re in multiple cities at once, you have guests who’d meet and mingle from different cities, different continents, even! What kind of things do they do?”

He gave her another blank look.

“Buy things? We’re not an inn. Your inn.”

He knew who she was! Erin protested.

“But what if you had a meet-and-greet—”

“That’s not the point. Cormeng’s shop is meant to be low-key. Important people don’t even come here—unless someone gives away the secret.”

He half-glared at Pryde, and she waved at him.

“Bethal’s the one obsessed with cheap junk. How much has she spent here?”

“Probably a hundred gold pieces. Cormeng is actually very popular, you know. It might only sell cheap glass—”

“—But it’s way overpriced, yeah.”

Erin suspected that Numbtongue or Earlia could get you an actual ruby gemstone that cost less than the fake ones on display. Grimalkin picked up a vase as ugly as sin and nearly dropped it. He caught it just in time, and Doren nodded.

“Between the day-sales and breakages, we make a lot. So my family doesn’t have to work. Each generation, one of us takes over the business. Guess who’s been working here every day?”

“D-do you get breaks?”

“Weekends. I used to work the entire week. Oh, and there’s another fun requirement which means only the family can do this job.”

His eyes—his eyes had once been bright, faintly red, and Erin imagined they bloomed like excited flowers in a younger boy’s gaze. They had the deadness of working customer service for four decades in a business you didn’t own for your family.

There was a depth of despair and emptiness there that even Belavierr would fear. Especially because it turned out that Doren was the most mundane person in this shop.

“I don’t have a class.”

Even Pryde and Grimalkin turned at that. Erin’s jaw dropped.

“But—why?”

Doren leaned over the counter.

“Cormeng didn’t have one. So the shop only lets someone like me open it. Get it? From the day I was a kid—well, I make good money. I can open at eight, close at six, and get weekends off. I am so happy.”

His eyes made Erin’s gaze slide sideways, and she had stared down Xarkouth. There was something off here. Even in the stores in her city—she hadn’t seen this kind of despondency. It was a job, so why…?

“You said you used to not get weekends off. What happened?”

“I collapsed.”

She stared at him, and he avoided her gaze.

“Why…why work like this if it’s not something you want to do? You don’t enjoy this. I can tell.”

“Someone’s got to. The store will be unused, and my family depends on me.”

“So let it—”

“It’ll go to someone else. Appear in front of them. We can’t let it leave the family or someone else without levels will get it. This. Is. Important. I’ll retire and someone else gets to take over the business. I’ll have plenty of time to enjoy it all.”

When? She looked at him as he struck the counter for emphasis, and Erin held back that word. She tried to ask something else. Tried to—

“But if Cormeng made this shop—he cast magic! Without levels!”

“Yep.”

“Can you cast—”

No.

“S-so, how’s the job? I mean, how’s your personal life? Got any hobbies? Got a…kid?”

Doren gave Erin a bleak smile. And now he seemed to be regretting talking to her at all because he was looking in a mirror he didn’t want to stare at.

“I sit in this shop for eight hours, five days a week. What do you think? All the attractive women are throwing themselves at…”

He gestured at his form, and to his credit, it was mostly his sedentary job. And maybe he was losing hair in the center of his head and it was spreading out in an unfortunate way, but you could do something with that. It was probably the, uh…

Despair. In fact, he gave Pryde such a long look that Erin really did feel bad for him. She bit her lip.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Doren.”

He looked at her, surprised, and shrugged.

“Thanks. But there’s worse jobs. I’ve never had to worry about being stabbed by an angry customer. Just—how would you make this better?”

He showed her the store. Gestured around at it and Erin saw his family perching on one shoulder and that promised day waiting for him. Doren confessed softly.

“It’s fun at first. It really is, and you put a lot of work into it. My aunt told me it was fun for her too. Then it becomes a job—but you can’t run away from it. Day-by-day is fine. The scrying orbs? My aunt read thousands of books. This is fine. How would you make it—”

A sound interrupted his voice.

Crash. Mrsha and Grimalkin stared at the pot, and Doren sighed.

“…That. Let me get the price.”

Erin would have loved to have a longer conversation with the man, and she hoped she would. But the crash had reminded her she was on a mission. She turned back to Doren.

“You…didn’t happen to have any weird guests about a week or so back, did you? Some—odd people? A woman, maybe?”

He did stop, then. The Sinew Magus was offering him some silver coins, and Doren glanced up sharply.

“This shop is neutral. We don’t tell tales about our customers. We don’t get high-level people inside if we can help it. You shouldn’t have found this place unless you knew about it. Magnolia Reinhart somehow found out, and we’ve had the [Ladies], but we keep to ourselves. We don’t want trouble, Miss Solstice.”

“I get that, but—did you? Because I think she left something in here that’s been bothering me.”

Slowly, Doren went back to the counter with the dustpan and tossed the shards into a bin. He looked around and lowered his voice.

“We closed shop permanently in that city. If she did something—take it out. Cormeng’s store can’t keep out…high-level folk. I don’t want to know who that was, and I’m not asking questions. Please.”

He gave her a pleading look, and Erin wondered who…or what he’d seen. She nodded.

“Can I poke around? I won’t be long.”

“We have three floors. And there’s no back rooms—it’s just more rooms. If you need to squeeze past the shoe racks, go ahead. You can walk for about five thousand feet that way.”

“Ancestors.”

Grimalkin muttered. He had trouble navigating some of the displays—this place was cramped to the point of being claustrophobic.

“Miss Erin? Do you need us to come with you?”

Nanette looked up, but Erin pointed to Tessa.

“I’m fine. I’ll go ahead and look—Mrsha, don’t buy all the cheap jewels. They’re fake.”

But they look so cool! Mrsha decided to follow Erin as the [Innkeeper] walked into the antique store.

Here was what Erin knew of such places. They had things people didn’t want to buy.

Oh, you could find tons of stuff you might theoretically buy. Like look at all these sofas! Actual sofas, some in good condition, some worn—chairs on end, tables, furniture, even dressers!

Now, before you thought about finding a high-quality Terandrian dresser that a [Lady] had once used, remember where you were. These were not the kind of items you could just refurbish a bit and have thousands of gold pieces of quality on-hand.

The dream was finding such a chair or some antique you’d take to an [Appraiser] on a network and earn tons of money for, right? That was what Erin recalled of thrift stores in her world.

Here was the thing. If it were here? Someone had already found it. Erin had remembered tons of collectible cards in the big thrift store she knew in her city. Plausibly worth a lot to collectors? Big signs from old company shops, and, oh—yes, clothing galore.

Something else that both that shop and this one had?

Dolls.

Too many of them. All in the old style of those creepy, staring faces shaped a bit too realistically—and yet not quite the real thing.

The worst ones smiled at you. Erin shuddered at one in the semi-permanent light.

“I bet you’re super creepy at night.”

“I don’t go in here at night.”

Doren called out from the desk. Even Tessa seemed weirded out. She hunched, trying to avoid a row of old toys that Mrsha was theoretically interested in. Theoretically as in—the moment she looked at them, like an old push-wagon, she was not interested in them. Tessa bumped into a doll and stared into a smiling Drake doll’s face.

She punched it.

The costs of this visit were adding up, and Erin was still following the wicker bird. It was pulling her in two spots now, and she eventually stomped past a row of urns before swerving.

“Wh—no way! I think I found it!”

Mrsha was staring blankly at a piece of paper on one of the walls. It was of different kinds of gemstones, one of those encyclopedia-something things. She wondered…who would ever buy such a thing. Did you frame that and hang it on your wall like some loser?

Maybe Numbtongue would want it. Oh, and here was one on plants, for Octavia. Like everything, it was semi-valuable, but you weren’t going to buy it.

In the same way, Erin was hunting along rows of pots and vases that looked good.

Sort of.

Not really.

They were the kind of craftsmanship you could admire and never want to put in your home. Not gregariously ugly and not good. Erin came to a stop in front of one that looked almost like the others. She frowned at the creamy vase. It had some nice coloration ruined entirely by the motif it was going for—fish scales. The potter had been good enough to do the effect in the vase—big enough for some rather large flowers?

So you had a cream-color, carp-style vase that weighed…Erin oofed.

“Ten pounds? It’s solid. And hey…there’s something in here.

She nearly dropped the vase and yanked something out. Erin almost threw it at once, and Tessa, who had drawn her blades, ready to attack a scorpion, stared.

“A finger.”

Mrsha’s head snapped around, but it wasn’t a finger. It was wax. And it looked uncannily like Erin’s finger. The [Innkeeper] stared at it.

“What the—”

“It’s a curse focus!”

Nanette had a dress in her arms. She pushed forwards excitedly and somewhat alarmed. Erin prodded the finger, but it didn’t hurt.

“It’s like voodoo magic. Does it—is it harming me?”

“It’s probably how you’re being cursed, Miss Erin. You should destroy it at once.”

“Any particular way?”

“Crush it?”

Erin clenched her fist. The wax was delicate and weak. As soon as she began deforming the wax, the charm stopped moving towards it. And Erin felt her finger, which had been the source of Nerrhavia’s unwanted curse—stop tingling.

Her middle finger kept going. Erin looked around.

“Wow. That was simple. There must be another one here.”

She put the vase back and followed the charm. But now, Erin was thinking. What…what was going on?

Nerrhavia had been haunting her dreams for a week. Annoyingly—after the first few dreams, she’d just appeared and harassed Erin. That was really annoying, and so was the feeling of her fingers from the curse. The occasional lick was bad enough, but now that she was here, Erin had just destroyed the charm.

This was a lot of work for no payoff. Erin’s paranoia mounted, but she hadn’t sensed any duplicity from Doren. If this were a trap, it was a stupid one.

So what’s going on here? Nerrhavia was supposed to be really smart.

As she hunted, Erin saw Nanette, Mrsha, and even Tessa finding things they might buy. The Named-rank adventurer had found a fake sword.

“You like fake swords, Tessa?”

“No.”

She tried to hide it behind her back. But the purely ornamental sword…the Named-rank showed it to Erin.

“It looks nice.”

“Yeah, sort of. Why do you want it?”

“To hang it somewhere? That’s what you do.”

Erin opened her mouth. She supposed Tessa had a point.

“Well, I don’t like thrift stores. So there’s not much for me to buy. I used to play card games, y’know. I had that phase. I would go to this store and buy them, but there’s never anything valuable here.”

Mrsha and Nanette looked at her, and even Tessa listened. Erin strolled through memory lane.

“My city had one big store, you see. And when I went there, I’d hunt for ages for a good card or something rare like a real gem. But you never find it. Because it’s a thrift store.”

What about my treasure?

Mrsha held up a fake pink diamond. Erin sighed.

“Yeah, I did that too, Mrsha. And bought stuff like Nanette. But…oh, I think we’re here.”

She came to a stand of dresses and rifled through them. Erin stared at the dresses and saw one that was dirty-pink and had a bright green thread lining the pockets. That was the only beautiful thing in the entire dress—the brown buttons did no favors. Erin shuddered as she reached into a pocket and pulled out another finger.

“I just don’t get this. There! Curse done!”

She threw the finger down and stomped on it. The curse vanished, and the bird went still. Erin wondered if Nerrhavia might appear in her dreams tonight. She doubted it.

But this was too easy. Think, Erin, think!

“At least buy something, Erin. The dress is, um…there are some dresses that look nice.”

Nanette urged her, but Erin shook her head. She was turning away from the dress. This store was depressing. It was like the opposite of her inn. The depressing store, and Doren—she wished he had a bit of magic.

“Doren, I’m done.”

When she made her way to the counter, the man looked relieved.

“Thanks. Was it anything—dangerous?”

“Nah. Just a prank. Say, you should come to my inn sometime.”

“I can’t—”

“Oh, right. Location. Well—come to Liscor. Do you serve Liscor?”

He checked a list.

“…No. It’s not impossible, but it wasn’t good business, I heard. I could.”

She gave him a big smile.

“Think about it. I’ll bring you some food, special delivery.”

He looked at her, and the man shrugged.

“That sounds nice. Maybe I will. But don’t make a fuss. My job’s fine. In fact—now that you cleared up that woman’s trouble, I think we’ll go back to normal.”

His eyes slid sideways, and Erin looked at him. She wondered if he’d ever go to Liscor. She suspected he was lying to her face. Erin gazed at Grimalkin and Pryde, and the two were discussing going to Pallass.

“…have my estates. Your company could stay there.”

“Intriguing. I will find an inn.”

“I see.”

“However, I may visit.”

Doren followed Erin’s glance. And even without her Skills, she sensed a wave of jealousy and despondency off him. Yet Erin looked at Pryde and Grimalkin, and she wanted to smile. As much as Mrsha and Nanette were doing as Pryde glared at them.

It was a good thing. Erin looked around the store and called out to a Drake gazing blankly at all the fake jewels.

“Excuse me, where are you from?”

“Huh? Oh—I’m just—down the street. Tyss Street.”

“Tyss Street where?”

The Drake gave Erin a long, long look.

“The city? Dessieth District?”

“What city’s that, exactly? You know, you’re in a magical shop.”

“I’m what?

“Miss, please.

Doren looked aggravated as the Drake freaked out. He glared at the [Innkeeper] as Erin explained, and she was definitely banned along with everyone here. But Erin concluded by introducing herself, and the Drake gobbled.

“You’re—you’re the Human on the scrying orb? I’m in Liscor? But I’m all the way down on the coast—”

“No way. Are you east or west?”

“I—we were the northern-most city on the west coast. The Hivelands are north of us. Cabbenest.”

No way! I’ll look you up later! This is so cool!”

Erin and the Drake turned to look at Doren. He glowered hugely and raised his voice as the other customers looked around.

“It doesn’t matter. No one can leave except via the spot they came through. And before you try it, you can’t do anything funny like trade items. This is not that kind of shop.

Erin Solstice looked at him, and the man gave her an actual glare with fire in it. As if—daring her to bring something special into his shop. The Drake looked just as disappointed, and so Erin stuck out her hand.

“Well, even if that’s true, I met someone cool. Who’re you, Miss?”

“Arensspe?”

“Oh! I’m Erin. See—we met each other, Doren.”

“I’m sure the world will remember it.”

He sneered at her. Erin’s eyes narrowed. She looked around, and Magus Grimalkin was writing down an inn for Pryde. Erin snatched his journal.

“Grimalkin, lend me that quill and a page. Doren, how much for…that sign?”

He glanced at a large sign with the name Gorbel’s Sailing Salts. It was huge, wide, and propped up on the wall.

“Eighteen gold pieces.”

Eighteen gold—it’s—fine. Here.”

Erin slapped the gold on the counter. The man looked frankly shocked and glanced at the sign.

“You want help bringing it out?”

“Nope. Just leave it there.”

“But—”

“I bought it. Just leave it there. Now…how do you, uh, spell Arensspe?”

Erin conferred with the Drake and then stuck the piece of paper to the board. Mrsha and Nanette oohed, and the other clients—including the ones just coming in—noticed the tacked on piece of paper. Doren stared at it then Erin.

 

Erin Solstice of Liscor and Arensspe from Cabbenest. 

“Come visit my inn! I’ll give you a free meal!”

—Erin

“I thought this was a normal store. Are Antinium really living in Liscor?”

—Arensspe

 

“What is this?”

The shopkeeper looked nervous—and confused. But Erin just beamed at him.

“It’s proof I was here. And that you had two really cool, ultra neat guests!”

Arensspe stared at Erin.

“I’m a [Net Weaver].”

Two amazingly cool guests. And I’ve left a message for people. If anyone tells me that they saw it—why, they might come to my inn! Or Cabbenest, wherever that is!”

“We mostly deal in fish. It’s a pretty boring city, honestly.”

The point is that we were here. And that people should know they met interesting folk. Or what was the point of coming in here? Cheap jewels? This stupid stuff?”

Erin gestured at the pile of fake gemstones that Mrsha had in a basket and was going to buy. Arensspe was warming to the theme and nodding, and behind her, a man exclaimed.

“Wait, I’m not in First Landing is what you’re saying? Dead gods, I just saw the Wind Runner and now the [Innkeeper].”

Erin and Mrsha’s heads rotated so fast they nearly cracked. A Drake was rubbing at his eyes.

“I’m in Zeres! Wait—let me write something down!”

People wanted to mark they were here. Erin looked at Doren, and he stared at her. He looked at the signboard.

“What are you doing? Are you trying to give me something? I don’t want it. This is a quiet shop.”

His hands were trembling on the counter. Erin Solstice stopped then and looked at him. She was reminded of the adventurers’ faces, because he had something similar here.

“…If you don’t like it, take it down when I leave. Honest, I’m not going to bully you into keeping it. But I think it’s neat. I think this shop is cool. I just don’t want you to feel like it’s—a prison. Besides, there is something cool here. Behind the junk.”

She looked around Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop, and Doren gazed at her. When he looked up, perhaps it was like he had first come to this place, as a very young boy, and wandered through the shelves. He looked at the signboard and then at Mrsha’s jewels. Slowly, he began sorting them.

“I don’t know why that woman came here. Or what led you here. But there’s nothing valuable here.”

He lifted a fake pearl, and Arensspe pointed to it.

“Except that. That’s a pearl.”

Erin and Doren looked at it. Erin shrugged.

“Yeah, it looks nice. No wonder Visma will like it, Mrsha. But it’s way too big to be the real thing. Unless there are giant clams…okay, but it’s purple.”

“Yeah.”

The [Net Weaver] stared at it. Doren was about to price it at fifteen silver. Slowly, his hand paused over the register, and Erin’s head swiveled back.

“Pearls aren’t purple, right guys?”

Grimalkin and Pryde turned to look at it. Mrsha hurriedly slapped down a gold coin and grabbed the pearl.

Great doing business with you, buddy.

Doren held onto it.

“I, uh—think I’ll hold onto that sale. Give me that—”

Erin Solstice stared at the pearl. Which, but for Arensspe’s comment, would have been a literal gem in the rough. Grimalkin made an offer on it at the same time as Pryde—one for magic, the other because it looked good. They stared at each other as Mrsha, howling, tried to claim she’d already bought it.

Then Erin looked back into the store. Her neck tingled, and her fingers too.

Nerrhavia never does anything without a reason.

“I, uh, think I need to go find something to buy. Two things. I’ll be back soon.”

She returned later, as the shop began an auction over the pearl and people talked and put their names on the board, with a dress stuffed into a vase. Pryde looked over at Erin and grimaced.

“Your taste is about as good as Bethal’s.”

“Hey!”

Erin juggled the two items as Doren checked them, gave her a suspicious look, then sold her them for a gold piece and two silver. He’d already gotten the pearl, so she kept her face straight as she wondered…if she should ask Saliss or someone to take a look at these.

When he got back from adventuring.

 

——

 

Saliss of Lights stood in the dungeon of Liscor. He hated dungeons.

Dungeons were not controlled environments. Dungeons were where his potions and Skills did the least good, sometimes.

Dungeons were selfish places, and the monsters living there didn’t threaten many people. Dungeons were for treasure, and the Named-rank Adventurer had better uses for his life than to risk it in some hole.

“—but you’re an exception, aren’t you? Hello there. I’m Saliss of Lights. Do you remember me?”

The adventurer closest to Erin Solstice—they both thought they resembled each other—glanced up. He was still naked. But then, so was his opponent.

Steam was baking off Facestealer’s brown hide. It was charred—but the mark of Roshal still burned. It wouldn’t come off. It was etched in the skin, and only cutting it loose would stop the tracking.

People had done worse to escape Roshal. Saliss’ lips curled. Colth.

This dungeon, Roshal’s brand staring him in the face, and the lumbering figure wading through lava—even if it was magical? Saliss had been having a bad day for a week.

Maybe this would make him feel better.

“Clear the area! Saliss is heading in!”

Colth the Supporter was a clever kid. Nine different schemes had damaged Facestealer—enough that Saliss could see that pale yellow-white bone underneath the hide. If memory served—even Xrn hadn’t been able to do more than that until the monster damaged her head.

Well, Colth’s plans also revolved around him adding to the Skills of everyone he partied with. Saliss felt more settling on him.

[Support Skill: Enhanced Concoctions]. [Support Skill: Retreat of the Skirmisher].

The Drake tossed up a vial.

“I’m going in.”

He flicked it forwards, and Facestealer charged. It swung its arms wildly, running at Saliss so fast he suspected it could catch someone on horseback.

Faster than it looked, and it had tricks. It was still trying to paralyze him, but Saliss was immune to that. What made his scales prickle with danger was the certainty that the monster was only trying to get away, to lose them in the tunnels. What happened when they backed it up?

—Colth’s plan. Phase #10 was Saliss. And it was just Saliss. The Drake grinned as he threw the first vial.

Facestealer actually caught it, a tiny fastball delicately held between two massive claws. The glass should have shattered at a child’s touch, but the monster grabbed it and began to throw it back.

[Remote Detonation]. The vial exploded. The liquid covered Facestealer, and it halted. It—tried to remove the liquid for a second, then resumed its charge at Saliss. He saw a claw coming for him.

Saliss—

[Flask: Directional Force]. He aimed it at Facestealer and then broke the Alchemist’s Fireball on his chest.

The explosion didn’t hurt. It was just fire. But the kick sent him flying like a ragdoll, away from Facestealer. So fast that even the monster couldn’t keep up. Facestealer swiped, missed Saliss, then noticed the jars glued to the walls, ceiling, and fl—

The spark was its body and the liquid. Or rather, those were the catalysts. The other jars activated, and Saliss looked up as he heard the chatter.

What was—

Ah. Ah, I really don’t like you. Saliss ignored the voices as he watched one of his nastier concoctions engulf Facestealer. But he already felt like it wasn’t going to kill it.

I made this one to kill Wrymvr the Deathless. It’s not going to work on him either. Not yet.

The [Alchemist] had seen that no spells, not water, not Valeterisa’s lightning, no elements had gone through Facestealer’s hide. Pure force like the Vortex Arrow had—and sound had been the real weapon against it.

He suspected that Facestealer’s organs—or whatever it was—was protected by that bone shell and hide. Proof against elements and even death-magic like the stuff Pisces used. Saliss could try to compete with Valeterisa, and he could probably generate a bolt of lightning in excess of her best spells.

…But why bother? He wanted to kill this thing. In theory—even Wrymvr, even a top-tier monster like Facestealer—

Well, he was pretty sure it didn’t enjoy this. Good use of six thousand, two hundred and twenty-nine gold pieces.

The jar contained a soluble dust from the Izrilian city of Port Isle, famous for its odd, twisted dimensional properties. The Fabledust could be used for a lot of things, mostly killing yourself or being lost forever. [Mages] had never managed to make it that useful except in small, small quantities, and it was very useful then.

Saliss had put far too much in that jar, turned it into a liquid you couldn’t remove that clung to you—and then started a warp-reaction on Facestealer. But he’d gotten it wrong. So in theory—

Facestealer was aglow with that changing light of Port Isle, a brown like no color Saliss had ever seen, not turgid nor mundane but a deep color with more depth than any tree’s bark, basking it in color—

Trying to pull it halfway across the continent. Silly Saliss. He really should have made the reaction work. All his experiments showed that this generated enough pulling force to yank mithril chains in half like they were made of string.

Crack. Crack. Crackcrackcrackcrack—at first, Saliss thought it was working. Then he realized the monster was being held against the Dungeon’s wall and that the dungeon itself was breaking.

Not Facestealer. But it was off the ground, and the adventurers were gasping. It was the first time the monster had done more than stumble.

“Come on, break, damn you. What are you made of?”

Saliss began throwing alchemical items. Big boom. Big boom. Big—

Thwoom—

The third explosion kicked him without a potion nearby. Saliss landed, looked up, and saw both his alchemical creations fizzling out. He stared through the smoke of his reactions and saw something stumbling forwards.

…Well, it looks unhappy. Saliss primed a Frost Wyvern flask made of their dead corpses. It had about the same cold as that damn Wyvern Lord. He stared grimly at the lumbering monster as it looked at him and then tried to run the way it came.

Got any more bright ideas, Colth?

 

——

 

Snatcher was beyond fury. It was going to kill them, all of them. All the intruders and—

It ran.

It ran from the naked Drake. It tried to flee towards the city, towards Mother. The other, lesser defenders were attacking, but only when Snatcher was among the many would it be safe.

Right now, it was being hunted.

That last—attack—had hurt. Hurt, but not as badly as the sound.

They hurt Snatcher.

IT COULD DIE.

Yet not easily. Not yet. Snatcher ran because it knew this was their battle. On their terms. Its fury was mixed with fear, but it took more to kill Snatcher.

Falling stars could not. Foes without end could not.

They didn’t even know how it had been made.

If it could just—get away—then it would have the chance to kill them all. Pick them off, one by one. All it had to do was hide

Snatcher ran. It could sense the naked Drake pursuing it, but warily—and they were blocking off more tunnels. It turned left and sensed more chains, more blocking spells.

They had no idea what it could do.

[Reconfigure Aura: Haste].

Dead gods! It’s—

How were they finding it? Four times now, Snatcher had escaped them, using monsters as distractions, slipping away into the darkness. Each time, they came after it, laying a trap.

How…?

That smiling adventurer. Snatcher remembered that sigil it had seen. It felt not the wounds on its hide.

But—

ROSHAL.

It remembered a trick of old. And Snatcher realized it had to be tricky itself. So long it had been that it had forgotten danger. Forgotten—cruelty. How to fight foes as great as it.

How to wage war.

YOU DO NOT KNOW MOTHER. YOU DO NOT KNOW WHERE YOU STAND. YOU—

They couldn’t even catch it, now. Snatcher charged towards the city, gloating. They had some tricks, but they were weak. It was going to get away. Get aw—

Then it heard a cough and slowed. Snatcher had no head to turn, so it swiveled its body about. And it had not sensed her—

Mihaela Godfrey jogged next to the monster. She stared up at it, her white hair blowing with the speed of their travel, and Snatcher swung.

 

——

 

The Courier of Izril was on the ground. Colth ran as Deniusth, Eldertuin, Viecel, and the other top-level adventurers raced past the Horns.

Ksmvr was slicing up Face-Eater Moths as he heard Colth shout.

Phase 13! Skip the rest—support Mihaela! Get into position! We’re using the Flying Fortress formation.”

The Named-rank adventurers surged forwards as Facestealer slowed and attacked Mihaela. She? She dodged.

“You run like crap. [Wall Run]—[Mithril Axe Kick].

The Guildmistress of First Landing leapt back so fast she made Snatcher feel slow, even with the aura. She ran up a wall, kicked off it—and her foot connected with Snatcher’s head.

It—didn’t stumble, and the impact made Mihaela grimace. She pushed off it and felt like she was trying to push off a mountain. It swiped again at her, and she landed.

“Nothing?”

She was no adventurer, but she had adventured—run into Chalence, fought monsters, Antinium, everything. This thing was raising all the warning signs in the back of her head.

Chalence’s final boss monster flinched at that.

Facestealer did not. What was it made of? She saw the hide was torn further from Saliss’ attacks. If it were skin, it would be in danger of bleeding out from the sheer volume of damage. She saw red—leaking around the cuts that the other adventurers had left.

“Lehra, pin it down. Mihaela, the Flying Fortress!”

“I hear you. It’s—”

Facestealer lunged, and Mihaela bit back her comment about it being slow. She dodged backwards again and realized it was trying to back her into a wall.

[I Took Eight Steps Like Thunder]—

The sound of it made the dungeon echo, but she dodged under the claw and saw the other positioned, swinging into—

Close. She really was too old for this. Mihaela’s lungs burned. Don’t cough. Don’t cough—

Don’t slow down. Facestealer whirled, and the Guildmistress gripped her trump card, the Wand of Lightning Bolts. But she had to save it—

A figure in armor charged past her and slammed into Facestealer. Lehra Ruinstrider shouted as the Blade of Mershi actually scored Facestealer’s hide, and it backed up. It raised a claw—and struck her.

“Lehra!”

The Gnoll went crashing past Mihaela, but she survived the blow thanks to the spells Suxhel and the others had added to her. She got up shakily—but Facestealer didn’t go after her.

It feared her relic. It was trying to run again. It was getting far too close to that inner city for comfort. Mihaela, breathing hard, looked past Facestealer. It was watching her, but she sensed something oddly…

Maybe it was just her. She had too much experience with it from First Landing, from being a Guildmistress and a Runner.

Was it contempt Mihaela sensed? Contempt, for her Skills, her own speed, and even Lehra? She got a distinct wariness—but this thing seemed to be gauging them. As if it thought it was going to escape and come back.

As if even Orchestra hadn’t hurt it that badly.

She coughed into her hand. Blood, and it hadn’t even struck her. Mihaela’s lungs were burning as they always did when she worked too hard. She sensed Facestealer’s blank face and those two gaping holes—staring at her.

“You’re not going to keep on smiling. Back up, kid.”

Lehra got to her feet shakily. She kept a glowing buckler raised as Facestealer turned. Then…saw the group blocking its way towards those giant stone gates that led to the inner city.

Orchestra. Viecel the Gambler was hanging back, but Eldertuin was standing in the way of Facestealer. He had his famous shield planted, and behind him stood Colth. And at the back—Valeterisa.

Just like old times. There was only one person missing—and she appeared as she blew past Facestealer. Mihaela Godfrey.

A Courier, Named-rank adventurers, and an Archmage of Wistram. Their ranks had changed since Chalence. Their ages. There wasn’t Dorreg or Caulette to foul things up.

Facestealer halted and began to look around. Behind it, Lehra Ruinstrider held her ground as Saliss of Lights appeared, juggling vials.

Boxed in. Facestealer stepped towards the Gnoll and Drake—then faced the Haven’s Named-ranks. As if it were reluctant to flee like this.

That—was its mistake. Mihaela inhaled and prayed for a breath of fresh air down here.

“Ready? Valley—Deni, give us a tune and some magic. Brat?”

Colth the Supporter held up a thumb. He turned and smiled at Facestealer—and then it did begin to charge. Down the long hallway, but it was too slow.

It had been too slow the moment they got into formation. Now, Mihaela’s blood roared. And she heard Valeterisa chanting.

“[Speed Spell]. [Dual Cast: Grand Lightning]. [Haste]—oh wait, you can’t haste Mihaela anymore—”

As she cast, Orchestra struck up a tune. They played a Terandrian waltz—then kicked it into their impromptu covers of the song.

Fast—faster—Deniusth’s bow began to sing across the violin he held. The Gold-bell Violinist played so fast he’d once made an ordinary violin smoke from the speed. Orchestra was playing—

A song for speed.

“[Ballad of the Courier of Izril]!”

Once, it had just been [Speed Melody]. Mihaela turned as she felt her blood accelerate in her veins. Eldertuin braced as Facestealer came at him.

The Fortress of Terlands was staring down the monster, for all he was only half its size even with his armor and shield. His eyes locked on Facestealer’s exposed eye-pits like a wall, and the monster hesitated.

Did it see—? Too late.

Colth looked at Mihaela, and his own face was lit up by Orchestra’s Skill. She saw him whisper and knew the words even if they were moving so fast that sound was slowing.

[Copy Skill: Transfer Momentum].

Mihaela began running. She sprinted forwards with Colth, but they were like Street Runners pacing ahead of the real Courier. Waiting—waiting—

Valeterisa raised her staff, and her eyes glowed. She spoke as she aimed straight down the corridor.

[Grand Lightning]!

Two bolts exploded from her, and Colth and Mihaela activated their Skills. The bolts of lightning slowed, and Valeterisa admired the bolts of electricity that had suddenly, somehow—

Come to a stop. All their speed drained away by—

[Transfer Momentum]. Colth and Mihaela sped up. They became twin blurs so fast that the world vanished except for them. So fast that Facestealer was just registering what was happening as Viecel shouted.

[All or Nothing Charge]—

Then Mihaela sprinted. Next to Colth, who kept up with her, impossibly, almost as fast, straining his Skills as they ran with lightning in their blood. Not at Facestealer, oh no.

At the most immovable force in their team. He was waiting, his back entrusted to them. And like she had so many times—Mihaela leapt. Colth came behind Eldertuin, lower, like a football player from another world, and his shoulder struck Eldertuin as Mihaela timed her kick to his back. Colth activated his next trump card.

[Encore Skill]. [Transfer Momentum]!

Eldertuin and Mihaela and Colth shared one moment in the pure world that only she belonged to. The place where [The Courier’s Last Road] lay.

Speed. Then Mihaela dropped, and Colth stumbled against nothing. Because all their energy had transferred, again—

Straight into their friend. 

Facestealer didn’t even react. Mihaela barely saw it happen. Eldertuin, flying—launched by the impact of his friends, braced behind his shield. Activating all his Skills, his skin turning to Adamantium—

He hit Facestealer shield-first, and Saliss and Lehra took cover. Mihaela saw it all. She saw the shockwave first as the two struck. It rippled through the dungeon and cracked the walls in half, a line sending spiderwebs of broken masonry through the enchanted stone.

The air moved. Dust and debris blew across the hallways, so fast that it was like shrapnel and cut Lehra’s fur and silenced Orchestra’s song. The sound it made echoed for miles in the earth, and the Gold-adventurers clapped their hands to their ears.

Facestealer. Facestealer—

Reeled backwards. It stumbled eight steps and came to a halt as Eldertuin fell, shaking.

“Eld! On your feet! Back, b—”

Colth’s shout of despair was too fast. Mihaela raised a hand as she saw what Eldertuin did. The Fortress got to his feet and drew his sword. For the sound was loud and filled the dungeon.

Crack.

Facestealer’s head, above the eyes, was bowed in. Mihaela saw, past the hide blown away—the yellow-white bone was cracked. It bled from the wound and, incredulously, the monster raised its claws to it.

Then she felt it.

Fear. It turned to run, stumbling, and Eldertuin’s sword dug into its back. Facestealer whirled, and Deniusth stabbed his rapier-bow into its side. He couldn’t cut through the hide, but the monster slashed at him with a claw. Mihaela yanked Deniusth back as Colth howled.

“Charge! [Bane Blades]!”

He leapt on its back, digging his swords in, and Eldertuin took a blow that sent him reeling backwards, but his shield refused to break. He set himself and charged forwards again as Lehra struck Facestealer from the other side with a hammer.

It was shielding its head. One-handed, Facestealer swung a fist into the dungeon wall, and debris shot out like a deadly spray. It had to lower the other hand to block one of Saliss’ flasks, and the explosion cooked Mihaela’s skin.

Take it down!

Facestealer’s arms swung wildly. It caught Colth—and Eldertuin appeared, taking the blow for his friend. The Fortress went flying this time, and another adventurer took his place.

The Gambler. Viecel lifted a handaxe and spoke as Facestealer turned. Mihaela thought it was making a sound. Like a—scream? So faint—

[Mutual Bet]. [We Both Win, We Both Lose]. I bet my head.”

The monster ripped off Viecel’s head. The Selphid’s body stumbled, and that axe came up. He swung, and Mihaela saw the axe sink into Facestealer’s bone and lodge there. The monster recoiled, and Viecel tore the axe away as he stumbled back.

“Oh dear. Oh dear—Larra, things are going badly—”

Valeterisa was raising and lowering her staff, unable to get a bead on Facestealer—but more Gold-ranks were charging. Now the monster was swinging just to clear them and get away. Away—

A rift opened in front of it as it tossed Colth aside. Lehra was trying to hold it back, but she was being dragged along. She let go as Saliss yanked her back—because the hallway was glowing. Facestealer looked up, and a familiar rift appeared as Mihaela dodged back.

Larracel the Haven.

[Fire Support: Inferno Light Arrows]. They were a foot wide, some of them, and the burning hail struck Facestealer as it flinched—then ran forwards, through the storm, towards Orchestra.

“Don’t let it run!”

Deniusth was behind Facestealer, using it for cover from Larra’s spells. He lifted his blade.

[Sound Sundering Cut].

He slashed at Facestealer’s back as the monster kept going. Eldertuin was on his feet, and Colth leapt again, cutting more strips of hide off Facestealer.

Don’t let it heal! Slow it—hit the broken bone!”

He twisted around Facestealer, swords aiming for that weak spot even as it tried to grab him, fearlessly trying to pry out the bones and expose the gap. A gap—into which all the fire and magic that Facestealer had resisted thus far would—

Colth’s sword swung towards a chunk of misaligned bone like a chisel. Then Mihaela saw his sword twist out of his hands. Viecel’s arm swerved, and the Violinist had to grab the hilt of his blade. Eldertuin swore, and Mihaela saw Lehra jerk and Saliss drop his potions and kick one away.

“What the—”

[Aura of Disarming]. Mihaela looked left and right and then saw Orchestra losing control of their blades. Only Lehra and Viecel managed to hold onto theirs; Valeterisa dropped her staff and bent over it.

“Oh dear. Oh—”

Facestealer brought down a fist, and Mihaela tackled Valeterisa out of the way.

Larra! Teleport Valeterisa out! Now! Colth—

He wasn’t listening. The adventurers were in disarray, and Facestealer was running towards those damn doors. Only a handful of adventurers were trying to stop it as they reached for their dropped weapons.

One of them was a woman who needed no sword. Yvlon Byres screamed and charged Facestealer, heedless of the danger. She punched at it, striking towards the face as Colth leapt on the monster’s back, pounding, his arms plated with metal—

Copying Yvlon? He hammered at Facestealer’s back, then caught himself as his pupils dilated and he practically spat frothing saliva. Colth let go.

“No—that’s a bad copy—”

He looked down as Facestealer grabbed one of Yvlon’s arms as it extended, trying to rip at the misaligned, cracked face. It tore off her hand, and the berserk [Armsmistress] punched it with her other hand. Facestealer recoiled. It tried to escape, and Yvlon ran after it—

Stop! Byres—”

Colth grabbed her, and her arms nearly stabbed him, turning into barbs. But he stopped her.

“[Fall Back]! You’re exposing yourself—fall back and regroup! Now!

He turned, and the adventurers backed up. Ceria was firing spells at Facestealer’s back with the other [Mages], and Halrac tried to ricochet an arrow at its head, but the monster fled past those doors.

Into the city.

Colth picked up his swords, looking at Yvlon’s arms. She—wasn’t bleeding. She stared at the stump and grunted as Ksmvr grabbed her, holding a healing potion.

“It’s just my arm, Ksmvr. It’ll grow back.”

“You’ve got a blood Skill. You’re a liability.”

Yvlon’s head snapped up as Colth pointed at her. She opened her mouth—but the Ultimate Supporter whirled.

“It’s heading into the city. We need to go after it. We broke its bones—Orchestra, I need you to get ready. Can you use your big Skill again? Because we’ll be fighting off those hordes. We’re moving now!

“Stalker’s body is in there too.”

Pisces observed, panting, as he re-sheathed his rapier. Colth glanced at him, then Ceria.

“And an army. I want summoning spells, your behemoth—form up fast. If it runs, it might try to hide or find support. If it hides, we’re safe. Not if it decides the safest place is with a horde of monsters to give it cover. Damn it. I should have slowed it—”

“We cracked it. Our best trick—cracked its head.”

“More than anything else. What the hell is it made of? I felt like I nearly broke my arms and the shield…”

Eldertuin was checking the relic. Viecel waved a hand.

“I need another body. My Skill definitely worked—but I wasn’t going to risk more.”

“Raskghar body coming up. What’s the plan? Yank those bones out with our bare hands? How many auras does it have? We should have brought an aura-specialist with us.”

Jelaqua Ivirith was shaking with adrenaline. Everyone stared at the city. And Ceria had a thought.

“Guys. There’s something else in there. If it goes to the…Mother of Graves I’ve heard about—we should not follow.”

Everyone turned to her, and Colth glanced up. He met Ceria’s eyes as Deniusth swore.

“Let’s get it before it comes to that. Move.

 

——

 

They had broken its bones.

THEY HAD BROKEN ITS BONES.

Nothing had done that since—

NOTHING HAD DONE THAT SINCE—

Snatcher was bleeding. It was wounded.

It could die.

They were in the city. The many were coming after them, but they would not stop. Not relent. It knew that, and it hated them.

They would suffer. All of them. The adventurers were creeping through the alleyways and streets as some of them caused a distraction. Stalker’s body. They were surrounding it, waging a war with fire and blade.

Stealing Stalker’s body? They could not. They could not! The many were furious.

Stalker…

The body did not matter. It had taken the trophy that mattered. Mother did not matter, even if she was in more danger than she had ever been. All that mattered was vengeance.

It was running. Moving as fast as it could as the adventurers slowly tracked it down. How long would it take them to close in?

Forty minutes? They took some time to regroup. Then more, to enter the city and cause a diversion and break the many off. An hour and a half, then? Its bones would not re-knit that soon.

But it would have its vengeance. Now…Snatcher ran as fast as it could. It would have—

SUFFERING.

 

——

 

They were tracking him through the streets. Across the city. Colth the Supporter lifted a finger as the roar of battle in the distance made Deniusth turn back. Eldertuin hefted his shield as the [Supporter] pointed, and Mihaela took up a position. The Gold-rank teams were staying behind to secure the corpse and draw off the horrific beings in this place.

It was close. Hiding down one of the streets with a small group of the red, fleshy things. They…they seemed to wander in packs. Or eat something. Mihaela’s stomach was lurching.

She felt like something had gone wrong. They should have boxed in Facestealer after the last ambush. They had wounded it, possibly given it a fatal weakness, but they were in this city, and she could tell Colth had not wanted this.

He’d still planned for it, even enough to secure Stalker’s corpse, but they had only Orchestra, Variable Fortress, himself, and Mihaela.

Valeterisa had been ordered to stay at the Haven. Larra was helping rain spells down with the Gold-ranks, but this was a gamble. And Colth did not gamble like Viecel.

“We move in now. Eldertuin grabs with Saliss.”

Saliss nodded. He had his transformative tonic ready, and Lehra Ruinstrider was shaking with nerves. She, Mihaela, and Colth had a more dangerous job than that.

Rip out one of those bone chunks, and Deniusth and Orchestra finished the job. Saliss had lent Colth a bunch of acid and poisons to hopefully filter through that gap in the armor. If he had to, Viecel would make his biggest bet. If Facestealer reached this ‘Mother’ or if it had another trick—they fell back.

“See it?”

Halrac was taking overwatch on a building, but he didn’t have an angle on Facestealer. It might know they were there. The [Bowman of Loss] loaded the second and only other Vortex Arrow the teams had into his bow.

“Ready?”

There was no point to asking that. Mihaela looked at Colth, and he rose with an expression she hadn’t seen before in his eyes.

A Named-rank adventurer. He leapt out of cover as Eldertuin raised his shield. Deniusth played a note on his violin as Orchestra rose—but they were all slower than Mihaela. She raced around the street corner and stopped.

“Death or glory!”

Viecel howled. He lunged as Colth lifted his blades. Then slowed. The fleshy, monstrous people of the street looked up. Halrac’s arrow never landed amongst them—but one of Orchestra’s [Mages] unloaded a [Fireball] into their group.

The fire and their screams were followed by several more spells. Mihaela saw three dozen forms recoiling, being cut down by more arrows. She didn’t so much as raise a fist or foot. She—and the other adventurers—were looking for Facestealer.

And they saw him. Saw…

Part of him. Colth’s face had gone still. That smile of a man courting death was on his lips—but it had frozen there. Deni, Viecel, Eldertuin—the adventurers and Mihaela Godfrey stared at Facestealer. Or rather—

His hide.

It looked like a cloak of rags. Bloody, filthy—charred with damage and covered in red. It was draped like a gruesome mask over one of the red, naked monsters inhabiting this place. The brand of Roshal was glowing upon the hide.

“It ripped off its skin?”

Someone whispered in horror. Colth spun on his heels. He looked around—then seized his speaking stone.

“Horns! Fall back!”

“We have Stalker’s body—”

“Facestealer’s removed its skin! It could be right on top of you! Fall back! Everyone, back!”

Suddenly, the voices were filled with panic. Colth looked around, and Mihaela saw Deni trying to activate a teleportation scroll.

“Colth—teleportation’s not working this deep.”

Where is he? Where is—

Halrac loosed mundane arrows as the Named-ranks fell back, shouting at the Gold-ranks to regroup. Mihaela was tensed, ready to run as soon as she heard screams.

But they never came. The adventurers surged back around Stalker’s corpse. Mihaela barely glanced at the massive beast. They had gotten it untangled from the pillar, and it was so large they would have to drag it back or cut it up somehow; the largest bag of holding they had wouldn’t have fit it!

That was secondary. Their entire goal in this dungeon—the Horns were looking around, and Ceria’s ice-fortress was glittering as the half-Elf held back the lesser monsters.

“Where is it? It should have jumped us by now.”

Yvlon said what was on everyone’s mind. If this was an ambush—was it going to unleash something?

“No monster hordes—if it uses the Shield Spider nest or—”

Seborn was glancing about, left and right. Moore stared at the red-bodied citizens of this place throwing themselves into a killing zone fearlessly. But there weren’t more than usual—if anything, they seemed to have been cleared out by the distraction.

Ceria’s pale eyes gazed at the monsters, the lack of an ambush—and then at Colth. He had retrieved Snatcher’s hide. He stared at it, and Ceria wondered how pissed off you had to be to remove your own skin.

How…mad…her eyes kept flickering. What would she do if she were intelligent enough to figure out how to escape the tracking spell? Hide, bide her time to strike back?

But what if she was crazy enough to attack Liscor on her own anyways? And all—all the most dangerous people were right here—

Ceria’s head snapped up. She whirled.

“It’s not here. We have to go back. Now! Warn them! Warn the inn! Get Larra to Liscor now—it’s going after Liscor and the inn!

All the adventurers looked up. Then Mihaela began running, but they were buried in the dungeon. And Facestealer?

Facestealer had been running for a long time. Now it was climbing. Climbing and climbing as its bloody body rose once more.

My skin. Take my skin. Take my skin. Crack my bones.

I will have your little ones. I will creep into your homes.

A claw of bone rose over the edge of the pit, and it heard the horns begin to blare. Snatcher rose—and part of it rejoiced at that sound.

I WIN.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice was in Invrisil when the alarm sounded. She was far from her inn. And it was quick.

Oh, it was fast. Everyone in the inn was still listening to the scattered reports from the adventurers. The last Lyonette du Marquin had heard, Facestealer was wounded and they were pursuing it into the inner city.

She was keeping herself distracted, waiting tables and reading a proposal sent to parents asking them to volunteer their children for a new initiative in Liscor.

When she heard the horns from the walls and the ringing of gongs, she felt her stomach lurch. Then she felt it.

As a claw touched the grass—the [Dangersenses] of every single person in Liscor began to scream. Scream—but it was too late.

Facestealer is coming! It’s coming—

Ylawes Byres looked up from a plate of fries. He slowly reached for his shield and sword. Everyone else was frozen.

“What? What’s that? Colth is below with the others. They can’t all have—”

The Captain of the Solar Strikes laughed. A number of Gold-rank teams were in the inn, as well as Silver-ranks. They got up and looked outside.

What they saw was a repeat of a nightmare the inn had had. Only this time—a bad dream grew into a far more horrific reality.

Facestealer was standing, facing Liscor. Ylawes saw the cracked bone of its head, but it stood there, yellow-white bone drenched in crimson. It was smooth, unnaturally smooth—as if the bone had no joints.

As if that were just another protective layer. Two staring pits were its ‘eyes’, and it stood there, arms spread, as spells and arrows rained down around it.

As if mocking Liscor. For a minute, it stood—then it turned towards the gates. To the inn. As if choosing which one to go after first.

“Falene. Dawil…”

Ylawes’ voice had caught in his chest. The Gold-rank adventurers had frozen up—but they moved first. They stared at this monster, which had eluded the Named-ranks. What did you do when it taunted them so?

Of course they went. Ylawes Byres drew his sword. He put his helmet on with one hand—and the Silver Swords charged onto the grass with the other teams. He charged the monster—

And he thought he heard it laughing.

 

——

 

It knew it. It knew it.

IT TRICKED THEM.

These were not like the smiling adventurer. All the dangerous ones, the woman made of speed, the man holding the shield of the trespassers—the Gnoll wielding the memory of stars—

THESE WERE EASY.

Snatcher, Snatcher! The song rang through its head. How they sang and wept of it. For these?

It saw the first warrior slow. His chest was emblazoned like the sun, and he held a glowing mace. He charged…and fell over. Like a toy.

That was so simple. This Human couldn’t even ignore…paralysis.

Snatcher bent down and plucked a head like a grape. It heard the voices then, screams. Arrows lashed it. Spells struck it as if to pierce its shattered bone.

Oh, they had shattered it.

BUT THEY KNEW IT NOT.

Its bones. It saw a [Knight] wearing armor stumble, then raise a shield. He shouted, and Snatcher struck his shield with a fist. The man crumpled—until a Dwarf struck It from the side, shouting.

These ignored its paralysis. Thanks to the half-Elf bombarding it with weak spells.

It could not even feel them. Snatcher ignored both man and Dwarf. It bent down and pulled the head off another. A Dullahan screamed at it, screamed in horror, and Snatcher put him in the bag. Dullahans were the best. They still lived, sometimes for a long, long time.

It ignored the [Knight]. It ignored the Dwarf. They struck it and knew it not.

They knew not Snatcher’s purpose.

They knew not the Mother.

They knew not its city.

They knew not its sins.

THEY DID NOT EVEN KNOW HOW IT WAS MADE.

Snatcher was ebullient. It stood there and let the man with the sword strike it, shielding his face. Yes. Strike me again and again. Strike me.

THEY MADE MY BONES OUT OF THEIR ANCESTORS.

It stood there until the sword tried to touch the crack in its head. Then Snatcher lost patience. It raised a hand and brought it down, and the [Knight]’s shield bent despite his Skills. But he tried to rise, sword flailing.

Snatcher seized him up and saw just a man. Just a man behind the helmet, a boring little man without magic, one of many. So Snatcher threw him. It turned and threw him over the walls of the city and then looked to the building on the hill.

The little people were fleeing. Snatcher hit the Dwarf too hard and watched him bounce over a hill. The half-Elf fled, and the other ‘adventurers’ ran, sobbing, away. Snatcher decided it would be all of them, inside.

SANCTUARY.

It hated that place. This time—it would enter.

 

——

 

…Thought he saw past the crack, and he was afraid to know. Terrified. Ashamed.

The world was spinning. He thought he saw a Drake staring at him below…on a wall. Then the [Knight] realized he was flying and tried to raise his—

He hit something. A roof, and the stone broke as well as his armor and body. He hit it and hit a canopy and hit the ground and lay there.

His helmet was dented. People were screaming, calling for the army, the Watch.

Ylawes! Ylawes!

Someone found him. The man had forgotten his name, forgotten his class—he looked up at a stranger and remembered she was his sister.

He forgot why he was supposed to be at odds with her. She grabbed him as a golden Gnoll appeared.

“Something threw him. Something threw—

“It’s a monster. The monster. It’s Facestealer—get inside—”

“The Watch and army is coming. Where—where are the [Crusaders]?”

A babble of voices. Ylawes tried to speak and ended up throwing up. There was too much red there. Someone grabbed a potion and forced it into his mouth. He spat half it up too—and then remembered.

He had been in a fight.

“It’s Facestealer. Where—where’s—”

It’s headed to the inn! Sound the alarms!

Ylawes looked at Ysara and found she was holding him up. He looked around.

“Where’s my sword?”

He knew where his shield was. Bent around his broken arm. His sword? His sister and Qwera looked at him incredulously.

Ylawes, don’t be mad. That thing—we need an army. Where did the Named-ranks go?”

“Tricked.”

She didn’t understand. There was no time to explain. Ylawes tried to stumble towards the gates. He found they were closed and looked around.

“I have to—they’re fighting.”

“Who is?”

Ylawes Byres stared at Ysara. She helped him up the walls, and the [Knight] looked out.

“The adventurers. They’re…”

He looked out and saw Facestealer. It was walking towards The Wandering Inn. What Ylawes didn’t see—were adventurers.

The Solar Strikes were half gone. But there were more Gold and Silver-ranks. They were…

Standing far away. Some were banging on the gates, demanding to be let in. They weren’t fighting. Ylawes looked around and saw Falene running their way. Where was Dawil?

“I have to stop it.”

“You’ll die. You’re not a match for it. Named-ranks aren’t.”

Ylawes looked at her sister.

“I have to stop it.”

The brother and sister looked at each other, and once more, they didn’t understand each other. Ysara Byres tightened her grip on her brother’s shoulder.

“You won’t be able to do a thing, Ylawes.”

He gave her a blank look as vomit dribbled from a corner of his mouth.

“That’s not the point.”

 

——

 

Numbtongue stood. He saw the Thronebearers rising and pulling Lyonette towards the garden’s door.

“The portal—”

“Get to the garden. Now!”

It was coming. So fast that Liska appeared as Ishkr dragged her into the common room. They had seconds. The Hobgoblin stared down at the Dragonblood Crystal blade.

It won’t do any good. Take my hand.

Reiss whispered. Numbtongue didn’t. Not yet. He looked around, and a figure appeared.

“Normen, let go, let—”

“Crossbows won’t work. Bird’s been shooting at it all day.”

A flurry of voices. The Hobgoblin set himself at the door. He had seen the adventurers run. And they were allowed to. It was a very practical thing—but this was his inn.

His home.

He was just glad that Erin wasn’t here. And Mrsha.

Panic. Lyonette was looking at the guests, but she was ushering them into the door. Menolit, the regulars and guests. Into the garden.

Numbtongue hesitated. He saw someone else setting himself. Despite the fact that he had only a practice sword, Normen looked at him.

“Numbtongue! What are you—”

Facestealer knocked on the inn’s door and broke it. He raised a fist, and Numbtongue heard thunder, and the inn shook from the impact. The monster stopped as it saw the long hallway. As if amused.

The inn had seen this before. This day—the Thronebearers were dragging Lyonette towards the garden.

“Princess!”

“We’ll come in a second.”

Numbtongue really wished Saliss were here. He saw Octavia emerge from her shop, holding a shaking acid jar in one hand. But Lyonette was screaming at him.

“Don’t be a fool!”

“Someone’s got to fight it.”

Numbtongue…Numbtongue was afraid of it. He was afraid it could get into the garden. Erin had told him it wasn’t impenetrable.

He felt like he was dreaming, but it wasn’t Hectval’s soldiers this time. The Hobgoblin lifted the blade. Let’s do this properly. He looked at Normen.

“Run. You’re not ready.”

“No.”

Normen was trying to force Alcaz into the door. Bird had come down with bow in hand and—and they saw it all. The [Princess], the Hobgoblin, the brave Antinium and Brothers.

Not this time. Someone shoved another guest into the door and spoke.

“None of you are ready. Not this time. I’ll greet our guest.”

Numbtongue turned, confused. Lyonette’s face whitened.

“What?”

A forgotten figure in the chaos stood there. He shoved his sister into the door, and the Hobgoblin, the [Knight], the Bird all turned. Numbtongue looked at him.

“You can’t stop that.”

“That’s not my job. But you—”

A paw grabbed Numbtongue’s shoulder. The Hobgoblin tensed—but there was just a gentle pull. And then—

Numbtongue!

Lyonette screamed his name. The Hobgoblin felt the world spin—and he landed on his back.

On the grass—with a buzzing bee jetting over his head. He looked around—and nearly stabbed Octavia as she nearly landed on him.

What the—he saw Normen go flying through the doorway, and Alcaz, and heard a voice.

“—ncy Evacuation].”

Then someone slammed the door—and turned. Numbtongue leapt to his feet as he saw a glimpse of that person who had also been there.

 

——

 

Snatcher smashed into the inn and raised its claws. It looked around, for no one had escaped through the windows and doors. As if it had given them time. As if they could r—

The inn was empty. The monster peered around the huge room—and it sensed…maybe one person here. But no more.

Where were they? Ah. Of course.

Sanctuary. It turned and grasped at a wall. Hunted across the blank boards—until it found the door it had never been able to open.

They were all in there. A [Princess], a princess with red hair. Men and women with bright armor. Even a Goblin with a crystal blade. A girl of cloth.

So many. So frightened. The warriors stood in front of the door—and there was even a tiny Goblin who aimed a crossbow at its face. A lot of Goblins, actually. They chanted at it, and Snatcher reached for them.

Its claws scraped at that door. Frustrated, Snatcher seized the doorknob and pulled.

No door had ever resisted its touch. But this one did. It pulled—then pulled hard.

The inn trembled. Somewhere—an [Innkeeper]’s head rose. She had felt it come in. She was running—but she’d never make it.

Let me in. Let me in. LET ME IN.

Snatcher raised a fist and struck the door. Those inside flinched back from it. They could not attack it. And it could not get—

It struck the door, and the inn shook. Again. Snatcher drew back its head of Dragonbone and smashed it into the door and that invisible barrier. Again and again, until it heard the floorboards begin to crack and the beams shift warningly.

And the [Innkeeper] felt it. She cried out, and the inn began to tremble. Snatcher hesitated as it sensed an aura surround it.

Like wrath. Like fury. The aura told it to leave.

Snatcher ignored it. It raised a fist and hit the door so hard the hill shifted. Those inside drew back. Its next blow they felt in the streets of Liscor.

Snatcher raised a fist—

The [Innkeeper] took off her hat. She came to a halt, panting, and her hat glowed with fire. She tipped it up—and what lay beneath it were days of wonder.

It fist rose, and Snatcher put its strength behind it. The wrath of a city—until it saw the light.

It flickered into being, and Snatcher turned. Confused, attracted by the beautiful little glow. It stared left—and a fish made of spectral blue, a long fin, flew into the air around it.

What? A light spell? A silly little spell…Snatcher felt the inn cast it. It nosed around Snatcher, and it vaguely grabbed the spell and broke it to pieces.

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t magic, and it didn’t care. It wasn’t like the beautiful heads in its sack, one screaming and sobbing still. Its…

Wait, why was its sack on the table? Snatcher looked at the sack. It felt at its side. Then—more of the strange little fish appeared. A long eel of green floated past it, and a red shark, a small sand shark appeared. Snatcher ignored them—until it felt a sting on its bones. It looked down, and a lamprey was biting it.

Biting…its bones? Snatcher crushed the fish. Then felt a tiny, tiny impact as something lashed its face. The eel. And the shark was biting at it. The glowing fish—

Began to glow ominously and more and more appeared. Dozens. Hundreds.

They began to attack as the fishies became less playful and more enraged. Snatcher swatted at them as they tried to scorch its bones. They hurt it not! But they—they did feel like something.

Old magic. Different magic. Witch magic. It stung like the Gnolls and their tribes. Stung—but it turned back to the garden. Break it. Break it into a thousand thousand pieces and what lay beyond—

The attacking spell-swarm could not distract it. The horns from the city could not. They could not hurt it—but the mug that bounced off its head thonked louder than the other sounds. And the voice…

The voice was thought-provoking.

“You’ll never get into that garden. You are a guest of this inn—and you are not welcome. In the [Innkeeper]’s place—kindly get lost.”

Snatcher paused with its fist raised. It turned. Who dared?

A shaking Gnoll was standing behind the bar. He looked terrified—and he was not beautifully white or unique.

But Snatcher decided to kill him first. Because he was part of this place. And his head…it turned. The Gnoll was still speaking, and Snatcher listened.

“This time. This time—I was here.”

Then he turned, and Snatcher lunged.

 

——

 

Watch Captain Zevara didn’t blame Erin this time. She blamed herself for trusting the Named-ranks. And she thought they’d done their best. But sometimes—

Sometimes.

“Form ranks! Your job is not to die but to hold it off! Understand?”

The [Guards] were shaking in their boots, but Gold-rank adventurers had run and they hadn’t—yet. She was proud of them.

The inn…the inn was silent. Zevara was afraid, but two figures were running towards it ahead of the Watch. and behind her, she heard the sounds of a prayer. The Watch Captain turned to the inn as she waited for another tremor—and saw something.

One of the windows near the side of the inn opened. The Watch slowed as someone bailed out the window.

Ishkr exited the inn with all the speed and athleticism of someone who was in mortal fear of his life. The Watch pointed, and Zevara’s heart lurched.

Isn’t that—the [Head Serv—]

A wall exploded. Snatcher came through it like a thing out of a cartoon—but there was nothing funny, only terrifying about it bursting through the reinforced wood like it was paper. It went after Ishkr, and the Watch howled.

Run! Run—wrong way, idiot!

It wasn’t his fault—Ishkr was racing away from that monster as fast as he could, with no thought for going towards Liscor.

He was a dead Gnoll. Facestealer was so fast that Zevara doubted she could outrace it on horseback. She turned to see where Klbkch and Relc w—

“No way. He’s outrunning it! Or not outrunning—”

Zevara’s head turned. The Watch stared. She stared. Ishkr was moving across the Floodplains. Even Facestealer seemed confounded as it blurred after him.

“What is…how is he doing that? Did we know he could do—”

The chase across the plains took less than thirty seconds. Ishkr disappeared over a hill as Facestealer chased him, catching up—and then reappeared, looking around.

What the—the monster actually hammered the ground with its bone fists, looking so frustrated—then it whirled back to the inn, and Zevara saw—

 

——

 

Lyonette was arguing with Numbtongue not to go and check outside. It was too dangerous! The garden had been shaking.

They were staring at the garden door when it opened—and Numbtongue nearly stabbed Ishkr. The Gnoll flung himself into the inn, crawled around to slam the door, and lay there, panting.

“I’m done. I’m done. I bought all the time I could.”

They all stared at him as the Gnoll clutched at his chest. Numbtongue looked at Lyonette, Liska—even Rags was seriously impressed.

What the hell just happened?

 

——

 

Skills.

Snatcher ran back towards the inn, so enraged by this—this trickery that it didn’t notice the others until they were right on top of it. It ignored the insect and Drake as it charged at the inn. This time, Snatcher would destroy it, piece by piece, and break that d—

“[Triple Thrust]!”

Something hit it in the cracked part of its bones, and Snatcher recoiled. It whirled—and the Drake’s spear struck it again. Hard.

Snatcher’s hand went up to shield its bones. Another one? How many were there? It recognized the spear, the stance.

[Spearmaster]? Annoying. Not a good one—but it planted itself, and the insect had blades this time. Like the other one. Neither fell down with its [Aura of Paralysis].

All of you, die. Snatcher swung, and the Drake dodged back. His spear lashed out again, like a part of his body. Towards the cracked bone.

Snatcher cared not. But for the cracked bone—this Drake would hurt it not. It lunged—and two blades kissed its back and took a sliver out of its bones.

Snatcher froze. A voice spoke behind it, sounding—happy.

“[Recaptured Sublimity]. Ready, partner?”

“Let’s get him.”

The Drake lifted his spear—and Snatcher whirled. It saw a blur of blades—and felt a nick in its bones. What was that sword? What was that sword? This wasn’t like the other one. It was faster. It looked different.

Snatcher wanted its head, but it had a question first.

Who…are you?

It looked at something as old as it, perhaps. And that something laughed.

A spear struck Snatcher in the back—and it deflected a blade. Fast—Snatcher’s claws whirled. It was slow. Slow—it felt those blades kiss it a dozen times in a second.

No more. 

NO MORE.

[Aura of Disarming]. The Drake lost his spear, and the blades twisted in the grips of the insect. They struggled—even if the insect held the blades, they wanted to be free every second. Snatcher raised a fist—

 

——

 

“Relc Punch!”

The Drake hit the monster in the face. It seemed stunned, but it punched back, and the Drake ducked back. His fist ached—but the incredulous monster took a swing at him, and Klbkch tapped it on the shoulder.

It swung around, and his punch made the bones shift in the monster’s face. It recoiled, and Relc kicked it. They were—

It was fast. But so were they. The Antinium and Drake dogpiled the monster. It was twice their height, but it was stupidly built. Every time it swung around to one, the other would begin hitting it in the back. And their fists—

Relc saw the bone shift. He punched it in those cracked bones and was rewarded with a red seepage. Klbkch was even faster. He calmly hammered on Snatcher’s back—and the monster turned.

The Drake was laughing. He could hear the horns blowing, but they were doing it! Didn’t anyone just think about attacking from two sides? He saw the dumb rectangle of bones turning its two hollow sockets at him, those claws of bone swinging fast—but not fast enough for a [Spearmaster]. He even knew the reach. Relc dodged back as Klbkch sped up.

 

——

 

Faster, faster. He had seen foes like this. The Slayer was hitting Facestealer with all the force in his body. He could sense his foe quailing—and Klbkch was reaching for something he had lost.

[Recaptured Sublimity]. He was going back in time, and Relc was shouting, mocking the clumsy foe. A claw shot out, and the Drake leaned back—stumbled—

Huh?

Klkbkch ducked. There was no way that Facestealer should h—

He dodged one claw that came at him fast. Another—a—flash of bone—

Third—?

Then Klbkch leapt back. Someone stumbled. Relc stepped back, eyes wide. He clasped a claw to his neck.

“That’s…not fair.”

The Slayer and the Gecko looked at Facestealer. Klbkch stared at the—arms of bone. The long, clawing arms that weren’t attached to that odd, rectangular body any longer. Something—crawled across Facestealer’s body. Bones re-shaping. Lengthening.

Bone-teeth opened and closed. An alien head, cylindrical and misshapen, uncannily off, turned left and right. Long limbs—a quadrupedal body.

It was changing. But that wasn’t what made Klbkch halt his attack. He turned—and saw how the arms were longer, thinner—and one claw as sharp as anything was covered in…blood…

Facestealer looked at Relc, and the Drake felt at the cut so deep and wide it went straight down across his neck and left a gap. Blood was gushing from it.

“Ow.”

He stumbled. Facestealer raised its claws—and Klbkch rammed a blade into its back. It didn’t go in far—but the monster recoiled. It turned that alien head to bite—and Klbkch caught it. He slammed the jaws shut, forced them back, and punched.

Crack. The spider web across its chest—the damaged spot was its chest now, as the bones shifted place—grew. The monster backed up, and Klbkch advanced.

“Relc. Your potions. Relc?”

He deflected a claw—this time, the earth moved when he hit it. The monster was backing up. And Relc was—

Lying down—

Klbkch saw the Drake collapsing. He hesitated—and the changing Facestealer backed up. It crawled backwards, and Klbkch looked at it. His Skill—

He ran at Relc, yanked him up, and reached for a potion. Facestealer was headed to the inn. Relc was gasping.

“I got nicked—”

“I’ve got you.”

But the inn! Now, Facestealer was crawling, like some insect crossed with an alien, fangs gnashing. It was wearing a shell of bone. Klbkch held Relc’s blood in, pouring the potion. He let the monster go.

After all—

The faithful were in its way.

 

——

 

They were coming, one after another. But none of them beat it. That…that insect…

It disturbed Snatcher, but it was no longer dangerous. The Skill ran out. More bugs in armor blocked Snatcher’s way.

They could not harm it. Death, death, death.

It charged them, claws reaching to pluck their heads. To teach them—

“—[Weapon of Faith].”

A mace rose, glowing, and a [Templar] set himself. Snatcher wavered. And a mace that shone with more than magic struck its claw. The [Crusaders] charged, and Snatcher wavered as the blades of a new kind of warrior hit it.

The [Templar] rained blows on Snatcher’s arms and body as it backed up—then stared at the gleaming Dragonbone. At the sudden—

Snatcher ripped off his head. The [Crusaders] froze, and one raised a shield empowered by f—

A claw tore through it. Snatcher threw the bodies aside as the Antinium broke up. They stared at it, and Snatcher roared, for it had given itself a mouth.

Bones gnashed. It turned, green blood covering it. Now—its fury reached a new zenith.

THIS? THIS? YOU THINK THIS IS ENOUGH?

I KNOW THIS TRICK.

A [Crusader] with a bow launched an arrow made of faith—and it snapped on Snatcher’s contempt. Then they felt it, and their powers quailed.

MOTHER. MOTHER. MOTHER!

Bugs, fleeing in disarray. The two warriors, one dragging the other back. Any more? Snatcher looked around and saw a half-child with flaming breath leading worthless soldiers.

Who else? Who else would dare? Did you not see the dead? The monster’s outrage grew, for they did not see it. They did not know it, and so they did not cower or run or beg. And that was its largest fault, its greatest weakness.

 

——

 

It had—forgotten.

Forgotten they would never stop.

Oh, many of them would. Many already had.

Ylawes Byres stood at the gate that was opened a crack to give Zevara’s Watch a retreat route. Klbkch was standing over Relc as a [Healer] bent, checking on the Drake.

“What are you doing? Standing there?”

Klbkch turned guiltily, but it was not him that Ylawes was addressing. Ysara no longer needed to prop him up. The Gold-ranks and Silver-ranks stared as the [Knight] looked around.

“Where’s Dawil? What are you doing? We have to get out there.”

Falene emerged, supporting Dawil. The Dwarf’s armor was rent down the chest, but he was alive.

“Lad…”

Ylawes turned to him, but the Dwarf just raised his hammer.

“Next time, we’ve gotta duck. What’s our plan?”

The [Knight] turned, and for all Falene shuddered—she was right there. But when he looked around, the other Captains and adventurers stared at him as if he were crazy.

“You want us to take that thing on? Byres, Orchestra couldn’t bring it—”

Are you adventurers? That is our responsibility. Who’s with me?”

Spit flew from the [Knight]’s mouth, and he felt himself shaking. He turned to Ysara.

“Lend me your sword.”

Ylawes!”

He turned and stared at Facestealer. And he—

He was not the only one.

 

——

 

Waters were pouring from the heavens. Waters without end—Zevara was trying to drown the bastard, not knowing it had been tried. Or just delay the monster.

“She’s activated a failsafe. She can’t do that!”

“Shut up.”

“But—”

“[Senators]—out of here.”

Chaldion of Pallass growled. He watched as a small lake formed around the inn—but the monster was just walking underwater.

The Watch Captain hadn’t done that for the Face-Eater Moth attacks. It was one of her few safeguards against an Antinium attack—a Tier 6 spell.

Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she thought Facestealer was a greater threat.

“Grand Strategist, we are ready to sortie. But the door is down. Do we have permission to engage?”

Chaldion was sitting outside the door on the 8th Floor as General Duln waited. The [Strategist] exhaled as he smoked a cigar. His third one. The door was down—and he suspected they were inside the garden.

“If it opens—do not engage. Give me a window to use [Path to Victory]. Keep Saliss alive. And the [Innkeeper].”

“Yessir.”

He was waiting.

 

——

 

They were waiting for him. And the cost? It weighed in their bones, like Mihaela Godfrey, running for the surface.

Tekshia Shivertail leaned on her spear as she stood at Liscor’s gates. Waiting for the monster to approach as the Watch fell back. She doubted she could do better than Relc—but was she fleeing?

The Dwarf stood at the door in Esthelm, and his voice seemed to rumble like the High Passes above. He smoldered with a weary guilt and flame.

He was no warrior—but Master Pelt of Esthelm called out as Kevin and his apprentice, Emessa, tried to reason with him.

“If it takes a master of steel and stone, I’ll slay that creature of bone. I fear no monster, and I have held living flame. Tell them, my grandfathers, the day I redeemed my name!”

He struck the door, but it was silent.

Open it, [Innkeeper], and set one wrong in this world to right!

No matter what the cost—the Dwarf raged and waited.

 

——

 

Did Snatcher feel it? A thousand foes, gnawing at its shell, its stolen bones? It was turning as the [Crusaders] regrouped in the Hive’s hidden tunnels.

The Silver Swords were exiting the city, and two teams broke from the silent adventurers to join them.

The Pride of Kelia and Vuliel Drae. They were Silver-rankers—but they struck each one of the Beriad like a blow to the heart.

That was honor. That was—

Adventurers. Ylawes Byres carried his sister’s sword, and his shield-arm would not work, but he called to the monster as the Antinium watched.

Turn, monster!

Facestealer stopped at the entrance to the inn, and one sinuous head made of lengths of bone turned back. It looked nothing like the old form. Here was a creature to creep through windows, squeeze into houses at night. A monster of nightmares. It regarded Ylawes with little interest, but the [Knight] screamed, his voice hoarse and breaking.

Turn around! By House Byres and Izril, we will see you dead. Turn around by Liscor. By the Five Families! By—Yderigrisel, I swear I will cut you down.”

A hand froze on the opening to the inn, a flicker of recognition made even Facestealer halt. As if it recalled that name and was…offended.

That [Knight] deserved an army at his back. But the [Crusaders]’ faith broke upon that thing—as if it were armored in more than mere bone. As if—they had felt—it had faith of its own, twisted and dark.

“Queen Xrn, Queen Xrn, please lead us to battle.”

The Beriad and 3rd Battalion were ready—but they were holding back as Artur and the other leaders beseeched the one individual who could harm Facestealer. Who had—and who watched the fighting above.

“No. I forbade Klbkch to enter battle. He disobeyed. You may do battle. I will not.”

Xrn’s voice was touched by the colors swirling in her head and black rage at Facestealer. But she held back.

Why?

Artur was confused, and the Small Queen stared at him. Her eyes shone with beautiful, magical light—and a colder confidence than Olesm had yet reached. She pointed with her staff at the monster.

“Level well.”

 

——

 

Cold ice. A [Knight]’s fury. He charged across the open ground at Facestealer, though the monster’s aura tried to stop his limbs.

He was not alone. Dasha was running behind Dawil, and Anith and Falene’s spells rained down along with Nailren’s arrows, but Facestealer snapped the ropes and nets without even slowing.

Nevermind that reinforcements might be coming. Ylawes did not go for that. He did not go in hopes of inspiring or for the glory or levels.

He went because he had to. And two teams joined him. The [Knight] ran—and the [Innkeeper] saw him.

She stopped, gasping for breath in the street as she tried to get back to her door, and saw him standing at the edge of her inn. Erin Solstice’s magic and hat and inn couldn’t slow that thing down.

It knew her garden. Her aura clashed with Facestealer’s, letting Vuliel Drae and The Pride of Kelia move—but it was like a mountain. An old, buried mountain of sins.

Ylawes. Erin cried out and raised her hand. You idiot. You—brave fool. She did not always like him, but he?

He deserved more. So she threw up her hand and shouted to the sky.

“[Boon of the Guest: Yderigrisel]!”

Mrsha slammed into Erin from behind, and Grimalkin and Pryde turned in confusion. They didn’t know that name, perhaps, but—Erin strained and felt a void where she should have felt the Skill working.

He had never been a guest at her inn. But she had been his guest. 

“No—no—damn it—[Boon of the Guest: The Silver Dragon-Knight]. Come on!

She slammed a fist into her shin. Then Erin’s head rose. Falene was glowing with Lyonette’s boon, so Erin shouted.

“Dawil—[Boon of the Guest: Pelt]!”

A Dwarf gasped as his hammer rose—but it swung and bounced against the monster’s armor without doing a thing. He backed away and reached down to his belt, which hummed—

And he drew a blade remade. For a second, for a battle. The Dwarf stared at the axe—and threw. It cut into that bone and shattered again—and Facestealer went for the Dwarf. It seized him up as Falene shouted and hit Ylawes as the [Knight] charged it.

Down the [Knight] went, tumbling down the hill, helmet dented, and he rose before he came to consciousness. Facestealer was raging at the things chipping what should not be damaged. Dawil’s head jerked under a claw—

“[Oil Spray]!”

He slipped out. Insill ran as Pekona slashed and dodged one of Facestealer’s claws. It was…weaker in this form, although it slashed so fast with another claw it ripped out a strip of her flesh and left it dangling. The monster advanced as she stumbled back, and someone stabbed it in the face.

And again—the metal tip of the conical spear left the tiniest dimple in the bone. But it did mark it.

“Run! Run, brother!”

Infinitypear lowered the spear and ran as Rasktooth shot his hand-crossbow into Facestealer’s armor—then threw an acid jar. Neither did much, but the monster pursued them before it was struck by Ylawes.

The adventurers were relieved by a sudden army of [Crusaders]. They charged up the slope but did not surround the monster. They attacked, raining crossbow bolts, letting the Beriad and 3rd Company hammer it—and fell back as the monster lanced through their armor. Green blood…

“Ylawes, Ylawes, slow down.”

The [Knight] nearly fell over as the adventurers rallied. He was almost aglow with battle fury—but he halted.

“We can’t—we can’t kill it.”

Maybe Pelt could, or a higher-level fighter, but the cracks in the bone armor needed to be expanded. Prying a chunk loose? All but impossible with Facestealer’s every blow rending all but the toughest armor.

“Where are the Named-ranks?”

In the dungeon. Ylawes shook his head. He gazed at the inn and realized Erin’s door must not be working if everyone were in the garden.

“That death-death-death-death head monster! Facestealer. No one kills it! Not Raskghar, not Minotaur, not traps, not everything in the empty nest! It kills everything.

A voice was urgently telling everyone that. Ysara had said the same, and Ylawes ignored it—until he saw Infinitypear and Rasktooth. The Cave Goblin was babbling.

“Dungeon only way. You hide and run, and it go to trap room and gets stuck. Never seen it change. Except when it kill too many. Can’t be killed.

“What? Trap rooms?”

Then Ylawes remembered—Numbtongue had trapped it once with the Redfangs. It had broken free but—

Facestealer was not going to relent. It was forcing back the [Crusaders], who retreated, healing up, and Ylawes—Ylawes’ eyes flickered.

“Wait. Wait…I remember something from the dungeon. I have a—plan.”

Dawil and Falene, panting and wiping blood from their eyes, looked at him. Ylawes had read Colth’s warnings—the Named-ranks were still fighting their way back up in the dungeon. But time? Maybe they could buy time or even—

“You—”

He whirled, and Infinitypear and Rasktooth jumped. What were they doing here? Ylawes stared.

“Who are you?”

“[Adventurers]. We fight. That is bad-bad monster. Killed many of my people. Can’t be killed. It killed Stalker. All that? Just bone. Armor.”

Rasktooth saw the other adventurers look at him, and Ylawes realized that Colth had neglected one thing with his adventurer’s bias. He hadn’t asked the one expert on Facestealer. More than Calruz. More than Numbtongue…

“Does it have a weakspot? Never mind that—you—you came from the dungeon. How well do you know it? What’s your—name?”

Ylawes floundered. Rasktooth gave him a bug-eyed look.

“I am Rasktooth. This is Infinitypear. I know every part of the dungeon where I was.”

That—wasn’t perfect, but Ylawes looked at the monster. He wasn’t as—clever as some Captains, he knew. He had a straightforward approach to things, which people mocked. But he did have more experience fighting monsters than even most of the northern teams.

This was a giant Elemental—well, a Creler-type monster right now. But he had noticed one weak spot just now and from Colth’s testimonials.

“I was in the dungeon too. I remember seeing—do you know where this is?”

He spoke, and Rasktooth nodded instantly as Dawil raised his brows. Anith looked incredulous, but Rasktooth was confident.

“I know where that is. Every Goblin.”

“How far away is it from—”

“Not far. You want to take it there? It never goes.”

“Ylawes, we can’t lure that thing! It’s after Erin’s inn!”

That was true. The [Knight] turned.

“Falene, draw it off. Can you?”

She obligingly shot a shower of fiery bolts into Facestealer’s back, and it ignored the spells. Ylawes banged on his shield, trying to draw it away, insult it.

In Yderigrisel’s name—face me, monster!

This time, the monster just turned—then went back to Erin’s inn. It was pounding on the portal door now, as if sensing that Erin was trying to keep it closed. It punched through one of the walls, exposing the hidden kill-rooms in the hallway, and then lurched back towards the common room.

Towards the garden. Facestealer ignored the Antinium. It ignored the Silver Swords. It wanted to start with the garden—then kill everything attacking it. Then the city.

Then—

Facestealer halted. Its sinuous head turned, and it broke off from the door. It turned—and then began to crawl out of a hole in the inn it had chased Ishkr through. Ylawes followed it.

What? Something had drawn Facestealer off. He looked over—and saw the figure. Ylawes Byres looked at the Silver Swords and then the other adventurers.

“We have to stop it. Or—follow me.”

He began running back towards the crack in the earth, and to his amazement—they followed. Silver-ranks, chasing down a boss monster.

Adventurers.

And who were the duo running towards the chasm, sliding down the ropes? [Adventurers] too. A Goblin and an Antinium, being chased by Facestealer itself as the disbelieving Liscor watched. The monster abandoned the inn. It abandoned the fight.

It just went after the two. Or rather…one of them. There it was. There she was. Plain as day. I found you—and this time—

Facestealer chased the beautiful head. It was whole again, which was even better! That lovely, lovely…blue-painted Antinium head. Rasktooth was blue too, with the paint dyes, and he looked at Ylawes as the [Knight] charged at him.

You sure? The [Knight] raced past Facestealer and shouted as it lunged.

Let go!

The Antinium and Cave Goblin looked down the hundred plus foot drop—and the [Knight] jumped into the pit, face-first.

Oh fuuuuu—

Dasha wasn’t that committed and slowed down, but Insill and Larr ran into her, and she went careening into the pit. Nailren’s team halted, but the Gnoll leapt after Anith and Pekona—and Falene shouted as Dawil plunged after them.

“[Mass Featherfaaaaaaaaaaa—]”

 

——

 

Snatcher landed after the adventurers. And the blue insect. She wasn’t casting magic. She was weak. She looked…different…but it could not resist.

This was all her fault. It blamed her. It wanted her head. Such a beautiful head. Such a beautiful color. And the inn—

The inn bothered Snatcher. It reminded it of great dangers, so it retreated from the above. It felt the grudges and hatred of dangerous things up there.

DAMN THEM.

It would creep up in darkness instead. Use the monsters. Use Mother’s tricks if it had to, and tools. It was not going to relent until it had enough heads to fill every part of its vault, the entire nest it had cleared—and all the other three as well.

Until heads lined every part of this dungeon. Snatcher did not fear the adventurers. They had failed.

They had all failed!

THEY COULD HURT IT NOT.

Already, the Dragonbone of its shell was knitting. Already—and they had used their best against it. Snatcher was annoyed as it crawled after the adventurers. They were racing through the dungeon, its home, as if to escape it.

It knew every corner and aspect and trap. The only problem was—Snatcher was slower in this form, meant to creep and bite and claw.

It shifted back to the one it liked so much, which could run amazingly fast. That took time—and to Snatcher’s displeasure, these adventurers did not run into traps.

They navigated this dungeon almost as if they knew it. Leaping around dangerous, hidden sigils, avoiding ambush sites and dead-ends. Even taking shortcuts—

That little green thing. The Goblin. It clung to the blue one’s head, pointing and screeching as Snatcher ran. A strange group.

A beautiful dog-person with black fur. A wonderful head such as Snatcher had never had once.

A woman with one hand and a blade from far-off lands older than even its city.

A boring Drake with black scales, and a Gnoll with a bow, a woman with a beard.

A second Gnoll, a [Chieftain], loosing arrows at monsters to keep them back.

A Dwarf with a broken blade that had cut even its armor.

A half-Elf from the Isle of Mages, a child in magic, but a child of magic, everfair.

And that [Knight]. That [Knight], racing behind the two, the Cave Goblin and the blue one with the spear, shouting the name of a traitor, bearing the shield—like that fortress of a man—of the trespassers, the ones upon the shores to the north. Newcomers claiming this land as their own.

They came to a halt as Snatcher slowed, in a room with many exits but no way out. It had caught up, and its [Aura of Haste] was beyond them.

It was beyond them. Snatcher advanced around a circular room it remembered…though it had changed. A dais of stone stood in the center, and beyond it, the [Knight] stood. He looked around. As such fools did, he spoke.

“…We fight. We have done all we can. You are all the finest adventurers…”

His voice trailed off. They turned, then. And Snatcher looked at them. It saw nothing of value.

Nothing brave, as they charged, spreading out. It threw the first Gnoll into a wall hard enough to crack bones, broke a sword in twain with a single swipe. It stood as the half-Elf threw spells into its claws and looked around for the blue one.

Where was she? Where was…

Snatcher saw Infinitypear slowly scrubbing the blue paint they used on the Antinium figurines off his shell. The ordinary, mundane brown-black of the Antinium’s carapace registered in Snatcher’s gaze at last, like the fake layers peeling off a decidedly not 1st-edition unique item in the world’s most debauched collector’s hands.

Then it raged—and Ylawes Byres raised his sword.

Force him back! Force—

They charged. A screaming Cave Goblin and a jabbing spear, knocked flying by one enraged hand. A broken-armed [Knight]—Snatcher swatted the woman with a beard and stepped back. It reached out for the fallen Antinium’s head to squeeze

And tripped.

Crack. The sound was faint, and Snatcher minded it not because it was not its body. Except…it tripped.

It—

Was it a blow from a Giant? No. Was it a great spell from an [Archmage]? No.

Those things harmed it. But no warrior here had that power. So why was it—

Falling? Suddenly, Snatcher’s arms were flailing and Snatcher understood it not.

Something fell around it. Bits of wood. Bits of fake wood, a Skill—dissolving as the fake floor vanished. But what had it f—

Then Snatcher recognized what engulfed it. It touched Snatcher not—but it was sinking. Sinking in…

Water.

And it realized it had been fighting in one of the dungeon’s well rooms, that deep well which it had never paid attention to for it drank not. But it fed Mother’s creatures and Snatcher—

It was sinking in the center of the well.

 

——

 

The vast, deep well had no bottom that Rasktooth could see as he dragged himself on his front over to the lip of it. No one had ever seen the bottom, and it was so wide across it could feed thousands of disgusting monsters.

Even the larvae and other monsters had fled Facestealer’s wrath—but the great monster of the dungeon had not noticed that the well had vanished in its avarice and then rage.

Mostly because…a Drake had covered it up with a fake floor.

Insill.

Insill—the [Rogue]. He stared down at the sinking shape, incredulous.

“That worked? That w—”

Back! We bought time. We have to leave.”

Ylawes Byres had seen better days. Everyone jerked up, and Nailren grabbed Larr.

“On your feet, brat.”

Dasha was unconscious, and Pekona gave up slapping her awake and just hauled her up with Anith.

“How—how long do we have?”

Anith was speaking around a mouth bruised, and he felt like he’d lost at least one tooth. Ylawes looked little better, and his face was puffy, his arm broken and his armor ripped up. They looked at Rasktooth.

“How deep does the well go?”

The Cave Goblin frowned.

“When big horned man—Calruz—came—he made Raskghar dive. Then he tied stone to rope and tossed.”

“And?”

The Cave Goblin shrugged.

“Too deep. More than thousand feet. More than Raskghar or Cave Goblin dives.

Everyone stared down into the well. Ylawes Byres blinked. He peered down—and Falene threw a light spell down, down…

“It can’t swim. It’s sinking like a rock. Do you think it—”

Facestealer was still visible as it sunk, and they saw it flailing. Flailing and flailing and…suddenly, Ylawes realized something.

“Does anyone have [Dangersense]? I do.”

Rasktooth lifted a claw, and so did Larr.

“Is it going off?”

The other two looked at each other, and Rasktooth tapped his head. Ylawes felt some danger from the dungeon—but the sirens blaring every second in the back of his mind? Larr’s jaw dropped. Slowly, Falene stared down.

[Eagle Eyes]. It’s…still sinking. How far down does this well go? Did the Raskghar see anything?”

Rasktooth innocently smiled.

“Minotaur horn man sent four down. One went one hundred. One went two hundred. One went a thousand. With amulet that lets them breathe water like air. The last one never came back. Well goes down, down, down. Like all the water above. Down.”

Everyone looked up, and Ylawes Byres remembered.

“The Floodplains…flood every spring. I always wondered where the water goes.”

“Sometimes, dungeon floods. Goes down here.”

“What, through the wells? But where do the wells go?”

Dawil looked incredulously at Rasktooth, and Infinitypear decided he had better stand back from the well. The Cave Goblin stared down—then spat into the well.

“Looks like—very far for stupid monster.”

The adventurers gazed at each other. Wait—Facestealer wasn’t even visible now, even by Falene’s eyes. Dawil fished around and found a stone.

“Falene. Can you track this with a simple spell?”

“Sure.”

She tossed it down—and they waited. Falene counted. Everyone began bandaging their wounds. Dasha woke up, and Ylawes Byres sat down, despite the danger, and fished around in his bag of holding on a hunch.

“One thousand…two thousand…three thousand…”

Then Falene gasped.

Eight th—it’s gone.”

“What was that?”

Dawil looked up, and Falene Skystrall shook her head.

“It’s out of my range. It was going down slowly and then—something pulled it down. Something fast.

Everyone stared into the well, and Rasktooth whistled.

 

——

 

Snatcher was in the water, but the water hurt it not.

It did not need air. It had been made to protect Mother. To guard this city.

This…

City of Graves.

And they had made it to destroy Dragons. It had done that. It had survived Mershi’s wrath. So it did not fear the water, but it tried to flail over to one side of the stone walls sloping down, down…

They had dug down deep when they made this place, to protect it from siege. Down and down, they said, to find out where the water went.

Snatcher cared not. Even when they had made it listen and obey—their questions were not its. In time, they had all simply listened to Mother.

It was nearly over to one of the well walls. It would take it a long time, days, perhaps, to climb. It had sunk fast, as heavy as it was. Snatcher reached out a claw.

That [Knight] died. They all died. This group especially. It would take their heads and then all the others. It would wake Mother. It would—

The claw missed the stone wall. Snatcher saw it end—and stared as the last enchanted bricks vanished. Then it looked around and saw something so few ever had. And it remembered…

When they saw what it had done, when they hated us all—they buried us. A fitting end for our deeds, in this warm, dark grave. And we waited, and Mother waited.

The Walled City of Graves had sunken into the earth, and it had not cared. But the parts remained, and the builders dug deep, deep, and built a place in readiness for the day they were found. Yet this…

They had dug so deep, these wells, thousands of feet. To answer the question where the water went. And Snatcher saw the answer. It saw…no wall to grab onto. It looked around, and the current began to pull it. Faster. Faster…and then it panicked.

Then it feared.

What is this? What is—

It descended into a place only clever Gnomes and dead gods had ever known. Deeper and deeper.

Down.

Down.

Down.

Downdowndowndowndowndowndowndown—

 

——

 

Ylawes Byres stood at the edge of the well. And he sensed no more danger. Falene had done her experiment again…and whatever this well led to, it was so fathomlessly deep her magic could not explore it.

“I think we won.”

It was Dasha who said it, and no one believed her, even her. But then they sort of felt it.

An incredulous—relief sweeping hold of them. Ylawes looked at Infinitypear, and the shaking Antinium poked the well. Then he tossed another stone down and watched it go.

“You fucking idiot.”

Larr looked at Nailren, but the [Chieftain] just looked down the well.

You idiot. You can’t swim, and that’s how you lost?”

He tossed in more stones and watched them sink. The Dwarf looked down and then snapped his fingers as he realized something.

“Dead gods, it’s like the Earth Elemental. Lad—is that what you thought of?”

“The what?”

Anith looked up, and Ylawes nodded shakily.

“The first monster Dawil and I ever beat was an Earth Elemental. But we had—bad gear. I’d chipped my blades on it, and Dawil’s axe was lodged in its chest, so we ended up tricking it into a pit. Then we threw rocks at it for eight hours. You don’t have to beat a monster. I thought we could just send it down and buy time for the other adventurers by covering the top. Or turning the water to ice or something.”

“We did it? We did it?

Pekona was staring at Ylawes, but Falene exhaled. She looked around—and to everyone’s surprise, whooped. The half-Elf punched the air and fiddled with her broken glasses.

“Take—take that, Ceria! Our team beat the monster Named-ranks couldn’t!”

She put her hands on her hips and looked around. Falene’s face was flushed, and suddenly, Dawil began laughing, but not at her for once.

“We did it! We did it! We’re going to level up!

Insill shouted, and Larr grabbed him.

“We’re? You’re going to level up! You trapped a boss-monster—”

Everyone began shouting—until they realized that this was the dungeon. They lowered their voices, and Ylawes Byres stared into the well. He wobbled—and his bones ached and he was pretty sure someone had to help him back to the entrance or he’d pass out.

But between that moment of victory, incredulity—he hesitated.

For he did not know his path forwards, but he looked at the Silver-rank teams—and Rasktooth and Infinitypear—and felt a kind of certainty dawn on him.

But first—first—he did this for perhaps the last time. The last time until he figured things out. Nevertheless—he felt right.

Slowly, Ylawes Byres took out something he always carried about. A tradition, really. It was a small bag of powder, bright silver dust. Dawil blinked—and Ylawes dumped the entire bag into the well.

“It’s not connected to Liscor.”

He turned to the Dwarf. Dawil glanced at him, and Rasktooth spat again. The adventurers looked at each other, and a few more tossed in rocks. Ylawes slowly raised a middle finger and wondered what Mrsha got out of it.

“That is for you.”

He told Facestealer, wherever it was sinking. Then he looked over. Someone was clambering over the lid of the well.

“Pekona, Insill, make sure I don’t fall in. I’m going to piss in the well. No, wait. I can think of something better.”

Larr was unbuckling his belt. Anith dragged him back.

“You idiot, that’s disgusting. And too far.”

 

——

 

That was how Mihaela Godfrey found them. Larr, squatting over the well, and half of them lapsing into unconsciousness. She stopped, listened—and made them repeat everything five times.

That was how they emerged as well, to the disbelief of the teams, the armies lined up, and even Erin Solstice herself.

There was, of course—more to say. More to do, and explanations and inquiry into the well—and an instant resolution to hire Hexel to put a damn cap on the rift and make sure this wasn’t going to happen again.

Ylawes Byres mostly passed in and out of consciousness for a bit. Until he woke up and Erin Solstice was sitting there.

“Heard anything interesting?”

He nodded, and she handed him a drink. He moistened his lips and then realized it was a Minotaur’s Punch. Glorious fire.

It was reflected in her eyes and hat, and she saw his expression.

“I can get you something else, but it feels—fitting. You’re a real adventurer.”

Coming from her—Ylawes Byres sat there for a bit.

“I’m going home. And then to the new lands—and on a journey to find something. Someone. Maybe you know where to look.”

“Oh? I’ll help. But it doesn’t sound like you know quite where you’re going. I could show you a statue or two, though.”

The [Knight] shook his head, not quite picking up on what Erin was saying. He glanced around—and saw the adventurers, looking embarrassed, askance—and Ceria Springwalker, talking about the giant corpse they’d gotten.

—and Facestealer’s hide, if we trust that. But guess what we found?”

Numbtongue scratched at his head.

“…A monster?”

“No, under the Raskghar camp. Before we ambushed that bastard, he lifted up this huge block of stone, and Eldertuin managed to lift it on the way back. Calruz had no idea he was sleeping on top of—well, I think we’ll give at least one to the Silver Swords.”

One what? Ylawes glanced up, and Ceria pointed to a bunch of blades that Pisces was making everyone stay back from. Hedault was staring at them, and Ama, Pisces, and the [Enchanter] were pretty sure that they were high-quality death magic blades. With odd handles made for claws.

An armory of weapons from whatever…place this had been. Ylawes realized that Erin was staring at him and forgot her question.

“Where we’re going? I never do. But I think…where are Vuliel Drae? Nailren and—Rasktooth and Infinitypear?”

He looked around, and Erin got them for him. The [Knight] saw the two [Adventurers], the Silver-rank teams, and finished his thought. He talked with Falene and Dawil for a moment, but neither one had any objections.

“I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know what our task is—and I can’t promise a lot of treasure. But if we go to the new lands or—wherever adventure takes us—”

He lost focus. This was not the mindset for a speech, and he was pretty sure he had a concussion. They looked at him blankly, and he stared at the Goblin and Antinium especially as Erin’s eyes lit up. Ylawes Byres took a breath.

“What I am trying to say is—if you wish, I would like to invite you to join my team. The Silver Swords. Three is a small number anyways.”

Yvlon’s head swung around, and Insill’s mouth opened.

“Us? Who?”

“All of you.”

Erin answered for Ylawes, and Rasktooth grinned and began to congratulate Anith’s team and Nailren’s—until he saw Ylawes looking at him. And he and Infinitypear exchanged a sudden glance, and Ylawes—

Well. He decided now was a suitable time to pass out. And that night, among the voices that he heard, one said this:

 

[Conditions Met: Knight → Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon!]

[Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon Level 37!]

[Skill — Name of Dragons: Yderigrisel]

[Skill — Aura of Protection obtained!]

[Skill — Legacy: Find the Dragon’s Grave obtained!]

[Skill — Sword and Shield Art: The Knight Charged With Wings of Steel obtained!]

[Skill — Negate Spell obtained!]

 

[Conditions Met: Adventurer → Horrorbane Adventurer obtained!]

[Horrorbane Adventurer Level 16!]

[Skill — Immunity: Fear obtained!]

[Skill — Tidal Jab obtained!]

[Skill — I Have Seen It Die obtained!]

 

[Conditions Met: Trap Rogue → Pitfall Trapmaster Saboteur obtained!]

[Pitfall Trapmaster Saboteur Level 28!]

[Skill Change — Pitfall Trap → Pit of Many Deaths obtained!]

[Skill — Trap: Masterful Concealment obtained!]

[Skill — Mithril Caltrops obtained!]

[Skill — Incredible Leap obtained!]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Join the giveaway in celebration of Book 8, the blood of Liscor coming out! It’s got prizes!

I did little editing this time, could you tell? I fit everything I wanted into the third part because I am on break…

And I probably should have made it four parts. Here are my thoughts.

I am on break. I am death. I played God of War: Ragnarok, and I was so mad I wrote a 6,000 word essay on it while writing this chapter.

Because the story was so bad.

We all make mistakes. I fear I will leave this chapter and post it with a number of things I could do better, but this is a web serial, and I am trying to balance quality with not missing my updates.

It’s…less forgivable in a million-dollar budget game when you have, I presume, an editing team and countless eyes on a story like that. Seriously—it’s bad. But perhaps you can’t see it because all the other parts are good and the ending is where things fall apart. As it normally goes, anyways.

I will spare you my rants, and I hope this was enough word for now. We will see more later—there is always more to see, and process, but I am done. The side story arc was this, and was it worth it? Let me know. Thanks.

 

 

Shellbazaar by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 

Gnolls and Erin’s True Power Level by butts!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

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

 

Chapter Sketch by Artsynada!

 


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Interlude – Adventurers (Pt. 2)

Adventurers in Albez, digging. Adventurers in Liscor, tossing skeletons into the chasm.

Adventurers everywhere. However, it wasn’t all about them.

While they were up and spending every waking moment in search of treasure, the party that Lyonette had started was still going on in multiple cities. More than three days had passed—this was the seventh, actually. By now, Liscor’s Council was really hinting that everyone should get back to work.

Gently, though, because there certainly was profit being made here. Every time it seemed like the party was winding down, someone else came by.

In this case—Riverfarm and a host of Humans flooded through Erin Solstice’s door. So, rather than a party, it was more like a week-long festival where you could take a break from work and see something new. Instead of a [Princess]’ plan, it was spontaneous.

Today, as every day, you could wake up in The Wandering Inn, and the first thing you might hear would be the scampering of paws. Breakfast would already be hot and fresh, and adventurers and guests would slowly emerge from their rooms, trained to follow the smell and head downstairs.

Goblin and Antinium workers were already up and still looked bemused as they went downstairs, wearing uniforms with the paw print and inn logos on them. A Hobgoblin with one foot was hopping as she tried to attach a peg-leg to her…leg.

New employees. Erin Solstice knew all their names by now, but the rest of the guests were still somewhat—unfamiliar with them. Not that the Goblins and Antinium had to do more than take food out.

The power of Ishkr meant that the inn was still handling the increased waves of guests, but it was also fair to say that the Antinium and Goblins had begun to pull some serious weight.

For instance, the Hob, one of the two the inn had been sent by Rags, was used to ordering silly Goblins around. She poked one, and that Goblin got to clean the outhouses. Another Goblin got to check the basement for pests like mice or insects. A third Goblin got to draw water from the well.

Her name, or nickname, was, somewhat pointedly, ‘Peggy’. Because of the leg. She had apparently lost it in a battle; another former Redfang who Rags had decided could be of better use in the inn.

The other Hobgoblin was male, and he got a fourth elbow to the guts because he was Mountain City tribe…and he was reading a damn book. At work! He closed it with a grunt and scowled—but he would often be reading in a corner. Unlike Peggy, this Goblin, Inkpaper, was a known slacker in the Flooded Waters tribe. Rags…somewhat approved of him, but had still given him to be Erin’s headache anyways.

There were more Workers and Goblins, of course, and even some Soldiers. They headed to work—or breakfast and relaxation until their shift started.

Breaaaaakfast! I hate bisque! Bezale, do you have that [Lion’s Strength] spell I asked for? Cast it on me! I will never bisque again!”

The Minotauress sighed, but Erin Solstice started her day with a big smile for all her guests, and they were legion. Gothica emerged from the basement where she’d installed a bed, Relc stomped downstairs with one boot on, and Pisces yawned his way over to a table where Colth and the Horns were sitting.

I’m late for work! I’m late, and Captain Z and Klb are going to kill me! Where’s my boot? Can I get breakfast—

“Gothica, please stop sleeping in the basement.”

“Up yours, Ishkr.”

“Well, here’s our [Necromancer]. Day three of skeleton exploring, eh? Let’s see if we can get past those damn monsters. I swear, they’re targeting us. Pisces, want to send down the first skeleton group and see how far they get?”

The grumpy [Necromancer] flicked his hand, and the bones of multiple skeletons rose outside the pit and began to rope down as a scrying orb glowed to life on the table as the adventurers ate. Today was biscuit and gravy day, and everyone got a big pot to share and dip fresh bread into.

“Yum. Big yum, Calescent. Numbtongue, there you are. Is Octavia dead?”

The Hobgoblin looked over and hastily yanked Octavia’s face out of her bowl of pottage.

“…Octavia.”

“Huh? I’m working, Master Saliss!

She jerked, grabbed a full salt-shaker, and dumped it into her bowl. Then Octavia blinked around, looked at Numbtongue, and put her face on her plate and went back to sleep.

Erin sighed and grimaced as she wiped her hands on her pants.

“How’s Riverfarm doing? Ishkr?”

The Gnoll appeared with breakfast for their table.

“I think Liska sent over today’s negotiators and let in a bunch of guests to Liscor already.”

“Wow, they’re up early. I may go back again. How’s things? Nanette? Where’s…”

This was The Wandering Inn—the new inn’s morning. If you wanted, you could stick around and listen to Erin or wait for something funny to happen.

But why wait when there was so much outside? The adventurers were already groaning at their table. The instant a skeleton opened one of the doors, a hand had reached through and ripped off a skull.

“Facestealer! Back them up! Back them—”

A wave of monsters was pouring out the shutters. Yvlon pounded a hand on the table and almost got up.

“That’s it. I’m going down there—”

“That thing’s holding a real grudge. Hold on. Let’s grab some arrows and clear the monsters out if they’re at the bottom of the chasm. Skeleton wave two? Maybe via the trapped entrances?”

Colth was scratching at his chin and checking on how far Albez’s excavations were going. They, at least, could make consistent forwards progress, no matter how much dirt they had to move.

And the rest of the guests were heading outside. Some lined up for the door, but most didn’t bother waiting. Liska was opening and shutting the door, grumpy and yawning.

“Door has 84 people left until it resets. One hour and forty-eight minutes until reset! Priority to diplomats or important people.”

“Am I important people? I’ve gotta get to work!”

Relc tried to shove past a group heading to Invrisil. Liska sighed and changed the door to Liscor.

“Liscor’s practically no mana charge. Go on through. But hurry up anyone going—I’ve got thirteen people waiting in Invrisil! Hey! [Form a Line].

The grumpy Gnoll snapped, and the crowd actually did just that. She was Liska, and she was mad mostly because she was getting good at her job.

In fact…the [Door Gnoll] really resented her class. Door Gnoll? Doorman?

Her powers included making people wait in line, checking on how much mana Erin had, and efficiently sending people to their destination.

Worst class ever.

Anyways, she let through a few more guests into Liscor, and the crowd muttered as they saw the Goblins and Antinium—but only the ones in the crowd not from Liscor. And in the city?

They were the least notable of all, because the sights continued. The first thing that hit the visitors was the fair.

People were still buying the Antinium dolls, and a booth to paint them was letting people—children and adults—color them.

Of course, by now, it wasn’t just Antinium. Someone had just come out with a miniature image of Forount, and people were queuing up to buy paint for the fleshy skin tones and metal armor.

Quality ranged from ‘lurid’ to highly realistic. Some people just used about four colors for the entire figurine, and a few had figured out how to begin adding shading and even weathering to the armor with knives and had created amazingly vivid versions of the [Brigadier].

Behind them, the impromptu bazaar in Shivertail Plaza was turning into a larger version of Market Street. The temporary stalls had been reinforced, and a lot of families—or the [Cooks] and people responsible for meals in said families—were inspecting a lot of cheap, good-looking produce from Riverfarm.

Cleverly, the [Emperor] had decided to offer samples of products based on said food, so you could also eat if you lined up. Not to be outdone, local farmers and the [Pirate], Wailant, had also put their goods on offer.

Drakle-Lischelle Products: Fresh, Highest-Quality Mutton, Pork, on sale.

That was one of the stalls doing good business that the guests of The Wandering Inn passed by. A bored-looking Rivel and old Bamer were manning the stall, and a Gnoll and Drake were shoving each other in line.

“Krshia! You’re supposed to be at the Council meeting.”

“So are you, Lism. I thought you were ‘attending to emergency business’ before we met.”

“Well…you didn’t say you were coming here! I need to run my stall.”

“So do I. Shoo.”

Lism trying to out-shove Krshia was fun enough for some people to watch the Drake versus the Gnoll woman—she was taller and heavier than he was by a good margin. But then it started.

 

“♪ Oooooooh~ ♫”

 

A group of voices began to rise in the distance. Heads turned, and Lism groaned.

“Oh, Ancestors. It’s them again.”

Everyone looked around, and there they were, occupying a little stage that was used for speeches or performances. Even Lism didn’t try to stop them, just stared with resignation—because the Council had approved them and everything.

Worse, they were growing in number. One of The Wandering Inn’s Workers not on duty practically ran over and joined a throng of people standing together. Drakes with odd helmets, local Liscorians being branded as menaces by their neighbors, and visitors from abroad.

The Yoldenites began to sing. And the choir began, once again, to sing another mass-chorus of the Yoldenite’s national anthem. Then all the best songs, north and south, that a group of voices could get up to.

It was free music. And you had to admit—it was a good outlet for a lot of [Singers]. The fact that a Worker had joined in?

Well, that was something new. But back to the point.

“Magical amulets on sale! Straight from the Meeting of Tribes and the Gaarh Marsh tribe—never suffer a bug bite again. Or what about a bracelet? [Lesser Strength]!

“[Lesser Strength]?”

A lot of people looked over at that. Regardless of profession—the Golden Gnoll, Qwera, was unveiling another hot item. She had actually not put these bracelets out until today. She had told her customers, candidly, to check back every day or they might miss her new item.

Right now, the [Merchant] was showing everyone an astonishing price tag.

“Five hundred gold pieces per. And before you turn away, this is a bracelet on par with a Skill most [Warriors] train for! I have twenty bracelets, and the price goes up the less I have. Do I have any takers?”

She made her first sale within a minute. Whereupon the price did go up, and the rush that followed…

Well, that was just one good on display, and it was pricey, the lot of it. Qwera did stock goods for people who didn’t have lots of gold to throw around, but one of the most tempting options—a snazzy hat with [Far Sight] on it, a blue tricorne—was still twenty-two gold coins.

A lot of money, but not impossible for a good [Hunter] or someone with a lucrative job to pay for, let alone a successful [Trader] or someone like a Guildmaster. One of Qwera’s [Stall Keepers] eyed the guests from The Wandering Inn, but since Qwera was staying there, the Drake replied curtly.

“No touching—we’ve got a stock of six. Different colors. If you can’t afford it, then come back tomorrow. We’re unlikely to sell all six by then.”

If you can afford it. The tone of the Drake suggested this was unlikely, and the disappointed guests stared at the hat.

Twenty-two gold coins? A lot, a lot. But what were you to do? Not everyone was as rich as Mrsha. A lot of the fun items on display would be sold to even Goblins and Antinium for the right price. But if you didn’t have that price…

In the inn, the adventurers were after the big stuff. A monster’s corpse. In Albez, adventurers were honing in on some stairs buried deep, shifting dirt and stone—a slow process to dig a hundred feet down. Even at their fastest, with magic, they’d barely gone more than twenty feet in a day.

Which was, to be fair, a lot of down, especially through rock. Gold-rank adventurers. Named-ranks. But as two guests of The Wandering Inn looked at each other, they exited Liscor, past the [Guards] who eyed them with only mild interest. They wandered out onto the Floodplains, and one patted the other on the head and pointed past two waving antennae.

“Adventure time?”

Adventure. Yah.”

The other figure marched off, carrying the first on his shoulders. The one doing the carrying was an Antinium, and he had a tall spear and clothing, not bare carapace. Even chainmail, and the one on top cackled and waved at the surprised Humans coming from Esthelm.

He was a small, grey-skinned Goblin, and he had a necklace of huge fangs and his own set of baggy clothing, but no hat. A hat would really improve his look, both felt, especially one to complement one of the crossbows from the inn he carried.

The two had no ranks. They weren’t Bronze-rank, they weren’t Silver or Gold and certainly not Named-rank, though they had names.

Infinitypear and Rasktooth had no guild registration—but they were certainly…

[Adventurers]. The two ran out past Liscor’s walls. Or—one did.

Rasktooth’s legs didn’t work anymore. They hadn’t since the battle at the Meeting of Tribes, but he sat on Infinitypear’s shoulders, pointing out spots for the Worker to march to. Infinitypear’s spear was high-quality, and the [Shopkeeper] and the [Guards] had eyed that.

One of the Watch’s [Guards] muttered to the other at the gates.

“…That wasn’t an enchanted spear that Worker was carrying, was it? It looked, uh—shiny.”

“Maybe a low-grade enchantment?”

The Gnoll frowned at her colleague. They both stared at Infinitypear’s spear and didn’t recognize the sigil burned into the wood or the conical tip made of Adamantium.

Spearmaster Lulv had lost his spear. Right now, Infinitypear was using it as a walking staff. But it also doubled as a pretty good weapon in the Antinium’s opinion.

Adventure. What would today bring? The two had no idea what it would be, but they were sure they could find it. Rasktooth looked around. He spotted a Rock Crab scurrying across the grass, a stand of dangerous boom-trees far in the distance, and inhaled the fresh air as the High Passes began to light up with the sun.

“Want to beat up spiders, Infinitypear?”

“Nah. Let’s find treasure. Gold pieces. Seven more.”

They had fifteen gold pieces, a huge amount from previous adventures. They had bested the racoon and found a treasure buried in a pouch on their first adventure. They had picked up the fallen [Merchant]’s pouch on the run with the Titan and gotten a reward for it.

They had fought in the Meeting of Tribes and survived a war between five plus armies and had stolen Spearmaster Lulv’s spear.

Then, they’d uncovered five silver coins and an old dagger buried under the blue fruit trees where Erin got her fruits. And beaten up eight Shield Spiders.

They’d had some great adventures, hadn’t they? This time, Infinitypear took them towards the caves as Rasktooth fed him an apple he’d snatched from the breakfast table. He cut it up, handed a piece down, and crunched on one himself.

“Enchanted hat is just for me, Infinitypear? What about you?”

“I don’t know. Don’t care. Hat is good.”

“You sure?”

“Yah, yah.”

Rasktooth patted him on the head. They liked that word, ‘yah’. A combination between yes and yeah. The Goblin grinned.

“Yah, you good. But what about other Antinium? You don’t want to go to your Hive? Sing?”

He was hinting. Infinitypear took him everywhere, but he knew the [Crusaders] were back in the Hives. They were everywhere, and the Free Hive was important, and Infinitypear was hanging out with the Goblin.

“It’s okay. All Painted Antinium and Individuals have to report in the Hive. Later, later. Doesn’t matter.”

Infinitypear airily wandered away from the Hive, and Rasktooth looked down at him.

“You not bored with me, Infinitypear? You can say.”

“No. We brothers. I said I would carry you places. Liscor…other places. Far, far away.”

The Antinium [Adventurer] looked up. Rasktooth patted him on the head.

They had met during the Fellowship of the Inn, on their quest to save Mrsha. It had been chance that they grew to be friends, but Rasktooth and Infinitypear…understood each other.

Neither one had known the outside world until it came to them. For Infinitypear, as one of the Antinium who was lucky enough to be painted by Pawn’s new ways. For Rasktooth?

The five Redfangs had killed the Raskghar who ruled them and set the Cave Goblins free. When he had first looked up at the sky, the Cave Goblin had sworn never to go back to the dungeon. And Infinitypear had gazed into the wild world beyond Liscor with the Titan leading them and realized how much more there was.

“Am I heavy, Infinitypear? You’re an [Adventurer].”

“So are you.”

The Cave Goblin nodded.

“Yes. But…other lands is far. Very far. You don’t have to carry me. The inn is nice. Has lots of food.”

“I will carry you. We are brothers. Yeah?”

“…Yah.”

Sometimes, Rasktooth said silly things like that. He had paid a high price for going to save Mrsha. As high as Apista, and she was flying again. The Antinium ignored the suggestions.

They had a connection deeper than either one had figured out how to say. But they liked the words.

Brothers. A thing that Numbtongue had taught them. Rasktooth looked up and swung his crossbow up as they headed to their first cave. He sniffed the air.

[Hound’s Nose].

His Skills were different than Infinitypear’s. The Cave Goblin sniffed and muttered.

“Smells like foxes.”

“We kill foxes? Sell pelts?”

The two thought about that. Rasktooth thought he heard scrabbling and wondered if there were a family of them in there. Liscor’s fox population was small, and they had bright orange fur.

“Nah.”

“Naaaah. Want to try feeding foxes?”

“Good idea. You got food instead of this apple?”

“Dried meat in my pouch. Do foxes eat apples?”

They spent the next fifteen minutes trying to lure a fox out by tossing treats into the cave and making fox-like noises. No fox came out, but the two were heading away when Rasktooth saw a little shape dart out and grab the food. A cute little one!

This was a pretty darn good adventure already. Then Infinitypear was marching to the next cave. And his pace seemed to pick up, despite the pack he wore and the spear and armor and Rasktooth.

[Spirit of the Wild]. The further he got from Liscor, the more energized he got. Plus…

[Find Roads Less Travelled]. Rasktooth cackled as he spotted a promising hill in the distance and a crack in one of the cliff faces bordering the Floodplains. He pointed ahead and aimed the crossbow at a Shield Spider pit he spotted. Liscor was fun enough for now. But Infinitypear wanted to see the sea and everything beyond it.

Rasktooth wondered if they’d be together when Infinitypear did. He hoped so. But today, they quested for enough gold to get that hat. It was a pretty good day.

 

——

 

Rasktooth and Infinitypear were the happiest adventurers in the entire region. The Horns of Hammerad—were not.

Pisces glumly stared at a bag of shattered bones and powder that Ksmvr and Yvlon came up with. They ascended the ropes cautiously as Ceria covered their exit with Colth.

“Okay, the dungeon really doesn’t like us. It definitely knows the skeletons are foreign. How many did we send?”

“Eight. Eight, and I think I found the iron armor we put on our leader.”

Colth waved a mangled piece of metal with a hole in it. A suit of enchanted armor had punched straight through it.

Pisces tossed the scrap metal aside and shook his head.

“I’m running out of bones. At least—bones I can use for lesser skeletons. Why is this so difficult?

In fairness, the Horns had done some good work. They’d found four Raskghar camps or spots that Ceria had thought they’d used as outposts. They had expanded the map that the other adventurers had used incredibly far, if narrowly, hoping to find the inner city—

But their progress had stalled because it felt like every monster in the dungeon and Facestealer itself were after the skeletons. Almost as if…it or something else had taken notice of the intrusions and decided to do something about it.

“We could go down there?”

Ceria suggested mildly. Colth made a face.

“I don’t really want to take down that Facestealer thing when it’s waiting for us, do you?”

“Ah, point. At least it’s too heavy to climb the ropes.”

They suspected it had tried, multiple times, but the adventurers didn’t just leave the ropes attached—and the one time something had jerked the rope when Yvlon lowered it down, it had snapped it clear of the anchors.

The possibility of that horror just waiting for them to descend was a good incentive not to head down, but Pisces was getting sick of rebuilding skeletons.

“This is…I agree this is the safest, most expedient option, Colth, and you can control one or two skeletons while you’re helping me.”

The [Supporter] had been practicing and looked up as Pisces rubbed his forehead.

“However, this is extremely taxing to send undead so far into the dungeon. I have a headache, and we’ve only done two waves.”

“Maybe take a break on it, then, Pisces. The last thing we want is for you to snap or get tired. How about I do a skeleton run from the traps? Facestealer doesn’t seem to want to go through that area. It just takes longer.”

Pisces nodded, and Ceria looked at Ksmvr and Yvlon, who had less to do.

“Sounds good. I know it’s slow—so how about we take a little break? I’ll help Colth navigate. Yvlon?”

“Ksmvr and I will head to the markets, then. I want to find some good saddles. Even if we use undead horses—and I really don’t know if we want to chariot-ride across Izril—we have to have good saddles.”

“And food. I will keep inquiring as to the best food supplies to take. If we go on a long adventure into lands hither-to unexplored.”

Yvlon sighed.

“Yes, if.”

“If. Hypothetically. Theoretically. In reference to Comrade Pisces’—”

“Yeah, yeah. We get it.”

Ceria rolled her eyes, but fondly, and Pisces bit his tongue. Neither Yvlon nor Ksmvr had said they were going outright yet, but Colth glanced at Ceria and then at Pisces.

They hadn’t answered his statements about going to the new lands—but they were acting as if they would. Pisces grouched back to the inn, rubbing at his head.

 

——

 

It was odd, you had to admit, for The Wandering Inn to have a routine. Even a temporary one. Yet it seemed like some of the excitement had left, and Erin Solstice realized four whole days had passed without her causing some kind of incident.

Not to say something wasn’t happening. Oh, no. Liscor and Riverfarm were negotiating, and there was important stuff in the works for the Horns and elsewhere.

“No luck, Pisces?”

“Monsters and whatnot, Erin. Monsters and whatnot.”

“Almost makes you want a Toren, huh?”

He gave her a wan smile.

“Not quite—but I’m starting to see the appeal of a stronger undead. Maybe I should work on it. But, argh, I just don’t have the right bones.”

“Don’t you have all those fancy bones from the Gargoyles and…?”

Erin waggled her fingers, and he shrugged.

“Oh, Gargoyle bones. Yes. But I was hoping for some real, high-quality ones. You see, there’s bone and…I can see I’m losing you.”

Erin was edging towards the stairs.

“What? N-no, I’m just, uh—I’d love to hear you talk about bones for thirty minutes, but I’ve got this thing I’m going to do and—has anyone seen Nanette?”

Pisces rolled his eyes and waved Erin off as he sat down. Erin looked about, and the truth was, these quieter days were just fine.

Larra’s inn was still moving south to Liscor. The adventurers were about to get their due excitement. It was only a matter of time. The new lands waited.

Wasn’t this fine? Yes, it was. In fact, Erin only had one—two concerns, really. She wiped her hand on her apron as she walked around the inn. That one problem was—

Nanette.

Mrsha the Exceptionally Welcoming abandoned the table where she had been taking lessons on palace dynamics from Lyonette and Ser Sest. The [Princess] sighed loudly, but she let Mrsha go because the girl had a good reason.

Nanette. Like Calescent, but even more so—the witch was the inn’s newest member of the family. She was Erin’s responsibility, and the [Innkeeper] had realized she needed to be mindful of Nanette in a way she hadn’t with Mrsha.

Not just because Nanette needed support. Not just because Erin had promised. The truth was—Nanette was a pretty resourceful girl and older than Mrsha.

But that wasn’t perfect. Nanette deserved more. The problem was, ironically, that if Erin didn’t bear Nanette in mind, the young witch would take care of herself.

 

——

 

Nanette was in The Wandering Inn, but it took Erin a while to find the young witch. Mostly because Nanette stood at the highest part of the inn. Or rather—just below it. She called up the stairs into the tower as a Worker peered down at her.

“Hello, Mister Bird?”

“Hello, girl witch Nanette. Is something wrong? Are we under attack by monsters or armies?”

“No, Mister Bird. May I come up into your tower?”

The Worker considered this. He had begun locking his tower, and he had a big sign that said ‘Only Birds Allowed’ on the door. But Nanette was peering up at him, and he stared at her round cheeks and earnest face.

“You ask permission. This is good and wise. Let me see. Do you have tribute?”

The Worker sat on his tower perch, listening to the hustle and bustle of the inn below. Above it all, a bucket of arrows sitting by him as he fiddled with his bow. Nanette fished in her pockets.

“I have a speckled green egg shell I found in Riverfarm. A baby bird hatched out of it, and it was blue.”

“Oh. Oho. This is a worthy tribute. You may ascend.”

Bird grandly waved, and she came up the stairs. She presented him with the egg, in a few pieces, but glued back together, and Bird admired his gift.

“Very good. Very good. I, Bird, accept your tribute. As I am an emperor of my tower.”

“Are you an emperor, Mister Bird?”

He thought about it.

“I have too many classes as it is. So no, not an [Emperor], just a ruler of my tower. Which I must zealously guard. Did you want to survey my domain?”

He pointed around the tower, and Nanette admired the view. In all four directions, she could see the sky and the landscape of the Floodplains. Only the walls of Liscor had a better view. And the [Guards] didn’t get to sit down much.

“May I sit for a bit, Mister Bird?”

“Oh, of course. Have my seat.”

Bird stood up, and Nanette refused—but eventually sat as Bird stared out at the people coming through the gates. He said nothing at all, and Nanette watched him.

So this was Bird’s life. He sat, the wind blowing on his face, and watched it all, sometimes without speaking for an entire day. And he seemed happy.

He didn’t shoot as many birds these days. Just the ones that mattered. Bird was surprised that Nanette didn’t say much—Mrsha chattered, despite being mute. But Nanette seemed to understand how Bird liked things.

Or perhaps she was doing what a witch did and learning before judging. Yet Nanette had brought something, and she timidly offered it to Bird as she placed a kettle on the ledge of his tower.

“Would you like some tea, Mister Bird?”

“Oh? Oh. That would be nice. I have decided I am a tea person. Coffee is too fast. Also, it tastes bitter.”

“When did you decide that, Mister Bird?”

Nanette poured them two cups, and Bird took one. He sipped it gingerly—Antinium had to use straws because they had no lips, but he seemed very pleased nonetheless by the steaming cup.

“Just now. Aha. This tea tastes like what I imagine flowers taste like but they do not. They are also too bitter.”

Nanette laughed. She blew on her cup and sipped it, for it was growing cold, and she and Bird felt very, very pleased. So much so that Bird pointed something out to Nanette.

There were a number of mundane and magical birds that only a true watcher of the skies could observe. He pointed out a dove-tailed swallow, bright red, flashing through the air. He had hunted them before, but this one was performing several aerial feats.

Loop-de-loops in the air at high speed. Each one graceful, spiraling into the next. Bird pointed it out to Nanette.

“That bird is called a Redfin Swallow. It comes from northern Izril around the Vail Forest. It is a graceful bird that has a lot of friends where it nests. Unlike the Garbichug Revolter, which is the most disgraceful not-a-bird because it neither flies nor tastes good and eats waste. Which is over there.”

He indicated the nasty-looking bird, four feet tall, drooling, with teeth in its ‘beak’ and a ragged plume of filthy feathers. The garbage-eating pest was a hazard that Liscor paid Bird to shoot—but not even he would eat one.

Nanette wrinkled her nose at the famous pest, but then she admired the Redfin. Bird watched it glide in a loop over the Garbichug’s head. It insulted the monstrous bird, who would eat sewer waste or other birds or their eggs if it could climb their trees.

Tswah! Tswee—that was the kind of sound the Redfin made if Bird had to do anything as inelegant as translate bird-speak to words. The Garbichug made a sound like an explosive meal going through a digestive system in reply and snapped its mouth open.

Bird drew an arrow and loosed it. The Garbichug was over eight hundred feet away, but Bird had the Skills and aim to hit it. The arrow sped at the bird-monster—and the Garbichug ducked.

“I hate you.”

Bird shook his fist at the Garbichug, and it turned and flipped up its tail at Nanette and Bird. That gesture was bad enough—then it began to defecate.

“Ignore it. Nanette, do you know why the Redfin flies like that?”

Bird stared up at the Redfin, still swirling through the air. It was not ideal for getting anywhere, and he wasn’t shooting arrows at it. Nanette frowned. There was no visible mate, so…

“Because it wants to? For fun? Because the Redfin is happy?”

Bird looked at Nanette. He put out a hand and patted her gingerly on the shoulder.

“I see you are wiser than Erin. No wonder you are teaching her witchcraft.”

She laughed and ducked her head, and Bird and she went back to watching the landscape, ignoring the Garbichug. It was eating its own waste. It would spit it out at attackers later.

Bird had a new hobby, and he confessed it to Nanette as some visitors came up towards the inn. A Human was wearing a huge, rose-shaped hat, which really did look like a rose from above. It had multiple folds of cloth, had to weigh eight pounds, and was two feet high.

…Presumably, it was some latest style, but the woman looked about to take it off when Bird rose from his tower, cupped two hands to his mandibles, and screamed down at her.

YOU THERE!

She jumped, saw an Antinium staring at her, and froze. The guests looked up as Bird screamed down at the woman.

“I…LIKE…YOUR…HAT!”

The Human stared up at him, checked her hat, and waved back and said something neither Bird nor Nanette quite heard. Bird sat back down as she continued on her way, bemused. He stared at the sky, then at Nanette.

“I am in a quandary of thought, Nanette. Every day, I dive deeper into my new class. I am a [Liar].”

She blinked at him, and Bird went on. He stared blankly at the hatted woman.

“I lie important lies. About her hat. Which is trash. It does not even belong in a garden. Why do I lie? I have been thinking—I lie because I wish to level. I lie about the truth because the lie in itself makes someone’s day better. It must be a good lie, or what is the point?”

She listened to Bird’s philosophy, which sometimes he spoke to the Workers who came to hear him. Bird, the [Hunter]. The [Liar].

By the time Erin found them, Nanette and Bird had been sitting for nearly fifty minutes. Bird was smiling, and he looked at Nanette—then at the Garbichug edging towards the road in hopes of scaring some of the travellers for food. It was watching him—he’d fired eight shots at it so far, and it kept dodging. Bird looked at Nanette, then turned around so the Garbichug was in the opposite direction. Then he looked straight at it.

“I’m looking in the other direction. I’m looking that way.”

Nanette politely looked the way he was pointing. Bird’s head never moved—but the Garbichug eyed him, then began a waddle-charge to the road as one of the [Guards] shouted and they began to stride out to chase it off.

Bird’s bow flashed up, and he loosed an arrow. The Garbichug looked up just in time for Bird to shoot it through the head. It flopped backwards as he fired three more arrows into its head.

“That was a lie, you idiot. I lied!

Bird shouted down at the dead Garbichug. Nanette was vaguely impressed. She had no idea a [Liar] could do that.

Erin was less impressed.

“Bird, you’re not gonna eat that thing, are you? There you are, Nanette! I’m going to Riverfarm to meet the [Witches]. You want to come?”

The young witch looked over and thought as Bird gave Erin a look of horror and indignation.

“Riverfarm, Miss Erin? I might pass.”

“Oh—okay. But do you want to do anything? I could go into Liscor or…”

“I’m fine, Miss Erin. I’m sitting with Bird. He’s very kind.”

“Ah. Well—that’s great. Yeah. If you want anything, just ask, okay?”

Nanette nodded politely. Erin gave Bird a look, and he saluted her.

“I cannot read your eyes, Erin.”

“Be nice, Bird.”

Erin didn’t quite know what else to say. She tromped downstairs as Nanette and Bird sat there, peaceful. After a while, Bird murmured to Nanette.

“Do you have any good lies, Miss Nanette?”

“Hm. My mother said the worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Then the best ones must be something else.”

“Oh, interesting. Interesting. Then tell me a good lie—and about birds. You see, I am a columnist for the newspaper, and I must know lots about birds. The Garbichug was a native bird of Rhir that no one wanted. It is actually over thirty thousand years old and predates the Blighted Kingdom. No one bred it nor did they spread them to other continents because anyone thought they were a good idea. The stupid birds swim. They are clever enough to dodge arrows, and they survive too well, so every continent has them. In the Rihal Imperium, Garbichugs were cultivated as a war animal and unleashed on their foes, which earned them international censure…”

 

——

 

“Not going to take Nanette to Riverfarm, Erin?”

“Nah. She’s listening to Bird talk about bird-history. Which is like the one thing he doesn’t lie about and he’s somehow qualified to talk about. I guess I’m going alone. Unless anyone else wants to come? It’s not a two-day trip. Anyone?”

Erin looked around, but Octavia had work, Numbtongue was looking over from where Badarrow and Snapjaw were preparing for a Wyvern ride with Icecube so they could all go mining, and Lyonette was trying to run the inn.

“Do you need to go to Riverfarm, Erin? I am sure His Majesty is negotiating—delicately.”

Which means don’t mess it up. But Erin just flapped a hand at Lyonette.

“It’s not that. I’m going to speak to the [Witches].”

“Oh. Oh? Well—Mrsha might be interested. Ser Dalimont could take you both if you’re good. Mrsha?”

The girl was thinking. Either she stayed here and Lyonette gave her lessons and the inn had to do its thing or she went into the city and had fun—but Visma was busy painting her dolls. Nanette was sitting with Bird, and Gire was being an adult-Chieftain.

And what were the odds Erin did something crazy? Mrsha decided to bet on Erin. She marched on over as Ser Dalimont nodded. Erin sighed.

“It might not be that much fun, Mrsha.”

The girl shrugged. Worst came to worst, she could play with Riverfarm’s kids or see what Traffle was doing.

Traffle, the nickname for the first Elemental of Law with its glowing eye, who often glared at misbehaving people. Like Mrsha and Erin.

 

——

 

In fact, Traffle was one of the reasons Riverfarm was so popular. A strange creature like it was—all metal and magic—was enough for people to point at it. Some wanted to prove they’d been here, and Laken had begun asking Mister Helm to make, with a [Painter]’s help, little keyrings with Traffle’s likeness on it.

And he’d asked Nesor to figure out a way to make magic pictures accessible for all. If you could do a scrying spell and record that—why not an image?

Well, progress marched forwards, and Traffle scuttled on its legs, followed by a crowd of fascinated tourists. Erin saw the light it was based on flashing colors—and it was one of three already.

“Miss Solstice. Good morning to you. Are you here to meet His Majesty? He is wrapped up in talks, but if you have any—designs—we would, as always, appreciate knowing in advance.”

Lady Rie spotted Erin within minutes of her coming through the door. Well, the guards who were watching the door had probably found her.

“I’m not causing trouble! I’m just, uh, looking for a [Witch] or two, Lady Rie.”

“Ah, well then. Witch Eloise and Hedag are advising His Majesty, but may I help you find another Witch?”

“I guess. Agratha or Oliyaya?”

Rie smiled and found one of her people to escort Erin and Mrsha down the brick street. Erin huffed a bit at the implication she was going to cause trouble—but even here, people noticed Erin.

The crazy innkeeper. The one who nearly flooded Riverfarm. Mrsha patted Erin on the leg solemnly. She knew what it was like to be stigmatized as a monster who caused trouble.

In Erin’s case, Mrsha felt it might be justified.

 

——

 

“Witch Erin! My, and little Mrsha too? To what do I owe the pleasure? Come in, sit, sit.”

That bright and cheery greeting belonged to Witch Agratha, the [Witch] of normalcy and friendly cooperation.

…Which was why it was so disconcerting to hear it from Witch Oliyaya of all people. The hook-nosed stereotype of a [Witch] cackled gently as she admitted Erin, Mrsha, and Dalimont into her abode.

As Erin had noted, if Agratha was friendly, Oliyaya was her inverse and liked being the bad [Witch] in stories. However—she seemed to like both Erin and Mrsha well enough.

Especially Mrsha, in fact. The [Witch] pulled Mrsha’s cheek gently as the Gnoll somewhat respectfully climbed into a seat.

“A troublemaker after my black heart. Burned down any homes yet?”

“Don’t give her any ideas, Witch Oliyaya. Lyonette’d kill me.”

Yeah, she was a good girl! Mrsha held up a card, but Oliyaya just laughed at her.

“A girl or young woman must be free to cause trouble. Run rampant! Anyone who tells you to sit and plait skirts and mind your manners is a fool. You, my girl, if you haven’t burnt at least one house down by the time you’re a woman, you’ve wasted your life.”

She gave Mrsha a serious look, and Dalimont bit his tongue. Mrsha had to really think about this one.

“Surely it would behoove Miss Mrsha to have some manners, Witch Oliyaya? With greatest respect.”

“And what would you know, [Knight]? Did you, as a lad, ever break a window or a cup by throwing rocks? Wrestling in the mud? Pulling the tail on donkeys? Always a good way to break a jaw early.”

Oliyaya tapped Dalimont hard on the chest, and the [Knight] regretted his comment.

“…As a boy, I was indiscreet, Witch Oliyaya—”

“Then a girl should be just as much so. Especially this one. Now, let my apprentices fetch you some tea. Witch Erin—your hat is upon your head, and I greet thee.”

Then Oliyaya tipped her hat with its staring eyes, and Erin reached up and lifted a hat made of flame. Erin looked at Oliyaya and began to get a sense of what made the other [Witch] tick.

“Thanks, Oliyaya. How’s business?”

The old woman shrugged.

“I am a [Witch] of cities, now. Larger, with more emotions to use in forming hexes. Grudges that run deep—but so many people! The old magic may suffer, but I admit—gold has its uses. Just the other day, I sold a charm to attract lice to a very nice young woman.”

Dalimont winced. Oliyaya slapped his knee with a long ladle—she had a cauldron on.

“A comment from you, [Knight], and I will ask if lacing a rival’s birthday cake with shards of glass is more or less foul than my charms. And then I will eject you from my domain. Nastiness must have an outlet, and sometimes the punishment is deserved. Do you know that young woman’s reason to curse another? I thought not.”

The [Knight] decided he’d be quiet for the duration of this visit. Erin gave him a side-eye.

“Do they really do that in Terandria?”

“There’s foulest sorts of all kinds anywhere. Noble classes and squabbles means they go to extremes more often than not. Ask Eloise—or do you think she’s not used daggers while drinking tea? What can I help you with, Witch Erin?”

Then Mrsha realized she hadn’t actually known why Erin wanted to meet [Witches] again. Her last encounters, while fruitful, had been—fraught. Why again so soon?

The girl noticed Erin Solstice doing something for the third time this morning. The [Innkeeper]—who, despite her rest Skills, didn’t look as fully rested as she could be—wiped the fingers of her right hand on her shirt.

The gesture did not escape Mrsha this time, or Oliyaya. Erin lifted her hands and spoke hesitantly.

“Oliyaya, I’ve been having this, uh—problem. And I’m not positive, but—is there a way to tell if someone’s messing with your dreams? Or if you’ve been cursed?”

The other [Witch] raised her brows.

“You’ve come to the right [Witch], Erin. Only Mavika or perhaps Alevica could help you as well—tell me what you dream of. Coise, my bag of tricks.”

Her apprentice, one of three, brought Oliyaya her bag of holding as Erin hesitated.

“It’s…someone in my dreams who’s bothering me. I’m pretty sure they’re there. I don’t wanna say specifics, but it’s very vivid. And it’s been bothering me when I wake, too. It wasn’t so bad, but they’re harassing me more and more. Probably because I kicked them.”

Mrsha and Dalimont sat up and looked at Erin in astonishment, but Oliyaya was already at work.

“Ah, a bully who knows the old ways of hexing and dream-speak. Interesting.”

She took a little bag that looked like it was made of silver cloth and poured in a number of substances.

“Your inn and level should protect you as much as that hat on your head, Witch Erin. But I suppose even Belavierr could be hexed—and you don’t weave protections, eh?”

“Nope. I thought about sleeping in my garden, but I felt like that wasn’t a long-term solution. And it feels like running away.”

“Well said! You should take what’s under your hat and build some great magics.”

“You think so? I’ve been pondering what to do first.”

“Protections before anything else. If you need help, come to us—but first, let’s see how badly this interloper is meddling. Here is a little bag—but before you touch it, can you tell me what I’ve done?”

Oliyaya put the silver-cloth bag on the table, and Erin hesitated as she reached for it. Like another [Witch]’s style, Mrsha realized this was a test or teaching. And Agratha explained—Oliyaya tested.

“Hm. Well, uh, I’m not an expert, but Nanette has had a few talks with me, and I know the basics. My guess is that you put a bit of craft into an object that lets you focus your magic.”

“Like all witchcraft. What did I do?”

Erin floundered, then she eyed the bag and peered inside.

“Silver. Silver’s like a natural de-curse and purifying thingy. You put silver in here and powdered Sage’s Grass? Aloe vera…I don’t know the others.”

Erin had seen the familiar plant, but Oliyaya nodded.

“Spider plant and aloe vera—plants that purify, yes. But the trick is to have meaning as well as natural plants with such qualities. I also placed in that pouch the shoe-dirt of an honest man. Riverfarm has a number of them, helpfully. Men and women. And lastly, a piece of quartz which glows.”

She showed Erin the final lynchpin of the curse-bag, and the stone glowed serenely.

“Now put it around your head—or fingers—and we will see if it reacts to ill-intent.”

Erin Solstice did just that. She draped the silver bag around her neck, and Mrsha wondered if it would do anything fantastic or just change color after a while. Witch magic was hard to…

Oliyaya seemed to be expecting a slow reaction, so she was reaching over for the kettle of tea. So did Erin, and the two were thus very surprised by the odd smell that replaced the various herbs in Oliyaya’s cottage in mere minutes as Oliyaya was pouring tea. The [Witch] glanced up, and Erin lifted the bag and her nose wrinkled.

“Hm. I would have told you to wait until we finished a cup. Or keep it on you a day. Dump it on the table?”

Slowly, Erin did, then turned the bag inside-out. Even Oliyaya’s apprentices muttered—and the [Witch] eyed the contents of the bag.

All the herbs had shriveled up. The Sage’s Grass powder turned black, and the crystal was dead and cracked. Indeed, even the inside of the silver bag had tarnished black.

“Ah. Well. That is a curse indeed. Although…hm.”

Oliyaya sifted through the contents and, to Mrsha’s mild horror, picked up the dirt from the honest man’s shoe and tasted it. She spat and took a sip of tea—then spat that out too.

“…Not the most ill of intent. Even so, someone put a lot of power behind that hex that haunts you, Miss Solstice. Too much, I daresay. It’s both crude and well-done, as if a master-mason used expensive materials for a primitive design.”

“What now? I could send to my Order for a counteragent, Miss Solstice, but the Thronebearers would need access to the keep…”

Dalimont offered, but Oliyaya snorted.

“Thronebearers? Yonder sits a [Witch] amongst a coven of Izril’s [Witches], Ser Knight. Begone from my cottage! Although—that holds true of all of us. We do not let our own suffer hexes. Come, Erin. We’ll find Mavika and get to work on our own.”

Erin looked relieved as she stood, and Mrsha leapt from her chair and nodded to one of the apprentices with excitement.

She knew it. She knew Erin wouldn’t let her down.

 

——

 

…The ritual of the [Witches] to find out what was going on with Erin was the most boring thing Mrsha had ever seen.

Oliyaya shook a cup full of dice painted with letters and numbers and rolled them out onto a table. She organized them together into an anagram as Witch Mavika placed a crawling bug on a map of Izril and let a raven, blindfolded, peck at it until it was eaten. Then she marked the spot.

Witch Alevica was there too as a final expert in curses—if not lifting them—and she, frowning, tied a piece of string to Erin’s finger and then let it dangle with a little coin tied to the other end. The coin began to twitch in various directions as Alevica placed a compass over it.

Y’all suck.

Mrsha held up the card, and Oliyaya laughed at her.

“Did you think we were all excitement, little Mrsha? Go elsewhere, for this is fascinating if you have half a head! Look, Mavika…I’ve rolled nineteen times, and nary a one makes sense. Nineteen names, or so I glean. I recognize a few as cities and towns—”

“And so goes my chart. Izril—but it makes no sense. Either the spell is trickier than we have thought—or another trick, twicely wrought.”

Mavika hunched over her map of Izril, and it had fourteen different dots—all scattered, seemingly at random. Alevica shrugged.

“Witch Oliyaya, Witch Mavika, you’re better at location divining than I am. All I get are tugs in every which-way—but none of them consistent.”

“So you can’t locate where the hex is coming from? I, uh—I think it might be hard, regardless. Isn’t stopping it more important?”

Erin took the string off her finger. But Mavika, Oliyaya, and even Alevica shook their heads. They stood in the place where the Summer Solstice had taken place, a place of power, and while the rituals were low-key, they still had a thrum of magic in the air.

Three to help Erin, place, and none were poor [Witches]. There was magic enough here, if not showy.

Yet…

“It is not that, Witch Erin. You may not sense it as the loci, but we would halt this magic against you if we could not divine the source. The issue is—whomever has hexed you is not hiding. But we find the source everywhere. And look—this is no coincidence.”

Erin glanced at Mavika’s paper and Oliyaya’s word-anagrams. She had begun to spell out names, and each one was different—but they were proper nouns.

The names of cities. And Mavika’s crow had hit more-or-less exactly on where cities were overlaid on the map of Izril.

“…Huh?”

“Either this hex is spread across dozens of cities or there is a trick involved. The focus of it is material…but it is not moving, yet somehow diversified.”

“Weird. Weird. She—no. It’s tricky, isn’t it? I knew it would be. Beating annoying people always is.”

Erin glumly stared at the map, but Mavika scratched at her chin.

“Finding the source of this curse may be easier than we think. After all, if it does not hide or flee, the answer may be equally easy. We simply need to find the closest source.”

“Ah, then a direct locating spell, not one that lets us roam? Alevica, you would do well for a focus. You Runners go in straight lines—give us your socks or a sprig from your broom.”

Master—

Alevica backed up, and Erin lifted a hand with Mrsha.

“Can we have the broom? Not the socks.”

The next eleven minutes were infinitely more fascinating than the previous thirty-eight had been. Watching Oliyaya and Mavika steal a not-inconsiderable amount of bristles from Alevica’s flying broom was funny.

Watching them call in Eloise and Agratha for their compatible skillsets was fascinating. Because what the five [Witches] did—with Erin’s help even—was to weave a little wicker-bird out of Alevica’s broom-thistles. In the center of it, they placed the ruined bag of charms and then tied it to Erin’s fingers that bothered her.

“Now, it will lock onto the closest one of these many odd phenomena, my dear. What you find will depend on what we do next. I would advise you to bring a cudgel and perhaps some thick cloth robes. And a few friends.”

Agratha gave Erin some kindly advice as Erin peered at the bird. It kept turning so its beak faced one direction even if you tried to spin it the other way.

“A dowsing charm. Oh my gosh, it’s so cool!”

That impressed her? The [Witches] traded a glance, but Erin loved the way the little bird would always turn to face its target. Because it was not magnetic or a trick—it was pure magic.

Simple magic, but to Erin…

“If that impresses you, we could make another one so the little rascal never escapes your notice.”

Oliyaya grinned at Mrsha, who looked alarmed and backed up. Erin shook her head, smiling, and looked around.

“Well, I have a curse to find! I’d, uh—well, thank you. And thanks so much for doing this!”

She began to nod or bow—then she reached up and tipped her hat, and the [Witches] smiled because that was an infinitely better gesture. They tipped their hats at her in reply.

“Witch Erin, for a fellow [Witch], we make time. And for you, we also offer you a discount.”

“Thank y—huh?”

Oliyaya was conferring with Alevica and Mavika and Eloise, and Agratha looked interested too as she wrote down a sum.

“Gold will do, or a favor. But the gold is nice.”

The [Witch] handed Erin an estimation, and the [Innkeeper]—sighed.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice’s journey to Riverfarm did not take too long, but it was her mission after that which would get interesting. Nor did she take Agratha’s warning lightly.

At the same time as Erin was getting to work, though, Pisces was glowering a hole into a wall. Mostly because he felt like the dungeon was winning.

Facestealer haunted the halls. And it had a grudge out for his skeletons. Pisces, now with the understanding that Toren had lived for a while in the dungeon in all probability—suspected the grudge was against both adventurers and skeletons.

But what irked him was that he was a Level 38 [Necromancer], practically on the cusp of truly hitting a benchmark in power, and he could barely get a few skeletons down the corridors.

The problem was—Pisces hated to admit it, but he was rusty.

Not since Chandrar or even the Village of the Dead raid. Pisces realized that he was actually a bit—behind in necromancy.

Oh, he could raise an undead warbear or a Bone Behemoth faster than Ama could dream of. He had helped create a Frostmarrow Behemoth and could animate large numbers of the undead.

Yet—Sillias had proven that necromancy was not just mass-animating undead. If anything, that was Az’kerash’s method, and Pisces had once criticized even the Necromancer for his lack of ingenuity.

Dead gods, where had Gewilena’s spark gone? His own intelligence and wit? Pisces was scribbling on a piece of paper, shaking his head.

Skeletons. What am I, Colth?

The [Supporter] was getting on Pisces’ nerves a bit with his upbeat attitude—and the way Pisces thought that Colth was distinctly copying him and learning his tricks. As if he thought he knew real necromancy.

Well, Pisces had already come up with a few ideas now he’d taken a break and stopped following Colth’s lead. They had gotten far in four days doing the same trick…time to escalate their tactics.

Bone Crawlers. The same undead that the Horns had run into with other adventurers could crawl up the walls. Would Facestealer even grab them? Pisces doubted it could jump or climb. Then again, there might be aerial traps…

It didn’t matter. You could create undead for any situation. Speed…what about mice-undead? Yes, a lot of them! And then Pisces could make something even faster.

What if…

What if you took a wheel and attached a skeleton to it? A spinning wheel-skeleton?

No. No, that was stupid. Plus, it’d be unable to turn. Pisces drew over that concept with a frown.

“Another cup of this coffee, Ishkr? I clearly need it.”

He was furiously sketching a better undead…what if he just animated a damn horse and had it race through the dungeon? Pisces was even sorting through his bones and beginning to engineer a new skeleton off the design—

“Pisces, no undead in the inn! You’re disturbing the customers.

“Miss Lyonette—”

The [Princess] scowled at him and pointed at the other customers, who were eying the piles of bone.

“No. Your rooms or somewhere else, Pisces. Away from the inn.”

“But this is—”

No. Erin may put up with it, but I will not.”

Scowling, the [Necromancer] rose. All these impositions on his time! It would take ages to perfect a new undead, anyways.

“We are not made of time before the Albez teams come back, Miss Lyonette. I hear they’re nearly at the door to Albez, and if we lose our prize, Ceria, no, Yvlon will be—”

“Less upset than me?”

The [Princess] faced him down, and Pisces opened his mouth. He eyed Lyonette and thought about the odds of talking her down. Pisces huffed out of the common room.

His rooms, then. Damn. But he wouldn’t be able to come up with a Bone Crawler by night, would he? It would have to be mice and undead-men.

Alas. If only Colth could do more than control a few skeletons. Granted, it was impressive he could do it at that range, but Pisces had seen how well his skeletons were controlled. Dodging traps was hard enough to manipulate a skeleton into doing.

It was like…well, using the scrying orbs, as cheap and convenient as it was, was unlike how Pisces controlled his undead. It was rather like Numbtongue’s video games. The Hobgoblin had expressed an interest in taking control of Pisces’ skeletons when he saw how it was going, but Pisces couldn’t give him control.

He wished he could, but only a [Necromancer] could directly control the undead, and Facestealer was fast. Traps, other monsters…

If only he had a faster skeleton. Pisces’ feet slowed as he turned away from the stairs.

Or…help…

No.

It was a bad idea. They’d never—she’d never agree. Right? After all…well, she had one of her skeletons. Scottie? If he just borrowed that alone—

Pisces tapped his fingers together and stared at a wall as Saliss and, surprisingly, Grimalkin trooped past him for the common room. Saliss waved a claw a few times in front of Pisces’ face, but then shrugged, walked on, and stuck a piece of paper on Pisces’ back.

“I, ah, need a quick trip to Invrisil, Miss Liska. Priority. Adventuring business. And I may have one or two people on the return.”

Liska sighed—but she nodded and adjusted the dial as Pisces walked over to the door. Erin opened the door and then decided to engage Pisces in conversation. The line of people waiting groaned as Erin delayed them further. This was the problem with privately-owned teleportation services.

“Pisces! What’re you doing? How’s the dungeoning? Lose more not-Torens?”

“Sadly, yes. But I may have an—unorthodox solution.”

“The best kind? I’m going to check out a curse. I guess I’ll take you off the guard-list. Eh, I’m sure I can get someone else to help out. Maybe Tessa. But she stabs people dead.”

“Ah, good l—a what?”

But she was already wandering off. Pisces stared after her and shrugged. He waited for Invrisil—then turned as someone booted him as hard as she could.

“Mrsha!”

He glowered, and the Gnoll girl innocently pointed at Pisces’ back. He turned—and found the piece of parchment that Saliss had stuck to his robes.

It said, ‘kick me’. 

Pisces saw Mrsha innocently smirk. She turned—and he stuck it to her back-fur. Pisces watched as Mrsha looked around in horror at the crowd, and Ekirra stuck his head out of line. She fled.

 

——

 

Snatcher was not getting tired of this. It knew there was nothing in the worthless heads it took from the undead. Not like the one with purple flames for eyes.

It didn’t care. Like petty malevolence, it was destroying all the annoying undead one by one. Even as they came in groups and divided—it hunted them down.

Perhaps it was instinct. Perhaps Snatcher somehow knew they would make it angrier. But it lurked in the dungeon with the active suits of enchanted armor and didn’t even destroy them. The pitiful defender of this place, in service to Mother—the force that controlled the army of armored warriors—also knew the undead were intruding.

But where one was diligent, Snatcher was petty. And it was aware that there were…adventurers above.

But it was a long way up, and it was not unaware of the risks. It had been damaged by the blue thing. For that head, it would risk much—but not for no reason.

Right now, it was simply—if not enjoying, then welcoming attempts to frustrate the adventurers.

Like a kind of game to show them how worthless their undead were, it had even let them re-close the steel shutters. Once they passed through—the undead would die.

Two attempts this day. Snatcher did know time, if vaguely. Once, it had known so much more. Rules—all the foolish rules, its duty—

That was in the past. Now, it waited and sensed four shutters open simultaneously. So the undead were splitting up, were they? It sensed little rodent undead, and…

Twenty larger ones?

Skeletons? How was that happening? It didn’t matter—Snatcher sensed the armored figures spreading out, heading to catch the undead. They would never make it to their destination, the city within. The dungeon was wide, and the skeletons were clumsy, slow.

These were facts.

So Snatcher crept forwards, not even bothering with the heads. Not for this fake thing. And it sensed one skeleton emerging from the shutters to face it.

The unluckiest skeleton, then. Snatcher strode forwards contemptuously—until he sensed something.

Something odd and unusual. This skeleton was no living being. It had no…

Soul.

And Snatcher knew souls. This was, like the others, a creation guided by another intelligence. A [Necromancer]. Snatcher knew that too. Yet this skeleton was better-made than the others. And a foreign presence controlled it, not the clumsy one and the more adept one from before.

If anything—this was in the middle of the two’s abilities. Still weak. But Snatcher halted not because of the power behind this force—but how the skeleton moved.

It stood there, arms outstretched, as if welcoming Snatcher into a huge hug. Legs spread so confidently, jaw agape, that the last guardian of this place felt—offended.

A mocking pose. The skeleton waited as Snatcher regarded it—then it clearly decided that Snatcher was too slow. The boss monster held perfectly still.

A rectangular, uncanny silhouette in the darkness. A brown leather body with two vertical sockets with no true eyes, just wounds in the face. Long, crushing arms that made claws. No mouth. No face.

Snatcher. And this skeleton…this arrogant throwback that had no true craft or power behind it? Not like this place had once been—

Snatcher charged. So fast the skeleton jerked back. A hand shot out—and the skeleton ducked.

Snatcher missed. The skeleton rolled sideways and sprang to its feet. Snatcher turned. It hadn’t seen the other skeletons do that—

Another fist swung towards the wall, and enchanted stone cracked. But the skeleton wasn’t there.

Scottie the Scout Skeleton ducked down. And as Facestealer looked down and raised a fist, it saw the skeleton put one leg forwards and lean on it, the other leg back, two hands splayed, skeletal fingers supporting it.

Like…

A City Runner about to—

Sprint. The fist hit the dungeon’s floor, and Scottie ran. He took off, arms and legs flying, as Snatcher looked up and began to lumber after him.

Fast—but Scottie was faster. And the traps? Snatcher expected it to run into the traps—until it saw something that surprised it.

The skeleton didn’t bother to hop the complicated pattern to escape this trap, nor did it walk through the traps that would make anything but Snatcher explode from the inside out—it kept running and then veered left.

Onto the wall. The skeleton’s feet glued to the stones, and it ran for ten paces—along the wall—then dropped onto the floor. It was still running as Facestealer slowed, realizing it would never catch the skeleton by speed alone.

—Above the dungeon, a [Necromancer] was whooping and laughing at Pisces’ face. Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr were watching an excited group of ‘admirers’ and Ama and Pisces. Yvlon was counting with a sickly smile on her face, and Colth was blinking.

But Ama, masked face and hood and all, was smiling. And the undead were racing through the dungeon as Pisces ruefully watched, but with a heart pounding full of excitement and yes, even fun.

Snatcher?

Snatcher began to get angrier.

 

——

 

What did adventuring mean to you? Was it a job or a calling? Was it for a purpose like finding power?

Should it be fun? Surely, it should. Or why call it that? All the danger, all the grit, the taste of fear-vomit in your mouth, and the burning of your lungs as you held in your blood through a seeping wound in your side—

If you weren’t alive then, if that didn’t mean something, why would anyone do it?

A pack of skeletons raced through Liscor’s dungeon, adventuring in a style no one in the world practiced today but that [Necromancers] of old had once used in their adventures.

A Goblin and Antinium duo happened upon a great big cave and mound of dirt along part of the High Passes, and it was so strange because it looked like a stone plug had been inserted into the top. It…thrummed as they got closer.

And the teams in Albez dug.

In fact, Albez’s dungeon was the most boring, safest, and most tedious adventure Ylawes Byres had ever had. Four days of waking up, watching Remendia’s hired diggers at work, occasionally shifting dirt himself, and, well, socializing with other adventurers.

Socializing in itself was not Ylawes’ complaint. It was the pecking order, the showing off, the competition and squabbling between teams that made him feel like he was at a social convention as House Byres among the northern nobility.

If he were at Liscor, he could train with a sword, ask even Pisces, even Numbtongue perhaps, to practice with. Here?

“Byres, come on! It was a mistake, a mistake!

The Captain of the Waterborn Raiders called out as Ylawes walked away from the dueling space they’d set up. He shook out his gauntlet, and someone caught him.

“Lad, you need a healing potion?”

“My gauntlet caught most of it. I don’t think the metal’s torn.”

“Bastard.”

Nailren’s comment was followed by a glare, but the Waterborn Raiders were mocking Ylawes. The [Knight]’s skin felt torn under his armor, but he’d dodged most of the Skill.

“Couldn’t take losing in a fair fight? Skills in a duel?”

Someone jeered at them, and the Waterborn Raider’s Captain turned red.

“Dasha, shut up.”

Insill whispered as the Gold-rank Captain glared at the Silver-rank team of Vuliel Drae. But Dasha was right, and a lot of adventurers began jeering the Waterborn Raiders’ Captain themselves.

“Anith, please tell Dasha to stop. I brought it upon myself, dueling other adventurers for practice.”

Ylawes yanked off his gauntlet and saw his skin was only a bit torn.

“What was that move? It felt like he wrenched my arm around.”

“[Riptide Cut]. Looked painful.”

Dawil offered a potion, but Ylawes held up a hand.

“Save it. It’s not like they’re that cheap.”

He grimaced, flexing his hand, and instantly regretted the comment—it was hurting more by the second. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and offered him a jar.

Pekona showed Ylawes a very…natural jar of ointment.

“Soothes pain and helps heal. Not very magical. Want it?”

“Thank you.”

The cream did have some kind of pain-numbing quality, and Ylawes smiled as he felt the pain recede.

“What is this for?”

Not healing injuries you get in practice. Pekona swears by it—apparently, healing potions are bad for training.”

“Well, she’s right there. Thank you.”

Vuliel Drae and Nailren’s team clustered around Ylawes as the conversations died down and the Waterborn Raiders skulked off. Everyone was just bored—well, the Raiders had an axe to grind—but the truth was this was a terrible adventure.

“I almost wish I were in Liscor’s dungeon.”

Insill murmured; Nailren glared, and Larr, the Gnoll teammate, kicked Insill.

“Kidding!”

The Drake [Rogue] looked guilty, as he did every time the Face-Eater Moth disaster was brought up. Ylawes was one of the few adventurers—and only Gold-rank team—that tolerated Vuliel Drae’s presence.

He felt they were properly remorseful. He couldn’t say if they’d paid for their mistakes, but they’d gone into the Village of the Dead, and he liked the quirky team.

Anith, the Jackal Beastkin, was like a Falene with more fur, very analytical. Falene had not appreciated the comparison and frozen his bedroll solid.

Dasha was not a female Dawil, because she tried too hard to play into her half-Dwarven ancestry, but she was outspoken and brave—and a fairly competent craftswoman before she’d become an adventurer. She, apparently, was a Level 21 [Baker].

Insill was the most timid [Rogue] that Ylawes had ever met, but he seemed to be the glue that held together his team—he was the one who helped other people, and he was actually adept enough to set traps.

Seborn and a lot of [Rogues] that Ylawes had met didn’t go in for setting traps that much. But Larr, their [Ranger], was also an adept multi-tasker. Notably, Larr was also a member of the Hawkarrow tribe—same as Nailren. But he was also related to the Soliest Yerr tribe’s most prized craftsman, Honored Shedrkh, and Larr often asked to send pelts of monsters back to him.

They had depth. That was the point. Get to know someone and they had depth. Like Nailren’s team, actually. They came from the Fletchsing tribe, a subclan of the famous Hawkarrow Tribe, and had fought in the Meeting of Tribes with Mrsha’s alliance. Ylawes didn’t know all the details, but Nailren had escorted the Antinium Soldier back and had plans to head to the new lands.

His teammates were all actually new, apparently. Which surprised and embarrassed Ylawes because he thought he would recognize different Gnolls—but no one really did. No wonder they weren’t the most social—after returning from Liscor, the six Gnolls had all traded places with different Gnolls that Nailren picked up. All above Level 20—which meant that Nailren was running an adventuring team scam.

Well, the Guild would call it that. The truth was that for a Silver-rank team, a bunch of Level 20+ [Hunters] was good enough. Apparently, Nailren’s team was part of his tribe’s way of training promising recruits. Their Chieftain, Eitha, sent him the ones she wanted trained up.

That made Nailren far more interesting to Ylawes. He was apparently a good enough leader to direct the ever-changing Gnoll team into keeping a rather good reputation as a Silver-rank team. And they’d gone into Liscor’s dungeon more than once.

Nailren was also fascinating in that he and Larr came from the same tribe, but Larr had never heard of the Fletchsing clan and kept giving Nailren questions about home.

“So, how is Chieftain Eitha doing?”

“Recovering from her wounds in the Meeting of Tribes.”

Nailren nodded as they sat down, and the Gnolls from the Hawkarrrow tribe all nodded. Larr squatted down, frowning.

“And your Chieftain? Of the Fletchsing tribe?”

“Hrr. Doing just fine.”

“You’ve all checked on them?”

Larr glanced too-casually at the other Gnolls, and one of Nailren’s ‘adventurers’ glanced up.

“Me? I’ve never met the Fletchsing Chieftain. I didn’t know we had a subclan until Chieftain Eitha told us.”

“Hrm. Hrrr. Interesting. Interesting.

Larr edged forwards, glaring at Nailren until the Gnoll’s nose was practically embedded in Nailren’s cheek. The Silver-rank Captain pushed him back.

“You are young, Larr, yes? Stop nosing around and go back to the Hawkarrow tribe and ask to know. Just because you are Shedrkh’s nephew does not mean you need to know everything.”

Ylawes watched the interaction with some amusement as Anith grabbed his teammate and muttered to Larr. Insill, as always, tried to soothe tensions, even if Nailren looked amused more than anything.

“Sorry about Larr. He’s just been away from home—but hey, if we get something out of this dungeon, maybe we’ll visit! Help out. I mean—we’ve all promised to visit his tribe.”

Nailren looked amused at the black-scaled Drake.

“You might not be the most welcome at the moment, Insill—but then, your team seems good, yes? Not a bad idea. If we ever get that staircase.”

He nodded to the huge hole and the teams of [Diggers]. It looked like their bucket-system for hauling up dirt had slowed again.

Ylawes hadn’t realized how deep the dungeon was until he remembered Emperor Laken said ‘a hundred feet’. A hundred damn feet down was…insane.

This secret part of Albez was clearly a secret even when the city had been intact and unburied. Digging that far down, even with magic? The deeper you went, the narrower the hole got and harder it was to excavate dirt. Rocks, soil, and roots had slowed down the teams immensely. Even with magic, the fact that they were nearing the staircase after four days showed how hard Deniusth had pushed the excavation work.

However—the Named-rank Violinist and the other Named-ranks were as happy as could be. They kept congratulating Griffon Hunt and had promised Halrac a share of any artifacts, apparently.

The same hadn’t been said for Ylawes’ team or Vuliel Drae and The Pride of Kelia, despite them helping. It was also probably why the Waterborn Raiders looked so sour.

No one wanted to leave, but they all had a feeling that if there were artifacts or relics, the other teams might get gold instead.

“Don’t mind the Raiders. I heard they’re just upset that the Named-ranks will ‘pull a Ceria’. Their words, not mine.”

“I thought Ceria was quite fair with the Village of the Dead raiders. Didn’t you all get a big payout?”

Nailren shrugged and looked at Anith. The Silver-rank Captain frowned and indicated his team. They had a few magical artifacts, and they hadn’t exactly seemed pressed for gold.

“We were paid very generously. I don’t know what he is talking about. Dasha has an enchanted axe straight from Hedault, and Pekona paid for a new sword from Drath—”

“I can’t hold the old one.”

The one-armed [Sword Dancer] was the last member of Vuliel Drae, but Ylawes didn’t know much about her other than her origins—and silence. She had lost a hand during the Village of the Dead raid and paid a higher price than most survivors. However—she didn’t complain, and she was apparently still adventuring. He thought she kept sneaking away from her team in the middle of the night, but he didn’t know if that was his imagination.

“So what’s the Raiders’ problem?”

Larr looked up, and Nailren grinned. He tapped one ear, and the Gnoll murmured.

“This is just a rumor, but some of the teams complaining have…ties. To the gangs or other interesting groups.”

Ylawes knew the Waterborn Raiders were former…[Raiders], but his scowl grew. Dawil just rubbed his beard, and Dasha copied him, much to his annoyance.

“Oh? So what do they know?”

“Word is, some of them asked Savere in Chandrar where Ceria’s relic is. They claim they don’t have it, and the Siren’s got a grudge the size of the High Passes against Ceria. So the Raiders think…”

“Ah, of course. And now they’re getting nothing for sitting around on their asses?”

“Some people are never happy, eh?”

Nailren chuckled. The truth was that was what most teams were doing, and if they got a hundred gold coins for doing that—it would be a fortune for Silver-ranks and more than anyone deserved.

“This adventure sucks.”

Ylawes was gratified to hear one of Nailren’s teammates say it. The Gnoll tossed a bit of dirt at a female [Huntress].

“Patience, Kelthe. Getting paid to sit around is also adventuring. But it’s truly boring, I agree.”

He glanced at Ylawes, and the Silver Swords’ Captain grimaced.

“Want to spar? I won’t use Skills.”

Pekona offered, but Ylawes was done for the day. Insill glanced at the dig-site.

“I hear they think we’ll reach the door by today. Deniusth and Eldertuin were going around telling all the [Rogues] and [Mages] who know enchantments to get ready to de-trap the place. No one wants to burn up the loot like the Horns did. But there might be monsters or guardians. Should we…prepare for a fight?”

Ylawes glanced at the [Rogue]. He pointed to Falene, who was reading a spellbook with Moore and working on a new spell—the constant activity of [Mages].

“Falene could cast a few buffs if we know we’re about to fight, but Dawil and I are ready. What does Vuliel Drae do? The Pride?”

His team was, admittedly, famous for their ability to charge into a fight any second. They’d survived Gargoyle ambushes where other teams would need preparation time. Nailren hmmed.

“I could dig us into the rocks above the dig site. But I don’t know what’s coming out. Plus, I doubt positioning will help us with our arrows. Not compared to Halrac’s enchanted ones or a Named-rank. Your team, Anith?”

“That would be mostly Insill.”

Everyone turned to the [Rogue], and he raised a claw.

“I could dig a hole. And put a pit trap in it.”

Ylawes stared at him. The [Rogue] colored under his black scales.

“Really fast! I just, uh—I need a hole first. Because of my Skill. [Deploy Pit Trap]. But it’s only the cover. It’s a convincing cover, though. See?”

Nothing would do for him then to show Ylawes on a tiny divot in the road. Insill had to set it up, which looked like him pulling a tarp out of midair and arranging it for about a minute or two. When he was done, a bit of fake earth only slightly noticeable if you stared at the edges would hide a treacherous…

Ylawes stepped on it, and it sank alarmingly—about a foot.

“Interesting trap. Does it work a lot?”

“Well—I got it after the Village of the Dead raid, and it’s not much use in dungeons since I can’t dig holes. Or against most monsters. But it’ll be really useful if we run into—”

Anith looked up mildly, and his lips twitched.

“Crelers? They climb holes.”

Dasha nodded.

“Ogres will just get stuck. You can’t dig a hole big enough to trap their foot, Insill.”

“Most species can climb holes.”

Larr added. Pekona raised a hand.

“Pit traps don’t kill most things.”

Stop bullying me!

This was clearly a running gag. Vuliel Drae’s humor was one of the things that kept Ylawes here. He smiled—and then heard a shout.

It’s time! Everyone up! Everyone up! We see the door!

Every adventurer looked around—and then they were suddenly all on their feet. Deniusth was standing by the entrance to the hole and bellowing.

Hold it, hold it—don’t crowd around! You idiots, you’re too fast! Back away from that door! Anyone touches it and I’ll kill them after whatever comes out does!

He was shouting down into the hole as dozens of adventurers clustered dangerously around the edge—in fact, they were in jeopardy of collapsing the edges on the [Diggers].

Eldertuin solved the problem by striking his shield with his sword.

Silence!

The gong of sound made everyone wince and look at him. The Fortress gave crisp orders as Viecel grinned—and the Selphid’s new body waggled four fingers. He’d been betting every day that this would be the day they got to the treasure.

“Everyone, stand back. [Geomancers], [Mages], forwards. We are not going down this hole. We’ll adjust it into a ramp. We need it wide, and we need to prepare. Team Captains, to us. Everyone else, it’ll be an hour yet, or two!”

He glanced at the sky.

“Plenty of time before evening.”

Excitement filled the air as Ylawes looked at Dawil.

“Looks like this is it. Get Falene and set up with Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers?”

“What about our Silver-rankers?”

“That too. Anith, Nailren, coming?”

The Silver-rank Captains hesitated and looked gratified Ylawes was including them. The Gold-rank Captain pushed forwards, and the other Captains made way for the three. But for Ylawes, Anith and Nailren would have had to hang back, so many teams were gathered around Eldertuin.

He was including Halrac, Deniusth, and, surprisingly, Jelaqua in a small circle giving orders. Behind them, Moore and other experts were reshaping the hole, burning up mana to widen it.

“We’ll have a ramp down to the entrance, but we are not going in. Whatever’s down there, if there’s monsters or anything, it comes up to us. The worst thing we can do is bunch up and make our numbers-advantage useless.”

Eldertuin was giving solid, reasonable strategic analysis to the others. Deniusth was practically dancing from foot-to-foot, but he was nodding.

“What can we expect?”

“If it’s like Ceria’s trap? Magical doors that put you into kill-rooms and an Elemental guardian.”

“Nasty. But we can beat a single elemental. However—we have to get this treasure without triggering a trap. So our best [Rogues] head down there and analyze the door. Then [Mages]. Who’s the best at enchantment breaking?”

“Uh…we’ve got an expert in the Distinguished Staves. Ylawes—where’s—Ylawes, isn’t Falene Wistram-trained?”

Everyone looked at him, and Ylawes shook his head.

“She is—but she’s a [Battlemage]. We’d defer to any experts.”

“That would be me.”

To Ylawes’ surprise, Typhenous raised a hand. The old man stroked his beard with a huge smile.

“I have seen a lot of trap spells in my time. I may not be technical enough to remove them—but I can tell they’re there. More importantly, I can usually tell if a specialist will succeed or fail at removing the trap.”

“That’s good. That’s essential. If we can’t remove the magic or trap at any point, I am willing to send to Invrisil for experts. Hedault himself.”

Deniusth was telling the crowd, and everyone agreed. However, the excitement was palpable, and Eldertuin spoke.

“Then we send down the first team. Who has [Lesser Teleport] scrolls? Deni, I know your team has them. Lend the squad that investigates the door a scroll—though it’s faster to just run up the ramp, maybe.”

“We’ll put archers with sight lines on the door, but only Level 20+ experts and above. No friendly fire! Who’s got [Stoneskin] spells…?”

 

——

 

It was a flurry of orders and contingencies in the thirty-three minutes it took to reconfigure the ramp. Moore backed up, sweating, and Ylawes heard him audibly tell Jelaqua he was ‘spent’ on mana unless he wanted to risk mana burn.

“Wow, they pushed some of our [Mages] hard.”

The hole in the ground had shifted into a long, sloping ramp. But by the looks of it, it had taken out thirteen [Mages], some Gold-ranks. Even a member of Orchestra was lying down.

“Should we let them rest before we try the door?”

That was the smart thing to do. Falene had used half her magic—but Dawil just glanced at the eager teams, including the Raiders.

“Everyone’s raring to go, Falene. Besides—I think we might be overkill. Or if we’re not, then a dozen [Mages] won’t make a difference.”

That was fairly true. Ylawes knew the Village of the Dead raid had pulled in more teams to take it on than most events in modern adventuring history—but there were more teams here. Including Named-ranks.

“Just stick together. Vuliel Drae, I know we haven’t practiced, but if Nailren covers our group, just have your team stick to our flanks. The Silver Swords are good at fighting in the center.”

“Even Mage Falene?”

Anith was surprised, but Falene was already casting barrier spells. She smiled archly.

“I am a [Battlemage], Captain Anith. If I realize I’m in trouble, I’ll teleport to safety.”

“Yes, as you can see, she’s the bravest member of the Silver Swords.”

Dawil rolled his eyes. Seborn, Typhenous, and three other experts were walking down towards the door as the civilians ran far, far back to the waiting wagons and horses. Falene reddened.

“I would like you to try fighting monsters with nothing more than enchanted robes, Dawil, then question my bravery.”

“Falene, Dawil—”

They were looking bad in front of the Silver-ranks. Dawil shot back with a huge grin.

“Done. I’ll do it in your robes—without underwear either.”

“You wretched, cave-dwelling homunculus—”

“Door’s opening!”

“What?”

Everyone looked up. It had been seconds since the adventurers went down, but the first thing Ylawes saw was Seborn, followed by Typhenous, running like a natural athlete, arms and legs pumping, coming up the ramp.

“It sensed us! It sensed—it’s a trap!”

Then Ylawes felt his skin prickle and [Dangersense] Skills began activating. The air hummed—and a voice filled with wrath echoed up from below. A recording.

“YOU ARE NOT THRESK. ALL WHO SCHEME TO PILFER THE LABORATORY OF UDATRON WILL DIE.”

“Oh shit.”

Insill raised his shield, and Ylawes’ head rose. Thresk? Wasn’t that the one who Ceria’s team found?

But there was no time to ask more. He saw a flash from the ramp’s entrance, then Halrac loosed an arrow that thumped with an explosion. The Gold-rank Captain shouted.

Elementals! Dozens of—

“What did he just say?”

Dawil looked up in time for the first howling gale of air to billow up, a Wind Elemental in full fury—followed by a raging being of flames and more of both kinds. Ylawes saw bodies of stone charging up the ramps as [Mages] began to fire, and he counted—

“Water, Fire, Earth, Wind—Elementals?

Falene looked horrified. Which told Ylawes that binding so many powerful Elementals, even if they weren’t on the level of the Gnolls’ Khoteizetrough, was far beyond her capabilities. Ylawes wavered between charging from their second line and holding. Some teams that had begun to race forwards were pulling back, but it was Deniusth who shouted.

Eldertuin, hold down the ground! Orchestra—concert time!

Twenty-seven Elementals appeared from the trapped laboratory. Twenty-seven, where Ceria’s team had nearly fallen to one. But they had been Silver-ranks at the time.

This time—they had Named-rank teams. Ylawes didn’t see Eldertuin and Viecel among the fighting as it broke out with the huge Water and Earth Elementals, each seven to nine feet tall, emerging and swinging at the nearest adventurer—but he saw them surround Variable Fortress, drawn in by Eldertuin’s Skills.

Yet Deniusth’s team, Orchestra—Ylawes had never seen them fight so far. He expected Deni to show off his golden bell, but he didn’t. Instead, the Named-rank team stood in place. Some were even sitting down.

Gores, the Trumpet of the Battlefield, and Deni, the Violinist, stood in front of their band of fourteen. Fourteen, and some were Gold-ranks or even, Ylawes had heard, Silver-ranks.

What mattered to Orchestra was how good you were with an instrument. He saw a cello-player sitting next to a drummer who held only enchanted sticks—the world was his drums.

Deniusth began playing on his violin as the first notes echoed from Gores’ horn. They played in perfect synchronization, and Ylawes recognized the tune.

The Five Families’ Ballad—Return to New Home. The tune they had played since they had come to Izril.

The first few bars of the song let the rest of the team join in. The drummer beat the first few notes on the stones as the Elementals rose. An Air Elemental conjured a deadly-looking orb of compressed air and drew an arm back to throw it.

Was it shaped like a Drake or a Human? Or a…Gnoll…? Ylawes didn’t know, because then Deni’s bow began to scream upon the violin’s strings. He played louder—and the crescendo of sound rose so fast that Ylawes’ ears popped. He saw the trumpet swing up—and Orchestra’s instruments glowed.

The next thing Ylawes saw was a hole in the clouds. He lowered his hands as the ripple continued through the air. Sound and force—

Half the Elementals in the air vanished. Orchestra’s Combined Skill was angled up, and whatever sound they’d played wasn’t directed at Ylawes, thankfully. Nevertheless, he saw the cone of projected sound clip part of the ridge over Albez.

It hit the stone, and the stones cracked, shattered to pieces, and went flying like shrapnel. Of the Elementals—the Flame Elementals just winked out. Ylawes swore he saw a crystal heart of an Air Elemental explode.

Dead gods!

“[Combined Skill — Onslaught Performance: Louder Than the Sea’s Roar]. Orchestra, get them!”

Deniusth lowered his bow with a flourish, saluted the other adventurers—then his team broke up. The Violinist leapt up, impossibly high with magic, and played on his violin.

Sharp sounds. So sharp that they cut through the flames of one of the Flame Elementals—exposing that glowing core. Deniusth caught himself on a foothold in midair, and his violin bow lanced out like a rapier, striking the core through the center. It shattered, and he whirled back.

The trumpeter, Gores, just aimed his trumpet like some kind of weapon and blew another note. It had so much sonic force that it sent another Air Elemental reeling backwards—and Halrac shot it through the heart.

“That’s Named-ranks?”

Insill’s jaw was open—until Ylawes grabbed him.

“Heads up. They’re coming!‘

An Earth Elemental charged their way, and Ylawes raised his shield, gritting his teeth.

“[Shield of Valor]!”

A hammer’s blow from a fist bounced off his glowing shield, and the three teams surrounded the Earth Elemental. Falene shot a dozen Tier 2 spells into it at close-range, but it did little more than chip at the enchanted stone. Dawil swung his hammer into a leg, cursed, reached for his broken axe—

It’s harder than regular stone!

“Arrows not working—[Piercing Arrow].”

Nailren hit it in the forehead. The Earth Elemental’s forehead cracked slightly, and the rest of his team pelted it with arrows and stared in dismay. Ylawes backed up, deflecting another blow without his Skill—

It was strong! Stronger than a Gargoyle or a Troll. The [Knight] cursed, and Anith spoke.

“[Arrows of Light]. Dasha, support Ylawes and Dawil! Pekona—”

“[Lightning Iai].”

A flash and shock along his arm. Pekona drew her curved blade and slashed into the Earth Elemental’s arm as it swung again—but like his, her cut was shallow. Insill appeared at the Elemental’s back—stabbed once, then hopped away.

It was too tough! Dawil yanked Dasha out of the way as the Earth Elemental kicked, and Ylawes hoped Falene had a better spell.

The Silver Swords didn’t need to come up with one. Nailren took one look at the Earth Elemental as his team’s arrows uselessly rained over it, and he called out.

Switch to ropes. Loop the arm! [Rope Arrow]—get me an anchor.”

His team dropped their bows, and Nailren shot one arrow under the Earth Elemental’s arm.

“[Loop Shot]—web it down.

He seized the loop of rope he’d secured as the arrow wrapped around the arm. The Gnoll seized it—and was nearly dragged off his feet. But his team grabbed the rope, and another threw a loop on the Earth Elemental’s other arm. Ylawes, blocking the swings, saw the Earth Elemental turn—but eight Gnolls including Larr suddenly were hauling on one arm. It stumbled, and Dawil pointed.

Right leg!

While Larr had the left arm, he, Dasha, and Ylawes began to hammer on the right leg, breaking it at the joints. The Earth Elemental roared like grinding stones and began to heave the Gnolls off their feet—until it nearly fell over.

“[Muddy Ground].”

It was sinking. Its other leg was sinking as Anith turned the ground to mud, and Falene conjured more bindings of light. The enraged Earth Elemental had only one arm to swing, and it flailed at the adventurers—until Insill threw a ball of mud at its face.

“Hah! Blinded! [Mud Throw]—”

He ducked a swinging arm and backed up, wide-eyed.

It doesn’t need eyes!

“Idiot. Move—[Heron’s Wing Slash].”

Pekona leapt forwards, and Ylawes leaned back as her cut sprayed his armor and helmet with shards. He got one in his eye and cursed—but he heard a groan. When Ylawes could see, he saw the Earth Elemental’s leg collapsing. It was falling over!

With only one leg to support it, the Earth Elemental fell backwards and landed on its back with a tremble. Nailren’s team lost control of the rope, but he shouted for them to drag it down and anchor it to stones. And that left the warriors with an opening to hit it as hard as they wanted.

“Good!”

The [Knight] lifted his sword and charged in.

“[Shield Breaker]!”

He swung his shield’s edge into the Elemental’s chest, where he thought the heart should be, and the stone cracked. Dawil joined him as Ylawes raised his sword for his best Skill—

Silver Swords, back it up! Back up!

The [Knight] aborted his final charge. He looked over—and Dasha ducked out of the way.

“[All or Nothing Charge]! Eld—”

Viecel the Gambler pointed, and Eldertuin the Fortress raced past Ylawes. The Gold-rank Adventurer saw the older man raise not his sword, but his tower shield in both hands—like an improvised maul, the edge pointed down—

“[Hammer of the Ogre].”

This time, the [Knight] lifted his shield and saved his face from the spray of stones. Dasha shouted in pain, but when Ylawes looked up—he saw the Earth Elemental was split in two. The pieces were stirring—until Eldertuin bent down and yanked something glowing out of the chest.

“Elemental down.”

He turned, nodded to the [Knight], and Ylawes Byres felt a flicker of envy, admiration—he saluted Eldertuin the Fortress, and the man smiled, even as his head was turning for another threat. Ylawes whirled—and there were no more Elementals.

The fight was already over.

 

——

 

It turned out that in the lineup of elementals, the Earth Elementals were the only ones who’d lasted more than a few seconds in the face of so much adventurer firepower. Air, Flame, and Water Elementals were dangerous foes that could drown you, suck the air out of your lungs, or burn even steel as Yvlon had once found.

…They weren’t much good against five Tier 4 spells hitting them at once. With Orchestra’s Skill, the adventurers had literally overwhelmed most of the others.

Mind you, that was not to say it had been a bloodless battle. Several adventurers had broken bones in the first swings of the Elementals, and one Silver-rank was so badly burned she was being rushed to a [Healer].

“Twenty-seven Elementals. And Ceria’s team only ran into one?”

“Might have been a higher-grade one in the confines of the other [Mage]’s secret armory. It apparently burned artifacts up—these weren’t that hot. Tough, though. Imagine being a single Gold-rank team and running into this many? What happened, you lot? I thought you were going to check the door.

The adventurers, in the aftermath of the fight, were harvesting the pieces of the Elementals’ cores, the only really valuable part of them. Maybe the Water Elementals’ water—but it was just mud in the ground now.

“We never got the chance. Turns out there was a huge detection spell that was scanning us for something. Probably an amulet to prove we were allowed in.”

Seborn shook his head as Typhenous peered down at the open doorway. The Plague Mage nodded.

“Regrettable—but unfortunately, we didn’t have the right angle. If we were doing this again, I would suggest tunneling from the side to avoid the spell and cloaking ourselves before approaching.”

“Well, we got the Elementals. Pretty sizable, dangerous lot. Which means this is probably a lot better than one armory.”

Deniusth was excited. He’d taken down six Elementals after his Skill, but Typhenous lifted a hand.

“As a matter of fact—no. Captain Deniusth, I think we were lucky.”

“How so?”

Typhenous pointed down where the first [Rogues] were very cautiously shining lights and spells into the laboratory of…Udatron. A name that some of the more historical adventurers were looking up as they spoke.

“I believe there were more elementals. Twenty-seven? An odd number. Look at this.”

He showed the others something odd—a sparking, but mostly dead, Elemental core. Ylawes felt the static in the air.

Lightning Elemental?

“It must not have been able to endure however long it was here. Perhaps there were other Elementals—there are a number of cores on the ground.”

“That’s worth a lot of money to Wistram. Damn—then how long has this place been hidden? How long does a Lightning Elemental last?”

No one knew, but Deniusth was eying the [Rogues], and they were very, very apprehensive about what they were doing. Yet…

Well, again, Ylawes had a sense of let-down. Not because the laboratory was not well-guarded or that it seemed to be empty—some people were staring inside and practically salivating at what they could glimpse.

No, there were just too many adventurers. Not that he wanted an honorable fight against Elementals, but they’d steamrolled the opposition.

By the same token, though…he felt badly that the Horns weren’t here. Yet they would have never found this place but for Griffon Hunt.

What had they found, though? Who was Udatron? It turned out there were some answers.

The Captain of the Distinguished Staves was a local [Historian] of sorts. He excitedly confirmed the name from a history of Albez.

“Udatron. I knew that name was familiar! Udatron and Thresk, two of the greatest [Mages] of Albez while it was a magical community. Warmage Thresk and Chronomancer Udatron were a duo who fought in the magical conflicts Albez took part in. Udatron vanished during a battle, it says, and he was presumed dead, but no one ever found the corpse.”

“Not unusual in high-powered magical duels.”

Falene murmured, and Ylawes nodded. But the Captain went on—

“Thresk, it was said, never believed his friend was dead, which led to his increasing paranoia and reclusiveness until he passed. If Ceria’s team really did find his armory close to this spot—it only makes sense this might be Udatron’s laboratory.”

“A time-mage’s laboratory? This is wonderful.

Deniusth’s eyes lit up. Dawil groaned.

“Oh no. Time magic? What kind of traps does he have?”

That sobered everyone in earshot. Ylawes Byres adjusted his sword and shield nervously, but it was in the hands of the adventurers, now.

“What do they see in that laboratory?”

“Well…a lot of magical paraphernalia. A small library—”

Deniusth’s smile grew wider with each report from one of the [Scouts] down there. The Gold-rank [Scout] was practically dancing as he pointed. Ylawes and the top-level teams stood around, listening to descriptions of the insides.

Anith and Nailren hung back, and one of the other team Captains drew them aside, perhaps to salvage more pieces from the Earth Elementals. Ylawes felt guilty, seeing the Silver-rank’s wryer expressions. And again, it was hurry up and wait because all of this had better not be an illusion—or trapped. But the Named-ranks were not about to lose this, and the [Rogues] were taking it at a snail’s pace.

“No signs of any big traps, but we’re going in slowly. Maybe…maybe this laboratory only had the door guards?”

“Elementals were Thresk’s magic. Perhaps this Udatron never set up defenses or reactivated them if he died in battle?”

“Maybe—but we can see something in the back. I think…there’s an armory back there. A laboratory, a mage’s library, and an armory.”

Everyone looked at each other, and Ylawes, despite himself, found the final reason why you adventured as Deniusth grabbed one of his teammates in delight.

The loot.

 

——

 

“They think there’s how much there? A…a lab? And how many books…? Yeah, from the age of Albez. And there were only twenty-seven—and they just found it thanks to Halrac’s team? Deni’s backflipping. Great. There wouldn’t happen to be some horrible time-magic trap that killed a few adventurers? No? I’m not wishing it on you, Revi. I’m just—well, we’ll take a share. Thanks.”

Ceria Springwalker didn’t quite scowl, but the Horns of Hammerad definitely grew quiet when they heard about Albez’s second treasure haul. The [Necromancers] looked up, agog, and Colth sighed.

“Well—that monster hide had better be good, or I won’t hear the end of it from Deni for a decade. No going back.”

Their map was expanding, but it seemed like they were tracing a kind of actual layout of the dungeon’s maze. And if Colth was plotting things out right, then they could tell where the four huge pillar-rooms full of monster nests were. Which then implied that the city and Stalker’s corpse was in the center of the four sections. Which meant…

Which meant the adventurers were really mad about all the amazing treasure that Albez’s group had dug up. Because even if they were going to get the hide of some amazingly powerful boss monster, some people wanted it all.

Fair. The Wandering Inn was abuzz with the news, and the treasure might really change things, especially the books if they were spellbooks. What kind of artifacts would Udatron, a great [Chronomancer], have? What magical equipment? Alchemical items?

No one knew, and it was all great. Udatron, a name without context in this modern age. For everyone save, perhaps, someone like an ancient Dragon—if Thresk and Udatron had ever been important enough to be on his radar. Which they had not.

Or…

Erin Solstice propped her chin up on her hand and stared silently out a window. She remembered that name. She remembered…a man, among many, summoned to safeguard time itself.

She didn’t know his story or anything else about what his laboratory might hold. So she said nothing, but at least one person noticed Erin’s wistful look.

Grimalkin of Pallass didn’t reach for a notepad. Some things he could simply remember. And besides—he’d begun wondering if the Eyes of Pallass had access to his home. He had a very in-depth security system, but there was always someone better.

He sat in the inn, thinking. A figure in repose, like some statue made to represent the physical body in all of its prime condition. Grimalkin the Sinew Magus. Grimalkin the Fist.

A famous [Mage]. A renowned one. He had fought in wars, bested [Mages] and enemy officers in combat—he had even dueled Archmage Feor. True, he had been mocked for his physical magic theory by a number of communities, but he had a lot of authority in Drake military systems.

Yet, as Grimalkin quietly sat, eating some couscous, he felt embarrassed. Here, at least. Because Grimalkin…

Felt rather as though he’d made a fool of himself. At least where The Wandering Inn and Erin were concerned.

Consider it from his perspective. He was used to people asking for favors from someone of his level. He had found The Wandering Inn very useful, if only because Erin had knowledge about health and musculature that he lacked from her world, and she was indeed engaging in her own right.

But Grimalkin had begun to keep a reserve after he felt that he was becoming one of ‘Erin’s friends’, a resource that she could call upon. He…was aware of how she could change and influence events, but he had determined that he did not want to be a piece in her game, especially because she was not, well, not important enough to keep sequestering his aid.

He had made a point to tell her that, to draw a line. He was a representative of Pallass, and she could not simply run rampant and call on him at will. That had been before she died, of course.

That had been before her body just happened to be the vessel for General Sserys of Liscor, oh, and Fetohep of Khelt made landfall on Izril and challenged the Walled Cities, in part, for her. And she learned how to post <Quests>. And let’s not forget being the best chess player in the world, the Titan’s chess partner, and she knew Foliana, Valeterisa, Larracel, the Wind Runner…

It seemed to Grimalkin that he had made a mistake. Or perhaps just fallen into a trap of his own design. From him being the person she was prevailing upon, he now felt…the opposite might be true.

And he was embarrassed. Embarrassed, because the proverbial shoe was upon the other foot, and now he had all the questions and she had answers and he saw the irony. He saw the fault in himself, and he was embarrassed.

Introspection was a virtue, but a painful one. Doubly painful because Erin was still…generating mysteries. He’d thought ever since he solved the Earth part of her background he would stop adding more questions to his list of Erin-quandaries.

But why did she know Udatron’s name? Why did he think she knew more about what the adventurers had found than she was letting on?

And did he deserve to know? Grimalkin sat there, chewing the pebbles of gluten and appreciating the dish. Imani had clearly made it.

“Well, I’m glad the Albez teams are finding treasure. I think. Hopefully no one throws open a time paradox again.”

Erin spoke lightly and turned from the adventurers hard at work. Grimalkin’s claw twitched as if he were reaching for a quill. The problem was that she was actually a very, very hard-to-read person. Chance words…could just be that.

Again?

Yet where Grimalkin before would have pressed her for answers, now the Sinew Magus had to wonder something.

Am I the unworthy one? Is she playing a game where I’m blundering around like the fool?

By rights, he should ask for her time, but he felt rooted in place. Not everyone was.

“Erin, are you done with your task in Riverfarm? I could use you making more magical foods.”

“Later, Lyonette. I’m actually going on another errand. Can I take Mrsha?”

“I—how dangerous is it?”

“Um—not very?”

“Really, then let me ask Ser Dalimont. Why do you have a bird tied to your finger?”

“It’s a charm. Geeze, Lyonette. You act like you’ve never seen a curse-sensing charm before. Say, where’s Nanette? Is she still sitting with Bird?”

The [Princess] looked about, and Grimalkin remembered someone mentioning the inn’s new guest. Again, he wasn’t regular enough to realize that this Nanette was a new part of the family.

I’m missing out. What else had he missed? Grimalkin looked around and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Mrsha seemed unchanged; although, he could no longer confirm this via [Appraisal]. Saliss was lying front-first on the floorboards, possibly unconscious, the [Bard] wasn’t here, a little lamb was staring at him from the basement d—

Grimalkin stared at Nerry. The lamb ducked down. Then poked its head up innocently, as if it were playing hide-and-seek. Unlike Nanette, the inn’s second new addition was deliberately keeping out of sight. Besides, Ishkr fed her whenever Nerry needed food.

Lyonette didn’t notice the lamb snooping on them. She turned about.

“I…no. She wasn’t up there when I took Bird lunch.”

“Well, maybe I’ll find her first. Saliss? Are you dead?”

He raised one claw up behind him, and Erin shrugged.

“Cool. Grimalkin! Hi! Do you need something?”

And there it was. The Drake knew she had seen him, and he sighed. Embarrassed, he straightened his spine and nodded at her.

“Not much of your time, Miss Solstice. If you can spare it.”

She gave him an odd look, and he wondered if her new class allowed her to sense his emotions—and she had already been good at that.

“Well, I’m sorta busy, but I’ve got time. Want to find Nanette with me? Mrsha, get yourself some lunch. You too, Dalimont. Can you make me a sandwich? I think I want to chase down this curse.”

Mrsha scampered off with the [Knight] as Grimalkin rose. Erin smiled at him, and he tried one on for size.

“I notice you are up on your feet, Erin. With a [Lion’s Strength] spell.”

“Gonna lecture me about using magic?”

“…No.”

He was tempted to, but the Sinew Magus let it slide. Erin cast around the inn.

“Locate Nanette. Locate…aha. She’s in the garden. Duh. Come on. How’s it been, Grimalkin? How’s things in Pallass now that the Meeting of Tribes has ended?”

He followed her to the open door and felt a nostalgic sense as he spoke.

“Pallass has not suffered unduly from the war, culturally or militarily. I understand there are Gnollish riots in some of the other cities. Not that Fissival had many, but there were protests in Zeres. Manus had them. Briefly.”

“City of War, huh?”

“I don’t believe they were dispersed with unnecessary force.”

“Just dispersed.”

He wasn’t going to defend that. Grimalkin walked with Erin around the garden and noticed more trees growing, but Erin was looking around, and her head rose.

“Ah. She’s up. And how’re you?”

“Adequate. I have been communicating with Ferkr, mostly. She may return to Pallass—but her future seems to be among the tribes. I have been sending her spellbooks, a curriculum, weight sets—”

“Isn’t she your apprentice? I thought she wasn’t ready to be a [Mage] yet.”

“She is possibly the finest apprentice I have ever trained. And I had little to do with that.”

Erin slowed as he ascended the hill. She looked at Grimalkin, and those words were true and close to his heart.

“She did the right thing. Didn’t she? You’re proud of her?”

The Sinew Magus straightened his back once more. He exhaled and felt his chest tighten.

“Immensely. That was entirely her character.”

“Yeah, but you taught her. You get a bit of credit for that, don’t you think?”

He felt gratified by that. Grimalkin ducked his head as Erin led him up the hill. She could be kind indeed.

She could be thoughtless. Well, Erin had too much to do, it wasn’t fair to say this was entirely her fault. But…

Nanette had free rein of The Wandering Inn. She was allowed to go anywhere, and the inn was safe. The family knew about the dangers of Erin’s other gardens, but Nanette had been told about that. She was intelligent and wise enough to occupy herself.

But someone—someone really should have warned her about the hill. It had slipped their minds.

 

——

 

That was how Erin and Grimalkin found her. She had been here for a while. Head raised, two brown braids hanging down the back of her neck. Her blue robes pooled around her legs in the grass.

Nanette was sitting, looking up at someone as if her legs had collapsed. As if they had no more strength to give. Her face was not blank—but it wasn’t torn by tears or grief.

It was just—stunned. Too stunned to properly register…

Erin put her hands over her mouth, and Grimalkin lowered his head. For there, standing with one hand on her hat, peering into the distance, was a tall woman. A [Witch], looking ahead as she so often did. Stern, but not unkind.

She stood alone, next to a tree, in this quiet place where mist clung to the ground. Nanette said nothing until she noticed Erin standing there.

“Nanette. I—oh no. Didn’t I tell you—didn’t someone—”

Erin looked around, but this was all her fault. Yet Nanette just looked up.

“I realized what this place was when I found it. Bird told me.”

Bird?

“Don’t be mad at him. He said it was a good place. I just…I didn’t realize my mother was here.”

Nanette looked up. Erin gazed around, and a scampering little girl ran up the hill with a sandwich. Mrsha dropped it when she saw Nanette and the statue and looked horrified.

“Nanette, I’m so sorry. I should have told you—warned you—”

The [Innkeeper] walked forwards, and Nanette shook her head. She looked up, and her round face stared at her mother’s. Longingly. Lost…but also with a kind of relief.

“She looks like I remember her. No, Miss Erin. Don’t apologize. I’m glad she’s here. It means…it means you remember her. She should be remembered.”

“Yes. She should.”

The little witch looked at Erin, and she understood what this Skill meant…more than most. She took a slow breath as a little Gnoll girl guiltily walked over.

“I’m fine. Really. It’s just…”

She looked up, and her brown eyes shimmered a bit. Nanette wiped at them.

“I’m allowed to cry, aren’t I?”

Tears trickled down her cheeks, and Erin looked so guilty nothing could be done. Nothing—but for Mrsha to hug Nanette. Erin bent down, and the little witch cried for a while.

Then she stood and nearly fell on her butt when she saw the giant Drake. He nodded at her.

“Miss Nanette. We have not met. I am Magus Grimalkin of Pallass. An acquaintance of the inn.”

“Oh. How do you do? I’m sorry, sir.”

“Not at all. I apologize for disturbing you.”

Nanette looked back at the statue, but she had been there long enough. Erin led her down the hill as Grimalkin picked up the sandwich.

I’m so—Nanette, come on, let’s get lunch. Lyonette, uh—uh—she was at the hill. And I didn’t tell her—

They returned to the common room, and everyone saw Nanette’s red eyes. Numbtongue looked up, and Lyonette gasped. Guiltily, the inn’s family gathered around except for Bird, who had done nothing wrong.

“I’m fine, really. I’ve been enjoying poking around.”

“Well—we need to be with you more, and you need to tell us what you want to do, Nanette! I mean it. How’s your room?”

“Very nice.”

“How’s…the food?”

Calescent looked worried until Nanette smiled at him.

“It’s all fine. I can’t ask for more, Miss Erin. Truly. I know you’re busy.”

“Is there anything you could possibly want?”

“Well…”

Shyly, the girl looked around. She kicked her legs as Mrsha handed the sandwich to Erin.

“…I was wondering if there were any books in the inn. Numbtongue has a few, but I like books. Mother would always take me to a library if there were one in the places we visited.”

Books! That’s it! Let’s get books! I’ve been meaning to get them anyways!”

Erin threw up her hands instantly, and Lyonette nodded.

“I’ll give you a budget.”

Guiltily, the inn’s family rushed about as Nanette protested they didn’t need to get—Grimalkin cleared his throat.

“If you’re looking for books, Miss Solstice, I recommend Invrisil or Pallass to buy them. I could list a few titles.”

“Thanks, Grimalkin. Why don’t we go now, Nanette? You and me, huh? I was meaning to go on a trip too—we can take Mrsha and get books, Lyonette. To Invrisil, I think.”

The [Princess] blinked, but one look at Nanette and she agreed. Erin decided they’d have a quick lunch, but she looked at Grimalkin—

“You wanna come? We can talk if it’s something you need to talk about.”

He hesitated, then nodded.

“Why not?”

That was how he, Nanette, Ser Dalimont, Erin, and Mrsha ended up going for a walk into Invrisil. After a pastrami on rye sandwich.

 

——

 

“Like my new door?”

“It’s certainly a choice.”

Erin rolled her eyes as Liska operated the [Portal Door]. It worked like the last one, but instead of a cheap system with stones, it had a window that showed you what lay on the other side, and the dial was beautiful, made of metal, and swung from icon to icon burned into the wood. Invrisil’s looked like the City of Adventurers’ crest, the same for Pallass and Liscor. Celum’s wasn’t one of the city—it was a little pirate’s flag and a bit of growing wheat.

“Wailant’s Farm, see? The sigils just appeared. I think, uh—they look like what I’m feeling.”

“Ah. So Riverfarm is a crown over a stylized piece of feces?”

“…I should probably change that.”

Erin rubbed at the door’s sigil as if she could erase it. Grimalkin eyed the door and frowned.

“I don’t see more than eight symbols. I thought the old door had more connections than that.”

“Me too! But here—let’s go to Invrisil, and you can see what’s weird.”

Erin opened the door, hopped through, and they appeared in a street in Invrisil. A crowd was waiting, but as a few guests piled through past Grimalkin, Nanette looking around in delight, the door vanished.

Grimalkin turned, and to his bemusement, he saw something in its place. An…engraved stone, much like a druidic marker or some ancient waystone, was embedded in the paving stones.

“Fascinating. A gateway marker.”

“Yup! I think it only works places I know. So, uh…everywhere I haven’t been? I can’t open it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I now need to go somewhere to set up a marker.”

“Indeed. Not an upgrade.”

Erin put her hands on her hips and glowered.

“Well, guess what? You can’t steal this! Go on! Try! You can’t! People have been trying to move it all day. But only if I say you can, you can. See?”

That was useful for security, and Grimalkin gave her that. The stone was still heavy when she let him pick it up, and Mrsha and Nanette could barely lift it before he had to take it from them.

“Very useful—but again, the original door had a number of uses on its own. Yet you can transport how many people here?”

“Two hundred. Every two hours.”

“Incredible.”

Nanette whispered. Grimalkin nodded. If Erin visited more spots, she could doubtless install her gateway there too. He wondered how likely that was.

At any rate, they moved on as Erin asked where to go first. At least Ser Dalimont knew the city, and there were a number of good bookstores Grimalkin had requested books from. He was just about to direct her to the first one when he noticed something.

“Erin. Did you say that was a charm to sense a curse?”

Erin blinked down at the little wicker bird hanging from her fingers. She raised it—and Nanette peered at it.

“Oh, Oliyaya’s work. It’s moving that way. Very strongly, too.”

Erin Solstice’s eyes widened, and she saw the wicker bird pulling, pulling her down a street to her right. She looked at it, and Ser Dalimont hesitated.

“Miss Solstice, Witch Agratha did indicate this might be dangerous. Now is not the time?”

The [Innkeeper] nodded, but her eyes swung to Grimalkin.

“We do have Grimalkin. What if we just—checked? This is a big city, and I doubt, uh—I doubt it’ll be dangerous in the most dangerous of senses. I’ve just got this curse on me, Grimalkin.”

“As one does?”

Erin winced, but Nanette smiled.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing where the bird leads. It sounds exciting. And if it goes somewhere dangerous, we can turn back. You can always turn back.”

“Hey, that’s right! I’ve never done that. Well, it’s time for books and curses! Follow the bird!”

Off they went. Grimalkin realized they were going on an adventure. Funnily enough…he didn’t mind. After all, he had once resented it because it felt like Erin was making use of his power to her ends.

These days—he saw her glance at him and wondered who was going to help who.

 

——

 

The cave was…

Buzzing.

Infinitypear and Rasktooth hesitated as they saw how it had been blocked off. They had been wandering around it for a while, and save for the odd stone plug on top, clearly designed to be removed, it was sealed.

“What is this, Infinitypear? Magic buzzing cave?”

“No. Bees.”

“Oh.”

Rasktooth didn’t really know bees, having lived in a cave all his life. Thus, he wasn’t really afraid as the only bee he knew was Apista, and she was nice. Infinitypear had also never been stung by a bee—small bees would never pierce his carapace.

They were less wary than they should be. But the two [Adventurers] were debating unplugging the gap.

“Is this stupid, Infinitypear?”

“Yah. But maybe lots of Apistas stuck in there? We should free them.”

Since the plug was on top of the cave’s roof and Infinitypear had a clumsier Worker’s body, Rasktooth was climbing up there with his arms and prodding at the stone plug. The buzzing…seemed to thrum through the stone, and Rasktooth wondered if this was a bad idea.

Maybe just a peek? He wondered how secure the lid of the plug was. Slowly, Rasktooth lifted the plug and—

It popped right out. It was so light and so unattached that the Cave Goblin shifted it away from the hole instantly. He overbalanced, and Infinitypear ran around the cave to catch him—but Rasktooth caught himself.

“Hey! This plug isn’t on at all!”

“Oh? What’s—”

Then the buzzing grew louder, and Rasktooth froze. He tried to put the plug back, but too late.

Ashfire Bees blew out of the tunnel in a swarm. Nearly a hundred of them flew up in a mass, and Infinitypear looked up—

And then thought of how big Apista’s stinger was. How dangerous she might be if she were mad. Rasktooth was flailing, covering his face as they descended—

Stop!

The Ashfire Bees halted, covering the Cave Goblin, and their stingers did not jab into his flesh. They were filthy, covered in—something strange—and—

And a second swarm of bees flurried around, bright yellow and black. More Ashfire Bees as the first one retreated back into the cave.

What was going on? Infinitypear and Rasktooth froze as the second swarm landed around the roof of the cave, and the dirty bees from within crawled around the entrance. They were rubbing antennae…kissing? But who had spoken? Where had the other bees come from?

The answer appeared as four buckets were slowly placed down and a bit of sugary water sloshed between the buckets. Both bee nests descended, and a figure raised one of their hands as all four buckets fed the two Hives.

“This is dangerous. You are not Miss Mrsha. Did she hire you to take my job?”

Rasktooth blinked, and Infinitypear brightened.

“Grass Shell!”

The [Shaman] backed away as the two bee colonies devoured the sugar buckets. He looked like a plant. More grass had grown on his shell, even a flower or two. A bee landed on his shell and began to suck nectar out of it.

“The bees in this cave are angry-angry. They will sting you. The new bees don’t go in. Except if they are needed. Something bad is there. The new bees feed this one. See?”

He pointed to the ‘kissing’ bees, and Rasktooth and Infinitypear saw they were actually doing what bees did—trading nectar and food.

“You have a job feeding bees?”

“Yes. A Drake did it last time, but he overcharged, so I took his job. Is it my turn to lose my job?”

Grass Shell looked resigned to the whims of economic fate, but Rasktooth and Infinitypear assured him they were just adventuring. The [Shaman] brightened up.

“Oh. Then I am happy. I am feeding the bees. I am allowed to buy sugar and water and things bees eat and put them here every week.”

“What’s in the cave?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did new hive come from?”

Rasktooth decided he was afraid of bees—especially the Ashfire Bees who were flying around and eating from the Floodplains’ flowers. Grass Shell shrugged.

“I don’t know. They flew here? I feed them too.”

“Why?”

Both [Adventurers] had many questions, but Grass Shell just puffed out his chest proudly as he put his hands on his hips.

“Because I am a [Shaman]. A [Beekeeper Shaman].”

The Goblin and Antinium looked at each other. Rasktooth held up a hand.

“Is that a good class?”

Grass Shell pondered the question.

“I get free honey.”

“Ooh. Good class.”

“Yes.”

This adventure had nearly ended in calamity, but it turned out to end in free honey. Grass Shell didn’t collect any from the angry Hive of dirty bees, and they actually pulled the plug back into place. Rather, he knew that the other Ashfire Bees were starting hives, and so he gave Rasktooth and Infinitypear a taste of a small jar he was allowed to harvest. It was so sweet it gave the two adventurers energy to race off—after thanking Grass Shell for his treat.

So many caves! Dangerous caves. Let’s not go to bee-cave again.

“Yah, yah.”

Rasktooth agreed as they wandered on. Infinitypear pointed to a new crack in the rock, so thin he could barely squeeze into it. Rasktooth, with his skin-body, would have had less trouble, but Infinitypear wondered if he could widen the gap.

It looked like it went into the mountain and down. Down deep, if Infinitypear were right—he tapped on the crack and heard an echo deep, deep down.

“Ooh. Big crack. Think we should go in?”

“No.”

The Antinium didn’t notice how Rasktooth had frozen on his shoulders. He peered down and wondered why his [Dangersense] was humming.

“Maybe a big drop? Maybe just a look—”

“Don’t go in there.”

Infinitypear halted—and Rasktooth stared into the crack in the mountain. The Worker slowly backed up. He tilted his head up to look at Rasktooth.

“Why?”

The Cave Goblin just stared at the crack in the rocks.

“The dungeon is down there. Bad death. Death…this is where Numbtongue went. Redfangs. Shield Spiders’ nest is here. And worse things. Below.

Infinitypear backed up fast. Shield Spiders? As in the entire nest of them? He looked at Rasktooth, alarmed.

“I thought adventurers sealed it.”

“They sealed some parts. This goes to Shield Spider nests.”

“How do you know?”

The Cave Goblin glared down at Infinitypear.

“I know. I live in dungeon all my life. I know everywhere in it. Even death-death-death city. Even metal armor place. Don’t go in. Stay away. Bad things are down there. Bad…things.”

He was so adamant that Infinitypear marched away. Somewhat upset, the two [Adventurers] slowed.

Bad things had happened there. Rasktooth didn’t look like he was in the mood for adventure any more.

“We go home now?”

Infinitypear pointed timidly at the inn, and Rasktooth nodded silently. They trooped back to the city.

Some adventures were too much for them. Too dark—and they wanted good adventures. Both of them knew they might not have a choice. Erin had promised them free food for a month, and what would happen after that?

What would they do? Infinitypear had worried—but as he neared the inn, that worry coalesced. He didn’t want to abandon Rasktooth—but he was still a Worker.

“Infinitypear. Before you go to the inn, you have to come with me.”

Grass Shell was on his way back, but he wasn’t headed to the inn. Infinitypear slowed as Rasktooth, who had been silent, looked up.

“Why?”

“Because we have been ordered. Remember? We go to the Free Hive. Revalantor Klbkch wants us.”

Then Infinitypear felt his heart sink. Rasktooth looked at Infinitypear as the Worker pointed to the inn.

“Let me put Rasktooth in a seat.”

“No. I go with?”

The Cave Goblin patted Infinitypear on the head. Because he felt the Worker tremble when Grass Shell said that name. He knew what Klbkch did to Workers he didn’t like. To Aberrations.

“That is not permitted.”

Grass Shell hesitated. Infinitypear’s antennae waved.

“There is no rule against Goblins in the Hive.”

“I’m pretty sure there is.”

Grass Shell muttered, but then the three were heading into the Hive of the Free Antinium via Erin’s basement. Perchance for destiny. But it was not one they wanted.

Everyone knew how a Worker’s story ended. The same for Cave Goblins like Rasktooth. The two [Adventurers]…

They wanted something more. Something better.

But the Slayer awaited.

 

——

 

A skeleton ran past a gateway deep in the dungeon. A barred door—and barred from the outside. As if it were there to keep something in.

Armored figures and Crypt Worms halted at the edge of the tunnels. They hesitated, and a few passed the barrier.

A writhing worm lashed out with arm-whips, screaming as it tried to tag the skeleton. But the figure—flew. It was running like a track champion from another world, and as it sensed the whips coming up, someone shouted.

Jump!

The skeleton leapt, both arms rising, a long-distance leap that carried it to safety. Then it touched down and began to cartwheel forwards. It sounded like it was laughing—but that was just the voices.

“We did it! Get the maps!”

The skeleton was dancing in place, raising its arms as the confused monsters looked on. The fact that it did celebrate—was because it deserved to. That was the difference between this undead and the mindless ones who walked the dungeon.

This skeleton began doing back-flips. And the voices continued.

Make it flip them off. Look, that Crypt Worm actually looks sad. Can your skeletons spit, Ama?

“I have heard throwing feces is a valid tactic. But I have not been allowed to keep a storage unit.”

“Ksmvr—who tells you this kind of stuff?”

“Bird.”

There the skeleton stood as the monsters, even the suits of armor with no flesh to break or lose—looked up. The Crypt Worms writhed forwards uncertainly, then turned to head back to the gates. The other monsters retreated, and the skeleton’s head slowly swiveled.

The celebration stopped.

“Dead gods. That’s…a lot of them. Ama, can you outr—they’re fast. Ceria, were they always that fast?”

“I—yes? We had a hundred Raskghar, sometimes. Ama, can your skeleton find Stalker? He’s in a plaza.”

All the skeleton had to do was climb one of the buildings, but shapes were emerging from the houses. Thousands of them, bounding across the streets, screaming—

Fleshy beings with no clothing, vaguely humanoid. Filled with missing holes and red, glistening flesh.

“A’ctelios Salash looks more inviting.”

Another voice cut in, and Colth’s tones were strained. The skeleton itself didn’t waste time arguing. Nor did its controller speak as she guided it to one of the buildings. It leapt up, caught a roof ledge, hauled itself up, and then leapt onto a balcony. From there, it ran at a wall of another house, kicked off it, and yanked itself up a window. Boosting itself up higher—

This is amazing. I had no idea skeletons could move—they’re coming up. Pisces, you taking notes?

“I am.”

This building afforded the skeleton a view of the entire area, and what it showed was…a city so vast it really did match Pallass. Then, the voices were silent. Only one spoke, cool, but trembling.

“I think we’d better save this image for someone more important to review. Chaldion, perhaps. There. There’s Stalker’s corpse.”

The swiveling skeleton stopped. The inhabitants of this place were climbing, but the skeleton pointed, and its finger saw a plaza not too far from here and a familiar monument.

“This must have been the exact same door we came through. I can even sort of see Stalker’s corpse around the monument.”

Yvlon grunted.

“I can’t. No…wait, is that a bloodstain? That plaza—compare it to Shivertail Plaza. That monument. Ceria, how big is this corpse?”

“Big enough that no bag of holding is going to cover it.”

Colth remarked, and there was excitement in his tone—and wariness. But the last voice broke in gently.

“Ama. We’ve found it. But I don’t think your skeleton…Scottie, is going to make it.”

The skeleton stood there on the tower’s roof, looking down at the screaming maws of teeth and thrashing tails and limbs from the things below. Then, and only then, a quiet voice emerged from its mouth, and its jaw moved in sync with a younger woman’s voice.

“No. No, he did a good job. You hear that, Scottie? You did the best job. No one could do it. Only you. Rest now.”

Scottie the Scout Skeleton stood there, his blue-flame eyes glowing in this place, a blank undead with no personality. No soul.

But these things were still given to him. He still had a name. So, even if she made him do it, the skeleton saluted. He grinned—and then the spell in the scrying stone cut out. The first figure pulled itself up, and the skeleton swung a fist.

 

——

 

It was done. Colth let out a breath it seemed he’d been holding the last hour as a single skeleton defied all expectations. Pisces lowered his hand, and his sweating brow was mopped by Ksmvr, who had decided offering drinks and handkerchiefs was his role.

Twenty-four times. Pisces hadn’t even known you could remotely repair someone else’s undead—or that link-magic worked between [Necromancers] like that. Twenty-four times he’d mended Scottie’s broken or seared bones and amplified the skeleton’s mana.

Ceria was reading from one of the spellbooks she had, the burned one.

“[Speed]. [Speed]…imagine what we could do if I actually studied enough?”

“He had [Lesser Speed].”

That was the only thing the young woman said. Ama, the [Necromancer], sat in the middle of her coven. Oh, her apprentices tried to pretend they were just ordinary bystanders, but the Horns knew better. So did Colth, but he seemed fine on ignoring them if they helped him find the treasure.

Each one of the junior [Necromancers] had thrown skeletons into the dungeon with about Pisces and Colth’s adeptness at best. But Ama’s skeleton—

Scottie. Ama had a hood on and a mask. She’d moved the mask so she could sip drinks, but not to be outdone, she’d still had a layer of face-paint underneath to make her features as white as chalk. Now—she sat there, very still.

The Horns’ skepticism of her was by now long gone. Even Pisces hadn’t expected the first skeleton to make it that far. Colth’s whoop of joy, though, never quite came.

Ama’s pale makeup ran and dripped from her chin, past her mask. Splatters of paint-tears landed on her robes. Yvlon looked askance. She glanced at Pisces—but he had never wept for his undead.

Ama, though—Yvlon looked at the crying young woman, reached out to pat her shoulder, then coughed and put her hands behind her back. She spoke, straightening her spine, as if she were some [General] delivering bad news to a grieving widow or lover.

“Scottie did a great job. The best of jobs, Ama. I’ve never seen a better skeleton.”

Pisces opened his mouth, and Yvlon, Ceria, and Ksmvr glared at him. He shut it. Yvlon went on.

“He did the impossible and kept going, even through traps and monsters—Facestealer itself gave up on him. Thanks to him, we’ve found the corpse of Stalker. And I—we’ll definitely reward you for your help. I hope Scottie can be remade?”

“Not with the same bones. I helped make him.”

One of the coven’s [Necromancers] muttered. They looked misty-eyed too, and one of them sniffed.

It was a skeleton. But somehow, Pisces watched Ama and realized that her skeletons mattered more than his warbear and even the Frostmarrow Behemoth. Because hers had names.

In fact—her skeleton was like—

Ivery. Ivery and Bearbones. Despite Pisces’ objections at the time to the naming of the Skeleton Lord and his warbear mount, because it made no difference—it clearly did.

The only cost was the emotional damage when you lost one of the skeletons. Again, why Pisces eschewed the practice.

And yet—here sat Ama. Ksmvr went over to Numbtongue to request a dirge, and Yvlon decided to pat her on the shoulder after all. Which the Hobgoblin began to play.

“Thank you for helping us, Ama.”

Ceria offered Ama her good hand—then decided to give her the skeletal hand instead. Ama took it, admiring Ceria’s bones, and looked up. Her watery gaze tried to turn into a haughty mask, but she just sniffed instead.

“Scottie would have wanted to go out that way. He was meant to do great things. I’ll rebuild him better. With…with spells on his bones so he can go invisible.”

“Or jump higher.”

“Or explode.”

Ksmvr added, and Yvlon nudged him, but Ama smiled waterily. There it was.

Somehow, Pisces’ [Necromancer] friend had already won over his team. Pisces hovered there, caught between relief, excitement, and a kind of indignation.

He wondered if Yvlon would have accepted his magic earlier if he’d named his undead. Called his horse…Hoofbone or something.

It occurred to Pisces that he might not be good at naming things. It occurred to him that Ama was practicing a different type of necromancy than he was. She looked up, and Pisces said the first thing that came into his mind.

“Gewilena would be proud.”

Ama looked up—and smiled.

“Yeah. She would be happy. And mad at me for getting Scottie killed. It’s okay. I know he’s a skeleton. He just did such a good job—

Her voice broke on ‘job’. Nothing would do but for everyone to get her a drink—and a piece of pizza. Only then did Colth feel he could interrupt.

“Maybe we can grab his bones. Once we get Stalker. We have a route, people. The way’s treacherous, but we’ve mapped out the location of traps, and whether it’s skeletons or living bodies, we’re getting that hide. Bones and hide, it occurs to me, if that thing has them.”

Pisces, Ama, and the Horns looked up. The other adventurers listening in stirred. Colth the Supporter smiled, and his eyes shone with real excitement for the first time. However, even Yvlon looked askance.

“We’ve found the corpse, Colth, but even getting here—how many skeletons did we lose? A hundred and twenty-five?”

“A hundred and twenty-six—”

Ksmvr had been counting. Yvlon traced the long route through the dungeon.

“Even assuming we found shorter ways than what Scottie took, we have to navigate around traps, watch out for ambushes the entire way. And Facestealer…I estimate a two hour round trek. We can’t run like Scottie, and I don’t fancy losing another limb. Anyone else?”

“We’ve already taken one for the team.”

Ceria and Ksmvr waved their respective arms that had been lost. True, Ksmvr’s had grown back. They gave Pisces a significant look, and he sniffed.

“Pass.”

The Horns of Hammerad’s humor made Colth grin. But the [Supporter] had a plan. He calmly laid it out for the Horns.

“I’m no fool, Yvlon. But knowing where the treasure is and how to get there makes our life easier. It may be time to call in other teams for support—but we can do it. With your [Ice Wall] spells, we can literally block our way out. Facestealer and those monster hordes are the real threat, and transporting Stalker’s corpse. Let’s take them on one at a time…well, for Stalker, the solution is a Chest of Holding. Top-grade. I’ll ask Larra for one, which means we’re carrying it. Or using undead to drag it.”

“Hordes?”

“[Invisibility]. If not, a cloud spell. If both those don’t work, I suggest undead and summoned creatures.”

“The only [Summoner] I know is Revi. Unless you…?”

“Larra can get us in touch with a Drathian supplier who sells single-use summoning stones. I’m willing to pay for two Manticores.”

Ama was calming down from losing Scottie. She listened with one ear to the adventurers talk. Fairly enviously. Pisces was frowning as he debated how useful the Frostmarrow Behemoth would be.

This was…a lot better than sitting in the windmill carving bones, she had to admit. This inn didn’t bat an eye at her skeletons. The food was interesting, and she—

She expected to be forgotten, but Ceria glanced over and gave Ama a friendly smile.

“Don’t forget Ama. If we’re hiring help, Colth, a skeleton escort would be useful.”

Me? I’m not an adventurer. I don’t fight monsters like that.”

“Have you not registered? Are we sequestering civilian help? That comes with a markup if she belongs to a guild. Tsk, tsk.”

Ksmvr propped open the Adventurer’s Guild rulebook and began to scribble an adjustment to their records, but Colth smiled.

“Use every tool is my motto. You don’t have to do anything. If you can send even eight skeletons with us remotely—that would be a nice group to delay a monster ambush. Do you have any more undead tricks to use?”

Yvlon nodded.

“Stuff Pisces doesn’t know?”

“Hey.”

Ama had to think. She scooted over, and her coven looked at her excitedly. From meeting with Pisces as equals to helping a Named-rank adventurer—

Some days just felt this good, huh?

 

——

 

One of the [Necromancers] in Ama’s Coven was named Rodden. He was one of the ones who had first gotten Pisces’ autograph, and until this very moment, he’d been debating begging Pisces to teach him magic—or leaving Ama’s coven.

The ‘Deathlady’ was a lot better than him at necromancy, but she was controlling, snappish, hoarded all the best bones and items they scrounged, and he had expected to gain gold from scaring [Merchants] or finding lost treasure in graves.

She—didn’t do that. She was almost respectable. Just living in the overgrown farmstead, making undead with admittedly superior qualities.

Rodden had met other [Necromancers], and they weren’t like her. Except for Pisces—he would have taken what he could and found someone else.

Now, he felt like he was lucking out. Imagine what he’d get for helping a Named-rank adventurer. Pisces was a [Necromancer] in the open. This was his chance.

Maybe the Horns needed a new teammate?

Rodden was outside the inn now, heading to the chasm from which the skeletons had entered the dungeon. He was there to disassemble the skeletons waiting to go in—and to scrounge up everything he could.

To keep the monsters from coming up the pit, Ceria, Ksmvr, and Colth had fired spells and arrows down, and the skeletons had killed a few monsters down there.

Even the corpse of a lesser Silver-rank monster was worth a lot. Not that he was going down there, oh no. The skeletons were standing there, but Rodden directed them to head down on the ropes. He’d have them carry up whatever they could and then disassemble them.

That was bones for him and whatever he’d get for the bodies. Ama wouldn’t notice, he was sure. Then maybe he’d beg Pisces for a word. After all—Ama might want to reacquaint herself with her old friend, but Pisces didn’t know all of what she’d been doing while he became an adventurer.

Rodden waited as the skeletons slid down the ropes, and something odd happened. They weren’t his undead—Ama had raised the lot and divided control among her coven. But he could feel…their magical spells vanishing one by one. Followed by a sound.

Crack. Crack.

Huh? Five skeletons slid down, and they vanished in five cracks of sharp, brittle bones. Oh no—Rodden groaned.

“Did they slide off the ropes?”

Undead were stupid like that. Tell them to jump off a cliff and they would. He hurried to the edge of the chasm and looked down. He got vertigo, but he fully expected to see a pile of bones at the bottom of the hundred plus foot descent.

Instead—he saw something else. It looked like a brown…rectangle. Oddly geometric, really. It had two long limbs, and its legs dangled as two huge claws dug into the earth.

It was huge. Ten feet tall? Twice, three times, four times as wide as Rodden, and so thick he couldn’t imagine how heavy it was.

How hard was it to climb hundreds of feet with only those arms? How…mad…would you have to be to do that?

Rodden stared down as two grotesque slits in the face of the monster angled up to him. He saw no eyes beyond—just wounds in Facestealer’s front.

“M—m—”

The [Necromancer] froze up. He had seen monsters, but Ama had killed them, and always, he’d been behind a layer of undead. In that moment, he realized he was no natural adventurer.

He wished he’d realized it this morning. For the man fell back on his butt—and even in terror, he longed to get up and run. Run and scream and tell them a monster was coming. Because the Horns were in the inn…but his legs wouldn’t move.

He lay on his back, trying to move, but he was paralyzed. Helpless. The man’s eyes rolled in terror as he heard the sound continuing.

Crack. Crack…the sound of claws digging into stone. Slowly, Facestealer hauled itself up. And the [Necromancer]’s eyes leaked tears as the first bit of Facestealer’s body lifted itself over the chasm.

It turned out—it was this sort of day after all.

 

——

 

In Albez, Ylawes Byres sat with Dawil and Falene, glancing at the entrance to the laboratory of Udatron. He tried not to, tried to talk with his teammates.

“…should head to House Byres first. It’s only a few days before, uh—Ysara might not visit.”

“Not after years in the south? Is she doing well, that sister of yours?”

Dawil murmured, just as distractedly. Falene raised her brows.

“I thought I heard you two arguing.”

“Things are tense. I’m sure she’ll visit. We should head back. Maybe Yvlon would go and—and then we can discuss the south. Things.”

Falene nodded a few times.

“Things. Yes.”

The Silver Swords’ usual flow and diction was being cut off. Falene and Ylawes blinked, looked away from the laboratory, but they couldn’t help it.

The [Rogues] and [Mages] were inside. They were de-trapping the place, and a group of Named-ranks and the Gold-ranks were clustered around the entrance. Waiting.

Deniusth was a mix of patience and impatience. He was telling everyone they would not rush in and lose this haul—while looking like he had the fullest bladder in the world. He paced back and forth, he talked rapidly—and he laughed.

Orchestra, Variable Fortress, and the other northern teams were in the greatest mood imaginable. A giddy excitement that might be higher than the actual dividing of loot.

Look what was inside. Ylawes didn’t know who Udatron was—and by now, everyone was scouring the history books for his name—but it was clear that the [Chronomancer] had owned a private lair not despoiled by any treasure seekers.

Unlike Thresk, this was no private room, but a full workshop. And unlike Thresk—there was no major death-spell that anyone had found.

“Maybe he really didn’t arm his laboratory. If that Thresk set up the elementals—”

Falene looked at Dawil askance.

“Who doesn’t arm a host of traps?”

The Dwarf tugged at his beard.

“…Someone who doesn’t feel like accidentally killing himself? A [Mage] of better times, Falene? Not everyone has to play with daggers like Wistram. I’m just saying. Either there’s one last Tier 7 spell the [Rogues] are missing or there aren’t any.”

They were advancing by inches, casting spells everywhere and trying to make sure they weren’t triggering a network of spells, but it really seemed like the laboratory wasn’t highly warded. Which made sense. Did you put a flame-jet spell where you were working on your magic?

Not just magic, either. The reason everyone was so happy was that it was clear there was both an armory and library. But what got Ylawes thinking was the revelation that Udatron was one of those classic [Mages].

“Alchemy and enchanting gear. Hedault will be doing backflips. That might be worth more than any single artifact. Imagine techniques from that age!”

A few teams were standing around, saying much the same thing as the Silver Swords. One of them—this was another local team that Ylawes didn’t know—was grumbling.

“Yeah, but we’re not going to get even that. Orchestra and all the top northern teams get everything.

Sour grapes for some. Ylawes shifted.

“Did Captain Deniusth ever say how the loot’s going to be shared?”

“He made a few promises that Gold-ranks would get a pick once they sorted everything. But that’s not exactly promising. Might take weeks to argue over, but I bet you Larracel will be where they argue. And the Haven is fair. I think.”

Dawil commented. Falene nodded.

“…We should get a spellbook. If we get a single pick.”

Ylawes and Dawil looked at her. Both [Warriors] opened their mouths instantly. Ylawes coughed into a fist.

“Hold on, Falene.”

“Yeah, pointy. Hold on. I could use a new hammer. I lost my axe at Wistram, remember?”

“You can reforge it. What’s more important, a bevy of new spells or a sword?”

“Ylawes could use a new sword. He’s been dying for upgrades for ages.”

“I could use a new sword, Falene.”

A spellbook is a hundred swords! Hear me out, you two—”

“No, go ask Archmage Eldavin for a bunch of spells. Isn’t he teaching them to all the factions?”

“Only Terras, not Centrists!”

“Well, join them and throw over your lot. Ylawes, my boy, you and I need gear. That Earth Elemental proves it. This is…uh…a necessity for the team.”

Falene was turning red, but Ylawes had to cover a smile.

“I’m with Dawil on this one, Falene. Besides, wouldn’t the spellbooks be grabbed before we got a pick?”

“Not if there’s a library. Dawil, I’ll enchant your hammer.”

“You couldn’t enchant a knife to cut butter. We followed your Wistram hunch, pointy. This time, one of us two gets the artifacts unless there’s nothing—and unfortunately for you, they saw a bunch of swords and weapons inside.”

The Silver Swords bickered as Falene protested. Ylawes knew it might be in bad form—but it was just humor. He did feel for the Silver-rank teams, though. They weren’t even pushing to get a look inside—just sitting together and probably grousing.

“Captain Anith?”

The Jackal Beastkin blinked and jumped as Ylawes waved at him. The [Knight] looked sympathetic as Nailren turned.

“Ylawes. Any word on whether we’re done?”

“No. How are your teams feeling?”

“Ah—well, we’re debating. The treasure, that is. It looks like there’s a lot, but the Silver-rankers aren’t too pleased. Even some local Gold-rank teams.”

The Waterborn Raiders again? However, Anith nodded to a group of lower-ranked and local teams, and Nailren sniffed.

“A divide between north and south. I’ve seen it with adventurers from Walled Cities. It’ll be interesting…well. We’ve been thinking.”

“About?”

Anith and Nailren traded glances. The Jackal glanced at Ylawes and sighed. Nailren scratched at his chin.

“…Nothing much. I’m going for a walk. Anith?”

The Jackal hesitated, then groaned.

“Let me find my team.”

They hurried off, and Ylawes raised his brows.

“What was that about?”

“No clue.”

Nailren’s team and Anith’s Vuliel Drae were drifting towards Ylawes’ team. The Silver Swords didn’t know what was up, but Deniusth’s loud voice made everyone raise their heads.

Almost done? What’s taking you all so long? You’ve been an hour and a half and you can’t tell—fine! We’ll wait!”

They really were just checking to see if there was some final death-trap spell. Ylawes sighed and decided he needed to pee too. He was wondering if they had a latrine or if he’d have to march for a while to get out of range—and smell—of the other teams when he heard a commotion.

Instantly, half the adventurers turned, expecting the trap. This was it. There was always a damn catch—

Deniusth lifted his violin bow with a curse, and Eldertuin put his shield up. But what they heard wasn’t an alarm. Rather—one of the adventurers landed, panting.

Wasn’t that the Gold-rank Owl Beastkin strategist from the Village of the Dead raid? She pointed.

“Captain Deniusth—there’s an army coming our way! All the civilians are running for it.”

“What? What army—the Antinium?”

Deniusth looked blankly at her. But the [Strategist] just shook her head.

“No—they’re flying Remendia’s colors! The entire city’s standing forces are headed our way with Ocre’s colors too!”

“What the—”

Ylawes was already on his feet as Orchestra and all the other teams abandoned the laboratory and rushed to the edge of the pit. The Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, and other teams arrayed warily at the edge of the ruins.

Sure enough—Ylawes saw thousands of Humans coming their way. Deniusth swore.

That’s the city’s entire army. It looks like the Watch and—”

“What’s the move, Deniusth? Are they trying to steal the treasure?”

Viecel was alarmed. He bared his teeth, and the Captain of Orchestra looked around.

“They had better not try. Hey—Solar Strikes, deploy your team here. Jelaqua, put Moore up on the road. Everyone—fan out and stop them from encircling this place. We’ll go out and meet them, but no one sneaks down to the dig site!”

The other teams he knew nodded and fanned out fast. Ylawes caught Deniusth’s arm.

“Captain Deniusth, this can’t be a fight.”

“It won’t be—but we can’t let a city steal this treasure. Damn vultures.”

The Named-rank had a point, but Ylawes refused to let Named-ranks fight low-level [Soldiers]. He had seen Orchestra’s Combined Skill. It would be a massacre—and a disaster.

However, Eldertuin seemed just as determined to prevent this. He turned to Halrac.

“Got anything white? Raise a flag, Deni. We’re being peaceful.”

“Sure we are—Eld, you come with me. Ivirith, Captain Halrac—Captain Ylawes, you too, even. Might help to have some local teams. We’re being peaceful, and it’d damn well better stay that way.”

In short order, a group of adventurers, including Ylawes, were marching down the slope towards the Remendian army. It was a small army, and Ylawes bet they were under ten thousand strong even with Ocre’s help.

…But they outnumbered the adventurers by far. Deni was looking around.

“Damn. No one brought anything to impress them with? Maybe we should have ridden out. Where’s our horses?”

“Other side.”

“Well—just look impressive. Tell Moore to come with us.”

Ylawes didn’t worry about that. He was just watching the Remendian army slow down. He saw…a lot of nerves.

A very nervous Watch Captain and a local military commander who looked to be in his mid-forties halted, and there was a flurry as low-level [Soldiers], possibly even [Militia], came to a scattered halt.

Not a good sign. For them. Ylawes knew soldiers from House Byres—his family did have a standing force. This was an untrained lot. Still—the [Commander] shouted.

I am Commander Leir of Remendia! Captain Deniusth of the Named-rank team Orchestra! On behalf of Remendia, Ocre, and the town of Eesfalt, we would like to parley in peace! [A Pact of Trust]! Do we have your word?

What is Remendia doing here, Commander?

Deniusth hollered back. The Commander paused.

I would like to discuss your finds at Albez! Cordially, Captain Deniusth! Do I have your word?

“Damn. They know. Who leaked the information? One of the [Diggers]?”

Deniusth cursed, but he called back after a while.

“Yes, of course! Peaceful! We will approach!”

A small group of adventurers walked forwards as the other teams watched. Ylawes looked back for Anith and Nailren, hoping they weren’t doing anything provocative. If the Waterborn Raiders caused trouble…to his relief, he didn’t see anyone taking up archery positions.

That might have been enough for some of the soldiers to run. They knew they might be up against Gold and Named-ranks, and they stared with awe and horror at Deniusth as he stomped across the ground.

The [Commander], Watch Captain, two low-level [Negotiators]—and the head of the local Adventuring Guild—were all mounted. They dismounted, and Ylawes realized Remendia’s ruling Council wasn’t here.

Possibly Deniusth’s scowl had chased them behind the soldiers or this was a matter they thought better represented by combat classes.

“Captain Deniusth, we realize this is an…unfortunate moment. However, we felt we had to insist on this meeting.”

“With an army at your back, Commander? I warn you now—we are adventurers of the Adventurer’s Guilds of Izril. Strong-arming the treasure in Albez will not go well for you here or politically.”

Strong-arming? You—”

The Watch Captain fell silent as one of the [Negotiators] took over.

“Captain Deniusth, we are acting prudently. Legally, we have given you the right to excavate Albez’s treasures. However—we are aware this excavation is being done in part by the [Emperor] of Riverfarm.”

Was that what this was about? Ylawes stirred, and Halrac gritted his teeth. Deniusth’s face, though, was blank.

“And if it is?”

The Remendians shared a quick look. The [Negotiator] hurried on.

“…We are entirely aware of multiple forces in Albez, and it is true no one lays claim to the ruins, but we are still the gatekeepers. If there is a negotiation, we are willing to take it on in good faith. But Captain, we must insist on a share of Albez’s treasures.”

At least they weren’t trying to hide it. Deniusth’s teeth shone pearly-white as he gritted them.

“Ah. And you think this army will force us into giving over…a ‘fair share’? I regret to say, this [Emperor] merely facilitated finding Albez. Whatever shares he is entitled to are proportional. Frankly, I would have said Remendia is owed a similar due in gold—but I will not be forced into giving over a large share of Albez’s treasures, Commander.”

A quick look between the Remendian delegation seemed—confused.

“Just so long as you intend to pay us something, we’re willing to negotiate. We’ll halt here and begin the discussions if you will, Captain Deniusth.”

“At the tip of a sword? I don’t think so. Your army needs to stop now, Commander. I don’t trust them around Albez.”

The Watch Captain was purpling with anger as Deniusth glared. He burst out, despite the others trying to keep him silent.

“Well, we don’t trust you with the treasures unwatched, Captain! Named-rank or not, we won’t let you run off with everything! No matter how many adventurers you have—”

Orchestra’s leader bristled as Eldertuin frowned. The Guildmaster of Remendia’s Adventurer Guild interrupted.

“What Watch Captain Illthe is trying to say is—the Adventurer’s Guild will look coldly upon any hoarding of due shares, Captain Deniusth. I am here to negotiate in fairness between all parties.”

“Fairness? How much did Remendia pay you? When First Landing’s Guild hears of this—

Remendia’s side was getting agitated, and Deniusth was red in the face. Neither one was about to draw a blade, but the Captain of Orchestra looked ready to throw hands. But before he could, Eldertuin touched his shoulder.

“Hold, Deni. I think we’re working at cross angles on the same tree. Commander, can we clarify something?”

Ylawes had picked up on the oddities too. The Commander of Remendia looked relieved as Eldertuin, calmer by far, stepped forwards. Viecel frowned as Eldertuin gestured at the army.

“What, exactly, are you accusing Deni and the adventurers here of doing, Commander? Our assumption is that Remendia is trying to…persuade us to give them a larger share than they’re due.”

“What? No—we’re trying to make sure we get a share at all! Rather than you running off with everything!”

The Watch Captain exploded, and Ylawes felt a prickle on the back of his neck. He swung around, and Eldertuin’s brows rose as Jelaqua made a confused, ‘huh’ sound.

“Wait—Watch Captain, I assure you in the name of House Byres, we are not going to simply disappear with the treasures. Captain Deniusth was prepared to recompense every side for the artifacts recovered in gold—if not loot.”

Ylawes stepped forwards, and he was recognized. Commander Leir actually bowed slightly to him, looking relieved.

“Captain Ylawes of the Silver Swords! I almost didn’t recognize you—that’s a relief to hear you say that. You see, Captain Illthe? If an honorable [Knight] vouches for this—maybe this is all a misunderstanding.”

“I don’t understand. Someone spell it out for me.”

Deni growled. The Remendians looked at each other, and the [Negotiator] spoke up.

“We, ah—we were assured that your teams—not Orchestra specifically—but the adventurers present were intending to loot this new find in Albez and share none of it with Remendia. Or any other groups, including the Adventurer’s Guild.”

“Huh? What? Who said that?”

Jelaqua Ivirith’s eyes widened. But Typhenous was whispering to Halrac, and the Gold-rank [Bowman] was staring back at Albez. Without a word, Halrac whirled.

Deniusth gave the Remendians such a disbelieving look that even Watch Captain Illthe hesitated.

“Me? Defraud a city and the guild of…I was one of the adventurers who conquered Chalence. I paid out my dues then, and I have the coin to recompense everyone personally, even if I took every artifact in this laboratory we found! Who’s saying that? Are the [Diggers] unhappy I paid them standard rates? This is outrageous. This is…”

Ylawes Byres had begun to feel a sinking sensation the moment he saw Typhenous’ look of pure alarm. He looked at Halrac, and the [Bowman] was striding back, calling to Revi and Briganda on the ridge. Deniusth’s mind caught up with his mouth, and his head slowly turned, and Eldertuin groaned.

“No.”

Viecel the Gambler just looked back without a word. A…copper coin seemed to drop in Commander Leir’s mind, and he muttered as Viecel began running without a word. Ylawes saw him turn to the Guildmaster.

“—Who exactly called in that tip to your Guild? Guildmaster Penec?”

The Guildmaster looked at Deniusth’s slowly widening eyes, the teams on the ridge slowly turning—the Gold-rank teams mostly, and northern teams at that. He replied with a sudden wobble in his tone.

“W-we wouldn’t have taken that suggestion so seriously of Captain Deniusth from a civilian. Believe me. I had it from a Gold-rank Team. Three, actually. But the Captain of the Waterborn Raiders himself—”

Ylawes didn’t hear anything else. He was already running back the way he came. All the adventurers were. Deniusth flashed past him, and Ylawes was pounding up the slope as adventurers raised weapons.

Half of them were staring at Remendia’s forces, expecting them to charge, but Dawil roared down.

Hold your fire or I’ll break your toes! Ylawes, what’s going on?

“It’s a trick! Dawil, the lab! The lab—”

The [Knight] shouted, but he didn’t make any sense. Dawil gave him a blank look—and then Typhenous howled.

It’s a double-cross! They’re stealing the treasure!

Every adventurer looked up—then whirled to the dig site. Deniusth screamed.

Orchestra!

They charged up the slope, and now, Remendia’s army was following them. Ylawes wasn’t first by far—Jelaqua was faster with Viecel, rampaging, and Seborn, Deniusth, and the faster adventurers leapt over the slope shielding the ruins and the dig site from view. By the time the [Knight] got up there—

He saw what was going on.

 

——

 

The Laboratory of Udatron. Possibly one of the greatest hauls in Albez’s history, let alone modern times. It had never been pillaged, even when Albez was buried. Guarded only by the late Warmage Thresk, it had lain abandoned.

And it definitely had a trap, right? More than the elementals? There had to be a catch.

What if…the trap wasn’t there, though? What if you just actually, genuinely got lucky? Assuming that was true—there was loot for all. Of course, only the Named-ranks would get it and the top, new teams from the north who got to luck out just by coming this far south.

How many local Silver-rank teams and Gold-ranks might be upset by that? Especially teams who’d gotten a hefty payout—but no relics from the Village of the Dead raid?

Let’s assume you had motive. And enough teams were on board. The next question was—how would you get to that treasure before the Named-ranks? They would never give way to that kind of mass-pressure, and they were dozens of levels above the other teams.

A distraction would have to be on the size of an army. And it wouldn’t last long. But if every team in on it stayed behind, pretended to be digging in while everyone rushed to confront Remendia…that was their opening.

It didn’t take long for Deniusth to meet with Remendia’s leadership, but he had to be wary. The conversation was short, but between the posturing and miscommunications—he gave them about twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes was a short amount of time. Some people couldn’t finish breakfast in twenty minutes.

But time…as Udatron would have told you, was relative. Twenty minutes might be a sliver of time to read a book or write one.

…But to run into a laboratory? Especially one that the [Rogues] had already checked and were just pretending to check now? If you were inside, feigning casting [Detect Magic] on a rack of weapons, how much time did it take to grab one and stuff it in a bag of holding?

How many books or artifacts could you stuff in a bag of holding in five minutes? The next question was—how did you get away in the fifteen you had left?

Again, the trick was—Ylawes saw the last teams scrambling for the horses and wagons. Half were already riding out, and he saw pack animals running as figures cut their reins and made them stampede.

Stop! Stop!”

Deniusth was howling. He raced down the slopes, faster than anyone else. The Named-rank adventurer was sprinting at a group of Silver-ranks.

Vuliel Drae? No, a local team. And one of the Waterborn Raiders was slowed down, lugging what looked like entire urns into a wagon.

He’s coming! Run!

Half the teams were in flight already, but at the sight of the furious Named-ranks, the rest abandoned everything and ran.

Don’t let them escape! Get the horses! Get the—

All the mounts were either taken or gone. Deniusth stormed towards the wagon trying to head off as one of the Raiders tried to make the two mules race, but they reared in alarm, frightened by the noise. The cursing Gold-rank adventurer looked up as Captain Deniusth ran at him.

“I—look, Captain—”

The grinning Gold-rank adventurer looked for his team as they turned, riding horses in the distance. He raised his hands, turning pale as the Violinist leapt at him.

The Waterborn Raider flinched—then blinked. He looked down, and Ylawes Byres halted in horror on the slopes.

The other adventurers looked back as Deniusth shoved the raider back on the wagon. The man stumbled back—then the Violinist drew the violin’s bow he used in place of a rapier.

A string of blood clung to the bow as the Violinist yanked it out of the man’s chest. He turned, and in the deathly silence that followed, drew a dagger. Deniusth lifted it and threw.

Deni—

The dagger flew through the air at another Raider. The adventurer ducked—and the dagger swerved down into her neck. She grabbed at it, screaming—and then one of the Gold-ranks raised a bow.

“[Homing Shot]!”

She aimed a bow at a fleeing Silver-rank team on a cart. The arrow flashed out—and Halrac loosed an arrow. The two arrows collided in midair as he intercepted her.

Hold your fire!

The [Bowman of Loss] howled at her, but the first arrow was followed by a volley of magical arrows from one of Deni’s teammates.

Stop them!

Then the Gold-ranks were attacking other adventurers. Eldertuin yanked one of his teammates’ arms down, but the other teams were charging at the fleeing looters. Ylawes looked around in horror—and the other teams were now running for their lives.

Gores! Stop them!

Deniusth shouted at his teammate, and the other Named-rank halted. He raised his horn, aimed it at the closest groups fleeing, horses and teams, and spoke.

“[Cone of Sound: Brown Note].”

The ripple of sound went through the adventurers, and Ylawes saw the horses wobble in place. He saw adventurers lurch—then clutch at their stomachs and then—

That was horrific, but merciful. Adventurers slowed as web spells caught their mounts or the wheels of their carts. Some leapt off and ran—others just dropped their weapons, seeing the two dead Raiders.

The rest were running. The smartest adventurers had already been ten minutes in flight, and Deniusth was climbing onto a horse.

“I’ll kill them all. Tell Remendia to find them! Every single damn team—I want every Adventurer’s Guild on the continent to get them!

“There are dozens of teams. Dozens and dozens—Deni, stop!

Eldertuin grabbed his arm. The bloody Violinist was frothing with rage, almost literally. Spit flew from his mouth as he shouted at his friend.

I’ll have them, Eldertuin! Let go of me!

He raised his bloody bow, and the other Named-rank let go. Ylawes heard Viecel shouting at a [Mage].

“Tell them to find the other teams! All of them!”

“Who?”

“What do you mean, who—

Then the [Gambler] looked up, and Deniusth began racing his horse after the other adventurers. Ylawes, panting, looked back at the mess of the ruins, the adventurers halting with hands up—and he didn’t recognize a lot of the Silver-rank teams, or even Gold-rank ones.

And he knew this region. How many had come from Remendia? How many had he not even paid attention to?

Now he understood why they’d risked it. Deniusth had no idea who had the loot. Some of the Gold-rank teams—they had to have taken a gamble.

Relics and artifacts versus the wrath of Orchestra and the northern teams. They were headed straight south. To Celum? To Liscor? Or just into hiding? Deniusth spun and shouted one last thing as he rode at the fleeing adventurers.

Call The Wandering Inn! Tell them to catch them! Don’t let any of them through!

Then he was gone. But he had no riding Skills and…Ylawes saw the fleeing adventurers casting spells back the way they’d come at the few pursuers. Remendia’s army was joining the chase belatedly, and Ylawes Byres looked around.

“Lad. You’d better see this.”

Dawil appeared. Ylawes saw his hands were bloody—but it was from the adventurers. The two Waterborn Raiders were dead, and at least a dozen adventurers were down, crying out from their wounds.

This was—one of the bloodiest adventuring encounters ever. In minutes. The last few moments of the Albez windfall were—

Ylawes saw Dawil heading towards the laboratory. Falene was there, peering inside. Ylawes looked and saw—

Empty shelves. Strewn sets of holders for alchemical items, empty cupboards, all the neat, glorious, glowing treasures of Udatron sacked.

“Maybe there’s something in there. The wagons…Deni stopped a few.”

Viecel was standing in the center of the laboratory, looking around, clawing at his face in frustration. Ylawes saw nothing—and Dawil gave Ylawes a somber look.

“There will be blood for this.”

“There already has been.”

The [Knight] was shocked by Deni’s murder of the two other adventurers. He only hoped Eldertuin could stop the Violinist. Then he had a horrible thought.

“Nailren? Anith?”

So that was why they’d been—Ylawes turned and ran out of the laboratory. He looked for where the two Silver-ranked teams had been and saw—

Nailren’s Pride of Kelia and Vuliel Drae were sitting, warily eying the angry Gold-ranks, but sitting—along with several other Silver and Gold-rank teams. Ylawes saw Anith look at him as a furious member of Solar Strikes shouted at them.

“Didn’t warn us—”

One of the Gold-rank teams was snarling back.

“You want to try and shout while you’re outnumbered? We would have been shivved. They were watching us, and I didn’t fancy eating a [Fireball].”

Ylawes halted, panting, and Nailren and Anith turned to him.

“You two…”

Didn’t join in? Anith looked at Nailren, and the Gnoll shrugged.

“My people, contrary to popular Drake opinion, aren’t sneak-thieves. Plus, I don’t cross Named-ranks.”

“And my team’s made one mistake already. We figured it was better to avoid another.”

Anith nodded at Ylawes. The [Knight] sagged in relief—and then turned. The confusion and disastrous looting of the laboratory, the dead adventurers—

Dasha looked around and seemed to sum it up best.

“Well, there’s the catch. I knew it was coming. I just didn’t expect it to be like this, eh?”

She looked around as her team and the other adventurers glared at her. Ylawes Byres just sat down.

“I don’t understand. Anith, Nailren—why would the other teams do this? They’ll never adventure again. Even if some of them aren’t identified, the guilds might just ask you to pass a truth stone test. Maybe you could hide, but Deniusth will follow them to the ends of the earth. Where are they going?”

“Captain Ylawes. Everyone wants their big break. Sometimes—it’s hard to wait. And when you see it—”

Anith shook his head. The [Knight] supposed—he was just no thief. He understood that, at least. But not the rest.

“Where can they be going?”

“That’s easy. There’s only one place to go. It wouldn’t work as well—but it’s Liscor and Celum, and the inn’s close. Besides, where they’re going, even Deniusth won’t be able to track them.”

Nailren murmured. The Silver Swords looked at him, then saw the Gnoll staring south. Somewhere, perhaps, where even their reputations didn’t matter.

The new lands of Izril. It just depended on whether they got there. Or got caught.

 

——

 

The news of the fleeing adventurers from Albez didn’t reach The Wandering Inn for a little while. Even with the power of [Message] spells, the confusion and chase kept Colth and the adventurers there in the dark for a bit.

Of a surety, though, many adventurers were trying to get to the door. And despite his best efforts, Deniusth and the other enraged northern adventurers could only catch up later. Even the Violinist had to halt in the face of so many teams willing to loose arrows and spells at him.

What Erin Solstice did—well, that took place later.

The Horns of Hammerad were making a list of teams that might help them for gold instead of a share of their loot, blissfully unaware of Albez’s situation.

“Maybe we can just pay them since they’ll be flush with new artifacts anyways. I’d take Griffon Hunt, but I’ll take Named-ranks.”

“I can call in a favor. Eld, maybe. Deni’s a good dungeon-crawler, even if he’s tired of it. I’ll negotiate if they return. Otherwise—”

Lehra Ruinstrider was using the outhouse again. Eating so much of the inn’s food did not agree with her digestion system. Her team was idling as Saliss stared at the floor. Ama was listening to the teams talk—

And then they heard a sound. Ceria raised her head.

“Was that a horn?”

They listened. The long note was followed by another—and then another, in quick succession. None of them were local except Ksmvr, yet Pisces recognized that call.

“That’s…Liscor’s monster alarm call. What’s going on—”

Then they heard a crackle and thwoom, and Pisces leapt out of his seat.

“That’s a wall attack spell! What’s going on?”

Half the people ran for the windows. Lyonette whirled.

“Mrsha—Nanette?”

She realized both were with Erin in Invrisil. One of the Thronebearers placed himself next to Lyonette as Ushar reached a window. It was Tessa who sat up, peered out the glass, and spoke.

Monster’s coming. Bad one.

The Horns of Hammerad slowly looked up. Pisces strode to one of the glass windows and saw another bolt of lightning shoot from the walls. He felt the impact. But the horns were still blowing, and the people were fleeing to the gates. And from the showers of arrows from the walls—

Something was out there. Slowly, Pisces walked to the door.

“Pisces—”

Yvlon was drawing her sword slowly. But the [Necromancer] just stepped outside—and then he saw it from the edge of the hill. The chasm where the dungeon’s monsters came out. He didn’t see the skeletons—and he realized they’d vanished. What he did see was…a single figure walking out of a crater in the grass. Ignoring the arrows like rain.

Facestealer turned—and it held Rodden’s head in one claw. It looked around and fixed on the inn. On Pisces, it felt like. The monster began walking towards the inn.

“Oh dead gods. It climbed up?”

Yvlon muttered. Ceria emerged from the inn—and Colth. The [Supporter] took one look down at the monster.

“I didn’t expect that. Do you have a plan, Ceria?”

He looked at her, but the Horns were silent a long moment. Ama emerged warily, looking at Pisces. Then she saw her apprentice. Her face went slack with disbelief.

“Rodden?”

Pisces stared down at Facestealer, and he thought…it was smiling. It had no lips. It had no face—but he felt a malevolence from Facestealer as it walked at them like few things he had ever sensed in this world.

Like Skinner, it came for this inn. And Pisces—he saw the wall spells and arrows stop as the Watch seemed to realize they weren’t doing much good. The horns were still blowing, but the team of adventurers looked down.

“Horns of Hammerad—let’s kill this thing.”

One of them spoke, and the others turned. Colth raised his eyes, but his calm face broke into a smile like a demon’s, and he drew a pair of shortswords. His true colors?

Pisces looked around for who had said it—then he realized it was him. Ceria Springwalker turned to her friend—and Yvlon Byres clenched a fist. Ksmvr drew his blades without a word.

Horns of Hammerad—

 

——

 

“—charge!”

Snatcher was laughing indeed. In its head—the last defender of the Mother of Graves laughed. With wild abandon.

With a fury born of its wounds. A contempt for the city above.

And it had feared this? This? 

The spells barely harmed it. These were not the lashings of a Walled City. This was—

Weakness.

But there were things to be gathered here, it knew. And the same presences that had sent the skeletons into its dungeon—and the purple-flame one that had caused so much trouble—were coming for it.

Beautiful heads. There was a half-Elf. A rare head worth collecting. And that one—had metal arms. Snatcher wanted both head and arms.

There was one of the boring insects it had so many of. It wasn’t blue, but the [Necromancer]…Snatcher saw them coming.

Ice. A chariot. A roaring beast of ice and bone rose. Snatcher felt spikes of ice shattering on its body and a flaming arrow break on its front. It ignored it all.

Were they firing arrows at it? One kept hitting it in its left eye-socket, but they did not know Snatcher. From the building on the hill…from the city…

Nothing could kill it. Snatcher walked forwards as a howling giant of bone and ice ran at it. The monster felt the impact as the earth churned around it.

SOMETHING IS FAMILIAR.

The thought ran through the monster. Snatcher turned its head as it tore pieces out of the behemoth of ice and bone. The roaring monster tried to drive Snatcher into the earth, to shift it with brute force.

Its limbs cracked and broke before Snatcher did. A hill of ivory hit Snatcher—and the hill was the weaker force. Snatcher ripped through one arm and felt it breaking.

A man with brown hair stood on the hill, two swords in his hands. A grin—Snatcher looked up and recognized him.

ADVENTURER.

Words of old. He threw alchemy and magic, trying to bite through Snatcher’s hide. When he saw it didn’t work—he leapt down the hill with the woman with metal arms and the insect with two silver blades.

They danced around it, swinging swords, ducking as it reached for them. The insect began to fall over as Snatcher’s aura paralyzed it. Snatcher reached for the head—and the silver arms yanked it back. The woman staggered—and Snatcher waited for her to freeze—easy prey.

She did, the flesh of her stopped moving—but her metal arms moved. One elongated and grabbed the insect—and the others dragged them both away. She rolled to her feet with the insect and then screamed at it like Skinner.

Like fury. She raised a fist, and a barb of steel struck Snatcher.

It did nothing. More piercing barbs of steel struck it, but it ignored them.

The adventurer had seen—and he leapt forwards and stumbled. Snatcher reached for his head—and the blades whirled.

A crazed smile. He ignored Snatcher’s paralysis. As some did. He ducked one of Snatcher’s hands, and his blades stung Snatcher’s hide—

Barely cut. The smile never wavered as the half-Elf tried to freeze Snatcher solid.

She could not.

The [Necromancer] lifted a burning rapier and hurled it at Snatcher. He fired a [Deathbolt] at Snatcher as if to take its life.

He could not harm Snatcher.

Fifteen arrows had hit Snatcher in one socket, and it dug out the broken bits of metal and wood with a claw. The insect held back, but the woman with metal arms charged.

FURY.

She, like Skinner, ignored the paralysis. She punched and tried to tear—it held still. Her blows tore up the earth, and her arms made the air shake.

She could not harm it.

A sting. The adventurer drove a blade into Snatcher, and it turned. It grabbed—and the adventurer rolled. So Snatcher used a trick. It dug a claw into the soft earth, deep, a foot, two feet, six, digging down into the earth and stone—then pulled up.

The ground moved and hit the woman with metal arms and knocked her down the hill. The [Necromancer] dodged, and so did the adventurer—but Snatcher bent down to take his head.

“[Evasive Flip]!”

…Snatcher missed his leg. It turned, slowly, as ice formed around it. Walls of beautiful ice such as it had never seen in an age. Snatcher admired it as the ice coated it deep. Then Snatcher moved its legs, and the ice shattered.

The adventurer was laughing. As his kind did. Fearlessly, he stung Snatcher’s body with his blades. They were the only things that cut Snatcher’s hide. Snatcher reached for him once more—

Then the world exploded.

Snatcher—stumbled—and lost track of everything. It turned—and saw the building on the hill.

FAMILIAR.

What was it? Snatcher stared at the inn, and another force rocked it. Snatcher almost moved—and saw it.

A Drake upon the hill. He had no clothes. But he was throwing alchemy down. And the alchemy…hurt. A second one stood there with blades and shadows surrounding it.

ADVENTURERS.

Snatcher feared none of them. But it did—raise one hand to shield itself as the alchemy rained down. They could not hurt it badly enough.

“—just standing there—”

Ksmvr, don’t get close!

I cannot attack—

Voices. Snatcher barely paid attention to them. It was staring past the two Drakes. Up. Up. At that inn.

It had never seen it before. The inn was completely, utterly foreign, as was this little city. Even the land changed. All was different. Yet.

FAMILIAR.

Snatcher stared up at it, and a word rose in its memory, of long ages ago when its home had not been buried. When Mother was young. When Skinner and Stalker lived and there were more. From those days, the thought arose. Something it had seen once.

SANCTUARY.

Ah. Then Snatcher began to walk. Towards the Drakes. Towards the building. Yes. That…that was something it wanted too.

It rocked slightly. The alchemy hurt. It wasn’t enough—but its hide began to burn. And the adventurer with the blades was digging them into its back.

Them first. Snatcher feared them not. And now—more were striking at it.

Stay back! Stay back—only adventurers—

A man of cloth with a staff battered Snatcher’s arm. Snatcher caught the staff—and broke it. A thing of eyes, a Gazer, tried to hurt it. A Dwarf—Snatcher reached for her as the others dragged her back.

So many heads. But they were fast and nimble, and this was no dungeon. It should have snuck up on them one-by-one. The adventurers were always too quick.

These were not the ones who had come after Mother. These were not the armies to fear. Snatcher, even above, just had to wait for them to tire.

They could hurt it not. Yet—Snatcher needed more tricks.

Where had the woman of string gone? The beautiful head that scared even Snatcher? Her tricks were very good. Another trick?

Snatcher saw the half-Elf with her ice, and a lance of it struck Snatcher in the chest. It broke, of course—but Snatcher picked up the pieces and hurled them back.

Ceria!

…Not in pieces. Just thrown. A barrier breaking. Alive. Snatcher picked up a stone and looked around. Then it heard a voice.

“[Bane Blades].”

Aaaah. A blade pierced into its back, into Snatcher’s bone. The adventurer turned, and Snatcher threw the stone. It missed—and the stone hit the walls of the city and cracked there.

Faster, then. Faster—Snatcher began to grab and tear the air faster and faster. So fast the smiling man was nearly caught—but that smile never wavered.

A hatred upon his eyes.

“[Death Gamble].”

“[Disable Friendly Fire].”

Yes, those were the words. Pain upon his back. Acid? Snatcher—laughed.

The third adventurer was waiting, guarding the hill. Snatcher faced the woman of metal arms, the grinning adventurer, and the naked Drake now. It feared them not.

And now they were so close, kissing it with steel, and they knew it not. So Snatcher focused on the words, for it knew them too.

[Aura of Paralysis]. [Reconfigure Aura]—

Snatcher waited for their faces. For their faces to change to the ones it wanted. Then it would take their heads. The grinning man first.

They were changing beautifully, like all of the others, when Snatcher heard a shout. It looked at the building and saw a familiar Goblin with a crystal blade.

You, too. 

Snatcher remembered being trapped and felt the fury. It raised one claw and then—someone kicked open a door made of wood. A little closet next to the big building.

Snatcher saw a Gnoll. Brown fur kicking off paper. An expression of wariness and fear. It feared her not. She raised something on one arm—and Snatcher heard her cry.

—the City of Stars!

Then Snatcher froze. Then heard it, ringing through its being. A ghost’s howl—and it saw the light.

THE CITY OF STARS?

Snatcher threw up its claws. It saw the Gnoll change—and the light—the light!

A Gnoll in armor charged at it, and Snatcher screamed within its mind. It backed away as the blade kissed its hide. It did not harm Snatcher, but it began to back away. For it feared what came next. It sheltered its head from the sky, not the blade.

THE CITY OF STARS! MERSHI’S WRATH UPON US. THE SKY FALLING!

Suddenly, Snatcher was no longer unafraid. It turned—and began fleeing back home.

“—it’s running—don’t let it—”

Lehra, watch out—

The warrior of stars pursued it, howling, and Snatcher ran. It ran, sobbing, for it thought they were gone. Gone and dead.

Only when it was close to the chasm did it pause. The blade of Mershi tore its hide and tried to scratch its bone, but it was less painful than Snatcher remembered.

It hurt Snatcher less. The panting Gnoll stared at it and it stared back.

…Is that all? Is the blade no longer sharp? Where is the skyfall? Where is the army of stars? 

You…

YOU COULD NOT STOP ME WITH THAT. 

Not all the little heads it had gathered. A mountain of them, until the wrath fell upon it and mother and its city. If this was all—they would have laughed. Laughed and laughed in their warm graves.

Snatcher hesitated upon the edge of its home. It backed away from the blade of Mershi—and then it felt another lance of pain.

Colth!

Two blades dug into bone. Too many. Snatcher backed up again, and the man who smiled produced something it recognized. A burning brand, which pressed upon its hide and made the [Necromancer] howl in pain.

Then came the naked Drake, and he wore alchemy’s guise. A champion of Pallass? Too many—too many.

Snatcher backed away. It stepped back from Mershi and Pallass’ wrath, from the adventurer’s brand.

And fell back into its home. Snatcher fell and fell and struck the ground, and it hurt it not. Then it slunk away, back into the caverns. Too dangerous—and it felt the brand burning for it was marked.

It knew that name too, if only from afar. A name almost forgotten. It thought it was…

ROSHAL.

 

——

 

Facestealer fell back into the dungeon, and only then did Ceria’s ears stop ringing. Her [Dangersense] stopped making her want to puke.

The walls of Liscor were still sounding with alarms. The Antinium, the Watch—Ceria looked back at the battleground of the last…eleven minutes?

Eleven minutes of eternity. Of watching the monster take Tier 4 spells and ignore them. Stand there, as if mocking Yvlon, with Ksmvr and the warriors barely able to approach.

Her circlet hadn’t done enough. It had destroyed the Frostmarrow Behemoth! She didn’t think Facestealer had moved when the undead charged it.

What—

That was in the dungeon, and we were just partying above? Ceria’s blood ran cold, and she wondered who was more dangerous. It or Tolveilouka?

Probably Tolveilouka, because Facestealer hadn’t tagged Colth. It had gotten Ceria—her robes and barriers had saved her from it caving in her ribs. Colth—Colth had cuts and bruises from where it had hammered the ground and hit him with flying dirt and debris.

But he still grinned like a madman. Grinned—until Pisces seized him.

What was that? What was—

“Pisces? Peace! It’s gone—Lehra, come back!”

The Stargnoll was trembling despite the cheers rising from the inn. She alone had scared Facestealer, scared it back to the hole. But it was hard to say who was more terrified, her or Facestealer.

Saliss was morphing back into a Drake. The Named-rank [Alchemist] spat into the hole and turned.

“That confirms it. Watch Captain! Get the old man and post a guard on this hole and the dungeon’s entrance. You can’t stop it—but you can stop it coming up. I’m going back to my laboratory. Where’s Octavia?”

He stomped off, and Ceria thought he had seldom looked that disturbed. Yet her attention was on her screaming, cracked ribs—and Pisces.

“Pisces, what’s wrong—I’ve marked it. I need to talk to Larra, Viecel—everyone—”

It was something Colth had done. He had been a flurry of blades, but what—

What was that?

Pisces was staring at something in the adventurer’s off-hand. Colth had stowed one of the curved shortswords, and he’d used something against Facestealer. A glowing…

It took Ceria a second to figure out what it was. She’d seen the like in stables, but half-Elves didn’t bother with them. But it was, unmistakably, a glowing brand.

An odd one. A long strip of metal shaped into the brand at the end, glowing red-hot though Colth had not put it in a fire. It must have been enchanted—what Ceria noticed were two things.

One—the logo looked familiar, and her stomach twisted when she realized why she recognized it. Roshal. But the second—Pisces was white and shaking.

“You—why do you have that?

Colth’s eyes were calm, but he had Pisces’ own arm in a grip so strong he forced the [Necromancer] to let go. Yvlon, her arms cut and her skin gashed from her wild attacks, looked at Colth as Ksmvr’s blades, unused this battle, slowly came out of their sheaths again. Yet Colth just looked Pisces in the eye, and Ceria saw the brand…

Or a third of a brand. Because any branding iron was long—like a poker, to be inserted into a fire before the target. This one—was snapped off, so Colth held it like a dagger. He held it as Pisces’ arm trembled and spoke very quietly to the [Necromancer].

“Pisces, calm down. Pisces—it’s just a tool. We use every tool we have.”

That item is from—why do you have it?

Colth smiled, but not like he had smiled before, like someone courting death or the friendly, bland smile of the Named-rank. His third and last smile was perhaps the most genuine and secretive, and he spoke only for Pisces to hear.

“It does not define us. Any more than chains or scars.”

His hand tightened on Pisces’ arm—then he pushed the [Necromancer] back. Pisces, white-faced, hesitated, rapier in hand, and Colth’s lips moved.

The Horns never heard what he said—because he didn’t say anything, but Ceria saw Pisces stop—and then lower his rapier. Then they were lost in Zevara demanding to know what they thought, and Colth speaking. For Colth said two things that made Ceria think long and hard. The first was this:

“I am going to kill Facestealer. I’ve marked it—we can track it down. We’re going to kill it. On Larra’s Haven, I promise you. Once Deni and Eld get here, we’re going to take it down.”

Roshal’s brands never faded, and they tracked their quarry to the ends of the earth. That was one thing. The other? The other took Ceria a long time to figure out.

Mostly because unlike Pisces, she read no lips. But the circlet gave her the ability to replay what she’d seen Colth saying again and again, and she phonetically copied out what she thought he’d said. It was still tough because the first part of his short communication made no sense—proper nouns were like that.

But she thought he’d said:

Azam’du says hello.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: One 10k chunk, one edited chapter. One 1k chunk, one edited chapter. Day three? Write ten thousand more words.

Sigh. At least I am editing two chapters this week, but I’m tired. One more chapter until my break!

Listen, I am improving as a writer at least editing-wise. I think. It’s mental as much as technical—you know the feeling of trying to do something you’re unfamiliar with and getting exhausted? That was editing to me, and now it takes a lot less mental effort.

I’d say instead of five times as hard as writing, more like three? Editing still requires mental energy, but that’s a huge improvement. And I also know how to edit, so this is good.

Also, chapter. I am not sure I’ll resolve the arc in three parts, but I’ll try. And as always, I hope you enjoy. Enjoy…all the dramas of adventuring? Well, let me know what you think and talk to you later. Would you be the thieves or the non-thieves?

 

A Goblin by tobinkusuma! (Numbtongue?)

 

Mrsha by tatolord!

 

The Brown Tide by Brack, commissioned by Dado!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 


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Interlude – Adventurers (Pt. 1)

“When did it happen?”

“What happen?”

He leaned on the pommel of his horse’s saddle. A rich saddle, high-backed and made for long-distance riding. Padded subtly, and enchanted so you had even less chance of slipping during a ride.

All the things he didn’t want to show the youngsters. All the things he had never had when he was young, because he hadn’t really needed them.

Deniusth the Violinist looked at the saddlehorn.

“This year. It feels like it’s been disaster after disaster—great events happening. People dying. The changing of an age. I know that’s probably why—but what started it?”

Eldertuin, Viecel, and Gores were the ones he was addressing. Orchestra was there, but they were the Named-ranks. Gores had been with Deniusth from the start, when he’d carried a rapier and the two just played musical instruments for fun.

“The King of Destruction waking up?”

Eldertuin scratched at his chin; he’d gotten rid of that stupid-looking beard from a few years back. Odd, how it felt like just a moment ago that Deni remembered seeing it.

Odd, to think Valeterisa was wandering about the inn as if she hadn’t been gone eight years. Eight years. And he hadn’t woken her up.

Not that he’d known. But they’d known. Not that they were the best of friends—but they’d known each other. It was just counting the adventurers who’d vanished, even Couriers, and hearing Larra stop sending people to ‘check on her’.

It was standing at her mansion after dodging the artillery spells and looking into that doorway and feeling his [Dangersense] tingle.

It was—being afraid. He’d never told anyone that he’d gone. Then some City Runner did the impossible and woke her up. Saved Salamani, too.

Was he intimidated by them? The rowdy Gold-ranks, riding ahead of the ones who’d chosen a wagon, the Silver-ranks he didn’t know, who were staring at him?

Or was it the feeling in his bones? Deniusth shook his head.

“It’s not just the King of Destruction. It feels like—of course him waking up had something to do with it. But all these recent events. Why did you come south, Eldertuin? You’ve got a family. Kids. You’re a Terland.”

“I’m just married into the family. Alorelle and I discussed the matter, and she knows House Terland will be needing representatives in the south.”

Eldertuin murmured, shrugging his broad shoulders self-consciously. Deniusth had never been married—oh, he’d been standing with a ring on his finger twice. Before he’d fled the altar—or the second time, someone had broken into the wedding and eloped with the bride.

But never married. Yet even he, the constant philanderer in his friends’ eyes, the one Mihaela could never let up about his dyed hair, as if that were the greatest vanity in the world—

And Alorelle just let you go? To the new lands of Izril, an entire continent’s journey away? To danger and death and perhaps glory?

Eldertuin was the [Farmer] who had a swing that could knock an Ogre flat, who’d risen to become a Named-rank, married into the Five Families. A real roots-to-riches story. Literally. He’d grown turnips or something. The man who’d gotten everything you could ever want.

He didn’t really talk about his wife. His children, yes. But she seldom visited the Haven…three times over their entire marriage of a decade and a half?

It was one of those things you didn’t talk about. At least, not out of the blue.

At night, after all the laughing and reminiscing had been done, while you were nursing a drink and everyone had gone to bed, or over the campfire in the midst or at the end of a journey together—that was the time.

That was the time to bring up all the names of the dead and the things you couldn’t say under blue skies. Because it was too personal.

Deniusth had adventured for a long time, and nothing had ever been as rewarding. Nothing had made him feel as alive, not any drug or experience. Yet he also quite liked the experience of being a famous celebrity in the north.

“Not just that.”

He murmured as they rode to Albez. How long had it been since he had been here? Forty damn years ago, elbowing aside [Treasure Seekers] and civilians digging in the dirt when it was first uncovered, a snot-nosed Bronze-rank with a practice sword he’d sharpened up? Deniusth began to speak, and the other Named-ranks and older adventurers listened.

“I first realized it when Maviola El resigned.”

A few heads rose, and he saw the Halfseekers looking at him. In fact, some of the Silver-ranks, what—the Pride of Kelia, those Gnolls, the Flamewardens, Drakes riding the wagon—they looked at him oddly.

Oh, right. Hadn’t she come down here? Deniusth stared back in time.

And he was old enough to remember the [Lady] of House El when he’d first become Gold-rank and gotten invited to those parties. Already old. Well, she’d been in her nineties when she passed, hadn’t she? Red hair gone mostly white like Mihaela’s was—but a blazing tempest of ideas, arguing with other [Lords] and [Ladies], setting fire to things.

“It wasn’t just that she resigned. It was who she put in her place. Deilan El. You know, he’s a progressive in House El?”

“I thought he was just good at manufacturing stuff.”

The other Named-ranks were up to date on a lot of politics in the north. Deniusth snorted.

“He is—but House El would have loved to replace Maviola with a more conservative pick. Someone who went back to their basics, manufacturing crossbows, providing magical goods—not a radical who continued Maviola’s Kaalblades and Valeterisa’s projects. I heard she was considering Desinee El, her niece. She would have been stable, stepped down after a few years—instead, you got someone who believed in her vision. That kind of thing is what I mean. It felt like it was happening around the world.”

He looked again at Jelaqua Ivirith and wondered what the Minds of Selphids were. A friend had told him something had just gone down in Baleros—they were sorting out the aftermath, but it had warranted some kind of long-range Tier 7+ bombardment from Drath.

And the Blighted Kingdom.

What was going on? It felt like things were shaking. Shaking so hard that all the old constants were moving. Even Named-ranks like him felt it.

Insecurity. He had not been at the battle in Ailendamus or seen ghosts himself. Deni still didn’t know what that King of Khelt, that undead ruler, had called the alarm about.

Yet—he had looked upon a Revenant with his very own eyes for the second time in his life and been reminded that there was a nation ruled by undead. That was probably why Terandria had sent that crusade. Dead gods, you had that in the same year the Gnolls claimed the Drakes had stolen their magic.

And last year, someone had said that the Slayer of the Antinium was dead, and Deni had been toasting the news in Mihaela’s guild.

Maybe that was the start of it all. The world was shaking, and Deniusth thought of Seamwalkers in his mansion in Colosset, one of the lovely harbor cities of the north. Despite all his comforts and blankets and riches, that made him cold.

It was not the only reason he’d come this way. But the Named-rank adventurer looked around and felt like the others had sensed the same thing he had.

A calling, perhaps, among the best. A sense that if they wanted to remain Named-ranks—they had to go.

The New Lands called him. Called him like a song, a stage, and a waiting audience. Deniusth felt an almost erotic urge, and he had never lusted for anything or anyone like that. Young and old, just like Mihaela always said.

“Albez. There it is.

They’d been travelling fast from Celum. The mad rush of adventurers had largely changed to a group’s travel. A few had raced ahead, but Deniusth knew that Eldertuin had the actual map they’d been cross-referencing with older details.

“I can’t believe Ceria Springwalker gave you that.”

“She must think she owes you a favor for the Village of the Dead raid. I can’t believe you went.”

Even Viecel the Mad Gambler had called it a bad bet. Eldertuin shook his head—he’d come back covered in glory, but it was temporary, and he hadn’t gotten that much out of the raid.

“A friend asked me to help. An old friend. I didn’t go in half as hard as they did.”

“Young idiots. Charge a death-zone with Revenants—”

Deni began and then closed his mouth. Some of Orchestra, his team, looked at him, and he looked so aghast the younger members began to laugh.

“Dead gods. Did I just say that?”

It was the exact kind of thing he’d heard older adventurers say of him. The Named-rank stared up at the sky. Then he turned in his saddle.

“…Think we’ll find anything in the ruins?”

“Who knows. But it’ll be a good warm-up. What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll bet you we find something interesting within the first hour. Wager a finger on it.”

Viecel flipped a coin up, and Eldertuin groaned.

“Viecel…”

But it was too late. The Selphid caught the coin and grinned.

“[Wager Set].”

 

——

 

Named-ranks. They were so different from Gold-ranks that even older adventurers like Jelaqua and Halrac were watching and listening to them.

For one thing, they were older, by and large. Colth and Lehra were outliers by far. Named-ranks, though…they were that because they did the impossible.

Orchestra was the team that cleared the dungeon, Chalence, and made a fortune beyond fortunes. Saliss of Lights, jokester and nudist or not, had killed entire swarms of monsters by himself.

Every single one had more than one story about them. Eldertuin the Fortress had held down half a dozen Trolls in single-combat. Viecel had famously killed one of Terandria’s [Dukes] in an honor-duel that had ended a war between Baleros and Terandrian kingdoms.

They were larger than life—and surprisingly normal. They roughhoused at the Haven like kids, but Jelaqua was curious.

What made the Named-ranks so different? She had seen Eldertuin and Elia from afar, but this was her chance to see them in a more natural element than a raid. And…she glanced at her team.

How far and how long away was that rank, if they would ever reach it? Jelaqua glanced at Halrac and sighed and knew he had to be thinking the same thing as he looked her way.

“A lot’s happened in a year, yeah? Garen and…”

She trailed off as Moore and Seborn looked at her somberly. Jelaqua stared up, then back the way they’d come and grinned.

“…And we still keep coming back to The Wandering Inn. We’ve leveled, but will we ever change that much? I wonder. We’ve got Ulinde now, and you got Briganda, Halrac. Did you get much new loot from Riverfarm? That [Emperor] okay with you riding off?”

“We did ask, Jelaqua. As for gear—Halrac’s wearing his Boots of Balance. That’s about it. What’s with that flail?

Revi eyed the blue-tinted metal flail at Jelaqua’s side, and the Selphid laughed self-consciously.

“Oh, we got that from the Meeting of Tribes. And a few other things. I’ll show you how it works if we run into any monsters.”

Revi shuddered, eying the scythe edges of the flail instead of spiked balls.

“Just so long as you do it well ahead of me. As for monsters, maybe we’ll get a few zombies, but with this lot—what could stop us?”

She indicated the sea of adventurers, and Typhenous chuckled.

“Revi, are you tempting fate?”

“Someone’s got to. Come on, aren’t you curious?”

Revi indicated the Named-ranks, and Jelaqua knew what she meant. She did wonder…what kind of a threat would challenge all these Named-ranks? An Adult Creler? Worse? Even with Albez and Liscor’s dungeon for that matter—

What could go wrong?

 

——

 

Elsewhere, in Liscor, a group of Councilmembers were adjusting their clothes as they waited for a door to open to visit Riverfarm.

An [Innkeeper] was already over there, introducing Larra to an [Emperor]—right before an angry street-light chased her around for causing so much trouble. A coven of [Witches] were equally as bemused, but more than one was considering a shopping trip to Invrisil.

But that was their side-quest to have. The real adventure was already taking place.

The Horns of Hammerad, Colth the Supporter, and Stargazer’s Promise were the three teams in The Wandering Inn who hadn’t raced off to Albez. Of course, there were a lot of Goblins lingering about, but Colth looked as cool as could be.

“So, you’re gonna grab this Stalker’s corpse? Want, uh—want a paw?”

Lehra looked excited at the prospect, but her teammates elbowed her.

Their [Monk], Emper, looked disapproving.

“Etiquette, Lehra. It’s their treasure.”

“Technically, it’s no one’s…”

Elgrinna murmured. Lehra whined in agreement, but Emper and Suxhel were steadfast.

“The Horns have been fighting in that dungeon for ages. If they want help—”

The Horns of Hammerad glanced at each other. Ceria scratched at her hair.

“Tempting, but I think we’ll try it alone. With Colth, I mean.”

“Aw, that’s fair. But if you need the hide processed, I know a guy.”

Lehra was the most reasonable of adventurers despite her clear desire to be included. In fact—amazingly so.

The other adventurers who hadn’t gone to Albez and weren’t part of this exciting moment could just listen in. And that was Saliss of Lights, Tessa, and even Glitterblade, Jewel’s team.

“Damn. Do you think we could just go down and find…?”

Jewel’s teammate, Hilten, looked at Toimt and Jewel, and she kicked him. Hard.

“You want to get in more trouble, Hilten? Besides—that’s a Vengeance Dungeon. You don’t just waltz through it. We have no maps from the adventurers who’ve scouted the traps. We’re not geared up for it, and there’s a boss monster on the loose.”

“Yeah. But…damn.”

Some teams had all the luck. The Horns were that team as far as Glitterblade were concerned. Although that ‘luck’ might have come from the [Innkeeper]—that was what Jewel was betting on, and it was why they were volunteering their time as effective bouncers for the inn.

Also, they were curious to see how Colth and the Horns would tackle this issue. Because—of a surety—Glitterblade was going to blab about Ceria’s revelations if any of the other teams came back from Albez. Them or the other guests who’d been listening in. More than one avaricious ear had been snooping on Ceria’s comments, and there were even some [Lords] who’d hurried off upon hearing about the fantastical corpse in the dungeon.

That meant that the Horns had a day or two—or less if the Albez rush didn’t stay all night. They were on a time limit, and Ceria was outlining the problem.

“I think I could rely on my memory if we got to the Raskghar camp—the problem is, I have no idea where that is anymore. Or all the traps Calruz took me past. Nor do we have any guides. Numbtongue, do you remember anything about how to get through the dungeon?”

The [Bard] glanced up.

“Nope.”

“What about a guide? Damn—Bevussa left.”

Yvlon cursed. The Wings of Pallass and Keldrass’ Flamewardens were some of the most experienced teams who’d made a habit of continuing to explore the dungeon. Well, that was half the issue. The other half was—

“So this inner city has a bunch of fleshy humanoids. Do they attack with any kind of acid? Any…magic?”

Colth was frowning as he tried to parse the threat. Ceria hesitated.

“No. They just overwhelmed even the Raskghar with sheer numbers. I think they might regenerate—Calruz kept ordering the Raskghar to hack them up.”

“What kind of numbers? Hundreds?”

“Thousands. The longer you stayed, the more arrived. He estimated there might be tens of thousands or more. Hundreds? It’s a huge city. Pallass might rival it in sheer size.”

“Pallass? You’re joking.”

Ceria was closing her eyes shut, and her fingers were pressed to her temple.

“I never thought of it before—but it was vast. That hole in the center…we were hours in it, but Calruz always retreated before we were overrun. And the Raskghar—well, they were Raskghar, and they had artifacts. They still had to flee.”

“We’ll call it massed monsters, then. And assume there’s more dangerous types or surprises. So, from the opening—here’s the dungeon maps the Adventurer’s Guild had. No one has a route to this inner city yet, but it’s going to be a long journey through a trapped dungeon with monsters everywhere.”

Colth was plotting the route out, and Yvlon and Ksmvr, even Pisces, were listening in. Colth the Supporter had already proven he was an analytical adventurer.

This was a lot of variables. Traps, monsters, Facestealer…Ceria Springwalker, for her part, was thinking.

She had the circlet on. She knew she was being empowered by its effects, intelligence being the most obvious one and her increased spellcasting abilities. And what her mind was telling her—

Well, even without the circlet, Ceria was pretty sure she would say that this was a terrible idea.

Horns or not. Even after clearing the Village of the Dead—no, especially after running into Tolveilouka, she should know how stupid it was to go in without preparations. How would she tackle this?

What’s Colth going to say? Ceria waited, and the Ultimate Supporter looked up with a smile.

“Alright. I’ve formulated my plan. Do you want me to share it, Captain Ceria, or do you have a preference?”

“Me? I was going to say we’re not getting to Stalker’s corpse without a lot of unnecessary risk. Frankly, I’d ask for two more Gold-rank teams as backup at minimum, especially with Facestealer in the mix.”

Ceria sighed. Lehra looked up excitedly. But Colth just rubbed his hands together with a smile.

“You think so? I won’t rule it out, but I think we can begin now—and possibly gain intelligence about our route and even recover Stalker before Deni and that lot get word of it.”

…What?

All the adventurers looked at him. Even Saliss turned to Tessa and tapped the side of his head. She shrugged, but Colth was a Named-rank. His eyes glittered.

“Us Named-ranks need to prove we’re worth more than the title. Let me show you how a professional takes down the dungeon.”

He winked at the others to show them he was just kidding, but—Ceria’s brows rose. And what separated the Named-ranks from regular adventurers? Well…she had to admire it.

 

——

 

Albez was just past Remendia, half a day’s ride out. If you had Skills or magic, you’d get there faster—and the adventurers had plenty of both.

Actually, Remendia still slowed them up because half the city wanted to meet Deni and the other Named-ranks.

Bronze and Silver-rank adventurers were flocking to Albez even an hour into the first part of the dig. They rode up, stopped, did the wide-eyed and whispering thing, then approached and asked, meek as kittens, if they could help join the search.

Deniusth lifted an arm and wiped sweat off his brow, then cursed as he got dirt on his forehead. He was holding a shovel and tossed it to the huge, scarred [Thug] who’d become a Silver-rank.

“You want to dig? We’ll give you a share of whatever we get, but Orchestra and Variable Fortress have a claim on any relics—with a share to the other Gold-ranks that are here. Deal?”

“Yes, sir! It’s an honor to meet you, Adventurer Deniusth.”

The famous duelist smiled wanly, then retreated. He had dirt all over his cloth armor, and he removed one glove and stared at the blisters.

He did not reach for a healing potion, but he did stop digging. The first hour…the first half hour…

The first fifteen minutes had seen him going into Albez and choosing one of the spots they’d thought hadn’t been searched and digging like he was a young man. Then he’d quickly lost his patience and energy.

An hour in and he was done. Deniusth went over to sit, drink some water from a flask, and watch the other adventurers at work.

“We barely need diggers—not with [Geomancers].”

He watched as Moore shifted a huge mass of dirt with a spell, but the half-Giant had to be careful and work around the crumbling ruins he was excavating. It was all too easy to bury more of what they wanted to get at—hence the tools for specific unearthing of doorways.

More adventurers were sitting about, but the majority were down there, checking different spots as Eldertuin and the other Captains traded off Ceria’s map.

Deniusth was being watched by Anith of Vuliel Drae, Nailren of the Pride of Kelia, Jelaqua, Halrac, Keldrass, Bevussa, and a bunch of other teams. What they noticed about the Named-rank was his impatience an hour in. The first thing that made Named-ranks different?

“Damn this. Hey! Harper!”

He shouted at one of his teammates. And yes…she was a harp-carrying adventurer. She seemed to be a ‘junior’ member of Orchestra, a Gold-rank. But then, his team was rated as Named-rank as well as having two adventurers.

“Yes, Deni?”

“Contact Remendia. Tell them I want to hire [Diggers]. And get more [Geomancers]. We don’t have to dig ourselves. Get a hundred.”

The other adventurers turned and blinked. Hire diggers? The cost of a hundred, especially if they had a guild, would be hundreds of gold pieces! More!

…But the Named-rank Adventurer didn’t even seem to consider the cost of that, even if they found nothing. Nor did his teammate.

“Want them here in the hour?”

“Sure. Get the Driver’s Guild to transport them. Hey, Eld! I’m calling in diggers! Stop wasting your energy—this stupid ruin’s deeper than I remember!

One of Keldrass’ teammates shook her head when she heard that and lifted the shovel she was using.

“Fucking incredible. That’s a Named-rank for you.”

“He’s got the coin. This isn’t fun anyways.”

Keldrass didn’t know if he was defending the Named-rank on principle or because he saw Deniusth’s point. But the Violinist certainly had leadership of the other adventurers. A lot threw down their tools when they heard that—but more kept on going.

“Hey, the armory of that [Mage] that the Horns found is practically excavated already. Should we take a look down there? I bet you they cleared it out. But maybe there’s a few gold coins that weren’t melted?”

An adventurer joked, pointing to the section the Horns had gone into. It was, in fact, very neatly excavated. In fact, someone had even marked the place off with bright paint, and a few confused adventurers were pointing at the others.

“Why not?”

Some of the teams present were from Invrisil, and so the Waterborn Raiders, a less…upstanding group of adventurers, had also come to see what might be dug up.

They were staying far, far away from Moore. Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers, a lot of teams had become famous from the Village of the Dead raid. Not theirs. Not enough.

Why, even the Distinguished Staves looked like they’d upgraded some of their gear from the payout. The Waterborn Raiders still felt like they’d been cheated of the true haul of goods—but it had been coin in their pockets, despite losing one of their own. They should have gotten more given that.

Old Geni had, at the raid. The Distinguished Staves looked smaller, despite the shiny new staff one of the [Wizards] was using.

None of these Named-ranks even knew her, beyond a passing name. These northern lot had sat on their asses, and now they were taking charge of this? Well, they weren’t going to get their way.

Spoken Vow, the team that had gone with the Horns, was still mourning one of their downed teammates. Well, most of them were.

A [Knife Fighter] named ‘Riz’, no other full name or last name given, glanced up as she heard the Waterborn Raiders’ comment. She turned to her captain instantly.

“Hey. Didn’t the Horns run into some kind of trap down there? Think there are any runes left? I know someone who’d pay a lot for them.”

“I bet any [Merchant] would.”

Her Captain blinked, then brightened up with sudden interest. The Waterborn Raiders looked up, and Spoken Vow and their team traded glances.

“…Those Named-ranks look like they’re having brunch. Say, Spoken Vow. You just stay here and we’ll take a look for you and report back, huh? If there’s something, we’ll cut you in.”

The Captain of Spoken Vow, Mickey, was not an idiot. The Waterborn Raiders were sixteen strong, and Spoken Vow was down a member, but they were also a numerous Gold-rank team. Both groups eyed each other—until Riz interjected.

“You can’t pry runes off the wall without gear. Any excavation will take a while, and it’s a trap room, idiot. Unless you cracked the walls. Then, maybe, we’d be able to grab something, but that much stone will fill all our bags of holding. Let’s go down together. If there is a profit—two teams are better than twenty.”

The Waterborn Raiders’ leader hesitated and eyed her. She gave him a big smile, and he blanched.

“Right you are. Stop growling, Orelo. Idiot. Come on.”

He shoved one of his teammates, and Spoken Vow relaxed, surprised, as the Waterborn Raiders glanced around, then both Gold-rank teams sliiiid towards the opening in the dirt.

 

——

 

The sight of two Gold-rank teams disappearing into the ruins might have gone unnoticed as the other adventurers were still working, but not to most [Rogues].

“Oi. Viecel. Did you see that?”

The Selphid looked over as the [Rogue] in Variable Fortress glanced over. The Selphid’s eyes followed a pointing finger.

“What?”

“Two teams just headed into that place the Horns cleared. Might be they think there’s something valuable.”

“Oh, really? Well in that case—get Eldertuin and Deni. Anyone have an hourglass?”

“Uh…”

“Nevermind. It’s been an hour.”

The Gambler sighed again. Then, as Insill came over to offer the Named-rank adventurer a flask of water , the Drake [Rogue] saw the Selphid produce a belt knife—and press it against one of the three fingers on his right hand.

He cut the dead finger off and tossed it to the ground. Insill froze, and the Selphid looked up.

The [Gambler]’s face was blank—and then he smiled.

“Is that water for me? Thank you—don’t mind the finger. I knew it was a bad bet, but imagine what I’d have won?”

He kicked the finger aside, and Insill was motionless until Viecel reached for the water flask. He took a huge drink, then waved to Deniusth. Insill saw him glance at the Drake.

“Thanks, kid.”

“N-no problem, sir…”

Insill backed up, and his team had seen the entire thing. Pekona wasn’t digging—she only had one hand. She sat, quieter than she even normally was as Dasha, Anith, and Larr all took a break.

“Did you see that? Guys—guys, did you see—

“Yep. Stop staring, Insill. He’s a Selphid. No wonder they call him the Mad Gambler. I bet you he does that all the time.”

Dasha was trying to play it cool, but she was gripping her beard hard with one hand. Anith shook his head.

“A bet? He bet we’d find treasure—what happens if he wins?”

Insill didn’t know, but he knew what happened if Viecel lost. The Selphid’s missing fingers suddenly made sense, and the Drake saw the [Gambler] waggling his two fingers—forefinger and thumb—at Eldertuin. He didn’t hear what the Fortress said, but Viecel lifted his two fingers and spoke loudly enough for even Vuliel Drae to hear.

“[Double or Nothing]! Something by tonight. Two fingers—”

“Selphids. Dead gods.”

Some of the other adventurers were mildly horrified despite being veterans. One of them looked sideways at the others.

“Not the craziest thing they’ve done. Did you hear there was something in Baleros this morning…?”

Before they could gossip, Vuliel Drae saw Deniusth leap to his feet and go running to the place where the Waterborn Raiders and Spoken Vow had disappeared into.

Those bastards!

Naturally, half of the other Captains ran after him. But before even the Violinist could get into the secret lair of Warmage Thresk…they heard a shout, and then Spoken Vow, the Waterborn Raiders, and a third adventuring group emerged from the tunnel, arguing.

All three had pickaxes and tools, but the third adventuring team looked like they had been working harder than the rest. And they were clearly confused—their Captain stared around at all the other people present.

“—the hell? What map? We’re not sharing anything, so back off—Ceria Springwalker’s contracted our team to grab those runes, and if you want them, you can talk to her. We’ve been here a damn month and—”

The Silver-rank team of Gemhammer made Deni’s mad dash slow. The other teams looked up, and Jelaqua’s mouth opened. Nailren spotted the familiar face of Earlia, with a mining helmet on, and her team—and realized why he hadn’t seen her about since coming back to Liscor.

“She did what?

Captain Earlia spotted the Named-ranks and went white. But her team was wearing bright, shiny new gear, and they had marked off Ceria’s dig-site—

And they’d been harvesting the runes. Ever since Ceria got back from Chandrar, in fact. Deniusth slowed as he realized why Ceria might have been eager to give away the map in the first place.

 

——

 

“You’ve been dismantling the trap room? You didn’t say, Ceria!”

Yvlon was outraged to hear about it, but Ceria just rolled her eyes.

“I was going to let you know—once we had all the runes harvested. Some are broken or fragile, and besides, I hired Earlia’s team. They get 30% of whatever we sell it for.”

“30%? That sounds low.

Yvlon was astonished, but Ceria just smirked as she contemplated the disappointed adventurers.

“She leapt at the offer. She knows how much all that’s worth, especially for a Silver-rank team. Earlia told me it’s not even hard, assuming no monsters are in the area. I promised we’d help clear out any nests, but she’s just been carefully pulling the runes out.”

“How’d she do it without getting caught by the spell?”

The half-Elf tried to remember.

“Earlia claimed they’d do what we did—toss a bunch of soot and cloud ash down there. Apparently it’s a fire that bakes ash to the walls. They are professionals.”

Ksmvr’s mandibles were still open, but Yvlon realized what Ceria had done.

“You mean—we just gave all those excited adventurers a treasure map when Earlia’s team has been taking the only valuable thing in Albez out for ages?”

“We didn’t promise them that. But yeah. It’s pretty funny when you think about it.”

The half-Elf snorted. Yvlon just gave Ceria an odd look, but after hearing Colth’s idea, she couldn’t rightly complain. Because what sounded to Yvlon like a bit of skullduggery…both made her feel like she was emulating Ylawes.

And frankly, it seemed like a real Named-rank move. After all, the Horns were about to enter Liscor’s dungeon with only an hour of prep time.

“Ready?”

Colth was standing at the edge of the chasm, looking down into the pit. Yvlon knew there were steel barricades in place down there, which had to be unlatched to let adventurers through. She tensed, despite herself, and Ceria turned. Pisces was standing with Colth, looking—surprised. Even awkward, but the other teams gathered around to watch saw the ropes begin to lower.

“Ready! Let’s do this!”

Colth was strong enough to lower the ropes himself, but Yvlon hurried over to help, and the first being began to descend into the darkness.

Into the dungeon of Liscor, where the last protectors of the dungeon waited. They had battled the Antinium, even with the Small Queen’s advance. They had husbanded the depleted monster populations—and the dungeon had reconfigured against the tireless adventurers.

In the darkness, troops of enchanted armor patrolled. Hordes of monsters, Crypt Worms, and undead stayed clear of the Free Hive’s trapped entrance and waited.

 

——

 

Snatcher sensed the first body dropping into the chasm and turned from counting heads. So few heads.

No monster heads. The Raskghar were gone. The Goblins were gone. Less adventurers—and it hadn’t gotten the blue thing’s head.

It had tried. The being of thread had given it a chance, and it had tried—but the last of the three great protectors hadn’t been able to take the most valuable part of its collection.

Light had burned it. Magic had nearly…nearly killed Snatcher. But the head.

The heads.

So many heads had eluded it. The little white thing. The five green ones. The adventurers.

Was it…angry?

Was Snatcher angry? Such an odd emotion to have after all this long while. Pain was a rare thing for it. Names, pain, duty…those were so long ago. It still remembered what it was supposed to do.

Guard Mother.

…But it had long since given in to its desires. Taking heads. It had Stalker’s face, and it would have taken Skinner’s—if Skinner had ever had a head worth taking. This should have contented Snatcher, for its home was decorated with its trophies.

But was it…angry? 

WAS IT ANGRY ABOUT THE PAIN? ABOUT THE INTRUDERS? WAS IT ANGR—

Something walked the dungeon, and Snatcher prowled out of its lair, and monsters fled before it. It knew danger and death—but if this intruder had a head worth taking, Snatcher would have it. It wanted more. More and more, and it was starting to wonder how many heads lay above.

How long did it have to guard Mother?

Was she even still down there? Oh…yes. 

Did she have a head worth taking?

 

——

 

The Horns entered the dungeon, and the whispers began at once.

“Okay, we have no idea where we’re going. So—let’s try the routes on this map that Bevussa’s team used and go from there. If we find an old Raskghar camp, I might be able to navigate to another one.”

“We should have asked Calruz for help.”

“…No, we shouldn’t have.”

Ceria’s voice and Yvlon’s were very distinct as the team crept forwards. The metal barricades that demarcated ‘danger areas’ and safe zones had several layers due to Facestealer and the other monster threats. The first layer was around the opening of the chasm. It took some doing to lift the heavy metal bar and open the door, and the Horns were arguing the entire while.

“Dead gods, I hate this place.”

Pisces muttered as Colth kept silent—for now. Ksmvr’s voice was a whisper.

“Captain Ceria, Comrade Yvlon, please keep quieter.”

“Right, Ksmvr. Damn lever. Okay…there’s a trap left here. Left!

The scream was just in time—a body slammed into the wall and avoided a magical trap. Instantly, the team began arguing.

“Say that earlier, Ceria!”

“I said left! Why are you going left?”

“I just heard left!”

“Well, listen to the context in my voice, Pisces. Any monsters ahead?”

The whispering team fell silent, and Colth called out.

“None that I can see. Let’s call out the traps—show Pisces ahead of time, maybe?”

“Got it.”

They moved ahead, and the adventurers slowly navigated around the traps. They were…too casual.

“Dead gods, I need a snack.”

Ceria, keep your voice—

“Movement on our left. What’s that?”

Everyone froze…and something crawled away from them. Colth murmured.

“It looks like just a small scavenger insect. Bile maggot. Bigger than most I’ve seen. I hope they don’t…hatch.”

“Dead gods, how many monster species are down here?”

Yvlon was disgusted. Pisces replied.

“Let’s not go that way if possible. Just on chance.”

“Fair point. Alright, we’re going ahead. Watch for traps—and if you hear any rumblings, remember the Shield Spider avalanche?”

“Dead gods, I hate this place.”

The Horns of Hammerad were not enforcing silence or cohesion as the figure in front stumbled forwards warily, head swinging left and right. In fact, they were trusting too much to the map. If a monster jumped them…

Lehra Ruinstrider was watching the Horns’ progress with Colth. She would be the first to admit her team had poor adventuring discipline. She’d realized that after their final battle with Dragial, actually.

The Halfseekers…that was a professional team for all they were fun and relaxed. They had excellent teamwork; Lehra’s did too, but their team tended to support the Stargnoll.

But the Horns? Lehra had heard they were good enough to take on the Village of the Dead raid, but their banter right now was the most unprofessional stuff she’d heard of—and she did know dungeons.

The Ruinstrider tribe didn’t do dungeons, mostly, but the distinction between ‘ruins’ and dungeons sometimes got too close for comfort. You kept quiet, you took few chances, and you didn’t trust the map.

The Horns were doing a lot of stuff wrong, and Colth didn’t seem inclined to reprimand them. If anything, he was observing them and even bantering with Pisces.

“You know, for a team that did the Village of the Dead raid, I can’t imagine this dungeon is much worse.”

“It’s traps. I hate traps. I have had entirely too many experiences encountering hunters’ snares or traps in forests.”

The [Necromancer] grumbled. Colth gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder as Lehra watched.

Unprofessional. Chaotic. Too loud by half—Ceria was chomping down on some fries, and Yvlon was eating them too. Dead gods, they even had Mrsha in between Ksmvr and Colth watching it all.

It would have been the most irresponsible dungeon crawl ever—if the Horns were actually down there.

The view of the dungeon lurched, and Ceria winced.

“Pisces, can you keep the view steady?”

“I can’t tell if the skeleton trips. What’s that on our left?”

“A wall.”

The adventurers were crowded around…a scrying orb. And the orb was giving them a wide-angle view of a dungeon, two swinging skeletal arms, and a very faint light as a skeleton awkwardly navigated the maze. Ksmvr was drawing a line down their map as they reached the last point Bevussa had been to. Mrsha was hugging Pisces’ arm as they saw an axe swinging in front of them.

“Dead gods, an actual swinging axe trap.”

“Yeah, well, this one shoots spikes out the sides if you get too close. Pisces, can you make the skeleton roll?”

Stop heckling me. This is hard enough to do at range!”

Pisces hissed. The skeleton hesitated—then did a few steps, and the viewpoint spun—and everyone heard a crash and snapping sounds.

“Good job, Pisces.”

At this, the [Necromancer] threw one of the napkins at Ceria. He pointed at the scrying orb as Colth stirred.

“Is the undead dead or…?”

“I believe I can reassemble it. Hold on. The further we get from our location, the more difficult this will be to project my mana. So I need less distractions and more guidance, Ceria.”

“Sorry, Pisces. I’d make it a Frostmarrow Skeleton if I could—but I don’t know if you can control it. Here, have some fries.”

Everyone sat back as Pisces went to work, and Lehra turned to her team. Suxhel’s mouth was still open, and they all sat there—including Jewel’s team—with a kind of—of voyeuristic shame hanging about them.

“Is this even legal? This feels like cheating!”

“Cheating who, exactly?”

Elgrinna was smiling, but Lehra felt like someone should be holding up one of those yellow cards in that soccer game she’d watched.

“It’s just so cheap!

The skeleton got back up, and the Horns went back to directing Pisces forwards, but more quietly. Lehra gestured to it.

“Look at them! They get to explore the dungeon with a skeleton, and they’re not even—people have died and—that’s Named-rank adventuring?

Colth had come up with the idea. He looked quite pleased about coming up with the concept—and he was even extrapolating ideas.

“Adventurers have tons of items that do the same thing. [Beastmasters] would use mice or birds—canaries in the mines, you know? But a skeleton is so…expendable. I may see if other teams bite at the idea if I can copy the spell once we’re done here.”

“The scrying orb’s a great idea. We never had orbs—let alone ones to burn.”

The reason why they could use an ‘expendable’ scrying orb was mainly due to Palt and other high-power [Mages] capable of casting the scrying enchantment. Ceria was jotting down a note—if you could make a free scrying orb out of a glass orb, that was a spell to learn.

Lehra’s team was used to scouting, but they felt this was a bit too easy. However, another adventurer disagreed.

“It’s cheap, underhanded, and as safe as can be. That’s Named-rank for you. What, did you think we played fair? Rookie.”

Saliss of Lights was watching the Horns with one sardonic look at Colth. He glanced over at Lehra and kicked at her lightly.

“But Adventurer Saliss! You don’t do this!”

Saliss pointed at his chest.

“I don’t do that?”

“You fight with potions! This is…”

Lehra ducked as Saliss actually threw another napkin at her face. He looked genuinely annoyed by her comment.

“Listen, kid. Lehra. Rookie. Newbie. Peon. Uh…child.

Her team looked unsure whether or not to take offense, but Saliss pointed a claw at Lehra.

“—Shut up. If you ever say that to me again, I’ll have Tessa kick the fur off you. You sound like some kind of wet-behind-the-ears Bronze-rank.”

“Adventurer Saliss—”

“You shut up too, whoever you are.”

The Drake pointed at Emper, and the [Monk] fell silent. The Drake stabbed a table with one claw.

Adventurers don’t play fair. You want to know the last ‘fight’ I had outside of the Meeting of Tribes? I fought a room full of high-level [Rogues]. And what I did is—I inserted a Potion of Acid Clouds into the room and closed the door.

Lehra fell silent and blanched. Saliss glared at her.

“If it was Crelers, I’d do the exact same thing but add fire as well. When I hunt monsters, I don’t walk up to them and give them a shake of the claw and wish them a sporting match and agree not to hit them under the belt. I ambush them when they’re sleeping. If I need to, I dig a hole and put sharp sticks at the bottom. If I think there’s a fair fight, I run away and come back later.

“But you fought Belavierr and the armies—”

He grabbed her arm and hissed at her.

That’s not adventuring. That’s idiocy. This is real adventuring, and if you had any sense, you would have taken out that Wall Lord who was hunting you the first time you beat him rather than let the Halfseekers clean up your mess.”

Chastened, embarrassed, Lehra ducked her head. In fact, Colth turned to give Saliss a long look, which the Drake returned with a middle finger.

“I don’t want to hear it, Colth the Upstanding. She’s a rookie, and she needs to hear this. Or she won’t live another year.”

Lehra shrank down at her table and stared at her plate. That was until Saliss stomped off to ask Ishkr how annoyed Laken Godart might be if Saliss showed up. The Drake was really unhappy to learn Laken was blind.

“Saliss has done a lot of heroic things against overwhelming odds. Like his defense of Pallass. He’s looking out for you. Don’t take it the wrong way; he is right that you and your team need to work on surviving before being heroes.”

Colth got up from the table where Pisces was walking his skeleton into a wall. Lehra glanced up.

“I know that—it’s just, I don’t feel like a Named-rank all the time. Most of the time.”

Colth was sympathetic. He patted Lehra on the shoulder.

“Completely understandable. I made it to Named-rank, oh, six years ago, and you’re younger than I was! But you need to remember something, Lehra. Even if you don’t feel like it—your threats will be Named-rank. If someone goes hunting you, they don’t take a band of [Thugs], they bring an army. Same for adventures. You’ll be the highest-level person there, and you can’t be the one who folds.”

His words struck Lehra harder than he could have known. She had been at the Meeting of Tribes. If she had been able to use the Blade of Mershi properly or…

Watch your back! Watch your—

The scrying orb went dark, and Yvlon stopped shaking Pisces as the snarling, red-eyed monster leapt. Pisces jerked back in his seat.

“Children.”

The monstrous child-mimics that pretended to be children had snuck up on Pisces. Colth groaned and hurried over as the Gold-rank team began arguing over what had gone wrong.

“I thought you were a duelist, Pisces. Why’s your skeleton got all the grace of a drunk Palt?”

“Hey.”

Palt looked hurt as he trotted past them. Pisces protested.

“I may be able to control it—but I am not used to seeing through a scrying orb. I hope we haven’t lost it. We should enchant a plain piece of glass—and I need you to stop shouting in my ears!”

“Right, sorry. What if…we sent the skeleton in armor?”

“We’re not losing good armor.”

“Okay, then, what about a Flask of Fire? Or something to defend itself?”

“How about a [Haste] spell? Or [Speed]. I could cast [Speed], and we could give the skeleton a shield. Frankly, we should probably add [Light] to it as well. Sneaking around in the darkness made it harder to navigate, and the monsters clearly took notice it was there.”

Colth sat down, and the Gold-ranks conferred as they went over the issue. Lehra glanced up at them and sighed.

“Why’s it feel like the Horns are closer to Named-rank than we are?”

“Maybe they are if they combined all their levels, compared with ours. No—that’s definitely the case.”

Suxhel knew their team was Gold-rank, but she eyed Pisces and compared his probable level to Lehra’s. In levels, the Horns might actually be superior to Stargazer’s Promise.

But what made Lehra better? Well, aside from sheer levels like Colth or Saliss, the answer was one thing. Lehra glanced down at the gleaming bracelet on one arm.

 

——

 

Relics. The first monster encounter at Albez was fast—but stronger than anticipated.

“Lich. Undead horde. Liiiiich!

It was a throwback to the first monsters that the Horns had ever encountered at Albez. Namely—an undead spellcaster.

A Lich.

The body of a dead [Mage] emerged as the first civilian diggers caved in a hither-to unexplored tunnel. A Lich rose out, shooting lightning bolts and [Fireballs], and hundreds of undead poured after it.

The ruins of Albez had been a magical community, so the dangerous undead variant made sense. It was more than a match for most Silver-rank teams with its sheer magical killing ability.

…But not that many Named-ranks and Gold-ranks. In fact, the first bolt of lightning never even hit the terrified woman running screaming away from the Lich.

“[Accident Protection: Monsters]! Get out of there!

Earlia’s [Mining Captain] Skill made the first bolt of lightning swerve. It was such an odd Skill that even the other adventurers were surprised. But then the adventurers were charging into the fighting.

Frankly, it was overkill, and half the teams didn’t even get into the opened pit. The adventurers were in more danger of hitting each other, and Halrac loosed one enchanted arrow that detonated on the Lich’s barriers before he heard a shout.

No area of attack spells! Damn it, get out of the pit—nevermind, warriors in!

The sensible thing to do would be to stand back and hit the undead in the pit with [Fireballs], but the adventurers had gone in—and more monsters were awakening from the fighting.

The undead horde had, apparently, been sharing space or competing with huge, burrowing…pigs. They had huge tusks that rose upwards with shovel-like ends, and their mouths were cilia, waving tendrils that feasted on dead meat.

“Rotbore Pigs!”

The angry pigs were as large as boars, and they slammed into the undead, and the adventurers in the pit were facing their charge as well as the corroded weapons of the undead and the Lich’s indiscriminate magic.

Again—

It was overkill.

Eldertuin the Fortress slammed a sword against his shield, and the Lich whirled. A bolt of lightning, orb of acid, and fireball all shot towards the Fortress’ shield, and he hunkered behind it.

“[Provoked Opponent].”

“I’ve got a bead, Captain. Want me to take a shot?”

The [Archer] of Variable Fortress, his team, was aiming at the Lich. Halrac loosed another invisible arrow, but it had shields up, and it was surviving the first volley from adventurers confident enough not to hit the adventurers below.

“No. Let it attack.”

Eldertuin held his ground, and the shield barely vibrated as more spells lashed it. He glanced over—and Deniusth had his sword drawn, but Orchestra was also standing at the top of the pit. Casually, the Named-rank swung his bow through the head of a climbing Ghoul, but that was all.

Orchestra had a huge attack radius, and so the adventurers who’d jumped down—Dasha, Jelaqua, the Waterborn Raiders, and a host of others—would have been hit. Deniusth was eying the Lich, but he saw Eldertuin and knew there was no point to showing off.

After all—the Fortress’ shield was beginning to awaken.

Eldertuin had a tower shield, huge and square, curved to protect a lot of his body even when held at his side. He could cover his entire form with it, large as he was, and it was the one relic-class item he owned.

A gift from House Terland upon his marriage. It was decorated with their motifs, a beautiful relief on the front, but the real secret was the object in the center.

It was…

An eye. And the eye was normally closed until enough magic hit it. Whereupon it slowly began to open…

The Lich only sensed something was wrong when it saw a gemstone eye of the Golem Shield open. Then it saw the eye’s pupil glow white—and the undead began to fly back.

Too late—a beam of light lanced across the ground, and Halrac threw up his hands to shield his face. He saw it pierce the barriers and hit the Lich—when he lowered his hands, a flaming shower of ashes was falling.

“Dead gods. Now there’s a shield.”

Briganda swore in admiration. She hadn’t gone down into the pit, but she was ready to leap. No wonder Eldertuin had held an entire part of the Village of the Dead raid on his own!

“I hear it’s got other effects. Like a localized earthquake. None of the Named-rankers going to show off? Viecel’s just sitting there.”

The Selphid was indeed, as were Orchestra. But then—Revi blinked down into the pit of adventurers and saw a few teams shouting.

“Hey! Let us back out!”

The Waterborn Raiders were climbing up. They had been mad enough to leap into the fight after realizing that Earlia’s team were taking the runes, but they were backing out. And indeed, even the other Gold and Silver-rankers in the pit were climbing out.

It had been barely forty seconds. What was—Revi looked into the pit, and her jaw dropped.

 

——

 

Hundreds of undead. That was not an idle thing. Vuliel Drae or the Pride of Kelia could conceivably take down that horde, but if they leapt into that pit, they had good odds of never coming out. They would require planning, traps, chokepoints—but Nailren was sure he could have taken the undead down with enough arrows and time.

…Yet that was the difference between his team and, say, a Named-rank one. Saliss of Lights could eliminate that horde in five seconds, he was sure.

Now, the Gnoll saw something that made his heart skip. Because if that was true—

Then how fast was one adventurer taking down this horde? Even Deniusth had fallen silent, and the other teams, from Spoken Vow to the Raiders to even teams like the Silver Swords, were shocked. Ylawes backed up—shield raised despite himself—

Because Jelaqua Ivirith’s flail wasn’t stopping.

Demas Metal. It was whirling, blades coated in water and gore, and the metal edges swung through Zombies and Ghouls so fast that the [Steelforged Whirlwind] barely stopped moving. She didn’t riposte, parry, feint, or do anything so slow as take the undead on one by one.

Her flailwork was that of a Gold-rank adventurer who’d done this for ages—but it was a careful dance of hammering her opponent, pulling the flail back, and hitting them again. Death by a thousand strikes.

This? The Selphid herself was caught off-guard by the lack of resistance. She slashed through a zombie’s corroded chainmail and into its chest, whirled the Demas Metal flail around—

The only thing that lasted more than a second was a Crypt Lord. That horror appeared, and Jelaqua’s flail slashed at its sides, its ‘face’, and bloated body—it swung at her, and she danced back—then the Crypt Lord stared at its missing arm. It went down so fast Ylawes wondered if he could have done that with one of his Skills.

“Dead gods! Ivirith is tearing them up! Was she always that good?

An adventurer from the north exclaimed shakily. Ylawes saw Dawil reaching down and swung himself up the crumbling dirt walls.

“That flail—”

“It’s like that metal was made for her. Look at her!”

Dawil was beaming, and Ylawes smiled despite himself—although he felt frankly envious. When Jelaqua halted, the Selphid was panting. Her dead body’s chest rose up and down, and the Selphid looked around.

“What the—did I do that?”

Everyone looked at her team and then the minced bodies. A Ghoul crept up, cradling a severed arm, and leapt at Jelaqua. She turned with one hand raised to punch it—and the Ghoul vanished mid-leap in a blaze of magical missiles.

“How many was—”

Ylawes lowered his arm as dozens of arrow-spells hit the Ghoul mid-jump. Falene broke in, breathless.

Sixty-one. How did he—

She looked up, and Moore lowered his staff, blinking. The Silver Swords looked up, and then Ylawes saw what had changed about the [Green Mage].

That staff he held was made of dark metal, reminiscent of iron, but infused with sprinkles of light, like it was some kind of gemstone ore embedded in the metal. And the tip was a set of sapphire claws clutching an orb that glowed with power.

“…Did Moore always have that staff?”

Ylawes was almost certain he had not. The half-Giant lowered it, and Falene’s mouth worked. Then she pointed.

“No. That’s—that’s—

Wall Lord Dragial’s personal staff and the gift from the Demas Metal tribe glinted among the Halfseekers’ personal equipment. In fact, Ylawes thought Seborn had a new cloak, and Ulinde seemed to be wearing boots adjusted for a Drake…

 

——

 

“They looted the Wall Lord. They looted a Wall Lord of Fissival? And got away with it?”

Deni couldn’t take his eyes off of the Halfseekers’ gear.

“Apparently, they split some of it with the Stargnoll’s team. Did you see that flail? That’s…what tribe was selling that metal? It’s not even enchanted, and she tore up that group of undead. We could do that. Obviously. But—”

The Named-ranks reacted to the Halfseekers’ performance in the pit almost more strongly than the lower-rank teams. Because they saw what that meant.

That staff might not be relic-class, but if it wasn’t, it was as good as anything Deni or Eldertuin’s [Mages] had. And gear?

Gear was what separated Named-ranks from Gold-ranks. Levels too, but gear?

Saliss of Lights was a kind of exception in that he could manufacture his own gear, and it was a limited supply. But those items changed everything.

Eldertuin the Fortress had no fear of a [Warrior]’s worst nightmare: hostile magic. Similarly, each Named-rank Adventurer tended to have an object or objects that put them above ordinary members of their class.

For instance, Deni had heard that Three-Color Stalker had a pair of blades that would kill almost anyone she stabbed—and there was nothing more terrifying than a contest where the first blow ended everything with the world’s best [Rogue].

There was something else Named-ranks had that other adventurers didn’t, and that was exemplary gear that wasn’t based around combat.

In fact, as the [Diggers] got back to work and the adventurers decided to make camp around Albez’s ruins, Deni went to chat with the Halfseekers. He had noticed Griffon Hunt’s Captain had an invisible bow, too, and in exchange for being allowed to inspect both, he showed them his scarf.

“My instrument is obviously custom-made. An old enchanted violin from the Rihal Imperium, apparently. Whatever that was. It’s got a host of magical effects.”

“It’s that old? So your team plays magical effects? Like a group of [Bards]?”

Ulinde was nervous and excited, but you needed a rookie like that, and Deni let her admire the bow of his violin—while cautioning her to be careful, because it was sharp.

“Exactly. Magic, swordplay, and music all in one. But we have a lot of tools for every encounter. For instance, this saved my life.”

He tugged at the scarf with a grimace, but the huge wound in his neck running into his chest didn’t hurt. He just…felt it.

“That’s a death-wound if you don’t mind me saying so, Captain Deni.”

Typhenous observed quietly, and the Named-rank’s lips twisted.

“I was just lucky enough my team got to put it on me. Someone else might have died of shock. It’s the fourth Relic-class item between our team.”

More than most. Briganda whistled as Deni let them touch it.

“A Scarf of Wound’s Relief. We bought it after Chalence. Half a million gold pieces, and that was a steal.”

Half a million—

“It’s worth four times that or more, by now. It’s saved our lives so many times I can’t even count. No wound will worsen or bleed with it on—and it’ll slowly heal. Slowly…I’m not risking a healing potion. The damned axe might have been poisoned or putrid.”

His only other option without the scarf would have been to rush to the Healer of Tenbault and beg her on hands and knees to save his life.

Gear made the team. Deni wondered if the Halfseekers would consider an offer on any of their artifacts. Then again—even for someone rich off of Chalence’s loot, there was a limit to how many Relic-class items you could buy.

“No one’s getting the Helm of Fire. I mean, none of us. It’s a huge bidding war between nations, still. The Walled Cities versus that Emir from Roshal…damn shame. We’re the ones who could use the items and get them!”

Deni groused as he stared at the dark ruins. They had found nothing tonight, but he wanted to find something.

Relics. They were worth thousands of gold pieces spent on diggers, ten times that. If he had a proper set of legendary armor or…there was nothing else for him to buy. Potions? Maybe a few rare ones.

Expensive homes, security, connections? All these things didn’t matter when a monster had you in its claws.

Relics. Deniusth wondered how many were buried in the new lands. And—he thought of the Blade of Mershi. How many Named-ranks might be made by a single Relic alone?

Assuming, of course—you could hold onto it.

 

——

 

Three more skeletons died in the dungeon of Liscor that night. One ran into a trap. Two were taken out by monsters, but in their journey, they managed to get further ahead than any adventurer ever had.

Nevertheless, Pisces’ head was sore from trying to move the skeletons, and Colth was encouraging, but practical.

“This method works. The problem is—we might run into Albez’s treasure seekers, but they’ve apparently camped out for the night. Good for us. Let’s try to refine our strategy tomorrow.”

“Er—pleasure to be working with you, Colth. Do you want to stay here…?”

“If you’ve got a room, I’ll take it. But let’s go over Ceria’s memory again. We have to plot a route to this city. Sorry, boss, but this is the only thing we can do while Pisces rests. We could do more dungeon runs, but I think we shouldn’t agitate it.”

He was meticulously making maps of Ceria’s own memory and comparing them against other blueprints of the dungeon. In fact…Colth seemed to be coming to the conclusion that they needed more intelligence about the dungeon’s layout.

Which he suggested meant a visit to Calruz. Ceria didn’t know if that was wise, but she had to admit, Colth’s methods had been zero-risk, all potential reward so far.

By contrast, the restless Lehra had gloomed off, and Saliss and Tessa seemed unaffected by the search for treasure.

“I don’t do dungeons. Tessa, this nostalgic for you?”

“Hm. I killed people. I only did a few dungeons.”

“Right. You eating well? Erin feeding you?”

“Mhm.”

“What’s ‘mhm’? Yes, no? Give examples.”

Saliss poked Tessa until she drew a blade on him—but then he just poked her with a spoon.

They were a different kind of Named-rank than Colth and the Haven’s lot. Less focused on the adventure, at least for the moment. Saliss had once claimed that any adventurer who made it to Named-rank was crazy in their own way, and Lehra might qualify.

Colth…Colth was professional, intelligent, and oddly sycophantic at times. He had taken to calling Ceria ‘boss’, and she’d heard he did act like that. Well—sometimes the madness wasn’t obvious. Sometimes it was.

 

——

 

Viecel the Gambler tossed the last two fingers on his right hand into the fire. Eldertuin had adventured with the Selphid for a long time, but even he winced as the Gambler removed the digits.

“Enough damn gambling, Viecel. This is meant to be fun. The odds are we’re not going to find—”

Deni snapped at Viecel, but the Selphid just looked up with a flat expression. Then he smiled.

“Want to bet on it? Come on, Deni. Put some gold on the line. Life’s no fun finding just a small treasure.”

We don’t all have fingers to spare. We’re not all damn Selphids.”

Viecel shrugged.

“Fingers aren’t worth much, that’s true. In that case—I wager a real wound. Blood or treasure, even up.”

“Viecel. Enough.”

Eldertuin grabbed his arm, but the Gambler was relaxed. He spread his arms.

“It’s just a wound either way, Eldertuin. And besides, it’ll add to whatever we get if I win. I’ve got to send something back to the kids. Especially now.”

He looked earnestly at the Fortress, and Eldertuin looked like he wanted to argue—but all the Named-ranks had heard about Baleros.

Besides, these were old arguments. Viecel had bet worse and more before.

Perhaps they should have stopped him long ago. The Gold-ranks were talking with Silver-ranks and Bronze-ranks about stories, and some of them were asking, enviously, how you reached the level of Horns or beyond.

“It’s not luck. It’s taking a risk. A calculated risk. You always, always play it safe, rookies, but sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”

The Waterborn Raider’s Captain was more genial than expected when they were sitting with full bellies around an open fire, but other adventurers cautioned him.

“Don’t say that to the younger adventurers. Then they just take risks. Figuring out what’s a calculated risk in the first place—that’s how you make it.”

“The higher-level you are, the less risk you have to take. I didn’t make the rules.”

The Waterborn Raider’s Captain defended himself with a glance at Deniusth. The Violinist pretended to ignore it—but then he stared into the distance.

“Risk. You say that now, Captain Foeer, but I’ve got a mountain of risks I never took. Friends who I never backed—and never saw again. The Archmage of Izril was just some kid when I was a Bronze-rank, you know? We were never friends in the sense that we were that close, but she sometimes helped us out. And for eight years, she was lost. Colth, Eld, Mihaela even—we’re the last ones, but when I look at you all, I knew this many adventurers growing up.”

He gestured at the gathering of hundreds, and the Violinist took a cup of warm cider. He drank it and felt the warmth seeping into his bones and a painful nostalgia.

“Eighteen. Eighteen adventurers from the Haven’s days are all Larra knows. Eighteen originals. That’s how many make it, you know. Eighteen ever retired or made it to our age.”

He looked around, and the younger adventurers fell silent. Yet Deni didn’t mean to dampen their spirits. He looked around, then sprang onto one of the barrels he’d paid for from Remendia.

“I don’t know if it was worth it—but I never was able to quit adventuring. Even after I made my fortune. It drags me back again and again, and when I’m here—I see a new chance. The new lands of Izril.

He looked at them, and they all stared up at him, some with eyes shining, others as jaded as his. Deni took a huge drink.

Never touched. Never explored! A new era upon us—this is a rebirth, friends. A new chance! Everything I’ve failed at, this time, I’ll do it right. I’m going to head into Izril’s new lands like a Bronze-rank and start afresh. And when I do, any adventurer I meet will be right there with me. We’ll team up, Bronze-ranks and Orchestra. Will I see you there?”

He looked around and received a wild cheer from most. The Violinist grinned and felt that excitement calling him on as he tossed more wood on the fire.

 

——

 

A new start, with all the gold and artifacts his team’s got.

Seborn muttered sardonically to the Halfseekers. Ulinde broke off from her admiring stare of Deni, and Jelaqua stretched out.

“Let him rile the young ones up, Seborn. I thought you were all about hope these days?”

“Faith isn’t blindness. He’s going to get some of them killed.”

The Drowned Man eyed the food from Remendia, and he didn’t recall Deni starting that fire. Halrac seemed to share the same opinion.

“If the Named-ranks are going south, I hope they’ve brought more provisions than a regular adventure. We’re not going. Are you, Jelaqua?”

“Ah, I have things in Pallass to think of—and we’re flush from recent events. We’ll…think on it. The real question is who here is going. I’d have thought that Griffon Hunt would go.”

“We’ve got a contract with Emperor Godart, and that’s almost as good as new lands.”

Revi put in, and Typhenous and Briganda nodded. The Halfseekers raised their brows, but Halrac’s new boots obtained at practically no danger spoke to that.

Their two teams were more content than almost any other group. Vuliel Drae, the Pride of Kelia, even the Flamewardens were raising tankards to Deni’s speech.

“Relics in the new lands. Or more? What could they find there that they couldn’t find in a dungeon here? Even tomorrow?”

Jelaqua wondered sleepily. No one had an answer, but perhaps…Halrac looked at Deni and thought of Ulrien and his own team of Griffon Hunt. When he looked around, he saw Revi and Typhenous, still ‘new’, and Briganda.

Perhaps, the [Bowman of Loss] realized, it wasn’t about objects to Deniusth and the older adventurers.

Perhaps it really was about…who.

 

——

 

Everyone was asleep, and it was, apparently, some damn [Witch]’s hour as a [Necromancer] stomped through the underbrush, swearing as his robes got caught on every conceivable branch. Pisces Jealnet was up late, and he’d been walking for forty minutes.

Forty minutes at midnight. Plus, the new [Portal Door] that Erin had set up was a huge, huge problem for clandestine meetings like this.

“You want me to keep it here? I guess…and you can still adjust it. See? The dial system is even there! What, you want to go somewhere, Pisces?”

He had to give her a lie about an early-morning Players of Celum performance, and he was sure Erin hadn’t bought it. But she had put it out, and then?

Well, let’s assume you got to Invrisil unseen. Which was already uncertain. Then, Pisces had to walk the quiet streets and hopefully not get mugged. A real possibility, even for a Gold-rank adventurer—someone might not know who he was, and that didn’t stop a club from hitting the back of his head! He’d elected to cast [Invisibility] the entire way.

Then he had to get out the gates, and the [Guard] didn’t exactly just let anyone out—or back in. Pisces had decided just to jump off the walls. Getting up? Well…he felt like he could [Flash Step] past a [Guard] when the gate opened.

This wasn’t a Drake city—Invrisil had low walls and little paranoia about saboteurs. But then Pisces had realized he wasn’t anywhere close to the place he’d been shown on the map. So here he was, hiking for forty minutes to some alleged ruins near a forest.

He was mad. He was, in fact, not having fun at all or feeling like this was a productive use of his time. It felt like another lifetime…living in a dirt cave around the Floodplains, not washing, ever, and occasionally waking up with centipedes in his hair. Let alone skulking around in the middle of the night.

Pisces didn’t know how you did it. Part of him suspected that you just got used to the privation. After all—he slowed as he saw some old stonework long since abandoned. It looked like a mill and farmstead, literally overgrown by trees.

It was…too nostalgic for him. The [Necromancer] saw no movement around the ruined windmill, but one look told him that was where anyone would be sleeping since it was the most intact building.

“[Detect Life].”

The [Necromancer] was still invisible. He saw no less than six figures, two apparently watching from the ruined walls of the farmstead and four inside the windmill.

“Sloppy.”

Not that he’d have done much better. If someone were trying to detect you…well, Pisces at least could cast invisibility. Something occurred to him, and he tried another spell.

“[Detect Death].”

Ah. Suddenly, Pisces noticed a lot of other signatures…in the ground. He stopped, because buried in the farmstead’s ground were no less than thirty-four skeletons—and two undead gargoyle-skeletons.

And an undead giant cat.

Now that…that was a trick he hadn’t ever pulled, simply because he didn’t run with hordes. But it was the oldest [Necromancer] trick in the book. Any [Bounty Hunter] or Bronze-rank adventurer coming out here wouldn’t have much proof these vagrants were up to no good.

And if they did force the issue, they were going to have an unpleasant surprise.

Did they dispose of people after them? Did they attack [Guards] or were they just robbing corpses? He had defrauded—well, scared people out of money. How did they get food? Robbery or…

Pisces shook himself as he stealthed forwards. It wasn’t his responsibility. And yet—

He knew the person he was going to see.

Ama, the [Necromancer] from the very first days of Pisces learning magic, had changed markedly. He still remembered her—and himself—as gangling…ganglerous teens. Yes, that was a suitable word for it.

Oh, they’d been studying magic and raising undead, but there was something about their youth that had been too much pretense. Everyone, really. It reminded Pisces in an unhappy way of Gothica. But where Gothica was seriously a [Goth], whatever that meant, some of what the young [Necromancers] had been had really just been rebellious, hanging out with undead because they knew it was ‘wrong’.

Well, jokes or not, they had all paid for it with their lives. And the real [Necromancers], Feren, Gewilena…

They had been Pisces’ age now, even a year or two on him still. Now, he realized how they must have seen the new acolytes and [Necromancers]. Feren had been always concerned about being found, hoarding money—and getting Az’kerash’s undead-farm to work.

As Pisces had observed, it hadn’t really gotten off the ground. The rotting zombies made people sick and stank—and fell apart. None of the [Necromancers] understood farming, and so they also stole and caused trouble and pretended their undead were something more than putrid corpses. In that sense, they might have been no better than a group of [Bandits] with undeath magic—

But for Gewilena, the artist who made sculptures out of bone and gave them life. She and Feren had been a cut above the others. While he was more pragmatic and a good fighter—he had even tried to teach Pisces [Flash Step]—

Gewilena had been able to make powerful undead out of bone. Her undead creations had been on par with a Bone Horror, Pisces suspected.

This was all ancient history, of course, but Pisces remembered it all. He hadn’t ever been caught. His father had made sure of that—and the local [Lord] had put the others to the torch.

He’d thought no one survived. But Ama…Pisces remembered her. Another student of Gewilena, obsessed with cats. By the looks of it, she had reached Gewilena’s level in artistry.

If not common sense. It was odd, going back down memory road now. Pisces had always remembered himself as being the best [Necromancer] behind Feren and Gewilena. Which was…possibly true? Ama was just one of the kids who didn’t have his touch, his magical ability. His fencing grace.

Dead gods, I was insufferable. The younger Pisces had been constantly after Feren or Gewilena. Good thing he had adopted a measure of gravitas and dignity after Wistram. Yes, that was how he was going to think of it and not remember any embarrassing moments ever after that at all.

But Ama, think of Ama. Pisces walked past the undead, listening. He could hear quiet murmurs and shushes from the hidden figures. They were about as good at this as…well. Kids playing at being outlaws.

Ama must have set up the undead like this. He could sense her magic strongest of all. She was the new Feren…and these were the new Pisces and Amas.

So why are you doing this, Ama? Didn’t she learn the lesson he’d learned in Ailendamus? They would hunt you down.

He didn’t know, but this was his first chance to talk to her since the battle against the monsters. She’d told him to meet her here and that they would be waiting.

Well, to be precise, he’d had to meet with one of her acolytes twice in Invrisil, who, both times, had told him that she was ‘thinking’ and ‘investigating’ his background. After the second meeting during a gibbous waxing moon, he’d been told to come here.

“…think he’s going to show up, Deathlady Ama?”

“We’ll see.”

The windmill was denuded of the actual blades, but the door was intact. Inside, Pisces could see a bunch of pallets to sleep on, some mismatched cooking supplies, and a lot of bones.

It wasn’t the worst campsite, he supposed, and he heard a scraping sound—which turned out to be the four [Necromancers] carving bones inside.

They had little curved knives, and they were carving some of the Gargoyle bones to better fit new undead. Even, Pisces saw, painting them. One was using a very crude water dye and painting…whiskers onto a cat face?

Yep. That was Ama. It looked like she had not only salvaged the last cat undead he’d partially destroyed, but was making a new one. This one had a movable jaw, but looked like one of those tigers from the books of Baleros. And, apparently, it would have orange and black stripes. A lighter yellow-orange for whiskers.

Ama didn’t notice Pisces, despite her eyes focusing on the view out the windmill’s open door. She was watchful, even as she patiently cut slivers of bone off what would become an articulated cat’s leg.

“Do you think he’ll join the cabal, Deathlady?”

“We’ll see. He’s a Gold-rank adventurer now. He hasn’t tried to turn us in…”

“He must be over Level 30! At least! He could lead us to greater magic. Teach us—”

“Lead the cabal? Haven’t I done well enough? Are you trying to replace me, Rodden?”

She turned, and the carving knife gleamed under the moonlight. One of the younger [Necromancers] froze and stuttered.

“N-not me! I’m just saying, he’s a famous—I’d never do that, Deathlady!”

Pisces rolled his eyes. Well, Ama didn’t seem to need to establish a rule of fear if that was all it took. They were kids, the other five [Necromancers]. Young…teenagers to young adults.

Strange. Ama appeared far older now, watchful—and he recognized the burn scars on her arm and face. Nor did she seem entirely unskilled with the dagger.

Time had not been kind to her. Well, nothing for it. Pisces paced back to the forest, stepped behind a tree, and unraveled his invisibility spell. He emerged and heard, even from afar, a cry of alarm. He raised one hand and wondered what the hell he was going to do.

 

——

 

“What are you doing here, Ama?”

He only asked her that when they were alone. It took twenty minutes—the younger neophytes, the ‘Apprentices of Death’, the [Necromancers] didn’t want to leave Pisces be. They were agog and incautious. More than one like Rodden told Pisces their real name by accident—then tried to pretend it was an alias.

By now, Pisces had figured out the entire organization of this cabal. He’d participated in a few, but never really fit in…this was a less-harmful version of the stereotypical necromancer living in a dark castle and raising undead.

Sometimes, they allied with bandits or were part of a gang. Other times, they were individuals—Ama’s group was made up of locals around Invrisil. They stole bones and corpses, dug up valuables, and, Pisces suspected, sold their undead to gangs.

Still, they were pests not even worth having adventurers go after. Their theft of the Gargoyle bones really was the grand heist of the year.

Ama folded her arms and scowled at Pisces.

“It’s been what—eight years? Seven, and that’s the first thing you say to me. You show up, a Gold-rank adventurer, without even apologizing?”

“For what? I saved you from being attacked by Vaunt’s soldiers—what were you thinking, trying to rob them? Attack them with an undead? There were Gold-rank adventurers out there, and any one of them could have wiped out your entire group, Ama. I have a friend who could punch that cat to death with her bare hands.

Ama sneered—and grew angrier.

“You must be crazy. That’s an [Artisan Bone Construct], my Sillias. He’s chased off Mothbears and killed Corusdeer!”

“Is he a Bone Horror?”

Pisces was sardonic. Ama, outraged.

“Bone Horror? He’s better than a mismatch of bones—didn’t you see how he moves? Like a cat! He can even flex his back like a cat and—

“I meant in terms of combat ability.”

“Combat ability, what are you, Feren?

She sneered at him again, and Pisces blew out his cheeks. This was not how he expected his first conversation to go—which really meant he’d forgotten how [Necromancers] were. Each one thought their undead were the best.

“I’m not talking about aesthetics, Ama, I’m talking about sheer killing ability. Yvlon Byres can take out two Bone Horrors with her hands. I saw her smash in an Adult Creler’s head with a broken sword. Do you want to see what happens if your cat makes her mad?”

Ama hesitated. She swallowed a bit as, perhaps, she hadn’t realized how close to a hostile adventurer she’d gotten.

“That’s just a rumor. Your team didn’t really kill an Adult Creler. You did? You?

She gave him an incredulous look that Pisces felt was slightly warranted. He just sighed and scrubbed at his hair.

“It’s been a long time, Ama. I didn’t recognize you at first. Only that cat gave you away. Gewilena would have been proud.”

He expected that to bring them back to the start, but Ama’s face went white. Then she raised a hand and tried to slap him.

“How dare you bring her up!”

Pisces stepped back, and she overbalanced. He saw her right herself and kick out—he stepped back.

“What are you doing?”

The other [Necromancers] were watching from afar. Ama caught herself, and then she raised a wand.

“You—”

Pisces saw the tip glowing fiery-red and moved before he thought. His rapier rose and knocked the wand aside. Ama froze as he held it past her head.

“What is wrong with you?”

The [Deathbane Necromancer] snapped. He was furious now.

“I gave you those Gargoyle bones—I let you and your cabal go, and now you’re trying to hit me?”

“You think that makes up for what you did? You sold us out, Pisces. Gewilena, everyone—everyone died but Feren and me. All because your father figured out where we were hiding!”

Ah. Suddenly, Pisces’ fury went out, and his arm lowered as if a heavy weight were upon it.

“…I never told them anything.”

“So they just found us without you doing anything?”

Ama spat. Her cheeks were white, but a flush was creeping back into them. She turned, and the same fury that had propelled Pisces up till Liscor was still in her. Only in her—now Pisces understood.

He sheathed his rapier.

“I didn’t, Ama. Truly. Believe me, I wanted to stop it, but the first I heard was that Lord Ecte was going after the farm—from my father. He beat me half to death, and when I arrived—all I found was ash. Then I saw them execute Gewilena and the others.”

Ama listened, eyes wide with disbelief—but flickering.

“That can’t be right. They found us without a warning. No scouts—the first thing I saw were those [Knights] marching in. Feren told us to run, but we were still eating lunch when they attacked. Gewilena’s undead got two, but everyone else’s…Feren had to kill a [Knight] to get us out.”

“I didn’t know that. I thought he was burnt. No one mentioned casualties. I…I didn’t tell them.”

“They must have followed you.”

The other [Necromancer] was still angry, but it was draining out of her, replaced by old grief. It was a long, long time ago. This felt like opening a wound up, but Pisces had already thought of Gewilena before. And Ama…

“I don’t think they needed to. They just needed to know we were there. It wasn’t as if the farm was that well hidden, Ama. Once Lord Ecte got wind of it, how hard would it have been to cast [Detect Life]? I could tell you were all here—and the undead in the ground.”

She looked up, alarmed, and then her face twisted over.

“Feren never believed you sold us out. He thought they tortured you.”

“Feren’s alive? Is he here?”

Pisces latched onto that. The most skilled [Necromancer] had been in his mid-twenties, no duelist like Pisces, but able to cast [Flash Step] and [Deathbolt]. He had also wanted to be like Az’kerash and even tried dying his hair white in imitation of his mentor. Pisces had always thought that if anyone had been able to make it…

“No. No, we parted a long time ago. He’s still in Terandria. Working with Ailendamus.”

“…What? You have to be kidding.”

Ama shrugged.

“I was with him for a long time. But he’s obsessed with creating a huge cabal and an undead army. He wants revenge—but Ailendamus hires him to cause trouble with other nations. Raid villages, attack people—idiot. He was up to something big the last I heard of him.”

Pisces shook his head.

“You’ll need to tell me more about that. And you? How’d you get to Izril?”

“The same way you did. I just—left Terandria. Izril was closest, so I went to a port, but there’s almost nowhere safe. I should have gone to Baleros or Chandrar, but I couldn’t afford it. I finally found a place to make my undead here. And it’s been going well. Sillias is my finest creation—no matter what his ‘combat capability’ is.”

She had to actually raise the undead from the ground to show him off. Pisces saw the cat flex, roll over, and even pretend to wash a paw with a bone tongue of all things.

It was impressive and reminded Pisces of Gewilena…but it was also amazingly useless.

“How long did you spend on making that tongue?”

“Uh, five months. It was hard figuring out how to move it properly. Want to see him perch on a ledge?”

Ama was excited to show her cat off, but Pisces was glancing at the sky.

“I’ve got to get back to the inn. I just—I wanted to know what’s going on, Ama. What’s your cabal doing?”

Learning necromancy. What else? This…this is art. And I’m happy without your help. Those Gargoyle bones will make great protectors and fuel more projects. Thanks for that. You’re a famous Gold-rank. I can’t believe those damn adventurers don’t stab you. What else is there to say?”

She looked at him like a stranger, and Pisces glanced around the ruins. He imagined living in that windmill, and looked at the kids.

“Do you rob people for money?”

“No. What are you, trying to make sure nothing comes back to you? Believe me, I won’t try that if we run into an adventurer.”

She said it too fast, crossing her arms. Pisces huffed.

I’m not—we’re old friends, Ama. At least, we were. I just don’t want you to get in trouble bothering the wrong people. Do you need money?”

She shrugged defensively.

“We get by.”

He dug in his bag of holding.

“I bet. Here.”

He held out a handful of gold, and the [Necromancer] stared at it. She almost reached for the gold, then her face turned paler, and she swatted at his hand.

“I don’t need that. I don’t need you.

“It’s just a gift.”

“Well, I don’t need it.”

“Fine. I’m trying to be helpful. Clearly, I wasn’t needed here or anywhere else! Let’s agree to part on that.

Pisces lost his temper and turned on his heel. He stalked off—but Ama called out after him.

“Pisces, wait!”

She caught up to him, and he turned. The angry [Necromancer] saw Ama hesitate. She looked back at the cabal, then whispered to him.

“You…my cabal is small. Since you’re such a high-level [Necromancer], will you raise a Bone Horror or something for them? I had to tell them we knew each other.”

He stared at her, and she flushed. Pisces bit his tongue, and Ama whispered.

“They’re causing no one harm, but they want to all level up and earn lots of gold. They’ll run off to another cabal—the Gargoyle bones are huge. It’s better if they don’t.”

“There are other cabals about Invrisil?”

She gave him a long look.

“Not Invrisil specifically. But there are some bad ones out there. Please, Pisces. Getting involved with Izril’s gangs is a bad idea.”

Without a word, Pisces looked at the [Necromancers]. He sighed…then fished in his bag of holding. He spilled a pile of bones onto the ground and, with a flourish, clicked his fingers.

“Will…this do? It’s just a bear.”

The two-headed warbear rose—or at least, a simulacrum of one. The original bear and his Skeleton Lord were back on Chandrar, so Pisces just used the Gargoyle bones for this one.

…The bear head looked stupid with bone fragments crudely making it up. Pisces supposed he should alter the design or carve some bones up to make it look better. But he knew Ama’s method took forever. Maybe some paint? But that flaked off in combat. Maybe it could do more than lumber about.

He expected Ama to sneer at his creation, but the [Necromancer] gasped, and the other five practically sprinted over as the warbear rose. Pisces looked at Ama.

“It’s not nearly as functional as your cat. My original was lost…what?”

“How—how did you do that?”

“Do what? Oh, I had the warbear’s template saved.”

“No, animate a Bone Horror like that? It takes half an hour for me to raise one, and you—”

Pisces blinked at Ama.

“I’ve always raised undead that fast. It’s harder with creations above regular skeletons, but—I’ve practiced.”

“Practiced? Who practices animation speed? You had no ritual, and the bindings—the bindings are terrible.

Ama walked around the undead, and Pisces bristled.

“It does well in a fight.”

“It probably only lasts as long as it fights. Ew! Is this how you articulate the joints? Look, it’s paw barely does more than go up and down!”

Ama fearlessly wiggled the warbear’s paws as it reared up, demonstrating a classic swipe. Pisces grew defensive.

“That’s all it needs to do.”

“Yes, but you could make it actually adaptive. This thing just charges and bites, doesn’t it? You know, bears are more clever than that. Have you inlaid the bones with more strength or speed?”

“N—not everyone has time to make a custom undead. I, in fact, know how to make a Skeleton L—

Pisces hesitated and closed his mouth on that. Ama hadn’t heard.

“Classic Pisces. You make undead like Feren. No customization.”

“I made a skeleton with a crossbow in its chest!”

She gave him a blank look as he furiously poured bones out of his bag of holding. Pisces neglected to mention that he hadn’t used that combat skeleton in almost any battle—he really did just raise skeletons or the warbear or the Bone Behemoth.

Frankly—when you had a Bone Behemoth, most problems got squashed. Aside from armies of monsters. But Ama just sneered at his skeleton.

“Hey, raise the Scottie the Scout Skeleton. Bring him over here.”

“Scottie the Scout…you name your undead?”

Pisces forgot how Ama was. Actually, Gewilena had named all the zombie laborers. She just gave him an arch look.

“Yes, I do. And I have [Personal Undead] Skills.”

“That’s a Skill?”

That’s a Skill? Ahem.

Pisces froze as he heard a voice that no one else did. Ama flicked her brown hair out and pointed.

“Death Apprentices, clear some space. Let me show my peer what he’s forgotten. Scottie—dance!”

The skeleton was just a normal one, although for some reason he had an jerkin and pants on. Clearly new clothing, not the stuff the skeleton had been buried in. For a given value of new—it was tattered stuff. The skeleton with its bright yellow eyes did a jig in place with surprising nimbleness.

That was…actually somewhat impressive. Skeletons had mobility but not dexterity. Pisces could get his to run, but a dance? He refused to look impressed as a voice spoke in his head.

Young Pisces. It seems appropriate that now I reach out to you. At your…convenience, we must speak.

Absolutely, Archmage.

Pisces was sweating suddenly, and he wished Ama didn’t look quite so smug given her audience. She took his expression for mockery and glared.

“Not good enough? Okay, Scottie—flip.”

Scottie the Scout Skeleton backflipped. Pisces’ eyes bulged. It wasn’t even an amateurish backflip; Scottie curled up into a ball and then landed with both arms raised.

“Wh…”

That’s quite impressive.

Even Az’kerash sounded mildly intrigued. Pisces stared as Scottie kept dancing.

“You can make a skeleton do that? Did you just say—[Personal Undead]? I’ve never heard of that. And believe me, I, uh, I’ve been studying from the greatest tomes of undeath.”

Ama just laughed at him.

“Why would they have anything to do with Skills? And you don’t know how fast skeletons can move? Scottie can run on a vertical wall. Hey, make Scottie do a wall run for Pisces.”

The other [Necromancers] herded him off, but Ama stepped forwards.

“Just between us two, I suppose I’ll share that since you showed us your bear. Not a lot of [Necromancers] know about [Personal Undead]. I know, because Gewilena did it.”

“She never told me about that.”

Pisces felt hurt, and Ama shrugged.

“Maybe she didn’t have the Skill. Not a lot of [Necromancers] named their undead. They treat them like disposable tools. Feren hasn’t named a single undead he’s ever raised. I bet you haven’t either. If you don’t treat a skeleton as valuable, of course it’s not going to do anything.”

Pisces and Az’kerash stared at Ama in silence. She smirked.

“You’ve never named a single skeleton, have you?”

“I, uh—had one of my skeletons named Toren.”

Pisces neglected to mention who named it. Ama folded her arms.

“Well, there you go. It’s like pets. [Personal Undead] can gain useful Skills—Sillias mends himself from scrapes, so I don’t have to keep repairing him—even your damage is gone.”

“Archmage Chandler? Is this true?”

Pisces had to ask. Surely, in the two hundred years of Archmage Chandler’s existence…the great Necromancer of Terandria was silent.

I have not needed to nickname any undead without personality. Nor have any of the apprentices I ever taught expressed such odd behavior…undead were servants and protectors in my time. Interesting subsections of magic exist everywhere. As for imbuing bones with additional power, that is something I practiced when necessary. However, this cat…undead is overdone in every respect. Does it have a purring function?

Pisces looked at Ama, and she gave him a triumphant look, as if feeling she had won something. Which…she had. He stood there as she exhaled.

“I wish I’d had Sillias when we were back at the farm. We might have gotten everyone out.”

“I’m sorry, Ama. I…I am sorry.”

She looked at him bleakly, then turned away.

“You’re famous, and you have a team now. I’m glad. Listen, we’re not always going to be here, but if you want to come by, I can teach you how to make a Scottie. Did you—ever learn how to cast [Deathbolt] or other spells? Finding tomes or swapping spells is hard. I feel like I could learn it now, but Feren never got around to teaching me. Or any other spells.”

“I might. I’ll think about it. Right now, I do have to run. I’ve got to go get some sleep, Ama.”

She nodded at him, but when he turned, she held out her hand. He reached out to take it, and Ama curled her fingers.

“I could take some gold. If you’re giving it away.”

He gave her a slightly irked look, but produced a handful of gold coins—and then another. Ama hurried it into her own bag of holding, and the two stood there, not quite sure how to continue.

“—How is the, um, adventuring going, anyways?”

“Oh, we’re exploring a dungeon. With Colth the Supporter, no less.”

Pisces snorted mildly, but Ama looked stunned.

A Named-rank? How does he fight? Isn’t he one of Izril’s most eligible bachelors?”

“Possibly. He’s not that charming.”

Ama gave Pisces a long look.

“And you’re the judge of that? What’s it like, anyways? Is he the best fighter in the world or something?”

“I don’t know. We haven’t even gotten into the dungeon. I’ve actually been exploring it via a skeleton. I have to control one and send it down hundreds of feet and miles into the dungeon, past traps—to navigate through it. Sensible, but slow.”

“You can control it that far?”

The [Necromancer] was impressed, but this was more familiar to her, so Pisces described the orb setup and how Colth had come up with the idea. Only here, far, far away from the inn and prying ears did he say what he suspected the rest of the Horns had thought.

“It was a novel idea coming from someone who’s never worked with a [Necromancer] before. Very sensible, safe, and practical. Colth is about as adept as, ah, a junior [Necromancer].”

She laughed at that. Colth had been very pleased by his idea, and Pisces had forbore mentioning that they’d used expendable skeletons in Albez—and spiders, here. Colth had tweaked the concept and made it more useful, but it wasn’t that original.

“So he’s smart enough to be a [Necromancer]. That’s better than most meatshield adventurers I’ve run into.”

“True, true. He is a dangerous man. I don’t know in which sense, but I do know that. I wonder how these Named-ranks will act in Drake lands…ah.”

The ah was because the giant cat, Sillias, was padding over. Pisces backed up, but then he saw it twine around Ama, like an oversized, affectionate regular cat. He wasn’t sure if she’d commanded her undead to do that or if it was just created to do that at odd intervals.

Either way—the [Necromancer] stroked its head and scratched it under the chin, smiling, and Pisces had to admire that.

“…It is a work of art. He is. Gewilena would have been proud.”

Ama colored a bit and nodded at him.

“You really don’t make art anymore, Pisces? You? Gewilena taught you to carve bone as well as I did.”

His head lowered. Pisces stared at the ground, then felt a burning itch around his neck. His skin crawled on his back, and he looked up—and Ama’s smile went away.

“No. I do admire Sillias, Ama. But…my undead, as many as I can raise, as strong as they can be—they’re still not enough. I abandoned artistry to make them strong enough to kill monsters. And they’re not capable of killing real horrors. Not yet.”

Uncertainly, Ama glanced at the direction of his warbear, still being inspected by the junior members of her cabal.

“Is that why you’re adventuring? How many monsters are there in the world, anyways? How many Creler nests? I’ve never seen one and I live out in the wilds.”

She laughed uncertainly, and Pisces looked somberly at her.

“The bad ones look like people. They are, in my experience, the most difficult to kill.”

Ama stopped laughing and gave Pisces a longer look. Then she did nod, ducking her head to hide her face behind her long bangs.

“Yeah. They are. I stay away from them, but you and Feren…how many more have you met?”

“I met a number on Chandrar. Then I was rescued…I ran away. I left some good friends behind.”

Pisces whispered, like a confession. He looked at the cabal and Izril—safe. Despite the monster hordes. Ama watched her old friend’s face, and she saw Pisces look over his shoulder.

Again. She had thought he was impatient and wanting to be gone. Then she wondered if he was looking…southeast. Following the distant connection of death magic she sensed coming out of him. Impossibly far away.

“Chandrar’s a long way away.”

That was the only thing she could think to say. She had never seen the continent of deserts and old kingdoms aside from scrying orbs. It was just an idea to her, like Khelt or Az’kerash himself.

But Pisces…he nodded, then said something he hadn’t told his team or even Erin. A conclusion he’d come to.

“It is. It is, Ama. It will be a long journey back, and an ordeal. However—I have left too much unsettled with foul men and abhorrent deeds on Chandrar. I abandoned noble folk. I hope they can wait. Either way, I must return and bring them here. Or be damned.”

His eyes stared into the distance, and then he looked nothing like the boy with the practice rapier who she remembered, eagerly sitting around with the other young [Necromancers] and playing at undead. Then, she could see how he’d become a Gold-rank adventurer. And though neither she nor Pisces could see it, nor hear his voice…the Necromancer could see them and hear.

The Archmage of Death smiled, like a man named Perril Chandler once had, when he breathed and held Silvaria’s honor in his hands. Like an older mentor seeing a worthy pupil on his long, treacherous road.

A path so dangerous even he would have hesitated before stepping upon it, for he knew Roshal and Chandrar’s treachery. But—the Necromancer’s lips moved, his thoughts focusing, thinking. Wondering what he could give his successor for the trials ahead.

And while Az’kerash watched Pisces, the Tyrant of Cloth, the great ruler of those lands who knew both Roshal and Chandrar better than any other—she watched Az’kerash.

Nerrhavia smiled too.

 

——

 

Nothing much else happened that night. Aside from one person getting a very…suitable notification that made this morning fall into context. A decision had been made, or possibly, a threshold crossed.

Two points on a dataset made a line. A cluster, a trend. Well, if this were going to continue—if this were more than a hobby—what would it become? A voice measured the choices thus far and spoke:

 

[Prankster class obtained!]

[Prankster Level 8!]

[Skill – Convincing Lies obtained!]

[Skill – Pardon the Joke obtained!]

[Skill – Mischief Bank obtained!]

[Mischief Skill – Wings Upon Ice obtained!]

 

“Oh? Ooooh!

A half-Elf flailed around in her sheets and then landed on the floor. Ceria Springwalker couldn’t believe it. A new class? Now?

Was this comeuppance or…? She couldn’t tell, but after some thinking—and especially analyzing that unique Skill—she decided this was a good thing. The [Cryomancer] was tempted to run outside, but it was late. So, instead, she just tiptoed outside, saw a sleepy little Mrsha being led to the outhouse by Lyonette—and froze their door lock solid.

She did not level, much to her dismay.

 

——

 

The next morning, Pisces wondered why the normally friendly Lyonette served Ceria a burnt piece of bacon on some untoasted bread with a scowl. And she had, apparently, personally burnt the bacon.

Mrsha was also slightly bleary-eyed and scowling at Ceria, but forgave the half-Elf when Ceria promised to teach her some magic.

“Quality over quantity, I guess.”

He had no idea what she was talking about. But then, Pisces himself was, ah—low on sleep. He was very, very grateful for Erin’s [Twofold Rest] Skill, because he had had an unpleasant night.

Ama was one thing. But his night hadn’t ended with her. He had had…a very interesting conversation with Az’kerash.

 

——

 

The Archmage of Death was—chatty of late. He asked Pisces about his studies, his team, and his return from Chandrar. Even Erin Solstice.

Was he aware of Erin’s quests? Perhaps he was regarding Pisces more and more as an unofficial apprentice.

Pisces was, of course, as polite as possible, but the Necromancer hadn’t contacted him to impart any magic or purely for social politeness.

Young Pisces, I have reached out regarding the new lands of Izril. It is my understanding your team has not decided to enter the new lands. Is this so?

“N-no, Necromancer. They have made no such commitments.”

Pisces began sweating the instant he heard this. Az’kerash’s mental tone, however, was pleasant. Even conversational. Pisces wasn’t fooled.

My interests tend towards the new lands of Izril also. In the pursuit of your own levels and your career as an adventurer, I suggest you embark there as well.

“To…assist you in your goals, Archmage? My team has commitments, and while I am sure there is a wealth of opportunity there, I cannot force my Captain, Ceria, to do anything.”

Pisces replied swiftly, and Az’kerash paused.

“Naturally, but I would assume you have no little weight. I happen to know there is a great opportunity in the new lands—the <Mythical Quest> aside. If not what, it will be invaluable to all, or so my source assures me.”

He sounded displeased, so Pisces clarified.

“Naturally, then, Archmage. You—you think it is that important?”

Az’kerash took his time replying, and when he did, Pisces’ heart sank.

Just as I have taken your side against Roshal, young Pisces, so too do I assure you that the new lands have an opportunity you must not miss out upon. Consider this a friendly piece of advice.

Pisces swallowed. Well.

“In that case, Necromancer, I will begin my preparations at once.”

Properly, young Pisces. Properly. But your foresight in accepting my guidance is noted.

 

——

 

Pisces’ forehead rested on the table. He wondered what he was going to do.

Well—obviously, go to the new lands. He’d known from the start that the Necromancer’s help had consequences. Now, he was calling in the favor from Chandrar.

And it had been a favor worth having at the time. But could he endanger his team? Pisces shook his head.

What…what would Az’kerash ask of him? Perhaps just to find whatever this was. Either way, the favor had been called in, and Pisces was only grateful he hadn’t missed all the hints Az’kerash was dropping.

His wrath…would not be pleasant. But Pisces looked at Ksmvr, who was gobbling down just toast with butter and cinnamon for breakfast, and Yvlon and Ceria…and he spoke as Ceria was munching on her single piece of burnt bacon.

“Everyone, I have decided I will be joining the expedition to the new lands. Purely as a matter of self-improvement. You need not accompany me, nor do I expect it. I am quite self-sufficient, and frankly, I can understand if you would prefer we split a time.”

It was—harder to say like that. Pisces tried to sniff and sneer at the same time as he gave his team an arch look. Yvlon nearly spat out her breakfast porridge.

“You what? The new lands? Where is this coming from, Pisces? We haven’t discussed it?”

He raised an arch eyebrow.

“No, indeed? Well, I have decided. For myself. Last night. I’m sure you can form your own opinion, Byres, but I’ve made up my mind. Again, your attendance is not mandatory.”

She turned red instantly, and Pisces waited for a punch or a snap. Instead, Yvlon exhaled hard.

“Did Ceria freeze your door locks, too? I’ll…well, it’s not like the idea isn’t appealing. But this is a team-decision, Pisces. Some forewarning would be appreciated.”

The [Necromancer] shrugged, trying to keep his brows arched.

“Again, Byres, this is my personal decision. You need not join me. I am announcing my intentions to the group as a whole. What you decide isn’t my concern.”

This time, her fist clenched hard on the metal spoon, and it began to bend. Yvlon gritted her teeth.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were deliberately saying it like this to annoy me—”

“Comrade Pisces, Yvlon, please. Pisces is simply letting us know his intentions efficiently.”

Ksmvr looked worried and patted Yvlon and Pisces on the shoulders. She calmed down and shot Pisces a quick—hurt look.

“Sorry, Ksmvr.”

“Yes. Well, I’m determined.”

Pisces felt his stomach clench and guilt shooting through him. He turned to Ceria, and the half-Elf was propping her head up on her chin.

“The day gets weirder and weirder. Why are you so certain, Pisces? I thought you’d be keener on going back to Chandrar, not Izril.”

He flinched. The [Necromancer] avoided Ceria’s gaze and mixed truth with half-truths. The best sort of way to lie.

“First the new lands, then Chandrar, perhaps. W—I am not ready for Chandrar. Suffice it to say, my mind is made up, and if you all would prefer to stay here, I understand. Now—are we going to investigate this dungeon or not?”

He got up swiftly and backed away from his team. He hoped Yvlon would look angrier, but she just—gazed at him, and Ksmvr looked hurt and Ceria too perceptive. Pisces whirled away, not sure what he wanted.

But he didn’t want to lead them to their deaths.

 

——

 

“What the hell was that about? Silver and steel, did Pisces sleep on rocks or something?

Yvlon whispered to the other Horns as Pisces stalked off. She was upset—not just angry at his sudden announcement, but at how uncharacteristic it was.

“He did come back to the inn quite late. Perhaps his sleep was less than adequate? He is upset, not at us.”

Ksmvr tilted his head left and right. Ceria and Yvlon frowned at him. But they had forgotten.

The [Teammate] folded his arms smugly. [Sense Affection (Platonic)].

“Now that’s interesting, Ksmvr.”

Ceria murmured as she watched Pisces’ back. Her eyes flickered, and Yvlon muttered.

“It’s not like I haven’t thought about the new lands, but where’s this ambition coming from? Do you think it’s about Roshal? Does he want to level up that badly?”

Her hand clenched, but Ceria shook her head. She looked at Ksmvr, Pisces, and then nodded to herself.

“…I bet it’s that favor he called in for Erin.”

Ksmvr and Yvlon looked up. Ceria scratched at her head, thinking hard.

“There’s no reason for Pisces to be this dramatic about it—or unpleasant. It was like he was baiting you, Yvlon. Or else he’d try to persuade us all by being smarmy or debating it. I think he doesn’t want us to go. But he has to.”

“What? He’s being threatened—”

Yvlon half-rose, and Ceria clarified.

“Favor called in. Sort of different.”

“Then we must go with him. Is it because we did not obtain the Helm of Fire?”

Ksmvr looked agitated, and the half-Elf shook her head.

“Impossible to say, but I bet whomever Pisces is in debt to isn’t happy about that. Promised a Relic-class item and it gets put up for auction?”

“Who is it, do you think…?”

They hadn’t asked, and Yvlon had probably assumed, like Ceria, it was a ‘contact’ on the level of some local [Bandit Leader] or whatnot. But when you thought about it—Ceria’s eyes narrowed, and her mind began racing.

“Could be a [Lord] or [Lady], could be something…else. You meet powerful people by chance, believe me. The question is—are you guys up for a journey to the new lands?”

Yvlon’s mouth opened, and Ksmvr stared at Ceria. His mandibles clicked, and Ceria looked after Pisces. The Horns of Hammerad hesitated a moment, and Yvlon’s chin came up. She began to nod, and Ceria was smiling when Ksmvr spoke up.

“For Comrade Pisces, of course. But I do not see the point. What do these new lands have?”

Ceria and Yvlon twisted in their seats and saw Ksmvr staring blankly at the map of Izril and the new butt appended onto it that Gothica had scrawled there, hanging on a wall. His antennae waved, but the eager adventure in his voice? It was not there. Ksmvr scratched at his chin and then sighed.

 

——

 

The Horns’ quiet mood was not really noticed with the rest of the bustling inn. And when the Named-rank came down the stairs, the energy returned to maximum.

“Colth! I thought I sensed someone sleeping up here. I missed everything yesterday. Mrsha said you were doing something in the dungeon?”

Erin Solstice was getting out of her wheelchair and stretching. Colth bowed to her.

“Just a bit of careful dungeoning, Miss Solstice. How’s Larra doing? I’m sorry I missed the [Emperor]. How did that go?”

“Um, it’s going. Well, everyone’s mad at me, but we’re doing the introductions-thing. It’ll take a bit, but I guess we’ve gotta do it. I’m going over to Riverfarm now to be nice…and negotiate a deal.”

“Erin? Negotiate?”

Relc rubbed at his earholes as he chewed on breakfast. He looked over, and Erin shook her fist at him.

“Hey! I can too negotiate! I’m getting cheap, unlimited eggs. Since Mister Ram is a [Rancher]. Deal of the century.”

Lyonette rolled her eyes and whispered to the others as she passed by the table.

“She’s neglecting the door transport fee, Liscor doing trade negotiations and all the other cities, tariffs, oh, and Wailant is trying to declare his farm a separate entity that everyone has to deal with—Ceria, did you actually eat that toast? Mrsha sneezed on it! I have real breakfast. Let me get it.”

The half-Elf didn’t appear affected by the news. She turned back to Pisces and raised her brows.

“Ready for another day of skeleton-explorations, oh Captain, my Captain? Since you’re making all the decisions. We’ve got time. But let’s look into who else is going to the new lands, eh? I wonder if the other teams are working with a group or a nation.”

Pisces slowly nodded and, with a sigh—got back to work.

 

——

 

Unlike other days, neither Liscor nor Albez were bearing immediate fruit. Which was not to say there was no fruit possible!

The civilian [Diggers] were hard at work by the time that Ylawes Byres got up. Unlike the other teams from the north, he was used to sleeping on hard ground, and Falene even had a few tricks to make the ground soft and keep them warm in the autumn.

…Which was why he objected, slightly, to the sight of a magical tent being deployed by one Gold-rank team and Orchestra’s actual house.

“Is that a house, Dawil?”

“Lad, that’s a house.”

Even the Dwarf didn’t have a smart remark in the morning as the two swished tooth-cleaning liquid in their mouths and spat it. It looked like a colorful cabin—with reinforced metal doors and windows.

And arrow crenellations. Someone had mixed a fortress’ defenses with the homey design.

“It’s one of the Haven’s specialties. Must be that Larracel either made or loaned it—you know, a deployable resting spot? I’ve heard that you can weather monster swarms in it.”

“I wonder how it works against Shield Spider avalanches?”

Ylawes had to admit—the sight of that cabin did not make him feel better about his own sleep. Nor did these Named-adventurers frankly.

Ylawes liked to think he was a…a…good adventurer. He tried not to overcharge people in need. He fought well, he thought, for his level and rank. His team made a difference.

It just felt like that commitment to the Silver Swords’ ethos was leaving them behind. The Halfseekers, yesterday, had proven what a massive spike in power their new gear afforded them. Griffon Hunt? Well, Halrac’s team wasn’t as notably different—but they were in the employ of an [Emperor], and to hear Halrac talk about it, it had its perks.

What had Ylawes done for the Silver Swords? The [Knight] felt like it was what he hadn’t done for them. They hadn’t done the Village of the Dead raid. They hadn’t gotten much from Wistram, just a few secrets. Big ones, but non-actionable ones at the moment.

He…even his latest level up hadn’t rewarded him with a Skill. He’d survived an encounter with a horrific Golem in the academy and hadn’t gotten a Skill.

Oh, and his sister, Ysara, didn’t have one kind word for him after years of not seeing her. If there were one upside…no. Even that wasn’t a direct benefit, just a worry.

Ylawes only felt more weight and a kind of competitive pressure he didn’t like. And he saw the same feeling among the lower-ranked teams.

“Dead gods. So that’s Named-rank.”

Captain Nailren of the Pride of Kelia had been at the Meeting of Tribes, but even he seemed surprised by Orchestra’s fame. He turned as Ylawes walked over.

“Captain Ylawes.”

“Captain Nailren. Good morning to you, sir. Do you know if there’s a breakfast?”

“Orchestra’s apparently paid for it for everyone. Not sure what we’re doing, no? All the civilians are digging for us. Just stand around and eat.”

The Gnoll wasn’t too familiar with Ylawes and vice-versa, but they were both teams who’d gone into Liscor’s dungeon and thus cordial. Ylawes saw skewers of meat being roasted by a [Cook]. A cook, instead of camp provisions!

Nailren noticed Ylawes’ consternation and grinned.

“I wonder how they’ll do in these new lands. Is your team going?”

“I…don’t know. Perhaps. It’s a large commitment, and we may be needed in the north. What of your team?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

The Gnoll’s reply surprised Ylawes, but Nailren just stared south.

“I wished to come to The Wandering Inn to ask Erin Solstice for advice—and to stock up on supplies and deliver the Antinium, Antherr. But the new lands? They are my people’s lands, no matter if every other power in the world is going. A real, true adventure. Of course I must go. I just fear I’ll be outmatched by the competition.”

He gazed at Orchestra and shook his head. Ylawes found some real sympathy in his heart for the Gnoll. When he did think of it like that—

“It is not fair that the Gnolls’ lands are being taken. I can agree with that, Captain Nailren.”

The Gnoll looked surprised by the comments, but he nodded at Ylawes.

“You’re kind to say so.”

“It’s just words. Can I grab something for you to eat?”

“I have to get my team’s food—let’s go and see, hrm? I smell…oatcakes. Geh. Maybe I’ll just have the meat.”

The Gnolls did not appreciate a hot oatcake dipped in a bit of honey. Then again, it did sit a bit heavy in Ylawes’ stomach assuming he’d be doing something strenuous soon.

Not that it seemed like that was going to happen anytime soon. The instant a new or old passage was uncovered, a team would head into it and clear whatever monsters there were and report it had already been searched.

Albez wasn’t like Liscor’s dungeon; the endemic monster population was incredibly small. Undead were often a more common threat because they could just stay buried for ages; a living monster had to eat.

Anyways. Ylawes re-introduced himself to some of the Silver-rank teams being ignored with all the Gold and Named-ranks about.

“Captain Anith of Vuliel Drae? Your team made it out of the Village of the Dead raid, then.”

The Jackal jumped and gave Ylawes an odd look before bowing. He was reserved, dignified—and his team was completely ignored by most of the Liscorian teams.

“Captain Byres. Mostly unscathed. Pekona lost a hand.”

Ylawes bit his tongue because he’d forgotten one of their number, the silent Drathian [Sword Dancer], had lost a limb dueling the Revenant. She just nodded to him as Dasha waved at Dawil. Dawil pretended not to see her.

“Not inclined to trade stories?”

The Halfseekers and even Griffon Hunt were talking shop with a lot of the northern teams, but Anith, Insill, Larr, and Pekona looked uncomfortable.

“We’re…not that welcome among some of the teams. After the dungeon incident. With the moths.”

“Ah. Of course.”

Ylawes had been there, and he knew that was their fault. Still…there was such a thing as forgiveness, and they’d fought in the Village of the Dead raid. He studied Pekona’s severed wrist and wondered if she could use the long, curved blade with only one hand. Actually—it looked shorter. Perhaps she’d switched out the sword for a one-handed version?

Katana, he thought the name was. Which meant the shorter blade was a…

“My team is having breakfast with the Pride of Kelia. Why don’t you sit with us?”

Vuliel Drae had been eating alone, so they brightened at the offer. Dawil and Nailren gave Ylawes a longer look, but they were cordial as they made room. Falene, of all people, scowled as she finally emerged from her tent.

“My sleep…would have been better at the Adventurer’s Haven. Perhaps we should have reconsidered our position, Ylawes. I don’t think this joint dig will yield much reward even if we do find something.”

She hinted, strongly, that they should return, and Ylawes nodded.

“It’s good to be sociable though, Falene. We may run into many of these teams, and watching a Named-rank one is a sight. I know Orchestra, and I’ve seen Variable Fortress fighting—let’s mingle. I don’t think Deniusth has the inclination to stay more than a day.”

He was certainly pushing the civilians hard. And impatiently—Ylawes suspected that the map Ceria had given the adventurers hadn’t yielded anything good.

If he were a suspicious sort, he might actually suspect Ceria had checked those locations with Gemhammer already. No, she was quite…honorable? At the very least, she was no rogue.

“You’ve seen the Named-ranks fight?”

“I grew up in a noble house. And any boy follows Named-ranks about whenever they’re in the region. I begged my father to take me to some of their dungeon crawls—and watched from afar.”

Ylawes was embarrassed, but he did know more about the Named-ranks than Falene and Dawil, who were Terandrian.

“In fact…Orchestra’s had a lot of teammates over the years. Crowdcaller Merdon was a member of their team, and they’ve even journeyed with Barelle the Bard.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. Aren’t they a bit of a contentious team, though?”

Dawil grunted, and the Silver-ranks looked surprised. Anith frowned.

“Contentious, Captain Ylawes?”

“Dawil’s exaggerating. Mostly. They just tend to be a polarizing force in the adventuring community. Lots of rivalries for an adventurer with as much history as Deniusth. It’s political—the Silver Swords don’t often get tangled in that sort of thing.”

“Like Walled Cities teams and Gnoll adventurers. I get it.”

Nailren sighed through his nose. Ylawes hunted around for an interesting factoid about Orchestra or Variable Fortress.

“I…hm. I even know they have a rival group. Or nemeses.”

“What, a team that wants them dead?

“Not an adventuring team. No. More like a group of mercenary-assassins. They call themselves Symphony. Orchestra and Symphony who like to fight each other—I didn’t come up with the names.”

Everyone was giving him a look like he was lying. Ylawes was adamant, though, he’d heard the rumors! Dawil just chuckled into his beard.

“Well, at least they’re consistent with their enemies. If we ever pick a fight with them, we’ll have to change our names to the Silver Tambourines.”

The laughter at that was pleasant, and Ylawes ended up feeling better about that morning than last night’s fruitless excitement.

Deniusth was not so pleased. The Named-rank was watching the digs and complaining loudly when Ylawes walked over to see if anything was happening.

“That’s almost all the rooms we’ve seen on the map. Is Albez tapped? Colth never showed up, damn him. I think something’s up in Liscor.”

“Give it until midday or evening, Captain? We’ve paid for a lot of help…”

“We might as well see it through. Anyone else have any hints about Albez? Can we send more [Rogues] to check out the tunnel the Horns found?”

Deni gave orders despondently as Ylawes marched up to where Halrac was sitting. Jelaqua was showing off her new artifacts with her team.

“Halrac.”

“Ylawes. Enjoying being back around Liscor?”

“My back isn’t—nor Falene’s. But I was glad we made it for the Orefell attacks.”

Halrac nodded.

“Good job. We would have gone, but I didn’t think we’d make it to Invrisil then Celum to Orefell. We might have with a carriage, but the odds looked grim.”

It was rare to hear a compliment from Halrac. But he didn’t tend to prevaricate—which meant it was genuine. Nor did he make excuses.

“Briganda has a child, doesn’t she? It’s entirely understandable.”

“Hmm.”

The [Bowman] didn’t say anything else, just grunted. Ylawes found a seat as the two watched the adventurers milling about.

“How is the job working for an [Emperor]?”

“Relaxing. But rewarding. Boots of Stability.”

“That’s…quite good for not embarking on an adventure. Or did you? How did you get them?”

Halrac relayed the experience of first doing favors for Laken Godart as Ylawes listened.

“Not that we’ve gained more artifacts of the same quality, but it makes our job very consistent. We can take down [Bandits] or monsters, and the pay is low—but it has perks like housing, food, and so on. I’m still tempted by the new lands, but not much. It’s too far for Briganda, and Typhenous is old enough to make it a long journey. Revi’s the one who’s itching…”

“She won’t quit the team, will she?”

Halrac hesitated.

“I think she won’t. She’s more loyal than you think, but it’s her choice. Actually, I had a thought—well, having access to Erin’s door means we can still go abroad.”

It was certainly the largest convenience Ylawes had ever found. He was about to talk about Wistram and his feeling of failing Erin—or perhaps his sisters—when Halrac glanced at the dig.

This is a waste of time, though. Albez is huge, and we’re either looking for one spare room amidst all the others or digging in the wrong place. This was a city—unless we uncover the entire hillside, there’s no chance we’ll find anything more since Ceria’s map is a dud. I’ve been doing a lot of digs, and the amount of earth you have to shift is insane.”

Ylawes agreed.

“Plus, [Treasure Hunters] and [Geomancers] already scoured the region. If there is anything valuable, it must be beyond them. Shame your [Emperor] doesn’t own Albez.”

Halrac paused. His lined face flickered, and his eyes shifted.

“…Hmm.”

Suddenly, he got up and motioned to Ylawes. The [Knight] blinked, but Halrac was already walking over to where a group of three were playing cards.

“Do you have any Mages?”

“Nope. Go digging.”

“I don’t want to. I can tell that card’s going to shock me.”

They were playing with a magical deck, and Revi was complaining as Typhenous indicated a pile of cards you pulled up. She put a handkerchief on her hand as Briganda and Typhenous scolded her—until Halrac squatted down.

“Ylawes just had an idea.”

“Ylawes! Pull up a seat and pick up some cards. Want to drag the Silver Swords over and talk? How was Wistram?”

Briganda grinned up at him, and the [Knight] squatted next to them, but Halrac made an odd gesture where he pointed a forefinger forwards then dragged his thumb around.

Instantly, Griffon Hunt fell silent, and Typhenous whispered a spell.

“…[Hush]. There we go.”

Again, Ylawes was reminded that this was a professional team that knew hand-signs. The [Bowman] spoke louder as the magic settled over them; it felt like a bit of cotton was inserted into Ylawes’ ears.

“Revi, Typhenous, do you know anything about Albez? Who owns the ruins?”

“Halrac, not me?”

Briganda protested, and he looked at her. She lifted her hands.

“…Revi, Typhenous?”

Typhenous’ eyes sharpened as he glanced at Ylawes, and Revi whistled.

“Halrac! You’re not thinking—wait, that’s smart. But no way we can buy Albez. Even Laken wouldn’t go for that.”

“It depends on whether or not it needs to be bought. Typhenous?”

“Halrac has a point. Technically, Remendia sells permits to Albez, and so do Ocre and a few other settlements—they split the profits. But no city owns Albez. That would imply they’re accountable for monster attacks and incidents here. I wonder. Are you thinking we try a totem?”

“Contact His Majesty first. But have you got one?”

Briganda patted her bag of holding.

“Sure do. Eight five-foot sized ones from the prospecting trip we did. I’ve got three in my bag, and Typhenous, Revi, and you should have the other five. Think it’ll encircle Albez?”

Ylawes was incredulous.

“Excuse me, are you suggesting the [Emperor] claim the ruins? Can he do that?”

Halrac just grinned—and he did have a mirthless grin.

“Temporarily. If it’s unclaimed land, he can put down a stake. The eight totems we had were from him inspecting the hills. We set them up—it can cover about five hundred feet—and he checks if there’s any minerals. He was trying to buy a goldmine.”

That felt like it was exceptionally underhanded to Ylawes. Especially if the owner of a patch of land didn’t know how much that was worth. Still, Typhenous was already sending a [Message] off, and Griffon Hunt didn’t have long to wait.

“As long as it’s not disturbing anything…he’s interested in trying.”

“Well, let’s set up the totems. We’ll tell the others if we find anything—Ylawes, want to join in?”

 

——

 

The totems being hammered into the ground didn’t escape some adventurers’ notice, but Halrac didn’t explain what was being done. Typhenous just lied about it being a kind of dowsing, and all Ylawes saw was the decorated totems of the Unseen Empire being arranged and then Typhenous and Revi relaying what the [Emperor] said.

“…He’s busy, so he’ll relay it via Rie’s [Mage] when he can. He says no good here.”

“Is it claimed?”

“…Temporarily, but he says it looks ‘dark’ except for the people above the ground. Can we try the edges of the ruin, over there?”

Griffon Hunt began to yank up the totems and move them as Dawil whispered to Ylawes.

“Now that’s a kind of Skill usage I never thought I’d see. Smart.”

“You don’t think it’s odd, Dawil?”

The Dwarf shrugged.

“Lad, it’s making use of all your tools available. If you’re going to say it’s cheating or unethical to do what you can—that’s like saying it’s unfair to have a map and compass rather than the stars and your own memories.”

When he put it like that…Ylawes decided to help move the totems. It wasn’t hard; he just helped clear a hole and hammer them in about five feet, and that was enough for the [Emperor].

“No good. Keep moving towards the exit.”

They had to redeploy them twice, then hammer them five feet deep before the [Emperor] figured out the problem. Revi cursed to Vuliel Drae and the Pride of Kelia, who were also loitering around.

“It’s a no-go, Halrac! He just said he sensed dirt—right at the edge of the ruins! Damn! Snap my stitches. It’s all dark in this area. Looks like he can’t see into a dungeon.”

She kicked a totem and hopped around angrily, but it was real disappointment in her voice. Ylawes exhaled a bit.

He wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or not, but apparently, the [Emperor] could claim this land because it was up for grabs and very deliberately no one’s property…but either magic was suppressing his Skill or it was somehow accounted for.

“Dungeons can’t be explored via an [Emperor]’s Skills? I wonder if that’s because they are still inherently part of whatever they used to be. Well, at least we know the edge of Albez is here.”

Typhenous kicked at the crumbling edge of the pit, which indeed was where the excavation ended. Halrac began to tug up one of the totems and nodded to Ylawes.

“It was a good try. Guess that’s it.”

Ylawes Byres nodded. The Ruins of Albez were old, anyways. When a place like this was known, it got explored to every conceivable part, and it was rare for someone like Ceria’s team to catch a break.

Now—true secrets—those were rarer. More dangerous. He rubbed at his face. He had always dreamed of finding a clue to a real treasure and quest like that, like Liscor’s dungeon, actually, but…it was harder to be simply given a task with no goal.

How was he supposed to answer a call to arms? Even if it came from everything he knew and held dear. Why not his father? Why was he the ‘only one that could be found’? Had that really been…

A ghost of House Byres?

He didn’t know. He didn’t know what was true or the scope of the threat described—and it would have been very helpful to hear that his family had a buried armory. Or even where he should begin his quest.

“…Perspective. Boundaries. Even a continent would narrow it down.”

“What’s that, lad?”

Dawil looked at Ylawes, and the [Knight] jumped.

“Oh—”

He hadn’t told Dawil because even his friend might think Ylawes was crazy. The [Knight] had been wanting to pay a visit home to look up the name, at least, before he told Falene and Dawil.

Yrendiev Byres.

 

——

 

“The Silver Knight of the Skies is no more. Yderigrisel is dead in body and soul. His spirit joins the legions of the brave and damned in the lands of the dead. This war is lost. But we have dealt a blow to the enemy. Now, House Byres must rise to the call.”

Ylawes barely heard the voice at first. His head was still ringing—the small cabin of the ship deck he’d been allocated was a poor place to fight. But he had fought in close-quarters before.

His sword lay on the ground, and the ghost aimed a blade bearing a familiar crest down at the [Knight]. He had disarmed Ylawes—

“Who are you?”

“Yrendiev Byres. Has our house grown so small, [Knight] of the modern day? You are the only one I could reach. Another journeys with the might of Chandrar—the other lies on lands claimed by the enemy. So to you—I call you to arms.”

It was a harsh face, half-remembered, as if the person bearing it had begun forgetting what they looked like. But the armor…the armor was silver, translucent, and the face was visible, though even the hair and eyes were forgotten—the scars stood out.

The sword never wavered as it struck Ylawes harshly on the shoulders, as if knighting him a second time. Then a hand grabbed his shoulder and forced him up.

What do you mean?

“Prepare for war, [Knight]. Resurrect Byres’ arms and forces. Our oldest foes are not eradicated, and these new ones fear no enchanted blades. Find the corpse of the Silver Dragon and pledge yourself to Byres anew. Then—scour Izril of its tainted foes. Down to the last child and drop of blood. Poison every river and well this time.”

“Poison? What poison?

The hand released him, and Ylawes inhaled, choking. When he looked up, the [Knight] was turning his head.

Damn them all. Seamwalkers and monstrous consumers of soul. To arms, House Byres! To arms and glory! Silver and steel and death!

He raised his blade as he turned, seeing some unimaginable foe in the distance. Once, that head looked back, waiting for an answering roar from his descendant across the ages. But all he saw was—a confused stare.

 

——

 

He had bruises on his throat after that—and chilblains from where the ghost had grabbed him. That was proof enough, but Ylawes had still wanted to investigate that name. But the thing that had halted him—had thrown him into doubt was something the ghost had said.

What poison?

Wells? Rivers? Poison? Ylawes knew Yderigrisel was dead. Was his corpse still…somewhere in the world?

What war? What battle? How was he supposed to…

He should have felt honored, chosen. This was the moment in every story that a [Hero] was called forth. A champion needed.

…But that ghost had no face, and the wrath in his voice was so murderous it had made Ylawes’ skin crawl. And for once—Ylawes had wondered if he were doing the right thing.

Or if not the right thing, the practical thing. First, he had reconsidered Goblins and Antinium as dread foes.

Then he had seen the [Crusaders]’ power, which he so envied. Now? Now he looked at the other teams who had somehow advanced past him. Silver and steel, honor and duty. These things were good and constant—so why did Ysara shout-whisper at him in the night that she couldn’t bear to be in their family’s home more than a day or two whenever she returned?

That she was glad Yvlon was no [Knight]?

…Yrendiev Byres. A name was more than anything else. A record that he existed was surely in the Byres history books.

That would at least prove something, be a starting point for a decision, but Ylawes had rushed to Orefell, and now he was here. At least Erin’s door would make the journey faster. Maybe he could head from Riverfarm. That was only a three-day ride!

Ylawes brightened up, and then something occurred to him. He glanced at the ruins…and at the totem poles and wondered if Halrac had thought of that.

Surely he had. Ylawes was not the man you went to for an underhanded or even cunning plan. The [Knight] opened his mouth and hesitated.

Should he…?

“Ah. Halrac. Wait a second before you dig up those totems.”

The Captain turned to Ylawes, and Dawil glanced up. The [Knight] hesitated.

“It occurs to me—well, I don’t know much about how all this works, but is it conceivable there’s one use you could use the totems for? With Albez?”

“Like what? We—Laken—can’t tell what’s down there.”

Revi folded her arms, but Ylawes was shaking his head.

“No, this is true, but I just thought—boundaries. Even if it’s just confirming what we allegedly know, isn’t that useful in and of itself? Even if you can’t see what you’re aiming for, if the imprint is there—then you’d know something is there or not there. Does that make sense?”

It did not, and Revi gave him a look like he was mad until Ylawes managed to explain what he was trying to think of. Then—Dawil was slapping him on the lower back.

“Lad, that is the most intelligent thought I’ve ever heard of! Pointy! Toss away that staff because Ylawes is taking your class!”

Even Halrac gave Ylawes a quick smile. The [Knight] tugged up a totem pole as Briganda had to have Typhenous explain it.

“Wait, we can’t see the dungeon…”

“Ah, Briganda, we cannot. But it occurred to Ylawes there in a stroke of genius that if we cannot see the dungeon—we can still have His Majesty confirm the dig site encircles Albez completely. And perhaps…if there are any buildings not hither-to uncovered.”

Then Briganda got it, and even the Pride of Kelia and Vuliel Drae were excitedly planting totems around, moving the eight like a net, dragging it around Albez much to the amusement of the other adventurers.

Hey, Griffon Hunt, Silver Swords, if you’re bored enough to play plant-the-stick, come on over and let’s compare artifacts!

One of the Waterborn Raiders was shouting as the other teams worked. They ignored him, and Ylawes got into the rhythm.

All Laken needed was a moment, so Typhenous would hold up a hand for five seconds once the totems were planted, get the ‘all clear’, and they’d switch four totems to the next spot, moving in 500-foot chunks. It was fast—but Albez was huge.

They were two-thirds around the entire pit in an hour as they got into a real rhythm, and Ylawes feared they’d find nothing after all. Still—he’d be satisfied with that and feel like they’d truly plumbed every depth of this place.

Then, Revi halted as they were picking up the totems and put a finger to her forehead, smudging her cloth-skin with dirt. Typhenous looked up suddenly.

“Wait. Go back. Back—

All the adventurers looked up, and Ylawes found his heart skipping a beat. Typhenous tugged Nailren back, Insill ran back, and they replanted the totems. Revi frowned—then pointed at Ylawes and Briganda, whose two totems were next to the pit.

“Hey, bring those two up! Bring them—over here!”

She gestured away from the pit, and the two warriors lugged their totems over. Then Revi told Nailren to do the same, and Halrac planted his totem in a huge rectangle…

…Four hundred meters away from the edge of the excavation. Rather near where Earlia’s team was working, actually. Revi gestured to Briganda as Typhenous murmured a reply.

“Drive the totems deep. Deep as they’ll go.”

“Got it. Aw, damn—”

Briganda began to split one in half from the repeated impacts, but Revi just urged her on. Ylawes drove a maul into the head of another totem and clumsily buried it deep. Then everyone was crowding around Typhenous and Revi.

“Well?”

The [Mage] held up a hand, and then his eyes widened. He smiled, and Revi suppressed a whoop—then groaned and looked at the other adventurers. Halrac just waited, but even his foot was tapping.

“That’s it. We’ll let you know, Your Majesty—and the other teams will be all over it. Thank you. Guys—we can either pretend nothing’s up and come back later—”

“Revi. There’s no way the other teams will let this slide. Even if they haven’t noticed us. Spit it out.”

Halrac nipped the idea in the bud and Revi cursed, much to Ylawes’ relief. Typhenous was the one who pointed straight down.

“Well, Captain Ylawes, Halrac, I believe then we should talk to Captain Deniusth and the others. Because His Majesty claims that while he can’t tell what’s too far down—given our small totems—the highest point is right here. It’s apparently buried, but there’s actually an empty pocket below—nigh on a hundred feet down. No wonder most [Geomancers] and [Treasure Seekers] didn’t find it.”

“Find what? What, Typhenous?

Briganda almost shook him, and the Plague Mage smiled.

“Well, he cannot be sure, but he is certain this complex connects to the rest of Albez. As for what we’re standing on—he says they look like stairs.

Ylawes’ head rose, and Dawil let out such a whoop that the other dispirited and bored adventurers turned. Deniusth’s head turned like someone hearing that call to adventure, and everyone looked down.

The digging began in earnest.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: It’s gonna be an arc! The people have voted, and what they said was–adventurers over Khelt. And I answer.

All the side-story options were arcs coming up, but this is the one we’re dealing with first. And again, I am editing Volume 1 and it is kicking my butt. But I did 3 chapters of V1 that I’ve edited while writing this chapter, so the system is working.

…This system will never happen again. This is actually a grind on par with Volume 8’s ending in terms of how much work it feels like. Okay, 70% of how hard it was to end Volume 8. Still a lot.

But the prize is a rewritten Volume 1, and I think there are substantive improvements–plus we might be able to put it into print. I don’t, uh, know if Andrea will re-record Volume 1. Seems like a big ask.

However, we are making progress. In other news…I’ve got nothing. God of War: Ragnarok is coming out soon. I feel like in an alternate timeline, I wouldn’t be a writer, just angrily reviewing most games for their stories. Which often suck. God of War has a, uh, 50-50 chance of being good. The last God of War was good–but it has some flaws.

I’ll start my career as a reviewer later. Writing for now! Get ready for some old and new plotlines mixing together like soup. Or some other analogy here.

 

Pirate Plushie by kalmia!

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

Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/GoodLongYarn

 

Erin and Ryoka and Belavierr by Deepsikk, the [Lazy Artist]?! I didn’t call them that.

 

Erin, the Greatest Chess Player by froggias!

(Reddit Post Link)

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

9.24

(Author’s Disclaimer: The numbers contained within this chapter are entirely based on one person’s perception and have no necessary connection with reality.)

 

It was one thing after another, these wild days. It proved the Gnolls were right. They always were when the wind changed.

More than [Historians], more than [Kings] and nations—Gnolls had successfully predicted more changing of eras than any other species.

That was a…fact that either had no value or all the value in the world. It was something that only a few people knew.

The night had been quiet for so many, and when the people of this world woke, they did not know, yet, what had changed.

Selphids did. They woke to news via [Message] spell or the sudden suspicion in the air, like smoke and death and dark things brought into the light of cleansing flame. A familiar feeling.

Suspicion. Their own people warned enclaves and individuals first. Friends telling friends, simple [Messages] that lacked for many facts, but contained the important truth.

The Minds had breached the Minacien Wall. Those that did had been destroyed. Dark deeds had been done.

Unlike other species…no, exactly like other species, the actions of a few would reflect on them all. Was it fair? Possibly not. The Minds had authority among Selphids, but their people had not known, by and large, where or who or what these Minds had done at all.

It didn’t matter. Word would spread. Indeed, it was already being discussed, in what would happen—the fallout.

(This has been the worst day for our people in thousands of years. The Minds have delivered no cure to the Wasting, but more death.)

The Minds. They had not been the only ones in Baleros, but they had been a sizable minority. And arguably…did it matter? Minds had violated the Minacien Wall. They were all culpable in that sense.

(That they—violated the Minacien Wall. We have no context for why, only the outcome. Any survivors must shed some light.)

The remaining Minds were discussing the incident quietly. Their usual secrecy and attempts to work independently had been dropped for the purposes of this event. Indeed—the different Minds were being unusually—frank.

(Context? CONTEXT DOES NOT MATTER. The Minacien Wall was BREACHED. Stay away from the [Doctor]. Stay away from the survivors lest we compound this—this disaster.)

One of the remaining Minds was leaking so much raw distress the others had to dampen the influx of thought. Not all of them were upset, but none of them were in denial. They had processed it and realized the truth.

The six Minds who had convened at that Gathering Citadel had not, in fact, come together organically. They had been chosen, some merged for the express purpose of creating a new Gathering Citadel that would combat the Wasting. Each of the six had adherents and affiliations—if they had been public to the other Minds, they would have had factions of support similar to Wistram and other political bodies.

The First, Second, and Sixth Minds had even possessed what was analogous to disciple Minds who had learned from them.

Under the cold light of day, a decision was being made. The Minds speaking to each other from their citadels were not as numerous as the six. So many Minds in close proximity was not normally needed.

Still. The Minds were interrupted by another Mind who represented a group of three.

(This Mind represents north.)

It combined the mental handshake with images of cold stone and snow. The other Minds recognized it and began to fill it in on what they had concluded—little as that was—but this Mind was brusque.

(Our conclave is at work. We have understood what has come to pass, if not why. The conclusion is enough. The Mind that was spun from Egress has come to a decision on its own. It has voluntarily agreed to unmake itself. Into sub-Minds where Egress’ perspective is reduced or into Selphids if possible.)

The other Minds were shocked into silence by the announcement. Six Minds had perished—and more would also be dissolved.

(The Second Mind is not culpable if it—Redemption—signaled the breach. Few Minds remain. This conclave urges Dissonance to remain.)

Dissonance, one of the Minds who had hither-to been silent, signaled understanding.

(I shall consider these thoughts. Nor shall I be blind to Contradiction’s possible corruption. For now—I shall devote my first thoughts to emotion. Mourning. Then, think.)

It was a perspective different from the others. But they listened hard, because the Second Mind had been the one who called down wrath and truth upon the others. What conclusions did they come to? Simple ones. Cautious ones, tempered by guilt and realization just how dark the crimes had been.

(Leave the [Doctor] alone. Warn Selphids abroad. A scourging must not come again—but perhaps it already has been set in motion. Ten—no. Nine shall remain. The Minds of Baleros should consider their place. Consider the future.)

The remaining Minds felt the Selphids’ place in this world shaking—and they had no one to blame but themselves. Grief from Dissonance…one of them did pulse one last thought out.

(…That we have committed so many wrongs. It does not change the fact that the Dyed Lands are expanding. It does not change the fact that there are children from another world appearing. Paeth on the Coast has appeared. We now suffer—)

(—rightly—)

(—it matters not. This Mind suggests one last course of action to the above. To be deliberated upon: send an emissary in humility and cooperation. To either Forgotten Wing or this United Nations company. If neither will have it, then further abroad, for we desperately need allies who are not Selphid. An alliance that does not contain the Minds as the leaders.)

This proposal was met with arguments, but more acceptance than not. Already, reports were coming in that many Selphids in the Blighted Kingdom were either being watched or politely being asked to leave.

For now, it was polite. Yet—if it needed to be, it needed to be. The nine remaining Minds conferred.

(Outreach? Now? Who would trust…ah.)

(An agent like that even exists?)

Some of the Minds had no idea what was being referred to, but they slowly began to agree.

(Very well. In humility. This is the greatest priority of the Minds. So…send our last representative abroad. In outreach, to aid, not dictate. Send the Duck.)

So the Minds reached out and sent an order to an agent of theirs. It heard and obeyed and quietly…

Quacked.

 

——

 

It was an ashy morning. The ash drifted down from where it had been blown into the skies, like snow. It was probably toxic, and the Great Companies, civilians, and people who had gathered to stare at the crater in the ground were being advised to wear masks.

Even nearby cities saw Lizardfolk wearing cloth masks or staying indoors—but the majority of the fallout was being contained by wind spells. The ash blew across the jungle, and [Weather Mages] were even dispersing water into the air to hopefully mitigate the effects. It might well poison the ground, so they were being careful to localize the rainfall. But the ash had to stop.

Why were the Great Companies doing that? Well—there was a rumor in the city. A Lizardman serving tables was chatting—they liked chatting—

“I heard it was The Last Light.”

Several people at the tables glanced up, and the Lizardman nodded happily as someone at the table he was waiting glanced up. They accepted a cool fruit drink and pressed it to their forehead before gulping it down.

“Really?”

Their companion sniffed—and sneezed. The eighth time since they’d sat down. The [Server] wagged a claw with a wink.

“Yep. Heard of her? The [Doctor] who stopped the Yellow Rivers stuff—she appeared and told one of the commanders to do it all. Then—vanished. I knew she wasn’t dead. But a Selphid fortress?”

He shuddered.

“Right next to our city. They’re crazy. Maybe…”

He trailed off, then smiled brightly. No Selphids were in the cafe; everyone looked too alive, but the Lizardman glanced over to the kitchen where another order was ready.

“I’ll be back in a second with your food.”

“Another glass of water, please.”

The first person sitting at the table waved their cup, and the other one sneezed into a napkin. The Lizardman trotted off, and the two turned to stare at each other.

Geneva Scala glanced at the falling ash and then at Geneva…Scala. Or were they?

A Gnoll and a Drowned Woman looked at each other. The Gnoll kept sneezing, but she eventually got it under control.

“…What’s your name?”

“G…no, maybe we have different names, now? What’s yours?”

“I was thinking on that. And the future. Did—she get out? Did the bad one?”

“I don’t know.”

They had stuck together, but however many others had made it…the rumor was that at least one woman was in the company of the Titan. But these two were not her.

They had no levels—at least in [Doctor]. The Gnoll scratched at her fur. It felt—normal. She didn’t have any dissonance with this body, just a feeling as though everything were new. And everything smelled.

She wondered how much she’d been—altered. But she had to believe she was her. And who was that her?

“…I’ve got seven levels in [Survivor]. Four in [Telepath].”

“That’s a lot. What did you do?”

“I don’t know. What about you?”

“Eight in [Telepath], but it’s [Purified Telepath].”

The Gnoll frowned at the Drowned Woman.

“Why did you get that? It sounds better than mine.”

“Perspective?”

“Hrr. Why did I say hrr? Everything smells.”

The other Geneva took a glass of water and gulped it down. She asked for another refill.

“Well, I’d rather be in the water. What now? Do we find—her?”

The Gnoll scratched at her chin.

“I don’t see why we would. She’s with the Titan. I hope she’s well, but we…we should see if anyone else made it. How much gold did you find?”

Amazingly, they had enough to pay for a café. The Drowned Woman counted and shrugged.

“The Minds must have forgotten to remove this bag of holding. I’ve got…a lot. Was this body a [Smuggler] or something? I may be an alcoholic.”

“Wonderful.”

They sat there in silence as the Lizardman came back and wisely left a pitcher of water. At length, the Gnoll spoke.

“Let’s team up. We can do more together. Let’s team up and…figure out what happens after that. The world has the Last Light. Let’s do something else that matters.”

The other Geneva looked up and smiled. She reached out, and the two shook hands. The Gnoll felt the cold grip of the Drowned Woman tighten on hers. Unspoken…they looked into each other’s eyes. Then outside at the fallout.

But the sun was rising. Slowly, they sat back, and the Gnoll decided to order a baked rat. For just a moment—

Rest.

 

——

 

Quietly, then, the day began. Quietly—with no great wars or events save a kind of exhaled breath, the subdued exhilaration after a party.

In Liscor, The Wandering Inn, guests woke up with hangovers and oddly refreshed minds thanks to the sleeping Skill. They woke up—and knew that The Adventurer’s Haven was still headed south, past Invrisil.

That the legends of the north had come south and were heading to the new lands of Izril. That Erin Solstice had met Larracel Delais and that new, strange, and perhaps wacky days were yet to come.

…One Selphid sat up in bed without her usual smile. Jelaqua Ivirith had rooms at The Wandering Inn, but she often stayed in Pallass. Last night at least, she and a certain Dullahan had found this room, but he’d stumbled back to Pallass after realizing that bed was not going to accommodate someone of his size and weight.

She should have been smiling today as well, but she didn’t. She read the little [Message] scroll that was reserved for emergencies…and closed her eyes. Without a word, she rolled up the scroll, then sat there, head in her hands.

Everyone else didn’t share her sudden change of mood. The patter-patter of eager paws on the floor signaled a little Gnoll bursting out of her room in excitement. And like a herald, she was followed by other feet and then a predictable thump-thump of heavy footfalls.

“Jelaqua, are you awake? Let’s have breakfast together. Is she here, Seborn?”

“Probably. Unless she and Maughin are in Pallass.”

Even Seborn’s usual doleful tones were cheerful, and Moore sounded energetic. Ulinde joined them, and Jelaqua looked up. She hesitated, then called out.

“—Be right there, you lot. Save me a seat.”

Later. She’d tell them—the Selphid didn’t know what to say. She stared blankly ahead and wondered what it would change. Nothing, she hoped. But she feared—

The Minacien Wall. The Selphid put a smile on her face. No use keeping secrets, but no use spoiling their good mood.

She’d tell them tonight.

 

——

 

It would change many things, but not immediately. The only effect that news had, this morning, was that Erin Solstice noticed Jelaqua was bummed out.

The [Innkeeper] was eating leftovers and dipping a roll of buttered bread in her bisque as she grew heartily sick of the taste. However, she was in good spirits, and she sensed that almost everyone else coming down the stairs felt good.

If hungover. Ceria Springwalker was rattling Octavia’s doorknob until the [Alchemist] tapped her on the shoulder.

“Ceria. What do you want?”

Hangover cures. Give. Here. Gold.”

The half-Elf shook a bag of gold at the Stitch-woman pleadingly. She was joined by several other guests, including Seborn, Alcaz, Relc, and Menolit.

“Relc? Menolit? Why are you two here?”

Erin blinked, and Relc stared at her.

“Why am I here? Who am I?”

“Didn’t you give Relc a room, Erin?”

Lyonette looked exasperated, and Erin hesitated.

“I did? I did. You normally go to work before breakfast, even Relc. Hey! Wait. Did Menolit get a room too?”

“I woke up in Bird’s tower. Someone put a blanket on me. I had this pie. Think it’s still good?”

Menolit had breakfast…which might have been what he was eating when he passed out. Bird folded his arms.

“I wish to have a lock installed on my tower, Lyonette.”

“We’re replacing your door, Bird. But isn’t it nice that people like your tower?”

Bird thought about it as he picked up a spare omelet and put a chicken leg on top. He turned.

“No. It’s my damn tower.”

He stomped off, and Erin laughed. It was rare for Bird to be that mad, but he wasn’t seriously angry. It was a difference in emotions.

She was feeling perceptive today after levelling up. Intelligent. Erin noticed Jelaqua trailing behind her team as she came down the stairs.

“Hey, Octavia, better get another cure for Jelaqua.”

“Hm? Oh—thanks, Erin.”

The Selphid jumped, and Erin blinked. Maybe it wasn’t a hangover? Anyways, the inn was filled with chattering guests, and Erin saw Liska wringing her paws as Ishkr calmly passed out food with Calescent.

The Goblin was in the kitchen, and Erin stared at him. He stared back, and she smiled.

“Calescent! Wow, this is wild.”

There were Goblins and Antinium working here, and she didn’t know all their names! She looked around and saw a Hobgoblin with one leg using a long wooden leg as she poked a surprised Yvlon and handed her a plate of food. An Antinium Worker being shown how to sweep by…

“Silveran! There you are! I knew it! Shoo, shoo! You have a job!

Silveran jumped, and his mustache wobbled. He fled as Erin chased after him. The inn’s guests laughed as Ishkr took the broom and began shooing Silveran out the door.

“Morning, Miss Erin. We may need to deal with a small situation after you eat.”

“Oh? What’s up, Ishkr?”

Erin was still waking up, but Liska was opening and closing her mouth behind her brother.

Small situation? They’re trapped in Invris—

“It’ll keep. Have your breakfast first.”

Ishkr nudged his sister in the ribs, and she and he began elbowing each other as Erin blinked at them. She went to sit back down, yawning.

“Erin. Did we really meet the Adventurer’s Haven yesterday? Was I drinking with Named-rank adventurers? And did I really—and you have to be honest here—did I really see Mihaela Godfrey do a kegstand? You have to tell me.”

Yvlon Byres was begging for a whiff of sanity as she raised two bloodshot eyes at the table. Erin Solstice thought about it.

“Is that the thing where you balance on a keg with a straw and drink lots of the alcohol?”

“Yes.”

“Sounds about right. You forgot the part where Ceria did the same thing.”

Yvlon glanced over at the hungover half-Elf.

“…No, I believed that part even without Godfrey. The Adventurer’s Haven. There were what, four Named-ranks? More?”

“Well, counting Saliss and Tessa, yeah—wait a second. Is Tessa here?”

Erin frowned around the inn and then looked up. But the Named-rank Adventurer wasn’t there—she sat up from behind the bar and scared Seborn out of his chair.

“What?”

“Oh, good. You eating breakfast?”

“Yep.”

Tessa crouched back down, and Yvlon stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] scratched at her head.

“Some night, huh? And guess what? I leveled up! I think I did, at least. Wait a second…”

Erin put a hand on her chin. She felt like she was forgetting a key thing. Level up. Great stuff. Fun [Innkeeper]…

Deconstructed door?

Erin’s smile turned waxy for a second, and Ishkr glanced up as Yvlon blinked and smiled.

“That’s great news, Erin! Right?”

The [Innkeeper] gave her an unconvincing smile that made Pisces and Ksmvr stop chewing and glance at each other. Lyonette’s eyes narrowed, and she saw Liska’s panicked look. Seborn grunted and reached for his daggers as Mrsha turned her head.

“Y-yeah. Totally great. Um. Ishkr? What was that thing you were gonna mention? I’m just gonna go over here a second, Yvlon, and—”

A scream echoed from the entrance of the inn. Everyone looked up—and a wailing Gnoll and laughing Drake burst into the room.

Saliss of Lights and Xif had apparently fallen asleep in the rec room. Whereupon they’d tried to get back to Pallass, only to find—

“Someone’s destroyed the door to Pallass! I—I’m stuck here!”

“You’ll have to walk back! Four hundred miles!”

Saliss was laughing at Xif as the [Alchemist] wrung his paws. Erin Solstice saw all her guests look up in horror and lifted a hand.

“Wait, I have a new Sk—”

Too late. The inn exploded into chaos as the adventurers went pouring out to see what had happened. Lyonette threw up her hands in despair. Mrsha looked around for Temile, the Players of Celum, and wondered if they were stranded in Invrisil or worse—Celum.

And Erin? She thought for a second, then waited for everyone to flood out of the common room. Silently, she looked around and counted the people who remained.

“This bad, Miss Erin?”

Calescent looked put out at the people who’d abandoned his meals. He looked at the Goblin and Antinium staff, and one of the Goblins decided that if Ceria wasn’t eating her meal, she would. She sat down and began to eat—until someone glared at her.

Rags had stayed in her seat. Tessa appeared from behind the bar, and Saliss emerged from behind the common room door, sniggering. Erin saw Seborn take a gulp of water and put her hands on her hips. She eyed Ser Dalimont and nodded.

“Well, well, well. Are you all the smart ones?”

“I’m the lazy one. I’m not getting up and running around in the morning. Besides—no one disintegrates a valuable object.”

The [Rogue] toasted Erin. The [Innkeeper] laughed and then saw a timid girl raise a hand.

“I’m here too, Miss Erin.”

“Nanette!”

The witch was munching on some toast with melted cheese on it by the fire. Erin beamed at her. She closed her eyes and thought for a second. She heard a squeak, and when she opened them—

Nanette jumped as a door appeared next to her. But it was not the door to the garden or even the true door of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Erin opened her eyes—and they widened as Saliss rubbed his claws together and chortled.

“I’ll pay you 50 gold coins to keep this a secret from Xif all day.”

Erin just smiled as a door appeared, framed by stone, and a glittering crystal knob and oval mirror of glass showed another inn—where a distressed group of Humans, including Temile, suddenly jumped and leapt back and began pointing at—

The [Door of Portals]. Erin Solstice felt it ready to go and eight different spots it could reach. She beamed as the door swung open.

Mrsha and the distressed guests were just in time to see the door opening—and the stone archway allowed Temile and a relieved flood of guests to pour through. Liska’s eyes bulged as she saw twenty people race into the inn, and Drassi threw herself down on the floor.

“Oh, thank the Ancestors! I was afraid I’d be stuck—”

The Players of Celum followed and several citizens of Liscor, Celum, and Pallass.

Twenty-nine people came through the door, and Liska expected it to blink out like normal after half that. But it didn’t. The portal stayed open, and Erin exhaled. She clapped her hands and laughed in delight.

“It’s got juice! I could send, like—eighty-three more people! To Invrisil! I could probably open a door in Riverfarm! I’ve got a magic Skill door! I’ve got a magic Skill door!

The upgraded [Door of Portals] looked cooler, could send more people—and it could reach a hundred miles farther than the last one. Erin danced around as her guests stopped in awe—right until someone wandered through the door and inspected it on Erin’s side of the inn.

“Oh. Here it is. And I thought I’d have to begin work right away. Mmm…mm. Apprentice, look at this.”

Valeterisa, the Archmage of Izril, walked through the door, and everyone turned to stare at her. Valeterisa, or ‘Valley’ as some of her friends from the Adventurer’s Haven called her, had a plate of food floating behind her. It bumped into her cheek as she turned.

“What’s this?”

‘Eat me.’ A folded notecard was placed on top of the plate, and Valeterisa blinked at it.

“Oh, breakfast. How convenient.”

She began eating as Erin turned to her. And the [Magical Innkeeper] saw how Larra ran her inn. The sleepy Archmage looked nothing like the woman who had carried Fissival into the sky.

Yet she was the same one, and Montressa du Valeross appeared to Bezale’s delight. She stopped as she saw Ceria, Pisces, and the others, but she tugged nervously at Valeterisa’s arm.

“Archmage, you’re supposed to be at The Adventurer’s Haven for breakfast.”

“But this is magic.”

“Mihaela Godfrey told me to fetch you! Archmage, please…

The thought of annoying the famous Guildmistress was so apparently distressing that Valeterisa noticed Montressa’s anxiety.

“Oh, very well. After I just inspect this door for a little bit. She’s going to visit this inn anyways. I’m just…hm. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm. Hm. Ah, it’s been replaced by a door made of Skills. Just as I thought. Completely incomprehensible enchantment if there even is one. Take note, Apprentice. This is what we call a sidegrade. Or—how did Nailihuaile put it? ‘An upgrade made of gold-painted shit’. I was just about to work on this door too.”

Valeterisa poked the door absently. Erin’s dancing stopped, and the [Innkeeper] turned.

“Say what now?”

The Archmage of Izril looked around.

“Well, it’s a Skill-based door. It probably scales off of levels, not magic. Which means I can’t upgrade it anymore.”

Valeterisa looked around, and everyone stared at her blankly.

“I was going to do this. I’m sure I mentioned it? At Fissival?”

It seemed to occur to her that this wasn’t Fissival. The Archmage uncertainly looked around, and she edged back into Invrisil’s side. Then she made a fist and struck her palm with it as her mouth fell open.

“Wait. This means I can make my own teleportation network. And I have less competition.”

She smiled.

“Yay.”

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had a new door. The news was only slightly tempered by Valeterisa’s revelation that it was no longer contingent on the magical enchantment.

“Ignore Valeterisa. This is a good thing for your inn. The best outcome, in fact, and time will doubtless prove that—especially if Valeterisa makes good on her promise to create a teleportation network. Which is no guarantee; she has failed before.”

Larracel herself came to inspect the door, or rather, her inn did. It was still hovering around Invrisil, having stopped for the combined party between inns.

She walked through the door, and Erin felt her enter her inn, as if a sudden charge of electricity were filling the building. Not hostile—just foreign, a sense of an [Innkeeper] whose level exceeded her own.

Was that how Agnes and the others had felt? However, Larracel didn’t look like some former Named-rank monster or a terrifying woman.

She was short, pretended to look like a member of staff, she had greying hair, and the magic in her eyes was only there when she wanted it to be. She was, in fact—a bit like Erin Solstice.

—But the difference was, she was also a [Mage] and an adventurer. And she’d been doing this for a long time.

“Erin Solstice. Hello and good morning. You must have leveled up. I didn’t, but I’m sure I made progress towards my next one. Congratulations.”

“Oh, thank you—”

There was something more formal about Larra, so Erin almost offered her a handshake, but the other [Innkeeper] just stood there until Lyonette hurried over.

“Won’t you have a seat, Innkeeper Larracel? Can I get you anything to drink or eat?”

“Do you have any of this coffee I think I saw your inn advertising? I would like to taste it properly prepared. And whatever anyone else is eating.”

The [Innkeeper] sat down and smiled at Mrsha.

“Hello there. Who is this young woman?”

Mrsha shyly held out a paw, and Larra shook it.

“Ah, the scamp. I think I know your name. Mrsha?”

Beware of this woman’s gifts! Mrsha narrowed her eyes and stared at Larra’s fresh omelette as the [Innkeeper] turned to greet Nanette and the other diners. Larra didn’t even bat an eye at Numbtongue, and Mrsha slowly reached out—

Someone tugged at her ears before she could mess with Larra’s plate. Mrsha froze with a hefty pinch of salt and saw a glowing imp-familiar tugging on one ear. She hid her paws behind her back as that [Innkeeper] turned—and one of Larracel’s eyes glowed.

“I’ve seen a lot of pranksters like you, young woman. If you want to start a war, just don’t complain about how it ends.”

Mrsha decided to sit up and be very polite. Larracel reminded her of Shaman Theikha—in that she seemed nice, kind—and might throw Mrsha into the sky if she got mad.

“It’s great to see you again. I mean—we met yesterday, but thanks for coming over.”

Erin was only slightly flustered, but Larracel just chuckled.

“Let’s not stand on formality, Erin. You, I like. Besides, we’re not two [Innkeepers] who need to negotiate like the local associations. My crowd is sure to bother you—if only because they want to get to the south and my inn’s too slow. As for the door? Valeterisa’s only focused on magic. It’s better to have a Skill.”

“You think so?”

Erin had begun feeling some chagrin about the original door being lost, but Larracel calmly cut a bit of the omelet and ate as she explained.

“Doors that aren’t Skills can be stolen. I have heard a few attempts were made on yours—and a door that can be taken makes you a target for [Thieves], no matter how good the security is. This is far, far better for your inn. If Valeterisa makes her network, your inn is still valuable.”

“Yeah, that’s right! And people have stolen my door before—plus, I think this one’s got a lot more mana. I can tell. I can send way more people over without charging it up. Although…it might not be able to be manually charged by mages anymore.”

“Well then, it’s consistent. Did you gain anything else?”

“Just a spell. Wait, I can cast magic! I have—[Playful Radiant…Fishies].”

Erin’s excitement diminished as she said the spell out loud, and Pisces snorted loudly. Prixall and Ulvama glared at him, and the latter wiggled her fingers. He jerked back as a spider emerged from his hash browns.

“Interesting spell. Is that Goblin magic?”

“Yeah. I mean, I have a few other spells—mostly [Witch] stuff. I can use my craft to fuel the magic. Like a sorcerer?”

“Interesting. I’m a [Mage], but it is something that both our inns are so magically-based. I hate competition, so let’s not compete.”

Larra chuckled. Erin smiled in relief.

“I don’t actually know much about magic to tell you the truth. [Witch] stuff, a bit, but not magic magic.”

Nanette sat up indignantly at her table, but she was too shy to say anything in front of the other famous [Innkeeper]. Larra raised her brows.

“Oh? Well, I can give you some pointers. I’m technically a [Wizard], but [Mage] magic isn’t much like other types. Mine is embodied in a lot of objects, my inn especially. Would you like to visit it? Or I can summon my hordes to your inn.”

Erin had seen the Adventurer’s Haven from afar, but she and Larra had needed to deal with the literal crowds who flooded both inns. She hesitated.

“I wouldn’t be interfering, would I?”

She knew Larra had noble guests and…but the [Innkeeper] waved that off.

“The Haven is large enough to feed an army, which it has done time and time again. My staff can handle everything—you’ve met Barnethei?”

“That guy who snuck in?”

Larra nodded with a smile.

“He’s ambitious. And he’ll probably be your largest competitor—but he keeps my inn running without my direct influence. He could easily accommodate a few dozen more. What do you say?”

Erin looked around, and half her friends were nodding or trying to get her to say ‘yes’. And she had to admit, she was curious, so she agreed.

“Just so long as we’re not being a bother! I could help bring breakfast.”

Larra laughed, but affectionately. She patted Erin on the hand, then reached out and grabbed Valeterisa’s arm.

“You’re coming too, Valley.”

“Hm? I am?”

“Yes, you are. I have new clothing sized for you, so you can put your robe away, and I’ll have it washed.”

“But it’s perfectly clean. I [Cleanse] it—”

“I know. I’ve had a word with your helper, and she’s told me how ‘clean’ you are. You’ll eat more food, then you’ll wash, wear new clothes, and be a person for a bit.”

Valeterisa shot Montressa a glower as her apprentice hid behind Larracel, but she followed the [Innkeeper].

“But I have so much to do. I’m an Archmage, Larra. Technically, I outrank you socially.”

“I’ll let you read books in the bath.”

“Ah. Well, lead on.”

 

——

 

There were so many parallels to Larra and Erin. They had both come from analogous pasts; they had adventurers for guests who treated the inn like a home. Famous friends.

Like Erin, Larracel had built and rebuilt her inn, upgrading it with her levels. Like Erin, she had magical features. She had participated in famous events—in the north—and her inn was a kind of hub, an independent safe haven.

Even the Assassin’s Guild and other nobles knew that a guest of Larra the Haven was not to be attacked. They could try, but she was a former Named-rank adventurer, and her friends were quite, quite dangerous.

However, even the staff were capable of putting up quite a defense. Like Erin, Larra was not always visible, and Barnethei, similar to Lyonette, was the acting head.

Even their inns were similar. For instance, Erin’s was on a hill. Larra’s floated.

Erin had grass outside her inn. You could walk across the dais of the Adventurer’s Haven past the outdoor tavern area that led to tables and benches like a café and stare over the railings down to the earth below, or, if the daises were connected by simple bridges, walk to the connected farm, library—

Very similar. Right down to the second floor of the tavern area where a miniature guild was located that could perform Adventurer, Mage, and Merchant guild functions.

Oh, and the arcane familiars who helped the staff were analogous to…Mrsha…and, uh—uh—the multiple suites of guest rooms were like how Erin had multiple floors to her inn.

By the time Erin Solstice’s eyes stopped bugging out, even her most loyally proud friends had stopped trying to make comparisons.

The Adventurer’s Haven was a complex. And it had multiple rooms as large as Erin’s [Grand Theatre], each one styled to the Haven’s unique reputation.

“Magic and excitement. The outdoor section is for relaxing—our indoor areas are often used for the nobility, like the Pub of Best Moments. Not usually one for children, but all your guests are welcome to it—it’s semi-exclusive. For children, we have a few magical rooms I’ve made over the years.”

Pub of Best Moments? Erin had no idea what that was, but Ceria was nudging Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] was refusing to look too awed.

“Whoa, so all these rooms are ones you’ve made?”

“With Skills. I enchanted around the Skills I have. I was a Named-rank adventurer, so I have less Skills than you do solely based around the inn, I suspect. But here—take a seat, and I’ll give you the regular’s experience.”

Larra led them to the nearest table, and Erin saw that there was a crowd this morning. In fact—the nobility were nowhere to be seen. This was the open area, and so it appeared that few of the most exclusive guests wanted to hobnob with the crowds.

Or maybe they were nursing hangovers. Aside from Valeterisa, few of the famous guests had appeared, and Erin suspected they were getting hangover potions sent to their rooms.

Unlike Erin’s inn, they had soundproofed walls, so a noisy little Mrsha wouldn’t wake them up. But Larra’s inn was not just for the wealthy.

In fact, Erin saw some people who looked like they had nothing to spend sitting nervously at a table—but sitting there as Larra nodded to them. They didn’t recognize her, despite her meeting Erin—their eyes were on the man who was walking through the inn with twenty members of staff.

Barnethei, the [Vice Innkeeper], played the part. He strode past tables, shaking hands, and, Erin noticed, personally delivering baskets of food to some or directing guests elsewhere.

“Barnethei comps drinks and food. He’s also in charge of entertainment—he was a [Server] working my tables, and right now, he’s over Level 40 and he could start his own inn and make it famous. He might, but he’s agreed to at least stay with me until we reach the new lands.”

“So you are heading all the way there?”

Larracel seated herself with Mrsha, Lyonette, Nanette, and the other guests with a smile—but this one was tired.

“Oh, I couldn’t leave my idiots behind. I’ll go as far as I can. The Haven is not prepared to be on the edge of a wild zone, let alone a death zone; in that sense, I feel like your inn is better-prepared. But we’ll at least make the journey.”

That was part of the reason she’d sought Erin out. Barnethei glanced up, but Larra didn’t say that, and a warning flick to his hair with magic made the [Vice Innkeeper] keep on his way.

Erin Solstice didn’t seem to notice. She glanced at the new guests, but saw no one coming to take their order. Larra smiled as she saw Erin checking out this area.

“Confused? You don’t get a waiter unless you want to buy something. There’s a law in my inn, and so I think even Invrisil’s people have heard of it. Like this—”

She raised her hands…then eyed Nanette and Mrsha.

“No, how about this. You two, lean over.”

They did, and Erin heard Larracel whisper to them. Mrsha blinked, and Nanette let her clap her paws loudly. Then the witch spoke in a nervous, loud voice.

F-free bread?

Erin looked up and saw something soar out from behind one of the open windows to a kitchen at once. An Arcane Familiar, the imp with little horns, wings, and a tail, leapt into the air and grabbed something. It flew their way and instantly deposited—

Bread! A basket landed on the table, and Larracel added.

“Water, too.”

More cups and a pitcher were dragged into the air, and to Erin’s delight, water, bread, hot and crispy, three long rolls similar to a wider baguette, were placed at the other tables in a basket with a big blue cloth.

“Free bread?”

Lyonette was astounded and mildly aghast. But when they saw that, the nervous guests copied Larra, and regardless whether they muttered or shouted, the familiars brought out a basket.

Valeterisa hadn’t yet gone to her bath, so she stopped and absently tore off a huge chunk of bread, despite her breakfast. She began nibbling.

“It’s better than it used to be. You’re still not giving out free butter?”

“Go take a bath.”

Larra pointed, and Valeterisa wandered off, Montressa correcting her course. The Haven’s [Innkeeper] whispered to Erin out of the corner of her mouth.

“I used to give out free butter. But it does cost too much—and someone would eat as much of it as she could when she was a poor student. Every single day. That’s what each guest gets, though. A basket of bread. I have a Skill. [The Innkeeper’s Daily Supply].”

Oh! Rags blinked. She had skulked behind the others, wondering if she needed to use her ring, but she and Numbtongue were being suffered, if warily, because of Larra and Erin’s presence. That sounded like her Skill.

“That’s so nice of you.”

Erin was smiling hugely, but Larra waved it off, embarrassed.

“I have a farm—the Haven is fairly sustainable. I decided the free bread was a good way to welcome people. Besides—it’s only something I can do with the familiars. They take baskets about, wash dishes—put dishes in soapy water, that is. They’re not clever enough to wash anything but enchanted dishes without me breaking a dozen each week.”

One of the familiars floated past Erin, and the other woman checked to see if they were intelligent, but the familiar didn’t react to the insults.

“Are they smart?”

“They’re no Djinni. Or Golems. They’re just mana—Valeterisa taught me the spell, and I’ve adapted my own. Hers are ironically more clever—and I heard how she was stuck in her mansion for years. I have your friend to thank for that, actually.”

“Ryoka?”

Larracel tried her bread as Mrsha picked up a menu and stared at the food. The [Innkeeper] gave her a smile.

“Order what you like. Yes, Ryoka Griffin. She may have stopped by the inn—most City Runners do—but before she freed Valeterisa so no one took notice if that was the case. If she is ever in the area, I intend to thank her. No one else could free Valeterisa—and we should have. But she informed us she was well.”

She sighed, and Erin suspected that Valeterisa’s absent-mindedness was not new. Larra stretched at her table as Erin looked around.

“So you have tons of guests who come and go, huh?”

“Some, like Viecel, our gambling addict, travel to other continents like Baleros. It isn’t uncommon for them to appear after years. Mihaela’s constant; I’m just a short run away for her. Valeterisa…she used to be here every day, reading my books and eating bread. When she became an Archmage, she fell out of touch. I got a [Message] spell from her every year, and the people I asked to check on her never came back. More than a few friends are like that.”

For a second, Larracel looked old and sad, and Erin imagined Ceria or Pisces coming back as they became famous adventurers. But then Larra was briskly countermanding Mrsha as the girl scribbled an order for a waiting familiar.

“I said order what you like—but you’re not having wine. That’s the Royal Menu. Everything on there is overpriced. Order from this instead!”

She tried to hand Mrsha another menu, but the girl reached into her money pouch and slapped down a handful of gold coins as she glared at Larra, much to Lyonette’s chagrin. Larra eyed her, then turned to Erin.

“…I can see you have an equal number of characters in your inn.”

“Yep. Goblins and silly kids. Say, no one’s gonna try to kill Numbtongue and Rags, right? I kind of have this thing in my inn…”

“No killing Goblins.”

Larra finished Erin’s sentence, and the young woman’s mouth dropped open in pleased surprise. But Larra just chuckled.

“I did do my homework. Barnethei can read. Ah, here we are. This is our menu…and get Miss Mrsha here some of our finest white wine vinegar. Since she would like an experience of fine drink.”

Mrsha sat up excitedly as Lyonette opened her mouth to protest…then closed it. Which really should have clued Mrsha in. Erin was still admiring the look of the inn.

“It’s so vast! You’ve got a library and a farm…do you have a hot spring?”

Larra looked amused.

“Not a hot spring. I have bathtubs, and it’s hard enough to transport all this wood and metal—let alone that much water! I would like a swimming area, but I can barely lift all of this.”

She gestured at the floating inn. It had descended a bit, and to get to the inn, you could walk up a ramp or use stairs. Erin imagined it could also descend to ground level if need be.

“So you’re the one lifting all this? With magic?”

“Yes. I lift it all. When I was a Named-rank adventurer, I created safe zones out of magic. It’s my speciality, and in this area, I may be one of the world’s best.”

That was Larra’s simple reply. It wasn’t arrogant—you could certainly take it that way, but she was a Named-rank.

More food flew in, although one of the servers wearing that colorful uniform appeared to present a plate of hot food with a flourish. Mrsha glanced at the duck leg and full meal—but she stared at the pale liquid in a crystal cup. She looked at Lyonette, but the [Princess] whispered to her.

“If Larracel allows it, I suppose there’s no help but to let you have a bit. Just a sip, though.”

Mrsha importantly lifted the cup—then hesitated as she smelled the white ‘wine’. However, she noticed the other guests watching her, and so she took a huge gulp.

Mrsha tried to swallow—then her eyes bulged. She stared around—then leapt off the table and ran to the railing.

Someone cried out in horror as a little Gnoll spat her mouthful of vinegar into the air…and glumly sank back to the table.

Alcohol ain’t great. I don’t see what you find in it.

She handed the notecard to Pisces, who gave her a bemused look. But he folded the card up and tucked it in a pocket.

“It is an acquired taste, Miss Mrsha.”

Mrsha the Suddenly Sober nodded as Erin covered a laugh and Larra nodded.

At this point, the Haven’s open deck was inviting and fun for Erin—and she saw Larra’s familiars and her style as something to admire.

—But she still had that feeling Inkar would have known very well.

That of someone seeing a hill smiling at you. Erin was waiting to see more of Izril’s greatest [Innkeeper] that she knew was there.

The irony, of course…was that Erin Solstice herself didn’t see how Larra welcomed her into her inn as equals. The irony was that her friends, her guests were as familiar and normal to Erin—but even the Haven’s regulars woke up and took notice.

 

——

 

“…my back itches.”

Deniusth, the Named-rank adventurer and captain of Orchestra, a Named-rank team in its own right, was a gold-bell duelist. One of Izril’s most famous bachelors—but not because he was celibate. He was a famous figure in the north, a musician, and he came stumbling out of his rooms looking like he was dead.

“You smell like shit.”

“You look like shit.”

Mihaela Godfrey and Colth bullied him the moment he stepped out of his door. Deni glared at both, red-eyed.

“You had your fun yesterday. Stop bothering me.”

“You’re too old to drink like a Silver-rank. You coming for breakfast? We’ve got that other [Innkeeper]. Eld’s already heading down with most of the others.”

Deni grunted. In truth, after a night like last night, even Mihaela would have lain abed for a while. They were older, and getting up at the crack of dawn wasn’t mandatory, especially in the Haven.

…That they’d woken up was because it was hard to sleep. Nigh on impossible, actually.

“My damn back itches. Who’s here?”

“Shriekblade.”

Colth spoke, and Deniusth looked at him.

“Who—oh, Salazsar’s killer. Damn. We’re going to be meeting our southern counterparts, aren’t we? I hate [Rogues].”

He rubbed at his back where a [Rogue] had once stabbed him, and Mihaela glanced out the window. She was no [Lady] or high-level specialist, but…

“I don’t see more than a few Runners, but I’ve heard of Garia Strongheart. Some kind of fighter-Runner. Those Gold-ranks look snappy.”

She’d delivered for adventurers in emergency runs, even gone on a few adventures herself. Colth grinned, but Deni just grunted as he checked his clothing in a full-length mirror.

“We’ll see. Reputations in backwaters are always inflated.”

He said that—but the truth was the captain of Orchestra took the time to fix his appearance, and his entire team was waiting for him to make an impression as they descended towards the open seating area.

If Liscor was getting to meet the myths of the north—the same could be said of the Haven’s guests. Here came the south, and they wanted to make a good impression. After all, some of them forgot, but most, even Deni—remembered.

They had once been Silver and Bronze-ranks too.

 

——

 

It was in the eyes. A reflection. It wasn’t that the older you got, the more you changed. It was just that you kept remembering.

What was it like, that sensation of first meeting a Named-rank adventurer, a Courier? That feeling in your chest of intimidation, comparing yourself against them.

Ambition. I will be this someday—

But the surreality of it never faded, sometimes. The feeling of being a Courier and turning your head before realizing it was you.

Colth was like that. Mihaela envied him. She was the Guildmistress of First Landing. The Courier of Izril. That was bone-deep.

These days…she looked and saw a young woman sitting with a Goblin, and her eyes flickered as she saw Garia Strongheart’s awestruck face. The City Runner had muscle—and showed it off. She’d adjusted her shirt so it exposed her stomach. She looked a lot thinner than her Runner’s Guild image on file.

So much so—that she could be a different person except in eye and hair. Mihaela saw Deni’s eyes lock on Garia’s midriff and took care to step on his foot by accident as they walked towards Larra.

She just wondered if Garia got cold. Then she remembered she wasn’t young and cursed.

When was someone going to invent a potion of de-aging?

The most famous [Alchemist]-adventurer, Saliss of Lights, had put his feet up on his table as he watched his peers approach. He nodded to them, as relaxed as he looked.

No one else was. There sat a young woman with arms made of metal, staring at the Named-ranks and Gold-ranks who’d tagged along with Larra’s inn. As if her arms made of metal didn’t make even Viecel blink and Colth ooh under his breath.

The [Necromancer], Pisces, sat next to an Antinium that Mihaela’s skin crawled just from looking at. But there was a half-Elf with a skeletal hand, a half-Giant trying to hide behind Jelaqua Ivirith…

Like Erin, Mihaela thought of her company as entirely normal. Deni dyed his hair blonde. Colth was still a kid who called everyone ‘boss’ and acted like his class, [Supporter]. Eld? Eld was a responsible [Lord] of House Terland. The other adventurers, Gold and Named-rank, were people. Powerful, but only impressive at times.

Like Larra.

In that, Mihaela didn’t realize how she came off to the others. She would have seen a white-haired woman in the mirror, grumpy, coughing blood occasionally, no longer the fastest, proudest Courier who had served in two Antinium Wars. She would claim that she walked around like everyone else and that only when she used her Skills did she move fast.

That kind of talk made it sound like Mihaela was just any older woman in the crowd. Selys Shivertail knew better. She looked at Mihaela and saw someone like Tekshia. Her grandmother had the mark of her level. Mihaela walked like she was on a piece of moving ground that carried her forwards while the rest of the world had no escalator.

She would walk, head turning to lecture her friends, and walk around a surprised guest without even bothering to look at them. Her feet would carry her over a chair, and she’d skip ahead, a four-foot hop, from platform to platform, like Selys stepped over a crack.

Looking at her reminded Mrsha of Wer. That ease of movement was like everyone wanted to be able to move. Mihaela’s walk was the envy of small children. She looked like she could run up a cliff the wrong way, because she had.

Similarly—her companions. Where Mihaela saw a dyed-hair pretender, she had long ago tuned out Deniusth. When Numbtongue focused on the [Musician]-[Duelist], he thought he heard music. It followed the Named-rank adventurer, a solo violin playing. The bow to his violin hung at his side like a rapier, and the gold bell attached to it never chimed. Pisces glanced at another adventurer, who carried a brass horn, and he heard a trumpet’s solo serenading the new day.

The Trumpet of the Battlefield, Gores Caneth. He scratched at the light beard on his chin, accompanying the rest of his teammates, Orchestra, the band of adventurers from the north.

Even the ones without music or that kind of grace that marked them apart looked different. For there was someone that all the Horns knew and got up to nod or bow respectfully to.

Eldertuin the Fortress, Eldertuin Terland, was a giant second only to Moore. Even in regular clothes, the clothes seemed to be thicker than Ylawes’ armor. He was careful and respectful of others, as someone of his height often was, but people avoided him like they avoided walking into a wall. He just gave the feeling that if you slammed into him at full force, even on a wagon—the wagon might be the one that gave way.

There were other teams hovering in the background, too. One of the adventurers produced a handkerchief as they watched the newcomers to the inn. Or rather…was he made of handkerchiefs?

Mrsha blinked. For there sat someone—man or woman, she couldn’t have said. And the figure looked humanoid, but instead of skin, they had blowing handkerchiefs and cloth of every color, often silk or rich clothing, instead of a body. The bits of cloth waved within a kind of suit, complete with a cane no less and gloved hands…but was that even a person?

Erin turned her head and whispered to the nearest person to her, Ceria.

“Um. Is that person made of cloth?”

“Yep. That would be the Favor of the North, Caleis Berkesson. Stitch-man.”

“Oh, that makes so much…where’s his face?”

No one replied. The two Goblins, Rags and Numbtongue, felt that familiar chill down their skin that made them want to run.

This felt like dying. Rags narrowed her eyes and held her ground. Numbtongue felt for his sword self-consciously and saw the gold-bell duelist looking at him.

Even Shorthilt wouldn’t stand much of a chance. Numbtongue was sweating along with the other teams who were Erin’s friends.

The Silver Swords, the Halfseekers, the Horns of Hammerad—even the Wings of Pallass and the Flamewardens had shown up. Nailren’s team and the Silver-ranks like Vuliel Drae hung in the background. But Larra got up slowly and urged Erin to her feet.

“This would be my crowd. More of them in one place than usual—but I hope you will treat them kindly. Many of them cause trouble, and if they do—refer them to me. You lot, stop showing off. This is Erin Solstice. And she suffers mischief about as much as I do.”

The little speech made the watching Named-ranks stir. With that kind of endorsement—they looked at Erin Solstice, and if some of them had been acting superior, it faded.

For there sat the world’s greatest chess-player. The [Innkeeper] who had posted a Mythical Quest. She looked at them and smiled.

What did they see? A smiling giant with black wings playing chess against the greatest [Strategists] of this world? Or just a young woman who looked slightly uncomfortable in her body, slightly weak—and her hazel eyes had no magic in them.

But if you looked close, you realized her hat was made of flame, and it flickered almost invisibly in the air. A certain stillness hung about her. Like a moment that stretched on forever.

“Hi. I’m Erin. These are my friends—the top adventurers around Liscor. You’re all welcome to my inn.”

Two groups met, and Erin Solstice’s voice reminded her guests of who they were. Pisces’ chest inflated, and Erin wished that Griffon Hunt were here. Then she had a thought.

Wait a second. How good was her door?

She focused on something—then cursed and realized she was out of her inn. Everyone else was searching for the best way to make contact, and Erin’s eyes flickered to Invrisil. Her inn was in the capable paws of Ishkr. She wondered if…

 

——

 

There was a right and a wrong way to make an impression on this group. One bad word—and the two sides were enemies, and the Named-ranks were the high-and-mighty lot from the north.

Mihaela said nothing. She had been that bad impression many times, and she wasn’t an adventurer. She waited for Eldertuin to say something, but Eld was so slow. He was just opening his mouth when the wrong person spoke.

Deni.

“I don’t recognize a lot of the teams here…”

The Violinist glanced at the Horns, the Flamewardens, Bevussa, and Mihaela wondered if kicking him off the Haven’s edge would save the moment. As Lyonette had noticed—she reacted faster than anyone else. But she didn’t, and to her relief, Deni continued.

“…but that face looks familiarly unfamiliar. Ivirith, is that you? How the hell are the Halfseekers? You haven’t been at the Haven for a long time! Get over here.”

He broke the ranks and strode over to Jelaqua. To everyone’s surprise, he clasped hands with the Selphid, and she rose.

“Ah—you remember me, Deniusth?”

“Of course I do. Eld, Colth—who here knows the Halfseekers?”

“Ah, I knew it. Only, I didn’t recognize the half-Giant or the others. Seborn, though—looted any ships recently?”

“Learned to swim, Alburz?”

The Drowned Man called back, and a Gold-rank Captain came out of the crowd and feinted a punch. But he stopped as Moore stood.

“Dead gods, a half-Giant. Er—hello. The Halfseekers always change.”

To Erin’s gratification, more adventurers recognized Jelaqua, including Eldertuin, Colth, and a number of others. Even Larra nodded.

“I did have the Halfseekers at my inn more than once in their iterations. I should have said something, Miss Ivirith.”

“Oh, no. We’ve just been knocking around for a long time. Since we were Silver-ranks. We get everywhere…”

Jelaqua’s cheeks were orange with a huge blush. But Deni turned to Mihaela.

“Have you met the Halfseekers, Mihaela?”

“…Name’s familiar. Why?”

“They’ve been around since before we were Bronze-ranks. In one form or another—I remember the Halfseekers when Jelaqua was a rookie fresh from Baleros. Well, they’ve changed, but I recognize another group there. Silver Swords—the team that can’t go a week without getting into some kind of adventure. I heard you lot could find a damsel in distress in every well you pass by.”

Dawil rose to his feet with a laugh. He swept the other adventurers a bow as Falene hesitated, but countless adventurers recognized the name, if not the trio by face.

“That’d be us. Dawil Ironbreaker, Ylawes Byres, and Falene Pointyears at your service.”

He began shaking hands as Falene turned red with fury. Erin let out a sigh as Eldertuin himself turned.

“…And this is Captain Ceria of the Horns of Hammerad. It’s good to see you so well. I thought you’d died.”

“Without you, we would have. Eldertuin, it’s an honor.”

The half-Elf took his hands, and eyes turned to the Horns. Then the murmur picked up because even if they weren’t as old—this was the team who’d been on the news.

“The team that raided the death-zone? The ones who got teleported to Chandrar…?”

A few incredulous murmurs, but then people were shaking hands. Introducing themselves. Ironically, perhaps, the older teams of Flamewardens and Wings of Pallass were least-recognized. But Keldrass rose, and the Humans and other species warily approached.

The one person who didn’t immediately rise was Saliss of Lights. He grinned at the other adventurers as they recognized him—but it was only when the smiling Colth appeared that Saliss swung himself up.

“Saliss of Lights, it’s an honor. Colth the Supporter.”

“I know you, kid. Looks like the north’s come down to play. Watch out—us southern Named-ranks aren’t fun. Right, Tessa?”

He glanced sideways, and a Drake appeared, much to half the adventurers’ shock. But Colth just shook Saliss’ hand so earnestly the Drake was taken aback.

“I am delighted to meet you, sir. And if I might add, it’s my fondest wish to adventure with you at some point.”

Saliss blinked at Colth, then his face turned to one of horror and disgust.

“Uh…you’re being serious. Dead gods, you’re actually…gaaah.

He fell out of his chair and lay on the ground.

“I’m allergic to people like you. Someone save me.”

He tried to cling to Yvlon’s legs and was rewarded with a look of surprised annoyance. Then Saliss sighed and sprang to his feet.

“Saliss, hello! Need a potion—you see me, not Xif. Hello, yes, I’m naked. And I still dressed better than you. Saliss—hello, Eldertuin. Where’s your crazier half, Viecel?”

Mrsha was shaking hands with bemused adventurers as if she were a peer. They rubbed her head and exclaimed.

“Who’s the cute kid? Wait, I think I know this one from the television—it can’t be, right?”

She puffed out her chest and began to introduce herself—but then someone raced into the inn and began shouting.

“I’m here. I’m here! I thought it’d be next year when I got to visit—where’s the free bread? Suxhel, Suxhel, take a magical picture of me!”

Lehra Ruinstrider tried to pose in front of a pair of people eating at a table, and Stargazer’s Promise arrived with a bang. Literally, as Lehra ran into a chair.

Ordinarily, Erin just bet that Larra would be judging, and the [Innkeeper] was watching Lehra with a combination of forbearance and mild disapproval. But she clearly knew adventurers, and Lehra froze when she saw the horde of adventurers. She collected herself, then formed up with her team.

The rest of the adventurers certainly knew the Stargnoll. In fact, they seemed hugely complimentary, and it was such a departure from how Ceria had experienced Invrisil’s elitist adventurers that it was gratifying.

Then she had a thought and adjusted the invisible circlet on her head as she muttered to her team.

“Looks like Erin or our reputations are earning us more respect.”

“Skin-deep. We’re getting the Haven herself to vouch for us and Erin. They’ll be meaner later.”

To her surprise, it was Yvlon who muttered that back. Pisces looked up, and Ksmvr’s mandibles clicked together.

“Should I be more reserved, Captain Ceria?”

“Nah, Ksmvr. But what a crowd!

It felt like something to be recognized, even so. And to the Horn’s astonishment, several Named-ranks were singling them out, even amidst the meetings.

“So you’re Captain Ceria herself. Hello, hello. My name is Colth. Colth the Supporter. I am truly pleased to meet all of you, Pisces, Ceria, Ksmvr, Yvlon. I hope we have the chance to work together at some point!”

Colth the Named-rank shook all of their hands so fast that the Horns were left staring at him. He was one of the youngest Named-ranks, Lehra obviously notwithstanding, but he looked excellent.

Orchestra, Deniusth’s team, were dressed like a cross between performers and adventurers. Eldertuin had a more nobleman’s casual outfit, and his partner, Viecel the Selphid, was similarly attired.

But Colth? He wore chainmail over leather—mithril chainmail—and he had one of the most diverse adventuring belts Ceria had ever seen. His hair was one of those rarer colors—green and brown—and his belt had a throwing axe, sword, wand, two vials, and a loop of something, clearly magical rope attached.

And that was what was on his belt, not in his bag of holding. The [Supporter] was mobile despite the heavier armor and all the gear, and he smiled earnestly at the surprised Horns.

“Adventure with us?”

Ceria blurted before she remembered—this was Colth the Supporter. Famous for empowering teams and being a force in his own right. The Named-Rank grinned.

“It’d be my first time adventuring with a [Necromancer] and the Antinium. That’s valuable insight. But excuse me—is that Jewel I see? Glitterblade? Colth.

He strode over and scared the daylights out of Jewel. In fact—Ceria saw him shaking hands with a surprised Anith, Nailren—

“Does he know every adventurer by name?”

“He should. It’s practically his class.”

Yvlon muttered back. Pisces blinked at Colth and then glanced around uneasily.

“It is quite convivial, I agree, Ceria. Suspiciously so. One has to imagine that there is a Captain Todi for every Colth.”

“I do not see a Todi, Pisces. Maybe the Haven only has nice friends?”

Ksmvr’s optimism was cute. Ceria smiled as she glanced around—she didn’t miss that some of the adventurers were hanging back, especially from Ksmvr and Pisces. Or just the Drakes. This was a good meeting, but she…

She focused on Numbtongue. And Rags, but Rags was sitting at her table since she wasn’t an adventurer. Numbtongue, though, Erin was tugging him forwards, and Ceria was expecting something else here. But even she was surprised by what happened.

 

——

 

“Um. Um—Larra, have you formally met one of the inn’s family? Numbtongue.”

Larracel turned, and Mihaela Godfrey stopped shaking Garia’s hand—the [Martial Artist] looked as though she might faint. Deniusth turned, and the adventurers fell silent.

The Hobgoblin stood there as Erin stood in front of him protectively. She went on, voice determinedly cheerful.

“He’s actually a Bronze-rank.”

“What.”

Mihaela’s voice was flat, but Erin explained how Numbtongue was technically an adventurer. She was eager to introduce him to the adventurers. Even if they reacted…

“There’s a rule in my inn. No killing Goblins, so I’ve got them as guests. I figured it was best to introduce him around. Just in case.”

She met Larra’s eyes, and there was the first point of dissonance between them. Larra’s brows rose silently, but she nodded to Numbtongue and—

Everyone waited for the adventurers’ reactions. Especially and critically here—

Deniusth’s. He had felt at the red scarf around his neck the instant Numbtongue had appeared—and his healing wound. His eyes sharpened, and the pupils turned into points as Numbtongue stared at him. Erin cautiously lifted one of Numbtongue’s hands for him—and the [Bard] gently plucked his arm out of her grip.

Not a good idea. He spoke, and Mihaela started at the sound of his voice.

“Hi. I’m Numbtongue. Goblin.”

The Guildmistress stared at him, but then Eldertuin nodded.

“Eldertuin the Fortress. Viecel the Gambler.”

He spoke, carefully, indicating the Selphid. Colth started, then smiled—but more artificially.

“Colth the Supporter. Well, there’s an adventurer I didn’t know about!”

A few chuckles, but everyone turned to Mihaela. She eyed Numbtongue.

“I’m not an adventurer. Mihaela Godfrey. I can see this inn’s guests are going to be weird. Still better than Saliss.”

“Love you too, Mihaela.”

It was astonishing, almost—and Erin was getting hopeful. Even if this wasn’t being televised, this was a miracle! But Deniusth was staring past Numbtongue’s head. He scowled, then spoke.

“…I’m not doing this. Not again.”

“Deni. This is Erin Solstice’s guest. The Wandering Inn’s guest. Try to at least say hello.”

Larra glanced at Erin and gave him a warning look, but the Violinist threw up a gloved hand. He swatted at a familiar prodding at him with a breadstick.

“No. And don’t try to bully me. I’ve done this dance once. No more.”

No more? Then, Erin blinked at him, and her mind focused on a connection. She looked at Deni—then at Jelaqua’s suddenly melancholic features and the adventurers—some of whom were looking at Numbtongue with distrust or horror or disbelief.

Or among some—a kind of pained nostalgia. And at the Halfseekers. Then it came to her.

“Garen Redfang.”

That name dropped among the adventurers, and then it became clear. A group walking up the stairs and talking in disbelief froze—and Deni turned to look at Erin.

“Yes. We’ve done this before.”

He glanced at Jelaqua, and a world opened up to Erin, and she wondered what it had been like the first time a Goblin came to the Haven. Not today—but whenever the Halfseekers had been here. Deni stared at Numbtongue with a mix of hostility and guardedness. He tugged at his scarf.

“My team just lost a battle against Goblins, Miss Solstice. No offense, but we’ve had a Goblin among adventurers and seen a King. Izril’s done this before.”

Numbtongue’s shoulders hunched—but then he looked up. To Erin’s surprise, the [Bard] spoke to the Violinist as he turned his back.

“Yeah. But I’m neither Garen nor Velan. Garen Redfang was my Chieftain, my father. I’m a [Bard].”

Deni’s head turned back. He blinked at Numbtongue, then the guitar on the Hob’s back, as if he’d never seen it before. He stared at his team, and Orchestra turned with more curiosity than they had to anyone else in the inn.

“…That’s new, at least. Ever heard of Kraken Eaters? Tribe up north?”

Numbtongue and Erin traded a glance. Rags sat up, and the [Bard] replied after a long second of searching Pyrite’s memories.

“…Heard they suck.”

Deni blinked, then he grinned. And to Erin’s huge gratification, the Violinist stuck out a cautious hand and received the most cautious of handshakes.

“I like you. And that little Goblin there. I heard she took Crowdcaller Merdon down a peg. That’s good enough for me.”

A handshake. Erin let out a huge breath, and Larra blinked at Deni as if she hadn’t expected that. But then Erin turned—and threw up her hands. She began running as Numbtongue blinked around, and the adventurers didn’t pay attention at first—until she threw her arms around someone who grunted.

“Erin.”

“It’s you again! I told you it wouldn’t be long! Guess who leveled up? You’re gonna get drinks and—

Mrsha sat up in her chair, then her eyes widened. She howled and leapt over to hug the legs of an embarrassed [Bowman]. Heads turned, and Ceria’s jaw dropped.

“No way.”

Griffon Hunt. Izril’s trackers. What is this, Invrisil?”

Colth laughed at his own joke, and Saliss threw something at him.

“He even tells bad jokes! That’s my thing! Tessa, kill him.”

The team of Griffon Hunt had just arrived, and Larra’s head whirled around as she saw Erin laughing in delight.

“I knew Ishkr would figure it out. My door reaches Riverfarm! My door reaches—waitasecond. Ah, man. Does this mean I’m gonna have to negotiate with Laken? Drat.”

Larracel the Haven focused on Erin as a few pieces came together. The [Magical Innkeeper] had her new Skill all of a morning and she had realized it enabled her to…?

Barnethei had come with drinks and food to the adventurers, but he gave Larra a significant look. They watched Erin try to hug a grumpy Revi and then hesitantly greet Briganda, who gave her a one-armed hug as Cade bounced in her other arm.

So that was The Wandering Inn’s [Innkeeper], eh? The other guests focused on Erin. They had come south to Liscor to make a splash, but it turned out the puddle was as deep as a lake. And Liscor…

Erin wasn’t the only thing changing or ready to roll with the unexpected these days.

 

——

 

Liscor’s Council got news that Erin’s door was ash in the morning. They convened, of course; not a day went by when one of them wasn’t finding the others or they weren’t meeting formally, it felt like.

“Looks like the door isn’t broken. Coffee? Tea?”

Lism had a bagel in his mouth as he shared around a tray of food. Tismel had brought it this time, which proved something about something.

In fact, the two old-guard Council members, Zalaiss and Tismel, showed up routinely, if for no other reason than these Council meetings were important.

“Now there’s a relief.”

Jeiss sighed, but everyone had already agreed to give Erin a day or a week to un-destroy her door or find a new one under a toadstool or something. Lism chewed on the bagel as Krshia cleared her throat.

“Apologies, honorable Shassa. A minor emergency has occurred, and it seems the Council may need to adjourn. Another city has just connected to Liscor, and an [Emperor] has just sent us an—invitation. To Pallass, Celum, and Invrisil it seems.”

“An—an [Emperor]? Not at all, Council.”

A nervous Drake stood before them, and she was properly confused, agog, and perplexed. But Liscor’s Council just gave each other resigned looks.

“Our [Negotiators] are working up a speech and gifts and whatnot. Let’s conclude our business here, first.”

Lism put the bagel on a plate and folded his claws together. The [Druid] blinked at him.

“But the [Emperor]—”

“He’ll keep another few minutes. But we would be delighted by your offer, Shassa. Do you have lodgings in Liscor?”

“I tried The Wandering Inn, but it seemed full up. I found an inn in Celum…”

The [Druid] had been offered a rock in Nalthaliarstrelous’ garden or any place in the hedge maze, but she’d wanted a bed. Instantly, Alonna began scribbling a note. The Mage’s Guild’s Guildmistress passed it to Elirr, who handed it to the [Druid].

“This is for Timbor Parithad’s inn or Peslas’ if your tastes run more to fancy, the Tailless Thief. Both will put you up.”

“Free of charge. Breakfast, dinner. Personal service not included.”

Lism added hastily, but Krshia nudged him. He had to stop saying that—the [Innkeepers] could clarify.

“Oh! This is very welcome, Councilmembers. I actually have one more friend from Oteslia—”

“Let me write a second note. If you, personally, would like to head the sample project, I think we have just the candidates, [Druid] Shassa. Or help find and vet the proper instructors? Make sure it’s all working—we would welcome Oteslian expertise.”

Alonna was smiling, and the [Druid] appeared energetic.

“Of course. I didn’t expect you to see me so quickly—it’s just that I saw the issue and I thought—well, thank you very much. I will, uh, move my things and see that building you offered.”

The Council was very pleased, and they murmured amongst themselves.

“We can have Hexel make a new one if it would help. Something central?”

“We’ll need multiple ones. That’s [Architect] thinking. Nice, safe areas—damn, will we have to negotiate for spaces in established properties? Tismel gets to do that.”

“Me?”

“It’s a net positive, a net positive, Tismel. You just need to convince everyone of that.”

Lism was sighing for some reason, though. Krshia eyed him.

“What, exactly, is wrong, Lism?”

“Oh…damn it. I think we need to pay Erin Solstice.”

Jeiss looked at Lism, aghast.

“For what? For—oh.”

Then they all remembered a promise Lism had made. Off-handedly, yes, and ages ago. But that was the thing. Whether it was coincidence or inevitability—probably pay the [Innkeeper].

“I think this is excellent. And a new Human settlement? At times like this—what do we do? Did the old Council toast things, Zalaiss?”

“Something like that. A cup of wine, clinking glasses together—”

“We’re on the job.”

The other Councilmember sighed, but Lism snapped his claws.

“A good laugh. That’s the thing. A good…mocking, suitably evil laugh. For all the little children and especially Miss Mrsha.”

He smiled with such villainy that Shassa looked aghast—then thought of Mrsha. Mrsha…who, at this moment, was having a sneezing fit and had no idea why.

Why did her fur shiver? Lism chuckled, then tried to really give it a good guffaw and a cackle.

“You baked ham.”

Krshia rolled her eyes, but Jeiss tried it.

“No, I feel what Lism is saying. I can’t wait to see my kids’ faces. Or how Beilmark reacts. She’s going to love it.”

They looked at Shassa, and the [Druid]…the [Teacher] saw Lism’s Council try on a laugh. Tismel was bad at it, but Alonna gave a quite evil chuckle. Raekea…

Ha. Haha. Ha?”

—Had no sense of grandeur. But Elirr’s laughter started back in his throat, and he came out with an escalating overture of dark hilarity, which turned into the deep sinister guffaws of the final villain in a dark castle.

Everyone fell silent, and Elirr turned red.

“Did I do that?”

“Dead gods, Elirr. New talents. New talents. Don’t laugh like that when we meet the [Emperor]. Druid Shassa, we like to have a bit of fun. Thank you for your time. And good luck. We’ll have a class of…students for your school thing very shortly.”

Dark days had come to Liscor. The children sensed it upon the wind, but even they didn’t know what was coming next.

 

——

 

“What a monster.”

Larra had to actually step away when she saw Griffon Hunt appear. Barnethei had found her and whispered what Erin had done. She stood there, shaking her head.

And trying not to let her own hands shake. It was an irrational feeling, but—

“Larra? Is everything cordial?”

“She’s perfectly friendly—but she’s a monster. She hit Level 40 so fast no one saw her coming. Where did she come from? That was deliberate as well.”

Larra whispered back. The [Vice Innkeeper] glanced at Griffon Hunt.

“Should I prepare the welcoming team?”

“Do that. Are you scoping out Liscor?”

“I’ve already sent someone to get all the new things, and I’ve surveyed the inn’s staff—those that you don’t see here.”

“Anyone you want? Be polite, Barnethei.”

He smiled at her reproving look. He was as ambitious as Larra was not these days. It felt, sometimes, like she had a wolf on the leash, and he wanted to run free. But both of them knew—not yet.

Even so, he was preparing for it.

“Just one. The [Princess] is a bad idea—”

“Definitely.”

“—and the rest of the staff are either new, quit, or don’t have much of a spark. But there is one of them I want badly enough to offer him whatever he wants.”

“Make your offer then, but don’t be surprised if Erin comes after you. I need to meet an [Emperor]. Oh—and keep an eye on Deni and the others. Colth knows how to play nice, and Mihaela’s somehow the most professional person here, but we are friends. Allies at least. Oh, and get the inn moving again. It’s a long road from Invrisil to Liscor.”

“Completely heard and understood, Larra. I’ll keep an eye out.”

The Haven nodded, and they broke up. Erin was more than Larra had expected. But the adventurers could be a handful as well. When they got up to mischief, no one could tell what happened next.

 

——

 

Deniusth washed his hands vigorously at one of the Haven’s sinks. The beauty of this inn was that it had plumbing. He envisioned this ‘Wandering Inn’, which he had been told was one of the better ones in the region.

From his brief look in, it was a world apart. But then—these new lands would be even more rugged.

Another adventurer joined him at the sink. Which meant he’d also probably been shaking hands with the Goblin.

“On our best behavior, Deni?”

The tone was a bit too familiar because this wasn’t Colth or Mihaela. But Captain Jolrak of the Salt Reavers was a good Gold-ranker. One of many coming south, so Deniusth let it slide. But he interjected some coolness into his reply.

Larra asked it of us. When the Haven asks a favor, adventurers answer. Best foot forwards with this Erin Solstice. Besides—she’s clearly important. Is that an [Emperor] out there or am I just hearing the gossip wrong?”

His ears were very good. Captain Jolrak shook his head, but not in denial.

“Not there, there, but apparently the [Innkeeper]—not the Haven—opened up a door all the way to Riverfarm. Now everyone wants to meet an [Emperor], and they’re getting ready for formal introductions.”

How many oddities did this [Innkeeper] have? Larra was a force herself, but she wasn’t as…spontaneous. Anyways, Deniusth hurried outside to see Larra and Erin Solstice whispering together.

“Yeah, he’s an [Emperor]. I forgot. You get Griffon Hunt, and he’s gotta do formal…stuff.”

“You mean, introduce himself to Liscor, Invrisil, and all the cities you have now connected? There is a route from Pallass to Riverfarm via your inn.

“Yep?”

Erin gave Larra a blank look. The older [Innkeeper] opened her mouth, then exhaled.

“It must be nice to be so young.”

The [Magical Innkeeper] chuckled, and her eyes swung to Deniusth and then to the other adventurers.

“Well, look who’s talking. You just brought the best adventurers of the north into Drake lands. Or you’re gonna, via me.”

Deniusth paused as he dried his hands on a handkerchief. Larra raised her eyebrows, and the two [Innkeepers] regarded each other.

“I suppose I deserve that. Well, will you give me some hints on how to meet this [Emperor]? Barnethei, come over here. We’ll have to deal with that.”

“Sounds great. I’ll just—hey. Wait. Me too?”

Erin tried to edge away, but Larra took hold of her arm and towed Erin back. The [Innkeeper] would have run, but Lyonette seized the other arm, and Erin groaned as she saw someone storming towards the Haven. Lism and the Council, followed by—

The consequences! It happened to me at last! Mrsha! Learn from my mistakes. Mrshaaaaa—”

Erin let her voice trail off and pretended to sink into a crowd of people who were varying degrees of upset with her. Deni turned and saw a little Gnoll girl give Erin Solstice a somber salute.

“…Even the children here are weird.”

“No, that’s about par for the course. You just don’t see kids that much.”

Colth reappeared, having shaken every single person’s hand in existence. Deniusth glanced at him and grunted. The two Goblins were chattering to each other, and the newer adventurers from the south were swapping stories. But now that the pleasantries were over, Deniusth had one pressing question.

“Say—Byres.”

He found Ylawes Byres, and the Captain turned to him. They shook hands—again—and Deniusth gestured to The Wandering Inn, whose portal door was now surrounded by people entering and leaving. Erin Solstice was shouting.

“Hey! Stop hopping through! I’ve got…fifty-one more transits, then it’s down for two hours! Everybody freeze! Say, this is so neat. I can tell exactly how many people I can transport left.”

“…Some inn, huh?”

“It grows on you, Sir Deniusth.”

Ylawes smiled weakly. The Named-rank waved that off.

“Don’t do the lordship thing with me, Captain Ylawes. That’s old news. Five Families are the only ones who matter, so Eldertuin is the only real [Lord] about with a pedigree. Tell me, adventurer to adventurer—what kind of amenities does Liscor have?”

All the adventurers not following Erin to meet this [Emperor] looked about. Now they got to the real meat of why The Wandering Inn—and Liscor—were so valuable. After all—they were all headed to the new lands.

“I would have thought you had all the supplies you needed from First Landing.”

Ylawes seemed as surprised by the question as the other adventurers. Colth clarified with a big smile.

“Oh, goods, sure. Food? Larra the Haven’s got enough for anything regular, but we’re headed into the wilds. First Landing has a lot of rare items from abroad, but it’s not an adventuring city, if that makes sense. There are things you can only get for a reasonable price by heading abroad or by finding cities that manufacture the goods. I bet Invrisil doesn’t have that problem, so we’ll hit those markets.”

“So not potions?”

Ylawes scratched his chin, and Deni tried to clarify.

Unique potions we wouldn’t be able to get at First Landing. Any high-level [Alchemists]—First Landing has some, but their best goods are often not for adventurers and are snapped up. Any artisans, rare items—even high-quality rope.”

“Rope?”

It was an interesting paradox with the north and south. The closer to established civilization you came—the less unique and useful items appeared for adventurers.

Oh, you could get good rope that [Sailors] used or high-quality stuff anywhere there was flax or hemp. Or enchanted rope—but if you wanted, say, silk rope that was ideal for some kinds of climbing, you always poked around local cities.

Deni wasn’t actually a specialist, but Colth was. Ylawes…was not.

“The Silver Swords tend to make do with whatever gear we can scrounge. But—Yvlon—this is my sister, Yvlon Byres.”

“Ah, the one who killed an Adult Creler.”

Deni glanced at her arms, which were a sight, and she shook his hand very gingerly. He would have loved to ask questions about that, but it had to be a sensitive subject.

“Yes, Ylawes? Pleased to meet you, Captain Deniusth.”

“Does Liscor have unique amenities for sale? I’m thinking of Pallass and Maughin—Xif and Saliss—what does Liscor have?”

Yvlon frowned, but she knew more than her brother and began rattling off items. At first, Deniusth’s heart sank.

“Well, Liscor does have Shield Spider parts in quantity. It’s cheap gear Silver and Bronze-ranks use. Their thread has never been harnessed that I know of. They have…a local [Alchemist], Octavia, who does reasonably priced potions in her shop at The Wandering Inn. It’s literally connected to the common room.”

“That must be a fire-hazard.”

Another adventurer joked. More were coming over to listen, but Deniusth’s smile grew strained. Reasonably priced potions?

It didn’t seem to occur to the other adventurers that they were Named-ranks. Colth was taking notes and asking questions about this [Alchemist]’s level, but Deniusth was just about to find his teammate, Terra, and get her to take notes when Yvlon said something interesting.

“For unique gear…I’d say you’re looking at the Yoldenites, acid jars, and Master Pelt, but the last one isn’t going to make much gear unless he’s in a good mood. Oh, and Kevin’s bicycles, maybe?”

“Hm? What was that about acid jars?”

The Named-rank swung around warily, and to his mild horror, Yvlon Byres actually found the Antinium and he produced a green jar of glowing acid.

“We are armed with eight of them, Comrade Yvlon.”

“Please tell me you keep them all in a bag of holding, Ksmvr?”

“And on the windowsill. They provide a very beautiful nighttime glow.”

Even Yvlon blanched, but then she was showing the jars around.

“Oh, and Erin does magical cooking. Bulkup Bisque she calls it and another meal that makes your skin tougher. I think she has a few more like Mana Candies—Ceria, got any Mana Candies?”

“I do.”

Revi, one of the adventurers of Griffon Hunt, had actually been snacking on them. Erin had given a bunch to the team, and the [Mages] crowded around.

“Magical food that replaces potions? Acid jars? How fast does it melt skin?”

“Seconds.”

Deniusth held the jar away from him as Colth whistled.

“That inn’s loaded with gear for Silver-ranks. No wonder the adventuring scene has taken off—even Gold-ranks must love the inn.”

“The door especially.”

Eldertuin agreed, but Deniusth scowled.

“Master Pelt’s the person for our team to visit—although we’re relatively good on weapons. Orchestra uses musical instruments. Perhaps he could make a custom horn for Gores?”

He indicated the other Named-rank on his team, Gores, and the younger man nodded. Aside from that—Deniusth was mildly disappointed. And at least a few adventurers noticed.

 

——

 

Ceria Springwalker wondered what she would have felt like meeting all these famous names a year or two ago. If she were still in the original Horns with Calruz—she just bet he’d be half blustering, half trying to impress or compete with the Named-ranks.

Herself, she felt different, and the circlet had to be part of it. Even Pisces was watching Deniusth with a kind of awe as he excused himself.

A gold-bell duelist. Ceria had heard that the Violinist could use his bow like a sword and that Orchestra had a powerful combined attack that often led them to fight monster swarms. Eldertuin had personally helped out her team at the Village of the Dead, and she liked him a lot. He was the solid, reliable Named-rank that had contrasted with Elia Arcsinger at the time.

And he was still a contrast to some of the adventurers, who Ceria thought were full of shit. Or at least—they seemed to be looking for magical items and artifacts where Erin sold acid at rock-bottom prices.

They were, Ceria realized, perhaps not arrogant intentionally, but just on another rank than the Horns and other Gold-ranks. And what that rank was—if not just levels—was economy.

“I’ve replaced most of my gear with magical items for armor. It’s very tough keeping the magical interference down—you either have to spend a fortune on something top-end or keep replacing each item and making sure it can fit your equipment. How do you budget in the Silver Swords?”

A [Mage], a Dullahan, surprisingly, was speaking to Falene and Ceria. She had robes but armor underneath, a magical belt, amulet, earring—Ceria and Falene eyed the adventurer.

“The Silver Swords, ah, aren’t as financially successful all the time. We tend to be given an odd assortment of gifts.”

“Really? Maybe you should work around First Landing for a year or two if you want just gold—nothing like cleaning out a noble’s backyard for a few thousand easy gold pieces.”

The other [Mage] had literally hit her magical interference limit with how many magical items she had on. Ceria imagined that even if you hit her with an arrow, her gear would protect her from the first…three. Even in the head.

That was a lot of extra security for a Gold or Named-rank—but even the ones like Deniusth, Colth, and Eldertuin only had one Relic-class item at most. If that.

In Eldertuin’s case, it was his tower shield, a gift from the Terlands. It made his already-formidable defensive Skills better.

The irony to Ceria was this: while her team could always use more gold and artifacts and were undergeared compared to their counterparts, the newcomers had less to gain from Liscor and even Invrisil and Pallass’ markets. Half of them immediately began heading for Erin’s door in hopes of gaining Pelt’s attention.

“…Fat lot of luck they’ll have with that.”

Ceria muttered with amusement to Falene as the Dullahan [Mage] hurried after her team—she was part of Eldertuin’s group, Gold-ranks who supported the two Named-rank leaders.

She thought Falene would make some kind of snippy comeback, but to her mild surprise, the half-Elf rolled her eyes and adjusted her glasses.

“They are the famous northern teams. Not many adventure in the south for a reason. Half would be more likely to take a Terandrian contract than head all the way down to Celum.”

That only mildly surprised Ceria. These were not teams who raced ahead of the pack normally. They had already made their fortunes.

“I’m just surprised Orchestra is still adventuring. They are the team who got part of that four million gold bounty, right? Lord Deniusth—why’s he want to adventure?”

“Purely boredom, Captain Ceria. He retired—then came back—then retired—but I think he gets bored performing in the north. Don’t hold it against him. His team fought the Kraken Eater tribe when they raided a city, and he took that wound against their Chieftain.”

Ceria and Falene jumped, and Colth the Supporter appeared. Falene instantly nodded at him, and Ceria smiled warily.

“And you, Colth?”

He grinned at her.

“I’m young. I still can’t settle down, and I’ve tried.”

Wasn’t he one of Izril’s most famous bachelors? Ceria knew at least three famous [Ladies] had publicly been entangled with him. He certainly seemed more genuine than Deniusth, but Ceria wondered.

…Well, she appreciated the insight, and Colth nodded to the staff of the Haven circulating with drinks.

“Larra’s got refreshments out. Can I get you two anything? You might not know this but she has half-Elven wines, even.”

Really?

Both Ceria and Falene were instantly interested, and Colth spoke to one of the servers, who went into the back and came out with a genuine vintage.

“Berry wine straight from Gaiil-Drome.”

Falene rolled her eyes, and Ceria nudged her.

“Hey, it’s from home.”

“Not a fan?”

“Oh, no. It’s just one of the villages—”

Falene took a sip and found it quite enjoyable, and Ceria snorted as she took a sip as well. The taste was very light to many sensibilities, but it grew on you the more you waited before swallowing.

“Falene’s actually from Gaiil-Drome, so she has standards about wine from our people. This is what you’d call the rural stuff. Me? Anything from home is too rare to complain about.”

“Does the Village of Springwater have a wine?”

Ceria laughed.

“We have a few half-Elves who’ve ‘practiced’ for a hundred years, but they refuse to bottle it. Real old-time half-Elf villages never sell vintages. The traders come by too often—by which they mean every few months. Practically every day.”

She and Falene laughed. Colth grinned.

“Well, I have heard that’s how the old villages work. I’ve always wanted to visit, but the few times I’ve been on Terandria, I didn’t have anyone to introduce me.”

“Yeah, you’d need someone who came from a nearby village or that place to get in. Even for a Named-rank. And there aren’t that many half-Elves in the adventuring scene, even in Terandria. How many have you met?”

Colth counted.

“…About a hundred and five. Above Silver-rank, obviously.”

Ceria choked on her drink.

“What, really?

He grinned like he was younger than they were—which he was—but like he was some Silver-rank scamp.

“I get around. I adventure with other teams, remember? And I have a great memory. I have to, in my class. By the by, I also noticed that a lot of half-Elves at higher ranks here are female. There’s Falene Skystrall, Ceria Springwalker, Elia Arcsinger and her daughter…”

Falene blushed and waved away the compliment, but Ceria’s eyes lit up, and she smiled impishly.

“Oh, that? Well—most half-Elves who make it to high-ranks are female. The male ones just don’t make it. Hazard of the job.”

“…How’s that?”

Falene frowned as a few adventurers turned to Ceria. The half-Elf’s ears lowered, and she whispered somberly.

“Fame. Oh, we’ve got Archmages Eldavin and Feor, but they have access to high-grade magic, and you know [Mages]. Most adventurers? Gold and Named-ranks? Half-Elves live a long time…but disease cuts us down. I couldn’t tell you how many venereal diseases famous Named-ranks have. Tragic. That’s what happens when you’re so famous.”

She looked sadly to the side, and a few adventurers made a face of horror and disgust. Falene hesitated. She narrowed her eyes and whispered.

“That’s not true.”

Ceria laughed, and Colth’s eyes lit up. She watched the other adventurers talking, and the [Supporter] slapped one leg.

“Ceria, this is going to catch up with you someday.”

“It hasn’t so far.”

The half-Elf merrily took a gulp of wine. It was her newest hobby to do this kind of thing, and so far—the consequences hadn’t landed on her.

Tong.

She froze, goblet raised, as she heard a sound in her head. Neither Colth nor Falene seemed to have heard it—but Ceria heard a loud sound that was entirely non-natural in her head. She looked around—but she didn’t know if the circlet had caused it.

That…might not be so good. What was that?

While Ceria glanced around, Colth was speaking.

“…love to join the Horns on an adventure. Or the Silver Swords. Your Dwarf companion, Dawil, is a master [Axe Thrower]?”

“[Axe Champion]—he’s got an odd story behind the class. I’m sure Ylawes would welcome you on an expedition.”

“Just let me know. If I’m free, I’ll join for an equal share of whatever you get.”

Ceria and Falene smiled politely, but Colth glanced at their faces.

“I mean it. Ask around. If I’m free and it’s not crazy—send me a note and call me up. If you’re up against a dangerous monster, need someone with auxiliary Skills—it’s a benefit to me, too. Especially the Horns, frankly. I haven’t partied with a [Necromancer] or Antinium, and that will be a valuable insight to my class.”

“Really? How does [Supporter] work?”

Ceria nibbled on some of the free bread—it was mostly flatbreads—as Colth gestured to a table. Barnethei was whispering to one of his staff, and Ceria noticed the flamboyant [Innkeeper].

“…baking powder, Amentus fruits—we’ll test them for poison—these matches, and any other local goods. Once we can bake it, Larra wants her Skill to produce the fluffier breads.”

He handed the staff member a bag of gold. Ceria’s ears perked up. Well, the Haven wanted all of The Wandering Inn’s advancements, eh?

Colth had heard it too. He made a little note to himself.

“Baking powder. That’s right, you have matches. I wanted some of those firestarters.”

“Can’t you use a magic wand?”

Ceria expected him to have all the gear he needed, but Colth just smiled.

“Deni’s team and I might be able to afford it, but Silver-rank teams would love something faster than flint and steel. Plus—if you need a light and there’s a magical monster about, you don’t want to give it a clue.”

Now that was a level of preparedness the [Mages] respected. Falene looked impressed.

“Do you actually prepare to that extent?”

“If I know the monsters are magical, of course. I’ve gone to House Byres more times than I can count for silver-tipped weapons, and starting a fire is the easiest way to smoke a lot of monsters out. A [Supporter] needs to know these things. And like I said—the more people we support, the better.”

“Ah, so a [Necromancer] empowers your class? Is that secret?”

Colth shook his head.

“Not at all. It’s something I’m quite open about—once I journey with someone of another class, I can pick up some of their class Skills.”

Really? Impossible.”

Colth raised his hands.

“It’s not as convenient as it sounds. I have to practice magic—I picked up instruments from Deni, and I try to learn new trades as I go. Tailoring—difficult, but I spent a few years learning the basics. Spellcasting is the hardest. If I’m in a group, actively casting with you two, I can cast a spell like I were a [Mage] twenty levels lower than my [Supporter] class. If I’m not partying with Pisces? I’d be able to cast about forty levels lower. So, a Level 6 [Necromancer].”

Which meant he was claiming his level was…Ceria blinked. Falene frowned.

“That doesn’t sound…too useful, I must admit.”

“Ah, but animating a skeleton even at Level 6 could be very situationally useful. And having a backup caster at Level 26 is useful too. Combat classes—I can pull good Skills. In fact, I’m always searching for someone with a good, low-level Skill to complete my build.”

“Your what?”

Colth pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Ceria and Falene.

“My classes and Skills. I’ve organized them—I can choose which ones I use, so I configure it. This is my go-to arrangement, but I’ll change them up for magic or stealth as needed.”

Ceria stared down at the strangest thing she’d ever seen. It was…a list of Skills, spells, and other notes about Colth.

Warrior Skills: [Basic Footwork], [Survivalcraft], [Improved Parry], [Evasive Roll]…

Tier 1 Spells: [Stone Shard], [Arrow of Light], [Flareburst], [Detect Magic]…

He had it all noted down, and Ceria felt like she was reading something intimate—yet Colth’s class let him choose.

Colth. Are you showing them your stupid adventuring sheet? Stop harassing the others.”

Mihaela caught sight of Colth and shouted, but the [Supporter] protested.

“It works! They don’t appreciate it.”

“This is…amazing. It’s almost like I can picture you fighting. You could put this in one of those Adventuring Rooms that Wistram’s come out with. Or those games the E—the children were talking about.”

Colth’s eyes lit up as Falene murmured. She was somewhat aghast, but he—

“You know, I’ve thought about that! If you can write down someone’s Skills and talents, why not make a game of it?”

Colth! I swear, you’re not starting this again. Colth!

Mihaela and his friends were shouting insults at him. Ceria grinned as a certain Kevin turned his head, and his eyes lit up. If only Leon and Troy were here to hear this!

“A game?”

The [Supporter] nodded sadly. He jerked a thumb at Mihaela.

“Larra’s banned me from trying it. But I had rules and numbers to represent combat. Actually, I do it for adventurers too, but privately. But in this game, you’d have numbers to represent how good you were at, say, swinging a sword. So if you hit someone, you’d calculate that against how good a monster was at defending or how tough its scales were. I didn’t really have it down—and Named-rank adventurers get touchy when they fail to stab a Creler and get eaten.”

He rolled his eyes.

“I call it—Havens and Havoc. For Larra. I was even going to have a full game made. With little pieces and maps for kids to play. But I couldn’t figure out how to do combat or the rest without it being arguing over whether you’d hit someone or not. I had these cards—”

“You need dice, dude. Twenty-sided dice.”

Kevin sat down at the table. Colth’s head turned, and the Named-rank adventurer blinked.

“Who’re you?”

“I’m Kevin. Hey. Just wanted to say dice is the way to go. I’m not an expert, but twenty sides on a die, a hundred—and then you roll for damage and stuff. Cast the lightning bolt!”

Kevin winked at Ceria, who gave him a knowing look. Colth blinked.

“A twenty-sided die? Can you even make one? But…oh, I get it.”

Who was worse, Kevin or Erin? He winked as Ceria snorted. She ran her eyes down Colth’s list. The [Supporter]’s eyes lit up, and then he sighed.

“Where were you eight years ago? If I’d put in dice, figures…”

“What happened to the game? I imagine it had a shot.”

Colth gave Ceria and Falene a woebegone smile.

“Oh, I put gold into the project, and I had it all going well. Then I found a backer. Maviola of the House of El.”

He spread his hands and threw them up.

“Poof. It wasn’t even her fault. But half the [Traders] heard House El was backing it and decided it wasn’t worth the investment. That’s reputation for you. At least Valeterisa’s projects are making money. You want to talk about bad investments—she’s always been eating Larra’s bread for free. Come to that—Viecel’s adventuring because of the money too.”

The Selphid [Gambler]? Ceria glanced at him.

“Is it the gambling?”

“Partly. He also has about eleven children he’s raising across the world. Anyways, you two want my help? Just let me know. It’s also good for me to know a team’s specialty. Sometimes I might connect a team to another that needs a good group of trackers, for instance.”

He nodded to Griffon Hunt. Ceria smiled and thanked him. The [Supporter] smiled at her as he stood.

 

——

 

The world according to Colth was far more analytical than not. He could—or at least, he tried to—pin a value on people’s abilities.

Whether or not that worked was debatable, and Mihaela would kick him if he did it around her, but Colth believed that there was some merit to reducing people’s abilities to numbers.

After all—a number could be used in a calculation. And wasn’t that similar to someone’s gut instinct if you could win a battle or not?

His number-theory had made some people’s fortunes, and so he often ran the simulation in his head. With that young man’s tip, Colth now thought it made sense. There was randomness in everything. So…for instance, how would you rate that little Gnoll girl’s attempts to steal from Deniusth?

 

Stealing Check: 13 (random: 5, he turned his head as she was reaching up over the table + 2 concealment + 4 [Natural Concealment] + 2 agility. Dexterity?)

Target Check: 33 (random: 15, looking her way + 9 dexterity + 3 fencer’s gloves + 6 [Flash Hands])

 

The end result was that the girl, Mrsha, put her paw on the plate of honey bread as Deniusth stared at her. She tried to snatch it and ran, crowing, with an empty…plate…in her paws. The Violinist took a bite from the bread as Mrsha the Slow stared at him and slunk away.

Well, you couldn’t reduce the world to numbers. There was always an unforeseen variable, but it was fun. Speaking of which—Colth got up to do the other thing adventurers loved doing, especially veterans to new ones.

Pump them for valuable information. And if he could have seen an invisible roll in the skies, he would have realized there was at least one odd variable going on.

 

——

 

“So, tell us about this dungeon in Liscor. And Albez—any other big dungeons about? Come on, Jelaqua, Ulinde, help a fellow Selphid out.”

The Halfseekers fell silent as Viecel brought up the topic. He was smiling at Jelaqua and Ulinde, who looked intimidated and gratified that their senior Selphid knew them.

“You want to ask us for advice, Adventurer Viecel?”

Ulinde squeaked. But Viecel just winked.

“Jelaqua’s a senior adventurer. I’m just sorry we never seemed to meet—I was in Baleros a lot, but I definitely know of her. It’s a long route to the new lands—anything worth seeing before that? Deni, you want to take a stroll in Liscor’s dungeon?”

“Pass. I’ve had enough dungeons for a lifetime. I made my fortune there—I’m after more in the new lands than a hole to wander around in.”

The Violinist waved his hand, and Yvlon interjected seriously.

“The dungeon in Liscor is no joke. It may have been cleared of a lot of traps, but there’s at least one monster that’s Gold-rank or above. It nearly killed Xrn the Small Queen, and it’s still roaming.”

All the adventurers looked up. Viecel’s smile turned serious.

“I heard about that. But I heard it was a [Witch]…what monster?”

Numbtongue started, and Rags turned from surveying the inn, because she knew it too, at least, from Badarrow’s stories.

Facestealer. Mrsha shivered, and Deniusth noticed. He swung himself up and offered her his violin’s bow. When she grabbed it, he hoisted her up onto the table.

“There’s a dungeon boss monster on the loose and no one’s hunted it down? Seriously?”

Mrsha blinked as Orchestra surrounded her—and then began to feed her snacks.

“Such a cute girl!”

Some of them had families, and Mrsha squirmed as they tried to pat her on the head. Help! I’m surrounded by old, affectionate people! Help!

“Boss monster?”

Ksmvr tilted his head, but this was adventurer jargon.

“Dungeon bosses. The biggest, baddest monster, sometimes the leader or head of the pack. There is usually one or two—how bad is this one?”

“It’s gotten Gold-ranks. And it paralyzes everything that gets near it. I don’t know…we never went up against it ourselves, but we’ve heard stories. It lurks around corners with a bunch of severed heads on sticks.”

“Dead fucking gods. An intelligent one lurking in—how big is this dungeon?”

Some of the Gold-rank teams from the north lost their appetite for Liscor’s dungeon just hearing about Facestealer. Others wanted to know if it was really ‘that’ tough. Ceria…

 

Intelligence Check: 26 (random: 6 + 4 memory + 3 lore + 13 combined intelligence)

Target Check: ??

 

Scratched at her head. Yvlon shook hers.

 

Intelligence Check: 27 (random: 18 + 4 memory + 4 lore + 1 specific intelligence)

Target Check: ??, check impossible.

 

…If you were still representing it as Colth thought of things. Something about Ceria made the [Supporter] curious. He kept glancing at her. He had no idea what it was, but his instincts told him that she was, even among the adventurers here—

Promising. So he was inclined to listen to the Horns’ perspective. Then again, he also had a strong feeling about a number of adventurers present.

Colth could be considered to be a kind of talent scout on par with the best [Generals] and [Trainers], even if that wasn’t his exact class. A lot of the adventurers present were the real deal in his mind. Character and natural ability made up a successful adventurer, and they’d survived a lot.

Anyways. The adventurers looked at each other until one of them, arms folded, spoke.

“If you want an actual expert who’s run into it before—ask Numbtongue.”

Halrac the Grim glanced over, and the [Bard]’s head rose as everyone turned to stare at him. Numbtongue blinked—and then realized, yes. Even compared to the Flamewardens and Bevussa’s Wings of Pallass—he and his brothers had gone down into the dungeon and seen more of it than any but Ceria.

“You actually ran into that monster and lived? How?”

Deniusth was mildly incredulous, but Numbtongue shrugged.

“Luck. Trapped it in a trap room.”

Oho.

Nothing would do but for Numbtongue to repeat the story he’d once told about surviving the dungeon and getting treasure from one of the rooms. He told it well, and even Erin’s guests were surprised—they hadn’t heard all of it before.

“Wait. Wait. That thing was melted by acid and what sounds like dozens of Tier 4-5 spells and then broke a trap room? That’s…not right.”

One of the Gold-ranks didn’t believe Numbtongue at all, but Garia Strongheart broke in.

“It did. I saw it when Belavierr was here—it attacked Xrn, and her head opened and…melted part of it. Straight into the bone. But it still survived.”

“…Okay, it’s a Named-rank boss that stalks a dungeon on its own territory. And you lot haven’t tried to trap it? Then again—if these Raskghar didn’t and the Antinium couldn’t—damn. That’s some monster. I wouldn’t want to live near Liscor with that thing around.”

“They have precautions. But yeah.”

The Horns shivered, but Ceria raised a hand reluctantly. Her mind flashed back to the time when she had met Calruz in the darkness, and she shivered.

 

Intelligence Check: 31 (random: 10 + 5 memory + 3 lore + 13 combined intelligence)

Target Check: ??

 

“…I have to break it to you all, but that isn’t the boss of the dungeon. Not even close. That Facestealer is one of three sub-guardians, and the real monster is way deeper down.”

Keldrass, Bevussa, and the other teams who’d made a history of going into the dungeon turned. Eldertuin’s brows rose.

“And you know this how?”

“Skinner and Facestealer were part of a trio. Along with another one that’s dead. Well—that means one’s left, and they were all guarding the real center of the dungeon. Along with other monsters like those suits of enchanted armor and Crypt Worms.”

Ceria remembered the inner city, and the other adventurers listened to her tale of screaming fleshy monsters in that ruined city that even the Raskghar wouldn’t enter. An entire tribe of them under Calruz had failed to reach the hole in the center.

“…Well. That’s a Vengeance Dungeon if ever I’ve heard one.”

Colth remarked slowly. Eldertuin nodded.

“No wonder you tried the Village of the Dead. That dungeon…sounds no less nasty in its way. And Liscor is keeping it contained?”

“The monsters either have to go through a series of trapped rooms or a hole in the ground. Liscor’s been building defenses around it, but the truth is that most of the monster attacks that hit Liscor came from there. I think they killed a lot of what was likely to come out. Plus, adventurers have fortified the area, so it’s harder for a swarm to emerge.”

“Nasty. Well, I’m not going down there.”

One Gold-rank Captain shuddered. Another shook her head. Ceria closed her eyes and remembered that dark time—but it was over. And she agreed. There was nothing more down there.

 

Intelligence Check: 24 (random: 2 + 6 memory + 3 lore + 13 combined intelligence)

Target Check: ??

 

“Let’s do the Ruins of Albez instead. I know it’s empty, but a team just found some treasure there—wait a second. It was you!

The Horns were again the center of attention. Pisces brushed at his hair as the other adventurers talked enviously—until someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Say. You wouldn’t happen to have that map you used to scout the ruins of Albez, would you? Where did you get that information?”

“Ah—the Free Hive had a map in their possession, and Ksmvr, apparently, gained hold of it.”

Pisces nodded to Ksmvr, and the Antinium clarified.

“As a matter of fact, Pisces, it was Olesm who had it from Prognugator Klbkch.”

Ceria remembered that. She still felt vaguely bad about letting Olesm down—and in hindsight, he’d been robbed of a fortune. Then again—Yvlon rubbed at her arms.

“That was another adventure with some high costs. We ran into a series of traps and a Flame Elemental.”

“Nasty. But—do you have that map by any chance? Because I’d love to buy it or look at it.”

Colth’s eyes lit up as Pisces frowned at him. The [Necromancer] absently began to dig through his bag of holding. Ceria glanced at Colth as she felt a prickle of…insight.

“Why’s that?”

The Named-rank adventurer saw Pisces produce a roll of parchment and elbowed Deniusth hard in the side as the Violinist suddenly left his seat. He looked at the Horns seriously.

“Because…if you found one hidden vault in Albez, who’s to say there isn’t another? Did you ever check that original map for hidden text? Enchanted writing?”

The Horns looked at each other as every adventurer sat up and a burn of excitement ran through their veins. Pisces froze with the map in his hand.

“We cross-referenced it with older maps, I believe…”

He turned to Ceria and Yvlon for confirmation, and Yvlon’s eyes flickered.

“Yeah, I went to the Adventurer’s Guild and bought some of the treasure maps on offer. They had pretty thorough records if you wanted to pay for it—it’s been tapped for ages, so even the best [Treasure Hunters] sold their findings.”

“But that means there might be a room that you could have missed or—you have a map. Actual blueprints. All they had were the ruins. Hey, let me look at that map, and I’ll pay you for your time. If we find anything…I’ll give you a cut of what I get. How about it?”

Deniusth reached for the scroll, but Colth elbowed him hard.

“You’re done with dungeoning, Deni. And you’re old. See? You can barely stand.”

He’d gotten the other man in the liver, and Deni doubled over.

“I’ll pay a fee to look—”

“No, let us look. Hey, Horns, you want a favor? One favor—you name it. You want to hit another Adult Creler, we’re with you. It might not have anything anyways.”

Pisces was backing up, holding the scroll, but half the adventurers weren’t even looking at him. One group was just glancing at the sun.

“…Can’t we get to Celum from that other inn? How far away is Albez?”

They began to stroll off…and then walk and then run as other teams decided this was a fine idea.

“Albez is long empty. The odds of finding anything are minute!”

Keldrass snorted some smoke, but his eyes were on the scroll. Ceria felt like kicking herself. All this time. All this time and they had never gone back!

Then again—Albez had been traumatic, for Yvlon especially. But could Warmage Thresk have had a second armory? Was he the only one who…

“Come on, Pisces. Be a friend and share it. Your team’s already gotten the Village of the Dead raid and Albez. There’s a limit to luckiness!”

The other adventurers were pressuring the [Necromancer] hard. He was refusing, but Ceria saw more than one [Rogue] doing something to the air. She was reminded of [Secretaries] and all the powerful Skills—and Pisces wasn’t warded. One snatched a bit of foolscap up and began to draw as Yvlon noticed and cursed.

“Hey, you—”

Seborn grabbed, but the [Rogue], a half-Elf who looked barely fourteen, did a backflip away.

Come on, guys!

His team began to race away, and Viecel cursed.

“Well, that’s torn it. Let’s share, and I’ll split what I find. Come on—”

Pisces was looking outraged at the other teams running for the door. He began to run after them and Yvlon was doing likewise when Ceria…

Had a thought.

 

Intelligence Check: 41 (random: 18 + 7 memory + 3 lore + 13 combined intelligence)

Target Check: 40.

 

“—Pisces, we’re already in trouble. Let’s share the scroll. For a cut of whatever any team finds.”

She spoke suddenly, and the [Necromancer] looked up. His outrage turned to resignation as she nodded to the other teams.

“Thank you, Captain Ceria, for some sense! Already—oh, look at this. Is there any [Spymaster] in Invrisil? We need to treat the paper—I bet if there was any magic it’s more complex than [Detect Magic]. But these rooms—Albez has shifted, but we could properly check this.”

Deni, Viecel, even Eldertuin and teams like Jelaqua’s were all over the paper. They practically ran towards Invrisil, arguing over what to do first as Yvlon threw up her hands in exasperation.

“Well, there goes anything but a bit of gold! I almost hope there isn’t any treasure in Albez. Damn it, Ceria.”

She cursed, but lightly. She knew that Ceria had a point—it made no sense to hold the scroll after those [Rogues] began stealing copies. But it made her angry.

Only a few adventurers were left who refused to join the rush. Even Orchestra was heading off to find the treasure, but some were either not interested like Saliss, had a job like Tessa, or were just not inclined to join the rush like Stargazer’s Promise.

Lehra was complaining loudly, and the Named-rank was staying put.

“I’m not going to search with a hundred amateurs. That’s how you run into monsters. Besides—I already found everything I wanted in some ruins.”

Ironically, Ceria realized that Lehra, who hailed from a tribe who specialized in searching ruins, was probably the best person to search—but the Gnoll showed little interest in that.

“You don’t want to try to find something in Albez, Lehra?”

“I want to talk to Erin about her quest. Dragial wasn’t the only person looking for Mershi. Niila is still out there, and Fissival is going to be after it too. Besides—so many adventurers are going to fight over whatever they find.”

Lehra seemed fairly certain it wasn’t worth the effort. Or perhaps she had her eyes on something even greater.

Only one last person hadn’t joined that rush from the Haven—and that was surprising to Mihaela Godfrey. She had been staring at Garia, who was full of nerves—but she turned as Colth emerged from the bathrooms.

The world’s greatest [Supporter] had been listening to the entire story of Albez—and Liscor’s dungeon. While it had taken Ceria several attempts to figure something out, it was understandable. Her past felt long ago, and if you missed something once, recorrecting that error in thinking was hard.

But Colth? Colth was the universal specialist. He saw opportunities most people missed—and while any number of adventurers who’d been listening to Ceria, Numbtongue, and the others had made the same mistake, Colth had not.

He glanced at Ceria’s too-cool expression as Yvlon cursed. Ksmvr had already noticed his Captain’s odd silence.

“Captain Ceria. Is there some reason we are not heading to Albez? It occurs to me we could still have a chance at establishing mass-dominance in our hunt, especially because we know Albez.”

The Antinium’s words made Pisces and Yvlon glance up. Ceria glanced sideways at Colth, and the [Supporter] whistled and put his hands behind his head.

“…I might have some kind of an idea. Unfortunately, Adventurer Colth figured it out too and we might be in a competition. Unless we’re going to start elbowing each other for seniority? Yvlon, get over here.”

The [Armsmistress] eyed Colth, but he put up his hands.

“Now, Captain Ceria. I’ve competed with other adventurers before, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth the more vicious it gets. If what I think you and I are thinking is right—we could share. Possibly even with any other interested adventurers here. If I’m right.”

Mihaela’s ears sharpened, and the confused Horns and other adventurers looked up. Saliss blinked—then swung his head from Colth to Ceria. He put his chin in his claws.

“Hm? Hmm…”

What had they just figured out? Ceria stuck out a hand.

“It’ll be dangerous. But let’s say you get a share and we see what we get first.”

“Very fair. We’re going to need to be safe, but we have the drop on everyone headed to Albez. If we swear everyone here to secrecy—”

Ceria. Just what are you planning?”

Yvlon stuck out an accusatory finger at her friend, and the half-Elf turned—and her face turned into a huge, evil smile.

“…I just thought of something. Something we all forgot about, no, I forgot about because I’m dumb as two rocks. One rock. We’ve been leaving something extremely valuable behind from one of our adventures. Something as obvious—and potentially as lucrative—as Erin’s door.”

Her team stared at her. Erin’s door had been, unironically, the greatest treasure to come from the semi-disastrous Albez expedition. What could this be?

Everyone was thinking now of the stories that had been told. The dungeon, the crypt, Albez…Pisces muttered.

“The most obvious loss was all the artifacts that were burnt away. Could there have been something in Thresk’s armory—?”

Could they have reconstructed the magical dust? Ksmvr slapped his forehead.

The runes.

Everyone turned to him. The Antinium waved his arms.

“Captain Ceria, of course! The runes! Each one is so valuable—”

“Dead gods!”

Yvlon turned white with horror as she recalled how Earlia’s team had earned money from the dungeon.

“There’s dozens, possibly a hundred Insanity Runes we left behind! That—that’s a fortune! Ceria, do you think they’re still there? Please tell me we weren’t that stupid and forgot!”

Ceria shook her head, but not in denial.

“No, we definitely left that behind. But don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry? That’s the first place all the teams will check!”

The half-Elf nodded and her panicking team calmed down when they saw Ceria wink at them.

“Doesn’t matter. Someone clued me onto that back when I was on Chandrar. We’re good.”

They were so astonished they just stared at her for a second. Firstly because they’d been left out of the loop—and secondly because Ceria was acting like a proper captain. Yvlon’s mouth worked until she frowned.

“Wait, if it’s not that—what?”

Yvlon’s eyes were squeezed shut. She was going back to the first expedition, and her arms hurt—her heart hurt.

“Could it be…the crypt doors that Skinner came out of? The sarcophagi?”

“Nope. They’re not enchanted as far as I can tell.”

Ceria shook her head. She was thinking of something else, based on the retellings. Her circlet, her conversations with adventurers, dead gods, even Omusc the [Pillager] had made her realize what Colth, with his fresh perspective, had picked up.

One ultra-valuable thing. Just lying there in sight of all the adventurers. Saliss’ eyes narrowed. They swung to Numbtongue, Ceria, Colth—and then he snapped his claws.

“Aha. I’m smarter than you all.”

He sat back with a grin. Yvlon’s kicking foot twitched—and then stopped. She stared at the naked Drake, and her mouth became an ‘o’.

“Pisces. I have it. It’s so obvious—how did you not think of it? You, of all people!”

Pisces looked offended—and slightly paranoid. He sniffed heartily.

“Me? Why—why would I be the lone fault in our collective thinking? I am not the career adventurer here.”

“Yes, but you’re the one who’d think of this first, Pisces. You…filthy [Necromancer], you.”

Ceria and Yvlon were teasing now. Pisces stared at them, and then he felt that tingle in his head too. Wait a second. Wait…

Only Ceria had actually ever ‘seen’ what they had left behind. So naturally more people wouldn’t have had that direct link. But when you thought about it—

What did an adventurer do to earn money? Find treasure, but how many Trolls just kept jars of gold hidden in the earth? How many Crelers invested in artifacts? Dungeons contained such treasure, but there was another basic way that Relics and artifacts were generated and made.

Pallass had done the smart thing after the Wyvern attack. It was now a growing hub of high-quality leather and meat. What had Ceria seen that she had left?

Well—how about the sight a crazed Minotaur had once shown her? Deep in an infested city lay the corpse of one of the three guardians of the dungeon.

Stalker. A once-invisible beast so powerful it had not succumbed to rot. And it was still down there. Hide and all.

Pisces’ mouth fell open, and Colth rubbed his hands together. He looked around at Ceria.

“Now, how big did you say this beast was? No—first off, let’s swear everyone to secrecy. And then—let’s have a team up. Time for an adventure.”

He smiled, and Ceria bared her teeth. After all—Stalker’s corpse was in the center of the dungeon. In the most dangerous spot, where Facestealer hunted. But they had a Named-rank—Named-ranks in the area.

The question was, how would they adventure? And of course—what could go wrong?

All their encounters with Liscor’s dungeon had always gone so right, after all.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Well, after that last big chapter, I am now trying to bring us back to shorter chapters and resume edits.

…I edited two chapters so far and am going for a third. Still, I have about 30 chapters left of Volume 1, so it’s still a bit of a hill that I’ll take down piece by piece.

This is news from me. In other news, I just played and beat Ghost Song and Signalis, both horror/eldritch games that I consider a cut above regular games. Good storytelling in each. Far better than Resident Evil Village’s new DLC, which has the worst story.

Yes, I play games on my time off. I just don’t mention it. It’s my version of TWI, I think, where I destress because games don’t make me think. Finding good stories in games is, uh, rare. But I do have hope. It’s just an interesting genre of its own with tropes and bad writing and sometimes just blind spots I notice.

I’d love to do one of those video essays but I’m no expert in verbal communication and I’m busy, but I always like seeing cool projects like that. Odd Taxi, for instance, was a great TV show I watched. Cells at Work, especially the spinoff, also fun and non-taxing, non-dramatic (like, say, a House of the Dragon or the Lord of the Rings stuff which feels too involved for my time off), and I’ve been pleased by the wealth of good stuff.

Well, I had nothing else to add, so I decided to talk about fun stuff I found for a bit. Look forwards to that poll chapter—it won by one vote! Thanks, and hopefully the story continues to be entertaining. Also, skuuul. Schuul? Something like that.

 

 

[Playful Radiant Fishies] by Lanrae!

 

Frostmarrow Behemoth Upgraded by LeChatDemon!

 

Adventurer’s Haven Symbol by Kylara!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

9.23 GGGGGGGGG

(Trigger Warning: See the link here for details.)

 

Now you saw it. All the little lies added up.

The face staring back at you through the mirror changed. It might be you, that pointed nose, the irises like cat’s eye stone, light brown and sometimes piercing. A fitting stare for a dedicated student, someone who strived for excellence in her studies because she thought it mattered.

Who gave away free time, friendships, to become a better student. To gain a degree, no matter how many long rotations she worked. Coffee for blood, exhaustion for a friend.

To become a doctor. The same stare that asked whether this was all worth it. And the girl who looked so determined was not the same person the woman saw.

A stare fitting for the only [Doctor] in a continent plagued by war. Cropped hair halfway down the neck, as done by a razor, not a barber. And then you could see those eyes staring past a mask of someone else’s blood. As if all the death and slaughter had turned her into a butcher of flesh, not a practitioner of medicine.

There you are. A friend had once called her hawkish when she was focused. The face looked familiar. It seemed to be the one she’d always had, and that was Geneva Scala’s face.

But—now you knew. And you saw all the little cracks in the mirror. The warp in the glass. Was her nose always shaped like that? Perhaps the nostrils were too thin. Had she always worn her hair like that? Did she…did she used to have glasses?

Was that person in the mirror even her? Why was she smiling? Her lips curved upwards without really understanding what a smile was.

The face in the mirror shook slightly, trembling. As if the glass were water instead and she was staring into a deep, deep lake. And what was reality was unclear because she couldn’t tell. She couldn’t trust her memory of how she looked. She couldn’t trust anything.

How long had that been going on? Was she even the same Geneva Scala who’d come here, or had she…forgotten something important? The stranger stared back as her room shook and a Selphid babbled in her mind.

“No, no, nonono…”

Idis whispered as Geneva Scala stared at herself and thought of her dreams. She could no longer remember her father. She remembered, so vividly it was as if she were there, the day she had touched a body when she was nineteen. Funnily—despite being affected by whatever phenomenon that made Earthers forget their families—

Geneva couldn’t remember her father’s face. And everyone could remember they had siblings, parents, with effort. She couldn’t remember his name.

Scala? She stood there and felt the walls of the Gathering Citadel move. As if they were slithering around her, shifting like the cells of some vast being. She had known this place as a prison before.

Now, it was turning into a nightmare, and she feared it had only just begun. Again. And again…the [Doctor] closed her eyes.

Why was it so difficult? From battlefields to Talenqual, she had thought the long path of finding a balance between her calling and her life was hard enough. Then Okasha, Talenqual—to here.

She was at the bottom of a pit, and every time she felt like she was climbing, she realized she was still sinking. Now there was water pouring in, a sea of it. Geneva Scala looked around, but there was only her in the mirror.

No friends. Not even in her own skin. No one to trust.

Or if there were one—

There was just one against five. The Gathering Citadel shook once more as Selphids stood or crouched uneasily. Calectus and a squad of [Psychic Guardians] stood outside Geneva’s room, waiting for it to end.

 

——

 

The war of Minds lasted for nine hours. It was a war.

Geneva could not see it, but she felt the vast presences clashing around her. It was different than a battle of auras. This was thought and emotion waged in the air, and even a strand of it sent some Selphids into a fury—or simply knocked them out.

The physical war made the Gathering Citadel shake. Telekinesis on a scale to cause tremors. All of this was just the side-effects of the true battle.

The Second Mind had tried to reach out, past this underground fortress, to the other Minds. It, Contradiction, had levied a charge against the First and Third Minds, of breaching the Minacien Wall.

Contradiction had tried to rally the other Minds to its side. Alert the other Minds something terrible had happened here. It had moved within moments of learning the truth from Geneva’s dreams, upon barest suspicion.

The Second Mind had been too slow. It never reached its peers outside this place. When it turned for help from the other three Minds, it found none.

Five Minds battled one. They were all working together. All united in thought.

It was all a conspiracy.

Nine hours. The shaking stopped after forty-eight minutes, but the war kept raging. When Geneva was allowed out of her quarters by the third hour—she saw the Minds.

They were floating in the center of the room, locked in silent strife with the Mind in the center. The Second Mind was…twisting. It would buffet them, and ripples of force would pass across one of the other five. But it was losing.

She did not know what was being done to it. She heard nothing from it. Only a voice.

(We will speak to you tomorrow, Geneva Scala. Rest easy. The Minds will be in agreement when you wake.)

Dictum spoke. And then the horror really began, because Geneva felt as though she should have raged. Shouted, protested—defended the one friend and protector whom she respected in this place. She wanted to.

But she didn’t. And some part of Geneva, now that she was aware, the budding [Telepath], could sense this. Like a half-asleep prisoner in her own head, and she had been one so long in body, she felt herself getting tired.

Her whirling thoughts slowed, like a laundry machine suddenly out of power.

S-should I t-take her to her rooms, Minds?

Idis stuttered with Geneva’s mouth. The Minds pulsed. Five voices spoke, sounding strained.

(Yes. Go.)

Even her Selphid was disturbed. Even the other Selphids who escorted her to her rooms looked—Geneva Scala stumbled forwards despite Idis controlling her. She tried not to. But she was already…trying not to…

Sleep. For in her dreams, there was nothing deeply unpleasant. Just dead bodies. Just memories.

But they were not hers. So who dreamed? Geneva—or whoever she was becoming?

 

——

 

Niers Astoragon hurried. He had only a single note to go off of. Only suspicions and clever tricks to even assume Geneva was in the right place.

It was like playing an entire game of chess blindfolded or with a curtain between you and the chess board. When the curtain fell—you hoped every piece was as you imagined it.

They never were. Not in war. And the stakes…

They were higher this time.

He had been too slow of late. Too slow, too incompetent. This time, he moved as fast as he dared. But even he could not move mountains with his mind alone. And knowing his opponents’ might—he had to make sure he was ready.

“Have you found them? Foliana, you’re staying.”

“No I’m not.”

“You’re cut up and still healing, no matter if the curse is broken. I need full-bodied people I can back up—and you’ll be a liability, even as a [Rogue], if they grab you. You’re staying. Besides, I need you to pretend I’m on the front. Have a body double—one of the Tallguard. If I don’t come back, melt the region.”

She didn’t object after that. The Titan of Baleros couldn’t afford to move with her anyways. Where he was going, stealth and speed were both too hard for someone of Foliana’s size.

He paid a visit to one of the Fraerling settlements.

 

——

 

It was an honor, even for the Titan, to be granted admission to a Fraerling settlement he had not known the location of. He knew the name, of course. Most of the big ones were known to other Fraerlings by name, even if they were hidden.

This one was called Itelloi. It was nothing like Paeth. Itelloi Under Shadows might never be found by Tallfolk. They had traded the danger of Tallfolk finding them like a tree in a forest for other threats.

Like whatever burrowed. And there were thousands of that kind of threat. They faced difficulty importing food, and their home was no tree.

It had been a giant egg of some insect. Itelloi was too clever to make the walls out of cellulose and chitin—they had replaced most of it with steel and stone and wood, which meant they were not…adapting to their home.

Their Tallguard were very good at being stealthy as befit their home. They were also, coincidentally, one of the most mobile Tallguard forces that Niers had ever encountered. They were willing to go far to get whatever their home desired, so they’d been one of the first to join Iuncuta Eirnos’ taskforce.

Patrol Captain Shoike was their liaison, and she personally removed the enchanted blindfold as Niers disembarked the bat. Either wherever Itelloi was was large enough for a bat population—a subterranean cave, he suspected—or they’d teleported the damn bat in from an entry point.

Flying with a blindfold on was not pleasant. You just let the harness hold you tight and tried not to think about whether you were upside-down or not.

Under normal circumstances, Itelloi would have still greeted the Titan, the citizens would have probably asked him to host a seminar, and there would be a celebration. The Architects were not present, though.

He didn’t have time for them. And the circumstances had dictated that Itelloi, not the more public Reton, had answered Niers’ request.

The Titan actually knew Commander Rozcal, a huge Fraerling who wore Crelerbane Armor and fought amongst the Tallguard. They were far more likely to answer a request if he needed something made—but even the best Fraerling [Enchanters] weren’t up for this kind of job, necessarily.

“Our armory is open to you, Titan. I will be taking a log of whatever you request, but given the circumstances—we have opened all but our emergency options.”

“I’ll compensate you for whatever I take in materials. I’m only looking for one set of objects. Do you have any gear or Tallfolk-sized Selrite protection?”

Patrol Captain Shoike hesitated.

“We’ve armed eighteen Tallguard in optical and psionic protections. As for amulets—I think we have three made of Selrite.”

“Then I need all three.”

“—Given the circumstances, the Architects would prefer to have one on standby.”

Niers turned to the Patrol Captain as Eirnos followed them. She wasn’t smiling, and she was handing another Tallguard a list of items she wanted too. Niers was the only living expert in what they were up against, so the [Strategist] took the time to clarify his remarks.

“If I’m stealing Itelloi’s actual protections, their Allotment—if this somehow ties into keeping the city safe, disregard my request, Patrol Captain. But if Itelloi wants to be safe—give me all three. Because if this turns into a prolonged conflict, which it should not, then you’ll need more than one amulet designed for Tallfolk. You’ll need hundreds. And I suggest that you begin pulling any blueprints if you haven’t already.”

The Patrol Captain processed his request, then nodded.

“Three it is. What kind of munitions did you want?”

“Vortex bolts?”

Eirnos suggested. Niers shook his head. He looked around and saw the other Fraerlings for the force he’d mustered. No Rozcal. He wasn’t good at this sort of thing. But Gindal had volunteered, and he was a crack shot with a crossbow.

“Got anything electric? It stuns Selphids, and it goes straight through their bodies. Electricity, then flame or frost. They can disable a vortex bolt.”

The Iuncuta rebutted his statement after a lengthy pause.

“…No they can’t. That’s a miniature void which eats everything in its radius. It literally sucks in Adamantium, even if it can’t fully mangle it.”

Niers raised his brows. Eirnos and Captain Shoike exchanged a long glance, then Eirnos handed the quarrels back over.

If that didn’t spell out the stakes, Niers wasn’t sure what would. And here was the thing—he had never fought Minds before.

Not fought them. He’d dropped in on some, and he knew of their existence—but he did not relish this. No one liked fighting on someone else’s home ground, and Niers had the uncomfortable thought that he was doing what Jungle Tails had just tried to do to his capital.

Nevertheless—hurry.

Eighteen Fraerlings with Selrite gear. Three amulets. By rights, he should have a hundred of each, if he wanted to march into a telepath’s sanctum.

This would do. Niers gave orders.

“I need a set of gear for myself, Eirnos, and our leaders from that eighteen. My amulets are going to go to three people I will select—our [Commander] class, [Mage] class, and a [Rogue].”

“Not Three-Color Stalker?”

Eirnos was learning, so Niers shook his head.

“It would mess with her abilities. She’s a subterfuge-assassin. I need someone more suited for…battles. Besides, she’s wounded.”

“Everyone else goes without? We’ll have Fraerlings and Tallfolk exposed.”

“Yep. We’ll be taking Centaurs, Dullahans, and Naga. Centaurs are hard for Selphids to control. Dullahans and Naga are slightly more resilient to mental effects. Our [Commander] will be [Captain of Discipline] Theilo. He specializes in holding ground during losing battles. Or marching troops into storms of arrows and spells.”

The Fraerlings looked at him. That didn’t sound like any kind of smart tactics to them. Fraerlings, again, were clever fighters. They valued the lives of each Fraerling and armed them well and didn’t commit to bloodbaths.

In that way, they were flawed. Sometimes the best way to win was to throw blood into a grinder. Niers knew all the tactics.

“He’s from the Rustängmarder.

“The King of Destruction’s forces? I thought they’d rejoined him!”

Niers just grunted.

“A few violated their contract clause by resigning and then marching over to him. The rest have to honor their contracts, but they’re not going to renew them. Why do you think that lot haven’t appeared behind him? He’ll hold our forces even if they’re being influenced.”

Theilo was also able to execute traitors and turncoats with his Skills. Niers didn’t say that part out loud. The Titan wasn’t taking many soldiers, Tallfolk or Fraerling.

“If they have a group of high-level Selphids in that citadel, our force might be outnumbered, including Fraerlings, Titan.”

“We’re after one Human. If they don’t negotiate, we’re in for a fight anyways.”

“So the solution is fewer bodies?”

“Fewer minds—yes. Everyone else is on carpets a mile up. The Minds have an advantage in their home. We don’t win if we have to go in. We just make it a battle where they know if they kill us all, their home will be pounded into rubble.”

Niers selected one of the Selrite helmets and tried it on. Selrite was something he didn’t understand, but Fraerlings had made it back when they toppled the Selphid Empire.

The damn stuff expired, though, so few sets were maintained. Time to make more. The very material was named after Selphids, the only known telepathic species—or at least, the best at it.

Oh, this is going to be messy. Niers didn’t smile, though he did feel alive. He tightened the strap and grimaced as he felt a dull kind of pressure at the back of his own mind.

“Damn, I hate this stuff already. We’re moving out within the hour. Tell reconnaissance I want to know where the citadel is—if they can’t find it by the time we’re halfway there, start burning mana. We’ll send the amulets ahead and put scouts in the ground.”

It would take two days to travel there from where they were, even with Fraerling birds and flying artifacts. Eirnos raised her brows.

“Let me give it a shot. If we haven’t found the citadel by then…”

She paused, and Niers waited. The Iuncuta’s eyes flickered, then she spoke. With a bit of hesitation, until that phrase lingered too loud in all their minds.

The Minacien Wall.

“…Start burning the forests.”

Patrol Captain Shoike looked horrified, but Niers clapped Eirnos on the shoulder.

“You’re getting the hang of it.”

That was all. He was out of the Fraerlings’ settlement in twenty minutes. All Niers could do then was wait. Wait—and hope that message forgave him the distance and his preparations. His stomach didn’t churn as he flew. The Titan just held still.

Wondering what he’d find when he got there. And when he did—

Well.

It was all done, in motion, and waiting for him when he arrived. Like a perfect moment for him to arrive. Not immortal, but something else.

A dark, twisted dream. Come what may, the Titan would wake them all up from it.

 

——

 

When it had begun teaching her, Contradiction, the Second Mind, had talked with Geneva about the pitfalls and dangers of being a [Telepath].

(Controlling the physical world is difficult. Lifting an object with the mind alone is taxing. Telepathy is dangerous. By giving you the means to resist the Third Mind and myself—I am giving you the power to change your mind.)

“Can’t anyone do that?”

Geneva recalled sitting with the Second Mind as it brought over some props—it loved props to demonstrate what it thought of—and it projected amusement to her. It looked like a laughing little child, Lizardfolk, rolling around on the ground with mirth. It showed her the first object, and Geneva recoiled from the…warm touch. Almost fleshy.

(No. Someone without training can change how they reason, change their perspective, change facts and even memories. They can desire and want—but they cannot change how they think. You could. You could reach into your own head and move something. Forget how to breathe.)

That worried her.

“Is that—likely?”

(No. But it is possible. You are a [Doctor]. You know how medicine can harm if used incorrectly.)

Of course. When Contradiction phrased it like that, Geneva was less worried. So it showed her the first trick of keeping her mind secure.

(When Okasha controlled you—she had a Skill. To isolate your mind. This is the same principle.)

Geneva shuddered, but the Second Mind was gentle.

(It is not a prison. It is…a place where even your thoughts do not reach. Safe from yourself and any other. It will not avail you against a full Mind.)

“So what good is it?”

As Geneva understood it, even with training, she was like a five-year old child being taught by a master in some martial arts. But even if she mastered a technique—a Mind was like a sumo wrestler and a master combined. The Second Mind replied steadily.

(To keep some part of you constant. Put anything you need to remember to use in there. Think of it like…a reminder.)

It showed her a calendar with a red circled date. Geneva thought it was like having a schedule. Fix something you couldn’t forget in there—

(It is very useful for keeping track of things too. All Selphids who work for us don’t forget assignments.)

The Second Mind joked. Like many things, this kind of mental safeguard was eminently applicable in just organizing your thoughts. Keeping an idea from being forgotten, especially if it were important.

Then it showed her a more physical defense. Geneva held a strange…cage.

Was cage the right word? It looked like one of those wicker balls made of twigs, twined together to create a primitive cage people used to catch animals or hold objects. Only this one was far more…intricate. It had a hundred different threads, inside and outside, like roots forming the most complex puzzle.

It was also—warm and felt like flesh, not metal or stone or anything else.

(This is Selrite. It is a natural protection against mental effects. The Minds will not let you wear it, but it is important to know how to turn off your own powers or protect others.)

“What is it…made of?”

(Tissue. Brain tissue.)

Geneva’s hands flew away from the orb, but the Second Mind continued.

(Not from people. Monsters. Some monsters have the same kind of mental power as we do. Many live in the sea. I think a snail is a viable source of Selrite. It is, in fact, a psychic aid. It boosts control.)

“How—how is that supposed to protect me?”

Geneva had handled many things without feeling the need to wash her hands, but this? The Second Mind nudged at it, but to Geneva’s surprise, it didn’t lift the bauble. It couldn’t.

(The Selrite is a kind of physical telepathic presence. But I cannot move it. If you wear it, you will be harder to affect. Can you understand why? Try lifting it. Try…doing something with it.)

Geneva tried, but to her surprise, she couldn’t move or affect the Selrite at all. And it was not hard to understand why.

All the little connections and the makeup of the amulet were a mystery. She couldn’t cut it open, so she didn’t understand how it…looked. There were probably other tricks to it, so the Second Mind explained.

(Like a blacksmith’s puzzle—this is too complex for a Mind to understand. We can lift a blacksmith’s puzzle by force, but Selrite would resist us. Very clever. [Enchanters] have learned from this design. Even modern [Enchanters] like the late Archmage Nailihuaile copied this design without knowing why. Amulets of Xion, Selrite—many adventurers have safeguards against this rare kind of threat, even if they have forgotten why.)

It made her own mind feel dull when she put it on, as if there were a constant thought she couldn’t quite place, always getting in the way. Geneva could see it wouldn’t be practical to wear this all the time, but the Second Mind told her these secrets because it felt she should know.

Because it wanted her to be more than just a captive aiding the Minds. Because…perhaps, it had feared what now occurred.

It was too late for Geneva to put the Selrite on. She hadn’t felt the first changes in herself, so she put, into that box of her true self, something she needed to remember, lest she lose it all without seeing it.

What? What could she store that she was certain of? She had already forgotten…forgotten…

What could she trust? Memories of her company? Ken? The Second Mind?

There was only one thing Geneva Scala could trust, and so it was this. Ere she slept, she put one thing into a box in her head and checked it every night.

She recorded her dreams. Each one—

So she could see how they began to change.

 

——

 

The first time Geneva Scala picked up a dead body was when she was nineteen years old. The victim had taken their own life.

The body was already bagged. Her classmate was throwing up. The coroner took the body to the van, and Geneva was surprised at how she did not panic.

That was the first dream. The first time it happened. Geneva now wondered about the others. Because she began to…remember other details.

Had her classmate thrown up, which made her vomit afterwards? Had the coroner really muttered they wouldn’t last and complimented her afterwards?

Her first memory of the dream indicated that she’d forgotten those details, but they were so vivid…perhaps she’d forgotten? But how could she forget the rest? Washing her mouth out with water, apologizing to the coroner—as he joked with her. Kissing him on a whim.

They’d dated for three months.

Was that a lie?

She remembered it distinctly. Barlevos, his name, the old van that was always cold—but her memory in the box said otherwise. And—the memories felt real. But the box—

Geneva Scala woke up, and the Gathering Citadel was quiet. Idis swung her out of bed, and in silence, she ate breakfast, then reported to the First Mind.

Continuum sounded tired, but it greeted her.

(Do not be alarmed, Geneva Scala. All will continue as it has been. Our conflict is done. Contradiction has expressed its discontent. The Titan still seeks us out. When he arrives—we may render you to him.)

Geneva Scala blinked and opened and closed her mouth. That was not what she’d expected. She hesitated.

“Is the Second Mind—”

Alive?

The First Mind simply projected an affirmative.

(The Second Mind is undamaged. Merely exhausted. As before, you will report to the Minds to learn and teach. This is all.)

As if nothing had happened, Geneva Scala was sent away. If anything, now the First Mind was speaking of letting her go.

But she knew that was just the false layer of the dream. She had seen the walls peel back, and she waited now. Waited for the horror. Her dreams were changing, and a part of her screamed that every second while the rest of her pretended all was well.

 

——

 

The Second Mind thought nothing for a long time as Geneva Scala stood in front of it. It hovered low in the air, as if even gravity were too much. When it spoke—Geneva Scala felt no strain, but a kind of fuzziness to the thoughts. Vague asides, confusion, as if it was having trouble focusing.

(Failure—I did better than—Geneva Scala. What did you eat for breakf—Minds united behind the Third. We think alike. I have failed.)

It said nothing more. Geneva walked up to it.

“Are you alright? Are you—hurt?”

The Second Mind, Contradiction, visibly vibrated. It did not look hurt, but it was beaten, and Geneva understood just how badly when it replied.

(I have agreed to think alike.)

For a Mind…she understood. Geneva wanted to know if it would tell the other Minds what was going on. Or set her free. But those questions faded.

The Second Mind had accepted the other Minds’ conclusions. It said nothing to her of her dreams. It just floated there, helpless.

“Contradiction. What should I do?”

Geneva Scala looked to it for anything, and the Second Mind’s reply was slow.

(You…have time, Geneva. Do what they want of you. That is all you have we lack. No Mind can do what you can do. I shall…I shall continue aiding you in some way. The Minds all want what is best for us.)

She looked at it. The Second Mind had no whisper, nor anything else to say. Geneva Scala bowed as Idis whispered a goodbye. And the [Doctor] did what the Second Mind had suggested.

She got back to work.

 

——

 

“I cannot tell you what is causing or preventing the Wasting without knowing what is different about the Dyed Lands or Rhir.”

Geneva had some satisfaction in telling the Third Mind that. Frustrated, it sent her off to the Fourth Mind so that Inconsolable could plan what it needed.

(Soil samples? Background…radiation, pollen, local plants, fauna?)

The Fourth Mind was dismayed by all the things that could go into your wellbeing, and most of these things, like pollution, were invisible.

“It’s difficult, I know. I could truly use a…victim of the Wasting. To see what the effect of the Wasting looks like on a cellular level.”

Geneva had prepared a cross-section of the galas-muscle as well as the dead Selphid she had been given, but the victims of the Wasting were burned and destroyed almost instantly. The Minds were paranoid about allowing it to spread, even if there were no known transmission factors, so they routinely culled affected parts of themselves.

(Your presence may be needed. The Titan—annoying. Annoying in his presence searching for us and the Dyed Lands. Perhaps complimentary?)

Like the First Mind, the Fourth Mind seemed annoyed, but almost accepting of the Titan demanding her. Geneva was curious.

“So you’ll let me go?”

Really? The Fourth Mind paused and then replied without giving her any emotional clues.

(The Titan is dangerous. You will have your choice, then. Whether he keeps you against your will is another scenario.)

She was not sure she liked that, but it was more than she had ever received. Geneva went back to describing what even an attempt at comprehensive analysis would take.

“I need to be able to read the countless factors I have no understanding of. I’m no chemist or expert in how to take pollution or other elements from the air. For soil samples, you would dig down deep enough to avoid surface contamination…”

(…But how would you inspect the soil?)

Comprehensive testing for various known contaminants on Earth? Geneva didn’t know, and she knew there were even more magical elements here. The Fourth Mind grew increasingly dismayed, and Geneva Scala realized she’d made a mistake.

Whether she was a scientist or not, she should have started with a fundamental rather than moving into applied medicine. Here was a question: was the periodic table even relevant in this world?

It surely seemed so. Geneva had a few theories, so she put an experiment into practice. Well, several.

The Minds had a plethora of resources, so Geneva got her microscope—or rather, the Selphids had to port and assemble it because it was nearly six feet high. The Sixth Mind, Egress, had had a terrible time creating it.

For instance, [Eagle Eyes] was a spell or enchantment that made things appear larger. But what Geneva realized and most [Mages] did not was that eagles and other species adapted their eyes to focus on distant images. Whereas microscopes, well, magnified an image.

The difference was subtle, but essentially, the Sixth Mind had been virtually unable to focus the microscope with that enchantment because it was adapting a far-sighted spell for a very, incredibly near-sighted experience. It had eventually figured out the mistake with Geneva’s help and just amplified the image—and put enough light spells in the microscope to light up any room Geneva was in.

She wanted to see if there was any change to the periodic table she knew. The problem was—she had very few distilled elements. Like, for instance, the old copper hydroxide and glucose experiment would produce a known reaction to Geneva. She’d done that back in science class.

Lacking that, she went to a few basic tests. Firstly—she found a flame and tried to generate a color other than fire’s natural orange-red.

She thought of Erin Solstice when she did that. She hoped the young woman was well. Geneva sometimes could watch recordings of scrying orb events, but the Minds never used a live feed.

Anyways, the flame reacted in the way she wanted. Iron dust produced gold, flour made it flare up, and when she requested copper sulfate, the Fourth Mind reached out to the Fifth Mind.

Sympathy was a Mind dedicated to understanding the known world, and it was obsessed with understanding the Dyed Lands among other tasks, like recovering alchemical recipes for Potions of Regeneration and so on.

It knew what Geneva wanted and produced what she took to be copper sulfate; it made the flames green, and she had to assume that [Alchemists] had discovered how to make that because it was a known reaction to them.

This felt like it was all normal according to the periodic table she knew. Geneva’s final test that day was to take a bit of gold and continually slice, pound, and reduce it into the thinnest flakes of gold she could.

Under a microscope, the element refused to change or look any different. Which suggested that like her world, it was impossible to simply change an element like that. These basic tests made Geneva even more curious to know how magic played a role in these fundamental interactions. No wonder alchemy was considered trial-and-error—she would have feared to try any of the more dangerous tests even in a controlled environment with magic being undetectable and potentially everywhere.

Say. What did magic look like under a microscope? Geneva asked for a Selphid to cast a spell to conjure rock, mud, or something else for her. She already had the Selphid cells and Galas-muscle cells ready to go on a slide, but what did a stone look like up close?

Unless they were dyed or an interesting cut, rocks were a lot less fun to look at than cells under microscopes. Geneva expected to see not much from the piece of a [Stone Dart] spell she put under a microscope, but then she realized two things:

Firstly, the [Stone Dart] spell began collapsing the instant she tried to dissect it. The moment she snapped a bit off, the spell would crumble and pieces would dissolve into nothingness.

“It’s a weak spell. Geneva, Geneva, you need a longer-lasting spell. Let me try! [Mud Splatter]! See! I—oh.”

Idis was so eager to help out when she realized the problem that she cast a Tier 1 combat spell she used to blind her opponents. The [Barbarian] splattered the microscope, and Sympathy, the Fifth Mind, silently observed the splatter of mud hit the slide—and the carefully tuned microscope—and the lenses…

(Selphid Idis. Your help in this juncture is not required.)

It took an hour to clean everything up. When Geneva tried again with a small splatter of mud, she saw something odd happening at last that almost made the hour’s wait worth it. Even Idis gasped out loud.

“Wh—it’s breaking apart! Geneva, do you see that? Do you—

The mud was pure. In that it had no microorganisms, no other debris—it was magical mud, so it made sense that it had no impurities. In a sense, magical creations were the most perfectly untouched matter you could find.

The second thing was that Geneva thought she could see the magic making up the mud. Or if not…see it, she could see the effect of the magic leaving the spell Idis cast.

It was dissolving before her very eyes. The mud was—unmaking itself at a microscopic level. By the time she saw it visibly dissipating, the structure of whatever this fake mud was—was already unstable.

If that was what magic looked like as a temporary spell, could you detect magic with a microscope? Just by holding it up to an artifact?

Geneva asked Sympathy for a magical artifact—several of varying intensities—as she did a cross-section of the galas-muscle. She wished she had some cells undergoing mitosis, cellular division, so she could see the magical effects or change in biology at play. Lacking that, or the Wasting, she could just see odd…cells…

“They’re too colorful. They don’t look notably bigger or have increased nuclei—but even though I’ve stained these muscles with a dye, I can see the nuclei aren’t what I’d expect—black. Is this the quality of magic adding color here? Is this also why it doesn’t rot?”

Magic infused muscle might be slower to rot, even after so long, because it was magic. In the same way—undead were known to wander about despite being decomposing corpses and skeletons who were definitely suffering the effects of heat, weather, and so on.

If magic were a kind of preservative on a cellular level…Geneva wondered what you could make with that. She was taking out the slide of galas-muscle and inserting the Selphid’s cross-section as Idis murmured.

“Let me just adjust it here. And here. It looks perfect. Okay, Geneva!”

She was acting as a kind of lab assistant. Geneva Scala wondered how Idis felt about the Minds’ quarrel. She wondered if she should be doing something.

I am a captive, and my memories are changing. I need to do something. The Second Mind suggested I get back to work. Was that a hint or was it telling me to do the opposite? Do I wait for this Titan?

She thought, in that private space in her head, as Sympathy waited. She still wanted to be free, but she wasn’t sure if Niers were better than the Minds. From what she knew of him—he was the amalgamation of Baleros’ entire mindset. His company fought countless wars.

But he was also a Fraerling. Did that mean…?

Geneva’s mind focused on the view Idis had calibrated for her at last. She had seen the Galas-muscle up close, but she didn’t know what part of a Selphid she had selected for the cross-section. She had assumed it would be like the epidermis, perhaps, or, since Selphids appeared to be some kind of offshoot of an amoeba or snail or sea cucumber, a representation of their body as a whole.

Geneva Scala’s thoughts, milling about, slowly went silent. So much so that Idis felt the [Doctor] stand there and stare into the microscope. Slowly, Geneva adjusted the dials, but she said nothing. Idis had to pump her lungs.

“Geneva? Your heart’s picking up. Geneva? I’m, um—getting adrenaline spikes here and here and—I’ll just—”

The Fifth Mind slowly broke off from its mental tasks.

(Is something amiss, Geneva Scala? Your thoughts are different.)

The [Doctor] said not a word at first. Single-mindedly, she just kept focusing the microscope, zooming out, back in—as if trying to see whether Idis had made a mistake. But no—even if you dyed this sample. Even if you…

(Geneva?)

She started and looked up. Idis was worried, and the Fifth Mind…the Fifth Mind felt her sudden unease. Sympathy focused on the Selphid’s sample in front of Geneva and reached out, but hesitantly.

(What did you see, Geneva Scala? Was it the Wasting? Something about the dead Selphid? It came from the Sixth Mind. Is Egress in jeopardy?)

“No. No, I…this can’t be right. I need another sample. Someone find me another—do Selphids molt? Can I get any cross-section, from any Selphid?”

She was so agitated she stepped back. The Fifth Mind wavered, and Idis raised Geneva’s hand.

“If you only need a tiny, tiny bit—”

She sensed Geneva’s actual panic. Idis actually managed to remove part of herself—barely the tiniest of fragments, already close to microscopic—onto a sample tray as Geneva focused on it. She zoomed in and focused and zoomed in—and Idis saw what she did.

So why was the [Doctor]’s heart racing? Geneva Scala’s mouth went dry, and she looked up as Sympathy, Idis, and the other Selphids looked at her.

“It looks the same as the dead Selphid’s. But—”

(What is it?)

The Fifth Mind yanked the images from her mind in its worry. It scoured through them, but it didn’t see what was wrong. All it saw was the already-foreign landscape of interconnected cells. Cells, which made up skin, something that even Selphids barely understood despite their grasp of anatomy.

Yet Geneva saw what was odd at once. She stared down into the microscope at the cells of Idis’ body…and then she looked up.

“…that shape isn’t like any cell I’ve ever seen. There’s no nucleus. There’s—”

She focused again, and she had seen how the cells were different. Patchwork ‘walls’ of epidermal cells, plant matter, tissue of other creatures. Even if it looked different, sometimes like odd, surrealist art, organized or mismatched like scar tissue, thousands of individual pieces—it still had rhyme and reason to it.

This? She stared down and saw no core component of any cell. No nucleus. If she had a better microscope—would she have seen mitochondria? Vacuoles?

She had wanted to see cells undergoing mitosis, division, and she had taken a sample of her own flesh and gotten to see some of that up close, just like normal. Like Geneva, Idis’ body was still trying to carry on, and so Geneva saw some of the objects in front of her…dividing?

No. She saw a strand gather and pluck one of the shining clouds upwards. Up and up until it coalesced like a fruit upon a vine—but so twisting, the edges of each ‘cell’ fitting together like the edges of a star, not like a cell. Then the ‘fruit’ dropped away and began to unwind itself. Unwind and unwind—

And she saw nothing that looked like a cell. Nothing—and Geneva’s mind was empty as she tried to grasp what she was looking at. Only one thing made sense, and it popped into her head so slowly.

Everything she knew was based on her world. Everything was of Earth—which had first started with the amoebas and microorganisms brought here or formed during the gas coalescing, meteorites through space.

The only thing she could imagine that would look so foreign would be something that had no common roots with Earth. Something…Geneva looked up, and the Fifth Mind caught the word in the air. It shivered, like Geneva’s crawling skin.

Alien.

 

——

 

That night, two Genevas slept. One went to bed as Idis tucked her in. She was disturbed, but she slept as most dreamers did; to wake hours later, with only dreams to mark the passing of time unless her rest was disturbed.

The other sat inside a box. She only came out then, in dreams. She was the Geneva who watched her other self with horror and disgust.

This Geneva feared she would not remain. She was the screamer in silence as she stood before the Second Mind. Perhaps she was the conscience or the woman who spoke the hippocratic oath and believed it.

Perhaps she was just a creation of the Minds and not even this was real. She had no power save to be a dreamer, an observer of this dark descent. Yet the path was well lit, the road gentle, and it carried her down step by step.

Only her will slowed the fall.

Geneva Scala felt a revelation upon her. Like a foreign dawn, but the sky was black. She stood upon a beach of sand as black as midnight. The waters of the vast sea beyond were blood red and seemed to squirm before her, like the viscera of some dead creature.

She did not know how far it lay, nor how deep the waters went. The sand was scattered with masks. Faces, staring up at her as she walked barefoot towards the water.

The faces were hers. They whispered to her.

“It was always here, the clues. The dreams are changing.”

“The Titan will arrive too late.”

“You will never be free.”

Geneva Scala bent down to touch them, but the masks went silent when she bent—and when she stood, a second woman stood there.

Geneva Scala, alike in face and voice, watched the dreamer. But this one was different. Her skin was too pale. Her lips bloodless, and the [Doctor] realized that this Geneva was dead.

A faint orange light pulsed beneath her skin, and when she lifted her hand, another presence squirmed through her flesh.

A Selphid. But the Selphid and the [Doctor] were the same. In this moment, the [Doctor] knew what the Minds were going to do.

Or she suspected. But the other Selphid-Geneva just beckoned her.

“They won’t hurt you. Come, come on. Why are you so afraid?”

“Stay back. They promised to respect my will. I have done nothing wrong to hurt them. I will not—not become that.”

The woman backed up onto the sand, away from the beckoning other Geneva. The Selphid woman stood in the water as it moved around her legs. She sighed.

“You know what they are. And this—Geneva. Geneva.”

Her eyes fell out of their sockets. Her mouth moved as it bled, and Geneva’s flesh opened as if a hundred scalpels had cut into it. Did you think you had a choice?

The [Doctor] tried to run. She backed away from the dark sea where the knowledge of Selphids lay. So the sea followed her.

It walked onto the beach. A red tide engulfed Geneva’s legs, pulled her in—and she drifted down. Down, fearing what the depths held.

Even the Minds didn’t understand it all. She could almost sense them, foreign objects adrift, like ships in this sea of uncertainty. They were playing with what they knew, heedless of what lurked below.

Now—now she was inside the sea, Geneva saw it. She was floating in this ocean of blood. A world of secrets. A conclusion sprang to her mind, and she looked around.

There it was. There—a pillar of grey, broken stone. Something made of sin and destruction, crumbling in places. Where it leaked into the rest of the world, the regular ocean waters were stained. But it had been there, intact, for a reason.

The Minacien Wall.

She was on the wrong side of it. And all the Selphids, Minds, herself, were plunging into depths that should have been forgotten.

Another presence made itself known, and Geneva sank past the Second Mind. It was in the waters too, and like her, sinking. Sinking…and it had no power to help them swim.

A single voice made up of a hundred thousand different ones spoke to her. Dreamily, quietly, and she shuddered even sleeping.

(We dug into the brain of reality and inserted ourselves into it. Tricked into believing we should belong.)

She was sinking. Were the Minds doing something to her? Geneva reached out as she saw a flicker in the depths. She saw herself, dreaming.

She was nineteen years old, and the dead body was loaded into the van. Geneva Scala was flirting with the coroner. Not a trace of horror as she smiled.

A Selphid squirmed towards the body as she presented it to the new owner. Geneva stood back and bowed slightly as a Selphid sat up and gave her a thumbs-up.

“No. That’s not how it happened.”

But only she remembered that. The Second Mind sank with her, and it whispered again.

(The wall was not there to protect them from us. The water rushes out, and the lurkers peek through the gates. Pray they are blind.)

 

——

 

She woke, and Idis was sleeping. Between her dreams, false and prophetic, Geneva Scala stood. She stumbled around her rooms, blind, striking into walls.

The pain from her nerves woke Idis up. She found Geneva’s brain, but it was still half-dreaming. Frightened; the Selphid had heard that other species sleepwalked—she spoke.

Geneva? What’s going on?

The [Doctor] never said a word. Idis didn’t know how to handle a living body. She reached out to find one of the [Guardians] or the Minds. Then she hesitated.

The woman was looking for something. Tearing through her belongings. The things she’d taken from Talenqual scattered around the room.

Her mind was still…moving. A thought lurked so deep that even dreaming, Geneva saw it. When she found it, buried in a sealed container, Idis went still.

 

——

 

Geneva Scala stumbled to the microscope, sitting silent and waiting for her in the laboratory she had been given. Her thoughts whirled.

Idis, like a big sister, was guiding her, telling the Third Mind that Geneva was investigating something.

Parasite. In her flesh. Okasha had been controlling. But this was something else.

The Minds had violated the Minacien Wall.

Selphids didn’t come from this world.

They had to come from somewhere else. Their very cells told her they weren’t like other species. Not Dullahan. Not Human. Not Drake…

So what? A connection burned in her head now, a sickness that she would only cure or make worse by confirming it.

The light burned her eyes and woke her—but Idis made her pupils itch and dilate and adjust. Geneva placed what she had taken on a tray and stared at it. Idis was shuddering, but she knew what it was.

Of all the things that Geneva had brought from Talenqual, her tools, her notes—there was something that had sat there, almost forgotten. Yet it still glistened with strange appeal. It still smelled as sweet and appetizing as when she had asked for it.

A gift from a brave man. The same one who had brought hope and a cure through desperate waters. By his name, he alone redeemed a city rotting in Chandrar’s sands.

Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier, had spoken to Geneva of his home. He had cautioned her and told her fairly of the cost and what there was to be gained. He did not know how his home had changed, but to the [Doctor], he had given her a rare thing. A gift.

The flesh of A’ctelios Salash sat there. The sustenance from which all of Tombhome’s children had to eat or be driven insane. To eat just a shred was to be changed—forever.

Not a bit came close to Geneva’s mouth, and Idis herself kept Geneva’s hands well away for Selphids knew the cost as well as every species. Yet Geneva was not there to eat it.

She stared down the microscope. And the truth was there, staring back at her. Geneva began laughing. Hysterical laughter—until Idis spoke.

“No, no. That can’t be right. That’s not right.

She understood now, the same conclusion Geneva had come to. Something even the youngest student of science would infer. Geneva stared down at the foreign cells below her, spreading and trying to propagate even now. Magical. Unlike any other cell from Earth.

And so similar to Selphids’. There were many differences, but she saw the same spindle of spiraling thread instead of a cellular wall. She saw…

They were related. Geneva looked up and saw someone’s face in the mirror. She stared at the unfamiliar face, twisted by Idis’ uncertainty. The Minds pulsed in the back of her head. Asking why she had woken.

They were doing something to her. Bile filled Geneva’s mouth as she laughed. And the Minds went still as they felt her revelation. Be wary. Even now—be wary what you asked for. She could only do her job, and she did.

“So that’s where you came from.”

 

——

 

Selphids and Seamwalkers were related. No—there was one more thing to add. One more piece of the puzzle.

Selphids and Gazers, the two children of Baleros, were the offspring of Seamwalkers. Somehow, at one point in this world’s long history, they had emerged from Seamwalkers. Perhaps they were the direct descendants of some variant—or offspring produced in some manner.

But the truth was that neither species belonged to this world in the same way as other species. That was why Selphids were so unique. Perhaps that was why they Wasted.

They should not be here.

Yet they had levels, they had classes. They were a people. Did they not deserve life and dignity?

Geneva Scala wrestled with that idea the next day. She felt—exhausted. Yesterday felt like one long nightmare, and she was relieved for day to come. The Minds had been up all night when she shouted her revelation at them.

Morning saw Idis sleepy and silent, and Geneva fed herself. When Calectus took her out to see the Third Mind, she found herself staring at the glowing, faint veins of orange in his skin.

“Geneva? What’s with the staring? It’s sort of embarrassing for Selphids.”

Idis muttered in her ears as Calectus affected not to notice. Geneva hesitated.

“Nothing. Is Calectus supposed to be—attractive, for Selphids, Idis?”

“Calectus? He’s got good body mass. We don’t have features, but he’s very adept with his body. He’s my boss, so it’s all work to me. Why?”

“Just observing.”

It was strange, but Geneva understood what Idis meant. She had heard Stitch-folk weren’t as taken with each other’s appearances but the quality of their cloth and character because they could change their forms. She wondered what adept meant.

Idis was like a second-person in her body. Geneva wondered what another Selphid would be like.

 

——

 

The Third Mind was calm and reassuring when it spoke to Geneva.

(This news is neither welcome nor unwelcome, Geneva Scala. It is a very useful hint. You are to be commended.)

(Thank you, Third Mind.)

She replied back with a smile. The Third Mind wanted her to make sure that this link was true. Obviously, they had no Seamwalker flesh, but it had begun a search for a Gazer body. And meanwhile, Geneva was going to look at every species’ cells for other hints.

The other Minds also gave Geneva strict instructions to keep this knowledge secret when she visited them. Obviously, this would reflect poorly on Selphids. Of course, Geneva agreed.

They had their own tasks, but more and more revolved around Geneva and the Titan, now. The Fourth Mind suspected it had found forces lurking just outside of its mental range, and it feared their location was known.

Timelines accelerate.

Continuum refused to elaborate, but it had Geneva Scala link with it. She sat in the Mind, and Idis carefully held out Geneva’s arm.

“First Mind, are you sure this is alright?”

“It’s fine, Idis.”

Geneva had designed the syringes that drew her blood. And if Idis numbed her arm, she barely felt the sensation of a knife cutting. Then a drop of potion, and she saw nothing amiss with her arm. Just regrown flesh.

“Do the Selphids have enough healing potions to waste, First Mind? The coming healing potion shortage has to affect everyone.”

Continuum waved the concern aside.

(Healing potions will affect Selphids least of all species, Geneva Scala. We need none here. The Minds have always known how to create and alter things. You who uncover more and more secrets of us—perhaps it is time to show you something else. Something only a Mind can do. Would you like to see a vessel for Selphids being prepared? It has been a long time since one was made. But this is a special case.)

“A what?”

Geneva Scala stood, and the Mind directed her to go down. Down—to a place she had never seen in the Gathering Citadel before.

(Idis. You will stay behind.)

“But First Mind, how will Geneva Scala walk?”

(This Mind will be her legs.)

Geneva Scala let Idis remain behind in a temporary body. She didn’t actually walk, but floated down. And she saw something in the lower rooms that made her smile—flicker out.

“First Mind. What is this?”

(Ah. You disapprove?)

The First Mind was surprised. But—how could Geneva not? She stared at the blank Lizardwoman’s face and saw the Lizardwoman breathing. She lay in a bed that Geneva recognized, dimly, a copy of a design other [Healers] used.

Healing crystals and different tinctures sat around her. The Lizardwoman lay there, staring upwards, but she never said anything.

She never moved or did anything other than blink. Geneva saw her breathe, but there was nothing beyond those slitted eyes.

“What is this?”

She already knew, but the First Mind explained calmly.

(This Lizardwoman was dead when we found her. The Bodies of Fellden confirmed her death with spells—but preserved her on the way back here. Her heart began to beat, but whatever gave her levels and a class is gone. Your talk of Erin Solstice was not the first that the Minds have heard of the phenomena between life and death—but your methods have increased the rate at which they are brought back phenomenally. Though Potions of Regeneration are exceedingly rare.)

“You brought back—her body? But she’s not alive?”

(No. Yet she is closest to what Selphids once did. Possess the bodies of the living. This—is a solution between the two. The Minds have also forbidden this. I, Continuum, have agreed to lift the ban.)

“This isn’t right.”

The First Mind swung Geneva around to face it, but not before she saw more bodies lying there. Tended to by [Guardians]—and something beyond it she half-saw. A vat, perhaps. Of bubbling liquid and—

(I thought you would understand the necessity, [Doctor]. You—still—do not?)

The First Mind sounded confused. And displeased. Geneva Scala shook her head.

“What are you talking about? How could I—there are parallels in my world, First Mind. If these people could be brought back, they are not ‘empty vessels’. How were they found? Were their demises manipulated? I have to insist you stop this. At once. I respect the Minds, but this has gone too far.”

She lifted a finger—and the First Mind hmmed in her head.

(Very well. I will give orders for this to stop. Cease your worrying, Geneva.)

It began to carry her upwards, but Geneva tried to stop it.

“I must insist, First Mind. I cannot take your words. Not until Iseethatyouproperlyendthis—

 

——

 

“—Thank you, First Mind.”

Exhausted, Geneva Scala let Idis bow her and carry her back. The First Mind dismissed her.

(As agreed, Geneva Scala, a cessation at once. Do not speak to Idis or any other about it. The Second Mind awaits you now.)

She nodded. Idis carried her into the corridor and then whispered to Geneva.

“What was that, Geneva? I mean—you can’t talk about it? You were gone for a bit. Not too long—”

“Oh, nothing, Idis. Just something I had to—correct.”

Geneva rubbed at her forehead. She was growing tired. Her sleep wasn’t fulfilling even without midnight research. And her mood turned sourer still when she visited the Second Mind.

It was paranoid, controlling, and asked her countless questions about her discovery. Her day. Geneva Scala answered shortly, and the Second Mind seemed increasingly displeased by the answers.

(Too quickly. Too quickly now. But how long? Since your defiance of the Third Mind? Why did I not see? We are Minds. We have no eyes.)

It made no sense, babbling to itself. Geneva took it back. Compared to the Fourth Mind, the Second was losing itself faster. Contradiction turned to her, and Geneva Scala bowed.

“I have to get back to work, Second Mind. Did you have anything to teach me or was this it?”

She waited, and the Second Mind slowly beckoned her forwards.

“One thing, Geneva Scala. One thing…I have someone I would like you to meet.”

The scowling [Doctor] stepped forwards. Her head hurt, and she felt cloudy. Her dreams were unrestful, and they kept repeating. She wondered if a Mind could stop it.

…Hadn’t she asked them about that? Geneva just wanted to cure the Wasting. She did not like the Second Mind. Why did she keep thinking that?

She frowned as she looked around for the Selphid she was to meet, but the Second Mind simply lifted up something and put it in her hands. Geneva Scala was about to tell it she had no time for pranks and leave—then she looked down, and her jumbled thoughts cleared.

Her eyes flickered. A shock ran through her, and the Last Light of Baleros, Geneva Scala—felt herself slam back into her body suddenly. She jerked and nearly dropped the jar, but the Second Mind caught her. The second Geneva vanished, and for a moment, she stood there.

(You’re still there. Don’t forget.)

Contradiction whispered to her. It couldn’t do more than this. It was thinking like—it looked weak and in an agony, as if its own thoughts were locked by the other five. Geneva shuddered—and then looked down at the object, no, the person it had used to ground her back into reality.

A squirming, dark purple and orange and…a little shape moved behind the glass, shuddering with each vibration of Geneva’s hands. As if the light and sound—Geneva felt its thoughts and realized each motion, each sense was overwhelming without the protection of a body. And it was trapped in here, in this—

Terror, regret, guilt, all of it poured through with a sense of familiarity as Geneva Scala looked down. The little Selphid whispered to her.

“Geneva?”

“Okasha.”

The Selphid sat there, whispering in a tiny voice in the jar with a few airholes cut in it. Just a jar—Geneva had thought she would be transported somewhere else. But that was all the Selphids gave her. A jar—a prison for one of their own who had violated the Minacien Wall.

It felt so long ago. Geneva bent her head over Okasha as the Selphid cried out.

Tell the Minds I’m sorry, Geneva? I’ll do anything to make amends. I’m sorry for what I did to you, but I don’t want to be here any longer. I’m so sorry.

“Okasha…”

Geneva Scala looked up, and the little Selphid flinched as something fell into its jar. It searched around greedily for it, but it was just water. Water and mucus and salt, which was what tears were.

The [Doctor] looked up as the Second Mind floated above her. Contradiction spoke heavily.

(It is all drawing to a close.)

Then—Geneva knew what she had to do while she still had a mind to do it. She bent over Okasha and spoke for a while. When she looked up—Geneva Scala stared back at her through a mirror. Her lips moved, and Geneva heard herself speak.

“I am the center of the Mind.”

“I am the mind in the Center.”

“I am myself, and we are me.”

Then she paused and looked herself in the eye, and a smile crossed her lips.

“I am Geneva Scala.”

 

——

 

Waking was beginning to blend with sleeping. She knew time was passing, but not how much. In the way of dreams, time didn’t matter. Moments felt like hours, and days passed in blinks.

It was just Geneva Scala, the real Geneva, watching a false figment of her slowly changing as the Minds willed it. She had moments of lucidity and wondered if this were how someone under a degenerative mental condition felt.

She had heard some coma patients were trapped in their own bodies. Unable to tell the outside world they were aware of everything they saw and touched and felt and heard, but she had only understood that horror in an abstract way.

This was far worse than anything she could have imagined.

She could now see the conclusion, and the Titan’s promise seemed less and less like salvation, if it had ever been that. Now it looked like a day of awakening. But it would be from nightmare into horrific reality.

“You’ve always been prisoner of the Minds. You knew it. You knew it, and the lie was ever thinking you’d leave. Did you think you’d make it? You shouldn’t have survived that first battlefield, Geneva. The Minds are far, far cleverer than a mere war and [Soldiers]. This time, you won’t make it.”

The second Geneva spoke to her, like some kind of dark other consciousness. She stood in Geneva’s head, growing larger every day. A figure wading in bloody waters in her vision of the Minacien Wall.

A [Doctor], hands covered in gore as she stood at an operating table in the middle of a warzone, watching patients die and die without potions or hope.

A blank-faced woman, working by candle-light into the night, the Last Light, scarred and numb to her friends.

Geneva Scala, sitting on her bed as Idis tried to cheer her up. Contemplating her end.

Her mistakes were coming back to haunt her again. If the other Geneva was what the Minds wanted her to be, a growing stain in her head—all the moments she didn’t remember, her dark suspicions—the Geneva who still was remembered her follies.

They assailed her from the start. Why had she ever joined a mercenary group? She had volunteered by telling them she was a [Doctor]. She had known—even the moment she appeared on Baleros—what would happen.

It was pure arrogance that led a surgical resident in her third year to think she could replace industry, veterans, and all the tools and things that made medicine in the modern era. She should have died with Sergeant Thriss killing her for insubordination.

Or in a hundred other moments where [Soldiers] should have run her through. And after—staying and wandering from battlefields, trying to bring some kind of decency and hope to a war?

All she’d done was make it worse. She’d fueled the bloodbath that occurred between the Razorshard Armor and Roving Arrow companies. More than once, Geneva had wondered if her bringing back soldiers for them to die fighting had driven them to escalation.

If those were her two mistakes, she could have said that at least she walked away from the warzones and tried to make a difference elsewhere—but even there, her failures compounded. Her clinic…it had helped stop the Yellow Rivers epidemic. In part. In some small way, perhaps.

But she’d forgotten about Okasha. The Selphid had endured half a year without appreciation until she’d snapped. It might have been her fault in many ways, but in this self-reflection, Geneva saw how all the warnings were there. The irony was that if Okasha had been her patient, Geneva would never have taken her for granted like that.

Lastly and finally—the Minds. She should have known. She should have been more careful. She should never have given them what they wanted so plainly.

I am a [Doctor]. But I should know how even medicine and knowledge is twisted and used. 

She should have done so many things. Instead…Geneva was drowning, and there was no way out. The waters were closing in around her head, and the blank spots were growing.

 

——

 

When she could think, when she felt fully in control of her faculties, Geneva Scala thought of a way out. She wondered if the Titan would bring an army. If she managed to escape the Minds or he forced them to leave, what then?

She already felt…certain that the Minds would be done before he arrived. But even if she reached him like this, she didn’t want this.

She couldn’t remember the morning. Each Mind saw her, day by day, and the Second Mind last and shortest of them all. But Geneva felt like the moments blurred together. She would catch herself walking back from meeting the 5th Mind or think she was about to meet the 3rd Mind—and not remember what she’d done.

Time and reality stabilized around the Second Mind’s visits. It might have been trying to undo what was going on or—halting it temporarily. But it had agreed to think alike.

“What have I done? Second Mind? Do you know?”

She sat in front of it, and the Second Mind floated there in the air. Its ‘voice’ was oh so quiet.

(I do not know. I fear.)

“So do I. May I see Okasha again? One last time?”

Silently, the Second Mind took out the jar. Okasha always cried out when she sensed someone there.

“Hello? Is that you, Geneva? It’s been so long.”

It had only been a day. But to a Selphid, senseless, it must feel like solitary confinement. Geneva held the jar.

“Okasha. I’m sorry.”

“Stop—stop apologizing. Not for this. I know what I did. The Second Mind is kind. Kinder than Calectus or…I deserve. It’s been showing me what I’ve done wrong. How you felt. I—I don’t want to ever do that again. Geneva, I’m the one who was wrong.

The Selphid squirmed in the jar. Geneva Scala shook her head.

“I ignored you.”

(The hand that swings the sword is still larger to blame.)

Contradiction whispered, and the two fell silent for a moment. Okasha agreed, and Geneva sensed her desperate, confined thoughts slow. Perhaps she too was learning to become a [Telepath]—but Okasha’s class was red.

“Geneva. I’m glad someone else is helping you walk. I…I should be punished. I should have to join the Bodies of Fellden as a [Conscript]. I will. I’ll make amends, and they can watch me and make sure I never get near another person again. But please? Please ask them to give me a body? There’s nothing here. I’m going crazy. It feels like years have passed. I can’t remember what things feel like.”

She pleaded with Geneva, and the [Doctor] hugged the jar to her chest as Idis hissed silently in her mind. She had no sympathy for Okasha, who had endangered her people and violated the great law of Selphids.

But Geneva still did.

“I’ll try, Okasha. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to. The Second Mind might…”

She looked up, and the Second Mind whispered.

(I will try.)

“I’ll ask the other Minds as well, Okasha.”

“Thank you. Thank you, Geneva. I’m…”

 

——

 

Sorry. Idis was striding away from the Second Mind’s rooms angrily. She was angry, and Geneva felt the emotion in her veins as the Selphid provoked her biology.

“You shouldn’t forgive her, Geneva. Not after what she did. She violated the Minacien Wall. I know she did it to save your life, but she started becoming a controller. She—deserves that jar.”

There was something so ironic about Idis’ claim that Geneva laughed despite herself.

She’s the only one who should be punished, Idis? Really?

The laughter was so strong that the Selphid had to work to keep Geneva from guffawing as Selphids passed by. So many were moving, some bearing weapons, others bringing supplies down.

Down…Geneva’s mind wrenched away from that.

“The Minds are—doing what they know is best. I’m here because we’re doing what Selphids need. Curing the Wasting. I know some things are off—”

“Like the Second Mind?”

A passing [Psychic Guardian], Ressk, turned his head as Geneva and Idis argued. Hurriedly, Idis bowed to him and moved them onwards. She whispered mentally instead.

(That—that wasn’t right. I know there might be things that aren’t fully right. But they promised to give you to the Titan.)

(Do you know what they’re doing to me?)

The Selphid missed a step, and Geneva stumbled. She fell, and Calectus, walking down the corridor, grabbed her. Geneva looked up as the [Honor Guard] steadied her.

“Doctor Scala. Idis, be more careful of her.”

“Sorry, sir.”

Idis began to salute with Geneva’s hand, and Calectus gave her a reproving look. Idis guiltily snatched the hand down, and Geneva, in control, gave Calectus a waxy smile.

“What about you? Have none of you violated the Minacien Wall?”

The other Selphids passing by her, Ressk, Calectus, Idis—all of them fell silent. Each one different. Ressk, the loyal servant of the Third Mind, was silent to his master’s will. Idis tried to say something.

“We’re—the Minds are intelligent—”

And Calectus? Geneva Scala looked up into his face. A female Dullahan adjusted her head, but the Selphid inside stared down at Geneva coldly. She had misjudged other people, the Minds included, but never more than him.

[Honor Guard]. He looked down at her and shook his head.

“You should rest, Doctor Scala. Sleep on your worries. The Minacien Wall is stronger than you think. We have not even cracked it.”

He meant the words for Idis, and the Selphid fixed on him with Geneva’s eyes, but her uncertainty radiated through Geneva’s body. Yet the [Doctor] just chuckled, and even the Selphids shivered at her voice. She spoke to him and saw an escape. But a terrible one.

“We’re on the wrong side of it, Calectus. And we’re sinking.”

Even the [Honor Guard] froze a moment, but he continued on walking. And Geneva…came upon her plan to end this bad dream.

 

——

 

They could not have her mind. It might be arrogance to think that she mattered that much, but she had already seen how the Minds wanted her to build their Selphids better bodies.

She…remembered the basement. Vaguely. The First Mind’s revelation escaped her direct understanding, but she remembered how she’d felt.

And that was only what she remembered. No, she would not be party to more violations of the Minacien Wall. They might want her to cure the Wasting—but would a day come when they asked her to operate on a living person, to change someone against their will, implant galas-muscle into them?

Worse, was there a day when she would agree without a second thought?

Her dreams were getting worse. Now, the nineteen year-old Geneva Scala hummed as she brought a body out for a Selphid to infest. She flirted with the coroner, and her best friend smiled at her, and he stared at her as a glowing orange line wriggled through his flesh.

When will I be comingled with a Selphid? Two, becoming better together? A symbiosis of two species?

Then she woke. And she saw how the Minds wished all species viewed them. Only Contradiction, the Second Mind, understood the horror of its own species.

It must…be so hard to accept that you could be the monster. That there were reasons to fear you.

No more. No more, and not me.

Geneva Scala hatched a plan so deep within her own head not even the other Minds could see it. She had thought this when Okasha began taking control.

How did you beat someone in your body? Now—she was both a prisoner in her head as well as a prisoner of her own consciousness. How did you resist the Minds? Even if she beat them—how did she stop Idis?

Idis was in her. She, even when sleeping, could lock down Geneva so fast the [Doctor] would be helpless. She’d done it before—reacted before Geneva could cut her hand, stopped her from falling or making mistakes.

Even if Geneva reached for a blade or tried to run, Idis would be there. The Minds were worse, but Geneva realized that she had an opening. One way out that no one would expect.

That night, Geneva Scala had a hard time getting to sleep. Her changing dream and that other self waited for her. She tossed and turned, and Idis grew tired as she tried to soothe Geneva.

“I’m gonna throw more…what did you call it? Melatonin in the body. Geneva…”

“Sorry. Just try to get some sleep, Idis.”

The Selphid needed rest just like Geneva. But the [Doctor] was tossing and turning so much that Idis stayed up well, well past when she wanted. To Geneva’s amusement, she realized that was the first drawback Idis had ever suffered for being in Geneva.

Well, it suited her plans. Geneva Scala slept, but unlike Idis, she put something in her head. A reminder to wake.

 

——

 

“What are you doing?”

The Other Geneva knew what this Geneva wanted, but she couldn’t stop her. Soon, she might—but the [Doctor] just dreamed for a bit.

And what her new self showed her was a dream.

It had no basis in reality—just Geneva’s imagination. It was based purely off what she’d been told and her own horror movies and sense of the unnatural and what she found horrific.

Unfortunately, she was a doctor. So her images of dripping sclera of eyes mixing with cilia waving in a mass, like the inside of some foul stomach, were all too real. She looked into a cavern of veins, some massive, hollowed out structure.

A body with too many eyes. A creature long-dead, but still growing in the sands of Chandrar. A reminder of the truth of this world.

Tombhome. The Selphid-Geneva pointed to it, eyes darting with her own fear.

“You think this is a terrible fate? You will be prisoner there, and if you think this is bad—

She tried to pull Geneva away, but the [Telepath] floated towards that vision. She turned, almost amused, to her enemy.

“If this is bad, is what’s happening to me any better? All I know is that even the Minds fear it.”

“You don’t know what you’ll become. You will regret it.”

That might be true. Geneva felt a true fear in her marrow as she stared at the open corpse’s mouth. It was welcoming her in. But she clung to one person who stood at those gates, waving to her.

“Perhaps. But it won’t be a tool of the Minds. I know only the Second Mind as the one Selphid I trust. And I have seen how it must think alike. But…at least I know one person of A’ctelios Salash I admire.”

Seve-Alrelious smiled at her, and Geneva slowly began walking towards him. The other Geneva called out.

“Stop! Minds! Idis. She’s—”

 

——

 

Then she woke up, just as her thought told her to. Geneva sat up in the darkness, and Idis woke.

“Geneva? Is something wrong?”

“No, Idis. I’m just—restless. Go back to sleep.”

Geneva Scala slowly got up. The Selphid sleepily protested.

“Can we lie down? Your body’s tired.”

She didn’t feel Geneva’s heart beating a bit faster or notice the chemicals moving through her body. It was a quiet dread. Geneva slowly crossed her room and found the pantry and her things, scattered on the table, as messy as her lab was not.

“In a second. I’ll just have a bite to eat before I sleep.”

“Good idea.”

The Selphid barely moved or thought as Geneva Scala slowly bent down. She would have if Geneva was doing anything so dangerous as, say, reaching for a knife. But she was tired—even Selphids got tired.

And complacent. No Mind was watching Geneva. She was just…

Having a bite to eat. Geneva’s room was dark, and the [Doctor] turned on no lights. She didn’t want Idis to see.

She had to find a knife to cut, and Idis never noticed as Geneva took something and held it in one hand. She opened her mouth—and then stared down at the warm thing she held.

There was no going back. She knew that, and she thought she was prepared. But she truly wasn’t. Geneva wondered…what would happen to Idis. By all accounts, any Selphid could fall victim to A’ctelios Salash’s flesh too.

That was why the [Doctor] wavered. Could she do this to Idis? Did that violate her oath?

Your oath? Who actually respects it? Are you clinging to your oath when they have all taken every single violation and excused it?

Part of her mocked that. Geneva’s hand trembled. She opened her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut.

She was supposed to be a [Doctor].

“Geneva?”

Idis woke and seemed to sense something was wrong. She inhaled that strange, tantalizing aroma, and Geneva’s arms jerked. Her jaw tried to close, but Idis stopped it. Then froze. She made a sound.

No! What’s going on? G—

The [Doctor] felt the Selphid spasm. Then Idis went silent. Geneva stumbled—but the hand which seized her wrist was far, far too strong. She was still holding the meat.

But someone else was in the room. She struggled, but the figure effortlessly shoved her back, and then her feet left the ground. She floated—and a voice spoke in the darkness.

“Don’t move. Don’t alert the Minds. We have minutes once one of them checks on you, but they are all searching for the Titan’s followers. We must be near the exits before they sense us.”

Who—

The power keeping her up faded. Then Geneva felt herself lowering, and a light bloomed. Panting, hiding the flesh in her pocket now, she looked up and saw her door was open.

Eighteen bodies stood there, each one’s eyes pale, lifeless—but the faint glow beneath their skin marked them as Selphids.

Selphids? Geneva looked up, and [Psychic Guardian] Ressk stared down at her. Then she was confused.

“Ressk?”

The Third Mind’s own [Guardian] looked around and grabbed Geneva’s bag of holding. He threw it into her hands.

“We are leaving. The [Guardians] have decided this has gone too far. This is more than just the Minacien Wall being breached. The basement—what they are doing to you—enough.”

“You’re the Third Mind’s [Guardian].”

She didn’t mean it as an accusation—not quite—but Ressk just looked at her.

“Yes. I was meant to guard the Third Mind and execute its wishes. I am also meant to be its check. I failed. No questions. Run. We’ll cloak your mind.”

Geneva stumbled; she could barely move with whatever they’d done to Idis. When the others saw that, the Selphids grabbed her and helped her run. Eighteen stormed down the hallway and through the Gathering Citadel.

Geneva saw bodies lying in the hallway—and she realized they had fought their way to her. Silently, but they had to ascend through the Gathering Citadel.

“The Titan is on his way. If we reach his people, they can take you to safety.”

The [Psychic Guardian] led the way with two others. The First and Sixth Mind’s own personal [Guardians] had rebelled. They ran, and Geneva followed them. But they never made it higher than the 3rd floor.

(TREACHERY.)

One of the Minds must have checked in on Geneva or tried to reach her thoughts. When it sensed her absence and noticed the other Selphids, the entire Gathering Citadel shook with that word.

Run!

Ressk and the Selphids tried to take Geneva up the stairs, but the Bodies of Fellden and forces in this citadel came down, leaping and crashing into the traitors without regard for injury. Ressk took Geneva down the 3rd Floor, and her heart juddered in her chest.

This was the Third Mind’s—

One of the Selphids screamed. Then Geneva saw the body crash into one of the stone walls and flatten as the Third Mind vented its fury.

(RESSK. TRAITOR.)

“Run, [Doctor]. Someone, tell the Titan—”

The [Psychic Guardian] slowed. Ressk passed by an open hallway, and Geneva saw a pulsing orb of Selphids rising. It tried to grab her—but Geneva Scala felt Ressk push the Third Mind back.

Somehow—his skin writhed, and his bones began cracking. Geneva looked at him as the Selphid stared at the Third Mind. Slowly, he walked into the room.

“The second floor!”

The remaining Selphids just grabbed Geneva and towed her on. Five were left; the others were fighting or dead as the Minds simply pressed and they fell, motionless.

But the remaining five had something on them. Rings and amulets of that twisted material.

Selrite. They took Geneva up and would have gone to the First Floor save for another wave of Selphids. So they ran the long way around as one tangled with the others, Rampaging, swinging a burning pair of daggers.

Four left. They were passing by the Second Mind’s chambers, and no force came to kill them. Geneva Scala saw one Selphid look behind, raising a bow—then vanish as a spear struck them through the chest.

It struck the Selphid, and the body dropped without a sound. The last three Selphids whirled, and a figure stood between them and the stairs.

“Calectus.”

Geneva whispered. The [Honor Guard] raised a glaive and set himself as the remaining three Selphids looked at Geneva. Slowly, one tugged an amulet off his chest.

“We can’t beat him. Doctor…”

He stared at her and then fell forwards as the Minds touched his. But the amulet rolled from his fingers, and the Selrite touched Geneva.

She slowly picked it up and saw nothing in the dead Selphid. Nothing moving.

He was dead.

The last two strode forwards as Calectus advanced, but his eyes were on Geneva. She was putting on the amulet. Why? He lunged, suddenly attacking in a frenzy.

The [Doctor] pulled something out of her pocket as the Selphids fought. Idis was moaning, incoherent, and the other Minds were shouting, but the vibrating amulet was stopping them. Geneva Scala looked at the flesh in her hand.

No. Geneva! Not that!

Idis screamed as she saw Geneva lifting the piece of flesh from the Carven City. Poison, an addictive poison that would never leave you. A hunger that grew—

The [Doctor] made her choice. She raised her arm, and the Minds threw their force at the Selrite, but it shielded Geneva from their telepathy even as it began to crack from the force. Idis was still stunned.

The Second Mind’s chamber doors lay open as Geneva Scala opened her mouth. Even so close, she was shielded from it. But not from—

A pair of chopsticks hit Geneva’s hand so hard they snapped it back. The Second Mind snatched the piece of flesh up, and Geneva grabbed for it—until a soccer ball hit her in the head.

Objects, playthings, props, surrounded her. The Second Mind had no power over her while she wore the Selrite—but the chopsticks just grabbed the piece of material and tore it off her chest, snapping the links of silver.

Clever. The other Minds had never considered how to bypass Selrite, but the Second Mind knew that it could manipulate everything but Geneva.

Contradiction!

Geneva grasped for the choice hanging in front of her, but the Second Mind spoke as the Selrite amulet landed upon the floor. The flesh-metal began to break apart.

(I cannot allow you to do that, Geneva. I must think alike.)

Its mental tones were tired and sad as Calectus strode towards Geneva. He tore her away from the piece of flesh, and the Second Mind addressed the [Honor Guard].

“Search her rooms. Confiscate the poison from A’ctelios Salash. The mutiny is done.”

“By your will, Second Mind.”

Geneva looked around as Calectus grabbed her arm.

“Idis, take control. Idis—are you alive?”

“Calectus? I feel sick.”

Idis whispered, but she was regaining control of Geneva’s body. Helplessly, the [Doctor] watched as Calectus bent over the bodies of the Selphids who’d tried to let her escape. He thrust his glaive into the torso of each one.

More death. There was no escape. Not one way or…the Second Mind hung there, and Geneva heard it whispering to her.

(I’m sorry.)

 

——

 

The day thereafter, the Minds pretended nothing was amiss. The Third Mind summoned Geneva only to tell her that the Titan had left his warfront against The Dyed Lands.

(He may be heading in this direction. The Fourth Mind estimates he may arrive in four days’ time. Three, if he rushes. All will be well.)

It was rewarded with a smile. Geneva Scala smiled at the Third Mind. Ever since she was nineteen, she had been in service to Selphids and the Minds.

“Yes, Third Mind. What shall I work on today?”

(Continue your research into other species’ biologies. You may go unless you have need of this Mind’s abilities. Be as productive as you can.)

It was grand and wise, and it pushed her to work harder. But the Third Mind reassured her, even when she came up with little. It was okay.

Soon, things would change and be even better.

 

——

 

The Second Mind said nothing. Nothing to Geneva. It just sank so low it was practically on the floor, and its [Guardian] offered it treats. But it didn’t want to eat.

It just floated there. Geneva Scala waited for orders. She waited for instruction and asked the Second Mind.

“Do you have anything you want me to do, Second Mind? I am at your disposal.”

It took the Mind nearly eight minutes to reply. And when it did, it just said three words.

(Yes. You are.)

Nothing more. It did not dismiss her; she just left.

 

——

 

Geneva Scala was no longer in control of her body. She hadn’t been for a long time.

She was out of ideas. She sat and watched the Other Geneva growing. Now, she sat across from Geneva, across a table in the United Nations’ headquarters, clasping a mug of tea in her hands. But there was nothing reassuring about this. It was just proof that the other Geneva looked like her. Mimicked her.

Spoke to her.

There was pity in her voice. A kind of macabre sympathy. As if a nightmare were almost regretting what came next. Yet there was also a contempt for the [Doctor] that ran in every word.

“You failed. Stop struggling. You, of all people, should know there is no way out. The Titan was your hope, but he is too slow. He is a warlord, a killer; he does not save people. He never did. But you knew it was going to turn out this way.”

“Did I?”

Geneva Scala looked up blankly. She was staring at her hands, which had scars and calluses from working with a scalpel. She looked around for Ken, Daly, Luan—all the others.

“Some days, I think this is all one bad dream and I’ll wake up and go back to class and get a job as a surgeon. This entire world—felt fake at first. I wish it was.”

The other Geneva laughed with all her memories and scorn.

This world is very real. Tell me, Geneva. Why did you try to help people? Don’t say it was ‘because I’m a [Doctor]’. Don’t say it was because of your oath. Was it your ego? A god-complex?”

Geneva flinched. It said the word. The last defense against a Mind—was no defense if she was her own opponent. The other Geneva’s eyes lit up.

“Oh yes. I know that word. The Minds have more to learn from you, Doctor Scala. Something only you can do. But don’t fear this will all end with you waking up. This world is very real. You knew it. Only a real world would be like this. A place where all good intentions are used for someone else’s gain. You knew the world was like this and people would take you and steal everything you had and throw you away when you were worthless.

Geneva looked up. And at last, there was actual, genuine anger in her eyes. Her hands made fists, and she cried out the same words she’d said in her mind upon those bloody battlefields.

“What did I ever do to deserve this? If you’re me—tell me that. What did I do? I just tried to save lives! I didn’t ask to be crippled. I didn’t ask to be kidnapped. What have I done to earn this?”

Slowly, as if drip-feeding it into her ears, the other Geneva replied.

“Isn’t it obvious? You didn’t fight back. You don’t kill. Look at you, complaining about the most unnatural thing. It’s always easy to attack you. Even rabbits struggle, but you? You swore an oath. You could have eaten that flesh. But you thought it would hurt Idis, so you hesitated. Even at the end, there’s something funny about how you keep trying not to harm anyone—and that you expect things to work out for you. Ressk died along with seventeen other Selphids. They killed to try to set you free. But you won’t, even if it makes things so much simpler. What a pointless oath. It belongs in a fairytale or a paradise like Khelt. Here? It doesn’t work.

Geneva Scala didn’t respond. Her head was bowing, lower and lower, as the tide washed in. A filthy bloody pool of regret and darkness to drown her.

One more day. The Minds were almost done. They laughed at the Titan and everything else. He had to move armies. All they had to do was…change someone’s mind.

The [Doctor] looked up, and a voice whispered to her.

“You’re already dead. You know how this ends. Lie in your grave quietly. Don’t cry, don’t cry. We’re creating something completely new.”

 

——

 

On the final day, Geneva Scala woke up. She remembered…everything.

Her dream of being nineteen years old, that false memory, was an old one. The truth was that it had some basis in reality. She had been a first responder volunteer, and she had touched dead bodies—but before that as well.

There had been a coroner and a friend she didn’t really know who freaked out, and he’d thrown up—and then helped pick up the body. The coroner had been unpleasant, but softened up and talked about his job.

That was all. When Geneva woke, she could see how long the lies had been going for. How deep the manipulation was.

She didn’t lie to herself, not today. This lucidity meant it was time.

The Minds didn’t summon her. They no longer pretended to anything. The Selphids remaining in the Gathering Citadel were arming themselves but only preparing for the Titan’s coming lightly. The Minds didn’t expect violence.

The Second Mind was nothing like the one that had been bouncing soccer balls, experimenting, joking when Geneva Scala entered its chambers.

“It has not moved or thought in three days. I…I will leave you.”

The Second Mind’s [Guardian] whispered to her, and Geneva Scala approached the Second Mind. Contradiction did not react to her. She sat.

“Will you let me enter your center, Contradiction? One last time? It’s today, isn’t it? Do you know what will happen?”

(No.)

The thought was very faint. The Second Mind did not move; the Selphids just slowly squirmed together. Geneva reached out, but they recoiled, pushing inwards, away from her hand.

“Will you let me speak with you? I need a friend.”

It said nothing. The [Telepath] reached out, but she felt a wall far beyond her ability to breach. The Minacien Wall?

That the Second Mind would not speak to her, today of all days, filled Geneva with a terrible anger. Today, at last, they sprang to her eyes. Idis was silent. As if she no longer knew how to even lie.

Please, Contradiction. Say something. Tell me the Titan can help. Can’t you convince them? Can’t you try? Even if you think alike—is this it? Can’t I do anything?”

The Second Mind didn’t reply. It was weak, beaten, and Geneva Scala knew it had struggled and fought terribly for her. She knew it, but for once, the [Doctor] lashed out.

“I thought you could do something. I thought the Titan was supposed to be the world’s greatest [Strategist]. Where—where is he? Why has no one come? Where’s Daly and the Bushrangers? Where’s Luan? Where’s Umina and the Hundredfriends Courier and all my friends? Where are the companies I’ve helped? The people whose lives I apparently saved?

She clenched her fists, and tears sprang to her eyes.

“I never asked for anything back. I never needed it. I did what I could because I thought it was making a difference, and that was fine. But when I need it—just once, right now?

She looked around.

“Anyone? Please?”

No one spoke. Not Idis, not the Second Mind. Geneva Scala sat there, and tears leaked onto the floor of the Gathering Citadel. Day passed into evening, and she just sat there. Waiting. But no one showed up to change this story before the finale.

It was just her.

 

——

 

The Titan of Baleros descended into the valley where the Minds waited. Flying carpets flew overhead, and [Mages] hovered so high they needed breathing spells to just exist.

Fraerlings sat on the shoulders of Tallfolk, and small and large wore armor. A few had amulets or other magical protections; a squad of eighteen Fraerlings armed with Signim were mounted on bats, and a single [Rogue] was waiting alone.

They had squads. Teams of Tallfolk, each equipped with a [Mage], a trap-expert, front-line fighters, archers, and Fraerlings. Niers had his own command squad, but he was hanging back.

Death-Commander Theilo, his formal rank, had command on the ground under Niers. The scarred Stitch-man had an amulet around his chest, and he turned to the Titan.

“We are prepared to launch an assault at your command, Titan. I expect the Selphids have dug in. How many casualties should we be prepared to take until a retreat?”

“60% or if I fall. It shouldn’t come to that. We’ll make contact first.”

“Very good, sir.”

The conversation did not go unnoticed by the other officers. Or the soldiers. They were grim, the rest of the army dug into higher positions, but Niers had told them who they were facing.

Minds. Possibly multiple of them, who could attack from afar and stop your heart or brain with a thought. The Titan was probably the only thing keeping them in place; they thought he was their trump card.

What he told no one, but Eirnos had probably guessed, was that one of the Titan’s best Skills was useless.

He could turn off levels, magic, and Skills.

Not thoughts.

“Selrite Bane Team—do we have [Detect Life] spells on the Minds?”

“I sense six super-clusters of life, Titan.”

They had the magical edge. Niers nodded.

“Your orders are to obey Plan B without fail if I execute it. Hold back from any fighting until then. Do not enter until I give the signal.”

They checked their crossbows and blades without a word. Plan B sounded innocuous. But Plan B meant everyone was about to die.

Plan B was that they flew into the Gathering Citadel and tried to kill every Mind they saw. It might work since they were armed with Selrite gear.

It wouldn’t come to that, hopefully. So why did Niers feel a growing sense of dread as he called out, magnifying his voice to be heard in the jungle and dirt mounds.

There were a few camouflaged tunnels that led into the Gathering Citadel from above. Another bad way to siege this place; it meant they had no alternate entrances. In theory, it meant the Minds were trapped, but they had every advantage.

“Minds of Baleros! I’ve come for the Last Light. I would like to meet her. I would like a response. I’ve been very polite—now, I’m knocking on your door. You have thirty minutes. If I don’t see her by then, I’m coming in to find her. If I so much as sense a single intrusive thought—I’ll stop being so nice.

His voice echoed dully off the far hills. It was no idle threat, and Niers felt his forces tense. He felt like the Minds would agree to show Geneva to him.

So why did he have that pit in his stomach? Not [Dangersense] but true intuition? 

Hurry, the note said. Hurry…

He feared he was too late. But the Titan could only wait, wait and curse not being everywhere. He leaned heavily on the pedestal on which he stood as the Fraerlings and Tallfolk waited. He really had gone as fast as he could.

But he had been months late. Months on Izril. His eyes sunk into their sockets, and the Titan whispered a promise. Not something the Minds could hear, just for him.

“I know. I know it was so easy to grab her. And until I started bothering you, there was no one to interfere. No one could; this world is ruled by dictators and tyrants, and power confers every right. I should know; I’m one of those people. So you may have done something and think you’ve gotten away with it.”

The Minacien Wall. The Titan’s gaze rose, and he did not smile.

“You must think I’m a fool. If you try to play me, go ahead. But though I may benefit from the same system we all do—I’m also the end. I’m the blade even immortality can’t turn. I’ve seen the faces of Elves, and they knew the exact same thing. However long you rule, however secret you may be and however many levels you hoard and how much power you acquire—”

His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword.

“—someone will take you to task for it. Now show me. Where is the [Doctor]?

 

——

 

(It’s time.)

When the Second Mind finally bestirred itself, Geneva Scala looked up. The Titan’s voice was so loud that even the few entrances to the Gathering Citadel let it echo down.

“Surely the Minds wish to see you. Geneva—”

Idis urged her up, but the Second Mind stopped them both. It rose slightly.

(The Minds will commune together. They already gather. Geneva Scala. It is time.)

It sounded so weary and weak that Geneva feared it was dying from what had been done to it. But the Second Mind slowly floated upwards.

(I do not know what this night brings. Only that I am sorry it ever came to this at all. I go to the other Minds, and we shall have one final reckoning. As for you—you are a prisoner of this place. In both body and mind. There is no easy escape for you, but perhaps you may reach him.)

“I thought the Minds were going to present me to the Titan regardless?”

Geneva was surprised by the Second Mind’s thoughts. It trembled slightly, and its voice became weaker still.

(They intend to. But that would be the worst of all. Run, Geneva Scala. Flee to him and tell him everything.)

“Second Mind! Wh-what are you saying?

Contradiction rose higher. And it seemed to Geneva that the Selphids had all gone still in its body. Yet its voice grew stronger, its mental link brighter.

Brighter, but with a painful brilliance. As if it were bursting a dam, breaking a bond. Contradiction flared like a sun, a match in the darkness before it burnt out.

(Idis. The time has come for you to make a choice. I am going to my fellow Minds. But I shall not think with them. Once more—strife. I will offer them one last choice, and you must make your own. You have seen everything that has happened to Geneva Scala. I tell you this: the Minacien Wall has been violated. Crimes against thought and people have occurred here. But you knew this. Will you help Geneva Scala flee?)

“Second Mind—I’m loyal to my people. Y-you’re asking me to betray them? Betray Calectus? He’ll kill me.”

(Courage always has a cost. Or it would not be courage. You have watched far, far too long. Ressk made his choice. I have made mine. What of you?)

In the dark room, the Second Mind turned to Idis. And Geneva’s…what? Her friend? Her captor? The Selphid who had gotten to know her most, the one who had replaced Okasha, writhed with uncertainty. She spoke with the [Doctor]’s mouth.

“I like you, Geneva. I’ve seen just how good you are. You really are helping everyone. I thought you were just pretending—but you—you didn’t deserve this. I’m sorry about this.”

She bowed Geneva’s head, and the [Doctor] waited. Then she felt one hand slowly rise. Idis studied it and flexed the fingers.

“It feels wonderful. But I’ve felt so guilty it made it all so much less fun than it should be. I wish Calectus hadn’t chosen me. Minds? Minds! MINDS, THE TRAIT—

Geneva’s voice rose in a scream as Idis began to shout with both thought and will. Geneva’s voice strained and then cut off. The [Doctor] staggered—then slowly collapsed onto the ground. She tried to move, but suddenly—she couldn’t. She lay there, spasming, and then understood why.

The Second Mind hovered there, and Geneva reached for the Selphid’s thoughts. Her companion—

“Idis? Idis?

Neither she nor Idis had expected…the Second Mind’s voice was quiet.

(There are always consequences.)

“You killed her.”

Geneva tried to raise her head, but she couldn’t. The Second Mind replied faintly.

(You and I differ in one respect, [Doctor]. For all I admire you, I am no healer. Idis made her choice. Now, you must make yours.)

How was she supposed to escape now? Geneva began to laugh hysterically. Until the Second Mind placed something in front of her. It unscrewed the lid, and Geneva stared at an oozing little being in the glass jar. A voice called out.

“Second Mind? Is that you, Geneva? What—what’s happening?”

(No other Selphid can bring you to safety. The choice is yours.) 

The Second Mind waited as Geneva Scala stared at Okasha. Then she was laughing, laughing bitterly as Okasha called out blindly, afraid. Not in hatred or despair, but in irony.

It was all coming full circle.

You can’t escape.

Slowly, Geneva Scala pushed, and the jar tipped over. The lid fell out, and a blind Selphid squirmed along the ground towards the closest safety it could sense. But when it reached her, it froze. It crept along one ear and felt at her body.

Geneva? Is that you?

“It’s me, Okasha.”

The little Selphid felt at her head.

“Why are you here? Where’s…where’s Idis?”

“She’s dead. I can’t walk, Okasha.”

The Selphid slowly squirmed towards Geneva’s face, urgently, and then froze. She was shaking, the [Rogue], shaking with desire, but she began to roll back.

“No. Nonono. This is a trick. This is a test. Not me, Geneva. You know it. I know it.”

The [Doctor] couldn’t even nod, but she blinked as the Second Mind slowly began to rise. Leaving her behind.

“Tonight is a reckoning for all of us, Okasha. I think it’s time to face it all. Help me end things. I don’t think either of us are coming back.”

The Selphid reached out and touched the [Doctor]’s cheek.

“…Oh. In that case…let’s go.”

Slowly, she crawled into Geneva’s skin. And the [Doctor] slowly pushed herself up. Okasha whispered in her mind.

“You didn’t do anything wrong, though, Geneva. Not you.”

“Sometimes, Okasha, it doesn’t matter. Let’s go.”

Geneva Scala got to her feet and turned to the door. Okasha was taking over her body, but she made Geneva’s legs move, hurrying—but someone was already blocking the doorway.

 

——

 

Contradiction floated into that familiar room where five Minds were already waiting. A statue rose above them all, a precursor, perhaps. An ancestor?

A Seamwalker?

Now it made sense. Like a dreadful puzzle finally uncovered, all the pieces lined up. Was this a monument to past hubris or a warning?

The Five Minds were confident, even arrogant as the Second Mind reached them. They parted, waiting for it to float into a ring of six—but it moved into the center instead. The Third Mind floated back, and Dictum felt shocked.

It thought it had won. It might become the Second Mind, soon. Or even the first. Its pervasive ideology had influenced the others. Yet the Second Mind…rebelled.

It had been forced to think alike. Contradiction had been, like Geneva, a prisoner to its own thoughts. Unable to act to help the [Doctor] save in ways that the other Minds agreed with. It shouldn’t have been able to dissent any longer.

—But it was a Mind. Anything could be done. If you were willing to pay for it.

(Second Mind, take your position. The Titan is waiting for Geneva Scala.)

The First Mind tried to reprimand it, confused. The Fifth and Sixth Minds were worried; they could sense something was wrong. The Second Mind pulsed one thought to the others. A brief flicker of minimal thought. Like terse words, quiet, guarded.

(Idis is dead. I have ended her life. The Last Light is fleeing. I hope she reaches the Titan. Whatever plans you have, I have come to offer you one last chance for salvation.)

The other Minds physically recoiled. Their shock became anger/resignation/wrath as they processed this and understood why the Second Mind was here.

(So. You are unable to think alike. This was inevitable. You leave little choice, Contradiction. This Gathering Citadel cannot withstand your treachery. Not now. You will be merged.)

Continuum spoke briefly, and the Third Mind shivered with delight. The Second Mind did not dignify this with a reply. It simply rotated, as if searching for a face among the other five or its own.

They had no faces. No eyes. No bodies—and perhaps that was the final arrogance of Minds. To think that they could replace people. The First and Third Mind were trying to subdue it, but the Second Mind forced them back and called out to the others.

It was weaker. So weak even the Sixth Mind might best it, but it called out to them.

(Minds. There is still a chance not to do this. Geneva Scala was kidnapped the day she came here. From the very start, the Third Mind has violated the Minacien Wall. You have been party to it all, but even now, upon the precipice, there is time. This is a long road, and you have chosen to walk every step into depravity. But I implore you, turn back now.)

(Second Mind, you do not weigh the costs-benefits. The Wasting will kill us. We have already decided, again and again. This appeal at the final hour does no good.)

The Fourth Mind tried to appeal to Contradiction, as if Inconsolable spoke reason. It received a backlash of fury, of frustration, and of such grief and disappointment that it recoiled. The Second Mind turned to the Fifth and Sixth. Even then, they would be half and half.

(What use is a mind if it cannot change? If it cannot learn and grow? You two, Sympathy, Egress—why do you support the Third and First Mind blindly?)

(Why do you dissent continually, Contradiction? Can your mind not process teamwork, collaboration, unity?)

Egress shot back as the other Minds slowly pushed at the Second Mind. Yet it kept up thinning barriers.

Merged. The First Mind was calling for a merge. That was how Minds were made. That was how Minds…died. When two Minds came together to form an even greater mind, absorbing all of the other’s perspectives and ideas and capabilities.

But this would be no equal merge. The Third Mind had too much sway, and its ideas, Dictum, dripped in like poison.

(All of us. Six minds become one. The greatest Mind of all.)

(All?)

Even Continuum hesitated at this, but the Third Mind was insisting.

(The Second Mind will hold too much sway in an unequal merge if it is just you or this mind alone. Six Minds—united.)

Now it was pushing, using every scrap of influence it had to persuade the other Minds into something as horrid as its other deeds. There were sixteen minds left in this world.

Then—eleven? This was the Gathering Citadel formed to halt the Wasting, with more Minds present than any other group. A supermind of them all would be beyond any other being since the days of empire.

It was wrong. But the other Minds were seeing how the Second Mind had rebelled, and if it melded with any one Mind, it might destabilize them. Why not?

They drew around the Second Mind like vultures, tearing at its mental barricades and beginning to take it apart. It fought back, holding itself together, but they were snatching the Selphids away from it. Merging it with their bodies.

The melding was more than that, though. They were flowing together, no longer spheres in the air, but a writhing mass, a sea of bodies that would become something new.

Contradiction still called out as Continuum, Dictum, Inconsolable, Sympathy, and Egress began to lose themselves.

(You fools. Do you think becoming one is the answer? Do you think one mind defeats six? You are lost. Original, new thought by its nature cannot be found within a group. We are no better than the Selphids who became us. We never were. Stop. Please…)

Its voice was being lost in a haze as Contradiction began to dissolve. It gathered the most powerful Selphids to it as the other Minds began to merge around it. Like a dying soul, surrounded by other Selphids.

The irony was that they didn’t understand each other. Even so close as they were, even as Minds…the Second Mind thought differently.

It saw now, as they reached for it and the walls came down, how they thought. Or rather, how they forgot.

…Forgot to see the individual wish among the mass that they were. Hear the single voice, the [Doctor]’s will and place as equals to theirs. They were the will of thousands. And the thousands never considered that they could be wrong. That the suffering of one eclipsed their own.

Like a city of people, they had empathy and desire and virtue and good intent, but they passed by the desperate, the hurt, every single day. A city of souls that only believed in the city, not the parts.

The Second Mind—was different. The Selphids being torn out of its heart were no better or worse than the others. But it was made up of Selphids who had gone to other nations. And they were…

Lonely. They had endured the scorn and distrust of other species, and struggled, making friends and companions without their people to rely on. And when they had come home, they had been strangers.

That sorrow was in Contradiction’s soul. A memory made countless times by children, Selphids who had opposed their families, stood alone regardless of whether they were right or wrong. The conviction to believe something else, no matter how it hurt.

If they were wrong—the other Minds shivered and trembled before that simple thought. If they were wrong and they were committing a sin, what happened then? The foundation of everything fell apart and they were damned and useless.

What then? How could Contradiction think that way? They reached for answers, but the Second Mind had none. In its heart—it only had fear, determination, and sadness.

If we are all wrong—the Third Mind whispered and shook.

…Then we fail and begin again. We pay for our mistakes.

The light they had been following was flickering, and the Minds were lost on a dark crossroads as infinite and lost as another planet. The dark side of the moon. They clung to this vision, despite the pitfalls and the doubts. If that light went out, they were lost.

They were too afraid to try. Too old, following a looping thought that they had to succeed. Too proud. The Second Mind wept for them. They were no better than the Selphids who made them up. Just afraid, five Minds. And it felt itself falling apart at last.

(We are all damned, then.)

Five voices became thousands, united in purpose, and one single Mind spoke. The Combined Mind pushed at the desperate Contradiction…no, whatever was left, as it did to the Second Mind what had been done to Geneva Scala.

Unmaking. Changing.

(You cannot deny the Mind. Geneva Scala will not flee. The Titan will be dealt with. The Wasting ended. We have already succeeded.)

The desperate Mind held its ground. No…the other Mind squirmed with its component bodies, and a kind of dark satisfaction filled the thing that had been called Contradiction.

(Geneva Scala is free. She will escape. No one else will. The Titan will rain down wrath upon this place.)

(His army cannot best this mind. Nor will the Last Light reach the Titan. We have already sent her on her way.)

What? What did that mean? The rapidly disappearing Second Mind…was confused.

(No. I saw her.)

(So did we.)

And the darkness closed in as the Second Mind began to join with the others. And it understood—

Everything.

 

——

 

Geneva Scala straightened, Okasha helping her to move. She stumbled as Idis’ corpse was slowly moved by the new Selphid. She was numb—but she knew she had to run. She almost thought she’d make it.

Until that voice whispered to her. Until her alter ego stood in front of her, in the doorway. She was a Human woman who looked so much like Geneva—save for the orange veins under her skin.

The face was almost perfect. The body? Muscles stood out oddly, as if they weren’t quite adapted yet, and she was far too strong. Too quick; she crossed the room and grabbed Geneva’s arm as Okasha gasped.

“Who—”

The Selphid-Geneva caught The Last Light as the [Rogue] twisted.

“[Slippery Esc—]”

“[Thought Blank].”

—Lying on the floor as the other Geneva knelt on her back. The [Doctor] looked up, and a familiar voice spoke to her.

“I told you it was too late.”

“Geneva? Who’s this?”

Okasha didn’t understand. She struggled, but the arm was twisting Geneva’s back, and something would break if it put even a hair’s more pressure onto Geneva.

A doctor’s understanding of the Human body. Geneva stared up through the searing pain into two dead eyes. But the intelligence behind them was so familiar.

It was like a mirror. A mirror twisted by the Minds.

“You’re me.”

It was so stupid to say, but Geneva had to confirm it. The other Geneva picked her up, and Geneva felt her muscles tense—then fire uselessly. A mental power was locking down her and Okasha.

“Half you. Half the Minds. I am you unburdened. First of many. A [Telepath Healer]—for now. Stronger than you. I gained none of your levels, sadly. But I can level, unlike the Minds.”

“Impossible. Copying a person? That’s wrong. That’s—the Minacien Wall—”

Okasha babbled. The other Geneva just dragged Geneva to her feet.

“The other Minds sent me to make sure the Second Mind didn’t try something like this. Poor Idis. They’ll deal with Contradiction. As for you—it’s time to take you to your end, Geneva. Don’t worry. I will deal with the Titan kindly. Perhaps even stay and help him. He isn’t an enemy. Just too nosy for his own good.”

Now, Geneva saw it. Her feet dragged, but the other Geneva lifted her with the strength of galas-muscle, effortlessly, using her mind to pull Geneva along through the Gathering Citadel. Not up, but down.

The Titan was warning the Minds they had twenty minutes left. Twenty minutes…but far too much time.

“Doctor Scala. The Titan is w—”

Calectus was striding down the corridor with a group of guards, but they froze when they saw the two Genevas. Not in horror—but cautiously.

“The time has come for us to meet, Calectus. Wait for me. I shall take Geneva to the basement. Then meet him.”

The [Honor Guard] bowed instantly.

“Do you need a helper?”

“This body is strong enough. Oh, and Idis is dead. Okasha is in here—Idis died bravely, it seems. I’m sorry about that.”

They stood aside, and Geneva’s rolling head caught Calectus’ eyes. She was dragged towards the staircase, and they began to head down. Now—Geneva understood.

“That’s what the Fourth Mind meant. How long…have you been here?”

“A few days. Didn’t you wonder why you were needed less and less? The other yous didn’t last long. I was the first one who succeeded; they took a template of you and placed it in a Selphid. Then into a body. Soon—we won’t need that. Here we are. You’ve been here before, remember?”

Geneva did. The basement was waiting.

 

——

 

The Titan of Baleros stood outside the Gathering Citadel and waited. He had an hourglass out just for the show of it, but he was counting. A third of the time had passed already, but the Minds had made contact.

(Geneva Scala will appear before you Titan. We accede to your request.)

A presence below the earth spoke, and the soldiers and Fraerlings shivered. Niers could not hear the voice himself due to the helmet, but it was relayed to him. Eirnos felt at her helmet, frowning.

“That voice. I’m reminded of Old Ones, from adventurer stories.”

Niers snorted, but lightly. He murmured out of the corner of his mouth as he saw someone emerge from the citadel’s entrance.

“Old Ones don’t sound like that. If one speaks, you’re dead. But I agree; it’s the same feeling.”

A few of his older soldiers chuckled as everyone turned to him, and Niers covered the smile as Eirnos glared out of one good eye. But he was feeling that pit in his stomach deepen.

Everything I wanted is happening. No blood, no violence.

So why was he certain something was wrong? Niers stared at the body making its way to him through the undergrowth. His soldiers trained bows on the Selphid, but Niers raised his hand.

“Where’s the [Doctor]?”

“She will be arriving within ten minutes, Titan. The Minds have sent me to assuage any fears.”

The Selphid bowed and smiled. It wasn’t one of the higher-ups. Niers eyed the enchanted leather armor and the twin swords the Selphid bore. The warrior noticed the look and bowed again.

“The Minds ask you forgive their precautions. The Forgotten Wing Company is not to be underestimated.”

“Are they speaking through you, then?”

The Selphid’s gaze didn’t flicker—they never did. But the inside of one cheek pulsed in much the same manner.

“Not I. They will find a [Guardian] to act as a proxy momentarily. Forgive us, Titan. The Gathering Citadel is deep.”

“So I understand. But I will be quite merry if I see Geneva Scala unharmed. Will I be seeing that…?”

Niers waited for a name, but the Selphid just shook his head.

“The [Doctor] will appear before you unharmed, Titan. Negotiations can come afterwards. I promise you, she is coming. This is no trap for your forces.”

Niers twisted a ring on his finger as the Selphid glanced at him. A figure was striding past the emplaced soldiers. Death-Commander Theilo.

He was inspecting the [Soldiers], addressing them with a few words, confirming their readiness. The Rustängmarder’s leader felt no nerves. In fact, he was so bold he strayed towards the entrance of the Gathering Citadel.

“Hold your ground!”

Instantly, a voice sounded from within. The Selphid and the other soldiers tensed, but Theilo simply halted. He did not draw his curved sword nor his shield strapped to his back. Instead, one chainmail arm rose, and he briskly saluted a Selphid who half-emerged.

“I simply wish to salute my opponents if we come to battle.”

Niers saw a wary Selphid wearing a Lizardfolk body holding a glaive at the ready. His eyes narrowed.

[Honor Guard]? It looked like the Selphids had a number of them. They must be dug-in, and Selphid [Honor Guards] were tough as nails.

“Commander Theilo, we’re not looking for a damn war. Back to the ranks.”

The fearless commander saluted Calectus, and the [Honor Guard] slowly returned the gesture. Theilo spun on his heel and marched back to Niers. Gindal was giving Niers a look out of the corner of his eye.

“Do you need to bring the most insane officers possible, Titan?”

The Selrite amulet glinted on Theilo’s chest—one of the three figures wearing it. The [Rogue] was sitting, and their top [Mage] was eating a snack.

“Please stay away from the citadel, Titan.”

The Selphid looked worried, but then rallied.

“The Minds know you have not yet come for battle.”

“Wonderful to be trusted at my thoughts. Or rather, words.”

Niers smiled drily, but that pit in his stomach kept sinking. He saw Eirnos worriedly feeling at her helmet as something spoke to them.

(The [Doctor] is coming, Titan. We will await a meeting shortly.)

Niers’ eyes slowly narrowed, but he said not a word as his subordinates relayed the words. But Eirnos? She turned and looked at him.

Did he…hear that voice too? She felt at her helmet and saw the Fraerlings, all eighteen of them, shivering.

They’d heard it too. All their helmets were on.

Was that supposed to happen?

 

——

 

The lowest floor of the Gathering Citadel lay in darkness. So far underground, and cold. Yet it was not empty. Dozens of faces stared blankly up at the curved architecture, beams and supports like veins and curled ribs.

Neither alive nor dead. Empty faces, looking up into oblivion. A Beastkin, face shaped like a rodent, stared next to a Dullahan. Chests rose and fell, but they had no minds left. Geneva Scala saw each one was resting upon a gurney, but they were not strapped down.

Geneva stared around the room—and she had seen it before. But the number of bodies had grown. And there were even more changes made.

Bodies lay there, tended to by poultices, even primitive IV drips. Who had made them? This Geneva? The Minds?

There was worse down here than the vacant Lizardwoman, the empty bodies of people who had been. Projects in progress.

Strands of galas-muscle hung from a rack like strips of meat curing. Limbs sat in runes of preservation next to internal organs, muscle and bone—and a body that had been stripped of all its component parts and was being…rebuilt.

Rebuilt without half the organs a normal person needed to live. Muscle reinforced, bones inserted experimentally.

A body built for Selphids, for battle. Geneva’s eyes whirled crazily around the room. Then she focused on something else. Geneva Scala stared at a vat she remembered—but the liquid that glowed a faint ochre color was now filled with something. She focused on it and saw…an arm, floating in some kind of liquid.

That was her arm. Then, Geneva Scala saw the same freckles near where her thumb and forefinger met. Her hand—and she knew it well. She turned her head and forced the words out beyond the panic and bile.

“You’re cloning me?”

The other Geneva placed her down on one of the waiting beds, securing her arms and legs, and rotated her shoulder with a sigh, just like Geneva did. She fiddled with some glasses that weren’t there and nodded.

“The theory is simple. If a Potion of Regeneration can regenerate a limb—why not a body? In fact, the Minds remember that such a thing has happened, though the results aren’t proper clones and end—poorly. However, my theory was this: why does a Healing Potion not heal severed limbs? Cells still undergo mitosis—they’re still ‘alive’ even after being separated from the body for a time. Something else triggers the potion. My theory was that it was the energy of the body or magical potential—so I took a vat of healing potion and injected mana and a [False Life] spell into it.”

She gestured at the arm.

“It will be you. Slowly. It seems to have a number of complications. My successor can figure out how to make use of an unlimited supply of bodies—and perhaps that’s how we clone galas-muscle—or at least suitable bodies. For now—when I leave, the Minds will have more helpers than just you or me. They’re all ready.”

She pointed at the breathing bodies lying there. Then Geneva felt it.

The Minds were copying her memories into the Genevas. Her dream. She almost felt herself oozing away, piece by piece, and a replica of her, subtly altered, was being spun into the heads of each body. When it was done—when they were satisfied, each Geneva would wake from her dream.

And they would be loyal to the Minds, like this Selphid version of herself.

Geneva had a vision of dozens of them standing—and all smiling like this one was. She stared at the Selphid that the Minds had made.

“That’s not me. You’re not me.”

The Selphid shrugged self-consciously.

“True. I am the Minds and you comingled. They couldn’t trust just any Geneva with meeting the Titan. Those will be closer to true clones of you, with their memories tweaked. Still, I am the best of you and the Minds. Does it matter who I am? I will cure the Wasting. The Minds will have their [Doctor], and Baleros and the Titan their Last Light. Geneva Scala will remain, and if Earth ever makes contact, her family will have their daughter. Just not you. What is there to complain about? Haven’t you wanted more [Doctors], Geneva?”

“Not this. Not you. You—you have no morality. Look at this.

Cloning. People who’d been rendered brain-dead. Mind-alterations and—and that Selphid-Geneva. She was the wrong side of medicine. Someone with all that knowledge and no principles.

Monsters had been recorded in Earth’s history. Geneva had never thought she would be used to make another.

“I can’t—”

She struggled and realized she’d been strapped to the gurney. The other Geneva was stronger than her, faster, and she had more mental power. Okasha was gagging with pain as the other Geneva effortlessly froze the Selphid. The [Doctor] felt like a fool, like some kind of character in an action movie—

“What are you, some kind of action hero? Are you going to burst free and beat me in a fistfight? You don’t harm, Geneva. The Minds have been disappointed by you from the start, but at least you were never a threat. If you had poisoned yourself with the flesh of A’ctelios Salash, you may have ruined their plans. But you didn’t.”

They were too alike. Was there…Geneva stopped trying to break the thick leather, because she couldn’t. She lay there as the other Geneva picked up a scalpel. And her eyes…were sympathetic.

“I’ll make this quick. The Titan is waiting.”

She walked over and the [Doctor] panted.

“Why kill me?”

She was trying to delay, but the other Geneva didn’t buy the trick. She inserted the blade into Geneva’s wrist as she inspected the blood running under her skin.

“I’m sorry to say this, but you’re no longer needed. You’re evidence—and besides, the Minds find you entirely unhelpful. Your replacements will argue less, but you—the Second Mind made you too stubborn. Hold still.”

She cut open Geneva’s skin, and a tiny Selphid reached out to try and seize the scalpel. Without a word, Selphid-Geneva stabbed Okasha. Then she seized the [Doctor]’s wrist. There was still sympathy in her eyes, vague and distant. No compassion. No remorse.

“It’s really over, Geneva. You never had a way to win, and I am sorry about that. Was there anything else you wanted to say?”

She could feel the Minds now, slowly taking her consciousness and altering it. Preparing it to be placed into another body and another.

It wasn’t fair. She closed her eyes. She could remember everything, all the false dreams, all the signs. She had no more tears, no more screams.

All dreams ended eventually. She was helpless as the scalpel touched her wrist and opened an artery. A quick, painless death. The other Geneva expertly found the artery in her other wrist and cut open both legs. Geneva felt her body begin to grow cold unbelievably fast, and Okasha tried to close the incisions but was locked by the other mind. So Geneva’s mind began to flicker in and out—losing focus. Remembering all her regrets. Helpless to the cruel reality.

Helpless as…the day she’d begun to fall.

 

——

 

“So, she’s unharmed and the Minacien Wall hasn’t been violated?”

Niers Astoragon was speaking chattily to the Selphid outside. The representative was reluctant to speak, but it did assure him all was well.

“You may speak to the [Doctor] yourself, Titan. As for the wall—our interpretation varies, but the Minds are confident this must not come to battle.”

Niers was glancing at the opening as he fiddled with his ring. He kept twisting it back and forth, although the [Detect Truth] spell never changed.

“Oh, I’m sure they are. Well, the [Doctor] has…eighteen minutes to get here. I’m sure I will be happy with her condition. You do know I’ll have to search the Gathering Citadel from top to bottom, right?”

The Selphid’s smile vanished.

“The Minds will not permit—”

“Oh, and you think I’ll just turn around and walk away? I’m sure an inspection under magical oath to reveal nothing will be acceptable. But the Minacien Wall is larger than you or I. The Minds must know that. This matter involves old nations who will want more than the Minds’ assurances all is well. Or do you want me to involve Drath, the Blighted Kingdom? I assure you, they won’t merely inspect.”

The Selphid hesitated. He put two fingers to his head and communed with the Minds. After a moment, he smiled.

“…We shall discuss your investigation, but the Minds are not opposed.”

“There, you see? The Minds can be reasonable.”

Niers gave the Selphid a cheery smile, which was half-heartedly returned. But the Selphid was fairly relaxed—

The defenders in the Gathering Citadel were less so. However, they were still confident in their position, and the Minds were too.

A [Psychic Guardian] under the 1st Mind was watching the Titan’s forces, but calmly. Calectus, who was heading the physical defenders, was giving quiet orders.

“That [Rogue]. [Mark of Danger]. Enchantments?”

“[Flame Resistance]. [Grounding Totem].”

A Selphid was fortifying their position. Another coughed gently as they watched the Titan’s forces. The magical casting did not go unnoticed.

“Titan, they’re enchanting their position against our munitions.”

Eirnos whispered to Niers. The enchantments countered the two elements she’d loaded her quarrels of crossbow bolts with. The Titan glanced at her. The Minds shouldn’t know what they’d brought. Unless…

Eirnos felt at her helmet. She’d been hearing the Minds’ voices. Now, she felt a pit in her stomach.

How good was the Selrite they’d brought? Had it gone bad? Was it too low-quality to stop a Mind?

But the Titan just stood there. He turned back to the other Selphid and glanced at his yawning [Rogue], the antsy Tallguard.

“One last question while we wait—”

“Yes, Titan?”

The Selphid put a smile on his face, but Niers wasn’t looking at him. He stared past the Selphid.

“…Thirty minutes. Not too long, not too short. I don’t care how big your fortress is. Anyone faced with an army outside your gates doesn’t wait the thirty minutes to show me the [Doctor]. She should be here right now.”

“I believe she’s indisposed, Titan. I assure you, she’s safe—”

The Selphid spoke, looking disturbed. Niers Astoragon stared at the Selphid, but his eyes went right through the soldier.

“All the [Detect Truth] spells tell me you’re being honest. Or as honest as you can—but the Minds play games with thought. Do you think I’m stupid? If they’re being honest, they would have welcomed me in. One last question.”

The Selphid stared at Niers uncertainly as the Titan turned his head. But it was not to him that the Titan addressed his final question.

Death-Commander Theilo of the Rustängmarder. Tell me. Can you detect a shred of honor from that [Honor Guard] or anyone else?”

Theilo’s head rose, and the scarred face twisted into a macabre grin.

“No, Titan.”

The Selphid was still staring at Theilo when Niers raised his crossbow and fired. A bolt of fire blew one kneecap off and Eirnos lifted her own crossbow as Niers spoke.

Take the citadel. All forces—advance.”

The Selphid slowly fell to the ground as Theilo stomped a foot over one hand reaching for a sword. Then the Selphid began to scream—but it was too late. The Forgotten Wing’s soldiers turned to the citadel.

 

——

 

“They’re charging! Alert the Minds! Alert the—”

The attack was so fast it caught even Calectus and the Selphids off-guard. It had surprised the soldiers on the Titan’s side too, but they came surging across the ground as Calectus lifted his glaive.

“Ready formations. Inform the Minds—get the [Doctor] up now. Any soldier who enters, dies. Bloody the Titan.”

Whether the Fraerling realized something was amiss or he was trying to force his way in for an upper hand, he was about to be disabused of that notion. There were six entrances to the Gathering Citadel—and all six were killzones.

He’d have to fight his way through corridors that sloped up before they went down, and the Selphids were entrenched with angles on any attacker and barricades.

The Titan had better [Mages] and his Fraerlings. But the Minds had telepathy. The first soldiers began turning back before they got to the openings—but a voice snarled.

“[Order in the Ranks]. [Fight or Die]. Charge behind me!

Death-Commander Theilo overruled the soldiers’ own thoughts, and the conflicting orders to their legs and arms returned to the wild charge. He was coming up on Calectus’ chokepoint.

The [Honor Guard] saw bows raise, sighting as the fearless commander stormed towards the entrance. Idiot. Calectus took no pleasure in this, but he braced as he saw the Rustängmarder’s officer duck in.

Theilo was no fool. He dodged back as an arrow shot past him and returned fire with a hand-crossbow. The bolt went wide, and Calectus spoke.

“Brace for spell.”

He saw a shining, azure bolt hit a wall over his head and braced for lightning or fire. Calectus heard a glass crack and then—

 

——

 

—spewing vomit from his lips. The [Honor Guard] got up. He heard nothing. Just a ringing in his head. One of the [Psychic Guardians] was shaking him up.

Dizzily, the Selphid rose. He looked around and saw Theilo again. Why—why was he so close? He was running through a Selphid sagging at their post, half-fallen out from behind their barricade. Soldiers were flooding the tunnel.

What had hap—

(Close your ears! Block them up!)

The [Guardian] screamed at him mentally. Calectus blocked off his auditory connections just in time. Another screaming wail blasted through the corridor, and he felt the sonic vibrations striking his actual body within the armored corpse.

Selphids jerked and collapsed—then Calectus saw the wax in Theilo’s ears. And more arrows were landing around them—

They were sonic projectiles. Sonic? Where was the fire? Calectus swung his glaive up and deflected a ball of acid. He stumbled back.

“Fall back to the next checkpoint. Fall—”

No one could hear him, so the [Guardian] screamed it mentally instead.

(Fall back to the next checkpoint!)

Selphids ran. Calectus felt the [Guardian] querying the other checkpoints, but they were all under attack.

No one is reporting at Gateway 2. Gateway 5—

([Rogue]. All have been—)

A scream through the mental link and silence. Calectus didn’t understand. The [Rogue] was still out there. He had a [Danger Mark] on him. He…

He realized they’d been tricked as the first Selphid dropped. Calectus felt at his nose and then shouted.

Sleeping gas!

 

——

 

“Sleeping gas?”

Eirnos was mustering for the command force. Niers was waiting for a breach, but he was impatient. Gindal was loading his crossbow; he’d sent a bolt ricocheting into the citadel ahead of the soldiers.

“Titan, what is going on?

“Here. Helmet.”

He tossed something at her, and Eirnos grabbed the helmet reflexively. She stared at it—then felt at her own helmet. Then she saw the eighteen Fraerlings ready to go—standing down. The Tallguard looked confused, but Eirnos stared at them, the [Rogue] and [Mage] joining their command forces—and removing the amulets.

Then she got it. She swore at the Titan.

You tricked me.

Her helmet was fake. The Titan winked at her.

“Fire and electricity do work on Selphids. But the Minds have trouble with things they can’t see. Stopping gas or sound is hard. We have an opening. Strike team, what do you see?

The Tallguard and [Rogue] were already inside the fortress. They’d been infiltrating all along, and one reported back.

“—There’s been fighting here, Titan. I just found a bunch of dead bodies. Something’s wrong. Too many defenders—we’re going undercover.”

In. Theilo. I want those defenders down or surrendering. Charge.

The Titan was sweating. He’d called the Minds’ bluff. If he was wrong, he’d just started a war with the Selphids.

He didn’t think he was wrong. He adjusted his helmet as the Death-Commander reported, breathless.

Soldiers taking casualties. Selphids are retreating to second line defenses. The Minds are striking us down.

“Give them something to think about. Unleash our special unit.”

The [Soldiers] fell back as the Death-Commander turned. The Minds were wiping out [Soldiers], hurling them into walls—turning off minds. But they wavered as a new wave rose and advanced ahead of the [Soldiers]. The Selphids looked up—and the first Ghoul bounded at them.

Draugr Guard, charge!

The Rustängmarder had two special abilities. And undead neither feared the Minds—they had no brains to control—nor were they so easy for Minds to deal with. The Titan narrowed his eyes. Eirnos was swearing a blue streak at him, but all his tricks…

Would they make it? He feared they were already too late. The Minds had months. Months—and the [Doctor] had been here all along. If he found her—

Who would he find?

 

——

 

[Surgeon Level 36!]

[Skill — Advanced Organ Transplant obtained!]

 

She’d forgotten she had changed classes. Forgotten her reservations. Geneva Scala saw herself standing before the First Mind, showing it the galas-muscle she’d extracted.

 

The First Mind was growing excited as Geneva began thinking in a dozen different ways. One of the Selphids in its mental image tapped Geneva on the shoulder.

“Medical practices, yes. Getting a Selphid to secrete a vial of the substances you require…done. We require a living subject. You will not injure yourself; perhaps a squirrel? What are you thinking about, ethics?”

“Ew. That sounds like a lot of work. A vial?”

Idis complained, but the other Selphids were shushing her. Yet the First Mind’s inquiry was focused on something else Geneva had thought about.

“…What do you mean, transplant?”

Geneva Scala focused, and a few thoughts flew together. Well, surely it made sense. She looked down at the galas-muscle in front of her.

“Transplant galas-muscle into new bodies? First Mind, Inconsolable would surely be able to make use of soldiers with that kind of strength, even if it was just one in ten thousand!”

One of the Selphids was growing excited. Calectus himself was stepping forwards—he had a Lizardfolk body today.

“The [Doctor] could try transplanting the muscle into my body.”

(This suggestion is good. Geneva Scala, will you attempt the procedure?)

The First Mind, Continuum, was warming to the many ideas this presented. And Geneva agreed. She looked up with a huge frown on her face.

“…I’ll try it. But only if Calectus agrees to show me how he melds the tendon and muscle to bone.”

(Naturally.)

The [Surgeon] bent over the Selphid as he lay down and cut open his flesh. She saw a writhing Selphid retreat as she pinned the muscle into place and touched the two places where she thought they needed the primary connection. She watched as the Selphid oozed over the spot and the muscle was reattached almost instantaneously.

“Amazing.”

(Splendid. This opens up new possibilities. Every body with galas-muscles is now a resource. You have done well, [Doctor]—)

The First Mind was congratulating her as it sent notes to the others. But Geneva stopped Calectus before he could sit up and before she closed the wound.

“There, Calectus. Can you secrete whatever substance it was? Idis. Vial.”

The Selphid hesitantly oozed some of whatever it was into a vial, and Geneva stoppered it up. The First Mind eagerly shoved the Gorgon’s body over to her.

(Transplant the rest of the galas-muscle into Calectus. This Gorgon should have enough—adapt it to the legs and other regions. Do not forget the abdomen.)

The [Surgeon] looked up. She put the vial in a rack and labeled it carefully. She would need to ask Idis and the other Selphids to recognize the substance and see if they could secrete the exact same liquid or if it was different from Selphid to Selphid, like blood-type, before she began tests.

“No.”

Calectus’ head rose slightly from the operating table. The First Mind hesitated.

(…No?)

Geneva Scala turned to face it. The [Surgeon] nodded to Calectus.

“That was the first and last time I will ever transplant galas-muscle in a dead body unless I need practice. And if I do—I will render the body unusable by Selphids. It is my belief that transplanting organs like this will lead to unethical behavior. With that, First Mind, I believe I will begin researching the compound Calectus used. It may enable me to repair damage to nerves or reattach muscles. That could save lives or reverse limb paralysis.”

The First Mind hovered there for a second as Calectus sat up, but Geneva was already stitching up his arm.

(The ability to transplant galas-muscle—)

“Makes super-soldiers. I understand what you’re about to say, First Mind. Respectfully—I will not be party to it.”

Geneva Scala looked up, and the First Mind grew angry. Continuum lifted the vial dismissively.

(This is only a benefit to non-Selphids. You are on the verge of aiding Selphid-kind.)

“That vial could replace healing potions. Transplanting muscles may create new or sustain bodies for Selphids, but not galas-muscle.”

(I order you to continue transplanting muscle into Calectus.)

The [Doctor] looked up at the First Mind and folded her arms.

“I refuse. Now, if you will excuse me—”

She turned, and the First Mind touched her thoughts. Geneva stumbled—and Calectus and Idis caught her. She got up after a second and rubbed at her head.

“—What were we talking about, First Mind?”

“Transplanting muscle into Calectus. You were going to research that.”

Geneva Scala looked up blankly, and then she raised a finger.

“I would like to speak to you first, First Mind. About historical precedent. And Frankenstein’s monster—”

The First Mind hovered there, confused, and then with growing chagrin as the [Doctor] spoke.

 

——

 

…What was that memory? Geneva Scala felt the memory go by in a flash. It was familiar to her—but the last part hadn’t been.

The last part felt—different. Like a memory she’d forgotten, like that false dream. Only this one felt true. 

She was bleeding out. Dissolving as the Minds and the other Geneva took her apart. But another memory flickered in front of her head.

 

——

 

—Even so—getting down to the cellular level was tough, and Egress soon realized that the slightest imperfections or misadjustments meant Geneva ‘missed’ what she was trying to focus on by miles. Metaphorically speaking.

(Can this not work?)

It grumpily cast [Eagle’s Eye] on a circle of wood for her, and Geneva could see the very pores on her skin. She looked up as it tried to adjust the lenses it needed to have perfectly aligned and tried to figure out a system so it could be manually adjusted. It had no eyes, so it needed a volunteer to help it.

“Unfortunately, this is far, far below what I need to see.”

(Then Egress shall ponder. Go, go, go. You shall be summoned when Egress is finished.)

It went back to trying to focus the lenses, but before Egress could turn back to its labors, Geneva Scala cleared her throat.

“Egress—may I ask you to add that to a list of projects? These are the other tools I would like you to work on. I have blueprints.”

She was no [Engineer] like Paige, but she could illustrate how they should move and act with her memories or imagination. The Sixth Mind sorted through the notes. It grew confused despite understanding what she wanted.

(Simpler than microscopes, but confusing. What purpose is this?)

It waved the drawing of a strange leg at her. Not a leg like Geneva’s, but what resembled a bent piece of metal, almost like a bent hook of metal. There was another version that resembled a kind of shoe attached to a rod, but Geneva thought that the bent metal version would be simpler.

“A prosthetic foot and leg replacement. It is far less adaptive than the magical prosthesis or Golem limbs I’ve heard of, but this would be a fraction of the cost. Can you prototype one with spring-steel?”

Only a Mind like the Sixth Mind could expedite something like that. Egress certainly thought it was possible, but it hesitated.

(This does not benefit Selphids. A replaceable limb in a body that rots is not useful.)

“On the contrary—it would extend the longevity of some bodies. And it would be a net boon to countless people if you could create a cheap, simple way to manufacture such limbs. Something a [Smith] could make as easily as possible? Non-magical steels and such.”

Geneva Scala hinted as the Sixth Mind floated there. She also had a primitive hearing aid. The Sixth Mind consulted the list.

(Hearing aid. Cheap magical spell. Please experiment with the following and rank hearing aids by cost and efficacy. But the microscope—)

“This matters as much as the microscope. Please prioritize the limbs at least. There are Selphids who have bodies with damaged limbs. I would like to try fitting them for how well they work.”

Egress hesitated, but Geneva was pestering it. Pestering it—every single time it wanted her to focus on the microscope, to at least try making a leg.

 

——

 

The 4th Mind, Inconsolable, was preparing a force for the Dyed Lands. It would take time, cooperation with other Minds, and countless amounts of personnel and resources.

“And blankets.”

(And blankets. This Mind has accounted for basic necessities.)

“What about water purification? Body warmth, access to fresh water—and non-perishable supplies that can be digested by all species.”

(…Yellats. They dry well. This is a good point in case the Dyed Lands are completely inhospitable. As for purification, [Mages] can perform the correct spells if specialized. Or [Druids].)

“Can [Alchemists] mix up something? Also, in addition, take baby powder and formula. Something that infants can ingest. This is critical.”

The Fourth Mind turned from scribing a list of required supplies to Geneva.

(…Why baby powder?)

The [Doctor] gestured to its map. And she pointed at the villages and cities in the path of the Dyed Lands’ expedition.

“There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who will be displaced. Whatever soldiers you were taking, you will need more. More, to build camps that don’t fall to infection or chaos. Look at my thoughts—”

She had seen how poorly a lot of humanitarian aid went. If the Fourth Mind went, it needed to take a force ten times what it was planning.

(…The expedition should be investigating the causes of the Wasting. This is a civilian effort.)

The Fourth Mind tried to reprimand her. But the [Doctor]’s eyes flashed.

“There is a crisis going on in the Dyed Lands that few mercenary companies seem to be aware of. If the Minds act now, they can win a war and stop a loss of life and calamity that will become a hundred times worse—before it even begins! Baby formula.”

She pointed at the list, and the Fourth Mind ignored her. 

“I will not cooperate in investigating the Wasting unless you add that to the list.”

The Fourth Mind glanced at Geneva Scala, and she felt a pulse and put a hand to her head. Her mind blanked as the Fourth Mind picked her up and placed her at the entrance to her chambers. She looked around, blinking, and it put a thought into her head.

(You are completely cooperative with our goals, Doctor Scala. Go back to your investigations.)

It suggested, and the [Doctor] glanced up and smiled. The Fourth Mind relaxed and went back to writing as she began to walk off. Until the [Doctor] turned and replied.

“Of course, Fourth Mind. But before I go—if you are going to the Dyed Lands, have you thought about water purification tablets—”

 

——

 

The gaps in her memory.

The [Doctor] saw Geneva Scala obeying the Minds, even beginning to act like a Selphid, joking with Idis, relaxing—

But the holes in her memory?

They filled with something else.

 

——

 

(Geneva Scala, you will not tell anyone about this—correlation between Seamwalkers and Selphids.)

Sympathy was worried. It was having other Selphids see the connection between the Selphid and A’ctelios Salash cross-section. Geneva Scala was nodding obediently.

“I would never do anything to jeopardize the Minds.”

(Good, good.)

“However, may I have permission to investigate the link further? If there is any more of a common cause—I would like to approach A’ctelios Salash’s denizens for cooperation. Or the Hundredfriends Courier.”

(What? No. Why would this be necessary? This does not serve the Minds.)

The [Doctor] blinked as it reinforced the thought in her head, and she bowed—but her head came up.

“Yet the discovery—if there is a common link between the flesh of Tombhome and the addiction it causes, something not even magic can solve—it must be genetic. If the very cells are that foreign, no wonder no one has come up with a cure. The dependency on A’ctelios Salash can be cured—

(Enough!)

The Fifth Mind’s outburst was worried and angry. Geneva Scala fell back as the other Selphids went silent.

(You are supposed to be working for our goals. Focus on that, not the city of Chandrar’s abominations. They are a single city.)

“Yes, Sympathy. But—”

Geneva Scala looked up at the Fifth Mind as the Selphids glanced at her. She spread her arms helplessly.

“—I am a [Doctor].”

 

——

 

The memories were connecting.

Geneva Scala was dying.

The other her was slowly extracting a screaming Okasha into another jar, watching as the [Doctor] bled out.

Now—Geneva Scala understood. She focused on the blood falling without end, and she saw it.

That was why they’d copied her. Because…

Because even when they changed her, she annoyed them. Then she saw it. Her head fell back, and her breathing grew softer. She remembered arguing with the Fifth Mind, the Third Mind going back and forth with her about galas-muscle.

And one last thing.

 

——

 

The Second Mind could juggle. 

All Minds were probably capable of it, but the Second Mind had fifty balls, and it was performing loops with the balls. Importantly—it wasn’t manipulating them through telekinesis, but actually tossing them.

(Much harder, see?)

Geneva Scala didn’t see the point if it could do the same by just floating the balls around. The Second Mind was put out.

(It’s because it’s hard. See—oops.)

It dropped a ball, and a few colorful orbs rolled past Geneva. She shook her head.

“I don’t know if I find it that amusing, Second Mind.”

(Laughter is healthy. But let me try a smile instead. Let us talk about what will happen when you leave this place. The first thing you should do if the Titan frees you is find some Fraerlings. Your company has had contact with them—you should too. Of any being in Baleros, he can help you with that.)

Contradiction still thought she’d be free. Geneva smiled and shook her head, but indulged it.

“Why Fraerlings? Because they’re fascinating biologically?”

(No. Because all your wishes, your desires to spread medicine, to make it accessible for all? You cannot do it alone nor disseminate your methods easily. You have no tools, nor even the resources to make more. But Fraerlings have these things. They have industry and a mindset that understands your knowledge. Of any species—they have something to teach you.)

Geneva’s head rose. The Second Mind projected a little smiling Fraerling, Noa, into her mind, and the [Doctor] blinked. Her heart soared as the Second Mind went on.

(If any species could change things within a generation—it would be them. Find them, Geneva Scala. And you will not be a [Doctor] alone.)

The words struck her straight in her heart. Geneva got up and, despite herself, paced.

“You think I’ll—they’d listen to me? I’ve been trying. But it’s so hard to find help.”

(The Titan will listen. Clever people do. And when you do, I promise you, [Doctor], it will be better. All of our fighting, our pettiness keeping you here. This is a flaw of Minds. It is deep, and comes from fear, insecurity, pride. We amplify our best and worst traits. But Fraerlings?)

The Second Mind laughed. And it sounded like a hundred thousand voices laughing at once.

(They hide for their own safety. Yet I think, our wars and our failings, it must all seem so silly to the smallest, weakest folk. Yet they are often better than we are. Not always, not as a rule, but often. Can you guess why?)

The [Doctor] shook her head as she sat with Contradiction, and despite herself, she did smile. Softly, the Mind of the Selphids offered her a juggling ball, and she tried to throw them up and make them spin in the air.

(…Because they must be far braver than we are.)

 

——

 

The Titan had taken the upper levels. But there were six floors not counting the basement below him, and the Selphids caught off-guard by his attack were falling back under Calectus.

Soon, the Minds would finish wiping out the undead waves and capture the [Rogue] and Fraerlings causing havoc behind their lines.

They were…planting objects all over the Gathering Citadel. Not attacking the Minds directly, but placing something in the corridors.

Selrite beacons? It was like a bunch of mental sirens going off everywhere. Loud thoughts—interfering with the Minds’ own focus and control.

Fraerling tactics they had never forgotten against the Minds. Yet they were still temporary distractions. The Minds were stemming the onslaught. And the only reason the Titan had gotten this far at all was because he had struck while they were distracted.

Six were becoming one. And while the Second Mind resisted them, they had to focus on it. But the final Mind would be able to deal with even the Selrite. Then—it would negotiate with the Titan whether he wished to or not.

And the Second Mind had no more strength to resist the others. It was being pulled apart, assimilated.

The Second Mind thought of Geneva Scala as it was dying. It was vanishing into the Combined Mind, but it kept all of its secrets and shame till the very end.

The rest of the Mind was assembling, arrogant, convinced nothing could stop it. Geneva Scala was dying, and the false version of her that it had made was superior in every other way.

…So what was this? This gnawing sensation at the edges of the Combined Mind? It came from the Second Mind, some kind of—strangeness. A wrongness.

Fear and self-loathing so strong it almost overwhelmed the other five Minds combined. But the Combined Mind was more than enough to force the other elements that had been the Second Mind to think alike. It would inform the Combined Mind’s intellect, but not…

…Not…

A strange feeling stole through the Combined Mind. It felt something running through its body, its physical body and the mind itself. A strange current in familiar seas.

(What is this? What has been done?)

It had overwhelmed the Second Mind easily. The shattered Contradiction had put up even less of a fight than expected. As if it were already weakened. The bodies of its Selphids squirmed around the others restlessly—and their thoughts seeped into the others.

A strange thought occurred to the Combined Mind, and it kept trying to exterminate that final, tiny group of the Second Mind that held themselves apart. But it was getting distracted by a thought that grew louder with every passing moment. And it wondered how the Second Mind had even thought with this desire in it.

No, not a thought. A kind of feeling that the Combined Mind put into words. And it had never…felt like this before.

(I’m…hungry.)

Hungry? Selphids had the ability to ingest food, but the same physical receptors that simulated hunger weren’t in them. Yet this feeling was growing stronger by the moment. An overwhelming urge that was spreading from Selphid to Selphid. In fact—the Combined Mind realized parts of it were—

Were they trying to eat each other? Its bodies were mindlessly crowding the others, trying to tear bits off them.

(Stop. Enough.)

It instantly excreted them, splattering them on the ground—but that feeling was spreading. It was—

It was like a disease of the mind. Once it felt it via one Selphid, the urge was so overpowering, so ravenous that the other Selphids began falling prey to it.

What was it? The Combined Mind lost its focus on the Second Mind’s remnants. Then it realized—the Second Mind was physically holding the other Selphids back from it with a telekinetic barrier. As if the remaining Selphids knew contact was—

It had done something. The Combined Mind searched through the memories of the Second Mind it now possessed. It did not have to search long.

An odd, three-day fast. Weakening, its thoughts jumbling and disassociating as…

As the Second Mind fell to ruin. No, it provoked the rampant hunger and let its body slowly begin to ravenously tear itself apart. Waiting. Waiting for—

The Melding. The Combined Mind felt a sudden surge of fear. It began to shed the Second Mind’s constituent parts as fast as it could, but it was too late. Contradiction had planned this. This—it had foreseen the Third Mind’s ambitions to meld.

And so it had done the one thing it knew it could do that could neither be stopped nor halted. It had taken something from Geneva Scala.

The flesh of A’ctelios Salash.

(You consumed it.)

Then the true horror hit the Combined Mind. And it realized why it was so hungry. Not just hungry—the tiny bit of flesh had been divided up amongst thousands of Selphids. Just enough to poison them with a hunger for Tombhome—

Not enough to sate them. And the Second Mind had slowly amplified that hunger until it had driven the individual Selphid minds insane. Only this core was untouched. And the Combined Mind had just—

Assimilated the hunger of A’ctelios Salash into its being.

(What have you done? You have killed us. Killed—)

(Yes. Yes, we did.)

A tiny group of Selphids rose out of the Combined Mind, separating from the writhing Selphids as the Mind slowly began screaming. They were eating each other.

(The flesh. The flesh!)

Geneva had an entire lump. Where had Calectus taken it? Suddenly, the Combined Mind had to eat. It was so—hungry.

(That? I burned that poison. There is nothing left. We are ended.)

A tiny orb of Selphids rose, barely a hundred, exhausted. The Combined Mind tried to strike at it—but it began screaming. Screaming, and the room shook as it slowly began drifting downwards. Its mental powers were weakening—Selphids sloughed downwards and began squirming around. Then—tendrils of them began rising.

Eating each other. Seeking—flesh. Any flesh would do. They surged around the room and into the tunnels. Thousands of Selphids, trying to cling to sanity. But the Mind was already—

The hovering orb of Selphids thought as it hung there. It was also dying.

(This Mind is no longer Contradiction. We are Redemption, as much as any of us will ever earn. Time to end this.)

Slowly, it reached out with all the force left to it. There was no other Mind left to stop it. Instead—thousands of screaming Selphids were descending into the Gathering Citadel. Flooding the hallways. Transforming into something else.

Redemption feared what it had felt gnawing on the edges of its sanity. But all it could do was this: it reached out to the place it had called a home. The fortress where great crimes had been done.

The Titan was still entering the citadel when he sensed the change. His forces felt the ground shaking first. They fell back, and the Titan began giving orders to prepare a bombardment. But he hesitated as Redemption reached out—

The Gathering Citadel began to rise. A twisting structure only a Selphid could appreciate rose from the earth, dark stone openings gaping and dirt and plants raining down as the Fraerlings and Tallfolk retreated.

Selphids in Redemption started dying from the backlash of the telekinetic strain. It didn’t matter. The Titan saw the citadel rising and saw multiple points of entry appearing. He pointed to the nearest one.

There!

Was this help or a sign of something worse coming for them? His forces charged into the black openings, and Redemption kept lifting them all. It thought dimly.

(Now. Now we will end this unsavory tale once and for all.)

 

——

 

The Selphids in the Gathering Citadel knew something was wrong before it started rising. They had felt the Minds’ triumph—then anguish.

They were embattled with the Forgotten Wing’s forces on the top floor. Calectus was securing an arm to a Selphid who’d had it nearly chopped off. They all looked up, and this night grew from bad to worse.

“Is it the Titan, [Honor Guard]?”

Even with the Minds’ plans in place, Calectus hadn’t taken the Titan’s forces lightly. He and the Selphids had fallen back to the second line—and the [Guardians] had stemmed the attack of the undead and soldiers. But they kept pushing, and the Selphids could neither breathe nor hear easily.

The Titan knew them too well. Gas seemed foolish on Selphids—until you realized how small their actual bodies were. Selphids still had to breathe, and the gas worked on them faster than any other species.

Calectus turned his head, wishing more of the [Psychic Guardians] hadn’t turned traitor.

“I don’t know. Find one of the [Guardians]. Ask them to inquire with the Minds.”

One of the Selphids went running to find a [Guardian], and Calectus reached out with his own limited telepathy. He saw the undead burning as magical traps filled the hallway with flamethrowers, but a Fraerling [Mage] was already directing the soldiers to dismantle the traps.

With an enchanted pickaxe. The Selphids tried to fire on the warrior, but a roaring Draugr charged through the flames, and Calectus had to bring it down himself.

He ran the giant undead through with his glaive and pinned it to the wall, Rampaging to hold it into place. His voice was desperate.

Minds? Are you there?

He whispered, but the Gathering Citadel was oddly quiet. Not in sound, but in…thought. The presence of the Mind was gone.

Then—the fortress began to tremble. He felt it rising and lifted his glaive, yanking it out of the half-melted Draugr—then spun.

“We’re rising? Are the Minds doing that? The Titan? To arms!”

The other Selphids snapped to attention. They lifted their blades, but they had no idea where the enemy might be coming from. They stared ahead—and then Calectus heard another sound.

“The Titan’s forces are past the traps!”

Brace for contact! What is that—”

It was coming from below. It sounded like…water? Or something else, higher-pitched. No—it was in the walls. In the marrow of his body. The [Honor Guard] turned his head uneasily and looked into the dark tunnel behind him. Then he saw the soldier he’d sent to find a [Guardian] running back.

“Dead.”

“Who is? The Second Mind? The [Doctor]?”

No. The [Guardians] are dead. They all collapsed.

Calectus turned. He looked at Theilo’s advancing forces. Then behind him, into the deeper part of the fortress. Then he heard the sounds of Selphids fighting. Screams. And the screaming grew louder and louder.

“What is…”

The [Honor Guard] had served the Minds ever since they had hand-picked him to join the Bodies of Fellden. He was Level 38, and he had his enchanted glaive at the ready.

But nothing had prepared him for this. A dark mass began to flow down the hall, towards the Selphids.

Enemies! Kill them!

A [Mage] threw an orb of acid, but it barely detonated in the mass of whatever it was before it came on. They were black—twining—reaching for the Selphids in a huge mass, like a single organism. More began to flow from an opening in the wall, an air shaft. They squeezed out and dropped, and as the light caught them, Calectus saw what they were and recoiled.

Stop! They’re Selphids! They’re—

Selphids? Thousands of them were wriggling on the floor, writhing towards him. A sea of bodies. The Selphids inhabiting bodies stared at the Mind’s components. Then they heard the screaming.

A mass of Selphids engulfed the nearest soldier. He fell, trying to shake off his people, asking what was happening—then screamed as he realized they were devouring his body. And him.

The scream was mental and physical. Calectus felt a presence beating at his head.

Staring eyes. A city within the hollow pupils. A waiting home in the desert.

Flesh. Stilled hearts. Tombhome.

“A’ctelios Salash’s madness! They’re—”

A screaming Selphid [Mage] threw a burning orb of fire and burnt the Selphid bodies before they poured over him. Calectus moved. He whirled his glaive and chopped down a wall of the Selphids. The Minds!

More were coming. And screaming Selphids with bodies joined their number, possessed by the same hunger.

“Retreat! Re—”

Calectus backed up, but he looked down, and to his great surprise, he didn’t see a leg. Just a mass of writhing Selphids. He swung his glaive, tried to use it to steady himself. Yet he was falling, and the [Honor Guard] screamed once. At the woman—the last legacy of the Minds.

Doctor!

The mass covered him—then blew apart as a sonic bolt struck them. Selphids convulsed, dying, and the [Honor Guard] looked up. His ruined body stared blankly up in relief as a figure halted.

“We’ve just encountered some kind of monster mass. Titan—it’s attacking the Selphids.”

Death-Commander Theilo looked down as Calectus reached up for him. A voice spoke through the speaking stone.

“We see it too. Barriers. Don’t let it touch you. Survivors, Theilo? Do they know what this is?”

The Rustängmarder looked down at the [Honor Guard]. He raised the crossbow and calmly reloaded it. The Selphid looked up, but those eyes searched for his honor…

Theilo shot Calectus through the chest. The Selphid began to melt from within as the Rustängmarder clicked another bolt into place.

“None worth mentioning, Titan. Soldiers, advance.

 

——

 

“…I can’t sense the Minds.”

Deep in the basement of the Gathering Citadel, the Selphid-Geneva looked up, and her composure slipped. She stepped forwards—then felt the Gathering Citadel rise. She stumbled and put a hand on one of the gurneys where a body shifted. A Lizardwoman blinked up at the ceiling as the Alternate Geneva’s head rose.

“The Titan? I have to—”

She still had time, but she went hurrying for the door. Okasha was weeping, bottled again, and the other Geneva began to run—until a voice spoke.

“I can’t let you do that.”

The Selphid spun, and her eyes widened.

Geneva Scala was still alive? The [Doctor] was staring at her, immobilized by the straps. She should have bled out minutes ago with four arteries severed. Only…

The [Telepathic Healer] focused on the woman, and her smile twisted.

“Clever. [Hemostatic Pause].”

Geneva had halted her own blood loss with a Skill. She was as pale as a sheet, but—the other Geneva raised the scalpel.

“I don’t have time for this. What has the Second Mind done? You must have colluded.”

“I don’t know. I fear…people are dying. But I can’t let you go. Not you.”

Weakly, the [Doctor] tried to free her body. One of the leather straps jerked and twisted as her mind fumbled with the clasp. It was so funny that the other Geneva almost laughed.

“You—what are you trying to do?”

“Stop you. I swore never to hurt someone. But you—the Minds have imprisoned me. Made me their captive. Stolen my thoughts and twisted them into you. They can’t have my soul. Not you.”

One of the leather straps loosened, and Geneva actually pulled an arm free. The Selphid realized that Geneva was using her mind—and she was trying to lock down the other Geneva’s limbs.

Geneva’s mental strength was nothing compared to the Selphid’s. Contemptuously, the other Geneva walked over and lifted a scalpel. She cut Geneva Scala’s throat, and this time, the blood began pouring as the [Doctor] began choking.

“They already have you, Geneva. They already know you. Every memory, every embarrassing mistake and all you are. I’m proof of that.”

(I know.)

The Last Light grabbed the scalpel before it could go straight through her chest, into her heart. A blade was digging into her chest, but she kept it from sinking deeper. Her hand was already shaking—she was choking, her lungs filling with blood.

But—her eyes were staring at her clone, and Geneva clung to one thought. Even when they’d taken her memory of her father away. Even when they’d begun making her the [Doctor] they wanted. Someone who loved Selphids—

Even if it was one memory or a hundred—they couldn’t change her entirely. She was still the doctor. Everything she had lived and done made up Geneva Scala. 

One memory altered her. But the [Doctor] stared her frustrated clone in the eyes. Her lips moved, trying to sound out the words.

“You can move my body and alter my mind.”

The tip of the scalpel was juddering with her heartbeat. Okasha’s jar was shaking. Geneva’s lips whispered as her mind strained against her opponent’s.

“I can’t defeat you. But I can still hold my beliefs.”

Her voice was soft and broken by defeats. Sorrows. Even so…the Selphid’s eyes focused on Geneva’s bloody lips.

“No matter what, I’ve still chosen this. It was my choice.”

Geneva Scala’s voice spoke in the Selphid’s ears. Geneva’s throat bled, a stain of red leaking down into her clothes. How was she speaking?

“And I have always chosen…”

The scalpel was plunging down with all the strength of galas-muscle, but it stopped, and the straining arm began to rise. Incredulous, the Selphid-Geneva put all her strength and weight into the arm, but suddenly, Selphid-Geneva was forcing it back. And she felt that the [Doctor]’s strength doubled, tripled—multiplied in strength. Almost like—

Then the Selphid heard a sound, and her arm weakened. She looked up, and a body moved. It whispered as a Lizardwoman raised her head. The voice was different. The body was different.

But the doctor’s head rose—and the Selphid heard a dozen voices whispering the same words. From a dozen different lips and perspectives, each one changed. But the same.

“…to be a doctor.”

The bodies sat up. The waiting vessels moved, and the Minds’